Monday, November 17, 2008

A Palace, Rembrandt, Big Ben, and The London Tower Bridge - I'm Really in London

Could I be dreaming? Several times I paused to stand in disbelief at what my eyes were seeing – Buckingham Palace, a Rembrandt painting, Big Ben, and the London Tower Bridge.

On my first day in London, I went directly to Buckingham Palace. I wandered around the exterior on this cold November day. I admired the ornate gates and fence. From spaces between the bars of the fence, I watched two guards stand motionless in the courtyard. They wore the traditional bear skin hats and long gray coats. These young men weren’t just tourists’ decorations; each held an automatic weapon ready to react if necessary.

Buckingham Palace has served as the monarch’s permanent London residence since the accession of Victoria. With Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in residence at this time of year, the palace was closed to visitors except for The Queen’s Gallery. Had I visited London in August or September, I could have toured the 19 Palace State Rooms. Instead, I had to be satisfied with the Gallery which proved to exceed my expectations. (The Queen’s Gallery . Located on the south side of the palace on Buckingham Palace Road.)

One exhibit, Bruegel to Rubens Masters of Flemish Painting, featured over 50 paintings created during the period of 1500 – 1665. It included masterpieces by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, his son Jan Bueghel, Rubens and his assistant Van Dyck. I learned that the Flemish portrait painting of this period was admired for its meticulous techniques and realism. The Flemish artists also excelled as landscape artists. I was grateful for the self-guided audio tour of the Gallery included with the admission price. The narration about select painting called attention to details I surely would have overlooked and expanded upon the significance of each piece as it represented life during that period of history.

The second exhibit, Treasures from the Royal Collection, was more than paintings. Here I saw ornate furniture and other pieces of art collected from royal residences across the United Kingdom. A Fabergé egg and other pieces of his work held my attention as I studied each small jeweled item. More jewels decorated a royal crown. The narrative claimed that at first the crown had some opals in the settings, then a royal decided to replace the opals (my favorite stones) with emeralds and rubies. The crown and accompanying diamond earrings in the protective case sparkled like nothing you’d see in a mall jewelry store. I returned to this display several times to admire the gems. And, then there was one painting that caught my eye and called me back several times to stand in front of it admiring it and studying its detail. It was a very dark painting dating 1638 depicting a woman kneeling at a tomb. Angels sat on the stone. A man with a beard stood near her. She seemed startled to see Him. This was Rembrandt’s Christ and St. Mary Magdalene at the Tomb. I asked myself, could I really be seeing a Rembrandt? Yes, I was inches away from a masterpiece created by this renowned artist. A feeling of awe came over me reserved for those occasions when something truly special is witnessed. This made my visit to The Queen’s Gallery as priceless as this painting.

A gentle rain fell as I left Buckingham Palace for a stroll through St. James Park. This is one of the oldest of the royal parks according to my guidebook – London: The Rough Guide. I was enjoying the fall colors, reds and yellow leaves still on the trees, when I saw the top of Big Ben on the skyline. Like a beacon calling me, I walked in the general direction of this famous clock. I lost sight of if a few times but heard if chime so I kept moving until finally the huge clock tower was in clear view. The Big Ben had a rainbow arching over it. It was 4:10 PM. What perfect timing!

Several days later in gale force winds and rain, I visited the London Tower Bridge. Just like Big Ben, I could see it long before I approached the London icon for a closer view. The attraction is about a 10 minute walk from the London Bridge Station but I took longer pausing to take photos. Also, I had to stop too many times in order to snap my umbrella back into shape. Gusts of wind blew it inside out. My Dollar Store red umbrella offered little protection from the downpour even when I turned it back in to its functional downward curve. Despite the wind, rain, and upturned umbrella, I crossed the London Bridge high above the Thames River thinking about Mary Poppins. This favorite childhood character frequently used her magical umbrella to lift her into the air and fly across London. Surely, her creator had been on the London Tower Bridge on a day like this and found inspiration here. Even though the rain soaked my jeans to the knees, I watch the passing small cars and red double deck buses from the bridge walkway. I was really in London!

November 7 & 10, 2008

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