Sunday, October 21, 2012

Running Around Reykjavik, London, Paris: The Travel Journal, Part I

It all started with a casual suggestion. You know when you’re having a lovely time with friends? You talk about big activities to do together, but most of the time these grand ideas fall by the wayside, until a few months later when you’re having dinner with them and someone mentions “Hey, whatever happened to our plan to do so-and-so?” Well, earlier this year I had one of those conversations with some friends after a great weekend trip to Chicago. “You know what? We should really go overseas together.” Can it really happen? Turns out it can.

There was a sale on Icelandair a few months ago, with flights from MSP to various European cities ranging from $600 -$900, round trip. I can’t remember exactly where I was when I decided to take the deal; I can, however, remember the adrenaline pumping as I clicked “confirm” on the purchase page and booked the trip for October 2012. Then, I texted my two friends, Danny and Margaret, my itinerary so we can all be on the same flight together. This was around May, so there was a bit of waiting for the actual trip. While it would’ve been easy to over-plan the trip – we did have a few months to do it – the three of us decided we weren’t going to hash out over every detail, because that’s not the type of vacation we wanted. True, we were going to pack two cities in seven days, but we also knew that living by the clock on a vacation would induce more stress than necessary. In hindsight, we could’ve benefited from being more mindful of our schedule (more on that later), but I’m glad that we didn’t bog down our itineraries with minutiae.

After a few months of calm, my excitement for the trip started to pick up a few weeks before the trip. I spent random nights sifting through travel blogs, looking for money-saving tidbits on transportation, admission tickets, etc. Travelzoo was a godsend, and government tourist sites are more useful than you think. And a week before the trip, I started packing. As anyone who’s packed for international travel knows, there are tough decisions you have to make. I was faced with the absurd dilemma of whether or not I should bring my sneakers. On the one hand, I could be completely comfortable walking around in my sneakers, because I knew there would be a ton of walking in London/Paris. On the other hand, it would mean I’d be in my sneakers ALL. THE TIME. In London and Paris. In the end, I thought I was making the right fashion decision, and nixed the sneakers. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Lesson learned: bring the damn sneakers. Or at least really comfortable, well-breathing shoes. More on that later.

Finally, after weeks of waiting, planning, and fidgeting, the day finally came. Friday, October 5th. With my checked luggage and two other bags on hand, I made my way to MSP Terminal 2, where I met up with my friends, had dinner at the only restaurant in the terminal (the only reason I don’t like flying out of T2), and at 7 PM flew a five and half hour flight to Reykjavik. Let the fun begin.

Day one: Reykjavik and London
Who knew Iceland was only 5+ hours away from Minneapolis? At this rate, you can probably be a weekender in Reykjavik…that is, if you wanted to spend your weekends in Reykjavik. We arrived in Keflavik airport before the sun rose, around 6 AM. The airport is beautiful; hardwood floors throughout, nice departure lounge, etc. We took the Flybus from the airport to downtown Reykjavik, and watched as the sun rose on the volcanic island. When we arrived at the city, we noticed that it was…quiet. We walked around for a mile or so, past nice houses and SUVs outfitted with off-roading tires, to a serene lake in the middle of the city. From there you can see the rows of houses and buildings dotting the city, but again not a single soul (save for one random biker). Finally, after grabbing a quick croissant and stumbling into an illy store, we found out from the store employee that people here don’t really come out until 10:30, 11 AM on the weekends. People don’t go out until after midnight to party, which explains why they wouldn’t want to wake up until after noon. To which my friend pointed out, this city was perfect for me. Finally, a place that doesn’t judge me for my offensively late sleeping habits.

Indeed, people started to come out around 10:30 AM, just as we were making our way to the Iceland Opera  House. It is a gorgeous architecture of glass and steel, with the inside as beautiful as its “honeycomb”-like exterior. Afterwards, we went to the tallest building in the city, which was a Lutheran church with an observation tower. From there, we had a 360-degree view of the city, which was breathtaking. The air was so fresh, the Atlantic Ocean so incredibly blue, and the city looked so quaint from hundreds of feet up, that it truly felt like looking at a postcard. There wasn’t a single bad shot that I could take on my camera from that viewpoint. It was the right way to end our short walking tour of the city. A city that struck me as a wee bit strange – it felt like everyone operated on a synchronized clock – yet mesmerizing.
View of Reykjavik from the Observation Tower

We arrived in London at night. After taking the Heathrow Connect (way cheaper than the Heathrow Express, and only 10 minutes longer) to Paddington Station, we had our first of many direction, um, challenges. Imagine, three friends lugging all their rolling bags down a cobbled alleyway, making the most ungodly noises through St. Mary’s Hospital (Fun fact #1: where Princes William and Harry were born), and finally coming out into a main street. Then, walking a few blocks down to see the main entrance of Paddington Station, and quickly realizing that had we just turned right when we got out the train, our walk would’ve been half the time and the pain. In the words of Homer Simpson: D’oh! But, we were too exhausted to care, so we just made our way to our apartment hotel on Gloucester Terrace, before going out for some food. Paddington is not a hotbed of London nightlife, so most restaurants were closed by midnight. We were limited to getting falafel and kebab from a tiny shop, which turned out to be very good. New way to eat chips (i.e. fries): vinegar, salt, and a garlic mayo so pungent I could still smell it in my breath, two weeks later. Right.

After a long 24 hours of traveling, walking around a cold and quiet city, and getting lost for the first time of many, we were pooped. Time to get some rest for our first full day in London.

Day Two: City of Westminster and Pub Crawl London
Buffer your time. I could not emphasize enough how important this travel tip is, especially if you’re traveling without the comforts of a data phone and google maps. Seriously, how did I function before the internet? While we had a pretty loose agenda for the week, Sunday was one of the few days we did have to be somewhere on time, as we wanted to do an 11 AM free walking tour. Alas, we did not anticipate how complicated it would be to get a travelcard, and by the time we were done, we knew we wouldn’t make the first tour. So, we decided to loll around Oxford Street until the 1 PM tour. Oxford Street reminded me a lot of Midtown Manhattan, particularly 5th Avenue, with your usual mid- to high-end stores. You also have brands we don’t see often (or at all) in the States, like Top Shop, Uniqlo, and Primark. Definitely a shopping haven, until you realize that the scarf for £15 is really more like $25. For that, I’m going to save my pounds and spend it on other stuff I can’t get in the US. Like an absolutely decadent Ben’s Cookie (a must; crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside. Drool). Or Strongbow on tap. Yup. It’s all about priorities.
The amazing Ben's Cookies on Oxford Street

Why do a tour bus, when you can ride on double-decker buses any time?

By 1 PM, we were running – yet again – to catch the free walking tour, which started by the Wellington Arch. There were a lot of people attending the tour from all over the world, including the two loveliest guys from LA, Mick and Tom. There was also an Irish guy, but I didn’t get his number. Damn. We even got into a big group hug with a group of university students who were on a scavenger hunt of some sort (we were: “Do a group hug with strangers”). The walking tour was led by Jo, a peppy British gal who took us mostly through royal landmarks in the City of Westminster. As it turns out, what is commonly thought of as “London” is all part of Greater London, and the City of London is the most ancient borough where the Tower of London is located. There’s actually no physical place called “London.” Mind blown.   

We started our walk from the edge of Hyde Park, through Constitution Road, and stopped in front of the Buckingham Palace. At this point, I thought I would be hyperventilating because, you know, it’s the freaking Palace. But I wasn’t as amazed as I thought I would be. It’s gorgeous and all, and the Victoria monument is beautiful, but much like the White House or the Disneyland castle, Buckingham just didn’t match what I’ve worked up in my mind. I guess I need to go inside to get the full effect, and apparently it isn’t that hard to do so by breaking in. Fun fact #2.  
Queen Victoria Memorial

Buckingham Palace

We also saw Clarence House and St. James’s Palace, both official royal residences. None of the royals were there, because their official flags weren’t hanging over the palaces. It was very busy in Trafalgar Square, and we saw some amusing goings-on as we took a break above the Churchill War Rooms. The Horse Guards Parade was a real treat, since it’s the only Olympic venue (beach volleyball!) that’s in a touristy part of London. After a few more yards of walking, we run into the Palace of Westminster, AKA Parliament, with the Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben hanging out on top ever so coolly. This one knocked me out. It was such a massive building – building seems an inadequate term – with its huge spires, tall towers, great sculptures, and sheer majesty. How I wish I could’ve seen it aglow at night. Definitely a to-do on my next trip to London. Across the street was an equally amazing structure, the Westminster Abbey. Of course, I was giddy as a high school girl because this was IT, you know? Where Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, where Isaac Newton is buried, and where William and Kate were married. How could I not be spazzing out? Freak out moment, checked.
Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben

Westminster Abbey: Spazz out, check.
 After the walking tour, we joined a few fellow tourists at Ye Olde Monk Exchange for some classic pub grub. I had some bangers and mash (“Would you like some bangers in the mouth? Oh I forgot here in the States you call it a sausage in the mouth."), which were quite delicious swimming in a broth of brown gravy. Pair that with Strongbow, all for £9, and we were happily sated. Because we had such a good time at the walking tour, we decided to go for the company’s pub crawl, which got us into four pubs and one club (plus drink specials) for only £12. Paid tours are everywhere in London, but this turned out to be a really great deal for us. Once again we ended up running to the first pub because I thought we had “enough time.” SMH. Thankfully, Brits are really helpful…at least the ones I asked for directions as my friends were looking at the map. That couple seriously saved our asses; because of them we made it to the first pub, Belushi’s, with minutes to spare. With a free shot and a sigh of relief, we made our way to the next pub, where a football game was winding down. It was exhilarating witnessing an actual footy game with true fans (I think Barcelona was playing); people screaming at the TV, yelling obscenities at each other, waving flags, the whole gig. It did quiet down enough for us to mingle and chat with our fellow pub crawlers. We met a lot of engaging individuals from all over the world, including a couple of folks from Israel who had three-week vacations. Turns out it was the triple holiday bonanza of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot; one of our new Israeli friends was just on a three-week long trek across Nepal. From the sports pub we went to the Ruby Blue Bar in Leicester Square, and after that to a club called Zoo. It was awesome seeing a club so packed on a Sunday night. I don’t know if they were mostly tourists, or locals who knew how to party hard before a workday. If it’s the latter, I need to know their secret. The music was hopping, playing mostly Top 40 UK hits. I had such a blast hanging out and dancing with my friends, old and new, and as we made our way back to the hotel riding one of London’s many night buses (no, not Knight Bus), I couldn’t help but smile. I was slowly falling in love with the city.
Snakebite: Half cider, half beer, with grenadine. Works for me!
Day Three: City of London, Knightsbridge, and Soho
It was a foggy day in Londontown. Unlike the song, though, I didn’t let it get me down.  We were going to the Tower of London, come hell or high water…or slight dampness. But first, we stopped by our neighborhood breakfast joint, Raffles, for some traditional English breakfast. Man, best food discovery of my life. Baked beans on top of toast? Magical. Yes, like magic beans.
Beans on toast: Groundbreaking, earth-shattering, amazing
 The Tower of London is in the ancient City of London, and was located next to the Thames River. It was teeming with history, riddled with horror stories, and bedecked with décor clearly straight out of IKEA’s 1106 Fall Catalog.  The Crown Jewels are housed here as well, and while we couldn’t take pictures of these ridiculously opulent regalia, it was a treat just to see them, including the crown that Elizabeth II wore during her coronation. We also got to see the infamous Bloody Tower, the resident ravens of the Tower, as well as a perfect view of the Tower Bridge (which is often mistaken for London Bridge). I think history/military/royalty buffs would drool all over this place, and for me it was nice taking a few hours stepping back in time.
Tower Bridge, NOT London Bridge
After hours of walking, we were famished, and went to Brick Lane for some Indian/Bangladeshi food. Brick Lane is famous for its many curry houses, and the one we went to, Masala, was a really good find. I ordered the butter chicken, and it was by far the best rendition of the dish. It was sweet and creamy and buttery and just perfect. God, I want it in my mouth right now. I was seriously licking it off my fingers long after the garlic naan was gone.

After dinner, we went to the Knightsbridge area and Harrods. We only made it to three floors, but in a fraction of this department store I saw why Harrods is the mecca of shopping. That is, if you had about £2400 to spare for a scarf. Thankfully, they had a souvenir shop, although how odd is it that a department store sells its owned brand products? A good point made by my friend; you’d never see Macy’s selling Macy’s-branded magnets.
Harrods' chocolate section. 'Nuff said.
With our souvenirs in hand, we walked to the Piccadilly Circus area then the Soho neighborhood to go to our first (and my favorite) gay bar, Escape. While it was still pretty quiet when we got there, we got the party started with £1 shots. How awesome is that? It continues to prove my theory that gay bars have the best drink deals anywhere, either by having cheap drinks, or regular-priced ones that are really strong. That, plus music that I could scream/sing and dance to – yes, including Gangnam Style. Afterwards, we went to another bar called, simply enough, G-A-Y. Also a fab venue with good drink deals (£1.70 for Magners, what?!), fun music, and the friendliest bathroom attendant ever. After hours of shaking what our mothers gave us, we made a quick stop to Wok to Walk, which was a fast food stir-fry joint. It was the perfect after-drinks meal. With another successful night under our belts, we walked to the same bus stop by Piccadilly Circus, and caught a double-decker back to the hotel.

Day Four: Camden Market, London Eye, Soho once more
On our last full day in London, we started off at Camden Market for more shopping. I positively LOVED this neighborhood. It’s a colorful, expansive flea market with goods ranging from food to art to sculptures to accessories and more. I had to walk straight past some stalls just to keep myself from buying more stuff. Now this was the real shopper’s mecca. I got a couple of art pieces, as well as some gifts for my family, before finally saying goodbye to the lovely Camden Lock.
Best shopping experience ever.
 Our next stop was the London Eye, on the other side of the Thames. Before going up this giant wheel, we got a special gift as the sun broke out over the gorgeous Palace of Westminster (Parliament). Picture time! Stepping into the London Eye capsule, we were treated to the most breathtaking views of Greater London. As I snapped photo after photo of the great city below me, I couldn’t help but make mental notes of all the other places I want to visit on my next trip to London. Because I will definitely be coming back to London, the most diverse city I’ve ever been to in my life. Diverse in its people, its languages, its foods, its cultures, its neighborhoods…it’s the whole world in 607 square miles.
Palace of Westminster, from the London Eye

The London Eye
After stepping off the London Eye, we walked on Westminster Bridge back to the other side of the Thames. We had dinner at Chinatown in a Malaysian restaurant called Rasa Sayang. The service was ridiculously fast, and the food was even better. The roti canai was buttery goodness, and the nasi goreng istimewa was plain delicious. Afterwards, we went back to the same bars from the night before, to meet some of Danny’s friends. It was so much fun dancing the night away, but eventually we had to head back to the hotel to get ready for a 7 AM train ride to Paris. But not before we got some chips from the same kebab place we ate at on our first night. Talk about a nice, full circle. We did witness a bit of action, as one of the kebab employees got into a row with a jerk who pushed me aside and started ordering food. There were a lot of f-bombs dropped, some knife wielding, but we still got our chips. As if that wasn’t enough, on the other side of the street was a guy down to his skivvies dancing inside a bar. The bar was already closed, so I don’t know if the guy thought no one could see him, but we definitely could. What a way to end our London leg of the trip.
Funnily enough, the reasons I wanted to go to London in the first place aren’t the same reasons I would want to go back there now. I thought going to London meant hearing the much-adored British accent, especially the Daniel Craig variety. Instead, I found myself exposed to more languages with every person I passed by, which was beautiful. I thought London was all fish and chips and bangers and mash. It was that, but it was also beans and toast, and great Asian food, and amazing curry. I thought my favorite part of London would be the palaces and bridges. But it was the markets and the pubs where I had the most memorable experiences. I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed by London’s organized public transportation, or its clean streets, or its friendly locals, but I was. I love London, for all the reasons above, and for more I have yet to discover. Or, as the Brits would say, I’m rather chuffed about London. 
Oh London.

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