London, England: London calling. (Collect, most likely.)

changing of the guard

The train left Paris, France on time filled with lots of English-speaking passengers. My slowly rage subsided as I slipped into slumber amidst the dulcet tones of the Queen’s English being spoken by high-pitched elderly ladies. It was a half-hour or so before we dipped beneath the waves of the English Channel. Another twenty minutes later, we resurfaced in the Motherland.

The Channel Tunnel (or “Chunnel”) was mercifully uneventful — pitch blackness and a weird silence — but otherwise no agonizingly slow drowning for us. Three hours after leaving Frogtown, we pulled into Waterloo Station, a section of London with all the charm of downtown Detroit.

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The Tower Bridge, not the London Bridge.

Our hotel for the next four nights was the Le Meridien Russell, a swanky four-star place on Russell Square (while they were renovating the place, there were older rooms that we could afford). Sure, it was old with insane fixtures, but it had decent linens and a true Queen-size bed. Huzzah! Russell Square turned out to be a good location, right near the British Museum as well as the Piccadilly Metro line which cut diagonally through London stopping at most of the popular sights. Being in such close proximity, we hit the BM first and saw the Rosetta Stone, Greek & Roman sculptures (Parthenon friezes and reliefs that the Brits have stolen from other countries over the centuries.

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The Millennium Eye with Big Ben betwixt.

We wanted to avoid doing too much “touristy” stuff, but by then, we were just too damn lazy. We hopped onto the Big Bus for an overview look at Britain’s capitol city. Our first guide talked exactly like Michael Palin from Monty Python fame. Our second guide — it’s a hop-on-hop-off thing — reminded me of a failed comic, but even bad jokes seem funnier with an English accent.

We hopped off first in Covent Gardens at a place called Hogshead for the obligatory fish and chips. It was nice to understand waiters again. Back on the Big Bus again, we saw pretty much every sight in London, many twice. We thought we’d get off at a couple of stops, but we decided against it and just did the long trip complete with a ride down the river Thames.

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Us in front of Buckingham Palace.

Still feeling crappy, but intent on not wasting any precious funds, we grabbed the bus back to Buckingham Palace, knowing we were too late to see the guards changing. In a stroke of luck, we arrived just as the event was occurring, so we saw the whole thing. Unfortunately, in the rain. In fact, it rained the whole time we were at the Palace. Until it stopped. It was first sunny, then raining. Sunny. Raining. You get the idea.

From Buck House (as the locals call it), we strolled up the garden path to Apsley House for a quick tour of “No. 1 London.” (How’s that for an address?) The home of the Duke of Wellington who had a remarkable military career spanning India, Portugal and Spain, culminating in his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. The House contains a number of nice renaissance paintings, some by Rubens, Van Dyck, etc. It’s almost worth it just to see the naked statue of a 6-foot Napoleon carved by someone who had obviously never seen the diminutive dictator in person.

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FYI: Harrod’s is closed on Sundays.

The upscale London retailer, Harrod’s, was our next stop. Tragically, it was closed on Sunday. After much weeping, we walked next door to Harvey Nichol’s, an even more upscale department store, affectionately know as Harvey Nick’s. The shoppes seemed priced-to-stun even though San Francisco prices which aren’t exactly low themselves. So we didn’t buy much. We ate mostly in pubs to keep our costs down. And because expensive British food isn’t any better than cheap British food. In fact, a nice meal in London can set you back more than a tax audit. The only money we spent at Harvey Nick’s was at the 5th Floor Cafe, specifically on some tea for my sore throat and a “full English breakfastsans the requisite cover of pinto beans. Don’t ask.

Getting around London isn’t hard, just expensive. Tube rides cost $2 each way, so you’ve got to plan trips prudently. The ticketing process for each terminal varied, but basically it goes like this: You buy a ticket from an ATM-like machine, telling it how many tickets you want and which zones you’re traveling within, and it spits out the tickets. Then you go to the turnstile, stick the ticket into the turnstile and it sucks the ticket in, spitting it out a little farther down the machine so you can retrieve it. If you forget to retrieve your ticket and try to pass through, an alarm will sound. If you pick up the ticket, but don’t get your luggage through fast enough, an alarm will sound and the doors will close on your luggage trapping it and/or you. If you curse loudly as a result, an alarm will sound.

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Big Ben atop the Parliament Building.

The coins of the realm were truly stupid. London had far too many coins, almost all of which are useless except for feeding beggars. Worst of all, they were not sized according to their value (there are even two differently shaped 50-pence pieces). They also have a 2-pence piece. Entirely worthless. Even beggars throw them away.

The only coin they minted logically was the 2-pound coin as it was substantially larger than the 1-pound. The 1-pound coin was thick and small, about the size of a quarter, so it appeared to be worth less than the larger but thinner 50p coin — the round one, not the 10-sided one.

The pound notes were better, but they didn’t make any bills smaller than a 5, or a quid. So for most of your daily transactions, you were forced to deal with coins. The solution, we found, was to pile all your coins in your hand and show them to the cashier like you did when you were age 7, and say “I have this many!” and hope it’s enough. We picked up this handy technique in a cafe called the Crypt Cafe, a trendy buffet in an actual crypt underneath the St Martin-in-the-Fields church. The Euro, on the other hand, is a much better and simpler system, but the Brits are resisting it like dental hygiene.

We rode a double-decker bus down to Westminster Abbey and weren’t that impressed — with the Abbey, not the bus. The bus was cool! Inside, it looks like a yard sale at a statuary store. Lots of famous dead guys are buried there; Shelley, Shakespeare, Lord Byron, even Mary, Queen of Scots. It seemed like a pay-for-placement kind of deal, because along with the greats were names like Bob Kowalski, nephew of the Cardinal. Poet’s Corner was cool, but the rest didn’t grab us. Although if anything had, we’d have screamed like school girls as it was seriously creepy in there. Don’t waste your time going inside, it’s best from the outside.

We searched for, and finally found, the Lamb & Flag, the oldest pub in Covent Garden that was supposed to be very “authentic.” So although the cook was an old Chinese lady, I had a very good Cottage Pie and Amy had an equally tasty Cornish pastie.

The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square was next up. It was free and considerably more interesting than the Abbey. The place is fairly jammed with numerous renaissance paintings by the biggies, including an impressive room full of Rubens. Well worth the trip.

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Me, making a call.

We also bought tickets at the half-price ticket office in Leicester Square (pronounced Lester) for a West End show called “Stones in His Pocket” about two Irish lads working as extras in a Hollywood movie being filmed in Ireland. It was recommended by a guy standing in line who dissed Arsenic and Old Lace starring Michael Richards in true Brit form as, “Not my cup of tea.” Turned out he was right. The play was very funny. The same two actors played all twelve characters, including both male and female characters, all without a single costume change. Not easy. The writing was amusing up until the ending where it got all sappy and “Hollywood.” Surprisingly disappointing since the main thrust of the play was spent bashing exactly that theme.

A $2 tube-ride back to Knightsbridge and we were finally shopping at Harrod’s for stuff we couldn’t afford and didn’t need. Harrod’s is a lot like Harvey Nick’s except older and not as shiny. Nonetheless, Harrod’s is still amazing. The Egyptian escalator alone is worth a look — what the heck was the designer smoking? They have everything you’d expect in a store like Macy’s, but there’s far more stuff and all of it really cool. Plus, there are no sales or cheesy come-ons. This is just an upscale boutique the size of all outdoors. Harrod’s has the same cache of Tiffany’s. People shop there more for the bag you receive than whatever it was you actually bought. I was disappointed to see the patrons were mostly tourists, and not upscale ones at that. One guy had a t-shirt that said, “Genius when drunk.” Harrod’s clientele has slipped a lot since the store’s glory days.

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Me, sipping tea at The Orangery.

Hanging a left out the front door, we walked the perimeter of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (the largest park in London: bad move) to get to The Orangery. It was a very tasteful, nearly all-white place populated by Italian sculptures, fluted columns, a lackluster wait staff and boorish tourists. The grounds made for a peaceful, laid-back atmosphere in which to have afternoon tea and scones with clotted cream (minimum of 55% fat content — quite possibly the greatest substance ever invented by man, and I am including the wheel, Styrofoam and bubble-wrap).

Gorged on clotted cream, we hiked over to Piccadilly Circus to visit my agency’s London office to check email and make expensive long-distance phone-calls, most of which consisted of, “Dude, I’m calling from London!” Rather than take the Tube to Heathrow (a 45 minute ordeal according to the guys at our London office), we took a limo to our Virgin Atlantic non-stop flight back to SF.

Where we slept.

A lot.

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