Everything in London is expensive. We came to realize this very quickly. If you changed the '£' symbol to a Canadian '$', things would be pretty much at par with prices at home. Lunch is £5, a Starbucks caramel macchiato is £3.50, gas is $1/litre, and a decent hotel room is £100 a night. Believe it or not, that is pretty much the cheapest place we could find in any of our pre-trip research, and now we're realizing that this is pretty much the bottom of the barrel as far as rooms go in London. Every time you sit up in bed, you smash your forehead into the lampshade that is permanently mounted on the headboard (stupidest design ever!). And when sitting on the "loo", your knees touch the opposite wall. It's quite amusing, but we're really just happy to have a room for a few days that's comfy and safe. Oh yeah, and we came back last night to find the door to our room left open by the cleaning staff. Right - safe!
Today was part two of our early Christmas present - day passes for the "hop on/hop off" double decker busses that run varioud loops around the city, shuttling visitors between sites and even providing an informative recorded narration. It happened to be pouring rain today, so we decided to set about exploring the city by the driest means possible - by bus and at indoor attractions. Hyde Park did look lovely in the misty morning rain as people were running and riding horses along the paths, but we really didn't feel like starting out wet. Our first stop was Trafalgar Square, where the famous monument is normally surrounded by mobs of pigeous. I'm guessing they're not water birds, so they were nowhere to be seen today. We decided to pay a quick visit to the National Gallery, admittedly, more to get warm and dry than to take in the art! It was a total flashback to my visit to The Louvre in Paris several years ago - large, sparse, echoey rooms displaying oversized paintings from numerous time periods, places, and supposedly famous artists. A few did catch my eye as being familiar - Leonardo da Vinci's "The Virgin on the Rocks", Monet's "Water Lillies", Henri Rousseault's painting of a tiger in a windy jungle, and Van Gough's "Sunflowers". But that's about it. Ken diligently read the descriptions of each piece, stepped back to take it in, and do the little head tilt of comprehension before moving on to the next one to repeat this process. My strategy was a little different: scan the room for anything I might recognize. Nothing? Damn. Now I have to pretend I'm interested. Pick on that has something interesting going on (those old painter dudes were big on nudity!), walk up to it, read the description. Read it again and try to understand. Look at the painting and - yeah, ok, that's the extent of my efforts. Walk away from the painting and into the next room and consider repeating this and hope for the best. First, shoulder-check to see where Ken is. Crap, he's still on the first painting. I notice I'm the only person in the room walking at a normal walking speed through each room, bee-lining it between doors. Sorry, but I really don't care about art!
But I did give the National Gallery a chance. The British Museum would be another story, as we remembered from our trip to Egypt that many of the best Egyptian specimens were on display here. We walked through Leicester Square, which is where the big theatres are that house many of the British movie premiers (red carpet stuff happend here). Movie stars' hand prints are fixed into the sidewalk in gold plates, like in Hollywood. The rain pretty much soaked us wheil we made our way to the museum, so it was nice to get inside again. The Egyptian display did not disappoint - they had some key specimens such as a chunk of the Sphinx's beard, the facial mask from the sarcophagus of Ramses II (whose lid-less sarcophagus and mummified body we saw in Egypt) and even the cloth-wrapped and painted mummy of Cleopatra. Fantastic! A large chunk of the Rosetta Stone was featured in a large glass case, which reminded us of how poorly everything was displayed in the Egyptian Museum. There, crucial specimens were left unlabelled and out of view, like the other large piece of the Rosetta Stone. It was only spotted in the Egyptian Museum because a school group had tracked it down and were huddling around it. We also checked out the African exhibit before carrying on with our bus tour. We learned a few bits and pieces about African textiles, pottery, weapons,and metalworks that intruigued us for what we might see when we get there.
The bus took us next past Scotland Yard, Whitehall Road (and the cenotaph where the Queen laid Remembrance Day wreaths yesterday), the House of Parliament, and Big Ben. If it weren't for the pouring rain, we would have walked around to take some pictures, but it was just too nasty out. We zig-zagged back and forth across the Thames a few times, past St. Paul's Cathedral and the London and Tower Bridges before hopping off at the Tower of London. I had been there before on a previous visit to London, but it was definitely a must-see for Ken.
The Tower of London is basically the original castle that housed and protected royalty for hundreds of years and still remains as the actual City of London. The rest of what we call London is actually the City of Westminster. Built on the Thames, it is surrounded by a moat and comprised of multiple towers, walls, turrets, and vaults, and yet is surrounded by modern London. Walking through kings' becrooms and prisoners' cells that still bear their eerie inscriptions in the walls is quite a trip for the imagination! The highlight, though, is the vault that houses the royal collection of valuables - maces, scepters, gold cloaks, goblets, and best of all, the crowns. Everything is in pristine condition, and even the Queen's Imperial State Crown - the one she wears on special occasions - is on display. The size and quantity of the diamonds, rubies, and emeralds laid into the crowns is unbelievable! Cha CHING!!!
A quick trip through the White Tower is all that we could manage since it was about to close, but to see the weapons and armour that were used in battle way back when was interesting. Really, the interesting part was that they were even able to move in all that metal!
It was getting dark and we were tired, so we grabbed our bus and headed back to where we started. We found a great little pub that we passed while taking the scenic route to our hotel last night (i.e. we were lost) and had some steak pie and the best mashed potatoes ever before heading for the hills.
Tomorrow we head back to Heathrow and fly to South Africa, so we just have one last morning to enjoy London before carrying on to the next leg of our trip.