As an avid traveler and reader, I have come across many rankings of the top cities in the world. These often vary in their methodology and criteria, but nearly every list I’ve seen has the same cities at the top, in some order: Paris, New York, Barcelona, Sidney, Rome, and London. After consecutive weekends in two of these six, I would have to say that as of now I wholeheartedly agree. London was absolutely amazing, with the best collection of museums I have encountered this far, a gorgeous setting alongside the Thames, varied architecture that ranges from centuries-old structures such as the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and Parliament to the Egg and the Shard, two ultra-modern glass skyscrapers rising high above the city. This is not even mentioning the entire Olympic infrastructure that was completed last year, an area we couldn’t even glimpse because of the sheer vastness of the metro area. There are efficient public transportation and bike sharing systems to be envied, and Denver and US cities as a whole could certainly stand to consider a life more centered around mass transit that has proven to be clean and effective time and time again all over Europe. London has an extremely diverse and lively population, and this composition translates nicely into a reputation as a foodie paradise as well as providing ample options for music and nightlife. The vibe is modern yet ancient, a buzzing mix of cultures consisting of traditional Anglo-Saxons, imperial remnants from conquests in India, South Africa, Australia, and the Caribbean, and funky hipsters from all over Europe. I was lucky enough to spend an awesome weekend with my good friend Philip Greenholz, with three jam-packed days not even scratching the surface of all the opportunities the city has to offer. I could visit 15 times and not do and see everything available, but that does not detract from our great 72 hours cruising under the Union Jack.
British pride and identity is proud, evident, and certainly contributes to providing London with a very nationalistic feel. People really do drive on the wrong side of the road and speak in sometimes unintelligible accents. Residential streets look straight out of Harry Potter and Peter Pan, and the presence of the Queen is everywhere.
Public places have names such as Bollingbroke, Tooting, and Wandsworth, and Brits call trash “empties”, zucchini “courgettes”, and walnuts “conkers”. There are red telephone booths, black, Sherlock Holmes-style taxis, and double decker busses. They eat things called bangers and mash, steak and ale pie, and the omnipresent fish and chips, always slathered with a generous helping of gravy. It is important to remember that this adorable culture is not always fun and games, and they continue to thumb their noses at the Eurozone and the European Union in general, an air of superiority clearly evident. However, a trip to the capital validates a great amount of this confidence, and Brits seem to be a very hearty, self-reliant people. The only certainty is that I will be back to the Northern Isles very soon, as countless experiences await.
Personally, being in London brought me back to my middle and high school days spent in the company of my good friend Mike Vigers and his family, all of whom are British. I used to drink Earl Grey and eat Cadbury’s and clotted cream at his house every day after school, and this stint and London really brought me back…it was great.
The trip certainly started off with quite a bang. Despite booking tickets with the intention of staying with a friend studying abroad for the semester, an apparent memory lapse led to our host fleeing to Dublin instead for the weekend to apparently greener pastures. As a result Phil and I changed course and after a lengthy search (the one drawback of London is how brutally expensive it is) decided to try our luck at Couchsurfing. I had previously tried numerous times without success, but a post in the last-minute request forum online yielded a willing host. We decided to give it a shot, not really knowing what to expect but encouraged by many positive reviews and a free place to stay.
While booking lodging was not difficult, getting there proved to be more of a challenge. All the busses from Granada to Malaga were full Thursday afternoon, so I made a decision on the fly to head to Nerja and then Malaga instead, desperate and in serious danger of missing my flight. Following a taxi ride from the city center and a sprint through the airport, I literally made my flight with 5 minutes to spare. After arriving in central London after midnight, I found out that Phil’s flight had been delayed three hours and would not get in until the wee hours of the morning. However, we both managed to make it to our place safe and sound. Our host, Ronald Grant, was a native Londoner who lived alone with two cats in a small flat in Kensington, a residential neighborhood across the river from Chelsea and Parliament Square. Ronald has a ton of experience hosting and was very accommodating, and his place had a garden, a full kitchen, and two couches that were more than adequate. I certainly enjoyed the experience and the stay.
I was woken up Friday morning by Phil at 12:30 after eight hours of much needed sleep. Realizing how late it was, we got a start to the day in search of some food. Following the word of some locals, we eventually made our way to an Indian restaurant called Lahore Spicy Food, and quickly dove in to one of the greatest meals of my life. The food (by far the best Indian I’ve ever had), the ambiance (we were the only white people in the restaurant), and the context made it truly a special meal. Alongside a plate of spices rice we had a fiery chicken vindaloo and some curried vegetables, and it was amazing.
The vindaloo was spicy, creamy, and extremely complex, the veggies provided a perfect balance to the plate, and the handful of licorice and spices for dessert capped off a really special meal. Indian and Caribbean food and culture are readily present in London, and the imperial conquests of the Crown certainly were assimilated into British society. Satisfied and fueled for the day, we made our way to Buckingham Palace before walking up through St James’ Park to Trafalgar Square.
There we spent over three hours in the National Gallery, an art collection of tremendous magnitude. In describing the Gallery I don’t even know where to begin. The building could easily be broken into three or four different museums, and the works are just staggering. Additionally, the fact that most museums are free of charge yields an experience that feels too good to be true. Artists I enjoyed included Van Gogh (a personal favorite), Monet, Pissaro, El Greco, Friedrich, and Cuyp, but there were also huge galleries of early and late medieval France, Italy, Spain, England, Holland, and artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and da Vinci were featured. It is hard to describe just how large and overwhelming the museum was, but when we walked out into the night my mind was completely numb with pleasure. We walked past a lit up London Eye, Big Ben and Parliament, and Westminster Abbey before having a solid home cooked meal and turning in pretty early. The first day in London definitely hit the spot.
With many sights to see and little time on hand, we got up early Saturday and set out for another great day. We began at the British Library, where there is an awesome collection of written and printed works. Some of my favorites included sketches by da Vinci, original works of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and Wilde, sheets of music written by Mozart, Beethoven, and the Beatles, and letters from Darwin, Napoleon, and Newton. We saw the oldest English document, maps of the Mediterranean from 1200, classic works such as the Decameron, the Worms and St. Mark’s Bibles, the Alexandria and Sinaiticus codexes, which were the first translations of Greek and Latin. There were centuries-old Golden Haggahs, Hindu scrolls, Lotus paintings, and the Magna Carta. Finally, there were original drawings from books including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Hobbit, Peter Pan, and the Paddington Bear. In short, it was incredible.
Following a trip to the Camden Town street market, we walked through the rain to our third immense museum, the British Museum. My favorite attraction of the weekend, the collection of antiquities housed in the museum was astounding. There were Egyptian statues and mummies, massive Assyrian gates and walls, Greek pottery and marble busts, amazing Roman metalwork, a statue from Easter Island, items from Ancient Mesopotamia to the Renaissance, turquoise and other metals from the Aztecs and the Mayans, beautiful, ornate Buddhist and Hindu figures and drawings from ancient China and Southeast Asia, and last but certainly not least, samurai armor and swords.
There was also a sweet collection of large cats, of which I am quite a fan.
I am still at a loss for words about the museum, and I enjoyed it so much I went back on Sunday just to be there as much as possible. The collection was an incredible display of virtually all important eras of human civilization up to modernity. I certainly cannot wait to go back.
Following the visits to the National Gallery and the British Library and Museum, a huge personal takeaway was an appreciation and reverence for Eastern arts and cultures. Up until now I have mainly learned about Europe and the Americas, as the politics and history of the regions are intricately linked. However, after seeing these treasures and learning a bit about their cultures, religions, and approaches to life, I am drawn to live lived with positive, self-sustaining, peaceful, process-oriented emotions, rather than being driven by the vicious Western mixture of fear and success predicated upon results. The more I travel, see, and learn the less I feel like I know, and right now, even though I am exhausted, stretched thin, and thousands of miles from home, I feel like my age of 20 years (soon to be 21) is a strange mix of young and old, where 20 years is just the average of a variety of experiences and emotional states that I to this point have achieved. The world is a large and frighteningly accessible place, and with a little courage and an open mind, and an honest heart, one can explore and learn about him/herself while simultaneously living with a purpose in a state of contentment. The earth is the British Library, Museum, and National Gallery all rolled into one, an impossibly large compilation of tenses and cultures that leaves much to be uncovered. People must decide how much they want to see for themselves, as balance for one is not the same for all.
In addition to the above trio of museums that rocked my world, I also saw the Tate Modern, a stunning collection of contemporary art that provided a soothing, provoking blend of Picasso, Dali, Pollock, and Rothko.
Other highlights of the weekend included a walk down the Thames and across a brightly lit Tower Bridge, and a hostel special of eggs and sautéed veg. Phil devoured a traditional British meal of steak and ale pie with peas and mash, and we even saw the sun two days in a row. As a great weekend with a great friend in an equally great city comes to close, I know I will be back to the UK and Ireland at some point to hike, drink, and play golf, but I am certainly content with my maiden voyage.
Next week I will push even further North into the lands of the Vikings, but the country of knights certainly was fun.
Until next time,