Europe, Travel, UK

London Day 4: A Walkabout

There is no shortage of things to do and see in London.  Having been here a whole three days, we hadn’t really seen anything iconic yet.  So, we reserved Sunday to walk London and take in as much of the sights as we could.

True to London weather, what started out as 60 degrees and sunny on Thursday, was now in the upper 30s and rainy.  So, we bundled up and headed out.

Although London is vast, most of it is walkable – Victoria is kind of in the middle of everything.  So we didn’t take one ounce of transportation until it was time to head clear across town.  In 5 miles, here is what we covered:

The first time I was here, it was 9 months after Princess Diana’s death. This time, all I could envision was the royal kiss.
A TON of pigeons on the Princess Diana Memorial Walk.  Coincidentally, this is the same path Kate and William took back to the Palace in their carriage.
Duck Island Cottage – Swiss Chalet for a British Bird Keeper
Horse Guard Parade – Site of the Beach Volleyball Olympics. Joel used to play professional volleyball.
Westminster Abbey
Big Ben
Parliament
The River Thames an the Eye
Shakespeare’s Globe Theater

At this point, we’re soaking wet and FREEZING.  Still, we had a mission to accomplish: See Abbey Road Studios.

For those of you who are not Beatles’ fans – this place is legendary.  It is where the Beatles recorded most of their entire catalog of work.  It’s where legends still come today to record.  It is there that Paul McCartney was inside recording when we were outside snapping pictures.

What is more famous: the crosswalk, featured in that infamous Abbey Road picture (click on the link to see a live cam of people trying to imitate this).  You hear about people trying to get a still shot but having to run to the other side when cars are coming (it’s a busy road).  I managed to get some good shots of my boyfriend, as well as a group of Japanese students who managed to get the full pose in, even if it meant stopping traffic.

Japanese tourists trying the pose – before running away from the traffic.

Still, our tour wasn’t over.  One of the most famous tour guides for Beatles-related tours, Richard Porter, also owns a small coffee shop at St. Johns Woods Underground Stop.  So we took the trek over there and almost forgot all about the coffee, instead, buying enough really cool memorabilia for a small family.  We spent some time with the two people working there and it turns out, many famous people had come into the coffee shop, over the years, and had their pictures taken.  We also learned the Paul McCartney lives nearby (note: had it not been raining, windy and cold, we might have tried to stalk him… maybe).

By 5pm, we were exhausted, wet and chilled to the bone.  We spent the rest of the night indoors, relaxing, recounting stories of the weekend (this included time spent admiring my new lunch box).

Our new Beatles lunchbox. This is in addition to some great black and white prints and an Abbey Road official sign.
Europe, France, Travel, UK

London Day 3: Leaving on a “Jet” Train… and Speeding Back Again

I’ve done the whole London and Paris trip before but my other half has not.  Thus, he was excited to visit another famous city and see another famous icon.  Although tired, we were raring to go, making sure to leave super early to get to our train.  This is when an unusual series of events unfolds…

Getting TO the train station

I took the Underground to work with no problems.  Yes, people rush to the tube like it’s the last train out of London.  However, at 6:30am on a Saturday, the sane, yet “speedy” passengers are replaced with what can only be described as drunken “riff raff” – those women who are still dressed like they came from the local street corner (more on that later in this post), trying to walk in their heels and men who look like (at any second) they will go all “southeast DC” and stab someone.  Case in point (and what can only be considered foreshadowing): The drunken Frenchman in line to buy a train ticket.  Not only was he continuously muttering to himself that he was going to “effing kill you” (to which my boyfriend promptly shoved me behind him), he almost went completely ballistic when there was no train to where he needed to go.   When we got our tickets, and went to our platform, we were then told that the Victoria line wasn’t available until the end of the weekend.  Awesome.

Now, much like our metro system, the Underground is mapped out by colors.  And, it appears as though these colors are very similar to those in our system, as one will learn, the yellow and green lines should be avoided (if at all possible).  Why?  Because going back to the previous paragraph, one would largely suspect that these two lines lead to less desirable locations, thus causing my boyfriend and I to stand “on guard” for the entire ride – SEVEN. STOPS. The good news?  We made it and were relieved to have done so.

Speeding towards the next city

The train stations in London look very similar to something out of Harry Potter – large, beautiful and old.  The last time I took the Eurostar, I remember it not having, what can only be described as, an indoor mall.  But then again, I also don’t remember the process my family and I took to get on the train.  If you have never done it, it’s an impressive process.  You are only allowed to enter the “departure lounge” about one hour before the train is set to depart.  (I put “departure lounge” in quotation marks because it looks more like a purgatory waiting room.)

Once boarded (we requested Standard Premier – which I highly suggest), we were greeted by our staff, letting us know our meals would be out in 15 minutes.  On the way there, we were served breakfast (kudos to them for having gluten-free bread and cookies) and drinks and for the next two hours, tried to relax – pretty uneventful and just what we needed.

Speeding through the English countryside
Gluten-free train meal!

We made it to Paris – let the adventure begin!

I should preface this section by saying that I don’t speak French – I can read enough to get around and communicate out a few things but there is no way I could have a conversation. Thus, when my girlfriend came to get us from the train station, we were highly relieved.

Our initial plan was to come to Paris for the day and through several revisions, decided to stay the night.  My girlfriend had suggested a hotel that she and some other girlfriends were staying at, and that we’d have some time with her for the day, as that evening, these girls would be going to bed early for a 1/2 marathon in the morning.  Perfect.

We get to the hotel – Hotel Balmoral.  What awaited us was both creepy and fascinating.

The Shining, Taken – I’ve seen too many scary movies

When you enter into the hotel, you’ve entered into a different world.  It’s like stepping back into the 20’s where they give you room keys that you have to return before you step out.  The walls are dark, rich colors and the lighting is low.  When you receive your room assignment (we were given the 4th floor), you have the option of a small elevator (think old school pushing the sliding door open to step inside) or taking the rickety circular stair case).

When you head onto your floor, there are no lights in the hallway.  Even more creepy – the double doors.  There are two panels that swing open to get to the ornate french doors that lead to your room.  Once inside, it’s everything people think of when they want “French charm”.  The chandelier was tilted a little to one side and although the light switches were updated, it looked as though the lights might go out at a moment’s notice.

On either side of the king-sized platform bed, there were two doors – one that led to a closet (that looked like it had a false panel – cue “Haunted Honeymoon”) and one that led to a very modern (and surprising) bathroom.  To the left of us was a mini bar and small flat screen and to the right of us were french doors that led to a Romeo and Juliet balcony, looking into other people’s rooms (if you have seen “Taken”, you will remember the girl looking across the other window, to see her friend being kidnapped) and straight down to a courtyard.

So close you could shake hands
The courtyard

It was very cool to see but also gave you this feeling that when it gets dark out, you might be sleeping with the lights on.  Sooo…

We were so tired from all the travel that we took a nap – a two-hour nap at that.  When we woke, we found out that we had whole day to ourselves so we got freshened up and headed out on our journey to see the Eiffel Tower.  When we left the room and locked the door – we looked down the hall to where the elevator is and it’s completely dark – no lights in the hallway (cue twins from “The Shining”).  So we decided to take the stairs all the way to the lobby and out the front door.

Ah, Paris.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice…

Now, I didn’t like Paris the first time I went.  To be completely honest, I don’t find it to be romantic – I find it to be dirty.  The first time I went was awful – it was 95 degrees, no air conditioning and the place was completely trashed (France had won the World Cup and had so much fun, they forgot to clean up).  This time, I’m with someone whom I love – and my thought was that this time, it would be different.

The funny thing… you learn a lot about someone when you travel with them.  In some cases, you learn that the two of you are probably not meant to last long-term.  In our case, I’d rather only travel WITH him.  As we’re walking down the streets (rues as they are called), he kept commenting on how dirty it was, how rude people were being and how it just didn’t look like Paris was safe to walk through at night.  Had he been up for the entire night, I would have kept my mouth shut, letting him take in the experience.  However, being that we’re a perfect match, I felt comfortable enough saying the following, “You know, while you were napping, I was thinking that maybe we should head back tonight.”  It was met with eyes as big as Christmas morning.  So, we decided to speed up our trip to the Eiffel Tower and take a taxi.  (Cue circus piano music while “The Fastest Trip to Paris and Back” is set in fast forward.)  We make it to the Eiffel Tower, we take some pictures, we grab a taxi back to the hotel and we re-pack the bag.  We grab another taxi and head back to the train station.  Two words: Anxiety and relief.

The last time I made this trip with my family, I remember feeling overwhelmed and freaked out.  I spent a few months, after returning to the States, being grateful that I lived here.  In our case, I was incredibly grateful to go back to London – a place we were a little nervous to explore and now heading back to, feeling like we were meant to live there.

So we hop on the train, have a light meal and instead of being exhausted – we giggled the entire time back, swearing this would make a great story – $650 on train tickets and a $190 hotel – Just to spend 5 hours (1 was getting to/from the hotel, 3 for napping and 1 for walking around aimlessly until we got a taxi to see the famed Parisian icon), realizing France was a place we were positive we’d never visit again.

Our light train meal.

Redeeming Ourselves

When we made it back to London, I was ready to kiss the dirty platform we were on.  All of a sudden, what seemed scary in London, seemed perfectly normal.

The Olympic rings at the train station

We all of a sudden had no problem getting around and were energized for a night out.  So we changed and headed back out in Victoria.

We started at a pub called The Elusive Camel.  I love the name, but I loved our bartender even more – she was giving us free drinks because we were tipping her (something that rarely happens in Europe).  What was also great – the people watching.  It seems that this pub is a starting point for younger people before they head out to something else.  It was at this point that I felt old, spending much of my time commenting on UK style.  (See beginning paragraph about dressing for a street corner.)  Women go out in one of three things they shouldn’t here: short shorts with tights/or not, skin-tight, up-to-there dresses, and spandex leggings – all of them not properly covering “assests” they should.  I now understood why common UK fashion was taking a beating.

So when the crowd of “kids” left, we headed out to get some food.  Right next door, a favorite of mine – Nando’s Peri-Peri.  Although there is one in DC, my boyfriend has never eaten at one.  I’m pretty sure that if there was one near Tysons, we’d be eating there every night.

When we were done with our meal, we headed back to get enough rest for our next adventure.

Europe, Travel, UK

London Day 2: Staying Local in Victoria

Fact:  There is no shortage of things to do in this city.  Fact: People love their happy hours more than they do in the states.

After a long day of work, it was time to meet up with an old acquaintance I hadn’t see in almost a year-and-a-half.  She lives very close to where my boyfriend and I were staying and she knows almost all of London very well.

After catching up at the hotel bar, she took us to a chic spot in Sloane Square (another haunt of the famous Middleton sisters) called The Botanist (try the passion fruit martini). We casually chatted with a few of the other people there and then made our way to our next stop: food.

My boyfriend and I parted ways with our friend and decided on a small Brazilian Steakhouse called Preto.  It was inexpensive and very authentic (by authentic, the “salad bar” is traditional Brazilian and British fare).  The meat selection is fantastic but as we discovered, we’re pretty sure the meats are soaked in salt for a few weeks.

Then, it was back to the hotel for an early night, since we were leaving for Paris in the morning.

A huge “shout out” goes to Konstantia Mamada for catching up and being our Friday night guide around town 🙂

Europe, Travel, UK

Day 1 in London: Victoria and Oxford Circus

Many of you who read this post already know your way around London (I’m sure of it).  But if not, don’t be embarrassed because the last time I was here, I was 20.  Thus, the ginormous amount of preparation that went into the logistics of transportation took a lot of time, mainly because the fact remains that my boyfriend and I were heading to a foreign country, in which maps and directions are helpful, but walking around with them is so not chic 🙂

Getting from Heathrow to anywhere in Central London

There are many, many options to get anywhere but I looked at comfort vs. price vs. fastest way to our hotel.  After all, it was after midnight (UK time) when we arrived.  I found that our best option was to purchase  “Return tickets” on Heathrow Express (68 pounds for two people + FREE WI-FI!).  In 15 minutes, you get from Heathrow to Paddington Station (cue Sherlock Holmes and as a side note, there is a hotel called Park Plaza Sherlock Holmes).  (For architecture buffs, once you get past all of the trains, the station itself is so beautiful.  It’s what you come to expect from an old train station.)

Inside of Heathrow Express – it’s so futuristic looking and so nice!

Once we got to the station, we could have taken the Underground (tube) but it seems this place comes alive almost every night, which means big suitcases, plus two tired travelers, equals an unpleasant experience.  So, we took a taxi.  If you are heading to Victoria, it’s a little under 17 pounds.  (Hint: If you took a taxi from Heathrow to Victoria and then back again, it would have been 77 pounds each way so, so far, we spent 85 pounds total.)

The ride there was sort of surreal.  So many beautiful mansions in the middle of the town, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Bentley dealerships with store front displays, as though you might be walking by a clothing boutique; a ton of chic restaurants, a ton of chic, upscale people walking around town (many of them in Louboutins), walking  from bar to bar; and hotels with people dressed in tuxes, pouring out of them.  THEN there were the store fronts for Christian Dior, Lanvin and the list goes on… for MILES.  It’s the sort of upscale life most dream to live and few are privileged to, and I sat in that Taxi with huge eyes and a huge grin, so excited to be here.

When we got to our hotel (Park Plaza Victoria), we were met with a very chic lobby… and a bar that was open until 2am.  Since we were just shy of 1am, we decided to have a drink before grabbing some dinner (note: EVERYTHING is open late!).  Given the time difference, we didn’t fall asleep until 3:30am.

Using the Tube… for Work

Yeah… anyone in DC, or any area with a subway system of sorts, is rolling their eyes at me right now.  Well, I work from home and even when I didn’t I was always lucky enough to work outside of DC and be able to drive.  (Writers’ note: I would rather drive and be able to listen to music in my own car, than be packed into a hot, crowded metro any day!)  SO, when the time came for me to use the tube to get to Oxford Circus, I was a little freaked out.  It’s a different process here.  They have these brilliant things called Oyster Cards (much like SmartTrip cards) but if you aren’t staying for a long length of time, or won’t be using it that much, you have to wait in line at the ticket offices to get your fare card.  What makes it easy: You tell them where you are going and if you are returning and they give you the amount – no guessing.  But what fascinates me… the SPEED at which people get to the trains.  In DC, you get mowed over from time to time and in some cases, you get a quick apology.  Here, it’s every man for him/herself.  People always seem to be in a bigger hurry to get in and out of the tube than any other transit system I’ve seen, so far, in the world.  Still, I made it and was quite proud of myself for the self-navigation 🙂

Oxford Circus – Better than Georgetown Shopping

Oxford Circus has one long road, called Oxford Rd. that stretches for miles.  Imagine my delight when I get off the tube and see Zara, Uniqlo, Top Shop, H&M, and the list goes on (both Pippa and Kate have been seen around there, shopping).  It’s also lined with little cafes and a Starbucks every third block.  It’s brilliant.  What’s interesting – the fashion style changes from town to town.  The people were less well-dressed and more “punkish” but the closer you got to where my office was, it was definitely more business attire.  What was also interesting – no one wears sunglasses – ever.  I commented on this to one of my co-workers – I wear them outside all the time (okay, I’m obsessed with not having eye wrinkles but still).

So anyway… I’m walking down Great Titchfield to get to the office and there it is on the corner – a big, shiny boutique named Reiss.  Yes, the frenzy that Princess Kate caused with her love of this boutique, is now staring me right in the face.  Unluckily (but not for my credit card), I was late to work and needed to keep moving (I do have to come back tomorrow).

Celebrity Run-ins

By lunch, I’m so excited to be working in a different office, with a team I never get to see so imagine my immense excitement when our office location is explained to me.  It’s located in what is called “Media Village“.  This area is named for all of the radio stations and TV stations in the area – including BBC.  I was told that celebrities are constantly coming in and out of this one building, as we are on our way to lunch (which by the way, The Villandry is a GREAT place for lunch!).  No sooner was this shared, than we round the corner and there are a pack of photogs waiting to snap the celebrity coming out.  After doing some digging online, I found out it was Rihanna!!!    Honestly, if I lived here, this is how I’d spend my lunch everyday – waiting to see who arrived/left.

Nightlife

As I’m leaving work for the day (it’s a little after 5pm), every few yards there is another pub, restaurant or other establishment, that serves alcohol, with people spilling out to the curb.  People absolutely, 100%, love their happy hours.  According to my coworker, the nicer the weather gets, the more people you will see out and about.  Maybe it’s because London is bigger, but I’ve never seen so many people – it puts DC to shame.

When I arrived back at the hotel, my boyfriend and I decided to head to Brown’s Bar and Brasserie.  It’s located next to the most magnificent Microsoft Building (at Cardinal Place)  I’ve ever seen and underneath this glass overhang that houses so many different restaurants and shops.

Browns, like many restaurants in DC, is an upscale place, known for its  international beer/cider collection and its really great British food.   It was here I had, what I’d consider, the “champagne of ciders”.  It’s called Rekorderlig and it’s from Sweden – served over ice, it’s amazing.