London and Paris are two of Bill’s and my favorite destinations. How could they not be? Both cities are uniquely beautiful and enchanting, and have much in common: they exude a vibrancy that belies their ages, revere their storied histories, are architecturally significant, straddle winding rivers, cultivate relaxing and rejuvenating green spaces, possess internationally acclaimed food, wine, fashion and art scenes, and welcome travelers.
We thought that Bill’s mom, Ann, needed to experience their charm as well, so we’ve embarked on an extended trip to show her some of the highlights of these European capitals. We’ve rented apartments in both cities via airbnb, our favorite property rental website. We landed in Paris and immediately took the train from Gare du Nord to London through the Channel Tunnel, aka the Chunnel. Our first home base is a flat in Chelsea, rented by our hospitable hosts, Rodrigo and Kim de Santiago.
To introduce Ann to London and give her a broad look at key sites, we hired a private car through British Tours, the longest-established service in Britain, for a seven-hour car tour of general London. Lovett, our informative and personable driver and guide, was a former drama director and producer for the BBC. He set the stage with some historical background.
London, Lovett said, once was made up of two cities. The Romans conquered the original City of London, walled it, and occupied it from about 40 A.D. to 400 A.D. The City of Westminster (minster meaning church) was the seat of the clerical side of government. Over the centuries, the gap between the two cities filled in. Years ago, London was a filthy, noisy, smelly place with open sewers and buildings darkened from burning coal – horrendous by modern standards.
Those days are long gone. The city is clean and green — 40% is made up of green space — and tourism and banking reign as the two largest industries.
We drove past many of the famous sites, stopping at several for more up-close-and-personal looks. Too bad they don’t allow photography inside many of the buildings.
Kensington Palace — This royal residence is home of Prince William and Duchess Kate, as well as Prince Harry. The palace was the residence of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and she continued to live here after her divorce.
Hyde Park — One of London’s eight royal parks, this 350-acre oasis is home to the relatively new Memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales. The water in this fountain cascades, swirls and bubbles until it settles in a calm pool, meant to represent her life. Another feature is the statue Queen Victoria erected to her husband, Prince Albert.
Changing the Guard — This 300-year old ceremony involves a new guard exchanging duty with the old guard. The Queen’s Guard guards both Buckingham Palace, the sovereign’s official residence in London, and St. James’s Palace, built by Henry VIII. The soldiers began wearing the tall bearskin hats to appear larger in battle. A band accompanies them, and the music is lively and the color is brilliant. The crowds were huge, but Lovett knew exactly where we should stand for the best view.
Westminster Abbey — Founded in 960, the present Gothic church (two other churches had been on this site) was built in 1245. It’s been the coronation church since 1066, and the coronation chair is on display. Given the chair’s importance, it’s surprisingly plain in appearance. More than 3,000 people are buried inside the church and cloisters — kings, queens, statesmen, authors (Dickens), poets, musicians (Handel) and more.
Parliament — The site dates back to the Middle Ages and possibly to Roman times, and was later transformed from a royal residence to today’s houses of government (House of Commons and House of Lords). The building is also called the Palace of Westminster. Queen Elizabeth comes once a year for the state opening. Elizabeth Tower houses the Great Clock and Big Ben, which is actually the name of the Great Bell.
Trafalgar Square — This open square, which commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, is home to the National Gallery and Nelson’s Column and statue. The column’s height replicates the height of the tallest mast on Lord Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory.
St. Paul’s Cathedral — Recognized by its vast dome, this Christopher Wren-designed church held its first service in 1697, and the dome was completed in 1710. Several previous houses of worship, the first in 604, were destroyed by fire and rebuilt.
Tower Bridge — This suspension bridge across the Thames River takes its name from the nearby Tower of London.
Tower of London — Built by William the Conqueror beginning in 1080, this site has been a fortress, palace and prison. Chief among the things to see are the crown jewels, the priceless and enduring symbols of royal authority. The Yeoman Warders stand guard and give tours. The other “guardians” are the seven ravens (six plus a spare). Legend says the kingdom will fall if the ravens leave the tower, so, for insurance, one side of their wings is clipped.
On the drive home, Lovett pointed out Mick Jagger’s home — now that was a complete tour.
The next day we rode the train to nearby Windsor to tour Windsor Castle. Queen Elizabeth was in residence here, the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world, for the Easter holiday. We walked through the magnificent State Apartments, where the Queen and other members of the royal family receive and entertain visitors. We also visited St. George’s Chapel, a fine example of Gothic architecture, and the burial site of Henry VIII and the Queen’s parents.
What a memorable look at iconic London.