London never stops reinveting iteself
hen the Great Fire of London destroyed the medieval city, a handful of forward-thinking grandees realised they had been presented with an opportunity to build a new, more modern and distinguished metropolis. King Charles II promised everyone they would have ‘a much more beautiful city’ and architects like Sir Christopher Wren submitted elaborate plans for rebuilding London, all of which were subsequently rejected. The citizens of the capital preferred to go back to their maze of narrow streets and untidy neighbourhoods. Back to the essence of London. And the legacy of this decision can still be seen today.
September 2016 marked the 350th anniversary of the tragedy. The fire started in a bakery on Pudding Lane and soon spread all over the city. Eighty-five churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral, were consumed by the flames. Wren designed the Monument to commemorate the fatal night when London was burnt to the ground. Standing at the top of its 311 steps you can see practically the whole city and its skyline, from Tower Bridge to The Gherkin, as it is popularly known. If you follow the Thames, the city’s icons will appear one by one, though you won’t be able to see Big Ben very well. The dome of the cathedral and the modern skyscraper, called The Shard, are nearer.
The relationship between London and the stage dates back to 1576, when the first theatre opened in Shoreditch. Shakespeare and his company performed there before the original Globe was built. Today, the Bard’s work can be enjoyed at Shakespeare’s Globe, a reconstruction of the Elizabethan theatre that originally stood on the banks of the Thames
Historic and contemporary London live together in total harmony. Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge joins St Paul’s Cathedral to the Tate Modern, which in 2016 celebrated the opening of a new extension. The designer cocktails prepared in Artesian, named the ‘best bar in the world’ for the fourth year running, alternate with pints served in the pubs of Soho. And elegant tailors’ shops happily coexist with the second-hand markets where the young alternatives of Shoreditch buy their clothes. This eclectic mix of tradition and modernity is only possible here, the birthplace of afternoon tea, mini-skirts and punk.
In 2016, the latter celebrated its 40th anniversary with a host of concerts and exhibitions. You can still see colourful punk-style crests around the souvenir shops of Camden Town. All the stalls from the Tube station to Stables Markets are full of ‘God Save the Queen’ T-shirts, proof that the Royal Family’s influence extends beyond Buckingham Palace, even if it’s laced with punkish irony.
Time to fly
Many fictional characters have glided through the skies of London, from Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, to Harry Potter. In the absence of magic brooms and umbrellas, the transparent capsules of the London Eye offer a unique view of Big Ben. Or do you fancy something else? How about a trip over Canary Wharf on the Emirates Air Line?
Standing at the end of the street, in bustling Camden Lock, is Global Kitchen, where chefs serve up dishes from all over the world, street-food style. This is an updated version of the ‘modern Babylon’ that one-time Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli used to talk about. Without realising it, London has turned into one of the most multicultural capitals on the planet. A city where over 300 different languages are spoken, with a multiplicity of hidden spots like this one, where British culture merges with the rest of the globe. From Covent Garden, teeming with restaurants and popular spots, to Notting Hill. London is permanently reinventing itself in a peaceful metamorphosis that lies between tradition and innovation, the Queen and punk, Christopher Wren and Norman Foster.