Being in Europe for two weeks, I felt like a small corner of the world had been laid at my feet. Cities I had only dreamed of or read about were a short distance from my friend’s home in southwest Germany. Want to go to Paris? It’s only three hours by train. Berlin? A short two-hour flight. Madrid? Just a hop, skip and a jump away. Brussels, Amsterdam, Prague, Venice, Rome, Athens all were within short travel times.
When I was planning our time in Europe, two cities quickly stood out on my must-see list: one was Paris (you can read more about that here); the other was London.
I’ve dreamed of going to London for as long as I can remember. I will freely confess that for a long time my entire notion of London was entirely based on the movie Mary Poppins. I loved that movie as a kid and played the record on my Fisher Price record player until it was worn out. London seemed exotic and exciting to the budding adventurer inside me. Sure, the royal family has intrigued me over the years and I’ve enjoyed watching British shows when I can catch them on t.v. But Mary Poppins and Julie Andrews were the standard to which I upheld all things British. Obviously, I have since learned there’s more to London than flying nannies. Then Sherlock came along and a new standard was set. (Don’t worry, Julie, there’s room in my heart for both you and Benedict.)
After a short flight from Frankfurt, we had finally arrived in London around lunchtime. I was so glad to be in a country where English was the primary language after nearly three weeks of not being able to read any signs or understand much of what was being said around me. I hadn’t realized how much I was craving my native tongue. I didn’t mind in the slightest at having to remember to swap out American words like trash, elevator, and bathroom for rubbish, lift and loo. In fact, I really enjoy learning the differences between American and British English and hearing the different pronunciations of words like “aluminium” with that to-die-for accent. (In case you don’t know about my very odd fascination with that, you can read about it here.)
After checking in at our hotel, the Luna and Simone, we sat down to plan out where we should go first. I wasn’t sure if it was because I had been traveling for three weeks straight and had been in four different countries by this time, or if it was the fact that I’d just taken my ninth flight of the trip (and had five more ahead of me), or if I was on foreign culture overload, or if after a lifetime of waiting to see London I was ACTUALLY there, but I was overwhelmed into indecision. There was soooooo much I wanted to see and to experience and I had a little more than 24 hours to do it since our return flight left the next evening. Yes, I was totally kicking myself for not planning for a longer stay though I tried to not let that overshadow the time I did have there.
My friend, Anne, suggested we get on another hop-on, hop-off double-decker tour bus like we had done in Berlin (you can read more about that here) as a way to get oriented and see a good portion of the city. Indecision stupor had fully taken hold of me by then so it was as good an idea as any at the time. (The tour bus is certainly not the best way to see a city, but it can give you an overview in a brief amount of time.)
It was a cold and drizzly day in mid-May but that didn’t stop me from sitting on the upper deck (where there’s no roof) to take in as much of London as I could.
When I was properly frozen and damp, we disembarked and walked over to Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, or as it’s commonly known, the Tower of London. The historic castle was built in 1066 and is named after the large White Tower added by William the Conqueror in 1078. It was reviled by Londoners of the time as a symbol of oppression of the ruling elite. The castle was built initially to be a grand palace and royal residence but its main claim to fame is that it was used as a prison since 1100. Use of the Tower as a prison reached its peak during the 16th and 17th centuries. During that time, the Tower held the likes of Elizabeth I before she became queen and the phrase ‘sent to the Tower‘ was coined. The Tower came to be associated with torture and death during this time even though the majority of executions took place on Tower Hill to the north of the castle.
I was thrilled that I could touch the stones and walls here without incurring the wrath of the guards or curators. As I’ve mentioned before in previous travel posts, there’s something so amazing about touching the same stones as the people who walked through those rooms centuries before, as though by doing so I’m connecting with the ghosts of the past in some small, yet tangible way.
We also toured through the rooms where the Crown Jewels were on display. As you might guess, touching of the crowns, sceptres, and valuable gems was not allowed nor was the taking of photographs. What I can say is that the wealth of the British monarchy was quite impressive.
After a quick coffee break, we walked over to Trafalgar Square. The square was originally big, open fields at the time the Romans occupied the area but from the 13th century on it became the site of the King’s Royal Hawks and later the Royal Mews (combined stables and carriage house of the British Royal Family). In 1812, the Prince Regent (who would later become King George IV) commissioned an architect to redesign the area, though the square, with its statues, columns, and fountains, wasn’t fully created until 1845.
Nelson’s Column stands at the center and was built in 1842 to commemorate the victory of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson over the French at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The square is surrounded by several buildings including the National Gallery Museum, (built between 1834 and 1838, it houses an impressive collection of paintings, including works by van Gogh, Renoir, Leonardo da Vinci and Claude Monet) and the St. Martin-in-the-Fields parish church built in 1721. The church has been used as a model for many churches, especially in the United States.
Next, we walked to Covent Garden to check out all of the little shops and restaurants tucked inside. The area has had a settlement in its fields since Roman times, dating back to the first century AD, when London was known as Londinium. By the 7th century, the surrounding area was a busy Saxon trading port called Lundenwic. When the area was invaded by the Vikings in the 9th century, the area was deemed too dangerous for the locals to use and was abandoned.
Then, in the 13th century, a sizeable portion of the area (about 40 acres) became the large kitchen garden for the Convent or Abbey of St Peter at Westminster. The ‘convent garden’ of the monks developed into a major local source of fruit and vegetables in London and has since become inexorably linked with being the place to buy fresh produce.
The Covent Garden Piazza area is sometimes referred to simply as “Covent Garden” and is the main shopping area within the Covent Garden District. The district is huge and encompasses more than just the shops, restaurants, central piazza, and produce stands inside the market building. The West End theatre area as well as the Royal Opera House are located within the boundaries of the Covent Garden District.
We ended the night by having dinner in a pub with pints of English brew (the adults, not the teenager, of course) where we all were totally convinced that the men with chiseled features sitting next to us were models. And not just regular models, but underwear models. (No, I don’t have a photo of them nor are they in the photo below.) Obviously, it had been a long day.
(As I was writing up this post, I took a break to read a great blog post on Separated by a Common Language which led me to this article: Passport to the Pub: A Guide to British Pub Etiquette. I probably should have read it before traveling to London. Consider it my gift to those of you planning to travel there in the future. I’m generous like that.)
When we returned to our hotel, the teenager and I decided it would be a good idea to go out on our lovely balcony since we had yet to stay somewhere with one. Chalk it up to exhaustion or giddiness or just plain weirdness (or all three), but while standing out there taking in the crisp night air, we were inspired to howl like wolves just like Lorelai and Rory had done in one of my absolute favorite episodes of the t.v. show Gilmore Girls. Thankfully, the Londoners below were pleasant about the two very strange, howling Americans and no one booed us off the balcony.
Thankfully, the next day began with sunshine and after a hearty breakfast at the hotel, we set out towards Buckingham Palace. Given our limited time, we decided to just take a brief gander and a few photos. Obviously, the Palace is the London residence of Her Majesty The Queen. Originally built in the early 1700’s, it didn’t become the official residence of the British monarch until 1837 when Queen Victoria came to the throne. It is one of only a few working royal palaces left in the world.
Our next stop of the day was to take a tour inside The Globe Theatre, the venue where Shakespeare’s best known stage works were first produced. It was built in 1599 by one of his associates, Cuthbert Burbage, the brother of the most famous Shakespearean actor of the Elizabethan Age, Richard Burbage.
The teenager had taken two Shakespeare classes at school and had recently acted in two different Shakespeare plays so she was excited to see the Bard’s digs. We decided to walk the whole distance to it (which turned out to be quite far given where we were staying). Because it took us so long to get there, the theatre’s last tour of the day was full and we couldn’t go in. We all were so disappointed, the teenager most of all.
All too soon, it was time to board the bus and return to the airport. I felt a deep sadness well up at having to leave the city so shortly after arriving. I needed more time to explore, to wander, to just be in the city for a while. I wanted to slowly drink in her history one sip at a time. I wanted to go off the beaten path. I wanted more. It was more difficult for me to leave this city than it was any other city we had been to on our trip. As the bus pulled out of the station, my resolve to return for an extended period someday was firmly cemented in my mind.
Even though our time there was far too brief, I was thankful for the glimpse of the city I had spent so much time dreaming about. With its intricate, rich layers of history mixed with modernity, London had her hooks in me, even in spite of the fact that I never once saw a flying nanny or the world’s greatest consulting detective.
What about you, dear readers? What ideas or cultural icons come to mind when you think of London? Have you ever traveled there? If so, what did you see and do? I’d love to hear from you!