Saturday, April 23, 2011

London Day 1: From Churchill to the Tudors

Sunday, April 17

After our day in Sevilla on Friday, Laura and I spent Saturday flying to London and getting settled in our Nottinghill hotel.  We were immediately struck by how open and clean London feels in contrast to New York.  The buildings are lower, brighter, more spread out, and situated between plenty of neighborhood parks.  The sun, which we would miraculously enjoy for the entire stay, was allowed to peak through wherever we were.  Another curiosity was the traffic.  Despite signs on the street aiding pedestrians to "look right" and "look left," Laura and I continued to confuse the traffic flow.  Not only did the Londoners drive on the opposite side of the street, but they all seemed to zoom out from nowhere.  We were at the mercy of the pedestrian walk signals, many of which lasted no more than one or two minutes each time. 

I was also struck by how international London was, both in comparison to Spain and the United States.  Sevilla all of the sudden appeared to be a homogeneous society, everyone in lockstep.  The city reminded me of the United States, but presented a parallel universe.  Every nationality from the former British colonies seemed to be represented.  The number of Africans and Indians surprised me the most, yet they all carried a perfect British accent and were perfectly integrated into the society.  London's youth consisted of people from across the world, all hanging out together.

We got up early ahead of our first sightseeing day, enjoyed an included complementary breakfast at the hotel, and made our way to the Westminster neighborhood.  The London Marathon was underway, filling the streets with people soaking in the sun and the camaraderie.  We descended into one of the nearby limestone government buildings (see above, with Marathon crowds) to visit the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms.  This was the site where Churchill and his closest ministers took shelter and led the country through the Nazi air raid of London--the Battle of Britain.  An audioguide led us through the cramped quarters: the meeting rooms, the bedrooms, and offices.  I could not imagine being stuck down there all day and every day as bombs dropped outside.  Given the destruction the Nazi's caused, I am surprised much of the historic sites remain.  We spent at least an hour and half in the Churchill museum section, which dissected each phase of his life.  We got a great personal glimpse of him, his wit, his intentions, and his daily behavior. 

We emerged from the War Rooms and walked over the river to catch a train to our next site, Hampton Court, and took in the marathon atmosphere.  Within the hour we were down the Thames at the palace where the Tudors and William and Mary ruled.  The English architectural differences struck me at the start.  The palace appeared to me like a sprawling, chimney-lined brick factory with a grand castle entrance.  To some extent, it was just that.  From here, Henry VIII ruled, wielding power by feeding a huge number of courtiers.  We first toured the kitchens that supported the operation, where thousands of meat pies were prepared, and then taken down with boat loads of wine and beer.  Water was considered unsafe at the time, so even children drank alcohol.  Everything seemed to support the image of Henry VIII as bombastic, power-obsessed, and attention-hungry.

We continued through Henry VIII's royal apartments and encountered the Great Hall with its carved "hammer-beam" wooden ceiling (see below).  I enjoyed learning about the role of Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and chief minister under Henry VIII, who helped carry out and administer Henry VIII's conquest of Europe.  Of course, plenty of information about the wives and children of Henry VIII accompanied the tour.  I was reminded of Mr. Pappas's World History class when we focused on the king's separation from the Pope and the establishment of the Church of England. 

The palace was also home to William and Mary, who oversaw a massive addition to the Tudor palace.  Their wing appears like Versailles and overlooks Versailles-like gardens.  After touring the royal apartments in this wing we explored the elaborate gardens.  The sun was at the perfect place in the sky for snapping photos.  The mushroom-like trees reminded me a Super Mario Brothers video-game.  The exotic flowers were perfectly aligned and in bloom.  We also found a maze, which we had to explore.  Thinking it would be easy, I was a little worried after about ten minutes of wondering.  Thankfully, we found the exit and continued to the enormous reflecting pool, purple-flowered vines, swans, and more Alice-in-Wonderland-like gardens.  Upon exit we picked up ice cream to restore blood sugar levels (and celebrated Spain's pre-dinner "Merienda" dessert, I suppose). 

We returned to London within the hour and proceeded to the Covent Garden neighborhood, London's theater district.  There we went to a Rick Steves-recommended Turkish restaurant and enjoyed a massive plate of lamb, bread and hummus, and Turkish samplers.  The dinner was phenomenal, one of the best I have had in Europe.  We would avoid eating London-food the whole trip, instead enjoying the surprisingly rich flavors from London's international class. We continued to absorb the scene near and at London's "Time-Square," or Piccadilly Circus, before heading back to the hotel. 

To see photos from our first incredible day in London, see "London Day 1 - 4-17" at

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