Friday, June 2, 2017

Coming Into Los Angeles

I haven't heard this song by Arlo Guthrie in decades, but the melody was stuck in my cranium ever since take off got close: Coming Into Los Angeles

I couldn't figure it out, because, you know, Los Angeles.  And then I finally listened to it and, duh, he mentions London in the first line.  But that doesn't make any sense.

"Coming in from London from over the pond
Flyin' in a big airliner

Chickens flyin' everywhere around the plane
Could we ever feel much finer?

Comin' into Los Angeles
Bringin' in a couple of keys
Don't touch my bags if you please mister customs man"

He's smuggling a couple of keys into Los Angeles, from London?  Shouldn't that have been the other way around?  I mean, we used to get most of our drugs here in California from Mexico.  And Los Angeles is a heck of a lot closer to Mexico than it is to London.  I don't think the UK was ever an export mecca for illicit drugs, was it?  Maybe I was too stoned to notice.  Bloody hell.

So my lovely wife and I just went to London.  We had a smashing good time.  Saw more gems, jewels, historical artifacts, paintings, plants, swords and chips than one could hardly surmise.  Met my FB namesake as well, in the quaint college hamlet of Cambridge.  Birthplace of DNA and all sorts of other great discoveries.

There's a lot to see and do in London.  We were asked by a number of folks if that was the only place we were going to.  And we said, "Um, yeah."

We were on the ground for ten full days, tried our very best but didn't see it all.  We couldn't possibly have done it all.  As I meander back through our Rick Steves London 2017 I reckon we could spend another week in the trenches and still not see it all.  It's a big city with a lot of history.  There's a lot to see and do there.

We hit the historical highlights, all the three star and most of the two star highlights as rated by Rick, our European travel guru.  We have found Rick has a great, down to earth approach to travel and have relied on his expertise now for three separate European vacations.   We met a couple other Rick Steve's disciples on our way to see the crown jewels, which, by the way, were opulently majestic. 

The jewels are located in a building at the Tower of London, which is an historic castle, palace and prison.  It's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is kind of a big deal.  To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.  I'm not going to list them here cause that would take, like, forever.  If interested just click on the link.

Rick said as soon as you get there, and he's assuming you're not arriving mid afternoon but rather pretty darn close to opening time in the morning, make a beeline to the jewels.  The building they're in can get packed quick and the line to get in can be long.

We first witnessed this phenomena at the Louvre in Paris.  Rick said as soon as you get there make a beeline to the Mona Lisa, cause the same thing.  So we did, and sure enough, within a couple hours we noticed it was taking a couple hours just to get into the packed room.

So as soon as we got to the Tower grounds we started route finding and heading towards the jewels.  As were a couple of other women.  We zigged, they zigged.  We zagged, they zagged.  They were also chatting in English about the jewels in a short of breath fashion.

About half way through our short of breath zig-zagging I asked if they were Rick Steves disciples.  They laughed and said yes.  We shared some Louvre stories as we hustled along.  We all got in the building quite readily and within a couple hours guess what?  The line to get in was out the door.

We saw about thirty billion dollars worth of jewels that day.  BillionJared and Kay's don't have nearly that much in all their stores on any given day.  I'm not sure every jewelry store in California can pony up that many carats.

Carats in crowns, carats in swords, carats in scepters and carats in orbs.  Diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, pearls.  Big ones too.  There were a couple famous diamonds as well.  Like the 106 carat Koh-I-Noor.  And the 530 carat Star of Africa, the largest diamond in the world.  You could just about bowl with that one.

We also stood on the location where Henry VIII beheaded two of his wives for having affairs on him.  From what I gather I can't really blame the women, especially the second one.  She was a good twenty years younger than the portly and disease ridden monarch, so, ewwwwwwww.  But he was King.  So off with her head.

The Beefeater guide at the Tower that conveyed this story to a wandering throng of tourists was very knowledgeable and quite witty.  If ever there and taking a look see, I highly recommend their ninety minute tour.  It's free and you'll have a good laugh.

Speaking of Henry VIII, his particular roundish suit of armor also contained a rather largish metal cod piece jutting out from that particular part of the anatomy where maybe a basketball player or a giant might have need for one.  It was that massively large.  Which Henry surely wasn't we were told.  I guess that sort of thing filled the bill back then like a Corvette does today.

After the Tower we shared some fish and chips at a nearby cafĂ© and then strolled across the Thames on the Tower Bridge to the South Bank.  Past Shakespeare's Globe Theater and then into the quite colorful outdoor epicurean Borough Market

As a matter of fact, we had accidentally stumbled into Britain's most renowned food market, which has existed in one form or another at that location for over one thousand years. Who knew?  Items from all seventeen food groups were represented there in an artful Dickenesque fashion.  Fish, fruit, flowers.  Pheasant.  Traditional and Rare Breed Meats and Charcuterie.  Even if you couldn't pronounce it, it was edible.  Even if you never thought certain things could actually be food, they were.  It was all there. Whatever it was.   

Close by was a full size replica of Sir Francis Drake's ship "The Golden Hinde", on which he sailed around the world, raping and pillaging for God and Queen.  The first thing that struck us was that it was a pretty small ship.  And on it were a bunch of sweaty, smelly, unbathed men, circling the globe on a three year voyage. 

He actually set out with five ships and one hundred sixty-four men.  The Golden Hinde was the only ship to make it home.  With fifty-six men.  But they made it home with a fabulous hoard of gold, silver, emeralds, diamonds, pearls, silk and spices. 

Three years ago we took a hike that ran above Drakes Bay in Point Reyes National Park in Northern California.  That's a long ways from the Thames.  We were very impressed that little ship went all that way.  There's a lot of water and big waves between here and there.

We made another left or right and soon stumbled across the Southwark Cathedral, another simply marvelous piece of architecture.  Not as large or as imposing as Westminster or St Paul's, it nevertheless commands your respect for artistic beauty and amazing architecture.  Especially considering the times it was built.

We strolled, explored, marveled, and discovered.  Just soaking up the wonderful, bustling atmosphere in a foreign land, with the chattering of foreign languages echoing everywhere. 

And that's pretty much a typical day when we're on location in a thriving, foreign, cultural metropolis.  Hit a museum, art gallery or some other historic site, spend the morning, then have lunch and wander.  Many of the absolute best discoveries happen just by wandering and getting lost.

Have I ever mentioned the stoned out Willie Nelson polaroid a good friend and I espied on a coffee shop billboard somewhere in Amsterdam?  I say somewhere because we were hopelessly lost. And probably just a little bit stoned.  I don't think I could ever find my way back.  I don't think Willie could either.  But I do know this, we were there, and so was Willie, apparently, once. 

And the almost naked really fit old man doing his aerial acrobatics above a courtyard full of afternoon diners in Amsterdam.  Had we not been lost and wandering we would have totally missed that "holy shit can you believe this?" R-rated Cirque de Soleil style solo show.

That afternoon in London we weren't actually lost, we had set out with a street map and a tube map that morning.  And since we had logged in a good six to seven miles we were ready to put our feet up.  We found the nearest station and caught the tube back to our boutique hotel, The Mayflower

We really lucked out with this booking, it turned out to be much better than anticipated.  It didn't hurt that we were upgraded to an apartment unit with kitchen when we got there.  Even though we didn't cook, having a fridge and microwave available was very convenient. 

They also had Wi-Fi available in the room.  That was also very convenient because I didn't have to go to the lobby at four AM to update my fantasy baseball team.  Even more so because I didn't have to put my pants on either. 

My lovely wife also purchased a universal electronic plug adapter kit prior to departure.  It included USB ports as well as plugs and handled all our electronic and charging needs.

I booked the trip through Hotwire, one of my two go to travel sites.   Priceline is the other.  I booked it last fall after another excursion to Cabo with some friends fell through due to schedule conflicts.  Hell, with Brexit dropping the value of the pound it made absolute financial sense to go to London. 

My initial requirements were excellent flight times and four star minimum accommodations in a good location.  I even purchased travel insurance and upgraded the room before it was upgraded again.  It was still a grand cheaper than Cabo, and Cabo is like, next door to us here in California.

I booked the trip, then forgot about until late March, about forty days before we took off.  Then I started my research with Rick and his London guide.  I drafted an excel spread sheet and started filling in two and three star sights pertaining to their location within the city.  I also allowed for a couple short train trips outside the city just so we could rest our feet for a few minutes.

I know it sounds completely OCD, which I totally am, to draft a vacation excel spreadsheet.  Don't get me wrong, I don't do it when we're on a tropical getaway.  But when you're going to a foreign city with tons of sights, it's easy to get overwhelmed.  Drafting the spread sheet gives me an idea of the possibilities while also allowing for down time.  The schedule usually gets kicked the first day, but so what.  We're on vacation.   Here's an excerpt:

Sun Mon 5/1 Tues 5/2 Weds 5/3 Thurs 5/4 Fri 5/5 Sat 5/6
1:15 Robert w/ NC Airporter Arrive LHR 1:42 PM Bus Tour (L50) Westminster Abbey (L40) Tower of London (L45) Kings Cross Station to
to pick up and take to Tower Bridge (L18) Cambridge
Airport $95 530-575-7011 Transfer via Hyde Park Buckingham Palace/ St Pauls Cathedral (L36)
$66.42 Guards 11:30 AM Tate Modern (FreeL4)
Depart SMF 4:42 PM on Harrods Shakespeare Globe (L30) Hitchins Dinner?
Delta 3652 Check into Mayflower Big Ben/Parliament
Arrive SLC 7:24 PM Book Banquet Kensington Palace (L32) &
Book Ripper Walk Gardens Churchill War Rooms (L35)
Orient to Earls Ct Station
Depart SLC 8:15PM om
Delta 4020 Exchange dollars @ 
Moneycorp Medieval Banquet (L80)
113 Gloucester Rd (L16) Meet @ 7:00pm
Sun 5/7 Mon 5/8 Tues 5/9 Weds 5/10 Thurs 5/11 Fri 5/12 Sat 5/13
Depart LHR 12:55 PM on
Oxford, Stratford, West End Walk- British Library Victoria & Albert Delta 4041
Cotswolds & Warwick  National Gallery (FreeL10) Leeds Castle,  Museum (Free L10) Arrive Minn @ 4:05 PM
Castle Trafalgar Square British Museum (Free L10) Canterbury & Dover
Tour (L153) Covent Garden Tour-L157 Depart MSP @ 6:01 PM on
Opera House Sherlock Holmes Museum Delta 5587
Picadilly Circus Beatles Store Windsor Castle? Arrive SMF 8:08 PM Soho Abbey Road
Courtlaud Gallery (L14) JT to PU
Dickens Museum (L18)

As I said, it usually gets shot to hell on the first day.  I think we did the V&A Museum on Sunday the 7th, as well as Kensington Palace since we missed that on the 3rd.  (We omitted the items in red.)  And the items on the 9th were lateraled to the 11th cause we went to Kew Gardens on the 9th.  I think the 8th went as planned, as well as the 5th, 6th and 10th.  So four out of nine days hit the mark.  Don't ask about the color or L codes, I'm not giving up all my OCD secrets.

The missing Friday the 5th was the Tower of London day described above, with the Medieval Banquet for dinner.  Saturday the 6th was Cambridge.  Friday the 12th was our flight home.  In case you really, really wanted to know.

We also missed out on the Jack the Ripper walk, or Shocking London walk scheduled the night of the 4th.  Unfortunately the guide had to cancel due to an accident he encountered on the way.  And unfortunately we could not reschedule during this trip.

Based on what we had in mind as far as sight seeing, I also purchased this little item called The London Pass, which I highly recommend.  More on that in an upcoming post.

I also booked a transfer from Heathrow to our hotel through I hate  I stumbled on this site a couple foreign trips ago.  It's a vacation preplan must!  The site has info on every airport on the planet and it also offers transfers from the airports to wherever.  A driver meets you at the airport with a sign with your name on it.  He then helps put your bulky suitcases in the car.

This beats the ever loving living hell out of arriving in a foreign city for the first time and trying to finagle a cab.  Cause you never know when they might be toying with the meter.  And then when you try to call him on it all he speaks is Kazakhastanian.  Which really confuses the hell out of you because you're in Guatemala and expecting to hear some form of Japanese. 

The transfer also beats the ever loving living hell out of trying to figure out the train or tube system immediately after you land.  Cause once you finally figure out the correct train you've already missed two because you originally thought you were on the wrong platform and moved to another and then finally figure out you were on the right platform to begin with.  Just as the second train was leaving.

And once you get to the local train station, then you have to figure what bus or subway is going to get you closest to your hotel or apartment.  Oh yeah, and lest I forget, all this while you are lugging around your overstuffed big ass suitcase because you're old and think you need a lot of clothes.  So this big ass suitcase is in and out and up and down and then there's stairs and escalators and once you finally get close you've got to roll that fucker down the crowded sidewalk for a few to twenty blocks until you're really finally really there.

A booked transfer, with a knowledgeable and trustworthy driver, is so much easier.

Our hotel, The Mayflower, sits on a lovely, quiet street in the upscale suburb of Kensington.  But two blocks down we had a bustling six block commercial neighborhood with about twenty restaurants, three grocery stores, a couple pubs and many other assorted shops.  It was also home to our tube stop, Earl's Court.