This is a tale of two cities. One of them is London, but that’s about where the comparison with Dickens’ story ends. After the lemon scented air of the Amalfi coast we were headed for Naples, to catch a train to Rome. Remarkably, we didn’t miss the Naples turn-off which may not seem all that remarkable to you, but for us was something of a cause for celebration.
At our best we missed the turn off for our home on the Amalfi three times in the same outing! Each time necessitated a five kilometre trip up a highway a turnoff over an overpass followed by a 500 metre drive to a roundabout and a repeat of the journey in reverse to make good. I want to say Italian roads are crazy, but that wouldn’t be fair. My children think my driving is crazy. One of the joys of travel is the instant feedback on your driving including random speed checks, fear factor on corners and jerkiness of gear changes.
In Naples we found a petrol station within proximity of the train station to refill the rental car but humiliated ourselves by being unable to work the pump without local assistance. Turns out that the pump will only work once you have fed cash into a non-descript looking vending machine. Who knew?
After that we located the rental car office at the train station where we were told the parking garage was right next door to said petrol station. Getting back there required a hair raising, life force draining ten minutes navigating the streets of Naples which seemed to be waging an unjust war on U-turns.
Then Oliver and I paid a Euro to go to the loo at the train station and the hand dryers didn’t work. Just saying.
The train from Naples to Rome was ear popping fun. It went so fast (about 290 km/hr) that when it entered a tunnel the displaced air couldn’t escape fast enough to avoid the air pressure wreaking havoc with our inner ears. As a result, we spent half the journey looking like cows munching grass as we worked our jaws in an effort to equalise the pressure in our eustachian tubes. Or maybe that was just me.
By the time we made Rome we were starving. The train had a special lunch time deal which made it seem likely a vaguely viable financial option but when Amy, Oliver and I went to inquire we were told the offer was only valid for the next leg of the journey, after the train left Rome. I nearly asked the man to show me where the flyer stated this to be so, but instead I sighed and Amy, Oliver and I returned to our seats hungry.
Instead we found pizza outside the Roma Termini and ate it on the footpath while pondering which bus to catch to our Airbnb apartment. It was city bus number 64, alight at St Petro’s. There was one waiting, about to depart just as our stomachs got down to the serious business of digesting mozzarella, tomato and pizza crust. We climbed laboriously on-board, weighed down with baggage, just as the doors were about to close but didn’t have a ticket. I confessed to a local jammed hard up against me in the crowded bus, but he didn’t seem to think anyone would care. He was right.
Margherita, our Airbnb host met us outside our apartment about a kilometre away from St Petro’s. Every time Emma mentioned her name images of the lunch we had eaten before catching the bus leapt to mind. I had to concentrate to stop myself from giggling when we met her, which is totally unfair, especially as she was such a friendly host.
No sooner were we in the door and the wifi on than messages were whizzing through space to track down the whereabouts of the Douglas-Grants, our epic Annapurna Base Camp trekking friends. They were to join us for two days in Rome and were on-route from Florence. It was so exciting to see them we went out for celebratory gelato… because you need an excuse.
The next day it was off to the Colosseum, because that’s what you do in Rome. I love the Colosseum. It’s a place where everything you’ve ever read or know about ancient Rome suddenly shifts from the fiction to the non-fiction section of your mind. The emperor sat there, 50,000 spectators bade for blood all around there and epic battles of life and death took place just down there. It’s the same place with the events transpiring separated by nothing but time. It’s kinda spooky, and kinda cool.
The inhumanity of the spectacles that played out here is enough to give you chills. Imagine being the poor soul marched out for afternoon crucifixion (like half time entertainment at the football), about to meet an horrendous end. Not only is there no comfort, no sympathy and no way out, but the more it hurts the more the cheering crowds scream. Extraordinary.
What a long way the world has come since those times, most of it anyway. May the trend continue. Perhaps one day even slaughtering animals (think bull fighting perhaps) for entertainment will seem wrong. That night Peter and I sat down to watch Russel Crowe in Gladiator. I think Peter nodded off half way through, but I enjoyed it. Nothing like a bit of CGI to put the icing on a day’s outing.
A little apathy kicked in the next day, but with good company and the heavens shaking outside, why rush? We made it to St Peters Basilica by early afternoon before idly debating whether or not to brave the queues for the Vatican Museum. The spirit however did not move us in that direction, instead we aimlessly walked the streets of Rome until that wore a little thin with the younger members of our party. After that we wandered the streets with purpose as Peter set the kids off on a geocaching quest.
We bid the Douglas-Grants a fond farewell the next morning and hope that Andrea was able to get back to the apartment after dropping us off down the street to catch our bus. Still, twas not a sad affair. We will see them again in Scotland and then in Iceland and then in Canada… Yep we’re stalking them around the world.
The budget airline Gods decided that our next stop would be London, which was fine because we wanted to go there anyway. The thing about England is… it’s green. It’s unnaturally green. No landscape can be that green. I know plants don’t have emotions, but I swear the grass in the UK is happy.
I love it. For reasons I cannot explain I feel right at home in the UK, even though hereditary birth right and privilege and all that societal hierarchy business makes me rankle, but let’s not go there. I told Amy and Oliver it was because it’s our heritage, and maybe that’s true. I felt the same way when Emma and I visited for a couple of weeks ten years ago. I just like being there.
We spent three days in London, a city in which there is just too much to do and where I felt like I wanted to be everywhere seeing everything all at once. Like a kid in a candy shop, unsure what to gorge on next, I found myself walking constantly ten steps in front of everyone else, subconsciously urging them on to make sure we could peer down as many alleys, roadways, museums and sites as possible.
We bought tube passes within hours of landing and were soon whizzing our way through the underground like Londoners. Except Emma, who got caught in the exit gates with her backpack on because she tried to sneak Oliver through with her. It was a bit funny, at least from our perspective. It was a trick for beginners. Nine year olds don’t need to pay but should exit through the disabled gate. The metro man that came to her rescue just kind of rolled his eyes and pointed at the gate she should have used.
Other than that it is a marvellous system, moving squillions of people quickly and efficiently and in contrast with the system in Athens, you can’t move without paying. Just ask Emma. Amy and Oliver loved it too, although that may well be because they mistook it for a jungle gym, and spent every journey where there was enough room to swing a cat, swinging from the hand rails.
We covered much territory in our three days including the Science, Natural History and Maritime Museums, the National Gallery, Big Ben, Royal Observatory, Greenwich meridian, the Cutty Sark, Harrods, Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge. We also ticked off as many Monopoly streets as we could and took in a musical down West End way in the form of Matilda.
A few of these deserve special mention. Firstly, you should know that the ceremonial changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace takes place every day during summer at 11.30am. That’s what all the tourist info says. You can’t get much more London than watching people march while wearing ridiculous hats for reasons apparent only to them. So we went. And we waited and we waited, along with other people lining the gates five deep. Oliver cheekily squirmed his way right to the front to get a better view.
Then we were informed there would be no ceremony that day due to the weather! The weather! The sky was grey, but there was scarcely a drizzle in the air and if I’m not mistaken this is London. The grass is not happy here for nothing, surely they canna be serious. If that’s all it takes to keep the Queen’s guard indoors then I’m afraid she’s in serious trouble. I think the real reason is that the guards drunk to much at the previous day’s Queen’s birthday celebrations.
Never mind. We wandered up the Mall to Trafalgar Square with Emma’s friend Jo who had now joined us. By the time we got there it really was raining so we peeked into the National Gallery more to stay dry than anything else. Then I got all excited all over again. Monet’s, Turner’s, Constable’s and even a few Michelangelo’s. What an unexpected pleasure. I don’t know much about art but I did spot the Turners from 50 paces. I’d recognise those stormy seas anywhere and it doesn’t take too much to pick out a few of Monet’s waterlilies.
When everyone but me had enough, we ventured forth again to find it raining harder than before. Jo found us a double decker red bus to catch, much to Amy’s delight, and we were off on our way to that London institution which is Harrods.
I had so much fun at Harrods and I hate shopping. My favourite gallery, for that’s what it was to us, was the fountain pen gallery. Amy needs a new one because we lost hers somewhere back in India. I thought the first one we saw was a bit pricey at 50 pounds and then the fun began. The one next to it was 200 pounds and the one next to that 1000 pounds! Oh this is great. So we started really hunting around. It just got better and better. After spotting a few at around the 30,000 pounds mark I called over the shop attendant and asked if he could direct me to the most expensive fountain pen on offer. ‘Certainly sir, over there in the Yves Saint Laurent section (I think it was the Yves section but one designer name is the same as all the rest to me) you will find one worth 50,000 pounds and we had one last week valued at 70,000’.
That’s approximately $140,000 Aussie dollars for anyone who has fallen a bit behind on the latest movements of the global currency markets. We paid less for our first house. My new friend however then showed us to the really cool pens. They were only priced in the 1200 pounds ($2400 Aussie) price range but included a Star Wars X-wing fighter, thai fighter and light saber. There were also Iron Man and Incredible Hulk pens. Apparently they sell really well. How does one reconcile a world in which a pen sells for that kind of cash?
Greenwich was another highlight. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich was established back in the day when it was so far from the lights of London that it was perfect for mapping the heavens. Now it’s a zone 2 (second closest to the centre) London overground stop away. Here we straddled the Greenwich Meridian before working our way through the history of solving the problem of how to determine Longitude.
It’s truly fascinating stuff and you should all rush off as soon as you have finished reading this and buy a copy of Dava Sobell’s book by that name, ‘Longitude’. Emma and I read it years ago. You see back in the day ships kept crashing into rocks because they sailed too far east or west, unable as they were to determine their longitude.
To cut a long story short the problem was solved by John Harrison when he built a clock able to keep time at sea. All you need to do then is compare local time, established by a good squiz at the sun with Greenwich mean time. The difference in times equates to minutes of longitude across the globe and hey presto that’s where you are! Latitude of course is a walk in the park for anyone acquainted with a sextant.
When we found all of John Harrison’s original sea clocks I nearly had conniptions of joy. Travelling the world is like progressively filling in the blanks of human history. Magnificent stuff.
Matilda was also wonderful. We have been listening to the soundtrack since we travelled around Tasmania back in 2014 so we all new all the songs. More than the show itself I enjoyed watching Amy and Oliver sit on the edge of their seats totally enthralled by the classy production. Thanks Grandpa Bruce for the tickets!
So, still with a to do list a mile long, we packed up our bags on our last morning and headed for Kings Cross Station. We arrived in enough time to find Platform 9 and three quarters and even stood in line for 25 minutes hoping to get our photo with the luggage trolley disappearing through the wall. Alas it wasn’t to be, or we would have missed our own express to Edinburgh. Scotland was calling us on.