I have completed my first trip to England and Europe, and after an all too brief sixteen days of whirlwind travel, I have returned tired, humbled, and very grateful of the two friends that badgered me into going. :)
First and foremost, if you have the means and the will to endure the trouble of doing international travel, I recommend it wholeheartedly. If you are lucky enough as I was, having experienced travel friends inviting you to go with them, you'd be a fool not to take them up on it.
Admittedly, this posting is my way of escaping repeated telling of a trip that I will certainly never forget, and can be summed up in a single word, "Fantastic".
This trip has been in the works for several years, and due to any number of reasons I could come up with, mostly financial, it just took a while and of course repeated pestering by the two friends that were to be my travel partners.
So...where to start? I guess with any long distance trip, the airport check in and the hour or so wait to board the flight is as good as any. It was totally smooth, I made sure to take two bags, one day back pack as carry on and the other to check, containing all manner of items a terrorist might carry to hijack a plane or assemble a bomb in mid-flight, sans the explosives of course। :)
Our carrier was Virgin Atlantic, and I highly recommend it, the service was the best I ever had. While my friends had opted to try first class, one for health reasons and one because she'd never tried it, their seats would be Upper Class whilst I opted for the much more affordable economy seating. Now in fairness they had warned me about the level of comfort that would provide, and had suggested I go for premium economy, which in hind-site (pun intended) would have been far more comfortable. I could not then, and as painful as a 10 & 1/2 hour flight can be, still cannot fathom paying more than double the amount for the same flight and a slightly more comfortable posterior. I will say this, if you can afford shelling out the extra dough, for God's sake - do it!
The flight was smooth, and on time. These flights usually depart around 5PM from the west coast so as to make your transition to the European time zone that much easier. You leave at night from San Fransisco and arrive around 11 AM the next day at London's Heathrow airport.
Border entry was a breeze, and my friend was very happy to announce to the person checking my passport, that they were truly privileged to be the first ones to take it's virginity with my first stamp. Like everyone's first time, it was over fast and rather disappointing. I'd assumed it would be a really cool stamp, with an image of Big Ben or the Parliament building, you know something distinctly British. All it ended up saying, was that I'd arrived at Heathrow, and provided the date and time. :(
Having grabbed our bags we made our way into London proper by way of airport train to Paddington and then a taxi to our hotel, The Grand At Trafalgar Square. Having checked in we went in search of sustenance traveling by foot along the historic Strand, originally this road ran along side the Thames and in the twelfth century was the address of Bishops and royalty. The mansions of that time are gone now and in their place reside the Royal Courts of Justice and two beautifully preserved and or rebuilt (due to damage sustained in WWII) churches, the Church of St. Clement Danes and St. Mary le Strand.
Food holding priority over matters of the church, we continued our hunt for a suitable venue, this place had an interesting ad to coax you to enter...
Apparently we'd made it just in time for the upcoming St. Patrick's Day parade which was to be held on Sunday. This place seemed to have a particular clientele in mind, we passed in search of a slightly less inebriated atmosphere and settled on The Wellington. Settled, is inaccurate, this was a great pub and what I can only assume from my vast experience (non-existant) is in the greatest tradition of pubs in England. All joking aside, I found it to be very in keeping with what I pictured an English pub to be like, the atmosphere was great and the food was very tasty.
After a great meal shared in good company, we headed off to the former English headquarters of the Templar Knights, the Temple Church.
This place was totally awesome! Temple Church for you addicts of all things Templar and or the The Da Vinci Code, this is a must see location when in London. Here are just a few pic's I took with my phone camera, yeah dumb-ass left his camera at the hotel!
We really only got to spend a few short minutes here, the museum was closing for the day, but what I got in was worth the effort, this was as close to time travel to a period of Templar history as one could get. Way cool!
My memory of this particular afternoon and evening get's a bit fuzzy as I was running on very little sleep in the last twenty four hours, add to that the sensory overload...so many things to take in..., and well...sheesh! I do remember the group of us making our way back towards Trafalgar Square, where we stopped to look at the art exhibits at the National Gallery.
My travel companions had a particular exhibit they wanted to see, and so they recommended that I look at the massive collection of British portraits. They were stunning and there were countless numbers of them. As I went from room to room and from painting to painting I found myself trying to deduce what kind of a person I was looking at from just the painting. I imagined who they were from their expressions, poses, clothing and the settings that they were painted in. I was amazed at how fun it was and how close I came to guessing correctly.
After getting lost in the massive maze that was comprised of just that collection, I managed to find the area where we entered the National to catch my breath and await my friends.
We finished our visit at the National's Cafe, with tea, scones and (oh my...) triple clotted cream and preserves...(deep sigh). Friends, if you are not adverse to tasting just a small bit of heaven in the form of this singularly fantastic dairy delight, do try it sometime - you will not be disappointed.
Amazingly, I managed to fool my body into staying up late that first night, course late for me is 11PM, most of my good friends will tell you that I start to turn into a pumpkin by Nine, so this was quite a feat for me.
The next morning, one of my friends and I took off early to look for a place that would serve a traditional English breakfast. Thank god she knew where to go because I'd tried to find a place about an hour before she was ready, and found nothing suitable or open for that matter! This place was just what the doctor ordered, Cafe' Fiori...
English breakfast for the uninitiated consists of two eggs sunny side up, two pieces of English style bacon, a large breakfast sausage, a pan fried tomato and your choice of beans or mushrooms.
I know what your thinking, beans? Yeah baked beans to be precise, it seems the Brits have got a thing for baked beans on toast. Oh yeah I forgot to mention the toast, four pieces! Add this with coffee white or "Americano" and a glass of OJ and you are fueled for the entire day!
Oh yeah, I didn't look at food for another seven or eight hours. :)
So from there we went in search of our goal for the day, the Cabinet War Room's, the Churchill Museum, and the Imperial War Museum. Yeah...I know, I got a bit of a war monger streak in me. :)
Our journey took us past the Admiralty Arch commissioned by King Edward VII in memory of his mother Queen Victoria. Totally awesome...
Next were the government buildings along Whitehall, which included the Horse Guards building...
Sans the horses...:(
And then the government administration buildings including Number 10 Downing St. Everywhere you looked there was something fantastic to look at and take a picture of...
Finally we made it to the Cabinet War Rooms of WWII, England. It was from the basement of this building that Winston Churchill and his aids directed every effort and tool at their disposal to thwart Hitlers objective until the wars end in 1945.
These pictures were taken by Fredrick Muller and are far better than anything I was able to take...
Amazed by this dungeon that protected Britain's nerve center during most of the war, we moved on to the Churchill Museum which was also really well done.
So I think we were both a bit tired of war and since we couldn't seem to locate the Imperial War Museum on my map, we headed on over to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament...
These buildings with all their artistry kept making me think of really fancy wedding cakes, multiple tiers, and endless facets. The longer you stared at any one location, the more the details popped out at you. At one point you start to think, "My goodness but they had a lot of time and money back in the day to do this." Labor was cheap, so long as you fed them, but the cost in materials alone had to have been staggering and in today's global economy, structures such as these would never be created.
OH! I nearly forgot about Ben, what a fantastic clock!
We finished the remainder of the daylight hours by taking a boat down the Thames to see the London Bridge, the Tower of London and our first glimpse of Saint Paul's Cathedral.
Having enjoyed the impromptu tour by the boat captain, we disembarked and traveled on foot a for a time on along the Thames with our goal of making it back to the hotel.
More to come soon...