April 25, 2011

London - The Adventure Begins

London, April 2010 - The day had finally arrived. We were on our way to London to begin Trafalgar's Contrasts of Europe train tour through England, France and Italy.

Fortunately, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland had stopped spewing ash long enough for our flight to safely cross the Atlantic to Heathrow Airport. The air traffic situation had been changing hourly in recent weeks, so we weren't sure that we would reach our destination until we actually touched down on the tarmac.

Big Ben, London

As this was the first visit to England for both of us, we booked two extra nights in London before the start of the tour to give us more time to explore the city on our own.

We checked in at our hotel for the next four nights, the Park Plaza County Hall on the city's South Bank. It turned out to be a great location not far from Westminster Bridge. Our first sights of the city as we ventured north across the Thames were those iconic landmarks Big Ben and Parliament and the new kid on the block, the London Eye.

From here we were able to take the Westminster Walk from  Rick Steves' London guidebook, as we made our way up Whitehall, past the Horse Guards and Downing Street, to Trafalgar Square. The streets converging on the square were a blur of cars, motor bikes and pedestrians. Traffic moved swiftly, and left me a little disoriented as I tried to become accustomed to drivers on the "wrong" side of the road. And I no longer trusted my instincts about crossing the street safely.

Trafalgar Square and Nelson's Column, London

For lunch we took refuge in a Victorian pub not far from Trafalgar Square, the Salisbury at 90 St. Martin Lane.  After being welcomed by the friendly barman, we chose a quiet table in the back room which was lined in aged dark panelling and etched antique mirrors. We selected the traditional Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding from the menu, and relied on the barman to recommend a beverage that would suit our North American taste buds.

St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, London

After lunch, we headed back towards Trafalgar Square and the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, where sidewalk signs promoted the Vivaldi concert we would be attending on our last night in London. We descended the staircase to the basement to pick up the tickets I had ordered online, and then took a peek into the Cafe in the Crypt where we planned to have dinner before the concert.

Our next venture was to find the Britain and London Visitor Centre on Regent Street - not an easy feat with the streets running off at confusing angles. But we finally found it and purchased our advance tickets for Kensington Palace and the Tower of London. 

Returning to the square for a visit to the National Gallery, I stopped to admire a sidewalk chalk drawing of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus - very well done, and a preview of the original I was soon going to see at the Uffizi in Florence.

Sidewalk Art Outside London's National Gallery

Looking out over Trafalgar Square from the staircase of the National Gallery, I recognized the final scene from the series finale of Ugly Betty that I had watched on TV just weeks before. It was hard to believe that after planning this for so long, I was actually here in London.

By now the change in time zones was starting to catch up with us, and my feet were getting sore. So we took in just a few highlights of the National Gallery collections: the Arnolfini Portrait, Van Gogh's Sunflowers, several Renoirs and Seurat's Bathers at Asnieres. I'll have to come back to London again to see more.

After a light dinner at the hotel, we ventured out to the London Eye. It had started to drizzle, and the cityscape glowed as it reflected off the wet streets and the waters of the Thames. The giant wheel and nearby trees were also adorned in blue lights, but the ride was about to close for the evening so we would have to return another day for our flight on the London Eye.

London Eye at Night

We had a full first day in London, and I was glad that we hadn't succumbed to jet lag. But I was ready for a good sleep. And it would be an early morning, as next we were heading into the English countryside for an Evan Evans tour to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath.

Next:  Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath

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