Monday, September 23, 2013

Other Places to Go

If I ever go to London again, as previously mentioned, I'll take the East End walking tour by Alternative London again, and will dine along Brick Lane on the early days of my trip. I will take a day trip to Kew Gardens, which we weren't able to squeeze into the schedule this past trip. I will spend some time in the beautifully decorated Well & Bucket pub on Brick Lane. A photo of Well & Bucket's copper-wrapped bar appears on the web page for the Alternative London pub tour. Only after arriving back in Austin was I able to google/sleuth the name of the place in that lovely, inviting photo.

Next up on my travel wish list:

Costa Rica - just to relax where rain forest meets (hopefully!) dormant volcanoes and beaches. No tour guide or activities needed. Zip lines terrify me. No thanks.

Edinburgh, Scotland - there's a giant castle there with guided tours.

Guided tour around Ireland - I want a chauffeured van with someone who knows where to go, what to do and can tell me all the pertinent history. Sometimes researching and planning a trip is dizzy-making. Sometimes I don't want to work that hard to prepare for vacation.

Road trip around Big Sur area in California - In case you didn't know, I'm a bit of a nerd. I really want to see the Winchester Mystery House and William Randolph Hearst's estate, plus the California coastline.

Previously I thought I wanted to go to Machu Picchu, Peru. Recent googling makes me think that tourists are tearing up the place just by walking around it, and I don't want to hasten the deterioration. Earthquakes and floods sometimes hinder access to the site. I get altitude sickness, and don't want to spend a vacation feeling dizzy, vaguely sick to my stomach and exhausted from lack of oxygen. Breathe a sigh of relief, Ancient Wonder, you are off the list. I'll enjoy photos and videos from afar.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Funny History and Politically Charged Public Art

Our last full day in London was my favorite, and also Chad's birthday. I brought one of his presents with me, but made him open his other, heavier presents back at home. Chad likes history, justice and peanut butter+chocolate combinations. Tower of London definitely has history, but the justice part is arguable. We foraged some peanut butter+chocolate mid-day at the coffee shop. The public art was more my thing, but Chad enjoyed it too.

We were thoroughly entertained by our visit to the Tower of London. Yes, there were tales of blood, gore, wrongful imprisonment and wrongful beheadings, but the Beefeater who led our tour made the whole sordid history really interesting and wickedly funny. Free tours start every half hour near the main entry gate, and I highly recommend them. We lucked out and avoided big crowds and long lines on the day we went. It was chilly and a bit drippy, so maybe that kept the hordes at bay. We saw the royal jewels. The size of the stones in the scepters and crowns is astonishing. I'm not a fan of jewel-encrustation, but even I had to marvel at the crazy riches. We also visited the white tower which housed the armory museum. It's a cool exhibit even if you're not a card-carrying member of the NRA. I especially like the dragon sculpture fashioned out of faux-treasure, battle armor and weapons. His name is Keeper and his wings are rifles, his belly holds replica crown jewels and he breathes out flame-shaped trails of gold coins.

We spent about three hours at the Tower of London, then walked back to our temporary-neighborhood for lunch at Bermondsey Street Coffee in the form of an egg salad sandwich, salads and the aforementioned peanut butter+chocolate bar. We rested a bit before our reserved evening walking tour. 

A slow, traffic-snarled bus ride took us to East End London with just a few minutes to spare before a walking tour covering history, culture, politics and street art. Alternative London runs the pay-what-you-wish tours. Josh, pictured above, fearless leader and street artist, gave a tour rich in all sorts of information from history to real estate to political insight into some of the more meaning-laden art. Chad and I agree that this was our favorite part of our London trip. We initially booked the East End pub tour for Chad's birthday evening, but it was a blessing in disguise that the pub tour was canceled. (We took the walking tour instead.) We feel like we got to see how non-Royal people in London live, and how tolerance for different cultural backgrounds and religions happens in modern London. One building featured on the tour has been a Jewish synagogue, a Protestant church, a Catholic church and currently a mosque during its life-span. We saw buildings ravaged by World War II still boarded up, then rounded the corner to a brand-spanking-new (totally not) affordable condo project with one-bedrooms going for a million pounds. Josh stressed that street art and public art are constantly changing, as is the real estate situation in East End. If we go to London again, we'll definitely take the tour again. It will be very different by that time, for better or for worse.

We walked around East End on our own for a bit after the tour, finding a few food trailers, passing long lines to get into thumping-bass vapid nightclubs, and passing amazing-smelling Indian and Pakistani restaurants on Brick Lane. Chad wanted dinner on Brick Lane, but I had to be a buzzkill and remind him of the ten hour plane ride ahead of us the next day and my delicate constitution. Sorry. I offered to watch him eat, but he also thought better of exotic spices before a long plane trip. If we return to London, we'll make our way to Brick Lane on day one for exotic, spicy food.

The rest of our trip encompassed the tedium of travel: packing for the return home, getting a cab to the airport, ten hours on one plane, sweating our time limit as we cleared customs in Houston and made it just in time to board the 26 minute flight back to Austin. 

Promptly upon arriving in Austin, before we even went home, we hit up Chango's for Tex-Mex dinner. Yum, black beans and pico de gallo, how we missed you!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Eye, The Dome & The Teapot

Wednesday morning, Chad and I caught a bus to the London Eye. From a distance, the London Eye looks like a trumped-up ferris wheel. It's giant at 443 feet tall. The pods are enclosed viewing stations that can hold 20 people with a large oval bench in the center. The Eye moves so slowly that you don't feel it, taking 30 minutes for a full rotation. I got a bit of vertigo when our pod reached the very top of the rotation, and was glad for the bench. The view was amazing. Interactive screens located around the pod let you tap on a building's image for the name and a brief history. The London Eye may be a silly tourist activity, but I enjoyed it.

We walked a few blocks and caught a bus to St. Paul's Cathedral. The Cathedral was hosting an art exhibit of life-size donkey statues on parade, each donkey painted by a different artist. Some of the donkeys were elaborate and beautiful, some more political in their adornment. As for the Cathedral, I was struck by the intricate mosaics and all the glittering gold tones along the ceilings. The outer loop of a small remembrance chapel behind the choir was dedicated to the American allies of World War II. Standing and reading the words of gratitude on the plaque made my eyes a bit misty. St. Paul's Cathedral is impressively huge with many areas open to explore. A narrow, winding stairway leads up to the base of the dome, known as the whispering gallery. The vantage point from there satisfied my need for views from on high. Still feeling a bit of vertigo from the London Eye, I didn't want to climb higher into the dome.

Just across the street from St. Paul's Cathedral, we reserved a spot for afternoon tea at Bea's of Bloomsbury. Bea's felt a bit narrow and claustrophobic, especially after climbing a tight spiral staircase to our table. Chad's Earl Grey tea was divine, but I chose poorly with my smokey-tasting Lapsong tea. The tower of snacks for afternoon tea had caprese sandwiches, two scones with clotted cream and jam, two cupcakes, two little meringue cookies, four brownie bites and two blondie bites. The treats were all too buttery and a bit bland in flavor. We were offered a to-go box for leftovers, but declined. We chose Bea's of Bloomsbury, because the website claimed the atmosphere to be unstuffy and casual, and because there was a reservation available on the day we wanted. Bea's lacked the grandiose ambiance, beautiful silver and fine china service that is part of a stuffy four-star hotel, and maybe that's part of what proper English afternoon tea should embody. I still prefer the tea service at The Steeping Room in our neighborhood at home.

Feeling the need to burn some calories, we crossed the pedestrian bridge over the River Thames for the walk back to our apartment. After such an indulgent afternoon tea, we had a late, light dinner of ready-packed salads from Sainsbury's. Being able to walk easily to so many interesting and useful places certainly was an endorsement for metropolitan life. Maybe if we win the lottery...

Tomorrow, read about our last full day in London - my favorite day there.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Day in Cambridge

We took the tube to King's Cross Train Station to catch the express train to Cambridge from London. The train ride took just under an hour, and was not very scenic, unless you think cows are scenic. When our train passed another train, the air pressure made my ears pop, and made a loud "whoosh" noise. Upon arrival in Cambridge, we were greeted by literally hundreds of bicycles locked to bike racks just outside the station. We were also greeted by rain. At this point in my trip to England, the novelty of the rain wore thin. Chad and I walked the quaint roads for about fifteen minutes to the visitor's center. A video about Cambridge ran on a loop in a strange little theater made to look like a courtroom complete with bewigged mannequins in barrister robes. Why the tourist video ran in a mock courtroom, I have no idea.

Down the hall, we entered a fluorescent lit room with a few employees seated at desks behind glass partitions. This room was reminiscent of the Department of Motor Vehicles in most American cities. We bought tickets for a punting tour later that day. We exited through the only available door which deposited visitors into a jam-packed gift shop - clever, Cambridge Tourism Council!

On our way to the punting tour pickup, we passed an intriguing cricket clock sculpture in a large window. A quick google revealed this to be the Corpus Clock or Chronophage (time-eater) as the creator calls it. Watching the beautiful clock tick off seconds and minutes mesmerized me, but we needed to keep moving.

On the Cambridge tourism website, I read that having a Chelsea Bun is a requisite part of any visit. We ducked into Fitzbillie's and ordered a Chelsea Bun full of honey (rather than the traditional sugar glaze) and currants along with hot tea served English style with a splash of milk to take with us to the punting tour dock. A bee hovered around our Chelsea Bun as if to demand his stolen honey be returned. Sorry, bee, but the bun was too yummy.

At the appointed time, we climbed into the Scudamore's punting tour boat, covered up with a blanket and popped open our umbrellas. (Still raining.) A punting tour involves a flat-bottom-boat navigated by the tour guide down the River Cam with a long pole pushed along the river bed. If you've been to Venice, it's sort of like the gondoliers, but the boat is more shallow. We saw lovely 16th and 17th century architecture on most of the college buildings of Cambridge. We heard about the history of the area. We saw Cambridge's Bridge of Sighs, which is much less grand than Venice's Bridge of Sighs, but pretty. We also heard about Cambridge college student shenanigans through the ages. If you go to Cambridge, you must take a punting tour to see some of the best views and hear the best gossip.

After the punting tour, we had a date with one of Chad's English coworkers at the Eagle pub. Chad's coworker initially asked that we meet him at the low wall outside of King's College next to the conker tree, but then texted that if it was raining we should meet at the Eagle pub. Um, what is a conker tree? How rainy is raining? Chad texted back that we'd meet at the Eagle rain or shine. The Eagle pub was a welcome escape from the chilly, drippy weather. It felt like a quintessential English pub with pretty woodwork and a little authentic sticky grime about it. We ordered food without waiting for Chad's friend, because we were hungry. Chad had a generous serving of mushroom ravioli. I had a black bean and jalapeno veggie burger. This was one of the better meals I enjoyed on our England trip. I'm sorry to say that English food is neither bold in flavor or imagination, and seems to center around salted beef, mashed peas, fried fish and chips (like soggy, unseasoned french fries in American terms). Chad's friend arrived quite late -- good thing we decided to meet inside the Eagle and not at the infamous conker tree where that albino squirrel once lived near the low wall outside King's College.

Chad's friend gave us a brief walking tour with the bit of daylight that remained. Central Cambridge's cobblestone streets are lined with sweets shops, tea rooms, pubs, and a few quaint clothing stores. The whole effect coupled with drippy rain charms one into a sleepy, cozy state. We ended our tour at Jesus Green - a giant green space park running along the river shore.

We took a cab to Cambridge Train Station for the train to King's Cross Train Station, then across the street to the tube to London Bridge tube station, and another fifteen minute walk back to our south London apartment. Navigating without a car is possible, but not terribly convenient, and gets pricey. Chad especially missed driving his fun two-seat car. I'm on the fence about a car-less lifestyle. I think I could do it in London, New York or Seattle, but not in Austin.

Tomorrow I'll fill you in on more London tourist activities and gawking.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Really Rainy Day

Chad and I agreed that Monday called for much less walking than Sunday, and that we didn't want to go anywhere with Circus in the name, like Piccadilly Circus or Oxford Circus, again.

Monday was rainy. Not just drippy or drizzly, but raining cats and dogs rainy. We walked fifteen minutes to the London Bridge tube station, surfacing at the Houses of Parliament which is just across the street from Westminster Abbey. Chad and I were each armed with our own umbrellas, but still got wet. People without umbrellas looked like drowned rats, bless their hearts.

Westminster Abbey is huge and awe-inspiring. We easily spent two hours admiring the Gothic architecture and reading the memorial plaques. It's on the those you must see it for yourself places. Everything is varying shades of grey stone with a few wood railings and doors, except for the stained glass windows which are brilliant jewel tones. I especially enjoyed the Poet's Corner section where some English authors are buried and where many English authors have memorial plaques. It's amazing that the structure survived the bombings of World War II. Many of the windows had to be replaced. There are pockmarks in the exterior walls bearing witness to such a frightening time in history.

We caught the tube back to London Bridge station which spit us out very near Burough Market. On Mondays, only a few stalls are open. We ate spicy falafel pitas for lunch on a bench out of the rain. Then we bought some cheese, nuts and baked goods for later. The rain let up enough for us to walk back to the apartment. We rested and watched some English telly, while planning our day trip to Cambridge for Tuesday.

Dinner Monday night was at Pizza Express - a chain place that was okay, but nothing special. What was special was walking along the Thames after dinner and gawking at the beautiful Tower Bridge. Chad joked that each tower looks like Cinderella's castle from Disneyworld, and it does look like something from a very stylish fairy tale. The huge metal rails of the bridge are painted peacock blue, the Queen's favorite color, which happens to be my favorite color too.

Tomorrow read all about idyllic Cambridge.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Bad Traveler Day

I'm maybe too pragmatic for my own good, constantly weighing pros and cons to decide if I like a place or an experience. Consequently, I sometimes hit a point in a vacation where I think, "I made a bad decision in spending so much money and my precious vacation time to come here." But sometimes (okay only once in Hood River, Oregon) I think, "I like this place so much, I want to move here. Now."

Sunday, my second full day in London, mostly inspired thoughts of the "this was a mistake" variety. Chad and I took a bus past some post-Armageddon-looking, graffiti-scrawled, derelict housing projects on our way into central London. Upon exiting the bus, we found ourselves in flappy-foot-walker tourist purgatory. I witnessed a German tourist pull down his toddler-aged daughter's pants, carry her to a grassy patch and instruct her to pee on the ground like a dog. This happened as hordes of people walked at different speeds and/or stopped for no reason on uneven cobblestone streets en route to touristy destinations of varying degrees of good taste and civility. Our destination, Covent Garden, proved to be mobbed by street performers with gathering crowds and people who seemed simultaneously in a big hurry and lost. I wish we had skipped Covent Garden. Covent Garden is nothing special. It's not even a garden. It's some local vendor stalls mixed with chain stores and lots of street performers. Gross.

From (stupid) Covent Gardens, we walked to Selfridges & Co. department store. The walk was too long and among too many fellow-tourists, past too many cruddy chain stores that repeated too many times. Does London really need three H&M stores in a two-mile radius? The walk took so much longer than we thought it would that we had to stop to consult maps three times to make sure we were still on track. Selfridges & Co. was pretty fabulous when we finally arrived. The sheer size of the store is amazing with a real sense of history in the architecture.The staff dress strictly in black and white, and all look so fashionable. There seemed to be a staff person for every two customers even on a busy weekend day. Every rack, aisle and display were immaculately neat and lovely. My only complaint (other than the meandering, irritating journey to the place): not enough seating in the food hall. Chad and I thought we'd have lunch there, but found ourselves overwhelmed by food choices and underwhelmed by lack of seats. We ended up sharing a few mini cupcakes in the only shop-in-a-shop nook where we could find a seat. Hunger for "real food" (i.e. not cupcakes) got the better of us, and forced an exit sooner than I would have liked.

Back on the wiley streets of Oxford Circus, Chad and I ducked down some quieter side roads hoping to escape the crowded sidewalks. We wandered past a Rolls Royce showroom and a Mastretta showroom. We saw lovely apartments and hotels with Georgian architecture. We resisted the urge to press our noses against the windows of these drool-worthy showrooms and abodes.

Upon recommendation of one of Chad's English coworkers, we searched out a pub called The Cross Keys for lunch. We were told the place was a quiet, non-touristy, very old and traditional English pub. We walked through cold, drippy rain and more tourist trap mess and more crowds for too long before finding the The Cross Keys pub. Guess what? It's tiny and doesn't serve food past 3:00 PM. It was just past 3:00 PM. Chad and I each had a room temperature, sudsy English ale (not so good) so as not to be super-conspicuous tourist-types. Then back out into the unwashed masses in search of some semi-authentic, semi-nutritious, vegetarian food. More walking and crowd-surfing. Much menu-looking. Much "I don't see a single open seat in there" disappointment. Much consulting yelp on Chad's phone.

We ended up at Nag's Head. As evidenced by the ketchup bottles on every table, we landed at a tourist trap, but were both so hungry we didn't care. The vegetarian "phish and chips" was some kind of dry white fried cheese. It was okay. What was not okay was the swelling crowd around us, and the American couple who asked if they could share our tiny table, because they couldn't order food at the bar until they could point to their table. I don't go on vacation in a foreign country to talk to other American tourists. Sorry. After forced niceties of the how-is-your-trip & what-have-you-seen variety, we hustled out of the crowded tourist pub to the crowded tourist streets. We couldn't find our bus stop to get back to the apartment. I whined that we could just take a cab as we passed a cab stand area, but Chad pretended he didn't see the cab stand. I got pouty and quiet because my feet hurt, and because I was tired. Then we walked for forty-five minutes back to the apartment. The only saving grace of that long walk was some cool public installation art under bridges.

We rested, showered and went to bed early.

Now is when I reassure you that "it gets better." The trip did get better. Tune in tomorrow to read all about it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Art, Food & Lights at Night

My first full day in London started with coffee and pastries delivered by a handsome room service guy. Wait... the serviced apartment doesn't offer room service... but it did for me in the form of Chad sneaking down the block to the neighborhood coffee shop, Bermondsey Street Coffee,  to bring breakfast back to the apartment. So nice!

After fueling up, Chad and I caught a bus to Tate Modern to look at modern art in a converted power plant. Here's a weird revelation about my taste in art: the older the "modern art" is, the more I tend to like it. Matisse? Monet? Mondrian? Ellsworth Kelly? Calder? Yes, please! But that guy who had his wedding for free in some gallery and is now presenting the photos of that free wedding as an art exhibit in a big, fancy museum? Um, no, not so much.

After we had our fill of modern art, we walked from the Tate Modern to Burough Market, a meandering food market with delicious offerings of fresh local produce, eleventy-hundred kinds of cheese, roasted nuts of all sorts, foods from many nations, Pimm's cups, ciders, baked goods and more. It was pretty amazing. We joined the slow-moving crowds to gawk at goodies.  We enjoyed yummy snacks at the market, and took a little picnic of items for later. We walked about ten minutes back to the apartment to rest a bit.

A public service announcement from me to you: do not attempt to drive in London. There is no parking anywhere. Drivers pay congestion fees to drive in the city during the day. The British drive on the opposite side of the road than Americans. Gas is super-expensive in England. The driver seat is on the opposite side of the car. Buy an Oyster card and pay only about half the cost of single tickets for the bus and the London Underground, or "tube" in local-speak.

As the sun started to set, we set out for the London Bridge Underground Station (another ten minute walk from our apartment) to catch a train to Green Park, where we hopped on the London by Night tour bus. We sat on the breezy-chilly open top of the double-decker bus for a better view of sites such as Trafalgar Square, Picadilly Circus, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, Harrod's Department Store and its 1000 string lights, the London Eye and bunches of other stuff that I don't remember. The tour gave a lovely overview of London landmarks.

Tune in tomorrow for more wandering around London, and read about my near-meltdown over hunger mixed with huge crowds of people and too much walking.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Jolly Good London

I've always thought of myself as quite a Britophile, someone smitten with all things Britian. I love (most) British literature, the idea of cool rainy days, lush landscapes, history stretching back more than the American timeline, amazing architecture, BBC mysteries, BBC costume dramas, BBC's Top Gear...

After many years of loving British culture from afar, Chad and I finally got to go to London. Chad went to London ahead of me for a week of work. That week was hot and sunny, reaching 85 degrees Fahrenheit most days. Chad told me not to bring a jacket or coat. Luckily, I checked the weather forecast, and packed somewhat appropriately for our week of vacation together in London. That week was suddenly fall with drippy, sometimes driving, rains and temperatures that hovered around 57 degrees Fahrenheit each day.

At first, I loved the cool, damp weather, but soon tired of always feeling damp and chilled. I gave up  fighting the frizz that was my hair after trying some of Chad's hair shellac, and finding that not even that paste could calm my wiry mess. I know this sounds shallow, but it's hard to enjoy yourself when every time you catch sight of your reflection you think, "Ick. What is happening with my hair?"

Upon my sleep-deprived, jet-lagged arrival to Heathrow airport, I caught the Heathrow Express, a very fast train, to Paddington Station where I caught a cab to our hotel. Planes, trains and automobiles? Yes. Paddington Station was charming in a well-maintained historical-looking way. My cab driver was everything I could have hoped for: a nice, chatty man who pointed out every neighborhood, landmark, building and bridge of interest. He seemed really pleasantly surprised when I tipped him 15%, saying, "Ya shore?" (Translation: Are you sure?) Frommer's London guidebook advised tipping cab drivers 10 - 15%, and I would have tipped 20% in America for a much less enjoyable & informative trip.

Heathrow Airport

Paddington Station

London Cab
Finally at the London hotel 18 hours after leaving home in Austin, I was so happy to claim a room key, looking forward to a shower and a quick nap. Chad was still at work, but kindly left a welcome note and little bouquet of pink roses in the hotel room for me. We stayed at a "serviced apartment" in south London in a cute neighborhood with little parks, a Sainsbury's Local mini-grocery store, coffee shop and pubs just down the street. Our serviced apartment was super-affordable (seriously!) compared to London hotels. It had a kitchenette, separate living area and a huge window that opened for fresh air. And we needed that window, because the room had a smell like rancid kimchee, or maybe ancient evil. The bathroom was clean, modern and cute, but this rotten smell that seemed to emanate from the drains and toilet permeated the whole apartment. The apartment also had motion-sensor activated lights. Every time you walked into an area, a stunning (not in a good way, in a literally stunning way) array of halogen bulbs lit up. Chad said it took him days to figure out how to operate the lights. You had to click the switch twice in rapid succession to turn each light off, or hold the switch down to dim each light. The lights in the bathroom would turn off mid-shower because the motion sensor was over the sink, not over the shower. All the cabinets and drawers lacked handles or knobs, and had to be "bounced" open at the corner. If you pressed too long, the cabinet or drawer stayed closed. But if you jabbed very quickly, the cabinet or drawer would pop open. It required much finessing and led to much frustration. The bed was a glorified futon: a thin mattress on slats very near to the floor. The bedding was a flat sheet tucked around the mattress and a duvet. Um. Yeah. I'm accustomed to a fitted sheet, a flat sheet and then a duvet. The pillows were overly firm, like a sack of concrete powder. Two pillows were too high, one pillow was too low -- there was no "just right" about the bedding or pillows. In summary of the apartment, not user-friendly, but SO CHEAP compared to central London hotels.

The view (?) from our apartment.

I was fairly exhausted by the time Chad arrived at our temporary digs after work. We walked down the street to a crowded pub, The Woolpack, and had a drink in "the garden" which is local-speak for back patio. We walked up the street to a Mediterranean restaurant, Del Aziz, for a delicious dinner of Greek vegetarian food. By this time, it was approaching proper London bedtime. Chad slept like a baby for nearly twelve hours, but I awoke at local time 3:00 AM for a snack and two hours of reading before I could go back to sleep. It sounds like a humblebrag* to fuss about jet-lag, but it is a seriously sleep-depriving situation.

Tune in for more exciting London travelogue tomorrow.


*humblebrag as defined by urban dictionary: Subtly letting others know about how fantastic your life is while undercutting it with a bit of self-effacing humor or "woe is me" gloss.
Example: Ugh, just ate about fifteen pieces of chocolate. gotta learn to control myself when flying first class or they'll cancel my modeling contract. LOL #humblebrag