Sunday, August 3, 2014

Dextrous Dexter's Lake District Adventure

After a bit of a lull in travel thanks to The Incident, we are back in the saddle. We've done one or two country walks outside of London. While they were lovely they didn't quite manage to get a post, but they did inspire a trip to the Lake District in northern England.

For a change, this post has almost no buildings in it and also features pictures of humans. Weird!

This picture pretty much sums up the Lake District, minus the lakes (and sheep.) Large open hilltops with woods at the base, small one-street towns, and green grassy grazing lands. And stone walls.

This particular town is Grassmere, which is known for it's unique style of gingerbread which you can only get there. It is possible that we took the bus an extra thirty minutes just to try it. Worth it.

Hikes in England are not like hikes in America. Almost all of them lead through private farm lands on permissive paths. Usually, these need to cross the boundaries between fields, which means getting through (or more often over) fences. It's common on most of our walks to see stiles, which are a kind of half-ladder, half-stairs contraption.

With so many stone walls I was curious to see how they managed this here. Wall stiles! Notice the sign asking you to keep near the wall: these guys aren't cemented together, so they need all the help physics can give them.

This is pretty much just a stone wall glamour shot for my mother-in-law. Hi Pat! Click on the picture for a larger view!

These walls went pretty much everywhere in the area. No matter how far up a hill or into what felt like unpopulated land you got, you could rely on there being a stone wall to reference. It was both scenic and quite useful.

As expected, the area had a lot of outdoorsy tourists. Unexpectedly, it also had an amazing number of visiting dogs. This one is Dexter, who was very excited to climb the Cat Bells but not as excited to get on the boat that took us there. He ended up getting carried onto (and off) the boat, but had no problems with the rocky scrambles up the hill. He made better time than us.

Here's Mary part-way up the Cat Bells. Just to the right of her head is the low peak, which was our terminus. Behind that is a higher peak, which we'd like to do on a return trip when we actually plan for a nine-mile walk (the low peak is a three-mile one.) This hike had some noticably steep bits where we had to scramble over rocks to get up, but the views were great.

And here's that view. I have been playing around with the panorama feature on my phone in hopes that it would better capture the sweeping majesty, though somtimes it's just really good at capturing odd visual effects (the distortion on the woman up the path, the orange smear that was her son) and Mary trying to duck to not get captured. Still, it manages to show the beauty of the lake (Derwent Water) on the left and the farm valley on the right.

On the same day as the Cat Bells we also hiked up Walla Crag. This was a less popular, but no less stunning climb. Once we got up into the hills a bit, it was easy to feel a million miles from everywhere.

From the peak we had a nice view down over the same lake as above, this time from the other side.

Here is that view without a doofus in the way. In the top right corner you can just make out the small buildings of Keswick where we stayed.

We will know that we are done with England when we stop being amused by sheep. Sheep are all over here (well, not in London) and we see them on almost every country walk we do.

The Lake District took this to an extreme, and we even saw them in the towns grazing in church yards. The English folks I know feel that sheep are pretty pedestrian and boring, but for us they are still adorable and new.

On our final full day there, we did a six-mile walk which turned out to be a ten-mile hike. Oops! This walk took us almost the entire length of Ullswater (seen here in distort-o-rific panorama,) which is further South in the region.

While I loved the cliff-side setting with sharp drop-offs beside us (Amazing views! It feels like you are walking on nothing!) Mary found it a bit more harrowing. Between the drop offs and unexpected length it was a little stressful, but it did end up being gorgeous.

At the end of the Ullswater walk, we walked a little on a very well-paved path to see the Aira Force waterfall.

After the unexpectedly long first hike, we were pleased to have one that was a bit more level and even. The falls were beautiful, as were the bridges and rapids around them.

Overall we had a fantastic trip, and would highly recommend the area to anyone looking for a nice get away in England. We had worried a bit about our ability to get around just by bus, but in the end it was a non-issue. We're hopeful that we can sneak in a trip back before we return to America, but time will tell. There are still so many places to go!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Duck Fight!

While I haven't posted about them yet, we've actually been taking some long walks in the outlying areas of London this summer. This Saturday we had great weather, so we headed to Oxford to do a walk along several of the canals and to check out the colleges.

The canal walk was lovely, if a bit muddy. We saw canals, pastures, really narrow houseboats, ducks fighting, and an abandoned nunnery (alternative suggested title for the post: Get Your Nun On! Get Your Nun On!)

This walk wasn't as scenic as our last which was through a river valley, but it was level and we had great weather so I am not complaining too much.

We had lunch at a pub in Wolvercote, where we also spied this awesome thatched roof cottage. Thatch holds a kind-of mythical quality of English-ness for those of us from America, though we almost never see it.

Back in town we visited a few museums. The first was this one, which seems perfectly normal from the outside, but opens up into glass-ceilinged splendor once you enter.

The collection was a hodge-podge of fossils, stuffed animals (including a dodo!), and other samples. It was a very classical idea of what a musuem should be.

Further back, one reaches the ethnographic collection which I can only describe as straight out of Indiana Jones. It's a jumble of glass-fronted cabinets in one huge, dimly lit hall, with tiny passages winding between them. The cabinets have loose themes (models of housing, animal representations) and are jam packed with samples from many different regions. It's an amazing thing to see, though sadly none of my photos came out due to the light.

The colleges themselves were also nice. I am still trying to get my head around how education works in this country, and having been to both Cambridge and Oxford now hasn't really straightened that out at all for me. Still, nice buildings.

We were there a touch too late to tour any of the interiors of the colleges or the main church, so we ended up grabbing tea and heading out. All in all, a lovely day trip.

Update: Mary pointed out that I neglected to record our adventure coming home. We got to the Oxford station just in time to catch one back to London, and then had it stop repeatedly due to a door sensor. We went one stop and then the conductor made a hard to hear announcement that caused everyone to exit the train. This was a rare case where following the herd was a good idea, as we ended up on a faster (and actually running) train home. Also, we got to have this conversation over text (we were seated separately after the train swap):

Bill: There is a woman on this train with a guitar painted on her face that totally looks like a cartoon penis.
Mary: Next to you?
Bill: On your 11:00
Mary: Ha ha
Mary: Oh yes I see it
Bill: Boy is she going to feel silly when she looks in the mirror.
Mary: The guy looks like he has one too.
Bill: He's blocked by the seat.
Mary: Or a bandage
Mary: Over his eye
Mary: I am trying not to stare
Bill: Hers is a painting, his is a penis face tattoo
Mary: Nope it's painted.
Bill: Why would he paint a bandage on?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Easter in Seville

Last year for Easter we were finally feeling settled in here and didn't do much, so this year we wanted to take a bigger trip for it and travel for the full four days we had off.

We choose Seville in Spain, since it's a very Catholic country and we figured it'd be a sight to see. It did not disappoint.

One thing that Seville is known for is tile, and you can see it all over town. I was quite enchanted by it and have dozens of photos of entryways and floors which I will spare the internet.

Nowhere is the tile more the focus than at the Plaza de Espana. This was the site of a worlds fair for Spanish-speaking nations years ago, and it has been maintained as a tourist site and park since.

The main building has a series of alcoves with tiled displays of each of the regions of Spain. We saw many people getting their pictures taken near the alcove of the region they hailed from, which was a lot of fun.

A big part of Easter in Seville is the processions , which run all of Holy Week.

In these, devout locals dress in robes and funny hats and take over the streets. The processions happen throughout the week, with the main focus being Thursday night through Saturday, and at their peak run from midday until two or three in the morning.

Each group starts at its home church and walks the city, passing the main cathedral at some point, and generally ending up back at the starting point.

There can be up to sixteen hundred people in each group, and with narrow streets they stretch for miles.

Each group carries one or more floats, which are candlelit at night. These mostly are dioramas of Mary surrounded by flowers and candles and wearing a long cape, though you do run into the odd Jesus as well.

It's quite a delight to chance upon them enroute to some other destination.

There is a brochure handed out which gives rough times and locations for each of the groups, but as it was in Spanish and used some local names for locations, we mostly winged it when on the hunt.

Once coming home from dinner we managed to get to a three-block area surrounded on all sides by parades. A bit disconcerting, but still a cool experience.

We also, as we do, visited (and climbed) the main cathedral in town. The tower of the cathedral actually dates from a mosque that used to be on the site. The climb has almost no stairs, but rather thirty five or so connected ramps spiraling up the tower which allowed the Oman to ride his horse up to could sing the call to prayer. So cool. Of all the climbs we have done, this was the least cramped and most brightly lit thanks to windows the entire way up.

Within the cathedral were a number of cool sights. This one is the tomb of Christopher Columbus, who hailed from the region.

We read that they had done DNA testing to verify it was him, and Mary and I immediately asked each other "Who did they compare it to?" It turns out that he has surviving heirs all these years later, living in Puerto Rico and Spain. Who knew?

Another major site in town is the royal palace, the Alcazar. This palace was designed for Christian kings, but in a Moorish (Islamic) style. And what style!

I've really only recently encountered much Islamic art, but I find it completely enchanting. One of the tenets is a representation of God's infiniteness in complex geometric patterns, which I find both aesteticly and intellectually pleasing. It is both a gorgeous pattern to the eye and a representation of God as math and order.

The entire public space of the palace is decorated elaborately, and I have literally hundreds of pictures of its floors walls and ceilings.

Outside are extensive gardens which also delight. Closer in to the palace there are more structured gardens and as you get further from it they get more rambling. Thankfully they are full of cover to shelter one from rain, should they be unlucky enough to vacation at the same time as us.
Seville is a city of soul. It's a city of flamenco. Flamenco comes from a blend of Andalusian and gypsy folk music and dancing, and Seville is a center for it. In Vienna you can't swing a Sacher Torte without having a man dressed as Mozart offer to sell you tickets to a classical concert; in Seville it's a flamenco show.

Our guidebook had a few suggestions for slightly more authentic shows, so we went for it. It's a very cool thing to see, very soulful and at turns mournful and aggressive. We quite enjoyed it. Our book also suggested a few bars we could go to late at night to see spontaneous flamenco break out, but we really don't think that's a thing.

Oh, bullfighting. Bullfighting is in many ways an integral part of the area's culture, if a controversial one. I actually feel somewhat ambivalent about it -- I can see how it's cruel and unfair to the animals, but on the other hand I know full well where my steak comes from and have no problem with that. Is bullfighting that much more cruel than raising cattle for food?

We didn't go to a match, but we did go to the museum at the arena. While the event sprung from a similar tradition to jousting, the arena reminded us a lot of the Colosseum in Rome. The museum was informative and well laid out, but I don't think it resolved my feelings on the sport.

The food in Seville was great, though we did struggle a bit to acclimate to the hours. Lunch is from one to four with kitchens opening at eight for dinner, but we kept finding ourselves in need of a snack at 5. Very frustrating. Thankfully, most of the pastry shops stay open all day. We tried many local specialties, including cookies made with "hair of the angels" and a special bread pudding with honey they only make during Holy Week -- all were great.

We also enjoyed the tapas again, especially a place we went on the last night. It was a bit dauntingly filled with people who actually knew Spanish, but we managed to order and consume some great food. We also witnessed the waitress and a patron singing together, which made us think that we may have been wrong about that spontaneous Flamenco thing.

Overall it was a fantastic trip, full of experiences that felt very unique to the place. As always when visiting a locale like this I came away with a renewed desire to live in a place with casual attitude and indoor/outdoor living. And, as always happens, I immediately walked myself through all the impracticalities of that as a life for us. Oh well, we'll always have Seville.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Dinner in Vienna With the World's Most Huggable Man

Last weekend we headed out to Vienna. Most of what we know about Vienna comes for a series of books set before World War One in which a psychiatrist and a police detective solve crimes whilst eating lots and lots of pastries. Surprisingly it mostly met our expectations, minus the ritual murders.

We were struck when we arrived by how super modern the airport and train station were and even had a sit-down dinner to try to embrace the cafe culture of the city. Unlike in Munich, we managed to find the hotel without any hi jinks, though we did have to walk around the block to find the entrance.

Out first day was planned for lots of walking and the weather played along beautifully. We started with a self guided city walk, taking us by the very striking war memorial. It turns out that Austria (and Vienna in particular) were mad for Nazism, so the reminder probably does them good.

Having spent much of our travels this year in nations that were strongly on the wrong side of World War 2 has actually been pretty thought provoking. I know that there are darker times in American history as well, but the fact that the holocaust could happen continues to confound me.

We paused for coffee and a snack, then it was onward to a tower climb at the main church in the center of town, St Stephens.

It was a nice climb and afforded good views of the city and of the cool tiles roof of the church (which, naturally, was bombed in World War II and then replaced later.)

Inside, the church was Gothic and cool, with the highlight being an ornately carved pulpit. They also had some amazing stained glass, though there was no chance of my photos of that coming out.

All this sightseeing made us hungry, so it was time for another snack, this time pretzel bread rolls. So good.

Our next stop on our walk was the baroque church of St. Peter. We see very few baroque churches, so this one stood out to us quite a bit. It was very ornate, and had many small and large details that reminded us of ornately carved ships like you would see in a pirate movie.

With all of the churches that we have seen in Europe and England, it always amazes us to see one that feels totally different and new to us.

We finished up the walk by passing through the grounds if the Habsburg palace, which we would visit on Sunday. This is a whole compound of palaces, government buildings, and museums built by a family that ruled the region for hundreds of years. Both the reign and the palace were quite impressive.

Lunch was a fun adventure. The place had a display case full of open-face sandwiches consisting of bread rectangles spread with various fillings. You pick out the three or four that strike you and then shoulder your way to a table. We also got a pfif each, which was a small beer served in a cup-sized beer mug. Fun!

After lunch we took advantage of the weather with a long walk in the park which turned into a walk by a series of ever growing canals. The first was so small and had so little water that I expected to see T-birds racing hot rods down it. At one point I pointed out a duck struggling against the current, only to realized he was standing in ankle deep (to him) water. Stupid duck.

We grabbed a refreshing and gigantic glass of wine in the evening, and were still tipsy for dinner, which was at a nice restaurant in the old greenhouse of the Habsburg palace. The highlight was the wine-induced people watching. A man walked in the door early in the meal and was hugged by no fewer than five employees and two patrons. Oh, the time we had, the worlds most hug-able (and second most rub-able!) man and I. At least in the stories I annoyed Mary with.

And now my Tripadvisor review of sitting in a hotel bathroom in Vienna trying to quietly fix a broken production job at two in the morning: Not recommended.

Day two found rain in the air, so we planned for two indoor activities: Museums and cafes. The entire morning was spent in the various museums of the Habsburg palace, and started with the treasury.

Unlike the one in Munich, this one was as focused on volume as it was on historical significance. We generally aren't big ones for bling, but seeing so much of it laid out in one place is pretty striking. It's also the only museum where we could take pictures, sadly.

From the treasury we went through an interesting and long exhibit on Sisi, the tragic wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I. That spilled out into the royal apartments, which were pretty standard-issue as those things go but still a nice display. They seemed to have more of the original furnishings than some others we had seen, so that was cool.

Having had a fair amount of history at this point, but still having some time before we needed to leave, I convinced Mary into hitting the museum of modern art with me. I am pretty convinced she only gave in because it was called 'MOMAK'. We had a nice time and I was incredibly taken with the building, which was very striking. Sadly, I didn't take any pictures of it at the time so here is a collage of signs and pavement markings that amused us during our visit.

Overall it was a great trip. The city was hugely walkable, we had great weather for our outdoor day, and the cafes delivered both great coffee and great pastries.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Beer, Wurst, and Michael Jackson

Last weekend we finally broke the seal on Germany with a trip to Munich.

We got in very late and were a bit concerned about figuring out train connections into town. It turns out that this was a well founded concern, but a friendly fellow passenger took pity on us and got us onto the proper trains.

Following the exit signs at the Munich station brought us to an elevator straight out of a Michael J Fox movie from the eighties, where he gets separated from his school trip and mistaken for a spy and has romantic hijinks while helping an attractive East German teenager defect. We had a few wrong turns on the way to he hotel but eventually made it.

Our first major site was the Residenz museum and treasury. Usually treasuries do very little for us, but this one was very well laid out and cool. It's amazing how ornate religious work was back in the day, and seeing the fine detail up close was impressive.

We also discovered that St George (the patron saint of pretty much everywhere) was probably fake. As his patron-saint-of-everywhere-ness is a running gag between Mary and I, this was a pretty astonishing discovery.

The palace itself was interesting, though mostly just huge with ninety rooms (many of which were reconstructions.)

As Mary said, the problem with palaces that model themselves after Versailles is that once you have seen Versailles, they tend to get a little same-y. Do your own thing, palaces! Fight palace peer pressure!

After a lunch break of wurst (served with fries and a delicious curry ketchup) we headed off for a self-guided city walk. This took us by several cool churches and a city museum. We are usually fans of these local history museums, but this one was a bit stuffy and lacked good English descriptions.

We also did a tower climb, as we are wont to do, and got some great views of the city. The tower was also fairly recently reconstructed, though it still had staircases that really couldn't handle the two-way traffic they were accommodating.

Old buildings in Munich are odder than usual, because almost all of the city was heavily damaged or destroyed during World War Two. In the Residenz, almost every single room's placard pointed out that it was heavily damaged in the forties and that most of what we were seeing was reconstructions of original rooms and furniture.

Each of the churches we visited had photos of the bomb damage, which was quite sobering. It's difficult not to think of all the damage to culturally significant works that was done by our side, but on the other hand...Nazis.

Speaking of Nazis, we spent Saturday morning at Dachau. In he interests of keeping this light I won't go into too much on that, other than to say I am very glad we visited. It has a well laid-out museum and several memorials, and was deeply moving and thought provoking. We opted not to take each others' picture by the ovens, unlike one of our co-visitors.

In the afternoon we finished up the rest of our city walk, hitting a few more churches and grabbing some snacks. We also hit a good art museum, and the strangest site of our visit: The Michael Jackson memorial.

Apparently he always stayed at the same hotel, and since his death, fans have been leaving offerings in the small part out front. It's bizarre, but touching. We did feel a bit bad for the now ignored composer whose statue was commandeered.

Munich ended up being a great food city. Pretzels and donuts (such good donuts) were plentiful, and dinners were heavily meat-centric. I could see the heaviness of the dinner food getting old on a long trip, but for just a weekend it was great. The beer was also very good, and I could see coming back in the summer to enjoy a few in one of the many beer gardens.

At breakfast on our final morning we spotted a waiter carrying a beer on a platter, and watched with great anticipation to see which frat brother or pot-bellied man would get it. We were delighted to see it delivered to a small old German woman reading the paper. Stay awesome, Munich!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

London Year One

We have officially lived in London for one year, so it seems like a good time to look back and reflect on some of the plans and questions we had when moving here to see how it's going.

Live British
One of my goals for the trip was to attempt to live British. We often hear of folks moving to another country and then looking for the most American experience they can find there. I wanted to at least attempt to live as the locals do. This has lead to many surprises with gas meters and grocery stores, but I do feel that it has added to the adventure of it all.

We are doing fairly well on this front. I have gotten used to writing my dates backwards and I think that I am very close to a breakthrough on 24-hour time. We know a few common conversions from F to C and back. We know how to pay on a pub. I know how much one stone weighs (14 pounds, for what it's worth.)

Going digital
When figuring out what all to bring, I made some bold statements about having less stuff and going digital on more things. We did indeed leave our books behind, and have mostly stuck with e-books on the Kindle (though we can't resist Mary Roach's footnotes and silly pictures in physical form.) I have also (mostly) broken my desire to own physical copies of music media, though I will admit to buying a few CDs from particularly beloved artists. Mostly I have embraced Spotify as a good way to listen to music, though there is a part of me that still wants to run out and buy the physical discs from some of the artists I have discovered there.

I had planned to move most of our video watching to streaming, but we've made less progress on that front. Rather than sign up for NetFlix here we went for a local option, though we later found out that Amazon had purchased them. I find that the steaming options are pretty limited, though we do use it when we can (we still get discs for the rest). From hearing friends in the US talk, it seems like limited (legal) options is at least a bit of an issue there as well.

Have less stuff
Overall we had planned to have less stuff here. On some fronts (books, CDs) that has worked out well, on others less so. Some of the items that we thought we could live without (toaster, microwave) we eventually relented on and bought anyway. Some of our American stuff just fundamentally doesn't work here (lamps, our too large sofa) and so more appropriate local solutions were procured (thank goodness for Ikea). It's unclear how much of this will come back to America wit us, so we'll call this one a wash.

Will we pick up British terms?
We all knew that pretentious kid in school who spent two weeks in England one summer and came back with an affected British accent. While we didn't want to be That Guy, I was curious to what extent we would pick up local slang and sayings. We have acquired more than I expected to, but none of the very prototypical ones.

Both Mary and I have started saying 'proper' when in America we would say 'real' as in, "It's impossible to find proper American bacon in British restaurants." I have started pronouncing 'weekend' the British way (with the stress on 'end' rather than 'week') which I attribute to all the small talk about weekends one does at work; Mary, conversely, works with very few British people which is why she has not picked this up and mocks me for it.

We don't say 'quid' for 'pound', though we do say 'P' instead of 'pence'. While I know when you would use quid since it's almost exactly like using 'buck' for 'dollar', I am so used to saying 'buck' that I just blaze through and use that. I have said 'cheers' exactly once and it still felt very weird (even though I was IMing with a Brit.)

How will the cats do?
After a few days to get over the trauma of the transportation, the cats are completely unaware that anything has changed.

Monday, January 27, 2014

I Survived (sort of) Skiing The Alps (sort of)

In theory the main point of our Zurich trip was for Mary to attend her company Christmas party, though in reality we were most looking forward to our alpine adventure.

We flew in on Friday and spent the late afternoon wandering the old town. We had hoped to see the Chagall windows in one of the city's churches, but just missed their closing time. We did make it into the Grossmunster though, and they had several windows that were impressive in their own right. Several were heavily influenced by contemporary art, and a few were formed from sliced geodes. All around it was a pleasant surprise.

I stayed in Friday night to try to recover a bit more from my cold, and by Saturday morning I was feeling much improved.

Several of Mary's coworkers went into the alps with us, including two who had stayed out until two am the night before. Hardcore considering that we took an eight AM train.

The train ride along the Wallensee was gorgeous. As we entered the alps, mountains sprang up around us and seemed to grow straight up from the sea. Early during the trip we worried that there might not be snow, but altitude came through for us in the end.

A short bus trip from the train brought us to be base of the mountain, and a short gondola ride to the top.

The gondolas were modestly-sized, eight person affairs and reminded us a lot of old James Bond movies. We giggled over the fact that they needed a trap door in the ceiling and that I should photoshop myself on top of one with a machine gun, though who knows what the Swiss Germans in the car thought of us (a surprising number of folks in Zurich and at the ski resort didn't speak English.)

Having never gone skiing outdoors before, we really had no idea what to expect. The first thing that struck us was that skiing was all about lines. The line for lift tickets. The line for gondola tickets. The line for rentals. Things did move pretty quickly though and we soon realized that it was just a snow themed amusement park. This we could get our minds around.

Sadly our first ski almost ended our ski careers before they began. We had asked at the rental place where was a good place for beginners to start, and ended up with our first run being beyond our capability. We fumbled and stumbled our way down, both of us spending plenty of time on our butts. I am pretty sure that I was one helmet shy of a severe concussion after a particularly bad fall, but we eventually got back to solid ground.

Thankfully we made our way to the real beginners area shortly thereafter and got a bit more practice in with the Swiss toddlers (and a few adults taking beginners lessons). By the end of the day I was feeling confident enough to try a blue (beginner) run again, and this time made it down entirely on my skis!

Having managed to recover from the bad start, we agreed that this is probably a hobby we will stick with, at least casually. We have a year until the next Christmas party, so hopefully by then we will have learned enough to not have anybody fall off the T-bar lift. Baby steps!