Lately Life’s Been the Same, I Found this Comfortable Place

I’ve let quite a thick layer of dust accumulate on this blog, I’m afraid. To start with, I’m writing primarily to myself and my three faithful readers, so there’s a slight supply and demand issue. Secondly, the last time I blogged, it was a four-part series through Europe, and it’s hard to top that. But, in the advent of #WayBackWednesday, #ThrowbackThursday, #FlashbackFriday, and Facebook’s “On this Day” reminders, I became keenly aware that last year at this time, I was vacationing in Maine (with a small taste of New Hampshire for good measure).

I loved my time in Maine. ADORED my time in Maine. I’ve thought back on that trip wistfully a number of times in the last year, somewhat surprised at how much it’s stuck with me. Since I have no immediate plans to return, I thought it would be a good time to relive it by trying to write a recap a year after the fact.

You know how all my trips begin – with a sleepless night of anxious anticipation. This one was no different, as I had an early flight from Richmond to Boston, where I picked up a rental car and drove hard for the coast. I had booked my first two nights in Rockland, so I made my first stop in Sohier Park (Nubble Lighthouse) to make sure my route wasn’t overly ambitious.

By this time, I was starving, so I proceeded nearby to the Cape Neddick Lobster Pound for lunch.

The restaurant wasn’t inside the building above, but in a somewhat classier (but less photogenic) space across the gravel lot. I couldn’t bring myself to try lobster again just yet (I’d disliked it on the first attempt years earlier), especially when one of the house specialties was an Indian dish. I was too hungry to take chances! I did encounter a new food, though – something so unfamiliar to me that I actually flagged my waitress down to ask her what they were. These are fiddleheads:

Lunch was delicious and fueled me for more driving and sight-seeing. The route to the next lighthouse on my list took me through the cute town of Kennebunkport, where I did some quick drive-by touristing.

Another hour took me to the Cape Elizabeth Light.

I’ve never been particularly fascinated by lighthouses, but the “when in Rome” mindset applies greatly to lighthouses in Maine, so they were my natural markers for tourist attractions. My first “wow” moment came when I reached the Portland Head Light. The sky had gotten bluer and the clouds were fluffy white, and the Portland Head Light was everything that I wanted a lighthouse in Maine to be. Namely, picture perfect!

Portland Head Light is situated in a massive park, so there is plenty to see if you want to spend half the day or more walking around there.

When you’re driving up the coast of Maine, it becomes quite clear why there are so many lighthouses, because the jagged coastline calls for them. I spent a lot of time weaving back and forth along the coast, trying to stick to the most scenic route possible.

My last beacon of the day was Permaquid Point, which also featured a nice park (albeit a much smaller one than in Portland).

By the time I got back on the road, I was an hour away from Rockland and the sleepless night was catching up with me. I was also getting hungry again. I’d been told to stop for ice cream at Dorman’s Dairy Dream, but I realized I wouldn’t be able to eat ice cream and then eat dinner, so I made an executive decision to eat ice cream FOR dinner instead.

GREAT decision!

The room I booked was then only a few miles away, and though it was still very much light outside, I knew once I got there, I wouldn’t be going back out again that day.

When I started planning my trip, I knew I was going to spend 3 nights in Bar Harbor, but I couldn’t decide where to spend my first two. Rockland, Rockport, and Camden were the most popular options along the coast, and my research indicated that Camden was the hot spot for tourists and Rockport was the less-touristy-but-close-to-Camden option for something more low-key. I kept being drawn back to Rockland by the Berry Manor Inn. It looked amazing online and had great reviews, including having been chosen as the best B&B in America. It was pricy, especially on my own, but I desperately wanted to stay there so I rationalized my choice since it was a good halfway point between the sights I wanted to see in St. George to the South and Camden to the North, as well as places in between.

I’m so glad I let my inner cheapskate lose the fight, because the Berry Manor Inn is my favorite place I’ve stayed EVER. I loved it and I still daydream about going back there.

My room was massive and lavish – the shower had TWO showerheads coming at you from opposite directions, for goodness’ sake. I could’ve held a dance party in all the extra floor space, and there was even a fireplace. Heaven on earth.

And, for the pièce de résistance, there were fresh-baked homemade pies in the kitchen ALL THE TIME for you to eat at your leisure, and ice cream in the freezer to go with it.

I literally checked in, unpacked, took a shower, and went in my pajamas and slippers down to the kitchen and helped myself to a slice each of blueberry and raspberry pie. (I don’t like cherries, so I left that one behind.) Then, I went back up to my room with my plate of pie and sat in my newly-turned-down bed and ate it.

Having enjoyed such a lovely, early evening in, I had no excuse for not waking up to drive over to the Rockland Breakwater Light for the 4:51am sunrise. Actually, it’s not possible to drive to the lighthouse, since it’s 1 mile out into the ocean at the end of a breakwater made of granite rocks. At high tide, this path is underwater, but at sunrise that day, the tide was on its way down. After parking and walking out to the water, I sat on the breakwater and waited for the sun.

The sun didn’t disappoint.

Even though it was early June, I had dressed in layers fearing the cold ocean air that I’d read about in discussions of this very lighthouse trek. I was grateful for the fleece leggings under my corduroy pants when I was sitting on granite rocks that had recently been underwater, but once I started my journey toward the lighthouse, I got hot in a hurry!

A mile walk is not at all daunting, especially at the ocean as the sun rises, but I underestimated the extra energy and concentration required to walk a mile over uneven granite rocks, being careful to step over large cracks in the rock and dodge still-wet-and-slippery rocks. It’s probably the slowest mile I’ve ever walked. About halfway out, I looked around and contemplated the fact that I hadn’t seen another human all morning, and wondered if anyone would really see me if I stopped and took my pants off. I decided that it would’ve been a bigger pain to carry them than to wear them and be hot, so I took off the extra shirt and jacket and tied those around my waist for the rest of the walk.

Distance perception was tricky, too, since I mostly had to look down to watch my step, and when I’d look ahead, I was always sure I was almost there, but the path kept stretching out ahead.

Once I finally reached the lighthouse, I turned around to look back down the path to the shoreline.

I climbed up onto the lighthouse and perched on a bench to rest and take in the spoils of victory – the scenery, the breeze, and the bliss of having the world to myself.

By the time I decided to walk back to shore, the early morning dog-walkers were making their way out to the lighthouse. I bet if you walked the path every day, you’d get a rhythm and eventually learn where to step without even having to look down. This little excursion will be at the top of my list of things to do again whenever I make it back.

It was nearly breakfast time at the B&B by the time I got back, so I had time to make myself look presentable and “start” my day, a mere 4 hours after waking up. I had a big to-do list for the day!

I decided to drive to the southern-most point on my list and work my way up, so my first order of business was driving through St. George to Port Clyde to see the Marshall Point Lighthouse, a favorite of my friends Colin and Lana, who have made it an annual trip. You’ll also recognize this from Forrest Gump.

My next stop was Owl’s Head, where I had plans to see the lighthouse and check out the Transportation Museum. I don’t like museums in general, but I read rave reviews on this one and thought I should at least check it out. They knew how to lure me in with this beauty in the entryway!

A true aficionado could’ve spent all day wandering this massive museum, I’m sure, but I covered it all in a little over an hour, including a stop in the mechanics shop to talk about some of the favorites I’d seen and inquire as to what became of those old brands. It’s definitely worth a visit!

From there, I popped over to the Owl’s Head Lighthouse, which is also the only lighthouse I went inside during my trip.

I was ravenous by this time, and it was finally time for me to try lobster. I’d been recommended Waterman’s Beach Lobster, but it hadn’t opened for the season yet. I’d written down McLoon’s Lobster Shack as a backup, and then had it heartily recommended to me by the folks running my B&B. To get there, I had to drive out along the causeway onto Sprucehead Island. I think there were more people at McLoon’s than were on the whole rest of the island, but that’s a good sign when it comes to dining. I waited in line and ordered up a lobster roll, chips, and a drink.

I sat down to share a picnic table by the water with some strangers and took a bite of my roll. Guess what? It wasn’t just a fluke. I hate lobster. Whether it comes from Red Lobster in Virginia or I watch them pull it out of the water and cook it in a renowned Maine lobster shack, I hate, hate, HATE lobster.

So, I gave it away to the strangers who’d already finished their lunch but still looked at me like I was Oprah handing out new cars when I gave them my unwanted lobster. Then I promptly hit the road with my potato chips and drink because I had to pee (and they only had porta potties) and I was nearing the point of hunger where I start to feel sick.

Luckily, I already had a backup plan for lunch, albeit half an hour away in Rockport. I made it and ordered up some trademark fried fish from the Graffam Bros Seafood Shack and parked myself back at a picnic table for lunch, except this time I ate most of it.

Proceeding north, I waded into the heavy traffic of tourist-laden Camden and found one of the few free parking lots that I’d looked up online, but it was full, so I did some circling until I found a street space where I could parallel park at a meter. I was already thanking heaven and earth that I’d ignored everyone who’d suggested I stay in Camden.

There was a car show going on, so I strolled through that, criss-crossed the streets of town, then walked down to the harbor.

I saw as much of Camden as I cared to see in about an hour. I’m sure there’s more to it and I know there’s fine dining and such, but it just wasn’t what I was looking for. I did enjoy driving through the High Street Historic District on my way up to Mt. Battie, though. From atop the mountain, I could see the Camden harbor, and with the help of binoculars, even the Rockland Breakwater Light where I’d begun my day, but the path was mostly underwater.

I waited until I got back to Rockland to grab a bite of dinner. The streets of Rockland were very quiet compared to the mobs in Camden, but still very quaint. Having had some real food for dinner, I was happy to return to my glorious B&B for another early night in, eating pie in bed.

I also took the opportunity to participate in an adorable practice at Berry Manor Inn. Each room has its own journal that sits on the nightstand, and guests are welcome to leave entries in it or to read what others had written before.

I perused the book and added my own mark:

The next morning was somewhat dreary, so it was a good excuse to enjoy my room a little longer before I had to leave it behind. After breakfast (the breakfasts here were SO good, to add to all the other perfections of the place), I said my goodbyes and hit the road for Bar Harbor, making two quick stops on my way out of town – the Maine State Prison Showroom, and the Dorman’s Dairy Dream for another round. After all, doesn’t everyone stop at an outdoor ice cream stand in the rain at 11am?

I had planned a detour to the adorable town of Bayside on Lana’s recommendation, and I had to figure out a way to game the GPS system ahead of time in order to take me there. I gave my GPS a false destination that would clue me in to the back road I wanted to turn on, and then I had to switch to the old-fashioned method of using my brain and a map. Since it was cloudy and rainy, I thought about skipping the side trip altogether, but decided I couldn’t let a bit of rain stop my plans.

I still got to see some great views on my drive, and even touches of blue sky periodically, such as when I pulled over to snap this:

The rain gave me a reprieve when I finally reached Bayside, so I was able to park and stroll around this adorable little village that was out of time. This is where you go to vacation if you want to forget the world exists and pretend you live in a simpler era.

I had to pull over in the rain one more time en route to Bar Harbor to snap some photos of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. Pictures don’t really do justice to the scale of this thing. After photographing it, I proceeded to drive across it.

My only regret from my Maine trip is that I did my B&Bs in the opposite order than what I should have. The Berry Manor Inn is the Shangri La of bed and breakfasts, so I was still longing for it even when I checked in at the utterly delightful Yellow House in Bar Harbor. I’d say it’s the quintessential B&B experience.

My room was precious, and I know this is crazy, but my favorite thing about it was that it had a hallway. My own room with my own hallway to connect to my own (enormous) bathroom. It probably had a similar square-footage to my room in Rockland, but it was fun to feel like I had three distinct rooms. Plus, the floor creaked a bit in the hallway when I’d stroll over to the bathroom, and (again, I’m eccentric) I found it darling.

The sky had darkened quite a bit as I unpacked, so I sat in the armchair of my room, put my feet up on the stool, and rested while listening to the storm outside. As it began to taper off, I called my friend Cheryl in (more) northern Maine to solidify plans for her to drive down the next morning to join me for some sight-seeing.

Once it seemed that the rain had stopped, I had to nudge myself a bit to get outside and do some exploring around the town. I decided to walk down to the harbor and take the Shore Path around the island.

And of course I had to stake out one of Bar Harbor’s beloved ice cream spots on my way back through town:

I woke up to another dreary day, but enjoyed breakfast in the dining room and then bundled up enough to sit in a rocking chair on the porch and read some Thoreau like a lady of leisure until Cheryl arrived.

She came ready for adventure, so after playing catch-up, we walked down to the land bar just after low tide had uncovered it, meaning we had about 2 hours to walk across to Bar Island, hike to the top, and get back across without getting stranded by the returning tide.

I was greatly distracted on the hike up by the pretty purple flowers growing on Bar Island. Cheryl is an excellent photographer, so she didn’t begrudge me any of my photo stops.

We both like to take pictures, but you could not accuse us of being good at taking pictures of ourselves. This photo of us at the top of Bar Island cracks me up.

Even with the dreariness, we were able to look across to Bar Harbor and I enjoyed observing the Shore Path that I’d walked the night before.

Having completed our walk before the rain started up again, we hopped in the car and drove out Acadia National Park to have lunch at the Jordan Pond House, along with their famous popovers. Lunch was delicious, but we were missing the view from our window seat due to the rain. C’est la vie!

After lunch, we went to see the Asticou Azalea Garden and the Thuya Garden, which are side-by-side. We had to don our ponchos for this activity, but were otherwise undeterred. The rain also meant we had the gardens to ourselves.

We ended our day with a nighttime walk around town and dinner, and I convinced Cheryl to stay the night and sight-see with me again the next day in better weather.

The next morning was so lovely, in fact, that our breakfast had been set up on the porch outside. Yes, I was drinking orange juice and hot tea and Diet Coke with breakfast. That is B&B life.

Having stuffed ourselves with a delicious breakfast, we walked some of it off around town hitting some of the sights on my list, starting with St. Saviour’s Episcopal Church.

And, subsequently, the Jesup Memorial Library:

Then, Cheryl took me out to see one of her favorite lighthouses, Bass Harbor. We got a little bit of “rock climbing” in to get the best pictures.

With the wind of a beautiful day in our sails, we made our way toward Acadia National Park, with one more Cheryl-inspired detour to a nice viewpoint for Eagle Lake:

Once we got into Acadia, the first stop had to be Cadillac Mountain. More on the views from here later!

Continuing our way around the Park Loop Road, we pulled over at each stopping point to check out the views or take a walk, including joining the throng of folks listening to the ocean roar into Thunder Hole.

We also took the opportunity to walk to the view from the Jordan Pond House that we’d missed due to rain the previous day.

Once again, my fervor for exploring was interrupted by my lack of planning for food, and breakfast had long since worn off, so we high-tailed it back into town and enjoyed the best meal (besides breakfast) of my entire trip at Galyn’s. I had the crab cakes.

Then, we set sail on a windjammer for a sunset cruise!

There was even a bit of unexpected scenery. (Like you wouldn’t have done the same thing.)

And the anticipated scenery (i.e. the sunset) was just as lovely.

But all good things must come to an end, so we sailed back to the dock.

I convinced Cheryl that she needed some ice cream before getting on the road for home, but I was unprepared for the horror I encountered at the ice cream shop. TOO FAR, MAINE!

The forecast for the next morning looked to be a return to the cloudy, rainy weather I’d seen before, but it was also my last morning in Bar Harbor before departing for New Hampshire, so it was now or never for the much ballyhooed Cadillac Mountain sunrise – the first sunrise in the continental U.S.

So, I set my alarm for an excruciating 3:30am, woke up, checked the forecast which still said rain, and desperately wanted to just go back to sleep. But, I decided I could at least get up and look out the window first. So, I looked out the first window – complete cloud cover. The second window showed a hint of clear skies. I was sleepy and doubtful, but ultimately knew I couldn’t live with the what-if. So, I dressed in multiple layers in the dark, grabbed my keys and stumbled outside (as quietly as I could) and started the 30-minute drive up the mountain. My tiny Ford Fiesta rental had struggled to get up the mountain on the first trip, made more difficult by the slow traffic ahead. Luckily, at such an early hour in the morning, I was able to get a clear path to the top, so I went as fast as I safely could up the curvy mountain and the car didn’t even have to hiccup.

The wind was STRONG and COLD at the top. I was freezing, but I pressed on and walked around looking for a good view of the horizon without any other people in view. Then I huddled between some rocks to get a break from the gale-force winds and waited. The skies in the east were fairly cloudy, but not abysmal. I tried to avoid glancing north at the big black cloud pushing in.

And whaddaya know? The dark cloud held off, the sun rose, and it was magnificent.

I watched it for a while before figuring it was time to head back down the mountain. I was encouraged in that respect by my nearly frozen nose.

Yet, I found myself stopping at two different places on the way down to admire the view a little more.

I was really glad that I’d pressed on and gotten up for the journey. And when I got back to the Yellow House, there was no one stirring, so what do you think I did? Yep. Climbed right back in bed. Slept until it was breakfast time.

I got on the road for New Hampshire after breakfast with a 5-hour trek ahead of me. I had to pull over when I got to the state line to document my first foray into a new state.

And you know they never put up the big welcome sign right at the state line, so I had to pull over just a bit down the road to get this one, too:

Here’s my first taste of NH scenery, which actually looked a lot like Virginia scenery (which is absolutely a compliment):

Much later in the drive, I passed this sign, laughed excessively for about another mile down the road before deciding that I had to go back and take a picture. Not sure why it cracked me up so much, but it did and still does.

Ultimately, I arrived at my final B&B of the trip – the Lighthouse Inn. I stayed in a room they’d named the “Portland Head Light,” which really brought the trip full circle.

I felt too tired for much of anything upon arrival, but I was also hungry, so I forced myself to go out and explore the docks around Meredith Bay before grabbing a bite. At the urging of my B&B owner, I took the time to step into Mill Falls, a hotel resort. It was worth checking out, a combination of rustic and elegant.

I only spent a little over an hour walking around the town and found some dinner, then kept up the week-long tradition of retiring early. I had been oddly anxious about Maine being “too relaxing” for me. I recognize how insane that sounds, but I was afraid I’d get bored and therefore not be able to appreciate the leisure time. In actuality, I felt great about it!

The next morning, I wandered to the dining area / family room for a delicious breakfast and then sat and read in the room for a while until my friend Karen arrived from Boston. She was hungry when she arrived, so after unpacking and doing some catching up, we took another recommendation (and the proffered coupon) from our host and went to Hart’s Turkey Farm for lunch. They advertise “Thanksgiving year-round!” so really, why would you NOT go eat there?

Our visit was also timed with Bike Week in Laconia, NH, so on our way to lunch, we saw precious few cars compared to the rows and rows and rows of motorcycles everywhere, creating quite a bit of traffic in a seemingly-otherwise quiet town.

Lunch was splendid, and we followed it up with a disco nap for Karen, and more reading in the rocking chair for me until it was time for the main event, The Avett Brothers’ concert at the Meadowbrook Pavilion. I’d purchased a ticket on a whim without a plan in mind, but the more I thought about it, the more I decided it would make a great vacation and a great excuse to finally visit Maine and New Hampshire. It was sweetened even further when my friend Karen said she wanted to join me, so I sold my solo ticket and got us a pair.

We arrived at the show early and patrolled the parking lot searching for our Avett Facebook friends. It didn’t take long for us to be surrounded by squeals and hugs as everyone was excited to meet in person after being united online.

We also took the opportunity to sign this traveling banner representing the great “Nation” of Avett fans.

The party in the parking lot was enough to make the whole trip worthwhile, but we figured since we were there already, we might as well go ahead inside to see the show. (Ha!)

John Prine was the opener, and it was pretty great to seeing a true legend perform!

We sang and danced like crazy – the delightful kind of crazy and not the loony bin kind of crazy, but it was a very fine line given our state of exuberant bliss. The Brothers also played Paranoia in Bb Major, which Karen and I consider to be “our song,” and hearing those first chords and the utter mayhem that ensued will go down as one of my most memorable concert moments of all time. In fact, I can’t hear it come on at a show without looking beside me just to see if she’s there! (Luckily, we got our second chance to experience this song together in April of this year in Worcester, MA!)

We ran around excitedly greeting even more friends after the show was over, many of whom were headed out of town on their way to the band’s next destination. The next destination for Karen and I was bed!

We made one last tourist stop the next day before heading back to Boston, visiting the nearby mountaintop estate aptly named “Castle in the Clouds.”

The driveway was so long that we were actually given a map with scenic stops to enjoy on our way up to the visitor center, including a short hike to a waterfall and an overlook point.

From the Visitor Center, we boarded a bus to the top and explored the home, inside and out. Both were impressive, but my camera definitely liked the exterior more.


After that, all that was left was a drive back to Boston, a night to laugh and reminisce about the fun we had, and the return back home.

This glorious trip got me hooked on Maine and also alleviated that 200-mile-radius limit when perusing the concert calendar. I’d call that a win-win. I can’t wait to do it all again.


Sleek and Chic and Magnifique… It’s Me, It’s Me, It’s Absolutely Me

The non-stop action in London paired with the sinus nightmare that ensued after the incense incident left me feeling pretty worn down on the Eurostar trip to Paris.  We had a delay en route but made up most of the lost time, so we arrived at Gare du Nord in Paris a bit after noon once we accounted for the time change.  I had written down my subway directions ahead of time, but still needed to buy my ticket.  The New Yorker in me passed up the Tourist Information line for the ticket kiosk, but even after choosing English, a lot of the prompts were in French.  I managed to navigate my way through it, anyway, though I was self-conscious about moving slower than I thought I should.  I got to the payment screen and my credit card wouldn’t process… twice.  Having done this song and dance on more than one occasion when my bank turned off my debit card after I used a subway kiosk in NYC, I was sure that my card had just been flagged and I was going to have to jump through a lot of hoops to get it reinstated.  I had been using that card for just about everything, and while I had other cards and cash to back me up, my exhausted state left me a little overwrought and more frustrated than I should have been.  The tourist line I had snubbed was now four times the length it had been at the start, but I had no choice other than to stand in it.  When I got to the front, I ordered the three-day pass, and the price had a comma instead of a decimal, so I had no idea how much it was, but I handed over my just-declined card praying it would work this time.  Luckily, it did, and I was on my way, though utterly confused by the two different prices separated by a comma on my receipt.  It’s funny how thrown off our brains can be when something normal looks even slightly amiss.


I found my subway with no trouble (other than the trouble of lugging my 30-pound luggage up and down stairs) and wiggled my way onto a very crowded train.  I had to switch trains once to get to my destination, and the doors opened on the opposite side from where I was, so I nearly missed getting off despite my pleas of “Pardon!  Pardon!” and trying desperately to squeeze myself and my suitcase through the sardine can subway car.  Luckily, the second train wasn’t as crowded and I was able to observe that the subway doors had to be opened manually in each car for anyone to get on or off the train.  If I hadn’t taken note of it, I probably would have been standing there stupidly waiting for the doors to open when I got to my destination.  It turned out to be a non-issue, because several people disembarked at that stop, so I was able to follow behind them.


A lady waved to me wordlessly, no doubt seeing “American” written all over my face, and motioned for me to follow her down a particular corridor.  I complied, we rounded a corner and then she turned back to me, threw her hands up in an apologetic shrug, and walked away.  I realized what had happened when I saw that there was an escalator ahead, but it wasn’t working.  She was trying to be helpful, though, so I was thankful even though it came to naught.  When I started ambling up the stationary escalator steps, a man tapped me on the shoulder from behind, made more silent motions at me, picked up my suitcase, and carried it to the top of the escalator.  He put it down at the top and took two steps to the right before turning back with the same shrug I’d gotten from the woman, picking up my bag again, and walking up the next non-working escalator.


I was so grateful to him for his help, but my brain completely froze and I couldn’t remember any of the French I had learned.  All I could say was “thank you” and make a dorky face at him with my hand over my heart like that would somehow effect the proper emotion.  I could remember the sign language for thank you, but I never use that because it looks quite similar to some very insulting sign language, and that would be an awful thing to do to a man who’d just carried my luggage up two long flights of stairs.


Up on the street, I looked around and realized I was standing at a roundabout with about 7 streets off of it.  Roundabouts had become a familiar sight by this point, but I needed to figure out which road to walk down to get to my friend’s place.  I had my map in hand, but that wasn’t much help when I couldn’t find a single road sign.  In Paris, road names are on plaques on the sides of buildings instead of on poles at the intersection, and sometimes the signs are set several feet into the street.  So, basically, you’d have to start down the street before you could read the sign to know if it was the right one.  I was feeling tired and defeated by the realization that I’d have to walk perhaps as much as half a mile just to figure out which direction to walk.  So, instead, I stood right there at the top of the subway stairs, suitcase at my side and map in hand, looking like the lost American tourist that I was.  I still couldn’t remember any French.  Even “Pardon” had left me.  So, when I saw a guy walking in my direction, I started flailing my hand at him in a pathetic, “Over here, over here!  Yes, you!  Come here!”  He obliged my crass greeting, and I thrust my map into his hand, pointed at the road I wanted, and furrowed my brow in confusion.  He looked at my map and started looking around the circle, like he, too, had no idea which road was which.  He looked back at me, pointed at where I had marked on the map, and said, “You go here?”  I shook my head.  He walked forward several steps and I followed.  He peered around the corner, looked at my map again, handed it back, and pointed down the street nearest to us.  I rubbed my heart again and said “thank you,” and congratulated myself on being the goofiest American cliché in the book as I started down the street, finally noticing the road name that told me I was going in the right direction.


I found my friend Celine’s building without any further incidents, used the key code she gave me to get through the first door and then rang her unit at the second.  She came over the intercom, “Hello!  Last floor.”  I really wished that meant “bottom floor” in France, but I knew it meant the top one.  I stared at the spiral fire-escape-esque staircase with narrow steps and wondered if I’d make it to the top alive.  I never mastered how many floors it was, to be honest.  At least 5.  Less than 8.  Enough that I was far too tired to keep count as I walked up every day, slinging my ill-functioning knee off to the left as I hobbled up one stair at a time.  Carrying my luggage up the first time was a trial by fire.


I did eventually reach the top, at which point I collapsed on Celine’s couch and she revived me with an Orangina and I caught my breath while catching up with her a bit.  I gave her a copy of my itinerary for my three days in Paris, and she gave me a copy of her key.  Finally ready to move again, I headed back down the stairs (significantly easier in that direction) and back to the subway station to make my way to Montmartre.  Its manual doors notwithstanding, the subway system was a familiar comfort.  I couldn’t remember any French, but I am fluent in public transportation.


I had planned to make a large circle around Montmartre, starting and ending at the same station.  I had mapped that route before I’d taken a single step on vacation, but I quickly decided on the train that a one-way trip was in my best interests.  Apparently, while any thought of speaking French had my tongue stymied, my brain still managed to translate the French on signs around me.  That’s how I managed the quick decision about which stop to make on the train without time to pull out my map and look.

So, I started my tour of Montmartre by walking in sporadic drops of rain with a herd of tourists up a street of junk joints toward Montmartre’s crowning jewel, SacréCoeur.  No picture can do justice to the immensity you feel when you walk into view of the basilica perched atop the highest point in Paris.  It’s magnificent.



Montmartre is a quaint neighborhood for wandering and lingering in cafes.  Having toured Sacré-Coeur, I also stopped into some less-famous churches like nearby Saint Pierre and this one, Saint Jean.


I stopped for a late lunch in Un Zebra a Montmartre, where the menu was written on various chalkboards that they’d perch on a nearby chair when you were seated.  Luckily, they had these in English, too, but the menu was fairly limited and they had mostly fancy options that didn’t appeal to me.  I may have tried elsewhere, but I’d already been seated, and I felt enough like a fish out of water as it was.  So, I elected to have a Caesar salad, which I was happy to learn came with bread.  The French feel passionately about their cheese, apparently, because I still had nearly a half block’s worth of parmesan in the bottom of my bowl when I had finished.  This was all a pretty adequate precursor to what it was like for me trying to eat in Paris.


Just around the corner from the café was the apartment building where Vincent Van Gogh lived with his brother Theo in the latter part of his life.  That was cool enough to merit walking by.





I also dropped into Café de Deux Moulins so I could get a postcard to send back to my friends Josh and Deidre, who’d hosted a “French night” for me before I left, which included watching Amelie, a movie that largely took place in that particular café.



That isn’t the only place in Montmartre made famous by film.  It is also the home of Moulin Rouge, where visitors can still take in a show.



After leaving Montmartre, I took the subway to the Arc de Triomphe, which is situated in the middle of – you guessed it! – a roundabout.  This place is basically a death trap for tourists, because it’s not clear how one could possibly get to the middle where the Arc is without trying to run across four lanes of perpetually circling traffic.  The answer, which I knew from scouting it online, is an underground tunnel that connects at two of the TWELVE intersections.  So, I had to circle the Arc for a while before reaching a point of entry for the underground tunnel.



Unfortunately, the Arc was under construction or renovation or restoration or something that had left a bit of the view obstructed.  Still, its intricate details had all of the tourists – this one included – craning our necks to look up as we walked underneath the arches.







Rather than circle the Arc back to the subway, I decided I’d just walk the two miles to the Eiffel Tower from there.  I stopped along the way and re-upped my energy with some chocolate mousse and a nice waiter who responded to my request for water with ice by bringing me a glass, a repurposed wine bottle filled with water, and a bucket of ice.  There wasn’t a drop of water or a cube of ice left when I was finished.  The chocolate mousse was pretty good, too.


My walking path also took me by perhaps the saddest sight I saw across four countries.  I really hope this lost bunny was eventually reunited with its person.  Someone before me had hoisted him up here to get him off the dirty street.  In a city of tourists, I had my doubts about his chances.



I approached the Eiffel Tower from the Trocodero by design, so that I could round a corner and have the tower come suddenly and gloriously into view.  It was as breathtaking and magical as I’d ever dreamed it would be, and my expectations had been high.  I couldn’t stop taking pictures of it, so I have many, many copies of the same picture from the same angle, like nudging my camera over and over again with, “Are you seeing this, Camera?  Look at that, Camera!”



Now I am going to enlighten you all about the single worst part of traveling alone.  While I can never fail to find someone who can take my picture, people do not naturally take pictures well.  I take it for granted because I got the photography gene from my Mom, and while I’ve never taken a class and am by no means a professional, I know how to frame a shot.  The tourists that asked me to take their photos are having those pictures framed for the living room as we speak.  I, however, am presenting you all with the following photo series:  Awkward Tourist-Taken Photos of Me in Vague Proximity to the Eiffel Tower, Apparently, For Some Reason.



And here’s the big finish, wherein I make a *subtle* gesture to clue the photographer into the fact that I am not actually the most important thing in this picture.



As I was walking along the side of the fountains, taking the following set of pictures, a group of guys motioned to me to take a picture for them.  So, I took their picture, and when I handed the camera back, each of them, in turn, asked me to be in a picture WITH them.  I was pretty sure this was a ploy to pickpocket me or at least try something inappropriate, so I was prepared for either scenario, but neither took place.  They all just seemed really, really excited to get a picture taken.  I was fairly certain I didn’t have chocolate mousse on my face or anything terribly embarrassing like that, so maybe they were doing a scavenger hunt and needed a picture with an American girl.  Frenchmen on the streets would say “I love you” as I walked past (not creepy at all, French dudes), but these guys were all Latino, so I don’t know what their deal was.  In any case, that’s probably the strangest thing that happened on my trip.  But back to the Eiffel Tower…



When I walked down underneath the Eiffel Tower, it had begun to drizzle rain a little bit.  The sky still seemed pretty clear in spite of it, so I decided to go ahead and queue up for tickets to the top.  There was a couple behind me with a little girl who was eating an ice cream cone and chattering away in English.  I got tickled by something she said and that struck up a conversation in which I learned that they were from Maryland and had turned the father’s business trip into a family vacation.  We continued to chat all the way through the line, which was probably almost 45 minutes by the time we neared the front.  At that point, we spotted a scrolling marquee that said that the top observation deck was temporarily closed.  We couldn’t figure out the reason, but thought it was possible that there was lightning somewhere nearby.  The little girl declared, “But I want to go to the top!”  Her parents very diplomatically said, “We may not be able to go to the top right now, but we’re going to go up as high as we can.”  The 6-year-old (complete guess) accepted this much better than I did.  I didn’t want to set a bad example, though, so only in my head did I say, “But if I can’t go to the top, then I’m not going!”

We were three people from the front of the line when the closure notice suddenly disappeared from the sign.  I eavesdropped on the folks ahead of me and heard that the top was open again, but that “drenching” conditions were possible.  I stepped up and bought my ticket to the top quickly before they could change their minds, and the Maryland family followed suit.  We proceeded through security and went to get on the elevator to go up.  The guy letting groups onto the elevator stopped me to wait for the next one, but my new friends piped up and said, “Wait!  She’s with us!”


They were at the end of their trip, so they were able to point out several of the landmarks I’d be going to see in the next few days.  Also, there was no “drenching” at the top at all.  The rain (which had barely been noticeable in the first place) had stopped entirely.




The little girl told me that at 9:00pm, the lights on the Eiffel Tower were going to twinkle.  Her parents confirmed that this occurred on the hour.  That was about 20 minutes away, so I said farewell and headed back down so that I could walk out onto the Champ-de-Mars to see it when they flipped the switch and lit up the tower, and then also watch the twinkling light show when it got dark.



Once again, I took way too many pictures.  I tinkered with these a bit.



After a while, I decided I should probably head for the subway, but I still turned around and took more pictures about every 10 feet that I walked.  I encountered a family from California sitting on a blanket on the lawn and talked with them for about 15 minutes and one of them took a few pictures for me.  Of course, I am just a dark shadow in front of the Eiffel Tower, but it’s really me, I promise.





I walked a bit farther and then had to turn around again to watch the spotlight.



I also found more Americans willing to take my photo, and this time I put on my goofy tourist hat.



My exhaustion was all but forgotten as I made my way back to the subway.  I was nicely distracted by the splendor I’d just witnessed.  Even Celine’s stairs weren’t too terribly daunting.


The next morning, Celine let me sleep in and I never heard a peep from her until she came back into the apartment from making a bakery breakfast run so I’d have some delicious croissants to eat.  My throat was still sore from sinuses, so that was a nice excuse to have some tea with my croissant.

Celine translated the weather forecast from the radio for me, which predicted rain starting around midday and going throughout the afternoon.  I figured I’d just set out along my planned route and adjust as needed.  I had some indoor plans for the afternoon, anyway.


I started my day at the Panthéon, but its dome was covered for some kind of restoration, and that detracted quite a bit from the beauty of the place.



The trip was well worth it, though, when I saw what was behind the Panthéon.  A gorgeous church:  SaintÉtienne-du-Mont.  It was spectacular inside and out.



I couldn’t choose between these two pictures, so you get both:



I walked through the Luxembourg Gardens around the palace and examined the sky for any sign of a rain cloud, but couldn’t find one.  The weather was absolutely perfect, so I counted it a blessing and soaked up the sun.



My next stop was the Saint-Sulpice Church, which had a very photogenic courtyard.



Walking toward the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, I spied this store that made me laugh.



My walk also took me past Les Deux Magots, a café frequented by many notable historical figures like Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and others.


I read that it was important to eat macarons in Paris, so I stopped into the non-tourist location of the most famous place, Ladurée.  I wasn’t really sure I’d like these, so I didn’t opt for the dozen that seemed to be the popular choice, and just chose two individual ones.  I made a safe choice and an adventurous one and got the chocolate and the “Marie Antoinette.”  I intended to eat lunch first at a nearby restaurant, but having looked over the menu on the board outside, I went ahead and dove into my dessert.  So, these spent a few minutes in my purse before I thought to photograph them.  I have no idea what the flavors were, but I did prefer the “Marie Antoinette.”



I passed by a brasserie that had some prepackaged meals in cases as well as people dining at tables.  I jumped at the chance to peruse the offerings and then just point at the one I wanted.  I took it to go and walked toward the river figuring I’d eat on a park bench.  I kept thinking the blue skies and fluffy clouds that I’d been enjoying for hours beyond their supposed expiration date were going to suddenly race off and leave me in a downpour, so I thought I should keep enjoying the weather while it was on my side.





I found a nice spot to stop and eat my lunch and walked through all of the parks on the Right Bank with the sun still shining.  I decided to let go of anticipating the rain and just proceed on with my day, so I hopped on the subway to get to Palais Garnier, renown as the setting for The Phantom of the Opera.  The outside was nice, but the inside was absolutely stunning.



This room was my favorite.



I had some fun with the detail in this picture – I’ll let you observe the difference for yourself.




Doors off of that room led out onto this porch with its lovely columns.



I had an abundance of time, the weather was still content, and I didn’t feel wiped out, so after touring the opera house, I took the subway to the Hôtel des Invalides, which is a military museum and the burial site for several of France’s war heroes – most notably Napoleon Bonaparte.  I didn’t tour it, but was content to just walk around outside of it.



My walk from Les Invalides to Musée d’Orsay took me by the Basilique Sainte-Clotilde, which was a gorgeous piece of neo-Gothic architecture.  With as many churches as I actually planned to go see, it is a wonder that I was still able to stumble upon so many spectacular ones.

The line to get into Musée d’Orsay was monumental, but I got in it anyway.  By the time I actually made it to the door, the rain clouds were moving in, so my museum stop was well timed.  Photography wasn’t allowed around the art, but I adopted the mob mentality and decided it must be fine to take pictures of these gorgeous clocks.



I wouldn’t claim to be an art expert, but even with my limited knowledge, I have a soft spot for the Impressionists that line the halls of the Orsay museum.  I surprised myself with my ability to guess artists correctly just based on their unique styles.  (I have probably picked up quite a bit from Neal Caffrey without even realizing I was learning it.)  It was an incredible feeling to stand right in front of paintings by Degas, Monet, Manet, Renoir, and so many others.  There was a special exhibit on Van Gogh:  The Man Suicided by Society, so some additional pieces of his art were on display as well.


I was inside the museum until it closed, and when I left, the sky was beginning to clear in the west, but I was walking with the rain, blue sky trying to catch up behind me.  I was suddenly ravenous, but it was “only” 6pm, which isn’t time for dinner in Paris.  In fact, it is time to starve, because none of the restaurants I passed could provide actual food.  Some were closed entirely, but most just had some staff member lingering near the front to let all the potential customers like me know that we were crazy if we thought we were getting anything to eat before at least 7pm.  This was very bad news for me, because if I’ve actually noticed I’m hungry, then I’m way past the point of negotiating on what time to eat.  I want to eat NOW.  (Next time I go to Paris, I will have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my purse at all times.)  I finally managed to find a place that was open, where I ordered a hot ham and cheese sandwich.  Luckily, it came with fries and a salad, because that’s what I actually ate for dinner.  The sandwich was bizarre.  I assumed that since this place was open when nothing else was, the food must have been sub-par, but later learned that what I had was a popular French meal called a Croque Monsieur.  I was expecting something like a Panini, but I got one slice of deli ham (not even good deli ham) in between two pieces of white bread (?!?) that had cheese toasted on the top – on the outside of the sandwich.  I took one bite and the rest sat there.


At least I’d gotten something in my stomach while I dried out and so did the streets.  So, I walked back to the river and crossed over the Pont des Arts, where couples commemorate their love by adding a lock on the sides of the bridge.  There are so many locks now that they’re latched on top of each other and hanging off of the light poles.




The sun was beginning to make its descent, so I got a ticket to take a sunset cruise along the Seine via the Bateaux Mouches.  While I waited for the next boat to arrive, I sat down on a bench on the dock and was shortly joined by two English women.  They were chatting away and I was just sitting quietly, but a tour bus pulled up and a group of middle school students disembarked and were making their way toward us.  One of the women said, “Oh, lovely.  A bunch of children” in a tone that was dripping with sarcasm and disdain, and that attitude paired with the English accent was too much for me and I cracked up laughing.  She smiled wryly and said, “I forget that some people can understand me.”


When the boat was ready to board, I picked a spot in a far back corner and succeeded in my quest for solitude briefly until some probably-college-aged kids decided that behind my seat was the prime place for their photo ops.  They got bored eventually and went elsewhere, so I was able to tuck in along the edge of the boat to beat the cold wind and still pretend I was floating along in a boat made for one except when we’d pass under a bridge and all the aforementioned middle-schoolers would “Wooo!” to let their voices echo around them.  I chose to find this an endearing bit of whimsy instead of an obnoxious display.



We passed by Musée d’Orsay with its clock windows peeking out on the river.



And then by Notre Dame, formidable against the darkening sky.



The end of our journey took us beyond where we’d started for a night view of the Eiffel Tower.



I was taken by it once again and decided to stop by there on my way back to Celine’s to catch the 10pm “sparkling.”



Wednesday was my last full day in Paris, and therefore the last full day of my grand European adventure.  I was utterly exhausted and still hadn’t bounced back from my sinus woes, but I could do nothing other than seize the day.  I got a little inspiration from this poster in the subway station.


I first walked to Place des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris, built by Henri IV beginning in 1605.  The house fronts surrounding the square were designed to match one another, adding to the perfect symmetry of the truly-square plaza.



As I was walking out, this artwork painted onto the stone caught my eye because it was in English.



My walking pace had slowed to meandering, but it was a nice day for it.  I didn’t have a lot of ground to cover, so I actually needed to “waste” some time.  Exploring the islands was first up on my plan, so I made my way to Île Saint-Louis and walked right down the center road that runs from one side of the island to the other.  I spotted a church, where of course I stopped.  It was the Paroisse Saint Louis en l’Ile, and it wasn’t much to look at from the outside, but it had a gorgeous interior.





At the island’s tip, I stopped for breakfast at Le Flore en l’ile, where I took an outdoor table and watched cyclists, tourists, and locals going back and forth over the Pont Saint-Louis to Île de la Cité, where Notre Dame is located.  I ordered an omelette which came with French fries and a salad.  I would be fine with breakfast always being accompanied by these sides.



After breakfast, I got some macarons to squirrel away in my purse for a snack later and then joined the throng of tourists bound for Notre Dame.  There was a long line to get inside (unlike the many other churches where I’d slipped in and out unnoticed but for a few other quiet patrons), but the line moved quickly as the mobs of people were merely herding in the door, circling the building in a U, and exiting on the other side of the cathedral.  I found this a bit off-putting, especially when I got inside and found there was a service going on amidst the constant hum of not entirely respectful tourists.  My eyebrows nearly raised off of my face when I headed toward the exit and saw a line of those vending machines that flatten pennies (or their Euro equivalent, presumably) into tourist trinkets.  These oddities aside, Notre Dame is indeed quite beautiful.



I crossed a bridge from the island back over to the left bank of the Seine and continued my church tour by visiting Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, the only remaining 12th-century parish church in Paris, and the Église Saint-Séverin, which featured an odd combination of traditional stained glass and then several rather ostentatious windows that didn’t fit the style at all.  I was so perplexed that I had to look it up and discovered that those seven windows were added in 1970 – a modern artistic interpretation of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, done by Jean René Bazaine.



Following my map, I walked in search of my next “church,” and didn’t put together until I was standing in front of it that I wasn’t looking for a church at all.  Rather, the Fontaine Saint-Michel was a fountain (you get it now, don’t you?) built during the reconstruction to fill the space left by the addition of a large new boulevard and to hide the less aesthetically-pleasing building behind it.



From there, I crossed back over to the Île de la Cité to see another church – Saint Chapelle – at the Conciergerie.  The Conciergerie, a former prison and most notably the place where Marie Antoinette spent her last days, is itself available to tour, but my level of interest was low compared to my willingness to walk around a sad building for hours thinking about famously guillotined folks.



Instead, I skipped straight to the line for Saint Chapelle, which was a TWO HOUR endeavor.  If I hadn’t heard the place was magnificent, there is no way I’d have stuck around for that.  They had one person selling tickets – presumably very, very slowly – so I was exasperated when I finally got inside and saw this room:


Nothing against it, but seeing as one side of the room was basically a gift shop, I could not believe that people had lined up for hours and paid an admission to see only this.  Finally, I spotted a spiral staircase through a small opening in the corner of the room and climbed several dizzying levels up to discover what all the fuss was about.  There was only enough wall as was absolutely necessary to support the towering stained glass windows, so looking up gave the impression of being engulfed by colorful glass.  The sun was bright outside, which helped to illuminate the windows even more.



These were fun photos to ply with effects, too.



When I walked back outside again, I knew what to look for and finally took notice of what those windows looked like from the outside of the building.



Crossing back to the right bank, I saw a gorgeous building peeking up over the trees and walked in its general direction to see what it was.  When I got there, I realized it wasn’t part of a larger building at all, but was just a free-standing tower.  At that point, I pulled out my map and realized that it was Tour Saint-Jacques, and I had intended to visit it all along.  I learned that it had been a church in the 16th century, but all except the tower had been leveled after the French Revolution.



I had seen everything I knew to see and had several hours remaining before Celine was going to meet me to tour Le Louvre.   Therefore, I stopped in another café that had food in cases so I could do the point-and-smile ordering system, so I got a sandwich on a baguette, which came with my choice of a pastry.  I saw two pastries that I thought looked good, but I wasn’t sure what was in either of them, and my lack of French met by the staff’s lack of English meant I was never going to find out.  So, I decided to get them both.  I found a table by the window and it felt good to sit down and drink some water.  Shortly, my sandwich arrived, and to my surprise, it was about a foot long.  Granted, it wasn’t very wide, but it looked like a terrifying lot of sandwich next to the two additional plates that held my pastry purchases, both roughly half the size of my head.  I was immediately self-conscious about how American I looked with all of these plates of food in front of only me.  The feeling was quickly reinforced by an elderly couple who were sitting two tables away.  The man had his back to me, but the woman tugged on his sleeve and pointed at my table, eyes wide with astonishment (see: judgment), as if she thought that because I didn’t speak French, her body language would also go over my head.  At her urging, the man turned around to look as well, but didn’t seem as interested as his wife, who continued to stare.  She was only deterred when I waved at her, which seemed to finally clue her in to the fact that I was witnessing the whole scene.  As it would happen, I didn’t like either of the pastries, so one bite of each was all that ever went missing.  The other half of my sandwich that I thought would be saved for later ended up serving as my dessert.  (The macarons, if you wondered, never made it out of that long line at Saint Chappelle.)


I walked back along the river toward the Louvre, and paused every so often to lean on the wall and watch the boats passing back and forth.  When I got close to the Louvre, I saw yet another church, Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois , so I went to check it out as well.  The architecture is a hodge podge of styles, having been rebuilt a number of times through the centuries.   Its bell tolled on the night of August 23, 1572, marking the beginning of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre against the Huguenots.



After sitting in the church for a while, I still had two hours until Celine arrived, so I spent most of that walking around the plaza at the Louvre, featuring the smaller Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, and exploring the edges of the Tuileries Garden, where I got an ice cream cone and laid down in the grass to “rest my eyes” (and my feet, and everything else) for a while.



The Louvre was not terribly easy to navigate, even with the map, because you couldn’t see everything on one floor without going down a floor, walking to a different area, and then walking back up to the same floor in a different “wing” of the building.  Luckily, Celine was more motivated to get to all of the sections, so I was happy to let her lead the way, and I only chimed in periodically when there was a painting I wanted to find.


Some of the rooms inside the Louvre were works of art on their own, which is usually the primary thing I look for in museums of any kind.



Of course, I went to see the Mona Lisa (because you just have to), and it seems like 90% of the people in the museum were in that room, hovered around her.   It was neat to see the originals of some famous paintings that are so prevalent that everyone has seem them even if they don’t know that they have, like The Turkish Bath or The Cheater.

Perhaps even more than seeing such famous paintings, my real takeaway from the Louvre were the numerous times that I found myself standing in front of a painting, reading Raphael or Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci on the plaque beside it, and then trailing back to the painting, and back to the plaque,  mesmerized by the idea that I was standing next to a painting actually done by the hand of someone with such renown.  It was my White Collar “the last person to mix these paints… was Picasso” moment.

Other than that, I mostly just cracked jokes about how apparently none of the women ever wore any clothes to go anywhere, and entertained myself with ancient paintings that resemble people today.  My favorite two were…


Noah Gundersen




…and Paul Bettany




Uncanny, right?

Speaking of look-alikes, I would have forgotten all about this one if we hadn’t strolled by it on our way out of the Louvre.  It’s the inverse pyramid, which has entertained many tourists posing like this guy:



We had some farewell photo ops in the courtyard before heading in search of dinner, where you better believe I sat there like a kept woman and let Celine do all the ordering for me.  I didn’t have to point awkwardly at anything!



It was somewhat early (by comparison to the two preceding nights) when we got back to Celine’s, so we sat up chatting while I dumped everything out of my suitcase and carefully repacked it for the journey home.  We also ordered a taxi to pick me up the next morning, because I just did not have it in me to drag my suitcase (and myself) to the airport on the subway.


Luckily, the journey back to the U.S. was a breeze compared to the horror of the flight out, and I was extremely grateful that, when I landed in D.C., Adam was there to pick me up, so I didn’t have to worry about driving anywhere.  I was tired, but got a second wind when we got back to Richmond and I started to tell Tracey about my trip.  I actually stayed up until about 11pm, at which point it was 5am the next day in Paris.


I thought I did a pretty stellar job of getting back on Eastern Standard Time after my trip abroad.  Apparently, it really just takes a while for the jet lag to catch up.  Now that I’ve been home for over a month, I am exhausted… all the time.  That darn jet lag finally got me.

So I Won’t Expect a Postcard from Trafalgar Square

Between the lingering excitement of Highclere and Harry Potter and the building anticipation for discovering London, I did not get much sleep on Thursday night.  Nevertheless, I was up, dressed and chomping at the bit to pound the pavement all over London on Friday morning.


I had planned out an ambitious route around London on foot, taking me to all the main tourist attractions while ensuring I got to really FEEL the city along my way.  My marathon path was approaching 15 miles, and that was assuming that I never detoured and didn’t count things like, say, the hour and a half I spent walking around the Tower of London once I had arrived there.


I would laugh in your face and tell you to stop doing drugs if you asked me to go on such an exhibition at home, but on vacation, especially in a foreign country, I always want to see everything humanly possible in the limited time that I have.  If “touristing” was a sport, I’d be an Olympic champion.


So, it’s with this general fervor that I walked out of the DoubleTree on Friday morning, bouncing with every step, grinning so hard I nearly pulled a muscle in my face.  Every new building that came into view was a detour-worthy distraction, and flipping through my pictures once I get home always reveals my overzealous moments, because I’ll have 30 pictures in a row that are of places of no note whatsoever except that I’d seen them through my rose-colored glasses of enthusiasm.


I eventually wandered into a park by the river and caught sight of the first place on my list – the Houses of Parliament.  My friend Levi had once told me that he’d never ceased being amazed at the sight of them, and I quickly understood why, as the design is so intricate that it’s almost hard to process even when you’re standing in front of it.  Incidentally, I had learned the day before that the architect, Sir Charles Barry, had redesigned Highclere Castle immediately after he finished building the Houses of Parliament, which is why those structures bear such resemblance to one another.


Westminster Abbey was just a few steps away.


Somehow, I also never knew that Big Ben is actually attached to the Houses of Parliament.  (The mini wire statue I’ve had in my living room for years stands alone!  Ha!)  I guess I can add that to the list of things I learned on this trip.




I walked from Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square with my camera in the air and head in the clouds.  I got a kick out of seeing all of the quintessentially British places and things.



I had my trusty walking map of all the places I wanted to see, including an addition from my friend Lana, who said I should stop through to see the Horse Guards.  Since she recommended it, it didn’t occur to me to look into it more, so I marked it on my map and only when I had walked over did I realize that I had no idea what “Horse Guards” were, so how would I know what I was seeing once I saw it?

It’s supposed to be somewhere around here…



Well… here’s a horse statue, so I must be on to something…



Oh!  Of course!  THESE are Horse Guards!



It’s baffling to me how that’s a serious job.  I feel like if it was my job to dress up in that getup and march back and forth in rhythm while tourists with cameras gawked at me, I would not look serious when I was doing it.


From there I walked through St. James Park to head towards Buckingham Palace to see the Changing of the Guard.  (In hindsight, since I knew what THAT meant, it should have more quickly occurred to me what a Horse Guard might be.)



I was over an hour early arriving at Buckingham Palace, but the crowds were already arriving to stake a place to watch the ceremony.



People were already lined up three or four people deep all along the fence line, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to see from there, so I walked back toward the monument in front of the palace and parked it dead center next to a guy who had a camera on a tripod.  I figured he must have some idea about where to be.


I talked to Tripod Man, who was from Louisiana, and he explained that the police were going to come and make the people in front of the main gate move out of the way, and that while the first 20 minutes of the Changing of the Guard would be behind the fence where we couldn’t really see, we’d have the best view for the guards marching in and out of the main gate, and they’d all come out right in front of us at the end.


It all happened as he had said, and at one point, one of the mounted policemen came by where we were and declared, “You guys right here have the best seat in the house – you’ll see.”



Proof I was there, thanks to Tripod Man:



And then the big gate opened and they came marching out!



When the ceremony was complete, most of the (massive!) crowd was heading back toward Parliament Square, but I was happily headed in the opposite direction through Green Park to follow another of Lana’s recommendations – this time for lunch.


London is of course known for its pubs, and she’d given me a few recommendations including The Grenadier.  Unlike with the horse guards, I actually looked it up ahead of time and saw that it had great reviews, but everyone talked about it being nearly impossible to find.  I therefore printed a more detailed map just for the twists and turns on the way to The Grenadier.  I am glad I had all of this information ahead of time, because I definitely felt like I was getting lost while I was following the map, except luckily, the feeling that I was in the middle of nowhere actually reinforced in this case that I must be on the right track.  It was a pretty neighborhood for wandering, though!



I eventually rounded the bend of what appeared to be a residential driveway, and voila!  The Grenadier!



I didn’t realize when I walked through the door that I still had my camera dangling from my wrist, so I had outed myself as a tourist immediately.  Three servers looked up at me from behind the bar, perplexed, and said, “Are you OK?”  I’m sure they thought I was lost.  I dropped my camera back into my bag, smiled, and said, “Yep!  I’m here for lunch!”


I was shown to a table where I ordered the day’s special – chicken and mushroom pie – and then I took my camera out again to sneak a photo of the ceiling.



There was a group of gentlemen at a table near me, and I could tell that four of them were locals hosting two visiting Americans, one of which was a first time visitor to London, and they were ribbing him good-naturedly about his lack of knowledge of the local cuisine.  Naturally, when his plate was brought out, it was fish and chips, and everyone wanted to know how he liked his “mushy peas.”  It’s impossible not to eavesdrop when dining alone, three feet away from six rabble-rousing gents.  They kept me entertained until my food arrived and stole all of my attention.



I don’t think the picture adequately portrays size, so let me assure you that the puff pastry on top of the pie made the whole thing roughly the size of my head, even not counting the sides.  Everything on the plate was absolute perfection.  The sauce inside the pie was delicious, so I took to scooping some of the vegetables and potatoes from the plate through the sauce, gathering some chicken and pastry in the process, and savoring every heavenly bite.  The food I encountered through four countries (including Paris, mind you) was average at best, but there was a three-way tie for first place, blowing all other meals out of the water, and all three of those meals were consumed in London.  (So, go ahead and toss that stereotype about English food right out of the window, because it’s total bollocks.)  This meal was the first of the three.


Although food is usually just a means to an end while traveling (the “end” being that I don’t pass out in the street while sight-seeing), but The Grenadier was an EXPERIENCE, and I was inclined to linger there for a bit and soak it in.  I contemplated whether I might make my way back there when I got hungry for dinner.  (I did not, but it will absolutely make my list for any and all return visits to London.)


After lunch, I was headed to ride the London Eye, which took me back through the tourist frenzy in and around Parliament Square.  I had walked unimpeded through the entire area around 8:30am, but by 2:00pm, the closer I got to the Thames, the more it looked like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  People were EVERYWHERE.  People were so thick, in fact, that I couldn’t even dodge around them, so I was forced to do the penguin walk with everyone else.  I seized the opportunity to take some more pictures, though.



I did finally inch my way over to the London Eye, where people were lined up for miles to ride.  Because I lack patience and firmly believe that “time is money,” I paid extra to go through the express line to board sooner.


When it was built in 1999, the London Eye was the world’s tallest ferris wheel.  It has since lost that title, but is still the tallest ferris wheel in Europe at 443 feet.  (There are three taller in the world as of this writing, the tallest of which just opened on March 31, 2014 in Las Vegas.  The “High Roller” stands at 550 feet.  Time to go back to Vegas, I guess!)


Luckily, it was a beautiful day with clear, blue skies, so it was a great day to take in the view!



After disembarking from the London Eye, I was able to shuffle my way out of the worst of the crowds as I made my way along the South Bank.  I crossed on the Millennium Bridge to walk toward the distinctive dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Of course, I also remembered upon sight that it’s the bridge that collapsed at the beginning of the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince film, as depicted here (or watch the clip):



No Death Eaters attacked while I was walking across, though.




My next stop was to the massive Tower of London, also known as Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, which has been at times a royal residence, a prison (with a bloody reputation), an armoury, and home of the Royal Mint, to name a few.  It is currently the location where the Crown Jewels are displayed.




I explored the White Tower, built by William the Conquerer in 1078, where The Royal Armoury keeps displays including weaponry and suits of armor that belonged to famous figures such as King Henry VIII.




The Tower is also where two small skeletons were found and presumed to be the two sons of Edward IV, last seen in June 1483, and assumed murdered.  There is no proof the bones belonged to the brothers, but the “Princes in the Tower” theory was so widely held that King Charles II had the bones moved and reinterred within Westminster Abbey.


The Tower of London is certainly brimming with rich history, but I am typically more interested in the aesthetics of a place, so you won’t generally catch me walking around listening to the audio guide, but I will definitely have my camera at the ready.  Walking along a fortress wall, I found a lovely view of the Tower Bridge just waiting to model for me.



To the right, The Shard was making quite an impression as one of the newest members of the London skyline.



While waiting in line to see the Crown Jewels (no photos allowed in there, for sure!), I was behind a woman who was chattering animatedly to a couple in a language I couldn’t identify, but guessed it may have been Dutch.  She gestured to a nearby building, nodded some assurances, and the couple walked away from the line.  Shortly thereafter, her phone rang and she answered it in English and chattered away to the person on the other end with the same ease she had been using with the couple.  Then the name tag she was wearing caught my eye, and it identified her as a tour guide.  I guess if you don’t speak the language of a place, you hire someone like her to show you around and explain everything in a familiar tongue.  When she ended her call, I struck up a conversation with her and asked if London was always this filled with tourists.  She said that Easter weekend was always the busiest of the year, outranking even the weekends in the middle of summer.  She gestured toward the long line ahead of us and said, “Four days ago, there was no one here.”  Whenever I return to London, I will definitely choose an off-peak time, because the crowds were truly overwhelming.



When I was about to leave the Tower of London, I realized a crowd had formed over by the water and they seemed to be watching something.  I glanced over and discovered that the Tower Bridge was being raised.  I didn’t even realize it DID that, but it makes sense.



From there I headed toward the pine cone in the sky – officially named The Gherkin.  I was so absorbed in walking toward it that I forgot to stop for dinner at another pub that Lana had mentioned.  It seemed that most of the businesses and restaurants I passed were closed at that time of day, anyway, so it could be that I wasn’t missing anything.  Nevertheless, I finally arrived at a good vantage point to view the interesting architecture of The Gherkin.



I walked back toward the river, keeping an eye out for somewhere to eat, and ended up at a cute restaurant called The Folly, where I rested my screaming feet and had a rather tasty club sandwich.


Along my way down Gracechurch Street, I passed by this street that was lined with stores and covered.  It was called the Leadenhall Market and nothing was open then, but it looked like a place that would be bustling at other times.  Regardless, it was pretty enough to make me stop for a photo.



I took the London Bridge back across the Thames to get to The Shard, which overtook the London Eye as the highest view in London.  I went up 72 stories above London to see “The View from the Shard.”  I think there may have been a few higher floors that weren’t open, but I wondered with the design of the building if those were enclosed as well.  The view was impressive, but photos are not when they’re taken through glass.  I stayed for a while anyway, but the sun was fading and so was I.   In the picture of me below, you can see the Tower of London behind me to my right, and notice it also in the picture featuring the Tower Bridge.  It gives you some idea of how large it is, which still surprised me even after I’d walked around the whole thing.



My body was expressing its supreme displeasure that I’d spent 12 hours walking on mostly pavement.  I considered catching a cab back to the hotel, but the sun had nearly set and I knew I’d enjoy seeing everything lit up after dark, so I decided to suck it up and trek the last three miles on foot.  Excluding that not-proud moment when I was almost back to the hotel and accidentally walked two blocks out of the way (not wanting to pull out a map on dark, now-deserted streets) and considered crying about it because everything hurt, it was still worthwhile to see everything with fresh eyes against the night sky.



Having pushed myself quite beyond the limit on Friday, I was very slow moving Saturday morning.  Liz knew I was exhausted on every level and let me sleep in a bit later than planned.  She was leaving to drive back to Scotland, so we were both packing up because I was staying in London, but switching hotels.  We went to a Laundromat (excuse me – a “laundrette”) I’d found that was halfway between our hotel and the one I was checking into, and we both did a load of laundry while we ate pastries that we pilfered from the breakfast bar before we checked out.  I had actually packed enough clothes to make it through the whole trip without doing laundry, but came prepared with detergent sheets just in case.  Liz was doing laundry anyway (as she still had another full week ahead in Scotland), and I’d gotten one pair of pants muddy during the Kilchurn Castle excursion, and if I ever have the choice between clean or dirty, I will always choose clean.  I also officially laundered my tennis shoes that had only been “cleaned” by creek water after my feet went mudding.


Despite my sleeping in, we were still good on time when we left the laundrette, so Liz drove me over to my hotel so I could leave my bags before setting out for the day.  I was 4 hours early for check-in, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask, and I was actually upgraded and allowed to check in right away, which was nice!  I felt like quite a VIP.


Liz was nice enough to drop me off in Richmond before she left for Scotland, even though it was a bit out of her way.  It did give us a chance to say a proper goodbye before she left, though, as our adventures were heading in different directions from there.


At this point in the story, I can’t help but pause to give a little bit of background information.  This is good stuff, folks, so bear with me.


Some years ago… at least three… it could even be four years ago, I was playing WordFeud (the Android version of Words With Friends) with my friend Levi.  He and I are both overly-competetive people, and usually quite worthy opponents for each other.  That said, I was repeatedly and unapologetically kicking his tail in WordFeud.  OK, OK, probably “usually but barely emerging victorious” would be a more accurate depiction.  So, one day, within the chat feature on the game, Levi said, “You and this one other girl are the only people who consistently beat me in this game.  You should be playing each other.”  He proceeded to give me her username and admit that his plan was to distract us with each other so he could defeat us both.


I sent her an invite right away, and she messaged to ask if I had clicked to start a game with a random opponent, because she didn’t think that she had, and yet we didn’t know each other and had started a game.  I explained how it all came about and we chatted throughout our first game, which I believe we finished within an hour.  (These games usually last about a week, typically.)


We have kept a game going constantly ever since, trading off wins and chatting sporadically, so after about a year of that, we decided to graduate our phone-gaming friendship and become Facebook friends.


Her name is Vicky and she just so happens to live in London, so when I started making plans for my trip, I immediately messaged her to see if she’d like to meet in person.  She agreed, and the following is a faithful account of how fantastic it can be to make new friends in the strangest of fashions.


Vicky and I agreed to meet at the Richmond tube station at noon, and I was there a few minutes early.  I couldn’t help but think that the entrance did not seem very prominent for the only tube station in the area, and I thought perhaps I should go through the station to see if there was another exit, but wasn’t really sure I could get through without a ticket.  Shortly, a nice fellow happened by to catch a train, so I asked him, and he led me through the station to where I could get out of the other side.  As I headed out of the much more prominent station side, I was panning the faces in the crowd until I found the familiar one, smiling back at me.  I think I probably squeaked with joy and hugs ensued.


We walked through Richmond and stopped to pick up some lunch before walking down along the water and choosing a park bench to picnic on.



Vicky grew up in Richmond, so she was an excellent tour guide, and we just wandered along through gorgeous English countryside and talked about all manner of things.



Then, we walked out to Ham House and explored their gardens for a while.



We found a pub on the way toward the Petersham Hotel for our afternoon reservation, so we stopped there and lounged on the porch until it was tea time!



I had several people recommend High Tea to me as a must-do during my London trip.  It didn’t seem like it would be much fun alone, so I had asked Vicky if she’d be interested, and not only was she eager to go, but it was her first high tea as well, and she recommended the Petersham Hotel because she’d had her wedding reception there.


The hotel was quite elegant, but still more laid back (and less expensive) than the famous hotels that serve high tea in the center of London.  I didn’t really know what to expect and feared being underdressed and under-refined for such a proper affair.  Happily, Vicky and I were of like mind about it, so we were in it together.


Luckily, when we checked in for our reservation, we were shown to the best table in the house, with a gorgeous view out of the windows on all sides of us.  Our waiter was kind enough to snap a photo of us.



Ever the bull in a china shop, I got the ball rolling by pouring my tea directly from the pot to my cup without noticing the strainer laying nearby as a hint that I was missing a step.  I figured it out quickly when tea leaves were rushing into my cup, and we got a good laugh out of that.  Vicky saved me by giving me her cup so I could strain my tea properly, and then she used my cup after I emptied it.  Then, I overfilled the cup, forgetting I was supposed to add milk (everybody stare at the newbie!), so I ended up with tea sloshed over into my saucer.  Vicky then very kindly also spilled a bit of coffee, so we could laugh off these snafus together.  You just can’t take us anywhere!


Our tiered platter arrived shortly thereafter and definitely made this the cutest meal I have ever eaten.  Look how pretty!



The bottom layer held four types of sandwiches.  Vicky and I each had a cucumber sandwich, then I passed the smoked salmon to her while I ate the ham and mustard.  The fourth sandwich was cheese and pickle, but not pickle as my American brain understood it, but rather a vinegar-based sweet chutney.  I was not a fan of that one, but I did eat the piece of cheese out of one of them.


The middle tier held a variety of sweet treats, some of which we divvied up according to preference, and some that we cut in half to share.  Vicky let me have the cream puff AND the side of the chocolate cake that came with a raspberry.


But the real star of the show is what was perched there on top – the scones with clotted cream.  First of all, I have had a so-called scone in the U.S. in a moment of desperation at an airport Starbucks, and it was hard as a rock and flat-out disgusting.  These scones (which I am inclined to say are REAL scones) were like soft, sweet biscuits – absolute perfection.  You slice these in half, smear on some strawberry preserves (I suppose other flavors are acceptable, but we had strawberry), and then you add a dollop of the clotted cream to it.  Or, if you’d like to have it the Amanda way, you slice it, smear on some strawberry preserves, and see how much clotted cream you can balance on top of it all while still being able to fit it inside your mouth without getting it all over your face.  In a dainty, lady-like way, obviously.


Between the two of us, all that remained at the end was a cheese and pickle sandwich, some fruitcake, and maybe a few tell-tale crumbs.  Since it’s an afternoon “meal,” everything was very light, so we were full without feeling stuffed, and would be ready to eat again by dinner time.


I loved everything about my high tea experience.  The best view, the best food, the best company, and I even came away with a newfound fondness for hot tea, or as the British have it — tea.


When we left the hotel, we got right to working off those scones and climbed the hill where we were treated to this lovely view for our trouble.



We walked back to Richmond station and I took my first tube ride with Vicky back to her house where I got to meet her husband and daughter before it was her bedtime.  We hung around the house, just relaxing and talking for a while, and Vicky’s husband Paul recommended some places we could go that evening.


We settled on walking into Wimbledon for Indian food, and we stopped at yet another adorable pub called The Swan on our way.  We then had dinner at Wimbledon Tandoori, and since I was just discovering Indian food, Vicky suggested I order a dish I knew I liked, and then she ordered a different one and an appetizer so that I could taste some different things.  The new dishes I tried – both of which were fantastic – were Sag Aloo (a spicy spinach and potato dish) and Chicken Jalfrezi, which was cooked in a thick sauce with chili peppers, tomatoes, and onions.  My goodness, it was amazing.  And I simply live for pilau rice.  (Writing this post is making me very hungry.)


Therefore, as you might have guessed, the afternoon tea and dinner at Tandoori completes the list of the three meals tied for first place in the course of my trip.  All three were perfect.


All of Saturday, in fact, was perfect, until Vicky walked with me back to the tube station and we realized our day together was at an end.  We hugged goodbye and then waved pitifully at each other for another moment, rather sad to part.  The good news is that we’ll definitely make it a point to get together again… maybe in New York, or maybe in Spain!


I got back to the hotel still reflecting on what a wonderful day it had been.  And then I slept like a log.


Easter Sunday was my last full day in London, and it was supposed to rain all day.  The two most famous churches in London – Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral – had been closed to visitors on Good Friday, so I thought what better way to see them than to attend their Easter services.  I decided to attend the 10:00am Choral Matins at St. Paul’s and then go to the 3:00pm Evensong and Procession at Westminster Abbey.


Thinking of the crowds I’d encountered on Friday, I set out early for St. Paul’s, assuming many others would have the same idea I did.  The rain hadn’t started yet when I walked to the tube, and then I only felt a few sprinkles as I walked on to St. Paul’s.  To my surprise, the church was still nearly empty.  I walked around a little bit and admired the general splendor (again, no photos allowed inside) and then found a seat near the front.



A few other people trickled in, and after 15 minutes or so, someone from the church came around and let us all know that the seats weren’t “open” yet and that we’d have to move to the back of the church until 30 minutes before the service.  There was nearly an hour until then, so I inquired about a bathroom and was directed to the Starbucks across the street.  It was just as well, because I hadn’t had any breakfast and was starting to get hungry.  I had an egg salad sandwich, which made me think of my friend Jessica and how appalled she would be if she knew that, in England, it’s called an “egg mayo” sandwich.  Jessica will eat things that she knows contain mayo, but she doesn’t want to talk about it, so I had a bit of a laugh to myself thinking about that.


By the time I returned to the church, a crowd had formed in the back of the church and they had just started to allow folks to sit down.  I walked down the aisle and a gentleman in front said, “just one?” and then pointed me to the sole empty chair on the front row.


A lady sitting beside me struck up conversation.  She was from the north of England, but said she comes into London almost every weekend and had been doing so for years.  It didn’t seem like she had ever been in St. Paul’s before, though, because she kept marveling aloud about all of the notable people who had stood in the church throughout the course of centuries.  She also informed me that Princess Diana was married there.


Naturally, the service was quite a bit different than anything I am used to, but the music was beautiful and the service was poetic, though obviously ceremonial.


It was raining much harder when I left the church, but I wasn’t ready to unpack my poncho just yet, so I pulled my hood up and made a break for the subway.  The rain let up a bit along my way and I noted how deserted the streets seemed to be, in stark contrast to how I’d seen them two days prior.



I took the tube over to Picadilly Circus, which is, I suppose, the London version of Times Square.



I walked in and out of a few shops and then saw a cute café sign advertising the day’s special as Chicken, Asparagus, and Parmesan Risotto.  I thought that sounded good, so I went inside.  I couldn’t help myself and also ordered a tea.



The rain was still falling steadily, so I took it as a good excuse to linger a bit longer and then have a berry tart for dessert.  Everything was quite good.


The rain had lightened up a bit, so I headed back out into the elements and decided to go ahead and walk from there to Westminster Abbey.  That took me back by Trafalgar Square and across in front of St. James Park, where the tree line protected me from the rain for a while.



I got to Westminster early as well, but no more than thirty people were lined up outside.  I joined them and was able to connect to WiFi and send a “Happy Easter” text to my family at home, who were just getting out of Easter service themselves.



Somehow, I wound up on the front row at Westminster Abbey, too, which was situated much differently than St. Paul’s, so that the pastor spoke from a place over my right shoulder, the boys’ choir was in a hallway to my left, and I was looking directly across at others who were attending the service.  The front row on either side was divided by a wide walkway leading up to the altar.


I found it somewhat odd that the Evensong service at Westminster was nearly identical to the Choral Matins at St. Paul’s in content.  The main difference was somewhat of a revolting development for me due to my allergies.  During the service, I noticed a strong incense smell emanating in my direction and looked beyond the pastor to the altar and saw a smoking lantern being swung about at various objects.


Wikipedia tells me that this is called a “thurible,” and it’s swung a particular number of times for a particular set of reasons, but even having glanced through the article, I still fail to grasp the purpose.  I wondered how much of a faux pas it would be to pull my shirt up to cover my nose and mouth, but I knew there was no escaping.  I had already been incensed.


I thought the worst of that was behind me until the procession began.  All of the pastors marched from the altar down the middle aisle, and the “thurifer” led the pack, swinging the thurible (coincidence how similar that is to “terrible”) back and forth as he went.  So, the stinky smoke that had been bothering me from 30 feet away was now 1 foot from my nose.  I felt the affects of that for the next three days.


That aside, the procession was interesting to watch.  The choir filed out behind the pastors, and they continued singing their song until they had walked so far away that I could barely hear it anymore, and the novice congregation had given up trying to sing along.  Once it was silent again, I heard one of the pastors reading off a verse or a prayer in another section of the church, after which, the music recommenced and they all marched back to the front again before concluding the service.  It was certainly a new experience for me, but my headache was very glad to hear the final prayer and get ushered back outside again.


For whatever it’s worth, both Westminster and St. Paul’s are magnificent to behold, but St. Paul’s is by far the prettiest in my opinion, in case you ever need to decide which one to tour.


The rain was heavy again when I left Westminster, and part of me (the so, so tired part) was tempted to just go back to the hotel and crash.  But, it was my last day in London, so I felt I had to press on.  I caught the train and rode up to Notting Hill, where the torrential downpour finally coaxed me into donning my poncho.  I got drenched anyway, of course, but Notting Hill was cute as expected.  Almost everything was white, so I enjoyed it when I’d see a splash of color on some of the townhomes.  (I’m going to bet they’re not called townhomes, but you’ll have to forgive me;  I’m an American.)



I walked from Notting Hill back toward Kensington Palace, and saw this restaurant making quite a statement in unusual décor.



As I walked along further, I heard music coming from a café up ahead, and as I got closer, I could see that people were packed into a narrow room, dancing their hearts out.  One of the gentlemen had stepped outside the door and saw me smiling as I looked on.  He said, “It’s a party.  Do you want to dance?”  I laughed and declined, but as I started to pass by, another guy came running out of the door, grabbed my hand, and before I knew it, I was swirling around this café as well, poncho and all.  I think everyone in the place was Greek except for me, but nevertheless, I danced along with them for a while before continuing on my way.  I guess you never know what will happen when you’re walking down the street in London!


The rain had finally ended as I arrived at Kensington Gardens, so I took off my poncho and held it up, flying like a flag behind me, in the hopes that it would dry so I could pack it away again.  I took a path called the flower walk and then detoured when The Albert Memorial caught my eye.  As I walked around the memorial, I started to see blue skies returning in the distance.



From there, I walked down to the water and found the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain.  The weather meant it was fairly deserted, but a sign nearby invited children and adults alike to splash and play in the fountain as much as they liked.



I walked across a mushy lawn and out of the park after that and headed in the general direction of a tube station that would take me back to my hotel.  My feet were once again protesting, and I hoped that following the road at the edge of the park would lead me to a pub for dinner.


I eventually spied the Paxton’s Head and went inside for – what else? – fish and chips with mushy peas.  This was much better than the abysmal fish and chips I’d had at the beach in Wales.  Paxton’s Head seemed to get it right.  I was at a little table by the bar, so the bartender was serving me himself and kept me well stocked in ice water.  I think he found me charming because I was so obviously American and he kept asking me questions about life in the States.  I barely got through half of the fish or the chips before I was stuffed, but I ate every bit of the mushy peas.  That stuff is delicious!


It was still early when I finished dinner.  Darkness had barely fallen, but I was finally ready to surrender and caught the tube back to my hotel to pack up my things and turn in early, so I could be up and at the train station by 7am the next morning.


I took the laziest possible approach to getting to St. Pacras the next morning and hopped in a cab out front.  I had enough cash leftover in pounds, and I was about to go to a country that didn’t take them, so I figured I might as well.  So, my last sight-seeing opportunity in London was another ode to my love of Harry Potter – King’s Cross Station!



There was no Platform 9 and ¾, unfortunately, so I couldn’t go to Hogwarts, but I suppose I did the next best thing and boarded the Eurostar bound for Paris!  (And yes, I got some hot tea from the snack car for the journey.)

The Scenery’s Changing and It Warms My Soul

Jet lag packs a much harder punch (at least for me) traveling east, so it was great to FINALLY get a good night’s sleep on night four of my trip.  [Side note:  I’m confused as to why the Hampton Inn had more comfortable beds than the Hilton or the DoubleTree.  Isn’t that backwards?  Anyway, thanks Hampton Inn!]  So, with a good night’s sleep, a bit of a lie-in, and another morning of the traditional Scottish… English… Welsh breakfast, I had renewed energy for a day of sight-seeing.


We set out for St. Fagan’s National History Museum in Cardiff, which is a living, open-air museum of Welsh culture.  The weather was once again absolutely perfect for strolling around the park.  At St. Fagan’s, as with everywhere in Wales, we saw signs in English and in Welsh, which I found fascinating.



I thought this poem was neat, and then you can see the two languages side by side.



Walking around St. Fagan’s had a similar feel to exploring Jamestown as a kid.  Tradesman were working here and there and various farm animals were roaming.  We were able to walk around the recreated village and explore the different buildings there.



My favorite was the church, which surprises no one.  The walls inside featured medieval paintings dating back to the 1300s, which had been discovered in the 1980s as patches of color started to show through the plaster.  They were painted to depict various scenes from Scripture, which was a way of teaching Bible stories to also reach those who could not read.




The gardens near the Manor House were also quite lovely.





After exploring St. Fagan’s, we drove out to the beach on Barry Island, situated on Whitmore Bay.  In searching for beaches online, Whitmore Bay had crossed my radar as a Blue Flag beach, so likely a good choice.  Those who know me know that I’m not that much of a beach person.  I like beaches, but I don’t want to spend a week at one.  Whitmore Bay was a fine beach (a beach is a beach…), but its true gem was a cliff that jutted out to separate Whitmore Bay from Watch House Bay on the other side.  From the beach, we climbed up to the cliff and walked out on the peninsula which had a walking path and lovely views.  The way the beach and cliff are situated, it would be possible to watch the sunrise over the water in the morning, sit all day, and turn your chair around the other way to watch the sunset over the water on the other side.



We saw several folks walking their dogs along this path, and very few of those (if any) were on leads.  This golden was my favorite.



Sunset was still a few hours off, so we did not stick around, but the sun was still pretty reflecting on the water as it started its descent.




Getting back to the hotel proved much simpler Wednesday night, having done it once already, and I got another night of glorious sleep before we departed Wales on Thursday to make the drive across to London.


The first stop on our journey was at Highclere Castle, better known as…


[Drumroll, please!]


…Downton Abbey!!!


(Also, for my friend Josh, I must add that, in 1987, Highclere was also cast as The Secret Garden’s Mistlethwaite Manor for the Hallmark Hall of Fame production.)





The castle interiors were amazing (no photography was allowed inside) and the rooms featured in Downton Abbey were labeled as such so you knew which room belonged to Lady Grantham, Mary, Edith, etc.  It was great fun to walk around and see it all.  Ironically, as we exited down the servant’s corridor at the end of the tour, we ran into Lady Fiona, the Countess of Carnarvon.  Highclere is her home and she was instrumental in getting Downton Abbey to film there.  Ensuring her estate’s living through Downton Abbey seems rather apropos, don’t you think?


Following our tour of the house, we had lunch in the tea room (which was delicious!) and proceeded to wander all over the beautiful grounds.



Before we could bring ourselves to depart, we had to stop and take a few more pictures of the castle itself.





I always get a kick out of TV sets and their practical locations, so visiting Downton Abbey was quite a treat.


But when we left Highclere/Downton, we drove to see some more sets…


Sets that turned me into an excited seven-year-old, bounding around in the spirit of “I love this!  And this!  And this and this and this AND OH MY GOODNESS LOOK AT THISSSSSSSSSS!!!”


Right this way, folks, to the Harry Potter tour at Warner Brothers Studios London!!!!


(Buckle up for a lot of exclamation points.)


Ron’s chess pieces at the entrance!



Photos in the lobby – SNAAAAAAAAAAPE!



The tour introduction was given in a room with screens panning through all the movie posters for each of the eight films.  We were asked to cheer for our favorite film as our guide went around the room.  Half-Blood Prince, baby!!!



We moved into a theater where we watched an introduction video about the making of the eight Harry Potter movies, and when the screen was raised, we found ourselves standing at the entryway doors into the Great Hall



The Great Hall was set up with the house tables, and of course we all know my favorite:





And the professors were on stage, hanging out for Dumbledore’s year-end speech, no doubt.



Once we moved beyond the Great Hall, we no longer had a guide and were left to wander according to our own devices.  The tour guide had told us that it takes an average of two hours to tour everything.  He said the shortest time anyone had ever used to complete the tour was 30 minutes, and the longest was 13 hours!  I won’t keep you in suspense – we were inside for four glorious hours!  Let’s hit some highlights, shall we?



The invisibility cloak!



The Yule Ball centerpiece:



The gates of Hogwarts:



The Gryffindor dormitory (Ron’s bed):



The Mirror of Erised!  (Where apparently I see myself at Harry Potter!  Seems legit.)



Dumbledore’s Office!




The Tri-Wizard Cup and the Golden Egg:



Famed props galore!  Hermione’s Time-Turner!  Dumbledore’s Deluminator!  Neville’s Remembrall!  The Philosopher’s Stone!  (That’s the Sorcerer’s Stone for you Americans.)









Hagrid’s Hut!



The Burrow!  This set was interactive and had displays that you could touch to make Mrs. Weasley’s dishes wash themselves, make the knife chop the carrots, iron the clothes, and knit a scarf.  It took forever for the dang children to get out of the way so that I could have a turn!



He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and his infernal Death Eaters:




The Marauder’s Map, newspapers, etc.




Rita Skeeter’s outfit and quill:



The office of the most evil character to ever grace the Harry Potter page or screen.  Seriously.  I would have tea with Voldemort before I’d be caught in her company.



I also learned a new bit of information about her evilness.  Her wardrobe got progressively pinker as she rose through the evil ranks of the Ministry of Magic.



Speaking of the Ministry of Magic…. Here it is!



The Black Family Tapestry:



There was a display explaining how many of the special effects were achieved for the movie, and those who wanted to could go into the Green Screen room and take a ride in the flying car and ride a broomstick!  Liz looked at me like, “Seriously?  We’re doing this?” but I think she had as much fun as I did.  We bought our photos (… aaaaand our videos).




Hagrid’s bike and the Knight Bus!




Here lies that filthy muggle Tom Riddle:



The Hogwarts bridge:



Harry’s House on Privet Drive!



…with Hedwig!



James and Lily Potter’s house:



More chess pieces:



Yikes!  Aragog!  Nooo less freaky knowing he’s fake.



Awww.  Dobby.






And the rather enormous model of Hogwarts Castle:





Inside Ollivander’s, where all of these wand boxes displayed the name of someone who worked on the Harry Potter films, from the actors to the directors, props, lighting, catering, EVERYONE.  There was a tour guide here who could tell you the location of any name you wanted to see.  I asked to see Alan Rickman, obviously.



I restrained myself fairly well in the gift shop, considering, but did buy my only t-shirt of the trip here as well as some other small items.  I may have gone a little crazier, but reminded myself that I still had to re-pack my suitcase three more times before going home.


Liz struck up conversation with one of the guys who worked in the gift shop because he had been to Denver before, so I asked him for a dinner recommendation and he was able to point us to one of his favorite Indian restaurants for a much-overdue dinner.  Once we walked back out to the parking lot and all my senses weren’t on overdrive anymore, I immediately knew how hungry I was!


Dinner was quite delicious as advertised and since we were arriving late into London, we didn’t have to deal with too much traffic while we sought out our hotel.  Once again, my arrival was anticipated, and I was greeted by this sign in the room:



It took me a rather long time to come down off of my Harry Potter high to even consider going to sleep, so I sat up late writing postcards and grinning to myself about the day, while slowly letting it sink in that I was going to take London by storm the next day!

Your Road Map Eyes Give You Away

I got my first passport in 2013, determined to finally fulfill one of my travel dreams and see London and Paris.  I was trying to plan it for the fall of 2013, and the pieces just weren’t coming together.  Finally admitting that I needed to postpone took a serious inner dialogue to tell myself that postponing was OK, provided I didn’t let it become a dream that I only talked about and never did.


So, as 2013 ended with no passport stamps, I started making plans for 2014.  My friend Liz, who I’ve visited a few times in Denver, makes an annual excursion to Scotland and proposed that I come there and meet up with her and we could spend a week touring Scotland, England, and Wales.  I wasn’t sure it would work out to do all of that and still spend the time I wanted in London and Paris, but ultimately, the pieces fell into place and I bought a plane ticket and started planning.


I find travel both exhilarating and intimidating, but the thought of traveling overseas came with a big portion of the latter.  It’s ridiculous that if I forget my cell phone at home on an average Thursday, I’m sure that’s the day my car will break down on the way into work.  So, I was a little uncertain about how that would feel over two weeks in four countries (including one where I don’t speak the language).  I knew I’d have to plan well since I wouldn’t be able to pull the internet out of my pocket to figure things out as I went along.


Luckily, travel planning is my raison d’être, so a little bit at a time over several months, I put together a three-ring, tabbed binder that was a magnificent work of organizational art, if I do say so myself.  I dropped off emergency contact info with my Mom and emailed my itinerary to a few friends and then set off with two weeks of the bare necessities crammed into one carry on and a “personal item” (which is to say, the biggest purse you’ve ever seen).


My awesome cousin and her awesome hubby volunteered to take me to the airport in D.C., so I got to spend some time with them in Richmond before I left.  My flight out of D.C. was at 6:30pm on Saturday, and since it was going to be 6:40am on Sunday when I landed in London, I was hoping to get a decent night’s sleep on the plane.  I knew that was iffy going in;  after all, plane seats aren’t particularly conducive to sleep, and I don’t usually go to bed at 6:30pm.  As it turned out, those were moot points, because even if I loved going to sleep before dinner while sitting upright between two strangers, the flight from hell would have prevented it in any case.  I say “flight from hell” because the temperature in the cabin seemed to suggest we’d narrowly escaped from there.  I don’t like to be hot in the first place, but I was so hot that I was actually feeling physically ill.  This was not aided by the perpetual turbulence that was tossing me to and fro and back and forth relentlessly.  I was so miserable that I actually became THAT passenger who kept ringing for the stewardess to ask for another cup of ice, which was going unabashedly down my shirt as well as in my mouth.  I looked around at the other passengers to make sure no one was wrapped up in blankets lest I was actually sick with a fever instead of crossing The Atlantic in a flying clothes dryer.  Luckily, it was just a bad flight and not a trip-ruining illness, but I was really thankful to get on the ground and off that plane at Heathrow.


The layover was long enough to get me feeling OK again, and mercifully, my connection from Heathrow to Glasgow was a much cooler, much smoother flight.  Liz was there waiting when I arrived and I piled everything in the rental car and we set out.  It turns out, they love their Fords in the UK, so our car was a Ford Mondeo, which is basically my Fusion’s UK cousin.


This photo has terrible lighting, but it captures the moment, which was “Weeee!  Here we go!”



Liz had mentioned wanting to stock up on a few bottles of her favorite whisky (it doesn’t have an ‘e’ there) that was only available at the distillery where it’s made.  I said I was game for touring a distillery in Scotland (hellooo!), so we drove out toward Edinburgh and visited the Glenkinchie Distillery, where they walked us through their process, which was fascinating and pungent.  At the end of the tour, there were samples of whisky from every region of Scotland for those who wanted to taste them.



By the time we got back to Glasgow, I’d been awake for roughly 30 exhausting hours and it was drizzling rain on and off (following a week of torrential downpours).  We went to a grocery store for supplies (they had Caffeine Free Diet Coke!!!) and then checked into our hotel and had dinner there so I could make it an early night.


Monday, we woke up to blue skies, fluffy clouds, and all-around perfect weather.  We spent the day driving through the Scottish countryside on our way to visit two of the Campbell castles in the west of Scotland.  Our drive took us by Loch Lomond where we stopped in a picturesque lake town called Luss to walk out on the dock and through the village.



We journeyed on toward Inveraray Castle on the shore of Loch Fyne.  Inveraray has been the ancestral home and seat of the Duke of Argyll, chief of Clan Campbell, for centuries.  My great grandmother was a Campbell, and according to our family historians, my ancestors date back to this very line.  I know no particulars, but it was enough to feel a certain gravity about walking those grounds.  We stopped on the bridge as we wound our way up to the castle to photograph this first view.



I spent a great deal of time walking around the front of the castle and marveling at it.



In my general fervor about the castle and the Campbell history, I had forgotten that Inveraray was also the location of the 2012 Downton Abbey Christmas special.  I recognized the dining room straightaway, and there were photos nearby showing corresponding scenes from the show.



My favorite room was what I’d call the grand foyer – straight inside the entrance and decorated with weaponry.  You never know when your castle might be attacked, and then everyone will need to grab something here!



The rest of the castle was lovely, but perhaps with a bit more subtle décor.



We had lunch in the Castle tea room, and I tried the traditional Scotch Broth, because why not?  (I wasn’t much of a fan of it, to be honest, but I gave it a chance.)



After lunch, we walked through the gardens in the back of the castle to admire the grandeur from the other side.



Having contented ourselves with Inveraray, we proceeded along to find Kilchurn Castle, also of Clan Campbell, which only remains as a ruin.


We had to park just off the road and walk out to the castle, which was a lovely walk in theory, but given the recently-departed rains, the path was muddy at best.  At points where water covered the path entirely, we had to try our best to circumvent it by walking out into the muddy grass.  Two mud holes before reaching the castle, both my tennis-shoed feet immersed completely in the mud, and I felt it run in through the netting of my shoes and squish between my toes.  There weren’t any options other than to keeping trudging forward.


Luckily, the views along the way and the castle itself were more than worth it.



Heading back to the car, my feet couldn’t possibly get muddier, so there was no use being delicate.  When we came to a creek, I told Liz I was going in and took my camera off my wrist and handed it to her.  It seemed like something to be documented.  The water was freezing, but it felt better in my shoes than the mud!



Back at the hotel (and reunited with my other pair of shoes), Liz and I ended our day with a trip back down to the lounge where we proceeded to chat the night away with a charming and hilariously sarcastic bloke from Yorkshire, England, who was in Glasgow on business.  We talked until the entire lobby, restaurant, and bar area was empty of anyone but us, and then said goodnight on the elevator.  We ran into him again Tuesday morning at breakfast before we all left Scotland for jolly old England.



Liz and I had a lot of ground to cover, because not only were we driving south through England, but we were going to end the evening at our hotel in Wales.  Just driving in the car all day would have been boring, though, so on what I’ve dubbed “Mr. Darcy Day,” we detoured to ride through the Peak District to visit Lyme Park and Chatsworth.


Liz and I have a bit of a difference of opinion on which is the superior production of Pride & Prejudice, but *my* Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley was actually the estate at Lyme Park.  We arrived there first, and I was immediately giddy.  


Liz wanted to walk up to a folly that she saw as we were driving in, and I wanted to go bound around the grounds like Elizabeth Bennett.  My aspirations required a ticket, so I was about to buy one when Liz and I set a time and place to meet back out front.  Liz left and I handed my card to the cashier, but for whatever reason, she couldn’t get it to go through.  I guess I must’ve looked like I was about to explode with excitement and anticipation, because the cashier took another look at me, smiled, and handed my card back to me with a ticket and said, “Go ahead, honey.  Have fun.”


Ohhh, and I did.  I may have let out a few stifled squeals when I was far enough away from other people to prevent soliciting sideways looks, but I know I was grinning like a fool the whole time.


Remember this staircase?  Darcy (Colin Firth) came bounding down these stairs after “Miss Bennett,” apologetic for not having greeted her properly when he emerged from a dip in his lake and found her there, touring his grounds.



Ah, Pemberley.



See?  See?  PEMBERLEY!


By the lake…



And of course Mr. Darcy planted some purple hyacinth just for me.



And I thrust my camera into the hands of so many strangers, if only so I’d have enough photos to prove to myself that I was actually there!



The route from Lyme Park to Chatsworth took us through the Peak District that Elizabeth toured with her aunt and uncle in the book/movies when she happened to end up at Pemberley in the first place.  The drive was quite pretty, which is hard to convey in a through-the-windshield-in-motion photo, but it’s what I’ve got.



Chatsworth stood in for Pemberley in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which has always come with an asterisk in my mind because, in the book, Elizabeth visited Chatsworth on the same trip as when she visited Pemberley, so making them one and the same bothers my brain.  Artistic license and whatnot.  (Also, since the BBC version come out in 1995, and this one in 2005, does that mean that we’re due for another remake in 2015?) 


Nevertheless, while Colin Firth is always going to be the Mr. Darcy for me, the Keira-Knightley-as-Elizabeth version is handy to keep around when I want to watch Pride and Prejudice, but I don’t have 5 hours to spare.  Plus, even though it deviates from the book quite a bit more (and takes excessive liberties with the language and propriety of the time period), it’s a fair trade for the image of Matthew Macfadyen striding across that field at dawn or saying “Pardon me, madam, for taking up so much of your time” after she lambasts him under the folly’s shelter in a downpour.


Unlike Lyme Park, Chatsworth was used for both interior and exterior shots during filming.  I always loved the image of Elizabeth walking in across the entryway floor, so it was fun to do that myself.



It seemed like an opportune moment for a selfie…



And to look out across the lawn toward the fountain in the lake…


 Most of all, I was eager to see the Raffaelle Monti sculpture, “A Veiled Vestal Virgin.”  Elizabeth stops to admire it in the movie, and I was fascinated by it when I watched.  Seeing it in person, it is no easier to believe that it is made completely of marble than it was when seeing it on film.  I feel like I have to reiterate this point:  the entire statue – including the veil over her face – is sculpted from marble.  I stood and stared at it for a long time.  It’s breathtaking.




 I’m not sure whose terrible idea it was to rest all of the statues in Chatsworth’s sculpture room on pepto-bismol-pink stands.  The movie fixed this – presumably by CGI.  I thought about Photo-shopping it, myself, but figured I’d go with what it actually looked like.



Chatsworth kept the bust of Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy after the movie was finished, and it is currently on display in the gift shop with an amusing sign that reads:  “Please do not kiss.”  I am sure that happened more than once to incite the notice.



Having completed the house tour and bought too many souvenirs from the gift shop, I went outside to walk around the grounds.  I immediately found a flower bed full of purple hyacinth – it’s like they were expecting me!


Over my right shoulder is the staircase Macfadyen’s Darcy ran down in pursuit of Elizabeth and the terrace where they had their subsequent awkward “and your parents are in good health?” chat.



We had yet one more adventure to experience after leaving Chatsworth, which is that when we made it to Wales (three countries in one day!), the navigation system on the car threw us an impossibly long string of directions about where to “leave the roundabout” and “turn immediately” that, had we been given a month to memorize it, we couldn’t have kept it all straight. This led to a lot of circling the roundabout and inevitably going the wrong way.  It was dark and we were exhausted, but luckily I’m a big dork who over-prepares for everything, so I pulled out my much-disparaged Google maps and routed us directly to our hotel, where we were both quite happy to tuck in for the night.



[TO BE CONTINUED:  Tune in next week to see what kind of shenanigans our heroines get into in Wales and on the drive to London.]

Ah, the Snow’s Comin’ Down on My Blue Manhattan

I’ve gotten attached to these Christmastime trips to the Big Apple.  New York boasts a particularly impressive amount of holiday cheer per square foot, and it is starting to feel like a bit of a December ritual for me to visit and get a hearty dose of the Christmas spirit.


I didn’t buy my flight the first time I checked, which was a bad call.  They jumped up soon after and it didn’t seem like they were going to come down again.  I started to think I’d missed my chance, and then I got a flight alert for a much better price.  My friend Lana and her husband invited me to stay with them, so my trip was a go!


I drove to NC a day before my trip as I usually do, and got to meet Kelli’s sweet new baby boy and hang out with Jimmy and Emily as long as we could all keep our eyes open.  Emily woke up entirely too early in the morning just to drive me to the airport, which is above and beyond in the friend department.


Since it was frigid outside, my plane had to be de-iced before take-off.  I am easily amused:




My flight was also late taking off, late landing, and therefore I was more than an hour late getting into Manhattan.  That wouldn’t have been an issue if not for the fact that I was trying to catch the last tour of Gracie Mansion on the only day that they’re offered.


It does often happen that the city welcomes me full throttle, as if it’s checking to see that I still have what it takes after being away for a while.  Luckily, I love a challenge, so I ran several long blocks in my boots with my bag on my shoulder and my suitcase rolling along behind me, and then I spotted an available cab rounding the corner, hailed him like a pro, and was about to hop in when a woman came walking toward me from halfway down the block, proclaiming that she was “here first” and therefore it was her cab.  Oh no, honey.  The cab drive promptly picked my side and I was on my way while she walked off to no doubt steal someone else’s cab.


I made it just in time for the tour and subsequently caught my breath strolling along by the river in Carl Schurz Park before hopping a bus back over to Lana’s to settle in.





I was excited to be able to attend the tree lighting in Washington Square Park, since my previous trips were too early in December to see that tree with lights on it.  I had a bit of time to kill before the lighting started, so I decided to go down to SoHo and then walk from there back to Washington Square Park.


Naturally, this was a convenient excuse to drop in on my favorite church.



On my walk back toward the Village, the sun was setting, so the sky looked gorgeous and I kept catching the occasional glimpse of WTC1 between buildings.



I was FREEZING by the time I got close to the park, and I was ravenous, too.  I stopped into a The Half Pint bar, which was packed with NYU students, and had an amazing bowl of chicken chili that warmed me up nicely.


Two minutes back outside had my teeth chattering again, but I had my heart set on the tree lighting, so I stuck around the park and waited for the other brave, Christmas-loving souls undeterred by the frigid temperatures to join me.



We were a small but merry bunch, huddled together with our chorus books, keeping warm by singing everything from O Holy Night to The Twelve Days of Christmas.  We sang for about an hour and then the crowd dispersed and I became suddenly aware that I couldn’t feel my toes.


I had bought a ticket to go on the “Christmas Lights and Cannoli Tour,” and I still had an hour before it started, so I pretended to shop in a Duane Reade along the walk until I regained feeling in all of my appendages.  The cruel cold made me feel even better about my ticket to ride around on a charter bus for three hours.


Lana had schlepped it out to Brooklyn with me on my first December trip and we walked around Dyker Heights, famous for its audacious Christmas displays all over the neighborhood.  The bus tour covered that ground as well as the Bay Ridge area, and as a further bonus, we were transported around on a heated bus and got out for short neighborhood walks in the best sections.


I was happy to find that Brooklyn still had a coating of snow, which really took the Christmas scene up a notch.  We went to several new areas as well as some I’d seen before, but hearing all of the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the fellow tourists provided the perfect ambience for the cheeseball experience I had hoped for when I bought the ticket.



After visiting the two neighborhoods, we made a third stop just to see this specific house, which looked like an arcade game – a Christmas-themed arcade game!



After we’d seen all the Christmas lights, as promised, we were taken to a bakery where cannoli and hot chocolate had been set out for us in a private room in anticipation of our arrival.  It was a delicious night cap before we boarded the bus one last time and returned to Manhattan.



2013 was the Centennial for Grand Central Station, so that coupled with the frosty air made it a great time to finally take the official tour.  It was interesting to see places in the building that I probably never would have wandered on my own and to hear the story of the at-odds partners responsible for the building and then its eventual restoration after having fallen into disrepair.



After finishing the tour and grabbing lunch at the new Shake Shack in the basement, I made my way over to the New York Public Library to check out their tree…



…and then over to Bryant Park, which is a fun spot all year round, but particularly bustling once the Christmas shops, huge tree, and ice rink move in for the season.



I hopped on a bus downtown to meet Lana after work, and she said she’d go wherever I wanted, so we hopped a train down to the South Street Seaport.  She doesn’t go there often and had never seen it decked out for Christmas.  The extensive damage from Hurricane Sandy prevented them from having their tree in 2012, so I was excited to see it again, because it is my favorite.



I was a little disheartened that it wasn’t “singing” like it had been when I first fell in love with its tacky splendor, but it was nice to see it back in its rightful place.


From there, Lana took me down to Fraunces Tavern, the site where George Washington gave his farewell address to the Continental Army officers in 1783.



We found two chairs by the fire and kicked back for a while, and then decided to go back to the apartment and order in dinner.  Conveniently, we sat down to eat 5 minutes before White Collar came on, and Lana and Colin let me rule the TV for an hour, after which Lana gave me the grand tour through their wedding album and we enjoyed a lovely night in by the glow of their Christmas tree.


On these December trips, I am mostly content to revisit all of my favorite haunts and see them decked out in tinsel and lights, but I usually see at least one new place on every trip, so I set off to find the gazebo from the White Collar season 4 finale.  It looked cool on film and didn’t disappoint in person, either.  I even climbed up on a rock beside the gazebo to get a better view and ended up sitting there for a while gleaning as much heat as I could from the sun glaring overhead.



I walked along the High Line in the afternoon, which was much less crowded than it had been the first time I toured it in the summer of 2012.



I disembarked to walk through Chelsea Market – and to thaw out again.



I will always be a sucker for a fountain, but a color-changing fountain?!  Love them.




I walked from Chelsea to the Village, which is a great stroll to soak in the city.  I did pause to photograph the Gansevoort as I walked past.  I’d like to stay there someday.


I had dinner at Bleecker Street Pizza (heralded by many as the best pizza in New York) and picked up my ticket for the play I was seeing: Buyer & Cellar.  I still had over an hour before the show started, so I walked around the neighborhood some more and then went to another restaurant (A.O.C., l’Ail ou la Cuisse) for dessert which was recommended to me by the ladies at the box office.  I had the chocolate mousse and it was divine.

Buyer & Cellar was a one-man show starring Michael Urie (best known for TV roles on Ugly Betty and Partners, but best known to me for his role in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which is my favorite Broadway show).  The show was hysterical, but came with those unexpectedly touching moments that you find in the best comedies.



I hung out after the show was over to say hello to Michael, and he was delightful.  I told him that we had a friend in common – Michael Park, who he worked with on How to Succeed.  I agreed to pass along his “hello” and then we said goodnight.  I struck up a conversation with a stranger on my way back to the subway station; she spotted the signed Playbill in my hand and I recommended the show to her.



Not quite ready to call it a night, I hopped off the train near Radio City and walked over to Rockefeller Center to see the tree and the Saks 5th Avenue Projection Show.  My trip couldn’t be complete without that!



I was supposed to fly back to North Carolina on Saturday afternoon to go to the Grahams’ Annual Christmas Party, so I was going to have brunch with Colin and Lana and then head to the airport.  When I woke up, though, snow was pouring down outside, so while the rest of the house was still sleeping, I raced outside into the snow.


I thought the best place to go would be the park, so I returned to the gazebo again.



Then I hopped a bus across the park to see Lincoln Center.  It amused me that it was snowing, yet their fountain was on.



Lana texted to say they were readying for brunch, so I made my way back.  While waiting for the bus, I talked with an older lady who told me how much she loved the snow, and said she grew up in one of the snowiest countries in the world, and had once crawled out of her second-story window onto snow.  She took this photo of me.



Lana, Colin, and I took a snowy, slippery walk to brunch and I was starting to worry about my flight.  It was still showing as “on time” and it was nearing time for me to leave for the airport, but it didn’t seem at all likely that my flight was really going to leave – on time or otherwise.  My nerves were definitely showing, so Lana encouraged me to call the airline and see what they said.  I did, and was told that my flight was still scheduled on time, but that they’d switch me to the next day for free.  I kept second-guessing decisions either way, thinking I’d feel foolish if my flight really did leave on time, but knowing I did NOT want to be stuck at JFK overnight.  The least stressful decision was to take the postponement, so I did, and a weight was lifted, but I continued to check my flight status for the rest of the day as it was delayed, delayed, delayed, boarded, disembarked, and then cancelled.  I’m SO grateful that I was staying with friends so I didn’t have to worry about another night of hotel, and that Colin and Lana collectively talked me down from the crazy cliff so I could just relax and enjoy that I had more time in snowy New York.


Having embraced the notion, I decided to go over to Brooklyn and walk around the park.  It was so peaceful.



It seemed like an opportune moment to finally ride Jane’s Carousel, built in 1922 and restored to its original condition in 1984.  It was great fun and OF COURSE I let the operator take my photo.  My horse held my hat – technically Lana’s hat.



Thinking of what other places I wanted to see in the snow took me back over to Bryant Park, which looks like a Winter Wonderland in December even if it’s 60 degrees.  In the snow, it was just that much better.  And I found another person to take a photo for me – even though all of these furry hat pictures are hilarious and you may or may not be able to tell it is even me in there.



By this time, it was after 5pm, so I knew that Grand Central would have its holiday light show going, which I had never seen.  Plus, I was pretty well soaked by this point, so it was getting harder and harder to stay outside for long.



Santa Con was that weekend – which I didn’t even know was a thing until Lana mentioned it as the explanation to why we saw two Santas carrying cases of beer down the street on the Upper East Side.  After that, I saw them everywhere.  Apparently, Santa takes the subway when his sled is in the shop.  I even saw several women participating in Santa Con, but their Santas had mostly abandoned the red suit in favor of the red light.  This guy was a Santa Con underachiever, but I had to stop him to get a photo of his shirt.



Apparently, owing to the Santas transporting cases of beer and/or Santa-hookers, there was concern that these Con participants might get unruly on the trains.



When I left Grand Central, I realized that I could also see the light show from outside.



A hot shower and dry clothes were beckoning to me, but there was one last place I couldn’t miss seeing in the snow:

I stayed up just long enough to say goodnight to Lana and Colin when they came in from their Christmas party, and then quietly slipped out in the early morning to make it to the airport.  I breezed through security (unusual for JFK) and breakfasted with a guy who had slept in the airport the night before after arriving on an overseas flight to find his connection cancelled.  He was one of the least miserable-looking people at the airport that morning, so I counted myself blessed to have traded up from a day stuck at the airport to a day playing in the snow.

You Will Get a Sentimental Feeling When You Hear Voices Singing

The 8-hour drive to Nashville always seemed a bit of a daunting task for my old car, and flying between there and home is impractical, so when I bought my new car, Music City started calling.  The clincher was that some of my favorite people were packing up their Nashville home to take to the road in an RV, and I wanted to visit them again in a home without wheels while I had the chance.  And, since they already had the RV, it made for great guest quarters!


My friend Melissa had mentioned wanting to go to Nashville a few times, so I offered her the official “shotgun” position on the trip, and we hit the road the Saturday after Thanksgiving.


I told her I had a surprise planned for the drive out, which probably wouldn’t strike most people as thrilling, but we were elated to be reunited with our long-lost cheap Italian fast food friend:



Since it was Melissa’s first time in Nashville (fourth for me), I had promised her all the touristy highlights, but for our first evening in Nashville, she was happy to forgo touring the town to stay in and just hang out with the whole Weaver gang.  It didn’t take any convincing since she loves children and the littlest Weavers happen to be two of the cutest kids ever.


Last time I was in Nashville, Levi and Heather invited me to come to church with them on Sunday, but I was making the drive back that day and had to get on the road early due to weather conditions back home.  On this trip, Levi was filling in as the worship pastor at a nearby Cowboy Church, so we all went there Sunday morning.  I have never received such a warm welcome visiting any other church, which is not a slight on other churches so much as it is high praise for those folks.  We were heartily welcomed at the door when we arrived, and where many churches take a 30 second pause in the service to tell you to shake hands with the folks around you, they instead took a 15-minute break wherein everyone walked to the back of the room and spent time interacting over a buffet of breakfast-y bread items:  bagels, muffins, pastries… there were even cupcakes.  Giving me my choice of 87 kinds of bread is always a way to make me feel right at home, but so many of the congregation came over, eager to say hello to the new faces.  Before we left, we were given hugs and gifts and invited to come back soon.  If it didn’t mean an eight-hour drive, I certainly would.


After having lunch together at a great Mexican restaurant, Melissa and I were ready to get our “touring” underway.  The first stop was Nashville’s Parthenon replica with the towering statue of Athena inside.




This griffin was just asking to be fist-bumped:



From there, we proceeded downtown and paid an arm and a leg to park so we could walk around.  Luckily, it was a pretty nice night for it.


Melissa wanted to take in some live music, and Honky Tonk Row offers something different behind every door.  We decided we also wanted a place to sit, so we ducked into Legends Corner where a band was just getting set up, so there wasn’t a crowd yet.  The band was just playing country covers, but they stuck with mostly the older songs that I grew up with, so we had fun listening, singing along, and even making a few requests, which the band was happy to oblige.  We actually stuck around for the whole set before heading back to the house.



Monday morning, I introduced Melissa to the wonders of the Pancake Pantry for breakfast.  I had warned her that we’d have to wait a while to get in, but that it would be completely worthwhile.  As it turned out, we were able to walk right in and be seated right away, which felt nothing short of miraculous.


Melissa had seen online that Nashville (the TV show) was supposed to be on location downtown on Monday, so we drove that way to see if we could locate the crew.  They were nowhere to be seen, so we just proceeded back downtown so that we could tour The Ryman, which had been closed by the time we got there the day before.  Not wanting to pay so much for parking for just a short span of time, we drove around for a while before finding metered parallel parking about 8 blocks from The Ryman.


We took the full tour – backstage and all, which was interesting even though I had already done it before.


We had just finished the tour when I had a sudden realization that, after driving around so long looking for a parking space, once we were parked, we hopped out and went on our way and never actually put any money in the parking meter!  We shot out of The Ryman and started hoofing it back to the car at full speed.  I was panicked while trying not to appear panicked, and Melissa, knowing this, was just quietly walking along and praying that the car would still be there when we arrived.


I was thrilled as soon as I caught the first glimpse of my car and knew that at least it had not been towed.  I was utterly astonished when we got close enough to realize that it hadn’t even been ticketed.  The meter was flashing “expired” and we’d been gone for about two hours, and somehow had gotten away scott free.  Prayer works!  And once my heart rate returned to normal, I felt somewhat vindicated for having overpaid for parking the night before.


Following that adventure, we made a second attempt at finding the filming spot for Nashville, and succeeded on the second try, but the location was indoors, so we couldn’t see anything.  But, at least we could say that we tried.


We were going to proceed over to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel from there, but I accidentally picked the wrong address in the GPS, and having driven the wrong way, we decided to make the most of it and drop in on the Belmont Mansion.


When we got out of the car, we were immediately splattered with bird poop – or so we thought.  Further investigation told us that it was likely something in the trees instead, and we agreed that was our preferred assumption and went with that.


Messy greeting aside, the grounds and house were lovely and we enjoyed our tour and even found some friendly Belmont students who stopped to take a picture for us.




Having enjoyed our accidental detour, we got back on track and made our way over to the Opryland Hotel and walked through the ICE! Exhibit.  I had been to ICE! before with Levi and Heather when Lincoln was small, but it was cool enough to see again (no pun intended).



The highlights were the ice slide…



The “Christmas in New York” section (for me)…



And, of course, the gorgeous nativity scene in the final room.



The Gaylord Opryland Hotel is a tourist attraction unto itself, and anyone is welcome to walk around inside it, but parking is – again – astronomical.  However, parking was free at ICE! so we left the car there and just walked over to the nearby hotel.  We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so dinner was our top priority.  We got burgers from one of the restaurants and found a spot to sit and eat while we watched the fountain show.


Dinner gave us enough fuel to tour the rest of the hotel (and find our way around despite its maze-like qualities).  Pictures cannot capture the grandeur of size or the general splendor, but we tried.



When we returned to the house, we found that Aaron Long had arrived for a visit as he was passing through town on tour, so we ended up staying up much too late discussing a vast and sometimes ridiculous array of topics.  Good conversation with friends trumps sleep, after all.



Not surprisingly, Melissa and I were a little slow getting started on Tuesday morning.  We decided to skip over breakfast entirely and apply our hunger directly to lunch at Loveless Café.  It took a bit of a drive to get out there, and we were so hungry, but I knew this was another place that tended to have a long wait.  To our delight, we were once again able to beat the odds and get seated straightaway, where we were soon chowing down on their wonderful biscuits and preserves, fried chicken, mac n cheese, and every heavenly thing.  I feel like it would not be out of the question for me to take a trip to Nashville solely for the food.  It’s that good.


There are shops located all around Loveless Café, and since we didn’t need to kill any time there waiting for a table, we instead walked around after lunch while our food settled, picking up souvenirs and getting a little goofy.



Aside from Loveless Café, our Tuesday itinerary featured two spots that were completely new to me as well as Melissa.


First, we went to Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art.  They still had several art pieces on display on the very top floor of the museum, but in the majority of the building, they were having a special exhibit of “Christmas in Color,” wherein every room had a tree decked out to a specific color scheme.


I wasn’t sure Melissa would see the same allure I did in walking around looking at Christmas trees, it turns out, we both enjoyed it immensely.



This chandelier was leftover from the LIGHT exhibition that Cheekwood had hosted in the summer.  The artist, Bruce Munro, let Cheekwood keep this piece on display after the close of the show.



Unfortunately, Melissa and I both discovered after coming home that our photos didn’t capture very well in the darker rooms of the museum, but you get the general idea.  The purple tree was, of course, my favorite.  The photo of the full tree didn’t turn out well, but the close ups were lovely.



Since we were visiting in December, there wasn’t a lot to see on the grounds in the way of blooming flowers and trees, but we did find this tree house, where we had entirely too much fun.



After leaving Cheekwood, we didn’t have to go far to our next destination – Belle Meade Plantation and Winery.  The grounds tour was nice, but my main interest was in touring the house itself, where their holiday exhibit was set up so that every room represented a different year in the history of Christmases in the home.  We had bought our ticket for the last tour of the day, and when we met the guide on the porch, we were the only two there!  We had our own private tour and the guide was knowledgeable, funny, and friendly, so he really made it worthwhile and we were able to ask any questions we wanted without feeling like we were holding up other people who might not be interested.


The tour was full of fascinating information on the evolution of attitudes about Christmas over the years – when it became more family-centric, when it began to be more geared toward children, why that song talks about presents “on” the tree, and about how Coca-Cola was responsible for turning Santa’s suit red as we know it today.  History mixed with Christmas – I was in my element.


Tuesday night was our last night in Nashville, so I begged Heather to let me do the cooking so she could come home to dinner waiting.  We also had a bonus guest for dinner – after years of corresponding in emails or on Facebook, I finally got to meet Jules in person!



It was nice to spend our last night as we’d spent the first one – just sitting and talking and happy to be among friends.  I finally snapped some photos of the kids, too – documenting these ages before I blink and they’re in college!



Yes, Belle, too.



The first time I came to Nashville after Lincoln was born, I was sitting in the floor playing with him as he showed me all of his toys.  He lost his balance and ended up falling backwards into his toy basket and got stuck.  I did what I had to do, which was to photograph the moment before acquiescing to his toddler-speak:  “Stuck!  Help me!”


Heather pulled this basket out of the closet and said that we should recreate the moment.  I was content with watching him play, and he showed no signs of slowing down, so I hadn’t made any comment about the basket to him.  Luckily, my camera was in my lap when he started backing across the floor telling a story about the toy in his hand, and not realizing the basket was behind him, he bumped into it and fell right in, almost exactly as he had when he was a toddler.  I got this photo quickly since he’d no longer require my assistance to get back out of the basket.  I had to put these photos together:



It was a really nice trip and a fond farewell to Nashville for now.  Next time I see the Weavers, their house will come rolling right into my parking lot!

Can You Tell That I Am Alive? Let Me Prove It To Ya.

I am three trips behind on updating the blog, but this post is the most belated, as it was Part 2 of the San Francisco trip in July 2013.  I considered just skipping over it, but I refer back to these posts for the memories (and my mind isn’t even totally gone yet!) and sometimes share them with friends traveling to the same places who want some ideas on what to do and see.  So, I’m going back in time to recap part 2 of my 4th of July trip with Jessica and Thai.


In fact, the whole trip was planned around a bucket list item for me – seeing The Avett Brothers play at Red Rocks, which they did on Saturday, July 6th, with Old Crow Medicine Show opening.


We flew from San Francisco to Denver early that morning, and while we didn’t relish waking up so early, it was fortunate that we’d chosen the earliest flight, because otherwise, we never would have made it to Denver that day.  Just a few hours after we departed SFO, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed on arrival and the airport was subsequently shut down.  Naturally, our phones were off for the flight to Denver, and upon arrival, we rented a car and immediately drove up into the mountains beyond cell phone range.  We had no idea anything had happened, and hadn’t received any of the texts or calls from friends and family back home who’d only heard there was a crash at SFO on the same morning they knew we were flying out.  Luckily, more details came out and assuaged any fears, since we were flying out to Denver and not in from Asia.


Meanwhile, we remained blissfully unaware as we took in the beauty of the mountains on our slow climb up to my friend Liz’s place, where we settled in from our travels and everyone got acquainted.



Soon, it was time for me to drift back down the mountain to go to Red Rocks for the show.  It was quite a workout to get from the parking lot up to the actual venue.  Luckily, seeing The Avett Brothers is an “ain’t no mountain high enough” kind of situation, so I pressed on and found a perch where I could see the Denver skyline in the distance behind the stage.





Old Crow Medicine Show – themselves Virginia boys – opened up the night with their tune “Carry Me Back (to Virginia),” which brought a big smile to my face.  I took it as a sign that the show was practically made for me, which is a nice feeling when you’ve flown across the country to see it!






Old Crow put on a great show, and those who’d shown up for them were rewarded with a great time.  The stairs/seats at Red Rocks are great for dancing, which was a good thing for this show, because everyone was bursting at the seams with bluegrass-fueled energy.


The crowd filled in immensely while we waited for The Avett Brothers to emerge.  About the time everyone was packed in like sardines, a guy came over to tell me that his seats were right there.  I thought the whole show was General Admission, so I assumed he was joking and laughed.  I turns out that there really was reserved seating for a higher price, and I had indeed encroached upon his seats.


As it would happen, the row right behind the one I’d chosen was where General Admission actually began.  His friends had parked there while he walked down to find out what was going on.  We sat there talking for a while and he learned that I was from Virginia and had just flown into Denver that day for the show.  We covered a number of topics, and when the on-stage commotion suggested that The Avett Brothers were about to emerge, I started to move back and he stopped me and said, “This is your spot now.  I’ll move back.  Enjoy the show!”  These are the kinds of situations that tend to come to blows at other shows, but I’ve never met a rude person at an Avett Brothers show.  It’s an easy litmus test for a kind and generous heart if you encounter an Avett fan.


I guess this is the point where I would attempt to convey something about the show to you, but I cannot.  Until you see The Avett Brothers live, you don’t know, and you will never know.  So, go get a ticket, stir your soul, and make your life better.







Sunday morning, we set out to repeat the journey that Liz and I made on my first trip to Denver in 2010 via the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway.  The views were new to Jessica and Thai, and I loved them so much the first time that I was happy to see them again.





When we stopped at the “Chapel on the Rock” (The Saint Catherine of Siena Chapel, once visited by Pope John Paul II), there was another family there touring as well, and one of them was sporting a Liberty sweatshirt.  He was an online student.  Small world!



We had a delicious lunch at the Bald Pate Inn, which is Liz’s favorite restaurant and inn.  We had also eaten there before, and I was eager to return.  I keep a postcard on my refrigerator to this day that Liz sent to me from there.





After lunch, we continued along the Peak-to-Peak until we arrived in Estes Park, where we walked around town and visited the various shops.  We saw some folks tubing, and this photo doesn’t show it, but this river was running alongside a strip mall, which made it a comical scene.



I spotted this raccoon in one of the stores, and he obviously had to come home with me.  I named him Rockie.



Of course, I had to make a return visit by this sign:




This is where Liz and I had ended our journey before, but to add something new, we continued on so we could go up to the Continental Divide, with some more great scenery along the way as we made the climb.





We rode up above the tree line where we saw patches of permafrost and elk laying around.





Up at the Continental Divide, there was a visitor’s center and folks hanging around in shorts and tank tops next to a wall of snow.


There was also an intimidating path leading up to the ACTUAL top of the Continental Divide, and nobody was feeling particularly energetic about making the climb.  Liz went into the Visitor’s Center, everyone else stayed in the car, and I looked for a few minutes at that climb and decided that I had to seize the day.  I may never return to that spot again, and I couldn’t go the rest of my life knowing I was that close to the top of the Continental Divide and didn’t face the challenge, so off I went!


It was a steep and long climb, but not terribly difficult aside from the lack of oxygen at that altitude where trees cannot even grow.  A guy started the climb at about the same moment I did, so I thought I had myself a walking buddy, should one of us pass out along the way.  However, about a third of the way up, he gave up and turned back.  I moved ahead slowly, doing that awkward stair-walk that my knee injury allows, and I’d count off 20-30 steps and then stop to rest a bit.  At least the views were nice.



I took this photo when I thought I was almost at the top.  It looked like the top of the stairs ahead, which must’ve been the top, and I could surely make it.  But, when I got to the top, I discovered that the stairs were ending, but the climb was not, and what I thought was the finish line was really about ¾ of the way up.



Luckily, every once in a while someone would walk down from the top and offer some encouragement that the climb was worth it in the end.  They were correct.  It was a great feeling to make it up and feel like I could have been standing on the top of the world.


There was one other guy up there when I arrived, and he said I had to have my picture taken after coming all that way.


When he left, I had the place to myself for few glorious minutes before I started my descent.


On the subsequent drive back down, traffic had jammed up as everyone was watching these elk.



We got to watch the sunset over the gorgeous landscape on the drive back to Liz’s place.



Liz had to leave town on business on Monday morning, so we got up to see her off before formulating a plan for the day.  We were planning to drive out to Colorado Springs to see the Garden of the Gods, but figured we’d have time for at least one other activity in the day, so we googled spas and made ourselves appointments for massages and pedicures!


Our spa break was a great idea and we left there feeling rejuvenated for our visit to Garden of the Gods.  The heat was almost suffocating, but Garden of the Gods was gorgeous enough to make it well worthwhile.



We had an afternoon flight out of Denver on Tuesday, so we packed up that morning and drove into Denver and picked up my friend Mel so we could all go to breakfast.  We stuck out the heat again to walk around downtown a bit and enjoy Mel’s company before we had to leave for the airport.



It never fails that I wind up sprinting through the Charlotte airport to catch the last puddle-jumper back to Lynchburg, and this trip was no different, but we made it back, exhausted but happy from our journey.

Puttin’ It Down for Californ-I-a

The blog recaps of my various adventures always take me forever to write and you forever to read, because they’re so long.  I should probably learn to be more succinct, but for one, I write these as much for myself as out of expectation that anyone will care to read it, and I want to be able to relive the memories years from now through my own eyes.  Also, for the handful of you who read these faithfully, you always say that you enjoy the details, so who am I to take that away from you?  (Haha.)

However, as it happens, my most recent vacation spanned an entire week and two different states, so if I was ever going to recap a trip in two separate blogs, it seemed like the perfect time to take advantage of the natural dividing line.  First up:  San Francisco, California!

I’ve had San Francisco on my list of “Places to Visit” for years and years.  There’s no sure rhyme or reason as to why, but it may just all trace back to my love of this song, which technically has very little to do with the city in its name:  The Ballad of San Francisco.  While it’s totally plausible that I’d traverse the country over a 13-year-old song (and I’ll one day see Trafalgar Square and think of a different song on that very same album), I’ve certainly also heard enough good things about San Francisco over the years to validate my interest in it.

If anything could have dampened by finally-going-to-San-Francisco spirits, the tedious hours spent trying to figure out their hellish public transportation system would have done the trick.  I could sum it up in a word, but that word is not appropriate for all audiences.  I was coming to the conclusion that taxis were the more sensible choice when my traveling companion, Jessica, told me that she’d spoken with a friend who used to live in San Francisco, and the first advice out of her mouth had been, “Don’t take public transportation.  Just hop in a cab.”  This was all decided before a key part of San Francisco’s public transportation system went on strike, which began a few days before our visit, so I suppose we made a wise and nearly-prophetic choice on that score.

After an obscenely-early flight from Lynchburg to Charlotte, an airport breakfast, in-air cat naps on the “Florence-of-Arabia-long” flight across the country, three hours “gained,” and a cab ride later, we were happy to be able to check into our hotel early, just before lunch time.  The outside of the window was pretty dirty, but hey – we got a room with a  view of the Golden Gate Bridge!

We didn’t linger at the hotel long before setting off to “start” our day in the Castro district.  We saw a lot of rainbow flags all over San Francisco during the course of our visit, but nowhere were they in such high concentration as in Castro, so it made for a very colorful, cheerful welcome as we explored the neighborhood.

We were all very ready for lunch, so we grabbed some amazing sandwiches from Ike’s and took them over to Mission Delores Park for a picnic, which included some great people-watching.  (And perhaps a little people-eavesdropping, too.  I find a direct correlation between how loudly a person talks about their relationship in public and how dysfunctional it is, but they think they’re impressing everyone in earshot with their fascinating lives, and it’s free entertainment for passersby, soooo…)

I usually find that the best way to discover a city is on foot, so we set out from Mission to walk over to Haight-Ashbury, thinking we’d enjoy some sights along the way.  However, even with the map I printed that shaded each street by degree of incline to choose the least challenging route, the primary “sight” we saw was the sidewalk in front of us as we climbed the street-mountains, feet to the pavement and nose to the pavement ahead of us.  I’m using hyperbole for effect, of course, but even so, we were all pretty happy to reach Buena Vista Park for a bench respite.


After leaving Buena Vista Park, we were on level ground for a while as we walked through Haight-Ashbury toward Golden Gate Park.  This famed neighborhood gave us plenty of sights, from colorful townhomes to audacious storefronts to the historic Amoeba Music building.



Our walk led us directly into Golden Gate Park, which is entirely manmade and modeled after New York’s Central Park, but 20 percent larger.  It features several museums and gardens along with a football field that was once home to the San Francisco 49ers.  Obviously, there was much more to see than we could have covered on foot, even if we spent all of our time there.  However, we did pass by the lovely Conservatory of Flowers…



…and sat by a fountain in the Music Concourse Area…



…before making our way to the Japanese Tea Garden, which we explored in more detail.



We all climbed up and over this bridge.  It was a lot easier to get up than it was to get down!



And we saw this Zen garden, but no rakes.



When we walked out of the garden, we were all ready to be off of our feet (and out of the heat) for a while, and we lucked out by finding a cab sitting right outside the garden, as if it was there at our whim.  I asked the driver if she’d be willing to drive us to the Full House townhouse and keep the meter running while we got out and took photos before then transporting us to Alamo Square.  She agreed to this, and said she give us the “tourist treatment” and point out some things along our way, which included these jeans turned planters on someone’s front porch.



I had found the Full House address online, but our cabby said she always thought the house was in Alamo Square, not on Broderick Street as I had said.  I was pretty sure the Broderick address was the correct one, but the two places were not far apart, so I got her to take us down Broderick in spite of her doubts.  I knew the house when I saw it.  DJ and Stephanie’s window up there is quite unmistakable.



We took some photos and then hopped back in the cab.  She wondered why we wanted to go to Alamo Square if that wasn’t the location of the Full House townhouse, and I said we wanted to see the Painted Ladies.  She said we could see that from the car, too, so we decided to just have her drive us past there for a photo op, and then we could head back across town.


Here are the so-called “Painted Ladies of Alamo Square” with the San Francisco skyline behind them.



It turns out, the driver thought that the GREEN house on the end was the Full House house.  I was giving her the benefit of the doubt before, thinking I could have been mistaken on the location, but NO WAY was their house green, and it looked nothing like that.  So, future tourists, Broderick Street is where you need to be.


Given that, by California time, we’d all been up since midnight the night before, and we’d had a full day of travel and done a lot of walking, we were all feeling pretty tired by this point, so our cabby-tour-guide dropped us off at Union Square to look around, and we decided from there to just get some dinner and then retire early to the hotel.



Our walk from Union Square to Sam’s Grill for dinner took us past the Chinatown gate, where we paused for a photo op.



Traveling alone, I probably would have pressed on through my exhaustion and continued to explore, but it was nice to be outnumbered on that, because I was dead on my feet.  So, I took a shower, climbed into bed, and was amused that daylight was still peeking through the curtains when I closed my eyes and went to sleep.


After a lengthy and glorious sleep, we awoke to another full day ahead.  Plus, Thursday was the 4th of July!

I had read about a great breakfast spot online, and even emailed them in advance to make sure they’d be open that day.  They replied in the affirmative and said that we should come early because they tend to get busy.

So, we hopped in a cab outside the hotel and I told the driver where we were going, and then asked him if he’d take us there via Lombard Street, the “crookedest street in the world,” named for a one block section that consists of eight hairpin turns, necessary because of the hill’s 51% grade.

The driver gave a smirk that said he’d acquiesced to this request on many occasions, which I figured to be the case.  Nonetheless, it was fantastic fun, and we all snapped photos on the way down, and then he paused at the bottom to give us a chance to take a picture looking up the block.



He then dropped us off at our breakfast location:  Mama’s at Washington Square.  The restaurant wasn’t supposed to open for more than a half hour, and there was already a line forming around the block.  Jessica exclaimed when she saw all the people lined up as we arrived, and I saw another grin cross the driver’s face – this was nothing new to him, either.



We joined the line that included locals and tourists alike, and took turns stepping out to take photos, because it was a beautiful morning, and the Saints Peter and Paul Church (located at 666 Filbert Street – I kid you not) was right next door.



After filling up with a delicious breakfast that we all agreed was worth the wait, we headed up to Coit Tower (pictured above), which affords a nice 360-degree view of the city.



Even without going up to the top of the tower, the view from the base of the tower on Telegraph Hill is quite nice.  We could see Lombard Street, which we had ridden down that morning…



…as well as Alcatraz, which was next on our agenda.



I had read online that there was a long set of stairs leading down from Coit Tower at Telegraph Hill, which wound up down near the pier where the Alcatraz tours set off.  The cab driver we had on Wednesday had even mentioned the same thing to us when she checked to make sure we were going to visit Coit Tower and Alcatraz.  We weren’t a very long distance from the pier, as the crow flies, but we were just pretty high up, so we gave ourselves close to half an hour to get down the stairs and cross over to the pier.



What we didn’t realize was that there are two sets of stairs going up and down from Telegraph Hill.  So, we started down the only staircase we saw, through a wooded area, and when we got out of the cover of trees and onto more level steps (most had been uneven stone), I looked up and ahead and realized I wasn’t seeing any water, which wasn’t a good sign since we were supposed to be walking toward a pier to catch a boat.  I consulted my map and confirmed that we had climbed down the wrong side of Coit Tower… and that the most practical way back to the other side was back up and over.


Of course, not only had we just climbed down AT LEAST 100 steps that we’d have to turn around and climb back up, but now we were pressed for time and we had a boat to catch.  So we had to HURRIEDLY climb 100+ stairs back up to Coit Tower, find the OTHER set of stairs, and climb all the way down the other side, and do it in 15 minutes.


Were it not for my love of a challenge, and fear of missing our boat, I feel pretty confident that I would have been ready to throw in the towel by the time I climbed back up to the top.  I’m sure it was GREATLY appreciated by my cohorts that I kept yelling back how many minutes we had to make it to the boat, too.


We obviously didn’t count the stairs when we were climbing them, so I can’t be sure how many stairs we climbed down before realizing we had to climb back up, but we’d gotten at least halfway to the bottom when the error was realized.  However, I was able to look up the number of stairs that we walked down on the other side:  397.  Plus, when we got to the bottom, we still had to hoof it another five blocks to the pier.  But, you never doubted us, did you?  We made it and still had time for me to buy a $3 bottle of water (worth it) before climbing on the boat to Alcatraz.


As we pulled away from the dock, we looked up at Coit Tower, and had a sudden realization of exactly how far we had walked to get down from that hill.



As we pulled up to Alcatraz, we spotted Robert Pattinson’s doppelganger, working his day job.



Alcatraz Island, itself, (also known as “The Rock”) was actually rather scenic.  The views of San Francisco, the Bay, and the natural beauty of the island provided an interesting contrast to the building that was once the famous federal penitentiary also known as Alcatraz.  That building, though obviously old and run down, was still intact, while other buildings (officer housing and a club) had been burned down during the Native American occupation (1969-1971).



We took an audio tour of the cell house, which was narrated by former inmates and guards.  I’m not usually the type to do an audio tour, but it did have a great deal of interesting information as it guided us through the prison.



We were able to enter some of the cells in D block, which housed some of the most notorious prisoners of Alcatraz, including Machine Gun Kelly, Creepy Karpis, the Birdman, Al Capone, and… Jessica Tucker.



We did let Jessica out of her cell so that she could have some exercise time in “The Yard,” which is just lovely at this time of year.



Thai did her best gangsta face for this photo.



The water is too cold and the currents and undertow are too strong around Alcatraz, so we made our escape by boat to head back to the mainland.



San Francisco’s public transit may be a nightmare, but they do have some old-time and endearing transportation systems that are rife with tourists, like us, and we had to try it to make our experience complete.  So, first up were the historic streetcars, which had a station right across from the pier.  The trouble was, with the transport strike going on and the influx of people milling about for the 4th or the America’s Cup events, the systems that were still running were feeling the pinch… and so were we, after waiting 45 minutes for a streetcar that wasn’t A) going the wrong way, B) out of service, or C) too full to pick up more passengers.


At least we had a bit of entertainment while we were waiting.  I am bummed that my serepticious picture-taking meant I cut off this guy’s glasses and hat, but WOW.  I have no idea what was in all of those bags and probably do not want to know.  Thai, whose age makes her less shy about staring at someone who looks crazy, reported to us later that the photos hanging around his neck were all of himself… shirtless.



Hey, look!  I think another Streetcar is coming!



We finally made it on board!  The driver was crazy and yelling out the window at everyone, but we were moving, so we were grateful.



We hopped off to get lunch before taking a trolley back downtown, only to discover that the place we were headed was closed for the 4th.  Luckily, there were plenty of options around, so we just walked into the next place we saw and did OK.


After our experience getting on a streetcar, I was terrified about our plans to ride the trolley, but I’d have been brokenhearted to leave San Francisco without doing it, so it was going to happen one way or the other.  There was a LONG line that wrapped around the trolley station and covered two blocks, and I recalled the words of our cab driver on day 1 who said it often takes 2 hours to get on board.  I saw an empty trolley that was stopped, and went over and asked one of the conductors if the trolleys were running as normal or if they were shutting down early for the 4th.  He said they were running on schedule, every 10 minutes, and would be until 10pm.  He was friendly enough that I pointed at the line and said, “How long do you think this line will take us?  An hour?  Two?”  He said, “Oh no no.  This line looks about 45 minutes long.”  I thought it looked like eternity, but I’ll take hope where I can get it, so I pretended to believe that assessment and we lined up.


To our surprise, the line was moving pretty well, and the trolleys were loading in faster intervals than every 10 minutes.  We were entertained by a crazy man who was standing out on the street yell-singing an odd conglomeration of songs a cappella at passersby, in no key whatsoever and with a very vague sense of the melody.  His selection varied from songs I knew from my Vacation Bible School days to “Killing Me Softly.”  We were actually disappointed when the line moved us up so far that we couldn’t hear him anymore.  In addition to the “musical” entertainment, it was pretty fascinating watching the trolleys pull up, then get spun around and redirected onto the track heading back in the other direction.  Thus, in less than 45 minutes, which didn’t feel like much time at all, we were clambering on board the trolley like some jubilant extras in a Rice-a-Roni commercial.



Riding the trolley was every bit as fun as anticipated, compounded by the fact that I was happy I wasn’t going up and down those hills on foot.  We rode along, grinning like fools, taking in the scenery, and at one point, I pulled the person hanging on to the outside of the trolley in closer to me as a huge van passed by us so closely that the side mirror nearly took her out.  Hence, I advise finding a SEAT on the trolley, because people can’t drive.



The trolley let us off near the downtown Fisherman’s Wharf area, which is always crawling with tourists, but was even more packed as people crowded in to partake in the Fourth of July festivities and claim a spot for the fireworks that night.  I am not a fan of crowds, especially crowds that swirl around with no sense of purpose or order, so I mostly just barreled through until I found a place that wasn’t so people-dense.


Pier 39 was one such place, and while there were no sea lions hanging around at the end of the pier as they apparently often do, there was still a nice view and breeze off the water.  And once again, we looked back at Coit Tower, standing up above everything.



There were street performers and music all along the waterfront – one big Independence Day bash.  We were planning to walk over to the Golden Gate Bridge and watch the fireworks from nearby, but when Jessica and Thai stopped at Ghirardelli Square to get something to eat, I walked down into Aquatic Park by the beach and talked to some locals who said we should watch the fireworks from there.



I was (understandably) alone in my desire to hike 3 miles to the bridge only to turn around and hike 3 miles back for fireworks, so we decided to postpone our trip to the Golden Gate until the morning, when we could take a cab.  Still, that left us with several hours before the fireworks, so I did walk a bit of the path along the water just to check out the views.  The bridge itself was still obstructed by haze, so I turned back after taking a few photos so we could secure a seat by the water to wait for the fireworks.



We ended up sitting at the top of some stone stairs along the water, with Thai sitting a few steps down, as close to the water as she could get without being in it.  We sat listening to the (terrible) cover band from far off, and watching the boats buzzing about, preparing for the fireworks.  As the sky started to darken, I noticed the Ghirardelli sign lighting up, so I stood up and started walking toward it to take a picture.  No sooner had I walked away when a wave came in and splashed the rocks *just so,* and I heard a commotion and turned back to see Jessica and Thai, plus several others, jumping up and running back from the water, drenched and taken quite by surprise.  So, thanks, Ghirardelli lights.



This also meant that we had to find another place to sit, which was a more difficult task than it had been when we arrived.  Thai got a San Francisco hoodie and San Francisco socks to replace the ones she’d been wearing that were soaked.  It was chilly for me by the water, and I was dry, so it wouldn’t have been much fun wet.  We found a new seat, safely out of the reach of waves, and waited with the excited crowd for the show to begin.



It turned out that there were two fireworks displays visible from the water, which were mirror images of each other, one on our immediate left, and one slightly further off to the right.  When the show began, it was natural to watch the ones that seemed to be going off right in front of our faces, but it was kind of neat to feel surrounded by fireworks.  And, while I’ll grant that I haven’t really seen many fireworks shows outside my own town, but it was the most magnificent display I have ever seen.  My point-and-shoot camera on the auto setting wasn’t really equipped to capture any of it, but that won’t stop me from posting far too many mediocre photos here:



I was grateful for my choice in hotel location once the fireworks were done.  There were thousands of people all trying to leave the same place, no cabs to be had, and a bunch of “out of service” striking buses blocking up the street everywhere.  We had an uphill climb for about 5 blocks, but then we were back at the hotel, which was a fairly painless experience, comparatively speaking.


Friday was our last day in California, and we weren’t spending it in San Francisco, but we still had not been to the Golden Gate Bridge, so we got up earlier than planned so we could fit that in before starting our drive down the coast, which we wanted to begin as soon as the rental car company opened at 8am.


We grabbed a cab outside of our hotel again, and I rattled off our long and somewhat ridiculous list of requests as we were climbing in, which included a pass through the nearest McDonald’s drive thru so that Thai could function, then driving us to the Golden Gate Bridge, parking and waiting for us to sight-see, and then driving us back across town to the rental place.  About the time I finished this list and we were all situated in the car, the driver looked back with a familiar grin and said he remembered us from the day before.  Seeing his face, I laughed – we managed to get the same cab driver two days in a row.  AND he happily acquiesced to our requests two days in a row as well.


Friday was less hazy than the previous two days had been, so we had a better view of the bridge to enjoy.



I was clearly pretty excited to be there, because I must’ve kept handing my camera to Jessica to document that I was, in fact, at the Golden Gate Bridge.  I had to laugh when I got home and looked at photos and saw I had quite a selection of poses at the bridge.



Our cab dropped us off at the rental car company about 60 seconds before they opened for business, so we were first through the door to get our car and get on the road.  Heading out of San Francisco, we ran into rain and fog, and I was hoping that wasn’t going to be the order of the day, since we were supposed to be taking a scenic drive down the coastline.  The fog and rain persisted for the first hour, but that was just highway and a back road, and then we stopped at a diner for breakfast.  By the time we got back on the road, the rain had mostly dissipated, but the fog was holding steady.  I considered crossing off the first stop on our list, thinking it would be a waste, but it was just a mile or so off of Hwy 1, so I figured we wouldn’t be losing much even if we couldn’t see anything.  That mile off the highway was a bumpy dirt road, but when we got to the end of it, we were looking out over the cliffs of Redondo Beach, which were breathtakingly beautiful, even in the fog and mist.  Unfortunately, I don’t think the photos did justice to the sight at all, so I’ll have to be careful to hang onto the picture in my mind.



As we continued down the coast, we kept pulling off every few miles to hop out and admire the view, even though the fog was hanging around.  It would be ridiculous for me to post all of those photos here, but suffice it to say that there’s a reason the Pacific Coastal Highway is one of the most famous scenic drives in the country.


We did eventually stop pulling off randomly long enough to get to our second intended stop, Pigeon Point Lighthouse.  It opened in 1972, and at 115 feet, it’s one of the tallest lighthouses in America.



As if the lighthouse and grounds didn’t already have that feeling of a place out of time, Thai found irrefutable proof:



The further south we drove, the more the weather improved.  As soon as we caught the first glimpse of blue sky, we dove off the road at the next opportunity to document the moment.



Though we had been riding along miles and miles of beach all morning, there’s always a different and obvious vibe when you’re pulling into a beach town, and Santa Cruz is definitely that!  We stopped for a while to walk along the Boardwalk, and I decided to ride the sky lift across the park so I could take in all the scenes from higher up!



About ten miles outside of Santa Cruz, Roaring Camp Railroad offered steam train rides through the Redwoods, leaving out from a kitschy village that looked like the set of an old western.  We chugged along through the tall, tall trees, with light streaking in from above and steam rising from our train.



It was a nice change of pace to ride along in no particular hurry, and it was perhaps a bit too relaxing – the rhythm of the train had us all ready for a nap by the time we pulled back into the camp.  Our conductor alerted us to the photo op before he blew all the extra water out of the side of our train (which I think had something to do with cleaning out the cylinders).  It was a crazy sight.



Highway 1 is not particularly scenic from Santa Cruz to Monterey, so I had two snoozing passengers in the car and I was wishing for an afternoon nap, myself.  Don’t worry – I didn’t take one, but I was happy when we finally pulled into Monterey so I could perk up and stretch my legs.  This was accomplished with a walk around the much-ballyhooed Monterey Bay Aquarium.  I am not generally taken with such places, but I can’t remember the last time I went to an aquarium, and theirs is one of the best in the country.



My favorite part, I think, was the jellyfish exhibit.  It’s weird to look at these glowing blobs and know that they’re living creatures, but they are definitely pretty to photograph.



I was also pretty excited to see the penguins, but it wasn’t the same without Morgan Freeman narrating.



I searched for a while to locate the seahorses, which are such bizarre-looking creatures.  It had never occurred to me that there were several different types of seahorses, either.  They’re equal parts fascinating and totally creepy.



Of course, the best place to be in any aquarium is there the sea otters are.  They don’t look like creepy sea creatures;  they look like cuddly land creatures!  I watched them play for a while, but most of them were hiding out where I couldn’t see them, and the one that wasn’t was so active that he was nearly impossible to track as he dove down into the water and then swam around the surface.  I did get one picture of him after he swam over to my side of the case, turned a flip, and shot backwards to the other side of the tank on his back.



Having sufficiently covered the aquarium, we left and walked to dinner at Hula’s Island Grill.  We sat out on their patio and enjoyed a fantastic dinner.  We were all stealing off of each other’s plates to make sure we got to try everything.  Additionally, it probably shouldn’t be worth noting, but it is – I went in their restroom, and not only was it clean, but they had a pop-up dispenser for disposable hand towels, and after washing my hands, I pulled one out (slightly larger than tissue-size) and that one towel, being of an actual decent quality, was sufficient to dry my hands fully without a need to grab another one (or another five, like most crappy public bathroom towels).  I could insert a whole rant here about the environment-conscious movement creating a lot of impractical things that are of such low quality that they end up being more wasteful than what we started with, but instead of doing that, I suppose I’ll just say… man, those towels were delightful.


After dinner, there was one more place on our coastline itinerary that had been fairly tentative in my mind, but remembering the stunning sight we’d almost skipped that morning at Redondo Beach, I thought it was worth the few short miles to Pacific Grove’s Lovers’ Point Park, just to see if it was worth the stop.  When I drove around the curve and saw it, I had a burst of energy to hop out of the car and explore a while.  Jessica said she was staying in the car with the heat, but the allure of the sand and water was enough to tempt Thai to join me.


We even saw some surfers enjoying their last waves of the day before darkness fell.



We took the interstate back to San Francisco, and yet somehow it seemed like a much longer drive than we’d had on the way down, without the pull-offs to break up the monotony of lines on the road.  When we finally pulled back into San Fran, it took a few circles around the block, but I managed to find street parking right next to the hotel so we didn’t have to fork over $30 to park in the hotel garage – hurray!


That concludes the California portion of the trip.  Stay tuned for part 2, wherein we fly back one time zone and hang out in Colorado for a while!