Monday, May 20, 2013

5 day vacation, Part 1

So it's been like a month since I last updated the ol' blog...oops. But really, I haven't done anything exciting. Except week before last I had a vacation. Last week I was busy catching up on sleep in my spare time, so I didn't even get around to going through my pictures. Ready? I went to LONDON. It was awesome. Here's how that went.

Day 1. Technically, day 2. Tuesday (the real day 1) I did a half day of work, and then split for the train station. Train to Paris, RER train to different station, train to London. Yes, I took the Chunnel. It's not as cool as you'd think. It's very fast, so even when you are above ground, the view out the window is just a blur. But then when you're in the tunnel, you can't see anything at all. I mean, it's a marvel of modern engineering, but it's not a fascinating ride. I arrived at my hotel, which I snagged at a super great deal. London prices are not what I would call 'affordable', but I managed to land a 5 star hotel at a 3 star price (well, for London). I'm a firm believer that being frugal has its benefits. Save now, have fun later. This is my later:

yay! comfort!
So Day 1 of my London trip was Wednesday, and in my usual fashion, I walked until my feet hurt just standing still. FYI: the London underground is very easy to use, possibly easier than Paris' metro, but it's hard to judge. The only thing I don't like about it is its cost. Far too expensive for public transit. 

Anyway, my number one must-see was the London Eye. I have a thing for ferris wheels. Standing 135 m tall, opened in 2000, it was the world's tallest ferris wheel for 6 years. It is now the third tallest in the world, and it remains the tallest in Europe. Not only did it make me incredibly happy just to be on it (because inside I'm really just a small child), it's also a fantastic view. 

The London Eye

Big Ben and Parliament, as seen from above

London eye views

The Shard
See that weird pointy building in that picture? That's The Shard, the tallest building in the EU, which just opened to the public a couple months ago. 

After that I headed over to Big Ben, only to find the streets were blocked off, and the sidewalks were more than usually crowded. As it happens, I had arrived very serendipitously: the Queen was about to travel from Buckingham Palace to Parliament to give her annual speech. Being rather short, I didn't get any good pictures, but for about 3 seconds, I did in fact see the Queen of England in her royal carriage, wearing her diamond crown (not the coronation one). 

Big Ben

The royal guard

The royal carriage (Queen not pictured)

The poor members of the royal band in their big fuzzy hats 

And with their real swords and knives
Also, besides having about a hundred guys on horses (and most of the city police lining her route), she had the royal band. They were really good and I ended up near them at one point. They were at ease waiting to be allowed to leave, so I took the opportunity of mentioning to them that I played in marching band for eight years, and I completely sympathize with their big fuzzy hats. The guy kind of smiled. We band kids have to stick together; once you've worn an all wool and polyester outfit, you belong. 

Once I managed to get through the crowd, I made my way to Westminster Abbey. It's beautiful, but I have to tell you, it's a very frustrating experience. There are far far far too many people who go in there and act like they've got the place to themselves. Really unfortunate. In one chapel, despite numerous signs asking that you keep moving because it's a very narrow space, these people would stop and just chat about the tombs they were looking at. They were speaking English, so they don't get the excuse of not understanding the signs, and there's no way they couldn't see the huge line of people waiting behind them. At one point I actually asked them aloud if they wouldn't mind moving forward. They chose not to hear me, though I'm sure I spoke quite distinctly. This is why I don't like the general public. Otherwise though, it's very interesting. There's so many famous people buried there; kings and queens and lords that have all been scattered through your history books are all right there. 

Westminster Abbey
 Then I walked through St. James park (grabbing a nondescript lunch on the way) to Buckingham Palace. I missed the changing of the guard because I was too busy seeing the Queen. I think it was worth it. You can't go in this time of year, since the royal family is actually in residence at the moment.

Buckingham Palace
 Now, a lot of people confuse Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral. Both are worth seeing, but they're very different. Westminster Abbey has been the coronation church since 1066 (when William the Conqueror won the battle of Hastings and became king of England), and the current church has been there since Henry III in 1245. Westminster Abbey is of the Church of England (or at least it has been as long as the Church of England has been a thing). Westminster Cathedral was built by the Catholic Church in the late 1800s when it re-entered England (having been on the outs for the last 300 years or so). I have visited a lot of medieval churches, cathedrals, and basilicas over the past 8 months, so this is a completely new style.

They built the whole thing out of brick, even the domes, to show that a good builder doesn't need concrete or steel. The style is Neo-Byzantine, a big change from the gothic cathedrals I'm used to frequenting. The stand out feature with this building (besides the stripes on the outside) are the beautiful mosaics that cover the floor, the walls, and some of the ceilings. However, it's far from finished. In order to stay out of debt, much the building was originally left undecorated and mosaics were added at different times. It's still unfinished, notably the ceilings, with the idea that each generation will add to the cathedral's glory.

The front facade of Westminster Cathedral

The high altar

Some of the gorgeous mosaics

You can seen the difference between
the lower tiled sections and
the unfinished upper sections
Next I hit up another of my big must-sees: The Tower of London. We've all heard the stories: royal prisoners, torture machines, disappearing princes. The Tower was built by William the Conqueror to impress (and scare into submission) the populace of London. It worked. The stone keep is the oldest in England, and  the impressive fortifications and royal lodgings would have awed the Londoners. William and his lords built more than 35 castles when they first arrived, both as military posts and as residences. 

Since then, the stories and legends have piled up. Eleanor of Aquitaine once tried to escape the Tower of London by boat during a revolt, but was stopped by the townspeople. A couple generations later it became less of a residence and more of a prison for high ranking traitors. A Baroness for example was held there because she refused to let Queen Isabella into her castle and actually told her archers to fire upon her. When Richard II was crowned, a peasant revolt actually made it into the castle and ransacked the crown jewels. The famous princes in the tower were (probably) killed by their uncle Duke of Gloucester who declared himself king. No one can prove it, but I'm betting the kids didn't die of natural causes. Very few people were actually killed at the Tower though. Most executions would have taken place outside on Tower Hill, but the rare and privileged few were granted a private execution, such as Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, and Mary, Queen of Scots. It would have been at about this time that the prison would have reached its peak in 'grimness'. Although greatly exaggerated in frequency, torture instruments did not go unused. The rack of course, and the manacle, but also the Scavenger's Daughter, a machine that squeezed people into a tiny painful little ball, the rack's cruel opposite. 
The Tower of London

Edward I's bedroom

The White Tower

The Crown Jewels
During the English Civil War the crown jewels were completely destroyed. When the monarchy was restored they had to make all new ones (darn). These are on display for the public, though you can't take pictures. The best part, and I think this should be implemented in every castle and museum, is the moving walkway that slowly carries you past the jewels. Not only do you get to just look without worrying about walking into anybody, nobody can decide to just stand directly in front of something for 15 minutes. Wonderful.

Traitor's Gate:
 if you come in through here, you leave in a box

Yeoman Warder with a Raven
 So they have all these ravens at the Tower. Legend has it that once upon a time the giant Bran (which means  raven) was mortally wounded in a terrible battle against the Irish king over the British princess. He ordered his followers to cut off his head and bury it on White Hill (where the Tower now is) facing toward France to protect Britain from foreign invasion. Centuries later, the royal astronomer complained to King Charles II that the ravens were interfering with his observations. The king however was told the old legend, which finishes with the idea that if the ravens should ever leave, the Tower and the kingdom will fall. Unwilling to lose his kingdom, Charles moved the observatory to Greenwich, and kept the birds. Believe what you will, today a set of 7 ravens are kept at the Tower at all times, wings clipped, just to be safe. A Yeoman Warder is in charge of caring for them. He happened to be feeding one while I was there. It is in fact true that ravens can learn to talk, though usually only a few one or two syllable words. None of the current birds talks though, and he admitted that he doesn't encourage them to do so, for fear that they'll just learn swear words.

Tower Bridge
Right next door is the iconic Tower Bridge. There is a London Bridge, but it's just boring looking. I had fish and chips for dinner before setting out for one last stop (before my feet cried uncle). 

The M&M Store!
 The M&M Store! After a day of history, this was a sweet, fun ending. It's like a college bookstore: you name it, they sell it with their logo on it. Each of the characters has a British themed statue and a space where they sell related merchandise. But the best feature, by far, is the M&Ms bar.

Every color of the rainbow, in regular and peanut

Bag of happiness

So I made my own bag of just my favorite colors, plus a sprinkling of crunchy M&Ms on top. Yummy! 

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