London is an incredible city -- so big and busy, with so much to see and do. We spent a week in London and there were still so many things we didn't get to see. But we had a great time and managed to hit a lot of the highlights.
After spending the first 2 days at Wimbledon, we headed out to do some touristy stuff. We took a hop on-hop off bus tour, which was a great way to see a large amount of London quickly. Plus the guides were really good. We spent part of the day at the Tower of London. I loved the Crown Jewels -- especially seeing the crown that Queen Elizabeth II wore at her coronation. We also saw an exhibit on the armor and weaponry of Henry VIII. It is the 500th anniversary of his ascent to the throne and many of the museums in London are doing special exhibits. It was really interesting. We joined in a Beefeater tour and learned about the famous beheadings and prisoners in the Tower. Afterwards we took a riverboat down the Thames to Westminster Abbey.
The next day our friend Mel joined us. Mel had been living in Corpus Christi and the four of us had spent a lot of time together in Texas. She and her husband Jamy moved to Naples, Italy in December. I had spent a week with them in April, but that seems like so long ago now! Mel came to London for the weekend and it was so great for all of us to be together. We really had a great time.
On Friday night we went and saw the Lion King. It was a fantastic show! The costumes, set design, music -- it was incredible and more of an event than a show. All in all, I managed to catch four shows while I was in London -- Lion King, La Cage Aux Folles, Billy Elliot, and Les Miserables. They were all amazing and all totally different. Plus I was able to take advantage of the half price tickets booth, so it didn't bankrupt me! I loved it!
On Saturday we headed out to the London Eye. This enormous ferris wheel-type contraption was meant to be temporary for the millenium, but it was such a success that London decided to keep it. It really is an interesting addition to the skyline. It takes about half an hour to complete the full circle and each pod holds about 26 people. It was a different view of London and we had fun trying to figure out what certain buildings were. From the Eye we walked to Westminster Abbey and took the audioguide tour. What an amazing place so full of history -- religious, political and cultural.
We spent a fair amount of time in London shopping (Mary might say too much time). The shops were just amazing and there were so many great places to browse. Of course we had to see Harrods. It is a one-of-a-kind department store. I loved just browsing through the food halls, crammed pack with foods from all over the world. We tried to check out the clearance rack for women's clothes, but most of those were still way out of our price range. We did have fun in the Pet Kingdom, and Lisa even managed to buy Bunty a birthday cake! We also wandered around the Covent Garden area. It was great for just hanging out and people watching -- there was always some sort of action somewhere. And the shopping was great! I managed to find a beautiful dress to wear to my friend Nicole's wedding, and my friends convinced me to buy it, even though it was the equivalent of a month long stay in a hostel!
We spent several evenings in London enjoying the pub culture. One of our favorites was the Dog & Duck -- a London pub that has a sister pub of the same name in Austin. As a student Lisa used to frequent the Austin location, so of course we had to make a trek to the London namesake. It was a great pub, and we had a really fun night drinking too many pints! We also managed to eat several curry dinners. The Indian food in London is amazing, and the complete lack of Indian food in Corpus Christi is something we all used to bemoan. So we took advantage of the great food and drink that London had to offer.
Somehow we managed to be in London during the biggest heat wave of the last decade. Think of Texas temperatures in a place where there are no air conditioners. It was incredibly hot and muggy. According to the papers, the temperatures in the tube reached over 43 C, which is almost 110 F. The big joke the papers kept making is that in Britain it is illegal to transport cattle if the temperatures are over 27 C, but people, hey, no problem!
After Mel and Lisa left, Mary and I still had a couple of days together in London. We managed to hit several of the museums. The National Gallery has an incredible collection of paintings, plus it was the perfect size. Not too big, but not too small. We also went to the British Museum, which is hands down one of the best museums I have ever been to. Even after going back for a second visit, there were so many things I didn't get to see. The British Museum really is a museum that documents the history of civilization. From ancient Egyptian mummies, to Greek statuary, to pieces of Assyrian palaces and the Rosetta Stone -- totally amazing stuff. I think I could have spent a week in there. The Asian collections were amazing. The Parthenon marbles were also really beautiful. After being in Athens and seeing the Parthenon and replicas of the marbles, it was great to actually see the real thing. It was also interesting because there is a huge campaign in Greece to get the Parthenon marbles returned to Athens. The British Museum had a little pamphlet addressing the issue, and basically said flat out that they are not giving them back. They do actually make a good point -- the marbles are being preserved and protected, are an integral part of the history of civilization, and are available to visitors from all over the world in their current location. I couldn't help thinking as I wandered around the museum that if the Museum were to give the Parthenon marbles back, a lot of other countries and cultures would demand pieces of their history back as well. One of the reasons that the British Museum is so amazing is because of colonialism and the fact that the British took most of these treasures as if they were the rightful owners. However contrary that seems to today's thinking, it really was probably the best thing for preserving ancient treasures and artifacts. A lot of the Assyrian palaces and statuary are located in current day Iraq, and I can only imagine what would be left of them now. And the same is true of a lot of other collections -- had the British not taken them back to London, they probably would be lost forever. As it is, they are on display for anyone and everyone to see free of charge. I was amazed that almost all of London's museums were free.
I was sad when my friends left, and really was not looking forward to London on my own. I had such a great time with my friends, it was a bit of a let down when I was back to travelling alone. I was also not looking forward to going back to hostels. After staying in hotels in Greece, with Lisa's family and friends in Scotland, and in a beautiful Crowne Plaza in London, it had been over a month since I had been in a hostel. Plus it is now high season for tourists, so the hostels are filled with 18 - 20 year olds. When I first started travelling, I was meeting a lot of people my own age (or older) in the hostels. Since summer started, it is mainly all young students who are backpacking. Unfortunately, a lot of them are not interested in much other than partying. I really don't have a lot in common with them.
One nice thing is that I got to experience many different sides of London. While my friends were there, we stayed in the City, the business and financial district that is right in the middle of everything. After they left, I moved to a hostel in Shepherd's Bush, an area a little farther out of central London near Kensington and Notting Hill. It felt much more like a real part of the city, rather than a tourist area. It was interesting to just walk around Shepherd's Bush. London is truly a multicultural city, and you can feel it everywhere. On one block there was an Indian restaurant, a Middle Eastern market, a Chinese herbalist, and a Somali clothes shop. A fascinating blend of people and cultures. I spent a couple of nights in a hostel in the Russell Square section of the city as well. I really liked this area (called Bloomsbury). It was near the British Library and Museum and also right near the major hospitals. It felt like a neighborhood I could easily live in. As much as I loved London, I don't think I could ever actually live there. So many people, so busy -- a little like New York City. Great to visit, but wouldn't want to live there.