The art of getting lost

Turn left. Turn right.  Carry on straight ahead.

Follow the sound of music or filtered sunshine or a smell that makes your mouth water.  Walk until you find the source, even if it’s never.

This is the art of getting lost.  Of looking at street signs out of curiosity instead of necessity.  Of going down roads and finding either dead ends or the world’s wildest adventures.  Of measuring your days in miles and blisters and which shoes you can’t bear to wear again tomorrow.  Of getting hungry because you forgot to eat before you ventured out of the area full of cafes, or being weighed down by souvenirs because you can’t bear to head home, not yet, not until you’ve seen what’s over here… there… that way.

And at the end of the path, finding a reason to pause, recharge, and then… head out again.

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(Written on the beach in Barcelona, Spain)

My day at Versailles

Last Saturday, Katie and I took a day trip from Paris to Versailles, home of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (and you know, the entire French royal family while it existed). It was beautiful – you could picture her receiving (or rebuffing) people in those rooms, strolling through the hall of mirrors, dealing with the extreme dressing ceremonies each day. But the state rooms overall were exceptionally crowded. We preferred the gardens, where we watched dancing foundations along with ancient statues. Parfait!

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The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles

This was my favorite part of Versailles, by far – the fountain at the end of the Grand Canal.

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My overall thoughts on Versailles:

  • If you do the palace tour, make sure to get the audio guide, but reconsider doing it at all and head straight to the gardens where you can actually enjoy your visit.
  • Leave time for the many parts of the estate, which are very spread out but all amazing (like the Petit Trainon and the hamlet).  And note that the tram will get you there without walking but it – and the line to get tickets – is excessively slow.
  • Eat before you go or at one of the tourist shops on the way back to the train station – not a lot of good options at the palace.

Overall, it was an easy day trip from Paris and a beautiful, historic setting – I just wish we could have had it to ourselves!

The state of things in France

Internet connections: lacking.

Baguette consumption: never been higher.

Wine drinking: see above.

Castle satisfaction: through the roof.

In short, we’re having such a good time out and about in France that I haven’t had a chance to update this blog in a bit – and the posts I’ve tried to write on the go haven’t come through.  Blame the lack of French internet infrastructure… Sara (who is going to cooking school here) told us that it was bad but it’s even worse than expected.  I’d almost prefer the sweet, old-school sound of dial-up some days when it comes to trying to check my email.

Still, we haven’t let that rain on our parade, only our posting frequency.  We have been zipping all through France.  First, three nights in Paris, then two in Montpellier, then here in Toulouse.  Along the way we’ve dealt with train delays, menu indecision, and weather that changes from street to street – it’s exactly the travel adventure I imagined.

More about the individual aspects later – we just finished a home cooked dinner made by our chef in training (salad and french onion soup!), now, onward to see what this city has to offer for nightlife!

In praise of markets

When I think of London, I think of big red buses, afternoon tea, and markets.  You never know what you’re going to find in the city’s markets – some contain poorly made junk, which others feature works of art or the best cheese you’ve ever tasted.

I visited three markets during my time here: Borough Market, Portobello Road market, and Camden Market.  They each have a totally different vibe.

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Sweets at Borough Market

Borough Market is a food market under London Bridge, and it’s a perfect lunchtime destination.  For a few quid, you can get a steak pie or a curry or my favorite, raclette (cheese on top of potatoes with a side of mini pickles).  You can also pick up sweets as big as your head, small nuggets of fudge, fresh cheeses, truffles, whole rabbits – anything you could possibly need to eat.  There’s even a stall that sells nothing but cider!
When to go: on a weekday before or after typical lunchtime.  It’s a zoo on Saturday and closed Sunday.

Camden Market is more of a craft fair, with halls and courtyards of wares.  Some are handmade and some are clearly mass produced, but still not junky.  The food here is also incredible, but can get extremely crowded.  The nice thing about the market overall is that it’s so compact – if you like something and don’t buy it the first time, it’s not that hard to get back for another pass (the opposite is true at Portobello Road, for example).  And when you need a break from the crowds, you can watch barges pass through the locks.
When to go: on a Sunday, because it’s the only market open this day!

Portobello Road market is another adventure altogether.  This is where you can buy silver, crystal goblets, old jewelry, books older than our country, and more.  This is the best market for spectators – my friend and I kept dipping into random stores to look at ivory canes, french wardrobes, stuffed hunting trophies that had seen better days.  Once you get moving here, you basically get swept downhill, so you have to make sure not to pass anything by because you’re NOT coming back.  I already had a silver chalice from my last trip so I kept my wallet in my pocket this time, but am still pining for the perfect silver tray.  Next time…
When to go: Saturday, as close to 10 as possible.  It gets crowded quickly.

When I leave Europe, the markets are one of the things I miss the most. Luckily, I still have market adventures in Paris, Barcelona, and Istanbul ahead of me (all in the next week!).  Adventure, ahoy!

I solemnly swear I am up to no good

I’m never embarrassed to be a geek, especially when my source material is an amazing book.  So when I realized that the Warner Brothers studio where they filmed Harry Potter was a day-trip away from London, I rearranged my schedule to make sure Katie and I could go.

On the Knight Bus - destination: adventure!

On the Knight Bus – destination: adventure!

“The Making of Harry Potter” in Leavesden is a marketing marvel, intended exactly for mega fans like us – and it delivered on all the hype.  From the cupboard under the stairs that greets you while you wait in line to the sweet butterbeer to the magical music being played throughout, it kept us captivated and fighting small kids for space in front of exhibits.

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Dumbledore presiding over the main hall

The opening movie, featuring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, was a stark reminder that we weren’t just looking at the real-life equivalent of the Hogwarts we know and love – this was a functioning movie set.  Much, much more functioning than I even imagined – in this era of CGI, I assumed that almost all the cool stuff had been added later with animation. In reality, it was enhanced with animation, but many of the greatest features actually had to be created by someone first.  From the intricately locking doors at Gringotts to a life-sized model of Buckbeak to the winding griffin staircase that leads to Dumbledore’s office (which was apparently the hardest thing to build), the film crew made the magic real.

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A mandrake – all those moving pieces really worked (terrifying screams were added later)

Dumbledore's office

Dumbledore’s office

The level of detail throughout was just staggering – all the wand boxes are hand painted, all the portraits of headmasters have sleeping AND awake versions.  Nothing escaped the shrewd eyes of the crew – and we, as the fans, are still reaping the benefits.

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Diagon Alley. complete with death eaters strolling around to add some Halloween “cheer”

The piece that really took the cake was the scale model of Hogwarts.  It was painstakingly built so it could be used for ALL the shots of the castle from far away.  There was no other model – this is the only version of all of Hogwarts that ever existed, and it’s incredible.  There’s a miniature telescope outside Dumbledore’s office, little rocks scattered in the forest, and broken steps leading to the owlery.  The miniature clocks move, and were adjusted to match the time for every scene.  It was just spectacular – as you watch, the lights change and music swells so if you stay in this room long enough, you get to see whole days pass at the castle you know and love.

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Dusk at Hogwarts

It was an amazing day – one I’ll never forget – of indulging my imagination with my best friend.  Everyone should go and let their childish tendencies run wild for a little bit.  More than half the people here were adults our age or older, and we were all instantly transported back to the time when we first met that boy with the lightning bolt scar.

My top tips for getting the most out of your trip:

  • Go early.  The shuttle bus starts running from the train station at 9:20.  Even if you arrive before your time, they will let you in if they can – we saw huge lines when we finally left hours later.
  • Give yourself lots of time.  With a stop for lunch, we were there about 5.5 hours.
  • Skip the audio tour.  It’s only £4.95 but it was a waste of money – you could learn just as much by reading the info in front of each display.
  • Check out the special exhibits.  While we were there, it was “The Dark Arts” which meant special displays, death eaters walking around, and snakes for photo ops (NO THANK YOU VERY MUCH).
  • Bring your camera.  You can take photos almost everywhere and there are a million amazing things to try to capture.
  • Try the butterbeer.  Sure, most people think it’s too sweet.  But you have to try it.  Just do it.
  • Get your photo and video taken.  We didn’t even buy our broom-riding photos but they were a freaking blast to make.  I almost asked if I could go again… and we skipped getting one in the Ford Anglia and then had to go back when we realized the error of our ways.
  • Blow your budget in the gift shop.  Eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the rest of the month if you need to – there’s too much great stuff here to pass up.  We talked each other into getting beautifully impractical wands and have no regrets.

The adventure continues

Somehow, I suddenly only have four more days left in London. The last 22 have gone by with lightning speed – between people visiting and doing my own exploring, the days are all one double-decker blur.

The last week hasn’t been the easiest one – my new apartment is more complicated than the last, with city noises all around (a neighboring alarm threatened to make me pull out all my hair – it went on for 14 hours overnight!) and just more little things going wrong. But some phone calls home and flexible friends who didn’t mind if my internet died mid-conversation (…because the electrician who was rewiring the living room turned off the whole apartment’s fuses…) made things better. Now I’m just wistful again, ready to soak up every minute of these last few days before they’re gone.

Still to do:
– run to St Paul’s (tomorrow!)
– go to the Warner Brothers Backlot Tour aka see everything Harry Potter
– drink more tea
– take pictures in a phone booth
– see a play with Katie (who arrives tomorrow!!)

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(Eating homemade churros at Portobello Road Market – I used excellent self-restraint and managed to avoid buying anything but this!)

Winning at transportation

If I could bring one thing back from London to Boston, I would bring Kate Middleton (she’s so cool).  And if I could bring two things, I would bring Princess Kate and the 87 bus, which is sitting outside my window right now, waiting to pick up passengers.  The bus route in London is just one part of a magnificent transportation network that the US needs to see and learn from.  Within 45 minutes you can basically get anywhere from anywhere else, and it’s generally a lovely ride.  Padded seats, great notices about when the train or bus is arriving, and then – it actually shows up when you expect!   Plus, you get to see the most phenomenal things in the city – “my” bus goes past Big Ben, Westminster, the London Eye, Horseguards parade, the Supreme Court, Trafalgar Square, and Covent Garden, to name just a few stops.

Today, I went to see where this wonderful system started with a visit to the London Transport Museum.  It already boasts one of my favorite gift shops – I was eager to see how the museum itself would impress me. The museum, located at the corner of Covent Garden, is usually £15 but it was free with the London Pass (more on this awesomeness later).

First impression: noisiest museum EVER.  So many sound effects in the cavernous hall, combined with the shrieks of dozens of children visiting (this is a common occurrence in London which is wonderful for students but painful for the rest of us, especially in a place that echoes like this!).  Still, it contains an awesome history.

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Inside the main hall, which used to be a flower market

The museum covers the full history of transportation in London – from the times when rivers were convenient, if incredibly smelly, highways for all classes of people to the digging of the first underground and the conflicts that rose up as people challenged each other for the rights to drive the buses and trains of the city, to the innovations it propelled – like the first escalator.  You can’t ask people to ride way underground AND demand that they take the stairs once they get off!

It also exposes the controversy around transportation expansion – laying train tracks in London alone displaced more than 100,000 people, and the railway companies had no obligation to repay or rehouse displaced families.  This expansion also literally created the commute – in 1800, nearly all Londoners lived within walking distance of their jobs, but by 1900 most had been pushed out of the city center and now had to rely on transportation to get to work.  So uh… thanks?

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Old subway car – looking even cozier than they do now, with their wooden floors and leather handles!

Looking at the trains and buses through history made me grateful for the relatively smooth ride we enjoy today.  Much better than being pulled by a carriage or being driven by an operator who had tracks to guide his tram until they were removed… the day before. Hey, you have to evolve at some point, right?

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“Ole Bill” the battle bus

This is one of the coolest buses on display -a “battle bus” (B43).  All across the city, London is remembering the 100 years since WWI broke out, and this bus is a part of that memorial.  It saw action on the Western Front, bringing troops and supplies to the front lines.  After the war, it returned to city streets.  The tube also played its part in both wars – people actually had tickets to tube station shelters in WWI and some installed benches that could be turned into triple bunk beds to more comfortably house people at night.

I hope that in the next 100 years, America will have figured out all these tricks for making public transport cool, accessible, and affordable so we can stop wasting energy and more efficiently get where we’re going.  All aboard?