Other than Belgium, which I wrote about earlier, I visited the UK and France. I traveled via train, including taking the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel. In Brussels, I got stuck in the long customs line for getting into Britain without an EU passport. I think I was there for a half an hour, and all I could think was that this is going to be horrible after Brexit. The British customs official was very friendly and asked me where I was visiting. I told him Cardiff, Edinburgh, Alton - and he interrupts me with, "Alton, Hampshire? Why in the world would you want to go there?"
But that was indeed my first stop, to visit the Jane Austen House in nearby Chawton. Alton itself is a charming little village and the site of a battle in the English Civil War. Which of course is called simply "the Civil War" in England and confused the hell out of me when I first heard it called that. Stupid American. Anyway, I wish I had had more time to wander around Alton, but I had only budgeted a day there for the Jane Austen House and Chawton House. I did enjoy both of them immensely. Chawton House is now a museum for female authors from the 16th through the 19th centuries, which was fascinating. It also still contains all of the grounds from when Jane Austen's brother, Edward Austen Knight, owned the place, so walking around really felt like living back in the Regency.
The next stop was Cardiff, which I enjoyed but will probably not return to. I think the problem is that Cardiff itself is not interesting. Sure, there's some DW stuff to visit - I did walk past the BBC Cymru studios and visit Ianto's Shrine - but otherwise it's not particularly historically significant. Everyone I talked to basically said, "Well, yes, (this place in Cardiff) is interesting, but (this other place somewhere else in Wales) is much better." Thus, I ended up going to Caerphilly to see the castle there, rather than visiting Cardiff Castle. (Which was great, by the way. I definitely recommend Caerphilly.) I did make a point of attending an opera by the Welsh National Opera in the Millennium Centre. I saw "La Traviata", and despite the story being pretty hokey (a lady near me as we were exiting said, in a gorgeous English accent, "Now that was really rather corny, wasn't it?"), the music was beautiful and the performances fantastic.
The one thing I really enjoyed in Cardiff was St. Fagan's Museum, which is a historical museum just outside Cardiff where they preserve Welsh history by bringing significant buildings brick-by-brick from the original sites and rebuild them in the museum. The place was fascinating and I spent the entire day there exploring historical Wales. I also happened upon a little square there that I immediately recognized as the place where John Smith threw the cricket ball to prevent the baby from being smashed by the piano.
The other thing I did at this time was fly up to the Isle of Anglesey and do a private tour with Boutique Tours. This was the single best thing I did the entire holiday and would recommend it to everyone. Basically, Boutique Tours is one guy, John Hadley, who's been in the tour business for forty years and now runs his own company. You sign up for a tour and he tailors it to your interests - for example, if you want to spend four days exploring all of the castles of North Wales, he'll arrange it all for you and drive you everywhere, telling you all about the history and geography all the way. I only had a day with him, and it was curtailed by delayed flights into Anglesey and heavy rain, and he adjusted everything on the fly to maximize what he could show me and get me back to the airport in time for my flight. Whenever I return to the UK, I will tour North Wales and will do it with John.
After Cardiff, my sister joined me up in Edinburgh, and we hung out there, in York, and in London. My sister has a very different holiday style than I do. I like to see all kinds of things and run around finding them all. She prefers seeing maybe one thing a day and doing it at a leisurely pace. For example, the one thing she really wanted to do was Harrod's, and we spent the entire day there - shopping and looking around for part of it but also two hours having tea at the tea room. She loves sitting in restaurants or in the hotel room just picking at a tray of meats of cheeses and chatting. It was very different for me and I had a great time with her, but I am sure that I would have been much more antsy if I hadn't already been to Edinburgh, York, and the things in London that we saw when I'd been to Europe back in 2014. As it was, I felt no pressure to run this time, so I just sat back and enjoyed.
The one thing we did do that was new was take a day trip to Paris. I can't say that I was particularly impressed with the city - it was too crowded and noisy and full of traffic. There was none of that romantic charm that we tend to see in movies about Paris. We visited Notre Dame because I insisted (I love cathedrals) and the Louvre because I wanted to see it and thought my sister would want to as well. It turns out that despite her being the person who got me interested in art history in the first place, she doesn't really care about art except for the Impressionists, so she was pretty bored there. However, she very gamely followed me about as I went searching for my favorites (I love Flemish and Dutch Renaissance art). She would have much preferred the Musee d'Orsay, so I hope we'll get to do that next time.
After London, she went home and I spent the last two days of my holiday in Essex, specifically Colchester and Tiptree, with bas_math_girl, and this was just a lovely way to end the holiday. BMG and her family were wonderful, so fun to hang out with (we sat and drank tea and chatted for hours -- so British!), and of course she and I got to coo about DT and CT and DW. And I got to see her WIP before it was published! I was a bit disappointed in myself that I didn't do any actual research on Colchester before the trip, because it turned out to be quite a historical town and I know that I missed out on a lot. However, it just means I have to go back and visit BMG again. :D
So that's it - Belgium and the UK on a whirlwind tour of three weeks. I cannot wait to go back again - England, of course, and I'm hoping Munich next time. Or maybe Vienna.
And then for your amusement:
The day I got back from my holiday, I sat down and wrote a list of things that I didn't want to forget. Some of it is really important. Some of it will bring a smile to the face of those seasoned travelers among you (I'm not a seasoned traveler) and people who actually live in Europe and will go, "What? You didn't know that?" I apologize for the couple of insults in the middle there - they were meant in jest.
In no particular order, here is
Travel Things I've Learned
Set up a trip calendar in Google. It really helps. Also helps you figure out relative time zones easily.
Don't stay anywhere for only one night. Even if you only want to see one thing in the city, you'll find other things you want to do when you get there and be disappointed you can't do them.
In general, try to stay in one place for longer periods. You can't apply this to small places (for example, more than one day in Chawton would have been a waste, though I suppose I could have enjoyed a day in Alton), but for any city, you want to stay for at least two full days, if not three or four. Bruges needed more than one full day. Not to mention, having to pack up and travel every other day is exhausting, and travel time really drains your holiday time. (More time would have let you go back for those gorgeous fries in Bruges.)
Tack a day on to the first place you visit. You will be exhausted for the first couple of days and having more days and doing less during them will really help.
If you're traveling with husband:
* When you book the hotel, verify that there are outlets near the bed. Surprisingly, the ultra snooty modern Park Plaza Hotel at Westminster Bridge was the one with inconvenient outlets (and none by the fold-out bed).
If you're traveling with sister:
* Add another day onto each stop. She prefers doing one thing thoroughly in a day rather than two or three things a little less thoroughly. And she wants to eat.
* Plan to get late starts on the day.
* Don't be afraid to say what you want to do. She's really very easygoing about what to do.
* She likes Impressionists. Save the good stuff for your own visit some other time.
* Don't talk politics. You'll only be disappointed.
Bring a toothbrush. European toothbrushes suck. You can pick up toothpaste anywhere.
Bring a washcloth. European hotels have about a 30% chance to supply a small towel for showering. Use your own towel only if there's a radiator or towel rail to dry it on.
Bring hand lotion. Your skin will be dry forever, and, at least in Europe, the hand lotion tubes are large.
Heated towel rails are awesome! However, you cannot rely on every hotel having them, and even if they do, you may never figure out how to turn them on (50% chance).
Take every opportunity to wash your underwear and socks. (Requires heated towel rail or radiator.)
If you are doing a working holiday, don't stay in historic hotels. The room may be too small to have a desk, and the wi-fi may not be reliable enough to work.
Even if you're not doing a working holiday, reconsider historic hotels, because many of them, like the Hotel Mozart in Brussels and the 17th-century coaching inns, only have stairs that you'll have to haul your luggage up. Old buildings are not cool enough to offset the danger of heavy luggage on narrow stairs.
Try not to schedule going to/from Heathrow during rush hour on the Tube. Look into the possibility of taking a train instead of the Tube.
Tube lines have Twitter feeds.
Buying the heavier coat in Britain worked out wonderfully. (Six quid for a heavy coat at a secondhand store in Caerphilly!) Don't bring your own. Depending on the time of year, you might never need it.
Go to North Wales. Book with Boutique Tours. This is a must-do.
Clip your stupid toenails just before the trip. One would think you'd learnt that lesson already.
If you're having knee problems, try to schedule destinations with cobblestone streets toward the end of the trip, when your legs are strong.
Paris is full of French people and is nowhere near as fun as anywhere else.
Research the area before you go, even if you think there's nothing there. Colchester and Essex was a lot more interesting than I gave it credit for.
Early trains worked out well. The later trains I scheduled for sister worked well with her, but earlier trains are better for me alone.
During long flights, take off your shoes. It's the only way to save your knees.
Edinburgh Waverley has pay toilets. They are inconvenient as hell (blocked by gates or bollards and difficult to navigate with luggage) and going on the train is a lot better.
Use a wallet that fits in your front pocket and has separate compartments for bills and coins. It's really essential in the UK and Europe, where you use coins all the time.
Long blouses and jumpers give extra security to your phone in your back pocket.
My Oyster card has 14.95 on it.
A money belt is nice security, but it's overkill in the UK. Just make sure the passport pocket in the backpack is locked (and has RF protection).
Give extra time for customs out of the EU, especially after Brexit.
Admitting you're American to a taxi driver is a tacit invitation for him to tell you his opinion of Trump.
It's better to mail things home every few days, rather than save it all for one big box at the end. First, you don't have to carry it everywhere. Second, one big box is very expensive. Most English high streets have a post office.
It's "Eh-din-bra", not "Eh-din-burrow". You will get corrected by complete strangers.
When you arrive in a new city, establish the following:
* Where is the pharmacy? Note that beauty products (hand lotion!) are here.
* Where is the post office? Get some stamps.
* Which way is north?
Where do I want to go next?
* North Wales