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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

London - Harrods and Harry Potter

Today, Sunday December 28th, was our first major shopping day in London. We would venture out to Oxford Street, where loads and loads of boutiques were holding their annual "After Christmas" sales. I thought I knew what crowded was, but I'd never experienced anything quite like this. It was back-to-front, wall-to-wall people. Our first stop was a shoe store, one of our daughters has been wanting a pair of Converse shoes that are difficult to find back home. But it was so overwhelmingly crowded, that she said, "Forget it", and we continued walking down the street window shopping. We did stop at a few souvenir stalls to pick up some trinkets at a reasonable price. And then, we took another double decker bus to - "Harrods Biggest Sale of the Year!" If it is possible, the crowd at Harrods was even worse than on Oxford Street. If you aren't tall, it was claustrophobic. The only section that seemed to have any room for wiggle was the children's bookstore, which was a great relief. All three of the girls wanted to purchase some Harry Potter books from the U.K. as the content is different than that in the U.S.A. But the worse was yet to come. I wanted to go to the Food Hall, and that was a catastrophe. We nearly lost one of our daughters, but found her near the candy section. We made a few purchases, and I would have loved to stay and look longer for more sales, but my children (and husband) just could not tolerate it, they had to gasp for air outside. That would be our only shopping trip to the famous Harrods, but at least we made it there.

We caught another double decker to drop our loot off at the hotel. We rested only briefly as we scheduled a guided Harry Potter walk of London. We took the Underground to the Embankment exit where we would hook up with the guide and other spectators. The guide was expecting about 40 people, it turned out there were at least 100. All of my girls are huge Harry Potter fans, and were expecting to see the sights around London that inspired the series. The guide, Alan, is supposedly a former actor, as are many of the guides in http://www.londonwalks.com/. Everyone was anticipating an engaging tour while walking to many real sights around London that inspired the book. However, my husband and I were underwhelmed and did not find this to be worthwhile or feel we would recommend it to anyone planning this type of tour. The girls did find it interesting, he did perform some magic tricks throughout the tour. But it left everyone feeling a bit ripped off compared to the description that details the tour on the website. The only part of the tour that the girls liked was when we walked to a location described in the book that takes you to what would be the Ministry of Magic. There is a fairly graphic description telling you what alleys and streets to walk down, and to look for a traditional London public phone booth. We did find the phone booth, and someone from the group was asked to dial the number (which spells "Magic"). The guide "magically" created some fog in the booth which is what is supposed to happen after dialing the number, and apparate the person inside the building. After two hours of walking down alleyways, and areas that could have inspired parts of the book, we were relieved to have the tour end. With an abrupt "good bye", we were left to find our way back to an underground exit. Everyone was hungry, so we searched for a pub for some fish and chips. We were directed by a local to what he said was his favorite pub for this dish, and gladly warmed up once inside. It was a wonderful pub, just as you would imagine a British pub to be with red velvet chairs, wooden tables, fireplace and worn woolen carpet. Of course there was also the wooden bar and lots of beer to choose from. We all ordered a plate of fish and chips and mushy peas. It warmed our insides and put a smile back on our faces. It was a great way to end our day of shopping and walking in the cold, biting air.
The next day in London we toured the British Museum. Like the Lourve in Paris, this is a museum not to be missed on your trip to either city. These museums have so many historic relics, it is astounding. The museum was easily reached via a double decker bus or the Underground. I prefer the double deckers to the Underground as we can see various sights along the way.

As you enter the gate to the museum, you may find a few protestors from various countries who claim their relics were stolen by the British. That withstanding, the crowds are plenty, at least the entrance is free for children and adults alike. Almost immediately, we found the famous Rosetta Stone, with crowds on all four sides of the glass cube protecting it. An explanation of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum website explains: "The young French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832) made a crucial step in understanding ancient Egyptian writing when he pieced together the alphabet of hieroglyphs that was used to write the names of non-Egyptian rulers. He announced his discovery, which had been based on analysis of the Rosetta Stone and other texts, in a paper at the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres at Paris on Friday 27 September 1822."

Room 4, where the Rosetta Stone is housed, is where many other Egyptian relics are housed. These contents are jaw dropping.

At this point, just a few minutes into our time at the museum, two of my children already started showing signs of disinterest (sad to say). So my husband and I decided to get our walkie-talkies out, and split up. He went with our oldest daughter who had stronger interest in the relics, while I went with my younger two. We found our way to the mummies section, which was packed with people. However, we did see Cleopatra's mummified body, as well as the famous mummy cat and fish! That began to peak their interest.

Next we went to the Clocks and Watches exhibit, and that really caught their interest. In this section there are mechanical clocks that were invented in Western Europe in the medieval period and were first used in cathedrals and churches. Room 39 traces their development from these earliest examples to complex. Many of them, while very old, are in working condition. They are encased in glass, but if you get right next to one, you can hear the bells chime and watch the mechinisms in action. Our favorite clock was the medieval galleon from 1585, whose purpose was to announce banquets at court. The entertainment began with music from a miniature organ in the hull, drumming and a procession. Afterward the ship would travel across the table. When it stopped, the front cannon would fire. The mechanics are just tremendous.
At this point, appropriately, it was time to leave. The 3 of us returned to our hotel where much needed downtime was in store. We regrouped there with my husband and eldest daughter and all of us unwound by having tea at the hotel. Then, around 8:30 pm, we would head out once more to the Tower of London and see the Ceremony of the Keys. This is a wonderful chance to see first hand the guard ceremony where they lock up the crown jewels as they have without fail for over 700 years. If you don't have the chance to see the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, this is a great way to see the royal guards with their full regalia and get closer to the action. Only about 50 people are allowed per evening to see this display. To see the Ceremony of the Keys, you need to write about 2 months in advance of your visit. The tickets are free, but only about 50 people per evening are allowed to view this ceremony. To get more information and to apply for free tickets, click on the link above.

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