Posted by: M.J. Bolstad | November 22, 2019

EU Go, Girl! Adventures in Europe: Part # 13

It’s been five weeks, and it feels all too short as my adventuring comes to an end, even though part of me is beginning to be ready to be at home again. Tomorrow morning, I set out for Paris – at least, for the airport – where I will overnight before heading to Canada the next day as far as Toronto, then home on a third day. Getting anywhere from Yellowknife can be a bit of a process!

I’ve tried to squeeze in some more adventuring without overdoing it, though there’s still things I didn’t manage to do in Scotland that I thought I might, such as head to the zoo, check out Aviemore and North Berwick as per suggestions I’d received, or go back to the Scottish National Museum. I will have to make a point of not waiting another 14 years before coming back!

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Christmas Market!

Wednesday, I started my morning with the Edinburgh Christmas market with Peyton and Yvonne, who’d bussed down from Dalkeith to check it out. After a Belgian waffle from one of the vendors, we explored the market, stopping at the booths for some Christmas shopping. I didn’t go on the rides this time round, though I was thinking of trying the giant ferris wheel again. I think it’s a different one than fourteen years ago – I remember the pods being bigger and sort of rounder, and it doesn’t seem as tall. Perhaps that’s just memory though. I was thinking I’d go back and go round once, but there were just so many other things to do!

After the market, we found a nice place to eat lunch, a pub called the Black Rose Tavern. I want to give it a nice shoutout, because this was the first place I’d seen in Europe that made a really, really pointed effort about being accessible. They offer audible as well as braille menus, have notes about service dogs being welcome (and have water bowls for them!) and how they make an effort to try to seat those using service dogs in quiet places, more out of the way places to help avoid bystanders trying to pet them when they are working. They also note their bathroom is narrow and not wheelchair friendly, but have made arrangements for patrons to use a neighbouring place with more. The service and the food was good too!

For the afternoon, I had coffee with another former teacher, which was lovely. Then I made my way back to my hotel long enough to pick up the bottle of Prosecco I had chilling, and I made my way to Dalkeith. At lunch, Yvonne and Peyton had mentioned it was the last game night, and when I said, “That sounds fun, I kind of wish I could go!”, they said anyone was welcome, and urged me to join. So I did! Once in Dalkeith (about 45 minutes by bus), I was able to grab a sandwich and mango for dinner before walking to the campus, which is really Dalkeith Palace. We played a game called Isle of Skye, and it was very fun! I’d have liked to play another round, but instead did the wise thing and bused back since it was getting late. Dalkeith also has some fun history, I think, that I’d like to look into more!

Thursday, I had decided, would be a castle day. I started my morning with a bus to the Craigmillar Castle, a ruin more on the outskirts than the better known Edinburgh Castle. It was really quiet there, only a few other tourists because it was more out of the way, but really fun to explore. Mary, Queen of Scots, had convalesced there, and it may have been a favourite spot to come for hunting, though the history is a little spotty itself there. I liked poking about and would definitely go back again.

After the first castle, I bussed back toward the second castle, making a stop at the nearby Elephant House Café, where J.K. Rowling wrote some of the Harry Potter series, for brunch. I had quiche lorraine with salad and potato salad, and it was very good! Then it was off to Edinburgh castle for more exploring.

More of Edinburgh Castle is preserved than the Craigmillar Castle, and it was neat to wander around, especially since I got the audio guide to learn more of the history. From the room where James the VI of Scotland (and I of England) was born, to the beautiful War Memorial, to St. Margaret’s Chapel, to the Scottish Honours (crown jewels and Stone of Destiny) to the panoramic views of the city, there was so much to see! I saw as much as I could before having to be back for my dinner plans. Plus it was getting a bit chilly, as the wind is a bit piercing that high up! There won’t be any pictures of the Honours or the War Memorial, of course; photographs of those are not allowed.

For dinner, I went to Origano, a lovely Italian place, with my friend Jennie, an editor I’d sort of interned with back in my uni days. It was lovely to catch up (though the visit a bit shortened because I took the bus in the wrong direction – of course I did – and wound up needing a bit of running about to find the meet up point). The food was good, the company even better. The we headed over back to the bookstore near my hotel, because Jennie had worked on the latest issue of The Evergreen, and it happened to be launching at Topping and Company that night! So I got a fun literary evening too, before heading back up to bed.

Today, I crammed in a little more touristing, and a little more personal too. I started by bussing to Marchmont Crescent, just to see the place where I once lived. The Chinese takeaway place my BFF and I loved is still going, as is the paint-your-own pottery place we tried out once. Then I had brunch – late breakfasts and dinners seem to be a travel theme for me – at The Birchwood, a lovely little restaurant that came up on a Google search that was lovely and just down the street.

After brunch, I checked out the Writers’ Museum in Lady Stair’s Close, as small and cute as I remembered, with things like a hat that might have been worn last by Sir Walter Scott or a key like one he’d been given, as well as some other paraphanalia owned by Robert Louis Stevenson and other Scottish writers. Then I made my way to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, a spot I’d wanted to check out, because portraits are my favourite kind of art. I love seeing what people looked like and wore, and learning about historical figures but also just historical people who had their portraits painted. After that, I stopped to do some souvenir shopping on Princes Street and a teeny bit more Christmas shopping before making my way back to the hotel to pack.

My bags are mostly done, and I have a taxi booked for the morning. The trek home starts all too soon. So off I go to bed, to be as ready for the journey as I can.

Posted by: M.J. Bolstad | November 19, 2019

EU Go, Girl! Adventures in Europe: Part # 12

Another few days in Scotland, and though it doesn’t feel like home, I don’t exactly feel like a visitor, either. This is a nice change, as is having all my things in the same hotel for several days on end. I do like to travel to lots of places, but there’s definitely something to be said for not living from a suitcase.

The past few days have been a combination of laid back and eventful in turn. After my Highlands tour on Thursday, I’d made plans to climb Arthur’s Seat with Yvonne and Peyton from my goEUgo redline tour. I puttered about in the morning, then made my way to Holyrood Park to meet them after stopping to buy a Ridacard (electronic bus card with my picture on it and everything) for a week. It was windy and rainy, so we made the call not to climb that day, and instead went for coffee, since the teahouse we’d hoped to go to was full. Peyton and Yvonne indulged me, and we went to the Elephant and Bagels coffee shop where I ate many a bagel while writing in a little corner back in my uni days. I had, alas, just eaten lunch (haggis, neeps and tatties!), so no bagel for me, though I may go back and grab one for old times’ sake in the coming few days.

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Stuffed and on display, Dolly the Sheep, the first successful clone.

After that, we did a bit of wandering around Victoria Street for a bit, so I could look for Christmas present ideas, then we stopped into the Scottish National Museum. We thought we had an hour, but it closed at 5 pm not 5:30 as thought, so not much was explored this time. It was neat to see the fashion exhibit on the first floor, and there is the stuff Dolly the Clone Sheep, which was rather cool to check out in our brief time there. Entrance is free, so the short time didn’t set us back any!

 

After that, we continued with our post-Arthur’s Seat plans: dinner at the Sheep Heid Inn’s pub, one of the oldest if not the oldest continually-operating pub in Scotland. It was a good meal with good company, and I’d very much go back again. The chicken and leek pie I had was amazing, and the three of us also split the sharing dessert platter – five amazing dessert selections. Then it was buses back to our respective stays, with Peyton and Yvonne kindly helping me navigate. I’m doing okay on the public transit so far, but that first day I was nervous and my sense of direction is ALWAYS dicey at best.

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One of the works on display: Dunnator Castle by Walter Hugh Paton

Saturday I didn’t get up to much, either. I’d hit that point where I kind of just wanted to stay in my room all day, but also felt that I was wasting my time if I didn’t go do something. Also, I did have to do something fairly crucial – laundry. The in-house laundry service here is EXPENSIVE. It’s eleven pounds for one dress! Instead, I did a whole load, washed and dried, for about eleven pounds (possibly twelve, I’m not certain how much I spent on the drier in the end). I did have to take a bus to get to the laundromat, as there doesn’t appear to be a lot of them in Edinburgh anyway, but I made it and have clean clothes enough for this last stretch of time. Then, I made my way to National Art Gallery for a while, taking in the art.  The collection is good here, and it’s also free! I love that about the United Kingdom – they make galleries and museums accessible to everyone!

After that, I felt I’d appropriately left my hotel long enough, so went back for the evening. I also wanted to get an early night, because Peyton had let me know she was planning on going on another tour on Sunday, and so I decided to join, and so did Yvonne! So we made our way to Rabbie’s Cafe for our small coach tour with Rabbie’s, the same tour company my parents and I went to Skye with, years ago. It was just as great. Only 7 of us on this small group tour, and our guide Dave was funny and engaging. He also made the most of the daylight hours, taking us to a few scenic stops on our way to Jedburgh, where I went in the ruins of the old Abbey. The entrance fee came with an audio guide, and it was neat to learn about the history of the place. After that, it was off to the Borders.

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It’s me! In England! By a big rock that says England, because I’m in England!

For some reason, I had in my mind that a Borders tour would be one “border” of Scotland on the seaside, so was ecstatic to realize we were going to cross over the Scottish border into England. I’d never been into England! And now I have! We went to the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, then on to Vindolanda, the ruins of an ancient Roman fortress. It’s being excavated on an ongoing basis, in part because of the Vindolanda Letters being found there. These are the ancient remains of old letters on wood, showing regular, every day life in the area.

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Lanercost Priory, lit by sunset

After Vindolanda, we had just enough daylight time for one more stop, the Lanercost Priory, and old haunt of James the Second of England, also known as The Hammer of Scotland. Only part of the church has remained in use over the years, so it is partly preserved historic building, but also partial ruin. Very interesting dichotomy!

From there, it was time to make our way back to Edinburgh, through a long, beautiful sunset. Yvonne and Peyton made their way back to their campus for game night (their professor designs board games and the students get to test them out, how cool is that!) and I went back to crawl into bed, because the weather was looking like it might be nice the next day, and I had PLANS.

Those plans? To finally climb Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano described by Robert Louis Stevenson as “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design”. You can drive up part of the way, but I did the hike from the bottom up, all the way to the peak. It was hard, especially since I am not in the greatest shape and, sunny or not, it was a bit frosty out and therefore slippery at times on uneven ground (and the last bit is steep!). But I made it! I pushed myself all the way up to the very summit, and with rewarded with panoramic views of the city and beyond.

After that, I made my way back down via a bit easier route because I thought it would take me closer to my bus stop (spoiler alert! as ever, my sense of direction is terrible and it did NOT). I made it, however, in more than enough time to head to the One Spa, where I’d booked the Escape. There are no pictures allowed, of course; no one wants to be subject to strangers taking photos of them in their swimsuits. It was the perfect escape after my hike, however, with a lovely pool that swims out to the outside, plus various things to try out in the thermal suite, from saunas to those thermal chairs I liked on my cruises and more. It’s not cheap at 75 pounds, certainly, but there’s no real time limit. I stayed the recommended three hours and no longer, but mostly because I hadn’t eaten lunch and needed to get food in my tummy more than I needed to stay in the glorious rooms. I would certainly do it again; a nice treat once a trip.

As for today, it was mostly personal things. I met an old tutor for brunch, then made my way to see another local friend at the bookshop I used to haunt/got some work experience with the owner/freelance editor (said friend). After that, I did some more shopping – Dad, your present is covered, but that’s all I’m saying! – then back to the hotel. Tomorrow will be more of the same, more or less – though I do plan to do some of the shopping at the Christmas Market, which I’m excited to do! Also, learned today that whoever I called at the front desk the other evening was mistaken – Crowne Plaza DOES do in room service whether their restaurant is open or not, which means I got to do pyjama dinner tonight. Very pleased (and not just because I bought my own wine this time).

 

Posted by: M.J. Bolstad | November 15, 2019

EU Go, Girl! Adventures in Europe: Part # 11

Another wonderful day in Scotland yesterday. I hadn’t forgotten how much I liked it here, but certainly experiencing it again is something else altogether. I’m already feeling a bit like I won’t be able to squeeze everything I want to in to my trip! But I have days to go, and will do what I can, and if I have to come back again … well, that’s hardly a chore, is it?

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A hairy coo, for which the tour company was named.

Yesterday, I took a tour of the Highlands with The Hairy Coo, which I found while googling different tour options. The company wants to make sure everyone who wants to can experience the Highlands, so offers a tips-based tour. I think making travel accessible is marvellous, and the trip itself was wonderful. Our tour guide, Brian (or Brizo, to be distinguished from the other Brian who works for the tour with the same initials!) was great; tours are always better when your guide is a storyteller, and ours certainly was one. He was funny and knowledgable, sharing great stories not only of a historical nature but with a good blend of the modern as well. Also, his music playlist for when he wasn’t regaling us was great too!

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With William Wallace’s sword, which is taller than I am! (I’m 5’3 on a good day.)

But on to the tour: we started our tour to the bridges over the Forth, with a nice stop that was long enough not only for me to take some nice snaps of the morning light, but also to pick up some breakfast, a good latte and a scone with whipped cream (no clotted cream, alas) and jam. Then it was on to the William Wallace Monument. It’s a bit of a climb up to the monument itself, seated at the top of a hill. Then it’s a bit more of a climb if you want to go up the monument: 246 steps up a narrow spiral staircase to the top of the tower. I’m not in great shape even without the lingering cold (though it does improve), nor am I a narrow person, but I climbed Macchu Pichu and up the final leg of the Rainbow Mountain, so I was not backing down from this personal challenge. There were some semi-dicey moments passing people coming down when I was going up – I ducked into window ledges twice on the lower stairs quite comically, but crawling past the nursery school kids on the skinniest bit of stair was another story – but I made it. The views are spectacular and worth every step up plus the somewhat scary trek back down (it’s steep and twisty!), and then some again.

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Doune

After the monument, it was off to Doune, which means Castle, so when called Castle Doune gave me “Moon Moon” meme thoughts. It’s also the castle where they filmed a few  different things you might be familiar with: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Outlander, and Game of Thrones. That’s right. Doune is also a film set for Game of Thrones; Winterfell, in fact. This was very exciting to me, and I’ll admit I got “Queen in the North! Queen in the North!” on a loop in my head for a bit. The castle was fun to explore, as were the grounds around it, as I had time to walk down to the river behind it. The fall foliage was lovely, especially in the light we managed to have all day yesterday.

 

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A museum of the macabre

From Doune, we stopped in a lovely town called Callander. At the guide’s suggestion, I did a takeaway lunch so I could explore a bit. I had a bridie from a bakery, then wandered the little shops, from an artist’s collective to a craft store, to an antiquities store with a little museum of the macabre in the back that costs only a pound to visit. I went in, of course! There are the death masks of Burke and Hare, a bog head, some voodoo artifacts, different sets of animal bones and more… very interesting collection for sure!

From Callandar, we made some scenic stops along the way, seeing the lochs (river or stream fed) and the one lake in Scotland (no or outflow, so not a loch), including Loch Katrine of Rob Roy fame, the bens (mountains), the beauty in general. Also, Brian bought us a big bag of carrots in Callander, so we got to stop and feed hairy coos, which was awesome. Then, as the sun set and the sky began to darken, we made our way to the Kelpies, large horse head statues that are lit up beautifully at night.

It was an incredible, beautiful and fun day, and I would definitely recommend this tour, and The Hair Coo as a tour company.

Posted by: M.J. Bolstad | November 13, 2019

EU Go, Girl! Adventures in Europe: Part # 10

My time in Paris has come to an end, but my adventure in Europe continues, as I have now made my way to Edinburgh. I spent my last couple of days in Paris doing things a little more “low key” than the previous days. I slept in – the Ibis hotel, though a budget hotel, really was one of the most comfortable and quiet places I stayed this trip – then wandered to the Musée de L’Orangerie, as I had been told I should check out Monet’s Nymphes (Waterlilies) that are exhibited there.

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One of Monet’s Nymphes (Waterlilies) murals.

They were really quite lovely, and I think what I like about them is that they really aren’t about the waterlilies or the garden so much as they are about the transient properties of light. At least, that is what I like to think. They are also huge and hard to capture on camera, given they are curved murals. Very interesting.

The other part of the museum that was open was the temporary exhibit of Felix Fénéon’s collection of art (the rest of the permanent collection area undergoing renovations), which was also interesting. It gave a critic and writer’s perspective, and the works were post-impressionist plus some works by Indigenous African artists.

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A bird in the hand.

After the museum, I went back to the nearby Jardin des Tuilleries, as I had some bread from the previous day’s dinner in my purse, and wanted to see if the birds would come to me as well. They did, and it was such a joyful experience that, for my last day in Paris, I went back and did the same altogether. I brought way more bread that time, though I was worried for a bit it would be for nought as the sky decided to empty rain on us. I ducked under one of the little canopies nearby, with others caught in the deluge. Thanks to a handy set of napkins I’d shoved in my purse, I dried off one of the metal chairs and read for about a half hour, until the rain subsided. And then, the birds feasted, and I got to feel amazing and magic.

After that, it was back to the hotel, where I waited for my Super Shuttle. Sage told me about the service, a shared ride that picks you up at your hotel and takes you to the airport directly. It’s more expensive than the train, but cheaper than a taxi, and it meant I didn’t have to try to haul my luggage up and down several flights of stairs while trying to beware of potential pickpockets. Very worth it on so many levels, and it was super convenient.

After that, it was an Air France flight to Edinburgh, with a 10:30 at night arrival, and then a cab to my hotel, where we pulled up while a fire alarm was going off and the place evacuated. It was a false alarm, so I’m happy to laugh at having to wait until the firemen gave the all clear to check in!

Today has been a bit of a rest day, too. I was torn between holing up and watching Netflix  and reading all day, or getting out. I decided to do a bit of both, and ventured down to Princes’ Street and the Royal Mile. It’s been 14 years since I was last here, if not more, but I did feel the stirrings of familiarity in some locations and, for the rest, there’s Google maps. In addition to a lovely lunch at Bella Italia, I met a gorgeous owl and a lovely little falcon on the Royal Mile, ad I got to hold Hazel the Owl and have my picture taken.

I also walked up toward the castle, saw the hostel where my BFF and I first stayed when we arrived in September 2005, and rubbed the toe of the David Hume statue even though I’m not a student anymore. Then I eventually made my way up toward the hotel (the wonder Crowne Plaza Edinburgh Royal Terrace!) passing Calton Hill (I’ll have to get pictures when it isn’t so close to evening and the light is better), made a wrong turn when my free wifi dropped and ended up walking up the hill a second time to find my way, then had dinner. A good day, for sure.

Posted by: M.J. Bolstad | November 10, 2019

EU Go, Girl! Adventures in Europe: Part # 9

I am back in Paris for a few more days, and so have been continuing my touristic ventures. My first stop yesterday? Another laundromat. Ooh, la la! Very exciting! Well, perhaps not exciting, but certainly lovely to have fresh clean clothes to put on, especially my sweater, since I only brought the one and had been wearing it over mostly everything.

After my laundry was taken care of, I jumped on the metro to head to to l’Aquarium de Paris. My tourist browsing lead to targeted ads on Facebook, which is how I learned Paris has an aquarium, and since I love aquariums, I absolutely had to make my way there. I was joined by my friend Sage; she was a summer student in our shop last year, coming up from Ottawa for a four month stint in the region as part of her university coop opportunity. She’s now working on contract here in Paris, so I had a lovely buddy to hang out with over the last two days.

The aquarium is pretty great, and even though it was a chilly Saturday, it wasn’t too busy, which was so nice! I love aquariums, and so does Sage, so it was a really brilliant time. We even spent a good half hour watching the shark tank! After that, we had an early dinner near the aquarium at a place called Le Wilson, where we chose to have another of those course selection menus. Sage had a yummy mozzarella and tomato salad as her started, while I opted for the French onion soup. She had roast beef for her main, while I went with the roast chicken. For dessert, she had creme caramel and I went with my beloved creme brûlée. The platter menus are such a good idea and good value!

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A taste of the Rouen aesthetic. 

After that, it was home for an early night, because Sage and I were meeting up again today bright and early, to catch a train for a day trip to Rouen. It’s a charming little village with a sort of French medieval aesthetic, and is probably best known for being where Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) was imprisoned and then burnt at the stake. Our train left shortly after 7:30, so I hopped on the metro and made my way there fairly handily. I do like the transit here in Paris.

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The Donjon (dungeon) tower in Rouen.

The train takes about two hours to get to Rouen. As it was Sunday, many of the shops were closed, but we still found so much to do, and possibly since it was Sunday, much of it for free as well. This included our first stop at the Donjon (dungeon) – not, in fact, where Joan of Arc was imprisoned, though she was brought into the tower and threatened there before being kept elsewhere.

The spiral steps are a menace, but it was very interesting. There are examples of weaponry and clothing, as well as just some information about historical players of the time, such as “Charles the Mad”. They do escape rooms there, too, which might be fun for a group of 3 to 6 people who want to drop 105 euros on that kind of puzzle.

 

After the Donjon, we made our way to the market (stopping to get some macarons and “larmes de Jeanne d’Arc”, which are not tears but chocolate covered almonds) for later since a little shop was open only until noon. We checked out the produce and listened to the French singer for a bit, before finding the Joan of Arc church, which unfortunately did not appear to be open to the public today.

After that, we found a place for lunch called La Terrase where we got to do another platter selection, though Sage and I opted to just have a starter and main, and skip dessert, since we had macarons and chocolate almonds and also chocolates I bought in Belgium for later. Sage had a lovely prosciutto and butternut squash dish while I decided to give the oysters a go, and then she had a burger while I went with a magnificent duck in orange sauce. It was all very good, and I would definitely go back. The jazzy vibe of the place was nice, too.

After lunch, we made our way to a cathedral, another Notre Dame, this time of Rouen. I seem to be collecting Notre Dames this trip! It’s certainly very stunning, from the detailed intricacies of the outside, which must have been even more stunning before time weathered some of the precision away, to the stained glass and artistry of the interior.

We were going to go into the Musee des Beaux Arts next, but there was a little museum of iron works next door, and it was free, so we decided to check it out. It was very cool! It’s apparently “unique au monde” (the only one in the world), according to one of the staff – a little museum dedicated to work done in iron, from keys to art to tools and more, some dating as early as the first century! It was extremely interesting and definitely worth stopping in to check out.

We then moved to the Musee des Beaux Arts, and wouldn’t you know it, there was no cost to view the permanent collection today either. It was such a pleasant surprise, all the free things we got to explore today! The collection was also interesting, full of artists I hadn’t heard of but certainly talented, if not the “masters”, dating from the 1500s onward into the final collection floor of impressionists’ work, where I did know some of the artists, as Renoir, Monet, and Pisarro are featured there. There was even one of Monet’s earlier works, done before he began to work in the impressionist style for which he is well known. The Musee is also a LOT bigger than it looks where you start out, and it was a great way to while away the rest of this chilly afternoon in Rouen. I also especially liked a little room dedicated to Joan of Arc works – very appropriate for Rouen, I think!

We had hoped to stop at a coffee shop on the way to the train station, but it too was closed. We managed to find a machine that made coffee; not as nice, certainly, but it would do nicely. So Sage and I had hot drinks to go with our macarons (which we split so we could try four kinds) and our chocolate covered almost and my Belgian chocolate. It was a lovely end to a perfectly charming day, and I’m so glad I went and had such a lovely travel companion to join me!

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Travel is extra fun with a friend, especially once as nice and fun as Sage!

Posted by: M.J. Bolstad | November 9, 2019

EU Go, Girl! Adventures in Europe: Interlude

Well, the whirlwind part of my adventure has come to a close, though my trip is not over yet. That is, the goEUgo tour part has ended, fourteen days packed with the highlights of Europe. I’ve been thinking about the tour a lot – it has its drawbacks, but also it’s advantages, and before I go into my last couple of days, I thought I’d point out a few.

The drawbacks are not anything terrible; like the cruise, however, the time in a specific point is set and there’s not the same kind of freedom on a group tour as I would have on my own, to wander off and visit museums or things that drew my fancy. There were also costs that were not well highlighted on the booking service I used – some of the ‘optional’ costs, such as guided walking tours through Italy (where you have to have an Italian guide) were not really options other than staying on the bus and missing the sights altogether. And, as with any non-flying tour, the time on the road can also be a drawback.

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Every post needs a picture – here’s once from the beach in Nice, which is very nice indeed.

However, as someone looking to get an idea of new parts to explore late, I think this kind of tour is actually quite useful. I saw highlights of cities and now have a better idea of where I might like to go in future, on my own, and where I’m okay missing next time I visit Europe. As far as cost goes, I think goEUgo is fairly economical even factoring in the unanticipated costs, particularly if you are traveling as part of a pair (solo travel is always more expensive). In addition, our guides and bus drivers were all very competent. I’d like to give a special shout out to Tim, our tour guide for the green line and part of the red line, and our driver, Marielle, who were both friendly and engaged throughout. Marielle should also definitely win the prize for best driver – she was a card, and I thoroughly enjoyed being on her bus.

If I were going to do anything differently next time, now that I know of goEugo and can book directly (instead of through Viator), I would choose how to use the service differently. It’s a 365, hop on, hop off with intersecting lines that travel in a lot of places through Europe. I did 14 days straight, but I think next time I’d break the journey up a little, to have some down time in between the intensity of the schedule. It wasn’t awful or anything; I’m just used to having more “me” time, and being sick and not sleeping well hasn’t helped.

I’ve met some incredible people on the tour, however, some who I hope to keep in touch with down the road, and honestly everyone was really nice on the bus. I don’t think I’ve ever had as many people hand me cough drops in my life as I have had in the past several days!

In any case, I think I shall move on to the next section. Long story short? I’d definitely do it again, albeit maybe schedule things a little differently. And you know. Try not to catch the cold of death before I even head on vacation.

Posted by: M.J. Bolstad | November 8, 2019

EU Go, Girl! Adventures in Europe: Part # 8

Back in Paris, in my budget hotel, and thinking that this is a nicer budget hotel than my last budget hotel. I’m in an Ibis, and though like all other places I’ve stayed in Paris, the room is small, I think this one is slightly bigger – or at least better laid out – than at the other hotel I booked, and though it is a little more out of the way, I’m still rather pleased with my choice on booking.com. The Ibis Place d’Italie Butte aux Cailles has a comfy bed, a clean room, and feels nice in general. Now if only my cold will let me get some decent sleep, because this room is certainly appointed for it!

The past three days have been two hectic days of sight-seeing, followed by one quieter day just bussing back to Paris. The first day started early in Rome, with an excellent city guide, Vito. We went to the colosseum, but only to the outside, which was fine by me – I’ve already been inside, and the outside is the most interesting part. Vito talked about how the colloseum would have looked like back in the day, and how it worked, and then it was on to more sights, such as through the Pantheon, the church we’d seen in Angels and Demons, and the Castle of the Angels as well.  We also stopped by the Trevi fountain, which I love. I threw another coin in, hoping to lead me back again. And then I ate delicious gelato.

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Trevi fountain

From there, we walked toward the Vatican, where we had lunch nearby. I had another plain margarita pizza at a cafe, since I was feeling like something plain, but had learned from Vito that the pizza had been made for the queen Margarita back in the day, because she loved cheese. Pizza had had only tomato on bread, but a cook added cheese because she loved it, and basil, so between the red, green, and white, it is like the Italian flag. Also, I do love a good margarita pizza.

After lunch, we toured through the Vatican museum, then into the Sistine Chapel. You can’t take pictures, because it is a chapel they want to respect, but I truly gained a new appreciation for it. There were pieces, earlier in the museum, that looked like they were carved into the marble when really they were painted, the 3D look an amazing bit of genius, and for the first time I saw that in the chapel, how the painting, when looked at from the right places looms away from the wall, as though statues and not flat paint. I’ve never been able to see those 3D images in those old pictures that were trendy in the 90s, but I saw it here, as though my eyes were finally able to shift from their stringent focus.

After that, it was into St. Peter’s Basilica. I looked for a place to light a candle for my Nana, but there wasn’t one. I didn’t miss it – I asked one of the staff members. They don’t do that in St. Peter’s. Then it was on to Arezzo for the night, and we were all glad – we walked about 12 kilometres!

 

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A perfect copy of Michaelangelo’s David.

The next day was more Italy. Florence was lovely, though rainy. My shoes soaked through (I’d brought a spare pair to throw away for Venice in case they got wet and uncomfortable there, as an alternate to heavy boots) but it was nice nonetheless. We saw some historical highlights, like the copy of the statue of David and other originals in an outdoors sort of museum, went to a leather factory, then had a Florentine menu with an enormous 2 kg steak (shared by four people, but still a massive amount of meat!). We also went to see the Leaning Tower in Pisa after that, where I did not spent 18 euros to go in and walk up seven flights of stairs, but I did watch about 7 hundred tourists take the “pushing the tower” selfie.

 

 

 

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A view of Monaco.

Overnight we were near Genoa, then into France the next day. Our Monaco stop was unfortunately a no-go; the roads that could support our bus were all closed, with only the roads open to vehicles at 7.5 tonnes open for access into the country. Disappointing, but no one’s fault, and certainly not going was better than collapsing a road.

 

 

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My sea glass finds!

 

Instead, we spend a little extra time at the Fragonard Perfume factory, where I learned more about perfume and may have made a couple of purchases. Then we went to Nice, where I had a nice lunch, before spending some time on the beach, listening to the waves and then combing through the rocks when I realized there were bits of sea glass in it.

 

After Nice, it was on to Cannes, where we made a red carpet stop. It was raining in Cannes, so I was glad of the relatively short stop (about 45 minutes to an hour, I cannot remember). I got my silly red carpet photo, checked out the handprints of the movies stars, and walked along the harbour to look at rich people’s yachts. Then it was onto the bus, and to the hotel for the night.

 

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I wasn’t really red carpet ready – see hiking boots in place of Jimmy Choo shoes. 

As today was all bus, stopping only at the gas stations to use the bathrooms and get some food (gas station food in Europe is pretty nice, actually). I napped a little and watched the movies Tim put on for us. Then it was off the bus, saying our goodbyes, and on to my hotel for the next few nights.

I’m looking forward to doing laundry tomorrow, believe it or not. Several days on the move has meant I’m nearly out of clean clothes, but that will not be an issue after tomorrow! Not sure what tomorrow afternoon will bring, but I am thinking I might go to the aquarium, since I just learned Paris has one, and I love aquariums!

Posted by: M.J. Bolstad | November 4, 2019

EU Go, Girl! Adventures in Europe #7

I was going to do the blog thing last night, but the internet was painfully slow and so I gave up and went to bed early instead. Probably for the best, with this cold. The more sleep segments I can fit in, the better.

After we left Paris, it was on to Lucerne, a city on a lovely lake in Switzerland. The sun was already mostly set by the time we arrived, so I only have nighttime pictures – and night time experience – there. I drifted down to the wooden bridge, over 600 years old, and walked across it. A choir was singing on it – not a performance, but perhaps they are touring and decided to sing together. Another little bit of magic for me! I wandered around a bit during my free time, mostly around the lake area. I did stop in the souvenir store, but since they didn’t sell stamps and I like to mail from the country they are from, I didn’t end up buying them. Instead, I went back to the lakeside to enjoy a quiet pace and take pictures of the ducks and swans. I even got a little closer than I thought I might. These swans seemed fairly chill, but you never know with them. I did keep the little wooden pillar (I think used to tie boats at high water) between me and them at all times.

We overnighted in Switzerland, at a Holiday Inn, I think. Things are starting to blur together. Then in the morning, it was on to Milan.  It rained and rained in Milan, which did put a little bit of a damper on some of my wandering. I caved and bought a cheap umbrella, which doesn’t quite stay long because that’s what happens when you buy a 5 euro umbrella off the street. It does the trick in a pinch, though, so I’ll keep it for the trip, I think. I ate pizza in a little restaurant in the mall in an Arch de Triomphe in Milan, writing my postcards and sending them onward (about twice as expensive for stamps in Milan as anywhere else), then wandered around the cathedral. I didn’t have time to get a ticket to go in, but the outside is pretty spectacular on its own.

After Milan, the bus went onward to Venice. I wish I could tell you about the scenery, but I pretty much have been napping through it all. We overnighted on the mainland, at the Albatros Hotel. It was… okay, I guess. The bed was small and the mattress should probably be replaced soon, and I’m seriously choked that none of the hotels here seem to have a room kettle – not since the Netherlands – but it was serviceable.

Venice was today, and though it started cloudy, it ended up being brilliant and sunny. In Italy, you have to have an Italian city guide, so we had another tour guide today, not from our tour company. Lisa led us to our boat, to go over to the main island. She took us to watch a glass blowing maestro demonstration and to see the San Marco square with the gorgeous cathedral, then we rode gondolas before having lunch. I had the black spaghetti – cooked in cuttlefish ink! – for my first course. I liked it – simple flavour, but the colour is novel! The second course was salad with calamari and some sort of prawns. Seafood is not my favourite, but it was fine. The tiramisu for dessert was lovely, but I still had gelato on the way back, because why not?

After a little more window shopping (which is fun, because between the blown glass and the masquerade masks, the windows are awesome), it was time to go back to mainland. It was another 6 hours to Rome, so I napped almost immediately (this cold is draining!) then Tim (our GoEuGo guide, in case I hadn’t mentioned that before) put on Angels and Demons, since it features a lot of the sights we’ll see tomorrow. I’d read the book but it makes a much better movie – I thoroughly enjoyed. Now I’m off to bed to hopefully have enough reserves to make it through the walking tour tomorrow.

Posted by: M.J. Bolstad | November 1, 2019

EU Go, Girl! Adventures in Europe #6

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L’Arche de Triomphe

The whirlwind of activity has continued, this time over two days of sightseeing in Paris. Though I’ve been before, it was nice to have several stops focused on historic highlights. The problem is, perhaps, that Paris has so many of them!

We started yesterday with a stop at Napoleon’s Arche de Triomphe (there are others, but his is the most famous), which dad and I had driven by 14 years ago but not actually stopped to see. There is a tunnel leading to it, so no one has to navigate their way through the insanity of a French traffic circle/roundabout with many lanes and none of them marked. Very smart to do for sure! Then it was the obelisk and nearby fountains for pictures, before stopping for lunch and free time near the Eiffel tower. Though I would like to go up one day, I’ll have to inclined to queue for several hours first. Still, she is lovely from the ground up.

After lunch, it was a tour of Versailles, which is beautiful and yet so ostentatious. It’s incredible, but it certainly did nothing for the poor but make them poorer. I can certainly see how that kind of living would lead to a revolution, and it couldn’t help but resonate with the tongue-in-cheek “Eat the rich!” slogan I’ve seen on the internet in these days where a handful of people own 99% of the world’s wealth.

Cathy, Jhoy, Yvonne, Payton and I stuck together for dinner at a cafe where we ate happy hour appetizers, two orders were forgotten, and it took a lifetime to flag down the bill. Then it was off to do a Paris by night tour. Yes, I did stay up past my bedtime – and perhaps past when it was smart for someone attempting to cough up her lungs on the regular – but it was so worth it. I could have done without the “last ten minutes of Princess Diana’s life” part (a bit tacky, I think, but haven’t quite the courage to say), but the rest was glorious. The tower at Montparnasse, with the city panorama, was one highlight, but the light show at the Eiffel Tower from Trocadero was amazing. Pictures don’t do it justice, as the sparkling lights flicking rapidly like it’s a sparkler.

It was back to the hotel after that, at about 11:30 by that time. I did not get to sleep in, however; this morning was likely my only chance to do laundry, so I got up at six to be dressed and ready to trek to the laundromat for its’ seven o’clock opening. It was extra fingers crossed, as All Saints Day is a holiday here, and the short walk felt long in the semi-pouring rain. It seems the door unlocks automatically, though, and even though I stood in the rain a few minutes longer than I had to before figuring out the door was open (and a push, not pull), I will have clean clothes for the next segment of my adventure.

Today was a little slower, which was good. The rain had lightened up for the canal cruise, so I stayed on the open top to try to get better pictures. My coat is warm, but not waterproof, but since it is wool, it help up just fine, as did I. I wanted to get a picture of Statue of Liberty so held out to the end… only to have the boat turn around before we got more than a distance glimpse of her.

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Mona Lisa, or La Jaconde, at the Louvre. I love this painting.

After that, it was the Louvre. It is as impressive as I remember, and I’d like to spend more time there, but I was also glad to leave. It’s much busier than the Musee D’Orsay, which makes it louder and crowded. Also, I got a little lost twice inside and then went out the wrong exit on the way out. I was a little late for meeting up with my group, which I feel badly about, but thankfully the man selling chestnuts helpfully pointed me in the right direction and I managed to be close to on time.

After that, it was free time near the Galleries de Lafayette for shopping. I helped Payton and Jhoy with some spice purchasing (translating the little signs so they could make decisions), but the five of us were pretty toured out by that point, so we found a cafe and had desserts and/or wine instead of shopping. We took pictures of the Opera House while it was still light, but then made our way back to the bus where we said goodbye. I’m the only one of us continuing on to another line. We’ll be keeping in touch, though. And of course, Yvonne and Payton are going to climb Arthur’s Seat with me when I’m in Edinburgh.

I’m now back in my hotel room for the night, getting ready to head to bed. It’s an earlier call tomorrow, as I’m off to Switzerland, then Italy, then Monaco before looping back to Paris next week. I foresee some bus naps for me tomorrow!

 

 

 

Posted by: M.J. Bolstad | October 30, 2019

EU Go, Girl! Adventures in Europe #5

Well, despite this lingering cold doing it’s best to end me, I’m having a marvellous time on my European adventure. This includes eating far too many sweets and being less cautious with my budget than originally conceived (but still well within my means). This is a trip of a lifetime, and I plan to treat it as such.

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Seaside view from Hotel Spaander

Yesterday, we started our day at the Hotel Spaander in Volendam, and it is incredibly charming, from it’s decor to its position nestled on the seaside. Paintings and knick-knacks and carvings and sconces adorn the place, and I absolutely loved it. I would like to come back and visit again, and spend longer near the hotel, in future. But group tours are for adventure, so adventure we did. Next it was off to Zaanse Schans, a lovely little stop with windmills and animals, plus clog-making demonstrations and cheese sampling. I tried so many kinds of cheeses and sauces and mustards to put on them, and there wasn’t a bad one among them. I was tempted to buy a pair of clogs, but my suitcase is already heavy enough, so opted for a few small dips for on cheese to share with my BFF when I’m home.

After Zaanse Schans, it was off to Amsterdam, through a diamond museum then off to where I took a canal tour which was delightful and full of historic information about what we were seeing. There was lots of free time after that, so Cathy, Jhoy and I went wandering, joined by Payton and Yvonne, two students from the States who are doing four months of studies at my alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. We wandered the central market area for a while, before finding a nice little sushi place for dinner, tucked away down an ally. There was still quite a bit of time after dinner to explore, but I opted not to join Cathy and Payton in ducking down to check out the red light district just to say I had seen it. Instead, Jhoy, Yvonne and I made our way back to the meeting spot for the bus where we had tea instead. I was probably better served for it, anyway; the ginger lemon I picked helped soothe my poor sore throat and tame at least a little of my coughing.

We went back to Zaanse Schans for another night, and I was very sad to leave in the morning, even though the kitchen wasn’t quite prepared to deal with as many groups leaving at once. Our bus was supposed to leave as early as 7:30 a.m., to try to miss traffic and a strike with blockades, but we weren’t able to leave until 8:00 a.m. for food having run out at breakfast twice before the queue was even close to being ended.

Still, we got out fairly well, though traffic in general slowed us down. Getting into Paris tonight was especially nuts, and I am very glad I went the route of taking the train to get in when I arrived. For all I had to haul my suitcase up and down all those stairs, it certain was much easier than the crawl we experienced tonight!

Before Paris, however, was Belgium. A short stop in the country, and certainly enough to know I also want to come back to do more exploring. We stopped at the Atomium first, a statue from the Expo many years back. Then it was into the city. From the market place with so many chocolate shops and the Tintin museum I only had time to peek into, Brussels is also charming. I didn’t manage to have a waffle in full as I only had time for that or a pharmacy run, and the need to try something to help my cold was more pressing. Yvonne and Payton kindly shared a piece of their waffle with me, so I can say I got to at least try one!

Though Paris is only 300 km from Brussels, give or take, the drive back was quite long, because of the aforementioned traffic issues. We left at 3 p.m. and arrived at the hotel at 8:00 p.m., with only one half hour break for the driver. The hotel we are staying at, Hotel Reseda, is conveniently next to a mall, which allowed me to grab a relatively inexpensive dinner at the supermarket to eat in my room. I was going to drink my cherry beer from Belgium with dinner, but that will have to wait; I’m going to need something to open the bottle, as it isn’t a twist off!

Tomorrow is mostly within Paris, so we have a bit later start, and I’m hopeful that the sleep I’m planning on doing shortly, combined with the cough syrup that doesn’t clash with my medication that the helpful pharmacist in Brussels helped me find, will move my cold recovery further along. And if not, I’m still planning on touring to my heart’s delight.

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