Sunday, December 15, 2013

I Didn't See Mr. Bates or Lady Mary

Teresa and I went to Highclere Castle, otherwise known as Downton Abbey.  The castle is typically only open in the spring/summer (and sell out really quickly), but they decided to open up for a Christmas event in the beginning of December.  I was lucky enough to get online and get tickets the day they went on sale.  It was kind of hysterical because it was like trying to get tickets for Opening Day of the Cubs (when they were good a little better, of course).  I kept refreshing my screen until the tickets became available.

Anyway, Teresa and I had tickets for the afternoon opening, but it takes a good hour+ to get out there, so we were up bright and early at 6:30/7:00 in order to get out there.  The train ride was uneventful and got a cab from the train station to the castle.  Unfortunately, there is no other public transportation.

Highclere Castle is a Victorian castle and is home to the Earls and Countesses of Carnarvon.

 Me in front of the castle

Since we got there early, we toured the grounds first.  There are a number of gardens, including the Monk's Garden...

...the Walled Garden, and the Secret Garden (which threw Teresa off because there was a sign pointing to it --- how "secret" is it?)

Since it was December, there wasn't much in bloom, but there was a greenhouse with some pretty flowers...

In addition to the grounds, we sat down for a spot of tea.

 Tea and scones

Now, we weren't able to take photos of the interior, so I don't have any pictures to share, but I can tell you a little about it.

The tour of the house is not that big or long.  It's self-guided and most of the hallways are fairly narrow, so you are pretty much following the person in front of you.  Unfortunately, for a period of time, Teresa and I got stuck behind some weird dude who was carrying a stocking with these weird mouse-like stuffed animals in them.  (Caroline, it sort of reminded me of Santa Rat).  Teresa said he was having them talk to each other while we were on the tour, but I thankfully missed that.

Anyway, there is no audio guide and there are only 1 page handouts available in each room.  I have to say, after the extensive Hampton Court Palace audio guide, I was happy to be without it, but it would have been nice to have a little more detail in each room.  

They did make subtle nods to Downton Abbey by highlighting what room it was supposed to reflect.  So, we saw the Library, Lady Edith's bedroom, Lady Sybil's bedroom and the room where Mr. Pamuk stayed (the guy who Lady Mary did the nasty with in the first season and then he kicked the bucket).

I was so focused on the fact that we were touring a castle that I forgot we were touring a home.  There were pictures throughout of the family.  Some included royalty (e.g. the Queen, Princess Diana, and Prince Albert were seen in various photos), but most were photos of the current Earl & Countess of Carnarvon and their children through the years.  It was hard to believe that this is a family's home.

Kew, Not Queue or Cue

Kew Gardens is the Royal Botanic Gardens in the southwest of London.  Like the name sounds, it is 300 acres of gardens.  When Teresa and I went there the other night, it wasn't to see the gardens, though.  We went there for a festival called Christmas at Kew.  It was a new event they designed this year.

They have set up an illuminated trail about 1 mile long that snakes through the grounds.  Along the way, there are different lights set up, illuminating the trees.  

They had these Moroccan looking lamps hung through the trees....

Light displays on the grounds.....

And an arch of colored lights...

They had a type of scavenger hunt for kids to do to make it entertaining.  There were horns set up along the way to give you some facts about the plants.

I think the coolest part (at least for me) was the Garden of Fire.  There were little gas jets set up in a big circle.  It was set up to represent a Fibonacci sequence, but Teresa and I thought it looked like a big circle of fire.  The Fibonacci sequence might have been a little bit more evident from the air.  (For those not familiar with Fibonacci sequence --- have you never seen The DaVinci Code??)  

The Garden of Fire

There was also a cool display in the Waterlily House.  The kick ass light display reflected in the water below it.

The Waterlily House

The Palm House was the last stop on the tour.  It had a light show that was timed to music.  Teresa got the video of it, but I only got the sequence of shots.

Mom and I are supposed to go to a similar event at the Morton Arboretum before Christmas.  I will curious to see how it compares.

I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am, I Am...

Teresa came back in town to visit me for a few days and we took a little trip out to Hampton Court Palace.  It is one of two surviving palaces of Henry VIII.

View of the gates 

Front of Hampton Court Palace

It was originally built for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry's chaplain, but it was eventually turned over to the king.  In the 17th century, King William III and Mary II (of "William and Mary" fame) decided to expand it to compete with Versailles and employed Christopher Wren to do the work.  For the architectural geeks like me, Wren rebuilt a number of churches in London after the Great Fire in 1666, most notably St. Paul's.  He was also responsible for the expansion of Kensington Palace.

I digress...William and Mary were keen to expand Hampton Court Palace, but were forced to stop work halfway through.  As a result, the palace is now half Tudor and half Baroque.  One would think this would make the building seem disconnected, but it doesn't.  It was really pretty.

View of Palace from the back

The tour of the Palace has an audio tour that takes you through the kitchens and serving quarters, up through the apartments and the Chapel Royal.  The detail on the audio tour was sometimes a bit much.  There was a point in the kitchens where the audio guide went on for 3 minutes about making bread.  I really don't need to know that much detail about making bread.  It's bread.  Anyway, it was at this point that I learned how to make the audio guide skip to the next section.  I complain, but it was really nice to have the detail.

The Chapel Royal is still open and active today.  It was really beautiful, especially the ceiling.  It was quite stunning and it is amazing to me how much detail they employ.  It took 2 years to complete the ceiling and it contains 60 gilded winged angels.  Of course, you couldn't take pictures (and I don't break the rules!), but I was able to find this one online.

 Ceiling in Chapel Royal

In addition to the building itself, which led you through the sordid history of Henry VIII and his wives (most notably Katherine), you could tour the grounds.  Now, I'm sure that they are all the more stunning in the spring when everything is flowering, but they were really beautiful.  When Teresa and I walked out the back of the Palace, we were greeted with this view.

My pictures don't really do it justice, but it was breathtaking.  Taking the path up above leads you to this lake.

There are all sorts of water fowl that have taken up residence in the lake.  To the right of the lake is some land with deer and other animals.  There was some light-haired animal that was out there, but neither Teresa nor I could figure out what it was.  I think we just decided they were either really big goats or really blond deer. 

There are a number of gardens covering over 60 acres.  Again, probably even more beautiful in the spring, but very beautiful even in early December, plus we didn't have the insane crowds of the spring/summer.  Other than a few school groups, the Palace was pretty empty.

 Privy Garden

 One of the sunken gardens

Another sunken garden 

Hampton Court Palace is also home to the Great Vine.  This claims to be the oldest (and at one point, the largest) vine in the world.  At over 240 years old and 120 feet long, it is pretty impressive.  

The Great Vine

Planted in 1768 by gardener Lancelot "Capability" Brown (how great of a name is that?!?), it still produces grapes.  If you are there around harvest time, you can purchase some of the grapes in late August/early September.  They are sweet grapes, so they are just used for eating --- no wine coming out of them.

All in all, Hampton Court Palace was pretty cool.  I liked the combination of the two styles - Tudor and Baroque.  I loved the history of Henry VIII and all of his Jerry Springer-like problems.  (Seriously, when your history of your spouses reads: divorced, executed, died, divorced, executed, widowed, you've got problems.)  I liked the subtle tributes to the history of England: 

The Tudor dragon

A Panther - considered a royal beast

And, of course, the Lion of England

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

In Honor of Mandela...

There have been quite a few dedications to Mandela today.  His memorial service in South Africa was widely attended by all sorts of international dignitaries.  I noticed that the media was already commenting on stupid things like who was sitting next to whom, who shook whose hand, who was taking pictures, etc.  They were interviewing MPs on the news today who were diagnosing/analyzing the smallest little things.  Why they can't go one day without all the shenanigans is beyond me.  Focus on the matter at hand and the reason you are all there.

At any rate, there was a little memorial set up around the Mandela statue on the Southbank (i.e. south of the river).

 Mandela statue

The display above the statue rotated with different quotes from Mandela.  It was a simple, yet classy, dedication to an amazing man.

So Colorful...

I got this in the mail the other day from my friend Linda’s daughter, Sarah.  

I understand that these things are all the rage with middle school kids.  I’m wearing it at work today and I’m feeling very hip.  Do people say “hip” anymore?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanksgiving --- sort of

So, Thursday was Thanksgiving.  It didn't really feel like Thanksgiving to me, though.  Just another day at the office.  No holiday break like I would have at home.  There are quite a few Americans in the London office and one former expat was in town, so we went for drinks on Thanksgiving evening.

I left pretty early so I could make it home in time to catch my family before they sat down for dinner.  As it was, I guess the Jewel Brown-N-Serve rolls were done early, so I caught them as they were getting ready to say grace.  Sadly, I didn't get to talk to them very long, but it was nice to hear the traditional noises of a proper Thanksgiving. 

My friend Lisa had a Thanksgiving dinner at her house on Saturday night.  She is American, so she knows what it is like to have a true Thanksgiving meal.  She was making the turkey and stuffing and asked everyone to sign up for side dishes and desserts.  A lot of the people that were coming weren't from the States, so they were all volunteering to bring things like cheese and bread, pasta dishes, etc.  I decided someone had to bring mashed potatoes.  What's a Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes?  Easier said than done.

I got a recipe for my sister's sinfully delicious (and oh-so healthy) mashed potatoes that includes sour cream, butter and cream cheese.  Unfortunately, sour cream wasn't so easy to find.  I found something like sour cream, but it didn't taste right.  I didn't want to create a barf-o-rama at Thanksgiving, so I had to resort to a basic recipe with butter and heavy cream.  Not as good as my sister's, but equally as healthy, I'm sure.  

Making the potatoes was pretty funny.  I was stopped in the aisles of the grocery store mentally trying to do the calculations in the grocery store to convert grams to ounces and kilograms to pounds.  Cooking should not involve this much math.

The end result was pretty good.  A little lumpy because I didn't have a mixer, but pretty good.  Of course, as usual, there was a lot of leftovers.

Here is Lisa with the massive turkey. 

Solid job carving considering she's never done it before.

Lisa has two Italian flatmates who are just wonderful.  Not only are they good cooks, but they are very sweet and watch out for her.  Quite the gentlemen.  They made pumpkin pie and tiramisu in honor of turkey day.

Lorenzo & Ale with their creations

I'm kicking myself for not getting a picture of the focaccia that Ale made --- 1 tray each decorated as the American flag, the British flag and the Italian flag.  All with tomatoes and olives.  So creative!

Lisa was kind enough to send me the picture of the focaccia.

They tried to use blue food coloring with the stars, but it bled out

All in all, it wasn't the same as home, but it was nice to have a little bit of something like Thanksgiving.  

My Irish Eyes Were Smiling…

I didn't realize that it had been so long since I posted anything.  While my foot issues have prevented me from doing a lot of traveling, I have been busy over here.

I was lucky to enjoy a lovely visit with Tom for two weeks.  It was nice to be able for him to see where I have been living, working and playing for the past year.  Sadly, I wasn’t able to take off as much time as I had hoped, but I was able to surprise him with a trip to Dublin.  I sprung the news about the trip on the first day he arrived, so at first, I don’t think he heard me because he was in a state of jet lag stupor.  Once it had pierced his sleep-deprived brain, he was very excited.

We took a late night flight to Dublin on Thursday.  Friday was spent tooling around the city.  We got very lucky with the weather --- sunny and a little chilly.  Perfect walking around weather.  Not too cold and not too hot. 

We were staying near Trinity College, so it was easy to get around.  We hit Trinity College, Dublin Castle, Grafton Street, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in short order.  The stained glass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was absolutely beautiful.  
One of the many windows

Now, I'm used to churches having donation baskets.  I think this is the first time I've ever seen one look like this, though.

 Guinness keg used to collect money for their organ

Tom thought he saw some cute woman who quite possibly was famous at St. Patrick’s.  Of course, he had no idea who it was.  Unfortunately, he didn’t tell me about her until after we left, so I don’t have a clue who it was.

No visit to Dublin would be complete without a visit to the Guinness Factory.  Surprisingly, Tom has never been on a brewery tour, so it was new for him.  I wouldn’t call the Guinness Factory a traditional brewery tour, but it did have the most important thing for a brewery tour --- the pint at the end.

After the Guinness tour, we wandered along the River Liffey and stopped off at the Brazen Head pub, which is the oldest pub in Ireland.  It's been around since 1198.  It may be a tourist attraction, but it was very cozy and perfect for a Friday afternoon.

On Saturday, we had booked a tour to venture out of Dublin and see the Wicklow Mountains.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a big fan of tours.  I don’t like being held to someone else’s idea of where to go and what to see.  More than that, I don’t like relying on other people to be on time.  And, I can’t count on people not to annoy me.  I know I sound like a bit of a prima donna, but I’ve had enough bad experiences on tours that I am sufficiently skeptical of them.

All that said, neither Tom nor I wanted to drive in Dublin.  Neither of us needed the stress of worrying about driving on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road.  And with a walking cast still on, it wasn’t really a good option for me.  So, we sucked it up and booked the tour for early pickup on Saturday morning.  In short, it was a good move.  While I was not thrilled with the stop at the “handweavers” (it was basically a chain store), the rest of the trip was great.  Everyone was fairly well on time.  There was one guy who was consistently the last person on the bus.  Tom thought it was intentional because he was with this one woman who was a bit loud and annoying.  The tour took us through Wicklow Hills and some of the areas where the movie “P.S.  I Love You” was filmed.  If you don’t know the storyline, essentially Hillary Swank plays a woman whose husband has died recently (played by Gerard Butler) and he leaves her notes that are designed to get her to move on.  Part of the movie is filmed in Ireland.  The annoying woman was obviously a big fan of the movie and kept asking everyone who the other guy in the film was.  Tom said to me “You know that you know, why don’t you tell her?”  I didn’t offer it up because I didn’t want to get drawn into a big conversation with her.  She eventually cornered me and asked me if I knew who it was.  I said “Jeffrey Dean Morgan.  He also played Denny on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’.”  She looked at me like “no, that’s not right.”  Whatever.  I tried.  Look it up, chickie.  I’m right.  At any rate, this is a picture at one of the locations the movie was filmed at (although I don't know how you would know that for sure.  It all starts to look the same.)
Some bridge from the movie

The rolling hills brought us up to Sally Gap.  It’s the high spot in the hills and was frickin’ freezing.  Great views, but the wind was blowing so hard.  I was able to get a bunch of pictures.

The area to the right is a house owned by the Guinness family

The tour took us through the countryside and to a 6th century monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin.  What’s left of the settlement is mostly ruins, but there are a few buildings still left strewn through the graveyard.  

St. Kevin's Church (aka the "Kitchen")

Celtic Cross on grave

There is a beautiful little hike from the settlement ruins to a lake.  

You could take a separate hike up this hill to see this waterfall, but it was pretty steep and I couldn’t do it in my boot.  Instead, we wandered around the lake.

As this was the end of the adventure, we were invited back to the bus for a complimentary shot of Jameson.  Tom downed it, but I couldn't get through the whole thing.

Traveling back to Dublin took some time because of traffic due to the big rugby match between Ireland and Australia (Ireland lost).  By the time we got back, the city was all lit up.

"Happy Christmas" in Gaelic 

 Grafton Street all lit up

This may have been my 3rd time in Ireland, but it never gets old.  So beautiful.  It's grand!