Monday, August 24, 2015

Sixteen Days in the UK - Part 4

Part 4: A little hiccup in our plans 

On Wednesday, we slept late. We were exhausted from all of the travel and moving around and driving, so we took a lazy day. After breakfast, we did a little bit of shopping (Boots, Oxfam, and even a yarn shop) and took more photos. In retrospect, we probably shouldn't have started talking about how we couldn't wait to go home. 

We had one thing on our calendar that had been scheduled since April - a tour of Castle Stalker, which was the castle out in the lake at the very end of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." The castle is a private residence, so they only do one tour a day, for 12 people. We had reservations for Wednesday afternoon. We decided to go see Dunstaffnage Castle on the way to Stalker, since both are near Oban. 

Remember when we pissed off the faeries? Well, they were still mad. 

We were finally motivated enough to leave at 2:30pm, at which point we discovered a flat tire - the front driver's side tire was completely useless. [Unusual for tourists, usually it's the left side that gets run into curbs and such...] Sigh. We went back inside and called Hertz. They sent a roadside repair guy, who changed the tire to the donut, and gave us a card for the closest tire repair place. Of course, since Oban is a tiny town full of one way streets, we had to drive an extra mile in a big circle to get there. And it was clear from some online reviews that Hertz UK was not going to pay for the tire. We debated for a while, but in the end John chose the nicer tire, because we didn't want Hertz to come back and charge us again if we bought one that wasn't good enough. Sigh.

The Castle Stalker tour was scheduled for 5pm. Unfortunately, having spent the afternoon at the tire place, we were just parking the car at the hotel (at 5:15pm) when they called to see if we were still coming. Sigh. We went back to the hotel and had dinner, and went to bed early. We were glad to be done with that day!

Thursday, things were looking up. After breakfast, we decided to go to Dunstaffnage and to the Castle Stalker overlook. But when John went to get the car from the overflow lot, the NEW TIRE was about half flat. ARGH! So, back to the tire shop for us. They were very nice, and basically admitted that it could've been human error in not filling it 100% the day before. They pumped up the new one, and checked all the others, and then we were off! 

Since we missed Dunstaffnage on Wednesday, it was our first stop on Thursday. Yet another amazing castle built on a large rock! We climbed a tall flight of stairs to enter a large open courtyard. This castle was besieged by Robert the Bruce (a McAlpin descendant) in the 1300s, and the newest building is the gatehouse, built in 1500. The chapel is a few hundred yards off in the woods, much more deteriorated than the main buildings. We couldn't get over how thick the walls were for the chapel, and how narrow the window openings. The path through the woods looked like something out of a fairy tale - vibrant green ferns, thick trees, and a hushed whisper through the leaves. I started singing songs from Sondheim's "Into the Woods" as we walked back. 

Then we were off to Castle Stalker. While we couldn't go over to the little island or go into the castle, there is a lovely little cafe on a hill overlooking the site, so we stopped there and took some pictures and had lunch. (The zoom lens on my camera is awesome!) The tide was out, so we probably could have walked across the marshland, but we didn't think of it. The food was tasty, and we bought some scones for the road. 

After lunch, we decided to take the long way around to Callander, our last stop before going home (ahem, or so we thought). Driving through the Scottish Highlands was just breathtaking. We came around a bend and there was a pull-off for parking beside a mountain, and we could see a rocky outcropping with a waterfall about halfway up. Why not? The sun came out, and although it was windy, it was gorgeous. John took some amazing panoramas, and I started climbing the hill towards the waterfall. Here's a picture of me halfway up the hill. It was pretty steep, but it was so beautiful, I just kept climbing!

Even with the new tire, those faeries were still angry. As we were driving through the Highlands, marveling at the countryside, John's phone buzzed with a text message. There wasn't much cell signal out there, but there was just enough for a message to get through from British Airways that our flight home on Saturday was CANCELLED. Cue minor panic! But since we were in the middle of nowhere and there was nothing we could do, we forced ourselves to continue enjoying the scenery and just kept going. 

We found the Old Rectory (right next to St. Andrew's Church, amusingly enough) and checked into our little room. Our bathroom was right over the front door! First order of business, call BA. After an hour on the phone, we determined that the first time they could get us across the pond was Tuesday. Whee! But since our tickets back to London were booked separately, they couldn't change those without another £200+ fee, so we couldn't stay in Scotland for the weekend. ARGH. We went out to clear our heads and check out Callender, but by then it was close to 6pm, and things were closed. 

Dinner at the tiny restaurant in the hotel was actually really tasty - or maybe that was the cider talking. I found us a good deal on a hotel in Kensington for the weekend, and we resigned ourselves to spending three extra days in London. 

Friday - more castles!

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Sixteen Days in the UK - Part 3

Part 3 - Eastern Scotland 

On Monday, we were at the point where we HAD to do laundry. We looked online and found a place in Lochee, near Dundee -- an hour away. We found the place, and the ladies were happy to help us with soap and change for the machines. It was a small town, and the Scottish accents were so thick we could hardly understand sometimes, but we got the job done. 

We left the laundromat and headed for our next castle, Dunnottar. This was the one day that we had "real" Scottish weather - chilly, drizzly, and grey. But we were also out on the east coast, looking out over the North Sea. To get to the castle, you walk down almost 200 steps, almost to sea level, and then you walk across a bridge and back up almost as many to get to the gates of the castle. It was exhausting!  The site has been inhabited since the Picts, so that's thousands of years. There's a space in the hillside where it's reported that the Earl Marischal kept a pet lion in the 14th Century. Some of the buildings are falling down, others were built later so they're still standing. Each of the castle ruins that we visited had at least one room that had been recreated in period style. At Dunnottar, it was a sitting room, with a beautiful fireplace. 

After we recovered from hiking back down and back up all those stairs to the car, we set off for the hotel. We had decided earlier not to have dinner at Kinloch, so we headed into the town of Blairgowrie. Driving around was a little bit eerie - everything was closed! Yet another place where the sidewalks roll up at 5pm. We ended up eating in the restaurant at the Royal Hotel Blairgowrie... we were the only ones in the place. They were having a special, "pint and a pie for £10" so we took them up on it. By the time we left the restaurant, there were people on the streets again. 

I will say that all that fresh air and hiking made for a good night's sleep. We had a lovely breakfast at the hotel on Tuesday, and then we were off driving west. We did want to take the scenic route, but the mapping software accidentally put us on a smaller, narrower road than we intended. [Scotland has M roads (big highways), A roads (2 lane wide roads) and B roads (1 1/2 lane narrow roads).] John had a heck of a time with the twists and turns and oncoming trucks! Eek! We rerouted ourselves to an A road as soon as possible. 

As we went past Loch Tay, we took a wrong turn (another B road), but this time it was a
good thing - we ended up at the Scottish Crannog Centre. We were just in time to catch the guided tour of the Crannog and try out the ancient tools. A crannog, we found out, is a dwelling that was built as far back as 2500 years ago, on wooden pilings out over the water of the Scottish Lochs. The crannogs were large enough to hold up to 20 people, and their animals! (Must have smelled great...) The Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology has studied the remnants of a few of the hundreds of crannogs that may have existed, and rebuilt this one in the style of the originals. We also tried out the primitive lathes, rock drilling and knitting tools, and took a turn through the museum. What an incredible accidental "find!" 

Then we were back on our way to Oban, which was still about 2 hours away. We drove through some lovely countryside -- the sun started to come out as we made our way west -- and stopped to take pictures at least once. We also apparently drove through a rut that would cause a problem later... but we didn't know it at the time. 

We found the lovely seaside town of Oban, checked into our hotel (dragging our luggage through a half-dozen fire doors and up two flights of stairs), and went for a walk. It was high season for tourists in Oban - there are boat trips to see otters, seals, and lots of nearby islands, advertised everywhere. After dinner, we wandered back through town and stopped at the War and Peace Museum. The museum started with a display for the 50th anniversary of WWII back in 1995, and grew from there. John spent a lot of time talking to some of the veterans who staff the museum. 
The sun didn't go down until almost 10pm, and we were in bed with our eye-shades on soon thereafter!  We didn't know it yet, but Wednesday would be the most sedentary day of the trip... and not just because we were exhausted. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sixteen Days in the UK - part 2

Part 2: Edinburgh and Scone

We flew into Edinburgh on Friday evening. The flight was relatively empty, but there were clearly some shenanigans in store - "Marilyn Monroe" and his buddies were on our flight, probably heading for a stag party. 

We figured out how to take the tram into town, picked the tram station that looked like it was the closest one to our hotel, and got off. Edinburgh is beautiful, but I wish someone had warned us in advance about the hills. The path we chose from the tram stop to the hotel, while shortest on the map, took us past the Royal Scottish Academy and the Scottish National Gallery and up a GIANT staircase, over the same hill that the castle is sitting on. Once we made it to the top of the hill, we turned right and took a lovely curved little street (Victoria) back down the hill to the "Old Town" part of the city. Our hotel was on Grassmarket, which is a lovely open space that had been a marketplace back to the 1300's. One side is lined with pubs and restaurants, and the other side has a couple of hotels. The view from our hotel room was worth all of the hiking. (Photo above: Edinburgh castle, left, and the giant stands that they built for the Military Tattoo, which are really ugly.

After we recovered from the hike, we went across to the Beehive Inn for dinner. We ordered their "favorites" platter, so we got a little bit of fish 'n' chips, sliders, meat pies, and mushy peas. We were soon surrounded by a huge group of guys speaking .... Norwegian? Swedish? German? ... who each ordered the giant fish 'n' chips platter. We finished our tasty vittles and our beers (or cider, in my case - I became a big fan on Strongbow cider on this trip) and went back to the hotel to sleep. 

On Saturday, we had breakfast in the room overlooking the castle, and then hopped on the sightseeing tour bus (love those hop-on, hop-off buses!) to go to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This is where the current Queen stays when she's in Edinburgh. This was also the first of many places we visited that had a connection to Mary Queen of Scots. We toured the palace and then the Holyrood Abbey (right), which was founded in 1128. The ruins were beautiful. We also went to the exhibit on Gold in the Queen's Gallery. 

Then we started another tradition for the trip: we stopped for a bite to eat at the cafe in most of the castles we visited. (Usually because we ate a big breakfast and finally got hungry after all of our touristing!)  

After Holyrood, we got back on the big bus, and rode all the way around the city to Edinburgh Castle. We could have walked the Royal Mile, but this way we got to see more of the city (and sit for a while). The castle was incredible. So many buildings, with so much history! We saw the Scottish Crown Jewels, and got our first glimpse of the Stone of Scone in the case with the jewels. Of course, we couldn't take a photo, so we don't know if it was the real thing. 

On the outer ring of the castle, we came upon Mons Meg, a massive cannon that has been there for almost 600 years (left - and those are the cannonballs, next to John's right foot)! There was a military history museum, and the Scottish National War Memorial, which was overwhelming. Every regiment that sent fighters to WWI and WWII had a memorial wall carved in stone, and a book with names of soldiers lost. A new book was set out for soldiers lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. (There were quite a few McAlpines in the various books.) 

The Castle is so high on the hill, on this impregnable stone, it's easy to see why the location was ideal hundreds of years ago. We couldn't imagine how soldiers in any kind of battle gear would be able to climb the walls.  

By the time we had seen everything, the castle was closing for the evening, so we walked
down the stairs back to Grassmarket. (I was really glad we hadn't walked UP them...) We had to have a little bit of a rest, and then we went back out to a different pub for dinner. The White Hart Inn has a really interesting history - many famous patrons, including Robbie Burns and a clever pair of grave robbers broke bread there. The cellar is supposed to be haunted! The mugs hanging from the ceiling (see right) apparently contain notes from previous staff members, to be taken down and read by the new staff. We watched a girl climb up and grab one of the notes during dinner. The American couple next to us tried some haggis for an appetizer - they had never heard of it before. We opted not to have the haggis nachos, but more Guinness and Strongbow hit the spot.

Sunday we got up and looked for a less hilly way to get to the tram. Turns out that going to the next stop, while it was a slightly longer walk, was mostly flat. So off we went, back to the airport to get our rental car. Yes, that's right, John was going to drive us around Scotland - with a manual transmission - on the wrong side of the road! 

We made our way out of the airport and onto the highway, remembering to stay in the slow lane on the *left* side as much as possible. About an hour north of the airport, we followed signs to Scone Palace. This is the home of the "Stone of Scone" - or at least, it was the original home. Turns out it's also an actual home - the family still uses the downstairs quarters when they are in the area. It's also the house where Dido lived, and where the painting still hangs. Dido Elizabeth Belle (her story was dramatized in a movie, called "Belle") was the daughter of Rear Admiral Sir John Lindsay and a slave woman. Lindsay brought her to live with his uncle, the 1st Earl of Mansfield, who later would be instrumental in ending slavery in England. 

Inside the palace we saw a couple of display cases with large brown serving pieces and bowls that looked like they were ceramic, but we'd never seen ceramics in such a rich brown color before. The guide told us that they were made of papier mache! We weren't allowed to take pictures, but this image is in the guidebook. There are 70+ Vernis Martin papier mache pieces in the collection. 

Outside the Palace, next to the chapel, is the stone. Being a McCalpin, John decided it was high time that his family reclaim the crown of Scotland (Kenneth McAlpine was the first King of the Scots, in 841). So he sat down on the stone and proclaimed himself king. (Looking back on this now, I think he may have "angered the faeries" when he did this, and brought a little bit of bad luck upon us later in the trip.)   

We stopped for a sandwich and a scone (of course) in the cafe, and then went on our way to find Kinloch House, our next hotel. This is one of a few properties in the UK that are part of the Relais et Chateaux group - our honeymoon hotel in Santa Fe was also one of these. Needless to say, two nights in a country hunting lodge were a little bit different! 

We were slightly disappointed that there was no air conditioning, and in fact no real way to move air in the room at all. We left the windows open as much as possible. But the room was lovely and the bathroom was huge - and strangely, covered in mirrors. The lodge has a beautiful walled garden up the hill in the woods, so we went exploring. We chatted with the gardener for a while, and took some pictures. Then it was time to go back and freshen up for dinner. They served an amazing three course meal (not inexpensive) - this is the kind of place where they reserve a table for you automatically, and you have to specify that you won't be there. We chose to have dinner elsewhere the next night. 

Having exhausted ourselves from driving and castles and excellent food, we went to bed. Monday would bring a whole new kind of adventure: Laundry day! 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sixteen Days in the UK

Before I start writing about the amazing castles and wonderful places we visited across the pond, I have to talk about the pre-trip craziness. We almost didn't go! 

In mid-June, I came down with a stomach bug... I thought it was something I ate, but I have since heard that others caught it from something in the water. This is not something I would wish on my worst enemy. But then, because I was eating what I thought was the right thing - the BRAT diet, mostly - for the better part of three weeks, my gall bladder got cranky. So then I was taking antibiotics for the stomach issue plus antispasmodics. And still feeling awful, and working from home. To add insult to illness, on the Thursday before we left, I went out to run some errands, and got rear-ended at the traffic light a mile from our house! Now, the kid was not moving fast - he was already stopped, but his foot slipped - so it didn't do much damage. I took his info, but really, he was so young and earnest (damn those puppy dog eyes) and the damage was so minimal, I'm really not going to bother. 

And now, on with the trip: 

Part I: London & Oxford

We left on July 4th. I was so excited to go back to London, I was willing to miss the fireworks and fun on my favorite holiday. And BA now has a direct flight from Austin! When we got in on Sunday morning, we met up with mom at the airport, and headed into town on the tube. It was warm in London, but we seem to have missed the "heat wave" they were having the week before. We were staying at a two bedroom apartment that I found on Airbnb, and the owner was nice enough to let us come in early, while she was still cleaning up from the last visitors. So far so good, right? 

Well... at this point we discovered that this first floor apartment at the back of the building overlooked the tube tracks, about 40 feet below us. And since there was no air conditioning, we had to keep the windows open. And the trains run every 3-5 minutes. Sometimes it was so loud we couldn't hear the TV. [Apparently I missed that part on the AirBnB reviews -- I definitely added it to mine!]  On the plus side, we were also right above the Sainsbury, so we could get groceries and supplies. By supplies, I mean, we bought a wine bottle opener because although the host left us a bottle of wine as a "welcome" gift, her kitchen didn't have an opener. No wonder the last guests didn't drink it!

After a quick rest, we went out wandering - trying to stay awake as long as possible - and ended up at Kensington Palace. I was really feeling weird, but we sat outside and had some water and snacks in the garden. Here's mom and "Vicki" at the palace. We had dinner at a kebab place in Earls Court that mom likes, and then went back to crash. I will say, it was nice to watch Wimbledon in real time. I was rooting for Andy Murray, because we were going to be in Scotland by the time the finals were on. Sadly, he didn't make it that far. 

Monday morning we took the tube to Covent Garden for the standard Monday morning Fratkin family activity: the Covent Garden flea market. It was surprisingly empty, but it was fun to look around. I bought some "Keep Calm and Carry On" socks. I was very conscious of the fact that we still had two weeks of travel ahead, and I didn't need to carry anything extra! 

We walked from CG through Leicester Square and past one of the antique shops where mom knows the proprietor. We stopped for a chat, and then headed down to the Mall, to see the tail end of the Changing of the Guard. Standing on the Mall sidewalk about 500 ft from the circle in front of Buckingham Palace, some of the guards passed us on their way in, and the band passed us on the way out, so we got to see enough, and we didn't have to cram in like sardines with all the other tourists. 

After lunch, John and I went off to visit the Churchill War Rooms. Unfortunately, everyone else on the planet also wanted to go to the War Rooms after lunch, so we skipped it. We walked along St. James' park, past the Ivy Lodge, the Guards Division Memorial, and across into the Horse Guards parade area. I never noticed the two giant cannons on either side of the park, but of course John did. [Photo of the Cadiz Memorial, right] Then we walked across to Victoria Embankment, and along the Thames up to Westminster. We took pictures of the London Eye, but we didn't really feel the need to go on it. After some ice cream and photos of Big Ben, we took the tube back to the apartment. 

Dinner was leftovers from the kebab place the night before, with some rice and naan and salad from Sainsbury. I will say that the UK supermarkets carry a wonderful arrangement of individual or small portions of tasty things. I think it's partly convenience, and partly the fact that homes in London tend to be small and have very small kitchens. 

By Tuesday, we learned that the tube stops running at midnight and starts again at 6am. Even with earplugs, it's hard to sleep through that, but we tried. The only thing on Tuesday's agenda was the Imperial War Museum. [Requisite photo with the big guns, left.] As it happened, we were on the tube at 11am, on the 10-year anniversary of the London bombings. We didn't realize until halfway there, when it dawned on us that there were very few people on the tube.  

The museum was full of school kids in uniforms, but we managed to avoid them most of the time. It has been completely redone since the last time I was there, and they have added displays about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Really sobering. We didn't even get all the way through the museum.

We stopped for lunch at a pub, and I discovered a wonderful drink - Fentiman's Rose Lemonade. It's pink and bubbly but not sweet. I'm thinking I might have to get some (World Markets here I come)... and probably mix it with gin. :) 

I finally felt well enough to eat Indian food, so we met the whole CASC group at Noor Jahan, which the Fratkins have been visiting on every trip for at least a decade. It was extra tasty, particularly since I'd been eating so blandly for so long. 

Wednesday, we were up and out early, because we had to catch a bus to get up to Oxford for the CASC-UK HPC Meeting. We took a taxi to Victoria, and the bus comes every 20 minutes or so. Being tourists, we rode upstairs at the front window, and marveled at how the bus driver managed to squeeze between and get around things. 

When we got to Oxford the gloomy weather was brightening up. On the way to the hotel, we cut down a side street and I could swear I recognized the scenery from an episode of "Inspector Lewis" on BBC. Turns out I was right - and not only that, they were there FILMING! They called for quiet, and since our suitcases made way too much noise on the cobblestones, we stopped and waited. They filmed the scene, and then people could move again, so we continued on our way. We walked right by Laurence Fox (DI Hathaway)! He's just as good looking in person as he is on TV. 

The Buttery hotel is also a cafe (and the meeting point for most of the walking tours of Oxford). They gave us the room just opposite registration, so we were looking out over the street and the tourists. They also gave us a standalone A/C unit, so the room was cool enough, and the tourist noise mostly stopped after dark. Of course, "after dark" is close to 10pm up there. 

We went out wandering and got a quick lunch, and then I had to report to the meeting at the eResearch Center. John got his bearings in Oxford, and then he joined us for a nice dinner at Kellogg College

Thursday, I spent the day at the meeting, and John got to be a tourist. When I saw all of his pictures, I was jealous. There are dozens of colleges and universities in Oxford, many of which are older than the United States. We'll have to go back. The meeting continued on Friday morning, and then we hustled over to the coach station to catch the bus directly to Heathrow. We had a nice lunch at the airport - Terminal 2 is fancy! - and then we were off to Edinburgh. 

Edinburgh - read next post

Monday, September 02, 2013

West Texas travels - part 3

Homeward Bound 

We got up at 8 – I smelled bacon! – and showered and went into the main house for breakfast. The Inn’s cook made us breakfast (we never got their names!) – scrambled eggs, toast, hash browns and Canadian bacon. Here, at least, the coffee was better. We were the only people staying in the house, so the staff sat and chatted with us for a while. We got an impromptu history lesson about Fort Davis – one woman’s mother had worked in town for Harvard University’s radio telescope astronomers (and that is why there’s a Harvard Hotel in town!) so she had been there since the late 50’s. She talked about how different it was once the NPS took over the Fort itself – kids used to go and climb on the ruins, etc. She also told us that there are four foreign exchange students staying in the house, and one of them is the Polish kid that we’d seen at Murphy’s and the Drugstore.  (aha!)

We had to stop at the Davis Mountain Nut Co. store in town – we’d had their “mocha madness” pecans from the McDonald Observatory cafe and wanted more.  We tasted a few things and bought a bag for home and a bag for the office. 

Then we drove north 33 miles to the natural springs at San Solomon, called Balmorhea (pronounced BAL-more-ay – the lady at the Inn was very impressed that I did that correctly). It’s 20 to 25 ft deep in some places, and it’s chilly! There are fish swimming around, and the bottom is mossy and uneven.  I stuck my feet in, but that was enough.  We decided we’d swim there another time.

We got on I-10, and headed east, toward home. We decided we’d get lunch when we got to Fort Stockton. I wanted to go into town to see “Paisano Pete” the largest road runner in the world. (57 miles) (He’s 11 feet high.)  We passed up a bunch of food places, because we thought we’d go into “Historic Fort Stockton” and find a place to eat, like we did with Mason and Ft. Davis. But Fort Stockton’s historic district just looked dead. We did get out and check out the courthouse area, and the Zero Stone - a marker placed in 1847, used as the zero reference point for subsequent surveys of the western part of the state.  But then we just got back on the road. We stopped for gas in the same place that we had limped into on Monday afternoon, and bought some snacks to hold us over until we could find real food. (If DQ counts as real food...)

I drove some of the last bit, from our lunch stop in Ozona, 90 miles to Junction, where we got off I-10 and onto the smaller roads. Unfortunately, the part I chose to drive was also when we rode into the black clouds, lightning and thunder we had been watching all day. A few drops of rain would turn into a downpour, and a mile later would be all gone, and a mile after that another downpour. For about 20 miles, up and down the steep grades. It was exhausting.

We passed a lot of churches on our drive last week, and clearly the most popular denomination in west Texas is Cowboy. Turns out these churches aren’t just for humans – “Some cowboy churches have covered arenas where rodeo events such as bull riding, team roping, ranch sorting, team penning and equestrian events are held on weeknights.”  And there are over 200 of them in Texas now. (Lesson #11 – a lot of Cowboys go to church!) 

The last leg of the trip was uneventful, and we were glad to see that most of the traffic was going the other direction. (Traffic! We finally had other cars to contend with!)  Made it home around 7pm. Sadly, we had forgotten just how HOT it is in Austin in August. We were so spoiled. Sigh.  

And now… laundry!

Total mileage, day 5: 443 miles, ~9 hours.

Total mileage overall: 1,255 miles 

West Texas travels - part 2

Day 3: McDonald Observatory

Wednesday morning, we started with some instant oatmeal in our room, rather than trying to hunt for a breakfast spot again. And here we come to lesson #4: The coffee in west Texas sucks.  Granted, it was hotel room coffee, but even the stuff from the lobby was bad. Even Alice’s coffee on Tuesday was bad. And the trend continued through McDonald and Fort Davis. Or maybe I’m just spoiled by the awesome coffee maker we have at home, and the ready access to Starbucks, which hasn’t made it out to Marfa yet. Just sayin’. 

I stopped in the gift shop for a Marfa t-shirt, and we set off to the north for Fort Davis and the McDonald Observatory. We stopped for lunch in Fort Davis at Murphy’s and had subs. They were really good. We also learned lesson #5: everything comes with a bag of Lay’s potato chips.  At first, I ate them, but later in the trip we just started hanging on to them, and came home with 4 bags in our “snack sack,” which accumulated munchies as the week went on. From Marfa to Fort Davis, it's only 21 miles.  At the restaurant, we picked up a map of town that was sponsored by a store called Fort Davis Outfitters, which looked like the modern equivalent of a General Store, so we had to check it out. It was exactly that – they had everything from cosmetics to cowboy boots to kitchen gadgets to car repair kits, and everything in between – except Lactaid! We spent a long time talking to the proprietor, who moved down with his wife from New Hampshire and opened the store at the end of last year. They’ve got a 50 page list of new items that they’re going to start carrying, and he added Lactaid pills to the list.  He did have something I needed, though – I bought a new cosmetics bag to replace the minty one.  The proprietor, even though he had moved down from New Hampshire, was an Aggie (graduated a few years before John). Lesson #6: Outside of Austin, there are a LOT of Aggies around!

We drove through town (tiny, at 1211 people) and passed the actual fort for which Fort Davis is named – we’ll be back there on Thursday – and started the drive up to the Observatory. The weather was fabulous – 80 degrees and sunny. We drove with the windows down! (This made it a lot easier to stop and take photos of the mountains, too.) We got to the Visitors Center (16 miles) just in time for our 2:30 tour. First we learned about the sun. They have a telescope that just looks at the sun, and the tour guide (Rachel) showed us a live image, so we could see the sun spots. My lack of coffee was starting to take its toll, but then it was time to head up the mountain! First stop, the 107” Harlan J. Smith telescope, on Mount Locke – 6790 ft elevation. We climbed the stairs to the floor of the telescope dome (whew, 50 steps at that elevation was rough) and learned about how the telescope works, the mirrors, and how it takes in spectral information and the scientists review it.  The kids on our tour got to move the telescope to different points; when there were no more kids to volunteer, I got to take the controls and rotate the dome itself! So cool!  The view from the telescope area is also amazing – Rachel pointed south to where, on a really clear day like the one we were having, you can see all the way to Mexico. And somewhere in Mexico, they can see “la montaña con dos huevos” :) 

Then we went over to the Hobby-Everly telescope, 6,640 feet up, atop Mount Fowlkes.  This one is very different from the 107” telescope – instead of one big tube with a mirror, it’s made up of 91 hexagonal mirrors, and is 433 inches across. It was also built for a lot less money than other modern telescopes, re-purposing previously used technologies like a radar dome, and the kind of metal frames that are used in construction. The dome panels were covered by hand with silver tape to reflect more light – you can see the stripes of silver on the outside. They are currently doing some modifications to the mirror base, widening it so it can participate in the HETDEX project.  When we looked through the glass in the HET visitors’ center, they were bringing a cherry-picker down from its lofty position, rotating the telescope at the same time. It had to be done really carefully – it was like a ballet! I also noticed that of the five people working in the telescope room, three were women. 

After the tour, we drove back around to the Mt. Locke side and checked in to the Astronomers’ Lodge. It’s where all of the visiting scientists stay when they come to do research at McD. There are signs everywhere warning you to turn lights off, and there are blackout shades in every room. Unfortunately, I don’t think the décor in the lodge has changed much since the 70’s. The room was sparse, and the bed was uncomfortable, but they had amazing water pressure. Not the best wireless access either (we were hoping for a UT connection, but alas…) but it was enough.

Dinner was with our tour group for the special viewing at the 107” telescope. The lodge provides three meals a day for the staff and scientists, as well as items you can take to go, like peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and fruit.  It turned out we were really lucky to have gone on the earlier tour – there were a lot of people in our later group who didn’t know as much about the Observatory or how it worked.  Our evening guide took us back up to the same seats in front of the Smith telescope, but he gave us a presentation on Spectroscopy, which is mostly what the two instruments at McDonald are used for.

Then we had a presentation by an astronomy grad student, who also had been sitting with us at dinner. He was a very bright guy, but he had a strong stutter. During dinner, when people would ask questions about the telescope, I was able to answer them, so he didn’t have to. But he had to give his presentation to the group. There were times when you could tell he really loved his work, so he didn’t stutter. He said if he had to choose, he’d go on being a researcher instead of a professor… I totally understand why.

Unfortunately, in order to equalize the temperature in the room, when they start moving the telescope they open the doors on both sides, and it got COLD up there with the wind blowing!  But we got to go into the monitoring room and look through an eyepiece and see Saturn! You could see it as a tiny bright dot with the naked eye, but through the telescope, it filled the view! That was my favorite moment, I think. They also brought up two Messier objects, which John had shown me earlier – the M13 globular cluster, and M57, the ring nebula.  We were looking in an area of the sky that was very near Cygnus, which is where the “Melyssa” star is, but we couldn’t ask them to find it – there were too many people there. The full moon was also beautiful, but it was too cold for me to stand out there and look for very long.

The full moon was useful, though, because we had to walk back down to the lodge in the dark. :) We grabbed some cookies and went to bed.

Total mileage, day 3: ~17 miles.
Total mileage overall:  750 miles 

Day 4: Scenic Loop to Fort Davis

It wasn’t hard to sleep in a room that was pitch black (with the exception of my phone battery charger, which makes a handy night-light), and I was exhausted. We ate breakfast with some of the same folks from our tour, and made ourselves some PB&Js to have later.  We decided to do the “Scenic Loop” drive around the Fort Davis mountains, which leaves from McDonald and goes counter-clockwise, ending up back at the road into town (near Murphy’s). 

First, though, we stopped back at the McDonald Visitors’ Center to see the exhibits (which we’d missed before our tour) and do some shopping.  Turns out we didn’t miss much -- the exhibits are kind of dated and over-used.  But there was a plaque on the wall thanking everyone who had been involved in creating the exhibits, and the first name on the list was Brad Armosky. I’ll have to send him a note.  John got a t-shirt and a shot glass with the observatory logo, and we were off!

Here again, we were the only car on the road most of the time, and with the speed limit at 45 (lots of twists and turns and rolling hills), we drove with the windows down. It was beautiful. We stopped in the middle of the road to take pictures a lot, because … there was nobody else there! We kept seeing signs for a “Wildlife Viewing Area” – all the way around the loop – that never really materialized. (Lesson #7: there is no wildlife viewing area; or, alternatively, the whole loop is a WVA. We haven’t decided which.)  With the windows open, we kept hearing a popping noise, but we thought it was just the tires on rocks or gravel, until John pointed out what became lesson #8: Grasshoppers (especially the giant, west Texas kind) make a loud popping noise when you run over them. (eeeeewwwwww)  Scenic Loop: ~60 miles. 

We also drove over a lot of cattle grates on the scenic loop. There are a lot of ranches out there, and the cattle are just roaming the hills. Some goats, too, but mostly cattle. We saw a few on the wrong side (road side) of fences, but they were content to stay put. We kept thinking if we were seeing sheep, rather than cattle, we could be in Scotland. (Well, aside from the large palm-like succulents growing everywhere.) It’s that green!

Just as we were pulling up in the parking lot of the Fort Davis National Historic site, the black clouds overhead opened up, so we sat in the car and ate our PB&J’s and hard boiled eggs, and waited. We probably sat there for about 20 minutes, using the convenient Park Service wireless. Between the slowing rain and my need to find a restroom, it was time to get out. We went to the visitors center and got a map of the site, and some background info. It turns out that the Buffalo soldiers were once stationed at Fort Davis. The first black man ever to graduate from West Point, Henry O.Flipper, was also stationed there, but he was court-martialed for embezzlement (even though he was not guilty) and dishonorably discharged in 1882. (He was posthumously pardoned by President Clinton in 1999.) 

They have restored a few of the buildings, and have marked off the ruins of others. We stopped in the Commissary, the Hospital, and the Officers’ Quarters. John found the Magazine (complete with boxes of ammo) way out behind the hospital, too.  The scenery is just breathtaking – all of these buildings were constructed at the base of a huge mountain, along what used to be the San Antonio-El Paso road. The road isn't there anymore, it’s mostly dirt and overgrown, but there are signs.  

After walking around the site in the sun and occasional rain shower, it was time to go check in to our last hotel. We had driven by it a few times already, the Davis Mountain Inn.  A lovely blue house that would've had a perfect backdrop, except for the RV park that seems to have sprung up next to it. Ah well. It’s a lovely B&B, with a big kitchen, rooms that hold a total of 12 guests, a large living room, and more cookies! (Lesson #9, chocolate chip cookies are everywhere. Always grab one when presented with the opportunity!) Our room was the one with the king bed, giant spa bathtub, and equally huge tiled shower. We were in heaven. I think my bedroom growing up was smaller than the walk-in closet.  (2 miles from the Fort)

We rested for a bit – John spent too much time out in the sun, and it took its toll – and then we decided to go to the Fort Davis Drug Store for dinner.   It has a long history – the original drugstore opened across the street from where it is now, in 1913. It moved in 1950, and has been in the same spot ever since. The food is traditional Texan – meat, meat and more meat. John had chicken-fried-steak, and I had a ½ lb burger that almost took over the table!  And since it’s an ice cream parlor, we had to have dessert too. I was worried that I didn’t have enough Lactaid pills, but they sell it (individual pill packets for $0.50 each) behind the counter! Lesson #10: Every ice cream shop should sell Lactaid!  So I got to have a nice big scoop of mint chocolate chip.

I also noticed that the young guy who waited on us at Murphy’s on Wednesday afternoon was there at the Drug Store on Thursday night. We learned more about him the next day.

Then we walked around the “center” of town – the square, which has the County Courthouse, the library, the state bank, and the Hotel Limpia. We looked in the bank window, and it still has the old fashioned teller windows… if I were going to film a bank robbery movie in a small town, I’d use this town!  

That was enough of an evening for us, so we went back to the Inn, watched some tv and went to bed.

Total mileage, day 4: ~62 miles
Total mileage overall: 812 miles
Here's a map of our route

West Texas travels - part 1

Marfa, McDonald and Beyond

This is the wonderful trip John planned for me for my birthday (6 months ago) and only revealed in early July. When he had the idea in February, the first time the tickets were available to the special viewing at the 107” telescope at McDonald was August 21. So that became the central event around which the trip was built.

We left on Monday and started the drive west. We stopped for lunch in Mason, TX – a quaint little town with a population of 2,104. The town’s claim to fame is that the largest blue topaz found in the US was discovered there. But of course that museum was closed on Mondays. (We should’ve sensed a theme…) We had lunch and looked around a bit, added a little gas to the tank, and got back on the road. (114 miles)

Turns out Mason was exactly half-way to our first planned vacation destination, the Caverns of Sonora, in Sonora, TX (114 miles).  The caverns are a National Natural Landmark. The cave was warm and muggy (98% humidity), and there were about 360 steps to climb (up and down) throughout the tour, which meanders for almost 2 hours over 2 miles of caves.  The tours here are a lot less practiced and formal than the tours at Luray – partly because it’s not a National Park Service site. No uniforms – Bill, our guide, wore a t-shirt and jeans. There were exactly 3 people working there that day, so they were alternating tours. The caves are amazing; formed by gas, there are very different formations here, including helictites that stick out at odd angles from the walls or the ceilings. The most famous one at Sonora, which formed as the shape of a butterfly, was vandalized by someone on a tour in 2006. (Bill told us they think they’ve caught the person, and really want him to bring back the piece that he took!)  In Texas, it’s a jailable offense to vandalize caves and cave formations, so the thief is in trouble either way.

We had some ice cream (had to recover from the heat of the cave!) and headed further west. If you’re counting the miles we’ve driven and thinking about our gas mileage, you may understand the mild panic we were beginning to feel as we got closer to Fort Stockton. We were now getting into the higher elevations (and going up and down mountains), so we pretty much made it to the gas station on fumes! (141 miles)

On our drive west from Austin, particularly on Route 29, we crossed a lot of creeks. They were, with one or two exceptions, all bone dry. And had been for some time.  Lesson #1: Just because it’s called a “creek” doesn’t mean there’s any water there.

From Fort Stockton, we went south to Alpine, in search of dinner. There’s one really nice restaurant in Alpine, called Reata. Unfortunately, Reata was closed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for renovations. Sigh.  So we quickly looked up another restaurant, but we found it at 8:15 and they were closing at 8:30. Sigh. Where did we eat dinner, on our first night of vacation? Subway.  Well, it was food. And we didn’t want to wait til we got to Marfa to eat, fearing that everything would be closed. (67 miles)

Turns out, we were smart not to wait for Marfa for dinner… we were right, everything was closed! We checked in to the El Paisano Hotel, which is where Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean (and the whole crew) stayed when they were filming “Giant.”  It’s charming. John got us a suite facing the courtyard and fountain. The room bizarrely had two levels – the kitchen and sofa on one level, and the bed and bathroom up 2 brick steps on a higher level platform (that creaked like crazy).  The accents in the room were interesting, including a small stained glass triangle window with a fleur de lis above the bathroom door – which was also ringed in bricks.  We had two sets of French doors looking out over the patio. It was really lovely.  Fortunately the hotel has (weak) wireless access – lesson #2: cell phone service is awful out there. (26 miles)

When I went to unpack my toiletries, I noticed that everything was a little wet and smelled minty. What do you know? My small bottle of mouthwash – the only thing not in an additional plastic bag – had opened and leaked out all over everything. Fortunately it was clear, not green…but everything had to be taken out of the bag and wiped off.  I’m just lucky my library book didn’t get a minty makeover!

Total mileage day 1: 463 miles (plus a few extra driving around Alpine, looking for dinner).
Total time: 11 hours
Here's a Map of our route 

Day 2 – Big Bend

We slept late and lounged around for a while, and then decided to go find breakfast. Here’s where we learned lesson # 3: Marfa is only open on the weekends. Everything we tried, including places that had been highly recommended, was closed on M-T-W.  We finally found a little hole-in-the-wall place (Alice’s Restaurant) serving breakfast burritos.  We weren’t the only people in the place -- two Border Patrol guys were enjoying their breakfast, so we figured it had to be good.

We thought we’d have to choose between going to the art museums in Marfa and going to Big Bend, but with lesson #3 in full effect, the decision was made for us. Big Bend, here we come!  We packed up our gear and set off.  First stop, gas and lunch in Marathon. We bought burgers at the gas station grill. (I eat at Rudy’s all the time, so why should eating lunch from a gas station bother me?) We took it to go and set off for the park. (56 miles to Marathon)

Basically, from Marathon, you drive straight south to Big Bend. It’s very long and flat, but the mountains in the distance are gorgeous. I had no idea that there were big mountain ranges like this in Texas! It really doesn’t look like what people imagine west Texas to look like – or what you see in the movies -- with big saguaro cactus, dry earth and rolling tumbleweeds. There were lots of little cacti, and low scrub brush as far as the eye could see. And it was actually GREEN! (40 miles to Big Bend)

There was nobody on the road with us for most of the trip – not just to Big Bend, but in general – I think we were passed once on the highway on Monday, and only saw one other car on the way to Big Bend. Halfway to the park, there’s a Border Patrol check point, with lots of cameras recording who comes and goes, but we didn’t have to stop.

When we got to the park, it also seemed deserted. The entry gate was unmanned, with a sign to pay for your park pass at one of the three visitor stations. The first visitor station, right inside the gate, was closed for lunch (it was 1:45, and they were reopening at 2pm, but we didn’t want to wait).  So we drove on to the next station, Panther Junction, which is roughly in the center of the park, about 26 miles in. The hills started getting steeper, and the vegetation was more desert-like. The rock formations were amazing. We talked to the Park Rangers at Panther, ate our burgers, and decided to head for Chisos Basin.

[There was a teeny bit of cell service at the park, so I got a call back from Cochineal restaurant in Marfa, offering us a dinner reservation time of 8:15pm. This turned out to be perfect – if it had been earlier, I don’t think we would’ve made it back in time.] 

The most famous pictures you see of Big Bend are of Casa Grande Mountain, and are usually taken from Chisos Basin (9 miles into the park).  We went on one of the shorter hikes into the basin area, and caught sight of a roadrunner, who walked ahead of us just fast enough that we didn’t get very good pictures. Sadly, he did not say “meep meep.” We took lots of pictures at the basin, and then turned around. [96 miles back to Marfa]

We had to stop at the Border Patrol station (briefly) on the way back. The two officers came out and checked the car and asked, “Just the two of you in the car?” Yes, sir. “And you’re both US Citizens?” Yes, sir! “Have a nice day!”  I guess we don’t look like we’re smuggling anything (or anyone). ;)

When we got back to Marfa, the ground was wet - it rains in west Texas, too! We had about an hour to rest, and then we got dressed and went to dinner. We had time for a drink in the hotel bar, which was nice. The food looked good – it had to be, considering they had a mostly captive audience of hotel guests who couldn’t get food anywhere else nearby!  As we left to walk the four blocks to dinner, it started raining again. I stood under an awning while my chivalrous man ran back to get the car. So John was a little damp by the time we got to dinner, poor guy.  Dinner at Cochineal was excellent… I understand why the reservations are so hard to come by.  For our appetizers, John had arancini (fried balls of risotto) and I had fried artichoke hearts with garlic aioli. They were both wonderful. There was a LOT of garlic in mine!  Then we both had chilaquiles with pork for dinner.  We probably could’ve split one, but it sounded SO good, and it’s a house specialty.  We ate so much, we declined dessert!

At dinner I finally got to give John a present that I had been hiding for a month… one that I had hoped to be able to give him for Xmas, or his birthday, or any other occasion where we’d see his family up in Richardson, but that was not to be. You see, it takes a lot of time to get the right parts to repair a 100+ year-old pocket watch.  When we were first dating, he showed me this family heirloom (in pieces, missing its glass, etc.), stowed in a plastic bag in his office closet. It was engraved to his great-grandfather in 1906! I knew from the minute he showed it to me that I was going to “steal” it and get it fixed for him. I snuck upstairs one afternoon last December and took it, and dropped it off at the jeweler that week, but it wasn’t ready until mid-July. Well, the trip seemed like the perfect time to give it to him, and he loved it. It needs a longer chain so he can wear it more often.

We went back to the hotel and crashed. It was a loooong day!

Total mileage, day 2: 270 miles
Total mileage overall: 733 miles
Here's a map of our route

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Weekend in Fredericksburg

In February, John decided we should go away for a weekend. Because of our schedules (mostly mine, sadly), we didn't get to go until this weekend. He chose a cute little B&B with individual cabins, in Fredericksburg, TX.

Unfortunately, we waited a little too long to leave on Friday, so it took longer than it should have to get there. But, we picked up our keys and went to find some dinner. The food (and the beer!) at the Fredericksburg Brewing Company was just what we needed (maybe too much!), and John picked up a t-shirt that turned out to be perfect for our Saturday adventure.

After dinner we went back and found our cabin at Barons Creekside. It was adorable! The cabin was originally built in Kentucky and brought to Fredericksburg. From what we could tell, it was sort of split in half, and they put the kitchen and bathroom area in the middle, between the living room and the bedroom. But it was just enough space for us. :)

Saturday morning we got up relatively early and set out for Enchanted Rock. It was gray and overcast, but the forecast said the sun was coming eventually. We had our water bottles, hats and cameras... we just had to get up that 425ft hill. It was slow going (my heart rate monitor was working overtime!) but we did it. Right along with the 25 school kids, the twenty or thirty other families, various dogs... etc. We made it to the top, took pictures, and came down around the side, to see some of the giant boulders and rock slides. The flowers and cacti growing out of the rocks were beautiful. The round-trip hike took us about 2 hours. On the way out, the line of cars waiting to get into the park was amazing! We were so glad we got there when we did.

After we went back to the cabin and rested our shaky legs, we decided to go check out Luckenbach, TX, and look for lunch. Neither one of us had ever been there, so we didn't know what to expect. Well, what greeted us was a real Texas party -- we happened to go on the day of the Mud Dauber Fest and Chili Cook-off. I had been worried we were going to go to a fancy place and I'd be under-dressed in my jeans and sneakers. That was NOT a problem. ;) There were long lines for beer, but shorter lines for food. John's "Vote - Less Government, More Beer" shirt, which he had bought at the brewery the night before, was a hit.

We didn't stay around for the rest of the Cook-Off festivities - we went to find some wine to taste. (We were in Fredericksburg, after all!) We went to Messina Hof - a winery that John and his family had visited in their main location in Bryan, TX. It was crowded and not very personable. We bought some wine, and went along to the next place on the "Wine Road." We poked our heads in at Grape Creek, but was another one that was really crowded and too focused on selling, so we left. Further down the road, the Woodrose Winery was a thousand times better. Our wine flights were served by the owner, who talked to us about how they made the wine, which grapes they chose, where they came from... it was SO much better. John bought a bottle of their wine as well.

Then it was time for a nap before dinner. (I could get used to this!) We skipped the upscale dinner places in favor of the West End Pizza Co. The food was good, but it took an hour to get to us, and we were just getting more and more exhausted as we sat there. The live music didn't help much. We knew we were going to sleep well!

Sunday morning we took a walk around the grounds, to check out the creek and the other cabins. It's really a beautiful place. The creek is man-made, and there are Adirondack chairs beside it, and painted cows all over the place. (Like the ones in New York)

After breakfast, we went to the National Museum of the Pacific War. It's a phenomenal museum - I'm amazed at all of the artifacts that they have in this huge museum, in the tiny little town of Fredericksburg. It took us three hours to get through the main pavilion. We didn't have the energy to go to the Nimitz Museum or the Pacific Combat Zone down the street... now we know why the entry ticket is good for 48 hours!

It really was an amazing weekend. I'm exhausted, but I think we'll go back again!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Travelogue: Germany, June 2011

Wow, it's been a year since I blogged here. But it's hard to describe a week-long trip abroad in short snippets on facebook, so I thought I'd write it out.

I left on Saturday, June 25. John was nice enough to drive me to the airport for my 6am flight to Newark. (oy, I'm never doing that again!) Then I had five hours to sit around the airport to wait for my flight to Stuttgart. I watched a movie on Netflix (TiMER), watched some Wimbledon tennis in the Heineken bar, and even got a little work done.

The plane was mostly full of Germans. There was one poor German woman on the plane whose son didn’t board in Newark… she cried half way across the ocean. (But he’s 24… he can probably deal.) I didn’t sleep much at all on the plane. I watched Rango during/after dinner, and then tried to sleep but couldn’t… and then with two hours left (at 5am), the guy behind me decided to play some kind of game on the screen on the back of my seat. UGH. No matter how many times I turned around and either gave him the 'evil eye' or asked nicely for him to stop... he just poked harder at the screen.

The passport agent was scary, but maybe that’s because I was so damn tired. The luggage carousel was “smart” – bags that came up the ramp stopped until there was space on the carousel for them to drop. Really quite impressive. (very German) Had a bit of a time finding a money machine… and realized at that moment that I probably have Euros in a drawer at home. Sigh. (as it turns out, I didn't have Euros... Plenty GB pounds, and Costa Rican colones, but no Euros.)

Took a taxi to the hotel. (30 Euros!) Gray weather and very muggy. The taxi driver didn’t speak English, so I sat and read my phrase book and tried to figure out where we were. Then I was so tired when I checked in that I didn’t even give them a credit card. And of course my room was in the other building, so I have to go underground (to floor -2) and walk down a long hallway full of African art (for sale) to the Park building, where I go from floor -1 to my floor. That walk got very old.

Took a nap for an hour, and then a hot shower. I had to eat (breakfast on the plane was just a croissant with jam and OJ), so I had standard European breakfast of bread and cheese and ham and jam, and some coffee at the hotel. Whew, that was expensive! (and I had to pay cash because I hadn’t given them a credit card! Oops!)

I wandered down to the center of town, where the big old buildings and museums are, and the shopping streets. Unfortunately, everything except the cafés is closed on Sunday. So I meandered, and it was hot (they were having a heat wave, it was 85!). Had to stop at Starbucks and get some water – that’s the only place I could find where you could get a bottle of water to walk around with. Saw the Schlossplatz and such, took photos. (See my Stuttgart photos posted on Flickr) People were dipping their feet in the fountains! I was the only one not wearing shorts. Went back to the hotel and tried not to sleep too much…. Then my colleague called and asked if I wanted to go to dinner.

So the American group went to dinner – me, Suzy, Ashok, Steve, and eventually we were found by Merle. We wandered a bit, checking out the menus, and ended up at the Paulaner brewhouse, sitting in the sun. (Between that and the earlier part of the day, I got a sunburn on my chest!) I had a beer, two Weisswurst and a pretzel, and it was fantastic. The honey mustard was great too. I’m now a huge fan of Weisswurst – which are apparently only supposed to be eaten for breakfast. Oh well.

I slept really well on Sunday night. I think all the walking helped. We had a quick breakfast and then took the subway out to the University center. It was HOT! I had dressed up and I got seriously sweaty. The meeting room didn’t have A/C either, which meant that around 3:30, when we were all starting to doze anyway, it got really warm. Luckily, Dan and I had to give our presentation then. He was totally wiped- they flew in on Monday morning and drove from Frankfurt. But the presentation went well, and we were done around 5pm.

Maria came and picked us up – thank goodness I didn’t have to hike back to the subway! – and we got to rest for a bit before going to dinner. Unfortunately, the restaurant where we had dinner also wasn’t air-conditioned. But the dinner itself was AMAZING. The waiter offered us a special deal… lots of mixed appetizers and then a fish dinner and dessert. He spoke German, English, Spanish, Turkish, and Italian, if I counted correctly. The appetizers just kept coming – sliced veal, green salad, seafood salad (like ceviche), fresh baked pita bread, tomato-mozzarella caprese (very fresh), and Italian antipasto. Then there were two kinds of fish and a giant prawn on the dinner plate. Then the three desserts – a chocolate-covered profiterole, a lava cake, and tiramisu. Between that and the wine, and the heat in the restaurant, I was done.

Tuesday morning we had breakfast at the hotel (most of the American group left earlier because we had arrived late when we took the train on Monday!) and then Maria drove us to the meeting. After the meeting, the HLRS guy (whose name I don’t know!) showed us the Porsche driving simulator, made from an actual Porsche. Wow. I didn’t try driving it. (see photos on Flickr for that too.)

We left HLRS and drove south to Burg Hohenzollern. It's 2800 ft above sea level. We climbed about 700 of those feet, from the parking lot area. (or at least it felt like that!) The castle was closed when we got to the top, but it was so beautiful. We had ice cream snacks before the walk, and got some water. When we got back to town, Dan was wiped out, but Maria and I went to dinner at a pub just up the street from our hotel. Typical German brewhaus – dark wood walls and benches. They had pretzels and mustard on the table – yum! I had wienerschnitzel (about time!) and a side salad drowning in dressing. Maria had a steak and creamed spinach, which was pretty tasty. By the time I got back to my room it was after 10pm!

We met for breakfast and took off at 9 to go to Neuschwanstein Castle – the one Disney modeled his castles after. It was about 2 hours away, and we had to pick up our tickets at 12:30 for the 1:30 tour. We made it, and took the bus up the hill. Unfortunately, once you get off the bus there’s a hike – both up to the bridge, and then down and back up to the castle. Oy. At least I know my heart can take some serious stress after that! My legs and feet… not so much.

The castle was incredible. We climbed lots of circular stairs… it was gorgeous. Poor Ludwig only lived there for a few weeks before his "mysterious drowning," and most of the rooms were never finished. And you can’t take pictures inside, so the guidebook is 12 Euros. (I didn’t buy one.) The view was amazing. Then we hiked back to the bus stop and took the bus back down the hill to have lunch. More Weissbrat sausages for me! And fries! Then back in the car to go investigate the next thing. Unfortunately, by the time we found the recreation area that Maria found with the cable cars to the top of the mountain, the rain clouds were rolling in, and the mountaintop was obscured, so we didn’t go. (it was also $25 per person to go up and back!) So instead, we drove around Bavaria, and accidentally crossed the line in to Austria! We turned back after a mile or so. We drove through some cute little towns until we found a road that paralleled the highway, and eventually got back on the Autobahn going north. I'm pretty sure Maria was having fun driving at over 150 km per hour. :)

They dropped me off at the University train stop and I took the subway back into town. It’s really an honor system, like the Prague subway was – no turnstiles to check your ticket, you just have to make sure you have one, or it’s a 40 Euro fine. I made sure I had a ticket. I walked out the wrong exit from the train stop, but it got me to a little takeaway place where I bought dinner to bring back to the hotel. (a curry chicken wrap and dried apple slices.) Outside the movie theater down the block from the hotel, they had the ‘bumblebee’ Camaro from Transformers -- I forgot the movie was opening this weekend. I should've taken a picture. I was exhausted, but it took me a while to fall asleep.

Thursday, I got up and had breakfast in the hotel, and went back to my room to check in for my flight. [Paying for Internet access in the hotel was highway robbery!] Then I figured out where the Mercedes Benz museum was, took the S-bahn train north a few stops, and walked to the museum (feet hurting already!) with a gaggle of teenagers who were going to the same place. I’m suddenly very short on patience for groups of kids like that. Maybe it’s worse here because I couldn’t understand them if they were talking to/about me? Hmmm….

Anyway. The museum is beautiful. Starts from the top and comes down in a spiral. I was really impressed at their handling of WWII history. It was restrained, correct, and clear. They had Princess Diana’s MB coupe, which she had for about a year before the Windsors made her give it back. And the Pope-mobile, and some other well-known cars. The gift shop was ridiculous. I might have bought a magnet of just the MB logo, but they didn’t have one. So bleh.

Walked back to the S-bahn, eating the PB crackers that Maria gave me. Thank goodness for those, because I really think I would have passed out otherwise. Got off the train at a different stop – the main train station - and sat down at a café in Schlossplatz… I sat in the sun for a while but that was too hot and I was getting woozy. Bitter Lemon helped, and “meatballs” and potato salad. Still a little woozy, I got some ice cream and walked back to the hotel. Went by the Ulla Popken store – nice women’s plus-sized clothes! I took a nap and put my feet up, that felt SO good. Puttered around watching CNN until 5:30, when I went down to get dinner. I felt like I was finally figuring out the streets of Stuttgart, finding the back way to/from things. Shame, since I was leaving the next day.

For dinner I went back down by the Paulaner café, but I chose one of the Italian places instead. Had a big bowl of ziti with pesto and red sauce, and a homemade lemonade. Wandered around a bit more – it was a good thing I took a picture of Neues Schloss on Sunday, because by Thursday, it was all covered up for the start of Jazz Fest on July 1.

I was really getting a kick out of watching the CNN international coverage of Wills and Kate’s visit to Canada.

I had exactly enough Euros to take a cab back to the airport on Friday morning. It's a really small airport, so all I did was buy a bottle of water and a candy bar, and we boarded the plane. I hate how much longer it takes to fly west across the Atlantic... 10 hours later, we landed at Newark. I was so glad to be back!

I think I'd like to go back to Germany to visit Munich and maybe Berlin. Someday.