After about six months of planning and doubting whether I should actually go, I finally did fly off to London for the start of a two week, eight country tour of Europe beginning on September 11. If you read my blog, you may recall that over the past few months I've been dealing with some care giving issues for my older sister that culminated with me having to bring her to live with me back in July after her apartment caught on fire. Prior to the fire, I had been making many 400 mile round trips between my home and hers to help her with some medical issues. Since July we've been in a whirlwind of apartment hunting, doctor selection, and transferring all her business affairs to Louisville, my hometown. Meanwhile, I kept thinking about the hefty check I'd written the travel agency for airfare and deposit on the dream European vacation back in March when I thought my sister's situation was stable enough for me to risk overseas travel.
Anyway, I completed all the contingency planning for her--found her a doctor and apartment in Louisville; got living will, power of attorney, and health care surrogate papers drawn up. Hell, I even planned both our funerals in case we either kicked the bucket between September 11-24! I didn't want my friends to have to pick up the slack while I was gallivanting over Europe. . .but wait until I tell you what happens. But that's not in this travelogue until we reach Austria five days into the trip.
I signed up for the European Spotlight tour with Insight Vacations because I like to travel alone, but be around a small group of people during the day for sightseeing. It's like the best of both worlds--you have a lot of the details and hassles taken care of and the safety and company of the group, but you can also go off on your own to explore your own interests. There were about 30 people on this tour from the U.S., Australia, Canada, and South Africa and we grew to like each other on the long bus rides from country to country. We saw parts of England, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and France. In most places we were there for two days so you could get an idea of the places you'd like to return to for a more in-depth visit. Some friends commented that this whirlwind would just give them the bends, but for me it suits my attention span! Plus, when you travel alone you can focus on what you're experiencing without worrying about having to be a good roommate and travel partner!
I captured impressions of the different countries and experiences in a variety of ways. I read tour books and mapped our itinerary. Every day I described our travels and my impressions in a journal--the absolute yummiest yogurt I've ever had was peach-mandarin orange in Amsterdam, most charming men in Italy, most inspiring scenery in Switzerland, most stressful time in Austria. I also wrote postcards to myself from every country so when I got home there were my first hand accounts, complete with each country's unique stamps, waiting for me. I wrote these postcards in cafes, post offices, and sitting on park benches during a lull in the trip. And, I'll admit that everything was viewed as future blog fodder!
And, of course, I took a ridiculous number of photographs--many of them really bad. I'm just experimenting with digital photography and many shots had to be done out the tour bus window. I've "doctored" them a bit with photoshop, but will post them anyway because they tell the story of my trip better than any words I could write.Finally, here's what I saw around London:
I arrived at London Heathrow Airport early Friday morning, September 12.
It was an overnight flight from Detroit and miserably hot and boring on the plane because neither the air conditioning nor media systems were working. Clearing immigration involved incredibly long lines, but I finally made it to the spot where I was to meet the shuttle transfer to my hotel. How clever of the English, look closely at this sign. It says "Find Me."
No question about where travelers need to congregate to meet their parties or travel on into London.
My hotel in London was within walking distance of the beautiful Hyde Park
window shopping on Oxford Street. I couldn't get in my room until later in the day, so I set out on my first on-foot exploration and getting ready for the trip, heading down Oxford Street to exchange my U.S. dollars for British pounds sterling. The rate of exchange discouraged me from doing any serious shopping, but there was plenty to see. In last week's post, "Closet Fashionista", on European fashion, I gave you some photos of the fantasy window displays that designers were prepping along Oxford Street for London Fashion Week. And of course I went in Waterstone's, the famous English book sellers. Struck up a conversation with a young woman who was looking at Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love
. Told her that I envied her getting to read that book for the first time. I also realized that I should have re-read it for this trip because Gilbert's journey included places, like Venice, that I would be seeing.
By mid-afternoon jet lag was setting in badly so I headed back to the Thistle Marble Arch. Killed some more time with a delicious cup of English tea while waiting to get in my room. Once installed, I gave up ambitious plans to get tickets and figure out transportation to Trafalgar Square for a baroque concert at St Martin-in-the-Fields. I listen
to performances from St Martin all the time on our public radio stations, but was too tired to manage this on my own--which turned out to be the regret for my time in London. Instead, I caught up on U. S. presidential politics and Gordon Brown's crisis of leadership and watched Hurricane Gustav make it's way across Louisiana and Texas. I also began the nightly ritual that travel mates never understand--dumping out my backpack
on the bed and sorting and organizing its contents! You can see that I'm well-supplied for all contingencies and can swing this bag on my back and travel hands free! By 9:00 pm I was out for the night after being awake for almost 48 hours.
The next morning, September 13, I met up with the rest of the tour group for the first time for a guided tour of London, including the obvious sights--Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament. At my first English breakfast that morning I'd looked at others in the hotel dining room trying to figure out who would be on the tour--and more importantly--would I like them and enjoy their company for 12 days? Right away I got good vibes from a young Canadian woman who was traveling alone as well. Maybe we might be good travel mates?
Our tour began with a swing around Hyde Park. I was thrilled to see the Albert Memorial and exhibition hall. For it was the site for the Great Exhibition of 1851 which highlighted the major advances of the British industrial age. I knew about this place from my beloved BBC series, North and South starring
Richard Armitage as the northern cotton mill owner, John Thornton, who is rejected by Margaret Hale, a southern parson's daughter. Margaret stops to listen admiringly to Thornton talk with other industrialists about their challenges. He spots her and accuses her of thinking that he is an unfair master. Margaret, who by now regrets her decision to not accept his marriage proposal, is obviously hurt and angered by his words. I'm so glad I know the good ending of this story. . .
Here's the Royal Albert Hall, site of the Proms, London's annual music festival. Apparently it's the custom for music lovers to stand on the promenade(?) and just let the rich music pour over them. (Take this explanation with a grain of salt--not exactly sure of my facts, but love the idea of beautiful music available and affordable for the common folk as well as the upper crust!)
Now we're near St. James Park and the Houses of Parliament on a walking tour of the area. We walk past the Churchill Museum which includes the bunkers where Winston Churchill made some of the gravest decisions on behalf of the English people when they were being bombed during World War II.
Near the Foreign Office this simple, but profoundly moving Bali Memorial stands,commemorating the 202 people (28 Britons) from 21 countries who were killed in the 2002 terrorist bombing in Bali. Doves representing each lost life circle the sphere.
We stop on the Parade Ground off Whitehall to watch the Horse Guards Parade. As you can see, this photographer certainly knows how to position herself to get the best shot
of a row of horse butts! Over to the right of the parade ground you can see the guards and guardhouse at the back of 10 Downing Street. From what I saw on the news the night before, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, probably needed them looking as threatening as they did!
Next we walked through the lovely St. James Park with its serene waters and variety of water fowl and recreational areas. From one of the bridges we were able to see this view of Buckingham Palace. Walking out of the park, the tour guide pointed out this English Rose, which honors Princess Diana. She also pointed out where people came to mourn her death, leaving acres of flowers. In Paris we went through the tunnel where Diana and Dody Fayed were killed. It was an eerie feeling, even after the time that has passed.
By this time I'd seen enough monuments, palaces, and churches. I had a date with my favorite Impressionists--Monet, Manet, Degas, Pissaro, Sisley--at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. So, I headed out on my own on the 15-20 minute walk to the square. I sat on the gallery steps to rest and listen to some of the performers for Week of Peace--a bit too heavy metal for my taste, but fun to experience with others on the square. Inside the gallery I was excited to see Monet's Bathers at La Grenouillere because I'd just watched the DVD of The Impressionists starring--who else--Richard Armitage as Monet which gave an account of his work on this painting. After a couple of hours enjoying my favs of the Impressionists, I walked over to St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church. How beautiful and peaceful inside. People were wandering around, sitting quietly or praying, taking refuge from the hubbub in the square. Again, I regretted not making the concert the night before.
Late in the day, I called a halt. Hailed one of the nice London cabbies and headed back to the hotel. We talked of Hurricane Gustav and bicycle traffic in London and Louisville on the way back. I was out for the night early because the next morning we had to be on the bus at 5:45 a.m. for the next leg of this European journey.
(As always, you can click on any photo to embiggen--this post was just getting too long. . .)
(If you've enjoyed this tale, check back next week after Fun Monday for the second leg of the journey. We'll go from London to Amsterdam and, maybe, on through the Rhineland.)