About a week ago I joined my friend, Laura, in London for a few days of urban trekking, shopping and finding the most local & authentic eateries our touring could produce. We were wildly successful.
Laura and I have a history of traveling to European cities and spending days traversing the urban landscapes in terrible weather. London was no different.
I took the Eurostar high speed rail for the first time. It was an easy 2.5 hour trip from Paris’ Gare du Nord station. The train goes to the St. Pancras station in the middle of London and connects the subway (Tube) for a quick ride to the hotel.
We each arrived in the morning, stowed our bags in our Trafalgar Square hotel, downed a few cups of coffee and set out. We decided it would be a good idea to visit Buckingham palace. We checked that off our list very quickly – it was just down the street. I guess, technically, it was around the corner, through a gigantic gated arch, down the street and across the park. London’s street layout is similar to Paris. There are very few streets in a grid pattern. You would think this would feel natural to me now. It does not.
The weather was warm and we both thought we overdressed for our excursion. I knew the weather gods liked teasing us. After the palace, we headed towards Notting Hill. There are so many great neighborhoods to check out, how do you decide? We inadvertently took the long way through Hyde Park, but it was a nice day to be outdoors and you can’t argue with expanses of green fields and daffodils.
We wound up in Notting Hill and viewed several charming streets before running out of steam and needing lunch. We made our way to a little Portuguese bar/restaurant. It was a great find. No one spoke English (servers or patrons) which is a sign we found an authentic bistro – we had fish, vegetables and a generous glass of wine. It was perfect.
Saturday we woke up to sleet and snow, but we had ground to cover; inclimate weather is not a problem. It was St. Patrick’s Day. We were back in the Notting Hill area to stroll along Portobello Road – a day of enjoying the street vendors, shops and antique markets. Turns out there is no strolling when it’s 28 degrees out and the windchill is a single digit. We may have entertained conversations with antique vendors longer than normal because we could enjoy their space heaters.
Eventually, we made our way to the top of the road and ducked into a pub to regroup. Turns out, it was a pretty cute spot with friendly staff and great playlist of Irish music. We decided it was best to have lunch and a couple drinks. We warmed right up.
The remainder of the day needed to be heated and indoors. The sleet/snow/wind mixture continued outside. It was tempting to stay at the pub, but instead we headed to Harrods.
It had been 25 years since I was at Harrods and I was interested to see the gourmet market/food hall and the Egyptian themed escalators. The food hall was impressive. The Egyptian escalators were not. As much as we were game to find a “London outfit” or fun pair of shoes, nothing was tempting and we headed back to the hotel.
I should take a moment to mention, Laura is an accomplished athlete. While I know I should take the stairs, I am all too happy to jump on the escalator in the subway stations. Laura inspires me otherwise.
In one of our climbs up a mountain of stairs in a Tube station, I was gasping for air, but managing to put one foot in front of the other. Out of no where, an exercise man – fully clad in black shiny spandex, fanny pack (for his walkman?) and a 1980’s sweatband on his head zipped by me. Let me assure you, Laura and I are always the only ones taking a quarter mile of continuous stairs.
I am not sure if I was most dumbfounded by another person on our ascent, by his fashion-sense or the speed at which he passed me. I looked behind me and my friend was crying with laughter at the whole encounter. I turned forward and he was gone. It was like a illusion. I had hoped we might see him again when we reached the top landing, but he was too speedy. Laura was hoping he would join us for a post-workout drink. We were out of luck.
Sunday we set out determined to shop. It was a bit hit or miss with boutiques being open, but we did well once we arrived in Soho. I have never experienced the Liberty department store. It contains very high-end designers, but also has beautiful architecture inside and out. I would gladly take a job there just to be able to examine the timbered floorboards and ceilings and stare out the original blown glass windowpanes. Late in the afternoon, it started snowing again and we decided it was time for a glass of wine. After a bit of time, we moved onto some serious seafood at Wright Brothers. It was a good reminder that I have not been eating enough moules and frites in Paris.
Monday was my day to travel back to Paris, but not before a (self-guided) tour of Westminster Abbey and a delicious lunch in the kitchen at Nopi. After lunch there was a bit of time before my train and we made our way to St. Paul’s cathedral. It is situated in the middle of a busy part of town and it towers above it’s neighbors. It amazing how London is pieced together. Modern buildings weave among centuries’ old establishments. We opted not to tour the inside, but to take the the Millennium Bridge across the Thames.
I wanted to get a closer look at Shakespeare’s Globe theater. Turns out a windy frigid walk across the bridge was another type of weather torture despite the sun. During our walk, we came upon a gentleman lying still on the bridge. I immediately thought this poor soul froze to death trying to cross the bridge today. Turns out, he did not. He was working. It was artist Ben Wilson, Chewing Gum Man.
He had some rags, aerosol cans, paints/brushes and a tackle box with him. He was painting tiny murals on the walkway of the bridge. The paintings were so tiny that you would think it was a piece of dirt or chewed bubble gum. Turns out, it is! We noticed the hundreds of murals scattered across the bridge once we started looking. It was amazing.
Later in the afternoon, I made my way to St. Pancras and boarded my train back to Paris. I was tired from the weekend and so grateful for the opportunity to see my friend and explore.