Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rio, New Orleans, and... Notting Hill?

Sure, everyone knows you can let the good times roll in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, or samba the night away in Rio during Carnival.  But who knew that the biggest street festival in Europe was London's Notting Hill Carnival?  I certainly didn't.  In fact, the only reason I even knew about the carnival were all the posters in the Tube.  But since we didn't have any other plans for Monday, we decided to check it out.

While I tend to associate Notting Hill with the sort of affluent Englishman portrayed by Hugh Grant in the movie Notting Hill, or with the celebrities who actually hang out there, this neighborhood also has a vibrant Afro-Caribbean population from places like Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, and the Virgin Islands.  The carnival arose as a way to bring them all together and celebrate their heritage, and it attracts more than a million people over the bank holiday weekend at the end of August.  We happened to pick the "adults" day (Sunday's festivities were geared towards kids), which was centered around a day-long parade with lots of music and vendors selling jerk chicken and other Caribbean foods.

There was some concern about holding the carnival at all this year, in light of the recent riots, but they beefed up the police presence and moved back the closing time to 7 pm to discourage any unpleasant behavior.  We were surprised to see that the entire neighborhood was closed to cars -- probably close to an entire square mile of London was devoted solely to the carnival.  I imagine many of the local residents left town for the weekend, especially since they couldn't even park their own cars on the street.

Here are some photos from our day at the Notting Hill Carnival...
Local shops and restaurants selling tropical fruit and jerk chicken
Many shops, restaurants, and homes were boarded up as a precaution
We knew we were in Notting Hill because everyone was taking photos of the
Travel Book Shop

Many of the costumes had an Olympic theme

The parade moved slowly, and people kept ducking in to pose for photos.

It got more crowded as the day progressed

In between dancing groups were massive trucks blasting music

A mobile dance party followed this truck down the parade route
Several trucks carried entire steel bands
The parade rounds the corner and comes down the hill

By 6 pm, we had had our fill of loud music, crowds, trash, and the smell of grilled jerk chicken mixed with marijuana smoke.  For security reasons, there were no trash cans within the carnival area.  While there were feeble attempts to create designated trash areas, by the end of the day the streets were covered with food containers, bottles, cans, coconuts, pineapples, and chicken bones.  There are no open container laws here, so people were drinking entire bottles of wine and hard liquor in addition to cans and bottles of beer and soft drinks.  No wonder they were concerned about riots! 

As we walked back towards Kensington, we saw at least a dozen police vans heading towards the carnival area.  It was hard to imagine that there were any police left who weren't already there, but I guess they needed to send in reinforcements to make sure the carnival actually ended at 7 and to get people to clear the area.  We later heard that there was a stabbing just as we were leaving, but police still claim that this was one of the more peaceful carnivals to date.

We were hungry enough to stop for dinner at Josh's favorite place in Kensington, the Old Dutch Pancake House, on the way back to the Tube station.  Perhaps all that secondhand pot smoke gave us the munchies...

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I See London, I See France...

This past weekend was a "Bank Holiday weekend" -- a 3-day weekend, roughly equivalent to Labor Day weekend -- so we thought we should try to get out of town.  But since we failed to make any plans, or reservations, in advance, a day trip was our best option.  Saturday morning we took the high-speed train from London's St. Pancras station to Dover.
High-speed train at St. Pancras station
Dover Priory station
The forecast called for mostly sunny skies with a high of 65 degrees and a 10% chance of rain, so it seemed like a good day to be out and about.
Dover Town Council and war memorial
Our first stop was the Roman Painted House, which was actually a hotel.  It was built by the Romans around 200 AD, and demolished about 70 years later to build a fort.  It remained buried for 1,700 years until it was discovered during the construction of a parking garage in 1970.
When in Dover...
The museum was clearly built around it in the 70's and hasn't been updated since, but despite being dated and a bit musty, it was still worth seeing.  The hotel had underfloor heating and elaborately painted walls depicting scenes related to Bacchus, the Roman god of pleasure.  What kind of hotel was this, exactly?
An 1,800-year-old hotel
The wall panels reminded me of my 8th grade Science Fair, but I thought this one was particularly interesting.
4,000 years of strata
Next stop, the town center...
Dover town center
From which we could see Dover Castle in the distance...
Castle from town center
And paid a visit to the Dover Museum.
Dover Museum
No idea who these guys were...
Or why they had a display of 80's pop culture items
War stuff
While we were in the museum, it started POURING rain.  So much for the weather forecast.  At least we were indoors, so we took our time looking at the highlight of their collection -- the oldest known seagoing boat, which dates back to the Bronze Age.
A 3,500-year-old boat
Boat reconstructions
When the rain let up, we found a nearby cafe for lunch, and then took a taxi up to Dover Castle just as it started raining again.  Fortunately, it stopped soon after we arrived and the sun made another welcome appearance.
Entrance to Dover Castle
Like most castles, Dover Castle is steeped in history, but this one spans a remarkably lengthy time frame.
The Great Tower, well fortified
Before the castle even existed, the Romans built a pharos, or lighthouse on this site.  It's still standing, although the upper portion was rebuilt during Medieval times.
St Mary's Church and Roman Pharos
Next to the pharos is St. Mary's church, which also pre-dates the castle and was largely rebuilt during the Victorian era.  No idea why they built it so close to the pharos.
Church interior
We happened to be visiting the castle while they were doing some kind of pirate-themed historic re-enactment.
Pirate encampment?
They were demonstrating how to load and fire a musket.
Which was quite loud and produced a lot of smoke -- and crying children.
The cannons were louder, smokier, and produced even more howls and wailing from the toddlers in attendance.  Even from where we were standing, quite a distance away, we wished we had brought earplugs.
After the fireworks were over, we toured the Great Tower, which was built by King Henry II in the 12th century.
Scale model of the Great Tower
The tower was impressively huge with many different staircases and several sizable rooms decorated as they would have been during the reign of Henry II.
Princes' bed chamber
Dining hall
guard's room
King's chamber (with king)
After climbing many, many stairs, we eventually made it to the top of the tower.  (They must have been in great shape in those days.)  There was a lovely view from there, and we could see the coastline of France across the Channel.
I can see France from my castle!
Dover waterfront from the castle
Dover Castle's location made it a strategic spot during wartime.  Especially when France was involved.  During the Napoleonic Wars in the 18th century, a complex of tunnels was dug into the chalk cliffs to house military troops.
Sea wall and artillery
During WWII, the tunnels were put to use again for Operation Dynamo, evacuating soldiers from Dunkirk.  They were declassified in the 1980's and opened to the public in the 90's.  They have an interesting exhibit in the tunnels that helps re-create what it would have been like to be stationed there during WWII.
Secret wartime tunnels
Coastal Operations Room
Coastal Operations Room
Telephone repeater station
"Loo with a View"
In the tunnels
From the lookout point, you get a pretty good view of the French coastline, even without a telescope.
View from Admiralty lookout
The castle closed at 6 pm, but by 5:40 they were already shutting down the gift shop and locking up the tunnels, so we headed for the exit.  They take their closing times very seriously here.  If something closes at 6, that means the lights are out, all the doors are locked, and the employees are on their way home by 6 pm.  As we walked back down the hill towards the waterfront, it was clear many others had taken this same path from the castle.  A door on the back of a building was completely covered with the stickers you are supposed to wear to indicate you paid the admission fee.
Josh sticks to the stickers
Just beyond that was the ruins of St. James's Church, which dates back to the 12th century and was destroyed during WWII.
Captain Morgan
We took a walk along the Dover waterfront, where we finally got a view of the famous white cliffs of Dover.
Dover cliffs with WWII structures
We were tempted to hop on one of the ferries and cross the Channel to France, just to say we had done it, but it was a little late in the day.  But now that we've seen all the highlights of Dover, we can happily pass through it next time without feeling like we are missing out on anything.
Ferries to France
These big ferries transport cars across the Channel.  I suspect there must be a high rate of traffic accidents in Dover and Calais as people are suddenly required to drive on the opposite side of the road from what they are used to -- and what their cars are designed for. 

We were hoping to find a nice waterfront restaurant where we could have dinner while watching the ferries come and go, but we were surprised - and disappointed - to discover that there was only one, and it was ridiculously overpriced.  We did get a nice view of the castle from a nearby pier, though.
View of Dover Castle and cliffs from the pier
After an unremarkable dinner at an Italian restaurant in the town center, we took the train home.  I look forward to seeing Dover again -- on my way to France!