Monthly Archives: December 2014

Europe 2014 – London Part II

Our second day in London dawned bright and clear, with only a slight chill in the air. For London weather, it was absolutely perfect, and I was thrilled that I had planned for our morning to be spent on a walking tour through the city. Per the recommendation of friends and our guidebook, we decided on the company London Walks and chose the This is London – Flash! Bang! Lightening Highlights Tour! to get an overview of the city and see a lot of sites quickly. Here’s an excerpt of the tour description from the website:

And so we come to the rem acu tetigiste moment: everything you want to see in the famous heart of London can be seen on foot in two hours! Seen better. Seen up close. Seen round behind. Because we can go where the buses can’t. Seen better. Guided better. Fraction of the cost. So, hey ho and off we go – off to see all the classic sights in the heart of London. Tick ’em off: the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, St. James’s Palace, the quintessential Royal Park, classy St. James’s, the Mall, Trafalgar Square, Admiralty Arch, Birdcage Walk, Queen Anne’s Gate, you name it. They’re all here – all the London pearls.

The tour started at the Westminster Abbey tube stop, right across from the Elizabeth Tower, the structure that houses Big Ben (as our guide reminded us, “Ben is not the clock, not the tower, but the bell that tolls the hour“). Thanks to the marvelous efficiency of the London Tube, we arrived 20 minutes early and had plenty of time to walk around a bit and take some pictures.

Big Ben

Westminster Pier

Big Ben gate

(Warning: what you are about to experience, some might consider picture overload. If you and your internet connection are up for viewing tons of vacation pictures, please continue after the jump.) Continue reading

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Europe 2014 – London Part I

From Reykjavik, we hopped a plane to London, only a few hours away. Due to weather-related delays (of course it snowed the morning we left Iceland), we didn’t arrive into Gatwick until noon, and by the time we took the train into the city and checked in at our hotel near Victoria Station, it was nearly 2pm and we were ravenous. Using Yelp (love it when restaurant reviews are in my language), we found a nearby pub supposedly famous for – what else – fish and chips. The meal was far from healthy, but the portions were huge, the fish was perfectly cooked, and the prices (for London) were reasonable. Feeling fueled and appropriately “Londonized”, we headed off to see the city.

Standing outside at the Reykjavik bus terminal in the middle of the snow.

Standing outside at the Reykjavik bus terminal in the middle of the snow.

I’d been to London before, about 5 years ago, on a girls trip with my mom, aunts, cousin, and grandmother. We’d spent 4 days in the city and had covered most of the museums and major sites. My husband, while an avid traveler, is not nearly the museum geek that I am, so on this trip, we focused on seeing more of the city itself and spending less time indoors (although we did make an exception for pubs).

It's not exactly the best photo, but you get the idea. Mmmmm fried food.

It’s not the best photo, but you get the idea. Mmmmm fried food. (You can tell this is my husband’s plate because everything is doused in pepper.)

One site that I refused to pass up, even though I’d already been, was the Treasurers of the British Library. For the price of free (!!), you can see an incredible collection of historical manuscripts and other treasured pieces of writing. Along with historical heavy-hitters such as a Gutenberg Bible, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and a notebook of Leonardo da Vinci, there is an impressive collection of maps, plus writing from other famous, more contemporary authors. Think drafts of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, scraps of paper that start to tell the story of The Boy Who Lived (that would be Harry Potter), music scores of Beatles lyrics edited by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and so many others that I’m forgetting. Let’s just say the British Library is my happy place, and I would have stayed for hours if not for my patient and good-natured, but clearly ready to leave, husband. He’s a good sport, but history isn’t really his first love.

Beer, though, that’s something we both love. I’m especially enthusiastic when I can get my beer in a beautiful, Victorian setting, such as the Princess Louise, which is located not far from the British Library. The interior decorations of the Princess Louise date from the late 1800s, and pictures, even professional ones such as the one below, do not do it justice. The entrance leads you into a long hallway, off of which several partitioned “drinking spaces” give access to the bar. There is stunning detail everywhere you look – stained or etched glass, intricate mosaics, carefully carved wooden panels. I’ll tell ya, drinking in places like these can put all your other favorite bars in a rather harsh perspective!

Interior of Princess Louise. Photo taken by Michael Slaughter for heritagepubs.org.uk.

After our beers, it was time to head to dinner. It was drizzly outside, so we decided to take a bus over to Soho, one of the most famous and vibrant London neighborhoods, known for its conglomeration of delicious ethnic restaurants. Traffic in London is pretty awful, so buses aren’t exactly the most efficient form of transportation, but sometimes it’s nice to watch the city creep by from the top of a double-decker bus, rather than have it zoom by underground.

My husband is a fanatic for Chinese food, so we decided on Y Ming Chinese Restaurant, known for authentic Northern Chinese cooking. I can’t remember what we ordered, and I have a fairly strict “no pictures at the table” restaurant policy. I do remember really enjoying mine (some sort of slurpy noodle soup, I think), while my husband wasn’t as thrilled about his. Overall, it was a good meal, but certainly not the best we had in London.

Our first afternoon in London was pretty rainy and nasty, so we didn’t take any pictures with our nice camera. Next post will cover our walking tour of London, for which we had amazing weather, and will be full of photos!

For more information on our Europe 2014 trip, check out these other blog posts:

  • 2 nights in Reykjavik  Hallgrimskirkja church, yummy food, and gorgeous scenery
  • London Part II – walking tour of London highlights, Westminster Abbey, and an Irish pub
  • London Part III – St. Paul’s, Borough Market, and an incredible WWI memorial at the Tower of London
  • Paris Part Ia walk through Luxembourg gardens and sunset at the Eiffel Tower
  • Paris Part IIthree blockbuster sites: Notre Dame, Versailles, and Sainte Chapelle
  • Paris Part III – the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Auguste Rodin museum
  • Bayeux – small town France
  • D-Day Beaches – paying tribute to the Greatest Generation
  • Mont Saint-Michel – an abbey on an island

Making it through Monday

Happy Monday, everyone! This is my last Monday at my current job and we’re now less than two weeks away from moving day. I’m working on cleaning out the pantry and freezer, which means we’ve been eating a lot of soup and canned tuna. Why I ever thought we needed 8 cans of tuna packed in olive oil is beyond me. It must have been on sale (<—– sure sign I’m turning into my mother).

The list is short this week, because I haven’t been doing a lot of web surfing, although that’s probably not a bad thing 😉

Enjoy these finds from around the web (click link for photo source), and remember that Friday is only 4 days away!

Favorite Travel: 36 Hours in Phnom Pehn. Adam and I are planning to take a 3 month tour through SE Asia in 2016 and I’ve started researching travel destinations beyond the obvious (Vietnam and Thailand). If you have any suggestions for or must-sees, I would LOVE to hear them!

Favorite roundup: NPR’s Best Books of 2014. One of my absolute favorite things about vacation is having time to read, but I have such a hard time deciding on new authors and series, I frequently end up re-reading the same favorites over and over. NPR to the rescue! I love that the list is divided by category; I’ve already picked several of these to add to my Amazon wish list, including The Secret Place, because I can’t get enough foreign mystery novels.

Favorite bake: Chocolate-Dipped Caramel Chocolate Chip Biscotti from Bright-Eyed Baker. This picture is insanely amazing and I just adore biscotti. Usually, my favorite way to enjoy them is with a glass of vin santo, but the chocolate and caramel in these definitely call for a cup of coffee. It looks like the perfect treat to savor inside, with a good book, while the winter weather does its thing outside. I plan on whipping up a batch next weekend!

Chocolate Dipped Caramel Chocolate Chip Biscotti - Brighteyedbaker

Favorite crave: Creamy Mac & Cheese. During the cold months, I tend to hunker down and eat all the carbs. It’s been awhile since I’ve truly indulged in such cheesy gooey deliciousness, and I think it’s time to change that.

Europe 2014 – 2 nights in Reykjavik

Thanks to a few Icelandair advertisements strategically placed in DC metro stations, I learned about their free stopover policy several months ago. It’s only a 5 hour flight from DC (Dulles) to Reykjavik, and then just under 3 hours from Reykjavik to London, so it seemed like a great way to break up a long trans-Atlantic trip. I’ve wanted to visit Iceland ever since I read Jar City by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason, and fitting it in on our way to London turned out to be perfect.

Iceland

Our flight left Dulles at 8:30pm on Saturday and touched down in Reykjavik at 6:30am local time. Because we were visiting in late October, the sun wasn’t yet up, and wouldn’t be for another few hours. We never check bags, unless the flight attendants are particularly nasty (they weren’t), so we were able to go straight through customs with our carry-ons and were on a bus into town within 30 minutes. Reykjavik airport is small and efficient. The drive took about 45 minutes total; I can’t say I was awake for any or all of it. After a quick switch at the bus terminal (tour buses and narrow Reykjavik streets aren’t exactly compatible), the mini bus dropped us right around the corner from our incredible airbnb house, which I found for loads cheaper than any of the other hotels in Reykjavik.

Despite all the warnings about napping and jet lag, we were going on a few hours of sleep at best, and the down comforters on the king size bed were too much to resist. We decided that if the sun wasn’t up yet, we didn’t need to be either.

A few hours later, with sunlight streaming through our window, we found the energy to get out of bed, shower, and bundle up to explore the city. Temperatures were in the low 30s – not exactly warm, but certainly bearable. First up, the church of Hallgrimskirkja, which looks unlike any other church I’ve ever seen.

Hallgrimskirkja

The church was right up the street from our airbnb house and is said to have been designed to resemble the basalt lava flows in Iceland’s landscape. The statue in front is of Leif Eriksson, famous Icelandic explorer. The church is free to enter, but is very spartan inside, keeping with the Lutheran tradition.

Inside Hallgrimskirkja

Inside Hallgrimskirkja is bright and airy and worlds away from the embellished and adorned Catholic cathedrals I’m used to visiting in Europe. At the back of the church is a large and beautiful pipe organ, the only adornment. The organ weighs 25 tons.

Hallgrimskirkja pipe organ

Although the organ is impressive, the real attraction, in my opinion, is the bell tower, which is open to visitors for a small fee (I believe it was Ikr 900 per person – just over $7). You buy tickets in the small gift shop, then take a very small elevator all the way to the top.

Hallgrimskirkja square

Reykjavik view

Reykjavik view

After our tour of Hallgrimskirkja, it was time for lunch. We quickly found out that food in Iceland is expensive, so we turned to a local hole-in-the-wall noodle place for a hearty, warming meal on the cheap. I can’t remember the name of it, but it was popular and amazing. Hubby got chicken, I got veggies, both extra spicy. It was deeeeelicious.

Noodle lunch After lunch, the plan was to walk down to the harbor area and do some sightseeing, but the weather had other ideas. Just as we were heading out, it started pouring. Already cold and tired, we were not ready to add soaking wet to the mix, so we opted for a low-key afternoon in a coffee shop with our books and bowls of steaming lattes. Eventually, the rain stopped and we ventured out to do some browsing in the shops along Laugavegur, where I picked up a souvenir from the Handknitting Association of Iceland (see photo below).

This hat my look silly, but it was warm!

This hat may look silly, but it is warm!

After an early dinner (we ate at Fish, which was ok but not great), it was time for bed. None of the legendary Reykjavik pub crawl action for us! I’m not as young as I used to be, folks.

Day Two in Reykjavik was sunny, but cold with a biting wind. We spent the day wandering around town, window shopping, and trying to stay warm.

Colorful houses

Beatles bar

I let my husband steal my hat to keep warm

I let my husband steal my hat to keep warm

Lunch at Snaps

Lunch at Snaps

For lunch, we decided to splurge on the lunch special at Snaps restaurant (located in the Hotel Odensve). We were not disappointed! The menu descriptions were victim of a little mistranslation (the description on my husband’s meal – the far plate in the photo said “open faced sandwich”), but both dishes were incredible. We couldn’t believe how much food we received for the price (Ikr 1800 per plate) – especially when prices for similar restaurants were at least Ikr 2200.

After lunch, we caught a bus out to Laugardalslaug, one of the local swimming pools on the outskirt of town. While not nearly as resort-like as the famous Blue Lagoon, it was incredibly nice for loads cheaper. One thing you must do in Iceland, either at Blue Lagoon or at a local pool, is take a dip in a “hot pot” – a small pool naturally heated by geothermal springs. Basking in clear blue water, naturally heated to 104 degrees, while the snow falls was easily our favorite experience in Iceland. I didn’t visit Blue Lagoon, so I can’t compare, but I highly recommend Laugardalslaug – it’s easy to get to, incredibly clean, and we were the only non-Icelandic people there. I wish I had taken a picture, but I find that hot tubs and iPhones aren’t the best of friends.

After a few hours lounging in the hot pots, it was time to catch the bus back into town, find something for dinner, and go to bed early before our 4am wakeup call. Next stop – London!

Check out these other posts to read about the rest of our Europe 2014 trip! 

  • London Part I – arrival in London, fish & chips, a snazzy pub, and the British Library
  • London Part II – walking tour of London highlights, Westminster Abbey, and an Irish pub
  • London Part III – St. Paul’s, Borough Market, and an incredible WWI memorial at the Tower of London
  • Paris Part Ia walk through Luxembourg gardens and sunset at the Eiffel Tower
  • Paris Part IIthree blockbuster sites: Notre Dame, Versailles, and Sainte Chapelle
  • Paris Part III – the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Auguste Rodin museum
  • Bayeux – small town France
  • D-Day Beaches – paying tribute to the Greatest Generation
  • Mont Saint-Michel – an abbey on an island