BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Thursday, May 4, 2006


Ye cosmopolitan Old English
A travelogue
Iris Cecilia C. Gonzales
BusinessWorld, 2004

A suitcase with enough trench coats, scarves, gloves and berets was enough gear for the London weather, but nothing can prepare me for the original Victorian city's magnetic charm and allure. It was an affair to remember for this Asian soul the moment the morning sun and the crisp spring breeze greeted the exit of Heathrow airport.

In no time, I was drawn to this city. London, home to seven million, is rich in history yet strikingly modern, Old English yet cosmopolitan, which makes it enchanting. I visited London as part of a Reuters Foundation training program for 12 journalists from mostly developing countries. England's capital city can seem overwhelming to a first-timer -- so much to see, feel, and experience.

My first impulse was to see everything at breakneck speed. Me and my classmates later on realized that the key is not to rush but to enjoy the simple indigenous pleasures of London, get off the beaten track and be a traveller, not a tourist. We explored the city in between classes, on holidays and on weekends. We took the train or the Underground (subway), the bus, or simply walk. The long walk was not a bother with the picturesque sights of modern, gothic and medieval architecture of buildings, churches and bridges all over the city -- everything seemed to be within walking distance.

The London adventure started with a long walk around the city center. The Tower Bridge, which cuts through River Thames, should not to be confused with the plain London Bridge, and is the only bridge that can be raised to allow ships to pass. Across the bridge is the Tower of London, an imposing castle first built in 1078 and now houses the Crown Jewels. We strolled along the River Thames and passed by the Shakespeare Globe Theater, where play enthusiasts can travel back to the period of open-air theater during William Shakespeare's time.

On the other side is Whitehall, the road leading to Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and Houses of Parliament, three of the city's most famous landmarks. One weekend, we took a ride on the London Eye. Operated by British Airways, the London Eye is a 135-meter wheel that provides a half hour ride on 32 enclosed glass gondolas, giving passengers a view of the city. It is best to take the London Eye when it is "genuinely sunny" and not when it is "reluctantly sunny" as we describe the crazy weather.

All Beatles fans, we ventured to Abbey Road in the quiet and affluent St. John's district. Abbey Road is home to the studios where nearly all of the Beatles's recordings were done from 1962 to 1970. The studios were officially renamed "Abbey Road" in the wake of the international fame bestowed on the building by the Beatles and by the 1969 album which paid homage to their recording home. Crossing the pedestrian lane featured on the cover of the "Abbey Road" album is a must-do for Beatles fans. The "zebra crossing" is just a few yards from the entrance to the studio building. We crossed it oblivious that it was THE infamous pedestrian lane until we saw the studio. We then took turns crossing the road to have our pictures taken, to the dismay of stalled motorists. The Abbey Road experience was capped with a bar of Cadbury chocolate for the group.

How could one leave London without seeing a West End performance? The answer was a definite "NO," so one evening we went to see the Phantom of the Opera. The scenes just seamlessly flow together and the music is heart-pounding. We were singing endlessly on our way back to the hotel.

The whole class also watched Shakespeare's classic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, at the Shakespeare Globe Theater. The Globe, also called the Wooden O, is circular and has a roof-less center. We were in the standing section so it was in this roof-less center where we stood for three hours. The play, however, took our minds off the nuisances such as the cold evening wind and sore legs.

Aside from the theaters, there are also other avenues offering entertainment. There are gardens and parks with street performers all eager to please tourists. The Speakers' Corner at Hyde Park offers a unique form of entertainment as anyone can just go to the place and speak their minds. One can watch, listen or even argue with the speakers, no holds barred. Terrorism was the topic of four people when a classmate and I went one afternoon.

There is also a long list of places to shop, but the prices are not for the fainthearted. The city lives up to its reputation of being one of the most expensive places in the world. Notting Hill is more than a backdrop to a Julia Roberts flick. It is a shoppers' paradise. Tourists abound as it is one of the best places to buy souvenirs, clothes, antiques and other stuff. For me, it was a Phantom of the Opera soundtrack.

But there is so much more to London than the sights. Beer drinker or not, one has to experience the English pubs if only to see that getting together over drinks is such a big part of the British culture. Londoners drink as early as 12 p.m. in between work. We went to as many pubs as our budget allowed us and joined the local banter and laughter over beer, wine, or what-have-we.

Many of my most memorable moments were good conversations over a drink or two. Beer, I realized is a great equalizer among different cultures. Drinking tea is another quintessential British pastime. One afternoon, after spending hours looking for Karl Marx's library in what seemed like a ghost town, some of us went to have a pot of hot English tea in a nearby pub. And it seemed to soothe our aching bodies. Aside from the sights and the drinks, the people made the adventure complete. There are the strange pilgrims I met along the way. One morning, I met a 77-year-old English woman on the train. She was on her way to the airport to pick up a friend, whom she will go "backpacking" with to Paris.

People never really grow old, she said, as long as they travel and never forget to laugh. All these made the London sojourn a memorable one. It is as colorful as the flowers of spring.