London, United Kingdom
Our journey started in Jolly Ol' England on June 19, 1998. I was the first to arrive in London having made separate travel arrangements from the rest of the gang. We all decided to meet up in London at the hostel or the airport. Half of us (Scott, Robert, and I) were coming from the US, and the other half (Byron, Debbie, and Russ) were coming from Germany where they have been living for 4 months.
London is a pretty cool place, especially if you're into British accents as much as I. Everyone here conveniently speaks English English. (Imagine that!) Anyway, I had a good time talking to the locals on my way from Gatwick to Heathrow to meet the gang. The excitement about the trip made me forget about my lack of sleep. It's only 9 am and I've been up for about 30 hours. (Those darned movies on the international flights!)
Anyway, a few words about London, which really needs no introduction. It's the capitol of the UK, and full of history. As we'll see later, every major European city has a river running through it, and London is no exception. The Thames flows roughly east/west through the city, and most of the tourist attractions sit near the river. You'll see the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, St. Paul's Cathedral, and of course, Parliament and Big Ben.
Another note about European cities. Public transportation far surpasses rental cars as the optimal means of getting around. There are no worries about finding parking (which is nearly impossible), driving on the wrong side of the road (which they do), and knowing all the traffic rules in a different country. Plus, it costs much less than renting a car, covers the city very well, and you get lots of exercise walking from sight to sight. (I'll present my theories on the apparent physical fitness of the European people later.) London's subway is called the Underground, or as the locals affectionately call it, the Tube.
Well enough babbling, here we go. Hang on to your hats and follow along on our adventure!
The first thing to do is to find our German friends (well, they aren't quite German, but they've been living there for a while). Here they are! Byron emerges from the Heathrow international arrival area. That's Debbie behind him, and Russ is just around the corner. We'll get to know the feeling of having those backpacks on our backs very well over the next four weeks, hopping from train station to train station, and from one youth hostel to another.
No rest for the wicked travelers (a common theme throughout our trip). As soon as we got settled in our hostel ("The Generator - the grooviest hostel in London"), we hit the trail to see the sights. First stop: Hyde Park. Here we are at the entrance to the park.
This double-decker London bus has bourgeois written all over it, literally. You also see one of those old London Taxis in the picture, as well as the red circle sign for the Tube. We learned to appreciate those signs since that's how we found our way after getting lost in the city. We managed to find our way to a showing of "Les Miserables" shortly after this, and enjoyed the good fortune of sitting in box seats for 8 pounds. What an incredible play. I wished we could have taken pictures in there. Anyway, it was a nice way to end the day.
We managed to sleep in a bit and rest up from the trip. The next day, Scott and Robert shuffled into the hostel, and off we go again to see the sights. We soon found out the Tower of London isn't. It's more of a full-sized castle. Here we see a stiff, well-armed palace guard with a fuzzy hat and an automatic rifle. We'll pass on making fun of this guard, and find a less well armed one to pick on... The queue behind him is all the tourists trying to get into the jewel house where all the crown jewels are kept.
A cannon next to the armory. An interesting side story about the black birds sitting on top of the cannon. A few minutes later, we watched with disgust as one of these huge birds parked himself on top of a trash can, pulled up the trash liner with its beak and feet a little at a time, dipped deep into the trash bag, pulled out a fully loaded diaper, and then methodically disassembled the diaper piece by piece. Yuck! But a pretty talented bird. (Whose head is that in the picture?)
There was some dispute as to the official name of the bridge you see here. After some research, I've confirmed that this is the "Tower Bridge," which I guess takes its name from the Tower of London next to it. Here's Scott in his pre-beard stage (we had a no shaving pact on this trip) in front of the bridge and the Thames.
After the Tower of London, we took a boat tour down the Thames. Here's a riverfront view of the British Parliament building. Wow! Look at all those spires on top. You can see Big Ben next to the cranes. Actually, Big Ben is only the name of the clock, and not of the whole tower as most people think. (Hey down in front! There's that head getting into my pictures again.) Near the Parliament building are the Westminster Abby (which was closed, bummer), and Trafalgar Square.
The next morning, we went to check out the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. It was a pretty hot day, and we couldn't see much through the crowds and fence, but we had to go see it. Anyway, here are the guards a-changing.
Scott and I in front of the entrance to Buckingham Palace. Nice grass area, and a pretty gold statue in the background. Hey does anyone have a frisbee? (But of course, Russ the ultimate player comes through.) How often do you get to play frisbee on the lawn of Buckingham Palace?! Actually, the frisbee came in handy many times during our trip. (By the way, I'm NOT adjusting myself! I just had my hand in my pocket.)
Back at the bar in the Generator after a night of frolicking around Covent Gardens and seeing the play Cats. Met a couple of Canadian girls in the bar (what are their names again Scott?) Robert (also in his prebeard stage), let's see who can piss them off the most by calling Canada the 51st state...
Well, Scott's sleepless night pays off. He scores a 2nd row seat in Centre Court on the opening day of Wimbledon, and manages to get on worldwide TV a couple of times! Here's the defending champion, Pete Sampras, preparing to return a serve from Dominik Hrbaty whom Pete promptly dismantled on the court that day. Hey Pete, that ref is checking out your butt!
Hey Byron, how 'bout that bus to Paris! Where's that bus to Paris?! Who'd think you can take a bus to Paris? Well here I am on the ferry across the English Channel. Man, is it me or is it freezing out here? Quick, take a picture of the white cliffs of Dover and let's get inside where it's warm.