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October 23, 2007

Europe 2007 Day 1: Los Angeles to London

Tuesday, October 23, 2007
The day started early as I needed to finish packing and doing laundry. As with most travel days, I tend to get behind and leave everything to the last minute. I did manage to squeeze in a final trip to In-N-Out before we left for the airport. With the smoke in the air and every news station on Disaster Watch for the fires, there was not many traffic reports on the regular roads. I was worried this might get us and we would be stuck in traffic. Thankfully, we made it to LAX in just over 30 minutes.
American check-in procedures are limited to kiosks now and if you happen to be traveling internationally some poor lady has to come out and verify your documents. I would hate to be a check in agent at a major airline as it seems to be going the way of the dodo. After checking in, we were sent to the baggage check where the fun began. I discovered that my suitcase was 59 pounds – 9 pounds over the legal limit. This is after I already ditched some of my travel books in the car and to Daniel’s bag. The agent threatened me with a $25 fine, but I managed to put my heavy coat, pharmacy bag (Emergen-C, Excedrin, etc.) and my other pair of shoes in Daniel’s checked bag and he let me slide at 51 pounds. Of course I am glad I have my extra shoulder bag so that I can actually buy something and bring it home.
Daniel was using his vintage Pan-Am bag and as we were checking in I noticed that his zipper seemed amiss. Sure enough the entire zipper had failed leaving his stuff to spill out. I decided to give him my spare bag (since I had my entire suitcase open for the world to see anyways). He then tossed his Pan-Am bag and we decided that would be the first souvenir he buys a new carry-on bag. After barely making it past this guy, we had to take our bags to the X-Ray screening machine. As we made our way to the front of that line, the TSA agent told me he was now closed and I had to take my bag to the other end of the terminal. We walked all the way down to the other end of the check-in hall and gave our bags to the other screener. Hopefully my bag won’t end up in Sydney.
It was then off to the other end of the terminal to access the security checkpoint. Thankfully everything went smoothly and we made it into the gate area without further delay. We decided to eat at the World Famous Terminal 4 Burger King. It was interesting how outrageously high the prices are – they are practically the same as if we were paying UK prices! At this point, we realized that we did not book our Norway in a Nutshell tour. After calling a few people we discovered it was too late to book online and we would have to try and book via mobile once we reach Norway. We meandered back to the gate area and discovered they had started boarding 15 minutes early – good thing it is not Southwest. Onboard the aircraft we were pleasantly surprised how empty the flight was. There were lots of empty seats all over, but primarily in the middle. People took advantage during the light and were sprawled around all over the place.
For the most part the flight was uneventful – save for the area over Wisconsin when we hit a rough patch of turbulence and the pilot made the “All flight attendants take the nearest available seat” announcement. Watching the travel map on the seat back in front of me, I noticed that we dropped 5000 ft. in a matter of minutes. It certainly kept things interesting, but was not good for my Tetris game.

October 24, 2007

Europe 2007 Day 2: London to Oslo

Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Arriving at Heathrow Airport, we had a 15 minute circling delay due to traffic around the airport. I counted four planes circling out my window. We finally landed and we made the connection to Terminal 4 for our connecting flight to Oslo. Terminal 4 is a it dumpy compared to some of the other terminals – probably because it has a large number of international passengers going through it. After using the restroom we soon discovered just how expensive things are here. For example, a normally $39 Nintendo DS game was about $60. Some other things were not as pricey as I thought but it should et interesting when we are back on Saturday.
I wish that high speed internet was free at Heathrow, but sadly it is all pay and I didn’t want to waste the money. After what seemed like an eternity in the airport, we finally boarded our flight to Oslo. Right before, I broke down and bought some drinks for the fight. Had I noticed the sign earlier, Daniel would have been able to buy some postcards and stamps. The flight to Oslo was one of the worst I have been on in a long time. It was a cramped Airbus 319 and I got stuck in the middle between Daniel and some guy who was sick and spent most of the flight half into my personal space with his paper or rubbing his socks all over me – and let me tell you his feet were nice and stinky too. I immediately decided to take some Emergen-C to counter effect whatever the guy had.
Oslo airport was nice and IKEA-ish as I had expected. Going through customs, the agent asked me about my Nemo hat and seemed to think it was funny someone had an amusement ride with submarines. After a stop at the Info booth we decided to pony up the cash for the express train to Oslo Central rather than the 40 minute bus ride. We actually exited into the cold night air at the National Theater. Oslo’s first impression wasn’t the greatest, but it was nice to be finally out of the airplane and into the night air.
We made it to the hotel with little difficulty, and was reminiscent of our attempt in Tokyo to find our hotel. The staff at the counter was helpful and we were in our room in record time. I was hungry so we wandered down Karl Johan Gate to try and find some food. I could not believe a hamburger at the Hard Rock was $30! Norway is definitely one of the most expensive places to visit. We settled on some sub-par Burger King mainly out of cost rather than food choice. I think we will be using the free breakfast at the hotel a lot. Tomorrow we are going to try and get tickets for some tours and take the ferry out to the Viking and the Kon-Tiki Museums.

October 25, 2007

Europe 2007 Day 3: Oslo

Thursday, October 25, 2007
It was a late start today – mainly because we needed to sleep in and because we were in no rush to get going. We made it out around 11am, too late for the free breakfast, but not late that we missed the sunshine. We headed over to the Oslo Tourist info area near the Radhaus and asked Christian our info-expert what is good to do around Oslo. He regretted to inform us but since it was the off-season there really wasn’t much to do. I asked him about our famed Norway in a Nutshell tour and he told us that he would be able to book it. The upside of the off-season is that you can get away with last minute bookings and such. In order to make our itinerary work, we had to take the night train from Oslo to Bergen and then after sitting in the station for an hour and a half, you catch another train back up the tracks to a town called Voss. I was excited to get a sleeper car so I spent some extra money to get it for us. We then had until 10pm to look around Oslo so we headed off on the 30 bus to the Kon-Tiki Museum.
Arriving at the Museum we instantly realized instead of buying an all day bus pass, we should have bought the visit pass which would have given us access to all the museums and modes of transportation in the city. We could have then seen all the different museums, but instead we had to pick and choose so we chose the Kon-Tiki but skipped the Frammuseet (dedicated to the ship Fram which went to the North and South poles) and the Sjofartsmuseum which is the Norway Naval Museum.
The Kon-Tiki was a fascinating place and it was interesting learning about the famous Norwegian explorer Thor and his trips in reed rafts from Africa to the Bahamas and from Chile to Tahiti. Included in the museum were two of the actual ships and interesting nuggets of trivia. I was so impressed I ended up buying myself a mini-Kon Tiki.
We then headed off to the Vikingskipmuset. We were going to try the bus, but he blew right by our stop so we ended up walking back to where we got off the bus. (We didn’t know that the bus went all the way to the Kon-Tiki museum so we had to walk 10 minutes to it only to see the bus stop right there.) The museum was really neat on the inside with three ships – two in excellent condition and one that was just bits and pieces. It was an amazing sight to behold. The Kon-Tiki museum had better info displays and more to see and do, but the Vikings museum was impressive in the age of the items on display.
After getting our fill of museums, we headed out to Frogner Parken to see the famous sculpture gardens. I had heard that this was offensive to some people so I was eager to see what was there. It actually was a very nice big park with lots of trees and paths to explore. Oh, and there were hundreds of naked statues all over the place. There were men, women, and children all naked some alone, some together. The centerpiece was this big obelisk which was itself made up of hundreds of naked sculptures holding themselves together. I can so see why people get offended.
It was time to eat so we hopped on a tram to take us to Oslo City , a shopping center next to the Oslo central train station. We found an Italian place in the basement which charged us 93Kr (20 US$) each for a individual cheese pizza. Can I just say how amazingly overpriced food is in Norway? We then looked around in some of the shops – even an Apple store (most Apple products 3x their price in the US). It was then time to head back to the hotel and get ready for our big adventure on the overnight train. We discovered that if we took the T-Bahn it dropped us off a block from our hotel which was much closer than the bus or trolley from central. We had trouble with the tram since there was a lot of construction going on in Downtown Oslo so discovering the T-Bahn was a bit of an accident.
Arriving back at the hotel I wanted to upload the photos to Flickr and realized that my power adapter didn’t work for my laptop so I rushed to get everything uploaded before the battery went critical. By the time I realized it, it was too late to go get an adapter and I knew since we were going to be out in the sticks tomorrow I wouldn’t have a chance to get one until I got to London on Saturday. After getting everything ready for our overnight, we headed off to the train station.

October 26, 2007

Europe 2007 Day 4: Norway in a Nutshell

Friday, October 26, 2007
We boarded the train at Oslo Central, and stood in the hallway outside the room trying to figure out how to get inside. Finally, some Norwegian We boarded the train at Oslo Central, and stood in the hallway outside the room trying to figure out how to get inside. Finally, some Norwegian dad and son had the same problem which caused one of the other people in the to explain something about the cafe card. I then hurried to follow them down to the cafe car where we checked in and got our keys. Our sleeper room was small with two bunk beds and small sink. They gave us two bottles of water and had a big sign not to use the water to drink. We sat up in the lower bunk for about 30 minutes of the trip, but then decided to sleep since we were going to arrive at 7am the next morning. I chose the top bunk and Daniel had the bottom one.
I can only describe sleeping on this train this way: think if you had a bed on Big Thunder Mountain and were riding it for 7 hours trying to get some shut eye. All throughout the night there were squeals from the breaks and rocking back and forth and the occasional light out the window. To me it was also trying to sleep through repeated small earthquakes. Daniel didn’t get much sleep throughout the night, but I fared OK. I think I was so excited since I don’t ever remember getting to sleep in a bed on a train.
At 7am we arrived in Bergen on the west coast of Norway. It is a very nice beautiful town, but since it was early nothing was really open. Lots of people were scampering about getting ready for the day, and we headed down to towards the harbor to see if there was anything available. In the end, we didn’t find any bakeries open so we had to settle for pastries from 7-11. Eating in the brisk cool morning air, we took some photos until it was time to head back to the central train station.
Boarding the train, it was immediately clear that the only people on the train this early was the fellow Norway in a Nutshell group. The train ride was uneventful and both Daniel and I drifted in and out of consciousness. Arriving in the little town of Voss, we discovered it was a beautiful mountain town with a neat little chalet and hotel next to the railway tracks. We found our Nutshell bus and were on our way in no time. Now, since this was a tour package, I thought there was going to be some sort of video narration or maybe some kind words from the driver, but there was nothing. Granted, it was the off-season and normally the tour takes an aerial tram down, but I thought there should be something for the hour bus ride. We reached the bottom of the fjord in the little town of Gundvangen and found that the little shop was closed so we had to stand around for 20 minutes or so until they loaded us on the ferry. It was cold and frost was everywhere, but it certainly was beautiful.
The ferry trip took about two hours and one of the highlights occurred halfway through – the point where I reached the farthest north on the globe I have ever traveled.
We then arrived in Flam. We had several hours to kill before our rail connection on the Flam railway to reconnect to the Bergen Railway to get back to Oslo. Most of the restaurants and shops were open only from 1300-1500 – the overlap of the train and the ferry arrivals. We were there until 1700 since we had to meet the 1800 train to Oslo. I had a hamburger at one of the restaurants and we then wandered around the shops, wrote postcards, toured the hotel, and anything else we could do to occupy our time. It’s a good thing we didn’t try an earlier train because the station in Mydral was closed as well. I love the off-season!
Before we knew it (ok we were counting the minutes) it was time to go up the scenic Flam Railway. It was an amazing ride up numerous switchbacks up the side of the fjord. One such switchback was a 180 degree turnaround inside the mountain. We paused briefly near the top at a waterfall where we got some photos and then we zoomed up to the top. I wish the windows were open so we could get some cool photos, but at least I got some shots with just a hint of glare. We almost got off at the wrong stop – they were giving supplies to one of the hotels along the way – but we were saved from that error by the train taking off.
At Myrdal, we waited about 10 minutes before the Oslo train arrived. We found that our seats were in the cafe car, and our seats were occupied by a group of Norwegian Navy men. The conductor shooed two of them away from our seats, and we ended up talking to the other two for the next four hours. Sadly, I never got their first names, but I did manage to take a photo of them. It was the kind of cultural exchange I enjoy – discussing our different world views on everything from Norway, life in the navy, politics, culture, drinking habits of the youth of today, and why its important to time your smoke breaks on the train. It certainly made the four long grueling hours back to Oslo bearable and I was so thankful, I even accepted their offer to drink a beer.
Back in Oslo, we got off the train close to our hotel and collapsed back into our beds. Tomorrow was a travel day so I didn’t stay up too long and started to fall behind on my journal. (ed. Note I had to write this on Sunday!)

October 27, 2007

Europe 2007 Day 5: Oslo to London

Saturday, October 27, 2007
It was up with the alarm today as Daniel and I bid farewell to Norway and headed off to the UK. We finally ate the free breakfast at the hotel and it was surprisingly good! I had the usual overcooked eggs and bacon with some bread, and Daniel stuck to a hard boiled egg and some bacon with a bit of pineapple and bread for good measure. Confusingly, in Norway, Orange juice is actually Apfel juice, but still tasty.
We checked out of the hotel and headed off to the airport. I was a bit stressed out because we missed one train and the train we were on had difficulty with the signal system and was going very slow. Arriving at the IKEA inspired airport, we did the kiosk check-in for British Airways and halfway through printing the machine broke and we were sent to go wait in the long check in line. I was amazed at how many people ignored the kiosks and just went to the line. I guess e-ticket easy check-in has a way to go. Passing through the security check, my backpack was thoroughly searched, but I remained cheerful and silently hoped that I didn’t forget a water bottle in the bag.
After some souvenir shopping, I realized we were a bit behind and then had to go through passport control at the gate. There were a lot of non-EU people on this flight so it took an incredibly long time to get though the queue, but alas we made it onto the flight. It was a nice change from the one going to Norway as it was in a much nicer A-321. After nodding off and on we finally arrived at London Heathrow.
We breezed through customs, but I was nagged by the fact we needed to meet our contact for the apartment and it was taking forever to get to the train. Also, I fretted about the fact we needed to come up with 320 pounds to pay the man for his apartment. My bank would not allow me to take out that much. I cashed in all of my travelers checks and then Daniel tried the ATM and to my surprise we were able to get the remaining money out. Finally on the Heathrow express, I received a call from Phillipe and he was concerned that he had not heard from us and he had stuff to do and was going to leave if he had not heard from us. I called him in a panic after struggling to get the phone to dial his number. For some odd reason I can call Nathan with the full +44 extension, but not Phillipe. I finally cleared everything up and he was set to meet us at the Euston Sq. Station.
It took us some time to figure out in Paddington Station how to get to the correct Tube line. We also had issues buying tickets since my credit cards do not have the authentication chip, I have to use my ATM card with a pin to get the cards. After much swearing and sweating and trauma, we finally made it to the tube station where we waited for Phillipe. We had just missed him and came out the opposite exit that he was at so we had to lug our bags down and up the stairs one last time. I took an immediate liking to Phillipe and his daughter and chatted up with him on the way to the apartment.
Our apartment in London is amazing with a great view and perfect for us. We exchanged money with Phillipe and he showed us around and gave us the keys. We truly lucked out in finding this great place. After resting we phoned Nathan and arranged to meet up with him at his apartment in SoHo. We walked to his apartment which was only a 20 minute walk and I was reminded that I really only walk places when I am overseas. Along the way, I found a power adapter for my laptop so I cannot wait to get it back to the apartment to see if it works. Nathan has a great apartment in SoHo that has a wonderful 11th floor view with Parliament, St. Paul’s and the Tower Bridge all within view.
We then had a nice night out on the town with Nathan reminiscing about the good old days and also getting caught up on each others lives. We walked around to find a good Italian place to eat and eventually ended up in this bizarre place where the wait staff looked like recovering Eastern European drug addicts and transvestites. I enjoyed the food, but couldn’t help but think what the owner of the restaurant does to get the waitress. “I promise you a new start with a job in London, come with me” and then they all end up working as slave labor in this little hole in the wall.
After dinner we went to a few places to scope them out but ended up at this club with a couple of floors (Nathan will remember and I will revise this later). I had an excellent Cosmo and we chatted some more before it was time to move on. We all wanted dessert and we trekked down to Leicester Square and enjoyed some Hagen Daas. It was packed in the square with tons of people out for drinking parties and Hen’s Nights, but everyone was in a good mood and it was early enough no one was puking on the streets. We headed back towards Nathan’s and made arrangements to meet up tomorrow afternoon and head off to the Tower of London. Daniel and I hiked back to the apartment and immediately tried the power connector. It works so I was back in business writing. I was a bit sad that there was no Internet to leach from the neighbors, but I know there are several cafes close by that I can upload all my photos and diaries.

October 28, 2007

Europe 2007 Day 6: London

Sunday, October 28, 2007
After a busy day yesterday, we decided to sleep in late. The clocks rolled back so it was actually 12 (before the time change) but since it did, it was only 11 so I didn’t feel as bad. We got ready and headed out the door. Nathan had said he would be done by 1:30 so we walked around our neighborhood a bit and then settled on Subway for lunch. It was a bit drizzly when we set out so we had an umbrella with us that I had received from my aunt a few years ago. Daniel tried it out and discovered it had a huge smiley face on it and he immediately decided he wouldn’t be caught dead in it. He also was having shoe and pants trauma so we headed back to the apartment so he could change.
By then Nathan was done with brunch and headed back our way. We met him around the corner and set off for the Tower of London. Thanks to ever popular improvements to the Tube system, the direct tube line was closed for the weekend so we had to take an alternate and walk 15 minutes to the Tower. It was raining lightly, but we didn’t have too much difficulty. I tweaked my neck when we ran across a street and it was sore at random points for the rest of the day. We paid the steep fee to enter the Tower (this was my third time in the Tower, but Nathan and Daniel’s first) and headed for the crown jewels. I noticed they upgraded the spot where they executed people as well as some of the exhibits inside the galleries. I even got to meet the first female Beefeater and got a photo with her.
After slogging through the exhibits for an hour or so, we then set off back towards SoHo. I was completely embarrassed when my Oyster card did not have enough money for a bus ride back to Trafalgar Square so we had to walk all the way to the Bank station in a heavy rain to get my Oyster card squared away. When I bought them before we met Nathan, I didn’t realize you had to maintain a minimum that you would never get back. Sucks for us! When I tried to top mine off, I realized that my credit card didn’t work, but the friendly man in the booth told me that only ATM cards or ones with the electronic chip would work. This explained my previous problems getting tube tickets. With it all sorted out, we headed back to SoHo and ate at the Gourmet Burger Kitchen. The hamburger was excellent (and expensive, but well worth it). Daniel’s had tomato sauce, which was nasty, but he choked it down. Nathan then showed us where his favorite Internet cafe was and then we parted ways. Thankfully, we will probably meet up with him one more time before we set off for the rest of our UK adventure. I do wish that we lived closer and that we kept in better contact with each other since I enjoy hanging out with him. One thing I hope we will do is go on a trip together in the future. He is trying to make it to the Travelers Century Club like myself, and if we can check off some countries together it would be great.
After checking some emails, we headed back to the hotel and lounged around. We got pretty wet from the rain so it was good to relax. I got to see a new episode of Top Gear as well as an episode of Michael Palin’s New Europe. It seems that whenever I am in the UK there is a new Palin book and video out, so I am looking forward to picking it up before I leave. I finished getting caught up writing my diaries and accidentally found a unlocked internet connection. I was briefly able to check my bank balance and a few other web sites before it was lost for good, but at least there is hope.
Tomorrow will be a “free day”. Daniel and I are determined to visit all the free museums and spend as little as possible!
As I was getting ready for bed I made a startling discovery. A whole day’s worth of photos have been erased by my digital camera. I spent a worrisome night trying to figure out how to recover them. In the morning I found a freeware application that specifically recovers digital camera images from a CF Card. I was able to get most of them back. It runs into problems when I deleted photos in the camera and then ghosts the next image that I needed to recover. Thankfully, instead of missing 60 photos, I am now missing just 5. Only two were lost of Norway and the other 3 were from London – two of Nathan’s apartment. I’ll ask him if he can send me some photos of his view which I can post. I now am going to be more proactive in downloading photos to the laptop so I can avoid this in the future. I wish I learned this in Australia since I would be able to get the 40 or so photos lost in Melbourne. I guess it is time for a new camera!

October 29, 2007

Europe 2007 Day 7: ‘Free’ London

Monday, October 29, 2007
Today Daniel and I set off early to take in some of the free things London has to offer. Our first stop was Parliament and Big Ben. After taking some free photos, we headed over to Westminster Abbey and noticed the large queue to get in the place. I guess I am used to seeing the place as part of the tour because I never remember having to wait in the line to get in. Also, it violated our free policy to go into the chapel and we didn’t want to sit through the religious services to get in for free. I took Daniel into the gift shop and had him thumb through the guide book to see if there was anything he wanted to see in person and he declined. I have already been inside twice so it was no great loss for me.
We then headed over to the London Eye. I had always wanted to go up in it, but had ever gotten close enough to see how much it would cost and how long the queue would take. Today the weather was very nice with just some light clouds, so the crowds were out in force. It was expensive to up in the London eye (15 pounds) and then you only got a time to begin queuing up. We will try again before we leave to see if the crowds die down, but neither of us wanted to fork over that kind of dough.
Continuing our free tour, we then hoofed it to Buckingham Palace. It was actually a pleasant walk next to St. James Park. I don’t think I went this way either time I went to the palace. After resting a bit and taking some goofy photos, we set off for Hyde Park. Daniel wanted to see the Peter Pan statue to remind him of his Storybook Land days. Let me tell you, this was one long walk. We walked along Green Park until we got to the Wellington Arch and then proceeded through Hyde Park along the Serpentine. I had to pull up at one of the waterside cafes to get a snack and some water just to keep going. I was huffing and puffing while Daniel just kept going and going.
We finally arrived at the statue only to discover it was a very popular statue for Americans to come and take photos. There are an exceptionally large number of Americans in London this week due to the NFL game that was on Sunday. Most of them all have their Giants or Dolphins gear on and just wander around making noise and generally being obnoxious. This one guy at the statue took almost 20 photos of the statue from different angles. Some zoomed in, some zoomed out, some with him posing on one side, and then again posing on the other side. I thought Daniel was going to freak out. It reminded me of some of the super annual passholders who take thousands of photos at Disneyland to document every last detail. Finally, I was able to jump in with the Gorn and take a few snaps.
Next stop was the Albert Memorial. We passed a point where we could see Kensington Palace, but we decided it was just too far to go. We then stopped off at the Royal Geographic Society. There was a cone that was marking Kofi Anan’s parking space and we saw an exhibit on the Bombay Africans (free slaves that were taken to India and the middle east for safety). I resisted the temptation to ask where the spot where Phineas Fogg took off around the world in 80 Days. It was still all free!
The Science Museum and the Natural History Museums were all very cool inside. I loved the Science Museum with its Space Exploration, Surveying, Modern Machinery, and Computing displays. There was even an original Apple Computer. The Natural History museum had cool stuff on Volcanoes and Earthquakes and even had a room where you could experience the Kobe 1995 quake. I was a bit disappointed since the guy in the video at the Japanese convenience store seemed to be moving around more than I was, but I guess it will do. It was quickly approaching 4pm so we hightailed it to the Victoria and Albert museum to see some historical musical instruments and some modern art. Having been to the V&A the last time I was in London, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other two. But all three are definitely worth a trip if you are looking for some free things to do in London.
It was time to head back to SoHo to meet up with Nathan for dinner. He is going to be busy tomorrow night, so this was our last chance to see him before we left London and headed out to the rest of the UK. On the way, we stopped in at Harrods and I had a Krispy Kreme at the Harrod’s food halls, mainly just to say that I did. Daniel found some awesome luggage, but at $1400 it was a bit out of his price range.
We stopped in Leicester Square to check to see if they had Mary Poppins tickets. They were still $60 each so we have some thinking to do to see if we want to try and see it tomorrow. Nathan met us downstairs of his apartment and we headed over to Marks & Spencer to get some groceries. Nathan offered to cook for us and we picked out some grub for tonight as well as for tomorrow and Wednesday before we head out of town. Over steak (turkey for Daniel), potatoes, and wine we chatted and then watched Dragon’s Den. This show features UK inventors who are trying to get funding for their projects and products. It was actually quite good so I suspect it will be coming to the US at some point. Nathan didn’t have Living TV, and neither do we so we are missing out on the Most Haunted Live TV event. We will be in Cardiff on Halloween so hopefully we can see it there.
It was then time to say goodbye to Nathan. I snapped some photos off his balcony to replace the ones that went missing on my camera. It was a nice walk home in the brisk air and probably another sleep in day tomorrow morning before we head off to St. Paul’s and other locations in our last day in London.

October 30, 2007

Europe 2007 Day 8: Greenwich and Spillage

Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Today was a good sleep in day. Daniel and I enjoyed a nice leisurely morning with breakfast before we headed out on the town. First up, we headed to London Euston station to get rail reservations for tomorrow’s trip to Cardiff. The guy behind the counter stated that we needed our Rail Passes to make the reservation so we decided to go out on the town before it got too late (it was already noon). There was not really anything pressing that we wanted to see, so we headed out over to the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian. I visited this site back in 1996 with Mom and Gary and remember it being fun. I do remember we had to pay to get to the part with the line, but that the rest was free to see. Also in 1996, the Docklands Light Rail only went to the north bank of the river and we had to walk underneath the Thames and then hike to the observatory. I also remember part of the route being closed due to a recent bombing in London. Looking back at the 1996 Trip Diary, I noticed Mom didn’t hike up to the Observatory it was just Gary, Wesley, and I.
Well things certainly have changed in 11 years! First, the Canary Wharf development has blossomed and the entire area is full of condos and nice suburbs – offices, shops, restaurants, you name it. Daniel wasn’t a fan of how things looked, but I thought I could make quite a nice home here. The second big change is that in 1999 they poked the rail line under the Thames and extended it quite a bit. When we exited the train, there was a whole new development of shops and such above the underground station. That made the hike up the hill to the observatory even better. Finally, the big change was the Observatory itself. It is now free of charge and has more enhanced exhibits. There are several rooms and houses to walk through as well as a new plussed up Prime Meridian complete with a vending machine that dispenses certificates and a laser light that shines on the ground and through the air denoting the official line. In my opinion, they have really made this a destination worth visiting if you are in London, and I am glad that I came back. This is in contrast to the Tower of London which to me just seemed expensive and aged.
Leaving Greenwich, we headed towards St. Paul’s Cathedral. Much to my surprise, there was a fee to get in to the cathedral. I think the previous visits have been on tour busses with pre-paid entry, but there was no way I was going to fork over the equivalent of $20 to go inside. We were there around 3:30pm right before they were going to close so they had discounted the tickets to 5 pounds, but it was still a rip off. One good thing is that since we balked at going to see Mary Poppins in the West End, we at least got to pretend that we were feeding the birds, tuppence a bag – just for you Walt!
We then headed back towards SoHo and our flat and stopped by this Pizza Hut on Oxford Street. Now, I have had many numerous bad encounters with Pizza Hut overseas, but this one had a great lunchtime buffet (all you can eat!), and even though it was over, we wanted to give it a try. Turns out they had a special value meal for two people: 1 Medium Pizza, Order of garlic bread, potato wedges, and two desserts all for about 26 dollars. It seemed like a bargain for us, and it turned out it was. The meal had a lot of food and free refills on the drinks to boot. This came in handy when in my usual flair, I knocked my glass over and proceeded to dump a Pepsi all over my white shirt and jeans. By the end of dinner it looked like I had serious bladder issues and I knew I was going to get to test Phillipe’s washing machine.
After dinner and apologizing profusely for the mess (oh for dessert we both got a piece of Chocolate cake with cream – Daniel got whipped and I chose the Vanilla Ice variety), we headed out to do some shopping. We made it through a few electronics shops – I am raring to get a new digital camera after all the issues I have been having – and Daniel is chomping at the bit to get some Euro fashion. So far my favorite store is Uni Qlo which is actually a store just opening in London from Japan. It was one of my favorites there as well and I am glad to see it still is very stylish. I wanted to buy a jacket and some new cords and jeans, but alas that is not in the budget for this trip. Not seeing anything, we headed back to the apartment to get our Rail Passes to get reservations for tomorrow’s trip to Cardiff and Wales. After taking a breather for a bit as well as a change of clothes for me, we headed back to London Euston. This time the guy behind the counter just made a reservation without even looking at our passes. Where was he hours ago?
We decided to do some shopping on Regent Street and Carnaby Street but alas all was closed for the night. There actually looked like a few cool places to go into, and we are deciding to whether or not to go back at 10 am tomorrow when they open. Daniel also wants to see a few highlights of the British Museum, so I think tomorrow will be crazy busy in the AM. Seems like this trip we have planned it well with a relax day following a crazy day and so on. Funny thing about Carnaby Street is that I had no idea it was off of Regent Street on the SoHo side. From what I remember of 11 years ago it was over on the other side of London. Hmm, maybe that was Portobello Road. At any rate it is time to say bye for the second time this trip to London. We will be back in a week to take the train to Paris and then back again in two weeks to take the flight home.
I was looking at my journals from 1996 and noticed that I am way more verbose than before. I think it is due to the change in technology. Back then, I would write in a notebook and then transcribe to the laptop. Since Hong Kong, I have had my laptop with me and have been able to write directly here allowing me to post with ease. My only regret is that I was lazy in Japan. I really wish I had a good journal of that trip because it was so much fun. The four trips I am missing are Europe 2002, Walt Disney World 2003, and the two Japans in 2004. Europe 2002 went missing when I moved in 2003 and I suspect one day I just might find it somewhere. When I do I will transcribe it.
Enough asides, back to the present day. I am glad I spent time in London on this trip. I feel like I visited some good friends – people and places – and got to know them again. But the vacation begins in earnest tomorrow and I hope everyone reading this is just as excited as I am!

October 31, 2007

Europe 2007 Day 9: London to Cardiff

Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Today we were back up with the alarm clock with a lot to squeeze in before heading to Cardiff. First thing was to clean up Phillipe’s apartment and then we needed to head out to the British Museum. Before leaving we decided to fire up the toaster in the kitchen and toast some crumpets we had bought the other night. Halfway through, the fire alarm went off in the main room so we had to scramble to get the battery out and open the windows before the fire brigade showed up.
Everything was packed and ready to go just after 10, so we hoofed it over to the British Museum. I wanted to show Daniel the highlights so headed over to the Rosetta Stone, translator of hieroglyphics, as well as the famed Parthenon room with the Elgin Marbles. I am always impressed when you can be in the same room as a valuable historical object. The other stop we wanted to make was in the Egyptian room where they kept actually bodies and mummies all on display for the world to see. I just hope in 5000 years, my shriveled up bones and skin are not on display in some museum. Taking in enough history, we decided to quickly walk over to Carnaby Street and Regent Street to check out some of the stores we took note of last night.
Sadly, most of the stores and their interesting merchandise left something to be desired. Either it was way too expensive, or upon closer examination did not look as cool as it did through a window in the night air. We made quick time of the area and looking at my watch, realized that we were 15 minutes behind schedule. We took the tube from Piccadilly Circus to Russell Square to get back to the apartment to grab our things. We then had to re-trace our steps back to Paddington Station where we arrived just a few days earlier. I literally mean we re-traced our steps since we had to cart our huge suitcases up and down flights of stairs to reach the train. By the time we reached the platform, Daniel was ready to throw out one of the bottle waters he was carrying and the travel books and magazines.
We then had about 20 minutes to get to Paddington and get to our train. Arriving at Paddington, we rushed down the platform and up and over the stairs until we saw the overhead sign indicating that our train to Cardiff was canceled! All that rushing just went down the drain. It appears there was some engineering work on the tracks past Reading and all the quarter past trains to Cardiff had been canceled. We had a seat reservation that was now no good, and worse yet, could not make a new one because you have to do that three hours in advance. It was time to have it my way so we dined on some Burger King in the station. Interesting with all the food places there was not a single rubbish bin in the entire station. I had to ask a security guard what to do with my trash and he directed me to a gentleman pushing a cart around the station. Having deposited the trash the only thing left was to wait for our track assignment. I had noticed a large gathering of people near the monitors and my fears came true when with 6 minutes left before departure, they finally announced the platform and what seemed like the entire population of Paddington Station headed for our train. It was like the running of the bulls in Spain. Needless to say, Daniel and I were at a disadvantage with our huge suitcases.
We tried to make it to Car D for unreserved guests, but due to the high volume of travelers, there were no seats and barely any room for our bags. Daniel managed to score a spot for his and then in the first class car, I found a spot for mine. For the first 25 minutes of the trip, we stood in the doorway between cars. It actually was good because we could lower the windows and try and vent out some of the BO. Once the train stopped at Reading, we were able to get some seats halfway down the coach and by then I was immune to the BO smell. About 45 minutes later as I was listening to my iPod, a huge chunk of something hit the side of the train with a loud thud. I didn’t think much of it until we came out of the tunnel and I noticed the huge window next to me was completely shattered. It looks like a rock hit the window next to the seat behind me and shattered the safety glass. A conductor was called and he had us move out of our seats. When we reached the next station, the railway staff chipped away the remainders of the window and yellow taped off the seats that we were in and the window itself. The driver of the train even asked what happened and I described it to him.
Thankfully, more people got off of the train, but we were now delayed by an extra 15 minutes – so now we ended up in Cardiff a good hour behind where we originally wanted to be. At Cardiff Central station, we took the lift to the ground floor to get out to the tourist information booth. Since we were traveling on Rail passes, we had no way of getting out of the station. An attendant came to our rescue and eventually we were freed. I headed over to the info booth to get directions to our hotel, but she gave us some not-very-helpful directions. I then decided to get a cab to our hotel. I flagged one down fairly quickly and off we went whizzing through Cardiff. Our cabbie asked us where we were from and once we identified that we were Americans, he proceeded to tell us what a mess we have created in Iraq and how we should just leave so things can fix themselves. Not wanting to be driven out of town and shot, we just played along and talked about what people could do, problems facing us, and the like. I just wanted out of the cab so I didn’t have to answer any more questions. Next time I get a cab, I will follow Jonathan’s advice and tell them I am Canadian. Not that I am ashamed of being an American, it just Iíd rather have quiet cab rides.
We arrived at the fantastic Futures Inn Cardiff Bay in one piece. I made sure I tipped the cabbie so he would not return and kill us in our sleep. The hotel has a very Holiday Inn Express feel to it, but our room was massive and the reception crew were nice. I decided to prepay for breakfast. It was a bit steep, but at least we will be able to set off on our driving adventure on a full stomach. After getting settled a bit, we headed towards the Cardiff Millennium Center – one of the big landmarks seen in the newest Doctor Who and Torchwood series on BBC TV and also showing in America. I have been a fan of Doctor Who since college, and I really enjoy the new show. Heading through the neighboring shopping mall, I was startled to discover a huge Doctor Who exhibit and gift shop. We ran in to take a first look at all the neat stuff they had on sale. Since we were going to the Millennium Center, we decided to purchase on the way back.
It was neat to stand on places where they filmed the show. It is very funny because it is much smaller in person than on TV, and you would never guess there was a big road behind the center. After some geek photos, we walked back to the Doctor Who store where I bought my very own die-cast TARDIS, an autographed photo of Tom Baker, and a little something for Atsushi at work. The people operating the shop were a lovely set of grandparents and I think I made there day being so giddy. On the way out I got a penny pressed with the TARDIS on it, and the representative who services the machines gave me a shiny new penny so it would come out better. The serviceman asked where we were from and I mentioned Southern California (I forgot I was now supposed to be from Canada – oh well), and he mentioned that he serviced penny presses at Knott’s Berry Farm as well as Disneyland. He ever told us of one up in Loch Ness at the official Loch Ness Museum. We promised to check it out when we got there.
We headed back to the hotel and had some quick dinner before starting our laundry. We are almost to the halfway point of our journey and the hotel had some nice machines so we figured it was a great time to do it. In the room at the hotel we have free Internet on the TV, and free wi-fi in the hotel lobby. I will have to go down there to upload this entry and the photos for the day, but all in all I am very pleased with the room.
Tomorrow we dare to get a rental car and take to the roads of the UK. We start out in Cardiff and head off to Blackpool on the western shores of Britain. I am a bit nervous, as I had thought this was going to be a more rural place to start, but I am eagerly awaiting the challenge.

November 1, 2007

Europe 2007 Day 10: Cardiff to Blackpool

Thursday, November 1, 2007
Today it was drive time. Up with the alarm, we got dressed and headed down to the buffet breakfast that the check in team at the Future Inn pimped on us. It was OK – more of a British breakfast and not as good as the one in Norway. Our cab showed up and with some nervousness I stepped in. Thankfully, this cabbie was not very interested in talking so it was a quick ride over to the Europcar rental facility. I walked up to the counter and started doing the paperwork when the agent asked me for my passport. D’oh! I had left it in my bag back at the hotel. He could not rent the car to us, so we had to get another cab back to the hotel and then come back to the rental car place. I had to ask the new cab driver to take us to a cash machine so that we could afford the cab fares. This cabbie was actually friendly and gave us some pointers for our drive.
We made it back to the Europcar with my passport in hand and proceeded to get the car. First up, the guy was startled I did not purchase any additional coverage for the car. I decided to pony up the cash for the complete peace of mind coverage which gives me 0 liability in case of disaster with the car. I figure considering I was driving on the opposite side of the road it was a good deal. We also got upgraded for free from a Mercedes A150 to a B150. The A150 was a real small car so I was glad for the upgrade. The B150 is actually a very nice plush car with all the modern conveniences like cruise control, CD player, and Digital Radio. Sadly, I was hoping for a cassette player since that is what my iPod uses, so we have to listen to the radio for entertainment.
I made it back to the hotel and we packed and loaded up the car. I was amazed that the boot (trunk for Americans) held both of our big suitcases. Without much fanfare, we headed off on the road to Nottinghamshire and the Sherwood Forest. Originally, we were just going to go straight up to Blackpool, but Daniel wanted to see where the Merry Men used to roam so off we went. After feeling like we got lost in Cardiff, we made it on the expressway and only had to go once completely around a roundabout to get onto the right direction of the expressway. Once on the expressway it was a pretty smooth trip with no major glitches. The fun started when we exited the expressway and started to wind through the countryside.
In the British Countryside you only have once chance to see a road sign. Miss it and you are completely hosed. We followed the signs to Sherwood Forest (complete with Robin Hood’s head) and wandered through some quaint villages complete with the Friar Tuck pub and a few other restaurants named after characters. At last we made it after three and a half hours. We got out, stretched our legs, and wandered down to the famous Major Oak which is supposedly a tree that Robin Hood and the Merry Men met at before they would rob the rich to pay the poor. If you read the sign at the tree, it tells you that even though the tree is over 800 years old, it would not have been as big as it is today back then and therefore the real oak they met under was probably somewhere else. This oak however, is a rare type of oak that there are not very many of in the forest. That is why they chose this place to have the museum and gift shop and assorted nature trails and restaurant. I picked up a wood chip magnet and some post cards and before long it was back in the car to head towards Blackpool.
Even though Blackpool is closer to Sherwood Forest than Cardiff is to Sherwood, it took us longer to get to Blackpool. Since we left Sherwood at around 3pm, we encountered some construction delays and worst of all, evening rush hour around Manchester. One stretch took us over an hour and a half to go 20 miles, but it was nice of Manchester to make me feel at home. We stopped at a service stop to stretch and pee. The service stops along the A series of expressways is neat. They have a fast food joint, a shop, bathrooms, and a gas station. They very is service and cleanliness, but so far so good. We finally rolled into Blackpool just after 7 at night, but since we didn’t have good directions to the Hilton, we ended up doing some circles around town before ending up on the Promenande stuck in bumper-to-bumper cruising traffic. We managed to call the hotel and get directions and ended up just fine. I had to squeeze into a parking stall which was very nerve wracking, but in the end we were OK.
The Hilton was a bit of a letdown from the Future Inn. It is smaller and more worn. Our room and the rest of the hotel has a mild odor to it and is in desperate need for plussing up. In the end I am glad we are here for just one night. The elevators sound like they are haunted since you hear the sound of voices before the doors open (due to the voice calling out the floors). After getting settled, we headed down the promenade to take in the Illuminations. Here in Blackpool they extend the summer season by stringing up lights all over the streets in various different themes from Showgirls to Doctor Who. It has that home-town feel about it. There certainly was a cacophony of smells on the street from horse manure to urine to fish and chips to BO. Daniel and I managed to walk all the way down to the end of the Southern Promenade enjoying a hamburger and fries along the way. We neglected to get drinks and were suffering the whole way without them. The burgers were picked up at one of the numerous hole-in-the-wall food joints. The lady running the shop was surprised we came to Blackpool of all places. I told her I like to see different things and she kind of rolled her eyes and the lady next to us exclaimed that the kids like it.
Blackpool is nothing to write home about. It has a cheesy charm about it, and I am sure on a busy summer night it is a fun place to go out and have fun. There are lots of discos, bars, casinos, and game areas for all ages. At the end of the season on a Thursday, most everything was closing or closed with the exception of a few bars that had some stragglers hanging about them. Still, I am glad we swung through here. We rode back to the hotel fittingly on a tram shaped like a boat all lit up with tacky lights.
Tomorrow it is back in the car for a loooong drive up to Inverness. Hopefully, our luck with the weather holds out and we get to make a few more discoveries along the way.