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battling the crowds

It is a curious aspect of human nature that the extent of our enjoyment depends to a large degree on other people. Movies, plays, and concerts, for example, are more enjoyable when one can share one’s appreciation and excitement with someone else. Sporting events are far more electrifying when one is at a sold out arena than a half empty one. Yet, the opposite seems to hold true for travel, at least for us. Part of the reason we enjoy mountaineering, hiking, and camping so much is that they offer an escape from the crushing mass of humanity. A breathtaking mountain vista feels more magnificent after a grueling hike when one is alone atop a summit than when one is surrounded by a horde of others, especially if most of them drove instead of hiking to get there.

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Escaping the crowds while sightseeing in a big city like London is, of course, much harder than finding solitude out in the wilderness. And while we recognize that there is an element of hypocrisy in being frustrated that other people have come to see the same things that we wanted to see, this awareness does not change the fact that hordes of tourists detract considerably from certain experiences. Anyone who has stood in line at the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa can attest to this disappointment. It is impossible to fully appreciate what is considered to be one of the greatest works of art of all time when it is shielded by bullet-proof glass and guarded by several museum curators who constantly shout, “no flash photography,” while tourist after tourist ignores the warning to snap a picture.

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It is not only obnoxious tourist behavior that dampens the joy of sightseeing. One of the main reasons we travel is to seek out new experiences and broaden our horizons. There is a sense of discovery and adventure to exploring a new country and culture — a thrill akin to the one a young child feels every time he discovers something new about his ever-expanding world. It is a thrill that is a lot harder to come by in a well-known city like London than in many of the off-the-beaten-path places we have visited during our travels.

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Naturally, we tried to vary our sightseeing, but there are several places that we were told one absolutely must see in London, if only once. We saved them for last, working up our tolerance to prepare for a full day of battling the crowds. We started at Westminster Abbey, the magnificent gothic church that is the final resting place for many of England’s former monarchs. As with several other sites, the Abbey staff have streamlined the visiting process by handing out audio guides to every visitor. The audio tour is both informative and has the benefit of shepherding the masses through the cathedral in an orderly manner. The entire tour lasts about 45 minutes and ends at our favorite spot in the Abbey — the poet’s corner, where many of England’s greatest writers are either buried or honored with memorial stones.

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From Westminster Abbey we made our way to Buckingham Palace, arriving just as the Queen’s guard left their barracks for the daily changing ceremony. We snapped a few pictures and marveled at all the pomp and circumstance but did not linger too long. There were far too many people who had clearly camped out in front of the palace gates for hours so that they could observe the ceremony and we were sure we would be unable to push our way through to a decent spot. In fact, people-watching during the changing of the guard was almost as interesting as observing the parading guards themselves. It is hard to believe how much obsession the royal family continues to generate despite the fact the monarch is largely a symbolic ruler in this day and age.

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After lunch at Borough Market — our favorite place in London and one to which we returned almost every day — we spent the rest of the day at the Tower of London. Formerly a castle, fortress, and prison for England’s most distinguished inmates, the Tower, which actually encompasses twenty towers within its gates, now houses the crown jewels. While it is certainly possible to tour the Tower and its various museums without the services of a guide, doing so would mean skipping the most memorable part of the visit. The free Tower tours are led by yeomen warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, who are rewarded for exemplary service in the armed forces by being entrusted with guarding the crown jewels. They live in the Tower with their families and their colorful stories are an attraction in their own right.

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We enjoyed visiting these sites — they really are worth seeing — but being jostled by masses of other tourists all day long definitely took its toll. We returned to the hotel much earlier than we had the previous days and needed a nap before we could muster the energy to walk to a nearby restaurant for dinner.

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