Greetings Globo Trip aficionados! Indeed, I have again escaped the depressive isolation of the world’s most southerly city to gallivant through Europe for 3 months. The primary reasons for my exodus from the harrowing doldrums of Melbourne’s winter is to represent Australia at the prestigious Paris Gay Games in swimming and attend Irish Claire’s wedding in Malta. Additionally, I will be rendezvousing with European and expatriate friends, bagging a swag of new countries (predominately micro-states) and travelling to a new frontier for me – the Caucasus. The first stop though of my third trip to the continent was an obligatory visit to my favourite city in the world, London.
My flight journey from Melbourne to London, which came to a total cost of $90 due to clever manipulation of credit card sign-up bonuses, was undoubtedly the most comfortable long-haul trip I have ever made. I don’t particularly like the idea of airline loyalty, but the leg space provided on Singapore Airlines has definitely secured my business into the future. I was truly stupefied that for the duration of the 8 hour flight to Singapore and subsequent 13 hour flight to London, the seat in front of me never encroached uncomfortably onto my being. Needless to say, there was a little shit constantly kicking my seat from behind, but that was the responsibility of her totally incompetent mother, not Singapore Airlines. I was also impressed that between the main meals, passengers could limitlessly request snacks and beverages to ensure we had sufficient calories to persevere through the physically arduous activity of sitting for 13 hours. The highlight of the trip though was the extraordinary views above Central Asia. We were blessed with incredibly clear skies, affording panoramic views of utterly barren mountainous landscapes in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan and interminably flat desert in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. While other passengers were drooling over B-grade Hollywood films or Friends reruns, I was mesmerised by the captivating spectacle below and was amazed by the almost total absence of human settlements (except for when we flew above the fabled ancient city of Merv – that was very exciting!). That was until we encountered the clouds above Russia, where I started watching Pitch Perfect 3.
Problems started in the final 0.2% of my journey’s overall distance when I arrived at Heathrow. One would think that the busiest airport in the world by international passengers would painstakingly ensure that accessibility to other points within Greater London was abundantly clear to foreigners. Yet despite being prepared in the knowledge of the obscure transport connection I required, I was still totally flummoxed about where to go and how to pay (not for the first time at Heathrow). There is a conspicuous absence of non-Travelex associated ATMs (i.e. ATMs without criminally high fees) at Heathrow. Apparently that shouldn’t be an issue, because there are signs everywhere saying that you can use credit cards to board Transport for London services. It wasn’t clear that the bus I required fell outside TfL’s jurisdiction and infuriatingly required cash payment, so I missed that bus and waited another hour for the next direct connection to Watford. Finally, 32 hours after departing Essendon and nearly 48 hours since I had properly slept, I arrived at the pub adjacent Watford Junction to meet my usual London host, British Dave.
With Northern Europe enduring a heat wave and the sun blazing for nearly 18 hours per day, we ventured to Brighton for a traditional English seaside experience. Every second Londoner appeared to have the same idea that Sunday as the motorways were horrendously busy and the town was clogged with coaches. For an Australian, the natural composition of the Brighton seaside was hardly appealing: pebble beach, opaque, greyish water and no vegetation separating the beach from township. The English compensate for the lack of natural serenity with a unique and somewhat whimsical seaside culture. Activity centres around Brighton’s iconic white pier, which supports an amusement park, restaurant and bars. Armadas of deck chairs occupy one side of the pier, while nudists frolic on the other. Victorian-era terraces provide splendid views over the beach and an intriguing interface with the town. Central Brighton is predominately composed of pastel coloured nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings. The quaint narrow streets brim with life on a hot summers day as the patrons from the pubs and cafés spill out onto the pavements. The popularity of Brighton stems back to the reign of Queen Victoria, who retreated to the seaside town during the summer months. She commissioned the expansive residential pavilion at the centre of Brighton, which is a bizarre architectural ensemble of neoclassical and Oriental (i.e. British interpretation of Mughal) influences. Brighton is a lovely destination for a day trip, though most certainly not for the beauty (or lack thereof) of the beach.
A day and a half after arriving in Europe, I attended the Watford Leisure Centre to ostensibly complete a rigorous training session in preparation for Paris. While that aspiration didn’t exactly eventuate, it was the first of several culturally informative experiences at swimming pools in Europe. Evidently, I think Australians take our incredible aquatics facilities for granted. In Europe, pools are much less common, overcrowded, usually 25m in length, often lacking in backstroke flags and full of terrible swimmers. The most bizarre aspect of European pools is how they generally combine two lanes into one (i.e. swim up one and back down the other), which renders it impossible to time splits properly. Consequently, my swimming session was rather more lackadaisical than I had envisaged, though it did help stem the effects of jet lag.
Since I was on my fourth trip to London, I did not feel the imperative to “tick-off” a cavalcade of tourist destinations during my three full days in the city and instead returned to some of my favourite haunts. After the Monday morning swim, I ventured into Central London to first satisfy my hummus cravings and then aimlessly wander the day away. I ambled through the glitzy neighbourhood of Mayfair and its luxury shopping precinct, Bond Street. As with every visit to this area, I was gawking at the shameless and sickeningly obscene wealth on display; chauffeurs cruise the spotless streets in vehicles worth hundreds of thousands of pounds as their owners peruse the most exclusive shops on the planet. There is no where at all comparable to this area in Melbourne. Admittedly, I momentarily experienced a pang of, “Oh, I wish I could afford this one day!”, but of course, no one deserves such excessive disposable income… unless they use it for travelling! I ambled past Westminster Palace and was grateful I had seen the iconic clocktower before, as it is currently covered in scaffolding. I walked along the River Thames, north through Trafalgar Square and concluded my evening on Oxford Street, where regular Britons shop.
After the disappointment of the Watford Leisure Centre, I decided to cross Greater London to swim at the Olympic aquatics venue. The constituent venues of the London 2012 Olympics occupy an expansive park in east of the city. The impressive external architecture of the Olympic stadium (currently being converted into the home ground of West Ham United FC) and the aquatics venue, as well as the bizarre red steel sculpture that defines the precinct, justify a visit to the area. Which was fortuitous for me, because the aquatics venue was closed to the general public when I attempted to enter in the middle of a hot summer’s day – the Europeans really are clueless when it comes to swimming pools. Food is the obvious remedy to placate irritation, so I quickly travelled to Borough Market just south of London Bridge for a delicious Ethiopian lunch. Borough Market epitomises gentrification. It occupies nineteenth century steel-and-glass halls and brick warehouses nestled below a rail overpass. It was once a regular, wholesale market, but is now the domain of specialty food stores and populated by tourists. In the afternoon, I perused the Army Museum (wholly underwhelming considering the material the British have to work with), before retreating to read in an amiable cemetery garden near Shoreditch. In the evening, I reunited with British Hermione, a Globo Trip who I travelled with in India for a couple of weeks. Hermione and I clicked immediately when we met on the Subcontinent, so it was wonderful to catch-up on life events and reminisce on “only in India” moments during our all-too-short rendezvous. To appreciate Shoreditch’s famously alternative culture, she suggested we dine at Boxpark. Boxpark is basically a multi-level complex composed of freight containers converted into stylish shops and hip bars and food outlets. The rooftop seating area provides a lively and notably youthful atmosphere to to enjoy the summer twilight.
On my last full day in London, I had planned to visit the only World Heritage listed site in the metropolis I had yet to inspect, the Kew Gardens. But I decided that $32 was a tad excessive to view a bunch of static organisms, so I instead returned to my favourite area of London, Camden Market. Needless to say, its not the cheap, grungy merchandise I find alluring, but rather the enormous concentration of international food stalls. And the ensemble of food stalls has seemingly trebled since I was last there nearly 3 years ago, expanding into other wooden warehouses adjacent the algae-covered canal. I went for a post-lunch stroll along the canal and then cut through the peaceful Regent’s Garden to reach Central London. I met Dave in the early evening in Covent Garden and we subsequently hoped between traditional and contemporary pubs in London’s most vibrant neighbourhood. I love the pub culture culture in London; on weeknights, every pub in Central London is completely crammed with workers. In the warmer months, patrons collect their beverages from the bar and drink them on the street or in back alleys, creating a vibe akin to a massive street party since there are pubs on virtually ever corner. The pubs are distinguished from other commercial enterprises by their hanging flower markets at the front – a intriguing and universally adopted characteristic of British pubs. We returned to Watford at a relatively responsible hour for Dave, as I had to catch the Eurostar in the morning.
British cuisine is of course lamentably bland and basic, and I have already sampled most of their stodgy contributions to global gastronomy. Nevertheless, in Brighton I enjoyed a feast of seafood morsels prepared by a charming couple in their seventies that I had never tasted before. I tried a fried kipper sandwich (salty and extremely delicious), a crab salad sandwich (essentially just pureed crab with spices) and a rollmop, which is pickled herring rolled around a gherkin and onion. At the Camden Market, I had a delicious Stilton cheese, bacon and pear chutney toasted sandwich that oozed fatty British goodness. My consumption was otherwise international in nature.
As always, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to London and catching up with old travel companions. It served as the perfect launchpad into Europe…
That’s all for now,