Stuck in Heathrow, by way of Ankara, Istanbul and a London Gothic Icon

Posted By Mike Padgett

April 29, 2013

LONDON – The situation was grim. It was dark and raining. We were anxious to get home. But our British Airways jet, because one of its engines refused to start, was grounded at Heathrow Airport.

We had expected to be airborne on this nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, from England to Arizona. Sorry, the captain announced, but everybody must leave the plane and return to the terminal.

We grabbed our carry-on bags from the overhead bins. No smiles in this group. Baggage handlers returned to our plane to unload the hundreds of bags and freight they had just stowed.

Crewmembers handed out vouchers for meals or drinks as passengers filed out of the airliner. We could do nothing but wait for news about Plan B for our flight home.

In the terminal, we found seats away from a handful of whining passengers. My Best Friend reached for her iPad, on which she stores a growing collection of  books. I pulled out my iPod. Music helps me relax. It sent my thoughts back over the past few days. I began to realize that on this romantic journey in London, despite our sore throats, we had set our personal adventure bar a little higher. We had traveled back in time in a fairy tale icon from a different era.

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After renovations, the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel opened in 2011. It first opened in 1873 as the Midland Grand Hotel. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Creative genius

I thought about the history we absorbed during our stay at St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel. The once-neglected Victorian hotel, after renovations, is one of London’s most popular attractions.

I imagined to myself that if we lived in London, we would frequent St. Pancras, which is in the King’s Cross area in central London. With its history and architectural beauty, St. Pancras offers a unique energy. We would sit at a window table in O’Neill’s Pub across Euston Road and dream about the hotel’s earlier years. We would raise a toast to the hotel’s grand architecture and to its important role in London’s history, past as well as future.

We would salute the creative genius required to design and erect this landmark gothic structure in the 1870s. The architect was Sir George Gilbert Scott. The architectural gem opened as the Midland Grand Hotel.

Survived air raids

Over several generations, the building served its original purpose with flair before it fell into disrepair, starting in the 1920s. It was closed in 1935. During World War II, the hotel withstood three bombings from German air raids.

After World War II, according to hotel literature, the once-grand hotel was renovated into offices for British Rail and its hospitality business. British Rail moved out of the building in 1985, after which time the building sat neglected and mostly empty.

In its 2006 press release, Marriott International announced that its Renaissance hotel brand will be “part of the St. Pancras Chambers historic restoration project” in a management contract with owner Manhattan Loft Corp.

The recent restoration project included converting the upper floor of the main building into 67 apartments. For hotel guests, there are 38 suites in the restored building and 207 rooms in the hotel’s new wing.

Movies and trains

The gothic hotel’s unique architecture has been featured in several movies, including Harry Potter, Batman, Richard III, and others. The hotel also is a key part of the western terminus of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which connects London to France and Belgium. We walked through the hotel’s Booking Office restaurant and into the adjoining rail station. The arriving and departing trains reminded us of our earlier trip on the Eurostar from Paris to London.  The trip crosses picturesque English and French countrysides and goes under the English Channel.

 

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The trip between Paris and London, on the streamlined Eurostars at speeds up to 200 mph, lasts about 2 hours 15 minutes. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

 

Proposed for demolition

It is hard to imagine that the St. Pancras hotel sat empty for several years or that it once was proposed for demolition. Eventually, after forward-thinking minds prevailed, the grand building received historic status. After renovation, it was reopened in 2011 as the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel. On Manhattan Loft Corp.’s website is a short video about the reconstruction work.

Our suite was a few doors from the hotel’s grand staircase. The winding three-story cantilevered staircase features giant stained glass windows tall enough for cathedrals.

 

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Looking down one side of the grand staircase. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Each day, as we passed the elegant staircase, its architectural beauty reached out to us. We admired the gold fleur-de-lis stenciling on the red walls, and the graceful wood railing that tops the staircase’s original iron grillwork. It was easy to imagine the fashions of the late 1800s descending the stairs. Ladies  in decorative hats and bustle dresses. Men in suits and top hats, carrying walking sticks.

 

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The grand staircase landings feature polished stone pillars and intricate stone arches and gargoyles. The staircase’s vaulted ceiling is painted with a celestial scene. Photo © copyright by Mike Padgett

The hotel’s architectural beauty has the attention of others, too, including real estate developers. During our walks through the neighborhood, we saw that this part of London is undergoing a commercial rebound. We counted several construction cranes within a few blocks of the hotel.

A retreat at the Chambers Club

Our retreat to St. Pancras included access to the hotel’s Chambers Club, which offers guests a quiet, cozy atmosphere for meals. We found the gracious manager and wait staff as courteous as long-time friends. We preferred the Club’s smaller tables in alcoves. Most guests talked in whispers. The Club became our temporary home because we were struggling with sore throats. Over-the-counter meds and cough drops we found at local pharmacies helped. As a result, we canceled plans involving crowded tours. Instead, we immersed ourselves in the hotel’s history and its ambiance.

The Chambers Club also offered Internet access. That amenity became critical on this adventure because, prior to our journey, we had initiated the purchase of another home while planning for the sale of our existing home in Arizona. The back-to-back transactions meant staying connected with our Realtors and lenders to keep the paper work on track.

Midnight landing in Ankara

This journey partway around the world had started two weeks earlier with a late night landing in Ankara. It was our first trip to Turkey, often called the cradle of civilizations. Our adventure to the former Ottoman Empire began months earlier in 2012 when my Best Friend received an invitation to speak at Turkey’s first national education conference at Middle East Technical University.

After landing in Ankara, we had become separated from our luggage. When we landed in Istanbul on an international flight from London and boarded a domestic flight to Ankara, we assumed we would claim our luggage in the domestic flight area in Ankara. Eventually, we found our bags in the international part of the terminal.

Our luggage search made us an hour late in meeting our driver and interpreter at the curb. It was now after midnight. And to their credit, they had waited for us. We’re sure we were the last visitors to leave the airport that night.

They drove us to our rooms on campus. The next morning, with help from our driver, we registered for the conference. Over the next few days, in conversations with many educators, we saw their dedication to teaching is similar to what we have seen throughout the United States and in Australia, Ireland and other nations. Educators, wherever they teach, have similar noble goals – showing young lives what is possible, helping them grow, and finding their individual paths to their personal best.

Gracious friends with us at the METU conference helped us navigate Ankara. They gave us an insider’s view of their wonderful city. We dined in several fine restaurants and visited the mausoleum of the founder and first president of modern Turkey.

 

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The mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder and first president of modern Turkey, on one side of the Ceremonial Plaza. Ataturk died in 1938. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

 

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One major entrance to Ataturk’s mausoleum and the Ceremonial Plaza is the Road of Lions, a walkway lined with several pairs of stone lions. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

 

Foodies will enjoy Turkey’s culinary delights. In Turkey, one does not eat and run. The meals are social events. The menus include sea bass, seaweed, eggplant, bonito, calamari and many other fresh items. The large selection of seafood originates in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, which surround much of Turkey.

From a lunch menu at a university restaurant in Ankara, I ordered a chicken chimichanga, a popular fried burrito filled with cheese and chicken. The Turkish version of the Mexican chimichanga was tasty, but it was mild. I prefer a chimi with spicy salsa and guacamole.

Five lanes in four

In Ankara and Istanbul, we learned much about driving in Turkey. We saw that five lanes of slow traffic, even with large trucks and tour buses, fit easily on a four-lane road. Stripes marking the lanes are ignored. So are speed limits.

Winding two-way streets in historic parts of Ankara often are wide enough for only one vehicle. When two drivers meet on these streets, one of them turns into an alley entrance or parking spot to let the oncoming driver pass.

 

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From the patio of a high-rise restaurant, a view of the skyline of an older part of Istanbul overlooking the Bosporus Strait. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

 

A friend driving us to lunch in Ankara asked if I’d like to drive in Turkey. I declined. He smiled. A short time later, as our friend approached a security checkpoint, he was waved over by security guards. They checked the trunk while we were escorted into the guardhouse, where we were asked to walk through X-ray machines and open our bags. A few minutes later, the guards thanked us and we were on our way. Security, our friends told us, is part of life in Turkey.

Wrong line at Ankara airport

We met many gracious friends and strangers in Turkey. One stranger was the agent at the airport gate at Ankara on our way to Istanbul. We were late for checking in at Ankara, so we hustled to the gate after getting through two levels of security – first at the terminal entrance and then again past the ticket counter.

At the gate, not knowing Turkish, we stepped into a line. Wrong line, but the gracious agent waved us through. We found our separate seats on the plane.

Once in Istanbul, after collecting our luggage, we found the taxi queue. The driver stowed our luggage. We had guesstimated that our hotel was 45 minutes away, maybe an hour, depending on traffic.

Bad luck was with us. It was 6 p.m. on a Saturday. The September day was very warm. Our moods were affected by the sore throats we had developed soon after arriving in Ankara. Over the next hour and 20 minutes, in Istanbul’s stop-and-go freeway traffic, we saw two accidents. In one, a car was on its roof. Onlookers stood in the median.

Vendors were hawking bottles of water on the freeway. They walk between the vehicles when traffic stops or slows to a crawl. Outside the car ahead of our taxi was a man reaching through the passenger’s window, handing a bottle of water to the driver. The water vendor’s flip-flopping leather sandals stayed two steps ahead of the car’s rear wheels.

At our hotel, our driver stopped at the security guardhouse at the entrance to the hotel property. The guard looked at our luggage in the trunk. He then used a mirror on a pole to look on the underside of our taxi. He waved our taxi through. It was a short distance to the hotel’s front door. There, our luggage was taken to an X-ray machine at another security checkpoint inside the hotel lobby.

The view from our room in the Hilton Istanbul was from the European side of the Bosporus Strait, looking east across to the Asian side. We appreciated the graciousness of the staff as well as the variety of meals offered.

 

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From the balcony of our room in Istanbul, we watched civilian and military ships cruise the Bosporus Strait between the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

 

We saw a variety of ships cruise the Bosporus Strait, including cruise ships, freighters and military ships. My Best Friend saw a trim military ship with the Russian hammer and sickle insignia. Russian ships, friends told us, often cruise these waters.

One afternoon, friends guided us through a historic shopping district of Istanbul. There, in this major city of a largely Muslim nation, we visited St. Anthony of Padua Cathedral, the largest Roman Catholic church in Istanbul. It was filled with visitors.

 

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Interior of St. Anthony of Padua Cathedral. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

 

Our friends also took us for a walk across a university campus on a hillside overlooking the Bosporus Strait. Later that afternoon, they treated us to a meal in a restaurant across the street from the Bosporus. Mist from splashing waves drifted over the sidewalk.

A few days later, after enjoying Istanbul, we hired a taxi for the ride back to the airport. We were booked on a sunrise flight to London. The traffic was light because it wasn’t yet rush hour. But our taxi ride, because speed limits generally were ignored, reminded me of the chase scene (minus the collisions) in the movie, “The French Connection.”

Replacement jumbo jet

My memories of our friends in Turkey, their graciousness and the culinary delights helped pass the time waiting in Heathrow for a replacement airliner. Eventually, we heard good news. We learned that British Airways had a replacement airliner. Local crews had finished their maintenance on the other jet, making it available for us. Our original plane could not be repaired in time.

The other airliner would be waiting for us at a different gate, the agent announced. We picked up our bags. It’s several hours past our departure time, but we’re headed home. The experiences shared by new friends in Ankara, Istanbul and the romantic St. Pancras hotel have set a new standard for our future travels.

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Apr 29th, 2013

3 Comments to 'Stuck in Heathrow, by way of Ankara, Istanbul and a London Gothic Icon'

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  1. Peg Hodges said,

    Because this summer I will be an armchair traveler I am even more impressed by your word pictures that accompany your photographs. Having read of these long established cities, it is a pleasure to learn even more of their history.

  2. Jeff Nelson said,

    Great article Mike – sounds like you had a wonderful time despite the sore throats. Keep these articles coming!

  3. Mike Padgett said,

    Jeff: Thanks for your kind words. Yes, we enjoyed our adventure. Especially St. Pancras. The history energized us. Hope you’re doing well.

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