"To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield"
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1833
"live deep and suck out all the marrow of life"
- Henry David Thoreau, 1845
"Some guys, they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up,
And go racin' in the streets."
- Bruce Springsteen, 1977
"...to the heart, there's no time for you to waste.
You won't find your precious answers now
by staying in one place."
- Frank Turner, 2009
All written content and photos by Rob Fulfer unless otherwise indicated.
All written content and photos by Rob Fulfer unless otherwise indicated.
Saturday, January 29, 2011
Friday, January 28, 2011
We had an active and enjoyable weekend here at home that started with dinner Friday night, with our friends, John and Dorie, who recently got married and are expected their first child in May. Congrats, guys!!
After dinner we met up with some other friends: Sharon, Paige, and her husband, Paul, at Zanies Comedy Club to catch a show that was headlined by Jo Koy. He's a regular on one of our favorite TV shows, Chelsea Lately, a week-nightly, half-hour round table that pokes fun at Hollywood. His opener comic was Adam Hammer who was very funny. Jo came on around 10 PM and, man, it was on. He had us and the sold-out crowd in stitches for well over an hour. Definitely one of the best shows we have seen at Zanies ever. He stuck around afterwards to sign autographs and take silly pictures (left) and we were able to meet him. He's an extremely nice person who really enjoys meeting his fans and claims Nashville as one of his favorite cities to visit. I guess they all say that, but Jo really did seem to be enjoying himself while in Music City. Saturday, January 29, 2011
We called it a night after that because we had plans to get up fairly early (for a Saturday) and take a 5-mile hike at Cedars of Lebanon State Park in our own Wilson County that was being sponsored by the Nashville Hikers Meet-Up Group. They had chosen to hike the Hidden Springs Trail which we haven't done before and it was to be led by Randy Hedgepath, a long-time naturalist for the state of Tennessee who we have hiked with before and really enjoy. The weather was mild and clear for late January and that got a good crowd of 25 or so to show up for the hike. It's a fairly easy hike in terms of terrain and Randy (photo below), as always, kept the walk lively and informative with many stops along the way pointing out trees, plants and animals that we encountered. The namesake of the trail, Hidden Springs, is a beautiful small, but deep, chasm in the limestone with a flowing spring in the bottom of it. The loop trail is really only 4.2 miles and as Randy admitted, Tennessee state parks have a tendency to round up trail lengths to keep things simple and compensate for effort as well. We finished up at around 3 hours and headed home to shower after the muddy-at-times hike and rest a bit before heading back to Nashville for dinner and a concert.
We had dinner in Nashville at Bombay Palace Indian Restaurant on West End Avenue near Vanderbilt. Ashlee has been here a few times before with a girlfriend of hers, but we had never been together. It was excellent. The entrees were authentic and very tasty. The portions were plentiful and the prices were very affordable. When we walked in the place at 6:30 (it's easiest to come in the backdoor thru the kitchen), there weren't many people in the place, but by the time we left, every table in the small restaurant was full. The staff are extremely pleasant and polite. We will definitely be back here again. After dinner we headed over to 12th & Porter, a live music venue near downtown. The building used to also house one of our favorite restaurants in Nashville, also called 12th & Porter, but, alas, it is gone now and a nightclub/bar has taken its place. Too bad...we really miss those great pasta dishes (here's to you: Pasta Ya-Ya and Black & Blue Pasta) that they served. The live music venue hasn't changed at least. It's still a great little general-admission club with a large stage and plenty of room to stand in front of it, plus an upstairs balcony with a few chairs. We got there when the doors opened and commandeered a couple of the precious bar stools in the balcony for the night since our legs were a little tired from the hike earlier in the day. And it was going to be a long night as there were two opening bands before the headliner that we came to see, Truth & Salvage Company.
First up was Mockingbird Sun, a three-part harmony Americana/country quartet whose sound was reminiscent of the Zac Brown Band. They are from Nashville and their 30-minute set was very enjoyable. Next up was A Thousand Horses, a very young Nashville-based pure rock-n-roll band that looked and sounded like they had been playing together for years. Their original songs were strong and this could be a band that makes some noise in the future. Their lead singer is definitely channeling some early Stephen Tyler of Aerosmith fame in his look and vocals. Their 45-minute set seemed to just fly by. The place was packed while they played and then seemed to clear out a bit afterwards. Obviously, these boys had a lot of friends and family come see them play which we benefited from with an excellent performance.
Around 11 PM, Truth & Salvage Company (photo above) hit the stage in full force. We first saw these guys at Bonnaroo last summer and really enjoyed them. The band itself is fairly new with their first album released last year, but the six members are all veterans of the Americana/alt-country scene and are a combination of two different previous bands. Of the six members, four of them share lead singer duties which is kind of different and definitely gives every song a different sound. They played well past midnight to a sold-out house, covering their whole first album with a little Lynrd Skynard cover thrown in for good measure. By the time we got home, we were exhausted but happy to have had such a great day of different experiences.
Sunday, January 30, 2011
Sunday we slept in to recover from our previous 36 hours of being on the go, but by mid-afternoon we were able to muster enough energy to head back to Nashville to catch a matinee showing of "127 Hours" with our friends Danny, Carolyn and Paige. It's got our vote as Best Picture for the upcoming Oscars. It's an amazing true story and the film does it all the justice it deserves. Great directing by Danny Boyle and a strong performance in the lead role by James Franco.
Saturday, January 15, 2011
Our 12th collage representing the year 2010 is up in the den and it looks pretty darn good. It was a great, busy year full of concerts, travel and other hi-jinks. We saw great shows by Train (twice, including meeting them at The Ryman), O/A/R twice, David Gray, Guster, Mumford & Sons, Butch Walker, The Swell Season and Crowded House. We had great trips including our just recently concluded jaunt to Europe, a cruise to the Western Caribbean, a long weekend in New York City, another in Las Vegas, plus smaller road trips through Virginia, a couple times up into Kentucky (including attending races at The Breeders Cup at Churchill Downs) and here in Tennessee. The "hi-jinks" of the year included another visit to the Bonnaroo Music Festival, a hot-air balloon ride over in Franklin and a ttending three different regional beer festivals.
2011 is shaping up to be a strong competitor with shows already scheduled for Drivin' N Cryin', Truth & Salvage Co., Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, The Dirty Guv'nahs and U2 at the Vandy Stadium. Trips planned already include down to Miami to see the defending national champs, the Duke Blue Devils, play, plus Flogging Molly in concert; a long weekend in Reno and Lake Tahoe; a short cruise to Cozumel and back out of Tampa that will have several musical acts on board, some of whom we have seen before and love (Train, Mat Kearny) and some we like and have been wanting to see (Lifehouse, The Script, Alpha Rev), and a long weekend out on The Outer Banks. Possible 2011 hi-jinks include another visit to Bonnaroo (it's their 10th anniversary this year), the Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, on our 10th wedding anniversary weekend in May, a national beer festival in Colorado this fall, plus who knows what else!!
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
December 31, 2010
We spent the shortest amount of time in our last city, Barcelona, thanks mostly to the screwy British Airlines route from Lisbon that took us back up north two hours to Heathrow to change planes in London and then fly back south two more hours to Barcelona instead of a quick jaunt east across Spain, but who can ever figure out the logic of airline routes sometimes.
We again had a pre-paid service pick us up at the lovely Barcelona Airport and deliver us fairly quickly to our hotel, the Novotel Barcelona City, a relatively new skyscraper hotel located in the business district of the city. Our room was 16 floors up with a jaw-dropping view toward downtown with the amazing Agbar Building next door (a similar shape to The Gherkin in London) and the famous cathedral designed by the famous Spanish architect, Antonio Gaudi, La Sagrada Familia, jutting skyward in the background (photos above). We only had time to drop our bags and freshen up quickly because our driver, Paco, for our city tour was waiting in the lobby when we arrived. It was New Year's Eve and the selection of tours available in Barcelona were slim to none. This was our priciest tour of the trip, but it was 4-hours long, it was private and it was luxurious since it was being conducted in a sweet Mercedes Benz...a far cry from WHTT's old "# 14" van back in Lisbon. Paco is an older gentleman with older opinions and interests...again, a far cry from our experiences with WHTT, but he was sincere and efficient in showing us a great amount of the city with plenty of stops especially focused on Antonio Gaudi including La Sagrada Familia (photo below), Parc Guell (photos above), Casa Ballto (the House of Bones) (photo below), and his Casa Mila' Apartment Building (photo below).
Paco explained that Gaudi was a lover of nature and natural creation and his work reflected that with little to no use of straight lines or corners since there are no such things in nature. This curvacious style went against the beliefs of many other architects at the time including his mentors and teachers who later became rivals of his. The city of Barcelona is a cavalcade of different styles of architecture sometimes even on the same block. It can make a first time visitor quite dizzy and confused.
Barcelona was, to be honest, interesting, but a very, very strange city…kind of like Guadi himself. Vastly different from Lisbon in style and feel and yet they are very close in culture, heritage and distance. At first you don’t think there is any rhyme or reason to the city and then it starts to kind of flow together and you kind of get it…kind of like Gaudi’s work….it’s no wonder he is the undisputed champion of this city because his influence seems to go far beyond just his architecture. Our tour continued up to the Olympic Stadium where the Summer Games were held back in 1992. Just past the stadium was a park on a high hill that allowed us a wonderful night view of this dazzling city. Next we headed down toward the waterfront along Christopher Columbus Avenue at which one end is adorned with a huge pedestal on which a statue of the national hero pointing toward the sea is situated in the center of a busy intersection circle. We stopped in the older part of town and did a little exploring on foot as well. The temps were a bit cooler than Lisbon, but not bad at all considering it was winter on the Mediterranean Sea. Barcelona had a lot of Christmas lights up as well which added to the allure. Paco delivered us back to the hotel with a few hours to spare before our New Year's Eve dinner reservation. His tour was good and he was sincere in his work, but overall when it comes right down to it, we would still rather be in a beat up van in Lisbon than in a Mercedes in Barcelona. We took a cab down to the waterfront for dinner. We are not going to mention the name of the place we ate at because in a word it was...horrible. A complete tourist trap. We made a quick decision to have a bottle wine there and a couple of their bland appetizers and get out as quick as possible ( a New Year's resolution we each made to each other to not waste time and/or money on obvious bad service, bad ambiance, etc. anymore). We were also very tired and decided instead of trying to find somewhere else to eat, we would just go back to the room and celebrate the new year with a bottle of champagne and some dinner from room service. What's not to love? We had a great room in a new hotel, a terrific view of the city and we could sit around in our "comfortable clothes." It was terrific and probably the right decision as we watched the local news the next day and saw images of workers cleaning up lots of broken glass in the streets of Barcelona plus police barricades that had been knocked over and thrown around. Evidently, New Year's Eve isn't very organized here and gets a little rowdy in the streets.January 1, 2011 - Happy New Year from Barcelona!
We rewarded ourselves with a late, late sleep in today after several days of very early rising. Plus, there were zero tours available on New Year's Day in Barcelona. In fact, one response we got to an inquiry about a tour on New Year's Day was "Absolutely not! Our hangovers will be too much!" You gotta love honesty.Rambla. It's a busy, well-known street of bars, restaurants and shops that both locals and tourists both frequent. We actually had much more fun veering off La Rambla down some of the narrow side streets running out from it. We sampled tapas in a few different places, had a couple of drinks, did some shopping while all along snapping a series of funny (at least to us) pictures from the streets of Barcelona. Here are a few of our favorites:
Let's face it, Barcelona is just weird. Not all bad, not all good, just weird. Now we embrace weird for the most part (we love the quirky U.S. towns of Asheville, NC and Austin,TX for example) as long as it's weird with a purpose. Barcelona's weirdness seems to lack purpose at times and just comes off as kind of a mess. We enjoyed our brief stay here and would come back if the opportunity arises (it does have a cruise ship port). Epilogue: January 2, 2011 - Our flight home from Barcelona back through Heathrow was without much newsworthiness. We did get a surprising upgrade to Business Class on our way from London back to Atlanta which was very, very nice. Who knew you could actually sit in an airline seat and cross your legs comfortably! Returning to always-busy "ATL" was a bit of an ordeal as we had to collect our baggage twice: once off the plane and once after a U.S. security check. The drive home was a bit long but we were back at the house by 11 P.M. Overall, a great trip. Lots of sites seen, some friends made and a lotta laughs throughout.
Monday, January 3, 2011
Wednesday, December 29, 2010: It is about a two-hour direct flight from London to Lisbon, Portugal. We arrived at 10 AM local time. We had pre-arranged a transfer from the airport to our hotel, the Real Palacio, since we didn't speak the language and were a bit afraid of getting rooked on a cab ride (go ahead with the London cracks now). Anyway, the guy met us at the end of baggage claim with our name on a sheet of paper. Very efficient and courteous. His only warning about Lisbon was pickpockets. He said we could safely walk around on basically any street in Lisbon without fear of muggings. The ride was short to the hotel since the airport is very close to the city. We couldn't check in until noon unfortunately so we killed an hour or so just walking around a bit and having a drink in an outdoor cafe next to a duck pond. The glorious sun was shining down and it felt great on our faces after days without it at home and in London. Lisbon's climate is somewhat tropical being on the coast of the southern end of the Northern Atlantic Ocean. Their grass stays green year round and palm trees are common. It was only in the 60's but it felt like summer to us.
We ambled back to the hotel at noon and got our room squared away. The friendly staff said they gave us an upgrade, but no reason really why and at no cost. Sounds good to us! The room was very nice, quite spacious and included a large balcony with a table and chairs and a good view of part of the city (photo above). We rested and freshened up before our 2 PM city tour. We were to meet our tour guide in a large city square known as Rossio in the older part of town. It was about 10 minutes away by cab and the fair was minuscule. That solved the problem of getting back to the airport we figured. We grabbed a sandwich before the tour began in a little corner deli. A few minutes after 2 PM a little red van with a "14" painted on the side rolled into the square and parked. Out jumped, Bruno, our guide in what was to be a private tour since no one else had signed up for the afternoon city tour. Bruno, we came to find out, actually owned and started the tour company nine months ago which is cleverly called "We Hate Tourism Tours." It's a fresh approach to touring where young, educated locals who love their city take you on a fairly off-the-beaten-path jaunt much the way a friend would do if you were visiting. It's very informal with conversation back and forth between the tourists and tour operator instead of just a non-stop droning of dates and names by the tour guide.
Bruno's approach is very sincere. He is very proud of his city and his country, but doesn't whitewash the problems that Lisbon and Portugal are facing which include a somewhat crumbling infrastructure, general apathy toward national pride by its residents, bureaucracy in government, etc. There is a rich history in the city and nation, but instead of bombarding us with dates of historic importance, Bruno wove a tale of how tiny Portugal was at one time considered a superpower in the 15th and 16th centuries in terms of its successful navy and prowess in exploring and discovery led by such greats as Vasco de Gama. However, unlike the English, French and Spanish, the Portuguese never set out to conquer new lands and were content with what they had. Bruno says this attitude seems to linger on throughout history as Portugal stayed neutral in World War II for example and on to modern day while only gaining democracy in the mid-70's in a bloodless revolution. The city itself was almost completely leveled by an earthquake in 1755 (OK, that's a pretty important date to remember).
The tour we were on is called "The Seven Hills Tour" because Lisbon is surrounded by seven different hills and we went to all of them for some fantastic panoramic views of the city including its oldest neighborhood, Alfama, (photo above) which was actually able to survive the aforementioned earthquake. Probably the most amazing thing about the tour was the fact that Bruno could tell us about his city and his country while answering our questions all while navigating the little van through some of the craziest narrow streets you will ever see (photo above). Plus with all the hills you have steep grades and sharp turns to tend with as well. Lisbon reminds one of a very old San Francisco with its hills, curvy and steep streets, famous cable cars, and it even has a bridge that is similar to the Golden Gate. The tour ended before we knew it and Bruno took us back to our hotel (just like a friend would do) so we could get ready for dinner and another late night bar crawl tour with..guess who....We Hate Tourism Tours (WHTT)! It wouldn't be Bruno this time, but two of his associates, Vinnie and Ricardo. One doing the driving and one doing the bar crawling with us...just like friends would do. Bruno did give us a couple of good suggestions for dinner. One is very small and very popular, and was already booked for the night, so we went ahead and got a table for it the next night. More on that later.
We showered and changed for dinner and were back out the door and in a cab headed back to Old Town for dinner. The place we had picked out from Bruno's other suggestions was closed unfortunately, so we wandered around a bit and came upon a small place called Floresta do Calhariz ("the forest of Calhariz" which is the name of the neighborhood). It was VERY small and VERY local but we were treated nicely and as much English as could be mustered by the staff was given to us. We do have to give it up to Lisbon and what parts of Portugal we saw for being very English-language acceptable. Many signs are in English as well as Portuguese and a majority of the people (especially the younger ones) can speak fairly fluent English. Our dinner choices were as local as we could get: octopus and rice for Ashlee, and steak Portuguese-style for Rob. Before dinner was served we were given bread as well as a large plate of cheese and a Portuguese style of prosciutto that was delicious. It was well into dinner when noticed one of the staff slicing the prosciutto ham right off the shank with hoof and all (photo above). Prices were reasonable again taking into account that Portugal uses the Euro and the U.S. dollar is very weak to the Euro...about 60 cents to one Euro while we were there.
After dinner we made our way back to Rossio Square again to meet the WHTT folks. Many of the Lisbon streets were decked out in beautiful Christmas lighting (take note, London) and we enjoyed a nice stroll (photo above). Pulling in the square with little red #14 again to pick us up was the always-smiling, Ricardo, who bears a striking resemblance to Johnny Knoxville of "Jackass" fame. NOTE: Ashlee says Johnny Knoxville only wishes he looked as good as Ricardo does. Ricardo informed us that he would be the driver tonight during the "We Own the Night" bar crawl and our tour leader (and drinking companion) would be Vinnie who we were going to pick up along with a couple of other tourers. We found Vinnie as well as Nick from Texas and Raphael from Brazil (L to R in photo below) at a hostel nearby. Vinnie handed us two large bottles of beer as he climbed in the van and some plastic cups. "Hello. I'm Vinnie," he said. "Start pouring!" And we were off on quite an adventure some of which won't make the pages of this public blog. A few things we can mention include entrance into four very different kinds of bars that we would have never found on our own, interesting local cocktails and great wine ordered at each of these establishments, drinking wine that Ricardo (photo left) surprised us with that we drank up in a tree (apparently it's a tradition), buying "illegal" pastries from a bakery and buying beer in the street out of a guy's backpack. Most of their pub crawl tours go from about 10 PM to midnight...ours lasted to 3 A.M. Succinctly put, this was a "Top Night" to say the least. Thanks again, WHTT, you guys are two for two!
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Interesting side-note: A hangover in Portugal feels the same as it does anywhere else.
Our day tour today mercifully started at 9 A.M. instead of 7:30 like the one in England. We were going for the trifecta today as we had, yes, booked yet another tour with WHTT. This one is called the X-Day Tour and it would be taking us an hour or so outside of Lisbon to Sintra, a village and World Heritage Site set in a mountainous region sprinkled with huge palaces, and then on to the coast of Portugal through the beautiful resort town of Cascais and back to bay side of Lisbon. We were told the night before that it looked like there would be two vans' worth of people going on this tour and Ricardo would be our driver...which would certainly make Ashlee happy! We made our way back down to the Rossio Square in the rain with a few minutes to spare so we could get a Coke at the weird McDonald's there....yep, they sell beer in there just like they talk about in "Pulp Fiction"...they also serve spinach dip as an entree' and you have to ask for ice in your soft drinks. Hey, it's Europe.
Twenty minutes or so past 9 AM, the little red WHTT "14" van puttered into the square and a young lady got out. Ten people including us met her. She introduced herself as Marta and apologized for being late, but she had a bit of bad news. The little yellow van "27" was not cooperating this morning and Ricardo was working on it (he's got degrees in English and Portuguese literature and is also the company mechanic!). Marta went on to say that they only had room for eight people in "14." Would anyone consider going on tomorrow's tour? Everyone was quiet and although we couldn't go the next day, we both admitted to each other later that the thought crossed our hung-over minds to volunteer to not go and head back to the room and sleep. Finally, a couple of gals said they could and would go tomorrow if they could be promised better weather. It was a good point. As we climbed in the little van in the drizzling rain and headed out of Lisbon for what might be a long, dreary day, we wondered if we had made the right choice. It would soon prove to be one of the best decisions we have ever made.
As we climbed toward Sintra the weather did improve. The sky lightened and the rain pretty much stopped by the time we pulled into the little mountain town. We walked through the village looking up to the mountain-tops to where Marta promised there were large palaces overlooking us, but all we could see was fog (photo above). It still made for a lovely setting and we explored the first palace near town which was admittedly in a bit of disrepair in our opinion. We weren't overly impressed but there was no cost to see it. When we got to the next one higher up the mountain called Quinta da Regaleira, we had to pay an entrance fee. Marta promised it was worth the minimal cost and compared it to a Disneyland for adults. Hmmm?? Well, one thing about it. The place was absolutely amazing. It looked like it had been pulled out of a Lord of the Rings novel with cool accessible stone towers (photo above) overlooking the town of Sintra and the valley below. There were cobblestone paths through beautiful, lush natural gardens plus grottos and caves to explore. The palace itself was exquisite with multiple stories offering more great views and interesting rooms including a library with a mirrored floor that gives you a real case of vertigo.
Just as we finished the palace tour the rain came again. We climbed in the van and crested the top of the mountain and started heading down the other side toward the coast. We caught glimpses of other palaces along the way. Marta said Sintra was a great place to spend not only a few hours, but a whole weekend. She's got that right. What an amazing place. As we approached our lunch spot on the coast the rain suddenly stopped and blue skies began poking through the heavy cloud cover. It was as close to a miracle as we have seen in our lives. We pulled into our next destination, Caba da Roca (photo above), an amazing lighthouse set on a high cliff over the coast and the westernmost point of continental Europe. We picnicked out of the back of the van as the sun shone down on us with local sandwiches, chips and cheese provided by WHTT. The views here made it all worth the effort and made us truly feel fortunate for not backing out of the tour earlier in the day.
After lunch we reluctantly packed up and left this beautiful place, but Marta promised us a little beach time next and the weather was still cooperating nicely. We stopped at a famous surfers' hangout called Guincho Beach (photo above). The sand here was soft and beautiful. The waves were booming in beautiful chorus. It was hard to resist the urge to wade in to the surf. We have definitely got to come back here when it's warmer! We headed on into Cascais, a rather large resort and beach town that can be reached from Lisbon by train and is very popular in the summer according to Marta. We can see why. This looks like a great place to spend a week or so. They call it Portugal's version of Monte Carlo with tons of hotels, shopping and even a large casino. The road back to Lisbon hugged the coast for more beautiful views. The weather kept cooperating and soon we arrived in the Belem district of Lisbon which faces the river and bay that meet the Atlantic Ocean. We stopped at the Monument to the Discoveries which celebrates the exploring history of the Portuguese. You could pay a few Euro and go to the top of this 170' concrete structure for some amazing views of Lisbon (photo below) and the surrounding bay. Afterwards we strolled over to check out the country's amazing national cathedral and its surrounding parks and gardens. As a finale' to the great tour, Marta led us to a little pastry shop called Pasteis de Belem. This place has been a national treasure for a long time (1837 to be exact - see photo below) to the people of Lisbon and once you bite into their wares you know why. Delicious and decadent! A perfect way to end a pretty-much perfect day. Thanks again to WHTT for providing another great, affordable tour!
We got back to our hotel in time to rest up a bit and prepare for our dinner reservations at 8 P.M. at 100 Maneiras (100 Ways). Dinner starts late in Lisbon and this was their first reservation time of the evening that was available. In fact, when we got there at about 5 minutes before 8, they weren't even open yet. The concept behind 100 Maneiras is simple. It's a tapas-style, small-plate predetermined menu, but their are 12, count 'em 12, courses! What an array of taste sensations varying from seafood to beef. Below are photos of just a few of the courses.
We turned in relatively early (heck, our meal lasted three hours!) since we had a plane to catch the next morning despite some invitations we had from some of the WHTT folks wanting us to come out and meet them again. Too much of good thing can be dangerous, so we had to decline their offers! We really fell in love with Lisbon and vow to come back when the weather's a bit warmer and we can enjoy the beaches. This stop has been the real surprise of the trip so far for us since, admittedly, when didn't know a whole lot about Lisbon or Portugal before we came here. Thanks again to the wonderful crew of WHTT from making this one of our top 5 vacation memories so far.
It's on to Barcelona, Spain, in the morning!
Monday, December 26, 2010
We landed this morning in London to cold but clear weather. We grabbed a cab to downtown hoping we could get an early check-in at our hotel, Swissotel's The Howard, which overlooks the Thames River. Our first snag in the trip came when our cab arrived at the hotel and we were told the fare...yikes!!...we had heard that London was expensive, but we didn't know it meant cab rides as well. It also didn't help the fact that the U.S. dollar is taking a pounding (pun intended) vs. the British pound and the Euro. We reluctantly paid the highest cab fare we have ever paid anywhere for an airport transfer and wondered if we had just got "snookered." Granted it is a long ride from Heathrow to mid-town, about a half-hour, but "Bloody Hell!" The staff at The Howard were accommodating and allowed us early access to our room. We had pre-booked our room and for a slight upgrade charge we were promised a river view and a recently renovated room. Hey, why not, we were already in the hole with our cab ride. We did not get "snookered" on the room upgrade at least. It had a great view (photo above) of the river, the London Eye Ferris wheel on the far bank, plus the famous Big Ben clock tower, Westminster Abbey and their grand parliament building.
We had a 2 PM car tour scheduled, so that gave us enough time to freshen up in the room and go for a quick bite to eat for lunch. The first few pubs we had mapped out to visit nearby were closed for the holiday week and this didn't bode well. We found a sandwich shoppe for lunch and with a little further investigation found an open pub, The Lyceum Tavern (photo above), in the theatre district where we had our first beer of the trip. Delicious, refreshing and dirt cheap! Pints of good ale in England we discovered to our delight are extremely affordable. Much more so than a pint of Guinness in Ireland that we visited last year where you had to take out a small loan to purchase one. (See more on the beer from our trip in Rob's beer blog.) These cheap beer prices definitely helped ease the sting of the still incredulous taxi ride cost from the airport. Despite the cold weather and some places being closed, there were tons of people out and about. Next door to our hotel at The Somerset House they had a seasonal ice rink set up which was very popular (photo above).
We met our tour-guide and driver back at the hotel and climbed in his aging black cab (argghh - airport transfer flashback! good thing this tour was prepaid). The tour guide's name escapes us now. He was a pleasant fellow and a bit of a fast talker, but, obviously, he didn't leave that great of an impression on us like some of our great guides of the past (we still love you, Nigel, in Australia!!). He drove us first along the riverfront explaining some history of London and the importance of the Thames River to the city's development. Our first stop was upstream a few miles at the famous Tower of London castleworks and the nearby Tower Bridge (photo above - often mistaken for the London Bridge which is actually a ho-hum flat structure...and not the one in Arizona). Unfortunately, there were no famous Beefeater Guards on duty outside of the Tower of London while were there, but the weather was warming a bit and the rain was staying away, so we couldn't ask for much more. Surrounding the 9th-century-built Tower of London are glistening glass and steel skyscrapers like The Gherkin (photo above) named for its obvious pickle shape (according to our tour guide their are other names for its resemblance which aren't so nice) plus the half-built Pinnacle Building across the river which when completed will be the tallest building in London and second tallest in Europe. This shows the real contrast of the past, present and future intermingled in this interesting, bustling city.We moved on from there and did a drive-by of the lovely and famous St. Paul's Cathedral. We also got a closer view of the Big Ben Clock Tower (Big Ben is the bell inside and not the clock we learned and was made by the same forge that crafted The Liberty Bell) and Westminster Abbey as well as the The London Eye across the river which we would be taking a ride on later in the evening. We moved on to the easily recognizable Buckingham Palace (photo below) where we were able to take a quick stroll around the outer gates. The Queen was not here when we visited and was spending Christmas at another of her seven or so homes around England. Our driver took us to another couple of off-the-beaten-path locales of interest including the house where Lady Diana lived before coming Princess. Our two-hour tour had flown by and before we knew it we were back at the hotel. We had plenty of time to grab something to eat for dinner before our 7:30 PM visit to the London Eye Ferris wheel. We walked across the Thames on the beautiful Golden Jubilee Pedestrian Bridge to the London Eye located in Jubilee Gardens Park and grabbed some dinner before our "flight". We had prepaid to skip the entrance line and have a semi-private capsule for the 3o-minute ride that included a glass of champagne. The London Eye is enormous and each capsule can easily hold 30+ people. Our tour included 5 or 6 other couples so there was plenty of room to move around and get views from all sides of the glass enclosure. The views from high up were breathtaking. London sparkled in the cold, clear winter air. These kind of moments make it all worth while. Afterwards we strolled back across the river and found another pub to warm our bones inside. We found more great beer that you can only get here and settled in for a couple of hours taking in the whole scene inside the busy bar and outside on the streets of London as red doubledecker buses trundled by. Surprisingly, the pubs in London close around 11 PM which was probably good for us since we had an early wake-up the next morning for a long day trip out of the city and into the English countryside. Tuesday, December 28, 2010
We got up early to meet a bus tour that would take us to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, the quaint hamlet of Lacock and the medieval city of Bath. Our guide was Derrick. See, if you are a great guide, you get remembered and Derrick was just that. With the look of an aging Austin Powers and a smooth, legitimate British accent that was much easier to understand than our car tour guy the day before, Derrick provided a great narration to the places we were going and the places were passing on the way. We had arranged for a "small group" tour because we have been burned before on large tour-bus tours with tons of elderly people taking forever to get on and off the bus at each stop, or gaggles of children making the constant noise and mayhem that kids are required to do. We had about 30 people on this tour and we were in a large bus, so we are not sure you could call this a "small group" but overall it was a good group and we had plenty of room to spread out and relax on the bus during the ride to and from.
Our first stop was Windsor Castle (photo above), another home of the Queen and, no, she wasn't here either when we visited. We were one of the first to arrive when the gates opened for the day and we had an interesting and unencumbered audio tour through this vast complex. We have seen our share of castles and such in our travels, but this one surprised us as to how interesting it was. The rain held off for the most part during our outside trekking around the structure and a hanging fog gave the whole place a very "England of old" feel to it. Walking over and around the crypts of English monarchy from the past centuries in St. George's Chapel on the grounds of Windsor gave you a real feel of the history of this place and this country. We did a bit of shopping as well and found prices to be reasonable in the gift shops.
It was on to the famous Stonehenge from there. The fog remained close to the ground as noon approached and it rained off and on during our visit here, but the weather only seemed to add to the mystery of this place. Temple? Sacrificial Altar? Calendar? What purpose was this built for? No one really knows for sure which is what probably draws people to this simple place in such large numbers. Constructed at what is estimated to be around 2500 B.C. on a vast empty plain, the place is visually striking. When you learn these huge 4-ton stones may have been brought from over 150 miles away and erected without modern machinery, you come to realize what a special place this really is no matter what its true intent may have been. Only when we got home and started to view our pictures did the mystery of Stonehenge deepen even more to us. Pictured above is a photo we took at Stonehenge. The only altering done was contrast and color and that's when the rings appeared above it. As we said, this was a cloudy overcast day with intermittent rain. One theory for the choice of location of Stonehenge is that it lies on an electromagnetic crossroads. Could these rings be that energy visualized? If so, how did these ancient people know this? It definitely makes you wonder...
We moved on to the quaint little village of Lacock (photo below) next where we had lunch at The George Inn, a charming little pub in the center of town. Lacock hasn't changed much since it's founding in the 11th Century and for this reason it has been the locale for many period films most notably the recent Harry Potter movies. Lunch was great and most notably we sat with another couple from Nevada during our meal and learned that they too had paid the horrendous cab fare from the airport to London's city center. Perhaps we hadn't been "snookered" and that made us feel a bit better about the whole thing despite it still being basically highway robbery. We concluded our stops in Bath, a medieval city founded on the popularity of its geothermal pools (or baths, get it). We were given enough time to tour the Roman baths if we wanted, but we opted to explore the quaint city and its shops instead. The town was adorned in Christmas lights (photo below) which we were happy to see because the city of London, at least what we saw of it, wasn't as decorated as we expected for the holiday season. We were 100 miles from London now, so it was a long rainy, sometimes foggy, drive back in the dark English countryside. We commandeered the back seats of the bus and stretched out for the ride in fairly good comfort. We arrived back in London around 8 PM and we were let out at the Gloucester Road area where we found a nice pub called The Stanhope Arms where we had dinner and a few more cheap, delicious ales. We rode the Underground back to our hotel. We found London's subway easy to use and we thought we had a way to get back to the airport in the morning without having to take an expensive taxi. Unfortunately, we learned the next morning that the Underground didn't start until 5:30 AM and our flight was at 7:30 AM. Not enough time. Ring up a taxi, govna!! At least we were prepared this time for the cost which was a bit less thanks to not much traffic, but not by much. OK, ok, we have been griping about this cost during this entire blog entry, so how much was it you ask? It's embarrassing that we didn't know as seasoned travelers, but something definitely worth sharing. Drum roll please.......it was 80 pounds one way for two people....with today's conversion rates that's around $125, folks, for a cab ride from the city center to the airport it serves. We kid you not. You have now been warned! It's definitely a new record for us and one we hope we don't ever break. Despite the oft-mentioned cab rides to and from the airport, we really enjoyed our brief stay in London and would definitely like to come back (when it's warmer and we have more time to use the Underground to and from the airport!!). It's on to Lisbon, Portugal, tomorrow.