Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year, Bunnies! (2011 Highlights)

Here we are at the end of 2011, the year I started this travel blog.  Looking back at this past year, I wish I'd written a bit more about my travels but am happy with most of what I did write and am thrilled with my 2011 travel experiences.  Starting the year on the steps of Sacré Coeur in Paris and ending it somewhere in Rome, 2011 has been an amazing travel year for me and below are some of the highlights.

Best Travel Experience: Sóller to Deià

Outside castle ruins, Baden-Baden
Best Travel Moment: Stumbling upon a beer serving cafe mid-hike in Baden-Baden, and then another one outside the castle ruins, and another one inside them.

Most Disappointing Travel Experience: Brighton, England 

Most Challenging Travel Experience: We've had a few bad experiences with landlords this year.  Both in Paris and London, our experiences were dodgy and trying and our current Dundee landlord is non-responsive. Happily, having learned from our experiences, we're enjoying a lovely relationship with our current landlord here in Rome.

Most Rewarding Travel Experience: Spending 19 glorious days in Mallorca with no money, proving money isn't necessary when surrounded by a beautiful beach on the Mediterranean.

I have a few travel dates set aside for 2012 (April, June, July/August, December) and only one confirmed destination (Baltimore).  I'll be chasing cheap fares for the other dates and am looking forward to sharing those experiences with you.  Until then, happy new year, bunnies!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Rome: First Impressions

Borghese Gardens
Clean - Rome is very clean.  Yes, we've seen a few empty wine bottles littering the streets but, for the most part, the fountains are clear, the streets are clean, and there is no dog shit to dodge.

Fashion - Almost everyone is dressed well.  Not to the same degree as we had expected (I was scared to wear trainers for fear of being identified as a tourist), but still definitely more fashionable than we're used to.  Black, shiny, puffy coats are all the rage.

Not Super Cheap - We had expected the same economic spectrum as we experienced in Paris and New York but that is not possible in Rome.  There is no super cheap here.  There is sort of cheap, middle of the road, and expensive.  Our first meal, at 1am on our arrival date, was a slice of fungi pizza and a beer each which cost €8.  Our first real sit-down meal - cacio e pepevino rosso di casa, and tiramisu for dessert - was €32 for two.  There are no €3 poulet rotis nor €1 litres of wine but we're managing to find some good deals (I'm writing this while enjoying a €4.99 bottle of Limoncello).

Very Picturesque - Every corner turned is another ruin or ancient building to marvel.  It's overwhelming.

Laid Back - The Italians are super laid back.  We've knowingly mispronounced countless Italian words but have not been corrected once.  They seem friendly, happy, and welcoming.

vending machine on Via del Corso
Liquor Laws - Any day, any time, you want wine, you've got wine.  You want that pizza takeaway?  You want a beer with that?  Awesome.

Honest People - We love the Italians!

Weather - Romans have no idea how great they have it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Literature While Abroad

A recent blog about Great Books from one of my favourite travel bloggers has inspired me to write about my own literature while abroad experiences.

view from the balcony in Quepos, Costa Rica
My first memory of reading whilst on holiday is from my 2006 trip to Costa Rica.  I was spending a week in a rural village on a volunteer vacation.  I read "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" with a headlamp, underneath mosquito netting.  Afterwards, I detoxed at a resort for a few nights and read "The Time Traveler's Wife" on a balcony, with an amazing view of the Pacific.

For some reason, the combination of reading while travelling created a deeper memory for me and I remember aspects of that trip because of those books that I would've otherwise forgotten by now.

At Shakespeare and Company
A more recent example of this would be my trip to Paris over Christmas 2010 and New Year's 2011.  Reading "Gertrude and Alice" provided me with a whole new level of understanding of my new location.  After reading it, I was able to visit their grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery and stopped in at Shakespeare and Company fully aware of its history, allowing me to feel more connected to the city; like a resident rather than just a tourist.

Similarly, reading "Down and Out in Paris and London" and "The Sun Also Rises" while in Paris allowed me to see a different side to the beauty that I was experiencing.  I remember both the books better because of where I read them and I remember Paris better because of the books.  Plus, every time I think of those books I'll think of my trip to Paris and vice versa; they are forever entwined in my mind, allowing me to visit Paris again simply by picking up one of those books.

As I prepare for another trip, this time to Rome, the books I decide to bring are as important as any other item I pack.  After consulting with Geraldine at Travel Oyster, I've decided to bring "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" and "A Traveller in Rome".  I'm looking forward to discovering how these books will wind up impacting my experience and my memories.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The End Is Nigh

Dundee
This month marks the half way point for our time in Dundee, scheduled to end June 2013.  Although I can't be certain, the odds are very good we will not be sticking around here once Mike graduates in May that year.  Thus, the end of this month means just 1.5 years left to get the most out of our Dundee adventure.

Once we leave Dundee, it's very possible we'll never visit this part of the world again.  Although we plan to stay in the UK for another couple of years, most likely in London, we probably won't be using any of that time to visit Scotland, not with both England and Wales to entertain us, along with the rest of the world.  Thus, with just 18 months left in Scotland, we need to start strategizing how we spend our time so we get the most out of this opportunity.

In addition to all the places we have yet to see, we still hope to 'bag a Munro' and witness some Highland Games.  We'd like to go to a ceilidh, spend more time at the Edinburgh festivals in August, and experience the North Sea (e.g. kayak, SUP, etc.).  Our monthly rambles allow us the opportunity to see the countryside, and provide us with some guidance as to what and where, so we plan to continue those.  But, we also hope to manage a couple staycations to tackle those things on our list which will take more than just an afternoon.

Seaton Cliffs
In addition to looking ahead, it's good to look back and review what we've accomplished in our first 18 months in Scotland.  Our rambles have really provided us with the best memories of our temporary home; the Fife Coastal Path and the Seaton Cliffs were both beautiful walks and Pitlochry and Crieff were both lovely towns.  Glamis Castle is still one of our favourite castles and both Edinburgh and Glasgow are great cities.

As this is our first step on a long journey, I'm really happy with how we've structured it.  Living slightly outside ones comfort zone can be difficult and trying at times but also rewarding.  Though we long for the days of comfortable couches and close friends, the new experiences and awkward interactions on a regular basis are their own reward.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Three Hours In Paris

view from the Trocadero
My boss is travelling to Paris on Thursday.  She's grabbing the first flight there and taking the last flight back so she can get home to her kids (she's a single mom).  She has a meeting from 11am until 2:30pm.  Her flight gets her there around 9:30am and leaves around 8:30pm which means she's free to roam the streets of Paris from around 2:30pm until about 5:30pm.

She's only ever been to Paris once before, in October for the same meeting and the same three hours. She wandered to the Trocadero for the best view of the Eiffel Tower and bought macarons from Ladurée, both perfectly acceptable things to do during your first three hours in Paris. For her second three hours, she's asked me for some help.

Here's what I'm giving her (her meeting will be near the Jardin des Tuileries, which she visited during her last trip).
  • Walk through the Tuileries to Place de la Concorde for the Champs-Elysees Christmas Market and be sure to sample the vin chaud
  • Take the M1 (Metro) from either Champs-Elysees Clemenceau (mid-market) or Franklin D. Roosevelt (end of market) to Hotel de Ville where you can ice skate for free (small fee for skates rental) and experience a small Christmas Fair. 
From here you can do any of the following:
view from the Pompidou
  1. Head north to the Centre Georges Pompidou contemporary art museum (€12). Especially good if the weather is poor; you can store your bag in the cloakroom; wonderful view of Paris from the top floor. The building itself is worth a look, even if you don't go inside, and the neighbourhood (part of Le Marais) is cute, too. 
  2. Head south across the Pont d'Arcole towards Notre Dame Cathedral (free to enter, though the tower has an entrance fee). Continue south towards the Latin Quarter, the trendy/hip university neighbourhood near the Sorbonne. 
  3. Head east along Rue de Rivoli towards the Marais District, the historic Jewish quarter, which has eclectic shops and cafes. Visit the Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis Church just east of the Saint-Paul Metro station on the south side of the street (one of my favourites). Continue north-east towards the Place des Vosges and Victor Hugo's former residence (a free museum). 
Get to Chatelet Les Halles station for the RER B to Charles de Gaulle.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Portland Itinerary

After 11 years in Seattle, just a short 3-4 hours north, you would've thought we'd have spent more time in Portland, Oregon than just a couple of visits but, sadly, that's all we have under our belt. Still, I feel confident enough about my time there to make some recommendations.

Hotel: Hands down, no doubt about it, you must stay at the Kennedy School. It's a bit out of town but, if you're only staying for a weekend, you won't even notice the distance. Get there on a Friday late afternoon, check-in, and plan to spend the whole night there; you can check out the rest of Portland tomorrow. Kennedy School has restaurants and bars on site (yes, plural of both), entertainment including pool tables and a cinema, a lovely soaking pool (which we weren't prepared for but, especially after seeing it, wish we had been), and the ability to stroll the halls with a beer in your hand (like Vegas). It's a great hotel and a great destination and I only wish we'd been able to experience it more than just once.

Restaurant: Pok Pok - this place is crowded all the time. Just accept it. Put your name on the list, go across the street to their bar (Whiskey Soda Lounge), have a drink until they call your name, and then go experience some amazing food. Done. Caution: someone might whip out a boob and start breastfeeding next to you whilst you're enjoying a drink and/or meal. No judgement, just providing you with some notice so you can mentally prepare for this possibility.

There's another restaurant that I'd recommend if I could remember anything about it beyond the amazing food and atmosphere.  I remember we had to drive east from downtown, it was in a neighbourhood, and we sat outside in an amazing garden area.  Otherwise, I have nothing else to help recall it's name or location.  It was great, though.

Activity: I highly recommend the Worst Day of the Year bike ride.  If you do the full ride you've got two killer hills but both are well worth the effort.  I suggest taking the short cut after the second hill, which really should be the end anyway.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Glen Tilt

Glen Tilt is in the Cairngorms National Park, just outside the village of Blair Atholl (pronounced like asshole not A-hole), the village surrounding Blair Castle.  This is a five hour hike and, with our shorter days, we needed to get an early start if we were to avoid being stuck in the Cairngorms after dark and perhaps dying of exposure.  Thus, we grabbed the 6:52am train to Blair Atholl (via Perth) this past Saturday morning in order to experience the ramble at its most ideal (with autumn colours) whilst simultaneously living to tell about it.  As it turned out, starting at 9:15am did not provide us with enough time and we wound up having to abort the mission in order to make it home alive.

We arrived in Blair Atholl before 9am but wandered around a bit in order to see what the village had to offer.  For your information, the village has nothing more to offer than what is visible from the train platform.  There is one inn with a restaurant and bar left unstaffed, a staffed pub around the back of the inn, a convenience store around the corner, a working mill (only open April-October), and a post office.  The castle is a bit outside of town (the town being those four buildings and outside being a few steps beyond them) and where our walk began.

After grabbing some picnic supplies and coffee from the convenience store, we headed towards the castle.  Although the beginning of our walk takes us down the castle's driveway, we actually never glimpsed the castle.  There was a part of the walk which supposedly overlooks the castle and Blair Atholl but we never got to that part.

Our first missed turn happened almost immediately after the trailhead and we didn't become aware of it until we got to the bottom of the hill.  Realising we shouldn't be crossing a river, we backtracked all the way back up the hill to where we should've turned.  For your information, the trail was well marked with yellow arrows on posts which we, for some reason, were incapable of finding.  This pattern of missing turns and having to backtrack for quite a distance would repeat itself at least two more times throughout our day and is the reason we weren't able to finish the walk.  What was supposed to be a five hour walk turned into a six hour walk because of our poor navigation skills.  But, the scenery was beautiful and we had a great time, minus the last bit where we were so confused we gave up and just followed a road back into town.

Six hours later, with sore feet and bruised egos, we wandered into the only pub in town to wait the two hours for our train back home.  Happily, this was just what we needed in order to lift our spirits.  We had a great time sitting next to the fire with our pints, warming up, and reliving the ramble which beat us.  Although resigned to defeat for now, we'll definitely be back.  We can't allow Glen Tilt to stand undefeated.  Hear that, Glen Tilt?  We'll be back and next time we're bringing friends.

For more pictures, please visit my Facebook album here.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Pitlochry

Pitlochry is located in the lovely area just west of Tayside (where Dundee is located) called Perthshire.  Less than two hours from us via train, Pitlochry is a hopping town with two distilleries, a brewery, a dam, a theatre, and a whole lot of people on a Saturday night.  We weren't actually planning a day in Pitlochry, just a stopover for the Blair Athol Distillery.  But, then we heard about the Edradour Distillery, Scotland's smallest, and the Moulin brewery, both right outside of town, and decided it deserved a full day's attention.

We started our day leisurely, departing Dundee around 10am.  We had a short layover in Perth, where we've found we enjoy grabbing a sophisticated cuppa at the Station Hotel right outside in the car park, but were in Pitlochry before noon.  We immediately headed in the direction of the Blair Athol distillery but wound up on an unplanned detour to the Pitlochry dam and fish ladder.  Since the salmon weren't running and the visitor centre was closed, we quickly reversed course.

The Blair Athol Distillery is right outside of town (not sure how we got lost) and possesses a nice visitor centre focused on Bell's Whisky, which contains Blair Athol in its blend, a good gift shop, and the best tour ever.  Our tour guide was amazing!  He had both great historical knowledge as well as general knowledge and, best of all, he was able to explain everything to us in a way which we understood.  We never have to go on another tour again, this guy was THAT good.  Our tour did cost £5 each but included a £3 voucher for their whisky and a proper whisky tasting at the end.  It was an excellent experience and one which we highly recommend.

We had hoped to grab some lunch in the distillery's restaurant but, sadly, they don't have one.  Thus, starving, we headed back into town for lunch.  We stopped at the Pitlochry visitor's centre where we bought a £1 map of the area and received a few restaurant recommendations, which we ignored, and headed back out.

Black Spout
After lunch in town we headed off on our ramble of the area, through the Black Spout woods towards Edradour Distillery.  We haven't seen a waterfall in ages, so we were excited to incorporate this ramble into our day.  We love waterfalls.  The Black Spout woods themselves were nice, too, and the trail was empty and well maintained.

Edradour Distillery was a bit of a disappointment.  They have a sign out front, before even entering the gift shop, that there is a £5 admission.  Having just been on the best tour ever, we didn't want to do another tour and were unclear as to whether we would be charged just for entering the premises or if that was a tour charge.  Thus, we stayed off their grounds and just looked from afar.

We quickly headed the long way back to Pitlochry so we could go through the small town of Moulin on our way home.  We had heard good things about their brewery but, sadly, the brewery was closed to tours because their guide was on holiday.  Happily, the adjoining inn was open (and packed) so we were still able to sample the beer before leaving.

We arrived back into Pitlochry around 5:30pm and the town was hopping.  There were tons of people everywhere.  We were not prepared for this at all.  Our previous experience in Crieff had made us believe that towns closed down around 5pm in this area but Pitlochry looked like it was going to be open until the wee hours.  Apparently, if you want to party Pitlochry is your place.

We really had a great day, with some lovely scenery and nice drinks.  Pitlochry is definitely on our list of places to send friends when they visit and we'll keep our eye out for events at the Festival Theatre, another reason to visit the area.

For more pictures, please visit my Facebook page here.

Friday, October 21, 2011

What It Costs To Live In London

The hard numbers behind our four months in London:

Rent: We spent £750 per month on our small, furnished studio flat in the Cricklewood area (Zone 2, midway between Kilburn and Willesden Green tube stations).  This included mediocre Wi-Fi internet access and utilities (less electricity).

Electricity: We averaged about £40 per month, including television usage.

Television: A television licence cost us £29.10 per month

Entertainment: Our entertainment costs averaged £55 per month.  This included Buckingham Palace, Zoo Lates, outdoor film screenings, and an Elton John concert (and festival).

Travel: We averaged £370 per month.  This included our weekly Oyster card top-up (£28 per person for unlimited travel, Zones 1-2) plus our train rides to Eastbourne, Oxford, Hatfield, Brighton, and Bath.

Food: We went out a lot, especially during the last half of the summer.  We averaged £475 per month on dining out costs (including pints) and £160 per month on groceries.

I found London to be very affordable.  Although I was disappointed with our flat, at least we were able to find one within our budget which got us there (and the neighbourhood was safe and fun and convenient).  Once there, we found living expenses to be low.  There are plenty of dining options across the economic spectrum and we were always checking out new places.  There are also many attractions that are free (parks, museums, Thames Walkway, etc.) making entertainment very affordable.  Other necessities, like groceries and public transportation, are completely reasonable and, in both cases, cheaper in London than in Dundee (though public transportation isn't as necessary in Dundee).

Yes, you can definitely spend a lot of money in London.  But, the fact that we averaged only £2000 per month for all expenses, doing everything we wanted to do, shows that spending a lot of money isn't necessary to enjoy yourself.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Knock of Crieff

Crieff
For our October ramble, we headed west to Crieff, described in our Frommer's walking guide as 'an attractive resort town, situated on the Highland edge at the foot of the Knock, a hill with panoramic views over mountain, wood, and farmland.'  We were looking forward to this ramble for two reasons: 1, because we've yet to experience this part of the country and 2, because the ramble starts from the car park of the Glenturret Distillery, basically incorporating a distillery tour into our ramble.  Beginning a ramble in the Highland foothills with a wee dram of The Famous Grouse, Scotland's favourite whisky?  Yeah, sounded like the perfect day to us, too.

Getting to Crieff from Dundee required a 20 minute train ride to Perth (£7.50 return per person) and a further 45 minute bus ride (£4.10 return per person).  The distillery is a bit out of town on the main road but the walk is pleasant.  We left Dundee around 10am and arrived at the Glenturret Distillery around 12:30pm.  Upon arrival, we paid for the 1:30pm Experience tour (£8.95 per person) and then headed up to the restaurant to kill an hour.  The restaurant was disappointing, though we did enjoy a drink before moving on.  The shop was better and we walked away with a chunk of whisky fudge (£1.60) as our souvenir.

The tour itself was fun but, especially when compared to the free tour available at the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, a bit expensive.  Our tour at the Glenfiddich distillery had a smaller group (though we were there in November) and ended with a proper tasting of their three whiskies (12, 15, and 18 years).  Our group at the Glenturret distillery was much larger (it sold out) and the tour felt fast.  Though we did get small samples of four of their whiskies (Snow, Famous, Black, and 10 year single malt), it was not a proper whisky tasting and I didn't leave respecting the flavours, as I did after the Glenfiddich tour.  The tour ended with a pretty cool short film and, overall, I'm glad we did it because we were there but, especially at that price, we'd recommend Dufftown and Glenfiddich for a cheaper and perhaps better, though similar, experience.

view from the summit
We began our Knock ramble around 2:15pm and finished around 5pm, just short of the book's estimated 3 hours.  The hike took us up a few hills (total elevation gain was 710 ft.), some of which were pretty steep, giving it a moderate rating from the book, which I agree with.  We encountered a few other ramblers but, otherwise, we were completely alone.  With a castle in the distance and the autumn colours, this was a particularly scenic hike and we would definitely recommend it, though we would suggest going on a clear day to take full advantage of the views from the summit.

Crieff itself was a surprise; we hadn't expected such a large town.  When we arrived in the early afternoon it was bustling with activity and we should've stopped then for a pint rather than heading straight for the distillery.  Upon our return, around 5:30pm, the town had already seemingly closed for the night so we didn't really get to experience much of Crieff.  We did find a couple pubs still open however, though the one we chose we weren't terribly impressed with.  There were a few takeaways to choose from too, but again, the one we chose we were disappointed with.  With nothing left to entertain us, we jumped on the 7pm bus back to Perth and were home before 9:30pm.

Monzie Castle
Although we experienced poor weather, our day was otherwise perfect and we highly recommend this itinerary including the distillery tour, but only if incorporating it into the ramble and not as an isolated attraction.

For more pictures, please visit my Facebook album here.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Glasgow

With a local Glaswegian as our guide (slash bodyguard), we spent this past Friday and Saturday in Glasgow.  The first (and last) time we were in Glasgow, we had stayed only a day, not wanting to be in the city after the sun went down.  Right or wrong, we had expected a rough city prior to that first visit and we were terrified of it, thus we had planned our travels to get us out of there well before sundown.  Happily, upon arrival our opinions instantly changed and, as the day progressed, our expectations wound up being proved completely inaccurate.  Nonetheless, we hadn't bothered returning until a new friend, Adam, convinced us to spend more time there.  This past Friday we returned.

We started our evening in the West End.  It was super cute and reminded us of Montmartre in Paris.  The scene was fun and normal (no street fights or thugs wielding pipes as weapons) and the bars Adam took us to, Grosvenor Cafe and Hillhead Bookclub, were both in old, gorgeous buildings.  I could easily see myself living in this neighbourhood.  It was a great re-introduction to Glasgow.

We started the next day with a hike up Gardner Street, the 'steepest street in Europe', on our way to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum where we spent some time getting some culture.  It's nice to be able to stop into a free museum and see a Van Gogh, Monet, and Pissarro.  We were also able to catch a bit of the organ recital as we left.

Afterwards, we traversed the city on foot to the east end, passing The People's Palace on our way to West Brewery for lunch, which wound up being closed for a wedding.  Although a huge disappointment, we regrouped and headed to Home in Merchant City instead.  We had a lovely meal at Home and decided to pub crawl our way back to the West End.  We stopped at Waxy O'Connor's, an Irish pub in the city centre, and Chinaskis, a Bukowski fan pub on Sauchiehall, before heading back to Adam's for our bags.

We left Adam at the Partick underground station, on our way to Queen Street rail station where we would grab our train back to Dundee.  Adam had proven to be a great host.  We have similar tastes, so he knew exactly where to take us and what to show us.  We had a great time with him and recommend his tour guide talents to everyone.

Glasgow is a great city.  We felt safe the whole time and were never bored.  The plethora of pubs, beautiful buildings, and pubs in beautiful buildings could keep us entertained for weeks on their own.  The fact that Glasgow has so much more to offer than just those though, proves that we have many more eventful days to spend there.

For more pictures, please visit my Facebook album here.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fife Coastal Path: St Monans to Crail

Our first Sunday back in Scotland, to celebrate our successful move, we decided to ramble for five hours along the Fife Coastal Path.  We wandered down to the bus station, purchased two Fife Day Rider Plus tickets, allowing unlimited rides throughout Fife for £9 each, and were off by 11am.

Besides having to transfer in St Andrews, our ride was pretty simple.  The bus drivers we encountered were very helpful and friendly and, with their help, we made it to our destination, the tiny town of St. Monans, with ease.

Our ramble would take us from St. Monans, through Pittenweem, Anstruther, and Kilrenny, to Crail.  We had no idea what to expect but we were guessing something along the lines of last year's Arbroath to Auchmithie ramble, so we made sure to pack a lunch.  What we actually encountered were adorable, peaceful, picturesque, little seaside towns peppered along the beautiful coastal path.  We were absolutely enamoured.

The Fife Coastal Path is actually very long (81 miles) and part of a larger network of walking paths which take you up and down Scotland's coast.  We selected this section due to it being highlighted in one of our Scotland guide books.  Happily, we had such a lovely time we can't wait to explore more of it.  Next time we won't pack a lunch, though.  We encountered so many adorable towns with equally adorable pubs that we plan to incorporate them into our future rambles.

Our five hour ramble came to a perfect end when we bid adieu to the coastal trail in Crail, wandering towards the main road, to catch our bus in front of the post office back to St. Andrews.  We almost seamlessly caught our connecting bus back to Dundee and were home in what felt like a matter of minutes.  We could not have had a better reintroduction to Scotland than this ramble and we're looking forward to the next one.

For more pictures, please visit my Facebook album here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Bath Day Trip

Jane Austen lived here
This past Sunday we hopped aboard the 9am train from Paddington station to Bath (Somerset) for our last London-based day trip of the summer. Situated 1 3/4 hours west of London, Bath is famous for its Roman ruins and healing thermal waters (both of which we completely bypassed).  Additionally, it was also the former residence of a little known author from the late 18th century (you may have heard of her), a Miss Jane Austen.

Upon arriving around 10:40am, we quickly made our way to the Bath Abbey for the only Jane Austen walking tour of the day.  Starting at 11am and lasting a bit longer than planned (2.5 hours rather than 1.5), our walking tour met our expectations for its historical anecdotes and literary references along with just being a nice introduction to such a lovely town.

Jane Austen lived in four homes in Bath.  First, when her brother was prescribed Bath’s healing waters (along with electric shock treatment) for his ailments, she and her mother accompanied his family on the trip. Next, upon retiring, her father relocated the household (including herself, her mother, and her sister) to Bath, where he subsequently died. Upon her father's death, the family tried to stay in Bath but, after relocating twice, finally acknowledged that Bath was prohibitively expensive for their circumstances and had to leave town for good.  Both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are products of her time in Bath (neither of which I know anything about).

Parade Gardens
After our walking tour we grabbed a couple pints at The Porter, an adorable vegetarian pub with outdoor seating and a great location and then headed to 'the famous' Sally Lunn's to sample some 'world famous buns', where we wound up having an excellent lunch and grabbing a few buns to-go.  After our meal, we walked to the riverside to enjoy the sun, water, and our lovely surroundings.  Then, just to add to our contentment, a band began playing in the bandstand at Parade Gardens, across the River Avon from where we were sitting.  It was lovely.

Besides a disappointing hike up to Alexandra Park - located at the top of a neighbouring hill it was supposed to be a great spot to view the town but really isn't at all due to all the trees - we had a perfect day.  In hindsight, the hike was actually quite nice and the park was cute and, though requiring an exhaustive and frustrating search, we did eventually stumble upon a break in the trees which did provide a mediocre view of the town.  But, disappointing view aside, we did discover the existence of a ravenous, man-eating, invisible plant with a sting that lasts around 24 hours and is painful enough to make two adults run screaming from the wilderness.  So, you know, that was cool.

Royal Crescent
We spent the rest of the day revisiting spots from our walking tour and trying to find places that were pointed out in the distance and discussed but not actually seen.  We took a turn around the Royal Crescent, just like the high brows would've in Jane Austen's day, and found the spot where Jane Austen's father had been buried in a churchyard on the hill, next to one of Jane's inspirations, Frances Burney.

More than any of our other day trips, this trip to Bath was the most fun historically for me.  I'd say Bath is my favourite town thus far in the UK and I'm looking forward to returning for further exploration.

For more pictures, please visit my Facebook album here.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Baden-Baden, Baby

The flight from London Stansted to Baden-Baden only takes an hour.  We grabbed the first flight on Saturday morning and were in Germany by 10am.  The bus from Baden Airpark into town picked us up 40 minutes later (€3.80) and 20 minutes after that we were on the outskirts of town.  After a lovely hour's walk along a wooded path and babbling brook, plus a quick stop at the visitor's centre for a map, we were scoping out the lovely city centre by noon.

Baden-Baden is in Germany's Black Forest, as in the ham, and is well-known for its casino and healing thermal pools.  Although we did enter the casino's foyer, we were neither dressed well enough nor willing to pay the €5 admission fee to enter into the gaming area, so we turned right back around without further investigation.  We did, however, enjoy four glorious hours at the Caracalla Therme Baths.

Our first day was spent luxuriating in the pools and saunas of Caracalla, exploring the town, and eating and drinking as much local culinary delights as possible (a brat never tasted so good).  Our second day was spent in the hills.

I am absolutely sold on this charming mountain village.  To be able to stumble out your front door and, within just a few feet, find yourself up in the hills, at castle ruins, drinking a Hefe and eating a brat?  Heaven.
The weather turned angry whilst we were exploring the castle ruins and we were forced to seek shelter in the Irish coffee serving on-site cafe (where we probably would've wound up anyway).  After the sudden monsoon (seriously, the storm came out of nowhere and was crazy pouring) we headed back downhill.
We didn't want to miss the last bus back to the airport so we grabbed the next to last one, getting us to the airport approximately four hours earlier than necessary.  We left Germany around 10pm and were in our flat back in London by 1am.
What an amazing trip and what a fantastic introduction to Germany.  The Germans are friendly and kind, make amazing beer, and cook a mean brat.  We can't wait to explore their lovely country further.

For more pictures, please see my Facebook page here.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Brighton Day Trip

I had high hopes for Brighton.  Earlier this summer we visited the unknown seaside resort of Eastbourne and found it to be absolutely adorable and charming so the famous 'London by the Sea' should be much better, right?  Wrong.  Brighton was a mess.  There were some nice bits about it but mostly it was disappointing; over-crowded with unhappy families, an unexceptional pier, over-priced entertainment, and lots of hen-dos and stag groups wandering around in fancy dress screaming, trying to prove they were having a good time.  Perhaps Brighton just isn't our scene and most people enjoy it but, because it's not our scene, we'll be enjoying Eastbourne again before ever returning to Brighton.

The weather was overcast and a bit chilly with a strong breeze at the seaside when we arrived at around 10am yesterday morning.  We braved the breeze for a bit to check out the beach and pier but then headed inland to see the rest of the town.  We stumbled upon the Royal Pavilion, a Brighton must-see, but much like Oxford chose not to spend £6 per person to go inside, admiring the architecture from the exterior.

We found The Lanes, a charming but crowded area of small, winding streets with cute shops and restaurants, and promptly tucked in at English's Oyster Bar for an early al fresco lunch of oysters on the half shell and some live jazz.  This was a nice, safe spot to do some people watching before venturing out into the crowds again.

Post-oysters, we headed back to the shore for some seafront rambling.  We grabbed some cockles ('like clams'), whelks ('sea snails'), and anchovy wrapped olives for an impromptu beach picnic but the weather quickly chased us away.  We did sit on the stone beach long enough to determine it was more comfortable than expected, though walking on it was not pleasant at all.  Also, I liked the cockles more than the anchovy wrapped olives and the whelks  were okay with some vinegar and salt but otherwise a bit too chewy for my palate.

We spent the rest of the day just rambling around town and occasionally ducking into a pub to escape the poor weather.  One of the highlights of our day was discovering Bill's Cafe (thanks, Lou!), where we enjoyed afternoon tea.  This area of Brighton felt very authentic and we liked it a lot, though we didn't spend too much time exploring it.

The sun eventually did make an appearance and we rushed down to the seafront to enjoy it there.  We sat on the stones for a short while, just enjoying the beach and the sea.  When the sun started to set, and the chilly breeze returned, we headed back inland.  The crowd was beginning to change from families to fancy dress and the mood from stressed family outing to forced drunken fun.  Not enjoying either mood but finding the latter to be exponentially more dangerous than the former, we decided 8pm was a good time to split.

Yes, the stone beach was charming and The Lanes were cute as well but the rest of Brighton felt like forced fun and, though we're glad we went, we're sad to say Brighton is our first day trip disappointment since arriving in the United Kingdom almost a year ago.  That being said, that's not a bad record at all.

For more pictures, please see my Facebook page here.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Oxford Day Trip

An hour's train ride north-west of London and listed in my book of travel inspiration, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, Oxford makes for a perfect day trip destination.  This past Saturday morning, hoping for just that, Mike & I caught the 9:30am train from Paddington station to Oxford for some historic university town rambling. Coincidentally, our day trip was also graduation day for at least one of the colleges, adding just a dash of celebration to an otherwise serene day (not to mention a bunch of people in fur-lined black robes).


We started our day rambling away from the crowds at the train station and wound up at a small canal, our first glimpse of the canal culture in Oxford.  We saw a mini locks system in action and some Oxford-style houseboats.  The walk was short, though, and we quickly found ourselves amidst the crowds in the city centre.

We next stumbled upon Christ Church College and Cathedral, the largest university in Oxford and also where the Harry Potter series was filmed (though I'm not a huge fan of the films, I do enjoy pop culture icons).  There were massive queues to get in, plus an admission fee, and being fairly crowd and admission fee averse, we opted against checking out the interior.  We did, however, thoroughly enjoy the architecture and surrounding grounds.

At the far end of Christ Church College's grounds we found ourselves a lovely riverbank to relax on with our picnic and be entertained by the amateur punters trying to navigate the slight curves of the river.  'Punting' is a popular Oxford past-time and similar, at least visually, to gondoliering.  Actually, I wonder why it's not called gondoliering or what the difference is between a gondola and a punt.  Regardless, the activity is something one must do when visiting Oxford but something we passed on because it cost £20 per hour and looked difficult and this was supposed to be a relaxing day.  Surprisingly, simply sitting on the riverbank, watching the punters, turned out to be one of the highlights of our day.

Another highlight of our trip was exploring the local historic pubs.  We first enjoyed a pint at The Bear Inn which has been a local watering hole for Oxford students since the 13th century and has tie clippings from past students displayed on their walls and ceiling to prove it.  The pub was super cute (as most pubs are) and moderately priced at £7 for two pints.

Our second pub was the Turf Tavern, well hidden but worth the hunt.  Self-proclaimed as the oldest pub in Oxford, it had two lovely outdoor dining areas and was also moderately priced.

We ended our day with a picnic on the Oxford Cricket Grounds, watching a tennis match on the grass court during sunset.  We grabbed the 8:30pm train back home and were surprisingly exhausted after such a relaxing day.  Apparently, sun, heat, city rambling, rough sleeping (we had a nap on the riverbank), and good times proves to be quite tiring.  We'll definitely be returning to Oxford and now that we're acquainted with the town's exterior our next trip will probably include museums, admission charging sights like Christ Church, and other sights that will take us inside.  We might even try our hand at punting, though it's probably more fun just being a spectator.

For more pictures, please see my Facebook page here.

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