I have been to London several times, so had no real agenda this trip other than to let my daughter show me around “her” London. This was a nice change for me as I tend to over research and plan my trips. I flew from Boston to JFK on FF miles, where I met my sister who flew in from San Francisco. Our flight was delayed about an hour but that gave me a chance to watch a Red Sox vs. Yankee game with Yankee fans in an airport bar that was kind of fun and scary at the same time.
The flight was relatively uneventful, if not restful, despite Ambien and a sleep mask. Upon arrival, after a bit of searching we found the driver that we had booked through Londontown. The company was JK travels and the cost was £18 each. This little splurge was my treat, as I hate to arrive in a jet-lagged haze and feel susceptible to being overcharged by a taxi or getting lost with luggage to drag around. He was a nice chap who was married to an American and spent a great deal of time in New Hampshire, so we had a lot to chat about. He favored American women over British women because he thinks we are less critical and less concerned about social status. He hasn’t met a lot of women I know I guess! He also gave us a bit of a tour on the way to our hotel that was a nice touch.
We stayed at the Millennium Hotel London Mayfair, 44 Grosvenor Square, a hotel I had bid on through priceline for $105/night. I was pretty happy about that price for the Mayfair section of London. The Internet rates for the cheapest room in the house at this hotel range from £84 to £178, depending on the season. If you have never used priceline I would advise you to do some research first on BiddingForTravel (under Web Resources) to better understand the bidding strategies involved. I found it fun, a bit of a challenge and a game at the same time (perhaps I have a recessive gambling gene).
Our room was ready even though we were early. It was on the small side but nicely appointed with very comfortable beds and a good-sized modern bathroom. We looked out on to Grosvenor Square that was very pleasant and quiet at night. The shops of Oxford and Bond streets were nearby as was the Oxford tube. We were quite happy with this hotel and location.
We had a happy reunion with Kate (I had not seen her for four months, the longest stretch of time I had gone without being in her proximity) and set off to Soho for lunch. She would later find out that this was the day that she could have met Tony Blair with some of her office mates from her internship placement. But hey, Tony Blair versus your mother and favorite aunt, we’ll be in her life a lot longer!
Although I had not done much planning for London, I had researched a few restaurants, as I knew that would not be a strong point on Kate’s tour. She was however, keen to eat well while I was paying, as she had found the cost of food in London extremely high on a student budget. Our first meal in London turned out to be our best meal. Busaba Eathai, 106-110 Wardour Street served fabulous, fresh Thai food that didn’t break the bank.
After lunch we walked around Soho for a bit, checked out Kate’s apartment that she shared with eleven roommates (need I say more?!), before returning to our comfy hotel for a rest before dinner. I had asked for advice from our British Slow travelers on reasonably priced Indian restaurants and they did not steer me wrong in sending me to Masala Zone, 9 Marshall Street in Soho. It was also fun to walk through Carnaby Street on the way to the restaurant. We crashed at the end of this tiring day and slept well.
I like London, I really do. But the bone chilling weather and continual gray skies we encountered, made me wish for some sunny Italian days sooner rather than later as I put on yet another layer to defend myself against the elements. But this being London, a stiff upper lip was called for, so it was off to an English breakfast around the corner at Dino’s, run by Italians actually. This was much more reasonable than the very expensive hotel breakfast that was not included in my reduced rate.
Today we hit Portobello Market, crowded but fun, and our tour guide, Kate, would show us Westminster, Whitehall and Parliament while regaling us with the history behind each of them. As part of her internship at a PR company, Kate would sometimes work in Parliament and was very proud to show us this area.
From there we made our way to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. We had not really planned this excursion but one of the many wonderful things about London is that most of the museums are free, so it was just too tempting to pass up. This was my first visit to the National and I loved it. I was particularly taken by the works of Van Gough. I can’t say that I had really been a big fan of his until this visit. The vibrancy of his colors and the bold brush stokes moved me in a way I hadn’t experienced in his paintings before. I have of course seen posters of his Sunflower painting numerous times (it was a particularly popular print when I was in college, perhaps why I dismissed it), but to see the original was really very moving. I also loved Wheatfield with Cypresses, for the beautiful blues and greens and the cypress trees that reminded me of Italy.
The visit to the National Gallery would also be our first encounter with a Leonardo. This would be as in Leonardo da Vinci in his magnificent Virgin of the Rocks. I also enjoyed a preview of Italy while gazing at the beautiful Saint Catherine by Raphael and the enthralling Venus and Mars by Botticelli. I was so happy to get my Botticelli fix since we would not be going to the Uffizi this trip.
Uplifted by great art, we were ready to fortify ourselves with a fish and chips pub experience for a late lunch. We chose a pub from a guidebook because it was supposed to be typical and was nearby. It was fine but nothing memorable. On the way we passed the Florence Nightingale statue where I posed for pictures, as she is the founder of the nursing profession.
A rest was now in order as we had plans to partake in The Old Hampstead Village Pub Walk at 7pm put on by The Original London Walks. This company, established in 1960, offers a vast array of entertaining and cultural walks of London. You meet a guide, who is also often an actor, at a tube stop near your destination. The size of the group depends upon how many people show up, so it can be quite large. It is inexpensive at £5.50 for adults, £4.50 for students. Our group had about 20 people, really too many for stopping in pubs comfortably, but it was still fun and informative.
Hampstead Village is on a hilltop in northern London with lovely views, where the wealthy used to come for the “healthy air.” It is a very pretty Georgian village and has been home to many famous people including, Constable, Keats, Freud, and currently Russell Crowe. I’m glad to have had the experience and would try another of this company’s walks. I do admit that this was another one of my plans rather than my daughter’s (I just can’t help myself!) Still a bit jet-lagged we opted for an early night after this adventure and some overpriced snacks in our hotel bar before calling it a night.
Our last day in London brought continued gray skies, but undeterred we set out for the Tate Britain to see the Turner, Whistler and Monet exhibit. This was a very well done exhibit that “examines the work of three artists who changed the course of landscape painting in nineteenth–century Europe.” We enjoyed this interesting comparison of artists from different generations and their views of landscapes affected by pollution and industrialization. We decided on the spur of the moment to take the Tate-to-Tate boat, a boat service that runs every 40 minutes between the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern. This was a very enjoyable way to see a bit of London and transport us effortlessly and comfortably to that area of town. It was £4 well spent. We took a very quick tour of the Tate Modern, being more interested in the eclectic building than the art. We were art fatigued by this point but because it was free and cool looking, we couldn’t pass it up.
Onward to a look at the impressive Saint Paul’s Cathedral before heading over to Covent Gardens to peruse the markets there and have a late lunch. Kate bought some pretty picture frames and I bought a small watercolor of Parliament and Big Ben to add to my European street art collection. I had liked the look of Rules Restaurant on the Internet so that’s where we had lunch. This is a very elegant restaurant on 35 Maiden Lane and they treated us well despite our attire of blue jeans. This was the splurge meal of our trip in London and it was worth it for the very lovely and historical setting. In fact the ambiance of this restaurant was so well done that we felt as if we were on a British stage set!
We had reserved tickets for the London Eye on line yesterday, via the Internet, for later in the day today (trying for a sunset view) but as we were nearby and it was cloudy anyway, we decided to just head over after our late lunch. The walk over was very entertaining along the Thames with lots of street artists performing on a Sunday afternoon. The most unusual was a woman piano player dressed in Victorian costume.
As long as you have reservations paid for in advance on the London Eye, they don’t care if you take the ride at a different time than your reservation. There were no lines at the advance reservation section or for the actual Eye itself, so we walked right on. That is, after a security check of each compartment after each passenger group disembarks. This was a very nice way to see an expansive view of London and I felt it was worth the £20 (once anyway).
Our last dinner in London was once again in Soho at Café Espana, 63 Old Compton Street. This was a very good Spanish meal in a lively atmosphere for a very reasonable price. A nice end to our whirlwind tour of Kate’s London. We would see her again the following Thursday in Florence.