Monday, August 8, 2011

A few of my favorite things in London (and even Paris)

This photo book chronicles some of the highlights of the trip for me. I even found a few things to be happy about in Paris. (Click on the cover below to open the book in a new screen.)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Long day's journey home

Well, it took 20 hours of travel, but I'm finally back home in Louisville. It involved:
  • An epic struggle down the Tube escalators/staircases with my severely overweight suitcase. (Made possible by the extreme kindness of a British man who carried it down the final two for me. Although he did share his opinion that I had over packed for my month-long stay.)
  • An hour train ride during rush hour. (Fortunately no need to switch trains.)
  • A seven-hour flight to Montreal. (Thanks for the free passport stamp for my two-hour layover.)
  • A two-hour flight to Washington-Dulles. (On a plane so tiny that another passenger and I had to move to the back of the plane to "distribute" the weight safely. Needless to say, I didn't sleep on that flight).
  • A two-hour flight to Louisville. (Nap time, since it was closing in on 10 p.m. in the U.K., and I had been awake since 4 a.m.).
  • A 10-minute car ride with Ryan back to the house, where I was greeted by an excited Sydney dog.
I now have three currencies in my wallet (British pounds, Canadian dollars and U.S. dollars) and am about to go put my road skills to the test after a month without driving. Scary.

Ryan and I will have a wrap-up post about what we learned later this weekend. In the meantime, thanks everyone for reading about our adventures!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The royal rundown: A note about palaces

During my time in London and Paris, I managed to see eight castles and/or palaces. In the order I visited them, they are:
  • The Tower of London
  • Windsor Castle
  • Westminster Palace (a k a the Houses of Parliament)
  • Dover Castle
  • The Louvre
  • The Palace at Versailles
  • Hampton Court Palace
  • Buckingham Palace 
I admit that palace fatigue began to set in toward the end. So I'm probably biased toward the ones I saw earlier in my travels. But here are a few quick opinions on each of the eight. Can you guess which one was my favorite?

The Tower of London: The White Tower that William the Conqueror built was finished by 1100. Inside the tower is an exhibit on weaponry, but it's hard to get a sense of what it was like as a residence. Plus, the Tower's more sordid history as a torture center and execution spot make it a huge tourist draw and therefore incredibly crowded. The Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters, give excellent tours on the half hour.

The White Tower before things got too crowded.

Windsor Castle: We visited as part of our day of "tourist nerdishness", as one of three stops on a guided coach tour. That hectic schedule left us with only about 90 minutes to view the castle and grounds, which was just enough time to view the state apartments and that's it. The audio tour was excellent, with a basic introduction to each room and then options to learn more about certain details or rituals.

Windsor Castle is still one of the official royal residences.

Westminster Palace: This palace was built by Edward the Confessor during the mid-1000s so that the devout monarch could oversee the construction of Westminster Abbey. The state openings of parliamentary proceedings would sometimes take place here beginning in the 1300s. It became the permanent home of parliament in 1512, when Henry VIII abandoned the palace after a fire. Most of the palace was rebuilt following another fire in 1834. So you don't really get the same "palace" feeling as you do with the others on this list. The guided tour was good, though I think next time we'll try to visit on a weekday while parliament is actually in session to get the full experience.

Westminster Palace has been the home of Parliament since 1512.

Dover Castle: This castle was built between 1180 and 1185 to designed for royal ceremony rather than defensive strategy. Several of the rooms are outfitted as they would have been in that time, during the reign of Henry II. It is very interesting to see the size and colorfulness of the furniture at that time. The furnishings were created over the last few years by prisoners throughout Britain, according to the Times. Multiple staff members are stationed in each room to answer any questions about the furnishings, royal life, and the castle's history. The whole experience really gave you a sense of what life was like during the 12th century.

An reproduction of a chair from the 12th century at Dover Castle.

The Louvre: It is easy to forget that the Louvre was once a royal palace, and was, in fact, turned into a museum only after the French revolution. The Museum Central des Arts opened to the public in 1793 in the Grande Galerie and the Salon Carré, before gradually taking over the entire building. Napoleon I's conquests helped "grow" the collection.

The Louvre was a palace for many years. The Pyramid is a bit more modern. Photo by zoetnet/Flickr.

The Palace at Versailles: I preferred the grounds to the palace itself, because the crowds made it almost impossible to use the audio tour or even get a good look at what was in front of you inside the residence. Even the Tower of London's crowd was a pittance compared to this. The Hall of Mirrors was my favorite thing to see, but again, I didn't really feel like I had the time or space to completely appreciate it. Plus, my knowledge of French history is much less comprehensive and therefore what I was seeing was not as meaningful.

The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace at Versailles.

Hampton Court: I expected to truly enjoy this palace, considering how much I've read about Henry VIII and his many wives (not to mention what I've watched, and we all know how painstakingly accurate The Tudors was). Plus, half of the palace was renovated by William III and Mary II in the baroque style, making it a study in two architectural styles. But the entire visit was pretty much ruined by a horrendous audio tour. I'm sure it was exactly some people's cup of tea -- one of the castle workers serves as your tour guide for the day, explaining how court life works and "introducing" you to various people and places around the castle. The hum of daily castle life fills the background. It was rather like a radio play. And it annoyed me to no end. I couldn't fast forward easily through the nonsense to get to the stuff I wanted to know. The tour about William III was slightly better, but I still preferred the more straightforward approaches of the tours at Windsor and Buckingham.

Fountain Court at Hampton Court Palace.

The Great Hall in Henry VIII's state apartments.

This intertwined H and A were for Henry and Anne Boleyn. The king ordered all of them removed after her death, but this one in the Great Hall somehow survived.

Not surprisingly, Hampton Court had impersonators walking its corridors. Henry VIII is apparently a bit flirty. I didn't get close enough to find out.

Buckingham Palace: The tour seems short, as you see only about 20 of the palace's 775 rooms. But that probably is to be expected, considering that it is the administrative headquarters of the monarch, as the Prince of Wales informs you at the start of the audio tour. Although the audio tour probably benefited from following the irritation of Hampton Court's offering, I thought it gave the right amount of information and included interviews from various castle workers to spice things up. As a bonus, the palace has an exhibit this summer on Kate Middleton's wedding dress that I thoroughly enjoyed. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed inside.

Buckingham Palace has been the official London residence of the British monarchy since 1837.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Feathered frenzy. Now in Glog form.

Pigeons waiting for someone to feed them in Russell Square.

Londoners may not feel the same, but feeding the birds remains a popular tourist activity at the city's parks. Mary Poppins did sing about it, after all. This poster should introduce you to the basics of a lovely afternoon of bird feeding in the Royal Parks.

Birds in the Royal Parks. (n.d.). The Royal Parks. Retrieved August 1, 2011, from
Cinemato [Recorded by J. Lozano]. (2006). Retrieved August 3, 2011, from
Feed the birds (tuppence a bag) [Recorded by J. Andrews]. (2006). On Mary Poppins: original soundtrack [MP3].
Hurry music [Recorded by R. Frohlich]. (2007). On Silent movie - Sam Fox. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from
London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. (2011, June 6). Problems with pigeons. London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. Retrieved August 01, 2011, from
Spanish [Recorded by R. Frohlich]. (2007). On Silent movie - Sam Fox. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Score! Even theater is like a sport

The national sport here might be football, but I think theater is a close second. A group of us went to see Wicked on Tuesday night, and it struck me how much the two activities have in common.

Tonight's main event: Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre.
To start, people plan vacations around what shows are playing and the specific stars they are eager to see perform live. Secondly, many shows play to sell-out crowds night after night. Thirdly, there is a ton of memorabilia available for sale at each show: T-shirts, programs, stuffed animals, hats. If you can name it, the theaters probably have it.

And finally, roaming vendors sell candy, ice cream, water, beer and even "chilled wine" during the intermissions. Yes, that is completely different from the States, where most Broadway theaters wouldn't trust you with a bottle of water in your seats, let alone a cup of double chocolate ice cream.

It's the best shot I could get of the vendor walking through the Apollo Victoria Theatre with a cooler strapped to his back and selling "Ice Cold Beer."

An ice cream saleswoman at the Victoria Palace Theatre, where we saw Billy Elliot.

(Incidentally, the ice cream I purchased was delicious, even though a few members of our party had a little trouble with the tiny spoons that came in the packaging).

However, the theaters aren't quite as full service as they could be, despite what the signs said.

The corresponding sign on the other side said "Gents' Toilets."

Monday, August 1, 2011

A ring of endless life

Hyde Park is home to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain. The term 'fountain' is somewhat misleading, however. Basically, the memorial is a large oval ring with water flowing through it constantly. Although the water technically starts its journey at the top of the fountain before settling in the reflecting pool, it is impossible to really distinguish a beginning or an end.

The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain.
 Three bridges allow you to access the center of the oval, although walking through the water barefoot is not discouraged either. The sign outside the memorial asks for the area to be a quiet spot for reflection, but children love the water so much that it has been filled with shrieking and splashing all three times I've visited. And that seems to be more appropriate as a tribute anyway.

This little girl was trying so hard not to get her dress soaked.

These three really weren't sure about going down the small rapids. This was one of several failed attempts on their part.

Grownups enjoy cooling their feet in the fountain, too.

The fountain was opened in July 2004, seven years after Diana's death. It measures about 87 yards by 54 yards and cost nearly £3.6 million to create, according to a BBC news article.

To me, it was one of the more thought-provoking memorials I've seen. I'd compare it to one of my favorite monuments, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. It is unusual and yet fitting in just the right ways.

In the adjacent Kensington Gardens, there is a Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground. It was opened in 2000 and is free to visit. Adults without children are allowed in the park between 9:30 and 10 a.m. each day, so we got to play around. It had a Peter Pan theme, complete with pirate ship, Indian tepees and a crocodile. I know several little boys who would have absolutely loved it. And as you can see in the slideshow, the kids were lined up to kick us out at the stroke of 10.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

I discover I may be old, cynical, and surprisingly, not even a tiny bit romantic

Dear super attractive blond twenty-something couple in matching hip white outfits,

Congratulations on your trip to the Eiffel Tower on Sunday. We're sure it capped a very romantic holiday in Paris, based on the amount of time you spent making out with each other while we were all waiting in line to reach the Tower's top floor.

Although it was kind of you to provide us with such an entertaining show, we'd like to point out that there is nothing romantic about being herded like cattle in extremely close quarters. So save the smooching for the top floor, or -- maybe, just maybe -- some place a little less public.

Better yet, have an actual conversation with each other. In 15 years, you'll probably appreciate having something in common other than the space that your tongues once jointly occupied.


Elizabeth and Eliza

(who were too polite to take your picture, despite the ample opportunities you gave us during the 30 minutes we were behind you).

The Eiffel Tower. Apparently if Ryan were here,
along with a few thousand other tourists, it would be terribly romantic.

The view you'll see from the top (the Arc de Triomphe is in there somewhere). Provided you aren't too absorbed in someone else's face at that time.

Paris: Just one in several million

So our whirlwind Paris weekend left me with a few thoughts.

Me on the top level of the Eiffel Tower with the Seine behind me.

Paris seems like a much bigger city than London. Perhaps that is because the language barrier makes it more daunting, or maybe we are visiting such a small part of London that it doesn't seem as massive as it is. I felt much more like a tourist in Paris, and the crowded sites certainly reinforced that impression.

However, I did get to hit a few highlights during our three days there. Along with a bunch of other people. I was one of the 6 million visitors who tour the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa each year. My impression: like most other visitors, it's very small (especially from the back of an extremely pushy crowd).

Too many people (and too much glass) to get a good shot of the Mona Lisa.

On Saturday, I went to Versailles, where I was one of the 3 million visitors who annually tour this former royal palace and its extensive grounds. It felt like every single one of those 3 million people was in the house with me when we went through and that put a damper on the experience. For details of my day at Versailles, see the blog entry on the topic.

The Queen's Bedroom at Versailles. Marie Antoinette supposedly fled the revolting peasants through the door shown at left.

On Sunday, I went to the Eiffel Tower, where I was one of the 7 million visitors who tour this icon every year. The view from the top level offered a lovely view of buildings I wasn't all that familiar with, so I mostly took pictures of the landmark I knew best, the Seine. And so I can say I've been to the top of the Eiffel Tower now. But please respect my personal space for at least the next three days while I recover from the experiences.

Waiting in line for the elevator to the top floor of the Eiffel Tower.

View from the second floor of the Eiffel Tower.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A trip to Versailles (the one with the palace, not the castle)

The main bit of knowledge I gained from our tour of the Palace of Versailles was that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette kind of had it coming.
First view of the Palace of Versailles.

Waiting to get inside the gate. The gold accents are even more overwhelming in person.
The sheer luxury and expense of the palace, the Grand Trianon and Petite Trianon that served as “breaks” from court life (and were basically mini-palaces on their own) and the Queen’s Hamlet are astounding. It is astonishingly beautiful to see now, though sparsely decorated in spots because of the whole revolution thing.

A close up of the large fountain. There are many small ponds and fountains sprinkled throughout the grounds.

The gardens seem to be a little less structured and landscaped than the English gardens we've seen in London.

The Grand Trianon. It was converted into an official presidential residence in the mid-20th century by Charles de Gaulle.

The Grand Trianon is known for its pink marble.
The most fascinating room in the main palace was the Hall of Mirrors. Seventeen windows overlook the gardens, and directly opposite each window are a series of mirrors made to look like windows. There are 357 mirrors used to construct these "faux" windows, and mirrors were quite a luxury item at the time that this room was constructed for Louis XIV. This room is where the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, ending World War I.
The Hall of Mirrors.
I enjoyed the grounds more, mostly because the crowd in the house was oppressive. And unfortunately, the audio tour markers were on the ground and therefore hard to spot and sync up. So the grounds provided a much more pleasant experience on the whole. Plus, I absolutely loved seeing the hamlet that Marie Antoinette had built so she could escape court life. Her "peasant" house still managed to have a library, billiards room and a theatre. It was a working farm though, and she "supervised" the work there herself when she didn't have more pressing matters to attend to.

A cow in front of the peasant farm. There are also goats, pigs, rabbits, chickens and mules.

Me in front of the Queen's boudoir.

Yep, Marie Antoinette had a working mill among the nine buildings on her "estate".

Most surprisingly, I'm proud to say that I made it through an entire day in Versailles without pronouncing it the Kentucky way, which Wikipedia has helpfully recorded for you if you aren't sure what that is.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Why I suddenly love grocery shopping

If blackberries hadn't come into season before our departure date, I might have handcuffed myself to the Sainsbury’s produce counter to wait them out. That should give you an idea of how much I love British grocery stores. Or at least Sainsbury's

My very favorite Sainsbury's store, on Tottenham Court Road.
Rather than monstrous Wal-Mart type stores where you can shop in expansive warehouse-like buildings for groceries, pharmaceuticals, clothes, tires, garden tools, jewelry, toys (well, you get the idea), stores in London are focused strictly on food and are quite small. This is paradise for people who don't like to cook or even to spend much time in grocery stores feeling guilty about not being able to cook.

A modern Tesco out on the East End is much more like U.S. stores, spacious with a lot of options and departments.

Because so many people come into the city to work, Sainsbury's offers prepared lunches ready to go. Not the prepared sandwiches you may have had the misfortune to pick up at certain unnamed stores in the Midwest, but really good sandwiches -- like chicken fajita wraps or chicken and egg salad on whole wheat bread. Sainsbury's has a deal where you can pick up a sandwich or wrap, bottled beverage of up to 750 ml, and either chips or dried fruit for a mere £3. It is the grad student's best friend.

A variety of sandwiches and wraps in the £3 deal. Add chips or fruit and a drink and you're set.

The more upscale chain Marks & Spencer carries that over to dinner, where you came buy a prepared dinner for two -- with wine -- and take it away with you for £10. Many chains have small stores either in the subway stations or just outside them, making it very easy to do a small grocery run each day on your way home from work.

Marks & Spencer's Dinner for Two.

Wine for sale by the (plastic) glass at Marks & Spencer.

There is a definite emphasis on freshness here. In central London, eggs are not refrigerated and seem to be sold mostly in six packs. Almost all of them are labeled "free-range hen eggs," something we pay extra for in the States. Milk and bread are sold in smaller portions, too, requiring you to replenish more often.

Eggs. Not refrigerated.

The produce here is also phenomenal, as I alluded to above. I buy either strawberries or raspberries (or blackberries, now) almost daily. The strawberries are perfect -- all tiny and sweet. Most everything is British grown - or Scottish, as one particular lady noted to me in Sainsbury's one day. She was wearing a rain hat and carting a rolling suitcase for her grocery trip, and we were both practically salivating over the raspberries on display. 

My favorite snack, while the raspberries were in season.

A fellow fan of Scottish raspberries.

Besides freshness, Britons also are much more wary of preservatives than Americans are. Rarely do you find the unpronounceable lists that seem to accompany many of our foods. Dyes are extremely rare, so the color of certain things are different. This preservative fear means you are pretty much shopping organically without intending to do so.

Ryan drinking a soda from Pret, a local chain restaurant that promotes fresh foods and 'No nasties'.

There are more American-type stores the farther you get from central London. There are even a few in London itself. And I see the value in having them. But for my short time here, I very much enjoy my daily grocery trips in the tiny stores. Especially now that the blackberries are here.

Early train to Paris

We head to Paris on Friday for a day of epic sight-seeing: the Louvre, Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral are all on our schedule. Then some of us are staying for an extra two days of touring before returning to London.

So I'm pretty much packed. This is all I'm taking with me for basically three days, not counting a toothbrush, my iPod or my camera (being used for the photo).

How will I survive for three days with so little stuff?

I will not have my computer with me, so I won't be blogging again until Monday. In the meantime, imagine me practicing my non-existent French. Parlez-vous anglais?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Regarding Harry

It's hard to believe that I have been in London for three weeks and have written or edited nearly 40 blog entries without mentioning Harry Potter once.

It's probably because I'm trying not to focus on Harry too much, seeing as I haven't watched the last movie yet. Mostly because I don't think Ryan has forgiven me yet for seeing Order of the Phoenix without him in 2007. So while my fellow classmates managed to sneak in a showing here in London, I've been holding out.

But there are lots of Harry Potter sites here to tide me over. While Ryan was here, we accidentally stumbled on the Deathly Hallows Part 2 premier in Trafalgar Square on July 7.  More accurately, I was seriously irritated by the line of people camped out for the 3,000 tickets to watch the stars and the premier.

The bulk of the crowd can't been seen in this shot, but I think they had already distributed the tickets by this point.

Not really sure why she was there then.

We saw the Great Hall at Christ Church in Oxford that served as the inspiration for Hogwarts' dining hall. The movie scenes weren't actually filmed in the hall because the logistics wouldn't work. So the filmmakers created a set to use instead. You can definitely see similarities though.

The Great Hall at Christ Church.
Hogwarts' Great Hall as seen in The Chamber of Secrets. Photo courtesy of All Movie 

The staircase at Christ Church also plays a role in the movies. Or more accurately, the landing you can't really see very well in my picture. Can anybody pinpoint the scene?

Staircase to the Great Hall at Christ Church in Oxford.

Also at Oxford, the Bodleian Library's Divinity School was a setting for two completely different scenes in HP movies. It was fitted as both the infirmary -- which made multiple appearances due to our brave trio's many brushes with death -- and as the location for Ron's dancing lesson in Goblet of Fire.

The Divinity School at the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Ron and Professor McGonagall in The Goblet of Fire.
Photo by Murray Close, courtesy of All Movie

St. Paul's Cathedral doesn't allow pictures, but this geometric staircase was featured in The Prisoner of Azkaban. What purpose did it serve?

Photo of St. Paul's geometric staircase courtesy of the BBC.

Australia House serves as a stand-in for a very important place in the last film and a couple of others. Amusing anecdote alert: a group of us got lost one day and came across this building and, oddly, we all felt like we recognized it. A tour guide told us why a few days later -- we had all seen its digital duplicate. Do you know what it is?

Australia House. Photo courtesy of Paul in London via Flickr.

On the way to the Globe Theatre, we walked across the Millennium Bridge. You may remember it as the bridge that the Death Eaters snap at the opening of The Half-Blood Prince movie.

 Scene featuring the Millennium Bridge in the Half-Blood Prince. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
The Millennium Bridge looking much less ominous
after we safely crossed it.

On Thursday, we visited the King's Cross St. Pancras tube station. It houses the "entrance" to Platform 9 3/4,  ready and waiting for tourist photos. Like mine.

The platform was recently moved from its rightful spot between platforms 9 and 10 to outside the tube station. It might be because of construction, or it might be because of the sheer annoyance of dealing with people like me.

People waiting for their turn to take a photo at Platform 9 3/4.

So there's a quick tour of Harry Potter's Britain. The sites are so popular that there are several tours devoted to them exclusively. You can Google "Harry Potter tours" to find out more.