Friday, July 17, 2009

Vacation Part 1: London

So I've finally narrowed down my pictures to a manageable number and I thought I'd divide them up between our time in the greater London area and our time in Ireland. We arrived at London Heathrow at 9:30 in the morning after a long overnight flight from Houston. We spent the first day in a state of somnamublance, managing to rouse ourselves after a long afternoon nap just in time for dinner at Awana, a Malaysian restaurant near our hotel that was positively delicious.

After a good 10 hours sleep, we woke up feeling refreshed and ready to conquer London. Our first full day was split fairly evenly between the British Museum (a "must-see" by any standards) and shopping along Regency Street (which Dave was a great sport about). We started up at Oxford Circus and made our way down Regency to Piccadilly Circus. Of course, my first stop was Liberty:

Liberty's Tudor facade is matched only by its exquisite selection of very "of the moment" designers, both in fashion and in home decor. In fact, browsing through the store was a veritable "who's who" of trendy, ever-so-slightly under the radar designers. Highlights of the home accessories department included a wonderful selection of pieces by John Derian, Jonathan Adler, Marimekko, and Fornasetti. Of course, these are all items that you can buy here in the States but it was still a treat to browse such a well-curated selection. In addition to bringing in big name designers, Liberty has its own brand and its famed art deco in-house patterns (available on scarves, bags, bedding and more) are absolutely irresistible -- I left with a lovely makeup bag and peacock-inspired shams. I did a bit more browsing at home stores like Zara Home, Habitat, and The Conran Shop, the latter being by far the most impressive, but all of which are worth a drive by next time you're in London.

On Saturday we decided to venture outside London and hopped on a tour bus that took us to Windsor Castle, the Georgian town of Bath (also home to the famed Roman Baths) and Stonehenge. While rain threatened most of the day, we were thankfully spared. While I've visited all three of these sites before, I most enjoyed revisiting Windsor, which was even more glorious than I remembered thanks to its newly-renovated State Apartments (when last I visited, these rooms had been closed due to a tragic fire that seriously damaged this part of the Castle back in the mid-90s). The gardens and St. George's Chapel are also highlights.

Next up was Bath: a charming Georgian town in southwest England, not far from Wales. Built along the river Avon, the city itself is charming and would be an excellent destination for a long-weekend. Bath has long been a destination for wealthy Londoners looking to escape the city in the summer and it is where Jane Austen wrote many of her famous novels. Today, celebrities like Johnny Depp continue to retreat to the charming town.

Of course, the major tourist attraction to Bath (and the source of its name) are the Roman Baths, which is one of the best-preserved examples of their kind remaining in the world. As a Classics major in college, I have a particular interest in all things Roman, but I think they're of sufficient general interest to be worthy of a place on just about everyone's hit list.

Our final stop for our second day was Stonehenge, which Dave had been particularly keen on seeing (having seen it before in high school though, I could take it or leave it as it's definitely a "once you've seen it, you've seen it" type of site). The area around Stonehenge (known as the Salisbury plain) has a certain magical quality, and it's easy to see how the ancient Britons thought that the area had a special, religious importance. Of course, the throngs of tourists that now flock to the site daily certainly detract from this feeling, but despite the Japanese and American hoards, it's still worth the stop if you haven't been before.

On Sunday we decided to sleep in, but we still managed to spend the entire afternoon at one of my all-time favorite stops: The Tower of London. Between the engaging Beefeater tour guides, the Crown jewels (housed in the building above), the ravens, and just the incredible amount of important events (i.e., executions) that have gone on here, it's just a wonderful way to spend a day -- particularly one as glorious as we enjoyed that Sunday.

The White Tower is the oldest part of the Tower, dating back to William the Conqueror. Inside was a special exhibit on Henry VIII, whose coronation was in 1509, exactly 500 years ago this year. Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife, was executed "in the French fashion" (i.e., by a sword instead of an axe) just steps away from where I took the picture.

Dave and I on the ramparts, overlooking Tower Bridge.

Sunday evening we dined in Hyde Park and then walking from the park up to Buckingham Palace, which is just a 15 minute walk away in Green Park. Since the Queen was enjoying her holiday in Scotland while we were there, the flag flown above the palace is the Union Jack (when the Queen is in resident, her royal standard is flown instead).

The monument to Queen Victoria just opposite the Palace. I'm a huge fan of Queen V. and the size, scale and artistic merit of this monument makes it truly breathtaking in person.

On Monday we decided to spend our day in the city of Westminster. Our first stop was Parliament and Big Ben for a quick photo or two. Then we were off to Westminster Abbey, which rivals (and arguably surpasses) the Tower of London for its history and cultural importance.

This was my fourth time to visit Westminster and every time I see something different and learn something new. Just about all the great men and women of English history are buried here, from Edward the Confessor and Elizabeth I to Isaac Newton and Geoffrey Chaucer. In fact, there are so many people buried here that it takes great care to not constantly stumble over graves. I would imagine that worshipping here would feel rather like communing with the dead, many of whom are memorialized with lifelike statutes and portraits, which only heightens the sensation that you're sharing this space with another world.

This brief prayer is outside the exit to the Abbey, and has been a favorite of my family's since my first trip to London in 1996.

We then pressed on to St. Paul's Cathedral, which is an absolute architectural marvel. This is a shot from the very top of the Cathedral, which Dave took as I declined to take the last 300 or so steps from the Whispering Gallery to the top (the narrow, steep steps are a bit claustrophobic and I'd made the trek before). Our final stop that day was the Museum of London, a hidden gem among the more popular museums in the city. I highly recommend it as a great rainy day activity that won't be overly crowded.

Alas, we awoke on our last day in London to steady rain, which forced us to cancel our plans to visit Hampton Court (an impressive Tudor-era palace just outside London). Instead, we decided to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is dedicated to the decorative arts and includes just about everything from priceless blanc de Chine and Victorian silver serveware to exhibits on hats and fashion.

This picture of the pagoda-style bed is for my friend Beth of Chinoiserie Chic. Its size and detailing in person was magnificent and was the highlight of an impressive collection of 17th and 18th century Chinoiserie furniture and art.

The exhibit on Islamic art was one of my favorites. I was amazed at how modern 16th-century Ottoman pottery and tiles could look, but then again, a derivative of Moroccan style has been trendy in the design world for quite some time now. This gorgeous fireplace is huge, and absolutely stunning in person.

The entrance to the Victoria and Albert is as lovely as its many, many exhibits. I particularly love the modern, Venetian-inspired glass chandelier hanging in the rotunda. The contrast between new and old is striking and illustrative of the array of objects (which range from ancient Chinese to Victorian to modern, cutting-edge fashion) inside. [Update: You guys are spot-on: this gorgeous glass installation is by famed Seattle artist Dale Chihuly. Go HERE for more information on his exhibitation at the V&A where you can also download gorgeous desktop wallpapers and e-cards of pictures of his work.]

Dave will kill me for posting this picture (its admittedly not particularly flattering of him), but there are precious few pictures of us together, particularly in London. Our final stop on our last day was Trafalgar Square, where a chilly rain drove us indoors to the National Portrait Gallery, which has an amazing collection guessed it -- portraits, but its collection of Tudor portraits is my favorite.

Our final night in London was spent dining at the Boxwood Cafe, a restaurant operated by the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey and attached to the famed Berkeley Hotel. After a delicious meal, we retreated to The Berkeley's Blue Bar (pictured above) which was suggested to us by Beth and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. All in all, it was an excellent finish to a wonderful stay in London.

I'd also like to thank both Beth and Christy (from A Lil' Welsh Rarebit) on their excellent suggestions on what Dave and I should do, see and eat while in London. Your suggestions were spot-on and greatly appreciated, ladies!

Next up is Part 2: Ireland!


Joy said...

Wow! It looks like you had an amazing time! I can't wait to read about Ireland!

Dumbwit Tellher said...

Such fabulous pic's! You & Dave looked like two very happy travelers. I am so jealous you got to visit the Boxwood Cafe. I have a humongous crush on "potty mouth" Gordon Ramsay. The Blue Bar's interior is lovely. The chandelier @ the Victoria & Albert rotunda looks like Seattle's Dale Chihuly? In fact just googled & found out it is! Now if I travel to Bath I will be scouring for Mr. Depp;I wish! Cannot wait for Ireland. Happy weekend to you both Averill,

Christy said...

Wow - what a fabulous vacation recap. Sounds like you guys had a total blast. I have a picture of us in the exact same spot with the bridge in the background - it's one of my all time favorites. I'll have to post it so you can see how similar they are!

Can't wait to hear about Ireland - and I'm so glad you enjoyed yourselves. Also - LOVE the red hair you're sporting - so stylish and pretty!

Things That Inspire said...

My mother was born and raised in England (and always retained her British citizenship) and my father was raised in England (born in Texas, though!), so I truly feel like I am home when I am in England. I try to go at least every other year, since I still have family there.

It looks like you had a wonderful time! You covered a lot of ground. On your next visit, the Tate and the Tate Modern are wonderful. I also LOVE Blenheim Palace, which is in Oxfordshire and is one of the most beautiful palaces/stately homes I have ever seen.

Good call to scrap Hampton Court; I was there in the rain several years ago, and it is so much better to visit during decent weather, or at the very least, when it is not raining.

Oh, how I miss London...this is my 'off year'. I am trying to figure out when I will make it there next year. I have resolved that when all of my kids are in camp for a month (which won't be for a few years), I am going to spend the entire time in Paris and London.

Averill said...

TTI - I visited Blenheim on my last visit to London back in 2001 and I loved it! You're absolutely right that it's not to be missed.

I've been to the Tate Modern, too, and thoroughly enjoyed myself, but my husband absolutely HATES modern art, so for the sake of my sanity, I elected not to drag him through it.

Liz said...

What a breathtaking tour of the London area!! Your pictures and descriptions are magnificent and make me want to visit tomorrow. :) That glass chandelier at the Victoria & Albert - is it Dave Chihuly?

Sarah Klassen said...

I love the re-cap, Averill! These places make me want to pack my bags and visit :) You two look very cute traveling, and look like you're having a blast! Just like Deb, I thought the chandelier @ the Victoria & Albert rotunda looked like Seattle's Dale Chihuly. His work is incredible...and oh my, The Boxwood Cafe looks so chic!

Daniela said...

Looks like you guys had an amazing time on your trip. The glass sculpture hanging from the ceiling looks like it is done by Chihuly. He's a famous glass sculptor. Can't wait to see your pictures form Ireland!

Alicia said...

Glorious!!! Bravo to Dave as well for putting up with all the shopping as well. I was surprised no Tate but I see in your comment why. The glass sculpture was magnificent!! I'm wondering if its a Dale Chihuly piece. Love his work.
I can't wait for part two of this lovely respite. By the way Dave looks great in the photos as do you.

Averill said...

You ladies all are spot-on! It is indeed a Chihuly -- check out the V&A's microsite on the Chihuly exhibition (which is no longer there, though that amazing piece in the entrance is) at the V&A where you can download desktop wallpapers and e-cards featuring his work:

Sanity Fair said...

What a lovely trip Averill! You make me miss it. Glad you squeezed in the new State Apartments - they are really worth it (such a wonderful art collection!). The fire was a tragedy, but the new design is lovely.

Beth Connolly said...

Averill-What a great trip. Glad you enjoyed the Blue Bar. Love the Pagoda Bed of course.

Kara said...

I am jealous. Great photos - can't wait to see some more.

Kellie Collis said...

I am very jealous reading this lovely post! I must do a trip to Europe... So much amazing history and beauty

KJJ Houston said...

Thanks for sharing! I love that elongated chandelier....amazing!!! Looking forward to part deux!

Cristin // Simplified Bee said...

Looks like a wonderful trip. You even got a little sunshine while in London - amazing.

The chandelier is my favorite!


{oc cottage} said...

Oh you lucky girl!

m ^..^

Haven and Home said...

How wonderful!!!! I am glad you are having a great trip!

London hotels said...

You two look so cute. you sure conquered London Alright, but hey! what about Madame Tussauds and the London dungeon? well, i hope you'll visit there the next time you travel to London. you know, after all, it is a city to visit twice :)

Volker from Germany said...

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Kind regards

dining table said...

This post is so great. I can see that you are really having fun in your vacation in London. I can't wait to read the other part of your whole vacation day. I will wait for that.

Trpanj said...

London is the best place to visit. There are many different place in London that have importance in both point of view respectively in natural beauty & historically also

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