18 May 2013

marching round the UK

The details are growing vague.  With travel, catch up blogging and flopping into my home country--catching up with friends and family, relaxing and looking for work--this post is about an adventure I now had practically two months ago.  The recollection won't be so detailed.

After making it back into England via the Eurostar, I met up with my friends at the house I had been living in London.  They'd arrived the day before from Australia.  Maree was back for round two of adventuring having a few months back home with family and she'd brought her friend, Katie, along for the adventure.  They were beginning a four month stampede around the UK and Europe and I was spending my final week with them.  That weekend was a relaxed, chilled weekend with Maree and Katie adjusting to the new timezone and me organizing some of my stuff, repacking for the UK week and doing some job search stuff. 

Saturday night I met up with my friends from round London for a final hoorah before I nicked off home.  We went to Evans and Peel Detective Agency.  In 1920s/30s style the hidden pub was a fun and quirky place for  a drink.  I buzzed and said I had an appointment and we were let in and filed down the stairs to a little office.  There the secretary asked why we'd come and, having read about the pub and its entry process, replied that I had the feeling that something or someone was following me lately (my visa being up) and that I'd brought witnesses with me.  She then asked each one of my witnesses to share their information and each one gave some minor description...except Prue who started spouting Gruffalo features. Ha ha.  I think I was the only one who got it.  The secretary said she was glad we'd come and said if we'd just like to go in a take a seat and have a drink she'd fetch the sketch artist.  Would have liked to have seen that sketch.  She pulled a book and the book case swung open revealing the bar.  It was all done up in the same era and had a really cool atmosphere with my kind of music playing.  We were led to a table that had old theatre seats along each side.  We spent the evening chatting and trying the different cocktails.  There'd been some rave about the cocktails but I think everyone there found them to be decidedly strong and not so wonderful.  The idea and atmosphere was great but the menu was a bit of a let-down.  They had quite a selection of drinks but of the four or five that I tasted I didn't particularly like any of them.  It was good to hang out with lovely people I'd shared some of my UK years with though.

Come Monday morning Maree, Katie and I were backpacked up and riding the train north.  The further north we went the whiter it seemed to get.  London was cold and it had even snowed but it hadn't settled.

We were in York about midday and we walked into the centre of town and managed to find our hostel which was superbly located and warm and wonderfully decent.  We met up with Maree's relative who's been living there for ten years or so and he took us to a specific pub where we had lunch together.  I tried the pigeon pie.  It was funny watching Maree while I ate it.  She refused my offer for her to taste it.  Ha ha.  It wasn't terrific but satisfied my hunger without making my tastebuds squirm.  Our own personal guide then walked us around York telling us all sorts of interesting information about the place.  We did the periodic stops in coffee shops and pubs to take a break from wandering around in the freezing cold.  He walked us around the city walls and took us to different sites and showed us various buildings telling us a little about the history.  We even went back to his place and met his family and had a drink with they dropped us back in the town centre.  We spent Tuesday and Wednesday doing our own wandering around--sometimes together and sometimes on our own.  We went on a boatride, went to a museum (partly coz we were tired of being cold outside), went to a movie, and went out for tea each night.  Most evenings we hung out in our room watching tv, interneting, reading or whatever.  And sleeping on our uncomfortable mattresses.  York was quite amazing to walk around though.  It's so old style and still has the feel in the town centre.  Crooked buildings, Tudor influenced buildings, little doorways, pokey places, cobbled twisted streets, massive impressive cathedral--in the gothic architecture of course.  There was lots of interesting shops about though too and the more common department stores on the outskirts.  I spent one afternoon wandering around the shops by myself and quite some time in a little wool shop I found.  One night Maree and Katie went on a ghost tour...it's apparently a pretty haunted place.  They missed the one they planned to join coz they got there and realised they hadn't taken their money with them and so did one that wasn't so good.  On Thursday morning we were off to catch the train again.

With a bit of ticket drama coz Maree lost her ticket just after I gave it to her (thankfully I had the purchase printout with me which helped) we made it to Chester on the trains we'd booked seats on.  We then had some rental car drama since the rental place where I'd booked the car hire wouldn't hire it out to us without the pink slip that goes along with the British licence (I'd forgotten about that) and proof of address like a bill or something.  I no longer had an address in England AND I was a live-in and never paid bills so I could in no way prove this.  Frustration.  We went across the road to another place but being Easter weekend there was nothing available.  In the end we tried Hertz which was a short walk away and they were able to rent us a four wheel drive for only a little more than we were going to pay for a small cheapo at the original place.  Phew!  The main point in going to Chester was so we could spend the next day driving around the top of Wales so this haziness of our plans came clear again.

Friday was a lovely sunny day, still cold but sightseeing is much more pleasurable when the sun shines.  Driving west of Chester we were almost instantaneously in Wales and then arriving at our first destination--Llandudno.  We parked and wandered into town and found a coffee shop chain for an average cuppa.  We stopped by the tourist information centre for a while before just doing our own bit of wandering down to the pier and along the shore before we got too cold and just decided to get in the car and go driving again.

We went on to Conwy and wandered along the fortified walls and had a look at the castle from the outside.  As we made our way down to the bridge for some good castle shots we passed by some knights and such.  They were filming a little sword fight.  After our photo stop we went back toward the castle and there was a little square that was dressed medieval where the knights now were.  There was also a display of live hunting birds.  Then we got back in the car and headed on to Llanberis.  Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, is nearby and there's a train that takes you to the top.  The thought of the view from there was enticing but we were all disappointed to find out that the train was closed because of snow and ice.  We looked around the tourist shop at the station and I bought some little dragons for my two new nieces I was soon to meet.  We thought about going on the other train that was working though we just missed one and would have to wait an hour.  It just went part way around the lake and back.  So we went walking instead.  We found a track that led us up beside the railway and kept going until we reached the waterfalls the sign had declared was this way.  The scenery along the way was quite beautiful.  The chill and the sunshine gave it a fresh glory, sharp and raw.  Heading back to the car we decided to move on.  There was another place I'd looked up to visit.  Another bit of namesake.  We stopped in Beddgelert and Maree and Katie were instantly turning toward the cafes and I had to convince them to come with me to find the spot I was looking for.  The grave of Gelert.  I've heard the tale before and it's not quite certain that it's true.  It's a bittersweet story about a faithful dog called Gelert.  You can read the story for yourself here.  We also met an old man scooting along his dog for a walk, oldie-scooter style.  He stopped to chat with us.  It was Good Friday and he said he'd been up since 5am making 250 hot cross buns to hand out.  Pity we'd come here late in the day.  He had a good old yarn with us.  We then made for the cafe and had our afternoon tea and scones that was wonderfully satisfactory.  Then back in the car for a long, adventure across the mountain tops toward Chester.  At another time of year I suspect it would be quite a pleasant drive and even when we did it the view was splendid.  However, being so much snow around, and that it had crept onto the road and partly taken over the lanes, left us with one car-width track down the centre most of the time to drive along.  It did get interesting when we met another car coming the other direction.  There was a couple of adrenaline rushes.  Eventually I pulled in at a pub because I needed a toilet break.  But it didn't wake me up enough and so Maree drove the rest of the way.

Saturday Maree was not feeling the best and decided she just needed to chill so Katie and I went venturing into another part of England.  We didn't have a plan.  We pretty much just picked a direction and drove.  I think we actually selected somewhere on the sat nav.  I like the idea of being spontaneous but it's a bit hit and miss.  You may find something spectacular and have a fascinating adventure or you may just wander aimlessly just filling in time. We did more of the latter.  I don't even remember exactly where we went.  Just south east of Chester.  We chose one little town to stop at but there was pretty much nothing there so we went to another.  We found a tourist info centre and chatted with the lady there for a while and decided to try a nearby hill that might have nice views.  We stopped in at Kelly's Bakery--just coz.  But the selection was poor and neither was it that great in quality.  We found the hill and started driving up it but it was as bothersome with snow as the drive across the mountaintops the day before.  Only a little more residential.  We couldn't see what the lady was talking about with getting to the top so we just took some photos by the road side and headed back to Chester.  We had to get the car back by early afternoon anyway.  That evening we went round the corner to a comedy club and were able to get tickets for that night's show.  I've never been to a comedy club to see live comedy acts before.  I'm usually a bit hesitant when it comes to comedians.  Unless you know what they are like.  Some are just completely vulgar and call it humour.  We saw three comedians I think it was.  One was a bit below par in my books but the other two weren't bad and they definitely drew some laughs out of me.

Sunday was Easter Sunday and while Maree chilled again so Katie and I walked into town for a tour of Chester.  About as interesting as a lot of town tours I've taken and not so delightful when you're cold.  Chester's hub is pretty to see though with all it's interesting, old-style architecture complete with wonkiness.  Maree met us in town for lunch and we ate a delicious Italian meal.  We then went easter egg hunting which was quite difficult.  We managed to find one little store that was open and had some form of chocolate egg.  We walked the streets a little longer and then back to our hostel where I packed my bags and wished them well on the rest of their journey.  As for me, I headed to the train station, my UK adventure about to wrap up.

09 May 2013

marching round france...with a hop to belgium

From Egypt I flew back to Rome, Italy, collected my bag and checked in for my flight to Paris, France.  When I landed I made my way to hub of Paris to find the flat I would be staying at--thanks to wonderfully generous friends.  I was delighted with the flat and the location.  It was on an island in the Seine River and felt quite luxurious.  When I looked out the living area windows I could see the back of the Notre Dame!  Awesome location.  My week in France was mostly a chilled week.  I hadn't really planned much but it was so nice not to run from one location to the next sight seeing.  I took it easy, relaxed and enjoyed some space to myself.  Not to say I did nothing of course.

I decided one day to go look the Notre Dame Cathedral.  I opted not to wait in line, pay and go up the steps to the top.  Instead I went inside for free.  It wasn't until I got home to Australia that I realised that's what I did last time which was why I was thinking of going up this time.  Ha ha.  Never mind.  I relaxed back at the flat cooking myself some tea and watching the final Twilight Saga movie while all cosy in my room.

On the Tuesday I went on a day trip, skipping countries, to squeeze in my visit to Brugge, Belgium that I'd been trying to work in for the past year.  It was cold and it's sometimes a tad boring daytripping on your own but it was an okay day.  We walked from the bus to the centre of the old town where we then had a boat ride on the canal.  Wasn't too fussed about the boat ride, especially feeling cold the whole time but got to see some interesting buildings.  We then had a few hours to go free range and so I wandered around the streets, looked in shops, took photos of the buildings that make Brugge interesting, bought Belgium chocolate because I simply had to and eventually sat down for some lunch.  The day turned into a long day trip when on our way back the driver pulled over to check the van.  After a bit of a look we attempted again but didn't leave the service station because it was just not a healthy van.  So we ended up waiting for quite some time for a truck to come tow us away.  Once the van was loaded onto the truck we all squeezed into double cabin of the truck and went back to Lille which we'd just passed.  There we waited outside in the cold in the street in the dark while our guide sorted something out.  At least half an hour later or more some taxis came and picked us up to take us to the train station.  We then waited there at McDonalds for a short while until our first class train ride back to Paris.  Nice to ride first class but it's actually not much different to the regular class.  Back in Paris we were picked up by the tour company and dropped back at the door of our accommodation.  So when I was due to be back at 7pm, it was 11pm when I got back to the flat.  I had nothing planned for the next day so it was all fine for me.  It was an amusing, unexpected event though if I'd had a choice there were other things I'd rather do than all that waiting in the cold. Oh, and as it was a French tour group for English/Spanish speakers and I was the only one who spoke English as my first (and only) language, everyone else was talking to the tour guide and discussing what was going on with getting home in either French or Spanish.  So I didn't have much idea what was going on.  Ha ha.  Understanding wouldn't have made much difference to the situation anyway.

My Wednesday was another lazy day but I did get out in the afternoon and go to the Louvre Museum.  Last time I was in Paris I only went to the outside so I decided I'd go in this time.  I went first to the Egyptian area and spent most of my time there.  It was intriguing to see all the artefacts rather than just tombs, temples and the paintings and carvings that cover them.  Probably particularly interesting since I'd just come from Egypt.  I then went through the Islamic display which pretty much artefacts with Arabic scrawled artfully upon them.  I was beginning to tire and completely skipped over the paintings (more of the same sort of stuff you see all over Europe...the kind I'm not that interested in) but I made sure I went and found the Mona Lisa.  It was much smaller than I expected and being so famous a painting the room was crowded, it had a plastic protector in front of it and a curved barricade keeping people from getting too close.  Bit disappointing really that you can't view it well.  I was done.  I walked back along the river's edge enjoying the sunshine; back to the flat for some more relaxing with food and a movie and indulging in my Belgium chocolates.

Thursday I got up early and caught the train to Strasbourg, France.  One thing I decided to do this week was see another part of France as the France I'd previously done was Paris.  Strasbourg was quite pretty, particularly the Petite France area.  The buildings were awesome to see and walking beside the river in the sunshine was super nice.  I poked around the shops and made my way to the centre of town.  When it was almost noon I went inside the Cathedral, found a good spot and waited with the gathering crowd.  At 12 o'clock a video was shown of the astronomical clock that stood in the corner followed at 12:30pm by the clock's 'chiming'.  It has figures up near the top of the twelve apostles who come out in a line and pause by the Jesus figure for a blessing.  There's also a mechanical cock at the top that "crows thrice".  The clock also has a perpetual calendar and an orrery which displays the real position of the sun and moon and the eclipses.  All lavishly decorated with paintings of course.

I wandered around the streets trying to decide what I wanted to eat for my late lunch before finally choosing a pub that had an indoor verandah area where I could sit in the sunshine.  I then made my way back toward the train station, using up some of my waiting time drooling around an art supply store before the ride back to Paris.

Friday I hung out in the flat again in the morning and slowly sorted out my bag again before leaving early afternoon for another adventure I wanted to tick off my list.  Riding the train under the sea!  I got to Gare du Nord (train station) a little later than I meant to.  I misread my ticket thinking I had to be there 30mins prior but realised I was meant to check in then.  So not knowing how this worked exactly, feeling a bit anxious I asked someone where the Eurostar was and then hurried upstairs where they directed.  The whole process had me in a bit of a tizz.  For starters, I'm not sure where the 'checking in' part happened.  I guess when I swiped my ticket to get through the station gates to the Eurostar area.  There was no check in like the airports.  I went through security and lined up for the next section anxious to get through in time.  Noticing a pile of landing cards, I picked one up knowing I'd need to fill it in later and moved to another line that moved faster.  When I got to the front, the guy checked my passport, looked at me, looked again at my passport...  I'd heard tales.  I was prepared for this but the hold up when I was running out of time was annoying.  He asked me a few questions because my visa had expired.  I showed him a copy of my flight booking home to Australia to prove I would definitely be leaving the country again.  He filled in a bit of paper work and then asked for my card...which wasn't filled in yet and sent me to the back of the line.  I was in a hurry and I was being sent back to the end of the line.  Arrg!  It still didn't quite click at that point that this was border control meaning I was officially entering England...in France.  Usually on the planes you fill it out on board and hand it in when you land and that's what I was expecting; to need to have it done for the end of my journey.  I got back in line while scribbling the info down but the line moved fast and I had to step aside to finish filling it in and let a couple of people go ahead.  Thankfully no one made me go to the back of the line again and I passed to the next stage.  It took me a while trying to read different screens and my ticket and figure out where I was supposed to be.  I'm not sure if it was unclear or if perhaps I was just anxious and unfamiliar with using the Eurostar but I found where I was supposed to be in time.  I only had to wait a few minutes before we were let out onto the platform and I walked alongside the train to find my carriage and then my seat.  Finally I could settle in for the trip.  It took about 2hrs 20mins to get from Paris to London and only about 20-30mins in the tunnel.  But I've done it.  ^^

I was back in England. As a tourist.  I made my way through the London tube system back to my old 'hood.  Back to my previous home where my friends from Australia, having arrived the day before, were waiting for me. The France journey over, I flopped happily into the familiar house and the company of a friend I knew (and the friend I was just meeting), my final England adventure set to begin.