European Vacation 2016

TWO DAYS IN LONDON- April 15th and 16th

     Our son Christian had the great privilege of doing study abroad with Semester at Sea in the spring of 2016. This program is phenomenal in that it allows students to visit and study in 12 countries in three months and live and attend classes on a cruise ship. To say that this semester was a life changing experience is an understatement.

     Although the cruise left from the west coast– in Mexico, it disembarked in Southampton, England. So, last summer (2015) when we were discussing how to celebrate our upcoming 30th wedding anniversary, Christian had the great idea that Ivan and I fly to London to meet him and then we all three take a hop over to Germany. Christian was pretty determined to make it back to Germany after the awesome trip we made there in 2014 (see previous entries to this one). We all agreed that that would be a great way to celebrate our anniversary, especially since we all love to travel.

     So we came up with an itinerary based on some things all three of us wanted to see/do. Here’s what we decided on:

April 15th arrive in London: see the sights
April 16th: see the sights
April 17th: fly to Munich; see the sights
April 18th:  Dachau & further sightseeing in and around Munich
April 19th: Oberammergau & Schwangau
April 20th: Stuttgart
April 21st: Strausbourg, France
April 22nd: Heidelberg
April 23rd: fly back home

     About a month before we were set to go, my second son, Nathan, decided he would join us, so we had to add on a hotel room and/or bed in several of our locations. However, thanks to Booking.com, which I had never used before, it was not as painful as some of my past experiences with booking lodging in Europe. One big difference about renting rooms in Europe is they are pretty particular about how many people are allowed in each room/apartment/home. Whereas most hotels in the US have either two queens or one king, many places in Europe, have singles, doubles or triples. They don’t take kindly to three people showing up when you requested lodging for two. They often want to charge you for each person in the room, and they want to meet everyone in your party, especially when renting from an individual. I try not to stay in hotels, so I usually book through VRBO to get a home or loft. This time I knew we wanted to stay no more than a night or two per location, so I didn’t have that option. Most of the places on VRBO have minimums for the number of nights you stay.

     I looked into renting through airbnb, but saw a lot of negative feedback about proprietors refusing to rent to people of color. I was fairly certain that would not be the case with any of the lodging in Europe, but I decided not to take any chances.

     We rented two rooms in a house that had been converted to a guest house in the Harringay area of London. It was a lot further out from the city center than I’d expected. So, we spent a lot of time riding the bus and the Tube to get to our intended destinations.

londonsuburb

Harringay neighborhood

     After getting through customs at the airport, our first task was to find our way to our lodging using the Tube. Despite our many trips to Europe, this was the first time any of us had been in the UK. After the long trip on the Tube to our lodging, we put our stuff away,  grabbed our day packs and headed back into London. The lady we were renting from told us that we had come the long way, and directed us to use the bus to the Tube instead of taking Seven Sisters station as we had done to get there.

     We were hungry and it was past lunch time, so we decided to look for something good to eat. Nathan, who had previously lived in Korea, wanted Korean food, or at least something Asian inspired. We found a Vietnamese fusion  restaurant in Soho, in the China Town area called Viet Food. It was really good  [I was going to say jolly good, but my kids said that was cringeworthy].

     I love art and history almost as much as I love writing, so whenever I’m traveling, I really like to go to museums. We didn’t have time to go to any of London’s world-renowned museums on our tight schedule, so I purchased tickets to see the London Dungeon. The London Dungeon is a hokey, but fun ‘tour’of the seedy parts of old London’s history, including: Jack the Ripper, Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, Sweeney Todd and many other bits of macabre London history.

     It ended with a free drink in the saloon, so we got our drinks and sat down. One of the employees was going around making small talk and asking what country each person was from. He ended up sitting with us and asking us about Texas and then, asking how Americans could seriously be considering Trump as president. I always forget how much Europeans (and especially Germans) keep up with American politics. It’s not like we Americans (self-focused as we are) take much time to talk about politics in other countries– even England, despite our being a former colony. After an enjoyable chat, we bid him adieu and headed to Waterloo Station. Nathan wanted to visit a friend who lived outside of London. So, we accompanied him to the station to see him off, as he had to take a train to reach his destination.

     Ivan and I continued sightseeing and went back to Leicester Square, not too far from China Town and found a little family run place to eat. By the time we finished eating, we were exhausted from jet lag, cold and rainy weather and tired feet. So we called it quits for the day.

    Next day, we met Nathan at Waterloo Station. Our first stop was the Tower of London– I had purchased tickets online before we left the States. By the time we arrived at the Tower, we were hungry for lunch, so we decided to go to a restaurant right by the Tower Wall. We sat down and were getting ready to order when we noticed that the menu said ‘cash only.’ I had forgotten that a lot of places in Germany only accept cash, and I guess this is the case in London too! The waitress came over just as we came to this realization, so we told her we didn’t have cash (at least not enough for lunch), and left.

     Thankfully, there was an ATM outside, but by the time we got money, we decided just to eat at the fish and chips stand near the Tower ticket booth. The fish filet was quite large. I’m dating myself, but when I was a kid, we used to eat at Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips and the fish was not a whole filet like the one we had in London. They were these triangle shaped things, in beer batter if memory serves me right. And, although it looks like the ‘chips’ are in newspaper, it’s paper printed to look like newsprint. Which is fine by me, since I really do not fancy newsprint ink on my chips.

     After touring the Tower of London, we walked out through the South side of the castle grounds and found ourselves facing the Thames and the Tower Bridge (pictured above). We continued walking around and taking pictures, and looking at the various bridges as we tried to figure out the way to Trafalgar Square.Turns out there are a lot of bridges in London. We stopped in a drug store to pick up batteries, and asked the cashier where Trafalgar Square was. It turns out, it was literally right outside the door we had just entered. However, there was a big demonstration going on, so it obscured our view of it.

     The odd thing about this demonstration was how calm– and polite the British police were. There were a lot of police, several were lining the sidewalk standing against a building, as another wagon load came to the area. As we were walking down the sidewalk on the East side of Trafalgar Square, several of them must have been notified to quickly deploy to another part of the square. A group of them came running towards us, and as they passed us, they all said excuse me. We were incredulous. Because, despite the obviously tense situation, with tens of thousands of people protesting, they still had the presence of mind to be polite and professional. The crowds of more than 150,000 people were protesting austerity measures and calling for action against Cameron and the Tories, as illustrated by the above sign “Defy Tory Rule.”

     Although we would have liked to stay and watch, we had lunch plans at Café in the Crypt. I had done some research before we left, as I wanted to find a place relatively close to our chosen points of interest that served a nice Afternoon Tea. I knew I had to eat at the Café as soon as I read that it was–as its name portends–in a crypt! Specifically, in the crypt of St.Martin-in-the-Fields church. [I lightened the picture below, because since it is subterranean, it is a bit darker, but in a cozy and welcoming manner, like a Hobbit hole.]

crypt

Café in the Crypt- inside the crypt

     St. Martin-in-the-Fields was built in 1726, and has a thriving community outreach as exemplified by the ingenious ideal of offering great food at reasonable prices to the public (in an otherwise extremely expensive city). I thought it noteworthy that the church is an inclusive, diverse community with a commitment to prayer, worship and social justice. To me, this encompasses what a truly Christ-following church should be. My hope is to visit during a worship service the next time we’re in London. On this occasion, we would be flying to Germany on Sunday morning, so there was no opportunity to attend services.

      Afternoon Tea was delicious! The Afternoon Tea included: finger sandwiches, fruit scones, miniature cakes and desserts served with Cornish clotted cream, jam and a pot of tea. The guys chose different, similarly delectable fare. I had my heart set on a real English Afternoon Tea from the time we decided we’d meet Christian in London, so I was happy.

     We had purchased tickets for a Thames River cruise and a ride on the London Eye before we left the US. So, after tea, we headed back to the London Eye Pier, which is on the South Bank of the Thames. It was a cold, overcast day,but thankfully, it had stopped raining shortly after we began our Tower of London tour.

     As we found our seats atop the cruise boat, I was reminded of a similar tour on the same sized vessel in Germany. Ivan and I had booked a tour in 2006 by the urging of my high school friend, Bobby H., who we were staying with. He found the tour online, but neglected to note that the tour was in German only. It was lovely, but we could not understand anything the guide was telling us. We just smiled and nodded a lot– for over an hour! Thankfully, this time we could be certain that the tour would be in English!

     It was pretty windy once we got under way, so I was thankful I had a scarf to cover my head. Besides a lot of bridges, we saw the English Parliament, Big Ben (which was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee), Westminster Abbey, The Globe Theater, the Millennium Bridge, Tower Bridge…and many more Bridges!

      After disembarking, we headed to the London Eye ticket office. Since we had pre-purchased our tickets, we were able to skip the very long ticket line. However, when we got outside, we did have to wait in a long line for the actual ride. It was worth the wait, and even though it had been drizzling all morning off and on, it cleared up substantially by the time we boarded our capsule.

      Each capsule  is very large, and can hold up to 25 people. I don’t think we had that many people in our capsule though. The sun came out and the clouds rolled away, allowing us to see the city for miles around. The view was phenomenal!

     Nathan, who does not like heights (and is a curmudgeon), said afterwards that he was glad we went. By now, we were starving, and Nathan–who pretty much drives all our eating choices–wanted to got to Nando’s. There was a running joke among Brits in 2015 about “Cheeky Nando’s” so we had to go see what all the fuss was about. We walked back to Waterloo Station, then attempted to use google maps to get there, and just when we thought we weren’t going to be able to find it (nor bear to walk any further) we found it. Turns out, the map had us go all the way around the block instead of straight to it. I also almost got hit crossing the street more than once. I just could not remember to look right instead of left. The Brits must realize this is a common issue, because a lot of streets have instructions on the ground that tell you to look right before crossing!

     The food at Nando’s was really good! Nando’s originated in S. Africa, but the cuisine is Afro-Portuguese fusion. I thought it tasted a lot like  Caribbean food. The famous Nando’s sauces were delicious, and the Rubro Lemon drink pictured above was fantastic! It is a non-carbonated healthy option to soda. It’s made from roobios (roy-boss), which is a superfood grown only in S. Africa. I would love to eat at Nando’s on a regular basis, but they’re only on the East Coast and Illinois.

     After dinner, we decided to go to Harrod’s. My sister had been about 10 years before and brought back the most wonderful teas and biscuits. I wanted to get more of the same. So it was back to Waterloo Station to get to Knightsbridge Station. We walked down Brompton Avenue, which is home to high end fashion outlets and a thriving cultural  and design district. As I was researching the area, I discovered that the Brompton Design District partnered with the 2016  London Design Festival. The only reason I mention it, is that I discovered that one of the exhibitors for the 2016 Festival was the award winning Shit Museum. Yes, there is a Shit Museum and it’s located in Italy. And yes, the items are made from dung, including dinnerware.

     Anyway…Harrod’s is mind-boggling off the chain opulent and expansive. At 90,000 sq. meters, it dwarfs KaDeWe in Berlin, which is the second largest department store in Europe at 60,000 sq m. What a shopping experience! As we went from department to department-we got to see how the top 2% live. We saw a lot of  extremely wealthy people there, but the employees were still polite to us, even though we were obviously run of the mill American tourists. It reminded me of one of my favorite old BBC shows “Are You Being Served,” except the employees weren’t pretentious. After purchasing souvenirs, some truffles and pastries to snack on, it was time to go, because it was 9 pm and the store was supposed to be closing. Although, no one ever told any of the patrons to leave.

We needed to find a restroom before we left though, because, unlike most public restrooms in Europe, it was free and we had a long ride back to the flat. After our restroom break, we were making our way through the massive store, using the escalators. I wish I had taken pictures, but all levels of the escalators are decorated in an Ancient Egyptian motif. When we got to the bottom floor we were surprised to see what I later found are two controversial memorials to Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed. Dodi Fayed was the son of the owner of Harrod’s, but since the store is now owned by a Qatari group, everyone thought the statues would be removed. The Royal Family saw the memorials as an insult and stopped patronizing the store. Al-Fayed (Dodi’s father) has accused Prince Philip of masterminding the car crash that killed Lady Di and his son. In 2009,  Fayed even removed the royal crests from the store and burned them. This ended a relationship between the Royal Family and Harrod’s that goes back to 1955.

After taking pictures of the memorials, we began the long trek back to our flat to pack, as we would be flying to Munich the next morning.

Next blog post: Two Days in Munich- April 17th and 18th

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