Friday – August 30 –
For the first time since I lived in London during my university years, I reunited with this city that I love. It reminded me of a famous quote by the English author, Samuel Johnson: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
London truly does have it all, except for maybe sandy beaches. Western Europe’s largest city offers just about everything that a world-class city could boast. It has a staggering history that resonates in the conscious of nearly every English-speaker throughout the world, especially due to its influences in literature. Due to the city’s influence as former capital of the largest empire the world has ever known, the diversity and culture here is unmatched.
I arrived at London’s Gatwick a little after 11:15 a.m. this morning after flying in from Zürich Flughafen. Gatwick is the second-largest airport in the city after Heathrow, and one of five main airports in the city that also include Luton, Stansted and London City. Gatwick is located about 30 miles south of Central London, but it’s much quicker to take a train into the city instead of the sometimes eternal traffic on the M23 motorway.
After collecting my luggage, the custom’s line was terribly long for non-EU and non-Schengen national citizens. After making it through customs, I bought a ticket on the Gatwick Express train. I waited on the next express train for about 15 minutes before the next arrived for the 30-minute journey to London’s Victoria Train station. At Victoria, I entered the Tube and took the Victoria Line to Oxford Circus, where I changed to the Bakerloo Line to Kilburn Park. It was great to be traveling on the world’s best underground rail again! I felt back at home on the world’s most famous transit systems and made sure to “mind the gap” between the carriage and platform. Curiously, some newer stations now feature glass enclosures between the platform and trains to make the gap a relic of the past.
My family was staying in the Maida Vale neighborhood at the Marriott. After exiting at the Kilburn Park tube station, I walked to the hotel and met up with Mom. I ate a late lunch and conversed with my Mom before I decided to meet up with my Dad and brother to tour London together.
I took the Overground train to London’s Euston station, where I switched to the Northern Line and exited at the Goodge Street station. After walking past Russell Square, I arrived at my favorite museum in the world: the British Museum. Better yet, it’s free!
The British Museum dedicates itself to human history and culture. Its staggering permanent collection includes more than eight million works documenting the history of human civilization from its beginnings to today. It began in 1753 built on the foundation of physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane’s collection. The museum can thank its pre-eminence for coinciding with the expanding British colonial footprint. In 1840, the British Museum sponsored its first overseas excavations with Charles Fellows’ expedition to Xanthos in Asia Minor. In 1857, Charles Newton discovered the 4th-century B.C. Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
As I walked through the relatively new entrance, I was in awe of the grand atrium. It really is an extraordinary entry point in the large open gallery.
My first stop was the most popular item in the Museum’s collection – the Rosetta Stone. It’s hard to miss because it is surrounded not only by glass, but by a steady crowd of selfie takers throughout the day. The granodiorite rock is inscribed with a decree from King Ptolemy V issued at Memphis in 196 BC. The decree depicts three scripts – Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script and Ancient Greek. It’s important because it became the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs when it was rediscovered in 1799.
Then I decided to tour the Persian collection. One of my favorites is the Assyrian lion gate from Ninevah. In the 1840s and 1850s, the Museum supported excavations in Assyria by A.H. Layard along with others at sites such as Nimrud and Nineveh. They eventually uncovered Ashurbanipal’s great library of cuneiform tablets which made the museum a headquarters for Assyrian studies.
Afterwards I proceeded to the Greek collections. Around 15:30 p.m. I met up with my brother and Dad to tour the Greek rooms and took in the Parthenon Marbles, better known as the Elgin Marbles. Though popular and infinitely beautiful, they are the most controversial exhibit in the British Museum. Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, claimed to receive a permit from Greek authorities in 1811 to excavate. Later on, his team removed half of these surviving sculpture from the Parthenon and elements from the Propylaea and Erechtheum. They eventually arrived in the Museum and form an entire wing presenting the beauty of Athens’ signature ancient building. To this day, UNESCO is mediating a custody fight between the British and Greek governments.
Then we went upstairs to the Egyptian rooms. While the Rosetta Stone attracts perhaps the most visitors on the first floor, it’s definitely worth a trip to see the renown mummies. The 140 mummies and coffins are the world’s largest collection outside of Egypt. The Egyptian collection is so vast, the museum can only display only four percent of its Egyptian holdings!
Around 17:30 p.m., it was time for us to leave. Dad, my brother and I walked by Russell Square and took the Tube from Goodge Street to Euston, and then the Overground to Maida Vale. We met up with Mom and decided to head for Harrods via the Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines.
Of course, Harrods is one of the world’s most famous department stores. Located in west London’s Knightsbridge neighborhood, the upscale store occupies boasts more than one million square feet of space. Its 330 departments make it the biggest department store in Europe. It’s motto, Omnia Omnibus Ubique means, “All Things for All People, Everywhere.” Look no further than a famous U.S. President. Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, famously ordered a baby elephant from Harrods. Legend has it the shop clerk asked him over the phone: “Would that be African or Indian, sir?”
Several of its departments, including the seasonal Christmas department and the Food Halls, are world famous. We decided to sample some food in the Food Halls. It truly is the most beautiful food court you will ever enter, but I am not sure food court is a term that does it just with its marble tile floor and walls, gilded ceilings and fine-dressed attendants with impeccable service. More than 32 restaurants and deli stations offer everything from entrees to caviar to high tea to tapas to fine chocolates to haute cuisine.
Upon leaving Harrods, we took the Piccadilly Line from Knightsbridge station to Green Park. There we connected on the Jubilee Line to Waterloo for our visit to the London Eye (or Millennium Wheel). Located on the South Bank of the River Thames between Westminster Bridge and Hungerford Bridge, it is the most popular paid tourist attraction in the United Kingdom with over 3.5 million annual visitors.
I had never been to the London Eye before, and I was skeptical that the high-ticket price of £20.95 would be worth it. However, I can tell you it absolutely was worth every pence.
The observation wheel turned slowly enough for us to embark while it was moving. About 25 of us loaded into our futuristic-looking glass capsule. Not many visitors know it, but each of the 32 capsules represents one of the London Boroughs.
It was unbelievably beautiful at night. Across and down the Thames, we saw many famous landmarks such as the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, the Gerkin and the Shard. During daylight, you can apparently see as far as 25 miles away. The entire rotation took about 30 minutes.
Afterwards we walked down to Westminster Bridge and crossed the Thames to the marvelous view of Parliament. It doesn’t matter how many times you have seen it in person or in the movies, the Houses of Parliament always blow me away in person. It’s one of the moments that you finally process that you are back in London as you stand on Westminster Bridge peering at the beautiful seat of British government. But there was one surprise from the past. I couldn’t believe there were vendors on the bridge just like on Karluv Most in Prague. It definitely wasn’t allowed here in the past.
Once we finished taking photos of Parliament, we descended in the modern Westminster Tube station down to the Jubilee Line, which we took to Green Park. There we boarded the Piccadilly Line to Piccadilly Circus. Dad was absolutely amazed by the Tube.
Upon arrival at Piccadilly Circus, many of the restaurants were packed on Friday night. We decided to eat at TGI Fridays and shopped at some nearby stores before heading back to the hotel.
Piccadilly Circus is like the Times Square of London and at the heart of the city. Like Times Square, it has neon advertising rising above the crossroads of five main roads: Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue, Piccadilly Street, Covent Street and Haymarket. Its most famous landmark is the fountain that was installed here at the end of the nineteenth century.
After dinner, we decided to head back to the Maida Vale neighborhood on the Tube because we had another big day tomorrow. I went to sleep thinking about how Samuel Johnson’s sentiments are shared by millions of people around the world.