Monday, September 07, 2009

London, Day Four

On our way out of the hotel today it began to drizzle for the very first time since we arrived on the island. We were all caught without umbrellas, having been lulled into a false sense of security by the days of fine weather. This gray, dreary mist is what I remember best about the weather in England, so it was nice of it to make an appearance, but it was gone almost as soon as it came, giving us a clear view of Buckingham as we walked up the Mall.

The front gate of Buckingham is what almost everyone sees when they visit, and it’s the only part of the palace that I’d ever seen before as a tourist.

The famous changing of the guard ceremony usually takes place in the large square out front, though we wouldn’t catch it today. I’d seen it before, however, and it’s certainly a sight to behold; the Queen’s Guard, mounted and on foot, marches in from the Mall (the same path we took from our hotel) to the Palace courtyard, and for a few moments you feel like you’re awash in giant fluffy black hats (purportedly made of bear fur?!) and red coats, the most distinctive elements of the guardsmen’s uniforms. This isn’t our picture, but for example:

Instead of hanging around at the front gates, however, we took just a quick look at Buckingham’s beautiful white façade and then walked around to the southern end of the palace, where the Palace staff was allowing the first visitors of the day into the Queen’s Gallery. The Gallery is a collection of some of the most stunning display items that the monarchy has collected over the years, most of which were gifts of state from foreign powers. We couldn’t take pictures inside, but the Gallery is kind enough to publish photos of its treasures online.

The objects ranged from fine 18th and 19th century furnishings…

… to arms and armor…

… to beautiful porcelain vases from the French royal factory at Sèvres. These last were well-known for their glaze, which is an incredibly vivid hue of deep, cobalt blue, and were each and every one decorated with detail on the scale of millimeters.

One of my other favorites from the collection was a diamond-encrusted sword which looked as if it could cut you as easily by grasping the hilt as by being struck by the blade. Another set of items that you can’t help but notice are the brooch made from strawberry-sized pieces of the Cullinan Diamond, at 3,000 carats the largest rough diamond ever found.

Its larger companions can be found at the Tower of London in the crown jewels collection – those weigh in at 530 and 310 carats. All in all, you can really only come out of the Queen’s Gallery with one overriding impression: good lord, the Queen is rich!

From the Queen’s Gallery we made our way over to the official State Room tour of the Palace, which walked us through the path that innumerable princes, presidents, and prime ministers have walked in the past. Pictures were not allowed, of course, and this was one place where we really didn’t feel comfortable taking illegal photos. Still, here’s one of the rooms from the official website to give you an idea:

But the memories alone of this place are enough: I was completely overwhelmed at the pomp and circumstance of an active palace. Each room was not just a beautiful shell, but were rather intimately decorated, sometimes going so far as maintaining fresh flowers on the tables. I can’t say it actually felt “lived in,” perhaps because the tour moved so much like it would at a museum, but it felt more alive and impressive than any state residence I’d ever seen, with perhaps the exception of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna regarding the “impressive” part. I’m looking forward to Versailles, however, to see how it compares.

After a quick walk through the palace gardens (which were little more than a pretty forest, albeit impressive for being located in the heart of London) and the Queen’s Mews (stables), we decided to continue our tour of venerated old British landmarks, and so we took a walk to nearby Westminster Abbey, just a mile or so from the palace. It was my third time at Westminster Abbey, and I’m a bit surprised to say that it was just as enthralling as the first.

The place is impressive enough architecturally, with its high gothic ceilings and bright white profile, but inside there are innumerable graves and monuments to Britain’s finest, including Dickens, Newton, Darwin, etc., not to mention nearly all its kings and queens, including Elizabeth I and Richard the Lionheart. Jeremy Irons was kind enough to narrate our tour through our headphones, a reminder of just how much the Brits still treasure the place.

The British seem to have such a flair for doing things on the fly, and even though there isn’t a shred of continuity in the whole place, it always seems like it’s done in just the right way. Whereas even Buckingham Palace couldn’t be described as “lived in” (even though she actually does live there!), and I’ve never used the phrase to describe a famous cathedral, that’s the sort of feeling I get whenever I step inside the threshold of the Abbey. It’s as if you’ve stopped by Great Britain’s apartment before they’ve had a chance to clean up or move things around, and they’re caught looking just like they are: proud and brilliant and more than a little bit eccentric.

Val and I broke off from Rob and Diane at this point for a little while so that they could take the Underground down to Greenwich, home of the prime meridian and the utterly arbitrary line between the two hemispheres. It’s an interesting place, home to the Royal Observatory and the Royal Maritime Museum, and also a fantastic spot for a photo op, as it’s possible to stand with one foot in each hemisphere, as Diane and Rob will demonstrate:

Nicely done, guys.

Meanwhile, Val and I wandered up through St. James Park, which lines the Mall leading up toe Buckingham. We stopped for just a moment to rest, at which point I caught Val looking very regal on her tree stump:

St. James is home to a waterfowl preserve, including pelicans, herons, and several varieties of ducks and geese that I’ve never seen before. There is also a certain little bridge that spans one of the park’s creeks where you can get a view of London that somehow looks like it’s out of a fairy tale:

It’s still not clear to me how they managed to line up those buildings just so, but the effect is fantastic.

Our afternoon was spent in the National Gallery, which is located just across Trafalgar Square from our hotel. Whereas the Tate houses most of Britain’s modern art, the National Gallery is its storehouse for older treasures, including lots of Titians, a number of Dutch artists (some of whom, like Rembrandt and Van Dyck, are among my favorite painters), and some very famous works by Van Gogh that I’ve seen many times before, including his “Sunflowers.”

Many of the works in the Gallery were portraits, and I was struck by the differences in quality between artists; in some cases, it was as if they’d been painting by number, but in other cases (for instance, with Rembrandt), you feel as though you’ve gotten to know the person staring back at you after just a few moments. And the execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche (with whom I’m unfamiliar) was so poignant and evocative I was actually stopped in my tracks. According to the Gallery’s website, Lady Jane Grey was “Queen of England for just 9 days until she was driven from the throne and sent to the Tower of London to be executed.”

You can’t help but feel sympathy for her: in the painting, she is reaching out unsteadily with her hand, innocent and confused. That’s probably not too far off, either; history seems to regard her as a political pawn with powerful enemies whose claim to the throne was always tenuous.

We didn’t have much time in the Gallery, so being the savvy travelers that we are (and relying heavily on our Let’s Go travel guide), we used the museum’s trip planner to catch the major works before we left to meet Rob and Diane. As we walked out of the museum, we caught a glimpse of a statute we’d been looking for: George Washington himself, magnanimously displayed by the British in the furthest corner of their favorite square. It’s said that they had to import American soil on which to plant him because he’d refused ever to set foot on British soil again.

We closed out our evening with a dinner at Café in the Crypt, an underground restaurant housed in the crypt of “St. Martin in the Fields,” a church also bordering Trafalgar Square. After that, apparently determined to spend at least a quarter of this trip underground, we meandered over to Gordon’s Wine Bar, a cramped, cool, basement-level bar which used to be – yes, you guessed it – a crypt. It was definitely nothing I’d experienced before, but I have to admit: the ambience was fantastic, despite our feeling a bit cramped.

We emerged from the bar at into the throng of Brits who’d just been expelled from pubs, all of which close at precisely 11pm. Just outside our bar, while several of us used the bathroom, we noticed a woman was sitting on the sidewalk with her back up against the building, searching for something in her purse. She wouldn’t have been remarkable, except that she was apparently so drunk that her search had become an odyssey lasting ten minutes or more. Most purses not of the Harry Potter world should probably be searchable within a minute or so.

Back at the hotel, we took a few moments to catch our breath (and watch a bizarre British game show whose sole purpose appeared to be ripping off gullible callers) and prepare for another long day ahead. The Tower of London awaits in the morning followed by the grandiose St. Paul’s Cathedral in the afternoon. I’m glad for the sleep; because of our day out we’re running at breakneck speed to see everything we want to, but it’s been worth every step.


At 11:36 AM, Blogger * Valerie * said...

We spent a lot of time underground on this trip.


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