Sunday, September 26, 2010

In and around Kenmare

Kenmare is a pretty small town located on the southwest coast of Ireland. It was suggested in the Rick Steves guide (by this point in the trip being referred to as "The Book of Steves") as an alternative base to Killarney for exploring both the Iveragh and Beara Peninsulas. Being the ancestral home of many Irish-Americans and the jumping off point for tours of the famous Ring of Kerry, it is a very busy place, jammed with souvenir shops, tour buses and "jaunting cars" as the horse drawn open carriages are called. Preferring somewhere a little more low key, we opted for Kenmare.

With its brightly painted storefronts, a circle of standing stones just outside town, a lovely harbour and a pleasant walking trail through the countryside at the edges of the village not to mention the pubs with live music spilling out the doors, it is a pleasant place to walk about, browse the shops and stop for a pint when fatigue sets in. There are several town and rural B&B's including the lovely five star Park Hotel which overlooks the water, lots of pubs with live music, and a range of restaurant fare from fine dining to pub food. A few recommendations in no particular order of preference:

P.F. McCarthy's - lively pub, great atmosphere, live music
Packie's - great decor, delicious food, good service
The Coachman's - atmosphere leaves something to be desired but food is good and prices reasonable
Foley's - great food, crowded, good service, very hot the evening we were there

On a second floor up a narrow stair from the tourist office is the Kenmare Lace Museum. It documents the work of the Poor Clare order of nuns who came to Kenmare in the 1860's and taught the young women of the town to make lace so they could contribute income to their families in a time of severe unemployment. Kenmare lace, a technique in its own right, was world famous in its day. Queen Victoria purchased a piece and one wealthy American woman bought a coverlet and pillow covers for a price that would buy a very nice house today. The making of the lace is extremely time consuming, a single flower motif from the examples below taking about 20 hours of painstaking work to complete. Needless to say, it is now a dying art although many hobbyists keep the craft alive, including the volunteers at the lace museum who demonstrate the different techniques of Kenmare lace, bobbin lace and Point d'Irlandaise or crochet lace. The museum has many fine vintage pieces of this beautiful work.

Different kinds of lace at the Kenmare Lace Museum

Kenmare Harbour

Circle of Standing Stones

This was one of the few stone circles we saw that was maintained and where we didn't have to skip through cow pies to get to it....not very atmospheric but still worth a stop on an evening walk.

Travelling companion with large stone

Green, red, green - Kenmare back alley


And many months go by, so so quickly! I have excuses but won't bore you with them...suffice to say that there have been some bumps in the road this year which I may or may not choose to share at some point. For the moment, I'm trying to remain positive, not stick my head in the sand but focus on dealing with what is in front of me and burn those bridges when I come to them. And my apologies for the metaphor mangling.

It has been a long time since the Ireland trip but I want to share what ended up being my favourite part of the trip which was the southwest coast of Ireland. First part of this adventure was to equip ourselves with a car. We took the bus back out to the airport to do this, reasoning that on our final day we could drive straight to the airport and drop the car off before our flight - that turned out to be good strategy, by the way. Our trial by fire (especially for my trusty driver) was to be dumped out onto the busy motorway, driving a right hand drive on the left side of the road. It wasn't so bad at first because on a divided highway, driving on the left was not a factor. Of course the traffic was insane as this is pretty much the biggest chunk of modern highway in Ireland.

As the day wore on and we crossed the country, the roads became progressively narrower until, as we approached Kenmare, there was barely room for two cars to pass by each other. There was so little clearance that the wild fuschia and ferns sprouting profusely from the head high rock walls lining the road was ticking against the rear view mirror on my side of the car making me cringe away in fear. Speed limits in Ireland seem excessively optimistic but local drivers weren't hard to spot - they were the ones driving huge SUVs and flooring it. We had a tiny Twingo (doesn't that sound like something that runs off an elastic band?), one step up from the even smaller car we had reserved but which the agent talked us out of as not a good choice for the distance and the roads we planned to travel. Fortunately, we took his advice.

Iveragh side road

Our room at Hawthorn House in Kenmare, booked on the fly earlier that day, turned out to be a separate cottage affair behind the main building and was lovely and quiet and unlike most B&B rooms in Ireland, roomy. After the usual warm Irish greeting from the proprietress, we set out in late afternoon to explore the town. Most of the very colourful buildings were arranged along two long streets set at an angle to each other in a "V" shape. After poking about in a few shops and a very large knitwear store, we passed by a tiny pub and heard strains of "trad" music issuing forth. Without hesitating, we turned and walked in, beguiled by that irresistible sound and found a room jammed full of locals, a few tourists and a pickup group of local musicians who did a session there each afternoon before going on to their paying gigs.

Downtown Kenmare

It was fabulous! We immediately ordered a Guinness and settled in for an hour or so to listen and observe. There was a group of 30-somethings at the bar next to us who were conversing in Irish, some families having an early supper of Irish pub food at the few battered tables and musicians arriving to sit in for a number or two and then take their leave. We couldn't have been happier with our introduction to the pub music scene which we were to experience almost daily during that part of the trip. This tradition seems happily to be very much alive in that part of the world.

Next day dawned reasonably clear so, full to bursting with eggs, sausage and toasted soda bread with jam, we decided to take advantage of the nice weather and "do" the world famous Ring of Kerry, the magnificent circle route of the Iveragh Peninsula. We took Rick Steves advice and set out in the opposite direction to the one the tour buses take, clockwise as opposed to counter clockwise although I see this tactic is discouraged on some "official" websites. With some judicious dekes off the main route to look at archeological sites that are inaccessible to large vehicles, it is possible to avoid getting stuck in a diesel fumed snail of traffic and allow the bulk of the opposing traffic of the day to go by. Since we were in Kenmare and most of the tours leave from Killarney, it also meant that we were dodging oncoming buses at the end of the day but it was still worth it.

Our first stop was the Staigue Fort a few miles out from Kenmare, one of the so-called "faerie forts" or stone ring forts of unmortared stone. The view of the sea and surrounding countryside, stony sheep pasture for the most part, was spectacular and it was not difficult to imagine the strategic value of the site or to admire the engineering ability of the Iron Age people who built it.

Staigue Fort

Sheep pasture & top of the wall at Staigue Fort

The rest of the day was just as sensational...I won't try to describe it all but the photos below will give you the general idea. Unfortunately we didn't have time to take a tour out to the Skelligs, those pointy islands off the tip of the Iveragh with the stone beehive huts where very dedicated (or deeply antisocial) monks lived out their lives. Even if we had not been time challenged, the boat tours that day were cancelled due to rough seas. We gathered this was a fairly regular occurrence, not surprising given how exposed this coast is to the open Atlantic.

Spectacular cliffs near Waterville

Famine houses overlooking the Skelligs

Contented Irish cows

Friday, January 29, 2010

Langeville to Dublin

It all seems so long ago...well I guess that's because it's been well over six months now since I met up with my guy at Dublin Airport. There he was in the arrivals area, having made his way from home to Heathrow then to Dublin to our B & B in Dun Laoghaire and back to the airport on the shuttle to be waiting the moment I stepped into the terminal. What a guy! In the interests of catching up to present day, the rest of the travelogue won't be a timeline so much as an expanded highlights spread over several posts with a section on up-to-the-moment stuff. It has been pretty daunting to think about having to write my way from last June to now, to the point I avoided writing at all. Ahh, the excuses we make to procrastinate...

My first impression of Dublin was how modern it felt for such an old city. The curvy futuristic looking airport terminal was still under construction, many old buildings have been repurposed for flats and concert halls and public spaces and there are plenty of brand new glass and steel office buildings. We were to learn from the locals that many of the new places were standing empty as a result of the downturn in the economy and the banking crisis. There was even talk of pulling down the miles of new or stalled-out construction around the airport as it didn't look as though it would ever be occupied or even finished.

River Liffey in downtown Dublin

One of our favourite activities during our stay in Dublin was a bus tour out to Newgrange, part of the complex of Neolithic passage tombs or celestial clocks or ceremonial mounds in the Boyne Valley...opinions are mixed as to their purpose. That they remain somewhat of an enigma is not surprising considering they were built over 5,000 years ago (predating the Pyramids by 2,000 years!) and extensive exploration and protection only started in the 1960's. It is a very impressive place when one catches sight of it from the road leading in, very large and gleaming white on its emerald green hilltop. If its creators meant it to impress, they are still pulling it off.

Ian, our wonderful tour guide who regaled us with history, sang to us and told us storyteller style of Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) and the Magic Salmon


All visitors must pass through the Brú na Bóine visitor's centre and in groups limited to 50, take a shuttle bus up to the site for a one hour visit, one group leaving as another arrives. The passage and chamber can only be accessed in groups of 25 at a time, accompanied by a guide. Inside, the passage runs uphill and is so low and narrow that I was obliged to duck beneath the roof stones and turn sideways at one point to allow my shoulders to pass through. Those with claustrophobia issues are well advised to skip this part. The centre chamber, domed with concentric circles of rock, held all 25 of us, but very cosily. There is artificial lighting but at one point it was extinguished leaving us in velvet blackness with not a glimmer from outside, invited by the guide to imagine ourselves notables of an ancient cult, awaiting the arrival of the light on winter solstice. On that day, provided the sun is shining, a rectangular opening over the exterior door lines up perfectly with the sun's position, the passage and the central chamber, allowing light to run up the path and, for a few minutes, illuminate a polished stone bowl which stood at the centre of the chamber.

Curving entry area with roof box over exterior door to let in the solstice sun

It is thought that these moments were used for some special yearly ceremony but it's anybody's guess. One theory involves the bowl holding the ashes of the deceased so that the touch of the sun's rays at the moment when the days begin to get longer sends their spirits to join the ancestors. Another holds that fertility rites were enacted for the coming year's harvest. Should you wish to experience this moment for yourself, you must enter a lottery and if you are chosen, pray that the Winter Solstice isn't clouded over....bit of a long shot given Ireland's reputation for rainy weather.

Standing stone overlooking the Boyne River Valley

The outside of the mound is decorated with white stone and the base is lined with huge stones laid on their sides and decorated with triskells (three joined spirals) and other runic symbols. The slope down from the mound had several standing stones and a sort of chapel built entirely of stone. As you can see in the photos, the countryside is lushly green and dotted everywhere with sheep. County Meath is an exceptionally productive agricultural area and we were surprised to learn that dairy and other farm products are one of their biggest exports. I had the best butter I've ever eaten while we were there and I should probably devote an entire post to the phenomenon that is the full Irish breakfast.

Stone chapel at Newgrange

Newgrange detail: white facing stone and monolithic lintel slabs

I was surprised to learn how new archeological inquiry is in Ireland, especially given the rich historical and mythic tradition that continues to this day. It was not unusual to hear ordinary people talk about fairies and ghosts, and about bad luck coming from disturbing the "faerie forts". Perhaps it's due to centuries of domination and persecution or perhaps with such a profusion, ruins are taken more for granted than they would be in North America where similar sites would be roped off. There are ruins everywhere, tumbledown castles, famine houses, ring forts and tombs and very few have been documented or excavated to any extent. It was wonderful having such open access to these ancient sites, able to scramble over the same stones where 5,000 years ago, people took shelter, to look out at the same view from the vantage of a fort wall.

Lintel Stone with triskell and other designs

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Paris to Langeville

On my last morning in Paris, I packed up, crammed myself onto the tiny Tiquetonne elevator and departed for Gare Montparnasse, arriving ridiculously early as is usual for me and rather frantic for a washroom. The place was packed and my train not yet on the board so I got a fabulous coffee and watched the scene as I waited. Twice I got into longish conversations with people asking me questions about the trains...French people, in French! Guess I have succeeded in not looking too much like a tourist. The train was finally posted - about 20 minutes before departure - and I headed down the platform. The 2nd class cars are always the farthest from the main station so I no longer panic when it seems like I might have to walk all the way to my destination. It was a quiet trip except for an incident just past Le Mans when a suitcase fell from the overhead rack a couple of seats ahead of mine and clobbered the poor woman sitting below. The French despite their celebrated reserve, flocked to help her and she was well fussed over for the rest of the journey. Yet another reason to pick the window seat...

My friend Françoise was waiting faithfully for me on the platform at Les Sables d'Olonne, a minor miracle in my view since we hadn't been in touch for weeks....nothing since "my train arrives at 2:30 on Sunday, the 7th". This is the third time we have met in France like this so I'm less nervous now about it actually coming to pass although I had the "de rigueur" thought, what would be my next step if she doesn't show? We did a little vehicle tour of Les Sables d'Olonne, a beach town with some interesting buildings from the 30's and many seashell mosaics along the walls of the narrow streets, kitschy but old enough to be cool too. There was a parade being marshalled at the waterfront with some modest floats and a flock of local girls wearing clogs, colourful folk costumes and lace coifs on their heads. Local boys were also dressed up in folk costume and were practising their music on the Breton style bagpipes and horns, quite thrilling to hear in that context but not what everyone would call tuneful, a harsh, compelling sound. The beach was spectacular, a long curve of white sand around the bay bordered with low rise hotels and apartments, some art deco but most newer and pretty cheesy up close. The beach is obviously the main attraction here as the town doesn't have a whole lot of character. It was a gorgeous sunny day but the wind was strong and blowing sand made it less than pleasant near the water so we didn't wait around for the parade to begin and headed off to Langeville where Françoise's family owns a summer home.

Beach near Langeville

As I would learn, Langeville looks pretty much the same as most of the towns in the area: tidy, white stucco houses with blue shutters, red tile roofs, all in the low lying flat landscape of the Vendée shoreline. There didn't seem to be much to do or see in walking distance aside from the beach which was again, spectacular: miles of white sand backed by dunes backed in turn by deciduous forest. Here and there, crumbling blockhouses from World War II poke up out of the dunes. Although sunny the weather was a bit on the cool side so most houses remained shuttered and it was very quiet. The house was lovely and comfortable, full of antique French country furniture, beautiful linens on the beds and the accumulations of a much-loved and long-used family retreat. Françoise has been summering here since she was a teenager so it is pretty much in her blood.

White stucco, blue shutters and red tile roofs at La Tranche-sur-Mer

We spent the week walking, reading, napping, eating, lying on the beach, drinking wine and in my case, knitting while listening to audiobooks on my iPod. Each evening there was the almost ritual closing of the shutters once we were ready to go to bed, often before sunset. With no daylight saving and it being almost the solstice, it was daylight until almost 11PM. Between the tranquility, the gentle rhythm of the days, the comfortable bed and the darkness that only shutters on the windows can provide, I slept like a child, wakening to bird song. The second day of our stay, there was a huge windstorm and we actually lit a fire in the fireplace and hunkered down under blankets, quite content. When we walked through the forest the next day there were branches on the path and the beach was covered in fluffy white foam from the pounding waves of the day before.

Foamy beach at Jard-sur-Mer

The week slid by, serene, quietly delightful, laid-back. On the last day, Françoise drove me to La Rochelle where I was to fly to Dublin to meet my guy. It was a very hot day and it was farther than anticipated - partly because of poor navigation on my part. La Rochelle is a lovely city, reminding me of St. Malo but built of white stone rather than grey, giving it a sunny southern aspect. Much of the new world exploration in the age of discovery left from here and the city was celebrating its links with Quebec this summer...I was pleasantly surprised to see the Quebec flag flying at the harbour.
Exposition at La Rochelle on the expeditions to New France

Quebec flag flies over the harbour at La Rochelle

After a nice lunch outside the cathedral, we wandered the back streets of the old city, climbed the ramparts at the mouth of the harbour and enjoyed the cool shady arcades until it was time for my flight.
Harbour gate, La Rochelle

Inner harbour, La Rochelle

Ramparts of La Rochelle

The La Rochelle-Ile de Ré airport was tiny with nowhere to sit, packed full of people with questions and no staff to provide answers, everyone overheated and anxious. People in Ryanair uniforms sailed busily about the room, unresponsive to pleas for assistance. Guess that's how Ryanair is able to offer those low fares, not that my fare was particularly a bargain. I had dutifully checked in online the day before using my iPhone and was assured on the website that I could print my boarding pass at the airport. At the airport there appeared to be no facility for printing and as for staff to clarify my next step, see above. Nothing for it but to wait with growing apprehension then make sure I was at the front of the line when the flight was called. I couldn't even settle down enough to knit, which is really saying something for me, in spite of it being World Wide Knitting in Public Day.
The agent barely listened to my story, sending me with a form to a different desk to "pay for printing my boarding pass" (30 euros!!!) and to "have my visa checked" (what visa!??)! By the time the stone faced woman at the counter deigned to serve me, my patience had quite evaporated. Speaking French was beyond me and while I didn't raise my voice, I was very firm. I laid out the sorry tale ending with "now it seems I have to pay another 30 euros and I am not happy". She met my eye, assessing my outrage, I glared back, she kind of hitched one shoulder in that French way, rolled her eyes, pounded a "Paid" stamp on my form, and shooed me away, all without uttering a word. For a minute, I couldn't quite believe I'd managed to get my way. The lesson? Have your say, don't yell, don't back down and to hell with polite and accommodating.

Too bad my France sojourn had to end on this sour note. It will be a long time before I put myself in the hands of Ryanair again. Mostly I've had exceptionally good experiences with the budget airlines in Europe. They fly between smaller cities without routing through the large airport hubs and while the fares are not all that small once all the extras are added on, they make it up in convenience. At least I got in my knitting, finishing up the first of what I'm calling my Langeville Sunset Socks in the mercifully cool departure lounge and during the flight to Dublin.

...and next, Ireland...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Paris Encore

London to Paris:

Off to St. Pancras early in the morning after a rerun of previous day's breakfast - I really don't like canned baked beans...I don't even like looking at them first thing! And I would have killed for a real coffee. Fortunately, they have lots of nice coffee establishments in St. Pancras Station so with a nice hefty cappuccino in hand, I went off to check in, where I was immediately headed off by the nice security men - no drinks in the lounge. I was ridiculously early as usual, so I found a nice bench along the beautiful open concourse and finished drinking my coffee in relative peace.

Passed through French customs without incident, into the overcrowded lounge (did they not know how many people fit on one of those trains when they built the place? And while St. Pancras is very old on the outside, it is brand spanking new inside!) then onto the train. A young Asian woman sat beside me with her parents sitting across the aisle and they conversed in their language for the first part of the trip...turned out they were Malaysian, she had been educated in the U.S. and was a physician and nowhere near as young as she appeared. They were visiting Paris for the first time and were using the French edition of "The Book of Steves" as we have taken to referring to Rick Steves guide books (more on that later) and were staying near Rue Cler near the Eiffel Tower as he recommends.

The Eurostar was nothing exceptional as European fast trains go...comfortable, fast, on time. As for the Chunnel, I had expected an extraordinary experience but after the requisite time speeding through the English countryside, it gets dark outside the train for a half hour or so then one is speeding through the French countryside. The greater pleasure is that the Eurostar takes less time than flying and it is pretty much downtown to downtown. When I arrived in Paris, I was able to walk downhill from Gare du Nord to my hotel near Les Halles without any trouble and without recourse to other transportation.

My room in the Hotel Tiquetonne for this stay was on the top floor, the 7th, reached by a teeny slow jerky little elevator or an interminable winding staircase. Over the rooftops, I could see the Eiffel Tower, hazy in the distance. The room was under the angle of the roof and set back from the eaves with casement windows that opened wide for air (no AC) and the sounds of the unseen street below wafted up to me. Rue Montorgueil with its shops and restaurants was just around the corner but sadly, the quartier has become very touristy since my last stay in 2004. The feel of a residential area has pretty much gone with some of the fine old restaurants replaced by fast food joints and tourist claptrap outlets. Bands of older teenagers roam the streets at night and the drunken clamour goes on until daybreak. That said, the Tiquetonne is ideally placed for walking the city and I went out every day with my deck of walking cards from City Walks Paris to discover parts of the city hitherto unknown to me. Best of the few I had time to undertake was the Butte aux Cailles area, with its neighbourhood feel and the charming Villa Daviel, a whole row of adorable rose-adorned single family cottages on a dead end lane. On a different expedition, the card for the Trocadéro directed me to the Allee des Cygnes, a walkway that runs the length of a very long narrow island in the Seine. James Joyce used to go there for strolls to clear his head and these days, young families and people walking dogs take the air. Near the Jardin des Plantes I visited a Roman arena, the Arènes de Lutèce, and beneath the stone tiers of seats in the centre ring where gladiators and chariot races once entertained the Roman occupiers, neighbourhood children now play informal soccer matches and men gossip over their petanque.

View from the Tiquetonne - can you find the Eiffel Tower? Hint: it's in the right third of the photo.

Les Arènes de Lutèce

Allee des Cygnes

Villa Daviel

Besides these more obscure pleasures, I window shopped along the very tony Rue du Passy, hung out for awhile by the Eiffel Tower, eyed the stratospherically priced designer offerings along the Boulevard Haussmann, walked by the Elysée Palace, home to France's presidents, like a fortress with the small army of security personnel choking the surrounding streets. I couldn't help but wonder if Carla Bruni is at all dismayed by the way she must live now, cloistered inside, in absolute luxury and comfort but always fenced in, enveloped, never able to slip out the back door for a quick walk up the Champs Elysée.

I browsed through the divinely presented food offerings at Fauchon on the Place de la Madeleine - these people have the tortured food thing down to a science. This is where I picked up a box of their miniature pastel meringues as a hostess gift for Françoise, knowing how much the French appreciate these little luxuries, and pretty certain I would have the opportunity to try a few myself. Sharing food is almost the main point of eating for the French - huge generalization, I realize, but it is something I have noted on many occasions in France. Rituals surrounding food and its preparation are of equal importance to food-as-nourishment to a much greater degree than in North America although that is something that is changing for the better in North America and unfortunately, for the worse in France.

And that's what was missing from my explorations of Paris - a bit of company, someone to break bread with. As much as I love the city and as happy as I am to follow none but my own agenda, I was lonely at times, a bit triste. Daytime was too full for much reflection but it would have been nice to have a companion for the evening meal. As it was, I took to buying a few supplies and picnicking in my room or in a park rather than sit alone at a table in a restaurant.

Carrousel in the Jardin du Ranelagh

to be continued...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

European Interlude

Back at last...what a busy few months it's been since I last posted. There have been some travels, most notably to England, France and Ireland for the month of June. The plans for this trip came together somewhat piecemeal. I had a large credit with Air Canada that had to be used by June 7th, left over from a trip to Quebec last August that had to be cancelled due to our dog Daisy's first big health crisis. Usually I go to France in April or May to have a French immersion experience with students and former students from the French Diploma Program at the University of Victoria, led by my teacher and friend Françoise. A group of us stay in a gîte in the French countryside, speak nothing but French to each other while shopping and participating in activities intended to put us in contact with local people and have the opportunity to practice French as it is really spoken (3 entries from the 2007 trip to Brittany at my Aventure En France blog). It is most effective in improving conversational skills as it is pretty much impossible to sustain that careful translation in your head before must listen hard then jump in if one is to have any kind of a conversation, even if it's just to buy the day's bread at the local boulangerie, and be prepared to be laughed at or not understood.

This year, there weren't enough people to make up a group and I had resigned myself to not going when Françoise, bless her heart, invited me to come and stay with her at her family's vacation home in Langeville on France's Atlantic coast. She goes to visit family in Angers every year and then winds down at the seashore from her busy teaching year. I happily accepted and went on to plan the rest of the trip since the roughly two weeks involved was, to my mind, not enough to justify the agony of jet lag...three weeks is my minimum. I had hoped that my partner, who was tied up with work until mid-June, would come and meet me in France but he suggested that we recoup the trip we had intended to make to Ireland in 2001, cancelled when the foot and mouth epidemic struck and the "ways" across Ireland were closed. We went to Greece instead, had a wonderful time but still dreamt of walking in Ireland.

On June 1st, I left for London having long ago given up on flying directly to Paris with Air Canada. They insist on routing west coast passengers through Toronto - a four or five hour flight from Victoria followed by a five hour wait in the unlovely and crowded Pearson International succeeded by a roughly nine hour flight, and a befuddled arrival into a foreign language and people not celebrated for their patience. My preference is to fly direct from Vancouver or Calgary to London, spend a couple of nights there to adjust the mental clock and gear up for speaking French, and maybe do a bit of tourism between naps.

This strategy puts me into Europe around midday and I try to stay awake until the sun goes down - quite a struggle as the days are very long in Europe in June - they're on the same parallel as Edmonton, hard as that is to believe and the sun sets around 10 PM! My hotel was near Kings Cross station, chosen because St. Pancras next door would be the departure point for the Eurostar a couple of days hence. I got quite turned around coming out of Kings Cross so I had an inadvertent tour of the Bloomsbury neighbourhood before I located the hotel not half a block from one of the many station exits. In my meanderings, I had seen the new British Library (well, new to me) and decided to go back there since it was only a block or two down the Euston Road. It was a splendidly sunny day so I got a bite to eat and sat in the sun in the peaceful courtyard (did I mention how crowded and intense the streets of London are?) before going inside to see what there was to see. And I saw actual pages of the Gutenburg Bible, Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks and the Magna Carta, quite astonishing in my sleep-deprived state.

Day 2:

This was my day to explore about London and I hadn't made any definite plans as I wasn't sure I'd be good for anything if my sleep pattern hadn't resolved. The day started with a "full English" breakfast...eggs, sausages, beans (the bland canned pork-and-beans type of my youth), toast, delivered in a subterranean breakfast room by a young woman with an impenetrable eastern European accent. When it came down to it, I didn't feel up to braving the teeming streets so I got on an open-topped boat headed up the Thames to Hampton Court. The trip lasted about 3 1/2 hours and was made more entertaining by our guide who delivered a rather smartass running commentary about the sights along the river. I had my knitting with me and between that and the surprisingly pastoral riverbanks once we got out of London proper and the lovely day, I was very happy.

Open tour boat on the Thames

The defunct Battersea power station - awaiting yet another developer to turn it into fashionable condos without changing the historic exterior

Beautifully painted narrow boat passing Kew Gardens

Once at Hampton Court, I confined my explorations to the gardens as I usually find palace interiors excruciatingly over-decorated and claustrophobic and besides, my time was limited. The rose garden announced itself with the most exquisite scent, long before I laid eyes on it. The timing was perfect as all the roses were at their height of bloom and the place was practically deserted. The rest of the gardens were the expected parterres, a greenhouse entirely filled by "the great vine", a grapevine that produces 500 to 700 pounds of fruit per year and is over 200 years old, an orangerie, a forest of huge pyramid shaped yew trees set out in lines in front of the Baroque wing, fountains and artificial lakes and streams with, best of all, swans with babies.

Rose garden with Tudor wing in background

The Great Vine - 230 years old

Foxgloves against the wall of the Tudor wing

I skipped the famous maze, seductive though it seemed from the outside as it was getting late and they wanted yet more money to go in...the UK seemed very pricey to me with extra this and supplemental that at every turn. Happily, the hotel had free WiFi so I was able to use my iPhone for e-mail.

The train zipped me back to London and I tumbled into bed in my decidedly spartan but quite adequate hotel room, ready to hop on the Eurostar the next morning. be continued...