Do you Museum when you travel?

An exhibit in Profundo Rosso,  A museum about the Italian horror movies of director Dario Argento

An exhibit in Profundo Rosso, A museum about the Italian horror movies of director Dario Argento

I came across a link to an article on The Economist about museums and how they’re attracting new visitors. Museums: Temples of delight. The premise of the article is based on how museums are changing. These days, you can find out about pretty much anything on the internet. Why would people want to go to museums to see and learn about things? But they certainly are. According to the article, 3/4 of all Swedish adults visit a museum once a year. That’s amazing! But it doesn’t really explain what the attraction is.

One theory is that as more people are getting better educations, they like to visit museums as an extension of that education. The next two paragraphs, quoted from the article, are the ones I find particularly interesting.

In developed countries museums are being championed by a wide variety of interest groups: city fathers who see iconic buildings and great collections as a tourist draw; urban planners who regard museums as a magic wand to bring blighted city areas back to life; media that like to hype blockbuster exhibitions; and rich people who want to put their wealth to work in the service of philanthropy (“a way for the rich to launder their souls”, as one director put it). For young people they are a source of something authentic and intriguing when their electronic entertainments start to pall.

In the more affluent parts of the developing world, too, museum-building has flourished, driven mainly by governments that want their countries to be regarded as culturally sophisticated (though wealthy private individuals are also playing a part). They see museums as symbols of confidence, sources of public education and places in which a young country can present a national narrative. Visitor numbers in such countries are also rising fast, boosted by a growing middle class. Some hope to use cultural offerings to attract many more foreign tourists. In Qatar and Abu Dhabi, for instance, a clutch of new museums under construction is meant to turn the Gulf into a destination for visitors from Europe, Russia and South Asia. Chinese museums received more than 500m visits last year, 100m more than in 2009.

Tourism, urban development, philanthropy, cultural status and a reality check? These days museums are not just about reading information boards beside the exhibits. They incorporate multi-media, encourage participation, making a visit to a museum an experience. And while I often find the “Experience” more of a tourist trap than a true overall feeling, in many cases, museums especially, it really can add to the visit. In order to keep people coming and attract new visitors, especially younger people, you gotta entertain them to keep their interest and I say, what’s wrong with that? If being interactive and entertained teaches someone about any subject, isn’t that a good thing?

I love museums and when I travel I always plan to take in at least one or more. I may not have the stamina to spend hours and hours in the big ones but I will still take in highlights or areas of it that interest me the most. I like museums, large ones or small, unique ones. Sometimes the smaller and more unique, the better though these are the ones that are struggling to stay open! I like museums because I’m interested in history and art and where it all  comes from and how things evolve to what they are today, in many cases.

One of my favourite museums is the Museum of London that traces the history of the city back to the Romans.  Another similar one is the Glasgow People’s Museum. Social history museums of just one period in history or the history from the beginnings to current day of an area or city are really interesting and also important to help you relate to how the past shaped the present.  What was life like 200 years ago? Are there similarities in how people lived then to how they do now?

In that article from the Economist, there are a few icons for oddball museum topics and at least one of them, ‘dog collars’ is one I’ve been to. It’s in Leeds Castle in Kent, England and is just a couple of rooms of glassed cases but it’s fascinating! Other interesting smaller museums include the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, the Sir John Soan Museum in London and the Fan Museum in Greenwich, London, just to name a couple. I love these odd and unique museums even if just because they can be so bizarre. The Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle was awesome and the Crypt for the Cappuchin Monks in Rome, with chapels decorated in bones of thousands of monks is superbly strange!

British Library, London, with the Victorian St. Pancras Hotel behind it

British Library, London, with the Victorian St. Pancras Hotel behind it

I’ve also been to special exhibits in locations that aren’t strictly museums but which do have displays on a revolving or semi-permanent basis. The British Library has a display of some of their treasures and a few years ago, we got tickets for a fantastic exhibit on Henry VIII. That had many multi media aspects including audio, video, and even a hologram of Henry in his armour. Very cool! It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up to see the letters he wrote and notes he wrote in the margins of books.

On our next trip, we’re going to Paris and I’m hoping to see the Musee Carnavalet which tells some of the story of Paris. We’re also planning to see the Military Museum and Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides. We are even doing a day trip to see the Bayeux Tapestry on display and will probably take in something about Joan of Arc in Rouen and stroll through Monet’s garden and house at Giverney.

What’s  your favourite museum? Do you prefer the big ticket ones or small, intimate ones? Do you seek out a particular topic or type of museum?

Traveling through books: London and the UK

You’ve probably noted my series of posts about movies shot in locations that are great for armchair traveling. I’ve read a couple of non-fiction travel books lately and it put me in mind of several others I’ve read on the same subject, my favourite city, London and of the UK in general. A couple of them are true “travel” type books, and a couple more are more historical facts but equally interesting and one is fiction that describes the  history of the city through the eyes of several families and their descendants. I like that because it describes how various familiar sites and areas of London developed and changed over the centuries. Makes me want to visit those sites on my next visit!

The city of London has changed and grown considerably around St. Paul's Cathedral, and there's no end in sight.

The city of London has changed and grown considerably around St. Paul’s Cathedral, and there’s no end in sight.

Move Along, Please – Mark Mason

This man has undertaken the journey between Land’s End and John O’Groats, the southern and northernmost points of the main island of the U.K. He’s doing it by local busses, not long distance “coach” and thus meanders along the countryside meeting local people who take the bus for work or shopping or school. By avoiding the main motorways where long distance coaches travel, he’s seen more of the “real” everyday Britian. He’s armed with several books written by people who have done this journey in the past by various means and meets up with others along the way who have local knowledge in various stopping points.

Bizarre London – David Long

This is a book of facts about London, the weird, wonderful and little known facts and events. Read about a cross dressing highwayman, a licensed brothel on Whitehall, read about architectural features that tell stores of the past, odd museums, murders, and all sorts of things.

Tales from the Tower of London – Daniel Diehl

A series of stories about the goings on in the Tower of London over the centuries from it’s establishment by William the Conqueror to the 20th century. Mainly it’s about various people that were incarcerated there and includes historical events such as the Gunpowder Plot and the Peasants’ Revolt. Not bad and if you’re interested in the history of London you will probably find it worth a quick read. Not really in depth but easy to read.

London: The Biography – Peter Ackroyd

It did take me quite awhile to read this book but it’s easy to pick up and put down. Each chapter tells about an aspect of the social history of London and it all comes together over centuries to become the city it is today. Crime, poverty, theatre, economics, architecture, neighbourhoods, strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t read like a textbook, it’s quite interesting.

London – Edward Rutherfurd

Rutherfurd writes long involved fictional histories of an area or city starting, usually, with very early civilization up to the present day. The story he’s written about London starts just before the Roman invasion and ends after World War II. He introduces a handful of familys and traces the stories through them and their ancestors over the centuries. It’s life from the every day people’s point of view. The stories get briefer in the more recent century and a half, with the updates from the 20th century past WWI being just touched on. The best bits are the early to medieval and Tudor/Stuart eras. There’s a family tree at the start to keep them all straight though you can’t see it very well if using an ereader.

UK: Icons of England – Bill Bryson

Bryson edits a collection of contributions from other people who write about their favourite bits of England. They aren’t exactly icons in the traditional definition of the word but they do give a broad feeling of different aspects, such as weather, various nature, seaside, and a lot of them are recollections from the writer’s past. The book was originally a coffee table type with photographs and was a fund raiser. I read it as an ebook and it was not bad. Not always interesting but everyone’s taste is different. You would probably get more out of it if you’d lived there.

Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is a very good travel writer, lots of dry humour in his observations which has reduced me to weeping giggles often.This was the first of his books I had read and I reread it last year and giggled just as much. He travels around Britain, mainly by public transportation on busses and trains, to towns, villages and cities as well. He’s an American but has lived in the U.K. for quite a number of years. He has the point of view of a non-native and yet is spot on in many of his observations. Thoroughly enjoyable.

These are the books that I’ve read that can give a reader a great look at London and some of the UK. They give more than just dry historical facts or a generic travel guide “things to do and see”, they show you the past and the present in ways you might not think to look for.  Most of them are available as ebooks from your favourite site (Kobo, Kindle etc.) and you library or a second hand bookstore will have many of them as well. Feel free to comment and suggest others I or other readers might enjoy about London and the U.K.

Adding interest to travel photos

Feeding the pigeons in January in London’s Green Park.

I had a comment on a recent post regarding this photo of a woman feeding the birds in Green Park, London. She said that she loved to watch people feeding birds in parks and watching the reactions of children. My response was “It’s for moments like this that I try to keep my camera in my hand as much as possible even when just walking through a park or down the street. These are the photos that add more memories and more interest to the travel photos than just buildings or famous sites which I take in abundance, of course, and I realized I had a good topic for a blog  post.

I take lots of photos of lots of things when I travel. I like to take photos of the famous things I see like the Eiffel Tower or the canals of Amsterdam or the Colosseum in Rome. I take photos of nice buildings or beautiful landscapes. I also like to take photos of close up details like doors and windows, carved moldings and details on statues, the overall and the in detail views. My trips are full of memories of architecture, gardens, landscapes, sometimes people.

But the thing is, people do add so much to a photo. It can really help tell the story. Most photographers that give you tips on how to take great travel photos advise you to take photos of local people and ask first, of course, offering to give them a copy if you can. I have done it but rarely. I have to admit, I’m a bit shy to ask to take a photo of a person in a shop or a market stall or other similar situations. When I have photos of people in my travel pictures, they’re generally taken from a distance, an angle or from the back, with the zoom lens rather than as a portrait face-on. I don’t take too many photos of children where their faces are identifiable because I know parents aren’t comfortable with that.

Travel photos of buildings and statues or landscape vistas, etc, are only half the story. The random photos of something in a market stall, or a shop window display, a funny sign, an odd looking vehicle, the night lights, or of someone feeding the birds in a park, people flogging merchandise to tourists on a bus, those are all travel memories, too. Performers, someone demonstrating a craft, a guide, people in parades, all of those expect their photo to be taken and I do. I do try to take photos with people in them, even if just anonymous crowds on the street. I’d love to take portraits of a colourful market stall owner, or a friendly restaurante server, but I never seem to have the nerve to ask them outright. Thus, the clandestine shot from 20 or 30 feet away which isn’t always as good, even cropped in closer.

The other thing I do is try to keep my camera, a point and shoot style, in my hand or in an outside pocket as much as possible when we’re out walking around. Moments like the bird feeder shot come up quickly as you stroll by. P&S cameras can take a pretty good photo quickly rather than  having to stop and fuss with the exposure and focus and lose the moment. If at an event with action like sports or a fast moving street performer I will sometimes put my camera on the setting that will take multiple shots in a row. You might get a lot of motion blurry ones but it can also get a shot of something that you might otherwise miss. And having a bit of motion blur in the photo can add to it, not take away from it. Don’t discard it just because of that.

Here is a gallery of some of my people shots. Some are street performers or craft demonstrators and thus were aware of the camera. Some were candids. The one of the lady serving tea outside the church in Lostwithiel could have been so much better had a asked her if I could take her photo. She would have been looking at the camera and, one would hope, smile, surrounded by her tea cups and silver urn and cakes. Maybe next time.

Traveling through books

Brighton Pier, Brighton, UK

Brighton Pier, Brighton, UK

I love to read and I always have. In fact, my whole family were readers. Both parents, my sister and I always had our noses into a book. When I was a teenager, I discovered Harlequin Romances. They were short novels, written to a formula and always had a happy ending. I really liked them because of the storylines but also because they took place in locations all over the world. Even then, I loved to read descriptions of different places and I still do.

Since I am a self-confessed Anglophile, with British and Irish genes, my favourite book locations are anywhere in the U.K. and Ireland, city or village or countryside.  I read books by English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish writers frequently. It’s even better when I’ve actually been to the location and can pictures some of the areas described. It doesn’t really matter, however. It gives me glimpses of a place I might like to visit sometime, just like seeing movies or television shows filmed in a foreign location does. I even like historical novels that give a good sense of place. Edward Rutherfurd’s books detail the history of a city or location through the eyes of a number of families and there are great descriptions. You really gain an appreciation for how a city developed over time and if and when you do get to visit, you can search out various neighbourhoods and buildings for yourself.

Obviously, I’m not going to list all the books I’ve read that I’ve enjoyed for the locations in addition to the story itself. There are far too many! Through books, I’ve enjoyed visiting such far flung countries as Japan, Russia, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand, among others. City “visits” have included Rome, Paris, Moscow, London (of course!), Dublin, New York, Oslo, Cairo and Berlin. I’ve gained a recent interest in some of the crime novelists from Scandinavia in recent years, due to rising popularity after the “Dragon Tattoo” books by Stieg Larsson. In fact, there’s a website devoted to authors from that part of Europe so there will be lots of suggestions and recommendations I will be looking at. Scandinavian Crime Fiction is being added to my Favourites right now! Authors such as Jo Nesbo and Camilla Lackberg give a wonderful feel for the location as well as the story. I’m very impressed by the translation to English too, it seems to really pick up the feel and atmosphere of what the original novel is probably like in its native language.

Another of my favourite authors is Diana Gabaldon. She has written a series of books based on time travel. They’re historic, they’re romantic, they’re really well researched and absolutely amazing. The first in the series is called Outlander and the first few books are based in the Scottish Highlands during the final Jacobite uprising and the years after, the rest are based in North Carolina and the east coast of American in the years leading up to and during the War of Independence. So far! She’s also got another few books that are mysteries with one of the side characters from the main series, the Lord John Grey books.

As for the type of book I like, I can read almost anything if I’m in the mood for it, though favourites include historical fiction, crime novels, general fiction and sometimes a taste of fantasy, autobiography/biography, history (non-fiction),  comedy, romance (but not the “bodice rippers” as a rule), and I do like what might be classed as “women’s” fiction, “chicklit” and the like. I’ve chosen the photo for this post because I’ve recently discovered an author, Peter James, who writes about a detective, Roy Grace, who works and lives in Brighton, England. I’ve been to Brighton for a visit and the first book that I read had some of the action going on inside the Royal Pavillion, which I’ve also visited so could picture clearly. I’ve just picked up a couple more of his books to enjoy.

If you have a book recommendation and if it features great locations, Please do comment!

To Bus Tour or not To Bus Tour

Guide Bill, Driver Tony and the bus. Ireland, 2002

Guide Bill, Driver Tony and the bus. Ireland, 2002

This is a blog about touring regions and countries on an organized coach or bus tour. Day trips on a bus with a guide are a different animal.  Overall, I like bus tours and have taken several in the past when I’ve traveled with a friend or alone.

I may have mentioned in past blog entries that I have taken several bus tours in my time. The very first time I went to the U.K. was one of those times. I had finally been able to save up enough money to afford to travel and the first place I was determined to go was to the U.K. I had long had an affinity for the British culture and history and there was no contest as to my first international destination.

I decided to take a bus tour with a co-worker. That started off with a hiccup (read what happened here) and I ended up on the tour bus on my own. It didn’t matter. The bus was full of people so I wouldn’t get lonely. There was always someone to talk to and eat with and hang out with if I wanted to. There were several other women traveling on their own, too. The guide was Irish and he was excellent, lots of fun and very informative. He traveled with a briefcase full of papers and notes (this being before the days of laptops for easy storage!) He told stories, recited poems, cracked jokes and was good fun to have on board!

The next tour I took was for nearly 2 weeks around much of Italy, with another friend. This friend stayed with me! We started with a few days in London and ended in London overnight as well. We really enjoyed it but felt that the 2 weeks was a bit much. By the end we were feeling a bit burned out. I can’t imagine how people take bus tours that last a month! My aunts did this for 21 days, covering 6 or 8 countries across Europe and were exhausted by the end. I can well imagine! The one disappointing aspect of this tour was that our guide was clearly inexperienced. He didn’t come across as enthusiastic or relaxed and read most of his information straight from his books and papers without embellishment.

I have two more tours under my belt, one around the Republic of Ireland and one around just Scotland, both with the same friend and we enjoyed those as well. They were both a week long and just the right length and luckily, both guides here were great with lots of experience! The first one back in 1993 was still the best, though.

Bus tours have advantages and disadvantages. Some people regard them with horror, feeling like sheep herded around from attraction to attraction, unable to go your own way. That’s kind of true but most tour companies also give you free time to do your own thing. You get to see the main highlights and you can then decide where you’d like to return on a future trip if you get to come back. For many people, they may not be able to travel very often and they can at least see the highlights. Transportation and accommodation are never a problem and they even schlep your luggage in and out of the hotel for you. You always get breakfast and often the evening meals are provided when you are not in a major city. The guide is usually very organized and very informative, often very entertaining, too! You often get the expertise of local guides and if an attraction is included in the price, the entry fee is as well and you don’t have to wait in the ticket queue.

Touring has an advantage for people traveling alone. Not everyone is an adventurous traveler willing to strike out on their own if they are not traveling with someone else or even if they are. Touring this way is a great way to see other countries and get a taste of other cultures. It might not be as in depth or “real” as interacting with the people that actually live in your destination, which is a point that some people make when deriding bus tours, but everyone has their own way of doing things and everyone has their own comfort zone. I figure that if it takes a bus tour to get out of your home and you get to see new and different things, then do it! Travel covers a lot of different definitions.

Tours can also be useful if you are in a country where you don’t speak the language. The tour guides will be speaking your language, English if you’re me. They often speak other languages so can negotiate their way around menus, shops, and even other co-tourers who may not speak English very well.

See the people in the yellow caps? That's a tour group! Piazza Rotunda (outside the Pantheon). Rome, 2012

See the people in the yellow caps? That’s a tour group! Piazza Rotunda (outside the Pantheon). Rome, 2012

Disadvantages are the aforementioned group “herding” though I was on a tour once where some of the passengers used the bus merely for transportation and did their own thing entirely, armed with guide books and made sure to be back at the bus by departure times. Most bus tours also include visits to various shops or factories and the fact is that the guides will get a kickback on the percentage of sales. Most of them will not or should not push you to spend your money, in my experience. Most of the visits for demonstrations will likely be interesting. I’ve never bought anything at any of those places as I found the prices were more expensive than at other shops.

Another disadvantage if you are traveling with a budget tour company will be the hotel locations. Often in major cities, the hotels that the budget companies use will be outside the city or in a less central area. They will usually be near public transportation so if you want to be out in the evening on your own, a bus, underground or short cab ride will get you back safely. Not always though. And if you don’t speak the local language, many people are a bit intimidated to try the transportation or try to communicate with a cab driver on their own. The tour company always provides the bus as a way of getting back to the hotel but you’re restricted to one departure time. If you aren’t ready to go back, you may your own way to the hotel that evening.

Many tours include dinner in the evening, either in the hotel or at a designated restaurant, usually with a set menu. But if you find that restrictive, you can always go out on your own and find somewhere else to eat, but it’s then at your expense. You can always request a special meal, say, vegetarian or Halal. When staying in major cities, the companies don’t generally include the evening meal. The reason for that is twofold. One, they can then sell you a fancy meal and entertainment and Two, there are so many opportunities in a major city to find a variety of restaurants and entertainment for the evening and it gives you a break from the activities and provides flexibility.

And evening of entertainment at Bunratty Castle, Ireland 2002

And evening of entertainment at Bunratty Castle, Ireland 2002

Ah yes, the “optional” extras. When reading the itinerary, if you see a sentence that starts with “you have the opportunity to…” or “Why not try….” then the chances are good that you will pay extra for that. These optional excursions and entertainment can really add on to the cost. Are they worth it? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I’ve opted in for some that were excellent value and some that were not in the end. Your mileage may vary, literally! If it’s something you really want to see/do, it will probably be worth it. If your budget is tight, no worries, it’s not required.

One of my friends recently returned from Paris where she paid quite a lot for an evening excursion but it included dinner in the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant, a night cruise on the Seine and a ticket to a show at the Moulin Rouge, including transportation to and from the hotel and between all of the events. She thought it was amazing! You’ve got a budget, you’ve got the descriptions on paper and from the guide so you can judge whether it’s something you want to do or not.

Many tours will take you to shops and factories to see how regional specialties and crafts are made. They’re hoping you will purchase something but you are in no way obligated and they should not pressure you. If they do, complain loudly. If you think the item is worth the higher cost they generally charge, fine. But be aware you can often get the same thing elsewhere in the region for less. It can be interesting to see the demonstrations. One that stays in my memory is how cameos are carved. We were shown this on a stop in Sorrento, Italy. Watching the glass blowers and etchers in the Waterford Crystal Factory was fascinating, too.

Would I take another tour? Yes, I might  if I ever had the opportunity, although my partner isn’t as keen. He finds the motion of a long bus journey bothersome and prefers to do the driving himself though he’s ok on a one day excursion.  Be that as it may, in spite of some disadvantages, I like a bus tour. They aren’t for everyone and I like traveling independently as well, but I’ll defend that type of traveling.

Our tour group from the UK tour 1993

Our tour group from the UK tour 1993

Photo Faux Pas

I follow a fair number of blogs and a fair number follow mine. As a result, I get to see a lot of wonderful photos. I’ve always enjoyed looking at vacation photos which inspire my love of travel, even if where they went isn’t really somewhere I want to go. They went and they had a great time and they show off the pictures of the things they did and saw.  In the old days, you’d be invited round to see a slide show from your friends’ vacation. Some people shudder at the thought but not me, I’m SO there. These days people, me included,  display their digital photos online and send the links to their friends.

I post my vacation photos to albums on a couple of photo websites (Flickr, Shutterfly) and link to them in the travelogues I then write for my own personal website (and travel blog here). If people aren’t interested in looking at the photos, I’m not offended. It’s not everyone’s taste though if I do say so myself, I’m not too shabby at taking a snap! (Most of the time). Ok, not all of my photos are great but sometimes  you have one of something you’ve seen or done and it’s the only one so that gets included anyway.

There are a few things I do try to avoid when I post an album of my photos. Even if I’ve taken more than one picture of a view or item, I try to post only one or possibly two. This is a bit negative and please don’t take it personally if it’s something you, dear traveler, do. It’s only my opinion and I will defend your right to post photos of whatever you want because it was your trip and it’s your memories. Don’t be offended if I skip though a lot of the photos when there are 5 or even 10 of almost exactly the same scene or building or park. I understand taking multiple shots to get a good one, I do that. But the “deja vu” of clicking through a dozen shots, not even from vastly different angles, wears me out. I never understand why, just because the photo has been taken, that it ends up being part of the collection displayed.

Another thing that most people do, as do I, is have photos of themselves in various locations while on this holiday. Of course you would want to say “See? I was there! That’s the Eiffel Tower behind me” (or whatever). Having someone else take a photo of you is fraught with potential pitfalls. You’re at the mercy of the skill of the kind person that offered to take the photo. Out of focus, camera shake, chopped off heads, but it might be the only one you have of you (and your traveling companion) in front of the Colosseum so it stays in the displayed gallery.  I don’t like to be in too many photos so for me, I tend to be in a small number. The extreme opposite, though, always brings me back to some vacation photos I saw online once quite a few years ago.

My friend and I in Assissi. Yep. we're out of focus but it's the only one we have!

My friend and I in Assissi. Yep. we’re out of focus but it’s the only one we have!

There are lots of photo hosting sites and some of them come and go. This site has been long gone but you could browse a location and find albums that people had set up to show their photos from that location. My mom and I were browsing some that were taken in Island Paradise type settings, tropical resorts and beaches, that sort of thing. This one couple had 3 or 4 different locations and we clicked through many of their photos but I started to notice something and asked my Mom if she thought there was anything peculiar. It occurred to me that one or the other or both of the couple that had posted the pictures were in every one. EVERY one. Without fail, there was the grinning mug of Himself or Herself or Themselves. Lovely location but there they were, front and centre. You might catch a glimpse of beach and palm tree or pool but that was all. Once we mentioned it to each other, we continued to browse. Yep, there he/she is. And there. And we got the giggles after awhile. Please, people, don’t do this! You could stay home and just take pictures of each other for all you really showed of your vacation!

Artistically blurry can sometimes work but out of focus? Leave it on the hard drive. I have on rare occasions posted a photo that shows a bit of camera shake or slight out of focus mainly because it’s the only one I’ve got that even sort of turned out but I keep it for my own private viewing. Ok, yes sometimes I shake the camera on purpose when I try to be artistic. 9 times out of 10 it doesn’t work but once in awhile it does, or, at least, I like it. Too dark/too light? If you can’t really make it out, neither can I. And if it’s a photo with people in it and the heads are lopped off, it’s not very dignified for them is it? Thankfully in these digital days you can see if that’s happened right after you take the photo.

Rainbow in the Highlands, near Glencoe.  The "Hail Mary" lucky shot through the bus window

Rainbow in the Highlands, near Glencoe.
The “Hail Mary” lucky shot through the bus window

I’m probably coming across as a bit of a photo snob and I don’t really mean to. You see hints and tips all the time about how to take a better picture (rule of thirds, get up close, use different angles, try black and white etc.) but when you want to show the world your vacation photos, you also want keep people’s interest. I don’t care if the photo isn’t artsy or perfectly composed or if  you’ve used fancy editing or processing. A photo can be great even when it’s taken quickly as a “Hail Mary” lucky shot or drive by when you’ve only got that one second to aim and hit the shutter.

Keep ’em coming, gang, I love holiday snaps. Just not 12 of the same thing.

Challenging

Inside detail in the Colosseum. Rome.

Inside detail in the Colosseum. Rome.

I’ve just seen another weekly challenge on my WordPress Reader (where I can subscribe to and see lots of other blogs) that caught my interest. I’ve been picking up a few of these to the point where it seems like that’s all I’ve been blogging lately, one photo challenge or another. Nothing wrong with that of course and because this is a travel blog, I use my travel photos for the challenges wherever possible and slip in a few memories and observations from that location if it adds to the post. I had envisioned this blog as a place to post new travels, which I have done on recent trips to Rome and New York, or repost my past travels which I have done a little. I need to do that more. I do have my own website where I’ve put my detailed travelogues but for here, I’ll likely summarize them a bit more and post links to the full meal deal.

But the challenges… Let me count them now…
The first one was A Word A Week at A Word in Your Ear.
Wordpress themselves have a weekly photo challenge which was the next one.
Then recently I discovered this Black and White Photo Challenge by Sonel over on her blog.
Today I saw another one, a Travel Theme one from Where Is My Backpack. I think I’ve seen it before but this week’s is Architecture and that’s probably my favourite thing to photograph anywhere anytime, traveling or not! Excellent stuff. The difficulty for that one is choosing which photos to post! I usually just link to my Flickr photos but I may have to upload a bunch and create one of those collages. I’ll do that later in the week.

I’ve been taking photos since i was a kid. I got my first camera, a Polaroid, for Christmas when I turned 12. I don’t think my parents realized they’d created a monster! I continually upgraded until I bought my first SLR when I was about 19 I think. It was a Canon AE-1. I loved it! I also owned a Minolta for awhile and went back to Canon around the end of the 90s to get something a bit lighter to carry than the very solid Minolta.

Now, I’ve gone digital and have not gone to a  DSLR mainly because I just find them too large and heavy. When I travel, I want something I can fit in my (large-ish) handbag, something that isn’t going to make my neck ache. A point and shoot, a good one, of course, with a really long zoom is my camera of choice these days. I haven’t even graduated to the kind that look like mini-slr cameras though I suppose that will be next. I like the idea of the kind that are like an SLR but look like a point and shoot and have changeable lenses but the problem with that is that I’d have to keep changing back and forth from regular/wide to tele where the Point and Shoot kind have the zoom built right in.

I’ve changed cameras quite a lot in the past four or five years but not always out of choice. One was stolen, one got dropped in liquid, another one broke a few months after I bought it so that at least was replaced on waranty. All of those were Canon brand. I guess that’s my brand of choice for now. I’m used to it and they all have similar features and special effects. I do take a lot of photos! I’m also trying to take a bit more video as well because sometimes that is better. In Rome, in Piazza Navona one evening, there was a couple dancing. You can take photos but with video, you get the graceful movement and the music, too. And why take 4 or 5 shots to merge into a panorama when you can just take a few seconds of video to show the extra-wide shot, like standing in the middle of a castle keep and filming while I turn around! I can then edit all the clips together for a little longer video. And one of the things my camera can do is take a couple of seconds video with each shot all day. I haven’t tried that yet but I really should. It would be a neat way to do a “day in the life of” type video for a day when we’re sightseeing a lot of different things.

So, while the photo challenges aren’t strictly travel, by using photos from my travels, it keeps the blog on theme and serves my main interests:  photography and travel.

Do you “Do” it when you travel?

Sarastro, Covent Garden. A very theatrical restaurant

Sarastro, Covent Garden. A very theatrical restaurant

The title relates to a blog post I read earlier today on National Geographic Traveler about tourists “doing” a destination, i.e. “We’ve done Paris”. It’s a pet peeve of the author of that blog, hearing tourists talking about “doing” a location because he feels you’re never done, especially if it’s a place you enjoy. You will want to return more than once to see it, to be there, to experience it again.

You can’t do everything there is to do in one visit or even many because there is always something different to see, do or experience. It’s true that you probably won’t go back and see the same major tourist attractions over and over but you might if it’s been awhile or if it’s something you really enjoyed. For instance, the big museums have permanent collections but unless you’ve seen every piece, there’s always a reason to go back. In addition, there are usually temporary exhibits that might be interesting too. Every time you go back to somewhere, there are new people to encounter, a different shop or two to find, a quiet corner of tranquility to discover or a surprise around the corner.

London is one of my favourite cities and I’ve been there over a dozen times for mostly short visits but a couple of times for stretches up to a week. I go back because I really don’t feel like I have “done” London. There are still neighbourhoods and attractions that I’ve not had the chance to visit, still lots of shopping and restaurants, and, in my case, there are friends with whom I like to catch up and touch base. I like the vibe of the city, the architecture and the history. London with my Mom was different than London with my partner or London on my own.

I sometimes do go back to some of the major attractions in London to refresh my memories and find new things to appreciate. Next time I get to London, there’s a visit to the Tower in store and maybe Hampton Court. I’ve been to both places but not for some time and my partner hasn’t been to either. I haven’t seen all of either place because they are both so vast that my feet give out before my curiosity does.

There are lots of places I want to go back to but there are also so many places I haven’t been that might become new favourites if only I could get there! To quote Andrew Evans of National Geographic Traveler in that blog post, ” When it comes to travel, the world is infinite and exciting, but I want to go back and continue the story in so many of the places I have already traveled to.”  Ain’t that the truth!!

Are there locations that you love? Places that you go back to? What draws you back?

 

Hotel Ratings and a Grain of Salt

Smallest hotel room yet (Amsterdam). Barely enough room on either side of the bed, TV on the wall. But it was clean and comfortable. Breakfast was not included.

I have been in the process of researching a hotel for a weekend in London in October. Like most people these days, I check the prices on various hotel websites and compare to the many booking sites to get the best price. I don’t decide until I have nearly driven myself mad with indecision. If it were solely based on price, it wouldn’t be so difficult. The confusion arrives when you add the user ratings and reviews into the mix.

Some people tend to prefer the name brand chains and you are fairly sure of what you are going to get with these guys. Most of us have a budget so we try very hard to get the best deal for it and hope for some where nice. User reviews do help. If a hotel gets overwhelmingly negative feedback you know to stay clear. If it is at the top of the heap of excellence, it’s probably too expensive (for my budget, anyway).

There has been a fair bit of negative publicity in recent years suggesting that hotels get allies to post  excellent reviews and enemies are known to try to sabotage a business with savagely bad ones. The truth is somewhere in the middle and they are all very subjective. What one person finds acceptable in a hotel room or in the demeanor of a staff member, someone else will be highly offended. And some people just like to complain.

A normally good hotel can still provide an occasional bad experience so deciphering the reviews can be a minefield. You have to remember the deal breakers on your list and be willing to compromise. Decide if the complaints are something that would bother you. Try to judge if the reviewer sounds like they are someone who is never satisfied. Try to read between the lines, in other words.

So, for London, I am not tied to any particular hotel. I look at where we want to be with regards to what we want to do and how easy it will be to get to train stations for arrival or departure. This time, we will be arriving at Euston. I will be flying home and he will be taking the train back to Manchester from the same place. Do we get a hotel near there or near Paddington Station where I can easily get the train to the airport? In the end, I decided on Euston area because it’s a short cab ride to Paddington and easy for my fella to get to the train for his return journey. I found a pretty good deal on booking.com, a site I haven’t used before but which seems to be reliable.

The deal I got includes breakfast and free wifi with a laptop sized safe in the room.  I prefer to have a room with free wifi these days but in this instance, as I would be on the way home, it wasn’t a deal breaker but the hotel had it anyway. Breakfast, too, isn’t always a deal breaker because in London there’s usually somewhere cheap to buy it but again, it had it anyway. The rooms appear to be small but that doesn’t really matter to me. It’s good for transportation links with several Underground stations within a few minutes’ walk as well as the big bus terminal at Euston station should we want a bus.

Reading the reviews, the small room size keeps coming up but as I said, I don’t really mind. I do find it stressful trying to decide, because I don’t want it to turn out to be awful. London hotels aren’t as hard to choose because I know the city well enough to know the various areas and am comfortable with the transportation system. In a new city, like when we went to Rome or Copenhagen, I found it very difficult. If I asked someone that had been there, their choices were either not in an area I wanted or they were more expensive than my budget. You see the problem with word of mouth!

For this one, overall, the reviews seem good. I guess we’ll find out! I won’t say what it is until I’ve been there and done that and decided on the t-shirt!

Visiting Manchester

Manchester city centre

Manchester city centre

London is one of the greatest cities in the world and is one of the top tourist destinations. All roads may lead to Rome but there are a lot of flights that go directly to London from major airports world wide so getting there is fairly easy. There is a lot to do and see in London and a lot of tourists don’t go anywhere else in the UK from there unless they have specific interests. Of course lots of people also visit other locations and attractions, cities and regions in the UK but it’s always London you hear about.

I’ve been to London a lot. It’s one of my favourite cities, due to the history initially, and all the other reasons why people visit. But I’ve also been to the second largest city in the UK, Manchester, nearly as many times. The reason I went there for the first time, in 2000 was related to Coronation Street, my favourite television show which is filmed there. I have a lot of friends I’ve made via the internet over the years who are Corrie fans and several of them live in the Manchester area. My first visit was as a part of a large group of Corrie internet friends who headed there for a week long get together to meet, greet and celebrate the show’s 40th anniversary. My next couple of visits were also related in a way, visiting those same friends.

Then I met my now-fiance who, coincidentally, also lived in the Manchester area, in the next-door city of Salford. We met online through a mutual Corrie friend who knew him online through the heavy metal music forums and boards. Things clicked and here we are, still conducting our relationship between two continents for the time being. Since 2004, I’ve been to Manchester yearly and have grown to know the city a bit better. We have visited museums, attended theatre, shopped, and dined out, all in the Manchester area. Manchester has lots of similar attractions to London though on a smaller scale. I didn’t mention football as we aren’t fans but the two football clubs there, Manchester United and Manchester City, are also big draws.

Manchester is a little over 2 hours by train from London Euston. It’s a city with a strong industrial history with a strong Victorian architecture presence. I find it’s similar to Glasgow in many ways as far as the look and feel goes. There’s a thriving university presence and therefore, plenty of pubs and clubs, especially around the Gay Village quarter. The city centre shopping is very good and there’s a huge shopping mall/centre in Trafford. There’s a natural history museum at the university, a National Football Museum near the cathedral, and a great Science in Industry museum in the city centre though there are rumours that it may be closed to redirect funding to London museums. A crime if ever there was one! There are a couple of good sized galleries as well as quite a few smaller ones scattered about.

There are several theatres that produce some very good productions at prices greatly cheaper than London West End prices and you can find restaurants from a great number of ethnic choices. Nearby in Rusholme is the “curry mile”, a stretch of road lined with Indian, Thai and Chinese restaurants and there are dozens of good places to eat in the Chinatown area of Manchester. The Greater Manchester area towns and villages also have some good places to visit, a short bus or drive away such as the huge Bury market. There is also an interesting Jewish Museum in Salford, an old Tudor mansion (Ordsall Hall), also in Salford and a transportation museum in Salford as well. Salford Quays has outlet shopping, the Imperial War Museum North and the Lowry theatre and gallery. The MEN arena puts on top class concerts and other events. Manchester has a nice catheral as does Salford and there’s even an observation wheel, though it’s much smaller than the London Eye (and cheaper!).

Rochdale Canal, home of the Gay Village in Manchester

Manchester’s gay scene is hopping and it’s Pride events are reknowned. The Christmas markets in the city centre from mid-November to Christmas attract thousands. The Northern Quarter is where you’ll find the funkier side of Manchester. There are some lovely museums and galleries as well as some off the beaten track places to visit such as the medieval Chetham’s library, the Victorian John Rylands Library and the Hatworks museum in Stockport.

Manchester is also a good base camp for day trips to the Lake District, Liverpool, Chester, York, Blackpool, North Wales and the Peak District, all of which are a short train journey away or under two hours by car at the most.

Coronation Street is still filmed in Manchester, soon to be produced out of the new BBC Media City in Salford Quays (the BBC is sharing the space with ITV studios who produce Corrie), moving out of the old Granada Studios buildings this year. You never know when you’re going to bump into an actor from the show and with more BBC productions moving to the northern studios, star spotting will be more productive if you’re into that sort of thing.

Manchester might not be as exciting as London on the surface but it’s a friendly city, compact, pretty good transportation system around the city. If you’re looking to see more of the UK, the North is a good place to start and Manchester is a good starting point.

Photos I’ve taken in the Greater Manchester region
Photos I’ve taken at Granada Studios on the Coronation Street set
The Lake District
North Wales