Saturday, February 17, 2018

London Calling

23 hours in London, and we spent 7 hours sleeping??!! We must be crazy! Got to make the most of the time that remains.
After a spot of tea in the hotel room, we headed out on the walking tour we devised for ourselves through Google maps and Trip Advisor back home. We wandered under London Bridge to the tune of the nursery rhyme song, and then found ourselves at the edge of the Thames, looking across at the grand St Paul’s Cathedral and with an up-close view of a dry-docked sailboat.

Winding along the road, we came upon our first real destination: Borough Market, a large year-round market that is a must-see for any foodie.

Fresh fruits, vegetables, and a bunch of fun guys!

We checked out the Beyond Bread stall for the sweet treats recommended by another blogger we stumbled upon last night, but then decided rich doughnuts might not be the best start to the day. What makes for a good breakfast?

In the adjacent market (maybe also part of Borough Market?) we found stall upon stall of delicious takeaway options. We settled on Indian - practically the new English cuisine. (Truly a better breakfast than a doughnut.)

I was about to buy some balsamic vinegar chocolates (tastier than they sound when I say that out loud) when we were interrupted by drumming and chanting. Lunar New Year celebrations right in the market!

Brunch in the open-air market immersed us in the experience but did nothing for the chill gnawing at our bones. Recall that the bulk of our trip will be in warm climes, and so we relied upon layers of lighter clothes to handle the London winter weather. Not quite enough. We found a café with organic coffee and warmed up.

Time was ticking and there was still much to see. Again facing the chilly morning, we continued with our self-serve tour and stumbled upon the ruins of the Winchester Palace. Once home to bishops in London on royal or administrative business, this 12th century palace included a tennis court, bowling alley, and even a prison! The palace remained in use until the 17th century when it was turned into tenements and warehouses. These ruins, including a glorious rose window, were rediscovered in the 19th century and preserved.
Finally, Tower Bridge across the Thames and a view of the Tower of London.

Originally, I had thought we would cross over the bridge and wander back along the other side. Borough Market had eaten through more time than I had planned (no regrets, though) so we turned our feet back toward the hotel. The promenade along the Thames opened into Hay's Galleria which was once where much of London’s water-borne commerce was unloaded.

Back again to (the much-less-exciting-than-Tower-Bridge) London Bridge…

…and back to the hotel. Time enough to grab our stuff and check out before a(nother) walking tour. The tube would have sufficed to get us there, but this is London, after all. A double-decker red bus is the way to go in style!

This second walking tour – professionally provided by Sandeman’s – kicked off at Covent Garden Market, where the old Apple Market and the new Apple Market sit side by side.

While waiting for the tour to begin, Mindy ticked off another London “must do”:

First thing we learned on the tour? Covent Garden’s interesting past. It started as a garden for the local convent (Covent came from convent) but then after the disenfranchisement of the church, it became one of the most renowned red-light districts in all of Europe. At the time, the book detailing the working ladies – each with the “menu” of options available – outsold the bible! The Victorian era of puritanism cleaned out the professional companions, and the market became a trading zone for fruits and vegetables. Recognizing the higher margins on manufactured goods, Covent Garden Market changed over to jewellery and trinkets; in the last 30 years, individual artisans have been replaced by Coco Chanel, Gucci, and – of course – Apple. The market is now little different from Yorkdale Mall, only in a much nicer setting.

At Trafalgar Square, with its monument to the Lord Admiral Nelson (incidentally, a big believer in equality among all people – at least compared to the norms of his era), we learned about the incredible English defeat of the combined French and Spanish armadas during the Napoleonic War.

Notice the “gun-metal” finish on the lion (there are two at the base, though one isn't visible) and the plate of the plinth? That’s thanks to the brilliant military tactics of Lord Nelson. Seriously. The initial English navy manoeuvre back in that Napoleonic battle cleared out a third of the combined French and Spanish fleets without the English losing a single ship. Napoleon’s navy promptly surrounded, and the English took their cannons and muskets before sending them home. As no righteous English soldier would ever use a Spanish or French weapon, they returned the scrap metal to London and melted it down. To add insult to injury, the centre of London was then formally moved to this Parisien-style public plaza, a more or less permanent reminder to the rest of Europe that England once reigned supreme.

We passed through the grand Victoria Memorial gates and into the royal neighbourhood – where the road is painted red to avoid the inconvenience of having to roll out a red carpet every time the monarch is in town. The gate originally housed offices for the navy, hence the nautical themes.

St. James Palace – nestled behind what was the German embassy in the 1930s – lacks the glamour of Buckingham and other palaces, but it is keystone institution in England’s political history as the physical representation of the royal court after private armies ceased to be the measure of noble power. (Clever man King Henry the VII used his private army to seize power from King Richard, then promptly outlawed such armies to avoid similar threats to himself.)

Buckingham Palace was originally built to be the home of the Duke of Buckingham. Sadly for his heirs, the Duke was greatly in debt to the King when Buckingham House was built, and the King rather fancied this beautiful new house. As a courtesy, the royal family arranged a compromise, wherein the Duke of Buckingham would be permitted to live in the house until he died, at which point he would “generously” bequeath Buckingham House to the King. It became Buckingham Palace, and remains the residence of the monarch.

The reigning monarch Elizabeth is not content to merely wave to her subjects from the balcony, however. (That balcony – permitting a connection between the Queen and her people – is credited as part of the reason the English royal family enjoyed an 89% approval rating among the English in the last national survey on such matters.) Queen Elizabeth has dabbled in the film industry, starring as herself in a fictional film about Queen Elizabeth going to watch the Olympics under the protection of 007. Queen and Bond Girl!

The garden stretching out in front of Buckingham has always been open to the public. 

Historically, municipal police could not enforce the law on royal grounds, and so the park became the host of all manner of vices. Buckingham Palace looked out at a veritable orgy of the common people.

The tour wrapped up in front of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey.

For the first time in its history, Big Ben is undergoing renovations. It was starting to take after the Tower of Pisa as Big Ben slowly sank on one side into the soft bank of the Thames. We didn’t (really) see Big Ben, but we did see a rare site that won’t be seen again for at least 150 years – Big Ben surrounded by scaffolding. Hooray?

At least Westminster Abbey – the site of all coronations since William the Bastard became William the Conqueror, King of England – was visible. (That is, aside from the extreme glare of the setting sun that accounts for the lack of Westminster Abbey photo here.) Did you know that the English monarch must request permission from the Mayor of London prior to entering the city? A compromise reached between the conquering William and the economically powerful city of London, back in the day.

The lawn in front of parliament is informally designated for protests and public messaging. After a 5-year occupation by protesters in the wake of the (second) Iraq war, this public space no longer permits such “occupation” style protests. Today, it was some environmentalists and people seeking fair treatment for immigrants.

True to our style of aggressive traveling, the tour finished just in time to rush back to the hotel for our baggage, and then a return to Heathrow for our flight to Lisbon.

At the aeroport, our customs officer noted that we had a one-way ticket to Portugal. Citizens from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are required to show a departure ticket before heading in to Portugal. I guess this is a Portuguese requirement, as our customs officer was satisfied simply by looking at the ticket confirmation in my email (on my phone). I didn’t even have to send him a screenshot.

Settling in for the night, we are in a new hotel, a new city, and a new country. This place might be the Lisbon airport’s equivalent of a Doubletree.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Human Smuggling

I tell ya, we got a great discount on this trip. Three people took the flight, three people, stayed at the hotel, three people ate at restaurants and took tours, and we consistently got a 1/3 discount! We just kept the third safely hidden inside Mindy's tummy, and smuggled it with us everywhere we went...

You can time flights from Toronto to England such that you leave in the evening and arrive in the morning - saving a night's hotel. With Mindy being pregnant and more easily tired than usual, we did the opposite: we flew out of Toronto in the morning and arrived in London in the evening. Mindy slept like a baby on the plane (so, presumably, did the baby) and when we arrived in London we went to the hotel and promptly fell asleep. (This may be Mindy's favourite day of traveling ever - at least in terms of sleep!)

As we made our way to the plane in Toronto, I was hoping our luggage and catering was already loaded:

Took the corner a little fast?

The flight was blissfully uneventful (generally desirable for a flight). About the only noteworthy thing was my feeling of cultural inferiority as Mindy watched the Zookeeper's Wife, about the real-life sacrifices made by a Polish couple to save hundreds of lives in World War Two...while I watched Boss Baby.

Then we were in England! We found our way through the tube to Central London and to our hotel, then headed out for a late (by English time) dinner at this fantastic Turkish restaurant we found around the corner from our restaurant! Dressed for the plane, we were seriously under-dressed for this place, but they didn't seem to mind as they sat us in plain view of the door. Guess they don't get a lot of customers in at 11pm. 

Tomorrow will be a busy day with our very own walking tour (designed by us....therefore a little light on historic context) and then a professional walking tour with Sandeman's in the afternoon.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

New Age Spiritualism to a Tribute to Capitalism

Sleep is for sissies, so Mindy and I were up with the sun this morning. Our last morning in Sedona, we wanted time for a hike through the Fay Canyon. This short trail is known for being busy, so the early start would also help reduce the crowds. The empty parking lot at the trail head was a good start! This sign; however, was a little unnerving when we had just arranged to have the place to ourselves...

Deserts would have little bears, right?

The pretty trail cut through the wooded centre of the canyon with red rock cliffs rising on both sides.

We saw toads, hares and birds, but no bear. (A mix of disappointment and relief.) The hummingbirds are loud enough here that you might think you're hearing a bear!

At the end of the maintained trail, we dodged large white flowers - looking like someone's garden - and up boulders to the Fay Arch.

The hike along the valley floor was pretty, but the sights from up high made this worth getting out of bed!

The echo was fantastic, so Mindy and I entertained ourselves talking to ourselves. Yes, ourselves. Sitting beside each other.

Though we were heading back to the hotel for breakfast, we stopped at Local Juicery for a delicious and healthy start to the day. Not "a local juice store", but a store called Local Juicery.

After some more Tarahumara burritos, we packed up and headed out to the Fiesta Tlaquepaque in the Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village.

The fiesta was a little disappointing, really. Aside from the stage, this festival seemed more focused on bringing people in to the existing shops throughout the Arts and Crafts Village. While some shops were pleasing to walk through, nothing much appealed to us. Except the Navajo rugs - I would have loved to bring one of those, home. Problem being, even if I was going to spend $14,000 on an area rug, I wouldn't know what to do with it. Do you put it on the floor and risk it getting dirty? Do you put it on the wall? I chose to put it back on the rack in the store and walk out empty handed.

Back in the car, we put the peaceful beauty of Sedona behind us and began the trek down to Scottsdale. Elevation drops quickly and soon red rocks were replaced by Saguaro cacti. Also, we saw a ramshackle van in a parking lot with a big sign "$7 jeans". I guess those "fell off the back of a truck"? Soon enough, we were pulling up to the entrance of the luxurious Fairmont Princess resort.

We had aggressive plans of getting out for a hike or run in the desert this afternoon, but by the time we had unpacked and settled in after the drive and busy morning, we had limited time before a reasonable dinner time. I wanted a workout of some sort, so I accepted the irony of heading to the desert in order to swim.

Dinner was at the four diamond restaurant at the resort. The service was stellar, the food marvelous, and the sommelier most impressive. This guy is 36 years old and is one of ~600 advanced sommelier in the world (2 in Arizona). He is taking his master sommelier exam in autumn, and if he is successful, he will be one of only ~300 in the world. He knows his stuff! I guess he had a bit of time, or he was entertained by our ignorance of and interest in wine. After talking to us about some of the very impressive wines on the list...

...I asked him whether someone with my undeveloped palate would be able to appreciate a wine of that calibre. He stepped away from the table and brought back a small glass of wine for me. "Try that, and I'll be back." It was interesting. Like three different glasses of wine: the nose was sour, the first flavour very light and thin, and if I let it sit on my tongue it developed a lot of punch. I didn't really like it. It was a $300+ bottle of French Bordeaux. Um....I mean... I loved it(?)

We had a magical walk back to the room through the night-time resort, then off to bed.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Meaning of Life

I started the day with some office time. Though I am on vacation, I didn't really mind...

Once Mindy got up, she put an end to that, anyway. Off to breakfast! This really is the perfect hotel for us, when it serves Tarahumara burritos! (The Tarahumara are a tribe that originally settled in the Copper Canyons in Mexico, and were the subject of one of my favourite books: Born to Run.)

Well fed, we set out on another day of adventures. We started our day with a tour of the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a small church built into one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes. The chapel was designed by one of Frank Lloyd Wright's students (that should score me some points with Garry!).

The pedestal on which the chapel stands makes full use of Mother Nature's backdrop!

Knowing how some of the mega-churches operate here in the USA, I can't help but be a little cynical. As I looked out from the walkway leading to this church, I couldn't help but wonder if the mega-house across the road belonged to the priest of this chapel

That's probably not fair of me, though. There are a number of estate homes in Sedona, and besides, this chapel isn't big enough to be a mega-church.

Refreshed in spirit (or not), we set forth to the The Crack; according to the images on Google, this hike on Bell Trail would lead us to a beautiful pool in Wet Beaver Creek. Unfortunately, we seem to have made a common wrong turn:

We probably should have just turned around and gone to the trail head. Instead, we found an area to park and decided we would fine our way along the creek (on the wrong side). Things started promising, as we found a pretty path that ran parallel to the water.

And wasn't so clear. The path would suddenly end in a thicket of spiny bushes, or it would wind back on itself, and we made our way to the creek itself to scramble over the rocks at the edge. It's only....4 miles to The Crack...

Right or wrong, our "scenic route" offered cool shade under the canopy of trees at the water.

We crossed over the creek and back again, finding bits of overgrown trail that would carry us along a hundred metres, or a hundred feet, before fading away into the undergrowth. I was startled by a 3-foot long snake slithering through the grasses, and at one point we were deafened by what must have been thousands of grasshoppers or crickets chirping at us from the banks on both sides and the trees towering above.

At times, when the shrieking bugs relented, we heard faint voices off to our left. Following them, eventually we saw people treading the Bell Trail. We found the proper route!

Mindy doesn't walk as fast as I do, so she would run ahead and then wait for me. Honestly. She wasn't trying to lose me in the wilderness. I think...

The flat trail along the creek began to climb sharply up a red rock "mountain" (small mountain), and the rough rocks in the hot sun worked our tired legs.

Crazy to think that this path was established to herd cattle from one end of the canyon to the other - and that it's still used for this to this day!

We would occasionally come across other hikers doing the return route; they confirmed that the work would be well worth it! I could tell Mindy's enthusiasm was starting to wane as we climbed higher and higher around the side of the mountain, and then suddenly we were there!

First order of business:

A stunning swimming hole where the creek cut a gorge through the rocky riverbed. Clear, refreshing water and - being early in the day - the place was largely to ourselves.

We found a sunny rock to sit and dry ourselves as we ate our picnic...

...until we noticed that our beautiful vista was dotted with other people's garbage. What ignorance. :( So I did a little "tidying up" for the next people to enjoy.

Eventually, knowing that we had a long hike back and more to explore this afternoon, we pulled ourselves away from the serenity of the Crack at Wet Beaver Creek and started the expedition back to the car. More sights on the way back.

Despite the heat, it felt faster - we were going downhill for the first couple of kilometres. This time, we took the proper path all the way back to the trail head, and then I ran the mile to the car. We were both fatigued from the heat, the sun, and the 13km hike, but this town seems to specialize in liquid energy:

Refreshed, we drove to the Amitabha Stupa & Peace Park, a sprawling homage to Buddhism set against a backdrop of red rock cliffs.

The Stupa is built upon one of Sedona's energy vortexes - where the earth's energy concentrates into healing power (or so they say). I didn't feel the energy the way I do the liquid kind, but, like when I walked into the chapel this morning, I understand how people find peace in such places.

Whether you believe in energy vortexes or not, Sedona is a magical place. What other small town can successfully take on the "golden" arches?

Dinner was at the Elote Cafe, a happening place specializing in Mexican and Southwestern American cuisine. The 40-minute wait for a table flew by as we sipped out drinks overlooking the pool and grounds of the adjacent hotel, chatting with two loquacious Texan women who were well into their bevvies.

Once seated at our table for dinner, Mindy pointed out the table of (different) women sitting next to us - they had been at the adjacent table at Mariposa last night! As they were getting up to leave, I interrupted and confirmed that we had seen them last night. They laughed, complimented us on our "foodie" nature, and jokingly said "I guess we'll see you tomorrow night in Scottsdale?" Um, yes. We will. They aren't staying at the Fairmont - we confirmed.

So where does one find the meaning of life? Is it an architectural marvel of a Christian church? A peaceful Buddhist sanctuary? Some Gaian philosophy that worships the marvels of nature? Or simply the Crack of a Wet Beaver?