A Travellerspoint blog

They're so tiny; how can they be so loud?

Since we didn't have to vacate the hotel till 11:00 this morning, I planned to sleep till 8:00. But I woke up at 5:45, partly because I needed the bathroom but also because there was a noise that reminded me of when I was in Amsterdam and had an unwanted rodentine visitor. (It turned out to be noise coming from another room.) I had just gotten back to sleep when the fire alarm went off. God those things are mind-scramblingly loud! I had just grabbed my passport and wallet and was putting on my jacket (because unless there are flames actually licking at my heels, I am not fleeing in just my nightgown) when the alarm stopped. Sheesh! After my heart returned to a more-or-less normal rhythm, I did manage to sleep for another half hour, but then was permanently awakened by someone retching in a nearby room.

Ah, my last hotel breakfast. I don't think I need make the acquaintance of any more eggs anytime soon. I'll miss the hot tea a little bit, but probably only because it's fun to have a tiny teapot at the table. I'll tell you what I would like: some streaky bacon. And a bowl of cereal.

I finished packing. I almost didn't have to use the extension zipper on my suitcase, but then I decided to pack my jacket so now it looks ludicrously large.

We left the hotel at 11:00 and after Katherine and Michelle got refunds on their Oyster cards, we got the train back to Heathrow. We were too early to check our bags in (they won't let you do it until three hours prior to your flight), so we sat in a restaurant called Carluccio's and had bruschetta and lots of prosciutto. I highly recommend eating prosciutto as a good way to kill time.

When we did get through to airside, I headed straight for Starbucks – like the good addict I am – and got a Frappuccino. Then we did a wee bit of shopping and went to our gates. Michelle left us at the B gates, and it was a difficult separation for Katherine. But she bore up and we went on to the C gates.

Katherine was seated behind me on the aisle, and we were in the small coach cabin. So were at least five screaming babies and a scattered Indian family. The Indian lady next to me (sari, bracelets, bindi ... but, oddly, short hair) was perfectly nice but – and I know I'll sound completely racist saying this – there's that whole Asian thing of not really “getting” the concept of personal space. I understand it's a cultural thing and I even understand why, but it's hard for this uptight Westerner to deal with sometimes. Also, even though she could read English, she often didn't really understand what the Customs and Immigration form was asking for, and I was asked several times to interpret. The guy next to her, who I think was Muslim, spoke a little English but didn't read it at all, and he wanted help too. I told him what information was required in the various little boxes, but I didn't want to actually write anything out for him. I think he eventually got his son, who looked about 12 and was sitting in a forward (read: better) cabin, to help him.

As soon as we got settled in, there was a page for “passenger Abdullah Mohammed” to make himself known to a member of staff. Sometimes these pages are just to identify who's getting a special meal, but often enough they are because there's a bag with that name waiting to be checked in the hold, but no record of anyone by that name passing the gate. Again, I know I sound horrible, but I hoped fervently that he was a nice Abdullah Mohammed from Tacoma who was expecting a Muslim meal.

So, apart from elbows, questions and screaming babies (the baby across the aisle from me probably only stopped screaming for a total of two hours of our eight hour and fifty minute flight; I always though babies cried themselves out and fell asleep, but nooooo) – Katherine and I went to stand in the back of the plane at one point because we couldn't take the screaming anymore – the flight was uneventful, though I'm not anxious to do it again anytime soon, at least not till after I've invested in some noise-canceling headphones. I watched “Arthur” (the Russell Brand/Helen Mirren version) and “Paul” and the same episode of “The Big Bang Theory” that I had watched on the flight over, as well as quite a lot of the moving map.

Passport control was no problem, but the bags took a long time coming out, and I really hate finally claiming my bag only to have to give it back again. And I really hate that they've now got a couple of guys waiting to put your bag back on the conveyor belt because they just throw it on there upside down. And it's not like my bag was super-heavy and needed to be thrown; if I can lift it over my head, it's not heavy. Anyway, by the time I got up to regular baggage claim, John had already grabbed it off the carousel for me.

It's so nice to be home, even though Chloe acted like she didn't even realize I was gone. We really need to get a dog.

Ireland was really lovely and even though the London days weren't entirely successful, I was happy to be there (though I'd really like to go back after the Olympics). Anyway, I wrote a sappy limerick about Ireland; here it is:

Its hillsides are dotted with sheep, Seals and dolphins inhabit its deep. From mountain to strand 'Tis a green, pleasant land, And forever my heart will it keep.

[blushes] What we call a beach, they call a strand. Also, the dolphin thing? Every time we were near the sea, we were told that there were often dolphin sightings. We didn't see any evidence of that, so I think it's all blarney.

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Another bus

Our original plan for today was to go to the Tower of London, then take a walk along the Thames and go see St. Paul's Cathedral. But Katherine felt even crappier today than she did yesterday, so right after breakfast she went back to her room to nap.

About an hour later she was feeling more human, but not quite up for doing a lot of walking, so we decided to take a Big Bus Tour. I haven't done one of them since Katie, John and I were here in 2000, and I honestly don't remember it lasting for over three hours. Can't say we didn't get our money's worth! Part of the reason it took so long is that there are traffic diversions creating chaos everywhere, on top of which traffic is just plain crazy. But it was fun seeing things I hadn't seen in ages (the Monument, for example) or seeing things from a slightly different perspective. One of the nicest things was that I got to see St. Paul's without a speck of scaffolding, which is a first for me – and this is my 11th trip to London in 26 years.

We decided to get off the bus at Harrods so that we could use the bathrooms and get something to eat. At the bathroom, Katherine ran into the two Australian ladies who sat next to her on the flight from Dublin. Small world. One of them had bought a Valentino pashmina, and it came in the most gorgeous red box. She wasn't sure if she'd be able to get the box home, but for me that would be half the pleasure of the purchase!

We had lunch in the Laduree tea room. It was ridiculously expensive, and about halfway through lunch I realized that I hadn't brought my credit card with me and didn't have much cash. Very embarrassing, but Katherine paid for my lunch; I will pay her back. I did, however, have enough to buy some macarons: Katherine chose pistachio, Michelle opted for lemon-thyme, and I had orange blossom. Divine!

Another Big Bus was pulling up when we got back out to the Brompton Road, so we hopped on to continue the tour, which lasted close to another half hour. We got off where we had gotten on in the morning and went back to the hotel.

I eventually went back out because I wanted to see the Animals in War Memorial near Marble Arch. It's been there since 2004, but it's new to me. As you'd guess from the name, it's a lovely memorial to animals who served during wartime in the 20th century. There are two curved walls with a space between them, and they are engraved with animals and sentiment. People have even laid wreaths at the base, some of which are made of birdseed. On one side of the walls are bronze sculptures of mules, and on the other side a horse and a dog. It's moving without being syrupy. The website (www.animalsinwar.org.uk) tells more about the memorial and has stories of some of the animals who have been awarded the Dickin Medal. The poem about the horse made me cry!

Walked down Oxford Street – wall-to-wall people – to Bond Street station and went back to Harrods so I could visit the Food Halls and pick up a few things. The Tube was roasting hot and even though I really like the Tube, I can't imagine commuting on it every day.

Katherine called my room around 7:00, and we all went to dinner up the street at Bizzarro. I had puttanesca and tartufo (vanilla ice cream with a chocolate zbaglione center, all covered in chocolate, crushed hazelnuts and cocoa powder) for dessert. I'm now back in my room trying to finish up packing while watching a documentary about Windsor Castle. Ergo, I'm not getting much packing done!

Big travel day tomorrow. Ugh.

P.S. I forgot to mention that yesterday, about a block from Buckingham Palace, we saw a fox crossing the road!

The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square

The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square

London City Hall

London City Hall

Animals in War Memorial

Animals in War Memorial

Animals in War Memorial

Animals in War Memorial

Animals in War Memorial

Animals in War Memorial

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Betty and Phil weren't home.

Poor Katherine. She woke up with a cold (actually, it was coming on yesterday) and she feels pretty low. The initial plan for this morning if the weather was cooperating (which it was) was to walk across Hyde Park and down Constitution Hill to Buckingham Palace. Katherine opted for the Tube instead, and I can't say that I blame her. Since we were starting from Lancaster Gate, we walked over to the parks for a few minutes, but the Italian Gardens are hidden by hoardings. In fact, there are hoardings up all over London, as well as odd little pedestrian diversions that create single-file traffic on the busy sidewalks. It's chaotic, but the city is prettying itself up for the 2012 Olympics next year. There are also all sorts of Tube closures, but that hasn't affected us yet (knock wood).

So we Tubed to Green Park and walked down right in front of Buckingham Palace and around to the visitors' entrance for the Summer Opening of the State Rooms. This is one thing that I've never had the opportunity to do before, as I'm usually here when the State Rooms either aren't yet open or have just closed. I pretty much don't care if we don't get to do anything else while we're here; seeing Buckingham Palace was my “thing” for this visit.

We were given audio guides – which actually worked! – and a route through the State Rooms from which it was not possible to deviate. I've been through palaces before, but there's a little thrill in going through a working palace where the (figure)head of state actually lives. You know, like maybe you could accidentally go through an unmarked door and surprise the Queen in her curlers with a cup of tea and doing a crossword. Or maybe a corgi would come waddling through the crowd. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. The closest we got to seeing royalty was the wonderful (and in some cases quite old) portraits on the walls and the marble busts. It was exciting to see in person, for example, the beautiful full-length portrait of Queen Alexandra that I've seen many times in books. And all the gilt and intricate ceilings and drop-dead gorgeous chandeliers!

We saw the Throne Room, which was clearly thought about to the minutest detail by Nash; the thrones themselves aren't as grand as you'd expect. The Ballroom, a lovely big space, at the moment is displaying the Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress and veil, as well as her shoes, bouquet and specially made earrings. The dress is a work of art, and Kate is so tiny! The designer, Sarah Burton, even put in a little padding at the hips to give Kate a curvier figure. Her skirt and train wouldn't have fallen as beautifully without it. The wedding cake is on display in the next room and, again, the intricacy and the attention to detail and talent that went into it is amazing.

There was also a temporary display of some of the royal family's collection of Faberge, including a few eggs.

The tour ended in the garden, and there's a marquee set up with a small cafe. We sat and had tea and hot chocolate for a bit, then hit the gift shop (spent too much money), and eventually walked through the gardens to the exit. We saw some interesting black birds with white bills and longish legs that we couldn't identify, as well as a crane standing in the pond (or maybe it was a heron; I am ornithologically challenged).

We walked over to Piccadilly and stopped at a Pret a Manger (can't do the accents) to get some lunch. There was no place to sit inside, so we took everything over to Green Park and sat in some deck chairs. It supposedly costs a pound and a half to use a deck chair, but we couldn't figure out where to buy the tickets, and no one came around to collect money while we were sitting there eating. Maybe they're free on Sundays. The park was bustling with lots of families having a day out and plenty of pigeons.

We continued down Piccadilly, stopping to look in the windows at Fortnum & Mason, and went into Hatchards. I tried to be as quick as I could with my shopping list, but Michelle and Katherine got tired of waiting and went to a nearby Starbucks for a cup of tea. I joined them after a bit and got an iced chai, which tasted awfully good. Katherine, who had taken a Sudafed and who looked like she was about to drop, decided to opt out of the rest of the plan for the day and go back to the hotel and have a nap. I hope she feels better in the morning. I don't mind so much since I've seen before all the stuff we were going to see today, but I hope Katherine and Michelle don't regret spending the extra time and money to come to London. Pretty much all they've seen so far is Soho, which is unattractive, and Buckingham Palace.

Anyway, they decided that they could easily get themselves back to the hotel on the Tube, so after visiting an ATM in Piccadilly Circus, they went down to get the Bakerloo Line back to Paddington. I went back toward Soho because I wanted to go to HMV. Got the new Kaiser Chiefs album and one by Alfie Boe, and then came back to the hotel. We don't leave till the day after tomorrow, but I feel like I should really start the packing process. But I'm feeling lazy and am trying to ignore my suitcase, which has a disapproving look on its face.

Katherine called around 6:30. She had taken a nap and was interested in dinner. Rather than attempt to really go anywhere, we just walked up London Street by our hotel and ended up at the London Street Brasserie in Hotel Indigo. I had tagliatelli; it was good, but I seem to have lost the knack of twirling long noodles around my fork. Must practice!

I'm back in my room now and have decided the packing thing must happen now ... right after I watch some TV, read a little in my London guidebook and check my e-mails. With a little bit of luck, it'll be too late then to play suitcase Tetris.

Me at Buckingham Palace

Me at Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace from the gardens

Buckingham Palace from the gardens

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

London, baby!

Katherine, Michelle and I took a taxi to the airport (Katherine's treat) at 9:30 this morning. Our cabbie was amusing, talking politics, gay weddings and Catholics. He also – and this made me really, really happy – had “My Lovely Horse” as his cell phone ringtone! I told him why that made me happy and that I couldn't wait to tell John, and he said I should give John a big kiss from him. :-)

A stressful few minutes at the airport when the check-in kiosk wouldn't let Katherine check in, but it was all sorted out at the desk (“Sometimes, the kiosks don't work.”) and we did a little last-minute shopping in the duty free. We also sat in the Chocolate Lounge having a scone and tea (Katherine), and drinking Baileys Chocolate Mochas (Michelle and me). In the next lounge over, there was a big rugby match on the TV and every so often a huge cheer would go up. Dublin was playing Australia, and Dublin won.

The flight to London was uneventful. It's been a long time since I sat by a window, and it was fun to see the different blues of the Irish Sea and the patchwork fields of England. We landed on time, collected our bags and were on our way into London on the Heathrow Express, which is even faster than I remembered. Spent a few minutes at Paddington trying to buy Oyster cards, but we weren't in the right spot so we decided to just head for the Darlington Hotel. When I stayed here last year I was upgraded to a double. I figured I probably wouldn't strike lucky twice, and indeed I was given a single room (#101). It's very compact, but probably the best laid out single room I've ever been in. I've even got a fridge (with complimentary bottles of water – sounds like a small thing, but it's sooooo appreciated) and a safe.

We hit the street at 3:15 and went back to get our Oyster cards. There was no queue so it took no time at all. We Tubed to Leicester Square to check out the TKTS booth, but there was nothing that really grabbed us, so we decided just to get some dinner. By this time, it was pouring rain, and I think our spirits were a bit low. But we passed by the Prince of Wales Theatre where “Mamma Mia” is playing, so we stopped at the box office to see about tickets. The only place the guy could get us three seats together was in the 62 pound seats. We were about to leave, when he said if we didn't mind sitting apart, he could get us 20 pound seats. So jumped at that.

Back out into the rain, getting a little bit turned around (Covent Garden/Leicester Square/Soho: confusing!), and found the restaurant we wanted to go to. Cantina Laredo in Upper St. Martin's Lane was very good, and the service was very attentive until we wanted our bill. I had chicken tacos and rice and churros for dessert.

We tried to find a Barclays bank afterward, but either we didn't properly understand the directions that two different people gave us, or they just didn't know what they were talking about. Must find one tomorrow because I'm already down to only 30 pounds!

Our seats for “Mamma Mia” were in what we would call the balcony, though the one I got was more mezzanine. The little girl behind me kept kicking my chair. At least she was mostly still when there was singing. Katherine ended up next to five guys for whom this was their first musical. She said they enjoyed the hell out of it, and even came back from the interval with programs and CDs. The production was fantastic; I don't remember all the hilarious choreography from when it was at the Paramount in 2003 or 2004. Sally Ann Tripplett played Donna, and I think I saw her in “Anything Goes” in 2004. It was great fun, and I even really liked the “Does Your Mother Know?” number, and I don't really care for that song.

It's 11:30 now, and I still don't know if the wi-fi works in this room. Last year I had to sit in the lobby, and there's no way I'm going down there now!

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

It's all good.

We drove out of Portrush at 8:30, and it occurred to me that I've seen very few cats on the tour, and none that I could take a photo of. Have seen lots of dogs, however (including two corgis), and enough cows and sheep to last me the rest of my life. In fact, most of my photos will be labeled “sheep,” “cow,” “another cow,” “sheep,” “sheep and cows,” “green field,” “sheep” ....

We saw north Belfast from the motorway. It's still sectarian and, in fact, goes virtually street-by-street Protestant, Catholic, Protestant, Catholic. The British government still has to build peace lines (or peace walls) between certain streets to keep the peace. West Belfast is mainly Catholic, east Belfast is mainly Protestant, and south Belfast apparently prefers to stay out of it altogether. The city center, even at the height of the Troubles, was usually fairly safe because it was cordoned off, people were checked as they came and went, and very few vehicles were allowed. It's not like that now, though some bars in the center will not allow people to wear their football team's shirt inside as it can cause problems. (Catholics tend to support Glasgow Celtic, while Protestants tend to support Glasgow Rangers. Yes, Scottish football teams. To help foster community togetherness, 90 million pounds was spent to build an ice hockey arena, and players were brought from around the world to play for the Belfast Giants. Since the team has no real history and, therefore, no political affiliations, both religions can come together to root for the Giants.)

Declan stressed again that probably 95% of the population of Belfast (which with its suburbs comes to about half a million people) get along just fine and likely wish the peace lines could come down. It's the other 5% that wreck things for everyone. For the most part now, the gates along the peace lines are open, but they used to be more like checkpoints and were closed nearly all the time.

As we drove by the central courthouse, Declan pointed out the blast wall that separates the street from the courthouse grounds. When, for example, a member of the IRA was on trial, his mates would drive right up to the side of the courthouse and set off a bomb to blast a hole in the side of the building and to create chaos and get the guy out.

Belfast has a proud shipbuilding tradition: the Titanic was built in Belfast. What were once the biggest cranes in the world for shipbuilding are in Belfast, and they are called Samson and Goliath. Back in the day, the shipyards employed 30,000 men, all of them Protestant. Declan knows a woman whose grandfather, a Catholic, lied about his religion in order to get hired on at the shipyard. Everything was fine for two or three years until one of his workmates saw him coming out of Mass on a Sunday morning. On Monday morning, he was fired.

We drove by the Europa Hotel, which has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed hotel in the world. Across the street from it is the Crown Liquor Saloon. A Catholic man and his Protestant wife opened it, and he decided to let her name it. Being a Protestant, she decided to name it the Crown. What could the man do but obey his wife? To get his own back, he had a mosaic of a crown as well as the name of the bar laid right in front of the door so that you can't help but tread on the crown.

We stopped at Queen's University, the cornerstone for which was laid by Queen Victoria in 1845. It's a nice red brick campus, and Katherine noticed a poster advertising the Freshers' Ball, featuring David Hasselhoff! Declan particularly wanted us to see a bronze sculpture of a giant head that looks like it's coming up out of the water. It's called Eco. Then we walked next door to the botanic gardens and wandered through the Palm House (some very vivid flowers in there) and the Victorian Ravine, which featured banana trees and koi. Declan was also very pleased to point out a sculpture by Alexander Calder. (There is something known as the “1% Rule,” which says that all new public buildings must put aside 1% of the budget for public art.)

We got back on the bus and John drove us to the Falls Road. During the Troubles, it was a hotbed for Nationalist (Catholic) activities. There are murals like in Derry, and they change every so often. One that doesn't change is of Bobby Sands, the first of the hunger strikers to die back in the early 70s. It's on the alley end of Sinn Fein headquarters. It was strange to see the Sinn Fein sign above the entrance, as it's always seemed like a covert organization that wouldn't necessarily want to advertise its location. But since the IRA has been officially disbanded, Sinn Fein is now a bona fide political action group. It didn't look like a scary road. The houses are mostly neatly kept, but there weren't very many people out and about.

The Falls Road area is the only Gaeltacht region in the United Kingdom, so you see street signs in two languages like you would in the Republic. The Royal Hospital in the area is a world leader in reconstructive plastic surgery. With bombs blowing out plate glass windows and disfiguring people, the hospital's plastic surgery wing was once kept pretty busy.

The city cemetery has both Protestants and Catholics buried in it, but they are divided by a wall three meters high. The wall even extends far underground to divide the Protestant worms from the Catholic worms! The cemetery also has a small section reserved for IRA members who were killed on active duty.

We drove to a Loyalist (Protestant) area, going through a gate in one of the peace lines. The wall is 25 feet high and covered with artistic graffiti. People have written messages of hope all over the graffitied wall. Declan had some markers, so we got out and wrote on the wall ourselves. On the other side of the street was a corrugated metal hoarding on which someone had painted in very large red letters, “IT'S ALL GOOD.” We also drove down the Shankill Road. There was Union Jack bunting strung across the road and it looked a lot busier than the Falls Road, though poorer.

John dropped us off at City Hall (a lovely big Victorian building with a dome), and Declan pointed us in various directions for lunch. But it was pouring, and the nearest lunch spot was in City Hall, so a bunch of us went in there. I think most of us are winding down now and if given the choice to walk a block to see something fantastic or to sit in a small cafe inside an office building, we would pick the sit-down option. The news was about the UBS trader who lost something like a billion pounds, and the trapped miners in Wales. Also, there may be another hurricane heading toward Ireland's south coast. Hope it doesn't interfere with flights to England tomorrow!

We got back to the Harding Hotel (spider hostel) in Dublin around 3:45. Katherine and I went to a pharmacy to find her a bandage, and we made a precision strike on a souvenir shop too. Am just realizing that I forgot to buy a calendar, which is what I usually do on my travels. Maybe at the airport tomorrow.

Our last supper was at Eden in Temple Bar. I had soup, a parmesan-dijon chicken, and white chocolate panna cotta. Declan bought us all a glass of wine. Paul Staley made a presentation to Declan of a card that we had all signed, plus a bottle of wine and a box of See's chocolates. I guess it'll give Declan something to do till his next tour starts on Sunday. After dinner, Katherine took a photo of me and Declan in a pose from the “My Lovely Horse” obligatory video (probably only John got that).

When we got back to the hotel, Katherine treated Michelle and me to a Baileys at the bar in the hotel. Yum. A lovely way to end the day. Except that it's not the end: I have to figure out how to re-pack my suitcase!



Pretty flowers in the Palm House

Pretty flowers in the Palm House

Sinn Fein HQ

Sinn Fein HQ

Sign on the Falls Road

Sign on the Falls Road

Graffiti wall

Graffiti wall

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

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