Monday, August 25, 2008

A Royal Day

Day 3 of our London vacation: Today we visited Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Royal Mews and the Queen's Gallery.

We took the tube--the London version of the subway--everywhere. It was so convenient to be able to go wherever you wanted without having to worry about having a car or pay for a taxi. There are many a places here in the U.S. that could learn a thing or 500 from London's mass transportation system. Today when we exited the tube, we were immediately confronted with the Parliament building and Big Ben. I was awestruck to find myself standing directly beneath these landmarks that I’ve only seen in pictures my entire life. Hubby snapped a few quick pictures, and we headed over to the Abbey.

Above: Big Ben during the day

We got there a few minutes before the first guided Verger tour begins. I had read about the tour in my research, and had really wanted to take it, and we were both glad we did. It was one of the highlights of the trip. You get a wealth of knowledge from the Verger who leads the tour, and you get to see areas that are normally closed to the public, such as sitting in the choir seats, and the area behind the altar. There was an Australian girl in our tour who looked like she was somewhere in the ballpark of 12-14, and she was just fascinated with the chairs that are reserved for those who have been knighted. At the end of this part of the tour, our Verger let her go back and sit for a minute in the chair that is reserved for the queen herself! I thought that was really nice of him, to give her a memory that she will never forget.

Above: Westminster Abbey

After the tour was over, we walked around the outside of the Abbey so Hubby could take pictures of the outside. As we were leaving we ran into…hordes and hordes of tourists. Hordes. We’d just discovered another perk to our hotel, the London Hilton Islington: it’s off of the beaten tourist path. Our next stop was Buckingham Palace, so we took a quick look at the map, planned on stopping for lunch on the way, fought for space on the sidewalk while trying not to get jostled too much, and headed off.

I followed Hubby, thinking he knew where he was going. Hubby followed me, thinking I knew where I was going. We walked way out of our way before realizing that neither one of us knew where we were going. We stopped to pull out the map and realized that from Westminster Abbey we walked east instead of north like we should have, and were now in the Charing Cross area. Sigh. We backtracked via the Mall, but that little misstep cost us the time we would have spent eating lunch.

The Queen's Gallery (the Queen's private museum) operates on timed admission, and our slot was scheduled for 2 p.m. I had wanted to see the Royal Mews (where the royal horses and carriages are kept) prior to the Queen's Gallery, so we were booking it at this point. It had been recommended from several sources to allow about an hour for the Mews, and by the time we get there it is 1:15. I was disappointed and kicking myself, because the Royal Mews was one of the things I was most looking forward to, and I didn't want to have to rush through it. But I shouldn't have worried, because upon entering the Royal Mews I first real disappointment of the trip. There were five carriages on display, which looked very…similar. The gold carriage (forget it’s official name) was impressive, but what I was looking forward to the most was seeing the horses, but there were only three out, and one was in stables that you could see from the walkway but you weren’t able to walk past it, so you only got a peak. The other two were cooped up in the tiniest of stalls and turned around so you had a nice view of their rear ends. Maybe I was expecting too much? To see the Royal Mews in their entirety, read the displays we were interested in (we’re not fans of audio guides—maybe that would have added more?) took 20 minutes. We got the Queen’s Gallery early, which was fine, as it gave us some time to sit down. We enjoyed the exhibit (although we had our first dumb tourist moment here: the nice young lady who was directing traffic pointed us in the direction of the audio guides—we only caught the audio guide part and didn’t realize that this was also the entrance. Not being audio guide people we were not interested, so headed for the first room we saw with paintings, but we couldn’t figure out how to open the door, because there were no knobs. With the exception of two staff members, we are the only people in this area, which is empty and filled with marble floors, so no matter how much we’re trying to keep our voices down, they are carrying. We finally realize that the reason we can’t open the doors is because they’re not meant to be opened: as it turns out, this was the exit of the exhibit, and the nice young lady, who at this point was somewhat chagrined, politely asked us to please head in the appropriate direction. We were somewhat embarrassed.)

After the Queen’s Gallery, we made our way to Buckingham Palace. Buckingham Palace was another “If I knew then what I know now” experience for us. It felt like Disneyland Goes Royal. The place was packed (although they do a good job of directing traffic), and inevitably the areas in which we did not care to pause were always the areas in which everyone else did wish to pause, making maneuvering through them difficult. It was interesting to see the rooms, but…after a few of them, they all started to look the same. You do however get to walk through some of the gardens on the way out, which I enjoyed.

We walked back to the front of the palace because Hubby wanted to get some pictures. In all honesty, if we had walked by the front of the palace and just seen that, it would have been a sufficient Buckingham Palace experience for me, but of course you don’t know that beforehand. I sat on the fountain in front of Buckingham Palace and waited while Hubby did his thing. While there I had the pleasure of meeting Jasper, a precocious little boy who was completely intent on retrieving some of the coins in the fountain for his own personal use. He and his friends started to form a human chain for this purpose, with Jasper being hung over the edge of the fountain. I thought, “This can’t be good,” so I told them to be careful. They looked at me like I was from Mars and kept on keeping on in their quest for coins. I wondered where their parents were. It turned out the parents were sitting up a level on the fountain, also telling Jasper and company not to play in the fountain. They were being ignored too. Finally the parents came down, but rather than shoo the kids away, they shockingly decided to participate in the coin retrieval process, assisting in the human chain. As the kids naturally got more and more rowdy, one of the girls got knocked over, and tears ensued. The parent of the offending child couldn't figure out how that happened (it’s called discipline, people). Meanwhile, with the help of his mother, Jasper has managed to get some coins. He has also seen fit to exchange the sock of one of his friends for the coins, so there is now a sock floating in the fountain and a half barefoot little boy walking away from it. I didn't quite believe what I had seen, and thought maybe I was sicker than I realized and had hallucinated the entire thing. I did not, as a second look verified the sock was still in the fountain.

We spent the rest of the night watching English TV. We saw the UK version of American Idol (we were happy to see that the UK has just as many delusional people as the US--the judges are also much more harsh), some random game shows, and my favorite, Mock the Week, which was a combination of "Whose Line Is It Anyway" and SNL's Weekend Update. I miss Mock the Week.

We weren't allowed to take pictures in Westminster Abbey or Buckingham Palace, so the post is light on pictures today, sorry guys. The next one will be better--it's Stonehenge!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tower of London

Sorry this is later than promised...

I actually woke up with a cold this morning, and wanted nothing more than to take a hot shower before heading out. Too bad the hot water in the hotel malfunctioned, leaving me with two choices: take an ice cold shower or foist myself on the British after already having gone longer than normal without a shower. I chose the first option. It wasn't the right call, but by the time I realized that, I had shampoo in my hair. I finished as quickly as I could, and finished getting ready. Since it was August, we had packed summer attire almost exclusively, which did not serve us well on this day since we discovered when we got outside that it was probably in the 60's and raining. We decided not to go back and change, hoping that it would warm up. Another bad call.

What wasn't a bad call: the Tower of London. This place is awesome. The Tower used to be the royal castle before Windsor. It was built in the middle of London hundreds of years ago, and modern day London grew up around it. The London skyline is fascinating from this area--you have many very modern buildings, and then this medieval castle in the middle of them all. Way cool.

We got there about 11 a.m., and took a Yeoman Warder tour. The Yeoman Warders are the official guards of the tower, and they have to live on the premises. The tour provided some interesting information that we wouldn't otherwise have gotten, and we were able to see the Chapel, which is only open to those who take the tour.

After the tour, we headed over to see the crown jewels, which are housed in the one of the buildings that comprise the Tower, got mowed over by a group of over-exuberant Japanese tourists (“Oh, I’m sorry, how silly of me for standing in this space which was so obviously intended for you instead”), and then headed over to the White Tower, which is the main building. I really enjoyed the displays in the White Tower, and one of my favorite parts of the entire day was just walking up the staircases in all of the towers. They are just like something you'd see out of a movie-stone, narrow, and winding. It just made me feel like I’d gone back in time several hundred years, and you got some sort of sense for what it was like to have actually lived/worked in the Tower. Plus it made me feel like I was actually in a castle.

At one point, we saw a gentleman coming out of a smallish doorway, so we poked our heads in after he left to see what he was looking at, and find…a medieval toilet! Hahahahahaha!! It was a seat with a round hole on it, and a pipe that went down at a diagonal angle until hitting the outer wall, where there was then an opening directly to the outside world to dispose of the toilet offerings. Eww! We wondered if anyone ever happened to be walking around outside near the pipe openings when…well, you get the idea…

We spent about four hours at the Tower, and saw pretty much everything. It ended up being a really good morning. After we were done, we walked around to look at Tower Bridge, and then headed off to the British Library.

The British Library had been the one thing I knew from the beginning I wanted to see in London. It has old old copies of the Bible, and original copies of the Magna Carter, pages of Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, some of Shakespeare's works, and some works from the Beatles. I really enjoyed our time there.

We headed back to the Tower of London later that night to attend the Ceremony of the Keys. The Yeoman Warders have a particular way that they have to lock up the Tower--it's been the same ritual for hundreds of years, and it is free limited seating if you request your tickets in time. It was so weird watching the Tower being closed down at night the same way it has been for centuries, and being some of the only people in the Tower after dark.

There are just so many cool things to experience in London. Jody, I hope you have a great time. :)

And here are some pictures!

Above: Tower of London

Above: Our Yeoman Warder

Above: Royal Guard at the Tower of London

Above: The White Tower

Above: Armor display in the White Tower

Above: The Tower Bridge at night.

Above: London Skyline

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ah, Memories

You know what I was doing a year ago today? Wandering the streets of London on a European (London, Paris, Rome) vacation. I'm not sure if it's because of Jody's upcoming birthday trip or if it's just a case of nostalgia, but I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and since I've been in kind of a funk where I've felt sort of blah toward the blog, I thought I would repost a trip report I wrote for a travel forum shortly after we got back, to commemorate our one year European anniversary. That way, you will have something to read but I do not have to write. Plus, you get to look at pictures of Europe. What's better than that? So without further ado, here's day one (which was really a year ago I'm a little late, so what?)

We spent six months planning this trip. It had been a dream of mine, and I was so grateful to be able to go. It was agonizing waiting for it to be time to leave, but one hot summer day last August it was finally, finally time to go. We scored a direct, red-eye flight from American Siberia to Gatwick airport in London, but I was so excited, I couldn't sleep on the plane. Plus on international flights they still feed you and entertain you with personal movie screens and video games?!? so I was in ADHD heaven.

We arrived at 9 a.m. London time. Gatwick is quite a distance from central London, so we took a train into the city and then a cab to our hotel (London Hilton Islington--we scored a great rate on Hotwire of $95 U.S. dollars per night and based on the price we paid, had no complaints). We arrived early, so our room wasn't ready yet, so we dropped off our bags and began to wander the streets.

Islington is mentioned in several of Charles Dickens' novels, and I was so excited to be able to walk these streets and imagine what they looked like in his day. Plus we passed several neighborhoods with houses that looked like they had come straight out of My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn. We ate at an Italian place for lunch before heading back to the hotel to officially check into our room.

We didn’t have anything planned for the first day, because we didn’t know how we’d be feeling. We were glad we did this, because what with traveling all night, the time change and being in a big city in a foreign country, all we wanted to do was not do anything at all. So we decided to make our first day of vacation a real vacation, and lounged around the hotel for the rest of the day. Dinner was a Chinese take-out place we had seen on some of the literature the hotel gave us. (The food was typical of cheap Chinese take-out.) We watched some TV (we decided we loved British TV, but more on that later) and went to bed early so that we would be fresh for our first day of sightseeing.

There was of course a little issue (okay, two little issues) with a money belt which I haven't decided if I'm going to share with you yet, and I've left out all of the inconsequential "Where are you going?" "No I'm not" "Yes you are" lost tourist performances that Hubby and I entertained the nice British people with that day, because ultimately, they just don't matter because we were in London!

There is more excitement to come...I will try to post day 2 tomorrow with some awesome pictures of the Tower of London.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Viva Las Vegas

I'm sorry for the delay in posts, but I've been busy losing money in Vegas casinos...

We just got back from visiting my uncle in Las Vegas. I am happy to report that he is feeling much better, at least if his recent 18 mile bike ride is to be of any indication (which he completed one morning before I even considered getting out of bed). He was nice enough to open his home to us for a few days so myself, Hubby, and my brother could come invade and take over his pool and theater room.

We had a really great trip. Wednesday he picked Hubby and I up from the airport, and surprised us at his house with a bowl of Hostess goodies that he had arranged in light of the vending machine tragedy. I tell you not even that vending machine had as good of a collection as my uncle did! There were golden cupcakes, twinkies, ho-ho's, ding-dong's and chocolate zingers. Oh Happy Day! I think I gained 10 pounds in Hostess, but it tasted so good, especially after my forced sabbaticle. After gorging on Hostess, he took us to Red Rock Canyon. I'd been to Vegas probably two dozen times growing up, but I never knew about Red Rock Canyon. The colors of the rocks were surprisingly vibrant; you could see them from miles away. We took the scenic drive and Hubby did some impromptu rock climbing that the Clark County Parks Department probably would have frowned upon. The colors of the rocks were very distinct; you can see the drastic change in colors in the pictures below.

We spent the rest of the day lounging by the pool, eating In-N-Out and watching movies. Thursday after my brother arrived, my uncle took us up to Mt. Charleston, another area I had been completely unaware of. It was really pretty. As you drive up to the mountain, you are surrounded by cacti, tumbleweeds, and desert. Then, suddenly, you're in this mountain resort that looks like another geographic area entirely. There are pine trees and grass and it is drastically cooler. We ate lunch at a restaurant that served elk burgers (yes, out of real elk), so Hubby and my uncle each had to try one. After Mount Charleston, we did the one thing my brother really wanted to do: we went to a gun range so he could shoot automatic weapons. As we were pulling into the parking lot, there was a (large) guy with a mullet who was wearing a camouflage shirt that stated "I survived anorexia." I wanted to turn around and go home at that point. My husband and brother thought it was the funniest thing they had ever seen.

My brother shooting an M-16.

Friday we went down to the strip and hit some of the exhibits at the hotels. Hubby and I went to the Titanic exhibit where we got to see some of the artifacts they've recovered, my brother and I went to see the white tigers and white tiger cubs at The Secret Garden at the Mirage and Hubby and my uncle went to see the Ferrari dealership at the Wynn, and we swung by MGM to see the lions. It was funny how much the behaviors of the big cats resemble that of domestic cats. The trainers would throw balls to the lions and they would pounce on them and chase them. Of course, the toys that we use with our cats are about one inch in diameter, and the lions were playing with basketballs.

We took my uncle out to Bouchon at the Venetian for dinner, and then spent some time hanging poolside before Hubby, my brother and I went to a casino. We left for California Saturday morning to attend my cousin's wedding. On the way back to LA, we stopped for gas and saw a coyote!

We had so much fun, and it was painful to have to go to work this morning and get back to reality. Thank you uncle for a great time!!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Question Of The Day

Why is it that at the annual building management tenant appreciation luncheon, the only spider to invade the picnic tent area had to descend from his little web and land on my plate and crawl around on my food?