Sunday, September 30, 2012

I Would Walk 500 Miles...

which I think I came close to while my mom and sister were here. In a week, we went to Stratford-Upon-Avon, Bath, and London and also spent a few days in Oxford.

Oxford: Day 1 of Visit

My mom and sister got of the plane really jet lagged having not slept for quite a while, and yet, since it's best to push through and try and get on the time of country, I dragged them all over Oxford on a walking tour. We really didn't go in anywhere except Vaults and Garden Cafe, a restaurant in the shadow the Bodleian that I've been wanting to go to. 


We had tea there-- we had tea everywhere, every day but one.  Spoiler alert: this is the best tea we had all week. It's not so much the tea itself (the actual best tea is at Hathaway's) but because the restaurant makes scones to order, so they are always hot.  Clotted cream melts nicely on hot scones; clotted cream has become my new favorite condiment.  I've never really looked for it in the US, so I don't know how easy it is to find, but I'm guessing I'm going to go through some withdrawal when I get back.  It's much better than butter.  When we through the tea overboard in Boston, we really should have had the foresight to keep the clotted cream-- if those in the Boston Tea Party really knew (or remembered-- I'm not sure when clotted cream was first "invented") how yummy it was, I don't think they would have objected to the whole taxation thing so vehemently.

Vaults and Garden Cafe is in the "Old Congregation House" of Oxford University, so sitting inside or out, it's really lovely. We sat inside-- though I get the feeling it's not really cold for Oxford (a thought which makes me wonder how miserable I'm going to be come December), it was hot in DC where my mom and sister left from and they hadn't acclimated yet, so they thought it was really cold. (Any picture of my mom is her really bundled up-- but I swear Oxford, or England in general, is not the arctic.)

(That's my very jet lagged sister-- she's holding her head up here so she won't go to sleep on the table, which she came close to doing.)  Mostly it was a day of walking-- one which demonstrated how impressively familiar with Oxford I've become because I can at least walk around and name all the impressive sights in City Centre (though, I still don't know all the colleges, or even most of them. Most aren't well labeled... I can recognize the "big" ones like Magdalen, Christ Church and Merton. And a few others-- but it does leave me saying, "I don't know" to many (since there are 32) others when asked "what is that?"  I know it's a college-- just not which one. I wonder how long I would have to live here to figure it all out.)  We did go to what is now my favorite restaurant in Oxford-- and wonderfully located just a few blocks from my flat-- Bar Meze.  I could easily eat their Sasuka (an eggplant dish) every night for dinner. If it wasn't for the fact that I think I should try every place I possibly can since I'm only here for a short time, I probably would.

Stratford-Upon-Avon: Day 2 of Visit
 
The second day was my first experience with the rail system in England.  It's pretty efficient-- though, since we went to Stratford on a Sunday we had limited options for train times.



This meant we didn't get to do nearly as much as we would have liked because we had 3 pm tickets to see a play and the first train out of Oxford was at about 10:45 am. I may have to go back-- we bought tickets to see many of the Shakespeare sights and only got to go through the welcome center and his birthplace.  We missed Nash's House (his grandaughter's house), New Place (the house he retired in), and Hall's Croft (his daughter's house) which are all located pretty close to where we are.  (We also missed Anne Hathaway's Cottage and Mary Arden's Farm-- those are "hikes" outside of Stratford proper though.)

Shakespeare's birthplace is fascinating-- and quite cute.  The gardens are gorgeous. (All the outdoor pictures have umbrellas-- it never stopped raining.  We pushed on anyway.)

There are lots of "markers" that demonstrate how wealthy a family Shakespeare came from-- the most fascinating is the bed in the drawing room.

That's not a bedroom-- it's the front sitting room. We were told that a wealthy family would put a bed in the drawing/sitting room to demonstrate that it was wealthy enough to own a bed-- the bed was situated pretty close to a window so anyone passing by could also see it (and, be jealous of such great wealth).  It wasn't just any bed either-- it was the best bed in the house. And, it was pretty much for display-- no one slept on it. (The rain meant that the lighting wasn't so great for taking pictures-- but I took them of individual rooms anyway.  The rooms, especially the dining room, are pretty plain compared to the ones in the Royal Crescent-- but these are about 400 years older.  What constitutes wealth over the ages is fascinating.)




The last one is my favorite-- I like that there is a room that replicated the slaughtering of animals just to be very clear about what the room is for.

After touring Shakespeare's birthplace (and, walking around in the rain for quite a while), it was time for tea, this time at Hathaway's Tea House.

It's obviously been remodeled at some point, but I like that there is an "original" feel to the wood beams. This was definitely the fanciest tea we went to since it was a full tea, with sandwiches, cakes and scones.


The sandwiches were really good-- I don't know why people don't appreciate cucumber sandwiches more. I've even seen commercials here that poke fun at the cucumber sandwich, but I think they're really good. I think it's all in the mayonnaise used (I'm not a big fan of mayonnaise-- but whatever this was was flavored really well. It wasn't just plain mayonnaise.)

There was a food festival going on in Stratford when we were there-- it's too bad it was raining so hard because the food looked amazing. But it was all outdoors and so there weren't many people at it-- it didn't seem like much fun to sit in the cold rain and eat.  We also didn't have much time to browse the food stands nor the farmers' market set up right outside the Royal Shakespeare Theater because we had tickets to Comedy of Errors.  I tried to take a picture of the stage before the show started-- the company is doing a trilogy of shipwreck plays, so there's a tank of water of that runs under the first portion of the stage and is filled with "artifacts" found in the sea.  But, it's not well lit before the show starts so the picture really didn't come out. (That and there were a lot of people there-- they blocked the shot.)  The production was amazing!  I've seen both great and awful productions of Shakespeare-- this might have been the best.  Comedy of Errors isn't a play I'm familiar with-- it's never assigned to be read in schools and I honestly can't remember even seeing a performance of it advertised.  So, I'm totally unfamiliar with it-- but it was so easy to understand (not that I really struggle with Shakespeare, but I was a little worried that the actors' accents would throw me, but only one did. And he was a minor role.)  It's a hilarious play-- I don't know why it isn't performed more often.  And, having toured the small museum and Shakespeare's birthplace, I do now understand his obsession with certain themes more (like twins- he had twins, one of whom died.  His twin plays are likely inspired by his "fantasy" that his second child is lost and separated, not dead.)

Like everywhere, shops and restaurants close early on Sundays, so we just headed back to the train station after the play and got back to Oxford in time to eat dinner, once again at a place near my flat-- a Chinese restaurant named Yummy.  It seems like a precarious name for any restaurant-- that sets up quite a few expectations. But it lived up to it's name-- the wonton soup and chicken and cashew were particularly good. (Turns out in comparison to English tea, Chinese tea is very weak.  I think English tea may have ruined ordering tea in a Chinese restaurant for me.)  And, we made it home in time to watch Downton Abbey, season 3, episode 2 (which I'm still not writing about-- but it's driving me crazy not to be able to talk about it.)

Bath (revisited): Day 3 of Visit

This was all starting to feel like a whirlwind, even by day three, especially since we were getting up early and getting home late in an attempt to take full advantage of anything and everything we could (I'm still stuck in some weird limbo between living here and being a tourist here-- and I don't think that's actually going to change while I'm here.  Four months leaves with some status I'm not sure there's a name for since it doesn't make me either tourist or resident.).  There are more trains during the week though, so we didn't quite have to time the schedule as precisely to get to Bath on a Monday as we did to get to Stratford on Sunday.

The first thing we did when we got to Bath was stop for tea (or, really a tea kind of setting with hot chocolate.  Bath has the best hot chocolate ever-- I may have mentioned this before, but it's worth mentioning again. And, this time, I had people to share it with. I kept trying to encourage my students to get the hot chocolate the first time I was there, but they kept opting for coffee drinks.  I totally understood the desire for the caffeine boost, but I really needed someone to exclaim about the amazing hot chocolate with me. It was validating to have my mom and sister go.)





There is also a tea pot there-- my mom had tea while my sister and I had one milk chocolate and one dark chocolate drink. (I still have yet to try the chili chocolate, which may be a reason to go back to Bath-- though I feel like I've pretty much seen all the tourist sites.)

We went to the Roman Baths, which I'd already been to but which were equally amazing the second time around (this is a picture from my first visit-- my mom and sister took most of the pictures this time around).


And, I got to see stuff I missed the first time (we had limited time and it was much more crowded the first time I went), like the display of jewels (though, really jewels by ancient standards, not modern ones) that were found in the baths during excavations. The hot water probably melted the glue holding them in.  A lot of it was amber (which isn't really a "jewel" now)-- but it was very cool because there were engravings in the amber, even in really small stones.  And, I listened to the Bill Bryson commentary when I was going through-- there's not as much "history" in those comments, but it does highlight what can be imagined about the lives of those who built and used the baths. I listened to some of the kids commentaries too-- they're really well done and include the voices of "characters" who populated the baths.  I think I like the combination of those two when touring-- but no matter what, the amount of commentary can border on overwhelming (in a good way). 



There were sites I wanted to see that I didn't get to the first time I was in Bath: the Fashion Museum, the Assembly Rooms and the Jane Austen Center.  The Fashion Museum is again overwhelming with it's commentary, but it includes a really nice range of "costume" from around the early 18th century to the present and is divided by category, like sport.


Included in the display was also the first women's tennis outfit. I can't figure out where the ball pocket is.  And, it seems like it would be really hot to run around in.

 
I was surprised that the sports apparel was what was on display at the front-- I was expecting more of the older fashions, like this:

It turns out to be a nice mixture (though a little hard to photograph since it's all behind glass).  There is also a dress-up section.  So we did.


My sister is in a child's outfit, which is probably what we all should have put on-- the adult clothing was really oversized. And very heavy. I don't know how they walked around in that all day, especially since we just put on the dresses without the petticoats and corsets (which would have added a lot of weight).  

We also toured the Assembly Rooms.





These were social gathering rooms in Jane Austen's time (and before and after).  It was where people went to promenade around in their fine clothing-- to see and be seen.   The chandeliers are particularly impressive.

We also went to the Jane Austen Center. To be fair, I had been warned that it's not impressive-- and it lived up to that warning.  There was a brief presentation about Jane's family and how the individual members contributed to her career and then a chance to tour the exhibit, which was ok, but not great. And pretty small, filled with stuff like this:


We went through it pretty quickly-- there just wasn't much to see that felt like it was Austen-y.  For a place that really wants to claim Jane Austen as its own (even though the Center freely admits she wasn't too fond of Bath and preferred the country-- she wrote very little while residing in Bath but was quite prolific in the country), Bath is kind of unimpressive when it comes to exhibits about her.  In the gift shop, there are lots of things to buy with images of Austen characters on them.  Colin Firth is always the representation of Darcy-- it's his picture on everything. I don't know how to feel about that-- he is the image in my head when I think of Darcy, so I get it. However, I seriously doubt it's what Austen had in mind... and a late 20th century movie version of Darcy doesn't really feel historical. 

We left Bath and got back to Oxford for dinner; I decided that my mom and sister had to have the quintessential Oxford pub experience, so we went to Turf Tavern, which would have been better if we hadn't been sitting right next to a couple who made out the entire time we were there.  (And, I was the one who was made to keep interrupting them to ask things like if they were using their extra chair or if we could have their ketchup.  At least I was the one seated with my back to them so I didn't have to watch the rather obscene display of "affection".  We seemed to be the only ones disturbed by it though-- I'm starting to wonder if it's cultural.)



Oxford: Day 4 of Visit

I have been holding off doing some things in Oxford so that when people come to visit, I'm not bored. So, on day 4 we went to the Botanic Gardens and the Museum of the History of Science.  The Botanic Gardens are stunning:



which is surprising when I think about it. It's cold and rainy here for a lot of the year-- and it was cold-ish and rainy for a lot of the time my mom and sister were here. And yet, there is a wide variety of plants and flowers, including things like cacti which I would not think would thrive in such a wet and cold environment, even if they are moved indoors for part of the year (as this sign indicates). 


And, the flowers are largely still in bloom even though the temperature has gotten into the 30s at night several times since I've been here. 


There are also the largest lily pads I've ever seen. So large they don't look real-- but they are.


The gardens also grow food, which is all given to shelters, and hemp as well. This is my favorite sign in the gardens. I like how it subtly dissuades anyone from picking the hemp or taking seeds.



And, the world's friendliest ducks.  People must feed them all the time, because they have no qualms about just walking up.  We felt bad, so we fed them (or, my sister did.  She gave them some protein bar.)


The Botanic Gardens are located on the River Cherwell, which is where the ducks were coming from. It also means that people punt along the Botanic Gardens.





This is apparently an essential Oxford (and Cambridge) activity-- but everything I read about it suggests it's really hard. And that it's really easy to fall in, which I can't imagine is a fun experience in the cold (and, while it's not really cold here, 50s isn't the weather I want to be soaked in.  I'm guessing the water itself is quite cold.)


What I didn't get to see was the hothouse with the black flowers-- a couple of the hothouses were closed for maintenance. I've read about the black flowers-- but I've never seen any, so I had been excited to see them.  I've been told that the Botanic Gardens are free starting sometime in October (maybe a lot of the plants die by then?), so I may have to go back just to see the black flowers.  We did get to see the Insectivorous House with the plants that "eat" things. 

It's a little hard to see, but these plants have mouths which are currently holding and drinking water.

From the Botanic Gardens, we went to the Museum of the History of Science which I have also been putting off going into.  I don't think we were supposed to take pictures (it's unclear-- there were no signs specifically saying no photos, but no one was taking any) but I got really excited when I saw the display of Guglielmo Marconi's inventions.  I read Erik Larson's Thunderstruck (it's a really good book) which is largely about the invention of the telegraph and in which Marconi is a major character, so when I saw the actual telegraph, I had to have a picture of it.





It's smaller than I imagined. 

To continue the old world feel, when we went outside, there was a random horse drawn carriage going around.


I have no idea why; it's not a regular occurrence in Oxford.  I had to leave my mom and sister to go teach my class (my first night of actually doing my "real" job).  They went for tea and scones again at Vaults and Garden. I would be jealous, but it has occurred to me that I could have tea and scones there just about every day for another three months if I want.

For dinner, we went into Cowley, a neighborhood in Oxford known for its ethnic restaurants and eclectic stores. We ate at Verde, an Italian restaurant that had been recommended to me.  Also really good (I haven't really had a bad meal since I've been here).  There are endless Indian restaurants on Cowley Rd., but my mom doesn't like Indian food. I'm going to have to do some kind of Indian Restaurant tour while I'm here.

Oxford Again: Day 5 of Visit

We stayed in Oxford for a second day (mostly because I had to attend a course my students are all taking on Wednesday evenings so I can check in on them-- a part of my job exclusive to going to a foreign country with 24 other people) and went to the Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum (which is attached-- and unlike any museum any of us had ever been in).  We also tried to go to The Real Tennis Courts at Merton College (the second tennis courts ever built, supposedly, though they aren't the modern tennis courts we think of) but despite a sign that said "Open" the door was locked. I will get there sometime though (it's starting to feel like the great tourist challenge of Oxford, at least for me).

The Natural History Museum in Oxford is probably the best one of its kind I've ever been in-- and I grew up going to the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum.  It's really intimate and the displays are so well done.  And, the building itself is gorgeous.







And, you can touch stones that are millions and millions of years old.


 As fabulous as the natural history part is, it's Pitt Rivers that's truly amazing. It's a museum of anthropology and world archeology. The photo doesn't do it justice.

That's from the second floor, looking down on the first.

This is looking head on at the first floor. I was trying to get a sense of how much stuff is in the museum, but I don't think a picture can do that, especially since many of the display cases are cabinets with drawers that can be pulled open and which hold even more stuff.  You can do a virtual tour of the museum here http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/virtualtour.html# (click on the red markers on the maps).  It sort of gives a better sense of how packed the museum is, but it really has to be seen.  We did find the tiniest doll in the world-- there are other things that guide books have mentioned that I didn't find like the copulating gingerbread dogs or the ballerina flies so I have reason to go back (it's the kind of place I would take anyone visiting me because it's unique and because it's one of the few places I could go to many times and not get bored in).  There was an audio tour available which I may do in the future (which is probably overwhelming on its own since every display case has multiple audio offerings).  And, there is an actual tour given by curators at assigned times which I'm going to have to do at some point.

What we never made it to was the Ashmolean which had also been on the agenda for the day but we ran out of time (and, honestly, the brain capacity to absorb another museum).

We had tea at a different tea room after the museums-- I've passed it several times because it's on High Street but I can't remember the name of it now.  The scones were warm, but not freshly made.  Still, anything with clotted cream on it is good. Here, when we told our waiter about how fabulous the Natural History and Pitt Rivers museum were, he told us we had to go to the Natural History Museum in London-- he talked it up a lot and also told us we would need at least 3 hours to really see it. So, we put  it on our itinerary.

Because meeting my students at their British Heritage and Culture class took until after 7 and because it was cold and rainy, we went to a pizza place in my neighborhood-- also really good.  It makes "artisan" personal pizzas.  (I have leftovers which now that I'm writing about the pizza, I'm seriously considering heating up for lunch.)*  It's not the best place to go when starving since all of it is made from scratch when ordered...but it's worth the wait.

London: Day 6 of Visit

In an attempt to maximize our two days in London, we got up super early to catch a bus into the city.  Even with the best of intentions, we got a later start to our day than we wanted because after getting to our hotel, dropping our luggage, and setting off again, we got on the Piccadilly Line of the tube which came to a stop after a few stations and we were informed that the line was being shut down due to "a person under the train" at the Knightsbridge station.  It's amazing how casually this was announced, as though a person under a train is a normal occurrence. I was thinking that in the US it would have made national news, and certainly been local news for days in whatever city the incident occurred in. But, there is is surprisingly little about it.  I had found a news report that said the person had survived, but this story says there (http://www.london24.com/news/travel_update_piccadilly_line_delays_due_to_person_under_a_train_1_1531994#) was a death (which seems more likely because it's hard to imagine surviving being run-over by a train). It's a really short story-- and as much as I Google it, I can't find much more about what happened.  Everyone was so casual about it too-- I feel like my sister, mom and I were the only ones who thought it was shocking.

Despite a person being under the train (as it was called all day), the Tube runs amazingly well.  I was thinking that in DC, if there was a problem on a particular line, that would pretty much be it for the day-- there aren't many options for going around. But, there are always multiple options for how to get somewhere on the London Tube, so we regrouped and took a different route to Leicester Square to buy half price tickets to a show.  And, from there went to the more interesting Trafalgar Square.

 My sister and I climbed up on the monument which is located to the right in the above picture ( which was a huge feat (it's much harder than it looks--there are no real footholds) and then took our picture sitting on the stones because neither of us could actually get onto one of the lions (they are really slippery-- you can see them if you enlarge the second picture above).


From Trafalgar Square we walked down to Westminster Abbey, passing the Houses of Parliament and Downing Street (heavily guarded...) and, for me for a second time, the Household Calvary Museum. This time, however, there was a changing of the guard there, which is much better than the one at Buckingham Palace because you can get up close to it and actually see what's happening.


You can also see the mad rush to get out of the way of the horses since there really is no warning that they are coming right at those who are watching.  I recommend this over going to Buckingham Palace-- it's smaller, but at least I got to see it rather than the tops of people's heads.

We did go to Westminster Abbey after this--there are very few pictures however since photos aren't allowed to be taken in the actual Abbey.  This is the courtyard view of the building.







What is amazing is the history that is simply demonstrated by all the tombs located there--many of the royalty who have ruled England are buried there and the audio guide gives a good description of why their tombs are placed where they are (and why they are grouped together) as well as why they are ornamented they way they are. There's also the Hall of Poets which is dedicated to just about everyone who has lived in England, published and died even though only some of they are actually buried in the Abbey.




There is gorgeous stained glass in the Abbey; however, all I could photograph was the stained glass in the Chapter Room. It's still impressive...it just pales in comparison to the windows we couldn't take pictures of.





It's really a good thing I've labeled all of my pictures of stained glass-- early on, one of my students had remarked that you could do nothing but make a scrapbook of stained glass in Great Britain and still have hundreds and hundreds of pictures and she's right.  So much so that it kind of all starts to look the same after a while-- without labels on the pictures, I'd be hard pressed to remember where any of it actually from.

Westminster Abbey also claims to be home to the oldest door in Britain (how it would know this, I have no idea. But, I also don't know how one would disprove this claim.). It does look pretty old.


From Westminster Abbey, we walked to Buckingham Palace, where at least this time, since we were there when there was no changing of the guard happening, I could see the guards at the gate.


He did march some. I still like the Household Calvary Museum better-- there you can take pictures of yourself with the guards (I realize I'm going back in time with the day..).


We were going to take a tour of the Palace, but we couldn't get in (it was about 3:30 in the afternoon by the time we got there) and we were told we'd have to come back by 8:30 am the next day to stand in queue to hope to get tickets.  We decided we'd rather see the Tower of London, so I have yet to go inside Buckingham Palace.  (I haven't decided if I'm going to try-- it's expensive and clearly you have to get there really early in the day to get tickets... all of which leaves the chance that it could end up being disappointing given all the money and effort.)  So, instead, we set off for Piccadilly Circus to try and find Fortnum and Mason which is supposed to be a more impressive department store than Harrod's-- it isn't easily spottable from the tube exit, however and we (especially me, I'll admit) were getting quite cranky from being hungry so we went to a different fancy place for tea (I've also forgotten the name of that place, though I could probably find it again pretty easily).


This tea came with both scones and cakes. The tart was especially good (my mom like the cheesecake a lot). And, we could choose from a variety of teas, so we each got a different one.  And, we got to watch people across the street queue to get a book signed by Jessie J (a singer-- my sister knows who she is. I don't which apparently makes me quite out of touch.).  They must have been standing in line for hours and hours. The new J.K. Rowling book was set to hit the stands the next day, so I wondering if there was going to be an equally long line the next day (probably not since I'm sure many people pre-ordered online).

We went and shopped the craft market in Piccadilly Circus (I bought a really cute hat-- I'm not much of a hat person, but given how chilly it is at night and the amount of wind, I'm guessing I'm going to really want one soon) and then set off to find Victoria Palace Theater to see Billy Elliot.

It was amazing-- though sometimes the accents were difficult to understand (more so than with Comedy of Errors, which was a little surprising).






Dinner night one in London was from Pret a Manger-- basically sandwiches we took to go and ate in our hotel room when we got back from the play. For take away sandwiches, they're pretty good. And, I discovered Thai red curry crisps which are excellent (and, like rhubarb yogurt, something we really need to start stocking in US grocery stores).  We also had really good baklava from the small kebab storefront down the street from the hotel (had our hotel been closer to the city rather than on the outskirts near Heathrow-- chosen because my mom and sister had a really early morning flight out-- we could have stopped to have dinner there one day. The food smelled really good-- my sister and I came close to getting midnight kebabs instead of just baklava.)

London Day 2: Day 7 of Visit

After barely sleeping (the hotel we stayed in was really nice-- much better than I would have expected of a 2 star hotel chosen purely for its close proximity to a tube station and Heathrow-- but we had really loud and rude Italian teenagers staying on the same floor as us. They got in around 4 am and had to have woken everyone in the hotel.) we got up pretty early to have breakfast in the hotel (which stopped serving at 9 am) and set off for the Tower of London. We had big plans for the day, but we didn't quite anticipate how long it would take to do all of the Tower of London.  It took about half the day to really see the whole thing-- well worth it though.


It's so big, it's really hard to get a picture of the whole thing from the outside-- I tried.  And, it's impossible to get any kind of really inclusive picture from the inside.  The photo below is facing (from right to left) Bloody Tower, Wakefield Tower and the Tower Bridge. You can also see the Wall of the Inmost Ward coming out from Wakefield Tower.



 Bloody Tower has exhibits inside devoted to torture. Other towers have exhibits with different focuses, such as military history, where you can "play" with a variety of weapons and try on military garb.




To the left of the picture of my mom is a backpack weighted down with all the equipment a soldier carried in WWII-- it was virtually impossible to pick up. I can't imagine trying to carry it on my back and march. (It did bring to life "The Things They Carried" which I know is a Vietnam story written about Americans-- but it is centered on the weight of things being physically-- and emotionally-- carried in war and so this did give a real sense of that physicality.)  (Also, I should note that I do mostly have pictures of my mom and sister on my camera-- because it's my camera. There are quite a few pictures of me-- they are just on my mom and sister's cameras which are now back in the US.  I'll have to get them at a later date.) 

We were going to walk across Tower Bridge, but by the time we were actually leaving Tower of London, it was raining and later in the day than we had planned and it would have taken a while to walk across.  So, instead, we bought hot, sugared peanuts from the guy standing at the base of the bridge (they were so good-- they seriously rival the sugared almonds sold at fairs that I'm so fond of.  They may even be better.) and set off to the Eye of London (a bit of an adventure because we got one stop away from the station where we needed to switch lines and were told that the tube would not be stopping at Embankment-- our stop-- because of a fire. It was more likely a mistakenly pulled fire alarm, but still meant we had to backtrack quite a bit to get to another place to switch to the line we needed.  Again, it's a really efficient system and we never once waited more than a minute or two for a train, but these incidents that close down stations or whole lines do set a traveler back a bit.). 

The Eye of London is an amazingly touristy thing to do-- but we were tourists in London, so we went.  It's certainly the best view of Big Ben (which is actually no longer officially Big Ben-- it was renamed for the queen as part of the whole Diamond Jubilee thing.  I don't the new name-- Elizabeth's Tower-- is sticking though. And, it hasn't yet been renamed in any guide books. I'm guessing very few tourists would know what Elizabeth's Tower is.) and the Houses of Parliament (the view is better than the photos which are a bit compromised by rain on the window of the car we were riding in).


What we really wanted to see and didn't was the Imperial War Museum. It's not actually that far from the Eye, but by the time we finished it was after 4 pm and the museum was going to close at 6 pm-- by the time we got there, it wouldn't have been worth it. So, instead, we set off for London's Natural History Museum (which-- as I wrote-- we were told we had to see). On the last Friday of every month, it's open until 10:30 pm, so we knew we would have time (the recommended minimum 3 hours) to explore. What we did not really factor in was how tired we were after two really filled days of walking and walking (There are a lot of stairs in the tube stations-- I should have mentioned this earlier. I always think of the Paris metro as stair-filled. It's been a decade since I've been in London and I had forgotten that it rivals the Paris metro, even with the escalators many tube stations now incorporate.  This in addition to walking from station to site and from site to site, and from site to station. And, in addition to walking all of Oxford, Bath and Stratford-- hence why The Proclaimer's "I"m Gonna Be (500 Miles)" was running through my head by the end of this day.  I really think that we came close to that 500 miles between the three of us.).  So, I don't think we got as much out of the Museum of Natural History in London as we could. We certainly didn't spend even close to 3 hours there.

Fatigue was a factor. That said, I feel we were mislead by our waiter in Oxford-- the Museum of Natural History is London is perfectly nice. The building is gorgeous, both outside and in..



A close examination of the walls while walking demonstrates how intricate the building is.



 But, for actual exhibits and overall feeling, I much prefer the one in Oxford. Oxford's museum is cozier and much better done. The exhibits are far better and much more accessible.  The best exhibit (at least that we saw-- we didn't go to everything) was this T-Rex.





And it was entertaining, in part, because its movement scared the kids (I'm not sure if you can hear the kids' actual words, but several are refusing to walk down the ramp past it and are being coaxed by parents.).  But, I wouldn't go back. I will, however, go back to Oxford's museum, either to take other visitors or by myself. I know I didn't see everything and it was the kind of place that makes me want to go explore it more. The London museum just felt like it was trying to prove it could make really big exhibits (to be fair, the picture below does not do justice to the size of this exhibit. In the back is a life size replica of a blue whale-- I couldn't get the whole thing in one picture.  It is big-- the museum succeeds in demonstrating this.  It's just, this museum does actually gives merit to the cliche that size isn't everything.).



We left the museum having gotten a sense of it-- we were all just exhausted by then. Still, we actually set off in search of a particular tapas restaurant the required getting back on the tube in the opposite direction of our hotel-- and we found it.  El Pirata, which seems like it would be hard to find if the address hadn't been listed in a guide book and there hadn't been a decent map at the tube station, was very good. It's certainly the "fanciest" meal (i.e. most expensive) we had during my mom and sister's whole visit.**  But, it did rival my favorite all time restaurant-- Jaleo, a tapas restaurant in DC.  It didn't disappoint (unlike most tapas places other than Jaleo, which do).  It was amazingly charming-- though there was a sign outside the ladies toilet that warned that the possession and use of drugs is illegal which does make one wonder.  I haven't seen a sign like that anywhere else.

We went back to our hotel after dinner. My mom and sister had to be up at 4 am in order to get to the airport.  Again, we all barely slept due to rude and loud Italian teens-- and my mom and sister did not make nearly the retaliation noise they were threatening to at 5 am when they left (which I kind of appreciated...).  I caught the bus back to Oxford a few hours later.

And then, I slept much of the rest of the day away (and did laundry-- which is hours and hours of waiting anyway, if I stay home while it's being done).  I loved having my mom and sister her-- and we did an amazing amount of stuff in a week (most of which was new to me too).  But it's exhausting to travel like that. I'm kind of amazed I could even put it all together in any kind of coherent form for this blog-- and I have to say, this does feel more like a list of what we did than anything else (like vivid description or emotional/intellectual reactions) because it was something of tourist overload.  I would do it again-- but I am also glad that I have longer here so that my time isn't about packing that much in all the time. 

It did also still leave me with things to do like see the Ashmolean and Real Tennis Courts in Oxford, the Imperial War Museum in London as well as Wimbledon and the Harry Potter Universal tour (which I'm torn about).  And, that's simply from the list of things my mom, sister and I didn't get to do in our whirlwind tour.


*The leftover pizza was still really good even after being heated up a couple days later. I don't usually like reheated pizza-- I think crust generally loses something in reheating. But, this was still pretty much the same.

**It should be mentioned that my mom footed the bill for just about everything during this week. Thanks Mom!