Onward to Vancouver

A few days on Vancouver was a great way to start our visit to Canada’s beautiful west coast. Family and friends always make a visit enjoyable. We chose the bus/ferry/bus route across the Juan de Fuca straight to Vancouver on the mainland and paid a little extra so that the bus would take us straight to the hotel after the end destination of the main bus terminal. Worth every penny and cheaper than a taxi, especially trying to navigate and haul luggage around in the dark.

Our hotel is the Rosedale on Robson and is a suite hotel. We found out that they upgraded us to a higher floor and a room with a separate bedroom. The windows in these are floor to ceiling and the decor is light and airy. We had good city views from the18th floor! The staff were excellent and the room had everything we needed though there was one thing missing that seemed odd for a hotel like that. No in-room safe! Seemed odd.

North Vancouver from Stanley Park

We unpacked because we’ll be here for a few days. Our friend Annmarie came over later with wine and we had a great catch-up.

The sun was out on our first full day in the city, one of Canada’s largest. It seems even larger because of all the communities and cities that surround it such as Burnaby, Richmond, Coquitlam etc. I’ve been to Vancouver before but my husband hasn’t so we thought an orientation would be a good idea. The hotel is close to the circular central library where the hop on hop off trolleys stop so we jumped on one there and took the day to do the route.

We wound our way through the historic centre and decided to get off at the gorgeous Stanley Park, a 1000 square acre park on the tip of the peninsula of downtown Vancouver. The area has been settled with indigineous peoples and others for centuries and was turned into a park when the city was incorporated in the late 1880s. It’s a naturaly park, no landscaping or manipulating. The forests have evolved naturally. There is now a seawall built around the perimeter which is  a great place to walk and run and there are other very interesting things to explore as well such as the Vancouver Aquarium.

Totem poles in Stanley Park

We stopped at a spot where there are about 8 totem poles some dating as far back as the end of the 19th century. Each totem tells a story, a family, an event, a heritage. The style of art of the First Nations people  on this coast is really distinct and I really like it. We had a good look at the poles and did some shopping at the gift store there which had quite a lot of locally made gifts. I started my Christmas shopping!

We walked all around a point at the end of the area, saw a little lighthouse with great views over to North Vancouver, and back around where the trolley stops. We got on the next one which found it’s way through the rest of the park and around English Bay. We got off again at Granville Island which isn’t an Island but a spot of land under the Granville bridge over the False Creek area. There are craft and artist studios here, a huge famer’s market, restaurants and cafes, a theatre. We were quite hungry, though, so we looked for a restaurant first thing.

After a meal in The Keg, we went over to the market and were suitably impressed. More than fruit, veg and seafood, there are local crafts, anything you can think of. Lots of things and even the food was top quality and there were quite a lot of unusual items there. We popped into one ceramics/pottery shop which was also the studio for the studio for the artists. I have to say, even though one of the bus drivers or the prerecorded spiel said that Granville Island is designed to be pedestrian friendly, it isn’t. Cars everywhere and the roads are narrow and not logically laid out. It’s a really good place to visit but be warned, watch your step!

Aquabus across False Creek at Granville Island

Granville Island also has a number of small, brightly painted boats as a ferry service for a small fee to areas across the water on the main area of Vancouver. They almost look like toys!

By this time, we are ready and done for the day so we trudge back up to the trolley stop and get back to the hotel. We had a rest and then headed out to meet up with Annmarie, her partner Brian, her son Tristan and his girlfriend for cocktails and a meal and a very nice meal it was, too!

A good introduction to Vancouver if ever there was one and the best weather we’re going to see. Weather-wise, it will be downhill from here.  Tomorrow will be spent in the Vancouver Convention Centre, the large complex on the waterfront with ‘sails’ as a roof. But more on that another time.

Vancouver Convention Centre from Stanley Park

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Road Trip: Port Royal

Da fence for defence
On to the last day of our road trip:

We stayed at a little place called Granville Ferry which is just across the Annapolis River from Annapolis Royal, a very old town. The Bed and Breakfast, A Seafaring Maiden, was lovely, full of antiques and the owners were super. We were a bit late getting there, so I had called ahead just to make sure they knew and once checked in, we headed out for something to eat. The place that the B&B owner recommended as only having their kitchen open until 7:30 was just locking the doors at 7 when we pulled up. Damn.

Another cafe that looked as if it was open was not so we ended up going across to Annapolis Royal after all and though it took us a couple of times around a one way system to find it, we located the pub that I remembered and went there for what turned out to be a so-so meal. I’m sure I’ve had better there when I stayed in Annapolis with my mom 6 or 7 years ago but our steaks were most definitely underdone. G.’s was actually done the way I like it, he preferring almost well done and I like it medium but mine was raw in the middle. By the time I got that far into it, it seemed too late to send it back so I left it but when the waitress found out, she gave me a dessert for free!

We got held up on our return due to some work being done at a power station at the causeway between Annapolis and Granville Ferry but we weren’t held up too long. We had a comfortable night and a lovely breakfast and headed out. Our destination is Port Royal which is only a 15 minute drive from where we were.

Kitchen
A bit of history:

Port Royal is the oldest European settlement in Canada and the US, founded by the French in 1605. It was a fur trading post, not a military one. The man leading the expedition was Sieur de Mons who tried to establish a settlement in Saint Croix Island the year before which is between Maine and New Brunswick, but the winter was so severe that they lost half of their people. De Mons and Samuel de Champlain found the more sheltered area and built Port-Royal in 1605 and they managed to get the fort built before winter. Since there had already been trade with the local native Mi’kmaq, the colony was accepted and welcomed. Port-Royal did lose its colonists a couple of years later due to their monopoly being revoked but it was reestablished by 1610 and the settlers came back. However, in 1613, the fort was attacked and ransacked by the English coming up from Virginia and the colony was soon abandoned but the area across the river was later colonized by a contingent of Scots in 1629 but was conceded to the French who re-named it Port Royal after the former fort. This became the capital for the area then called Acadie, or Acadia. That’s what it was before it was Nova Scotia.

Ownership bounced back and forth between English and French, though mostly staying with the French for about a century but the British eventually succeeded in keeping hold and renamed it Annapolis Royal after Queen Anne. Annapolis was under seige more than once, and not just from the French but from the local Mi’kmaq as well but when Halifax was founded in 1749, the British control became a firm grip. The French settlers were expelled from the province in 1755. The current historic site of the fort at Port-Royal was rebuilt in the 20th century and it’s now a National Historic site as well it should be. There were excavations when they found the original site and apparently they found a copy of the original plans in France. They have recreated it as much as possible using the same methods. Some of the items are from the period but many are recreations but done very well. There is quite a lot to see and it does give you a good idea of what it might be like to live there when it was first built though I suppose unless you spent a very frigid winter huddling around the fire, you won’t truly get the full experience!
Forgery
The staff greets you when you buy your tickets and tells you a little of the beginnings of the fort. You can then wander around as you like. There are rooms such as a forge, a kitchen and bakery, a common room where they would have eaten and spent the evenings, the wood workshop, a chapel, and the various kinds of accommodations. The “gentlemen” had bunks though the artisans and workers slept on straw mattresses in the lofts. The fort commander had his own quarters. There is a palisade with cannon and you can see where the boards are fastened together with wooden pegs! The site has some period-dressed staff wandering around that you can talk to. I spoke with one tourist there who worked with Parks Canada and he was saying that the site did need a lot of money spent on it as it was starting to need repairs to the woodwork and structure apparently. I hope they can find the money because it would be a shame for a site that has so much historic significance to Canada to close.

We headed back towards home through the Annapolis Valley. We had intended on stopping at the air force base in Greenwood to see the Aviation museum there but it was grim and the rain was already splattering on the window so we thought we’d just drive straight through. We can always do the Aviation museum some other time on a day trip. There’s a little zoo not far from there as well at Aylesford.

Our latest road trip was a lot of fun even if the weather didn’t mostly cooperate. We were just glad we had the one sunny day on the day it mattered most, for whale watching.

Photos here from both the current visit and one in 2010.

The First Time I Saw Paris

Under the Eiffel Tower, 1977

Under the Eiffel Tower, 1977

One of the blogs I follow is Janaline’s world journey, and in her blog today was a posting about the first time she visited Paris. It has inspired me to write about my first visit to Paris which was much less traumatic than the first time I saw London.

In our high school, every year there was a tour offered by the French department that students could go on over the March break week. It always included time in Paris and sometimes other parts of France. The year before I went, it included Paris, plus some parts of Germany and I think also Vienna. (We’re going back to the mid 1970s, so you’ll have to forgive my memory!) Since anyone that went had to pay for it themselves (there were no such things as school fund raisers then at our school) the year I was able to go was during my last year in high school, in March 1977. I had a part time job and I saved up for it. My parents donated some spending money and I was ready to go.

That year the tour included arriving and departing from Rome, with a day in Rome for a quick tour around, then an overnight train to Paris for three days and another overnight train to Nice where we were based for another four days. I don’t think the last train ride to Rome was overnight which was a blessing! The “couchette” cars were not very comfortable.

The train to Paris was crazy. We had compartments which converted to sleeper cars for six people, three on a side. Crazy! I forget if it was the train to Paris or the one to Nice where one of the bunks wouldn’t fit into place and one of our group had to sleep on the floor between the two sides of bunks. Needless to say, a group of over exited 16 to 18 year olds didn’t get much sleep on that leg of the trip!

We arrived in Paris on a Sunday, under grey skies though it wasn’t very cold. By the time we got checked into our hotel on Rue LaFayette, it was early afternoon and we had the rest of the afternoon to ourselves before an organized meal in the evening. Being the sophisticated children that we were, our first destination was to find some food for lunch and though I shudder at the thought now, we thought it was a very good idea to find the nearest McDonald’s. Yes. I know. But it was familiar, and it was Sunday and we were in a strange and foreign city. I recall that it was really awful, a very different taste than we were used to in Canada. Serves us right.

Our evening meal and where we would eat for the three nights we were in Paris was in a very nice restaurant. Except it was a German restaurant. In Paris. That’s right. You’d think the tour company might realize that you’d want a French restaurant in France wouldn’t you? I think we did manage to have a boeuf Bourguignon on our last night after much complaining.

Notre Dame, 1977

Notre Dame, 1977

Our Monday was taken up with a bus tour around the city and we hit all the hot spots…the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Les Invalides, Place de la Concorde and a drive down the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. It was a chilly, windy day and I didn’t care to go up the Eiffel Tower so I sat below with two or three others that didn’t want to go up for various reasons. I can’t remember if we had to pay our own way up or if it was included. One of the things that made an impression that day was the Winged Victory in the Louvre. It fascinated me. I was also shocked that the Mona Lisa was so small compared to what I had imagined. (Google says it’s 2.5 feet (75 cm) high by 1.75 feet (53 cm) wide) In those days, it was on the wall of a larger room and wasn’t roped off or covered in bullet proof glass like it is now.

I found cashed traveler’s cheque receipts some years ago from that trip and I used $170 for spending money for lunches and souvenirs for the 9 or 10 day trip. Breakfast and the evening meal was always included. The exchange rate was about 5 Francs to the dollar, obviously long before the Euro was installed as common currency. The cost of the airfare and tour together was just under $500 though I may be wrong. If I am, it wasn’t a lot more, maybe another $100. You can’t get a flight to Paris for that these days, or if you do, they add on almost as much for fees and taxes! I think the airfare total was about $300.

Our Tuesday in Paris was a free day. A group of us decided to brave the Metro and go to Montmartre. I seem to recall we lost one fellow on the way, he didn’t make the change in trains in time. We poked our heads in some of the shops. One of the girls bought a long rabbit fur coat and I discovered that the European sizing was very different from North American. We climbed up the steps to Sacre Coeur, passing an older man feeding a flock of pigeons along the way. I couldn’t take as many photos as I would have liked, being a budding photographer even back then, because I still had to pay to get film developed and had only my part time job for resources. The photos were taken with a small pocket camera and haven’t proven up to the test of time though I salvaged some of them.

Hideous Parisian hotel wallpaper from the 1970s

Hideous Parisian hotel wallpaper from the 1970s

Other memories I have of those few days in Paris include the hideous brown and white patterned wallpaper in our hotel rooms and the surprise of a bidet, the first most of us had ever seen, heathens that we were! Our hotel was across the street from a little corner shop where you could buy beer. That was a surprise to us since you couldn’t do that back home (and still can’t in our province! No alcohol in corner shops or grocery stores for us!) Since the legal drinking age in France was much lower than it was at home, it was inevitable that most of us took full advantage of it. I think we cleaned out that shop in the three days we were there and had parties in the hotel rooms every night. Our chaperons, one of whom was a nun, looked the other way as long as we were not too loud and boisterous and were all accounted for when they came around to do a head count before bed. They even shared a glass of wine with us at dinner and one at least one of the train journeys as I recall.

My first trip to Paris didn’t make a lot of long lasting impressions aside from what I’ve described but I always hoped I’d go back. I did, finally, in November 2007, over 30 years later, when my partner and I went for his 50th birthday. That was also just a few days but the memories are clearer and I have loads more photos to remind me. We also planned to go in April of 2014 but that was cancelled due to family illness. I hope we get to go again but there are so many other places we also want to see, both new and repeat visits that Paris is now further down the priority list. I am glad I’ve had the chance to see it and renew those original memories on a second visit.

Visiting the Holy Island, Lindisfarne

Causeway to Holy Island/Lindisfarne. Low Tide

Causeway to Holy Island/Lindisfarne. Low Tide

In spite of weather forecasts that predicted doom, gloom and rain for today, the sun was out, the sky was blue and it proved to be a spectacular day for touring around the Holy Island/Lindisfarne, a small island off the northeast coast of England.

We stayed in a hotel on the harbourfront of a small fishing town called Seahouses. We really did just use it as a base, and didn’t seem much of the town itself other than driving in and out. There was a nice old pub next to the inn but the night we tried to go there, it was full up and we hadn’t booked a table. Seemed odd that you needed to book a table in a pub but there you are. It wasn’t even a Friday night, either. I guess this part of the country isn’t rife with hotels so it gets busy. It might be the middle of September but it’s still more or less high season.

The northeast has a lot of historic sites as well as nature reserves and sites. We’re in it for the history and our outing today is a small island up the coast about 15 minutes. It’s connected to the mainland by a causeway rather than a bridge so you have to watch for the tide times. When the tide is in, the road is inaccessible. There’s a small emergency tower half way across, raised quite high up off the road which gives you a better idea how high the tides can get. We did check and the causeway was clear from about 9:30 am until just after 3 p.m.

One person I know suggested that we should head over just before the tide came in and spend the hours on the island while it’s cut off. There are far fewer tourists on the island then and it’s quieter. We decided against that, preferring to go in the morning anyway. There aren’t too many places to eat in the village on the island and one of the older pubs already had a sign up that said they were fully booked for the evening meal, for those that were planning on staying on the island during the high tide period. They planned ahead for it, clearly.

Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle

We drove up the coast, stopping outside of Bamburgh Castle for some photos. That’s a very old castle and has lots to offer a visitor, apparently but we were there before it opened. I didn’t really think that there was as much to see there as there is, something I found out after I came back home. We probably could have dropped in there after returning from Lindisfarne. Never mind.

The sky was blue, the sun was warm (but not too hot) and there was hardly a breeze, a perfect day for it. You park in a lot just outside the village, a pay and display lot of course. There is parking further in the village but you need to have a disabled sticker to qualify. The village of Lindisfarne isn’t very big but it’s quite pretty. We parked, paid and walked the few minutes into the village.

Lindisfarne Harbour at low tide

Lindisfarne Harbour at low tide

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne has long been a centre for Christianity, as far back as the 6th century. The monastery there was founded by Saint Aidan who journeyed to the northeast of England from the Isle of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Later, it became the base for Saint Cuthbert, an important bishop. In the 8th century, York was established as an archbishopric and Lindisfarne was one of only three bishoprics under it. It is also famous for a set of illuminated gospels dating to the 8th century. They are outstanding in beauty and now reside in the British Library in London.

There is one other more notorious event for which Lindisfarne is famous; the island was one of the first places the Vikings raided, at the very end of the 8th century. Raids continued on and off throughout the east of England and the monks eventually abandoned Lindisfarne in the 9th century. The Priory was reestablished in 1093 and remained and flourished until Henry VIII had his wicked ways with the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. The ruins that are there now are from the later priory, not the earliest one.

View of Lindisfarne Castle

View of Lindisfarne Castle

The castle on a high rise of land at the end of the harbour was built in 1550. It’s odd looking, with the surrounding land being fairly flat, just a few low hills but the ground that the castle is built on sticks up high, almost as if it was man made. It was extensively renovated inside in 1901. There’s a little walled garden on the north side a little way away, a bit of a hike over from the main road.

We decided our first destination would be the castle out at the head of the island overlooking the harbour. It was quite a walk but relatively flat. We didn’t fancy climbing up the steep inclines to go into the castle proper but we made our way out to the base of it where the disabled parking is. They even had a bagpiper there for the entertainment of the tourists. There were a lot of people walking out when we went but it looked like even more were heading out when we were walking back into the village. There are a lot of great photo ops along the way, too, looking over the harbour, over the fields on the small island and across, in the distance on a good day, you can see Bamburgh Castle.

When we got back to the village, we were ready for a coffee/tea break and found a cafe. Malcom and I nabbed a table outside while Graham stood in the very long queue inside. He came out armed with hot drinks and cheese scones which I loved but they weren’t too keen.

Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne Priory

Fed and watered, it’s on to the ruins of the Priory. I had a two for one voucher from Britain magazine that was good for English Heritage run sites which this was. We perused the displays in the visitor center first, that told the story of the priory on this little island off the northeast coast of England (see above) then it was back outside in the sunshine to climb around the ruins.

The ruins are interesting with superb views over the harbour to the castle. We sat on a bench in a warm, sunny spot for a while and made friends with a local cat who walked right past one other couple to us. There was a breeze off the water but there among the ruins, it was sheltered and really warm.

We then had a look in nearby St. Mary’s parish church that had some nice stained glass and Celtic designs on altar cloths and kneelers.

After that, we decided we and our feet had had enough walking. There’s a bit more to see on the island, though. There’s a display or museum about the Lindisfarne Gospels, something similar to the Irish Book of Kells. They also have a visitor center where you can buy Lindisfarne Mead. We walked back to the car, stopping at a little stall set up just along there, selling preserves and local fruit and veg. I bought a couple of jars, just the thing for toast.

We drove back to the hotel. It wasn’t very late and we decided to sit in the sun in the beer garden overlooking the harbour for an hour or so. The views out over the sea to the Farne islands was great. We saw a bus load of tourists lining up for a tour boat that goes out around the islands where you can see lots of birds and seals.

Tomorrow, we’re heading back to Manchester but we’re going to visit Alnwick Castle and Gardens first. More on that another time.

Lindisfarne Castle from the Priory ruins

Lindisfarne Castle from the Priory ruins

Friends, Romans, Countrymen

Housesteads Roman Fort from above. Photo from the English Heritage website

Housesteads Roman Fort from above. Photo from the English Heritage website

While I was in the UK recently, my husband and I and his best friend went on a three day road trip to the northeast area of Northumberland. Our friend, Mal, had been there before but neither of us had been and there are quite a lot of interesting historical things to see. It was Mal’s suggestion and we thought it was a fine one. I knew, after doing some high level research, that we’d only make a bare glimpse at what the area has to offer but a little taste is better than nothing. Now, what can we put on the “To Do” list?

One place I’d always wanted to see was Hadrian’s Wall. The Roman occupying forces built it, all 73 miles of it, just below what is now the border between England and Scotland, a narrow “neck” of the island of Great Britain. It stretches from present day Carlisle in the northwest to Corbridge in the northeast, which is not far from the city of Newcastle. Emperor Hadrian came to Britian in 122 A.D. and the construction began shortly after. The plans were to build a guarded gate, or Milecastle, at every mile with observation towers between. In all 14 forts were built. There were large ditches on the sides of the walls, which were built of stone and sometimes turf. The plans changed with the addition of a handful of forts for extra protection and it took about 6 years to complete. There’s a pretty good overall history of the wall On the English Heritage website.

The wall was manned and staffed for the next few hundred years until the Roman Empire started to fall. Mainly, the wall and forts were abandoned, with the stone removed for local building over the centuries. What was left was the subject of a campaign of protection by historians and archeologists from the Victorian era forward. There are a number of sites remaining, some of which have been restored and preserved. We looked at the guide books and websites and decided on the Housesteads Fort as the one we wanted to visit. A number of them are situated off the road and a bit of a hike into the hills. In many areas, you can see the turf rising. There isn’t a lot of actual stone wall left but there are sites where you can see it and Housesteads is one of those, having quite a lot of the foundations of the fort and settlement along with a good stretch of the actual wall. Chesters Roman Fort is another very good site as is Birdoswald.

Housesteads it is, then. It was a few hours’ drive from Manchester after picking up Mal. We arrived around lunchtime on a cool day. It had been raining a bit all morning but had stopped just before we got there. We had brought a picnic though it wasn’t a great day for it. Never mind. We had our sandwiches and bought our entry tickets for the site. Remember I said a lot of the sites are a hike up into the hills? This is one of them. We went round the back of the visitor centre to face a path that climbed up for what we were told was a half mile uphill all the way. It might not have been a half mile (just under 1 KM) but it was bloody close. I’m definitely not one of the agile, and most definitely not fit but I was determined. I made the men go on ahead without me and took my time walking up the hill, 50 steps at a time, stop, rest the legs, take a few pictures, continue, 50 steps, repeat. Finally, I got to the top!

There are plenty of information boards around to tell you what you’re looking at and there’s a small interpretive museum and a gift shop just outside the ruins as well. The fort sits on the top of a hill with a ditch plummeting down behind the back wall. The views over the rolling hills are amazing, even under dark and threatening skies. The sheep certainly don’t mind. The wall appears to have been built to keep the incoming “barbarians” from what is now Scotland out, traditionally because they couldn’t be conquered. That probably isn’t exactly the case. They probably just decided that was the far border of the empire as they saw it.

To the left inside the garrison walls are the barracks. There’s the remains of the commander’s quarters, the headquarters building, what is probably a hospital and a granary, with the foundations of what would have been a raised floor to keep the damp from the grain. On the front left corner there is what they say is the remains of a latrine, too. We had a walk through the site and stood looking out north over the beautiful landscape, imagining the hordes of angry Scots/Pictish warrior storming the ramparts. My husband quipped that the Romans were probably standing there in their leather skirts, knees knocking in fear and in the cold north winds. He commented that the Scots were way “harder” than the Italians, after all. A nearby couple overheard him and chuckled to themselves.

We spent some time there then looked into the museum but really didn’t get a good look. It was crowded with a group of school kids and was too small for that many people. We left them to it. I had a quick browse through the gift shop and I wished I had bought a fridge magnet there because the visitor centre back down at the parking area didn’t have any nice ones. We partook of the facilities and headed back on the road, northeast to the little town of Seahouses on the coast, our base for the next two nights.

More about Hadrian’s Wall here.

More of my photos here.

Fall Road Trip, Part 2 : Boston and home the long way

Boston Common roundabout

Boston Common roundabout

Boston

For our second full day, we are taking the train into Boston, just a 35 minute ride by commuter rail. It was hot today, hotter than yesterday and a little more humid. We had another nice breakfast and walked to the train station which is only about 10 minutes away by foot. There’s a major construction project going on so you have to walk a long way up to the platform rather than take a bus or taxi right in. En route we saw something we didn’t expect, a Tardis! Well, not a real one, a painted electrical service box. Remember where we parked the Tardis, dear!

We arrived at Boston’s North Station which is attached to the arena, formerly the location of Boston Garden, now rebuilt and sucked up into the corporate world like most of the sports arenas around and owned by Toronto Dominion, TD Centre or something is what it’s called now, home to the Boston Bruins (NHL) and the Boston Celtics (NBA) (that’s hockey and basketball, respectively.) Out front of the complex is a statue of former Bruins defence star, Bobby Orr depicted in full flight as he jumped across the goal crease after scoring the winning Stanley Cup goal in 1970. I remember that game!

We went to the main road where we could see the tour trolleys going by from different tour companies. They all pretty much do the same tours and routes so we hailed one that was about to stop. He was more than happy to take our money and we hopped on for the orientation tour of Boston. What we didn’t expect was the comprehensive tour of all the road construction sites in the city and the horrendous traffic in the old historic centre. The poor guide kept apologizing and said he was running out of things to say. He said he had 2 hours of material for what was turning out to be a 3 hour tour!

Faneuil Hall

Faneuil Hall

We skipped the last quarter of the tour, because we were getting bored with sitting and going nowhere fast and walked over to the touristy Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall area. They are two old buildings that were used for plotting revolutions and political things and a market and are now used for art exhibitions, and lots of shops, food stalls, and a tourist information centre. Quincy Market is all food stalls inside and lined with souvenir and arts/crafts stalls along the outside. The old warehouses on either side of the area are also now shops and restaurants. It’s a busy spot but quite pretty on a sunny day like today.

Kurt Cobain's wrecked Guitar. Hard Rock Cafe, Boston

Kurt Cobain’s wrecked Guitar. Hard Rock Cafe, Boston

We wandered through there and then decided to get lunch. Lo and Behold, there’s a Hard Rock Café just behind it so we thought that was as good as any. You can be sure of a good meal there. Our server, Cam I think was his name, was really good, not just with the menu but with our questions about the memorabilia, too. We found out that the chain has specialists that buy memorabilia at auctions or directly from artists or via bequests in wills, too. After we ate, he took us into another room which is used for private functions and showed us some of the items in there which were pretty impressive, and all hidden away from the general public. In here we saw a smashed guitar owned by Nirvana lead Kurt Cobain, one of Madonna’s pointy-busted costumes, and Guitars owned by Eddie Van Halen and also Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead.

We followed the red brick road, so to speak. Boston has a red painted brick trail through the city that you can walk that passes by most of the historic buildings and locations related to the War of Independence in the 18th Century. It’s called the Freedom Trail. We walked past a few of these buildings including the site of the Boston Massacre of 1770. Because it’s so warm, we really didn’t want to walk around too much in the heat and wanted to do something besides just walk around anyway. We decided on the Boston Science Museum and Planetarium and flagged down a taxi to get there quicker than we could walk, even with the traffic, though it likely wouldn’t have been a long walk, maybe about 20 or 30 minutes from where we were. If it wasn’t so warm and our feet not so sore, we could have done it ourselves!

The Science Museum is quite large and though a lot of it is set up for kids to learn via interactive displays, it’s still interesting for adults. They have special shows through the day and there’s an Imax theatre and the planetarium which we particularly wanted to see as neither of us had been to one before. The fee for the museum is a bit pricey then you add on more if you’re going to the Imax and Planetarium shows. You can just pay for those individually outside the museum entrance if you are only attending a show in one of those.

We had a cold drink in the cafeteria while we waited for the Planetarium show at 3:30 which was about moons in the solar system. You sit back and recline and look up. The ceiling is the movie screen with the stars and moons and planets and the rest of the action going on over your head and it’s very cool. The show lasted about 40 minutes. They have different ones through the day and you really could spend all day in the museum seeing the exhibits and shows. We had about 45 minutes before they closed to see some of the other halls so we checked out the maps and models, dinosaurs, the space exhibit that had a couple of space capsule recreations, the Mercury and one of the Apollo mission ones.

By the time we left there at 5 we were done in and it was still quite hot. Since the museums and attractions all closed at 5 anyway and there wasn’t much else to do until we decided to eat, which would be later, so we decided to get the train back to Salem and find somewhere to eat there .

Even though our stay in Boston was brief, it was enjoyable. Boston is a huge city so it’s busy and since the city centre is old, the roads are narrow which clogs up traffic. You’re better off walking or taking the subway (underground/metro) system to get around. There are a lot of really nice buildings, some fine museums and galleries and more history than you can shake a stick at. Boston Common is the oldest one in America, Fenway Park is the oldest baseball park in the league and the shopping and dining is world class. For foodies, there’s a Chinatown and an Italian neighbourhood and there’s lots of excellent seafood. If you’re into sports, it’s a haven with four major league sports teams calling Boston home. (hockey, baseball, football and basketball) Nearby Cambridge is the home of MIT and Harvard Universities and those are also interesting places to investigate.

On our return, we walked back into Salem centre from the Train station, which wasn’t far, and looked into a couple of shops that were still open before coming to the square next to the Bewitched statue. There were several restaurants there, one with a very odd name, Naumkeag Ordinary. Let’s have a look.

The menu wasn’t large but it had some interesting items and they also do specials on Thursdays because it’s Farmers’ Market day and they devise a couple of specials using things they get from the market. We had some lovely apple cider and shared a pate plate to start. Graham had a steak and I had a mustard crusted haddock which was melt in my mouth good. Probably some of the best fish I’ve ever had! Graham’s steak was excellent as well so we did well.

We walked back through the pedestrian street where the Tourist Info centre is. It’s dark now but there are still one or two stores still open and we had a good look round one that had a lot of really off beat souvenirs. We got back to the hotel, another footsore day! The air conditioning felt so good! We chilled out (Ha!) and caught up with emails and things.

The road home

Old Streetcar, Canadian themed

Old Streetcar, Canadian themed

And here we are on Friday evening in a Best Western hotel in Portland, Maine. We got on the road this morning after a light breakfast. Our initial destination was the Kittery Outlet shopping area. It was only about an hour and a bit away from Salem. Graham was successful in his quest for new jeans and sneakers and I found a set of really nice casserole dishes. We had a quick bite to eat and headed back out again. We aren’t sure where we are staying tonight, we’re going to wing it tonight and tomorrow night but it’s still early so we’re going to see what we might discover along the way.

And what we found was the Seashore Trolley Museum  in Kennebunkport. We got to have a 30 minute ride on an exquisitely restored streetcar with narration from a volunteer conductor on the history of public transit in the area. We could wander around the barns and they also have transit cars, train cars, busses and the like all over acres of the site. We looked in the barn where they are currently restoring some trams and trolleys, which can take years. One of the trams they’re working on is from Blackpool! Graham joked that he probably rode on that tram as a kid!

Then we went over to the other barn where the finished cars are and there were some really lovely ones including one with a lot of lacy ironworks, with a Canadian Flag and beaver décor on it! They said it can take 5 or 6 years to completely restore a streetcar due to scarcity of materials and original mechanical parts. I love obscure museums and this one fit the bill but it was just too hot to tramp around for too long! We bought an ice cream and a cold drink in the museum shop and sat in the shade for a bit then headed back to the car. Time to start keeping an eye out for a place to stay and we picked this Best Western hotel in Portland with a government rate of acceptable.

We got an early start the next morning with sunny skies overhead. We expected we might be able to make our way all along the Maine coast back to the Canadian border today. We were wrong.

Portland Head Light

Portland Head Light

Our first stop was the Portland Head Lighthouse which was only a short drive away from the hotel. This is the oldest lighthouse in Maine and was built on instructions from George Washington in 1791. There’s a nice little keeper’s house that has a little museum in it and the views from the park are really wonderful. There’s another lighthouse in the distance called Ram Island Ledge lighthouse which makes a nice point of interest in the photos with the Portland one close up. It was already quite hot so we didn’t tramp around Fort William Park to see the remnants of an old fort. We visited the gift shop and then got on our way.

We decided to follow the US 1 route through the coastal areas though didn’t often actually see the sea. We drove through nice little towns and rural areas though the going was slow, having to shift down to 45, 35 or even 25 miles per hour through the main streets etc. The sun has gone behind the clouds and we wondered if it would rain but it held off and there were still sunny breaks. In one place we went through, we saw a little food stand called Red’s Eats. I don’t know what Red was selling but it must have been damn good because people were lined up around and down the block. There must have been about 50 people or more in the queue!

For our lunch break, we came across a restaurant on the edge of a cove at Lincolnville and thought that might be a good place to stop. It was called The Lobster Pound and Andy’s Brew Pub. We could watch people stroll across the rocky beach poking in the sand for clams, perhaps, with a few boats out on the water. The food was quite good and the service was as well. We didn’t try any of the brew pub’s ale because we were sharing the driving but it looked interesting. It was a large restaurant with almost all good views over the beach.

Away from there, we meandered along but we were finding it a bit frustrating as it was slow going most of the time. We ended up deciding that we’d never get back to New Brunswick tonight if we stayed on this road and we were already 2 days in the car, looking at another one, minimum, plus I needed to be 2 different places tomorrow if at all possible, I couldn’t put either of them off until the next day. It’s Decided. We would break off from the US 1 and head up to route 9 which goes cross country from Bangor to Calais and the border to St. Stephen and stay there overnight. I found a motel in Woodstock, called ahead and booked it and away we went through rural Maine. The road was pretty quiet and we had it to ourselves most of the time.

We had one coffee stop along the way and topped up the gas tank at the point where it rejoined US 1 with the sky going really dark quite quickly. It’s definitely going to rain and sure enough, just as we got back in the car, the rain started to hurl down! Luckily, we were right at the Duty Free shop and I pulled in to the parking lot, intending at least to wait out the worst of the rain. It eased up enough so we went into Duty Free to use up the rest of our American money.

We got to the border just as it was going dark, still raining a bit. We answered the questions, told them how much we’d bought. Yes, one bottle of alcohol. No, no beer or wine or tobacco. I don’t know whether that was the reason (since most people stock up on all those things) but they decided to have a look at our receipts in detail and look through the car. Whatever. We had nothing to hide.

It didn’t take long and we drove across and back into Canada, found the motel in St. Stephen (The Winsome Inn) and once we’d pulled out what we needed for the night, we nipped back down the road to a diner for a meal. The diner was called McNay’s and was an old fashioned no frills place with excellent homemade food. Nothing fancy about the restaurant but sometimes those are the best places and this is one of them.

Our last day was mostly driving again but we stopped in at Moncton to visit friends at lunchtime. It would have been a longer visit but I also needed to stop in Amherst to drop into a funeral home. The husband of a good friend had passed away and the family visitation was from 2-4 this afternoon and I really wanted to stop to see her even if it was just a short visit. It was. We got there about 5 minutes before 4 but they were all still there so I got to see her and talk to her a little.

It’s another 2 hour drive home and by the time we go there, we were more than ready to be out of the car! It took two trips to unload everything and there’s a mountain of laundry to do but we’re here. We really did enjoy the trip and I wouldn’t mind going again. I’d still like to drive through the rest of the coastal Maine area and stop off at all these nice places, shops, lighthouses, and museums. I’d also like to go to Boston again but would likely fly there and stay put for a few days, maybe taking day trips by train to some of the other places in the area, possibly including another visit to Salem. Or not. But road trips are fun and we’ll be doing more of them.

The longer version with more detail, should you prefer it, is here on my main website.
There are more photos here. 

Montreal, In and Out

This week, I had the chance to revisit one of my favourite Canadian cities, Montreal. It’s one of the older cities in Canada and has lots of history. It’s also a modern city with a great arts scene, impressive shopping, loads of multicultural neighbourhoods and food, sports and tourism. I find the atmosphere and vibe of Montreal to be far more exciting than, say, Toronto.

I had a specific reason for spending a couple of days in Montreal in the middle of July. Otherwise, I would have avoided it because the summers there can be stinking hot! That’s the one drawback of Montreal, it can be very hot and humid in summer and very, very cold in winter. We got really lucky this time, weather-wise. It was showery and overcast when we arrived and it was humid! The day we flew out, two days later, was the same but the one full day we spent there was gorgeous! Sunny, warm, a nice breeze and no humidity at all. It was perfect for walking the streets and we did!

We arrived on Sunday evening and purchased a three day transit pass at Trudeau airport. It cost $18 for the three days and includes the “747” bus to and from the airport which is a 10 dollar ticket each way. Just using the smart card based pass for the airport run makes it worth while. They have some really good transit passes including a weekend one and one that gives you unlimited transit in the evenings only. (more transit information here ) The bus has a direct route through the main core of the downtown area (along Blvd Rene Levesque) to a major transit hub, the Berri-UCAM station.

We stayed at the Novotel Montreal, located one block from the Bell Centre one way and Rue St. Catherine the other way. The Bell Centre was the reason for the visit. I and two friends had tickets to see Queen + Adam Lambert!!! I won’t gush too much. Queen is my all time favourite band and this is a bucket list concert. But first, we have some free time in the city.

Sunday evening we found an Indian restaurant (Devi)  to enjoy and a bright cafe for breakfast the next morning (Vasco de Gama), a short walk away, near the Peel Metro station. We had a full sunny day to fill before the concert so we headed out first to Place des Arts, in hopes of seeing the Museum of Contemporary Arts there.

Coming out of the Metro station there are many cool art installations inside and outside the station and underground connector tunnels which are part of the whole underground “city” in Montreal. Normally, you’d come out onto Rue St. Catherine but a long block was closed off to traffic for the Just for Laughs festival that’s on this month. There were food and drink booths and stages set up for the evening performances though nothing was going on in the daytime, unfortunately. We had a look around, posed for photos with the little green creature that’s the JFL logo/mascot and pulled on the door of the Museum. Stuck. Locked. Ah, Monday is the day they’re closed. Rats!

We wandered over to Blvd. St. Laurent and into nearby Chinatown, having a look at some of the neat shops chock full of Oriental tat, dishes and such.  We tried Dragon Beard candy which really was a power hit of sugar but interesting. It’s got kind of a cotton candy outside with something chewy inside, nutty. Unfortunately, we’d carried the rest of it around all day and it melted together into one lump. Doh.

We were going to find a place for coffee but decided to head over towards Old Montreal, the historic district by the St. Lawrence River. We walked along Rue St. Urbain and stopped at Starbucks for a drink and a sit down in the shade outside. Off into the historic district and the first stop, just at the top of the little hill was Notre Dame Basilica. We decided to pay the $5.00 and go in. I’d been there a few years ago but Kelly had not been in it and it had been some time since Shirley had visited. It really is a beautiful place, subdued lighting with blue and gold everywhere. There’s a light and airy newer chapel in the back as well.

There was actually an exhibition on Napoleonic items but we didn’t take part in that. We browsed in some of the really unique shops that were along the street beside the Basilica on our way down to the cobbled streets lined with stone buildings. Shirley wanted to browse the art galleries and Rue St. Paul has a couple of blocks that have almost nothing else but galleries. We went into a few of those and saw some really gorgeous art and paintings. Oh, to have the Lottery win in the bank and a lovely loft type apartment or condo to put them in!

Old Montreal is quaint and picturesque with old French style buildings but it’s also quite a tourist attraction so it’s always busy. There are lots of places to eat and drink in addition to the shopping and galleries. The main square is Place Jacques Cartier which flows below the grand City Hall at the top down to Rue. St. Paul. It too is lined with the patios of the restaurants with a few little shops. There are artists set up in the square and there are buskers performing for the crowds. We picked a restaurant and settled in for lunch and people watching. We ended up having a long conversation with an elderly man who had walked by, too. Good times!

From there, the time was starting to move on closer to the evening hour so we thought we should probably go back to the hotel to change and freshen up for the concert. We walked up and over to the nearest Metro stop and zipped back. Shirley did a slice of power shopping along the way, so as not to waste any time! We were anticipating meeting up with some of Kelly’s friends, all Adam Lambert fans, at what we thought would be the restaurant/bar at the Bell Centre but we couldn’t find them there and she had some trouble finding a way to contact them. In the end it turned out they were in a pub around the corner. Kelly went to find them and we stayed at the Bell to get a look at the concert merchandise booths, a successful quest.

The concert was everything I had hoped for and was probably the best thing I’ve ever seen. I guess it’s hard to beat when it’s your favourite band ever and they put on a spectacular show. Queen used to be fronted by Freddie Mercury but he passed away in 1991. They have brought 31 year old Adam Lambert along now to sing for them and he has done a fine old job. The show was everything I wanted it to be and more. My full review is here and there’s a link to photos at the end. Kelly met her friends afterwards, Shirley and I bought some snacks and drinks to have at the hotel since we’d missed dinner. We listened to Queen on the iPod while I uploaded my photos to my laptop and relived the night, far too wired to go to bed just yet.

The next morning, the weather was grey and threatening again. We had a late start. My feet and legs were killing me from the nearly three hours standing on the cement floor by the stage last night! Kelly and I and hobbled up to Rue St. Catherine to find breakfast while Shirley went shopping. (Well, I hobbled, Kelly was fine!) We ate some wonderful omelets at a deli called Reuben’s which specializes in Montreal smoked meat though that wasn’t on the breakfast menu. It did look like anything on their menu would be good and very filling.

We checked out of the hotel, put our bags in the luggage room. I stayed in the lobby lounge and read while Shirley ran back up to a couple shops and Kelly headed out to another hotel. She is staying another night to attend a Katy Perry concert. Shirley and I went down to where the airport bus stopped, just at the end of the block where the hotel is and returned to the airport. We ate the rest of the sandwiches from last night with a coffee before our flight and finally got back to Halifax by 7 p.m.

It was a quick visit, but thoroughly enjoyable. It might have worn me out, but I’d do it again! It wasn’t even all the walking that did my legs in, it was standing for three hours in one place! Never mind, floor seats close to the stage were more than worth it! I really would like to go back to Montreal for another visit again soon. Maybe Queen will tour again!

Off with their heads

The White Tower, Tower of London

The White Tower, Tower of London

The weather gods were not favouring us today, our last day in London. It was gloomy and forecast to rain a lot. It’s too bad we couldn’t have switched the British Museum tickets for the Tower of London tickets and gone to the museum today. That’s the chance you take pre-booking things online. And because we had tickets, we didn’t want to waste them and there is a lot to see indoors at the Tower.

Today’s mode of transportation is the Underground since it’s quite a way to go by bus. We got there (and have I mentioned lately how many damn stairs there are in this city????) and it was raining very lightly. It was before 11 a.m. but the crowds were already thronging. It’s Easter Sunday and that’s part of the reason. The other part is that the Tower of London is one of the most popular attractions in the city. Combine the two and you have epic crowds even on a rainy day like today. I can’t imagine how bad it would have been on a sunny holiday Sunday!

Because we’d had our tickets, we didn’t have to queue up to buy them. But the queue to actually get in was tremendously long. Still, that didn’t seem to take too long. Down through the gates, stop to have my handbag checked for security and we’re in. Where to start?

Waiting to get into the Tower!

Waiting to get into the Tower!

We wandered a little, had a look at the Traitor’s Gate leading out to the Thames and took in a small display on Torture machines. We went into a gift shop to escape the rain for a bit. Graham saw a couple of little souvenirs he wanted but we didn’t linger too long as it was a little too warm and a lot too crowded. Back out into the rain and we decided to head for the central White Tower, the oldest part of the complex.

When William the Conqueror and the Normans took over England, William built an intimidating wooden palisade on this spot and it was later rebuilt in stone. It was the monarch’s residence, or one of them, for centuries. The walls we see around the tower now were added over the years subsequent to William’s reign in two concentric circles around the White Tower, with guard towers and gates at various points around. The Tower has been, in addition to the royal residence, a prison, a mint, and even a menagerie/zoo.

The Crown Jewels are currently on display in one of the other buildings in the compound and the queue for that was unbelievably long. Even though this was Graham’s first visit, he was not inclined to stand in that lineup in the rain! Even though I’ve been here before, I haven’t seen the Royal Armoury in the White Tower and we were both enthusiastic about that.

Up more stairs on the outside of the White Tower to the entrance. The armouries did not disappoint! It is chock full of armour and weapons from eras as early as the 14th century forward. There are a couple of suits of armour that belonged to Henry VIII and several other monarchs. There were displays of armour for horses and even children and a dwarf. Some of it was very intricately decorated and all of it was polished to a gleaming shine. This first room was, unfortunately, not that large and with all the displays taking so much room, it was really crowded.

Up even more stairs, now we can see the “great hall” and some old Norman fireplaces. There are more displays here, more armour and weapons and lots of information boards. I really liked the Elizabethan era armour. In one area there was a display about the Executions in the Tower and it turns out there really haven’t been that many considering how much you’ve heard about it. Most of them took place from the mid-16th century to the end of it. You only had the privilege of being executed inside the walls of the Tower in relative “privacy” if you had royal blood or were particularly important. Some people that were imprisoned here were executed outside the walls on Tower Hill.

TowerArmoury ExecutionerMask

The executioner

One of the most chilling exhibits was a case featuring a “block” with a carved out nook for your head, an axe and a black metal mask that an executioner would have worn rather than a black hood as you see in films. It might not have been something they all wear but someone obviously did and the creepy thing about it was a skewed mouth with white teeth painted on it in a horrifying grimace.

Yet even more stairs led to the top floor. There were lots of weapons here, some more modern and international items. There were also some interactive hands on displays for kids. Oh and one really neat display was a huge dragon made from various bits of armour and weaponry, with gleaming red lights for eyes! Very impressive.

At the end, you have to go back down many, many stairs in a spiral staircase. There are a few more steps up and then you’re outside and must climb down to the ground. Are we tired yet? We found our way to the chapel but it seemed to be closed and we couldn’t go in and have a look there. We stopped into Beauchamp Tower where there was graffiti carved into the walls. I didn’t see it but there is apparently some authored by Guilford Dudley, the husband of Jane the ill-fated 9 days’ Queen (the one between Edward VI and Bloody Mary I)

Tower BloodyTower 1225We also had a look into the Bloody Tower, most famous as the place where the two young princes disappeared and were likely killed during the reign of Richard III. They also had Sir Walter Raleigh’s quarters set up in the Bloody Tower as well. He was imprisoned three times, finally meeting the axe in 1618. They also had a room up a narrow winding staircase where the Princes were held. Graham went up there and said it was just an empty room. He had to go out of there onto the walls to come back down so took a few photos while he was up there.

On the ground, I spied a parade of the Beefeaters in their scarlet and gold coats coming towards the corner of the green where I was waiting for him. Looked like some sort of changing of the guard except they weren’t dressed like the military guard who was standing by the guard post by the Queen’s House. That’s a half-timbered building at one corner of the Tower compound. Shortly after that, we saw another line up of a group of veterans being inspected as well.

Brightly uniformed Beefeaters

Brightly uniformed Beefeaters

Here’s a few more of our photos of the Tower and the armoury.

By now we’d had enough of being damp and wet and chilled and decided we’d seen enough for one day. Our feet agreed. We had people to meet and a pub to go to. We made our way out the exit which is along the river and facing Tower Bridge.

The pub we are heading for is called the Doric Arch, a little pub just outside the Euston train station. You must go upstairs from the ground level, though. And the toilets are down stairs from the ground level, meaning you have two flights to go down and back up if you need the loo. *sigh* Anyway, our friends arrived a little later and we had a lovely few hours in the nice, warm pub. They didn’t have pear cider but they did have Kopparberg apple cider so I had that and it was very good, as well. The food there was really wonderful. My beef pie was hot and full of big chunks of meat and mushrooms with lovely hot gravy.

Finally it was time to leave. We said goodbye to our mates and caught a bus two stops up Euston Road to Warren St. Station next to the hotel, picked up some sandwiches in Tesco for later on this evening and tucked up in the hotel where it was warm and dry! We made tea and coffee and spent our last evening together.

Monday was an early start. I had booked an airport transfer service for 7:30 so it was too early for the hotel breakfast, which started later on weekends and holidays. Graham headed to the train station and I to Heathrow where I got breakfast after I checked in, amazed that my suitcase wasn’t overweight! Picked up a few items in duty free and waited for my gate to open. The Luggage Gods favoured me and my bags arrived with me.

Another holiday ended and another one always in the works to be planned.

We got Day trips

Day trips, we got day trips. Now that we have a rental car booked for my trip to Manchester, we are starting to think about day trips to make. I fancied seeing Chatsworth house again. I visited there with a group of friends back in September, 2000 on a rainy day. Wasn’t very good for walking in the gardens, just the house and a quick trip to the cafe. It’s a beautiful manor house, home to the Cavendish family, the  Dukes of Devonshire. In recent years, it’s been featured in both the movie about Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire (“The Duchess”, played by Keira Knightly), and in two recent appearances, it has represented Darcy’s home Pemberly in a remake of Pride and Prejudice (also with Keira Knightly) and in a television series, Death Comes to Pemberly.

There’s been a house here since Tudor times when it was first owned by “Bess” of  Hardwick from 1549. The house that’s there now dates from around the turn of the 18th Century. It’s pretty spectacular inside, with painted ceilings, elaborate plaster work and the gardens are extensive, with fountains and outbuildings. The stables and greenhouses can be visited (I believe the cafe and gift shop are now in the stables as well as some little shops).

I fancy another visit to see it again and update my photos and it isn’t that far to drive across the beautiful Peak District from the Manchester area so, weather permitting, I think that’s on the cards. We can go in the morning and find a nice country pub on the way back for lunch. In fact, I did some judicious Googling, as you do, and found one called the Royal Oak near Buxton that will suit requirements perfectly.

Not sure yet on other day trips though we’ve discussed taking the train over to Liverpool perhaps. I thought about Ripon and Fountains Abbey in the Yorkshire region or maybe just another visit to one of our favourite cities, York. We’d like to find somewhere where we could meet up with friends that might come from the Sunderland/Newcastle area.

We have pretty much everything booked for the France/London trip. The rental car is reserved, the theatre tickets for The Mousetrap are bought, the tickets/voucher for the Tower of London also bought and printed. We thought we’d stay at an airport hotel the night before we have that really early flight to Paris so that’s booked, too. Maybe we won’t have to get up *quite* so early though it still won’t be much more of a lie in. Every little bit helps and we can drop off the car at the airport the night before as well, after we check in with the luggage.

Tourist Traps: Come one, come all

Crowds at the Colosseum in Rome

People look down on the most popular spots in a destination, calling them “tourist traps”. They say these places are rip offs, scams, and attract throngs of crowds. All this can be true. But on the other hand, many of these places are of interest for various reasons, be it historical, architectural, religious or otherwise. Many of these places are iconic to the destinations. Does that mean you *should* avoid them?

Not necessarily. Some of them I do avoid, but many of them I visit anyway. It all comes down to personal choice and there are always ways to minimize the “trap”.

If the attraction has a very expensive entry fee, you have to decide how important it is to see it. If you can get the experience from viewing it from the outside, then it’s free. You don’t have to buy from the souvenirs or eat at the restaurants on site or near the site. If it’s that iconic, you can get souvenirs and postcards of it anywhere. Just compare the prices before you buy.

If it’s the crowds that put you off, go early in the day, or late in the day. If you can travel off season in the spring, fall or winter, even better. Chances are, there will still be lots of people but it won’t be claustrophobic.

I mention all this because I’ve just come back from Rome and believe me, there are quite a few iconic tourist destinations there that attract crowds. The good thing is that many of them are free or aren’t exorbitant in price.

So what did we see of these sites?

Vatican Museums = 15 euro for an adult entry.  Colosseum  = 12 euro for an adult entry. We paid a bit more because we booked a tour for both of them. In both cases, you see the highlights (Sistine Chapel!) but you can then stay on and wander around at your leisure. We were there in mid November, too, so though there were still lots of people, the crowds did not make us feel closed in.

The real “trap” feeling of the Colosseum is all the vendors in the area around it, both with booths set up or walking through the crowds attempting to sell you things they’re carrying. That can be really annoying. There’s also a few “gladiators” in costume and if you want your photo taken with them or want to take a photo of them, they expect cash payment. You can always take a photo from farther back with your camera’s zoom! The queues for tickets can certainly be very long. If you can pre-purchase them either online or from another agency, you will be able to use a much shorter line. We sailed through that one.

You see all the people in the photo with this post? This was taken on a November mid afternoon after we’d left the building. None of them are in queues to get in. They’re all just milling about looking at the structure from the outside. The day we were there, there seemed to be far more people outside than inside. Some are part of organized groups but most aren’t. Many, I’m sure were inside or were going to be.

St. Peter’s Square and Basilica are free and on Wednesday’s for the Pope’s “audience”, the square can fill up with thousands of people so keep that in mind.

Other famed tourist spots in Rome are the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, and the Pantheon and piazza outside. The worst crowds we encountered here were at the fountain. There’s a tradition that you can toss a coin into the fountain to ensure a speedy return to Rome and it’s one that a lot of people take up. We did go, because the Baroque fountain covering the wall of a building really is lovely but we didn’t stay too long.Most of these are public squares or Piazzas so of course, they’re free to visit.

We visited all of these but my favourite is the Pantheon.  It was originally a temple and now a Christian church. The round domed structure is really beautiful inside. It, too, is free to enter and when we were there, not overly crowded though busy.

What seems to make an attraction a “tourist trap” is the sense that it’s not worth the price of admission or that it’s overpriced and far too crowded. The souvenir shops and restaurants tend to be overpriced. The food often of lesser quality (at least the ones by the Colosseum were, the other squares, maybe the quality doesn’t suffer but they ain’t cheap, even just for a cup of coffee.)

Some places you go are “visitor centres” and some of these really feel like rip offs. Some are very good with lots of information about the site but some are set up like a cheesy “experience” and you get little bang for your buck.

I wouldn’t avoid popular tourist attractions. If you’re going to Paris, why wouldn’t you want to see the Eiffel Tower? You don’t have to pay the price to go up, you can see it from most places in the city. You can walk across Tower Bridge in London for free. You can see the Statue of Liberty from the free Staten Island Ferry in New York.

Some attractions have a free entry day once a month or are discounted if you enter late in the day or on the evening opening. Expect more crowds but it’s a way to see or do something you might not want to pay the full price for otherwise.

It all comes down to your own interests, priorities and budget.