Chester, UK

This will be a quick post, partly because I want to finish it before I board a flight in 30 minutes, and partly because I don’t have many pictures to share this time. The lack of pictures is purely due to the weather during my visit and also to feeling a bit burnt out on travel that day – definitely not because of a lack of subject matter. Chester is a fascinating and picturesque city, and a decent photographer on a day with a bit of good light could take some really amazing shots of the buildings, streets and sights around the city. So it’s a shame, really, that I was feeling very tired on the day I was there and didn’t see all the city has to offer.

Chester has similarities with York, another UK city that I have really enjoyed. It has a lovely gothic cathedral, Roman ruins, and interesting streets filled with little shops. One of the most interesting features in Chester is the city wall. It is one of the most complete – maybe the most complete – city walls in the UK and runs for more than 2 km around a central area of the city. In parts of the wall you can see original Roman wall foundations and stones.

Chester’s wall is also interesting because of the way that the city is integrated with it. Shops and apartment buildings can be accessed from some parts of the wall, and the wall is actually quite a convenient walking path between some areas of the center. In York, the wall is generally isolated and runs beside roads and green-spaces, but in Chester the wall is a part of the city, and people live and work around and on it.

Though Chester plays up its roots as a Roman fortress, today it is largely a Victoria creation. Much of the city’s decor is Victorian restoration, and they developed a sort of mania for the ornate style of black and white buildings, which fill much of the central area of Chester.

Another interesting bit of Chester is The Rows – two city blocks of shops that are on two levels. There are the street level shops, and then above them a level of shops that are accessed by a balcony or sort of boardwalk that run along the outside. Sort of like a modern shopping mall.

Aside from the buildings, Chester is also lovely because of the rivers, canals and parks that are prevalent in it. The cold and misty weather on the day I was there was perfect for a brisk stroll along the river to enjoy the “winter” sights.

The gothic cathedral is of local red stone.

And it has an unusual freestanding bell tower.

The English in general, and the people of Chester in particular, do not seem to have any hatred for pigeons. Behind the cathedral there is a large pigeon coop, and this is an area where you can legally feed the birds.

So, it was a quick visit but pleasant. Chester is well worth a stop on any UK itinerary.

North Wales

I spent last Saturday in North Wales. I took a train along the coast and stopped at several small towns in the area. Though the weather was quite pleasant, early March is definitely not the tourist season for North Wales. So what will you see in Wales in the off-season?

#1: The Countryside

North Wales has lots of open country – coastline with rocky beaches, miles and miles of sheep farms on rolling hills, marshy lakes, and low mountains. Inland, the hills are broken up into neat little pastures lined with ancient-looking stone walls, hedgerows, and rocky streams crossed with quaint wooden footbridges. It’s very beautiful, really. However, the whole place smelled like sheep manure.

I saw many towers in the distance, and assumed they were castles. But my map of historical sites only registered about half of them. Perhaps they are so common they don’t even count as castles?

#2: Strange and Unpronounceable Names

Welsh is a complicated language. It has Celtic roots, and does not mold itself well to our current alphabet.

It’s filled with strange double letters, most of which don’t sound anything like you’d think. The one below was my first stop, and it’s actually quite manageable. “Ff” actually makes an F-sound. Unlike “Ll”, which makes more of a hacking “lwhcthkwhl” sound, apparently.

#3: Very Small, Very Quiet Towns

This is the rail station in Blaenau Ffestiniog. In peak season, you can catch heritage steam trains from here and take some of the most lovely and fascinating rail trips in the UK. In the off-season, you can try to walk around town in the 20 minutes between when your train arrives and then leaves again, so that you don’t get stuck in town for 4 hours until the next train back to the mainline.

In Victorian times, Blaenau Ffestiniog was the heart of the slate mining area. Below its hills lie old slate mines, and the hills are absolutely covered with cast-off shards and chunks of slate. If there were no weight limits on airline baggage, and I was very strong, I could have picked up the makings of a lovely slate patio for free.

Everything in town is made of slate.

All slate, all the time.

#4: Faded Seaside Resorts

My guidebooks call these places “Faded Resort Towns”. I suppose “faded” could be the polite tour-booklet way of saying “abandoned and run-down”, but since it was very off-season, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say it means “past their glory days but still perfectly lovely”. This is Llandudno – a very Victorian resort town by the sea.

Jutting out beside the beach is the Great Orme – a huge limestone formation that is geologically significant. It holds parkland and wildlife areas, and is home to many seabirds and other flora and fauna. When Chris and I were in Argentina in 2010, we went to a little tiny town in Argentina on the Puerto Madryn peninsula that – oddly – was filled with Welsh tea houses. The geography of that area looked almost exactly like this, so I guess maybe some Welsh immigrants found that place and it reminded them so much of home they decided to settle there.

The key feature of Llandudno is the long pier, lined with boardwalk amusements in the style of Brighton Beach or Coney Island.

A short walk on a long pier:

The pavilions of the arcades and shops. No skeeball, sadly.

Looking back at the beach from the end of the pier.

I stopped for tea and ordered scones, but accidentally ended up with a whole cake.

The UK version of the classic small-town “Western Chinese” restaurant.

#5: Castles

In addition to the previously mentioned non-castle-castles, you can also see loads of very nice castles. In Conwy, the city walls still circle much of the town, and the railway station goes right through a huge gate in the old city walls. Conwy is an interesting place. According to a big sign beside the (closed) tourist office, it was built by Edward I between 1283 and 1292, for a cost of 15,000 pounds.

The main fortress of the castle is right in the middle of town. A couple of major roads go right past the base.

#6: Boats and Fishing Equipment

All along the coast are boats of various size, shape and repair – from little skiffs that shouldn’t still be able to float to large sailing ships.

In the right season, Conwy would be a great place to get fresh seafood, especially mussels. In the off-season, you can see all sorts of interesting fishing equipment stacked up on the dock.

#7: Rainbows

The weather was highly changeable, moving from bright sunny skies to quite strong showers in a matter of moments. Overall it was pleasant, but the constant rain did explain why the train windows had been so muddy. The upside was an abundance of incredible rainbows.

A double rainbow with a castle? What does it mean?

#8: Closed Tourist Attractions

Where does everyone in North Wales go in the off-season? What do they do? Well, they don’t hang around to keep bizarre little tourist attractions open for straggler sight-seers. Everything is shut up tight for several winter months. But that’s OK: while wandering the deserted streets, looking for an open place to rest your feet and get out of a sudden shower, that’s half the fun.

 

Copenhagen, Denmark (Part 2)

Yesterday’s post made it seem as if the biggest part of my trip to Copenhagen was – once again – an endless parade of museums and castles and churches. But  Copenhagen was definitely more than its museums. I dashed through the museums to see the highlights, but most of my time was spent wandering the streets, trying to get a glimpse of the locals’ lives, and basking in the wonderful sun beaming down from the clear blue sky. That last part was best achieved from the protection of a sunny cafe window, however, because Copenhagen was the windiest place I have been in my life. And since my life includes at least one afternoon spent on the edge of a major wind farm in Southern Alberta, that should tell you that it was really, truly windy.

I love the brightly painted buildings in Scandinavia, and Copenhagen is no exception.

The area of town called Slotsholm includes beautiful architecture. The twisted spire of the Borsen (old stock exchange) is enchanting. Far off in the background of this snapshot you can see the beautiful gold-rimmed spire of Vor Frelser Kirke (Our Saviour’s Church):

Part of the Amalienborg palace, with a lovely blue-tiled roof and sharply dressed guards patrolling:

The guard towers have heart-shaped cut-outs on the sides. Danish coins also have hearts on them. Cute!

The striking tower of Christiansborg Palace, the home of the Danish Parliament:

Inside the Royal Library, a fantastic modern building that is well-integrated with the historic library building.

Copenhagen seems to have a lot of this particular ochre colour. I’m not sure if the brick is actually this yellow-orange colour, or if it is paint over the bridge, but it looks great, especially along with the bright green copper spires.

I saw some truly odd cars, of makes that I haven’t seen before. This was the smallest. It looks like something made of Lego:

And speaking of Lego, Denmark is the home of Lego! It wasn’t the biggest Lego store I’ve seen (Disneyworld!), but it had a great selection and some awesome Lego structures at the entrance. Somehow, I managed to avoid buying anything.

I’m going to say that Danes have a serious sweet tooth. That, or they don’t do anything by halves. The public market was one of the best I’ve seen and was filled with delicious-looking baked goods, fish, meat, cheese, coffee and chocolate. This is a kind of coffee cake at Laura’s Bakery:

It was easily a 50/50 split between the cake part and the topping. I was excited about all that brown sugar, but even I couldn’t finish it. When I left, my scraps got lots of dirty looks from my table neighbours.

This is smorrebrod, a traditional lunch food – basically an open-faced sandwich. Rye bread, boiled egg and shrimp is a classic Scandinavian combination, and it is inspired. Mmm.

This is from the next day, at the Lagkagehuset bakery – a popular local chain. This is a pastry with whipped cream, or perhaps more accurately…about a cup of whip cream with a thin pastry shell. Again, the remnants on my plate earned a scowl or two.

Spring was arriving in Copenhagen. The park was filled with little flowers. Snowdrops?

This is Scandinavian design mecca. A store filled with thousands and thousands of beautiful things for the home, and I would buy almost every single one of them. Lamps, chairs, candlesticks, dishes, clocks, tables, cushions, rugs, on and on. Fantastic. And expensive. I just drooled, and managed to leave with my bank account unscathed.

One of the most famous sights in Copenhagen – The Little Mermaid statue. The key to enjoying it? Low expectations. My guidebook said it was not worth the hype, but I figured I should walk over to see it anyway. I had to fight the wind to get there, but at least I didn’t have to fight any crowds. There was just a small group of tourists, and I was able to enjoy the statue despite its small size.

A quote from the wall of one of the museums, in an exhibition of Danish paintings. I’m sure it is true of all nationalities to some degree, but I really felt that it was true of Canadians, too. And I liked that.

One thing that struck me in walking around Copenhagen was how it was set up to be so social. Lots of restaurants, cafes and bars were set up with huge long tables and in the evenings they seemed to fill up quickly with boisterous crowds. I felt it would be a shame to miss out, so a huge thanks goes out to our friend Leif (who Chris and I met on our tour in Peru in 2010 and who lives by Copenhagen).  He joined me for dinner on Sunday evening, and then took me for a great walk around the city, and told me what all the wonderful buildings actually *were*. It was a great chance to find out about real Danish life and to pass a nice evening in great company. Skol! And apologies for leaving off all the special Danish characters in my terrible spelling of the names.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen is lovely. Windy as hell, but lovely. I think Stockholm is more chic and Oslo is more friendly, but Copenhagen has a style and a vibe all its own. Great architecture, great shopping and great museums. The central city is quite compact, so in a little more than 2 days I was able to see pretty much all the main sites, and still had time to catch a movie and go for a couple of great dinners. Here are the highlights.

VIEWS OF COPENHAGEN

The most pleasant surprise of the weekend – my 19th floor hotel room and the great view of Copenhagen from my window.

Looking out at the main train station: 

Copenhagen, with Malmo (Sweden) across the water in the distance:

The Tivoli amusement park in the foreground; the bridge between Denmark and Sweden in the backgroud:

Tivoli is an old amusement park that takes up a couple of city blocks in the middle of Copenhagen. It was closed for the winter, but the view from the hotel provided an interesting peek inside. The daytime view:

And at night, with paths and buildings lit up for a concert on the grounds: 

And just because I like the old-school neon signs in Copenhagen:

THE NATIONALMUSEET

The National Museum has an excellent collection of Iron Age and Bronze Age artifacts, and a very well-organized of Viking history.

Some of the massive “runes” or memorial stones:

Remnants of a Viking boat:

Viking music – some horns:

Celtic faces on a huge silver chalice (about 2 feet across):

Silver, the primary prescious metal of Viking trade:

THE NY CARLSBERG GLYPTOTEK

This gallery includes European paintings and sculpted art. It is housed in a lovely building, with this winter garden at its center: 

Statues of Danish queens. Seems like the Queen gets mad respect in Denmark:

Beethoven:

“Ophelia”:

Rodin’s “Thinker”:

In the Rodin gallery, where someone prepares to sketch the lovely statue of a young ballerina:

 ROSENBORG SLOT (CASTLE)

This castle was build in the early 17th century by the Danish king Christian IV. It is in an ornate Dutch Renaissance style and holds royal collections from Christian IV and other Danish royalty of the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as the Danish crown jewels.

Interior design inspiration? Eye-catching raspberry and pistachio stripes:

Decorate much? Christian VIII’s room.

Frederik IV’s room:

A small sitting room with an amber chandelier:

These kings liked pictures of themselves on their horses, especially when looking entirely unipressed while doing improbably jumps 🙂

There are special rooms for various collections, including a Bronze Room, Porcelain Room, Regalia Room, and this Glass Room:

The “Long Hall” with its throne:

At the other end of the Long Hall, three giant silver lion statues stand in front of another set of thrones:

Some of the royal collection in the Treasury, including a huge serving dish covered in dozens of carved cameos:

Skulls were so hot in the 1600’s:

Crown jewels!

Fit for a queen:

Well, time for bed. Tomorrow, I’ll post more about Copenhagen: food, shops, architecture, and observations on things Danes like.

Oxford, UK

Last Saturday I spent the day in Oxford gawking at the huge university and college buildings.

The day started out grey and cool and by the afternoon the rain was pouring down. Though the buildings have much more heating now than they did when they were first built, they were still very chilly. Slogging around in damp clothes wasn’t that pleasant, so it ended up being a short day and I caught a late afternoon to London. But despite the weather, it was still a worthwhile day trip. Here are some of the highlights.

Statues outside the Sheldonian Theatre and the History of Science Museum:

The Great Gate beneath the Tower of the Five Orders in the quadrangle of the Bodleian library:

The highlight of the trip was the extended tour I had booked of the Bodleian library.  The Bodleian was built between 1427 and 1636, and holds the historic rooms of the Divinity School, Duke Humfrey’s library, the Convocation House and other wonderful rooms. The Bodleian is still a working research/reference library.

This room was originally the School of Divinity. This beautiful structure took more than 80 years of non-stop crafting by a team of stonemasons. Fans of the Harry Potter movies might recognize this space as the Infirmary.

The ceiling includes hundreds of  carved “bosses” that form words, crests and symbolic pictures.

Above the Divinity School is Duke Humfrey’s library, an absolutely beautiful space that smells wonderfully of very old books. It was built in the late 1400’s, but suffered greatly in the English Reformation. Around 1600, it was restored by Thomas Bodley and is still in use today. Unfortunately, pictures were not permitted inside.

Below is the Radcliffe Camera building, which holds another beautiful library and reading room. No pictures were permitted inside, but it’s worth a Google. The inside is like a cake, with lovely robins-egg blue  walls and tiers of balconies and white plaster decorations.

The visitor’s entrance to Christ Church College.  The University of Oxford is made up of a number of different colleges. Most of the colleges have their own complexes, where the students and faculty live, eat and study/work. Christ Church is one of the largest colleges.

The fan-vaulted ceiling in the staircase up to the Christ Church College grand hall:

The “Tom Quad” quadrangle, named after the six-ton Great Tom bell that hangs in the tower:

Inside the Christ Church cathedral – the St. Frideswide window that tells the story of a local saint from the 8th century.

The nave and pipe organ.

Streets around Christ Church.

Magdalen Bridge – in the summer flat boats called “punts” go up and down the river and many launch from this dock. In Oxford, the word Magdalen is pronounced “mawdlin”, for reasons that seem to have a certain degree of historical accuracy but still seem generally ridiculous.

The Quadrangle inside Magdalen College:

Statues in the quadrangle, which allegedly inspired C.S. Lewis’  stone statues in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

Magdalen College’s great hall:

Just a few of the many, many bicycles around Oxford:

The most surprising thing about Oxford was the students. I must admit I expected them to look like this:

But actually, they were all just normal, shockingly-young-looking kids, hanging around acting like normal teenagers, albeit yelling at each other from grand old windows in hundreds-of-years old towers.

Bath, UK

I’m back. It’s been a month since my last post, and it’s been a busy one. It was filled with lots of work, a wonderful 2-week stretch at home, and some big decisions.

Now, I’m on another trip for 4 weeks. I’m in the UK right now, but there are a couple of other stops before I go home, and I’m looking forward to a little last-chance sightseeing. Because the best news of all is that this should be the last long trip that I have to do for a good long time. In the next 8 weeks, I’m moving to a different role (still in the same company) that I hope will give me much more time at home and help me balance my life to be healthier – mentally, emotionally and physically.

It’s crazy that I am walking away from a role that gives me such great opportunity to travel. My 16-year-old self would be throwing a temper-tantrum. It’s proof, clearly, that either my priorities have changed or I’ve gone senile. I will let you make your own decisions on that matter, though it’s probably best if you keep them to yourself.

For now, enjoy some more pictures and stories of things that I saw and sweet stuff that I ate. This one is from a few weeks ago, before my trip home.

Bath Spa, UK

In Jane Austen’s day the middle-class and wealthy socialites of Britain had one place they wanted to be every winter, Bath Spa. All the typical Georgian ladies’ pursuits were at their peak – tea parties, dances, card games, etc. Two of Austen’s novels are set in Bath: Northanger Abbey (my favorite of hers…which practically introduced the “frenemy”) and Persuasion. They show Bath from two perspectives. There is the rash excitement of a young girl going to her first dances and fussing over her first set of woman’s clothes, and then that of an “older” (27!) woman taxed by the stuffiness of high society and its expectations of who she ought to be. Evidence points to the fact that, after an initial infatuation with the city, Jane came to hate it and longed for the simple pleasures of country living.

Despite Jane’s dislike of the city, she lived there for 5 years with her family both before and after the death of her father. Even now, Bath seems a bit like an Austen novel brought to life. Though it suffered heavy bombing in WWII, it still boasts beautiful Georgian architecture and fantastic Roman ruins. It’s spotlessly clean with bright green lawns, and small enough to walk around easily. Basically, Bath is a perfect day trip – close to major cities, and with just enough museums and sights to fill an entire day but still leave time for a leisurely tea before your train home. I’d recommend it.

(Oh yes, and I forgot my camera on this day-trip, so my pictures are even more fuzzy and distant than usual. Go, old iPhone!)

Some of the most expensive Georgian townhouses, in the “Royal Crescent”:

Detail of townhouses in “The Circus”:

A beautiful Tiffany-blue event room in the Assembly Rooms. “Assembly Rooms” is sort of British for “community center”. These are the same Assembly Rooms where Jane Austen (and her characters) had their dances.

Another ballroom at the Assembly Rooms:

*Walk* the few blocks from the Royal Crescent to the Assembly Rooms? Never! Take a chair, my dear.

Yum. Delicious jam sponge cake and my favorite elderflower drink, at the Assembly Rooms’ tea room.

The basement of the Assembly Rooms holds a very good Fashion Museum, containing styles from the past 200+ years and including many modern displays of street and high fashion from recent decades. Here are examples of the muslin dresses from the early 19th century, just like Catherine fussed over in Northanger Abbey.

These shoes are tiny! My feet would have been laughed out of the cobblers.

Plain dress, beautiful hat. At the Jane Austen centre.

A letter from Jane to her sister Cassandra. The way the writing got smaller and smaller towards the end of the page and was crammed into the margins reminded me so much of cards from my wonderful Sam (Grace).

The Jane Austen Center is a small museum but a good value. It started with a 15-minute talk on Jane’s life by a very well-spoken young guide. However, she did look at me quite curiously after I started tearing up when she read an excerpt from one of her sister Cassandra’s letters to a friend, speaking of Jane after her early death:

“I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can be surpassed,- She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, & it is if I had lost a part of myself.”

How could I not be a little sentimental? I only cried a smidge.

After that it was over to the beautiful Bath Abbey:

The abbey contains a beautiful fan-vault ceiling, like the one I first saw in the tomb of Elizabeth I in Westminster Abbey. I’m in love with it – can I have this in my house?

It also has a huge and very brightly coloured stained glass window.

My cathedral-luck continued and I arrived to hear the organist rehearsing. There were fantastic acoustics and the music of the pipe organ absolutely filled the space. All the tourists sat down to listen, because we kept bumping into each other in our distraction.

Next to the Abbey is the most famous Bath site, the Roman Bath from which it gains its name.

Statue at the Bath, with the Abbey in the background:

Overlooking the main outdoor bath:

And looking up from beside the water:

The overflow of the Sacred Spring. Sadly, I didn’t properly read my map, so I missed seeing the main spring as it was in a separate area off one side of the gift shop.

Pediment and carving of the Gorgon, which once sat atop the entrance of the Roman temple that was beside the Bath:

The gravestone of a Roman soldier:

happy birthday to me

Since age 12, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with birthdays. It’s complicated.

This year, I was feeling extra sorry for myself about spending my birthday away from those I love.  I toyed with the thought of moving my birthday 6 months later to July 16. This would benefit me by letting me spend it with friends and family, and giving me the summer-time birthday which I had often longed for. However, it would have the downside of not letting me continue my delusion that any birthday I have away from home on my own does not count (ergo, I have missed 2 and am still 30 instead of 32).

Eventually, I decided to embrace the birthday this year and was inspired to celebrate it on Saturday in my own grand fashion. Therefore, I give you:

THE DAY OF CAKE

I caught a morning train to London set on the idea of seeing the British Museum, wandering the shops of Picadilly Circus, and eating only cake for the entire day.

Figure1:


Time: 11:30 AM

Type: Victoria Sponge

Bakery/Cafe: Peyton and Byrne (www.peytonandburne.co.uk)

Location: St. Pancras Train Station

Verdict: I’ll say it – this is a cake made to eat for breakfast. Nice crumbly sponge cake, super rich whipped cream with heavy flecks of vanilla, homestyle strawberry jam and berries. If you had this cake at the peak of summer, when the berries where perfectly juicy and sweet, it would be close to perfection. As was, even with the less-than-ideal berries, this cake and a cup of tea were an awesomely decadent breakfast. Could I eat this cake for breakfast every day? Of course not. But would I take this cake over a diner waffle with eggs and bacon? Absolutely. Though, some bacon on the side wouldn’t be a totally bad idea.

 

Figure2:

Time: 3:15 PM

Type: Red Velvet Cupcake

Bakery/Cafe: Bea’s of Bloomsbury (www.beasofbloomsbury.com)

Location: 44 Theobalds Road, Holborn

Verdict: The UK doesn’t really have good cupcakes (or “fairy cakes”, as they are sometimes called here). Despite the cute name, they are generally heavy, dry, crumbly, and have poor frosting. Bea’s is considered to have some of the best “American style” cupcakes in London, but I still wasn’t expecting much. I was delightfully surprised. The cake was rich and moist, nicely fudgy, and had an excellent balance that wasn’t too sweet. I would have preferred the icing to be a little richer with cream cheese flavour, as it was sort of just a sort of whipped cream. However, considering I was eating only cake for the day, lighter was probably better. This cafe is obviously popular as it was utterly packed, and there was no way I could get a table for one. Consequently, I took my cupcake to go and then wandered around looking for a park bench. After I couldn’t find one for several blocks, I gave up and sat at a bus stop. Despite the odd looks of passersby, I relished eating every crumb. My situation was all the more “disgraceful” as I ate the cupcake…gasp!…with my fingers. So far, as in Brazil, I’ve only seen Brits eat a cupcake with a proper fork. That’s just ridiculous.

 

Figure3:

Time: 4:45 PM

Type: “Curly Wirly” – chocolate with vanilla frosting

Bakery/Cafe: Konditor & Cook (www.konditorandcook.com)

Location: Curzon Cinema, Shaftesbury Avenue

Verdict: This is one of the most hyped cakes in London – the “signature” cake of London’s “king of cakes”, according to TimeOut London. It was OK. The good: although Konditor & Cook has 6 locations and is clearly a chain, it still tasted homemade. The bad: the icing was melting on a fresh-from-the-dishwasher plate and therefore grainy and greasy. It was a fine cake, but it wasn’t mind-blowing. It was the only one I didn’t finish – though that could be because I’d only had my cupcake about an hour before. Still, I had a nice sit-down at the window and ate my cake in peace while watching the bustle of the Picadilly crowd, and I ticked off the final place on my “best of London” cake tour, so it was a satisfying experience.

 

Figure4:

Time: 7:00 PM

Type: Lemon Cake

Bakery/Cafe: Costa Coffee

Location: St. Pancras Train Station

Verdict: It’d been a long day. My train was cancelled and I had 40 minutes to wait for the next one. I was freezing cold and feeling quite hungry, so I thought I would try to stick to my cake-only plan. Costa Coffee is a big chain of cafes, like Starbucks. Their coffee is reasonably good, and I’ve had chocolate cake of theirs before that was quite fantastic. This cake was not bad. It had a nice bit of lemon curd in the middle, but it could have used more. The frosting was over-sweet, but there wasn’t too much of it. Overall, it was a pretty good lemon cake. Best yet, it helped me achieve the whole range of cakes I had wanted to sample: a sponge, a cupcake, something chocolatey, and something lemony. Very satisfactory. And, as you can see, I ate it sitting on the floor of St. Pancras, waiting for my train.

[I must admit that I did not make it through the whole day on cake alone. By the time I was on the train, I had a distinctly unhealthy feeling and was quite light-headed, though still  thoroughly and disturbingly alert. I had a sandwich, drank some more water, and felt much better.]

Figure5:

Time: Sunday, Jan 15 – 2:00 PM

Type: Chocolate with Smarties

Cafe/Bakery: Homemade

Location: Helen & John’s house

Verdict: A colleague who sits behind me in the office invited me over for lunch, which we followed with a walk in the park. She and her husband have three wonderful children, ages 9, 6 and 4, and live in a beautiful old row-house. After some very tasty lasagna, the cake came out – complete with candles and the singing of happy birthday. It wasn’t gourmet, it wasn’t the most amazing cake I’d tasted, it wasn’t ornately decorated…but it was perfect. Which proves, really, that birthday cake is not about the texture of the cake or the fluffiness of the frosting – it’s about the people you get to share it with.

Happy birthday to me.

London, UK – New Year’s

It’s late. Since I can’t sleep and this post is getting ridiculously overdue, so I might as well be productive with this insomnia….

I’ve covered three of the four places Chris and I went on our 10 days of vacation – Prague, Berlin and Paris. But before we went to Prague we spent two days in London, and that is where we ended the trip as well.

Since my first trip to the UK back in August, I’ve had the good fortune to spend about a week’s worth of nights in the city and really see a lot of the sights in central London. I love visiting London, and I was really excited to be able to show it to Chris now that I know my way around. There are so many fascinating things to see in London that I could have a whole blog dedicated to it (and I’m sure there are many better-informed blogs that do exactly that), but for now here are some basics and the story of our last day of vacation.

First off, here are my top ten things to do in London:

  1. Museums, museum, museum – Victoria & Albert, Natural History, National Gallery, British Museum, and many more. Paris might have a run on museums filled with paintings, but for everything else London has absolutely the best museums. And most of them are free.
  2. Gawk at the crown jewels, Henry VIII’s armour, and huge ravens at the Tower of London
  3. Drink in the history and beauty of historic churches like Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral
  4. Walk or take a tour along the Thames to see the icons of London like Big Ben, Tower Bridge and the stupid yet photogenic London Eye
  5. Window shop at some of the grand department stores like Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason, etc.
  6. Take the underground and enjoy the warren of colour-coded tunnels beneath the city and the constant reminders to ‘Mind the Gap’
  7. Eat greasy fish and chips, drink a post-work pint in a crowded and noisy pub, or gorge on shortbread and luxury sweets from the department store foodhall
  8. Wander around the beautifully restored St. Pancras International train station
  9. Eavesdrop on conversations of young people from London’s suburbs, to see if you can even understand what they are saying
  10. Take a ride in a classic London black cab, but hold on to your luggage as it goes sliding around the big empty space in front of you during the usually wild ride

Seriously, mind it.

My goal was to show Chris as many of those as possible in our days there. I think I mostly succeeded, and I’ve got some pictures from various museums and sights that I will share another day. For now, I’ll tell you about our New Year’s Eve.

We arrived back in London just after noon, after taking the Eurostar train from Paris. It was a cool feeling to know that you had taken a train deep beneath the English channel. We had a very busy itinerary planned for the last day because we had saved a few big sights for the last day. It felt like we were taking part in the Amazing Race as we almost ran through the underground stations and wove through the crowds in an effort to get all the last places we wanted to go before they all closed.

Beautiful St. Pancras train station

Lego tree at St. Pancras

First off, we raced to Westminster Abbey and managed to squeak in just before they closed the line and were two of the last people in for the day. It was a quick tour but since the Abbey was not too busy we were still able to see everything we wanted easily. It was fascinating to see the chair where almost every British monarch for the past 700+ years has sat during their coronation, and to stand by the graves and memorials of some amazing individuals like Elizabeth I, Geoffrey Chaucer, Isaac Newton, David Livingstone, Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin and so many renowned authors and poets.

Westminster Abbey

Right on schedule, we raced over to Regent Street to pick up a parcel at Selfridge’s. Before Christmas we had purchased a beautiful winter coat for Chris on a good sale, and it was ready after it’s adjustment by the tailor.

Selfridges

Garment bag in tow, we made it to the Tower of London in record time, and had a good look around. While not exactly a leisurely tour, we had plenty of time to see most of the buildings including the salt tower with its walls of carvings by former prisoners, the White Tower with its great collection of armour and weapons, and – of course – the crown jewel vault. Chris was amused by how excited I was to see the crown jewels again, which is slightly ironic since I’m not a diamond-crazy girl at all, but they are so beautiful and walking through the huge steel vault filled with its priceless treasures is just too cool.

No, of course you can’t take photos of the crown jewels, silly.

Next stop was to be St. Paul’s but due to my guidebook misreading, we had to change our plans and went instead to the Tower Bridge exhibition. The exhibition is a bit dull, but the evening views of London along the Thames were quite nice, and the bridge is so stunning to walk along that a bit of boring talk about bridges of the world can be handled.

View from the top of Tower Bridge

By the time we’d finished all that, I was exhausted and my feet were throbbing so much I was just mincing along. We made it back to our hotel to check in and have a little time to relax, and a lovely hot soak in the big bathtub at the Andaz had me feeling much better in no time. Then we dressed up a bit and headed out for our New Year’s Eve.

We had a quick dinner at the lounge in the hotel, then picked up some drinks for the road and took the underground towards Trafalgar square. By that time it was around 10 PM, and we knew there was no way we’d get a riverside spot to see the fireworks so late. Instead we headed to Trafalgar where we knew there would be a big crowd and large screens to see the show. The crowd in the underground was completely overwhelming, and the tunnels were not quite as charming when filled to overflowing with a huge crowd moving at a crawl. Luckily we were too excited to be too impatient, and after about 45 minutes of plodding along the cordoned-off route, we made it to Trafalgar. We were hoping to be able to see Big Ben from our spot, and we managed to find a great spot at the back of the square near the National Gallery where we could see Big Ben straight ahead of us, the screens, the Christmas tree, and the whole crowd of revelers.

Lion in Trafalgar Square

Fountain in Trafalgar Square

The wait went by fairly quickly, and we were lucky to have nice weather and not even need our toques, gloves or umbrellas. The countdown came and we heard Big Ben’s chimes over the loudspeakers as the booming of the fireworks began. We could see the top part of the fireworks (all the big explosions) above the square, and the energy in the area was so positive and happy that we felt we couldn’t have ended up in a better spot.

Incredibly blurry photo of Trafalgar at midnight.

About 20 minutes later the show was all over and the crowd started to disperse. There was no way we wanted to attempt to get back on the underground, so we decided to take a long way around. We walked from Trafalgar down a long road to Buckingham Palace, along a section of a park, and then down to Victoria station. When we finally got to Victoria around 2 AM (after a couple of detours and stops), it was buzzing with a rush-hour crowd. The fast food places were making a killing as ravenous people loaded up on burgers and fries, and we saw many families who were bunked down to wait until morning for their trains out to the suburbs and neighbouring towns. As for me, the underground ride back across town felt long enough, and I was asleep the minute my head hit the pillow when we finally fell into bed after a long and happy day.

Another thing you cannot help but take pictures of.

The next morning Chris had to leave so we went to the airport together. It was a difficult to say goodbye knowing that I would be staying for another month by myself, but the adventures we had together were worth the pain. Thankfully, the time is half over now: in less than 2 weeks I will be home for a break, in my own bed, in my own apartment, and not a moment too soon.

Chris meets two super-friendly officers on New Year's. (Isn't he handsome in his new coat?)

Paris, France (Part 2)

Day 2 in Paris. It was a beautiful sunny morning so we got an early start in hopes of beating the crowds and were at the Eiffel Tower before it opened for the day.

Our first up-close view was amazing. I never realized the tower was this lovely bronze colour – I thought it was grey or black. Perhaps I have seen photos of it in colour before, but I must have thought they were in sepia-tone.

Unfortunately, it seemed that thousands of other people had also thought to get an early start at the tower that morning. The area below it was almost completely filled with a huge line that wound back and forth beneath the tower and seemed to lead multiple directions and split at merge somehow at random. We thought about standing in line, but I wasn’t even sure if we could find the back of the correct line. Not finding anyone to talk to about the issue, and not wanting to spend an hour and discover we were in the wrong line, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we would not go up the tower this visit. Note to self: next time, book tickets on-line ahead of time.

Actually, once we had decided not to stand in line I was feeling quite good about the day. We walked along the park in front of the tower to get our obligatory photos, and then we had a whole long and wonderful day in front of us to see other things.

After seeing the tower, we headed back to the Jardin des Tuileries and went to the Musee de l’Orangerie and the Musee d’Orsay. There we saw some fantastic paintings by renowned impressionist painters who worked in Paris in the late 19th/early 20th century. We couldn’t take photos, but they wouldn’t do justice anyway. We saw the eight huge Water Lilies paintings by Monet and dozens of other famous works by Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, and on and on. The Musee d’Orsay is a beautiful building as well, itself a work of art. Did I mention there was another huge line-up? We had our Museum Pass which was to get us in line-free, but there was so many people that there was a main line and then a second line for those who had such passes. Since the Museum Pass line up was about an hour’s wait, I shudder to think of the wait for those without it.

Chris in front of a window on the cafe floor of the Musee d’Orsay, which looks out across the Seine:

One of the odd things about our time in Paris was that we saw several places twice – once in the evening when we would walk by for the first time, and then once the next day when we went back to try and get in. This actually worked well for two reasons: we got to see the main sights lit up at night and in the day, and we managed to get into some places that we otherwise wouldn’t have. For example, the first night we walked past the Notre Dame Cathederal on our way to dinner. There was a mass in progress, so though we weren’t allowed to go on the whole tour, we were allowed to go into a viewing area on one side.  The best part was that we got to hear the pipe organ and the choir.

The next day we went back to go see the whole thing. Unfortunately, there was another massive line that we had not accounted for. So we walked around and looked at the building in the daylight, but we never actually got to go back inside. The lessons here: a) Do not try to see everything in Paris in 2 days; b) Remember there will be line-ups everywhere, for everything; c) Don’t got to Paris during a major holiday period unless you are very patiente, and d) Relax, you’ll have fun anyway.

After tromping around central Paris all morning, we took the metro to the neighbourhood of Montmartre and walked up way too many stairs to the top of the hill to see the Basilique du Sacre-Couer. It was another beautiful building, and mass was once again underway (basically, a type of non-stop mass has been underway there since 1919!) so we got to hear another amazing pipe organ.

Though my legs were exhausted, we walked up even more stairs to get to the top of the Basilica for the panoramic views. Despite the wobbly legs, it was worth it.

Then it was back down, down, down the winding stone steps all the way to the very spooky Crypt with its memorials and freezing stone chapels.

By the time we were finished our tour it was dark, and Montmartre was coming alive with crowds of tourists and locals alike. We stopped for a coffee and creme brulee at Les Deux Moulins (The 2 Windmills), the cafe where Amelie Poulain (of the adorable French movie “Amelie”, which I love) worked . It has completely capitalized on its film-fame and the place was overrun with tourists like ourselves, but it was still a fun stop.

And of course, no trip to Montmartre would be complete without stopping by the Moulin Rouge for a photo opp.

We were in the awkward time between museums closing and restaurants opening for dinner, so we went to a famous Paris department store called Bon Marche for some  window shopping. Chris got a saute pan and some nice socks.

After that we had a wonderful – though slightly awkward – dinner at a well-known brasserie called Lipps in the St. Germain neighbourhood. The head waiter was very formal and stiff, and although he clearly understood and spoke English (based on his interactions with other diners), he seemed to have decided to pretend he could do neither with us. Luckily one of the junior waiters took pity on us and was wonderful comic relief throughout the evening. Each time he brought us something we would exchange little jokes about his lack of English and our lack of French. We managed to guess our way through the menu and get some truly good food, including a roast chicken with some of the best pan gravy I have ever tasted, and enjoyed some excellent wine and people-watching in the bustling restaurant. Just before we finished our meal, we even had a slight “celebrity” encounter when a group of American women came to the table beside us and one of them was Jillian Michaels from The Biggest Loser.

To end the night and our last evening in Paris, we went back to the Eiffel Tower to see it lit up at night.

There was an embarassing incident where we got overly excited that we might be able to catch the last elevator to the second level but then had our hopes dashed when they wouldn’t let us through the metal detector with the saute pan we’d bought at Bon Marche and I got…shall we say…frustrated. However, Chris was patient with me and chalked it up to sore feet and hormones, and reassured me that it would be nicer to watch the lights twinkling at 11:00 from the ground, anyway.

He was right.

Two days was really just a starter for Paris, an introduction to a place that I would love to return to some day. Next time it must be in the spring or summer, and I must have more savings for a hotel (instead of hostel) and nice restaurants, more French practice before hand, and more time for patiently waiting in line. Still, it was an awfully great introduction.

Paris, France (Part 1)

Finally, Paris.

Paris was: walking and more walking down wide sidewalks and along riverside paths, wandering through huge parks filled with trees in straight lines and bronze statues, waiting in huge line-ups for museums that were all well worth the time, drooling over shop windows filled with pastries and cheeses and meat and bread, drinking too many coffees in ancient cafes where so many famous authors once sat, navigating through dozens of metro stations and long tunnels under the street, marveling over ancient churches and monuments and palaces, gaping in awe at actually being there, finally, after wanting it for so long.

Thanks to our early morning flight from Berlin, it was still quite early after we had dropped our things at the hotel, had coffee at a cafe, and then made our way to the center. This was fortunate because our itinerary for our two days there was absolutely packed and I had so many things I wanted to see on the first day. Coming out of the metro station, we had our first real view of the most famous Paris sight.

We started by walking through the Jardin des Tuileries towards the Louvre.

We anticipated the Louvre would be our longest line-up of the two days (ha! we had no idea) , but would never have guessed how long the line-ups for all of the attractions would be. We decided to spring for the Paris Museum Pass, which would be a bit more expensive but would hopefully help us skip some lines. We had to wait for about an hour to get into the shop in the bottom of the Louvre to buy the pass. Did you know there is a McDonald’s in the bottom of the Louvre? It’s true, and – yes – we ate there.

Thanks to movies, the modern additions to the Louvre building are almost as iconic now as the museum’s exhibits. I hear Parisians have a love-hate relationship with the structure, but I do love the contract of the glass pyramid with the ornate palace surroundings.

From inside the main entrance:

The second, inverted pyramid in the halls beneath the Louvre:

Lonely Planet says that it would take 9 months just to glance at every single work of art in the museum. It was good we had read this, or we might have felt compelled to examine things much more closely – an impossible feat. Instead, we focused on the main sights and walked quickly through most of the other areas. Of course, the most famous inhabitant of the Louve is the Mona Lisa. Everywhere in the museum, signs direct you to her. When you get to the room where she is displayed, this is what it’s like:

Eventually you can fight your way to the front and get a better view:

Despite all the hype, it doesn’t disappoint. It is an enchanting and mysterious painting.

Even without the thousands of priceless works of art, the Louvre itself is a beautiful place. It’s long hallways, arched ceilings, and endless plaster work and guilded decorations make it a truly impressive building.

Although we did look at many great paintings, most of them aren’t captured well in a snapshot. And we did spend more time looking at the sculptures, since the collection there is particularly impressive including Greek, Roman, Italian and other masterpieces.

Winged victory:

Venus de Milo:

Athena:

Saint Christopher:

We were also interested in the museum’s collection of Egyptian art and artifacts.

One valuable lesson for any trip to the Louvre: remember there is only one entrance/exit, so you will not be able to find another one by walking all the way down to the far, far end of the building. If your husband tells you that you must turn around to get out, you should listen to him so you don’t spend 40 more minutes walking around and around the same Egyptian exhibit, looking for Exit signs.

I’m saving most of the “favorite things” for tomorrow’s post, so I’ll skip ahead to show some photos from our visit to the Arc de Triomphe.

Inside the Arc, a war memorial:

View from atop the Arc, looking towards the Eiffel Tower:

Looking down the Champs-Elysees, back towards the Louvre:

Looking towards the Montmartre area, with the Basilica of Sacre Couer on the hill:

Looking back up the spiral staircase that leads down, from the bottom:

Tomorrow: Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, Sacre Couer, and how much we can eat in two days (hint: a lot).

August 2017
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