Tuesday, November 1, 2016

London in 4 "packed" days

“How is it possible that I never made it to London before?”
“Why did I wait so long?”
“How did I miss it so far?”
“Who “hid” it from my travel map?”

These were questions that bugged me as I was planning the extended-weekend stop-over.  Questions that irked me even more once I experienced it first-hand.  Clearly it exceeded expectations, even with the bar set high.  Four very busy days were barely enough.  Felt like at least a couple more were needed.  We packed so much in those 4 days that it seemed a blur…

The only question now remaining is: “How long before I’ll be back?”  (the answer is obvious, duh!)

The stopovers on the way to/from Romania have typically been Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt or Rome.  London was on the books this time and I’ll deliberately look for flight options through this “hub” from now on.  Would even pay a premium to make it so.  That’s how pleasantly surprised we were.  And how much we enjoyed it!  More so since the daily rain forecast is always 50/50 and I’m not a big fan of rainy weather.  That says a lot, doesn’t it?!

Sure enough, as we touched down in the late afternoon hours, we were greeted by a prosaic cold summer drizzle under a gloomy backdrop of assorted shades of “grey”.  Dreary.  A bit chilly.  Damp.  Not welcoming.  And the appalling Europcar rental pick-up experience did not help either.  Not sure if this was an isolated incident, or it’s status-quo for them, but what I know for sure is that I will NEVER use Europcar again.  Of course, in the States we’re spoiled with a process that sets the standard:  Reserve online.  Provide pertinent details (ID and such).  Fly.  Land.  Take shuttle/train to rental lot.  Pick car (either reserved by name or from a certain “category”).  Follow the “Exit” signs out of the lot.  Show the guy or gal your ID for validation.  Drive off.   Done.  Five minutes in the rental lot. Clean.  Simple.  Efficient.  Normal (I think).

Clearly, Europcar does not follow that process.  Shuttle from terminal to car lot was ok, although it’s not very clearly marked and we had to ask once or twice (Heathrow is a confusing monster, by the way).  Upon arrival at the rental counter, pick a number.  Realize there are at least 20 others in front of you.  And for some reason every customer-agent interaction seems to take at least 10-15 minutes.  At a minimum.  Where indubitably the agent has to go check something “in the back” or on another computer at least 2-3 times during said interaction.  By the time my number came up (literally an hour later – not exaggerating one bit), I was somewhere between “wish I had a few strong adult beverages to make this bearable” and “volcano-on-the-brink-of-eruption” state.  And of course, despite the fact that I came bearing a printout confirmation of a prepaid reservation, I had to regurgitate all of the relevant details, as somehow they were “missing” from said reservation.  Ten minutes into providing the information I had already keyed in when I booked it, I was informed that the car I reserved was not available and was offered several other options.  None of which came close to what I reserved (I needed extra trunk space since we had lots of luggage).

After several unsuccessful attempts to get me into a smaller car or to pay for an upgrade (all of which I fought off valiantly) I finally reached my boiling point and “exploded”.  The “entitled-American-cum-highly-disappointed-and-irritated-customer” in me came out and clearly conveyed the message that he really had to make amends for all this.   And amended he did.  After a bit more pecking and click-clacking onto that keyboard and a short whispers-session with one of the managers, he handed me the keys to one of their latest in the luxury line up: a “south seas blue metallic” Mercedes GLA200 loaded with all the goodies.  Unfortunately, still lacking in the “cargo” department, but at least contributed to lessening some of my irritation.  So a good hour-and-a-half later, I was finally sitting in the right front seat, ready to go, staring at the steering wheel that for the first time ever was in the wrong spot.  Now what?

Most of you are probably wondering why I even put myself through this ordeal.  Why rent a car in London (or any other big metropolis for that reason) with so many trains and buses and taxis and Ubers and such?  Masochism would be the obvious answer.  The less obvious has to do with that proverbial bucket list:  drive on the [most say] “wrong” side of the road.  Check!  Do so avoiding a full-frontal collision.  Check!  Always keep on the appropriate side of the road (especially on right-hand turns).  Checkbox left blank!   

In all fairness, it wasn’t as bad as I imagined.  Staying close to the road divider and a bit more “thinking” around certain turns and round-abouts made it easier.  It was harder for the person on the left, as that’s where the driving controls should be!  And for the people in the back seat that thought I was crazy (although there’s never a back-seat occupancy requirement for that type of logic).   

Outside of the “bucket list” reasoning, here’s a bit more on why renting a car (if only for one day) made sense under the circumstances (btw, this is only justified if following the same itinerary and having at least 3-4 occupants):  Windsor Castle is only 9 miles from the airport.  And there’s a nice Marriott half way there.  Downtown London is over 20 miles away.  Therefore, duh!  If first stop is Windsor (and if you fly into Heathrow it should be) then spend the night in the area.  And, yes, the train is also a good option if car rental is out of the question…

But here’s where the car rental makes sense financially and logistically (and then there’s the whole “sense of adventure” thing):  say that after Windsor there is a certain soccer fanatic in the travel party who wants to see the “temple” called Wembley.  It’s 20 miles away.  35-40 minutes by car, yet almost 2 hours by train (changing 3 of them in the process).  Say there are a couple kids in said travel party that would be thoroughly surprised by a visit to the studios where the Harry Potter series was filmed.  It’s another 18 miles to the north.  30-35 minutes by car, or hour and a half by train(s).  And from there, back to the hotel in London, another 22 miles (up to 45 minutes by car or over an hour by train).  Adding up all the train ticket prices (not to speak of the time savings) made the car rental decision a no-brainer.  More on why things “on paper” don’t always turn up that way in reality later on…

Car rental diatribe over.  Let’s get on with it. 

Day 1

After recharging over night at the Heathrow/Windsor Marriott Hotel, next morning I continued my “driving-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road” adventure for another 4 miles or so to the Windsor Castle.  What an imposing structure!  And so much history seeping through those walls… To this day, it’s still the favorite spot for the Queen and her cohorts, away from the buzzing royal digs in Buckingham Palace.

The original castle (wooden structure at that time) was built in the 11th century (after the Norman invasion) by William the Conqueror.  Over the years, stone made way to wood, and more structures have been added and renovated.  The 15th century addition of St George's Chapel and the 19th century complete remodel of the Royal Apartments are major highlights.  Today it’s the longest-occupied palace in Europe. That gives you the highlights.  For more details, there’s the official website or wiki. 

My impressions:  stop here first, before you hit London.  It will give you an early and strong sense of what royalty means to the Brits.  How “sacred” all things related to the history of kings and queens really are.   How much reverence these royals receive.  It harks me back to the earlier contemplation (see blog entry on Romania) of what that country would be like today if the monarchy survived.  Definitely more civilized, for sure…

“Get there early” is almost a no-brainer.  But so does everyone else.  To cut the lines, buy tickets online in advance.  You’ll thank me for it later.  There were at least 50-75 people queued up when we arrived.  Cut right to the front, we did.  Oh, and look for deals and promotions.  There’s always something going on to ease the pain on the wallet.  This promotion was popular as I was planning things up.  So instead of driving to Windsor, like I did, take the train, then you’ll be eligible for all these discounts!

Definitely plan around the changing of the guard schedule, as the ceremony here is much, much better than at Buckingham Palace (where you’re further away and likely to be squished against the fence).  You’ll be very close to the action, and afterwards can take one or two photos with the sentries.

The Chapel is not to be missed.  It’s not as grandiose as you’d think, but very evocative.  Full of history.  Also full of royal remains.  I loved the Quire, with personalized stalls assigned to the respective royalty from around Europe, and of course, the Sovereign’s Stall reserved for the Queen [stall doesn’t seem the right name for it, in this instance, does it?].  If you’re around for Evensong, I hear the choir is quite good.  No pics allowed inside, but check out their website for some pretty cool virtual tours.  Almost like being there, no?

Once the new guard is in place, head up the hill for the entrance to the State Apartments exhibit before everyone else does.  It starts with Queen Mary's Dolls' House (a scale replica of Windsor itself) but the actual rooms open to visitors are absolutely exquisite.  Especially the Waterloo Hall and some of the other apartments, which are apparently undergoing a £37 million “refurbishment” over the next few years.  Cool stuff!  Regal in every sense…

That sums up Windsor.  Put aside 2-3 hours at a minimum.  Skip the gift shop on premises and get your trinkets and souvenirs outside the gate.  The little town surrounding the Castle is very quaint.  Worth a quick browse.   Grab lunch.  I had my first fish-and-chips in the UK.  Not all that, but I wasn’t expecting it to be, since this was clearly a tourist-trap kind of place (interestingly enough the waitress was Romanian; yup, we’re everywhere!). 

And just on the other side of the river (if you have another hour or so) is Eton College, where princes William and Harry were educated.  And a good number of Britain’s Prime Ministers and politicians as well.  It’s one of the only 4 boys-only boarding schools left in England.  Now you know!

As mentioned, the other big attraction for the day was the Warner Bros. Studio in Leavesden, roughly 25 miles away.  But since our tickets to the Harry Potter tour were not until later in the afternoon, and Wembley was [somewhat] in-between, the “pilgrimage” to this soccer “Mecca” became a no-brainer.  Only the iconic venue is no longer there (torn down in 2003) and the new one was unfortunately closed.  Beyoncé concert preparations, they said… So I guess I’ll save the experience for an actual sporting event.  Perhaps the 2020 European Championship final… if not, an FA Cup Final before then.  You’ll also notice that although I’m somewhat of a football fanatic, none of the other stadia were included in the itinerary.  Emirates Stadium (Arsenal) and White Hart Lane (Spurs) briefly passed by the crosshairs, but since this was off-season, and the Euros were going on, I decided it will have to wait until next time.  Preferably during the EPL season…

The undisputed highlight of the day was the next stop.  My son grew up with Harry Potter, and although well past “that age” he was still visibly excited at the opportunity to explore the “place” where it all happened.  The “little one” was besides herself as well.  Frankly, I was equally excited, since I also read all the books and saw the movies.  And what a treat it was!  I definitely recommend it.  And if you don’t want to drive up there, you don’t have to.  There are trains and private tour buses that can take you...

The tour is self-paced and can take a couple hours at a minimum.  For true fans, that won’t be enough, but it’s a good thing the place is open until 8 or even 10 pm, depending on the day.  I have visited Warner Bros. in Los Angeles, but since that’s a working studio, the access is very limited… what they did here, is created and actual museum within the studio grounds.  All – and I mean all props, artifacts, sets, costumes, you name it – are on display here.  Privet Drive is here.  Harry’s house.  The cupboard under the stairs.  Hogwarts’ Grand Hall.  Hagrid’s Hut.  Diagon Alley.  Hogwarts Express.  Everything.  All of it!   And it’s simply phenomenal.  Complete with a pint of butterbeer in the lunch hall and “Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans” in the gift shop!

...and its side-effects!

My reward for a nice surprise: unlimited supply of "daddy kisses"

On the way to the hotel – and another argument for renting a car – we stopped at Abbey Road Studios for a “been there, done that” tourist photo opp.  Kinda’ silly, really (it’s just another crosswalk) and undoubtedly annoying as heck for the locals, who I’m sure avoid that intersection like the plague.  And parking is a pain in that area also.  But as they say, when in Rome…

The "Beat-less" ;-)
Another 3 miles south of here was the final stop for the day: Park Tower Knightsbridge hotel just on the other side of Hyde Park, in the middle of “posh” and uber-expensive London.  Starwood Luxury Collection.  Not cheap.  Sort of London’s version of any luxury hotel in NY near Central Park.  Thank God for SPG points!  For a quick dinner nearby: The Grenadier – one of the many traditional pubs I had on my “have to try” list.  Walking distance from the hotel, but not easy to find.  Totally lived up to the hype and expectations.  Great food.  Great beer.  Welcome to London!

Day 2

In recent travels with our female child (and aspiring ballerina) it seems like theatres, ballet schools, or a combination of both are almost mandatory.  Who am I kidding?  There’s no almost… So naturally, a backstage tour of the Royal Opera House (and Royal Ballet) was in the books.  That, plus a “surprise” stop I planned in advance at the Freed store a couple blocks away.

For the uninitiated, Freed is arguably one of the best (if not the best) brand of pointe shoes.  Most professional dancers wear them.  So the surprise earned me some points with the aforementioned child, but also the inevitable hit in the wallet, since she “found the perfect fitting shoe” custom-made for one of the Royal Ballet dancers.  Speaking of the wallet-damaging effects of this classical dance form, these shoes (especially the quality ones) are not cheap.  Think $80-100 a pair.  Think short life-span (2-4 weeks or so) as they do fall apart quickly (they’re mostly carton and glue, with some fabric on top).  Now do the math.  And that’s just the beginning.  My daughter is still young.  Amateur status.  The pros go through at least a pair of pointe shoes per performance.  Anecdotal statistic:  the NY City Ballet goes through about 8,500 pairs of pointe shoes during the Nutcracker performances.  If you care to learn more about how these things are made, check out this video .  If not, keep going…  

While the girls toured the Royal Opera House, us boys took the car back to Victoria train station.  Why mention this?  Because I learned a valuable lesson that may come in handy to others.  Apparently driving through downtown London on weekdays (on what’s known as the Congestion Zone) incurs a £11.50/day charge.  If not paid on the day, the subsequent penalty (which I learned of about a couple months after I returned the car and disputed the charge with Amex) is £65.  This would have easily been avoided had the guy at the rental counter mentioned anything, or had I done my “homework” properly.  I hear this is a huge money maker for the city, and I can understand why!   Oh, and the Europcar return process was another painfully manual and time consuming experience.  Never again will I be dealing with them again.  Ever!  A good cup of coffee at Costa, and a nice “toastie” (my son’s favorite sandwich in London) made it all better ;-)

From Victoria station (what a congested mess around that area; it really made me regret the whole “bucket-list-drive-on-the-wrong-side” bit) followed my first exposure to the Tube.  The London Underground system, that is.  What a stark contrast to NY, or some of the other subways I’ve seen.  Squeaky clean.  Spotless to the point that one could eat off the floor.  Off the tracks, even.  In NY not even the rats would dare eat off that filth…

Two trains and 4 stops later we were at Covent Garden.  Big retail area with shops and restaurants right outside the Royal Opera House.  Had planned lunch at one of Jamie Oliver’s places, but it was too early, so decided to move on…

St. Paul’s Cathedral – the next big stop for the day – is only about a mile away.  20-25 minutes tops.  But there are plenty of “detractions” along the way to make it a much longer journey.  The first one, just between Strand and Waterloo Bridge is Somerset House.  Initially a royal place, now government building, events venue, art collections, and an occasional film setting (couple Bond movies, at least).  The inner courtyard turns into a skating ring in the winter months.

Two blocks up and across the street is the Royal Court of Justice.  Imposing building and apparently the biggest “courthouse” in Europe.

At the end of that building, hang right down one of the alleys and stop by Temple Church.  Brought into the spotlight somewhat recently by Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code, the famed church has been around since the turn of the 12th century, when it was actually the English headquarters of the Templar Knights and royal treasury.  Interesting architecture (for a church) as the Knight preferred round churches, and naturally a lot of history and equal amount of mystery surround this place.  Definitely worth it.  More so if you’re into the Templars or at least read the aforementioned bestseller.

Back on Fleet street (continuing towards St. Paul’s) I now recall passing by a certain point on my itinerary, but forgetting to stop.  I’ll blame it on the light drizzle at the time and the need to find shelter.  And the stomach growls that called for a place of sustenance as the next immediate stop.  I’m talking about St. Dunstan in the West church.  Not much significance, other than there is another one “in the East” that’s rather unique (see day 4) and it also houses the Romanian Orthodox Church

I thought Ye Olde Chesire Cheese – a very old and authentic pub another block away; oldest in London, some claim – would make a nice stop for a sit-down lunch, but we decided on something quicker.  Curiosity did pull me in, and the place does deserve a visit.  It has a lot of character, and lots of nooks and crannies that give it a rather gloomy air.  Will definitely stay for a pint next time.  

On this occasion, we stumbled upon Pilpel, a counter-service lunch spot that shares the narrow alley with the pub’s entrance (they have 3 other locations).  Easily the best falafel I ever had.  Very good Mediterranean quick-bite options.  One of those delicious whole-in-the-wall places that justifies the line out the door!  It really hit the spot!

From here, the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral starts to come into the view up on Ludgate Hill (the highest point in the City proper).  In less than 10 minutes you’re there.  Again, tickets in advance to avoid the lines.  Photos and videos are prohibited (except from the top of the dome) but I’m guessing it’s not enforced much; I’ve seen lots of people snapping pics.  Guilty of it myself…

The sheer immensity of the place is staggering.  Until 1967 it was the tallest structure in the city.  It stands 365 feet tall (111 in metric).  The jaw drops unconditionally as you stand in the nave and admire this massive edifice.  Imposing it’s an understatement.  Grandiose is more like it.  And opulent.  It has to be, since it plays such an important role in the national identity.  Funerals for Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher were held here.  Charles and Diana were married here.  The jubilees for the Queen’s birthday were held here also.

It is a working church, so check the schedule for visiting hours.  Then put aside a couple hours to wonder around.  Definitely take the stairs all the way to the top of the dome.  Even on a typical cloudy day the views from the top are worth the hike!

As you glance across the Thames from the top, you can’t miss the distinctive structure of Millennium Bridge down below.  It’s a quick pedestrian connection to the famed Tate Museum (saved that for next time) and Shakespeare’s Globe theater (also saved for next time, as visitor hours were over, and didn’t manage to get tickets to A Midsummer Night's Dream, in session during our stay).  Despite the name, the latter is not the real thing.  The original construction (1599) burned around 1613, was immediately rebuilt and then demolished about 30 years later.  This one is a fairly accurate “replica” that was opened in 1997.  I’ll definitely plan to take in the full experience next time.  

For now, it was just a quick walk-by on the way to Borough Market.  Food again!!!

There are a few markets worth mentioning in London, but this one is by far the best.  A whole pig on the spit with crunchy caramelized skin roasting on the very first stall was a clear indication that this was worth the detour.  Lots of great nibbles everywhere.  Local farmers and artisans.  Grilling fumes.  Cheese.  Charcuterie.  Fishmongers.  Vibrantly colored and aromatic fruits.  And vegetables.  Flowers.  Sweets.  Baked goods.  Warm cookies.  Oh, yeah!  A visual treat.  A gustatory and olfactory delight.  A definite must!   

Given the proximity to all this marvelous produce, there are several restaurants worth mentioning in the area (although frankly just grabbing something in the market it’s easier on the wallet).  I’m talking about Tapas Brindisa, Padella, Lobos Meat and Tapas, Gourmet Goat.  And that’s only a few.  Google while in the area and you’ll be hard pressed to find a bad spot.

Just under the London Bridge (the market is located under the foot of the bridge) there is a ferry station that we took for a quick Thames mini-tour.

Two stops later we debarked right under the London Eye.  Lines were fairly long, despite the light drizzle and overcast skies (typically not the right setting for good visibility) but they moved pretty fast.  Maybe 30 min wait altogether.

The experience on the Eye?  Meh… it’s one of those [almost] obligatory things in London, but frankly, severely overpriced, in my opinion.  Sure, it affords some great panoramic views of the city (weather permitting) but make sure you look for discounts and coupons (a 2-for-1 ticket is a popular option).

Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster stand gloriously across the river.  Unfortunately, foreign visitors can no longer go in, due to obvious security concerns.  Even UK citizens have to book through their MP or a member of the House of Lords, and do so at least 6 months in advance in order to secure a spot.  That’s why most people have to settle for a few snap shots from just under it.

A quick stroll down the Victoria Embankment provides a few more Kodak moments with the Eye in the background.  It almost feels like the Seine.  Only cleaner.

For tourists: "Pedestrian X-ing 101"
Back around the Covent Garden area, we wanted to try Flat Iron for dinner.  Rave reviews across the net indicate this is the hip place to grab a steak these days.  Also the place to see and be seen, which is why the wait time was around 90 minutes.  And no reservations allowed.  No thank you!  I know that’s typically a marketing ploy for “hot” restaurants, but I don’t think any place is worth that type of wait, no matter how good.  We live in an era where reservations are the more civilized thing to do.  And the hunger pangs didn't even want to hear any argument to the contrary.  So we passed.

Just less than two blocks away we stumbled upon Steak & Co. (sort of had our minds set on steak at this point) and it was a tremendous alternative.  Entertaining.  And very original as well (they bring the steak to the table slightly under-cooked, then provide a sizzling hot stone to finish cooking it to your liking; something like this would never catch in the US; just imagine the liability of bringing a piping hot stone to the table in a country that has the most lawyers per capita!).  It was a lovely dinner topped off with amazing macaroons from Paul Bakery just down the street.

Canada Day! -- a big deal in London, or another reason to hit the pubs?!?

Looking for the Muffin Man
After this heavy dinner, the sensitive thing to do was walk back to the hotel, even though it was almost 2 miles away.  We strolled through the Theatre district (didn’t book a show this time, but will definitely consider next time around) enjoying some of the street performers around Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus.  Loud.  Crowded.  Very touristy.  It validated my decision to switch from the W hotel (in the middle of all this), my original choice for this visit.

Just outside this area, around Savile Row, Jermyn Street, etc. boasts some of the best tailors in London.  If you have the wallet for it, that is…

The evening stroll across the Green Park (surrounding Buckingham Palace) was somewhat reminiscent of Central Park.  Maybe not as crowded at that time of the evening during a weekday.  On the way, there is the Bomber Command Memorial (commemorating WWII air force) and the imposing Wellington Arch, which honors the victory against Napoleon (seems like an arch this size is a “must” in every big European metropolis).

From here, only 5 minutes separated us from the comfort of a nice soft Heavenly® bed after an extremely full day of prancing around.  If you’re keeping track, that was about 7 miles total, without counting at least a couple miles around each of the sites visited.  And all the stairs in St. Paul’s.  Whew!  Time to prop up those feet…

Day 3

Quick breakfast around the corner from the hotel.  Toasties again, as the newly found breakfast preference for my son (not the healthiest of choices, but needed energy for what lies ahead).  The Royal Mews as a first stop, just as it opened at 10 am.  Interesting tour of all the carriages used by the royals for different events.  The Gold State Coach, which has been used at every coronation since that of George IV in 1821, takes opulence to a whole new level.  And then kicks it up a notch.  Bam!!

We rushed through it, because we wanted to catch the Changing of the Horse Guard that was about a mile away, across St. James’ Park.  That meant only a quick walk-by the front of Buckingham Palace.  Frankly, everything I read about this was spot on.  Extremely crowded and not much to see.  Snapped a couple souvenir pics and moved on.

The park itself is nice.  Meant to be enjoyed at a more leisurely pace.  But not when you travel with me and have to stick to a schedule.  Here's a few fly-by pics: 

Duck Island Cottage - on the edge of St. James' Park

We got to the place just as the steeds were coming around the corner.  Imposing ceremony.  And we were allowed to get incredibly close to the “action”.  Impressing!

Just south of here, a famous London address: 10 Downing Street.  It’s the Prime Minister’s home and office.  Years ago one could walk down this street.  Now it’s blocked by a wrought iron fence and surely loads of security.  We live in a different world these days…

The next block houses the Imperial War Museum and Churchill War Rooms.  I hear it’s worthwhile, but no time for it on this trip.  Maybe next.  We continued right down the street to Westminster Abbey – another jaw-dropping history-defining architectural wonder.           

Originally built in 960, it was rebuilt in the early 1,500’s, and had the towers added in the 18th century.  Every coronation ceremony since 1066 was held here.  That, plus multiple royal weddings and countless funerals.  The lines are always long, but getting tickets online in advance ensures you cut to the front of the line.  I can’t imagine why on this day and age anyone would not take advantage of simple tricks like that… I felt bad for a second, as I looked at the line that circled back around the building, but the feeling didn’t last ;-)

Once inside, however, there’s nothing you can do about the congestion.  If there are any fire-marshal type ordinances, they are clearly not followed, because the place is crowded.  And it diminishes the experience, quite a bit… 

Lots of monarchs and their families are laid to rest in the Abbey.  Several scientists (including Newton and Darwin) buried in the Nave (interesting that Darwin – and agnostic or atheist by most accounts – is buried here…).  There’s all the poets in the North Transept, and countless other figures in the cloisters, choir aisles, chapels and vaults.  In all there’s probably close to 200 people interred here. 

But clearly, despite this veritable “who’s who” list of people enjoying eternal peace here, it’s naturally more than that.  It’s a veritable symbol of British monarchy.  It’s about Royalty.  The Coronation Chair (circa 1297) has been used in the crowning ceremony for every king and queen ever since.  It’s still there, although the original is being restored; a replica is currently on display…

Newton and Shakespeare (two of the prominent "celebrities" buried here); 
the guy on the left looking down is likely reading Darwin's plaque 

Poet's corner

Since we’re on this “morbidity” theme, figured might as well get it all out of the way and head over to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, in Hyde Park near the Serpentine.

Twenty minutes later by cab (first time in one of those traditional London taxis) we were there.  It’s simple.  Serene, to some extent.  An oval-shaped shallow stream that flows down two sides: one smooth, the other full of steps, curves and ripples that causes the water to look more like a fast mountain stream dancing through the rocks.  That duality may have something to do with the life she lived…

From here, it’s a short walk to the Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall.  When it comes to famous artistic venues (music in particular) RAH has to be in the top 5.  Unique structure and highly versatile (although it’s primarily a concert hall, it housed anything from tennis matches, sumo wrestling, movies with live soundtrack and even a marathon!).  I wanted to see a concert here, but unfortunately, none of the ones scheduled tickled my fancy (Kenny G and Gladys Knight were the options during our stay).  Instead, we took the tour, which was very good.  Got to sit near the Queen’s personal loge, visit her private antechamber, and hear the band practice anyway (Gladys was in concert later that evening).  Win-win!

Just outside the RAH there’s the Royal College of Music and Imperial College.  Top notch schools.  And just beyond that, three museums worth perusing if you have time: The Science, Natural History and Victoria & Albert Museums.

After all the walking around (granted, by the early afternoon hour we only logged about 2.5 miles; very low by my standards) it was time for a quick break.  And one can’t be in the UK without partaking in the afternoon tea tradition… Which is why the next stop was the Orangery, near Kensington Palace (where Kate and William live; people say they can be seen around quite often).  We had other options for “fancier” tea rooms (I hear the Mad Hatter at the Sanderson Hotel is quite nice).  But in a city like London, I’m sure there are hundreds like that.  We opted for this one because it was closer to the RAH and had a more “casual” vibe to it (no, not casual in the American sense of the word… this is a slightly more sophisticated society, after all).  To our surprise, the waiter was Romanian also.  Small world…

Properly refreshed, we glanced over to see if we can catch a glimpse of any of the royal progeny, then headed north towards Notting Hill.  Every Saturday, the Portobello Road Antique Market draws thousands.  As you’d expect, plenty of kitsch knickknacks [say that fast 3 times] and cheap trinkets, but quite a few “valuables” as well, for those really into antiquities.  It’s a prime tourist spot, though, so they ain’t cheap.  A vintage candlestick phone [two-piece] caught my eye, but quickly ran away when I saw the price in the $200-300 US range… Still, managed to find some nice souvenirs…

Notting Hill, by the way, portrayed as a nice posh, cosmopolitan neighborhood in the Julia Roberts & Hugh Grant flick, is one of the more desirable residential areas.  But it hasn’t always been that.  Until the 1980’s it’s been primarily a multi-occupancy rentals community with plenty of immigrants and working class folk.  A “dirty slum crawling with rats and rubbish”.  Today, the large Victorian townhouses are very much sought after.  And they don’t come cheap.  Oh, and if you happen to be around in August, apparently they host the largest street carnival outside of Rio!  The more you know…

With dark skies announcing a storm approaching, we cut the antique-browsing short and hopped in another cab for the next stop on the itinerary:  Harrods – a retail institution 182 years old!  It is ginormous.  The building spreads across 5 acres (20,000 square meters if that helps) and is 7 stories high.  In total, 330 departments covering one million square feet of retail space.  About 15 million customers come through the doors every year.  Not sure if it was the impending rain that contributed to it, but it seemed like a good chunk of those customers were actually in that afternoon.  It was almost suffocating, so after just a bit of wondering around, decided it wasn’t worth it.  Maybe next time I’ll muster the courage to at least visit the famed Food Hall.

Quick tidbit:  Mohamed Al-Fayed (his eldest son was Dodi, Princess Diana’s boy-friend) bought the store in 1985 for £615 million; he sold it in 2010, £1.5 billion to Qatar royalty (seems like these guys buy everything these days, from department stores to the 2022 World Cup).  If you ever have time, read up on him…. Fascinating life story.

The rest of the day focused around the Germany – Italy game.  Paxtons Head nearby turned out to be a pretty cool pub, but I wasn’t aware that an age-limit gets instituted whenever there’s a game on (reasonable logic, of course) so it turned out to be a boys-only affair.  I was excited for such a “classic”, yet, aside from a few Italians at the next table, not many were really into the game… I was expecting more from a British crowd.  Maybe I was in the wrong part of town (I mentioned earlier this area is very upscale, therefore probably not too many football-loving-commoners around).  The game turned out to be a dud also, with the Germans finally managing to win after penalties a little after midnight.

Good night!

Day 4

Last day in London started with another Romanian encounter.  This time, the Uber driver.  Very nice guy; even offered to turn off the “meter” as a sign of solidarity once he found out we were “kinfolk” ...  Now, you won’t see that happen very often.  I’m guessing he was homesick… or maybe just a nice guy (likely lived in London for a long time and it rubbed off).  Enough of that.  Be nice, Adrian…

Duck & Waffle was supposed to be our breakfast spot.  Recommendation from a friend.  Looked good on the web.  Great city views 40 stories up, from a glass-walled building in the business district.  Every previous attempt to make reservations at any of the restaurants was met with either “don’t need to” or “we don’t take them”.  So naturally, I did not bother to check on this place, especially since this was on a Sunday morning in an area of the town that sees very little action in the weekend.  But yes, you guessed it.  Fully booked.  Nothing available until later in the day.  A day that left little time for detours (you’ll see why momentarily).  I’m still bummed about it, but decided it wasn’t worth coming back later…

Leadenhall Market (I knew this one was closed on Sundays) was a very quick detour in search for a breakfast place.  Luckily, there’s Starbucks everywhere!

On the way to the Tower of London (less than a mile from Duck & Waffle, which is why I chose that place to begin with) there’s a cool spot I referenced earlier: Saint Dustan in the East.  This one is not a full-blown church, but rather a few walls that remained and are now overtaken by ivy growth and surrounded by a very tranquil park.  A bit strange to find such a place in the middle of new real estate development, but something tells me that the city of London pays great attention to “green” spaces…

Off to the Tower of London then…

I mentioned earlier William the Conqueror and the Norman conquest of England.  Until 1066 the country was under Anglo-Saxon rule (Harold II being the last in that dynasty).  As he took over, William set to build the White Tower (now in the middle of the compound), which was completed around 1078.  The Inner Ward was completed in the 1190’s and other additions occurred during the reigns of Richard the Lionheart, Henry III, and Edward I (12th and 13th century).  Although interior changes have been made afterwards, the general layout, with the two outer walls and the moat, is relatively unchanged since the late 1300’s.  That makes it one of the oldest and best preserved medieval castles still around.  And a point of big pride for the locals.

Throughout the years the Tower was used as a royal residence, famed prison (probably for the longest time), armory, treasury, menagerie, Royal Mint, and is now home of the Crown Jewels.  Fascinating place and it’s recommended to join a Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) tour in order to enhance the experience.  They leave every 30 mins (from the main entrance) and tours last about an hour.  Personally, I don’t have much patience for following around a big group that moves at a slower pace… and when I saw at least 40 people gathered around the guide I decided to go for the audio guide.  Self-paced [read “fast”] is the way to go for me.

Most visitors start near the entrance, so my recommendation is to do the opposite and start at the back.  At the Crown Jewels, that is.  The line is long (this is the main attraction after all) but moves fast and it’s absolutely worth it.  No photos allowed, but check this out if interested.  There are a few very exquisite pieces in there.
Cullinan I - The Scepter
The most valuable is the Sovereign’s Scepter with Cross.  The Cullinan I diamond (also known as the Great Star of Africa) incrusted in this scepter is the largest colorless cut diamond in the world (530 carats).  Its “brother” (317 carat Cullinan II) adorns the State Crown.  With that kind of “weight”, in addition to all the other valuables, I’m assuming all the stuff on display in that exhibit is probably replicas.  Either that or they have one hell of a security setup…

Cullinan I - IX
For a bit more on that diamond, here’s a little story on it.  In 1905 a huge diamond was unearthed somewhere in present-day South Africa (Transvaal was at the time a British colony).  It was so big, that everyone thought it to be a stone, and they initially threw it away.  Eventually it turned out it was a diamond, and weighed around 3,106 carats (621g).  It still is the biggest gem-quality diamond ever found.  They called it Cullinan (after the chairman of the mine) and it caused an international sensation at the time, as you would imagine.  The colonists gifted it to Edward VII for his 66th birthday.  According to legend, a decoy was put on a heavily guarded ship travelling to England, while the original was sent via regular mail!  It was then sent to Amsterdam to be cut, and after 8 months of intense work it produced 9 major diamonds (Cullinan I through IX), 96 small brilliants, and 9 carats of unpolished fragments (“debris” if you will).  The value of all this: over 2 billion USD.  And to think that it’s all just carbon after all.  Carbon that’s been exposed to temperatures of 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,200 Celsius), squeezed under pressures of 725,000 pounds per square inch, 100 miles deep into the earth’s core, then quickly rushed to the surface in order to cool.  Carbon with extremely strong molecular bond.  Carbon that’s anywhere from 1 to 3 billion years old.  But carbon nonetheless… Kudos to DeBeers marketing and monopoly strategies for making such a big deal of it!

The White Tower (the big structure in the middle) houses a lot of interesting exhibits.  Mostly armor, weapons, tools and medieval paraphernalia.  The torture room is also interesting, but frankly a bit of a letdown for me (I was expecting more gruesome stuff, for some reason) …

The tour around the outer ward structure was also interesting.  Going from tower to tower, each with its distinctive appeal and purpose, almost puts you “in character” somewhere back in time.  The folks dressed up in period garb that were providing “color” to the scenery surely helped with that… But this is where I think a Yeoman would have been better than my audio guide.  At least I’m sure they would have had more interesting stories…

Speaking of Yeoman Warders (or Beefeaters as they’re colloquially known), they are actually retired from the Armed Forces (it’s a requirement) and must be former officers with at least 22 years of service. In 2007 the first woman was admitted to the institution.  I learned that they actually live on the premise along with their families and their main duty is to “defend” the castle (including the Crown Jewels).  That, and give tours every 30 minutes.  They’re also part of the “attraction”, and they know it.  One of them – called the Ravenmaster – is actually responsible for the welfare of the ravens on the property.  Yes, I attribute that one to British humor…. There.  Now you know…

One other interesting tidbit:  for the last 700 years there’s a ceremony around locking up the Tower at night, and although it’s free, it’s limited to a small number, tickets can only be booked online, and as I’m typing this the earliest available is July 2017 (they are available one year in advance, apparently).  I hear the Yeomans put on quite a performance during this ceremony.  Maybe next time I’ll plan that long ahead…

As you exit the Tower (or even while you glance over the southern wall) the imposing structure of the Tower Bridge fills the background.  It’s gorgeous, and definitely worth the price of admission for a quick tour.  For me, it will have to wait for next time…  I had a “date” with Amy [Winehouse] up in Camden.

To get to Camden, it’s about a half hour by train (Northern Line).  The Tower Hill station is the closest.  Interestingly, right outside this station you can see vestiges of the old Roman wall (Londinium was a Roman settlement back in the day) and a bronze statue of emperor Trajan.  Those Romans did spread pretty far during their heyday…

Camden Market (or Camden Lock) is a major attraction in London.  In weekends it gets crazy busy.  So busy that the local train station is only open to incoming traffic.  In order to leave, you have to walk to either the upstream or downstream station.  The “market” itself has expanded over time and it’s now an area covering several blocks.  Over 1,000 shops, stalls, bars and cafes, following anything but convention.  Aside from all the trinketry you’d expect, there’s a scale that registers anything from modern, to retro, vintage, punk, rave, and straight-out weird.  A mish-mosh of eclecticism, antiquery, cheap Chinesery [I think I just invented a word], avant-garde, urban, folk art, you name it.  It’s dizzying, really.  And to top it all, every imaginable food ethnicity under the sun.  Overwhelming is a massive understatement!

Speaking of food, before strolling through the market we grabbed fish ‘n’ chips at Hook.  After a long research around the best spot for the famed British food staple, this place made the short list.  Not because they have one of the best “traditional” offerings (which they do) but because they focus on fresh and sustainable, and because they go “out of the box” quite a bit.  Think panko bread crumbs, or tempura batter.  Think flavors like lemon & basil, lime mint & wasabi, Jamaican jerk, Indian spice, or Ethiopian berbere.  You get the idea…  Oh, and the waitress… was Romanian, of course!

While on this topic, here’s my research on a few worth-wile spots to go for Fish & Chips: Poppies (a few locations but every review site gives them high scores), Kerbisher & Malt (also with 3 locations), Golden Union Fish Bar, Toffs, and the Golden Hind are some that popped to the top of most “best” lists.  Hook was on that list, of course, and it was excellent!  Would go again, for sure.
After enough excitement around Camden Lock (and “meeting” my girl Amy) it was back to the Theatre District for a bit more souvenir shopping before dinner.  Bloch for the girls (ballet gear, what else) and a good Belgian ale for the boys at Lowlander, just around the corner.  What’s not to love, huh?

Trafalgar Square was the next quick stop, for a bit of people-watching (or staring at people as my daughter once called it).  The National Gallery was not on the books this time around (have to leave some things off the list, in order to justify coming back).  There are a few classics in there that I’d definitely want to see (like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and Monet’s Water-Lily Pond)

To kill time, more strolling around the Piccadilly Circus area, a quick gelato at Gelupo (a great find right behind the Apollo Theater), a bit of window-shopping around Carnaby Street, and eventually dinner at Dishoom, a traditional Bombay Café that was just a perfect end to a great culinary tour of London.  Easily the best Indian food I ever had.  I seriously couldn’t stop eating!

That does it for this fully-loaded 4-day tour of London.  Impressed beyond belief.  I thought (given the size, demographics, tourism, and other criteria) that it was going to be similar to Paris.  Boy, was I wrong.  Complete opposite in many ways!  Clean, organized, civilized, friendly people, a true delight.  The lack of gypsies and beggars was almost unfathomable! I can see why many travel sites had it ranked as the #1 destination for 2016.  Back soon, for sure!  

Oh, before I go, I'd be remiss if I didn't list out (in no particular order) some of the other pubs and restaurants I had on my list, since 4 days was clearly not enough time to hit them all:

Traditional pubs:
  • The Bear and Staff
  • The Andover Arms
  • The Nag’s Head
  • The French House, Soho
  • The Lamb and Flag
  • Ye Olde Mitre Tavern
  • The George Inn
  • Spaniards Inn
  • The Churchill Arms
  • The Mayflower
  • The Victoria
  • The Crown and Anchor
  • The Queen's Head
  • Princess Louise
  • The Harp
  • The Pig and Butcher
  • Anchor & Hope
  • Hibiscus
  • The Lady Ottoline
  • Parlour
  • Ape & Bird
  • Smokehouse
  • The Crown
  • Truscott Arms
  • Bull & Last
  • The Harwood Arms
  • Princess Victoria
  • The Malt House
  • Newman Street Tavern - Dickie Fitz


  1. Nice tour, impressed with some of the more 'local' places you visited like Gelupo and Dishoom (the Kings Cross branch is worth a repeat visit), you definitely researched and organised it well. For a next trip if it covers a Sunday I would recommend a visit to the trio of markets over in the Shoreditch area, Columbia Road Flower market (Sunday only), Brick Lane (Old Brewery buildings market), Spitalfields Market in that order.

    I see you missed Flat Iron but For British steak where you can book a table I would recommend Hawksmoor, the Covent Garden branch has a good atmosphere. They do a good value Sunday Roast (beef only) on errr Sundays also, book ahead for that!

    You seem to like beer so I would recommend a visit to Howling Hops http://howlinghops.co.uk/ over in Hackney Wick in East London next to the London Olympics Park. They brew their own beer onsite. The Crate Brewery in the "White building" next door does a good pizza for the kids. http://cratebrewery.com/ Combine it with a walk around the Olympic Park to see its regeneration progress and possibly Greenwich (via Royal Victoria Docks and the Cable Car then bus to Greenwich town and boat back to central or other way round). Makes for a decent day out.

    1. Thanks, xlondon - I do tend to go overboard with planning whenever I visit a new place. Some of that is the control freak in me, some it's the fact that I like to maximize my time "on the ground" rather than looking up things on the spot. I love weekend markets, so I'll definitely take in your suggestions for next time. That, and the brewery also! My next trip can't come soon enough!

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