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TRAVELING TO LONDON on a budget? It better be, especially when my $200 yielded just over ?70 at the currency exchange counter. After a 20-hour trip, the British bills handed back to me jolted me back to reality.
It was Monday morning. I was going to stay there until Friday evening. Already, I felt the strains of my Third World budget in the throbbing little vein in my left temple. Welcome to the world of the British pound.
When the funds are low and the spirit is itching to explore, you have to do what you have to do?walk. Besides, the best way to discover a city is on foot. Thanks to free city bus rides outside our hotel on Heathrow, all we needed to buy was a city day pass for the tube rides worth ?7.50.
Of course, it would have been perfect if our hotel was located in the city. That would?ve saved us over an hour?s worth of travel time in the London Underground. Since we only had a day to explore the city before heading off to Southampton the next day, time was essential.
First stop was Piccadilly Circus. Named after picadil, the 17th-century frilled collar, the Piccadilly Circus is one of London?s famous tourist destinations. It has a roundabout where traffic circulated called Circus. The busy traffic lured advertisers (billboards) for a time that this area was once known as London?s version of NYC?s Times Square.
For harried tourists like us, however, the best part about Piccadilly Circus was its location?it?s just a few minutes? walk away from other must-see places such as Trafalgar Square, Soho, Chinatown (where we had a forgettable but cheap brunch that cost around ?8) and Leicester Square.
By noon we were at Trafalgar Square, the largest square in London and central meeting place, we learned, since the Middle Ages. If you love history the way we do, London is the right city to explore. There?s the neo-classical National Gallery that houses the artworks of geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Renoir and Claude Monet.
At the center is a 170-ft Corinthian column called Nelson?s Column, which holds an 18-foot statue of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. (Nelson led the victorious British fleet against the French during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.) At the base of the column are four lions.
A little farther is 10 Downing Street where you?ll see the office of the British Prime Minister behind tall iron gates. As you keep walking (wear your most comfortable sneakers if you plan to do the London ?walkathon?), you?ll see Big Ben and London Eye. Seeing these two landmarks is like hitting two birds with one stone. It wasn?t even 1:30 p.m. yet we feel we?ve seen a lot of London.
The London Eye on Jubilee Gardens, South Bank, is a 443-ft tall observation wheel. Each egg-shaped capsule can accommodate 25 passengers and gives a 360-degree view of the city.
The Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster, aka Big Ben, is one of the largest clocks in the world and the largest in Great Britain. Quick facts: 25-ft diameter (clock face) with a 9-ft hour hand and 14-ft minute hand. Constructed between 1843 and 1858, Big Ben is one of the most reliable clocks in London.
Houses of Parliament
A couple of hundred meters away is the picturesque Houses of Parliament, where the House of Lords and House of Commons are located. Right across the street is Westminster Abbey where most royal coronations have been held since 1066. Over 3,000 are buried in the church and its cloisters, including artists, politicians and sovereigns such as Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.
A 20-minute nonstop brisk walk took us to St. James Park en route to the Buckingham Palace. The oldest Royal Park in the city, it is a sprawling 23-hectare paradise with many gardens and a lake.
The Buckingham Palace, the most famous destination in the city, is owned and still used by the British Royal Family. It has 600 rooms, including a ballroom, picture gallery, throne room, lavish state rooms, drawing room, state dining room, etc. There is even a swimming pool.
How to know if Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is in Buckingham? Four Royal Guards are stationed outside. If there are only two guards, it means Her Majesty is not within its premises.
Then there?s Kensington. Since we didn?t have time for the tube?s many stops, we took the cab. Cab ride cost us over ?45 from Buckingham, but since each cab seats a maximum of four we each forked out over ?11?or more than P770 each. (Tip: If you don?t want to have a heart attack, don?t compute the Philippine peso against the British pound, or any currency much higher than ours.)
Kensington, where the Kensington Gardens and Palace are located, is a posh neighborhood. People are better dressed, apartments have garages with luxury cars, roads are spanking clean?heck, even the dogs walk with an air of dignity.
The Kensington Palace, home of Princess Diana, is open to tourists for a fee. It has now been transformed into an ?enchanted palace? designed by Vivienne Westwood and William Tempest, among others.
A definite stop for any Beatle fan is Abbey Road, that small crooked road made famous when it made the cover photo of the band?s album of the same title. Tourists, including us, cause traffic when each group cross the street in attempts to duplicate the popular band photo (which showed the barefooted Paul McCartney).
We capped our day with an early dinner before heading back to the hotel to give our jetlagged bodies much-needed rest. That was a day well-spent, no pun intended. London is a breathtaking city, even for this harried tourist.