Prologue: Early thoughts on this trip itinerary considered Christmas in Germany or Austria, due to their reputations of getting into the holiday decorating spirit, and being in London to hear Big Ben for the New Year. France, Scotland, and Ireland were also mulled over, before all getting dropped as the extra transportation costs would be prohibitive. Christmas in Rome near the Vatican might have been special, but I couldn’t anticipate what might be closed or how difficult it might be to get around. Christmas was also on a Tuesday, and since many Roman museums are closed on Mondays, that could have been two days lost. When the tour package to the ICEHOTEL came up and forced me to be in London on Christmas Day, the rest of the trip came together. We now return to our story…
Unlike the previous arrival in London, trying to save a pound or two by taking the free bus to Hatton Cross and disembarking at Earl’s Court wouldn’t work since I needed to get well into central London, specifically Holborn station (still on the Piccadilly Line), the complete tube journey took a little over an hour. This was the first hotel I reserved (other than the ICEHOTEL package) because I would be staying over New Year’s Eve, and I thought this period would be in high demand, with correspondingly higher prices. I prepaid for this hotel and got a seemingly good rate, based on what I knew of London prices related to location, franchise, and time of year. I waited on many other reservations, which worked out, as I got some great rates from year-end promotions and special sales (you’ll hear about those later). If I had waited for the NYE hotel, I would have saved a huge chunk of money (and possibly found a better hotel), because there were still plenty of vacancies at many hotels I queried when I made reservations through the awesome sales.
A quarter-mile north of Holborn Station is the hotel, and having passed a number and variety of restaurants and cafes, plus a Barclay’s ATM, I should have plenty of options (probably at least a couple dozen, plus a grocery store). As it is already night when I arrive, I buy a couple of drinks from the Tesco Express (where a deal for two drinks is the same price as buying one?) while I wait for a take-away mini-pizza from a nearby Italian restaurant. There were several restaurants with pizza on the menu, this one seemed the most authentic, plus they were busy, the others were general restaurants, so pizza might not have been a specialty, and the one other pizzeria was mostly empty (and about to close for the night). Later that night, I went online (on my phone, as the hotel had no free wifi) to look up tour prices and departure times. My hotel was not along the pickup route like in 2011, so I had to get myself to the departure point.
Early the next morning, I tube over to Victoria station (yes, I’m using it as a verb now) and walk to Victoria Coach Station. In summer 2011, I was waiting for my London city tour here (after convenient hotel pickup) and heard a tour guide practically begging for people to join his tour to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Bath. I remembered that and set aside time for the tour, without reserving in advance because I couldn’t guarantee what day I could go, figuring I could just buy my ticket the day of the tour. Turns out I could, so I did, but there was no desperate tour guide this time.
I liked Windsor Castle more than the Palace of Versailles (part of the 2011 trip). Maybe it had to do with the ban on photography inside the castle, so everyone is simply looking around, poking heads through doors and around cabinets and beds, looking at the paintings above doors or on the ceilings. It also felt less crowded (maybe it was). In Versailles, photography is allowed, so there are dozens of cameras in each room, all fighting or waiting for a good view or vantage point. Take a picture and move on to the next room, like you’re playing photo tag. I like to think I don’t do that and that I have a good memory, I don’t take photos to remember where I have been, but it’s nice to be able to share them with others.
Stonehenge was cool. I was worried that it would be one of those over-rated tourist sites that ruin people’s days. Not me, I like that mystical/fantasy stuff, and The X-Files. I also found out that I should have written instructions, or sample photos, of what I like when people offer to use my camera to take a picture of me in front of stuff. They never get it right and I end up taking it myself, which fortunately does lend itself to consistency. It may just be a pile of rocks in an open field surrounded by sheep, but it’s a pile of really old rocks that were built into a specific structure for a mysterious reason.
Ominous crow; budget-conscious photographer; oblivious sheep
I wonder if the city of Bath got its name because of the Roman-style baths that were built around natural hot springs. I also like ancient stuff, Roman and Greek culture. Might be why I took Latin for all four years of high school. (Will it come in handy when I visit Italy in a few days time? You’ll have to keep coming back to find out.) The tour was cool, with a nice mix of Roman history and engineering displays. The baths still work today, and while I don’t think people are allowed to actually bathe in them, there are many chances to get a feel for them, maybe even stick a foot in. The World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta lets you taste dozens of Coca-Cola products. The Roman Baths in Bath let you taste the bath water. It is purported to have health benefits, but that might be their way to get you to drink it. It does have a mineral-y taste, which is to be expected, and comes out quite warm. I filled a water bottle to take with me, allowing others on the tour bus to taste it, since admission to the Roman baths was not included on the tour. Those that didn’t want to visit the baths could spend their time walking the streets of the city, perhaps shopping, dining, or checking out the church.
The next day is New Year’s Eve. I wanted to stay local today, which is why I wanted to do the all-day, out of town tour yesterday. The British Museum is a quarter-mile from the hotel, but it’s not open yet, and I’d like some breakfast. The nearby Sainsbury’s Local has a meal deal of sandwich, fruit bag, and drink for £3. Not bad, especially since you can eat on the go, meaning the walk from the market to the museum via a frost-covered Bloomsbury Square Gardens. Public places look different, sometimes in a good way, when there is no one around, but in this case it also meant that not all the rooms were open to the sparse public. The only open room was the Living and Dying (?) room for the next hour. There was a nifty Hoa Hakananai’a Easter Island Moai statue in there, then a bunch of stuff about death shrouds and caskets from various cultures. A coffee stand was open, but the gift shop wasn’t, so the gift shop guy decided to scold people who wandered in, even though it was an open area and impossible to tell it wasn’t ready. At least he was finally ready before 11am, so I bought a Rosetta Stone keychain and lined up behind a throng of people waiting outside the door to the real Rosetta Stone. (Have you ever wondered how the back of it looks?)
The rest of the museum has all sorts of treasures, from Roman and Greek antiquities, to Egyptian statues and jewelry from extinct American civilizations (like Inca and Olmec), to Asian armor and tapestries, to thousands of other artifacts that won’t fit into a blog. This museum might be the finest one I have ever visited, and I’ve visited a lot in the last five years. I hadn’t yet made it to Italy, so some of those museums might get a high ranking, and I’ve never been through the Louvre. I’ve been in it, as part of the Paris day trip in 2011, but as mentioned above, I went to Versailles instead, as I knew the 2 hours would not be enough to see as much of the Louvre as I wanted.
There is still time before I should get ready for nighttime festivities, so I head over to the Victoria & Albert Museum, where they had an exhibition on fashion, not my milieu. Still, there were things of interest, but with the Natural History and Science Museums across the street, I know where I would rather spend my time.
Here’s a warning: 2 hours to midnight is not enough time to get a good viewpoint along the River Thames for fireworks on New Year’s Eve. I could see the river, but roads were closed, some even to pedestrians, making you walk well away from the path you had planned and end up nowhere near you had expected. If you want to get a good view of St. Stephen’s Tower (apparently renamed Elizabeth Tower last year), either pony up for one of the hotels with a river view on the south side of the river, or be on the river’s south side during the day and camp out where you want to watch from at least 6pm. I got some horrible viewpoints, but at least I could hear Big Ben and see some fireworks. (Video might be NSFW for language.)
Welcome to 2013. It’s another holiday where I don’t know what is open and not, but at least I know the Underground is fully operational. The other sure thing is that stores are open. You’ll surely remember that I mentioned I arrived in London for the first time in 2011 with exactly one year until the London Olympics. I wasn’t able to make it to Olympic Park then, nor any other sporting venues. I wanted to do something about that on this trip. A simple Central line tube ride to Stratford brings me to one of the largest shopping malls in Europe and adjacent to Olympic Park, which is bizarrely closed off, meaning no tours or public access or anything while someone decides on how to proceed. Supposedly, walking paths leading closer to the event venues will reopen during the summer.
The mall is very big. I take some time to visit the Everything Everywhere store to figure out why my £10 of SIM call credit all but disappeared and every time I tried to call the US I only got “the call cannot be completed as dialed” or “not enough credit for this call” as error messages. The salesman said it would be best to return to the original store where I set it up to see if the original guy is still there. There was barely enough time to get back to central London before they closed (the holiday meant Sunday business hours), so he said he would try to get a service representative to help me. I stand there for 25 minutes, then he hands me the store phone, as he called the phone service rep. Now I’m on hold for another 10 minutes. I could have done that myself anywhere from my phone for free at anytime and not wasted 35 minutes. The phone guy looked up my records and saw that every call I attempted to make lasted less than one second before disconnecting. But because of that fraction of a second, I was charged 90p each time for the full minute, which is much more expensive than the 20p/minute the original salesman quoted. He has no explanations and can’t figure out what’s been going wrong. At least he credits my account with £5 (instead of the full £10 that was lost) and bumps me to the international calling plan rate (which is 5p/min to anywhere) to keep trying. I leave the store and try to call various US numbers over the next 20 minutes. None of them work, but at least I can make 18 failed calls for every 1 that failed before.
One sporting venue down, where to next? How about Emirates Stadium? Looks like the easiest way is back to Holborn and transfer. But what’s this on the map? The Gherkin? I can get there from the Central line before Holborn, so it’s off to Liverpool Street Station and a brisk walk before the sun sets for a quick round of photo tag. Checked that off the list and now to the home of Arsenal FC, the only team in the English Premiere League to make it through a 38-match season without losing (2003-2004, the year after I started following the team), and only the second team in English League history to complete an unbeaten season. There are several other groups of supporters on the train with me who seem very excited. Some kids are kicking a ball around on the bridge and the sun is almost gone, but the sky is still blue enough for some nice color contrast.
The day isn’t done yet. I like a good burrito, and my quest to find one in London brought me to Wahaca Covent Garden. The verdict? Good, but I can only call it average. The place is over-hyped (appearing on “best of” free newspaper lists), but if this is the best you can find in London, there is room for improvement. While I’m in the area of the West End, I figure I might as well check out what shows are playing and if there are any tickets left on my last night before flying to Italy. Back in 2011, I saw Love Never Dies (sequel to The Phantom of the Opera) during its original run at the Adelphi Theatre, which was underwhelming compared to the excellence of its predecessor. It ended up closing a month later. This year, a few shows looked appealing, but only one was scheduled to end before I returned at the end of my trip (before flying home) and that was a stage production of A Chorus of Disapproval, starring Welsh Rob Brydon and Scottish Ashley Jensen, at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Good show, bit of a quiet ending, as it sort of just ended with a lights down while there was still activity on stage, no large revelations or blatant resolutions. I’ve never seen the film.
My phone battery died during the play, so it’s a good thing I have an excellent sense of direction to find my way around. Granted, Piccadilly Circus is a rather busy, bright area, so it was easy to find. It’s pretty late and I have a morning flight out of Gatwick instead of Heathrow, so I take the tube instead of walking back to the hotel.