British Isles Vacation 2005
Monday, April 11, 2005
I worked until about 3 in the afternoon and then made my way to Dulles International Airport. For this trip I had decided to fly Virgin Atlantic -- I had heard a lot of good things about them and it was only about a $50 differential, so I went for it. The flight was good -- I could have used some more leg room, but then again, I can always use some more legroom, I'm quite tall. Everything else was quite good -- the meals were actually delicious and complete -- they even gave you wine with your meal without charge. On the flight over I sat next to some British kids from outside London -- we talked about American politics and they seemed to appreciate my analysis of the issues of the day (let's just say it was humorous). We also talked a bit about the political contest underway in Britain and I got some good insight into the political excitement that I would be reading about in the coming weeks. After awhile I took a little nap to try to reset my clock to London time and for the most part, that worked.
Tuesday, April 12, 2005
When we touched down at London Heathrow we made our way off the plane and into the never-ending labyrinth that that the world's busiest airport embodies. After walking for what must have been a mile, I got to wait in a immigration and customs line that took me about 45 minutes to clear (the actual immigration part was easy, it was just the line that was interminable). While in the queue (as the English are so fond of calling a line) I struck up a conversation with a woman next to me and got some insight into the city I was entering, and we also talked a little politics along the way. After clearing immigration and customs, I took my gigantic backpack and went to the Heathrow Underground station on the Piccadilly line to Piccadilly Circus. After about 50 minutes I was in the heart of the city and a block away from the hostel that would be my home for the next 4 days. After dropping off my bags I decided to do a bit of sightseeing before Dan and Larry were set to arrive. I went down and saw the Parliament building and Westminster Abbey as well as some other stuff along the way -- all within 15 minutes walk of my hostel. The weather was cloudy and cool but not cold -- the coat is a good idea though, if a bit on the warm side.
One thing that struck me right away was that London is truly an international city -- I heard more french than English (of course I was in the tourist areas) and countless other languages to boot. Another thing I noticed first thing that I noticed is that the prices seemed familiar-- around the same as the U.S. -- that is until you factor in the conversion ratio -- $1.85 = 1 pound ... so basically, everything costs twice as much here. The Virgin Megastore a block from the hostel was selling cds for 19.99 pounds! That's almost a $40 CD! A short tube ride is 2 pounds ($4) and from the airport was 2.80 pounds ($5.60 or so) ... reasonable, but a bit higher than the metro. However the tube goes literally everywhere -- it is amazing. They say mind the gap with good reason -- the jump up or down can easily be around a foot at times -- it is so bad that they have icons on the maps to tell the handicapped which stations they can use -- kinda crazy. The good thing is that the trains run fairly frequently even at late hours (we're talking every 5 minutes or better). This is important, because with so many lines, transfers are common. And speaking of those transfers, the pedestrian tunnels linking lines are extensive, sometimes going a city block or more. It seems like linking up lines was an aftertought, but it works, as long as you don't mind walking. The trains are smaller than their metro counterparts, they are clean (not as clean as metro) and reasonably comfortable -- one notable difference -- they lack air conditioning. This is almost eerie, because when the train stops it is dead silent.
After killing some time exploring, I made my way back to the hostel where I met up with Dan and Larry. After they got settled, we went back to Westminster where and went back by parliament and went across the Thames to just outside the Saachi museum where there is a giant enclosed ferris wheel called the "London Eye" -- the weather wasn't good enough, so we didn't plunk down the 12.50 pounds. We later went to RegentPark where we explored the extensive formal gardens that were kept to an exceptional level of cleanliness. Later we made our way up to Camden where we went to a pub with pretty good fare called the Crown and Goose. We had a couple of bitters (that's a style of beer for the uninitiated) -- I had a mushroom ravioli in a cream sauce, Dan had a burger, and Larry had Wild Boar and apple sausage. All were delicious. After that we headed back to the hostel via the tube and since I hadn't slept in nearly 48 hours ... I crashed.
Wednesday, April 13, 2005
After a good night's sleep I was quite refreshed. While waiting for Dan and Larry to wake up I had breakfast at the hostel which consisted of toast with butter and orange juice (but hey, it was free). Once Dan and Larry woke up we walked around making our way to Soho. We stopped into a grocery nearby and picked up some food and then had a picnic style lunch in Trafalgar Square. After that we made our way down the mall to Buckingham Palace and visited the royal gardens, Green Park, and Hyde park. While at Hyde park we played some miniature golf on a natural turf course and then made our way to the tube where we went up to Whitechapel to have a pint and then some curry from one of the most recommended places -- I had a minced chicken curry which was quite good. Afterwards we got another pint fresh out of the cask and then made our way back to the hostel where we chatted with some of the other people who were staying there before turning in just shy of 4 in the morning.
Thursday, April 14, 2005
Dan and I went to the Tower of London where we spent a good chunk of the day. The tower has everything from the crown jewels to a palace used by royalty centuries ago, to torture chambers. There was an excellent tour of given by one of the Beefeaters and after that Dan and I explored. Definitely worth the 11 pounds (and that was the student rate ... pays to bring your old student id).
Afterward we went across the Tower bridge over the Thames and made our way to a pub by London bridge that has been in operation for centuries. After a couple of pints we made our way to a place that purports to be the oldest fish and chips joint in the city -- I had a delicious and flaky cod along with a Turkish beer, Effes, and it was delicious. Dan had a haddock, and we shared a curiously named traditional dessert ... Spotted Dick. Basically a bread product with raisins that is heated and covered in custard. Pretty good. Afterward we made our way back to the hostel and met our new roommates and hit the sack relatively early.
Friday, April 15, 2005
Today we took things kind of easy -- we started at a pub where I got an ample portion of fish and chips for lunch and then we went to the British Museum where we saw the Rosetta stone and countless other Egyptian and Greek artifacts. The thing that was most amazing was that you could touch most of the stuff ... it wasn't behind glass most of the time when it came to the large sculptures and sarcophagus.
After that we went back to the hostel to take a nap -- that evening we made our way to a place that Andy had recommended to me "Garlic and Shots" -- which had what you'd expect ... lots of garlic and lots of shots. I had the heavily recommended bloodshot, which is like a bloody mary on steroids -- I washed that down with a garlic beer (quite unique -- imagine a beer start on the palate and a garlic finish). For dinner I had a garlic chicken curry and for dessert I had a garlic ice cream with chocolate covered garlic cloves. Delicious stuff, really, but not something that will make the locals love me :-) After that we made our way to a pub near the hostel and had a pint before closing time hit and we made some gin and tonic in the common room at the hostel and then hit the hay.
Saturday, April 16, 2005
For our last day in London we saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace -- we only saw the guard arriving though -- the place was packed. Afterward we went to Picadilly Circus and both Dan and I picked up some new shoes (I left my sneakers in America). Afterward we made our way out to London Luton airport by train and got into Edinburgh ahead of schedule.
Edinburgh is a beautiful city -- our hostel was right next to the castle and in the middle of everything. Our room had 12 beds, but only about 6 were occupied. The view out the window was absolutely amazing with a commanding vista of the city and the surrounding highlands -- we were probably about 100 feet up from the street. After getting settled in our hostel, Dan and I went to a French restaurant called Petit Paris for a late dinner that was absolutely fantastic -- I had a chicken with bacon in a delicious roquefort sauce along with a refreshing sancerre and Dan had a very tasty rabbit dish. From there we made our way down to where the nightlife happens and found a rock club called Opium. We ended up partying there until around closing time at 3 AM. We met a bunch of people from Prince Edward Island, Canada who are working in Edinburgh and hung out with them for most of the evening. Afterward I went back to the hostel and crashed hard into my bed -- after all that sweaty smoky mess from the night before the shower in the morning felt absolutely amazing.
Sunday, April 17, 2005
This morning I took a stroll down the royal mile and got a morning newspaper which I read over an orangina. Once Dan got up we made our way to a place called Frankenstein that has a theme much like the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein. They have a breakfast special where you can get a Scottish breakfast of eggs, black pudding, Haggis, hash browns, sauteed mushrooms, coffee and orange juice ... and a free pint of Guinness -- so naturally we availed ourselves of that. The haggis was surprisingly good, spicy and flavorful ... I'd have it again actually. After our late breakfast we made our way up to Edinburgh Castle which is absolutely beautiful -- it sits on the top of a cliff and you can see the sea and the Scottish highlands from its lofty perch. The tour included a viewing of the Scottish crown jewels, and today was the one day of the month that admission to the castle is free. Nice timing, eh? We got some food and drink at the Tesco (a UK supermarket that is everywhere) and after returning to the hostel we had some wine, cheese, Absolut citron, and tonic in the common room where we made some new friends. After that we made our way to some clubs downtown where there was some live music -- there was an event called Hobo at one of the places with a band that must have had 12 people. After a little while we made our way back to Opium where we had spent the previous night.
It is really amazing how this city seems to be from a century long ago with ancient buildings still in use and cobblestone roads. But the vibe is overwhelmingly youthful, there are so many young people around looking to have fun -- and things seem more laid back than London ... so Edinburgh is definitely giving our previous destination a run for its money.
Monday, April 18, 2005
Today we had a late brunch at an Italian place down on Grassmarket and tried the local soda that actually outsells coke ... Irn Bru ... it tastes like bubble gum and pop rocks and has a radioactive orange hue. From there Dan and I did some walking tours of the city and then we went back to the hostel for a quick nap. For dinner we went to a place called the Point and had a rather good meal with a crisp chenin blanc. I started out with haggis wrapped in a Chinese pastry (once again, the haggis was delicious) and then had a roasted chicken stuffed with black pudding on a bed of crisp greens followed by a chocolate torte with raspberry compote. After a brief stop-over at the hostel we made our way to a trivia night at a nearby pub where we did passably well, but missed most of the questions on soccer...err...football :-)
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
On our last full day in Edinburgh we made our way to Hollyrood park where we hiked up to see some of the ruins of a very old church and witnessed epic vistas of the city. Nearby we saw the new Scottish Parliament building which is a very modern structure and quite unlike any other government building I've seen. That evening, after walking past Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's birthplace, we went to a comedy night at a place called the Stand. There were quite a few funny acts, and all in all it was a good time. Once it was discovered that we were among the 3 Americans in the audience, almost every act brought us into the act in some way, most of it good natured, and a lot of it very funny.
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
This morning we hit up the Scottish Museum which was quite good -- very well done, and surprisingly, free. That did most of our morning for us -- afterward we went to an Indian restaurant near the hostel and enjoyed the burn of some very spicy curries. After collecting our things from the hostel we went out to Edinburgh International Airport and after a few minutes at check-in and security we got on our absurdly cheap RyanAir flight. I sat next to a girl who is from Wisconsin (small world) going to the University at Edinburgh -- evidently she goes to Dublin often (the airfares are around $2 -- $30 with taxes) -- we got some advice about places to go and things to see and about an hour later Dan and I got in safe and sound last night into Dublin International Airport and took the AirLink into downtown.
Our hostel is right down in the middle of the Temple Bar district which has a bar every 5 feet and a lot going on ... needless to say we availed ourselves of that gift, and hit up a place called The Porter House which brews its own beer and was packed. The beers encompassed three styles (Ales, Lagers, Stouts) and were almost all good. While sitting there we had a bunch of kids join our table -- about 5 from France, 1 from Canada, and another from Spain. I got to work out the French (and surprisingly, it still works, albeit a but rustily). We definitely had a good time. After the bars closed at a saddeningly early midnight hour we made our way to a kebab house and had a bite to eat before retiring into the cool Dublin evening.
Thursday, April 21, 2005
This morning we arose relatively early, and discovered that our room was decidedly co-ed ... not a problem, except that the only bathroom was in the room, and consistently in-use ... After waiting a while we had our breakfast in the kitchen area and then made our way to see Trinity College. Trinity is right in the heart of the city, mere blocks from our hostel -- the campus is compact, but beautiful. They are known for their collection of old books -- most notably the Book of Kells which dates back to around 800 AD, and is one of the oldest books in existence. They had a great exhibit that we checked out and it definitely was a remarkable illuminated manuscript. After hanging out for a bit on the quad, we went to a restaurant owned by Bono of U2's brother called Nude which has light fare that was quite tasty (I had a chicken panini and sparkling water).
Afterward we made our way to a couple parks where we enjoyed one of the most beautiful days we have experienced while here. The main park downtown was packed, but we found another a bit more off the beaten path where we were able to lay down in the grass and take a bit of a nap. Afterward we headed to a bar near the hostel where we were there was some live Irish folk music being played.
In the evening Dan and I hit up a restaurant nearby where we had some traditional Irish dishes -- I had a beef stew and he had a Dublin Coddle, which was a type of soup with sausages. Afterward we went to the Temple Bar (conveniently 2 doors from our hostel in Temple Bar) where there was some great live traditional music being played
Friday, April 22, 2005
This morning we had to change rooms, so we packed up for that, and then went to Gallagher's Boxty House for a traditional Irish breakfast with bacon, black pudding, white pudding, sausages, a fried egg, mushrooms, tomato, and even a bloody mary. The bloody mary was wretched -- but the rest of it was okay. After breakfast Dan and I made the walk down to the Guinness factory where they have a rather impressive museum dedicated to the black brew with the golden head. We spent several hours there going through the exhibits culminating in a trip to the Gravity Bar, which has one of the most incredible views of Dublin high above one of the tallest buildings in the city -- they also serve the freshest and most delicious Guinness you've ever had there -- even better than the stuff you'll find in the Dublin pubs. We got our complimentary pints and then hung out there for a while getting a few more as we gazed out over the Dublin skyline. We even met a couple Americans who are spending a semester in London who came to Dublin for the weekend.
After several pints of Guinness, we needed to get some food in our stomachs, so we went to a burger joint for some lunch and took a brief nap. From there we went out in search of some music and pints -- we ventured a bit off the beaten path to a place recommended to us by a girl who worked at the Guinness factory. After a little music and libation, we made our way back to the hostel and called it a night.
Saturday, April 23, 2005
We woke up and grabbed a quick breakfast near the hostel and made our way to an internet cafe -- afterward we decided to check out Dublin Castle. In comparison to the other castles we saw on the trip, this one was on the smaller side of things, but it was still quite large. It also had some of the most modern architecture we saw in a castle, a far cry from Edinburgh castle. On the premises of the castle there was a museum dedicated to very old books that had some fantastic displays. Dan and I spent a couple hours exploring what it had to offer and we were pretty impressed. After the castle we wandered around town for a little bit ducking into a used book shop. Then it was time to head to the airport for my Aer Lingus flight back to Heathrow. From there I went to my hotel and went to bed. The following morning I got on my Virgin Atlantic flight back for Washington and about 8 hours later I was home.