Friday, April 30, 2010

Part III - 1st Time European Travel - Impressions

In an effort to avoid the teaming masses that were already converging upon Trafalgar Square for the St. Patric's Day, booze inspired festival frenzy to come, we started our day early.

A walk from the hotel past the square confirmed the worst, our lovely fountains had been colored green, a huge sound stage had been set up, and everywhere there was space for it, a stand had sprouted overnight selling shamrock hats.

Oh the humanity...dear God in heaven, but there was a lot of humanity there already, and it wasn't even 9AM! Time to get out fast, but first...breakfast. :) Have I mentioned how fond I have grown of the traditional English breakfast?

So the Museum of London...
It seems to me we took the subway from Charing Cross to somewhere nearby... yes, my vast knowledge of the tube system, coupled with the cavernous hole in my brain pan is probably not something you want to trust to get you around. :)

Where ever we got off from the train, the area we arrived in what appeared to be the financial district of London. It was very quiet since it was the weekend, and as we walked towards the very modern looking museum, I noticed the occasional glimpse of old London poking through the new.

Like the remnants of an ancient garden gone feral, you could spy these stray bits of history down narrow alleyways, sunning themselves in the morning light.

What the museum lacks in exterior charm, it more than makes up in the sheer volume of content it holds within.
The whole history of the British Isle, or nearly so, and laid out in perfect order, beginning in the prehistoric era, looking at early Paleolithic tools used by some of the islands first native citizens.

Now don't laugh too hard, but I had a real dumb moment as I wandered past large collections of Neolithic bowels and flint axeheads. I'd suddenly realized that this fantasy place I'd built in my head over the last forty years, based upon Hollywood inspired preconceptions, hadn't just suddenly appeared out of the blue. It's silly really but before this encounter with reality, I had been living under the false assumption that there had never been anything here but savages and the occasional wandering druid. Then the Romans came, bringing along culture, education and proper bathing habits. They got a bit too tyrannical which allowed for King Arthur to come along with his round table and viola! England.

Of course it wasn't just Arthur, there were many fine men of valor that helped to fashion this great fantasy in my head, Robin Hood, the Three Musketeers... What's that? The Musketeers were French? But how's that possible, in all the movies they spoke fluent English and with perfect accents! Oh dear...

As I grappled with these new harsh reality's, I came to a lovely glass window, and there it was...or rather a bit of it..., just a piece of the fantasy/reality come to life. Below us, some 30 or 40 feet away, was one of the six remaining sections of the London Wall. Finally, it was King Arthur come to life!

Ah yes, I could see it now...valiant knights walking these very walls, keeping an ever vigilant eye out for invading Saxons...

King Arthur was a fictional character and a result of Geoffrey Monmouth's fanciful and imaginative 12th century work of fiction titled, "History of the Kings of Britain"!?

Hey! Look Mr. Wikipedia, all this history is really starting to mess with my head man! Could know...lay off the reality for a little while? I'm trying to live the dream here!


(Hmph!) Alrighty then, we have arrived at my favorite time span and surely the one Hollywood had been trying to sell me all these years..., Midevil London.

Uhmm...,it's actually Medieval London.

Damn it man! What did I say about the reality shit?! Midevil, Medieval, tomata, tomato..., stop interrupting me! the Medieval London Gallery is pretty cool, though not so much into the whole Knights of the Round Table thing. They really dwell on the life of the average Londoner in that time period, which I have to tell you seems dreadfully dull in comparison to the Hollywood version.

At some point during my walk through the museum, I came upon a rather intriguing find, discovered in the Thames near London Bridge, in 1840. It appeared to be a rather decorative bronze tool of some sort...kinda looked like a nut cracker...a really dangerous looking nut cracker. Turns out I wasn't far off the mark.

What the very enthusiastic museum docent was only too happy to tell us, was that we were looking upon an artifact that was part of of a religion dedicated to the goddess Cybele. This lovely bronze piece was used in a particular ceremony for men looking to become priests of the ancient deity. Uh-oh...I didn't like where this was going... guessed it, this was the castration clamp future male members of Cybelian clergy were required to have used upon them, prior to their obtaining the religious orders platinum package membership. Feel free to visit the Royal Society of Medicine page that I linked to above, it gives a very vivid study on the discovery and use of the dreadful device, and it aint pretty. Oh yeah, that sort of thing would require a very fanatical believer indeed!

Having finished the Museum of London, my traveling companions led us to the nearby St. Paul's Cathedral, which was stunning, and possibly the burial site of a long dead and very distant relative.

Words, and indeed the all to simple ones available to me cannot describe the truly transcendent, nearly ethereal nature of the place. The saddest thing about it from the outside, is that it's so beautiful and yet so incredibly hidden. Here it was in all it's glory, a survivor of history which included WWII's infamous - The Blitz, and you can barely see it.

This location is the highest point in all of London and yet it's obscured for miles around by what is essentially New London. It's really a shame because something this fabulous should be seen from every corner of the city. Now all you get is glimpses of it from here and there, and that's really too bad.

But enough about the outside..., check out the scene played out on the cathedral dome...

It really is amazing..., you see this much beauty and grace, and you can't help but to think that their must be a higher power.

Well all this beauty can make a person hungry...not me though, I had the sense to eat a hearty breakfast earlier. My traveling companions decided they needed sustenance so where to? Well heck, we'll just go on down to the crypts for a bowl of soup... say what?

Oh yeah, sharing space with what may very well be my most famous relative, the great admiral,
Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté, are two very nice eating establishments. The Cafe and The Restaurant at St. Paul's.

Apparently the British don't have nearly as many hang ups as I do about eating with the dead. I dunno, I just find it really odd looking at a menu inside a crypt, and I'm not joking here there are dead people everywhere!

Cornish adventure coming soon...

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Part II - 1st Time European Travel - Impressions

Well damn, it would appear that I have a few people waiting on me to finish this blog entry. Though I suspect the motives of at least one to be similar to my own, she will rename nameless, but she did buy me a very nice "ARSENAL!" scarf on our last day in London. :)

So...lemme turn the way-back machine on again, to the second day...

Wow, my memory is horrible..., I do recall accompanying the nameless one on a quest to find breakfast, we went to the National Gallery Cafe.

This is a very nice place for breakfast, we were greeted by someone who told us that the self serve portion wasn't quite open just yet but they were happy to get us coffee and tea while we waited. The fifteen minute delay was worth it, the coffee was really good, and the gentleman working the back room at the time was very chatty, but in a good way. :)

After coffee, fresh organic yogurt and a large cup of fruit, I was a very happy camper. My friend proceeded to show me one of her most favorite pictures in the museum, it's called, "The Battle of San Romano" by
Paolo Uccello. It's really stunning and this picture doesn't do it justice...

We took a quick tour of Covent Gardens, an area of London who's roots go back to Roman occupation when it was used as a burial site for high borne folks. In the 1700's it was converted to an arcaded piazza and became London's premier market square for all things fresh farmed. Now the venue of all things material, and touristy. Hey you gotta make your money somehow right?

If you try, with just a little effort, you can imagine horse drawn carts laden with all manner of fresh produce traveling upon the cobbled stones as vendors prepare their wares. It's pretty cool.

We had a reservation for high-tea, so with our schedule in mind, we made our way back towards the hotel. On our way back we wandered into Waterstones Booksellers Ltd., which was strategically located very close to our hotel on Northumberland Avenue. This is a very nice, three level book store. My only complaint was that it needed more space for people to sit down and peruse their possible purchases. They had a great selection of historical documentation on London, I found and purchased a wonderful little illustrated history book on Westminster.

With purchases in hand, we headed back to the hotel to get ready for high tea at Browns. For the uninitiated, this is a very proper and very traditional tea setting, and was my first experience. I was warned before the trip that blue jeans, tee shirt and tennis shoes would simply not do and that I'd have to wear something more appropriate. So clad in polo shirt, tan slacks, and dress shoe's I accompanied my seasoned companions in taxi to the Browns Hotel. This is a very traditionally styled luxury hotel and we were met at the door by a very attentive bellman...

I loved this place, it was really everything I'd imagined it would be like and more. The service was very attentive, the tea was great and the clotted cream was to DIE FOR!

If you ever go to London folks, be sure to come away having had this traditional meal, if for nothing more than to experience an activity that is extremely British.

We had the opportunity to meet and chat with a friend of one of my travel companions. It was great fun, I'd always heard so much about him. He's a very charming native and a professional stage actor who can be found performing every year in dramatic performances in either London or Berlin. :)

With tea finished and plans to meet up with our actor friend later, we caught a taxi back to the hotel to change in more practical clothing. It was time then to seek out the sight and sounds of Piccadilly Circus.

Folks, for those of you who enjoy being a part of the teaming masses, this part of London is the place for you. It is wall to wall flesh, and in March too!

For those of you looking for the a-typical shot of the neon banners, I borrowed this one from the Wikepedia page...

I may have disappointed my friends by my sheer lack of interest in the square. Except for the architecture that wasn't covered by hideous electronic banners, and an ever pervasive sense of history, I was done with it quickly.
Honestly in the time it took for us to get there and take these two pictures...all I wanted to do was get the hell out. :)

At some point we wandered back to hotel where we grabbed some snacks and drinks at the local Tesco. Not too long after that we caught our first subway ride to visit our actor friend from earlier in the day.

Whoa! I had never been exposed to a subway in my life, this was an interesting experience and one I was very happy to be doing in the company of experts. Honestly, the London underground was nothing like I'd imagined it to be. Heck I figured the deepest we'd ever get might be thirty to forty feet at any given time? Holy crap, try up to one hundred and eighty feet! In my entire stay in London we traveled at least three times this way and I found it to be fun, but extremely intimidating!

The following day, we decided to spend it as a group since it was the last day the four of us would be together. Three of us would be heading to Cornwall on Monday and one would be heading back to Boston. So after another fantastic English breakfast at Fiori's Cafe, we headed off to the Museum of London.

I think by this time I'd driven my friends crazy enough with my never ending questions, so they figured this would be a good place to shut me up. We decide to walk a portion of the way there, which I must say...if you have the time and the weather is accommodating, do so. The city itself is a living history museum, everywhere you go there is history. As was the case of this large and somewhat unremarkable brick building, who's place in history is identified by the following plaque...

Which simply explained that the "Norfolk House" was the temporary headquarters of Dwight D Eisenhower from 1942 to 1945 and that from this place, he and his allied commanders planned and eventually launched "Operation Overlord", for the liberation of Northwest Europe. For a WWII history freak, this was totally awesome.

More to come...