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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Royal Day in London

First thing in the morning we head out in the glorious sunshine to begin our Royal Day-- Rich in his new regal gold jacket and me in my red silk flapper dress. The first stop is the Royal Mews, where the Queen's stables are kept. We're a bit early so we shop at the Palace gift store, where I purchase royal mugs for my mum and sister(the official ones with the gold initials of Catherine & William painted on them that cost 4 times as much as the other mugs). I also grab a tea towel for me with the Buckingham Palace unicorn and lion logo, along with some quilted bags in the official Victoria & Albert floral pattern since they're now my favorite royals. (Did you know all royals have their own patterns? I didn't.)

At the Royal Mews, after getting our bags searched, which is protocol at all royal venues, we opt for the guided tour. We pass two lonely-looking horses-- the only horses of the Queen's we'll see for the rest of the excursion. An eager tourist puts out his hand to touch one of the steeds and gets royally scolded and practically admonished by a curt-lipped employee in a long navy skirt and blazer. We all bristle at the verbal lashing from the woman, who turns out to be our tour guide.

Now, if you like seeing gilded carriages in their garages without the glory of witnessing them in a parade led by Windsor Greys and filled with smiling Royalty, then you'll like the Royal Mews.
But even though I'm an avid horse lover, seeing a bunch of carriages cordoned off in their stalls without animals or people, made them appear like empty hulks, however shiny, and it was disappointing. What brightened our tour, though, was the rare chance that we'd picked the one day of the year when a carriage club rides through Hyde Park.

With the permission of the Queen, the club uses the square in the Mews to prepare, so we did see plenty of beautiful horses (and Windsor greys!) along with lots of wide-brimmed hats and morning suits as the club of wealthy Brits sipped on champagne before setting off on their journey.

We time our tour to finish just before the Changing of the Guard and head outside to the Palace Gates. The throngs of people are more than I'd imagined for the daily guard-changing. "Must be at least 5,000 out here," Rich says to me, holding my hand tighter. We work our way across the street in a mad dash before clambering behind the barricade in front of Victoria's Monument, which is the best vantage-point to catch the band. From what I've read,it's also the most enjoyable part of the ceremony anyhow. And I can't imagine hiking onto Rich's shoulders to peek through the Palace gates in order to catch a glimpse of the guard change. While we wait for the band a friendly Canadian-- a man from Ottawa here with his daughter, takes our picture.

I hear the sound of the musicians approaching and am happy when it crescendos as it gets nearer, drowning out the frantic chatter from the lady beside me, who is trying to block my shot with her camera.
Once the crowd clears, we walk to the Queen's Gallery. I thought I'd love the Mews and just feel sort of tepid about the Gallery, but it turns out to be quite the opposite.

"Make sure you visit the loos," the young lady checking my purse tells us. "They're the nicest in all of London." And I think she must be right. After dabbing some lovely lotion onto my hands in the marble and mahogany-paneled loo, Rich and I head up to the Gallery to view, "Treasures From The Royal Collection," a menagerie of art forms acquired by British kings and queens over the last 500 years.

The domed ceilings and massively-tall hunter green walls of the Royal salons are enough to intrigue me, and make a stunning backdrop for the Sevre porcelain, the Rembrandts and Flemish oil paintings. Some six-foot tall themselves, the pieces are all priceless and owned by the British Monarchy-- the dowry, I suppose of the newest Princess, Catherine.

It's the most manageable and enjoyable collection in a Gallery I've seen-- just 4 rooms joined by glass doors and the British Royal lineage.

I love the collections. In particular, the ones of the Prince Regent, who became George IV, and the most prolific collector of important works in British Royal history. He's filled his salons with paintings by Stubbs, Van Dyck and Rembrandt,and I'm so delighted to discover them through the audio tour, which is included in admission and you must take it if you go. They don't just read what appears on the plaque beneath each painting; Royal curators and art critics literally transport you into the world of King George-to-be: serenading us with music from the century of the paintings we gaze upon, whilst (I couldn't wait for a reason to use that word)listening to the explanation of what makes the pictures so grand, or important.

It's an hour of blissful time-travel-- and a kind of cultural-revolution for me--discovering some startling stories behind the paintings that give me plenty of story ideas. But we must be heading to Rubens, which is across the street from the Royal Mews, where we're booked to have the afternoon tea I've been waiting to enjoy for the past three months.

You have to reserve months ahead to get the window seat for tea at Rubens in the Palace Hotel Lounge, and we sink into the plush cushions of the settee, peering out at the Mews.

"You sure I won't be the only guy doing this?" Rich asks me. "Of course not," I assure him, even though there are two women beside us enjoying the champagne tea and no men in sight. Rich's interest perks up when he eyes the tiered cake stand on display in the window, laden with sweets and scones dripping of chocolate.
"Are those ours or display?" he asks. We wait to find out as our server welcomes us to tea and asks us which pots of tea we'll be having. Since you can have as many as you like, I go for the Earl Grey to start and the pot is about a 5-cupper,poured gingerly into my porcelain teacup through a sterling silver strainer by a smiling young man who says it's their custom blend. It's so fragrant and delicious, I get Rich to try it. He agrees it's the best traditional tea he's ever had, even better than his Rooibos red bush.

We order the Afternoon Tea, which starts off with finger sandwiches. (If you go, make sure to try the chicken salad in the shiny buns they call rolls. They are delicious). Rich kindly asks if he can have some more and eats about four. We raise our teacups to the many sightseers on double-decker buses that stop in front of the Mews and eyeing us with envy, as a pianist entertains the room with show tunes from a baby grand.

I go for the Oriental Sencha tea when the scones arrive, little mini-versions of the ubiquitous fist-sized ones served at all the bakeries--some raisin, others chocolate or plain. I love any dessert that's dense and doughy and these are really special. Almost as good as the Henderson's cherry scones in Edinburgh and much lighter-tasting. We have them with clotted cream, house-made strawberry jam,(which I wish they'd sell. They would make a fortune),and a kind of chocolate-hazelnut butter that Rich slathers his entire scone with.

I nibble on a smoked salmon finger sandwich, my second favorite of the sandwiches, as well as a tomato avocado.Finally, I go back to Earl Grey for the top tier of the cake stand.(We get our own, by the way. Turns out the one in the window is the display.)

The top of our cake stand is devoted entirely to sweets like peanut butter milk chocolate mousse, pineapple custard they call a financier, vanilla cheesecake and what becomes the crowning dessert of the trip-- a red velvet-colored macaroon stuffed with fresh raspberries and infused with rosewater and lychee. It's topped with a single petal from a red rose.

A leisurely two hours later and we're absolutely stuffed and tea-logged but surprisingly, we're the first to leave the lounge. So it is true when they say, "Expect to spend the afternoon when you're at tea in London."

On our way home, a London Bobby on horseback stops traffic. The carriage club is just returning to the Royal Mews from its afternoon in Hyde Park.

But I can't imagine them having a more enjoyable time than Rich and I had at Rubens.

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