European Adventure ‘16

07May16

Every year my family doesIMG_1845 a trip together. We’ve done cruises, car trips, and resort vacations. This year we did a quick and intense trip to London and Rome. What a fantastic trip! The things we saw, the places we went, the people we met – it truly was an adventure.

This was not the ideal way to do this trip but it is how it worked out. We had agreed as a family to go to London for vacation. We booked it, pooled our money, and paid for it in January. Then we found out how inexpensive it is to fly around within Europe and added a two-day jaunt to Rome in the middle of our London week.

So we did London – Rome – London. Crazy. We might have to work on our trip-planning skills for future adventures.

Saturday/Sunday

Our flight left Boston at 9:20 p.m. Saturday and arrived at Gatwick airport outside London at 10:10 a.m. Sunday. We had a delay getting out of Logan airport because the airline had loaded the wrong luggage on board.

I had ordered a car and the driver was waiting for us at the exit despite our late arrival. He was holding a piece of cardboard with “McKellar” on it. This was a first for us – one of many firsts on this trip.

We arrived at our temporary home, the Dolphin House Hotel in the Pimlico section of London, at around noon. Since our rooms were not ready, we left our bags and took the underground to Leicester Square to pick up our London Passes.

The London Pass is a must-have for tourists. It allows for skip-the-line entry into many of the city’s most popular attractions. We had also ordered prepaid subway passes called Oyster cards. The London Pass also includes a hop-on, hop-off bus tour that is fully narrated. It’s not inexpensive but it is a great value and huge time-saver.

We picked up our bus tour at Trafalgar Square and made our way around the city. The commentary was really interesting.

About an hour into the tour, we were all getting hungry so we hopped off near the Tower of London and popped into a pub called the Hung, Drawn and Quartered Pub. Lunch was wonderful as were the pints we enjoyed.

We hopped back on the bus and made our way to the other side of the city, getting off at Hyde Park. This particular bus did not stop at Harrods, so we wandered around for quite awhile looking for it before we found it.

Sadly, we had just 40 minutes until closing time. My eldest son, Mark, wanted a watch so he and my wife, Laura, went in search of the “watch department” (no such thing) while my youngest child, David, and I hunted for a restroom.

It’s a miracle we ever found each other again in that monstrosity of a store. When we found them, Mark was looking at a watch with a price tag of 30,000 pounds. He did not buy it.

At this point, we were exhausted. We had been up all night – with maybe a brief nap on the plane. We grabbed a cab and headed for the London Eye. We knew if we went back to the hotel, we would crash and never leave again. IMG_1893

The Eye is an enormous ferris wheel standing almost 500 feet tall. Instead of seats, it has glass-enclosed rooms that carry you around the wheel. The views  are stunning. It is diagonally across the river from the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. It takes about 30 minutes to circle the wheel.

After the Eye it was time to head back to the hotel to check in, unpack and take a nap. We stayed in and ate at the hotel restaurant. It was an awful meal and ridiculously expensive – a place best avoided in the future.

Monday (Laura’s Birthday)

Because of the way we set up the trip, we only had two full days in London – Monday and Thursday. Monday was Tower of London and  Westminster Abbey day. We used our Oyster cards and took the underground to Tower Hill station right across the street from the Tower. We skipped the line with our passes and joined a tour lead by a Yeoman Warder or Beefeater.

He was great. He told wonderfully horrid tales of torture and executions. What a brutal place this once was. The White Castle was built in 1066 AD (and we think we have antiques in Boston!)

The weather felt like it was about to rain but it never did; in fact, it never rained the entire time we were there.

After the tour, we saw the Crown Jewels. They are so spectacular they don’t even look real. There is one diamond that is 3,106 carats! At the end of the tour is Queen Elizabeth II’s crown. They show a little video of her coronation and then, just around the corner is the actual crown.

While Laura was looking around in a gift shop, I noticed a carving on the rock wall. I could not read a lot of it, but the date stood out clearly – 1606. The shopkeeper explained that during their imprisonment, men would often carve final messages on the walls of their cells. She said, “look about, they are all over.”

As we wandered through the castle, we saw many other carvings.

By the time we were ready to leave it was too late to visit Westminster Abbey. We found another pub, ordered some pints and strategized about how to reconfigure our itinerary.  We’d made it 24 hours before having to make major changes to our plan – typical. We opted to swap the Churchill War Rooms and Westminster Abbey, so we headed off on the subway to the Westminster underground station.

One of our friends had told us that the first time she came up the stairs from the subway, trumpets from heaven ought to have been playing. She’s right. The view of Westminster Castle (the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben) as you emerge from the underground is awe-inspiring. About two blocks from there  are the Churchill War Rooms.

During the fall of 1940, the British government hastily reinforced a basement and subbasement in a government building to be used as a safe headquarters for the prime minister and his cabinet. After the war, they were left virtually untouched until the 1990’s. At that point, they were opened up to the public. Windows were cut into walls so you could see the rooms without entering them. It’s a fascinating look at how Churchill lived and governed during the war.

Later we took a cab to the hotel so we could shower and relax before dinner. Before leaving for dinner the boys gave Laura her birthday gift – a date on the town with me! It included dinner and theatre tickets for later in the week.

That night, we went to Piccadilly Circus and looked around for a restaurant. More Pub grub – as it turned out, we wandered into the the most American pub in London. During football season, they show American NFL and college football on the TVs. Fish and chips and a few more pints later, we decided to call it a night. We couldn’t stay out too late because on Tuesday we were flying to Rome.

Tuesday

Our Tuesday started right after our Monday ended. Our car picked us up at 3 a.m. for our early flight to Rome. Ugh

More firsts: From the plane I saw France, the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea.

It was noticeably warmer and greener in Italy than England. We found a private cab from the airport to the Hotel Solis. On the way we passed many ruins including an huge aqueduct. Traffic was ridiculous. The rules of the road must be optional.

Our hotel was a 10-minute walk to the Colosseum. The whole place was like out of a movie. There were outdoor cafes across the street. An accordion player was serenading the diners. At the hotel we were greeted by a little man who did everything at 100 mph. He ran up the stairs to show us our rooms, down the stairs to answer the phone, up the stairs to bring us our luggage, and answered all of our questions fast, fast, fast.

We had lunch across the street and then poked around for a bit before our tour of the Colosseum and the Forum. IMG_2046

I could write pages and pages about our tour. It was spectacular. Our guide, Nicolas, was fantastic. He was so knowledgeable and enthusiastic. We all learned so much about Rome and the history of the empire, city and the Colosseum. First off that’s not even its name! It’s a nickname that we all use. The actual name is Flavian  Amphitheater. Only about a third of the original structure remains. It was built a thousand years before the Tower of London in the year 80 AD. Yes, 80 AD.

The tour was three hours and was very strenuous. We hiked all over and around the Colosseum and then went to the forum. The Roman Forum was the heart of the Roman Empire. There is a particular structure from which the distance to things were once measured. Ancient Rome was the first city on Earth to have one million inhabitants. After the empire collapsed, Rome emptied. In just a  handful of generations, the population dropped to 20,000 and they were living in poverty.

For a thousand years, the Colosseum was used as a quarry. It was looted for its marble, metal, artwork and architectural columns. It wasn’t until the 1700’s that the pope ordered it preserved.

The last part of the tour is climbing Palatine Hill. The view from the top is magnificent. Our guide pointed out all seven hills of Rome to end his commentary. I think it was the highlight of the trip.

After a much-needed nap and shower, we went to dinner. I had seen a nice write-up about a local restaurant that was in our area but not a touristy type of place. As it turned out, Taverna dei Quaranta was a nice, authentic neighborhood restaurant. The meal was incredible!

Wednesday

We checked out of our hotel and asked Mr. Speedy to hang on to our bags. We toured the Vatican Museums this morning. The first hour was really interesting. The middle 90 minutes was just too overwhelming to process. So many sculptures, tapestries, and paintings. The place  was wall-to-wall people (and this was on a “light” day crowd-wise). Finally, we could not take it anymore. We opted out of the final 30 minutes of the tour and headed straight to the Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel was stunning. To see the work of Michelangelo with our own eyes was surreal. Again, it was ridiculously crowded and the guards kept yelling at people to be silent (yes, ironic huh?).  After our obligatory visit to the gift shop, we headed back to a busy shopping district near the hotel. Mark was looking for a suit or shoes so that’s what we shopped for – after a nice pizza lunch, of course.

Then it was off to the airport and back to London.

Thursday

Technically our Wednesday did not end until we arrived at our hotel about 2 a.m. on Thursday. We were out on the streets heading to  Buckingham Palace by 9:30 a.m.

The changing of the guard is one of those must-do things in London and it definitely didn’t disappoint.

The bands played Happy Birthday for the Queen’s 90th Birthday and, surprisingly, Copacabana.  After the changing, we walked through St. James Park and had sandwiches in the park.

After lunch, we stopped at the horse guard, shopped for gifts and  souvenirs, and had another pint or two. We took a cab back to the hotel to rest and clean up – this was theatre night for Laura and I. David and Mark had plans of their own — visiting several pubs and having a few more pints.

We chose to see Sunset Boulevard – an opera based on the 1950 movie of the same name. Glenn Close was starring and I loved the movie. As it turned out, Glenn Close was ill and her understudy took over. I have never heard of her but she is a long-time west-end theater star. The crowd went crazy when they announced her.

The play/opera was great. It was done by Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Phantom of the Opera). The music was wonderful and these actors can SING! At the end, there were five or six curtain calls. At one point the conductor came down from his platform to join the actors and it was Andrew Lloyd Webber himself. He’d been conducting all night and we didn’t know.

After the show, we walked around the block and found a nice restaurant for a late dinner.

Friday

I got up early and took the underground to Piccadilly Circus and walked over to the hotel I stayed at with Mom and Dad in 1974. I found it pretty easily and took a few pictures. The front desk is still located exactly where I remembered it being.

This was Westminster Abbey day (remember, we swapped around the  Churchill War Rooms for Westminster on Monday). The boys opted for more sleep (I think I heard them come in at 1:45 a.m.) so Laura and I took the tube to Westminster.

The history and beauty of this place is magnificent. I had been once before but was still blown away by the place. I was awestruck to stand before the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton.

This was the highlight of the trip for Laura, barely edging out the Colosseum.

After checking out of the hotel we had a crappy snack at the crappy hotel restaurant and headed off to the airport.

As I write this, we’re approaching the coast of Newfoundland. It’s been quite a week. It was a go-go-go vacation, not the restful kind of vacation we usually go for.

We planned very carefully but still had too much stuff on our itinerary.

We had planed but were unable to visit the British Museum and the British Library (handwritten Beatles lyrics, notebooks of Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci, and the Magna Carta).

But that just leaves more cool stuff to do next time….

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