Eurotrip 2014, Part 15: A Final Day in London

July 10, 2014: Today was my final day in London before I would head out on a three-day trip to Amsterdam and Bruges. It was a light day overall as I allowed myself to sleep in following two days of excursions featuring early-morning wakeup calls and long bus rides. Since I had been in London for nearly two weeks and hadn’t yet visited Buckingham Palace, I thought today would be a good day to do so.

But first, after grabbing some lunch and buying a new umbrella, I hopped on the tube to Baker Street so I could walk in the footsteps of Gerry Rafferty while also stopping by the Sherlock Holmes statue. I then took the tube to Hyde Park Corner and walked through Green Park past some war memorials and through the Wellington Arch before making my way to Buckingham Palace along Constitution Hill. Here are some photos from my day:

One interesting tidbit about Buckingham Palace: apparently the Queen does not like the palace. According to a guide from one of my tours, she derisively refers to Buckingham as “the office,” only going there long enough to dispense with official duties before retreating to one of her preferred palaces. She was actually staying at her palace in Edinburgh when I was there the previous week. I can see her point: it’s not the most attractive palace in the world.

After spending some time outside the palace (the inside was not open to tourists at this time of the year) I walked around Green Park for a bit longer before grabbing some dinner and then heading back to my flat. I decided to call it an early night since I had a lot of packing to do and an extremely early wakeup call the next morning. I was looking forward to my visits to Amsterdam and Bruges, though I felt as if, despite spending two weeks here, I had only just scratched the surface of everything London had to offer.

View more of my photos from London.

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Eurotrip 2014, Part 14: Canterbury, Greenwich, and More London

Since I’ll be returning to London in three weeks, I thought it might be a good idea to actually try and finish the journal of my previous trip, which I began writing oh so long ago

July 9, 2014: After our visits to Leeds Castle and Dover it was time to head to Canterbury, home of the famed tales by Chaucer. We parked and walked through the charming pedestrian market area to get to the cathedral. Unfortunately, we were denied access to the cathedral because the BBC was shooting some TV show there, so that was a bummer. We had to settle for the crypts, which we only had 15 minutes to explore before they closed. The crypts were really neat, but the feeling of being rushed did not make for a pleasant visit.

I then headed back into town and ate a late lunch at an outdoor French café, enjoying a dish of beef bourignon. Later I would discover that I had left my umbrella at the café—and an umbrella is not a good thing to be without in England. Oh well, stuff happens when you travel. Luckily, it didn’t rain before I was able to buy a new one back in London the next day. Anyway, here are some photos from my visit to Canterbury.

The next stop after Canterbury was Greenwich, London, home of Greenwich Mean Time, at zero degrees longitude. We waited here to catch a boat that would take us along the Thames back into central London. In the meantime I walked around and snapped some photos:

I also tried unsuccessfully to use a bathroom in a restaurant. I’m well aware that most places in Europe either charge you for the bathroom or will only allow patrons to use it. However, a large restaurant along the river had a sign on the outside advertising bathrooms, so I thought this place was an exception, especially since I had just watched one of my fellow tour members head upstairs to use it. So I headed up, figuring if anyone said anything I would just buy a soda or something, but as soon as I began ascending the stairs a restaurant employee came running across the restaurant to yell at me. I would have offered to buy something, but this person’s behavior irritated me so much that I just left.

Speaking of bathrooms, here’s a travel tip: never ask for a ‘restroom’ in the U.K. because nobody will know what the hell you’re talking about. One person thought I was looking for a place to rest. 🙂

Eventually the boat arrived and we were off. Here are some photos from the cruise:

I was disappointed to discover that it was a simple commuter boat rather than the cruise with tea, wine, and scones that had been promised on the web site through which I had booked the tour. This, on top of the denied Canterbury Cathedral entry and arrival to the crypts at closing time, as well as other missed itinerary points in Dover, left me feeling a bit ripped off, so I complained to Premium Tours. As it turns out, my booking was secured through a third-party web site that contained outdated itinerary information, but Premium Tours still made good on my disappointment by giving me a 25-percent refund, which was much appreciated.

Overall, I booked four tours through Premium Tours and found them to be a very good tour company. Although this tour was somewhat disappointing, I very much enjoyed the Bath/Stonehenge tour (worth every penny), and the Paris tour allowed me to see a lot of the city in just one day.

In the end, however, I felt as if I booked a couple of tours too many and did not spend enough time in London itself, so one bit of advice I would give someone coming to London is not to overbook yourself on tours that take you out of the city . . . unless you don’t care about seeing that much of London, then book away!

I decided to depart the cruise near the London Eye ferris wheel since I had pre-purchased a voucher to ride it and this would probably be the last day I would have a chance to do so. I waited in line for a half hour only to get to the front and be told that my voucher was no good, that I needed to go to the building nearby and exchange it for an actual ticket. I had naturally assumed that I could simply present my voucher to the ticket taker, just as I had done with my voucher to enter the Tower of London, both of which had been purchased from the same tour company: The Original Tour. The tour company should have made it clear that the London Eye voucher did not work the same as the Tower of London voucher, so this was partially their fault.

It was also the fault of the ticket takers at the London Eye, who should never have allowed me to enter the line with just a voucher: the attendant confirmed this, but she was completely unsympathetic that their screwup caused me to waste a half-hour of my time–she refused to allow me to go get a ticket and return to the front of the line; I would have to go to the back of the line and wait all over again. So I left the line (which was even longer now than when I had first queued up), and entered the building to get my ticket–until I saw how long the line was there. At that point I was so fed up that I said “screw it” and left; I had better things to do with my life. I ended up not using the voucher at all.

To be honest, once I realized the London Eye cars were enclosed and that any photos would be taken through glass, I wasn’t too upset about missing the ride (I had already gotten a bird’s eye view of London at The Shard anyway); I was just annoyed about wasting my money on the voucher. The lesson here: if you purchase vouchers in advance from ‘The Original Tour’ company, make sure you know which vouchers are good for entry, and which must be exchanged for a ticket.

After that debacle I decided to just do some more walking before heading back to my flat. Here are some photos from that walk.

I freshened up in my apartment and then decided to venture back out since I hadn’t really had a chance to experience London at night. I made my way to Picadilly Circus and snapped some photos before taking a stroll through Chinatown, where I planned to eat dinner. It was my first visit to any Chinatown, despite living halfway between Philly and New York (a few days later I would also visit Chinatown in Amsterdam, and a few months after that I would visit San Francisco’s Chinatown, so I made up for lost time). One thing I discovered about Chinatown is that, with so many similar restaurants to choose from, it’s hard to pick one place, so I found myself walking around in circles.

I eventually settled on a Vietnamese restaurant, where I had a funny (and somewhat humiliating) experience. The waiter brought out a dish of greens and I thought he said the word “salad,” so I poured what I thought was dressing on it and started eating. After a couple of bites I thought to myself, “This tastes like pure cilantro.” That’s because it was. I was supposed to put the cilantro in the soup he later brought out. So I threw the rest of the cilantro and “dressing” into the soup when it arrived, but this was also a mistake because the “dressing” was actually dipping sauce for the spring rolls and meat that the waiter would be bringing out next. Oh, and the spoon I had used to ladle the “dressing” on the “salad” was my soup spoon. I’m sure the owners had a good laugh at my expense. I’ll just chalk it up to being the end of a long and exhausting day. 😉

After dinner I headed back to my flat. Tomorrow would be my final full day in London, so I thought I should at least go have a look at Buckingham Palace. That will be covered in the next installment. In the meantime, here are some night shots of Picadilly Circus and Chinatown.

View more of my photos from London

View more photos from my visits to the English countryside

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Eurotrip 2014, Part 13: Leeds Castle and Dover

After a long, long delay, I am finally returning to the journal of my 2014 European trip. Perhaps I might finish it before 2016 rolls around. 🙂

July 9, 2014: Fresh from my visit to the Cotswolds on the previous day, I embarked on another excursion outside London. Today I would be visiting Leeds Castle, Dover, Canterbury, and Greenwich, before boarding a boat that would take me along the Thames back into central London. This was my fourth and final trip booked through Premium Tours.

The first stop was Leeds Castle. Our group was given a private tour before the castle opened to the public, enabling me to get plenty of people-free shots. Leeds may not be as big as other castles, but it’s very pretty and serene, situated on a lake and surrounded by beautiful grounds. It’s worth a visit if you’re looking for a day out from London to a nearby destination.

Little did I know that in less than two years I would be returning (and actually staying in the castle for a couple of nights) for my sister-in-law’s upcoming wedding. This time I will be visiting the castle in February, so perhaps I’ll get some new photos with snow cover to contrast with the summer photos below:

Our next stop after Leeds Castle was Dover for a chance to view the famous white cliffs. Unfortunately it was just a 15-minute stop, so I only had time for a few photos.

After leaving Dover we next headed to the land of Chaucer: Canterbury. That part of the trip will be covered in the next installment.

View more photos from my visits to the English countryside.

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Eurotrip 2014, Part 12: The Cotswolds

July 8, 2014: Today I took a trip through the picturesque area of the English countryside known as the Cotswolds, which included visits to four historic villages. This was another tour taken though Premium Tours. It’s a great tour to take if you like strolling through quaint villages and doing a lot of shopping, but in my case I felt as if it was a tour I probably could have skipped.

Don’t get me wrong, the villages were all very cute, but for me it wasn’t worth a 5 a.m. wakeup call and a missed extra day I could have spent exploring London. Perhaps a half-day trip would have been better, as I could have gotten the Cotswolds experience without using up my entire day—the villages were similar enough to each other that it wasn’t really necessary to see all of them.

It probably didn’t help that the much-touted lunch at a 17-century Inn was a huge disappointment. Our only choices were trout or vegetarian pasta. I don’t like seafood, so I was stuck with the pasta, which was decidedly mediocre, plus some fruit thing for dessert that I didn’t like. I wasn’t expecting five-star dining, but offering one meat option would have been nice (later in the day I made up for my lunch disappointment by having a nice afternoon tea with scones in one of the villages).

Nevertheless, the trip offered many nice photographic opportunities and I would still recommend it if you’re looking to do something different and get out of London for a day (though if you can only choose one trip, the Bath/Stonehenge trip is much better).

Here are some photos from my day:

Word to the wise: make sure you don’t wander into private property. I made this mistake in the first village we visited. I followed a couple of people from my tour through an open gate into a large garden area that appeared to lead to a church. Alas, it was someone’s private property (I missed the sign on the way in) and we were chased out by an irate home owner. Based on how unreceptive he was to my apologies, it must happen to him a lot. Later, when we rode back through the town, I noticed that the gate was closed. 🙂

We returned to London late in the evening. I can’t recall what I did for dinner; I may just have called it a night since I had an early wake-up call. The following morning I would be taking another excursion outside of London, this time to Leeds Castle, Dover, Canterbury, and finally to Greenwich for a boat ride back into central London.

View more photos from my visits to the English countryside.

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Eurotrip 2014, Part 11: Rock ‘n’ Roll Pilgrimages and a West‑End Vampire

Flash Forward: Battersea Power Station

July 7, 2014: It was my first day back in London after spending three days in Scotland and I was still recovering from lack of sleep, so I got a late start after allowing myself to sleep in. I didn’t have any excursions scheduled during the day (just a play I had tickets for in the evening), so my plan was to take it easy, meandering about the city and taking a couple of pilgrimages to iconic rock locations.

First on the list was Abbey Road, site of the famous Beatles album cover of the same name. I took the subway to the closest station and made my way to Abbey Road Studios.

Pilgrimage Accomplished

The crosswalk is actually in a busy intersection with no traffic light, so I tried to respect motorists by crossing as quickly as possible, but many people were quite a bit less courteous, stepping in front of cars and spending long periods of time setting up their photos. The locals are used to this, so they’re patient in allowing people to cross and take their photos, but when people linger in the middle of the road to take multiple shots and exaggerated poses, then the motorists understandably start to get irritated.

Abbey Road Crossing

I wasn’t about to hold up traffic by asking someone to take a photo of me as I crossed, but I was still able to get footage of my crossing via the web cam trained on the crosswalk. All you have to do is go to the Abbey Road Studios web site and grab the shots of your crossing, and if you time it right, your friends and family back home can actually watch your crossing live via the video feed. Here is a shot from the web cam:

That’s me looking up at the camera.

I then headed back to the subway station, and as you can see from the photo below, a nearby shop knows how to capitalize on Beatlemania.

A Day in the Life of a local coffee shop.

My next destination was the Battersea Power Station. If you are a Pink Floyd fan, this is the building featured on the cover of their Animals album. I made my way down to the Thames and walked along the bank for about 30 minutes before realizing that I had turned in the wrong direction, so I was forced to backtrack. Here are some photos from that stretch.

Looking Across the Thames
Another Thames shot.
The Tate Britain Art Museum

By the time I began to see the station it had started to rain—because you can’t walk for an hour in London without encountering rain—at least I couldn’t. 🙂

I was surprised at how massive the station is; it completely dominates the landscape of that portion of the Thames. Here are a couple of photos (I liked these better than my attempts at recreating the actual album cover, and I’m pretty sure the album photo was shot from the other side of the river anyway).

Battersea Power Station
The Battersea (sans flying pig)

I thought about checking out the Tour de France, which was wrapping up its London leg today, but decided I didn’t feel like braving the crowds, so I settled for snapping this photo of a biker who may or may not have been part of the race.

Race straggler or casual biker?

I then made my way back toward the center of the city and ducked out of the rain into an Italian restaurant for an early dinner. Inside they had the end of the Tour de France on television, so I sat and watched that with a glass of prosecco and a ravioli dinner. I don’t remember much about the dinner itself, so it couldn’t have been great, but it wasn’t bad, either.

After dinner, with the rain still beating down, I decided to just head back to my apartment and get ready for my evening trip to the West End, where I would be seeing a play called Let the Right One In, an adaptation of an excellent Swedish vampire film. I had bought the tickets online ahead of time for something like ten pounds—shocking that you can see a show in London for a fraction of what it would cost on Broadway, or maybe I was just lucky with that particular show.

While getting ready for the evening I watched some TV—an interesting aspect of TV in Britain is that American television shows seem to be played at a faster speed. Perhaps it has something to do with British television broadcasting at a different frame rate, but the effect was that every cast member of The Big Bang Theory sounded as if they had just inhaled helium. Thus, I can’t help wondering if everyone in England is under the impression that Americans talk like chipmunks. 😉

Instead of riding the subway to the theater district I decided to take the long walk from my apartment and enjoy the newly emerged sun. I did not bring my camera with me since I wasn’t sure what the theater rules were regarding cameras, so there are no photos from my walk through some interesting neighborhoods.

Along the way I stumbled across a hotel that serves afternoon tea. To this point I had not had a proper British afternoon tea and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to remedy that. For my tea I chose an excellent Earl Grey, which was served with savory sandwiches, tasty sweets, and delicious fresh-baked scones with clotted cream (also known as Devonshire cream). The low-quality cell phone photo below does not do the spread justice.

Tea Time

Needless to say, I am now a huge fan of British-style afternoon tea—I had always been a big tea drinker, but the Brits take it to a whole different level. Now, whenever I go on a trip here in the States, I keep my eyes peeled for a place serving afternoon tea.

Unfortunately, I had to kind of rush through my tea because the show would be starting soon, so I finished up and made my way to the theater. The Apollo is a nice, historic building, lending the play some additional atmosphere.

The Apollo

All of the seats in the theater appear to be good. Here was my view of the stage:

Set of Let the Right One In

During the first act, the person behind me kept kicking my chair while a couple sitting directly in front of me kept making out (or snogging, to use a British term) throughout the entire show like hormonal teenagers in a movie theater, so after intermission I moved to a relatively empty section where I could watch the second act in peace.

As for the show itself, the play was outstanding, really well-conceived, and every bit as affecting as the film. The overall tone was sufficiently eerie, the performances were great, and the music and choreography during transition scenes was stunning. All in all, I was glad I decided to spend one of my evenings in London at the theater.

After the show I walked around Picadilly Circus, which is very cool when it is all lit up at night (I would return later in the week with my fast prime lens to take some night photos). I then headed back to the apartment. In the morning I would be venturing outside London on a trip to the Cotswolds.

View more of my photos from London.

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