London - part 2

Trip Start Oct 23, 2008
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Trip End Nov 05, 2008


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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Saturday, November 1, 2008

One week in London is nothing, it's barely "scratching the surface"...barely!...we knew that there was no way for us to see everything - even superficially, but we also knew that we would definitely want to return...this time we didn't even visit the British Museum - we didn't want to go just to say "we've been there", and there was too little time to fully appreciate it, so - it'll have to wait till the next time...and we haven't been to the Shakespeare's Globe theater - it's an open-air theater, and so - no plays are performed in November when we visited...we could've still stopped by for a tour of the theater, but we figured we would return one day for the "whole package"...

one of the first places we went to was the Tower of London ...actually, we went there twice - once to tour the premises and see the Crown Jewels and the other time - at night for the "invitation only" Ceremony of the Keys...

The Tower dates back to the 11th century and has served as a military post, royal palace, prison and execution site...Henry VIII had a couple of his ex-wives beheaded there ("irreconcilable differences" were resolved quite easily then!), one of them - Anne Boleyn...
Anne Boleyn's daughter had been a prisoner here for a while, too,  before she became Queen Elizabeth I ... The Tower of London has its ceremonial guardians - the Yeomen Warders, also known as Beefeaters (even if you never saw them but ever shopped for gin - you would probably know what they look like: just think Beefeater Gin)...
historically the Yeomen Warders have responsibility of guarding the Tower and its prisoners, but nowadays they mostly give informative and entertaining tours to the visitors... the Chief Warder, along with a regiment of guards and soldiers, takes part in the Ceremony of the Keys - an elaborate and almost theatrical ceremony of locking up the Tower for the night...it has been taking place every single night around 22:00 (= 10 pm) for 700 years pretty much the same way it takes place now...talking about tradition here!...and - as we were informed by our Yeoman guide Chris - they were late locking up the Tower only once during all these years: it happened during World War II, when a bomb fell nearby ...otherwise - no interruptions...amazing!...I am glad we got invitations to see this ceremony...the invitation is free of charge (despite London being an expensive city, many wonderful things and best museums are actually free), but the number of people allowed to watch the ceremony is limited (20 or so each night)... so - if you want to get there, you need to write to them at least 2 months in advance requesting the invitation ......it's worth the trouble though!...

another attraction in the Tower of London that shouldn't be missed is the Crown Jewels that are displayed there - probably the best collection of jewels in the world...photography is strictly prohibited there (I saw a lady who took a quick picture and wasn't let go by the guards until they made sure that the picture was deleted), so - all I can offer here is a few verbal highlights...by the way, they have a clever way of avoiding the crowds in front of the display cases: there are 2 escalators going around them (in front and back of the display cases), so - you step on one, and it slowly moves you by...if you want another look - you go for another "ride"...or - for a slightly more distant look - there is an observation platform... among the jewels there are St. Edward's Crown (that is placed upon the head of each new monarch on the coronation day), the Sovereign's Scepter (with the largest cut diamond in the world - 530 carat diamond named  "Star of Africa"), the Crown of the Queen Mother with a 106 carat diamond called "Koh-I-Noor" (there is a superstition that "Koh-I-Noor" is unlucky to male rulers, so - it is usually worn either by a female ruler or the king's wife...

there is a curious thing about the Tower of London - its ravens ...ravens have been living at the Tower of London for centuries (at least since the 17th century), and there is a legend that if they leave - the Tower will fall along with the British monarchy...there are at least 7 of them right now, but during World War II  only one raven named "Grip" remained in the Tower... one of the Yeoman Warders - the Raven Master - has the responsibility of taking care of them...the Raven Master clips their wings to prevent them from flying away, although in the past there were some instances when a raven would escape the Tower... there were also instances when ravens were dismissed from the tower for destructive behavior... in 1986 a raven named "George" was dismissed to a zoo with such written orders: "On Saturday 13th September 1986, Raven George, enlisted 1975, was posted to the Welsh Mountain Zoo. Conduct unsatisfactory, service therefore no longer required" ... in 1996 two more ravens were dismissed, but current residents seem to be well-behaved... they have their own house and are well taken care of - not surprising considering that the future of the monarchy depends on them! :)
it was all quite interesting, but it wasn't a real discovery - I mean, everybody knows the Tower of London, and it seems that almost everybody visits it while in London...what was somewhat of a discovery though (at least for me) - was a place called the Courtauld Gallery ...I think I've already mentioned our penchant for a little less known, smaller museums ...it started back in Paris when - knowing how much I like Monet - my dear angel helped me discover the Marmottan-Monet museum...the museum was near the Bois de Boulogne, but the long trip to the western edge of the city was soooo worth it!...or maybe it started even earlier - with the Isabella Gardner's museum in Boston...anyway, ever since - wherever we are - we've been paying special attention to "les musée moins connus", so to speak... 

the Courtauld Gallery in London is housed in the Somerset House - about 10-15 minutes walk from the Trafalgar square...and if you like the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists - you will absolutely love this museum!...its collection is made of the bequests of several people - notably Samuel Courtauld, a well-known art collector and successful businessman who patented artificial silk...the success of his textile business helped him finance his art purchases...what I found very interesting about him (and resonating sooo well with my own perception of art!) is the fact that he relied very little (if at all) on the opinions of art dealers, art critics and other people in general - he collected only what appealed to his personal taste ...he was not influenced by the notions of "valuable", "promising", "it", "fashionable" and so on - the value of art for him was measured largely by the degree of pleasure he derived from  it...and turned out - he did pretty well! :)   ...
we enjoyed this museum terribly...it was quiet and not crowded at all - in some rooms we were the only visitors, and it felt like we had the museum to ourselves...and of course we played our favorite game... we play it in every museum we visit...it's fun to play, especially if you are enjoying the collection...in each room one of us asks the other something like this: "if you could steal just one painting from this room - what would it be?" ...although it doesn't have to be a "painting" - it could be a sculpture, an installation, what not - we are an "equal art opportunity" "thieves"!  :)   ...and I know, I know - "steal" is not a nice concept, and I even tried to substitute it with a more neutral word "take", but!...somehow the game feels more exciting when I use "steal" - must be that element of adventure! ...anyway, it's all pretend-and-make-believe, so - no worries! :) 
this way each of us picks a favorite...now and then it happens that we want to "steal" the same painting - then I would tell my angel  "noooooo, you are too late - this one is already "stolen"!...
or - if I don't like his choice  - I would tell him something like I did in Boston...in Boston Museum of Fine Art my dear angel wanted to "steal" Gauguin's "D'ou venons nous? Que sommes nous? Ou allons nous?"...it's a great work, but somehow doesn't touch me, leaves me emotionally indifferent...so, I told my angel "you can't "steal" this painting! it's too big! how in the world would you carry it out of the museum unnoticed?!!"...but! silliness, too, is part of the game :)
and this question - it sounds very simple, but what it really does - it makes us walk around again...slowly...contemplating... taking a fresh look... trying to feel the effect of each painting...trying to see what really touches us...and this little game helps our memory, too, - it's been 3 years, but I still remember which Monet I "stole" from Marmottan-Monet in Paris...it's really a good little game...

photography was allowed in the Courtauld Gallery (it doesn't happen often in museums!), so - I could even illustrate the game...it wasn't realistic to take pictures of every painting in every room, but you could see a sample of our "winners" in pairs - my choice vs my angel's choice...paintings from the same room are listed under the same number...so - enjoy being privy to our little art game! :)

















One thing which was not terribly high on our priority list was watching the Changing of the Guard Ceremony outside Buckingham Palace...we did walk by the Palace (which has been the royal residence since 1837), but at a different time ...   yet it turned out we saw part of the ceremony another day anyway...
by the way, at the time we were in London - the royal blue-yellow-and-red flag was flying over Buckingham Palace - which meant that the Queen was at home...in August and September the Queen is out of town and opens this palace to public...if you happen to be in London during that time, and if you have enough time to make reservations well in advance (the number of people admitted for the tour of the Palace is limited) - you can actually get inside many rooms of the Buckingham Palace...
but we were there in November, so - the Palace was closed to the public...










well,  back to the Changing of the Guard Ceremony... in autumn it takes place every other day... we didn't plan to watch it, but! - paraphrasing a well-known saying - if you don't come to the ceremony, ceremony comes to you! ...  we often walked through St. James Park which was a few minutes walk from where we stayed at, and one day we just happened to be there at the very beginning of the Changing of the Royal Horse Guard ceremony
near the Guards Museum at the edge of St. James Park...I love horses, so - to me it was fun to watch! (I think, my angel enjoyed it, too...if not the horses - then at least my excitement)...the ceremony lasted about 30 minutes...we probably should've tried to find time for the nearby Guards Museum, too...to look at the Duke of Wellington's uniform that he wore at the battle of Waterloo,  or to dress up into a real Foot Guard uniform (they let you do it there)...I heard it's a fun museum...but! as we often say - there is always next time...















London has tons of things to do at night, and I mean - tons! : you open a daily paper, and there are pages after pages listing things that are happening - late-night exhibits, shows, night clubs, theaters, concerts...we didn't plan our nighttime entertainment ahead - we almost never do, because we don't want to be committed....so sometimes we would just walk around the city and see something interesting and decide on a spur of the moment if we feel like it...and if the tickets are available - we go... and if not - there is always something else just around the corner, it's London, after all!...
one night we walked from the Trafalgar Square - and there was St. Martin-in-the-Fields...the concert there was about to begin in less than an hour, so - we didn't even have time to go anywhere for dinner...
well, turned out - they had an excellent cafeteria in their basement!...I know, I know, the word "cafeteria" has this appetite-suppressing effect, but! their cafeteria was really good - I mean it, even their wine selection was ok (for the price anyway)...so - just like that, in a matter of minutes, our evening entertainment was decided along with the dining place!...






another evening on the way from Covent Garden we stopped by one of the kiosks on Leicester Square that were selling tickets to nearby theaters for tonight's  performances...that's how we happened to spend that evening in the London Coliseum listening to "Aida"...




there was something else we thought would be fun to do at night - ride the London Eye... but we ended up doing it during the day - this way we could see more...maybe the London Eye (also called the Millennium Wheel) is one of those tourist traps, but we did enjoy looking at London from high above ...
to be precise - from the height of 135 m (= close to 450 feet)...by now there are 2 Ferris Wheels in the world that are taller than the London Eye (both of them in Asia - one in China and another in Singapore), but the London Eye is definitely the tallest in Europe...at least for now...





  

          
          

     












maybe we will ride the London Eye at night next time we are in London... but there are certain things  that just cannot be saved for the next visit to London - like Westminster Abbey...to me - if you haven't been to Westminster Abbey, you haven't really been to London ... because its history is almost the same as the history of England...England's kings and queens have been crowned and buried here since 11th century... among the royal tombs there are those of  Edward the Confessor (the king who built Westminster Abbey in 1066),  Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots...
many well-known poets, scientists and politicians are buried in Westminster Abbey...the coronation chair - quite simple-looking gold-painted wooden chair that has been used for every English coronation since 1308 -   is located here, too...the interior of Westminster Abbey (which is actually called "The Collegiate Church of St. Peter of Westminster") is very big - we got lost there twice and walked in circles looking for an exit... but actually it was for the better because it allowed us to see things more than once... and although it might not be the place where I would want to return again and again,  to me - it's a "must" to visit at least once... 


   
                                                        (to be continued....)
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Where I stayed
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