A Stay in Sofia

So what do you do when flights to Greece are ridiculously expensive? You fly to Sofia and take the bus. Already mentioned that of course, but thought I’d say it again. I love Google Flights, gives good info on cheaper options in other cities nearby. And in Europe, it’s not too hard to get from place to place.

Anyhow, my night was restless. The hostel I was in mistakenly booked me in a mixed room even though I’d requested an all female one. Not a big deal for me in the long run, but somehow I managed to be paired with this guy who had the loudest and noisiest sleep I have ever heard in all my life. And I had earplugs in. As I always do in hostels today.

It was like something between and a moan and a yell and a scream. Good lord, just such a ridiculous noise that made it very hard to sleep. And made my awakening in the morning all the worse when I had to get up at 5:15.

I threw on clothes as quietly as I could and grabbed my stuff. Headed out of the hostel and down to the train station where I caught my shuttle to the Brussels Charleroi Airport.

After 45 minutes we got there, I headed in praying that my bag would be small enough.

I was flying Wizz Air. And while they had cheap airline prices, their baggage prices were disturbing. Basically you can take something that fits under the seat for free, and otherwise you have to pay. So I packed a backpack, praying that no one would question it. Honestly, some days it’s hit or miss with the airport.

I watched the lady behind the desk force people to jam their baggage into the sizers and worried that I was going to have to pay…probably more now that I was at the airport itself.

Thankfully the lady who checked me in didn’t glance twice at my clearly a little too big backpack. She wrapped a checked sticker around it and sent me through the gate.

I had an overpriced coffee and some breakfast items before I headed over to go through passport control. And then it was just waiting. Waiting in the seating area. Waiting in the line. Waiting to get on the plane. Waiting for everyone to be seated. My word, got to love flying.

I arrived at Sofia around 12:30. I figured that would give me plenty of time to enjoy the city for a day. I always forget that I hate flying for a reason.

Sure…in the long run you might spend an hour on a plane versus 5 hours on a train or a bus. However, you have to get to the airport (minus an hour), you need time to go through security (minus at least 2 hours) and then the flight time, and then when you arrive you might get to do customs again (minus an hour), figure out new transportation systems (minus 30 minutes) and then get into the city itself (since airports on the fringe… minus 30 minutes).

So yup I wasted a lot of my time flying sadly. Hence why I arrived in Sofia around 2 after going through the long passport control lines, searching vainly for a working ATM, trying to figure out where to buy bus tickets only to give up and take a shuttle over to the other airport terminal so I could take the metro.

I will say, Sofia Terminal 1 is a disaster. Messy and old and gross. The second terminal seems more cleaned up and it also does have a metro line attached making for easy transfers to the city (honestly I avoid buses if I can…they’re just too confusing sometimes!).

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I arrived at my hostel called Hostel Mostel around 2 and checked in. They were super welcoming, offering me tea and coffee and then sitting me down to walk me through the things to do and see in the city, what times breakfast and dinner were, the free tours and pub crawls, and restaurant recommendations. Super sweet and helpful, especially after a long and tiring morning.

 

After a little bit of relaxing I headed out to see a bit more of the city. I had initially wanted to do the Boyana Church, a UNESCO site slightly outside of the city center. With a little more time I also would have loved to get up to the Rila Monastery, another famous place located a ways outside of Sofia.

However, with the limited time I had, especially thanks to the long transfers from the airport, I ended up having to cut down on my list of things I wanted to do even more than I initially had thought I would.

So I set out to just walk around a bit. I knew I probably would have time to make it to museums, but honestly I was just weary and worried I wouldn’t pay that much attention anyways. So I walked over to the large parks and the theatre that were very pretty with flowers and fountains and some memorials to those killed under communism and such.

 

It began raining shortly after that, so I ducked into a grocery store to buy some snacks. I ate some of those walking back to my hostel where I spent a little time hiding from the rain.

After that I headed over to the palace of justice where I knew a free tour would take off from. I’m not plugging these for the millionth time, so if you’re curious just read earlier posts and you’ll know my opinion on these.

Our local Bulgarian guide led us around some of the main parts of the old town, showing us the ancient ruins of Serdica, and the old churches and monuments. Even where locals still get water from the natural hot springs, and walked us right past the presidency during the changing of the guard! All in all I was pretty pleased and felt like I had a nice overview of the city in a short time.

 

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After the tour finished I asked for a restaurant recommendation. It was almost eight, so I was hoping restaurants would begin clearing out a bit after the busy times and I could easily get a table.

He pointed me in the direction of something he liked and I headed towards it.

I am not sure exactly what happened, but the place I found that matched his directions looked…empty? Like I followed the signs to the “restaurant” and went in a back door of a building but couldn’t find anything there? And no sign of a menu posted either, so I abandoned that pursuit.

Anyhow, I followed my hostels directions to another place that was supposed to be good for their Bulgarian cuisine. The waitress who greeted me told me that they were full until after 10. As I had no desire to wait that long I thanked her and was on my way.

The only other Bulgarian place the hostel had recommended me was a mile walk, and I was worried they’d be full too.

See I’d forgotten something about the weekend. It was the day before May 1st.

Now Americans are likely scratching their heads and going “May Day”?

No, labor day. Well the European one at least. Meaning lots of people have the day off work and are free to travel, especially since it fell on a weekend (well three day weekend) this year.

So restaurants were crowded. I walked down Vitosha Boulevard, a famous main street looking at the restaurants. Most weren’t even Bulgarian food, but most looked crowded and again there weren’t menus to check for options and prices.

I checked another Bulgarian place and they told me they were full completely for the night. The couple ahead of me made a reservation for the next day. Just completely insane.

So in desperation to get a warm meal I ended up peaking into an Italian place that didn’t look overly crowded.

I had a Bulgarian beer and a bowl of mushroom risotto. It wasn’t anything fancy or special, but sometimes you just have to eat.

I left around 9:30 and headed back to my hostel for the night.

A Brief Stay in Brussels

What’s up! So if you read my previous post you have some idea of my itinerary but for any who didn’t I’m making my way down to Greece with a few detours on the way. Brussels was the first of my detours.

I’ve covered this in other posts but I’ll say it again. The good news is in Europe if your local airport has no cheap or convenient flight options it’s not that hard or expensive to get transport to another nearby city and fly out of there! Which is why rather than just flying out of Lille I opted to head to Brussels.

Now normally when I fly from this city I just take the shuttle directly from Lille to the airport. Quite easy all in all.

However in order to make my flight which was at 9 in the morning… I would have to either stay in Lille or find another flight. Because there aren’t trains from my town down to Lille so early in the morning, especially on Sunday.

So since I had lived on the Belgian border for a year and had still not been to see Brussels (other than the airport) I opted to go a day early and stay the night there so I could easily make my flight.

Now I opted to leave my stuff in the boarding school I was living in. After all, it would have been expensive not to mention annoying having to drag a year’s worth of stuff all over Europe.

With a backpack in hand I set out by train to Brussels.

I arrived to find it sunny and beautiful. I checked into my hostel a bit early before heading out.

I’d opted to stay in BRXXL5 a modern hostel close to the station. It was a bit over my normal budget, but I figured it was worth a little extra sleep. All in all the place was nice. Clean and modern. You could buy breakfast but I was leaving too early. My only issue is that they put me in a mixed room instead of an all female one like I paid for, but by the time I’d realized the mistake I had already left.

Anyhow after leaving my things I took off for the museums I wanted to see.

I started with the fine arts museum. It is essentially a collection of four different periods all in one giant building. You can pick one in particular or you can buy a joint ticket and see all four. I opted for the joint, especially since it was only 3 euros for people under 25!!!

All in all it was a pretty impressive collection, a maze of different rooms to wander through including 8 basement floors filled with works from the 18 and 1900s.

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After spending almost 2 hours there I opted to cut out and head over to the Musical Instrument Museum a block away.

The museum was quite fun. There weren’t a lot of signs in English but mostly it was just interesting to see the instruments themselves and also listen! They provided audio guides that would play music for you when you wanted to know what a particular instrument sounded like!

It was a very interesting collection and housed in a gorgeous building too. Definitely worth checking out.

 

I walked over to the palace and the large park beside it. Snapped a few photos before going over to the Mont des Arts and then walking down the hill towards the Grand Place.

 

It’s a UNESCO heritage sight so I figured it might be worth checking out on my trip. I didn’t plan to spend a long time, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to do a little bit of typical tourist sightseeing.

I dropped by and snapped a few photos before heading off towards another equally famous sight. The Manneken Pis, the ridiculous statue that has ended up becoming a symbol of the city.

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Oh my goodness it was so absurdly crowded around the statue it wasn’t even funny. I snapped my photo and ran, not wanting anything to do with such awful crowds.

I headed back to my hostel to ask for a dinner recommendation. Now I will clarify I did ask for something close, and being a hostel sometimes they do tend to assume it should be something budget. So I was recommended a group of fastfood places a few blocks from the hostel.

One was a Thai place called Thai Wok. And as I was pretty hungry and didn’t mind something cheap, I figured I’d go there. Honestly, from what I’ve seen Belgium doesn’t seem to have a huge sense of their own cuisine, so yes most times when I’m there I’ve had Asian food. Now yes, I bet there are fantastic Belgian restaurants in Brussels if you’re looking, but honestly I just needed food.

So yup settled for cheap Asian. It was decent, nothing special, and definitely lacking the flavor of most American Asian dishes.

I walked a bit more, grabbed a waffle for fun (even though my Belgian friend assures me they are tourist food only) and then headed back to my hostel for an early night. After all, I had a really early morning coming so I wanted sleep.

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So that was it for me! My great Brussels adventure! Maybe someday I’ll come back to see more, but for a day I felt like I saw some highlights and enjoyed the beauty and history and culture the city had to offer.

The Greek- Or Not So Greek- Adventure

Technically my Inspirock lists my trip as 13 days in “Europe” since it can’t quite seem to figure out what region I’m really going to, so it is possible Greek Adventure isn’t the best title for this collection, but I really don’t care. There’s not much more I can think to add. The Odyssey? To be honest, I am headed home after a long time away so that might be more accurate.

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Yes, my year in Europe has drawn to a close, so this is sort of a last hurrah before I head off. Sad to say I only have a little less than two weeks. I wish I’d given myself more, but when I booked the ticket I wasn’t sure how much time or motivation I’d have to travel. Today I’m much less afraid than I used to be. So if I had been given more time to travel I would have taken it.

Nonetheless, here is a little about what you can expect in the upcoming posts.

So, to begin with even though I’ve lived right beside Belgium for most of the year, I have not visited Belgium’s capital. So I decided to begin the journey in Brussels! Well, that was part of the decision…it was also that my flight that morning left at 9 AM, which wasn’t ideal for coming from Lille. So instead it would be easier to just stay the night there before flying out.

Now in terms of flying down to Greece, it really just became a price game. And the cheapest flight down there… Sofia.

Which isn’t Greece… it’s Bulgaria.

So yes, I’m going to spend a night in Bulgaria as well to help cut the costs a bit and see a bit more of Europe.

From there I take a bus down to Thessaloniki for a night to see a little of Greece’s second biggest city.

And then I’ll fly out to what I was told I had to see in Greece, which was the islands.

Now yes, there are ferries to and from the islands. However, I never found any that were reasonably priced, and from reading online it sounds like those that are maybe take quite a bit of time. Again, something to look into if you’re going to Greece.

So for me the smartest, and actually cheapest option was to fly. Sounds a bit unbelievable but it is true.

So a flight down to Crete where I would spend two nights and then a ferry (yes a splurge) over to Santorini for two nights before flying to Athens for two nights. Then I would fly back to Brussels, catch a train over to Lille to grab my stuff and spend one final night in the Internat (boarding school) before I headed off to Paris where I’d spend one night before my flight. So yes, you can see why this trip is “13 days in Europe” instead of the neat Greek Adventure I wanted.

It’s going to be a bit crazy but with some luck everything should be great and I’ll have a fantastic time!

(To avoid feeling deceptive I’ll admit this post was written months ago and I ran out of time to post before I left…so yes all of these adventures have already happened even if they are written in a way that sounds in the moment).

A Final Night in London

“Every traveler has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wandering.”
Charles Dickens

So it was my last day in Bath…technically my last in England actually. I had a little bit of time before my train so I decided to head out to see one last thing before I left. That being the place that is so me I cannot even possibly express it…

The fashion museum.

Friends of mine might laugh since they know I’m not usually overly invested in clothes. However, this was a highly rated museum in Bath, and since I had some time to kill I figured it couldn’t hurt to check out what the place had to offer.

So I headed over at ten thirty to go in.

It’s a little pricey, but once you get in you at least get a free audioguide that walks you through over a hundred articles of clothing! The audioguide gives you 100 different summaries of the various pieces of clothing, starting from the sixteen hundreds up until the modern era. Anything not covered has signs.

 

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However, my favorite part of the museum was the section where you could try on some costumes of your own! I admit I’m a sucker for things like this.

I tried putting one on myself but was stopped by a sweet museum worker who offered to tie me up so the dress would look right and then even took some photos of me, even though he clearly had no idea how to work an iphone.

After deleting the 120 extra photos he’d taken due to holding the button, I was left with a few cute options of me in the dress, feeling very Jane Austen.

Speaking of Austen, for any lovers of this classic writer, there is a museum in town about her. However, I am not a super fan by any means, and I’d also heard that it’s more tourist trap than anything. However, I’ll still throw a mention out for any readers looking to plan a trip to Bath.

Once I was done at the fashion museum I headed back to my hostel to pick up my bags before heading to the train station.

I took a train to London. It was less than 20 pounds and faster than a bus would have been (about an hour and a half) so a good deal in my opinion. Again, you can find a variety of options if you’re looking.

I arrived in Paddington Station where I took the tube over to King’s Cross.

As a bit of Harry Potter fan I stopped over at Platform 9 and ¾ just to see it. The last time I’d been in King’s Cross I was only nine…which means the “platform” hadn’t been built yet.

Sadly the line to do a photo and the price (10 pounds for one) was what kept me from going ahead and getting myself a Potterhead souvenir.

I glanced around before heading down to my hostel.

I’d decided to stay at Clink78. It had good reviews, was close to St. Pancras and King’s Cross (making for easy tube access and even easier train access for my morning train), and as a Dickens fan I was delighted to learn it had been a courthouse where he had worked at one point.

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All in all I’d give the place a pretty good rating. It had nice facilities, a fun location, was very safe, and clean for the most part. Needed more chargers in the rooms, but in an old building that’s understandable. Nonetheless great character for a hostel and a decent location!

I didn’t have much time so I had one thing I knew I wanted to hit up before I left London.

Many of you might list the typical London tourist attractions. Honestly, I considered doing the V & A, but it was a bit too far from my hostel for the time limit I had. And I’ve seen most of the other major monuments.

So that left something a bit more exotic. Something perfect for a little English nerd like myself.

The Charles Dickens museum.

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I fell in love with Dickens when I was fifteen and read A Tale of Two Cities. Well actually, that’s foolish because I know the first time I read A Tale of Two Cities I quickly realized how challenging Dickens could be. I mean…the first “paragraph” is actually a single sentence. So, you quickly learn that Dickens can be a bit wordy and a bit hard to work through at times. But nonetheless I find his stories wonderful and his characters entertaining and his prose delightful.

So if I was looking for something near my hostel, that I hadn’t done before, that I thought might be quick and easy the Dickens museum was just that.

It’s set in one of his old houses over on Doughty Street. There the staff have set up the rooms with largely original furnishings and a pamphlet that walks you through the rooms explaining the items that are displayed and talking about Dickens life. I learned a lot that I hadn’t known before, about his ten children, his separation with his wife, his sister in law’s death, his father’s time in debtors prison. He was a very interesting man and led a life that in many ways makes sense when you read his stories.

 

I was notably impressed to learn that he’d championed for writer’s rights in trying to establish copyright. Very interesting that, especially from a writer’s perspective.

After spending maybe an hour tops at the museum, (it is quite small) I headed back to my hostel to shower and change. After all, I had a very special engagement.

I had tickets to the theatre.

Yes, again this is a section where I stress that while I could write on budget travel, these aren’t really your posts. I was quite splurgy this trip, and this was no exception.

Now, at a time that’s not really busy, especially on a week night, especially for a less popular production, it is possible that you could try to wait to get discounted tickets the night of. My family did this for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when I was a child, and then again for Mary Poppins when I was fourteen. However, on a Friday night during spring vacation I knew that the best possible plan to get the tickets I wanted was to book in advance, and likely have to suffer staring at my credit card bill with a bit of dread later in the month (use credit responsibly readers… I promise I have enough in my bank account to cover it).

So, I’d searched all over London to try to get a ticket to a Shakespeare production. Sadly the only one I could find was the one playing at the Globe, which was sold out for the night I wanted. Otherwise, the city appeared to be Shakespeare free for the month of April. Anything I might have wanted to see was either ending before I arrived or starting after I left. So I had to abandon the thought of seeing more of my favorite play write and turned to musicals instead.

Which is how I ended up with a ticket to Les Mis.

Not very British of course, but nonetheless I figured it would be spectacular to see on stage and it is one of my favorites. Plus the tickets while not cheap were at least for an “unblocked” seat unlike some of the other plays I surveyed the tickets for.

So yes, I showered and dressed up a bit (not compulsory for the theatre today mind you but something I still enjoy) and headed off to King’s Cross where I caught a train down to Leicester Square.

Now, I knew the area would probably be busy. Friday night, in a theatre district… well that was just asking for trouble.

As a lone person usually I don’t have too much trouble finding a table somewhere, especially when I’m not being picky, so I wasn’t too worried.

However, arriving around six (later than I had anticipated) I found that every single restaurant I passed looked incredibly full.

In a bit of a desperate state I wandered a few streets until I saw a place that listed takeaway. It sounded like it might be a quick option, and if nothing else I figured maybe I could take food with me and eat at the square or something.

I glanced in and noticed it had a few tables open.

First mistake.

I walked in and asked to be seated. As I was hungry and running out of time, I decided to ignore warning signs about the place.

For any wanting to be warned off of a restaurant here is my advice. Firstly, never go into a place that is mostly empty when everywhere else is full. Secondly, never go to La Roche in London. It’s terrible.

Well I ordered fish and chips and a lemonade (described as fresh squeezed). I figured even if it wasn’t good at least it would be filling, and the prices certainly weren’t abhorrent.

As I sat there the rest of the tables filled up, likely with other theatre people looking to find a quick bite to eat.

My lemonade came. It had a layer of foam on the top.

Now… as someone who makes lemonade in the summer I have some idea what it’s supposed to look and taste like. Seeing foam on the top of a non-carbonated beverage is disturbing to say the least. There was a swirl of green inside, and I realized they’d put mint into the beverage.

Now mint isn’t really a problem in lemonade. It can be quite refreshing actually. But these were tiny little bits of mint that hadn’t been advertised and were impossible to avoid giving the drink a weird texture. On top of that the drink was seriously watered down, just kind of a hint of lemony pulp floating in water with no sugar.

I didn’t finish my drink. A rarity for someone like me who usually isn’t overly picky.

Well again, I bit my lip and decided to deal with it.

However, about twenty minutes later there was still no sign of my food. I was willing to be patient, but I did need to make sure I didn’t miss my show.

And then to my shock the couple who had sat down and ordered after me were served their meal.

A sinking feeling started in my stomach, and I suddenly was worried that the waitress hadn’t heard my order.

I called her over and clarified and she said she had heard it, and I motioned to the couple and explained that I was confused then why they had been served before me even though I’d arrived first. (to clarify they had fish and chips as well…which made no sense).

Thankfully the waitress was somewhat helpful and went and asked the chef. But still it was quite frustrating, especially when I was in a rush.

Tasteless fish and really oily bland fries appeared for me which I wolfed down. I was definitely not pleased and left a rather nasty review on tripadvisor.

Notes to others- give yourself time to find a meal before going to the theatre, or eat in another neighborhood, or make reservations, or just never go into a restaurant that looks deserted.

Well, in spite of all that disappointment I managed to head off to the theatre, my excitement coming back as I got closer.

I retrieved my tickets and headed up up up to the final level in the last row (besides the standing room only one behind it). So yes, nothing fancy, but still a seat and one where I could see a majority of the stage.

After taking a few photos of the theatre I settled into my seat. As the curtains came up I was launched into the performance of Les Mis I could have only dreamed about.

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I could rant about the performance for hours, but I won’t. I’ll simply say that it had a rotating stage which was used very cleverly to produce a sense of time passing and to show other things happening in other places. Showing Valjean walking into the world to try to find a job and people passing him by, or having the barricade turned around so you could see the other side and watch as Gavroche died trying to pickpocket some of the men (oh…spoilers…sorry). Very cleverly done. The barricades were brilliant because they took a set that had already been built for the café ABC and tipped it over, still making it useable and functional due to how it had been built. And then the acting and singing were lovely as well of course. But again, you don’t need a lengthy rant.

After the performance finished up I took the tube back over to King’s Cross. The area was still pretty lively even at 10 in the evening. So I noted that Five Guys Burger and Fries was open! Now, I love Five Guys food and haven’t had it since I left the US. I also was still kind of hungry after the abysmal meal and thought it might be nice to get something to eat. So I picked up a cherry shake (like a proper firm ice cream shake…not the watery nonsense that the continent calls shakes) and then headed back to my hostel.

I drank the shake sitting in the old courtroom that had been renovated into a social area. Really cool to see! I peeked in at the other places, especially the “jail cells” that are apparently now rooms?!?

Afterwards it was up to bed for the night.

I’ll leave my account of the adventures here with a short tag below about the journey home. I don’t think that’s really exciting enough to merit it’s own post but I will mention it so you know what happened and get another traveler warning.

I set out pretty early to catch my train home. I dumped my remaining pound coins into a homeless man’s cup (because they were no use to me anymore anyways) and grabbed some coffee.

Now I travel on trains on continental Europe all the time, but I didn’t really know a lot about taking them between England and the rest of Europe. So I went and looked at the screen that was supposed to list my train platform, assuming I would need to wait for that as I usually did.

DO NOT make my mistake. If you are traveling between England and the rest of Europe, go to the check in area of St. Pancras before your gate is even posted. As long as your train is listed on the screens there you can go through the security process.

Not as strict as the airport, but you still have to run things through the scanners and go through the metal detectors and then of course hand over your passport for inspection.

I just was annoyed because I’d bought coffee not thinking about this issue of having to go through security so suddenly I had to chug it before tossing it in the garbage, and I couldn’t find a garbage can anywhere! It’s likely a security measure or something, but it still seems ridiculous to me that in a public area with food vendors they don’t have waste bins.

I got in line and went through but was concerned because my train was leaving shortly.

I was lucky and managed to not miss my train. I think I freaked some of the train staff out because I ran up to the platform and demanded to know which carriage I was in. However, I did make it and climbed into my seat.

Sadly the train I was on didn’t have wifi or chargers (as opposed to the really cheap one I’d taken from Bath to London).

Well I sat back and relaxed for an hour and a half and then before I knew it I was in Lille, stepping out into the station and heading off to catch a train back to Armentieres.

Traveling to these places was wonderful, and I’m so glad I had the chance to. I will say they didn’t soften the ache I have for home still. Sure, English, tap water, and American chains are all lovely things that I miss. But there is more familiarity still in the place I’ve lived most of my life.

Being able to travel is truly remarkable. It gives you new perspectives on yourself, on the world, on others. But I do appreciate how great it can be to get home after a long time away and simply appreciate it all the more.

Exploring Ancient Mysteries- A Trip to Stonehenge

“The world was to me a secret which I desired to devine.”
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

My morning in Bath was actually interrupted by a day trip to another famous site. You see, one of the most famous of the U.K.’s memorials was something I hadn’t yet seen. And I was eager to check it off my to do list.

Stonehenge.

Now, to get to Stonehenge without your own car is apparently a bit tricky. You have to get a train down to Salisbury, the nearest town, and then some kind of a shuttle to the sight. I honestly read a few reviews about getting there and someone suggested that a bus tour was often just the easiest and most time efficient way to do it.

So for any looking for advice, let me say that there is transport there but I don’t know how to go about it, because in my opinion sometimes a little money is worth it to save yourself time. After all, time is money doubly so when you’re traveling.

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I used Scarper Tours. It had good reviews and was one leaving from Bath. Obviously there are others you could do from London as well since it’s between the two cities.

Regardless the small bus took me and a group of about a dozen people through the winding countryside, with the driver pointing out sights along the way. We reached Stonehenge in a little under an hour and our guide went to grab our tickets and audioguides, which took maybe five minutes tops, probably less. So all in all quite convenient and efficient.

Now, from the visitor’s center there are buses going out to the stones, although you can walk as well. I should point out that for anyone who doesn’t want to spend a long time looking at the stones you could simply rent a car and drive out to them and park a good distance away and still see them. My family did a similar thing when visiting Pont du Gard in France many years ago.

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To be honest, they keep you back quite a distance from the stones anyways. It’s understandable as this is an archaeological site that is highly visited, and as a result has begun to deteriorate. So yes, you cannot walk up to them, but still can get decent photos and the like.

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Honestly, I’ve seen a few ancient rock formations. I mentioned the ones I’d seen outside of Evora in a previous blog. I have also seen quite a few around Carnac in France, which has way more stones even if they’re not quite as big and not carved or set a top like they are in Stonehenge.

I’m not saying it’s not worth visiting. It is a very interesting place, and indeed is quite fascinating in its unknown origins and the like. However, I think there are other sites that can give you a sense of the same idea without charging an exorbitant rate, and forcing you to stand at a large distance with a crowd of other people.

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Unfortunately my audioguide stopped working partway through, but honestly I didn’t care all that much. I considered walking back to the visitor’s center instead of taking the shuttle, but as I had a time limit to be back to my bus, I didn’t want to take too long.

I then went in the visitor’s center, which was much smaller than I would have expected given what a popular landmark this is. I suppose they just don’t have enough information to fill it, but it was a bit underwhelming all in all.

I’m glad I can say I’ve been to Stonehenge, but I’d say of the things I saw on my trip it was probably one of the least impressive. Honestly Bath or the beautiful city of Edinburgh are much more interesting in my mind.

From there I headed back to Bath, again about an hour drive. The driver dropped us off and I rushed off to get tea! Yes, I do love tea so I wanted to have some that afternoon.

And where better to go than the oldest house in Bath, the Sally Lunn house that still sells her famous buns.

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Basically these are just delicious rolls that are the size of a saucer.

I settled on having the high tea. It was fairly reasonably priced as you had both tea, a dessert bun, and a savory one as well. Sadly you didn’t get to choose your flavor for the combo…so I was stuck with the smoked salmon. I’ll just go ahead and admit I’m not a big fish person, especially when the fish is more…raw in texture?

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The bun was delicious and the tea was lovely, but I admit I regretted my choice on the salmon. So yes, don’t be an idiot like me and make sure you order something you know you’ll like.

The dessert one with jam and clotted cream was even more delicious. I wolfed it down and then enjoyed my tea.

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My phone was dying so I decided to peak into the museum downstairs before heading off to my hostel to recharge.

The museum is quite small, so I wouldn’t advise going out of your way to see it, even if it is free. However, again the eatery is quite fun so if you’re up for it it’s not a bad place to stop in for a quick bite and some tea.

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After charging my phone it was getting a little bit later. I was worried most of the museums would be closing up, so I decided to do something open to the public instead. I headed to one of the parks in town and notably the Royal Crescent.

So I mentioned the Circus in a post previously. The Crescent is similar in being a rounded series of Georgian homes, with very beautiful architecture.

However, at the end of the crescent there is also a museum known as Number One Royal Crescent.

It’s essentially just supposed to show what the wealthy lived like in Georgian England, and as Bath is famous for its wealthy visitors (think Jane Austen’s descriptions of high society), it seemed an appropriate thing to do.

I checked in to see how late it was open. The lady at the front desk was a little short with me, and I almost turned away, but it was open for another hour so I decided to pay and go in. If you’re in Bath for a while it would be worth investigating saver tickets to get into multiple places. As I wasn’t sure how much I would be doing, I didn’t purchase these but it would be a nice deal if you’re looking to do more than one museum.

Inside the house the hosts showed me around the different rooms. Sadly none of the furniture or fixings are really original, so if you’re looking for that authenticity you won’t find it in this house. They did do good research on what the house would have looked like back in the day though, so it all is quite authentic, even if it lacks the true historic preservation.

You wander through the various rooms of the house and different staff members clue you in on interesting things in the room and can answer questions if need be. They also provide little pamphlets that give you  more information about the rooms use and the various furnishings.

All in all I had a good time and enjoyed it. I’d say if you’re looking for something to do in Bath this is well worth it.

With the time I had left I decided to head over to the Botanical Garden and see if it was open to the public (and hopefully free).

Just my luck it was open to six and didn’t charge! It’s a quite small garden, but very pretty and tranquil. If you’re looking to just relax for a bit and enjoy nature, it’s a good place to see! And again, free so you can make up for splurging on the spa.

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After wandering for a bit I headed back towards town to get some food.

I settled at a place called Bills that had really reasonable 3 course meal setup for the early evening. I decided to go with that, treating myself to a cocktail and then having some meat skewers, fish, and to finish off a plate of donuts!

After finishing dinner I headed back to my hostel for the night.

 

Kicking Back in Bath

“They arrived in Bath. Catherine was all eager delight; her eyes were here, there, and everywhere.”
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

I might start by alienating some readers by saying I’m not a huge Jane Austen lover.

Yes, gasp. Everyone assumes I am because I’m an English major. But honestly I had a lot of other books I found more compelling than the tales of Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

However, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate Jane Austen, which is why I admit that I was excited by the prospect of visiting Bath, partly because it conjured glamourous images of high society and tea and dresses.

Okay well not only that. I also knew it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Regardless I caught a bus from Oxford over to Bath, about two hours in the bus.

I checked into my hostel. Funnily enough I’d decided to stay at a YMCA. It was the best rated place in Bath, hostelwise, so it made sense to me. However, it still seemed funny after having worked at the YMCA in my hometown for a year.

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Definitely my least favorite hostel. It was crowded and didn’t really have a lot of good atmosphere. However, it was very centrally located, decently priced, and had nice privacy curtains, chargers, and lights on all the beds. So all in all I can’t complain too much.

After leaving my bags I headed off to explore Bath. I started, of course, in the most obvious place to visit. The baths themselves.

The Roman baths are quite remarkable. And I can say that easily as someone who has visited Rome alongside several Roman settlements in France and Spain (Arles, Nimes, Merida, Orange, etc). My parents dragged me to Roman archaeological sites throughout a good part of my childhood. And while I did enjoy them, I soon grew tired of seeing old Roman baths.

That was not the case here.

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Because Bath is built on a natural hot springs, the Romans built a large bathing and temple complex in the city. Amazingly, much of it is still preserved, amazingly intact after centuries have gone by. So yes, if you have to see Roman baths… well this is the place.

These are simply incredible to see, and give great explanations on the Romans as a whole. The museum is really well done and the sight itself is incredible as well. If you’re able to see it, I think it’s well worth it. You can’t bathe anymore, but you do get a chance to try the waters that were so reputed for their healing powers. If you’re a little more wealthy you can also have lunch or tea in the Pump Room next door, but it was a little out of  my budget.

After I was finished I decided to stop by Bath Abbey. It’s an absolutely beautiful church. It’s donations only, so you don’t have to spend a lot to visit. However, if you want to climb the tower you can pay a little more. It was a beautiful day and I do sort of wish I had done so, but I was exhausted and at that point feeling sort of ill, so I decided to skip.

I stopped by a pharmacy for some cold medicine and took a break back at my hostel for a bit. After that I decided to go walk around a little more.

I stopped by the Circus, which is a round square of Georgian homes. It’s very pretty, though nothing you need to spend much time on.

After that I was off to a very special booking I’d made.

I was due at the spa.

So, for any looking for budget travel tips, this is definitely not your post. I was in a huge “treat yourself” mode on this particular trip, and I decided that while in Bath I’d do like Bath Romans used to do…. Aka I’d visit a spa and lounge in the healing thermal waters.

Thermae Spa uses the same waters that the Roman baths did, although from the smell I think they are treated with chlorine (could be mistaken of course). Regardless, it looked like a fun place to visit, which even if it’s not historic in itself. So I booked a twilight package for myself, essentially a 3 hour window at the spa including a meal and drink at the restaurant.

I arrived around five in order to have enough time to get prepared for my time. I really didn’t need to get there quite so early, but it was fine and gave me plenty of time to adjust.

This last year I did a visit to the Szechenyi Spa in Budapest, and that was absolutely life changing. However, one drawback there is that there is very little signage, and not everyone speaks English so you do sort of just have to learn as you go. So it was nice to be in a more modern place that was very friendly and welcoming and had good clear directions on where to go.

I changed into my suit and then wandered a bit to get a sense of the layout before heading to the restaurant for dining.

Sadly they don’t allow mobile phones or cameras in the spa, so I don’t really have photos. But I’ll link to their website here so you can see it if you’d like.

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I ate a dish of rigatoni with mushrooms and a creamy sherry sauce which was quite good alongside a glass of white wine. I could have ordered other things for additional food if I wanted to, but I had no desire to add to the cost. And besides, I was about to go enjoy the spa and didn’t need to be overly filled up.

After a delicious meal I headed down to the Minerva Pool to start my time. It’s basically just a large warm pool of thermal waters with jets that come on at certain times and floaty noodles. Not really too different from a swimming pool.

I paddled around a bit before deciding I was a bit bored and wanted to check out what else there was.

Unfortunately some of the other pools are only accessible through a treatment. I had to admit I missed Szechenyi which had all kinds of different pools for you to dip in and out of.

So I headed up to the Wellness Suite, which had a variety of different rooms to enjoy.

I started in the Georgian Steam Room, a large sauna billowing with steam and with soft classical music and birdsong playing inside. I settled on a bench and did my best to bear the heat, finding my body relaxing as I did so.

I didn’t last long before I was out to take a cold shower and then head to the ice room to cool down even further. It’s not quite so exciting as it sounds. It really only has a big heap of ice in the center that you can rub along your body to help close your pores.

After the ice bath I headed to the Infrared Sauna. Basically infrared lights heat up and get you warm, causing you to sweat and relax.

After that it was back for more cold showers before I tried the Celestial Relaxation Room. Probably my favorite since I’d never run across anything like it. You like back in the dark, admiring twinkling lights overhead and look at a screen that displays images of the cosmos alongside soothing music. Quite pleasant.

Then to the Roman Steam Room where there was harp music and steam that smelled like flowers. Again it was relaxing and refreshing and I showered off afterwards before heading up to the Rooftop pool.

I arrived in time for sunset. And if you do check out Thermae’s website, I’ll say they aren’t exaggerating on their sunset pictures. It was absolutely stunning. I only wish I could have taken some of my own photographs, but I will include a video below for any curious to see what it looks like.

I went and did a few of the other things a second time, as I had more than enough to just enjoy to the max. Twilight Package is indeed more pricey, but the three hours was nice to feel like I didn’t have to rush.

After showering and changing and putting my robe and towels in the hampers (and taking my free flipflops with me!) I headed back towards my hostel feeling utterly relaxed and ready to take on the rest of my trip.

They say the waters are healing. I won’t lie, within the next day the cold that had started was almost gone. Just a light sneeze left over, but the stuffiness and lethargy and aches… gone. Magic of Bath or a coincidence? Who am I to say. All I’ll write is that I thoroughly enjoyed my time, and if you have the time and the opportunity, it isn’t a bad idea to take a day to relax and enjoy what people have known was amazing for thousands of years.

Travels to Narnia, Middle Earth, and Hogwarts- The Magic of Oxford

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”
C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew

When I was about six years old, I have one of my first vivid memories of falling in love with a book. I’m sure I had others I loved before that, but the one that stands out in memory for me is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I remember both of my parents taking turns reading it to me. The magic of the tales swept me away and I remember being eager to devour the rest of the series as well.

About a year later there was the first written mention of what I wanted to be when I grew up. Author.

Though my writing dreams aren’t quite so big anymore (or at least I’ve realized I might need a day job too), I have lived my life indebted to writers who inspired me to want to create. Lewis was one of the very first. I would go on in university to take a course about him and study more of his works in depth. But others followed, namely J.K. Rowling, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Which is why one of the best places that Emily could possibly visit in the U.K. is… Oxford.

For any who don’t know, two professors there were Lewis and Tolkien, both of whom were part of a writing group called the Inklings. From what I learned on my tour, Rowling also visited Oxford and liked it, but didn’t get in. However, parts of Harry Potter were shot on parts of campus, so it still has a bit of Rowling tucked away in certain places.

Therefore, it was the most perfect location a nerd like me could hope to visit.

I arrived about midafternoon. I checked into my hostel: Oxford Central Backpackers. It is beautifully centrally located and has a very small homey feeling, which was very nice and made it easier to meet people. It was a bit run down in places, but all in all for the price I was quite pleased.

From there I set out to get to Christ Church College.

If you didn’t read my Cambridge post, let me explain. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge both have several different colleges as a part of them. Therefore, if you want to visit “Oxford” you’ll have to pick a college that you want to see and go from there. I’d do some research before going, or maybe see if you can get a guided tour or something and see more than one. But the main thing you should know is that you’ll have to pay to see anything other than the outside.

Sad but true.

Christ Church College is famous because it has a few locations used in the filming of Harry Potter. For example, see this staircase that was featured in movie one when they are about to enter the great hall. Or the cloisters, or even the Great Hall which was used to inspire the one in Hogwarts. So yes, all in all quite cool to see. It’s a beautiful university, so not a bad thing to just see on its own merit too, but yes be warned you’ll have to deal with people with wands and robes pushing past you for pictures.

After that it was off towards the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin.

Wow, quite the mouthful. Nonetheless I had a reason I wanted to see it. Or well…I thought I did.

I’d combed through websites to find out what the best C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien things were to see in Oxford. Turns out, next to the church there is a door that is called “the Narnia Door”. There is a lion’s face and there are two fauns crouching on either side. So yes, quite Narnia like in some ways.

I snapped a picture of that and glanced in the church before ducking over to the Bodleian Library.

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Now, the website for the library is a mess. It is very unclear about times and access and the like. Or at least I had very little luck with it. In fact, going in I was certain you could just waltz into the library at any time for free.

Nope. You have to have a tour.

So if you’re going to Oxford and want to see this library, make sure you check first thing for the tours and see what is offered. I ended up on a mini tour, because that was all that was left for the day. So if you want more get there early or make a booking or something.

Regardless I was taken into the Divinity School first, where they shot the dancing lessons scene in Harry Potter, and then up to the library that inspired the restricted section in movie one. Unfortunately no pictures were allowed in the upper section, so I’ll leave this link here for you to check out images on your own.

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It’s a gorgeous library, and well worth a look even if you’re not an HP fan. I certainly enjoyed the tour, even if it was short and lacking photography opportunities.

I walked around Oxford a bit, just enjoying the various sights. I think Cambridge might be more beautiful as a whole, but Oxford still is lovely to see.

After that I headed over to the more modern library that I had been recommended to visit. This one is free, or at least the ground floor is open to the public. You can waltz in, eat at the café, stop in the shop, and glance at the exhibitions they have going. I’m all for free stuff, especially libraries, so this was great for me.

I snapped a few nerdy pictures in the treasury, showing some of the exciting works they had on display. The Magna Carta, a first folio, some first edition poems and letters and other fun works. Very interesting to be sure. Sounds like they swap out what is displayed regularly, so you might have something different if you stop by. I definitely recommend it though.

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After that I was getting hungry so I decided to have a treat that I’d been waiting to have for a while. Afternoon tea.

I really enjoy a good cup of tea. One of my friends dragged me tea tasting over the summer and I about died of joy. Honestly, give me tea any day over alcohol. Or coffee. That works too.

I settled for having tea at the café of the church I’d stopped by earlier. They had a lovely garden area and it was a sunny day. So I grabbed a pot of tea for one and a scone with clotted cream and raspberry jam. My mouth is watering again just writing about it.

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After enjoying the refreshments and sunshine, I finally headed off again.

I stopped by Magdalen College to peek inside, for a fee of a few pounds of course. It was one of the colleges Lewis taught at, and one where Oscar Wilde attended for a bit, though neither was mentioned in the pamphlet I received. Still, it was fun to walk the halls of a place where Lewis once taught, and it’s a very pretty school in itself.

Again, do your research on which ones you want to visit. I wish I’d done a little more before going.

I stopped in a shop to buy an indulgent Oxford sweatshirt for myself, before setting off to walk around a bit more.

I walked past Merton and Pembroke colleges, both of which Tolkien taught at at different points in his life. And then I decided I had to make the nerdy adventure to last a lifetime. I wanted to visit two more sights of the famous authors.

I initially had hoped to visit both of their graves. But I found out sadly that they’re buried a ways out of Oxford center (about 3 miles in opposite directions), so that was unhelpful without a car and with no desire to figure out buses. So I settled for closer sights.

One was The Eagle and Child. Or… as it was known by the Inklings, the Bird and the Baby.

I didn’t go inside, so I have no advice to any thinking of eating there, but I did stop to at least see it. For those who are lost, again this was the place that Lewis and Tolkien met with their writing group known as the Inklings. The place those Narnia stories began to first be developed. The place Tolkien exhausted the group with tales of Lord of the Rings, where member Hugo Dyson would end up exclaiming “Oh god, no more elves!” (I’ve seen variants on this quote…so no clue what is truly accurate, but the sentiment remains the same) to a point where Tolkien stopped reading his works at the meetings.

Regardless, it’s famed for these two writers, so I had to see it. After that it was on to a ridiculous point indeed.

20 Northmoor road.

This is the home, or rather was the home of J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s about a mile away from the center, and there was supposed to be a blue plaque there. I thought I’d get a selfie with it for fun. However, after walking well over a mile, I was surprised because  couldn’t find the plaque anywhere. My stomach sank and part of me worried the house had been demolished.

As it turned out I wasn’t looking in the right place. Once I looked up I saw it.

It was on the wall of the house. Very far away from where I could stand. And again, as it was merely a private residence and not a museum, I of course couldn’t traipse up the steps to get closer.

Which is why all I have is a grainy photo of the blue plaque.

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So for fellow Tolkien fans, don’t waste your time going to his house. There is nothing to see. Even his grave is probably more interesting (I believe he and his wife are buried under Elvish names from what I know).

So I hobbled back into town to try to find food.

Everywhere that looked decent was super full. Anything that was more empty worried me about not being good. So I decided I’d just save my time and money and grab fast food Asian. I was a bit pissed off last trip when someone laughed at me for having Asian food in Scandinavia. So again let me reiterate that sometimes choosing food is about convenience, price, and availability and not being a well cultured person. I had chances to sample British food, and did, but for once it was nice to take a break and save some money while getting some rice and veggies into my body instead. You can travel how you like, but for me I don’t have to eat local food every single night I’m traveling.

Anyhow, after that it was back to my hostel for the night. I was decently warm by the time I arrived back, so it was nice to shower and change into my really light pajamas. For any staying in hostels I highly advise bringing really lightweight sleep clothes, as lots of bodies in one room tends to warm it up nicely.

However, when I got back to my room I was startled to find a heater sitting in the middle.

No one was in there at the  moment, so I definitely stared at it and muttered “who the heck is cold!?!” and then went to my bed shaking my head in disbelief.

Well it turned out there were two older women from Florida backpacking around England, and they apparently were freezing so had asked for a heater to be brought into their room.

I thought to myself “couldn’t you just put on extra layers and ask for more blankets?” but instead I let it go, just feeling grateful when they turned it off before bedtime. I do wonder how they survived when they got up to Scotland, but no matters.

Ah the joys of hosteling! Did get good travel and some job advice from them though, so no complaints in the long run.

 

Keeping Calm in Cambridge

“Don’t Panic.”
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I woke up early and had a big breakfast at my London hostel. Two omelets and some cereal and other things and I was ready to go! So I grabbed my stuff and headed to the bus station not too far away, which was in fact good luck considering the tube was down.

I hopped on my bus and headed to Cambridge!

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I highly recommend checking out National Express if you’re considering traveling around the U.K. without renting a car (and with the difference in driving…I know I probably wouldn’t be brave enough). They offer cheap bus service to a variety of cities, making it easy to get around. So I had about a two hour bus ride over to Cambridge, all for under 10 pounds. On the bus there were chargers, wifi, and decently comfy seats. All in all I was quite pleased with the find.

I arrived in Cambridge in the early afternoon. I headed over to my hostel to check my bags so I could get going with my day.

My hostel for the night was YHA Cambridge. It sadly was a little far from the city center, but in a nice residential area, so very quiet at night, which I appreciated. It was built in 2014, so everything was quite new and clean. All in all I had no real qualms with the place. They even offer a full hot breakfast for 6 pounds, but I skipped in favor of going to get some coffee and pastries instead.

Well, unfortunately there was a free walking tour at 2 PM from the city center. Google maps said it would take about 35 minutes to walk there. It was currently about 1:26 PM.

Let it never be forgotten that I can be crazy stubborn at times. Always have been. Probably always will be. Which is why I decided I was going to do that walking tour. Even if I exhausted myself getting there.

I took off at a brisk pace towards the city center. Basically running in places, otherwise just speed walking.

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Sure enough I reached the walking tour about three minutes before it could begin. And thankfully there was room for me to hop on.

It was a company called Footprints and they do tours in a number of smaller English cities. It wasn’t quite the same level of amusement as like the Sandeman’s tour, but all in all it was quite informative and made it easy to see a number of the different colleges in Cambridge from the outside.

We began walking around and surveying some of the lovely scenic city with its beautiful colleges. And that was when my phone screen went black and wouldn’t turn back on no matter how many buttons I pushed.

The day before I had managed to drop it in water. I’d dried it off and it had seemed fine, but I realized standing with my tour group that it obviously wasn’t. And I began to start to worry.

I know I shouldn’t be so technology dependent, but I am. I keep my reservations on my phone (although I usually try to print a few backup copies if I can). I have my schedule on there, my train and bus times, my confirmation codes, my maps of the cities. It’s my means of calling people (I had service in nearly every country I visited thanks to T-Mobile’s great international plan), and even my only real means of telling the time, as I don’t usually have any kind of a watch with me. Plus, it’s my only means of taking photos as I do not own a camera, which as a traveler was one of the most horrifying things I could imagine.

So yes, in that moment there was a pretty significant amount of panic going through me as I followed along with the tour guide.

It was a tough decision, but I realized that if I quit the tour in that moment I’d highly regret it. So I opted to stay and head back to my hostel after it was finished. I had realized by that point I had my computer with me, so backups of all my schedules and codes and things. Plus I did have a small travel alarm clock for wake ups and time if I needed it. In short, I kept calm and carried on.

Sadly this is why my photos from Cambridge are lacking due to the phone not working during my tour.

Cambridge is quite the beautiful place. The old city and the amazing colleges (yes more than one) are all quite impressive. You can go on boat rides along the river, or just enjoy strolling around the city. Or if you have the time and the money you can visit the different colleges.

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I didn’t do a lot of investigating, but I still haven’t heard of or seen anything that allows this… basically what I’ll say is that each college is going to charge you to visit, usually just their grounds and chapel, as the rest is in use by students. If there is a way to pay one type of ticket to visit multiple, I didn’t find it. My advice for both Oxford and Cambridge is to pick which ones you want to see and go for them.

I wanted to do King’s College, which has a marvelous chapel with a fabulous ceiling. However, with the tour there really wasn’t time after, so I had to skip. I did, however, visit Trinity College, which had a lovely courtyard and nice chapel you could see for 3 pounds (which was a bit cheaper than some of the others). Again, if you want to go in, pick one or two. Or maybe do a guided tour, but you’ll have to look into some good companies that do that.

After the tour I headed back to my hostel to try to fix my phone. Thankfully I did get it working again so that evening I headed out to revisit some of the places from the walking tour and get some photos (which is why there are some shown above).

Then I tried to find a place to eat and settled for the Cambridge Chop House, which was a local restaurant with a good selection of meats. Since it was the bank holiday, they were out of a lot of things, but that is the day after Easter for you I guess!

Regardless, I had blue cheese and squash balls, a delicious piece of chicken with peppers and potatoes, and a piece of raspberry and white chocolate cheese cake, all washed down with a Falstaff Cider that sounded good and was indeed quite delicious. The food was super good, and the location is fun right next to King’s College, though I was taken downstairs where there are no good views sadly.

It was a bit of a splurge, but definitely fun and one of my favorite meals of the trip!

After that it was back to my hostel. I wish I’d had more time to explore the city a little better, but that’s life for you. Regardless I had a great experience and Cambridge is definitely a place I’d recommend seeing if you have some time in England!

One Short Day in London

“When I was at home, I was in a better place: but travellers must be content” -William Shakespeare, As You Like It

I should start by saying that I never planned on spending much time in London. I have been there twice before (yes I’m spoiled), so I’ve seen most of the big sights like the Tower, and the British Museum, and Buckingham Palace. Even though I know there’s plenty more to see, my priorities were seeing some places in England I hadn’t yet gone to. However, London does make for a convenient stop when flying, offering flights all over. So that was why I’d chosen to fly down to London from Edinburgh.

So I had a choice that morning. I could get up early and walk around more of Edinburgh. Or I could sleep in and be ready to head to the airport.

I opted for the latter.

In my defense it was Easter day. Meaning that not everything would be open. Also, honestly I just feel nervous anytime I have to fly. I always want to make sure I get there plenty early, because my worst fear is I’ll miss my flight standing in the security line. As always though, I arrived plenty early and was through the line in a few minutes.

So I sat and had coffee and relaxed until I could finally be on my plane on the way down to London.

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I had plans to do some things when I got to London. Hop on the tube and head over to other parts of the city to see it.

However, the problem was that the trains going from Gatwick airport over to Victoria Station (the one nearest to my hostel), were not running that day. And I could either pay lots of money to go to a station and then try to take the tube over. Or, I could do a bus. That would use two hours of my time.

I opted to do the bus.

Sometimes traveling is about being willing to adapt your plans. So unfortunately that meant that I had to give up the things that I’d wanted to see were no longer open, so I had to be willing to live with that.

After I got out of the bus, I headed over to my hostel.

I stayed at Travel Joy Hostels in the Chelsea neighborhood, and it’s one of my favorite hostels of the trip! Very lovely! Nice personable staff, right on the Thames river, and they do free towels, free breakfast (with omelets, smoothies, and pancakes), and even all you can drink free soft drinks at the bar throughout the day.

All in all quite lovely. Beds weren’t too comfy, and was maybe a little run down in places, but honestly I wouldn’t complain all that much for what I received at such a price.

It was a ways from city center, and since the tube closest to my hostel wasn’t running (due to flooding or something) that meant that I had to walk if I wanted to go anywhere.

I decided to find dinner and then figured from there I could maybe do a quick walk over towards the center to get some photos.

As I’d had English food a few times I settled on doing Indian instead. Again, I’m not going to listen to people complain about my food choices. Sometimes you just need to go for something that is quick, easy, and open on Easter. So Indian it was.

All in all it was quite delicious and I was glad of my choice. After that I headed over to take some photos of Big Ben in the evening light.

Sadly it was too late to do much else, so I headed back to my hostel.

So things might not have worked out quite as I planned in London, but it was still a nice day all in all. I’ve already visited the city before so I don’t have much more I really need to see, but I would have one final night there before the end of the trip.

Exploring Edinburgh Day Two

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”
Arthur Conan Doyle

The problem with this city is, as with most big cities, there are far too many things to see. Or at least for me. I wanted to go to the palace, and the writer’s museum, and climb Calton Hill, and the national museum, go overlook all of Edinburgh on Arthur’s Seat, and do a walking tour, and explore all over, and see some mystery and do a ghost tour, and see things that inspired J.K. Rowling, and the statue of Sherlock Holmes.

Sad to say, that is far too much for one day. Though it doesn’t mean I didn’t try to squeeze as much of that into 24 hours as I possibly could.

I woke up at eight to get an early start. Bought breakfast at my hostel before heading out. I’d decided I wanted to start my morning with a hike up Calton Hill to admire the views of the city.

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It was a beautiful day thank heavens. Although much colder than I’d expected. I forgot how far north Scotland is, making it pretty chilly even in spring.

Regardless I snapped a few photos before taking off. I’d booked myself on the ten o’clock Sandeman’s tour around Edinburgh.

It was my favorite free walking tour I’ve ever done, and I’ve done five Sandeman’s tours now on top of other free tours in Porto, Lisbon, Rome, Budapest, and Vienna. So I feel I have a fairly good sense of what a good walking tour should look like.

My guide was absolutely amazing. She was super funny and really knew her stuff. She made sure to make each part of the tour engaging and informative while also answering questions with spectacular detailed answers. All in all I was quite happy.

We walked along the Royal Mile and down towards the castle. We headed down to check out the grass market and then some of J.K. Rowling’s inspiration in the fancy boarding school with four houses nearby a cafe where she worked, and even saw the grave of William Wallace (not the real one but it was funny that our guide pointed it out).

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And then over to see Greyfriar Bobby, Edinburgh’s… nay Scotland’s most famous statue.

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I’ll share the story just because I loved it. There was a watchman who adopted a terrier to come with him on his routes, and he named the dog Bobby. Unfortunately the watchman died two years after adopting the dog and was buried in the Greyfriar cemetery. Bobby refused to leave his grave. The townspeople were so moved by Bobby’s loyalty and devotion that they asked for Bobby to be made the town’s dog so that he wouldn’t be considered a stray and therefore wouldn’t be killed. He was, and when he died 14 years later they buried him in the same cemetery as his owner. Now people leave sticks for him at his grave and go to take photos of his statue and pub.

If you are in Edinburgh, be sure to not touch his nose. It’s apparently causing irreparable damage to the statue, so be nice. You can however go touch Hume’s toe…because apparently that gives you good luck (oh the irony).

After the tour finished I had a short time before I was supposed to be off to my next engagement. So since the National Museum of Scotland was free, I decided to head in there until I needed to leave.

So I wandered a bit. It’s a huge museum. Be sure to check it out if you’re in Edinburgh. Basically it’s just a huge conglomeration of different things. Natural history, science, Scottish history, and some special exhibits you might have to pay for. However, for free, this museum could easily provide two hours of entertainment. I only had about 45 minutes sadly, so I tried to see some of the highlights like the t-rex and Dolly the sheep (yes the real Dolly).

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After I was done browsing the museum I grabbed coffee and snacks for lunch and then snapped a very quick photo of Bobby before heading to the bus. I had schedule a 3 o’clock tour at a strange place called Gilmerton Cove.

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I’d seen good reviews on tripadvisor, so I decided to book a tour, since you have to book in advance.

Basically, since it’s not like a super popular destination let me explain. Basically these are all little hand-carved tunnels and chambers. A man in the 18th century claimed to have carved them himself. However, given their size and complexity, scientists doubt he could have done it in five years, and even more perplexing is the fact that they appear to be much older than such a time period.

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Down in these tunnels are what seem like tabletops or altar tops carved in the stone, with seating on either side. There is a shallow basin carved into one, something that seems like it could have held liquid… baptismal font, cauldron, sacrificial bowl? No one is sure. There is also what appears to be a fire place, but there is no smoke left behind from fires, same with what appears to be a forge. There is also a well, but it is not dug deep enough to reach water.

All of this is quite strange and mysterious. On top of that there’s a three mason symbol carved into one of the tables, and what appears to maybe be a cat alongside other strange carvings.

The best part is simply that on one knows what this is, what it was made for, or who made it. So it’s all left up to your imagination in some ways. The guide leads you around, lets you take photos, and explains the various theories and the history of the caverns. They’re quite different from anything I’ve ever seen, and it sent my creative mind turning wondering what stories these chambers could possibly hold.

If you’re in Edinburgh for a few days looking for some good things to do, I’d recommend this. It was a lot of fun.

I rushed back to my hostel after for a quick break, before taking off to find dinner. I stopped at Angels with Bagpipes which had a nice “lunch” menu still being offered at 5:30. I had the soup of the day, which I cannot remember what it was. And the slow cooked beef with cabbage and potatoes. Both were really delicious. And all washed down with some cider, one of my favorite alcoholic drinks (because it tastes more like juice and less like alcohol…hence why the whiskey experience wasn’t my thing).

I headed off to catch Sandeman’s Dark Side tour. I love this company so much, and honestly Edinburgh does kind of lend itself to a tour about darker things, be they ghosts or murders or fairies.

Our tourguide led us around the city as the sunset, focusing on graveyards and other spooky places where he described to us some of the more spooky parts of Edinburgh’s history. He was incredibly entertaining, and it was fun to do, especially since it was at a time when I wouldn’t be able to really do much else besides eat.

After the tour I rushed off to the Real Mary King’s Close for my tour.

So closes are very normal in Edinburgh. They’re basically little alleyways, usually ones that slope down the Royal Mile to the bottom. They generally are named after important people or tell you something about what went on in that area of the city at the time it was built. AKA Fishmarket Close, etc.

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However, Mary King’s Close was covered over when they decided to build a large federal building in the area alongside three other closes. They didn’t demolish it, they basically just built on top of it. Resulting in a little “subterranean” collection of houses and rooms attached to an alleyway.

With a guide who is dressed in period appropriate costume, you’re led through various parts of the old close and shown the parts of the city now covered over and preserved for all time. It’s a bit more theatrical than I might have cared for, but all in all it’s quite a cool experience and you get to see what life was like back in the old days of Edinburgh. Sadly no photos are allowed inside since it is underneath a federal building, but you can check out their website here which shows a bit of what it looks like.

So yes, quite the full day. It was back to the hostel for me so I could get ready for my next day and my planned return journey to England.

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