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Friday, September 13, 2013

FOUR DAYS IN PARIS



The best intentions, and all that….







It was a great plan.  Spend the days sightseeing and shopping, topped off by fabulous dinners and then return to the hotel to write about the day.  However, there was a major flaw in this plan.  By the time we stumbled back to our room every night, I had consumed far too much wine to navigate my way to the bathroom, let alone fire up the computer.  I had to continually promise myself that the train from Paris to Munich would be the perfect place to open a new word document and try to remember as much as I could.  So, here we are.

The West End Hotel was a return engagement for me, having stayed there on a previous visit to Paris.  It’s in a great section of the city, perfect for walking.  Mike and I arrived early Monday morning and thankfully found that our room was ready.  We were meeting friends who had arrived a few days ahead of us. Mike and I took a quick little snooze and then rendezvoused with our friends for lunch. 

We were a party of five and we all walked the block and a half to a restaurant I knew.  It is the perfect spot for travel weary brains because there are no menus and they only ask you one question.  Rare, medium or well.  You will eat a salad, dressed in zingy mustard vinaigrette; you will eat slices of beef tenderloin, which will be accompanied by mountains of thin frites (French fries, y’all).  The steak will be covered with the secret green sauce that makes this restaurant famous.  Did I mention that this is all you can eat?  More tenderloin?  Can I top off those frites?  And, in case you have a tiny corner of your stomach that still needs to be filled, you will be offered a dessert menu that will bring tears to your eyes! 

With a full stomach, the two men in our party decided to return to the hotel and we three women were forced to shop.  How else would we fill the afternoon as we waited for our next meal?  We jumped into a taxi and enjoyed a cross-city ride with a delightful driver who asked about our cities in the US and helped us exercise our high school French vocabularies.  His English was only a smidge better than my French, which is very faint praise.  I am the only person to take French I and French II (grades 9 & 10), then be told I was far less than adequate and needed to follow my failed French II year by reenrolling in French I and II (grades 11 & 12)!  Sadly, having earned a D in French II the second time around, I was declared hopeless and told to give up all thoughts of language studies in the future.   But, enough about me.

Prior to our leaving Toronto, Mike had carefully researched restaurants in Paris, reading hundreds of Trip Advisor reviews.  He then requested a reservation in an establishment that ranked near the top of thousands of restaurants reviewed.  Thanks to the magic of the Internet, we were confirmed well in advance.  That evening, the five of us enjoyed a meal that was truly exceptional.  The restaurant was a tiny little gem, hidden away on a side street, about four blocks from the Eiffel Tower.  This was a meal that was best eaten very slowly.  Each bite contained layered and complex flavors that revealed themselves to your taste buds.  I felt that I wanted to close my eyes as I slowly chewed, allowing my brain to understand what was in my mouth.  And, as if the crème Brule wasn’t the perfect finish, we slowly walked back to our hotel, keeping sight of the illuminated Eiffel Tower as it winked and lit our way. 

Tuesday was all about shopping for the girls during the day.  We walked miles and miles and miles.  Every step we took meant one more calorie burned and one more calorie to enjoy that evening. Several months earlier we had made plans to attend a gathering of fellow knitters, followed by a dinner afterwards.  This was a chance to meet many people we had all corresponded with for a long time.  Most of them felt like old friends that we just hadn’t had the chance to hug yet.  The common bond between all was our love of Plucky yarns.  Because Sarah (known as The Plucky Knitter and the dyer of this luscious yarn) and her sister Hayley were going to be attending, there were knitters from England, Norway, the US, the Neeeetherlands (apparently that’s how you pronounce it if you are a New Zealander who now lives in the Netherlands) (yes, Teena, I’m talking about you) and all over France had made travel plans to attend.  There were squeals of delight as hugs were traded and compliments exchanged. So many of our new French friends spoke lovely English that nothing got lost in translation.  Following the meet and greet, we all retired to a local café to share a boisterous meal and lots of wine.  Our dashing friend Kevin (Iqho if you are a Ravelry member…if not, that will mean NOTHING to you. LOL!) acted as our intermediary between the staff and those of us with no French.  He helped Jimi find a vegetarian option, kept Sarah’s Champagne glass filled, gassy water for Hayley and some how, Teena and I never found the bottom of our wine glass.  Julie watched over Miss Knitty and Rosanne keeping them happy with white wines. We all pronounced the evening a total success!

Wednesday was a day for a bit of sightseeing for Mike and me.  We crossed the Seine and wandered side streets, window shopping and stopping into a tiny café for lunch and a few glasses of Kronnenbourg.  After all, France is not ONLY about wine.  Then, we continued on our walk, finally reaching the Musee D’Orsey.  What a magnificent building and use of space.  This is an old railway station that has been preserved, restored and made into a fabulous museum for a wonderful collection of French impressionist art.  Monet, Sisley, Degas, Chagall, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Cezanne.  So much to see.  But such a manageable building.  If you saw the movie Hugo, you will recognize the huge clocks within the rooflines of the museum.  The clock faces are glass and you can stand just a step back from them and look through the clock works, across the Seine and at the Louvre.  Stunning!

A cab ride back to the hotel and we were hoping for someplace very quiet for dinner.  The concierge suggested Maison de Le Truffe, just a block over, no reservation needed.  Yes, a restaurant with the option of adding truffles to any dish on their menu.  I ordered a gazpacho to start my meal and it was a surprise in texture to my American pallet.  The soup was smooth with a wonderful scoop of cucumber sorbet floating in the middle and shaved truffles sitting on the top.  I followed this with a rich and creamy shrimp risotto and more shaved truffles.  But, the crowning glory of the meal was the cheese plate for dessert.  Our waitress started by bringing us a wee little pot of honey (yes, with truffles) and instructing us on how to taste the three cheeses, starting with the mildest cheese first and drizzling it with honey.  Heavenly!  Next came the medium strength and the strongest cheese was the finisher.  More heavenliest!  

And, what better way to top off the evening than a bit more shopping along the Champs Elysee for the girls.  We had to find macaroons!

And then, our final day in Paris.  All the walking and drinking was beginning to take its toll on me, so Mike and I got something of a late start.  I actually began my day at lunchtime!  We ducked around the corner to a little Italian joint.  Amazing as it sounds, our host and the owner of the restaurant managed to be charming and amusing at every table.  He teased us in English, tossing in an Italian phrase or two, taking care of his regular customers in Italian. He spoke to the staff in French and I will bet he speaks decent Turkish if he finds a Turk seated in his ristorante!

After lunch, we wandered a bit and then made our way down to the banks of the Seine and the Bateau Mouchee. This is a huge sightseeing boat that, along with dozens of others, makes it’s way up and down the Seine, broadcasting recorded explanations of the landmarks along the way.  It’s a great way to see the iconic landmarks and bridges as they present themselves to you.  Lots of photo ops here.
I still had not ridden the Metro and we had tickets that needed to be used.  There is something thrilling about not speaking the language and then heading underground to try to figure out how to get from point A to point B and back again.  Fortunately, Mike was born with the navigational gene that skipped my generation in my family tree. We changed trains once and came up above ground in a shopping district that needed a closer look.   

And, that is when I fell victim to the curse of needing a Starbucks coffee.  I do not drink strong coffee, but I love my coffee. The only time I EVER drink Starbucks is if I find myself in an airport and I am so desperate for some caffeine that I will order a Starbucks and ask them to fill the cup 2/3 full with coffee and add 1/3 cup of hot water.  Thank God some Starbucks genius invented blonde coffee!  Anyway, the French drink very very very strong coffee in little itty-bitty cups. Suddenly, I NEEDED a blonde café Americano.  I was rather pathetic, sitting on a little toadstool bench with my trembling fingers laced around my Starbucks, almost in tears, sipping the nectar of Juan Valdez and his minions.  Ahhhh. 

While drinking my coffee, I had a chance to reflect on Parisian Fashion.  It’s all about black.  Light black, dark black, faded black and black black.  If you need a spot of color, wear red shoes.  Or, if you are really daring, grab a grey scarf.  You have two choices in foot wear.  If you are in a hurry to get somewhere, you will wear ballet slippers.  But, if you want to really look like a million bucks, you wear boots or shoes with a pretty high heel. This will allow you to carry yourself slowly and sensually, knowing that gentlemen are checking you out as you knowingly walk away from them. Oh yes.  You look good!

While I’m at it, here are a couple more observations about Paris, The City of Trees.  They are everywhere.  Every street, every corner, every avenue, trees are iconic to Paris.  During our visit, we noticed the smallest, most minute color variations signaling fall.  There are the beginnings of dry leaves under foot and lifting off the sidewalks if a breeze or passing bus stirred the air.

Now, to try to tell you the horrors of Paris traffic.  Laissez faire applies to more than French politics.  It is how the Department of Motor Vehicles, or whatever the bureau is that handles the traffic, oversees the flow of buses, cars, bicycles and scooters.  Wait.  Silly me.  There is no enforcing because it appears there are no traffic laws, rules, guidelines or even suggestions.  Heck, they don’t really have lane markings for any other reason than to show a parade route.  If you have ever seen a map of the center of Paris, imagine the Arc de’ Triomphe with enough width to the roadway that ten vehicles COULD all drive, side by side, around the Arc.  Now, imagine that the driver in car #2 wants to get in front of the driver in a car six slots over.  No problem.  He just sliiiiiddddeeessss over.  Of course, just to make it interesting, EVERY driver is free to make a lateral move any time he thinks he should.  Ok.  So if you have this picture of mayhem you can now factor in hundreds of scooters who are free to occupy any space between any cars at any time. And, it works!  No one honks his or her horn, no one cuts anybody off.  They just slide.  And if you need to park your car, there are no meter, no signs, and no parking lots.  You just find a spot along the curb and park.  If you can’t find a spot, you park your vehicle across the curve where one street turns into another.  It’s no foul if you need to put a couple of wheels up on the sidewalk either. If you still can’t find a spot, you simply double-park anywhere you need too.  As long as one car can make it’s way through, all is fair. 

And now, our last night in Paris.  Again, Mike was armed with knowledge of a hidden gem that he discovered while surfing the web.  By the time we (that’s code for Mike did all the leading and I did all the following) managed three different subway lines and came above ground, we were only a block away from Le Boudoir.  It was 7:00.  When we went through the front door, there was not a patron in the place.  Stephan greeted us and asked if we had a reservation.  Alas, we did not.  He gently explained that at Le Boudoir each diner’s meal is planned, shopped for and cooked only specifically for them.  But, give him a moment to think…perhaps we would go somewhere for a glass or two of wine and return in an hour?  Perhaps he would come up with a plan for us?   Hmmmm.  Wait monsieur.  Perhaps monsieur and madam would like to sit at the little out of the way table in the window and enjoy a glass or two of his private label red wine while he made sure the kitchen could feed us?  Why yes, Stephan.  I think we would like that.  So, Mike and I sat and watched as other diners began to arrive.  Many of them knew each other.  All were prepared to dine at 8:00.  So, when 8:00 arrived, we were invited to our table.  The menu is VERY limited.  You can choose between two fish and two meat dishes.  However, we asked Stephan to make choices for us.  We began with a pate to enjoy with MORE wine.  This was followed by a fois gras that was pure heaven and a light octopus and bean salad. Next we were served a small stuffed breem in a thin cream sauce.  It was so light!  The breem was followed by black pudding that had a little crust of mashed potatoes.  It must have been cooked in a burgundy reduction of some sort and it was magnificent!  And, the final treat was a warm berry tart accompanied by a creamy blue cheese and a medium cheese. This was the home run meal, the crowning glory, and the best possible memory of Paris.  Merci, Stephan!
And now, the train to Munich.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

NOW WHERE?



Check list for September 8, 2013....

  • Bring empty suitcases up from the basement
  • Lay out necessities for the next three weeks
  • Fill those suitcases
  • Triple check that passport is handy
  • Arrange for airport limo for drive to airport
  • Breath!
Who wants to go on a trip?
Where shall we go?  
Mike and I are off again.

Paris in the morning!



Saturday, September 15, 2012

SHOW ME THE PIRATES!




IN PENZANCE

          

It’s all so civilized.  We caught a train out of Bath on Wednesday morning and had a lovely ride across the south of England, arriving in Penzance, Cornwall.  This was the leg of our travel that Leslie was in charge of.  By selecting our B&B she has proved herself to be a woman of fine taste. Our host and hostess at the Camilla House greeted us warmly.  We were invited into the lounge for a cup of tea and Simon drew us a lovely map of all the best restaurants and pubs within walking distance. He made suggestions for day trips, guided tours and general walk-abouts.  Enough said!  Our bags were taken to our room and we set off to have a look at Penzance. 

Our first foray took us through the old churchyard, where we stopped to have a look at the old gravestones.  I love to read the stones. From there, we stopped in The Turk’s head for a pint before moving on to the Admiral Benbow for dinner.  
What an experience!  If anyone has watched the Doc Martin series, you will remember that the imaginary town of Port Wenn is populated with the most unusual characters, quirky and slightly off center.  Perhaps you thought that a writer with a very fertile imagination had invented the Doc Martin cast of zanies?  You would be wrong.  These are real people.  As we sat at our table in the Benbow, we were treated to the most incredible parade of locals.  In walked a fellow wearing nylon jogging shorts, sandals and a t-shirt, all topped by a navy blue sport coat.  The bar maid greeted him by saying “You’re looking particularly dapper this evening, Alan.”  Next was an elderly lady in flowing skirts, scarves, wraps, colored mid calf socks and sandals.  She wore her silver hair in a disheveled chignon, streaked with purple and green, which of course matched her socks. But, a word about the décor.  Please imagine a pirate hoarder.  The proprietor and his wife have traveled the world, attending auctions and swap meets so that they could continually add to their collections of cannon balls, mastheads, lanterns, riggings, steins, harness brass, etc.  All this is displayed in rooms that have been built with restored sections of old schooners and pirate ships.  Between the people and the various collections, our heads were on a constant swivel.


  And, the food?  OMG.  Leslie ordered a root vegetable soup that she swears tasted exactly like Thanksgiving dinner.  I choose the Seafood pasta.  The seafood had been in the sea just hours before it appeared on my plate, combining prawns, squid rings, scallops, mussels and chunks of various fish in a creamy rose sauce.  Magnificent!  

Simon had arranged a tour for us on Thursday morning.  Following breakfast, we were picked up at our door by our guide, Russ.  Russ is a local young man with a couple of degrees in marine biology and botany behind him.  He and his Brazilian wife operate guided walking tours and the van tour we were on.  Because we were the first pair to be picked up, Leslie grabbed the front seat, next to Russ and I staked out the center of the back seat. 

 We drove to St. Ives to pick up another couple, leaving them only the third seat.  We spent four hours with Russ, asking questions and hearing stories of dancing maidens turned to stone, ship wrecks, government schemes involving loose cows mowing the roadsides, and how to enjoy cream tea.

  One of Russ’s stories involved the stone circles we visited.  Russ told us that there were eight known remaining stone circles, but none were in England.  What?  We were standing in one of the stone circles and yet he tells us that there are NO remaining circles?  Leslie piped up “But, Russ, we’re in England”.  “AhHa” Russ answered.  “We are not in England, we are in Cornwall.”  Yes, there is some serious pride in being a Cornishman. It was thirty pounds spent for a hundred pounds of enjoyment.

Friday was a clear and calm weather day.  It was perfect for taking the two and a half boat trip on the Scillionian, out to the Isles if Scilly.
I’ll wager that very few of you have ever heard of the Scillys.Paradise.Positively paradiseIt’s the southernmost point in England and enjoys a very moderate microclimateThe Scillys are a group of five inhabited islands, incredible beaches, acres of daffodil production, artist’s cottages and B&Bs.  There are palm trees everywhere and gardens of succulents. 


  St Mary’s is the largest island, with a castle that has been turned into a hotel above the town of Hugh.It’s a lovely place to walk about and we took a one hour bus tour to give ourselves a proper overview of the island.In all, we enjoyed four hours on St. Mary’s before heading back to the docks to catch the Scillonian for our ride back to Penzance.  We walked about the boat, stopping to chat with wet dogs. Westies, springers, goldens, and jacks, they had all had a lovely day at the beach. Back in Penzance, we stopped off for a pint and reflected on our lovely day. We sat outside, sipping our Guinness and chatting with another fine dog.

In spite of a bit of misty rain Friday morning, we braved a three-mile walk along the promenade from Penzance to Marizion.  Our goal was to walk across the beach to the island of St. Michael’s Mount, crossing at low tide. 


 The castle on St. Michael’s Mount is the home of Lord and Lady St. Aubyn, who still live in an apartment in the former abbey. The castle is perched atop an outcropping of granite that sits just off shore from Marizion.   Wear sensible shoes if you plan to visit this castle!  The only way to the top is a dizzying rock footpath with little twists and turns and lay-bys where you can stop to catch your breath just before your knees lock up.  We managed. The walk was well worth it as the views are stunning.  But, of course, if you have walked up to the castle, you must walk down the same path when you are finished.  It is a bit easier though.  Once we reached ground level we took a walk through the gardens. 
I found that the charm of the gardens was in the way the flowers and succulents all nestled into the rocks.  You don’t feel that there are contrived beds, but rather rock beds and walls with natural plants falling into and out of them.  After the gardens, the tide was in and we had to queue up for a boat to get us off the island. 




The weather had now cleared and we had time to squeeze in another little side trip.  After our three-mile walk to the Mount, we were ready for a bus to get us to our next destination, Mousehole.  

Please, don’t say Mouse Hole.  It’s Mouze-ull.  This is a lovely little village that sits on the coast south of Penzance and Newlyn.  It looks a lot like the fictional Port Wenn from Doc Martin!  We had intended to get to Port Isaac, which is the actual site of the filming of the series, but time was running out.  So, Mousehole it was. 

 We took a little stroll through the streets, admiring the cottages with their pots of flowers at the door, and an occasional working artist.  

 Then, it was time for the bus back to Penzance and our final evening in Cornwall.  Time to pack up and head back to London.




Tuesday, September 11, 2012


STONEHENGE AND THE BATHS


SUNDAY
     After a nice breakfast, we set out to do some more very touristy things.  The first stop was to the Information Center to inquire about a tour out to Stonehenge.  We found a tour bus company that had seats available and signed up for the afternoon trip.  This gave us lots of time to take the two-hour guided walking tour through the city. The tour meets in the plaza beside Bath Abbey and the guides are armed with encyclopedic knowledge of the history and lore that is Bath.  They are able to explain the Georgian architecture, the history, and the daily lives of the long dead residents. Bath has two histories.  There were the Romans, and then there was life in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds when the most fashionable, wealthy and royal people enjoyed the healing waters. However, it was Sunday morning.  The church bells ring for close to an hour, commencing at exactly the same time as the start of the tour.  
But, we stuck with it, straining to hear the guide’s voice above the bells.  And, the city rises up from the river.  We climbed narrow cobbled streets, working our way up to the Royal Crescent. Then, we wound back through the Circus and the Queen’s Square, back to we had begun our morning. 


Lunch was next, stopping at a little café that was tucked into a courtyard, just below street level.  The city of Bath has done a wonderful job of encouraging the businesses and residents to take pride in the flower boxes and planters that are everywhere.  So, each little café, pub, lamppost and park bench is surrounded by riots of color tumbling about.  We caught our breath and went to find the queue for the Stonehenge bus.


Stonehenge is located exactly an hour away, to the east.  There isn’t much to see along the way, allowing the driver full license to drive REALLY fast from the city to the site.  Really fast.  Blink and you are passing through a little village with a thatched roof cottage on one side of the road.  Blink and there is a glimpse of the canal.  Blink and there is a chalk horse carving in the side of a distant hill. Because of the trees and shrubs along the road, you have little opportunity to get a good look.  Nonetheless, we arrive at Stonehenge in one piece and spend the next hour following the path all the way around, punching in the coordinates on our hand held info devices.  Because it was late in the afternoon and the weather was changing, you really felt the mystery and haunting past of this formation.  But then, it was back into the bus and a speedy drive back to Bath.


We took time for a quick change of clothes and then headed to a pub for dinner.  I couldn’t help myself and did order the bangers and mash, enjoying every rich and gravy soaked bite.  Just outside the pub was the spot for the start of the Bizarre Bath Comedy tour.  If you ever go to Bath, or hear of anyone else going, this is a DO NOT MISS happening.  We were greeted by a comedian/magician and treated to an hour and a half of laughs and adventure as we wound our way through the dark streets.  This man involved his audience, remembered your name and had a line for every possible turn of events.  At one point, a couple of young men walked by our group and we were all instructed to start singing The Lord Is My Shepherd until the lads walked away from us.  He took us to a bridge where he performed a magic trick that involved chaining up a stuffed, sixteen inch tall toy rabbit, stuffing him into a weighted mail sack and tossing him down into the river.  Magically, the rabbit escapes and floats to the top, where we leave him floating in the river.  Then, about a half hour later, when we are standing in the plaza outside the Abbey, the rabbit rides around the corner, strapped to a toy remote control car.  The best twelve pounds I ever spent!





Monday has been a day to explore on our own.  We began with a tour of the ancient Roman baths.  This is a self-directed tour, involving those clever audio devices.  You just wander about and key in the number on your keypad that corresponds with the sign that identifies what you are looking at and, voila, a voice explains it all to you.






After a little more of a walk about, window-shopping and retracing our route toward our B&B, we wondered into a little arcade, in search of a cup of tea.  The hostess was a lovely older lady, although perhaps a bit overdressed in her hat.  




And I think it was her grandson acting as host behind the counter.  He was a very jolly chap, but I think he might have had an eye for the ladies.







You can’t go into the actual Roman baths any longer, but the city has built a new facility that includes steam rooms and two pools for actual swimming and soaking in the mineral waters from the same hot spring.  In ancient times, the waters were said to cure leprosy, arthritis, gout and infertility.  I am going to cross my fingers that I don’t get pregnant when I return home.  However, I am fairly certain that my toenail fungus is cured.  We spent a bit of time in the indoor pool before trying out each of the four aromatherapy steam rooms, both agreeing that the eucalyptus mint was the best.  Then, we found the roof top pool!  Imagine a pool four stories up.  You climb the flights of circular stairs until you reach the top and go through a double set of glass doors.  Before you is a steaming horizon pool and the ancient city of bath is laid out before you.   It’s early evening and the sky is partly clear with streaks of steel grey clouds cutting through the sky.  There is an occasional misty rain followed by four minutes of setting sunlight, over and over again. The pool is not hot, but almost hot.  The air is cool, not quite chilly.  Everyone is rather subdued, either lost in the mood of the evening or floating about with his or her partner.  It is relaxing.  It could be romantic.  Everyone is happy to know that some personal ache or worry has disappeared into the healing waters.
We enjoyed one final, glorious dinner at a small gem of a restaurant named Tilly’s, just off a small side street around from the baths.  We were not our normal, glamourous self’s, arriving with damp hair and wrinkled fingers.  But, we shared a bottle of wine, a few tapas and a bowl of risotto, evoking no complaints from other diners.  By the end of the evening, following our bread and butter pudding, we had met a new couple from across the aisle and charmed them into looking for real estate in Florida.  We are such beautiful ambassadors for America. 





Monday, September 10, 2012



LONDON AND BATH

Buckle up, Leslie
Jody and Leslie’s excellent adventure began in the wine bar at Dulles Airport. We had a glass of wine to toast the start of our travels before boarding our flight to Heathrow, in London.  The flight was uneventful and we each managed to catch a few minutes of sleep.  After gathering our luggage and clearing customs, we found our transfer van for the ride to our hotel in London.  Apparently London was a bit busy with some event called the Olympics this past summer?  We thought we were being pretty smart by booking our trip for dates after the closing ceremonies and Labor Day, failing to take into account that we would overlap with the final two days of the Paralympics. 

We arrived at our hotel in Kensington and found our room to be slightly bigger than a breadbox, more closely approximating the dimensions of a Sears refrigerator box.  But, the neighborhood suited us and we knew we would be able to navigate the city fairly well. 
Leslie, Diana and Dodi
After a little nap to get our internal clocks reset, we did what any self-respecting American tourist would do on their first night in London.  We went to a pub for a pint and a bite to eat.  Then we headed to Harrods. And, what do you do the minute you get through the doors and past the Harrods security people?  Take the Egyptian escalator to the lower level and introduce Leslie to the Dodi and Diana memorial!  I think the proper English term is to say that Leslie was gob-smacked.

We shopped a bit, and then began our trek back to Kensington.  This was complicated a bit by the fact that for some unknown reason the Knightsbridge tube station was closed, forcing us to start walking toward the next station.  Now, here are some words to strike fear into anybody who travels with me.  If you ever hear me say “Follow me because I know the way”, don’t.  But, thanks to the Olympics and the friendly face that London has put forward, there are these clever tourist ambassadors in little stands all over the city.  Fortunately, I had only led us a few blocks off track and we did manage to adjust our route without too much bother.


Back in Kensington, we decided on a final pint before retiring for the night.  A block off High Street, we walked into the Britannia and parked ourselves on a couple of stools.  In no time at all, we were enjoying a lovely conversation with a couple that had lived across the street from the Britannia for 25 years.  They both  loved the neighborhood and gave us lots of little bits of info.  Allen asked if we liked jazz and would we be interested in a little jazz club he knew of when we returned to London the following week?  Yes, we do and we are hoping to meet Allen and Christine again next week!

Saturday morning we headed to the rail station and caught a train from London to Bath.  And, as I have so often written, rail service in Great Britain is pretty convenient, smooth, easy and dependable.  Our B&B is only a few short blocks from the train station and it is lovely!  Our room is charming and we have a fireplace in the bathroom.   That’s right.  In the bathroom.  After checking in, we headed right out and began to explore the city.  We bought Hop-On Hop-Off bus tickets and went for a ride all through the main parts of Bath.  The taped commentary gave us an overview of the architecture and history of this amazing city.  And, the weather was fabulous.  When we had made one full circle of the city, we wandered over to the Avon River to look for a place for lunch and to enjoy the gardens along the river bank.  

Luck was with us and we found the Riverside Café.  The menu is imaginative and everything seems to be made to order.  Our chicken caesar salads had fresh shaved parmeasian cheese and lovely slices of streaky bacon.  Just outside the café, we could catch glimpses into the sports stadium where the season opening rugby match was being played between Bath and London.  It must have been a very close match because every two minutes the 20,000 spectators were on their feet, roaring.

After lunch, we took a cruise up the river to the little town of Bathhampton, chatting with other passengers.  There wasn’t too much to see, but it was a nice way to relax.  When the cruise ended, we decided to get back on another Hop-On  bus for the second half of that tour, following the skyline drive into the hills around Bath.  

As this tour ended, we were very surprised to find the city positively awash in pedestrians, all wearing black and blue team jerseys.  They were all in a frenzy following the win by Bath over the London Wasps.  Well, what better way to show our enthusiasm for this beautiful city than to join the celebration in a pub.  We stepped into the entrance and were directed down a flight of stairs to the patio bar.  The entire lower level opened into a garden overlooking the river.   We carried our beer and took a look around the garden in search of an empty table where we could sip and watch all the celebrations.  We spotted a picnic table occupied by a young couple and asked if they would mind if we joined them.  Thus began one of the most fun evenings we could have ever hoped for.  Our tablemates had taken a train that morning from their home in Wales, traveling to Bath for a wee day trip.  By the end of the evening, John and his partner Charlie (short for Charlotte) and Leslie and I were all trading email address and promising to stay in touch.  The four of us laughed, mocked each other and ourselves, talked history, compared lives and life styles, swapped vocabulary words and pronunciations.  All this conversation, as wild celebrations were swirling about amongst the other patrons.  There were rabid Rugby fans everywhere and a huge stag party with men in matching shirts and very odd hats.  The place was really rocking.
Charlie, Jody, Leslie and John

John and Charlie left to catch their train home and Leslie and I went in search of a suitable dinner spot.  Two doors down and a half a flight of stairs up was the very same café where we had had such a lovely lunch.  I’m happy to report that dinner was just as wonderful.  We lingered over a glass of wine and chatted with other diners.  We expressed our appreciation to our adorable waiter, Joachin, and he introduced us to the owner.  Now, you probably think that this was the end of our evening, but no.  We left the café and began walking toward our B&B.  But, wait.  What do I spy with my little eye?  A man in a leather kilt?   I think we should check this out.  So, into the bar we go, stepping into what appeared to be another stag party.  And.  It’s true what they say about a man in a kilt not wearing underwear.  The chap in the kilt was standing at the bar and we were about six feet behind him.  One of his mates saw us and reached over, grabbed the bottom of the kilt and lifted it straight up.  Then, he looked at us and said, “So ladies, what do you think of this?”  Behold, a very hairy set of cheeks and no, I did not get a photo. We dissolved into puddles of laughter and had to turn and run for the safety of The Henry House and our beds.  Thus ended our first night in Bath.

Friday, June 1, 2012

THE TALE OF MIKE AND LEO


MIKE AND LEO

Before I can tell the story of Galway, Leo and the Aran Islands, I must back track.  I forgot to tell you about Foynes.  What an interesting place! Thank you Mary for catching me on this omission.  See?  This is why I should not write a blog entry late at night, after Mike and I have shared a lovely bottle of wine.  It’s too easy to forget something really spectacular. 
Chances are pretty good that you have not heard of Foynes, unless you are an aviation buff.  Foynes was a major player in the development of trans Atlantic flying boats and is now home to the flying boat museum.  During WWII it was one of the largest civilian airports.  In 1942, you could fly from Foynes to New York City in a mere twenty-five hours.  The museum holds an exact replica of this plane, a Boeing B314 Yankee Clipper, complete with sleeping berths, a dining room, cabins and an upper level navigation area.  And, yes, these planes were seaplanes and they landed in the Shannon River. As you can imagine, passengers arrived cold and tired, and thus the invention of Irish coffee at the Foynes Airport!  Today the airport is lucky to have a patron who has been very generous.  The actress, Maureen O’Hara, was married to pilot Charlie Blair and she has been very involved in the museum. Blair flew the last flying boat from Foynes to New York.  

OK.  So now that that little bit of housekeeping is complete, you are asked to remember that Mike and I have arrived in Galway.  I will get to the story of Leo soon.  Mike and I spent Wednesday doing a lovely little walk about the City Center and reading the menus posted outside the many restaurants, trying to decide where to have dinner.  We were keeping a close eye on the weather because we wanted to work in a trip to the Aran Islands.


Friday was one of those promising days again – promising rain.  A dash out the back door of our hotel and we were in the new bus terminal and queued up for the bus to the ferry for Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands.  I say we were queued, but in truth, there was only one other passenger who thought a misty, foggy day was a smart way to see the Aran Islands.  And, this is how we met Nina.  She was a college student from Louisiana, via the University of Texas who was “couch surfing” Europe. I had to ask for an explanation of couch surfing.  As Nina explained, it is a web site that matches travelers to hosts with a couch or spare bedroom to offer.  She claims that it is very safe and reliable because everyone posts recommendations and critiques.  Ummmm. ??? 



We did have a lovely tour of Inis Mor, and the misty rain gave the entire island a very mysterious look and feel to it. I’m glad I have seen it, but in truth, there isn’t a lot to see.  There are four ancient forts because it seems that the four ancient tribes liked to spend their days fighting each other.  There is an area called seven churches with only a shell of one remaining and lots of fallen over tombstones and litter.  You can drive to the end of the island and look out toward Boston and maybe catch sight of a few seals.  But, man oh man, can you ever find shops to sell you a sweater!  Now, our driver had warned me to only buy from his cousin, Rose, who really did knit REAL Aran Island sweaters and not those made in China tourist versions at the big mill shops in the harbor.  And, he was right and I did get a few minutes to chat with Rose and admire her inventory.  We even had a few minutes to talk knitting and yarn.  That was the high light of the Islands for me!

We were back in our hotel by 7:00 and enjoyed another lovely dinner in the dining room.  If the Brooks Hotel in Dublin has Conner, The Park in Galway has Kitty.  She hovered over Mike. I am not making this up.  At the end of our first full days stay, Kitty had asked us if we were enjoying a full Irish breakfast. We assured her that we were and then laughed, telling her that we had learned about putting a wee bit of whiskey on porridge during our stay in Dublin.  So, Kitty just winked at Mike and said she would look after it.  During the next days breakfast, here comes Kitty with an entire half a snifter filled with whiskey.  She ever so sweetly leans in to put a hand on Mikes shoulder as she proceeds to lace his oatmeal with enough whiskey to knock down a seasoned sailor.

Today arrived as the most deliciously sunny early summer day imaginable.   We planned a day of walking and generally taking in the city.   When we arrived in the dinning room for breakfast, our waitress seated us at a small table for two and I went to the buffet table for some fruit and juice.  Kitty was there and greeted me as she scanned the room, looking for Mike.  I pointed to the small table where we had been seated and she said she was so sorry we were at a small table and she would move us immediately. I told her there was no need and we were just fine where we were.  I was talking to the empty spot where she had stood four seconds ago.  Kitty had already left to tend to Mike.  By the time I got to the table, Kitty has whisked us to a better table.  Turning to me she said, “I TOLD you he would want to move.  I do know my men.”  Well, all right then Kitty.
   Shortly, we were walking the few blocks into the city center.  It was already filling with tourists and town people going about their business.  Leaning against a shop front was a lovely little man with a Jack Russell Terrier who appeared to be a bit grey around the muzzle.  Of course, we had to go chat with the dog.  Well, the man began to talk and tell us storied about Leo and what a wonderful companion he was.  Leo is ten years old and has one ear that falls over.  He sat patiently while his master told us story after story of his life with Leo, confessing that the dog slept in bed with him.  The man’s wife had left him twenty years ago and now the man did not miss the company of a wife because the dog was much more faithful to him.  After about twenty minutes, we gave Leo one final pat, shook hands with the man and continued our walk.
   We decided to head toward Salt Hill and have a look about.  It’s a bit of a hike, but rather interesting.  We left the city center and passed the Spanish Gate, crossed the river to the Claddagh, where the fishermen used to live.  From there we headed toward the promenade that runs along the seaside.  When we were in Galway a few years ago, this area had held a traveling circus and we had met a few camels, but not today.  We followed the sea wall for about a half a mile until we finally arrived in Salt Hill.  This is where we stumbled upon a wonderful restaurant and enjoyed a great lunch.  It had been a long walk and I’m guessing we had covered several miles.  So, we took our time over lunch because we knew we had to backtrack to our hotel. 
   The weather had become even more splendid and the long expanse was filled with families with strollers and people stretched out on the grass or sand and sitting on the break wall.  Dogs were popping up everywhere, following their masters to the beach for a game of Frisbee or a run into the surf.  After covering a short distance, we sat on a bench to soak up a bit of sun ourselves.  Something caught my eye, heading toward us.  It was a stray dog, trotting along with no human, strictly on his own.  This was the first stray we had seen.  Leo?  One ear flopped over.  “Leo? Is that you, Leo?”  No doubt about it.  He came when we called his name.  “Leo.  What are you doing out here, alone?”  We were AT LEAST two miles from where we had met Leo three hours earlier.  In all of Galway, there is one stray and we find Leo?  I checked his tag and, sure enough, it said Leo on one side and a name and phone number on the other.  Mike took off his belt and slipped it onto Leo’s collar and we started walking.  After a bit, we found man with a cell phone and asked him to please help us by phoning the number on Leo’s tag. This kind man chatted with the person on the other end, explaining that a couple had found his dog and we were standing across from a park entrance.  The owner said he would be there in two minutes.  So, Mike and I are standing, Leo has jumped up onto the sea wall and here comes a man on a bike, peddling for all he’s worth.  There is no way I can describe the look on his face when he sees who has Leo.  How, in this entire city of 70,000 people, plus tourists, did Leo bump into us?  The man was beside himself with relief.  It seems that this is the second time that Leo has gone on a little walk about without permission.  Leo is accustomed to a regular walk along the beach at 2:30 every afternoon.  For the second time in recent history, the owner has lost track of time as he was working in his shed and Leo has become impatient enough to take himself for a walk.  So, all’s well that ends well, and Leo will not be returning to Canada with us.

Time to pack.  Tomorrow we return to Dublin for the night before flying home on Sunday.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

BACON AND JAM SANDWICHS

Famine tower
Some vacations are all about sightseeing.  Some are about laying about.  This trip has been the best of both.  Following my half day of riding about the countryside, I felt totally betrayed by my thighs.  Yes, I am in pretty good shape for the shape I'm in, but that muscle that runs down the front of your thighs had not been called upon for way too long.  The best I could manage for the next three days was falling into chairs, asking Mike to pull me out of chairs and praying that my right knee would hold.  I now understand what the grab bars are for in bathrooms.

Fortunately, my screaming thighs did not interrupt our cocktail hour or my enjoyment of Mary's creative kitchen skills.  On the nights that we stayed in, our evening would begin with a cocktail and a tray of local cheeses to be tasted. There was Wexford blue, creamy Gorgonzola, and several different varieties of brie.  After our first cocktail, Mary would start effortlessly putting things out on the table and, before you knew it, dinner was ready.  I learned that a bacon sandwich is not fully dressed without a healthy smear of raspberry jam.  but, most nights we went into town for our dinner, making our restaurant choices with the help of Fodor's and Trip Advisor.  And, man oh man, does Dingle have fabulous fish and sea food!  I will need to re-up my Weight Watcher's membership as soon as we get home.



Mike had been reading about the Blasket Islands, following our trip to the Blasket Center a few days earlier, and Friday we decided to take the four hour Eco-Tour to see them up close.   The Grievous Angel is able to take about sixteen passengers out to sea for the four hour tour, leaving each morning from  Dingle Harbour.  The course that we took follows the western coastline past the places we had driven to earlier in the week.  We passed Ventry Bay, Slea Head and the western most landfall of all of Europe as we cut through the waves on a heading to Great Blasket.  We navigated through dozens of small islands made up of nothing put volcanic peaks that rose up out of the ocean.  We saw waves of puffins as they soared up the shear faces of rocks that lifted straight out of the sea.  As we neared Great Blasket, we slowed to a few knots to allow the engines to run quietly.  This allowed us to crawl close to shore and enjoy the grey seals as they sun bathed along the beach and rocks or popped up and down, out of the surf to have a closer look at us.  At first, you are straining your eyes to catch a glimpse of even one seal.  But, once you see their human sized heads pop up in the surf, you become aware of them everywhere you look.  They really do look like a synchronized swimmer in her brunette bathing cap, prepping for the Olympics , popping up and then sliding straight back down into the sea.  And, we saw the paths that the last island residents walked as they left their homes for good in 1953.

Cathedral Rock
As we drew past Great Blasket, we headed to the far side of the island and on to more unnamed rocks that just sit out in the Atlantic Ocean.  There are formations where German U-boats hid during WWII.  But, the most surprising rock was only recently charted and has been named Cathedral Rock.  It is a huge formation that sits off the end of a rock island and is connected to the main rock by two natural bridges, forming perfect cathedral windows.  Breathtaking.  What a wonderful way to spend four hours at sea.

Saturday we packed up and headed to Labasheeda and Mary's house.  But, I am leaving off the missing member of our group.  On our trip to Ireland three years ago, we had met Mary's husband, Bruce.  And, now his absence was really felt in our threesome.  Being a wonderful Father, he had headed off to the new world a few months earlier to help their daughter in a major building project.  As can happen with construction, Bruce had had to stay much longer than originally planned.  So, we had to carry on without him.  This has been a huge disappointment for us (and Mary, for sure) so we will be forced to return.

It was wonderful to see Labasheeda again.  Mary and Bruce have been working
to restore an old building that had been a combination residence and shop before the roof went missing many years ago.  They have taken a huge stone building and have restored, rebuilt, rewired, re floored, re plumbed and added on.  It's still a work in progress, but you can feel the magnificence that it will become.  Since our last visit, Bruce has extended the back of the house, creating what will be a kitchen, dining and sitting area and a wrap around deck.  All this looks out over the Shannon River.  You can now sit inside or out and watch the small freighters and sail boats silently slip past, or the occasional dolphin swim by as the tide constantly changes the shore line.


Yes.  Mary cooked.  One night neighbors dropped in and stayed for an impromptu sandwich dinner party.  The next night she cooked and I tried to memorize what she did.  We had lamb and roast potatoes.  On our last night, Mary made the ultimate Irish boiled dinner.  I learned about putting an apple in the water with the meat.  I learned about mashed veg, colcannan and steamed potatoes.  The girl is a wonder to behold.

Quin Abbey

Bunratty Castle


Monday we took a little side trip to Quin to visit an old Abbey and do a bit of sight seeing.  Then today we packed up and Mary drove us to Galway, via Bunratty Castle.  It was hugs, kisses and promises to plan another holiday when we can be four instead of three.  Bruce is all that was missing from the Dingle and Labasheeda legs of Mike's and my excellent trip.