Thursday, April 27, 2017

London Vacacay, Outing 4: St. Paul's Cathedral, Tate Modern

Two venues: St. Paul's Cathedral and Tate Modern. St. Paul's was on purpose; Tate Modern was just convenient. :-)

St. Paul's Cathedral

The fourth outing began with St. Paul's Cathedral. We had originally planned to go to Westminster Abbey, but it was closed in preparation for a service where Prince William honored those that lost their lives on the Westminster bridge just before our visit.

We arrived early, wanting to ensure we could get in on the 90-minute tour. Considering we arrived well prior to opening, I was surprised and slightly disappointed that there was no bird woman to greet me.

Where will I spend my tuppence?

We were admitted and purchased our tickets for the tour. We were only able to toodle around a little bit before the tour actually started. They run a tight ship at St. Paul's. We were also informed that, as at Windsor Castle, photography of any kind was not allowed. I'll include a few fairly recent pictures from the Internet instead.

The cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who oversaw the construction in the late 1600s. His genius was apparent everywhere, including one of the first stops on the tour: the Geometric Staircase.

Geometric staircase, St. Paul's Cathedral
So winding a staircase I never did see!
Those steps are made of solid, heavy stone, and are held in place by relatively small dowels. The bulk of the weight is supported at the bottom of the staircase. This was one of the items for which Wren personally oversaw construction.

Note: you might recognize this staircase, especially if you've seen any of the Harry Potter movies!

At some point in the recent past (possibly during the stone cleaning project), they removed the choir screen and never put it back up. As such, you can now see all the way through the cathedral, giving you a sense of the grandeur and solemnity of the place at the same time.

St Paul's Cathedral Nave, London, UK - Diliff
Spit shined! So white!
The monument to the left in the above picture is the Wellington Monument, one of the very few that are actually in the cathedral. Apparently Wren made it a requirement: no monuments or tombs allowed in the cathedral. Instead, he designed a proper crypt, which you can see through the round gold grate in the floor in the picture. The result is, again, a feeling that the purpose of the building is worship of something greater than a collection of humanity.

The very center of the picture is the bottom of the dome. You can see the Whispering Gallery just below the windows there. Supposedly you can whisper anywhere in the gallery, and because of the acoustics, the whisper can be heard at any other point of the gallery provided your ear is up against the wall. We did NOT try this when we went up there (more on that later).

Here's the dome from directly below.

St Paul's Cathedral Interior Dome 3, London, UK - Diliff
St. Paul's Dome, or a kaleidoscope? YOU be the judge.
This perspective is pretty interesting, if you ask me. Even in three dimensions, it's hard to tell that this is anything more than a slightly concave surface.

The tour concluded with a trip through the crypt. You'd normally think that the crypt would be creepy, and you'd probably be right. Maybe that's why they put the tourist shop down there, but beyond the crypt gate. :-| The most notable memorial is Lord Nelson's.

Tomb of Horatio Nelson on Saint-Paul Cathedral
Very well lit for a crypt!
Lord Nelson was the badass that made the British Navy into the force it became, including kicking Napoleon's ass during the wars with France. The monument was well-earned.

After the tour, we took the stairs to the top of the dome. There are supposedly 528 steps, but I only counted 527. At 257 steps or so, you emerge onto the Whispering Gallery. Here's a picture from that level.

The Whispering Gallery at St Paul's. Photo courtesy of Grant Smith.
We lingered here for a bit, mainly because the staircase from here to the top of the dome is very narrow, and the ushers were only allowing people to go up in small batches. Apparently, people were somewhat smaller 450 years ago than they are now.

There are two spots that take you on the outside of the dome, where pictures are actually allowed! The first one had somewhat obscured views...

No idea what I'm pointing at...

Oh, it was the best spot for a selfie, obviously.
The second stop afforded FANTASTIC views!

Best view ever! Oh, and London in the background.

Rivers and bridges and buildings! Oh my!
Finally we made our way back down, and still didn't see the bird woman. However, some folks had shown up to feed the birds.

They spent their tuppence!

Leaving St. Paul's, we enjoyed a light lunch (remember how we ate ALL THE THINGS the day before?), and decided to spend the afternoon at the Tate Modern.

Tate Modern

The Tate Modern was actually not on our original list of places to visit. It was in the "nice if we can make it, but not essential" group. Since our original plan of going to Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's on the same day had already been altered, and since the Tate Modern is really close to St. Paul's, we decided to check it out.

I'm not sure what your opinion is of modern art, but if you like it, Tate Modern is a glorious place. It's huge, meandering, confusing, and full of modern art. I, personally, am mostly indifferent to modern art. I find some of it very interesting, but am of the opinion that if a piece of art has to be explained to me in the full context of the artist, and I STILL don't get it, I'm generally not going to enjoy it very much.

The building itself is a work of modern art. It was originally a power station, but was converted to a museum between 1995 and 2000. Since then, it's expanded even more. At this point, the display space is vast and only partially filled. Regardless of its content, the building itself was pretty cool.

There were a few VERY personally interesting pieces of art. They had a Picasso (of which we neglected to take a picture), and Salvador Dali's "Metamorphosis of Narcissus", shown here.

I'd pay to own this.

There was also a small series by Piet Mondrian, including a couple of the Composition works.

I didn't crop and straighten ON PURPOSE! Because ART!

There was also a plastic/metallic robot, with looping nutzo videos playing in its hands, face, chest, and thighs. I ALMOST understood this one, but failed at the last moment. I kept expecting Max Headroom to show up in the face and explain to me what was going on.

Still alive out there? Good!

What finally let me know that the day was done was our trip through the following room, the entirety of which is an exhibit.

Uh, wat?
Before I tell you what that is, I want you to take a moment to study it. REALLY study it. What is all that dark, stringy looking stuff? And the horizontal metallic bars? What does it say to you? What does it mean?

Alright, now that you're in the right state of mind, I'm going to tell you what's going on. What looks like thick strands of black yarn is, in fact, human hair. Thousands of meters of human hair woven together by hand, and then wrapped and tied around Fiat bumpers. It's supposed to represent the coexistence of ritual and superstition alongside urban and economic transformation, particularly in India. For more information, have a look at Behold.

As you might have guessed, I didn't understand it in the slightest. And as impressive as the effort must have been to do all of this, I couldn't imagine that it would have significance in the future. Let's say it were somehow miraculously preserved just as it is, and future archaeologists dug this up. Would they think it was art, or rubbish? You decide...

To end our excursion, we left the exhibits and went up to the observation deck. Now THAT was worth doing. Being high up in London, especially along the banks of the Thames, is always worth it. It was a good ending to an excellent outing.

There's some modern art for you!

Stay tuned for outing 5, where our trip took a dark turn at the Tower of London...


Monday, April 24, 2017

London Vacacay, Outing 3: Windsor Castle and St. John's!

Our third outing was to Windsor Castle, the furthest we traveled on the trip. We could have punted our way up the Thames (not really, but that's what they used to do), but instead took a train ride. I haven't talked about the train system in London, and it's worth more than a mention. Tell you what -- I'll do that in a separate post. I don't want to keep you waiting on this venue, because it is almost beyond belief.
Just another day at the office... guarding the Queen...


Changing of the Guard

Getting off the train, we walked briskly up from the station straight to the castle. There was a slight crowd gathered, and ushers ushing people around. We were trying to stay out of the way while figuring out what was going on. As it turns out, luck was on our side. We had arrived just before the once-daily formal changing of the guard ceremony.

Most of the spots along the wall and gate were taken already. We were slightly disheartened, then saw a particularly British-looking usher standing near an arch leading to another area. Motioning to him in as questioning a manner as I could, he smiled at me while maintaining a stiff upper lip and waved us over. He showed us a spot around the other side of the Quadrangle that was ideal for watching the ceremony as well as listening to the band as it marched in and out.

The Queen might be in that far window!

As an aside, the Quadrangle is where all of the tournament games would have taken place in medieval times, and is where heads of state and other dignitaries meet the Queen when they visit, coming up the Long Walk on the south side of the castle. And yes, the Queen was in residence the day we were there, although we didn't see her.

The formal ceremony takes the better part of an hour. The old guard stands at attention on the north side of the Quadrangle while the new guard marches onto the south side. The leaders meet near the center, yell at each other, yell at their guards, then partially exchange places. The band plays at least three tunes in between all of the ceremony. Finally, the old guard and new guard have completely switched places, the band marches out, and the old guard marches out.

Left! Left! Left-Right-Left!

There are LOTS of little details that are probably worth noting, but I'll mention two quickly. First of all, the band plays, but I found myself being the only person applauding. The very British usher actually thanked me for it, as the band appreciates it and it doesn't happen very often. I asked why that was, and he said "I think everyone thinks this is a church," then shrugged a bit as if to say "it's the British way."

The other detail is that the guards' uniforms are slightly different. For example, a few of them were wearing pointy shoes instead of rounded toes. I asked the same usher about it, and he said it had to do with rank. Apparently, when you're important enough, you get pointy shoes.

Pointy shoes, pointy sword!

North Terrace

After the changing of the guard, we made our way back toward the lower ward and decided to take the Precincts Tour. Given the grandness of the castle, the tour is amazingly short -- 30 minutes at the most. We were privileged to be guided around by a lady that fit the castle's ambience perfectly. She was 5'2, with more gray hair than white, an easy smile, dignified manner, and had been working at the castle for ten years.
You there! Pay attention, or I'll lock you in the Round Tower!

We toured around through parts of the Lower Ward, up to St. George's Gate, back around through the Norman Gate, and ended on the Northern Terrace, where many kings and queens have enjoyed taking their constitutionals (the walking kind). The amount of history wrapped up in that 30 minutes was staggering, and humanizing in some ways. It was true that we were walking in the same ways as kings and queens, and were looking out on vistas that have changed over time, but at the end of it all, these monumental people were just human, and not fundamentally different from any of the rest of us, despite their rank.
St. George slays a dragon, and all he gets is a crummy gate.

Did the Queen lean out over this very spot earlier today?


State Apartments/Doll's House

The rest of our time was spent exploring the State Apartments and the Doll's House area. Here is where personal photography had to end. No photographs of any kind are allowed inside. The reasoning is that the Queen owns the copyright to everything, flash photography hurts everything, etc. It was frustrating, because we weren't using flash photography and weren't trying to violate any copyright laws, but I understood where they were coming from. Luckily, images exist on the Internet already, and the samples we found were remarkably like what we saw.

This photo of St. George's Hall courtesy of TripAdvisor
You can get a sense from the above about the grandeur that is exhibited in each State Apartment. Pictured is St. George's Hall, with the family seals of the Order of the Garter adorning the ceiling and walls. Some of the seals are covered, meaning that that knight had somehow dishonored himself (most likely by doing something that pissed off the King).


Windsor Castle Crimson Drawing Room
This photo of the Crimson Drawing Room courtesy of "Empirically Grounded" [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I have no idea what all was drawn in this room, but based on the scenery, it couldn't help but be majestic. :-)

I can't remember exactly how many State Apartments there are in total, or how many we actually went through (the number seems to be between 30 and 40). Regardless, every one of them had art in the form of paintings and sculpture, including the furniture itself. Various rooms in green and red and blue and gold, and everywhere you look, something historically significant or noteworthy. Dizzyingly awesome!

After making our way through the State Apartments, we went up to see Queen Mary's Doll's House.


Queen Mary's doll house at Windsor Castle
This photo of the Dollhouse courtesy of Rob Sangster [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

You thought your Barbie Dream House was pretty fancy when you were young, with that fully operational (via string) elevator? Well, that's PEANUTS to this doll's house. The structure itself is about three feet tall, but the outer walls lift vertically to reveal the inside. Everything inside the doll's house is a faithful reproduction of a real-world object, INCLUDING operation. That's right -- this thing has running water and working electricity (and gas!).

So, we went from life-sized majesty to majesty in 1/12th scale. The key here is to go to the Doll's House when there's no line (queue, in British English). The room itself is small, dominated by the doll's house at the center. You walk around the house clockwise, and then exit. It is not a long trip, and with the pressure of many people behind you, you might not think it's worth it, or might not want to linger at spots.

St. George's Chapel

The last spot we visited was St. George's Chapel, which is the church in Windsor Castle. 
This photo of St. George's Chapel courtesy of thehistoryhub.com
You can see more family seals of Knights and Ladies of the Garter. These seats are reserved for members of those families.

Both ends of the chapel have large stained glass windows depicting various saints and figures, but one of the figure's faces has faded, as if it were too exposed to the elements, or subject to some undue stress. The verger couldn't tell me when or why that had happened... Smells like a mystery to be solved!

I'll add a couple more photos we took of the castle. None of them do the actual venue justice. If you ever make it to London, you HAVE to go visit it.

Round Tower

South Wing from the Quadrangle

Yes, still doing selfies

St. JOHN

After a late lunch in Windsor, we caught the train back to London. We had a reservation that night at a one-Michelin-star restaurant named St. JOHN, and didn't want to be late.

This photo courtesy of www.stjohngroup.uk.com 
The restaurant's exterior is modest, and the inside is what you would expect given the entry. What makes this a one-Michelin-star restaurant is the chef's approach to preparation -- nothing is wasted. Our appetizer was bone marrow on toast, which is one of St. JOHN's signature dishes. It was definitely everything it was cracked up to be. See what I did there? You used to have to crack the bones to eat the marrow... Gah, nevermind.

There were two issues with our experience at St. JOHN's. First of all, the main dining room has a fairly high ceiling and no noise dampening. As a result, it was VERY loud. There was a corporate gathering there while we ate, and Tanya and I almost had to shout at each other across the table to be heard.

The second issue was that the portions were very large. Yes, you read that right -- I just said the portions being large were a problem for me. No, I'm not sick, and yes, I'm still Rusty and not an alien body snatcher. We had a late lunch in Windsor and an early reservation at St. JOHN's. However, given the Michelin star rating, we figured the portions would be conservative at best. We were wrong, and probably should have read the reviews more carefully.

Despite the above, we would definitely go back. We might choose to sit in the bar area and eat lightly that day, however. :-)

This wrapped up our third outing. Next comes St. Paul's Cathedral and the Tate Modern! I'll try to get it written up more quickly, promise!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

London Vacacay, Outing 2: Shakespeare's Globe, Kew Gardens


Our second outing took us to two places: Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew!

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

The Globe Theatre is (of course) a reproduction of the original, situated roughly 100 meters from where the original stood. We arrived a little early and wandered around a bit. I was particularly taken with this guy, whom I hoped would be our tour guide.

Follow me, to honor and victory!
Sadly, it was not to be. Our tour guide was a very knowledgeable Welsh man by the name of Llyr (rhymes with "deer", with a little "hl" on the front).

The theatre is remarkable in many ways, the least of which is that it's got a thatched roof open in the center. All plays are put on during the day, because there's no interior lighting (as there wasn't in Shakespeare's day). The stage is elevated to a height of about five feet.

Acting! Thank you!, No, thank you!
The tour covered the historic Globe as well as the modern day one. The theatre is in pretty constant use, so if you ever have the opportunity to see a play there, you should! One quick anecdote: Llyr told us that when Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare's bloodiest play) was performed in the rebuilt theatre, several people in the audience fainted during the production. Later on, we discovered that one of our London friends was one of those delicate souls that fainted. London, as it turns out, is a small world.

Selfies!

Kew Gardens

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (commonly referred to as Kew Gardens), was the first venue that turned out to be too large to get through in a single visit. We booked a 90 minute tour, and got through about 15 percent of the venue. Several of the main attractions were actually closed, unfortunately. One such was the Pagoda.

Only one mile to the Pagoda
That is a 250-year-old reproduction of a Chinese pagoda. It was (and perhaps still is) the most faithful reproduction of a Chinese pagoda in Europe.

That very long lane at the end of which you see the pagoda is a "vista," one of several at the gardens. The next vista we went to was Syon Vista, at the end of which was the Palm House.

Reminded me of Hans Zarkov's house from "Flash Gordon"
Other highlights of the garden are shown below. All of these are courtesy of Tanya's fancy camera.

That tiny tree is well over 100 years old

Droopy checkerboard flower (not an official name)

The sky through the blossoms

That... is a strange pine tree...

After the visit to Kew Gardens, we knew we were going to have to plan a return visit to London someday in the future. Yup, only two days in, and we were already planning our next trip out...

Dinner that night was a reunion with old friends. Albert, Daniel, and Jenny joined us for some of the best Indian food we've ever had at Veeraswamy. The food was served family style, and wasn't too spicy for my western palate. Afterward, we walked to Chinatown London for some soft-serve green tea ice cream in fish-shaped cones. SO MUCH FUN AND SO DELICIOUS!! Many many thanks to Albert for coordinating all of that, and for all three of them for taking the time out of their busy schedules to meet up with the tourists. We owe you guys a fantastic Texas outing!

The next day was Windsor Castle... I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say that the Queen was there that day... :-D Keep your eyes peeled for the next blog post!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

London Vacacay, Outing 1: Thames, Royal Observatory, "Big Ben"

This year's spring vacacay consisted of an opportunistic trip to London. Tanya's company had a gathering in England, and I came over as that gathering ended. We spent a total of eight days tootling around London, specifically. The next few blog posts will be a faithful account of what happened over those glorious eight days. Enjoy!

The first outing started off with a trip up and down the Thames. Spoiler alert: it was chilly! Luckily, we were well-prepared.

HMS Belfast, not as cool as me!
The riverboat cruises always have "guides" of a sort, telling you miscellaneous and humorous trivia regarding things as you float by them. For example, we floated by the area where the movie "Oliver" was shot. It was actually very near the area where the novel was set.

We debarked at Greenwich, and made our way toward the Royal Observatory. It sits atop a hill beyond the Old Royal Naval College and the Maritime Museum, neither of which we spent very much time in. We wanted to see the place where so much great science was undertaken.

To the top of the hill!

That climb was longer than it looked.
We were slightly underwhelmed. The Royal Observatory is actually quite small, and the crowd was quite large, making it difficult to navigate or linger in any particular place. It took slightly less than FOREVER to get the following picture of the Prime Meridian.

Dallas at 96 degrees, 48 minutes West longitude! 
Luncheon was at a little pub in Greenwich, where I had an excellent Japanese beer. Who'd have thought my first beer in England would be from Japan?

First (but not the last) beer consumed.
We rounded off the day with a visit to Westminster, beginning with the Houses of Parliament (or, the Palace of Westminster to be more precise). I learned that Big Ben is actually the name of the bell in the clock tower, not the tower itself. The tower is the actually the Elizabeth Tower.

Cool clock, tower, and building!
We tried to go to Buckingham Palace as well, and did manage to get a look at it from the perimeter, but quite a lot of the area was cordoned off. Three guesses as to what it was blocked for:

A) The Queen decreed it, for no apparent reason.
B) Donald Tusk and his entourage were visiting.
C) A bunch of guys dressed in 1920s garb were riding bikes with ladders attached to them as part of filming some unknown video.

If you guessed C, you were right -- maybe you can tell me what the production was.

We ended the first outing at Wellington Arch. It was picture-worthy.

An arch to end the day!
Making our way back to the apartment we were staying at, and the step count was over 22,000. I would call that an eventful day! Stay tuned for day 2!