Even seasoned Parisians would agree that the weather in Paris has been pretty triste. Day after day of sad grey drizzly days. So when a friend visiting from Italy suggested that I go with her to London to visit her daughter for two or three days, it seemed like a great idea. And lo and behold, when we stepped out of the train in London's St. Pancras International Station, the sun was shining and the sky was a clear, crystal blue.
With the ten-year old train tunnel under the English Channel or La Manche as it is known in France, travel time between the two cities is just two hours and ten minutes. We bought our Eurostar tickets online and printed them out at home. The morning of our departure, we took the metro to the Gare du Nord station and arrived with an hour to spare. Time enough to walk across the street for a morning coffee. It was warm in the cafe and the conversation was good so before we knew it, there were only 15 minutes left to departure. If you decide to go, leave more time than that. Check-in includes clearing customs and my British custom's guy had lots of questions for me. In the end, we wound up running for the train, and hopped abroad just as the doors were ready to close.
We glided out of the station and after several miles, the graffiti-lined walls and buildings gave way to the snow-covered French countryside. Our entry into the tunnel was without fanfare. Nonetheless, the tunnel is a modern-day wonder - at 50.5 kilometers (31.4 miles) it the world's longest undersea tunnel. At its lowest point, it is 75 meters (250 feet) below sea level.
The idea of the tunnel is not new. It was first proposed in 1802 by a Frenchman named Albert Mathieu. Over the years, there were many other proposals, but for various reasons - including Britain's fear that a tunnel would compromise their national security or even worse, that hordes of unruly tourists would descend on the country - construction on a tunnel did not begin until 1988. It opened in 1994 and ridership has been steadily increasing. In 2011, 17.5 million people crossed through the tunnel. Statistics do not show, however, how many of them were unruly.
As we stepped out of St. Pancras Station into the bright sunlight, the differences between Paris and London were immediately apparent. Gone were the wrought-iron railings of the windows of Paris, the balconies, the curved street lights and the distinctive blue street signs. They were replaced by London's neat, trim brownstones each with their own front stoop, double-decker buses and the well-known red telephone booths (with actual working telephones).
Since the weather was so good, we walked to a nearby park (in London you are never far from a park), bought a coffee (no, not tea) from a parkside vendor and sat soaking up the warm sunshine. Afterward, we walked about town and then went to the British Museum. Since 2000, all British national museums have free admittance. During that time, attendance, which is now about 50 million visitors a year, has increased 51 percent. Without big entry fees, it's easy to drop in for an hour, see the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon and a few Egyptian marvels and then leave. That's just what we did. Afterward, we walked down the block to the London Review Bookshop Cafe for a tasty lunch in lovely surroundings. On my only visit to London more than 30 years ago, the entire national menu seemed to be fish and chips, but now London is a food-lover's dream with good restaurants around every corner.
The sun left us then, but we continued walking, stopping at Convent Garden Market; passing through Soho and then down the Mall to Westminster Castle. Along the way, we stopped for an hour at the National Gallery to view a couple of rooms of painting masterpieces.
We had dinner at my friend's daughter's apartment - six Italian women and me, which was better and more fun than any restaurant.
We awoke the next day to a snow-covered London. Since no one in London seems to own a snow shovel, we gave up on our idea of a walk along the Thames. Instead, we spent the day in the Tate Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The next morning, we took the Underground to Hampstead Village, one of the toniest parts of London, with more millionaires per square foot than any other area of the United Kingdom. The town is also known for Hampstead Heath, London's largest ancient parkland. There was still a lot of snow on the ground so instead of walking in the park, we strolled up the High Street. It was so English - the High Street, the Close, the Heath.
Anyway, we strolled up the High Street, did a little shopping and then stopped for brunch. There were the usual trendy breakfast items, but tucked in at the bottom of the menu was "bubble and squeak," a dish I've seen mentioned in English novels. A Victorian chef of the 1890s, Theodore Garrett, described bubble and squeak as "a favorite domestic réchaufee of cold meats and vegetables variously compounded, according to what materials are at hand, or to fancy." In other words, leftovers, mixed together and fried. "It's not very healthy," said my server, "but it's very good and very British." So bubble and squeak it was. It turned out to be two fried eggs, tomato confit, portobello mushrooms and two very large fried vegetable and potato pancakes that resembled latkes. I ate it all.
By late afternoon, we were back on the Eurostar. It was dark when we walked out of the metro station and into the Paris night. The London snow had made its way across the channel faster than our speeding train and Paris was beautiful in its mantle of white.
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