After a week plus in the Auld Sod, we said farewell to Ireland. Our 65 minute flight got us into Heathrow at about 1:30, where our pre-arranged driver met us. Traffic was not bad, but it still took about an hour to get to our hotel, The Montague on the Gardens. WOW!!!!! What a wonderful place! Located just across the street from the British Museum, it is the epitome of an intimately exclusive English hotel. Our room is small (about 1/3 the size of the one at Dromoland), but absolutely perfect. The rug looks like it is a needlepoint. The walls are covered in that same cushy-soft fabric that we had at the Alfonso XIII in Seville, Spain. The bathroom is tiny but quite functional; it even has a wooden box with a brass plate reading "Spare Toilet Roll"! How proper. Five minutes after we got into the room the phone rang; it was the front desk asking if everything was satisfactory and if we needed anything! When we said it was fine, she replied "Lovely". Yes, we're in England!
The ground floor has a sitting room / library, a formal dining room, a conservatory where you can take afternoon tea, and a bar / grill area for food and drink. There is also a covered patio overlooking the garden, which is where we went for some refreshment. As the weather is quite chilly, they had some welcome heat lamps on.
The girls opted for High Tea (with 3 tiers consisting of oh-so sandwiches (chicken salad, egg salad, smoked salmon, cucumber), scones (currant and plain), and pastries and petits-fours (carrot cake, brownie-cupcake, fruit tart, lavender cupcake, chocolate-filled-popcorn-studded meringues on a stick, eclair), served with traditional English breakfast tea....
Then we headed out. Since it was about 4pm (but staying light until after 9), we decided the best thing to do was to take the double-decker bus city tour. We walked about two blocks, then through Russell Square (a small park) to the bus stop. After a short wait we hopped on The Big Bus and were somehow able to snag the first row of seats on the upper deck; an excellent vantage point! And, even better, the first few rows had a roof, so no wind or chill at all. For the next 90 minutes we had a fabulous overview of the city courtesy of our narrator Neera. Like all good tour narrators, she totally knew her stuff, but she was entertainingly snarky (many corny jokes). She really made it a fun experience. We passed by all the famous buildings and were able to take some amazing pictures. Here's a sampling:
Since it was so late (about 6pm), the bus tour ended at stop #1 (we had gotten on at #15). So we were nowhere near our hotel. But we felt good and refreshed and it wasn't too chilly so we decided to walk back. There are a number of good tourist maps (we have at least 5), and most major intersections have a "you are here" map of the area. We walked to and past Piccadilly Circus, then on to Leicester Square. All the time we patiently waited at each intersection until we saw the "little green man" ("Walk") signal; no "heads down" crossings here as in Viet Nam or Italy. From there we went up Charing Cross Road (famous for its old bookstores; we passed by many, as it was Sunday evening, all were closed), to Tottenham Court Road and saw one of the great street signs of all time:
About 10 minutes out from our hotel it began to rain, but we were well prepared. We got back slightly soggy, but safe.
Monday, like all other vacation days, began with a panoply of pastries: scones, croissants, etc., plus ham, bacon, sausage, black and white puddings, baked beans, eggs, juice, and tater tots! (oddly called "hash browns" by the locals.)
Scrumptious! We needed fortification because we had a full day of walking and sightseeing planned--little did we know how much!
Our first stop was to join a walking tour to see the changing of the palace guard. To get to the meeting point, we took the Northern Line underground from Tottenham Court Rd to Charing Cross. (Here's a map of the London subway system, which is the oldest in the world.)
Once there we walked a few blocks, saw the iconic British phone booths, and took this picture.....
Across the street we met our friendly guide, Kevin. At the proper time (Kevin: "Trust me I've done this before"), he led the group on the walk toward St. James's Palace. This was where the Royals lived before Queen Victoria moved into Buckingham Palace in the 1830s. Kevin explained that the changing is really a multi-step process that begins about 7am, and it occurs at several places in the area. So one choice is to stand at Buckingham starting about 8am to wait until after 11 with thousands of other people, or be in Kevin's group and see much more!!! Lucky us!!! At St. James's (which was the first brick palace in the world), we saw the outgoing group (old guards) of Welsh guards come out, accompanied by a military band. We watched for a few minutes as they assembled and then Kevin said "OK everyone! Follow me!!!" and he began briskly walking (or as he put it so English-ly: "the group should keep momentum"!) toward The Mall. This is a wide boulevard that leads to Buckingham Palace. We crossed the street and assembled again as the guards came marching around the corner.
Then, on his signal, we (along with hundreds of others) raced along the verge to the next important point. At the next stop we saw another group (the new guard of soldiers and band - men and women) assembling. We watched them go down a short road toward the Palace.
Then, Kevin explained, when the new guard meets the soldiers going off duty, they stare at and inspect each other for 20 minutes! Next, they walk past each other and the new group takes over. Ta-da! This ceremonial ritual has been going on continuously since the 17th century.
That was the end of the walking tour. From there we walked up Victoria Embankment toward Westminster Abbey. Along the way (since it was after 12) we stopped at a lovely estabishment, Albert's, for lunch. The 3 of us split two orders of fish-and-chips; one had regular peas and one had mashed peas. One order probably would have been enough!
This was washed down with London Pride beer and Aspall Draught Suffolk cider. So good!!!!!
Then, sated once more, we continued on to Westminster. This has to be the most magnificent edifice in the world! Huge vaulted ceilings, incredible stone carvings, brilliant stained glass windows, and of course, the tombs (and markers) of the rich, famous, immortals, and used-to-be-famous. Newton, Joule, Darwin, Halley, etc., represent the sciences; Handel, Britten, etc., music; Shakespeare, Austen, Coward, Browning, etc., literature, and many kings and queens, dukes, earls, and lords (and their wives and daughters), statesmen, and hundreds of men who fought valiantly and died bravely in service to King and Country. You might remember seeing it as the home of royal weddings, the latest being Kate and William. It takes at least an hour to see it all. The only big negative is that absolutely no photography is allowed! (Not even sans flash). So here are some internet pictures to give you an idea.
Then we walked past Parliament, through Parliament Square (with statues of Mandela, Lincoln, and Churchill, et. al.), and on to the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms. This underground complex was where much of the British war strategy for WWII was conceived and managed. It was in operation from 1939 - 1945. Many of the rooms have the original equipment; others have been faithfully recreated. The superb audio guide walks you through life underground during those harrowing days.
We spent at least 45 minutes in there, and could have spent longer, but the clock, and our legs, told us it was time to move on. So we walked up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square (with Admiral Nelson's Column), and hopped back onto the Northern Line, and back to our hotel to freshen up before dinner.
Ah, dinner! London is known for its Indian cuisine, so we picked one of the finest, Moti Mahal. The menu promises a trip down "The Grand Trunk Road", which we traveled on in Varanasi during our India trip. Our table was situated right next to the glass wall behind which a chef continually made skewers of tandoori chicken and rounds of naan.
Wendy started off with an Inspiration aperitif--prosecco flavoured with lemongrass and pink grapefruit juice, garnished with a sugar-dusted grapefruit slice. We also were served a lovely platter of perfectly sliced fresh vegetables to arrange our own starter salads.
We started off with Kumro Phool Bhaja (from Bengal): crisp fried courgette (zucchini) flowers stuffed with spiced whiting, flavoured with curry leaf and smoked onion seeds. (Rating: Divine! This rated right up there with our first-ever squash blossoms in Rome.)
Dessert was the Kulfi Selection (from Delhi): Chef's selection of mini Kulfis on the stick - Gulkand and Honey, Milk Chocolate and Raisins, Blackberry, Pistachio, Mango (Creamy ice cream - Delicious!)
Thus ends our first two days in London.
When you fly from Dublin to London, there is no customs declaration and no passport check at the airport. And you land at the domestic terminal! So apparently the English think that Ireland is still part of the U.K.
Ta ta for now,