What a beautiful day.  For the past 3 nights I’ve been wakened by thunderstorms.  Big booming things.  And then today I woke up and we had clear blue skies with a lovely cool breeze blowing.  No more heat wave.  A perfect day for walking.  I’ve been trying to walk to as many places as I can instead of taking the tube.  Keeps me exercising but also allows me to see the streets of London, the people.

Today I walked to Westminster Abbey – about 2¼ miles from my room.  A lovely walk – takes me through Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square.  I walked past 10 Downing Street and The Prime Minister catcalled me!  Cheeky bugger.  :)  Then past Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.  Very impressive.  But then I walked past them, crossed the street, and there it was… Westminster Abbey.  And I let out a little gasp.  The pictures I took can hardly begin to capture the grandeur of this place, but I tried.

You can’t take photos inside, which I was honestly relieved by.  Forced me to just focus on the beauty inside, take it all in instead of trying to capture, capture, capture.  Really hard to do, though.  It’s a bit overwhelming, the Abbey.  Lots to look at.  Many, many, many tombs, epitaphs, and effigies everywhere.  And then there’s the stunning architecture.  I saw the tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots!  Lots of musicians, actors, and poets have memorials or tombs here, too – Laurence Olivier, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, William Wilberforce – the man who helped to abolish slavery in England, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Hardy, on and on and on.  And then of course many kings and queens buried here in some very elaborate tombs.  Oliver Cromwell was at one time buried here, but after the restoration of the monarchy his body (DEAD body, mind you) was dug up, HANGED (still dead, mind you), then DECAPITATED and reburied at an unknown location.  His head is buried near the chapel of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge where he studied.  Geez.  Remind me never to tick these people off.

The really nice thing they do at the Abbey is every hour they ask you to stop and be silent for a minute of prayer.  Westminster is an active church, so they hold services every day, and anyone is welcome to attend.  I think it’s so wonderful that you can still worship in this beautiful place.  I lit a candle in Mom’s memory in the nave of the church, said a prayer for my family, for our leaders.  It was pretty incredible to be standing in the very place where William the Conqueror, Elizabeth I, and every single king and queen of England has been crowned since 1066.

I strolled to the garden and sat on the grass for a bit, said goodbye to the Abbey, took a peek at the coronation chair on my way out.

Then I hopped on a boat and took a cruise down the Thames, decided to get off at Greenwich, which is the last stop on the boat, about 30 minutes from the Tower of London.  I didn’t know what to expect, but it turns out the Royal Observatory is at Greenwich, and so is the Prime Meridian!  That’s right, this Greenwich is the home of Greenwich Mean Time.  And the line in Greenwich represents the Prime Meridian of the World - Longitude 0º.  Every place on Earth is measured in terms of its distance east or west from this line!  How cool is that?  It divides the eastern and western hemispheres of the Earth just as the Equator divides the northern and southern hemispheres.  You have to climb a very steep hill to get to the Prime Meridian and the observatory, but by the time I got to the top the gates were closed.  I’ll be going back to get my picture taken standing both east and west, though!  If you want to know more about all this, check out the observatory site.

Then back on the boat for a lovely sail back up the Thames, and home.

Oh, and by the way, Thomas Hardy's heart is buried in the churchyard at Stinsford in Dorset.  hee hee

 
 
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Beautiful windows in the Abbey cloisters

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Westminster Abbey

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The Cloisters inside the Abbey

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It seemed like there was so much more SKY in Greenwich!

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Just had to show you this

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Me at the Royal Observatory looking down toward the Thames

 
 
What most surprised me about this place is that people still live here!  What they call Yeoman Warders – 35 of them and their families – live inside the Tower of London.  They are retired soldiers whose sole duty it is to keep watch over the towers and grounds and probably more importantly, the crown jewels, because this is also where those babies are kept.  After all of the tourists have gone home, the Yeoman Warders, their wives and children, have this whole place to themselves!  What a strange, weirdly wonderful home to grow up in.  Playing ball where Anne Boleyn was beheaded.  Huh.

Well I skipped the crown jewels and just wandered the rest of the place, learned a whole lot of history.  And let me tell you, this place is a lot bigger than it looks from the outside.  It’s more than just one tower first of all – it’s a collection of several towers and a palace.  It’s gotten a gruesome reputation over the centuries because of the prisoners that were tortured and killed here, but it was never just a prison.  It was at times the quarters of the king and queen, especially when they wanted to hide out during troublesome times.

I think what I found most moving was what’s now referred to as Traitors’ Gate.  It’s been called that for the silly reason that 3 queens were delivered through it to their deaths – most notably Anne Boleyn.  But it was originally called Water Gate (no relation to Nixon’s) because it was built by Edward I so he could have a place to park his barge when he sailed up the Thames to the tower.  What I found so moving is that Anne’s coronation procession started from Traitors’ Gate when she married Henry VIII, and then 3 years later, he had her sent back through it to be beheaded.

There are a number of towers where prisoners were kept even up through WWII.  Rudolph Hess, one of Hitler’s Nazi party leaders, was kept at Beauchamp Tower for 4 days before his trial!  In this tower, you can view a kind of medieval graffiti – etchings prisoners made into the stone during their imprisonment.  Very sad and moving.  It was surreal to see a very beautiful etching done by one of Lady Jane Grey’s brothers-in-law – Dudley.  Jane, the Dudley brothers, and Jane’s husband were imprisoned at Beauchamp after Mary Tudor seized the throne.  Jane had been queen for only 9 days and her own father abandoned her and supported Queen Mary after having pushed Jane onto the throne to begin with!  She was only 16 when she was beheaded.  I’m going off on the history stuff, now, but I can’t help it.  I saw the spot on Tower Green where Jane and Anne Boleyn were beheaded.

And of course I saw what’s called the White Tower.  This is the oldest on the grounds, built by William the Conqueror in 1066!  And I walked around in it!  Can you imagine?  I've traced the Speegle side of my family tree all the way back to a woman named Muriel De Conteville, born in 1041.  Muriel’s mother was Harlette DeFalaise, who also had a son from an earlier affair with Robert I, Duke of Normandy.  That son’s name was William, later known as William the Conqueror.  So Will was Muriel’s half brother!  And if Muriel’s the 27th great grandmother of my great granddad Pratt, then that makes Will my great half uncle, like 2700 times removed, right?  Don’t I have some kind of royal rights to claim here?  :)

Anyway… enough dreaming.  I learned an awful lot more that I’d love to share, but this is supposed to be a blog, not a history lesson.  I took my friend Isabelle’s advice and snapped a couple photos of myself for posterity’s sake.  I’ll start posting more pics of myself, but they do NOT count as part of my 3, just so you know.  I’m having a hard enough time picking just 3 to show you without MOI mucking the whole thing up.  Been taking a lot of pictures of windows, too.  I seem to be fascinated by windows and doorways.  Some analyst would have a field day with that one.  One of my favorite pics is of a doorway in a plantation outside New Orleans that I took when I went with my Mom.  Wish she was here.

 
 
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Tower of London on the Thames - kind of cool, the very old juxtaposed with the new

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In keeping with my "windows" theme

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Traitors' Gate - Anne Boleyn walked up these steps!

 
 
Macabre in the morning means a visit to the Catacombs of Paris.  Oooooo…  These catacombs were created in 1785 to serve as an ossuary (literally a room or container for the bones of the dead) when Paris’s largest cemetery (where people had been buried for over ten centuries!) started becoming a danger to the townspeople (a lot you can read into that).  Before they became the Catacombs, they were quarries where tons of Lutetian limestone had been mined to create many of the most famous buildings in Paris, including the Louvre.  Hayden would be excited to know that this strata of stone is 45 million years old and the fossils of many extinct marine animals have been found here!  You can actually see fossils still embedded in the stone, although I didn't see any myself.

So they literally dug up most of the cemeteries around Paris and moved all of the bones into the quarries.  At first they just piled them in, but then in the 1800s they decided it might be nice to be a little more respectful about it, and the bones were arranged in a more “decorative” fashion.  Callie and I tried twice to see the Catacombs – the first time we got there around 5 and they were closed.  The second time we got there at 3:30, but it’s right around that time that they cut off the line because the last admission is 4pm.  It just so happened that WE were chosen to be the designated cut-off point!  Needless to say, frustrating.  So I finally got wise and went at 9am on my last day in Paris.  Callie wasn’t able to make it.  I waited in line 2 hours and finally – entre!  To get to the Catacombs I descended about 60 feet underground (180 narrow, winding stone steps).  I walked through a series of quarried corridors before reaching a large room where a beautiful sculpture had been chiseled.  It was created by a quarryman named Decure, who fought in the armies of Louis XV and was supposedly one of his best soldiers.  The sculpture is of a fortress from the island of Minorca where Decure is believed to have been held prisoner by the British.  Beautiful sculpture.

Then more winding corridors.  It’s very cool, and wet.  The walls and ceilings drip water at times, which didn’t make me feel all that secure!  And sound is very strange down there.  I could hear a guide giving a group of people the history of the place, and it sounded like he was far behind me and right next to me at the same time – I don’t know how else to describe it!  On the ceiling above me throughout the walk was a large snaking black line.  Visitors in the 19th century painted it there to keep from getting lost in the Catacombs, which makes sense because I noticed a lot of tunnels were closed off.  And from some images I’ve seen on the web, I suspect there’s quite a lot that the public doesn’t get to see – some very beautiful monuments and sculptures.  Click here if you want to see more.

Through more tunnels and then suddenly I’m standing at the entrance to the ossuary itself, with an inscription on the lintel that says “Stop!  This is the empire of death!”  And there before me, rows upon rows of skulls and bones.  Many, many winding stone corridors of skulls and bones.  It's actually not a creepy place at all, more kind of stunning.  I felt a sense of quiet respect.  It is, after all, a cemetery.  You are not supposed to use your flash when you take photos here (although many people ignored this), so I don’t have a lot to show.  But you can get an idea from the few that I have.  There are over SIX MILLION Parisians buried in the Catacombs!  ‘Nuff said.

After the Catacombs I didn’t want to spend my last few hours in Paris standing in another line, so I decided not to see Notre Dame as I intended.  Instead I went to the Tuileries, the gardens where André Le Nôtre trained before designing Versailles, and had a delicious lunch of croque monsieur.  Ever see the movie IT’S COMPLICATED?  Meryl Streep plays a bakery owner and in one scene she makes croque monsieur for Steve Martin’s character.  I’ve always wanted to try it!  Just obscenely buttery bread toasted with cheese and sometimes ham, I think, but she made it sound so good!  I think hers might be better, but it was yummy.  Then I walked along the Champs Elysees toward the Arc de Triomphe.  Think of a large, concrete outdoor shopping mall where you can’t afford to buy anything.  Just sat on a bench and people-watched for awhile, enjoyed the breeze, looked up at the Arc.  And I’m not sure, but I think I saw some of the riders in the Tour de France race down the Champs Elysees!  They came down the street as I was walking toward the Arc and everyone started cheering.  I just read that the last leg of the tour was supposed to come through there on the day!

Then, alas, it was time to say goodbye to Paris.  One last pic of the Metro that so graciously got me around the city.  And back to London on the train.

 
 
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The Catacombs of Paris

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Over 6 million Parisians are interred here

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Know what that black line on the ceiling is for?  Can you imagine getting LOST down here?

 
 
Today we traveled to Versailles, and I really have no words that will do this place justice.  The most beautiful place I’ve ever seen is the bio-bay at Vieques, Puerto Rico, where there are creatures in the water that phosphoresce at night, but the gardens and grounds of Versailles run a close second.

For that reason, I’m going to take a bit of photographic license and show you 3 photos from each area of Versailles – the palace, the gardens, Marie Antoinette’s manor, and Queen’s Hamlet.

I’ve also had a complaint from my brother that I’m not posting any pictures of myself!  This is of course on purpose because I hate taking or seeing pictures of myself, and this trip is more about what I’m seeing, not about seeing me, but I understand the gripe.  :)  Keith told me he wants to show the kids my blog and the first thing they’re going to ask is where the pictures of Auntie V are.  So I’m posting some special pics that I know Hayden and Nick will get a kick out of, and maybe some of you bigger kids too.

First off, this place is massive.  The courtyard is as big as a football field and we had to queue there to get in – about 6 very long snaking lines filling the courtyard.  We got there at 10:30 and even with what had to be nearly a thousand people in line it only took us about an hour to get in.

Neither Callie nor I are big fans of peeking at portraits of dead folks or checking out their china, so we just walked through the palace to see the “grand apartments” as they’re called.  But the Hall of Mirrors was a real treat – majestic and beautiful.  Inside the palace it’s a nightmare to get around.  So many people and so crowded, and the palace is decorated in what looks like the baroque style to me, so it’s pretty gaudy.  Took us about 45 minutes to go through it.  Then we had a yummy lunch of brie on baguettes and I indulged in a caramel éclair.  Couldn’t help it - it just looked too pretty!

And then a wonderful thing happened.  As soon as I left the palace and began wandering the gardens, it almost felt like I had the place to myself.  The grounds are just so vast that even with hundreds of people walking them, I could be alone in a patch of garden for a bit.  Really lovely.  And the gardens are what to go to Versailles for.  Andre Le Nôtre designed them for Louis XIV in 1662.  The immense size of the palace is impressive, but the gardens are gorgeous as well as vast.  Huge avenues lined with trees, striking fountains and statues, and surprisingly peaceful considering all the people.  You can also pay to take a tram car to Marie Antoinette’s manor rather than walk there (guess that big old palace wasn’t enough for her), but you should absolutely walk or you’ll miss a lot.  It felt like about ¾ mile to me, down a long, gorgeous avenue of trees.  Goats and sheep in the meadow.  Marie’s place felt more like a mausoleum than a home – lots of cold marble – but her gardens are also gorgeous.

Then Callie and I walked to Queen’s Hamlet – a little village she had built near her manor.  Straight out of medieval England, so quaint and pretty I could have sworn they shot THE HOBBIT here.

Today was glorious and I saw so many wonders that just reinforced my faith in God.  How can mere man – so flawed and fallible – create such beauty if not for the existence of a Maker ever more beautiful?

Hope you enjoy the photos!

Love to all…

 
 
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The palace & the gardens

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The famous Hall of Mirrors

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This is one of the most beautiful of the many statues that adorn the palace roof

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Very famous, very large fountain down the hill from the palace.  Can't remember the name.  There are statues of cherubs riding what look like snakes.  Anyone?

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The Dragon Fountain, just in front of that very large fountain

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Long avenue leading to Marie Antoinette's manor

 
 
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Avenue to Marie Antoinette's manor - love the shadows of those trees

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A window in the manor

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Her mausoleum - I mean, manor

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Queen's Hamlet cottages

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Queen's Hamlet

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More lovely cottages - couldn't find anyone to inquire about rents :)

 
 
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A goofy pic for the kids

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Hi Hayden, hi Nick!

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Just hangin' out at, you know - VERSAILLES!

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A sheep meadow on the way to Marie Antoinette's manor

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Fish in the pond at Queen's Hamlet

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Hayden, can you tell us what kind of bird this is?  He has an orangey-red beak.