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London, Blown by the Wind—No Guidebooks, No Destinations, Plenty of Surprises

With three days to explore London on our way to Central Europe, we decided to let serendipity carry us through the city, as if we were leaves blown in the wind. Even though it was the first time for four of our group of five, we never consulted a guidebook—just maps of the city and the Underground (subway system).

Central London is much more mellow than I'd expect. A lot of car traffic, but with crosswalks and subterranean cross-overs, it's not hard—as long as you remember to look in the correct direction. To my amazement, it has little of the frenetic energy of New York, Paris, Amsterdam, or Athens. Plenty of crowds, but surprisingly calm.

We had a vague agenda, including the British Museum and the Tower of London. But none of us had any real attachment to any specific things, except that my daughter really wanted to see Speaker's Corner at Hyde Park—so we started there. The park is elegantly landscaped and much-used, a welcome oasis where we walked for several blocks before reaching our destination Only two speakers were standing on crates at Speakers' Corner: a liberal black Muslim and a man asking questions about the nature of life and God. And when a pair of police told the black he could only speak on a Sunday, the white speaker came over and informed them that it was every person's right as long as nobody was trying to sell anything.

After a short ride on a double-decker bus, we walked around in the Victoria Station/Buckingham Palace neighborhood, including a couple of streets with lovely old buildings. There were surprisingly many places for a cheap quick snack in the heart of this very expensive city, although nothing we saw looked particularly enticing.

Ethnically, London is very diverse, with particular concentration from the Indian subcontinent (including a lot of the government and corporate functionaries, i.e., British Airways and the Underground). But also many Muslims, blacks, and huge numbers of Italians. The neighborhood we're staying in, Rayners Lane, in Harrow, is dominated by Indian shops and restaurants, but apparently the main Indian neighborhoods are on the other side of the city entirely, in the East End.

Our second day started with a walk around Big Ben, the beautiful Parliament buildings, and a couple of hours walking through Westminster Abbey, full of tombstones of prominent Brits, including not just royalty but poets, actors, business people, and infant children of the upper class. The buildings are all very beautiful, and that area is packed with tourists. After stopping at a crepe stand not worthy of the name, we walked briefly along the south bank of the Thames, but were impressed only by the architecture. So we crossed to Trafalgar Square and took the Tube to Kensington High Street—a delightful hip neighborhood that looks a lot like Greenwich Village. Found the wonderful Patisserie Valerie, 27 Kensington Church Street, with great hot chocolate and "cream tea"—tea with a side of scones, clotted cream, and an assortment of jams each in its own little jar. Then through a street dominated by embassies, all very elegant, and out to Notting Hill, an artsier adjunct to the Kensington neighborhood. We all liked this area very much.

We took our host to dinner in her neighborhood, at a cheap and loud home-style Indian restaurant where the cooks work in plain sight. Excellent food.

The next morning, we had to move all our things to a B&B nearer Heathrow, since we had an absurdly early plane to Prague the next day. This gave us quite a late start, especially after just missing the every-half-hour commuter train to enormous Waterloo Station. So when we finally arrived at the Tower of London, it was already around 3.

If you have to pick one classic tourist attraction in London, the Tower is an excellent choice.

The Tower is a sprawling and picturesque complex, one of the larger castles I've toured, with many outbuildings, inner and outer walls with chambers, etc. Somewhat overpriced but worth a few hours (we stayed about three). Costumed interpreters tell stories about the history of the place, and signage is good (multilingual, with French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese on most of them, as well as English). Some of the outer walls offer great scenic views of the Thames, the castle grounds, the magnificent Tower Bridge, and the modern buildings nearby, including one shaped like an egg and another rather phallic office tower.

One of the most popular Tower exhibits is the Crown Jewels—but I found the exhibits about ordinary people and famous prisoners rather more appealing. We saw the suite where Sir Walter Raleigh lived during his years as a prisoner; he was allowed a garden, his family lived with him for some of the time, and his apartments filled the better part of two floors in one of the tower walls. The ancientness of the place lay heavy in the air; oldest parts date to William the Conqueror.

After a walk across the Tower Bridge (but not to the upper reaches, which seemed to be closed, or to the museum exhibits, since we'd had our fill), we caught a bus and then a train to Knightsbridge, a ritzy and teeming neighborhood that felt very much like Midtown Manhattan: fancy boutiques, a single, neighborhood-dominating large department store—Harrods, in a grand palace at least as big as Macy's and Gimbel's combined—and a bunch of interesting looking but very pricy ethnic restaurants. This area was quite crowded, and bustling, with a faster pace and more noise than other areas we've seen. It didn't hold much interest for us, though we found a wonderful looking old map store, on recommendation of an Internet acquaintance (on Beauchamp, just about two blocks past Harrod's). Unfortunately, we got there after closing time.

Since we'd liked it so much, we took a short ride back to Notting Hill, walked around Portobello Road until our feet were ready to explode (passing a house where Orwell had lived), then settled for a very nice Turkish dinner at Manzara, just off the tube stop, 224 Pembridge Road.

Our driver back to Heathrow, John from Ghana, has been in England 27 years but still has a strong African accent. He was extremely well-informed about political ecology, talked about the connections among water rights, Peace Crops volunteers (good for American's image), the Iraq war (bad for America's image), solar energy (something the US could bring to the African bush and make many friends, with low-cost solar for the masses), and that this would preserve forests, and thus avoid draught. A fascinating character to end our all-too-brief stay in this fascinating city.

Still, we did manage to cram in quite a bit, on the strength of nothing more than a tube map and a willingness to follow the wind. As for the British Museum? Or more off-the-beaten track amusements like the Freud Museum and Handel's house (also the home of Jimi Hendrix, interestingly enough)? Guess we'll just have to make another trip.

Please click here for another Global Travel Review article about the Tower of London

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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