London, U.K. — I had always wanted to visit the United Kingdom since I was younger.
I have this weird fascination with the Royal Family, which coming from someone who lives in a country that spent eight years and 25,000 lives to get rid of the Royal Family is incredibly rich.
But I’m a sucker for the “special relationship” between the United States and United Kingdom.
We speak the same language.
We exchange tourists, students and businessmen/women on a daily basis.
Suffice to say the USA and UK are BFFs.
After the plane landed at Heathrow and I gathered my bearings, making sure I didn’t leave my passport or wallet behind because wouldn’t that be a great start to my month in Europe, I proceeded to make my way down the steps to the airport’s tarmac, the cool British air putting me at ease after spending the previous two weeks in the August sun and humidity that comes with living near the Chesapeake Bay.
We then boarded a bus to the terminal, passing planes arriving and departing other gates with their array of colors and logos passing by: QANTAS, British Airways, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, etc.
Since I flew business class I arrived at Heathrow with a “Fast Track” pass to make my way through customs faster. Unfortunately, that British Border Force officer was slow, and the ticket was useless.
He may have been thorough, but my luggage had been screened and as I later found out, rummaged through by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). I had TSA Pre-Check and a electronic passport.
Seriously, beep-bang-boop, welcome to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“Where are you from?… How long will you be staying in the United Kingdom?… Are you meeting any friends you chat with online here?”
Baltimore. 12 hours. Nope she was busy in Scotland.
Anything else Charles?
Passing border security with around 10 hours to explore one of the great cities in the world I made my way to luggage storage, which believe me is worth it, you don’t want to carry a bag around the busy streets of London, wasting precious minutes in line at baggage storage facilities that dot the various landmarks across the city.
I grabbed a ticket for the Heathrow Express.
Again, an added expense that was well worth it.
In traveling, time is money.
I don’t have an hour and 40 minutes to wait for the Underground to get me from Heathrow to downtown and back.
Heathrow Express has only three stops: two terminals in the airport (four minutes away) and Paddington Station in downtown London, a short 15-minute train ride away.
I then took one of the traditional black taxis you see in postcard and films dotting the city to Buckingham Palace.
My driver was a delightful old man who told me how much he loved America and was glad I had decided to come into his city during my 12-hour layover.
He got me there in enough time to arrive at the gates outside the Palace for the changing of the guard, a ceremony I highly recommend, just not when it’s hot or crowded.
But if you’re tall, or can slip in and out of crowds to find a space along the fence dotting the outskirts of the Palace, it’s worth it.
You see the Welsh Guards in their tall bearskin hats and pristine red uniforms marching in front of the Palace crowned on top by a Union flag whenever Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is not in residence (she was at Windsor Castle), or her own personal ensign when she is inside, following in the footsteps of her forbearers dating back to George III.
The Guards saluted one another, with the retiring soldiers marching into a guard house at the right side of the Palace and the soldiers coming on duty marching to their positions.
After the pageantry of the ceremony, the musical corps began playing some music which was foreign to me.
Apparently I didn’t recognize the late Aretha Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T being played right behind the gate to the Palace.
The tribute to the late Queen of Soul went viral and was featured by various news outlets around the world.
After their performance, the soldiers, led by their musical comrades paraded through the Palace gates down the Mall, drawing cheers and claps from ongoing spectators who flocked to see them from around the world.
I had a 12:00 P.M. appointment to view the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace, a privilege only available during the tail end of summer while the Queen is in Scotland or her beloved Windsor Castle.
After picking up my ticket, and a 4-pound (currency not weight) commemorative book on the Palace (photos are not allowed inside so they figure this makes up for it), I proceeded to make my way to the line of fellow royal enthusiasts eager to see the castle purchased and used by members of the Royal Family since the 1760s.
I don’t mean to be rude, but I was scolded by a teenager working a summer job in the pavilion outside the Palace for taking a picture NOT IN THE PALACE, but in the white tent connecting the street to the residence.
It wasn’t the Palace, I paid good money to view the rooms, and America kept Britain alive during the Blitz. If I want a picture of a picture Charles and Camilla, I am going to get my picture.
Minus the snooty British girl who threatened to take my phone away if I didn’t turn it off, not put in my pocket, off, the Palace was wonderful.
You walk into the Palace State Rooms (located on the left side of the Palace if you are facing the famous front façade) and begin a walking tour with an audio guide (this was a good one, I know some can either be boring, useless or like ancient cellphones, require you to hold next to your ear).
The ornate rooms were filled with beautiful paintings dating back to the 16th Century including famous works by Rubens and portraits of royalty past and present, most notably George III and Queen Victoria.
The ceilings featured beautifully crafted designs and antique chandeliers, converted to electricity during the 1800s hung from nearly every ceiling; their shiny crystals twinkling in the light.
In honor of this 70th birthday, HRH Charles, Prince of Wales, selected his favorite pieces belong to the Royal Collection Trust (charged with preserving the legacy and integrity of various royal treasures and properties across the United Kingdom) for display.
These included works of art from Afghanistan from a charity he founded to preserve local art threatened in the wake of the War on Terror, portraits of his mother Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother, his two sons, William and Harry and his wife Camilla Parker-Bowles. Also on display were portraits of D-Day and Battle of Britain veterans which had been drawn in the last few years.
Proceeding through the halls I came to rooms where the Queen performed official ceremonies including the Knight of the Garter ceremony, state banquets, etc. In one room, fit for royalty, the mirror lined walls on either side of a red carpeted floor and intricate wood crown molding. On one end of the room was a large organ in the balcony used for the ceremonies and banquets, with official thrones of Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip 30 meters opposite.
As my tour came to a close, I passed through rooms with secret passages allowing royals to slip in and out of parties and meetings without drawing attention, as well as marble sculptures from Italy, including the famous “Mars and Venus” carved by Antonio Canova between 1817-1822.
From there I exited onto a veranda that is turned into an outdoor café for the few months the Palace is open to the public. You can order sandwiches, ice cream, scones, strawberries and cream, or in my case after dying of dehydration along a two hour tour, three cans of water and a strawberries and cream scone. The scone was delicious, water gone within moments.
After a half-hour of relaxation, I walked down through the gardens to the gift shop, perused the assorted selection of royal memorabilia and made my selections before walking around the grounds a little while longer.
I then moved onto a tour of the Royal Mews, the name for the residence of the royal carriages, horses and fine European automobiles, including a Rolls Royce, used for carrying members of the Royal Family around London.
I saw the state carriages used for marriages and coronations of kings and queens including the Ascot Carriage Prince Harry and Meghan Markle rode in along the streets of Windsor following their nuptials in May.
The tour concluded with a visit to the stable room where various horses Her Majesty has owned over the years, including some named for overseas visits (Sydney, Melbourne, Maryland). In the far room stood the most marvelous carriage I had ever seen. Designed for George III’s coronation in the 1760s, it weighs 4 tons, and is covered in ornate gold sculptures featuring ancient mythological figures.
Deemed the most uncomfortable ride by those who have ridden in it, the carriage easily stood 15 feet tall, allowing spectators a view of their monarch.
Rather than calling it a day, I decided to make my way around to the front of the Palace, posing for selfies, watching thousands of tourists from around the world doing the same, congregating either in front of the Palace gates or around the Victoria Memorial on the opposite side of the street.
I then proceeded down the Mall, feet aching, dying of thirst passing various memorials and monuments to fallen soldiers and past politicians, seeing London’s Embassy Row behind a tall stone security wall running nearly the length of the Mall itself.
After a decent walk I found myself unintentially at Horse Guards Parade, home of beach volleyball during the London 2012 Olympic Games.
My phone told me this was parliament, but anyone who watched London 2012 could tell you otherwise, thank you Apple Maps.
Seeing a giant Union flag flying above the city a few blocks down, I knew it must be parliament so I journeyed onward.
After walking past even more monuments and Whitehall, home to the British Government’s cabinet, I reached it. Britain’s parliament.
The seat of power for what was once the largest empire in the world. The place where taxes on tea, sugar and stamps were passed, leading to revolution in the United States.
It’s a beautiful building, but after recent terror attacks near Westminster, including one just outside parliament a few weeks ago, an increased police presence was surely visible with bobbies carrying automatic rifles ready to prevent another lone wolf attack.
My time in London drawing to a close, I had just enough time to walk across the street and through a few back alleys to Westminster Abbey. The final resting place of kings, queens, poets, politicians and soldiers alike, Westminster Abbey has also hosted royal weddings including Elizabeth and Philip, Charles and Diana along with William and Kate. The Abbey was also home to Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, and Diana’s funeral in September 1997.
I wasn’t able to go inside having arrived to late for a tour, and running short on time before having to depart for Heathrow, but I walked around the Abbey, stealing glances inside the open doors and gazing up at the magnificent architecture that has stood the test of time.
After some time to stop and stare at the people of London beginning to make their way home on a busy Friday afternoon in front of Queen Elizabeth II Centre, I caught one of the famous black taxis of London, which are much more special inside than a typical American taxi. There is enough space for five, and a delightful conversation is always to be had with an informed driver like I had who was pleased with how much I enjoyed visiting his city.
By the time I made it back to Heathrow and into the British Airways lounge I was beat. I had walked over five miles around the city, way more exercise than I had in a very long time. I was exhausted. My feet were killing me. I couldn’t feel my tongue.
So I grabbed a litre of Perrier, meant for a group of people I assume, a glass full of ice, sat down in a chair, plopped my feet up on the one opposite, put in my headphones and relaxed like a king on his throne.
If you want to know what an international lounge is like, one fly first or business class it’s amazing, second, it’s basically a gathering or the widest assortment of people you could imagine. Older gentlemen making their way from Heathrow to various cities around the world on business, decked out in their black suit and ties sipping a cognac at the bar. A mother, father and their three small children, trying not to knock over a table full of appetizers. A 26-year old graduate student on his way to a month long conference in Athens lounging in two chairs with sunglasses on listening to country music like he owned the place.
Finally it was time to go.
Had to face the reality of leaving the United Kingdom for a month in a country I didn’t speak the language in, didn’t know much about outside of its Olympic history and ouzo and the fact I was one step closer to sharing a room with a complete stranger for an entire month.
No champagne on this flight, mostly cause, again, I was dehydrated from the night before and walking around London, but I met a mother and daughter (who was about my age, maybe a little older) and we started talking about everything from The Crown to Donald Trump.
We flew off into the dead of night leaving England behind, me for an IOA conference, them for holiday.
Little did I know I had absolutely nothing to fear about heading to Greece, and that the thunderstorms over the Balkans I saw from my window seat weren’t an omen of bad tidings, but a blessing, showing the worst would soon be behind me.