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May 1, 2002
London: Westminster and West End (Russell)

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Westminster: "Wow!  We're really in London!"

Our original plan was to stay in Paris for seven nights from April 24-30, fly to London on May 1, and stay in London for five nights from May 1-5.  When we called ahead for accommodations in London however, we learned that the weekend of May 5 is the Queen's Golden Jubilee and rooms would be difficult to come by.  The woman at the Travel Inn reservation desk was so helpful that we adjusted our plans around their vacancies.  We cut Paris short by two nights, moved our Paris-London flight to April 29, and booked the Travel Inn for April 29-May 3.

We're glad we did, because we have a fantastic situation here in London.  The London County Hall Travel Inn, a fairly new hotel, is located in part of the city's old government building.  It is right across Westminster Bridge from Big Ben and the Parliament Building, and right next door to the London Eye, the largest spectator Ferris wheel in the world.  It is literally located at the other end of the building from a Marriott Hotel that costs three times as much.

Even better, the woman at reservations offered us not only a B&B breakfast package, but a DB&B dinner-breakfast package at a price that was an absolute steal.  We discovered later that these packages are only available in advance by telephone; the price for all four of us was less than it would have cost to purchase individual meals for two of us.  (Actually, we had only reserved the B&B package ahead of time.  When we checked in, we asked if we could still purchase the DB&B package.  They had already processed our credit card and told us it was too late.  When they saw our disappointment, they brought the manager out and found a way to upgrade us anyway).

Potters Restaurant itself provided service that was just as superb.  Andrew, the manager, was from New Zealand; his staff included Gracie (from Tanzania), Olympia (from Spain), and Christina (from Brazil).  It was wonderful to hear all of their accents; Gracie in particular was thrilled when we were able to greet her in Swahili (and we were horrified to realize how rapidly we had forgotten the language).  Under our package we were allowed a two-course dinner, which could consist of an appetizer and main course, or a main course and dessert.  We were only allowed to order off of the daily menu, but the selection (and quality of food) was delicious -- on the first night, Joss ordered a children's pizza and received side dishes of curly fries and baked bans; Gail's pork chop plate had two huge pork chops!

Breakfast was just as good.  Cameron and Russell developed a routine of getting hash browns, sausage, and mushrooms every morning.  (Because we had jimmy-rigged our meal package at the front desk, the restaurant never knew what we were entitled to, because we didn't show up on their computer printout.  They ended up handwriting our names onto their list every day).

On April 30th, our first full day in London, it poured rain in the worst weather we can recall in our nine-plus months on the road.  By afternoon we had finished all of our chores and still hadn't stepped outside of the hotel.  So, armed with jackets and umbrellas, we set out on Rick Steves' self-guided walking tour from Westminster to Trafalgar Square.  We got as far as the middle of Westminster Bridge -- the beginning of the walk -- where Rick Steves says you're supposed to get "that 'Wow, I'm really in London!' feeling."  We looked at each other in the pouring rain, shouted in unison "Wow, we're really in London!", then Gail declared "This is absolutely foolish," and we turned around.  By the time we got back to our room, even our socks were soaking wet.

We had much better luck on May 1st, when we awoke to cloudy but blue skies.  We set out again in the morning for our self-guided walk, headed across Westminster Bridge, up Parliament and Whitehall Streets, and ended up at Trafalgar Square with its huge column topped by Lord Nelson.  As usual, the cultural activity was much more intriguing than the historical sights.  In anticipation of possible May Day demonstrations and riots (the elections are tomorrow), the police had put boards and barricades around every statue; shop owners had also boarded up their windows and many had closed for the day (apparently there was a bit of violence during these demonstrations a couple of years ago).  We saw the bright yellow tunics of policemen and policewomen all over the place; in front of 10 Downing Street (England's "White House" and the home of Prime Minister Tony Blair), they even had a camera mounted up on a crane.  We started to continue past Trafalgar Square towards Piccadilly Circus, but decided that we should head back to the room for a break instead.

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Walking up Whitehall Street: the curbs are thoughtfully marked to reduce pedestrian accidents

One of Russell's main goals in London (even when we first planned to visit here a year ago) is to see the live stage play of Disney's The Lion King.  Winner of just about every theatre award, the play is impossible to see on Broadway in New York, where it is sold out for the next year.  London's West End is much more accessible, and tickets are also less expensive.  Back in the Loire Valley, Russell had called ahead to purchase tickets for the afternoon matinee on May 1st.  He decided that our budget only allowed for the four worst tickets in the house -- the back row of the highest balcony -- but he bought them anyway.  After several days of reflection, Gail advised that Russell would spend the entire two hours and 45 minutes wishing he'd bought better seats.  So Russell called back to try to upgrade his tickets.  Unfortunately, Ticketmaster said that they couldn't make any changes within a week of the performance.  Upon further advice from Gail, Russell bought a second set of four tickets, this time the best he could get -- we decided that we would donate the original four.

At dinner on the night before the performance, we asked Andrew at the restaurant if he or his staff could use some free tickets.  They were absolutely flabbergasted at the offer (they are all young people on very tight budgets, some of them working their way around the world), and the tickets were all spoken for within a few minutes.  So on May 1st we met Andrew, Oly, Christina, and her date outside of the Lyceum Theatre, and we all spent the afternoon watching "Disney's The Lion King."

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West End: the Lyceum Theatre

For her Broadway debut, director/designer Julie Taymor did not try to recreate the animated movie.  Instead, she combined her puppet expertise with Africa's rich tradition of art to create an unbelievably stunning, colorful, and beautiful theatre experience.  Everyone's jaw dropped when an "elephant" walked down the aisle and up on stage during the opening "Circle of Life" number, and we all cheered when Act II opened with the performers chanting in Swahili while "birds" flew all around the audience.  We never knew what magical thing was going to happen next; it was one of the most wonderful theatrical spectacles we had ever experienced.  And having been to Tanzania only made it better for the World Trippers.

Back outside in the real world, we witnessed some of the May Day demonstrations, as people (men) cavorted naked in the fountain at Trafalgar Square and helicopters hovered overhead.  (We learned later that while there were about 7,000 demonstrators on hand, there were also 6,000 policemen watching them.)  At dinner that night, Andrew told us that we could order anything we wanted from the full menu, and all of the waitresses kept smiling and waving at us every time they passed by.

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Trafalgar Square: Happy May Day!

 

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