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.