Thursday, June 23, 2011

London, I have missed you so! (Europe '11 - #1)

Young American tourist in London 

London is about to fade away in the review mirror already. We wrapped up the first leg of our European tour today. We had just four days to get reacquainted with the venerable English city. It had been a long time since my last visit, about 16 years in fact. While London felt oddly familiar, I could not help but notice how much it had changed. It seemed bigger, busier, and more modern than I remembered. A contributing factor was the upcoming 2012 Olympics. London has morphed into a gigantic construction site. Many monuments are under wraps and surrounded by scaffoldings. Others have clearly benefited from a makeover. Once this is all over, the city is going to be magnificent, and the world will be duly impressed next summer.

Detours and delays all over London

Everyone has seen pictures of iconic London landmarks. Like all French students. I knew London before I even set a foot in England during my collège years (junior high.) My English teacher would not have had it otherwise. Double-decker buses. Black cabs. Red telephone booths (does anyone still use them? Cell phones were everywhere in the streets.) The London Tube (subway) fast, organized and efficient but expensive. Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Buckingham Palace. 10 Downing street. The list goes on.

I enjoyed stepping back in time and remembering neighborhoods and landmarks I had discovered so many years ago. This trip was special, however. Junior, 11, was seeing London for the first time. Like the good traveler he always is, he jumped right in, reading signs, asking questions, posing for pictures (he has been Le Husband’s favorite model since he was born.) Voilà a selection of favorite shots while we were revisiting “the Classics” with him and making new memories.

An old-fashioned double-decker bus (carbon foot print? What's that?)
In Sherlock Holmes' footsteps...

When crossing the streets becomes a life-threatening adventure
due to local driving regulations!

Like Paris, London boasts many historical sites, grandiose monuments and avenues, world-class museums and art galleries. Like Paris, it is a city best explored on foot or while riding the efficient transportation system (purchasing a Travel Card made this a bit more affordable.) With just a few short days there, we had to be selective. Some of our favorites sites were:

Admiral Nelson towers over London in Trafalgar Square

Four giant lions symbolizing the corners of the English Empire

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament seen from Trafalgar Square

Big Ben,  Houses of Parliament, Westminster Bridge and Thames River

Piccadilly Circus... Cars, buses, crowds. A circus indeed!
Tower Bridge, one of the world's most photographed drawbridges

Fortress, royal palace, jail: The Tower of London
Tower of London
The White Tower, built in 1078 by William the Conqueror 

American tourists and a Yeoman Warder (aka "Beefeater")

Classics are great but I was happy to discover a new attraction during this trip: The London Eye. Inaugurated in 2000 to welcome the new millenium, it was originally planned as a temporary structure. London realized quickly the giant ferris wheel had the potential to become one of the city's most profitable tourist attractions. As such, it is currently being renovated so it will look its best for the 2012 Olympic Games. We could not believe our luck when the sun peeked through the clouds and we only had to wait about 5 minutes to board the Eye. Once at the top, we could see miles and miles away while a handy map detailed some of the landmarks in the distance.

The Eye towers over the Thames river

"Are these giant capsules securely fastened?" wonders Junior
Sitting at the top and looking at one of the 32 giant pods 

The view is incredible from up there!

Every trip is different and I had every intention to make our Summer ‘11 London visit a memorable one in its own right.

Enjoying a delicious French dinner with a girlfriend (and former colleague) was a welcome break from all the sightseeing and walking. You may remember my friend Zohra. I saw her in Paris last December. The lucky girl has been a Londoner for years. She met me after work one night, in lively Covent Garden, the former fuit and vegetable market depicted in the movie My Fair Lady. This area is not to be missed. It is colorful and bustling around the clock. Street musicians, tourists, young Londoners gather in the boutiques, open air cafes and restaurants. I had a wonderful time exploring the market and people-watching while waiting for my friend.

Covent Garden
Inside the covered market

A giant Paella pan...

Lively Covent Garden

My shopping afternoon in Notting Hill will remain another highlight of this trip. Notting Hill was immortalized in a 1990s comedy with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.

William (Hugh Grant): "I live in Notting Hill. You live in Beverly Hills. Everyone in the world knows who you are. My mother has trouble remembering my name."

Anna Scott (Julia Roberts): "I am also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her."

Even though I had heard about Portobello Road and its famous Saturday market, I had never actually visited the fashionable neighborhood. It was delightful, and a brief but noticeable downpour did not dampen my spirit (it did get my pretty blue sneakers wet, though.) What a charming area! Imagine several blocks of peaceful, leafy streets (side streets are often named “crescents”) with row after row of quaint townhomes and mansions, some colorful and bohemian, some gentrified, with hidden private gardens and parks. At the heart of the neighborhood lies iconic Portobello Road, a lively, busy and unabashedly fun street, lined on both sides with quaint boutiques, outdoor vendors, antique shops, and produce stands. After strolling through the area for several hours, I certainly understand why Notting Hill is such a popular London neighborhood and I know I will return.

Elegant mansions

Loved the colors on these cute homes!

Secret private gardens

Portobello road after the downpour...


When I left Notting Hill, a short subway ride took me back to our boutique hotel, tucked away in a residential neighborhood North of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Once there, I took a few minutes to walk through Hyde Park before meeting Les Boys. Most of the world's greatest cities have spectacular parks and gardens: New York and Paris come to mind. London is no exception and boasts an impressive collection of lush squares and spectacular gardens, "the Royal Parks." Everyday, on our way to the nearest subway station, we walked past Hyde Park, former deer-hunting ground of Henry VIII. I was not going to leave London without stepping inside, and walking alongside the Serpentine, a miniature lake popular with boaters and swimmers. I was not going to miss Peter Pan's statue either. The bronze was a gift from J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan's creator, to the city of London.  So I went in, and enjoyed every minute of my late afternoon promenade

The Northern tip of the Serpentine lake

A peaceful refuge in the heart of a busy city

So tempting... 

Peter Pan's statue and two little French girls, Catherine and Jeanne,
who both live in London

The London trip was over. It was time to pack our bags, and spend one last evening on the town. We indulged in a local tradition: London is admittedly the theater capital of the world. We had tickets to a brand-new production of Shrek, the Musical, a widely acclaimed show. It was quite an experience to arrive at the Theater Royal Drury Lane, one of London's oldest and most prestigious theaters, and to be surrounded by hundreds of English children and tweens, screaming for their favorite green ogre! I must say the show was hysterically funny, with colorful sets, catchy tunes, a life-size dragon, and special appearances by Pinocchio, Peter Pan, and the Three Little Pigs to name just a few! This was the perfect ending to our London stay.

A big green curtain for a big green ogre!
The venerable Theater Royal Drury Lane is about to PAR-TAY!

Tonight we are in Paris (the Eurostar train took us back to France in less than 3 hours.) A busy week looms ahead. Thank you for staying with me until the end of this long story. Stay tuned for more European adventures!

A bientôt.

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  1. London is one of my favorite cities (definitely in the top 3 I think). I always forget how big it is; there is so much to see and so much to do, but it looks like you got quite a bit covered.
    And I have a picture of myself in front of that Peter Pan statue from when I was a little girl :-)

  2. Sara Louise-- You are not kidding! London is indeed one BIG city. ;-) I am glad you got to see the darling Peter Pan statue too. I loved Hyde Park.

  3. I so enjoyed your travelog of London - it brought back great memories of my trip there with Heather. Such a wonderful city, I'm hoping Steve and I go next year. I'm glad you are all having such a great time. Bonne chance!

  4. Merci Cherie. London was indeed a blast. I, too, hope to return soon. Amazing city, and so close to Paris. This makes things very easy for lovers of great cities, doesn't it?

  5. sadly this is one city i have not yet been blessed to visit...soon i hope! although, i felt i had a personal peek into her vibe from your wonderful details. hailing from philadelphia, our city is very similar to that of london...our founding fathers had something to do with that...our squares, our parks, our row homes all very english in style.

  6. Bonjour g from Philadelphia! Always great to hear from you. Now I know why I enjoyed my last visit to your city so many years ago ;-) In Paris now. Lots to see and do here, but thankfully, sightseeing is less of a rush since we come here on a regular basis ;-) A bientôt.

  7. Love the pics and blog. I want to go to London next trip!! Thanks for sharing all the travel insights.

  8. You're welcome Kim. Can't believe we are in the same corner of France right now... Isn't la Dordogne the best? Have fun in Bordeaux!


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