Sunday, October 11, 2015


My post titles are getting progressively more boring, aren't they? Oh well.

As you might have guessed from the post title, I went to London.

It was really more of a stopover before my next flight, but I found plenty to do during my three-ish days there and grew to quite like the city.

First impressions: It's not nearly as stressful (re: loud, crowded, overwhelming) as New York. This may have something to do with the fact that it's less "centralized" than NYC - there's no single hellishly busy hub like Times Square where you feel you're going to be smothered by a teeming mass of sweaty, smelly... Well, never mind. Some people apparently see London's lower key nature as a drawback. Some people are crazy.

It is possibly even more expensive, though, particularly with the abominable exchange rate.

London has also indisputably retained a lot more of its historical spirit than NYC. Whereas the Powers-That-Be in NYC can't seem to move fast enough to replace all the characterful brick nooks and crannies that made so many fall in love with it over the decades with architecturally homogeneous (and bland, and alienating, and soulless, and...) steel and concrete and glass skyscrapers, London still has a lot of buildings older than 100 years (mixed in with some genuinely cool modern edifices like the Shard.) Occasionally, when you're walking in the right area, you can briefly fool yourself into thinking that you're sharing the streets with some of the historical personalities that once lived and worked here.

In brief: While NYC feels like it would drive my introverted, low key crazy within a few months, I actually feel like I could live in London. 

Day 1 - The British Museum and Gypsy 

My hostel was conveniently situated a block from Hyde Park and about halfway between Royal Albert Hall (which, I believe, would take many holes to fill) and the Natural History Museum on a charming street lined with old Victorian houses (now occupied by midscale restaurants and the Bulgarian embassy.) In keeping with the rest of the western Europe hostels I stayed in, the hostel itself was kind of trashy and felt like it hadn't been renovated since 1898. (I woke up every time someone turned on the water anywhere in the building.)

I arrived in the mid afternoon, so I didn't have much time to visit most of the big sites on the first day (since they almost all close at 5pm.) I left Victoria Station and hoofed it on over to my hostel - and quickly regretted my decision to not take the Underground, since it turned out to be a lot further than I had anticipated (especially while carrying my heavy backpackers pack.) However, I did pass through some nice streets and I got to see some of the ubiquitous historical monuments and statues that dot the area around Hyde Park.

After checking in and dropping my stuff off, I successfully navigated the London Underground to get to the British Museum (which, fortuitously, is open late on Fridays.)

The British Museum is huge and has lots of invaluable and wonderful and historically important things stolen from other countries during Britain's halcyon imperialist days.

I saw the Rosetta Stone, lots of other ancient Egyptian and Roman artifacts, and the rather cool "Lewis Chessmen" - chess pieces carved out of walrus ivory and whale teeth in Scandinavia about 1000 years ago (and later found on a Scottish island.) I also had the "privilege" to view some bog bodies - frighteningly well-preserved human remains found naturally "mummified" in peat bogs.

The Lewis Chessman

Mummified cats

After the British Museum, I decided it was time for something more cheerful - so how about Gypsy, the legendary musical comedy about a Devouring Mother who (almost?) manages to destroy both of her children in her obsessive quest for recognition and fame?

It's one of the Sondheim-involved shows I had never seen, and the production happened to star one of my favorite British actresses - Imelda Staunton (aka Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies and Vera Drake in, well, Vera Drake.)

It was incredible - funny and frightening and fun. And Staunton gave one of the best performances I've ever seen on stage.

Day 2 (Lots of Theater)

I was admittedly kind of lazy during my time here - I had a list of about ten historical sites and museums I wanted to visit, and only ended up getting to about half of them. So no Westminster Abbey, or Churchill War Rooms, or Victoria & Albert Museum. I preferred to stay in my bunk surfing the internet and thinking about what I was going to do if I ever got out of bed.

I started the day out late with a visit to Buckingham Palace, which was positively swamped with people. I didn't get to see much of the Changing of the Guard - it was about 300 feet away - but I did get a nice closeup view of a military band and horsemen riding by on the street.

From there, I pushed my way through the crowd to see (but not visit) Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. Then it was on to Trafalgar Square.

And then the National Gallery. The Gallery had some lovely paintings by Da Vinci, Monet, Manet, and - my personal favorites - Georges Seurat and JMW Turner.

Unfortunately, I sometimes get burned out on museums very quickly - and this day was no exception. Rather than going to one or two of the other sites I planned to visit during the day, I made my way back to the West End to pick up some discount theater tickets.

First up: a matinee of Miss Saigon. 

Which I didn't like at all. It's a (re-)musicalization of the opera Madame Butterfly - which I happened to see at the Utah Opera last year, and mostly enjoyed. But this version - from the makers of Les Miserables - has none of the musical power of Puccini's opera or of their own previous musical.

If you've seen Les Mis, just imagine the songs "Lovely Ladies" and "Master of the House" stretched out over the length of a play, with Monsieur Thenardier as a lead character. The music often sounds similar to Les Mis, but it's missing everything that makes that show good. There's no redemption or beauty. Tragedy can be cathartic and even ennobling - but here it's just vulgar and ugly and sleazy.

Fortunately, my ticket only cost £20.

That evening, I saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - a rather brilliantly conceived and original production about a teenage boy with autism and his troubled relationship with his (separated) mother and father. Among many other memorable aspects, it had one of the most striking sets I've ever seen. And a great ending.

Day 3 (or: "How I Slept in Really Late and Managed to Waste Much of My Last Day in London") 

I may have already missed my chance to get to a lot of the sites on my list, but I at least have to get to the Tower of London - right?

So I bought myself a ticket to take a tour of the site with one of the Yeoman/"Beefeater" guards. He did a wonderful job explaining some of the history of the storied castle. I also got to see the crown jewels, walked along the wall and explored some of the towers.

I like the mixture of the old and the new in this pic
I walked across the Tower Bridge, got a close-up view of the Shard (the tallest skyscraper in London), and headed back to South Kensington.

 I ate my last dinner (in London) at a delicious and undeliciously expensive Indian restaurant. 

Fresh made mango ice cream

Then I went back to my hostel and prepared for my early morning flight to Sofia, where I would begin the next section of my trip.

1 comment:

  1. Some more amazing days of your trip. You managed to see quite a bit in three days, The Shard is an interesting looking skyscraper, but I see why it's called the shard. Some very interesting buildings even modern ones. Glad you got to see the changing of the guard even if you could barely see it. All I know is I wouldn't want to wear any of those soldiers' hats. They look very uncomfortable. .