Sunday, May 27, 2007

London Called - Part 3

Day 3 - The City

We were supposed to get up early enough to arrive at St. Paul's Cathedral at 8:30am but our exhaustion convinced us to show pity on ourselves. We ended up arriving at the Cathedral at 10am, which was still early enough to avoid the majority of the crowds.
In contrast to Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral was light and spacious, as intended by architect, Sir Christopher Wren. The domes, the highly placed, clear windows and even the white stone used to build the structure created a majestic yet airy effect. Wren had also chosen the forgo the usual heavy church ornamentation of the time but his vision was ignored by the Victorians who covered parts of the white ceiling with colourful mosaics.
As seems to be the custom of British churches, St. Paul's Cathedral contained a number of monuments to war heroes and other men of importance. However, the majority of the tombs were placed in the crypt, which is neater than the rummage sale layout of Westminster Abbey.
When Joe and I had finished with the main floor of the Cathedral, we decided to attempt the 259 step climb to the Whispering Gallery, located in the great Dome. There was no elevator, only a narrow stone spiral staircase. By the main entrance into the stairwell, there was a health warning and for good reason: the stairs up to the Whispering Gallery did not have any landings to rest on and narrowed to shoulder width at times. This latest example of how hardcore London is weeded out the weak and wide amongst the tourists, leaving Joe and me thankful for our good health.
The Whispering Gallery boasts an acoustic phenomenon where if one person whispers into the wall on one side, it will be heard clearly on the other side. Joe and I assumed it was a gimmick and maturely enjoyed the vertigo-inducing view of the cathedral floor. However, after the security guard used the Gallery's effect to warn people not to take photographs, I was sent running to the other side of the Gallery and chatted enthusiastically to the wall.
Another 119 steps took us to Stone Gallery, an outdoor viewing area on top of the Dome. It was quite spacious but the views were marred by a thick and tall stone guard rail. So, the obvious solution was to climb another 152 steps to the Golden Gallery. The barrier for many tourists who had bravely made the trek to the Stone Gallery were the cast iron stairs, which were see-thru and therefore, scarier than solid stone. The key was not to look down.
Located 280 feet from ground level, the Golden Gallery was small and windy but offered unobstructed views of London. London building restrictions had prevented skyscarpers from being built anywhere close to the Cathedral, something I wish Toronto enacted at times. Joe and I carefully manuvered around four other tourists to take photographs of the city skyline. The photo to the left is of the front of the Cathedral. The photo to the right is of East London.
My only regret in regards to St. Paul's Cathedral is that I did not break the rules more and take photographs of the Whispering Gallery. I had a fist full of money that I was ready to throw at the Gift Shop but I found no photographs of the Whispering Gallery for purchase.
However, I did manage to take one forbidden photograph of the Cathedral's interior during my descent from the Galleries, seen on the left.
After St. Paul's Cathedral, we walked across the Millenium Bridge to the South Bank and then walked along the Thames with the goal of reaching the Tower Bridge. We passed a recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the London Dungeon (looked tacky) and the Clink Prison. The walk was filled with tourists and a few locals jogging.
Due to an inability to find Tower Bridge, we decided to visit the Tower of London first. We had been warned in guidebooks to avoid going to the Tower of London in the morning due to the loads of tour buses that invade the place at that time. Yet, the crowds of tourists that swarmed the area when we arrived scared me into seriously considering skipping the whole thing.
It turned out to be better than expected as the Tower of London is large enough to accomodate many a tourist and, according to the guide, it was not actually too busy that day. Our timing was also fortuitous in that we managed to join a tour, led by a Yeoman Warder, just as we entered. He told us amusing tales of imprisonment and beheadings in the style of Monty Python but we chose to look politely away when passing the tipping bucket.
There was also no wait for all the other Tower attractions: the Crown Jewels (passed on conveyor belts), the White Tower, the Bloody Tower, and all the other towers. I had hoped for a historic recreation of the rooms where Anne Boleyn and others were incarcerated but many of the rooms were made up with large, sometimes interactive, information boards, creating a touristy, rather than historical feel to the whole place. Still, the Tower of London was entertaining for the three hours we were there.
After the Tower of London came Tower Bridge. We had taken numerous photos of the bridge as we got closer and closer to it, and yet, on closer inspection, it really was not very exciting. We walked across Tower Bridge, explored London City Hall and some other South Bank attractions before recrossing the Thames on London Bridge.
Walking back west to our hotel, we decided to take a small detour into the financial district even though we were quite tired because it was convenient. We came across the unexpectedly impressive sight of the Monument. Rising 202 feet, the world's tallest isolated stone column commemorated the Great Fire of 1666. When I found out that a 311 step spiral staircase layed inside, I was eager to attempt the climb but it was closing time for the Monument. The photo of the Monument on the left does not do it justice.
We walked on to find the Lloyds of London Building, which scared the crap out of Joe, and the much friendlier Swiss Re Tower, aka The Gherkin. The Lloyds of London Building, seen on the right, resembled a Giger abbatoir with its exposed piping and windowless facade. The Swiss Re Tower, seen here, looked just like a gherkin (pickle).
It felt like a full and productive day so after appreciating The Gherkin and the Giger abbatoir, Joe and I headed back to our hotel.
End of Day 3

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

London Called - Part 2

Day 2 - Museums and Shopping
The first day of our London itinerary so thoroughly destroyed us that we decided to scale back slightly and scheduled two museums plus some retail therapy for Day 2.

We had heard great things about the Natural History Museum so we decided to add it to our list. The collection of stuffed animals and dinosaur bones were impressively displayed. Unfortunately, the most popular sections were overrun by children. They screamed at the animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex, they took over every interactive display, and the teenagers were sprawled with sketch pads in front of anything that was pretty and colourful. Joe and I found ourselves seeking solace in the empty Geology section.

In the end, I found the the Natural History Museum kind of disappointing. Much of their collection looked like they originated with the founding of the Museum more than a century ago. The newer displays featured a lot of flash with little substance; for instance, the entrance to the Earth Galleries featured an escalator ascending into a gigantic metal globe structure. Once inside the structure, rhetorical questions about the Earth were projected onto the inside of the globe. It wasted a lot of space to little effect.
(Photograph of Earth Gallery taken by Michael Reeve, 7 June 2002)

Feeling a little cheated after our experience at Tate Britain and now, the Natural History Museum, we were tempted to skip the British Musum and go straight to Oxford Street for some mindless shopping. The small and dark entrance to the Museum with a gallery of ancient ceramics to the immediate left only confirmed our worst fears.

However, hunger was slowly turning us into mindless killing machines and it was obvious that there were no restaurants in the vicinity. We decided to look for the Museum cafeteria and angrily eat their overpriced food.

Imagine our amazement when we entered the Great Court. Completed in 2000, the Great Court features a dome of glass blooming from the Reading Room in the center. Suddenly, eating overpriced sandwiches didn't seem so bad (especially since they were gourmet sandwiches and quite tasty).

Refreshed with food and caffeine, we proceeded to explore the British Museum and came to appreciate the practice of colonial plundering. The Brits had gotten their hands on numerous priceless antiquities in the 19th century and never bothered to return them: the Rosetta Stone, a huge bust of Ramses II, numerous Egyptian mummies, much of the Parthenon frieze and pediment, the best preserved column of the The Caryatid Porch, and much more. All these items were displayed beautifully with great lighting and enough space to allow the large number of visitors to view them easily. We stayed until we were kicked out.
Overloaded with culture, we decided to visit Oxford Street and Picadilly Circus for some shopping. One of our favourite shops was a chain of shoe stores called Office, which featured chic yet well priced footwear. We ended up visiting at least four different locations because the variety of shoes differed enough to keep us excited.
I was also interested in seeing the H&M of the UK: TopShop. The current featured collection was designed by Kate Moss. While I am a fan of Kate Moss's style, I decided not to get any of her clothes because they were overpriced and because I did not want to support her taste in men.
To our dismay, almost all the stores closed at 7:00 pm. We took the Tube back to our hotel, carrying our new Office shoes on our aching backs.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

London Called - Part 1

After years of dreaming of Depeche Mode, Sherlock Holmes and football hooliganism, I proposed a trip to London and Joe agreed. It was our first foray into Europe and the best place to start since my French would probably get us beaten.

The trip proved to be exciting from the start as we departed from the new Terminal One at Pearson International. It has the spacious, generic look of any number of other international airports around the world. Exciting duty free shopping prevented us getting bored. In fact, we were so caught up in the shops that it wasn't until the PA system called a reasonable facsimile of our names ("Joe...Sinbad") that we realized that boarding for our flight was already complete. We ran to our gate and boarded the plane without any line-ups or delay. The whole experience was so exciting that I have learned nothing from it and will continue to board last minute in the future.

We arrived on time in London and took the Tube to our hotel. Right away, we were amazed by a number of things: how small the Tube train was and that escalators and elevators are not always an option. "Small" and "hardcore" became recurring themes of our trip.

Day 1 - Westminster & Royal London

We started our tour of London with a bang. Coming out of the Tube station, I looked to my right and saw Big Ben. It was shocking to finally see in person something that was so familiar to me. Equally shocking was how small the clock tower was. I had expected it to be twice the size it actually was.

Next was another well known London landmark: Westminster Abbey. After paying £10 each, we were duly humbled by the size of the place and the history it contained. After about an hour of wandering amongst all the random and ancient memorials to the valour of rich men and the piety of rich women, we became blasé. Like Honest Ed's, Westminster Abbey was filled with slightly creepy knick knacks. One highlight was the funeral effigies on display in the museum; life-like dummies shown to the peasants to remind them who the corpse on parade used to be. Thereafter, we referred to Westminster Abbey as "God's garage sale".

After Westminster Abbey, we rushed over to Buckingham Palace to see the Changing of the Guard at 11:20am. In spite of the rain, the streets were crowded with tourists. We decided to leave when it became obvious that the ceremony had become solely an auditory experience because the mob was not transparent. We consoled ourselves with a lunch of fish and chips served by real Cockneys.

Our next stop of the day was Tate Britain. Perhaps we were suffering from jet lag or perhaps it was because our feet and backs were killing us, but we did not enjoy the gallery. The majority of the collection were the usual respectable paintings. One of the few contemporary sculptures on display was When Humans Walked the Earth by Jake & Dinos Chapman. The Chapman brothers' previous works included mannequins of children with genitalia in place of facial features. Unfortunately, their latest work was a lot less fun, simply consisting of found object assemblages.

However, Joe enjoyed the vivid colours of two John Millais paintings enough (Ophelia and Mariana) to buy the corresponding postcards. Joe then held the postcards up to the originals and said optimistically, "These postcards will remind me of what the original paintings actually look like." Just like Tiny Tim, that Joe.

In a daze of confusion and pain, Joe and I marched on to two landmark department stores: Harvey Nichols and Harrods. We passed through Harvey Nichols very quickly when it soon became apparent that we could afford nothing on display. Harrods kept our attention longer with oddities like the Dodi and Diana memorial ("Innocent Victims"), wedged between the escalators. The claustrophobic Egyptian escalators also had to be seen to be believed.

We wandered blindly back to our hotel afterwards and decided to have some of the highly touted Indian food. We ate without complaint before we resumed griping about our feet and backs.

End of Day One.