Saturday, July 14, 2012

When you've gotta go (A potty story)

One thing to know before traveling to the United Kingdom is that most public toilets in parks, on beaches and in train stations are pay-per-use.

Sometimes there will be an attendant that you have to pay to enter, but more than likely you will need to insert change into a turnstile to enter. In Glasgow's train stations, the cost to use the facilities is 30 pence. Which shouldn't be a problem to have on you most of the time, right?

Where we ran into trouble was that Queen Street Station and Central Station both require the 30 pence to be made up of certain coins - either a 20 pence coin plus a 10 pence coin,or three 10 pence coins. And we were sadly lacking in the 10 pence coin department. Lots of 5s, 1s, 2s, 20s, and 50s, but absolutely no 10s.

Ryan was outraged by this, mostly because he was the one who desperately needed to pee in this case. His quote, accompanied by a wild-eyed and frantic expression: "30 pence is 30 pence! This is ridiculous." and it was repeated multiple times before we found a pub (and non-pay toilet) and settled in for another pint or two ... which led to another need for the public toilet back at the train station later. 

Fortunately, we got a 10 pence piece as change from our dinner, so all was good this time. 

Ah, relief.* 
The moral of this story? Horde those 10 pence coins when traveling in great Britain. You never know when you'll really need to go!

* Three other people walked out before Ryan, and I'm sure they thought I was crazy or a perv for taking pictures outside the public toilets. 

When it rains, it pours (especially when you're hauling 80 pounds of luggage)

We had exceptionally good luck with our accommodations the last two years. We've found our hotels by consulting the Rick Steves' guidebooks and then scouring Trip Advisor reviews, and it has been a pretty successful method so far.

So our first four guest houses this year - Adelaide's Guest House in Glasgow, New Hall in St. Andrews, Ardenlee Guest House in Edinburgh, and Hedley House Hotel in York - were all excellent and merited four stars or higher in our Trip Advisor reviews.

And then there was our last hotel, the Ramada Inn at the Glasgow Airport.

Where did it all go wrong? Here's our tale:

  • We decided to stay by the airport at a chain hotel the night before our flight, which had worked well for Ryan last year in London. We will not be doing this in the future.
  • The hotel we chose said it was 500 meters from the airport. No other directions were given.
  • It was pouring down rain
  • Ryan was carrying 80 pounds of luggage.
  • We get to airport and can't see the hotel. So we asked directions of an airport employee, but they made no sense.
  • We came across three other hotels: two Holiday Inns and a Premier Inn. We asked directions at the Premier Inn, and they told us there weren't pavements (sidewalks) to get to the Ramada.
  • So it was back to the airport where a helpful employee at the taxi stand told us not to waste our money on a cab because there's a courtesy shuttle.
  • Except no one answered at the hotel when we called.
  • So we set out to walk again with more specific directions from the taxi-stand worker. We crossed a busy roundabout, and went under the highway overpass.
  • We crossed a second roundabout, sinking into the saturated grass with each step. We finally spotted the Ramada on the other side of the trees.
  • We finally checked in -- 35 minutes after we arrived at the airport.
  • The receptionist's handwriting sent us to wrong room, forcing me to go downstairs and clarify.
  • We took showers to warm up from our soaked clothes (RIP to my faithful tennis shoes -- casualties of the trek).
  • Then the 45-minute quest to use the Internet began. Two phone calls and one trip to the front desk still don't yield a working Ethernet connection. Seriously, what hotel doesn't have WiFi in the rooms at this point? We're a world of tablets and smart phones -- get with the program.

The upshot - a terrible review on Trip Advisor, a vow to never stay in another Ramada as long as we live, and this list of things for us to remember next year:

  • Print off walking directions to hotels from each train station.
  • Stick to guest houses or B&Bs instead of corporate hotels.
  • Pack one pair of waterproof shoes.
  • Always take out the maximum at the ATM.
  • Print off all flight information and bring a full copy of the itinerary rather than counting on email access.

Despite the soggy ending, we had a great trip. Thanks for reading along with our adventures!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Blue skies (briefly) and trains

We ducked into the National Railway Museum in York on Wednesday while waiting to catch our own train back to Glasgow. It was a well-timed excursion just before a torrential downpour that ruined the finest morning we'd seen on the trip, weather wise.

Wow, look at that blue sky! The York Minster early on Wednesday morning.

We only had about 90 minutes to look around the railway museum, but it was enough for us. The main hall contains examples of all different types of trains used around the world over the years, though it focuses mostly on British rail travel. 

The main hall at the National Railway Museum.

Other exhibits include model railroads, the restoration and maintenance process for the cars on display, and a huge collection of paraphernalia associated with rail travel, such as signs, stained glass from the cars, station building models, china from dining cars, and training equipment. And of course, there was a ton of Thomas the Tank Engine stuff available to purchase in the museum store.

A few of the items on display in the museum's Warehouse.

The museum also has perhaps the greatest name ever for a museum library: Search Engine.

Yes, the weather really was that bad: A headline on one of the newspapers on Wednesday.

And we know newspapers never overstate weather stories.

Sign of the day: Just found this one from York amusing.

Photo of the day: Ryan got this photo from the train during our return trip to Edinburgh. I have no idea where we were at the time, but the green scenery was just beautiful.

Beer of the day: Last beers of the trip came at Camperdown Place in Glasgow. Tennent's for me, and Greene King Abbot Ale for Ryan. Can't believe those are the last ones!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Our girly day: Shopping, sugar and high tea

America has Goodwill shops, but in Britain just about every charity has its own shop where its sells second-hand items - mostly clothes, but lots of shoes, books and household goods, too. These appear to be the big fund-raiser for most of the charities (not all of them benefit from long-ago bets on Roger Federer to win seven Wimbledon championships). A few of the shops we've visited: Pets in Need of Vets, Age Scotland, the British Heart Foundation, Cancer U.K., Autism and a few aimed at women's and children's aid. In Edinburgh, Nicholason Street is home to several of these shops, and York has a handful, too.

Charity shop row: A shop for Oxfam, one for the British Heart Foundation, a children's aid group are all visible in the shot from York. Up the street were three others. 

Ryan in particular loves stoping in these places. I think he's bought a whole new wardrobe in them (OK, maybe it's only two shirts and a sweater, but that's a lot for him in a three-day period.) We also got this deliciously creepy book at a shop in York, which is supposed to be the most haunted place in the world. It includes stories from Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Bram Stoker among others.

Ryan's newest addition to our library. 

Sugar shacks: Yorkshire is apparently well known for its sweets, being the U.K. home of Nestle. There are several candy shops here and a few smaller chocolatiers. What I find funny is that the shops consistently advertise Lucky Charms cereal in their displays. I've been telling Ryan for years that they're nothing but breakfast candy, and I am claiming this as evidence that I have won this argument. No further appeals.

Other popular imports?

Tea! We did afternoon tea on Tuesday at Grays Court, which is one of the oldest continuously occupied houses in the United Kingdom, according to its website. Parts of the house date to 1080. It is now a boutique hotel that would make a fantastic spot for a wedding. We sat in the Sterne Dining Room overlooking the garden. In my excitement, I forgot to take a photo of the tea tray in my excitement, but it was a beautiful room with quite a view.

The courtyard  and entrance at Gray's Court.

Awaiting my tea. I chose English Breakfast (you can't ever go wrong with that).

The Sterne Dining Room at Gray's Court.

Ryan preparing his tea, an Assam blend. 

The garden behind Gray's Court. 

Sign of the day: York residents wanted this sign repainted because it's a bit of a landmark, although the parent company is trying to distance itself from the product, which is no longer for sale.

Ryan's comment: Sounds like something from Harry Potter.

Beer of the day: Ryan tried several new beers on Tuesday night while we were blogging. The first was a John Smith, which sounds like it is the PBR of this country. He also had an Abbot's that he rather liked.

Working on the blog at Cross Keys in York. 

Old glass, older stone and the indestructible cathedral

Shrewd businessmen have been buying naming rights and sponsorships for at least seven centuries.

The famous York Minster is proof.

Looking up at the big minster. 

In 1320, a York bell maker covered the cost of one stain glass windows in the monstrously large cathedral. The whole window is all about bell making and immortalizes the man, himself. It's the only one of the 129 stain glass windows in the minster that has nothing to do with Jesus, as our tour guide explained.

He thought this would ring in some business. 

Kind of puts a medieval spin on Pac Bell Park and the KFC Yum! Center, huh?

But just the fact that the minster exists at all seems to be a miracle for a number of reasons.

First, it was built on a Norman church dating to 1100. And its actual construction began in the 1200s and finished in 1460. Its tower is 200 feet high, so God only knows how the builders hoisted those stones into the sky -- or how many men died doing it.

Through the looking glass: A reflective glass shows me peering down in order to see all the way up to the top of the tower.

Then it burned three times. First it was by the hands of a lunatic named Jonathan Martin, who set fire to the Quire portion of the minster in 1829 because he wasn't a big fan of the church. It blazed overnight unnoticed and probably should have taken down the whole building but, by providence, it didn't.

Then in 1840, an unattended candle started another raging fire that took out the roof. It was recreated from old sketches.

The minster remained largely unscathed for nearly a century and a half before a lightning strike just about 28 years to the day ignited a massive fire on the south end. It was lucky that the rose-shaped stained glass window had just been refurbished 10 years before or it would have exploded amid the flames' heat. The lead that joins the glass bits heated up and became pliable, which afforded enough give to avoid catastrophe.

As our excellent guide explained, stained glass windows need to be refurbished every 150 years or so to replace the degraded lead and touch up the coloring of the glass. Had the lead been more than a century old at the time of the fire, it would have been rigid and caused the glass to burst.

The rose window that has survived three fires, including a direct hit. 

The minster's east window is about three stories high. It consists of 117 square stained glass windows and 160 smaller ones. The original fashioning of the east window cost £56 for the glazier's expertise -- plus materials. And the work was completed in three years. Not a bad deal at all. Plus, an aspiring archbishop paid the £56 pounds for the work and got his likeness and those of his contemporaries along the bottom row of the window. Yet another shrewd sponsorship. Unfortunately for him, though, he died before he could be named archbishop.

The rest of the window's stained glass scenes depict the alpha and the omega -- key scenes from the book of Genesis and some unhappy ones from Revelations. We saw them on a to-scale banner that has been put up while the east window and its supporting stone have been taken down for refurbishment.

A pane from the east window that hasn't been refurbished. The lead has degraded and is nearly flush with the glass. 

The project began in 2003 and won't finish until 2018 at the earliest. So clearly we'll have to come back. We saw some of the stone workers fashioning the parts of the facade. Talk about skills.

Several workers were shaping replacement stone in the yard adjacent to the Minster.

Although as ultimate proof of inflation over the last 500 years, Proof redoing the east window and facade will cost £20 million and is expected to take 15 years. Yikes. But true to form, Yorkshire businesses kicked in a combined £10 million to match a grant from the historic trust.

But this time, all a sponsoring business get is its name on a stone.

A good reporter always has a pen and notebook  handy, even on vacation.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Welcome to York: Join our parade!

We left Scotland on Monday and headed south into England for a trip to historic York. The city smells like lavender, fresh baked bread and a hint of river (but pleasantly so). It was at least 5 degrees warmer when we arrived around 4 p.m. Monday afternoon. Although it cooled off later in the evening, it was nice to be without our coats for just a little while (I am so thoroughly sick of seeing pictures of me in that green rain jacket).

In the beautiful York train station. The green jacket hadn't come off yet.

The city of York - which still shows remnants of its Roman and Norman histories - is celebrating the 800th anniversary of its charter this year. We wandered around for a few hours before coming across a small yet noisy parade. Turns out July 9 was the actual date the charter was signed, and fully costumed individuals representing city leaders paraded past the York Minster along with a marching band and a choir. The church bells pealed for a least a half hour as part of the festivities - once one set stopped, another church's seemed to start.

The start of the parade at the York Minster.

The crowd outside the cathedral. 

Everyone was searching for the best view of the parade props.

The parade participants stood at attention while waiting for the church bells to quiet down. The townspeople followed them to the town center.

Photo of the day: 

The River Ouse as twilight fell in York.

Sign of the day:  York has a lot of renamed streets. Some appear to have been changed for language or geographic purposes, but others might just have been for political correctness.

A narrow street in York.

Beer of the day: There are a ton of beers local to the area, and Ryan and I each tried one on Monday night at the Exhibition Hotel.

This photo is not as clear as I hoped. But I had the Copper Dragon on the left, while Ryan had the Black Sheep.

It's a tree, it's a harbor, no, it's parliament

Window designs to lawmakers' offices look like whale fins or Scottie dogs or hammers ... but might actually represent curtains being opened to shine in the light.

What do they represent? You decide. 

Chairs in the public galleries resemble profiles of people or perhaps thought bubbles or even question marks.

The people/thoughts/question marks overlook the desks of lawmakers on the  Parliament floor. 
The skylights in the main lobby look like leaves from the outside but they appear to be more like boats when you look up from underneath. Or maybe they are actually eyeballs keeping watch?

So many of the details and design elements of the Scottish Parliament evoke basic elements of the nation's culture as well as open and transparent government -- often simultaneously.

As someone who studies government and politics for a living, I enjoy seeing how different centers of power operate. But in the Scottish Parliament, the legislative body is trumped by its skin.

The Scots formed the rough equivalent of their own state government as part of the Scotland Act of 1998. This reconstitution, starting with parliament, also gave them the rare chance to put a modern twist to stuffy old government buildings. In a public design contest, they chose the plans of Spanish architect  Enric Miralles Moya whose blueprints were rich with symbolism of open government, Scottish heritage, and subtleties that allows for wide interpretations.

The model of the building below shows how the buildings in the foreground look like ships bumping into each other in the harbor. At the top of the photo, you can see the concrete structures that look like a tree trunk growing from the ground. That's to represent the Scots' ties to the land. And the people are represented in the office building (lower right only partly in the picture), which looks like a tenement house.

Not your average capitol building. 
The building relies on natural light and has a ton of windows further underscoring the whole transparency theme. And while we didn't get to see the legislators' offices, our guide explained that each of them have their own "think pods," which are odd-shaped sitting areas with a window. Kind of like cubbyholes for adults.

Another key feature is the art. One exhibit showed sentences written by 100 notable Scottish women about a woman they admired and it was cast in their own handwriting by the artist.

A mix of style, tone and subjects of some of the sentences in the piece. 
So the Scots have a cool house of government but that doesn't mean they've escaped the embarrassing scandals that comes with politics. For instance, one of the Scottish Members of Parliament got kicked out of his party after not disclosing to the Scottish Nationalist Party on his candidate application that he faced accusations of domestic abuse from his three previous wives. He refused to resign his seat and now serves as an independent.

Strangers on a train

Ah, the train. It’s a lovely way to see the country, catch a quick refreshing nap and catch up with the news.
Scotland offers wonderful views in between its ancient and majestic cities. These views often featured lots of sheep.

Those specs of white are sheep. The paper is in the reflection. This pretty much captures the first leg of the trip from Edinburgh to York.

At one point we also saw the shape of a woman being built into the land – her face and um … bra jetting out of the landscape. A local on the train pointed it out and said a rich landowner is having it sculpted onto his property for some reason. (Sorry, we weren’t quick enough with the camera to get a snapshot).

But the best part of the train is getting to talk with people.

We met a lovely couple from Wiltshire -- Peter and Kit Tate, who shared our booth on the train.

Our new friends kept us company on the train. 

Mr. Tate, a Briton, turned 17 in time to serve on a ship bound for the South Pacific in World War II, where he would spend some evenings sitting in brand new jeeps from the United States. After the war, he knocked on the door of the Range Rover plant and got himself a job painting the undercarriages with gray rust-proof paint. He then worked as a salesman of women’s undergarments, although he said his mother was never quite pleased with him travelling across England for the job, preferring instead to tell visitors he was an engineer like his father. A mystery enthusiast and fellow Columbo fan, Mr. Tate offered numerous recommendations for movies.

His wife, Kit Tate, is an American whose father, a Russian immigrant, was co-author of the Ellery Queen chronicles that were stories in the 1930s then became radio programs in the ‘40s. Mrs. Tate is now a modern day Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, having grown up in the Constitution State and becoming an English citizen 11 years ago when she married Peter Tate. The two met while Mr. Tate was working as a custodian in a museum north of Stonehenge while Kit was visiting with her brother on holiday. Both Kit and Peter had lost their spouses years before.

They were wonderful company and taught us a few new phrases, such as “carrying coal to Newcastle” – meaning doing something unnecessary, considering Newcastle was known for its mining. Cheers to the Tates. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Those Royals: Poor taste in spouses, amazing taste in art

On Sunday, the Palace at Holyroodhouse officially reopened to the public after her majesty’s annual visit. We toured the palace and the adjacent Queen’s Gallery after a morning of laundry (and before we watched the Wimbledon finals).

The site originally contained an abbey, and the ruins of a small portion of that building remain today. It was converted to a royal palace in the early 1500s by James IV of Scotland and continued by his son, James V. The palace later was the home of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her murderous second husband, Lord Darnley. He and several of his “friends” dragged the queen's Italian secretary David Rizzio out of her supper room one night and stabbed him more than 50 times in the queen's outer chamber. I swear there are still blood stains on the floor where the body was found, probably artificially created by a series of industrious housekeepers who used to give tours of the murder scene for extra cash  (all you had to do was knock on the door and hand over the coins). Darnley was later murdered himself, and Mary married the chief suspect in that killing, the Earl of Bothwell. Talk about having poor taste in men.

Mary’s chambers, including the large number of “curiousities” owned or related to the Stuart line showcased there, made the tour worth it.  Holyroodhouse was also the primary home of Mary’s son, James VI, who later succeeded Elizabeth and became James I of England. Curiously, James only returned to Scotland once after taking over the English throne.

Adjacent to the palace (though requiring a separate entry fee, of course) is the Queen’s Gallery. It was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002 as part of her Golden Jubilee, to showcase works from the royal collection. This year, it has an exhibit for her Diamond Jubilee, Treasures from the Queen’s Palaces. The exhibit contains 100 pieces from eight palaces collected over five centuries and includes “paintings by Rembrandt, Canaletto and Nash, drawings by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Holbein, and Imperial Easter Eggs by FabergĂ©.”

A chair made from an oak tree at Waterloo battlefield. It's the tree from which  General Wellington gave his orders. Briton pilgrims to the site later stripped the tree of everything -- branches, twigs and bark -- as souvenirs. And the chair-maker happened to arrive the day before the farmer who owned the land felled the tree. 

Ryan and I had very different favorite pieces. I found this Mosaic Egg by FabergĂ© to be the most noteworthy piece; all of the jewels are merely held in place by the platinum frame and the way they are cut. It must have taken so much time to create! The jewels are so tiny that one ill-timed sneeze during the process could have misplaced a dozen easily.

Ryan preferred this painting titled Agatha Bas by Rembrandt. He liked how it looked as though she were coming through the paining at you, and the application of the paint to create a three-dimensional texture as well as the detail on the lace and the jewelry. He also like the fact that this was one of the artist's neighbors -- not someone rich, famous or particularly good looking. But Rembrandt painted her in such a vibrant mysterious way to make you pay attention to a "boring" subject.

The list of the other 98 items in the exhibit is available here.

The tennis is all the rage

Wimbledon was the main talking point over here on Sunday. The newspapers had several full pages of coverage (even bigger than the Herald-Leader's UK-UofL basketball coverage). Just about every pub had a sign advertising the match, and we particularly liked these two as our signs of the day:

The pub where we watched it, the White Horse on the Royal Mile, was a little more low key.

We got there just as Andy Murray lost the second set and there were only four other people in the bar watching the match. By the end, the place was full, and several people just popped their heads in to check the score.

We were disappointed that Murray lost, but thought his speech after the match was rather brilliant. Ryan has stolen his "I'm getting closer" line at least three times since.

Then the pub lost its power, and we were forced to seek sustenance elsewhere. Bringing us to the beer of the day. We returned to the Turkish cafe where we warmed up on Saturday to try the food. I had a goat cheese and tomato salad, while Ryan had a spinach and cheese pastry dish called borek that was delicious. He paired that with a Turkish beer called Efes that he liked even though it was a pilsner.

Drinking Efes from "our table". We had the same waiter too, prompting an interesting conversation about the differences between Edinburgh, Turkey (where he spends half the year) and Virginia (where he had recently visited). 

Great Scot: The natives love the author and antiquarian Sir Walter Scott. He romanticized Scotland, and recovered the long-lost Honours of Scotland (the Crown Jewels that had been hidden in Edinburgh Castle to keep them from Oliver Cromwell). Scott's monument in his native Edinburgh is hugely impressive.

The Walter Scott monument. 

The devotion somewhat confounds both Ryan and myself. Each of us tried to read Ivanhoe in middle school and failed. It's actually the first book I remember not being able to finish - back then I was too young to realize the life is too short to struggle with boring books. Or ones with grammatical mistakes on page 1.

Ryan trying to determine if the monument's elaborate carved figures are characters from Scott's books. Hard to do when you didn't finish the book.

But I have vowed to give Scott another shot on the way home, having downloaded Waverly to the Kindle. As the New York Times noted this week, Scott's novels were also extremely popular in America, particularly before the Civil War. And thanks to the article, I finally know what happened Ivanhoe, too.

Photo of the day: Ryan and I really wish we could share a picture without a dull gray sky - but the weather has not cooperated a bit. Much of Scotland and part of England is dealing with significant rain and flooding at the moment. But this is a picture of Old Town, which Ryan swears is almost exactly as he pictured it after reading the Inspector Rebus novels.