Scotland 3: Aberdeenshire

Aberdeenshire is the best place to go castling in Scotland. The highest concentration of castles can be found in this eastern corner of the country that juts out above Edinburgh and below Inverness. To explore this area I based myself in Aberdeen, the only city in the region. Of the near week I spent in this city, I actually did not see much of Aberdeen. Everyday was spent catching trains to other places. Though my movements were limited and slow because I did not have a car, I still managed to see so many castles and ruins that my head started to spin. Sorting through the pictures is a bit of a nightmare considering all the stones start to look the same.

At this point I do not remember everything I learned at each site, but I can tell you that every castle I visited claimed to have hosted Mary Queen of Scots at least once during her short, ill-fated reign. The one cathedral I saw had been a focus point of church power struggles in the area and had been destroyed by at least one King James in an effort to put bishops back in their place.

I will share a few specific stories about these adventures. Scotland is a special place forever in my heart in part because of what happened while I bounced around Aberdeenshire.

The first place I went to is a town called Huntly. I simply wanted to visit the castle there but ended up spending the whole day. This is what happened.

I got off the train started speaking to two women who had also just gotten off the train and were conferring over a map of the town. I asked if they were going to the castle and they said no, they were trying to find the taxi stand where they could catch a ride to the falconry center just outside town. This peaked my interest immediately considering my love of raptors and desire to become a falconer someday. Later we would call this meeting one of those magical coincidences that happen when you keep your eyes open while traveling. They told me how I could find the falconry center and I said I might meet up with them there after I saw the castle.

Huntly castleIMG_3887

Once I had explored the castle and walked back to town, I stopped into the tourist information office to ask how to get to the falconry center. The lady there kindly called a taxi for me and in just a few minutes I was on my way. In true Scots fashion, the very friendly driver and I spent the whole ten-minute drive in cheerful conversation. The falconry center itself was a very special place. Owned, and chiefly operated, by a husband and wife team, the whole center consisted of a café, simple lean-to mews, a small shed for leatherworking supplies and hoods, and a breeding barn that was closed to the public. The husband performs demonstrations throughout the day but the bulk of the income for the place comes from the captive breeding he does for certain species. I found my friends from earlier in the day perched on benches in the field where the demonstrations take place. They had meant to go back into town earlier but found the falconer and his birds to be so intriguing that they never wanted to leave. I soon developed a similar sentiment.

IMG_3937

The demonstration was a lot more informal than I anticipated. Rather than the natural history lesson followed by a small demonstration of flying that I was expecting, the falconer marched out with an owl and promptly started asking who wanted a turn holding the bird. From five-year-old kids to a sweet old granny, anyone who wanted a chance was given a glove and instructions as to how to hold their arm so the owl could fly to them from a perch. I was astounded and so excited. Something like this would never be allowed in the US. The falconer did give some basic information about the owl, and each of the other half-dozen birds he brought out through the afternoon, but his goal seemed to be more about getting people interacting directly with the birds. The only birds that he did not allow guests to hold were the peregrines. He took out two of these birds to demonstrate their incredible speed. One female he said would be a “bit sticky”, meaning that she had a mind of her own and liked to take her time exploring before getting down to business diving for a lure that the falconer had on a string. The birds seemed to enjoy startling the audience by whizzing right between our heads; their speed and agility were incredible.

IMG_3906

IMG_3915

IMG_3967

When the rest of the guests dispersed, my friends and I lingered to ask questions and even hold some of the larger eagles. I know I will probably never again have the privilege to hold a fully-grown female bald eagle, or feel the weight of a year-old golden eagle. I was grinning the whole afternoon. On the train ride back to Aberdeen, my new friends and I could not stop talking about birds. I had done a little bit of research on how to become a falconer in the US and my companions commented on the serendipity of our meeting: they who had a newfound interest sparked by a memoir they read recently, and me a person who had worked with raptors and done research on how to become a falconer in the US. The evening evolved into a wonderful dinner and conversations about adventures and what it means to be a woman traveling, particularly alone. For my part, I found much inspiration and proof of the quiet power women can achieve when they look deeply at themselves and at the world.

My second story comes from the day I went to Elgin Cathedral and Spynie castle. The cathedral was easy enough to find, as it was located in the center of the small town. The castle was a bit different. I asked the kind gentlemen working the shop of the cathedral how I might get the castle and they directed me to the bus station saying it would be a quick ride on the proper bus. The bus driver, however, claimed to have no idea where to drop me and told me to give a shout when we got close. So much for local knowledge. A large sign proclaiming the castle’s location made both our jobs quite easy and I had a lovely visit at the castle and was given an brief overview of its history by its friendly custodian. Getting back on the bus proved much more awkward. Since there was no definite bus stop, the custodian told me to simply stand at the end of the drive and wave the bus down. Unfortunately, the drive ended at a blind curve and the traffic on the road going past move quite fast. Flagging down the bus would be a challenge. After standing on the side of the road looking a fool for about fifteen minutes, I managed to catch the attention of the first bus that came along. He could not stop directly in front of me because he did not have enough time to slow down, so I had to awkwardly run through the tall weeds on the side of the road for several meters only to be greeted by the driver gently scolding me about standing in the wrong place. Because obviously I would know things like that. Sometimes travel and exploring new places is humbling, but experiences like this teach me to always have a sense of humor and to never be afraid to look like a fool while doing something for the first time.

Elgin CathedralDSC01963

DSC01973

Spynie castle. Fun fact: this tower is the largest by volume in all of Scotland. Now you can wow someone at your next party. You’re welcome.DSC01976

My final story from Aberseenshire starts with Dunnotter castle and ends with a music festival in the town of Stonehaven. Dunnotter castle sits on a bluff on the outskirts of Stonehaven. It is a lovely walk from town out along the cliffs to the castle. Of all the castles I visited in my time in Scotland I think Dunnotter was my favorite. The whole complex is fairly intact and the views over the ocean are incredible. The romance of being a seaside lady watching ships pass was easy to imagine.

First glimpse of DunnotterDSC02009

DSC02015

DSC02047

DSC02066

Once I finished exploring every corner of the castle, I made my way back into town to find a light lunch. While sitting in a pub enjoy some soup and pint, a woman sat next to me and struck up a conversation. We spent a good two hours discussing the ills of the world over a few more pints. She eventually invited me to join her friends in listening to a bit of the music festival that was going on in town. I spent the better part of the afternoon and evening getting pleasantly drunk with them before sobering up just enough to catch the train back to Aberdeen. This was probably one of my favorite occurrences of making instant friends that happened so often on this trip. Never underestimate the power of a friendly smile and the magic of alcohol as a social lubricant.

Such were some of my adventures while staying in Aberdeen. Next stop, Inverness.

Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe WordPress.com Blog

Are you new to blogging, and do you want step-by-step guidance on how to publish and grow your blog? Learn more about our new Blogging for Beginners course and get 50% off through December 10th.

WordPress.com is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

Scotland: Picking Up Where We Left Off

Current Location: Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom

Days until I fly home: Four

I have reasons why I have not been writing, but I will not waste anyone’s time by explaining them. The end of this adventure is nigh and I am having difficulty comprehending that this thing I spent two years planning and agonizing over will go from a thing that I “will do” to a thing that I “have done.” The enormity of that realization is slowly settling into my heart. For now, I will do my best to catch you up on the things I have been doing for the past month and a half. I have been through Scotland, The Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and back to England. These posts will be short so that I can ensure that I cover everything before I step onto that plane in London. Once I am home I am sure I will speak to many of you and share stories that I must skip now in the interest of time. This journey has been like a dream and now I am in that place between dreaming and awake. I will savor these last few days of slumber.

I have told you about my time in Edinburgh and my everlasting love of that stately city. My time in Scotland got progressively wilder the farther north I ventured. Though I spent the whole month of July in this marvelous country I feel that I have barely scratched the surface. I was awed and inspired by the wild landscape and fell in love with the people. Just walking out of doors in Scotland takes preparation. The capricious weather will make you sweat one minute, then wrap you a thick mist straight out of mythology before blasting you with a frigid wind. It is the roughest country that I have seen in a while and I wanted to see more. Now, back to the task at hand.

My first stop after Edinburgh was the city of Stirling. This royal city perched on a hill and tucked into the curves of a river is the home of Stirling castle, the second grandest and most intact castle in the country after Edinburgh castle. Though its design included obvious elements meant for defense, Stirling castle was also meant as a pleasure palace and statement of power to visiting nobles. Richly painted chambers, ample and intricate carvings in stone and wood, pleasure gardens tucked between the walls, all served to make the castle more a comfortable home than military fortress. It sits on the highest point of the city and from the outer walls you can look out over much of the valley. You can also catch sight of the other structure of note in Stirling, The Wallace Monument.

IMG_3744

See the little tiny tower on another hill? That’s the Wallace Monument as seen from Stirling castle.IMG_3737

Getting to the Wallace Monument involves a bus, getting off at a seemingly random intersection, and then making the short trek up the steep hill to the base of the tower. The Monument is a stone tower that stands at the edge of a cliff overlooking the river valley and surrounding hills. Dedicated to William Wallace, and the battle he won in Stirling that made him famous, the tower is little more than spiral staircase and a series of small chambers. The view that rewards you at the top more than makes up for any dizziness you may experience on the climb up.

Looking up at how far I still have to go…IMG_3805

One view from the top of the monument.IMG_3815

Other than some meanderings around the old town, that’s pretty much all I did in Stirling before moving north to Aberdeen….

Scotland at last! First stop, Edinburgh

I have been having far too good a time in Scotland to bother with writing until now. I have been in Fort William for the last two days, am heading to Glasgow tomorrow, and unfortunately seem to have done some sort of damage to my right knee (I’ll explain later). So seeing as I can sit in my room (once again private with my own bathroom!!) with its lovely view of the surrounding mountains and loch, I thought I would rest my joints and get caught up on writing. Again.

From Newcastle, Edinburgh was my first stop in Scotland. In no time this city became one of my favorite in the world. The architecture, the ambiance, the sheer amount of things to do, not to mention the pubs, makes this city endlessly entertaining. The train station sits in a hollow between two hills and it’s a bit of an uphill climb no matter where you want to go. My hostel was up on the central hill of the city, right at the base of the castle. This was a prime location from which to explore. Not only did I have the castle directly in front of me, but also all of the other attractions and shops that are strung along the Royal Mile road that leads down from the castle to the Hollyrood House palace at the other end of the old city. In Edinburgh, at least around the castle, there seems to be a man dressed in full Highland garb playing the bagpipes on every other corner. You can walk almost the entire Royal Mile listening to the pipes. They seem determined to announce that you are soundly and squarely in Scotland, and nowhere else on Earth. The pride and energy they bring is incredible.

IMG_3706

First stop was to Edinburgh Castle of course. This impressive fortress, perched on the rocky hilltop, is an impressive sight. A fort in some form has stood on the site for hundreds of years. The history of the castle is long and it has been the focal point for many stories of royal struggles, but it has always been the seat of ultimate power in Scotland. As a military stronghold it does not have many beautiful embellishments but is no less interesting to explore. Currently the castle houses the royal icons of Scotland, namely the crown, sword, and scepter of the realm. The castle and its accompanying museum exhibitions were a great introduction to the history of Scotland. After exploring the castle, I visited the Whisky Experience to get an introduction to that most famous of spirits. After a brief overview of how whisky is made and the characteristics and differences of whiskies made in each region of Scotland, you are given a sample of from the region of your choosing. Once my head was filled with all of this learning, I set out to find a pub to get a more practical education.

Cannon keeping guard over the city.IMG_3541

Oldest bottles in the collection at the Whisky Experience.IMG_3554

My second day in Edinburgh was first spent exploring the shops around the Royal Mile and trying to decide what tartan souvenir I was going to bring home for myself. To give myself time to consider this important question, I took a walk to the base of King Arthur’s Seat. This is a steep, rocky hill by the shore that commands incredible views of the whole area around the city. Though not a long hike, it was definitely steep and I was met at the top with that strong Scottish wind. It is a wonderful taste of the Highlands right outside of the city. The base of the trail is not far from the Hollyrood House palace so I took a peek through the gates. Unfortunately I could not actually visit the palace since the Queen was currently in residence. Though I thought nothing of this at the time, a few days later I learned why she was in Edinburgh. She had come to open the session of the Scottish Parliament. A day later this event occurred and I had the very good fortune to catch a glimpse of her as she stepped out of her car and into the Parliament house. She was wearing a powder blue suit, complete with matching hat. She is also tiny. Honestly, HRM can’t be much more than five feet tall. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture, like I said I only caught a glimpse of her. But I swear, I saw the Queen of England.

View from part way up King Arthur’s Seat.IMG_3568

Did manage to get a picture of the crown though!IMG_3710

The next adventure took me slightly outside of the city proper. I paid a visit to the castle of Craigmillar, which sits on a lovely hill and has wonderful views of the city and shoreline. I loved this castle even more than Edinburgh for two reasons. Firstly, there were far fewer people as Craigmillar is smaller, lesser known, and on the outskirts of the city. Second, since the castle is smaller and not as popular, you can explore it in its entirety. Any room or tower that was deemed safe by staff was free range for visitors. This was the true castle experience in my mind. I obviously took far too many pictures and had a grand time imagining what it would have been like to live in the castle back in the 1500s. Craigmillar was also the first place where I really started to feel like I was following Mary Queen of Scots. She showed up everywhere I went in southern Scotland, but this castle claimed to be an especially beloved home for her. I must do more research on her life when I get home.

IMG_3602

IMG_3686

View back toward the city. The big hill is King Arthur’s Seat. Can you find Edinburgh castle?IMG_3636

On my last day in Edinburgh I delved into its more recent history, specifically as related to a certain boy wizard. As JK Rowling’s home and where at least the first books were written, Edinburgh obviously played a huge role in providing inspiration for the wizarding world. I stopped by the Elephant House, that famous coffee shop where part of the Philosopher’s Stone was written, for a coffee and a share in its world changing ambiance. In the afternoon I took a free walking tour called the Harry Potter Trail. While it did not have quite as many stops as the tour in London, the guide was just as wonderful and knowledgeable. As a bonus she wore a beautiful black cloak that we were all envious of. We began in the Greyfriar graveyard where Ms. Rowling found names for some of her characters. Next door to this graveyard is also the private school her children attended and that helped inspire her vision of Hogwarts. We then moved on to other locations of inspiration or where writing occurred and learned more about her life and the years long process of Harry going from a figment her imagination to worldwide phenomenon.

Graffiti inside the bathroom at the Elephant House. The walls are completely covered with HP fandom.IMG_3724

Evenings in Edinburgh consisted of drinking. Well, not every evening, but the good ones did at least. I met a German guy in my hostel and we went out one night searching for good local beer and music. We found both and spent a couple hours at this tiny little bar where a wonderful pair was playing folk tunes. The singer was actually from Connecticut but had adopted Scotland as her new home. I had a great time singing along to everything I knew and joining in wherever I could, all while enjoying a few glasses of whisky.

Such was my amazing introduction to Scotland and I am so excited to spend a few more days in the lovely city. Until next time!

The North of England

To get back on the timeline of my trip, I was in the north of England in the last days of June and very first days of July.

 

The longest journey I have had in the UK so far was the train ride from Bath to Carlisle. This comparatively huge leap up the body of England took about six hours and required two train changes. Thankfully, I passed through the Lake District of England and got a glimpse of the wonderful scenery of that region. Rolling green hills, patchwork farms with stone walls, sheep ambling peacefully, all gave sufficient evidence as to why so many people praise the region’s beauty. Carlisle itself was not a disappointment in this area. Though I was only there for two nights, I did get a sense that the town, while small, had some lovely old buildings. I got a better sense of the surrounding countryside since this is the place from which I set out to explore Hadrian’s Wall.

IMG_3383

As the most northern edge of the Roman Empire, Hadrian’s Wall has no small amount of historical significance. The Emperor, Hadrian, had the wall built as a way to separate Roman controlled lands from the lands of the free peoples in the northern parts of Britain. While most people assume it was built to keep out the “terrifying hordes” of the uncivilized tribes, it was actually part of a treaty-like agreement with tribal chiefs to show that the Roman army would not advance on their territory. It did, of course, prevent the tribes from raiding the Roman-occupied lowlands. That is until the Empire weakened and Rome recalled most of its troops from the edges thus leaving its forts and towns to fall into tribal hands. Surprisingly, the Wall survived these, and all future political changes, rather well intact. Weathering over the subsequent 2000 years of course took their toll. Though originally standing nearly 10ft tall, the wall is now just under 6ft high in most places. Its width has also lessened. But it is still an impressive sight, at least in the area that I visited. Other places have seen more deterioration or destruction as people used the stones from the Wall to build their homes or other structures.

IMG_3370

IMG_3380

The area I visited is one of the better-preserved spots of the wall. In fact, soil has built up on top of one section and there is a thick turf of grass right on top of the Wall. The Wall is wide enough that you can actually walk on top, an opportunity I did not pass up. This part of the Wall also sits along the edge of a cliff face. On southern facing side, there are rolling farmlands and it is obvious the area has been more densely populated for a longer period of time. The northern facing side, looking toward Scotland, also has farmland, but there are more forests and the landscape slowly becomes more dramatic. There are also the ruins of a large Roman fort, one of the largest in the region, that give you a glimpse into what life would have been like for soldiers on the outer reaches of the Empire.

Easy ways to get over other walls without risking sheep getting loose.IMG_3399

Anyone recognize this spot? I’ll give you a hint: it’s called the Sycamore Gap. It’s featured in the Robin Hood film where Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman have a chat here. So I’ve touched a tree that Morgan Freeman touched. This automatically makes me awesome.DSC01922

To get to the Wall from Carlisle, I had to take a local train to another, even smaller town where I caught a bus that would take me to the visitor center of the fort. After London and Bath, this very much felt like deliberately wandering into the middle of nowhere. I was a bit nervous to be going so far from my hostel on unfamiliar public transit, but all the locals and drivers were more than helpful. I spent about two hours walking along the wall and made my way back to Carlisle without any problems. To make it a true outdoor experience in England, I got caught in an hour’s worth of heavy rain so by the time I got back into town I was quite soggy. Loved the whole outing and would love to see more of the Wall in the future.

Oh and cows use the gap to get to different pastures. These ones were on their way home for the night.IMG_3410

Getting to Newcastle was a simple task of catching the same local train that runs from coast to coast on the northern edge of England. A much larger town, there was a lot more to see and do though I only stayed two nights. I cherished both of them, however, because I had booked a private room for myself, the first since I was in Denmark. Taking a break from communal sleeping dorms has been so important to help me keep my sanity on this trip.

Ornate door handle from the Durham cathedral.IMG_3436

Since the train ride from Carlisle only took a little over an hour, I got into Newcastle quite early. After checking into my hostel I spent the afternoon exploring the local castle, which creatively bears the name of Newcastle since, at the time it was built, it was the new castle for the city. Place names can tell you so much sometimes. Though a small castle with included museum, it was still fun to wander around. You could go up to the very top and stand out on the roof and one of the towers. The view over the city and river was quite good but the wind was extremely powerful so I did not stay on the roof for long. The museum also had a wonderful collection detailing life in the city of Newcastle from the middle ages until the 18th century and how the castle played important roles in the development of the city.

The Black Gate, one of the old entrances to the Newcastle fortress. Most of the walls have been destroyed over the ages. Though I love the name of the gate, it’s not as interesting as it could be. The gatehouse was given to a man whose last name was Black as a sign of prestige.IMG_3493

IMG_3464

Just a bit windy….IMG_3600

The one full day I had in Newcastle I actually spent in the nearby town of Durham, which was just a quick train ride away. The cathedral there, along with some of the buildings of the local university, were used as filming locations for the Harry Potter films and inspiration for the look of Hogwarts in the films. I of course visited the cathedral but because of graduation celebrations for the university I was not able to see any of those buildings. The whole town is lovely and old and sits on a spit of land surrounded on two sides by a river with accompanying forest. The only other thing I did in Newcastle was to watch Iceland embarrass England in their football match from the seclusion of my own room since it happened to have a TV. For me, this was an amusing way to spend a last night in England before heading to Scotland the next day.

IMG_3430

Hogwarts…IMG_3439

Oh and there’s this random sculpture of a black, vampire rabbit on top of a doorway in Newcastle. No explanation, just guards this one house.IMG_3495

Such was the end of my time in England. Until I come back, of course. Next up, my adventures in wonderful land of Scotland!

France: In Two Parts

(To FINALLY wrap up my time on the continent! It is very strange to think that I left France  nearly a month ago. I would apologize for taking so long in the writing, but I think most of you have learned by now that I have given up trying to keep a schedule and that posts will get completed when I find the spare time. I hope you are still enjoying them when they do show up! Now that I have France completed, next I can tell you about the amazing time I had in the north of England and the adventures I am having in Scotland.)

PART ONE: PARIS

Let me start off by apologizing to anyone who has ever dreamed of going to Paris or has been there and loves it. I did not have a great time in Paris. I did not have a terrible time, but throughout this trip I’ve gone to nicer cities and I’ve definitely met nicer people. Maybe someday I’ll get back to Paris and have a different experience and form a different opinion. For now, I lay out what I did in plain language because the city just did not inspire me.

I of course spent most of my time in that old district of the city that sits on the banks and islands of the River Seine. First stop was to the cathedral of Notre Dame. In truth this was the one thing I was most anxious to see and formed the majority of my desire to see Paris in the first place. Surprisingly, there is no entrance fee to get into the cathedral, which I appreciated, and the line moved quickly enough to get inside. The interior of the cathedral was not what I expected. It was probably the plainest church, architecturally speaking, that I have been in on this trip. The columns did not have beautiful carvings and there were almost no decorations of any kind. Even the pulpit and altar were not nearly as grand as I expected. The windows were the true glory of the cathedral. Any rumors you have heard in praise of the colored windows of Notre Dame I can confirm as true. For all the plainness of cathedral’s body, the colored glass more than makes up for it.

IMG_2782

IMG_2791

Sorry the details are not very clear. I could not get close enough or zoom in any better. This window is really high up.IMG_2792

IMG_2802

Not far from Notre Dame is a little bookstore that is almost as famous as the cathedral within certain circles. It is called Shakespeare and Company and I encourage you all to look it up. It has an interesting little history. The philosophy of the place is so dedicated to the art of literature, that if you can prove that you are a struggling writer of any persuasion, you can petition to live on the site. Philosophy and potential perks aside, it is a very charming bookstore with an amazing selection set out in the classic haphazard style of all noteworthy old bookstores. There are even reading rooms up in the attic where those seeking a few moments solitude from the bustle of the city can curl up surrounded by a fabulous collection of old tomes. It is the ideal book lover’s paradise. There is also a small café whose service and food are quite commendable.

On another rainy day (I had almost nothing else whilst in Paris) I made the journey to the Eiffel Tower. It is indeed an impressive sight though finding a good view of it proved to be difficult. There were guards and barricades set up all over the base of the tower and blocking off a good portion of the parkland. I assumed this was partially normal and partially to deal with the increase of visitors due to the European football tournament. I was able to cross the river and stand on the raised end of another park to get a decent view of the tower. From there it was a fairly easy walk to the Arc de Triomphe and that crazy rotary road that surrounds it. I saw people standing right under the arc but I never did figure out how they got there. Paris is a huge city and walking between just the most famous monuments is very tiring. By the time I had explored this part of the city I was ready to head back to my hostel for a rest.

IMG_2806

View of the tower while walking to the Arc. Such a classic Parisian image.IMG_2813

Arc de Triomphe!IMG_2816

Probably the most interesting thing I did in Paris was visiting the catacombs. This is an experience I can recommend to anyone. Unless you have issues with narrow tunnels, then probably best not to go. The audio guide gives a very interesting account of the history of the catacombs, how they were built and what they were used for. There are several tunnels that must be walked through before you actually reach the burial chambers that are so famous. These are worth the walk. The first impression is of mild horror and revulsion. No animal enjoys being faced with piles of its dead brethren. But after a few minutes being so surrounded as you are by the carefully piled bones, you adjust to the sight and even begin to appreciate the peace and respect of the place. The staircase at the end of the tour is a little daunting. It is naturally a spiral staircase and it takes so long to climb it that I started getting a little dizzy by the time I reached the surface. Anyone who visits Paris should definitely take the time to see the catacombs.

Creepy tunnels=best tunnelsIMG_2822

“Stop! This is the empire of the dead.”IMG_2823

The remains of thousands of people line these tunnels.IMG_2832

IMG_2825

IMG_2835

On another grey and dreary day I climbed up the hill of Monmartre so see Sacre Cour and the view over the city. Sacre Cour is a lovely cathedral with huge murals on the ceiling and walls along with other adornments in precious stone. Photographs are not allowed, unfortunately. This seemed to be a theme for all of the most beautiful churches and cathedrals in Europe. I shall do my best to describe the interior. It has the most open floor plan I think I have seen. Churches are often described as having a womb-like feeling and this was especially true of Sacre Cour. The short entranceway immediately opens into a huge domed atrium that is directly connected to another dome that rises above the altar. There are small shrines that are tucked to the sides of these circular centers. The whole cathedral is rounded rather than angular. It feels like a giant stone embrace and though it is no less grand than other cathedrals, it has a much more loving atmosphere. I had the good luck to hear nuns doing a call and response reading. Their soft lilting voices warmed the space even more. A very lovely cathedral indeed.

IMG_2846

After taking in the view over the city, which is one of the best to be had, I strolled down to the graveyard where Oscar Wilde is buried. The grave marker is a horridly huge block of stone with a winged figured carved into one end. It’s terribly strange. The whole stone is also surrounded by glass. There is a very specific reason for this. Local legend holds that any woman who kisses the stone will be married within the year. I have no idea how this legend started, but at one point the stone was so covered with lipstick that it had to be thoroughly cleaned and the protective glass put in place. There are even signs asking visitors not to kiss the glass since even that has had to be cleaned. Still, a few amorous marks could be found off on one corner. Not wishing to take any chances with either cemetery guardians or matrimony, I did not kiss the glass.

IMG_2880

IMG_2879

The very last thing I did in Paris was to pay a visit to the Louvre. I swear this museum is endless. Grand hallways lead to large chambers with small anterooms all of which have their own collections of painting, ceramics, or sculpture. There are even several atriums filled with huge and beautiful sculptures. After several hours of what felt like perpetual walking, I finally admitted that I would not be able to see even half of the massive museum. The scale of the place and its surrounding grounds is enormous. Several days could be spent in this one small part of Paris.

That most famous courtyard.IMG_2911

IMG_2900

Napoleonic apartments. That chandelier was the size of a small car, there were several others in the room as well. IMG_2916

Such beautiful white stone throughout the whole palace.IMG_2918

My favorite sculpture, nymph stung by a scorpion. Loved the way she glowed and her expression is so different from most other female figures.IMG_2908

As a final note about Paris, I did try to go visit Versailles. However, in true French fashion, it was closed due to a strike. To correct this disappointment alone I will have to visit Paris again in the future.

 

PART TWO: LYON

My first stop in France was in the southern city of Lyon. The train ride from Brussels took me through some of the loveliest farm country. The whole landscape was a soft patchwork blanket of grasses, stone fences, small, shrubby trees, and very content looking sheep and cows. Lyon itself, though not in the extreme south of France, felt so much like Italy that for a moment I felt like I was back at the start of my journey. The heat, the color of the buildings, the loud, expressive people, all so vastly different from the northern Europeans I had grown accustomed to over the past few months. The connection to Italy was strengthened when I climbed up to a lookout point on my second day in the city. Lyon was a Roman town and the layout of the city so strongly mimicked Rome I nearly laughed.

IMG_2679

There is honestly not that much to do in Lyon. There are some Roman ruins at the top of the hill at one end of town. These turned out to be a set of theaters that are still used today, with the addition of removable modern structures of course. There was a small museum attached to these ruins but I did not care to visit it. At the top of the hill there was a beautiful cathedral, whose name escapes me now, but it commanded an impressive view of the city and was a landmark you could see from nearly anywhere down in the valley.

IMG_2725

IMG_2684

IMG_2730

The only other activity of consequence in Lyon was walking to the large park just outside the center of the city. There is a very nice botanical garden and a little zoo inside the park, both of which are free of charge, and I spent a pleasant afternoon wandering around in the sunshine.

The other cathedral in town that I visited. Did not look like much from the outside, but inside…IMG_2688

IMG_2695

Gotta love that light!IMG_2701

As I said, there was not much to do in Lyon other than trying to avoid the crowds of football fans (Lyon was one of the cities playing host to the Euro 2016 football tournament). I spent the rest of my time relaxing in my hostel and making friends with other guests. Such was my experience of southern France.

Until next time!

London Calling

I arrived in London from Paris on June 15. My 90 days on the continent of Europe had finally come to a close. I had felt the approach of this closing to Act 1 of my trip for days and was happy to have it finally arrive. This happiness did not, however, completely dispel the slight apprehension I had for going through customs, or the melancholy I felt at crossing the waters of the English Channel and leaving so many adventures behind me. I persevered and made it through the various passport checks, enjoyed the ride through northern France and can now say that I have been under the English Channel, which is a cool thing to say, I think.

The Eurostar train terminates at St Pancras station in London. I was a bit disturbed by this since at first I incorrectly read the station name as St Pancreas, but I quickly realized my mistake. Finding the tunnels down to the tube (the subway) was simple enough. I got myself an Oyster card, which is much like a Charlie card back in Boston, for paying for transit. While many people find the tube map and system to be overwhelming, I thought the map was well planned out and the only complexity came from the sheer number of lines there are. It is certainly more user friendly than the Paris metro. But at this point I have had to figure out so many public transit systems that I feel very confident in my abilities to navigate any city I land in. Despite the long walks through the tunnels, I quickly found the line I wanted and was on my way to my hostel. The hostel was located some distance outside the main center of London but was no more than a fifteen-minute ride by the tube. It was in a quiet neighborhood, which I appreciated in the evenings.

Once I got my bags settled at the hostel, I still had a few hours left of the afternoon so I caught a train back into the city. I got off at Piccadilly Circus and had an early dinner before wandering down to Trafalgar Square. Unfortunately there was some event that was being set up so I did not get a great view of the square. I eventually made my way over the Thames and to the London Eye, that giant glass wheel that’s a bit of an eyesore. On a whim, I decided to take a ride on it as my “overly touristic thing” to do in London. The view is admittedly good, but the ride is still supremely overpriced. Still, it was a good first thing to do. After that I walked back over the river at the Houses of Parliament and caught those buildings and the tower of Big Ben in the most amazing light as the sun set. At last the adventures of the day, and the fact that I had started the day in France, caught up with me and I caught the tube back to my hostel.

PiccadillyIMG_2930

All I could get of Trafalgar without scaffolding and tarps..IMG_2932

Riding the EyeIMG_2959

Elizabeth Tower where Big Ben lives.IMG_2975

My first full day in London I had scheduled a Muggle Tour for the afternoon. This is exactly what it sounds like. A tour, for muggles, around the city that takes you to various filming locations for the Harry Potter movies or places in the city that had specifically inspired J.K. Rowling. The whole tour was delightful and this was certainly helped by the fact that the tour guide was the most adorable, charming, young Englishman I had ever met. The number of tour participants who must fall instantly in love with him and his nearly perfect knowledge of Harry Potter must be astronomical. Some of the places he took us I never would have thought to go to on my own. At one point we even take the tube a couple of stops and at Westminster he made us all shout Expecto Patronum which was quite fun. The very last stops on the tour are the alleyways that had inspired Diagon and Nocturn alleys. Just like in the books, the real life alleys are diagonally across a busy street from each other and it was really cool to walk from one to another. The alley that Diagon Alley was based on was lined with shops, most of which sold books of one sort or another. One shop even sold first editions of the Harry Potter books. Hopefully I can find the alley when I’m back in London for a few days at the end of my trip, it would be fun to spend more time there.

IMG_3016

Oh and 10 Downing St where the Prime Minister lives. Just because we passed by.IMG_3012

Before meeting up with the tour group, I had a wander around the city. I had a lovely lunch at Borough Market, which is an open-air market for artisan foods and farmer stands. So many delicious things for sale! After inspecting every stall, I walked over to the Tower Bridge. Most people assume that London Bridge is the big fancy one, but this is incorrect. London Bridge is a flat, concrete, rather boring structure that does not deserve such name recognition. Tower Bridge is rather obviously named since it does indeed have towers and is directly next to the Tower of London. While I did not go into the Tower of London on this trip, I did walk by it and read all of the information signs around the grounds. To complete my circle back to the meeting place for the Muggle Tour, I walked across the Millennium Bridge (the strangely designed walking bridge) and took a peek at the Globe Theater.

Millennium BridgeIMG_3111

The Globe!IMG_3112

Tower of London on the banks of the Thames.IMG_2989

Tower Bridge in all it’s glory.IMG_2999

Day two in London took me to Oxford to see Christ Church College, which is part of the University there. Parts of this college were used for the Harry Potter films and I had several fan-girl moments while walking through the grounds. The whole of Oxford is very charming. I stopped in a pub for lunch and to watch some football. Oh, and to find Narnia, apparently. But got tired pretty quickly and hopped the train back to London.

Where Neville had a nasty flying lesson.IMG_3051

The staircase where McGonagall welcomed the first year students!IMG_3054

Some fun details from the college chapel.IMG_3043

Ta-da!IMG_3022

I had just a few other attractions I wanted to see before heading south to Brighton. First on the list was Westminster Abbey. I highly recommend a trip to this gorgeous church. It is enormous and has so many tombs and monuments inside; some parts are actually quite crowded because so many rich and famous people wanted to be buried there. Pictures are not allowed inside, unfortunately, but I did get some shots of the outside and the cloisters. My two favorite parts of the Abbey were getting to see the tombs of Elizabeth I and her sister Mary Tudor (Elizabeth is actually right on top of Mary) and the Lady Chapel. This chapel at the back of the Abbey is truly a magnificent sight. Since being so places and seeing so many lovely sights, it is hard for manmade structures to take my breath away anymore. This chapel did the trick. The whole ceiling is an intricate pattern carved into stone that was declared a wonder of the world when it was first revealed. If you get a chance, see if you can find an image of it online. The ceiling isn’t the only wonderful part of the room. There are huge windows that fill the whole place with light and there are heraldic flags hanging from every wall. Along the bottom of the walls are the seats for the nights of the realm. Certain councils still meet here and the heraldry for the men who have sat in the seats through the ages are painted on the backs of each one. Truly a lovely space to behold.

IMG_3083

Because old stuff is cool.IMG_3089

IMG_3093

 

From Westminster, I made my way to Buckingham Palace. Unfortunately the palace was closed to tours but I still got to see the grand gates, Victoria’s statue, and the guards posted at the doors. Around the back of the palace are the Mews. I was a bit confused by the name since that usually indicates a place for falcons, but in this case the Mews is the Royal Stables. The actual stables were just one part of the area you got to tour through. Apparently the Queen names each of the horses and they have nameplates on their stalls. Reading off names chosen by HRM was quite amusing as some were appropriately majestic and others were just plain funny or whimsical. Learning about the culture of the stables and the fact that staff and their families traditionally lived on site and there was even a school for the children was very interesting. The best part was the carriages. Dude, when you are the royal family of England you get some pretty sweet rides. Admittedly, there was enough gold on some of the carriages to end poverty in certain countries, but they were just so pretty!

That palace lifeIMG_3122

Not solid gold, but still. So shiny!IMG_3130

After I had enough of the Mews, I made my to some more Harry Potter sights. A girl can never get enough. A former coworker from the museum had been thoughtful enough to send me a link to a brand new store that was featuring the work of some of the graphic designers from the films. Of course I had to check that out. The store was in an old townhouse, which was the perfect location. The narrow staircase had been plastered with copies of the Daily Prophet and other images from the films. Each floor had a theme as well. One had a whole bunch of labels and signs from Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, schoolbooks, and even a couple vials of Dumbledore’s memories. Another had a whole bunch of copies of the Daily Prophet and close up of the advertisements that you only glimpse for a moment in the movies. At the very top is a room with a fireplace and out from the fireplace spill hundreds of Harry’s letters from Hogwarts. They are carefully glued down otherwise I would have snuck one into my bag. Everything on the walls was for sale and they had a booklet with the prices for everything. I think the cheapest item was still around £80 so nothing I could afford. Not that I would have subjected something so precious to the dangers of my backpack. Someday they will mass-produce some of their prints and I’ll get my fill then. The shop was also just around the corner from the theater where Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was playing. I stopped into the box office to ask how crazy I would have to be to hope for tickets. The very nice man responded that I would have to be absolutely insane, but he did take the time to give me a few suggestions of ways that I might still be able to get tickets. Kind as this was, I am really not holding out any delusions. I think I’ll just have to wait for it to hop the pond to New York. Not that I won’t be getting a copy of the script next month when it’s released in book form…

Close as I’ll get for a while.IMG_3134

Almost like getting my own letter, but not quite.IMG_3136

The pictures were not moving but it was still cool to see.IMG_3140

On my very last day in London I explored Notting Hill a bit. It was not quite what I expected, but maybe that’s just because I could not find Hugh Grant anywhere. And I did look. There are some impressive townhouses up there and the streets are almost scarily clean. Such a difference from the rest of London. I took a walk around the park at the top of the hill that was lovely and very large. Did find a restaurant that served a large and delicious English breakfast. On the way back into the city I took a stroll through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. Both are huge and lovely. There was a little corner of Hyde Park that was dedicated to a community education garden. I need to do more research on the organization that runs it. The little garden with raised beds was well maintained, had a lot of diversity, and they even had chickens in one corner of the fenced plot. It was quite a long walk back to the tube and I was grateful to be able to finally sit.

Look I found rich people!IMG_3152

I took the train to King’s Cross so I could have a quick look at platform 9 and ¾. This turned out to be rather a disappointment. There are, in fact, no barriers between platforms 9 and 10 and the wall that was supposedly used for filming is at the other side of the atrium from the trains. It’s basically I really obvious tourist trap that I’m sure drives locals and station staff crazy. But at least I can say I’ve been there. So I think I completed all of my Harry Potter requirements for London.

I was sad to leave the city, but all the rumors about it being an extremely expensive place to visit are all true so I think my bank account was glad to escape. The train ride to Brighton was uneventful and I’ve already told you about that seaside town in another post. Until next time!

Beaches of Brighton

In a word: unimpressive. While the town itself has its charms, the buildings right along the shore have a worn and tired look about them. The pier, from what I could see, was a rickety, cheap carnival that saw its glory days more than a few decades ago. The beach had more the feeling of a well-washed gravel pit that will forever make the beaches of Maine look like the sandiest bits of paradise. The grey wall of the sky was so oppressive that I saw no more than a few hundred meters of the ocean.

IMG_3181

IMG_3187.JPG

In the interest of fairness to a town that is a favored holiday destination, I only spent one night in Brighton before carrying on to Bath and the morning of my departure proved to be charmingly warm and sunny. I did walk along a few of the shop lined streets and from the wares on display I could deduce that, if I had had more time in the town, I would have greatly enjoyed the quirky subcultures to be found there. Also, for a town that was not overly large, there was an interesting separation between the more upper crust stores in the brick and stonework quarters, and the more off-beat shops in converted row houses on much narrower streets.

IMG_3179

For my one dinner in town, I chose a French-styled café that was being manned by a single waiter who not only performed admirably but also was kind enough to chat with me in his spare moments. Do forgive me if I might flatter myself for a moment and imagine that he was flirting ever so slightly. Regardless, it was a pleasant café and his company, however fleeting, was welcome.

After dinner, I took a brief, windy walk along the shore. As is my usual habit whenever by the sea, I collected a small handful of stones and bits of shell that struck my fancy. What I found even more interesting were what appeared to be cuttlefish bones washed up along the tide line. They were much larger than any I had seen previously, but I could not think of what else they might be. With my one day in Brighton drawing to a close, I headed back to my crowded hostel room looking forward to new adventures in Bath.

IMG_3185

Sunny view from the bus station. Building on the right was my hostel.IMG_3189.JPG

A Lovely Few Days in Bath (and a new paradigm for the blog)

Disclaimer: I wrote this on the train last night from Bath to Carlisle. Got into Carlisle quite late and did not have time to post this morning before heading to Hadrian’s Wall.

IMG_3274.JPG

Given that it has been about two weeks since I was in France, I am making an executive decision to muck with the timeline of this blog. I’m the writer, I can do that. If you have any issues with this altered plan please see the complaint box in the sidebar on the right side of the page (it’s there, I swear). From now until I have covered everything that has happened, I will be working backward. I am having a fabulous time in England and am much more eager to write about my experiences here than the days I spent in France. I feel it is my lack of desire to write about France that is a good deal to blame for my latest bout of writer’s block and working backward seems like a good way to get some work done and get the juices flowing again, as they say.

Currently I am sitting on the train from Bath to Carlisle, a journey that will take a total of about six hours. Since I have nowhere to go and it is raining (per usual), I will take advantage of the confinement to get some stories down.

IMG_3244.JPG

We begin in Bath, where I have spent the last few days; that gorgeous little city tucked in the folds of a charming valley on the river Avon. Bath, of course, received its name from the hot springs that bubble to the surface here. People have known about the springs for thousands of years and have come to worship and bathe in them throughout history. The ancient Celts and Romans believed that the springs housed the spirits of Goddesses and made offerings accordingly. The Romans so enjoyed the springs that they built a huge public bathing house where people could not only immerse themselves in the water, but also enjoy steam rooms, massages, and utilize a large exercise yard. In addition to the bathhouses, a large temple was built to Minerva. Though the bathhouses fell into disrepair after the fall of the Roman Empire, many of the original floors and bathing chambers still remain. Through the centuries since, the pools of water have been used by peasants, royalty, and the chronically sick alike. Using the hot spring water for therapy and relaxation still occurs. Visitors can take advantage of the water at a modern spa that is much like the one used by ancient Romans. A café attached to the baths also offers sampling of the spring water. Because of the mineral content of the water, it has a slight metallic taste as well as being warmer than room temperature. But in small doses could be good to take internally because of that self same mineral content.

The main, large bathing pool.IMG_3199

The source of the spring water. Maybe you can see the faint bubbles that are trapped gases coming up with the water from underground. This is the sacred spring. During the ages of the Celts and the Romans no one bathed in this pool. During the water centuries more water was allowed to collect in the chamber and people would bathe in it. The current water level reflects what the pool would have looked like during the Roman times.IMG_3200

The red color shows the height the water once reached.IMG_3209

Drain in the basement of the museum where the water starts its trip down to the river Avon.IMG_3210

Cold bath that people would use last to clean off the mineral water and sweat.IMG_3225

These piles of clay tiles would have held up the floor. The gaps between the columns would allow hot air to circulate beneath the floors to keep them warm.IMG_3234

I remembered visiting the baths when I was seven and my family took a trip to England. I recognized the large bathing pool but had no memory of the other pools or rooms in the museum. Having another visit that I will hopefully remember more fully was great. I even remembered that my mother had purchased a plaque depicting the three aspects of the Goddess (maiden, mother, crone) at the baths. The gift shop still carries the same plaque almost twenty years later. It made me happy to see it.

Spring water tasting!IMG_3233

Another angle on the large bath with the Bath Abbey in the background.IMG_3221

While the Roman baths are certainly lovely as well as interesting, the whole city is quite beautiful. All of the buildings are made of limestone that was quarried from hills nearby. There are a few buildings that are blackened and this is because of the coal smoke that once was ubiquitous throughout the city. After people switched from coal to more clean burning fuels many people and businesses cleaned their buildings so that the original amber colored limestone is again visible. Because Bath is in a damp river valley there is vegetation everywhere. This part of England is very much a temperate rainforest. While there are not that many large trees, there is still plenty of undergrowth. Vines cascade down almost every vertical surface while grasses and flowering shrubs crowd fences and any unused space. The whole effect is quite pleasing with little wild flowers popping magically out of walkways and the corners of buildings. One afternoon I walked up through the houses on one side of the valley. At the top was a grand view over the whole city and surrounding hills. The climb back down was a little treacherous. It was a very damp day and the stairs were particularly even. I did manage to make it back down without breaking my neck or twisting an ankle. I wanted to climb the hills on the opposite side but did not get a chance before I left.

IMG_3268.JPG

Bath is also a great place from which to explore some of the surrounding countryside. It is only an hour’s drive from Stonehenge, for instance. I took a bus tour to this monument one morning that was quite pleasant. The drive from Bath goes through lovely rolling hills and farmland. There is also a view of a chalk horse that was carved into a hillside in the 1700s. Chalk is the underlying substance in much of the area so the horse is simply an area that has all of the dirt and vegetation removed to reveal the brilliant white chalk. The horse is so large about five people can stand inside of its eye. Other sights along the route are a couple old buildings with thatched roofs and a jailhouse that was simply a round stone building with only one tiny window.

Wild poppies in the fields around Stonehenge.DSC01861

DSC01864

DSC01868

DSC01903.JPG

IMG_3295.JPG

While the bus tour was a convenient way to get to Stonehenge, the timeframe only allowed for two hours at the actual site. Initially I thought this would be plenty of time, but a visitor could easily spend the better part of a day there if they wanted to see all of the mounds and archaeological sites in the area. As it was, I spent nearly the entire time at the stones themselves. Since the visitor center was built about two miles from the actual stones, there are no buildings near them. The closest neighbors to the stones today are a flock of sheep and a few fields of crops. Much of the surrounding area is part of the historical site so there are plenty of walking trails open to the public which is very nice. Visitors are not allowed to walk directly into the stone circle since there are very fragile archeological finds below ground that would get compressed if too many people walked over them. But the path that is available allows you to walk in a complete circle around the stones. Though many people find Stonehenge to be a visual disappointment, pointing to the fact that it really does just look like a jumble of big rocks, I still found the experience to be fascinating. The audio guide provided at the visitor’s center gives ample information about the stones, people who built the circle, and theories about who used the circle and what it is meant to be used for. I was surprised to learn that while the large stones with the lintel stones had not been moved, the smaller inner stones had been rearranged many times throughout the ages. Being in the presence of such human innovation and spiritual commitment was impressive enough in itself for me. I was only sad I could not go exploring the other sites in the surrounding fields. When I got back to the visitor’s center I had a few minutes before heading back to the bus and I poked my head into the traditional Celtic huts that had been built to one side of the center. I found the thatched roofs and doors made of woven branches to be particularly interesting. In no time I was headed back to Bath on the bus and once again enjoying the views of the countryside along the way.

A few of the burial mounds in the surrounding area.IMG_3309.JPG

IMG_3316.JPG

I did make two friends while in Bath, a man and woman who were each from different parts of Australia. We spent a pleasant evening chatting over dinner one night; it was good to have acquaintances again, as Jane Austin would say. We were all leaving Bath today at different points in the afternoon so we decided to spend the morning on a free walking tour of the city. Our guide was the most quintessential stuffy English professor-type man I have ever encountered. He was perfectly knowledgeable and good-natured enough, but was clearly enamored with a few prominent men who lived and made fortunes for themselves in Bath in the 1700s. His whole tour revolved around the lives of these men, which was interesting enough, but I would have liked to have gotten a broader history of the city since it was first established before the Romans were in Britain. The tour did succeed in giving my friends and I something productive to do for the morning and by the end it was time for me to catch my train.

Bath AbbeyIMG_3238.JPG

Part of the Circus which is a set of three arched buildings with apartments.IMG_3248.JPG

The Royal Crescent where the super rich used to live. Mostly it has been broken into high end apartments, but a few sections are still single family homes.IMG_3256.JPG

Other than the Roman baths, Stonehenge, and the walking tour, the rest of my time in Bath was spent shoe hunting. My faithful little walking shoes had finally called it quits after nearly four months of continual use. While I was sorry to replace them, my ankles and hips had begun to protest the lack of support. Bath, as luck would have it, has a plethora of shoe stores. Two challenges to my search quickly became apparent. Firstly, that stores carrying shoes that would fit both my function and fashion needs were few. Secondly, shoes in England are prohibitively expensive. Not only were good shoes already between £50-60, but also add a conversion to USD and nearly every price tag made me want to cry. Finally I found a store that was having a sale of 30% off every shoe. While they did not have anything in black, which I would have preferred, or even the dark blue that I asked for, they did have another style of blue shoe that I decided was acceptable enough. Plus the store claimed all the shoes were made in England so at least I was not spending a fortune on an imported product I could get anywhere. With more than a little sadness I said goodbye to my black Sketchers. I would have liked to take them with me, for posterity’s sake, but my already overfilled backpack would never have allowed that. All the better in the end. But it is a strange thing when you realize how attached you can become to something as inconsequential as a pair of shoes simply because you have spent so much time with them and gone so many places while wearing them. Hopefully my new shoes will quickly become just as familiar.

IMG_3178

Loathe as I was to leave Bath, I am excited to get to Carlisle and see the north of England and Hadrian’s Wall. Starting this trip in the heart of the Roman Empire and reaching at its most northern edge is a historical feat I have been excited to accomplish. By no means did I see every corner of that ancient empire, but I have traveled through a great deal of it. Then, in less than a week, I will pass over that same wall and explore the wilds of Scotland. Hopefully I find them more hospitable than the Romans did. For now I must end this post and begin another…

Belgium

As time reference, I was in Belgium for the very first days of June. I know it’s been a while since then. I’ve had another bout of writer’s apathy that I’m finally working through. Bear with me as I attempt to catch up. At present I am sitting in the lobby of my hostel in Brighton (on a ripped leather couch that smells like cigarettes no less) staring out the window at an impenetrable grey fog. Catching up on some writing seems like a good use of a crap day. Here’s to hoping Bath is better! Anyway, as I was saying I was in Belgium in the first days of June…

What to say about Belgium. For the three nights I was in the country I stayed in Brussels and took a day trip to Bruges. In the interest of honesty I must say this: do not go to Brussels on holiday. Public transit is not especially convenient, the city feels like a giant concrete block, and the few historical buildings seem out of place since the overall architectural lineage of the city has been mostly eliminated through the decades. There is one area that is like a preserved old town, but it is not very large and consists mostly of a repeating pattern of waffle, chocolate, and souvenir shops. Not a particularly welcoming or accessible city in general. After my wonderful time in Amsterdam it was a particular disappointment. Even the map available at my hostel, with its tips and markers for places of interest, did little to improve my enjoyment of the place. So, I say again, never go to Brussels on holiday.

There were two sights that I found to be of moderate interest in Brussels. The first of course is the famous Pissing Boy fountain. If you are expecting something other than a tiny statue that might make old ladies titter, you will be sadly disappointed. I think even the Belgians are confused as to the fuss internationals make over this little curiosity. But oh well. It’s good for a chuckle as long as you don’t get decapitated by the other tourists swinging their selfie sticks. (Seriously if I ever meet the inventor of those I will gleefully beat him/her over the head with one of those damn things.)

IMG_2629

The other was one square in the old part of the city that had some impressive buildings. This is clearly where the power of the city rested until the modern age. There were plenty of impressive carvings and liberal use of gold as embellishment.

IMG_2615

Bruges, on the other hand, has preserved nearly the entirety of its medieval town inside the larger modern city. I spent a whole day wandering down the cobbled streets and admiring the ribbons of houses and the many churches scattered throughout the town. There is a large main square with some beautiful old royal buildings. A few canals also cut through the streets bringing a much-appreciated reminder of Amsterdam.

IMG_2642.JPG

IMG_2667.jpg

IMG_2633

 

Except for the churches and the state buildings, everything was made of brick. This gave the whole town a very warm feeling. With the houses built right up against each other along the streets, there were small, interesting details to find in every nook, window, and rooftree.

DSC01843.JPG

IMG_2635

DSC01828

Who wouldn’t want a special wooden ear for their doorbell?IMG_2668

There is a moat and an earthen mound that surround the medieval town. Entry is only possible through the old gates. A walking path takes you up the slopes of the mound to where several old windmills stand. From there you have a decent view of the old and new sides of the town.

DSC01842

Going to Bruges made the stop in Belgium worth it. Originally I had planned to spend those days in France but decided to add Belgium at the last minute. Bruges, and I’m certain other small cities, are worth the visit. Since I only had a short time, and there was not much to do in Brussels, this is pretty much the end to my adventures in that small country. Next on the catch-up list is France. Until then I’m off to buy new shoes!

Adventures in Amsterdam

I arrived in Amsterdam on Sunday, May 29th, and from that first afternoon until the next Sunday when I left for Belgium I had a marvelous time. Amsterdam is such an accessible city. The center of the old town, which is where at least 80% of the attractions are located, is quite small. From my hostel I could walk from one side of the city to the other in less than an hour. There are plenty of trams and buses too, but I never used them. The only danger with walking everywhere were the cyclists (again). If I had thought Stockholm and Copenhagen were bad, they were nothing compared to Amsterdam. At least in those cities bicycles had clear lanes and signals. Such things did not exist in Amsterdam, the streets were too narrow. Bicycles, scooters, and cars all vied for space on the small streets. Sidewalks were not considered sacred pedestrian space, either, and cyclists frequently used them to avoid traffic. Sometimes the only clue you had that you were about to be run over was the jarring ring of a bicycle bell. The guide on the walking tour I took on my last day had a phrase that would have been very helpful to have at the beginning of my visit: hear a bell, run like hell! I did have one collision incident with a cyclist. Thankfully she was  going slow enough that it was no more than a gentle bump. I don’t think she even lost her balance. There were a few other times that I narrowly avoided being hit at much greater speed. Not every cyclist used their bell.

Despite having to keep my head on a constant swivel at every intersection, I loved wandering the narrow streets and bridges of the city. I had a few concrete activities everyday, but since I had so many days there I took my time getting to know the feel and flavor of the city, which I greatly enjoyed. Since the city is so small it is very easy to explore all of the different districts. The red light district is lively every hour of the day and has some of the best restaurants; the canal district has the nicest houses. Some of the canals are lined with houseboats which are great fun to see. This one with the screened in cat porch was one of my favorites.

IMG_2587.JPG

I did three touristy things while in Amsterdam. I had the time and sometimes it’s fun to engage in clichéd activities for an afternoon. On my first afternoon in the city I went on a dungeon tour. I think this might have been the biggest tourist trap I’ve ever fallen into. Admittedly, it was fun, but it did not even take place inside a real dungeon. The elevator actually takes you up three floors of an old converted house and every new location is a completely fabricated set. The cast of actors that you meet in each new room were excellent, and probably the best part of the whole tour. They give you bit of history about Amsterdam but there were so many jokes and jump-scares mixed in that the real information fades into the background and the tour becomes mostly about entertainment. Overall probably not worth the money but it was nice to see actors getting paid.

Dam Square, near where the Dungeon Tours are located. This building used to be the city hall before the Netherlands became a monarchy. Now it is the royal palace.IMG_2494

My hostel offered discounted tickets for canal tours which I took advantage of one afternoon. The weather was not the greatest, a bit chilly and overcast, but the rain was holding off so I thought it would be a good day to sit on a boat for an hour. I would have liked the tour to be longer but it was pleasant enough. There were only about eight of us in the whole boat and it was nice to be off the busy streets for a bit. Getting a slightly different perspective on the city was very nice as well.

DSC01800

One of the curiously constructed draw bridges that dotted the canals.DSC01803

Ignore the back of everyone’s heads, the point of this picture is the pile of bicycles on the barge. Thousands of bikes are scooped out of the canals every year.DSC01808

One of the old guard towers for the medieval city. The bottom half is much older than the top, though I’m sorry to say that I have forgotten the ages of both.DSC01815

I saved going on a walking tour for my very last day. This may seem counterintuitive but it actually worked our just fine for me. By then I had explored a good portion of the city so it was nice to revisit places and get some specific information along with overall historical context for the city. Also I had made a friend at my hostel the night before so it was great to have company on the tour, which lasted a little over two hours. The tour guide was excellent. He was of Italian descent but born and raised in the Netherlands. His energy was infectious, he obviously loved the city and sharing it with visitors. I learned plenty about the history of Amsterdam, and the Netherlands in general, as well as some interesting party facts. For instance, the purpose of using red lights is to make the prostitutes more attractive. Red light provides as instant face lift and skin treatment: it makes all purple or bluish marks disappear. So, suggested our tour guide, always make sure to have a red light in your room in case you’re ever having a bad skin day.

I did take in a little culture as well. It was hard not to since there is a museum seemingly on every street corner. The only museum I went to was the one dedicated to Van Gogh, of course. Getting a chance to see so many of his works, especially the lesser known ones, and learning a bit more about his life was fascinating. I did not go to the Anne Frank house though I did walk by and saw it from the outside. I also did not visit any of the churches as their were either not open or were charging admission that I was not willing to pay. I did visit the botanical gardens, the royal zoo, and a brand new museum called Micropia that was completely dedicated to microorganisms of all kinds.

You should know that every time I go to a zoo I take tons of animals pictures. For the most part I’m good about not including too many. But the royal zoo in Amsterdam had such a wonderful collection I need to share a few with you.

Here are three of the most attractive lizards I’ve ever seen (seriously if there was a Vogue for reptiles these beauties would be instant cover models):DSC01786

DSC01792

DSC01794

This little cuties was many four inches long!IMG_2525

Three words: baby pygmy marmoset. Google it and die from the cuteness. I stared at this little troop for a really long time and took so many pictures.IMG_2541

There was also a litter of four week old wolf pups!IMG_2547

And a cheeky little Axolotl.IMG_2548

Since Indonesia was once a dutch colony, I made sure to sample some of their food. One night I got a fairly simple vegetable dish that quite good. Another night I wanted to order a rice table, which is like a pre fixed menu that lets you sample lots of things, but these are usually enough to feed two people. Thankfully the waiter was kind enough to have the portions cut in half for me. Everything was excellent and had lots of variety. It also felt quite decadent since the starter for the whole meal was a lobster tail!

The other really good restaurant experience I had was at the smaller pancake house I have every seen. This place is on the upper floor of an old house with a staircase so steep it gave me a touch of vertigo.

IMG_2562.JPG

But the death defying climb is so worth it. There are only four tables and one seat at the tiny bar that separates the “kitchen” from the rest of the establishment. Pancakes are the only menu item but there is quite a variety of sweet and savory. Once you place your order it is on your table in less than ten minutes. These are no stacks of buttermilks. You get one giant pancakes that takes over the whole plate along with whatever toppings you chose. Though at first it does not look like much, this is more than enough food to satisfy even the most hungry. And every bite is delicious. I visited this tiny establishment twice, once alone and once with my Canadian friend. I could have eaten there every day if I decided to set aside my self control. If you ever have plans to visit Amsterdam I will be more than happy to give you the name and location of this very special place.

Speaking of friends. I did make two on my last days in the city. The Canadian girl I met at my hostel. She had just finished an organized tour of Europe and was so happy to have company on her last days before heading home, and I was more than happy to have a fun, chatty person to hang out with after so many days going it solo. On our walking tour we met a nice guy who was originally from Manchester but has been living in Luxembourg for work and was in Amsterdam on holiday. On Saturday night the three of us had a marvelous time bar hopping and experiencing Amsterdam nightlife. We stayed out quite late and getting up the next morning to catch my train to Belgium was a little painful. Totally worth it though.

Altogether I had an excellent time in Amsterdam and highly recommend the city to fellow travelers. There is plenty to do, both food and activities are reasonably priced, and the whole city has a quirky charm that I fell in love with. For all the grand houses and amount of money that used to rule the city, there are so many charming details and imperfections that make every block unique. I leave you with a few of my favorite little surprises that I found while wandering around this lovely little city.

Building used to be taxed on their width so builders became experts at making things as narrow as possible. Like this door that I probably would have had to walk through sideways.IMG_2493

DSC01809

Just some high class art out on the street keeping the plants contained.IMG_2553

Old warehouses converted to apartments with the best windows and shutters.IMG_2592

So many buildings had crooked lines in one place or another.IMG_2604

Until next time!