to our London arrival and then the day-long English countryside trip from
Day 2, this day actually was going to be low stress. Sorta. As the day
progressed, and as you'll read below, this day proved to be one of the
more stressful days we actually had during the trip. But first things
We had to check out of the great London Guards Hotel (while expensive, it's actually a fair amount for being able to stay in London) this morning because tonight, we were taking a late evening flight from London Luton Airport over to Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport. So after getting ourselves up and ready for today's last London excursions, we left our luggage at the hotel and then headed out to see some of the essential London sights. First up today was taking the tube over to the Westminster part of town and then of course, going to see Westminster Abbey! I actually did NOT see the Abbey during my last trip here - go figure. But since Westminster Abbey played such a prominent part in the DaVinci Code, Jeff and I had to see it. Plus for me, after having read a few of the biographies of the Tudor family, especially those focused on Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Mary I, and King Henry VIII, well, I HAD to see their tombs.
Unfortunately, you can't take pictures inside Westminster Abbey. Figures. Every other church or cathedral it seems you can, but this one...NOOOOOOO! So here's a link to the Wikipedia entry for Westminster Abbey - hopefully there's some pictures from inside the Abbey. But well worth it was having Rick Steves' book on London, as it has many self-guided tours within it, including one for the Abbey. We got to see the tomb of Elizabeth and Mary (the irony is that Elizabeth is buried ON TOP of Mary - and these two DESPISED each other; Mary actually almost had Elizabeth executed because Elizabeth was Protestant and Mary was Catholic; and if you know your English history, those two religions really didn't get along back then); the tombs of many very famous authors, actors, artists, and scientists; the processional aisle where the new monarch assumes the throne; it's truly an amazing place to visit. And with all the history it's witnessed, you truly feel it all around you. I can't believe I missed it the first trip here!
Afterwards, when we exited the Abbey, it started to rain, which is not an unsurprising event in London. And the fact that was really the first time it did that is quite remarkable! We were too late to make it to the Changing of the Guard in front of Buckingham Palace, and as we needed to get going by around 4pm on our van to Luton Airport, we made the choice to hit up visiting the Tower of London next! So off we went on the Tube to the Tower Hill Underground station. The story continues below...
The infamous English Prison from the Middle Ages. Royal dynasties were toppled and wives were 'divorced' here. Heirs to the throne were imprisoned and killed here. The tragedy of the Lady Jane Grey occurred here (she was Queen for about 13 days - not by her ambition but by treacherous family members - and the unforgiving Queen Mary, aka Bloody Mary, eventually had her executed for treason). Yes, this place, just like Westminster Abbey, is literal history.
So of course before you go immerse yourself in history, you have to eat! So we ate at one of the nearby cafes first and then headed in. Again there was no line - it may have been because of the weather, but I certainly wasn't complaining. We timed it right too, as we joined right up with a group being led by one of the world-famous Beefeaters! They're an extremely lively group and they live in the Tower of London. Their job is primarily ceremonial now, mainly in order to preserve the Tower and take visitors around the grounds. They also guard the royals' residence in the Tower (not that it's used, but again, ceremonial) and of course ceremonially protect the Royal Crown Jewels. Anyways, during the tour with our Beefeater (you would probably recognize their uniform - it's that Scottish bright-red outfit that can be seen on Beefeater Vodka bottles!), we were taken around to all the infamous sites in the Tower, including the Traitors Gate, the Bloody Tower, and the Castle Green. Here's another Wikipedia Link to the Tower of London, so you can see even more information on this amazing place. The tour is anything but boring, with the Beefeaters obviously schooled in dramatic storytelling - so when any of you get the chance to go to London and the Tower, make sure to take the tour. You will love it.
After the tour is over, you are then free to walk around the premises. One thing that HAS to be visited is the home of the Crown Jewels - you can see that basically these Jewels are housed in a giant walk-in safe. And awesomely, there was again very minimal lines so we were able to walk right in to the viewing platforms. Basically the jewels are enclosed in glass on a long rectangular island; there are then two moving walkways on each side of the island that shuffle you past the jewels. You are free to go back to the beginning of the walkway if you want to catch the other side of the jewels; I did that this time because it truly is amazing to see some of these diamonds - the Star of Africa (I think I got that right - hopefully that's not the name of that jewel from the movie Titanic) is 550 CARATS! Good God.
We then walked into the White Tower, which is the castle within the Tower of London. It's now an Armory museum - and while that would have been cool to visit at any other time, unfortunately during this visit, we were fortunate enough to again find literally ALL the French schoolchildren in the world. I kid you not, France Had to have exported them all here for the week. Because as I recall now, I don't remember seeing any children at all in Paris when we got there! So it was quite annoying to be walking around when all of a sudden you got overwhelmed by shrieking, annoying schoolchildren, talking in French! with French accents!!!! Needless to say, that sucked.
Anyways, here are our pics from the Tower of London. Not too many, unfortunately. It was a dreary day but I got a couple good ones. You can't take pics inside the Crown Jewels location, so that sucks!
Our flight to Paris was to leave from Luton Airport sometime between 7 and 8 pm - and based on our research before coming to Europe, we found that there was a regular shuttle bus, run by EasyJet (who we were flying with to Paris), that takes you from near the Baker St area of London (close to the Madame Taussaud's area) to Luton - that's about an hour drive, yet from what we had been hearing, there was large amounts of construction going on in the outer London highways, especially in the Luton direction. So while the objective was to get on a van near the 4:00pm timeframe so we'd get to Luton Airport around 5 or 6....well, that didn't quite happen. First, getting back from the Tower of London to our hotel to get our luggage and then to get to the Baker St area takes a bit of time. Not a huge amount, but certainly it takes more time than you hope it does. We got to the bus station around 4:45pm - and didn't prepay for a fare, so it was possible that if the van got full with pre-purchased fares, we'd have to wait. Oh yeah, another snag in the journey: Susan's name on her passport did NOT match the name on the tickets. We discovered this snafu when we were flying out of Denver - amazingly, the awesome ticket agent there helped us out, but as you may be aware, in this heightened security world we live in, you just can't change names on tickets that easy. So in Denver, we got lucky (I like to think it was my very conversational and charismatic handling of the ticket agent there - she totally loved me). In Europe, we didn't. Jeff had been trying during these days in London to get in touch with EasyJet, but the phone systems there were weird - you can't be on hold for more than 15 minutes or so. It cuts you off. So we were unsuccessful in changing her tickets those first few days. And now it was crunch time, as we were now ON THE WAY TO THE AIRPORT. While waiting for the EasyJet van, my nerves started getting antsy about even getting to the airport; fortunately when the van did get there (after my initial shock at realizing that it was just a van had wore off), there was only a few pre-payers and there was enough room for all 3 of us. So Stress #1 was done. Back to Stress #2: Susan's Last Name Strikes Back. We had an hour or so of driving until we reached the airport - Jeff had his cell phone. GO! And Jeff made his call and finally got in touch with the EasyJet ticket office. They were okay with changing the name on the tickets...but for a cost. The initial cost of the ticket equated to about $140/each - the cost to change the name on the ticket became what the cost of the ticket would cost if you bought it TODAY + a name change fee - this came to around $500 MORE. Ridiculous. But it was paid, and Susan now had a ticket.
So we got to Luton Airport and processed in at the EasyJet counter - it's like Southwest, and since we were there about an hour before departure (read: LATE!), we were put in the last boarding group. Fine, whatever, we're gonna be in Paris one way or the other tonight. We'll arrive in Paris around 10:00 Paris time (+1 hour London Time), have enough time to get on an RER train (their suburban commuter trains) into the city before the trains stop running at 11pm and get rested up for the next awesome leg: PARIS!!!!!!
..................................<sound of brakes screeching!>..........................................................
HOLD UP! Huh? Wha'? What's going on here? Oh, you mean things didn't go exactly as planned? You mean we had to test out having a positive attitude while travelling? Yes, that's EXACTLY what is going on here.
So we're literally waiting in the Boarding Group C line at the departure gate...oh wait, I forgot another funny story at Luton before I continue! So we're going through the security checkpoint, right? I went through first, no big deal. Susan comes a short while after me, as I had jumped to another line. But Jeff doesn't show up, and he was right behind Susan. So me and Susan are just hanging out, excitedly talking about something or an other. We finally see Jeff coming, about 10-15 minutes later. He lets us know that indeed security works here - he was stopped because he had been trying to bring two daggers with him in his carry-on luggage! Rewind just a bit - earlier that day at the Tower of London gift shop, he had bought a pewter coat of arms with two real crossed mini-swords that you could remove. Very cool. But also weapons. And yes, Jeff was trying to bring them on the plane. Not maliciously obviously, but just obliviously. It was awesome. He ended up losing the daggers and entertaining the security staff because they literally could not believe those were in his bag!
But back to waiting at the Departure Gate - about 20 minutes before departure, the gate staff start exchanging nervous, annoyed conversations. Turns out that EasyJet had a BAD day with their jets, and many of them are broken. Including the jet that was to arrive for us that we'd get on for Paris. We're instructed to go back to the departure lounge and wait for the electronic marquees to tell us more. So we all go back, grudgingly. And everyone is staring at the signs, whether you're at the cafe or the bar or just sitting in the chairs. And we wait. and wait some more. About an hour and a half goes by and all of a sudden our flight DISAPPEARS off the marquee. Doesn't say cancelled. Doesn't say delayed. Just gone! I decide to go walking back to the gate we had been at originally to talk to anyone/someone. A few others had the same idea, and we talk to one of the gate agents who says that the flight isn't cancelled - so don't worry - but they'll post more information on the screen as soon as they have it. So back to the departure lounge where everyone is now aware of the fact that our flight was eliminated - and this girl and I tell everyone what we heard. Over at the EasyJet counter, there's no information to be found there either, but we're told that we will get a drink voucher! woo hoo! So another hour and a half is spent waiting, and watching other delayed flights get gates and sadly, not ours. Eventually it gets past 11pm Paris time so that means the train into Paris option is gone. Then I start to worry - will our hotel reservation get cancelled because we didn't show up on Check-In day? So we try to find a phone number for our hotel - and there ISN'T one! At least not one found easily. We asked friends back home (literally who were at work at the time) to search the Internet for it - nothing. We called directory assistance - nothing except a fax number. So Stress #4 showed up (with Stress #3 being are we even going to Fly to Paris tonight?). Finally, FINALLY, our flight shows up on the signs at around 11:30 pm and we all high-tail it to the gate, where amazingly, we actually get on the jet and take off!
It's only an hour flight or so to get to Paris - and on the way in we saw the Eiffel Tower do its sparkle thing (you'll see more of that in the following pages) and realized, WOO HOO, we're in Paris! Like I said, the train option was now gone, so after processing through customs, we got in the long taxi line, which didn't really take that long after all. And 45 minutes or so later, through driving rain, our taxi driver dropped us off at a hotel in Paris! It was now about 2:30 in the morning so as we try to open the door, we discover it's locked. Fortunately the concierge lets us in and after his hellos, says that all his rooms are full and questions if we had reservations. Stress #4 was realized - our room was gone. We showed our reservation print out to the concierge and he starts laughing - we were at the wrong hotel. Fortunately, it was the same hotel chain, just the wrong branch. And our branch was just a block away! So we straggle over to the REAL hotel and check in - our room was ready for us and waiting! And after exclaiming how cool our room was, it was time to go to sleep! It had truly been a LONG day!