Spain Roadtrip Part I: Madrid

Hola Amigos!

Ready for a really tardy party full of Spain pictures?! I’m sorry for my longer than usual absence. I can give you a whole list of excuses, but honestly, blogging hasn’t been flowing for me over the last couple months. My guilt caught up with me however, and here I am. Since my last post, we visited Oxford, hiked a stunning section of the Brecon Beacons in Southern Wales, spent more than a week in Spain with my parents, and I finally visited Chatsworth House with Connor’s cousin Elaine. I also hiked the Malvern Hills for a second time and found myself floating above the clouds. It was surreal. Instagram is the best place to keep up with these mini day/weekend adventures, especially Instagram Stories, so if you don’t follow me over there, hop to it!

Now for Madrid!

Streets

Connor and I spent a weekend in Madrid before my parents arrived. The city is very walkable and we had no trouble covering the central area in two days. We visited the Royal Palace on Saturday morning and absolutely loved it. The interior is stunning, but no photos are allowed beyond the entrance hall, so I have little to show for our time wandering the rooms. I tend to avoid historical interiors since they’re so often full of looping, recorded narratives and creepy manikins staged for “a day in the life.” Thankfully, this was not the situation at the Royal Palace. The rooms were beautiful and ornate, the number of chandeliers alone was incredible (maybe 100??), and now I feel the need to tour Buckingham Palace ASAP.

Palacio Real

Palacio Real

The Palace hosts art exhibitions from time to time and we caught the last day of a Caravaggio & Bernini exhibit. We also loved the armory (equestrian items were fabulous), room full of Stradivarius instruments, mini exhibits on Christopher Columbus/Ferdinand/Isabella.

We ate tapas, found a Spanish craft beer bar, visited a market, walked through El Retiro Park, visited the main cathedral, did a drive-by of the Prado, saw Plaza Mayor, and felt like we covered a good bit of ground. Unfortunately, because I’ve allowed this much time to pass since our trip, I don’t remember the names of the bars/restaurants/markets. Nothing was absolutely out of this world, though. Madrid was nice, but we both agree we would rather return to Barcelona and its ubiquitous olive stands. We didn’t see a single olive stand in Madrid! Only inside the markets where olives were 1 euro a piece. Crazy.

Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor
Palacio de Cristal
Palacio de Cristal in el Retiro Park. Built in 1887.
Fun Trees!!
Fun bubble trees
Catedral de la Almudena
The Cathedral. Santa MarĂ­a la Real de La Almudena

Sunday morning, my parents miraculously arrived at our Airbnb to pick us up. They rented a car, had Google Map directions printed out, and promptly got lost. After pulling up at various bus stops and trying to ask for directions (super fun when you don’t speak the language), they somehow ended up on the right street and Connor flagged them down. We spent the rest of the week in Avila, Toledo, and Seville (more on those in future posts), returning to Madrid on Saturday night so Connor could fly back to Birmingham in time for work on Monday. I stayed with my parents in Madrid until Tuesday morning and checked a few more things off the Madrid must-do list.

We visited the Prado Museum, one of the world’s largest art galleries with a great collection of European. As you would expect, they have a significant number of items by Spanish artists like Velazquez, El Greco, El Bosco, and Goya. The museum is free for the last couple hours in the evenings, so we waited in line and did a quick tour of some of the museum’s famous masterpieces. Our visit was more rushed than I would normally plan, but two hours in a museum is plenty when you’ve been walking for most of the day. Any time a museum offers free entry, I think it’s worth waiting in the line and saving the admission cost. It eliminates the pressure to stay and see every single thing to get your money’s worth. The Prado definitely has their system down because once they opened the doors for the free evening session, we were inside within 10 minutes.

Prado Museum
Prado Museum Entrance

We also visited the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum which is free on Mondays. It’s one of the largest private art collections in the world and contains items from time periods and countries not covered in the Prado. We spent half a day here perusing the Impressionists, Renaissance painters, and others, skipping some of the weird modern art rooms. Both museums were fantastic, but if you only have the time/desire/patience to visit one, definitely read about their collections and pick the one that interests you most.

A word of warning about free museum hours: tourists are not the only ones who take advantage of this. There were definitely fishy people wandering around in both museums paying more attention to visitors’ bags than the art. So keep an eye on your belongings and give the stink eye to anyone invading your personal space.

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My Dad and I in line for churros!

I made sure we stopped at Chocolateria San Gines for their churros con chocolate. This place has been serving only churros and chocolate for over 120 years. Sign. Me. UP. We waited in line. And then I choked and ordered 2 servings of this nonsense. For those of you who don’t know, I have a ridiculously insatiable sweet tooth and had to place myself on a cold turkey sugar fast earlier this year when I realized I was poisoning myself. Yes, poison. Puking, ruined day, skin issues… Just order one of these churro things, mmk? Share it with two other people and thank me later. I am literally still recovering from bad food decisions made on this trip.

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Death by chocolate at San Gines
Madrid with parents iPhone
My parents in the park

During a break in the rainy weather we also walked through some of the gardens and parks, spotted green parrot-like birds, and I actually talked to a man for about 5 minutes in Spanish. Truthfully, he asked me all the questions I knew how to answer. I’ve been listening to the Coffee Break Spanish podcast over the last year and it was like this stranger knew the script. I highly recommend that podcast if you want to learn/brush up on your Spanish skills. Far fewer people spoke English in Madrid than Barcelona, and I was really glad I spent so much time practicing. For the record, I only have one semester of Spanish under my belt, which I took senior year of college because I was bored, so even total novices would like that podcast.

Also for the record, being a foreigner and trying so hard to learn basic words and phrases to get by in all these foreign countries makes me appreciate the people and nations that are friendly and patient with their visitors. In my experience, two nations have serious work to do. One starts with A. The other starts with F.

And on that note, excuse me while I go put a bag over my head so no one asks me about the election today.

Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor

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Spain Roadtrip Part I: Madrid

Affording a European Adventure

View from our window
View from our Airbnb in a fancy Paris neighborhood

Without further ado, let’s talk about affording travel in Europe. Why? Because it often feels financially impossible or irresponsible to travel extensively, but I think some of the lessons Connor and I have learned may be helpful for other (non-millionaire) people who want to travel. Secondly, I want to dispel any myths that this stint is being paid for by someone other than yours truly + hubs (it’s not), or that we’re taking on debt in order to travel (over my dead body).

The biggest obstacle for Americans who want to see Europe is usually the price of airfare. The initial flight over can be a bear, but with more airlines dropping prices and introducing new routes, it’s getting a bit easier. If you want to take a trip abroad and haven’t added CondĂ© Nast Traveler to your Apple News app, I suggest you do so. They seem to announce a new $399 USA to Europe route every other week. Once you have that sorted, it’s up to you whether you hemorrhage money abroad or stay on par with your usual living expenses. We’re a one-income household at the moment and having no trouble making this affordable. Here’s how we’re doing it.

3 ways we afford travel

1. Planning & Researching

TripAdvisor is your friend. So is RyanAir. Once you’re in Europe, hopping a cheap flight to a new city is a piece of cake. European budget airlines generally charge more for checked luggage than your airfare, and their prices are pretty set, unlike flights in the States that are all over the place. Opt only for carry-on luggage (yes, seriously!), book in advance, and marvel at the number of flights you can get for under ÂŁ15. To be fair, we rarely have our act together that far in advance, but the cheap seats are there for the taking.

TripAdvisor user forums are loaded with sightseeing secrets that save you time, money, and aggravation. Many museums and touristy things offer free entry on certain days. In the UK, its better to avoid official visitor’s centers and parking lots that charge you for the convenience. Check out TripAdvisor for your destination and plan your trip around the advice in the forums. The restaurant reviews are also helpful, and we always seek out the tiny authentic places on side streets. The food is always tastier and more affordable than what you find on busy streets or the main square. In Rome we had dinner and a drink for the price of the drink. This stuff isn’t hard to find, you just need to look past your guidebook.

Finally, familiarize yourself with public transportation options and avoid taxis! Unless you need to be at the airport at 5am.

Barcelona
Tiny side streets in Barcelona. This is where you should be looking for your next meal!
2. Airbnb

Renting an apartment has changed the travel game for us. Why pay for a tiny, dark hotel bedroom when you can rent an entire apartment with living room, kitchen, and private terrace for less money? We can do laundry if needed (carry-on only, after all), shop at markets and make a few meals instead of eating out constantly, and experience local living. We’ve met some of the nicest people when picking up apartment keys. Imagine you’re in downtown Chicago and your hotel recommends deep dish pizza or Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse for dinner. Then imagine staying with a friend in the same city and experiencing their neighborhood’s non-touristy gems. You’d probably eat the best tacos of your life and end the night at a microbrewery. Which sounds more fun and authentic to you? Airbnb hosts are invaluable.

View from our Airbnb
View of the ocean and traditional Portuguese tiles on our private porch in the Algarve. Thank you, Airbnb.
3. Living Simply

We are not living a fancy life. Our travel memories and time together have made us feel richer than a Lord in a Manor House, and that’s what is important to us in this season of life. We’ve learned there’s quite a bit we can do without, and simplifying has opened up so many possibilities to see and experience new things. We’ve learned to focus on what we truly value and started to recognize what bogs us down. What can you cut out to make room for travel, new experiences, or whatever is next on the horizon?

Things we’ve eliminated include TV and cable, “I made it through the work day I deserve a reward” syndrome, and superfluous home decor items. Our Ikea collection is slowly but surely destroying my back and neck, but whatever. I shouldn’t be sitting at home often enough to care. I’m almost cured of the very contagious Michigan Avenue Shopping Flu. I no longer need moral support from Chick-Fil-A milkshakes and coffee just to get through the day. When your surroundings are simple and peaceful, you have less to worry about, are less tied down, and more free to get up and go. More sunsets, less Netflix, amiright?? And honestly, learning to live without helps prepare you for what you’ll experience in new countries. The American way of living is very cushy and full of conveniences, but in Europe…

So cut out some pointless expenses, take a look at flights to your dream destination, and start planning! I apologize in advance for the constant pop-ups on TripAdvisor.

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Affording a European Adventure

Unplugging in Portugal’s Algarve

After a hectic summer, I started to feel like I needed a vacation from myself. Have you ever experienced that? Like you need to get away from your habits and unconscious thought processes, turn your phone off, empty your brain, and just exist. My head is so filled with random travel information and my neurons haven’t figured out a proper way to file everything. Junk is just floating around up there. I needed to get away from technology and the (self-imposed) pressure to fully take advantage of our time abroad, and just go bliss out in the sun with a good book (not a guidebook). And so, with Hemingway and Amor Towles in my reading queue, Connor and I flew to Portugal to celebrate our 4th anniversary.

Quarteira iPhone

Straw sun shades

The Algarve is a popular destination for the sun-starved English, and we’d heard of the parties and clubbing and restaurants that specifically cater to British tourists. But where there is a sea, there is usually fishing, and somewhere there had to be a quiet fishing village full of locals, peace, and quiet. Normally, the west end of the Algarve would have been our obvious choice – rocky, rough, good hiking, surfing. But, we didn’t want to rent a car and the bus routes were unclear online. So we stayed in lovely Quarteira, just west of Faro, easily reachable by taxi from the airport. We swam in the ocean everyday, huddled under a sun umbrella with our books, ate breakfast on our balcony looking out at the water, and enjoyed amazing seafood. The town was super walkable, it was sunny everyday, and extremely hot. Also, Vinho Verde. Slightly sparkling, crisp and acidic, I’ve found my new favorite summer wine.

Quarteira from the water

Igreja de SĂŁo Pedro do Mar, Quarteira

PS – the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are my go-to sources for quick lessons on the wines of Europe. It’s detailed enough to satisfy my OCD need for all the information but not so detailed that I’m overwhelmed. If you’re horrified to learn this and want to point me toward a more oenophilic publication, be my guest.

One afternoon we wandered to the neighboring village and hopped on a sailboat that took us past Albufeira (party central, if you’re interested), aiming for the the hidden beaches and neon turquoise coves carved into the rocky cliffs. Talk about beautiful… the crew helped us into a little dingy and we zoomed in and out of caves, ducking our heads to avoid the low rocks and marveling at the colors. This was definitely a highlight of the trip and I was tempted to ask Connor if he wanted to do it again the next day. For only 18€ we had 3+ hours on a catamaran, fabulous views of the coast from the water, and little tours of sea caves. Kind of felt like stealing. It also felt like something that would be a lawsuit in the States – getting people in and out of those dingys and making sure no one was decapitated in the caves…

Quarteira iPhone

Yes, I bought myself a new hat in honor of our anniversary. That ratty old Marquette hat that I’ve been wearing everywhere is like a scarlet letter for American College Student. Connor’s anniversary gift was a bathing suit (“swimming costume” in England) since he apparently decided he wouldn’t be needing one in Europe and therefore didn’t pack one. Fun times looking for men’s bathing suits on Amazon UK. Brace yourself. Actually, don’t even go there. #scarredforlife

Quarteira iPhone

Quarteira iPhone

Quarteira iPhone

Quarteira iPhone

Overall, everything in Quarteira was very affordable. For under 50€, we had a feast of sardines, sea bass, acorn-fed pork from the Alentejo, an excellent bottle of wine, and bread. Sardines are popular in the area, and we’d see locals carrying big bags out of the fish market every morning, so naturally I had to try them. They were fantastic!

Quarteira iPhone

We spent a night in Faro before heading home and the city surprisingly empty. Almost everything was closed, including the Chapel of Bones church I wanted to see. It was Sunday so I’m not sure why this was the case. Perhaps it had something to do with the intense heat. Empty streets make for efficient wandering, so we saw quite a bit and then chatted with a nice man who owned a Portuguese craft beer shop. He introduced us to a few of his faves and that was that! It was the perfect unplugged getaway, especially since sightseeing material is sparse.

Old Castle and Cactus

Exploring Faro

The Portuguese were some of the friendliest people we’ve encountered and they made us feel so welcome. Hope to make it to Lisbon and Fatima someday!

Sunset

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Unplugging in Portugal’s Algarve

Paris & a Fab Way to See a Big City in a Weekend

Planning a short trip to a new and epic city is always a bit daunting. NYC, London, Rome… PARIS… I want to see as many of the iconic sites as possible, but also spend time away from tourists, mingling with the locals and experiencing their favorite corners of the busy streets. Finding this balance in a short trip is challenging, and my list of must-sees in Paris was much longer than I could tackle in 2 days. But we managed to see a lot for almost no money thanks to one simple decision. We rented bikes!!

iPhone Paris
Biking at the Louvre

Budget friendly, efficient, scenic… biking in Paris was so so fun!!

We used the bike sharing scheme called VĂ©lib’ which has more than 14k bicycles available for grab and go rides. A 24-hour pass for unlimited bike rentals was about €1.70. Crazy cheap! Type in your user code at one of the machines, pick out a bike, and it’s yours for free for the next 30 minutes. Every time you check out a bike, the first 30 minutes are free, and you can do this as many times as you want. We used VĂ©lib’ constantly and it was so simple and easy. It was also the only time we felt a breeze while in Paris. Try it and you’ll be amazed at all the ground you can cover!

iPhone Paris
Biking at the Louvre

We woke up very early on Saturday to see some of the big stuff before the other tourists were awake and swarming. Despite our lack of sleep, this was definitely a good choice. We biked along the Seine and stopped to return the bikes and wander whenever we saw something we wanted to check out. It was early enough that the sun hadn’t baked the city to a crisp and the only cars were delivery trucks and a few taxis. We visited Notre Dame, the Louvre & Jardin des Tuileries, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-ÉlysĂ©es and the Petit Palais all before lunch. The city is gorgeous and packed with fabulous buildings, and I know we biked by other significant things that in my ignorance I can’t name. We had second breakfast at a cafe, grabbed lunch to go, and enjoyed a midday siesta at our Airbnb. The joke’s on all those other tourists gritting it out in the sweltering sun, dodging elbows and dudes selling tchotchkes.

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Unknown Beautiful Building #1. I think it’s a library.
The Louvre
the Louvre
Eiffel Tower and Champ de Mars
Eiffel Tower from Champ de Mars
Arc de Triumph
Arc de Triomphe
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
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Louvre and Jardin des Tuileries

After a nap, another cup of coffee, and a shower, we went to Saturday evening Mass at Notre Dame. Confession: this was one of those “pinch me” moments that was so moving and overwhelming that I’m really at a loss for words. I had some kind of a “moment” and I should probably take some time to process whatever it is that went down, because I just couldn’t keep it together once we were inside the cathedral. It’s like I stepped through the door into a cloud of emotion that was completely unexpected and overwhelming in its intensity. I was not PMSing, drunk, or tired, thankyouverymuch. I just felt this profound sense of gratitude… for my life, faith, wonderful husband, the many eye opening experiences of the past year, my sister’s recent engagement, the fact that I was basically standing in the World Headquarters of Mary, Inc., and so much more. It’s like the realization of this crazy beautiful life I’m living hit me in the face. Each time I think back on that evening I can’t help but tear up all over again.

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In John XXIII Square before Mass
Inside Notre Dame
Interior of Notre Dame
Notre Dame
Notre Dame de Paris

So that happened. Then we had dinner on the Seine at a great place Connor found that was a secret little local hangout. It took forever to find, and was completely worth the trouble. We shared a table with another couple and enjoyed a mini jazz concert going on in the background. After dinner and some wandering we plunked down on the Seine like everyone else and feasted on wine, Camembert, apples and crackers.

Ready for our picnic
Picnic on the Seine
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Dusk

We ended the day with a walk back to Le Marais where we were staying (fab neighborhood, Jewish Quarter, straddles the 3rd and 4th arrondissements) and saw the glittering Eiffel Tower from a bridge. The little dude knows how to sparkle, let me tell you.

Sunday morning we walked around Place des Vosges, a beautiful little square around the corner from our apartment, also former home of Victor Hugo and a bunch of fancy Frenchmen whose names do not ring a bell.

Place des Vosges
Place des Vosges
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Place des Vosges

We biked over to MusĂ©e d’Orsay and guess what!? No line! Fun fact about me: I can’t stand lines. Or queues, as I’ve learned to call them. There are very few things that I consider worth queuing for. Museums and tourist things are generally no where close to being on that list.

Musee d'Orsay - Sunday morning adventure
MusĂ©e d’Orsay

I do, however, have a soft spot for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art so I’m glad my patience wasn’t tested that morning. (Before you feel sorry for Connor, he enjoys this genre, too. Also, he didn’t suggest any alternatives…) MusĂ©e d’Orsay has a really robust collection and to say we were impressed is an understatement. I’ve never seen so many Degas sculptures in one place in my life! And the Monets on display were so diverse. The more I check out the work of Impressionists in the cities we visit, the more I love them. (RE: the Louvre. I couldn’t spend half our trip in a single museum. Maybe next time.) We narrowed our museum options down to the MusĂ©e de l’Orangerie and the MusĂ©e d’Orsay. l’Orangerie is the smaller museum famous for the oval rooms designed by Monet and covered in his waterlily murals. I’d love to see that someday, too.

We visited some shops that afternoon including the legendary English bookstore Shakespeare and Co. that I think every English major has on her bucket list. The current store is a descendant of the one Sylvia Beach opened on Paris’ left bank that was a haven for writers and would-be-writers that closed during the Nazi occupation. The eccentric George Whitman opened the existing store that is now run by his daughter, Sylvia, and it continues the tradition of providing a home for Tumbleweeds in exchange for help at the store. I fully intended to purchase something here but they marked up the prices so drastically I couldn’t justify it. Instead, I bought a paintbrush from Charvin Arts. I hoped to make it to Sennelier where Picasso, CĂ©zanne, and others shopped for supplies, but again, next time!

iPhone Paris
Shakespeare and Co

We mostly wandered little streets for the rest of the day, ate macaroons, relaxed in some gardens, saw the Louvre one last time, and had a delicious dinner.

iPhone Paris
Sunset at the Louvre

Be forewarned if you visit Paris in August; you need to be flexible because August Closures are a real thing! But don’t avoid the city because of this. More than enough is open that you could stay busy for months!

Paris & a Fab Way to See a Big City in a Weekend

Quick Trip to Amsterdam

We spent less than 36 hours in Amsterdam and that was all it took for me to fall in love. Such an underrated city!! We didn’t visit the Red Light District nor did we smoke any weed, so let’s just get that out of the way. But while we’re on the topic, why do we only talk about Amsterdam’s Red Light District? That’s like ignoring the Rocky Mountains and judging the merits of Colorado solely on it’s marijuana laws. Crazy.

There is so much more to Amsterdam! I left feeling like I had found my peeps and that I would love to live there. Maybe my subconscious was picking up faint similarities between locals in Amsterdam and the Dutch back home in West Michigan. Entirely possible. I have no idea. Everyone was very friendly, English was widely spoken (without an ounce of resentment), and we never really found ourselves in a crowd of tourists. It felt very residential and neighborhoody, very relaxed. There is a casual atmosphere, but you also pick up on an entrepreneurial vibe. Streets are full of quirky independent shops, and the owners/makers staffing the store are the farthest thing from haughty. The women were stylish yet undoubtedly comfortable, and I envied them as I silently cursed my skinny jeans. Another bonus: with so many canals and houseboats, it seems like the majority of residents have waterfront property.

Connor and I spent a great afternoon wandering the old Jordaan neighborhood, popping in and out of little shops, visiting the cheese museum, and eating far too many delicious samples (truffle cheese omg). We sat outside on a canal patio at ‘t Smalle CafĂ© and later visited CafĂ© Gollum, two small places that we loved and wholeheartedly recommend. These “bruin cafĂ©s” or “brown cafĂ©s” are old, traditional, Dutch pubs named for the cozy wooden interiors. They’re the best places to go if you’re looking for a local crowd rather than other tourists. We walked by the beautiful Rijksmuseum, saw the IAmsterdam letters, and ordered a delicious takeout pizza before calling it a night.

Amsterdam
Exploring Amsterdam
t'Smalle Bruin Bar
‘t Smalle CafĂ©
Rijksmuseum
Rijksmuseum
I Amsterdam letters
E for Erin

The next day Connor had to work so I spent the morning visiting Rembrandt’s former home and studio, now the Rembrandthuis Museum. Seriously cool. Rembrandt lived and worked in this building from 1639-1656 and you can tour all the rooms, including his multiple studios. I knew very little about the famous painter, and had no idea he was known during his lifetime for his etchings rather than his paintings. Today it’s the opposite, and this museum has the largest collection of his etchings in the world. I watched a few demonstrations and learned about etching, which was used as a kind of print making process in the 17th century. They also had a really cool demonstration on pigments and the process of making oil paint during Rembrandt’s time. The museum has a sizable room devoted to Rembrandt’s collection: skulls, Greek and Roman busts, turtle shells, seashells, bones, feathers, coins, pottery, giant books, statues, weapons. Super cool. However, if you want to see more of his paintings you’re better off visiting the Rijksmuseum.

Rembrandt's Collection
Part of Rembrandt’s collection
Shelves in Rembrandt's House
Shelves in Rembrandthuis
Rembrandt's Large Studio
Rembrandt’s painting studio

That afternoon I wandered around the city checking out more shops and enjoying the canals before heading to the airport around dinner time.

Amsterdam iPhone
Beautiful buildings
Amsterdam
Sitting on the canal watching the boats go by
Amsterdam iPhone
Super cute shops
Amsterdam
Canals!

Not too shabby for only a day and a half! Things we pointedly skipped that we didn’t regret: big museums, canal cruise (since we did that in Bruges), walking tour (we didn’t want to go to the Red Light District), Dutch food (not that different from Belgium). If we had more time we would have rented bikes and seen more of the neighborhoods outside the central canal ring. Go to Amsterdam! Great place to spend a weekend!

 

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Quick Trip to Amsterdam

Climbing Kinder Scout from Edale

We overdid it a bit last week. Too much adventure. Too little rest. Not enough healthy food. And when I say “we” I mean me and Penny. Connor escaped unscathed.

A week ago Saturday we climbed (what we believe was) Kinder Scout, one of the highest peaks in the Peak District. Monday we left for Amsterdam. Flew back late Tuesday night. Picked up Penny from her doggie hotel on Wednesday morning. She immediately started barfing. I cleaned up dog puke all day. Friday we left Paris and hoped our dog would be alive when we returned. Great weekend in Paris – biking and walking all over the place and wearing ourselves out. Sunday night I felt a bit queasy – hot sun, too much bread and cheese, 40,000 steps in one day, not enough sleep. No surprise. Monday we woke up at the crack for our flight and I was not. well. I collapsed on the couch with the flu and have been here ever since, binge watching Netflix. Penny and I are both on the BRAT diet.

I’m a sprinter, not a marathoner. Endurance is not my strong point. I do things quickly and intensely and need ample recovery time. My adrenaline reserve was depleted before we even left for Amsterdam and my body just can’t handle it. Lesson learned. Also, many happy returns to the person who gave me the flu. Bastard.

So while Penny and I continue our pity party and finish whatever season of New Girl we’ve made it to, here are some pictures of Kinder Scout in the Peaks. Stay tuned next week for fun bits and bobs about Amsterdam and Paris.

Kinder Scout was gorgeous! The hike was incredible and the day was perfect, one of the warmest we’ve had yet. I could sit and look at the sprawling views all day. Purple heather was everywhere. Bliss.

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iPhone kinder scout hike

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Climbing Kinder Scout from Edale

5 Ways England Surprised Us

Monday marked the one year anniversary of our move to England. Craaazyyyyy!

We’ve been rather reflective lately, thinking back on the places visited and lessons learned, what we miss about America and which British customs we plan to bring home. Overall, we have been pleasantly surprised by many aspects of life in the UK. We both feel that the biggest surprise was Wales. We knew absolutely nothing about Wales before moving here, and it is gorgeous! Sparsely inhabited, very reachable from Birmingham, and an outdoor lover’s dream.

1. Walking TRAILS

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Despite her finicky and often unpredictable weather, England is a hiker’s heaven. The country maintains a vast network of trails that as far as I can tell, mainly traverse private property and farmland. There’s a distinct walkers etiquette and dutiful adherence to the “leave no trace” rule. The relationship between trusting landowner and respectful walker is impressive. Gates are closed to prevent livestock from wandering, I haven’t noticed any trash on the trails, nor have I seen signs discouraging walkers from approaching. On the contrary, roads are peppered with signs pointing out the public footpaths. Every region of the country is covered in beautiful trails. This leads me to my second surprising item…

2. Varied Topography

Durdle Door
Durdle Door, Jurassic Coast
Samphire Hoe, Dover
Samphire Hoe, Dover
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View from Orrest Head over Lake Windermere, Lake District

I had no idea the UK was so beautiful. I think I assumed England was a lot like Ireland, but the topography is significantly more varied here and thanks to those public footpaths, we have plenty of territory left to explore. Highlights from little mini trips over the last year include the cliffs and coves of North Devon, the Mediterranean looking Jurassic Coast with its fossils and rock formations, the white cliffs in Dover, the rolling dales in Yorkshire, the hills and lakes in the Lake District, peaks in the Peak District (also here) and flat golden fields in Norwich. There’s a saying “When you’re tired of London you’re tired of life,” a popular maxim that may be partially responsible for the fact that no one is talking about the other 95% of the country. And they should really talk about it more often! Visitors need to get out and see the rural areas, too!

3. Well-preserved and accessible history

England has done an astonishing job in this department. London has over 20 free and excellent museums alone (it could be 40… I’m not about to start counting). The English Heritage cares for over 400 historic buildings, monuments, and sites throughout the UK, and the National Trust cares for over 500. Think Downton Abbey when the family realized they could no longer afford the upkeep of such a grand estate. These trusts now care for tons of old manor homes and country houses, many of which still act as family residences. Because of these partnerships many magnificent buildings and iconic sites have been preserved. Both organizations offer year-long memberships at very affordable prices that grant you free access to all their sites. If you visit one place each month your membership is more than paid for.

Wollaton Hall
Wollaton Hall outside Nottingham. 1580s Elizabethan House. Also, Batman.
Warwick Castle
12th century Warwick Castle
An afternoon at Kedleston Hall near Derby, England
Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, from 1759
Coughton Court
Coughton Court from 1530
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York Minster Cathedral
Allerton Castle
Allerton Castle, Yorkshire, from 1843

Aside from these grand buildings and iconic sites (like Stonehenge – English Heritage), individual villages, towns, and their many churches are well-cared for. Conservation and repair is taken seriously. The British Geological Survey formed in 1839 is responsible for identifying and archiving the more than 1,000 different stones used in buildings throughout the country. The geological diversity has become very apparent as we’ve explored different corners of the country. We’ve seen the famous Cotswold stone, a type of limestone that yellows with age; highly textured buildings and walls in the county of Norwich made of pebbles and cobbles; the blue shale-like stones in Wales, and so many others. I love that the British focus on conservation over tearing down and modernizing. Yes, this means country roads are ridiculously narrow because the towns were created before cars were even thought of. So what. If we weren’t forced to slow down, we would miss the gorgeous little villages.

One final thought: The Blue Plaque project that started in London and expanded from there is one of my favorite little history nuggets. Buildings that housed notable people are given a circular blue plaque to commemorate the moment. It’s a fun little treasure hunt. I stumbled upon Graham Greene’s house in the Cotswolds, the building where Guy Fawkes was born in York, and there’s one on our church in Birmingham where John Henry Cardinal Newman lived. Tolkien also lived in the Oratory rectory for years after his mother passed away, and I’m sure there’s a plaque hiding somewhere on the premises.

4. Extremely Dog Friendly

Outside London, you can basically bring your dog anywhere and apologize in surprise if reprimanded. Pubs generally admit dogs, especially if you’re somewhere in the countryside. There’s no such thing as a pub needing a permit to have a patio and then a second permit to admit dogs on the patio, which can never be granted if your patio/beer garden doesn’t have a separate entrance than the entrance serving the main part of the building. Good grief. People here just do what they want. Chicago, are you listening?

5. Amusing Names of Cities and Pubs

Apparently the early British settlers who moved to America had little to no sense of humor. They named their new towns after the ones back in England, but didn’t choose any of the good ones! I expected Cambridge, York, Boston, etc. But where in America is Little Snoring and Great Snoring? What about Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter? Stow-on-the-Wold, Giggleswick, Lickey End, Broadbottom, Bootle, Upton Snodsbury, Blubber Houses, Kirby Grindalythe… Bitchfield… pan around England on Google Maps for awhile. City names are fabulously creative.

Pubs are equally fascinating. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. The Prince of Wales Feathers. Also, every town has either The Kings Head, The Queens Head, The Kings Arms, or The Queens Arms. Or, if they’re being creative, they’ll make it The Dukes Head.

Love it.

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5 Ways England Surprised Us

4 Days in Western Ireland

Months ago, our friends Andrew and Melanie invited us to spend a day or two with them while they honeymooned on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. Naturally, we jumped at the chance to see them! We added a couple extra days to the trip so we could see the Cliffs of Moher and maybe a town or two, leaving our itinerary open so we could be spontaneous.

We drove from Dublin to Limerick and pulled into our Airbnb well after midnight. Our hostess’ name was Sadhbh (love it) and she could not have been more welcoming. She must have said “grand” twenty five times in the span of five minutes. We were sorry to crash and dash since she was so kind, but we wanted to make it to the Cliffs of Moher the next day before lunchtime. A failed study-abroad experience in Ireland taught me that if you look out the window and see a dry Ireland, get your butt moving because it won’t last until your next meal. I think its the only place with weather more miserable than England. Which must be why they paint all their buildings in bright, cheerful colors.

Colorful Dingle

We did a drive-by of Limerick’s city center along the River Shannon, saw King James’ Castle, and grabbed coffees and a smoothie from Arabica Coffee Co. on Shannon Street. We highly recommend this place if you’re a coffee lover and find yourself in Limerick! Then we hit the cliffs.

Major travel tip: you can easily avoid the crowds and ridiculous per person “entrance” fee to the cliffs viewing area by parking somewhere other than the official Cliffs of Moher welcome center. We parked at a farm south of the official entrance for 2 euro and then had a glorious hike along the entire south arm of the cliffs. This was the best weather we had for the entire trip, and the views were stunning. If you’re traveling with children, be aware that there are no fences or guard rails. You can get as close as you dare to the edge…

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Visiting the Cliffs of Moher

Visiting the Cliffs of Moher

Visiting the Cliffs of Moher

Western Ireland iPhone

On the way to Dingle that afternoon, we accidentally took the scenic route through Conor Pass, a twisty narrow road up and down a mountain, not really wide enough for two-way traffic. The fog was so thick that we couldn’t see beyond the car in front of us, but the few glimpses we caught of the mountain were breathtaking. And so begins my repetitive narrative about our time in Dingle. I’m sure it was all beautiful, but we couldn’t see a thing.

Western Ireland iPhone

We had a great dinner in town that evening with our friends and the next day the four of us drove around the peninsula to see some ancient sites and ruins. Half of these were not worth the entrance fee, but to be fair, if the weather was nicer, I’m sure each site would have provided beautiful views of the sea and countryside. If you plan to do this driving tour in bad weather, skip the hill fort and random stone piles and opt instead for the largely intact structures like the Gallarus Oratory…

Gallarus Oratory

Kilmalkedar Church (ruins with cemetery)…

Church door

and Fahan Beehive Huts…

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Each site has a little Irish boy sitting in a booth or playing with his dog ready to collect 2-3 euro per person before sending you through to the sites.

Connor and I stayed in a perfect little flat on a sheep farm 2 miles outside of Dingle Town owned by a woman from Missouri and her Irish husband. Their Airbnb listing mentions:

We are farmers, so we are early to bed and early to rise. The apartment is directly over our bedroom, so if your lifestyle means you don’t know night from day then booking our accommodation might not be suitable… for you or for us.

Noted! Combined with the little signs of scary leprechauns sprinkled throughout the flat reminding visitors to remove shoes, turn off lights, unplug computers, etc we decided our hosts were either grumpy or funny. Later, Jan invited us to a drop in music session at a pub where she would be playing. She asked if we played instruments and said we could borrow some of hers! Naturally, I pressured Connor to seize the day. Playing in a pub in the motherland with a bunch of long lost kin!!! DO IT! Eventually he agreed. So what if it was actually bluegrass music, and the guitar was out of tune… Jan was our new favorite person.

Western Ireland iPhone

When we left Dingle we decided to drive the Ring of Kerry before heading to our next Airbnb on another farm outside of Killarney. Once again, the fog prevented us from seeing anything. We had 1.5 moments of clarity, and here are the pictures to prove it.

Driving the Ring of Kerry

Western Ireland iPhone

I’m actually surprised how many decent photos we ended up with from this trip. It was rainy and foggy every day except the morning at the cliffs. Too wet and foggy to hike. Fishing charters were cancelled. To sum it up:

Western Ireland iPhone

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4 Days in Western Ireland

Doyles Take England: Devon and Exmoor National Park

So this post is a day late… sorry about that. We’re leaving for Ireland this evening and I spent more time yesterday preparing for our trip than I anticipated. SO without further ado, let’s talk about Devon! After lunch in Bath we continued driving south to the county of Devon where we stayed for the next three nights. Devon has coastline in both the north and the south, touching both the Bristol Channel and the English Channel. We stayed in a small town called Lynton in the northern part of the county, very close to Somerset, with views over the Bristol Channel. Exmoor National Park is in North Devon, and we planned to explore that area during our stay. The cliffs and coast on the way into Lynton were beautiful!

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The town was quiet and sleepy, no tour buses or crowds, and we loved it! Our B&B served us a wonderful breakfast each morning and the rooms looked out over the sea (2nd picture below is the view from our room).

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After a full English breakfast our first morning in Devon, we drove to Mortehoe and tackled an 8 mile hike on the Southwest Coast Path. The weather continued to cooperate and we had intermittent sun, and this section of the 630 mile long trail was stunningly beautiful. Around every corner was another perfect view, and the colors of the flowers, cliffs, and sea changed constantly as the sun moved in and out of the clouds. As usual, I took way too many pictures, but someday I’ll be happy I have all these. Probably. Hopefully. Maybe not…

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This was our view on the non-sea side. I could barely take my eyes off the water so most of our photos are of the sea.

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Connor and I walked down to this secluded beach at one point and soaked our feet in the cool water. We were probably 6 or 7 miles into the hike at this point, and the water felt so amazing. Penny despises swimming, and we’ve thrown her in enough times that she won’t get much closer to the water than in the below picture.

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As usual we saw some sheep who were totally indifferent to our presence. We also saw a couple seals bobbing in and out of the waves. We were pretty high up so the pictures didn’t turn out well.

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Below, Penny and I are standing on Morte Point, almost at the end of the hike.

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The village in the distance is our final destination! You can see Connor and Dave up ahead if you look closely. Can you imagine living in a little village like this, walking your dog on the Southwest Coast Path each morning?!

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That evening, we had dinner at a tapas restaurant in town and I have to say I was impressed. I didn’t expect a little village this far off the beaten path to have Spanish cuisine, and in general I don’t expect restaurant food to be very good. No offense to you lovely English! You have done a fabulous job embracing your flaws (I assume this is why you have so many terrible fish and chip shops)… you do you. And I will continue to seek out ethnic cuisine.

Day 2

After breakfast (we all opted to forego the full English this time…) we set off for another day of hiking and exploring. Our planned hike was shorter, with more amazing views, but potentially a bit treacherous. The book we were using as a guide didn’t make it sound too bad, and they definitely didn’t use the word “treacherous,” so we gave it a go. It started off innocently enough… and then all of a sudden we realized that Penny was covered in ticks. We had walked through a section of woods and she must have discovered a nes. I had never seen ticks so small in my life… some were no larger than a sesame seed. Others were normal sized… ugh, I was terrified she was going to get limes disease. We must have picked 20 or so off her. Crisis averted, we continued on.

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So, innocent enough hike, and then the cliffs became progressively steeper and the path narrower…

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And then fog started rolling in…

…and I decided this was ultimately a bad day to die. So we took the next path toward the village, through the farms and countryside, and Connor’s contact rolled up into his head. Never a dull moment.

I do think this hike would have been terrific if we had fresh legs and weren’t toting a little dog with us. You never know when she’s going to get squirmy or freak out or smell a sheep and make a bid for freedom.

That evening we took an old cliff tram down the hill into Lynmouth, the town directly below Lynton at sea level. The train/tram is a hydraulic system that opened in 1890. It uses sea water to transport passengers up and down the cliff and it seemed to be in really great condition.

We had dinner in Lynmouth and met a couple and their dog who were sitting at a table next to us. Because I have no sense of decency I asked them if they have trouble with ticks. The couple, bless them, were very kind and we chatted about ticks and walking in England and they told me about special tick tweezers that we should look into. Before we left, the man tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a sleeve of said tick tweezers. He had run out to his truck to fetch a spare set for us. Isn’t that the nicest thing?!

Fun story: these came in handy a week or so later when Connor thought he had a tick on his shoulder. I dutifully got the tweezers, Googled how to use them, and braced myself for whatever was about to happen next. I’m twisting the damn instrument, pinching the “tick” and twisting, and all of a sudden it explodes. It was a blood blister. I almost barfed.

So anyway, the next morning, Connor and I did a short hike before we needed to say goodbye to Lynton, and we met a bunch of silly little goats! There were a bunch of little baby goats, and one of them was sleeping on a rock on the cliff. As I watched, he tumbled off his perch, poor little dude.

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We had a really great time in Devon but had plans to see Hamlet that evening, so we left before lunch!

I’ll post about the rest of our adventure late next week when we’re back from Ireland!

Doyles Take England: Devon and Exmoor National Park

Doyles Take England: Bath and Stratford-Upon-Avon

After leaving the Cotswolds, we made a quick stop in Bath to stretch our legs, have lunch, and check out the ancient city. We barely scratched the surface and I hope we make it back to Bath sometime soon. The highlight of this visit was simply enjoying the gorgeous 18th century Georgian architecture, the Bath Abbey, and the river. We had another gorgeous day so we were able to wander the little streets without needing to worry about ducking inside.

Next time, I would love to tour the old Roman bathhouse – the best preserved in the world – and have tea at the Pump Room. Also, Jane Austen lived in the city for a few years and as her biggest fan, it would be irresponsible not to visit some of her old stomping grounds and the Jane Austen Centre!

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The Bath Abbey and Park
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Roman Baths on the left
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The River Avon, St. Michael’s Steeple, Pulteney Bridge, and the Guildhall Dome
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Picnic lunch under this tree
Dave and Penny

From Bath, we continued south to the county of Devon and the little town, Lynton, that would be our base for the next three nights. However, I’m skipping ahead to the 4th leg of our trip since three days in Devon warrants a separate post. After Devon, we stopped in Shakespeare’s hometown for dinner and a play before continuing on to Birmingham. Stratford-Upon-Avon is such a cute town and the Royal Shakespeare Company is absolutely phenomenal. Connor and I saw a play in Stratford last autumn, and we were anxious to see this year’s production of Hamlet that had received glowing reviews.

If you are in England and you haven’t had a chance to see this show, do yourself a favor and GO BUY TICKETS! It is such a fresh and modern take on the classic, and so much more enjoyable than you can even imagine. Graffiti, African drums, a helicopter entrance… this is FUN Shakespeare! A quick glance around the theatre proves this better than any glowing review — students pack the upper levels, all on the edge of their seats, no one is texting or goofing around. I’m jealous that these kids are growing up in an environment that makes Shakespeare so fun and accessible. The lines aren’t changed, by the way. You still need to pay attention so you don’t miss anything. Finally, I can’t say enough about Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet… he was exceptional. Energetic, charismatic, and convincing. Just fabulous. I don’t envy the next Hamlet who has to follow Essiedu’s performance.

Technically, you’re not supposed to take pictures, but here you go.

Seeing Hamlet at RSC in Stratford Upon Avon

Before the play, we took a boat ride down the River Avon – a nice way to escape the crowds.

Seeing Hamlet at RSC in Stratford Upon Avon

Check back tomorrow for our hiking adventures in Devon!

Doyles Take England: Bath and Stratford-Upon-Avon