London Calling

Trip Start Nov 25, 2010
Trip End Feb 23, 2011

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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Friday, November 26, 2010

Whenever travelling to another country, the first few days are perhaps the most surreal. To have, in just twenty-four hours, traversed thousands of miles from your hometown to the other side of the world is truly remarkable when you think about it. To arrive fresh on the streets of new territory just waiting to be explored - the streets of London, no less - and to be truly humbled in witnessing hundreds of thousands of people, all going about their day as per usual in one of the most amazing cities in the world, without even a second thought as to the land you left behind you. It’s an almost indescribable feeling. To see where, and how, others are living their lives while you were back home in front of a television set. It’s something that’s difficult to put into words eloquently. Suffice to say, it truly boggles the mind. And yet, even more mind boggling to me is the fact that I am a citizen of this ‘foreign country’, and, indeed, the European Union. I can open a bank account, apply for work anywhere, rent or own a home, and yet this is my very first visit. There’s a rich heritage left unexplored here in a country steeped in history. However, I get ahead of myself.

Yes, the thought of twenty-four hours from one side of the globe to the other is a remarkable concept, but in practice it’s far less glamorous and a rather remarkable pain in the ass. Having to walk through business class on our way down to economy was ridiculously cruel of Cathay Pacific, considering just how much better their business class appears to be than any other I’ve seen. The amount of space and creature comforts these guys had was insane. Instead, we simply gazed in despair, eyes wide as we were marched out to our lowly, tiny peasant-seats at the back - like cattle to a slaughter house. My only solace is that Rachael drew the short straw and had to sit in the middle beside an Asian lady with a bad case of motion sickness. After watching the only two films available that I wanted to see, the in-flight entertainment ran thin rather quickly, as did the leg room situation. It’s not that we haven’t experienced this before, nor that Cathay Pacific is a worse airline - quite the contrary, in fact - it’s just that sometimes you find yourself more adept at coping in these kinds of situations than others. It didn’t help matters that we were delayed due to weather mid-flight and arrived an hour-and-a-half late.

All was forgiven, however, as we first set our sights upon London from above, the lights of the vibrant metropolis nestled snugly amidst the glorious green of England’s rolling hills that seemed to stretch on forever to either side. After passing through immigration, collecting our bags and catching the Heathrow Express into central London, it was already dark - and time for everyone to head home from work. The London Underground was particularly overcrowded, moreso even than New York City, and, unfortunately for us - after having skipped the first train for not being able to squeeze ourselves on board - it seems a collision ahead on the line was cause for some major delays. Yet after what seemed an eternity, we finally hit street level - all weariness and bitterness instantly giving way to elation as it finally sunk in; we were in London. A short walk later and we were standing before our hostel - English pub next door, Starbucks to the other side, mini-mart not far and a McDonalds down the street. Everything I need. We spruced ourselves up after check-in and immediately attempted to sniff out some good eats in the area, settling upon the very near Pizza Express which, despite the crappy fast food chain sounding name, was actually rather suave inside and provided one amazing Romana-style pizza with feta and caramalized onion.

Waking to the sounds of London from our hostel, feeling the crispness of the cold winters air as we open a window, we got our first look of the city by daylight. The black cabs and red doubledecker buses whiz by on the streets, Kings Cross and St. Pancras station towering above it all with its many steeples, clock tower and Victorian style architecture. And that’s just the view from our hostel. To begin the day we journeyed straight for Westminster, determined to get our tourist on and out of the way. As we ascended from the Underground station to the streets we found ourselves immediately at the foot of ‘Big Ben’ and the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament). We’ve all seen the pictures, but it’s just so hard to believe that this structure is a government building - something usually synonymous with being excruciatingly dull and lifeless. We crossed Westminster bridge, over the Thames, for a better look at the picturesque icon of England before us, which can only be described as visually stunning. Every contour of meticulously crafted golden brown appeared to glisten in the morning light, towers perched proudly upon the River Thames with Union Jack hoist high. The historic building to one side of us and the ultra-modern London Eye to our other truly solidifying where we have arrived.

Strolling about the back of the Houses of Parliament, we came to settle out front of Westminster Abbey; the simply enormous Gothic church that serves as traditional place of coronation and burial of British monarchs. Again, this is a building you’ve no doubt seen somewhere in pictures and films - as we had - but to actually stand before it is an entirely different matter. It is an absolutely awe inspiring architectural masterpiece, inside and out, that leaves you lost for words. The intricacies of every inch of the Abbey is immediately apparent, every angle you view it from seemingly more beautiful than the last. And just when you think you couldn’t be more impressed, you step through the doors into its sprawling halls, lavishly decorated in royal golds, reds and ochre upon marble floors. You could spend practically an eternity describing each and every room in its perpetual labyrinth of tombs and memorials to kings and queens past. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted inside. The site of royal weddings, worship and funerals, a number of famous Britons are buried beneath the flooring or remembered in memorium with Romanesque statues erected in their honour, including - but not limited to - King Henry III, Lady Diana, Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Jane Austin. Perhaps my favourite site of burial was that of the Unknown Warrior; tomb of a British soldier of unknown name or rank, whom died in combat during the First World War. Buried in the French soil of the battlefield and encased in black Belgian marble, the body’s identity has been kept a secret, buried amidst the place of kings and royalty to serve as a symbol in honour of those that fell.

Leaving the Abbey, we spent the remainder of the day exploring London on foot, following the roads north-east toward Trafalgar Square. As we passed the heavily guarded 10 Downing Street along the way, home to the British Prime Minister, we noticed road workers desperately attempting to remove graffiti from the previous night - the phrase ‘REVOLUTION’ in bold red - as passers by snapped photos. Meanwhile, London’s finest stood by, assault rifles in hand, ready to defend if necessary; British style, bitch. Once at Trafalgar Square we took a brief dip into the National gallery to admire some Van Gogh and some large painting of a horse, before relaxing in the hub of London. We resisted the urge to ride the giant lion statues resting proudly over the square, between its iconic fountains, for fear we’d look as stupid as the rest of the tourists doing the same thing.

Finally, we headed toward Covent Garden, a large, open-air market surrounded by cobblestone, where we stopped for lunch in a British Pub after perusing the local wares. A shank of slow-roasted beef, mushrooms, chips, peas and a jug of gravy with some warm, mulled wine to wash it down with, rich in spices; is there anything finer than some London pub grub? I tend to think not. I’d frequent far more pubs back home if this was the kind of food I could expect. Suffice to say, it hit the spot, warming our bellies and lifting our spirits for the remainder of our evening in London. We strolled through parks where the squirrels roamed, the brisk air thick with pigeons and a duck on every corner. We spied the guards from the gates of Buckingham Palace and we searched desperately for public toilets in times of crisis. All in all, it was a fantastic little days tour of London, a city I can’t wait to explore further.

And thus it is with heavy hearts that we must leave this place, to return for further exploration at a later date. For now, however, we set a course for Brussels, capital of Belgium and home of EU headquarters, where our great European tour shall truly begin. I think what will prove to be most striking about this trip is how different Europe is to any other place I’ve journeyed so far; the sheer density of vastly different countries and cultures packed together in such a comparatively small space. The fact that tomorrow we’ll be going from breakfast in London to lunch in Belgium is simply amazing to me. One thing’s for sure though; it’s going to be a fun three month ride.

Overly-long obligatory introductory post complete.
Tom out.
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Lewis on

Tomb of the unknown soldier is pretty metal.

Julia Gendle on

Wonderful description of the Motherland...enjoy xoxo

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