Posts filed under ‘Europe’

A Perfect Last Day in London

So I sort of forgot that I had just one post left to finish my Europe trip. My Europe trip from summer 2011. Oups? Anyway, better late than never. Story of my life, right?

On my last day in Europe, I woke up in London alone. It was a little unsettling, actually. I had a vague memory of my hostel roommates coming in after I’d already gone to bed, but the bunks had these scraps of fabric hanging around them for privacy, and I felt weird poking my head out from my privacy screen to view my roommates. Plus, when I’m as exhausted as I am at the end of a long trip, if I wake up in the middle of the night, I only have about 8 seconds of semi-coherency before I pass out again. So passing out won, and when I woke up the next morning, the room was deserted.

So I enjoyed the luxury of having my own bathroom, and got ready to spend a perfect last day in London. I was on my own, so I was determined to make the most of the day. And as can be expected, I had a lot of food-related goals for my last day in Europe in the foreseeable future. So I fired up my laptop in the pub downstairs, charted a course, and set out for the Tube station to buy a day pass, by way of Caffe Nero. I’d started a punch card at Nero on the first London leg of my trip, and I was so excited that I’d filled it up and got to begin my perfect last day with a free frappé.

I headed to Oxford Street first, where I ducked into Selfridge’s, one of London’s fancy department stores. Reason? Macarons. I knew that I couldn’t leave Europe without one more batch of real macarons, and Selfridge’s had a Pierre Hermé boutique. The toughest part was choosing just six flavours, as I had a very limited amount of funding for my final day in London. This wasn’t just a question of which flavours I wanted that day, but which flavours did I want to remember for an indeterminate amount of time until either I was able to return to Europe, or I could go to Japan, or Pierre Hermé finally opened a boutique in the States, preferably Chicago, preferably in the Fulton River District. I would love to tell you which six flavours I finally chose, but I wrote that information down in my magenta journal, which I have regrettably misplaced. When I find it, I’ll come back and edit this post. Until then, please enjoy the photo and imagine how amazing those little cookies were. Flavour explosions with the perfect macaron texture. I’m sure one of them involved hazelnut.

Macarons are best when they’re fresh (fun fact: they actually don’t keep beyond a day or so, unless you freeze them), and I didn’t want to risk them getting smooshed in my bag, so I decided to enjoy them right away. I walked up one of the side streets off of Oxford Street, found a makeshift bench, and devoured them. Of course, there weren’t any trash bins around, so I folded up the bag and put it in my jacket pocket. I still have it.

Even though I’d only been in London for two weeks that summer, I’d managed to find a favourite coffee shop. Not just a favourite chain, but a favourite location. I went to it 3 or 4 times during those two weeks, and I was determined to go back, even though I probably passed about 8 Caffe Neros on my way to the shop on St. Martin’s Lane between Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden.

Caffe Nero makes a mean latte, and it’s even better when you tell them that you’re staying for a while and they put it in a tall glass. After my latte and some writing time, I meandered through Covent Garden, where I’d previously enjoyed an amazing day of music, cupcakes, and frozen yogurt, but I had a different froyo goal this time.

I needed Snog! In my extensive frozen yogurt research in London, I determined that it was Snog that I needed to have. I went with my traditional order: tart yogurt with strawberry, kiwi, and banana, and it did not let me down! Despite the creative framing of the above photo, the Snog in Soho was packed with tourists and locals alike, and the speakers were pumping really obnoxious music. It would have destroyed the experience if the froyo hadn’t been so good. Fortunately, the froyo was delightful, and I happily logged another food victory for the day in my journal.

After Snog, I was pretty stuffed, and I decided that a stroll through a park was just what I needed. I hadn’t been to Buckingham Palace on this trip yet, and despite it being a magnet for aimless tourists, I decided to join the masses (after a stroll through Green Park).

Of course, I can’t blame the masses for being enamoured with something so gorgeous. I’d been by it on my 2007 trip to London, but I didn’t take time then to really appreciate all of the details. I mostly just peered into the gate and tried to take photos of the guy in the fuzzy hat. This time, I had a nice walk while I tried to ignore the crowds. At least I wasn’t there for the changing of the guard; I’ve heard that’s madness.

I loved the giant monument to Queen Victoria, because I’m a little fascinated by monarchs, and she’s one of Britain’s most notable ones.

Buckingham Palace opens part of its doors to the public each summer, but unfortunately, I was just a couple of weeks early. Next time I go to London, I’ll have to go later in the summer! With, you know, the rest of Europe on their August holidays.

It was late afternoon as I sat at Buckingham Palace and wondered what to do next. I looked at the map and decided to stick with the Victoria theme and walk to Victoria Station, since it was one of the big rail stations in London that I hadn’t passed through. I’m a bit of (more than ‘a bit of’) a transit nerd, and I just really like being in train stations. I like photographing them, too.

Neither the exterior nor the interior of Victoria Station was a disappointment. Rush hour started to creep in as I wandered around, so I found a quiet corner: a pub on the second level had a balcony, and I sat and drank a pint of Bulmer’s cider, which was also on my list of things that I wanted to do on my last day in London. I’m glad that I picked Bulmer’s, as Magner’s and Strongbow are imported here and not too difficult to find in the autumn, but I haven’t seen Bulmer’s since I left London.

After about an hour, the cider was gone, and so was the foot traffic, so I decided to call it a day. At Paddington Station, I made one last trip through Simply Food and picked up my favourite salad with quinoa for dinner. I went back to the hostel, and sat in the pub downstairs for a while, catching up on email, chatting with friends, and looking through some of the photos from an amazing trip. I had another cider (but they only had Strongbow), met some other travellers, triple-checked my flight time, and called it a night.

Back in my room, I had a new set of roommates, a trio of Americans who were backpacking across a whole lot of Europe, which was my dream trip at one point. I listened to some of their stories and gave them a few London recommendations, as well as the map that I’d been carrying around for a month. I packed up my things as best as I could and apologized profusely for having to get up so early to go to the airport.

At Heathrow, which is tied with Philadelphia as my least favourite airport ever (I’d rather hang out in the airport in Fargo, ND…at least they have couches!), I fell asleep sitting in the overcrowded holding pen that is the international departures hall. They don’t release your gate until it’s actually time to board, so everyone has to sit in a common waiting area, surrounded by high-end shops. I had a few pounds left to spend, but actually had a hard time spending them, since my 10 pounds weren’t going to go far at Prada. I ended up buying some overpriced postcards and some snacks, as well as a cup of coffee (sadly not Nero, but Costa), but the coffee still barely kept me coherent as I tried not to fall asleep while I waited for my gate to be announced.

Seeing Brad Pitt helped a bit, though. He looked a lot more well-rested than I did. He was being led somewhere, surrounded by an entourage. I bet he got a couch.


November 5, 2012 at 8:50 pm Leave a comment

Lines Composed Eleven Months after Visiting Tintern Abbey

I’ll be honest: I’m not big on poetry, despite having a B.A. in English. I’ve always preferred thick, wordy volumes of prose. I’m still not entirely sure what a chapbook is, or at least what makes a chapbook a chapbook. I like the way poetry sounds, sometimes, when read aloud, but I still don’t really connect with the meaning. When I was younger, I tried to get into poetry. I carried around a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets for a while. I have a book of Tsvetaeva, with the original Russian poems across from English translations, but I was more interested in the translation aspect than the poems themselves.

But in a Brit Lit course at Olivet College, I read “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” by William Worsdworth. And I really loved it.

Last year, while planning this trip, I was in another Brit Lit course, one that focused on Romanticism, and we studied Wordsworth again. Although the anthology was different, the painting of Tintern Abbey was the same, and I remember staring at the page, wondering if it was really as magical of a place as it looked. I realized that if Wordsworth wrote this poem after a geeky touristy sightseeing trip, then maybe I could still take a geeky sightseeing trip to Tintern Abbey. And it turns out that you still can!

From the research I did online, it seemed like a trip to Tintern required a car. I didn’t have a car rental in my budget, so I looked into joining a day tour, but those were pricey as well. I eventually decided to just show up in Cardiff and ask for information at the tourist office. I figured that I couldn’t be the only tourist on a budget who wanted to see Tintern Abbey.

The folks in the Cardiff tourist office were prepared, and a sweet old man produced a printout showing the train and bus schedule, and how they linked up. I needed to take the train from Cardiff to Chepstow, and then in Chepstow, I’d catch a bus to Tintern. The schedules weren’t perfectly aligned, and I’d end up having time to kill in Chepstow, but what photographer doesn’t love having time to kill in a small town?

So on a warm Monday morning, I packed up my bags and left them at my hotel when I checked out, then walked down to Cardiff Central Station. The ride to Chepstow was only 45 minutes, but then I had over an hour before the bus left for Tintern. The Chepstow train station is not in the central part of town and the bus station is, but it only took me 15 or 20 minutes to walk to the bus station. It was easy enough to find after I asked directions.

Chepstow is a cute town. I wanted to find the bus “station” first (they pull up in front of the supermarket), but then I decided to sit and have a coffee in a pub called the Red Lantern. When I ordered a coffee, the woman working warned me that they only had “red milk” and not “blue milk” (or vice versa), which took some explaining. It turned out that they only had skim (the colours refer to the caps, I think), which is what I like anyway, but I was a little disappointed that they didn’t dye their milks crazy colours in Wales. I ended up sitting on a ledge near the buses for a while, where I entertained myself by listening to some small-town gossip while the gossipers looked at me suspiciously. One of the gossipers turned out to be my bus driver, who was nice when I asked a stupid question like “How many stops until Tintern Abbey?” and he reassured me that I wouldn’t miss it.

Tintern Abbey
Nope, not likely that I would miss this!

I had been so cautiously hopeful that Tintern Abbey would blow me away, and it did. For as much as I didn’t enjoy Cardiff, this side trip absolutely made my trip to Cardiff worth it!

Tintern Abbey
The abbey was founded in 1131 and fell into ruin after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in England and Wales. Tintern Abbey was surrendered in 1536. Much of its valuables were turned over to royalty, and in the centuries that followed, pieces of the building, including materials from the roof, were sold.

Tintern Abbey
During the 18th century, it became popular for people to tour the countryside, including the Wye Valley in Wales, where Tintern is located. The site gained a new wave of fame, and Wordsworth wrote his poem in 1798. It is still a tourist attraction, but it is fairly quiet. Even in the summer, I only had to share the ruins with a handful of other people.

Tintern Abbey
Most of what remains is the outline of the main church, which dates from the end of the 13th century.

Me at Tintern Abbey
Tintern Abbey
I followed the brochure and gave myself a tour, trying to imagine all of the different rooms. I was glad that I had seen the abbey at Mont St. Michel, because I could picture what a lot of the rooms would have looked like.

A bus back to Chepstow was going to be arriving shortly, but I was having such a nice time that I decided to wait for the next bus so that I could enjoy the town of Tintern. I had picked up some information, and I decided to walk through the village to the old train station, which is now a café.

The town was a little touristy—it looks like it’s a hub for antique lovers, in addition to having the abbey as a draw, but it was pleasant, and I enjoyed my walk along the Wye river.

This is just what I imagined Wales to look like, and not at all what Cardiff looked like.

Wye River

Looking at these photos again makes me want to go back and spend a week there!

Afternoon Tea!
Upon arriving at The Old Station, I realized that my trip was rapidly drawing to a close, and I still hadn’t had a proper English tea. An adorable station-turned-café seemed like just the place for a girl’s first afternoon tea. I’ll still take a latte over a cup of tea, 99 times out of 100, but the whole experience was better than I thought it would be. Those strawberries were delicious with the clotted cream!

It was quite a long walk from Tintern Abbey to The Old Station, but I realized that I’d passed a stop for the bus that I wanted to take back, so I headed back to the stop (only about a 5-minute walk) and hoped that all of the buses made all stops. I still had a bit of time, and the stop was directly in front of an old church, so I took some photos in the churchyard.
Old Church in Tintern

Fortunately, the bus picked me up, and I was back in Chepstow quickly. I didn’t have much time to kill, but I had enough time for a little detour to take some photos of St. Mary’s Priory in Chepstow.
St. Mary's Priory

Soon enough, I was back in Cardiff. I walked back to my hotel to pick up my bags, then walked back to the train station again to catch a train to London. I had no trouble catching a nap on the way back before arriving at the familiar Paddington Station. I’d booked a bed at a nearby hostel for my last two nights in London, but I hadn’t remembered to look up directions to the hotel while I actually had internet access. The Starbucks in the station was packed, so I had to linger outside with my laptop, close enough to pick up their wireless signal, so I could locate the hostel. The way that London numbers their streets is completely maddening, and I still had a hard time finding it. I was about to dig out my phone and make an international call when I turned a corner, onto a different street than what the address actually was, and found the hostel. A nice Australian boy carried my suitcase up the stairs for me, and I slept better than I ever have before on a plastic mattress.

June 24, 2012 at 1:06 am Leave a comment

Scenic Cardiff

I began my European trip a year ago, and I’m still not quite done blogging through the four weeks that I spent there. I have a few posts left, and I hope I can get them done before I leave on my next summer adventure! This year’s trip is shorter and a little closer to home—I’ll be touring the Gaspé peninsula with Jules and Christina, my two usual travel buddies.

But back to Cardiff.

My second day in Cardiff was a Sunday, and I’d originally planned to spent it seeing the Tintern Abbey ruins. Fortunately, I consulted several brochures when I went to the tourist office to plan the rest of my time in Wales, and I realized that the National Museum was closed on Mondays. So I decided to alter my plans slightly in order to visit the National Museum on Sunday. Tintern was pushed to Monday, with a later return to London than I had originally planned.

Cardiff Castle
Cardiff was quiet on Sunday morning.

The shops were open, though, and I walked through a few of Cardiff’s famous shopping arcades before heading to the museum. I spied a cheese shop and made a mental note to come back for lunch.

The National Museum is housed in a gorgeous building!
National Museum of Cardiff

The first floor is more of a science & natural history museum, and the second floor is an art museum. I was interested in the art (of course), especially since the Cardiff museum has one of the most significant Impressionist art collections in the world.

National Museum of Cardiff

The fantastic Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection was a gift from Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, upon their deaths in 1951 and 1963. They began collecting art when they were in their 20s and, like me, they loved the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings.

National Museum of Cardiff

I really enjoyed my trip around the art galleries, but on Day 24 of my trip, I was starting to be constantly exhausted. I decided to take it easy for the rest of the day, and I went outside and enjoyed the adjacent gardens.

Gorsedd Gardens
Gorsedd Gardens

After catching up with some journaling, I headed back into the main part of town for lunch at the aforementioned cheese shop.


The walk back was nice. Cardiff is a pretty city with great architectural details, but I still couldn’t believe how quiet it was. Of course, much of Chicago is just as quiet on Sundays, but after being among thousands of tourists in London, Paris, and Edinburgh, it felt strange to feel like I had Cardiff all to myself.

They let me try a few local cheeses, and I picked one and went back to my hotel room, since leftover cheese in my bag on a hot day is a recipe for disaster.

I didn’t want to waste the rest of the day, though, so I went back out to walk around the rest of the area. I went in all of the malls, flipped through the sale racks at H&M (same stuff as at home, but for double the price), and went to Starbucks so I could check my email. It was still early after that, so I walked through the malls again, and then I thought about how much my feet hurt, swung by a convenience store for snacks, and went back to my hotel room for one last night with a big comfy bed, my own hot shower, and cable TV. Next up: Tintern Abbey!

June 18, 2012 at 1:21 pm 2 comments

Intro to Cardiff

When I last left you, I’d just had a terribly sleepless night on the Caledonia Sleeper, traveling from Edinburgh back to London. Mom and I arrived at Paddington Station completely exhausted, but we managed to drag ourselves upstairs to Paul for pain au chocolat and café au lait, which helped at least a little bit. Mom’s flight home was that morning, so she boarded the Heathrow Express, and I boarded a train for Cardiff.

I thought it silly to go all the way to the United Kingdom and travel in England and Scotland, but not Wales, so I was determined to visit Cardiff. Aside from a side trip to Tintern Abbey (more about that in a future post), I had no idea what to expect from the Welsh capital when I stepped off the train in Cardiff Central station.

Initially, I was surprised by how basic the station was, and that was my first clue that Cardiff is a much smaller city than I had thought. I had no trouble walking to my hotel, the Barcelo Angel Hotel. I was arriving around noon, so I thought I would have to drop off my bags and come back later to check in, but they had a room ready for me, which turned out to be just what I needed. Although the hotel is no longer the hot spot that it once was (when it hosted members of the Royal Family and The Beatles, for example), it was still the nicest place that I stayed in during my European adventure. I got a last-minute deal on Hotwire, and it was still more expensive than the hostel, but it was so worth it for a long hot shower and an afternoon nap on a huge, comfortable bed with a white duvet.

I woke up at least partially refreshed and headed out to explore. For a Saturday in the summer, the old part of the city seemed awfully quiet.

Cardiff Castle
My hotel was just across the street from Cardiff Castle, so I had a nice walk along the grounds, then turned into the heart of the old city, where the pedestrian-only High Street made wandering extremely pleasant.

St. John the Baptist
The main church in town is St. John the Baptist, which dates back to the 12th century, and is the second-oldest building in Cardiff, after the Castle.

High Street
Like the Scots, the Welsh are quite proud of being Welsh, and their green-and-white flag is on display everywhere. Fun fact: the name of the country in Welsh is Cymru, pronounced “come-ree.”

I quickly discovered that the old city is primarily a shopping hub, and since it was Saturday evening, and I didn’t have any money to spend anyway, I decided to look for something else to do. My guidebook pointed me towards Cardiff Bay, a former industrial site that has been reclaimed into a pretty bayside destination for shopping, dining, and entertainment. There’s a bus route that heads into the area, but it didn’t look too far, so I decided to walk it. It was a nice stroll down Lloyd George Ave (probably about 30 minutes) through a new residential area.

Wales Millenium Centre
The Wales Millenium Centre is the most distinctive structure in this part of town. It is a performing arts centre that opened in 2004 as part of the revitalization of Cardiff Bay. The inscription on the front reads “In These Stones Horizons Sing” in both Welsh and English. I thought that the design was striking, I like the sentiment of the inscription, and I am down with anything that has to do with the flourishing of the performing arts. I was also told by some friends that the building has something to do with Doctor Who and Torchwood.

Of course, my guidebook failed to note that Saturday evenings in Cardiff Bay are beyond nutty during the summer festival. A band was playing and the streets were just packed with people. I needed to get some cash out, and I had to wait in line for 15 minutes at an ATM. I’m not a big fan of crowds, especially when I’m tired, so I pushed through the throngs of people until I reached the waterfront.

Cardiff Bay
Much more peaceful!

Norwegian Church
The Norwegian community in Cardiff dates back to Cardiff’s role as a major port city, and this picturesque building is the Norwegian Church of Cardiff. Author Roald Dahl was baptized here. It does not operate as a church anymore and is now an arts centre with a café.

The part of the festival that I really enjoyed were the food stalls along the path in front of the Norwegian Church. There were a lot of options with a focus on local products, but it shouldn’t shock anyone that I ultimately chose:

a chocolate-orange cupcake from The Little Round Cake Company. Again, the cake was a bit more dry than a typical American-style cupcake, but the flavour was terrific, and this cupcake was one of my favourites that I had in the UK.

After cupcakes and some time for photography and journaling, I decided to start walking back to my hotel before it got too dark. I picked up some snacks on the way and ate European chocolate and fell asleep watching cable TV. Perfect way to recharge for the full day of sightseeing ahead.

May 11, 2012 at 1:28 pm Leave a comment

A Writer in Edinburgh

Day 22 of my European adventure was Day 2 in Edinburgh. We had a big day planned, so it began early, with a huge Scottish breakfast. I’m not a fan of sausage and fried eggs, but fortunately, breakfast at the Kenneth Mackenzie Suites had plenty of options. Mom and I caffeinated well and started heading uphill to the western end of the Royal Mile.

The Hub
I thought that this was a church and got all excited, but it’s a place called The Hub. I believe it’s very important when the Edinburgh International Festival rolls around.

Edinburgh Castle
And soon we were enjoying a nice morning at the castle! Edinburgh Castle is basically the key tourist attraction in Edinburgh, so we planned it for day two to have the best chance at arriving before the swarm of tourists. We only had to queue for a couple of minutes, plus the weather was nice (if a bit chilly), so our strategy paid off.

Edinburgh pano
The view looking north across Edinburgh was lovely!

Cannon at Edinburgh Castle
If anyone ever sets off this cannon, the Sir Walter Scott monument is toast.

Heading Down
We went inside some of the main rooms of the castle, but the crowds were really starting to pick up, so we hit the Scottish Crown Jewels (sparkly!) and then started heading down after an hour or so.

Farewell Castle
As we left the castle, it was so lovely that I was starting to hope for a partly-cloudy blue sky all day! (Spoiler alert: this was not to be.)

Tartan Mill
We ducked into the Tartan Mill near the top of the Royal Mile, which was a factory, a museum, and a gift shop on steroids, all rolled into one. Mom wanted to buy some tartan scarves (I did too, but I lacked funds at this point) and we enjoyed our trip through this maze of a factory. I had previously been under the impression that, as McCaghrens (my maternal grandmother’s maiden name), we were related to the MacDonald clan somehow, but we couldn’t find any evidence of this at the tartan gift shops. I bought a little MacDonald booklet anyway, just in case. Our ancestors immigrated from Ireland, but there’s some sort of connection with Scotland. I started doing some genealogy research, but didn’t have time to research the Irish/Scottish parts. I’d love to do more research at some point when I have more time to waste and when I can afford the membership. It’s pricey!

After the tartans, we headed to the next big tourist attraction of the day, the National Museum of Scotland. The weather was starting to turn, so we were happy to spend a couple of hours inside. As a history nut, and one who grew up fascinated by kings and queens, I was really excited to read all about the Scottish kings, and how Scotland came to be a part of the UK, etc. The museum was new, and it was bright and cheery with clear presentations. I also liked the modern exhibit on where Scotland has been more recently and where it’s going in the future.

It was raining when we left the museum, so it was a perfect time for a late lunch at Spoon, which I’d read about in the Frommer’s guide. It was our one fantastic dining experience in Scotland! Spoon is a café that uses lots of fresh ingredients to make delicious soups and salads and sandwiches during the day, just what I want in a lunch spot. We had soup with our meals, which absolutely hit the spot in the yucky weather. I’m not normally a soup-in-July type of person, but I make exceptions in Edinburgh, apparently. The prices at lunchtime were perfectly reasonable, too.

Writers Museum

We needed somewhere else to go in the rain, so we decided to go to the Writers Museum after all. I had put it on my list as a “maybe, if we have time” sort of thing, and I know feel guilty for even admitting that. I am supposed to be a writer! But I guess I’ve never been properly introduced to Scottish writers. The museum focuses on Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve never read Scott, I’m sure I’ve read Burns but he doesn’t really stand out, and I never really liked the children’s edition of Treasure Island that I’m sure my mom bought me one Christmas. I’m so glad that we went, though, because the museum is so informative, and it made me want to learn more about all three of Scotland’s classic great writers.

And! By the time we left, it wasn’t raining anymore!

We still had quite a bit of time before we needed to pick up our bags and head to the train station, so Mom and I headed up Calton Hill, where many of Edinburgh’s monuments are located.

National Monument of Scotland
The National Monument of Scotland is the most famous, because it’s still unfinished. It was meant to be a Scottish War Memorial and designed in the 1820s, but left unfinished in 1829. They’ve talked about finishing it periodically since then, even as recently as 2004, but no one’s managed to get anything concrete together.

Nelson's Monument
Nelson’s Monument is also on the hill, and it honours Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar. I think I should start a collection of Nelson monuments…I’ve now been to three (also Trafalgar Square in London and the one in Old Montréal). I was enjoying views from the hill, but sometimes when I’m in new cities, I get the urge to try to conquer my fear of heights in the name of better views. I don’t know. Maybe I think it’s good for me. I guess it is. At any rate, my mama was exhausted from me dragging her all over Europe, so she declined the steps to the top of the tower, and up I went.

View of Edinburgh
Yep, worth it for the view!

Me at the top of Nelson's Monument
Proof that I went!

Parting shot of Edinburgh, with the Dugald Stewart Monument on the right.

We grabbed a bite at Bar Kohl (I think) after that, and then went back to the guest house to pick up our luggage. They didn’t have 24-hour reception, so we had to take our bags and call a cab at about a quarter til 9, which left us sitting at the train station for several hours, but we didn’t have a choice. In hindsight, we should have used our time to track down some earplugs, because we were about to have a night of very little sleep on the train. A few rows in front of us, a group of four laughed and howled (I am not exaggerating) until at least 4am. I have never wanted to throw myself off a train more than I wanted to that night! When we arrived in London the next morning, we walked past their seats, and they had 4 empty bottles of champagne, along with plenty of other spirits. No wonder everything was so hilarious. But seriously, if you’re taking the Caledonian Sleeper, bring earplugs.

April 3, 2012 at 12:18 am Leave a comment

A Day in Edinburgh

I left you on a cliffhanger with my last post, but as you can see from the title, my mom and I did make it to Edinburgh, although not without a good deal of worrying! We waited in the train station until about 11.30, then collected our luggage and started heading down to the platform. After a few minutes, a couple of other travelers joined us, and we figured out that they were in the same boat as we were. Once they began boarding, we talked to the conductor, and he was pretty sure we’d be able to get on, although he managed to convince us that we didn’t want a sleeper compartment (something about our suitcases being large). And a few minutes before the train left, we were finally ushered onto one of the coaches. The seats on the Caledonian Sleeper are more comfortable than a traditional train, but we weren’t really prepared for having to spend a night in a regular coach. Some ear plugs would have done wonders for our sleeping, especially because the train is actually pulled apart during the night, with half of it going to Edinburgh and half going to Glasgow. Of course, there’s no excuse for us not having ear plugs on the way back, but that’s a story for another post.

Shortly after 7, we arrived in Edinburgh’s Waverly station. We wanted to book our reservation on the return train, so we had to wait for the ticket office to open. Fortunately, we were back in the land of coffee shops, and easily passed the time with coffees from Costa. Unfortunately the train home was already sold out of sleeper compartments, but we at least secured our reservation back to London. From then, we had quite a journey ahead of us, navigating Edinburgh’s hilly, cobblestoned streets to arrive at our guest house. Just getting out of the station turned out to be quite the effort, but we finally found the main street (up a level from the station) and found some friendly locals who gave us directions, even offering suggestions for which streets were the least steep, since we were pulling some serious luggage.

We were both tired, but of course we’d arrived long before we could check into our rooms, so once we dropped our bags off, we charted a course for the day. Edinburgh is just about the easiest city for first-time tourists to visit, especially if you like walking. Almost all of the main sites are along the Royal Mile, a street right through the middle of Old Town.

Royal Mile 1
Royal Mile 2

Old Town is definitely picturesque! Even on an overcast morning, it felt a little magical.

Palace of Holyroodhouse
The Royal Mile stretches between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse (above). It wasn’t raining, so we decided to head to the Palace end first, where we planned to walk around the park. It hadn’t occurred to us to check and see if any royals were in town, but it turned out that they were, so the palace and grounds were closed to the public. Ah well.

Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament is adjacent to the palace and is a modern building, built in 2004, that contrasts with the rest of the architecture on the Royal Mile. The Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, and while the Scots are still under British rule on certain matters, they govern themselves in the areas of education, health, agriculture, and justice. Or so says my guidebook.

Scottish Parliament and Arthur's Seat
While the architecture is obviously very different from the rest of Old Town, I do think that the wooden elements help to tie the building in with its surroundings, including Arthur’s Seat, the hill that overlooks Edinburgh.

Canongate Kirk
We went inside the pretty church on this end of the mile, Canongate Kirk, where we wandered in with a tour group and were met by cheery guides. In terms of style, the building was more like a country church than a central urban one.

After the church, we went across the street to the Museum of Edinburgh. It’s an older museum and it isn’t very fancy, but it’s full of information about the city, past and present. I didn’t take many photos inside, but I did snap this one of some of the glassware that Edinburgh is known for:

When we left the museum, it was starting to rain, so we popped open the umbrella and kept walking up the Royal Mile.

Royal Mile
I really hate being out in the rain, but I kept calm and kept looking for opportunities to shoot. I ended up getting this shot of St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile that I really like. I love the bright umbrellas against the dreary background.

We were both getting hungry, so we started looking for something reasonable, and ended up in a full-on American-style touristy restaurant. Oups? Well, Edinburgh isn’t really known for its food, so we thought that a restaurant catering to picky tourists would be a safe choice. I think the food was okay, but our plan of waiting out the rain over lunch didn’t exactly pan out—it was still raining when we left. But at least we had time to plan our next stop, and after lunch, we headed across the bridge to the National Gallery of Art.

Mom and I love art museums, and we both enjoyed the National Gallery, which is free to visit! Even better. We wandered through some of the Renaissance rooms and of course the Impressionists (a smaller collection here, but very nice). We obviously had to see some of the Scottish art on display, and I was thrilled to see Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddington Loch by Sir Henry Raeburn, one of the most famous paintings depicting figure skating. The Edinburgh Skating Society was a major player in shaping the early years of my favourite sport, and this painting is often used to represent the beginnings of skating.

When we left the art gallery, the rain had stopped, and a bagpiper was playing on the terrace outside the gallery that overlooks Princes Street Gardens. Just perfect!

Scott Monument
Edinburgh has a bit of a history with Over The Top monuments (more on that in the next post), and this is the elaborate monument to Sir Walter Scott, arguably Scotland’s greatest literary figure. Marianne Dashwood would be so proud of me for paying homage. (Just don’t tell her that I don’t think I’ve actually ever read any Scott.)

One of the advantages of rainy weather, for the landscape photographer, is the unpredictability of the sky. Mom and I walked around New Town for a little bit and when we decided to head back to our room, we were greeted with this view when we passed over Princes Street Gardens.

Princes Street Gardens
What a difference an hour made!

Unfortunately, the blue sky was just a patch, and it was nowhere to be found when I took this photo of red telephone booths:
Red Telephone Booths

We headed back to our guest house to check in and nap a little bit before dinner. We were both exhausted from the overnight trip and sightseeing all day, so we didn’t feel like venturing anywhere far for dinner. Everything I read about Edinburgh indicated that they are starting to improve their infamous cuisine, but you generally have to pay quite a bit for the good stuff, and it’s not necessarily convenient to touristy Old Town. So I convinced my mom that what we both ultimately wanted was a classic pub dinner. We tried The Worlds End on the Royal Mile first, since it had good reviews, but it was packed, and I think we ended up across the street, at The Tass. I didn’t write down the name, so I’m not positive. Wherever it was that we went, we enjoyed our fish & chips and cider on tap, and as a bonus, a rockabilly band was scheduled to play that night. I was born in central Illinois, and we lived in a small town there for my first three years. One of the guys we know from my “hometown” is in a rockabilly band, and we both thought it was hilarious that although we’d never been one of Lane’s shows, we were hearing rockabilly in a pub in Edinburgh. Nice way to end the evening, and we both slept super well that night!

March 23, 2012 at 11:57 am Leave a comment

Adieu, Paris!

On day 20, Mom and I bid adieu to Paris. I always feel a little weepy when I think about leaving Paris, because I’m always a little worried that I’ll never find my way back. But then I always do. I don’t mean to make myself sound like a spoiled brat. I just mean that I have come to terms with the fact that I will always prioritize Paris over things like well-balanced meals and new clothes. My best friend and best travel buddy isn’t so keen on the idea of going to Paris, but I keep dreaming that I’ll be able to take her, someday.

But back to day 20, which began again at the same café where we began day 19. How far away perfect pains au chocolat seem now. Mom and I parted ways after that, because she’d been wanting to see the Unicorn Tapestries at the Musée Cluny for years and years, and I’d been dreaming about a repeat visit to La Sainte-Chapelle for eight years. We had tried to go to La Sainte-Chapelle the day before, but the line was long, and we didn’t want to take the time to wait, since we had quite an itinerary.

Palais de Justice and La Sainte-Chapelle

It was just a short walk from the café to the Ile de la Cité, the island in the Seine at the centre of Paris. Ile de la Cité is home to two important churches, Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle. Sainte-Chapelle is located inside the Palais de Justice, so you have to go through metal detectors before you get to the church, which accounts for the long lines. Of course, I forget the annoyance of the lines and the waiting when I entered the courtyard.

La Sainte-Chapelle

The church was built in the 13th century and commissioned by King Louis IX. The age of it astonishes me, for some reason. It’s just so much more spectacular than what I expect from anything built before the Renaissance.

The entrance fee is a bit steep, in my opinion, especially for a church, and especially when I wasn’t with my mom and had to pony up my own Euros. I think it was about 8 Euros, which I suppose is not the end of the world, but on my last day using Euros, I think the wallet was getting a little thin. Ah well. It was a worthy way to spend the last of my Euros. And of course, I forgot all about the entrance fee as soon as I got upstairs:

La Sainte-Chapelle windows 1
La Sainte-Chapelle windows 2
La Sainte-Chapelle windows 3

Just incredible!

The spectacular stained glass windows are taller and more narrow than in similar French churches, and the ratio of glass to wall is off the charts, so the effect is overwhelming. I had been inside the church just once before and it was exactly like I remembered it and more incredible than I had remembered it, at the same time. I wrote an awkward essay about the experience in my first nonfiction writing class, circa 2006, and it’s a subject that I have wanted to revisit, but I still don’t think that I am the writer that I need to be in order to do it justice.

La Sainte-Chapelle was more crowded than it was on my previous visit, and I think it’s because Paris has adopted those multi-attraction admissions passes. Suddenly any touring family with the cash to drop on a pass knows about La Sainte-Chapelle, and it’s just down the the road from Notre Dame, so why not kill two birds with one stone? It’s wonderful that more people are experiencing it, but I did selfishly wish that I’d been able to enjoy the windows in a bit calmer setting.

Mom had a wonderful time at the Cluny and told me all about the tapestries and showed me the postcards that she bought, and maybe next time I’m in Paris, I’ll see the Unicorn Tapestries, but this time, I know that I made the right decision in prioritizing La Sainte-Chapelle.

We met up in the Latin Quarter, thanks to our international text messaging plan, and we still had a few hours before we needed to get to the train station, so we decided to hit the Place des Vosges. Mom swore I’d seen it before, from the windows of a tour bus on a driving tour of Paris, but I didn’t remember the gorgeous red brick townhouses, so I’d put it on the itinerary as a possibility. Place des Vosges is also home to Victor Hugo’s house, now a museum, and it’s also near the Place de la Bastille. I knew that I’d seen the Bastille monument from the window of a tour bus, but I didn’t have a photo of it. And that matters to me.

Place de la Bastille
We got off the Métro at Bastille, took this photo, and then made our way into the Marais, one of Paris’ more fashionable arrondissements.

Maison de Victor Hugo
Inside Victor Hugo’s house, we saw old books and learned that he had lots of books, plates, floral wallpaper, and mistresses. Or just one mistress, maybe. I suppose it doesn’t matter. For any writing nerds visiting Paris, I thought that museum was interesting and informative, especially considering the price (zero Euros). It was also hot. I guess Hugo couldn’t afford central air conditioning.

Place des Vosges
We ate lunch at a café on the square, where I bravely revisited the galette (savoury crêpe), which had so disappointed me at the mini golf-bar-restaurant in Normandy. It turned out that it was the mini golf-bar-restaurant that was the problem, not the galette itself, as I quite liked the galette I had on the Place des Vosges.

After lunch, we took our last Métro ride of the trip back to the hotel to pick up our bags and call a cab. Taking the Métro to the hotel with all of our suitcases was an adventure that we were not to relive, so Mom splurged for a cab. We weren’t staying too far from the Gare du Nord, although the traffic made it feel much further. We made it in plenty of time, though, and even had time for Mom to buy some train snacks while I sat with the bags and determined that we needed to fill out customs forms before we got in line to go to the Eurostar waiting area. Word to the wise: fill out your forms before you get in line, unless you want to be yelled at in multiple languages.

The Eurostar gate at Gare de Lyon is not big enough for the amount of traffic that it gets, so I was glad that we didn’t have to wait too long. We had a smooth ride back to London, where we arrived at St Pancras International Station, which already had Olympic spirit.

St Pancras
I’m particularly fond of trains that pull up under Olympic rings!

Our adventures by train were not over, so we pulled our suitcases a few blocks to Euston Station, where we planned to take the Caledonia Sleeper to Edinburgh. In the days of high-speed trains (at least on other continents…), it’s easy to get from London to Edinburgh in just a couple of hours, but everything I’d read about the Caledonia Sleeper made it sound like a charming adventure, so I thought it would be fun. Plus, taking the sleeper train there and back saved us on hotel costs and it saved our daylight hours for sightseeing.

I knew from my research that we needed to book a sleeper berth, but I’d read that they didn’t usually book up during the week, so I wasn’t too worried. Until I got to the ticket counter and discovered that it was closed. We eventually found out that the ticket booth for the sleeper train is only open during the day, and it closes several hours before the train actually leaves around midnight. Oups. Our best option, according to the ticket people, was to hang around until about 15 minutes before the train left, and then mosey on down to the platform to see if we could get on the train. I wasn’t sure what we would do if we couldn’t get on the train, but I tried not to worry about it and I introduced my mom to Simply Food, which she thoroughly enjoyed.

Stay tuned to see if we got on the train on Day 21! Also: this is my 100th post! Finally!

March 6, 2012 at 6:40 pm 1 comment

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