28 June 2009

Vacation: London, England Day 2

Day 2 of our time in London began on a bit of a sour note when we discovered that part of the Tube was shut down for weekend maintenance. So, instead of heading directly to the Tower of London, we made our way to St. Paul's Cathedral.

Pictures weren't allowed inside St. Paul's (and the staff made sure people put their cameras in bags), but the cathedral was magnificent. The dome, the memorials on the walls, the statues - all quite stunning. Inside the crypt there were even more graves, including Florence Nightingale. I wish I could have taken a picture of that tomb. She's one of my favorite people.

There was some sort of christening or other ceremony happening in the chapel in the crypt. Because of that, we were unable to see Christopher Wren's tomb.

From St. Paul's, we managed to find a hop-on hop-off tour bus which took us to the Tower of London. This was a highlight for me. I've always wanted to see the Tower. I never really had any interest in seeing the Crown jewels; I was interested in the prison aspect of the Tower's history.

After we walked into the Tower grounds, one of the first things we saw was Traitor's Gate. Amazing!

How many people have come through that gate over the centuries? Can you imagine how terrifying it must have been to see that? To know that you may never walk as a free person again?

The carved graffiti on the walls in some of the prison towers were a powerful reminder of all the people who have been held there over the years. Some prisoners were even able to hire professionals to carve in the plaster for those prisoners - which, admittedly, doesn't seem as though the prisoners were really being punished.

One of the carvings is reputedly that of Lady Jane Grey.

We did go see the Crown jewels, too. They were impressive, but not as impressive as the Romanov jewels I saw several years ago in an exhibit in Houston.

We also saw the famous ravens of the Tower.

And we never had to wait in long lines. We were surprised and thrilled by that.

From the Tower, we went to the dock and rode a tour boat down the Thames to Westminster (included in the bus ticket).

We managed to make it to Westminster just in time to hear Big Ben chime. We called my grandmother, so she could hear the bells, too. Then we went inside Westminster Abbey.

Once again, no photos were allowed inside. And they were having a flower show inside the church - really weird flower displays. Not terribly attractive displays, either.

But Poet's Corner more than made up for the ugly flowers.

After a busy day, we returned to our hotel.

17 June 2009

Vacation: London, England Day 1

We arrived by train at Paddington Station. I did not see Paddington Bear, but I forgot to look for him. We grabbed a taxi and headed to our hotel, the Millennium Bailey's.

The room was quite spacious, which was a nice surprise because we thought the room would be tiny. And the hotel was right across the street from a tube station! Really an excellent location and a nice hotel.

Once we dumped our luggage in our room, we hit the tube station to figure out how that was going to work. We put money on an oyster card and climbed on the train to Westminster station.

After arriving at Westminster and walking out of the station, we found ourselves across the street from the Houses of Parliament

and Big Ben.

We also found ourselves in a teeming mass of humanity. I have never heard so many languages spoken in one place in my life, and that includes the United Nations! So many people were there, and it wasn't even the high tourist season yet. I cannot imagine London in July.

We walked across the bridge to the London Eye.

Prepared to wait in a long line, we were amazed that we managed to miss the line. We climbed on and were rewarded with stunning views of London, especially St. Paul's

After our flight in the Eye, we walked past some protesters in front of Parliament. They wanted to the government to do something about the treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

We walked down the street past No. 10 Downing Street

After that we went to the hotel and ate at Kentucky Fried Chicken. I don't understand why KFC doesn't have mashed potatoes outside the United States. I learned this on a vacation in Canada a few years ago. It just doesn't make any sense. I'd understand it in Asia where the potato is not a staple food, but Canada? England? Ridiculous! So, I ate the French fries.

13 June 2009

Vacation: Cardiff & Caerphilly, Wales

We took the train from Bath to Wales. Our hotel, the Sleeperz, was right next to the train station. It was a nice place, especially because of its location, but it was very modern. The room was tiny – I think even smaller than the cruise ship's stateroom – but comfortable. The beds, which were bunk beds, were quite soft, and the pillows were decent. Not super thin like most hotels. Most interesting thing about this hotel? You had to put your key card into a slot for the lights to work!

Once we got settled into our hotel room, we walked to Cardiff Castle. The castle was built over an old Roman fort in the eleventh century.

While Mom waited, I climbed the stairs up and inside the keep where I was rewarded with a lovely view.

On the way to the top of the keep, I saw a medieval toilet.

Then we went to the National Museum of Wales to see their exhibition about Charles Darwin. This year is his 200th birthday.

For supper we went to Cardiff Bay and found an "American diner." Then we walked by the "Hub." Actually, it was the Wales Millennium Centre, but it's often seen in the BBC series Torchwood.

The next day we traveled to Caerphilly and went to see Caerphilly Castle. Although the sun was shining, the wind was blowing about forty or fifty miles an hour, so Mom and I were freezing! Nevertheless we braved the extreme wind to see the second largest castle in Great Britain.

The ruins of Caerphilly Castle include the famous leaning tower.

Outside of the castle we found a gaggle of geese and some goslings.

We returned to Cardiff, went to a small shop (where I managed to find Dr. Pepper!) and caught the train to London.

11 June 2009

Vacation: Bath, England

When we arrived in Bath, we promptly got lost. We found ourselves in the wrong lane or heading in the wrong direction. Finally we found a place to pull over (not easy to do on such narrow roads) and called the bed & breakfast.

Wolfgang, one of the owners of Athole Guest House, came and found us. We followed him to the house, and he even parked our car in a snug little parking spot for us. He was wonderful. Very hospitable. He drove us into town and showed us some places to eat and even drove us to the rental car place when we dropped off the car.

Breakfast at Athole was fabulous. After the sketchy eggs in Salisbury, I was a little nervous about food. But the pancakes were heavenly. He also made fresh bread every morning, and it was divine, too.

And the resident cat, Moth, was just a sweetheart. He climbed in my lap and let me pet him. It made me miss my cat even though Moth was much friendlier.

Our first stop in Bath was the Roman Baths. Mom loves Ancient Rome, so this was wonderful for her.

They had a costumed interpreter beside the Great Bath. At one point, he began a prayer to the gods. The manner in which he recited this prayer reminded Mom and me of a Southern Baptist preacher. We decided he was from "south Rome."

We also went inside Bath Abbey.

This abbey (or, more accurately, this site's previous abbey building) was where the first King of England was crowned in 973.

The ceiling inside Bath Abbey was breathtaking.

Even an American Senator is buried there.

We stopped at Sally Lunn's to eat one of her famous buns. Sally Lunn's is a teashop that is located in the oldest house in Bath. She came to England from France more than 300 years ago. The house was 200 years old when Sally moved into it.

The bun was scrumptious! It looks like a hamburger bun, but it's softer and sweeter and bigger. Mom got half a toasted bun with chocolate sauce on top and hot chocolate. I got half a toasted bun with butter and strawberry jam and tea. The tea was excellent, as well. We bought a box in the gift shop.

There is a gift shop and museum downstairs. The museum shows off the original foundations of the house and the faggot oven used by Sally Lunn.

The food was so good we tried returning for supper, but they were full.

After our refreshing lunch, we hit the Assembly Rooms. Part of the Assembly Rooms are now a fashion museum, which we toured. I even got to try on a crinoline! The corset, sadly, would not fit.

It was easy to imagine genteel ladies and gentlemen dancing in the Assembly Rooms.

We also walked over to see the Circus. I would love to have been able to look inside one of these homes, but we weren't able.

Finally, we went to the current Bath spa. It's expensive, but you get to spend two hours inside. We went to the roof and enjoyed the view from that pool. Then we hit the saunas. The perfumed air inside the different rooms was overpowering. The perfume made it harder to breathe than the heat did. Our last stop was the indoor pool. The water temperature was about that of a warm bath. I enjoyed it (except for the price), but Mom wasn't that impressed.

Nevertheless, we can now say we've enjoyed the waters at Bath. And Mom's legs didn't hurt the next day, so I guess there's some truth to the water's restorative powers!

When we left, Wolfgang drove us to the train station where we caught our train to Cardiff.

07 June 2009

Vacation: Lacock, Cherhill & Avebury

After leaving Salisbury, we traveled to Bath. Once in Bath, we had the rental for one more day before returning it. So, we drove through the surrounding countryside.

Our first stop was Lacock Village. This is a little town that does not allow cars in it except for the people who live there. We parked in a lot that was a short walk from the village center.

The town is used in lots of films – from Jane Austen adaptations to Harry Potter.

They have an old abbey in the town. The abbey itself was closed that day, but the cloister was open.

We returned to the village to have a cup of tea (me) and hot chocolate (Mom) at The George Inn, the oldest pub in Lacock. It was established in 1361.

From Lacock we drove through the town of Cherhill. The whole economy of the town seems to based on the fact that a giant horse was carved into the hillside in 1780.

Avebury is where another stone circle was built in ancient times. This circle, unlike Stonehenge, is right in the middle of the town. We parked and walked around some of the stones. 

We not only saw white sheep, but there were also black sheep wandering among the giant rocks with the tourists.

03 June 2009

Vacation: Old Sarum & Stonehenge

From Salisbury we traveled to Bath. On the way there, we stopped at Old Sarum and Stonehenge.

All that is left of Old Sarum are ruins of the former castle and cathedral. The drive up to the (small) parking lot was a one-way street with a blind turn. Naturally, another car was headed down the drive as we were moving up. Talk about scary!

While the unnecessarily narrow drive irritated us, we were flabbergasted to see families at an English Heritage site playing soccer and croquet. We'd never seen something like that in the U.S. It struck Mom and me as odd.

After Old Sarum, we drove to Stonehenge. It's one of those sites you hear about and read about and see on television and movies, so I couldn't wait to see it. Seeing it from the road, it looked so small!

Once we parked and walked up to the structure – at least as close as you can get – the size seemed more substantial.

But Stonehenge never looked as big as I thought it would!

02 June 2009

We now interrupt the vacation updates

I sent a YA novel to a publisher today. This was a publisher from the Editor Day event I went to in Houston back in February.

Fingers crossed!

Vacation: Salisbury, England

After the cruise ship docked in Southampton, we rented a car and drove to Salisbury. I looked forward to this destination as I had just finished reading Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd. That novel is about the history of the Salisbury area from the geological creation of isle of Britain to the 1980s.

Before we went to our hotel, we went to Wilton and toured Wilton House. Belonging to the Earl of Pembroke, Wilton House is filled with works of art by famous painters, including Rembrandt and Reynolds. The house is famous for its Single Cube and Double Cube rooms. 

The grounds of Wilton House were lovely with beautiful trees and the River Nadder flowing nearby. There was even a swan floating in the river!

The town of Wilton itself has a gorgeous Italian-style church that we also visited.

Our hotel, the Legacy Rose and Crown, was on the road between Salisbury and Wilton. After two trips between the towns and one very expensive cell phone call, we finally managed to find the place. Our room was quite nice, and the hotel was in a perfect location. Breakfast was a little strange, however. 

They had a buffet with cereal and fruit and yogurt, which wasn't too bad. You could also order a hot breakfast. Mom and I both got scrambled eggs. They arrived on a large plate in a tower, like they'd been placed in a Jell-O mold. It was the weirdest thing, and I should have taken a picture! When mashed onto the plate, they covered the entire thing. There must have been about six eggs per person! And the taste. Oh, the taste. I could not eat two bites. They smelled awful and were very pale and sickly looking. I didn't even know eggs could look sickly, but these did.

I remained wary of scrambled eggs for the rest of the trip.

We walked to the cathedral, built in 1265. The spire of the cathedral towers over the surrounding countryside, and we enjoyed walking through the nave and cloister.

In the cloister, we saw Wolfie, the cathedral cat. He looked a lot like my own cat but, of course, was much nicer. I enjoyed petting him for a while.

As there was a confirmation or something happening that day, we were unable to go in the chapter house. The chapter house is where an original version of the Magna Carta resides, so we would have to return.

The next day we returned to the cathedral, and I took the Tower Tour while Mom waited below. The tour was fascinating, and I highly recommend it. We even managed to be by the bells when the hour struck noon. Wow, was that loud!

The views from the tower were breathtaking and well worth the climb.

Mom, meanwhile, had an eventful time waiting for me. She ran into some of our table mates from the cruise ship!

Then we went to the chapter house to see the Magna Carta. Amazing to see a document written in 1215 that is the basis for so many governments and legal rights around the world!

01 June 2009

Vacation: France Port of Call

Our final port of call was Cherbourg, France. This was the only stop where Mom and I took a tour offered by the cruise line. We traveled by bus through the Normandy countryside from Cherbourg to Bayeux to see the Bayeux Tapestry

Nearly 1,000 years old, the tapestry, which is actually an embroidery, looks like it was made only weeks ago. It sits in a glass display case that is U-shaped and carefully lit to show off the entire tapestry. Or what's left of it, anyway.

We walked in front of the tapestry and listened to the audio guide that was included. Normally, I am not a fan of audio guides, but this one was excellent. A British narrator - pictured in my head as someone wearing tweed - with a very dry, witty manner provided a terrific explanation of all the panels in the tapestry.

About two or three blocks from the tapestry stands the Bayeux Cathedral. Originally built in the eleventh century, the church is massive and dominates the town.

We didn't get to spend very much time in Bayeux. Mom and I would love to go back there to explore more and go inside the cathedral.

While we were having a wonderful time seeing the tapestry, some of the people on our tour were angry. They thought the tour was also going to stop at the beaches of Normandy where the liberation of France began in 1944. To appease these angry tourists (as there was not time to go to the beaches), we stopped at Sainte-Mèré-Église. In this village, American paratroopers were dropped on D-Day. One unfortunate soldier's parachute got caught on the steeple of the church. In remembrance of that event, that soldier and the Allied troops, a mannequin of a U.S. paratrooper still hangs from the church steeple.