Friday March 31, 2017
I can see why Venice can be quite a put off for some people. The confusing maze of streets, the stench of the water, the blistering heat, the overpriced...well, everything, the thousands of people cramming all the alleyways - except, for me, I'm here at just the right time when tourist season is no where near in full force and the weather is absolutely beautiful.
I arrived by train to St Lucia station and was stunned at how pretty Venice is. I love the cute little canals and bridges over them. I love the architecture of the dozens of churches and monuments. The water is especially beautiful in the sun and it is so pleasant to walk around. After checking into my hostel, I walked down to Zattere on the south side and caught the magnificent sunset.
The next day, I visited all the major sights around the city: Rialto Market, St Mark's Square, St Mark's Basilica and the accompanying bell tower (pro tip: try not to be in the tower at noon because it gets very loud), Doge's Palace and St Mary's Basilica. Venice is quite small so it's easy to walk around, but I would have probably died without Google Maps to point me in the right direction. I went back to the hostel for a nap then decided to head out again. I took a water bus to the gardens at the far end of town and walked back towards Compo Santa Margherita for dinner.
Dinner was fantastic. I was served a free glass of prosecco to start with and a free shot of limoncello to finish, and honestly that made me so happy.
Today I'm just killing time before my train to Bologna. I walked around Piazzale Roma for a bit but there wasn't too much there, and I explored the train station too. As I was walking around, I heard the unmistakable sound of a live piano and I got so excited when I saw it was open to the public for playing. Of course I played Let it Go, like a boss, and then To Zanarkand, which got me a little clap from someone passing by, but I was mostly just glad that I still had that in me after not playing for two months.
Thursday March 30, 2017
I arrived in Milan late on Saturday night when it was pouring with rain. I had arranged for an airport pickup from my B&B, and sure enough I was met at the airport gate by the owner, who had a sign with my name on it (I found this so novel, I've never had that anywhere before!) As we left Milano Linate Airport, I commented that it was quite busy for the time of night and he said that the Pope had been visiting that day, and that's why there were so many armed guards posted around the airport. I mentioned that I had just come from London and that the armed forces were heavily present everywhere as well due to the incidents last week.
The next day, I set out exploring the city. I walked into town and wandered the streets of Quadrilatero d'Oro - the golden quadrilateral - known for its super expensive shops and famous brands. I continued to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, famous for its massive dome over the shopping arcade where Louis Vuitton, Prada and Versace can be found. Just outside was the Cathedral Duomo di Milano, a massive church that sits at the heart of the city. Probably Milan's most iconic landmark, the cathedral is visited by thousands per day, and the queue to get in is shockingly long - and is separate from the queue to get tickets, which is also as long! It's completely worth it though, the interior is adorned with beautiful stained glass windows and fantastic sculptures and paintings. The real treat however is the terrace. My cheaper ticket allows me stair access to the top - one can pay extra to use the lift. The view from the roof of the cathedral is stunning and it's quite surreal standing on top of this magnificent building and seeing all the arches and spires up close.
Walking down the main pedestrian mall from the cathedral leads me to the Sforzesco Castle, where surprisingly, I find a cat commune and a crazy cat lady feeding them. Apart from that, the castle holds one of Michelangelo's unfinished works, as well as some of Leonardo da Vinci's. I didn't want to wait in queues anymore, so I continued through the park to Arco della Pace, a monumental arch at Porta Sempione. A quick walk through Chinatown and then I was back in town for dinner.
The next day, I took a train north to Como, a beautiful town by the eponymous lake, Lago di Como. The waterfront walk is gorgeous and in the bright sunny weather, it was a real treat and so, so different to the chilly spring weather of London. I spent a few hours wandering around and prestiging two of the many Mystic Pokemon Gyms in Como before heading out for some local seafood and some tiramisu. Yum!
The east side of town leads up to Brunate, a town on the hill overlooking the lake. Access is via the funicular train, or better yet, a winding path that takes about an hour but is so worth it. You're treated to a peaceful stroll through bush and greenery, and the most magnificent views pointing northwest towards Chiasso, Switzerland. I had lunch at the funicular station at the top overlooking the lake and thought to myself how amazing this is. I walked to Faro Voltiano, a lighthouse even further up the hill, but the view again was breathtaking. I was so enthralled by the snow capped mountains in the distance and the warm sun, it made me so happy to be here.
I walked all the way back down via San Donato, and had a quick break in my room before heading out for gelato and dinner - in that order, because I'm an adult. A glass of the house white wine, a plate of spaghetti with mixed seafood and the colours of the sunset by the lake - life is truly good for me right now.
And now, I'm on the train back to Milan and then on another to Venice, city of canals!
Sunday March 26, 2017
My second week in London has come to a close, and what a dramatic one it was.
On Saturday I was wandering around Richmond and Kew Gardens on a moderate but overcast day, which apparently is "perfect weather" to be outside for the Brits. There were quite a few people out at the pubs watching the last few games of the Six Nations, and of course, because it was St Patrick's Day the day before. Green celebrations spilled over onto the next day when Ireland beat England, and I joined the festivities at the St Patrick's Day parade in Central London. Thousands of people lined the streets around Trafalgar Square as streams of pipe bands, dancers, trucks and Irish representative groups walked by.
The weather on Monday took a sharp turn for the cold, so it was a museum day at the National History Museum. I underestimated the amount of time I was going to spend there, and ended up wandering around for close to four hours. Tuesday however was much sunnier, and after meeting Mash for lunch, I went on a tour of Highgate Cemetery, one of London's poshest burial grounds, and where Karl Marx is buried. There are so many stories about the people buried there; our guide was fantastic and spoke about the Victorian times, where the rich and famous would have tombstones and monuments made in their everlasting memory, often in whatever was fashionable for those times - Greek columns, Roman wreaths, Egyptian obelisks. Occupational symbolism was also important, as people wanted to be remembered for their jobs, and the inversion of a particular symbol was a sign of respect for the dead.
On Wednesday, I went out to Hampton Court Palace, far from the city center. There I learned about Henry VIII's lavish lifestyle, and was most fascinated about the kitchen and logistics required to feed 600 people with the most extravagant food for the day. Meat of course was a luxury and roasts required much time and skill to make, and often needing constant watch and turning on the spit by an open fire. Afterwards, I met Aaron for lunch and he took me around Richmond and Richmond Park.
As we were heading home, I got wind of the terrible incident that had happened on Westminster Bridge. It's scary to think I was only there three days ago for the St Patrick's Day parade, and to see the images of the area deserted on the news was quite harrowing. The entire place was cordoned off, and what is normally filled with tourists visiting Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament was empty save for the emergency vehicles and personnel attending the scene. I visited the area on Thursday after meeting Daniela, Sean and Hayden for lunch, just to get a feel of the atmosphere. The area was still cordoned off, but the bridge was open to pedestrians and traffic, and the police presence was definitely more noticeable with regular boat patrols up and down the river. People had already begun laying flowers at the accident site, and reporters had lined the footpaths to broadcast news from the ground. I walked past New Scotland Yard as well, just as a wreath-laying ceremony was taking place, which I assume was in honour of the slain policeman.
Yesterday was super cold and windy, but Aaron took me out to Stonehenge. I was surprised at how large they were, and you can get within about five metres of them at the tourist site. Many of the images I saw online looked like they were from far away. I spent a while walking around and listening to the audio guide (and catching Pokemon as well.) We stopped by the Wheatsheaf Pub near Salisbury for lunch, which was an award winning Steak and Tanglefoot Pie, then visited Old Sarum and the Salisbury Cathedral before heading home for a Chinese meal in Bayswater.
Today - I'm heading off for another adventure! Stay tuned for my next update.
Saturday March 18, 2017
I've been in London a week and have covered most of the major attractions. It's been overcast most of the time, and yesterday was super cold, but there were a couple of stunning days where it was definitely shorts weather and it truly felt like spring. The vibe here is way different to Oxford, there's definitely that big city feel. There's so much to see and do, and I love it. It is quite expensive though.
There's so many well-known landmarks that it's not worth listing out all the ones I've seen. Most days, I catch the tube into town and wander the streets. Soho is especially interesting at night, with all its alleyways filled with bars and eateries. I was out at Greenwich yesterday, visiting the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian (which is not exactly at 0 longitude these days, but oh well.) The area by the Tower of London, St Katherine Docks, has tons of hip restaurants and cafes, and the area by the London Eye, Southbank, has some cool food markets and occasionally, free performances inside the Royal Festival Hall.
My wanderings for Pokemon have also taken me to pretty crazy places too. There was a Slugma nest at Stave Hill near Canada Water, a Cyndaquil nest at South Park near Parson's Green and at Golder's Green, and a Houndour nest at Whittlington Park near Archway. There was an Unown spawn in the middle of nowhere where I had to train for 30 minutes, bus for 10 minutes and run for 5 minutes to get there. After dinner last night, I got off the train going home to catch two different lines and run on a full stomach for 200 metres to catch a Hitmontop in Bayswater. There's no doubt I'm getting exercise, but many times I wonder if this game is worth so much of my time. Maybe I'll talk about this in another post.
Things haven't been all peachy though. On Thursday, I slammed my thumb in the stupid door and decided to cancel my day, but felt miserable for staying at home, so ended up heading out and doing a bit of shoe shopping because my hiking shoes are getting a bit worn. Yesterday, I was looking for food in Soho and had a bit of a sad eating by myself. Eating out to me is an inherently social activity, designed to be enjoyed with other people instead of alone. I really wanted to go to this Brazilian Churrascaria where they serve you unlimited meat, but it would have been so pitiful by myself. I'm usually okay being solitary when I'm travelling, but when I'm eating... I could use a bit of company.
Friday March 10, 2017
There's a couple of places that are easier to reach from Oxford than London, so while I'm here, I thought I might as well get those out of the way. Charlotte recommended Blenheim Palace, just a short bus ride north of Oxford, so as the sun was out on Monday, I decided to head there.
Blenheim Palace is massive. It's a little unfortunate that at this time of year, the gardens aren't in bloom yet, but it does mean there aren't as many tourists wandering around. Blenheim Palace has been home to the various Dukes of Malborough, but is more famous for being the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. The front steps were under renovation when I was there, but there was still a lot to see and learn about this residence and the various people who have been involved with this building.
On Tuesday, I took the train to Bath, famous for its Roman baths, built on top naturally occurring hot springs. Again, it's stunning to see structures that are hundreds of years old and so well preserved, and even though it may not be perfectly intact, the remnants themselves have their own stories of how they came to be in that state. I walked from the train station to Pulteney Bridge, then walked around Bath Abbey before spending a solid hour walking around the Roman Baths. The tour is very well thought out, taking you through the background, architecture and features of the bath in a linear fashion. You get to taste some of the spa water at the end - I would not recommend this. It does not taste pleasant.
I also covered the Assembly Rooms, the Circus, Royal Crescent and the Botanical Gardens. All in all, I would have spent close to six hours wandering around; a lot of the tours from Oxford and London also include Stonehenge in the day trip but only give you four hours to explore Bath, which is doable but quite rushed, especially if you are walking around everywhere.
Monday March 6, 2017
On Saturday, I took a day trip to the Cotswolds and Stratford-upon-Avon, famous of course for being the birthplace of William Shakespeare. The English countryside, on a good day, shows a vibrant green that I haven't seen since leaving New Zealand, but mainly because every place I've been to has been covered in snow (or Malaysia.) I can finally see why people talk about these rolling hills too. It's very picturesque and full of buildings and structures that are hundreds of years old. There are so many small churches around here. There are houses with thatched roofs made from dried straw. There are dry walls - walls made without cement or mortar because it was too expensive. It's interesting because there's so much story behind all these things, and that simply doesn't exist in New Zealand.
The first stop was to Minster Lowell, a village that had popped up to take advantage of wool production. It was named after the Lovells, who were the land holding family of the area. The ruins of the manor house remain today, and this is where we spent most of our time here.
Second on the list was Burford, home of the church where mutineers of the New Model Army were held captive by Oliver Cromwell. Again, the buildings are rich with history and beautiful architecture. Etched graffiti on the stone of the font in the church still remains, scratched out by one of the prisoners in the church during the mutiny. It's amazing to think it has been there for 400 years and that it can still be seen today.
We continued north to the Rollright Stones, a formation of rocks in three distinct groups: the King Stone, the Whispering Knights and the King's Men, all named after the characters in one of the local myths of the area. A king was met by a witch at this area, who said that if the king could see Long Compton from this position, then the King of England he shall be. Of course, the king could not see Long Compton, and was turned to stone by the witch (the King Stone) who then proceeded to turn the circle of men into stone (the King's Men) as well as a group of mutineering knights (Whispering Knights).
The last stop of the day was Stratford-upon-Avon. We had a few hours to walk around and join any tours of the various important houses in Shakespeare's life. I wandered down to the riverside and admired the gardens and some of the monuments and statues erected in Shakespeare's honour, and then had a quick lunch before wandering further into town. I ended up at the Holy Trinity Church, which is the site of Shakespeare's grave, and for £3, it wasn't too expensive to wander in. Again, magnificent architecture with all sorts of arches and columns adorning the main church area, and some fantastic stained glass windows in the fore and rear.
I was back in Oxford in the evening for a pizza and wine tasting session with Jono and Charlotte's friends, who take their wine tasting very seriously (and competitively!) Of course I had to self-moderate my consumption, and wasn't feeling too bad by the end of the night. We continued to Wolfson student bar and played some darts before retiring for the night.
Saturday March 4, 2017
I've pretty much covered most of Oxford's main sights - the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum and the various colleges around town like Christ Church, Trinity and Magdalen (pronounced Mawd-lin for some very odd reason). I walked the length of Port Meadow where I found some horses roaming around with no fence separating me and them, and I ambled around the Oxford University Parks and Christ Church Meadow, admiring the spring flowers starting to bloom along the riverside. And Oxford is a nice place, but I'm rapidly exhausting the to-do list. Next week, I'll visit the Natural History museum and take a day trip to Blenheim Castle, but that's basically all I have planned.
I spent the first day of March in London, picking up my biometrics residents permit, which allows me to go in and out of the UK freely, and I also met up with Alice, who took me to various places. We had a traditional English pub lunch of fish and chips, and wandered around Borough Market where I got a Baileys chocolate cheesecake. We walked to St Paul's Cathedral (via a few Pokemon spawns) and went inside briefly to attend mass, as it was Ash Wednesday. Normally £18, entry was free as long as you actually sat down for the service. Night fell as we got to Soho and Alice left to meet another friend. I continued wandering as I wasn't quite hungry yet, catching more Pokemon, because I just wanted to pass time, and then got an average steak dinner before taking the bus back to Oxford. It would have been close to midnight when I arrived, just in time for all the drunk people to be wandering the streets, and let me tell you, drunk English people are not fun.
Walking around London was interesting, because there's a lot to see. The landmarks are all so well known and to see them in real life is quite gratifying. But I have to say, if the Japanese are extremely orderly people, and the Canadians walk on the right side of the footpath religiously, then the English are chaotic and haphazardly wander down the street on all sides of the path. It's certainly a different place.
My blog has been having a few issues too. For some reason, the comments query suddenly spiked in memory usage, causing the database to return an empty set due to overallocation. Furthermore, I finally managed to install working versions of Apache, MySQL and PHP on my laptop thanks to WAMP, but it wasn't all smooth sailing and I'd rather not have to do anything like that again.