Friday, July 23, 2010

Such a Long Time to be Gone, and a Short Time to be There

We made it home Sunday evening, probably a little grubby after our 9 and a half hour flight from Heathrow. I'm not sure if our dogs or we were more excited, although they're slightly more effusive than we are. I've been fortunate enough to have this week to recover, although poor Will had to go back to work first thing Monday morning. I've had the opportunity to reflect on the trip during my convalescence, so I've made a little catalogue of our trip for those of you who are actuarial in nature. Here's the condensed version of the whole trip:

Cities/Towns/Hamlets visited (visit defined as "got out of the car"):

London, Dublin, Oxford, Leicester, Stratford-upon-Avon, Silverstone, Kilkenny, Glendaloch.

Sites/Marvels/Relics/Objects of Interest Seen:

Westminster Abbey (including the graves of Edward I, II, III, Henry VII, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, Geoffrey Chaucer and Handel, the former grave of Oliver Cromwell, and the oldest door in England), the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, Guy Fawkes' lantern, a dodo bird, Lucy the cavewoman, the Crown Jewels of England, Shakespeare's birthplace, Shakespeare's grave, the Book of Kells, Van Eyck's "The Betrothal of the Arnolfini", Henry VIII's suit of armor, a 6th century monastery, the oldest pub in Dublin, the ruins of a Roman building, 7000 year-old carvings and artifacts from central Europe, the Alfred Jewel, and a Formula 1 race.

Partial List of Pubs Visited (names of other pubs visited are lost to the ages)

The Brazen Head, The George, The Lamb and Flag (x2), The Eagle and Child, the White Horse, The Palace Bar, The King's Arms, The Angel in the Fields, The Salisbury, The Duke, Oliver St. John Gogarty's, The Temple Bar, Farrington's, the Elephant and Castle, Courtfield, The Angel and Crown, the Castle Pub...

Other Events of Note:

Watched the World Cup final with a group of disconsolate Dutchmen, survived the Tube, Will tried black pudding, which he described as, "sort of like a hockey puck made of dried grass and blood and then fried, or maybe like old dirty hair." Observed an excavation of the ruins of Shakespeare's home, got hopelessly lost in Leicester, saw actual thatched-roof cottages, ate a chocolate terrine at St. John that almost made my tastebuds fall off it was so good. The waitress confessed it was "80% butter." Spent an enjoyable evening with our friends Jamie and Megha in London and they introduced us to the magical world of fois gras creme brulee (one dish).

All in all, about as successful a trip as one can have. And yes, Lisa, to respond to your question, I can absolutely see how it's possible to gain 15 pounds in Europe. Here's to my wonderful husband, and to returning as soon as we can.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday Night!!!!

I'm so wild and crazy that I'm sitting here in Dublin blogging on a Friday night.

Actually, we spent the whole day on a bus tour of Glendalough (Valley of Two Lakes in Irish) and Kilkenny, and we just got back. We overslept this morning and had to dash to catch the bus, so now that we're back we're cleaning up before going out.

I uploaded a bunch of new pictures in the Ireland folder on my Picasa page, so you can just click on the slideshow on the left here and then browse to that folder.

They haven't invited us to move here, or offered us lucrative jobs at the Guiness Brewery yet, but maybe they will. If so, we'll see y'all at Christmas!

I had a Boxty for dinner last night, which I had never seen before, but it was really good. It's a potato pancake filled with your choice of meat etc. I had corned beef and cabbage in a wine sauce, and I'd do it again.

I still haven't found any good black pudding yet, but there are two more mornings, so keep your fingers crossed.

We have lots to tell about, but I'll wrap it up so we can go with how we wrapped up last night. We went on a musical tour of Dublin, guided by two local musicians who played authentic music at 4 different pubs. THIS is right up our alley.

Pubs: check

Traditional (read: nerdy and weird) Irish Music: Check.

We were there, bells optional.

It was great, and we learned a little about the music and then they told us about another pub where musicians gather to play to one another, not for the crowd. We went there, The Palace Bar on Fleet Street, until closing time and it was terrific. Whether or not a late night of Guinness had anything to do with sleeping late today, I don't know.

One more anecdote. Apparently the traditional Irish monasteries were pretty low key and our tour guide said they monks were like free living hippies and they made a lot of money and had a great time. But, the pope decided in the 13th century that he wasn't getting enough revenue from the monks in Ireland, so he sent the stern Cistercians over to straighten them out.
The result? All the monasteries closed because being a "good Catholic monk" wasn't fun anymore.

You see why we like it here?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Literary Tour Redux

So, in high school, a group of us came over here with teachers as a "British Isles Literary Tour," and while we did in fact see some literary sights, my dad has teased me since then that we talked more about pubs than literature, which was doubtless the case.

Of course, one could make many arguments about the intertwined nature of Irish literature and her pubs, or of Oxford intellectuals and their charged debates afforded by bonhomie in the pubs of that village, but it's at best disingenuous to imply that anything that high minded was going on amongst us at 17 and 18 when turned loose upon the pubs of the UK.

However, I've finally made up for it. Last night, our first night in Dublin after a short flight from Heathrow, we took the Literary Pub Tour of Dublin, guided by professional actors, from the Duke to Davy Byrne's, with various stops in between for stories and acted out scenes from Beckett, Wilde and Behan. You get a hugely entertaining and colorful sense of the city and how it is enmeshed with Trinity College, England, and the pub scene itself.
Plus, you get to drink beer.

Let's call it ale-fueled nerdity. How can you imply that watching a scene from the existential masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, is anything less that high-brow, pint on knee or not?

If you go to Dublin, do that tour. Period.

We had an easy drive from Oxford to Heathrow, and we dropped off our faithful little donkey the Polo, sadly not the Harlequin edition. See the pics for evidence that such a thing exists. We filled it up, and from dead empty it took 41 liters, and we went 273 miles. Not great, but not too bad considering how much was in town, and the rest was on the motorway doing 80+, which is a little astonishing, but when in Rome...
Seriously, despite all the warning signs for speed cameras, everyone in England seems to want to go 90mph all the time. I've never been brushed off at 80mph so frequently and thoroughly before.

Once in Dublin, we found that our Arab cab driver didn't really know where he was going when he stopped the cab and said "This it. You close. This the street." as he eagerly unloaded our bags and drove away. Luckily, the area is quite compact, so we did find our hotel without issue, and we have a great view of the River Liffey.

We headed out to lunch across the Ha'penny Bridge at the Winding Stair, which is a bookshop with a gourmet cafe above, up a very winding stair...
It's a charming space, and while waiting for a table we were seated at an old button back leather couch in front of a bookshelf. I read an essay on the faults of Twelfth Night that indicate that Shakespeare really was a provincial writer and not some scholar in disguise. What a way to wait for lunch!
I had duck confit with cherries and sweet potato mash and it was amazing. The soaked cherries were the best I've ever eaten, and healthy no doubt.

After lunch we wandered back across the river to Temple Bar, an overstuffed touristy area that nonetheless is very charming and packed with pubs and restaurants. We stumbled across Dublin Castle on the other side, and while waiting for the guided tour to start we had a pint at Kearney's, a tiny old school place serving pints across barrels.

The castle tour was interesting, but it's really a Georgian state office, not a medieval castle, so don't be deceived. We did get to see the excavations from under the corner of the modern building (finished around 1750) and the old foundations of the Powder Tower (1230) are there, along with an earlier (maybe 800 AD) Viking wall fortification.
The Vikings had come up the river and settled the area, intermingling with the unambitious local Irish population after building their fort. They are in fact the reason for the signature red hair and fair skin of the Irish. The native Irish would have had black or brown hair and been a bit darker skinned.
So, all you ginger kids out there, if you think you're just a wimpy Irishman, forget that, you're a bloodthirsty Viking and you should act accordingly.

That's all for now. We're off to lunch and more sights and pints. See the pics for evidence.
As Amanda mentioned, I'm not taking much time to edit or delete pictures, so you're getting quantity over quality at this point. I'll edit them later, but it seems a shame to sit and do that when Dublin calls.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ol' Shakey. And Other Stuff.

First off, Will would like me to apologize for the number of F1 photos on the Picasa site. We are terribly busy appreciating old buildings and such, and therefore have not had time to edit out all the boring photos.

Onward. Yesterday we left Leicester and drove to Stratford-upon-Avon, for a pilgrimage of sorts to see William Shakespeare's home town. After some standard British road confusion, we made it and wandered over to Shakespeare's birthplace, which has been surprisingly well-preserved. It was donated to the kingdom in the 1840s, after it was rumored that P.T. Barnum was interested in purchasing it. There was much uproar and patriotism, and Charles Dickens staged performances of Shakespeare's plays around the country to drum up support. Eventually the Shakespeare nerds were successful and the house came under the control of the National Shakespeare Trust. Upstairs are 3 rooms, including one in which it is said that Shakespeare was born. In another room, a large window overlooks the street, surrounded by a smooth wooden ledge. I moved my hand over the entire ledge, hopeful that I would manage to touch an inch of space that Shakespeare had touched himself at some point.

A few blocks away is the Holy Trinity Church where Bill himself is buried. We first wandered around the church graveyard and took in some very English scenery, complete with moss-covered stones and gray, damp weather. Inside, a docent apologized and said that we would be able to see the grave, but that we would have to move quietly past the school children who were practicing some choir songs. We moved towards the front of the church, skirting a group of uniformed children singing from hymnals. Before the grave is the oldest part of the church, dating from approximately 1210 (making this the 800th anniversary of the church). Up at the front, the original stone altarpiece is still in use after the church leaders hid it so that it would be spared during the Reformation. With soft afternoon light coming in the windows, I found myself alone in a room with Shakespeare's tomb. The grave is roped off due to wear, but the inscription and the bust in the wall were steps away. With children singing "Hosanna" in the background, I had just a moment of quiet before the crowd surged in around me. Best moment of the trip? Yes. Best of my life? Certainly top five.

Amanda, Day 1 in the country side

Revelations about the rest of the world.

To sum up:

1. Right hand drive is terrifying and should be banned.

2. Every village in England will bring you to tears with its flabbergasting charm

3. Leicester is the most unnavigable, undrivable, untenable city in the world.

4. America does not hold the monopoly on shirtless rednecks.

To elaborate:

We began this morning (hung over, it must be said), with Will retrieving our rental car from the Avis around the corner. Our Volkswagen Polo is, to paraphrase Richard Hammond, like a little donkey. Very hard working, very sweet, endearing, but not very powerful. We drove out of London to the West, me resisting the urge to shriek on a minute-by-minute basis as I adjusted to the terror of right hand drive. We eventually left London behind us on the M1 and entered CHARMING ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE!!!!!!!(Insert guitar shred here) Almost immediately we were plunged into impenetrable traffic on the outskirts of the Formula 1 metropolis on the approach to the village of Silverstone.
Fast forward to the track, on past hungover unpleasantness in the traffic jam. As you enter the grounds of a European Formula 1 track, it is immediately apparent that blobby shirtlessness is the name of the game. The English are somewhat unhandsome to begin with, and the out of doors only enhances their lamentable paleness and lack of muscle definition. There are also a great number of Italians, French, Spanish, etc. doing their part to get sunburned and drunk. Americans, not the only ones.
Now, onto the racing. As a relatively recent drinker of the F1 Kool-Aid, this was a very momentous first for me.
Confession: my heart may have been beating a little faster as we moved into our seats minutes before the cars came out for the afternoon practice session. I don't think it was just the Cornish pasty. The cars are ostentatious in every way. Sleek, slippery, almost eel-like bodies, unnaturally fast and unbelievably loud. Americans would eat this business up if only they could handle the Euro. Taking in the crowd is a truly satisfying part of the F1 experience. The shouting, aggressive, unshirtery is something to behold. An Italian near us fist-pumped every time Schumacher drove by. Germans blasted air horns. The English dads in front of us solemnly handed beers to their 14 year old sons. Missing teeth abounded.
Sadly, McLaren did not do so well with the "advancements" they brought for the car, so we'll have to see how they do in the morning practice tomorrow. Keep your fingers crossed for me, it's a long day of watching cars go around in circles and observing Europeans in their natural habitat.


We had to come to a charming 17th century hotel in Oxford City Centre to get internet, so I'm uploading pictures and Amanda's saved updates from the F1 weekend now, forgive me if it's a bit disjointed as a result.

I'll post an Oxford update next, provided I don't get hungry and run off to breakfast.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Gout Express!

How'd you like that brief update yesterday?
Brief huh?

Well, we had some Google related technical issues yesterday morning when trying to post the wednesday/thursday update, and rather than retype the whole thing, we went to breakfast and the Tower of London.

Wednesday was a big day of sleeping in for some much needed rest, sight seeing at the Westminster Abbey and the National Gallery, book buying on Cecil Court, and some more sight seeing and general wandering around, plus a stop at the Salisbury on St. Martin's Way, a great pub in Covent Garden.

Then we had dinner with Jamie and Megha at Angelus, a terrific neighborhood French restaurant and then we stayed up too late hanging out at their flat in Sussex Gardens, but it was a lot of fun and great to see them.

Despite the late night we were at it on time yesterday and we had a full English breakfast at the hotel and then headed out to see the Tower of London, circa 1090, which is quite old, really. We enjoyed the tour. Seeing the crown jewels and the armory is cool, but the sense of history is the most overwhelming part. You can stand in Edward Longshanks' bedroom and touch the walls in several of the prison towers with intact carvings and graffitoes from the mostly Jesuit political prisoners of the 16th century. Very impressive stuff, and it makes shithouse tennis seem a little tame by comparison.

We left the Tower in search of food, and we found more than that at the George Inn across the river, dating to the 1600s and the last remaining carriage house inn in London. The food was great, (when will I get tired of meat pies?) and the house bitter ale delicious. The courtyard is inviting and the weather has been perfect.

But, tarry not! It was time to wrap up the day of sight seeing at the British Museum, including a look at the Elgin Marbles, among other pieces pillaged from the Parthenon at various times, and the actual Rosetta Stone, no big deal.
They also had a special exhibit of Italian Renaissance drawings by many of the masters such as Michelangelo, Perugino, Verocchio, Raphael, Da Vinci, Filippo and Filippino Lippi, Mantegna, and more. These drawings were mostly preparatory drawings that showed how the artists worked out the details and composition of paintings, either in full scale, or in fragments, maybe working with the posture of an individual in a larger group, or the placement of figures in space. Very interesting. Da Vinci's Bust of a Warrior was my favorite.

Once we were sufficiently cultured, (I may come back with a monocle) we dashed back to the hotel to change and get ready for dinner at St. John, a perenially top rated "nose-to-tail" restaurant. We took a cab rather than the tube for comfort and it was worth it. London isn't hot, but there is no provision for airflow in most indoor spaces, so they are very close and stuffy, and the A/C that is available is usually pretty anemic. But, the A/C in the cab was terrific, a little taste of home.

St. John was great. It's a simple place, with white walls and black fixtures, plenty of attentive staff, and an innovative menu featuring game and uncommonly used parts of animals, like lamb neck and pig's feet. The menu included the typical disclaimers, but one unusual one, "Game and fowl may contain lead shot." It's good to know that your food was running wild recently.
I had the braised beef with trotter (pig's feet) and pickled walnuts, and Amanda had pea and ham soup and braised rabbit with garlic aioli. Both were fantastic and well paired with the bourgogne rouge I randomly selected from the wine list.
Watching me order from a hand picked French-only wine list is like watching Ron Burgundy read from a teleprompter that's been messed with.
"I'll have the bourgogne rouge?"
It's important to say it with an exaggerated upward lilt at the end and to include an imploring look at the waitress to make sure they know they have the opportunity to point out to me that I've just ordered dish soap instead of wine, but in this case it seemed to have worked out.
We finished up with a chocolate terrine and tawny port and that was nearly the end of it all. "Terrine" is apparently French for "we had a bar of chocolate and a stick of butter left over, so we melted them, blended them together, and then chilled it into a gooey slab.
If you're eating right now, no matter what it is, spit it out on the floor or couch as is appropriate, and go find some chocolate terrine. Seriously. You're wasting your time with anything else.
That's why I named this post the Gout Express. We've been eating like 19th century Oligarchs since our arrival, and gout was a real danger to those cats, so I have to assume that I'll need treatment at an alpine spa sometime soon.

Today we're off to Silverstone, assuming I can figure out the rent car, which promises to be small, right hand drive, and manual transmission. I think it should be a good game.

Also, on the cab ride to dinner last night we went through Westminster and that is a pretty posh district. To update my car nerdery, we saw 2 Bentley Continental Flying Spurs, 2 Continental GTs, an Aston DBS, a DBS convertible, 2 DB9s, a Ferrari F430, a Bentley Arnage, 2 current Rollers, an '80s Rolls, 2 Maserati Quattroportes and 1 GT, plus a litany of 911s and an M6. All this in a 20 minute cab ride. Staggering.

That's it, we're off to the north!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Finally! An update!

Well, this one will be brief because it's late and I'm beat, but suffice to say that the weather is warm, the beer warmer, and the trip is fantastic so far.
We saw the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has more old stuff in it than the entire USA and Greg's garage combined, plus some cool suits of armor. Which reminds me, armor or no, guys in the 16th century were tiny!
We left there to get some lunch at the Elephant and Castle Pub off the Kensington High Street, which was excellent, more details later.
Then we wandered past an entire block of small garages that had been converted into a Jaguar dealership and repair shop, see the pics! Too cool.

Then, to Westminster Abbey, which is not the same as Westminster Cathedral, ask me how I know. What I do know, is that one of them is the seat of modern English Catholicism, and it's beautiful, but it's not the old Abbey. We missed that one, so we'll have to go back.

Instead, we wandered over to the River Thames (no, I didn't have the chance to pronounce it TAYMES to a bunch of Englishmen to cement the ugly American stereotype) and caught a breeze, but then we were off to the throngs of Trafalgar Square and the gallant sea faring hero the Admiral Lord Nelson, who defeated the Spanish Armada.
Have you done anything that cool?

I thought not.

Then, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, although it is totally sans 'fields' these days, it was one of the first churches built after the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was designed by the genius Sir Christopher Wren. Look him up if you want to feel bad about yourself, it's guaranteed to work.

We forged on to Cecil Ct off St. Martin's Blvd and discovered a veritable treasure trove of antique book shops, but it was almost closing time, so we settled for a first edition of Churchill's account of WWII and went on our way to the Lamb and Flag pub on Floral St. This pub is literally in an alleyway, see the pics, but it has a city's worth of charm, and it has been in continuous operation since the reign of Charles II, which, if you didn't know, was a loooong time ago. Over 400 years! How long as the Mule been open you ask? I don't know, it may smell 400 years old, but I doubt it is.

We had a sampling of warm, local hand pulled (meaning that the bartender pulls a lever with enough force to pump the beer, which is quite common here) and then switched to Guinness.

Then, it was back to the hotel for a delightful shower, the first in 27 hours or so, and then to dinner at the Courtfield pub by the Earl's Court station for fish and chips and a night cap.

On the way into the hotel we had a quick chat with the barman and I explained part of the Deepwater Horizon leak problem, but I'm not sure I had much of an effect.

With all that brevity, I'm calling it a night. The picture link on the left will take you to the full album should you wish to check it out.

Tomorrow, the National Gallery, book shops, a different pub for lunch, the British Museum and hopefully Westminster Abbey. Look out Elgin Marbles, here we come!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Today's the day! We're off to the airport in two hours and I think I packed everything, including the kitchen sink, except the one thing that I'll think of about the time we go wheels up at the airport. Oh well, I bet they have stores in England.

Sadly, there are no Shakespeare productions on while we're in Oxford, but I'll bet we can find some old books to look at.

But first, London!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

This just in!

Today is the 4th of July, and the birth of our nation is the second best thing I have to celebrate today.
Amanda Basham became Amanda Atkinson at Mercury Hall in Austin last night and now the adventure continues.
Tomorrow we leave for London as the first of many stops on our honeymoon. We'll hit the museums, the touristy stuff, the pubs, curry houses, Formula 1 races, Oxford, Shakespeare's house (oh yeah, we're nerds) and Dublin. Stay tuned for pics and anecdotes.
We've got a busy schedule and while we're very excited about the many attractions, charms, beautiful sights in store for us in England, I know I have the most charming and beautiful one right here with me.