Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Bath Day Trip

Jane Austen lived here
This past Sunday we hopped aboard the 9am train from Paddington station to Bath (Somerset) for our last London-based day trip of the summer. Situated 1 3/4 hours west of London, Bath is famous for its Roman ruins and healing thermal waters (both of which we completely bypassed).  Additionally, it was also the former residence of a little known author from the late 18th century (you may have heard of her), a Miss Jane Austen.

Upon arriving around 10:40am, we quickly made our way to the Bath Abbey for the only Jane Austen walking tour of the day.  Starting at 11am and lasting a bit longer than planned (2.5 hours rather than 1.5), our walking tour met our expectations for its historical anecdotes and literary references along with just being a nice introduction to such a lovely town.

Jane Austen lived in four homes in Bath.  First, when her brother was prescribed Bath’s healing waters (along with electric shock treatment) for his ailments, she and her mother accompanied his family on the trip. Next, upon retiring, her father relocated the household (including herself, her mother, and her sister) to Bath, where he subsequently died. Upon her father's death, the family tried to stay in Bath but, after relocating twice, finally acknowledged that Bath was prohibitively expensive for their circumstances and had to leave town for good.  Both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are products of her time in Bath (neither of which I know anything about).

Parade Gardens
After our walking tour we grabbed a couple pints at The Porter, an adorable vegetarian pub with outdoor seating and a great location and then headed to 'the famous' Sally Lunn's to sample some 'world famous buns', where we wound up having an excellent lunch and grabbing a few buns to-go.  After our meal, we walked to the riverside to enjoy the sun, water, and our lovely surroundings.  Then, just to add to our contentment, a band began playing in the bandstand at Parade Gardens, across the River Avon from where we were sitting.  It was lovely.

Besides a disappointing hike up to Alexandra Park - located at the top of a neighbouring hill it was supposed to be a great spot to view the town but really isn't at all due to all the trees - we had a perfect day.  In hindsight, the hike was actually quite nice and the park was cute and, though requiring an exhaustive and frustrating search, we did eventually stumble upon a break in the trees which did provide a mediocre view of the town.  But, disappointing view aside, we did discover the existence of a ravenous, man-eating, invisible plant with a sting that lasts around 24 hours and is painful enough to make two adults run screaming from the wilderness.  So, you know, that was cool.

Royal Crescent
We spent the rest of the day revisiting spots from our walking tour and trying to find places that were pointed out in the distance and discussed but not actually seen.  We took a turn around the Royal Crescent, just like the high brows would've in Jane Austen's day, and found the spot where Jane Austen's father had been buried in a churchyard on the hill, next to one of Jane's inspirations, Frances Burney.

More than any of our other day trips, this trip to Bath was the most fun historically for me.  I'd say Bath is my favourite town thus far in the UK and I'm looking forward to returning for further exploration.

For more pictures, please visit my Facebook album here.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Baden-Baden, Baby

The flight from London Stansted to Baden-Baden only takes an hour.  We grabbed the first flight on Saturday morning and were in Germany by 10am.  The bus from Baden Airpark into town picked us up 40 minutes later (€3.80) and 20 minutes after that we were on the outskirts of town.  After a lovely hour's walk along a wooded path and babbling brook, plus a quick stop at the visitor's centre for a map, we were scoping out the lovely city centre by noon.

Baden-Baden is in Germany's Black Forest, as in the ham, and is well-known for its casino and healing thermal pools.  Although we did enter the casino's foyer, we were neither dressed well enough nor willing to pay the €5 admission fee to enter into the gaming area, so we turned right back around without further investigation.  We did, however, enjoy four glorious hours at the Caracalla Therme Baths.

Our first day was spent luxuriating in the pools and saunas of Caracalla, exploring the town, and eating and drinking as much local culinary delights as possible (a brat never tasted so good).  Our second day was spent in the hills.

I am absolutely sold on this charming mountain village.  To be able to stumble out your front door and, within just a few feet, find yourself up in the hills, at castle ruins, drinking a Hefe and eating a brat?  Heaven.
The weather turned angry whilst we were exploring the castle ruins and we were forced to seek shelter in the Irish coffee serving on-site cafe (where we probably would've wound up anyway).  After the sudden monsoon (seriously, the storm came out of nowhere and was crazy pouring) we headed back downhill.
We didn't want to miss the last bus back to the airport so we grabbed the next to last one, getting us to the airport approximately four hours earlier than necessary.  We left Germany around 10pm and were in our flat back in London by 1am.
What an amazing trip and what a fantastic introduction to Germany.  The Germans are friendly and kind, make amazing beer, and cook a mean brat.  We can't wait to explore their lovely country further.

For more pictures, please see my Facebook page here.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Brighton Day Trip

I had high hopes for Brighton.  Earlier this summer we visited the unknown seaside resort of Eastbourne and found it to be absolutely adorable and charming so the famous 'London by the Sea' should be much better, right?  Wrong.  Brighton was a mess.  There were some nice bits about it but mostly it was disappointing; over-crowded with unhappy families, an unexceptional pier, over-priced entertainment, and lots of hen-dos and stag groups wandering around in fancy dress screaming, trying to prove they were having a good time.  Perhaps Brighton just isn't our scene and most people enjoy it but, because it's not our scene, we'll be enjoying Eastbourne again before ever returning to Brighton.

The weather was overcast and a bit chilly with a strong breeze at the seaside when we arrived at around 10am yesterday morning.  We braved the breeze for a bit to check out the beach and pier but then headed inland to see the rest of the town.  We stumbled upon the Royal Pavilion, a Brighton must-see, but much like Oxford chose not to spend £6 per person to go inside, admiring the architecture from the exterior.

We found The Lanes, a charming but crowded area of small, winding streets with cute shops and restaurants, and promptly tucked in at English's Oyster Bar for an early al fresco lunch of oysters on the half shell and some live jazz.  This was a nice, safe spot to do some people watching before venturing out into the crowds again.

Post-oysters, we headed back to the shore for some seafront rambling.  We grabbed some cockles ('like clams'), whelks ('sea snails'), and anchovy wrapped olives for an impromptu beach picnic but the weather quickly chased us away.  We did sit on the stone beach long enough to determine it was more comfortable than expected, though walking on it was not pleasant at all.  Also, I liked the cockles more than the anchovy wrapped olives and the whelks  were okay with some vinegar and salt but otherwise a bit too chewy for my palate.

We spent the rest of the day just rambling around town and occasionally ducking into a pub to escape the poor weather.  One of the highlights of our day was discovering Bill's Cafe (thanks, Lou!), where we enjoyed afternoon tea.  This area of Brighton felt very authentic and we liked it a lot, though we didn't spend too much time exploring it.

The sun eventually did make an appearance and we rushed down to the seafront to enjoy it there.  We sat on the stones for a short while, just enjoying the beach and the sea.  When the sun started to set, and the chilly breeze returned, we headed back inland.  The crowd was beginning to change from families to fancy dress and the mood from stressed family outing to forced drunken fun.  Not enjoying either mood but finding the latter to be exponentially more dangerous than the former, we decided 8pm was a good time to split.

Yes, the stone beach was charming and The Lanes were cute as well but the rest of Brighton felt like forced fun and, though we're glad we went, we're sad to say Brighton is our first day trip disappointment since arriving in the United Kingdom almost a year ago.  That being said, that's not a bad record at all.

For more pictures, please see my Facebook page here.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Oxford Day Trip

An hour's train ride north-west of London and listed in my book of travel inspiration, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, Oxford makes for a perfect day trip destination.  This past Saturday morning, hoping for just that, Mike & I caught the 9:30am train from Paddington station to Oxford for some historic university town rambling. Coincidentally, our day trip was also graduation day for at least one of the colleges, adding just a dash of celebration to an otherwise serene day (not to mention a bunch of people in fur-lined black robes).


We started our day rambling away from the crowds at the train station and wound up at a small canal, our first glimpse of the canal culture in Oxford.  We saw a mini locks system in action and some Oxford-style houseboats.  The walk was short, though, and we quickly found ourselves amidst the crowds in the city centre.

We next stumbled upon Christ Church College and Cathedral, the largest university in Oxford and also where the Harry Potter series was filmed (though I'm not a huge fan of the films, I do enjoy pop culture icons).  There were massive queues to get in, plus an admission fee, and being fairly crowd and admission fee averse, we opted against checking out the interior.  We did, however, thoroughly enjoy the architecture and surrounding grounds.

At the far end of Christ Church College's grounds we found ourselves a lovely riverbank to relax on with our picnic and be entertained by the amateur punters trying to navigate the slight curves of the river.  'Punting' is a popular Oxford past-time and similar, at least visually, to gondoliering.  Actually, I wonder why it's not called gondoliering or what the difference is between a gondola and a punt.  Regardless, the activity is something one must do when visiting Oxford but something we passed on because it cost £20 per hour and looked difficult and this was supposed to be a relaxing day.  Surprisingly, simply sitting on the riverbank, watching the punters, turned out to be one of the highlights of our day.

Another highlight of our trip was exploring the local historic pubs.  We first enjoyed a pint at The Bear Inn which has been a local watering hole for Oxford students since the 13th century and has tie clippings from past students displayed on their walls and ceiling to prove it.  The pub was super cute (as most pubs are) and moderately priced at £7 for two pints.

Our second pub was the Turf Tavern, well hidden but worth the hunt.  Self-proclaimed as the oldest pub in Oxford, it had two lovely outdoor dining areas and was also moderately priced.

We ended our day with a picnic on the Oxford Cricket Grounds, watching a tennis match on the grass court during sunset.  We grabbed the 8:30pm train back home and were surprisingly exhausted after such a relaxing day.  Apparently, sun, heat, city rambling, rough sleeping (we had a nap on the riverbank), and good times proves to be quite tiring.  We'll definitely be returning to Oxford and now that we're acquainted with the town's exterior our next trip will probably include museums, admission charging sights like Christ Church, and other sights that will take us inside.  We might even try our hand at punting, though it's probably more fun just being a spectator.

For more pictures, please see my Facebook page here.

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