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Trip Report Trip Report: London Long Weekend

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11-16 Feb 2009

I needed a quick escape to Europe with a short, non-stop, no-connection flight to make use of a long weekend and cheap winter fares. London hadn’t been on my radar but I hadn’t been in 11 years and had a few things I wanted to see now that my interests had changed a bit.

There are several flights a day direct from Boston to London Heathrow, and I opted for the day flight. Leaving at 9:00 a.m. Boston time, it would get me to London just in time for bed. Sure, I would have to pay for an additional night in a hotel, but my theory is that I will get at least five hours of sleep in a bed and not on a plane. That should make my first day on the ground in London easier. In theory. I picked American Airlines for this trip, paying $517 all in for the flight back in mid-December. The flight was only about 70% full and I ended up alone in a 2-seater so I could stretch out on the way to London but mostly full coming home.

I bought three travel guides and the Streetwise Map for London. Only Rick Steves’ London guide and the Streetwise map made it into my carry-on. The two Fodors guides I bought were either horribly disorganized (IMO the Fodors 2009 London guide was very difficult to navigate, with sections on individual sights being entirely split or difficult to follow from one page to the next and way too many sidebars that cluttered things up). Rick Steves has the practical stuff in a basic, orderly presentation with self-guided museum tours and walks and the most up to date information. (This is my 21st trip to Europe, so I am hardly a newbie traveler, I just know what I want to know on the ground there, and I didn’t like the hassle of navigating the Fodors books)

Morgan Hotel, at 24 Bloomsbury Street in Bloomsbury. The hotel is centrally located on a busy street literally over the side wall of the British Museum (the walk to it is about 2 minutes, tops). I had a large single room with a queen bed for ?85 a night. This included a full English breakfast of cereal, yogurt, fruit, eggs your way, bacon, sausage, coffee/tea, toast and juice. There were two layers of windows, which kept the cold akir and the street noise out sufficiently. I was hesitant about a room overhanging the street like that, but really didn’t hear the traffic at all at night. The bathroom is small but very clean, the bed comfortable and clean as well. It was about a 5 minute walk to the Tottenham Court Road tube stop (and Boots and some theater) and 10 minute walk to Holborn tube stop. There are plenty of pubs and a Starbucks around the British Museum. There was secure wifi in the hotel that I think I would have had to pay for but I picked up the free wifi from the Radisson across the street no problem. TV in the room had about 5 channels. The hotel is secure, with a locking front door that only guests with keys can access. No complaints at all from me and I would return in a heartbeat.

I missed the big snow storm by about 10 days, but it was still cold (high 30s, low 40s). I think it would have been easier for me to handle had it not been so damp. Where I’m from (Boston) has extremely dry, cold winters, so you never really get that chilled to the core feeling. This damp cold in London made me wish for a long hot bath just to shake the chill. On the day I left, it was nearly 50 degrees and would have been great walking weather. That said, I still managed to spend most of two entire days outside, the rest was in museums and theaters.

I took the Heathrow Express to Paddington and taxi to the hotel. I was at my hotel exactly one hour after landing (at 9 p.m.). It was a bit longer on the return to the airport on the day I left due to traffic. I bought a 7-day Zone 1 and 2 on the Oyster Card. I did quick math and figured I just had to use it a few times a day to justify it and as I am used to having a transit pass and using it on a whim at home, I just did it. It was ?25.80, and I’ll keep the card to re-load when I return.

Since everyone’s heard everything about everything there is to do in London, I’ll only make mention of things that really struck me:

Victoria and Albert Museum. I had never visited the V&A before and cannot believe what a gem this is. I felt like I had to constantly re-boot my brain as I moved room to room just to process everything that lay before me. The amazing names under one roof: Lagerfeld, Chanel, Rodin, Bernini, Canova, not to mention the art from all places under the sun as well as from historic Britain itself. The cast rooms blew my mind…it was like a locker room of Michelangelos: seeing the Slaves hanging out with David and Moses underneath Raphael’s School of Athens as if that is exactly the way it is supposed to be! I would return again and again, if only to uncover things I didn’t get to see in my three hour visit. The Raphael cartoons are just exquisite and well-worth the trip, but fans of Rodin may not know that there are no fewer than 15 Rodins in the Sculpture Room, all but one were bequeathed to the museum by the artist himself. The Cupid and Psyche is just heavenly.

Tower of London. This was my second visit here and I really think it’s worth re-doing. I know more British history now (sadly, thanks to The Tudors, Elizabeth (the movie) and some reading on my own) so a lot of what the Yeoman Warder said made more sense to me now. You cannot go to the Tower of London and not take a tour with a Yeoman Warder, though. Both Yeomen that I have had on tour had great senses of humor and were a wealth of knowledge, taking time to answer questions and make sure you have a great experience.

Westminster Abbey. I also revisited this on a whim. It now charges an admission fee to get in (it did not when I was last there) but includes an audio guide narrated by Jeremy Irons. I combined the audio guide with Rick Steves self-tour and really enjoyed it, again because I understood so much more history now. Having visited much larger religious sites since I was first in the Abbey, it is funny now that it feels so small to me now, when 11 years ago it felt huge!

National Gallery. I had a vast list of artists I wanted to look up here and had done some research on the gallery’s website about a book of self-guided tours. If you go, get this book. It has tours depending on your interests (Impressionists, General Highlights, Color, Frames, Children, etc.) and the information they give (“Why is this here?”, “What makes this significant?”) was relevant and more than adequate for my purposes. I loved this museum, much more so than I expected. I cannot wait to revisit it with my sister at some point! It is very easy to navigate and find what you are looking for. Highlights for me were The Arnolfini Wedding, the Vermeers, two Michelangelo paintings, an impressive Impressionist Gallery and any number of other big draws which are worth the trip on their own, but for me the absolutely beautiful Virgin, Child, Ann and St. John cartoon by da Vinci was the ultimate. Just amazing.

Queen’s Gallery. I popped in here after Changing of the Guard one morning, which probably is the worst time to go, as anyone else who was thinking of going and was in the area for the Changing of the Guard has the same plan. I will say it is a gorgeous museum. The jewel-tone walls are exquisite and the layout and presentation are immaculate. I found two Rembrandts that were just wonderful, but other than that, there was not much of interest to me in the few “Treasures” rooms (some Canalettos, Van Eycks, Reubens…other British artists). The Breughel to Reubens exhibition in the other three rooms was very nice. This is a quick stop (an hour tops) but it made me more interested in taking a State Rooms tour, especially to see the Queen’s Vermeer. For the ?8 entry, I would have expected more than 8 rooms total, to be honest, especially when so much of the more extensive collections in the city (V&A, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, British Museum) are FREE.

British Museum. I revisited this as well, having learned quite a bit about Assyria at a recent MFA exhibition back home in Boston. I was curious to see “the rest” of the British Museum’s collection since there was quite a lot of it in Boston! It is indeed impressive, as are the Egyptian and Greek collections. Those three collections were all I had time for that day, but I did sneak up to the fourth floor, which it seems not many people do, to see a Michelangelo cartoon of the Virgin and Child. It rivaled da Vinci’s at the National Gallery for sure. It is just mind-numbing to see some chalk on paper that has survived for so long after both artists have left the earth. It was also a nice, quiet, cool escape from the sheer madness of the crowds around the mummies and all the hieroglyphics. Damp, cold Sundays at the British Museum seems to translate to very large crowds in the mood for some mummies.

Borough Market. This is an interesting amalgamation of food stuffs. I saw fresh olives, falafel, pastries, fish, venison, meats, poultry, wines, coffees, teas, juices, fruits and vegs, and all stuff I would actually buy and eat from the market, not like Haymarket at home in Boston where everything is usually just about gone by. I sampled quite a bit and made lunch out of this visit (more in a minute…)

Guard Museum at Wellington Barracks. I have been interested in the guards since seeing their bands perform on tour a couple times with my Dad. I went to the museum and really learned a lot about the conflicts each regiment had been involved in, their significant achievements and the role of the musicians. It was a quick stop but really informative.

British Library. This was a bit out of the way but it is well worth the trek and again, it’s free admission. It houses all original manuscripts that were just unbelievable to think even still existed, let alone that I was seeing them with my own eyes. Everything from the Magna Carta to Leonardo’s notebooks (written in his backwards script) to Handel’s Messiah, Ravel’s Bolero, original Shakespeare printings, Bronte, Austen, Gutenberg Bible, illuminated manuscripts and handwritten Beatles lyrics. Just amazing, I was breathless at the thought of it all in one room.

Cork and Barrel Wine Bar, off Leicester Square. I had read about it somewhere in my research as being a top wine bar for 2009 with its renowned ham and cheese pie. Well it was so good that the restaurant was fully reserved on a Thursday night at 5:45, but they let me have a table if I promised to be out by 6:45, which I had to be anyway for the theater. I had a piece of pie with a glass of Bordeaux and the bill was ?12, I believe.

Cheese sandwich, Borough Market. I saw Samantha Brown visit this cheese sandwich stand in Borough Market on the Travel Channel. I had to hunt it out (go in the main entrance and head to the back left, that’s all I can tell you) and I was not disappointed. They take a half round of cheese and hold the flat side to a heat source, which melts the cheese down. They put the melted cheese on bread and then press it in a sandwich press. And thus my Carb and Cadbury Tour of London began!

North Sea Fish Company on Leigh Street. I had read here on Fodors that it had really good fish and chips. I had Dover sole, which was quite tasty and I certainly ate it all, but the weak-stomached should be aware that it was all of the fish but the head, so lots of bones to contend with. With a glass of wine this was ?24.

Mother Mash, Ganton Street, off Regent Street. This was another cheap, filling, comfort food-style meal. I liked it so much, I went twice. Essentially you pick the type of mashed potato, sausage or pie and gravy from the menu and for either ?7 (for sausage) or ?8 (for pie) Mother Mash puts your meal together for you. It was so good. The first time I had Champs Mash (Irish style mashed potatoes) with premium pork sausage and onion gravy, which was fabulous, and totally needed after all this damp cold weather! Then two glasses of wine with sticky toffee pudding for dessert. All that for ?18 pounds? Are you serious? The second time I had the cheesy mash and the sticky chocolate pudding, no wine, and it was ?13.

Ken Lo’s Memories of China, Ebury Street, near Victoria tube. I made reservations here as I had eaten here with my Mom in 1998 and wanted to see if it was still as good as I dream it was; we do not have worthwhile Chinese in Boston, IMHO. I was definitely not disappointed in the least with this return visit. I started with Three Precious Flavors (shrimp, scallop, chicken in a black bean sauce). Then I had szechuan Kung Pao shrimp, egg fried rice and ginger broccoli. It was just amazing. With a glass of chardonnay/sauvignon blanc/trebbiano white blend, it was the splurge of my trip at ?55 pounds. But well worth the splurge, it was a risky return that paid off for me.

Before I left for London, I got tickets for Oliver at Theater Royal Drury Lane. I am a huge fan of Rowan Atkinson in all of his forms. I was worried that he might not be in it because he’d bailed the week before with voice strain. But he was there, and he was fabulous. He was just amazing and I see so much of his Mr. Bean in Fagin…it makes me wonder how much of Bean is just Rowan being Rowan? It was amazing. What a great experience.

I also saw Billy Elliott, which was on special for the early part of February. Dress circle seats were ?35.

Traveling off-season:
Should anyone ever wonder what the benefits of traveling to London in February are, bear in mind that I had the Crown Jewels to myself at the Tower of London, I actually asked the guards if I could pass along the conveyor belts again since no one was around. It is a stark contrast from the rows and rows of crowd-control gates that led up to that room, which I just zipped right through. Just about everywhere I went, except the British Museum, had light or non-existent crowds. It was delightful…

I fully intend to return sometime this year to reconnect with some friends and to dig a little deeper into the city (my old travel bucket list be damned, funny how your priorities change with just one trip!).

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