Europe 2010 Travel Log — London: Day One
In an effort to make these travel posts more bite size, I am going to post about our three day trip to London in single day posts. Hopefully this makes it easier to write and more enjoyable to read. Our first day had us arrive in Gatwick, check in at our hotel, ride the London Eye, walk through White Hall, visit Sarah’s alma mater, see Buckingham Palace, eat delicious Indian food, observe Soho nightlife, and ride the Tube back to our hotel. Read on to hear about these adventures, and more, along with pretty photos.
Getting to Gatwick
Getting to London with most of our day still ahead of us meant waking up all sorts of early to begin our trek to Schiphol. We departed from our local train station instead of the customary central station, because it meant less walking and the schedules lined up better… but it also meant we couldn’t catch a direct train and so we made a lot of stops between home and the airport. The flight to London from Amsterdam is so short that it begins the descent before beverage service is complete, and before you knew it we were on the ground, 10am local time.
Our first order of business was acquiring a means to move around the city, which translated into round trip tickets on the Gatwick Express from the airport to Victoria Station, £30 over two Oyster Cards for use on mass transit, and £200 in cash for food and incidental expenses. A quick stop to grab our luggage and we were off on a bus to the airport’s train station.
I mention the bus only because this was the trip’s first encounter with driving on the wrong side of the road. I realize this is all very American of me, but it still confused me after three days of looking the wrong way on streets or expecting buses to arrive on the other side. Weirds me out just thinking about it.
Luna Simone Hotel
Once we arrived at Victoria Station, and a friendly copper who looked just like Simon Pegg pointed us in the right direction, we walked to our lovely hotel. The Luna Simone Hotel is located on what turned out to be the hotel street for the area. Block after block of four/five story buildings, no wider than a San Francisco row house, and easily 90% had been converted into hotels.
This particular hotel was actually two buildings fused together to make a double-wide hotel, run by two “blokes” who appeared to be brothers and were as friendly as one could want from hotel managers. We were given room five, a nice little room with a bed, a bathroom, and a teapot. But lurking behind the curtains we discovered a charming walkout balcony facing the street. It certainly wasn’t as fancy as the hotel in Amsterdam, but it made a good home.
First Walk in a Foreign Land
The night before we had made reservations for a “flight” on the London Eye, which meant we had to get from our hotel, down to Whitehall and across the Thames in 45 minutes, which turned out to be plenty of time to soak in my first sights of London. We spent most of the walk along the Thames, where we passed by my first proper British pub, the Tate British, the headquarters for the British Conservative Party, and Parliament. Our first day the weather was amazing — like, practically shorts weather — so it was a great day to just see everything. The downside is everyone else had the same thought, and we had to fight through any number of tourist groups speaking every language imaginable, but it was nothing my Washington DC interning experiencing hadn’t prepared me for. Because of the fixed flight time, we had to sort of rush through Parliament, but I made Sarah promise we would be back.
Much to my amazement, Sarah was unaware of the London Eye’s existence prior to planning our trip. It was built to celebrate the new millennium, and as I was obsessed with the various millennial celebrations (having been screwed out of Seattle’s celebration, thank you very much Mayor Schell), I had always wanted to go on it. For those equally ignorant as Sarah, the London Eye is a freakishly huge Ferris wheel built on the Thames just across from the government buildings of Whitehall (Dear Google Maps, this is not the location of the London Eye). At the top visitors are treated to nearly unparalleled views of the city, as the Eye is very centrally located and dwarfs the surrounding buildings. For my Seattle readers, think of it as a 21st century take on the Space Needle, without the glorified restaurant at the top. The Eye is also visible throughout the city, so it didn’t take long for me to start referring to it as the Eye of London… a great Eye, lidless, wreathed in flame.
We paid extra for Fast Track tickets, which allowed us to skip a healthy chunk of the line — since time was more valuable than money during our short stay in the city — but I can’t say I’d recommend Fast Track unless you are really counting the minutes. It probably only saved us 15-20 in the end. But I can’t recommend the Eye itself enough. Beyond just the amazing views of the city, it really helps put the geography of the city into perspective, so I was always able to have some sense of where we were on the ground. I have a long standing rule that one should get to the top of a tall building as soon as you land in a new city… turns out a tall Ferris wheel works too.
The Buildings of Whitehall
Back across the Thames is the heart of the United Kingdom’s governmental apparatus. Of course, Parliament and Big Ben dominate the whole area, but any good government geek will note there’s much more to see. The Parliamentary offices are just across the street, as are the Her Majesty’s Treasury, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defense, and of course Downing Street. Let me take a moment to comment on Downing Street, if I may.
Of course, it’s a well established fact that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is not exactly on equal footing with the President of the United States. The positions are just not really comparable, even if the countries took a similar approach to their government officers (which they don’t). It was with this knowledge that I approached 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister. I wasn’t looking for anything quite as splendid as the White House, with its extensive gardens and majestic Truman balcony, but I was looking for something that reflected the significance of the place. What I found instead was a well manned traffic barrier. Down a ways, where civilians weren’t allowed, you could see a few doors of which I took a picture in hope that it might be no. 10. Sadly, after getting the photo on my laptop to take a closer look, I discovered I had taken a photo of no. 12, home of the Prime Minister’s Press Office. Which is all to say… what gives Britain?!
Next to Parliament is Westminster Abbey, which is different than Westminster Cathedral, but essentially looks like a cathedral. We were there too late to go in, which was a bummer because all of the churches were closed to tourists on Sunday for worship. Oh, and also next to Parliament is the British equivalent of the White House Peace Vigil. Much like the Downing Street, the British doppleganger has much to learn from America in terms of grandeur.
Whitehall eventually gives way to Trafalgar Square, where a giant pillar and statue of Admiral Nelson stands to commemorate the British navel defeat of the combined French and Spanish fleets. There is also a sizable public square here, where civil services unions were protesting potential cuts to national services and the, in their own words, the welfare state. It was quite a thing to see political actors explicitly defending the term “welfare state,” which in the US is like saying “I am pro-communism.” Speaking of which, the communists were there, and the speakers all referred to each other as comrade. It was quite a thing.
Next we walked north along The Strand, a popular shopping street with many fancy stores, hotels, and theatres. One theatre was even showing Legally Blond the musical… can you imagine?! Eventually we arrived at Sarah’s old stomping grounds where we stopped in for our first encounter with British food at the Lyceum. I ordered traditional fish and chips and Sarah got steak and ale pie. I was disappointed to discover that pub fish and chips is just one big piece of fried fish (nearly ever pub we encountered served it the same way), which isn’t to say it wasn’t good… but I enjoy the little chunks of fish experience typically found with American fish and chips. I also had my first pints of British beer which turned out to be essentially water. It’s no wonder they can session beer all night… the ABV was easily half of what I’m used to drinking in San Francisco. But it was good tasting beer, and as it was only late afternoon, I was okay not being tipsy after two pints.
Sarah’s Alma Mater
Just down the street from our lunch spot is King’s College, where Sarah went as an undergraduate student in Classics. Unfortunately, you can’t really get into the campus without student ID, so you’ll have to just appreciate the crest on the gate outside. Later in the trip Sarah confided in me that the British Museum stored a number of artifacts in the basement under her department during WWII, so that’s something.
Parks and a Palace
After King’s we walked to the Thames and walked along the Victoria Embankment which was the first of several parks we walked through on our way to Buckingham Palace. St. James Park was the biggest of these parks which included some amazing flower beds and a large pond filled with various fowl. Strangely, there was one sign in the park that explicitly requested visitors not feed the pelicans, but I guess it’s fine to feed one of the other dozen or so species who make the park home. I had visions of well fed ducks and swans laughing at the malnourished pelicans. If I had had bread on hand, I would have fed the Pelicans.
At the far end of St. James Park we found Buckingham Palace, one of the Queen’s official residences for use when she is in the city. Now here was a structure that could go toe-to-toe with the White House. In fact, I imagine it is several orders of magnitude larger. Having said that, I didn’t find the outside all that inspiring. I seem to have the same problem with all of these big British residences… the outside has almost no architectural variation. It makes one think the inside is just room after identical room, like some sort of 18th century hotel. Sarah assures me that the insides are distinctive, but to the commoner looking from the outside, it just looked big. There was an amazing fountain out front that claimed to be a gift from New Zealand. One wonders if colonies even have the capacity to give gifts to their imperial masters. Isn’t that just a tax?
As the sun began to set we made our way down Piccadilly towards Piccadilly Circus. On the way we passed by Fortnum & Masons, which Sarah described as a kind of department store, but certainly wasn’t like any department store I had encountered before. The first floor was entirely dedicated to chocolate and teas. The basement floor had an extensive wine and liquor section on one side and a fruit, cheese, and dried goods market on the other. One could conceivable feed an entire family just by shopping here, but it would be awfully pricey. It wasn’t until one went to the second floor that it started to feel departmenty with the appearance of clothing and perfume. But near the top in the Men’s section there was a whole area dedicated to handcrafted game sets and drinking paraphernalia.
We also walked by the Ritz which claimed to have a high end jeweler on premise. But unlike jewelers in the states that would put its wares in the windows to entice passer-byers, the Ritz seemed to think that lame photographs are enough. Suffice to say, I didn’t stop in to buy any jewels.
Finally we arrived at the much mentioned, but never described “Piccadilly Circus.” I honestly had no idea what I was expecting to see… I had earlier ruled out that “circus” had anything to do with animals and clowns, but I won’t deny I was disappointed to learn that circus is just another word for circle. At least it was quite a happening circle… comparable to New York’s Times Square, complete with big flashy billboards adorning the adjacent buildings.
We then continued on to Trafalgar Square for our third time. But, unlike the second time, I totally failed to realize it was the same location and managed to take identical photos of the same building before I realized what I had done. I blame protesters who had managed to entirely clear out by the time we returned. From there we walked to Covent Garden, a collection of shops and restaurants around and inside of a piazza designed in 1632. If you’ve ever been to the Ferry Terminal Building in San Francisco, it has a vaguely similar feeling. However, unlike the Ferry Terminal Building, Covent Garden doesn’t close at 5pm. In fact, in that regard London is like New York… nothing ever seems to close.
Thalis: Delicious Indian Food
We had known that food was going to be an important part of our London trip, so Sarah did a bunch of research to make sure we ate at good, yet not super expensive locations. For our first dinner out we went to the Masala Zone, an Indian restaurant known in London for serving “real” Indian food. They specialized in Thalis, which is a large platter with numerous small portions of food surrounding a curry dish of your choosing. The sides change all the time, so I can’t speak to every night, but at least this particular night there wasn’t a single thing that wasn’t beyond delicious. I ordered spicy chicken curry and Sarah got a lamb curry, both of which were scrumptious. To top it all off, the meal was totally affordable. I would heartily recommend this approach to anyone looking to get a wide taste of what Indian cuisine has to offer.
Wandering through SoHo
After dinner we made our way toward the Oxford Circus tube station by way of SoHo. SoHo is an interesting place… and it’s really a combination of lots of different places. It’s clearly a young neighborhood, with lots of bars and night clubs. It’s also home to many of musicals the city has on offer. And if that weren’t enough, there is tons of mid and high end shopping options. But at this hour, Sarah and I weren’t really looking for anything than to get off our aching feet, so we didn’t stop anywhere.
That is until we discovered Princi Bakery. There, right next to the window, were rows and rows of single serving desserts. Upon entering we discovered an Italian style boutique bakery with desserts, pizzas, sandwiches, and numerous other goodies. It was also packed with people. Thankfully we were able to snag a standing table to enjoy our delicious desserts — although, I experimented and tried something out of my usual repertoire and it wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped.
Stuffed full of dessert and Indian food we eventually found Oxford Circus and the means to our home. The London Underground is just one part of a vast transportation system that keeps the city running. I think most interesting is how each of the stations has a very distinctive feel. Oxford Circle is a huge station with several levels. The station has a feel that reminded me of a New York City subway station, while other stations were more like the Chicago L. But the trains ran quite frequently and it took hardly any time at all to get to the station near our hotel. The one disappointment is that no one reminded me to “mind the gap”… but don’t worry, I was sure to remind everyone as I departed.