In Bruges…

We awoke from a restful sleep with enough time for a leisurely walk to the train station.  July 7th marked the start of our 1 month (plus 5 free day) Eurail Pass.  Our inaugural journey would take us to the highly anticipated city of Bruges. 

We purchased the Eurail pass a few months earlier after some careful research, mostly credited to Rachel.  We wanted the cheapest, most flexible, and fastest mode of travel through Europe.  I had always associated European travel with train passes, so I initially assumed this was the obvious way to go. However, thanks to Rachel, I quickly learned this was not necessarily the case.  

The Eurail pass is expensive.  A one month first class pass would cost us each 788€ ($1230 CAD).  This was much more than we expected and with countless blogs insisting European travel by rail is no longer a foregone conclusion, we realized we had a lot to consider.  How much is a single train ticket?  How many countries do we actually intend to visit?  More importantly, how many cities do we actually think we’ll visit?  How much is a car rental?  How much is a typical airfare within Europe?  Etc.  Etc. 

Indeed, a lot to consider.  Airfare can be surprisingly cheap within Europe, especially through low cost airlines like Ryanair.  We could buy a lot of flights for 788€.  However, while the flight itself is reasonably cheap and fast, we’d still have to get to and from the airport, which is often a good distance from the city centre.  We would also need sufficient time to get through security, etc..  In other words, there is a lot of added time and cost associated with flying that we don’t always consider. 

Driving would likely be most flexible, but renting a car is expensive, especially for such a long duration and starting and ending in different places.  Also, since we intended to stay in cities mostly, parking and traffic would be a nightmare. 

Finally, the rail option.  With quick access to train stations and no time required for security and check in, traveling by rail is fairly fast.  It would come down to cost and flexibility. When we looked at the cost of individual train tickets for July and August, they were quite cheap…definitely cheaper than buying a pass.  However, we were looking in March.  The cost skyrocketed for tickets only a couple days ahead, and this would surely be worse in the peak season of summer.  We knew we didn’t want to plan out our trip day by day so far in advance. So, for maximum flexibility, the rail pass would be cheapest, even when you add the cost of reservations, which are generally required to secure seats on busy routes.  

After much deliberation, we finally decided the Eurail pass was right for us.  For sure, travel by rail is not cheap and no longer a foregone conclusion in Europe.  Cost is now extremely competitive among trains, planes, and automobiles, and all other considerations are really dependent upon one’s individual travel plans.

Anyway, back to the train station in Brussels.  After initiating our pass at the ticket office, we bought breakfast and headed for the train.  We found our seats and sat comfortably with our coffee and croissants.  The train began to pull away  at 8:51am, right on time.

(Breakfast on the train en route to Bruges)

We arrived at Bruges Station a little over an hour later.  Across a busy ring road and over a tree lined canal that encircles the old city, we quickly entered a maze of narrow cobblestone streets and medieval brick buildings.  Flowered windowsills, courtyards, archways, and tranquil canals staged postcard views at every turn. 

(First impressions of Bruges)

(First impressions of Bruges)

(First impressions of Bruges)

(First impressions of Bruges)

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(First impressions of Bruges)

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(Stopping to smell the flowers)

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(First impressions of Bruges)

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(First impressions of Bruges)

We were in search of Oud Sint Jan Museum, the birthplace of our friend from home, Dirk.  An avid traveller, Dirk gave us many great recommendations leading up to our trip.  We came to Oud Sint Jan, which was the city’s hospital until about 25 years ago.

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(Oud Sint Jan Museum, the birthplace of our friend, Dirk)

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(Oud Sint Jan Museum, the old hospital of Bruges)

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(Oud Sint Jan Museum, the old hospital of Bruges)

Through more archways, we walked passed The Church of Our Lady, or Onze Lieve Vruow in Dutch.

(One of many medieval looking archways)

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(The Church of Our Lady, or Onze Lieve Vruow in Dutch)

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(The Church of Our Lady, or Onze Lieve Vruow in Dutch)

We came to Grote Markt in the centre of the city.  It is a large square full of tourists and surrounded by historic buildings, most of which are now museums, galleries, shops, and restaurants.  The Belfry of Bruges towers over the city from the south side of the square.  It is a must see. 

(Grote Markt in the centre of Bruges – looking east)

(Grote Markt in the centre of Bruges – looking west)

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(Grote Markt in the centre of Bruges)

It was time for breakfast round 2.  We sat outside in the market square at one of the many restaurants and ordered pannekoeken (pancakes) and a waffle.  When we asked the waiter if the restaurant has wifi, he responded, “No. Sorry, you will have to talk to each other today.”  I still haven’t decided if this was merely rude or perhaps a reasonable criticism of our generations’ ADHD.  Anyway, the waffle and pancakes were decidedly better than the service.  

(Breakfast #2 beneath the Belfry of Bruges)

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(Pannekoeken with icing sugar and a side of brown sugar)

(Belgian waffle with icing sugar and whipped cream)

We wandered into the Belfry, a medieval bell tower.  This is probably the most iconic symbol of Bruges and definitely worth a visit.  It was built in 1240 on the north end of the old market square and served as a lookout.  The connected building enclosing the market square once housed the city’s treasury and was the centre of municipal affairs.  We opted not to pay 10€ each to climb the 366 steps to the top mainly due to the heavy stream of tourists all vying for the best views of the city.  Bruges is pretty enough from street level. 

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(The iconic Belfry of Bruges)

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(Inside the old market square and Belfry of Bruges)

Instead we walked around the square, in and out of a number of art galleries before heading to the Bruges Beer Museum just down the street.  It was very informative with displays about the history of beer and the processes used to brew it. Of course there was no shortage of trivia.  For instance, cenosilicaphobia is the fear of an empty glass.  An interesting story is that of Saint Arnold, the patron saint of hop pickers and Belgian brewers. He is credited with saving his parish from the plague.  In reality, he just encouraged them to drink beer instead of water.  Contaminated water had been spreading the infection, but since it is boiled in the brewing process, beer was miraculously free of the deadly pathogen.  Parish numbers grew and Arnold was immortalized.  His statues, which depict him with a mashing rake, still commonly adorn breweries all over Belgium.  Above all, I learned that my interest in beer is mainly in drinking it.  Fortunately the tickets came with a tasting. 

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(The Beer Museum of Bruge)

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(Rachel learning more than she cared to know about the history of beer)

(Learning more than I cared to know about brewing beer)

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[Beer tasting.  From Left:  Rodenbach Foederbier – A flat beer, straight from the oak casks at Rodenbach Breweries  (mixed fermentation, 5-6%), Steenbrugge Dubbel Bruin – A brown abbey beer with a malty caramel character and a fruity, lightly smoked yeast aroma (top fermentation, 6.5% alcohol),  Palm Hop Select – A balanced connoisseurs beer with a hoppy taste and a touch of caramel (top fermentation, 6% alcohol)]

  The full feeling from our second breakfast was threatening to flee, so we quickly found a restaurant that served mussels and chips, another Bruges specialty.  We settled on Bistro den Huzaar. We (I) also couldn’t pass up the beer tasting and fish soup that seemed to leap off the pages of the menu. These were without a doubt the best mussels either of us had ever tasted. They were very simply steamed in water and white wine and garnished with some spring onion.  The magic was in the freshness of the mussels. Talking to the waiter, who was also the owner, we learned that although Belgium is famous for the dish, nearly all of the mussels served in the country are actually harvested from the coast of the Netherlands.  Apparently mussels just aren’t as popular in Holland.  The beers went surprisingly well with the mussels. We were less impressed with the fish soup, which came with a little flat bread, but overall, this mussel experience was THE highlight of Bruges.  

(Amuse bouche)

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(Belgian sausage – very nice)

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(Beer sampling – by this point i wasn’t keeping track of the types)

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(Showing off my mussels)

(Best mussels to date!)

(Fish soup and flat bread)

Having recovered the full feeling in our bellies, we continued to explore the old city, stopping to watch swans play in the canals and checking out various shops.  There was a perfume store that offers to pair a scent to your personality.  Unfortunately, one needs an appointment for this.  In another store, Rachel found a light down jacket that squishes into a tiny featherweight ball. Her heavy travel jacket’s days of weighing down her backpack were over. 

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(A beautiful girl on a beautiful street in Bruges)

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(A very peaceful canal in Bruges)

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(Another gorgeous canal in Bruges)

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(One of many swans swimming in the canals of Bruges)

We reached the outer perimeter of the old city, a narrow band of green space that follows the canal moat.  To the north was a windmill that begged for a photo op.

(Random windmill on outer perimeter of Bruges)

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(Random windmill on outer perimeter of Bruges)

Despite having seen only a fraction of the quaint old city, a walk along the tranquil ‘moat’ was too inviting. We walked slowly around the city back toward the train station. Although one could easily spend several days in Bruges, we were satisfied with our first day trip in Europe.  We caught the next train back to Brussels determined to find waterzooi before leaving Belgium. 

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(The tranquil moat encircling Bruges)

We settled on a restaurant right across the street from our apartment in St. Giles, La Porteuse d’Eau. It offered a variety of local dishes including waterzooi, the famed soup Dirk had recommended.  It was quintessential comfort food.  A creamy chicken and vegetable soup. Very simple, but quite tasty, especially with several different Belgian beers. 

(More Belgian beer at La Porteuse d’Eau in Brussels)

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(First time Rachel finished her drink before me!)

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(Thirsty Rachel connecting with her Belgian roots.)

(Waterzooi – a creamy chicken and vegetable soup)

It was another early night for us as we had to pack for Amsterdam. Our short time in Belgium was coming to an end. 

For breakfast the next morning we had croissants from one of several patisseries right downstairs…so convenient.  We ate quickly because we had to stop at the post office on the way to the station.  We badly underestimated how long this would take and how uncomfortable it would be to pack a parcel wearing our heavy backpacks.  We finished with 9 minutes to spare so we ran to the station.  We made it there in 7 minutes but lost 3 trying to determine the track.  That’s right, we missed our train.  Oh well, there was another train 90 minutes later…plenty of time for another breakfast before heading to the Venice of the North. 

(Vaarwel Belgie!  Bedankt voor alle chocolade!)

Brussels – mmm…The Land of Chocolate

At about a quarter passed six on the evening of July 5th, Thalys high speed train number 9365 slowed to a stop at the Brussels MIDI station.  The platform was lined with a welcome party of about a dozen military servicemen wearing full fatigues and body armour, each carrying a heavy assault rifle. It was an appropriate show of force in the wake of the horrific airport bombing less than 4 months prior.

(Bienvenue à Bruxelles/Welkom bij Brussels)

I don’t know what we expected of Belgium other than a diverse population, old buildings, amazing chocolate, delicious mussels, and, of course, beer.  I’m not going to lie, the following vision played through my head more than once before we arrived…

(Expectations of Belgium.  For Simpson’s fanatics, I realize this scene was referring to Germany.  Humour me.)

While in Paris, my good friend, Bhupinder, made the ominous comment, “I’ll feel better when you’re out of Brussels.”  I couldn’t help but think of his looming concern as our train pulled in beside all those armed guards.  On the other hand, police and military presence gives the reassuring impression of security and control, at least in civilized countries. Surely, that is the intent. This was the case when I was with Bhupinder in Israel years ago, and it quickly became the case as we arrived in Brussels central train station.  Our impressions of Belgium were slowly taking shape.

The heavy foot traffic within and outside the train station confirmed the expectation of diversity.  It was noticeably heterogeneous.  Not in a negative or imposing way, but an apparent contrast to the diversity of Canadian cities, Paris, and London (maybe with the exception of Heathrow Airport).  It was a first impression that was difficult to articulate.

We walked about 10-15 minutes to our apartment in St. Gilles, a pleasant neighbourhood just south of the old city centre.  Everywhere, the streets were lined with elegant six to eight story buildings, as it was in Paris.  It was quiet yet lively at the same time with people walking and cycling home from work or out to the restaurants and bars.  Old men sat on benches watching the pedestrians.  The sun was bright and hot, but it was refreshingly cool in the shade as we walked with our heavy back packs.

Our host, Jonathan, buzzed us in and advised us to take the elevator straight ahead.  We squeezed into the old brass and iron contraption, which we would later learn was installed in 1907.  It still worked smoothly, likely as well as it did over a hundred years earlier.

(Antiquated but reliable lift)

Jonathan welcomed us to his deceptively big apartment with high ceilings, crown mouldings and frosted glass paneled doors.  Such a welcome upgrade from our Paris accommodation.

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(Home away from home)

 

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(A room with a view)

After our tour, Jonathan gave us an overview of Brussels on a large coffee coloured map hanging in the hallway.  It was very old, but we were mainly concerned with the old town, for which it was still perfectly accurate.  He gave us some recommendations and had to run to meet his father for dinner. We freshened up and did laundry.  Ahhh, a proper shower!  No need to squat in a shoe box tub!  Heaven!

We wandered around the corner in search of the recommended restaurant, Brasserie de L’Union, for dinner.  The quiet neighbourhood opened up to a wide street of restaurants, bars, and a sea of outdoor tables garrisoned by thirsty Belgians.  It was dusk and a chilly breeze blew between the buildings so we opted for a table inside.  The beer list was enormous.  I had a Brugs Witbiere, and Rachel had a Kriek Boon, a cherry beer.  Both were great, although fruity beers are too sweet for me.  My white beer was nice and refreshing.

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(Rachel’s Cherry Beer)

(My White Beer)

The food menu was less extensive.  I had a hamburger, interested mainly in the french fries dressed in mayonnaise.  Rachel had pasta in a cream sauce with ham and cheese…a lot of cheese.  The fries were much better than the burger, especially with the mayo.  The pasta was quite tasty too, surprisingly lighter than it looked.

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(My first Belgian dinner, pre-mayo.)

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(Rachel’s light dinner)

The table of 4 girls sitting next to us took interest in us, inferring that we were Canadian. One of them had recently moved to Vancouver and was just home for a visit.  The rest were locals.  We talked about many things as we ate and drank our beer.

They confirmed the heavy security presence had followed the airport attack, noting that the state of emergency had been lifted only recently.  One of the girls was particularly vocal on the subject. She was a social worker in Brussels, primarily dealing with migrants.  Her perspective was intriguing so I’ll try to convey it here.

She argued that the recent attacks throughout Europe were inevitable and primarily due to the lack of integration of an increasing number of migrants. So many people come to Brussels and other European cities with the promise of opportunity and simply do not find it.  Basic services, such as healthcare, are provided, but the government does little to curb discrimination, which is widespread and often blatant.  Migrants are regularly at a disadvantage competing for work and peoples’ attitudes discourage assimilation, especially in Brussels.  As a result, ethnicities remain largely segregated.  Right or wrong, this really aligned with our first impression of the diversity in Brussels…a very apparent lack of assimilation.

She went on to describe how many migrants who are unable to succeed are too proud to reveal their struggles to their families and friends at home. Instead many often boast of newfound success and wealth, propelling the exaggerated perception of opportunity in Europe, and thus motivating more people to come.  A vicious cycle.

The frustration with this situation easily turns to anger and despair, leaving weak minded, disillusioned people vulnerable to extremism.  She clearly wasn’t absolving the attackers of responsibility, but acknowledged there is a very real problem that is deeper than just a bunch of crazy Muslims.  A vulnerability that must be addressed, regardless of who or what group is currently exploiting it.  A compelling argument.

We went on to talk about the influence of the European Union being seated in Brussels. Apparently this is mostly a nuisance for the locals as the city essentially shuts down each time the European Parliament is in session.  However, they are amused by the common rhetoric from other countries denunciating   “the power of Brussels.”  This was especially so throughout the Brexit campaigns where politicians railed against the decisions made in Brussels on behalf of the U.K.  They joked of the awful burden it is to wield such power over Europe.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom about disenfranchised people, despite how this may sound.  It was actually a fun conversation with a lot of laughs. The heavy stuff was just memorable and particularly worthy of sharing.

Full of Belgian beer, pasta and french fries,  we said goodbye to our new friends and walked home to find Jonathan had returned.  We learned that our host was quite interesting.  He is a high school philosophy teacher, Aikido instructor, and magician.  Quite a unique set of skills!

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(Aikido Master of Brussels)

Jonathan offered to show us an example of his magic.  He withdrew two red casino dice from his pocket, apparently ever ready to perform.  He began explaining the dice in elaborate detail and thoroughly demonstrated their authenticity.  He highlighted that the sum of two opposing sides always equals seven and offered several examples to prove it.  However, this rule can be easily broken and any requested number can be made to appear by simply blowing on the dice.  He proceeded to do this, quite convincingly transforming the dice at our command. Amazing slight of hand.

He performed several more tricks with the dice, which have since escaped my memory. We continued to chat and made plans for a late dinner the next night before heading to bed.

The next morning we walked into the Old Town and stopped for breakfast at Cafe Chaff, next to the Marolles Flea Market.  Bacon and eggs with a lightly dressed salad, warm bread, and freshly squeezed orange juice…a good start to the day.  A guitarist strolled by serenading us and the other outdoor diners as we ate.  He was in search of tips, which is common in European cities.  Although we enjoyed his music, he left disappointed.  It’s tempting, but you can’t please everyone so we reserve our tips for the exceptional performers, and those we stop to see.

(Waking up at Cafe Chaff)

(Healthy start to the day)

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(If the coffee doesn’t wake you, the stairs to the washroom will.)

We wandered through the flea market hoping to find some buried treasures, but we had no such luck.  One man’s garbage is another man’s trash…at least on that particular day.

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(Marolles Flea Market)

We explored further, enjoying the buildings, statues, and cobblestone streets.  We came to a busy bar and couldn’t resist a stop for a drink at Cafe Leffe.  As we sipped our beer, we began to notice the tantalizing baskets of crispy fries on all the tables around us.  One of those tables was not like the others, so to fit in we ordered a basket of our own and were soon very glad we did.

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(Morning beer at Cafe Leffe)

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(Irresistable snack)

It turned out that the chocolatier, Frederic Blondeel, which our friends from the night before had unanimously recommended, was just around the corner.  We were excited for this.  Leading up to this trip, so many people had insisted that we try Belgian chocolate as it is supposedly the best in the world.  Our expectations were high.  We walked over and browsed the lavish display of truffles, and chocolates and resisted the urge to try them all.  We bought a generous sampling and carried on, saving the tasting for later.  Prepare to be overwhelmed…

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(mmm…the land of chocolate, Frederic Blondeel Chocolatier)

We came to the famous Manneken Pis, peeing boy fountain. It was significantly smaller than expected….the fountain, that is.  The area was crawling with tourists and pricey waffles drenched with chocolate sauce and ice cream, which was not particularly appetizing.

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(Obligatory Mannekin Pis pics)

Then we came to a large square, Grand Place, surrounded by beautiful hotels, museums and other ornate buildings.

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(Grand Place, Brussels)

The square led to a labyrinth of narrow streets full of restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops, and art galleries.  It was also teeming with tourists but it made for a nice stroll as we walked on toward the Théâtre Des Galeries, covered shops.

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(Covered shops at Théâtre Des Galeries)

There we found Mokafé, where we would find the best Belgian waffle in Brussels, according to Jonathon.  I don’t know if it’s the best in Brussels, but it was probably the best waffle I’ve ever had.  A very thin, crispy outer shell with a soft, fluffy batter inside. Dusted generously with powdered sugar and paired with copious amounts of creamy butter, it was beautiful.

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(Mokafe, home of the best waffle in Brussels)

Even better was the little old lady sitting next to us.  All alone, she ordered a giant ice cream sundae about the size of her head and slowly devoured it one tiny bite at a time.  Although her expression scarcely changed, we could hear her heart singing with joy.

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(Too cute)

We perused through a couple shops and galleries within the covered shops.  One gallery showcased an artist who specializes in photo mosaics, and uses closeup photos of women’s skimpy bikini clad bottoms to compose a larger image of various conservative themes. I studied his work carefully.

Along the way toward the Royal Palace, we came upon a small market, where Rachel bought a dress for her next semester at Hogwartz (actually, quite a nice dress).  She also bought a thin brown Moroccan leather belt to complete the ensemble.  Funnily though, when we got home later, we realized that the belt actually smelled quite bad.  It turns out a common technique to soften leather in Morocco is to soak it in pigeon poop.  Evidently, this had been done to her new belt.  I don’t know how we missed this in the market, but in any case, the belt found itself in a sealed bag full of baking soda, where it will remain for the next 8 months to hopefully kill the disgusting odour.  Leather has since fallen off our list of things to buy when we visit Morocco in October.

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(Hermione’s Rachel’s new dress)

We walked on under the intense heat of the sun and finally came to the Royal Palace, followed closely by the Law Courts of Brussels, both very impressive buildings.

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(Royal Palace of Brussels)

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(Law Courts of Brussels)

Next to the Law Courts is a ridge, from which there is a very good view of Brussels as well as a memorial to the unknown soldiers of the World Wars.  An elevator called, Ascenseur des Marolles, offers a quick and easy descent down the ridge.

(Memorial to the unknown soldiers of the world wars)

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(View from the Ascenseur des Marolles)

We took the elevator down and wandered back in the direction of home.  We stopped for my first European haircut, likely the most meticulous buzz cut I’ve ever enjoyed.

(My first European haircut)

It was still too early to go home so we got a drink at the square around the corner from home and tried the first of our chocolates.  Simply put, Belgian chocolate deserves its reputation!  It was incredible.

(Beer and chocolate – a winning combo)

We went home to freshen up and relax. Jonathan came home shortly after 9pm.  He had just finished a magic show for a large group, which he obviously enjoyed immensely. We set out to find a restaurant.   Everywhere was packed with people watching the Eurocup semifinals. We settled on a small Moroccan restaurant with no TVs and consequently open tables.

Soon plates and pots of aromatic food began filling the table. Cumin scented carrots with salty olives, one tagine of chicken, dates and cashews, and another of mergez meatballs with mixed vegetables.  There was a plate of skewered lamb over fluffy cous cous, and another pot of stewed vegetables. Finally, a basket of crispy flatbread with marinated chick peas and an amazing chili paste.  I didn’t want it to end but we filled up quickly, sipping rosé wine and enjoying good conversation.

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(Delicious Moroccan dinner with Jonathan)

After the meal we continued drinking our wine and Jonathan shared more magic tricks, this time using a deck of playing cards.  Determined to catch his slight of hand, we were startled when the streets suddenly erupted with cheering, banging and the sound of car horns.  Portugal had won the semifinals and evidently the neighbourhood was more Portuguese than Welsh.

We settled our bill and wandered home through the ongoing celebrations of the football fans (soccer fans, for those of you in North America).  We bid farewell to our new friend since Jonathan was leaving for France early the next morning.  We enjoyed our short time with him and wish we could have seen more of his magic skills.  Off to bed, we set our alarms so we could catch the relatively early train to Bruges the next day!

Cambridge to Edinburgh

We had a quick breakfast of ginger yogurt, Icelandic cereal and 2 bites of Melton Mowbray pork pie, which we would do well to forget.  

Left-hand driving, round 2.  This time en route from London to Sheffield via Cambridge.  I had expected keeping to the proper side of the street would be most challenging but this was actually quite easy. Lane positioning and navigating proved difficult, however.  My driving was successful in that I remained collision-free throughout our time in the UK, but it was admittedly stressful. 

All highways in England seem to be lined with thick green trees with the occasional view of farmland, so the scenery wasn’t anything to write home about. But we did stay entertained with BBC radio’s coverage of the Brexit aftermath.  High profile resignations, double-talking politicians, speculation and opinion pieces filled the airwaves. Finally!   

We arrived in Cambridge, which has a very different look and feel to that of London. Much more regal and prestigious.  A town that embodies academia, perhaps precipitated from its reputation.  Parking proved to be a challenge and we resigned ourselves to a car lot that was certain to gouge us later.  

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(Beautiful Cambridge, England)

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(One of many magnificent churches – Cambridge, England)

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(Emmanuel College – Cambridge, England)

In the centre of town, amidst stores and cafes, the university campus was all around us.  There were winding narrow streets and beautiful old buildings at every turn.  We came to an open air market and decided a picnic was in order.  Stocked with stilton and aged white cheddar from ‘the guy on the corner’, a convenient charcuterie tray, crackers and 2 little bottles of wine from Marks and Spencer and we were ready. A short walk and we were on a cricket pitch laying out Rachel’s yoga mat to set up our feast. 

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(Discovering the market – Cambridge, England)

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(Browsing the market stalls – Cambridge, England)

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(Spontaneous feast on the cricket pitch – Cambridge, England)

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(England, meet Rachel and Adam)

The tray from Marks and Spencer’s included air dried beer brined ham, Cumberland style salami, and mild Lancashire cheese.  The Stilton we got at the market was our favourite, but it was all so tasty. So nice to relax in the park, eating and watching the cricket match, totally oblivious to what they were doing. 

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(“Yummy!”)

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(Inexplicable!)

We pondered how many great minds had frequented that very spot?  Did a young Stephen Hawking lay on that grass dreaming of stars collapsing to infinite density?  Did Oppenheimer imagine he would become a destroyer of worlds?  Did Charles Darwin ponder the origins of life?  Did an apple deliver a mild concussion to Isaac Newton?  Did John Cleese perfect funny walking? Even if they and so many others had been at that park, perhaps they were simply as bewildered by the cricket as Rachel and I. 

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(Bewildered by cricket – Cambridge, England)

Before leaving, Newton’s theory of gravity, lesson 1…

(Any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses, and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.)

We stopped for a coffee and hot chocolate  before lining up for our car lot gouging. Yup, 24£. Ouch!

The drive to Sheffield felt quick and we arrived to a very warm welcome at Chris and Qiu Jiang’s house. They are friends of my brother who was nice enough to put us in touch.  Although we had just met, they treated us like family.  Qiu Jiang prepared a delicious Chinese dinner of hongshao rou (red braised pork belly – Chairman Mao’s favourite dish), stir fried lamb and peppers, stir fried vegetables, and perfectly steamed rice.  It was all so tasty. 

We sat at the table and talked for hours, getting to know each other over wine, brandy, and Niol.  Chris explained that Niol is an apple liqueur native to the French country side – near Brittany, I think.  It’s a dying tradition so that bottle may have been among only a few left. It was a little harsh for my liking but so generous of him to share. 

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(Calvados – apple brandy from France)

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(A good time was had by all – Sheffield, England)

We woke up the next morning to the smell of bacon. Qiu Jiang was preparing an English breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, baked beans, roasted tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms and toast.  What a feast!  We continued right where we left the night before, talking around the table.  

 Realizing the day could easily slip away, Chris offered a tour of Sheffield. He drove us through the city and we walked around the downtown core for a couple hours before stopping for coffee by the Millennium Art Gallery and Museum.  The city had been a manufacturing and mining hub for some time, and is especially recognized for its cutlery and silver work. 

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(City center – Sheffield, England)

We returned home to have a bbq. Qiu Jiang had prepared a variety of marinated meats, cous cous, salad and snacks to enjoy in the yard.  Chris fired up the coals and the meats went on the grill.  Chicken, sausages, burgers, squid and prawns.  It was all excellent but the squid was terrific. Fresh, flavourful and cooked perfectly.  For desert, Chris barbecued bananas and served the melted flesh with fresh cream and some vanilla ice cream. Amazing!  

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(BBQ with Chris and Qiu Jiang – Sheffield, England)

(BBQ’ed bananas, fresh cream and ice cream – Delicious!)

We sat and talked as the sun was slowly overtaken by dark clouds. We moved inside as the first drops fell and we sat comfortably around the fireplace with full bellies and a snifter of brandy.  The entire evening snuck by us as we sat in that cozy little den while the rain poured outside. We touched on everything from politics, to religion, education, etc..  Qiu Jiang shared her story of growing up in China and being groomed and trained as an opera singer.  After some convincing, she sang to us.  Puccini’s Ma Mia Babbino Caro to start. Her heavy Chinese accent somehow vanished and we were left speechless by the power and range of her beautiful voice.  That was the piece we had selected for Rachel’s entrance during our wedding procession so it held a special meaning for us.  Qiu Jiang continued with a variety of pieces by Mozart, and others. We melted into our seats, totally mesmerized.  We were in awe of her ability to create such magnificent sound sitting so casually on the couch. We hadn’t expected that at all but were so thankful for the experience.  

After a restful sleep and another delicious English breakfast, we packed up and said goodbye to our new friends.  Qiu Jiang had prepared a cranberry, bacon, brie sandwich, a cheese and Branston pickle sandwich, and some fruit and snacks for our journey. (The brie and bacon sandwich was sooo good!)  We were thankful for Chris and Qiu Jiang’s overwhelming hospitality. It was a relaxing couple days and so enjoyable to share that time together. 

We had a 4 hour drive ahead of us to Edinburgh with a couple stops planned along the way. First we came to Newcastle for a quick stop at the Gateshead Millennium Bridge.  We wanted to see Hadrian’s Wall so we didn’t stay long in Newcastle.  A quick picture at the bridge and we were back on the highway.  

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(Gateshead Millennium Bridge – Newcastle, England)

Google Maps was being difficult again but we eventually found a stretch of Hadrian’s wall at Walltown Crags. There were actually several popular sites within a few miles of each other, but we focused on one where we could hike a short length of the wall.  There, the wall snaked along dramatic cliffs, which offered far-reaching views of the countryside.   The wall was built at the command of Emperor Hadrian to establish the northern limit of the Roman Empire and keep the barbarians out.  Construction started in 122CE and it eventually stretched across the country from east to west coast.  You could easily spend a day or even days here, visiting the various Roman ruins and forts and hiking along the wall.  But it was lightly raining and we were still several hours from Edinburgh. Satisfied with our brief walk, we got back on the road. 

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(Hadrian’s Wall – Walltown Crags, England)

Once we entered Scotland, the scenery became gorgeous. Rolling hills and valleys dotted with giant windmills and old towns. After the turn east toward Edinburgh, the highway became only two lanes and narrowly twisted through scenic villages woven into the landscape.  

We arrived at Rachel’s friend, Su Ying’s apartment shortly after 7pm. Su Ying greeted us and introduced us to her partner Adri, and her little dog, Keller. They were both very nice and Keller was so cute, jumping and barking with excitement.  He reminded us how much we miss Sophie.  Rachel caught up with Su Ying in the kitchen as she prepared dinner while Adri and I talked in the living room. Adri was from Columbia doing her masters in education in Edinburgh.  Su Ying called us to dinner and we all sat down to a delicious home cooked meal of fried rice and chicken soup.  

Rachel and Su Ying were friends in elementary school.  Su Ying had moved to Edinburgh to complete her training as an Anesthesiologist.  Sitting, eating, and listening to the two of them catch up, I was getting another glimpse into Rachel’s childhood.  Su Ying had just gotten off work that morning so she was tired in a very relatable way.  We all agreed it would be nice to stay in and have an early, quiet night. 

As we talked, we learned that Adri was a big Game of Thrones fan and, like us, was eager to see the final two episodes of the season, the finale for which had just aired the night before.  We moved to the living room and Adri set up the TV.  Rachel and I had resigned ourselves to waiting a year for this so we were thrilled!  Both episodes were epic and perhaps the best so far, even among all seasons. 

We retired to bed and I stayed up finishing my Iceland entries to the sound of Rachel’s snoring. 

The next morning, Su Ying made us a quick breakfast of soft boiled eggs before we drove to St. Andrew’s. It was a scenic hour long drive.  First stop, the famous Anstruther Fish Bar.

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(Anstruther Fish Bar – St. Andrew’s, Scotland)

With Keller in tow, we picked up several orders to go and ate by the dock, overlooking the harbour.  The fish was quite nice.

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(On the harbour at St. Andrew’s, Scotland)

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(Fresh fish from Anstruther’s – St. Andrew’s, Scotland)

Next stop, Janetta’s Gelateria for the freshest ice cream I’ve ever had. I had a waffle cone with one scoop of coffee and one scoop of vanilla, fresh from the machine.  Rachel had the butter pecan.

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(Fresh ice cream from Janetta’s Gelateria – St. Andrew’s, Scotland)

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(Fresh ice cream from Janetta’s Gelateria – St. Andrew’s, Scotland)

Keller led us down the street to the ruins of St. Andrew’s Cathedral.  Built in 1158CE, it was the largest church and the centre of Catholicism in Scotland until the Scottish Reformation in the sixteenth century when Scotland largely broke from the Papacy. 

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(Ruins of St. Andrew’s Cathedral – St. Andrew’s, Scotland)

Keller then took us to St. Andrew’s Castle.  Although rebuilt many times over, the castle was first built around 1200CE and was home to powerful church leaders, Kings, and even as a prison with a notorious dungeon cut out of the rock foundation. 

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(St. Andrew’s Castle – St. Andrew’s, Scotland)

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(St. Andrew’s Castle – St. Andrew’s, Scotland)

We walked around the streets of St. Andrew’s University and got a coffee at the cafe where Prince William met Kate.  How romantic…

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(The likeness is uncanny)

We headed back toward Edinburgh, passing the Mecca of golf, St. Andrew’s Links.  Golfers have been playing here since the 15th century, making it one of the oldest courses in the world.  Although it appeared very prestigious, the grounds themselves were not altogether impressive, at least not from the road. 

Back in Edinburgh, we parked at the base of Castle Rock under Edinburgh castle. We climbed up the steep stairs where we met Adri. She had been busy working on her thesis throughout the day.  Su Ying decided to bring Keller home so we could later go for dinner.  We wandered around the entrance of the old castle before strolling down the royal mile with Adri. We meandered in and out of shops selling kilts, scarves and tweed, and buttressed churches with intricate stained glass windows and stone walls blackened by time.   A piper filled the air with the shrill sound of bagpipes.

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(Edinburgh Castle – Edinburgh, Scotland)

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(Edinburgh Castle – Edinburgh, Scotland)

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(Edinburgh Castle – Edinburgh, Scotland)

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(The Royal Mile – Edinburgh, Scotland)

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(St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile – Edinburgh, Scotland)

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(Stained glass window in St. Giles Cathedral – Edinburgh, Scotland)

We carried on toward Calton Hill and climbed up for an open view of the city and Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood National Park.  It would have been nice to hike Arthur’s Seat, but that will have to wait for a future trip.  At the top of Calton Hill stood the Scotland National Monument among several other monuments as well as the City Observatory.  We could see Holyrood Palace, the vacation palace for the British royalty…not bad. 

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(Walking up Calton Hill – Edinburgh, Scotland)

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(Scotland National Monument on Calton Hill – Edinburgh, Scotland)

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(View from Calton Hill – Edinburgh, Scotland)

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(Impressive cannon!)

We rejoined Su Ying and drove around the fairly new Scotland Parliament building, very unique and not particularly attractive. We were just killing time, waiting for a table at the famous World’s End pub.  Our table still wasn’t ready when we arrived so we had a drink at the bar. Another pint of creamy ale!  We talked for a while and just as we started to consider ordering food to our tiny bar table, a proper one opened up.  The menu was full of traditional pub food and, of course, haggis.  I had the haggis pie and Rachel had the steak and ale pie. Mine was like a shepherd’s pie, but with haggis. It was quite good, especially with the gravy. The salad and boiled peas were dull but not bad with a heavy dash of salt. Rachel’s pie was tasty as well with tender meat and crispy chips.  Overall good food, and even better company!  

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(Scotland Parliament Building – Edinburgh, Scotland)

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(World’s End Pub – Edinburgh, Scotland)

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(The Last Supper – Edinburgh, Scotland)

(Rachel’s Steak and Ale Pie at the World’s End Pub – Edinburgh, Scotland)

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(My Haggis Pie at the World’s End Pub – Edinburgh, Scotland)

We returned home to a very excited Keller. He was such a nice dog. So energetic and playful.  We packed up and went to bed, tired and satisfied from another day of exploration. 

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(Keller getting frisky)

Su Ying woke up the next morning with a terrible head ache that made it impossible for her to go to work, as had been predicted the night before.  😉  We decided the only cure was a nice breakfast at Blue Bear.  I had an english breakfast with haggis and black pudding. I wanted to try the black pudding but was somewhat dreading it at the same time. I had imagined a gelatinous, irony goo, but was pleasantly surprised by what came. The texture was similar to haggis (ground meat), but was more grainy with a meaty flavour. It was not nearly as irony as I expected.  I would gladly have it again but in small portions.  We enjoyed a slow breakfast and made our way back to our car at Su Ying’s.  We had such a great time with Su Ying and Adri, but, sadly, we had to say goodbye before heading south to England’s Lake District.

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(English Breakfast with Haggis and Black Pudding – Blue Bear Restaurant, Edinburgh, Scotland)

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(The Last Breakfast – Blue Bear Restaurant, Edinburgh, Scotland)

UK Finale – Bath and Stonehenge

We checked in early to our accommodation once we arrived in Bath.  The host did an excellent Keith Richards impression, albeit unintentional.  He was quite nice though and the townhouse was very modern and clean.  We freshened up and got some good recommendations for touring the city.

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(Accommodation in Bath, England)

First we walked along a ridge that overlooked the Bath valley.  A very nice view. Perhaps I had underestimated this place.

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(View of Bath looking north-west)

We walked down a steep staircase cut into the side of the hill and crossed the River Avon to enter the oldest part of town.

(Entering the old town – Bath, England)

Bath had a unique look, with streets lined with buildings made of smooth, beige-coloured Bath stone.  Very rich!  Of course, it has been a spa town for nearly 2000 years!  We initially walked through a shopping area with colourful decorations and inviting stores.

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(Initial views of Bath’s old town)

Slightly peckish, we couldn’t resist Marks and Spencer’s offer for afternoon tea. Perhaps it would beat the one we had in the Cotswolds.  We shared one setting, as well as a green pea and mint soup that looked and smelled too good to pass up.  Cheese scones with clotted cream and jam, followed by finger sandwiches of egg salad, ham and mayo, smoked salmon and cream cheese, and roast beef and mustard.  Simple, but very tasty and yes, better than the King’s hotel.  We inserted the pea soup as a welcome addition to the usual fare. It was quite nice with the mint and not as heavy as the traditional pea soup with pork.  The sweets made for a nice finish…strawberry macaroon, cream puff, and a chocolate cupcake.  Our temptation served us well.

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(Afternoon tea at Marks and Spencer’s – Bath, England)

We walked further into the heart of Bath and eventually came to the magnificent Bath Abbey and Roman Baths, seated right next to each other in a stunning courtyard.

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(Courtyard in front of Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths – Bath, England)

The Abbey is now an Anglican church following a long history.  It began as a monastery in the 7th century and was rebuilt in the 12th and 16th centuries to become the buttressed cruciform plan that towers above the surrounding buildings.  Apparently it can seat 1200 people.

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(Bath Abbey – Bath, England)

Right next door, the Roman Baths complex contains the ancient baths themselves, a temple, the pump room, and now a museum, from which you can take a tour. We didn’t do the tour, but read a bit of the history in the front entrance and gift shop, where tourists were buying expensive viles of spring water.  The Romans first built the temple here in 60-70CE and then slowly developed the baths over the following 300 years, making use of England’s only natural hot spring.  Rain water from the surrounding hills trickles down very deep through the porous limestone where geothermal energy heats it up. The hot water then rises to the surface through fissures and faults.  In the seventeenth century, there were claims that the waters had healing properties when pigs were supposedly cured of their leprosy after wading through a muddy spring in the area.  Peculiar, but apparently very effective marketing.

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(The Roman Baths – Bath, England)

In the same square, a street performer, presumably called ‘The Pigeon Whisperer,’ tempted tourists to stand as a perch for his many cooing birds.  Such an obviously bad idea.  As we walked around the square, one unwitting woman gave her donation and all the birds promptly flocked into position.  Soon after, we could see the Whisperer dabbing the inevitable poop off the woman’s head and shoulder.  Perhaps this was the real show.  I know I was entertained!

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(‘The Pigeon Whisperer of Bath’)

Still sipping my coffee and Rachel’s tea from Marks and Spencer’s, we strolled along to the sound of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence, Rolling Stones Painted Black, and various Beatles songs, played by a true street performer.  Around the corner was Kingston Parade, another square.  This area was much more quiet and there was another talented guitarist sitting in the centre.  We sat on a bench and listened to his lovely rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon.  It was so peaceful. A cooling breeze blew softly with the sound of seagulls flying above, seemingly in concert with the guitar. The Roman Baths in front of us and the Abbey to the right. This was a memorable moment.

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(Sipping our coffee and tea on a park bench in Kingston Parade – Bath, England)

(A street performer plays Pachelbel’s Canon on guitar in the Kingston Parade – Bath, England)

Eventually we continued walking, passed the Jane Austen museum and through antique shops filled with random treasures including old and very well used police batons, telescopes, and furniture. An untold story hidden in each piece.

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(Rubbing elbows with the locals – Bath, England)

We entered The Circus, a ring of uniform town homes built in the 18th century.  It was imagined by the famous Georgian architect, John Wood, who died before it was built.  He was apparently convinced that Bath had been the centre of Druid activities, so he designed the ring to match the diameter of Stone Henge.

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(View of one quarter of The Circus – Bath, England)

Down the road, we came to The Royal Crescent, another iconic example of Georgian architecture. This crescent of 30 luxurious, terraced town homes was also built in the 18th century but by John Wood’s son.

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(The Royal Crescent – Bath, England)

It was time for dinner, so we headed to The Raven, a pub recommended by our host.  Famous for their ales and meat pies, we ordered one of each, bangers and mash, and a cider for Rachel.  We were a bit reluctant to commit to 2 pies, remembering the terrible pie we endured in London.  The food was good, but slightly under seasoned, as we had come to expect.  While there, I received a recommendation to visit the Thermae Spa from my friend Percy. She had been there 10 years earlier and said it was amazing. So after dinner we went to check it out.  It looked quite nice so we decided to go in the morning before leaving Bath.

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(Dinner at The Raven Pub – Bath, England)

We woke up early and had a quick breakfast of those tiny individual cereal boxes. I haven’t had cereal like that in years.  We packed up, loaded the car, and headed for the spa. So much for budget travelling!  We arrived just before opening and there was already a short queue.  We got in and paid for the basic 3 hour session, which gave us access to the roof top hot spring pool, steam rooms, and a wading pool.  The roof top pool was heavenly. We were among the first to arrive, but it quickly filled up with other tourists, which took away from it a bit. But it was a unique atmosphere, floating in naturally warm water on the roof of a modern building set among the Bath Abbey and old Roman bath complex. A nice way to wake up!  We were starting to bump into other guests indicating it was time to move on. One floor down was the steam room, which had three pods with scented steam.  Eucalyptus, lemongrass, and lotus flower.  This was a real treat.  As the pods started to fill up, we shocked our bodies under the cold shower and moved on to the wading pool on the floor below.  This was a little disappointing. It was already packed and just felt like a public pool with a current that slowly drifted you around the pool. It would have been nice if we weren’t constantly banging into other tourists.  All in all, a very nice experience  but too many tourists. I can’t imagine what it would be like at peak hours.  We left shortly after the two hour mark and got a quick bite to eat before walking back to the car.

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(Awaiting entry to Thermae Spa – Bath, England…sorry, no pictures inside!)

It was a fairly quick drive to Salisbury for our UK-finale, Stonehenge.  We both had visions of hordes of tourists crowding an anticlimactic site of big rocks.  The giant parking lot overflowing with tour buses, camper vans and tourists with overpriced ice cream cones dripping onto their “I ♥ Stonehenge” t-shirts confirmed our fears. Oh well, this is a site we should see while in England.  Lets just get it over with…

We picked up our audio guides and boarded the packed bus to get to the actual site about a mile down the road from the museum and ticket office.  To our surprise and despite the volume of people, this turned out to be a real highlight of our time in the UK.  The audio guide was excellent.  In fact, I wouldn’t recommend the visit without it.

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(Arriving at Stonehenge)

The ring of famous stones is set within a dense collection of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, all of which are believed to have been constructed between 3000-2000BCE.  Earth banks and ditches encircle the famous stone structures with a long avenue stretching to the nearby River Avon.  The entire area is dotted with burial mounds, most of which have been relieved of their ancient artifacts.  Interestingly, the horseshoe arrangement of the largest stones and the avenue embankment are aligned with the sunrise and sunset of the summer solstice.

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(Various views of Stonehenge)

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(Burial mounds surrounding Stonehenge)

The largest vertical stones that make up the outer part of the horse shoe are called “sarsens” and are up to 30 feet in height and weigh 25 tons.  They support the horizontal “lintels” with intricate mortise and tenon joints.  Based on the mineralogy, the stones are not native to the Salisbury plains and must have been brought from Marlborough Downs, about 20 miles away.  The smaller stones inside the horse shoe are called blue stones, weigh up to 4 tons and are believed to have come from up to 140miles away.

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(Volunteer repair work at Stonehenge)

For a long time it was widely believed that Stonehenge was built by the Druids, but carbon dating has shown that it was present about 1000 years before the Druids came to the region.  Not much is known about its original builders because they left no written record to tell us who they were, or why and how they built it.

 We left Stonehenge genuinely impressed and intrigued by the rich and mostly unknown history of our species and this world.  We speculated as to the purpose of that site and imagined the dramas that we’ll never know as we drove back to Heathrow. It was time to say goodbye to the UK and bonjour to France.

We enjoyed the UK, especially the wonderful people we got to meet and stay with along the way. Chris and Qiu Jiang, Su Ying and Adri, and the many hosts at our random accommodations enriched our experience in so many unique and wonderful ways.  The UK was quite a contrast to our first stop in Iceland. From one of the most untouched and exciting landscapes to one of the most tamed and, in many ways, subdued countries, we appreciated both for very different reasons.  The UK brought history to life for us.  You can reach out and touch it, everywhere.  It is charming, diverse, and, if nothing else, so very polite. I have to admit, we did not understand their aversion to salt, but the beer was truly superb.  I guess their reputation is deserved on both fronts.

England’s Lake District to the Cotswolds

Southbound to England’s Lake District, supposedly the most scenic region in the country. As we drove, the dark skies and rain hid the scenery from us. We planned to stop at the Castlerigg Stone Circle and then on to Keswick to hike the Cat Bells. Rick Steves had told me this was a good spot for a day trip.  Unfortunately, the dark skies and heavy rain continued and fog largely overtook the quaint villages, narrow lakes, and lush greenery we were driving through.

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(Overcast and rainy in the Lake District of England)

We stopped at the Castlerigg Stone circle and walked across the wet mine field of sheep droppings to the circle of ancient pillars.  It is believed to have been constructed during the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, 3300 to 900BCE.  It’s purpose remains unknown, but is thought to have been used for rituals or ceremonies relating to solar and lunar cycles.  Although intrigued by the age and mystery, the heavy rain encouraged us to move on.

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(Castlerigg Stone Circle near Keswick, England)

We arrived in Keswick, discouraged by the uncooperative weather. The hike was not meant to be.  We remembered Chris had suggested a drive over Wrynose pass so we opted to head there instead, hoping visibility would improve.

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(Rained out in Keswick, England)

As we were driving out of the town, traffic slowed to a stop.  It was unclear what was causing the hold-up. Maybe an accident due to the rain?  It soon became clear…

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(Cows…Keswick, England)

We followed Google’s directions to Wrynose Pass, which took us through some exceptionally narrow roads. Tree branches and hedges brushed the car as we slowed to a crawl at times.  Negotiating with oncoming vehicles sometimes required us to reverse carefully to a widened patch of road. Sometimes we won the right of way. It was fun driving.

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(Narrow roads en route to Wrynose Pass, England)

The sun was finally peaking through and before we knew it, the dark clouds mostly blew away to reveal a beautiful blue sky!  We continued down the narrow winding roads, up and down rolling hills overgrown with thick vegetation and bound by moss covered stone walls.

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(Blue skies and sun in the Lake District of England)

We ended up deep in the woods and came to a steep hill paved with sharp, jagged shale unlikely to play nicely with our car’s tires.  Maybe Google meant for us to take the previous turn?  We double backed and veered left.  Soon we passed through a creepy, seemingly abandoned farm noting it would be a perfect set for a horror movie. We promptly hit a dead end so we turned around only to find the singular route through the old farm was now blocked with a large tractor.  Odd, we had just driven through there and the farm was still dead quiet with no sign of life.  The car slowly came to a stop.  We looked at each other and laughed nervously.  The horror set suddenly had all the potential of a horror scene.  I valiantly offered to stay with the car so Rachel could go search for the operator of that tractor.  She politely declined.  As I timidly stepped out of the car, a man appeared from around the corner. He wasn’t armed…promising.  My “hello” was met with a long silence. ‘Please don’t tell me I have a pretty mouth,’ was repeating over and over in my head.  He finally responded with a reasonably friendly hello of his own.  I told him we had made a wrong turn and asked him to move his tractor so we could get by. He reluctantly agreed and, in a reassuring gesture, offered us directions.  The ‘horror’ was over.

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(Deep in the woods of the Lake District, England)

It took two more stops for directions, but we made it to Wrynose Pass.  Signs warned of narrow roads up to 30% grade.  That is steep…very steep.  The steepest in all of England, actually (according to the signs).  But it was gorgeous and so much fun to drive!  Lime green grass carpeted mountains with a single lane road switching sharply back and forth, climbing aggressively from the valley floor to the top of the pass and back down the other side.  There it continued to Hardknot Pass, which is more or less a repeat of the same. All along the way, ancient stone walls divided the land and lazy sheep stared judgingly at the cars struggling up the hills.  Waterfalls were everywhere, flowing the heavy rain water to the valley below.  We pushed our little car over Wrynose Pass and just over Hardknot Pass where we turned around in a thirty-point-turn with sloping mountain on one side and sheer cliff on the other. It was time to eat.

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(Wrynose Pass – Lake District, England)

Chris had mentioned there is a pub at the base of Wrynose pass that had excellent sandwiches.  We came to the Three Shires Inn and Pub as we drove out of the pass and figured this must be it. We pulled in and although we didn’t see any sandwiches, the menu looked good.  We started with a creamy broccoli and blue cheese soup. A winning combo!  I had locally made pork, mango and stilton sausages with chips. The sausages were among the best I’ve had…ever.  Rachel had lamb and mashed sweet potato, which was alright but a little too gamey for my liking.

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(Dinner at the Three Shires Pub – Lake District, England) folder 25-29)

We drove through more pretty landscapes of mountains, lakes, and woods, with cute inns and inviting restaurants.  We reached our home for the night. The Rose Cottage.  Built in the 1700s, it showed its age, but was well kept by a friendly master potter named Iain. The cottage had been in his family for generations.  He showed us to our room, up a narrow ladder of a staircase and down a crooked hallway. This was our first accommodation with a private bathroom. What a treat!  We were quite tired so we had an early night, drifting to sleep with the sound of birds chirping outside.

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(The Rose Cottage – Lake District, England)

Iain made us a nice English breakfast the next morning.  We ate and talked and ended up buying a piece of his pottery before we left. He had an appointment in town so we all left by 9am.

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(English breakfast at The Rose Cottage – Lake District, England)

Back on the road for a 3-4 hour drive to the Cotswolds, the region that supposedly defines quaint.  It is a region of Gloucestershire made up of many small towns that were once the wealthy centre of the woolen industry.  When that industry collapsed, the homes were left in disrepair.  Time passed, transforming the region into the gracefully dilapidated buildings and homes of today.

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(Driving to the Cotswolds, England)

We arrived in Chipping Campden just in time for afternoon tea at the King’s Hotel.  The town, the hotel, everything was very quiet.  We took a seat at a small wooden table in forest green wing-back chairs and made our selections.  Earl grey for me and peppermint for Rachel.  Shortly after the tea arrived, the waitress brought us a tiered tray of scones, clotted cream and jam, finger sandwiches and sweets. The raisin scones weren’t bad and the cream was nice but desperately needed salt.  The jam was jarred and more of a jelly than the fresh chunky jam we had hoped for.  On to the sandwiches. Cucumber with mayo, smoked salmon with cream cheese, and roast beef with mustard.  A little dull…alright, very dull. The sweets were consistent with the rest. Not bad, but just not that good either.  Lemon poppy seed loaf, chocolate cake, and strawberry mousse.  We’ve had much, much better. Disappointing because this just seemed like the perfect place for it.

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(Afternoon tea at The King’s Hotel – Chipping Campden, England)

We finished our tea and, eager to improve on our first impression, we wandered around town.  It was nice.  Did I say quaint yet?  It’s very quaint.  It is unique and even enchanting to some degree with slanted buildings, sunken roofs, vine covered stone walls, solid wooden doors and pretty flowers.  But I think we somehow expected more wandering through those streets.  Perhaps more cafes, antique shops, signs of local life?

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(Exploring Chipping Campden, England)

We drove on to the next village, Stow-on-the-Wold.  It was very much like Chipping Campden but utterly bursting with tourists.  So, on we went to Upper and Lower Slaughter.  These were nice areas. There were canals running through the towns with stone bridges and manicured gardens. A leisurely stroll would have been fun, but we opted to drive slowly, stopping occasionally for a picture.  It had been a weak start, but we were finally seeing the beauty of these enchanting towns.

(Driving through Stow-on-the-Wold, England)

(Driving through Upper and Lower Slaughters, England)

We decided to head to the WoodStanway Farmhouse where we would be staying the night.  It was another fun drive through narrow, canopied roads. We arrived at the 17th century home where we met the caretaker, Maggie.  Before being introduced to her very friendly and very old dog, she warned me to take off my hat because the dog doesn’t like hats.  We won the approval of the dog so Maggie took us to our room up a wide spiral staircase and down a crooked hallway.  The room was big with creaky wooden floors, antique furniture, and an en suite complete with a bath tub.  We freshened up and left to check out Stanton before dinner.

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(WoodStanway Farmhouse Bed & Breakfast – Cheltenham, England)

Stanton was off the beaten path and appeared quite affluent. Huge homes, elegantly refurbished to very effectively preserve the character of the old. The gardens and lawns looked to be full time jobs in themselves, with many owners (or their gardeners) out working away as we drove by after 7pm.  It was equally beautiful to the Slaughters and a nice way to end our tour of the Cotswold towns.

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(Exploring Stanton, England)85-89)

We made our way to the The Pheasant Inn Pub to eat and start, planning our coming days in Europe.  We started with the fried brie, which was nothing short of a spiritual experience.  I had the British chicken curry and Rachel had tomato soup. Both were quite nice, but the curry was my favourite. Distinctly different from Indian curries but nicely spiced and seasoned in its own right.  We sketched out a rough itinerary for Europe over ale and cider.

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(Dinner at The Pheasant Inn Pub – Cheltenham, England)

The next morning Maggie prepared us an English breakfast.  We ate in an old dining room as we talked and got to know her a little bit.  She explained to us that the several hundred acres of surrounding land is owned by an Earl and only leased to the locals.  Some of the furniture in the house had been there for quite some time, including an old coal burning stove. It was converted to burn oil in the mid 20th century and, although it still works, it is no longer used because it smells up the whole house. She also explained that she voted to leave the EU. She was the first person we met in that camp so it was interesting to get her take on it.

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(Breakfast at WoodStanway Farmhouse – Cheltenham, England)

After breakfast we packed up and said goodbye to Maggie, then I took my hat off and said goodbye to her dog.  Next stop, Bath.

London

We arrived at London Heathrow airport on June 23rd. It was bittersweet leaving Iceland as it had so far exceeded our expectations.  But we were equally excited to explore the UK even though it had big shoes to fill.  Outside, England was exactly as I had always dreamed it to be…overcast. 

(Rachel and I arriving at London Heathrow Airport)

We navigated through the busy airport and hopped on a shuttle to pick up our rental car.  I was anxious with the impending left-hand driving…so unnatural!  We exited the car lot collision-free and promptly missed the on ramp toward our accommodation in Forest Gate.  After circling the airport, we made the proper exit and were on the highway.

(First time left-hand driving)

Aside from terrifying Rachel and other drivers with my lane positioning and hoping my way through round about lane changes, left-hand driving was doable.  British signage, however, was awful. Even Google Maps was dithering uncharacteristically, advising us to take an exit only to change its mind as soon as we’d commit to it.  Needless to say, we missed another turn off, adding about 40 minutes to our journey home. 

(Scaring Rachel, and others…)

Arriving in Forest Gate offered the first impression of London. We had bypassed the downtown core and the highway was lined with thick green trees so we hadn’t yet seen much.  Much to our surprise, the suburb seemed more consistent with our expectation of Adis Ababa…narrow, littered, unmarked streets crowded with people that looked anything but the stereotypical Brit.  We were wondering and perhaps a little hopeful we had made a wrong turn, but Google was right this time. We made it to our flat, which didn’t look like much from outside but it had been recently renovated and was actually quite modern inside.  We freshened up and decided to explore the area, in search of a good curry. 

(Forest Gate accomodation)

As we walked, we warmed up to Forest Gate. It was clearly a very ethnic and not particularly affluent area, but it had a lot of character, reminiscent of Mission in San Francisco.  We ate a delicious Indian dinner of creamy butter chicken, spicy mutton curry with egg rice and garlic naan bread. Very tasty! 

(Dinner at Aromas – Forest Gate, London)

Curious to hear the local take on Brexit, we went to a nearby pub expecting to be overwhelmed with commentary on the vote. The polls had just closed after all.  On the streets, there was surprisingly little chatter, with the exception of a couple old men handing out ‘remain’ leaflets.  The pub was half full of a group who seemed to be gathering after work.  Funny, no talk of Brexit!  Oh well, the beer was incredibly good.  Creamy, just the right bitterness, not too carbonated, not too cold, nice finish.  I had forgotten how much I actually enjoy beer. 

(Night cap at Forest Tavern – Forest Gate, London)

Although we gathered no more context of Brexit, we did thoroughly enjoy the pub.  The building itself was very old, with exposed foundation and framing of varying brick and wooden beams, which had weathered and stained over the years to give it a character that would be impossible to reproduce.  It was dimly lit with home made lights of retired umbrellas that dangled on wiring from the crack ridden ceiling. It would offend any electrical code, but it worked and somehow matched the decor of mismatched tables and chairs, assorted flags, currency and flea market knick knacks.  Not the English pub I would imagine, but, in any case, a place to drink and socialize, which we were quickly confirming to be a central part of life here.  We finished our drinks and headed home to plan our next day.

We woke up relatively early the next morning to discover the UK had voted to leave the EU!  What a shock!  We ventured out and again found that life was still moving along without much fuss at all.  

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(Brexit vote result)

 At the metro station we bought an Oyster Card, which is the cheapest way to ride the tube, London’s subway system. A refundable deposit and a single day’s unlimited fare and we were immediately connected to all of London.  Thanks largely to tech-savy Rachel and Google’s intimate knowledge of the train schedule, the tube was fairly easy to navigate.

First stop, Borough Market.  Larger than expected, the market had stalls from all over the world boasting vibrant fresh produce, freshly baked breads, wide arrays of cheeses and cured meats, and enticing dishes that made us thankful for our empty stomachs.  Where to begin?  We wanted it all!

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(Borough Market, London)

We started with a sampling of cured meats from Croatia. Cured truffle pork sausage was king among the selection and truffle hunting in northern Croatia suddenly became a possibility for the coming months.  

Next, the olive cheese bread sticks, fresh from the oven. They had a light outer crunch but were soft and cheesy inside with salty bits of olive. We thought of Pam and Paul back home and the similar bread sticks from Bon Ton bakery they had recently tempted us with. 

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(Olive and cheese bread sticks – Borough Market, London)

Hand dived scallops from Dorset were the next indulgence. Three succulent scallops served on a bed of stir fry and crispy bacon.  Heavenly. 

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(Scallops – Borough Market, London)

There were many selling British meat pies but one stood out having been crowned best meat pie in England for several consecutive years.  The Melton Mowbray pork pie. We bought it cold to have when we got home as it was large and we didn’t want to fill up too early.  To spare the suspense, let’s just say it’s time to unseat the queen. 

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(Melton Mowbray Pork Pie – Borough Market, London)

We turned the corner to find three sensuous legs clamped provocatively in Spanish stands.  A bearded Spaniard with a sharp knife suddenly popped up from behind the counter and offered us a tasting of his Iberico ham.  Each one melted in our mouths releasing their own symphony of flavours.  They were all so incredible but our favourite had been raised on acorns and then aged to perfection.  So much less porky than the cured ham we’ve had at home.  We seriously considered skipping the rest of Europe to head straight for Spain.  

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(Iberico Ham – Borough Market, London)

We continued wandering, eating, and sampling. Duck confit – as decadent as always.  Mead – an ounce was enough…not bad, but so sweet, it would be better as a desert wine.  Cider – much nicer than the mead, but still not my cup of tea.  Paella – bursting with flavour.  Strasberries – berries that taste like a cross of strawberry and raspberry.  So much food!

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(Duck Confit – Borough Market, London)

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(Mead – Borough Market, London)

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(Paella – Borough Market, London)

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(Strasberries – Borough Market, London)

We were slowing down but still had room for an ostrich burger, which tasted like a slightly gamier beef burger…nothing special.  Then a scotch egg – a soft boiled egg encased in seasoned ground pork, breaded and deep fried. It was very tasty and the egg was perfect, but a little porky overall.  Our treacherous stomachs were insisting it was time to stop eating. We protested and had a cup of goat’s milk ice cream. Rum raisin, if I remember correctly. A difficult choice as they were all so good. 

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(Ostrich Burger – Borough Market, London)

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(Scotch Egg – Borough Market, London)

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(Goat’s Milk Ice Cream – Borough Market, London)

Sadly, we missed out on fish and chips, Italian sandwiches, Malaysian chicken curry, grilled sausages, and perhaps the most tempting of all, melted raclette over potatoes.  Of course there was even more, but all now reasons to go back to London. 

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(Italian Sandwiches – Borough Market, London)

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(Malaysian Chicken Curry – Borough Market, London)

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(Grilled Sausages – Borough Market, London)

-VIDEO COMING SOON-

(Melted raclette over potatoes – Borough Market, London)

We walked passed London Bridge along the River Thames, enjoying London’s contrasting mix of old and new architecture.  The modern glass curves of City Hall, Walkie Talkie, and the Gherkin set against Tower Bridge, London tower, and the countless other relics that line the streets.  In person, these sites immediately transcend the campy and relentless tourist trap marketing.  This amusement park shaped the world and we both agreed we must come back for the rides when we have more time to savour them.

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(Panorama near City Hall, London)

(Tower Bridge and London Tower, London)

We wandered for several hours admiring buildings, and resisting the overwhelming urge to shop the summer sales.  Almost every corner housed a pub with thirsty patrons spilling out into the streets.  It was pleasant. People were social, not drunk and obnoxious. Mature.  We thought of having a drink at Sky Garden high atop the Walkie Talkie tower, but the lineup stretching around the building convinced us the city was pretty enough from street level. The dizzying view up the curved corner of the building was entertaining enough. 

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(Every corner in London)

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(Walkie Talkie Tower, London)

Near Liverpool Street Station we saw a military parade forming.  The marching band started with a bang and the soldiers were led back and forth, parting the crowd as they moved in unison around the square before disappearing into the London Guildhall.

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(Military Parade at the London Guildhall – VIDEO COMING SOON)

We walked slowly along the Thames, toward Westminster.  Passed the London Eye stood several World War 2 memorials.  One was inscribed with Churchill’s eloquent summation of the Battle of Britain, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”  Those words echo loudly under the skies in which the battle was fought.

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(The Battle of Britain Memorial, London)

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(The Battle of Britain Memorial, London)

Finally, we arrived at Westminster, where we would meet Rachel’s friend, Joanne.  We waited in the shadow of Big Ben and The Palace of Westminster, the seat of British Parliament.  Much more impressive in person than as seen on TV.  I considered the lively debates that would surely rock that house in the coming days, following the historic Brexit vote.  But then again, if the streets of London were any indication, perhaps not. 

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(Big Ben and The Palace of Westminster, London)

Joanne emerged from the metro station and after Rachel introduced us we agreed to explore the area together before getting a bite to eat.  We walked and talked, passing the parliament buildings and over to Westminster Abbey, the traditional place of coronation and burial for British monarchs.  Rachel and Joanne knew each other from school in Malaysia and had been a fierce badminton pair.  Joanne moved to London for work about a year prior, and was keen to be a tourist with us. 

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(Meeting Rachel’s friend, Joanne)

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(Westminster Abbey, London)

We strolled along to Buckingham Palace, residence of the Queen.  The regal mansion stood quietly behind black iron and gold plated gates.  The Queen’s Guard stood at attention in their silly hats while hoards of tourists took aim with their cameras.  At the base of the golden Victoria Memorial statue, we turned to trip-advisor to find the best nearby fish and chips. Happy Halibut had promising reviews and was a couple blocks away en route back to the metro station.  Perfect!

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(Buckingham Palace, London)

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(Victoria Memorial Statue, London)

It was very nice for Rachel and Joanne to catch up and I enjoyed the stories from their high school and badminton days. We talked about life in London, our wedding, careers, and, of course, Brexit.  To my surprise, Commonwealth migrants were eligible to vote in the referendum as long as they were residents of the U.K (example work visa, student visa, etc.).  Very interesting, but I can’t say I agree with this. 

The fish and chips were a bit disappointing (needed more salt), but the company was great!  Joanne was even kind enough to treat us to dinner.  We headed back to the metro station and boarded the tube, all heading in the same direction. We said our goodbyes to Joanne and carried on. It had been a pleasure to meet her and Rachel was happy to have caught up. 

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(Fish and Chips – Happy Halibut, London)

After some train delays we had to make an unexpected transfer at Canary Wharf.  The courtyard amid the financial centre was lined with pubs and packed with cheerful people discussing eurocup, work and the goings on of their day.  A curious contradiction to the banner updates rolling around the square. 

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(Banner update at Canary Wharf, London)

At last we made it back to Forest Hill and fell fast asleep, exhausted after a long day of exploration. 

Iceland Day 5

Day 5 was expected to be our busiest day. We were driving a good distance west to Akureyri, the “capital of the north”, with several stops around Lake Myvaatn.  We managed to pry ourselves out of bed shortly after 6am.  Nothing was open so we ate granola bars and cashews as we drove west through ever-changing but always extra-terrestrial landscapes.  

Our first stop was at Detifoss, the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe and the one featured in the movie, “Prometheus.”  The sound of the roaring water got louder and louder as we hiked a short distance across the Martian landscape. As we climbed over a rocky hill, we came to this…

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(Detifoss Waterfall, Iceland)

A couple kilometres upstream of Detifoss was the slightly smaller but still striking Selfoss waterfall. 

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(Selfoss Waterfall, Iceland)

We drove to a grocery store in Reykjahlid to stock up and have lunch before traversing the Lake Myvaatn area. This time we were a bit smarter with our purchases, buying slightly more practical food that would stretch our money a little farther.  Loaf of bread (instead of artisan buns and croissants), vegetables, juice, and only enough meat, yogurt and cheese to last the day as we had no means of keeping it cold.  So this time we spent about $50CDN on enough food for breakfasts and lunches for about 3 days…we were learning. 

Next stop, the Viti Crater in an area known as Krafla.  We intended to hike around the Viti crater as there are hot springs on the other side, but settled for the view from near the road as the wind was freezing and so strong it nearly blew us over.  Viti means “hell” and the crater is the centre of a volcanic eruption that started in 1734 and lasted for 5 years.  There is now a turquoise lake within the crater.

Source: https://guidetoiceland.is/travel-iceland/drive/viti-in-krafla

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(Viti Crater in Krafla, Iceland)

We then drove to Hverarondor Hverir at the foothills of the volcanic mountain, Namafjall.  This area is full of a variety of hot springs in the form of steaming fumaroles, boiling mud pools, and solfataras.  

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(Hverarondor Hverir, Iceland)

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(Steaming Fumarole – A fumarole is an opening in a planet’s crust, often near volcanoes.  They emit steam and gases such as carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, and hydrogen sulphide.  The steam forms when superheated water vaporizes as its pressure drops when it emerges from the ground.)

Source:  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fumarole

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(Solfataras – these are fumaroles that emit sulphurous gases. The sulphur can be seen all over the ground.)

Source:  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fumarole

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(Boiling Mud Pits – these are acidic hot springs or fumaroles, but with limited water. The acid and microorganisms decompose the surrounding rock into clay and mud, which then boils and bubbles.)

Source:  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mudpot

It was like walking on another planet…one that reeks of rotten eggs, or the sulphur recovery units I worked in for several years. Oh the familiar smell of sulphur, how I haven’t missed you. 

We drove through the Namaskard mountain pass toward Lake Myvaatn and stumbled upon this neon blue geothermal lake. Signs posted warn that it is far too hot for swimming. 

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(Geothermal Lake west of the Namaskard mountain pass.)

Travelling south around Lake Myvaatn, we stopped to explore Grjotagja, a small lava cave within a large fissure.  There is  a thermal spring inside, which was a popular bathing site up until the mid-1970s when nearby volcanic eruptions caused the water temperature to rise above 50°C. It has since cooled but bathing is strictly prohibited as it is private land.  For Game of Thrones fans, this is where Jon Snow lost his virginity to the wildling.  

Source:  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grjótagjá

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(Grjotagja, Iceland)

At this point we were just west of Hverfjall (otherwise known as Hverfell), a tephra cone or tuff ring volcano that erupted in 2500BCE.  We hiked up the path from the south and around the ring of the crater, which is about 1km wide.  The views were amazing in all directions. 

Source:  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hverfjall

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(Hverfjall, or Hverfell, tephra cone volcano)

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(Lake Myvaatn from the top of Hverfjall)

Further south around the lake, we came to the lava field of Dimmuborgir. We almost didn’t stop because we had already seen so many lava fields along the drive. But fortunately, we did, because we were greeted by massive lava formations that looked like the ruins of an ancient city.  In fact, Dimmuborgirtranslates to “dark castles”. 

Source:  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimmuborgir

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(Dimmuborgir lava rock castles)

At the nearby restaurant we bought a loaf of rugbraud or Geyser bread, which is a heavy bread baked in clay buckets for 24 hours in the natural heat underground.  It tastes a bit like fruit cake without the bits of fruit and is not bad with butter.  We had a sandwich and some rugbraud in our car before moving on. 

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(Rugbraud or Geyser bread)

Having seen the highlights of the Lake Myvaatn area, we proceeded west to Akureyri.  Of course, there was one more stop along the way, Godafoss waterfall, just east of Akureyri.  Another incredible view.  Godafoss means “waterfall of the gods,” and has an interesting story.  In about 1000CE under the rule of Norway, Icelandic lawspeaker Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi was forced to convert and declare Christianity the official religion of Iceland. Upon his return home, he threw his statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall. Since then it has been known as Godafoss. 

Source:  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goðafoss

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(Godafoss Waterfall)

We arrived in Akureyri, known as the capital of the north since it is the largest city outside of Reykjavik and the commercial hub of northern Iceland.  It is situated at the tip of a gorgeous fjord. We checked in at our accommodation for the night. A comfortable room in the basement of a local home.  Our host was Ragnar, a welcoming Icelander with a passion for art. His paintings, among other works, decorated the quaint house.  He suggested we try Neo, a relatively reasonably priced restaurant specializing in local fish. We had cod and wolf fish (spotted cat fish) and they were superb.  It was a little cold and we were winding down so we just drove around town before settling in for the night.  

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(Accomodation in Akureyri)

 

Iceland Day 4

After breakfast the next morning we set out on Day 4, a meandering drive through the fjords of Iceland’s east coast. A fjord is a long, narrow inlet from the sea between high cliffs. They are typically formed by glaciers over very long periods of time. Day 4 carried the promise of the most magnificent views yet and was probably my most highly anticipated part of the drive around the island.  This is what we saw…

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(Magnificent view across a foggy fjord.)

Perhaps not as I had imagined, but the fog and rain did not deter us.  The little we could see was still incredible.  Steep mountainsides disappearing into ominous grey clouds with only a narrow road separating sheer cliffs and dramatic coast lines.

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(Somewhere on the east coast of Iceland.)

Despite the rain, we still made the occasional stop.  The Haifoss waterfall at Fossardalur was particularly beautiful. 

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(Haifoss waterfall at Fossardalur)

Isolated farmhouses dotted the coastline as they did the mountainsides, usually with little to no sign of life other than the grazing sheep.  We kept wondering when the work was actually done, but enjoyed the peaceful stillness as it was. 

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(Random farmhouse on the east coast of Iceland)

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(Sheep grazing in the mountain foothills.  There are more sheep than humans in Iceland.)

We stopped for lunch in a small town at Stodvarfjordur (again, hot dogs and coffee).    The gas station doubled as the local grocery store and information centre so we collected some maps that would be useful over the coming days. 

 The rain and fog continued as we travelled up the coast. I was excited to drive through the mountain tunnel, Faskrudsfjardargong, but we missed the turn off and ended up going all the way around the coast on a gravel road. It was a little harrowing in our toy car but offered up more amazing views. Luckily, the tunnels’ exit was near to the road we had taken so we backtracked a bit to go through.  It was 4 miles of glorious tunnel…8 miles for us!

We were en route to Hafaldan Old Hospital Hostel in Seydisfjordur, a quaint little fishing town in the north east. To get there, we drove up and over a large mountain pass before descending into the fjord in which the town is nestled.  As we drove up the mountain we seemed to be level with the clouds and could see the fog sweeping across the valley over Egilsstadir. It was breathtaking.  Seydisfjordur itself was so picturesque, it was easily the most charming place we had come to yet. 

(Fog rolling over Egilsstadir.)

When we checked into the hostel, we were told we had a single bed in a dorm room and that we would be sharing with several people. Sharing bathrooms had been adventurous for us so the looks on our faces apparently revealed a lot to the receptionist. We checked out the dorm and returned to the front desk to politely inquire if a private room was still available. Before we could say anything, the receptionist offered a private room at no additional cost. We laughed at our awkward reaction earlier and celebrated our little win. 

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(Hafaldan Old Hospital Hostel in Seydisfjordur.)

(Dorm vs. Private room at Hafaldan Old Hospital Hostel in Seydisfjordur.)

We explored the town and went to Skaftfell  Bistro for dinner. We met an American couple from Minnesota who were also driving the ring road and shared our Icelandic experiences so far. After dinner we hiked up and around Budararfoss waterfall and then played at a local playground that featured a zipline. We got back to the hostel with time enough to plan out our next day. 

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(Meeting a local of Seydisfjordur, Iceland.)

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(Church in Seydisfjordur, Iceland)

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(Skaftfell Bistro in Seydisfjordur, Iceland.)

(Budararfoss waterfall in Seydisfjordur, Iceland.)

Iceland Day 3

 “Wow” is likely the word most commonly expressed throughout Iceland.  At least it was for us. The natural beauty of the landscape is intense, extremely varied and a glimpse of primordial earth.  Vast expanses of barren yet unmistakably alive wilderness are teeming with powerful waterfalls, canyons carved by fast flowing rapids, and steam escaping the earth through tears in its crust.  It is humbling to say the least.  As if time there is measured on a different scale, and one on which we need not factor in.  It was like driving through the imagination of Bob Ross on LSD (Classic Bob Ross).  There are happy little friends at every turn and just when you notice something incredible, there is something even more spectacular around the bend.  The land is constantly outdoing itself.

Day 3 started with a makeshift breakfast in our room at Hotel Edda in Skogal – one seedy bun with an unreasonable spreading of Smjor Icelandic butter. Delicious!  We picked up an over-priced but necessary coffee from the nearby hotel lobby ($4 CDN each) and were back on Route 1 heading east toward Solheimasundul beach.  

We pulled off the road to an inconspicuous parking area and another tourist advised that the site we had come to see is about a 45 minute walk from the road to the beach. It did not look that far but the cold, harsh wind stretched every second. 

(Strong winds on Solheimasundul Beach, Iceland)

Finally, we arrived at the wreckage of a US Navy Douglas Super DC-3 airplane that crashed in 1973.  So eerie.  The contrasting twisted white metal and black sand looked post apocalyptic.  Apparently everyone survived the crash, unwittingly creating this iconic landmark. 

Source:  http://expertvagabond.com/airplane-crash-wreckage-iceland/

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(Plane Crash on Solheimasundul Beach, Iceland)

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(Plane Crash on Solheimasundul Beach, Iceland)

After the long, cold walk back to the car we regained feeling in our hands, shook the black sand out of our shoes and continued down the highway to Dirholaey and Reynisdrangar rock formations.  First we stopped at Dirholaey, which translates to “the hill island with the door hole.”  It is really a massive black arch of lava reaching out into the sea, which sounds better than the literal meaning, but still not nearly as impressive as the actual view. 

Source:  https://guidetoiceland.is/connect-with-locals/jorunnsg/dyrholaey–the-arch-with-the-hole

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(Dirholaey, Iceland)

A short drive further and we were at Reynisdrangar, three black lava sea stacks.  If you watch Game of Thrones, think iron islands of the iron born. 

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(Reynisdrangar, Iceland – from the west side, facing east)

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(Reynisdrangar, Iceland – from the east side, facing west)

We stopped in Vik to visit the Icewear Woolhouse (Vikurprjon) where we showed great restraint and only bought a thick wool blanket to commemorate our stay in Iceland.  We had a quick bite to eat (more gas station hot dogs) and carried on to the east. 

In my research of Iceland, I read many blogs that described the temptation to stop every 5 minutes along the highway to admire the scenery and take pictures.  That temptation is very real and often irresistible.  We did stop many times but the pictures just don’t do justice to the surroundings.  The following are just a sampling. 

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(Eldhraun Lava Field, Iceland)

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(Massive glaciers spilling through mountain ranges.  These are frozen rivers of dense ice, formed when the accumulation of snow exceeds the rate at which it melts, often over centuries.) 

 Source:  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glacier

 

(Endless fields of purple flowers called lupines.  These are all over the country, however we were told the actually originate from Alaska and were brought to Iceland some time ago.)

We later stopped at Fjallsarlon and Jokulsarlon glacier lagoons on the south end of the Vatnajökull glacier.  Our cameras didn’t capture the enormity of these glaciers. The icebergs floating in the lagoons are the broken shards of ice that had fallen off the glacier.  Jokulsarlon Lagoon actually flows out into the north Atlantic ocean.  The turquoise icebergs float majestically in the frigid waters while the waves crash violently over them and wash them ashore.  The black beach is lined with all shapes and sizes of beautiful ice sculptures.

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(Fjallsarlon Glacier Lagoon)

(Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon)

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(Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon flowing out into the North Atlantic.)

(Icebergs from the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon washed ashore.)

We finished the day at Hotel Jokull (Hotel Glacier) in Hofn.  This was the cheapest we could find and still ran about $200CDN per night for a small double room with a shared bathroom.  It was cozy and clean and included breakfast so we were happy. We splurged on a nice dinner in town at Pakkhus restaurant right on the harbour.  We will soon be writing a separate post on the food of Iceland so I’ll skip that for now. 

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(Hotel Jokull – Double Room)

Fashionably Late Introduction

I suppose I should finally introduce myself. I am Adam and I just married my best friend and the love of my life, Rachel. She has been much more active on here so far, but I am actually excited to share some of our experiences myself.
Our world is about to get a lot bigger…or smaller depending on your perspective. We are embarking on a 10 month journey around the Earth. But before I reintroduce those plans on this blog, I’d like to frame the rough size and state of my world to hopefully give some context to the decision to pause life as we currently know it.
I graduated from University 10 years ago, and since then I have lived in Fort McMurray, Alberta, working in the oil sands. Actually, let me rephrase that…For 10 years I have lived at work in the oil sands of Fort McMurray. Yes, that sounds more accurate. And while it may sound regretful, it is not. With a genuine enthusiasm, I focused most of my energy on my career, which gave me rich experience, afforded me many luxuries (including this mid-life retirement) and left me with much to be proud of and even more to be thankful for.

Nevertheless, about 3 years ago, something in my life started to suggest there may be more to this existence than my career. Funnily enough, it was about 3 years ago that Rachel and I exchanged those awkward emails, which were the subject of her first post on this site. Those were exciting times for us and after she agreed to let me cook her dinner (I made palak paneer because nothing says romance like home made cheese and spinach), we shared an amazing summer together.
Of course it was not without some drama, for which I’ll take most of the credit. I stubbornly refused to commit. As annoyingly cliche as that is, it’s true. We parted ways and immediately realized what we had given up, but it still took what seemed like an eternity to correct it. Fortunately, we did get back together and never looked back.

The reality of the year or so that followed is that I continued working ridiculous hours with that same heavy focus on my career. Rachel and I were madly in love but we only had meaningful time together when we were out of the country, or at least out of cell phone reception, which wasn’t very often. I was brain dead after work and as much as we both enjoy the zombie genre, this just wasn’t as entertaining.
That year really opened my eyes. I began to realize the path I was on would always demand long hours. It would always consume me. I began to ask myself if I love my job enough for that. This wasn’t my ambition fading, but rather my priorities shifting. I wanted more than this job alone was offering. I wanted satisfaction worthy of the effort. I wanted to truly make the most of this life and, more specifically, to share that with Rachel.

A new position came available that promised to move us in the right direction. It was a development role (good for career!), but with fixed hours (good for sanity!). The catch was it was shift work. Three 13 hour days, followed by three 13 hour nights, and then six days off before the cycle repeats. Most people would think that’s an awful schedule (they would be right), but the day I accepted the position marked 5 weeks with a single day off. In fairness, it had been an especially busy stretch, but with all things being relative, the shift sounded fantastic at the time.
I started the new job and as horrible as the night shifts were, I was learning a ton and had more time off than I had had in the 8 previous years. Oh and no more phone calls in the middle of the night! Rachel somehow shifted roles to align our schedules and we suddenly enjoyed every other 6 days off together. The best part was that 6 days of vacation suddenly meant 18 days off! We travelled more than ever.
It was around this time that we got our beautiful daughter, Sophie. Sophie is a tiny Yorkie with a huge personality that lights up any room she enters. We also took the opportunity to explore life outside of the small town of Fort McMurray. We bought a condo in downtown Edmonton and made it more home than our actual home in Fort McMurray. It was shortly thereafter that I proposed to Rachel.
Life was improving but the bizarre schedule was certainly taking its toll on us. The constant switching was tough on our bodies, not to mention the 5 hour drive back and forth between Edmonton and Fort McMurray. In addition, we weren’t feeling as challenged in our new roles. Finding the right balance was proving difficult.
Although we often fantasized about travelling for long durations, it wasn’t until August 2015 when we first considered seriously the notion of a full year off of work to travel the world. We realized we are young, have very little tying us down, and could probably bounce back even if we lost our jobs. We could rent our properties to cover those expenses and we have enough family and friends that would likely be willing to give Sophie a safe and happy home for a year. All of a sudden it seemed possible. Why not do this now when we can sort of afford it, before we have kids, and when we are healthy and young enough to do all the things we’d want to do? Why wait for retirement when our options could be limited by health, mobility, or otherwise? Why continue feeling generally unsatisfied with the risk of turning our ambition into resignation? I don’t think either of us had any illusions that an extended vacation would reveal the meaning of life, but it would certainly provide adventure, excitement, challenges, new perspectives, inspiration and hopefully renew our motivation. If nothing else, it would be amazing.
Still, 3 more months rolled by before we made up our minds and worked up the courage to request a leave of absence from work. By this point we had already chosen May 2016 for our wedding so it simply made sense to start the year leave just before the wedding. We submitted the request and then we waited. Finally we received the approval in January. What a relief!
The next few months flew by faster than we ever expected. We planned our wedding, our travels and set up to put our lives on hold for a year. We hired property managers, got about a dozen vaccination injections, arranged insurance, and countless other tasks that seemed to preoccupy us from planning our actual trip. Our plans came together though and thanks to the immense generosity of our good friends, Pam and Paul, we found a loving home for Sophie for the year. We were also extremely fortunate to come through the Fort McMurray wildfires almost entirely unscathed. The evacuation happened just as we were supposed to head back for our final few days of work, so our leave started a bit early. When we later returned, our home was just fine. Again, we were very fortunate.
Our wedding was absolutely perfect and having our families visit was such a treat! May and the first half of June are a bit of a blur now as we were so busy with the wedding, family, and finishing up the final logistics before the start of our travels.
So as of about 6pm on June 15th, we are finally done. Even if we did miss something, we are about to board Icelandair Flight 692 to Reykjavik, so WE ARE DONE! Sad to be leaving our baby Sophie behind, but eager to explore.
Without further adieu, our rough plan is as follows:
1. Iceland

2. England & Scotland

3. Europe by rail, starting in Paris and ending in Rome.

4. South Africa

5. Kenya

6. Switzerland

7. France

8. Spain

9. Morocco

10. Greece

11. India

12. Sri Lanka

13. South East Asia

14. Australia (most likely)

15. New Zealand (hopefully)

 

Plans are loose but our minds are set. Let the adventures begin!