Sonntag, 23. Dezember 2007


I was looking for something to do with my free time in November and decided to go to London for a few days. It’s not that far from Düsseldorf AND I got a flight for 20€. Not bad. RyanAir is the cheap way to fly around Europe as long as you are not bringing too much with you – if you carry on less than 10kg you don’t have to pay a baggage fee. RyanAir also tends to fly out of smaller, more distant airports. I made my flight out of the Düsseldorf-Weeze airport before checking to see exactly where it was. When I finally checked its location I discovered that it was just over the border from The Netherlands and about one hour north of Düsseldorf. It seems a bit of a stretch to call it the Düsseldorf-Weeze airport, but then again, the flights are very cheap and there is no speed limit on most of the roads there.

I arrived in London less than an hour after take-off. I met an Argentinean guy in the non-EU passport line (which was nice and short - the line, not the guy) and spent the bus-ride into London learning about Argentina and sharing travel stories. I now know the best way to drive from Buenos Aires to the beach without getting a speeding ticket (while disobeying the speed limit that is). We’ll see if that ever comes in handy. I got off the bus and walked a few blocks to my hostel. I arrived at Palmer’s Lodge, which I had booked online a few days beforehand, and was pleasantly surprised. It was an old Victorian mansion with very cozy rooms/beds and a welcoming reading room with a fire. It had all of the things that you learn to appreciate in good hostels – a reading light for each bed, a place to lock up your bags, clean bathrooms and showers, free internet, free breakfast, etc.

I had made plans to meet up with the Argentinean in the city, so I figured out where the closest subway stop was and took off. The London Underground is very easy to use, but not exactly cheap. London as a whole, as I already knew, but was constantly reminded, is very expensive. I spent more money traveling around on the Underground for four days than I spent to fly to England (the flight was cheap, but that still seems crazy). It also doesn’t help that the American dollar is doing HORRIBLY right now. FYI, the British Pound is currently worth $2.06, the Euro is worth $1.47, and even the Canadian Dollar is worth slightly more than $1. It’s not a great time to be traveling elsewhere if you are trying to get your money’s worth. I tried to save money by weaning myself down to one meal a day once I figured out how much money I was spending on food alone.

Anyway, back to Saturday night. I took the Underground into Central London, which was only about three stops away. I went to meet the Argentinean at his hostel, but he wasn’t there. The hostel had been completely full, so he left a message to meet him elsewhere. Haha, he had given me a hard time for booking my hostel ahead of time, but he was the one without a place to stay. I like it when I’m right. I never actually went to meet up with him, but I got to check out London and get my bearings while seeing the Saturday nightlife. I finally decided to go back to the hostel and caught a night bus home. I found a bus that went to Finchley, and my hostel was right off of the Finchley Road Underground Station. Unfortunately, I did not know enough at the time, or have a map to show me, that Finchley and Finchley Road are not even remotely the same place. So after a very long bus ride in the wrong direction, an unofficial tour of some of the London suburbs, and a bus transfer, I made it back to Palmer’s Lodge.

I let my self sleep in on Sunday due to the fact that I had gotten home much later than expected the night before. If I had done a little research ahead of time I would have visited some of the many food and clothing markets London has to offer, as most are held in the second half of the week. However, not knowing what I was doing, but at least in possession of a map this time, I headed back into the city to see the sights. My first priority was lunch since I hadn’t really eaten dinner the night before or breakfast. I went to Wagamama, a chain asian noodle restaurant, at Tim’s suggestion. It was very good. If they had one back in Germany I would eat there every day. Afterwards, I planned to go on a long walk starting on Oxford Street, going past Kensington Palace and Gardens, through to Buckingham Palace, and then onto the River Thames. I got as far as Oxford Street. I’m not much of a shopper, but there were a lot of shops on Oxford Street, and a lot of very cool ones. As expensive as London is, you can still get clothes, and shoes especially, more cheaply there than you can in Düsseldorf. So I spent the afternoon walking through the shops, stopping to get a cup of tea, and avoiding the cold and rain outside. I was so cold that I went into a Marks and Spencers and bought myself a scarf and gloves. They helped a lot. Unfortunately, about an hour after I bought them I looked down and saw I only had one glove on. I have no idea where the other one went. I was so mad that I had lost it so quickly that I refused to buy more gloves. And since walking around with one glove on looks kinda stupid I took the one I had off and was cold again.

As it started to get dark I walked up Regent Street, another shopping street. Regent Street has a much more grand appearance than Oxford St. All of the buildings are made of white stone and Christmas decorations were already going up. I love big cities at Christmas time! I made it Leicester Square, where many of London’s theaters and ticket vendors are located. I got some info on all of the shows in London and decided to get tickets to Wicked. Since it was still cold and rainy and I felt like it was still a bit too early to go back to the hostel for the night I bought tickets to see American Gangster, the Denzel Washington movie. I had an 1 ½ to kill before it started, so I hunkered down to read in a Starbucks for a while, and got dinner and a bubble tea in Chinatown. I went to the movie, which was in the nicest and biggest theater I have ever been in. The movie was good, but I’m not sure it was worth the most expensive movie ticket I have ever bought - 13£, which equates to almost $30 American! After the movie I was happy to go back to the hostel, change into dry clothes, and get into a warm bed.

The next morning everyone in my room was woken up by someone yelling right outside our door, “Don’t touch my things. It is private property!” Blah, blah, blah. What I could gather from the other girls in the room was that one of the girls who had been staying in the room for almost a month was a little off-her-rocker, possibly schizophrenic, and getting kicked out at last. The police showed up and she made quite a scene. Since I obviously wasn’t going to get any more sleep I went down to breakfast, then packed up my things and checked out. I took the Underground to Hyde Park Corner station, where the FREE Royal Walking Tour began (it’s not really free though, because the guides only get paid through “tips”). In true London style, it was raining/pouring, but I had an umbrella with me. The tour wound up being one of the best things I did while in London. The guide, Gregg, was from Brisbane (one of thousands of Aussies in London), knew a lot about London, and was able to put a fun spin on everything he showed us. As we waited for everyone to arrive a motorcade went by, with lots of police. It was likely someone important, but we couldn’t tell who. We started the tour at Buckingham Palace, where the Changing of the Guard usually happens, but get this . . . it doesn’t happen when it rains, which gets me thinking, does it ever happen? It probably would have bored me though, so I didn’t care. When we arrived at the Palace Gregg pointed out that the flag was up, signaling that the Queen was in residence. She hadn’t been there the day before, so it is very possible that the motorcade we had seen was the Queen on her way to the Palace. Pretty cool. We also got to see the Horse Guard, the official protectors of the Queen, parade by. Then we moved on to the Princes’ Residence and got our pictures taken with members of the Royal Guard. Next was Park Place – one of the most expensive neighborhoods in London, Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, where Gregg mentioned that it looked like Fred Claus was going to premier that night, Diagon Alley – or at least where they shot some of the scenes in Harry Potter, Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square – where you are supposed to see someone you know if you stand there for over 10 minutes, the National Gallery, Whitehall – the British White House, 10 Downing St. – the residence of the Prime Minister, and Churchill’s War Cabinet Bunker, where Gregg retold some of Churchill’s funnier quotes:

JOKE #1: Secretary: “Mr. Churchill, you’re drunk.”

Churchill: “Yes, my dear, but you are ugly and tomorrow I will be sober.”

JOKE #2: Secretary: “Mr. Churchill, if I was your wife I would poison your tea.”

Churchill: “Ms. Jane, if I was your husband, I would drink it.”

We ended the tour with St. Stephen’s Tower, which contains Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey. The bells at Westminster Abbey were clinging non-stop and we later figured out that it was for the Queen’s Diamond Wedding Anniversary, which explains why all the flags were up at the Royal Residences – everyone was in town for it.

I grabbed lunch at Tesco, at Gregg’s suggestion, since it is the cheapest way to go in London. It’s a convenient store with a lot of takeaway food. I got pasta for 1£, which is a very good price. I ate and walked over to the Thames, which I was seeing for the first time – it took me almost 48 hours in London to actually see the river! The London Eye, the huge observation wheel (not ferris wheel, if you say that they get pissed), was going. The Eye was constructed as one of three projects for the Millennium and was supposed to be temporary. But people liked it and it brought in so much money (50,000£/day in the summer) that it’s there for good. Kinda like the Eiffel Tower. During the tour someone had mentioned something about there actually being a Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station (Harry Potter fans will know what I am talking about), so I went to check it out. Then I had to scoot back to my hostel to pick up my bags because I had booked a second, cheaper hostel for my last two nights in London. It turns out that that was a very good idea, because the power was out at Palmer’s Lodge when I went to retrieve my bags. I took the Underground to the Docklands Lightrail and caught a train out to Deptford Bridge, which is two stops away from Greenwich. I was quite a ways from the city center, but paying only £6.50/night, which is pretty much unheard of in London. I walked into the reception/bar at the new hostel and the only customers were old Rastafarian guys in a very heated discussion. I got up to my room and met the roommates – all very cool people. There was a French girl who had been at the hostel for almost a month while trying to get a job and an apartment set up. She had decided that London was the place to be and just picked up and went. There were several Aussies, some who had been traveling the world for almost a year, and we all shared travel stories.

I quickly had to change and make the trek back into the city for dinner before Wicked. I made a point to walk through Leicester Square, just in case the Fred Claus premier actually was happening. And it was!! I picked the perfect time to walk by because Vince Vaughn had just arrived on the red carpet. It was my first famous-person sighting, so I was pretty excited. Not to mention that Leicester Square was completely decked out with decorations, enormous TV’s, and fake snow machines blowing soap/foam into the air. It was cool! I quickly ran over to Chinatown to grab some dumplings and tea and then caught the Underground to Victoria Station. I made it to the theater just in time and had pretty good seats, second row up in the balcony. For those of you who don’t know, Wicked is the untold story of the friendship between Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West (from the Wizard of Oz), and is based on a book. It turns the classic story of the Wizard of Oz inside out, but still manages to get you to like it. The show was very good!! After the show I went to the River Thames and saw the Tower Bridge and nearby sights at night. Then I had to catch a train back to Deptford Bridge before they all shut down for the night.

The next morning I woke up early because I wanted to catch a tour of the Old City of London, which started at 10AM. And guess who the tour guide was? Gregg again, which was cool, but a lot of the jokes weren’t as funny the second time around. And I ran into the first Americans I had seen the whole time on the tour. They were a bit annoying. It may seem silly that I would be going on another tour of London, but there is so much to see in this city that even two tours aren’t enough. We started out at the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, and saw The Monument to the Great Fire of London (1666), which you can climb and get a certificate for, but make sure you get all the way to the top. They have hired someone whose sole job is to give certificates to those who have climbed ALL the way to the top. Gregg learned that the hard way. We also saw the Royal Exchange, The Bank of England, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was used as a mark by the Nazis to bomb London – the only reason it survived the war. We also saw the Millennium Bridge, the HMS Belfast, the Tate Modern art museum, the Globe Theatre, the Church of the Knight Templar (Da Vinci Code fans!), and the real London Bridge. Many people get Tower Bridge and London Bridge confused. The pretty one with the towers is Tower Bridge. London Bridge is one of the ugliest and most nondescript bridges you’ll ever see. What’s funny is that when it had to be replaced years ago, the old bridge was put up for sale. An American bought it, paid to have it dismantled, shipped, and reconstructed in the middle of the desert in Arizona (what is in the picture). It is now the second most-visited site in all of Arizona after the Grand Canyon. Even funnier, after it was reconstructed the purchaser asked where the rest of it was (meaning the towers). When he was told that that was all of it and that the Tower Bridge was still in London he said, “Oh yah, I don’t know what I was saying. I knew that.” He has never admitted to thinking he bought the Tower Bridge. We ended the tour in Covent Garden, where Gregg told us the story of Sweeney Todd, the greatest serial killer in London history. Greatest in that he had the most victims (over one hundred!), even more famous in London than Jack the Ripper. Sweeney Todd had a barber shop with a trick chair which would drop the customer into the basement when it was tilted back. Once in the basement, if not killed by the fall, the victim was killed and skinned by Sweeney Todd. The meat was given over to a local pasty (meat pie) shop that had the tastiest and sweetest pasties in town! Ick!

Right after hearing the legend of Sweeney Todd I decided I was hungry and had to get something quickly before I caught the Tube/bus to Oxford. Despite the gross stories of human flesh pasties, I decided to get one (beef, not human, hopefully), and it was good. The rest of the tour group was heading to the pub, but I wanted to make it to Oxford before it got dark. I caught the Tube, grabbed the front seat on the top of the double-decker bus, and watched as we drove through Kensington, Paddington, and Notting Hall, all very trendy parts of London. I was exhausted and fell asleep for most of the rest of the 2-hour ride there. When I awoke it was almost like I was in a different world. Oxford is an amazingly beautiful city, mostly due to its architecture. I felt like I had jumped into a storybook. I had never seen pictures of Oxford before, so had no idea what to expect, but it was filled with monumental, old, ornate stone buildings and warm, inviting shop windows. I left the bus at Gloucester Green and met my friend Anne, who I went to high school with, at a nearby coffee shop. She is at Oxford for a masters in biological conservation. She took me on a walking tour of Oxford and explained how the whole college system and University works. And by “college” I mean the group of people you are assigned to live, dine, and bond with during your time at the University. Think of Harry Potter, or schools in the UK or Australia if you know how they work. Speaking of Harry Potter, I hadn’t known before, but many of the scenes from the movies were filmed at Oxford. Check out some of the pictures. The people lucky enough to be assigned to Christ Church College get to eat in the Great Hall every night if they want to. How cool is that? We walked through some more of the larger colleges, all impressive in their own ways. It seriously felt like I had stepped back in time. After the tour we went to the Lamb and Flag (I think?) Pub, one of the famous, old, very English pubs in Oxford. We talked to the friendly, old bartender who had just gotten back from a trip to NYC (very cheap now due to the lousy American dollar, but I’ve already done enough complaining about that). Anne and I talked about traveling, high school memories, jobs/school, and sports. Anne is playing on the Oxford University Lacrosse team and is on the novice rowing team. Sound familiar? Crew is a VERY big sport at Oxford. Oh, and if there are any girls out there that play basketball, the Oxford women’s team needs players!

After the pub, we went back to Anne’s apartment, I met some of her roommates, and we changed into nicer clothes for dinner at Worcester College. Anne was able to get me a ticket through her roommates (thanks!) for the three-course meal in the dining hall at Worcester, not quite as fancy as the hall at Christ Church, but still very cool. We had to wait for everyone to arrive, and for a master of ceremony to recite something in Latin before we sat down to dinner. We had shrimp cocktail, vegetables, pasta, a meat dish, and a custard dessert, all for 5£. Pretty good. Things can get exceptionally fancy at Oxford. Worcester has a ball once a year where the ticket, which doesn’t include dinner, is 160£! After dinner we hung out at Anne’s apartment, had some tea, listed off all the people from high school that we now know are married!, and talked with her roommate from Northern Ireland. Then I had to catch the tube back to London, which was a much shorter trip this time since it wasn’t rush hour, and then take a string of trains to get back to Deptford Bridge.

I let myself sleep in a little bit on Wednesday. I had been trying to do so much that I hadn’t realized how tired I was. And by this time I also realized that there is way too much to do in London! Or at least 4 days isn’t nearly enough to do it all. I packed up my things and took the train over to Greenwich. I was psyched to be at the Prime Meridian and to see the cute town of Greenwich. Unfortunately, the markets weren’t open, but it looked like it would be a really vibrant place when the markets are going on the weekend. I took a walk along the Thames and through the Old Royal Naval Academy, which looked a LOT like Annapolis. My walk through Greenwich got old pretty quickly because I was carrying my bag with me, which was mysteriously getting heavier by the minute, or so it seemed. So I hopped on the train and headed for the Brick Lane, a street in the Indian part of town that is lined with curry shops. There was no way I was leaving London without getting the number one most-ordered dish in London . . . chicken tikka masala, which is also one of my personal favorites. I had lunch, had hoped I would have more time for sight-seeing, but unfortunately had to head back to the airport. It was a good couple of days and I will be heading back to London whenever I get the chance!