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Our last full day in London was to be a very wet one, start to finish. We’d actually been pretty lucky with the weather– mostly sunny days and temperatures slightly above the norm for this time of year. There was no way we were going to let a little rain dampen our spirits. We grabbed an umbrella and headed out for another busy day.
The Monument to the Great Fire of London is the world’s tallest isolated stone column. It is most commonly referred to as The Monument. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it stands to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666. It’s hard to get a perspective of its size in a picture– so consider that there are 311 steps that go up to a viewing platform at the top.
One of the interesting things we found online before our trip was the Sky Garden in the Walkie Talkie building, 20 Fenchurch Street.
The building itself, nicknamed for its unusual shape, is considered by many as “the worst building” in the U.K. Completed in 2014, it has 34 floors, the top three made up of the Sky Garden, bars and restaurants.
The Sky Garden is London’s highest public garden and it offers an uninterrupted, 360 degree view of London. It’s free to visit but tickets are required. It’s highly recommended you reserve them in advance because it is frequently filled.
In spite of the cloudy skies and rain-spattered windows, the views were spectacular. There is an open air observation deck on one side, with rest of the views through large panes of glass.
It started raining again so we took the Tube as close as we could, to our matinee performance of Les Miserables. Why Les Miz? Yes, we’ve seen many professional productions– in NYC and on tour. Maybe even a dozen. BUT we’d never seen it in London– where it all began. AND it’s Michael’s favorite musical.
Les Miserables has been running continuously in London for nearly 32 years! One fact you may not know, is that the events in the show, occur around the June Rebellion (or The Paris Uprising of 1832) NOT the French Revolution (1789-1799) as many people believe.
At intermission, we both commented that we thought is was way to fast! Now, when Michael agrees that something is too fast– it’s too fast. When we see shows, he’s always saying they could pick up the tempo. Sure, a performance differs from one to the next– but this, apparently, wasn’t a fluke. A friend who saw it two years ago asked if they were still speeding though it.
I found the differences in staging from the original Broadway production interesting. (I’m assuming this is still the original staging.) Some things worked better than others and I could also see why some were changed. All in all, in spite of the pace, we still enjoyed it.
It was pouring rain after the show. We headed over to the Savoy Theatre and picked up our tickets, hoping to find a place for dinner nearby. While we were there, we went in the Savoy (Hotel) to check out the lobby.
We found a place across the street for dinner– appropriately called Eat. We did.
And, yes, still raining.
Our last show this visit– and another one of the reasons we came to London: the musical Dreamgirls.
A little backstory is necessary. We saw Amber Riley (Glee) was starring in the London production and really wanted to see it. I went to order tickets, front and center, and I had the option of getting the same seats with something called ‘blue box’ for the same price. This said it included a drink and snack. Okay… same price… why not? The tickets were about 80 pounds or $102 USD. At New York ticket prices, it would have been a minimum of $149– probably over $200 because these would be considered ‘premium seats’ — without a ‘blue box’.
I purchase the tickets. Done. Then get a message (after they were paid for, no refunds) that Amber Riley doesn’t perform all the Wednesday night shows! Not happy. Then the show opened in London, won a number of Oliver Awards, including Best Actress (Riley) — so we just kept our fingers crossed. Maybe we’d get lucky.
We get back to the theatre for the show… soaking wet from the rain and they held us at the door. No, clue what was going on. Then the usher tells us we’ve been upgraded to ‘red box’. Huh? We waited until they escorted us to a private lounge where we were given drinks and snacks until we would be escorted to our seats just before the lights went down.
At the busiest point, there were only eleven people in the lounge and we had two servers. They also held our wet things in a private coat check until after the show.
So why the VIP treatment? No clue! We just kept our fingers crossed that the good luck would continue and Amber Riley would walk out on that stage. Our hostess told us they’d meet us at the interval and bring us back to the Ambassador Lounge for drinks– this was just way too cool.
We took our seats– and I think we both held our breath until Effie walked out on that stage. Exhale. Amber Riley was performing!
All I can say is WOW! Everything about the show was perfect. It was beautiful to look at, full of power and emotion– and every single cast member was amazing. Problems we’ve seen in past productions with pace and flow were nonexistent. Riley stopped the show with And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going and Listen (added to this production from the movie) with her costar during the later.
It was magic.
This Dreamgirls will definitely never leave me.
Sometimes the stars align and everything is right.
Tonight was simply beyond wonderful.
Travel Date: May 17, 2017 (Day Five) Wednesday
We started the day at the Tate Modern. This was the one day we’d pretty much scheduled out ahead of time, start to finish, knowing that later, we’d be spending eight and a half hours at the National Theatre. We chose to visit the Tate Modern this morning because of its close proximity to the theatre and we hadn’t explored the South Bank.
The Tate Modern hosts a large collection of international modern and contemporary art from 1900 to the present. I didn’t know until after our visit that the building itself was the former Bankside Power Station. This explains its unusual, cavernous design.
It was built by the architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, coincidentally, the grandson of architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott, who built the hotel we were staying in– St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott also designed the Waterloo bridge and the famous red telephone boxes.
The wide variety of artistic styles here, span from late Impressionism to modern sculpture and art in advertising. Overall, I found the museum quite stimulating and well conceived. Even though I find a lot of modern art not to my taste, there were many works and artists represented here for whom I have a great fondness.
We left the museum with plenty of time for an enjoyable walk along the Thames. There are many restaurants and shops along the South Bank and quiet little parks as well. This area of the embankment is known as The Queen’s Walk.
The rest of the day was spent at National Theatre’s production of the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Angels In America. The opportunity to see it was the catalyst that brought us to London (prior to our cruise) instead of NYC.
Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia on National Theme is Tony Kushner’s 1993 play in two parts, entitled Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. It’s an epic journey that explores AIDS and Homosexuality in 1980’s America.
The National Theatre’s production features impressive performances by Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey and Nathan Lane, among many others.
We were lucky enough to purchase excellent seats, in a combined event ticket, that included both parts presented in one day. The entire run of the production quickly sold out after going on sale.
Each part also had two intermissions. We had about a two hour break between parts one and part two for dinner, that we spent at a nice restaurant between the theatre and the London Eye. The actual run time, including intermissions (but not the dinner break), was just over eight and a half hours.
The production is incredible. The time flew by. Honestly, the experience is nearly impossible to describe. The revealing (or realization) of the Angel at the end of the first part was pretty ingenious — as frightening as it was beautiful.
I have to say that I cannot imagine seeing Millennium Approaches and Perestroika separately. They are so closely woven and dependent on each other in the scope of the entire piece. This is a historic work– it not only captures a dark moment in history– it is ground-breaking in its structure and form.
When we left the theatre, we entered the misty night air and walked across the Waterloo Bridge to the Tube. We couldn’t help stopping on the bridge and enjoy the wonderful night view of London.
Travel Date: May 16, 2017 (Day Four)
After a good night’s sleep and no noticeable jet lag, we had a quiet breakfast, then headed out for the day.
Our morning target was Kensington Palace and gardens. We already knew tickets for the palace, which included a special new exhibition, had been sold out for months.
Getting off the Tube we came upon Kensington Palace Gardens, which has been called “the most exclusive address in London” and is also known as “Billionaires Row”. There’s a guard house where you enter the street (and no photography allowed) which is lined with palatial mansions– many are the homes of foreign diplomats, or serve as foreign embassies. Prior to being renamed around 1870, the street was known as The Queen’s Road. It was the MI19 center, The London Cage, during World War II and the Cold War.
The beautiful tree-lined street was nearly silent under it’s shaded canopy.
This led us to the gardens of Kensington Palace. Not exactly sure where we were headed, we walked towards the palace, then around it, until we found the specific garden we were looking for.
I’d like to note that even if you aren’t touring it, you can still get surprisingly close to the palace, which also hosts a cafe that is open to the public. Last trip, we only saw Kensington from across the green of Hyde Park.
We passed the visitor’s entrance and came upon a maze-like path that wound us around to the Sunken Garden.
Our particular interest was that the garden has been transformed into the White Garden, in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. This was one of Diana’s favorite spots and it has been filled with many of her favorite flowers to mark the occasion.
The White Garden will be open to the public through the summer of 2017.
The Kensington Gardens, covering 242 acres are adjacent to Hyde Park, though crossing over from one to the other goes unnoticed.
We’d visited the other formal gardens on the last visit, so this time we set out in a new direction, down The Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk.
As quiet and peaceful as it was, everywhere you looked you’d see joggers, sunbathers, people enjoying family picnics and walking their dogs.
We reached the Long River and in addition to the beautiful swans, we had a great view of artist Henry Moore’s The Arch positioned on the north bank of the river.
We were soon following the Serpentine River, finding many people out boating and even swimming in a public recreation area.
We had successfully walked the entire length of Hyde Park, reaching the Marble Arch. John Nash, designed the arch as the official state entrance to Buckingham Palace in 1827. The design was partially based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. After years of problems preventing it’s completion, it was finished quickly in time for Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne in 1937. But as Queen Victoria’s court and family quickly grew, it became necessary to build on to the palace, forcing the removal of the arch. It was moved to it’s current location at Cumberland Gate, the northeast corner of Hyde Park, completed in 1851.
If all we’d seen wasn’t enough, our day was just beginning, so to speak. It was just early afternoon and we still had two theatrical performances to attend.
School of Rock is a feel-good show for the entire family. A musical stage adaptation of the 2003 film, that starred Jack Black– it stays true to its source. (Michael and I actually just saw the movie again, shortly before our trip.) The show relies heavily on character stereotypes but that works well for this type of show.
This is an Andrew Lloyd Webber production and his theatrical roots have been based in shows with gimmicks. School of Rock’s gimmick is that all the younger performers actually play their own instruments on stage– something the production doesn’t let you forget.
We both really enjoyed it. It’s lively, uplifting– and just plain fun, with a positive message. It also made me ask the question again: Why are young British performers uniformly better than their American counterparts?
We had one of those frequent London come-and-go rains while we were in the matinee. The streets were wet and glistening as the sun quickly returned to brighten the afternoon. We headed over to Piccadilly Circus and picked up the tickets for our evening performance.
We decided not to eat until after the evening show and spent the little bit of time we had– people-watching and enjoying the street performers scattered around Piccadilly Circus. Michael became particularly captivated by one performer that required audience participation for his act. It was a pretty simple and clever concept– he stood frozen until someone dropped a coin or two in his box and then he would come to life, taking his benefactor and posing them in a variety of positions. He would then add himself to the ‘picture’ with some amusing results.
Here’s Michael becoming part of the act:
The Comedy About A Bank Robbery. It’s hard for me to put into words how impressed I am by the creativity and ingenious work done by the Mischief Theatre Company. We saw and loved their production, The Play That Goes Wrong, last September and were excited to see what else they could do.
Going in, I honestly didn’t think I could have been more impressed than I had been with their last one. Minutes after the lights dimmed, I was proven wrong. By the time we reached the interval (intermission), I had absolutely no idea how they were going to get back to the base premise of the show. Hysterically funny, brilliant and thoroughly entertaining!
If you love British farce, slapstick comedy and really creative word play. See this show!
We’d walked over 8 miles today, enjoyed some of the best parks and shows London has to offer. We couldn’t have asked for a better day!
Travel Date: May 14, 2017 Sunday (Day Two)
According to schedule, we landed at Heathrow at 8:30 am and breezed through Customs/Immigration. We had arranged a car service to meet us and whisk us off to our London home away from home, the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. We loved it so much last September, we didn’t even have to think twice about staying here again. The added bonus (this trip) was that they have VIP service to walk you through customs and get you boarded on the EuroStar train we were taking to Paris at the end of our stay.
We pre-checked in and dropped our bags, then had a quick knosh in the Chambers Club before hitting the street for the day. (We knew ahead of time our room wouldn’t be ready.) With tickets to two shows, we figured we wouldn’t actually get into our room until late that night.
We’d made a short list of things we wanted to see in London this trip. Since we were just here last September, we’d gotten the touristy- thing out of the way and felt no rush to cram in a bunch of sites. Plus, with our heavy show schedule, we figured we’d just try and do one thing a day and keep things simple and relaxed.
We didn’t get to spend any time in Trafalgar Square last trip, so that’s where we headed first. The large public area, formerly known as Charing Cross, was named after the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar and is anchored by the prominent Nelson’s Column surrounded by statues and fountains.
The National Gallery is located on the square, but being a Saturday, the lines were quite long so we didn’t try to go in.
There were plenty of artists and street performers entertaining the large crowds of people enjoying the weekend. The wind started to pick up and dark clouds started rolling in suggesting we might be in for a downpour.
After a bit of people watching, we headed to the far end of the square, towards St. Martin in-the-Fields church and the National Portrait Gallery around the corner.
After watching The Crown recently, I found out the sketches for Graham Sutherland’s commissioned painting of Winston Churchill were on display at the National Portrait Gallery. (Churchill hated the painting, that was commissioned as gift to him– and his wife had the painting destroyed.) What I neglected to find out was the room in which they are displayed is closed for renovation. Maybe on a future visit.
After exploring the neighborhood a bit more, we returned to Trafalgar Square to relax, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city until we needed to head to our matinee show.
Half a Sixpence. Our first show was a matinee performance of the musical, Half A Sixpence. The romantic comedy was originally produced in 1963 (in London) starring Tommy Steele and moved to Broadway (with Steele) in 1965. I saw the 1967 film version many years ago and remembered it as being a lot of fun.
We weren’t disappointed. We both enjoyed this “poor man- inherits fortune- loses fortune- gets the girl” story, thanks to the energetic and extremely talented cast. Charlie Stemp would have made Tommy Steele proud. It was a great start to our London theatre experience.
The threat of rain gone, the dark clouds had been replaced with sun and beautiful blue skies. We ventured over near Buckingham Palace and revisited the Wellington Arch. It was nice to be able to take our time enjoying the nice spring weather, leisurely, making our way to the theatre nearby.
We had plenty of time for dinner after picking up our show tickets, so we chose to eat at The Other Naughty Piglet. The restaurant boasts a seasonal menu of small plate offerings. Let me just say– the food here is art. The ham croquettes were to die for! For a place that appears so casual and unpretentious– the food is a culinary masterpiece. I’m no foodie and I seldom write much about our meals. This should be an indication of how impressed I was.
Whisper House. Our evening performance was Duncan Sheik’s Whisper House at The Other Palace Theatre. Built where the Westminster Theatre stood until fire consumed it in 2002, it was named the St. James Theatre when is opened in 2012.
Andrew Lloyd Webber acquired it in 2016 and it was renamed The Other Palace. There are two smaller theatres in the complex (a 312 seat main stage and 12o seat studio space) which is now dedicated to developing new works.
When I saw Whisper House would be playing, I had to see it. I’m a huge fan of Sheik and his musical, Spring Awakening. I’d say Whisper House is more a play with music than a true musical. It’s basically a ghost story that takes place in a haunted lighthouse during World War II. The show was originally workshopped in San Diego in 2010 and it was co-written by Kyle Jarrow.
It seemed promising at the beginning. Visually, the show was gorgeous. The opening number “It’s Better To Be Dead” is both haunting and glorious. Much of the music is really good– but at as the show progressed, it (the show) seemed to be troubled on a number of levels. The cast seemed to struggle with the material and the stage chemistry between the actors/characters wasn’t always evident. Initially, it appeared that only the ghost characters would be singing the musical numbers as a commentary– but then later it seemed to hinder the show’s progression.
Director Adam Lenson fails to make this production his own. During one song, for no apparent reason, the cast began to physically express themselves (individually) in a way that directly mimicked Spring Awakening. So much for originality. I also felt that overall, the intensity was lacking, causing the show to drag. I didn’t hate it– with work I think there’s some real promise in this piece.
It had been a long day.
We headed back to the hotel to complete check in, unpack and get some sleep. Our heads hadn’t hit pillows since Thursday night (in the U.S.) and I’m surprised we weren’t even more exhausted.
It had been a great first day of vacation. We’d walked over seven miles today, even with taking the Tube. We were ready for some solid rest.
Travel Date: 5/13/17 Saturday (Day One)
What an adventure!
It’s hard to believe it’s over. A year of planning, researching, and of course, the hardest part– counting down the days. Before you know it– it’s come and gone.
Four days after returning home and I’m a bit jet lagged, my senses are still a little overwhelmed; but most of all, I’m happily content with having completed another whirlwind adventure.
In nineteen days, Michael and I managed to visit 16 cities in 3 countries, halfway around the world. We walked over 124 miles, sailed some of Europe’s most famous rivers, experienced the speed of the EuroRail and saw first hand, many historical landmarks that many Americans have only read about in books.
I thought I’d lead off my day-to-day blogging of our adventure with a brief overview.
What can you expect to glean from our adventures? Aside from our personal impressions of the experience itself– I might be able to dispel some of the myths, mysteries and misconceptions about travel and the places we visited.
What do Europeans think of America? Are Parisians really rude? How easy is it to get around a foreign city? How different is the European culture from that in America? What’s different about a river cruise compared with an ocean excursion? Are travel and sightseeing difficult abroad?
I invite you to join us as we explore London, Paris, Amsterdam and many places in between.
Tours and exploring on our own… food and wine… museums and parks… transportation… the locals… so much to see and do.
You might pick up some travel tips or benefit from our experiences. You might enjoy just going along for the ride. Curious?
Travel with us.
Saying goodbye to a city you’re visiting can be hard. Especially when you’ve had great experiences and stayed in a wonderful place.
This was my early morning– saying goodbye to St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Before breakfast, bags already packed, I walked through the hotel one last time.
I found myself back at the grand staircase. I had to walk all the way up and down it one last time.
Some London Takeaways
- Public transportation is a must in London. It’s much too big and spread out to walk. Walking neighborhoods, yes; but not if you are sightseeing all over the city.
- We purchased and used the London Pass. We probably just about broke even with what we saw using it and saved time not waiting in lines. I know we visited a few spots we wouldn’t have, had we not had it. If you are the type of traveler that wants to see as much as possible (in and out), it’s likely a good investment. If you are the type that prefers longer visits, especially at museums, for example– you are probably going to save money paying as you go.
- Travel Guides can be handy but for me, I found them unnecessary (practically useless) and it certainly wouldn’t have been practical to carry around the city. If you do your research online ahead of time– there’s no need to purchase/carry/take a book.
- Get a good GPS phone map (app) like Maps.Me to help you get around. I found it to be an invaluable tool and never had to stop and ask directions while using it.
- Safety was never a concern during our visit. Of course, you should always be cautious but I never felt I was in a dangerous or risky situation. I honestly felt safer in London than I did in my last Chicago overnight visit, 45 minutes from home. I bring this up because in Rick Steve’s London 2016, he overemphasizes the necessity of safety steps, to the point of fear mongering.
A few things I haven’t mentioned:
Traditional London Pubs, you know, with the old-style classic exteriors– are abundant. I always love sighting unique architecture. Another thing I noticed as we passed many restaurants– in London, creating a unique atmosphere and ambiance is not only important, it’s the norm. This can be said of many of the small retail shops as well. I mean, uniquely different. It appears British entrepreneurs have a better understanding of what will set themselves apart and draw in the clientele. American business owner should take notice.
Classic British Hearse. While we were on the HOHO Bus, we were passed by a funeral procession and it was interesting to see a British Hearse with large side windows and wreath rails. The coffin and the many floral tributes were in full display to all it passed. You hardly see this in America. The hearse windows are almost always tinted or curtained.
British Telephone Kiosks are alive and well. Often referred to as the Red Telephone Box ; there were many incarnations, with the most common ones (seen today) being the “K6”. We saw them all over London in Red, Green and Black. With the popularity of cell phones, many of the boxes are being re-purposed into WIFI, phone-charging and even work stations. The good news is that these icons aren’t going away.
My View of London
Looking back, I see London as an extremely friendly, warm and inviting city. It’s not at all what I had expected. I thought it would be more like downtown Chicago or NYC. It is full of neighborhood charm, while at the same time– steeped in massive amounts of culture and historic places of interest. As old as London is, it retains its historic appeal, yet feels comfortable and modern at the same time. It is busy– but not chaotic; and it is a quiet city, compared to many others I’ve visited.
This photo probably best embodies how I feel about/picture London in my head:
Off to Rome
Our car to Heathrow arrived early and we were there in a flash. I was so glad we weren’t hauling our luggage on the Tube again. The flight to Rome was on time and we had no issues at the airport or with our flight.
Our transportation and hotel had been arranged through Playbill Travel, so a car was waiting for us at the airport when we arrived in Rome.
Our driver didn’t take the most scenic route to the hotel. I was a little taken aback by the rundown, graffiti-covered buildings on the outskirts of the city. It got better the further in we got, finally arriving at the Westin Excelsior Hotel, a few blocks from the Borghese Gardens.
We arrived mid afternoon and had a short wait before our room was ready. The first thing I noticed when we arrived were the armed soldiers across the street. That was a little unnerving. Then I discovered the following day that we were next door to the American Embassy, which explained the added security.
While we waited for our room, we started looking to see what friends from past cruises had arrived. We knew our friends George and Mary had gotten there that morning– if we could only find them!
We checked in around 4 pm. –Our room was nice enough. — And we got settled in.
We went down to the Playbill Reception Desk, got our stuff and ran into a bunch of friends. After chatting for awhile, we decided to make things simple and have dinner in the hotel.
Eight of us met for dinner at the Doney, and enjoyed good food and conversation before retiring for the night. A big day tomorrow!