Updated: Sep 10, 2022
EUROPE TRIP | APRIL 10th-MAY 8th 2017
Day 1: April 10, 2017
Three weeks ago we were enjoying the balmy 80 degree laziness of Southern California. All that is behind us now. Today our plane brought us in over a treeless landscape looking exactly like an overcooked pizza under two inches of freezer burn. If there is a greener world here it is still sleeping in the arms of Winter.
A two phase bus ride got us from the airport to the hotel. At the hotel we were informed by a charming Spanish lass that it is 9 am and the room won’t be ready for 5 hours. Clearly she had just given that same speech to a dozen other travelers who could be seen sacked out on the lobby furniture struggling to get comfortable. Really, the place looked like a jet lag trauma clinic. We declined to join this crowd and went questing for Viking Cultural Experiences.
Which we found in the form of museums, each of which charge about $18 US to enter. The fellow at the tourist service desk sold us a 24 hour pass that got us into all museums for a bit of relative savings. We had to visit three to get our bargain so off we trudged to our first target which greeted us with a ‘closed Mondays’ sign and yes it was Monday. But there are plenty of museums so we plundered the ones we could get into. We found the remnants of an ancient Viking hall, lifelike dioramas of historical events, and a collection of relics and data regarding cod fishing.
We’re smarter now. But not so smart that the language on the signs around town will start making any more sense than the labels at Ikea. Deciding to celebrate our new level of Icelandic cultural literacy we found a bar to hunker down in. By this time a steady, frigid breeze was throwing hard little lazy snowflakes sideways into the bar window. It is April 10. “When does spring come to Iceland?” I asked the Barkeep. “Never”, he says in his best stoic deadpan as he pulls my happy hour lager from the tap.It is cold out there. My system of layered clothing is getting a test. So far so good but it has to all be applied or removed as I go out and then in again. Stripping it off is an impression of a Russian nesting doll. The locals, of course, are trotting around in tennie runners and sweatshirts seemingly immune to the effects of hypothermia. We feel a little obvious.
A meal was the next quest so we found a steak house, Steikhusid. Good stuff. Choosing a joint may be an adventure in pointless variety as there are scads of restaurants in Reykjavik. They are thicker than Starbucks in Seattle only most of these are serving seafood. In one spot we noticed two restaurants adjoining each other on the lower level and another one on top of the first two. We also looked at a few menus. Upon them we are finding horse meat, Minke whale meat, and Puffin (sad face). We’re not on Lopez Island any more, Toto. Tomorrow we go on an excursion to investigate a glacier. A splendid time should be had by all.
Day 2: April 11, 2017
Haffi is our driver and guide today. We find him standing in the lobby of our hotel with a clipboard and a list. We follow him around the corner to an enormous black vehicle parked partly on the sidewalk and partly on the street. It turns out to be a beast of a machine. It is an F350 Ford 1 ½ ton 4 x 4 truck. The rear bed was removed and the passenger section of a Ford Excursion welded into place. Seats to accommodate 11 people comfortably. Tires are the enormous balloon kind that desert racers use with the exception that these were installed with metal studs. About 3 feet to hork oneself up from the ground to the running side board due to the souped up air shocks, springs, and tires. 500 supercharged horsepower under the hood and about 5 miles per gallon. We were going to be pleased with this arrangement.
This is our Big Trip to the Langjokull Glacier. To give you an idea how tough this language is, the pronunciation goes something like ‘Long-Keer-Gooch’. I know. Good luck with that. Jokull means ‘glacier’ and Lang meand ‘long’, so, not much of a mystical origin of its meaning. From Reykjavik it was a 3 hour drive across Iceland’s volcanic landscape to get there. Our truck was full. A family of three from Miami, a couple on their honeymoon from Nashville, a pair of girlfriends from New Jersey, and us. Everyone was eager and curious to view this version of what Mars would probably look like if it had snow. Weather in town was miserable. When we left it was my second least favorite condition: 37F and raining. What is #1? Glad you asked. That would be freezing rain. We were perilously close to that and clearly we were going to gain altitude into colder air on our journey, so I was steeling myself for one of those unlucky days when graceful survival is the only reasonable goal.
For the first hour and a half we see frozen tundra, fog, and rain. The hills and broader vistas are hidden in the mist. But that is ok as the conversation goes around the cabin. “Where are you from?”seems to be the automatic ice breaker. We pass by a village where everyone is employed by a yogurt factory. Stopping for a potty break at Iceland’s biggest waterfall, we get sprayed by its output and take some photos. Of course there is a gift shop. It is the land of $250 sweaters. As we get a bit further up-country the mist parts a bit as we roll down into a valley spouting steam from hot-spots both port and starboard. This is the Geysir park. We’ll visit that on the way back from the glacier. But for now we drive around the ‘road closed’ sign and speed on across the tundra and basalt dodging another 4 x 4 tourist rig in the road with a blown tire. Onward as the weather clears enough for us to actually see the edge of the glacier. Wow. This is also the spot where the pavement ends. Haffi stops the vehicle and goes around to reduce the pressure in the tires. We take pix and sink into the melting tundra with each step and learn not to wander far. This unstable footing suggests strongly to me that there are more dangers out there than are being mentioned in the pamphlet.
Our Dragon-Beast carries us up onto what is now a very rough rocky trail which soon turns to slushy snow, our 500 HP confidently roaring under us. A couple of times we were bucked up nearly to the ceiling. I may have banged my head if it weren’t for the seat belt. The weather was really lifting now and the glacier is in full view with blue sky to give it a jewel-like quality. Soon we were at the glacier camp. This is where we are presented with our insulated suit, gloves, and helmet ahead of the crash course in how to drive a snowmobile. It turns out to be pretty simple. Left hand on left grip, right hand on right grip, throttle with the thumb and don’t tip the thing over you silly git. By now the sun is beaming full blast and we’re beginning to bake inside our suits despite the white, icy world surrounding us. Kerri is our snowmobile leader, a 20 year old hotshot in an orange T-shirt. No ridiculous body suit for him. Off we go to follow his lead for about 30 minutes to a particularly picturesque spot on the glacier. Here the clouds and snow and sky seem to merge. It is quiet with the engines off. This trip was totally worth it just to be here. After pix and communing with nature, 30 minutes back across the glacier on our mechanical snow-steeds. Back in the equipment cabin Kerri has cranked up the dance music so I show him what an old man with a bad Achilles can do. We’re friends now.
Into the Dragon-Beast again for another rough ride down to the pavement. Everyone is stoked about the snowmobile experience and the scenery. The 12 year old girl from Miami says, “Lets do that again!” Everyone agrees. We make a few stops on the way back to town. First to see the Geysir geyser. Har! Here there are some boiling hot pools of water. Actually, they are so bloody hot they don’t even boil, rather they explode maliciously. 257 degrees Farenheit in the throat of the big one. There’s a gift shop here too. Don’t ask. We slammed down two mediocre cups of soup and a small bag of peanuts in their cantina for $40+US. We had heard about the expense factor in Iceland but this is eye-watering stuff. True, we were in a specific tourist zone but back in town it is only modestly better.
Haffi now guided us to Iceland’s sacred spot, the place where festivals and executions and law-giving took place in medieval times, Þingvellir National Park. I invite you to say ‘thing-wet-leert’ to yourself repeatedly until you give up. Got it? Good. This also happens to be a place where the Mid Atlantic Ridge shows itself on the surface. It is the place were the European tectonic plate and the North American plate have their origins. They spread up from below and push out at about the same rate as our fingernails grow. We’re glad to see this in April. In summer, it is mobbed by 3K visitors per day. And another gift shop. $350 sweaters. Apparently sacredness is good for an additional 30%.
Back to Reykjavik at 6 pm. A nine hour adventure and very much worth the punishing cost. It was a sensational day. Some guided tours are flops and must be chalked up to experience. This was not one of those.
Day 3: April 12, 2017
Yesterday we rolled out to the Langjokull Glacier and back. Today is spa day. We could also describe it as an opportunity to let our livers return to their natural positions after being kicked sideways in the Ford Power Wagon for hours. This is the Blue Lagoon: a gigantic shallow pool of geo-thermally heated seawater mixed with fine volcanic silica. The silica is what gives the water a milky, pale blue appearance. Healing properties are claimed. Physicians consulted. I could go on but you get the idea. This is an industrial level spa operation, run like a fine swiss watch to successfully process thousands of eager, happy bathers. And they are delighted to squinch around in the 100F water blanching themselves for hours until achieving close resemblance to a dumpling in broth. For us this was an exercise in people watching. Young, old, fat, thin, buff, and flabby. It takes all types. I found many of the young ladies to be fearless not only in the skimpy nature of their attire but also because they clutched their cell phones in one hand held perilously above the salt water pool they were bathing in. And they did this for hours. Not just the ladies, of course, some guys did that too but the ratio was like 10:1. Only one or two guys were wearing bikini as well. Curious. Christine pointed out people smearing a kind of mud mask on their face as part of the spa thing. I’m not sure what else it was supposed to do but the effect was like clown-white greasepaint. When combined with dark sun glasses CK said the look reminded her of the skull motif that comes out during the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday. Right on. We noticed the Lifeguards strolling around the network of walkways skirting the lagoon and held a bit of sympathy for them since they appear to have one of the most boring jobs in town until some poor soul suffers a grand mal seizure in the pool, for instance, then things get way too interesting of a sudden-like. And the wade-up bars. There were two of them. Beer and wine for the adults and fruit smoothies for the tee-totallers and tots. There is something odd and vaguely repulsive about thinking to join a long queue of partially clad strangers standing waist deep in warm milky water to buy a pint. I didn’t do that. I did do the lava rock steam bath. Wonderful. There was an artificial waterfall next to it that gave me the kind of massage I like. Falling from about 3 meters above the force of the water felt like apple sized drops pounding my back and shoulders. Can I have one of those for my yard?
There are multiple levels of bathing options and pampering based on the basic health of one’s credit card and inhibitions associated with using it. We took the basic option. And they play a bit of a high tech game in this regard. As you enter, you pay the shocking fee as per normal but then they give you an electronic ‘locker’ key that works somewhat like the magnetized hotel room key card. It opens and securely closes your locker but this one is also tied into the point of sale system. So for whatever you want inside the lagoon bathing area, your wrist key is scanned and linked with the price of the thing you bought. It can be drinks, lunch, mud mask for your face, or a pair of cheap flip flops. Just order it and hold out your wrist for the wand. The credit card is back in the locker room, out of sight, out of mind. Diabolical. When you exit they scan your wrist chip thing again and up pops your bill. Swipe goes the card and boom. You’ve been cleaned a second time but this time in the usual way. This is not to say that the Blue Lagoon is a rip-off. It certainly is not. It delivers a group bathing experience unique within the universe of group bathing experiences. And they are expanding the facilities. Again I’m happy not to be here during peak tourist season. This place has the potential of being a total cluster.
By the way, I got chatty with a person who lives in Norway. She said that Reykjavik is cheap compared to Norway. The Norwegians come here for the bargains. I get the feeling that my worldly education needs further work. Stay tuned.
Day 4: April 13, 2017
We have come to our last full day in Iceland. Tomorrow at 3 am the alarm will make a disturbing noise reminding us that we need to hustle down to the bus. Several hours later after a flight across two time zones we’ll be dragging our stuff through Leipzig toward our rent-a-flat. Meantime, we have no plans. We decided to go on a foot propelled discovery tour to plunder the urban secrets of Reykjavik inasmuch as our bubble of ignorance will permit. After all, we can’t read any of the signs if they aren’t designed for the foreign tourist, meaning they must have either English or icons telling a story in pictures.
First thing we noticed was that Christine was missing her hat. We turned the room upside down and searched everything in triplicate but it was no good. Hat was missing. We theorize that it fell out of the Dragon Beast during the Langjokull Glacier excursion. So, first item on the day’s agenda was to look around in the shops for a new one. We weren’t expecting to learn about hats in Iceland but we did. Mostly they are knitted caps or tuques (is that a Canadian term?). We also learned that Christine hates the little pom pom that bounces on the top of some of them. Most of the shops were passed by after a 30 second look-in revealed that tuques were all they had to offer. Eventually we came to the shop that offered hand made hats made from imported coyote and genuine raccoon for $300-700 US. This unceremoniously ended the hunt for hats in Iceland and transferred that quest to our next stop in Germany.
From the shopping district we bent our attention toward the Helmingskirka, a Lutheran church which passes for the national cathedral of Iceland. A bravely heroic bronze of Leif Erikson stands in front of it. Also standing there was a disheveled fellow in a medieval tunic strumming his guitar and singing in sincere Icelandic tones. The guidebooks say that taking the lift to the observation point on the spire is a thing to do. We were willing to do it, too, until we ran into the queue of about 200 folks with the same thought. It took us about a minute to ditch the idea. We took a look at the inside of the building and were reminded again by the stark nature of the Lutheran aesthetic. It was as blank as an Icelandic blizzard in January. Totally devoid of any shape or paint or icon or decoration. It was very economical to take in and memorize completely. Onward to the next thing with a minimum of time spent.
Next was the National Museum of Iceland. This is a chronological presentation of relics and artifacts arranged to follow Iceland’s 1100 year history. Museums usually put me to sleep after about an hour and this was no exception. Reading the stories of how folks used to manage things hundreds of years ago reinforces my sense of good fortune for being alive now. Their 10th century tool collections were brutal. Did I mention the 14th and 15th centuries?
Between the Inquisition and The Black Death the choices were ‘get lucky or die’. Those who survived to the 18th century were beset by the Ministry of Silly Hats as well as annoyingly persistent superstition. By the 20th century the selfie photo-machine booth had arrived. At last! Civilization! Eventually we got back out to the street where the 21st century was already in progress. Whew.
Google is Our God these days and it now directed us to Harpa, the shiny, modern awesome opera house in Reykjavik. It looks like it is constructed with millions of transparent rhombic parallelograms. And the space inside is wonderfully wonderful. This is the reason why we need science, art, and good architects. Anyhow, The Google God informed us that a music ensemble from Belgium was going to play for free there. We decided to plunder it. The Royal Wind Band Schelle played several pieces. I even liked some of them. Then the conductor passed the hat, so to speak, complaining, as we all do, about how expensive the beer is here. Everyone who pitched some bills into the hat, actually a baritone sax case, got a big cheer from the orchestra.
Our last dining experience was at the same joint as the night before with a name I cannot recall well enough to spell out. We had cod and smoked eel with a side of roasted baby potatoes sprinkled with sea salt. The plate was dotted with smokey roasted hummus and chili flavored aoli and shredded green onions. Dessert was tiramisu and ice cream. We won’t be able to find fish like this in Germany. Yum.
I’m posting up a few snaps of things we spotted around town just to transmit some local flavor. We are already plotting another possible visit here, next time to rent a vehicle and drive around the island on what they call the Ring Road. That would be an adventure worthy of Bilbo Baggins.
Next post will be from Sachsen, Germany. Ciao and takk feyir for keeping up with us.
ICELAND TO GERMANY
April 14-15, 2017
Moving between countries isn’t very difficult but moving from the airplane to the train in Frankfurt seems like more of a problem. After collecting luggage from the moving belt and waltzing through EU customs, we find ourselves on a packed bus for 20+ minutes as it shuttles us from one remote part of Frankfurt’s sprawling airport to a main terminal where train service intersects with airport service. After an hour wait there, a three plus hour train ride to Leipzig takes longer than the Iceland flight. But this isn’t surprising, really. It has been less than a year since we were last here but somehow we tend to forget details, such as train travel and how the money works. Here in Germany we need to visit the ATM for cash. Credit card swiping doesn’t work here for us except at the ATM. Many shops don’t even accept credit cards from the locals. Iceland, on the other hand, is geared for credit card use. We didn’t need any cash in Iceland at all. It was 100% card swiping.
In Leipzig the way we get around is on the street-car tram system. It is very well run and we can go everywhere but we need tickets. The ticket machines work but you absolutely need exact change or the machine will refuse to put out. You cannot pay 2.70 euro for a 2.60 ticket. The machine will not accept it. The answer, of course, is to buy weekly passes from the ticket agent. Good idea, but it is freekin Good Friday and the ticket office is closed because Jesus. Personally,
I think it’s better to be atheist because every Friday is a Good Friday and nobody has to die. Sunday is Easter, as we are frequently reminded, and the city will roll up the sidewalks, because Jesus again (he’s baaaack from touring Hell, apparently), except for the Central Plaza. This is where the Medieval Faire and Easter Market is already roaring with trinkets and food pavilions because Jesus is all about selling stuff, particularly chocolate eggs and baby chicken shaped marshmallows. And bagpipes. They were playing bagpipes in 14th century costume complete with pointy shoes. The pipes looked German too. Terrific stuff. Oh, and Monday is another holiday, an extension of Easter. Germany gets lots of holidays. USA needs to be more like Germany.
Last night we had a lovely visit and a meal of goulash with our friends Katherina and Joshua. Today we meet them at the zoo, a favorite spot for their toddler sized children. It should be a hoot. Weather is not so good, though. Drizzling and about 11C. Still, far warmer than Reykjavik. Fast forward to the Leipzig Zoo. We are greeted by a fellow on 1 meter rabbit-leg stilts making him about 9 feet tall, 10 if you count the ears. He held a basket of candy for the children. Cruelly it was out of reach of almost all of them. He was ok, though. He wore a tie. He was quite chatty. I didn’t understand any of it.
April 17-22, 2017
All those peanut butter eggs are on sale today. It’s Easter Hangover Day so the medieval festival is still thumping away in the main plaza full of crafty fellows in dreadlocks, a hand propelled ferris wheel for toddlers, a bagpipe powered musical troupe, and purveyors of first class felted wool costumes from the 15th century. Genuine Goth Festival (which happens in Leipzig next month) costumes, not the fanciful steampunk kind, are available here. Of course there is a lot of food and drink including bratwurst, beer, and suckling pig roasted on a spit and served up in little paper boats. Our bubble of ignorance obscures anything that isn’t thoroughly portrayed in pantomime but it’s rarely a problem since the language of buying and selling is pretty much universal.
We didn’t buy much since we weren’t very hungry after spending the previous day at our friend’s flat where they feasted us on roast lamb with all the trimmings. This, after an afternoon inspecting the garden, Easter egg hunting, and a walk in the park with their toddlers while shafts of windy sunlight dodged between the clouds. It was a very pleasant day with our Leipziger friends. Monday is still a holiday, and all tourist sites are closed. Joshua volunteered to show us a part of town we hadn’t seen yet, the Wildpark, a large, mostly undeveloped greenspace for Leipzigers to wander in free of charge. But, as soon as we crossed its borders Springtime decided to morph briefly into Winter. A dark cloud rolled over and began sleeting on us. Retreat back to our habitations and plan the next adventure which was…
Prague. Our friends, Katherina and Joshua, arranged for a 3 day trip to Praha so we rolled away to the Czech Republic on the Deutche Bahn. Upon arrival we were ready for some lunch. The Cafe Imperial presented itself. Built in 1913 and decorated with glittering, sculptured porcelain tile up to a 20 foot ceiling, it is a home for 20th century ghosts to emerge as soon as the lights go out. They treated us well with wonderful food. Later our Motel One bartender provided us with a map and a plan for traveling to the Castle and its big cathedral, St Vitus. First step was to buy a day pass for the city’s transport system of bus, streetcar, and underground. And this was our first obstacle. The ticket machines only took coin. No bills and no credit card. The only customer service office is in the main terminal several blocks away. None of the currency sellers would change our bills to coin. Local businesses refused to do it as well. Our solution became buying small items with 100 Koruna bills and getting coin back until we had enough change. It was about an hour to figure this out and get past the ticket machine. When you go to Prague, boys and girls, don’t leave the main terminal without buying your city transport pass.
Prague Castle got its start in the 9th century and the cathedral started building in the 10th. They’ve been under pretty much constant construction until the early 20th century but had their heyday in the medieval period. The church is an enormous pile of stone held up by flying buttresses and dizzying arches. The pictorial stained glass is so high up and far away you need binocular magnification to actually examine them. There are a couple of dozen VIP dry corpses interred there including 4 Holy Roman Emperors, a couple of Wenceslas names, and one quite ornate installation that was made with over a ton of silver. Never quite caught his name so I’ll call him Saint Tarnish of Polishing.
From the Castle we wandered down the cobbled windy path to the Charles Bridge, a famous Prague landmark. It is for foot traffic only and so it provides a relaxed stroll past buskers, souvenir sellers, artists, and a crowd of bronze statues lining both sides. Everyone is waving a picture snapping cellphone in one hand and a Trdelnik in the other. Trdelnik is Czech for ‘chimney’. Imagine a narrow strip of dough wrapped around a metal cylinder and then baked over a low flame like a rotisserie chicken. The result is a skinny donut in the shape of a 6 inch tube. This can be filled with all manner of stuff from ice cream and candy to meat and potatoes. Mostly folks eat it as a sweet treat. In the Prague tourist zone there is a Trdlo or Trdelnik shop every 50 feet.
Easter seems to last for two weeks in Prague. Every square in town is occupied by pop-up shacks decorated with flower garlands. And they sell everything from soup to nuts. Woodworkers and blacksmiths also make an appearance. The only purchase we made was for lunch after witnessing the Astronomical Clock strike noon in the old town square. It is a relic from the 15th century featuring Earth as the center of the Universe. After passing through numerous versions of neglect and care we see it now in a period of good functionality as the twelve apostles march past the window and the mechanical rooster flaps and crows meekly. The bell dutifully rings 12 times and the large crowd of tourists gathered at its base now fans out across the square hungry for food and candy. Pavlov was Russian but he could easily have gained his insight from this scene. Our lunch came from the shack that was selling large chunks of ham together with a mixture of potato and pickled cabbage. Beer to wash it down. Excellent stuff. I don’t usually take pictures of food but I included a shot of this in the attached collection.
Prague cannot be seen in 2 ½ days. There’s much more to do here and much of it has to do with intoxication. There are several absinthe bars and one joint that calls itself ‘The Black Angels Bar’. Hrmm… If we come here again we’ll make some trips out to the smaller towns where there isn’t quite so much tourist influence.
We’re back to Leipzig to finish our visit to central Europe spending some time with our friends here and exploring a bit on our own. Yesterday it was a quick trip to the neighboring city of Halle which claims to be the birthplace of G. F. Handel. A museum about prehistoric humans in Europe caught our attention and held it for a few hours. Those folks had impressive skills in the making of stone hammers. Near the main town square we were standing in a spot where 15th century plague victims had been isolated and walled in by the healthy townsfolk. Ten years later they tore down the barricade to reveal the skeletons. In the 21st century, this is where the tourist information office finds its home. You may draw your own conclusions from that. Today we intentionally wandered to a hip part of Leipzig to find a likely cafe for our lunch. This turned out to be the Puschkin Cafe, a rather trippy place decked out in the campy motif of Soviet Occupation and Industrial Glory.
A couple of meals from now we’ll be on our way to the airport and off to Scotland, the Land of Beer and Haggis. Yum
May 1, 2017
From Prague we return to Leipzig for a few more days, then off on a train & a plane to Edinburgh, Scotland. We like Scotland. It is a civilized country. It has beer and Haggis. Both are quite good. It also has HeeryKoos, Hairy Cows to you. We have two adventures scheduled here: to take a small tour bus to what they call the Viking Coast to stop at Holy Island or Lindisfarne and then Alnwick Castle. The ‘N’ and ‘W’ are not pronounced, so it become ‘Annick’. The second adventure is a wee travel out to Skye. Weather is unseasonably cold. The steady breeze coming off the North Sea is like the breath of a ghost. Our tour bus driver, Iain, says it’s a ‘Lazy Wind’. “It’s not ambitious enough to go around so it goes straight through ye.” But there are flowers. The daffodils don’t care.
Our first stop is across the border into England, Lindisfarne. It is famous, or infamous, for being the target of the first recorded Viking raid on the British Isles in 780-something. Murderous Norsemen figured the monks at the abbey had lots of nice things. They were right. So the Vikings took their stuff and killed them all. This began several hundred years of Vikings using Christian monasteries and churches as their ATM machines.
Further down the road is Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. This is where the Duke of Northumbria lives in the winter months. During tourist season he and his troupe decamp for other digs while hoards of curious travelers patrol his grounds, gardens, and salons for outrageous fees. This is the land of the Posh 1%.
Even the pasture land surrounding the castle was landscaped by Lancelot Capability Brown in the 18th century. This means that all the grassy swards, copses of trees, little ponds one sees in the misty distance is actually landscaping. Inside the castle state rooms photography is forbidden so I can simply refer you all to watch Downton Abbey to get the idea. In fact, several episodes were filmed inside this place.
It has been used for many other films too but all outside on the grounds and using the castle walls. Most notable was Madame Hootch’s broomstick class in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In the large, sumptuous dining hall the table was set with silver candlesticks but no settings as it would have been too much temptation for the unwashed tourists. Nobody was looking at that anyway. They were too busy looking at the priceless artwork hanging around the place. Old Dutch Masters, Titian, Picasso, Vermeer, Garafalo, etc. Just the insurance premium and cleaning bill for that artwork is going to be six figures to the left of the point. It is fairly rare that a British noble still has a grip on his lordly estate. This one does so in an openly venal way, which is pretty much his main choice. In the olde days the Duke and his like were in the gangster protection racket. Now they sell tickets, hotdogs, and ice cream. I suppose that’s an improvement.
Iain stopped the van and let us walk across the river Tweed from England back to Scotland. On the way back to Edinburgh he kept us well informed with history, lore, and language evolution. Before civic sanitation, Edinburgh had its sewer in the street. Buckets of human waste were pitched out from upper stories to the sound of “garde loo” (watch out for the water). Drunks stumbling home from a bout of drinking at the pub would commonly take a full hit, hence the term ‘shit faced drunk’. Of course all that mess would conjure up quite a stink. That, plus the incessant coal smoke from everyone’s hearth combined to give Edinburgh the nick of ‘Auld Reeky’. But it is civilized now. I’m still happy not to be living in the 16th century.
The very next day we loaded into another small tour bus, this time for a 3 day trip out to the Isle of Skye. This is a place out on the edge of nowhere. From Edinburgh it takes all day to drive there. But it isn’t all the way to the edge. Beyond Skye there are the Outer Hebrides where life is even more remote and off grid. Our driver for this trip is Andy.
He’s about the size and shape of one of Tolkien’s dwarves and carries on with about the same attitude. “I eat anythin’ if it’s in a pie”, he says. He informs us that the movie ‘Braveheart’ about William Wallace, was total rubbish. Hardly any of it was accurate at all. Mel Gibson pretty much cooked up a fantasy piece, he says.
Andy chatters along and points out features in the landscape and tells a tale about how the MacDonalds were murdered by the Cambells and Maclains in Glen Coe one fine evening in the 1692. As he speaks we hurtle along this particular Glen Coe valley on a shockingly narrow highland road, our bus wide enough to fill an entire lane. Another one of many monster 16 wheel lorries is speeding toward us in the oncoming lane but Andy seems not to notice and continues with his story about how 38 men were killed outright and 40 women and children froze to death after their homes were burned by the Cambells. The lorry roars close enough that the pressure wave gives our bus a good thump. As it passes we feel our rig jerk toward the centerline as if pulled by gravity. Andy goes on with the tale without breaking rhythm. Our fellow travelers are Malaysian, Taiwanese, Indian, Californian, and Texan. It is probably a good thing we can’t understand everything they say. Nervous munching of chips and popcorn is involved. Andy goes on about the Cambells’ reputation whereupon we learn that there’s nothing quite like being cursed out by a Scot. And now an excavator riding on a trailer scrapes the bottom of a train trestle as they try to move under it. We have to stop while they sort it out since this business blocks both lanes. More creative Scottish epithets.
Day 1: May 3, 2017
We spend a night in Eastbourne just to regroup from the Zombie Day. There’s some daylight left which allows us to wander the beach front promenade. It’s a holiday weekend so there’s a gauntlet of pop up food booths and souvenir sellers. This town became popular in the 19th century as a posh get away for the wealthy. The expanding train system gave access to a breezy seaside that must have been far fresher than crowded, sooty London with its deficient sanitation. The snooty 1% of the day objected when the train service lowered the fare. They felt that their refuge would be overrun. They were correct.
Transfer to Alfriston by taxi next day. A tiny quaint village. Old buildings and the main thoroughfare is a glorified ox cart track. It isn’t wide enough for two sub compact cars to avoid collision. Autos must stop at one end to let traffic from the other end pass. The doors of some shops and houses open directly onto the roadway traffic, a real thrill for going in and out and don’t fumble the keys. The George Inn is our watering hole in this burg. They brag about serving pints since 1392. A quick inspection of the dry and blackened joists and beams lends credibility to that. Dogs are welcome. A pair of Rhodesian Ridgebacks greet us at the door. Luckily they are merely fierce and powerful cupcakes. After good grub and a pint we stumble to our B&B and our usual room at the top of the stairs. We always get that room. Always. We will fondly recall the comforts of this B&B in the days to come.
[Fast forward to next morning. Insert ZZZZs here.]
A beautifully done breakfast greets us next morning but we bolt it being anxious to start our nine mile hike across the Downs toward Rodmell. It is a mile-long steady climb out of Alfriston to the high ground. The ‘downs’ is the local term for ‘hill’. Halfway to the top we make the exquisitely scientific discovery that gravity gains strength each year. At the top, our lungs resume their normal function and we begin enjoying sweeping views of pasture, valley, tiny villages far below, and the English Channel in the distance.
The yellow fields are Canola. The yellow blooming shrub is Gorse, also known as Furze. It is a member of the pea family. It is thorny in the extreme and just about impossible to remove with hand tools. It is a rhizome spreader as well as an efficient seed producer. It provides near perfect cover for birds, rabbit, and other small game. Wicked stuff. We pass by some para-gliders waiting for a breeze. Mountain bikers overtake us regularly. We see
that the ancient landscape chalk figure known as Long Man lies near our route. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors went to the trouble of making it, so we must pay a visit. Short detour required. No pub stop on this walk so we have to settle for peanuts and a banana from the day pack.
And so we stumble into Rodmell. Smaller than Alfriston but still has church and school. Pub is the Abergavenny. Food and drink is quite good here although there were no single malts. Hard by a busy road, it’s nothing much to look at. We’ll give it a pub-charm rating of B-minus. Full marks for consumables.
Virginia Wolff cultists are pilgrims to her hangout here, Monk’s House. This is also her endpoint as she drowned herself in the local river so there’s a ghostly aspect if the hounds of one’s imagination are set loose. Our room, at the top of the stairs, is in a home that makes a Hobbit hole seem palatial. Head clearance for me is about 2 inches and several spots require me to impersonate Notre Dame’s Hunchback. No corner remains unoccupied by some random item and no surface is clear of a full collection of items, books, and/or bric-a-brac. In places the bric-a-brac is multi-layered. The toilet room is separate and unheated and must be accessed like a kissing gate. Two or three moves are required to enter or exit. A vacuum cleaner is a rare sighting here, no doubt, as cobwebs drift before our eyes. I consider every inch of this place to be treacherous. We will spend the night here. We will also have breakfast here. The food inspection certificate, proudly displayed on the door, is 6 years old. The landlady is sweet and well meaning but innkeeping is not her calling.
[Fast forward to next morning. Insert ZZZZs here.]
After a suspicious breakfast, which she proudly serves us, we flee the scene toward the town of Lewes with many thanks.
We are shifting our walking plans today in favor of visiting the town of Lewes. We have a couple of chores to do and we notice the old Castle that dates to Anglo-Saxon times. The Normans were responsible for seriously aggressive upgrades in the 13th century. There is also a house once owned by Anne of Cleves, a particularly clever wife of Henry VIII who had a 7 month tenure before walking away with a pile of money. We toured the premises. I’m still happy to be living in this century.
After a lunch at Harvey’s Pub we hail a cab out to our sleep for the night, a place that calls itself Newmarket Inn. It is next to a noisy highway and our room is at the top of the stairs. A 40-ish couple greets us and presents the news. They are the new owners who just took possession of the inn the day before.
Clearly, the oh-so-promising web site will be inaccurate. The kitchen staff, the wait staff, and housekeeper have all absconded. These two cheerful folks will see to things. So far we are encouraged by beds that appear to be more comfortable than the previous evening’s stack of recycled cardboard and by the fact that the bathroom has a functioning heat source. Dinner is at 6. Our abbreviated meals arrive 60 minutes after ordering. Breakfast starts at 7 am. We’ll be there at 6:45. Tomorrow, across the Downs toward Pyecombe. We have no idea what we’ll find there.
Day 2: May 5, 2017
Waking in Newmarket Inn from a better sleep than Rodmell. Road noise, thin walls, and overheated room all accounted for. Shower was dysfunctional in ways too dull to describe. Suffice to say that there was danger of severe scalding at random intervals. Looking forward to breakfast from our pair of innkeepers sans staff.
Breakfast takes place in the pub downstairs. There is only the new owner and her helper to take orders, cook, and serve a dozen folks. There is more than a bit of Faulty Towers in the air with quiet desperation in place of slapstick, but then again we can’t see into the kitchen. We order one egg, we get two. We order one piece of toast we get six. One sausage, please, becomes four. No, we don’t have potatoes becomes a plate full of hash browns. And somehow, coffee only comes from the kitchen one cup per breakfast. Food was good and they got us out in good time. They did very well for us despite their obvious challenges. We hit the trail wishing them more luck than is probably available.
Walking from Lewes to Pyecombe now, about 9 miles. South Downs Way is a ridge hike. From our sleep spot we walk up a long hill each morning to the highest ridge on the Downs and walk the trail until it descends to our next village for the night. Since we stay up on the high ground all day we don’t get pub lunches. Instead, lunch is a banana, some
assorted nuts, water and maybe a cookie. We eat for effect more than pleasure. We even that score at the evening meal when we find the pub at the end of the day’s walk. Today’s hike is dry, cool, and breezy. The high vistas have a clamp on them due to a strange dry low cloud that hangs over the lowlands.
Up on the Downs the effect is that of a mysterious gray curtain keeping things just out of sight. Beautiful hiking weather, actually. Lots of mountain bikers. I’m including a photo of one of the many highways we have to cross just to show that all is not bucolic charm and lovely old pubs. This area is densely populated. The Downs provides tons of open space for folks to roam.
Our evening meal in Pyecombe is at the Plough, a combination spacious pub run by Brits and an Italian Restaurant run totally by Italians. Weird but it works. Our sleep is at the Tallai B&B. [Insert ZZZZZs here.] Very nice facilities and top class breakfast. Top marks on Trip Advisor.
(Fast forward to the next morning.)
Today’s walk to Steyning starts with another long climb up to the ridge. More dry cloud and stiff breeze at our backs. Lots of unfamiliar birdsong in the rare wooded areas. More familiar chirping directly over head up on the Downs. Swifts hover in the steady breeze waiting for the wind to bring insects to them while whistling a happy tune. By afternoon the clouds let the sun through. Sunlight sweeping between the clouds highlights millions of grass blades bouncing in the breeze. The effect is like waves on water.
All of our route is over a landscape dominated by flinty stones in soil that seems to be 95% chalk. The only stone we see is flint. Flint is basically silica that seeped into cracks in the chalk at the bottom of an ancient sea. There it became stone kind of like a stalagmite. Chalk was formed from the shells of countless sea creatures and coral millions of years ago. There’s so much of it here, the mind boggles a bit. Stone age folks here had a limitless supply of material for knives and tools.
Halfway through our route there appears a hiker’s hostel complete with washrooms and a cafe serving pizza. Yay! Hot lunch! Our hostess tells us of her project, to visit all 50 states in the US. I can’t resist giving my opinion that there are a number of states not worth the effort.
We eventually find Steyning after 10 miles and several consultations with map and guidebook. Our room here is the room at the top of the stairs. Surprise. Luggage must be horked. The facilities are perfectly adequate. CK even gets a swimming pool experience! Bonus! Our meal is at the White Horse, a well run gastro pub. Laphroaig single malt for dessert. I’m a happy guy.
More South Downs walking tomorrow.
Day 3: May 8, 2017
We are in Steyning, West Sussex, waking in Springwells B&B on Saturday morning with a minor change of plan in the works. This is an interesting town but we can’t stay to explore. First things first, however. We must have a wrestling match with another shower control mechanism. Somewhere there is an army of engineers freshly graduated from University who are punished for their inexperience with the assignment of designing these things. And they are like snowflakes. Every one is unique and uniquely dysfunctional. This one attacks with freezing cold liquid followed by steaming hot damage before settling into a survivable temperature. Any manual adjustment for the mix of hot and cold achieved failure long ago. We take what we get.
From our room at the top of the stairs I am reacquainted with the term ‘lug’ as applied to luggage. The staircase is narrow and twisty. I manage it but not without puffing and groaning. I hope nobody is listening.
Today we decide to skip over to the village of Washington by bus, thereby cutting our walking distance to Amberly down from 12 miles to 7. Washington presents us with charming cottages and a church with an old Saxon tower and Norman upgrades. We can’t stay to explore this, either. Our climb to the Downs features a flowery lane.
Today is Saturday. Apparently this means no school and lots of folk have their days off because the path is swarming with groups, mostly bunches of teenage girls. We also see cyclists, equestrians, and sailplanes overhead. And every other walker has a dog. And every dog beams with a beatific glow, the same look an evangelist would have if presented with a gold engraved invitation to the rapture. It is dog heaven. Our seven mile walk ends in Amberley where we catch a train to the next town where our sleep will be tonight. We are now in Arundel.
Arundel is the largest settlement we’ve seen since Eastbourne. Prior to 500ad the Romans were likely here followed by Saxons who bossed the place until the new sheriff came to town in 1066. He promptly put one of his best pals in charge and told him to build a fortification to prevent attackers from using the river. Apparently William the Conqueror figured that he wasn’t the only bully in the conquering business. Long story short, over the last 950 years it has been expanded, upgraded, knocked down, built up, and upgraded again.
The latest improvement was in the Victorian age when the 15th Duke of Norfolk turned it into a massive fantasy castle for his clan to live in. It looks like a Disney installation. They call it Gothic but it looks like a mashup, a modified Norman style. This Duke of Norfolk is another posh British Noble with tax and cash flow issues. He too is in the tickets, hotdog, and ice cream business. No photos inside so you all have to watch more Downton Abbey. More gigantic portraits by Van Dyke and other old masters. A visit to the Fitzalan Chapel nearby is actually a tour through an airy, posh mausoleum. This could be fairly called a necropolis given all the corpses installed here.
Our evening meal is a local pub, The Swan. Sadly, this is nothing special, only adequate. One order of wine never reaches the table but that isn’t necessarily a disaster. Our sleep is in a room at the top of the stairs. Do you have to ask? It’s a nicer one and everything works except the telly but we don’t care about that. Even the shower control is functional in ways we understand. Breakfast is bolted and out we go. This time more sightseeing to Bignor Villa. Today is Sunday.
Sightseeing means we need wheels. There’s no time to walk to a spot off route, inspect it, then hike back to the route and resume the march. As you can tell, we aren’t being purists about walking every step of the pilgrim’s path to Winchester. Our taxi arrives spot on time. Cabbie identifies us correctly as Yanks, then reminisces aloud about admiring JFK and how things have changed. He segues to ask what we think about you-know-who. “Are you referring to His Fraudulence, President Pencildick?”, I ask. He hoots and we’re suddenly bonded in spirit.
12 pounds and a discussion of the suspicious nature of Kennedy’s assassination later we arrive at the ruins of an elaborate Roman Villa from the 3rd or 4th century. It has been conserved and done up as a tourist attraction but no less interesting. A farmer in the 19th century banged his plow against an odd rock which turned out to be part of the foundation of a large Roman home. Future excavation revealed the fun stuff: hundreds of square feet of mosaic tiled floor. There are remains of other structure as well but the spectacle is the tiling. If I were better at believing in ghosts, this would be a creepy place. From the Villa we hunt for a footpath that will take us back to the Downs path. We find a local in the road washing her vehicle. She helpfully points out the fingerpost in the bushes we had missed. With many thanks we start another long climb to the top through a birdsong wood. At the top and out of breath we resume the South Downs Way in fine dry, cool weather. Today we don’t see many wide vistas because the terrain is more tree covered. One fascinating section took us through an enormous area of long barrows and what the map identifies as tumuli. Ancient earthen tombs to be exact. We are strolling through a graveyard. Judging by the vastness of the barrows there are thousands of old corpses under them.
Our sleep for the night is in the village of Cocking. I’m reminded that a day or two ago we passed a village named Fulking. Perhaps these two could get together and make a Hamlet. Our room is at the top of the stairs. Seriously. It is tiny but beds are ok. Bathroom is spacious and the shower control was designed by an engineering graduate who didn’t sleep through his classes. It works well.
There is, tragically, no heat at all emerging from the radiator. Red mark for that. The road outside is the main track for autos. Some of them rip through this tiny village at 70+ mph. We cross these roads with an abundance of caution. We dine at the Bluebell Pub, one of dozens of pubs by this name in Sussex. I wish I could report a glorious experience. It wasn’t terrible, though. I suppose I am cursing it with faint praise. Breakfast is on blue floral China in a blue painted room with blue cushioned chairs. Coffee slow to appear but food is nice. Today is Monday and our goal is Petersfield.
Day 4: May 11, 2017
Today is Wednesday. We’re waking in East Meon at Ye Olde George Inn. Another quick but satisfying breakfast and we’re off.
We hop over to the village of Exton in a cab. The hike to Winchester would be 19 miles otherwise. We’re paring it down to 15 because we are old. It is Mr. Toad’s Wild Cab again. Cabbie warns us to buckle up tight because the roads are narrow here. There’s no room for two cars to pass and the hedges are tall enough to make every curve and corner blind. I ask him what happens when you meet the garbage truck? “You’re screwed,” says he. I reassure CK that she gets everything if I die. As we round another curve at high speed a pair of elderly walkers dodge out of the way. “Those folks are from Canada. I gave them a lift yesterday,” says our fearless cabbie. “They’re probably Americans wearing those Canadian flag pins for disguise,” I blurt. “These days we don’t want to be spotted much.” For the first time I note that I have no proper paper bag to fit over my head. I need to correct this egregious oversight.
We arrive at Exton all limbs and parts intact. Exton is our start point. Exton has a church. The church must be inspected. CK inspects the church. I stick my face inside and declare that it smells horrible. It actually does. I retreat back out where the sun is blazing and the birds are singing. Minutes later we find the South Downs Way trail head and trudge West on foot.
Weather could not be better today on May 10. It one of those perfect days that the Universe produces every once in a while whether we deserve it or not. Warm sun, light breeze, no biting bugs, and a moderate terrain.
About 11 am we encounter only the 2nd pub lying directly on the route, the first one being between Eastbourne and Alfriston. We briefly entertain the notion of a lunch but, sadly, it is shut until 11:30. We sit on a bench and eat our banana instead, then press on. More bluebells, birdsong, and gentle terrain. It turns out that we don’t have to climb any more. All the way to Winchester is an easy stroll, more or less. We pass the site of a medieval village and another bronze age burial mound. I climb it imagining the bones under my feet. The Downs are thick with these things.
At last, the City. The sound of traffic, the smell of smog, propane, and hot donut grease. Haven’t had that since Eastbourne.
Our habitation for the next two nights is above the King Alfred Pub. Finding this pub in the first place presents some issues since it fails to appear on Google Maps. We navigate to the neighborhood ok but feel bamboozled by a forest of brick buildings and meandering streets. An elderly lady is walking her toy rat terrier. I bid her good day and inquire politely about her health before asking directions. “Yes, I do know,” she says sweetly, “Just over there beyond that wall.” She gestures toward blank brick wall covered in greenery and half masked by an enormous oak. And voila! Bob’s our Uncle. Apparently we had been walking in circles around it for 10 minutes. We are shown to our room. It is too small to leave both cases open but bathroom is adequate and heated, something that we’ve learned to appreciate as a luxury here in jolly old England.
We decide against dining in the pub for reasons rooted in music selection and volume. We end up a few blocks away in an Indian restaurant. This seems a random choice until we realize that we dined in an Indian restaurant in Eastbourne. We’re bookending our South Downs Odyssey with Indian food. I haven’t the slightest idea what this could signify. Puns having to do with curry are finding multiple dead ends. After dining the long day catches up to us. Our sleep rivals those sleeping in the barrows..
Thursday morning and we sleep until the room changer starts banging around the hall outside. Our goal today is the Cathedral and whatever else takes our attention. We arrive just in time to hook on to a guided tour. The construction job is fantastic, of course. To stack stone and concrete on this scale is eye popping. Like all other churches it is a necropolis for the 1%. There is one notable exception: Jane Austen. Unmarried and not a blue blood, yet her bones are interred in Winchester Cathedral.
Then there are the bishops of old like William Wickham. These guys were so evil and so aware of it that they built special chantries for their own corpses and paid monks to pray their souls out of purgatory or Hell as the case may be. The civil war soldiers trashed the place in the 17th century. Among other things they smashed all the windows. During rebuilding efforts they found as many broken shards as they could and put them back to replace the huge front window. But it isn’t the religious scene it was previously. It is now a jumble of glass shards like a abstract painting. It is the original glass but now it’s all scattered about randomly. Cool. Interesting to note that many of the floor stones are actually old grave stones that have been flipped writing side down. In this town they use old headstones as flowerbed borders.
We also take the crypt tour. It is simply the basement. No corpses are there because it floods regularly. Disappointment!
Medieval pilgrims walked from Eastbourne and Canterbury to visit the corpse of St. Swithun hoping for some good luck. We came for the cultural experience and the pubs. Our luck has been quite nice throughout our walk, St Swithun notwithstanding. That’s because he’s dead.
Tomorrow is Friday and we catch a train to London. CK made plans so there’s still a bit of fun left. TTFN.
May 12, 2017
From the sheep pastures of the Downs to the big wacky city. This is the day we come in on the train from Winchester. We find that our Hotel is just around the corner from the British Museum. Naturally we must plunder this before dinner.
But first we try to buy a 7 day pass for the London Underground from a vending machine and mess it up. It doesn’t open any gate for us because somehow it is only good for buses. We find an official who rolls his eyes at his latest encounter with know-nothing tourists but helps us fix it anyway. Welcome to London.
We arrive at the British Museum half burned out from our various lurchings in the public transportation system. I knew there were antiquities here but yikes. Really breathtaking. The Rosetta Stone! The real one! Sculpture from Egypt, Rome, Greece, Etruscans. Some Persian stone objects larger than an elephant. Paintings and more sculpture and looted antiquities from the Victorian era when that was all ok. We find the junk room. All kinds of miscellaneous treasures, bric-a-brac, and curios set up in cabinets behind bulletproof glass. We find the clock room. It is Captain Hook’s worst nightmare. Dozens of fascinating old clock mechanisms spinning madly. Everyone who walks in there stops talking and enters a state of slack-jawed hypnosis until the timepieces all strike the hour. Then it sounds like a steampunk burglar alarm.
They throw us out at 5 pm and we feel entitled to a steak dinner. There’s one conveniently near. We will find that English is not the first language for 90% of all restaurant workers. Here we find a good example. Our fellow is nice but doesn’t know what HP sauce is. Later I ask him for single malt Scotch selection. “We don’t have that,” says he. I doubt the truth of this but don’t insist. As we leave I stroll past the bar to look. Indeed, there are five to choose from. Dylan said it, “I pity the poor immigrant…”
London is pricey to the level of Iceland for most of the normal things. Pint is $7.50 US. Coffee shop latte $5. Sandwich $8. Two scoops ice cream $6. Admission to Westminster Abbey or Tower of London or Stonehenge, $26 US per person. But cost of habitation is out there beyond the orbit of Saturn. Knightsbridge neighborhood near Hyde Park: 100-150 million quid for an apartment. Add 30% for US dollar. The Royal family of Qatar owns Harrod’s, also in this area for 1.5 billion, the sale price. 531K$ average condo price in London, generally. Two bed tiny house on a busy street 800 thousand US dollars.
May 13, 2017
We look at our map and pick a route from Hyde Park to Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square to Millennium Bridge and Globe Theater. All on foot because we’re not afraid to do that after walking 100 miles from Eastbourne to Winchester.
Hyde Park is enormous, much too big to walk in an hour. We see a fun run event and dodge it. They are playing that mechanical thump music that insults our ancient tastes. They have American Football style cheerleaders. Appalling. We pick a direction away from it and notice we are walking toward Speakers Corner. It looks close on the map. It takes a half hour to get there. We arrive full of certain expectations. Nobody is speaking. Not even a drunken crank with paranoid delusions. Oh, right. We have Facebook for that. So the internet has reduced Speakers Corner to some leafy shade and a couple of forlorn ice cream trucks. Drat. It is a nice walk through the park despite the disappointment. All of those quintessentially riotous English gardens are in full riot, all freshly bloomed in Technicolor.
Now our direction takes us toward Buckingham Palace. Along the way we are halted by a procession of Horse Guard in Victorian livery. Bonus. We arrive at the Palace. Speaking of riots, this is a potential one. This spot is mobbed with an army of cam-phone wielding foreigners with selfie sticks. Those without ‘The Wand of Vanity’ hand over their phones to total strangers to get a proper souvenir snap of themselves. Madness I tell you! We find the Canada Gate. More snaps go into the cellphone. Before us, the Victoria Memorial is a giant object shaped like a gilded winged victory plus a puddle of water at the base but it is so swarmed with human bodies that we can’t see all the details. People are climbing it to see over the fence. I’m sure most of them think the Queen is inside. She is not there because the Royal Standard isn’t floating over the roof. I haven’t the courage to tell them. We move on quickly. This is a proper zoo.
We have an idea to inspect Westminster Abbey since it is nearby. The ticket lines snake out of sight both north and south. Cancel that. We need a better plan and stronger resolve. Instead we give our attention to St Margaret’s Church which sits squarely in The Abbey’s front lawn. Apparently the Abbey wasn’t titanic enough so they needed to add another church. Sir Walter Raleigh’s burial place. Thank this guy for bringing tobacco to Western civilization. He was beheaded for piracy against a Spanish outpost in the New World. A wild and crazy guy.
After studying leaded church windows and dusty effigies we stroll past Parliament and House of Lords but we don’t care much about those losers. We are looking for lunch. The Clarence Pub seats us next to table of 6 playing cards and shouting at each other. Can’t understand a word. We suspect they are chattering in some cryptic form of Inner London gibberish meant to confound the invader. I can’t resist asking them about it. “We’re from China,” quips the old wag. That gets a laugh. Turns out they are speaking Dutch. Our ear for languages is not well tuned to say the least. With our pub lunch managed and our new Dutch friends still at their card game we hike onward to Trafalgar Square where Lord Admiral Nelson in marbled glory rules all he surveys from atop his stone pedestal. He foiled Boney and the Spaniards long ago, gave an eye and an arm, and took a bullet for England. And we aren’t allowed to forget it. Over here across the way is St Martin in the Fields, a church famous for its musical mission. Today they are rehearsing a Mozart string concerto. We sit in the pews to listen. Magical.
Our next stop is the National Portrait Gallery. CK is most interested in this. Portraits of long gone Earls, Dukes, and Viscounts hold my focus for as long as it takes to appreciate the painting technique as much as my limited knowledge allows. Which is about 20 seconds. An official minder walks about with his clip-on tie descended to a button on his shirt 3 inches below his collar. It looks like art so I don’t say anything. I look for the modern section, the one featuring writers, actors, and scientists before fading into sleep-walk mode.
Christine wakes me up and we check our map. The Millennium Bridge is not far away so we hoof it a mile. The bridge is pedestrian only, so its a good way to stand in the middle of the Thames for the skyline view. Once on the bridge we see that it is aligned perfectly with the rotunda of St Paul’s cathedral. On the east side is the reconstruction of the Globe theater and the absolutely sprawling Tate Modern art museum. We don’t go into either. The Globe because it is in use and the Tate because we are hungry.
Soon we grab a tube back to our neighborhood. We opt for Italian food in a joint featuring a live piano player. He is good, too. Unconsciousness follows soon thereafter. So much London, so little time. There’s more, though somewhat delayed. TTFN
May 14, 2017
“Britain, the land of embarrassment and breakfast.” – Julian Barnes
This seems to be so. Every B&B on our walking tour offers the ‘Full English Breakfast’. Same deal here in London unless you’re in Starbucks or one of its half dozen competitors. One portly gent swanned his bulky belly past our table after growling “Full double English, please,” to the waiter. This would be a stack of toast, two eggs, two sausages, two bacon, beans, tomato, and coffee. In his case, pile it on twice. We hired a mini-bus tour today so we can’t stay to bear witness to the gluttony. It leaves at 8 am so it’s coffee and a roll and go. The agenda is Stonehenge, Bath, and Windsor Castle all spun into one day. Our tour guide is an irreverent scamp from Ireland. He prefers rugby (a gentleman’s game) to futbol (empty headed gits kicking a bag of wind in their underwear). His description of the cost of London real estate makes it seem like only trust fund babies could live there.
We arrive at Stonehenge. Every lecture about it ends with long discussions about how much is unknown. I think it a good thing that we can still be mystified about something even if it is just an odd grouping of stones. 2500 years of mystery depending on who you talk to. They estimate 6000+ years the location has been used for ceremonial purposes. The electronic guide, in its recorded female voice, tells us that a likely use for Stonehenge was to note the Spring and Fall Equinox adding that these were important dates for farmers. “That’s silly,” I think to myself, “Only priests who did no farming would need such a thing. Farmers already knew all about it.” Stonehenge is nonetheless fascinating. It is surrounded by dozens of bronze age and Neolithic burial mounds. They were looted long ago but still look spooky.
“Speaking of stone circles, why don’t I see crop circles?”, I ask our guide. He tells me that the local pub creatures use their GPS toys to design up to 50 of them every year. But that comes a bit later in the season. Back on the bus. Next stop is Bath. Bath is a place that functions almost exclusively on tourism. There’s a bunch of that, for sure. Costs a fortune to have a flat here too. The driver takes us past Johnny Depp’s house. I buy ice cream and take photos.
A quick stroll through the old Roman bath and temple complex. They give me the digital tour guide to wear around my neck. Then I put it in my pocket and ignore it. The baths have that ‘lost civilization’ feel about them. It must have been a spectacular thing in its time. Part of the tour takes us to the source of the springs. It pumps thousands of gallons of hot water every hour as it has done for thousands of years. People throw coins into it. They throw coins into any pool of water. We see this everywhere we go. Even the old Romans did it. Bath is an excellent place to admire ancient Roman engineering and masonry up close and personal. Bathing not allowed. We are discouraged from touching the water. Far too nasty. In the Pump Room they clean it up a bit and offer us some. It stinks like 20,000 years of bad cheese. We decline.
Windsor Castle is our last stop. There are eight royal residences. Windsor is one of the big ones. This one makes Arundel look like a hunting cabin and Alnwick look like a pup tent. No pix allowed but I cheated a couple of times. And the Royal Standard flutters from on high. This means that the Queen is booked in, for those who care. These are sumptuous digs full of showing away and various treasures meant to project power and authority. I don’t know how many exclusive soirees are given here but my guess is more than a handful. I am most interested in seeing the rebuilt section that burned in 1992. Yeah. Did they ever slick it up. It’s what a palace looks like when it’s fresh (relatively) as a daisy. Visiting a royal residence reminds me that Charles will be King, eventually, and Camilla will be Queen consort. Camilla isn’t nearly as glamorous as Diana, to put it mildly. People here are not looking forward to seeing her face on a stamp. Nobody will lick that. Tomorrow we’ll try for Westminster Abbey again. TTFN
May 15, 2017
Trying to get to Westminster Abbey early enough to get an entry ticket. Couldn’t get them online somehow so success will depend on how long the queue is this morning. We plan to get there early. We dive into the London Tube after a coffee and a bun. It is rush hour. We change lines in King’s Cross. Yikes. 14 million people in London and they are all here. We are additionally mystified by the trains which suddenly cease to make sense. The one we want isn’t labeled the way we expect. We stand on the platform dodging the multitudes until we identify our train by S. Holmes’ method: Eliminate the false possibilities, then what remains must be the truth. We cram on and consider our existence to be the equivalent of canned Spam for the next 30 minutes or more. I trust this is better than walking. Walking!! We just walked 100 miles across high pastures which is perfectly idyllic in comparison to this. It’s literally elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder. No possible way to avoid exchanging DNA with random commuters. Gratefully it is early in the day and most folks smell of bath gel and hair conditioner. This won’t be true at 5 pm.
At Westminster Abbey we join the queue at 9:22 am. At 9:55 we’re in. Not so bad. It is expensive but I suppose one should pay a considerable sum to experience this enormous monument to superstition, power, wealth, and the Divine Right of Kings. It is so huge I wonder if it generates its own weather. No photos allowed. Apparently the dead are camera shy. You can pull them from the Abbey’s website for free. Grrrr. Anything to sell a postcard.
And like every other church in old timey Christendom this place is a necropolis. There are bones everywhere under the floor, in the walls, set on platforms often with an ornate sculpture attached to the tomb. Did I explain chantries earlier? These are special small rooms built around a coffin so that the very evil and wicked deceased person contained therein has a special spot for the the monks to pray his miserable black soul out of Hell. Of course he had to give the monks lots of money prior to falling off the twig. An interesting racket. I’m sure it has possibilities in the 21st century. We see tombs of the justly famous as well as those simply born to the right parents (lots of those). Among the righteous are Darwin, Coward, Watt, Newton, Churchill, Dylan Thomas, Lord Byron, CS Lewis, Chaucer, etc. We are treading on their bones. Wow. Fanciest cemetery ever. And there is room for more. And there he is, Henry V of Shakespearean legend. Elizabeth I is here too but crammed into a tiny space full of tourists conducting an improvised experiment in claustrophobia. I decline.
I find it ironic that the absolute biggest and gaudiest monuments are dedicated to the wealthy and forgotten nobility. We look at their excessively silly monuments as evidence of the excessively silly persons they once were. We grab a quick escorted trip to what they call the crypt. It is really just a basement. Nobody is buried there because it is regularly flooded. The water table is so close to the surface that it only takes a bit of rain to send water everywhere. It has been dry lately so we can go down. A couple of artists put sculptures there and there’s a couple of old Saxon stone coffins and other junk. Mostly I look at the masonry since it is the oldest in the building dating back to the 12th century.
By the way, my hat is doffed to the builders and artists who actually built this thing, dead though they be. Leaving the Abbey behind we go to the Tate Britain. There’s a painting that CK wants to visit. Lots of gorgeous work there but my appreciation is unworthy and shallow. So is my attention span. Besides, we have a play to attend in Covent Garden and, horrors, no reservation for supper. We’re getting better at riding the Underground even though it creeps me out to walk into a hole in the ground. It delivers us in good order to our restaurant, French by the way, in Covent Garden just a block from the Carrick Theater where we have tix for ‘The Miser’. We have noticed that restaurants here are not anxious to bring the check. I think they’d let us camp on a table and sip water for 6 hours if we wanted. In Seattle they wouldn’t operate that way. We make expanded gestures to get the attention of our charming Russian waitress who brings the check just in time to get us to the show before curtain up.
The house is small! Yay! Seats are cramped, however. Seems that they always are in live theater. I’m pleased to note that the actors are not mic’d up and amplified. Thanks for that! The last stage show I saw was a road show musical in Seattle, ‘Book of Mormon’. One of the absolute worst shows ever. All performers were amped through the PA. Ugh. But not here in the Carrick Theater, thank you. It is a good show. Lots of laughs and straight ahead farce from a troupe of real pros. Tomorrow is our last full day in London before zooming back home. Let’s see what happens.
May 19, 2017
It’s the last day of our 5 week odyssey to Germany and the UK. We’re in London and that means more sightseeing because there are more things to see. At this point we are fairly certain that it would take a lifetime to explore London. But for today we have to narrow the focus a bit. CK isn’t as keen on it as I am but I want to go to the Tower.
The Tower of London is Willy the Conqueror’s first Castle. He built it on top of a Roman ruin. For a long while it was the toughest fortification in England and served to project Norman power on to the newly conquered Saxon populace. Nowadays it is a museum dedicated to ancient heritage as well as the home of the Crown Jewels. A walking tour takes us around the outer wall which contains several small towers which made for convenient places to hold important prisoners, folks like Mary Stewart, Henry Walpole, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Becket, Lady Jane Grey, and various noblemen who bet the wrong way in some political power struggle. Geoffrey Chaucer was a clerk there too. These prison cells collected a fair bit of graffiti scratched into the stone by the inmates.
In the old Central Keep there’s a comprehensive collection of weapons and full plate cap-a-pie medieval armor including a Henry VIII mounted suit featuring a knee length metal skirt. “A terrible worm in an iron cocoon,” as a famous poet once quipped. There are also captured military trophies from various campaigns, cannons, bells, battle standards and the like. One display shows off a glorious steampunk item, the first automatic machine gun, a steam powered rifle from 1824. 240 rounds per minute. It was never used because of the excessively bulky boiler needed to power it. The guides are overheard saying that its a slow day at the Tower. I think it crowded and so would very much like to avoid this place on a day of peak tourism. Today there are scads of chattering French school kids running around. This makes it easier to imagine the days when William the Conqueror’s troops were bossing the place.
Ravens were once a problem here. I forget which King it was who ordered them killed off until he was reminded that some needed to be kept for good luck. So for hundreds of years they have kept 6 of them as pets. These are some fat, healthy Ravens. They get fresh meat from the butchers every day. I don’t know what happens if other Ravens decide to move in. Crown jewels. This is a large room built just like the safe deposit area of a bank. Here there’s no anything. Or is that no everything? No food, no drink, no cell phones, no dogs, no cameras, and no wicked thoughts. Breathing by permission only. This is some serious bling. Rubies and emeralds as big as grapes. Diamonds the size of a chicken egg mounted in solid gold. These gilded royal toys are heavy. I’m just now realizing that Charles will be too old and weak to hold up the orb and scepter for his coronation processional. Queen Victoria had a problem like that. Once upon a time she complained that her crown was too heavy to wear so they carried it on a cushion in front of her.
We had to visit the Tower just because. After doing so it is clear that we don’t have to do it again. Once is plenty. CK wants to show me Piccadilly Circus, so off we go. A short hop through the tube and we’re there. There’s a tall monument featuring Winged Mercury with people perched all around its base. Buskers are busy trying to make a quid or two. The gold painted statue lady breaks character to answer her cellphone. It doesn’t look quite right probably because her phone is the only thing she has that isn’t gold.
This is a shopping zone. Lots of top end shops, particularly bling shops. Tiffany, Boodles, Cartier, etc. I don’t see anyone but sales people inside these shops but that’s always the case it seems. I don’t know how that works. We don’t live in that world, obviously. Now we head back to Covent Garden. We’re taking in another play, second night in a row. But first, some food. We have no reservations but we’re early enough to get seated at a funky looking Italian joint about two blocks from our theater. Giovanni’s. This is a Sicilian style restaurant as the owner and chef instantly informs us with Mafia-like confidence. We’re in the best restaurant in town, he declares. I spot a signed photo of Cecelia Bartoli (famous opera diva) on the wall. “She’s kind of an average star compared to others who have dined here,” he boasts, pointing toward pix of Elizabeth Taylor, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Princess Diana, and The Queen. And the other Queen, Brian May. And the other Queen, Freddy Mercury. The walls are papered with signed portraits. His name is Pino. It is embroidered on his chef’s jacket. Suddenly he is intently producing documents from his wallet to prove that he is the Count of Ragona, knighted by the Queen, and has her number on speed dial. “She is my friend,” he boasts again. By now I’m hoping that the meal doesn’t require this much ego compensation. If it does, our luck will have hit the rocks for the first time in five weeks. My selection is spinach, fennel, and orange salad followed by boar and penne. Christine goes for the lasagne. And so, all of the Count’s concerns regarding social status fade away as we enjoy one of the best meals ever. So good. The wine he serves is also worth hunting down. The label is Corvo. If we come back to London, we’re coming back here.
Count Ragona gets us out in time to arrive early at the theater. They do things a bit differently here. The house bar is open before curtain and folks are getting buttered. As they move to their seats the drinks come with them. The patrons are swilling happily as Act I begins. It is called ‘Don Juan in SoHo’. David Tennant is the draw. Last night it was ‘The Miser’. Tonight, another farce but a darker one. It is obviously a vehicle for David Tennant to play a creatively wicked, morally corrupt, high functioning rotter. Think of a literate Charlie Sheen in peak rut, traversing a near perfect arc of insufferable loathing. Fun stuff, and David Tennant in live performance is worth every penny. He’s pretty much awesome. In both plays, The Miser and Don Juan, there are lengthy tirades dedicated to heaping insults upon His Fraudulence. Yes. Two Moliere-ish plays in a row for us. Given current circumstances in the world, entirely appropriate. It’s the end of a terrific day, our last one before we become time-zone zombies on the flight home tomorrow. Ugh.
Thanks for following along on this crazy five week hop across Iceland, Scotland, Germany, Prague, and England. It was all good and we dodged almost all the bad weather too! TTFN