The first of November is All Saints Day or "Toussaint" in French. This is a national holiday and the week of Toussaint is the first break of the school year. Since most of countries are still in school, this is a particularly good time to take a holiday.
So, where to go?
When you look at our map of where we have been so far, much of Western Europe is rather well covered. One noticeably large empty spot is the United Kingdom. OK, that decision is made.
Now, how to get there? A few years ago France and England were joined together by high speed rail under the English Channel. An eight hour (or longer) journey between Paris and London is now only three hours. We normally drive every where, so the train would be a nice change. Done.
Next, where to stay? This was the easiest choice of the lot. Our good friend and former Pastor from Fontainebleau is now living in London and has repeatedly asked us to come and visit. Time to take him up on his offer.
Sounds like a plan, lets do it.
In 1999 a wind storm blew across Europe, blowing down trees and killing people from France to Romania. A few days before we were scheduled to leave a similar storm blew through Great Britain, France and Germany blowing down trees and killing people. Little did we know that this also disrupted the power grid for the channel trains. But we soon found out! After we arrived at the train station in Paris, we were told that it was not clear if we would be able to go by tunnel. They agreed to get us to the coast and would then tell us if we were to take the tunnel or a ferry. If we had to take a ferry, our scheduled 8pm arrival time would be more like midnight. Rah.
The train trip to the coast was fairly eventful. In France, the train can reach speeds of 300 kilometers per hour. Except for tonight. The problems with the grid extended to our tracks and the train ran at more pedestrian speeds, stopping three times due to problems. We reached the coast about at about the time we were supposed to have reached London. The good news was that by the time we arrived they had the tunnel fixed and we got to go under instead of over the Channel. From there the trip was quiet and uneventful, dropping us at Waterloo station at 9h30. By 10 we were at Bill's and well settled in.
It was still faster than driving.
The return trip was a textbook example of how it was supposed to work on the trip over. One smooth experience from cab to Eurostar to local train to home. A very pleasant experience and one worth repeating should we decide to visit London again.
No record of our trip would be complete without a mention of the London Underground. No, it is not a political organization but the subway system that runs beneath all of London. For 7 £ a day we were able to ride on as many trains and buses as we wanted, with no restrictions. Boy was this handy! In four days, we stopped at nearly every station in central London. This is a real testament to the quality and usefulness of the system. Given that the days were gray and rainy, being able to quickly and warmly move from one edge of the city to another was greatly appreciated.
William the Conqueror became king of England in 1066. After a brief victory tour of the country solidifying his rule, William returned to London to build a residence. He built a fortified home on the bank of the Thames River. This royal home has been expanded over the years and is known as The Tower of London.
The Tower, in fact, is a large fortress that contains twenty towers, including the original White Tower built by William.
Today, the Tower is still in royal use as a part time residence and the full time home of the royal jewels, where they are on public display.
On the day of our visit, it was overcast and gray with occasional light showers. Perhaps not the best day to wander around an open fortress. However, so many other people felt this way that we had the place virtually to ourselves and spent a pleasant morning wandering through history.
The two big draws of the Tower are the crown jewels and the armory in the White Tower. The crown jewels were stunning. Too stunning to describe. One thing we did not understand however was the one large red jewel with a large worm hole flaw through the center. There must be some history behind this stone as you could buy post cards of it and the like but, well, it was not very nice looking.
The armory contains a large collection of arms and armor from the days of nights and especially the time of Henry the 8th. Apparently Henry was a big fan of tournaments and so had armor of all shapes and sizes for each special mode. These are now on display and quite impressive. It was clear from the armor tat the King was a very large man.
All-in-all, the Tower was an interesting way to spend a morning.
The London Science Museum is huge, absolutely huge. In a full day of exploring, we only covered three of the six floors. What we saw included chemistry, steam technology, space exploration, nuclear energy, electric lighting, household technology, and James Bond. That's right, James Bond. In fact, we are all card carrying General Agents so nominated based on various tests of our knowledge of the many Bond Films.
Bond, the quintessential English Agent, is the subject of a multimedia interactive display containing details of the lives and times of James Bond. Rounded out with movie props, story boards, movie clips, and costumes the bond display was a special draw for Bond Fans like us.
The rest of the displays that we saw were interesting yet of mixed quality. Aside from the hands-on display of household goods, most of the displays were classic museum fair--educational if you stop to read the details and therefore really only interesting for older children and adults. Having said that, it was very easy to loose yourself reading about things you never thought that you would find interesting.
Definitely a good stop that is already on the list for our next visit.
As Mel Brooks once quoted "It's great to be King" and for hundreds of years, the King or Queen of England was the ruler of much of the known world. This gave their explorers, archeologists and treasure collectors ready access to the best the world has to offer. This vast collection is now on display for the world to see. Every continent and virtually every culture known to man has something on display here.
With so much, you need to target a few things to see. Our targets were the Ancient Egyptians and the Greeks.
The specialty of the Egyptian rooms were the mummies. The British Museum has mummies, lots of mummies. About twelve all told. From the earliest sand and basket mummies to the well preserved from when their skills were at their highest. It was not just mummies either. The tools of the trade and all the details and trappings of the tombs were on display and well explained. Impressive.
For reasons that are still not very clear to us, the British Museum has many of the carvings from the Parthenon in Athens. These were, again, clearly explained and the details in the carvings were impressive. We could not help feeling, though, that these really should still be in Athens. For good Greek sculptures (or even just roman copies) the Louvre in Paris or the Vatican in Rome would be better choices.
Even though we were looking for just these two themes, we also spent time admiring Assyrian sculptures, the Rosetta Stone, Mayan art, and the clothing of Canadian Plains Indians.
All in all, a well rounded and impressive museum.
The West End of London is the heart of the city for a visitor. It connects Westminster to Trafalgar Square to Piccadilly Circus and ends up at Oxford Circus. In one continuous north-south connection you can walk from Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, past #10 Downing Street, to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, continuing past the many famed theaters of London and famous shops of Regent Street.
Where the British Museum displays the history of human civilizations and the Science museum displays the history of science and technology, the National gallery shows the history of art from 1200-1900AD, from William the lion-hearted through impressionism.
You will not be bored by run-of-the-mill pictures, too many on only one theme, or simply too many to see at one time. The collection on display is well presented with excellent examples from all periods and all subject matter. Yet, the museum is of a size that you can do it justice in less than one day.
We spent a morning exploring the many halls and moved in awe from one great piece to another, each well commented by the available (and free) audio guides. We were impressed.
If you have only one art museum of the world you can visit, you could do far worse than to choose the National Gallery in London.
Big Ben is for London what the Eiffel Tower is for Paris--a large world renowned landmark that every visitor to the city needs to see. Well, we saw it. From ground level to an overlook 450 feet high, we saw Big Ben on a clear and rainless evening. Our only clear evening, in fact. It was impressive, as was the entire city from that height.
How did we get so high? Why, the London eye, of course. The London Eye is a very large Ferris wheel installed on the south bank of the Thames just down from Parliament. Each of the enclosed capsules will fit up to 35 passengers for a single 20 minute loop. As you might imagine, from this height you can see all of central London and it was impressive. This is a must do if you have a clear evening the next time you visit London.
Noted for carrying "The finest toys available" Hamley's toy store in the West End of London is an impressive collection of toys. Seven floors of toys of every size and shape imaginable. From computer games to dolls, from Teddy Bears to costumes, Hamley's had a bit of everything.
One particularly noteworthy bit is The Bear Factory. As the name implies, this is where you can build a bear (or a tiger or an elephant, or...) You start by selecting a skin from a large collection of styles, colors, and furs. With the aide of a special machine and a helper, you then fill your new friend with stuffing. You can include a voice box at this point but they are rather large and loud and we did not see many people going this route. The next step in the process is to select and place inside your friend a red cloth heart. While a staff member sews your friend closed you decide on a name that is then typed onto a birth certificate. In our case, we now share our home with a pale brown bear born on the 30th and a striped tiger born on the 31st.
Or Horrid's, as Juli mispronounced it, is one of the most famous stores in the world. Filling one full large city block with six floors of displays, Harrods has the best of everything. Food, clothing, sporting equipment, toys, furniture, luxury clothing, jewelry, you name it and Harrods has it. The displays on each for are impeccable and the selection enormous. This is one-stop luxury shopping at its best.
No visit to London would be complete without attending a live play. The stages in London are as famous and well respected as Broadway, with quality shows running on every corner of the West End. Through a bit a good luck we managed to find a tickets for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium Theater. Sold out for weeks in advance, we were lucky enough to find four open seats in a private box just adjacent to the stage.
The stage show is an adaptation of the movie with most of the well loved songs as well as some new ones. One advantage of doing an adaptation was that they could adjust the script a bit and correct the inconsistencies of the film. No confusion between story telling and reality this time.
The star of the show was, of course, the wonderful car. Rising out of the floor and lifted on an almost invisible robotic arm, the car had all the tricks down pat. It could float, it could fly, and it could lift like a helicopter, even to the point of coming out over the first few rows of seating. Impressive.
We all enjoyed the singing and dancing and woke the next morning with the songs still on our lips. A well spent afternoon.
England has a reputation for some of the worst native cuisine in the world. If you are looking for high cuisine such as we have everywhere in France, this is probably correct. The national drink of England is beer and the local food goes well with beer. With this being said, we had several tasty meals of the more informal sort. Once a day we would stop into a pub and enjoy a quick and simple meal, especially the fish and chips. We also went out for a wonderful, yet still informal, Indian meal that really hit our craving for the spicier side of life. We did not have three course meals every night but we did not find that was a bad thing either.
So, what did we think of London? All in all, our impressions were positive and we certainly had a good time. There were negatives: too much rain, litter everywhere, no public trash cans, and outrageously expensive (you really do not want to know!). On the positive side the people were pleasant and helpful and the museums are some of the best in the world. Many, many thanks to our friend Bill for encouraging and supporting our visit to this very interesting city.