Friday, June 30, 2017

I see London, I see France...

Saturday, June 3: Landed in London on Saturday with only 2 hrs of sleep on the plane... which is what happens when you're seated right next to the restroom. Sigh. We dropped our stuff in the apartment and went to lunch with the parents, and then we went off to find the Polish museum - only open the first Saturday of the month. Of course, we went to the wrong tube stop and had to hike a million miles... The Polish gentleman who was the tour guide was a survivor of WWII, I think. He knew everything - and assumed that we knew nothing, especially about WWII, which is not a good assumption to make with our family. Anyway, John and I were totally exhausted after the museum, so we went back to the flat for a while. The 'rents had theater tickets, so John and I stumbled out to find dinner in the rain and ended up having burgers at GBK in Earl's Court. I think the maitre'd was American. This was the start of my string of bunless burgers (gluten-free was hard to find) on this trip, but the salad that came with it was fantastic. 

John's panorama of the central atrium at the British Museum.

Sunday, June 4: The parents left early, so we went to the British Museum.  We saw the Greek and Egyptian artifacts, but we didn't go upstairs to see King Tut. My feet were already starting to hurt. We had lunch at a California Burrito place... sort of felt like cheating, but it was tasty. (Hey, it wasn't McDonald's!) Then we went back to the flat for a nap. We took mom with us for dinner with the London (McKinney) McCalpins, who had just come back from a week on a boat in Greece! We had pretty tasty tapas at the Spanish place near their house, and heard stories of kittens and rugs and all kinds of exciting Greek adventures. Riding back into town on the District line, we were almost the only ones on the train!  It was one of the new modern tube trains - all one train with joints between cars, and A/C.

Monday, June 5: This was the day we planned to go to Portsmouth, and already had tickets, but after only 4 hours of sleep, I wasn't about to make the 8:30 train with mom & dad. So I slept a little more, and we went at 10. We got to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in time for lunch. It was raining and cold all day, bleh. We all went to see the Mary Rose, one of King Henry VIII's ships - it has been salvaged from the mud, with hundreds of artifacts. It's a multi-story museum, so you can see how the various levels of the ship's crew lived, and what artifacts were found in each area. It reminded me of the Vasa in Stockholm. Mom said she heard one of the docents say that the two museums are working together, because the Vasa isn't as well preserved and the Swedes are having to catch up to keep it from disintegrating! 
Captain John at the wheel of the Victory

Then we went on Admiral Nelson's ship, the HMS Victory. All of the ceilings are really low -- I'm short, and I kept having to duck! After a brief tea and cookie break (my feet were killing me!) we went back to the Royal Navy Museum Victory Gallery to see the masthead collection. Really beautiful carvings of mermaids and Scotsmen, and all really well preserved. After that, I was so dead, and it was cold and gross, so there was no way we could have stayed in Portsmouth for dinner. We took the train back, and went to have Thai food at Earl's Court, near the flat. 

The Hound of the Baskervilles
Tuesday, June 6: John and I decided to go to 221b Baker Street to see the Sherlock Holmes museum. Small and cramped, it's decorated as if Sherlock had actually lived there, with rooms for him, Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson. I can't imagine what it would be like on a hotter day... It was warm with just the 20 or so tourists who were moving through the house with us. They had a huge shop, but since I didn't want to carry too much around with me, I just bought a magnet and an "I am SHER locked" bag. We had lunch at the Sherlock Cafe across the street... It's a Lebanese restaurant. (We figured it's probably been a bunch of different types of restaurants over time, but under the same name.) 

Tuesday afternoon, we went to see Wonder Woman! The screen was pretty small for a stadium-seated theater of that size, so I'm definitely going again in Austin. But WOW. I was so emotional during all of the battle scenes! It was awesome. The power of her climbing up to walk across No Man's Land was amazingly compelling. And the relief that after all these years of waiting, the movie was beyond my expectations. Then we walked over to dinner at Noor Jahan (can't go to London and not visit our favorite Indian place!) And a short walk back to the flat. That neighborhood is so lovely.  
The Hive

Wednesday, June 7:  The others left for the airport at 6am - mom even folded our laundry before she left! We gathered ourselves and went off to the McCalpins. I'm sad to say the recurring theme of the day was getting off the bus a stop too early... Oops! We took the bus from the Earlham tube to get closer to their house, and got off too early. Julie made tacos for lunch (Old El paso crispy shells! Yum!) and then we decided to go to Kew Gardens. But since nothing could go exactly right, Julie couldn't get on the bus because none of her Oyster cards had any money on them (doh!). She texted Eleanor, and we got off at the next stop and went back to find her. Once we had all topped up our cards, we got back on the bus to Kew. By the time we got off [a stop too early], went to Starbucks, and got to the gardens, my feet were already killing me. But we had to go see The Hive - an installation built of metal and lights that activate when bees are humming in their hive. The problem is, you never find out where the beehive is, so it's hard to know whether it's real or not. But, it was cool. Otherwise, Kew was just as I remembered it from ~20 years ago. We took a tea break at the Orangery and then went off to find the bus back. 

We ordered in - we had kebabs for dinner (Omg, Persian food! Yum!) and played a round of Carcassonne. I came from behind to tie Kenneth for 1st!  :)  

Thursday, June 8: Sadly, because of the timing of the Eurostar trains, and how far we were going, we had to get up at 5:30am to make sure we got out of Ealing and got to St. Pancras. But we made it, got our tickets, and even had time to grab breakfast and coffee (which was much-needed by then...) before we got on the 8:30am train to Paris. I forgot that we were also getting "breakfast" on the train, but I couldn't eat it anyway... It was a croissant, a roll, and yogurt. Sigh. But hey, egg salad on gluten free crackers wasn't bad! The French countryside flew by (the time in the actual Chunnel is short) and there we were in Paris. John figured out how to get from Gare du Nord to Gare St. Lazare via the RER (local non-metro train), for €2 each, so it turns out we didn't need 3 hours between trains, but our tickets were non-refundable/no changes. So we wandered/sat in Gare St. Lazare until the next train. It was a warm day, so we were hot, both in the station and on the train. Wifi was spotty, as it would be wherever we went after that. 

Then I had a total Meg Ryan moment ("French Kiss", which I referenced a LOT on this trip!) Riding backwards on the train leaving Paris, I looked out the window and saw the Eiffel Tower for a split second! I tried to show John, but we were going by a bunch of apartment buildings, so he didn't see it. He caught sight of it eventually... it just felt like "proof" that we were actually in Paris. 
Our adorable little cottage in France
We got to Caen a little bit late, so it's a good thing we took the earlier train, or the car rental place would've been closed. The Hertz office was a few blocks away. We got our Peugeot, and away we went! It took about an hour to get to the little cottage in Vire. We took smaller roads instead of big highways, to get more acquainted with the land. The rolling hills and farmland were beautiful, and the cottage was adorable! The owners are English... They've been there for 18 months. The markets were closed by the time we got there, so we went back into town (5km north) for dinner at a cafe, and tried the local cider. I thought it tasted funny, but John liked it... and all of it tasted like that, so I just got used to it. :) 
In front of the mystery castle

Friday, June 9 was a lazy day. We had fresh eggs for breakfast (from the owner's little flock of chickens!) and then we went to explore Vire. They were setting up for a big music festival on Saturday, but we were able to wander around. We found the ruins of a castle... But no signage, and there's nothing about it on Google - literally, it's not even on the map! We took lots of pictures anyway. We found a supermarket, and I couldn't believe it, but they had lactose-free milk and gluten free baguette! We got bananas, peanuts, cheese and crackers and wine and cider. 

The B&B owners made dinner for us on Saturday night. We were able to eat at the big table in the larger of their two properties because they didn't have anyone staying there. It was fantastic. It was a little weird to have the owners around all the time (living 50 yards from the cottage) -- at all of the other Airbnb's that we've done, they give us the keys and disappear. 

Saturday, June 10 - first day of real Normandy sights. We went to the Civilians in Wartime Memorial in Falaise. It's a pretty new museum (or recently renovated?). Really fascinating depictions of what happened in the small towns all over Normandy with the bombings after D-day -- bombed by both the Allies and the Germans. It's so sad to see the level of destruction. Psychologically, it had to be hard for the people to welcome the Allies as liberators, after they had just bombed out the cities. But they did!

The Museum is right next to William the Conqueror's castle, but we didn't have time to go in for a tour. But we couldn't leave without taking photos. 
Panorama of the castle

Memorial on top of the hill at Montormel
While we were in the museum, a wedding was held in the square, and apparently it is a French tradition for the procession of cars to honk as they leave! We had lunch in a little cafe (with wedding guests honking as they went by), and then we went off to find the Memorial at Montormel

It's a big hill in the middle of the countryside - smack in the area where the Americans and the British were trying to close in around the Germans, with help from the Polish panzer divisions. (We recognized some of the information in the Montormel museum from the Polish museum in London - things we never would have known about before.) The strategic importance of the hill was obvious, and the number of deaths was just shocking. This is one of the few places where the signs were in French, English, and Polish. 
The falls at Mortain

We drove back via Mortain, so we could go see the waterfalls there (we went to the Petite Cascade - we didn't hike to the big one). If you didn't know there was a deep chasm with a waterfall by the side of the road, you'd drive right by it. But we climbed down the hill and absorbed the beauty and the tranquility. 

Sunday, June 11: We went to see the Pegasus bridge Museum at Ranville, which was the lynch pin of the D-day invasion - those bridges had to be held so the Allied forces could advance from the beaches towards Paris. Amazing what these soldiers did coming in on gliders in the middle of the night, to maintain the element of surprise. The museum has all kinds of artifacts from the soldiers who fought there. We had lunch at a touristy place by the museum, where there were two Frenchmen dressed as GI's, but they didn't speak English!  While we were having lunch, the actual bridge (the original was replaced by a larger one) had to go up for a ship to go underneath. It was kinda fun to watch! 
Model of the Pegasus Bridge at the museum
Then went to Caen, to the Memorial Museum there. It is by far the most comprehensive museum in the area, starting with the end of WWI and how Hitler came to power, then moving through the war and the battles, with a separate section for the invasion of Normandy. For once I really couldn't handle the (surprisingly extensive) Holocaust section, it was too emotional. We didn't have time to see the underground bunker or the post-WWII section, either, so I guess we will have to go back someday. 
The Porte Horloge in Vire

The weather got much cooler, so we hightailed it back to Vire. While we were wandering around looking for dinner, I found a sign inside the Porte Horloge (the central clock tower) that explains the ruins and where the old walls were, including the ruins that we had seen on Friday. Huzzah! Turns out the ruins we saw were the "Donjon" (later the castle keep) and dated back to the 13th century. The belltower was added in the 15th C. 

We found a kebab place that was still open, so we got take-out (using as much sign language as French, and even a little bit of Spanish to speak to the owner), and ate at the cottage. Clearly, kebabs are the go-to fast food over there. 

Monday, June 12: It took a while to get going - poor John discovered the hard way that the fuse had blown on the hot water heater! I had taken a quick, lukewarm shower, but by the time he got in, it was gone. Fortunately, fuse boxes work the same way everywhere, so it was an easy fix. We eventually headed north to Bayeux and then Arromanches. We had lunch in Bayeux, and walked around a bit, but then we went up the road to see the beaches for the first time. Bayeux was beautiful but very touristy. I want to go back and see the famous tapestry, but not this trip. 
One of the gun bunkers at Longues Sur Mer

The beach was powerful. We went to the 360-degree cinema in Arromanches, and then drove to the German battery at Longues Sur Mer, which has four of the big concrete bunkers that the Germans used to guard the coast. Two of them are almost intact, although the big guns have rusted out in place. Then we walked out to the forward observation post, another multi level concrete bunker. Today, it's hard to see just how much the Germans could see from that vantage point, because of the overgrown weeds. The gun batteries were 1/4 mile back from the coast, which left lots of flat, open ground for the Allies to cover.

We stopped at the supermarket and found some dinner that we could cook at the house (with our little mini-oven), along with some other vital supplies, like TP and red wine. :)

Tuesday, June 13: Probably the most touristy thing we did - we went to Mont St Michel. It's just staggering that the monks built an abbey and 3 levels of rooms on top of the giant rock on the coast. (Apparently the final filial on top of the spire was put in place with a helicopter... so it's not that ancient.) We climbed a lot of steps, and took a lot of pictures. There are only a small number of people who actually live in MSM - the shop owners and some monks, I gather -  but it's a complete tourist trap. The parking area is set up to be very "inoffensive" to nature - no asphalt, just gravel and bushes - but there's space for thousands of cars, and from there you can either walk or ride a free shuttle (or a horse-drawn carriage!) to the base of the rock. Thank goodness it wasn't super crowded. We didn't even bother with souvenirs, although I did buy some real macarons in a bakery there. We heard a lot of English, but also noticed that a lot of the tourists were French. I guess it's like Mount Rushmore or the Smithsonian museums in DC...  It's in your country, so everyone eventually makes a pilgrimage. 

The drawback to staying in Vire is that we had to drive at least an hour to get anywhere. We drove through a lot of small towns (and bigger towns) and we noticed that there were very few people out! Anywhere! Maybe it's because we were usually driving through at lunch or dinner time... But it was weird. Like Blairgowrie in Scotland -- nobody was out between ~6pm and 7:30pm. Plus, a lot of the older buildings are right on top of the road... They have probably been there for centuries, but the roads have had to be widened to accommodate bigger trucks. So maybe the people are just at the back of the houses, so they don't have to walk on the road (or hear the traffic)? The only time we saw more than one or two people was when we went past a school, and the parents were picking up their children. 
Menu du jour at Chez Maman

We rested a bit, and then we went out to dinner. I chose Chez Maman, slightly off the beaten path in Vire. It was wonderful! Best meal of the trip. We sat on the patio, drank cider, and enjoyed every minute. All of the ingredients are local and homemade.  (I had to take a picture of the menu board.) :) 

Weds June 14: Laundry day! We were running out of clean clothes, so we had to take a break and do laundry. I think we will have to plan a "rest and laundry" day into any 2-week trip from now on - we did it in Scotland, in Spain, and now here. We thought it was going to rain, but instead it was just hot and muggy... Which is worse when you're hanging out in the laundromat. 

John started the day checking on the wireless setup for the cottage, and spent some time explaining it to Julie and Nigel, so they could call their IT guy. :) (It didn't improve our situation, but it may help the next person.) Laundry was quick and easy - especially with Google to translate the signs- but we still had to hang some shirts on the line out back. 

Afternoon nap, followed by dinner in Vire. The place that I chose wasn't serving food by the time we got there, so we picked the Creperie that we had driven by a million times on the main road - and it was wonderful! Savory crepes with chicken & mushrooms (John had his with sausage and an egg over-easy) and dessert crepe with caramel - yum! We sat on the patio, and we finally saw people! Turns out 7pm is when the businesses close, so there was traffic. And people going out to dinner... The restaurant filled up. Unfortunately, when we got back, it was really hot upstairs in the cabin, even with all of the windows open. It finally cooled down around 1am, so we slept until 9. This place needs a ceiling fan! 
Paratrooper (mannequin) on St Mere-Eglise
church spire

Thursday, June 15: We decided to go to the Western landing zone on our last day. We started at St-Mere-Eglise, which was the first town liberated by the American forces on D-day. The Airborne museum is there. We had lunch in town, walked around and then went to the museum. They have a paratrooper hanging from the church by his parachute - which actually happened, and was featured in the movie, the Longest Day. The museum has a lot of artifacts, and two big planes that were brought in and then had buildings built around them. One of the buildings gives you the experience of being on a plane over the jump zone. Really cool! 

From there we went to Pointe du Hoc, where there were more German batteries, as well as bunkers and other giant concrete constructions. It has been mostly left as it was in 1944, with grass growing in the craters formed by the Allied bombings. To see the heights of the cliffs that the soldiers had to climb, and feel the wind coming in off the water... Staggering. There was a  monument, and a plaque in one of the bunkers for Rudders Rangers - a Texan led the charge. Lots of Aggies involved. 
Les Braves monument - note tiny Texas flag in the center!
We were too late to get into the American cemetery and museum, but we went down to the beach front at Omaha. It was more powerful than I expected. The 'Les Braves' monument rises out of the sand, signifying Hope, Freedom, and Fraternity. We took pictures and walked on the sand.  Studies have shown that as much as 4% of the sand on Omaha beach is made up of shrapnel - metal and glass from the WWII invasion. It made me so much more grateful that John's father came back!

We stopped in St Lô for dinner on the way home, since we weren't sure if we would find another restaurant to try in Vire. We went to a pizza place next to the Cathedral in the old quarter (google said it was "where the locals eat"). Not my favorite meal, but good enough. At least the cottage was cool enough to sleep in! 

Friday, June 16: We packed up and left the lovely cottage, and said goodbye to Julie and Nigel. I don't know if we would stay quite that far away from everything if we go back to Normandy, but it was perfect for us this time. Dropped off the car in Caen (after an adventure finding a gas station) and we were off to Paris for the night. 

The train from Caen to Paris was uneventful, except for the screaming baby. But I learned something on this trip - I really don't like riding backwards on trains. I was motion sick more often on this trip than ever before. Bleh. 
John caught sight of the Tour Eiffel from the taxi.

We took a taxi from Gare St Lazare to our hotel near Orly. OMG. The traffic in Paris! Ridiculous! I would never drive there. The hotel didn't have A/C, but we did have a fan, so we sat in the cool air and made use of the working wifi. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant and then tried to go to sleep early. But I was still way too hot. 

Saturday, June 17: I am not a morning person. Getting up at 4:45 was NOT fun. (Did I mention that I'm not a morning person?As the shuttle bus took us from the hotel to the airport, we passed a bunch of young people who were just going home from the nearby club! I don't even remember the last time I pulled an all-nighter. UGH.  Fortunately, the lines were pretty short at Orly at that hour, and the cafe was open. 

Lessons learned: 
If I had to do it again, I'd learn more French for starters, although I think we did pretty well -- everyone was really nice, and we didn't feel like "ugly Americans." We quickly determined that we much preferred listening to the Hertz GPS lady giving us directions in French, rather than listening to the Google lady mispronounce the names of all of the towns and roads. We learned a little more French that way, too! ("Au rond-point, prendre la deuxième sortie" - there were a lot of traffic circles.) I also learned some neat tricks from Rick Steves' French phrasebook. I might find somewhere closer to the sights to stay, but I think we did very well with the time of year -- not too hot yet, not as many people on vacation yet -- and just after D-Day, so everything was spiffied up, but the crowds were small. But we have so many other places on our list before we go back to France -- New Zealand, for one! Time to plan the next trip... 

All of the trip photos will be uploaded to Flickr... one of these days. Stay tuned. 

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