Europe 2008 Trip – London, Day 3

Day 3 (Saturday) was our last full day in London, and the weather started to turn cold and windy. This would be the trend for the next 5 days or so in the UK and western Europe, with a high likelihood of snow in many of those parts. After a quick pastry breakfast and coffee near our Underground stop, we headed down to the Tower of London to explore the castle and take advantage of the free Yeoman / Beefeater tour.

Dave and Lisa outside Tower of London

We arrived early as planned and walked onto the grounds before the crowds started building up (remember, this was the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter) and proceeded directly to the crown jewels. This was probably a good idea as we saw how long the lines must get there when crowded – it was nice to be able to zoom through the switchbacks and get right to the good stuff. Some big diamonds in there, but more impressive was the vast collection of medieval weaponry and armor.

Matthew prepares to steal the crown jewels

Unfortunately Jacob started turning ill that morning and as the time came to depart for our Beatles walking tour, Julie and Jacob opted to stay behind and explore the torture exhibits a bit more then return to our hotel room.
Dave, Lisa, Matthew and I then raced across town to try and join the London Walks – Beatles In My Life Walk with guide Richard Porter. I’ve done London Walks twice – once in 1990 as a pub crawl, and now in 2008, and I highly recommend them for the value and experience. We were very fortunate as we arrived at the station 15 minutes late but caught the group just as they were leaving.

Our Beatles walk tour guide

We saw a number of great sites, though none were visually recognizable to me other than the final stop at Abbey Road Studios. Of course I took the obligatory photograph. Matthew decided to keep his shoes on.

Abbey Road baby!

Our final touring destination of the day was to walk in the Westminster, Buckingham Palace, and Whitehall area to take in some of the famous buildings and pound the pavement a bit.

Statue near Buckingham

The weather was getting very blustery by now so on the Whitehall portion of the walk we stopped into a book store with a nice coffee cafe inside and had some giant cappuccinos and hot chocolates along with a much needed foot rest.

Matthew with the guard

We left Jacob in the room for our dinner Saturday evening with Mikael Sheik (of SpielByWeb fame) and his wife Phyllis. We opted once again for Indian food close to home in Bloomsbury. While the food wasn’t as good as the night before, the company was outstanding and we enjoyed catching up and learning more about living in London.

With Mikael and Phyllis

We retired early Saturday night to pack and prepare for our early morning Eurostar ride into Belgium.

Europe 2008 Trip – London, Day 2

Where can you get a cup of coffee at 6am in London? I set out to answer that question on Friday morning after waking up bright and bushy tailed at 5am (8 hours of sleep – woot!). I thought the quick stop joints near the Russell Square Underground would be a sure bet (Pret a Manger, local breakfast spot, etc.) but alas nothing seems to open until 7am. I had nothing better to do than roam and explore so I worked my way outward from the hotel in concentric circles until I happened upon a young adult tour group loading on a bus at one of the large budget hotels near our Holiday Inn. The hotel opened their coffee cafe to service these tourists as they checked out and loaded on the bus, so I slid in line and got my well earned coffee. I sat down in the cafe, which proceeded to close shop as the tour bus departed. I suppose I should consider myself lucky. I wonder if Starbucks in London is open at 6am?

After returning to the room about 7am to wake up Julie and the boys, we headed to the lobby for a rendezvous with Iain Cheyne and his lovely family for a breakfast date. The goal was to find a good old English breakfast with eggs, bacon, sausage, tomatoes, and beans. I continue to be amazed with how adventurous the boys are an they ordered right off the menu and went for the whole shebang.

With Iain and family

Iain is one of those people that I feel like I know and relate to extremely well, but we’ve had about 90 minutes total of face time in our lifetimes. I believe we met briefly at Essen in 2006 but never found time to sit down and play a game together, so it was nice to finally sit down, meet the family (that’s Oscar you see in the background), and talk about life, work, travel, and more.

Jacob owned the planning for Friday and he set us off across the Thames to visit the Imperial War Museum, my all-time favorite museum in the world. Seriously.

Imperial War Museum signThis museum has a great gallery with a wide range of aircraft, tanks, SP guns, half-tracks, and more – everything is pretty much from the 20th century with a sharp focus on WWI and WWII. While fun to look at and explore, the static displays are not where it is at in this museum.

There are three areas you must explore in this museum. The WWI exhibit features a chronological history of the conflict with great artifacts, photos, and video to guide. There is also the dated but still interesting trench experience (check out the Flickr photo set for more photos of these exhibits). The UK’s level of commitment and sacrifice in these two wars was on a different plane than the US and I particularly enjoy the English flavor and perspective – war posters, ration signs, newspaper stories, and news film.

The WWII exhibit is the best I’ve seen anywhere – in fact, where in the US can you find a museum exhibit that covers the conflict from soup-to-nuts across all armed forces? I haven’t seen such a thing and would love pointers from readers to museums I’ve missed, as everything I’ve seen has been service-focused (Air Force museum, Army division museums, etc.). Similar to the trench experience, you can find the London blitz experience in this area. It seemed more interesting in 1990 when I first visited the museum.

Finally, the Holocaust exhibit in the Imperial War Museum is the best I’ve seen anywhere. This exhibit does not pull punches and is not for smaller kids or the faint of heart, but I felt it was important for both boys to see the photos, hear the survivor narratives, and understand as much as any of us can the human tragedy experienced by so many.

Needless to say, I probably could have spent the whole day (or even two) at the museum, but Jacob was our tour director and it was time to move on around 1:30pm. The weather was chilly but clearing up when we left the museum to have lunch at the Crown & Cushion pub nearby.

Jacob and Matthew in front of Imperial War Museum

We were at least 2-3 hours behind schedule by the time we finished lunch and Jacob decided to forgo visiting the operating theater museum so that we could make sure we got on the London Eye while the weather was good. The lines looked intimidating at first (this was Good Friday so holiday activity from locals and tourists was quite high) but we moved through the ticket purchase and Eye line faster than expected, about 30 minutes.

The hail starts to come on the Eye queue

Just as we crossed the pathway in line to the covered area before boarding the Eye, the storms came in like a hammer – lightning, high winds, and a healthy dose of hail set many folks in line to their umbrellas or even running away from the line. They shut down the Eye for a while until the lightning subsided (we were thankful or that), so by the time we took our turn we had an amazing spectrum of light and color or our ride. This was a good choice for early in the trip as it gave everyone a better understanding of the topology and city layout. I know it is somewhat of a tourist trap, but I think the Eye is a great choice for first-time London visitors (similar to climbing the Eiffel Tower in Paris – more on that later).

On the Eye

The weather held up after leaving the Eye so we walked across the Jubilee bridge to watch the peddlers selling nicknacks and admire the city skyline as the sun set. Matthew continued to demonstrate his ability to sleep in just about any position or situation.

On bridge with Big Ben behind

Before the war museum we had picked up some discount tickets for Spamalot (even at a discount I think the cost for the four of us was something like $220-$240), the show voted most likely to please the widest range of our travel group. We even watched the Holy Grail a day or two before leaving to brush up on our ability to quote Monty Python lines at will. We needed food before the late show and found a nice Indian restaurant in the theater district, but unfortunately it took too long to seat and serve us. We literally had to ask for the check as the entrees were delivered and race out of the restaurant gobbling naan as we walked to the theater. Typical rude American tourists I guess.

Spamalot Facade

The show was great fun or everyone – enough memorable lines and scenes (“bring out your dead”, “how do you know he’s the king?”, etc.) to provide a connection to the movie but some great songs and theater added to keep you interested.

We had hoped for some more pub activity after the show, but Good Friday meant our local joints were closing early so we ended up retiring around 11pm, eager to sleep and start our final full day in London.

Europe 2008 Trip – London, Day 1

Matthew's pack

Time to start the steady flow of photo-journal posts for our Europe trip! I’ll break this into a day-by-day journal and will include plenty of photos. If you are a (war)gamer, you’ll probably enjoy my recap of the Ardennes the most.

This is a trip we had been planning since late summer of 2007. It started as a trip for just the four of us, but at a family wedding in November we added Julie’s brother David and his wife Lisa to the group. The exchange rate was poor in the fall, but we had no idea just how bad it would get by spring, particularly the Euro. Fortunately we paid up front for our two longest hotel stays, locking in our biggest expenses at about 1.35:1 which saved us about 15-20%.

One goal for the trip was to have a healthy mix of big city and countryside, another was to get significant time in the Ardennes to explore Battle of the Bulge sites. London and Paris made perfect bracket cities for the Ardennes. We also wanted to travel as light as possibly, limiting luggage to carry-on backpacks to ensure mobility and align with our rapid-pace itinerary. We used a number of online resources to help as maximize effectiveness while minimizing space, including Travelite, Onebag, and Tim Ferriss.

Let me give a quick refresher on the overall itinerary:

  • Wednesday, Mar 19 – depart from PDX and OKC
  • Thursday, Mar 20 – Sunday, Mar 23 – London
  • Sunday, Mar 23 – Eurostar train to Brussels, in-country train to Liege, drive to La Roche en Ardennes
  • Sunday, Mar 23 – Wed, Mar 26 – La Roche en Ardennes, Belgium
  • Wed, Mar 23 – Thu, Mar 24 – Reims, France
  • Thursday, Mar 24 – Monday, Mar 31 – Paris, France
  • Monday, Mar 31 – return home

Europe Itinerary Map

David and Lisa timed their arrival at Gatwick to be about the same as ours (they originated in Oklahoma City). We were supposed to arrive 90 minutes after them on Thursday, March 20 but we made exceptional time and landed within 5 minutes of each other. Unfortunately our passport control line took 45 minutes to get through, but we were still on the Gatwick Express train to Victoria by 9:30am and arrived in London by shortly after 10:00.

Express train from Gatwick

Our first step at Victoria was to buy London Underground passes for all of us. I wasted some time standing in line at the automated machines before I realized that I wouldn’t be able to buy the kids’ tickets there, so re-directed myself to the assisted line to take care of business. We purchased 3-day passes for the adults and 3 1-day passes for Jacob and Matthew. These passes turned out to be somewhat unreliable, with some of cards stopping to work early in the process. Wasn’t a big deal as we just flashed them to an assistant at each entry/exit to gain passage.

Next we walked to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Bloomsbury, and managed to check in early. The hotel was fantastic and a decent bargain, especially for us trying fit four people into one room. I would have preferred to stay in a B&B and get more local flavor, but there just aren’t good options for a family of four as just about everywhere we looked would have forced us to get 2 rooms. Holiday Inn and Best Western were great choices for finding hotels – easy to use web sites, trustworthy quotes and booking, and in the end we were very happy with the quality.

Mind the Gap

I wanted to start the day with a city orientation including a city bus tour. We hopped on the Underground at Russell Square and went to Leicester Square to then walk to Trafalgar Square. The weather was interesting and surprisingly similar to Portland – windy, chilly (40s), with sporadic rainfall. As we walked to Trafalgar we stopped in the National Portrait Gallery and checked out the Tudor paintings among others. We should have just spent the next hour and toured the National Gallery, but instead got on a bus from Trafalgar to the Tower of London. Unfortunately the mid-day traffic was horrendous, even in the bus express lanes, dragging out the trip. While it was nice to be inside during the ensuing downpour, this only added to the disappointment as the inside windows became very fogged up. It was a good chance for Matthew, Dave, and I to catch up on some sleep though.

Matthew catches nap on first day

We aborted the bus tour at the Tower and got back on the Underground to head back to our home turf and visit the British Museum, which has changed significantly since my last visit in 1990. The interior covered courtyard is nothing short of amazing. We focused on the permanent exhibits, paying special attention to the ancient Egyption, Persian, and Greek antiquities. The boys held up reasonably well – it was very important for us to manage our time in the art and history museums to keep the boys engaged.

Parthenon marbles

We left the museum by around 5 or 5:30pm – way ahead of my original schedule as I knew it would be open late that Thursday night and had hoped to work a bit later into the evening before we cut for dinner. Those of you that have traveled east-bound to Europe on a red-eye know how critical it is to stay up to a decent evening hour before retiring.

Outside British Museum

Our solution – spend plenty of time at two pubs and milk out another 2-3 hours eating pub food and sampling beers. We started at the Marquis of Cornwallis pub directly across the street from our hotel. The food was good enough and the beer exceptional. In hindsight I think the boys enjoyed London over Paris because of the pub scene – they are plentiful, laid back, don’t mind if you just hang around and drink beer, and obviously very social.

At Cornwallis Pub

Next up was Lord John Russell, a fine pub but a bit smaller and hence more crowded. We lasted there until about 8pm then walked back to the hotel to crash.

Off to Europe

You won’t believe the list of backlog posts I have, but it looks like they will have to wait for a while. We are off to Europe tomorrow, approximate itinerary:

  • Wed – fly to London via MSP
  • Thu – land at Gatwick / London, bus tour for orientation and visit British Museum
  • Fri – Imperial War Museum and other sites south of Thames, see a musical
  • Sat – Tower of London, walking tour around Westminster, pub crawl
  • Sun – Eurostar to Brussels, train to Liege
  • Mon, Tue, Wed – Bulge sites plus fun stuff in the Ardennes (Plopsa Coo, caves, castles, beer, and chocolate)
  • Thu – to Rheims France, champagne and cathedral
  • Fri-Sun – Paris!
  • Mon – return home

I’m bringing the camera and expect to take a ton of photos. See you in 12 days!