London, the Welsh, and the Wardrobe

Ever since I was little, I’ve dreamed of finally seeing Great Britain in person. Those hours spent with my face buried in Harry Potter, The Golden Compass, and The Chronicles of Narnia sent my imagination across the Atlantic to catch the Hogwarts Express at King’s Cross and explore Oxford’s dusty libraries. To my delight, my visit this past week was just as wonderful as I’ve always dreamed.

Can you say “gorgeous”?

I stayed with my friend Ariana, who’s studying English at Oxford for the year and served as my tour guide around England. A member of St. Catherine’s College, or Catz, she let me sleep on her floor and introduced me to the wonders of Indian and halal takeout. I saved money on a hotel and got to catch up with a friend I’ve known since middle school, so I’d call it a win-win.

First, of course, we explored Oxford University and the city itself, with its imposing Gothic architecture and countless libraries. (There are 38 colleges at Oxford, and each has its own library and dormitory.) We toured Christ Church Cathedral, whose familiar courtyard was used in the Harry Potter films, and St. Mary’s, which had an equally gorgeous and ornate interior.

Look familiar?

As we walked the cobblestone streets of Oxford, I kept reminding myself that so many great authors studied and wrote there. From J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll to Philip Pullman, authors have written and set their novels in this relatively small city 2 hours from London. That, combined with the general air of intense academia, intimidated me at first.

But then I got to meet some of Ariana’s classmates for drinks, and somehow Oxford became a little less scary. Sure, these college students are the kind who would get perfect SAT scores had they been American, but they still laughed and joked the same as any other college kid. (We had a movie night watching Brokeback Mountain, which was pretty entertaining since some had trouble deciphering the film’s heavy country accents.)

A few of my favorite spots and shops in Oxford: The Covered Market (a bunch of tourist-y shops near downtown), The King’s Arms (a favorite pub for Oxford students), Giraffe (just a really good restaurant), Phoenix Picture House (an arthouse movie theater where we saw Princess Kaguya), and The Eagle and the Child (I didn’t get to visit, but it was a favorite pub of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s).

I’ve never seen a more genuine British pub in my life. They’ve got two drink choices: Beer and cider. Tip: Ask for your cider “black,” which means black currant-infused. It was THE BEST.

Next came London. Unfortunately, we had to take a train or bus from Oxford to the city, but luckily British public transportation is miles–or kilometers–better than in the U.S. I forgot my camera, so Ariana took all the photos, and she’s in Belgium. So, photos later!

Have some photos of Oxford instead:

DCIM100GOPROAnyway, Big Ben was pretty cool but hard to get close to. I caught a glimpse of the London Eye but never went up it–I still haven’t been on a Ferris Wheel, actually. Must be the fear of heights. Someday…

Then, after a bunch of confusion with the London Tube, I got to meet up with my friend and future roommate, Kelsey. An English major and knitting addict, Kelsey attends TCU’s program at the University of Roehampton. She took us to 221B Baker Street and Chipotle–who knew London had both? It was nice to finally taste some Tex-Mex again, since Spanish “Tex-Mex” just isn’t the same. We rode a Lorry (one of those two-decker red buses) and I got a whole new view of London from the top.

DCIM100GOPROThe next day, Ariana and I toured the Tower of London, which was much smaller and less gory than I expected. We saw the Crown Jewels, aka a bajillion diamonds and other precious jewels that just happen to be in the shape of crowns and scepters. It only rained a little, and the cold wasn’t unbearable. Next was King’s Cross station and the much-anticipated Platform 9 3/4 photos. (Again, coming soon!) I can finally say that I’ve boarded the Hogwarts Express. It’s crazy that J.K. Rowling basically transformed part of her daily commute into a tourist destination with one children’s book series!

It’s winter, so the gardens didn’t look quite so impressive. The entire palace was still stunning, though.

On my last full day in Oxford, Ariana took me to Blenheim Palace (pronounced “Blehn-uhm”), the seat of the dukes of Marlborough–its most famous resident, though, was Winston Churchill. I never knew Churchill was part of the gentry, did you? The inside was absolutely gorgeous–plenty of gilt–and reminded me a lot of Versailles. For some odd reason, the palace was holding exhibit of Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei‘s work, which ended up in tourists walking in on a bunch of fake crabs littering the floor of one of the lavish bedrooms. It was definitely an interesting addition to an 18th-century palace.

DCIM100GOPROBecause my distant ancestors were Welsh, and also because train tickets to Wales were way cheaper than to Scotland, our next stop was Cardiff. There were significantly less sheep in Wales than I expected, which I guess makes sense for the capital city. But the landscape was definitely among the greenest I’ve ever seen. Living in Texas and southern Spain, you almost forget that nature can hold that much green!

Can’t leave the UK without any plaid!

We only had a couple hours in Cardiff, but it was still one of the favorite cities I’ve visited. It almost reminds me of an Austin to London’s New York–smaller, still a vibrant city, but way more relaxed and cool. Ariana and I stopped by a neat little thrift shop called Blue Honey and I bought a red plaid scarf (pictured to the right) and an antique turquoise ring that turned my finger green. It’s still cute, though.

The Doctor Who Experience would have been fun, but unfortunately it was too far out of our way. We visited the art section of the National Museum, but after the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay everything was pretty underwhelming. (Listen to me, I sound like the snobbiest tourist ever.)

I mean, can you blame me? Looks pretty impenetrable, right?

Much more exciting was Cardiff Castle, a Norman stronghold built on the remains of a Roman fort. I’ve seen surprisingly few castles during my time in Europe, and this castle helped remedy that. Oddly enough, in both Cardiff Castle and the Tower of London, one of my first thoughts was: “What a great place to hold out during a zombie attack!” Must be the Newsflesh series I’m currently reading.

My visit to the UK was a great way to mark the halfway point of the semester. It made me want to travel outside of Spain more, and really see the world before I have to go back home. There’s no place like home, sure, but there’s also no place like Europe.

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