It was another freezing miserable weekend in Melbourne and I was faced with the prospect of three weeks annual leave which I planned to spend touring regional Victoria.
The weather forecast was grim: rain and more rain. In desperation I booked a flight to the UK.
This was no planned trip. I had only a week to get my head around the details. All I had was my passport and no idea how to organise an overseas trip. But I knew that I had to go. With some help from my well-traveled son I organised the first few nights of my stay in London and resignedly left the country. I quite enjoyed the 24 hour flight with one stopover at Kuala Lumpur landing at Heathrow London at around 5.30am London time. From there I went via the London underground taking the Piccadilly line to Russell Square railway station situated in Bloomsbury, in the London Borough of Camden.
My first two nights were spent at St Athans Hotel in Tavistock Place, Russell Square which provided just the very basics in the way of accommodation. A single bed, a TV, free wi-fi, but no ensuite, let alone a kettle to make a cup of tea. So on my arrival I set about exploring the neighbourhood which can be done easily by foot.
I was delighted to find within the nearby Tavistock Square gardens a bust of one of my favorite authors, Virginia Woolf. Woolf and her husband lived at 52 Tavistock Square between the years of 1924 and 1939 and it was there that she wrote most of her novels and where she and her husband Leonard ran the Hogarth Press which became a prominent and influential publisher at the forefront of modernist fiction and poetry.
Bloomsbury is noteworthy in that many great thinkers had lived there over the centuries. It was here that Karl Marx worked on his theory of communism, Virginia Woolf defined the twentieth century British novel, and Charles Darwin first conceived the theory of natural selection. It’s also the home to the British Museum and to the Charles Dickens Museum. It’s at 48 Doughty Street where Charles Dickens lived and wrote. The museum is a beautiful place and of course multiple copies of his books were on sale but rather difficult to carry when one is determined to travel light, so reluctantly I didn’t buy any.
I found another great museum on my travels through London and that was the Florence Nightingale Museum. At this time there was a special exhibition displaying Nightingale’s part in the understanding of light as a therapy.
To celebrate the International Year of Light, the new exhibition at the Florence Nightingale Museum looks at the contentious history of light therapy. The Kiss of Light centres on the healing powers of light – and its risks. Light therapy was especially used for children to combat tuberculosis and rickets in clinics and sanatoria and even in the home by mothers eager to protect their child by exposing them to rays from trendy portable ultra-violet lamps.
Natasha McEnroe, Director of the Florence Nightingale Museum has written: “We are delighted to be able to reveal the hidden role that nurses played in this ground-breaking treatment, often displaying highly technical skills and specialist knowledge. From Queen Alexandra introducing the amazing Finsen Light to the most junior nurse working in a TB sanatorium, women played a leading role in light therapy.”
Florence Nightingale did not want to marry and after a long courtship refused to marry Richard Milnes and went on to become a nurse inspite of the fact that her family did not approve. Her mother thought she had chosen an occupation at odds with her position in society for at the time nurses were seen as coming from the lower classes. Florence wrote about the limited choices that were available to women such as her and raged against the way that middle class women were not able to put their intelligence to better use.
When one has had enough of walking around the city of London then it’s time to hop on the bus and do a tour of the major tourist sites such as Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. It was very busy in London and the crowds were disabling and frequently I sought solace in any park I could find such as Hyde Park which covers 350 acres and is home to a number of famous landmarks including the Serpentine Lake, Speakers’ Corner and the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain.
And at a rather low time I sought comfort walking through the Brompton cemetery-finding some peace far from the sounds of the relentless London traffic rushing up and down the narrow little streets. My accommodation at Park House Women’s Hostel in Earl’s Court was just terrible. The pokiest room with bathroom, kitchen and sitting room a shared space. There is no way that you can use the kitchen. It is a tiny cupboard space- airless and there are no utensils supplied at all. False advertising- the reason I chose it was that it had a kitchen where I thought that I could make some of my meals but this was not to be. It was run by arrogant, rude, male security staff. Do not go there!
But fortunately I moved on to Madrid. I’d had enough of London and wouldn’t want to return. I’d seen some of the main sights, felt some mild English sunshine, almost mastered my fear of the underground-it was time to move on. With the help of Grace at the Earl’s Court branch of Flight Centre I booked a trip to Madrid along with much improved accommodation.
Off to Heathrow airport again and a two hour flight to Spain. I had pre-arranged to be met at the airport and driven to my hotel. My driver was a cheery Spaniard and for the half hour drive we had a great chat in broken Spanish and English. I arrived at my hotel – the Best Western Carlos V, centrally situated and very close to the Puerta del Sol (Gate of the Sun) which is one of the best known and busiest places in Madrid.
Again I walked for hours around Madrid and thankfully it is possible to see so much by this means of free transport.
Within walking distance was the Plaza Major and this is a fairly large square which was very crowded when I visited. It’s where bullfights took place and it was often the location for outdoor food markets and theatres too.
I began my days with a really balanced breakfast held in the dining room of the hotel. Fruit and juices, cereals, spanish omelette, bacon, sausages, toast and coffee. Lunch was at one of the many great tapas bars and was very reasonably priced at around nine-ten euros which included wine and coffee.
On a very hot sunday in Spain I even found myself at the local Catholic church called Our Lady of Carmen. It was a sweltering evening and the church was a welcome retreat from the endless heat and crowds. I sat among the congregation engaged in Mass and enjoyed the peace which was such a contradiction from the worldly events just outside its doors.
Along with a huge police presence in Madrid was that of beggars. Middle aged, poor, dishevelled women sitting on the pavement; young men, often lame and very disabled supported themselves up against a building and held out their cups for filling. Then there were the artistic beggars such as the one on this photo. He was suspended in air with his only visible support-his hands resting on the bike in front of him. He was in this unreal position for the best part of an hour, maybe longer after I had left the square. How is this done? As the caption says they appreciate our photos but would like some money. They deserve it!
Again within walking distance I came across the Palacio Real de Madrid which is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family in Madrid, but is only used for state ceremonies. Next to the palace are the lovely Jardines de Sabatini where I spent some time resting. It was fairly easy to find my way around Madrid for the street signs are plentiful and easy to read. If I was a little unsure I would write the directions down in my notebook just in case I lost my way. And it was amazing how many other tourists asked me where such and such a place was, and how to get to some attraction and I was able to help them.
So how does it feel to be back in Melbourne? The weather is still really bad. I wake up wondering where I am but am glad that I’m not in the pokey hostels that I stayed in. But then it didn’t hurt me and in fact it was a great experience. I was very happy to be able to use what Spanish I knew and wish to improve on the language and learn French as well and visit Paris next time.