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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Visiting London - A City With a Past

    
     The first stop on our grand tour of Europe was London England - the city of pomp and circumstance.  Rather than give you a blow by blow account of our every move, let me just give you my impressions.  London is very proud of her past. That is evident in the huge amounts of time and effort spent showcasing the palaces churches, and abodes of the royals, living and dead.  The many historic buildings, from ancient old Windsor Castle to sprawling Buckingham Palace to the fairly modern looking Kensington Palace, are scattered over the city like jewels on a crown.  Being an American and having never really thought about it much, I didn't realize how much real estate the royal family owns in London, and that it's not all bunched together in one little area of the city.  Each building is miles away from the others, with the sprawling city between.  
     When I asked our tour guide the reason for this, he stated that when William the Conqueror came to London he had to lay hold of as much property as he could as quickly as possible, and he could only do that by having a fort every few miles or so.  You must remember, back in those days there was not much in between them except maybe a few peasants huts, I would imagine.  The city has grown up between them over the ages.   So if you want to see all the royal forts, towers, and homes, expect to do a good bit of walking or driving from spot to spot.  And don't expect to get too close to many of them.  There is plenty of barbed wire, spiked walls, electric fences, and iron gates to keep the public at a safe distance, and if there is any doubt, there are warning signs anywhere you get treacherously close to trespassing on royal property.
  Not so say the royals don't allow the commoners to share in the beauty of their properties.  The sunken garden at Kensginton is open to the public, and lovely now as it is adorned in white blooms in remembrance of Princess Diana on the 20th anniversary of her death.  You can take a tour through the public areas of Windsor Castle, for a price, which we did not have time to do.
   One can't help but wonder how it feels to be living within that bubble of royalty, surrounded by all that barbed wire and security. It's no wonder the royals have a reputation for being a little odd at times.  They are as much caged into their lifestyle as we are caged out.
    Apart from, or maybe because of the presence of the royals, London is a very clean city.  It's the only town I've actually seen paid workers on the streets sweeping up cigarette butts and bits of stray trash, in an effort to keep the place tidy.
     Everywhere you look in London are statues - most memorializing some battle or King or Prince or Queen, many covered in gold leaf paint.  There are lots of open public parks, such as Green Park.  The story is, when one particular queen (I forget which one) found out her husband had picked flowers in this park to give to his mistress, she forbade the growing of any flowers there from hence forth.  It's only been in the last few years that Queen Elizabeth has allowed daffodils to be planted.
   The food in London is decent but expensive.  I didn't have any fish and chips but I did have a pretty good "steak & stout" meat pie in Covent Gardens one particularly rainy evening.  You had to be quick and persistent to get a table at the fish and chips joint there, and we were neither, we were just hungry.
  Our breakfasts in the hotel were buffet style with scrambled eggs, sausage (better than Bob Evans), pancakes, cereal, baked beans and tomatoes....wait.....what??  Baked beans and tomatoes for breakfast???  We weren't quite sure what to do with those.  Some put them on their eggs. Some mixed them together and ate them like that. Some just avoided them.  That's what I did.
     London is doing its best to roll out the red carpet to it's guests, despite certain recent terrorist scares.  Chartreuse vested police are everywhere on bikes and on foot.  We were told that only a small percentage carry weapons, but there presence was reassuring just the same.  When we had to cross the Thames River to get to the London Eye, I noticed there had been steel barriers placed between the roadway and the sidewalk, to prevent cars from driving up onto the sidewalk.  I never really felt unsafe, but I was with a tour group and may have been lulled by the "safety in numbers" mindset.  Our bags werechecked thouroughly before we were allowed entrance to any museum or public building. It seems that London officials are making a serious effort to keep the public safe.
     The weather was rainy most of the days we were in London - and that's not a stray shower or tow.  It was an all day drizzly drippy wet rain, with chilly temperatures for June (mid sixties farenheit during the day.)  If you forgot your umbrella and didn't have a raincoat, you were pretty miserable by the end of a long day sightseeing. We felt that the drizzle just contributed to our full London experience.
     I enjoyed London immensely. There's so much to see and do there, and so much history to soak in.  The theater district is a musical lover's dream, with the Globe theater, Queen's Theater, and many others.  London shows are some of the best musical productions in the world!  We were lucky enough to see Les Miserables and it was by far the best live musical I've ever attended.
   But alas! our few days in London soon came to an end and it was time for our next stop, so we gathered together our things, boarded our buses and set off for the City of Lights - Paris!
    
    

      

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Impressions of a Novice Traveler - Preliminaries

   
 At the ripe age of 59, having never left my home country of the U.S.A. except for brief childhood jaunts across the Canadian border to see Niagara Falls from the Canadian side,  I recently took my first trip abroad. While raising a family, vacations always were of the camping variety, always within driving distance.  This year when my youngest son was invited to be a part of a traveling concert band touring Europe, my husband decided this was a good time for all of us to take the trip. We would be traveling with a group of 120 young choir, band, and string orchestra students, plus numerous directors and chaperones.
    We signed up well over a year in advance which gave us plenty of time to obtain passports and assemble the appropriate gadgets and paraphenalia for a 2 week whirlwind tour of Europe. We were to visit 7 countries, stopping to perform concerts in about 5 of them.
     It also gave me plenty of time to fret and worry about certain recent terrorist events in and around London and Paris.   My husband finally convinced in the end that, although horrific to those affected, the likelihood of any one person  being caught up in one of these incidents was slim. Nevertheless, when another deadly attack occurred a few weeks before our departure, I visited my family doctor and got a prescription for non-addictive anxiety medication which could also be used as allergy pills and for motion sickness. I was set.
     I spent much time prior to the trip reading up on smart packing and travel capsule wardrobes, which focus on color coordinated separates that can be mixed, matched, and layered to get the maximum number of outfits from the minimum number of articles of clothing. The majority of my wardrobe was bought in s second hand store, where I also purchased a Travelon  purse which doubled as a carry on bag. I also bought a money belt, travel lock, an inflatable neck pillow, and travel insurance that covered multiple issues including trip cancellation, lost baggage, and repatriation of my remains were I to suffer an untimely demise while traveling (a sobering thought.)
     Having done all the necessary preparation well in advance, all that was left was to wait for the day of departure. I packed and unpacked my bags weeks in advance to make sure it all fit, with room left over for souvenirs.
     Finally the day arrived. We were up at & for the 4 hour drive to the Detroit airport. Our flight left at 2 p.m. which meant we had to be there by 11.  Upon arrival, we met the other members of our group, said goodbyes, and proceeded through baggage check and security. Having not flown since before "9-11-2001", the intense scrutiny required today was a bit disconcerting but understandably necessary. We finally boarded the plane, made the short hop to Minneapolis, and settled in for a 7 hour layover where we passed the time by window shopping, sitting in sports bars, and walking the huge airport with it many moving sidewalks.
      Next: "Long Night Crossing the Pond", and "London Arrival"