Tag Archives: Europe

Pussy-cat, Pussy-cat…where have you been?

Cardiff to Windsor

Sad to be leaving Cardiff (we’ve already decided we have to come back), we packed up and headed out of the Marriott and back to the train station.  This time, the journey will involve changing trains mid-journey at Reading.  I’ve already explained to Mom and Vicki that we have to grab all of our stuff and get it off the train before the it leaves, as well as avoid being trampled by anyone attempting to board. Luckily, everything worked out fine and we made our connection without problem.

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Arriving in Slough, we managed to schlep our bags up and down the stairs over the train tracks.  One of the prices one pays for a train system developed during Victorian times is a lack of accessibility in smaller stations (most larger stations have been retrofitted with lifts).  Successfully exiting the station, we headed over to the taxi queue and loaded our bags for the short ride to the last Marriott of our trip.  This Marriott is the one that serves Heathrow Airport and we noticed a large number of flight crew personnel hanging out in the lobby.  After checking in, we made our way upstairs to our room with our bags one final time.  Hastily we unpacked, already anticipating an afternoon visit to the Queen.  OK, so it was an afternoon visit to Windsor Castle, but the Queen might be home.  It’s her favorite castle after all.

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Back downstairs, we hailed a cab and headed to Windsor, about a 10 minute drive away. Hopping out of the taxi at the foot of Windsor Castle, we tried to decide what to do first.  Fortunately, Mom has come to realize that shopping will always come first with Vicki and me, and didn’t complain as we popped into a couple of shops to buy yet more souvenirs that we will somehow have to shoehorn into our luggage.  After collecting our purchases (a couple of scarves, hats and other miscellany), we headed over to the Horse and Groom pub for some lunch.  There, I had what was the best fish & chips of the trip, hands down.  It was a true British pub experience, complete with several elderly British couples enjoying a lunch out.  (Mom, Vicki and I decided that we want to know where British ladies get their coats.  They always seem to have the loveliest coats.  Personally, I think that they pick them out knowing that they will spend much time in them.)   After lunch, we headed out to tour Windsor Castle.

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Back outside, we discovered that the weather had done another one of its abrupt turns and a shower was blowing through.  However, by now, we don’t go anywhere without our rain gear, so we simply pulled up our hoods and persevered.  Luckily, the shower was brief and didn’t dampen our enjoyment of the Castle at all.  This is my third time visiting Windsor and I was just as much in awe during this visit as I was during either of the previous ones.  One thing that Mom and I noticed, was that the scaffolding that had enfolded St. George’s Chapel the last time we were there had been removed.  Also, due to the fact that it was June and not November, many more flowers were in bloom in the Queen’s Jubilee Garden.  This is the garden that was planted to celebrate the Queen’s 50th year on the throne.  We also visited the State Apartments and Queen Mary’s Dollhouse.  The Dollhouse is especially spectacular because it is so complete in its detail, that one could actually live in it if they were small enough.

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And, apparently the Queen is getting a DELL.  I just couldn’t resist this picture.

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Finished with our tour, and somehow managing to have missed tea with the Queen, we instead settled for tea at this quintessentially English little shop called…wait for it…the Crooked House.  Apparently, it was built with green oak and did not settle evenly.  We found nothing whatsoever wrong with the tea and scones however.

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Drawing a long day to a close, we caught a cab back to the hotel. (Darn, 3 taxis today and they’ve all been regular cars.  Will have to wait until tomorrow to show Vicki a classic London black taxi).  Back at the hotel, we stopped off in the lounge for something to drink and a last bite of the evening.

How do you get around London during a Tube strike?

On our last full day in London, we started with breakfast in the lounge (sense a theme here?) We caught yet another taxi back to the train station at Slough to take a train into London.  Our plans for the day revolved around our last HOHO tour of the trip.  With only one day in London, we wanted Vicki to get as big a taste of the city as possible and we figured the Big Bus Tour of London would fit the bill.  Our train arrived in Paddington Station a short 30 minutes later.  There, I tried to figure out the best way to get to Marble Arch, where most of the HOHO tours start.  Taking the Tube (the London Underground) was out due to a 48-hour strike.  It seems that the London Underground workers haven’t gotten the memo about the rotten world economy and were striking for more pay and benefits. While I was planning our route to Marble Arch, Mom and Vicki took a quick side trip to the WC (that’s water closet or restroom).  There, they encountered a first…pay toilets.  In all of our travels, this is the first time we’ve come across these.  (Mom and Vicki immediately started carrying change in their pockets, just in case.  Some things you don’t want to hunt for if the need is great).

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With directions from one of the many helpful station staff trying to help people navigate without the Tube, we made the 20-minute walk to Marble Arch without incident.  It was an interesting walk through one of the many ethnic neighborhoods in London.  This one appeared to be Middle Eastern and some of the fruit stands and restaurants looked and smelled very interesting.

Arriving in Marble Arch, we spoke to one of the Tour staff and were put at the head of the line for the next tour bus.  We were really glad to be at the head of the line because we appeared not to be the only tourists trying to beat the Tube strike by using tour buses.  Luckily, when the bus finally arrived, we were able to get good seats on the top of the double decker bus.  Even better, the weather was mostly sunny and fairly warm.  As the bus pulled out, we began to notice something else…traffic in central London was even worse than normal, which we again attributed to the strike (grrrrr.)  We had ample time to enjoy the sites as we moved through the city very slowly.  We noticed a lot of scaffolding on many of the historical building and monuments.  Is this the UK’s economic stimulus, we wondered.  We finally departed the tour at the Tower of London, another must see for Vicki.  Mom and I were also looking forward to a return visit, since our last was rushed due to early winter closing times.

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Arriving at the Tower, after a brief stop for lunch, we bought our tickets and entered to find ourselves part of an effort to storm the castle.  Actually, it was a living history demonstration of the offensive and defensive maneuvers performed during the Tower’s long history.  Tearing ourselves away from the mob, we joined the Beefeater led tour of the grounds.  After completed the guided tour, we took our turn in the queue for the Crown Jewels.  A completely awesome sight, the only thing keeping us from remaining drooling over the jewels was the moving sidewalk (and crowds that wouldn’t let us walk backwards).  Finally, we took a look at some of the oldest Roman wall remains in England.

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It was while touring the Tower, that we came up with the perfect theme for our trip.  This year is the 500th anniversary of King Henry VIII’s ascension to the throne and there are many special activities in and around London.  We spotted this sign at the Tower Cafe and felt it summed up our two weeks perfectly.

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Finished with our visit to the Tower, and emerging with our heads still attached, we again joined a queue for a HOHO bus.  Once again, the realities of the Tube strike frustrated us, as we waited about half an hour for a bus and then had to squeeze on.  Luckily, we were able to grab seats downstairs.  Not so luckily, it as a blue route bus with a recorded commentary and we couldn’t hear a word.  For the next hour, we inched across London until we reached our final London goal for the day…Harrods.

What can I say about Harrods?  Harrods is more than just a famous London department store, it is truly an experience in and of itself.  We wandered, for a few minutes anyway, through rooms of items we couldn’t afford.  We then came to our senses and headed downstairs to the “bargain basement”.  This is actually the area of the store that stocks Harrods logo goods for the tourists.  There we found many items within our price range.  I’m pretty sure at this point that Vicki must be buying stock for a hat emporium as she bought several more here!  We also found some cute bags that were marked down. (Yep, still suckers for anything on sale.)  Lastly, we headed upstairs to the Food Hall.  The Food Hall is almost impossible to describe.  It is room after room of foods of every description.  You can find everything from beef and cheese to sushi and pizza.  Mom, Vicki and I finally made it to the Sweets room and picked up some homemade fudge and some crème brulee desserts (again on sale, we took that as a sign).  Lastly, we made it to the bakery.  There we stuffed sacks with freshly made scones, croissants and other delectable goodies.  Luckily, the exit was on the other side of the Bakery Hall.  Otherwise, we might still be there.

Safely outside, we hopped in a taxi at the conveniently located queue for a trip back to Paddington Station.  Finally, a real London taxi experience.  Everyone should have a real London taxi ride at least once.  It turns out that our cabbie was originally from Ireland and we spent a wonderful 15 minutes in conversation until we reached the station.  Reluctantly, we exited the cab and entered Paddington for our final train ride of our journey.  Half an hour later, we were back in Slough.  We stopped in the local Tesco supermarket for some sandwiches so that we could pretend to eat dinner before gobbling up our dessert goodies from Harrods. (Although we came really close to grabbing donuts at Tesco.  Would you believe that there was a Krispy Kreme in the Tesco?  The smell was so reminiscent of home that we almost couldn’t resist, but thinking of our crème brulee and fudge, we managed.)  After a final taxi ride, we settled onto our beds at the Marriott to enjoy a”picnic” supper.

Sadly, we packed our bags after dinner, although pleased to find that we could, in fact, get everything in them.  Mom didn’t even need her extra bag.  Obviously, Vicki and I need to work on her shopping gene development.

Stay tuned for a final post of our time in Heathrow Airport (would you believe more shopping) and a final trip “report card”.

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Castles, Burgers and Buys…Oh my!

We began our day with breakfast in the Executive Lounge at the Cardiff Marriott.  We filled up on yogurt, croissants, eggs and bacon before heading out for the day.  Breakfast in the lounge is one of best perks of having platinum status at Marriott.  It saves time and money (we missed out on this in Dublin due to the lounge being closed over the weekend).  After breakfast, we started down the street towards Cardiff Castle; one of our main goals for the day.  We always try to start with one or two main points that we want to see each day.  That way, we don’t try to stuff too much into any one day and, if we happen to stumble across something unexpected, we have room to accommodate it.

Such was the case when we came across the Kitchens store with its doors invitingly open.  Mom, Vicki and I had just topped off our cash supply at the local Barclays Bank and could not resist the lure of kitchen gadgets.  We were eager to see if the British had been holding out on any especially cool gadgetry and I had specifically been looking for the cute little tea spoons I had been using in the British Isles for years.  We spent about half an hour wandering through the aisles perusing items such as jam spoons and honey spoons.  These are cute little spoons that have a bend in them to hang on the side of the jar or bowl.  We also saw items such as oilcloth by the yard and many sizes, shapes and colors of cake boards that simply can no longer be found in the States.  I did indeed find, and purchase, a set of tea spoons and Mom proudly left with a new olive oil can and jam spoon. Vicki is the proud owner of a brand new egg separator as well as some bottle stoppers.  Luckily, the store agreed to hold our purchases, so that we didn’t have to take them on our tour.

Finally, we arrived at the Castle.  This was also the main starting point of the local HOHO tour (thanks to Mom for the Hop-on/Hop-off abbreviation.  I was getting really tired of typing that out for every city). We decided to go ahead and take the tour first, since we would receive a 10% off voucher for the Castle with our tickets.  We spent the next 50 minutes viewing the sights of Cardiff from the top of a double-decker tour bus.  Luckily, the weather was partly sunny and fairly warm.  After our rainy weather in Dublin, it was a welcome change (although we fully expected it could change at any moment).

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Disembarking after the tour, we entered the Cardiff Castle visitor’s entrance clutching our discount vouchers.  We purchased our tickets and walked through the gates into the Castle.  We collected our audio guides and watched the introductory multimedia presentation.  There is evidence that there have been fortifications on this site as far back as Roman times, about 2000 years.  However, most of the present castle is the work of the 3rd Marquis of Bute during the late 1800’s. Actually, the castle and grounds have been rebuilt and redesigned multiple times over the years, each generation adding or removing as they deemed appropriate. You can see the remaining bits of Roman wall, outlined in red, in the current castle walls.

Over the next couple of hours, we wandered along the wall ramparts, toured the mansion house and Vicki and I even climbed the 127 steps to the top of the Norman keep.

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Finishing our castle tour in the gift shop (funny how all of the tours finish up in the gift shop), we bought still more souvenirs for people back home (and us as well).  I can definitely report that Hayla and Sir William should not be disappointed with their haul from this trip.  Needing nourishment, we collected our Kitchens kit (see above) and headed towards lunch.  We purchased Cornish pasties from the Cornish Pasty Shop and took them to eat in the nearby park next to St. Johns Baptist Church.  Well, we thought it was a park at first.  It turned out to be a graveyard but there were plenty of benches, people eating lunch and pigeons (as well as the cutest kids chasing the pigeons).  Mom had the traditional Cornish pasty and I had one with beef and stilton.  Vicki, not being quite as adventurous, opted for pizza.

Refreshed and refortified, we headed into the local Cardiff TK Maxx.  Fortunately, we found this one to be much less crowded and with much better prices than the Dublin version.  There, Mom, Vicki and I found new change purses (All of these different currencies require something to put them in.).  We continued to wander in and out of various shops in the arcades.  We even wandered into the local Cardiff market where I purchased some of the local made “Welsh cakes”.  I had been told not to miss trying these by a Microsoft coworker who was along on my recent trip to China.  The cakes were good.  The looked a little like a flat english muffin but tasted a little like a flat cake donut with currants.  We also began to wish that we had purchased a casserole dish at the Kitchens shop and that we had access to a kitchen.  Many of the local meat and produce vendors promised discounts if you provided your own dish for them to fill with dinner.  That’s my kind of take and bake dinner.  We also stopped to have an afternoon cuppa at this point.  At least Mom and I stopped for tea, Vicki continued to wander around the shops.  After tea, I found a lovely hand-engraved, hand-colored print of Cardiff circa 1760 which I quickly added to my growing art collection (I think I now have enough pieces to qualify it as a collection.).

Pretty tired at this point, we returned to our hotel room to rest before dinner. Two hours later, we emerged refreshed and adjourned to dinner at the Gourmet Burger Kitchen.  There, we feasted on burgers that were perfectly cooked and fully 6 inches high.  We also had an excellent rocket, parmesan and sun-dried tomato salad with balsamic vinaigrette (rocket is what they call arugula here in Britain).  Stuffed to the gills, we returned to the hotel.  Time to pack up for the train trip to Windsor tomorrow.

Stay tuned for details of our train trip from Cardiff to Slough as well as our visit to Windsor Castle.

Last day in Dublin and crossing the Irish Channel

Woke up this morning and we were planning to try breakfast at Foley’s but being as it was a Pub and it was Sunday, Foley’s was not allowed to open until noon.  So we decided to…go back to Bewley’s.  Hey, it was good and we were too hungry to look for something else.  After breakfast, where Mom had her last full Irish fry and I again had porridge, we headed back out to Grafton Street for the last time.  It was a much better day than yesterday and there were vendors and Buskers on the streets.

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Most of our fellow companions in the street appeared to be enjoying the Sunday morning stroll as much as we were.  Vicki and I popped into the Marks and Spencer department store for some more shopping.  I found a beautiful black and white linen dress and a gorgeous gold linen trench coat that was on a clearance rack.  Vicki bought several cute t-shirts that were on sale, 2 for 10 pounds. I ran the purchases back to our hotel (taking any opportunity to try and work off some of the calories I’ve consumed this week) while Mom and Vicki explored a little of St. Stephen’s Green.  We then we got back on the hop-off tour using our tickets from yesterday.  Luckily, due to the distinct lack of pouring rain, we could actually SEE the things the guide was pointing out (Today, deciphering the brogue of the guide was the bigger challenge).

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We got off the tour at Kilmainham Gaol. Kilmainham Gaol has been a purpose-built prison since the 1700’s.  It was used to house prisoners as young as 5 years old for offenses such as stealing flowers and bread.  During the famine years, some people would commit crimes just to be put into gaol where they would at least be fed.  Kilmainham is most famous, though, for housing political prisoners after the failed Irish uprising of 1916.  The last prisoner (Aemon de Valera) was freed in 1924 and the prison fell into disuse and decay.  In the 1950’s, the Irish people began to recognize the historical importance of this building and many volunteered time and money to restore it. Aemon de Velara, now President of Ireland, presided over the opening to the public.  It now has excellent exhibits and a fabulously fascinating guided tour.  Many of you may recognize some of the shots below as the prison has been used in many movies such as “In the name of the Father” and “Michael Collins”.

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After the moving visit to Kilmainham, we hopped back on the bus for the last time and made our way back to our hotel.  We made a slight side trip to the nearby shopping mall that is cunningly disguised behind the facade of a Georgian townhouse.  Vicki and I were eager to see the offerings of TK Maxx (the European version of TJ Maxx).  However, we found it hot, crowded and (with the conversion rate factored in) overpriced.  We escorted Mom back to the hotel and then Vicki and I dashed back to Merrion Square.  We had noticed on our tour route that street artists line the railings of the square with artwork for sale.  We got there just as the artists were starting to pack up for the day but I found a lovely watercolor of the Ha’penny Bridge over the River Liffey that I bought directly from the artist.  He even signed and titled it for me right there on the spot. I’m going to have a hefty framing bill when I get home.

We finally made it to Foley’s for dinner in the evening.  There, we had a classic Irish pub experience.  We sat at low pub tables and consumed real “pub grub”.  We even sampled some Guinness (OK, it was the shot intended to go on top of Mom’s Seafood chowder, but we all took a sip and I thought it was pretty good.)  As we were leaving, we noticed a musician was making his way in with a guitar.  Mom and I escorted Vicki back to the room and then returned for an hour or so of pub music.  We also poked our head into O’Donaghues to listen to a jam session.  Unfortunately, there was so little room (and we had an early morning ferry to catch) that we didn’t stay long.

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On Monday morning, we reluctantly packed up our things and decamped the Elizabeth Bowen Suite at the Shelbourne.  I have warned Mom and Vicki that this likely concludes the glamorous portion of our lodgings and things will likely be much more standard fare from now on.  The helpful hotel bellhop took our bags down and loaded them into the taxi for us. Mom, Vicki and I piled into the taxi and we took off.  About two minutes later, the colorful cabbie (who I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying but Mom apparently understood perfectly) asked what time our flight was.  “Uhhh, we’re going to the Ferry Port”, I replied. “Glad we cleared that up now and before we got almost to the airport,” he responded.  He kept up a running dialogue for the entire trip and I can only hope that I made appropriate responses as I mostly had no idea what he was saying.

Crossing the Irish Channel

At the Irish Ferries terminal, we checked in our suitcases and took a seat to wait for the ferry.  About 8:15, we boarded a shuttle for the short ride to the ship.  We are taking the Jonathan Swift “fast” ferry to Holyhead, Wales.  The fast ferry is a catamaran type vessel and can make the trip in just under 2 hours.  The slower ferries take twice as long.  The forecast was for a moderate sea and once boarding, we were a bit worried by the stack of little white bags on every table.  According to a conversation overheard in the ladies room, this was not a normal practice.  Just in case, Mom and I each took one of Vicki’s over-the-counter motion sickness pills (and spent the rest of the day trying to stay awake).  However, the ferry crossing was very uneventful and I didn’t see a single white bag in use (Thank goodness).

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Once we disembarked the ferry and picked up our luggage, we walked out of the ferry port and discovered that the train station was part of the same building. We’re not usually that lucky and had planned on a taxi ride.  Gratefully, I stood in line to validate our rail passes and check to make sure I had correctly interpreted the train timetables (I had).  We settled into the handy cafe to wait for our 12:30 train to Cardiff (We could have taken the 11:22 but that involved a train change and I didn’t want to press our luck after being up since 6 am).  We boarded our train and settled in for the 5 hour train ride to Cardiff.

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During the trip, we went past the seacoast and mountains, through sleepy little towns where the train didn’t even stop and bustling towns.  We passed castles, cathedrals and more sheep than I can possibly count.

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We passed the time trying to stay awake, admiring the views and taking bets on the pronunciations of towns we passed.

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Finally, after slight delays due to a “bridge smash” which we sincerely hoped was caused by something other than a train, we pulled into Cardiff Central station.  We gathered all of our luggage (more of a challenge now than when we began our trip) and departed the train station.  While looking for the taxi stand, I happened to look up and spy our next Marriott, only about 300 yards away (Again, how lucky can we be?).  We checked in and made our way to our room and found it to be all the more humble when compared to our last accommodations.  However, a local resident did stop by to check out the new arrivals.

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After reviewing the executive lounge offerings, we made our way out into Cardiff in search of dinner. Cardiff is a very walkable city with many pedestrian streets and arcade shopping areas.  Perusing the menus posted outside of many of the restaurants, we found the meal prices to be very, very reasonable.  We weren’t sure if that was because our recent experience in Dublin (one of the most expensive cities in Europe) or if the economy is taking its toll here in Cardiff.  At the Italian place we chose to have dinner, we had a 3 course meal including appetizer, main course and dessert for 10.95 pounds (about $15).  After dinner, we strolled back to the hotel, window shopping along the way.  Back at the hotel, I vaguely remember hearing Dad call on the web cam but was otherwise down for the count until about 8 am Tuesday morning (I still blame the motion sickness pill).

Stay tuned tomorrow for exploring Cardiff and Cardiff Castle plus sometimes you just gotta have a burger.