If you are leaving from Washington DC, all European trips start with a flight to London. It's about the only nonstop. So we had to go to London on the way to Venice, and as long as we were going to London anyway, we figured we might as well stay there for a day. A day isn't enough time, but that's okay. You never have enough time anywhere. Not even at home. That's how human lives work. A day is better than nothing.
After breakfast (at a diner called The Diner, where I had sweet potato pancakes with guacamole) we caught an Uber to Buckingham Palace, where we watched what we could see of the changing of the guard. The area around the palace was absolutely jammed with tourists: I'd guess over a thousand crowded onto long, wide sidewalks. We found a spot along one sidewalk going over a green, where we could see over the crowd lining the sidewalk that was by the road. The ceremony was a bit more elaborate than I'd expected, and not nearly elaborate enough to justify the zoo of people come to watch it. It was a bit like a mini parade, led by two guards on horseback, followed by a marshall with a baton and a small marching band (six or eight people?) and then ten or so guards marching behind. A walking tour stopped right behind us during the parade, and the guide told us that the people who had places by the palace gate (where you could see the actual posted guards, as opposed to watching the relief march up) had been there for upwards of two hours. The relief and the existing guard would stare at each other, he told us, for 25 minutes, and then the current guard would march off.
M & I did not opt to wait to see the guard leave. We walked from there to Parliament Square, where we got to hear Big Ben strike 12 (by chance -- there is nothing special about noon and the clocktower), and saw the Parliament building Westminister Abbey. All of which were currently closed to the public. I took a pony pic for Twitter, and then we headed to Trafalgar Square, where we admired the statue of Nelson and went into the National Gallery. We walked through several rooms there, mostly full of 16th-century portraits and mythological paintings, many painted by Titian.
The pedestrian boulevard in front of the gallery had a number of street performers, noteworthy for two things: they all had the same "levitation illusion" (a seat/platform that secured up through the sleeve of the costume, so you couldn't see the seat or its support) and several performers had duplicate costumes: two different Santas, two different Deaths, two different metal men, and so forth. It made us wonder if they were part of a guild or other organization, or if there was a standard costume rental place for them. We didn't find out. Probably Google knows.
After that, we walked to the British Museum, mostly to see the Rosetta stone and the Parthenon sculptures. The provenance on these items -- and on many of the things on display at the British Museum -- is interesting. The Rosetta stone was taken from $COUNTRY by Napoleon, and then captured by British forces and taken as part of the terms of surrender. The Parthenon sculptures were taken from Greece by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, with the permission of the Ottoman(??) of the Turkish empire, who'd conquered Greece in $TIME??. The Parthenon was a ruin even then. The statues on the pediment and the metotope had been defaced around 500 AD (when the temple was converted from Athenian to Christian). More of it had been destroyed in the 17th century during an accidental explosion of gunpower Turks were storing there.
One plaque at the museum noted, with British understatment: "The removal was controversial at the time, as it now."
Another plaque was far less politick, describing a panel from the metotope as "rescued by Lord Elgin".
And it's true that these artifacts were not exactly safe in Greece (witness the damage suffered since construction millenia ago, varying from intentional vandalism to accidental destruction to weathering). They are pretty safe where they are now at the British Museum. How much damage they suffered in removal and transportation -- who knows?
One defensive line noted, "Hundreds of thousands of visitors have had the opportunity to observe these works at eye level", which is an interesting point itself. The pediment, metotope, and frieze are all parts just below the temple roof, some thirty or forty (??) feet up. These sculptured figures and relief carvings are amazingly detailed and beautiful, even broken and disfigured as they are now. It's strange, and a little saddening, to think of them on display in a position so difficult for anyone to *see*.
But these are priceless artifacts of Greek heritage. It's been milledia since they were crafted and centuries sine the English took them, and one does sort of have to wonder when the statute of limitations runs out. Maybe it never does. I can't blame the Greeks for wanting them back.
We looked at some of the ancient Egytian artifacts too. The museum has a pair of huge sphynxes, twenty feet or more tall and even longer, that had been given to the British by the Sultan of Egypt, which is about as legitimate as it gets, I suppose. "Hey, these weren't even looted," M said.
"As not-looted as it get. I expect some people might say that even a country's native king doesn't really have the right to trade away priceless and irreplaceable artifacts of its history," I said. I don't know that I'd be one of them, but I don't have a dog in this fight.
"'Your country has a rich heritage of creating amazing and beautiful works of art. Ours has a rich tradition of looting them,'" I joked later. "'We have to protect our heritage too!'"
My country has a heritage of exterminating 90% of the native population (mostly accidentally as a disease vector, granted), so I'm not claiming the moral high ground, mind you.
After a few hours at the British museum, we went to the London Eye. It was night, so some of the landmarks were hard to make out. But as with most cities, the place looks beautiful and jeweled from above.
London kind of reminded me of New York City and Washington DC smooshed together. Obviously it is its own thing, but it's huge and has tons of stuff -- live theatre, seat of government, historical buildings, museums, etc. I could've spent several more days there and not been bored, by any stretch. Not to mention the appeal of seeing all these places I'd read about or seen. I think I've read more books set in London than any single other place.
I was a bit sad to leave, but I was only going to be in Europe for 9 days total, and I wanted more time in the other places I'd be visiting too.