Sunday, March 02, 2008

Euro Day 8: A Day for Knights

It's Sunday, July 15, 2007 - and free wireless access proves to be elusive still. After a week without Internet access, I was getting twitchy. I elected to screw my resolve to the sticking place, however, and forget my troubles in a plate of Eggs Benedict at The Pearl. Heaven!

With breakfast out of the way, it was time for a short bus trip (this time on a more conventional carriage) to St. Paul's Cathedral, with our human encyclopedia, Stephen, narrating the way. This morning was to be a walking tour, so poking our heads inside the Cathedral was not in the cards. Stephen gave a wonderful lesson on the history of St. Paul's, however, and we learned that 'cathedral' comes from the Latin 'cathedra' which means 'throne' or 'chair' - and so St. Paul's houses the throne for the Bishop of London. There - now you're smart like me!



Approaching St. Paul's Cathedral

From St. Paul's we snaked our way to the Millennium Bridge which afforded a most scenic (and windy!) view up and down the Thames River. There we took time for pictures with the iconic Tower Bridge visible in the morning gray - offering proof for us all that this really was Merrie Olde London. At the far end of the bridge lie Shakespeare's Globe Theater - or at least a pitch-perfect reconstruction of the Globe. After a recent episode of Doctor Who, I had hoped to find the time to poke my head inside the the open-air theater - but that was not for today.



The view from the Millennium Bridge

As I turned my eyes back across the Thames from whence we came, I was struck by the South Bank's transformation since my first-and-only trip to London in 1985. Where I had remembered warehouses and empty streets there were now shiny office buildings and tres-expensive condos. I could not decide if this was a good thing or not - but I'm always suspicious of new development aimed at a demographic with bigger offices and cars than I.

We met our bus once more after a brief stroll along the Thames. Now we were to cross back along the Tower Bridge to our next destination - the Tower of London! After a short 'welcome ceremony' out front of the Tower led by the Double-A's (Alex and Andrew), The Gang filed into the Tower grounds en masse with Stephen leading the charge. There was a short walkabout and an informative overview of Tower history by Stephen. At that, we were unleashed for a few hours of free time to explore the complex on our own.



The Tower Bridge as seen from
outside the Tower of London

To properly see every detail of the Tower would take the better part of a day, I imagine. So we decided to concentrate on a few sights. As is customary for all tourists here, we made a point of eyeballing the crown jewels. Similar to how one cannot really imagine 'a million dollars', it was difficult to comprehend the wealth sitting in those oh-so-fortified rooms. JediBoy (my son for you new readers) led us to the White Tower for its collection of swords, suits of armour, cannons, etc. This was interesting, but I will admit that, soon enough, all these bits of metal on display sort of 'ran together' for me. There are only so many suits of armour and rusty swords that can hold one's interest.

We also did the Wall Walk which afforded some great views of the entire complex and a peek into how the Tower's 150-ish residents actually live. It's also a great way to explore a few of the outer towers. And, of course, we made a point to have our family portrait taken with a Yeoman Warder (aka Beefeater) by our side. Interesting fact: one must have a minimum of 23 years military experience before applying for the position of Yeoman Warder.



The White Tower



King Henry's Chapel

We (or rather, I) wanted to check out a Torture Chamber exhibit, but no one was willing to sacrifice their lunchtime to learn about vivisection. Pity that. We opted for a bite to eat at the Tower's 'New Amouries Restaurant'. The food was surprisingly good - and I quite enjoyed my roast pork with mash (followed by some manner of banana cream cake).

By 1:30pm we met up with The Gang and shuffled back to the bus. I should backtrack a bit here. When we checked into Chancery Court we were given ABD passes to The London Eye to use at our leisure. Some folks had used theirs on check-in day, but many of us did not. For those who wished to ride The Eye today, the bus would drop us at the right place while the remainder of The Gang could stay aboard for a lift back to the hotel. So, it was to The Eye we went!

At 400 feet high, with a single revolution taking 30 minutes, The London Eye is an impressive piece of equipment snuggled up to the banks of the Thames. To actually get onto The Eye is a less impressive thing to experience. Confusion seemed to reign supreme. Our first task: get in line (with about a hundred other people) to exchange our vouchers for actual tickets. There were a few hot tempers as a mob mentality kicked in. In one small area there were a few lines to negotiate - one for people with vouchers and one for people with cash. The trouble was that it was unclear (even to Eye staff) which line was which. A little patience went a long way, however, and soon we were able to get our tickets from one of the harried ladies behind the counter.

Next up: stand in another line (this time outside) to get onto The Eye. It took 45 minutes to prevail over drizzly weather, line-boredom, and security checks, but we eventually made in onto one of The Eye's 24-person capsules. The view, however, was all worth it. The leisurely revolution of The Eye gave us an amazing sweep of London, with Big Ben just a stone's throw across the Thames. Half-way through the ride, we watched a driving rainstorm sweep across London - and it was beautiful. And - lucky you, Gentle Reader - here is a bona fide snippet from our home movie of our lovely ride on The Eye.



By the time we exited our capsule - rain ponchos at the ready - the storm had passed. We picked our way down the flooded walkway, passing soaked tourists caught unawares - as we headed back towards the Parliament buildings. Our next goal for our afternoon of free time - Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms. We found our destination without much trouble, paid our money, and found ourselves in the underground complex from where Churchill & Co. had run much of WWII. The complex - with its institutional-green meeting rooms, barracks, and such - have been left just as they were when the Rooms' inhabitants emerged into the sunlight on VE Day. The experience was singular in recreating the sights and sounds of living underground during the height of WWII. It was very sobering for us all.

With Churchill behind us, it was time to park ourselves on the museum steps and ponder our route back to Chancery Court. We were exhausted - and it was fortunate we had a few swiped chocolates from the Chancery lobby's candy dish to fortify us! Our plan was to make one more foray in the Tube for a lift home. As luck would have it, a procession of cabs came along and we were able to flag one down (were we going native?). We were back at Chancery Court in just minutes, thankfully.

Tip: For anyone who carries a PDA of some kind (I use a Palm Tx), there is a wonderful little application called MetrO that allows you to carry transit schedules for many cities worldwide (I carried along London and Paris). MetrO does more than just list transit schedules, however. It also allow you pick 'to' and 'from' destinations (including landmarks) and will automatically calculate the best route to take based on criteria such as quickest time, fewest transfers, etc. I will never without MetrO when I travel - and you can check out this free application at metro.nanika.net.

Since tomorrow would be a travel day to Paris, we needed our luggage packed and ready for the porters by 7:30am. We used this rest period, therefore, to get our suitcases put together. The kids - it should be noted - opted for some quality Gameboy time. Eventually, our fatigue subsided and our stomachs let us know it was time for some dinner. We decided to head over to Covent Garden (also within walking distance of the hotel) to see what we could see.

Covent Garden is quite a place. It's very large and was full of people milling about and lots of street performers to keep us entertained. We eventually settled on an outdoor cafe with a very talented guitar player nearby to help us pass the time. We had the added bonus of watching a slightly(?) inebriated fellow try to bribe the guitarist to play a few requests. It was all in good fun, however, and the crowd appreciated the show all the more. As had been our custom since we arrived in England, I gave the kids some coins which they dutifully (if not shyly) placed into the performer's guitar case. So while we started dinner a little tired and grouchy after a long day, the meal and the music made for some nice family time - and we went home a lot happier.

Something occurred to me while sitting under that cafe awning - England smelled different. It had been in the back of my brain all week - fighting to be recognized. It was nothing unpleasant or even unusual and, in a way, it was a bit like the ozone smell that lingers after a good storm. I came to remember that same smell from my short time there in 1985. I liked it in 1985 - and I liked it again in 2007. But it made me a tad melancholy as I remembered how very different my first trip to England had been - just me and 3 friends. No firm plans and no sense of anxiety about being in a place so foreign. I felt older. Maybe the responsibilities of being a parent, having a career, and all that middle-class suburban 'stuff' had dulled my sense of wide-eyed wanderlust. Or maybe - just maybe - I think too much.

Our bellies full, we found a shorter walking route back to Chancery Court. We finished up our packing. I wrote in my journal. And we closed our eyes for awhile. Tomorrow - it would be Paris!