City Scene: London

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Researching London was almost as much fun as being there! We checked out travel books from our local library, watched related videos, read blogs and searched the web for information regarding the best way to spend four days in London on our own. After months of doing our homework, we settled on an aggressive itinerary that covered everything we thought we wanted to see in the amount of time we had. We booked our hotel, purchased our London Pass and Oyster Cards, and felt confident that we could explore the city without getting lost or wasting time. Our trip also included four days prior to London visiting a family member in Southern England, but when it came time to say goodbye, we boarded the train to London. We were about to find out how good of a job we did on our homework!

We got off the train in Ealing, a bustling neighborhood in West London with well-known shops and restaurants where we booked our hotel. As a transport hub, Ealing has a convenient tube station and bus terminal. We dropped our bags at the hotel and made our way to the tube station. It was about noon when we took the underground to Green Park – the closest stop to Buckingham Palace. We arrived about 40 minutes before our pre-booked tour of the palace, so we made a quick pub stop to toast our successful first experience with “the tube”! So far, so good!

DSC06366 (2)Our tour took us through 19 of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace regularly used by the Royal family, but since the Queen was making her yearly visit to Scotland, the lavish rooms were open to the public. It was a treat to see inside what has become the focal point for the British people and the monarchy for generations. We also toured the extensive Gardens located behind the palace.

DSC06372 (2)After the tour we began our walk down The Mall, a wide elegant avenue between Buckingham Palace and the Admiralty Arch. We stopped for photos in lovely St. James Park which borders The Mall. The Admiralty Arch, completed in 1912 to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria, is a curved stone building which links The Mall to Trafalgar Square, the official center of London. In the center of the square are fountains, Nelson’s Column and four giant stone lions which guard the column.

From Trafalgar Square, we walked to Picidilly Circus then back toward the Thames River. The National Gallery, St. Martin-in-the Field Church, Cleopatra’s Needle and the Sphinx Statue are just a few of the sights we saw on our way to the Victoria Embankment. We walked across the Hungerford Bridge and back before taking the underground back to our hotel in Ealing.

It was a rainy, dreary day in London, but our second day was packed with exciting venues so we were not deterred! We started at St. Paul’s Cathedral where we explored this architectural masterpiece by Sir Christopher Wren from the bottom of the crypt to the top of the tower. For more than 1,400 years, a church dedicated to St. Paul has stood on the highest point in the city. The original church dates back to 604 AD, but the present building was constructed after the Great Fire of London. We got some impressive views of the city from the Golden Gallery at the top of the Dome.

By this time we were fairly comfortable with the underground, so we took the tube from St. Paul’s to the Tower of London. Our research suggested we get there before 11 AM to avoid the heavy afternoon crowd. What a fascinating place! From its early history as a grand palace to its decades of use as a prison, the Tower of London is an extensive complex of buildings and towers and walls. The most popular exhibits are The Crown Jewels, the White Tower, the Medieval Palace, and the Bloody Tower. Also popular are the resident flock of ravens. Legend has it that if these birds were to desert the Tower of London, the kingdom would fall – so taking no chances, the ravens currently living here have all had their wings clipped.

Adjoining the Tower of London is the Tower Bridge which spans the River Thames as a drawbridge. It has two Victorian-style towers that support the middle section when it is raised to allow river traffic to pass beneath it. We walked across the bridge to our first stop on the south side: the HMS Belfast. This grey warship, complete with guns aimed high, is a floating museum that gives you a realistic idea of what life was like on board the ship during WWII.

Following our tour of the ship, we walked along the South Bank – an eclectic mix of old and new. We stopped for a late lunch at The George Inn, one of the oldest pubs in London. We soaked in the historic medieval atmosphere and rested our tired feet before heading on. We still had lots to see!

We explored the Golden Hinde, an English ship captained by Sir Francis Drake which circumnavigated the globe between 1577 – 1580. We passed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre before reaching the Tate Modern. This art gallery holds the national collection of British art from 1900 to the present day. It is one of the largest museums of contemporary and modern art in the world; and in the hour or so we spent there, we hardly scratched the surface.

We crossed the Millennium Bridge, the first new pedestrian bridge over the River Thames in more than a century. Built in the year 2000, it is an important link between the south bank and the historic center of London, easily connecting the Tate Modern to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Back on the other side of the river, we took Paul’s Walk to the nearest tube station and returned to our hotel. We spent the evening exploring Ealing.

Our itinerary for day three in London included so many stops we weren’t sure we’d get to all of them – but we did! Just like we did on our first day, we took the tube from Ealing to Green Park then on to Buckingham Palace. At the west front of the Palace is the Queen’s Gallery. Works of art from the Royal Collection are exhibited here on a rotating basis. About 450 works are on display at any given time… and they are exquisite!

Just down the street from the gallery is the Royal Mews, home to a spectacular collection of ceremonial coaches and carriages, and one of the finest working stables in the world. The horse-drawn carriages and motorized vehicles used for coronations, state visits, royal weddings and other official engagements are on display. Horses are here only when they are not on duty or undergoing training away from London.

We took the underground to Westminster Station, climbed the stairs to street level and were immediately in awe of Big Ben, The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey! Some of the most impressive tourist sights in London are here in Parliament Square.

Westminster Abbey seemed more of a historical site than a religious site to me. Nearly every coronation since 1066 has taken place here, as well as several Royal weddings. It is the burial ground for famous politicians, sovereigns and artists including Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton. There was a respectful hushed silence during our tour, but I didn’t notice many worshipers – perhaps it was just the timing.

The Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster, is the seat of the two parliamentary houses of the United Kingdom: the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The most famous feature of the Houses of Parliament is the clock tower, where the deep booming bell of Big Ben rings on every hour.

Located beneath the streets of Westminster are the Churchill War Rooms. It is here that Winston Churchill and his inner circle secretly directed troops and made crucial decisions during World War II. The bombproof complex has been preserved almost exactly as it was at the end of the war. You could easily spend an entire day here, although we managed to do it in a couple hours.

On our way to the Horse Guards Parade, we walked by 10 Downing Street, then toured the Household Calvary Museum and the Banqueting House. After so many museums, we were feeling quiet “English” so stopping at a pub for an early dinner seemed like the proper thing to do. The Sherlock Holmes is a traditional English pub serving pints and pub food, but the interesting thing about it is the complete re-creation of Holmes and Watson’s study and sitting room. Also, scattered throughout the pub is a large collection of items related to characters from the Sherlock Holmes books. The atmosphere was marvelous!

One of our favorite memories is the leisurely boat ride we took down the River Thames. It was fun to see the city from a different perspective and hear commentary about the attractions that could be seen from the river. We sailed from a dock near the London Eye (which we did not ride) to just under the Tower Bridge. While onboard, we had a light rain shower followed by a lovely rainbow! Off the boat, we skipped the first underground we came to and strolled on to the next one in order to experience the atmosphere of the city after dark, then we headed back to Ealing.

The agenda for the fourth and final day took us outside of London and required we travel by bus. About 12 miles southwest of central London is Hampton Court Palace. This spectacular baroque palace with beautiful gardens was once the residence of Henry VIII and some of his wives! We learned about their life in Tudor England; their public drama and their private pain. It was one of my favorite tours!

The Borough of Greenwich is 5 miles on the opposite side of London from Hampton Court; but we enjoyed the bus ride and didn’t mind the distance. We arrived in Greenwich in time for lunch at a pretty little restaurant on the banks of the Thames, then we proceeded passed the Cutty Sark (ship), the Old Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum to the Royal Observatory at the top of the hill. The Observatory’s astronomical work allowed for the accurate measurement of the earth’s movement and established the Greenwich Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time. There is a gorgeous view from the Observatory downhill to Greenwich Park and across the River Thames toward London.

We spent all afternoon in Greenwich, then hopped on the tube around 5:00 for our final underground trip to the hotel. Big mistake! That meant we went from one side of London to the other in rush hour traffic! It was a bit crowded – just us and a million other people – but we made it back to Ealing with plenty of time to pack for our morning flight home. It had been a wonderful four days and we were feeling very proud of ourselves for accomplishing so much on our own. Other than the rush hour fiasco, we did just fine and chalked up another “city scene”!

See my “Travel” section for more City Scene posts!

City Scene: Edinburgh

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It’s easy to imagine yourself back in time in Edinburgh, Scotland. A walk down the Royal Mile conjures up images of a busy marketplace where trader’s haggle over the price of goods, and horses trot back and forth down the ancient thoroughfare from the castle at one end to the royal palace at the other. In the middle of Old Town, a rowdy crowd of tartan and kilt-wearing clansmen stumble from pub to pub in search of another shot of whiskey or pint of ale. With lantern in hand, they belt out Scottish folk-songs as they make their way home through a maze of dark alleys and steep cobblestone streets in the wee hours of morning.

Our experience in Edinburgh was nothing like that, but it’s easy enough to imagine! As the last stop on our CIE tour of Scotland, I felt like we had saved the best for last. Don’t get me wrong, ALL of Scotland is beautiful! It is a diverse country with castles, rocks, highlands and lowlands, but Edinburgh has it all. Thanks to its spectacular setting high on Castle Rock (which is literally a plug in an extinct volcano), the view is of green hills, blue seas and some of the grandest medieval architecture you’ll ever see.

We arrived late in the afternoon with just enough time to explore the vicinity of the Macdonald Holyrood Hotel before dinner. From the look of things, Edinburgh was going to be incredible! Our Scottish evening included a meal, drinks and a show complete with delectable items such as bangers and mash, fish and chips, cheese and oatcakes, and of course haggis and black pudding. Cranachan (cream, honey, whiskey-soaked oats and raspberries) with strong black coffee was served during a lively song and dance show featuring bagpipes, fiddles and tin whistles.

The next morning was brisk and blustery; none the less, we started our tour at the highest, most windy spot in Edinburgh—the Castle. It totally dominates the city skyline. Archaeological evidence suggests the location of the castle has been a fortified stronghold since the 6th century and a royal castle has existed there since the reign of Malcolm III around 1060. Due to damage, decline and reconstruction over the years, little remains of the original structures. A small chapel on the highest point of the rock dates back to 1124 and is the oldest surviving building. The iconic castle, where centuries of royalty have lived and died, has stunning views of all that surround it.

After the castle tour, we strolled along the Royal Mile, a street which connects the castle to the Royal Palace. Because space was physically confined in the Old Town area, buildings were compelled to expand upward which explains the 6, 10, and even 12-story tenements. Most of the medieval structures have retained their original form over the years, so the area is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most popular section of the Royal Mile is near High Street. Beautiful St. Giles Cathedral is here, as well as popular shops, pubs and restaurants.

At the lower end of the Royal Mile is the Palace of Holyroodhouse as well as the ruins of a 12th century abbey, Holyrood Park (aka the Queen’s Park) and the Scottish Parliament. The Palace is the official residence of British royalty when they visit Scotland. Queen Elizabeth spends one week each summer at Holyrood, at which time they fly the Royal flag of the United Kingdom; at all other times the Royal Banner of Scotland is displayed.

The palace as it stands today was built between 1671 and 1678.  Next to the palace are the remains of what once was the finest medieval abbey in Scotland. The Abbey was enlarged over the centuries, its grandeur evident by the size of the roofless nave, the walls of Gothic windows and a vaulted ceiling. I found it hauntingly beautiful! The gardens were magnificent as well, offering a peaceful atmosphere and a kaleidoscope of color.

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We spent a few hours of our free time at the National Museum of Scotland. It contains a wonderful assortment of displays featuring science, natural history, world cultures and Scottish artifacts. Not far from the museum is the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, a little dog who famously guarded the grave of his owner for 14 years until the dog passed away in 1872. We headed back along the Royal Mile where we checked out a few shops and had dinner at the well-known “World’s End” pub. It was a pleasant evening, so we walked to Princess Street after dinner. The street has no buildings on the south side to allow for unobstructed views of Old Town and the Castle. The Scott Monument, a Victorian Gothic structure dedicated to the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, stands in the Princess Street gardens.

Our tour group was headed for Belfast, Northern Ireland the next day, so it was time to say goodbye to Edinburgh. During our brief stay here, we barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and do, but it was long enough to appreciate the historic city scene of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Find my other City Scene posts here:

City Scene: St. Peterburg

City Scene: Auckland

City Scene: Copenhagen

City Scene: Vienna

City Scene: St. Petersburg

DSC_0353 (3)St. Petersburg, Russia was a two-day stop on the Baltic Cruise we took for our 35th anniversary. It was a mixed bag of experiences, both enjoyable and not so much! We started off with a nonexistent welcome from immigration. The official didn’t smile or utter a word – he just looked at our passport, looked at us, then back at our passport. A nod of his head was our only indication to proceed through the gate. An air of unfriendliness continued throughout our visit, but the sights of the city were magnificent none the less!

The agenda for the day included a tour of Catherine’s Palace, lunch in the Czar’s Village, a visit to the world-famous Hermitage Museum, then a drive by the Palace Square, the Arch of the General and other highlights; but we weren’t the only tourists in town! Traffic was terrible, security procedures were strict, and it was crowded everywhere we went. It must be a daunting task to herd large numbers of people through historic structures while protecting them from potential harm. All that aside, Catherine’s Palace was spectacular! Even Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna was not this impressive! Although Peter the Great presented this estate to his wife Catherine in 1710, the Palace owes its awesome grandeur to their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who ordered it completely redone. The result is why the Palace is now ranked as one of the masterpieces of world architecture.

Inside (where you had to pay to take pictures) the WOW factor continued! From the main staircase where the ceilings were decorated with 17th & 18th century paintings, to the Grand Hall with its gilded mirrored walls, to the State Study of Alexander the 1st, each room was stunning! None more so than the Amber Room! This famous room was originally constructed with over 100,000 perfectly fitted pieces of amber, but the Nazis dismantled the amber panels and shipped them to Germany during WW II and they have never been found. Russian artists began recreating the room in the early 1980s and it was re-opened to the public in 2003. Outside on the Palace grounds, we listened to an A cappella singing group perform for the crowd at one of the two garden pavilions near the lake.

Back on the bus, we searched over 30 minutes for the location of our restaurant for lunch only to discover it was back on the Palace grounds. Disappointment with our inexperienced tour guide and bus driver was setting in! After lunch we toured the Hermitage Museum—home to one of the greatest collections of art in the world! The building itself is a work of art, but the masterpieces inside it were barely visible because of the swarms of people surrounding them. There were Raphael’s, Da Vinci’s, and Michelangelo’s, to name a few, all right there under one roof, but we could only get a glimpse of them through the crowd. I’m sure it would have been an extraordinary experience under better conditions. If we ever do this again, we won’t go in June and we’ll spend the extra money for an “after-hours” tour! We were running late due to the lunch debacle, the snarly traffic, and the packed museum so we didn’t get to drive by all the planned highlights. We did, however, find time to stop at a souvenir shop where they were offering free samples of Russian Vodka. I think everyone needed a drink at that point, so why not! We bought a few sets of Babushka dolls as gifts, plus a charming Russian Egg Christmas ornament for ourselves. We ended the day aboard ship, and after a lovely dinner and show, we went to bed hoping for a better day two in St. Petersburg.

At 8:30 the next morning we got on the bus and were immediately relieved that our tour guide was not the same one as the day before. This one was pleasant, confident and informative – she even knew how to smile! Traffic was terrible once again, but we made it to our first stop at Peterhof, the summer palace complex of Peter the Great. We waited in line for an hour before entering the Grand Palace through its formal gardens. Although the front exterior was not as elaborate as Catherine’s Palace, the interior was equally lavish starting with the ornate ceremonial staircase followed by room after room of rich colors, intricate parquet floors, painted ceilings, fine silk wall coverings, gilded statues and massive portraits of the royal families of Russia.

The gardens behind the complex were amazing, with upper and lower fountains adorning the landscape between the palace and the Baltic Sea. It is the largest network of gravity-fed water fountains in the world. We ended our tour of Peterhof with a walk from the prominent center fountain, called the Grand Cascade, along a canal that flowed through the gardens to a pier where a hydrofoil took us back to St. Petersburg.

We enjoyed our jaunt across the Gulf of Finland to the mouth of the Neva River. Approaching St. Petersburg by water gave us a new appreciation for the beauty of the buildings on the waterfront. The Hermitage, for instance, was dazzling from a distance!  After a nice lunch at the City Café, we hopped back on the bus for a drive by St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great, the battleship Aurora, and the Rostral Columns before stopping at the most gorgeous sight in St. Petersburg—The Church on the Spilled Blood!

The church was built between 1883 and 1907 on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 (hence the gruesome name). Both the exterior, designed in the traditional Russian onion-dome style, and the interior are decorated with bright shades of marble and detailed mosaic tiles. According to restorers, it contains several thousand square yards of mosaics – more than any other church in the world. The church was closed in the 1930s when the atheist Soviets, who were offended by religion, began destroying churches all over the country for being “inappropriate symbols of Christianity”. The church remained closed and under restoration for years and was finally re-opened in 1997, not as a place of worship, but as a Museum of Mosaics. The pictures we took of this church are some of my favorite travel photos!

It’s hard to comprehend the damage the city has endured from various disasters including fires, floods and wars, especially the cruel Nazi occupation of WW II, but all the sites we toured have been restored to their original glory. Architecturally, the city ranks as one of the most splendid in Europe. The historic district was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. While I didn’t find St. Petersburg to be a particularly congenial city, clearly there is a fondness for art, opulence and beauty here. With construction and/or re-construction continuing everywhere you look, it will one day be even more magnificent than the current city scene!

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Other City Scene posts:

City Scene: Vienna

City Scene: Copenhagen

City Scene: Auckland

City Scene: Auckland

There are many reasons why I think Auckland, New Zealand is a delightful city. It is picturesque, vibrant and friendly; and it’s geologically fascinating as well, since it has two large harbors and was built on a large volcanic field. It is also where we met up with our brother-in-law and his new wife to begin a cruise around Australia and New Zealand together. They proved to be the perfect travel partners – pleasant and laid back – just like Auckland!

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We arrived at The Rendezvous Grand, a beautiful hotel superbly located in the cosmopolitan center of Auckland and within easy walking distance to numerous city landmarks. Our companions had arrived a day before us, but on the afternoon of January 3rd they were waiting in the hotel lounge where they welcomed us with a drink and a toast… cheers to a wonderful trip ahead!

The four of us spent the late afternoon and evening walking up Hobson Street, passed St. Matthew-in-the-City, around the Sky Tower Complex, and back down Queens Street jammed with shopping, art and nightlife. Along the way we found Federal Street, one of Auckland’s newer foodie precincts for dinner at an open-air restaurant, complete with friendly birds who were loitering at the table next to ours, no doubt hoping for food. It was a perfect evening to be outside, quite unlike the winter weather we left back home.

The next day we were rested and anxious to see the city. The first order of business was to book our Auckland City Express Tour. Lucky for us, a bus was scheduled to depart just as we walked to the counter for tickets. Better yet, we were the only ones there. Timing is everything! It turned out to be a private 3-hour tour showcasing the highlights of what makes Auckland so special. From the many volcanoes, working farms and gorgeous gardens, plus learning about the Maori culture and history along the way, it was the best possible Kiwi experience.

On the tour, we visited Bastion point where the harbor views were stunning, drove past the glamorous houses on Paratai Drive, and stopped at Mt. Eden, the highest volcano in Auckland. This, and the 48 other individual volcanoes that surround the city, are all considered extinct although the volcanic field itself is merely dormant. We drove through Parnell Village to visit the historic Holy Trinity Church, and over the Harbor Bridge for a view of the Waitemata Harbor and to learn a bit of maritime history at the Viaduct.

We stopped at One Tree Hill to see a working farm on our way to the Auckland Domain. The Auckland Domain is the city’s oldest park where the explosion crater and most of the surrounding tuff-rings of the Pukekawa volcano can still be seen. I found it wondrously beautiful considering how destructive it once was!

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After the tour, we stopped briefly at the hotel for our city maps, then headed off on foot to the Sky Tower. The iconic Sky Tower is the tallest man-made structure in New Zealand and offers breathtaking views for up to 80 kilometers in every direction. As we walked around the observation deck, we spotted our hotel and our ship among the many amazing sights below and beyond.

Back down on solid ground, it was a short walk to Albert Park, home to some of the most majestic and distinctive trees I’ve ever seen.  On one corner of the park is the Auckland City Art Gallery and Gardens, and on the other is the original park-keeper’s cottage, now a museum. The park has earned a special place in the hearts of Aucklanders and visitors alike.

By mid-afternoon, we met back up with our travel partners who had opted to tour outside the city that day. We headed to Princes Wharf where cruise ships dock at the Viaduct Harbor. Checking in at the ship was quick and easy, so we returned to the pier to explore the area before embarkation. The harbor was full of handsome yachts, including those used in the America’s Cup race. We saw the KZ 1, a sailing yacht used to challenge for the 1988 America’s Cup, now on display near the National Maritime Museum. We toyed with the idea of having a nice, cold beer at The Ice House we passed, but we didn’t have enough time to warrant the cost, so we stopped at a cozy little bar next door and toasted once again to the cruise ahead.

We sailed away from Auckland at sunset just as a golden glow spread over the city. The sky was soon glazed in shades of orange; and with the Sky Tower and Mt. Eden in the background… it was the perfect final image of this City Scene.

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