London Calling – April 2014

My wife and I were finally able to go on a trip to London and Paris at the end of April lasting through the first week of May 2014. Neither of us has been to either cities (except for  multiple layovers in Heathrow and Charles De Gaulle airports – which don’t count by the way) so we both did some extensive research on various topics like modes of transportation from Venice, lodging options, transportation options in and around the city as well as to and from the airport, tours to take, tourist and local attractions to check out, and restaurants and food experiences to explore. For this entry, I will strictly cover our London trip.

I have a few relatives who live in London and a few who’ve visited the city, to include my sister and her husband as well as my cousin and her boyfriend who provided valuable information that shaped the itinerary I developed for our brief 3-day visit. I also posed questions on a Facebook forum (not to mention time spent trawling the Trip Advisor forum as well posing questions to experienced travelers on the http://www.bogleheads.org website) replete with members willing to share personal experiences of their travels throughout Europe.

Armed with a myriad of information, mostly helpful but sometimes conflicting, we opted to fly out of Venice’s Marco Polo airport with EasyJet into Gatwick Airport in London. I  arranged a bus ride to the city center through EasyBus for £15.50 for both of us as opposed to Gatwick Express which can cost up to £35 per person. EasyBus takes about an  hour from Gatwick to Earl’s Court tube station, depending on traffic. I made a reservation for our EasyBus ride about a week prior to our planned trip and made sure we had the printed “tickets” as the bus driver, we were informed, will not accept anything but a paper copy of the e-mailed tickets. This was reinforced when we witnessed one hopeful passenger presenting the driver with an e-mail on her smartphone and pleading her case to be allowed on the bus, almost to tears, to no avail,  Upon arrival at Earl’s Court station, we bought our Oyster cards…indispensable and fiscally sensible for London visitors planning to stay for more than a day and planning to take public transportation (good for the Tube as well as buses) to get around the city. There is a £5 deposit per Oyster card which is refundable once you leave the city. Unfortunately for us, our London departure via Eurostar Chunnel train (which, by the way, is the best means of travel between London and Paris) corresponded with a day the Tube (i.e. subway) workers were on strike so we weren’t able to get our deposits back.

Figuring out the Tube is quite easy, as long as you remain cognizant of your direction of travel and the corresponding end points/stations. If nothing else, there are a lot of helpful Tube workers and locals (after a few weeks in Italy, struggling to learn Italian and communicating with the aid of hand gestures and a translation app on our iPhone, it was a relief to finally hear English being spoken in public spaces…albeit with a British accent and sometimes “unconventional” spelling) willing to provide assistance. We were at the Marble Arch station soon enough after being turned around once and having to contend with Tube station closings on weekends due to restoration/construction.

We were staying at the West End of London, at Victory Services Club. VSC is a no frills hotel catering to military members, past and present, from all over the world. If you are interested, I posted a review of VSC on Trip Advisor. Our itinerary had Hyde Park and Abbey Road Studios for us to explore but it was late in the afternoon by the time we checked into our hotel and we were invited to dinner that night at a relative’s place outside the city. So we had to adjust and proceeded towards Wembley Stadium on the Tube for our dinner invitation.

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Stonehenge

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London icons, the Tube and Big Ben

On our first full day in London, we booked a tour of Windsor Castle, City of Bath, and Stonehenge though Golden Tours. There were other tour companies we considered, like Evan Evans, but an Internet search (I used http://www.retailmenot.com) revealed a discount coupon for Golden Tours, saving us 15%. Score! The tour lasted a full day with Stonehenge being the highlight. Windsor Castle was nice, especially the Queen’s State Apartments (although photography is not permitted). It was interesting to note that Windsor Castle is the largest and oldest inhabited castle in the world, having been the royal residence for over 900 years! We weren’t able to fully explore the City of Bath due to pouring rain upon our arrival. Bath is notable for its Roman era baths as well as a close association with Jane Austen, with the Jane Austen Center being located there. While waiting for the rain to subside we swallowed our “Pride” and set aside our “Prejudice” and spent some time in a Starbucks at Bath, getting warm and dry while enjoying a cappuccino and sweets …we figured it made “Sense” and appealed to our “Sensibility” (that’s really the extent of my knowledge of Jane Austen works…and I haven’t seen nor read any of them…honest). It was also raining off and on by the time we reached Stonehenge, set in an open field close to the towns of Amesbury and Larkhill, with A303 running southeast from it. It remains a mystery how prehistoric people (or were aliens involved in this endeavor) from over 4,500 years ago were able to transport the stones/boulders from great distances, let alone raise them into a formation that survives to this day. Stonehenge is an ancient temple that is aligned with the movements of the sun. There was a sense of awe, reverence, and amazement as one beholds Stonehenge…well, until young students from Italy, possibly on a field trip, broke the solemnity with their obnoxious behavior. Come to think of it…are kids nowadays more obnoxious than when I was growing up or am I just getting old? I am inclined to think its the former more so than the latter.

On our last full day in London, a Monday, we explored the city on foot…for the most part. We walked from our hotel to Buckingham Palace, St. James’ Park, Household Cavalry Museum and the Horse Guards Parade, 10 Downing Street, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben/Clock Tower, London Eye, then South Bank. We took the Tube towards the Tower Bridge and walked along the south bank of the Thames past HMS Belfast towards London Bridge. By the way, London Bridge is not falling down and London Bridge isn’t anything to behold. Prior to crossing London Bridge on our way to St. Paul’s Cathedral, however, we sought out Borough Market for some excellent street food. Highly recommended!

St. Paul’s Cathedral, while an imposing structure in its own right, didn’t inspire awe and fell short of matching the jaw-dropping experience we had when we saw St. Mark’s in Venice, St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and even the Duomo in Siena. With our feet and legs sufficiently sore (we’ve walked close to 9 miles by the time we reached St. Paul’s Cathedral), I pleaded for my wife to “allow” us to take the Tube to the British Museum. She relented and off to BM we went, where we focused our efforts in seeing the highlights: Rosetta Stone, Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs, Parthenon sculptures, Horse from the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, and the Easter Island statue. The Rosetta Stone is definitely the jewel of BM. Carved in 196 B.C. and found in 1799 in a small town in Egypt called Rashid or Rosetta in English, it had carvings in hieroglyphics, Egyptian script, and Greek. It was vital in helping historians decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics.

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An enterprising young man with a road guard vest, risked life and limb to stop traffic along a busy road, for a fee of course, to take a picture of tourists emulating the Fab Four crossing Abbey Road.

Upon leaving the British Museum, we had enough time to check out Abbey Road Studios, an attraction we meant to see on our first day but was unable to due to a previous dinner commitment. Abbey Road Studios, for the uninformed, is closely associated with the Beatles, having recorded almost all their albums there between 1962 and 1970…and who could forget the iconic Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album cover. It has become a place of pilgrimage for Beatles fans all over the world…and with my brother being a huge Beatles fan, I just had to make it there and pay homage in his stead. Abbey Road Studios is a short walk from the St. John’s Wood Tube station. After a long day of walking and exploring London’s treasures, we were not quite done as we set out to dine at Golden Hind for some fish and chips. Much like dinner the previous night at Zayna, our expectations were not met. We wanted to check out Harrod’s but we were not willing to leave the hotel once we got settled and after a nice shower. I believe we must’ve walked over 11 miles that day…and we still had to plot our way towards St. Pancras station (for our Chunnel train ride to Paris) since the Tube workers were on strike and there were no taxis available to take us from our hotel to the train station.

All in all, a very enjoyable brief visit of London. We were struck by how relatively clean the city is compared to Rome or Paris…and how polite and orderly Londoners acted, a far cry from the free-for-all chaos one sees in the major cities in Italy. They say London is an expensive city…and they would be correct. But if London ever came calling again, we wouldn’t hesitate to pack our bags and head out to see the city known as The Big Smoke.

NOTE:

  • My wife and I have made it a point to travel with our hiking backpack to avoid having to lug a suitcase and to ensure both our hands are free in case there are issues with pickpockets in big cities.
  • We found the app “Tube Map” as well as “Citymapper” helpful with planning our travels within the city using public transportation.
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Posted on May 29, 2014, in Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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