Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Crown Jewels / Palaces / Until We Meet Again

Today, we reached the end of our journey here in England. Tomorrow morning, we will board a plane and head back home to the states, taking with us new memories, new vocabularies, new souvenirs and tchotchkes galore. I will miss my weeks spent in Europe dearly, and though I'm ready to see everyone back home again, I would gladly stay here another three weeks. But before we start the tears, let me backtrack a couple of days....

starting with Sunday. After a couple days of taxi riding, we were ready to take on the subway to assist with our heavy-duty sightseeing. We started our morning by hitting up the London Tower, where we'd planned to go on Saturday but arrived too late. Nevertheless, it was worth the wait. We went on a guided tour with a large group around the interior wall of the castle (inside the exterior gate) and learned about the royals who lived there, the royals who were beheaded there (lawfully), and the prisoners who were kept in the Bloody Tower....including Sir Walter Raleigh, who spent years of his life in a tiny cell there.

After the guided tour, we lined up to see the most prized possessions in all of London town, the creme de la creme: the Crown Jewels. Now I love diamonds and jewels as much as any girl, if only because I like watching them shine. But I was truly taken off-guard by just how gorgeous and ornate these crowns were. Each and every one of them was so decadent, so magnificently superior to any other diamond-encrusted thing I've ever seen that I could not believe my eyes.

It sounds like I'm embellishing my story, but this was real life. My pulse started quickening and I could feel my heart beating a little faster. It was ridiculous, but these gems actually caused a physiological thrill in me. It was perfect.Unfortunately, we couldn't take any pictures in the gallery (believe me, I tried to sneak one). But I guess it's better that way, because a picture couldn't possibly do justice to the real things.

After spending some hours on the grounds, we got Subway for lunch (my brother was so happy) and made our way back to the underground where we rode to the Empire Theatre. When I was a senior in high school, my boyfriend David directed his own feature-length film. I was in it; that's how I met him. And that film, DAYLIGHT, is showing next month during Frightfest (film festival) at the Empire Theatre in London. It was unreal to see a film that he directed and I acted in written on a Frightfest schedule in London, England. One of the employees told me they sell out every year...1,300 people come to this event! Like I said, unreal.

We left the theatre district and walked around Leicester Square for a bit before heading back on the subway. As it was nearing dusk, we headed for Westminster. Our main goal for the night: ride the London Eye. Just about sunset time, we got up into the air and could see the entire city silhouetted against the setting sun. It was a most gorgeous night, and this time, I got to take pictures...these ones don't do the real thing justice, either.

Following our ride on the Eye, we had dinner at an Italian place on the same road as Troia. That road is completely owning it, because that restaurant was also wonderful. We ate outside to enjoy the cool weather, but the inside of the place had Godfather and Goodfellas framed photos everywhere. These Italians were legit.

We caught the subway after dinner, and all was fine...until we came out of the subway ten minutes later and it was pouring rain. Freezing cold rain. We ran the two blocks from the sub station to our hotel, myself shivering in shorts, and collapsed on the beds.

Monday was an early morning, but an exciting one: we were going to tour Buckingham Palace! Only open for two months of the year while the Queen is on vacation, the first day for tours was on Saturday, just after the Queen and Prince Edward left for Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Because of this, the morning changing of the guards ceremony was extra jam-packed, with lines ten-people deep outside the front gates. Still, I snaked my way through and got a couple good views of the guards' bearskin hats. Whoo! Thrilling.

As you can imagine, the Queen's home is also not a place where they want you taking pictures of the inside, so I have no photographic evidence to show for my visit, but oh my stars, it was extravagant. Did you know they have 78 bathrooms in the palace? 78 bathrooms!! I can't even imagine. They have hundreds of bedrooms and windows out the wazoo. I counted 78 on one wall facing the inner courtyard. As you can see from this lovely picture taken from the Internet (BBC), you would have to multiply that one wall by 8 to figure out how many windows are on every side of the palace. That comes to more than 628 windows.

                  And that's not including that lump on the southwestern corner.

We spent the better part of five hours there, touring the State rooms inside and then having lunch on the back lawn. It was really a splendid afternoon. From Buckingham Palace we took the subway to another type of palace: Harrods department store on Brompton Rd. One of the most famous department stores in the world, Harrods instantly made me understand why.

You could spend days in the place, which is about eight stories tall and takes up an entire city block. Inside and out, the store is such a sight to see. Whole floors are dedicated to Menswear and Womenswear, one floor allocated to each. Another floor is just food, all types: meat, fish, bread, cupcakes, quiches, chocolates, cheese, juices, wine, cakes, etc. etc. etc. Another floor is just books, cards, souvenirs, and home decorations, while another floor is for music and electronics (including a stunning TV not yet available in the U.S.).

We really only had time for about three floors, and we were there for three hours. I'm telling you, that's a day's worth of entertainment, easily. I can't wait to go back. When I get married, that is where I'll be registered. One set of bedsheets I saw cost 1100 pounds...but don't worry, you have a few years before the wedding.

Once Harrods closed, we shopped the souvenir shops along that road for almost an hour (Jeanine was not happy about this because she was wearing heels and let everybody know it), then finally made our way back onto the subway as it began to rain for the third night in a row. We stopped at a grocery store and I picked out some dinner, while my family ordered room service once we got back to the hotel. Dinner would've been incomplete, though, without a delicious cupcake from Harrods to seal the meal.

So: here we are, back at Tuesday. This morning was rainy and cool, which was a nice change of pace from rainy nights and sunny mornings. We started it at Abbey Road, taking a taxi to the spot where John, Paul, George and Ringo famously crossed the street with no apparent traffic to be seen. Let me tell you, though, either traffic has significantly increased in this spot over the past 50 years, or they blocked off that road for their shoot...hmm...

                Hard to tell the difference, right?

Despite the lot of cars that honked at the several Beatles fans beside me, and despite all those fans who also wanted their pictures taken, I got my turn, and I crossed that road happily. We thanked the cab driver for stopping and headed on to Kensington Palace, the estate where dozens of royals have historically resided, and where Will & Kate plan to live after visiting her parents with little George.

The grounds were beautiful, even in the morning fogginess and scattered rain, and inside the museum building on the property we learned all about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's love, marriage, and leadership in the 1850s. It was quite interesting, much more than I expected. Also, after all these royal exhibits and museums, I think I know more about the history of England's royalty than I do about past U.S. Presidents.

Several hours later, we walked through the public park outside the palace and got back into the subway. We rode around for picture taking for an hour or so, first to Buckingham Palace--which was now much less crowded outside--and then to Trafalgar Square, where we got some pictures with a lion.

Going on 7pm, our last stop of the day was at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, a staple of all big cities and a personal favorite for me. We spent an hour touring before they closed, getting pictures with the likes of Tom Cruise, Bob Marley, and even Holly Golightly.

Finally, our night ended back at the hotel, where we got dinner at one of the restaurants on the main floor. The last meal of the trip is always a deeply reflective one, and tonight John shocked everyone by saying he'd have liked to stay a bit longer. John is a homebody, and no matter how great a vacation is, he's always ready to get back home to his friends, his video games, and his cat. But the fact that he wanted to stay really says something about this trip, even more-so about the places we've visited over the past 17 days. It's been a whirlwind trip, but I've been grateful to have it all, and I promise that this, my first time in Europe, is one I'll not soon forget.

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