Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 March 2008
Issue No. 887
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Wild in the West End

Always an attraction to tourists, London fascinates Rehab Saad with its history, culture and lifestyle

Click to view caption
In Oxford Street, one of the world's famous shopping thoroughfares in the West End, you have to struggle from store to store. During the busiest times so many people are milling around that the street looks like an anthill

This was not my first trip to London. My first visit was six years ago and it was memorable. London was the first European city I had ever visited, however, I didn't feel like a stranger, not even for a second. Every place looked familiar, people were friendly and it was easy to communicate. Some render this feeling to the language. English is used widely in Egypt and most of us can understand it easily. But it's not just the language. It might be the atmosphere that gives us this feeling of warmth and familiarity or probably because of our knowledge of British history, culture and lifestyle that made us familiar with the streets, shops, theatres and museums without having previously seen them up close.

I had three full days to explore the city of London. The location of our Millennium Hotel on Sloane Street was strategic. It was in Knightsbridge, a road that runs along the south side of Hyde Park, west from Hyde Park Corner, spanning the City of Westminster and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The district is notable as an expensive residential area, and for the density of its upmarket retail outlets, famously Harrods, Peter Jones and Harvey Nichols.

Knightsbridge is also noted as the home of flagship stores for many British and international fashion houses. The renowned London-based shoe designers Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik are based here. There are two Chanel stores in the area, alongside banks for high net worth individuals, including Coutts-bankers to the Queen, rumoured to reject any potential clients worth less than 5 million. Some of London's most renowned restaurants are here, as are many exclusive hair and beauty salons, antiques and antiquities dealers, and a clutch of chic bars and clubs.

The four-star Millennium Hotel was cosy and warm and the receptionists were friendly. Checking in took less than 10 minutes. But before we received our keys the Ethiopian receptionist told us she needed to reserve 100 from our credit cards for use of the mini-bar and telephone calls. We were surprised because hotels in Egypt do not apply this system to foreigners travelling to Egypt. To solve the problem, we asked the receptionist to empty the mini bars in our rooms and to unplug the telephones. She agreed but said we had to remain in the lobby for not less than an hour before the procedure could be completed.

This was not the first time I faced such a situation in a hotel in Europe. In Frankfurt I was asked to pay 200 euros as a reserve to receive the mini bar key. In another hotel I was asked either to leave my credit card number or my passport in case I took something from the mini bar or had lunch or dinner in one of its restaurants. I'll take the friendlier and more hospitable Egyptian hotels.

Hotel rates in Knightsbridge are expensive. A standard room cost more than 200 and a deluxe room is over 300 but when you know that Gucci, Chanel, Fendi and other designer labels are your immediate neighbours, you'll not regret it.

We decided to explore the city the moment we put our luggage in our rooms. Oxford Street was our target. My friends suggested taking a taxi but I thought, economically speaking, a bus might be cheaper. We got three bus tickets for six pounds which is nearly the same rate of a taxi.

Oxford Street is a shopper's heaven. It is the major shopping street in the West End, though not the most expensive or fashionable, and part of a larger shopping district with Regent Street, Bond Street and other smaller nearby streets. For many British chain stores, their Oxford Street branch is regarded their flagship store and used for celebrity launches and promotions. The many brands existing on Oxford Street make you at a loss -- shall I go to Marks & Spencer where I can get everything for myself, my husband and my kids? Or shall I go to Debenhams? Or have a look at Clarks? Or Zara? Better yet, French Connection, or Selfridges. And what about the discounts everywhere? A Clarks ladies footwear for 29 and men's footwear for only 19. A ladies set from Next is for 60 and a towel set of four pieces from Marks & Spencer for 9. But do I really need all of these things? I don't know.

My friends discovered an even cheaper outlet, Primark, the flagstore of the low-price fashion retailer. It's a big Irish bargain store that includes everything: menswear, ladieswear, kidswear, sportswear, home accessories, cooking utensils, and gifts at unbelievably low prices. My friends spent hours there and came out with four big bags of towels, pyjamas, swimwear, shoes, kids clothes and pullovers, all for peanuts. However, it was not interesting for me at all as all its stuff is really basic, nothing attractive and you have to search hard to find your size, suitable colour or something fashionable. You have to have this talent of mixing and matching pieces together which I don't have at all. It reminded me of Al-Tawheed wa Al-Nour in Egypt (a bargain store with branches everywhere) which I have never succeeded in buying anything from.

The good news about shopping at Oxford Street is that so many big retailers are represented you'll be spoilt for choice. The bad news is that you may have to be prepared to struggle from store to store. During the busiest times so many people are milling around that the street looks like an anthill. No matter which day you choose to go there your shopping will be hampered by a mass of shoppers. To avoid the worst of the crowds you have to be an early riser and come between 9am and 10am -- Saturdays and Sundays are bad no matter what time of day it is -- when most of the other London shoppers are either in bed or having breakfast.

I lost my friends in Oxford Street. We decided to shop individually and then meet at a certain hour at one of the doors of Marks & Spencer. "The door overlooking Oxford Street," my friend stressed. I was waiting at the door, which I imagined to be the right one, at the exact time but there was nobody. I waited for half an hour and then decided to take a taxi to the hotel. It was funny to find out later that they were waiting for me at the neighbouring door on Oxford Street for half of an hour, then decided to pursue their shopping spree.

We all met at the hotel at night with a decision to change our clothes and go for dinner somewhere. Group leader Ibtissam had the idea of having dinner at one of the hotel's restaurants but after a discussion with the rest of the group we all decided to have our dinner at one of Piccadilly's restaurants. "We'll walk, it's just round the corner," said one of the trip organisers. This "round the corner" business turned out to be a good half an hour walk which I enjoyed very much. We finally reached Piccadilly Circus, tired and starving.

Piccadilly Circus is a busy plaza in the heart of London at the junction of five major streets: Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue, Piccadilly and Covent Street.

The Circus, created by John Nash as part of King George IV's plan to connect Carlton House with Regent's Park, is a famous London landmark. At its heart and backlit by colourful electric displays is a bronze fountain topped by a figure of a winged archer. The statue is popularly called Eros, the pagan god of love, but it was in fact designed in the 19th century as a symbol of Christian charity, a monument to Lord Shaftesbury, a philanthropist. It is surrounded by several noted buildings, including the London Pavilion and Criterion Theatre.

Piccadilly Circus is now partly pedestrianised and a favourite place from where to access the nearby shopping and entertainment areas. Soho, Chinatown, Shaftesbury Avenue and Trafalgar Square are all within walking distance.

We had many restaurant options. One suggested Pizza Hut but we turned that down as we wanted to try something new. We chose a Mexican restaurant that looked very cosy and fancy. The menu is more or less like that of Mexican restaurants in Cairo. Some ordered tacos, others grilled chicken, mixed grills and rice. After nearly an hour, the food arrived but to our disappointment it was topped with a sweet and spicy sauce which was not to our liking. But since we were starving we polished the plates clean.

We returned to the hotel by taxi and decided to have a tourist tour of London the following day.

After breakfast, we were on board a tourist bus for a city tour. The guide was very informative and had interesting stories in every place we visited. She did not only talk about the famous sites and buildings of London that we all know and read about but was also keen on talking about the best shopping areas, districts and streets where celebrities and famous hairdressers reside next to theatres and cinemas.

She also talked about the Great Fire of London, which was a major conflagration that swept through the central parts of London from 2 to 5 September 1666. She pointed to the area where it was thought it started from. The fire is said to have gutted the mediaeval City of London inside the old Roman City Wall. It threatened the aristocratic district of Westminster, Charles II Palace of Whitehall, and most of the suburban slums. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St Paul's Cathedral, and most of the buildings of the city authorities.

The guide explained that the Great Fire erupted just after the end of the Great Plague that gripped London from 1665 to 1666. The plague was a massive outbreak of disease that killed 75,000 to 100,000 people, up to a fifth of London's population. The plague, according to the guide, was transmitted via rats.

After the fire, London was rebuilt on an urban plan originally drafted by architect Christopher Wren which included widened streets, reduced congestion and basic sewage-drainage systems. Working on the assumption that rats may have caused the plague and due to the severe fire hazard they cause, thatched roofs were forbidden within the city, and remain forbidden under modern codes. The second rebuilding of the Globe Theatre in 1997 required a special permit to have thatched roofs.

We had a quick bus tour of London's major attractions including Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, London Eye, Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park. Our big stop was at St Paul Cathedral, an Anglican cathedral on Ludgate Hill and the seat of the Bishop of London. We knew that the present-day cathedral, the fourth to occupy this site, was designed by the court architect Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1675 and 1710 after its predecessor was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.

The first service took place in the cathedral in 1697. Wren's masterpiece is where people and events of overwhelming importance to the country have been celebrated, mourned and commemorated. Important services have included the funerals of Lord Nelson, the duke of Wellington and Sir Winston Churchill; jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria; peace services marking the end of the first and second world wars; the launch of the Festival of Britain; the Service of Remembrance and Commemoration for the 11 September 2001 victims: the 80th and 100th birthdays of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother; the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, to Lady Diana Spencer and, most recently, the thanksgiving services for both the Golden Jubilee and 80th birthday of the Queen.

Over the centuries, St Paul's has changed to reflect shifting tastes and attitudes. Decoration has been added and removed, services have been updated, and different areas have been put to new uses. The cathedral is one of London's most visited sites.

After finishing the tour of the cathedral I visited the gift shop which was well stocked with souvenirs, candles, religious pictures, guidebooks and block notes. There was also a café in the vicinity of the cathedral that serves coffee, tea, juices, cakes, tarts and muffins. Coffee was a very good option for me on such a cold morning.

We had lunch at Rock Garden Restaurant in Covent Garden where I had the best salmon ever and the greatest dessert. After lunch we went shopping then returned to the hotel.

On the third day we enjoyed the climax of the trip, touring Terminal 5. The terminal will be exclusive for British Airways and as our tour host Denise Mans Maunsell said, it is the biggest building in the UK. It is five floors and another five underground. Each floor is the size of 10 football pitches. "Five hundred flights are expected in and out a day and 30 million customers are expected a year," Maunsell said.

During the construction of the terminal, two rivers had to be diverted with all reptiles and fish still in them. "We've planted huge trees and plants instead. We used trees that don't attract birds because they could be dangerous to the aviation movement," Maunsell explained.

The view from outside the building is picturesque. On a clear day you can easily see Windsor Castle in the background. The Terminal 5 building is itself an architecture masterpiece. It is light, airy and modern with more than 30,000 metres of glass used to glaze the 40 metre-high and 396 metre-long main terminal building. This will reduce the need for artificial lighting.

Terminal 5 was designed by Rogers, Stirk, Harbour & Partners and has been built at a cost of 4.3 billion and using around 8,600 construction workers. The building is designed to ensure that customers keep moving in one direction, starting at one of the 96 check-in kiosks, before moving on to the fast bag drop desks followed by the northern and southern security search points.

According to Maunsell, security will be tighter at northern checkpoints than southern, as the northern parts will be where the buses and underground terminals exist.

Terminal 5 is user friendly as there are plenty of screens and information denoting the location of and amount of time it takes to get to each gate. "British Airways staff is also on hand to help with queries," she said.

On touring the lounges of Terminal 5, its retail shops, restaurants and spas, one feels like being in a hotel, not an airport and this definitely adds to the pleasure of the travelling experience.

There are six lounges within the new terminal. They are collectively known as "Galleries" and capable of hosting up to 2,500 people. They embrace a decadent new look and feel with crystal chandeliers, fabrics by Osborne and Little, art installations and mood lighting to reflect the time of day. Work and entertainment zones will allow customers to log onto the Internet, check their e-mails and view entertainment.

For those wanting to relax and indulge themselves, the Elemis Travel Spa will offer a range of treatments. They include customised facials, shoulder, scalp and back massages, and feet and hand re-energisers.

The large Galleries Club Lounge even includes a cinema where major televised events are shown.

Customers wishing to catch up on any retail therapy or fine dining can do so at Terminal 5. There will be 112 stores and restaurants across Terminal 5A and B offering an unsurpassed shopping experience. Gordon Ramsey, Harrods, Paul Smith, Mulberry, Hughes and Hughes, Mappin & Webb, Links, Cavier House & Prunier, Café Amato and Starbucks are a few of the names available at the terminal.

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