Happy (belated) Memorial Day! I hope you each had a wonderful holiday spent with family and friends, giving thanks for our freedom and those who’ve made it possible. We were really wishing we could be with our family for the day, grilling on the patio, enjoying some good conversation, indulging in Lemon Blueberry Cake that was supposed to be Lemon Blueberry Bars…Alas, our families are thousands of miles away- and we don’t even have a grill here! Ha! So we spent the (rainy) day in our jammies, watching Horton Hears a Who, baking Brown Butter Banana Bars (yes, they’re as sinful as they sound…), recouping from our little weekend holiday to the UK :) Coincidentally, it was also a German holiday (imagine that), so the city was shut down regardless.
Checking our bag at Frankfurt and ready to get on the plane!
Made it! We took the train from the airport into the city (50 minutes), then walked to our hotel.
Y’all. London is fab. And it was such a welcomed change of- well, a ton of things- that we were all three definitely needing! For starters, the most obvious. Not gonna lie, the English language has never sounded so good! LOVED being able to talk to people, read the menus, read the billboards, understand the store clerks…Oh yeah. And being able to watch some TV at night in our hotel room. Neve even found a new favorite Sunday morning cartoon, RastaMouse! (No, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!) Speaking of the hotel, I think John and I are currently loving them about as much as Neve always does. King size fluffy beds with one big soft comforter (instead of the two that are the norm in Germany), regular showers (we don’t have one at our apartment), fast internet (we are paying out the nose in Germany for less than mediocre web access), full size soft towels (the ones we have at the apartment are closer to hand towel size and always crunchy from air drying since we don’t have a dryer), and maid service (don’t judge, but you never realize just how much you love your housekeeper until you’re without her!)…
Told ya! RastaMouse is from Jamaica so he has a terrific accent and knows all the Bob Marley tunes :)
Speaking of billboards, our personal favorite from the weekend…So glad we could read it for the full effect.
Another welcomed change? The food. Don’t get me wrong, there are German dishes that we have really grown to love and will definitely miss when we come home (in fact, that’s how we celebrated Memorial Day!), but look, you can only eat so much sausage and cheese and bread before you’re ready for something more ‘normal.’ At first, we’d been a bit skeptical about British food as it’s not really known for its cuisine, but all in all, we really enjoyed it! We made it a point to only order ‘national dishes’- in other words, no pizzas or hotdogs!- and I can honestly say that we didn’t come across one thing that we truly didn’t like! Our favorites were Bangers and Mash (me) and the Fish and Chips (John).
Bangers and Mash- British sausages over mashed potatoes with brown onion gravy. DELISH.
The Scotch Egg is a typical appetizer at pubs. It’s a soft boiled egg, encased in sausage, battered and fried. Served with relish mustard. We liked it fine, but it wasn’t a fav.
The absolute best culinary wonder we put in our mouths however, was…Sticky Toffee Pudding. OH. MY. GAWD. Y’all. We both agree that it’s probably the best dessert we’ve ever had. Like ever. And I’m a dessert Queen. There just are no words. So, British people refer to desserts as puddings. Some are actual puddings like we think of, but most are not. Sticky Toffee being one of them. It’s the most popular, well-known dessert in the country and it served on more pub menus than not. It’s a dark sponge cake sweetened with dates (I know, I know, but you 100% can not tell they’re in there!) that tastes kinda like a spice/gingerbread/molasses cake, drenched in hot, melted toffee (like a stronger tasting caramel), and topped with either clotted cream or ice cream. Our favorite was topped with honeycomb ice cream. And we had it two nights in a row…at the same restaurant…because it was that amazing. Don’t judge.
The stuff Heaven is made of right here in this ramekin.
Heaven help me when I learn to make this.
The closest I can find to my reaction when eating Sticky Toffee Pudding. Disclaimer: John looked identical, but it’s creepier when a man does it ;)
Our other favorite ‘meal’ in London- and a definite highlight of our trip- was our Gentleman’s Tea with our dear soon-to-be-married friends, Sandy and Simon. Sandy is practically my cousin as our families are best friends and we’re together for all holidays, celebrations, etc. She works for Blackbaud and took a job in London several years ago. That’s where she met Simon, the sweetest Brit we’ve ever met!, and they’re now engaged and living in downtown London- just beyond the Tower Bridge in my picture below. Lucky dogs. When they heard we were coming to London, they were kind enough to arrange for us to sample a true British tradition, the afternoon tea. We loved it. I told John that if we lived there, I would totally make it a regular weekend thing. He agreed. And teas aren’t just for ladies anymore- now there are ‘gentleman’s teas’ that incorporate real food (instead of just cakes and scones), coffee and beer. It was so perfect sitting there around this big round table, in this gorgeous dining room, having tea and catching up with old friends. Remember that change of pace thing I was talking about? SO GREAT. And such a nice dose of ‘normal.’
Sandy and Simon
Sandy and I had the Chelsea Tea…Finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jellies, pastries and Earl Grey tea.
John and Simon each had a Gentleman’s Tea that included some meat, some cheese, sandwiches, fish and chips, some sweets…
Alright, let’s get a bit serious for a minute and actually learn something while we’re here…London is the capital and most populous city of England and the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its founding by the Romans, who named it Londinium. London’s ancient core, the City of London, largely retains its 1.12-square-mile medieval boundaries. Since at least the 19th century, the term London has also referred to the metropolis developed around this core. It’s one of the leading global and financial centers of the world, having the 5th largest GDP. It has the world’s largest airport system, which is a good thing considering it’s the most visited city in the world! The population is estimated at 8.4 (yikes!), making it the second most populous urban area in Europe, behind Paris. A neat tidbit is that approximately 300 languages are spoken within the city limits! I believe it.
Something we particularly liked- and noticed throughout the entire city- was the mix of old with new. I know that’s the case in just about every historic city, but there was something particularly neat about it here. Maybe it was just more visible for some reason? Or they’ve taken greater measures to preserve it? Like in the picture above- see that old church dating from 1300 surrounded by those marvelous glass skyscrapers? Yep, just walking down any random London road…
We started our ‘Tour of London’ at the Tower of London (like what I did there? Ha!), which happens to be right next to one of city’s iconic symbols, the Tower Bridge, which happened to be my personal favorite sight of the weekend. Not sure why. It’s just really pretty and unique. Maybe it’s the towers…Or the blue cables…Or the two walkways across the Thames River…Whatever it is, it works for me! Opened in 1894, the towers are each 213 ft. tall and the bridge spans 800 ft. across. The bottom section rises in the middle to let river traffic pass. Many people confuse it with the infamous London Bridge, which is actually the next bridge down and very nondescript. You’ll be able to see it a picture below…
Tower Bridge over the Thames
That’s the infamous London Bridge as seen from the Tower Bridge…Anticlimactic, no? The tall glass building on the left is called The Shard and is the tallest building in the European Union. Sandy and Simon, our tea mates, got engaged at the tippy top :)
The Tower of London is a historic castle on the north banks of the Thames River in central London. Founded in 1066, it’s a complex of several buildings set within two concentric defensive walls and a moat. At the center is the White Tower, which gives the entire castle its name. The Tower of London has played a prominent role in English history. It was besieged several times and controlling it has been important to controlling the country. The Tower has served variously as a royal residence, a prison, an armory, a treasury, a menagerie, the home of the Royal Mint, a public records office, and the home of the Crown Jewels of England (housed here since 1303). Speaking of the Crown Jewels, that was by far the neatest part about visiting the Tower. You’ve never seen so much glitz and extravagance under one roof. It’s incredible. Room after room after room of gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, velvet…Crowns, swords, robes, globes, jewelry, scepters…WOW. Some pieces date back to 1200. Interestingly, the Royal Family still uses pieces as needed today…The only bad thing? No pictures allowed. So sorry.
Entrance to the Crown Jewels. So beautiful. But no pictures were allowed inside :(
The White Tower at the center of the castle. Currently houses the world’s largest collection of armor.
View of the Tower Bridge from inside the castle.
So after all that history, we spent the afternoon walking and just taking it all in. We found markets (there are so many and they each have their own specialties- antiques, clothes, food, etc.-), we found pubs (even more of these, so at least we’d done our research and knew which ones we wanted to find!), we got to be pros at the Underground…And in case anyone is curious, after extensive experimentation, John votes Germany over England on the beer front :)
One of the oldest pubs in London…
Quick snack inside Spitalfields Market
London’s first brewery, operating since 1200. Originally a monastery. Really neat, neat place.
In his happy place :)
Always a favorite!
London’s subway system, known as the Underground or the Tube, is the oldest underground railway network in the world, as well as the 12th busiest transit system (1.23 billion passengers carried last year!). The first tunnels were dug just below the surface using the cut and cover method to accommodate normal size trains. Later, smaller circular tunnels were dug below, giving rise to the nicknames, the Tube (because of their shape), and the Underground (because of how deep they were.) Today, there are 250 miles of track and 270 stations. Now, I’ll be the first to say that metro systems can be beyond intimidating at first. It’s really tempting to just hail a cab and let them do the work for you, but one of the most important things we’ve learned after years of traveling is that biting the bullet and learning a city’s public transportation system is not only the most efficient and flexible way to see a city (there are stations everywhere and they connect to everywhere, fast), but it’s also the most wallet-friendly, by light years. Seriously, it only takes a good half a day and you’ve got it figured out. You buy your day ticket in the morning and you’re good til the next morning. Here’s the map we used the entire weekend to get us ALL over the place!
Our best friend for the weekend…
Neve absolutely LOVED the Underground. Definitely her preferred mode of transportation while we were there, even over the one morning we decided to use the double decker buses, mainly because we thought she’d like them! By the end of the first day, she could tell us which direction for which line (ie. Red Line, Blue Line, etc.), could wait patiently behind the yellow line (minding the gap!) for our train to arrive and could swipe our cards to enter and exit. We rarely got seats (it’s that packed!), but she had no problem holding onto the bars and standing for our whole ride. And since we’ve been in Europe, she and I had been working on escalators, but now it’s safe to say that she’s got those down pat. Up or down, on or off, no more hand holding needed for this girl! *sigh*
You’ve probably noticed her boo boos in some of our other pictures…That happened last week at the zoo playground when she got a little overzealous on a swingy fence. :( It’s almost completely gone now, thank Heavens!
St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the English Baroque style in the 17th century, is an Anglican cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of London and the mother church of the Diocese of London. One of the most recognizable sights in London, it sits atop Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the city. Its dome is one of the highest in the world. St. Paul’s is still an active, working church.
View approaching St. Paul’s…
We started Day 2 bright and early at Buckingham Palace. It’s the residence and principal workplace for the British Monarchy- it’s the center of state occasions and royal hospitality. Except for late August and September, when the Queen goes on summer holiday, you can’t go in the palace, but only visit from the outside and watch the changing of the guards twice a day. And because you guys count on me to keep it real, that’s what I’m gonna do here. John and I both had the same reaction- ‘Is that…it??’ Yes, it’s huge and it’s surrounded by fancy gold-plated wrought iron fences, but we just didn’t find it very…regal? More like a government building or something. And very stark surrounded by concrete…
You can see the guards in red, one on either side of the house. We weren’t able to stick around long enough for the changing.
Approaching the palace. You can see it in the background…
The latter part of the morning was one of my favorite parts of the trip. We met up with my childhood best friend, Sabrina, her husband and two children. It was SO nice. I just love getting to reconnect with friends all over the world! Sabrina is actually from Germany. In early middle school, her family moved to South Carolina for her father’s work and she became my classmate at Pinewood as well as my gymnastic teammate. We were instant friends and remained pretty much inseparable until she moved back to Germany several years later. *Stay tuned below for a little flashback!* We stayed in touch via letters and emails over the years and have reconnected when we could- she visited the States in 2001, we met in Barcelona, Spain for a vacation in 2006 (me as a newlywed, her with a friend), and now in London. She actually went to school in England and has lived there for most of the last decade, working as an architect. Her husband, Don, is from South Africa, but has also lived in England for years. They have two little ones, Callie (4) and Bashy (1). Needless to say, Neve and Callie were instant friends and watching them together for those couple hours was dejavu in so many ways…We met at Hyde Park (London’s Central Park) and spent our time walking the dirt paths, stopping for carousel rides, and finishing up at the nationally recognized Princess Diana Memorial Playground, which I’ve got to say is another of the biggest, nicest children’s areas I’ve seen. So yes, an awesome way to spend our morning. Not sure who had more fun, Neve or her Mama!
Circa 1993ish. Boating in Charleston with my family. We were 11 or 12…
Neve (3 1/2) and Callie (short for Calista, 4 1/2)
Set at the edge of Hyde Park, maybe a mile from Buckingham Palace, is Kensington Palace, the official London residence of Prince Charles and Kate Middleton. It was also the first home of his parents, Charles and Diana, when they were first married, as well as Diana following her divorce until her death in 1997. Btw, I love me some Kate Middleton. Like in a nerdy way love her. I think she’s so pretty and so classy and I just want to touch her hair. I don’t even care that she wears panty hose. But alas, no sign of her.
For this day, we thought it’d be fun to do the famous Red Double Decker buses instead of the Tube just for a change of pace. Meh. They made for a few good views and seeing a couple different parts of the city that we probably wouldn’t have had we been underground, but all in all? Not worth it. Too much time spent finding the bus stops, waiting on the buses (trains are every 1-2 minutes, buses are every 10-20…), sitting in traffic…So we used them three times- enough to justify the money spent for the tickets- then reverted back to the Underground. :)
View from the top deck of the Red Double Decker…
Neve loved the buses, too!
Y’know…Just walking down the street…The Justice Department.
As hard as we tried, we didn’t make it to Westminster Abbey before visiting hours were over. So bummed. But that’s something else we’ve learned over the years: there are only so many hours in a day, so do and see what you can, then move along. So we enjoyed it from the outside and kept on trucking. It’s so beautiful and ornate.
Westminster Abbey, a Gothic-style church built in the 13th century, is actually no longer a cathedral or an abbey, but rather a ‘Royal Peculiar,’ a church only responsible directly to the Sovereign. Since 1100, all coronations and many royal weddings (the most recent being Prince Charles and Kate) have taken place here. It’s also one of London’s four World Heritage Sights.
That’s Parliament in the distance on the right…More on that in a sec…
Just behind Westminster Abbey on the river are the Houses of Parliament, where the House of Commons and the House of Lords come together. This area is a center of political life for the entire UK. Built into the corner of one of the buildings is Big Ben, the iconic four-sided clock and bell tower. We found this area, also known as Westminster Palace, to be the prettiest of all the buildings we saw. We loved the architecture, the stateliness, the prestige…We did, however, think Big Ben would be taller. Ha!
View from Westminster Abbey
You can see the London Eye (now actually known as the Coca Cola Eye…)- the UK’s tallest ferris wheel built in 1999 as a celebration piece- in the distance, but we opted not to ride it just because we’d had lots of great views already and our time didn’t really allow for it. Like Big Ben, it was smaller than we’d anticipated, although still impressive to know that it takes 800 passengers for a spin every 30 minutes!
By that point, the sun was setting, so we made our way back to the hotel. On foot. That put us at about 8 miles walked for the day! For the second day in a row. Sheesh. So proud of our girl, though! She has truly become a traveler just like her parents! No, it’s not always roses, but for the most part, she’s so awesome. And you KNOW it was a successful day if this happens (disclaimer: she’s only fallen asleep in a car like 5 times in her life!)!
Yes, she’s asleep on his shoulders…
Our final morning was spent playing ‘we have to get to these last few places before our flight!’ The day before, we’d ridden through Piccadilly Circus- named for its circular shape- on the double decker and knew we had to come back. It, by far, had the most energy of any part of London. Kind of like a smaller Times Square, complete with LED billboards, souvenir shops, top restaurants, throngs of people…
In front of the famous Eros at the center of Piccadilly…
Trafalgar Square is the most well-known public space and event venue in the city. At its center is Nelson’s Monument (built in 1867), guarded by four lions on each of the corners. It reminded us of the plazas you find in Italy…in most of Europe when I really think about it. These squares are greatly underutilized in the US, in my opinion. They’re used for festivals, lectures, demonstrations, concerts, public meetings…
Our last stop before catching the train back to Heathrow was the world-famous Harrod’s, the largest department store in Europe, for lunch and gawking. In case you live under a rock and haven’t heard of Harrod’s, it’s a five story upscale department store with 330 departments and over one million square feet of selling space. Yowza. It was started in 1834- the current location opened in 1883, debuting the first ‘moving stairway. Nervous customers were offered brandy as they exited to ‘help revive them after the ordeal.’ Ha! During peak season, an average of 300,000 customers shop daily. How they afford it, I’m not exactly sure- I saw several pairs of women’s pants for more than $1000 and handbags seemed to average $2000 a pop…More than 5000 staff from over 50 countries work at Harrod’s. Y’all. You’ve never seen so much stuff for sale in your life. Departments are broken down into ‘rooms,’ so you wander from room to room looking at the wares. And each room is exquisite- uniquely decorated, colorful, opulent, twinkling…This place definitely qualifies as ‘eye candy!’ Anything you can think of is sold there- clothes, fragrances, appliances, furniture, sporting goods, jewelry, accessories, groceries…Which brings me to the food. The majority of the ground floor are the ‘Food Halls’ with any and every food item you can imagine…Counter after counter of breads, cheeses, pastries, veggies, chocolates, meats…They’re definitely the most popular attraction and jam packed with people eager for their delicacies. Luckily, we knew exactly what we were searching for and made a beeline when we got in the door: the famous Harrod’s Dough-ssant. Yep, that’s a cross between a donut and a croissant. It was good, but not amazing. Glad we didn’t get 37 of them like most people who were shoveling them into bags…There are also 32 restaurants within the store- we ate a French Fry shop, per Neve’s request.
A food hall…
Kinda like a glazed, fried croissant…
Paris’ famous Laduree (best macaroons of your life) even has their satellite shop here…
Sorry for the extra long post, but it was just a terrific weekend filled with so many good things! It was also filled with lots of walking, some running, a zillion steps…So we were oh-so-thankful to have yesterday to sleep in, rest our legs and, as Neve says, to ‘be veggies. ;)I will say that the rumors are true- London is more expensive than you can even imagine, especially the food. We didn’t have one dinner- and I’m not talking fancy or 5 star, of course, because we chose pretty kid-friendly spots) less than $100 (converted from pounds) and one was closer to $200. Yep, 3 days is a good limit for us! Ha! The forecast for this week isn’t looking so hot (literally) here in Wiesbaden- pretty chilly, actually, and overly overcast- so not sure yet what the next few days will look like for us…Friday, we’re headed to Belgium- another first for us!- so maybe we’ll just take a few quieter days. Oh, and I almost forgot! Neve’s last day of school would have been this past Friday. One of these years, we WILL be in town for all the end-of-year festivities! Couldn’t let the day pass without commemorating, though, just like we did last year in Hawaii. I know I say it often, but Time, please slow down! Look how much my baby has grown in one measly year!
First and Last Days of school this year…