Hello, May I Speak to the Queen of England?
[London, United Kingdom]
Saturday was the first of only 2 full days I had in London, so my plan was to tackle as much of the basics as I can on that day, and have a more relaxed Sunday. My parents had been to London so I used their knowledge and maps to build an itinerary, which I then re-arranged a bit once I checked the opening times of some of the attractions I had picked – especially the ones at the beginning and end of the day.
Although I had planned to visit a friend here, her housing situation was in flux so I booked AirBnB instead, and one of the girls in the flat I picked recommended I download an app called City Mapper. It shows you all your options to get from place A to B, including walking, cycling, cabs and all the public transit available. It also gives you the price and estimated time it takes. In retrospect, I don’t know what I would have done without it, as I didn’t have a detailed London street map with me, nor would I have known the bus routes available even with a printed map. Anyway, armed with all that information, I set out to conquer London.
My first stop was Borough Market, which was touted as a foodie heaven. It is one of the largest and oldest markets in London – this year, it celebrates 1000 years since it has opened. I kinda wished I hadn’t had breakfast already when I got there, although that didn’t keep me from sampling! You can buy everything you could think of here – meat that’s being butchered on the sport, oysters, fresh produce, cheeses, olives, breads… There was even a Turkish stall loaded with baklava and Turkish delight! For the 1000-year anniversary of the market, an ingenious little scheme was set up at the entrance – you had the option of walking through some eco-friendly wash-away paint in bright colors so that you’d leave footprints representing the millions of feet that have walked through the market, and the millions yet to come. The market floor was already full of footprints in blue and orange, and they’d only been open for an hour! I was glad I came first thing in the morning, as the place was already getting busy. One of the gals managing the paint stuff told me to check out Monmouth coffee for my morning pick-me-up. I knew I had the right place by the line out the door, but it moved quickly and my long espresso was definitely worth it! I even lucked out with a little bar-style seat by the window that had me overlooking the Borough Market and the Shard towering behind it. The Shard is the tallest building int the UK and in the EU, and it’s name comes from the controversy over its appearance – that this building was going to be “a shard of glass through the heart of historic London”.
Next up was Buckingham Palace. On my way there, I saw a very interesting hat shop, so I went in. If you follow the British royal family at all, you know they love their hats. I was surprised to find evidence of this hat shop’s affiliation with the royal family – a commemorative tin from Prince William’s and Catherine’s wedding.
The changing of the guard ceremony was at 11:15 am, but I knew to arrive earlier, as the exchange of the keys to the palace is just the end of a process that starts about 45 minutes before. Different guard regiments come from the neighboring St. James Palace and other locations, preceded by a band. I had looked up the ceremony beforehand and realized that I am better off staying by Queen Victoria’s memorial, which is right in front of the palace, so I can freely move around and see the different regiments arriving and departing. That’s what I ended up doing and spent about an hour and a half total people watching, guard watching and picture taking.
Once the changing of the guard was done, I continued walking to my next destination. On the way, I popped into those famous British phone booths and asked a stranger to take a photo. Success! Unfortunately, no royal family members were on the other end of the line.
From there, I made a beeline for some of London’s biggest landmarks, including Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing St (which was really anti-climactic, as the street is gated off and you can’t even get to #10), then continued up to Trafalgar square. There, I checked out Nelson’s column – built to commemorate Admiral Horatio Nelson who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 (a battle during one of the Napoleonic wars).
Right at Trafalgar square I also got to see Admiralty Arch and the National Gallery. The square was lively with people sitting on the gallery steps or by the fountain, and a street performer was playing bagpipes with a sign that read “saving for an engagement ring” by his money box.
From there I went by Covent Garden, where I strolled inside Apple Market – quite nice but not as nice as Borough, and walked by the Royal Opera House and the London Transport Museum. I’ll bookmark the Transport museum for another visit – I’ve been so impressed with the tube and buses here and I’d love to learn more about it.
By then, it was early afternoon already, and I stopped for lunch at a place I later found out was a Michelin-starred restaurant. It was a Peruvian place called Lima London and it came up several times in my research. Not only was the place delicious, but it also provided a reprieve from the hoards of people I’d been encountering all morning. Lima London was off the tourist path, hidden behind the British Museum on a quiet street, and I got a table inside overlooking the neighborhood. It was quite relaxing, and my lunch was probably one of the most memorable meals ever. I ordered the octopus to start with, which was braised an came served in pieces on beds of white quinoa, and followed that up with Paiche – amazon fish, which also came on a bed of popped quinoa (called kiwicha) flavored with annatto (a seed of the annatto tree, which grows in Central and South America) and amazon cacao. Both dishes were small but the food was so different and so delicious that it was well worth it.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in the British Museum, which was just mind-blowing. The place is huge, and just the permanent collection would take weeks to check out.
Luckily, the museum brochure mapped the must-see objects, and so I figured I’d do that, and stop by anything else that would pique my curiosity on the way. I quickly discovered that would not work, as so many things piqued my curiosity, I would have never gotten to the end of the must-see list before the museum closed. I still did take a detour or two, but managed to cover all the must-see ones after all. The most memorable ones for me were the Rosetta stone, the Oxus treasure of ancient Iran, the samurai armor from medieval Japan, the ivory pendant mask and the Benin plaques from Africa, the Assyrian lion hunt reliefs (these date from the 7th century BC), and the giant horse from the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos. There were also some sculptures from the Greek Panthenon, which had their own huge exhibit hall.
One thing I’d been thinking about was how and why some of these exhibits have ended up in the British Museum. Don’t get me wrong, I loved seeing all of these pieces in one place… but having seen how the excavated treasures of Bulgarian kings have ended up in Russia and Austria, either by way of having been discovered on territory that no longer belongs to us or by way of being sold by whoever found it instead of being returned to the state, I was starting to wonder about the ethics of archaeology. Why is the Rosetta stone here and not in Egypt? Why are Parthenon sculptures housed in museum in London, Vienna, Paris and Copenhagen? Many countries have started to ask museums to return artifacts taken from their territory, with little to no success. On the other hand, removing artifacts from the Middle East probably assured their survival – i.e., the Oxus treasure from Iran or the Assyrian lion hunt reliefs. I don’t know what the answer is, although I would like to see a way for countries to recover their cultural treasures if they want to and are able to house them properly and safely.
By the time I left the British Museum, it was already five o’clock and I’d been out and about all day. I went back to my AirBnB place to rest up before meeting up with my friend Kremena and her husband Will. I had just see Kremena two weeks ago in Bulgaria, but it was a short visit and I was looking forward to seeing her again as well as checking out a restaurant that was recommended to me by a friend. Ottolenghi Islington was the second restaurant location in London for chef Yotam Ottolenghi, who had become a celebrity on the London food scene and beyond. As part of a promotional tour for his new cookbook, Plenty More, he’s actually coming to LA in October for a talk! We ordered 6 items, since they were all tapas-style, and nobody left hungry! The seared tuna was my favorite, closely followed by the aubergine.
My first day in London was a whirlwind, but I was so high on adrenaline, I was wide awake even when I got home at midnight – although my legs were sore, as I had walked the equivalent of 12.5 mi (20 km) according to my step counter. Luckily, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow – after all, I had another full day of adventures in London awaiting me.