Day 1: Thursday 3/9
Woke up at 3:30a to make a train at 4:30 to Pisa for a 7:30 flight. Everything went smoothly except I didn’t have any breakfast food and nothing was open even at the airport. I got a Pisa stamp before leaving for some reason which is my first Italian stamp! I didn’t get one on the way in because we landed in Zurich first. On the plane I was in the very last row (which made it easy to get in and out) between two very broad shouldered men so I was a little cramped. I landed in London stansted airport and it was a beautiful sunny day. There were two lines for customs coming in: one for EU passports and one for all others and the EU line was easily 10 times longer than mine. But they were going SOO slow and by the time I got to the front the cranky lady made me go to the back of the line because I didn’t know Kenzie’s address where I was staying at when I got there. Luckily I didn’t get her the second time through but the customs tacked on about an hour and 15 minutes. Right outside of customs there was an ATM where I took out £30 and it looked really weird. I had prebooked an express train called the stansted express which took me to Liverpool st station where Kenzie was going to meet me. The train was fine and I ate my granola bar and chips bought from the airport as my first meal of the day!
Thankfully there was wifi on the train because I was not able to activate my international plan from Tre because our apartment hadn’t had wifi for a couple days. I was able to tell Kenzie where I was and I didn’t have problems spotting her with the pink hair! Stepping outside the station we were in a pretty modern and businessy part of London towards the east. Almost everyone was in a very well fitted suit with great shoes – they were also very much in a hurry and everyone walked super fast which was the opposite of everything Italian.
Kenzie’s university was only a couple stops down the central line at Mile End but since it was so nice outside and my bags were light, we wanted to walk around a bit. First there was a small market with food stalls where we got some very delicious sandwiches! It was refreshing that London has all types of food (not just Italian food). Not that I don’t love Italian food, but I need some variation in my life. We made plans to get some curry for dinner and walked around the general area before heading to campus.
We took the tube and luckily Kenzie had an extra Oyster card – this is what they use instead of tickets and you can easily load them up with credits. You scan the card going into the station and it charges you based on where you scan out at the end.
Kenzie’s university is called Queen Mary and it actually has a cute little campus and dorms. Her dorm was similar to a cruise ship cabin with a small bathroom attached which had a shower drain in the floor. There is a kitchen shared by about 6 people too. I stayed here because there is only a small twin bed and Kenzie usually stays at her boyfriend joe’s place anyways. I threw my stuff in the room and we explored campus.
It was so nice outside and everything was so green since it rains frequently there. The campus looked very college-y because everyone was sitting outside either by the small river or in the many courtyards. We met Joe at their coffee shop called Grounds and we all got a coffee. For some reason I forgot that Joe was going to be British so that kinda blew me away. Kenzie skipped her class so we could chill but we waited for Joe to get out of class before heading out to dinner.
We took the tube one or two stops over and there is a street completely made up of Indian restaurants. They stand outside trying to lure you in with a good deal. The deal we worked out was to get two drinks, a curry, rice, and naan for £13. Pretty good considering a curry was usually priced at £10! I couldn’t tell you what I got, but it was incredibly spicy and delicious. We all ended up sharing a bit because mine was really spicy and Kenzie’s wasn’t spicy at all so we mixed. I left feeling very full and satisfied because I had been craving Indian food for a very long time. We waddled back to the train station and went straight to bed after making a tentative itinerary.
Day 2: Friday 3/10
We had planned to get a full English breakfast in the morning but Kenzie and Joe had a late start so we barely had time to grab coffee and croissant doughnuts (cronuts) from a small bakery called Rinkoff’s. I got a Cronut filled with caramel and pistachios and it was to die for. At this point, it was after 10:30 and I had signed up for a tour at 11 meeting at covent garden – nowhere close to mile end.
Joe jotted down some quick instructions and I was sent running to navigate the tube by myself and no phone service. By the time o got on the first train it was 10:45 so I knew I’d be late. I made two switches and accidentally got off a stop early and had to get back on…..I somehow found a group that had lagged behind at 11:20 and they allowed me to squeeze in.
This tour was by Sandemans tours just like our great Berlin walking tour. I feel like I missed out on a lot in the first 20 mins but I chatted with our guide Jake while walking to the next stop.
Cool things I learned on the tour: There are about 20 thousand war memorials in greater London, so we would not and could not visit them all. I think he said that there are only 19 states that GB hasn’t invaded..so they’ve been in a lot of wars. In Trafalgar Square, there is a 52 meter column called Nelson’s column. He was an adored admiral who died only 2 hours after beating the French in a long battle at sea – they didn’t know what to do with his body so they tried to preserve it in a barrel of strong French brandy but it didn’t work because someone ended up drinking the brandy. This is where the term “stiff drink” comes from. There are some lion sculptures in the same square and the man who designed them had never seen a lion before so it is not anatomically correct. There was a funny story about a dead nazi dog that was protected in London during WWII with the idea that the dog would be the last nazi in London.
The tour ended about 30 minutes late and we didn’t take a break to get wifi anywhere so I’m sure Kenzie was a little worried about me. After contacting her I jumped on the tube (like a pro) and met her at tower bridge. We went on a really nice walk and our first stop was borough market to get some food.
Lunch in Borough Market
Borough market was really cute and they didn’t have just food. The food section was amazing with a great mix of food but we were on the hunt for pie and mash. Pie and mash is a British thing similar to a pot roast/chicken pot pie with mashed potatoes and gravy. According to Kenzie the PieMinister is the best pie and mash so we both got them. She was not wrong…it was so delicious and we both licked the bowl clean. After completely stuffing ourselves with pie and mash, we continued our mini tour and ended up at the Tate Modern museum which is actually free to the public! I saw some funky modern art including some Rothko’s and we took a break upstairs in the members café (Kenzie and Joe received Tate memberships for Christmas).
We crossed the bridge that has a name but I don’t have the internet to look it up now…so I can only describe it as being the bridge that the deatheaters wreck at the beginning of the Half-Blood Prince. It is just a pedestrian bridge that has a bunch of gum stuck to the bottom – but an artist has gone over most of the gum splotches and painted cute figures on them. Kenzie and Joe asked the artist to make one for them which is really cool.
The bridge – which I now remember is called Millennium bridge – leads up to St. Paul’s Cathedral which had some pretty flowers blooming outside of it. We went in because it was also free but couldn’t take any pictures. The cathedral was big but it’s got nothin’ on the Duomo!
Nearby was the British Museum and we spent an hour or so in there because Joe was interviewing the curator there and it turned out to be a great meeting point. They have the Rosetta Stone and lots of stolen Egyptian and Greek stuff. We sat on a bench looking at parts of the Acropolis that the British Museum was holding onto and it was really great to rest our sore feet.
We were all tired and couldn’t decide what to eat, so we settled on a British pub chain called Wetherspoons, or “spoons”. Apparently they are all over the city and take over old buildings so each one looks really different inside but has the same menu. We ordered some beers and I had a fried chicken burger with fries and it was really refreshing actually.
After hanging out at spoons for awhile, we headed back to the Queen Mary campus and decided to make a quick appearance at one of Joe’s friend’s house party. It was cool to meet his roommates that he and Kenzie kept mentioning – I felt like I knew them before I even met them.
Day 3: Saturday 3/11
Notting Hill/ Portobello Road
We got a bit of a late start again and headed to get on the tube towards Notting Hill and Portobello Road. It was pretty busy by the time we got there but so cute! Lots of colorful houses and shops lined the streets and we got some coffee and pastries to start the day. I got a huge chocolate muffin that was also filled with custard…. Probably shouldn’t have eaten the entire thing but I did.
After some more walking around and petting dogs we had worked up an appetite and went to the strictly food area of the market. It was really hard to choose from all the foreign food I had been missing. I had it narrowed down to paella, Peruvian food or Thai street food and landed on Peruvian food because it smelled so good and the people were very friendly to us. I don’t know what we even had, but it was some kind of noodles with spicy sauce, chicken that was brushed with Peruvian sauce (the brush was made of CILANTRO), peppers, onion, tomatoes, plantains, cheese, and avocado. I think that is the best meal I’ve had for so cheap.. only 6 pounds! There was a really groovy place to eat the food with basically lawn chairs and picnic tables but we chilled there for awhile before exploring the neighborhood and taking pictures.
With my last day, I wanted to go back to the main tourist trap area because I didn’t get to take my time and take pictures while I was there with my tour group the day before. After fighting our way though herds of people, we ended at the National Gallery and got to see some nice Monets and Van Gogh my favorite! We also sat for awhile in these amazingly comfy couches where James Bond Daniel Craig sat in Skyfall when the tech guy met him… they had actually rearranged a lot of things in that room and there were big couches instead of benches like there were in the movie.
After the National Gallery we really didn’t have much energy to do anything and my feet were killing. We got a beer at a nearby spoons and went closer to home to get tacos. There was a really good taco place that I didn’t record anything about…but it was really good and I got an entire thing of guacamole for myself. There was also endless horchata which was exciting at first but then it was kind of chalky – not the best but overall everything else was a success. We took the tube back to Kenzie’s dorm and just chatted there for the rest of the night because I had an early morning.
Day 4: Sunday 3/12
I woke up and walked over to mile end station to take the central line to Liverpool st station to catch my Stansted Express train to the airport. Everything on the way in was really easy but I wasn’t concerned because I had given myself over 3 hours to get to my flight. What could go wrong?
WELL I had made it two stops until the airport and fallen asleep when I was woken up by the train conductor saying that there is a problem with the train line at the airport’s end and that the current train would be terminated. Everyone got off the train generally concerned and confused. It was early on a Sunday morning in a deserted town outside of London and there were hundreds of people wanting a bus, cab, or uber to catch their flights at the airport only 6 miles away. I found some girls with a working phone and according to their uber app there were no cars, we called the cab company and no one wanted to work on Sunday morning, and we talked to the customer service at the train station and there were no buses. People were starting to get completely freaked out about missing their flights and were chasing down cars that happened to be driving by that morning. I think maybe 3 cars of people made it before the train people told us to get back on the train because everything was fixed and we would be on our way!
The train goes half a stop and then halts in the middle of a field. We don’t have any information about what is going on or when we would start moving again. We were stopped here for an entire hour and at this point I know I am going to miss my flight leaving at 9:25. We inch our way towards the airport and get there finally around 9:15 and my gate had closed so I joined the herd of people to the Ryanair customer service because the entire train had missed their flights.
This line was so long and I was not even that far back.. but it took over an hour of waiting with cranky people before I got to the front desk. The very nice man at the front desk informed me that the other flight going to Pisa that night was completely booked and there wasn’t another flight until Tuesday. No more flights to Bologna until Tuesday as well. At this point it all hits me and I’m crying but the man helps me book a flight to Milan the next morning and he puts me on the standing list for the Pisa flight that night at 8pm.
So, I got to wait at the airport for 10 more hours for the slight chance that I would get to squeeze onto a flight that night. If there wasn’t any room, I would have to spent the night at the airport and fly to Milan in the morning (which isn’t really close to Florence at all) and I would miss my morning class probably. The second major problem was that there was only 4 hours of free wifi at the airport… I logged in at 9:15 so it would be done by 1. Sitting alone in an airport without internet or any way to communicate is a huge pain and more importantly BORING.
I couldn’t really tell you what I did to kill 10 hours at the airport other than eat a bunch of candy and food to console myself. I couldn’t even listen to music because I needed to conserve my battery – all of the outlets that I tried didn’t work.
Finally it is 7:50 and they allow me and two other stand by passengers on the plane. I have never been more happy to get onto a bright yellow and blue ryanair plane ever.
I landed in Italy and turned my phone on to a text from like every person I knew because I hadn’t been able to respond all day and my mom freaked everyone out because I wasn’t responding to her. It really did feel good to be home and I felt a wave of relief going through customs in Pisa.
Seems like the end of this horrible day right? Nope! I had missed my train back to Florence by about 11 hours… so I snuck on a shuttle to Pisa Centrale and found that there were no more trains back to Florence for the night. There was a bus coming two hours later and that was really the only option. So, I got to buy another ticket and wait alone at night in the Pisa train station for a bus that would take another 1.5-2 hours to get home. It gets better! At around 12:30 the police come and kick everyone out of the train station and lock the doors so then I got to wait outside in the cold. 40 minutes later the bus comes on and I settle in for a bumpy ride.
The train gets me back to the Florence train station at 2:40 and I was finally back at my apartment by 3 am. I was originally supposed to be home around 1pm. I was starving so I made some quick gnocchi and tried to go to sleep as soon as possible after the worst day ever – I had a class in the morning at 9 that I really couldn’t skip.
Overall I had a really terrible end to a great trip. I was nice to catch up with Kenzie too because I don’t hang out with her that much. Also, having a person with knowledge and experience about the city is really great because we didn’t waste any time being lost or confused. London was really nice but it was overwhelmingly big to me! I was expecting it to be such a massive city so it was nice coming back to a small town like Florence.