Wrap it up, I’ll take it.

July 12, 2011 Comments Off

We got out of the apartment quick this morning, as we wanted to use up the last of our 24 hour bus tour. The closest stop was at the Hyde park corner, near Marble Arch, so we took a nice park walk on the way out. We were lucky to have the bus arrive after just a short wait, and it was mostly empty, so we got our choice of seats on the top. The weather was perfect, and this was the bus tour that we were hoping for.

The loop around London was beautiful, and really made up for the hot, slow bus ride the day before. We stuck with the tour up past Baker Street, down through the theater district, past several famous residences, all marked by the blue plate explaining who lived there and when. We stuck on the bus until we made it to the London Eye. This was now the third time we have come to the Eye, but the first time we have actually had tickets. The loop around the Eye is only about 30 minutes, which seems rather short for the cost, but the wait in line helps round it our to about 90 minutes, which makes it a better value for your time.

It was hot in line. We hung close to trees, seeking shade, and caught a few fortunate clouds overhead to keep us from cooking. In front of us, one older woman collapsed in the heat, which was sad to see, except for the fact that it helped move the line forward. Once up to the base, we could see that there was a wedding going on in one of the capsules, which was slowing the whole thing down. Once they were off, and the flower petals were cleaned out, the line started moving a lot faster. The skies cleared up in time for us to get in our pod, and we had an excellent view all the way around the city.

You couldn’t see the Tower or Tower Bridge, but everything else in town had a commanding view. I was glad to get a glimpse at the Battersea Power Station, from Pink Floyd Animals fame, as well as a hundred other movies and shows. It is one of my favorite bits of London architecture, very imposing yet unused. Apparently it is being converted to a shopping center, which is better than getting torn down, which has been threatened. We made snapshots all around and then just sat to enjoy the view as we slowly crept up and down around the ring. It was pretty amazing and worth the line, and three days of figuring out the tickets.

We walked down river a bit, and crossed over on the pedestrian way of the Golden Jubilee Bridge, which led us right back to Trafalgar Square. We had lunch in the cafe in the National Gallery, which was another great museum cafe, sat for a bit, and to cool off, Yulia accidentally knocked a glass of water over my leg. Fortunately I was wearing shorts, and it was on one leg only, as if it was in the center of my lap it would have looked much more conspicuous. We headed up to look at the exhibits, and just had enough energy to walk through about a quarter of the place before we were galleried out. We saw some amazing Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, and one Davinci, along with a lot of smaller works.

We had two items remaining on our checklist before we we done with our trip, The first was to swing by the Sherlock Holmes museum. We took the tubes up to Baker street, and looked around until we found it. The line was huge, and with our tight schedule we didn’t want to take the rest of the evening waiting there, so we looked around a bit and headed over to Oxford Street for our second task: shopping.

We really hadn’t had a chance to look into stores the same way we did on our trip to France, but I think this is partially because you have a boutique culture in France that you just don’t have the same way here. The shops on Oxford Street were pretty cool, starting with some really huge discount shops that weed so busy that we couldn’t even walk around, and getting more and more swank as we went further down the street. Yulia managed to find a few nice things in one shop, and we checked a few more out then headed off to dinner. We found a French pub near our apartment, and had some good food for our last night.

Back at the apartment we got checked into our flight online, and I was able to buy upgrades to World Traveller Plus, for pretty cheap. This got us much better seats, and better service to boot. We were packed and ready to go home.

We have been on the move for 20 days total. That’s a long time to travel in such close quarters, but when so much of the year is spent apart, it is good for a family to compress mentally, even while we compress physically with each other. We’ve had surprisingly few problems with the trip, and even more surprisingly few problems with each other. (But a few) It will be some time before we take a trip this large again, but it worked out well this time, and was worth the risk and cost.

I have said before, I have two very good traveling partners, and they make this time worthwhile.

Raising Flags of All Nations…

July 12, 2011 Comments Off

We were exhausted from our long walk the day before, and we slept in pretty late. I eventually got up and checked out the tour bus website to see what the costs would be. It was not bad, and I was able to book a 24 hour tour pass, including Cruise on the Theames, and add a trip on the Eye for under 100 Pounds. With this setup, we could pickup our tickets from the main office back at Trafalgar Square anytime.

We hit the Tubes, and made it out to Trafalgar by 11:30. There was some kind of marathon going on, and traffic was rerouted all over the place. I had Yulia and Sasha hang out at Cafe Nero (our punch card is almost full!) while I headed to the office to get our tickets. The line wasn’t too bad at the office, and I was able to get in and out fairly quickly, but they did explain that the marathon traffic diversions would change the routes for the day.

We were primarily headed out to the Tower of London, so the exact route didn’t matter to us, so I wasn’t worried about that yet. I got Yulia and Sasha from the Cafe, and we walked over to the bus stop. It was pretty crowded. We hung about for a while, and when the bus arrived, it was pretty full. This meant that we had to sit on the lower level instead of on top, with the better view.

Then we hit the traffic.

I hadn’t realized the side effect of the rerouting would be the huge impact of every car and bus being routed in the same path at once, and we crawled along at a snail’s pace. The tour itself was good, but we had too much time between items, and the heat was on so we were baking on the way. Eventually we made out way around to the Tower, and hopped off the bus.

We were pretty hungry at this point, and found a nice place to eat with a view of the tower, river and even a peek at Tower Bridge. Unfortunately the food in the area was limited, and we ended up with a “Sacrifice Meal” of KFC. We have tried to balance our meals while n the road between good meals, and cheap. The lowest scale of cheap meals I like to think of as sacrifice meals that we eat just to keep the trip going. This was one of those. The quality of the food was bad, but they made up for it in volume.

No longer hungry, as our insides were shutting down in self-defense, we got tickets and headed into the tower. Once inside I realized that we had now visited each of the man castles in each of the Capitals, Cardiff Castle, Edinburgh Castle, and now the Tower of London. All in one trip. What made this interesting is that you hear the same history three times, each from a different point of view. Heroes in one are the villains in another. And in a sense, they are all correct, from their point of view.

Political history aside, the tower is amazing. We walked through Charles I’s quarters, the White Tower exhibits, and the Crown Jewels. This took several hours, and there was much more to see, but we just ran out of time. We spent 4 hours there, and it was beautiful and amazing. everywhere you looked there were examples of the development of the place from Roman times to today. It has never stopped changing. Eventually we were just out of time. We headed out and fond that the cruise boats were still running, and would take us to Westminster, where we could get our tickets from the London Eye. I wasn’t sure that they had spaces that evening, but at least we could get them for tomorrow.

The crowd was big waiting for the boat, and we had to wait through to boats to get on, being literally the last folks let onto the second boat. It was a nice cruise around the bend, narrated by one of the cruise members who gave us bits of river history as we went. a memorable part was a rhyme he told us about the Cast Lions heads that line the river wall, and their relation to high tides.

If the Lions are Drinking, London is sinking…

If the lions are Ducked, London is — flooded.

Strangely it didn’t rhyme.

We left the tour boat, and walked back across the bridge to the ticket offices from the Eye. The day was sold out until too late, so we got tickets for the next day. We figured on getting dinner at the Swan Pub again, and headed for the Tube. There is a lot of construction and repair going on, and they have closed some tube entrances, so I got a bit confusing to figure out how to get into the Waterloo station, and we got completely looped around an underground sidewalk. We found an elevator down to the station on one sidewalk, but when it opened it appeared that someone had been using it as public restroom, so we headed into the train station to find the connecting tunnel there.

It was easy after that point, and we came out our station, and halfway to the pub, found a guy selling miniature pub signs. This looked like a pretty cool bit of artwork for the house, so we go two, including one for the Swan pub itself. Dinner at the Swan was great again, and the tourists who were the customers were fun to mock as usual.

Notting Off

July 11, 2011 Comments Off

A beautiful morning, which was perfect as we were headed to the Notting Hill market. I was pleased that the Lancaster Gate tube station was’t as crowded as the day before, which made sense since it was Saturday. But everyone was getting out at Notting Hill Gate. Once we were out in the street we found even more crowds, and printed signs pointing the way to Portobello Road, the main street for the market.

The market was Huuuuge. Both sides of Portobello Road were covered in stalls, and it stretched as far as the eye could see. If we were big antiques collectors, it would have been incredible, at least a third of the stands were some kind of antique, lots of tourist junk stands, and as we got further in, each type seemed to be grouped loosely together. We found clothing in one section (Sasha got the jacket she was looking for), There was great farmers Market stands, artwork, and quite a few stands with homemade music mixes, mostly funk.

We stopped at a cafe in the middle of the place, and had some excellent food, all freshly made and baked. The place was crazy busy, which was our clue that it was good. After a rest we kept walking. And Walking. And Walking. It was nuts. We finally made it our to the Tube on the opposite side of Notting Hill. We had walked for around 4 hours, and the time flew past.

We caught the train back into town, and were going to check out the London Eye. It was a fairly big ride back into the center, but it was good to sit for a bit. We got out at Waterloo station, and had to dodge a few rain showers as we made our way to the Eye. Once we got there the lines were huge. I went in and figured the ticketing system, and from what I could tell it was much faster to order online and come back on a later day. Cheaper too.

I checked the guide book, and it recommended a cafe in the park, facing Buckingham Palace as a good, quiet place to rest, so we took a walk across the bridge, past Parliament (not the band), listened to Big Ben chime the 45 minute mark (would have preferred to Listen to Parliament, the band, but take what you can get…), and kept following the crowds out. We got a few photos outside Westminster Abbey, and eventually made our way to the park. It was much less busy, and had beautiful views of London in all directions.

The Cafe in the park (called In The Park – clever) was pretty reasonable, for a park cafe, and we had some food, cheese, and wine. It was a great place to watch people, ducks, and the view. This was a very diferent London from the one on our first trip. Being able to find affordable food, and some quiet laces really transforms a city. We loved it.

As it started to get late, we waked across the park, over to Trafalgar Square, and up to Picadilly Circus. We peeked int the Ripley Believe it or Not Museum and got a discount on entry by chatting up one of the workers out front. It was five floors of Ripley stuff, including a mirror maze. Not a bad show, although a bit overpriced, but we liked it.

On he way out grabbed one of the flyers for the Red tour buses, and saw that they had discounts on the eye in one of their packages. I could check that online – back at the apartment. We headed back, grabbed some takeout food from the Lebanese street behind out apartment and crashed.

Bingo Fuel

July 8, 2011 Comments Off

We got another early start. We had to get checked in in London, and return the rental car. When in Paris, I waited a bit too long and almost missed my return window, and I wasn’t about to do that this time. I was still timing my gas consumption at this point, as we pre-bought the tank, and there was no way I was giving these bastards one drop more than I had too.

We flew back to London, the freeways were clear and fast, great weather, the works. Even the Red Bull had just the right amount of fizz. You really couldn’t ask for a better drive.

Then we hit Heathrow.

The rain and traffic hit at the same time. The traffic stopped dead and the freeway was covered in standing water in parts. Apparently, the English have never heard of these new inventions called “Storm Drains”. Pipe the shit right out of your house…

We slowly ground our way into the center of the city, and lucky for us once we were off the freeway things let up and we could get to our apartment without too much trouble. We were just a block or so North of the Lancaster Gate Tube station, in a nice street. Yulia went in to check in, and I started to get the bags. The room wasn’t ready, so we had them store our bags while Yulia and Sasha walked around Hyde Park, and I took the car back.

I set the GPS for Hertz Heathrow Return and started heading back. My gas light came on the dash, and I could see that it said I had 25 miles left. The GPS said I had to go 12. Easy. Halfway there, the gas light started *blinking*, but it still told me 25 miles range. Hmmm. I pulled into Heathrow, and then I started having trouble with the return ramps. Recent construction didn’t match the GPS, and there were no signs of any kind for rental return, like I see at most airports. On my second lap of the terminal, the central dash changed from 25 miles to: !!!REFUEL!!!

Not good.

I checked my paperwork quickly and it gave the perimeter road as a dropoff point. I checked the GPS and found another Hetrz point on the Perimeter Road. Activating that I got out of the Terminal Loop, Gas light blinking madly, and drove along the perimeter road a bit. I was real gentle with the brakes, not wanting to need to accelerate, or to slosh the tank for that matter. I rolled into the lot, lights blinking, and fuel gauge pegged on empty. The Fine gentleman checked my car, found no dents and signed me out. I figured he could push it from there and I got on the shuttle back to the terminal.

I wasn’t going to pay a taxi back into ton, and our hotel was just two blocks from Paddington Station (note: I loved Paddington Bear as a child. Bugger off.) So I caught the train from the airport back into town. It was too easy. Te terminal has a tunnel to the airport station, and there is an express train that only takes 15 minutes to get to downtown. Once back I met Yulia and Sasha in the room, and Yulia told me that she spent that time fighting the front desk over which room we were going to get.

Apparently the first room was a nasty shoebox, with everything but a chalk outline of the last tenant. She went back and forth with them, and naturally, since Russian beats Englishman (even Indian-Englishman in this case) we got a new room. Still old and funky, but a much better place than the first two. We celebrated being done with the car and being at our final destination by walking along the park and finding a great little Italian place near Notting Hill. After that we went to the Tube station and got our passes for the week setup, then tooled around town for a bit before walking back through the park to the hotel.

It was still hot and muggy.

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