London. Capital of the United Kingdom. The best city in the world*. My gateway to Europe. A year ago, if anyone had asked me if London was part of my travel list, I would’ve said no. Six months ago, if anyone had asked if I wanted to go to London, I still would’ve said no. I only knew I wanted to go Europe – Spain, Greece, Italy, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Finland (and in that order, too!). But never had I imagined setting foot in London (they speak English there, where’s the fun in that?). But as the fates would have it, that’s where I would take my first European steps.
My worst nightmare had come true. My flight was in a couple of hours and I was having a migraine. I had traveled with this affliction before and I knew it was going to be hellish. I took my prescribed painkillers and downed some brewed coffee for good measure, too. And all the good it did me; I was in limbo during my nineteen-hour flight. Unable to sleep, I battled my migraine by listening to classical music, watching sitcoms, eating all the in-flight meals and then drinking orange juice after orange juice. The result: I landed in London with a throbbing head and an overwhelming urge to vomit and evacuate my bowels at the same time. This, apparently, was jet lag.
On the train from the Heathrow Airport to the London’s King Cross train station, I had never prayed harder in my life: Please, dear Lord, please don’t let me throw up here! Thankfully, I made it to my stop without any incident. My Airbnb flat was very near the Euston Station and because I had the iVideo Pocket Wifi with me, I did not have any trouble locating it. The cold that greeted me when I exited the station was a real shock to my system. The short walk helped a bit with the nausea and my pesky, but cowardly, migraine fled at the first snips of winter.
Primark and Oxford Street
I arrived in London on December 26th, Boxing Day. At my friend’s suggestion, I headed to the famous Primark store to check out their rock-bottom offers (I needed a new luggage). I took the famous double-decker London bus and made my way to Oxford Street. It seemed like everyone was there! There were even traffic advisories on bus delays due to the volume of out-to-shop pedestrians.
I easily found Primark and it was brimming with tourists. All its three levels looked like looting was underway. Winter items cost about one-fifth of their prices back home in Manila. It was awesome! But because of the crowd, the misplaced clothes and boots (I couldn’t find anything on my size!), the store’s overheating and my jet lag, I only scored a handbag. I was the worst shopper ever. The cashier girl looked at me like I was crazy.
With my one purchase I left Primark to roam around the famous Oxford Street in search of the famous Christmas lights. I failed to find the supposedly awesome Christmas decor – and a ramen place – but I did find a Boots pharmacy where I bought some antacids (did not help with the stomach situation) and some moisturizer. I also entered other shops, attracted by the SALE! signs (and the reprieve from the cold), but hands down, Primark sold the cheapest stuff. Meanwhile, Uniqlo had the gall to sell regular priced items on Boxing Day.
Since I couldn’t find any ramen place, I went back to the flat after a dinner of apple and water, afraid that the oily London fare would only wreak havoc to my already uncooperative stomach.
Sandemans Free London Walking Tour
One of the things I was excited about was Sandemans Free London Walking Tour. It’s quite famous and a friend actually planted an idea in my head that I might meet a BFF while on the walking tour, another kindred spirit who would not mind being solo travelers together.
When I arrived at the meeting place, it was crawling with Spanish people. The people lined up for the tour were all Spanish! I was thinking to myself, yeah, I could still tag along with this group but I signed up for the English one (because I was in London!). I might be at the wrong place! But no, I was not, the girl with the red Sandemans umbrella assured me that there was an English tour, although it was significantly smaller than the Spanish delegation.
Our tour guide was Becky and she was really good. She’s upbeat, very entertaining and was a treasure trove of trivia and stories. I also liked how she confirmed my suspicion that despite the sun and blue skies, it was an unusually chilly day in London at 2°C feels like -1°C. Steam was coming out of our noses when we breathed.
As part of the tour, Becky took us to Goodwin’s Court, shooting location for Knockturn Alley in the Harry Potter films, the Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Column, The National Gallery, The Mall where we saw the Horse Guards, St. James’s Palace where we saw the changing of the guards (yay!), the Buckingham Palace where we chanced upon the Queen’s Guards, St. James’s Park and the Parliament Square where the Big Ben, the Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament were all visible. Of all the stories she told us, the one that really stuck was about Michael Fagan who casually infiltrated the Buckingham Palace, drank some royal wine and even requested for a smoke from the queen herself. There is a Wikipedia entry about this incident but Becky told it way better.
Kinky Boots at the West End
Back at the walking tour, I did meet a fellow solo traveler, Steph, an Aussie who was in London for less than a day and would be heading to Edinburgh next. After our lunch at the Slug & Lettuce, she convinced me to catch an afternoon show at London’s West End. She knew this place that sold cheap last-minute tickets. I was just planning to check out the British Museum (which was free) but I ended up shelling out £30 (about £20 cheaper!) to see Kinky Boots at the Adelphi Theater.
Arriving a couple of minutes late into the show because of our difficulty in locating the theater and the last-minuteness of our purchase, we had to stay at a waiting area for the first song to finish before they let us inside. We were not the only latecomers though as more people trickled into the waiting area, joining us as we watched the first song from the monitor.
A few minutes later, we were ushered to our seats. Getting there was like going through a maze! We went up and down several flights of stairs and made a number of turns that I was pretty sure I would not have been able to go back to the waiting area had I tried.
Inside the theater though was quite amazing. It was so cramped (and so warm, thank, God!) It was a real wonder that not once was the back of my seat kicked during the entire show. And because the theater was small, I had a clear view of the actors’ faces even without my eyeglasses. It was a first time for me and I truly relished the experience.
About the musical, I first heard of it from the Gilmore Girls Revival when they mentioned it a hundred times during one of the episodes. This piqued my interest a bit, so a matinée of Kinky Boots was not something I would mind. The story is one of sexual tolerance and openness to reinvention, packaged in colorful garb and thigh high boots. It was wicked fun and definitely worth every penny.
Christmas at Kew
My last stop for the day was the Kew Gardens, my second UNESCO World Heritage Site for the day. Winter for me has become synonymous to – numbing cold, of course, but also – winter illuminations. Before traveling to the UK, I sought out locations for winter illuminations in London and found that Christmas at Kew would be a good one. So, after a warm afternoon inside the theater, I headed out into the night and walked around the Kew Gardens. We were advised to bring flashlights but it wasn’t necessary because the lighted structures (and the flashing cameras) provided sufficient light. There were plenty of interesting structures to see, but the Nabana no Sato winter illumination has set my standards high. I felt underwhelmed at the end of my evening stroll. But it’s alright; the hot chocolate at the Kew Gardens was very yummy!
Prior to my trip, I had meticulously planned to hit the ground running. But I obviously was not able to do that. I missed out on several places because I did not factor in the possibility of an east-west jet lag and the debilitating cold. However, I still think that my first 36 hours in London was a success.
My #EURockMyWorld tour had just begun. Next stop: the Windsor Castle, the Stonehenge and the Roman Baths
December 26-27, 2016
***All photos were taken using iPhone 6 and GoPro Hero 4 Silver