By Eileen Ogintz
GREENWICH, England — Travel isn’t all about the famous sites, though it may seem that way at first. In fact, it’s often the unexpected detours that make the most memorable experiences.
That was the case for our visit to Greenwich, a half hour trip up the Thames on one of the MBNA Thames Clippers from the Westminster Tube Station in London.
Greenwich is most famous for the Royal Observatory, Greenwich that was founded in 1675 to solve the problem of finding your longitude at sea. The Observatory, up at the top of a hill, came to define time and the International Prime Meridian Longitude 000 00 00. Greenwich Mean Time is the basis of all time zone systems. Here every visitor poses with one foot in each meridian!
There is also a planetarium here and the views of London are spectacular on a sunny day, as we were lucky to have.
This is where King Henry VIII lived and hunted, held jousting matches and other entertainments—he spent more night here between 1512 and 1530 at the Greenwich Palace than any of his other 55 residences. As a result, Greenwich became synonymous for sports and taste, its Thames-side location on the main route to central London.
Henry VIII was born here, courted Anne Boleyn and married his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Henry’s daughter Mary I was born here and his son Edward VI died here as did his third wife Jane Seymour. This was also a favorite of Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter. The gardens was redesigned by Queen Anne of Denmark, the wife of Elizabeth’s successor, who also commissioned the famous Queen’s House designed by Indigo Jones. That house remains but the great palace is gone, though archeological work continues to uncover new objects. Historians know there were stables and jousting tournaments with great spectacles, mock battles and more.
This is also the home of the former Royal Navy College which in the 18th Century housed retired and disabled navy seamen. Today, the Old Royal Naval College is at the heart of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site—one of the top attractions in the UK visited by 1.7 million people a year who come to see the famous Painted Hall (now being renovated), the Chapel, the lawns and colonnaded walkways often used as film locations—every year some 50 film and photo shoots.
Greenwich also is home to the terrific National Maritime Museum (and it’s free!) to help kids and adults alike discover what it was like to be a sailor — from Captain Cook who explored the Pacific to Robert Falcon Scott who never returned from Antarctica, to the East India Company that at one time held half the world’s trade, to pirates and slavery and trading routes, even 18th Century limousines—royal barges that would travel up and down the Thames. You could easily spend a day here (Make sure to pick up the kids’ activities sheets.)
And then there is the famous tea clipper The Cutty Sark the sailed the China Seas at the second half of the nineteenth century. By the mid-1920s, Cutty Sark was the only one still afloat. Today she is one of Britain’s greatest maritime treasures and one of the most famous vessels in the world which you can board.
So many sites…not enough time!
And then there is the famous Greenwich Market with all varieties of crafts, jewelry, unique clothes, hand screened tee shirts, puppets, toys and food—there was a long line for the churros! But our guide, Nika Garrett, from Touriocity was determined to show us a bit of Greenwich off the tourist track—from the ancient chestnut trees in the Royal Park that is a favorite picnic spot, to a community garden (the gardeners had to fight to keep it from being destroyed!) to her favorite pub The Prince of Greenwich Pub.
On a Sunday afternoon, the pub is packed with locals here to listen to music and eat Sicilian food—yes Sicilian food, as it is owned by Pietro and Paola La Rosa who have lived all over the world teaching Italian. When they asked their three daughters—now 20, 19 and16, where they wanted to live—“I gave them three choices—London, Melbourne or Miami,” said Pietro La Rosa, who greets all of his guests with a hug, “And they chose London.”
He said his first job as a teen was at a pub and he always wanted to own one—in part to show case his extensive collection of all kinds of things- carved birds, posters, books, paintings, miniatures… it fills the downstairs and upstairs and two unpacked containers, he said.
But the menu obviously isn’t typical pub fare. “Leave it to me,” Pietro said. We feasted on bruschetta and a roasted eggplant dish, ravioli , squid stuffed with seafood and breadcrumbs…octopus… canoli and chocolate cake. One was more delicious than the last.
Two of the daughters were helping to waitress. “Everywhere you go people will want to gather to eat, to drink, to have fun with friends,” said Paola. “You think pubs are British, but you find places like this around the world and that is what we wanted to create here. This museum pub is the result of all the things we’ve done where people can come to eat and be happy and be at home.”
“Life is full of surprises,” she said. “At the moment our place is here… giving people a place to meet friends.”
And meet new ones. Thanks Pietro and Paola. And thanks Nika for being here.
You can see famous sites any time. Sharing a meal with new friends…not so much. More ravioli please!