Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Lush Ireland

A little windy on the Cliffs of Moher!

October2...continued: We arrived to the Dublin airport about 8:20pm, collected our bags and then tried to figure out where to find the bus to the city center. After about 25 minutes of asking and searching, we found bus 41 and needed to wait 20 minutes until the next one arrived.
The directions to our hotel were terrible. In fact, I had to inquire twice to them to get some that we're mediocre at best. All we knew was we were supposed to take bus 41 to the last stop and they were "a three-minute walk from there."

Well the bus driver was a jerk and when we asked if he stopped at a specific street, he responded with "obviously." Ok then, not off to the best start, and I forgot to mention it was raining. We got on the bus and noticed that there was no bus route sign or anything, so we were a little worried as to how we would know when the last stop was. I was able to ask a woman behind me who showed more manners than the mean driver.

We got off the bus and were left to decide which "three-minute" walk we would choose at this fork in the road, literally. Thankfully we chose correctly and made it to The Abbott Lodge Inn. We booked this place based off of reviews and proximity to the city center.

I can safely say, it's the worst place we've stayed to date. Here is a rundown of our first 30 minutes:
-Walked the four flights to room 126
-Reeked like barf
-Smell confirmed by the still wet trash can in the corner, no joke.
-Got our room changed to the first floor, room 104.  Only room with no Wi-fi...great.
-Windowless, no fan, so musty it was hard to breathe. But it was bigger than the barf room
-Put our bags down. Noticed two boogies stuck to the wall. One was bloody.
-Grin and barred it. I took a shower.
-Water pressure good.
-Blew dry my hair with THEIR hair dryer. Started smoking like crazy. Now the room smelled of smoke and must. No fan or windows to air out.
-Andrew uses the bathroom. Steps on a SLUG! Not joking, a slug on the floor!
-We got in bed at 11:45pm and squinted to see the 13inch mounted box tv; circa 2000.

October3: Woke up to another rainy day. Ventured out to explore the Guinness Brewery. We ended up spending three hours there! One of the coolest tours I've ever been on. It was so modern and well done, just amazing! It's self guided but everything is interactive using huge tvs with motion activated software explaining how they brew their beer. It's really quite hard to explain, I'm hoping some of my photos can do it justice.

Room with talking frames
One of the coolest rooms was filled with about ten talking picture frames. High definition tvs that were 'portraits' of people from different eras talking about Arthur Guinness, the founder. When you stepped in front of them, they came to life in almost 3D likeness. Really clever and super interesting.
They had a taste testing room where they activated all of your senses. Very Willy Wonka like in an all white room. We were given a shot glass of Guinness and then told to walk into the next room without drinking it. This time, an all black room, the guide told us how to taste all the flavors based on the sipping technique. Just really cool!

We then went to the fourth floor, Guinness Acadamy, and learned how to pour the perfect pint of Guinness. After we all poured our own, we entered our name into an iPad and a certificate printed out! Cool! They snapped a group photo and if we entered our email address into the iPad, we were immediately emailed the group photo. Just a great way to use current technology to please your customers, well done!
Andrew pouring.

We then took our beers up to the seventh floor where we enjoyed a 360 degree view of Dublin. We just really enjoyed ourselves and it was one of the few entry fees we paid that we felt we got our money's worth.

We left the brewhouse, walked around a few shops in the city center before we were tired of getting rained on. We went back to our lovely abode to book some things for the coming days which was a relief when we finished! We headed to a local pub for drinks, an appetizer and a dessert! Pretty successful (despite the rain) first full day in Ireland!

October 4: After another lovely night in our wonderful hotel, we woke up refreshed and ready to go. Ha! We walked about thirty minutes to check out Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Saint Patrick is said to have baptized converts to Christianity at a well that once existed in the park just next to the Cathedral. Due to this association, a church has been there since the fifth century. The current cathedral (after a few rebuilds) has been there since the thirteenth century!

The alter at Saint Patrick's Cathedral
It was a really beautiful church. Odd to have been charged an admission price to visit an active cathedral, but I guess they have to get the restoration money from somewhere, and we were glad to contribute! After admiring the stained glass for a while, we left to check out Trinity College; the oldest and most famous university in Ireland.

Being in no rush, we decided to check out Shop Street. A bustling commercial district filled with shops, cafés and street performers. We were luck to catch a local band called ‘Keywest’ and the five members were so talented! We ended up buying a few over cds as well as an original. It was a really nice little break to enjoy some fabulous local Dublin talent!

After the serenade, we made our way over to the college. Now, walking around the college is free, so we did that for a bit and then checked out their gift shop. A famous exhibition was going on to see ‘The Book of Kells,” an elaborately designed gospel created by monks on the Scottish isle of Iona around 800ad. They copied the books, word for word in Latin, of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John from the New Testament. We really didn’t know much about it and we thought nine-Euro a piece to see it seemed a little much so we decided to pass.
In the Long Room (where we weren't supposed to be)

After moseying around the gift shop, we found ourselves walking up some stairs in the shop not knowing what they lead to. We found our selves in the magnificent ‘Long Room’ library. Built between 1712 and 1732, it contains four million titles! It is really beautiful and the sight of some of these old books was just really stunning. It even had the ‘old book’ smell! We made our way down the opposite side stairs thinking it would lead us back to the gift shop. Well, we were actually in the Book of Kells exhibition hall! So confused (and clearly someone wasn’t doing their job if we just mindlessly ended up in the hall for FREE) we took a look around. It was neat to see how the monks created the book, and the book itself was pretty. But I was glad we didn’t pay the eighteen Euro for it. And just like that, we walked out.

I felt a little bad for not paying, but it wasn’t done out of malicious intent, we honestly didn’t know where we were going. If we weren’t allowed to go that way don’t you think someone should have been there? Oh, well. It was a lovely little mistake!

We left the college and headed to the famous Temple Bar district for some lunch in a typical Irish Pub. The streets were lined with them. We kind of just picked one thinking that they really all kind of served the same things. After our late lunch, we decided to just walk around the streets a little more, enjoying our last day in Dublin. Tomorrow we would be hitting the road for a three-day rental car road trip around the beautiful Green Isle.

October 5: And we’re mobile! After a bit of a frustrating morning, the guy at the front desk of our awful hotel did not know what the heck he was talking about when it came to which bus we needed to take. We ended up just taking a taxi for the first time since we have left Korea. Is that nuts?!
Andrew and our sweet ride!
We decided to pick up the rental car at the airport since it seemed like the easiest way. We booked the car through lastminutedeals.com with Enterprise, so it was ready for us when we got there. Renting the car was a lot more than in the states, but I had read that in our travel guide. It has something to do with the insurance the government mandates you to purchase with the rental and it’s pretty steep. But it’s a piece of mind I guess. The first car we inspected actually had a nail in the tire, which I was so happy the enterprise guy caught, so we were given another. The car is an automatic Nissan Micra! I was a little nervous for Andrew as it’s been over a year since he has driven and it’s on the opposite side of the road. But he did a great job with the driving when we were in New Zealand, that I knew he’s do a great job!

And we’re off, shades on, windows down, and our new Irish band cd blasting through the speakers! Our first stop is Galway. A city about two and a half hours west of Dublin and on the west coast. We booked a hotel there, Galway Oyster, for the night to give us a chance to explore. 

Just enjoying the view!
Well, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Galway, so after checking in and getting something to eat, we headed 50km southwest to check out the Cliffs of Moher. WOAH! The lush green, gorgeous Ireland I’m sure you are picturing is exactly what we saw out our windows on the drive to the cliffs. It was like a movie! It’s obvious how Ireland get the name, the Green Isle. We made it to the cliffs via a super narrow country road with no shoulder (I was a nervous wreck) and saw that we had to pay six euro a piece to park! What?! I have to pay to park in this big open lot? Not okay. We turned around in search of another option. Bingo! We saw some people walking down the way and noticed a few cars parked in the side of the road and people walking up a path to the cliffs. So that’s what we did.

After parking the car, we made the trek up the steep hill where we would eventually meet up with the people that paid to park. Same gorgeous view for FREE! The views were breathtaking! There isn’t much more to say other than that. I’ll just include a few photos below and you can see for yourself! We left just before dark to avoid the narrow roads without streetlights. That would have been scary! Great first day of the road trip!

October 6: Today, we woke up, filled our bellies with the complimentary breakfast and hit the road for Cork. Unfortunately, the unusually beautiful weather we had yesterday did stretch itself any further and we woke up to more rain. This kind of puts a damper in our plans of stopping along to way to see sites or just take pictures of the beautiful scenery. The drive was only about two hours, but it rained the entire time. We made one detour through the town of Limerick to see what was there and to get some gas. Pretty much everything was closed because it was Sunday, so we just filled up. And let me tell you, I have no right to complain about gas prices in the US anymore! We still had little more than a quarter tank in this tiny Micra car, and it still cost us $60!!! That is crazy to me! No wonder they all drive itty-bitty cars.

We hit the road again and arrived at our Cork hotel, the Best Western. The hotel is really nice and the town is built within these killer walking hills. We dropped our stuff off and headed into town to get something to eat. We decided not to drive because we knew parking would be a pain so we just walked….in the rain…boo. The walk down wasn’t bad, but when we finished eating, we had to walk the 15 minutes up hill; not fun at all. We took the rest of the rainy afternoon to look up the last few activities we would do to fill our last two days!

Gorgeous grounds around the castle.
October 7: Boo....more rain! Our plan was to head the eight kilometers from Cork, to Blarney, to visit the famous Blarney Stone, the castle it's set in as well as the beautiful gardens. But of course, that's no fun in the rain, so we decided to head there in search of a lunch spot and wait for the rain to let up. A huge tourist attraction set in the tower of the castle in 1446, it is said that anyone who kisses the Blarney Stone endows the kisser with the gift of eloquence; so of course we had to kiss it! 

The rain let up so we headed to the castle. The castle itself is not that impressive, but the beautiful, lush gardens around it are worth the visit. We walked along the tourist friendly path taking pictures of the gorgeous grounds around us and reading all the little 'legend' markers along the way telling us about the  witch the used to live there; kind of fun. After about an hour, we made our way to the castle and to take our turn at kissing the stone. The castle is really nothing to talk about. The steps to get to the stone however, are. Talk about tiny spaces! The stairs were so narrow and the spiral staircase is not for the anyone remotely claustrophobic. It was even smaller than the stairs leading the top of the Notre Dame tower in Paris. 

Andrew kissing the stone!
We made it to the top and prepared to kiss the stone. It's actually quite awkward to tell you the truth. You have to lay on your back, grabbing these two iron posts while this old man that worked there helped to lean uncomfortable far back, like a back bend, as you kiss the stone upside down looking at the gardens quite far down below you. Not a fan of kissing something thousands of people ahead of me have; I got to go right after I watched him sanitize it! Whew! 

After gaining our 'gift of eloquence,' it started raining again so we had to head back.

October 8: Our last full day of this incredible trip! We got in the rental car and drove about an hour and fifteen minutes to the city of Waterford. Know where this is going?! Yes, we were going to tour the Waterford Crystal factory! So exciting! We pulled in, ate a quick lunch and then headed to the store. Stunning of course! A whole factory filled with all different types of beautifully cut crystal just sparkling in the perfectly positioned lighting...love!

We bought out tickets for the tour; a behind the scenes look at the mast craftsmen at work. We got to see how the molded, blew, shaped, cut, and shined the pieces from start to finish. The apprenticeship these men go through last up to ten years!! It is so amazing how they make all those perfect cut lines by hand; pretty incredible. We even got to hold a replica of the NCAA College football championship trophy so that we neat! The tour lasted about an hour and it gave us some great insight to this super skilled trade; it made us look at the pieces in the showroom that much closer and with that much more respect. Having not really bought any souvenirs on this trip, we splurged and bought ourselves a truly gorgeous bowl that was made at and exclusively for this factory store, so that's pretty special.

We left Waterford and headed back to Dublin to return the car and check into our airport hotel. I can't believe this trip is over. This journey really. It all started back in December of 2011 when Andrew and I talked about how much we missed living abroad and how much we wanted to travel Europe. Returning to Korea was again, such an amazing experience in itself but it helped us to ultimately get to our end goal of Europe. Traveling Europe is not cheap compared to Asia, and we knew that. Having that year to just work and save in Korea made all of this possible.

In a matter of fourteen months we traveled and experienced: Korea, Philippines, Hong Kong, Turkey, Italy, France, Austria, Germany, England, Scotland, and Ireland. At the tender age of 27, Andrew and I have had so many travel opportunities that we know we are so blessed to have had. We set a goal, worked for it and accomplished it. I'm so proud, and yet, so excited for all of the goals in our future that we will work for and attain together! Bless Andrew's heart for putting up with me; Lord knows I can be a bit of a high-strung traveler!

Thanks for all the love and prayers and for following our journey! Can't wait to get back to the good 'ole USofA!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Beautiful Scotland

September 27: Today we boarded a four-hour train for London that would take us to Edinburgh and then we would catch an hour-long train to Dundee where my mom’s cousin, Barbara, was going to be picking us up. The train ride was pretty, as much of the view was of vivid green farmland and beginning of autumn trees.

This would be the first time I would meet Barbara and she was just as nice as she could be. She picked us up from the train station and took us to her house where we would be staying for two nights. Her house is in the most picturesque location. Built by her father, this was her childhood home. The backyard garden was beautiful! She took us along the fence line giving us a little history of where the trees and plants came from. The house sits on an acre of well kempt land and it’s just so cozy and peaceful. She cooked us a perfect spaghetti dinner complete with a dessert using the fruit she grows herself. It was such a great first night in Scotland and amazing to meet some relatives I had never met before.

Glamis Castle
September 28: Today, began a little less typical than most of our travel days. We THOUGHT taking a ferry from Edinburgh to Dublin (our last stop of the trip) would be the cheapest and easiest way. We were wrong. After talking with Barbara, she told us that a flight would be the best and most efficient way. So, last night we tried to book it online, however, the website would not take any of our cards for some unknown reason. So Barbara was nice enough to take us to a travel agent first thing in the morning to get the tickets booked. They even had trouble with the site. And to avoid an extra charge using our American credit card, Barbara was sweet enough to put it on her card allowing us to pay her back in cash. Whew!

After that unforeseen travel hiccup, Barbara drove us 15 miles from Dundee to see Glamis (pronounced Glaums) Castle, the childhood home of the Queen Mother. Located at the end of a stunning drive in. A small paved road lined with rolling hills and huge canopy trees. It embodies a castle in every sense on the world. We took a guided tour (no pictures allowed) of some of the staterooms and were given a great history of the 600 year old, still inhabited castle. After the tour we grabbed a small bite to eat at the castle restaurant before beginning our driving tour.

Dundee and the surrounding areas of Scotland are just beautiful. By no means overly populated, the natural beauty is still at the forefront of this place. Barbara drove us along the coastline pointing out little towns and giving us a brief history of each. It was so wonderful because when you travel, you don’t get the chance to see much of the countryside as it’s hard to reach those using public transportation. I’m so glad she took the time to drive us around. I loved the little antidotes of family history she would weave in; all so interesting. I could definitely live here. There is just something some homey about it.  

September 29: Today Barbara drove us to the little town of St. Andrews; home to the university as well as the birthplace of golf. Andrew had been looking forward to this day for quite some time. The town is so charming. And just this year, the university celebrated its 600th birthday! We weren’t aware that the Alfred Dunhill golf tournament was going on on the famous Old Course, so we were not able to walk along it. Instead we had to admire it from afar. We were able to watch a few players play the 18th hole…Andrew was in golf heaven and he’s determined to return in 2015 for the Open that will be played there.

Andrew at St. Andrew's
 After watching some golf, Barbara took us for a stroll around the town and along the pew where we got a beautiful view of the ruins of St. Andrew’s Castle. It was also nice just listening to her insights on buildings and places, as she was a student at St. Andrew’s many years ago. After walking around we grabbed a quick lunch before she drove us to Edinburgh where we would be staying with another cousin of my mother’s, Jamie.

Edinburgh is beautiful. Their house is within walking distance to the city center which is super convenient for us. After chatting for a little while over a pot of tea, Barbara had to return home as she was leaving town the next morning. It was sad to day goodbye to her because it was just so wonderful to spend time with her. Jamie then thought to drive us to the city center and give us a map so we could explore a bit before making our way back to their house. 
Andrew and I with Barbara at St. Andrew's

Walking the main streets of the city was so fun. Everything is just so….well…Scottish! We took in a few sites before making our way back to Jamie’s for dinner. At dinner we sat with Catherine, Jamie’s partner, and Robin, Jamie’s older brother.  It was a delicious home-cooked meal and great conversation. We ended up talking until about 10:45pm. It was just a wonderful day!

September 30th: Jamie went with us to visit Edinburgh Castle. A royal castle built in the 12th century and continued as a royal living place until 1603. It was pretty cold atop that hill, but the view was well worth it. We had such beautiful views of Edinburgh from every angle. The castle has several mini-museums, from military to the crown jewels. We spend a little over two hours walking around listening to our audio guides.

We left the castle and made our way to meet Robin and Jamie’s cousin nephew, Jimmy, who works in a local pub. More distant relatives, yeah! We sat there chatting and eating lunch where I was able to sample Haggis, a Scottish traditional dish.

Edinburgh Castle
After lunch, Robin took us on a bus to go and visit his mother, my grandmother’s sister, Dorothy, in the nursing home. I never in a million years thought I would have the chance to meet all this family, let alone a 99 year-old great aunt. Dorothy does not look 99 at all. There would be moments where the light went off and she knew who I was, in relation to her, but then it would sadly fade away. She mentioned that she thought my grandmother was so witty, which made me laugh as it’s still true today. We stayed there for about 30 minutes before taking a beautiful canal walk back to Jamie’s house.

October 1: Andrew and I headed out for the day and our first stop was The National Museum of Scotland, right in the city center. It’s a wonderful museum with so many aspects. We especially enjoyed the interactive science portion! We spent about two hours just walking around and taking everything in.

"I just want to meet the queen!"
The rest of the day we spent moseying around the famous Royal Mile street and enjoying all the little shops we went in an out of. We also made our way down to the parliament building which is a building of very unique architecture, and then we took some photos of one of the Queens Scottish palaces, Holyrood House. We decided not to pay to go in, but we snapped some photos from the outside.
We walked, and then walked some more before returning to Jamie’s house to throw in a small load of laundry before taking them both out for a ‘thank-you-for-letting-us-stay” dinner. Tomorrow is another ½ of Edinburgh exploration before we fly out later that evening for our final stop; Ireland!

October 2: Today we decided to walk around and explore more of the 'new town' even though it dates back to the 1700s. The architecture was beautiful and we enjoyed the day just killing time before leaving for our flight at 5:00pm. And believe it or not, on our way back to Jamie's house to pack, we ran into Robin walking the streets. He told us if we had 20 minutes to spare, we should join him for a look around the National Portrait Gallery. We walked the two floors as he gave us a brief Scottish history based on the portraits we saw. I just can't believe that we ran into one of only five people we know in this city! Small, small world.

Scotland was such a wonderful place to visit. I felt so blessed to have been able to meet and stay with family members I had never even met. The way they opened up their homes to Andrew and I just show how kindhearted and generous the Scots truly are. We had an absolute fantastic time in Scotland!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bustling London

Parliament Building
September 22: We left Augsburg bright and early at 6:30am to catch the train to Munich airport. We actually bought the flight from Munich to London before we booked a place to stay. So a 10:45am flight didn't seem so early, until it occurred to us that we were staying two hours from the airport. Ugh.

The flight was easy and only an hour and a half. We arrived to the London Gadwick airport, got our bags and train tickets with ease and were off to East Croyden where our hotel was. As soon as we got to the East Croyden train station, we knew we weren't exactly in London. Actually, it was a pretty sketchy place. However, the Hampton Inn was only a five minute walk from the station and it's really very nice, so that's a plus! We ate a late lunch at about 3pm and then went back to the hotel to start planning our itinerary for our exciting four full days in London!

Kensington Palace
September 23: Our day was planned around our dinner plans with Dorothy Mackenzie and her husband. Dorothy is a cousin of my mother and lives in London. Not wanting to venture too far away, our first stop was Kensington Palace. Rather expensive to tour, and the online reviews said it wasn't worth it, we decided to forego the tour. Instead we went in and looked around the rather large gift shop which I really enjoyed, and we toured the gardens.

Our next stop was the world famous Harrods department store. And wow, it didn't disappoint! Top of the line luxury brands we could not afford from clothing and jewelry to home goods and accessories. The actual department store was beautiful in itself. I very much enjoyed looking at everything and soaking in the high class London atmosphere!

We made a quick stop for lunch on a park bench before heading down the street in search of our next stop. We stumbled across the Victoria and Albert museum. Being government owned it was free which always makes for a more fun experience. It was basically a huge gallery of things from sculptures, pottery and paintings to fashion exhibits displaying clothes through the ages.

Scene from the park
From the museum, it was time to start heading in the direction of Dorothy's office which acted as our meeting point. With 45 minutes left to kill, we got off the subway and sat on a bench in Hyde Park. The day had turned out beautiful as the sun had come out so it was nice to just enjoy the day.

At 5:30pm we walked and met up with Dorothy. I have had some email correspondence with her but we have never met in person. We walked with her to the train that would take us to her home in Ealing. Once we got on the train I asked her about East Croyden and her reaction was hilarious! She said that Croyden is kind of a joke amongst London'ites. She wondered how we ended up there and I told her "an Agoda.com flash hotel deal and a lack of London geographical knowledge." We had a good laugh about it anyhow. Ealing is a lovely London suburb and it was nice to see where people actually live. She cooked us a delicious meal and we had a really nice time chatting with her and her husband as well as gaining a lot of insight on things to see and do during our stay.

It was a great first full day in London and so amazing to meet relatives I've never met before!

Buckingham Palace! Gorgeous!
September 24: Buckingham Palace day!! We arrived and bought our tickets to see the palace staterooms as well as the Royal Mews where they keep the horses and stagecoaches used in various processionals. I’ll be honest, the tickets are WAY overpriced but it is Buckingham Palace and if I had any chance of being invited to tea with the Queen, I had to pay the high admission fee. HA!

Touring the palace was so much fun! The audio guide did a great job of explaining the state rooms with just enough detail to keep things interesting. The rooms are of course so beautiful and over the top. I just kept “playing princess” and day dreaming about what it would be like to live there or to be invited to a state dinner or something. It’s all part of the fun experience.! I wish we could have seen more or been given a guided tour by the Duchess of Cambridge herself, but I guess she’s a little busy with baby Prince George. A girl can dream…  (pictures were not permitted inside the palace, that’s why I didn’t post any.)

Golden carriage used during coronations. 
Sadly, we weren’t invited to tea by Her Majesty the Queen, so we headed to the Mews. This exhibit was not worth the extra nine pounds each that we paid. Actually it was really disappointing. We saw a few carriages, and two horses but nothing that really wowed me except for the golden carriage, that one was pretty neat to see.

We left the mews and grabbed a bite to eat before continuing down Victoria street to see a few more historical sites. We first went into Westminster Cathedral which was free, SCORE! Next we saw Westminster Abbey. We decided not to wait in line or pay the $20 each to go inside. Instead, we took some photos from the outside, and went into the gift shop where we flipped through a Westminster Abbey souvenir book to see what the inside looked like.  We have been in so many gorgeous churches this trip, that we decided to opt out of the high admission price and just view this from the outside.

Next we saw  the London Eye, Big Ben and the parliament building. Sadly, we could not go inside the parliament building as they are sitting at the moment, but it is a beautiful and really neat site to see. We took a rest and sat on a bench overlooking the river reliving all the sites we saw today. 

September 25: Today we made our way to The Tower of London. Built in 1078, it’s a historical castle on the north bank of the River Thames. The name is confusing, but The Tower of London is actually a mini complex made up of several buildings. Again, the admission fee was outrageous but we paid it and went in. We lucked out and joined up with a short tour with a truly fantastic guide. It's quite an honor to be a tour guide of the Tower of London. You have to have served in the Queens army for at least 21 years, and had a perfect record for 18 of them. You also had to have been awarded a special honor and then you can be appointed as a tour guide. Anyways, he was so enthusiastic and really told us a lot of great info, I wish it would have lasted longer.

After the tour we walked around for about two and a half more hours. Of course my favorite site was the crown jewels. We saw about eight crowns which were adorned in huge diamond and gems. Sadly they were not letting the public try them on...who would have thought?! We also saw the coronation staff that tops out with a 500 carat DIAMOND! Gorgeous! I was hoping to see necklaces, rings, bracelets and tiaras all belonging to past queens, but they must lock them up someplace else. I was a little bummed. We continued walking around looking at old suits of armor and brick towers. We also had a stunning view of London Bridge. I didn't realize how pretty the bridge actually is!

Leaving the Tower we headed to Trafalgar Square, a public space and tourist attraction. We listened to a group of boys playing they own music which was actually really good, the we made a few laps inside the National Gallery. I literally mean a few laps. It's this massive art gallery full of hundreds of paintings and we could not find our way out. We saw some of the same paintings three times!

We left and began to head towards the London Apollo Theater where we had tickets to see Wicked! On the way, we decided to stop in a local pub for a beer and an appetizer. It was a cliche British Pub and we loved the atmosphere. Bellies full of beer, we made our way to the show. I had high expectations I admit. Everyone raves about this musical. And let me confirm, it was truly amazing! The script was pure genius, and such a creative way to tell the story of the wicked witch of the west as well as Glenda. I will never look at The Wizard of Oz the same. Such world class talent they had. The singing, and costumes and stage sets were perfection! Amazing, amazing, amazing!!! Well worth the super expensive, four rows from the
top, had to use binoculars at times, tickets! Woah.

Made it back to East Croyden at 11 to rest up for an early start to get to Windsor Castle.

September 26: It was a bit earlier of a start today as we were making our way to Windsor to see Windsor Castle. It cost us $80 just to travel the hour to get there…sheesh. I told you London was expensive!

We arrived and met up with Dorothy’s daughter Sarah, who is actually living on the castle grounds serving as an aupair to children of one of the choir singers at the chapel. There are about 150 people that live on the grounds besides the royal family which is an interesting fact I did not know. Because of her employment, she was able to get us two free tickets to actually tour the castle which was so sweet of her and such a savings. We got there in time to see the famous changing of the guards ceremony, so that was fun to see in person.

We then collected our audio guides and toured the castle. Since it’s still an inhabited castle by the royal family, mainly their winter home, much of it is blocked off to the public. We were able to walk around and see some of the staterooms which were obviously beautiful and impressive. After we finished our official tour, we met back up with Sarah to take her dog for a walk on the famous ‘Long Walk’ which is a beautiful walking path just behind the castle. After the walk we parted ways and Andrew and I took a stroll around the adorable town of Windsor before stopping for lunch at the “Duchess of Cambridge” pub where we had London’s most famous dish, Fish and Chips. Delicious! If I couldn’t see the real Duchess of Cambridge, Kate, then the next best thing is eating lunch at a pub named after her!

Trying on the virtual crown jewels!

I didn’t meet my goal of drinking tea with a royal, which only means one thing, we are going to have to return to London!!
As close to Kate as I could get!

In front of our future residence; Buckingham Palace!
Obligatory guard photo!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Celebratory Germany

Outside the gates to Oktoberfest

September 17: We boarded a 9:51am train from Salzburg to Augsburg, Germany. The two-hour and 15 minute drive was beautiful. If I could speak German I might just move to the Austrian/German boarder. The scenery is so stunning and the houses are picturesque. Why Augsburg and not Munich you ask? Because the price of even staying in a dirty hostel is outrageous!!! Everyone jacks up their prices so much around the time of Oktoberfest. So we searched for cities near Munich with easy access to the Munich’s city center. Augsburg kept showing up in our search results so we looked into it. It’s located about a 35 minute train ride northeast of Munich and seemed like the best option. We found a great apartment, for under $100/night. I think a best kept secret to staying cheap during Oktoberfest.

We arrived about 12:15 and walked about 25 minutes to the apartment  (because we had horrible directions) we were staying in. It started pouring right as we were approaching the apartment building, so we managed to get only a little wet. Due to a miscommunication and lack of wi-fi, we sat in the lobby waiting on our host for over an hour before leaving in search of food, a bathroom and an internet connection. Well, we found food but none of the places would take a credit card and we were down to only a few euro. So we split a piece of apple cake but the café had no bathroom and no wi-fi. FAIL. 

Needless to say, at this point we were tired, wet, hungry, and extremely frustrated with the situation.
We walked out and found a pay phone (yes, they still exist) to call the host, for the second time, and yet again no answer. This was my breaking point. We walked back to the apartment and FINALLY after two hours she showed up. Ugh. The apartment is nice and will work great, but it doesn’t excuse the lack of promptness on the hosts’ side.

View from out apartment balcony
Still hungry, and without cash, we ventured out to find a grocery store and a bank. TWO HOURS of walking later, and several (yes, more than two) grocery stores later that DID NOT accept credit cards, our energy was drained. We dragged ourselves to the city center and FOUND A BANK! We’re saved!! Andrew plops his debit card in the slot, enters his pin number and….NOTHING! “Incorrect pin.” My wonderful husband CAN’T REMEMBER HIS FOUR-DIGIT PIN NUMBER!!!! So, we left and headed to a kebab place. With tears in my eyes, Andrew asks if they take credit card, “No.” Let the waterworks begin. I break down. I’m tired, thirsty and ‘hangry’ (hungry and angry) and just want a damn kebab!

Andrew spots a Subway sandwich shop so we head there literally praying they take plastic. Right next to the Subway is a German pub with a VISA sticker on the outside. Without hesitation we go in. SCORE! It’s confirmed, they take VISA! We look at the entire German menu. The waiter comes by, I literally just say “Beer.” He smiles and brings two out along with an English menu. I LOVE THIS PLACE. We enjoyed a mix of American and German foods, delicious beer and the smile begins to return to my face.

Augsburg has not gotten off to a good start. Let’s see if our day trip to Munich tomorrow goes a bit smoother.

September 18: We woke up to the sound of blowing rain and hollowing winds. Ugh. Our plan was to travel about 45 minutes to the city of Dachau, and visit the concentration camp memorial, however, the weather had another plan. Doing anything outside was no longer an option and sometimes the weather can alter travel plans. We decided to stay in Augsburg and make it a productive “tie-up-loose-ends” day. We still had a few tickets to book as well as finding a place to stay in Dublin.

We went to the train station again, to find an ATM now that Andrew was given a new pin number, thanks to his mom’s help. Yeah, we have money! On our way back to the apartment, in the sideways rain, we spotted a bowling alley! Thinking that would be a fun indoor activity, we headed into this small indoor shopping area to find it. And, much to our surprise, we found a grocery store too! Score! Well, go figure, the bowling alley was closed, so we bought some groceries and headed back to the apartment. That is as exciting as it’s get for these two travelers in the rain!

Gate to Dachau: 'Work Sets You Free'
September 19: Ok, once again we planned to make the trip to Dachau. We woke up to sun and headed for the train station to catch the 9:06am train. Well, it took longer than expected, so we bought the tickets and sprinted to the train which we could see had not yet left. We made it in time to hit the open door button, twice…but it wouldn’t open and IT LEFT US! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?! So we had to wait 30 minutes to catch the next one.

The trip was an easy one, we only had to make two changes which is always nice.  We arrived to Dachau and the mood was a somber one as you can imagine. We both related the uneasy feeling to that of our visit to the Killing Fields in Cambodia back in 2010. Dachau concentration camp was opened in 1933 by Heinrich Himmler as the first of the Nazi concentration camps. It was originally built to hold political prisoners but its purpose grew to also include forced labor and the imprisonment of anyone the regime deemed necessary: Jews, criminals, foreign nationals etc.

The camp was originally built to hold 6,000 prisoners, and towards the end of the war, the camp was housing more than 30,000 at one time. The barracks we toured (rebuilt replicas as you can imagine why) were built to hold 200 people in a 100 meter X 10 meter area, were at times, holding 2,000 people! The facts our audio guide was telling us were so unbelievable. I’ve read books on the subject, seen documentaries, learned about them in school, but when I was standing right there, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that this all really existed. The inhumanity that took place right where I was standing was unfathomable. Many of the original buildings that we went in, the main one housed the museum, were the actual buildings used during the time the camp was in use. The prison barracks had since been torn down for obvious reasons, but they are marked off so you can see exactly how they were lined up.

Where the barracks once stood
The whole site was eerie and so sad. The part that disturbed me the most were the crematoriums. There were over 31,000 documented deaths in Dachau and thousands that were undocumented. Some due to starvation, others to torture or execution. The crematoriums we walked through were the ones that were actually used to dispose of the deceased. Towards the end of the war when they ran out of coal, they would just stack the bodies in the neighboring cement rooms which we also toured. It was so hard to stand there, in that cold empty room. I can’t imagine what it was like when it was in use.
Dachau also had gas chambers disguised as showers. There are no reports however, that they were actually used to execute prisoners. But there is also no proof that they weren’t. We toured the gas chambers as well.

Dachau was liberated by the Americans in 1945. Administration recorded the intake of 206, 206 prisoners. Wow. It’s just so hard to imagine such horror existed, and even exists today all over the world.

View of the BMW Welt
After spending nearly three-hours touring this memorial we decided to head back to Munich to visit the BMW museum as well and the BMW Welt. I guess I got to have my moment during the Sound of Music tour so it was Andrew’s turn. I personally thought the BMW museum was way overpriced, but it was cool to see such old Rolls Royce’s as well as BMW’s that dated back to the early 20s. There were also a lot of motorcycles and models on engines. I started laughing out loud at one point. I just took a step back and looked around. I noticed that all the men, every single one of them, had their smart phones out taking pictures while the women with them were just following behind them. Hilarious!

Such a cute little BMW!
After the museum, we walked across to the Welt, which is free to enter. It’s more like a really fancy car dealership. They had a bunch of BMW’s and Mini’s where you could sit in them and take pictures. I think Andrew and I both found ourselves new cars! They also had some video games as well as driving simulation which Andrew and I were terrible at. All in all, it was a fun uplifting last activity of the day!

September 20: Today we made our way back to Munich to explore the city center. We were armed with an hour and a half Rick Steves walking tour podcast and ready to pound the pavement…er…cobblestone. He had us walking all around, going in and out of churches, famous stores and restaurants, a wonderful open air market and filled our heads with all sorts of Munich and WWII facts. Most of the city center of Munich has been rebuilt to look like the original as the majority of it was bombed and destroyed during the war. It was a great example of old meeting new as the old looking buildings are lined with pedestrian only streets and popular shops.

One of the most fun stops was Hofbrauhaus. It’s the ultimate cliché of a Munich beer hall and it is MASSIVE! It is lined with wooden tables, tourists drinking liters of beer listening to a live German band and eating massive amounts of meat! It was also a place where Hitler used to give speeches. Sadly, we arrived around lunchtime so it was completely packed with no place to sit. So we walked around, took some pictures and left.

Munich City Center
We ate some lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon just walking around enjoying the sites and sounds of this historic city. Colder than expected and my little jacket just wasn’t cutting it, I bought a cheesy ‘Oktoberfest’ sweatshirt which I love but Andrew isn’t too excited about. My first souvenir of the entire trip! We hopped on the train back to Augsburg, did some laundry and anticipated our last full day in Germany AND the first day of Oktoberfest!

September 21: We boarded the 10:06am train headed to Munich for the first day of Oktoberfest and all the festivities that entailed! Honestly, we haven’t had internet for two days at this point so we really weren’t able to look anything up. Our plan was to just follow the dirndl and lederhosen wearing festival goers and we knew we’d end up in the right place. Our plan was successful! At 11am, the parade began and the streets were lined with people. Honestly, I couldn’t see anything as we were about 15 people deep, but Andrew managed to raise the camera above his head and snap some good pictures. The parade ended at the opening gates to Oktoberfest and at noon, the mayor tapped the first keg and day one of the festival officially began!

End of the parade
The amount of people was insane. Oktoberfest really wasn’t at all like I had pictured. I thought it was a green space just lined with white tents where people sit and drink liters of beer all day. In reality, it’s very family friendly and looks a lot like a large state fair with all kinds of rides, booths selling souvenirs, carnival games, and food vendors. Of course, beer is a big part of it and the six major breweries in Germany have huge drinking halls “tents” set up. However, this is where the lack of research bit us in the butt. It seems that if you aren’t the first into the festival, or have a ‘reservation’ then it’s pretty much impossible to get into one of the huge tents. People make the table reservations months and months in advance. So we pushed out way through the crowd to try to get our bearings.
We lucked out on the weather because had it been raining, the day would have been pretty miserable as there is no place to take refuge, or even sit down if you aren’t in one of the coveted tents. 

State Fair-ish
Determined to get our liters of beer Andrew and I began walking around to see what the next best option was. We stopped to get two bratwurst sandwiches and scoped it out. We noticed some people standing outside one of the tents and they had beer! So we walked in and kind of just stood there trying to find out where they bought them. I saw a man walking with about ten steins in his hand and I told Andrew to follow him. Turns out, that’s how you get a beer. He put them down and people just flocked to him trying to get one.

With beer in hand, and brats in our bellies we were ready to fully experience Oktoberfest! Again, I can’t reiterate enough how crowded this place was. Part of it we think is because it was the first day, and the other part was that it was Saturday. Both situations worked against us.  The beer was good, but then another problem quickly arose. Bathrooms. Now, in my mind I thought with this many people, there must just be an area lined with hundreds of port-a-potty’s. Well, not the case. At the back of each ‘tent’ there was a men’s and women’s restroom with enormous lines as you can imagine. And with all of these women dressed in their dirndl’s, that means pantyhose, which means EVEN MORE TIME in the bathroom! Ugh….I stopped drinking any liquids at this point because there was no way I was going to be able to find a bathroom line that I wouldn’t be in for an hour. Terrible.

And this was just the crowd in front of us!
After conversing with two guys from Ohio, and finishing our beers, Andrew and I began walking around and enjoying the atmosphere. I bought a gingerbread cookie necklace, a must for all the women, and we spilt a nice big pretzel.  We spent four hours there before heading back to Augsburg. We tried to get into the back of a tent one more time to enjoy one last beer in Germany, but by this time, there were even long lines to get back to where we drank before. Bummer.

All in all, it was a really fun experience. If we ever get the chance to return to Oktoberfest, we will for sure look into this whole tent reservation thing, because it’s a must.
Germany has been a fun stop aside from mostly rainy weather. We enjoyed the history, seeing people in traditional clothing, and all the excitement surrounding the Oktoberfest festivities! Tomorrow we head to London. English speaking countries from here on out!! Yiiiiiiippppppeeeeee!!
Bellies full of beer and brats!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Quaint Austria


September 12: We left a wet and dreary Paris bright and early at 6am to catch our flight to Vienna. Originally, we were flying directly into Salzburg, but all flights routed through Vienna anyways that we decided to make it a quick two-day stop over. We arrived at about 11am, collected our bags, and again, with directions in hand found our way to yet another rented apartment. However, this one far exceeds the rest! The pictures on the site didn’t do it justice! Erich, the owner, must do this full time because he does it right! It was spotless, well decorated, and everything a nice hotel suite would have is available to us. I mean, I haven’t had a shower this nice….in about 13 months!

We dropped our bags off and headed to the city center which is conveniently only a 12 minute walk away. We were both starving, so where did we eat our first Austrian meal? An Asian buffet of course! Ha! Actually, it was close to the apartment, well priced (compared the insane prices of Paris) and delicious. The palate change was refreshing as well. I was getting a little tired of eating pizza and sandwiches all the time. And I LOVE pizza and sandwiches!

After lunch we just decided to scope out the city center. It’s lined with historic buildings, shops, restaurants and cafes. We went in and out of a few places, people watched and enjoyed the warmer weather. Double layers were not needed. It was sunny, then it rained a bit, then it was sunny again, so I hope the sun can pull through tomorrow.

We headed to the grocery store to buy some things for breakfast and purchased a salad, a wrap, and some couscous to share for dinner. Being that we are only here for two days, we wanted to go back to the apartment early and plan out our full day tomorrow!

September 13: The weather was not very cooperative today; it rained on and off all day long. We started our day at the Hofburg Palace, home to some of the most powerful people in Austrian and European history and perhaps most importantly; the Habsburg dynasty. From 1438-1583 and then from 1612-1806 it was the seat of kings and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, and then the seat of the Emperor of Austria until 1918.

Hofburg Palace
For the cost of admission, we saw the imperial collection of  dinnerware (the silver collection), the Sisi Museum, and the living quarters of the royal family. Also included in the cost was an audio tour which was great since we didn’t have a free Rick Steves one for this.
The collection of flatware, dinnerware, drink ware, and center pieces were quite extravagant. I mean, they were given their own museum! The places settings ranged from solid gold to meticulously hand painted and absolutely beautiful and over the top. I walked through, just day dreaming what it must have been like to sit in a fancy ball gown, in an elaborate dinning hall, eating off of plates made of gold! Talk about living like a queen.

Next was the Sisi museum, dedicated to Elisabeth of Austria. Married to Emperor Franz Joseph I, at age 16, she was….ummm…interesting. The museum was actually quite dark and depressing, but I think that was the point. She struggled with her public role and was not very liked by the people because of her reclusiveness. She went though several bouts of depression, would go away for years at a time, and was obsessive about her weight. In today’s, terms, she would have been called bulimic. She was later assassinated at the age of 61.

Last on the palace tour were the rooms and private quarters of the emperor and empress. Sadly, no pictures were allowed in both the Sisi museum and the apartments. Much like the palace of Versailles, but these rooms were furnished with more original furniture which was cool to see. The audio guide was really helpful. I learned so much about the history of this royal family. Super interesting!

St. Stephens
Our next stop was St. Stephen’s Cathedral. We had a Rick Steves podcast to accompany our visit which enables us to get so much more out of the site. Built between 1339-1365, it stands at the very center of Vienna. A gothic styled cathedral, it had a very similar look and feel to that of Notre Dame. It was pretty to walk around, but I’m not really into that dark type of architecture. It’s not a “warm and welcoming, let’s thank God for all our blessings” kind of places. But I was gald we went in, we leaned a lot from the podcast.

Our last stop was yet another podcast. It was a walking tour of Vienna’s city center. We made started at the famous opera house and ended at the palace where we started our day. It was nice because things were pointed out to us along the way we never would have noticed or stopped in. Once place we visited was Demel Chocolate. Founded in 1786; but it has been at it’s current location since 1857. They use to provide chocolate to the Emperor and Empress! So of course, we went in, bought a chocolate bar and a slice of carrot cake!

It started pouring again, so we grabbed some food from the grocery store and headed back to our apartment. It was such an educational and low-key stop off. We felt like we were in a small city (even though 1.8 million people live in Vienna) and really enjoyed our time just walking the streets.


September 14: “The hills are alive, with the sound of muuuuuusic!” No scratch that, “with the sight of heavy fog.”

We left Vienna at 10:56 via train to Salzburg. We made it to the train just fine, but it was a bit confusing once we arrived. With like no one working there, we didn’t know where we were supposed to sit. All we knew that that we had a second class ticket, but weren’t sure if it was free seating after that.  After just getting on and looking like confused tourists, another passenger cleared things up for us. So frustrating when there is no one at the information booth! Anyways, it was a quick three-hour train ride with lovely views of German style houses, beautiful farmland, and mountains.

Mozart's Pedestrian Bridge
Salzburg is simply just the most charming little city of 150,000 people. Our hotel is not in the city center, we have to take a bus about 10 minutes to get there, but it’s nice none the less. We dropped our bags off and then ventured out. We wanted to start this leg of the trip getting oriented so we headed to the beginning of yet another free Rick Steves city walking tour. However, about five minutes in, the rain just got too comical to continue. It was pouring and blowing in sideways. Our clothes were getting soaked and there really weren’t many places to take cover. So after a light lunch, we headed back to the hotel.

At 6:30pm we headed to the grocery store right behind the hotel (the only thing near us) but to our shock it was closed! They close at 6pm on Saturdays! Well, that was our dinner plan, so now we had to search for something else….in the rain. Besides the grocery store, the only thing close to us food wise is a McDonald’s. Ugh, we had no other choice. We ate our burgers and then returned to the hotel to watch the ‘Sound of Music’ so we were ready for tomorrow! Fingers crossed that the weather tomorrow is a little bit more cooperative!

 September15: Today is the day! We took a gamble on the weather and booked a four-hour Sound of Music tour for 9:30am. We were picked up at our hotel at 9am and collected a few more tour-goers on the way to the large charter bus covered in an obnoxious scene from the movie and the worlds” The Official Sound of Music Tour” pasted along the sides. So cheesy, but I loved it! Our tour guide, Natasha, was fantastic and so animated. It made the whole experience even that more enjoyable.
Along the way, between stops, we were given not only movie facts, but also a great tour and history of the real Von Trapp family as well as Salzburg itself.  It felt like a two for one tour!

Our fist stop was the beautiful “Von Trapp house” in the movie, (it was not actually the Von Trapp
home). The backyard of this house was used in the film, but filming was not allowed to take place inside the house, and the house itself wasn’t supposed to be recognizable. It’s now the Leopoldskron Palace and was once the home of a famous Jewish Austrian that had to flee during the Nazi overtake. The sensitivity of the matter and the timing of the movie made it not possible to film in the house. The pond however, where the children and Maria fall out of the little canoe, is government owned and therefore they were allowed to film in it. The shots of the outside of the house from the front, remember it’s yellow, was a totally different house which we were able to see from across another street. Sadly, we could not go in as it’s privately owned. Any scenes filmed in the inside of the house were actually filmed in a studio in California. But the rooms were modeled after the Leopoldskron Palace. There is so much more info I’d love to share, but this blog post would be WAY too long. Regardless, the palace was absolutely stunning and the scenery was breathtaking!

Me 'leaping'!
The next stop was the gazebo. Where “I am 16 going on 17”, and “Must Have Done Something Good” were sung. It was not actually a part of the gardens of the Leopoldskron Palace, the producers brought it in. It has since been removed from the garden and passed around. No one wanted it because of how many tourists flocked to it. It ended up in the corner of another palace which we got to see. Sadly it’s locked and we learned that the dancing scene in it was once again, filmed in a studio, in a mock gazebo. But it was still so fun to see!

Along the drive we were able to see Nonnberg Abbey, where Maria was practicing to be a nun. The drive itself was so gorgeous. Nonnbery Abbey allowed them to film some scenes there but not the wedding scene. That was filmed at a different church in a different city. Mondsee Church was another site we drove to and were allowed to go in. The town it’s in was having a harvest festival so it was fun to see the residents walking around in traditional dress. Andrew and I bought two brats and apple strudel for lunch after touring the church. I can’t describe the beauty of this city and our pictures just don’t do it justice.

We also walked through the Mirabell Gardens where much of the “Do Re Mi” song was filmed. Mirabell garden is so beautiful filled with perfectly manicured trees, flowers and fountains. No wonder they shot some of the scenes there! We walked across the Motzart pedestrian bridge, saw where they filmed the kids playing in the trees, where they sang as a family at the festival before escaping, as well as several other little memorable scenes.  We even had a sing-along on the bus as the movie soundtrack was played! Seriously so cheesy and so much fun! I loved every minute of this tour!!
Mirabell Gardens - Can you picture "Do-Re-Mi?!"

After the tour, Andrew and I decided to finish the Rick Steves audio walking tour that yesterday’s weather did not allow. It led us all around the old city and into two different beautiful churches and a graveyard. We even got to see the house where Motzart grew up. We really lucked out on the
weather and were so thankful for that. It was such a great day and we learned SO MUCH about Salzburg and The Sound of Music!

September 16: Rain, rain go away! Our plan today was to tour the fortress that looks down over all of Salzburg, Festung Hohensalzburg. Built in 1077, it housed many prince-archbishops. It’s also the largest, most intact castle in all of Europe. It took us about 15 minutes to walk to the top, in the pouring rain. Honestly, it was a huge bust. Part of it was the weather and part of it was the poorly marked fortress itself. Being that it’s one of the biggest tour attractions in Salzburg, you’d think there would be direction signs telling you where to go and things labeled in English. Not the case at all. We moseyed around, went into a few disappointing ‘museums’ and climbed the tour to get a full view of Salzburg while listening to the audio tour. I’ll admit that the view was pretty great and would have been so much better had it not been so cloudy and rainy.  I thankful for the perspective the tower gave us on the town but if we ever make it back to Salzburg, it’s a site I would skip.

Fortress...in the rain.
All in all, Salzburg has been one of my favorite stops. Its charm, gorgeous sites and small town feel make it a place I would love to come back to. I love the laidback lifestyle and I could never get sick of the views! My ONE complaint is that there are seriously no restaurants. It’s very hard to find a place to eat that isn’t a café serving only café foods. We got a little tired of eating Weiner schnitzel’s and kebabs.

We will be returning to Austria, mark my words!

"I have confidence in ME!" --On her way to the Von Trapps
Wedding Cathedral 

"Do-Re-Mi" --They ride their bikes through this tunnel!