Saturday, January 19, 2013

Snow and the Tower of London

It's cold here, though not quite cold enough for proper snow blankets. We were promised snow falling ALL WEEKEND, but I looked out the window this morning and the snow in the back garden is sinking sadly into the grass in patches.

Yesterday I walked along the Thames in the snow (retracing Bond's London car chase in Skyfall), past MI6 and along to Westminster. There was a team playing football on the green outside Westminster, snow floating around them. I was very glad of my thermal top, my knitted tunic, my half-mohair jersey, my blue coat, my sheepskin ugg boots, and my hat, scarf and gloves. Not sure how they were doing in their shorts and t-shirts.

From Westminster I got a Circle line train to Tower Hill, and wrapped up In preparation for the Tower. You enter via a drawbridge over the snow-white expanse of the grass moat, and walk along Water Lane, which is built on wooden pilings over the Thames. We had a short talk from one of the Yeomen Warders (aka Beefeaters) in the Chapel rather than around the grounds, because it was pretty cold outside. He told stories about the history of the Tower, and the executions that had taken place through the centuries, before informing us that the bodies had originally been buried exactly where we were sitting, with so many thrown in under the stones that the floor was higgledy-piggledy uneven. Most of them were exhumed and reburied in Queen Victoria's time, but some, including Anne Boleyn, were still under the altar.

I've become a great fan of audio-guides in my time in Europe - you can listen and look at the same time. Much of the audio-guide at the Tower takes place outside, so I was determined to stick it out through the snow with frozen fingers. I would get the full experience! I would hear and see all the Tower had to offer!

I went through the Medieval Palace above the Traitor's Gate, and saw a recreation of a King's chambers. Through a staircase and over a bridge was a beautiful octagonal room with vaulted ceilings, and up another spiral staircase I found the battlements of the inner wall. About this time, I realised I only had forty minutes left until the Tower closed, so I stopped looking at everything and made a shortlist (They tell you three hours is a 'long' time to see the Tower. In future, I think I should take all the maximum times for things and double them. I like to take my time...). So... around the battlements, and on to the Crown Jewels!

There are lots of very expensive things in the Crown Jewels, as you may think. The number of gold plates and sceptres and goblets was truly incredible, and then we came to the crowns. I hadn't quite realised that they don't generally reuse crowns - there's a new one (or two or three) for each monarch. And they all have lots of very sparkly jewels in them that glint in the light as you move slowly past on the tourist conveyor belt. There weren't that many people - I guess it's a good time to go to the Tower when it's snowing - so I was out quite quickly and heading for the White Tower, which is the big square one that you probably think of when you think of the Tower of London. It was built by William the Conqueror, and at the time was the tallest building in Europe.

The entrance to the White Tower is on the first floor and has wooden steps leading up to it - this meant that, in a siege, you could destroy the wooden steps and no one could get in. An opening in the stone wall halfway up the stairs shows where the bodies of the two Princes in the Tower were apparently found, which was quite creepy. It's strange to come across places where famous things you've learned about actually happened.

Inside is an exhibition of armoury, including a few sets of Henry VIII's. He was tall and pretty imposing, judging from his armour. There are also swords and horse armour and guns and the 'Line of Kings', which is a set of life-size models of kings and horses made in the seventeenth century. One of the sets of armour holds the world record for tallest armour, and another displayed right beside it is one of the smallest and looks like it was made for a three-year-old.

The warders began to usher us out, so I took a last few listens of my audio-guide and reluctantly gave it back. I hadn't had time for the Bloody Tower or the Queen's residence, but I didn't think the Yeomen Warders would appreciate me hiding in a tower room and exploring the rest in darkness.

It had stopped snowing, and everything was glowing in the dusk and lights. I took the DLR to Canary Wharf and admired the fairy lights and glowing paper boats floating in the water, and then was off home.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Into the New Year

Christmas and New Year and the holidays that go with them are over for another year. The best thing about Northern Hemisphere Christmas is the lights - when it gets dark at 4pm, you can really get the full impact of all the twinkling, sparkling things. I may have mentioned that, this year, the Oxford Street lights were sponsored by Marmite. Here's proof:

The sad thing about Christmas lights is when they turn off. The twelve days of Christmas are over, and now many of the lights around London are hanging over the streets, dark and lonely-looking. Some places are ignoring tradition/superstition and keeping them on, however, which I think I like. Jermyn Street seems to be covering all bases (they've turned half theirs off) and a few arcades along Piccadilly are still fully bedecked. Christmas lights should be turned on as long as they're up - I know they have to come down some time, but they look much too sad hanging there in darkness.

I have many New Year goals to complete this year. I feel a bit like Schroedinger's cat at the moment - I still don't know whether I'll be living in NZ or the UK this year, so it's difficult to sit down to any one thing and forge ahead. Apart from writing, that is - that can be done anywhere (I tell myself I can write anywhere, including on the tube, and then still don't finish that project from 2010 that I've been meaning to complete for months).

On a side note, tomorrow the London Underground will turn 150. That is a very long time for an underground railroad. They're doing a commemorative journey with a steam train and one of the oldest electric trains still in service. Sadly, I won't be on the train (I considered it when I saw the article this morning, then reflected that a train like that doesn't have spare seats available the day before its journey). Happy Birthday London Underground, anyway!


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Amsterdam Days 5 & 6: Van Gogh, Flea Markets and Flying Back

I'm back in the UK now, and on a train to Ipswich. I like how fast the trains go, it really makes you feel as if you're getting somewhere. I got back to London on Thursday morning, and have had barely enough time to watch four movies at the cinema before going off again for a nice visit with the rellies in Ipswich.

Okay, now that I've written that, the train is going slowly. Hmm. Where's the 'faster than fairies, fast than witches/Bridges and houses and hedges and ditches'?

Anyway, I have been a bit slack (I always seem to do this with the last few days of a holiday - I think 'I will write it all up as soon as I get home!' and then I go to four movies instead). I got up to my last full day in Amsterdam, which started earlier than any other because I had an exhibition to get to. So, I left the hostel at 10am, after a nice almost-pat of the cat, who was sitting with its back to me on the table.

The sun was out, and it was almost warm. Apparently the canals freeze over later in the winter and people skate everywhere, which was hard to believe with the sun shining slants of light past the tall houses and irregular rooftops and the water sliding dreamily by. I had to keep stopping to take photos, and by the time I got to the Van Gogh exhibition (held in the world's first Stock Exchange. I think.) I thought I'd have to queue. But no! I paid my money, collected my 3D glasses and descended, at the security guard's indication, down some stairs, past the ladies loos and into the exhibition.

This seemed somewhat strange, but after the first few paintings I forgot about everything else. The idea of the exhibition is to bring together 200 works by Van Gogh and present them digitally retouched so you see the original colours, rather than the faded versions of today. This means there aren't any actual Van Gogh paintings in the exhibition, but it's still amazing to see these paintings you know so well in their full vibrancy. Van Gogh used early synthetic paints which have faded pretty badly over time, so blues and reds sometimes don't come through. As well as the remastered paintings, some of the most famous works have been interpreted through 3D animation, which was pretty cool.

The final section of the exhibition was held in the vaults of the building, which explained the location in the basement. It showcased paintings now lost, whether through fire, Nazi repossession or burglary, presented in actual safes.

After some wandering around the streets and across the bridges (sometimes rather frenzied wandering, as I got later and more lost), I met TOWSR in the main square. There was a lion dance happening, complete with extremely loud ground-level fireworks and copious clouds of smoke, so we watched that for a while before going to find the flea markets.

I had very little money on me (I was determined not to change any more pounds to euros) but we had a good time admiring the wares and checking out the lego buildings of the old Jewish quarter. Last stop on our itinerary was the supermarket, then dinner and sleep. I had to leave at 7.15 the next morning.

It was still dark, and I realised as I walked to the bus stop that I didn't actually know what a bus stop looked like. Were they in the same place as the tram stops? I didn't think they shared stops. I ended up walking well past the invisible bus stop and on through Museumplein, which I hadn't seen properly and was actually quite nice. Finally I found a bus stop (just past the tram stop, and on top of the tram lines rather than on the road) and got on the next bus to the airport.

Schipol airport is a lot like a gigantic mall, with added check-in desks and holes in the floor through which you descend to the train station. On the plane, our pilot came out of the cockpit and told us he'd be flying the plane, and if anyone wanted to get off now they could. The flight was quick, into London's sixth airport Southend, customs even quicker and then I and my new plane-buddy got a train to Stratford. Of London airports, I think it's probably the quickest and easiest, bar City. And finally, home!

Well, actually, Stratford Westfield mall, Pitch Perfect (awesome) and then home.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Amsterdam Day 3: Anne Frank Huis

On the first day of 2013, we slept in a bit, but not too much because we wanted to beat the crowds at the Anne Frank Huis which opened at midday. Unfortunately many other people had the same idea, and so we spent an hour and a half waiting in the cold to get in, comparing the purpling of our fingers and staring up at the clearing sky. Why could it be dry today, and not last night?

The wait was worth it, though. We thought they were only letting in groups of twenty or so at a time (hence the long line) but really the line moved slowly because the house was absolutely full of people. Despite this, the atmosphere of the place was amazing - very quiet, with everyone looking at the stories and relics of the secret annexe's inhabitants and being respectful.

The house was Anne's father's office and warehouse, and Anne and seven other people shared a few rooms at the back of the building for two years until they were betrayed by an anonymous tip and sent to concentration camps. Of the eight, only Anne's father survived the war, and went on to publish Anne's diary.

You start out in the front rooms, where the warehouse and offices were in Anne's time. Only the office workers knew about the annexe's inhabitants, and Anne, her family and the others had to be careful the warehouse workers didn't hear them. There are photos of the office staff and Anne standing in these same rooms, and it's surreal to think of them there. You climb some very steep stairs and after a few more rooms, you climb behind the bookcase and enter the annexe.

First is the room in which Anne's parents and sister slept, with curtains shut and light dim. The rooms are actually larger than what I'd thought, but if you consider eight people living here for two years in very little light without going out, and without being able to make noise for fear of discovery, it was probably incredibly claustrophobic. Next is Anne's narrow room that she shared with one of the other inhabitants, still with her pictures of film stars and art pasted on the walls, and then the washroom with its basin and not much else. The stairs to the upper floor are even steeper - they take about as much floor space across their rise as they do across their width - but above is the main living room where two more people slept at night, and then Peter's small room with its ladder up to the attic and the window where Anne and Peter used to look out at the world.

It's so strange to think of everything that went on in these rooms, both the day-to-day living and the final day when the people were taken away. The rest of the museum shows pictures of Anne at all ages until 13, when the last photograph of her was taken. It seems incredibly sad that we can read her words but not know what she looked like in those last years, and that there is a 'last photo' of her that shows her at such a young age. Another section talks about discrimination, and trying to figure out the right thing in a world that has so many different ways to define 'right' and 'wrong'. The Nazis thought what they were doing was right. Many people today who do terrible things think the same.

By the time we left the museum it was 3.30 and we needed food. TOWSR wanted more chips (a dependable gluten-free lunch) so we went to Febo and I tried out the hamburger vending machines. The burger was actually pretty good - I guess they replace them lots and they spend less time in there than they might do in McDonalds warmers. Next we tried to find chocolate, and despaired of ever finding a proper supermarket (where do Amsterdammers buy their food from? Do they eat out every night? We are unsure). And lastly, back to the hostel to warm up...


Amsterdam Day 2: Library, Begijnhof, Schuttersgalerij and 2013

Last day of the year!

The hostel has a cat, and I think it likes me. It was asleep outside our room when I left for breakfast this morning, and it only bit me once when I tried to pat it. And then it followed me down to breakfast!

We tried for the Anne Frank Huis this morning, but the line looked about an hour and a half long so we went to our next stop: Amsterdam public library.

This is an awesome building, seven floors worth with beautiful views out over the city and cool bookcases. The children's section has lots of curving circular bookcases, one that has a second level that you can climb up to via a spiral staircase, and a giant polar bear. All libraries should be like this. We had some frites for lunch, and then wandered through the city and looked at the shops and the tulip stalls and found a post office. There's an amazing bookshop called the American bookshop that winds up for three floors, and just behind it is the Begijnhof, a courtyard surrounded by pretty buildings that was once a home for Beguin nuns, who wanted to live a nun's life without taking the vows.

The Amsterdam museum is right next door, and has a free gallery with huge paintings and photographs and an amazing carpet along the floor representing all the different nationalities that live in Amsterdam. I found the New Zealand square and enjoyed the paintings of guardsmen and orphanage women, and the gigantic 17th century wooden statue of Goliath.

After that it was back to the hostel for dinner, and to wait for the New Year celebrations to start. We'd been hearing explosions all day, and it turned out that these were small sort-of-hand-held fireworks that people kept letting off in the street. Lots of car alarms accompany the bangs and crackles.

It began to rain about nine o'clock, and we weren't sure if the promised street parties were going to happen. We stayed in the hostel's bar until about 11.15, then wrapped up and umbrelled up and forced ourselves out into the windy wet street (have I mentioned Amsterdam is very windy? It's like being back in Wellington). We'd ended up in a group of New Zealanders and one Nederlander (who had party horns, which were really useful) and found a spot beside the fairy-light bedecked outdoor ice rink under some trees. Fireworks were going off everywhere, including in the road in front of us, and the path to our destination Liedseplein turned out to be much like an obstacle course, dodging people, fireworks, broken glass, bikes and large puddles as well as struggling to keep the umbrella up and away from people's eyes.

By midnight we were soaked and freezing, but everyone was jumping around and whooping and wishing Happy New Year and throwing still more fireworks around. With the number of bangs and the strength of them (as well as the sirens from ambulances and police) we might have been in a war zone. We wandered around for a while enjoying the festivities, then went back to our hostel for warmth and music and dancing.

Happy New Year to everyone! Hope it brings excellent things :)