europe · travel

The Blitz aka The London Pass Challenge

At Tate Modern

Shuffling from the romantic vibe of Scotland onto the hustle and bustle of London stressed me out at first. I wanted nothing more than to run back to Edinburgh’s inviting calm and tell them I was only kidding when I packed my bags to leave. But sigh, there was shopping to be done and tourist traps to be seen, so off I went!

I went in search of Borough Market, which was just a few minutes away from my hostel. This foodie haven was certainly a great stop for breakfast. Teeming with fresh produce, savory pies and tempting desserts, it was enough to make any weight-watcher weep.

Chocolate penne from Borough Market… bless this chocolatier’s heart!

Once I stopped myself from sampling everything, I shimmied over to the National Gallery. Say what you want about the English government, but one thing they did right was to bring unrivaled art to the people. You’ll find that admission to many of the galleries and museums in London are free; it must be hard to resist playing hooky from work to pay a visit to the Monets, Rembrandts and da Vincis. But absolutely, the highlight of my day was getting up close and personal with the real works of Van Gogh. I’ve been a fan for so long!  The rest of the museum simply faded into oblivion. I must have spent a third of my entire time in the museum just gawking at the Van Goghs. My heart stopped when I realized I was face-to-face with the actual rendition of Sunflowers; I used to only see it from books and shirts, yet here it was. If you’ve seen my face, you’d think I was hugging Bono instead of looking at a painting.

When night rolled by, I met up with my London colleagues to catch-up on my (mis)adventures over beers and mojitos in Guanabara at Covent Garden. And just like that, I was happy to see London transform from frantic to finally, familiar.

Breakdancers at Trafalgar Square in front of the National Gallery

The next morning, I psyched myself up for the 1-Day London Pass challenge: the aim was to criss-cross madly across London to squeeze the most out of this modern ‘key to the city’. A 3-day pass would have been more cost-efficient, but alas, time was one luxury I didn’t have, among others. One useful tip — if you’re availing of a London Pass, know that they come cheaper if you buy them directly at the Visitor’s Centre. Buy the one without the Travelcard and just get an all-day pass from the Tube. Do your homework the night before as well to plot the best route to cover the most ground.

Being a true-blue literary nut, my first stop was to pay homage at Shakepeare’s Globe Theatre beside Thames. It would have been cooler to watch an actual play, but given the time, I had to be content with joining only a guided tour. The trip to the theater was better than I expected; I could totally imagine the wonderful chaos of having snooty Englishmen cross paths with the kooky common folk for the chance to witness top-notch storytelling. If your heart is set on watching a play here, go for the yard tickets (just 5 quid each!) or the middle circle for the best views.

Parting from Shakepeare’s Globe was indeed a great sorrow.

Right across the theater, on the other side of the River Thames, was St. Paul’s Cathedral; you could get there by crossing the Millennium Bridge on foot. It was a shame that they did not allow photography inside the church; it was by far the most gorgeous one I’ve seen. My timing was perfect — I got to attend the 12:30 mass, right underneath the cathedral’s dome adorned with elaborate and perfectly symmetrical carvings and mosaics. Even the not-so-pious would call this genius.

If you have the lungs and legs for it, climb the winding stairs to the Whispering Galleries and the upper domes for a first-rate view of the London cityscape. For me, the 300+ steps up were so worth it; apparently you could go even higher, up to ~500 steps for that bit of heaven. Just a warning — the narrow corridors along the way may fend off the claustrophobic.

The view from the lofty balconies of St. Paul’s Cathedral — priceless.

From the holy to the gory — after a quick bite, I whisked myself off to the Tower of London. We were lucky to have a hilarious tour guide who took us through the fortress’ colorful yet violent history like a true English gentleman would — and by that, I mean with the trademark satirical English wit. There’s a lot of ground to cover within the castle itself; you show allow a good 2-3 hours to explore.

Our group was hanging on every word from our appointed Beefeater. Be warned — he’s not only deadly for his wit; he’s ex-Marine!

Of course, one reason why you should brave the long queues at the Tower of London is to set eyes upon the famous Royal Crown Jewels. Along the way to the tower’s vault, movie clips will keep you entertained with tales about the monarchy; within the vault itself, walkalators beside the displays prevent annoying visitors from hogging the view. The size of the diamonds embedded on the scepters and crowns were simply RI-DI-CU-LOUS. I couldn’t believe you could dig out diamonds like these right out of the ground!

Well, I didn’t expect to see this here.

Dusk was settling in; I had enough time and energy for one last stop — the British Music Experience at the O2 . The O2 arena itself was remarkable; however, I wish I could say the same about the exhibit itself. The manner of presentation rocked; the matter, on the other hand, for me seemed lacking. After breezing through the interactive displays honoring the likes of Oasis, Spice Girls, David Bowie and the Beatles, I headed back to my hostel to call it a day and crawled into bed with a Peroni in hand and a smile on my face.

Bubbly O2

Saving the last day for some frantic UK shopping, I woke up early and sprinted off to the Old Spitalfields Market. I’ve heard raves about this burgeoning spot for deals rivaling Camden’s, but leave it up to me to flock to it on the only day of the week that the Spitalfields stalls were closed. Drat. A few kitschy shops were open though — the unique finds are definitely worth a look.

I was then off to New Bond Street. Each and every bit a tightwad, I felt like an alien invading this nirvana for the brand-conscious. Oohing and aahing all the way down the street, I couldn’t take my eyes off the window displays of Alexander McQueen, Jimmy Choo, DeBeers and the like. I tried my very best not to faint, as well, once I’ve seen their price tags. Eek!

Making up for my blunder at the Old Spitalfields Market, I set sail for Camden Market. I was expecting a quaint, comforting weekend market like Portobello’s; Camden Market, however, was an hectic in-your-face London version of Singapore’s Bugis (or Manila’s Greenhills, if you will). Bargain-hunters were spilling all over the streets, rummaging through stalls of clothes, jewelries and knick-knacks which just stretched onto forever. And I do mean forever — I had to sway myself from perusing every row when I realized that the shops disappeared into the horizon, and the some. Another thing I didn’t expect from Camden Market was that it would be a good spot for a food trip. Takeaway booths offered a myriad of choices, from Spanish to South African and even Peruvian.

A lovely vintage dress, complete with petticoats

I was inching closer to the finish line; if I wanted to make it to the aiport in time, I had to tear away myself from shopping and make it back to Canary Wharf pronto. I hauled ass rearranging my belongings within my luggage, making sure I’ve stuffed in everything. I came to the UK bearing 3 bags; I left with 5 bags bursting at the seams.

A sunny, smiley day for Camden Market

And alas, it seems like the UK adventure has come unto an end — but the memories I have are solid, and I’m truly grateful for that. I know that I’m heading back to Singapore not only with eye-opening insight about the UK, but also a lot of priceless learning about myself. Until next time, UK!

For more photos of my very own London blitz, click here.

Casualty Assessment:

2 nights at St. Christopher’s Village – GBP 43.65
National Gallery 60-minute audio tour – GBP 3.50
London Pass bought at the Visitors’ Centre – GBP 39
All-day Tube pass – GBP 6.50
Stuffing myself silly with food and driving myself at the point of exhaustion from shopping all over London – priceless

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