Thursday, September 24, 2009

Trafalgar Square, Soho and Piccadilly

Currently I’m sitting on a speeding train heading towards Cardiff Central in Wales after a fascinating, fun filled, well fed and hectic few days – all detailed below. The weather has turned cooler but the train is comfortable. I am at the end of the carriage and have
plenty of room in front of me, a working table with power point for my laptop (there are about 6 of these in my economy carriage), good views and a comfortable seat. Better still, as I am now over 55 I got a return ticket for 30 pounds instead of the usual 68 pounds for economy. Of course I could have gone first class, but the cost would have been much higher and the difference in what I have now is miniscule – a bit more comfort in the chair I think. I have just finished a very nice Costa coffee with orange and lemon muffin – both excellent flavour and quality for just a few pounds.
Today’s blog will be divided between three different areas – food of course (lots of it) and generally the sights with another more detailed historical account of what I have been seeing. The last few days have been extremely hectic but full of interest, and I would certainly recommend anyone reading this blog to see the sights of London and do the tours with some possible amendments.
It is still Eid time effectively and I’m struggling to find the good coffee and cakes that have beckoned me from so many shop windows during Ramadan. Imagination is often more tantalising than reality – especially heightened with a month of fasting! Started the day back at Brunswick shopping centre with a coffee (Milan) and an almond honey cake. This was where I first bought the most delicious and fresh (later ones I bought elsewhere were a bit dry and stale) giant chocolate meringues. The coffee was good but still a little bitter (maybe I ordered the wrong one – there were two types) and the cake a little dry but with lashings of honey flavoured fresh whipped cream.  This was the day that I wanted to do the tour of London on one of those great looking open topped busses which drive right around London city with commentary. Passengers can hop and off at will. I had tried to book one online, but unfortunately there was a 72 hour notice period to book online and therefore I received a late email saying to apply for a later booking. Deciding to take a punt, I headed off to Russell Square to see if I could simply pick up a ticket where the busses waited. This was a good guess and I grabbed a ticket to catch the next bus tour – the bus being almost empty at the time. I was still on my coffee crawl, so decided to hop off at the National Art Gallery to check out the views more closely.
The National Art Gallery is located at Trafalgar Square and has a huge forecourt with massive fountain, stature of ...and plenty of space for community activities. A crowd was gathered at on edge of the fountain looking up at a high scaffold nearby where speakers beat out a thunderous beat and a young DJ leapt and danced to the amuzement of the crowd, holding up a white board with messages that he regularly changed. Initially I thought it was some kind of protest, but realised an equally jubilant and jumpy woman was leaping around in the middle of the crowd with another white board sending return messages of public love.
After walking around Trafalgar Square and having a great time snapping photos and then looking in at all the cafes I settled for the Haagen-Dazs. This quality ice-cream place has a wonderful range of beautiful ice creams and sorbets which could be combined with biscuits, waffles or crepes, or made into fabulous looking ice frappes drinks with a mix and match selection of chocolate, biscuits, nuts etc and presented in tall fluted glasses. Very impressive. Still I settled for the Strawberry Cream ice cream with waffle and maple syrup, and a latte. The ice cream was great, waffle a little bready but crusted with sugar, and the coffee good with a rounded, soft flavour albeit a little weak.
I realised it was getting late and needed to pray so hopped on the tube to go to Regent’s Park, it appearing to be the closest and easiest to get to – Google and other listings not providing anything closer. Regent’s Park however is a particularly large park, and having a station called Regent’s park as well as a mosque with the same name does not actually mean that they are close together. Although the mosque was only four stops from Chaucer Square (?) I did not arrive until nearly an hour later, just as they were performing the Asr prayer. Alhamdu lillah the mosque was lively but not chaotic as it had previously been during Ramadan, and the prayer was wonderful.
Jumping back on the tube I had to wait a while for the next of the sight seeing buses. I was using The Big Bus Company while another company – the Original Tour had at least five busses come and go while I waited. Perhaps it was just bad luck but the other company looked better organised and more popular. Then it was on to the Thames and down a big river boat – the on and off bus along with the Thames river cruise all available for 24 hours and just 25 pounds. By now it was late in the afternoon and not the best time to be seeing the view. The trip was quite short and ran between the London eye, finishing up in front of London bridge – interesting but not nearly sufficient for all the sights to be seen. I finished up at the Tower of London, now later in the afternoon. Just about everything had shut though so I decided to return the next day. Almost hidden under the ground was a series of shops and a comfortable large cafe restaurant – the Tower Hill diner (a name I could not understand from the waitress despite her repeating it twice) - with excellent fish and chips for 5 pounds. Just as I was deciding to turn in and head home I a call from a family friend who was now residing in London. She invited me to join her with friends at a restaurant in Bayswater – Al Khans. The food was scrumptious, with a huge range of delicious dishes (some predictably very hot!) and the company awesome. Sharing a great range of dishes we supped and discussed foreign affaris, technology, China, Kashmir, Pakistan, journalism , teaching – aaah, London, cosmopolitan, intellectual and enlightening!
The next day I headed back out again to pick up where I had left off at the London eye. As I stepped out of the tube a Big Bus appeared and I jumped on – perfect timing. I had barely settled when I heard the announcement that those wanting to see the changing of the guard needed to get off at the next stop otherwise they would miss it. Grabbing camera, bags, coats and all the maps I had just unfurled I quickly got down and asked for directions. Just go across the other side I was told and catch the bus going the other way. Great I thought – no problem! The difficulty with being a traveller in a new city is that what seems logical can suddenly become more complicated when the information is not complete. Crossing the road to wait for a bus coming from the opposite direction, I realised that this was a huge one way street crossing the bridge – so I could not possibly catch a bus from the other side. Did he mean the other side of the bridge??
Struggling across the other side of the bridge I walked for some time trying to position myself where I could see a bus stop for the tour bus which was located close to the Houses of the Parliament and Westminster Abbey according to the large maps we had been given. These were both huge buildings and enormously impressive – they were also quite large to try and walk around. As with the previous day the rival bus company  - Original Tour came past numerous times while I waited patiently (my 24 hour clock ticking furiously) for my own  bus. Finally it arrived and I resumed my tour to Buckingham Palace. I arrived just in time to join the thousands who were squashed up against the impressive ramparts of the Palace forecourt. The bands were playing and I could just squeeze my camera between the people and then the bars to be able to snap the backs of the palace guards with my long range camera. The best spot to catch it would have been from the parks and gardens side of the forecourt, as most of the guards were facing that direction. The majority of the activity seemed to be various guards marching fashionably towards individually or in small groups towards another stationed or waiting guard, effectively picking them up with lots of stamping and appropriate calling out from their posts, doorways of the palace and the assembled parade ground, then dropping them off and picking up someone else at a different position. At the same time, two more senior members of the contingent marched as if they were doing laps in a pool in a more leisurely but still military pace, (I think I noticed them quietly chatting as they approached right next to our section of railing) then quickly doing an about face and continuing to criss cross the parade ground. One of these two had a particularly impressive collection of swords, medals and various adornments indicating presumably his seniority along with the extraordinary height of his (fake) bear fur headpiece.
Abruptly it all came to a completion, the huge gates creaked open and the bands marched out while young police officers tried valiantly to keep the snapping tourists off the road and on the pavement. It reminded me a little of school. The crowds disengaged themselves and began streaming slowly from the vantage points on the huge statues and fountain opposite, the railings and the fences of the palace forecourt. The surrounding gardens were magnificent, peaceful and full of speckled light from the towering trees that dotted hectares of grass. Massive gold and black crests adorned two huge entrance gates that locked off the peaceful green park extending into the distance, from the palace fountain, surrounded by traffic and bordered by huge decorative flower gardens with their milling palace crowds. The police could now relax, and catching a group of Indian Muslim girls smiling with three of the ‘bobbies’ I gave them Eid greetings and asked if I could get a snap with them in this Muslim/London picture. They politely acquiesced although seemed a little taken aback and bemused – along with the London bobbies! It certainly will be much easier doing these kinds of posing photos with various locals when I am not a single odd-looking, Anglo Muslim grandma. I also found one of the palace guides, in her black and red uniform, sporting a black hijab – demonstrating that even at the highest levels there has been an acceptance of Muslims despite the vitriolic press.
By this time I was truly hungry and headed back to the Big Bus stop where the two guides from rival tour companies were keeping themselves amused. Our bus company had an American guide – she was typically loud (you could hear her in the palace entrance) with a raucous and irreverent sense of humour and accosted all of her customers with helpful advice. Being bored and the busses (again!) being late, she teased her fellow rival guide – a London born African girl – taking her phone and calling her boyfriend a ‘sugar daddy’ and encouraging him to appreciate what a gorgeous girl he had. In the ensuing conversation we discussed the pros and cons of such a job – standing at the side of the road for up to 9 hours in summer, 8 hours in winter, with up to 20 kilos of walkie talkies, wireless ticketing machines,  and change, rain, snow or shine. Both of the girls were cold and getting tired, and kept themselves distracted by teasing each other, complaining about how lonely the job could be when there were few customers in bad weather or winter. My over helpful guide assured me that the best place for coffee and treats was in Soho – back near Trafalgar Square, and then proceeded to give me a reduced price ticket for the London Tower.
This was good advice and after alighting near one of the oldest Toy stores in London (Hamley’s – 6 storeys of games, soft toys and technology) I slipped down a lane into the winding alleyways of Soho. Despite asking numerous cafe owners I could not seem to locate the recommended coffee shops and eventually decided to stop in a delightful little white store with attractive looking cakes called Mrs. Marengo’s. It was vegetarian, with very cottage style posh presentations of cakes and meringues, so I decided to be healthy and chose a leek and blue cheese quiche. The mango, avocado and radish salad looked interesting but I decided to try one new dish at a time. The quiche was absolutely delicious and I could see why I was lucky to get the very last piece. The leek gave a gentle flavour to the soft cheesy quiche with a hint of onion and a touch of the tartness of the blue cheese. For the first time also I really enjoyed the coffee which had a full flavour, was smooth, rich and really nice. Five stars for both.

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