Sunday, March 1, 2009

Meeting King Henry VIII

I turned down a red stone corridor, dimly lit by overhead lanterns. I thought I was walking through the 1500s when all at once, I recognized a figure from old history books. The robust King Henry VIII just entered the corridor from the opposite end, along with a lady of the court and a few camera men.

Family friends had adopted me for the day to see the Hampton Court Palace, just outside of the city of London. The original Tudor palace was Henry VIII's. We found the King as he was getting ready for a photo shoot. An enormous gold clock in one of the main courtyards and a grand chapel date from his time. A couple hundred years later, the palace underwent a makeover from the genius of Sir Christopher Wren when King William III and Queen Mary took the throne. Interesting for anyone who likes to spend time in the kitchen, this palace visit allows visitors to tour the royal kitchens used to feed the more than 700 people in Henry VIII's court. Forget three meals every day, the Tudors feasted twice at 10 and four. And the higher your rank, the more you were served -- in portions and variety of dishes. Almost anyone could find a supper of meat pie, but wild game was reserved for the best seats in the palace.

A pleasant walk through Bushy Park, the old royal hunting grounds, took us to the borough of Kingston, where we found a cup of tea and a bit of shopping. A relaxing dinner back in the hustle and bustle of central London ended the enjoyable day catching up with friends.

In the middle of writing midterm papers late Friday afternoon, I suddenly heard my phone chime. My friend text messaged me that she was on her way to Oxford Circus for a free U2 concert. I closed my notebook, jumped in and out of the shower as fast as I could and headed to catch a bus up Oxford Street.

Of course, the first bus stopped in the middle of its route, so I transferred to a second bus. That bus stopped one block too far down the street. By the time I walked back to Oxford Circus and turned down Regent Street, hundreds of people came swarming down the street. If only I had managed to get out the door a few minutes sooner...

I phoned my friend and managed to find she and her friends among the throng of people. She told me U2 played an almost-spontaneous concert on the roof of one of the BBC studios. I suspect it had something to do with the launch of their upcoming album. Her account of the short show made me even more mad that I had needed to shower and transfer buses. I could have seen U2!

But, much milder temperatures made it a perfect night to walk through town. We ended up in Leicester Square at an Italian cafe for heaping plates of pasta and gelato. Since the Italian ice cream was their specialty, we saved plenty of room. I indulged in the hazelnut special -- hazelnut gelato with whipped cream, hazelnut syrup and more hazelnuts -- words wouldn't do it justice.

I pulled myself out of bed early Saturday morning to catch a Central Line tube to the Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill. Vintage jewelry sellers, rare book collectors and antique dealers jam every inch of the narrow winding street. Getting up early is well worth the sacrifice for this market -- by 10:30 a.m. I was bumping shoulders every step I walked. But, the crowd was well worth the treasures to be found. Plus, I found the Travel Bookshop (the one from the 1999 Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant film). A must-see in London!

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