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Day Four in Madrid, Spain

sunny 28 °C

Sadly, Day Four was our last day in Madrid, and really it was just a few hours at that. Our flight to London was scheduled to leave at 5pm, so we intended to leave for the airport no later than 2:30 (luckily, it’s only about 25 or so minutes on the subway).

Good lord: Day Three with no hairbrush:

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After brekkie, we decided to spend our last few hours exploring the Santiago Bernabeu area, mainly because where the Bernabeu Stadium, aka home turf of the Real Madrid soccer team, is located. As one would expect, it’s quite large, and there were tons of Spanish children and other obsessed fans swarming all over the place, lining up for the stadium tour and forking over €1000s in the stadium shop. It’s impossible to overstate just how big Real Madrid is in Madrid. Between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, Spain is a powerhouse on the soccer world stage, and their fans are downright rabid. We did take in the shop but didn’t buy anything. And, from there, we took in some shade (good lord, we were dying of the heat) under an unbelievably insane tree that wouldn’t stop dropping needles on us! Then, on to the airport, and home once more, although not until after a 45 mins delay (not bad, I guess, but booooooo @ Ryanair who prides itself on being on time!).

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What can I say? It’s hard to take it all in. Madrid is a marvelous city and one I’d definitely recommend to anyone seeking history, architecture, museums, dining, and everything else that makes a great vacation.

Posted by janicem 13:29 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

"No slumping!"

Day Three in Madrid, Spain

sunny 28 °C

By Day Three, we were both feeling the effects of too many colds, coughs, and miles walked on OLD LEGS in blistering heat! But, we are nothing if not Intrepid Troopers (especially J, who was feeling especially rough with his first real head cold in probably ten years), so off we ventured to parts unknown.

Oh wait. Day two with no hairbrush. Double oi!

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After we took a close look at our guidebook and map, we realized that there were whole sections of Downtown Madrid that we hadn’t seen, as well as two other major sections of Madrid, Salamanca/Recoletos and Chueca/Malasana. With that, we disembarked at Alonso Martinez Metro station, and we were in business.

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Unsurprisingly, the Alonso Martinez station opens up to Plaza de Alonso Martinez! But it also borders Plaza de Santa Barbara, which is where we started our day. From there, it was on to Plaza Villa de Paris, which is where one of the Supreme Court buildings looms rather conspicuously.

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Right behind that is Plaza de Salesas and Iglesia de Santa Barbara, which is perhaps one of the more ornate churches I’ve seen in a long time.

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From there, we entered a kind of ‘law, justice, and attorney general’ street, with lots of buildings and restaurants catering to legal types (and presumably, their victims!).

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We also passed by the Institute Français, the Biblioteca Nacional (the National Library) and the Museo Arqueologico Nacional (the National Archaeological Museum). All of this was anchored by the huge statue and fountain at the Plaza de Colon, which also borders the Teatro Feman Gomez Centro de Arte (arts and theatre centre named for Feman Gomez).

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From there, it was just a hop, skip, and a jump back to where we’d been just the day before, the Plaza de la Independence and the main entrance to Paraque del Retiro (where we’d rowed boats). We made the trip back because, the day before, we’d noticed some really great stalls outside the Prado Museum, and we wanted to shop around a bit. The artisans and other sellers did not disappoint, as we picked up quite a few things for friends and family back home.

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Then, it was up the Paseo del Prado we went, through the financial district, past Banco de Espana (Bank of Spain), past Museo Naval (Naval Museum), and smack dab into the middle of Plaza la Cibeles, which is home to a massive building of the same name, which looks like a very old castle, but which now houses an arts and cultural centre only recently open to the public (seems that the building was previously off limits and/or privately owned). There’s a tower and observation deck that you can go up to, but we didn’t bother. Instead, we looked around the lower/public floors and took advantage of the funky bean-bag seating area to rest our weary bones. Oh, and this is probably a good time to mention that this is the only time in my life that I’ve ever been told by an usher to—get this—not “slump” so much while sitting … ON THE BEANBAG COUCH. Seriously? Oh yes, this is a serious, serious, serious, serious building with many, many, many, many rules … BUT COME ON!!! The worst part is that the lady who told me to sit up (yes, she actually came over and motioned to me to sit up) was the lady who goes around straightening out the pamphlets and making sure, I dunno, that no one has dirty shoes or something? I felt like telling her that if they were so concerned with people’s posture, perhaps they might not have PUT BEANBAG CHAIRS ON THE FLOOR! Of course, as J pointed out, it was only fitting that I be told to sit up, as just the day before our Weird Waiter at Parque de Retiro had told me to take my foot off OF THE PLASTIC LAWN CHAIR. Crazy Spanish people.

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Anyhooooo, the Plaza de Cibeles building was quite breathtaking, inside and out. From here, we were both feeling pretty sluggish (colds + sniffles + coughs + age + self-pity), so we decided to change plans and instead take the Metro across central Madrid, heading west from the neighbourhoods of Recoletos and Justica, bypassing Malasana, and over to Universidad, which, as you might guess, is where you’ll find most of Madrid’s university students and younger types (we did our best to blend in and not hobble around too much).

We disembarked the Metro at San Bernardo station, and walked ourselves in the general direction of Parque del Oeste (Park West), another of Madrid’s major parks. This led us by the Centro Cultural Conde Duque (another major arts/cultural centre) and then, eventually, right into Plaza Espana, where we ran into a great open market—Expo Naciones en Primavera—where J bought me a really beautiful silver ring, and we found even more goodies for those at home.

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Once at Parque del Oeste, we were treated to some spectacular views across to the Palacio Real and Cateral de la Almudena, which we’d visited on Day One. It was really the first time we’d been given a higher-up viewpoint, and as the sun was going down, it couldn’t have been prettier.

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We strolled around the park’s walks and fountains and, once more, found time to relax—i.e., totally sack out—on a park bench.

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The view from my bench, while lying down:

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And here’s when one of the funniest things happened. My stomach was feeling a bit, ummmm, dodgy, so I decided that we probably needed to find a bathroom. We started walking toward this building that seemed to be a bathroom, as lots of people (mostly women, it seemed) were going in and out.

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We walked up to the rather boxy building, climbed the steps, and went through the automatic sliding glass doors, thinking, oh yeah, this is totally a bathroom (J reminded me that I was also chanting, "Please be a bathroom, please be a bathroom, please be a bathroom!"). Nope. Not so fast, silly tourist. It was, in fact, Templo de Debod, an Egyptian temple dedicated to the gods Amun and Isis and dating from 2200 years ago! It was donated to Spain by the Egyptian government in 1968 as a thank you for Spain’s help in rescuing the ruins of Abu Simbel, in Nubia. Good lord. We went inside, and J said, “So, it could be a bathroom … ooorrrrrrr it could be a 2200 year old tomb!” So, being as we never miss an opportunity to scope out even the littlest and shittiest of shacks, this was quite a find, so up we went to explore the original carvings, stones, and other lintels. Heh.

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Funnily enough, by the time we emerged from this darkened catacomb, my stomach was feeling better, so we spent what was left of the day’s sunlight outside the temple’s ponds and archways. Very beautiful, I must say. Thank you, Dodgy Stomach Gods! You just never know where that bad street food is going to take you in life, eh??

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We took our sweet time exiting the park, parking our behinds at the central fountain and slowly exiting along the brightly lit and bustling Cuesta de san Vicente, a major street that led us down to the Principe Pio Metro station (once more, with feeling), where we took in our last night in Madrid in style—drinks and nachos! It was another warm night on a lovely terrace, the Estacion del Norte looming over us. After a couple of drinks, we boarded the Metro, back to Charmartin and our dearly needed beds.

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Night night again!

Posted by janicem 13:04 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

"Ramming speed!"

Day Two in Madrid, Spain

sunny

We slept pretty well on our first night in Madrid, but that is likely owing to the sheer exhaustion with which we fell into bed.

Oh, and let’s update the hair situation: Day One with no hairbrush. Oi.

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Having spent Day One tootling around the areas known as “Downtown” and “Royal Madrid,” we decided to dedicate Day Two to “Old Madrid.” We did, however, elect to start in Downtown, disembarking at the Gran Via Metro station along Gran Via (street).

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Interesting tidbit: Ernest Hemingway arrived in Madrid in March 1937 to find a city under siege. He stayed in the Hotel Florida on Plaza del Callao (since demolished) and recalled dodging shells and sniper bullets on Gran Via as he made his way to the Telefonica building to file his stories. That’s the Telefonica building right there as we first came up to the street.

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We carried on down Gran Via to the Plaza del Callao, and then on to Plaza de Santo Domingo, and then back again to Plaza de Isabel II, where we’d visited the day before.

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Our major objective for the morning: Plaza Mayor, perhaps Madrid’s most popular arcaded plaza, if not its most touristy. By this time, it was blisteringly hot as we explored the four corners of this massive plaza.

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We elected to take one of about a thousand exits from the Plaza Mayor, and found ourselves on a cute little street of shops. Had I known that they sell liquorice by the dozen, I’d never have stopped at the cheap candy shop in our Metro station!

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From there, we were off through a maze of streets, plazas, cafes, terraces, statues, churches, open markets, and pubs, eventually passing through Plaza de Segovia Nueva, Plaza de Santa Cruz (home to the Palacio de Santa Cruz), Plaza de Jacinto Benavente, and then Plaza de Santa Ana, where we found the Teatro Espanol (Spanish Theatre).

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We carried on down Calle del Principe, and came out at Plaza de Canalejas, which was a kind of roundabout with the most beautiful buildings in all directions.

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From there, we ambled down Carrera de San Jeronimo, passing by a number of legal buildings, including Congreso de los Disputados (law courts).

We took a wee break at Plaza de las Cortes before venturing on to Plaza de Canovas del Castillo, which is one’s entrance to the “Paseo del Prado,” another of Madrid’s major areas/divisions and home to the famous Museo del Prado (“museo” = museum), not to mention the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the other two of Madrid’s major museum trifecta.

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We managed our way around the massive roundabout to the Prado Museum proper, which is bordered by the fancy schmancy Ritz Hotel on one side and the Iglesia de San Jeronimo el Real (“iglesia” = church) at the back.

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After a short rest on the museum’s lawn, we made our way to the day’s ultimate destination: Parque del Retiro (“parque” = park and “retiro” = retreat). It’s Madrid’s Stanley Park, an inner urban park and the pride of Madrid’s citizens. It is quite large, actually, anchored by the dominant inner lake, Estanque Grande. If it was already blisteringly hot earlier in the day, by now, we were officially cooking. On top of that, J was fighting a nasty cold (it was his turn this time), and I was still battling a nagging cough I’d had since we returned from Salzburg. Being the intrepid tourists we are, we soldiered on, and we entered off the Calle de Filipe IV, and took our time exploring the many gardens.

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I must say, this park has some of the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen. They even grow in heart formation!

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Soon, we found ourselves strolling the lake’s perimeter, taking in the local artisans (J bought me the most beautiful necklace and bracelet) and stopping at nearly every stand for a drink or bathroom break.

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We finally gave in and decided to go for it: a row on the lake! It was only €4.55 for 45 mins, so how could we go wrong? On the lake (hey, we shared the rowing—and by “shared,” I mean that J did 90% and I “had a go” as he says *eyeroll*), we got up-close views of the lake’s major monument, Monumento a Alfonso XII, the rather Romanesque structure on the park’s east side. For some odd reason, J didn't take kindly to my declaring, in full Quintas Arias voice, "Ramming speed, 41!" Not sure why he didn't appreciate my Ben Hur reference while rowing his lungs out. Some people just don't appreciate great acting. *shrug*

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After such a strenuous workout (heh), it was time for beer and ice cream! We parked ourselves at one of the park’s many outdoor restaurants/cafes, where we had perhaps the weirdest waiter I’ve ever seen. Suffice to say, I ended up in such a bad laughing fit that I almost choked myself trying to stifle it. If our waiter didn’t already hate me, he sure did after that!

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After we left there, rested and cooled off considerably, we were able to take in the Alfonso XII monument even more closely.

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Then it was on to the Palacio de Cristal—the Crystal Palace—a nifty glass building in the middle of the park. But first, we hit the Palacio de Valezquez. We mistakenly thought that Valezquez was the Cristal, but alas, it just wasn’t … crystal-y enough, ya know?

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The Crystal Palace is situated on a small lake with a big fountain and low-hanging cave-like walkthroughs. For some reason, the city police were doing their horsey practicing there.

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After checking out the palaces, we spent the rest of the evening strolling the park’s major pathways, named for Uruguay and Cuba, for some reason unknown to us but I’m sure very important. The evening’s joggers, rollerbladers, walkers, and other street performers were out in full force, not to mention the cutest dogs ever! Who knew that the Spanish were such fans of Yorkies? When we were in York, we didn’t see one Yorkie, but between Salzburg and Madrid alone, we’ve seen 100s!

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We did make one pit stop at La Rosaleda—the park’s rose gardens. Unfortunately, we were a wee bit early in the season, so we saw only about …oh … 4 or 5 roses!

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We exited with one more stroll by the lake, where we ran in to a pack of wild cats! Weird.

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We left the park via the major entrance at the Plaza de la Indepenence, another massive roundabout with another massive Arc de Triumphe-like archway. (Notice that I say “massive” a lot? Freud would have a field day with that, no doubt.)

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From there, it was just a few steps to the Retiro Metro station and home once more to Hotel Charmartin.

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Night night again!

Posted by janicem 12:30 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

"No one expects a Spanish inquisition!"

Day One in Madrid, Spain

sunny 28 °C

Ah, the last major blog post of vacation. This is always a tough one, mainly because one’s mind starts to focus on going home, going back to work, going back to reality, etc., and also, one is dead-ass tired from so much backing-and-forthing, here and there, everywhere.

All that said, I am determined not to let our trip to Madrid go un-blogged! That happened to me last year when we went to Cardiff—probably the best day we had spent in the entire six weeks—and I didn’t have one ounce of energy left to write it up, choose pictures, upload the pictures, edit the blog, do all the hyperlinks, etc. etc. I have often thought about going back to that day in Cardiff and writing the blog post anyway, but hey, even I’m not that mental.

Well, maybe.

But … Madrid! Olé!

We had an early 8:25am flight time, and luckily for us, J’s mum drove us to Stansted Airport, which is about an hour away from Harrow. It was an early rise, for sure, and we were out the door around 6am. The only good thing about leaving that early is the lack of traffic, which is never a bad thing when in London.

Once more, we were treated to the finest in No Frills Flying with the illustrious Ryanair. Now, really, with what other so-called airlines are offering (nothing, or less than nothing) at outrageous prices, I’m starting to think that the No Frills way (hey, at least it’s honest) is the way to go. The flight was on time, smooth, and about ¾ full. Perfect.

We arrived at Madrid’s Barajas airport around 11:30am, and very quickly, we were on the Metro, which couldn’t be easier to navigate. There are only 12 lines, all numbered 1-12 and colour-coded. It’s almost impossible to get lost. Also, we both noticed immediately how very civilized (i.e., quiet, spacious, spread out, timely) the Metro is. Compared to London’s tube, it’s downright quiet! Sure, it does get busy on a Friday night and during rush hours, but that’s a given for any subway system. Overall, though, for a major metropolis, it’s remarkable how well the Metro works.

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Again, our Super Sleuth Advanced Planning and Logistics Team (J & J Enterprises, Inc.) had it all sussed out ahead of time, so of course, we were centrally and conveniently located at the Hotel Charmartin, which of course is right at the Charmartin Metro station! So, a few stops, and we were there. And, a few steps later, we were escalating up above ground and checking in.

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Right before we walked in the door, we looked to our right and saw four gigantic skyscrapers, one of which (the one on the far left) looks like a giant flash drive! Right? It even has a hook on the top for a key ring! Heh.

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Anyhoooooo … this hotel was different from the one in Salzburg in that it is more of an inner-city, business hotel (meeting rooms, etc.) with no real boutique charm to speak of. But, we knew that going in. We chose it for its central location, attachment to the Metro, free breakfast (!), and price. Now, we could have picked a hotel more central to Downtown or Old Madrid, but really, we are talking about a few stations away, and at night, Downtown/Old Town is pretty whack-a-doodle crazy, as the Spaniards, they are a … ummmmmm … lively bunch.

Now, our room was just as simplistic as any other budget-y European hotel—maybe even more so. Case in point? Save for the bathroom, there were no power outlets in the room! Oh, wait. There was that one outlet. Behind the TV. That can’t be accessed because the TV—that is bolted to the credenza—blocks access. Oh, I suppose one of the Wizard of Oz’s very best Lollipop Guild members could have slid a finger back there, but both J and I tried several times (and I’m practically half Munchkin!). After about 10 mins of that crap, we decided we could do everything we needed to do with the one outlet in the bathroom. Well, that lasted a few hours, and finally, I decided that charging the computer in the bathroom, on a wet counter, wasn’t a wise idea. I mean, I know I have only half a PhD, but even I could cleverly work that one out. So, I asked about the Mystery Spanish Power Outlets (Olé!) at the front desk, and as nonchalantly as you can imagine, the front desk dude says, “Oh, there’s one behind the TV,” to which I replied, “Yes, I know that, but you can’t actually get at it because the TV is right against the wall blocking access.” He looked at me with his fiery flamenco eyes, and said, “Hmmmm. I’ll send up an extension to plug in then!” I’m also pretty sure he threw in a “Pfffft” and “Arriba! Arriba!” as well. Now, silly us, when he said he’d send up an extension cord, we foolishly thought this would also involve, you know … PLUGGING IT IN. Jaysus! When we returned to our room later that night, yes, it was there, with four nifty outlets. Neat. Only … still no card carrying member of the Lollipop Guild. So, there was J, down on his hands and knees, arm strainingly stretched out to full length behind the TV, with just the 1.5 fingers he could actually extend, trying like hell to get this thing plugged in … fumbling around blind! Of course … again, stupid us … we just weren’t smart enough to realize that the holes in this particular wall, in this particular outlet, would be, for some reason, unlike every single other outlet in Spain, turned sideways! Sigh. Somehow, J the Wonder Handyman did resolve it, and lo and behold, he somehow got the prongs in, and power was upon the land! And it was good.

The room was pretty basic (no, really?). Our Advanced Research Team had alerted us to the small size of beds in Madrid, so we opted for the Ricky and Lucy Ricardo Special twin beds. We were tickled to end up with a toilet and a bidet (of course, this begged a rehearsal of the bidet scene from Crocodile Dundee, heh). Once more, the so-called ‘hairdryer’ was more akin to a 1980s Eletrolux, but hey, that wasn’t nearly as catastrophic as the other realization that came upon me as I entered the bathroom for my routine inspection: I had left my hairbrush back in London! Well, given the 28c we were expecting for the next 3-4 days, this was going to make for either a very interesting Hairdo Epic Fail, or perhaps the best hair day known to mankind. *shrug*

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Once I recovered from that massive shock, we decided to take off and explore. Given our central Metro location, this was as easy as a quick ride to the Sol station from Charmartin. Puerto del Sol ("puerto" = port) is perhaps Madrid’s most central plaza. Oh, and let’s just establish right now that navigating Madrid—especially Central Madrid—is really about just accepting that every turn means another plaza, and every plaza has about 6 or 8 streets that branch out from the plaza, each ending in another plaza, another 6 or 8 streets … another 6 or 8 plazas … you get the picture. After a while, you stop trying to precisely map your way and just go with the flow, which for J & J Enterprises, Inc., is a major paradigm shift in thinking. Luckily, I had Magellan with me, and dude has some seriously mad navigation skillz.

So, up we came above ground at Puerto del Sol, in the neighbourhood by the same name, and what greeted us, but a peppy mariachi band! No joke. Immediately, we were sweating like hookers in church. We agreed that there is undoubtedly a different sun beating down on Spain than the one that heats either Vancouver or London. Seriously, 28c in Vancouver is not the same as the 28c we were in!

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From the Puerto del Sol, we started off, and from here, I think it’s best if I introduce each section of our trek with a short preface, followed by a series of photos that exemplify that section. It’s simply impossible to keep track of every plaza, every garden, every building, every church. Madrid is a constantly brimming maze of history, architecture, people, flora, fauna, you name it. Unlike Salzburg, where we were treated to alternating vistas both high and low, in Madrid, you are almost always surrounded by structure. Madrid is Europe's highest capital city, but most of that height above sea level is occupied by lowlands and city. Also like Salzburg, the photos really don’t do it justice. But, here we go anyway.

This first trek took us from Sol, up to Plaza del Callo, to the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales ("real" = royal), one of the ‘Top 10’ places to visit in Madrid, at least according to our nifty guidebook. While I ran around taking pictures of the monastery and the adjacent Plaza de San Martin, J hung with the locals, heh.

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From there, we were on to Plaza de Isabel II, in the Centro neighbourhood, another massive plaza, bordered on one side by the Teatro Real (Royal Theatre), which then leads to a truly magnificent plaza among magnificent plazas, Plaza de Oriente. The Plaza de Oriente is essentially a huge gardened square, with nothing less than the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) bordering its western edge (of course, the palace is another 'Top 10' Must See). We spent quite a bit of time there, exploring the gardens (including yet another walkable maze!), statues, and palace. The palace itself is very much like Buckingham Palace in its size and structure, but it’s decidedly more open, with no major fencing/gates, at least along the Plaza del Oriente side.

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A walk along the palace’s boardwalk takes you to the Plaza de Armas and then to the Catedral de la Amudena, perhaps Madrid’s biggest and most important cathedral.

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From there, we were on to one of Madrid’s major park areas, Campo del Moro (campo = “park”), which also happens to be the royal gardens. We didn’t know that it's fenced off and thus not accessible to the public, so instead we walked its southern perimeter, found a comfy bench (and a cute dog!), and took in a few games of Spanish bocci (I know that’s Italian, but I don’t know what Spanish bocci is called!). Then, a wee bit more rested, we headed just a few steps across the street to the Manzanares River, Madrid’s major riverway, although that’s not saying much, as apparently even the locals treat it as a kind of joke. It’s quite tiny, narrow, and shallow, and this is probably Contributor #1 to Madrid’s ongoing water problems.

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It really was a lovely evening, as once again, the setting sun and twilight were on our side, photo-wise. In the distance, we got new views of the palace and cathedral, and along the river’s edge were plenty of bridges, walkways, more statues, and lots of locals out for their evening stroll.

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After a leisurely walk, we finally made our way back up to the main street—and an amazing Arc de Triumphe-esque archway roundabout—and the Principe Pio Metro station, which is attached to the large Estacion del Norte (Estacion = “station”), one of Madrid's oldest and most historic buildings. From there, it was only 15 mins back to Charmartin and a much needed good night’s sleep (after wrestling with the power cord, mind you)! Night!

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Posted by janicem 09:16 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Another Night at the Theatre

Blood Brothers at the Phoenix Theatre

sunny 10 °C

I somehow managed to come out smelling like a rose on this one! One of J's birthday presents (from his big sis) was two tickets to Blood Brothers, one of the West End's longest running plays (it premiered in 1983, and this current production has been running since 1988), and probably one of the two hardest to get in to (the other one? War Horse, which we'd already seen thanks to J!).

Blood Brothers is a musical written by the famous Willy Russell and based (loosely) on The Corsican Brothers by Alexandre Dumas. The story is an age-old nature vs. nurture plot, based on twins who are separated at birth--one grows up poor and uneducated, while the other becomes an Oxford-educated politician. The story takes place over a couple of decades and covers every theme imaginable--class, race, religion, gender, immigration, abandonment, love, marriage ... you name it.

The Phoenix Theatre is a small, quaint house nestled in on Charing Cross Road. We had enough time to take a quick once-around the local Soho/West End neighbourhood before our 7:45pm curtain call.

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The Phoenix Theatre itself is quite beautiful inside, with lower stalls, a real old-fashioned dress circle, and an upper circle, which is where we were seated. Turned out that our seats were perfect: being a Monday night, the upper circle wasn't completely full, so we had many seats all to ourselves with an unobstructed view! As always, my obsession with original theatre posters continues! I'd love to have my own collection of these one day.

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The play was EXCELLENT. I can't for the life of me figure out why Canada hasn't seen a large-scale production of this musical. It's a real crowd pleaser, even at 2.5 hours.

One unrelated piece of information I learned this night: the youth of London don't give a crap about Charles II.

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Posted by janicem 14:35 Archived in England Comments (0)

The Hills Are (Still) Alive ... and (Still) Kicking!

Day Four in Salzburg, Austria

sunny 15 °C

Long before we left London, one of our key destinations was always going to be Untersberg, the highest mountain in the Salzburg area. It sits just southwest of the city proper and towers over it at 1853m (6078 ft). The mountain itself is a limestone deposit, with bits of salt and marble throughout. It’s a craggy terrain and quite steep, so only the fittest Austrians should attempt a climb on foot! For those of us who are considerably more delicate, there’s a cable car, much like the one at Grouse Mountain, and again, faster than you can say “No. 25 bus,” we were there.

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Being a reasonably clear day (a bit hazy, but hey), the views from the top were incredible. You can see the whole of the Salzburg basin from up there, and even into Bavaria, the Watzmann (the second highest mountain in Germany) and as far as the Lake District (Salzkammergut) to the east and the Hohe Tauern mountains in the south.

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There are some walks from the cable car station to even higher viewpoints, and we did meander around for an hour or so. We would have gone farther and higher, but the slopes were slick, and we had only our city shoes on. Also, the drops were unbelievably sheer and steep, with no guard rails whatsoever! So, cooler heads prevailed, and we (mostly) played it safe.

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Well ... I wasn't going to have any this shit:

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We really didn’t want to leave, but alas, down we came eventually. We decided we weren’t quite ready to hit the bus back to town, so we instead indulged in our first authentic Austrian apple strudel! Mmmmmmmmm. Warm from the oven with fresh cream and hot chocolate. Mmmmmmmmmmm.

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Soon enough, we were back in Old Town, wandering what were by now starting to feel like quite comfortable stomping grounds! You’d think that, by now, we’d call it a day, but it was only at this point on our last full day that we were to be most pleasantly surprised in this city full of nothing but surprises.

As you might recall, we had already climbed up Monchsberg to the fortress, but there are several ways up the mountain, and more than just the fortress to explore throughout the upper rims. We decided to take the lift up to the Museum of Modern Art, which sits atop the western end of Monchsberg, at the farther end opposite the fortress. Now, we knew there were some walking paths up there, and even a way to eventually walk the entire length of the mountaintop over to the fortress, but never in a million years did we expect #1 to make that walk and #2 to find as much beauty as we did. It turned out to be the most awe-inspiring hours of our entire trip, with one breathtaking view after another.

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We first set off toward Johannesschlossl, a small castle on Monchsberg’s far west end, and then toward Humboldt Terrasse, back to the Museum of Modern Art, and then on to Salzburger Burgerwehr—oh, just another completely stunning fortification and set of medieval walls in the middle of seeming nowhere! In between all these remarkable sights are actual homes—people’s actual houses—which are just as spectacular in their location, presentation, and history. All the while, you keep coming out to these lookout points, with Salzburg splayed out below—Old Town, New Town, the Salzach River, and well beyond, and one can’t help but take the same photos over and over again!

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We did make the trip straight across Monchsberg, taking in the southern rim and views of Untersberg and south/southwest Salzburg that one almost forgets about with the fixation on Old/New Town.

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And, just as it had on our last day in Paris, the sun couldn’t have been setting more beautifully, providing for us simply perfect photo-taking light, as we found ourselves on the far side of the fortress, up above Alstadt (Old Town). From there, we found one of the winding back roads that seemingly only the local joggers know about. We wound our way through some of Salzburg’s oldest streets and homes, back down to street level. The whole thing was mind-blowing and something you really only appreciate long after making the trek and having time to really process all you’ve seen.

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There seemed to be only one thing left to do: a nice sit down dinner in Old Town! Off we went in search of the perfect meal, and we weren’t disappointed. Now, it wasn’t Austrian, or German, but it was something that Austrians seem to love even more: Italian! Heh. We were so stuffed that we almost couldn’t walk back to our hotel. Pizza was shared, spicy sausage pasta was devoured, and yet more warm apple strudel was inhaled.

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All that was left was a night-lit walk across the Staatsbrucke once more, back up Linzergasse, and in to the Goldenes Theatre Hotel.

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The next day, we flew home to London. What a holiday we'd had in Salzburg. Auf Wiedersehen Salzburg! Auf Wiedersehen Austria!

Posted by janicem 13:12 Archived in Austria Comments (0)

The Hills Are (Still) Alive ... and Kicking!

Day Three in Salzburg, Austria

sunny 15 °C

Our second full day could not have started any better, as we threw open the curtains to find a beautiful, sunny day outside.

One objective we’d had our eyes on since landing in Salzburg was climbing the small mountain right beside our hotel in New Town: Kapuzinerberg. The entrance up the long climb sits right on Linzergasse opposite the Hotel Gablerbrau. Kapuzinerberg holds the bragging rights for being Salzburg’s highest point at 636m (2087ft). The hill was inhabited during Neolithic times and the two settlements above the monastery have been dated to 1000 BC.

The walk up starts with a climb up some stairs to the six Baroque Stations of the Cross, which were built between 1736 and 1744. Halfway up to the monastery (really, just the first few minutes of climbing) sits Felix Gate, dating from about 1632, from where you get one of what will be dozens and dozens of panoramic views of the city.

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A few steps more and you pass St. John’s Chapel, and yet another view of the city. Of course, one cannot ascend Kapuzinerberg without visiting the Capuchin Monastery, which was originally a military tower and fortification system built by nervous archbishops in the Middle Ages. It was Archbishop Wolf Dietrich who first called the Capuchin monks to Salzburg in 1594 and transformed the fortification to a monastery and church. The monastery is surrounded by a wall, which runs from Felix Gate and straddles the western, southern, and eastern slopes. The cross and bastion of the monastery are dominant features of the landscape, which is itself quiet and forested. Another piece of trivia: the Gothic oak door of the inner portal of the monastery is said to be a relic from the old Salzburg Cathedral.

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The home nestled in at Kapuzinerberg No. 5 is the former residence of the famous writer Stefan Zweig, who lived in Salzburg from 1919 until 1934, when he fled following Hitler’s rise to power.

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Carrying on, we spent about an hour climbing and climbing, sometimes stairways, sometimes pathways, on to a few lookout points—Bayer. Aussicht first, straight down from which stands our hotel, and then, ultimately Franziskischlossl, the castle that sits atop Kapuzinerberg’s peak at the 636m mark.

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Once again, we were met with the only kind of senior citizens that Europe seems to churn out: those that manage to beat our sorry behinds up the mountainside with just a couple of walking sticks!

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After exploring the area of the castle, we ventured off to the next lookout point, Stadtaussicht, from where we could look across to the fortress and the far reaches of Old Town and southern Salzburg. Unfortunately, the pathway we really wanted—Bastei-Weg—was closed, likely until summer months, so we were not permitted to walk the mountain’s southern-most ridge. Nonetheless, we made our way back down to Linzergasse, via St. Johannes Church.

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At this point, given the bright, sunny day, we decided that now was as perfect a time to revisit Makartplatz and the sights leading back to Mirabell Gardens (including the Barockmuseum). Of course, it was also the perfect day for a very Von Trappesque spin around the Mirabell fountains! The gardens, Mirabell Palace, fountains, and sculptures couldn’t have been more beautiful. It was a summer-like day as we sat on a bench, practically nodding off to sleep, watching the ducks in the fountain.

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When we did carry on, we made our way over Makartsteg, the one pedestrian bridge over the Salzach River.

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Next thing you know, we’re back in Old Town, smack dab in the middle of Hagenauerplatz, and wouldn’t you know it *smacks forehead* there’s Mozart’s Birthplace! In we went to explore the home in which Mozart was born. It was full of many rooms, each full of stories and compositions. The contents of the home are really quite remarkable—almost impossible to appreciate, really—and as it turns out, I wasn’t supposed to be taking photos. Oops! I did get called out once or twice, but that was after I was told about the no-photos policy! Before that, I did manage to get a few snaps.

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Our post-Mozart’s Birthplace visit seemed like the opportune time to avail ourselves of a true Austrian sausage! Ahem. We enjoyed these as we strolled around the open markets of Universitatsplatz.

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Oh, and have I mentioned the world’s biggest pretzels yet?

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So, there it was, about 4 or 5pm, and we were remarking at how much we had managed to cover in just a day or two—much more than we ever anticipated—and Janice had one of those World’s Greatest Girlfriend Moments that J is sure to remember well into our diaper-wearing years. For those who don’t know, the only thing J loves more than … ME … is Formula One Grand Prix racing. And did you know that Salzburg, Austria is the home base for Red Bull’s racing teams (both Formula One and airplane teams)? Turns out that the owner of Red Bull—of the whole company that is—is so stinkin’ filthy rich that he can afford to own a whole fleet of racing planes and Formula One cars … just on the side, ya know? He houses this collection at a place called Hangar 7, which is situated right before the airport. Knowing just how much J would love this, and despite that it was not on our Designated Sightseeing Objectives list, I nonetheless suggested that we throw caution to the wind, hop in a cab, and get ourselves to Hangar 7! J’s face perked up like nothing I’ve ever seen, and before you know it, we were on our way. We actually figured out a simple way to take the bus there, and with our Salzburg Cards and free transit service, we instead hopped the bus, and before you can say “Eins zwei drei go!” we were there!

Built in 2003, the steel/glass domed building itself is quite beautiful, and it’s immediately evident that a lot of private money backs this joint! I was surprised at how many F1 cars were actually there, as being a hangar, I assumed it was more about Red Bull’s airplane teams and vintage aircraft than their F1 teams, but alas, it was a pretty equal distribution. No matter, J was in his glory, as we wound our way around the various displays. Side note: the venue is also home to rotating art shows, exhibiting local and international artists.

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J also managed a go on the Red Bull simulator, wherein he bested the fastest lap time! Just to make sure that it wasn’t a fluke, he went back after and did it a second time!

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We had time for a quick pitstop in the hangar’s café, where we drank Red Bull with fancy passionfruit cutouts! Heh.
As we made our way back to Old Town, and as the sun was setting and twilight was upon us, the light reflecting off of Hangar 7 was quite stunning. The pictures really don’t do it justice, nor the looks of Kid-At-Christmas fascination on J’s face. There really is nothing quite like going somewhere you have always wanted to go but really had no hope of seeing.

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It seemed there was only one thing left to make this a 100% perfect day: make our way back to our newly adopted Austrian tavern for more beers, wines, and pretzels!

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And this is what happens when you have one too many Austrian home brews:

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And with that … a goodnight. Tomorrow: Untersberg!!!

Posted by janicem 11:10 Archived in Austria Comments (0)

The Hills Are (Still) Alive!

Day Two in Salzburg, Austria

overcast 7 °C

We decided to dedicate our first full day to wondering around Alstadt (Old Town). This seemed to be the wisest course of action, given the day’s weather forecast (not cold, but overcast and drizzly off and on throughout the day). We made what would be many a daily trip down Linzergasse, with a quick pit stop for umbrellas!

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As would become quite typical for us, no sooner had we ventured about two steps forward down Linzergasse (in other words, not even out of New Town yet), and we were already upon one of Salzburg’s most historically significant churches: St. Sebastian’s Church, originally a Gothic church built between 1505 and 1512. Deteriorating over the years, it was torn down in 1750 and rebuilt as a Baroque hall. The New Town fire of 1818 destroyed some parts of both iterations, most notably the gorgeous ceiling frescoes. A major renovation took place in 1820, and most recently, restorations were completed in 1996. The most striking feature of the church is its inner courtyards and cemetery, which is surrounded by four arcades and peppered with graves, tombs, shrines, and holy relics—the final resting places of many of Salzburg’s best known residents, including Mozart’s wife and father. In the centre of the cemetery sits the Chapel of St. Gabriel.

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From there, it was just a quick walk down the rest of Linzergasse toward the Staatsbrucke (State Bridge), the major bridge over the Salzach River, and the quickest way from New Town to Old Town.

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We ducked under one of the myriad of archways that lead into even more plazas and town squares, and before we knew it, we were already bypassing Rathausplatz and ambling down Judengasse, home to the Jews of Salzburg after they were expelled from the city in 1498. Judengasse is, like all cobble-stoned streets of Old Town, home to many charming shops, boutiques, and cafes, not to mention one of the most bizarre Christmas/Easter shops ever. Judengasse ends as you reach Alter Markt, another busy square.

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Trust us, that we found Salzburg’s only authentic Irish Pub! I was sad to find out that, not only did they show NHL games there, but we had just missed a Canucks game! Ah well.

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Soon, we were through Waagplatz, on to Mozartplatz (dominated by the controversial statue of Mozart—controversial because, first, it’s not a very good likeness and, worse, it contains a glaring anachronism: Mozart is portrayed holding a pencil in his hand, even though the pencil was not invented until 20-30 years after his death), Residenzplatz (Salzburg’s biggest square and home to the Residenz—the seat/home of the archbishops since medieval times—the Residenz Gallery, the Residenz Fountain, the Neue Residenz, Salzburg Museum, Glockenspiel, and Panorama Museum), and Domplatz (home to Salzburg’s cathedral, perhaps the most impressive Baroque edifice north of the Alps and the religious centre of Salzburg).

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I had a bit of a standoff with one of Salzburg’s finest horses in Residenzplatz as it attempted to eat my newly purchased umbrella! Good horsey!!

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Next was Kapitelplatz, easily recognizable by the massive chess board on the ground. Also, there’s Neptune’s Fountain, open markets, artists, musicians, and of course, horses. On the far side of Kapitelplatz is Festungsgasse—the road that leads up to the fortress—and the home to Stieglkeller, one of Salzburg’s most famous pubs. The Festungsgasse also provides views of the city many would recognize from The Sound of Music.

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When we were doing our pre-trip planning, we never intended to take in Old Town and the fortress all in one day, but there we were, at the foot of Monchsberg and the Festung Hohensalzburg—the aforementioned fortress, and perhaps Salzburg’s most widely known symbol. The Hohensalzburg is the largest and best preserved fortress in Europe and has a long and varied history under many archbishops. Construction began in 1077, was enlarged and renovated up until the 17th century. During times of peace, the fortress was used as a barracks and prison. I could never do justice to this magnificent fortress, its inner structures, its views, its history … so I’ll just let the images say as much as possible.

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After several hours exploring the fortress, we did eventually descend Monchsberg, and were immediately in to the pathway of St. Peter’s Abbey, the oldest active monastery in Austria. Founded in c.700, St. Peter’s is recognized as the spiritual centre around which Salzburg flourished. The Abbey was destroyed by fire in 1127 and has undergone many renovations/restorations/reconstructions since then, and the results are traces of numerous architectural styles (Romanesque, Baroque, Rococo …). St. Peter’s witnessed the music of a just 13-year-old Mozart in 1769, and the church’s cemetery contains many of Salzburg’s aristocracy. Next to the cemetery are the Abbey’s famous catacombs carved into the wall of the rock during the early Christian times.

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Soon, we were into Max-Reinhardt-Platz (yes, the same guy who held the Salzburg Festival that helped the Von Trapps escape), from which one can see the Museum der Moderne Rupertinum, Haus fur Mozart (House for Mozart), Grosses Festspielhaus (Large Festival Hall), Spielzeugmuseum (Toy Museum), Universitat, Kollegienkirche (Collegiate Church), and Franziskanerkirche (Franciscan Church).

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Our Good Weather Luck was starting to run out, and as the rain started to pour down, we ducked into a week espresso bar, where we enjoyed beer, tea, and pizza (who knew the Austrians loved pizza so much?). In a you-had-to-be-there moment, poor J was fighting a losing battle with a broken umbrella (yes, one of the brand new ones we’d just forked over eight Euros for!), so the respite inside a warm café was most welcome.

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We moseyed back to our hotel, and lo and behold, just mere steps away was the cutest Austrian tavern, where we hung out trying authentic Austrian beers, wine, and pretzels! The atmosphere was exactly the stereotype you’d expect, with wooden beams, barrels, and home breweries, and it was obvious from the large numbers of locals there that the home cooking was equally as good.

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We finally put Day Two to bed, a little more tired, a little more water-logged, but a lot more entertained and knowledgeable. What a phenomenal 24 hours!

Posted by janicem 10:30 Archived in Austria Comments (0)

The Hills Are Alive!

Day One in Salzburg, Austria

overcast 8 °C

I don't even know where to start this blog entry.

I mean ... how do you find a word that means Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

I thought the blog entry for York was challenging. I have no idea where to begin or how to organize this one! I’m sitting here on the couch, netbook on lap, feet on coffee table, cat snuggled in to my hip, 1800 photos, and endless memories at my disposal … you’d think that the words would flow. And yet, I haven’t the foggiest idea how to convey all that is Salzburg. What an amazing experience, truly. J and I are still talking about it, and I’m sure we will for years and years to come. Granted, we only had 4 nights in Salzburg, and we pretty much contained ourselves to New Town and Old Town, venturing out only as far as southern Salzburg for a trek up Untersberg Mountain (more on that later), but we were nonetheless completely blown away with Salzburg’s unrelenting natural beauty and history. Around every corner was a new adventure, a new discovery, and each step brought a vista more stunning than the last. Even an afternoon of rain couldn’t spoil our fun.
Perhaps the best way to organize things is simply chronologically.

OK. Day One.

We flew via Stansted Airport with that most Irish of airlines, Ryanair, famous not only for its ridiculously cheap airfares (£60 for both of us, London to Salzburg, return!), but also its claim to most on-time flights per year of any airline! Were we on time? Yes, as a matter of fact, we were. Mind you, with prices that cheap and planes that fast, it’s no surprise that the plane appears to be made entirely of tissue paper and Silly Putty, the onboard “meal” is cat food, and the jet fuel isn’t so much actual fuel as uneaten Irish soda bread. But, I digress …

For once we weren’t flying at a completely ungodly hour, and we landed in Salzburg at a very human 12pm. As one would expect, there were a number of English tourists on the plane just like us (well, there isn’t anyone quite like me, I know, but you know what I mean), and many of them were quite helpful in getting us on a bus from the airport. Turns out that the only thing easier to navigate than Salzburg is Salzburg’s bus system, and before you can say “Bus No. 8,” we were right in the heart of the action at the edge of the Salzach River.

We stayed north of the Salzach River in New Town (a relative term, as it's “new” only in comparison to the ancient Old Town that is south of the river) at a cute “theatre hotel” called Goldenes Theatre Hotel, so named for its place in Salzburg’s historical theatre district. Like almost every hotel in Salzburg, it’s typically European, typically boutique, typically petite. We were lucky enough to secure a great corner room on the top floor (there are only three), with a pretty view of the nearby Kapuzinerberg (just to clarify, “berg” in all cases = "mountain”). Being a theatre hotel, each room is named after a famous Austrian and/or German performer, and our room was named for Mr. Leo Slezak himself. The room was small but functional, equipped with a small kitchenette, table/chairs, and remarkably, three windows! The bathroom was, again, tiny, but I have to say, the water pressure was like nothing I’ve ever seen, let alone in a small, European hotel! It was somewhere between “Sand Blast” and “Power Wash.” The hotel also had a cute lounge area and a small breakfast room where we enjoyed a nice buffet each morning.

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At Goldenes, we could not have been more conveniently located along Linzergasse, one of Salzburg’s most central and significant streets (to clarify, “gasse” and “strasse” in all cases = “street” or “road”). A number of the buildings and homes on Linzergasse date back to the 14th and 15th centuries, even though a massive fire in 1818 caused serious damage to the north side of the river (New Town). Much of Linzergasse was rebuilt, and many of the old burgher houses were renovated and can still be seen lining the street today. By the time we checked in to our hotel, relaxed for a bit, picked up a few staples (bonus: grocery store across the street!), and checked out the F1 race on TV (hey, we were in the HQ of F1’s own Red Bull team after all), we decided to spend what was left of Day One with a little reconnaissance mission out and around New Town. It was a bit overcast but dry as we set out to investigate our immediate surroundings.

Much of what follows will be explained in more detail later on, so for now, I’ll just share some images of what we first saw as we strolled down Linzergasse.

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Soon, we found ourselves at Makartplatz (just to clarify, “platz” in all cases = “plaza” or “square”). Makartplatz is dominated by the rather awesome Church of the Holy Trinity (just one of about a hundred churches we were to see in the next 72 hours), which was built between 1694 and 1702. Perhaps the most famous and busiest address in this neighbourhood is No. 9 Makartplatz, Mozart’s Residence, where Mozart’s family lived from 1773 to 1780. Mozart’s father, Leopold, moved his family there for more space, especially for his son to compose and work. Indeed, Mozart produced many symphonies, concertos, arias, masses, and other sacred pieces in this very house. After Mozart left home and his mother had died and sister had married, only Leopold lived there He died in 1787, and the house thereafter had many owners, until 1989, when the International Mozarteum Foundation purchased the building, which had been rebuilt as an office block after a bomb struck it in 1944. In 1994, the office building was torn down and rebuilding began according to the original plans, utilizing the original foundation. Today, it’s largely a museum displaying exhibits from the Mozart family.

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Opposite Mozart’s family residence is the Landestheater¸ and behind it, the Marionettentheater and the Mozarteum (dedicated to the research and development of Mozart’s music), comprising the city’s artistic centre. Carrying on down Dreifaltigkeitsgasse (say that three times fast!), we were soon upon the famous Mirabell Palace and Gardens. Here, one is almost overwhelmed with the geometric gardens and flowerbeds, fountains, roses, and sculptures. Perhaps the most famous of these are those featured in The Sound of Music during the singing of “Do Re Mi.” The palace was built in 1606 by Archbishop Dietrich, who wanted a residence outside the town walls … for his mistress! Ahem. Oh, and their TEN children. It was renamed Mirabell by his successor after he (Dietrich, that is) was imprisoned in the fortress (seen in the distance up on the hill … again, more on that later). The palace was ravaged by the same fire that did in most of New Town in 1818, but fortunately, the famous marble staircase and hall were left intact. Much rebuilding and renovation has taken place over the years, and today, the palace is home to the Office of the Mayor, so luckily, many parts of the building are open to the public on a daily basis. Now, given the late hour, we decided to take only a quick look around Mirabell and come back on a sunnier day at an earlier time. So, more on Mirabell later …

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In the meantime, as you can see, daylight was fading fast, and as it was also a bit windy, and we were getting cold, it seemed like an opportune time to partake of some real Austrian hot chocolate. No joke was it good … J said he’s never tasted such good hot chocolate, and he’s a connoisseur! Alas, the night came to end here, and Day One was soon put to bed.

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Posted by janicem 08:43 Archived in Austria Comments (0)

Yorkshire Terriers! Grrrrrrrrrrr!

Two determined tourists in beautiful York

sunny 15 °C

One of the many great things about London is the proximity to so many phenomenally historical cities and towns. York is just one of many, but boy, it did not disappoint. J’s mum gave me a great book called 1001 Days Out, and for some reason, my eye went straight to York.

So, we booked some tix with East Coast Railways, and off we went on a sunny Wednesday morning, departing from the busiest of hubs, King’s Cross, and calling at Peterborough, Newark Northgate, and Doncaster, among others.

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York Train Station is worth the trip itself, with its high glass ceilings and original brick structure.

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The central town/city of York is quite small—smaller than we anticipated—and one can walk it quite easily right from the train station. There are several town squares where flowers and fountains abound. Interspersed among these are endless markers, plaques, statues, and commemorations. Everything from war to disease is memorialized in this wee town.

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Upon exiting the train station, one is struck immediately by the York city walls. According to britainexpress.com, York has more miles of intact city walls than anywhere else in England (about 2.5 miles worth), and some sections of the walls date back to Roman times. When the Romans first arrived in the first century AD, they built a military fort on the banks of the River Ouse. The town of Eboracum grew up around that fort, and walls were first built to enclose both the fort and the growing town. These walls form the basis of the city walls that remain today. The most notable Roman remain is the Multiangular Tower (more on that later). Records indicate that the old Roman walls were in bad shape by the time of the Danish occupation of the city in 867. The Danes restored the walls, and left the Anglo-Saxon tower near the Public Library; apparently, it is the only such tower remaining in England. The majority of the wall dates from the 12th to the 14th century, with a few small areas that were restored in the Victorian period. The three main gateways into the old city stand at Bootham Bar, Monk Bar, Walmgate Bar, and Micklegate Bar. The word "bar" in this case refers to the simple bars which were levelled across the gates to restrict traffic and collect tolls in and out of the city.

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We really had no set agenda for the day, so we let the sunshine and our feet make the sightseeing decisions. So, off we went along the south/southwest extension of the wall, where views both inside and outside the wall battle for one’s attention. On this first climb, we started at Baker Tower and went as far as Micklegate Bar and then turned back to retrace our steps toward town, but with the intention of joining back up to Micklegate Bar from the other direction later in the day.

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A few steps over Lendal Bridge toward Lendal Tower, and we were quickly down on the river, walking along Dame Judi Dench Walk! We found a quiet bench along the river’s edge and settled in for a picnic lunch as the paddle boats and other sailors flitted by.

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Full and satisfied with our sammies, we were barely a few feet back on the trail when we came upon York Walk, York Museum, the Museum Gardens, and what has to be one of the most amazing set of ruins I’ve ever seen—St. Mary’s Abbey. Once owned and run by the Benedictine brotherhoods, the Abbey today is mainly a ruin, completely enclosed by the Museum Gardens. In 1878, the ruins were taken over by the York Philosophical Society, which is still in charge of it today, and somewhat restored through excavation. The original building(s) is a Norman church whose foundation stone was laid by King William II (yes, that one) in 1088. The ruins seen today are mainly those of a rebuilding program which began around 1271, finishing in 1294. These ruins include a major part of the South Transept and West End. Smaller parts of the North Transept and East End are also still visible. Not much remains of the other building that once stood here. These include a Chapter House and its Vestibule, the Slype, Cloister, Warming House, Dormitory, and of course a lavatory. However, in 1987-1988, the Chapter House entrance was re-constructed and can be seen today. Other remains are on display in the Yorkshire Museum.

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We spent quite a bit of time exploring here, even though it was never on our To Do List (we somehow didn’t know about it before leaving London!). Once we did reluctantly depart the Museum Gardens, we again barely made it two steps when we came upon the aforementioned Multiangular Tower, which was built during the reign of Emperor Severus, who resided in York from 209-211 AD. It has 10 sides and stands about 30 feet high. There were once eight towers, including three on each side of the main entrance to the fort.

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Finally, we exited the Museum Gardens and made our way down York’s high street toward York Minster, not only York’s most notable church, but perhaps one of the grandest cathedrals on the planet. Well, it certainly is grand, and the Cathedral and its environs made as big an impression on me as Canterbury Cathedral—maybe even bigger. J remarked how much York Minster looks like Paris’s Notre Dame, and he’s absolutely right.

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From the Cathedral, off we went in search of the one and only Shambles. Yes, those Shambles. The Shambles! Along the way, we enjoyed the many shops and boutiques that now line York’s oldest streets.

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For the uninitiated, The Shambles is an old, old, old street with overhanging timber-framed buildings and homes, some of which date back to the fourteenth century. At one time, it was known as The Great Flesh Shambles, probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon “fleshammels,” meaning literally “flesh shelves.” This reference, of course, comes from the shelves the numerous butchers used to display their meats for sale. The butchers would dispose of the waste offal (yes, that’s apparently a real word meaning gutted animals’ internal organs) and blood by tossing it into what were permanent gullies running down the middle of The Shambles. This is where the expression “what a shambles” comes from, as it was no doubt quite the grotesque scene, as the hustlers and bustlers of York dodged carcasses on way to their Sunday shopping! At one time, there were dozens of butcher shops, but today, there is not a one. There is one butcher shop in the adjacent Little Shambles, which opens up on to Newgate Market, an open-air market catering to shoppers seeking fresh fruit, vegetables, and other sunny-day treats. Although the traditional butchers have vanished, many of the current shops still have meat-hooks hanging outside and, below them, facsimile shelves on which meat would have been displayed. Today, The Shambles’s shops consist of funky cafes, souvenir shops, vintage clothing boutiques, designer outlets, and bookshops. Of course, one is never more than 6 steps away from one of York’s many fine bakeries! (The traditional York biscuits are to die for, as is the fudge and toffee!)

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From The Shambles, we ambled (poetry!) through York’s town centre, smack into the Jorvik Viking Centre! Yes, apparently, York’s deep Roman history isn’t enough for today’s most discerning explorers! They want to throw in a few Vikings just for giggles! We didn't get a chance to go in to Jorvik, but maybe next time.

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Instead, we wandered around, exploring churches and other famous York buildings (e.g.,Fairfax House, Barley Hall), all in effort of our eventual target: Clifford’s Tower.

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Clifford’s Tower is essentially the keep that remains of what was once York Castle, one of the two castles William the Conqueror built in the years following his conquest. The Tower’s history is long and complicated, as it has endured many destructions and restorations over the years. According to cliffordstower.com, the principal castle was begun in 1068, as part of a campaign to combat, and hopefully subdue, anti-Norman sentiment in the north. Its wooden defences focused around the motte; these defenses were destroyed during a rebellion the following year, but then rebuilt by the Normans after suppressing the rebels—in what was undoubtedly quite a smackdown!

In 1190, the wooden keep was again burned down, during a siege by citizens of the Jewish community that had taken refuge there. This was just one instance of a continent-wide persecution stimulated in part by the Crusades. Following the accession of King Richard (no friend of the Jewish community), there were a number of violent outbursts against them in various English towns. In York, many Jews, fearing for their lives, sought protection within the castle. When they refused admittance to even the constable of the castle, an attempt by royal authorities to regain access deteriorated into a mob assault on the castle and its inhabitants. Rather than fall into the hands of the mob, many of the Jews committed suicide and set the keep afire. The survivors emerged the following day, only to be massacred. As punishment for this terrible act, the King's Chancellor dismissed the sheriff and constable and imposed a heavy fine on York's citizens, even though the siege had nothing to do with the majority of them. In the latter half of the thirteenth century, the keep was rebuilt in stone. It was given a quatrefoil plan, of which there is no other example in England. The keep later became known as Clifford's Tower after Roger de Clifford, who was hanged there in 1322.

We did climb up the Tower’s steps and then even farther up the keep’s inside stairwells to the very top, where the view was once again marvelous in all directions.

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We eventually descended and, once again, enjoyed a snack (this time in the York Castle Museum café, nestled in what once were original Castle structures, then prisons, and now museums), all the while taking in what can only be described as a sublimely ridiculous view of the Tower, lawns, and Canadian geese!

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With the last of our sammies and a spot of tea, we took in the last views of the Tower, and then made our way over to Baile Hill Tower, an opposite entrance of the York wall, from where we made our way back around to Micklegate Bar. Again, the views were spectacular—in and out, up and down, William Wordsworth himself would have been astonished at so many daffodils!—and we found ourselves wondering how we might live there! We’re still investigating property prices!

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We did eventually make it back to the rail station, but hey, the day was not yet over! Conveniently located at the station is the NRM—England’s National Railway Museum. To be honest, we only went there (after such a long day) for my dad, whom we thought would be interested in the many locomotive displays, not the least of which is the Flying Scotsman. We made it in time for a quick once-around, and then … off to the station pub to await our scheduled departure!

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A few beers/wines later (OK, OK, and a plate of pub chips!), we were finally off, our day in York melting in to the sunset behind us. It was a bit of a slog to get back home to Harrow—a two-hour train ride delayed by about 30 minutes, followed by a one-hour tube ride—but it was well worth it for such a memorable day. What a beautiful and important city.

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Posted by janicem 08:55 Archived in England Comments (0)

Family Time

Sunday dinner with the inlaws

sunny 12 °C

One English tradition I'm still getting used to is the mid-day Sunday dinner. Oh, and don't even get me started on the word "dinner" itself and how it's used/not used. The whole "dinner" vs. "supper" discussion is well trodden territory chez J&J, and that's before we get into the whole "tea" thing. You see, "tea" might mean ... you know ... actual tea. As in Tetley, Red Rose, blah blah blah. Or, more likely, it means an after-dinner, snack-type meal, which might be anything from tea (actual tea) and toast, or a little pizza, or ... whatever ... up to and including whatever you might classify as "dinner." Mind you, "tea" only makes an appearance on a day like Sunday, when you've had the mid-day "dinner" to begin with. You still with me? Here's where it gets really fun. Because, when you do have the mid-day "dinner," then you are likely also going to have a later-on "supper," which also might consist of something as simple as "tea" (actual tea) and toast, or ... funnily enough, "tea," as in the smaller, snack-like meal I was on about.

Sigh. Bloody English.

The good news? Clearly, we are not starving here in Harrow.

Even better news? J's sister T and her husband R and their five--yes FIVE--kids were kind enough to invite us down for Sunday dinner. Their new abode is absolutely massive, especially by London standards, and is nestled on a quaint road in Ruislip, a nearby town. The house has generous front and back gardens, and even--get this!--a pool house and bar! This is on top of the expansive three storeys, pool table room, huge kitchen, dining room, second kitchen, laundry room, multiple sitting rooms, office/computer room, and seven--yes, seven--bedrooms!

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It was a beautiful spring day, even though spring was still a day or two away. You can tell that winter is on its way out, as the temperatures are generally warming up all over.

Dinner was fantastic, as T outdid herself: roast chicken, stuffing, yorkshire pudding, potatoes (roasted and mashed), carrots, peas, gravy ... you name it, we had it. I can hear my dad now, wondering why I'm such a thoughtless daughter for not sending him a FedEx freezer pack overnight! Oh, and for dessert there was apple pie, chocolate cake, and sweets!

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T very sweetly had Christmas crackers especially for me, since I wasn't here to celebrate Christmas. Awwwwww. The entire family is very very generous and welcoming, and they always make me feel like the special guest of honour. The four girls regaled me with their various adventures, including E's and K's respective boyfriends, travel, university work and teacher training (heh ... lesson planning abounds!); A's college work and flourishing social life (word on the street is she has a boyfriend herself!); and L's burgeoning career as a performance artist and YouTube sensation, heh. J (yes, another J), the lone boy in the family (and the youngest of five kids), entertained me with tales of his new school, his new gaming chair (oi!), the World of Warcraft, and why studying maths is still stupid.

After dinner, the girls and I sat laughing and gabbing in the dining room, comparing life in Canada and the UK.

Later, I was summoned to the pool house, where J and L demonstrated their boogie boarding and surfing prowess, along with their lovely assistant, Tiny.

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Then, the serious business began. Yes, that's right ... Elimination Pool Party! We each put in a pound and were given three lives. One after another, we each took a shot. Every time you missed your shot, you lost a life. The last person standing won the pot. We had two rounds: R won the first round, and J's brother M won the second. Now, far be it for me to justify people's losses, but let's just say that J's family, knowing J's tendency to whip the buttocks of anyone who dares to challenge him to a game of pool, purposely fiddled with the lineup, putting him in an impossible position and ensuring he'd lose! Being the good sporting gentleman that he is, he made the best of it, and we all had a good laugh. The best and most hilarious part? The family dog, Tiny (don't let the name fool you), is absolutely obsessed with the pool table, and if you are lining up for a shot, you can find Tiny jumping non-stop right beside you. After a while, his presence becomes part of the game haha.

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Still think I'm exaggerating about Tiny's spastic cheerleading? Check it out:

The evening's funniest moment, however, belonged to T, who was readying for the next day's school Victorian Day. She's a teacher's assistant and was required to dress up in Victorian garb for the day. We all thought she looked more like Maria Von Trapp, which, considering J and I are off to Salzburg in a few days, was strangely appropriate!

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Another lovely Sunday to cap off a wonderful weekend. Next week? A day in York and then on to Salzburg!!!

Posted by janicem 13:02 Archived in England Comments (0)

Horsing Around

A sunny stroll up and down Horsenden Hill

sunny 12 °C

What a beautiful, sunny day! Talk about being over-dressed. We both ended up with our coats off after a few minutes!

Just up the street, around the corner, and down past Robin Hood Lane sits Horsenden Hill, one of many hills in the Capital Ring Walk. Now, remember, being England, "hill" is a relative term. With a summit of only ~85m, it's entirely walkable with fairly minimal effort. That said, the views are great, looking over both upper London and various other areas/counties around Harrow. The hill is not only a series of woodland path/walk/water/bike ways, but also wetlands, meadows, grasslands, reservoirs, and even a golf course!

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In addition to being quite a serene and peaceful setting, Horsenden Hill is also a site of great archaeological importance, dating back several thousand years. Key finds indicate both Stone Age and Iron Age settlements, maybe even a fort. Horsenden Hill is now an officially Scheduled Ancient Monument.

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Up top of the hill, there's a hill marker, benches, trees, and lots of open grassland. Off to one side, you can skirt Horsenden Hill Golf Club, and just off in to the distance sits Wembley Stadium, a mere 2 miles from J's house.

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We meandered our way back along the bike path and toward Sudbury Hill, we made a quick stop at a small park just across the tube tracks from J's back garden. J used to walk his dogs there all the time, and now it's a busy children's play ground.

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The weather has been generally quite good since I got here, but today was one of those first-real-days-of-spring type of days, and we enjoyed the warm sun on our faces.

Posted by janicem 10:54 Archived in England Comments (0)

Long Live Londinium

A not-so-Irish St. Patrick's Day in the City

semi-overcast 6 °C

By day, it's a banker's haven, with suits constantly rushing left, right, and centre. The rest of the time, it's a ghost of years gone past, ideal for the traveller in search of relics. Those remnants spared by the Great Fire of 1666 and the air raids of WWII offer an historic past. The streets are literally a concrete maze of roads (old and new), alleys, passages, and laneways, home not only to the city's biggest banks, but also its oldest churches and pubs. Indeed, "City" is an expansive area encompassing not only the area known as "City," but also St. Luke's, Broadgate, and Holborn. Anchored by the triangulated Museum of London/St. Paul's Cathedral/Bank of England Museum, the City is at once innovative/graceful and old/weathered.

We decided to make the most of our St. Patrick's Day and start off with a visit to the Monument--you guessed it, right outside Monument station, which we accessed via Baron's Court station.

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Erected to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666, the Monument is a 203-foot-tall Doric column--the tallest Doric column in the world, apparently--that houses a 311-step marble staircase that ascends to a very windy lookout balcony. The column's 203-foot height is doubly significant as Monument stands exactly 203 feet from the baker's shop on Pudding Lane where the Great Fire reportedy first sparked. The outside of Monument is itself quite beautiful, with detailed reliefs on all sides and various inscriptions referencing the fire that started mere feet away and spanned most of the North Bank over the course of five days.

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The walk up was spirallingly dizzifying, so we took our time.

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Once up top, we were all alone except for these two old guys who were quite a hoot. The view is amazing, looking east to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge and west to Victoria Embankment. To the north is the aptly named the Gerkin building.

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Descending the column's steps was decidedly easier, as one might expect, and upon landing at the bottom, we were presented with Certificates of Achievement attesting to our having climbed all 311 steps.

Moving on, we made our way up King William Street toward "Bank Junction," a roundabout that centers various key buildings, including the Royal Exchange, Stock Exchange, Bank of England, Bank of England Museum, Mansion House, and Guildhall (the 18th century Gothic/Greek/Indian facade that beats as the City's heart of municipal power).

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We did take a detour to Mansion House, the official home of the Lord Mayor of London, as well as St. Stephen Walbrook, one of Christopher Wren's most classical and elaborate masterpieces and reportedly the church where the architect "tried out" some of his ideas for St. Paul's. I just love the juxtaposition of old and new: once it was a medieval church, and now it's a ... Starbucks! Actually, given the state of the church, that's just about right.

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A quick pitstop at Costa for rest and reinforcements was followed by a visit to St. Mary-le-Bow, home to the famous "Bow's Bells." Legend has it that you aren't a "true Cockney" unless you are born within the sound of Bow's Bells.

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Then, it was up Poultry Street (heeee), past St. Paul's Cathedral (only in London can you be "just passing by" St. Paul's!). On the way up St. Martin's-Le-Grand toward the Museum of London, we found ourselves on the site of the historic London Wall Walk, which follows the line of the City Wall--originally built by the Romans in 200AD--from the Tower of London to the Museum of London.

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The Museum of London was great, covering all eras: Prehistoric, Ancient, Roman, Medieval, Reformation, Civil War, Plague, Modern, and Contemporary. There was also a special exhibit of London Street Photography over the last ~150 years. Of course, it's impossible to capture the entirety of the museum, but the following photos give you a sense.

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As always, I spent most of my time dodging the museum ushers who are adamant that you not use your camera's flash. Pfffft. I need my pictures! Original tapestries and pages of the Canterbury Tales be damned!

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There are a few things that particularly stand out. First, what's left of a Roman fort and wall. We were looking forward to touring the fort/wall exhibit, but it was closed this day for work. Nonetheless, it's quite impressive:

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A bit of fun was had trying on the old firemen's hats. My God, they are heavy, and the water buckets are twice as bad! Compared to the more modern versions, the old ones are unbelievably cumbersome.

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Very impressive was this 250-year-old carriage still used today for the Lord Mayor's Show.

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As always, you can learn a lot from a museum's gift shop, and the Museum of London is no exception. The Wills/Katie stuff is already front and centre, but that doesn't mean that the truly wacky royal stuff isn't still as enticing.

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I'm not sure what's more disturbing: this book title or the fact that its stacked for sale in the museum shop!

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After a quick rest stop and spot of tea, we left via the Barbican Station, yet another old, rustic station reminiscent of a much older London. On the way, we passed a very funny sandwich board for a pub call "The English Pig." Hilarious.

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All in all, a fun, entertaining, and educational day!

Posted by janicem 13:08 Archived in England Comments (0)

Dough, a dear ...

sunny 7 °C

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you something truly momentous: warm dough balls and Nutella. That's right. I said dough balls. Warm. With Nutella.

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This was James's dessert on Orange Wednesday. Oh ... what's Orange Wednesday, you ask? Sponsored by Orange, one of the UK's major cellular companies, Orange Wednesday gets you 2 for 1 movie tickets at VUE Cinemas and Pizza Express. Now, let me emphasize that Pizza Express, despite its mall-ish sounding name, is in fact home to some of the finest authentic Italian pizza I've ever laid eyes on.

We both indulged in the Pollo ad Astra, a delicious hand-rolled, thin-crust pizza with chicken, sweet peppers, and onions. Mmmmmmm-mmmmm. This was after our two hand-stretched garlic breads (free!).

You'd think by then that we'd be rolling out the door, but oh no, dessert beckoned. Hence, the dough balls.

And lest you think that I merely watched while James partaked ... I dug in to this big boy:

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Urp!!!!

Oh, and the movie? We saw Rango, which is excellent!

Posted by janicem 09:57 Archived in England Comments (0)

War Horse

A night out at the New London Theatre

semi-overcast 5 °C

Back in Vancouver, James spoiled me on my birthday with a new coat and dinner out. Turns out there was still Part III: a night out at the theatre!

Somehow, James managed to get tickets to War Horse--London's hottest and perpetually sold out play. A National Theatre Company production that was originally launched at the Royal National-Olivier Theatre, War Horse is now showcased at the West End's New London Theatre (previously the Winter Garden Theatre), right at 166 Drury Lane.

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The play is based on the best-selling 1982 book of the same name by children's writer Michael Morpurgo and has been adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford. This particular production has been met with unanimous critical acclaim, especially for its life-size horse puppets from the Handspring Puppet Company. The Queen and Prince Philip even made a private theatre visit to view the play in 2009. In December 2010, War Horse was dubbed "the theatrical event of the decade" by The Times, and the play has been so popular with audiences that it has broken the record for the highest weekly gross for a play in the West End.

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The story is set in Devon at the start of World War I and tells the story of young Albert Narracott and his beloved pet horse, Joey, who, against Albert's wishes, is sold to the cavalry and shipped off to France. There, Joey faces the extremes of war and ends up on a journey across enemy lines, serving on both sides of the war before ending up stranded in No Man's Land. Albert, despite being only 16, enlists in an effort to reunite with Joey and embarks on his own dangerous but amazing mission.

Not only did James manage to get tickets, but our seats were amazing. The New London Theatre is a smaller, more intimate theatre, where the stage comes right to the front row. We were in the third row, just to the right hand side, and we could practically reach out and touch the stage. At one point in the play, German soldiers sit in the trench, dug out below the stage, and they were literally in front of us. Of course, it's impossible to take pictures in a London Theatre, so I only managed to snap a few quick pics. [Side note: my friend Z, who is in London on a work assignment, had her camera confiscated by ushers last week at Wicked! Haha. Amateur!]

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The evening's production was a resounding success, with a standing ovation for all, especially the puppeteers who do a truly incredible job. You'd never think that a horse handled by three puppeteers could generate so much emotion or garner such audience participation, but they do. After a while, you forget they're even there. At other times, they mesh with the puppets to form a strange human-like horse figure. It's hard to explain and something you really have to see to appreciate.

Here's just a sample:

War Horse on YouTube

I highly recommend this play. It's scheduled to launch in Toronto in 2012, and interestingly, a major film production, directed by Steven Spielberg and shot entirely in England, is scheduled for a release later this year.

Posted by janicem 08:50 Archived in England Comments (0)

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