Thursday, November 12, 2009

England and Paris

We had an Easyjet flight from Faro to Liverpool. I've never liked the Easyjet scramble for seats, so I decided to fork out the extra 10 bucks for express boarding. The plane was full and only 3-4 other people went for this option. Of course, every single jackass still went for the check-in when they announced express boarding. And then stood there like idiots refusing to move. Oh well.

Liverpool was my first experience of England outside of London. It's not very nice. Andrea's siter/brother-in-law combo (two people, not one) picked us up. Hugh was busy explaining how there was no longer any auto-industry in England just as we drove my the Land Rover manufacturing plant. You could see the off-road testing track from the highway. That was about the highlight of Liverpool.

We were heading for Lancaster, maybe 2 hours north of Liverpool. I'd never really heard of Lancaster before this trip, but apparently it was a very important place way back in the day. There's lots of history. And lots of pubs. We arrived in time for dinner and went to at least 6 of them, looking for the right place to eat. Everybody was calling it a pub crawl and I had to point out that a pub crawl involves actually drinking at each establishment, not just walking in and commenting on the smell. The place we ended up at was really good food though.

The next day we walked around a bit. The town boasts an impressive castle (and priory right next door) that still functions as the regional jail as well as the local courthouse. The courthouse was the site of the trial of the....Birmingham Six, as well as the Pendle Witch Trials. People are especially proud of the Pendle Witch Trials, it seems. On the Saturday we took a tour through the castle, which really just amounts to a tour of the courthouse portion of it. Still, it was pretty interesting. The main courtroom has the hundreds and hundreds of coats of arms of each of the High Deputies in the area. The tour guide stood there for about 5 minutes realing off the names of the most important families as we all stood there looking confused. The Duke/Duchess of the area (Lancashire) is always the sitting monarch, so the local history is a good way to learn about the history of the Royal Family in general.

The other interesting thing about Lancaster is the Ashton Memorial, which sits on a hill looking over the town. We wandered up there later in the afternoon but were turned away by a wedding. We decided to drive into the countryside in search of a pub. We found the pub, but it was closed, so we wandered around a couple of little towns searching for food before giving up and re-visiting the original pub idea. This was my first real experience of English countryside and it was very impressive. I think the pub was in Tunstall? The next day I picked up my rental car and headed for the Coors Brewery in Burton. I have to say that I was actually really nervous about driving in the UK. I've driven on the wrong side of the road before, but never a standard. It took me about half and hour to get a hang of it and then I was fine.

The drive down to Burton was no big deal. It took me about 4 hours and apart from a few difficulties in Burton I was able to drive right there without any detours. I would later realize how amazing this feat was as I tried to get out of Burton and back to Lancaster, but for the moment I was pretty confident in my direction finding abilities.

The Brewery itself is very impressive. I'm still trying to figure out the actual size, but my guide said they produce 5,000,000 barrels a that's just shy of 8,000,000 about 4 times the size of the Vancouver Brewery. It's actually two Breweries (a former Tetley brewery adn a former Bass brewery) that have been bought and sold and then finally merged and bought by Coors/Carling. It was fascinating and impressive, evern for somebody oh-so-jaded on beer production.

My tour was quick and my troubles started as I left. I detoured in to Burton for some lunch and had to sit next to a really annoying Scotsman who talked and asked questions the whole time I ate. Once I left, things got confusing very quickly.

The problem is that none of the road signs have far off cities on them. So you have to figure out your route and head for a series of several dozen intermediate points. So you don't head for Lancaster. You don't even head for Stoke, the city half an hour away. You head for Derby. Then Uttoxeter. Then Stoke. Then you follow the signs for the M6. Then you're pretty much home free, but signs for Lancaster...or even Manchester...don't show up until you're about 15 minutes away. Or so. And the traffic. Oh my. My two hour drive down turned into a five hour drive home. It was madness. I didn't like it.

The next day, our last full day in Lancaster, was wonderful. We went back to the Ashton Memorial and hoofed it up to the top, where we experienced wonderful views. Then we drove into the countryside. And drove some more. And kept driving.

It was all so very fascinating. The scenery completely changes ever 5 minutes. If I'd have been driving I would have stopped every few minutes to take a picture. But Hugh, like a robotic chauffeur, just kept driving, unaffected by the beauty around him. We covered a lot of ground and saw some really neat things. I'd go back just to spend some time driving around this part of the country. Amazing.

Sunday, we headed by train for London. We'd somehow managed to get first class tickets on a direct train to London. It was a wonderful journey. Free wi-fi, snacks and drinks. Comfortable chairs. Great scenery. For much of the ride we followed canals that were filled with narrow boats. There were thousands of the things and it would be an interesting way to see the country.

We arrived in London with what seemed like heaps of time to experience a nice evening. However...our quick subway ride to the hotel turned into a painful game of "guess the connection" as we experienced the worst of London subway weekend service. Closed stations. Closed lines. A long walk to the hotel with heavy bags. It was nice to get to the hotel and see that it 100% blew away any previous London hotel experience.

When I spent a few days in London a couple of years ago with my parents, the room my dad found on the Internet was laughable. I could barely fit on my bed. The door would practically hit my shoulder if I was laying down while it opened. The bathroom door wouldn't open fully before it hit my bed. There was only room for one bag at a time on the floor. And it was kind of dump. The room this time around was only a few blocks from where we stayed in 2007, but was about 3 times as big, newly renovated and full of yuppie extravaganzas. It had it's own washer/dryer. Full cooking facilities. A beautiful bathroom. A nice big bed. Digital cable with a large flatscreen. About 200 dvd's to choose from up in the lobby. All for...can't remember. Maybe 150 bucks a night? This is it here. Nice and central too.
We had about 5 minutes in the room before I was forced out of the room for "shopping". We meandered through Kensington Gardens before wandering down Kensington High Street. We found nothing, except for Wagamama. After dinner, we walked home and after discovering that the park was closed, found ourselves walking down Kensington Palace Gardens, which was a fascinating experience at night. It's easy to feel very, very poor while wandering down a street with an average home price in the hundreds of millions.

I've seen most of the major London museums so I really just wanted to pick off a few things I mean to see. The first day, I walked down to the Victoria & Albert Museum. It was fairly interesting and is another London museum in which you could spend several days and still not see everything.

After that I went on a wander. Down through the Chelsea Royal Hospital on my attempt to shortcut through the Ranelagh Gardens, which proved to be a dead end and wasted about 45 minutes of my time. Then down along the Chelsea Embankment, across from the Battersea Power Station, all the way up to the Parliament buildings. It was a really, really long walk, punctuated only by an attempt to take a picture of two dogs humping in front of the Parliament buildings. I caught the tube home, just in time for another shopping walk down to Kensington High Street.

I really had no idea what to do with my second day. I decided that I would wander up along Regent's Canal, through Regent's Park and on to Camden Town. I was following the Eyewitness Travel Guided Walk so there were a few other people leapfrogging the walk with me.

Regent's canal is kind of neat. I like the idea that there is this canal highway through the city. That lead me in to Regent's Park and the ultimate roadside marketing I've ever seen. As you walk towards Primrose Hill you go by the Zoo. They've designed it so that you can see a few of the exhibits as you wander. I snapped this photo of the Giraffes and immediately decided to come back and check things out after lunch.

I wandered off up the hill and then towards Camden for lunch. The first time in London I was staying with the friend of a friend of a friend. He worked in a travel agency on Camden High Street and that was the first thing in London I ever saw. He took me for lunch to a pub that served the greatest breakfast I had ever eaten. I found the pub again, but the pot pie I had convinced me I should have just left it in my memory. I was going to eat at the Engineer, but mains were 18 pounds, so I had to just look.

On to the zoo. The last zoo I went to was probably San Diego when I was maybe 12-13. I struggled mightily with the thought of paying 18 pounds to go to a zoo when there are so many free museums and sights of London. But I'd heard good things so I plunged in.

Don't get me wrong, it was pretty neat to see some of the exhibits, but I wasn't blown away. The giraffes ended up being my favourite and I saw them for free. It's kind of cool that you can get right in to some of the exhibits and hang out with birds, monkeys, sloths, etc. The gibbons were awesome and hauled so much ass around their cage in a display that seemed designed for me. The tigers were kind of sad. One of them had a figure eight path carved into his cage from thousands of hours of bored wandering. The african hunting dogs made me feel like I was in a nature program. The owls stood there and stared at me. The gorillas were locked up for the winter. All very neat, but all a little bit sad.

After the zoo I hopped on a train and headed for East Sussex to meet up with the rest of my crew.

The train ride down was very uneventful and we checked into another surprising hotel, hundreds of years old and recently re-done. I hit my head, no joke, at least 6 times on the door frame into the bathroom.

Dinner was at Andrea's distributors vice presidents house. I felt odd about intruding on somebody elses business dinner, but it didn't seem to be a big deal. We headed for a nice old house off in a sort of suburban countryside. The family was fairly over-powering at first, but after a short little break in period they proved to be more than hospitable guests. It was an enjoyable meal. And then. This is probably one of those things nobody wants to know and that I shouldn't write. But whatever. It was just so unbelievable that I can't even believe it happened, so here goes. I got the worst gas of my life. Honest.

Now, this sounds funny. And in hindsight it kind of is. But imagine sitting in a small little intimate room with a fire roaring in the corner, 6-7 people you don't know including your girlfriends boss, and the whole time your stomach feels like it might explode and all you can do is squeeze your bum cheeks together with all your might, hoping that your pants don't erupt with the loudest, rudest, most vulgar fart ever heard by mankind. Honestly, even with all that effort my stomach was groaning so loudly it sounded like farting. It was so terribly awful and embarrassing. I kept going to the kitchen to get glasses of water, hoping nobody noticed and wondered what the hell was going on. It was awful.

The next day, the same guy that hosted dinner lent me a car so I could go check out an open air museum composed of old, old houses rescued from around the region. It was incredibly nice of him. This wasn't something I would normally do, but everybody had been talking about it all through dinner and the effort to get me a car was huge, so I had to go.

The museum was kind of neat. It really does span centuries. They have a working flour mill. A blacksmith shop. Dozens of old houses from many different eras. Hundreds of retirees milling about as volunteers. It was quite a production. I could really only kill and hour or two though before it got to be a bit boring. The effort that went into this place is staggering. Each house re-constructed brick-by-brick. The displays. The history. Etc. But they're still just old houses.

After that, I wanted to drive down to the coast which wasn't too far away. I headed for the hills and a few kilometers from the museum I came across Goodwood. I've heard of Goodwood, but I had no idea. The lady at the info booth gave me the history, but I can't remember. Something about a palace and it being converted some time ago. Anyhow, it now has a horse racecourse that is so crazily massive. It spans a valley and is impossible to capture with a picture. A little further is the race course and airport, as well as the palace. And then, I came across the Rolls Royce Factory. I had to stop and at least try for a tour.

I went to the factory entrance and they told me there were no tours as they were re-tooling the factory. They said I could write in and make an appointment, but it would take a few months. So I drove over to the head office entrance to see what I could find. You could see some of the production line in the background and cars being assembled. There was also an old lady in a tracksuit, her long-haired in a german sort of way kid and a whole bunch of Rolls Royce guys in fancy-assed suits. I thought they were giving some tourists the bums rush, but then a couple of new Phantoms pulled up and everybody hopped in and drove off, so I guess not. I walked into the office and the guy at the reception desk barely tolerated me looking around. They had a chassis sitting there as well as a few cars. And I left, back to Middlehurst.

From there it was a train back to London and on to the Eurotunnel and Paris. The Eurotunnel wasn't very exciting. We got to Paris quite late and checked in to the last of our surprisingly nice hotels.

The interesting thing about this trip was the sheer number of different locations. It felt like each new place required a different mindset and preparation mentality. Montreal. Lisbon. South Portugal. Lancaster. London. Paris. By the time we reached Paris, it was feeling like too much. Changing your thoughts on currency. How to say "Thank-you". Which way to look when crossing the street. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but it was starting to wear on me a bit and I was ready to stop thinking. This sounds absolutely ridiculous as I sit here writing this a few weeks removed from the trip, but it was true.
The first day in Paris, we rented some Paris-Bixis and headed for the Eiffel Tower. Oh my god. Riding a bike in Paris is scary. I thought I might die. And I ride a lot of bikes. We ditched them fairly quickly and decided foot/subway was a better prospect.
I've always wanted to climb the Eiffel Tower and the long line-up for the elevator made it the thing to do. It didn't take very long and we made it up to the second platform to a sunny and wind free day. It was beautiful and I didn't want to leave. But, we did.
After that, Paris became a blur of wandering, crepes, shopping for boots and over-priced food. And don't take blur the wrong way. It's a blur because there's just so much to see and each street is a new adventure. Highlights: Very Bad Trip playing on the Champs Elysees. The tea place full of men in suits selling you expensive tea. The crepes. Eating at one of only two vegetarian restaurants in Paris and having them ensure me that I had enough time to eat my entree before the next party came in after they served it 45 minutes late or so. 10 dollar Cokes at the Pompidou. 10 dollars each. Shopping for boots. Lots and lots of boots.
Oh. The Montmartre Cemetary deserves it's own heading. Filled with cats. Filled with graves. Filled with redheads. We checked out the Edgar Degas tomb as well as the tomb of the dude who invented the saxaphone. There's some crazy things in that place.
I forgot to mention that Paris is kind of expensive. The Pound exchange was pretty good so London wasn't too bad. But paris was absolutely ridiculous. The best deal going is the crepes. 4 Euros or so gets you a fresh, smokin' hot crepe.

And, the last thing you see when you fly out is the most amazing airplane terminal ever.

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