Thursday, May 31, 2012

London on $98 a Day - Our London Flat

The street in front of our flat.
When I tell you that the most comfortable chairs in the house were the plastic lawn chairs we brought in from the garden, you'll have some idea why this apartment, where we stayed the longest during this three-week trip, was our least favorite.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

London on $98 a Day - Using the Tube

London is preparing for the Olympic Games and signs are already warning people to get ready for traffic jams. One stockbroker we spoke to, originally from Florida, told us her thirty-minute commute would turn into three hours. She was thinking about getting a bike! 
But unless you're there during the Games, you will find this city fairly easy to navigate by using the buses and the Tube.  You can either buy a Travel Card or an Oyster Card (Both have advantages and it probably takes a semester's course to decide which is better for your needs.  Do your research in advance via the Internet because both cards save you money on all forms of public transportation.); if you use the Oyster Card, as we did, you can refill it as needed.  We particularly liked the card because it stayed in its little plastic holder and all we had to do was place it for an instant on the semicircle to magically open the Tube admission gates. 
There's a fascinating subterranean world in the Tube underground with escalators that seemingly rise to the heavens, elevators that take you a zillion stories deep into the earth, and signs that tell you to Mind the Gap before you search for the Way Out. And all the while, there is, somewhere in the labyrinth of twisting hallways, an entrepreneurial musician who serenades you with Beatle songs. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

London on $98 a Day - Harrods

Remember not to wear your crash helmet. And forget about going topless. You simply can't get away with any funny stuff at the poshest store in London.

I can't imagine anyone's having enough of a death wish to ride a motorcycle in London traffic, and I have great difficulty believing it ever gets warm enough to reveal even a bare arm let alone an intimate body part to the elements, but those rules are part of the restrictions imposed by Harrods so that, "....every single visitor who passes through our doors has a positive, pleasurable and memorable experience." So, cover up your body while keeping your head bare. You don't want to miss seeing Harrods.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

London on $98 a Day - The Natural History Museum

Dinosaur Hatchlings
The Natural History is the best Museum for your child or grandchild because an elevated bridge allows you to walk at head-height with dinosaurs that come to life snarling and glaring at you as you sidle past. Any question you ever had about these ancient creatures will be answered here by the many displays.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

London on $98 a Day - Portobello Market

Portobello Market teems with people, products, and produce. On Saturday market day, stalls stretch along the road of the same name from the Notting Hill tube station north for almost two miles. The stores lining either side of the road are open six days a week, but it's only on Saturdays that tables clutter the sidewalks and people clog the street. Here, people-watching is often more intriguing than the shopping.

At the beginning of the market are the antique stores but some items, both second-hand and new, cover the sidewalk tables. Much farther along are the fruit and vegetable stands. There is also a fashion section, but David and I never got there as we were ready to head home after four hours.

Portobello was originally a farm that was named after Puerto Bello, one of the first silver-exporting cities in Panama to fall to the British in the war with the Spanish in 1739, but today the only silver you'll see is the expensive jewelry in the antique shops. Or, there is a sapphire and diamond copy of Kate Middleton's ring that can be yours for only 5£! But whether you buy jewelry, some wildly colored tights, a scarf from Scotland or nothing at all, you'll enjoy the experience visiting one of the best markets in Europe.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

London on $98 a Day - London Fashion

When traveling, I try to be fashion forward without being trendy, but on this trip I ended up looking more like Nanook of the North than Heidi Klum. Wind, rain and 48 degrees will do that to me.

I packed three black lightweight jackets. And wore all three of them, one on top of the other, almost every day. The rest of my ensemble consisted of my skinny black pants that ended up baggy after three weeks of almost continuous wear (I did wash them a couple times.) and a scarf from Coldwater Creek that was supposed to be casually draped around my neck but that I usually wrapped around my head to keep the wind out. The only spot of color in this mix was provided by the every-finger-a-different-color knit gloves I bought twenty years ago at TJ Maxx. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

London on $98 a Day - London's Squares

London is crowded. Many of its thirteen million people live in narrow, four-story row houses with, if they're lucky, a walk-in-closet-size backyard. Others are stuck in tiny flats with no garden space at all.

But no one need suffer from lack of greenery in this Olympic host city because London boasts an abundance of parks, both public and private. The huge public parks are beautiful, but it's the 13000 smaller "squares" that David and I found most interesting.

The sister and brother-in-law of good friends of ours have lived in London for forty years; after enjoying coffee in their beautiful townhouse, they introduced us to their Ladbroke Square. The gate on this fenced property can only be unlocked by one of the people who live in the townhouses surrounding the Square. In other words, this park is only enjoyed by 500 people who pay dues (the British version of HOA's perhaps) to provide the resident gardener's salary (Yes, he and his family live in the Square!), and maintain the playground and tennis courts.
Gardener's Cottage

As we walked along the paths of this gardener's delight, our friend Ron explained that his sons had loved growing up with the Square right across the street. They'd clambered on the playground equipment as children and volleyed a tennis ball back and forth as teenagers. Guy Fawkes Night was always a special occasion, too, because the gardener, who'd been sent to fireworks school by the townhouse owners, put on a thirty-minute display that was the envy of the Notting Hill neighborhood.

We saw a man sitting in a chair enjoying the warmth from the sun. Ron said he sat there every day. Can you imagine a better way to spend a sunny afternoon than in your very own park? Me neither.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

London on $98 a Day - The Dickens Museum

After making three wrong turns, walking over forty minutes, and finally asking for directions, we found the Dickens Museum. It's Dickens' 200th birthday so you'd think that the museum would be in full regalia, but this is what we found.

A man walking his dog commiserated with us, saying that the Dickens Foundation had received a grant which would expire if it wasn't used by a certain date.  So, don't bother following this sign until December 2012, when the refurbishing project will be finished.

London on $98 a Day - The British Museum

As we toured the British Museum, we couldn't help but notice that many of the statues were missing key parts of their anatomies. Where did they go? Or had the artist somehow forgotten to include the one area of the male body that men hold most dear?

When I asked a guard, he explained that the genitalia either broke off or were intentionally removed during the Victorian era. It was considered improper to display statues that were anatomically correct, so the offending genitals were removed.

I thanked the guard for the information and was walking away when he came rushing back, tapped my arm, and said, "Don't worry. We've saved all the parts. They're in a box somewhere."

Saturday, May 19, 2012

London on $98 a Day - The London Eye

I don't like heights.  Glass elevators give me vertigo and just watching a tightrope walker makes my stomach tingle.  You'll never catch me on the Grand Canyon Skywalk peering into the abyss below. 

But friends assured me the London Eye, the famous Ferris wheel built to mark the millennium, was different.  Being in a capsule with twenty other or so people, having the ability to walk around the capsule, and ascending and descending very, very slowly were all supposed to take the vertigo right out of the experience. 

And they were right!  David and I enjoyed every minute of the thirty-minute trip, and, even better, there was no rain inside the capsule.

Practicalities -
There is an independent ticket office outside the official Eye building, but they sell only packages.  You must buy tickets for two or three attractions (Madame Tussaud was advertised over the loudspeaker as the chance to see the British royal family, Barack Obama, and Brad Pitt!  How's that for an intriguing grouping?), so if you want only a ticket for the Eye, you must go inside the Eye building.  That building also holds a restaurant and free bathrooms.  

In the rain and cold, the line was quite short.  When the weather is balmier, if it ever gets balmier, then I'm sure the line is longer.  Still, since the wheel doesn't stop--you have to step lively to get in the capsule as it's moving--I imagine the line would move fairly quickly.
View from the top, complete with raindrops.

Friday, May 18, 2012

London on $98 a Day - Westminster Abbey

The British know how to hold a grudge. They took Oliver Cromwell, the man most responsible for King Charles I's death, the only British monarch ever beheaded, and had him hanged, drawn and quartered. This uniquely torturous death involves the man* being hanged until barely alive, removed from the gallows while still breathing to be emasculated and eviscerated, and then having his head chopped off while his body is divided into four pieces.

The only problem with subjecting Cromwell to this hideous process was that he was already dead!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

London on $98 a Day – Tower of London

David and I first met William the Conqueror in the threads of the Tapestry in Bayeux, France, where William's overthrow of King Harold was recounted. Now, here in England, we see that William, once he claimed England's throne and was crowned on Christmas Day, didn't waste any time getting started on his architectural projects. He began building the tower that was to be the first of many on a fifteen-acre complex that became known as the Tower of London.

In this castle complex, surrounded by what had been an impressive moat, kings and queens lived, the crown jewels were stored, prisoners were held in various towers (Many scratched their names in the walls. One wrote a single word: “Remember.”), and traitors were hanged or decapitated. And, since an exotic animal was judged an appropriate gift for a monarch who had everything, leopards, monkeys, elephants, and other wild animals were caged here.

Each successive monarch added a personal touch to the complex, and the number of buildings grew.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

London on $98 a Day – The Ceremony of the Keys

David and I had to order the tickets months ago, and we felt quite special as two of the only forty or so people admitted at 9:30 sharp last Thursday night through the West Gate of the Tower of London. But, despite our anticipation (We worried so about being late that we arrived 45 minutes early.), the Ceremony of the Keys (No photos allowed.) was something of a disappointment.

Friday, May 11, 2012

London on $98 a Day - Victoria and Albert Museum

If you do nothing else while you're in London, be sure to stop by the Victoria and Albert Museum to get a bite to eat.  You'll feel like royalty as you dine in what are surely some of the most beautiful dining rooms on the planet. 

While the dining rooms are consistently stunning, the restaurant stations offer great variety.  You can order a full meal or simply a croissant, and there's a water fountain with glasses for free drinks.  I indulged a long-standing desire and had a scone (pronounced scoun, not scone with a long "o") and clotted cream.  Delicious!

France and England on $98 a Day - France's Election

We were there.  It was yet another rainy day in Normandy.  The BBC said that France was voting to decide between Sarkozy and Hollande, but you couldn't prove it by us.  We heard no TV advertisements, the candidates issued no slogans, and we saw no voting lines.

Elections must be very different in France.  The only posters we saw showed both candidates in high school annual type poses--always side by side.  No one had a sign in his yard or a bumper sticker on his car saying, Surprise with Sarkozy or Happiness with Hollande.

David and I drove around that Sunday, imagining we would witness history with long voting lines.  A British expat had assured us that this election would be definitive even if one candidate only received one vote beyond the 50% mark, so were were certain everyone would get to the polls.  But we saw not a single voter.

Still, the results are in and a new president has been chosen.  This election that silently took place 6 May, will have profound consequences for France with a Socialist president for the first time since the 1980s

Thursday, May 10, 2012

France and England on $98 a Day - Hotel Rooms

While we prefer apartments, David and I usually have to book a few hotel rooms during the odd transition/travel day, and this trip was no exception. But this time was unusual because we were in heaven one night with enough room in our room to hold a party, and so little space the next night that we had to take turns moving around the room.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

France and England on $98 a Day - Honfleur

David and I have come full circle after an 800 or so mile detour.   We started following the Seine River outside of Paris in Vernon, and after touring the areas of Brittany and Normandy, we've arrived at the river's end--where the Seine meets the English Channel in the port city of Honfleur.

This town has always been important to sailors because of it's protected harbor, and it served as inspiration for artists, especially Eugene Boudin (There's a museum devoted to his work.) and Monet, but today it seems mostly to cater to tourists.  There are souvenir shops everywhere, higher prices than the rest of Normandy, and traffic snarls even in the off-season.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

France and England on $98 a Day – Our Spacious Home in Normandy

Ben and Jay, the delightful owners of the Manoir de Founcroup and Les Herissons, the barn from which our gite is fashioned, says these buildings have been around since King Henry the 8th was speed dating, but we have enjoyed every amenity while still appreciating the place's heritage; the wooden beams, the two-foot thick walls, and the massive fireplace, where a woodstove now rests, constantly remind us of the house's roots.
A painter would be happy here as each of the windowsills holds a still life, but the practical aspects of a vacation have been remembered. No detail has been overlooked. Baskets of jam jars rest on the kitchen sideboard, juice, milk and butter are stocked in the fridge, and there are several cookbooks, one of which is opened to the seasonal recipes celebrating the month of May. Upstairs, candles are clustered on the edge of the huge bathtub ready to cast a romantic glow for that leisurely soak.

France and England on $98 a Day – Omaha Beach

At Omaha Beach, char a voile, low-slung three-wheeler contraptions with a seat and a sail, scuttle across the sand like crabs—just one of the twelve leisure activities available. Vacationers can enjoy the four-mile beach, hotel, snack shops and sport equipment while, just up the hill, almost 9,500 Americans lie buried at the American Military Cemetery and Memorial.
Parachutist hanging from church in St. Mere Eglise

Normandy is full of juxtapositions like this. Everywhere, in thriving cities large or barely visible on a map, are memorials of the war, from the American parachutist who got caught on the church steeple in St. Mere Eglise (A figure still dangles along with his billowing chute. See the movie, The Longest Day, for more details.) to tiny Picauville's memorial to downed American pilots.
Picauville's Memorial
The French clearly know that getting on with the future requires a remembrance of what has come before. In this part of France, they do both well.

They donated the Omaha Beach land north of the holidaymakers' beach to the US government in 1979, and the resulting memorial and cemetery is impressive and inspiring. The path from the parking lot through landscaped grounds filled with flowering shrubs and manicured trees leads the visitor to the two-level center where displays, films, and memorials recount the events leading to D-Day. The biographies of certain soldiers and the stark passageway of gray walls where the names of the dead are endlessly recited personalize the war, while graphic details of the logistics required to bring about the largest invasion in history that eventually lead to Hitler's defeat are recounted in several multi-media panels.

After leaving the visitor center, David and I walked along the path overlooking the beach on our way to the cemetery. We envisioned the scene from the movie, Saving Private Ryan, because veterans say it is the most accurate depiction of that morning, 6 June 1944, when so many Americans died. As we imagined the men facing the challenge of traversing that wide, golden beach with the enemy ensconced behind bunkers up on the ridge, the visitor center, closing for the day, played Taps. David and I both wiped away tears.
We thought we were emotionally prepared for the cemetery, but, then, I suppose nothing prepares you for the sight of white stone crosses and Stars of David as far as the eye can see. As if by prearrangement, David and I wandered apart, each going a different way through the rows and rows of memorials, able to cope only with our own thoughts. Dazedly, we walked past one and then another and another white marker. By the time dusk was falling, neither one of us had found a way to escape the evidence of so much carnage.
Practicalities -
Don't skip the visitor center as it is a moving prelude to the cemetery memorial itself. There are bathrooms and water fountains inside the building as well as housed in a separate building near the visitor center. Everything, the parking, visitor center and cemetery, is free—as it should be.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

France and England on $98 a Day - Bayeux and Its Tapestry

David had to persuade me to go to the medieval town of Bayeux. I figured we'd get lost in a maze of city streets trying to find the museum housing the famous tapestry and might ruin our driving record. Thanks to David's skilled navigating, the man practically sprouts maps—both the official Michelin ones and detailed drawings of his own—by this time in our travels we'd only gotten lost twice. As the driver, I'd logged 400 or so non-lost kilometers and, except for that little tire fiasco, was feeling pretty smug about my talents. I wanted to keep it that way. But David was intrigued with the notion of seeing Harold, in stitches, suffering his just punishment at the hands of William the Conqueror; off we went on an overcast morning.

Our few days of warmth and sunshine—we toured Mont St. Michel in 80 degree weather—seemed to be over as we were back to overcast skies, intermittent rain, and 9 C temps. I figured at least the museum would be indoors. And well-heated.
I'm delighted to report that the Tapestry was a wonderful surprise. The museum (admission 7.80 €) supplies a free audio guide that explains each of the 58 panels depicting Harold's hubris and resulting fall from grace.  Not to embroider the story, but the scenes in this 68-meter tapestry showing how William conquered Harold and England in one tumultuous battle are really quite detailed. David and I enjoyed the history lesson.

France and England on $98 a Day - Why We Rent

Kitchen window overlooking garden.
Our Dinan stone house, built in 1900, with its foot-thick walls and curving wooden staircase, was difficult to leave. From the street it looked as though it were a typical rowhouse, but, once inside, the house welcomed with spacious rooms, generous windows and glass doors that led to the garden.

The kitchen didn't have granite countertops or stainless steel appliances, the floor was linoleum, and the walls were papered with tiny blue figures stenciled on a white background. In short, the kitchen had none of the features Home and Garden television viewers want. But sitting at the table for six and looking out the glass door or the window near the sink into the garden beyond where iris, lily of the valley, azaleas, and gladiolas bloomed, David and I thought this kitchen one of the most beautiful we'd ever seen.

We lingered over breakfast even though we had much to do. We carried our suitcases down the stairs with one of us on each end to make them manageable. (I promised myself yet again that some day I'll learn to pack light.) Then we tidied up as best we could. Cleaning is not usually required in a gite, but Armelle and her husband had treated us so kindly we wanted to make sure the place looked as good when we left as it had when we arrived.

As we worked, we admired Armelle's paintings yet again. She has decorated the house with her colorful watercolor scenes, and David and I hoped to buy one at the market as we left town. Of course, getting to the market was dubious as it required navigating Dinan's serpentine streets, but I was determined to try.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

France and England on $98 a Day – Mont St. Michel

You'll recognize the romantic image even if you don't know its name. Rising from the flatlands of white sand, from a distance Mont St. Michel shimmers in a magical light, seemingly conjured by a giant deity specializing in improbable castles birthed by the sea.

Actually the “castle” at the top of the island is an abbey for monks, founded in the 8th century by Aubert, the bishop of Avranches. The site of many miracles, it became the destination of pilgrims for over a thousand years. Because of its many defenses, it is also the only fortress in northern France that didn't fall to the English in the Hundred Years War. Mont St. Michel's history and beauty earned it, in 1979, a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

The Abbey maintained its mystery and isolation for centuries due to geography. Until the causeway was built, if visitors weren't careful and failed to remember that fifty feet high tides rendered Mont St. Michel an island, they could be stranded until low tide. Today, with the causeway, acres of parking lots, and shuttle buses, a visitor's main fear is not being stranded, but being overwhelmed by the tourist kitsch. Shops touting tchotchkes line the only street on the island. Still, the place is stunning, and one of the most popular tourist sites in France, second only to the Eiffel Tower.

France and England on $98 a Day - Mustard Fields

The lavender fields are on my must-see list, but, until I have that chance, the mustard fields will do nicely.  David and I have seen them stretching for acres all over this part of France.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

France and England on $98 a Day - May Day/Mayday

Storybook-perfect days happen and May Day was one of them. 

David and I enjoyed the crisp air as we walked from our hundred-year-old Bretagne house to the center of town where boys stood on street corners selling tiny bouquets of flowers for a euro or two. Of course, everywhere we looked, flowers added punches of lavish color to the lush green landscape; it wasn't hard to persuade ourselves to climb the stairs leading to the ancient city walls for a better view of this medieval city and its gardens.

From the ramparts, the views were indeed spectacular. This trading city, established as a port in the 12th century, is one of the few not destroyed during the war. Its river scenes and twisting streets are the stuff of postcards, but what I particularly like about it is that Dinan is also a “real” town with people who live and work here and take pride in their place in history. This is not a town that only exists for tourists.

We visited St. Malo the other day and it was chockablock with gimcracky tourist stores. David and I prefer the honesty of a place like Dinan or one of the harbors like this one, visible all along the coast of Brittany.

Still, we would have been happy almost anywhere since the sun was shining and our mayday calls had been answered. Truly, the travel gods had sorely tested us during our first week of travel.