Britain: Leaving

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1/3/2016

You have one day in London. What do you do? For us, it was simple – we hadn’t had a chance to see Buckingham Palace or the British Museum. Alex was more interested in Buckingham Palace, while I was more interested in the British Museum.

Tiny hotel room

Tiny hotel room

I think this may have been the smallest hotel room I’ve stayed in – basically a bed and a tiny bathroom. But it was cheap, and the location was reasonable.

The palace guard raincoats are pretty badass

The palace guard raincoats are pretty badass

I enjoyed the palace and grounds more than I expected. It was threatening rain the whole time, but the ground were verdant, populated with diverse waterfowl. There were cool statues, the guards, and the roads were walkable. Alex mentioned a rumor that the Queen (a former ambulance driver in WWII!) wasn’t allowed to drive in England, but was permitted to on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. I could easily imagine her careening around corners and zooming between ancient trees, trying to avoid mowing down tourists.

This statue is pretty badass, too

This statue is pretty badass, too

The area near Buckingham Palace has lots of government buildings, and we nearly visited the Churchill bunker. Maybe next time. We got another good audio tour courtesy of Rick Steves. We detoured a little to see Denmark Street, another famous musical location (Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Sex Pistols, Elton John), before arriving at the British Museum.

Denmark Street, rain

Denmark Street, rain


I knew little about the museum, beyond the fact that they had mummies. So it certainly exceeded expectations. You walk in (no admission!), turn a corner, and BAM – Rosetta Stone. Since it was a rainy Sunday, it was more like BAM – crowds – BAM – Rosetta Stone. But still, pretty cool.

Crowds around the Rosetta Stone

Crowds around the Rosetta Stone

For me the highlight of the museum were the Assyrian reliefs, including an extensive set of panels from Ninevah. I’ve always felt Assyria and Sumeria are underappreciated and under-represented. Egypt gets all the glory. But I enjoy Assyrian artwork more, and it feels like a much more dynamic area with more diverse cultures.

Elgin Marbles, crowds

Elgin Marbles, crowds

Objectively speaking, however, I think the highlight of the museum is the Elgin Marbles, basically the reliefs from around the top of the Parthenon. They probably shouldn’t be in Britain, but we took advantage of it while we were there. All in all, I think the British Museum compares favorably to the Met in NYC – at least, in terms of what I’m interested in seeing (more historic than artistic stuff).

We have to LEAVE?

We have to LEAVE?

Leaving the museum, we only had a limited amount of time until we caught our flight. We picked up various gifts, cramming them into our bags, and were soon on our way back to the airport – and then a return to NYC.

Britain: Edinburgh & a Return to London

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1/1/2016-1/3/2016

Long before we arrived in England, we discussed how to get from Edinburgh to London. There were two reasonable options, train and plane. Roughly the same cost, but the plane is a shorter trip. But – we opted for train – thinking that travel to/from an airport, going through security, and waiting at the gates wouldn’t be worth it. Soon, we’d find out whether we made the right choice.

We had one day in Edinburgh after the New Year’s Eve extravaganza (we slept in). So far, we hadn’t visited the castle that dominates the city (a more prominent landmark than anything I’ve seen in other cities). That was certainly on the list – beyond that, we hoped for a quiet day of scotch and seeing the town.

View of the main NYE pavilions and fair

View of the main NYE pavilions and fair

The castle really is incredible. Not only is it your traditional medieval-style castle, but it also has really jaw-dropping views of the city, to boot.

American flag, left, carved into prison door at Edinburgh castle

American flag, left, carved into prison door at Edinburgh castle

Additionally, there were two other museums inside the castle. First, after the time period when it could be a functional castle, it served as a prison. Some of the people held there were American sailors captured during the War of 1812, which was interesting – you tend to think of Americans and British as such allies – and even during the Revolution and Warof 1812, it always felt like “the British come to America,” so you don’t think that some Americans ended up in Great Britain.

In a Scottish close off the Royal Mile

In a Scottish close off the Royal Mile

We also listened to some Rick Steves – for all the hokeyness of Rick, I think his tour guides and advice for Europe is pretty solid. He offers high quality free walking tours – including this tour of the Royal Mile. It was a good thing we did the tour, which zig-zagged across the street, because it led us to some little off-the-beaten-path courtyards, called ‘closes’ in Scotland. For example, one showed the former home of Robert Louis Stevenson. Others were simply scenic.

Early the next morning it was time to check out and head back to London. We’d find out whether the train was a wise choice. It was a different tradeoff than I expected.

As I mentioned in earlier posts, there was intense flooding across Britain while we were there, and that caused some delays of the train – I think a tree had blown down across the main tracks south of Edinburgh. So we waited in the station for two hours (sitting on the train). It actually wasn’t bad, the train is far more comfortable than waiting on the runway in a plane. When we did set off, it was much slower than usual.

I think we were delayed about two hours, which was a shame, since it meant we got into London in late afternoon instead of midday. On the other hand, the trains in the UK have a policy that delays more than some amount of time (perhaps an hour), mean you can get a full refund. So in the end, our trip from Edinburgh to London was free – we just had to mail in a check.

When we got into London it was raining (surprise!) and from the beautiful St Pancras station, we stopped by at the British Library. I was continually impressed with the government buildings in London. Museums and the library were free – the library had a huge exhibit with historic books and manuscripts, including an ancient bible, a Gutenberg bible, letters from Queen Elizabeth, da Vinci notebooks, Bach musical compositions, the Magna Carta, and notes from when The Beatles composed songs.

The London Eye, from below

The London Eye, from below

Of these, seeing letters from Queen Elizabeth and the Magna Carta were coolest. We’d seen another copy of the Magna Carta in DC, and that was a big deal, lots of security and precautions – here it was just sitting there in a glass case. Very accessible.

Skating near the Thames

Skating near the Thames

Beyond that, we simply did some wandering around the town – we flew out the next day and knew we wouldn’t get a good chance to revisit some parts of the city, so this was an early goodbye.

Britain: New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh

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12/31/2015

We started the last day of the year climbing Arthur’s Seat, the highest point near Edinburgh (according to Robert Louis Stevenson, “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design”). Regardless of how you classify it, it’s pretty…

Flowers in Holyrood Park

Flowers in Holyrood Park

Except that it had been raining so much (remember how I said a few posts back that it was the rainiest month on record)? And the trail was mostly mud. Without any grip on our shoes, it was a real struggle to make it to the top. This mountain was between our apartment and the city center, so it was a convenient hike.

It was insanely crowded, though – I guess because it’s close enough to the center to walk, and because of all the people there for New Year’s Eve.

View over Edinburgh from Arthur's Seat

View over Edinburgh from Arthur’s Seat

Having gotten a late start and taken our time climbing, we finally made it into the city proper. Since we’d be spending the whole evening outside, in the middle of winter, we had to prepare… I mean, buy whisky. We visited a highly-recommended shop at the end of the Royal Mile, Cadenhead’s Whisky. I think we talked with the owner, who didn’t blink when we said we wanted whisky for that night (you’re not supposed to smuggle drinks in). We got three small bottles, slightly larger than nips, including some of the house whisky.

The trail near Arthur's Seat... pure mud

The trail near Arthur’s Seat… pure mud

I’d developed something of a taste for whisky while in Edinburgh. Not the blander styles that taste like alcohol, but the peaty kind – a super-distinctive taste (my favorite kind was Laphroaig). It’s not something I’d drink every day, but was fun in Scotland.

Toy Museum

Toy Museum

Further up the royal mile was the Toy Museum, another (tiny) free museum good for 15 minutes of looking at creepy old toys.

Our view of the first band of the evening

Our view of the first band of the evening

After some more walking, we entered the New Year’s Eve area. This required ticket entry – it was all fenced off around the entire center of the city. There were three or four stages for music, and one additional one that required special tickets. We actually managed to get very close to the stage and saw a memorable performance by the band Rura (guitar, bagpipe, fiddle) – we were in the second row from the stage. Our biggest mistake in Edinburgh was leaving this area before the next band came on (there would be 3 on each stage before midnight).

We left to get a look at the other stages, but just weren’t impressed by anything else. There was some metal (screechy) but by this time the entire 5-6 block area was getting tough to move around in it was so crowded. We danced a little at the back of some crowds, but were mostly waiting. I’d say that this part of the festival just wasn’t for me – too many people, too tightly packed.

TV screen set up on the main street

TV screen set up on the main street with broadcast from the ISS

After tracking back and forth and drinking our whisky, we settled in for the final hour of the year: we had a good, unobstructed view of Edinburgh castle from a slightly raised streetcar embankment in the middle of the street. They’d put up a bunch of huge TV screens with funky music video type animations playing. A few minutes before midnight they paused the animation and a British astronaut came on (Tim Peake, from the ISS) to wish everyone a Happy New Year.

Fireworks over Edinburgh Castle

Fireworks over Edinburgh Castle

Then it was midnight, and another year was in the books. We got to see the best fireworks I’ve seen in person over Edinburgh Castle (here’s an aerial video of the fireworks from the year before). It was a wonderful way to usher in 2016: with a beautiful girlfriend in a warm and welcoming country halfway around the world.

Britain: Edinburgh Torch Parade

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12/30/2015

What happens when you set tens of thousands of people armed with torches loose in a city? We wanted an answer to this burning question, and it basically determined the schedule for our whole Britain trip. Rather than doing London and Paris, or London and Wales, we knew we had to see Edinburgh, because of Hogmanay.

Hogmanay is the Scottish New Year festival, but what really sets it apart from other New Years festivals is the torch parade the night of December 30. We left Newcastle fired up and ready to see what all the fuss was about.

Street near the National Museum of Scotland

Street near the National Museum of Scotland

I’d heard good things about Edinburgh from pretty much everyone who’d visited, so I would have been excited even without the torches. We arrived in a cold mist and picked up our Hogmanay tickets, then rushed to our AirBnB outside the main town (we were staying East of the city, past the end of the Royal Mile and through the huge Holyrood Park. It was a pretty intense walk and the rain picked up. We caught a bus back into town after the checkin, and from there we walked up the Royal Mile to see Edinburgh Castle, which dominates the city’s skyline. Basically the city center is like a doorstop with the castle perched on top and the Royal Mile extending down the slope.

In the cemetery

In the cemetery

From there, we did some meandering in the direction of the National Museum of Scotland. I think both of us would have preferred to see more of the city, but the rain just kept coming down. We briefly went into Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, an old cemetery with good views of the castle before being forced inside.

I loved the Scottish aesthetic: huge old grey bricks, brown-green grass, rain-swept sky. It felt completely different from England, even though Newcastle was a short train ride away.

Boar in the Scottish Museum

Boar in the Scottish Museum

After the cemetery we escaped the weather in the Scottish Museum. It’s free and huge, with large sections devoted to Scottish history, world history, natural history, and so on. The Scottish history section was great, but just too big to take in at once.

I think my favorite was the big natural history hall, in which you were surrounded by taxidermied animals and skeletons.

The natural history hall was a good chowcase of both the exhibits and the building itself, which felt both modern and Victorian. The building was big and airy inside, with white metal fencing along the sides and big skylights.

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We still had some time to kill after the museum, so after having some Nepalese food, we continued to mosey around town – and then we stumbled on an amazing bookstore, Armchair Books. It was open late and had a nice selection of secondhand books, but what most stood out to me was the selection of antique books, which included a lot of editions from the eighteenth century, tons of Victorian books, and a whole lot more. We actually came back to this place the next day, because it was so cool.

It was getting a little late, so we wrapped back around to the area of the torch parade. We’d decided not to participate in the parade itself, which in the end was definitely the right decision. During the day we’d seen a lot of people out either collecting their torches for the night or carrying them around. Each torch was 2-3 feet of some wax substance with a stick in the middle. There was a small paper waxguard, but you had to accept that whatever you were wearing would almost certainly get wax on it.

Start of the parade

Start of the parade

We found the start of the parade, just off the Royal Mile on Bank Street. People were penned up waiting as far as we could see. At this point, I still didn’t really know the scale of the whole thing. It looked like a lot of people, but I couldn’t see how many. Nobody had their torches lit just yet, they were just waiting in the cold.

We didn’t wait, but grabbed mulled cider just past the start, then claimed our spot with a good view over the central park where people would be marching. This park seems pretty inconvenient for people who live in Edinburgh, but it was festive, with a huge area of amusement park rides and gardens.

Start of the torch parade

Start of the torch parade

Then the parade started, with bagpipes out front and the first of the people with torches rounded the corner in front of us. These were pretty serious torches, and the people were naturally walking at different speeds, so they naturally spread out – all the roads were closed and fenced off. In total, the walking route was about a mile long, and I don’t doubt that at one point the entire thing was filled with people walking. After about 20 minutes, we worked our way to the starting area.

Some of the people waiting to march

Some of the people waiting to march

That’s when I really understood what was going on. We’d seen about 20 minutes of people walking, which is a fair amount of people. But the pens of people were still completely full. I think it was two columns of people, each column 2-4 across; the columns extended for about a fifth of a mile, and everyone was standing, waiting to walk, with their torches lit. We continued past and around the corner, and there were still more people, just waiting to get into the pens to start walking.

More people waiting to march

More people waiting to march

After this, we wanted to wrap around, away from the crowds, to the end of the marching route. I think we probably could have taken a much shorter route, but in the end we did a huge loop around the whole city and around the back end of the finishing area (it was finishing on Carlton Hill and we looped around London Road. We were really booking it, wanting to see the fireworks on time. And we just made it – to the back of the firework display!

Snuck in with the marchers

Snuck in with the marchers

This meant that we missed the ground displays, but the fireworks in the air were directly above us – bits of cardboard tubing was falling around us. It was a pretty short display, and then we continued on to merge in with the crowd, who were milling around at the end of the parade route. They had some big buckets of water where people were supposed to put out torches, but there was just general confusing and chaos.

We managed to sneak into the parade, so we were surrounded by people with the torches, though we weren’t holding any ourselves. This meant that we’d seen pretty much everything: the start of the parade, people walking, the full extent of people in pens, the line outside the pens, the empty city, the fireworks, and been in the parade itself.

Whisky after the celebrations

Whisky after the celebrations

It was a great way to celebrate the end of one year, and the next day would be the last one in 2015.

Britain: Newcastle & Durham

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12/28/2015 – 12/29/2015

I don’t know why we visited Newcastle. There was some sort of miscommunication, I think. We initially looked at it because Sunderland was playing a game nearby. And then we thought about Hadrian’s Wall and Durham as nearby day trips. Newcastle would be a convenient large city nearby. But we chose Manchester for the soccer game, and arrived without any concrete plans. Hadrian’s Wall is tough to visit in the winter, without a car, which left us visiting Durham.

Kegs outside a Newcastle pub

Kegs outside a Newcastle pub

Although it caused the rest of our trip to feel rushed, I did enjoy seeing Newcastle. It’s a city that there’s really very little reason to visit, and for that reason had a different atmosphere than London, York, or Edinburgh. Even Manchester has two enormous soccer teams to draw crowds.

Newcastle, "City of Lots of Bridges"

Newcastle, “City of Lots of Bridges”

We arrived late and walked quite a ways from the train station to our AirBnB. In contrast to York, this AirBnB was phenomenal, in the most AirBnB way – rather than a slick hotel, you were indisputably staying in someone’s house. But our host, a woman in her 60s, was just cool. The house was huge, three stories a little outside of town, and our host: was a beekeeper; made us mulled wine; was working on a GPS-based artfilm; had a friend with a treehouse; was housesitting two cats; owned a huge fluffy dog; offered us a wheel of cheese; and was (I think) a former teacher or professor. We spent a while talking to her (she did like to talk)!

We visited Durham the next day. It’s just a 15-minute train ride away, a perfect little day trip. It was pretty cold this late in the year, but this was clearly a seasonal town – it was host to a huge University and would be beautiful with some leaves on the trees.

The crown jewel of Durham is the Cathedral… which was my actually my personal favorite cathedral of all that I’ve visited. We took a guided tour and went up the tower as well. The cathedral is old, dating back to the end of the 12th century, and the Norman architecture is imposing in a way that the flowery Milan or Cologne cathedrals are not. It also has a great history, having held Scottish captives for some time during the English Civil War. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, so you’ll have to look at the wikipedia page to get an idea of the monumental feel.

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The area around the cathedral is cute: the town nestles in the elbow of a river and the downtown is tiny. There’s a dramatic hill in the town, which the cathedral is on top of, along with a castle (now the university). On the other side of the river are rolling hills, complete with hamlets. I just had that feeling I’d been hoping for all trip – “this is England” – the England of Simon Pegg’s Hot Fuzz, and Mr Bean, and the Vicar of Dibley.

Crazy statue across the river from Durham

Crazy statue across the river from Durham

Having seen the big sites, we crossed over the river and were immediately in a more plain neighborhood. After an aborted hiking expedition (it was getting too dark out), we grabbed a drink at the most traditional pub we saw in all of Britain, filled with what I’d ill-advisedly call “working class blokes.” Both Alex and I give high ratings to all British pubs, which have a much cozier, more conversational atmosphere than you see in any New York City bar.

We returned to Newcastle in early evening (in the dark) with the goal of seeing at least a little of the town. After all, we’d arrived late on the first night, and then spent the whole day in Durham, and we wanted to do Newcastle justice.

The "New" Castle

The “New” Castle

Naturally, Newcastle is named for a castle, parts of which are scattered in the city center. And they’re basically open at night – you can walk across the drawbridge and just check out the portcullis, which we did.

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The main river in Newcastle, the Tyne, has some art museums on the banks and a crazy counterbalanced walking bridge. In the end, I had a pretty positive verdict of the city. Although there’s not a lot of big tourist draws, it felt like a friendly, unpretentious, livable city – one small enough that you might be able to feel a bit of community, surrounded by interesting historical sites.

Britain: Medieval York

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Although I was looking forward to seeing each city on our itinerary in Britain, I was most anticipating York. I’d heard it was the most authentic medieval city in Britain, and it lived up to that reputation. It was similar to Bruges – but without the hordes of tourists or confectionary stores, I much preferred it.

Bar in York

Outside a bar in York

I think I first heard about York from recommendations on Reddit. Alex and I were looking for a smaller, historic city to complement London and Edinburgh, and it fit the bill. We also liked the city walls in Lucca, and had heard there were walls in York as well.

Flooding downtown

Flooding downtown

In this respect, things were different. When we arrived in York, it was victim of the worst flooding in decades, the river overflowing its banks by several feet. It didn’t interfere with our travel too much, but many of the downtown pubs and restaurants were inaccessible, and there was general chaos in the city. The main walking bridge from the train station to the city was completely packed with locals and tourists alike.

We didn’t let that stop us, and after dropping off our bags (our AirBnB was erally cheap for the city, but also might have been the worst I’ve stayed at), we returned to the old city center. Like many ancient cities, it’s surprisingly compact. In an afternoon we were able to walk most of the main streets and see the big tourist sites.

Inside York Minster

Inside York Minster

The biggest single tourist site in York is the Minster (“Minster” is another name for churches or cathedrals in England, and derives from ‘monastery’). It’s a beautiful cathedral – I liked British cathedrals a lot more than the fancier Italian or German ones. On this Sunday, it was free to go in, because they wanted to be available to victims of the flooding. It was serene, and in the afternoon sunlight, glowing. While looking at all the bishops and artifacts inside, we found a memorial to a woman that included this epitaph: “a faithful wife and a fruitful mother she raised with the greatest care the children to whom she gave birth. After she had increased the lineage of her husband by bearing twenty-four children of both sexes she surrendered at last to the bitterness of death, albeit with the resolute valour of a soldier at his post, and retaining her beauty so that you would have said she was still a maiden who was so often a mother.” Twenty-four!!

There are three other big sights in York, the walls (closed because of the flooding); Clifton Castle (very cool, but disorientingly right next to a huge parking lot – this is the castle that precedes this post), and the shambles (which eluded us for most of two days).

After seeing the castle, we roamed the streets for a few hours, doing circles and getting aquainted with everything. Like many of the best small European cities it was built for foot traffic, with windy narrow streets, little shops, cobblestones, and a cozy atmosphere.

Our AirBnB was on this street

Our AirBnB was on this street

We sampled mulled cider and mulled wine, and a few bars, trying to avoid heading back to the AirBnB until the latest possible (we didn’t want to spend much time there outside of sleeping). We found a little BnB on the same street as we were staying, which had a pub in the bottom. We had one of the most memorable conversations of our trip with two young guys there, in the equivalent if high school. One was a bartender and the other was his friend. We grilled these guys about a lot of British peculiarities (trying to figure out what crazy structures called gasometers were, and discovering that there’s no particular side of the sidewalk you’re supposed to walk on in Britain). Because of the flooding credit cards weren’t working, and we weren’t carrying any cash, but one of these guys bought us a beer (we left some cash for him with the BnB hostess the next morning).

Trains in the museum near the turntable

Trains in the museum near the turntable

The next morning, we woke up early to visit the train museum. I was pretty ambivalent about this museum – trains are cool and all, but I didn’t expect a lot. We’d decided to visit because it’s a free museum (with donations), and I was just blown away. It’s actually huge, with some spectacular trains inside – the oldest locomotives in Britain, gleaming trains from the 1920s, a Japanese bullet train, and even an entire fake Victorian train station. When you consider that Britain was home to the industrial revolution, you can see why there’d be so much history, and this was the national train museum.

My favorite trains were the restored trains from the 1920s-1950s, which looked brand-new – really beautiful machines. They had stairways and catwalks next to some, so you could walk above them and look down or inside. I think Alex liked the weird very old train engines, including some with huge spherical boilers.

Train, cut open

Train, cut open

It’s normally tough to visualize what’s going on inside of trains, but there was also an exhibit where an entire train engine was dissected, like in a children’s picture book. Unfortunately, we hadn’t budgeted a lot of time for this museum, because an hour after we arrived, we had to leave for our free walking tour!

Former abbey near York

Former abbey near York

Turns out there was only the guide, and one other couple on our tour (a Russian/Mexican couple, studying in England). The guide was amazing – an older lady who I think said she had spent twenty years in York (living formerly in Leeds). She said that the organization she was part of was completely voluntary. She was really proud of this: “Don’t try to tip me, I won’t accept it.” And even crazier – her house had been flooded that very morning… she and her husband had been moving furniture inside to keep it away from the water. The British ‘stiff upper lip’ at work.

Constantine outside the Minster

Constantine outside the Minster

The tour was actually great, with lots of historical tidbits. York is an ancient city, beginning with the Romans. Constantine the Great was in York (then called Eboracum), and was even declared emperor there. Yes – Constantine of Constantinople fame. There was then a post-Roman period, a Norman (ie, Viking) period, and the city played a large role in the English Civil War. Just a ton of history to cover, with lots of gory details.

Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate

Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate

Our guide brought us through many of the same streets we’d visited the night before, but it was a different experience with an expert pointing out curious details (the oldest original buildings in York, lumpy cottages reputed to be from 1300), and a breathtaking church: Holy Trinity Church. I felt so lucky to visit this church: the volunteer who ran it that day was just closing up until our guide cajoled him into letting us see it for a few minutes. It felt positively ancient inside, in a way that other churches and cathedrals simply do not. Even crazier, the entire church was invisible from the main street, secluded in a back garden.

The shambles, and our amazing guide

The shambles, and our amazing guide

She also showed us the Shambles, which had somehow eluded us – we’d seen nearly every other street within the city walls. This is a big tourist destination, but it still felt viscerally medieval, like walking through Game of Thrones: overhanging wooden buildings, a street just a few feet across, cobblestones. You simply had to picture it without the chocolateers, florists, and other fancier stores.

Gargoyle in the museum

Gargoyle in the museum

Once the tour ended, we had two more stops: a local history museum (including natural history & Roman history, but the highlights were a section on Henry VIII, and a bunch of Norman artifacts and Viking hordes), and a random bar we wandered into for a drink, before our late-night train to Newcastle.

Britain: Manchester

Beautiful train station in Manchester

Beautiful train station in Manchester


12/26/2015

It’s a short train ride from London to Manchester, but the trains weren’t running on Boxing Day – something we found out just a few days in advance when we started figuring out the transportation options. We caught this just in time and after some desperate online research found that Megabus, one of the super-cheap buses in the US, had service on this day (actually, they started in Britain & Europe).

Cool tower outside our apartment

Cool tower outside our apartment

Thus, we arrived in Manchester midday, after some moderate traffic, and immediately went from the station to our AirBnB, walking through the city center. It felt authentic and industrial – I guess Manchester isn’t a huge tourist destination, and although the downtown area was small, it had a distinctive feel.

Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City

Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City

We chose Manchester because of its location midway to York, and because we wanted to see a top-tier Premier League soccer team. I would have content to see any of the top clubs, but because of the location and because only Man City was playing at home, that’s who we chose. Their opponents were Sunderland, not a very good team this year.

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The whole thing was an awesome experience: the huge crowds of people walking from downtown Manchester (our apartment was on the way); the stadium, and so on. Our neighbors in the stadium were about as British as you could get. And the game turned out to have a lot of goals (here’s the highlights). The only disappointment was not getting to see Sergio Aguero.

Two-for-one drink special

Two-for-one drink special

After the game we went out looking to get food and drinks. Unfortunately, pretty much everything was closed… partly due to Boxing Day, but also I think things just closed early (a friend described London nightlife as “people desperately getting hammered before the bars close”). Food options were limited (grubby ‘world buffet’ open for half an hour longer, etc…) but we did find a supermarket and picked up a ton of food (UK staples for us: cheap yogurt, Baby Bell cheese wheels, pre-made sandwiches and pasta, apples).

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We found a pretty sweet spot with Caribbean vibes and super-cheap happy hour drinks. Turns out this bar, Turtle Bay, was a chain. This was a theme throughout Britain – mistaking chains for one-off restaurants… small chains seemed much more common. The drinks were good (observation: the British absoutely love passionfruit), but the low cost was because they were basically fruit juice.

Because everything closed early we headed home and spent the rest of the evening in, watching Master of None on the complimentary Netflix subscription and devouring our snacks.

Britain: Christmas in London

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12/25/2015

We spent Christmas day in London. Anticipating it to be similar to Christmas in the US (a popular holiday, but with things open), we planned on doing a fair amount of stuff. Unfortunately, pretty much everything was closed, and it was both cold and rainy, but we still had a fun day exploring the city.

Lots of balls! This display was intended to give some idea of the size of space. Pretty cool for a department store window.

Lots of balls! This display was intended to give some idea of the size of space. Pretty cool for a department store window.

On Christmas eve, we’d gone along the Thames – south of where we were staying. For Christmas, we headed north and west, out of the central Marylebone area into Little Venice, Notting Hill, Paddington, and Hyde Park.

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First stop: Baker Street. In particular: 221B Baker Street, to visit the residence of one my favorite fictional characters, Sherlock Holmes. I remember my grandfather gave me a Sherlock Holmes stories when I was maybe 10 or 12, and I absolutely loved them. I even remember him telling me that Holmes had since retired to live in the country as a beekeeper (now a movie). I knew that Conan Doyle, the author of the Holmes stories, had invented a fictional address. Maybe to save some unfortunate Londoner from regular harrassment. There’s no actual 221B – or at least, there wasn’t. Now there’s a Sherlock Holmes museum, which you can visit. Naturally, it was closed for Christmas (and I wouldn’t have wanted to go in anyway – a tiny museum in a fictional place dedicated to a fictional character). We posed outside among the Japanese tourists who were also taking photos. The apartment/museum is suprisingly close to the large Regents Park.

Ha! Candid photo at the start of the day's exploration, near Marylebone.

Ha! Candid photo at the start of the day’s exploration, near Marylebone.

We followed the border of this park north, and it was already starting to get dark at this point. This was a problem for the duration of the trip. Although milder than the US, the UK is much further north than even NY (look on a map). So although I was expecting it to get dark early, the sun was already down by 4pm! In the dark, we visited Abbey Road for more photos, trying to remember which way to face while crossing.

Abbey Road

Abbey Road

Abbey Road itself is a pretty busy intersection, and you have to pity the local drivers, with all the tourists frozen mid-stride on the crosswalk. This area of the city is pretty far outside the center, and we curved further away from our lodging to visit a few more neighborhoods. Our ultimate goal was Notting Hill. Alex loves Hugh Grant, so it was a must-visit.

Little Venice in the murky weather

Little Venice in the murky weather

On the way, I was curious to see ‘Little Venice’. After all, we’d seen ‘Big Venice’ the year before. It’s basically three canals whose banks are filled with houseboats, and felt closer to Amsterdam than Venice – perhaps also due to the cold weather. (Clarification: Alex doesn’t really love Hugh Grant).

Awesome sculpture made of soap - it was slowly disintegrating in the rain.

Awesome sculpture made of soap – it was slowly disintegrating in the rain.

Notting Hill was a bit of a disappointment to me. Cute, but it was filled with BnBs and hotels, probably because of the cachet of the name and fact that it’s not too far from Westminster and Buckingham Palace. That said, we found a really cozy little pub… perhaps the second that we saw open all day (I managed to track it down online – Sun in Splendour).

It turns out that pubs in Britain have a separate kind of tap for some beers, a handpull. They’re supposed to aerate the beer, but in practice I didn’t notice much difference. Some brands always seemed to be served via handpulls, while others were on regular taps. I naturally ordered these handpull beers, since they seemed more exotic – my favorite was Doom Bar, not least because of the awesome name.

It was a long walk back along Hyde Park to the School of Economics, where we were staying, and we headed to bed early. We had a travel mishap, uncovered a few days early, that meant we’d be getting up extra early to arrive in our second city of the trip, Manchester.

Britain: Christmas Eve in London

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After my first trip to Europe, I rapidly settled on a particular style of travel: thorough research, lots of cities, lots of walking. Focusing more on neighborhoods than on tourist sites. And I haven’t really tried traveling in another way since.

For Christmas and New Years, Alex and I visited the UK. We kept up a very aggressive schedule, one that led me to rethink this method of travel a bit. I’ll discuss why in a bit… but this was the apotheosis of the style of travel I’m most familiar with.

Our itinerary, from London to Edinburgh

Our itinerary, from London to Edinburgh

How do I plan for these trips? These are methods that I first started using myself, but which scale really well to multiple people – so they’ve helped Alex and I coordinate quite a bit. It’s all in the tools. After deciding on a place to visit (ie, Britain), we create a shared Google Doc to put “must-see” sights or things that friends told us about. That involves looking at other people’s itineraries, local websites, and tour guides. For this trip to Britain, we had a lot of options – there’s so much history, and a diversity of both landscape and urban style. We can both edit simultaneously without worrying that someone will have an out of date itinerary. So it’s easy to throw together resources and clean them up later. For Britain, we considered the following destinations: London, Canterbury, Oxford, Cambridge, Wales, Manchester, York, Newcastle/Hadrian’s Wall, Edinburgh, St Andrew’s, Glasgow, and even Paris (via the Chunnel).

After choosing a set of destinations, next step is elimination. We had a bit over a week of vacation time available, and once we found cheap tickets, we knew there were three fixed destinations on our timeline: London, from which we arrived and departed, and Edinburgh, where we had plans for New Year’s Eve. We could fly from London to Edinburgh, spend a lot of time in London, maybe do a short trip to Paris. Or we could work our way up through the country and see stuff within England.

We opted for the latter, preferring to get a better picture of as much of Britain as possible, rather than see London, Edinburgh and Paris. Within England, we wanted to see a Premier League soccer game, and among the various options, the one that aligned best with our schedule was in Manchester. I’d heard about York as a really cool medieval city with alleyways and twists and turns, and city walls, and we were interested in the far north as well, near Hadrian’s Wall and Durham.

Having selected destinations, we next figure out where to go within each city. The key tool for that is Google’s My Maps. It’s basically Google Maps, but you can save any location that interests you, view it on your phone, etc. I create a new map, find the city (eg, London), and then drop pins in all the sights in our document: museums, parks, squares, cathedrals, etc. I use wikivoyage for basic research. This map is invaluable, because it does a good job clarifying where in the city is most interesting – and thus, where we should find lodging. Here’s our map of London. This map is also handy to track restaurant recommendations from friends, as well.

Locations decided and hotels booked, the only step remaining is to arrange travel between cities. All this goes into the doc, including addresses, phone numbers, and times. I print a copy of this doc for each of us, in case we don’t have internet access or phone batteries die. Be prepared!

I like this planning process, (it sounds like it’s a lot of work, but in reality within half an hour of lazy research you can have a quick picture of a city). If you know about better tools for this sort of thing, I’d love to hear about them.

What I’ve found, and which I felt was a problem even prior to visiting Britain, was that it’s too easy to research. For instance, it’s easy to look at Google street view and get 1/4 of the impact of being somewhere. Or you can watch endless travel videos on YouTube, mostly with shaky cameras. Hundreds of photos are available on Instagram or Flickr with a simple search. All these seem to dilute the impact of the place when you actually arrive. I’ve cut back on this type of research, preferring to see something with fresh eyes rather than be even more prepared.

My new policy, which I instituted for London, and fully committed to for our next trip to Istanbul, is not to see any visual depictions of the place if I can avoid them. Wikivoyage doesn’t have a lot of photos, so that’s good, and I prefer guide books that don’t have glossy photos (I’d rather have more details anyway). Instead of watching YouTube videos, I’ll read a book set in the location or about the history or culture. That enhances understanding, without diluting the experience.

Arriving in London

Rambles in London. First day in red, second day in blue.

Rambles in London. First day in red, second day in blue.

We flew into Heathrow and took the tube into London. That in itself defied expectations. NYC subway cars are broad, tall, with a layer of filth, and there’s lots of standing room. London tube cars were cozy. Two rows of facing upholstered chairs, with low ceilings. It felt like traveling in a hobbit hole… I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but it reaffirmed things I’d previously heard about the British preferring snug little accomodations. The tube stations were different than NYC as well: deeper, with a warren of tunnels. When we stepped out, we found ourselves in central London (Holborn Station), early on the morning of Christmas Eve. It was cool, but not chilly, with a misty rain. We wandered, getting our bearings. Our eventual destination was Shoreditch, the trendy ‘Brooklyn’ of London. (Comparing the trendy/revitalized downtown areas of foreign cities to Brooklyn irks me, but I guess it’s a useful shorthand for “trendy, rapidly gentrifying, hipster neighborhood”).

Shoreditch street art, under a bridge.

More Shoreditch street art, under a bridge.

On our way, we ended up walking past Charles Dickens’ house (now a museum, but just one of a great many identical little rowhouses on a broad street).

Street art

Street art

Shoreditch, which is a fun word to say, is the platonic ideal of the gentrified UK industrial zone. Apparently it’s even become a verb: ‘shoreditchify’. Regardless, it’s a nice area. Lots of cool street art, restaurants, but still with very old Georgian overtones. It felt old and new alike. Even better, it’s right near Brick Lane, a street completely full of Indian restaurants (also Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bengali cuisine). We had some curry there. I really enjoyed it. Having worked at an Indian restaurant, and eaten a lot of Indian food in the US, I know the basics of Indian food… and there was a lot more variety here.

Damien Hirst statue outside the Gherkin

Damien Hirst statue outside the Gherkin

From there, we arced South, towards The City and Whitechapel. The City is the business/financial district, most known for the ‘Gherkin‘, as well as London Tower and Tower Bridge. Somehow, I’d conflated London Bridge, which has a recognizable name, with Tower Bridge, which has a recognizable appearance. We crossed to the south side of the Thames on Tower Bridge, which is really as beautiful as the photos lead you to believe.

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

From there we continued along the Thames, taking in the views of London tower, before crossing back to check out St Paul’s Cathedral (closed without tickets), and eventually making our way to the London School of Economics. Why visit there? During holidays they rent out the dorms, so we had a cheap stay in downtown London. It felt like being back in college, down to the complimentary cafeteria breakfast.

Our dorm room

Our dorm room

After dropping off our backpacks, we went back out to find food. This was a tremendous challenge. Unlike in the US, things really shut down for three days during Christmas in the UK. Most supermarkets were closed, nearly all restaurants as well. We stopped in the local Chinatown and found some snacks, and found the restaurants opn – but with a Christmas ‘special:’ pricey prix fixe. We passed on that.

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We also went through Leicester Square, which had a cute Christmas festival going on (ferris wheel, booths, etc), and walked past Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. Both really cool. One of my preconceptions about London was that all the big sights were both close together and awkwardly positioned around the Thames, like a tacky amusement park. But the reality didn’t bear that out. In fact, the layout of the city is pretty graceful.

Having arrived early, seen the sights over the course of a long day, and now that it was past dark, we returned to our dorm room, keeping an eye open for any pub or restaurant at all. And we had a stroke of good luck: there was a bar two blocks from the dorm. Even better: they had amazing mulled wine, and gave out little party poppers to celebrate the holiday. So our dinner was wine, beer, and potato chips (“crisps”). Regardless it felt cozy: the quiet dark city around us, cold weather pressing in on the windows, warm mulled wine in our hands and friendly people around us. Christmas Eve in London.

Washington State: Finishing Up

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We had two more lazy days in Port Townsend, though six months later, I don’t quite remember the chronology.

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Just outside town (within walking distance), is a small state park – Fort Worden. There’s a pricey artillery museum, some hiking trails, some bunkers, and also a marine wildlife museum. I’d been to the park quite a few times, but never to the wildlife museum. It’s pretty conspicuous and was composed of two buildings: a traditional sort of museum, and then an aquarium built on top of a pier that pumped up water from the Puget sound. The museum was a little dull, and was basically just a huge Orca skeleton – though that was interesting after seeing a real wild orca a few days previous.

Starfish and anemones in the aquarium

Starfish and anemones in the aquarium

The aquarium was actually really cool, though. There were a variety of sea stars and anemones, including some you could touch, and a lot of tiny fish, kelp forests, and so on. We got to talk to some very dedicated volunteers about the tanks and just had a good time.

Farmer's market food!

Farmer’s market food!

Another morning we woke up early and stopped by the farmer’s market. There’s two each week, I think, right outside the community center (where Alex demonstrated her Zumba skills as the star of the Zumba class). We tried orange raspberries and a fancy soft cheese, all local to Jefferson county in Washington. The prices were surprisingly reasonable.

Badass Muay Thai poster in the restroom

Badass Muay Thai poster in the restroom

Pretty much the whole time we were on the peninsula, we ate at the local Thai takeout restaurant, 1-2-3 Thai. Alongside Indian, I absolutely love Thai, so I’ve eaten at quite a few places. I have to say there’s something about this particular restaurant – it’s hands-down my favorite Thai food.

Weekly poetry, free to read

Weekly poetry, free to read

We puttered around town for a few days, mostly taking it easy. We walked around town our final night, and I didn’t want to go home – it was an art walk, lots of local galleries open to visitors and lots of free wine and snacks. But nonetheless… we had a long trip home. I think this was the first time Alex and I calculated the number of ‘hops’ a trip would take. It was pretty epic: car (rental) -> ferry -> car (dropoff rental) -> Lyft to airport -> Flight to Dallas -> Airport transit between terminals -> Flight to La Guardia -> Taxi to Penn Station -> PATH train to Jersey -> walk to apartment! That’s 10 hops and 5 forms of transit… but we were home.

Yankee Stadium on the flight home

Yankee Stadium on the flight home