The Scottish Highlands

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Recently our family went back to bonnie Scotland with one goal in mind – to explore the beauty of the Scottish Highlands, one of the most famous landscapes in the world (oh yeah, and the hubs wanted some Scotch too). For years I have soaked up literature, t.v. shows and films set in the Highlands. The mountains and hills, lush riverbanks, and endless lochs create a ruggedness, mystique, and yet a delicate beauty. Imagine a tale of faeries in a wood, medieval soldiers fighting hand to hand in a steep valley, a mountainside trek for survival, or heck, even a unicorn in a hidden glen, and any or all of these scenes could take place there. In our family, we’re heavily in favor of back roads and we saw our fair share in the Highlands; every one seemed to slice across acres of expansive farms and livestock (an endless chorus of: sheep! cows! horses! sheep! tractor!), small but busy villages of locals going about their day, and then wind through dense, dark pine forests, like a bad omen in any cautionary tale.

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The scenery was truly stunning, and it was only made moodier by the (almost constant) rain and low clouds. As the River Spey rose and raged, spilling over its banks, the landscape became increasingly saturated in every meaning of the word. Fields turned into a patchwork of greens and hedgerows burned bright with the yellowest gorse. It was breathtaking. Thankfully. Because did I mention rain? Yeah, it rained a lot.

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We stayed in a small town called Nethy Bridge on the bank of the River Nethy, a tributary of the River Spey. Our B&B backed up to the river, only hidden by a small wood, and as the rain came down the river grew louder. One night we left the window cracked Рthe sound like the crashing waves from an ocean-side balcony.  While we were reassured that we were staying in one of the driest micro-climates in Scotland Рin the Cairngorms National Park Рthe forecast said otherwise, so for day 1 we went for an indoor activity: touring the Glenlivet Whisky Distillery.

It turns out toddlers are not readily welcome in distilleries. Who would have thought?? We had planned on putting him in the carrier and all taking the tour together – he’d be safe and contained! Nope. No “under 18s” allowed. My husband loves Glenlivet and was really looking forward to the tour so I told him to go ahead – I’d hang with the kiddo. Puddle jumping it is! For an hour. In the Scottish rain. After a minor tantrum (the toddler, not me). But hey, that’s how memories are made, right? ūüôā

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After the tour we didn’t want to call it a day yet, despite the weather. The rain was steady but not too hard so we donned our waterproofs and set out on a walk. A nice thing about the great British pastime of walking is that in places like this there are endless possibilities – small walking trails connecting villages, footpaths cutting through fields and farms, and more established trail heads are everywhere. You can bust out your Ordinance Survey map and traverse the whole country if you’d like. Or, you can be like us and drive until the area looks especially pretty and you see a “public footpath” sign by a gate and then pull over and park. It turned out to be a beautiful, soggy and squishy walk along a wide grassy clearing and then through a thick, lichen-covered birch forest. Like much of the highlands, it was quiet, serene and felt strangely magical and wild. Later that day we saw a majestic white horse in a field¬†and it seriously could have been a unicorn with a spell-hidden horn. We all thought it.¬†That’s part of the charm of the Highlands.

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The next day called for rain in the afternoon so we thought we’d gamble and try an outdoor activity in the morning. Opting for something slightly more kid-friendly than a distillery, we visited the Highland Folk Museum. The open-air museum boasts free entry, over a mile of outdoor space, and over 30 historical buildings to tour, dating from the 1700s to the 1960s. One area is set up as a 1930-40s village, complete with a schoolhouse, candy shop, post office, homes and a working farm. It was fascinating for us and for the kiddo, although he was a little too eager to pet the ducks and chickens. Plus, there were TRACTORS. Super exciting.

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My favorite part was the¬†1700s village, rebuilt using traditional methods where a similar township once stood. ¬†(Scenes from the HBO show Outlander were filmed there!) Something about the dark clouds hovering over the thatched roofs, surrounded by rolling hills (and a strange amount of ducks) made it easy to picture them huddled around the fire sharing a meal or going about their work on the same hill hundreds of years ago… Until a fellow tourist with a thick brogue piped up and asked, “But did they even have ducks back then?”

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With a bit of whisky and culture under our belts, we had one more goal. ¬†The hubs was insistent: “I want to climb a¬†mountain.” ¬†While I didn’t want to be a spoilsport, I did remind him we were travelling with a¬†toddler, so he might need to temper his expectations a bit. Regardless, we found a mountain and got hiking! The clouds looked ominous, but the forecast said we had a few hours to go until rain, so off we went to the Glenmore Forrest Park, in the Cairngorm Mountains. Their website nicely summarizes the path we took:

“For a real work out, you can hike up Meall a‚Äô Bhuchaille ‚Äď the hill of the shepherd ‚Äď straight from Glenmore Visitor Centre. The path doesn‚Äôt stop climbing all the way to the top at 2600 ft. (810 metres), but the views are superb.”

The views were superb, and no that path sure did not stop climbing. Ouch. The rain held off for most of the hike and we were able to see clearly from the top Рno obscuring clouds, thankfully! And may I add, my stud of a husband did the entire hike with a 25 lb. toddler on his back. Swoon. He even came to the rescue with songs from Frozen when our little guy was ready for a nap but we still had an entire mountain to go down. He finally started to drift to sleep in the carrier right as the visitor centre came into view and the rain started to come down. Silly, sweet memories.

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But what a beautiful, calming, varied place the Highlands are. As we took our time driving down endless back roads, soaking it all in, my husband and I agreed, “Yep, we could live here.”

First Trip Back

I¬†recently¬†returned from three weeks in the U.S. ¬†This was my first trip back to my home country since living in England. ¬†So after that and a year in England, I think I might finally be in a position to point out some day-to-day differences between the two countries. These observations are small – nothing earth-shattering – and have probably been noted by many others before. But, they¬†were moments of realization in the US and when I returned. I’ve had several people ask me, “What’s the biggest difference between the US and the UK?” It’s really more little things than just one big thing… So here’s an attempt at answering that question.


 

Tax

You could say there’s been a bit of¬†history between England and the US surrounding taxes… But, a few hundred¬†years later, of course taxes still exist in both countries. There’s a major difference between the two countries in the realm of sales tax. In Ohio, sales tax differs by the town, but in my area it was 7.5%. Here in England, sales tax (called “value added tax”) is a whopping 20%!

However, to soothe the pain of seeing the price increase that drastically at the register, the UK includes the VAT in the listed price. So, if the tag on a shirt says¬†¬£16, the 20% income tax is already added in. That way, if you’ve just grabbed¬†¬£90 worth of groceries you don’t cry and pitch¬†a hissy fit as the screen on the cash register shows your grand total as¬†¬£108. Just imagine the tantrum you would throw when seeing that increase if purchasing furniture, a car, or a house! Best if you don’t have to be constantly reminded of it…

When I was back in the US, I popped into a small store to buy¬†a tube of chapstick (Sidenote: why can I¬†never find my chapstick? I think the pots of gold at the end of rainbows are actually filled with half-used chapsticks, hair ties, bobbypins, and matchless socks. Ugh!). The sticker said $3.50, so I counted out¬†my change. She¬†rang it up¬†and said, “$3.75.” ¬†I stood there confused, with the $3.50 in my hand, and asked¬†if she could please double check the price on the sticker.¬†This woman, by the way, is known in the town for her grumpiness and lack of customer service skills. She looked at me like I was an idiot who managed to squeeze through the public educational system without knowing how to complete a sales exchange¬†from the easier end of the transaction. (Hear money, hand over money! Simple!)¬†Realizing her glare wasn’t successfully communicating the problem, she managed two words: “Sales tax.” ¬†OH YEAH! That exists. And it’s not added in already. And I’m not in England anymore, Toto.

By the way, I’m all in favor of adding the tax into the price before you get to the register. It would have saved me at least two periods of teaching time when covering percentages in math class.

 

Light switches

Muscle memory is a fascinating thing. My body is trained to reach around the corner when entering a room to find the light switch and flip on the lights. When I first got to England, I kept trying to¬†flip switches that are in fact unflippable. They are more¬†pushable,¬†like a button. A picture will help explain this better… Note the UK switch on the left, and the US switch on the right:

 

UK vs. US Light switches

UK vs. US light switches. (The one on the left is “on,” the one on the right is “off,” as it so helpfully says).

It might seem like a small difference, but it is amazingly confusing when entering a dark room in a jetlag stupor. I experienced this again after returning from the US… my brain had flipped back to the US flip-switch in just three short weeks.

Another interesting light switch phenomenon in the UK is that bathroom (or “toilet”) light switches are often outside of the room in the hallway. There were numerous occasions when I first moved here, where I’d go into the bathroom and try to simultaneously close the door and turn on the light, only to end up awkwardly¬†standing in¬†a¬†dark, switch-less bathroom. I’d have to reopen the door and sheepishly stick out an arm to switch on the light¬†before¬†continuing¬†with my business. The switch’s outside-the-room placement¬†also provides the opportunity for cheeky friends to leave you in the dark. Lovely.

 

Driving

Driving is very different in both countries. In the US you will see many more traffic cops, sitting along the highway waiting for someone to speed by. In England you’ll see speed cameras, but not before being warned by numerous signs¬†on your approach. It makes it pretty easy not to get a ticket here.

Besides the fact that we drive on different sides of the road, the most iconic difference between US and UK driving is the stop light/sign vs. roundabout debate. First of all, know that both countries do use both types of intersection maneuvers, but each is clearly associated with one place.

"I'll be the roundabout..."

“I’ll be the roundabout…”

Which do I prefer? The roundabout. Hands down. Even when people are hesitant and don’t know what they’re doing, the roundabout seems to be faster and more efficient. Mythbusters even proved it, so you know it’s true.

Bonus: every now and then while driving ’round a roundabout I get the¬†awesome song Roundabout by Yes stuck in my head. That never happened with stop lights or stop signs. No cool song associations there…

 

Air Con

In England, they abbreviate air conditioning to “air con,” much like how we abbreviate it to AC. This was one of the first things Sam and I giggled at when we arrived in England. After hours, and I mean¬†many many hours, of travel to move here, we sat bleary eyed in the office of a rental car company. The woman renting us the car explained that we would love our car because it had a, “brilliant air con.” Sam and I made eye contact and¬†chortled sleepily.

The difference is not in the vocabulary alone. We in the US looovve our air conditioning. With hot and humid summers that seem to never end, it makes sense. Almost all shops, churches, restaurants, homes, etc. are air conditioned. The main exceptions to this seem to be college dorms, prisons, and oil-change garage waiting rooms. In fact, a group of prisoners in Texas are currently taking legal action to get their dormitories air conditioned; temperatures in their living areas soared to over 100 degrees, hotter than is even allowed for livestock holding areas.

But, it usually just doesn’t get hot enough in England to justify spending the money on air con. Our home doesn’t have it. Most don’t. In fact, it feels like a wonderful luxury to walk into a shop or restaurant that has that crisp, artificial AC’d air. It’s usually not a problem, but last week I returned to a very hot England. I was experiencing those same temps in the US, but there I had the option of just popping back into an air-conditioned home when the heat became too much. But, thankfully, we never get more than a few weeks of “summer” weather in England, and I think we’re already coming out of it. It was a pleasant relief to wake up feeling chilly two nights ago, and I was actually thrilled to wake up to the sound of rain today. Bring on Autumn! ūüôā

 

Food variety

This may be an unfair assumption, but based on¬†what I’ve seen, we have a much more diverse restaurant scene in the US. Yes, even in Ohio. Perhaps it’s our unflappable American ability to take any food and think, “Hmm, I should add cheese and bacon to that.” or “I could make this more fattening.” But, before you get carried away with bashing Britain’s food… yes, I’ve heard the joke about how in hell the British do the cooking… let me just say that we love the food here. The beef has more flavor. Everything seems slightly less greasy than its American counterpart. And man, do they know how to do meat and veg! A well made Sunday Roast is a thing of beauty. Sam has even converted from his potato-hating ways since being here.

All I’m saying is that in the US there seems to be a bigger¬†variety of restaurants than what I’ve seen around here. Obviously there are exceptions. For example, you can probably find whatever the heck kind of food you’re looking for in London. But, bear with me here. In the time I was in the US, I had wonderful fried¬†pressure cooked chicken and waffle fries, a “three-way” (spaghetti, chili, and cheese) and chili dogs (both with¬†Cincinnati-style chili containing chocolate and cinnamon, no less), the absolute best thin-crust pizza stacked high with finely diced toppings, thick crust pizza with award-winning sauce and ooey gooey stringy cheese, yeast donuts with icing and sprinkles, cake donuts with cinnamon sugar, soft-serve peanut butter frozen yogurt with bananas and chocolate mixed in, hand-dipped ice cream galore, snow cones, burrito bowls, enchiladas, queso dip and tortilla chips, and much much much more. But I’m sure the fact that us Americans like our food won’t come as a surprise to many.

Holy Heart Attack, Batman.

Holy Heart Attack, Batman.

This does bring me to another thing I’ve noticed about life in Britain. Processed food seems to be less of the norm here. Yes, there’s junk food. Yes, there’s processed food available. But I rarely see a British recipe that calls for cans of condensed cream-of-something soup (or a British equivalent) or a pound of “cheese food.” Recipes and menu items alike seem to have fewer ingredients and are just simply done well. I’ve grown to appreciate that simplicity.

 

Fit (But my gosh, don’t they just know it)

(*Note, in England “fit” often¬†means attractive, while it means “healthy” or “in shape” in the US).

I had an epiphany after returning to England. I was jetlagged, so take it with grain of salt, but here it is. And remember, I’m talking¬†big picture.¬†

Americans can be very extreme in their health choices. On one hand you have morbid obesity and McDonalds. On the other hand, you have marathon runners, Beach Body consultants, and don’t even get me started on CrossFit. Both extremes can be a defining characteristic of someone’s life, or at least their Facebook feed. ūüėČ

However, in England, I’ve noticed people seem to be much more moderate in their health. It is very common in our area to see people walking or riding their bicycle to work. Yes, even if they live miles away. And yes, the infrastructure is better suited to handling it than in parts of the US, but maybe that’s because there’s a¬†demand for it. ¬†Here in England I see¬†far more active¬†senior citizens than I saw in the US. They’re still walking their little terriers daily or riding their bikes into town. It’s a lifestyle, once again, but less extreme. I’ve grown to embrace this as well. I love walking into town to pick up¬†a few things.


 

 

I’ve noticed as I’ve been writing this post that I’ve used the term “we” to refer to both England and the US. Though I am clearly American and have spent much more time there, I do feel at home in England and there are so many things I love. I noticed as I was back in the US that I was a bit homesick¬†for England. I missed a good cup of tea, walking Toby around town, my British friends and church, the markets and pubs, the more relaxed attitude. But when I’m here in England I miss my family, friends, the convenience of Target, the cheaper cost of living, and – of course – the variety of food.

Both feel like home in different ways, and that’s okay.¬†

Paris

In my experience, no other city has created such a broad spectrum of opinions as Paris has.

Hello Paris

The following are opinions of Paris that I have read, seen in movies or on television, or have heard from friends and acquaintances:

(Note: These bullet points are not my views).

– Paris is magical! Heaven on earth!

– It’s filthy. Trash everywhere on the streets, and it stinks. It’s so gross.

– From Midnight in Paris, “This is unbelievable! Look at this! There’s no city like this in the world. There never was…Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain?” (More on Paris in the rain later…)

– The Eiffel Tower isn’t that great. Don’t get your hopes up.

– The Louvre is boring and crowded, don’t waste your time.

– Paris would be nice if it weren’t for the French. (Ouch!)

– There’s never enough time to see all there is to see in Paris.

– Paris just screams class and elegance.

 

With all of those ideas bouncing around in my head, I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I wanted to see it for myself. When Sam’s parents visited, we thought it was a perfect opportunity.

We packed up the car, drove to Folkestone, and hopped on the Eurostar train to take us under the English Channel to Calais, France. The Channel Tunnel (usually referred to as the Chunnel) is ~31 miles long and includes two high-speed trains. You can read a bit more about it here. When crossing at this point, it takes about 2-2.5 hours to cross the channel by ferry, while the Chunnel only takes around 35 minutes.

After checking in and waiting to board, you just drive onto the train! You can’t even see the Channel from the port so it takes away some of the eerie feelings of, “Wait. I’m going under water?!”

About to board!

About to board!

You stay in your car – or you can walk around the train – for the quick journey. It was an easy trip, although the cat in the car behind us seemed to think differently.

Once we arrived in France, we drove about three hours to Paris. Right as we approached the city center, our GPS decided to stop working, so we took an accidental, yet scenic, drive through the center of Paris. Sam was a pro navigating the city; he even safely drove us around the Arc de Triomphe roundabout (infamous for causing numerous accidents) before taking us to our accommodations, Hotel Odessa.

Paris is divided into twenty zones known as arrondissements. We stayed in the 14th one, called Montparnasse. I had read somewhere that it was a residential area with many cafes and restaurants; we found that to be true. Creperies were everywhere, there were several places within walking distance to hop on the Metro (their subway system), and a market just down the road. Our hotel was very affordable for Paris. I loved the view from our window as well… Perfect for people watching!

A room with a view

A room with a view

This creperie was hopping all evening.

This creperie (far left) was hopping all evening.

These men were having a lively discussion over espresso and cigarettes at about 7am on day.

These men were having a lively discussion over espresso and cigarettes outside the creperie one morning.

In fact, one of our first stops in Paris was at a creperie. I was surprised to find savory buckwheat crepes alongside the traditional sweet ones. I ordered a “coffee” and received espresso, forgetting that was the norm there. It was delicious though! Along with the espresso I downed a savory buckwheat crepe with mushrooms, ham and cheese. By the way, if you ever go to Paris, you’ll want to know the French words, “jambon et fromage.” Ham and cheese. You’ll find them on almost every menu in numerous ham, cheese, carb combinations. But hey, no complaints here!

From where we stayed, it was a few mile walk to the Eiffel tower area. It was doable, but a little tiring. Our transportation in Paris was split between taking the Metro and walking. So, with crepe filled bellies, we walked to the Eiffel Tower. It really does tower over the city, visible from most places. The Eiffel Tower also generates some split opinions. For every person who finds it beautiful and grand, there is someone else who see it as just a big, tasteless hunk of metal. One famous hater is French novelist Guy de Maupassant, who is said to have eaten lunch at the Eiffel Tower restaurant daily because it was the only place he could enjoy a few hours without having to look at the tower. He sounds a bit dramatic, doesn’t he? ūüôā In the early 1900s it was quite trendy to hate the Eiffel Tower… Now, the crowds gathered around the tower’s lawns indicate otherwise.

Selfie!

Selfie!

The view of the River Seine from the Pont d'Iéna bridge.

The view of the River Seine from the Pont d’I√©na bridge.

The view of the Eiffel Tower from the Esplanade du Trocadéro.

The view of the Eiffel Tower from the Esplanade du Trocadéro.

There are huge gardens surrounding the Eiffel Tower, with large lawns, empty/dry fountains, and massive swaths of dirt. I wonder if the fountains are only filled during the summer… but the first view of a large dirt area with some empty fountain areas didn’t match the beauty surrounding it. However, walk towards the grassy areas and you’re met with a stunning view of the tower and lively, happy people. Crowds of tourists (of course) taking pictures and locals picnicking spot the lawn. It seems like most people have a certain picture in mind that they want to capture with the majestic tower in the background. Others seemed to panic and strike a fast, random pose as their photographing friend counted up to 3. We saw some strange poses including, but not limited to, The Saturday-Night-Fever-Disco-Point, The Playing-It-Cool-Shoulder-Shrug, The Make-It-Look-Like-I’m-Kissing-It, and The Cheerleader-Toe-Touch. But the most popular of them all was the selfie. ūüôā We will admit to that too, don’t worry. ūüôā

Guilty also!

These guys were selfie pros by the end of the trip.

One phenomenon witnessed there that I found hilarious was the extendable selfie pole. Nothing screams tourist quite like that!

In any touristy area of Paris (and many other European cities) I can guarantee that there are 1) street peddlers and 2) pickpockets. The street peddlers in Paris all seem to be selling the same things: Eiffel Tower models, key chains, little wooden trains with letters attached to spell out names, or kids’ foam airplanes. They have their merchandise dangling from big metal hangars or sprawled out at their feet. Outside the Louvre, the sight of a policeman on bike sent them scattering, only to reappear a few seconds later. The pickpockets are difficult to identify so you just have to assume they’re always present. Ladies, keep your purse openings facing you and in sight. Men, watch your wallets. Don’t trust anyone in a crowd, even if they look like a “normal” local. We almost got pickpocketed in the Metro so our guards were up. It’s a sad but expected part of traveling in many places.

On Sunday morning, we woke up, gobbled down a few croissants for breakfast, and then headed to Monmartre, a hilltop portion of Paris famous for it’s artisan culture and it’s church, The Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart). Although we got rained on (for the second time) on our way there, we were still able to enjoy the beautiful views of the city from above.

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The Montparnasse area where we stayed is right next to the very tall building on the right. (Click on picture to enlarge). By the way, can I please take this opportunity to say it drives me crazy when people use their iPads to take pictures in public??

We happened to arrive at the Sacre Coeur just in time for the 11:15 service. The music (and acoustics!) were incredible. It was one of my favorite parts of visiting Paris. A sign outside the church said, “For over 125 years, here night and day, someone is praying to the Lord.”

The Sacred Heart Church

The Sacred Heart Church – Clearly, the sun came out!

As you can see, the sun was back out by this point. Our weather in continental Europe was quite fickle. It rained often but not for long, so we spent a few euro on umbrellas and rolled with the punches.

After we left the church we walked through the portion of the town that was also on the hilltop. It was quite touristy, so we rushed through it to the quieter area just downhill.

Everyone seemed to head this way from the church.

Everyone seemed to head this way from the church. Many people here had no concept of manners or personal space – an elderly lady lowered her head and shouldered right into me like a football player! – so we left the area quickly.

Tourist see, Tourist do. ;)

Tourist see, Tourist do. ūüėČ

These did look tempting but we held off until we reached somewhere quieter.

These did look tempting but we held off until we reached somewhere quieter.

One of my favorite parts of the city was just down the hill… We walked through a beautiful and quiet residential area into a hopping section of Monmartre. On one small block of the street there was a produce grocer, a boulangerie (bakery), and a few delis and cafes. I could just picture Parisians popping into the boulangerie for a baguette, picking up an espresso and walking off to work. In fact, we saw quite a few people do just that. Before going to Paris, I thought that baguettes were just a stereotype… We’ve probably all seen a painting or illustration of a beret-adorned woman with a baguette sticking out of her handbag, or a bicycle leaned against a white Parisian building with a bottle of wine and baguette in its basket. Well, let me tell you, that stereotype is 100% true! Almost every person we saw who seemed to be a local was either snacking on a baguette or had one casually tucked under an arm or in a bag for later. We did our part to blend in in that area. ūüôā

Quite a view!

Quite a view!

Picturesque, I think.

Picturesque, I think.

To add to the classic Parisian vibe, there was even a man trying to fix his broken down classic car on the street corner.

To add to the classic Parisian vibe, there was even a man trying to fix his broken down classic car on the street corner.

We popped into the boulangerie for lunch: baguette sandwiches and pastries. We ate out on the sidewalk, people watching and resting our tired feet.

Lunch!

Lunch!

Second lunch!

Second lunch!

From there, we headed to the Louvre. We exited the Metro near the rear of the Jardin des Tuileries (gardens) and – in the span of less than an hour – sat and soaked up the sun, then hid under trees and umbrellas to dodge the rain. The gardens are beautiful, containing hundreds of sculptures and fountains.

After dodging street peddlers and crowds, and after taking many pictures of the famous glass triangle… we headed in! The line wasn’t too long, surprisingly!

I have many pictures and could go on and on about the Louvre…so I think I’ll save that for a second post. ūüôā

In the Jardin des Touleries

In the Jardin des Tuileries (click to enlarge)

Almost there!

Almost there! (click to enlarge)

After wondering around the Louvre for four hours (until they closed) we were exhausted! After a quick nap back at the hotel we walked down the road to a cafe in the Montparnasse area. The food was delicious and affordable (it’s not too difficult to eat affordably in Paris, as long as you’re realistic). We enjoyed sitting under the covered (and heated) patio while we ate.

There was even some cat watching while we ate.

There was even some cat watching while we ate.

We had yet to see the Eiffel Tower at night, so we had a mission!

The Eiffel Tower at night did not disappoint. It “sparkles” on the hour after dark, and that was pretty magical!

Handwriting by Mike, Picture by Sam. :)

Handwriting by Mike, Picture by Sam. ūüôā

All four of us!

All four of us!

Overall, Paris really was beautiful. The stark white stone buildings gave the city a clean, classy air. I didn’t find it to be dirty or trash-filled at all. I loved the thousands of balconies with shutters open and flowers in bloom. Though the only French people we really met were those working at restaurants and our hotel, they were all kind enough. I think as Americans, we often expect others to be as warm and neighborly as we can be, but we must remember that’s not the norm in other parts of the world. I never felt belittled by them, though I did feel embarassed by my lack of French knowledge. Monday morning I bravely left the hotel by myself with the mission to find a croissant and coffee, not realising that Monday is typically a day off, even for cafes and groceries. After finding a locked door at the boulangerie we breakfasted at the day before, I headed down to a Starbucks. I greeted the woman politely and ordered in French. She nodded and asked me a question… in French… and I froze. (I didn’t learn that phrase! Were those even words?) With a small, polite smile and barely a pause, she asked, “Your name, please?” DUH! That is usually what comes next when ordering a drink at Starbucks… Oh well, can’t win them all. She continued the rest of the transaction in English, and I at least got my coffee and croissant, even if it was from Starbucks.

bicycle parisshutters and flowerbalconies

For those few minutes as I walked back from Starbucks, I could picture life in Paris, surrounded by beauty and enjoying the relaxed yet lively setting. I would love to go back and enjoy a picnic on one of Paris’ many jardins. Or pop into one of the many other museums for a quiet Sunday afternoon. I’d love to go to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, grab a book and sit with a cup of coffee in an outside cafe for hours. Rarely does a city that large and bustling maintain a relaxed atmosphere; I was impressed. It’s not my favorite place I’ve been, but it had so much to offer – there’s so much more to see. So, I guess you can add my opinion to the list above.

Lunch with the Queen

I’ve been to London a handful of times now. Every time we go, I feel a little more comfortable. I can navigate the Tube with more certainty, only checking the map on my phone three or four times between stops. Streets look familiar. I feel less like a tourist, even though that’s exactly what I am.

Samuel Johnson once famously said, “Once a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Well I’m not there yet. Not even close.

(click through for source)

We knew that Sam’s parents HAD to experience London when they visited. We prefer to do a few things well rather than hurry through several sights, so that’s what we did: enjoyed a leisurely day full of the best of London.

First stop: Buckingham Palace

It’s only right to stop by and say hello when in the neighborhood… After getting off the Tube, we took a leisurely stroll through the city and Green Park, before realizing it was in fact time for the changing of the guard. The crowds had already formed but we snatched up a great vantage point and seat on a wall surrounding the Victoria Memorial roundabout. We dined on our packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as we watched the plumed hats of the guardsmen bob above the crowd, all the while serenaded by the guard band.

Scoping it out...

Scoping it out…

Not a bad vantage point!

Not a bad vantage point!

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Last time Sam and I were here we were smooshed up against the fence. We had a much better view from here!

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There they are!

We were wrapping up our lunch as Mike noticed a row of important-looking vehicles approaching the palace. There were several dark security vehicles and, tucked in the middle, was the Queen’s state car and Her Majesty!

(click through for source)

Plain as day, in the back of that roomy Bentley, sat the Queen. Her famous white curls adorned by a lovely pastel hat. She didn’t wave – the car zipped through the gates into the palace too quickly – and we didn’t have time to snap a picture, but we still counted it as eating lunch with the Queen. Not a bad start to our trip.

Changing the Guard was not yet finished but we grew antsy and, well, we had already seen the Queen, so we continued on. We passed through the beautiful St. James Park on our way to Westminster.

 

There were many beautiful birds - Sam and Mike took many pictures - but this guy was my favorite.

There were many beautiful birds – Sam and Mike took many pictures – but this guy was my favorite.

 

Westminster: Big Ben, The Elizabeth Tower, Parliament

It was a bit chilly for part of the walk... They were rocking the unibomber look. ;)

It was a bit chilly for part of the walk… They were rocking the unibomber look. ūüėČ

The sun came out!

The sun came out!

Upon coming to London you just have to see “Big Ben.”¬† Many of you might already know this, but I won’t feel like I’m properly informing you if I skip over it: The tower is not named Big Ben. It is actually called the Elizabeth Tower. Big Ben isn’t even the clock face. Big Ben, though a suitable name, is actually the title of the largest bell within the clock tower.

But we didn't see the Doctor.

But we didn’t see the Doctor.

Anyway, Elizabeth Tower hovers over the Thames at the end of the Palace of Westminster – an equally impressive and iconic sight. We were hoping to tour Westminster Abbey but, sadly, it was closed.

London in it's true form: cloudy and rainy.

London in it’s true form: cloudy and rainy.

As we began to walk back to the Tower, we noticed many cars parked in front of the palace and a clear police presence. I approached a security guard and naively asked, “Hello. Is there an event of some sort going on today?” He chuckled and gave me a look of equal parts pity and derision.

“An event?” he haughtily replied.

I smiled stupidly¬†as I¬†realized what that “event” was…

He looked back at the looming building and replied,Parliament is in session.”

DUH. Thank you. I’ll just hand back in my visa and be leaving…

But, despite my American ignorance, he kindly informed us that we could sit in on a parliamentary session for free if we just continued to the next entrance. A short walk and a security check later, we were in Westminster Palace on our way to sit in on a meeting of the House of Commons.

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You first enter through Westminster Hall under an arching, wooden roof built during the time of King William II (est. 1097!!!).¬† It has England’s “largest clearspan medieval roof” (thank you, Wikipedia) and has hosted many debates, trials and royal banquets. It has been used for lyings-in-state for many royals and even Sir Winston Churchill.

The left side was being renovated, but you can still see the grandeur.

The left side was being renovated, but you can still see the grandeur.

After proceeding through the hall, you are ushered through quiet hallways and stairs up to the public viewing area. Coats and bags are checked, and then you’re in. There are two separate chambers where the House of Lords and House of Commons meet respectively. We were there during a House of Commons meeting, so that’s the only chamber we saw. The public viewing area is a part of the actual House chamber but is separated by a large, soundproof, glass partition to block any projectiles or chants (friendly or malicious) from reaching the members. Conversation from the floor can be heard through tiny speakers mounted on the back of every bench.

It was not nearly this full when we were there… (click through for source)

 

The House of Commons is famous for its tense debates and animated members, but all we witnessed was a calm, even polite, discussion on water treatment plans. I was surprised to see only about 15 House members attending the session and about the same number watching from the public viewing area. After soaking in a few minutes of public policy and all it represented, we excused ourselves – out past the security guards watching horse racing on t.v. – and returned to the busy streets of London. As we continued on with our day, I wondered how many of the tourists we passed were just as oblivious as I originally was to the fascinating bit of UK politics occurring just behind the palace walls…

 

Police on horseback

Police on horseback

Final stop: The British Museum

Mike suggested we visit the British Museum and we gladly agreed. Though it was on our list, we hadn’t visited yet. After resting for a much needed sit and cup of coffee in the massive, sunlit atrium, we spent the afternoon absorbing all the history we could.

The main entrance

The main entrance

Not a bad spot to rest for coffee.

Not a bad spot to rest for coffee.

 

The ceiling of the atrium.

The ceiling of the atrium.

Even after walking the halls for a few hours, we only saw a small portion of what it has to offer. Because our time was limited we picked out what we specifically wanted to see and optimized our route around the museum. The highlights of the day were seeing the Rosetta Stone and the large mummy exhibit.

The Rosetta Stone!

The Rosetta Stone!

One one of the many halls of the Middle East wing.

One one of the many halls of the Middle East wing.

Ramesses the II, dating from ~1270 BC.

Ramesses the II, dating from ~1270 BC.

Our feet were aching, our minds were full, and we knew we had big things ahead (like PARIS), so we called it a day and headed home. More adventures to come!

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P.S.: Did you know you can subscribe to my blog via email by clicking “follow” and putting in your email address on the right side of this page? Facebook doesn’t always share my blog updates on everyone’s newsfeed for some silly reason, so the best way to keep up with our travels is by subscribing. Let me know if you have questions. ūüôā Thanks!

Holland: Amsterdam and the Keukenhof Gardens

Sam and I changed things up a bit recently and took our first organized “luxury executive coach trip.” ¬†Translation: We hopped on a bus with a bunch of strangers and headed to Holland. We booked the four day, three night trip to the Netherlands for an excellent price, so we were willing to tolerate a few hours on a bus to get us there. The transportation and lodging was not what we typically plan – nor was it “luxury” – but it got the job done. It was well worth it once we arrived in vibrant Holland.

After boarding the coach at 0530 and driving to Harwich, we had a 6.5 hour ferry ride to get us to Holland.¬†They failed to mention that on the trip itinerary beforehand. It wasn’t terrible though. We passed the time by reading, snacking, napping, people-watching and playing cards.

We arrived in Holland in the early afternoon and took in the countryside as we drove to Amsterdam. My first impression was that¬†Holland seemed agrarian yet sleek and modern. Fields of farmland¬†neighbored¬†sprawling¬†glass greenhouses. An occasional iconic windmill would peek up from¬†the horizon.¬†Each¬†nursery had it’s own small bungalow house and was ringed with a canal.

photo 1 photo 2

In the¬†more residential areas, there were stylish, bright apartment complexes with teeny tiny hatchbacks in every drive. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that hatchbacks were mandatory. I think everyone either drove a hatchback… or a bicycle.

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We arrived at our hotel – sadly, not in the city of Amsterdam, but near the airport – checked in, took a nap, and then headed into the city for dinner. When I visit new cities I like to do a bit of research first… mainly of restaurants. ūüôā I had heard great things about La Perla, a pizza joint, so we took the coach into Amsterdam and immediately walked about 15-20 minutes to find it. Looking back, I am glad we made that trek, even though we passed¬†many other restaurants, because it gave us a good idea of that part of the city and we saw other things to come back and look at later.

La Perla did not disappoint. It consisted of a large¬†pizza oven, a cash register for ordering, and counters and barstools by the windows. We ordered our pizzas – one for each of us,¬†of course – and sat down. We looked out the window and noticed that the¬†actual restaurant was across the street. We just ordered at the takeaway counter. Whoops! But our foible meant we got our pizza faster and we could chow it down without the decorum that would have been required at the real restaurant across the way. We did return to the real place later in the week for lunch and had some excellent baguette sandwiches. Oh, but back to the pizza! It was gooood. It was the best traditional style pizza I’ve ever had. (I mean, it’s no Marion’s Piazza, but that’s an unfair comparison). We snarfed down every last crumb, headed back to the hotel and slept a heavy pizza-induced sleep.

I usually try to avoid food pictures, but seriously, it was that good.

I usually try to avoid food pictures, but seriously, it was that good.

Check out that mosaic.

Check out that mosaic. And that oven!

We woke up on Day 2 to a bright blue sky. I was immediately relieved because it was KEUKENHOF DAY. There was nothing I was looking forward to more than the Keukenhof,¬†the world’s largest flower garden. I had heard horror stories of people planning trips there and getting poured on, or arriving and discovering the tulips hadn’t bloomed yet. I’m pleased to say our trip was perfect. We could not have asked for better weather! And the flowers… speak for themselves!

So many flowers - over 7 million bulbs! - where to begin??

So many flowers – over 7 million bulbs! – where to begin??

Of course. Why wouldn't there be swans?

Of course. Why wouldn’t there be swans?

I had never seen a walk way through a pond before. How cool!

I had never seen a walk way through a pond before. How cool!

This was one of my favorite color combinations.

This was one of my favorite color combinations.

These looked like they were glowing in the sunlight.

These looked like they were glowing in the sunlight.

The main portion of the Keukenhof is set up almost like a zoo. You’re ushered in through a main gate and then met with branches of trails to choose from. Each path¬†casually winds you through woods, past flower beds of various shapes and sizes (with convenient snack and gift shops along the way). As touristy of a spot as it is, it didn’t seem overly commercial to me, which I was thankful for. Views were not spoiled by concession stands or merchandise. Lawns were quietly mowed by manual push-powered mowers. The manicured beds didn’t detract from the natural setting. It all seemed surprisingly organic, as if we were Dorothy and her friends, frolicking through a poppy field. Okay, so there wasn’t much frolicking. But we did a lot of slow, relaxed walking. ūüôā

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It’s hard to fathom that there’s still SNOW on the ground where friends and family are. I suggest a mid-should-be-spring-not-winter trip to Holland to cheer you up. ūüėÄ

After much walking and picture taking (and coffee for me and Heineken for Sam), we realized we hadn’t seen any tulip fields yet. We checked the map and headed to a viewing area. We were surprised to find a beautiful windmill that had evaded our view up until that point.

Thomas Kinkade isn't one of my favorites, but I can imagine one of his little cottages perched amid this scene.

Thomas Kinkade isn’t one of my favorites, but I can imagine one of his little cottages perched amid this scene.

Ta-DAH!!!

Ta-DAH!!!

It really was a lovely day. Much like Dorothy, we ended our flower frolic with a nice nap. Then, headed into Amsterdam.

We walked back to the Jordaan area of Amsterdam to tour the Anne Frank House and Museum. I had heard the queues can be hours long, so we went during dinner time and only had to wait about 45 minutes. I remember reading her Diary of A Young Girl when I was in the 8th grade; it was incredibly moving and upsetting. We had to write a historical fiction story for English class, and I wrote something very similar to Anne’s experience, based on what I had read. I wrote it as journal entries, handwritten, in small tight script. I remember my teacher pulling me aside and asking me if everything was okay – she could tell from my handwriting and the subject matter that it had greatly affected me. Those emotions were fresh in my mind as I entered her house. The self-guided tour leads you through the house from the downstairs workshop, up floor by floor, ending in their hiding place. Though the house was packed tight, we all walked through at a hushed, respectful pace.

I knew I’d be impacted by the visit, but I wasn’t quite sure what to really expect. First of all, I was moved by the amount of people from so many demographics and nations all drawn to this little house in Amsterdam, nearly 70 years after her death. Fear and hatred of people who are “different”¬†was one of the many evil motivations behind the Nazi party, yet here we were all gathered. Secondly, when I read her diary as a child, I don’t think I realized¬†how much time was passed in such a dark, depressing space. For close to two years they hid out in the dim and crowded annexe, with no privacy, sunshine, music, etc. ¬†Photography was not allowed in the museum for understandable reasons, but I don’t think photographs can even accurately¬†represent the space. ¬†I was also personally challenged by the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women who helped Anne and her family hide safely for two years. I can only hope I would have done the same thing in that situation. But the thing that effected me most of all was unexpected… We had walked through the entire house, through the bookcase/door that hid their Secret Annexe, stood in Anne’s small bedroom, seen numerous pictures of Jews suffering at the hands of the Nazis, but the thing that brought me to tears was a book. A book that held the names of the many Jewish men, women and children who died¬†at the hands of the Nazis during the war. As I looked at that book – an entire page containing only the surname ‘Frank’ – I began to cry. How can anyone be so evil? Be filled with such hate? But as quickly as that thought came, I remembered that evil has not won. Though there is so much evil in this world, and in each of us, we have been redeemed, bought at a price. And through Him we have HOPE, even in the midst of evil.

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors¬†through him who loved us.¬†For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,¬†neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,¬†neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God¬†that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ¬†– Romans 8:37-39

 

With that being said, I hope that more people go to Amsterdam for that experience than for what Amsterdam is mostly known for… drugs and the Red Light District. At first I was hesitant to plan a trip to Amsterdam – I wondered how much of it was as seedy as the RLD – but we found the rest of the city to be¬†historic, charming, and ultimately worth the visit. On our third day we walked through much of the city…

 

Things I noticed in Amsterdam:

1) CANALS of course, and the beautiful boats, houses, and boat houses that line them.

That yellow gable is one of my favorites that I saw. I'm a sucker for a good pop of color.

That yellow gable was one of my favorites.¬†¬†I’m a sucker for a good pop of color.

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A lock bridge, just like Paris.

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Paddleboarding the canals… what a great way to see the city!

 

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We saw boats of all shapes and sizes.

This house was another favorite. Quite owl-like. Also, notice the tiny car.

This house was another favorite. Quite owl-like. Also, notice the tiny car.

2) BICYCLES

I thought Cambridge had an innumerable amount of bicycles, but Amsterdam put it to shame. Every bridge and telephone pole was looped with as many bike locks as it could support. Before crossing the road you must look both ways as usual, but for bikes not cars. I also noticed all the bike riders seemed put together, healthy and overall happy! We passed several people who smiled as they peddled. My favorite bicycling sight was a father carrying all FOUR of his daughters on his bike… three little blond girls giggling in the wheelbarrow bucket on the front of the bike and another grinning toe-head riding piggy back. Precious.

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Looks cosy, doesn’t it?

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A bicycle parking garage. And this was just the outdoor one… you could also pay a few Euro to park inside a large, monitored garage.

Maybe they’re on to something. ūüôā¬†All the bike traffic contributes greatly¬†to the eco-friendly, residential vibe of the outer circles of the city as well.

 

3) Graffiti – once again confirming my previous observation of “Continental Europe = Guaranteed Graffiti.”

Ha!

Ha!

It adds color, if nothing else.

It adds color, if nothing else.

4) Kind, welcoming people and happy dogs.¬†Really, every interaction we had with a local, be it a store owner, server or stranger on the streets, was pleasant. One night we went back to the Jordaan area for¬†dinner and stopped at a great “gastropub” called¬†Eetcafe Het Kalfje. It was affordable, quiet, and the food (salmon for me, steak for Sam) was excellent. But the best part of the evening was the chat we had with the restaurant’s only visible employee. I’m sad to say, I didn’t catch his name. But we spent the entirety of our meal talking about our various life experiences. The conversation originally began when he found out we were Americans and “students.” He asked questions about how higher education was perceived in the US compared to Europe, if we liked our time in England, etc. He just celebrated his 35th birthday in Paris. We found out he had lived in Amsterdam, Ghent, Antwerp and Bruges. In fact, he was a set painter on the set of the¬†film “In Bruges.” He said most of the production staff was British and they guzzled Belgian beer every spare second they had. Ha! I was surprised by how easy it was to converse with this stranger from a completely different part of the world. We had so much in common though our life experiences were vastly different. We wished we could have stayed and talked longer, but we had to get back to our bus for the free ride back to our hotel. We thanked him for the excellent dinner and enjoyable conversation, wished him a happy birthday, and made our exit.¬†

This says a lot about the heart of the city!

This says a lot about the heart of the city!

And, as I’ve also mentioned on here, you can tell a lot about a place by how many happy pups you see. ūüôā

This guy cheered me up as I was starting to get hangry.

This guy cheered me up as I was starting to get hangry.

I enjoyed visiting a new place and taking in a new culture, but I was surprised how much this trip revolved around people and our interactions.¬†In the Keukenhoff I loved seeing old couples, new families, and groups of friends experiencing it together.¬†At the Anne Frank house those names in the book were¬†people. Daughters, sons, friends. The waiter was a man with diverse life experiences and interests. Several of the¬†“strangers” on the bus ride there became people with names who we swapped stories, laughs and email addresses with on the way home.

I am often content on my own, in my little bubble, but this trip reminded me to notice others.  There are people all around us. People. With their own trials, joys, struggles, stories. I was challenged to think of others in that way, to see them as Christ does. To take the time to say hello, have a chat or meet a need.

Overall, this trip was enjoyable. I don’t know if I’d go on another organized coach trip again… maybe if it were closer… but I was thankful we went. Amsterdam was a great city, despite it’s seedy reputation. I did abhor the main touristy area right outside the central station; I couldn’t walk through that area fast enough. But once we left the High Street madness behind I found a warm city buzzing with life. My recommendations? If you go, be sure to stay in the city, but maybe not in the touristy city center. Rent a bicycle, go for a stroll, eat good pizza, and meet some locals. Just avoid the red lights and special brownies,¬†alstublieft.¬†

Guten morgen, Germany!

(Or, Guten morgen, Deutschland!)

Last week, after visiting Belgium, Sam and I drove to Germany. Sam had been to Munich once, but I had never been before. We drove in after dark and met our friend Brandon at his house castle, where he lives and where we stayed for a few nights. I’ve known people who have lived in some pretty cool places, but this is a first! He doesn’t have the entire castle to himself, nor does he live in the the towers of the castle, but that didn’t make it any less cool.

Since we arrived after dark we only witnessed the outline of the castle silhouetted by the stars. The next morning we awoke to a bright sky and a green hilly view from the castle windows. The view reminded me of the area my grandparents old cabin was in in Virginia. There’s a certain uniform beauty in the brown bare trees of winter; you can see the forest for the trees. ūüôā¬†As soon as we got ready we went out to get a closer look at where we just stayed the night. Not bad at all…

The castle also contains another tower to the left, which we were able to climb.

The castle also contains another tower to the left, which we were able to climb.

This trip became the trip of three castles –¬†Die reise der drei Burgen.

1) “Burg Brandon”¬†– Brandon’s castle!

Part of Brandon's area of the castle. It was very comfortable and airy but the exposed beams, brick and arrow slits hinted at the exterior.

Part of Brandon’s area of the castle. It was very comfortable and airy but the exposed beams, brick and arrow slits hinted at the place’s past.

The structure of the castle dates back to the 13th century, though the living quarters were updated in the 1990’s, thankfully. We were able to go up into one of the towers and explore. I think – if I remember correctly – that we went up two wooden stairs/ladders and then three stone staircases that curved along the circumference of the floors. My knees quivered as I walked across the wooden slat floor to cross to the next set of stairs. I did not like seeing through to the floors below, but I was afraid I’d trip if I didn’t look down! (As my mom always says, there’s a reason my middle name isn’t Grace. Hehe…)

Rapunzel, to the tower!

“The tower? The tower?! Rapunzel! Rapunzel!”

Look out below! Yikes!

Look out below! Yikes!

Not quite to the top...

Not quite to the top…

I preferred the solid rock steps over the wooden floors.

I preferred the solid rock steps over the wooden floors.

When we made it to the top, the guys stood and did that thing that all men do when looking at an interesting building, try to determine how it’s made, what’s holding it together, etc. etc. ¬†There was another tiny floor up above that did not look safe or sturdy, and thankfully they decided against adventuring higher.

What, don't you always carry a flashlight?

What, don’t you always carry a flashlight?

The view from there was worth the wobbly legs and cobwebs…

The neighboring town

The neighboring town

The rest of the castle, where we stayed.

The rest of the castle, where we stayed.

The bed and breakfast that operates in the castle's mansion.

The bed and breakfast that operates in the castle’s mansion.

Next, we hopped on the autobahn and hightailed it through the hills and valleys of western Germany. Our next destination was:

2) Burg Eltz – Castle Eltz

We found the carpark and followed the trail in what we hoped was the general direction of the castle. We couldn’t see it, so we were trusting the people walking ahead of us. Even as we enjoyed the moss covered pathways and valleys that surrounded us, we wondered where in the world it was! After about a mile we were surprised to turn the corner and see it off in the distance:

Burg Eltz

Burg Eltz

We did find it a bit puzzling that the castle was hidden in a valley, instead of standing proud on a hilltop with views of the roads and rivers. Strategically, it didn’t make much sense. But, according to Brandon’s German landlord (and verified by Wikipedia) it is one of only two castles in the area that wasn’t destroyed at some point. And, remarkably, it’s still owned by the family that originally built it – only 33 generations have passed.¬†

Sadly, as it is the off season, the castle wasn’t open to tour. Even more sad was the fact that we all required a toilet. Men have it waaaay easier in that category; I’ve never been so thankful that my husband hoards tissues and napkins in his coat pockets. ūüôā

As we admired Burg Eltz from afar it started to rain… The sun was still shining, making the castle shimmer!

It could have only been better had a rainbow arched across the roof (or if the loo was unlocked).

It could have only been better had a rainbow arched across the roof… (or if the loo was unlocked).

Thoroughly hungry from our hike and exploring, we headed to the nearby town of Cochem, which sits along the Moselle River. We had a delicious lunch and dessert, despite the fact that the waitress spilled red wine on the crotch of Brandon’s pants. Whoops.

3)  Reichsburg Cochem РCochem Castle

This castle dates back to the 1100s and towers over the city below, an advantageous spot for a castle indeed.

Cochem hugging the Moselle below.

Cochem hugging the Moselle below.

This region is well known for it’s white wine, specifically Riesling. Vineyards cover almost every hillside in sight, all the way up to the castle itself.

We had quite a winding walk up to the castle, but like most of our trip so far, it allowed us a peek at the residential area and showed off more of my favorite color.

We had quite a winding walk up to the castle, but like most of our trip so far, it allowed us a peek at the residential area and showed off more of my favorite color.

Never have I witnessed a greener February!

Never have I witnessed a greener February!

Unfortunately, I didn’t get many good pictures of the exterior of the castle. My photography skills are clearly lacking, especially when the sky is so bright and it’s difficult to get the right angle.¬†Here’s a picture – that I did not take – of the castle as viewed from the city.

The beautiful Castle Cochem in autumn. (Click through for the source).

We also meandered around the city of Trier, the oldest city in Germany. We did some window shopping and ate a delicious meal at a vineyard cafe. Trier confirmed my previous observations of continental Europe Рthat graffiti is everywhere. 

I’ll stick with the numbering theme for the rest of the post. 3 castles: check! 2 new sights/experience from this trip: Go…

1) Anti-zombie-or-maybe-just-insulating-window/door-screens

We loved the B&B that we stayed at in Brugge, but when we first pulled up at night I was dubious… All of the windows on this entire side-street were covered up! No warm glow from the lights inside… No soft curtains covering the windows. Nope. Metal screens or wooden shutters blocked every window. I thought it was maybe to protect from break-ins since it was just outside the city center. But then we drove to Germany and saw them all over as well! On upper level windows, sliding glass doors, even the houses on base had them!

Impenetrable!

Impenetrable, but not necessarily pretty. 

They might protect your privacy or keep your house warmer, but they don’t make it feel very cozy or welcoming! They’re controlled from the inside by strings and pulleys so most people “lower the shades” when the sun goes down. Or, if they see zombies approaching.

2) A language barrier! 

I’ve only been a few places in my life where there has been a clear language barrier. When I went to Guatemala in high school I was able to converse somewhat and I at least knew the important questions (“¬ŅD√≥nde est√° el ba√Īo?“). In Belgium most restaurants had at least partially translated menus and many people spoke English. (The app¬†WordLens¬†saved the day on a few occasions, especially with menu translations.) Though we did go a few places in Germany that offered English menus, not as many people seemed to speak it and the German language doesn’t have as many cognates as say, Spanish, so it’s difficult to maneuver without any knowledge of the language. And sadly, it makes it difficult to pop into a little bookstore and have a browse, which is one of my favorite things to do when travelling. It’s just not quite the same…

It did motivate me to learn more phrases for our next trip to a non-English speaking country, wherever that may be! Sam and I are both trying to learn a bit of French to have handy, it’s spoken in so much of Europe. Have you tried the app Duolingo? It’s free and teaches you a language – Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, or Italian – in small five or ten minute chunks. Besides being incapable of pronouncing anything correctly in French, it’s going well for the amount of energy I actually put into it. ¬†ūüôā

Have you ever traveled anywhere with a big language barrier? Have you been to Germany?

 

Back to Belgium!

With only two weeks since our last trip to Brugge, we headed back to Belgium, excited to return. As I said before, we loved Brugge, so we were thrilled to return.

(Let me put a slight disclaimer in here about the spelling of the city itself. The French and English spell it Bruges, the Flemish spell it Brugge. While walking around the city itself, I noticed it mostly spelled in the latter way, so that’s the spelling I’m using. Sam and I think it is so strange that cities have multiple names in different languages. Bizarre. Anyway, that’s why I’m spelling it Brugge.)

Sam and I spent a few nights at the lovely and modern Antares Bed and Breakfast. Though it was modern and minimalist, it was cozy and the owners were so welcoming and accommodating. We have really enjoyed staying bed and breakfasts or renting apartments in the cities we visit; it allows us to see a more residential side of town and meet the locals. One of my favorite parts of staying at Antares was the breakfast. Unlike any other breakfast I’ve had, it was a feast of warm chewy breads, fresh juice and fruit, local meats and cheeses, coffee, spreads and pastries.

Quite the feast!

Quite the feast!

There were so many windows in the dining area that it felt like we were sitting outside. I bet it is absolutely beautiful in the summer!

There were so many windows in the dining area that it felt like we were sitting outside. I bet it is absolutely beautiful in the summer!

On this trip to Belgium, we had two goals:

1) Climb the 366 steps up the “Belfry of Bruges”.¬† Winding, narrow and cold, the steps were a tough task but the view was a worthwhile reward.

Though it was rainy and windy, the view was still incredible.

Though it was rainy and windy, the view was still incredible.

The market square below.

The market square below. Bart, the owner of Antares, told us that Brugge has incredibly strict building codes that even dictate what color roofing tiles you can use. The uniformity is clear from this angle!

I was so impressed by the intricate mechanisms running the bells.

I was so impressed by the intricate mechanisms running the bells.

By happy accident, we were at the top of the tower during the noon bells! It startled me at first, but then I composed myself and recorded some video. I think the video of the view of the tower captures the 360 degree view much better than my pictures did.

Our second goal was the perfect rest-stop after our chilly belfry experience. We headed next to…

2) De Garre.¬† De Garre is not your typical European pub or bar. If you can find it – an inconspicuous alley leads to its modest but welcoming doorway – you’ll be greeted with classical music, the chatter of locals and travelers, and hopefully one empty table to make your own. We heard of this place from our friend Dave, who we went to Brugge with a few weeks ago. He had mentioned De Garre several times, repeating how much he was looking forward to having their famous house beer, served with the house cheese, as this was the only place to get it. He was devastated to turn the corner of the alley and find the heavy door closed, with a note confirming that De Garre was closed during the time we were there. Unfortunately for Dave (sorry!) but fortunately for us, it was open when we went back this time! We understood why he was so dejected to see that note… We loved De Garre.

The long-awaited De Garre beer and cheese.

The long-awaited De Garre beer and cheese.

The downstairs portion of De Garre and the bar offerings.

The downstairs portion of De Garre and the bar offerings.

We settled in, enjoyed our beer and cheese, and quickly warmed up. We felt like we were a part of a Brugge secret. Locals at nearby tables read their Flemish papers, nodded to the server for another coffee or beer, and waved over friends as they entered. Other equally lucky tourists sat at their tables soaking it all in, as we did. After visiting Germany, on our drive back through Belgium to the ferry port, we had a few hours to spare so we stopped by Brugge again. One of our first stops was to De Garre. I was pleased to find the same group of locals sitting at the same table, surrounded by empty coffee mugs and De Garre glasses, an extra plate of biscuits being shared between them. It’s that look into the routines of a city’s people that I hope I can find on every trip.

We spent the rest of our trip walking around the city, trying to stay dry as it down-poured. I came down with a terrible cold – poor Sam had to listen to me sniffle and blow my nose incessantly – but still enjoyed the crisp, cool air of the city.

One of the many canals reflecting one of Brugge's many churches.

One of the many canals reflecting one of Brugge’s many churches.

There are bicycles all over Europe!

There are bicycles all over Europe!

This antique and furniture store knows how to get customers... have this precious face greet customers at the door!

This antique and furniture store knows how to get customers… have this precious face greet customers at the door!

One of Brugge's windmills (and the rain). This is when we were at our coldest and wettest, so we didn't stay long!

One of Brugge’s windmills (and the rain). This is when we were at our coldest and wettest, so we didn’t stay long!

Feeling well acquainted with Brugge, it was time to head to Germany, but not before spending the day in the nearby city of Ghent.

Ghent, Belgium

Bart, the owner of Antares, mentioned that there’s quite a bit of competition between Brugge and Ghent when it comes to the tourist industry. He was clearly in love with his town, beaming every time he mentioned any of the city’s many desirable qualities, but a wry smile crossed his face when we said we were heading to Ghent. “I’ll let you decide for yourself,” was his only remark.¬† Well, I decided very quickly that Brugge wins that competition. Ghent is a beautiful city, far more towering and majestic than Brugge. In scale, it’s buildings and churches seem to tower over that of Brugge, but in an almost claustrophobic way.¬† Ghent and Brugge alike have wide open market squares, rivers and bridges, but while Brugge has smaller buildings and narrower streets, the multi-story buildings of Ghent hover over the sidewalks and block your view. There were several areas of Ghent that were absolutely beautiful, but as a whole it lacked the charm I found in Brugge. For all of it’s views and history, it still had the busy-large-city-crowded-feeling that I typically don’t enjoy. It was certainly a nice place to spend an afternoon though!

The market square

The market square

If Ghent and Brugge are to compete over anything, it should be for the title of "Venice of the North." Ghent wins that competition in my eyes...

If Ghent and Brugge are to compete over anything, it should be for the title of “Venice of the North.” Ghent wins that competition in my eyes…

Canal boats for a different view of the city. Maybe if it were warmer!

Canal boats for a different view of the city. Maybe if it were warmer!

These canals dwarfed those in the city center of Brugge.

These canals dwarfed those in the city center of Brugge.

Sam recognized this place from his college backpacking trip across Europe. There aren't many places that you can point to and say, "I think Taylor and I staged a sword fight there."

Sam recognized this place from his college backpacking trip across Europe. There aren’t many places that you can point to and say, “I think Taylor and I staged a sword fight there.”

Like I said, it was a great place to spend an afternoon. But, then again, I had great company. :)

Like I said, it was a great place to spend an afternoon. But, then again, I had great company. ūüôā

From there we headed to Germany! I’ll hopefully post about that sometime later this weekend. For now, it’s time to get my lazy behind off the couch and do some laundry. Thanks for reading! ūüôā

 

Ely Cathedral

Last weekend we finally drove to the nearby town of Ely to check out their market and cathedral. After parking, we walked down to the market and immediately smelled fresh baked bread mingled with the autumn leaves. Heavenly. We chose a blustery day, so as we shopped the vendors battled the wind and fortified their flimsy stalls. We made our way over to the cathedral and were immediately impressed by the grandeur of the building. I immediately regretted relying on my iPhone camera and forgetting my nicer camera at home. So, keep in mind these pictures are just taken with a phone. I wish I could do this place more justice…

Both our tour guide and Wikipedia herald the cathedral as one of England’s best examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. I do appreciate architecture in general but I must admit I don’t know the differences between different architectural styles by sight. ¬†But it was immediately clear to me why this cathedral is well known. The exterior of the cathedral is incredibly impressive, and it wouldn’t even fit in my phone’s camera frame while standing in the cathedral’s grounds.

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Here is a picture (that I clearly did not take) of the entire cathedral:

The Cathedral from above.

In the picture above, from right to left, you’ll see the main West Tower, the nave (one of the longest in England), the central Cross or Octagon (which we toured), the continuation of the nave (where the main altar and choir are located), and then the smaller Lady Chapel in the foreground.

The nave

The nave, looking towards the central Octagon, the choral chamber and the altar

The High Altar to Saint Etheldreda

The High Altar to Saint Etheldreda

Where the choir is located during services

Where the choir is located during services, with the nave in the background.

As I mentioned, we took a recommendation from a friend and toured the Octagon. The Octagon is a tower in the center of the cathedral, connecting four main sections of the cathedral and their corridors. The original Norman structure collapsed in 1322 because of nearby construction that weakened the limestone base. It collapsed at night and no one was injured, although it left a huge crater and a larger problem for the monks living and worshiping there. A new tower was planned and built, but this time out of lead-covered wood instead of stone. Until the tour guide mentioned that, I hadn’t even noticed the color difference of the exterior of the Octagon.

The Octagon from underneath.

The Octagon from underneath. You can barely see the ring of angels below the stained glass and the false wooden ceiling.

After some basic history from our tour guide we began our climb up to the Octagon. The tour guide also pointed out that the wooden fans that lead up to the Octagon are purely decorative, and we would be standing above them. They provide no structural support, but the entire Octagon structure is supported from the outside by flying buttresses.

The views along the way were beautiful.

The views along the way were beautiful.

The climb up to the Octagon involved very teeny spiral staircases and took us out onto the roof and gutter of the cathedral. Further proof that Brits are in very good shape!

Crossing the roof.

Crossing the roof.

The view of the Lady Chapel from the roof. Notice the empty pedestals? These initially had statues of religious figures but were torn down during  the Reformation. The stain glass windows were destroyed as well. This remains the only portion of the cathedral that did not have the stained glass replaced.

The view of the Lady Chapel from the roof. Notice the empty pedestals? These initially had statues of religious figures but were torn down during the Reformation. The stain glass windows were destroyed as well. This remains the only portion of the cathedral that did not have the stained glass replaced.

Almost there... looking up at the Octagon. Notice the color difference?

Almost there… looking up at the Octagon. Notice the color difference?

We crossed the roof and headed up an even tinier spiral staircase. One perk was that we only had five people in total on our tour, and we were all going up, so there weren’t enough people to be claustrophobic and not enough space to have a fear of heights. ūüôā

Finally, we made it to the Octagon. These pictures are taken from above the decorative wooden fans I showed above. The tour guide opened up a few of the angel panels and we were able to look down at the church from above. Wow, it was impressive. Looking at the building from above, I was amazed by the astounding amount of detail. Look at the floor of the nave, the stone carving on the walls, the intricate shapes of the windows, doorways and arches.

See the sculpture of Jesus at the top?

See the sculpture of Jesus at the top?

Looking from one panel to another up in the Octagon.

Looking from one panel to another up in the Octagon.

Looking down at the nave.

Looking down at the nave. I love the floor!

The principal altar below, where Sunday Eucharist is performed.

The principal altar below, where Sunday Eucharist is performed.

One of my favorite parts of the tour was hearing about the sculpture of Jesus at the top of the Octagon. Throughout the tour, as I took in all of the beauty around us, I kept wondering if the people who built this or who worshiped here maybe missed the mark. It all seemed so steeped in idolatry, with all of the altars to saints, etc. I thought: Did they truly know Jesus? Did they understand the concept of grace?

The tour guide told us that originally, the only people who would have seen Jesus up there at the top of the Octagon were the monks who lived and studied here. Visitors for services or pilgrims coming to worship would not have been allowed in the center of the cathedral and therefore would not have been able to see Jesus up there. ¬†That made me a little sad, and I wondered what Jesus would have thought of that… When Christ died on the cross, carrying the weight of my sins and yours, he said “It is finished.” The curtain was torn in two in the temple, showing that the separation between us and Christ is gone. We don’t need a priest to intercede, or to offer us forgiveness on his behalf. Christ made himself available to us when he died on that cross. We now can see him and speak to him on our own. And even if we don’t take the time to return his gaze, he is looking in on our lives, waiting for us to seek him.

Here is a better photo, not taken by me. The source is linked.

An up close of the sculpture of Jesus (surrounded by seraphim) 

This sculpture of Jesus is unique because he is shown blessing those who worshiped below with one hand, and exposing the wounds on his chest with his other hand. There is only one other known sculpture of Jesus in England with him showing his wounds, at Westminster Abbey, I believe. The reasoning for that isn’t clearly known, but I think of it as a reminder of the price Jesus paid for us. It’s showing that he suffered for us, but that it truly is finished.

Hebrews 10:19-25 (ESV)

“Therefore, brothers,¬†since we have confidence to enter¬†the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by¬†the new and living way that he opened for us through¬†the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have¬†a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts¬†sprinkled clean¬†from an evil conscience and our bodies¬†washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for¬†he who promised is faithful. And¬†let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and¬†all the more as you see¬†the Day drawing near.”¬†

After gawping at the cathedral below and the elaborate ceiling above for what seemed like a very long time, the tour guide took us above onto the roof. It was up the tiniest spiral staircase I’ve ever seen. The entire morning, the skies were blanketed with clouds and it was generally dreary, but the clouds cleared as we were up there and it was absolutely beautiful.

These pictures look out onto the stained glass that was above the angels panels. The church bells were originally held above the Jesus sculpture and the surrounding false ceiling. They were removed hundreds of years ago for fear that they were too heavy.

Wow. Right?

Wow. Right?

The stained glass from outside

The stained glass from outside. Also, you can really see the lead-covered wood from here.

Then we began the climb back down the teeny tiny stairs. It was tight even for us.

The doorway that led from the stairs to the roof.

The doorway that led from the stairs to the roof.

The lights cut out for a minute while going down the steps. I froze until I could turn on the flashlight on my phone, ha. I don't think the monks had that luxury.

The lights cut out for a minute while going down the steps. I froze until I could turn on the flashlight on my phone, ha. I don’t think the monks had that luxury.

The entire cathedral was absolutely beautiful. I really enjoyed the tour and learning the history involved. I also found it really neat that services are still held there several times a week. I hope it is used to God’s glory, and I pray that the message of Christ and his grace is taught and heard there. At one point, Sam and I read that the¬†daily operating costs of the cathedral are¬†¬£4000!¬†(About $6,400 a day!) While that is really hard to wrap my head around, and while I did immediately wonder how that money could be “better utilized,” I do pray that it is used for God’s glory and that people are reached for Christ because of it. I know that our visit really stuck with me, even as I write this almost a week later.

Christ is looking down at us, desiring relationship with us, showing us his wounds, reminding us that our sins are taken care of and offering us his blessing and the gift of GRACE. What are we doing with that knowledge?

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Cambridge (…so when can I go back?)

Sam and I finally went to Cambridge yesterday. I have been wanting to go since we got here since it’s right around the corner, basically. And wow, it did not disappoint. Be ye warned, this post has a lot of pictures. I just could not narrow it down any more.

Cambridge is host to many academic institutions and an amount of history that is simply hard to grasp. (I mean, I HAVE to go back because I have yet to see any of the museums, tour any of the campuses, or see the pub that Watson and Crick celebrated the discovery of the double helix in. There’s way too much for me to nerd out over.) So, for our first trip, we didn’t really plan anything, we just walked around and found our way throughout the city. We would turn a corner and find some architectural and academic gem such as this:

A charming corner of Cambridge

A charming corner of Cambridge

One of the many things I loved about this city was that the colleges are dotted throughout the city center. We were stopping in quaint little shops along a main stretch and peeked up to see this. There are stunning views everywhere. It seemed as if several of the colleges were having orientation, so there were families moving in and around and tables set up in entryways. I definitely want to go back and tour some of the colleges though, as many of the views were only visible through a fence. Such as this:

"Do Not Walk on Grass." (Okay... what if I just nap on it?)

“Do Not Walk on Grass.” (Okay… what if I just nap on it?)

Unlike some of the towns and larger cities I have been too, I never felt too crowded in Cambridge. I’m not a huge fan of cities and big crowds, so Cambridge felt just right. Even on a busy Saturday with students bustling about, we could take our time and stroll the streets. Several were wide enough for cars but were for pedestrians (or cyclists) only. Sam and I learned this week that Cambridge is close behind Amsterdam in boasting the most bicyclists per capita. Also, this visit reaffirmed my desire for a bicycle basket.

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We ate lunch at Las Iguanas, a Latin restaurant that was recommended to us. It was delicious, and we dined outside with a view of the River Cam. Feeling inspired by the city air, we adventurously opted for a duck taquito dish. It was … strange. That was basically all that remained of our meal.

The awning on the building to the right is Las Iguanas.

The awning on the building to the right is Las Iguanas.

See those boats? Those aren’t just any old boats. (Don’t call it a boat.) ¬†Those are punts. And they are traditional to England, but are inseparable from Cambridge. “Punting on the River Cam” is an age old tradition that locals and tourists alike fork out their pound sterling for, to either lounge and enjoy the ride or give a stab at it themselves. A punt differs from a gondola or canoe by the way it is propelled. They move by a long pole, which is stuck into the bottom of the river and pushed along. Walking over Cambridge’s many bridges, it was quite easy to pinpoint the experienced punter and the visitor giving it the ol’ college try. See if you can guess:

By the way, that is the somewhat famous "mathematical bridge."

By the way, that is the somewhat famous “mathematical bridge.”

Watch out, duckie!

Watch out, duckie! By the way, we’re sorry about lunch… Awkward.

Beautiful, huh?

Beautiful, huh?

We did not go punting yesterday, but I assure you, it is on my list. Although, I think I’ll leave the driving to the pros. Or Sam. ūüôā

The view in that last picture above is the “Backs.” The Backs is a strip of lush lawn that edges the Cam behind the colleges. We took a lovely walk back that way and enjoyed seeing the colleges from afar. In this next picture you can see 1. Cows (there on scholarship?) 2. The heads and poles of punters on the Cam, and 3. What I believe is King’s College. But don’t hold me to that.

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At one point while walking, we turned the corner down this beautiful alley,

Inviting, right?

Inviting, right?

And we found a beautiful little artisan fair. We bought a beautiful photograph of a bridge over the Cam.

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But THIS was one of the coolest things we saw at the artisan fair:

The Coffee Bug.

The Coffee Bug.

It’s a big scooter coffee cart. Guys. This is genius. I’ve found my calling. And in the land of instant coffee, powder mocha mix, and weak lattes, THIS coffee was awesome. Sam and I would still love to have a coffee shop someday… maybe we’ll have a coffee Bug instead. Less overhead.

That's an Astoria machine, the brand I learned on.

That’s an Astoria machine, the brand I learned on.

One final contribution to my love of Cambridge: The trees. They were everywhere. How could the day not be refreshing and relaxing when covered by canopies and crunching along sidewalks. ¬†It’s finally feeling like autumn as well.

I did not stick to the sidewalk. There were LEAVES TO BE CRUNCHED.

I did not stick to the sidewalk. There were LEAVES TO BE CRUNCHED.

I really did love Cambridge. In case you couldn’t tell. And what I love even more is the prospect that I could be there in less than an hour, exploring new streets with a proper cup of coffee or relaxing under a tree with a good book. What’s not to love?

Day trip to the coast

One thing that sneaked up on me (sneaked is a word) and caught me by surprise, was the difficulty of planning our first big trip! I still can’t decide where to go first. There are endless options within just a short flight, train or ferry ride away. We have ¬†a few favorites floating around, but we need to just PICK!

Before we plan a “big” trip we took off on a day trip to get out there. ¬†For the first time in our lives, we are just a quick drive away from the coast! So, off we went!

Green!

So green!

We had quite a beautiful drive out to the coast. Much of it looked like this. Surrounded by dense, green trees! Quite different from what we were used to in our last town. We were much more used to this:

England or North Dakota?

England or North Dakota?

On our way to the coast we stopped at a beautiful brewery. It was down long, winding,¬†narrow roads. ¬†Sam and I watch a British show called Doc Martin (look it up on Netflix, it’s great). On the show the Doc, from London, always gets run off the road by the locals used to that kind of driving, so Sam and I were humming the Doc Martin theme song as we drove along this road.

Isn't it a lovely road? As long as you don't encounter another vehicle.

Isn’t it a lovely road? As long as you don’t encounter another vehicle.

St. Peter’s brewery is gorgeous. Set far off the road in the middle of wheat fields, it looks like so many other forgotten English estates. At least, I imagine it does. But it was verdant and beautiful. We ate lunch in the Great Hall, surrounded by tapestries and sturdy carved wood furniture. The building that hosts the restaurant and bar was once the estate home. The moat is still in tact! The garden outside was filled with people enjoying a pint in the sun, many with dogs lounging at their side. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon.

The restaurant and bar

The restaurant and bar

It really is a Great Hall

I’d say Great Hall is a fitting name.

Sam's Suffolk Gold Ploughman's Lunch  and my Pollock, Chips and Mushy Peas

Sam’s Suffolk Gold Ploughman’s Lunch and my Pollock, Chips and Mushy Peas

But the sand and seas were calling...

But the sand and seas were calling…

After a long, lazy lunch we hopped back in the car and drove to Southwold. We heard it was a beautiful beach, and it held up to that description. It was quaint and clean, even though it was obviously a popular spot. There were crowds of people, but most I saw were kind families or “pensioners.” We saw many of what looked like happy dogs. ¬†(A place with happy dogs and happy dog owners is usually a great place, in my opinion.)

The view from the pier

The view from the pier

The Southwold Pier

The Southwold Pier itself

Shore side cottages

Shore side cottages… and a bird photo bomb.

Another great quality of the beach was how noncommercial and undeveloped it was.  See those houses up on the hill behind the beach? It was a farm. This little guy was about 20 feet away from the car park.

Hullo.

Hullo.

It stood in stark contrast in my mind to places like Myrtle Beach where identical surf shops and restaurant chains line the shore. ¬†There was just one problem, it was¬†cold. ¬†We were in shorts and t-shirts, sitting on the sand, with goosebumps. It was quite warm by English standards, and when the sun shone it felt great, but as soon as the sun went behind a cloud or the wind blew, we were cold. ¬†I did remember reading in a Bill Bryson book (Notes from a Small Island, I believe) that the British don’t swim at the beach. They say they do, but in reality they wade in to about their mid-calf. We saw a few people doing that, but there were actually children swimming. We realized though that most people on shore were in long trousers and sweaters. We missed that memo. Next time though, we’ll be prepared!