Sunday, 9 May 2010

London Again? YES please!

To kick off my second week of traveling, I headed back down to London for the second time to meet up with my dad and grandpa for while before they were planning on coming up to see Edinburgh. London, easily, has turned into one of my favorite place--especially after my first trip there in January with the girls--so having the chance to go back and see it with some London-experts was SO exciting.

April 9th--Day (Night) 1 in London: Note to self, don't fly with a congested head
After spending the day attempting to recover from what was now a full blown head cold, I got myself to the airport for my evening flight to London and just prayed I'd make it through the take-off and landing-cabin pressure changes. While I did make it through, by the end of the flight, I couldn't hear a thing out of either of my ears, and this problem would persist for almost the entire London vacation. However, I was so incredibly excited to back in the city and to see my dad and grandpa, that I blocked out my head cold (no pun intended) and was determined to not let the sickness slow me down. I successfully found my dad and grandpa in the London airport and after lots of hugging and smiles, we headed for Picadilly and the RAF Club so that we could drop our bags and settle in! Compared to our hotel in Little Saudi when I was staying with my friends, the RAF Club was located right on Picadilly, only a couple blocks away from the Circus and right across the street from St. James Park. It was an absolutely incredible location, and I couldn't believe I got to stay there for the next 4 nights!!

Day 2 in London: Billy Elliot and Walking tour of the city--emphasis on WALKING
Starting the day off with an impressive breakfast at the RAF club was the perfect introduction to this London vacation. Afterwards, having sized up the weather an being impressed by all of the sun, my dad and I said goodbye to my grandpa for the morning and set off to tackle the city on foot. And did we ever accomplish that. We started by walking through St. James Park (which, again, was RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET from our hotel) and to the other side where Buckingham Palace is. Of course, because we had perfect timing and perfect weather, we got to Buckingham right around 11am, which meant so did thousands of other excited Londoners and tourists looking to see the changing of the guards. Having decided that we've both been there and done that, we skirted around the massive crowds standing in front of the palace gates and went to the left hand side of the compound to where the stables are. Here, we found the guard's band warming up for the show, and so we decided to stay and watch for a bit before they left. They were warming up Yellow Submarine, of all songs, so there we were, in London and a gorgeous afternoon and we were listening to the royal band play a Beatles song! It was the perfect start to a great day.

Yup, that's my dad....being suuuuuper touristy :)
From there, we went continued walking through the park and onto Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Parliament Building, and finally got across the bridge to the London Eye. Even though I'd been in the exact same spot 3 months ago, those sights just don't get old. There are definitely a million pinch-me-I'm-in-London moments while you're walking around the city, and the Westminster Bridge is definitely one of them. As we walked towards the London Eye and then past it on our way to the Globe Theater, I was amazed by a) how freaking nice it was out! and b) how many more people were there than when we were there in January. We stopped at the same great bagel place I had found with the girls that was right near the Eye and soaked up some more sun before walking along the Thames again. The whole promenade around the Eye was packed with people, and as we continued to walk down the water, we saw tons of street performers lined up doing all sorts of stuff--there were painted people, dancers, musicians...everything you could imagine. We stopped at a few performers to check it out and then kept on walking, and after a long long ways later, we finally made it to the Globe Theater. However, we were cutting it close on time because we needed to get back to the hotel in time for dinner before our musical that night, so we decided there wasn't enough time to do the entire tour of the place. However, we did sneak in to the exhibit part of the theater and looked at some of the history surrounding the building and Shakespeare. There was this incredible poster that listed all of the sayings that came from Shakespeare's writings and reading through them all was really interesting. Things like "tongue tied" and "in a pickle" can all be traced back to one of his plays.

Massive crowds and crazy street performers on the Thames
Alllll of the sayings that come from Shakespeare--look closely and you can read some!
Finally though, we had to go back to Picadilly, so we started the long trek back. We talked the entire way back (and there for that matter) about everything we needed to catch up on from the past couple of months, and it was so great to be able to just stroll around London with my dad and relax. We were excited to meet back up with my grandpa at the hotel though before we headed out to our favorite Tapas restaurant in the Shepard's Market in the Mayfair area of the city. Of course, this was right around the corner from our hotel, so my grandpa, dad and I went there almost every night to sample all of the amazing restaurants we had found back there. However, tonight, we were headed somewhere even more special after dinner--the musical, Billy Elliot! Right next door to the theater I saw Wicked at in January, we got to see another amazing show. Billy Elliot's cast was probably around 80% children, and all of them, especially the boy who played Billy, were absolutely amazing dancer. It was so much fun to see them tap dance, sing, and perform a show about British politics while we were in Britain! Also, just being at a musical in London was awesome. All and all, it was an incredible first full day back in London, and I still couldn't get over how amazing the location of where we were staying was. We just really felt like we were in the center of this amazing city. My cold persisted, but it was nothing compared to how happy I was to be in London.

Where we saw Billy Elliot, the Musical!
Day 3 in London: Soap boxes in Hyde Park and Windsor Castle!
After an extremely long day of walking the day before, we decided to cool it a little for a day and only walked to Hyde Park to see the Sunday morning soap-box performers. This was an experience. There were three different guys speaking about different politics and religion, and they were all pretty crazy. We only stayed for a little bit but that was long enough to gather that these guys had no idea what they were talking about, they just liked when people listened to them. Either way, it was another gorgeous day, so just walking through Hyde Park was glorious. In the afternoon, the three of us headed out to Windsor to get out of the city for a little bit and see the enormous castle out there. We took the train from London to Windsor which turned out to be a great ride but much longer than we expected. A good 45 minutes after we boarded the train, we were dropped off in Windsor though and told the castle was not hard to find. Well, we ended up going to the wrong way outside of the station so it was a little difficult to find, but eventually we realized all we needed to do was follow the massive castle wall that was in front of us to find the entrance to the place. So, after getting there, we toured around the enormous grounds of the castle and went into the state apartments to look around. The most impressive part of the tour was definitely the enormous dining room that we were able to see. IT WAS HUGE!!! I can't remember exactly how many people they could fit at the dining room table in there, but it was a lot. Windsor itself was gigantic. We walked all around and admired the gorgeous buildings, but once we were done at the castle, we decided to skip walking around the little town and just head back to the city for a nice dinner at my favorite Greek restaurant, Sofra (the best hummus in the world there!). I never complain about seeing castles and it was just another amazing weather day in London (which don't come around too often) so in the end, it was another great day!!

My dad, grandpa and I outside Windsor Castle
Day 4 in London: 'Hey dad, I think we're in Johnny Depp's backyard!'
Again, we left the city on the fourth day to see Stonehenge and the town of Bath with a tour bus group. Luckily, our bus was far from full so it wasn't like one of those massive and annoying tour groups that tend to take over every place they visit. We were much cooler then that. We successfully found our pick-up point in the morning and set off towards Stonehenge and after only an hour or so, we were at the amazing stone ruins. I always thought that Stonehenge must look exactly like the pictures of it when you are there in person, and to some extent it definitely does, but actually standing there and trying to figure out what the stones meant to the people who struggled so hard to get them there was pretty incredible. We learned about the history of the site and all of the theories on why the stones were placed in the way they were and how they were moved there. I mean, these stones are heavy, and somehow the people that were moving them got the big ones up on top of some pretty massive base stones. Also, we learned that the top stones are not simply balanced on the base stones--they are actually placed there as a piece to a puzzle almost with little notches built in that make them like a ball and socket connection with the stones they are resting on. We walked in a huge circle around the site and heard about how the sun shines a certain way through the stones during the different peaks of the seasons. The other unexpected part of our visit to Stonehenge was the intense wind that blew on top of the hill, so by the time we made it back to the buss, we were ready to get a little warmth going before we headed to bath.

Stonehenge!! Look at how massive those stones are!
Another hour on the bus and we were in city of bath. Everything, we quickly saw, in bath is made out of sandstone, so the entire city is the same color. It was, again, sooooo sunny outside, so we were excited for the chance to just walk around and explore the city. But first, we were taken in to see the Roman Baths that the town is famously known for. These were awesome. I've seen pictures of this place in my Celtic Civilization class and I remember seeing my brother's pictures of the baths when he visited London last year, so actually standing there with my dad and taking in the insane history of the place was super surreal. For starters, the entire complex is really old. All of the stories and theories on how the baths were used were fascinating, and there was one part of the museum that explained how coins and curses were thrown into the baths in hopes that the gods would answer them. Some of the curses written on stones that have been recovered were hilarious to read. That was probably my favorite part of the tour...that, and throwing a coin into the bath that was supposed to bring you luck. I've been pretty lucky this semester, I'll admit, but you can never have too much of it, right?

Dad and I at the Roman Baths
After we were done at the baths and had decided to pass on drinking a cup of what was legened to be miracle bath water, we ventured off into the small city of Bath to go exploring. We ended up at what our tour guide had told us was the smallest pub in bath for lunch. It was off of the main street, down a small alley that was squeezed between two massive building complexes, so it was kinda a hole in the wall place which is just what we were looking for. I insisted on sitting outside, which proved to be only a little chilly, but the place (The Heart of the Lion or something like that?) had great food and my dad and I each had a bottle of cider, so it was a great lunch regardless of his complaining about the slightly cooler weather. We also ran into a couple who was on our tour bus at the pub and talked to them for a while about how their son was also abroad in London before we headed off to the Bath Circus to do some more exploring. We walked up to the Circus, which we had been told was home to many celebrities including Johnny Depp, via really neat back alleys, and at one point, I lead my dad over to what looked like really pretty back gardens. I explained that I thought it would be really cool to go in there, so we attempted to open a couple of doors that seemed to lead into theses mysterious gardens without any luck. They were all locked, but my dad kept trying, and eventually, we found one door that let us right into these private little backyards. Turns out, we had gotten ourselves invited (sorta) into what was these really fancy apartment's private backyards. They were gorgeous, but after staying for a second, we decided we should leave before we got into any trouble. We continued walking up towards the Circus, and once we turned the next corner, found ourselves exactly in the center of all of these fancy apartments. Immediately, I looked at my dad and exclaimed that we must have just been in Johnny Depp's backyard, because our tour guide had told us he owned a house in this area, and I mean, of course that had to be the yard we had wandered into!! For me, that was extremely exciting.

The gorgeous city of Bath
Realizing we were running out of time in Bath, we continued to walk around the city, passing Jane Austen's book house and some really pretty putting greens and gardens. While Bath is famous for their Roman ruins, they are also famous for a dessert called Sally Lunn Buns, and having had our tour guide tell us all about these amazing sounding treats, we had made a deal to get one before we left the city. So, with our time running out, we made a b-line for the Sally Lunn House for one of her buns. After seeing how cute the tearoom was, we not only bought a bun to take home with us but we also sat down for a little afternoon tea and dessert. I'm not sure I can explain what we ended up with after we ordered our respective desserts. These bun were not only enormous, but they came out warm and with an insane amount of whatever flavor jam you ordered. I had raspberry and my dad had cinnamon, and they were quit possibly the most delicious thing I've ever eaten in my entire life. Having downed the entire thing though and having had tea and lots of clotted cream to boot, we were both ridiculously full and still wanted to see the Bath rugby field before our bus left without us, so we ran out of the Sally Lunn House and sprinted to the rugby stadium. We took a minute to take in the beautiful city and the huge rugby fields before hurrying back to our bus just in time to realize we were the last ones to arrive back and so we got on our way back towards London. Arriving back at the RAF club just in time for dinner was a perfect way to end the evening, and we got to catch back up with Grandpa and tell him all about our great day in Bath.

Sally Lunn's--the best dessert of all time.

Day 4 in London: The Magical Harrod's Ice Cream Sundaes
Like all of my trips throughout my Europe travels, I couldn't believe this one had approached it's end so quickly. However, we still had one day left together, so the three of us made the best of it. In the morning, my dad and I walked all the way down Picadilly, veered off onto Regent Street, and proceeded to window shop all the way down the street that was lined with all of my favorite stores. We looked into the packed apple store and then we headed over to Oxford Street, where we passed all of the stores I remember going into with the girls in January. We passed by Selfreges's amazing window displays, got a delicious wonder waffle, and kept on walking down some back alleys towards Hyde Park. On our way from Oxford Street to Hyde Park, we ended up in yet another private garden area (we must have a knack for finding those), but the park was gorgeous and so quiet for being in the center of London, so we hung out there for a little bit before wandering into Hyde Park. We marveled, once again, at how lucky we had gotten with the weather, as we strolled all the way down the side of Hyde Park and looked at how crowded it was with people trying to soak up every bit of sunshine they could. With all the walking we had done, the three of us decided that it was about time for some ice cream after the morning, so we headed to Harrod's, because where else could you possibly get ice cream in the city? Once at Harrod's, my grandpa and I made a b-line towards the ice cream parlor and snagged good seats for my dad to join us at. We all ordered our own sundaes and proceeded to chow down on the amazing ice cream in silence for the next 10 minutes or so. First of all, I love Harrods and it absolutely never gets old sitting in there. And second of all, their ice cream sundaes are impossible to top. They are enormous and absolutely delicious, and it was so much fun to eat them with my dad and grandpa. Not wanting to spend any more money in Harrod's though, we quickly left after our ice cream and headed back to St. James park for an afternoon of reading in the park. It was so peaceful and nice outside, and it was a great way to spend our last afternoon together relaxing. After finishing up our eating tour of London at one of our favorite Italian restaurants in Shepard's Market, my dad and I got ready to head to Edinburgh the next day. Unfortunately, my Grandpa's knee had been flaring up a little too much for him to want to make the trip up to Scotland, so we also had to get ready to say goodbye to him. I was so sad about saying goodbye to him, especially after an amazing trip in London, however, it had been a pretty special 4 days together, so none of us were too sad about the time we had spent together.

The three of us with the three biggest sundaes at the parlor!
Day 5: Dad comes to Edinburgh!
Wow, so after having an incredible time in London together, my dad and I headed up to Scotland so I could show him around "my Edinburgh". We got to the city around mid-afternoon, and to our complete shock, it was sunny in Scotland too!! We still could not get over our luck with weather, and in hopes to take advantage of our luck, we decided to attempt to hike up Arthur's Seat that afternoon. Before I could do that though, I ran over to the Health Clinic to check out what exactly was going on with my ears and my head cold. The doctor told my dad and I that we would have to wait an hour to see him, so while we were standing at the Health Center's counter, my dad and I looked at each other and both agreed that we should go for the hike in hopes we could run up the mountain and back in time to make my appointment. We knew we would be cutting it close, but we also knew that you cannot ever pass up sun in Edinburgh, because it never lasts too long. So, off we ran towards the mountain, the whole time questioning our judgement. However, the second we were both at the summit, we knew we had made the right choice. I've never seen a nicer day in Edinburgh, and the view from the top of the mountain was incredible. I had been wanting to take my dad up the mountain since the first time I'd climbed it in January, so to finally be standing up there with him was pretty special. But, we didn't have much time dawdle, so we ran back down the mountain and literally walked back into the Health Center with 1 minute to spare. While I had to sit in the doctor's office sweating, it was totally worth it to take advantage of that hour to go hike. After getting my anti-biotics from the doctor, we headed off to a nice dinner before taking my dad to my favorite Scottish pub, Biddy Mulligans. We sat there and shared a beer in a traditional Scottish pub while watching a soccer (or football I guess) game on tv. It was an awesome and authentic experience, and one that I won't ever forget.

My dad and I at the top of Arthur's Seat--look at how clear it is up there!!
Day 6: Volcanic Ash? Really??
After a great first afternoon in the city with my dad, I couldn't have guessed in a million years what was about to happen on what would turn out to be his last day in Edinburgh. I headed to his hotel in the morning expecting to have a full day to explore the city but quickly heard about the massive volcanic eruption that had taken place in Iceland and had subsequently grounded all flights around the UK and Europe. So, that changed things. My dad and I headed back to my flat to get online and try to figure out what was the best course of action for him to take in order to get back to London and be back with my Grandpa so at least they could deal with this mess together. In the end, we agreed it was smartest for him to get on a train that afternoon heading back to London because no one had any idea how long the ash would affect flights or how crowded the trains were about to get leaving Scotland. This meant that we had even less time to cram even more into our shortened day. Squeezing in Arthur's Seat the day before was looking like the best idea we'd ever had! Anyway, we made the best of it and set off to race around the city. My dad being the third visitor I had to hurry throughout Edinburgh, I had become a slight expert on the hosting front, so I took my dad straight down Princes Street to the Princes Gardens to give him a good introduction of one of my favorite parts of the city. The flowers were just starting to bloom and we walked along admiring the extent of the park that was right in the heart of the city. We climbed up towards the castle from the gardens (which was a steep climb!) and got an amazing view of the city and the water on our way. From the castle, I took my dad back down the Royal Mile (which never gets old walking down) and then we headed for lunch at, where else, the Elephant House! We got lucky enough to get the prime table, so we sat at the place that JK Rowling wrote the books we had read together since I was too young to read on my own. THAT was really cool. After a pretty quick lunch though, we had to keep moving so we walked around my campus and down my favorite street in Edinburgh before we had to grab some snack food for his train and head to the station. All and all, we did hit all of the major parts of the city that made up "my Edinburgh" so I was happy with that, but it was frustrating that his trip had to be cut short because of a volcano! Who would have thought that could ever happen??!!! And when I said goodbye to my dad at the train station, no one knew the extent to which travel plans would be effected and changed by this crazy event. Stay tuned, because this might not be the last time I saw my grandpa, dad or London during my Europe trip!!

Our view of the castle from the Elephant House--JK Rowling really knows how to pick 'em
On the way up to the castle with the city in the background

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