Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lively London


Tuesday was a bleh day due to my tooth and ear. I visited a doctor (well, nurse practitioner) who couldn't see any infections, but there was a lot of earwax. The rest of the day included doing laundry.

Wednesday I returned to the St Paul's area of London. My main plan for the day was a tour of the watchmakers guild museum led by the curator. I arrived well before the start time so I checked out a few other places to fill in the time. I started with the guild hall art gallery, which had a few nice pieces, and tucked away in the basement were the remains of the London colosseum, which were found when they were renovating the building. After the gallery I went into the guild church, which is small, and has some nice stain glass windows. Along one of the wall the stained glass was the coat of arms of various commonwealth nations.

I then walked a block or two to the London museum, and resumed my exploration with the Roman section, and then through the medieval section. This brought me to the time for the tour, so I walked back to the watchmakers guild museum.

The tour started out with about half a dozen people, and by the end there were about 15 people there. The museum was a tightly packed room full of cabinets interspersed with larger clocks. The collection of watches goes back several centuries, as does the collection itself, though not at that location. Initially the collection was kept in a trunk stored at the tavern the guild met at. The earliest acquisitions were from shortly after the guild was formed in 1631.

The curator was Sir someone or other, and I'm pretty sure this is the most contact I've had with someone who has been knighted.

Thursday was a big ticket item, the Tower of London. I bluffed my way through for a student discount, but it was still pricey at fourteen and a half pounds (not so expensive compared to most of Europe, but since so many things were free in London, it stands out). It was definitely well worth it though.

I entered the tower about 5 minutes before a demonstration of the different defenses used back in the day was about to begin. This was held on a grassy area that used to be the moat. It was quite entertaining. I got picked out by one of the presenters to be the lord of the crowd, which mostly involved crying "havoc" every now and then. I did not know the original significance of the word before then and now the line "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war" has more meaning than just sounding cool. After the havoc section of the demonstration, there was a kind of trebuchet, but instead of having a big rock as a counterweight, there are a few ropes that people pull on to send things flying. I wanted to have a go, but since I'd already had some fun crying havoc, I thought I should let others have the fun. But not enough people volunteered, so I decided what the hell and volunteered. They had a few targets set up, but a dodgy batch of water balloons meant all we hit was the crowd as the balloons exploded in mid air.

After the fun with siege engines, I went on a tour led by a yeoman warder of the tower. The tour took in the main sections of the tower, but left the ones with interesting collections inside for later. The tour finished in the tower chapel, where there are many corpses buried that lack skulls.200905289166.JPG

After the tour I went into the building that houses the crown jewels. The first room contained seats for each of the kings and queens of England back to a bit before William the Conqueror. Each chair had the names and arms of a monarch in order. It was interesting to see the progression of how the arms changed over the centuries. The next few rooms showed videos detailing the various items that make up the crown jewels, and one showing them in use during the coronation of QEII. It was a bit surprising to me, as someone who has only known the queen as a nice old lady, to find out that she looked pretty good back in the day. Then it was onto the jewels which were in cases with travelators on both sides to stop people looking at them for too long. Then it was through the vault where the jewels are kept at night which has doors that are about a foot thick.

The next building I explored was a corner of the tower and contained a collection of lesser crowns, most those of queens over the last two hundred years. Then it was onto the exciting stuff, weapons. In the central keep there was a display of arms and armour that belonged to Henry VIII. The armour makes his girth as a function of time quite clear. His collection of swords and armour were quite impressive.

After this I made a circuit of complex visiting spots I wanted to see in the short time I had left before closing. This included the execution spot of VIPs like Mary, Queen of Scots, the tower ravens, the tower walls, and some other bits that just seemed old. I did like the metal sculptures of soldiers defending the walls spread around the place. I left the tower just before it closed for the day and crossed the road to the spot where public executions were held, which was next to the memorial for the merchant marine. To end the day I walked back along the Thames to Canary Wharf for the evening.200905289181.JPG

Friday I headed out to Greenwich, home of the Royal Observatory and home of Greenwich Mean Time. It was a short walk from the DLR station. I first explored the Maritime museum, which was interesting, but nothing outstanding. Then it was up to the observatory. I stood with my feet across the prime meridian, and then went into the museum. There were various observation rooms, and of course a collection of clocks, the highlight of which were the Harrison clocks which solved the longitude problem. Very impressive. The watchmakers guild museum had a few of Harrison's lesser pieces, but to see these was fantastic. There were also a few telescopes that were used by royal astronomers over the years, which were the basis for the different prime meridians over the years (the line itself is based on the location of the observatory's main telescope, and has shifted a few times as new telescopes were installed). The view from the hill the observatory is atop is rather nice.200905299222.JPG

I went back down the hill to an art gallery that is housed in a building that was originally a royal palace, and then became a school for orphans of sailors in the royal navy. The art, of course, had a maritime theme. The person at the front desk insisted that I get a ticket, despite the fact that admission was free.

On my way back I walked to where the Cutty Sark is, but due to restoration work I could not see it. I then walked along the Thames to Canary Wharf, but as I got close to my destination it became clear that I was on the wrong side of the river, and the nearest bridges were back at Greenwich or at the Tower of London, neither of which appealed too much. I instead headed to a nearby tube station , but along the way remembered with dread that the station was one of these along the closed east city line. I managed to catch a bus to a working tube station, and eventually made it back to Canary Wharf on the right side of the river.

Saturday was another road trip, though a much shorter one than the previous weekend. Andrea, JP and I went out to Salisbury. We got to the town around 1ish, and began by getting lunch. We then went in search of the tourist office to better plan things. Along the way we saw some street performers doing some sort of upper class twit act which was rather amusing. At the tourist office we found out that there was a festival going on, and we tried to get tickets to a show called "Daleks Stole My Doctor Who Scarf", but alas it was sold out. We then made our way to Salisbury Cathedral, which is the possessor of one of the tallest spires in England, a nice baptismal font, excellent stained glass windows, and a Magna Carta. I did try to read it, but the writing is incredibly small and styles have changed a bit since those days.

Then it was onto the reason why everyone goes to Salisbury, Stonehenge. It was a lot smaller than I expected. The audioguide was saying how difficult it was to build, and then said it was built at around the same time as the pyramids, which I think most would agree are much more impressive. We circled around the stones taking lots of photos. Near the heelstone, JP noticed something attached to the fence we thought was a geocache. After Stonehenge closed we walked along the fence to the object, and when there seemed to be little chance of being noticed, tried to take it off the fence. This was a bit tricky and at one stage involved the use of an umbrella after it was dropped and landed a little out of reach. The object was a slightly cut up beer can, and we were beguiled to find a piece of photographic paper inside it with some curves on it and what might have been stonehenge on a horizon. Later investigation led us to conclude that the contraption was a long exposure pin hole camera.200905309293.JPG

We then spent a little while playing with Andrea's remote controlled helicopter in a field across the road from Stonehenge, but there was too much wind for a controlled flight. On the way back to London we stopped in at Andrea's brother's place to drop off some stuff, and ended up playing some Wii Fit and MarioKart and getting Indian takeout for dinner that was pretty good.

Sunday was an easy going day. The morning was mostly spent planning a visit to Scotland. In the afternoon I visited Camden market which is an interesting place. I saw a lot of cool t-shirts, and had thought of buying one or two, but after buying some trick cards, a book (Godel, Escher, Bach) and Monty Python Fluxx, I decided my budget couldn't stand much more spending that afternoon. I also skipped the chance to buy some juggling clubs for much the same reason. Catching a train back was complicated by the fact that to reduce crowding, they don't let people catch the train at Camden Station on Sunday afternoons, so I had to walk to the next station to catch the train.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Road Trip


As this weekend was to be a long weekend, Alan, Andrea, JP and I went on a continental road trip. After quickly packing some stuff for the weekend on Friday afternoon, I met JP at Canary wharf, and then we caught the DLR to Andrea's place, where Alan and JP keep their car since her apartment comes with a car park. We left London around 6ish and made our way through the London traffic to the motorway, and then drove down to Dover. We had dinner at a road stop along the way, and arrived at our hotel around 10:30 or so. We had a quiet drink in the hotel bar before calling it a night.

Saturday was an early start, catching an 8 o'clock ferry across the channel. There seemed to be absolutely no customs checks on either side and soon after docking in France we were on our way. We drove through the French countryside all morning, and arrived at San Quentin around noonish and had a short look around. We saw a few churches, but only went into one, and a rather abandoned square, and had a drink at one of the few cafes still open.

We then drove onto Reims, and made a detour to stop at a town along the way. It caught our attention for the medieval looking church and town up on a hill. We made our way up the hill and had a look at the church and the view from up high, both of which were quite good. Then it was onto Reims. We got there mid afternoon.

The first order of business was to find a place to stay, which we did with the help of the tourist office. Then we had a late lunch. I had a steak and chip sandwich which was greasy but filling. After lunch we visited the Notre Dame de Reims, which is a very impressive building with a rather disastrous history, having been damaged in numerous wars. The restoration work is good, but the materials make it obvious where it's done. The outside and the inside are both magnificent.

After getting our fill of the church we went on a drive around town to see the sights. This was made a little trickier by numerous one way streets and roads closed due to the construction of a new tram system, but this just meant we saw more stuff we might not have otherwise seen. We finally checked into our hotel for the night around 6ish, and relaxed for a while before going out for dinner at a nearby restaurant (there was a whole street of them a block from the hotel).

On Sunday we started by visiting a church on the outskirts of Reims, and came across a market on the streets outside, and never actually got to the church. We bought some pastries for breakfast. The we tried to start one of the scenic drives in the booklet we got from the tourist office the day before, but due to the fact all the tourist drive signs were for a different drive, we decided to do that one instead. Along the way we stopped in at two wineries, drank champagne at one of them, ignored numerous detour signs through a town where all the roads were being rebuilt, two towns separated by less than 30 seconds of driving, and a lot of nice countryside.

We returned to Reims for lunch, which we had at the same place as yesterday, and then began the drive to Luxembourg, the nominal destination of the road trip. I believe it was during this section of the trip that JP lost his hat while standing up in the back.

When we got to Luxembourg we drove around a little to get the lay of the land, including driving through a tunnel we were destined to drive through many times. We stopped for a while at a lookout looking over a deep valley and on the other side was an impressive building that turned out to be a bank. Stealing some wifi we found the name and address of a youth hostel, but without a map had very little (no) luck finding it. After about a half an hour we went to the train station to get a map and directions. It turns out the hostel was about 5 minutes drive from the lookout.

The hostel was a big professional (impersonal) hostel, which also acted as a conference centre. We easily booked a room for four. We had dinner downtown then returned to the lookout to see the view at night, which was just as good. The rest of the night was a bit unpleasant as my tooth and ear were acting up again and the pain was so bad I was not able to sleep, and spent most of the night playing Lego Star Wars (which like Lego Batman, is designed for obsessive compulsive types).

Monday consisted of roundabout drive back to London. We started by driving through the Luxembourg countryside looking for a village Alan had been told about. We found the village which was nice. It had a stream flowing through it, a dam, quaint buildings, a tower thing up on a hill and a few other bits and pieces. Since I wasn't feeling so good, I stayed and sat on the grass under a tree while Alan, Andrea and JP climbed the hill.

After the village we meandered our way to Brussels where we had lunch and bought petrol (at the same place). We had a bit of trouble finding our way out of Brussels, but once we were out we had no trouble making it to Calais with plenty of time. We filled some of the time by going to a supermarket and buying significant quantities of french wine. After settling up for fuel and ferry fares and such I still had a few euros left, and tried to find something that was exactly the amount I had left. I was unsuccessful and ended up buying a pack of mini fruit cakes.

Getting on the ferry, I once again was graced with all the welcome and hospitality that UK immigration is renowned for, or in other words I faced another inquisition, which was made a briefer than the first by the fact that there were three other people in the car who had no problems and a line of cars behind us. Across the channel we went through extremely lax customs who waved us through without a word about the boot full of booze and then it was back to London.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lovely London

Tuesday I headed to somewhere I'd been past several times, the National Gallery. This is another site that takes a full day to get close to taking in everything. It has a very nice collection, although not as vast as some other places I've been to. Highlights included Holbein's The Ambassadors, with space off to the right to properly view the skull that's there just because Holbein wanted to show off, a few da Vincis and Raphaels, and a bunch of other stuff that obviously wasn't that memorable to me.

Wednesday, continuing the art theme, I went to the Tate Modern, which I did not enjoy anywhere near as much as the National Gallery. The items collected at the Tate did not appeal to me as much. A few of them were interesting concepts, but don't really stand out as art. One example of this was a room containing two tables with bits and pieces on and around the tables, much as if the artists had brought in the tables from their garage. Only on overhearing a staff member telling some other visitors did I learn the whole thing was moulded plastic and painted. Certainly a lot of technical skill went into it, but it hardly inspires the soul.

I left the Tate about 1ish, and walked along the Thames towards the Tower of London. Along the way I stopped at Wagamama for lunch, and had some excellent chicken raman (the best I've had outside of Japan). Continuing along the river I stopped in for a quick look at Southwark Cathedral (I've been informed the o and the w are silent), and opposite the tower came across the HMS Belfast, a light Cruiser that saw service in WWII, the Korean War, and around the world in peace time. Wandering through it was quite interesting, although at times confusing as they were in the process of changing the tour route and in places the signs and rooms did not match where the audio guide was saying to go. I timed my finish of the tour well, as I was heading through the last sections as they started closing for the day. While on the aft deck preparing to leave, I got to see the Tower Bridge raised to let a boat pass underneath. At the souvenir shop I bought a WWII ship spotters deck of cards and a tot of naval rum (interesting fact: a daily allowance of rum was standard aboard Royal Navy ships until the 31st of July 1970). I then crossed the Tower Bridge and walked along the Thames back to Canary Wharf, which took around an hour and a half.

On Thursday I again caught the tube to Southwark station near the Tate, but this time I crossed the river to meet up with David from Monday night who had kindly offered to let me use one of his company's passes to visit St Paul's Cathedral. With the pass I walked a few blocks to the cathedral and spent a few hours exploring it. I couldn't go all the way to the top of the dome as that was closed, but I did get a nice view of London from as far up as I could go. There were a lot of famous people buried in the catacombs beneath, including Admiral Nelson, The Duke of Wellington, Christopher Wren (the architect of the current incarnation of St Paul's) and numerous memorials to fallen soldiers in plenty of wars.

After I finished at the cathedral, I tried to return the pass to David to save having to return to this section of town again, but could not get in touch with David before my phone's battery died. After a late lunch I found the Bank of England museum and explore it for a while. It was alright, but aimed at a younger audience (specifically one unfamiliar with the concept of inflation).

Dinner that evening was at a fancy restaurant that because it lost its Michellin star had decided to offer up five course meals for 20 pounds, although the courses weren't really big. About eight of us went, and it was a pleasant evening. Definitely the first time I've had a five course meal.

On Friday I returned to the district around St Paul's to return the pass to David. After that I visited Samuel Johnson's house, which was interesting but I shouldn't have paid extra to take photos. After that I made a short visit to the Museum of London, which covers London's history from the days when mammoths and lions roamed the area to today. After going through the ancient history and Great Fire sections, I went on a guided tour which had a health and medicine theme. The most interesting item this tour showed off was a prehistoric skull which had had a hole scraped into it and the person then went on to live for several years after the procedure.

I left town early that afternoon as I had to pack for the weekends adventures.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Castlerific Cardiff


On Friday, I left London on my own. I caught the train from Paddington station (complete with stand selling Paddington Bears) to Cardiff. I arrived in Cardiff around 2ish and checked into my hostel which was just across a canal from the Millennium Stadium. I then headed down towards the bay to see the Doctor Who exhibition. This was pretty cool, but also a bit disappointing. I was expecting a lot of behinds the scenes info and insight, but instead it was just a collection of props and costumes. It gave the feeling that all they'd done was bag and tag stuff after they'd finished each episode. After that I wandered around the bay area taking in sights like the Millennium Centre, Roald Dahl Place, the outside of the Welsh parliament, a boat lighthouse, and a few other things before heading back to the hostel. In the evening I went to a nearby cinema and saw the new Star Trek movie. I enjoyed it a lot, although I was quite aghast when they blew up Vulcan. They got a lot of the small details right, like the noises the communicators make and the earpieces they used. Also Kirk doing the Kobayashi Maru was well done.

On Saturday I spent the day wandering around Cardiff Castle. This castle is a mix of eras and is built on a site that way back when was a Roman fortress. The walls were rebuilt in the 19th century to follow the then recently discovered remains of the Roman walls. There was meant to be a pageant on the history of Wales presented by various groups of school kids while I was there, but rain postponed/relocated this event. I had dinner at a Japanese restaurant with one of the people staying in my room, and then went and saw Wolverine. It was OK, but nothing great. Back at the hostel I spend a while chatting with a Danish girl who had the bunk beneath mine.

On Sunday I got out of Cardiff and visited a few castles. The first was Castle Coch which, like Cardiff Castle, was once owned by the Bute family. It was restored/rebuilt by them in a kind of romantic style that is more what Victorian era people thought medieval castles were like than what medieval castles actually were. It was a small castle that was kind of cozy, and was located by itself surrounded by woods. While waiting for the bus to the next town I had a roast lunch at a pub which was quite good.

Next was Caerphilly Castle. This was not as well kept as the other castles, and had not been rebuilt, so you got to see more of the original castle. Caerphilly Castle was a proper fighting fortress, with multiple moats and defensive walls. This was my favourite castle in Wales. Getting back to Cardiff was a hassle, as I just missed the bus and then had to wait two hours for the next one. This was particularly annoying as part of the reason why I went to Cardiff for the weekend was to avoid public transport hassles in London. That evening I just relaxed at the hostel as the cinema had run out of movies I wanted to see (they had Coraline, but only in 2D).

On Monday I had planned to visit the history museum, but on arrival there I learnt that it was closed on Mondays. So instead I wandered around the downtown area for a little while before settling down at the train station to wait for my train. I got back into London around 6ish, and met JP and David, a friend of his, at Canary Wharf for dinner at a nearby pub.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lazy London


Sunday was an easy day of relaxing and laundry at JP's place.

On Monday I planned to visit two places: Baker St to see what was at 221B and the Natural History museum. When I got to Baker St station though I saw a sign by one of the exits for Lord's cricket ground. Considering this an opportunity not to be missed, I followed the signs, and about 15 minutes later found myself outside Lord's. The place was pretty quiet since there was no match on. However, on the schedule outside it said that there would be a match on Wednesday for which entry was free.

I headed back to Baker St and visited 221B Barker St, which is home to the Sherlock Holmes museum which is well presented. The ground floor is a gift shop and the upper floors are set up like they would have been when Sherlock Holmes lived there. The first floor was the sitting room and Watson's consulting room. I sat in Sherlock Holmes' chair, which was reasonably comfy. The second floor had a number of souvenirs from Holmes' adventures. The third floor had mannequins of characters from the stories.
After Baker St I headed over to the Natural History museum. This was excellent. A good dinosaur collection, a massive geology collection and lots of animals. That evening I went and saw Wicked! a musical based on the novel telling the story of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West. It simplified a lot of stuff from the book, and skipped a lot of things, but was enjoyable enough that I downloaded the cd later. The really fustrating thing was that while I was sitting waiting for the show to start, this guy came up to the couple sitting next to me and told them that since they were the two millionth customer they were getting great seats right at the front and were going to get to meet the cast and all that. If only I'd bought my tickets ten minutes earlier. Or ten minutes later.

On Tuesday I went to the British museum. It has a huge collection from all over the world. I saw the Elgin marbles taken from the Acropolis, the Egyptian collection, the Middle East collection, the English collection including the Lewis chessmen, a nice collection of clocks, and a few other collections. This filled the entire day, and I didn't even get to the South American or Chinese collections.
On Wednesday I had a a bit of a late start, and began by going back to Holborn near the British Museum. I went to a money shop (a shop that bought and sold money to collectors) that I'd seen on Tuesday to buy a $10,000,000,000 note from Zimbabwe. I then wandered around the area for a little while and then met up with Ty for lunch. We had lunch at a Japanese restaurant nearby and I had my first good katsu curry for a long while.

After lunch I made my way over to Lord's in time for the second innings. The MCC Young Cricketers were batting against the MCC in a limited overs game (30 overs). The MCC YC had a good start, then faded for a while in the middle before making a strong finish to win with a few overs to spare. It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, with the exception of the fact that my tooth got really bad that afternoon, to the point where eating dinner was quite an unpleasant experience.
Thursday then became a day with one mission. Find a dentist would would see me quickly and not charge an arm and a leg. I found one which had relatively reasonable rates, but they did not have an appointment available for 9 days. I then found one in Canary wharf which had a spot available that afternoon. I then hung around waiting until it was time to see the dentist. At the dentist I found out that I had an infected nerve beneath a tooth and that the rest of my teeth are shit. The dentist drilled in and removed the nerve and then filled the hole again. The cost of all this was 150 pounds, almost as painful as the tooth itself.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Obtuse Oxford


Saturday started off with a walk around the docks area near Tower Bridge with Andrea, Caroline and JP, and then sitting in a coffe shop for a while. In the afternoon JP, Andrea and I went up to Oxford and had a walk around town including going into Christchurch College. In the evening we had drinks at two different places. At the second I had a Vespa, of Casino Royale fame, which was better than a martini, but still a bit rough to drink. We then had dinner at a Chinese restaurant called the Opium Den

Late London


Arriving in London was a lot tougher than I thought it would be. Getting to the airport was no problem, and the flight wasn't too bad. Immigration though was hell. I thought it would be quite easy, being an Australian, to get into the UK. It was not to be. After finding the non-EU line and thinking "great" since there were only two other people using that line, I got questioned for almost half an hour by the two ladies at the desk about everywhere I'd been for the last few years, how much money I had, where I was staying, how long I was staying for, what was I going to do there, when was I leaving, did I have a ticket yet, and more. Russia was eaiser to get into than that.

But get through I did, and then it was a train from Gatwick to Canary Wharf, where I met JP, who was a more than gracious host to me during my stay. I dropped my stuff off at his place and then we went out to dinner at a French restaurant with Caroline, a friend of JP's from WA, and Andrea, JP's girlfriend. It was a nice meal with nice company and a very pleasant evening overall.

On Thursday I took a walking tour in the morning, taking in a few of the royal residences such as Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Westminster and a few other places. After the tour I met up with Caroline at Piccadilly Circus and we walked around West End towards Hyde Park and after that towards the Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum, at which we arrived 15 minutes after it closed. Having lucked out there, we caught the tube back to Trafalgar square and visited the National Portrait Gallery which opened late on Thursdays. The gallery was pretty good, and I liked most of it up until they got to the 20th century. It was here I first made the connection between the start of non-realistic painting styles kind of coincided with the invention of the camera. After the gallery we had a late dinner at an English pub. (an English pub in England? How quaint.)

On Friday I took in a few museums, starting with the science museum, which alternated between gimmicky teach stuff to kids stuff and awesome collections of historic instruments of all sorts. It has the largest collection of slide rules I've come across (and I've seen a few), a great collection of 18th century scientific instruments, a clock collection, and a few historic computers. There was also a cool art thing called the Listening Post that displayed and read out messages taken in real time from forums and bulletin boards all over the web. The "I am ..." and "I like ..." movements were interesting and amusing.

After the science museum I went across the road to the V&A museum which has an interesting and widely varied collection. It has a good oriental collection, a lot of nice statues, some art, a clothing collection, an architecture display and a lot more. The clothing display featured clothes of all sorts from various eras. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that all the people I saw sketching in that room were in front of the underwear display, or the fact that this was the only display in the museum to have tables and chairs in front of it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Livid Lisbon and Faux Faro


When I arrived in Lisbon it was somewhat dead with very few people out on the streets. I found the hostel without any hassles, but for the first time since Vladivostok the staff didn't speak much English. I did eventually sort everything out although it was complicated by the fact that I had to change room on the second day and they had a new person on that night who didn't really know what was going on.

After bludging around at the hostel for a while (I didn't sleep well on the train) I left my stuff at the hostel and had a bit of a walk around the downtown area. I saw a bt of the bay where they had these large plastic things that were half bench, half large pot plant that were on wheels so you could always sit in the shade. I then headed back into the central area of town where I had lunch. I then went to the Guarda museum which had what could have been an interesting look at the revolution a few decades ago, but going through the exhibit I couldn't work out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys in the whole scenario. Then I waited near a big statue for a walking tour, but since I didn't realise that Portugal is not in the same time zone as Spain, I was an hour early and at about ten past I gave up waiting. I headed back to the hostel and took it easy for the rest of the afternoon.200905028283.JPG

On Sunday I again tried to go on a walking tour. I had wanted to go on the tour around the historic centre of town, but the guy doing that tour never turned up so I did the Discovery tour instead, which focused on Portugal's empire period. It was pretty good. The tour finished at a bakery famous for its custard tarts which were quite nice.200905038315.JPG

For the rest of the afternoon I climbed up the hill to the old fortress which was alright. Particularly impressive was the camera obscura they'd installed in the tallest of the towers that gave a great view of the city.

Monday I accomplished the main thing I wanted to do in Portugal. I went to the beach and sat on the beach all day. I split my time between reading "The Algebraist", looking at girls, and watching the Atlantic ocean. I did not wait around until sunset as around 5 I was getting hungry and my shins were getting sunburnt (I had a hat, a long-sleeved shirt, and my feet were in the sand, so only my shins were exposed to the sun) so I called it a day and headed back to the hostel for my last night.200905048361.JPG

Tuesday my plan was simply to get from Lisbon to Faro, where I was to catch my flight to London the next day. The trip was a pretty uneventful train ride south. Faro seemed like a nice town, but between world weariness and my legs I didn't feel like exploring much, so I had a quiet afternoon in.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Brash Barcelona and Melodius Madrid

I arrived in Barcelona at a train station which due to a brilliant piece of urban planning did not have a connecting subway station. So I had to walk a bit to a nearby station to catch a train to my hostel, which was actually most of an apartment building. My room was on the 6th floor, well out of the range of the wifi. It was a pretty good place with a lounge and a kitchen that I actually made use of.

In the afternoon I walked to the Sagrada Familia. It's a pretty impressive structure. The passion facade did tend to remind me of volume 9 of The Sandman, The Kindly Ones. After leaving the church I had lunch and then headed towards one of the big hills of town that was the location for a few old buildings and art galleries, and the stadium and other buildings for the Barcelona Olympics. I visited the main stadium and the nearby sports museum. The museum was pretty good, and cheap at four or five euros (I can't remember exactly). I then made my way down the hill towards a subway station to return to the hostel.200904288037.JPG

My second day in Barcelona I started by visiting a park designed by Gaudi which was also the site of his old house, which is now a museum. The park was nice, but I don't think it would get anywhere near as many visitors if the name Gaudi weren't attached to it. Then I went downtown and walked along La Rambla, a pedestrian zone that goes down to the bay. I strolled down La Rambla, and finished by taking a lift up the column at the end of La Rambla. A nice view, but not for the claustrophobes. For dinner I cooked up another batch of just add water and heat packet mix spaghetti carbonara.200904298150.JPG

On Thursday I caught the train for my brief stay in Madrid. I arrived in Madrid around one and was checked in by two. I then walked around town for a while. I saw a statue of a bear, a cathedral, the Palace Real, some gardens with statues of kings, an Egyptian temple that was given to Spain, a beggar with a website, and other various miscellanea.200904308244.JPG

My second day in Madrid was nice, but a bit disappointing. I found out the reason I'd been unable to book a room for Friday night was because Friday was May day, a national holiday and the start of a long weekend. It also meant that all the museums and galleries were closed. I spent the morning walking through a large park that was moderately crowded. In the afternoon I had a bit of a nap on the edge of the park before going back to the hostel to pick up my bags and catching the overnight train to Lisbon.200904308241.JPG

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Pantheonic Paris

Sunday was a rather busy day, with lots of small things rather than a few great acts. First I returned to Notre Dame where the line for the tower was much shorter, and it only took about half an hour to get in to the towers. The first place in teh tower you visit is the gift shop, where I succumbed to temptation and bought a quill with some "Victor Hugo" ink. Then it was up to the actual interesting bits with the grotesques and gargoyles and all that. A nice view of Paris from the top.200904267806.JPG

After descending back to ground level, I went over to the Notre Dame crypt, which is mostly underneath the square in front of the Notre Dame with a small section underneath the church itself. The crypt shows ruins from various periods that have since been built over. The earliest were roman houses and then progressed until the middle ages.

After Notre Dame I headed over to the Grand Rex, where after a quick lunch I joined the line for the Battlestar Galactica screening at about 12:45. This turned out to be a good move as by the time the guests of honour arrived the line stretched far behind me. While I was waiting in the line I was interviewed by some guys for a bonus feature on the French release of the season 4 DVDs. I don't think I was at my most eloquent, and thought up many better things to say afterwards, but alas it was too late. They started letting people in about 15 minutes before it was scheduled to start.

The event began with an introduction of the three actors present, Mary McDonnell, Jamie Bamber and James Callis, and their characters on the show. Then there was a question and answer session. The answers from Mary and James were quite interesting, and presumably some were Jamie Bamber's, but he answered in French so I couldn't tell. After that was the presentation of the awards and finally the screening of the first episode of season four. I was a little disappointed as I had translated "premiere finale season" as the premier of the season finale, whereas it turns out it meant the premiere of the final season. It was still awesome though, and the show looked really good on a big screen.200904267881.JPG

Once all the BSG was all done, I headed over to the Pantheon, which I had assumed was a very old church/temple, as is the case of the Pantheon in Rome. It turns out it is actually a Revolution era building that while originally a church is now used as a burial site for great Frenchmen (and Frenchwomen), such as Pierre and Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Louise Braille and many more. Also at the Pantheon was the original Focault's Pendulum.

I left the Pantheon at around 6ish. With most things closed I headed to the one thing that was open late, the Arc de Triomphe. This time I went up top, as entry was covered by my museum pass. The view from the top is pretty good. Not as good as the Eiffel tower, but still good. There is also one thing you can see from the top of the Arc de Triomphe you can't see from the Eiffel tower (I'll leave it to more astute readers to work out what this might be). When I arrived at the Arc it was closed as some ceremony involving the eternal flame was in progress, but it ended after 15 minutes and I was free to climb up to the top. On the way down I took the steps of the spiral staircase reasonably quickly, and was a little dizzy when I reached the bottom. Thus ended Sunday.

Monday was my last day in Paris. I started by returning to the Louvre. I took in the Egyptian collections, some other stuff that apparently wasn't too memorable, and some stuff from the Middle East. At this stage I got a bit arted out and decided to grab some lunch and head over to the military museum. Lunch was a ham and cheese sandwich. I started at the military museum by taking in Napoleon's tomb, which was really big and made of stone. Then I took in the arms and armour wing, which covered at least 1000 years of warfare, and then upstairs for the last 200 years of French military history. After this I went back to the hostel to pick up my bags and head to the train station for my train to Barcelona.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Partisan Paris and Valiant Versailles

On Friday a group of us, Mattheus, Mel, Elvis, the Chilean and I, went to the Eiffel tower. We went with the short line and climbed the steps up to the first to platforms of the tower. On the second platform I bought some croissants to eat at the top. Then we caught the lift up to the top of the tower which gave us a great view of Paris. On the way down the group got separated and Elvis and Mel went MIA. Mattheus, the Chilean and I made our way along the Champ de Mars to the Musee d Army, which contains among other things Napoleon's tomb. We only went into the church there, as the others were more interested in seeing other sites. We caught a train to Notre Dame and had a look inside. Unfortunately the crown of thorns was not on display, and I seem to have missed the statue of Joan of Arc I remember from my previous visit.

After Notre Dam I left the group as I wanted to climb the towers and they wanted to visit the Louvre. I went around the corner and saw the line to climb the tower, and decided to try another time. So I headed to the Grand Rex, the venue for the Jules Verne film festival, and picked up a ticket for the Battlestar Galactica screening.

Then I headed back to Notre Dame, hoping the line would be shorter, and indeed the line was shorter, to the point of non-existence, since the towers had closed 15 minutes earlier. I then headed over to the Louvre since it was open late on Friday evenings. I bought a 4 day museum pass for €48. This was a good buy as I ended up getting at least €75 worth of admissions out of it. While in the Louvre I checked out the classical sculptures and the Italian painters hall, leading up to the Mona Lisa. It was not as crowded as when I saw it in 2003. I exited through a hall of large French paintings with a detour to see the Venus de Milo. At this point it was getting close to 9pm when they start lighting up the Eiffel tower, for which I'd agreed to meet up with Mattheus and the Chilean to watch. I caught the subway and returned to the park in which we'd taken in the tower the previous day.

I was the first to arrive, so I sat down and watched the lights on the tower brighten. Mattheus and the Chilean turned up at about 9:15, and the sparkly bits turned on for the first time at around 9:30. After taking in this nice sight we headed back to our hostel, stopping to have dinner at a nearby kebab shop, where I ended up having the rest of my dinners in Paris.200904247491.JPG

On Saturday I ventured further afield, going to Versailles with Mattheus. When we got there, the line was reasonably long, which presented a minor moral dilemma. My pass allowed me to go straight in while Mattheus had to buy a ticket. While I didn't want to wait in a line I didn't have to, I didn't want to just leave him behind. We agreed to meet in a few hours in the garden after having gone through the main palace on our own.

The palace was pretty impressive. Lots of paintings, statues and rather small beds that were still quite fancy. There were some very ornate clocks that I liked. After touring all of the palace I went out into the garden, which it turns out wasn't covered by my pass since they turn the fountains on on the weekend and it costs extra to get in. It was well worth the extra money. The gardens were cast and magnificent, even though a small fraction of their original size, and full of fountains of various sizes. They also had music from the era playing from speakers hidden in the gardens which was a nice touch.200904257682.JPG

We took a mini-train to a few of the auxiliary sites of the complex, the Grand and Petite Trianon and Marie-Antoinette's village, which was quite nice. Then we walked back from the grand lake to the palace, taking in a few other fountains off to the side. All in all it was a good day with lots of walking.200904257804.JPG

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Paradisical Paris

The hostel in Paris was pretty good, in fact it would have to rate as the best I've stayed in. The bunks were very solid and built onto the walls, each bed had a light, two power points, a curtains and a large drawer underneath. The room had lots of space and was very clean. The price for all this though, was the price. €25 a night, and the restaurant downstairs was pricey too. I arrived at around 5pm Wednesday afternoon and bludged around at the hostel all evening.

On Thursday I started out by taking a free walking tour. Also taking the tour were Elvis and Mel, the couple I'd met in Nice, a Brazilian named Mattheus, a Chilean whose name we never got, and a bunch of others. Our guide was an Australian girl named Spike (it was not made clear if that was a first name or a last name). The tour started at St Michel, a fountain near Notre Dame with a statue of the Archangel Michael defeating Lucifer. We then crossed the river onto the Ile de la Cite and walked along the Seine to the Ponte Neuf, crossed the river again, continued down the Seine a bit more to the artist's bridge which we crossed and then entered the Louvre complex. We passed through the Louvre and onto the Palace Royal, followed by one of the fancy shopping streets. Needless to say, I did not buy anything there.

Lunch was at a sandwich shop that was alright, but a little pricey. After lunch we took in the Tuilleries, the Concorde, Champs Elysees, and finished up near the Grand and Petite Palaces.

After the tour finished I went to the Arc de Triomphe with Mattheus and a few other people from South America who had gone on the tour. The Arc de Triomphe was huge. I was expecting something on the scale of the Arch of Constantine, but it was at least three times the size. I did not go up top at this time. After the Arc we went to see the Eiffel Tower. We sat in a park across the river from for a while just basking in the view.

We split up at around 5, with Mattheus, the Chilean and I catching the Metro to Montmarte for another walking tour, although this one was not free. Our guide was again Spike, and Mel and Elvis were also on this tour. The tour took in the many sites in Montmarte including haunts of artists like Picasso, locations from the movie Amelie, the work of the space invader guy, the last vineyard in Paris, and of course the Sacre-Coeur, which was close to the end of the tour. After the end of the tour, Mel, Elvis, Mattheus and I went back to the Sacre-Coeur to see the night view of Paris which was pretty good. Then we had dinner at a fondue restaurant that served the drinks in baby bottles. It was a very good meal of meat fondue and cheese fondue.

200904237236.JPGMe in front of some metal contraption.
200904237262.JPGThe lovely tour guide Spike