Saturday, April 23, 2011

London Day 2 - St. Paul's, Shakespeare, and Windsor Castle

Monday, April 18

Another early start got us to St. Paul's Cathedral before the tourist crowds.  Having heard that St. Paul's along with St. Peter's in Rome and Sevilla's Catedral are the three biggest churches in Europe, we had to add this site to the itinerary.  I did not have a picture in my head of the church, so when we arrived in London I was surprised by its likeness to the Capital building in Washington DC.  The dome is famously photographed during the Nazi air raid of the Battle of Britain.  Most of the church was unaffected by the bombs.

I was most interested by the history and architecture of the church.  Having seen many Catholic churches now, St. Paul's seemed to be just as Catholic, as if it had been built in Italy and plopped in London.  Yet, this was a Protestant church.  Originally, the site had been home to a Gothic church, which gradually deteriorated over time.  St. Paul's was assigned to architect Christopher Wren, who had also designed the William and Mary wing of Hampton Court.  Many were outraged by its Catholic design, but it still came to be.  Inside, the dome is incredible, as is the rest of the ceiling.  Beneath the church is a crypt.  Normally, only one part beneath the altar is reserved for the burial of famous people.  Here, the crypt covers the entire length of the church.  The two most famous graves are those of the Duke of Wellington (who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo) and Admiral Lord Nelson (who defeated the Spanish and French navy at Trafalgar).  Winston Churchill had a grand memorial service here.  And Prince Charles and Diana got married here.  The crypt was Laura's paradise, full of English graves. 

We crossed the river to visit the reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theater.  The site uses the same materials and design and hosts a whole season of Shakespeare shows.  The round theater has three floors of seating, all supported by wood.  The material really is not fit for this rounded and rigorous design, but it works here.  Given all the rain in London, it is amazing to think that the shows go on even in the rain.  After our guided visit, we continued to the nearby train station for the day's main event: Windsor Castle.

Within an hour we arrived in the quaint town of Windsor, which is dominated by the grand medieval castle.  The original castle had been built by William the Conqueror, but the site has undergone many additions and renovations depending upon the occupant.  Since the restoration of the monarchy during the reign of Charles II, the castle has been the central residence of the crown.  George III and IV renovated it further, and Queen Victoria loved to stay here.  Today, it is the Queen's preferred residence.  A flag indicated that she was in the building the day we were there. 

Unlike Hampton Court (Versailles-esque), Winsdor Castle really feels like a true castle with round, gray towers and turrets.  We entered and were overwhelmed by the grounds alone.  We were lucky enough to see a version of the "changing of the guard" here, rather than at the tourist trap of Buckingham Palace.  Little did we know that we would see the best church in England here too: St. George's Chapel.  This will remain near the top of my list of best European churches.  It is one of the most ornate Gothic churches I have seen.  Inside (no pictures allowed), I was overwhelmed by the amount of detail, especially in the ceiling.  In the choir, Henry VIII and Charles I are buried.  In the apartments outside, knights, guards, and church officials still live and raise families.  It was nice to see a tourist site still so functional. 

We made our way inside the Royal Apartments (no photos, but see example below), which were extraordinary.  They far surpassed the interiors of Hampton Court.  Every room was different, served a different function, and contained a swath of treasures.  My favorite was the Charles II Dining Room, which captured his playboy personality.  Queen Victoria's colonial treasures were also striking.  In other rooms, you could imagine the Queen hosting special visitors or conducting the traditional knight ceremonies.  The addition item was Queen Mary's Doll House (Queen Mary, wife of George V).  It is the best in the world, complete with full plumbing.  Yes, that means the toilet the size of your thumb flushes. 

Royal Apartments 
Queen Mary's Doll House 

When we existed the castle, we grabbed some ice cream and headed up the road to Eton College, the high school for England's elites.  William and Harry went there, as well as the UK's current prime minister, David Cameron.  There we found another incredible chapel and courtyard.  We enjoyed the quaint English town; it was as if we were in the English movies we have seen.  We returned to London shortly thereafter, grabbing a Thai dinner.  We had hoped to see the Houses of Parliament, but we realized that it would not be open due to the Easter holiday.  But, it was for the best; we exhausted and ready to return to the hotel.

For pictures of this day, see "London Day 2 - 4-18" at

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