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OPINION | RICHARD MASON: How to be a traveler, not a tourist

by RICHARD MASON | July 25, 2021 at 1:50 a.m.

If you have visited London and have never been to the British Museum, you are no traveler. You are just a tourist. A traveler would be one who would venture down a dark alley in Florence following the smell of lasagna, and would certainly visit the British Museum, which has a great collection of loot.

Uh, loot? Maybe I’m being severe in my description, but don’t suggest that to the Greeks. They are pointing fingers and saying bad words about the Brits because, as the British will tell you, “We saved one of the great treasures of ancient Greece from being destroyed.” Those would be the Elgin Marbles, taken from the frieze of the Parthenon by the Earl of Elgin. That’s not quite the way the Greeks tell it, but one way or another, the Elgin Marbles are a star attraction of the British Museum. So, when assembling your London bucket list, put at the top: See the Elgin Marbles.

If you are a museum freak—like my brother-in-law, who reads every card description on every item on display—the British Museum will be your total trip, and you will need a service animal when you return home.

However, a couple of days in the various museums in the city will do for most of us, and in those two days you will be exposed to some of the world’s greatest collections of art and antiquities, including the National Gallery off Trafalgar Square. There are more museums in London than I could list in this column, including the Fan Museum and The Museum of Brands—something for every taste.

Yet London offers much more than museums. On one of our first trips back in the early 1980s I made a reservation to tour the Churchill War Rooms. Vertis didn’t like the sound of that, so she spent her morning in Harrods, the ultimate department store, where the shopping is fabulous and the food court is worth writing home about. Along with almost every type of merchandise and food imaginable, Harrods has a fine restaurant.

But back to the Churchill War Rooms. During the Second World War when the Germans started the bombing of London, the British government decided to construct underground bunkers to protect the heads of state and the War Council. They excavated a series of rooms in the center of the city, where Cabinet meetings and other war-related gatherings took place.

I was in a group of about 10 for one of the tours, and after going down some 60 feet below a downtown park, we entered tunnels that led to a room which I would estimate is around 30 to 40 feet in diameter. It’s known as the Map Room, one of the meeting spaces for Churchill’s cabinet.

It’s as if someone had recently locked the door and left. Churchill’s pen and note pad were there, and maps showing European armies and Atlantic convoys were on the wall. I sat in Churchill’s chair. (That’s probably not allowed now.) It was a breathtaking piece of history, preserved intact.

The tour guide made a chilling comment I still remember: “These men and women who gathered here did so thinking they were perfectly safe, but they weren’t. If one of the larger German bombs had made a direct hit, they would have all been killed.” One of the other musts in addition to the British Museum if you are a traveler is to head for the West End, the scene of London’s Broadway and the best shopping in the city (there are 80 flagship stores just on Oxford Street, and quality restaurants on every corner). We always take in an English comedy and one of the many musicals. Only the English can get away with the over-the-top comic presentations, such as currently “Only Fools and Horses.” There are also a wide range of Broadway musicals including “Hamilton,” “Mamma Mia,” and “Back to the Future.” And the tickets will cost a lot less than on Broadway.

If you like to poke around in flea markets and antique markets, visit Portobello Road in Notting Hill. There are around 1,000 dealers offering everything from vintage fashion to folk art. Saturday is the big day when extra dealers come to display their wares; it’s very crowded. I managed to find four full-size Audubon wildlife prints for only 10 pounds (around $14) apiece. They weren’t from the original print edition, but when I framed them, they looked great.

One of my hobbies is collecting antique Arkansas-Gulf Coast maps, and the Map House in Knightsbridge, around the corner from Harrods, is the best place to find them. Its inventory of maps is the best I have ever encountered.

We’ve stayed in everything from a bed and breakfast to the Capital Hotel. The B&B was fine with a full English breakfast, and the Capital Hotel (which will put a pretty good dent in your wallet) is practically next to Harrods.

As with all travel to other countries, check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to learn if there are health notices in effect at your destination. Visit travel.state.gov for more information.

Email Richard Mason at richard@ gibraltarenergy.com .

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