Monday, April 16, 2018


As a spinoff of my literature project, we've also been watching a lot of British television, and just finished season 2 of the The Crown. It was great, of course, so when we needed to pick a day trip to get out of town- it seemed only reasonable to go to Windsor Castle.

It was a quick and cheap train from London to Windsor, with nice views of sheep on the way. We arrived and quickly climbed up to the castle, which is really a huge fortress. Like most tourist sites here, there is a free audio guide, but it didn't work well with a toddler who was already ready for a nap before we even got started.

We briefly walked around the grounds - which were lovely because everything is covered in flowers now that spring is finally here. The castle is quite large with a bunch of buildings and gardens, so walking around was nice. Then we went into the state rooms (no pics), which were fancy and full of art and whatnot - but the kiddo was too tired at that point so we mostly skipped through quickly. Queen Anne also has a very extensive doll house, but we skipped it to avoid the line.

now that's a wall.

these guys!

the flag on the tower means the Queen is here today


pretty but closed. 

terrible at group selfies

someone decided he didn't want to be in any more pictures

After the castle, we stopped at a nearby pub for lunch and then briefly walked around town (which is tiny), before catching our train back home. 

eating outside for the first time this year! 

full of pub food and getting sleepy

very excited about the Queen's walkway symbol

back on the train - cookie in hand- all smiles again.

Windsor is actually one of the stops I made with my parents years ago when we came to visit, so it wasn't really the top of my list to go see again. I'm hoping that now that the weather is getting nice, we can start doing a lot more day trips to new places.  All in all - a nice day trip and an easy escape from town.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Sightseeing in West London

My US job finally finished up last week - so with the boy at daycare, my day was finally completely my own for the first time since we got here. I will start the new job hunt shortly, but first I decided to take advantage of the free time and do some sightseeing on my own. A lot of the London sites are in the neighborhood of West London - so I started there. I did the following over 3 days, but I think you could really squeeze it into one if you were pressed for time.

starting at the British Museum, heading south down to Westminster

The British Museum
This is one of the free museums that I visited with the kiddo a while back - so I decided to come back and check it out again a little more slowly. I made the mistake of coming a little later in the day than we had before - so it was packed. Definitely recommend getting here as soon as it opens. It's also massive, so I just focused on the top hits in the Egypt, Assyria, and Greece sections.

me at the British Museum

lots of mummies

I really love these guys. 

Apparently the Brits took all the friezes off of the Parthenon. Greece is (surprisingly) not happy. 

serious crowds. come early. 

Covent Gardens
Leaving the British Museum, it's a short walk to Covent Gardens - a large indoor marketplace. I just stayed for a bit, listening to the opera singer and other street musicians, but you could definitely hang out here and do some shopping and coffee drinking.

Covent Gardens on the inside

Covent Gardens on the outside

National Galley and Trafalgar Square
Then you walk south through the theatre district to the National Gallery, which is the top of Trafalgar Square. I stopped back in the Gallery (another one we had been to before with the boy), to see some big works from my favorite periods (Italian Renaissance and Impressionism) and sort of skipped over the stuff in the middle. Afterwards, I spent a bit of time people watching in the square, which seems to always be full of performers and other artists.

Trafalgar Square

National Gallery and Trafalgar Square

To the south of Trafalgar, the road is named Whitehall, and covered in government buildings and war monuments. It's pretty impressive as you walk south towards Parliament.

one of the government buildings on Whitehall - maybe MOD?

Churchill War Rooms
Under the current Treasury building is an expansive bunker that Churchill used during WW2. The older part of the museum has waxy-looking figures posed in a Pirates-of-the-Carribean sort of way in the rooms. It's a little creepy - I kept expecting them to start singing - but interesting to see. The new part of the museum is a very high-tech, interactive area about Churchill himself. As you walk, there are motion sensors that set off recordings of his most famous speeches. It was interesting - maybe not my favorite - but still worthwhile.

the map room

Churchill's bunker bedroom - used for his daily nap. 

Westminster Abbey
We have already hit the point where it feels like we've seen a lot of churches - so I was not expecting to like Westminster Abbey. It's on everyone's must-see list though, so I decided to go. It was amazing.  The church itself is very pretty - but what's impressive are all of the memorials inside. Of course there are all the royals - Queen Elizabeth I and Edward the Confessor, plus some Henrys I think - and lots more. Poets' Corner is one of the reasons I wanted to come - Chaucer is buried here (I just finished Canterbury Tales), but also so many more authors from Lord Byron and Henry James to George Elliot (wasn't that a fake name?). There are also a number of scientists and explorers including Darwin and Dr. Livingston, and a number of Prime Ministers. There are also a lot of no-name people that have commissioned just amazing sculpture memorials, which are really spectacular to see. There are no photos inside - or I'd have taken a million - which is actually nice because it keeps the other tourists moving. This place is packed, so you pretty much move along as a big hoard together. I made a mistake and did not book a ticket in advance, so I waited in the rain for about an hour to get inside. Definitely prebook!

waiting in line to get in

Houses of Parliament
Just next to the Abbey is the Houses of Parliament, formally known as the Palace of Westminster. Big Ben (who is actually the bell not the tower) is under renovation right now, so I did not get to hear him toll. But I did get to stop inside to hear the House of Lords. Walking into the Palace is pretty spectacular - and it just gets more and more extravagant as you get closer to the gallery (no photos inside). I got to listen to them discussing the impact of Brexit on the supply of midwives and nurses - which apparently is a big problem. I would love to go back and see the House of Commons, where every Wednesday at noon the PM comes in for questioning (I tried, but of course that's harder to get in to see).

Big Ben at right under scaffolding

the front room - the ceiling is famous for something

getting fancier as we get closer

gold covered ceiling

floor tiles like the US Senate!

(because we can't all be lords)

Feeling pretty happy as I cross the river heading back south

A couple other sites nearby:
- Piccadilly Circus is in this area. I walked through it but would not recommend it to any one else. It's like New York's Times Square but worse. It's just crowded and touristy and makes me a bit hostile. 
 - Buckingham Palace is also right near Westminster. Apparently they open more of it to the public when the Queen is on holiday in the summer, so it's on the list to go see in the future. 

So - I hit a lot of the big must-see sights this week. I didn't really expect to enjoy sightseeing by myself- but it was awesome! I loved not carrying a kid and his stuff around, or worrying about a potential tantrum. I got to walk slowly and read the signs when I wanted to - or skip over the stuff I didn't care about. I'm a huge fan!  One huge lesson I learned is the importance of booking in advance so you get to skip the line - so I'm working on setting up my future excursions to sites in other parts of the city now. I had some pretty rainy weather too, so I've definitely learned to always carry an umbrella.  For now though  - my feet are killing me and I'm exhausted, so I'm happy to sit still for a bit.  

Thursday, March 15, 2018

3 Days in Portugal

So - for our first real getaway and my birthday trip, we decided to spend a long weekend in Lisbon. We wanted to go as far south as possible to get away from an unusually snowy week in London. We'd  previously been to Spain and loved it - and figured Portugal would be similar but new - so I found cheap tickets and booked them!

Prep and the Literature Project
So once the tickets were booked, I made a major effort to plan the hell out of this short trip. I bought a small pocket travel book which was very helpful, and watched a bunch of travel videos on YouTube to get a sense of the must-see and must-does in town. To get acquainted with the culture, I bought The Book of Disquiet,  the most famous book by Fernando Pessoa, who is one of the most famous Portuguese authors. He apparently didn't write under pseudonyms, but under a dozen of what he called "heteronyms" which were entire different identities he created. It's a huge book - so let me be clear that I didn't get all the way through it - but I feel like chapter 60 pretty much sums it up: "Should you ask me if I'm happy, I'll answer that I'm not." The other super famous Portuguese author is Jose Saramago, who won the Nobel in 1998. His most famous books are Blindness and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ - both of which I'd read a few years back. Both are excellent, but also a bit odd. I started getting the sense of Portuguese suadade - which means something like sadness or longing.
Pessoa graffiti on the wall - they really love this guy. 

A Chronological Summary
We caught evening flights out on a Thursday, and arrived at our AirBNB late that night.

  • Day One: We woke up to pouring rain. We had a few breakfast pastries in the room while watching Moana, and then when the rain finally stopped we left for lunch and a quick trip up to the Castelo da Sao Jorge - which is super old (7th century BC), mostly in ruins, but has great views down on the city. Then we went back to the house for a quick naptime/happy hour break, and back out again to walk through the main plaza, Praca do Comercio to find dinner. 
exploring the castle

views of the city below
  • Day Two: We grabbed some pastries on the way to catch a street car to the west side of town, Belem, to visit an old monastery, Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, which was ridiculously ornate and beautiful, especially since the sun had really come out. We stopped over at the Tower of Belem nearby, an old fort on the river that may be the inspiration for the chess rook (or maybe I misheard that). Back home for nap time/happy hour on the patio in the sun (which is why we picked the airbnb in the first place). We went out that night hoping to find Fado, the classic Portuguese music, but failed - and just had some lovely tapas for dinner and called it a night. 
The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

the Tower of Belem

Day Three: We started the morning on the Tram 28 - Lisbon's most famous streetcar that winds through the most scenic parts of the city.  Then we hopped off at a market that I was pretty sure Spouso would enjoy - he did - and then we trekked back towards the house. On the way, we stopped for a quick shot of Ginjinha, this cherry liquor that is apparently very classically Portuguese. We checked out of our hotel, meaning that we then had our bags in tow, so we took a cab to the aquarium where we hung out until we could head to the airport. Thankfully, at some point the kid finally crashed and got a quick nap in one of the quieter parts of the aquarium. 

catching the streetcar

cone of meat at the market

at the aquarium

finally taking a nap

Thoughts by Topic
  • Food: So Portugal is known for having great food, but I was not super impressed. Then again, I don't really like fish, so it's probably my fault. We had super fresh fish the first night which was good, but then the rest was not great. Their classic dish is Bacalhau - which is dried salted cod (like fish jerky), that's been rehydrated. It tastes like you can imagine it would, and it's everywhere. One of my favorite foods in Spain was their croquettes - little fried balls of yummy things. In Portugal, the croquettes are bigger,  but sometimes filled with Bacalhau- which is not a fun surprise. The other food they are really known for is their pastries - these people have a serious sweet tooth. The Pasteis de Nata is a custard-filled tart thing, which is absolutely everywhere. It's fine - but often left my stomach feeling a little off afterwards. 

trying the official Portuguese pastry
  • Drinks:  The drinks were fabulous. I already mentioned the super-sweet Ginjinha, which they actually served in a chocolate cup, as if it weren't already sweet enough. Other than that, the wine was fabulous, and the port was particularly fabulous. Happy hour was the highlight of the day. 

  • The Earthquake and Architecture: Lisbon's architecture is really defined by the earthquake/fire/tsunami that destroyed over half of the city in 1755. The parts of the city that weren't destroyed, like our neighborhood the Alfama, have narrow, twisty streets that often just turn into stair cases. The parts that were destroyed, were rebuilt on a grid with wide open boulevards - it's strikingly different. 
wide boulevards in the rebuilt part of the city
  • Hills and Trains: Lisbon was built on 7 hills, and is super steep. To get up and down the roads, there are huge staircases everywhere - quite a workout when you're also carrying a kid - but there are also streetcars and funiculars. We didn't get a chance to ride a funicular, but the streetcars are awesome. 

  • Cheap Travel vs Good Flights: As this was our first real trip, we were experimenting with the idea that we could hop over to another country for the weekend, cheaply and easily. Because we booked pretty last minute, the only reasonable flights didn't leave until 8pm on Sunday. That was a disaster on both ends. Even with a late check out, we were out of the hotel by 1pm, which meant we had 7 hours to kill while hauling around our suitcases. We went to the aquarium, mostly because we knew we could dump our bags in a locker. By the time we could finally go to the airport, everyone was done. Then, our flight got delayed, so instead of arriving at 11pm, which would've been late enough, we missed the last train, had to catch a very expensive cab back to the city, and didn't get home until nearly 3am. So - I think lesson learned - book early, insist on return flights in the afternoon. 

  • Telework:  The trip was also an experiment to see if we could make a 3-day trip without taking leave by teleworking on Friday. I had planned to take the kid around Friday while Spouso was working from the hotel - but when the rain finally stopped and we could go - he didn't want to miss out and came along. I hauled my laptop around but then didn't want to open it - because hey - we're in Portugal - so I really didn't get much of anything done. So - not sure - I think we could make it work with a little more discipline - but probably shouldn't assume it's a full work day if we try this again. 

  • The Kiddo: So the kid mostly did great, considering how much we were throwing off his usual schedule. We tried to get home for a regular nap time, but were often pretty late, which really threw him off. He got tired very quickly, so we did a lot of carrying him around - until my back was just breaking, and I would try to put him down - which ended in a huge tantrum, and me picking him back up. He of course loved the pastries, but didn't try much of the rest of the food - so we need a better food plan for him next time. We did definitely plan to see sights that he would like - interspersing train rides whenever possible and avoiding museums - so he was very excited to see things. He was also really good in the cathedrals and learned to whisper - which I was pretty proud of. Obviously - traveling with a toddler is not the same as traveling with adults - so we missed about half of the schedule I had planned. We also didn't get a chance to go out for music, as I really wanted, so instead, I bought an album by Amalia Rodrigues, the Queen of Fado, which we listened to during nap time happy hours - which worked out ok. I keep reminding myself that maybe it's not the same as traveling with just adults, but it's still better than nothing. 
quick family selfie in front of classic Portuguese wall tiles

So - with all that in mind - back by popular demand - a short travel film from our journey: