Windsor Castle

Today, our last full day in England, we decided to take a short trip to see the Queen. Admittedly she wasn’t home, but we did the day in Windsor anyway.

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Windsor is a pretty impressive castle and it is hard, to an American at least, envisioning anyone actually living there. The gardens are too perfectly manicured

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The lawns are too well laid out

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We wandered the outside and took in the views

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20130731-211356.jpg then wandered through the state rooms (where no photography was allowed). We also went through St. George’s Chapel, which would have been impressive except we were in St. Paul’s yesterday.

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It was a nice visit, and we even managed to see a small changing of the guard.

20130731-211728.jpg For our last day, it was wonderful. Back home tomorrow and I am more than ready to see my furry babies.

Stairs, Steps and Getting Around London

While living in Italy when Bob’s Dad was stationed there, his parents did a lot of traveling around the continent, but they never made it to England and never saw London. So the four of us headed into the city for an overnight trip. We didn’t have a lot planned, but figured we could still do quite a bit. Bob and I may have (as we usually do) underestimated the length of the walk to the hotel, but it provided some great views of Hyde Park.

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The hotel itself was gorgeous.

20130731-062104.jpg An old building with a beautiful facade and the charm continued inside where the history of the building was respected.

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20130731-062258.jpg Long, winding halls, heavy fire doors and windows that, if not original, kept the architecture in mind when determining how to keep the elements out.

We started our visit with a Hop on Hop off tour to get an overview of the city. The bus is not the most efficient way to travel in London, but the views are pretty great.

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Bob’s parents also wanted to do the river cruise that was part of the bus tour. We made sure to find seats with lots of air flow and headed down the Thames.

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We got off at the Tower of London with the intention of touring that mildly historic (please oh please tell me my dry humor came through there) place. However, we would only have an hour and that isn’t enough to really see it and none of us wanted to be rushed. So we settled for a few pictures of the views

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20130731-063159.jpg and hopped back on the bus to get more of an overview of the city. We rested up a little before heading back out to visit Harrod’s.

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The first time we went to London we visited Harrod’s. I have never felt the compulsion go back as it was/is a very large, very sectioned, very closed feeling store. By that, I mean it is an entire city block and very, very few windows. To be fair it was almost Christmas that time and the crowds were crushing. This time we took the tube to Harrod’s about an hour before it closed. Just to wander a little.

20130731-063657.jpg We found a chocolate and confection room,

20130731-063737.jpg a cheese and prepared foods room and the fine jewelry and watches room. Made for a much more pleasant experience and a far less anxiety provoking one. Pretty sure if I checked the price on the earrings I fell in lust with I would have had a panic attack, but we will just dream that they were in my price range.

The next day we decided to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral then head back to Brad and Emmie’s. We were going to take the tube, but decided to take the Hop on bus again so the parents could continue seeing the city. The bus was great, but traffic was not. It ended up taking us far longer than anticipated (about three hours) but once we got there, it was well worth it.

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You can’t take pictures in the Cathedral but if you climb the steps up to the dome (376 of them) to the Stone gallery, you can get some great pictures of London.

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I decided my legs would not make it up the additional hundred something steps to the top of the dome, so I didn’t get pictures from all sides. And it was a rainy, gray day, so the views were a touch obstructed by fog. Bob and the parents decided to make the climb also, although I do wish they could have taken the lift, at least down, but they all made the entire climb (excluding the final tower) with the stairs. Given the sheer number and the spiral staircases, I was pretty impressed – it is not an easy climb.

After St. Paul’s we headed back to Brad and Emmie’s. Emmie made special arrangements for dinner so we could celebrate Bob and Brad’s parent’s 50th wedding anniversary.

20130731-065153.jpg We could not have asked for a better place to celebrate. The Crown has a great, family friendly atmosphere with world class food. The old building is charming and the gardens are beautiful. Pretty sure the steak here made up for the one Bob’s Dad had in Paris (where ‘medium rare’ was more like very well done).

It was a fun, but exhausting two days. I’m pretty sure we tackled over a thousand stairs and more than a few miles of walking. In the end, however, it was worth it. We have some great memories of these two days.

Brussels and Ghent

So when this little vacation adventure was in it’s early planning stages, Bob and I discussed where we might want to go for a side trip. Last year we headed to Edinburgh since it is very close (relatively speaking) to Brad and Emmie and probably my favorite city (possible exception of DC) in the world. This year we decided on Brussels. Actually we decided on Belgium for the chocolate and beer and made Brussels our home base. We did a lot of searching for exactly what we wanted to do before we ever left the states and came up with three things – a specific bar for Bob (2400 beers should mean he has plenty to choose from) a chocolate shop for me (174,000 tons of chocolate processed in Belgium each year, I should be able to find something I like) and maybe see Parliament or visit the museum there. We also decided on a side trip to Ghent (or Gent depending on the map you are looking at) where I picked out a museum and a church I wanted to see.

So how did we do? We made it to Brussels with no problems what-so-ever. We found the hotel on Bob’s map app on his phone and hiked our way there … Only to find that is was the wrong hotel (right name, wrong location). Apparently this happens a lot at this hotel and it was pretty funny after we recovered from the walk. Happened to us since we try to walk just about everywhere. 1.2 miles … No problem. 80 NYC blocks, sure. But the front desk was very helpful, found us a cab and made sure the driver knew where we were going.

Once we had relaxed a bit, we headed back out to the city. First stop – shoes without backs for me. I would be fine walking all over the place with shoes with no backs (blisters you know) so that was a priority. Second Bob insisted we find the chocolate shop I had read about and was so excited to try. It was a little off the path, but still easy to find. What we found was a beautiful shop that smelled exactly like every childhood dream of a chocolate shop and had a very warm staff and amazing chocolate. The shop had a great little menu that gave us a chance to taste a little of the chocolate before deciding how much to buy. Not if, but how much. So we each did a tea over ice and split something called Oliver’s brownie. (See picture above) I can safely say this was the best brownie I have ever tasted and I think I have to give up my quest for the perfect brownie recipe. I will never be able to recreate this brownie and it is sad because it was amazing. Yes, Mom, I shared with Bob but only because I love him so much. I could have easily eaten two of those all by myself. We picked up a large box of assorted chocolates

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After the chocolate (and before I could eat the entire shop) we went to find Bob a bar I had read about. Delirium is one of Bob’s favorite beers and so when I found a bar in Brussels we had to go. We found a little table in the outdoor area – which is really just the alley, but it works.

20130728-154739.jpg We grabbed one of the only empty tables in the area, near the back

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20130728-155146.jpg. It is just a little statue that “pees” into the fountain base. We didn’t understand but decided just to go for with it and not question too much. However, for people watching, we lucked out onto the perfect spot across from that statue.

Saturday we decided to sleep in a little then head to Ghent. This means I missed my museum of Parliament but that’s ok. Outside the train station at Ghent we noticed something

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Bikes. Tons and tons of bikes just lined up as though in a car park in the U.S. Not a bad thing at all, just unexpected and a little unusual to us.

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Ghent is beautiful and we walked to the old city where we discovered a festival going on (turns out it is the annual music festival). There were stages set up, tents set up and it was a little difficult to figure out where to go and where specific things were because of all of the people. It didn’t help that everything (and I do mean everything) was in, I’m guessing Flemish or Dutch. It wasn’t French and I didn’t see English anywhere. This made getting lunch rather interesting. We found a great little place right on the river.

20130728-174331.jpg Lunch proved an interesting experience. Ghent is in the Flemish portion of Belgium which means everything is written in, I think, Dutch. It could be Flemish or German, but I’m pretty sure it was Dutch. Neither Bob nor I speak, read, understand or comprehend Dutch at all. So when the menu was totally in Dutch I panicked just a little. Given that I can’t have fish, I was a little nervous. Bob settled on the lunch special (salmon, steak and ice cream). I made out “vegetarian” in one section of the menu and picked a ravioli dish. Turns out, it was incredible. Cheese ravioli with roasted veggies and a basil olive oil sauce.

After lunch we wandered, looking for the church or town hall museum. We found neither, but we did find a castle.

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This turned out to be the “Castle of the Count” of Flanders. It was a smaller castle than some, but well preserved and really interesting – although I know I missed some stuff not being able to read Dutch. The torture room was really interesting if somewhat disturbing. Ok very disturbing, but still interesting.

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The views more than made up for the disturbing torture instruments.

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After the castle we wandered a little more, enjoyed the town, got more chocolate the headed back to Brussels.

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We had dinner in a little square near the hotel, which is across from Parliament. It was so cool just to see the building, listen to all the languages around us and each other for the evening. It was a great way to end our time on the continent.

Paris

So this is my fourth start on this post. The Internet at the hotels in both Paris and Brussels did not cooperate and I lost each draft before I could upload it. So to the best of my memory …

We set out for Paris Thursday morning. Brad drove to the Chunnel where we took the car and all of us across into France. From there, Bob drove us to Paris. We did stop at the prettiest rest stop I think I’ve ever seen.

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Bob managed not only to drive to Paris, he (successfully) drove a British minivan (with six people in it) through the streets of Paris, dodging Paris rush hour traffic. He didn’t hit anyone or anything – not so much as a curb. I was so proud of him. We drove to the hotel, passing by a small tourist attraction

20130728-140216.jpg. Since we were only in Paris overnight, we had two things really on our list – dinner and the Eiffel Tower. We started with dinner at an outdoor cafe, right on the corner for optimal people watching. I know everyone talks about the rude French service in Paris, but we didn’t find that at all. Not only was the waiter very helpful with accommodating us, he also had a group of cigar smokers (who were drinking only) move because the smoke was bothering us so much (we were right next to them and downwind to boot). So we had a great time, just sitting and drinking and eating and watching everyone go by.

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20130728-141329.jpg. The highlight of our meal came when the food came out. I had a lovely salad with Parma ham and cheese.

20130728-141429.jpg Bob’s mom ordered what she thought was steak … It was just not what she was expecting.

20130728-141523.jpg The look on her face when she saw the dsh was priceless (or as Emmie put it “rare” and filled with “raw emotion”). Bob kindly traded his veal for her steak tartar, so in the end everyone was happy.

We wandered to the Eiffel Tower after dinner where Bob, Brad, Logan and I decided to go up. We made it to the second level and got two pictures in

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20130728-142533.jpg. We did head to the too if the tower, but it was way too crowded to get any good shots and in all honestly, Paris does not have a skyline like New York where you can distinguish buildings; and from that high up, I’m not sure if you could anyway. So the best views are from the main level and not the top.

Once we got down, the sun had set and we were able to get some great shots of the tower.

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Paris was never high on my list to visit. I don’t have anything against it, but Edinburgh, Lisbon, Brussels, etc. have always been higher. Bob swore I would like Paris more than I thought I would and he was right. I’m not totally in love with the city (too crowded for me) but I would have no hesitation about going back. Between the food, the wine and the coffee I was a happy girl.

We hit the highlights of Notre Dame in the morning before Bob and I headed to Brussels. It was impressive, but I think I was spoiled by the Cathedral at Sienna. Nice but too crowded to really enjoy.

Hanging Out in England

After the big travel day yesterday, we stayed close to home today. We started out with an awesome breakfast at Toad Hall, a local garden centre. We wandered through the roses and fountains and all the plantings for the perfect English Garden. It reminded me a lot of what I grew in Jersey and made me a little wistful for my garden there. We did also discover the building in the back

20130724-203754.jpg was an old water tower. That was my first guess with a granary a second guess. After breakfast we headed to Asda (aka British Walmart) just to let the parents experience it. And no Val, we did not get more kitty treats.

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We just had a quiet afternoon at home today.

20130724-204205.jpg and then we headed to my favorite pub for dinner, The Dog & Badger. I still contend they have the best hamburgers.

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It is just a very cute, old pub with great food and truly excellent service. We had a ball.

Oh – and a few pictures Bob took yesterday on their walk.

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So tomorrow we are headed to France. Wish us luck as my French is horrible! (And I think I have the best French of the bunch!)

Back In The U.K. (Again)

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We are back – in Britain, that is. We packed our bags, gathered up Bob’s parents and headed out. There are a few things about this trip that make it special. Obviously we have Bob’s parents with us; they have never been to England so that makes this special. It is the first time they have seen Brad, Emmie and Logan since they moved, and it is a longer trip than we usually make – 10 days this time. … Oh, and we flew First/Business class.

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When I started searching, I found most of the tickets pretty much the same price – expensive. It is high season for travel, so I didn’t think I’d find many deals. But, one Saturday morning in February I found First Class tickets – both ways – for what I was seeing coach tickets for. So, I texted Brad and Emmie and made Bob call his parents and we got the tickets … And it happens that these two weeks Logan is out of school – and so am I! So here we are. After a week of Emmie and I counting down hours, after the travel and getting from Heathrow, here we are. Relaxing and enjoying the British country side on our first day in England,

I was skeptical about how much different first class would be than coach, but let me relay a few stories to illustrate the difference. We checked in, no problem. We checked our bags, no problem, we got through security no problem and made our way to the club lounge where we wanted to wait. No two minutes after sitting down the gentleman who checked us in at the lounge came over and told us there were ground delays for flights to Atlanta and he was afraid we would miss our connection to London. He could book us on the earlier flight and transfer our checked bags, but that leg would, not be first class. Would we like that. Hmm … First class with a very good chance of missing the next flight or an hour or so trip in coach. (We weren’t stupid and took the flight change.) we were rebooked, bags moved and seated in one row in the economy plus area for the first flight. Had we been flying coach. We would have missed the London flight as no one would have said anything.

My second story. I don’t sleep on planes, I just can’t do it. So, around 3am (Eastern) everyone else was sleeping and I was reading. I drank Bob’s bottle of water (he was sleeping so I feel no guilt for this), finished it and put it aside. Within five minutes that bottle was gone and a new bottle was left in its place. Nothing was said, no fuss was made. It was just done. When I finished that bottle right before breakfast it was also quickly replaced.

And yes, even though I cannot sleep on a plane (even with a seat that folds flat and a really comfy blanket) it was so much better than flying coach. I didn’t worry about waking Bob (or anyone else) up, I didn’t fret about standing or walking around a bit and I was pretty comfortable reading my way across the Atlantic.

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So here we are … hanging out with family, enjoying the country side and just relaxing. I sent Bob on a walk with the camera, so hopefully I can add some of those pictures tomorrow in addition to whatever adventure we decide to have. I can’t wait!

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Tomato, Zucchini and Chickpea Stew over Polenta

Bob gave me go ahead to add more vegetarian dishes into the rotation after the falafel success and the butternut squash spring rolls. Poor man, doesn’t know exactly what he is in for. Such as … today’s experiment – a variation on a vegan dish from my vegan cookbook.

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The original recipe calls for multiple red peppers and eggplant. I don’t happen to like eggplant and Bob does not like bell peppers of most varieties, so this proved challenge number one. Well, I had some leftover orange and yellow pepper and a little red pepper, so I just used those. (This is still clean out and use of what is in the fridge week since we leave next week meals.) I also used zucchini as I like zucchini in place of the eggplant. So I roasted those with some olive oil and roasted a few cloves of garlic. I admit to getting confused on the recipe – it told me to roast the whole bulb, but then only calls for three cloves. While that was roasting, I sautéed some onion in a little olive oil then added spices. I think I used thyme, oregano (from the garden) coriander and pepper. To that went some white wine to deglaze the pan and a can of peeled tomatoes (juice included) that I crushed up as I added them. Add two bay leaves, the chickpeas and the peppers, garlic and zucchini; let simmer for a while. Sorry, I didn’t time this, I really just added, stirred, tasted and added again over the course of an hour or so. I thought it needed more liquid at one point, so I added a half cup of veggie broth.

20130717-173354.jpg That did seem to work well and the result as pretty good. I still have an issue with the texture of chickpeas (and beans in general) but I swear I must be doing something wrong since they don’t have that texture in the dishes I eat out (mainly the Indian place that opened up here). But I’ll keep at it until I get it right.

I did make this a non-vegan (but totally vegetarian meal) as I added a goat cheese polenta to the dish. It worked pretty well and is a make again with a few tweaks.

… Oh – the library is done and it came out great!

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I figure Bob will get a meat dish tomorrow. I’m cooking for our anniversary as we will celebrate while in Europe next week. (So excited!)

Gratuitous kitty picture ….

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He is just too darn cute.