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Featuring worldwide places known for their art, sculptures, monuments, landmarks, travel articles

London – Trafalgar Square

Posted in United Kingdom  by admin on April 26th, 2010

Trafalgar Square is the center of England in more ways than one. At its south end lies what used to be Charing Cross, the point from which all distances to London are measured. Long since, the cross erected by Edward I in 1290 (as a tribute to his wife, Eleanor) has been replaced by a statue of Charles I atop a horse.

The major construction was completed in 1845 and has enjoyed continual popularity since – sometimes to the regret of its sponsors. The large open piazza-style area is often the preferred site of political demonstrations, and has been from its beginning.

The centerpiece of the center of England is unquestionably the 185-foot column, with the 17-foot statue of Lord Nelson at its peak. This is fitting since the square itself was designed as a tribute to Nelson’s military victory of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

At the base of the column are four large bronze lions sculpted by Landseer, sitting atop huge granite plinths. (A plinth is a block of stone that serves as a base for a column or statue.) Bronze reliefs at the base depict four of Admiral Nelson’s famous battles.

Once home to large flocks of pigeons, the tower and other structures have been rejuvenated after a program to radically decrease the bird population. A program not without controversy, as they were popular with many of the tourists.

The square, apart from being the intersection for several major roadways, holds a dozen things to do and see. All around are working fountains designed in the Neo-Classical style that formed the ‘look’ of public squares for centuries.

On the north side of the square sits the National Gallery, one of the world’s premier art museums. Along with one of the richest collections of paintings, the building itself is a work of art.

East of there is St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields church. On the south is Whitehall, where a visitor can see The Cenotaph (built to memorialize the Armistice in 1919).

To the west is Canada House. Visiting Canadians can use the facility to read Canadian newspapers and send or receive emails, but the classical exterior is worth a look for anyone.

On the east side is South Africa House with a delightful display of African animals featured on its stone arches.

If visiting during Christmas, be sure to bundle up and come at night to see the tree lighting ceremony. A tradition since 1947, every year Norway – as an expression of gratitude for British support during WWII – sends a giant spruce or fir to London. The tree is erected and decorated and the Mayor of Oslo joins the Lord Mayor of Westminster to illuminate the tree.

Less than a mile away are several other great sights, such as the Churchill Museum and 10 Downing Street, the home of the Prime Minister since 1732. Dr. Johnson’s house (creator of the first English dictionary and a writer) is about a mile away as is the British Museum, one of the world’s largest collections of artifacts.

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London – The West End

Posted in United Kingdom  by admin on March 22nd, 2010

For the London traveler looking for variety, the West End is the place to be. Piccadilly Circus is next door, where antique book shops mix with the latest restaurants and Covent Garden is not far. And, then of course, there’s the world-renowned theater – the rival (some would say tutor) of Broadway.

Soho is a short walk away. For those interested in the red-light district in the home of the Puritans, that’s here – and has been for over a century.

But Soho is much more than strip bars and prostitutes. As the area, along with many parts of London, undergoes a rejuvenation, there are also expensive restaurants and shops to enjoy. Soho Square has places to sit and watch the city go buy in safety and comfort.

Leicester Square has cinemas for the movie-goer and street performers for live, impromptu entertainment. And, as expected, there are crowds of people and distinctive architecture for those who just want to take in the spontaneous sights that uniquely define any metropolis.

To see ground zero of ‘mod’ 60s fashions, visit Carnaby Street where you can still pick up an Austin Powers-style vest or a pair of bell-bottomed jeans.

Shopping galore can be found along Oxford Street, which stretches 3km (1.8mi) through the West end. At one end is the Marble Arch (relocated from Buckingham Palace in the 19th century) to Tottenham Court Road.

The street’s origins date back to Roman times, but now holds over 300 shops with five million square feet of shopping space. There’s everything from large department stores to little specialty shops for that unique gift to take back home. Where else can you get a genuine British Army Officer’s swagger stick than James Smith & Sons?

Selfridge’s (founded in 1909 by the American Henry Gordon Selfridge) is alone worth a visit. It has an elaborate, ornate facade and features a clock known as the Queen of Time.

While you’re in the neighborhood, check out another interesting clock: the Liberty Clock, just outside the Liberty store. Very popular with the tourists, there are figures of St. George and the Dragon on the lower part. Close to Regents Street and Great Malborough Street. Exit at the Oxford Circus tube stop.

But, the piece de resistance has to be the theaters.

The Palace Theater, for example, is a sight to see even from the outside. An ornate terracotta building, first opened as an opera house, it stands at Cambridge Circus and is still a venue for musicals 80 years later. The Roman columns in the black marble foyer will draw you in and up the arched stairway.

With over a dozen major musicals and plays being performed at any time, there’s a wide array of choices. Not least of which is the flagship Royal National Theatre with three auditoriums.

There’s also the re-created Globe Theatre, a favorite since the time of Shakespeare. Open to the elements, with no stage lighting or microphones used, it sits near its original Bankside location.

Be prepared for all sorts of weather and all kinds of people. You’ll see both in London’s West End.

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London – The Tower of London

Posted in United Kingdom  by admin on February 14th, 2010

Few prisons can claim to be as popular as the Tower of London, an attraction – unpleasant for some – for over 900 years. Its twenty towers are filled with an ancient tradition of royal blood, armor and jewels and the history to match.

The central structure began as a fort – used by the original builder William the Conqueror who completed the first tower around 1100 AD. At its completion it was the tallest building in London. Henry III had it whitewashed in the 13th century and the name, White Tower, has stuck.

Later it evolved into a prison, used by Henry VII (and many others). Still later – and continuing to this day – it has acted as a repository for the extensive collection of crown jewels. Henry VII, nearly always short of money, had few jewels to store.

But the stone complex, near the Tower Bridge alongside the River Thames, has also been used at various times to house the Royal Mint, the Public Records, the Royal Menagerie (later to form the starting point of the London Zoo) and an observatory (built in 1675).

Since Henry VII appointed them in 1485, the Tower has been guarded by the Yeoman Warders – popularly known as ‘Beefeaters’, with their distinctive red costumes. The function is now performed by retired military personnel.

The spiral staircase running up the interior is the only path up and it leads to the Royal Armouries – Britain’s national museum of arms and armor, with 40,000 pieces on display. Beginning public display during the reign of Charles II, the armory is Britain’s oldest public museum.

Other buildings were added through the centuries, including the Middle Tower, the Byward Tower, Garden (Bloody) Tower, and Traitor’s Gate across the moat. The moat, fortunately, was drained around the time of the last tower built (in 1843).

Through the centuries the prison has had several famous – usually royal – tenants, including Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII’s second wife), the famed ‘little princes’ (alleged victims of Richard III), and Sir Walter Raleigh. All that murderous history can be seen in the racks and other torture devices still on display, not to mention the still bloody stones here and there.

The centerpiece of interest for most visitors is, without question, the Crown Jewels housed in the Jewel House, Waterloo Block. Here are dozens of crowns, jeweled scabbards, and an array of emerald and ruby studded collars, necklaces and the like.

There are several famous large stones housed here including the Cullinan II, set in the Imperial State Crown used for Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838. Not to be outshone, there’s also the equally famous Kohinoor (“Mountain of Light”), over 200 carats.

But, the centerpiece of the jewels collection is the 530-carat Star of Africa. This egg-sized diamond was cut down from the much larger Cullinan, originally over 3,000 carats, extracted from a South African mine at the beginning of the 20th century.

For those with the time, who plan ahead, there’s one attraction here that’s held after closing: The Ceremony of the Keys. Held nightly between 9:30 and 10:00 the ritual has been performed without interruption for 700 years. Now that’s tradition.

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London – Hyde Park

Posted in United Kingdom  by admin on January 24th, 2010

Perhaps most famous for the Speaker’s Corner, where citizens stand atop a soapbox and shout their views to the crowd, there’s much more to see and do here than listen to political opinions.

The land forming the park was first acquired by Henry VIII from the monks of Westminster Abbey in 1536. While Henry used the park for deer hunting, the horseback riding today is strictly not for sport.

Casual and relaxing, the trails are abundant but riders must bring their own horses. Visitors can often see the Royal Horse Artillery riding on horseback through the park early in the morning.

First made accessible to the public by King James I in the early 17th century, the park is split by the Serpentine, a river dammed to make an artificial lake. The idea was originated by the wife of King George II, an avid gardener. Boat rides on the lake remain a popular activity.

Perhaps the oldest park in London, these 350 acres (140 hectares) contain peaceful walks through gardens and woods, boats for hire, venues for music concerts and is very nearby several stellar pubs and restaurants. There’s even a pet cemetery and during the summer, Sunday concerts are held at the Bandstand.

In the north east corner, at the end of Oxford Street is the famous Marble Arch. The structure was built as a gateway to Buckingham Palace but moved to the park in 1851.

Several monuments located in the park are worth a look. The latest tribute is to the late Diana, Princess of Wales. The fountain is surrounded by and composed of 545 pieces of Cornish granite and the water flows through a complex design into a calm pool. There are three bridges that cross the water over the heart of the fountain.

Sports abound on the many fields, including tennis (6 courts, with a changing pavilion and cafe), a six rink flat bowling green and spontaneous soccer games. The Magenge at the end of the Sports Field offers a children’s playground to amuse the younger kids.

Nearby the park is the Four Seasons Hotel Bar where visitors thirsty from the activity can cool off and get refreshed in a wonderful, upscale environment. The Conservatory in Lanesborough offers a piano bar and great dining.

For those interested in something a little more lively, there’s the Met Bar at the Metropolitan Hotel. Patronized by celebrities, it remains a popular venue. The Rose & Crown pub in Mayfair is probably the rowdiest of the lot, for those who like their entertainment loud and crowded.

Then, there’s the Colony Club for those who like to gamble, and (for service personnel) the Royal Air Force Club isn’t far away. For great dining, the Petrus at The Berkeley Hotel is unbeatable, having rightfully earned its Michelin Star.

The park lies between Bayswater Road to the north and Knightsbridge to the south, with Park Lane to the east and Kensington Gardens to the west. The park is easily reached by the tube (the London Underground, the subway system). Exit at the Hyde Park Corner station.

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