Tuesday, 3 February 2015

London in a week

It's funny that I have an attitude towards Central London very similarly to what I have for Times Square- avoid at all costs.  Unlike Times Square though, once I am in Central, I realize it's actually kind of pleasant.

It's rather beautiful in its mesh of old and new, and being huge and sprawling means that tourist are not crowded so densely in a few areas, but spread out over a few miles.  Yes, there are tourist stopping erratically to take selfies every few steps when you hit a big monument, and people with cameras held up on sticks narrating videos while holding up the working masses on Oxford Street (whom I have so far successfully suppressed the urge to punch) and a few drunk party bikes holding up all manner of traffic, but for the most part, you can be in London and feel like people live there and work there, and with a little bit of an impatient pace, you can feel like you are part of that rather than just an observer.  

 It's a real treat for me to have guest in town to show around.  It's the only time I get to see the landmarks and check out what's going on around town.  Otherwise, I stay firmly south of the river, with occasional darts up to Dalston or Angel to meet up with friends and check out places to eat in more vibrant neighborhoods then what's around the flat (I only have the sort of fried chicken joints that indiscriminate drunks tend to frequent, and the bones of countless chickens are discarded along the sidewalks nightly).

Despite the January days being so brief, we hustled and got out of the house early every day, and the timing worked out well: instead of being dog-tired at the end of a long day, we were just moderately beat after a short one.

Besides, winter in London isn't nearly as cold and blustery on the east coast.  It's damp, and frequently grey and featureless, but it's only been icy a few times in the mornings so far, and nary a snowflake to be seen in years in the Southern part of the country.  It's good advice to dress warmly and expect rain, but it's no where near as terrible as it's made to seem, as the locals complain noisily at each drop of a degree on the thermometer.  But ah, green grass!  In January!  It makes things so much less bleak.

A couple things were new to me:  on the way from the Tube to the Tower of London, I happened to glance down and alleyway and spied something interesting, which ended up being a bit of the original Roman wall that surrounded the square mile of the city, now surrounded by hotels and large-scale construction projects, but somehow tucked away and preserved and infrequently noticed.

 The Tower itself is well worth a visit.  I hadn't been since I was first a visitor here in the early aughts,  it being the first castle I had ever had the pleasure of visiting on my first trans-Atlantic voyage.

It's a sprawling complex inside the walls, with lots of towers and odd rooms to explore, and a really hyped exhibit of the Crown Jewels where they plop you onto a moving walkway to spy, keeping the lines industriously moving.  

 It's well worth it to be taken around by a Yeoman.  These guides are funny and knowledgeable, and they get to live in private quarters onsite with their own private pub, and spin colorful dramatic yarns of residents past.  If you are going to be a tourist, then be a tourist!

For over 900 years, the white tower has been a famous landmark, revered and dreaded and the site of unjustly imprisonments and the executions of queens.  

Today, it's a working museum, with loads of military types trotting around with much ceremony.

 You also can't  eat well without stopping into Borough Market.  I like to take people there right before lunch with the thought to pick up ingredients for dinner, and have a good nosh while wandering around.  Cornish pastys, sausage rolls, goat gyros, fresh seafood paella, good crusty bread and oodles of fresh vegetables make this a place I can't afford to eat every day, but it's just fantastic when you have friends in town who aren't opposed to a little fat in their diet.  Even better to introduce them to a perfect Scotch egg.  It's standard pub fare here, but when it's done with a bit of love, it's really fantastic: a hard boiled egg (rid of its shell, of course) that is given a coating of sausage meat before being breaded and deep fried into a golden fatty mass of eggy goodness.  Like the standard bodega egg-on-roll breakfast sandwich in New York, these are as satisfying a gutbomb as any.

 I avoid the market on Saturdays though- it's just impossibly packed, and more people taking pictures of the artfully displayed produce, and very few actually seem to be supporting the vendors.  

The museums are the best attractions in winter, and people are always a bit in awe that they are all 100% free (well, except for exhibits, and those cost a mint) and you can just walk in off the street into the enormous turbine room at the Tate Modern.  Even if you don't really fancy modern art, it's still a site to see: a repurposed power plant, gutted outfitted with galleries and enormous bespoke exhibit spaces.

I've found that a week here will let you scrape the surface a bit: see the main sites, take in some museums and culture, learn to love (or hate) the local beers, sample a good curry and seek out some decent pub grub.  If you have the luxury of spending two weeks in London (you enviable thing!) you can spend more time exploring the sprawling parks and hidden crags of nature if the weather permits, and start to get a feel for how each neighborhood feels like an individual village that just happened to get swallowed into a giant metropolis.

 While it doesn't have the storied romance or beauty of Paris, I really do love it here.

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