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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Because old stuff is cool.IMG_3089

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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!

Getting the Feel for Danish Dirt

As many of you know, I had wanted to make farming a part of this trip. There is semi-official organization called WWOOF (World Wide opportunities in Organic Farming) that serves as a platform for small scale farmers, who usually employ some form of organic practices, to connect with volunteers. Hosts provide food and a place for the volunteers to sleep, and the volunteers help out on the farm for at least a few hours every day. It’s a great way for farmers to share their passions and get some extra help they might not otherwise be able to to afford. As a volunteer it’s a great way to mitigate travel costs, see more rural areas, and give a little something back during your travels. While I will not be WWOOFing as much as I had initially hoped on this trip, I did manage to get in a week at a farm in southern Denmark.

My host was a single father with three boisterous and charming children. The other family member was a beautiful Malemute-Lab mix had the run of the property. The farm was more along the lines of a homestead than a market garden. Most food produced on the premises went to feed my host and his family throughout the year. The exception to this were his pigs whose meat he sold periodically. Two ponies, a small herd of sheep and a flock of laying hens completed the livestock portion of the farm.

A few views over the farm from the front porch of the houseDSC01714

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Chicken house with sheep who would run up and stare at me every time I went to collect eggs.DSC01725

Mama with her two week old pigletsDSC01774

Piglets were being cheeky and sneaking under the fence to explore the pond.DSC01765

Crops of the vegetable variety included pretty much anything the average person would stock in their kitchen on a daily basis: potatoes, cabbage, garlic, onions, pumpkins, corn, carrots, celery, leeks, beans, tomatoes, and several rows of strawberries. I had arrived early enough in the growing season of Denmark that I actually got to help with the planting of many of these crops. There was the down in the dirt, hunched over the rows planting for corn, celery, and cabbage; then the simplicity of dumping beans into a simple machine that you simply rolled over the row as the beans rolled down a chute directly into the soil. The pumpkins were great fun. My host set up calderas of horse manure in a few short rows and I went behind with the watering can and then the seedlings, nesting them comfortably in the sloppy mess.

Two and 1/4 rows of freshly planted corn. (Just the light green ones)DSC01723

Some pretty little baby cabbage I just planted already soaking up the sun.DSC01722

When I got tired of planting for the day, there was plenty of weeding to go around. While organic farming methods are far better for people and animals who live on farms, improve nutrient content of crops, and keep unsavory chemicals out of food, they do mean that weeding is basically a full-time job. Some of the crops were far enough along that a hoe could be used, but even then weeds that grew right up next to the seedlings had to be pulled by hand. There is one particularly nasty weed that looks a little like a small, skinny pine tree. There are many crass words that could be used to describe this plant. What makes it so evil is its talent for segmenting itself. Just when you think you’ll get the whole darn thing-snap! My host pointed out that this plant is immune to Round-Up so at least farmers who use chemical weed suppression are plagued by this little nasty, too.

Anytime I tired of weeding there was always watering. This section of Denmark, the island of Falster to be specific, is much drier than the west coast of the country and the farm had not seen a good rain in a while. My host had dug a well for his property and so had a decent water supply. This well water, however, was pumped into cisterns in the greenhouse, which in turn were connected by hose to storage barrels nearer the fields. What this meant was a lot of hauling water in large watering cans back and forth over the rows. There was a pump in the greenhouse that could be used to increase the water pressure enough that a sprinkler could be used on the larger plots of vegetables, but it took my host a few days to fix it after I arrived. Even with the sprinkler quenching the thirst of the corn, onions, and potatoes, the strawberries still had to be hand watered. The berries were at a crucial time when they needed ample watering in order to become large and juicy, versus small and tart.

Freshly hoed and watered potatoes.DSC01718

The onions and cabbage look happier already.DSC01719

When I arrived, the berries were hardly visible. In just a week they had filled out nicely.DSC01730

All of this hard work was rewarded, however, in the form of a single berry becoming perfectly ripe on my very last evening on the farm. in addition to this treat, my host announced that he would make a very special dinner, something he always did for his volunteers’ last night. He would roast a hog head. I was a little skeptical, but endeavored to keep an open mind and adventurous stomach. It turned out to be delicious, I especially liked the salty skin, and I had a great time while my host pointed out the different muscles before cutting them from the skull. There was more than enough for the two of us, we did not even finish the meat from half the head. While I decided I did not like all of the cuts, some of them were especially moist and tasty.

Post-roast, before dissection, rubbed with ample salt. (The eyes were removed so don’t even ask)IMG_2486

Altogether my time on the farm was a sunny, sweaty, peaceful change of pace from the two months I’d spent bounding from city to city. It felt so wonderful to be doing something productive and meaningful for another person instead of the self-indulgent wandering that has typically occupied my days. Getting my hands dirty with some practical lessons in what it takes to get crops in the ground and keep them happy was also wonderful and inspiring. It certainly got me excited for the time I will be spending learning about homesteading in Maine. Hopefully I will be able to WWOOF again in Scotland but I have yet to secure a place.

For now, I need to dart across the courtyard back to my room before this thunderstorm lets loose. Keeping my fingers crossed that the flooding will go down in Paris before I get there!

 

Castles and Copenhagen

I was only in Copenhagen for four full days but I think I managed to see most of the city’s highlights. The city is quite large but the subway takes you everywhere and the streets are relatively pedestrian friendly. Provided you keep a lookout for cyclists. All major roadways, and even some smaller ones, are designed is such a way that there are clear lanes for pedestrians, bicycles, and cars. All three even have their own stoplights in most places. It means that there is always a lot to keep track of while walking, but it certainly makes everyone much safer. Overall I had a great time in Copenhagen and found plenty of interesting things to see and do.

I did not arrive to my hostel on Wednesday the 18th of May until the evening. Thankfully the hostel had a decent food menu and I was able to just eat there. Around 8:00 pm I recovered enough energy that I felt a walk was in order. The King’s Garden and the Botanical Gardens were just behind the hostel so I had a lovely walk around them in the evening light.

Rosenborg Castle in the King’s GardenIMG_2308.jpg

Nesting swan in the Botanical GardenIMG_2319

The next day I took the train up to Helsingor to visit the Kronborg castle. While the castle has had historical significance for Denmark for a few hundred years, most foreigners know it as the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The whole castle is gorgeous and has been very well maintained. A good portion of it has been turned into museum exhibitions so you can see quite a bit of the interior.

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I even had the good fortune of observing some theatrical rehearsals as well. A theater group received a grant to perform selected scenes from Hamlet inside the castle. It was great fun to see the actors at work and seeing the play in the context Shakespeare envisioned. Once you finish with the main rooms of the castle, you can walk down into the cellars where the soldiers lived and where food was stored. To make this a more interesting experience, there are very few, if any, electric lights down in the labyrinth of tunnels. The museum shop does sell flashlights, but I just used the light of my phone. The whole place has a very creepy feeling and could probably play host to a very successful haunted house if museum staff were so inclined.

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In one section of these tunnels is the statue of a Danish warrior, Holger Danske. Legend has it that when Denmark’s need is dire, this warrior will rise and defend the nation against any foe. He does look mighty even in slumber.

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The outside of the castle is no less lovely. The grounds are very plain but the fortress had a mostly militaristic purpose for much of its life. There are great views back over Helsingor and even over the channel to what I assumed was Sweden. The northern tip of Zealand (the island where Helsingor and Copenhagen are) is very close to southern Sweden, much closer than I ever thought.

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After I had explored all of the grounds, I wandered around Helsingor for a little while before catching the train back to Copenhagen. The town is quite old and the buildings have been well maintained. It is also very small but has some nice little streets.

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In the evening I decided to have dinner in the hostel again for simplicity’s sake. This worked in my favor and I was able to strike up a conversation with a guy my age from England. I stayed up way too late drinking and playing pool with him and the two Portuguese woman whom he had already befriended. Altogether a very good night.

Since I barely slept the night before, I woke up very late on Friday. I did not feel very motivated to go exploring but I did rouse myself enough to head over to the Rosenborg Castle. Since it was so close to my hostel I really did not have an excuse to not go. This castle is where the crown jewels of Denmark are kept. There is even an armed guard present on the property 24/7. I did not take any pictures of the jewels. I don’t see the point when their fancy lighting turns everything into blinding glare (my photography skills have not advanced to the point where I can avoid this) but take my word for their magnificence. There were plenty of other treasures throughout the castle though.

Throne room and a silver lion. Who doesn’t need one of those? Well this place had three…IMG_2370

An embroidered saddle with pearls. Yes, all of the white things are pearls. Horse bling is the best. Also please note the dragons on the bottom left corner.IMG_2379

And for fun, a jouster breaking his lance on his target’s nose (if you’ll notice the “guy” in the turban is a dummy on a red post. Also notice, if you will, the racial implications of dressing the dummy in a turban with a curved sword)IMG_2367

Ii stopped by a little cafe to grab lunch. That was pretty much the end to my day.

On Saturday I decided to check out Tivoli. The gardens are famous all over the world and I’d feel like an idiot if I did not go while I was in Copenhagen. They were not quite what I expected. Firstly, the whole park is very small. That being said they do pack a lot inside the walls. The “garden” aspect of the park was much less than I anticipated though there were a few interesting fountains and one nice little pond with a pirate ship. The main attraction for the park is the rides. It is like a carnival that never closes. Maybe this is something that other people know that I had overlooked. There were several roller coasters, those drop towers that I hate, even bumper cars and a game house. There was plenty to see and do even in such a small space. I rode one roller coaster and had popcorn for lunch to complete the experience.

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There is also a music school that sits to one side of Tivoli. the students there make up the Youth Guard for the park. I don’t remember all of the history or significance of this guard, but they seemed to be the oldest in the country. The students perform an honor march a few times a day through the park and play music the entire time. They all took this responsibility very seriously with the older boys discreetly guiding the younger ones into proper position. Altogether they were quite charming. I followed their noon procession through the park to see how far they went and enjoy their music which was quite good.

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The smallest drummer instantly became my favorite. He probably could have fit inside his drum and his hat nearly swallowed his head so all your could see were his glasses above his serious frown. Lots of the families in the park followed the procession and we all made  very cheery parade throughout the park.

In the early afternoon I caught the train to a suburb outside the city to visit with my relatives who had moved their little garden cottage. They had built the little house themselves and though it was simple it was comfortable and homey. Their little yard with fruit trees was lovely. We had a very pleasant dinner and walk around the garden community in the evening before I caught the train back to the city.

Sunday turned out to be marathon day in Copenhagen and the sounds of cheers and high energy drumming followed me throughout the city. I took the subway to the north end of the city to see the Little Mermaid statue. She is indeed lovely but was crawling with so many tourists I did not stay long or even bother to take a picture. There is an old fortress ground near her so I wandered around that for a while. There is a really cool fountain called Grefion near St Alban’s Anglican Church that was fun to look at. And I saw a family of swans out enjoying the sunshine.

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My last adventure in Copenhagen involved visiting Freetown Christiania. This little community started life as a series of vacant lots that people (who were fed up trying to afford apartments in the city) started to move into and build houses.It is a very vibrant community where art, freedom of expression, and set-governance are of paramount importance. Botanical “soft-drungs” are accepted within the community, but they have strict prohibitions on more dangerous substances and firearms or violence of any kind. The whole place had a very raw, gritty, and down to earth energy. True anti-establishment hippies versus glossy, magazine quality flower children. A very cool place to visit indeed. I only took pictures of the entrance since photography is not allowed inside the walls (all drugs sold there are still illegal in Denmark).

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While making my way back to the hostel from Christiania, I stopped by the Christiansborg palace to check out their stables. They had a nice little exhibit detailing the breeding history of horses at the stable, carriages and equipment used throughout the centuries. Visitors can walk down the stable isle and see the dozen or so horses that are in permanent residence. At the height of its use the stable could house over 100 horses but its size has been greatly decreased and now they only bring in large numbers of horses for special occasions. The place is still very grand.

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Such were my adventures in Copenhagen. Though I was only there for a few days I had a wonderful time and saw a lot of the city. I was very ready to head to the countryside and spend some time on a farm in southern Denmark. I’ll tell you all about that week in the next post. Until then!