The Tower Of London

058The Tower of London is London’s oldest landmark, and one that is central to the interesting and bloody history of British monarchs. Every tourist guidebook that you might read will tell you it’s a can’t-miss destination if you are visiting London, and they are absolutely right.

070The Tower is one of those locations that itself is historic. When you walk around the central courtyard, where gigantic ravens with clipped wings still are found, you know you are walking where Anne Boleyn last trod before her head was separated from her shoulders by the executioner’s axe. It was in these towers that the two little princes deposed by Richard III were last seen, where Henry VIII disposed of various wives, and where countless prisoners were kept until they were ransomed, or beheaded, or freed if their patrons gained favor.

So, the Tower of London is worth a visit. Be prepared for an expensive entrance fee — more than 21 pounds, or about $35 — and big crowds. If you want to see the Crown Jewels (Richard and I didn’t) be prepared to wait in queue for an hour or more.

064Some of the parts of the Tower are wonderful; others not so much. Richard and I enjoyed a display about the Tower’s history as the British mint — who knew that Isaac Newton was the long-time head of the mint, and tough on counterfeiters? — as well as the Medieval Palace of Henry II and the intricate graffiti carved into the plaster of the towers by prisoners and preserved for all these years. Imagine the painstaking effort involved as prisoners worked on their messages day after day, knowing that they could spend years in their cells. And the Yeoman Warders, who regularly guide tours of the Tower, are iconic and funny, besides.

There are curiously cheesy elements to a visit to the Tower of London, too. The White Tower, with its spare Norman architecture, is the oldest building in the Tower complex and was built immediately after William the Conqueror successfully invaded England, yet it is filled with bric a brac.

076For centuries, the White Tower apparently has hosted a display of mounted British kings on wooden horses that has been a popular destination for distinguished visitors, even though the monarchs wear armor that is acknowledged to be wildly inaccurate. So, the visitor first sees pictures of sultans and other notable prior visitors to that display, then the wooden horses and non-historical suits of armor. Elsewhere in the building you will see a kind of metal, modern art dragon sculpture, a Native American headdress, and other paraphernalia.

For most of the visit, it seems that the White Tower’s history as a tourist destination has rubbed out its history as a fortress and residence. Then you finally reach the fine Chapel Royal of St. John, small and solemn and light-filled and beautiful after all of the consciously touristy stuff, and it makes the entire visit worthwhile. 080

The Night Before The Night Before

019In London, the arrival of the New Year is conducted in grand style. There will be fireworks over the Thames, blocked-off streets, and a general air of festive chaos.

Piccadilly Circus is the one of the traditional gathering spots to count down to the New Year, and last night they were getting ready for the celebration. Miles of metal barricades were stacked up in and around the intersection, and excitement was in the air. Tonight Piccadilly Circus will be jammed with people.

It’s not going to be easy getting around central London today.

The Street Performers Of Covent Gardens Market

Our London apartment is in the Covent Gardens neighborhood, just off the Strand. It’s part of old London, centrally located and within walking distance of just about anywhere you’d want to go.

003The heart of Covent Gardens is the Covent Gardens Market. At one time it was a large food market; now it’s ringed by high-end shops, with food, antiques, and crafts sold from little stands in the market building. It’s also a place where you can easily find some talented street performers — be they jugglers, or magicians, or acrobats.

The performers put on their acts in the market building and in the surrounding squares, which form natural open-air theaters. Today Richard and I watched a guy balancing on a board who juggled two knives while also juggling and eating an apple. When his act was completed, we moved a few feet away, where another street performer balanced on a rope while tossing his hat from his foot to his head, then mounted a unicycle, road it back and forth on the rope, and juggled some knives before dismounting. Both performers kept up a snappy patter with some vintage jokes, involved members of the audience in their shows, and made heartfelt pleas for contributions when the act was ending.

Vaudeville isn’t dead, it’s just moved east to central London.

Canning The Coach

When I woke up this morning and checked out ESPN I was astonished to see that the Cleveland Browns had fired head coach Rob Chudzinski.

Sure, the Browns sucked — and I mean sucked — this year, stumbling and bumbling their way to a 4-12 season and losing their last 7 games. Russell and I didn’t even use our season tickets for the last two home games of the year. The product on the field was so bad it just didn’t merit a day-long drive to Cleveland to watch the Browns flail their way to another infuriating loss.

Still . . . firing the head coach after just one year? I’m not sure that even Vince Lombardi or Paul Brown could have done much with this team, which featured a decent defense that unfortunately broke down at crucial moments and an abysmal offense that had to deal with the cancer that is Brandon Weedon. Nevertheless, when journeyman quarterback Brian Hoyer was at the helm the Browns looked like a competitive NFL team, and Chudzinski showed some riverboat gambler instincts that were a refreshing change from the normal conservatism of the NFL. When Hoyer went down with an injury, however, the season was lost.

I’m now highly skeptical about the merit of the Browns’ front office. When the Browns traded Trent Richardson two games into the season, it seemed clear that management recognized that the team was going nowhere and was planning for next year. So why hold the coach responsible for not winning more games with a crippled offense of castoffs and retreads who couldn’t score points?

Old fans like me remember when the Browns were the most stable organization in the NFL, with knowledgeable people filling every front-office slot and long-term coaches who were allowed to implement their systems. Now the team is a revolving door, both on the field and in management. Whoever the Browns hire to replace Chudzinski will be their fourth head coach in six years. That’s obviously a recipe for disaster.

In my view, the Browns management — from the owner on down — is now on the hot seat. They had better hire a competent head coach who knows what he is doing, conduct a flawless draft, make some high-quality free-agent decisions during the off-season, and put a playoff-caliber team on the field in 2014. The coaching carousel and incompetence has to stop, now.

Tower Bridge, December 29

063The Tower Bridge is a fabulous bridge. It’s one of those pieces of public architecture that says a great deal about the time and the place in which it was built. The Tower Bridge — built at the end of the 1800s, and featuring all kinds of wholly unnecessary, entirely ornamental spires and turrets and gold-topped embellishments — speaks of an Empire at the height of its commercial and military power.

Our Saturday Night Pub Crawl

040When it’s Saturday night and you’re in London, you’ve got to visit a local pub — or maybe two or three. Come to think of it, though, I’m not sure that it makes a difference whether it’s Saturday night or any other night of the week. Sharing in the pub experience is a crucial part of any visit to England.

042Last night the Webner men decided to take a little pub crawl, experience some of the nightlife in the Covent Gardens area, and sample some of the local beer offerings. We began our quest at the Lamb & Flag, which opened in 1623 and is reputed to be one of the oldest continuously operating pubs in the Covent Gardens area. It’s found down a twisting side street and, perhaps because its off the main drag, it was filled with locals rather than tourists.

The Lamb & Flag is just about the perfect pub. It’s small and snug, warm and welcoming, with pictures of long-time customers and perhaps former bartenders on the wall and bright holiday decorations hanging from the ceiling. There were no TVs to be seen, and no music was playing. Conversation therefore was the order of the day. We sat at the rear of the bar, chatting, and I drank an excellent Fuller’s ESB, which was my favorite beer of the night. We drank in the atmosphere, too, and spent some time talking to two friendly Brits who sold soap and crafts at the Covent Gardens market.

041Filled with good cheer and warmed by our beverage, we then struck out for a roundabout stroll that took us to the White Swan, the Angel & Crown, and the Round House. All were filled with Saturday night revelers and people leaving the Opera House and some of the playhouses in the area. Some of the pubs had TVs and music playing. I sampled a number of the seasonal brews recommended by bartenders, we munched on peanuts and crisps, and Richard, Russell and I enjoyed broad-ranging conversations about topics like the role of China in the modern world and the economic significance of the development of the concept of a limited liability corporation under British law. (Seriously!)

We ended the night back at the Lamb & Flag, for a final Fuller’s ESB and then wandered home. It was about 11 p.m., and the Covent Gardens area was just starting to celebrate the interim holiday weekend.

Big Ben, December 28, 5:16 p.m.

036After getting situated in our apartment yesterday, we walked a few blocks down to the Thames and then followed the river past the London Eye Ferris wheel to Parliament Square. Although it was just a few minutes after 5 o’clock, London was already dark. The Christmas tree was lit in front of the Houses of Parliament, but it was dwarfed by the big clock tower. As we passed the clock turned to 5:15, and we were treated to the deep tones of Big Ben striking the quarter hour.

Through The Chunnel

019Today we took the Eurostar train from Paris to London, going through the Chunnel. Our rail journey lasted about two and a half hours, and it was a simple and pleasant trip. The Chunnel — the tunnel that runs underneath the English Channel — makes traveling between these two popular tourist destinations so much easier!

The train leaves from the Gare du Nord station in Paris, where you fill out your entry form, present your passport, and clear customs into Great Britain. You wait in a reasonably nice waiting lounge, where duty-free shops line one side and you can get ridiculously good and reasonably priced food — particularly for a place that is serving only captive customers who don’t have any other dining options.

018When boarding time comes you file down the station ramp to your rail car, board, find your assigned seat number, then place your luggage and coats on the shelves above and settle in for the ride. The seats are comfortable, the swaying of the train is soothing, the ride is virtually noiseless, and most of the passengers spend the trip sleeping as the train zips along. The rolling French countryside is pretty, and there are a number of quaint little towns and churches along the way, but the temptation to nod off for at least part of the trip is irresistible.

023Not surprisingly, the weather turned dark and rainy as we approached the English Channel, then we flashed by a “Euro Tunnel” sign and we were in the tunnel itself. It’s a dark tunnel like any other, except that it extends, amazingly, for more than 20 miles. The passage through the tunnel takes about 20 minutes, and when we emerged on the other side it was sunny and bright. Within a very short period we were pulling in to St. Pancras station on the outskirts of London and Scrambling to grab our bags, catch a cab, and head to our apartment in Great Britain’s capital city.

I can’t speak to the Chunnel as a technical engineering accomplishment, aside from recognizing that digging a tunnel that is more than 20 miles long, under a stormy body of water, is a monumental achievement. I also can’t adequately capture the Chunnel’s geopolitical significance, either, other than noting that it links two countries that were at war constantly during the centuries from 1300 to 1800 and ties that Sceptr’d Isle to the European mainland. But I can say that, as a traveler, I deeply appreciate the convenience of traveling from France to England by train, without taking a ferry and worrying about the notoriously bad Channel weather.002

Musee National du Moyen Age

048We’ve had a number of special experiences during our trip to Paris, but one of my favorites was a visit to the Musee National du Moyen Age — the National Museum of the Middle Ages. Formerly known as the Cluny, this Left Bank museum is a wonderful find for the history buff and the art lover.

The museum is located in an actual medieval building, so the very act of entering and wandering around helps to give an idea of life in the middle ages — at least, for the aristocracy and the clergy. You enter the the museum through a walled, cobblestoned courtyard, past the remains of the Latin motto of the place when it was the town house of the abbots of Cluny, and then move through cavernous stone rooms and cellars where various items and exhibits are found.

055The rooms are filled with a rich trove of the art and handcraft of the Middle Ages. If you are a fan of stained glass windows, this is a must-see visit, because the many exquisite examples of glassworker craftsmanship are displayed at eye level, where they can be carefully studied and fully appreciated. It’s great to see the stained glass at St. Chapelle, where the full effect of entire windows is felt, but there is an advantage to examining individual panes, too. The vivid colors and staging of the scenes are spectacular, and the expressions on the people depicted, and the familiar attributes of Biblical personalities, like St. Peter and his ever-present key, come to life when the stained glass is examined up close.

052Another evocative exhibit featured the formerly lost heads of the kings of Judah. When the mob attacked the Notre Dame cathedral during the French Revolution and tried to turn it into a secular temple, they knocked the heads off the kings of Judah who stand in line above the front doors. The heads were replaced in the middle of the 19th century, but the original heads were thought to be lost forever. That is, until 21 of them were unearthed during the 1970s. They now are on display in the Musee National du Moyen Age, still looking somewhat startled that they were removed from their former stone bodies.

There’s lots to see in this museum, such as the mysterious, obviously symbolic series of tapestries featuring a woman, her servant, a unicorn, and other creatures, marvelous wood altarpieces and stone statuary, and many religious items. I particularly liked the flow and pace of the museum, which was in sharp contrast to the jam-packed crowd scenes at the Louvre. There was plenty of room, and time, to enjoy the exhibits and appreciate the opportunity to learn more about the life and craftsmanship of the Middle Ages.047

On Trusting The Travel Writer

Kish did a lot of research before we took this trip to Paris. Among other things, she read and printed out a number of “3 Days in Paris”-type articles from various newspapers, and we’ve used them, productively, as helpful guides during our visit.

One neighborhoods described in one of the articles was Belleville. It was depicted as a charming, off-the-beaten path, upcoming area of new art galleries and friendly wine bars that loved drop-in clientele, so we thought it would be a good spot for a stroll and a glass.

When we emerged from the Belleville Metro stop, however, we found a place that was radically different than the travel writer’s depiction. Rather than charm, we found a gritty place of worn and uninspired modern buildings. We couldn’t find the places mentioned in the article because Belleville is so off the beaten path that its streets aren’t even shown on the map we have carried around the city — and when we tried to leave the main streets to find the charm, we found desolate side streets that made me feel physically insecure for the first time on our visit to Paris. So, after having lunch at a Vietnamese bistro and then wandering around for a while among shops that offered cheap discount clothing, lots of Asian-lettered businesses, and panel trucks covered with graffiti, we retreated back to the center of the old city.

Kish and I both agreed that the visit to Belleville was interesting, because it showed that Paris is not just a fairyland of medieval churches and fountains and beautiful apartment buildings. Belleville clearly is a place where recent blue-collar immigrants to the city go to find affordable places to live. We also wondered whether it showed the challenge of the modern travel writer who must try to find something new to say about a city as oft-visited as Paris. No doubt there are nicer parts of Belleville than what we found, but we wondered whether the travel writer’s overarching quest for the new produced a bit of exaggeration. Next time, we’ll do a Google search, too, before we venture off to a new place.

Losing Track Of Time

I long ago stopped wearing a wristwatch, and when I arrived in Paris my smartphone — which has been my primary time-telling device for some years now — was out of network and not working.

007As a result, I’ve spent the last few days wandering this lovely city, happily oblivious to the time. Richard has a wristwatch, and there are clocks in the apartment we’re renting that we can check if we absolutely have to be somewhere by a specific time. There are even occasional clocks along the routes of our travels, like this beautiful clock found on one of the government buildings on the Ile de la Cite.

For the most part, however, we’ve been moving in response to our own internal rhythms, not the dictates of some infernal machine. We’re eating when we’re hungry, drinking when we’re thirsty, and resting when we’re tired. We know the sun goes down around 5 p.m. (We don’t really know what time the sun rises, because we’ve been sleeping late.) And we know when, after a long day of sightseeing, strolling, and eating some fine meals, it’s time to go to bed.

One of the real pleasures about this kind of trip is not being slave to a clock.