bonjour montréal!

As summer 2013 approaches, I finally had some time to organize my photos from the summer 2012 road trip. In summer 2012, Jules, Christina, and I road tripped Québec’s Gaspé peninsula. Jules turned 30 last summer, so she picked the trip. This year, Christina’s 30th will bring us to California. Next year is my turn. Destination still undecided.

We started the great Gaspé road trip in a city that is close to our hearts, Montréal. We have all spent quite a bit of time here over the years, and it’s always great to be back.

Customary dashboard photo!

The drive from Toronto always feels longer than we expect it to (except for the times we drove overnight), and it was even worse when some random traffic on the highway forced us onto back roads for a while. Christina had found a Groupon for a random hotel on Île Charron, so we had to get all the way through the city before we reached our hotel, too. So on the first night in the city, we really only had time for dinner and a bit of walking. Jules and I finally had our first trip to Aux Vivres, Montréal’s well-known vegetarian restaurant. None of us are vegetarians, but we all lean that way. After dinner, we wandered up and down Boulevard St-Laurent, stopped for ice cream in a store where a guy wanted to talk American politics with me upon finding out that I was from Chicago, home of President Obama, and then got a good night sleep in advance of our one full day in Montréal.

Our one full day in Montréal ended up being Canada Day. Québec isn’t really where you go to celebrate Canada Day, but if you’re going to be anywhere in Québec, I’m guessing that Montréal has the best Canada Day celebrations. We decided to spend most of the day in the Vieux Port (Old Port), which had plenty of outdoor festivities, culminating with fireworks. But first, we had something important to do.

We’re a little obsessed with macarons. We’re also very picky about them. We have a place in Toronto that makes delicious, authentic French macarons (La Bamboche), but we were curious to see if Canada’s French province had even better macarons. So after a bit of googling, we found two macaron places that are well-known in Montréal, and they happened to be around the corner from each other. And so began The Battle of Macarons 2012.

Our first stop was Point G, on Ave du Mont Royal. Point G is a macaron boutique, with flashy macaron-tastic designs on the façade, and a long counter where you can view the flavours while waiting in line. We waited 10-15 minutes on a warm summer holiday, so it wasn’t too bad. We picked out six flavours, then took the box and headed around the corner. Their box was stylized, with more flashy macaron drawings.

The Girls outside of Point G, flashy macarons in the background

Stop #2 was La Maison du Macaron, just off of Mont Royal on Rue de la Roche. La Maison du Macaron is a dessert café, as well as a macaron boutique. I don’t think they had quite as many flavours, but they still had a nice selection. It wasn’t crowded at all. We picked out six flavours. The box from LMdM was more of a traditional macaron box in red and white.

We certainly didn’t want to host our battle of macarons in either of the shops, but we apparently had no qualms with bringing our battle into the nearby Starbucks. When we have “macaron table” (yes, we do this on a regular basis), we alternate who starts tasting each cookie, with each person biting off about a third of the cookie, then discuss the merits and/or pitfalls of each flavour. This was a little more intense, as I took notes, to ensure that we came to the right decision.

From Point G: fleur de croquelet (watermelon flavour), lychee-raspberry, salted caramel, chocolate hazelnut, balsamic, crème brulée

I liked the fleur de croquelet and chocolate hazelnut best. The balsamic was fruitier than we expected it to be. Point G had some savory flavours, so we wanted to try one of those and settled on balsamic.

From La Maison du Macaron: mojito, chocolate banana, strawberry rhubarb, café, pistachio, lemon.

We especially LOVED the fruit flavours from La Maison du Macaron. I immediately became obsessed with the mojito flavour. Lemon was also a big hit—it was sweet, but not fake, bringing up memories of a perfect lemon meringue pie.

After the taste test was concluded, the results were unanimous. We liked Point G quite a bit, but La Maison du Macaron was the clear winner.

The winning box of macarons, before we devoured them.

After coffee and macarons, we were ready to hit the Vieux Port, where they had imported extra Canadian flags, as well as happy fresh-faced Canadian girls, passing out paper flags.

Vieux Port

Since we’d basically already had cookies for lunch, I just kept up with the sweets and had a nutella-banana beavertail for lunch part 2. I had to…it’s Canada’s most patriotic food, or something.

We were anxious for an updated anchor photo. We’ve posed on this anchor most years since my first trip to Montréal, in 2003. Success!

Old Montréal is great because of the architecture and old world charm. This is the Hotel de Ville, I think.

One of my favourite buildings in the world is Chapelle Notre Dame de Bonsecours in Old Montréal, the oldest church in the city. I love the aged roof, the red door, and how the light hits in the building in early evening.

I probably have close to a hundred photos of this church that I’ve taken over the years, but I still find new angles.

I also enjoy Marché Bonsecours, which is next to the church. It has restaurants and shops in it…in general, they’re not really geared toward my demographic, but I love the building (and its clean public washrooms).

Funny story about the above shot—we spied this angle from a couple streets up, and the girls hoisted me onto a ledge with about a two-story drop on the opposite side, so I could get this photo. Every photographer needs a couple of friends who will help her climb onto something she shouldn’t be climbing on, and then hold her legs so she doesn’t kill herself or drop the camera. Not pictured below: Christina holding onto my feet, Jules and her mad photog skillz.

After walking all afternoon, we did manage to burn off our lunchtime sugar rush and went in search of somewhere to eat, via the shops on and near Rue St-Paul. We eventually decided to try Bevo, which is off of Rue St-Paul, but a couple of blocks from the square. For some reason, I’ve never had great luck with restaurants in Old Montréal, although I always hear that there are plenty of good ones. I thought Bevo was decent, but not outstanding, and a bit overpriced, which goes along with the location.

We had to wait a while for a table, so by the time we finished, it was getting dark, and I wanted to head back to the car to pick up my tripod. My mom had just bought it for me for my birthday, and I was excited for my first experiment with nighttime photography on a tripod. We had parked on one of the old piers that’s been repurposed as a parking garage, which offered a terrific view of the city, so I set up my tripod and got to work.

Awesome results!

I even set up a timer shot so we could all jump in.

Down in the park, I got a nice shot of the fountains.

The park had live music and people were starting to pour in for the fireworks show, so we walked a little, but then grabbed a spot along a wall where we hoped we’d have a great view of the fireworks. I think we would have had to camp out a lot earlier to get a spot close to the water, but I was happy with our spot, where I got quite a few terrific shots of fireworks exploding over the Cirque du Soleil tents.

On the way back to the car, we stopped at one of the Glacier Bilboquet locations for a taste of the island’s best ice cream. They had pop-up carts all over the port for the holiday, but there’s a more permanent location on one of the piers, before the parking pier.

Pretty great day in a great city to kick off the trip!


May 17, 2013 at 11:03 am 2 comments

everything i didn’t know about detroit (part 1)

I’ve really been slacking with the blogging, but I want to get back into it. I have a big trip to Italy coming up (more on that in another post), and I’ve been thinking about my neglected travel blog. I haven’t blogged about any of the trips, small or large, that I took in 2012, so I figure that January 2012 is a good place to start with catching up. Even better: this trip only requires one post!

My friends, Jules and Christina, and I got together for New Year’s (sometimes belated, sometimes not) for a few years in a row, and in 2012, we decided to meet in Michigan for a long weekend after the start of the new year. At the time, Jules lived in a small town in central Michigan, but she was well into a Detroit kick, and she wanted to take us to the big city where she would eventually move (more on that in a future post, too).

I always felt like I’d been to Detroit before. I’d flown in and out of the airport a couple of times and I’d been through it on Amtrak. I’d been all over the Detroit suburbs, mainly at various skating rinks and shopping malls. When I lived in Lansing, Jules and I went to Windsor fairly often, and sometimes we’d cross on the moderately-terrifying Ambassador Bridge, but sometimes we’d take the moderately-terrifying tunnel under the Detroit River, which connects the downtown districts of Detroit and Windsor. On those trips, Jules would point out landmarks from the highway and on the streets downtown. One time, I discovered some “landmarks” on my own—I picked up Christina and Jen from the VIA Rail station in Windsor late one night and on the way home, we were routed off the highway and through Mexicantown, Corktown, and Midtown, past abandoned buildings and the old Tiger Stadium. We never drove that way again. Another time, before either of us had a smartphone, we went on an epic search on Telegraph Road for a Fifth Third Bank after my wallet was stolen and we desperately needed cash to fill up the gas tank.

I felt like I’d been to Detroit.

But here’s the thing: aside from a trip into the bank (which we eventually found) and a fill-up at a gas station near the Wayne State campus, I’d never actually gotten out of the car in Detroit until January 2012.

I like cities, though, sketchy or not, and especially historic ones, so I was looking forward to my first real visit to Detroit. Once Jules threw in an art museum, I was all in. Unfortunately, I was also almost all broke. Fortunately, I learned that Detroit is super cheap.

As most touristy days for us begin, unless we are really pressed for time, the day began fairly late, but we finally got out the door. Our first stop was the Eastern Market.


Detroit’s Eastern Market is probably vibrant, bustling market in the early mornings or in the summertime, but it was early afternoon and January, so it was quiet when we visited. We took a walk through and looked at some of the stalls, but most of the vendors that were left were starting to pack up.


The area around the market is fun, though, with a lot of shops and restaurants. Jules had scoped out some of the options ahead of time, and we’d decided to try Supino Pizzeria, known as Detroit’s best pizza. Supino holds a solid 4.5-star rating on Yelp, and when you consider the picky sort of foodies that generally post on Yelp, 4.5 stars is incredibly impressive, especially for a place that is priced so reasonably. Even in the mid-afternoon, there wasn’t a single table, and an order for a whole pizza was going to take over an hour, so we got slices instead, and scarfed them down in Jules’ car. The pizzas are thin crust and quite tasty. Since we opted for slices to go, we didn’t get to try any of their fancy pizzas, but I’d love to go back sometime…maybe call ahead for a pickup to avoid the lines!

The afternoon was already starting to fade away after that, so we headed straight for the Detroit Institute of Arts after that, arriving about an hour before closing. I knew it was going to be a good visit when we walked up and saw that they have a cast of Rodin’s “The Thinker” outside.


At home in Chicago, I’m used to paying close to $20 to get into a premiere museum. At the DIA, the admission is only $8 for adults! I got in for only $5, as I was still a student at that time. The DIA is also free for members of local counties, and it’s free for everyone on the second Sunday of each month. Even at full price, though, the museum is a still, even for just one reason:


The room of Diego Rivera frescoes is mind-blowing.

“Detroit Industry” is one of the finest examples of 20th Century Mexican art that exists anywhere, much less in the United States. Rivera painted the frescoes, made of 27 panels, between April 1932 and March 1933. They depict Detroit’s forays into industry, when the city was one of the booming metropolises of the country.

The room that houses them is called “Rivera Court,” and I could have spent several hours here alone. If you are visiting the DIA, allow plenty of time to take in this work. Visitors can check out iPads in the room that contain interactive software with all kinds of information about the different panels and the industries and symbols that are depicted. We checked out an iPad, but only spent about 15 minutes with it, as we wanted to see some of the rest of the museum:


The rest of the museum was nice, of course, but the collection’s crown jewel is certainly the Rivera frescoes. A year later, I can only remember a few vague impressions of the rest of the art, although I would still love to visit again and spend more time enjoying the entire museum.

Just north of the museum on Woodward is a little strip of shops and cafes. We went into one store, Goods, which does fun, Detroit-tastic screen printing.

Overall, my first (real) day in Detroit was a success, and it made me anxious to learn more about the city. Although much of it is still downtrodden, it is evident that Detroit is on the rise. It is exciting to see its residents committed to the ongoing rebuilding projects. Jules moved into the city recently, and if I ever catch up, I’ll have plenty more to post about my second trip to Detroit. And by the time I posted about the second trip, I’ll probably have taken a third as well…

February 14, 2013 at 4:33 pm 1 comment

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

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