As Wendy briefly touched on in yesterday's "We're not dead" post, rather than working on our house we've been galavanting around the UK having a grand ole time. Sure we've been a bit absent since last week, but boy, do we have a great excuse as to why. Before I get ahead of myself, this is obviously hardly a DIY or home related post, but we hope you'll enjoy it (and honestly, if we're excited about something off topic, we can't help but blab on and on about it). Though I'm sure we'd love to report that we completed a major project, there's been no time for DIY of late. Last week Wendy made a very brief mention that we had a potential opportunity of a lifetime later in the week. We weren't sure it would happen, but we didn't want to talk about it and jinx it. So instead we crossed our fingers and kept a bit quiet.
Well, during that quiet time, we were feverishly planning our last minute trip to London, England. Yes, that's right, a last minute and hastily planned trip across the pond to visit one of the most amazing cities in the world right in the middle of their time hosting the Olympics. As a high school friend pointed out, this is apparently a luxury that is afforded to people of a certain age who happen to not have any children. I guess that's us.
A month before this trip, Wendy and I had requested a few vacation days for Friday, August 3rd with the intention of spending the weekend working on the house and maybe spending a day on the Eastern Shore. If we had time, we'd probably have ended up watching the Olympics too. Little did we know we'd have an opportunity to actually be there to see the games live. It all actually started with a very innocent Facebook message from a friend... "You want to go to London this weekend?" From this simple question we booked plane tickets, hotel nights, packed our bags, arranged for friends to care for Lulu and Mel, another friend to water our plants, and we headed out on a Thursday flight bound for Heathrow Airport! What followed was a true whirlwind adventure that we are so happy to have thrown ourselves into.
We arrived early morning on Friday tired from an overnight flight with very little sleep, but we could immediately feel the Olympic buzz. The pink, red, and purple that have dominated the broadcasts this Olympic games were immediately seen on signage all around the terminal. (Sorry for the blurry photo, we were excited to be there.)
Within just a few minutes we saw athletes and their families arriving and being taken to special security lines for quick entry. Neither Wendy nor I have ever been a part of an Olympic city during the games, so it was very exciting to see the pageantry.
We just love London and all there is to it. The history, culture, food (yes, even the food), and feeling of the city tends to appeal to us. It's also a city near and dear to Wendy's heart, as she lived in London for a summer during college studying international business.
Our purpose for making the trip was not to see the Olympics specifically, but rather to experience London during the Olympics. We arrived without tickets to any events, and though we were hopeful to somehow find some, it was by no means critical to our overall enjoyment.
Now don't get me wrong, it's not that we didn't try for tickets to an event, it was actually quite the contrary. However, the ticketing process for the Olympics is severely broken. To purchase tickets, you may only purchase from a reserved pool based on your citizenship. This meant we could only purchase tickets reserved for US citizens. We could also only purchase from a specific website, CoSport.com, which was horribly broken during much of the time we were there, telling us tickets were available on one page, and gone on the next. In all, we had two opportunities to purchase tickets, cycling at the velodrome for $665 a piece, and boxing for $400 per person. Other than that, there were no scalpers, traders, resellers,etc. to choose from, so our options were limited. Rather than drop a ton of money on an individual event, we focused on enjoying what the city had to offer in the way of free Olympic experiences.
Shortly after our arrival we met up with two friends from Manchester who were in London for a wedding. They graciously picked up some free tickets to an event at Victoria Park in East London near the Olympic stadium, so we headed that way.
Within the park there were several large screens set up showing various live events. In addition to the screens, activity booths, food stands, pubs, a stage with live music, and rides dotted the park. Among the various items was a very large ferris wheel.
We figured it had to have a great view of the Olympic park given Victoria Park's proximity to the village, so we opted for a ride. We sure are glad we went.
From the peak of the ferris wheel we were able to catch a beautiful glimpse across the newly constructed multi-billion dollar Olympic complex and village. The top of several iconic venues were clearly visible within a short distance of the park, and it was strange to think that each building was bustling with activity from whatever event was underway.
Though the velodrome, Olympic stadium, and aquatic center were all teeming with activity, the focus in the park was on Roger Federer's semi-final tennis match at Wimbledon. It was mid day on Friday, so the crowd wasn't too thick, but a good number of people were still at the park enjoying the day and the competition.
Knowing we needed a ticket to even gain entrance to the area near the Olympic stadium, we still decided to walk over just to see how close we could get to the action.
After a few minutes we reached one of the main gates for the Olympic perimeter.
Unfortunately, this was the end of the line for us. The days events were long sold out, so we'd need to stand by and watch ticketed individuals approach and gain access.
Even though we didn't have tickets, it was still fun to get near the massive stadium, and to see the enthusiasm from the surrounding flats.
We also noticed the colorful flags with 2012 Olympic logos that we would continue to see all over the city on banners, signs, jackets, and billboards.
We spent the rest of the day walking around and enjoying the city as well as an authentic pub experience. Thanks to our friends, we now have a slew of fruity ciders to add to our "must drink" list.
After a good night sleep, we headed out on Saturday morning to explore the city a bit more. The thing that we both noticed was how transformed the city had become. Though the Olympics lasts just two weeks, the planning and implementation of the various aspects that revolve around the Olympics becomes a way of life. Roads are transformed with Olympic only traffic lanes...
...popular tourist attractions and well known areas are draped in banners and pennants, like these in Covent Gardens.
And truly iconic and historic thoroughfares, such as the Mall leading up to Buckingham Palace, are adorned with the Olympic flags and transformed into sporting venues.
The magnitude of the city's transformation and logistics of its implementation are simply mind boggling. I can't even begin to imagine the level of effort necessary to pull something like this off.
Though I was unprepared for how much Olympic paraphernalia to expect, I still expected an awful lot. In addition to all of the banners and signs, the city was covered in large and eclectically decorated versions of Olympic mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville.
Similar to the various sculptures that cities often place around in various areas, these guys were all over the place and decorated with imagery or outfits that reflected the area.
What I didn't expect was the number of athletes we would see out and about around town. After a while I realized that many of the athletes representing the various countries were in London to both compete in the Olympics, as well as to be tourists on vacation. This meant that we were very likely to see many of the athletes at the places we were touring. Overall, they were easy to pick out, each one wearing their country's uniform, and each typically had a patch or lettering that outlined their specific event, team, or specialty. During our time we saw Canadian equestrians, Italian runners, Chinese handball players, Swedish rowers, and a litany of other athletes taking in what London has to offer. But no sightings were as cool as the one we had Saturday morning at the London Bridge Underground station.
As I rounded the corner and approached the platform, I noticed two very tall women standing and posing for a photograph. I quickly realized they were wearing the Team USA. issued warmups we had seen all other United States athletes wearing, and they must be either Basketball or Volleyball players, on account of their roughly 6'3"-6'8" height. In a bit of an out of character moment (I'm usually pretty reserved and try to let people have their space), I asked them if they wouldn't mind if Wendy took a photo with them. They obliged. Actually, they more than obliged, they actually talked Wendy into it. At first Wendy said "No no, it's ok, I don't want to hold you up." To which the women responded "No, really, come take a photo." Wendy stood between the towering women while I quickly snapped a pic on my phone.
It was so cool. The two Team USA Olympic Volleyball players are Foluke Akinradewo (right) and Tayyiba Haneef-Park (left). The team had been on a hot streak and was undefeated, and we just saw them walking around in the tube. This is what I mean by getting the Olympic experience without actually having any tickets. Tickets would have been nice, sure, but tickets to an event do not often get you photos with players. But I still didn't stop trying.
I checked the ticket website a few more times to see if any additional tickets came up for sale, but unfortunately none did. It was about this time that Wendy heard something on the television about the Women's marathon being run on Sunday morning. The marathon course would take the women form the gates of Buckingham palace along a 13 mile route down the Thames, around the Tower of London, and back to Buckingham, and they would do this loop twice. The majority of the course was along city streets and the crowd was free to gather on the street without tickets. We figured this was perfect. Without tickets to any events, we'd still be able to witness at least one true Olympic event live and in person, even if it was for only a few fleeting moments.
On Sunday morning, just as we prepared to head out to watch the race, the skies opened up and it began to pour! (I know, raining in London -- can you believe it?) Determined, we waited out the worst of the rain, then bought umbrellas from a nearby store and headed down to the Waterloo tube stop. When we arrived and walked across the river, the women had already made their first pass, so we grabbed a spot on the Hungerford footbridge to watch as they made their first return trip nearing the halfway point of the marathon. You can just see the lead pack on the side of the street nearest us with a wall of people on either side rooting them on.
There were several decent vantage points from the bridge, but as it got more crowded the police began moving us along.
It was the most polite police presence I've ever witnessed. "Please, you're going to need to begin moving off of the bridge, as it is apparent the foot traffic is causing congestion. Thank you for moving." Besides, everything always sounds more polite with a British accent. In the next photo, you can see where each participant country has it's own dedicated water table identified by a flag and three letter code. Very cool.
After that first pass, we worked our way down to street level to hopefully get a bit better of a view. The women only took about eight minutes to get back to our spot for the second pass, but you could easily tell they were coming as the crowd picked up their cheering and noisemaking when the lead pack approached.
By this point in the race the groups had split into a tight lead pack, followed by other groupings of runners.
Their final pass on the course would bring them by on the other side of the road again, but not before they would wind through the various landmarks along the river. Washington DC's Marine Corp Marathon in October is known for its views of monuments and famous sights, but it can't compare with this Olympic course. Runners passed The Tower Bridge, Tower of London, St. Paul's Cathedral, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Parliament, just to name a few. But only about 30-35 minutes later, the women were racing towards the finish line at about mile marker 24 or 25. Here's the lead back still jockeying for position just a short distance from Olympic glory or defeat.
First came the lead truck with the camera equipment and timer board...
...followed closely by the tight lead pack jockeying for position.
Obviously fatigued, the women were still running at a speed that I, as a runner of sorts, couldn't even maintain for more than a quarter mile, let alone 26.2. It was astounding to witness in person.
After their final pass we left our location and headed over to Trafalgar square. The path of the race brought the runners in this direction and the square was buzzing with people, in spite of the on again/off again showers.
Trafalgar has a great vantage point across some of the city's most beautiful landmarks, so it wasn't a bad place to stop and get a nice photo or two.
After a quick bite to eat (for some great fish & chips), we headed over towards Big Ben and Westminster. In this part of town It was odd being in London during the Olympics. Usually a city where you are constantly watching out for the next car that might run you down if you venture into the cross walk without looking Right before looking left, the streets were often shut down due to events. This meant we were free to wander down the center of streets, and take everything in. It was once of those "chance of a lifetime" sort of things that we were glad to take advantage of.
If you've never seen them in person, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and Parliament are simply breathtaking and practically worth the trip alone. We weren't able to go inside since it was Sunday, but the exterior was still quite amazing.
We also posed for a few obligatory self portraits while standing in the middle of intersections. We're so lame.
One thing about this trip, we walked nearly everywhere! We averaged about 30,000 steps according to Wendy's Nike Fuel Band, which equates to about 12-13 miles per day. So for our last night we found it only fitting to walk along the Thames just before sunset and visit Tower Bridge before heading to dinner.
The bridge was all decked out for the Olympics with a large set of rings hanging under the upper structure. These rings would tuck up under the structure when the bridge needed to be raised so a boat could pass.
On the south bank of the Thames, just beyond the bridge, there was a large outdoor park with video screen where everyone was watching the track events for the evening.
We ate dinner at an Italian place just beyond this, and we were able to listen to the crowd's excited cheering with ever major success from team GB. We ate outside with one of the most beautiful views we've ever had for dinner.
Through the entire meal we were treated to the light show on the Tower Bridge.
The bridge's light show lit the entire structure with various colors, both from inside and out. It was almost like a fireworks display.
We could also see the Tower of London across the river, proudly lit for a majestic view.
We decided to walk back to the hotel after dinner, roughly 6 miles, but it was a very enjoyable long walk along the south bank of the Thames. At one point on our stroll, we walked past a very tall man in Olympic gear that caught our eye. It turns out it was was Tyson Chandler of the US Men's Basketball Team. I couldn't believe how tall he was, and he was wearing his Team USA uniform. It was a very cool time to be in London for sure.
As we crossed the another bridge we noticed a nearly perfect view of the Tower Bridge with the rings deployed and a beautiful moon hanging overhead. It was a wonderful and picturesque view that was a great cap to our day and trip.
As I said, we didn't go to London to see the Olympics, we went to London to experience the city during the Olympics. I'd say we were wildly successful and had a wonderful time that was truly a once in a lifetime experience. We're very fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in such a rare chance at a major event.
Have you ever taken a crazy spur of the moment trip? Have you ever been to an Olympic event? We're not typically spontaneous people, so this was decidedly out of character for us. What do you think? Does this classify as a dream trip or a nightmare scenario for you?