Amsterdam Summary

Four nights: Thursday, July 26 to Monday, July 30

Along with Paris, Amsterdam was one of two cities on this trip that we had visited before. In both cases, I was surprised at the amount of familiarity I felt, especially with Amsterdam since our last visit was in 2009 (Paris, on the other hand, was 2001). Despite the feeling of familiarity, a few things had changed in three years:

  • Currency: The Netherlands are now using the Euro. This wasn’t a big shock – in fact, I preferred it since it was the most common currency we encountered. I suppose that visiting countries that still use an independent currency (Croatia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, UK) adds to the travel ‘adventure’, but I like the idea of a single, common currency. Maybe 100 years from now we’ll even have a common global currency – what do you think?
  • Transit tickets: Instead of buying plain old paper tickets, everything is now RFID-based. The common practice is to buy a long-term card and electronically refill it as needed. THey also offer a cheaper single-use card, which is the option we went with for the one transit ride we took. On a related note, it’s getting very common throughout Europe (especially France and The Netherlands) for people to have chip-based credit cards. Rather than swipe, you insert the card into a reader and type a PIN to complete your transaction. In fact, there were even a few venues that were card-only, no cash!
  • Pot: Sure, there were ‘coffee shops’ and people publicly smoking pot when we visited in 2009. However, it seemed like we were seeing a lot more public tokage than on our last trip. Maybe it was the nicer Summer weather compared to our previous Spring visit? I don’t know. Also, I noticed that many of the additional coffee shops I saw were a little more upscale than the scuzzier red-light district spots I had seen earlier. I wonder if this is what we’ll start seeing at home once pot is decriminalized by Washington and other states?

For this visit, we stayed in the Jordaan neighborhood – specifically, on a houseboat on the Lijnbaansgracht. The houseboat was an interesting and comfortable spot, plus the neighborhood was great. We were able to spent most of our time away from the center of the city and its more touristy / overrun areas. For example, on Friday, we were able to skirt south along Prinsengracht to revisit Vondelpark and a specific Indonesian restaurant we had tried on our last visit. The park was fun (we had a easy lunch there, including bitterballen!) but the Indonesian restaurant no longer existed. No rice table for us, unfortunately.

Oh, I should also mention the bit of excitement we experienced Friday night. An apartment directly across the canal from our houseboat caught on fire from what looked like candles placed too near the curtains. The flames were pretty spectacular, shooting out of the window and licking up the side of the building. Our neighbors called the fire department who showed up pretty quickly and thankfully got things under control. Very dramatic, though I feel bad for the apartment owner and her neighbors.

For the rest of our visit, we ended up checking out some new things. On Saturday morning, the Noordermarkt was taking place literally 50 feet from our houseboat. We strolled around checking out the various stalls and ended up picking out a fine assortment of dinner fixins. That afternoon, we took a ferry across the Ij river to the Amsterdam Noord and checked out the Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Film Institute. The exhibit was great – I learned about some of his early films I wasn’t familiar with plus they had had great sections for every film he made, along with original props. Donna and I have decided we need to do a complete Kubrick film festival one week when we’re back in Seattle.

On Sunday, we did some additional strolling about, including a brief visit to the crowded Dam Square to brows the American Book Company. That afternoon, we walked way over to the northwest part of town and enjoyed snacks and drinks over a game of chess at Brouwerij ‘t IJ.

Overall, Amsterdam may be my favorite large city. It’s got a great vibe (reminds me of Seattle in a lot of ways), it’s amazingly scenic with its canals and it seems to have an authenticity that’s not been overly commercialized. I suspect this will not be our last trip here.

 

Ghent Summary

Two nights: Tuesday, July 24 to Thursday, July 26

We left the UK via a flight from Bristol to Paris, where we spent a one-night layover. The next morning we hopped a train to Ghent for a shorter than usual stay, only two nights. We ended up doing this because we wanted to end our overall journey with four nights in Amsterdam. Anyway, with only one full day in Ghent, we didn’t get up to very much (plus, I can be a little lazy while on vacation). Also, it turns out that we arrived just a day after the end of an 10-day long citywide celebration (Gentse Feesten). Crews were still tearing down bleachers all over town and there was trash everywhere – it seemed almost post-apocalyptic. Plus, I think the town was partied out, as it seemed many places were closed for the couple of days we were there.

On the first day, we managed to catch an afternoon city walking tour. The tour was quite fun, in large part due to the enthusiastic older lady we had as our guide. Despite her being around 70 years old, it was a challenge to keep up with her as we toured the city for over two hours. Plus, as a bonus, we were allowed to tour the inside of the Ghent city hall, something you can only do with a guide.

The next day, we headed over to the Museum of Design which had a nice assortment of exhibitions. I think I’ve come to the conclusion that Art Nouveau may be one of my favorite styles. We then spent the rest of the day wandering the city and then generally lounging about. Overall, Ghent was a scenic small city – kind of like Brugges but with fewer tourists.

Wotton-Under-Edge Summary

Three nights: Friday, July 20 to Monday, July 23

For our final stop in the UK, we headed down to the Cotswolds to visit Donna’s friend Suzanne. It was great to see her and she was a wonderful host, taking time to show us around some of the more interesting sites in the area – like having own personal tour guide. Thanks Suzanne!

Our first full day was focused on visiting Stonehenge as well as other neolithic sites around Avebury. While a bit crowded and touristy, Stonehenge was nevertheless impressive to see in person. It struck me as being somehow smaller than I imagined (though not in a Spinal Tap kind of way), but it was still pretty majestic. It does boggle the mind thinking of the effort people put in 4,000 years ago to collect and arrange these massive stones.

 

From Stonehenge, we continued to the Avebury area and set out on foot to check out the many sites. We parked not far from the man-made Silbury Hill and hiked up past a rapeseed field to take a look the West Kennet Long Barrow. I found the stone entrance and interior rooms pretty interesting, as apparently did some local Wiccans who were busy meditating/praying and burning incense inside the barrow. We hiked back down the hill, across the road and through the countryside to reach the hamlet of Avebury, which was literally built half within another stone henge. On the way to the town, we also walked along an avenue of huge stones, kind of a linear Stonehenge. On the way, we passed a hawthorn tree that had many ribbons and trinkets tied to its branches. Turns out that this was a wishing tree. Finally, we hiked back towards the car, taking a route that led us around the base of Silbury hill. All in all, a very impressive day of neolithic structures.

On our second day, we headed to the Snowshill Manor to check out the gardens and collections of Charles Paget Wade. Turns out he was a bit of an eccentric (and obsessive?) collector of hand-made items. While he did little traveling abroad, he managed to collect tens of thousands of items (many viewable online) from across England, which he kept in his manor house on display for guests (including the Queen of England). In fact, his house was so full of stuff that he lived in a separate detached building. Fascinating.

Church Stretton Summary

Four nights: Monday, July 16 to Friday, July 20

Sticking with the approach of choosing a base town from which we could explore a larger area, we next headed to the Shropshire town of Church Stretton. Originally, we were thinking of doing day trips to Wales (perhaps Snowdonia National Park), Chester and the Ironbridge Gorge area. However, due to the questionable “summer” weather, we ended up staying a bit closer to our base and skipped Wales and Chester.

One of the main attractions in this area is the great variety of walking trails. On our first full day, we struck out on a nine mile loop walk from Church Stretton to the village of Cardington and back. The marked trail was quite scenic, cutting through farmland, pastures, wooded areas and up fairly substantial hills which afforded great panoramic views. I was also looking forward to hitting the village at the halfway point and enjoying a pub lunch. Being lazy (we’re on vacation after all!) we got a late start and made it into Cardington around 2:45. This was bad news as it turns out the pub closed after lunch at 2:30! Dejectedly, we trudged on for the remaining 4.5 miles – though the views were still enjoyable, even as it started to rain…

The next day had a forecast full of rain, so we planned to drive into the nearby larger town of Shrewsbury to get lunch and perhaps catch a movie. However, once there, the weather seemed to be holding up, so we headed into the center of the old town to see the sights. It turns out that Shrewsbury is where Charles Darwin was born and grew up, so there were quite a few Darwin-related locations. We enjoyed following the Darwin-centric walking path we found in a brochure, plus we got to check out some of the old city walls.

Finally, on our last day, we headed to the Ironbridge Gorge historical area. It consists of a cluster of related sites that are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage site due to their contributing role in the Industrial Revolution. The key contribution was that this is where coke was first used to smelt iron, resulting in an economical way to produce large quantities of the metal, thereby enabling the Industrial Revolution. An interesting site was the namesake Iron Bridge, which was the first bridge constructed of cast iron. We also checked out the Museum of Iron, which provided further context on life and industry in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Hadrian’s Wall Summary

Two nights: Saturday, July 14 to Monday, July 16

Given that we needed to work our way south and the fact that I don’t like to travel all day, we needed an appropriate location for our next stop. After doing a little research, we realized that Hadrian’s Wall ran across the middle of Britain, just four hours to the south. Unfortunately, there were no reasonable AirBnB apartments to be had, so we went with a hotel in the Scottish town of Gretna Green, just over the border from England (and on the barbarian side of the wall). More about Gretna Green later.

On our travel day, we made a point of heading straight south to check out a site at the eastern end of the wall – Chesters Roman Fort. It’s billed as the best preserved Roman cavalry fort in Britain and was fairly interesting. However, having seen Pompeii earlier in the trip, subsequent Roman sites have been a little anti-climactic. That said, we also wanted to check out Hadrian’s Wall because it would give us a good excuse to get out for walks in the countryside. In fact, after checking out Chesters, we did a quick three mile loop walk we found described on the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail website.

The next day, we headed out to a central section of the wall for another hike. On the way over, we took a spin through Haltwhistle, which claims to be at the geographic center of Britain (though the truth may be more complicated). Next, we stopped off for a nice pub lunch at the Twice Brewed Inn and then hit the trail. It was a somewhat strenuous hike with lots of steep climbs, but the views of the countryside and of Hadrian’s Wall itself were wonderful. We went as far as the Sycamore Gap, apparently famous for appearing in a ’91 Robin Hood movie – this site has a clip of the scene in question.

While we had a great time hiking around Hadrian’s Wall, our accommodations proved to be a bit of a mix. The B&B we stayed in was great – they even offered a choice of haggis or black pudding with the full cooked breakfast each morning! However, the town of Gretna Green is just across the Scottish border and its primary purpose is as a popular place for English couples to run off to to get married. Kind of like a tiny, damp, no-frills Vegas. Donna’s blog post captures the surreal aspect of the place but omits that during our stroll through town we were actually trying to find something for dinner. If you take another look at those pictures, you won’t see any pubs. Or restaurants. Or grocery stores. So, despite my desire to spend as little time as possible behind the wheel in the UK, we ended up driving to Carlisle for dinner that night. On our second night, we did a bit of research online and treated ourselves to a couple of steak dinners at the local boutique hotel’s restaurant (one of the few dining establishments in town). And guess what was going on there – another wedding!

Hadrian’s Wall, England

To Hadrian’s wall!
Like Scotland’s barbarians,
We come from the North

Driving to Hadrian's wall

Approaching Hadrian's wall after driving south from Edinburgh

Chesters Roman Fort

At Chesters Roman Fort

Ruins of Milecastle 39

Hiking west along the wall


A married couple
Seeking shelter on their trip
Stop in Gretna Green…

Not just famous for weddings!

Visiting Hadrian's wall, we happened to stay in Gretna Green, a town which it turns out is known for runaway weddings!

Blacksmith Shop

When we arrived on a Saturday evening, even the historic Blacksmith's Shop (now a wedding venue) was deserted except for a few stray wedding guests.

Courtship Maze - now open!

Signs pointed to the new attraction in town, a courtship maze…

No courtship today :(

...but its gates were locked.

Main Street

Even Main Street was deserted. At this point, things start to feel very Twilight Zone to us.

Rats!

And then we see this.

I hope it's not too late...

And this, which we begin to suspect refers to the town itself - not just this electrical station.

Carlisle

I will admit to being somewhat relieved when we were able to drive to nearby Carlisle for dinner, proving that we weren't trapped in Gretna Green for eternity!