Europe 2005!

Finally, following seven years of talking and planning, Stacey and I decided to take our long-awaited trip to Europe this summer. Ever since I completed my semester abroad in London (1998), we decided that we would return to Europe again…together. This August seemed like the perfect time to plan our trip, before such things as grad school and babies *possibly* enter our lives!

I know I should have blogged about this sooner, but I have been incredibly busy preparing for my GMAT exam, among other things, since returning from the trip. Luckily, Stacey and I kept a trip log while we were gone to refer back to, Without that, these entries would have been very difficult to create.

Here are the individual entries:

Europe 2005

Day 10: Travel

Time to leave… Today, we woke up at 6:30, checked out of the Marriott Grosvenor Square, and walked to the Bond Street tube. We took the tube to Victoria, where we arrived just before 7:45 AM. There wasn’t enough time to catch the 7:45 AM Gatwick Express, so we took the next train that left at 8 AM. Once again, we grabbed croissants and coffee at the patisserie in station. We arrived at Gatwick around 8:30 and went to the check-in desk. Before obtaining a boarding pass, you need to first clear security (special for US-bound flights). If you have read my saga about the no-fly list, you know this is going to be fun…

The Gatwick police woman armed with PDA took our passports and then told me that I was on both the “selectee AND no-fly list”. Unbelievable! She then asked me to please come with her. After looking at the info on her PDA further, she said it was her mistake and that I was actually cleared from both lists. She still made me explain myself to her supervisor, the manager of security at Gatwick. After finally clearing this hurdle, went through “traditional” screening and into the main shopping concourse. I picked up a couple of CD’s at the Virgin Megastore while we awaited our gate number to be posted. The inbound flight into Gatwick from Charlotte was delayed by about one hour, pushing back our departure by about the same.

We encountered secondary security at the gate, where we were then “locked in”. This seemed a bit odd, but I think that security had been heightened due to it being close to September 11. Our total flight time back to Charlotte was about 9 hours. The food was better this time (baked chicken and ravioli-like pasta were the choices, served with good Italian cheese and crackers, Toblerone, lemon mousse, croissant with butter, and a pre-landing snack of turkey roll). Our flight path took us from Gatwick to Newfoundland, along New England coast to Hartford, then NYC, PHL, and DC, before landing in Charlotte. We cleared customs and immigration without issue (my Irish bog brick and all). We missed our original flight to RDU due to our late arrival, but took the next one. Our flight time to RDU was 25 minutes. We arrived at the terminal and claimed our baggage. We took a cab home, and greeted our kitties at door. After ordering a NY Pizza (pepperoni) we spent the rest of the night emptying suitcases. All in all, a great trip!

Day 9: Ireland/London

Today we woke up around 7:20 AM, showered, and had breakfast again at the Brigown B&B. This time, I had pancakes, and Stacey had toast with cheese. We packed our bags after breakfast, and went to the post office and shops in Ballina. I looked for smoked River Moy salmon to take back with us, but was worried about customs issues and freshness. After leaving Ballina, we drove to the Rogan family cottage on Killala Road, just outside of town. I was glad to be able to see it, even though it is in serious need of repairs. It is actually for sale for about 50K Euros, so maybe I will buy it! After leaving the cottage, we went to Belleek Castle, where we parked the car and walked through woods along the river bank across from the B&B. Upon returning to the car, we drove to the airport, where we returned the rental car (no damage charges!), checked in for our flight back to London, and shopped at the airport store for souvenirs. We flew back to Stansted and then caught the train back to Central London. The 45 minute journey ended up taking over an hour, due to major delays at the Liverpool Street station. As a result, we took another route back to hotel once we arrived. We checked in at the Marriott, retrieved our left luggage (which felt more like lost luggage), and went to dinner at Garfunkel’s. We then shopped for last-minute souvenirs on Oxford Street before returning to Garfunkel’s for dessert. We then went back to the hotel to pack (for the last time)!

Day 8: Ireland

Today we woke up just before 8 am and were served an amazing breakfast at the Brigown B&B in Ballina (salmon & eggs for Mike, French toast for Stacey). The B&B owner is known throughout Ireland for her cooking ability and even hosts a radio cooking show – this is why we picked this over others in the area. We showered after breakfast and left for Ceide Fields. Ceide Fields is a Neolithic archaeological site on the North Coast of County Mayo. We took a guided tour, and then explored the visitors center. It sure was a cool and windy day, but the rain held off. What didn’t hold off were the uninvited guests – crazy biting gnats that make you itch (aka biting midges)! They bit us like crazy while we were trying to take pictures outside (and the itch lasted for a while!) After leaving the visitors center, we headed to the North Mayo Irish Heritage Center in Crossmolina where I had the staff research my grandfather. For 30 Euros, they were able to provide me with a document that showed a record of his birth, just outside of Ballina. We left Crossmolina and stopped at a beach of the side of the road, where I managed to get the car stuck in the sand. I asked Stacey to get out and push, which enabled us to get out. We then went to Foxford Woollen Mills, took their tour, had lunch (egg & mayonnaise, soup), and visited their jewelry and souvenir shops. We drove from Foxford back to Ballina (10 minutes), and then continued up to Inishcrone to the beach on Killala Bay. We parked the car and walked along the beach. It was very foggy, so we traveled back to the B&B, parked the car, and walked to dinner at Crockett’s On the Quay. We had salmon cakes as an appetizer. I had Guinness and the fresh catch, monk fish, while Stacey had Heineken and steak. For dessert, we shared iced Baileys with coffee flakes. We walked back to the B&B early for some shut-eye.

Day 7: Ireland

Today we woke up at 7:30 AM, checked out of our hotel, and took our bags to the Marriott hotel across Grosvenor Square. This is where we stayed our first night in London, and it is also where we would be returning following our short trip to Ireland. Just to be safe, I had checked with the concierge the night before to ensure we could check our bags for a couple of days while we were gone. He said that it would be no problem. Unfortunately, the morning concierge didn’t share the same view. He reluctantly agreed to let us leave our bags after I explained the earlier conversation.

Upon leaving the Marriott, we went to Starbucks for breakfast. This was the first time we had Starbucks in over a week…that’s what I call restraint! We then took the Tube from Bond Street to Liverpool Street, to transfer to the Stansted Express train. Stansted is a remote London airport, about 50 miles north of the city, which houses many of the discount carriers. The express train to Stansted took about 45 minutes. We checked in at the RyanAir (similar to Southwest) counter and waited at the gate for our flight to board. We were sure to get in line early, since we were in the last boarding group (based on our check-in time). The flight was about an hour into Knock and was very smooth. It was interesting to see snacks being sold on board (nothing provided free). I’m sure that this will be coming soon enough to the States with all the current airline financial problems!

Upon arriving in Knock (a very small airport), we picked up our rental car from Hertz. It was an Opel Astra, which is about the size of a VW Golf. I was a little scared to drive it, since I would need to not only drive on the passenger side but also on the left side of the road. Regardless, we took off for Ballinlough to meet my extended family (my dad’s cousins). Despite having some difficulty finding their house (we had the right one the first time, but there was no answer), we finally Met Eddie & Linda, their girls Eileen and Yvonne, and their granddaughter Evie. They are wonderful people and made us feel as though we couldn’t leave (we didn’t want to, either). They served us dinner, Guinness, and Irish coffee (with whiskey). We left about 8 PM for our bed & breakfast in Ballina (pronounced Baal-IN-A). Needless to say, the dark, narrow roads were very unforgiving and we probably should have left earlier. While traveling through one of the towns on the way to Ballina, I managed to get to close to the curb on the left side of the car and one of the protruding, already-replaced hub caps made contact. It got sliced up pretty bad, being cheap plastic and all – but that was the extent of it. We finally arrived in Ballina around 9:30 after what seemed like a very long hour-and-a-half drive in the darkness and rain. We called the B&B owner before leaving the Rogans’ to let her know we were on our way, but she didn’t get the message and was worried about us. After explaining our adventure, we settled in for some long-awaited sleep.

Day 6: English Countryside

Today we woke up at 7 AM to meet the Evan Evans tour bus at the Millennium Mayfair hotel. We met the “local” bus at 8:10 AM and took it to Victoria Station to transfer to our actual tour bus. Our destinations? Bath, Stonehenge, and Windsor Castle! Talk about an ambitious schedule for one day! We grabbed coffee and water from a cafe in Victoria station after eating our store-bought pan de chocolat in the hotel on the way to meet the first bus.

The first stop on our tour was Windsor Castle. It took about an hour to get there from Victoria (we left Victoria at 9 AM, and arrived at Windsor Castle around 10 AM). At Windsor Castle, we toured the State Apartments, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, and the Chapel. We also saw the end of the changing of the guard. It was amazing to be reminded of how much restoration work was done following the horrible fire there in the ‘90’s. The interior of Windsor Castle is so elaborate that it is a “must see” for anyone that visits London. We left the castle at noon to head to Bath (a 2 hour bus ride). We were told to grab lunch on the way back to the bus and eat it on board. We ended up getting BLT’s from a sandwich shop (Cinnamons?) at the Windsor Train/Coach station shopping area.

It seemed to take forever, but we finally arrived in Bath just after 2 PM, following a nap on the bus while sheep-watching on the surrounding hillsides and fields. We toured the Roman Baths and walked around the city. It is really cool to think about the history of the ancient baths. Of course, no visit would be complete without a tasting of the “bath water”. Stacey clearly wasn’t a fan, so I ended up finishing it for the sake of politeness. We left Bath for Stonehenge around 4 PM.

We arrived in Stonehenge around 5 PM and took an audioguide tour that highlighted key information until it was time to board the bus to head back to London at 5:55 PM. On the way back, we hit stopped traffic near Heathrow, but were finally dropped off near the Marble Arch Tube station about 8:15 PM. From there, it was a short walk down Oxford Street to Duke Street where we grabbed a quick meal at a nearby pub (the Barley Mow) before heading back to our hotel to get ready for Tuesday’s Ireland trip.

Day 5: London

Today we woke up around 8 and traveled to Victoria station to check on Leeds Castle departure times. We decided that the train times wouldn’t allow us to spend enough time at the castle, so we picked up breakfast instead (hot cocoa/cappuccino, pain du chocolat/ham and cheese croissant from the French patisserie at Victoria). After eating breakfast in the station, we took the Tube to Tower Hill, bought tickets for Tower of London at the tube station (to save time), and walked across to the Tower entrance. Since it was still early, there were no crowds, and were able to wander in and go straight to the Crown Jewels. We watched historical videos on the way in, saw the jewels (sparkly!), and were able to make several passes due to no crowds. The last time I saw the jewels, I was lucky to see the jewels once and I felt rushed the entire time. We bought some souvenirs at the Jewel Shop before continuing our visit. We arrived back at the front gate for the noon “beefeaters” tour with “Phil”. He was a riot (as we had hoped). He told us about Sir Walter Raleigh (who Raleigh is named after) and his imprisonment, among other stories more familiar to us. We heard about beheadings that took place both within and outside of the tower grounds, and then went to the chapel, where some of those beheaded are buried beneath the floor. After the tour, we went into the Bloody Tower and toured White Hall Castle (mostly an armory). Before leaving the tower, we stopped at the main gift shop and bought a couple more things. In total, we spent about 3.5 hrs at the tower.

We had lunch at Viti’s Lounge, which was a short walk from the tower. We both had ham and cheese paninis. Stacey had a glass of wine and I had a beer (“super-chilled” Fosters). We then trekked back to the hotel. On the way, we stopped at an “Easy” Internet Café (which ended up being anything but easy), where we had trouble purchasing an access code (the machines were all broken) and then had trouble getting a working station (the hardware was in poor condition). Finally, we were able to get online and checked email, weather, and the tour information for Monday. Equally important, we checked Starbucks locations, and saw that Rehnquist had died. Stacey stopped on way back to the hotel and bought a cheap purse from a street vendor.

Back at the hotel, I called to book our tour for Monday. We then went to dinner at the Prince Edward Pub in Notting Hill. I had never been to this part of London before, so it was really cool. Notting Hill is an amazing, highly affluent neighborhood that has a cool character that’s hard to explain. You’ll just have to go yourself! At the Prince Edward, we had garlic bread, roast beef, “super-chillled” Fosters, and shared creme brulee for dessert. We got a little lost coming back, but ended up finding a grocery (Sainsbury’s) to get breakfast for the morning. We eventually found another tube station and came back to hotel.

Day 4: London

We woke up just before 10 AM (finally slept in!). Our plan was to head to Leeds Castle for the day. We didn’t have time to catch the 11:18 AM train after getting ready, so we decided to shoot for the 12:18 PM train instead.

We called the concierge desk at the Millennium Mayfair Hotel to ask which station the train to Leeds Castle departed from and were told Waterloo. As a result, we took the Tube to Waterloo and waited in the general ticket line. When we got to front of line, we were told that we needed to buy the tickets from Waterloo East instead! By the time we got this news, it was already too late to get the 12:18 PM train, so we decided to try for the 1:18 PM train instead. We decided to double-check with the Southwest trains information desk and they said to go buy tickets from the original ticket area that told us they didn’t have them! After getting clarification from the travel center next to the ticket line, we were told the real story – all three people had given us incorrect info – the train to Leeds left from Victoria Station instead!

At this point, we said screw it and decided to go to Hampton Court Palace instead, which had originally been planned for Sunday. We bought tickets to Hampton Court from the Waterloo travel center (combo train fare/admission). After having breakfast at a bagel shop at Waterloo, we boarded the train for the 30 minute ride to Hampton Court Palace in East Molesey.

We started our tour by getting audio guides and proceeded to the Henry XVIII State Apartments, King George Apartments, the Tudor Kitchens, and finally the gardens. While I had been to the palace before, it was great to visit again with Stacey and not be with a larger group. We journeyed back to Waterloo after grabbing snack at convenience store (strange cheese and jalapeño on bread + candy bars = healthy!).

Once at Waterloo, we left the station on foot. I took Stacey to the old ‘hood and Schiller International University (where I did my study abroad). While *it* hasn’t changed much, the area around it certainly has undergone a huge revitalization (new IMAX theatre directly across from the entrance). We walked down Waterloo Road to the junction of the Thames path and took the path to the new London Eye for an 8:00 PM “flight”. This is also something that didn’t exist in 1998. It gives a unique perspective on the city and I’m glad that we went! We bought a couple of souvenirs, and then walked across the new Millennium Bridge to have dinner at the Sherlock Holmes Pub (recommended by Rick Steves and our tour bus guide from the first day). It is near the Charing Cross/Embankment tube stations. Stacey and I both had fish and chips, a pint of “Sherlock” (house brew), and prawns for an appetizer (I also *had* to buy a souvenir pint glass). We took the tube back to the Millennium Mayfair hotel around 11 PM.

Day 3: Paris

We went to bed shortly after midnight. At about 1:30 AM, the fire alarm went off in the hotel. We got dressed quickly and proceeded down the narrow stairway (not as narrow as the elevator!). Once we were near the bottom of the stairs, we heard “pas de problemme”, which apparently means “don’t worry about it/get your ass back in bed”, so we went back upstairs.

We woke up at 7:30 AM for a sidewalk breakfast at a patisserie/boulangerie (bakery/coffee shop) around the corner. I had coffee and a croissant de buerre, while Stacey had chocolat (hot chocolate) and au pain du chocolat (chocolate croissant). Although we didn’t want to leave the bakery, we certainly didn’t want to let the day slip away. We walked to the Louvre, where we took pictures in courtyard, and then planned to get tickets for the 11 AM English-speaking tour. Unfortunately, we missed the tour, since a group of 2 ahead of us got the last tickets. We decided to get tickets for the next tour (2 PM) instead. Upon leaving the Louvre, we were approached by the first of several Indian women, who were part of what I will term the “beggars cult”. They would walk up to people and ask them “you speak English?”, then display a postcard with a story about being in the country and having no money. The problem? All of them had the *same* story. It became so annoying that we would say we didn’t speak English after encountering about the 10th similar beggar.

We walked through Jardin des Tuileries, just outside of the Louvre, and sat for awhile by the fountain near the end of the walkway, enjoying the beautiful day and watching the people and birds in the area. We then walked through Place de la Concord, and up the Champs Elysees. After a bit, we turned around and walked back through Jardin des Tuileries and stopped for lunch in an outdoor cafe (Cafe Renard). Stacey had a ham and cheese baguette, while I had a chicken baguette.

After lunch, we went to the Louvre, where we decided to use an alternate entrance (to get in faster), and took the English tour from 2-3:30 PM. This only allowed us time to see one wing (moving quickly)…the place is simply huge! Nevertheless, we were able to see some of the Louvre’s most famous treasures (including the Mona Lisa and the remains of the medieval Louvre). Our tour guide hated our entire group (and maybe herself). She viewed herself as above everyone else on the tour and appeared to be annoyed that she was required to speak English. After the tour, we went to the museum gift shop (a great place to furnish a home) and the post office (to buy postcard stamps). We decided to take the Metro to the Arc de Triomphe, but my Metro card still wasn’t working. Stacey explained the situation to station agent and she let me through. We hung out at the Arc de Triomphe for a bit, and then went back to the Metro station, where Stacey again explained the situation with my card to another agent, who finally replaced the card! We took the metro back towards Ile de la Cite, and had dinner at Le Procope, a classic French restaurant. 6:30 was apparently too early for dinner, since we were the first ones seated in the place. I had tomato & mozzarella, anchovies, caviar, duck with pear, and ice cream served in cream puffs with hot chocolate. Stacey had French onion soup, chicken baked with thyme & potatoes, and raspberry sorbet/pie. And of course, French wine!

After dinner, we took the metro back to the Chatelet station (near our hotel), picked up our bags, bought post cards, filled them out and ran to the mailbox. We tried to catch a cab to Gare du Nord, but there were suddenly none to be found. I tried to use the phone to call a cab but struck out there as well. Frustrated, and running short on time, we took the Metro instead, and almost missed our Eurostar back to London (arrived 20 minutes prior to departure – it was supposed to be minimum of 30 minutes). The train ride back to London offered some much needed time to relax.

Day 2: Paris

We woke up at 4:45 AM to catch the 5:30 AM Tube to Waterloo Station (departure point for the Eurostar train to Paris). We left the hotel and walked to the Bond Street station, only to find that the doors were locked (it turns out we went to the *wrong* doors)! Frustrated and worried about missing our train, we raced back to our hotel, hailed a cab to Waterloo, and arrived at 6 AM (*barely* on time for our 6:32 AM departure)!

Our Eurostar train left at 6:32, and arrived at Paris’ Gare du Nord station at 10:23 AM (Paris is one hour ahead of London GMT). We had trouble locating an ATM at the station, but eventually found one and proceeded to the cab queue outside the station. Our cab driver was *insane* (used bus lanes, race car maneuvers, swore in French at other motorists, made his own lanes, and nearly mowed down innocent pedestrians). Nevertheless, we arrived unscathed at the Hotel Britannique, (one of only two hotels that I didn’t use Priceline for) where we checked our bags at the front desk since it was too early to check in.

We left the hotel, bound for Notre Dame Cathedral, at noon. Notre Dame was only a short walk across the River Seine. We picked up an audio tour at the main entrance and wandered around this magnificent place for about 2 hours. Photography was not allowed inside, but we took away a great experience. After exiting the cathedral, we stopped to snack on store-bought croissants bought the night before from Marks & Spencer in London. We had lunch at Au Vieux Chatelet, which wasn’t very good. I had a late afternoon French “breakfast”, but they were out of croissants! Stacey had an very tough ham sandwich. We then checked into our hotel room, unpacked, and took the Metro to the Eiffel Tower station.

We decided to have a second attempt at lunch upon finding a sidewalk café along the Seine. This consisted of a baguette sandwich and Evian (of course) and was much better than our first experience! We took the 6 PM river cruise (Bateaux Parisiens) down the Seine past Notre Dame and back. The cruise photographers took a decent picture of the two of us, so we decided to go ahead and buy it. We left the boat dock and headed for the Eiffel Tower, where we went all the way to top observation area, then down to the second level, where we watched the sunset, and saw the lights of Paris illuminate. We stayed on the tower for over two hours, and had no desire to leave…but, eventually we got hungry!

After leaving the tower, we went to the metro, since we had planned on late French dinner in another part of the city. My metro card wouldn’t work (though it *had* worked earlier in the day and was a multi-day pass). Since there was no one at the station to help with my problem, we ended up taking a cab to Cafe Beaubourg for dinner. Unfortunately, it was so late when we arrived that they would only serve us drinks. We decided to have some white wine before leaving to walk back to a restaurant closer to our hotel (le Zimmer), where we had dessert (mint ice cream, apple pie, beer), before crashing for the night (long day!).