While the autumn “reading week” has become more and more scarce at universities back home, the French still make sure to enjoy some time off for vacation at the end of October, called les vacances de la Toussaint.
And so it was that I took advantage of this time off to venture out of l’Hexagone (a nickname for France) to head off to London! (And for the first time in my life, I can honestly say I was headed for London, UK instead of my hometown of London, Ontario). A friend of mine from Paris knew friends of his family living there, and as they generously offered to host us for several days, we couldn’t say no to the opportunity.
After a (seemingly neverending) overnight bus ride from Paris to London, we arrived early in the morning and wasted no time in grabbing coffees from the first open café we saw, Starbucks (I’m an awful tourist, I know), and headed off in the direction of Buckingham Palace to start off four days of sight-seeing.
The first day was a tough one after the bus ride there, but nevertheless, I was left elated to find myself in a city I had dreamed of going to for years. Looking back on it now, I cannot believe how much ground we covered before realizing how exhausted we were. After pounding the pavement by Piccadilly Circus, the Horse Guards Palace, Westminister Abbey and the Parliament, walking along the south bank of the Thames, over Waterloo Bridge, and into the Covent Garden market, we decided it was about time to finish the day with something fun, but less strenuous. We headed in the direction of the Marble Arch Odeon cinema to catch an evening showing of Skyfall, which was definitely an awesome way to finish off the first day (Not that I need to point out how good the new Bond film is!).
Tuesday began, as many of my regular Tuesdays do, with watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, among hundreds and hundreds of other tourists (kidding about the first thing, not about the second). Nonetheless, it was pretty fun to check out, even though it was nearly impossible to find a good vantage point. Fun fact: The bearskin-fur, 45cm- tall hats that the foot guards wear come from Canadian Brown bears, and weigh 1.5lbs. Before touring the city some more, we decided a hike through Hyde Park was in order. It was also around this time that I realized just how “French” this British metropolis was. The whole time we were there, we couldn’t escape hearing spoken French everywhere on the streets, in the cinema and stores, and everywhere else. While I at first attributed this to the fact that it was holidays in France and many folks must have done as we did, it also turns out that London is considered France’s sixth biggest city, meaning an estimated population of 300 000-400 000 French citizens residing in London. Pretty crazy. (Funnily enough though, the family with
whom we were staying was actually a couple wherein the man was English, the woman was French, and the children had grown up bilingually.)
As Tuesday (and Wednesday) went on, we continued our adventures through London, making sure to see all the places that were recommended by friends and our hosts. These included, but weren’t limited to (click the links for their web pages if interested!):
- The Royal Albert Hall, completed in 1871, it hosts over 350 events a year (mostly musical)
- Natural History Museum, home to about 70 million different items… and a large lineup, so no, we didn’t even try to go in.
- The Victoria and Albert Museum, right beside the NHM, but we didn’t head in to this one either.
- Harrods, an upscale department store, not unlike Canada’s luxury department store Holt Renfrew. I may or may not have bought something here (But it wasn’t for me, at least!)
- Camden Lock and marketplace, where I had to refrain myself from spending more money than I actually had.
- Trafalgar Square, where the Canadian High Commission is also located. Although this didn’t come as a surprise to me, knowing the location of our embassy in Paris (on Avenue Montaigne), it seems we like to be a bit “showy” on foreign territory.
- Brick Lane, one of my favourite corners of town, where we grabbed some breakfast at Café 1001 and had to tear ourselves away from the cool finds at the Blitz vintage shop.
- Tate Modern, one of the only museums we went into. The time we spent here was punctuated by a heated debate on what constitutes or qualifies as art (feel free to comment below!), as there was both pieces that took my breath away, and pieces that made my eyes roll.
- National Portrait Gallery, which I found quite interesting, especially the portraits of past and present royals.
- The National Gallery, where my disappointment at not being allowed to take photos was melted by the collection. Despite the hordes of tourists, this was one of my favourites.
And so, Thursday was the last day in London. I always find that the last day of any “city vacation” is one of the best. By this point, you know the city and the sights well enough that you can do as you wish, at ease and while taking your time… especially if you’re not looking forward to another overnight bus ride including a part going through a stuffy, under-ventilated, underwater tunnel.
It was on the last day that we checked out the Saatchi contemporary art gallery, which included an exhibition by Karl Lagerfeld, and one by Montreal artist
Jon Rafman featuring his screenshots from Google Street View (believe me when I say it’s a different way of seeing the world). After enjoying some Pret à Manger in Sloane Square (the only part of the trip in which it rained, and the sun still shone brightly!), we headed off back through Piccadilly Square to have coffee in St James Park (and watch a myriad of birds being fed by passersby) and then walked down to the Thames one last time before heading back for a final dinner with our hosts.
All in all, London was an incredible experience, and one that I’d definitely like to repeat in the future whether this year
or sometime further dow the line. I feel like I may have over-compared the Swinging City and the City of Lights while I was there (at least in the opinion of my French friend), but it was quite a different environment than what I’ve been used to for the past few months. And as our French hostess pointed out to me while telling me the story of how she fell in love with London and left her native Paris, there’s always a lot to discover in such a cosmopolitan, culturally-rich, and very friendly city.
Once more, for more photos you can check out my tumblr account at nonexistentnotebook.tumblr.com.
Stay tuned in the next few days for some more Random Rambles, and more notes on London!
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*All photos in this blog post are my own. Please source appropriately if you would like to use them.