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!

Edinburgh Summary

Four nights: Tuesday, July 10 to Saturday, July 14

After leaving York, we headed north to Scotland. It was about a four hour drive to Edinburgh and the scenery was great! This was partly due to the fact that we routed ourselves through the North York Moors National Park. We stopped off at the visitor’s center which also has a gallery with exhibitions of art inspired by the regional landscape. The rest of the time, we just enjoyed the views as we drove along, while avoiding the sheep on the road.

Speaking of which, driving in the UK is getting a little easier. The open road is fine and roundabouts are manageable. However, driving trough villages or in cities can be a little harrowing. I was happy our Edinburgh apartment was on the edge of the city, near Holyrood park. However, due to some questionable Google Map data, I ended up taking some wrong turns and found myself in the middle of Edinburgh! After navigating by gut towards the southeast, we eventually hit a road on our map and made it safe and sound to the apartment – and only 25 minutes late. Adventure!

As for our visit, we had a pretty low-key stay in Edinburgh. The highlights of our three full days were checking out the Old and New towns (including the Royal Mile), hiking the impressive Holyrood park, checking out the excellent National Museum of Scotland and getting our hair cut. Notably, there were three things we didn’t do in Edinburgh: visit Edinburgh Castle, enjoy a wee dram of Scotch or tuck in to some haggis. At least one of these got remedied at out next stop.

As for food, one principle we adhere to when staying at an apartment is that on any given day, only one of lunch or dinner is eaten out. The other meal we prepare ourselves in the apartment. The primary reason for this is so we don’t gain 100 pounds (or 7.14 stone) by the end of the trip. Anyway, we ended up having a really nice lunch out at a contemporary restaurant called Iris, plus two pub lunches: one at The Tron and the other at The Beehive Inn. The Beehive was pretty good, if a bit touristy. The Tron was pretty bad, but I liked the name.

York Summary

Three nights: Saturday, July 7 to Tuesday, July 10

In a bizarre coincidence, we found ourselves in York on July 9, 2012. Exactly 800 years earlier, King John had granted York the right to self governance via a city charter. The resulting “York 800” festivities were happening all weekend – there was even a regatta planned along the river Ouse. Unfortunately, the recent heavy rain had resulted in a high river level and some minor flooding, so the regatta was cancelled. There was one strange way that we we impacted by the festivities: when we were visiting the Yorkshire History Museum, there was a huge police presence that developed, including bomb-sniffing dogs. This was a little scary, but then we found out that they were just preparing for a visit by the Duke of York.

We took a free walking tour of the city, which was good for getting some historical context. Later, we decided to walk along the city walls (or at least 2/3 of them), which is always fun and often leads to good views of the city and surrounding environs. And speaking of tours, we also took a spin by the York Brewery. It was small, smelled like a brewery (i.e. good and malty), the tour was fun and the beer samples in the taproom were tasty! Favorite beer name? A bitter called the Yorkshire Terrier – it has a bit of a nip to it!

Finally, we have continued to sample the range of fine British cuisine. With a huge number of pubs, it was relatively easy to find new places to try out. I’m still planning to keep the UK Pubs & Ales dedicated to the beverages, so here are some samples of the food we enjoyed during our stay in York:

Full English breakfast! Fried egg, bacon, hashbrowns, beans, black pudding, grilled tomato and mushrooms.

Rumpsteak with peppercorn sauce for Donna, fried scampi with chips and mushy peas for me.

Lamb shank for Donna, chicken and mushroom pie for me.

Curry night at The Hole in the Wall

 

Bath Summary

Three nights: Wednesday, July 4 to Saturday, July 7

Time to leave continental Europe and hit the UK! Originally, we were planning on taking the Eurostar train trough the Chunnel from Paris to London and then purchasing additional train tickets as needed to travel around (our Eurail pass does not work in the UK). However, after comparing the cost of the Eurostar reservation as well as the cost of train tickets vs. weekly car rental rates, we decided to instead rent a car and book an EasyJet flight directly to Bristol (near where we’ll be visiting Donna’s friend Suzanne at the end of our time in the UK). With an evening flight into Bristol, Bath was a natural choice for our first stop since it’s about 1/2 hour drive from Bristol’s airport.

Speaking of driving, it’s a bit freaky here due to the cognitive dissonance of driving on the left side of the road and having the driver’s seat on the right side of the car. I prepared a little in advance by reading up on UK driving regulations as well as how to navigate roundabouts. So far, having driven from the airport to Bath and from Bath to York (four hours), it’s not that bad. Unless you consider that one thing I did, which we will not discuss here.

Anyway – Bath! Bath is a scenic and historic little English town. Everything is very Georgian and neoclassical. Due to its compactness, it was pretty easy to cover it all on foot, which we did as part of a walking tour as well as independently a few times. One of the highlights, of course, is the eponymous Roman bath complex. The museum built around it was much more extensive and impressive than I expected. The bath complex was very interesting to see and reminded me a lot of what we saw in Pompeii.

One a different note, at the suggestion of our apartment hosts, we took a scenic walk along a nearby canal. Despite the occasional drizzle, the weather largely cooperated and we really enjoyed the canal views and the surrounding scenic countryside. Conveniently, we even passed by a pub that made for a great lunch stop!

Speaking of pubs and food, they abound! We’re already enjoying “tucking in” to some traditional English fare and I have some odd notion of visiting an obscene number of pubs on this leg of the trip. Donna may have to steer me back from the brink. At a minimum though, I will be documenting my “extended pub crawl” on the new UK Pubs & Ales page on the blog. Stay tuned!

Paris Summary

Five nights: Friday, June 29 to Wednesday, July 4

Before this trip, we had visited Europe twice previously: our honeymoon in 2001 (Italy, Paris, London) and a vacation in 2009 (The Netherlands, Belgium). One goal of this trip has been to see entirely new cities. That’s exactly what we’re doing, but with two exceptions: Amsterdam and Paris.

Paris is a great city. It’s visually stunning with its grand boulevards, monumental architecture and sheer scale. It’s culturally pleasant with great food, friendly people and world-class museums. Overall, we enjoy Paris and for this visit we spent most of our time simply getting out and about in the city.

That said, we did make time to hit a a few museums. While intrigued by the quirky Le Musée des Égouts de Paris and Musée de la Contrefaçon, we ended up using our museum time to visit The Louvre, Musée d’Orsay and the Pompidou Center. Strangely, we saw none of these during our original visit.

Speaking of our original visit, we took a spin past our old hotel and surrounding neighborhood. It was interesting to see how much we recognized from 11 years ago, including a fancy chocolate shop on the corner. Most bizarrely, it still has a chocolate model of a Dremel tool in its display, just like it did in 2001! I wonder if it’s the same one…

Dijon Summary

Three nights: Tuesday, June 26 to Friday, June 29

Working our way west from Switzerland, we decided to stop for three nights in the capitol of Burgundy, Dijon. Our apartment was well located just off the main plaza in front of the Ducal Palace. We did o walking tour (heavy on the architecture, though a good way to get acquainted with the city), plus spent some time following a self-guided tour along the “Owl Route”. The tour was named after a carving of an owl found on a church, which apparently grants you wishes if you rub it with your left hand. A quick empirical test seemed to dispel these claims. Overall though, the city was quaint and had some interesting historical buildings and was a good place to stay for three nights.

It was good to be back in France from a culinary perspective. Our very first (and affordable, compared to Switzerland) lunch started off with appetizers of salmon terrine and escargots. Even our supermarket-based meals were outstanding (pork rillette, local mustard, oozy reblochon cheese).

Given that we were in the heart of Burgundy, we decided to take a wine tasting tour to the nearby city of Beaune. It was a small tour: just us, a couple of older Swiss ladies and the guide. It was interesting to get a little more context about the Burgundy region and its wines. One of the highlights was a stop at the vineyard famous for the world’s most expensive wines – something like €5000 per bottle – and you’re required to purchase a bottle as part of a case containing 11 other wines. The tour was interesting and we tried some good wines, though I’ll be happy to stick with tasty Northwest-style ales.