Monday, April 25, 2011

Magical, Mystery Tour

Stonehenge is probably one of the most recognizable and mysterious structures in the world. It has stood, in some form or another, for over 5000 years. For the thousands (millions?) of photographs, books and documentaries available, there is nothing like standing aside Stonehenge and viewing it in person. There is something magical about it.

The last time we were in London, we wanted to see Stonehenge, but our visit was too short. This trip we were able to take a full day and tour the south of England; Bath, Lacock and Stonehenge. Stonehenge is only about 75 minutes outside downtown London by car. Usually we are not fans of organized tours, however after some research we chose a package from 'Premium Tours'. The main reason for this was the unique access they provide to Stonehenge itself.

Since 1978, direct access to the stones has been extremely limited. The fence surrounding the property sits a good 50 yards from the stones at its closest point, so viewing Stonehenge for free from the road is not very fulfilling. If you pay (around £8) to get inside the fence, you get an unobstructed 360° view but you're still outside the roped-off area, about 5-10 yards away at best and with the masses of other visitors. Premium Tours offers a tour of Stonehenge before and after opening hours (sunrise or sunset). Moreover, you are allowed inside the circle! Our tour group was about 50 people, but we had Stonehenge totally to ourselves, unrestricted, for about an hour... worth every pence.

So much has been written on Stonehenge and its history that anything I add here would be redundant. I guess we will never truly know who built it or its original purpose, but it is history... human history and when the main challenge of daily survival is finding food and water, one can only assume that the motivation and extreme effort behind building Stonehenge had to be for something extraordinary. Even with all of the mystery surrounding Stonehenge, my only question is how it is not one of the 7 Wonders of the World. Best estimates date it 500+ years before the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Before arriving for our sunset tour of Stonehenge we stopped in the towns of Bath and Lacock. Bath is beautiful English city and home of the natural hot springs (still flowing today) around which the Romans built a public Bath House in the 2nd Century AD. The Baths are open for viewing only... no bathing, not that you would want to. The Bath Abbey is situated next door to the Roman Baths and worth a peek inside. Today the city is filled with stores (many chains), cafes and pubs. The architecture of Bath is beautiful, but monotonous. John Wood and his son, John Wood designed the city that still stands today and while absolutely worth seeing, I cannot imagine one needing more than a few hours (perhaps a day) to see it.

Our tour also included a short trip to the town of Lacock. One of the oldest cities in England, it has been untouched by time. All of the buildings are original and from the 1300's. There are no street lights or visible electrical/telephone wires in this town. A quick trip through the cemetery one finds no names on the grave markers. In a town this small, the residents simply know who is buried where. Lacock's claim to modern fame is the Harry Potter films with several scenes filmed on location. We had a wonderful late lunch (Steak and Ale Pie/Fish and Chips) at The George Inn before the drive to Stonehenge.

For organized tours, this one ranks up there as one of the best we've experienced.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Highlights of London

Sadly, we have said "adiĆ³s y hasta pronto" to Spain and the mainland of Europe and are ending our trip with a couple weeks in London. Although we've been to London before, it was many years ago and only for a brief time. Much of it is as I remember and there are some things much improved. Having a longer time to visit this go round has allowed us to explore beyond just the core city and check out some of the 'burbs'.

We're staying in an area Southeast of the city, Forest Hill. A very nice "commuter" town, with some great local pubs, restaurants and parks. Our flat here is very cozy and the perfect place to relax after long days of sightseeing. Our hosts have been most friendly and accommodating. Forest Hill is a very quick and convenient train ride into London Bridge and downtown London.

Here are some of the highlights I'd like to share:

Shortly after arriving, we quickly found our favorite place for beer and mussels in London, Belgo. Last time we were here, there was only one location, now there are several... but just as we remember, the food was fantastic and the beer selection (mostly Belgian and Trappist) was extensive. The specific Belgo location we tried was close to the Covent Garden tube station which is nice, but touristy, shopping area with many shops and pubs.

Vinopolis (like Metropolis of Vino) is a newer attraction that is in an old warehouse below London Bridge train station. This place is a delight for those wishing to try fine wines (and other spirits) from around the Globe without having to circumvent it. We choose the tasting option that included a two course dinner from their Cantina. Pricey, but well worth it. The food was delicious and the beverage tasting plentiful. Vinopolis is in the Bankside area of town and surrounded by waterfront pubs, medium to high-end restaurants and the Borough Market... go there hungry.

Proud Cabaret, a couple blocks from the Monument Tube Station is a step back in time. Mainly a burlesque and dinner theater, this place has a style and charm that seems all but gone these days. From the impeccable service of the staff and the flair of the bartenders to the emcee and performers, this place is a class act. Dinner reservations are hard to get, but if you show up about 90 minutes before the show you can get a good seat at a bar table and see the show.

The Camden Town area of London is a fantastic market and shopping district. As with most markets in London its best to go between Thursday and Sunday. There are several hundred vendors selling every thing from food (name the ethnicity and style) to clothing and random junk. A must see. Spend an afternoon wondering through the many markets and if you fancy a tattoo... there is no shortage of parlors. Think Little 5 Points in Atlanta about 25 times larger, London style.

Greenwich is the home of the Royal Naval College, the Cutty Sark, the Royal Observatory and due to it's location at 00'00.0" longitude, the home of Greenwich Mean Time. A small area of town, but delightfully quaint. It is very reminiscent of old town Annapolis. The park leading up to the Observatory is vast and on a warm spring afternoon full of sunbathers, bicyclists, picnickers and the like. There is a small market off the main square that is typical of London markets... and as such, open Thursday - Sunday.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the free admission to both the British Museum and the Tate Museum of Modern Art. The British museum's exhibits on the history of world currency and timepieces are worth the trip alone. While the Tate seems to be everything the British Museum is not... the surrealism exhibit is quite nice.

I don't know when we will make it back here, but each time I am in London I learn to appreciate it more... I hope the next time is not too far off. We're on a journey to visit Bath and Stonehenge tomorrow... stay tuned.