This trip, our year-delayed honeymoon, took place from September 19th to September 30th, 2014. Please plan a minimum of two hours to read this post. It was a long trip and we saw a lot. I didn’t want to leave anything of significance out and I am long-winded in the first place. Go to the bathroom now, skim sections if needed and possibly save the link and read half an hour at a time over a few days. Additional note, the pictures may not appear in the proper place if viewed on a tablet or cell phone. For the full experience I recommend reading this from a computer. Thank you and good luck!
Beth and I got married last year and knew all along that we could not afford to go on a honeymoon right away. Have you paid for all or part of a wedding lately? If so, you probably understand. We may have had to wait a year to go on our dream trip but that definitely didn’t stop me from planning. Planning a trip can be long, laborious, and frustrating. If done well, planning can ensure you have an amazing time. For more information on the planning process for this trip please reference the following posts if you haven’t already:
Night 1 into Day 2, MSP to LHR via KEF, Westminster: Beth had to work a short shift but I had taken the entire day off to finish packing and complete any last-minute planning. When she got home it was a bit of a mad-rush to make sure we were ready. Beth’s mom was kind enough to brave rush hour traffic and bring us to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP). We checked one suitcase each, which was free with Icelandair for bags under 100kg. Getting our luggage out of the car Beth claimed she thought the smaller of the two suitcases was heavier but the scale at the check-in desk confirmed that it wasn’t (and I was right). Neither of us had flown Icelandair previously but a free bag per person was nice in a time when a lot of airlines are charging for each checked bag. Filled with excitement but no dinner we sought the terminal Subway. I asked for honey mustard on my sandwich and when the current bottle ran out the woman decided that I was meant to have half of the next bottle on my sandwich.
Now fed AND filled with excitement we boarded our overnight flight to London via Reykjavik. We chose Icelandair because of a good deal online but with it came a short layover in Reykjavik. Other flight options were more expensive and included stops in Newark, Toronto, or (strangely, further to the East) Amsterdam. If saving a few dollars allows me to stop in Iceland, that’s a pretty easy choice. For my own future reference and yours, I found out on the plane that Icelandair offers long layovers at no extra charge for up to seven days. That means you could plan a trip to Europe and stay in Iceland for a few days before reaching the mainland without paying for two separate flights (see http://www.icelandair.us/ for details). Once on the plane we were delighted to discover that each seat had a personal screen for viewing TV shows and movies FOR FREE!! On a previous trip we got to watch a gratis episode of Friends before takeoff but once in the air you had to pay to watch. The free options on Icelandair during our trip included several episodes of Friends, Arrested Development, 24, How I Met Your Mother and a dozen other shows as well as 45 movies both classic and recent release. There was also a cool feature that allowed us to look at our flight path on a really detailed map (which I of course loved). So, with a pack of gum in hand for aiding ear-popping the plane took off and our honeymoon was underway!
In case you are wondering, the first six hour flight was plenty long. With the flight being overnight the hope was that we would sleep. I don’t know if it was travel-nerves or uncomfortable airplane seats but I could not sleep. Not a wink. The first few hours I watched Arrested Development and Friends and then switched to Horrible Bosses. I have seen Horrible Bosses a few times and own it so the plan was to fall asleep. When that plan failed I started watching X-Men Days of Future Past. Beth was able to sleep a little in short stretches for a total of about two hours. The plane landed in Reykjavik (KEF) shortly after sunrise and all hope of sleep was lost.
Our next plane was a few gates away in the tiny airport so there wasn’t much concern despite a quick transfer. We had an hour so we went to the bathroom and shopped in the Duty Free store. The bathrooms were quite nice but in a weird, European way. Other than the urinals in the Men’s restroom, every toilet stall had a personal sink and was fully enclosed with a door and walls from floor to ceiling for privacy. I much prefer that style to the common American design with gaps between the door and wall (complete with staring unhappily at other people’s feet). The Duty Free store had a number of Icelandic candy, booze, art, and souvenirs. Beth bought what she thought was dark chocolate but was actually milk chocolate with black licorice inside (gross). For breakfast I ate the second half of my honey mustard (and chicken) sandwich from Subway. Another passport check and we boarded the second plane. It was foggy but we were able to see the Icelandic countryside from the airport and a little bit as we took off. The parts I saw were green and untouched/natural. It was beautiful.
The flight to London Heathrow (LHR) was as uneventful as the first and still I could not sleep. My internal clock was functioning but my sleep button was broken. I turned to another movie, this time The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, part of which actually takes place in Iceland. Ben Stiller skateboards around and barely escapes a small town during a volcano eruption. It’s a good flick. Beth found the most comfortable sleeping position for her was with arms folded and head down on the tray table. She also noticed several other people using this method throughout the plane. I didn’t mind the overall Icelandair experience but maybe there is something left desired with their seat comfort. At least they gave everyone a blanket and pillow on the overnight flight. When we landed in London around 11am local time we had to walk a long distance from the plane to customs. After another three hour flight we had been sitting most of the day and my left leg seized up. If you’ve read my recent posts you know that I hurt my ankle at the end of July and was off my feet for the better part of August. I lost a lot of leg strength. My wound healed completely before the trip but my ankle and knees were not 100%. After a mile walk/hobble to customs we waited in a big line and got our passports stamped (yay!). From there we were on our own in a foreign country and had to figure out how to get to our accommodations. With a bit of wandering we found our way to the tube (subway) station below the terminal and found the ticket window.
Before I go on I should talk about London Public Transportation options. My research before the trip found conflicting opinions about the various options for using public transportation in London. The three different ways to buy tickets include buying single tickets when needed, putting money on a re-loadable Oyster Card, or buying a Travel Card for the amount of days and zones needed. Londoners typically use the Oyster Card unless they only use the tube sparingly, then choosing to buy single tickets when needed. The Oyster Card works well for locals but has different fares (peak vs. off-peak travel) and you pay for every trip. The Travel Card was a way better option for us because it works for unlimited travel via tube or bus throughout the zones chosen. The Travel Cards vary in price based on number of days and number of zones. We each purchased a seven day Travel Card for Zones 1-2, which covers the main tourist areas and where we were staying in Zone 2. The Travel Card does require a minimum £5 balance to purchase it but that amount is applied to your trip from the airport which is outside Zones 1-2. Finally, any money left on your Travel Card from the initial £5 can be refunded at the end of your trip if you take the time to do so (which we didn’t). Which option works for you completely depends on the type of trip you are planning. Beth and I knew we wanted to see a lot, all over the city, and did not want to be hampered by peak vs. off-peak prices and trying to decide if taking a particular ride was worth the money.
So we bought the Travel Cards and boarded the first Piccadilly line train towards the city. We had our bulky luggage so we ended up standing but we were just happy to be abroad. We transferred to a train on the Northern line after a lengthy walk at Leicester Square station. London is pretty big but the trip was only about 45 minutes including walk time. The place where we booked a room was a private residence listed on Airbnb near the Kennington underground station. Our Airbnb host left us very specific instructions on how to get to their home that we then followed. Beth had downloaded the directions and my itinerary documents on her phone so we could access them without internet. We got our key and brought all of our stuff up to the r
oom on the second floor. When searching on Airbnb I specifically looked for listings with an en-suite bathroom. This particular house was a three bed and two bath meaning the other room, also available for rent on Airbnb, shared a bathroom with the owner. The room was on the small side but I had come to understand this was the norm in Europe. There was a wall-mounted TV with forty or so channels and a big dresser for storage. At this point, we both took a nap. I was working on no sleep and Beth a few hours so it was nice to rest in an actual bed for a while. We slept for about three hours before I forced myself to wake up.
We knew it would be tough to see much the first day on little rest but we didn’t want to waste the whole day either. To really start our London experience we decided to go see Big Ben, or more accurately the Elizabeth Tower that houses the bell known as Big Ben. The tower is part of the larger Parliament building called Westminster Palace. The palace is right on the River Thames about two miles away from where we were staying. We took the tube (I still like saying that) with one transfer to the Westminster station. A lot of the tube stations in central London have multiple exits on all sides of the station for easy access and I kid you not, the exit we randomly chose leaving the Westminster station brought us up right underneath Elizabeth Tower. It was five feet away on the other side of a wrought iron fence. The surrounding area was packed with other tourists. We walked across Westminster Bridge and were able to see the Tower, Parliament, and the London Eye ferris wheel across the river. It was a grey cloudy day but it didn’t rain like you expect it would in London. We walked back across Westminster avoiding large crowds of people and a few street hustlers running games of Three Card Monte (yes, right on the bridge). We then turned East and walked along the North bank of the Thames where we passed the Battle of Britain Memorial. It was really cool with 3D sculptures popping out of the flat rock of the memorial. Further down the block we both expressed an interest in eating dinner and turned away from the waterfront in search of restaurants. At first the only one we saw was another Subway but a few blocks down Northumberland Avenue we happened upon The Sherlock Holmes, a memorabilia-filled restaurant and bar. Beth ordered the fish and chips while I had the lemon chicken. I do not like ordering bone-in meats at sit-down restaurants because you have to use your hands but it didn’t say anything about a full chicken thigh on the menu (oh well). Beth’s fish was fantastic and she also ordered a beer, something with “Bonkers” in the name. When we paid our bill they had previously run the total without a tip added and when we inquired they said not to worry about it. I wish restaurants in America were the same way. Waiters must get paid better there. We walked back to the river and back towards Westminster. The London Eye and the Aquarium behind it were lit up blue while the Elizabeth Tower was lit with spotlights emphasizing it’s gold and green exterior. After the tube ride back to Kennington we bought some sandwich ingredients at a Tesco Express so we’d be prepared for lunch the next day. Still without much sleep we gratefully collapsed. End of day two.
Total Distance Walked 9/20/14: 5.9 miles (using data from Beth’s Fitbit)
Day 3, London Architectural Open House: Once a year for a weekend in London, several hundred buildings, normally closed to the public, are opened for free entry. Some of them are private residences of architectural note or recent remodel, some are government buildings, and some are historically influential but normally closed to keep them protected. Our visit to London corresponded with this year’s Open House so I pulled together a small list of buildings I wanted to visit. From 700 I chose ten with the understanding that we would visit as many as we could on Sunday, 9/21, the last day of the event.
Still tired from the previous day we got a late start and woke up at 10am. I made bagels and toast for breakfast (bread and several flavors of preserves were provided as part of our Airbnb stay with this host) and prepared a bag lunch with the groceries we bought the previous night. We had not bought condiments and our hosts didn’t have mustard or mayo so I ended up creating four pretty terrible sandwiches, which we discovered later. While in the kitchen I met a couple from Argentina that was staying in the other room available for rent. They spoke English very well and we discussed sightseeing plans and futbol. I would have been useless in that conversation if I didn’t love the Olympics and World Cup so much. I got Beth moving and out the door. We took the Northern to Waterloo station intending to get back to Westminster for a few Open House locations but the Jubilee line was closed for maintenance. I asked a worker if it was faster to walk than take a three-train detour necessary to reach Westminster and he confirmed my hunch. We walked North from Waterloo to the London Eye and back across Westminster Bridge towards Parliament. We circled Parliament Square which is surrounded on each side by Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey, the UK Supreme Court, and the Treasury Department. I took pictures of everything, including the statues of important figures in the square, but we quickly left in search of the first Open House building. Located two blocks away, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was built in the 1860s. The line was about 40 people deep but went fast. We got close to the front and a random security guard came up to us and said there was room for five more people in the express security check line. A guard swept us with one of those portable metal detection wands and we got through in about a minute. I don’t know exactly what the people working in this government facility do but the building itself is gorgeous and grand. The hallways were
marked with signs to guide visitors along a particular path but we were allowed to move at whatever pace we wanted. The hallways were wide and marble-filled. There was a bookcase in one of the halls that was filled with old copies of international law books. At the center of the building was a courtyard with a modern glass ceiling. Inside the courtyard were statues and incredible columns. Balconies on two sides allow access to the courtyard from the second floor as well. Back inside we climbed several beautiful marble staircases and toured ornate conference rooms. The ceilings were my favorite part in many of the rooms. The picture above is one of the state rooms for hosting foreign guests. The blue and gold ceilings and walls are beautiful. I don’t think that design would fly with the average living room, of course, but for a government building the effect was quite impressive. On the way out there was a parking lot we passed through where photography was not allowed because there were government employee (and possibly spy) vehicles parked there.
From the Foreign and Commonwealth Office we walked East down Whitehall. It was confusing but there were tons of people
parading protesting across the street. Some were in costume and most had signs for their cause – the environment. I read the next day that this was part of a worldwide environment protest where participants focused on whatever piece of environmental awareness they wanted. We saw dudes in panda suits, a “save the yeti” sign, people slamming UK Prime Minister David Cameron, anti-fracking signs, legalize marijuana pot-heads and lots of screaming/chanting people. This London protest was apparently led by actress Emma Thompson but we did not know that at the time and did not see her. I was taking pictures of the protests and the monuments to World War II along Whitehall when we looked left and noticed we were passing by 10 Downing Street, residence and workplace of the PM Cameron himself (the big fence and armed guards in riot gear tipped us off). We had to cross the street and through the protest to get to the next Open House location, the Banqueting House. It was designed by Inigo Jones in the neo-classical style and built in 1619, the only surviving part of the original Whitehall palace that burned down in 1698 (thanks Wikipedia). The ceiling in the Banqueting House is painted with nine huge scenes. For the Open House they had a bunch of bean-bag chairs out on the floor so people could lay down and stare up at the incredible art. Beth and I chose to sit along the wall and just rest our legs. It was a gorgeous sunny day in the 70s (Fahrenheit) so we were hot and tired. From there we walked back across the street to Horse Guards Parade.
There wasn’t a changing of the Horse Guards occurring at the time so we didn’t get to see any horses. The line to get in to see behind-the-scenes was really long so we just looked around outside. The gravel area where the horses perform is expansive enough to house the temporary beach volleyball structure for the Summer Olympics, which it did in 2012. Across Horse Guards Road sits St. James Park complete with small lake and wild bird habitat. Beth really likes birds and on this occasion was giddy upon seeing the swans and some black ducks with white bills we don’t have in Minnesota. We walked West and saw another line with a large green Open House sign so we went inside. The Treasury wasn’t as open as other buildings in this event, however, and after seeing three large rooms, the lunchroom and a massive courtyard with a reflecting pool we were done and back outside. It was 3pm when we booked it for the last place we could likely see before the end of the Open House operating hours. The line for Admiralty House was really long. We waited an hour to get in. During the wait I went to a souvenir shop and McDonalds across the street in search of a bottle of water. I failed and settled for a chicken sandwich (they gave me a wrap but it was good so I didn’t care) and some ice cream for Beth. That McDonalds was crazy, by the way. The counter was only fifteen feet wide and without a set order everyone just crowds around the registers until an employee takes their order. Then, you stand there waiting for your food because it all comes from the small counter and no one else can order because you’re standing there in the way. It was a mess. They did sell cross-cut fries! After eating the food back in line for the Admiralty House I dropped the ice cream spoon on Beth. Luckily it didn’t cover her in chocolate.
Once inside we passed through a bag check and were told we were going to be given a short opportunity to walk through and not the usual guided tour. They said there were so many people that the last few tours were being eliminated just to get people inside before closing. It sucked. No tour meant we knew next to nothing about what were seeing and what we were seeing wasn’t that interesting to be honest. There were paintings and old furniture, certainly, but no walls or ceilings near as beautiful as the first two buildings we toured that day (and with eight times the wait). Even worse, photography wasn’t allowed inside. I love taking pictures, especially on vacation, so not taking pictures is really frustrating. We were disappointed by our Admiralty House experience and also hungry and dehydrated. Beth bought some water and a croissant from a Pret A Manger, which we eventually realized is a major coffeehouse chain in the UK. We
walked to Trafalgar Square and found a small opening along the fountain to sit down. Want an open bench to sit on? Forget about it. The area was packed with pigeons, tourists and panhandlers. Similar to what you might see on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, people in costume take pictures with tourists for cash. Trafalgar Square had not one but two Yodas on “floating” platforms. The second one was six foot five in addition to the platform that was two feet off the ground. His mask was awful and I don’t think he knew much about Yoda either because he was wearing construction boots. Sorry I didn’t get a picture, I didn’t feel like paying the weirdo. Rounding out the population of Trafalgar were some protesters that had also congregated near Nelson’s Column having finished their march past Downing Street. We ate the dry sandwiches I had made that morning and fed the pigeons (disobeying the signs). Nelson’s Column and the fountains look pretty nice but other than that Trafalgar Square didn’t impress me. The panhandlers were to be expected in a heavy tourist area I suppose but the aesthetic of the rest of the square sucked. There were three temporary shed-sized structures in the middle of the square and on one side a twelve foot blue rooster. Why? Who the hell knows. The whole place was tacky. It is considered one of the more iconic London sights but I wouldn’t plan to spend too much time there. After lunch we walked across the street to St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church and then around Trafalgar to Admiralty Arch. With the London Open House over effectively at 4pm we went back to our rented home for evening. We ended up watching Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on Food Network. There were tons of commercials for Jaime Oliver’s show called 15 Minute Meals where he was saying something stupid like “wazzy-wazzy-woo-woo”. We started using that phrase in casual conversation throughout the trip. Close to 9pm we walked about half a mile to get Indian food at a place called Ghandi’s. The tiny dining room was pretty packed (usually a good sign) except for a smaller room at the back where we ended up all alone. Beth got something spicy while I had the chicken korma, a milder, nut-based dish. We each kept half our meals as leftovers and walked back in the pleasant night air. End of day three.
Total Distance Walked 9/21/14: 7.5 miles
Day 4, Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour: [DISCLAIMER: Assume there are Harry Potter book and movie spoilers throughout this post starting right now] The big day! If you know Beth or me personally you know we are both huge Harry Potter fans. The Studio Tour is actually one of the major reasons we decided to visit London on our honeymoon. Beth’s sister and brother-in-law, Val and Dave, got us tickets for Christmas and we were able to book a date and entry time months in advance. It was one of the only things on the trip that was set in stone on a specific day, Monday 9/22. We woke up nice and early and prepped for the day.
Beth bought tickets online for the train needed to get to the city of Watford where the movie studio is located. It took about half an hour on the Northern line to get to Euston station where they have both underground and overground trains. A train arrived as we were waiting in line to print out our tickets and 200 people flooded the platform all at once. It was chaos. A station employee had to help us figure out which platform to go to but once there we did see a few other fans, some wearing Potter t-shirts. I was wearing a green sweater that I bought before the trip but underneath I had a crimson Ron Weasley Quidditch t-shirt. The train arrived and I got to read a London newspaper that was left on my seat. An article I read about a storm in Latin American that caused a couple to go missing sounded like something out of Jason Bourne movie. Seriously, he clearly had a military background and his body wasn’t found. Clearly a spy. Twenty minutes later we were in Watford, the first stop. The only thing of note visible from the train was Wembley Stadium. We walked out of the train station looking for the Harry Potter-decorated shuttle bus when suddenly, simultaneously, we realized we had forgotten our tickets. I don’t know if the price of shipping the tickets was included in what Val and Dave paid for but we had forgotten the damn tickets in the suitcase an hour/two trains away. They were in an envelope in our luggage.
Understandably, we got super nervous. Beth said she felt like she might throw up. She turned on mobile data on her phone (which she added for international use only for emergencies) and pulled up an email from Dave containing the confirmation number. It was still a possibility th
at we would have to buy more train tickets and go back (losing two hours) but there was still hope. We decided to board the shuttle and try our luck at the Studio. “Certainly other travelers had done the same thing or lost their luggage. They must have a backup plan. If we have to pay a fee to re-print the tickets we will pay it, anything to not have to go all the way back” I said to calm down our nerves. The bus was full so we had to stand. We were both anxious and it was hot as hell in there. When we arrived at the Studio Tour we got up to the will call booth (you can’t buy tickets at the door, they must be purchased in advance and scheduled) and told the woman we didn’t have our tickets. She pulled up our booking confirmation with the number and within seconds had printed our tickets. They were beautiful. We were so happy that we were finally at the Studio Tour and able to get in despite our stupidity. Inside, the large lobby was decorated with character posters and a few set items like the blue Ford Anglia from the second movie and the cupboard under the stairs from the first. We had to check Beth’s purse with our bag lunches before getting in line but considering how heavy it can be, Beth was relieved.
Our ticket was marked for entry between 10am and 10:30am, the first tour of the day. About 100 people start the tour every 30 minutes and, evidently, only a certain number of people are allowed on the tour on any given day to keep the experience positive for everyone. They did let us in a little before 10am. At first, a tour guide with a charming British accent led our group into a small dark room. On the walls eight screens showed Harry Potter movie posters in multiple languages on rotation. They showed us a welcome video featuring the main actors of the film series; Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. Radcliffe ended the video with a joke about the tour potentially ruining the magic of Quidditch for us. After the video we entered a larger room with eight rows of theater seating. We watched a behind-the-scenes video with more cast members and at the end the screen rose revealing a large door surrounding by suits of armor. The door was the entrance to the Great Hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They didn’t say if the doors were the ones used during filming but either way it was bad ass. Everyone hurried up to the door and the guide chose one person with a birthday that day to help open the double doors. Once through we were standing inside the Great Hall (the cafeteria and event space for those of you unfamiliar (actually if you’re unfamiliar it might be beneficial to skim this section and pick up with Day 5)). THE Great Hall. Finally. Awesome. It was really big. They had a few long “house” tables remaining in the hall, one covered with dishes from the films. They probably appeared on screen for a minuscule amount of time yet they were highly detailed. There were mannequins wearing actual costume pieces the actors wore all over, including Harry Potter’s school robes from Sorcerer’s Stone and Neville Longbottom’s sweater from The Deathly Hallows Part 2 (both seen above). After a few minutes in the Great Hall the guide ushered us to the next room so they could bring in another group of people. Not to worry though, they said we could come back in if we wanted to explore more, which we did, twice. At the front of the hall were mannequins for the professors including Dumbledore, Snape, Hagrid, Flitwick, Moody, etc. Outside of the Great Hall was the first small area of a huge room filled with Harry Potter awesomeness.
After an area dedicated to the producers and screenwriters we saw a costume and makeup display. There are wigs labeled with the character name, rub-on Dark Mark tattoos, and facial applications like Harry’s scar and Wormtail’s moles (which were disgusting). A guide talked about the items and answered all of our questions (and we had a lot). She knew so much it was possible she was a makeup artist on the films. Apparently there was one extra that spent five hours a day for two weeks having full upper-body tattoos applied for a scene that was eventually cut from the movie. How sad. Daniel Radcliffe underwent several different types of scar makeup for his role. It started as simple makeup that would wear off really fast but over the years they switched to a glued synthetic piece that lasted four hours. The wigs were perhaps the coolest and creepiest part. The actors couldn’t keep their real hair perfect for the sake of continuity so most of them wore wigs (the main characters at least). For his role as Draco Malfoy, Tom Felton originally dyed his hair white-blonde from his original brown. Repeated dyeing every week caused a lot of damage to his hair so he also went to a wig, although she didn’t say after how many movies he changed. The reason I say the wigs were creepy should be obvious. Look at the picture of Alan Rickman’s Snape wig at right. Wigs on mannequin heads are creepy, especially without faces. I don’t like things that should have eyes that don’t and things that shouldn’t have eyes that do. Icky!
After the costume and makeup area we walked over to Harry and Ron’s Gryffindor dormitory. The room certainly looks a lot smaller in person. It must have been difficult to film in such a small area with 1-5 actors and crew. The props and decorations in the room were neat. The beds looked like they may have just been sloppily made by a teenage boy and magical props like Ron’s Chudley Cannons banner were everywhere. Each boy in Harry’s year also had a truck with their initials on it. Nearby the dorm there was a giant cauldron, Dolores Umbridge’s Educational Decrees, Yule Ball decorations, the Goblet of Fire, the front gates of Hogwarts, and an optical illusion used to film the Leaky Cauldron hallway (10 feet long made to look 50 feet long). Did I mention this tour was really cool? I saw a child asking one of the guides about his Harry Potter passport and asked her about it. She said they are normally only given to kids but she could get us some too if we were really big fans. The passports had six pages with stamp presses spread throughout the tour and luckily we hadn’t missed the first one. There was no shortage of interesting things to see. In the middle of the next room there was a fenced area filled twelve feet high with props. Some of the items inside included candelabras, random trophies, old phonographs, canoe paddles, Hogsmeade signs, flashy chandeliers, stacks of books, skeletons, armor, and medieval weapons. In a glass case stood the Triwizard Cup, the Golden Egg, and the Goblet of Fire from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In another case they had Voldemort’s horcruxes including the cup, locket, ring and diary (complete with basilisk fang). A third case had an assortment of other iconic props from the films including the Sorcerer’s Stone (called the Philosopher’s Stone in the UK), Rita Skeeter’s notebook and quill, the Marauder’s Map, Sirius Black’s Azkaban number, a time turner, a snitch, Dumbledore’s deluminator, Neville’s remembrall, and the creepy shell cup from the end of Half Blood Prince. What I wouldn’t give in order to grab one of the moving trunks and fill it up with whatever I wanted and take it home. I have to start saving up so I can buy some set props if they ever auction some off for charity (hopefully they wait until we can win the lottery).
In the next corner of the room was the Gryffindor common room. I told Beth I was house shopping for potential furniture and decor. I want to find similar armchairs for our living room but I’m going to need to spend a lot of time in used furniture stores or just pay to have them custom made to match. I probably won’t pay to match the wallpaper though. There were more mannequins wearing costumes from the movies like Harry and Ron’s Christmas sweaters from Molly (available for sale in the gift shop if you’re interested). Again it was surprising how small the room was. I know they were kids when they started but it would be a tight fit for twenty or more teenagers to film in there during later years. Next to the common room was the portrait of the Fat Lady (entrance to the common room), the Mirror of Erised, and the giant swinging clock from the front of Hogwarts. After that came Dumbledore’s Office. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios: Islands of Adventure also had a version of his office but this was the real thing. The detail, again, was fantastic. All of the shelves were filled with old books and magical objects like the pensieve, the sorting hat, and the sword of Gryffindor. Both actors to play Dumbledore (Michael Gambon and Richard Harris) were represented by mannequins, which was a nice nod to the late Richard Harris. Across from the office was the Potions classroom. Each wall was filled with ingredients students might use and the tables contained magically-stirring cauldrons. Next to that was a display about the animals used during filming. There was a picture of each animal actor and a description of how often they appeared. For example, there were several white owls used for Hedwig. Each one was trained for a specific purpose such as flying or sitting calmly in a cage. There were also multiple black dogs and orange cats featured for Fang, Padfoot and Crookshanks.
The next section was the burrow. In this instance a sign said a larger set of the Weasley house was built and later destroyed for production (they blew it up for Half Blood Prince). The original set was 50 feet tall and barely fit
inside the studio. In the books, of course, the burrow was seven stories tall and only held up by magic. In this smaller set stood costumes from each of the Weasleys. On the left side was the magical clock with a hand for each family member pointing to their current whereabouts such as “school”, “work”, or “mortal peril”. It was a lot of fun seeing this living room and I continued my house shopping. I want that clock. Maybe I could invent one that works with GPS tracking of cell phones. Anyway, nearby was Hagrid’s hut (complete with furs and dragon egg), the circular snake door from the Chamber of Secrets, Remus Lupin’s trunk, a Quidditch set, the mechanical front doors of Hogwarts and Mad Eye Moody’s seven-layered trunk. A guide told us that the snakes on the Chamber of Secrets door (pictured) actually move using bicycle chains attached to motors. Apparently it is really loud when operating. Suspended from the ceiling were a Gringotts rail-car and Sirius/Hagrid’s flying motorcycle. In a smaller room off to the side was an interactive section where you can ride a broomstick. Photography was not allowed (boo) but they had six booths of brooms in front of green screens. They also had one light blue Ford Anglia that you could pretend to drive. Each booth was manned by a teenager telling participants how to move while the computer filled in the background. Beth and I did both the car and the broomsticks (because why not) and afterwards they let you see the pictures and videos you made and try to sell you copies (we passed, too expensive).
The final section of this huge studio, the first of two on the tour, contained a wall dedicated to the bad guys and the Ministry of Magic (who are occasionally the bad guys too). First there were mannequins for the costumes of the main bad guys; Voldemort, the Malfoy family, a Death Eater, and a snatcher (the hipster one with big boots). A cabinet contained a dozen Death Eater masks, which according to one of the guides were made out of metal for acting and rubber for stunts. Each Death Eater had a specific mask that somehow matched the rest of their outfit giving the person an individual identity. In the middle of this space stands the Magic is Might monument from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. The monument, of course, was placed in the Ministry when the leadership was infiltrated by Voldemort and his followers. The monument shows muggles (non-magical folk in the books) being crushed by magic showing the power and might of witches and wizards, clearly the monument of jerks. It isn’t as big in person as it appears in the movie but it was still 12 feet square at the base and maybe 15 feet tall. Beth had found another guide nearby and we talked with her for almost half an hour about various things. The monument is mostly hollow and made of plastic. The muggle figures are the same twelve molds repeated. It took a long time to make. We discussed general Harry Potter fandom and she even lobbed a few trivia questions at us, which Beth answered with ease. She also offered us passports because she liked us but we obviously already had that covered. On one wall of the space was the Black family tapestry from 12 Grimmauld Place, complete with scorch marks. The opposite wall had the green-tiled fireplace entrances to the Ministry of Magic which were fairly tall. Next to that were five different costumes worn by Dolores Umbridge, played by Imelda Staunton. The outfits were varying shades of pink. What an evil, vile character.
The tour works on a one-way system so once you leave the first studio you cannot go back. We approached the exit from the first studio with a lot of apprehension. We had been there for three hours and forty-five minutes and lingered in every corner. The guides that we had chatted with said the average person spends two hours total at the studio tour (the record is 13.5 hours but that was set on a summer day when the tour is open longer). Considering we spent two full days from open to close at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, it was rough for us to leave. A video of Rupert Grint by the exit told us to check out the second half of the tour and we walked through the doors.
Outside the first studio is a courtyard. We bought sandwiches and butterbeer from the little food stand and looked around for a seat. All the tables were filled but there were some chairs available in the shade. It was a little chilly this particular day and the sun, where available, was the saving grace. Butterbeer, if you haven’t had it, is a delicious vanilla and caramel based drink. The theme park in Florida has a drink, a frozen drink, and now an ice cream. The version in Watford is just a little more bubbly but both are really good. If they bottled the stuff and sold it worldwide I would be a customer. When we finished our snack we explored the courtyard. This area has a few of the larger props and sets. We got to cross the Hogwarts footbridge (the one that Neville and Seamus blow up during the battle in Deathly Hallows Part 2). They only built sixty feet of the bridge for filming but it looks much longer on screen. Next to the footbridge is the Potter family home in Godric’s Hollow. The roof has a hole and debris as proof of the explosion caused by Voldemort’s backfiring spell (the one that failed to kill Harry and gave him that trademark scar). Next door to the Potter house, in this lot anyway, is the Dursley’s house at Number 4 Privet Drive. I wish we could have gone inside. On the other side of the yard sits the Knight Bus. It doesn’t look like a full triple-decker bus like it’s supposed to be but most things on the tour seemed smaller in real life. You can go inside the back door of the bus in order to see inside. A shrunken head with dreadlocks still hangs near the driver’s seat. Over by the food stand they have replicas of the flying motorcycle and Ford Anglia that you can sit in and take pictures. Beth sat on the motorcycle so I got in the sidecar. It quickly became obvious to me that the sidecar wasn’t meant for adults because I couldn’t sit all the way inside it, my legs were too long. We had the person we asked to take our picture take one anyway. Just before the door to the next studio the chess pieces from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sit larger than life. Each piece stands about ten feet tall. I want one. Hell, I want the whole set.
The first room inside the next studio is the Creature Shop. Within this room is every magical creature and character imaginable. There is an entire wall of Gringotts goblins for example, or at least the masks the actors wore. A video on two walls is hosted by Warwick Davis, actor behind the characters of Professor Flitwick and Griphook. Along with two special effects guys whom I do not remember, Warwick talked about the efforts required to make the creatures and characters come to life on screen. Towards the end of the video he picks up a remote control and controls an animatronic Hagrid head. Why a Hagrid head? Apparently, Robbie Coltrane didn’t play Hagrid in non-close up shots. A tall stunt man instead wore an animatronic Hagrid head providing extra height and a realistic Robbie Coltrane image. The next time you watch the movies you may notice just how often Hagrid is seen but not up close in establishing or background shots. Pay attention because that probably isn’t Robbie Coltrane. Also in the Creature Shop there were creepy plastic body replicas of some of the characters. Apparently they were used during production to test lighting and stuff but seeing a full scale Daniel Radcliffe clone was creepy. They also had Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, and Hagrid. Slightly less creepy objects in the room included a mermaid, Dobby, Kreacher, a dragon (approx 1:20 scale), a thestral, a box of assorted owl feathers, and the shark-head of Victor Krum from the second task of the Triwizard Tournament. In a glass case there was an odd contraption with the head of a werewolf. The backpack had robotic features to move up and down and side to side so David Thewlis or a stunt man could provide a proper werewolf performance in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Also in the room was a moving Monster Book of Monsters, the souless Voldemort baby, a dementor, Fawkes the phoenix, a squirming mandrake, Grawp’s head, and hanging from the ceiling an inflated Aunt Marge. In the next room off of the Creature shop were some of the largest creatures. A full-size Buckbeak, a hippogriff, moves around and bows, again at the control of Warwick Davis in a video. From the ceiling a ten foot wide Aragog stares down at passersby, a scary sight for spider-haters like Beth and me. Of all the creatures, I am glad Aragog doesn’t move. I may have freaked out.
Past the creatures is the Diagon Alley set where Beth started talking to another guide. We again talked to her for half an hour. Unless all the guides were lying, they really do appreciate having conversations with fans to
pass the time instead of just standing around. Some of the guides were extras in the movies too because they live close to the studio. One had a friend that was Emma Watson’s stand-in during lighting and sound checks. This guide told us that each side of Diagon Alley was moved back to accommodate the tour. During filming the walkway was much smaller like the description from the books. Because the building facades are made of fairly light materials they can be lifted and moved relatively easily. On one end of the alley sits Gringotts bank. The front columns are only about 20 feet tall but during filming can be made to look closer to 40. Perspective is pretty powerful in film production. Also on this cute street are the Daily Prophet, Eeylops Owl Emporium, Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream, Madam Malkin’s robe shop, Potage’s Cauldron Ship and Quality Quidditch Supplies. At the far end of Diagon Alley is Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes, the joke shop opened by Fred and George Weasley after they escape Dolores Umbridge in the fifth book. The front sign moves like it does in the movies with the arm tipping the top hat. Like the shops at Universal Studios, the sets were really fun to examine closely. The prop makers and set designers put so much detail behind each shop window even though they might never be seen on camera. Again, I would have no problem integrating elements of this street into our eventual home (the one we hope to buy this Spring/Summer).
A small room at the end of Diagon Alley contains blueprints, drawings and models. I really like maps and architecture so this room was really nerdy-fun (that’s a thing, right?). There were blueprints and set designs for buildings like Hagrid’s hut, the Burrow, the Durmstrang ship, Hogsmeade, and so many more. My favorite was the map of Hogwarts. You get a good understanding from the books where everything is but actually seeing a full map was awesome. I told the guide in this room that they should sell that blueprint in poster form. She agreed and said she had suggested this too. I hope she is one day successful and I can order one online. In the meantime, maybe I can re-create it on my own (I’ll get my grid paper!). Also in this room of models was a glass case of items used or worn by the actors. Two of the items were ID cards and credentials for the Ministry of Magic employees that Harry, Ron, and Hermione impersonate to get inside in the seventh movie. These credentials were never seen in the movies but were carried by the actors to add to their performance and make the characters come to life. There was another model room next with an art-covered hall in between. There were four or five paintings by four different artists and another twelve pieces by Andrew Williamson, whom quickly became my favorite. The paintings represent characters and moments in time from all of the books and movies like Dumbledore’s funeral, the dragon escaping Gringotts, Dobby, the Hogwarts Express, and a rainy Quidditch match. I took note of Andrew Williamson’s name so I could look up his artwork online and possibly buy some pieces. I found him on Tumblr at http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/andrew-williamson. I would advise checking out his work if you are a Harry Potter fan. His stuff is fantastic. So far I have been unable to find a way to purchase any of the concept art from that hallway. My research online did uncover that he provided the art for an HP book that we already own called Harry Potter: A Pop-up Book. That will have to do for now I suppose. The models in the next little room were great. Again, the architecture geek in me was enamored. Apparently these models were used to make sure set designs were functional and to test lighting and camera angles. There was a mini-Hogwarts, the Burrow, the Lovegood house, Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, Ollivanders Wand Shop, Bill and Fleur’s Beach Cottage, individual classrooms, the Quidditch pitch and a lot more. I can only imagine how much work went into creating these models. They were so intricate and really complicated for their size. Around the corner from the second model room was a big surprise.
The beautiful surprise was a 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts. Entry to the room is on the second floor and then a ramp goes down and around to the
bottom providing a 360 degree view. We circled the model after another half hour talking to a guide about the model and the overall tour experience (she told us they fill the room with a pine scent to increase the sensory experience). There are a few interactive screens on two sides of the model that teach you about its making. It was built for the first movie and was used for exterior shots in every film. It took a combined 74 years of manpower to build. It is 50 feet wide. Real gravel and plants were used for landscaping. Fibre optic lights inside the model make it look like life goes on within the castle. The room is lit with incredible theater lights that fade between nighttime and daytime every few minutes. The model can be taken apart in several large pieces if necessary, although it takes nearly a month to re-assemble if moved. The base is partially hollow. The design was inspired by three real castles in Scotland. It was breathtaking and I want one. Make it happen Santa!
I did my best to make sure I got a picture of every angle possible. I would take five pictures, walk ten feet and take eight more. Did I mention I want one? If I could look at it whenever I wanted I wouldn’t need to take so many pictures. Each part of the model was really cool including the herbology greenhouses, the Owlery, the boat house (added for the last film), the astronomy tower, the bridge (not in the books), the courtyards, and the great hall. The guide told us where the consensus said the four house common rooms were and pointed out Dumbledore’s office on top of the tallest tower. I WANT ONE! After what felt like an appropriate amount of time in the model room we entered the tribute room where each credited member of the cast and crew of all eight movies has their name on a wand box. We searched through the wand boxes to find all of the notable actors and directors we could. In the end we gave up missing a few names but we did see all the main actors, most of
the big name supporting cast, two of the directors and even J.K Rowling herself. I have to say it was nice for them to list all the crew along with the cast, giving them all the credit they deserve for their hard work on what turned out to be eight amazing films. The wand box room exits into the gift shop and officially ends the tour. We spent seven and a half hours in the two studios (Studios J and K if you’ll believe it) and it was time to leave. We would have kept looking for names on wand boxes but we no longer had the strength. In the gift shop Beth picked out a Hufflepuff t-shirt that I bought for her birthday and I found an item or two. We also got our souvenir guidebook which came with our gift tickets from Val and Dave (thanks again you two). Back outside we boarded the shuttle bus towards the train station. It was a dream come true marrying my wife and another visiting the Harry Potter Studio Tour. I’m glad we got to share in the experience together. They are filming three more J.K Rowling-written and produced magic-based movies there starting next year so I am sure we will go back when the tour expands. After two train rides and more walking our feet were sore and we were pretty tired. We didn’t want to go out so we finished our Indian food from the previous night. Food Network was on again. End of day four.
Total Distance Walked 9/22/14: 3.2 miles
Day 5, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, and Harry Potter Inspirations: Still with me? If you’re not a Harry Potter fan you can pick up here but as we are still in London don’t expect to be HP-free. Two Australian girls arrived to stay in the room vacated by the Argentinian couple and we met them during breakfast. We ended up talking to them for twenty minutes about Australia and the places we had been so far in London. They were also big Harry Potter fans as it turned out. They were headed for the Studio Tour and we definitely had some tips to share, the first and foremost being to talk to the guides. Beth sought out the guide in every room and we talked to them for almost two hours total. They had a lot of information to share. Beth likes to relax on vacation but Tuesday was not going to be one of those days. Actually, I will tell you a secret, very few days of this vacation would be relaxing. We flew all the way to Europe and I wasn’t about to sit around all day, especially with so much to see. This particular day we set our sights on Tower Bridge and the surrounding area. We ate breakfast, packed up my backpack with some snacks and walked to the underground. We took the Northern line from Kennington to London Bridge. To get to Tower Bridge we could have gone one stop further and transferred to another train to get there faster but it wasn’t that long of a walk. From the tube stop we walked across London Bridge to the North and turned East. You can see Tower Bridge from there with its iconic lift bridge. When the Summer Olympics were held in London in 2012 they placed the Olympic rings on top and showed that bridge a lot. Beth and I knew more or less which direction to walk but when we saw a tour group of twenty people walking we decided to tail them just to be safe. A nice walk in the quickly warming sun and I was ready to take off my outer layer as we arrived. I hate being sweaty and the backpack wasn’t helping. We saw the tour group go right up to the entrance but we needed tickets. Beth got in line and I took off my sweater. I asked how much the tickets were and she said something like £50 with the souvenir guidebook. Upon hearing the price I knew something was wrong. The Tower Bridge exhibition is supposed to be £9 per person and I knew it was discounted £2 because the West side was closed for renovation. After some short discussion I discovered we were outside the entrance for the Tower of London, not the Tower Bridge. Beth said she knew where we were and thought it was where we were going all along. I was relieved about the price of admission and the Tower of London was on the to-do list anyway so we went with it. We arrived right after opening and just before the first guided tour.
A group of about 100 people was gathered by the entrance and a minute later a man in a blue and red uniform walked to the center. He was a Yeomen Warder, also known as a “Beefeater”. David had a booming voice and self-deprecating sense of humor. He started out the tour explaining what a Yeomen Warder does and what the qualifications are. Apparently there are 37 of them at the Tower of London and they must be former military servicemen with at least 22 years of service (and a specific medal of good conduct). The Warders technically are responsible for caring for any prisoners but act as tour guides and guards. They also live on site within the walls of the Tower of London with their families for a paltry £100 per month for four bedrooms. He also said that no one knows for sure how they got the nickname Beefeater. Next he told us about the history of the Tower of London including the monarchs that lived there, the prisoners that stayed and died there, and the various uses for the facility (National Mint for example). Evidently, the first person ever held in the Tower of London prison was also the first escapee. He told us all of this from a bridge above a wide green space where the moat once was. The 13th century moat had become a cesspool of human waste and was drained and filled with dirt in 1843. It didn’t help that city ditches from the surrounding area emptied into the moat and then into the Thames. David said that filth would eventually be carried out to the North Sea and across the English Channel to France which he said gave him great pleasure. Everyone but the few French people in the tour laughed. I also found it really interesting that the tower behind us on the bridge was called Middle Tower because it stands where the middle of the moat once was at its original width.
Our group was led inside the fortress walls and David asked where everyone was from. He made fun of the French some more, congratulated the Canadians for being part of the Commonwealth, and said to us Americans that if we’d just paid our taxes then we could have been part of the Commonwealth too. He also cracked a joke about the exchange rate between dollars and pounds. We laughed along because he was charismatic and holding a grudge about the Revolutionary War would be pretty ridiculous. That exchange rate did hurt a bit sometimes though at $1.68 to the £1. David showed us to Traitor’s gate, a water entrance from the Thames to the complex. Kings and Queens would originally use this gate to enter by boat and go straight up into their private residences starting in the 13th century. Ann Boleyn was brought through Traitor’s Gate two weeks before her trial and beheaded at the command of her husband, King Henry VIII. Our guide then led us under the Bloody Tower (where we later saw a display of torture devices) and up a cobblestone sidewalk towards the site where six people were beheaded. Most people that were imprisoned here and then executed were brought to Tower Hill outside the walls but a select few were considered special enough that they met their end right next to the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula. A memorial notes their names and death dates surrounded by perfectly manicured grass called Tower Green. After a few more stories in this spot David set us loose. The tour is meant to provide a lot of great background information and basic understanding of the fortress layout. It lasted an hour and he gave us an idea of where to start the rest of our visit. We headed for the bathrooms but saw that the line for the Crown Jewels exhibit was super short and went inside.
Photography is not allowed inside the Crown Jewels building but luckily there are photos in our souvenir guidebook and online. We still had to use the bathroom so we didn’t stop to read all of the signs. Instead we opted to focus our energy on the shiny things, Beth’s favorite thing of the day. She had seen them as a kid on her family’s trip to London and at the time thought she was a future queen. She told me she wanted to touch the jewels as a child and that had not changed. The exhibit contains many articles of jewel-encrusted clothing, weapons, dishes, and furniture. A huge gold tea set stands out in my mind. There were nine different salt holders with dainty little spoons probably worth more than my car. A three foot wide golden punch bowl supposedly held over a hundred bottles of wine. The main draw of the crown jewel collection is the crowns, jewelry, and scepters. You know your jewelry is famous and expensive when they have jewels with names. Some of them include the Cullinan Diamond, Kooh-i-Noor (diamond), Black Prince’s Ruby, St. Edward’s Sapphire and the Stewart Sapphire. The main crowns and jewels are viewable in one chamber with a twenty foot moving sidewalk on each side. The moving tracks let people see the jewels in a timely manner but keeps the line moving efficiently. I could see how the line would get backed up behind some of the slow people we encountered. You are able to walk back to the start to see them again which we did on the other side. The crowns were smaller than I expected but people were also smaller when some of them were made. There is a crown and a scepter that each had a beautiful two inch long enamel dove (symbol of the spiritual authority of the monarch). A few of the glass cases were empty save for a sign saying they were currently on display in other royal places. A sign like that is also used whenever the King or Queen needs to wear or carry any of the jewels for ceremonies like the opening of Parliament or Jubilees. For more information on the Crown Jewels check out this website.
We finally got to the bathroom after that shiny detour. I said I wanted to look around at ground level first and then go up on the fortress walls but then immediately changed my mind. The sun was out and I wanted to get the best view from up top first in case the clouds rolled in later. The staircase to the Wall Walk is by Traitor’s Gate. Once you are up on the wall on the South side you pass through staged rooms in period style. This part of the structure was built by Henry III and his son Edward I starting in the 13th Century. With the cramped spaces often available in London you could tell someone important lived there. The furniture would be pathetic in terms of present day comfort but for their time they would have been the best. The fireplaces were grand and covered in gold leaf. Some of the windows were stained glass (see image below) while others were just tiny slits in the wall open to the air (now covered with glass in some of the rooms). The view of the River back then would have been nice but today they are really cool with the modern buildings and Tower Bridge. It crosses the Thames next to the Tower of London providing an excellent view in addition to the Shard, Europe’s tallest skyscraper at 1004 feet.
If the fortress was a clock you could walk counter-clockwise from 6 to 10 without leaving the walls. There are spiral staircases that might take you up or down ten feet but you do not hit the ground until the Northwest corner of the structure. In the East wall there are a couple rooms dedicated to a peasant uprising that we went through rather quickly. Next there were a few rooms where prisoners were once kept during the crusades. Catholic messages carved into the stone walls in Latin (now protected by plexiglass) were interesting. This area would have been better with one of the audio guides available for rent at the entrance but we did fine. The next two rooms in the North East corner of the wall were about the history of animals at the Tower of London and previous crowns of the Crown Jewels (now empty obviously). The Tower of London was once the home of the London Zoo before it moved to Regent’s Park on the North side of town. It also held animals when kings and queens lived there. It used to be fairly common for animals to be given as gifts. There were lions (another symbol of the monarchy), elephants, polar bears, horses, and lots of other species. From the East side we also saw some of the private residences of the Yeomen Warders. One of them had patio chairs and a laundry line on the roof, partially visible behind a wall. The last publicly accessible room in the wall, on the North side, was dedicated to the history of the British Royal Forces. Beth and I made our way back to ground level near the Chapel. It was closed to tours due to extensive restoration but they still have church services there normally. We again passed Tower Green and headed for the Bloody Tower. The tower is on the inside wall of the complex next to some more houses. One of the houses had a Royal Guard in full red jacket and black hat standing guard outside. There was a Beefeater nearby that I asked about the houses. The guarded unit belongs to the Queen but I’m sure she rarely goes there. The other houses along that courtyard also house Beefeaters. I told him it must be cool to live in the Tower of London and he said yes but countered with “15,000 tourists per day in your front yard can be a disadvantage”. We went inside the Bloody Tower where torture implements are displayed. I don’t need to imagine how much it would suck to be pulled apart by chains, I’ll just trust that it wasn’t fun. We were getting hungry so we went back outside. There we saw one of the signature Ravens of the Tower of London. David had told us that Ravens have been raised in captivity in the Tower since the 1600s. A superstition says that if Ravens were to ever leave the Tower, then it would fall, as would Britain. Charles II ordered that no fewer than six ravens should be housed at the Tower at any given time. There were eight during our visit, six official and two backups. Their wings are clipped so they can still fly but not long distances (which might be cheating the superstition). David said they were meat-eaters and we should feed them at our own risk because fingers look like sausages to them. This particular one had a lot of personality. We watched him for a few minutes and he walked and hopped around like he owned the place. He pecked at crumbs on the ground, sat on a fence, and squawked at people. I’ve seen bigger birds, obviously, like geese and swans, but these ravens are pretty big. Down at the base of the inner wall, Beth bought a muffin and some chai tea (which turned out to be really weak) while I had a ham and cheese croissant.
The last big sight at the Tower of London was the White Tower, built in 1080, which we saved for last. It stands at the center of the grounds and is the tallest part of the structure. The entrance is up a flight of stairs on the second floor but halfway up there is a marker for the two princes. The story of the two princes refers to King Edward V, age 12, and his younger brother. They were on their way to Edward’s coronation when they were intercepted by their uncle and imprisoned in the tower. The uncle became Richard III by claiming Edward was illegitimate (and having him murdered of course). The bodies were eventually found and DNA tested. Sorry you didn’t get to be king little dude. Up the steps you enter the White Tower which is dedicated to a large collection of armor. There is a ton of stuff. One wall is just silver chest plates. Another was shields and helmets. There were horse statues in horse armor, small guy armor, big guy armor, child armor (hopefully ceremonial), and international armor. Some of the big guy armor was for Henry VIII, famous glutton. There were swords taller than Beth. We went up a flight of stairs to the next floor where gifts were held from all over the world. Some of the gifts were armor and weapons, this time ceremonial and decorative. Others were things like bowls, pots, jewelry, golden frames, and statues. British monarchs are given a lot of art too but that is usually displayed in palaces and museums. I heard later in the trip that anytime the queen is given food it is donated to orphanages, which is good. Also on the level there were more swords and some huge spears with varying shaped tips (some were jagged just for the fun of it I guess). On the Northwest corner there was a toilet room called a Garderobe from the Norman time period. People would sit on a hole and their waste would go down a foot and straight out a hole in the wall. In the 14th century they had to put up a wall at the base of the tower to hide the landing area of the waste (sick). Up another flight of stairs there was a weird assortment of items including black powder barrels, a metal dragon sculpture, a sign about the Royal Mint, and replica weapons you can touch (but sadly not wield). The views out the windows on the top floor were really nice on all sides. To the South is the river and Tower Bridge, the North is the building holding the Crown Jewels and to the East and West the inner and outer walls with those beautiful four bedroom homes the Beefeaters inhabit. After seeing everything Beth followed the exit sign and led the way down a spiral staircase. Around and around we went not realizing that the exit was in the basement. Down five stories we finally reached a flat landing. There is one more room of muskets, cannons, and swords before the gift shop. I bought a postcard and used some of the British coins Beth’s dad gave us before the trip. For the most part we didn’t use cash in London. Most places accept credit cards and we only used the coins for small purchases. Once out of the White Tower we were basically done with the Tower of London. We spent one minute inside an exhibit of British war medals and we were ready to go. We exited via the South gate onto the riverfront.
A few hours after I originally thought we would go up the Tower Bridge we walked over it. There are twelve foot wide pedestrian walkways on both sides and one lane of traffic in each direction. The original plan, my plan anyway, was to go to the Tower Bridge first thing in the morning and go up inside. At the top of the bridge there is an exhibition on each side. The Western platform was closed for the entire month of September to put in a new exhibit. After five hours at the Tower of London, Beth and I decided walking across the bridge was good enough. On the South end there was a bridge administration office with a posted notice of bridge lifts. The roadway only goes up based on requests to this office. The only scheduled lift for the day had already passed so we walked back across the bridge taking a ton of pictures. One of the things you can see to the West is the HMC Belfast, a World War II light cruiser turned naval museum. Back on the North side of the river we walked along the East side of the Tower of London. The moat area was filled with red ceramic poppies. The flowers have been put into the ground one by one by volunteers to commemorate every British military fatality during World War I. The 888,256 flowers form an art installation that would grow every day until November 11th, the 100th anniversary of the end of the war. Eventually each poppy will be taken down and sold for £25 a piece. This installation will really make an impact, both visual and financial. At least £22,206,400 ($37,306,752 with the current exchange rate) will be donated and split between six charities. Very impressive. Beth and I next walked around the North side of the moat and crossed under the road to Tower Hill. We passed a shop called Traders Gate (get it?!). A permanent memorial there commemorates all the British naval deaths during both World Wars. We stopped for a granola bar break and rested our tired feet. There is what looked like a big church facing the Trinity Square Gardens but apparently it is actually the London Port Authority building. Beth and I took out my itinerary, my London guidebook, and a list Beth had made the night before of Harry Potter filming locations and inspirations. It was difficult getting up after ten minutes but at least we knew where we were going now. We walked down Great Tower Street half a mile towards a 203 foot tall Monument to the 1666 Great Fire of London. On the way there we were asked for directions to a shopping area but had to inform the woman we were also tourists. At least we were blending in enough for a tourist to think we were locals, or maybe she was so lost she was desperate. Oh well.
We arrived at the Monument and I mentioned how the location was pretty weird considering it is on a side street a block off the water. It would be much more picturesque along the Thames. I guess it makes more sense now that I know the location was where the fire started. People were walking up the stairs inside the column but the thought of climbing up and down twenty stories of spiral stairs in tight quarters wasn’t appealing to either of us. From the Monument we walked about three blocks North to Leadenhall Market. According to Beth’s research, Leadenhall Market was the main inspiration for J.K Rowling when she wrote Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series. The market is a grid of storefronts on sidewalks covered with a glass roof. It’s covered but not fully enclosed. The first film also used one of the storefronts for the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron. At 3pm the restaurants and sidewalk patios were filled with fancy business people in expensive suits. Do you think they realize they are dining (and smoking a lot) in the inspiration for Diagon Alley? Probably not, and that is just sad. Standing there, I fully understood how inspired Ms. Rowling felt. It was a cool place.
After a long morning at the Tower of London we were ready for a full meal. From my pre-trip research I knew Gordon Ramsay had a restaurant on this end of town and that it was his least expensive establishment in London. After a quick walk to Bank underground station (located next to the Bank of England) we rode the Central line one stop to St. Paul’s station. With unlimited use Travel Cards we took advantage in order to save us seven minutes of walking on empty stomachs. We walked to the restaurant which is in a posh shopping area. I wonder if that other tourist ever found this place. I was wearing my Captain America t-shirt so when we entered the front door I did ask the gentleman standing there if they had a dress code (they didn’t). The bar area is on the ground level but the main dining area is up on the third floor. The space has an industrial feel with high ceilings, open rafters, and catwalks between staircases. We were seated by a window overlooking the street. The place was pretty empty because it was way too early for dinner. I ordered the short rib beef burger with monterey Jack cheese and spicy sriracha mayo. The items are a la carte so I chose macaroni and cheese with garlic roasted crumbs for a side. Beth ordered the baked spinach, ricotta and artichoke cannelloni and a side of mashed potatoes. The restaurant had free wifi giving us something to do while we waited for our food. Our waitress brought us some bread and our meals actually arrived quite fast. My burger tasted great and the mayo supplied just the right amount of zip. The mac and cheese was my favorite. Not just my favorite item that we tried but also my favorite mac and cheese ever. Beth tried it and gave me a bite of her meal as well. She said the mac was top notch and her cannelloni was amazing. We ordered the blueberry bakewell tart with crème fraîche ice cream for dessert and I went to the bathroom, sorry, water closet. The only sign telling you which door leads to the water closet said “WC”. When I got back Beth told me that the restaurant manager had been around and had re-folded my napkin into a triangle. She had a trainee and showed her the proper napkin-folding procedure of MY USED NAPKIN because this place is so fancy everything must look good, even my used cloth napkin. It was crazy but also extremely classy. I do not expect that level of service and class from a restaurant but it is, indeed, impressive. Gordon Ramsay has so many businesses I would be surprised if he is onsite at Bread Street Kitchen more than once a year (if that) but I really would like to meet him some day. It would be an honor to have him insult my intelligence while flailing his arms and throwing something breakable. Maybe if I win the lottery I can hire him to cater a party. Speaking of winning the lottery, when we got the bill we found out there was a £2 cover charge per person our presumably free water was actually £2.50 per carafe. Our total bill was $100, certainly more than I like to spend for a meal. Good thing it was crazy delicious.
After our late lunch we had a few more things on Beth’s Harry Potter list to see before heading home. We walked from the restaurant toward St. Paul’s Cathedral down the street. I had the tour pricing in my itinerary information but it wasn’t a must to go inside. We only saw it from the South side as we passed through the adjacent park but it was huge. Beth and I turned South down a gradual flight of stone steps toward the river and the Millennium Bridge. This bridge was seen in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Three Death Eaters apparate (transport) into Diagon Alley, kidnap Ollivander the Wandmaker and before leaving they destroy the Millennium Bridge throwing dozens of people into the Thames. To see the scene check out this link. Actually, in several viewings of the movie I had not noticed that the baddies apparate past Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church on their way to Diagon Alley, and past St. Paul’s to destroy the bridge. I stopped the video a few times and recognized multiple places we visited in London in that two minute scene like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Treasury. Lots of movies are set in London. Looks like I have a marathon ahead of me!
At the base of the building St. Paul’s looks massive but it also dominates the skyline from the river. The main dome is 365 feet tall and sits on top of the highest point in central London called Ludgate Hill. According to my guidebook it was the tallest building in London until 1962. We crossed the Millennium Bridge which was quite busy with pedestrians at the start of rush hour. The temperature had dropped and the wind had picked up, especially over the water. I got a little nervous when some teenagers ran past me while I was taking pictures. The thought crossed my mind that I could lose my camera and the trip would be ruined. I’ll grant that my fear of heights may have been partially to blame despite being only thirty feet or so above the water. At the South end of the bridge is Tate Modern, London’s modern art museum. We did not go inside. Beth isn’t a huge art fan (more on that later) and I only appreciate it in smaller doses. Beth was cold having left her sweater in our room. She decided to push on as long as we kept an eye out for a good London sweatshirt for sale somewhere. Turning East we passed Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, a reconstruction based on the original Globe Theater, and crossed back over the Thames on the Southwark Bridge. Completing our 1.1 mile walk since lunch we arrived at Mansion House underground station.
Two stops down the Circle line, Beth and I got off at Temple to seek out Australia House, the Australian Embassy. Beth went inside a bar called Walkabout to use the bathroom. The Australian flags outside told me that we were close. One block away from the river we found Australia House. The lobby of the embassy was the filming location of Gringotts for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, when Harry first met a goblin and discovered he had a vault filled with wizard gold. Being an embassy for a foreign country it wasn’t an option to get inside but we did peek through the front door. The long marble lobby looked like the movie even from outside. Large chandeliers hang from the ceiling. It was really cool. We devised an elaborate plan to get inside that involved the Australians staying in the next room sneaking us in. They liked Harry Potter too, it was plausible. Anyway, with that there was only one more item on Beth’s list for the day, the shooting location for #12 Grimmauld Place. We walked another 0.3 miles North to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a road with really interesting brownstone buildings. This website lists some of the filming locations we saw. It is not the website Beth used to put her list together and it contends that a different location was used for Grimmauld Place. I choose not to care because at the time we didn’t know. At the end of our sightseeing for the day we headed for the nearest underground station, Holborn. As we approached the entrance a massive crowd was trying to get inside. Rush Hour in this area apparently starts at Holborn. Considering how far down below ground some of the underground train platforms are there was no way to know how long it would take to get through the line. We bailed and walked another half mile to Tottenham Court Road station. If we ended up on a train at Holborn we would have needed to transfer after one stop anyway so it seemed like the right decision. I was even able to buy some souvenirs in a shop we passed. Back at Kennington station twenty minutes later, I asked a transit worker for a pizza recommendation. We weren’t hungry yet but we wanted to be prepared to save us the trouble of going out later or trying to order in. It turned out there was a pizza place half a block down with fast takeaway (that’s what they call takeout in Europe). They even had a buy one, get one free offer on Tuesdays. It wasn’t the best pizza we’ve ever had but it was cheap. Not a bad day considering we started out going to the wrong place. End of day five.
Total Distance Walked 9/23/14: 9.5 miles
Day 6, Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens: I woke up first Wednesday morning to a light rain outside. Okay so I woke up first every day but this particular day it was raining. We planned to get out of the house early that day but it was certainly hard to get out of bed. I made bagels for breakfast and we eventually got ready to go. Out in the hallway we encountered the Australians and spent almost forty minutes talking to them. Neither of us wanted to be rude so we kept chatting but it was costing us time. After discussing their hometown of Perth, what they had seen the day before (the studio tour and a musical), kangaroos, platypi (platypuses?) and all the dangerous crap in Australia we finally got out the door about 11am. We brought our umbrellas but luckily for us the rain stopped for good about 30 seconds after we left. An entire week in London and we never used the two umbrellas we hauled with us. Considering the usual London weather we made out like bandits. After three short tube rides we arrived at Victoria station. A few blocks walk and we rolled up on Buckingham Palace. It was just after 11:30am when the Changing of the Guard ceremony started. There were people everywhere. The fence, what I could see of it, began between four and six feet off the ground and stopped about ten feet off the ground. Beyond the fence, in the front courtyard of the palace, I could see the occasional red shoulder and fuzzy black hat. One of the guards may have had a drum although I will admit I may have picked that up from auditory clues. There was orchestral music playing over the loudspeakers that sounded exactly like the Family Guy theme song. We could also see that Marvin from Louisville needed to give up on the comb-over. It’s not working Marvin and you are surprisingly tall! I could barely see anything and Beth was even less fortunate. Police officers on horseback were keeping the crowd on the sidewalk and off the service road, a circle in front of the palace gates, thus keeping the people-pile nice and compact. The sun emerged and it became steamy in the people-pile. Our fellow sardines were getting some really good footage of the ceremony at least. I saw several android phones held aloft as well as many versions of iPhones and iPads. Yes, iPads. I know they have cameras but that should NOT be your go-to recording device guys. There were even some enterprising youngsters in the crowd sporting extension arms for their electronic needs. You might think that these arms would help get a better view above the people-pile, and for some, yes, that was helpful. My favorites, however, appeared to have their arms down with the extension sticks up at eye level. These people were apparently sparing their arm strength for something more worthwhile down the road.
Faced with an insurmountable human-privacy-fence, copyright Bryan Knutson 2014 ©, Beth and I kept walking past the front gates towards the park. North of the palace is Green Park (super creative name if you ask me). There were a few other people in the park. Maybe they saw the Changing of the Guard from the front of the crowd the day before, it’s possible. It was nicer in the shade of the tree-lined paths of the park. There is a small monument to Canadian Mounties (because, reasons) and after that not much else except a beautiful public park. We crossed to the North side where I remarked that the property values of the buildings across the street must be amazing. Just think of living on the fifth floor overlooking a big park and Buckingham Palace. You could do worse. We chose another path back towards the palace and passed a bunch of green and white lawn chairs. There was a sign and a dude in a fluorescent vest renting chairs by the hour. A couple of teens were sitting in the grass twenty feet away in open defiance. Fight the power teens! Beth was hit by a leaf and I said she got a point. By the end of that day I had lost the “leaf hitting you” game 4-0 and had called it off. I learned my lesson to never start a game that I was already losing when it began. Back by the entrance to the park we stopped and read a sign about the uniforms the palace guards wear. Evidently each regiment has their own combinations of buttons and tassels. The decorative plumes on the fuzzy black hats also vary. The Irish regiment wears blue, the Welsh one wears green and white, and the Scots don’t have a plume at all. The ceremony had just ended and the people-pile had dispersed rather quickly. It was much easier to see the fence, which I then learned did in fact touch the ground, and we were even able to see through it! There were only two guards visible at the time and they were along the palace wall, nowhere near the fence. They periodically left their post and marched thirty feet and back. I did not get a chance to see them up close or try to make them smile. Beth told me a story of her family’s trip to London circa 1996 when her dad made a guard at Horse Guard’s Parade laugh and her mom caught it on film. I’m sure he still has the picture on a slide somewhere but I will not provide it here. With the area now shockingly clear of other tourists (how did 90% of them escape so fast?) we were able to take some pictures of our own and walk around freely. The horse-bound police were now gone and people were able to walk across the rarely used road without harassment. At the center of the circular road sits the Victoria Memorial, a giant marble sculpture dedicated to Queen Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837-1901. The sculpture is nautically themed (I do not know why) with mermaids and lions (land lions). The main sculpture in the middle is white with a gold figure at the top. It looked really great with a backdrop of large puffy clouds and beautiful blue skies (you can even see the London Eye in the distance). It was shaping up to be a fantastic day.
After a spin around the sculpture we decided it would be best to get our tickets for our palace tour. The ticket will-call is in a temporary tent around the South side of the palace. There were two lines in the tent for picking up tickets and the teenager working the front sent us through the wrong one. Typical. The person helped us anyway and got us our tickets. It was interesting, though, because all we had to do was provide our names. They didn’t ask to see any identification. We could have been Russian spies impersonating the Knutsons in order to break into the Queen’s residence to mess with her Netflix queue! With our tickets in hand we killed a couple minutes on a bench in the tent. We had granola bars and fruit snacks knowing we wouldn’t be eating during our tour. We also walked a block to a gift shop and checked out the souvenirs. Because we were at Buckingham Palace the souvenirs were pretty specific. There were tea sets, frilly pillows, and queen-faced everything. You’d think they wouldn’t want the picture of their cultural leader on so much stuff. Beth found a Paddington Bear book that she liked for her nephew Carter and my niece Peyton. I almost bought a small Buckingham Palace figurine that I liked but refrained. It was just before 1:30pm, our pre-booked entry time when we went through security. My backpack was passed through an x-ray conveyor and then checked. I held on to my camera even though I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to use it until we got back outside. The lady behind us got pinged on the metal detector. I assume she was a terrorist and they took her for execution out back. Once inside the actual palace we were given free audio-guides complete with 90’s headphones. Signs in each room of the tour tell you when to hit play on the next section. After a long hallway with sculptures, paintings, and a cool grandfather clock we emerged in a courtyard.
The courtyard (quite large) is enclosed except for a driveway on the far side. The audio-guide told us that the Queen’s private residence was on our left, including special spaces like the royal nursery where several royal children have been born and raised. Apparently Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms including 19 State rooms, 52 Royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff
bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms (House Hunters anyone?). We entered through the Grand Entrance (that’s it’s name) and saw the first massive room, the Grand Hall, approximate capacity 100. Next we walked up the Grand Staircase (because everything was grand). The ceilings were tall enough to accommodate 20 foot paintings on all sides. The frames were covered in gold and incredibly detailed. The bottoms of the paintings and the hand railings were protected from us “normies” by temporary plexiglass. I didn’t realize it until the end of the tour but the floors were also temporary. The room had beautiful wood floors with black trim and I could see the obvious piece of plywood in the walking areas made to match. I wonder where they store all the plexiglass, rugs, and perfectly-matched plywood when the Queen is in residence. Wait, got it, grand linen closets! Anyway, back to the staircase. The top of the staircase leads to a small anteroom for guards (no longer manned) and the Green Drawing Room. There were paintings of royal children throughout and a big wooden doll house from the 1800s (probably, I can’t remember). The next room was the throne room which was really neat. There were two thrones, one for Elizabeth and one for her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. The chairs themselves weren’t very large like the ones you see in movies. Surprisingly they were pink and the guide said they were made in 1953 in a 17th Century style for the Queen’s coronation. The overall room was large and opulent with vibrant red walls and gold accents everywhere. If I were the sovereign I would totally sit in there to watch movies or read a book. “Where’s the king? Reading Goblet of Fire in the Throne Room last I checked”.
Through the door on the left we entered the Picture Gallery, the first of four large art galleries. The room had high glass ceilings and was at least 80 feet long. I could see through the skylight where a more modern, possibly bomb-proof glass ceiling was built above the original. Several of the paintings in the gallery had their own track on the audio-guides too. I listened to a few of them while Beth went straight to the end of the room and sat on a bench. Remember how I said earlier that she wasn’t really into art? I don’t really go out of my way to see art either but it really bores Beth.She didn’t care that the art in this one room alone was probably worth a couple million Pounds. I don’t know a lot about art but I do remember there were some paintings of ships and harbors and a self-portrait of a dutch guy. I collected my wife and we progressed through a Silk Tapestry room and into another art gallery. This one was slightly narrower but still filled with a lot of rare, expensive art from around the world. I bet the Queen touches whatever she wants in there too. She’s been in charge for over 60 years, they’re not going to stop her. Off to the left of the gallery was a square room filled with historical items such as children’s clothing, toys, and a teddy bear (I rationalize that he was having a great time despite living behind glass two months a year because he likes to see all the people). A large group of people was pressed right up to the glass display across the length of the room making it hard to see much.
The next room on the tour is the Ballroom, the largest room in the whole palace, which was separated by a large screen. We entered the left side of the room first where a video was showing a timeline of the Royal Family lineage. There are three or four rows of theater seating along the wall that were roped off. Plain wooden benches sat in front for guests to watch the video but they were packed. It was another reminder that they didn’t want visitors to touch pretty much anything on this tour. The doors had plexiglass covers to protect the old, carved wood, but the doorknobs did not so I touched them. All of them. I have now touched at least one door knob that Princess Diana touched (probably, I can’t really back that up). Once the video started over we moved to a small hall along the side of the Ballroom where another screen was showing Royal Family photos. It was really interesting to see behind-the-scenes photos of these famous people just being normal. There were several pictures of Princes William and Harry playing as kids. The pictures were also an excellent reminder that the clothes in the 80’s were hideous. The puffy sleeves specifically were awful. This particular screen was in a narrow hallway and lots of people bunched up once again. Beth and I, eager to sit down for a minute, squeezed past some slowpokes into the other half of the Ballroom. This side also had a large video screen but showing home movies of Elizabeth and her sister as children. Even as a young princess and next in line to the throne Elizabeth was a cultural icon. She even hosted a radio show for the nation’s children. I think William and Harry should start their own TV show when Harry gets out of the RAF. My top three choices would be sketch comedy, a sports talk show, and a line-for-line remake of Seinfeld.
After our brief rest we passed through the smallest of the four art galleries into the dining room. A recreation of a birthday cake from the 1800s was on the table. I remember thinking that it wasn’t that big for a Royal Dining Room but I’m sure they could set up tables in the Ballroom or one of the art galleries if they needed to serve 100 people at once. The next room was the Blue Drawing Room and then we made it to the Music Room, my favorite on the tour. The Music Room doesn’t fit with the rest of the State Rooms. It is round with a dome-like interior ceiling. The chandelier was big and shiny as were the bright blue columns on all sides. The windows were open letting in the most amazing breeze. There was no air conditioning throughout the tour and it was a little sweltering at times. The Queen’s private residence likely has A/C if she needs it but I bet she keeps it super warm in there. Anyway, the Music Room has a grand piano and is where the members of the Royal Family would learn to play instruments and, funny enough, get christened. This room also had a curved balcony the length of the room. It was blocked off but I bet it would be really nice to sit there and enjoy the view of the perfectly manicured South lawn. More on that in a bit.
The last room that we saw on this floor was the White Drawing Room. The walls in the White Drawing Room were obviously white but the rest of the room was accented in gold. Everything from the furniture to the picture frames, crown molding, and ceiling was gold. An eight foot portrait of Queen Alexandra sits above a fireplace at the center of the Northwest wall. The audio-guide told us that one of the two cabinets on the either side of the fireplace concealed a door to the Queen’s residence. A vase and a candelabra on the cabinet are nailed down so they do not fall when the door is opened. The top of the mirror above the cabinet was not flush with the wall towards the top as though the last time the door was used it was not closed all the way. I wonder how many secret pathways and doorways the rest of the palace has. I did a bit of research about the Queen’s residence after our trip and found out that the Queen and the Duke each have their own bedroom, bathroom, dining room, hallway, and stairwell. They basically never have to see each other. I’m sure that will change whenever William and Kate move in 20-40 years from now. I wonder if they will be allowed to renovate their residence and modernize it. I don’t think it has it’s own kitchen. Staff prepare food elsewhere in the palace and bring it to them. I bet Kate Middleton likes to cook at least occasionally. They’ll have to put in some marble counter-tops (gold obviously) and stainless steel appliances HGTV-style.
The exit from the White Drawing Room goes through the Picture Gallery again and down the Minister’s Staircase to the lower level. There we saw the final gallery on the tour, the Marble Hall, which was filled with sculptures of varying origin. The audio-guide told a story about one of the items that said it had to be protected from the King’s guests of the time by glass because everybody kept touching it. The Marble Hall ran almost the entire length of the rooms above. It would have taken quite some time to see every piece up close but we saw what we could in a couple minutes. The last room we passed through was called the Bow Room. There were plush chairs everywhere but the audio-guide said that whenever meetings are held there with the Queen that no one sits as part of an old custom. The Bow Room has three wide double-French doors leading out to a marble staircase and balcony overlooking the Southwest lawn (the palace faces Northeast. We left the palace and were once again able to take pictures (yay!). The lawn and exterior of the building were beautiful. Professional athletes do not see such perfectly-manicured grass and the marble was enormous.
A temporary tent houses a cafe and tea-house for visitors but it looked too expensive to stop. I would love to see what the back of the palace looks like without the tent in the way. The marble walkway/patio must have been 25 feet wide and 150 feet long with a 20 foot wide staircase down to the sidewalk and grass. We walked along the sidewalk to two more temporary buildings, a bathroom and a gift shop. I know these structures serve a purpose but the palace would look better without them. I guess I’ll have to become President or the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom or something. After a bathroom break we popped into the gift shop where a teddy bear dressed like a palace guard became part of the family (we named him Harry for obvious reasons). The sidewalk then led us through part of the Queen’s Gardens to the Southwest. There were teenagers every thirty feet to make sure people behaved. A little lake provided an excellent view and there were very interesting trees everywhere. Our Buckingham experience came to an end as the sidewalk emptied onto Grosvenor Place along a wicked-looking security wall.
Beth and I walked Northwest to the Wellington Arch. The Arch sits at the corner of Green Park and the Buckingham Palace Gardens on a large traffic island. As we crossed the street heading up to the arch a police officer on horseback was going in the opposite direction. He saw me take my camera out really quick and saluted us for the photo! Very cool. Beth gave me a twenty minute warning that she was approaching maximum hunger levels as we left the palace so I spotted a bench next to a Machine Gunner Memorial where we sat for a bite to eat. She has a tendency to get a bit angry when she is hungry, a term the kids these days call “hangry”, so anytime she warns me I know I don’t have very long to get her some food. The sandwiches were a little better this time, at least good enough to prevent Beth’s hanger. She also created a bit of a pigeon situation with her crusts. There were no birds when we sat down but she threw her crusts in front of her anyway. Eventually one pigeon arrived and within a minute we were surrounded by thirty more. Beth postulated that this gang of pigeons had a secret signalling system for food because the scout didn’t even make a sound before his friends showed up. After our lunch and brief leg-rest we walked back around to the front of the arch, also passing a New Zealand War Memorial. Inside the Wellington Arch there was an open door on the left so we went inside. It turned out there was a seventy square foot bookstore. I knew we could pay to go up inside the arch if we wanted but it wasn’t clear how. The bookstore worker barely put his book down when we showed up so I didn’t ask him. There was a door that looked like it led to a stairwell but it wasn’t a huge draw for us to go up anyway. To the left of the arch we passed an Australian War Memorial and crossed the street towards Hyde Park Corner. We entered Hyde Park, a place Beth was really excited to visit.
Hyde Park is pretty damn big as we were about to experience. We walked Northwest from the entrance by Apsley House towards the Serpentine, a man-made lake roughly in the middle of the park. Even in late September the park was in pristine shape. Flower gardens along the paths were sculpted beautifully with dark purple leafy plants at the bottom and bright red flowers on top. We passed a father and son feeding the squirrels right out of their hands and Beth was really excited. Have I ever mentioned, dear reader, that my wife is adorable? She loves animals and got really excited at the thought of feeding a squirrel right from her hand. Up a small hill we walked up on a small cafe/coffee shop/gin bar along the lake. They had a large deck over the water with excellent views. I bet they absolutely rake in the pounds sterling. In front of the cafe there were half a dozen people feeding the birds. Once again Beth showed her true adorableness. Her face lit up at the sight of tall white swans in addition to Canadian Geese, ducks, seagulls, and pigeons. It was a bird-feeding frenzy. As you can see in the photo at left, the birds were everywhere, including flying in front of my face/camera on two separate occasions (evidence at left). I got a pretty good picture of Beth reacting to a bird startling her but I was forbade from posting it (I did save it for blackmail purposes). Not to be left out Beth led me inside so she could buy something to feed the swans. Not wanting to buy a big sandwich just for the crusts she opted for a bag of crisps (chips as we call them in America). They also sold cookies and muffins but baked pastries are far too delicious to give to birds. She started feeding the swans while I stood several feet back for my own safety. The geese proved to be the most aggressive by far. Beth had to go to the edge of the lake to feed the swans in the water where they could box out the geese with their larger bodies. She ran out of chips (I stole a couple) so we started to walk away. As we did we noticed a couple placing bread in between the legs of their toddler strapped in his stroller. We left before the inevitable police inquiry could delay our adventure.
Beth and I walked South and then West around the South side of the Serpentine. It was fairly windy with no cover from the North. We saw a few people walking dogs including a really tall Great Dane. Both of us began to really miss our own puppy back home. Modern day electronics did let us video chat with Beth’s parents one of the nights (I forget which) so we knew she was doing fine (and probably eating very well) but it was hard not to miss her. We passed another restaurant and then found the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. Not much of a fountain it was more of a flat water slide in an irregular oval. I don’t know who designed the memorial but it wasn’t a traditional memorial to a lost national icon. Water was flowing from the top of a gradual hill down to the bottom on two sides of the ring with small geysers in a few places. We saw (and Beth followed) a magpie, a cool looking blue, black, and white bird. After a quick trip around the memorial we headed back out of the fenced area and continued through the park. Over the Serpentine Bridge we continued Northwest, this time on the North side of the lake (now technically a different lake called the Long Water, although on a map it looks like a continuation of the Serpentine). Shortly thereafter we met what was either Dr. Doolittle or a crazy person. Doolittle guy was feeding the squirrels and birds from his hand. It was similar to the people from earlier except he was way better at it. He whistled and small chickadees flew right into his hand to get food. He clicked his tongue at a squirrel that then climbed up his pant leg to get a peanut. The rest of our walk, now heading North, we saw a cool arch sculpture overlooking the water and then walked through the Italian Gardens filled with flowers. We were a little tired having walked over five miles already so we took the tube one stop from Lancaster Gate to Queensway. This time and energy-saving move was quick and easy with our unlimited Travel Cards although we did encounter a small delay when one of the lifts was out of order in the second station.
Back at street-level we played a game of zitch-dog, a game made popular by Ted and Marshall on How I Met Your Mother. All you have to do is say zitch-dog when you see a dog. It is typically played in the car but that doesn’t stop us. We re-entered the park where we saw at least a dozen dogs and I am sad to report that Beth was quicker on the draw. It’s not like we kept an accurate count of our entire trip but she probably had me beat overall. We walked South on a large gravel path known as the Broad Walk. It was getting chillier causing a short pause at a Princess Diana Memorial Playground so I could put my sweater back on. I bought it right before the trip because my wardrobe isn’t very European-friendly. Most Londoners and Parisians dress a little, okay a lot, classier than I do. My job lets me wear t-shirts and shorts to work so I bought some nice new clothes before the trip and packed the fanciest of my shorts. Down the Broad Walk there were lots of locals enjoying the area. I know London is a very metropolitan city but I didn’t expect to see so many joggers. Who wears short-shorts? At least one guy we saw does. This half of the park is technically called Kensington Gardens but it’s contiguous with Hyde Park. Kensington Gardens is actually a Royal Park as it is the location of Kensington Palace which we walked up on. It was 6:00pm and the palace was just closing. I didn’t know this at the time but the park was also about to close in half an hour. Luckily we weren’t planning on sticking around much longer. We snapped some awesome pictures of the palace and the Queen Victoria Statue out front as the sun was going down behind it. Beth had not really considered visiting the Palace before because I did most of the planning. Once she saw the beautiful grounds I knew we had to find room for it on our schedule.
Around the South side of the palace we saw beautifully intricate gold and black gates and a statue of King William III. I got another hangry warning from Beth and I was getting a bit peckish as well. We crossed the Palace Green behind the palace and onto a quiet little street. This area was filled with foreign embassies for Romania, Russia, the Philippines, Nepal, Labanon, Slovakia and many more. All of them were gated but the Israeli Embassy also had armed guards out front. At the end of the street where it met the main drag, Kensington High Street, we turned West in search of food. This area had a lot of dining and high-end shopping options but we settled on a pub called Prince of Wales. When selecting a place to eat we usually make our decision on reviews if we have internet access. If we are unplugged and Beth is getting hangry, however, we go off of type of restaurant and if we like the exterior. The facade of this place was really cute and was filled with locals. More often than not you will find success following the locals to dinner. It had worked at Ghandi’s too. The Prince of Wales offers a good mix of British food like meat and potato pies and fish dishes. We decided to share a platter and order a slice of chocolate cake for dessert. I had to order with the bartender and provide the table number, a system that appears to be popular in London. I tipped £2 not knowing about the mandatory £2.50 gratuity charged by the government tax called a VAT. The platter arrived super fast with battered shrimp, deep-fried sausage bites and the most delicious fish and chips. I don’t normally like sausage but they were light and tasty with some kind of zippy dipping sauce. If I could order that platter at a restaurant near me I would go there immediately. A woman behind us was from Texas which we found out because she was talking very loudly to her date. After an excellent dinner, we walked to the nearest tube station and trained it home. It was a little confusing at the station which side of the platform to enter to go the right direction but in general we were experts using the tube by then. I know there have been employee strikes lately and construction projects can cause closures but the public transportation system in London is fantastic. Very rarely did we get lost with the efficient signage and free system maps in every station. Back in Kennington we bought some more groceries at the corner store before walking back to our room. End of day six.
Day 7, King’s Cross Station, Baker Street, Regent’s Park, the Wallace Collection, Marble Arch, Regent’s Street and Piccadilly Square: That’s right, we went a lot of places so buckle up! It may not have been our longest walking day or even our busiest day but we certainly fit in quite a bit. Breakfast was toast with preserves (provided) and bagels with cream cheese (our grocery purchase). Blackberry preserves should be more popular. It was a delicious way to start the day. I love when the places where we stay provide breakfast, even if they are minimal. The first destination of the day was King’s Cross Station. We took the Northern line to King’s Cross, about a 25 minute ride. Up a few levels of escalators from the tube station we entered the above-ground train station. The connections between different types of transit were super easy. We were originally planning to take the train from London to Paris which would have left from St. Pancras train station right next door (that story will come later). King’s Cross Station was on our attraction list for obvious reasons for you Harry Potter fans. Platform 9-3/4 at King’s Cross was the place in the Harry Potter books where students caught the Hogwarts Express to get to school. Real life King’s Cross Station has embraced Harry Potter fandom and incorporated it into their terminal. Having hundreds of HP fans swarming all over the train platforms wouldn’t make a bunch of sense so the station has placed an “entrance” to the magical Platform 9-3/4 in the terminal. We saw a queue of people with a sign and hopped in line. We had to wait about ten minutes for our turn but it was worth the wait. Two people were working the entrance. The first guy offers you a choice of Hogwarts house scarves to wear for your photo. You can take as many of your own photos as you want but the second worker was the official photographer. Both guys were dressed in themed clothing as a conductor and ticket-taker. The ticket-taker looked and sounded like Stan Shunpike, a character from the books that worked on the triple-decker Knight Bus. Beth was up first with a Hufflepuff scarf. Shunpike wrapped the scarf around her neck and as she grabbed the trunk trolley he held it up so it looked like she was running into the entrance like they do in the books and movies. I went next and wore the Gryffindor scarf. Unlike Beth I have not gone to J.K Rowling’s Pottermore website to have myself sorted into a house. I just went with my favorite. We discussed it during our Warner Brothers tour and I admitted I haven’t sorted myself because there is a 25% chance I would end up in Slytherin (more than 25% if you consider my dark side bwa, bwahahahahaha). Anyway, after our trolley photos were taken we went around the corner to the Platform 9-3/4 shop. There was a good selection of items available including official stuff that we had seen for sale elsewhere and unique items special to this shop. The coolest things I saw were signed cast photos from the films. They were a bit too expensive for me but we did find some Hogwarts Express tickets that we bought. There was a picture on the counter of Warwick Davis visiting Platform 9-3/4 wearing Professor Flitwick’s Ravenclaw scarf. Nice. While checking out we saw our official trolley photos on the computer but decided not to spend the £10 each to get them. After getting home from our trip and uploading pictures to Facebook we found out that some of Beth’s pictures disappeared, including my trolley ones. It is a shame that I didn’t buy the photo when I had the chance but in the end, we
still had fun and we’ll always remember the experience. On the way out of the station we saw the actual platforms of 9 and 10 although the brick walls used for filming were actually the ones between platforms 4 and 5 (which was not accessible without a train ticket).
Beth and I went back down to the tube station from there not needing to see anything else nearby. West along the Hammersmith and City line we went four stops to Baker Street, home of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is a literary character but he still has a blue historical marker on the building showing 221b Baker Street as his address. I knew the Sherlock Holmes Museum was kind of expensive (pass) but the gift shop was totally free. There was some interesting stuff for sale but we didn’t find anything worthwhile. They smartly offered merchandise from every version of Sherlock Holmes including Cumberbatch, Downey Jr. and others. Before we left I also used the bathroom in the basement that may have been original to the period. There was a chain to pull from the ceiling in order to flush, I swear! Back outside we went North one block towards Regent’s Park. We crossed a little footbridge to get across a boating lake where at least one couple was paddling along. A couple dog walkers and joggers were out and about as well but the park wasn’t too busy this early in the day. Grey herons were relaxing along the water and on the left side we saw Regent’s University of London, a small private school right inside the park. We continued walking East keeping to the Southern edge of the park. A group of schoolchildren were doing track and field stuff for gym class and workers were working in Marylebone Green constructing what looked like a temporary concert venue. The last thing of note we saw in the park was a garden with fountains. After that it was time for an early lunch. Without knowing where to go we stood on the sidewalk along Marylebone Road, the closest main road, and asked a random passerby. A woman pointed us to the nearest restaurant area and we wound up at Union Regent’s Place. Beth had a chicken burger with cayenne pepper mayo.while I ordered a bacon cheeseburger. We were seated next to the bar along the front windows and one of the bartenders came over to talk to us about our trip (the waitress must have mentioned that we were obviously from out of town). He wanted to make sure we were having a fun visit and suggested seeing his favorite museum, the Victoria and Albert history museum. Our food came and it was alright. My burger was good but unremarkable. She didn’t finish her chicken burger which meant I got to try and finish it. Mostly it was nice to have an opportunity to use the wifi and catch up on news back home. It was kind of nice not being able to check our devices constantly during the trip but it was still useful to have occasional access. I was also able to pull out my London guidebook and show Beth where we were headed next, the Wallace Collection.
We took the tube from Great Portland Street one stop back to Baker Street. From there we had to walk half a mile South to Hertford House, home of the Wallace Collection, a massive private art collection that was left to the British Government in 1987. That’s right, a single wealthy family owned the entire collection. The woman that eventually left it to the government in her will did so as long as nothing could be added or changed. She also said that the collection should be available to the public for free 365 days a year. What a nice, crazy-rich lady. The collection is housed in one of the family’s London homes called Hertford House, an absolutely massive property. We entered the front doors of the building and an employee told me we had to check my backpack (also free). A tour would be starting in half an hour if we were interested but that would likely take a very long time. This place was huge after all. Instead we started out by going right from the lobby and heading into the first room of sculptures, carvings, coins, and paintings. I am sure each room had a theme or time period represented but we were not paying enough attention. After about five minutes and walking the length of the first room Beth decided she wanted to grab a seat. She doesn’t really care all that much about art and history is more of my thing. Her feet were also really tired having walked dozens of miles on the trip so far. I found a bench near the elevator across from some paintings of dogs where she could sit and use the wifi while I walked around. I picked up where I left off with the second room and continued counter-clockwise. There were more historical items on the first floor and up a flight of stairs I found several large art galleries. The rooms themselves were also extremely grand. Similar to Buckingham Palace each room had a dominant color (some were two-toned with stripes of dark and light blue for example). The largest gallery was big enough for double-stacked paintings or ones as tall as fifteen feet. I knew Beth wasn’t going to sit downstairs waiting forever so I chose to see each room as fast as possible, not focusing on individual pieces for very long. The art was fantastic and so was the furniture in the house. With the exception of the occasional chair or bench for visitors there was rare furniture in each room with signs saying “please do not sit on the art”. In addition to chairs there were couches, grandfather clocks, tables, vases, and a couple fantastic 17th Century armoires. I took pictures as I went along of both the collection and the architectural features I liked. It was a little awkward in some of the rooms though because museum workers were standing in every other doorway and I didn’t want to get them in the picture. Buckingham Palace guards assume they will be filmed but I don’t think these people should be. At the front of the building on the second floor there was an interesting sun porch that didn’t really fit the rest of the house. It was a different color pallet than the bold colors of the rest of the house and there were palmy plants everywhere. It was like a cabana. Maybe Lady Wallace went on a trip to Cuba at some point and tried to bring it back with her.
After I finished the top floor I went back to check on Beth and tell her I only had the last half of the first floor left to see. The section remaining was the armor and weaponry collection (because why not, they were rich). This stuff took up 1/3 of the first floor. There were thousands of weapons including axes, spears, swords, crossbows, pistols, rifles, shotguns, and a cannon. I’ve asked Beth for a cannon every single time we are somewhere with cannons… but we aren’t rich. The Wallaces had a cannon and a decorative one at that. That was the thing about the weapons too, a lot of them were both pretty and deadly. Many of the pistols and rifles, for example, had ivory handles with painted designs. The spears were probably more useful for ceremonial or gift-giving purposes than killing simply because of their carved and/or sculpted handles. The armor displays were also expansive and ranging from plain plate armor to super-intricate ceremonial armor. Like the Tower of London there were articles from all over the world and from several centuries of history. Next to the armor were really cool painted shields. A few of them were basically beautiful paintings that just happened to be on shields. I continued on through the next large room where the horses were also represented. That’s right, this family also had at least two sets of horse armor, perhaps for when they went out in public on their super-rich day trips to dine with other rich folks. The final armor room led into the gift shop. There were a lot of books for sale but not much else in the way of souvenirs. I went back to Beth and told her I was done but wanted to find the bathroom before we left. The mansion has a courtyard at the center where they have a large cafe. It is covered with a glass roof now but it would have been a nice outdoor escape in the center of the building when the Wallace’s lived there (I assume they lived there at least some of the time, they did own many properties). The bathroom was under the cafe in the courtyard. Each stall was unisex and enclosed with a full door and sink. I really like the European system of public restrooms. They’re not all as nice, of course, but it’s great to have privacy. Even the hallway outside the bathrooms had art displayed, this time in a big glass case so an employee didn’t have to stand watch. At the bottom of the stairs near the bathrooms there were more art galleries (yes more, I couldn’t believe it either) and a studio for making new art (presumably for artists flocking to the Wallace Collection for inspiration).The Wallace Collection really deserves a look if you’ve never heard of it before.
We spent about an hour at the Wallace Collection but we easily could have been there all day. If you ever go and have even a vague interest in history plan a minimum of three hours. Outside the Hertford House we circled Manchester Square and noticed more historical markers for Simon Bolivar and a couple other important people. I like that London displays their history on the exterior of their buildings. Any time an address housed a person of note there is a blue circle stating whom and when. This area was definitely the place where we saw the most markers even though we hadn’t heard of most of the people. The buildings on this walk didn’t have famous names necessarily but everything still seemed so grand and full of history. We passed a LaCoste store, you know the polo shirts with the little alligator logos? We would have walked right by without noticing the boutique but they have an alligator out front. Beth led me South a block to detour down Bryanston Street. She saw it when she was planning the route during her long wifi break. Personally I think Bryanston Street was being misused though as it looked like a service road or back alley. There was one sweet porsche there, black with a spoiler and racing tires which is obviously how the street SHOULD be used. The destination of this little walk was Marble Arch. The arch used to stand at the entrance to Buckingham Palace but was moved when the front courtyard of the palace was expanded to its current size. The arch wasn’t big enough for modern vehicles and was re-purposed as a pedestrian entrance to Hyde Park. We weren’t planning to re-enter the park at this point but the arch was of historical significance by itself. I took a couple pictures of it from across the street trying to time it so it would be unblocked by cars. It wasn’t until we got home that I realized one of the pictures was blocked by a double-decker bus with an Inbetweeners 2 movie banner on the side. If you’ve never seen the British show Inbetweeners or the two movies that followed you need to check it out, pronto.
Beth and I took the Central line from Marble Arch two stops to Oxford Circus and emerged in the middle of the NFL experience on Regent Street completely by accident. Oakland was playing Miami at Wembley Stadium the following Sunday, the first of three NFL games to be held in London this season. I’m not sure why the NFL experience area is set up along Regent Street (not near the stadium for clarification) but there it was. One storefront was rented out by the league to sell merchandise and drum up interest in the game. The front windows displayed mannequins wearing Raiders and Dolphins uniforms. The street was also dressed up with banners and American flags (I bet that was weird for the locals). We were on Regent Street to visit the BBC a few blocks North of the tube station. Our hope was to see the building and visit the gift shop. The NBC Store in New York City was filled with some of the best TV memorabilia available and we were imagining the BBC would have something similar. In front of the BBC building we passed All Souls Langham Place Church. This dude saw me taking pictures and successfully photo-bombed me by jumping and making a face. Most people would get mad but I embrace his shenanigans. I tried to yell behind me that he got me so he knew he had succeeded but I don’t know if he heard me. Around the back of the church was the BBC Broadcasting and Radio London HQ. The building was fairly tall and the front side was U-shaped with an open courtyard of sorts. A cafe on the left was pretty busy and a couple tech guys were setting up for some kind of video shoot within a temporary fence on the right. Over by the front doors a man with birding equipment was looking up. That obviously got our attention so we stood by the doors and looked up. His pigeon-hawk was up on an office balcony a few stories up. The handler was trying to get him down without luck. We heard him talking to a security guard and apparently he is there occasionally to keep birds from hanging out too long and destroying stuff. This particular day, however, the hawk had no interest in coming down. He was having fun just chilling up there. Imagine workers on that floor wanting to go out for a smoke and being too afraid. Inside the lobby we saw a Dalek and a group of 100 teenagers. They had badges for some kind of tour but were also standing in a line. A security guard confirmed that the line was indeed for the BBC shop. The line was slow because everybody entering the shop/cafe had to be screened first. We waited five minutes but bailed not wanting to waste an hour to get inside. Instead we decided to circle the building and go get some coffee.
Along the far side of the building we walked through a reporter’s video shoot. She was reporting on something on camera and we were behind her the entire length of the building (I’m glad I was wearing my fancy shorts). If I were to guess I bet they either re-shot the report or it wasn’t important enough to matter anyway. She was reporting from an alley at the BBC, it probably wasn’t super critical. Beth led me to a Starbucks where she bought a drink and I used the bathroom. Having rested for fifteen minutes we walked back to the BBC and the line was gone. Security checked my backpack and we were granted access to the shop and cafe. All the teens were eating, leaving the shop empty. Unfortunately for us, the shop was a tiny kiosk manned by a single person. There were items featuring BBC shows like Doctor Who, Luther, and Sherlock but the t-shirts were overpriced and the rest was kind of lame. We’re talking pencils and coasters. It was D-grade souvenirs in a F-grade shop. I don’t need to buy DVDs in the shop, those are available everywhere. We wanted interesting stuff and left empty-handed.
We headed South through the thick crowd. To save half a mile or so of walking we took a bus to Piccadilly Circus. It was the only time we took a public bus in London and it was a double-decker. Beth convinced me to go to the top level to sit even though we were only riding it one stop. Bus tours are very popular in London, including open-topped buses, but we’ll have to consider that for our next visit. Piccadilly Circus is the closest thing London has to Times Square. There is only one large video screen compared to at least a hundred in New York but the area was packed. Actually, all of Regent Street was packed. Piccadilly obviously doesn’t measure up to Times Square but it is a base for a lot of London’s best theaters and casinos. This area was also used during filming of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. Harry, Ron, and Hermione escape here when Bill and Fleur’s wedding is attacked by Death Eaters. Of course the bad guys follow them using the taboo spell on Voldemort’s name but that’s neither here nor there. Still in search of good souvenirs we checked out a few shops. Every tourist/souvenir shop bigger than a closet in the area had a mini cooper painted like the UK flag right inside the door. One also had a Mr. Bean cardboard cutout. Most places we just browsed but we did find a huge store called Cool Britannia where we bought some stuff. Since our first road trip together in 2011 I have been collecting lapel pins and I found a good one there. I also bought a poster of the London tube system. It’s still rolled up though until I can frame it and put it up in our new house one day. She probably knows this already but I want to have lots of maps displayed in our eventual house. After a successful shopping venture it was time for dinner. We were both pretty hungry and walked around Leicester Square Garden to the first place we saw called Yates. Okay, it was the third place we saw but we weren’t in the mood for Mexican food or ice cream at the time.
Yates ended up being terrible despite the sidewalk with full tables in front. This was a rare instance where following the crowds to dinner did not work. The inside was pretty busy too, leading us to the back of the restaurant near a dance floor complete with disco ball. I ordered for us at the bar trying to ignore the bad service. Four guys at the next table were really rowdy and drunk. A waiter brought a platter of sliders around and asked them if it was meant for their table. They started passing sliders around including some to the girls at the next table until the waiter returned and snatched the tray away. They cackled at their little joke to steal another table’s food in typical jackass fashion. Our food arrived eventually and was medium to bad. My burger tasted like soggy imitation beef while Beth’s fish and chips were no better than edible. Beth went to the bathroom which she couldn’t really use due to lack of cleanliness. While she was gone (thankfully while she was gone) one of the rowdy guys challenged his friend to drop his pants (both layers) for a picture. This was such a shit establishment they didn’t stop him or throw them out afterwards. We waited 45 minutes for our ‘buy one get one free’ desserts but they didn’t show up. Beth complained to the manager and he gave us a refund (for the desserts only), boxed them up and we got the hell out of there. The atmosphere was the worst and I would hate to imagine how bad it gets when people are actually dancing. It was well after dark when we escaped but the surrounding area wasn’t much better at night. The square was gated closed which is always a bad sign. On the walk to Leicester underground station I saw a guy reaching under a fence to steal from a restaurant patron and we picked up the pace considerably. We made it safely to the station and back home to Kennington. It wasn’t the best ending but it didn’t ruin another fun, busy day in London. End of day seven.
Total Distance Walked 9/25/14: 7.5 miles
Day 8, Kensington Palace, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Westminster re-visited: It was sad to pack our stuff Friday morning. It sucks when vacations come to an end and even though ours wasn’t over our London experience just about was. Our host, Kathryn, was really understanding of our schedule. We still had a long day of sight-seeing ahead of us and thanks to her we were able to leave our luggage in the hallway outside the kitchen. Beth made me breakfast this time and we made sure all of our souvenirs were safely packed and swept the room for forgotten items. I left my swimsuit in a hotel in Chicago one time right before leaving for the Kalahari Water Park in Wisconsin Dells, the largest Water Park in the world at the time. NOT a good move. We started our last day in London on the Northern line to Bank station. Beth’s father, Ken, had given us a £20 note before our trip that was out of date and in need of exchange at the Bank of England. We tried to use it to buy crisps in Hyde Park but they couldn’t take it, which Ken warned us might happen. Not wanting to go home with the same note in hand we decided it was worth our time to seek out the Bank of England. Exiting the station it was pretty confusing where it was. See that rat’s net of roads and intersections in the map? Now imagine the underground station sits at the center of it and has exit tunnels popping up in twenty different places. Unable to find the bank we stumbled into NatWest, aka National Westminster Bank. A banker was on his way to meet somebody and we asked him about the Bank of England and he said, “You only need to swap the one note?”. He came back with four £5 bills and we were done, nice and easy. We took the Central line nine stops to Queensway headed back to Kensington Gardens. This time we planned ahead and brought our leftover bread so Beth could feed the birds around Round Pond. Finally with an opportunity days in the making she gathered a group of various birds (it wasn’t hard) and for a few minutes was the center of attention. The geese got aggressive again and the swans were nearly half her height when standing on land. I stood back per usual for my own health. A couple times Beth had to hide the rest of her bread and walk away to keep the birds from getting too close.
Beth broke herself away from feeding the masses so we could go to Kensington Palace. Beth wanted to see it so I made time for it. Aren’t I a great husband? She purchased our tickets the night before online so all we had to do was show up and claim them. If you buy online the price is £15.40 each by the way. The public part of the palace is split into four parts (and the gift shop). The first part was the Queen’s State Apartments first used as a Royal Residence by William and Mary in the late 1600’s. From the lobby we walked down a long hallway to get to a large staircase. The first room, the gallery, was also the largest. Other than gold-covered fireplaces and a few portraits it was sparsely decorated. Unlike Buckingham Palace and Hertford House, the walls and floors were made of dark brown wood. The windows were trying to let in morning light but the shades were pulled closed. The effect was a fairly dark room, not much of a gallery. We next entered the Queen’s closet. It was big for a closet but I certainly found it weird that you had to go through a closet to get to the rest of the apartment. After the shelf-less closet was the dining room. The kitchen must have been in a different part of the palace, likely renovated or removed by now. The drawing room was next and then the Queen’s bedroom. The bed was supposedly where James Edward Stuart, Mary’s Catholic half-brother, was born in 1688. A Catholic in the line of succession was a threat so rumors were spread that the baby was an imposter smuggled into the bed in a warming pan to replace a stillborn (dark stuff). The bed was four poster style with (by today’s standards) horrid flower-patterned curtains. It was, again, really dark and kind of hot. There were sporadic standing air conditioner fans but they really only helped when you stood right in front of them. The bedroom was a dead end forcing us to turn around and exit the same way we came in. Downstairs we entered the next section, a temporary exhibit dedicated to the fashion of the country’s Queens, Princesses, and Duchesses. Dresses and accessories from highly respected women were on display from the 1950’s to the present. There were lots of nice dresses in glass cases and framed pictures on the wall. I respect the history represented but this area was never going to hold my interest for long. I mostly stood in front of any fans I encountered and tried to stay cool.
The third section of the tour was the King’s State Apartments, designed for George I and his son George II in the 18th Century. The staircase from the lobby led to a hallway and something called the “Presence Room”. This was the room citizens would show up to pay homage to or petition the king. A series of drawing rooms were decorated with lavish tapestries, paintings, and rugs. This entire floor had magnificent 20-25ft ceilings. One of them was plated gold with ivory accents and a heaven-themed mural. The rooms in this apartment were much more extravagant than Mary’s. Oh the difference a couple decades make. There was no shortage of excess and opulence in these State Rooms including gold chandeliers, tall columns, large paintings, statues and busts of the sovereign. If George liked to look at his own face so much he should have bought a bunch of mirrors. The next big room we entered actually had gaming tables where costumed characters were playing 18th Century card and table games. The “Queen” invited a random person to join the game but we didn’t stand around long enough to learn how to play. We did see her personal assistant let her win a few times.
“Oh it looks like you’ve won again, your majesty!” The next couple rooms were covered in deep red striped wallpaper. It actually worked when all the gold accessories were added. The decor was opulent but sparsely filled with furniture because these rooms were typically used for entertainment and guests rarely sat in front of Royalty. Neat!
The last section of the palace accessible to us was called Victoria Revealed, of course referring to Queen Victoria (r.1837-1901). Victoria, you may remember, was the subject of a memorial outside Buckingham Palace. She was born in Kensington Palace in 1819 and lived there until her coronation when she became the first to use Buckingham Palace as the Royal Residence. She was raised in near-isolation by her mother and her mother’s adviser in an attempt to maintain control over the young girl next in line for the throne. Victoria was never allowed out of the sight of an adult; her mother, one of her tutors, or her governess. The only other children she ever saw were relatives and her tutor’s kids. This rigid system of rules became known as the Kensington System. In her personal journals Victoria mentioned being very unhappy growing up. I wonder why the Kensington System never took off? At least she had hobbies. She liked to draw and paint, had a large doll collection, and adored animals including her dog and ponies. The exhibit then explored Victoria’s coronation at the age of 18 and her budding relationship with eventual husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. It wasn’t much of a relationship, technically. While they did fall in love and work together very well as Queen and Prince Consort, they only met a couple times before she proposed to him. Yes, very progressive. They got married when she was twenty and went on to have nine children. Victoria’s journals were on display along with some of Albert’s military dress uniforms. The rest of the exhibit focused on Victoria’s public life as political and cultural icon. Victoria and Albert were extremely effective and popular as rulers. Beth and I whizzed around the rooms looking at the artifacts and when we were done went through the gift shop before going outside to check out the gardens.
Beth tricked me into buying ice cream cones (it was soooooo hard) which we ate while we walked through the gardens. She tried to feed the last bit of cone to a squirrel but he wasn’t interested for whatever reason. She was only a little devastated. We walked along a sidewalk that ran the length of the palace on the front. The parts of the palace not on the tour were slightly visible beyond a tall wall with big, scary security spikes. William and Kate recently renovated a twenty room apartment within the palace somewhere and they don’t even live in it full-time yet (they’re in Scotland I think). Apparently it has something to do with not wanting to raise little Prince George in the public eye. William grew up in Kensington with his brother and his mother, the late Princess Diana, and he turned out just fine. We walked back on a different sidewalk through the front gardens where a creepy dude told me I had a “lucky face” and that I would have good luck in the next month. I think he owes me an apology because I bought hundreds of worthless lottery tickets on his advice when we got home. Tall trees were made into topiaries on each side of the sidewalk which were eventually replaced by arches covered in vine plants. From there we saw a square man-made pond surrounded by flowers. The royal landscaping crew continued to impress.
At this point I’d like to take a minute to thank all of you that are still reading my increasingly lengthy blog post. I am extremely long-winded but as my initial reason for starting this travel blog was to inspire myself to write I don’t think I can stop now. For you, dear reader, 1000 points if you’ve read every word, 500 points if you’ve skimmed it, and 100 points if you’ve randomly selected this paragraph to begin reading because that would be really lucky. Points are redeemable in the Mixed Knuts Travel Store (coming 2083) for fun prizes such as a travel ping pong table or a 0.5 night stay in a luxury motel (blackout dates apply). Back to our story, after seeing the gardens we went back to Round Pond outside the gates. Beth fed the last of her bread to the birds (because she is adorable) and we turned South. The sidewalks didn’t follow the path we wanted to take so we went off-road. Others had obviously needed a similar route as there were worn cow paths in the grass. Our next stop was the Albert Memorial on the South border of Kensington Gardens. The memorial was commissioned by Victoria after her husband’s premature death in 1861. During my pre-trip research I had never bothered to look up a picture of it, we didn’t know what it looked like. After a couple minutes the top of something tall peeked above the trees. The memorial turned out to be a statue of Albert under a 176 foot tall bronze pavilion. It may be due to it’s location or the time of day we were there but the area was relatively quiet, something I wish I could duplicate in Trafalgar Square or Piccadilly. Across the street from the memorial sits Royal Albert Hall, a concert venue also created for Queen Victoria to honor her late husband. The dome was white on top of a red circular building with palish yellow framing. Seeing the domed hall and the memorial together in one shot made for a nice picture. Beth and I went around the East side of the hall toward the front which looked pretty grand. A tall column by the entrance held yet another statue of Albert, this time in black. We walked down stone stairs from the front of the hall towards the street and another large building, the Royal College of Music. A dozen students were hanging out on the steps, potentially dreaming of one day playing at the famous hall across the street.
Beth and I walked a block East and turned South on Exhibition Road, a wide street with a pedestrian walkway in the middle. This area was much busier with students and tourists. The Science Museum was right there but we were headed for the Victoria and Albert Museum (after all, we had the recommendation of a random bartender). Most of the museum is free with some temporary exhibits at extra charge. The museum is massive so I conceded that we wouldn’t spend too much time inside. We coincidentally entered the museum near the European History section which I most wanted to see anyway. We kind of skimmed through the area looking at things more than reading and learning about them. There were plenty of cool artifacts to see including tapestries that took up entire walls and rooms re-created to look like homes and buildings from different time periods. I found a couple chairs in one of them and we sat down for a short rest. Throughout our morning we hadn’t really sat down much. Even our ice cream cones were enjoyed while moving. I recall the chair being similar to the rest of the period furniture in the room. It wasn’t a friend to my back. The ceiling of the room had a mural and beautiful white molding.
After examining the museum map I planned a short route through the South end of the building that would allow us to see as much as we could in a really short period of time. We passed through many rooms of neat British and European history and into a huge lobby at the South entrance. The lobby itself was phenomenal. It was over forty feet high with fantastic marble columns. A continuation of the lobby further inside had a magnificent domed glass roof letting in lots of natural light. Off the inner lobby I was able to see parts of several rooms while Beth perused a gift shop. The rooms I peeked inside quick were filled with Chinese and Middle-Eastern artifacts. Ideally I would have spent at least twenty minutes in each room. I was really impressed with the size of the facility. After the gift shop, we were about to head out but I couldn’t help but check out a few more rooms. Beth stood in the lobby while I took a five minute spin through an area with marble sculptures. The time periods and cultures represented were vast. A lot of the sculptures were nautically-themed in the area I zipped through. Like the Wallace Collection, I definitely plan to spend more time at the Victoria and Albert Museum the next time we visit London. It has a healthy mixture of history, art, architecture, and unique objects and sadly we only saw maybe one-eighth of one floor (there are six). While a three-day trip to the museum is plausible I will likely set aside a solid eight hours next time. Beth can have a spa day or something if she doesn’t want to have her feet fall off. Outside the museum a man was drawing the Elizabeth Tower with chalk on the sidewalk. By the looks of it he may have been going at it for several hours. It was fantastic and wouldn’t last past the next rain. It was unclear if he was a sponsored artist of the museum, a freelancer, or a homeless man looking for donations. Either way, he had amazing talent. I didn’t take a picture because he was still working on it and I didn’t want to impose. After we left the museum it was just a block walk to South Kensington underground station. We boarded a Circle line train headed East to Westminster.
Beth and I decided to re-visit the Westminster area so we could pay more attention to things previously overlooked. We had seen Elizabeth Tower twice already but I had not captured the ringing of Big Ben on video. Every time we were within ear-shot we would say to each other that we should try to take a video on the hour to get the full ringing and we hadn’t successfully remembered yet. Ideally we would capture the tones at noon or midnight for the fullest effect but we arrived at Westminster station about 5:10pm. With fifty minutes to wait for the bells we walked West and South around Parliament. Cars, presumably containing members of parliament and/or support staff, were leaving a driveway on the West side. Protesters across the street were banging drums and chanting “Drop Cameron, not bombs!”. Apparently they were worried the United Kingdom was going to join other countries in the war effort against ISIS. [Just in case I want to read this post twenty years from now, ISIS was a terrorist organization that took over most of Iraq and Syria in 2014 before being destroyed by a union of a dozen countries because they were committing genocide and generally be pricks.] I was taking a ton of pictures of Parliament when Beth told me she was desperately hungry so we found a park where we could sit. The park was called Victoria Tower Gardens to the South of, duh, Victoria Tower (it was also along the Thames). There weren’t any benches or picnic tables so I picked a random spot of grass that looked bird poop-free and plopped down. We ate sandwiches and fruit snacks and relaxed for half an hour. I even laid down to take pictures of clouds and the Union Jack on top of Parliament. The wind was pretty strong and leaves were falling around us. Leaves were hitting both of us now but they were too hard to count to see who was winning (I like to think I was). Our break ended and we walked around the park to see a fountain, a memorial to the Burghers of Calais, and the Lambeth Bridge (used for filming the Knight Bus scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).
We left the park and walked back around Parliament AKA the Palace of Westminster. The exterior of the palace is an elaborately-carved limestone. There were sculptures of lions and unicorns above the guarded entrances. At least one of the doorways was forty to fifty feet high with twenty foot, golden doors. We walked past statues of Richard I and Oliver Cromwell. I’ll spare you the AP European History lesson about Oliver Cromwell, both because it would bore you and because I barely remember it from high school. Across the street we walked into Parliament Square to await the top of the hour. We found a good spot to sit along a short retaining wall where I could film the tower. While we sat I noticed my calves were ripped! Walking more than fifty miles in a week will evidently increase muscle mass in your legs. Science! At 5:59 I started filming and didn’t stop until 6:02pm. Finally, success. From there we looked at all the statues in the square. There are seven in case you were wondering; Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, Jan Smuts, Edward Smith-Stanley, Benjamin Disraeli, Sir Robert Peel, and Nelson Mandela (Abraham Lincoln also has a statue across the street in front of the UK Supreme Court). On the South side of the square we checked out St. Margaret’s, a small church in the shadow of Westminster Abbey. Neither building was open for tours at the time but we did get to see the exteriors. The facade of Westminster is awesome. The stone columns and windows are huge! The same flower-shaped pattern was above each window. Off to the side we saw Westminster Column and then turned North where we passed a bar so full with the after-work crowd that waitresses were bringing drinks to people standing outside and on the sidewalk across the street. Is that legal? No clue.
Beth and I found ourselves at the Southeast corner of St. James Park. Beth saw more birds along the lake so we went over to them. There were many ducks, geese and swans, including a black swan. With our sandwiches long gone there wasn’t anything to feed the horde of birds. One of the ducks was clearly experienced at working the fence because he was pacing back and forth squawking at passersby. We walked North around the edge of the lake, which we had seen earlier in the week but hadn’t realized what was on the other side. Across the lake we could just barely see the front of Buckingham Palace. The sun was going down behind it providing for an excellent view. Facing a swarm of mosquitoes I dragged Beth away through Horse Guard’s Parade and back to Whitehall. While we had seen a lot in this area on our first two days in London we had missed Scotland Yard. There isn’t much to actually see anymore except a blue sign stating that the Great Scotland Yard was the first headquarters of the Metropolitan Police between 1829 and 1890. The entrance below was fairly grand for the office building it has now become. Around the corner we scoped out an alley and archway where two Harry Potter movies filmed including Order of the Phoenix and Deathly Hallows Part 1. The alley in the movies was the visitor’s entrance to the Ministry of Magic. It’s where in Deathly Hallows Harry, Ron, and Hermione temporarily knocked-out three ministry employees to sneak in and steal the horcrux from Dolores Umbridge. See, I told you it would be pointless to assume this post was out of Harry Potter information! There isn’t a phone booth on the actual street corner and therefore it couldn’t lower us into the ministry lobby. Bummer.
We next walked back through Trafalgar Square. Nelson’s Column wasn’t covered in protesters and idiots this time which was more pleasant. It was getting dark so we went towards the river and through the Victoria Embankment Gardens. We walked along the river on a stretch that we hadn’t yet seen. The nearest tube station was behind us but we try not to backtrack and pressed on. Luckily, Beth and I wandered up on one more attraction on my London list, Cleopatra’s Needle. It was fate. It was on my list and I had forgotten all about it until we wandered up. It’s not that hard to do when you consider the length of my attractions list. Cleopatra’s Needle is a 70ft obelisk dating back to 1450 BC surrounded by two black sphinxes (recreations). Each side of the obelisk has Egyptian hieroglyphs and the base told of its weird history (in English, I don’t read hieroglyphs). It was a gift from the ruler of Egypt in 1801 but stayed there until 1877 because no one in England wanted to pay for the transportation. Finally, a rich guy paid for a boat to bring the obelisk to London but it sank in the Bay of Biscay. The obelisk was protected by its sealed metal container and was rescued and erected in London along the Thames a year later. It also turns out that the name of the obelisk is a bit misleading as it was 1000 years older than, and had no connection with Cleopatra. A plaque said that a bomb during WWII landed in the road nearby causing shrapnel to hit the needle and the right sphinx. Beth and I had finally seen the last attraction we would see on our London list. It was sad. Neither of us wanted to leave London. The reason should be obvious. London is bad ass.
Beth and I walked to the nearest station and Beth hatched a plan. The Circle line wouldn’t get us home without a transfer anyway so she suggested walking across London Bridge one more time before we headed back. We jumped off the train at Monument station and found a Pret coffeehouse with a bathroom (thankfully) and walked across London Bridge. It was dark out and Tower Bridge was lit up white and blue in the distance. We were halfway across London Bridge when the Tower Bridge decks started to raise, something else we hadn’t seen! How fortunate! A tugboat was pulling a larger boat from the dock, turning it around, and bringing it East. It was a cool way to end the day and our London adventure.
The Northern line brought us from London Bridge to Kennington. Before heading home we took a detour to Pizza Hut before heading back to Kathryn’s. We ate our personal pizzas in the kitchen and read the book of thank you notes before adding one of our own. By the looks of it Kathryn and Ben have hosted people from twenty countries in the past year. Airbnb is a great way to meet people from a variety of places and cultures. We grabbed our stuff and by 10:00pm we were riding the tube for the last time. We transferred to the Victoria line at Stockwell and got off at Victoria station (yes, near Buckingham Palace, kudos for paying attention). Our bus terminal was a few blocks South through a fairly dark and empty street. Like an airport there were numbered gates. Unlike an airport the gates were ten feet away from each other. Everything and everyone was cramped inside the stinky, dirty, hot terminal. Even at 10:30pm it was extremely busy. Two guys by the bathrooms looked like they were planning which traveler to mug. One family sitting near us had at least six kids, one of which was clearly in charge of an infant at the young age of just five. A lady walked up having missed three warnings for boarding a bus to Amsterdam and was super distraught. She was being quite a b-word to the terminal employees and was late in the first place so we had little pity for her. We got to the terminal an hour before our bus was scheduled to leave and half an hour before boarding was supposed to begin. I’m usually on time and don’t like being late at all.
I should probably mention why were taking the bus in the first place. Eight months before the trip I had calculated how much it would cost to take the train through the chunnel, a two hour ride. We could see the French countryside at high speeds. The price was reasonable and it seemed like an easy option. At least it was at the time. Closer to the trip, after we had booked our flights finally, the train prices had skyrocketed. They were four times as expensive. Apparently the cheap seats are available well in advance and once sold out the remaining tickets get more and more expensive the closer you get to the travel date. That would have been really good to know in advance (live and learn). After a few days of research I settled on an overnight bus trip to replace the train. The bus was much cheaper, $77 for both of us, and because it was overnight we didn’t have to pay for a hotel that night. Saving a night’s stay in either London or Paris, two of Europe’s most expensive cities was definitely a plus. I would still like to travel via rail in Europe some day. Next time we’ll buy earlier. The driver checked our passports and let us onto the bus. Our London adventure was officially over. Eight or nine hours on a bus were ahead of us. Oh crap, do I have to pee? End of day eight (mostly).
Total Distance Walked 9/26/14: 11.3 miles
Night 8 into Day 9, London Victoria to Paris Bercy via (K)Night Bus: Those of you champs still with me have earned yourself a break. Go get yourself a cookie and come back in five or ten minutes. By now you’ve already called in sick to work twice to read this far, maybe consider letting your loved ones know where you are and that you’re still alive. Okay, cookie break over. Beth and I were sitting in seats 11 and 12, which were in the third row from the front on the right side. I let Beth have the window seat for the first time ever because I’m a great husband. The seats reclined but it took us several attempts to find the button under the armrest. After two sleepless flights I was looking forward to a good night of sleep. The bus was supposed to depart at 11:30pm and by 11:45pm we hadn’t left. I figured people were just being slow with their documents but then there was a commotion outside the bus. All we heard was arguing between three people. We later discovered the argument was between the bus driver (French-speaking with a basic English vocabulary), a man without a ticket (English-speaking), and a nosy French lady translating. You might be thinking that the translator was doing her best in a difficult situation but by the end of this bus ride (possibly long before the end) you will not be on her side, AT ALL. The man had a bus ticket with the same bus company to a different city in Europe. He had missed his bus and didn’t understand why he couldn’t take this one to Paris so he could find a ride wherever the hell he was going. The bus driver was obviously doing his job denying the man access to our bus. He could have been trying to sneak into France without a traceable record to blow something up. Maybe he wanted to join ISIS. The man decided he had had enough discussion and walked onto the bus with his bag and went all the way to the back mumbling to himself. The bus driver said he was calling the police from the front (a long delay made longer). The added obstacle in between these two men was not just a language barrier, it was the bat-shit crazy French woman. She got on the bus after the man without a ticket and sat down in the second row (kiddy-corner to me). She looked to be about 20 but I will not grant her youth as an excuse. You know how an adult man can be called a man-child? This woman may be the inspiration for the female version. She was talking to the man next to her and from their conversation we could tell that she was not just translating, she was advocating letting the man board the bus. The two of them then went to the back of the bus to talk with the man. They evidently convinced him to leave the bus because two minutes later he walked to the front and was greeted by a terminal security guy. They sat back down and the bus driver got in his seat and closed the door. Finally, thirty minutes late we departed for Paris. And that’s the last we heard of the French woman, right? NOPE.
A minute after we left the station, Frenchie was out of her seat and talking to the driver. I would argue she was in his personal space. Typically bus drivers don’t like people standing too close while they’re paying attention to the road. She may have been apologizing because he laughed and didn’t shoo her back to her seat. They talked for four minutes before she finally sat down. At this point I remember hoping that was the end of it. It was really late and we were both exhausted. The bus was supposed to have wifi but it was impossible to connect. Probably a good thing for my sleep schedule. Our bus drove on small city streets through South London before eventually finding something close to an American highway twenty minutes later. That’s when the music started. Frenchie and her associate started listening to music on his phone. The bus was dark and his phone was on full brightness. Even with my eyes closed I could see the bright white rectangle through my eyelids. They eventually shared headphones but the first five songs were loud and clear for all to hear. Despite the noise I drifted in and out of sleep periodically for that first hour. I remember the bus braking sharply to avoid a cyclist. Why were they even riding their bike past midnight in the first place?
Frenchie couldn’t keep her voice down in her conversation. The concept of whispering while everyone else attempted to sleep was completely lost on her. Every time she talked it was in a regular voice or louder. It was infuriating. Beth wanted to say something but I convinced her that we didn’t want to be the ones to make a fuss. We both listened to our own music and tried to fall asleep. The drive to the coast was a little less than two hours. I woke up as we arrived at the train station. To cross the English Channel our bus had to board a train. The bus driver came over the loud speaker but the high volume of his voice did not help us suddenly understand French. A woman next to us evidently spoke French and told us that we had an hour and fifteen minutes to stretch our legs and go to the bathroom in the station. Oh joy! I wasn’t sure we’d get a bathroom break. Frenchie was the first off the bus to smoke a cigarette. The station was pretty large. There was a duty-free store for some strange reason (those are normally in airports and stuff) as well as a Starbucks and a restaurant. It was 2:30am local time so there were only ten or fifteen people inside. After a bathroom visit we went back to our seats and tried to sleep. The person in front of us snapped at Frenchie for talking too loud and it was incredibly satisfying. She said, “I am sorry, I am so loud because we are listening to music”. It was a shit excuse and non-apology and we continued to hate her. We listened to music (quietly of course) and drifted out of consciousness. Around 3:30am the driver moved us to another waiting area where we sat still for half and hour. An electronic sign on the road ahead showed train departure times. Maybe ours was delayed. Finally at 4:00am our bus drove down the road and down a ramp to a platform. It was a fairly interesting process. From our seats I was able to snap a couple pictures of the bus boarding the train. The doors to the long compartment open about twenty feet wide in order to let even the largest vehicles enter. Our bus was the first in and drove slowly to the front of the car. Frenchie stood up and started taking pictures from the aisle. The shutter noise on her phone was the loudest I have ever heard. I was considering letting my wife finally punch her. Soon after the train left I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until we were somewhere in France. I think I got about four hours of sleep altogether. What I could see of the French countryside was nice. At least people were driving on the right side of the road again. The bus stopped at a station despite no stops listed on our itinerary. Ten extra people got on, including a new bus driver, and Frenchie’s boyfriend got off. Two of the people were supposed to be sitting in the second row and guess who put up a big fuss. It wasn’t even her seat that whole time! A while later we parked at Bercy Coach Station and the driver opened the luggage compartment. After that it was a rush to get inside where I discovered it was €0.50 to use the station bathroom. No joke, a woman at the entrance was making sure everyone paid. The only local money we had throughout the entire trip was the stuff that Ken gave us before we left. Not once did we take out cash from a bank or currency exchange. My bladder thanks you Ken. We never saw Frenchie again but that loud obnoxious voice occasionally haunts my nightmares.
The ticket booth in the subway station down the block was able to sell us ten tickets for €13.70 each. The three day unlimited travel ticket would have been about $75 US total and we weren’t planning to use transportation as much while in Paris. The subway system in Paris is quite expansive but not as nice as the one in London in my opinion. We boarded a 6 train to Nation and transferred to the 2. It was full so we ended up standing with our luggage for fifteen stops to Blanche. Our accommodations were another Airbnb listing in the Northern part of the city in the 18th arrondissement (district). We arrived around 10:45am (fifteen minutes before my rock star guess) and walked North up a hill on Rue Lepic. A woman let us inside but I didn’t know which studio belonged to our host Anne. I left Beth in the small hall with the luggage and went up the creaky wooden stairs checking each door for her name. I made it all the way to the top floor, the sixth, before I heard someone calling my name from below. Anne had found Beth. Her studio was on the second floor. She let us inside and gave us a quick tour (it didn’t take long). She gave us the key and left. Many Paris listings on Airbnb in our price range were for small studios. It was really nice of her to meet us so early in the day. Hotels rarely let anyone check in that early. I like the flexibility Airbnb provided us on this trip. Once we were along we took a good long nap. Similar to our first half day in London, travel had kicked our collective butt.
My nap was excellent but not long enough to let me wake refreshed. At some point in any nap I will force myself awake. I don’t like to nap. Even if there isn’t much to do I don’t like sleeping during the day. It’s not how I’m wired. The only thing worth watching on TV at the time was Stargate SG:1 in French. At least that was something to do. I also watched some cartoons in French while Beth slept. It was really nice having the windows open on a courtyard with a restaurant nearby. The breeze coming in without a bug screen felt very European. After freshening up we went out for dinner close to 7:00pm. We were quite hungry and chose the first restaurant we saw that had free wifi. It was a burger chain called Quick, similar to Mcdonalds. Beth ordered the Quick Box, which came with chicken wings, chicken fries, and cheese tots. I had a bacon sandwich with a mystery sauce that I didn’t really like. The only available table on the first floor became our HQ for forty minutes. Feeling caught up we walked down the street. I didn’t know at the time I booked but our stay was a few blocks off the Paris red light district on Boulevard de Clichy. By the end of the walk we were fully aware. Seven out of every ten shopfronts on the main drag were sex shops or peep shows. I found it funny that there was an optometrist next door to a peep show. The middle of the boulevard had a tree-lined pedestrian path, which was nice, but at night the area was filled with more than the occasional creep. We rushed back home, stopping only for groceries, and were fortunate to find an episode of NCIS Los Angeles in English. After that there was a Castle mini-marathon, also in English. End of day nine.
Total Distance Walked 9/27/14: 2.3 miles
Day 10, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Musée de l’Armée, and Place de Concorde: I set our alarm that morning for shortly after 7am. With nearly a full day in Paris down there was a lot to see on Sunday. We watched Inspector Gadget in French while getting ready. The beauty of cartoons, of course, is that they are easy to understand in any language. Our small studio of maybe 80 square feet had three visible outlets meaning Beth’s phone (our alarm clock) was plugged in in the bathroom and the microwave was unplugged overnight. My backpack was emptied of London souvenirs for the day and filled with snacks and sandwiches (the mayo and mustard from London came with us but don’t tell the French government). Out the door we walked to Blanche and took two trains to Bir-Hakeim, a twenty minute trip. Part of the journey on the 6 was above ground and we got to see the Eiffel Tower as we crossed the Seine River. From the station we followed a large group of people in the right direction. Some of the people looked like joggers which I found odd, until I saw thousands more. That day there was a 16km run from the base of the Eiffel Tower to Versailles. The running crowd was so thick it was difficult to proceed North. It was annoying. Loud music was coming from a small stadium where some of them were warming up. Closer to the Eiffel Tower the starting line was packed. On the sidewalk we passed a string of porta-potties including a stand-up urinal. That’s correct, a four-sided, open-air, dudes-peeing-in-public urinal. There were men and women everywhere and dudes were peeing right there. We also witnessed a few guys skipping the lines altogether and using the trees nearby. Oh romantic Paris. Once we fought through the crowd we found ourselves in line for tickets. We were near the East foot of the tower and the line stretched into the middle of the courtyard (for lack of a better term, the area between the four feet). Street vendors peddling cheap Eiffel Tower key-chains and flags were everywhere as were beggars seeking “money for the children”. They handed Beth and I clipboards and pens. We thought it was some kind of petition and started to fill it out. I wrote the name of disgraced former Minnesota Gopher quarterback Philip Nelson and for zip code, 90210. The last column asked for a donation amount and having “no cash” we gave their clipboards back. They persisted but three French soldiers walking by shooed them away. I like the French military uniforms (awfully clean). The berets and assault rifles were really interesting in such a public place. Maybe it’s because the Eiffel Tower is attacked or destroyed in countless movies but we saw a few groups of soldiers pacing the area. The Russian couple behind us in line were standing way to close to us. After maybe a 45 minute wait in line we went through two basic bag checks, bought tickets to the top, and got in line for the elevator which was pretty short.
The first lift took us to the second level almost 500 feet up. The Russian couple with a bad sense of personal space was right next to us on the way up too. Beth was surprised she was getting me to go up. If you’re familiar with me personally you may know that I am afraid of heights. The way I look at the situation is, however, if you are in Paris, you go up the Eiffel Tower. Period. I’ve been to the top of the Space Needle in Seattle and the Empire State Building in NYC. I wasn’t about to miss the most iconic attraction in all of Europe because of a semi-crippling, rational fear! We emerged on the second floor (we never went to the first floor) and I stuck to the inside of the platform until I caught my bearings. The view, of course, was fantastic. To the East the Notre Dame was visible off in the distance. To the Northeast I pointed out the Sacré Coeur, a massive church on a hill fairly near where we were staying. To the West was a surprisingly tall skyline, likely the center of business in Paris. Below the tower the Seine looked amazing. A steady stream of ants, I mean runners below were still leaving the start of the race. Not wanting to spend the whole day halfway up the tallest structure in Paris we got in line for the next lift. Signs in line and in the elevator itself warned of pickpockets. Even at the top of a paid-entry tower we had to fear for our wallets. The wait was about twenty minutes, which really isn’t too bad. The lift to the top was much smaller than the first one. As we got in a baby started crying. She continued to wail in the small, confined space about 75% of the trip up. Noise aside the limited view from the window was really cool. Once on the third level I was relieved to discover part of it was enclosed by glass. The lower sub-level is completely enclosed while the upper sub-level is fenced in. We looked around on each side briefly and then headed up. Like I said, no crippling fear was going to keep me from truly experiencing the Eiffel Tower. Beth went up first but I waited for a father and son to descend first (I wasn’t going to have some child trip and get me killed). Once I made it up the stairs I clung to the inner wall. Beth asked me what I was doing and I replied, “Doing as the French do, retreating to a corner”. After a minute of scoping out the platform and the shady characters in my way I was able to explore it like a normal(ish) person. The fence at the top is twelve feet high and curved overhead but I was still concerned about dropping something. The fence was made of a diamond pattern with four inch openings. What if I lost my camera and all my London pictures were lost?! Yeah, still scared. We explored all four sides trying to see all the Paris sights and as usual I took a ton of pictures. The third level is 905 feet above the ground so it was actually difficult to discern some of the places below. The Notre Dame, specifically, was shining in the sun and was hard to see. I really like how the city looks from above. Most of the buildings in the immediate area of the tower were white and of similar architecture. Many of the streets actually looked planned as though to maximize sight lines from major attractions. For example, the Arc de Triomphe to the Northwest. It looked much smaller from the top, by the way. It was cool to see how all the main roads led straight to it. That was our next destination and I mapped out a path in my head using memorable way-points like they do on Amazing Race. I could totally rock the Amazing Race, by the way. I’ve just got to lose
ten twenty forty-five pounds and convince Beth to do all the skydiving and zipline stuff.
Grand Palais, Seine
After nearly an hour at the top, Beth and I got in line for the lift down and left the Eiffel Tower. The lines were long each step of the way but overall it didn’t affect the experience negatively. I couldn’t tell you if the lines got any worse later in the day but I’m glad we went at open. After touching pavement again (sweet, sweet pavement), we walked West towards the river and spent a bunch of money in a souvenir stand. As lame as they can be when teenage girls take them in the bathroom mirror, Beth and I took lots of selfies on this trip including one in front of the tower. There wasn’t much choice for travelers in a foreign country where tourists are pick-pocketed extensively. We took Big Benfies, Bridgefies, Castlefies, Eiffelfies, Triomphies, and Damefies. Only twice on the whole trip did a stranger use my camera and not once in Paris. On the West bank of the Seine we stopped at a crepe stand where we bought a nutella and banana crepe to share. We ate it, messily, on a bench in front of the Jardins du Trocadero. It was delicious as expected. Just thinking about it now makes me want another one. Why aren’t crepes easier to make at home? After our short rest we set off on my make-shift route to the Arc de Triomphe. It was a long walk but well worth it. Other than the occasional local we didn’t see anyone. It was quite tranquil. We passed the aquarium and then a lot of residential buildings. Similar to many areas in London the residential buildings were between three and seven stories for the most part. Even the most mundane apartment building was historic and gorgeous, especially compared to anything you’d find in the Minneapolis suburbs where we live. I also liked the cobblestones we saw all over. Even areas where a newer road surface was laid you could occasionally see older stones along the sides or under potholes. My Amazing Race navigation skills proved successful and twenty-five minutes later we could see the Arc de Triomphe (now find the red and yellow flags, run, run, run).
It was getting increasingly hot as we walked and the giant tar traffic circle around the Arc was making it worse. This was the mother of all traffic circles with five lanes going around and around and splitting off in twelve different directions. I don’t know how drivers know where to go or manage changing lanes while going in a big circle around a national icon. Beth and I walked counter-clockwise and by chance found the tunnel entrance to get to the monument. The arc was built in the early 1800’s to honor French soldiers of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Inscri
ptions all over the structure and plaques on the ground were dedicated to specific soldiers, battles, and important dates. A few of the plaques were commemorating the creation of the French Republic in 1870, the return of Alsace and Lorraine to France in 1918, and the French Resistance from 1939-1945. We walked under the arc where there is a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and eternal flame added after WWII. The structure of the arc was very interesting up close. Sculpted figures emerge from each side depicting soldiers, children, and animals. Even the inside had sculptures and intricately carved patterns. No wonder it took 30 years to complete. After circling the monument we were just about to leave when I saw a doorway and an employee letting people in. We didn’t know what there was to see inside but we checked it out. Once inside we started going up a tight spiral staircase. Thirty or so steps up Beth said she couldn’t keep going. The arc is 150ft tall and what we had evidently entered was a stairwell to the roof. We turned around and headed back down. We’ll have to do a bunch of leg exercises before our next trip to Paris so we can go all the way up. We couldn’t find the subway station and went around the Embassy of Qatar. Those lucky ducks must have paid a pretty penny for that real estate with trillion dollar views. We eventually found the subway entrance and took the 1 to the 13 stopping at Varenne.
Before we could check out the next attraction we sat in the park for a bite to eat. The trees provided a great place to relax. It was actually super hot that day and the cool breeze was appreciated. I mentioned how lucky we were to have dry weather in London and Paris also didn’t disappoint. It was the fourth hottest September in London according to a newspaper I read. I don’t know what the usual September weather in Paris is like but we had high 70’s all three days. Another leaf hit Beth while we ate (still not playing!). After a decent break we walked to the Musée de l’Armée. Even from the front I could tell it was going to be a good experience starting with the cannons and moat out front. Okay, so the moat was now empty and grass covered like the one at the Tower of London but it was still cool. The Eiffel Tower was still visible to the West as we walked up the cobblestones. I took an awkward step on the stone path and felt a jolt through my left shin. When we reached the flat, modern sidewalk the pain shot through my shin with every step. Having hurt my left ankle in July I was certainly concerned. For the first time all trip Beth was faster and in less pain than me but I still had more willpower to walk. At €19 ($24.70) for two people the museum was an absolute steal. I may have paid that much just to tour the historic L’Hôtel des Invalides. The first exhibit we visited was out of order chronologically. The museum covers a couple centuries but we started with the World Wars. It was at this point that we realized all the informative signage was in French. We really shouldn’t have been surprised, obviously. Like any history museum there were plenty of interesting artifacts and displays to see despite the language barrier. The first room was filled with cannons and other large artillery from World War I. We went through several large rooms looking at cool stuff like regiment banners, propaganda, and military uniforms of all WWI participants nations. There was a small model of a trench encased in glass next to a big case of swords. The exhibit then transitioned to WWII. Models of tanks and aircraft carriers were highlights along with full scale bombs and torpedoes. My favorite part of the exhibits was the maps. There were maps of battle lines, occupied territories, colonies, bombing zones, and supply lines. Why didn’t I learn enough French before the trip to understand their cool maps?! There were pictures and diagrams of German U-Boats on the wall. We couldn’t read anything but I’m guessing the Germans don’t come off very well. It would have been interesting to read about the wars from the French perspective. I (and many others) may make fun of the French for their inability to resist a stiff breeze but they dealt with a lot more than the United States during both conflicts. Next time I’m paying for the audio guide so I can hear what the French people experienced as narrated by a British person. After the Allies liberated France the last small room of the “Contemporary” exhibit pertained to the rebuilding of Europe and the beginning of the Cold War.
We crossed the building’s massive courtyard to get to the next exhibit. Typically, I would describe the courtyard as amazing and historic but after that day I would also call it painfully-cobblestoned. The top of the next exhibit, accessible by elevator thankfully, was filled with incredible models of French forts. The largest one was twenty feet wide and long and included a fort and the nearby town and forest. The detail was amazing. Beth wasn’t as intrigued by the models as I was and got an extra five minutes of rest while I looked around. My leg was actually throbbing by then or it would have been a lot longer. In an effort to see everything we descended the stairs and skimmed each floor on the way down. This exhibit contained artifacts from the 17th through 19th Centuries. There were lots of old weapons and armor. While cool, we had definitely seen a lot of armor thus far on the trip and didn’t dwell too long. The basement of this exhibit didn’t fit into the same time period. It was a new section dedicated to French military leader (WWII) and President, Charles de Gaulle. This one even came with a free audio guide. Beth’s headphones were tangled and she was futzing with them the whole time. The circular ring of rooms was supposed to work with the guides automatically but after the initial track we never got the dumb things going. We would move a few feet to look at something and a loud voice would start mid-paragraph. Not to disrespect the President or anything but we were super tired and found the nearest bench. I laid down and actually napped for ten minutes. It was cool and dark in there. Nice and comfortable. Beth spent the whole time straightening her headphones and then we got out of there without seeing the rest.
We walked around the East side of the building and wandered to a small hedge garden with a fountain. All the benches were occupied except for one on the far end. An older woman on a parallel path saw it at the same time and Beth raced her! They basically tied and all three of us sat down (after I caught up). That was certainly an awkward granola bar break. The museum was closing at 6pm meaning we only had an hour and a half left. We knew there was no way to finish seeing everything so we went straight to the museum’s showpiece, the Tomb of Napoleon I. The tomb is on the South side under the trademark 350 foot gold dome. The dome and cathedral were added to the building in the late 17th Century. Beth and I entered through the 30ft doors surrounded by sixty foot columns and my jaw may have dropped. The main chamber was impressive. A circular area at the center was open to the floor below. There, in the middle of the building sits Napoleon, his remains having been moved to this site forty years after his death. The man with an alleged inferiority complex regarding his small stature now has a big red tomb of quartzite approximately four feet wide and twelve feet long. Beth said it looked large enough for five people. Napoleon may be the most famous person in Les Invalides but he is hardly the only inhabitant entombed there. Important military figures from many time periods are buried there, although they don’t have the same “center of the universe” prestige of Napoleon.
We walked around the left side of the main level looking at each tomb before descending to the lower level. The wide, gradual stairwell led us to the high altar at the back of the chamber and then down more stairs to Napoleon’s tomb. The lower chamber was decorated with really interesting marble floors and twelve tall white statues. The dome above looks even more impressive from down there. I was surprised how much natural light filled the room. Off to the side of the chamber was a crypt. More people, presumably soldiers, are buried there. The crypt hall was significantly less showy. We could only go about twenty feet before a roped-off doorway stopped our progress. I could see at least another 50 feet but there was no telling how large the total crypt actually was. It looked like it curved and may have led to a series of tunnels under the dome and beyond. Maybe this one connects to the extensive system of underground tunnels I’ve seen on Travel Channel.
We explored the rest of the main level and left Les Invalides completely. By leaving we missed out on an exhibit of medieval weaponry but there is only so much medieval weaponry you can see on a honeymoon. It was still really warm as we took a stroll through the front esplanade where we had eaten sandwiches earlier. We walked through a large bocce ball event and saw pickup soccer and street hockey games. The esplanade reaches from the front of the Musée de l’Armée to the Seine. We crossed an incredibly ornate bridge named for Alexandre III. By ornate I mean large white and gold columns with statues of lions and nymphs. I know you won’t be shocked to hear that the Eiffel Tower was visible over the river to the Southwest, it can be seen from many places in Paris. The area North of the bridge is called Champs-Élysées, another huge green space with public buildings, restaurants, and shopping. The largest building is called the Grand Palais, a huge theater and exhibition hall with a big glass dome and green accents. We reached the Avenue des Champs-Élysées where we could see the Arc de Triomphe a mile to the Northwest. Beth and I turned East and followed the avenue towards the Place de la Concorde, the largest square in the city.
It was 6:00pm when we arrived on the site where King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded (among others) during the French Revolution in 1792-3. It was surprising but we didn’t see any signs or monuments to the fallen royals. Even though the French people don’t like those two very much (for evidence of the dislike go ahead and re-read the first sentence of this paragraph) you’d think there would at least be a tiny plaque on the ground marking the spot, or possibly a sculpture of a piece of cake. At the center of Place de la Concorde there now sits an Egyptian obelisk surrounded by fountains. What’s that, an Egyptian obelisk again? Yes. According to the internet there are four. We saw the ones in London and Paris but each had a pair. The pair to London is in New York City while the pair to Paris still stands at the Luxor in Egypt, the original home of all four obelisks. This one was moved to the Place de la Concord in 1833 to replace the guillotine. We saw what we could and headed for the proverbial exit. The nearest subway station was at the Northern end of the square but we somehow missed it. We kept walking North on Rue Royale hoping we would find the entrance and then it was pointless to turn around. Our half-mile detour to the next subway station was painful but we did get to see a really big, 172 year old Catholic church called La Madeleine. It looked more like the Parthenon than a church with 65ft Corinthian columns all around. It was an accident that we saw it at all but I’m glad we did. We thankfully found the station and took the 12 and 2 to get home to Blanche.
On our way back to the studio Beth wanted to stop for some supplies. She found some chocolate breakfast pastries at a corner store and ducked inside a bakery. This place was really small but filled with wonderful pastries and breads. The colors were excellent. We wanted everything but Beth picked out an eclair and I had the teller grab a loaf of fresh bread. The transaction was too small to meet their credit card minimum but Ken’s coins again came in handy. When we got back it was like a miracle to take off our shoes and just relax. My shin was sore but no longer on fire. It was dubbed in French but we watched an episode of Pimp My Ride. Xzibit and his crew are idiotic-funny in any language. Beth let me try her eclair which led to me eating half of it. I let her eat half of my french bread but she said that wasn’t a fair trade. Around 10pm we dressed up in fancier clothes and went in search of a restaurant. We wound up at Cafe Bruant, a cute little French place two blocks away. The waitress seated us inside and considering the haze of smoke outside that was probably for the best. I ordered the duck confit with potatoes because we were in Paris for goodness sake. The duck in France can’t be beat. Beth had a smoked salmon dish that came with pasta and another kind of fish on the side. The salad that came with my meal was under-dressed but everything else was great. Back at home I forced Beth to watch the last hour of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall. At least it was in English. I had to unplug the microwave again to charge my camera. End of day ten.
Total Distance Walked 9/28/14: 10.0 miles
Day 11, Sacré-Coeur, Louvre, Notre Dame: It was the last full day of our trip but we made the most of it. We started out eating Beth’s chocolate pastries and toast covered in raspberry preserves. There was an Iron Man cartoon on TV (in French). We got a late start but the first place we visited of the day was Sacré-Coeur, a 100 year old Catholic Basilica half a mile away. Because it was so close we saved a subway ticket and walked. My left leg was a little tight but functioning. The streets were beautiful and charming. Little shops and restaurants, including the one from the previous night, were just opening as we went by. It had rained overnight and the cobblestones were still a little slippery. Our route was heading uphill. Sacré-Coeur sits on the highest point in Paris, Montmartre hill. Beth had a map of our walk downloaded on her phone but the twisty little streets were confusing. We argued about which way to go and the map on a bus stop was far from helpful. Ultimately she guided us up a steep flight of stairs and down a small road to a scenic vista (yes, I just admitted she was right). The basilica and the road below have a great view of the city. It was cloudy but we could still see really far to the South and East. Unfortunately, the Eiffel Tower is to the Southwest and wasn’t visible. We could see the gold dome of Les Invalides and the two towers of the Notre Dame though. The Montmartre area has a rich history of art. I could picture some of France’s greats going there for inspiration. Many notable artists lived and worked nearby, including Renoir, Picasso, Van Gogh, Duchamp, Matisse, Degas, and even Langston Hughes. Not wanting to walk back down the stairs we used a subway ticket to access a funicular, a tram down the hill. The ride was under two minutes and very “Amazing Race”. From the bottom of the hill we walked along a crowded street filled with tourist shops and clothing stores. More than one of them were selling patterned fabrics to clothing-makers. Beth and I reached the Anvers subway station and headed to the center of Paris.
It took three trains (2, 12, and 1) to reach the Louvre. The station is right underneath the museum. We were fairly surprised but under the Louvre there is also a shopping mall, albeit a fancy mall. The main lobby to the museum is located underground under the iconic glass pyramid. The tickets were about $40 and Beth had to pay with her smart-chip enabled credit card. We went up an escalator from the lobby and headed straight for the Mona Lisa, the Louvre’s most famous work of art (hell, the world’s most famous work of art). The signs pointing us in the right direction implied that she was just ahead but it took us several minutes to walk there. We passed many priceless paintings and statues but didn’t stop for long. Many people around us were presumably heading the same way. Like most crowd-walkers they meandered erratically and at a slow pace. A few of you progressive-thinkers out there will know exactly what I am describing. Anyone that has ever been late trying to get somewhere on foot will too. Hundreds of people that could not walk in a straight line or speed up if their lives depended on it. Frustrating. We eventually rounded enough corners and went up enough stairs to reach the room where the Mona Lisa is displayed. It was a large room but the crowd around Mona Lisa stretched across it. Velvet ropes keep people a few feet away from the painting and those people kept us in the back of the room. Slowly, people at the front moved aside and everyone else shuffled forward. The painting is actually pretty small. We took several photos over other spectator’s heads and moved to the sides where we were able to sacrifice viewing angle to get closer. After standing there for two minutes and not seeing anyone move we decided to move on. It could have been an hour before we got up front.
I knew the Louvre was big but I had no idea just how big. The wing where the Mona Lisa and all other Italian art is held is called the Denon Wing. There is no way I could recount all the art we saw but some particular pieces did stand out. There was “Guy on horse” (or something), “King of somewhere”, “Lady serving dinner”, and “Ships at Harbor”. That last one might actually be the name of a real painting! The galleries stretched on forever. Paintings covered each wall two-high and sculptures stood at odd intervals. One of them looked exactly like Will Ferrell. We didn’t linger at any one piece for very long and covered the length of the wing in fifteen minutes. At the end of the wing we took a short break on a bench overlooking the grassy courtyard and glass pyramid of the museum. It was the first time we had seen the exterior of the building having entered through the basement. We saw an exhibit of aboriginal art and reached a dead end. Back through the Italian section we entered a room of sculptures and then sections of Greek and Roman art. Beth was able to use wifi to find a list of must-see items within each section so we knew what to look for. Without it we would have no clue. Other than the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, we didn’t know many of the pieces.
The structure itself was interesting. I loved every part of the tall ceilings, skylights, murals, and intricate walls and floors. Beth and I continued to look around while plotting a course through what we considered to be the more compelling sections. We entered an area of sculptures of people, many of them nude. Most of them were white or black marble but some were painted or accented with gold. We went through a few rooms of Egyptian antiquities and then upstairs to the third floor. Part of the exhibit was closed but we did see sections of French paintings as well as Dutch and German. Back on the second floor, now in the Richelieu Wing, we saw a series of rooms dedicated to historic objects and furniture. I don’t know where to begin on that so I’ll just say it was some expensive-looking stuff. The two of us decided that four hours was enough. Hungry and tired, we found a way back to the lobby and took the escalator up to the surface. The sun had come out and it was again steaming hot. The grassy area of the courtyard looked pleasant but was sopping wet, from the overnight rain or watering I’m not sure. An arch in the courtyard was interesting and a guy was putting on a show with pigeons. He had at least one trained pigeon and the rest were flying around because he had food. For lunch we went for the simple solution, the Louvre McDonalds. The line was super long so I volunteered to wait while she sought out a bathroom. I was standing there so long that I pulled out my iPad and found wifi. I was able to update half of my fantasy football teams before she got back. They gave us a mayo-based fry sauce in packets but we mostly used ketchup and barbecue with our chicken nuggets. On the way back to the subway station on the other end of the mall we saw a medieval wall partially excavated. Part of the structure of the medieval Louvre still exists below. Neat.
The train brought us to the island of Cite via the 1 and 4. The island in the Seine isn’t very big but it does house the Notre Dame, one of the world’s most famous churches. It was still really damn hot and I definitely got some sun that day. Entry to the church is free! I love free. The line to enter was only fifty feet long or so and didn’t take long. It was a Monday but lots of people were there to pray and do other various churchy-things in addition to over a thousand tourists. The front face of the building was really cool. Over a hundred figures of various size protrude from the wall and around doorways. They were probably recreations of the apostles or other biblical people. Some of them had crowns, staffs, etc. They were quite detailed. One of them looked just like Will Ferrell (kidding this time). Signs above the doorway (and all over the place inside) said “SILENCE” in multiple languages. Despite their strict rules on noise, photography was allowed inside. Hundreds of pews line the center in two lines nearly the length of the church. If a service was going there would be no way the people in the back would successfully see much of anything. Beth and I walked to the right outside the pews. It wasn’t a separate chamber, really, but large columns split the two areas. The inside was filled with all the things you would expect a medieval church to have; stained glass windows, paintings of Jesus, statues, crosses (and statues holding crosses), thousands of candles, wrought iron, lots of stone, darkness, etc. It also had a few things that surprised us. The South wall had a series of modern, expensive-looking confessionals with fogged glass. Prayer candles were available for
sale donation of €2-5. Large signs were placed at strategic corners to encourage attending mass. From the skeptic’s perspective it had a very commercial atmosphere. The gift shop we saw later didn’t help. Behind the pulpit at the back of the church there are little nooks filled with shrines, models of the church (my favorite obviously), and more candles. The massive organ also takes up a lot of space at the back of the church. We didn’t hear it playing during our visit but based on its size I bet the sound is impressive.
We finished our tour with the North side of the church and left. From the outside we could see people on the balcony of the towers above. A separate line along the outer North wall was queuing to climb the stairs. We didn’t want to wait and I’m not certain Beth would have been too happy if I made her follow me up there. Instead we took pictures of the cool gargoyles from below and browsed the souvenir shops across the street. With this being our last full day in Europe we had to find all the items we still needed to get for ourselves and our loved ones. I was fortunate to finally find a lapel pin to my liking and we walked behind the Notre Dame to a small square. We found a bench and sat next to a colorful garden in the shade. It was very peaceful. We had done a lot already and were content with what we had accomplished. The only thing we could think of tracking down if possible was one of the love-lock bridges often associated with Paris in recent years. Since 2008, couples have been placing padlocks on bridges as symbols of their love. The locks add so much weight that railing sections on some of the bridges have fallen off! We headed for the closest bridge so we could leave Cite and, sure enough, it was covered in locks of every size, shape, design, and color. Every inch of railing and even the lamp posts were covered. It was a sight to see but we did not contribute (although they were available for €25 in a shop nearby).
Back ‘home’ in Montmartre, we walked around the block instead of heading straight back. Boulevard de Clichy has a seedy nightlife as I said but there are a few souvenir shops too. We bought some gifts and took pictures of the famous Moulin Rouge. The windmill and giant red sign shine bright in the early evening. Around the corner we walked up a hill and onto a long bridge over the cemetery. Montmartre Cemetery is the third largest cemetery in Paris and is almost 200 years old. The bridge allows cars and pedestrians over it because it is below street-level. The tombs and mausoleums below were crammed together (evidence of Parisian population problems?). Another block North and then East and we were back home. It was dinner time and we didn’t want to go too far. The shop-filled street provided lots of options but we settled on a pizza place so we could get takeout. I had a small prosciutto pizza while Beth got black olive. Friends came on and after considerable finger-crossing it turned out to be in English. I will always remember the evening breeze coming through our open windows. End of day eleven.
Total Distance Walked 9/29/14: 8.0 miles
Day 12, CDG to MSP via KEF: We didn’t want to go home but without a Gringotts vault filled with gold to fall back on we had no choice. We woke at 7:30am and packed all our stuff. My backpack was so full with souvenirs Beth had to put my airplane stuff in her purse. While Beth was getting ready I went for a walk. The plan was to find the last of my souvenirs and visit the bakery and acquire more delicious eclairs! I got there as they were opening and the display case wasn’t yet full of treats. The only eclairs ready were the same strawberry ones we tried previously but I got one for each of us this time. With all of our breakfast consumed, our baggage packed, and our French cartoons watched, we left the key on the table and left for the airport. Charles de Gaulle is an hour outside the city via car so we planned to take the train for €9.75. At the station I had some trouble with the automatic ticket machines The first one I tried was broken and the second wouldn’t accept my card. I figured it was probably an issue of my card not having a smart-chip and had to use Beth’s. The train platform was packed but very few people boarded the airport express. It was one of the rare opportunities in Paris to have four seats all to ourselves, two for us and two for our stuff. The train ride was only twenty minutes and 10% of the cost of a taxi!
At the airport we got stuck in an unexpected line. We passed a couple barren check-in gates but the one for Icelandair had 200+ people waiting. Even worse, we weren’t sure which of the three lines in which to stand. We chose the one for online check-in and used the wifi to check-in from line. The wait was so long we caught up on social media and chatted with a couple from Denver also travelling home (they had visited Milan and Paris). Suddenly, as though five employees got back from lunch all at once, the line started to move. We had moved twenty feet in forty minutes and gained the last sixty feet in ten minutes. For the flight we had to move to the back row of the plane in order to sit together. It was cloudy and grey outside but I could still see some of the pretty countryside as we ascended from my window seat. I watched Grand Budapest Hotel on my personal TV. Ralph Fiennes was phenomenal. Outside my window I noticed a ripple in the clouds and guessed it was the Atlantic Coast. The clouds parted just enough and my suspicion was confirmed. I like to imagine it was somewhere near Normandy. The clouds thinned over the English Channel and I was able to see large container ships and the UK coast far below. Our plane actually passed right over North London and I saw the Thames, the O2 arena, and several bridges around Westminster, an excellent opportunity. I watched my movie but periodically scoped out the view for anything interesting. I love staring out airplane windows despite my fear of heights. After Wes Andersen’s film I watched Rain Man, which I had somehow never seen. The weather turned sour as we approached Reykjavik. The plane came in low over the ocean to avoid some of it but rain pelted the window. Beth’s fingernails left marks in the back of my hand but we obviously survived.
Unlike our first trip through Iceland, we went through a security check before reaching the terminal. We had our passports stamped, something we sadly never experienced in France. I wonder whom I complain to at the embassy to get that corrected. Beth got in line to check-in to our next flight while I zipped through the deli to get us a snack. I found a ham and cheese sandwich and a muffin for myself but the rest of the sandwiches were not anything Beth would eat so she just got a chocolate muffin. Our seats on the second plane were in an emergency exit row. Some guy had the window seat despite the rest of his family being in the opposite row (lucky bastard had my seat). Emergency rows don’t have screens in the headrests so we were worried we’d be without them for the next six hours. The flight attendant had us stow all our belongings in the overhead compartment for takeoff and grabbed a screen from below my seat to show us the safety video. Hooray, we still had TV! Having been spoiled on Icelandair I don’t know I’ll ever enjoy a TV-less flight again. For such a long flight I had saved The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at nearly three hours run-time. Beth’s screen, unfortunately, wasn’t working. A woman reset it for her but no luck. She was forced to play games on her ipad. After The Hobbit, I offered to watch Crazy Stupid Love and split my headphones with Beth. She cuddled up and we got to watch until our approach to Minneapolis when we had to fold the screen-arm back under my seat. As we landed I was able to see the downtown skyline through the window despite the man’s large head in my way. After landing we had to go through a long line in customs. It was hot in there and they told us not to remove anything from our bags, take pictures, or change clothes. The guy in front of us was told to go to another room after the agent looked at his passport. Maybe he had been to the Middle East or West Africa. Either way, the agent told us congratulations on our wedding and we got our bags from the international conveyor belt. Both of our moms were waiting outside to pick us up and we went to Perkins for brinner (that’s breakfast for dinner). I ate way too much and we told them about the trip. It was 2am Paris time as we ate but after a good night of sleep and an additional day off to do laundry, jet-lag didn’t really affect us much. End of day twelve.
Summary: Our trip included four countries; Iceland, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States (technically). We visited three national capitals; Reykjavik, London, and Paris. With flights, accommodations, attractions, food, and souvenirs we spent about $4600.00 US (stupid lousy exchange rates). Even getting a good deal on Icelandair our flights were 42% of our costs while our two Airbnb stays were 22%. We obviously saved a lot of money by making basic lunches before going out each day and bringing along a big box of granola bars from Costco. We walked an approximate total of 77 miles (124km) which we tracked using Beth’s fitbit. I think it was an amazing accomplishment. Beth kind of hated me for it. Combined we took over 5100 photos (75% of those probably being mine). It took me over a month to write this post and Beth is pressuring me to finally post the second half of our pictures to Facebook.
Beth and I had a fabulous time and look forward to visiting Europe again soon (even if our checkbooks laugh at the thought). I hope you enjoyed reading this long-winded account of events. 1,000,000 points to the few that stuck with me to the end. If you have any questions about the trip or would simply like to chat about Europe, leave a comment or reach out to me via private message. I’m also chock-full of travel trips and fantasy football advice if that’s something you need.
Until next time,