Back to the USA

It’s actually been a bit over a month now since we have been back in the USA. I only thought we went non-stop while in Europe! We’ve been a whirl-wind of “doing” for the past 30 days. I’ve come to realize that it’s the transitions that take so much energy. That was true in our travels and remains true now.

From Dublin to Western Massachusetts – We had a great flight from Dublin to Baltimore with one stop in Boston. Apparently pretty much every plane that leaves Ireland headed for the US lands in Boston (as we also learned pretty much every one in Dublin has a relative in Boston or so we were told.) We flew through the Boston airport the day after the marathon and it was full of runners and supporters. It was inspiring to see how joyous the entire region seemed to be. And what joy there was after the previous years’ bombing. After an uneventful flight to Baltimore we called the hotel shuttle, checked in and went to bed. Another long day of travel.

The next day we took a taxi to the office of Seabridge International. They were the freight forwarding company we hired to ship our camper and truck back to the US. We had to pay them for dock fees and import fees and then we were on our way to the port to get the camper. We had been told that our truck had a flat tire and that we would need to take care of it before we could drive it. This added another layer of stress to our plans as it’s a big truck and next to impossible for just one of us to change the tire without help. Only one of us was allowed to enter the dock area to retrieve the truck so we were in a bit of a quandary. Turns out that the folks we worked with at Seabridge had called the garage on the port and made arrangements for them to take off the tire, fix the flat and put it back on. Yeah! Not strangers this time but the kindness of people continued to accompany us on our trip.

In the United States there is a level of security in place at all of the ports so in order to enter a port you must have a security clearance which we don’t have. In order for us to get our truck we had to hire an escort with the security clearance to take us to the truck so that’s where we went next. I stayed at their office with both kids and our luggage while Kay went to the port to get the truck. After about 2.5 hours she returned to get us, we did a thorough visual inspection of our truck and camper to make sure there was no damage and then we were on our way. From what we could tell we had not had any items stolen from the truck or the camper either. I’ve heard stories of all sorts of items getting stolen but we did not experience that either coming or going. The dock workers only had keys to access our truck and we only had safety equipment in our truck. We were never told to give them keys to the camper so they had no reason – or way – to enter it. We were told that we could not have any personal items in the camper or truck but from what I could see, they never inspect the rig to see if that is the case. I suspect they tell you that because they won’t cover the loss of any personal items. They never even inspected our propane tanks to make sure they were empty.

By now it was about 12:30 pm, too late to make it to Massachusetts in one day. We drove for a bit, got gas (Woo Hoo!!! Only $3.69/gallon – quite the pleasant change after paying European prices), grabbed some lunch and hit the road again. We only went as far as southern New Jersey and pulled into our first American campground in over 11 months. Boy was it different. We could easily pull into the entrance without stressing over whether or not we would fit, we were able to fill our propane tanks right there at the campground, we had a pull-through site which we truly just drove straight into and parked, we just had to plug-in one outlet, we had water right on the site, and we could dump right there as well. We even had cable t.v.! Very different and so easy. Kay and I did a grocery store run (which was also really easy as I could read the labels and find the specific items we were looking for.) And then found a bank so we could get a bit of American money as we knew we had lots of toll roads ahead of us. We did some unpacking of basics (dishes, cookware, towels), had a good night sleep and were on our way the next morning.

Noah helps us unpack from our storage area under our bed.

Noah helps us unpack from our storage area under our bed.

Last year when we drove the camper from Massachusetts to Baltimore to ship it to Europe, we routed ourselves so we did not have to go through New York City. That felt like the right thing to do even if it did add about 4 hours to our drive. After 10 months of driving this rig through the streets of Europe and even taking it through downtown Zürich, we decided we didn’t need to add those hours to our trip. We drove right through New York City with no problems. Interstate 95 was the most direct route so on we went. On the other side of New York we had to contend with the major construction work being done to I-95 though Connecticut but oh well. It was still relatively easy driving with big lanes, signs we could read and understand and wide shoulders. After about 7 hours we pulled into a campground in Westhampton, Massachusetts, not far from our old home. We would spend two weeks here visiting with friends and family, getting our belongings out of storage, doctor appointments, hair appointments and making arrangements for our next big trip  - our move out west to Oregon. For now we were readjusting to life back in the United States. The biggest difference – everything was just so much easier, not better mind you, but definitely easier.

 

A Few More Days in Dublin

The newsroom at RTE.

The newsroom at RTE.

Our time in Ireland was quickly running out. We had several more days to enjoy the Irish hospitality and Dublin. What to do? What to do? We spent some time almost every day visiting with our friend from Ireland. She invited us to her house to meet her friends and cooked a great meal for all of us. It was great fun meeting friends’ of a friend of ours. We had lengthy conversations about the differences in Ireland and the US, the economy, the workplace, time off amounts, and just life in general. The differences in time off in the workplace seemed to be very dramatic. They couldn’t imagine not having 4-5 weeks of holiday a year – don’t you lose productivity by working so much? What a concept! It was especially fun for us to see our friend Aishling in her grown-up world. We met her when she was 19 years old and now she’s well, not 19 (but that was 20 years ago.) She invited us to her workplace to give us the grand tour. She works for the Irish national television station and we got the full backstage tour. We called it a career day for the kids. Aishling is a news producer at the station and we got to watch the mid-day news report and see how they do it all. Very hectic! She took us on a tour through lots of the different sets and we came across the daily filming of an Irish soap opera. Some big Irish soap star was filming but we didn’t know any of them. I was kindly asked to not take pictures!

The hiking trail around Howth.

The hiking trail around Howth.

On Aishling’s advice we spent a day hiking Howth. The city of Dublin is shaped like a big letter “C”. We were staying on the bottom part of the “C” and Howth is the top part of the “C”. It is a non-developed area with seaside cliffs, a lighthouse, seals, birds and relatively easy hiking trails. We took the DART to the last stop and just started walking. It’s a lovely little seaside town with a big harbor lined with restaurants and shops. We walked right past all of that and headed out to the cliff walk. They have a very well-marked trail system; we followed the green trail. From the harbor you walk up a pretty steep trail head but once you are at the top it’s all level trails or some with a slight elevation. The trail gives you great views out to the sea where you can watch the ferries coming into Ireland. We kept our eyes open for seals and spotted one in the water that was having something to eat. There were tons of sea birds and you could see their nests built into the cliffs. And after we hiked round the point we had a nice view of Dublin and the inner port. You felt like you were miles from civilization but really you are very close. The trail we walked was a circle trail that took us back into the little town of Howth and back to the train station.

Madison makes a pretty mean Black Widow!

Madison makes a pretty mean Black Widow!

While taking the trains and buses around Dublin we saw posters for Dublin ComicCon. Madison is a big fan girl of all things comics (mostly the Marvel universe) and she loves cosplay. We looked into the details of the convention and found it to be pretty reasonable and not at all far from where we were staying. Madison was psyched to go but needed a costume. We went shopping in downtown Dublin looking for accessories to make an appropriate costume. You really can’t go to a Con if you’re not in a costume. She found black leggings and a black shirt, a long red wig, and fake bullets. All she needed to put together a Black Widow costume and she did a great job with it. I took her one Saturday morning to the convention center and we hung out there all day. Basically there is a large vendor room where you can buy t-shirts, comic books, bobble head dolls, buttons, all types of merchandise with your favorite comic book hero featured. We negotiated spending money and she spent every bit of it. She met people who were dressed as other Marvel agents from the Avengers and took lots of pictures. I’ve taken her to several cons before and she has such a great time at them just as she did at this one.

Look what the Easter bunny brought!

Look what the Easter bunny brought!

Our last weekend in Dublin was Easter weekend. We didn’t make a big deal out of it but we did seek out and find Kinder eggs. Those are the egg-shaped chocolate balls with a surprise toy inside. Apparently they are sold all over the world except for the US (the little toys inside may be a choking hazard and clearly we Americans cannot take enough care to make sure we don’t swallow them.) We saw an advertisement for limited edition Marvel Kinder Eggs for Easter and had to have them. So basically our Easter included eating 12 Kinder Eggs and I cooked a ham. They don’t dye Easter Eggs in Ireland so we didn’t do that. I did read that there were several Easter Egg hunts taking place but with the kids now being 14 they had no interest in that.

We spent our last day in Ireland doing laundry and packing up. It was made a bit more complicated by the fact that the hot water heater in the rental apartment stopped working and they had to get a repairman out to take care of it but that was all taken care of in time for us to shower before we left the next morning. We took the airport express bus to the airport the next morning, checked in, went through security not once, not twice, but three times (I still don’t understand that), went through customs and waited a bit to board our plane home. We’re all both excited to be heading back to the US and a bit sad that our time in Europe has come to a close. But, our next adventure awaits us in the US!

Watch that cliff edge!

Watch that cliff edge! Noah was really in no mood to hike that day. 

Rental Car – Day 2

Kilkenny Castle

Kilkenny Castle

We had one more day with the rental car and wanted to make the most of it. We really considered driving to the dingle or the Cliffs of Moher or anywhere on the western coast of Ireland but we really thought that would be a bit too much driving for the day. We had to have the car back by 6 pm and couldn’t bring ourselves to leave the house before 8 am. On the advise of our Irish friend we headed to Kilkenny, and when I say “we”, I mean Kay and me. The kids really didn’t want another driving day and opted to chill back at the apartment.

Kilkenny was an easy 1.5 hour drive from Dublin on the motorways. If it were about 15 years ago we would have been driving on tiny roads in questionable condition but after the economic boom years of the Celtic Tiger this was a brand new motorway. Easy-peasy. Kilkenny is an old medieval city which houses Kilkenny Castle, several other lovely buildings and a cobblestone medieval quarter. Kay and I found the castle and walked through the grounds.

Just some of the parks surrounding the castle.

Just some of the parks surrounding the castle.

It was lovely, perfectly manicured rose gardens and an extensive park surrounding the castle. We opted not to tour the castle but did duck into the guest quarters to watch a movie on the history and restoration. I thought it was quite clever how the management of the castle was and over by the tourism commission in order to ensure its upkeep and that it provides tourism dollars for the local community. My favorite part of the castle though was the stables. Was it wrong to like that more than the castle? They had renovated the street level stables into artisan galleries and local cafes. The entire stable area wrapped around to form almost a circle and the interior was a nice, quiet green space. We walked through the stables and hidden behind it was another park with sculpted greenery and fountains. I love what you can find when you get off the main road!

The stables at Kilkenny Castle.

The stables at Kilkenny Castle.

From the castle it was a short walk to the medieval quarter. We found a place for lunch and then strolled through the quarter. Not that we needed to buy anything but it was getting close to Easter and we were on the hunt for local Easter candy. After some time in the quarter we decided to head back to the car and go on a search for a glass blower artisan we had read about. The drive was gorgeous! We meandered the back roads through tiny Irish villages. All the green you ever thought Ireland was – it is! Pretty streams, hills, pastures and sheep everywhere. We finally found the glass blower down an even tinyer road that led us back to a local farm. We were warmly greeted by the resident dog who promptly brought us a stick to throw even though he refused to give it up to me. We shopped the store but didn’t find anything that we had to absolutely have so we continued on our drive.

The river running through Kilkenny.

The river running through Kilkenny.

We headed now to Waterford in search of the Waterford factory. We didn’t have any directions and ended up not having any success finding it but really enjoyed the countryside. From Waterford we drove to Wexford on the water and then took the back roads through the Wicklow Mountains and back to Don Laoghaire to return the car. It ended up being quite a bit of driving but without the children we have the freedom to just wander and go wherever we please. It was a nice day out for Kay and me. We did a quick grocery store run before we returned the car and made it back to the rental place on time. We did see lots and lots of places where the name begins with the letters “Kil” – I thought they killed a lot of things around here when actually the three letters KIL mean church. Almost everything in Ireland is connected to the church one way or the other.

The lovely Irish countryside.

The lovely Irish countryside.

Northern Ireland

A close up of the basalt hexagons at the Giant's Causeway.

A close up of the basalt hexagons at the Giant’s Causeway.

We were ready to venture outside of Dublin for a bit. We rented a car, decided who would be the driver (me!) and planned a few days of driving. Turns out driving on the wrong side of the road wasn’t that difficult. What was strange was that the driver seat is on the wrong side of the car which means you have to use your left hand for shifting. That was strange but I was successful. And only once did I almost go down the wrong side of the road – almost. So where to? North to visit the Giant’s Causeway, the Carrick-a-Rede bridge and possibly Belfast. It’s a lot for one day but I was optimistic. We left the apartment about 8 am and wound our way through rush hour traffic in Dublin. Not too bad actually. I had one biker get mad at me and pound on my window while we were at a stop light. I didn’t do anything, I promise, just was a little too close to him for comfort. And I have a great deal of respect for bikers but he was a bit sensitive if you ask me.  It was a pretty easy drive to northern Ireland. If it wasn’t for the welcome sign and the signs to tell you they measure speed in miles/hour and use the pound, you’d never know you were in Northern Ireland.

That's Noah at the top of a bunch of basalt columns.

That’s Noah at the top of a bunch of basalt columns.

The Giant’s Causeway is a beautiful area on the rocky northern coast. There are dramatic high bluffs, wind swept grasslands and glorious views. The highlight is the rocky area made up of basalt columns. It used to be a lava pool which got covered with water and when the lava cooled down it broke into almost perfect hexagon shaped columns. There are over 40,000 columns! Some of them are very short and some are almost 40 feet tall. I had read lots about them but when you first see them it’s just a huge “WOW”. I have never seen anything like them in my travels.

A view looking down on the tall columns of Giant's Causeway.

A view looking down on the tall columns of Giant’s Causeway.

You can walk all over the columns and get up close and eye-level with them. Matter of fact, you can get almost any view of them you want. And we did. We spent a couple of hours climbing up and down columns and seeing all there was to see of them. We also hiked the cliff-side trail to see even more.  You could only go so far on the trail because it is an active seascape area and had a recent rock-slide which shut down parts of the trail. The views were amazing. There is one section of the area called the Giant’s Organ – the columns look like a pipe organ.

The area is riddled with myths and stories of the Giant. Apparently the Irish giant and the Scottish giant were going to have a fight and the Irish giant threw down these foot stones so he wouldn’t get his feet wet. Something like that. We like the myths but really loved the geology of the area.

The rope bridge leading to Rocky Island. None of us died crossing it.

The rope bridge leading to Rocky Island. None of us died crossing it.

From there it was just a short drive to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. This rope bridge connects the main land to a small island, Rocky Island. In the past it was used by fisherman for salmon fishing but now is a tourist spot. It’s a fun, mildly thrilling walk over a 30 meter deep chasm. Just enough to make you a bit nervous but not scared. The kids kept thinking about the Indiana Jones movie where Indy is on a rope bridge that gets cut and everyone falls hundreds of feet. They chickened out crossing it but Kay and I happily crossed over to hike the little island and enjoy the views. A fun little outing.

The road of trees!

The road of trees!

From there we did one minor detour to drive through a tree-lined road we had read about. The trees were planted several hundred years ago and form a complete canopy covering the road when the leaves are open. No leaves while we were there but still lovely.

By now everyone was pretty tired and we all vetoed a quick stop in Belfast. It was about a 3 hour drive back to the apartment where we all fell into bed and rested up for the next day of outings. Way Cool Outing Today!

For my Kentucky friends and family....

For my Kentucky friends and family….

Lots and lots and lots of columns.

Lots and lots and lots of columns.

Coastline shadows.

Coastline shadows.

The lovely shoreline of Northern Ireland.

The lovely shoreline of Northern Ireland.

 

Exploring Dublin

A view of Dublin. See the arch in the distance? That's the harp bridge.

A view of Dublin. See the arch in the distance? That’s the harp bridge.

It’s kinda low-key in Dublin, at least it was for us. We’re not the party til dawn crowd so we never sought that out. Hanging out for about two weeks in Dublin gave us the chance to tour it on our own schedule. We took a day and wandered the downtown area. While Dublin is a good-sized city, the downtown is pretty compact and where many of the major sites are located. So what did we do in Dublin?

 

The Spire and the GPO.

The Spire and the GPO.

Browsed Henry Street – a big shopping area. We went into small funky stores and big department stores. We were on the hunt for costume components as Madison was going to attend Dublin Comic Con and needed to put together a costume. Nothing introduces you to a new city like shopping for costume wigs on the side streets of downtown. Probably the most bizarre store we found was a store selling wigs/hair extensions/fresh fish. Yes, fish. But they gave us a great deal on a wig for her costume so sold it was. We did spend quite a bit of time in their big department store called Pennys. Not the J.C. Penneys of America but a different Pennys. Lots of trendy clothes at fantastic prices and Madison found an entire section of Marvel themed clothing (think Incredible Hulk, Captain America etc.) She loved it and we didn’t mind because of the prices.

 

The Ha'penny Bridge

The Ha’penny Bridge

Walked the riverfront – Dublin is intersected by the river Liffey. We learned that the Vikings sailed right up the river and established what is now modern-day Dublin. You can cross the river using one of many bridges. There are pedestrian bridges, vehicle bridges and bridges that accommodate both. I read there are 24 bridges in total. It’s always busy along the waterfront. Lots and lots of pedestrians traversing from one side to the other. And many buses, taxis, cars, and trucks. A cacophony of sounds but a fun place to be nonetheless. And some of the bridges are very pretty. The Samuel Beckett bridge looks like an Irish harp.

Admired the Spire of Dublin aka the Millennium Spire or the Monument of Light. It’s a large stainless steel, pin-like tower at the head of Henry Street. It became a good landmark for us because it is so visible from many places along the river. It’s almost 400 feet high! The Spire is located right by the GPO, which we learned is the General Post Office. Everyone referred to it so we finally asked what GPO meant. The GPO is an important place in Irish history as it was used as the headquarters of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. You can still see bullet holes in the building.

An actual restaurant in Dublin. We were told it had good food but we never got around to trying it.

An actual restaurant in Dublin. We were told it had good food but we never got around to trying it.

Walked through Temple Bar area, which is not an actual bar, it’s a neighborhood section of Dublin. And yes, probably the most touristy area. It’s a combination of small, medieval type streets, winding and stretching through the area and ending in a wide-open pedestrian area. The pedestrian shopping area looked quite similar to many other shopping streets we had visited throughout Europe; the same name brands and same outlets. I’m not a fan of the homogenization of cities throughout the world. Really! Do you need 4 Starbucks in a 2 mile radius?

We took a timeout and explored St. Stephens Green, one of the lovely parks scattered throughout Dublin. Dublin had some great weather recently and the sun and warmth has encouraged the flowers to start blooming. The park was full of flower beds in full bloom. There is a large pond with ducks, geese, and seagulls all on the lookout for food. Several interesting fountains and statues. I love how being in a park in the city dampens the noise from the surrounding area.

One of the bog men in the National Museum

One of the bog men in the National Museum

Visited the National Museum of Archaeology. Dublin has 3 or 4 National Museums and all of them are free. Just what I like. We visited the archaeology one and learned about the history of the Vikings and Ireland, saw many beautiful gold artifacts including a large chalice and large pieces of jewelry, the remains of a super-important book which I can’t remember why it was important, and bog people. Ireland is covered in bogs and bogs have a natural ability for preservation. Throughout the years, the Irish have learned to harvest the bog and use it as a heating source. When they dig into it and harvest it they often found remains of earlier people. The museum had amazing displays of clothing, tools, leather, and some very well-preserved remains of humans. I didn’t know much about bogs and found it fascinating.

I was feeling like we didn’t do much while we were in Dublin but it turns out we did!

AAAHHHH - Spring!

AAAHHHH – Spring!

 

Hanging out in the park trying to feed one lone duck who insisted on staying in the fountain, not the pond.

Hanging out in the park trying to feed one lone duck who insisted on staying in the fountain, not the pond.

A gold cross found in the bogs.

A gold cross found in the bogs.

 

Last Stop – Ireland!

Our first sight of Ireland from the ferry.  Later on we hiked this area.

Our first sight of Ireland from the ferry. Later on we hiked this area.

After our brief stay in Cardiff we were off to Ireland. It was another use-every-form-of-public-transport-possible day. Left the hotel in a taxi, got on the train for about 2.5 hours, transferred to another train for another 2 hour ride, then a short bus ride to the ferry, a 3.5 hour ferry ride to Ireland and finally a taxi to our flat. When you start really working on how to get from one location to the next it can get complicated and expensive. This time instead of going Mega Bus we started our research at the ferry site because we knew that was a definite mode of travel for us en route to Ireland (although we did even check air fares but quickly found that was not inexpensive.) On the ferry website I found a link to the rail company which offered special fares when you booked both your rail travel and ferry travel together. It ended up costing us right at 100 Euros for all of us to travel from Cardiff to Dublin – not bad.

AAAAaaahhhhh Ireland!

AAAAaaahhhhh Ireland!

With our camper on the boat sailing back to the states, we were down to our last 2.5 weeks on our trip and winding it all down in Ireland. We have a dear friend who lives in Dublin, Aishling, and we were looking forward to spending time with her just hanging out and visiting. But… my tourist mode really kicked in because I realized this was the last of our trip and I was working on creating a jam-packed whirl wind trip in and around all of Ireland when Kay got wind of my plans and talked me down. We really needed to plan for some down time for the kids and, more importantly, Kay and I had a fair amount of organizing work we needed to do to prepare for our return home. A whirl wind tour of Ireland was not conducive to that so we rethought our strategy. We decided to rent a flat in Dublin for our entire stay and we would do day trips from there. That did mean we would not see all of Ireland there is to see but I had to be okay with that – which I was.

A view of downtown Dublin. Everything is defined by it's location to the river.

A view of downtown Dublin. Everything is defined by it’s location to the river.

The flat we rented was in the Monkstown section of Dublin, a little south of town, a little ways away from the noise and bustle of Temple Bar and all the tourists. It turned out to be the perfect location for us. The bus stop was directly in front of our flat, the DART (the regional commuter train) was just a 5 minute walk down the street, we could walk to a small market and it was quiet. After our street front stay in London we were ready for some peace and quiet. After we arrived and got settled in our friend came over for a quick visit and to take us to the big grocery store to stock up on supplies. It was great having a local chauffeur! Our first day or two we mostly hung out and visited. Aishling took us for a lovely walk along the seashore in Dún Laoghaire where we partook in ice cream from Teddy’s, a local ice cream establishment that we had to go to, and happily did. She helped us get the lay of the land so we knew where we were and how to get other places. 

Some of the more modern section of the gaol. If it looks familiar it's because they have filmed several movies here.

Some of the more modern section of the gaol. If it looks familiar it’s because they have filmed several movies here.

We met up with her one morning in Dublin to visit Kilmainham Gaol. This is a historic jail built in 1780′s and used up until the 1920′s and is now a museum. When it was built it created a reformation of the prison system and was a state-of-the-art facility. Until that time prisoners had always been kept in communal spaces and it was kind of an every man for himself mentality. This prison included separate rooms for prisoners and created some of the systems still used today in modern prisons. (I’m not saying any of this is good or lovely – just sharing what I learned.) And, through the years this prison housed many prisoners of historical importance to Ireland beginning with Henry McCracken in 1798 and continuing through 1924 with the release of Eamon de Valera who would later become the President of Ireland. The Gaol has a very interesting history as does Ireland. We spent time on our own looking at the exhibits and reading about the history and evolution of the jail and it’s population. Then we took an hour tour through the jail led by a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. Ireland struggled for independence from the UK for centuries and most of the times the struggle was not successful. When we were visiting Ireland the President was on the first ever official state visit to Britain. It was a big deal! The history is still pretty fresh and it received a tremendous amount of news coverage.

Some of the old parts of the jail. This is where executions were carried out.

Some of the old parts of the jail. This is where executions were carried out.

Visiting the Gaol was a great starting point for our visit to Ireland. We began to understand the modern history of Ireland which puts the country into context for us. Learning about the country we visit helps us to understand that it’s not just a tourist attraction – it’s a place where people struggle and fight for their independence and work to make a better life for themselves and their children.

The 1916 uprising was the action that finally succeeded in Ireland winning their Independence.

The 1916 uprising was the action that finally succeeded in Ireland winning their Independence.

Some of the cells were open for you to enter and explore.

Some of the cells were open for you to enter and explore.

 

 

Cardiff, Wales

Goodbye London!

Goodbye London!

After eight days in London it was time to move on. We enjoyed living in the English language world again even if we spoke American and not English (as one Englishman reminded us!) The ease of reading directions and ingredients and the ease of mostly understanding what someone was saying to us was nice. Definitely something we have missed. We had another travel day, train to the bus station then took the Mega Bus to Cardiff then taxi to our hotel. Our original plans had us traveling the UK for a month or so and exploring on our own but with the camper on the boat headed back to the US we were dependent on public transportation and hotels which eats up money very quickly. So we were off for two nights in Cardiff, Wales and then onto Ireland. Why Cardiff? It’s got a lovely waterfront and I could make up other reasons but the truth is we were going to the Doctor Who Experience. Yes, more tv show locations to track down.

The Roald Dahl Plass in Cardiff.

The Roald Dahl Plass in Cardiff.

We learned that the BBC has a major filming studio in Cardiff because it can look like London and it’s much cheaper to film there. It’s really cool – the main harbor area is really pretty – and the entrance to Torchwood is right smack in the middle of it. Torchwood is another British sci-fi thriller which is quite a bit darker than Doctor Who but stars one of our favorite Doctor Who characters – Captain Jack Harkness! The entrance to Torchwood is located under the Roald Dahl Plass public plaza. It is a big, open space facing the sea lined with illuminated pillars with a beautiful metallic column at the end that is a fountain. All of this is just outside of the Wales Millennium center, a very modern building I believe used for concerts and performances. In the area surrounding this is a modern shopping center, Mermaid Quay and a lovely old building housing the history museum. It’s a great juxtaposition of buildings and landscapes. By the way, Roald Dahl was the much-beloved children’s author who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach as well as writing screenplays and being somewhat of an inventor and advocate.  Interesting man, interesting life.

Noah with his sonic screwdriver standing in front of the Torchwood entrance!

Noah with his sonic screwdriver standing in front of the Torchwood entrance!

In Cardiff we also discovered the Doctor Who Experience. It is an interactive exhibit, museum and store. During the first part of your experience you are invited in to a small movie theater which suddenly thrusts you into an episode of Doctor Who. You become part of the team that needs to rescue the Doctor, he has been locked away in the Pandorica and we need to rescue him. It takes about 1/2 hour to go through that part of the experience. All the while Matt Smith is talking to you on television screens and imploring us for help. You go through sets where you have to drive the Tardis, you escape from Daleks, outrun Weeping Angels and yes, Cyberman. They do a good job with special effects so you get a sense of really being there (yes, I  know it’s a tv show). All-in-all, it was great fun! Of course we succeed in rescuing the Doctor and then we get to go explore the large warehouse of props and costumes and sets which ultimately deposit you in their gift shop. That seems appropriate as Matt Smith kept calling us a sub-species of humans, “Shoppers”!

A fun exhibit of the costumes from every Doctor!

A fun exhibit of the costumes from every Doctor!

We spent an hour or so wandering through the exhibits. They had one Dalek that was open in the back and you could go in and maneuver him which Noah loved. Noah also participated in every opportunity to walk like a cyberman or walk like a scarecrow from one of the episodes. It was all silly fun.

After all that time travel we were starving so we mosied over to the Mermaid Quay to find a place to eat. They had a tacky American diner there and I insisted we eat there even though most of my family protested. Turns out it was the diner they used in the Doctor Who episode, The Impossible Astronaut, and we sat where Matt Smith and the gang hung out. I had been redeemed in my choice of restaurants. After a 1950-American-diner-meal we wandered around the quay a bit more and then headed back to our hotel.

The waterfront in Cardiff has lots of great outdoor art - not just Doctor Who or Torchwood either.

The waterfront in Cardiff has lots of great outdoor art – not just Doctor Who or Torchwood either.

Cardiff has a great castle and some interesting looking museums but there was no convincing anyone of joining me on a visit to them. We chilled at the hotel in the late afternoon and prepared to move on for our next leg. This was just a quick visit to see a different city in the UK and to really, truly, get our fill of Doctor Who.

A partial view of the plaza with the Millennium center in the background.

A partial view of the plaza with the Millennium center in the background.

We were holding on for dear life!

We were holding on for dear life!

There is a fun TARDIS outside hovering over the water.

There is a fun TARDIS outside hovering over the water.

Yes, we drove the TARDIS!

Yes, we drove the TARDIS!

Exploring Greenwich

The Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

The Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

So what else to do in London? Still lots but with one of us sick we did spend some time laying low. That, and London is expensive. We had to prioritize what we still wanted to do and focus on that. We knew we wanted to take some to explore Greenwich, the area where we sere staying. We walked from our flat to Greenwich Park, home to the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian Line. Basically, where time begins. It is the oldest Royal Park in London and has been enclosed since 1427. The park is huge, we walked through it admiring the grounds, the flowers, the view and the people. It was a lovely weekend day and people were everywhere having picnics and children playing everywhere. We almost got run over by two kids on scooters building up speed on the hills. Much of the park cascades up and down hills affording sweeping views of the Thames and London.

Just some of the astronomical equipment in the gardens of the astronomy.

Astronomical equipment in the gardens.

At the top of the park is the Royal Observatory. The location has been used as a scientific research facility of some sort since 1674. The Prime Meridian was introduced in 1851 and from then on, time was measured from there. (Don’t quote me on the specifics – I’m not totally clear on how the prime meridian contributes to the measurement of time but people assure me it does). Anyway, the actual line is marked out in the courtyard and you can stand with one foot in each hemisphere, except that they charge you for that luxury. We stood outside the courtyard and saw it which worked for us. We did walk around the grounds and admire the remains of large telescopes and other astronomical equipment scattered around the lovely grounds.

 

 

Noah at the Royal Observatory

Noah at the Royal Observatory

I did find this explanation, “Greenwich Mean Time is so named as it was the average observed solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, and then became the global standard for time around the world, everyone’s time zone measured as to how it departed from Greenwich. It also was given the longitude of zero degrees. It is for all intents and purposes, the center of time and space.”

From there it was an easy walk along the ridge of the hill to the duck ponds, the rose gardens and the deer enclosure. The duck pond was no where near as interesting as the duck pond around Buckingham Palace but it was fun to watch folks feeding all the creatures. Peanuts seem to be a popular treat for the squirrels. In the corner of the park is a large enclosure for a small herd of deer. Deer have been in the park since before it was enclosed.

The deer before he lost his single antler.

The deer before he lost his single antler.

We watched the herd running around, seemingly away from a large stag. The stag only had one antler but clearly was in charge. As we watched we saw the stag kinda antagonizing other male deer and then, all of a sudden, his one remaining antler fell off. This seemed to really confuse this stag. He stumbled about and had an almost quizzical look on his face. It was so interesting to watch.

The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich

The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich

We also walked down to the Old Royal Naval College located on the Thames. This was a movie filming location for Thor The Dark World. The final battle in the movie happens here and tracking down filming locations was a priority on our London itinerary. Everything about the area is lovely – it’s right on the river, the old buildings are stunning, and the open courtyards are very inviting. We should have actually spent time exploring the college and learning about it but I couldn’t talk the kids into that. The closest we came to learning was walking down on the Thames Barrier and reading about how it is the largest flood barriers in the world. Greenwich looked to have some great shops, museums and the waterfront – lots more to do if you are up to it.

A view of the Thames from the Greenwich shore.

A view of the Thames from the Greenwich shore.

Just one of the gates at The Old Royal Naval College.

Just one of the gates at The Old Royal Naval College.

The Doctor Who Shop!

The Doctor Who Shop in London.

The Doctor Who Shop in London.

 

Anyone need a head?

Anyone need a head?

The kids had waited the entire trip for this and now it was finally time. Time for the Doctor Who Shop! We found it on line and figured out how to get there and made a day of it. It did take us about an hour to get there. First we took the train into London Bridge station then took the underground for a few stops and hopped onto the regional train for a bit of a ride out to the Upton Park Station. From there it was about a ten-minute walk through the neighborhood until we finally arrived.

Noah saw it first – he saw a TARDIS and a blue building. And then we entered. Doctor Who everything. It was very cool. They had a full-sized Dalek, a TARDIS, 6 or 7 Cyberman heads and more merchandise than you can even begin to imagine. Collector’s items, t-shirts, Fez hats, photographs, costumes, cardboard standups, adipose plushy dolls, keychains, tea pots, magnets, and even a sonic screwdriver pizza cutter. We spent way too much time there just browsing and looking. The kids anguished over what to buy and took forever to settle in on a decision but finally did. Everything was grossly overpriced but this was their big spending spree (we did talk Madison out of spending almost 350 pounds on a collector’s item gun prop). After settling the bill we entered their museum.

Noah was handed the keys to the TARDIS!

Noah was handed the keys to the TARDIS!

You enter through the TARDIS (nice touch). It’s a small museum (although bigger on the inside) with a collection of props, costumes and scripts. It was really fun. The collection included items from both classic Who and new Who. We recognized lots of items and oohed and aahed at all the appropriate items. We finally pulled ourselves out of the store and headed back to our flat. By now the Paris-cooties had settled into Madison and all she wanted to do was go back to the flat and go to bed.

I did really like that the store was way out from the center of London. The neighborhood was quite gritty. And it was Saturday so folks were just out and about, running errands, living their lives. We passed markets and food stands and just watched the people doing their thing. On our way back to the train station we passed a garbage can that had been set on fire which made us a little nervous – didn’t know if it was going to explode or not. Certainly not the tourist areas of London. But hey, where else was I going to get my Sonic Screwdriver pizza cutter!

Anything you could want.

Anything you could want.

Noah looks his nemesis directly in the eye.

Noah looks his nemesis directly in the eye.

Props from the show. This is from one of Noah's favorite episodes. Are you my mummy?

Props from the show. This is from one of Noah’s favorite episodes. Are you my mummy?

They sold almost everything Doctor Who.

They sold almost everything Doctor Who.

 

The Guards and The Eye

Buckingham Palace - a view from the park.

Buckingham Palace – a view from the park.

Lots of people mulling about after the changing of the guards. They just wouldn't get out of my way!

Lots of people mulling about after the changing of the guards. They just wouldn’t get out of my way!

The Changing of the Guards is just something every visitor to London is supposed to go and see.  We had seen the changing of the guards in Athens, Greece and we saw guards at the palaces in Monaco and the Vatican so by now we had a high bar set for us. The changing of the guards in Greece was very elaborate with all their high-stepping Monty-Python-esque walking and the hundreds of pleats in those skirts – Britain is going to have to work hard to beat that. It took us longer to get to Buckingham palace than we had planned mostly due to underground stations being closed because of construction work. We did finally make it there but the ceremony had already started. We’re still not in high season yet for tourism but the crowd was one of the biggest crowds we’d run into probably since Christmas time in Rome. Needless to say, we couldn’t get close to the fence so we really couldn’t see much of the ceremony.  We could see that they were not wearing their red coats but rather dark gray coats that I assumed were their winter outfits. We could hear the music and see some of it which was certainly full of pageantry. I have heard endlessly that the Brits are known for their pageantry.  There were lots of police around moving traffic and keeping pedestrians moving. If you went in the wrong spot they were quick to yell at you which provided us with entertainment as we watched all sorts of people get yelled at by the police. All-in-all it was fun and interesting. As the crowd dispersed we could get closer to the gates to get a good view of the guards. We also watched them march out and leave the area, I guess they were the ones relieved of duty.

The Royal Pelicans!

The Royal Pelicans!

London has BEAUTIFUL parks. We liked them more than the parks in Paris. Tons of wildlife here.

London has BEAUTIFUL parks. We liked them more than the parks in Paris. Tons of wildlife here.

Buckingham Palace is certainly in a beautiful area. After we had seen enough of the guards we made our way through the parks. The palace is surrounded by large and peaceful parks. There were tons and tons of waterfowl which kept Noah engaged for over an hour. I am pretty knowledgeable about ducks, geese and waterfowl but there were several fancy birds there that I had never seen. One of the species had a natural plume of short feathers on the top of their head which looked very much like the big hats the guards wear outside the palace. It made us wonder if the birds were trying out for the guard positions or were the guard hats modeled after the ducks? We also saw lots of squirrels and people feeding all of the creatures. We watched a squirrel run up a woman’s leg to get the nut from her hand. Clearly the animals here were VERY used to humans. We enjoyed seeing the royal pelicans! Yup – pelicans here in the center of London. We hung out with a group of six of them for quite some time. Watched them sun themselves and then make their way into the pond and in no time at all were way down the other end of the pond. Really fun to watch.

From here we walked through the London Horse Guards, through Trafalgar Square again, across the Thames and over to the London Eye. The walk was pleasant and we continued to take in new sights. The walk over the Thames was fun just because you can see so much on the banks of the river once you are out a ways on the bridge. London has great bridges for walking over!

The London Eye - they put you in that glass pod-like thing.

The London Eye – they put you in that glass pod-like thing.

Taking a ride on the Eye was on the “must-do”  list for London.  This is where my discount tickets came in very useful again; 2 for 1 tickets for the Eye. At 19.95 British Pounds it is not an inexpensive Ferris Wheel! We bought tickets and waited in line only about 20 minutes. The workers herd you into these pod-like containers on the Ferris Wheel and up you go. It takes about 35 minutes to complete one rotation which is what you get for your price of admission. The entire pod is made of glass or some see through material so you get wonderful views of London. It was rather overcast and smoggy when we were there but we could still get some great views.

This was kinda a low-key day. Just walking around, seeing what we could see, ride the eye and head back to the flat. It is nice to just meander the streets of London. And by taking the train to and from our flat we get to see lots on the way in and out. And when you use public transportation you always get some interesting interactions with – well – the public. Those interactions are often priceless!

A view from the Eye.

A view from the Eye.

Our view of Big Ben from the London Eye. See how smoggy and overcast?

Our view of Big Ben from the London Eye. See how smoggy and overcast?

 

Looking down at one of the many bridges over the Thames.

Looking down at one of the many bridges over the Thames.

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