I'm a big fan of staying in each location for a full week. The reason is that if the weather turns bad chances are it will pass within the week and you'll still get to see the area without rain boots and a parka. We were staying in Ljubljana for 3 days following the most beautiful weather Slovenia has ever had in 100 years. The 3 days that we were in Ljubljana however, were not among the most beautiful days. In fact it rained every single day. Whenever the rain stopped we grabbed our coats and ran out the door to see Ljubljana in what little decent weather we had. Sometimes it worked but mostly it didn't. Thankfully though, we were in a wonderful apartment so staying in wasn't a hardship and we needed some downtime from our hectic schedule in England.
For our second day mother and I decided to go out to find breakfast. Behind Kongresni Trg a block further away from the river is a grocery store called Maximarket buried underground along with a small mall. For people staying in the center of town I recommend this store as it has most everything. I could have bought Fois gras there even. Not sure of the quality but they did actually carry it. I figured we'd get our juice there and we'd pick up some pastries from the Pekarna where they make Struklji, Krofne and Bureck.
Struklji is a fruit filled dumpling similar to strudel. I usually get a smattering of struklji filled with different types of fruits to see what people like. Krofne are filled doughnuts – some would call these a Berliner and resemble Polish Paczki although I don't think the fillings are as exciting as paczkis (no alcohol). Bureck is a type of pastry that is common in any country once ruled by the Ottoman empire. Different countries have variations on the name and you can get it from the middle east to England. bureck in Slovenia is their fast food – it's dirt cheap and always available. One meal of bureck will run you about $2. OK, so it's not fine food but you get kind of used to it after a while and it IS cheap. Bureck is filo dough filled with either meat or cheese. As much as I'd like to tell you the meat is the way to go it gets very greasy. The way they stretch the dough requires oil and when you add the oil It's very similar to what many cities have these days. from the meat it's too much in my opinion so I usually go for cheese bureck. If you're lucky you may find sweet bureck in the Pekarna's though. The Pekarna that we went to has had apple bureck in the past but were out when we walked in. Armed with various pastries and juices we returned the apartment to wait out the rain.
Scattered around at various locations in the city are the remains of the Roman city of Emona. There isn't a lot of ruins left but parts of the old city gate, some wells and a few walls still exist. There was a Roman military camp here in in the 1st century BC. In 14 ad the city of Emona was built and the modern Kongresni Trg is where the original Roman main square stood. According to herodotus Emona was founded by Jason and his Argonauts on their way through. Truth be told we don't really know when people started settling here but we do know that Emona belonged to Rome directly and didn't even belong to the province of Illyricum like most of the rest of the region. Illyricum of course named for the Illyrians that lived here before and during the time of the Roman empire. Taking into consideration Ljubljana's history as Emona it may seem like Ljubljana is an old city until you realize that people have lived in this region for around 250,000 years!
Note: I'm going insert the pronunciation of Slovene words into this blog post in case you're not familiar with the Slovene or Croatian alphabets. This won't be exact but it will go a long way to being able to pronounce Slovene or Croat words instead of them just looking like a bunch of mishmash. Not all of these letters are available in both alphabets but they're pretty close. Slavic languages look cryptic but are phonetic – you have one sound per character so the pronunciation is very easy to predict unlike English or French.
The simple stuff
j = y
Lj = ly sound like ll in million
Nj = ny sound like n as in minion
c = ts
Any letter with an accent over it is the complex version of that sound in English and often you just add the letter h to it.
č = ch (harder)
ć = ch (softer)
Dž or Đ = j
š = sh
Ž = zsh
Things that are the same as English but without exceptions
g = always hard g
d = always hard d
a = a as in car
e = short e
i = ee sound
o =long o
u = long as in ute
If you don't want to remember all of this just add an h to any letter with something over it and you probably won't be far off.
There's no antidote for Ryanair better than Slovenia!
There's just something about that Slovenia that exudes peace and calm. It's about as anti-bad-Ryanair experience as any place could be.
However, Ryanair doesn't fly to Slovenia – it flies to Trieste Italy. We've done this connection in the past and it's not that difficult but there are a few necessary steps. The Trieste airport is north of Trieste but the city bus #51 takes you downtown in about 50 minutes for a reasonable fee. Once downtown people have a few choices – tram, bus or taxi to Villa Opicina. The area around Trieste has gone back and forth between being part of Italy and part of Slovenia when it itself was part of the Austria-Hungry empire. Just up the hill from Trieste is the Italy/Slovenia border and there's an historic tram that climbs the very steep cliffs to the Italian border town of Villa Opicina. The tram was out of commission for years but they got it working again last year and we attempted to take it then. In the morning we saw it running, so we got lunch and did some site-seeing and in the afternoon it was broken again so we had to take the #4 bus to Villa Opicina. The bus did so quickly enough but with less fanfare. From Villa Opicina we had a Slovenian taxi pick us up and drive us to Ljubljana.
Ljubljana is pronounced lyoo-blee-yana for the most part. I've heard variations where they drop the y sound but I never know if it's just slang or the real way.
This year we planned on getting to Ljubljana as we have in the past with the only difference being that our flight was coming in later in the day leaving no time for site-seeing and there were 5 of us including a wheelchair.
Upon arriving into Trieste our time was short as our Slovenian taxi was going to be in Villa Opicina at 7 pm to pick us up. This ruled out the historic tram and the bus so we waved down a taxi who said he couldn't fit our stuff into his car. Then we tried another one who said the same thing. I walked to the train station and flagged down another one who also didn't have room. It seems 4 people is the maximum for most small Italian cabs. As time ran out a larger taxi came along and picked us up. He asked why we were going to Villa Opicina so we told him a Taxi was taking us to Ljubljana. He then offered to take us the whole way for 160 euros. I told him our taxi was willing to do it for 80 euros and he said “Slovenian?”. He then declined to take us saying he couldn't do it for that.
The road from Trieste on the waterfront to Villa Opicina is a breathtaking one as you climb the high cliffs over the city until everything in view appears to be minuscule. The view is absolutely marvelous. One day I'll be able to take the historic tram with it's helper 'push car' that pushes the train up the steepest part.
On the way up the hill I noticed that signs were in both Slovenian and Italian. Knowing already that this land was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire along with Slovenia at one point I asked our Italian driver why the dual lingo signs. “Because there are quite a few Slovenians who live here”. Heh, riiighhht. I guess that's one way to look at it. In the early 1900's there were more Slovenians in Trieste than in the capitol of Slovenia. Trieste only became part of Italy in 1915 at which point there were a couple hundred Italians living there and half a million Slovenes. As Italians poured in for the next 10 years they became threatened by the large Slovenian middle class and a surge of forced “Italianization” happened where Slovenes were persecuted and forced to speak Italian. Many Slovenes escaped to the newly founded Yugoslavia. After WWII Trieste became an independent city state for about 7 years before it became Italian property once again in 1954. The border between Italy and Slovenia wasn't agreed upon until 1975. So why are there dual language street signs? Because Trieste didn't belong to Italy for most of it's existence or we can believe an Italian taxi driver who thinks there's a few Slovenians living there.
Today's travel hint: Use a Slovenian taxi and not an Italian one, you'll save a bunch of cash…
As our Italian taxi dropped us off next to the tram station in Villa Opicina I saw a mini-van parked in the parking lot across the street and an attractive blonde lady in her 30s with short cropped hair and large sunglasses standing next to it. This I took to be our driver. I can identify a Slavic woman from 50 ft away so we dragged our bags over to her van and she loaded them up.
Our lovely Slovenian driver deftly rowed the manual shift lever of our diesel mini-van as necessary to keep us up with traffic. We traveled through beautiful emerald green valleys dotted with little Slovenian villages each possessing semi-onion domed churches. All of them beautiful and quaint. It takes about 90 minutes to get from Villa Opicina to Ljubljana Slovenia by car with the border crossing. At the border people basically slow down to go through the crossing and speed back up again. One of the benefits of the European Union.
We hired our taxi from Taksi Legende in Ljubljana. The website stinks but the service is excellent and the price is very reasonable so I highly recommend them. I mention the website only because this is how we attempted to book the taxi and only managed to say we wanted a taxi from Villa Opicina to the Ljubljana airport which probably doesn't make a ton of sense. Our driver took her oversized sunglasses off for a moment to look in the rear view mirror in a way only beautiful Slavic women can and asked where we wanted to go. There are some languages that are beautifully spoken like French – you know why you're enamored – it sounds good. And then a Slavic woman talks to you and you can't think straight but you don't understand why. She could have a giant mole on her nose, only two teeth – one pointing one way and the other pointing in the opposite direction and all you can see is Paulina Poriskova. That happens in Slovenia. I did manage to tell her that we wanted to go to Kongresni Trg (Congress Square) one of the main squares and not the airport. A few moments later she dropped our bags at the curb and motored away.
Ljubljana is a really, truly, lovely city. The architecture in the historic center is baroque and art nouveau with a dash of local flavor as well. Overlooking the city is an ancient castle originally built in the 11th century that looks to have been a little over renovated making it look fairly new. Running through Ljubljana is the Ljubljanica (lyoo-blee-an-itsa) river and all along the river's edge are ice cream shops, cafes and bars.
When I'm in Slovenia I think of the Galapagos Islands. On those islands I've heard that the animals come right up to you because they aren't scared – they have no natural predators. Slovenia is the Galapagos Islands for humans. They act as though they don't have a care in the world. Every night people are lounging along the river in cafes, laughing, drinking and listening to music. Families wander across the triple bridge to pick up ice cream and sit on the base of the monument to France Prešeran (preh-shur-an) - a poet. Most cities have statues of famous war heros in their main squares but not Ljubljana, they have a poet. Mr. Prešeran is looking off into the distance. As the story goes he was of humble birth and fell in love with a girl named Julija Primic from a noble family who lived right on the main square. Alas it was not to be as those social boundaries couldn't be crossed. France Prešeran became famous and a statue was erected in his honor and Julija faded into relative obscurity and we only know of her by association with him. Now the square on which she lived is called Prešeran square. On the wall where Julija lived is a relief of her face and France Prešeran is forever gazing at her from his pedestal. This is where everyone says ahhhh...
Over the years I've been to Ljubljana 4 or 5 times and as such have stayed in various parts of the city. Last year we stayed in a loft apartment right on the river. This year we got this really eclectic apartment that's on the top floor of a hotel. We were really drawn to it because of the overly sunny 'Cuban' colors in the kitchen and the beams in the ceiling. The owner wasn't going to be around so we had the concierge let us in and we immediately fell in love. There were rooms everywhere, little steps down into bedrooms, stairs up to the loft where there were two additional bedrooms and a bathroom with a tiled wall plus a hammock! Any place with a hammock will be popular with our family. One wall of the living room was all books clear to the second story ceiling so there was a ladder to reach them. Overlooking the courtyard from the living room was a balcony in case we wanted to sit outside and enjoy the scenery. Because this apartment was in the very top of the building the balcony was inset into the sloping roof allowing you to look straight out onto the roof tiles on either side. To this day this apartment is our favorite. Each person in turn asked me if we could just move in and live here.
As soon as we got acquainted with our apartment we set out for one of our favorite restaurants – Zvezda Bistro (http://www.zvezdaljubljana.si/en/), right on Kongresni Trg. Zvezda means star in Slovenian so it's easy to pick out as their logo has a star on it. Zvezda isn't a traditional Slovenian restaurant – it's new, exciting and fresh. This doesn't mean we don't like traditional Slovenian food as we like it a great deal and we ate at the traditional Gostilna the next day so I'll cover it later.
Zvezda has what they call “Crunchies' which are essentially spelt cracker crust pizzas. The difference between crunchies and pizzas is that the toppings are very exciting new flavor combinations and you get 5 or 6 on one Crunchy so each row tastes different – great for sharing with guests. I would They also have a smattering of pasta, fish and chicken dishes. On the side of one they had pureed carrots that were groundbreaking! They had the texture of mashed potatoes but the color and flavor of carrots.
After dinner we did what Slovenians do – walked the river, ate gelato and listened to music. Such a life.
And then things went to hell. That's the best way to title the day in which we were traveling from London to Slovenia. This blog entry only describes the trip to the airport...
Our flight out of Standsted Airport was at 1 pm which isn't a big airport so we weren't that worried about getting to our gate but we were flying with Ryanair and they have a zero tolerance policy if you're late. I got burned by them one other time when we were 3 minutes late and they refused to let us get in line. I think I swore to never fly with them again but I'm not sure. We'll settle that a bit later in this post.
To make sure we don't have any problems with Ryanair we decide to include 2 hours of padding in our trip so we left our apartment at 8:30 am. The bus ride to Liverpool station would be less than an hour leaving us the full 2 hours just in case.
We arrived in Liverpool station on time and decided to pick up some pasties to eat so we don't have to eat at the airport. As soon as we finished off the pasties we headed to our train platform just in time to realize we had 1 minute left and they were only boarding the cars are the far end of the train. Not looking forward to running with a wheelchair and a 75 year old lady we elected to take the next train and returned to the concourse to watch the sign for the next train.
The next train was canceled but there's another one in 10 minutes so we waited.
About 4 minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive it was canceled. We waited for the next one coming in 15 minutes.
About 4 minutes before it's to supposed to arrive it's canceled. What's the odds that three trains in a row are canceled?
We'd now blown 40 minutes of our padding and the odds that three trains were canceled is very very low. The chances are there's something wrong with the track but there hasn't been any announcements. I followed my gut instinct and approached the information booth to ask. “Oh, there's a signalling problem on that track so all future trains are canceled, but you can take a National Express bus outside on the street”. They knew they were all canceled and let us stand there watching the sign for 40 minutes!
I grabed the wheelchair and told everyone to beeline it for the curb and upon arriving we found ourselves standing in a line of 50 people. The current bus is pulling away and the next one is in 30 minutes but we have a full bus load of people in line ahead of us. It takes an hour for the bus to get to the airport. Forty minutes wasted inside plus 60 minutes for the bus after the next one plus a 60 minutes travel time = 10 minutes late.
Here's the conundrum:
All of our accommodations in Slovenia, Croatia and Italy are already booked and paid for.
Some of them have a strict reservation policy where we get only 50% back if we cancel.
New plane tickets the following day will be $800 total plus the cost of staying in London short notice for another day which we can't really afford
If we miss this flight we would have to cancel all of our accommodations, get whatever money back we could and go somewhere cheap (not England) and hole up for a month – probably France.
Our only real choice is to get on that plane using whatever means necessary and as long as it costs less than new tickets. Just then a taxi pulled up and said he'd take us for 200 quid. Yes, that's $320 USD for a taxi ride to the airport. We had no other option but to accept.
An hour later we've arrived at Stansted Airport and I proceeded to the Ryanair desk to print out our boarding passes. The nice lady said we'd have to see an agent since she didn't have the ability to charge us. Charge us? That's right, it's going to be 75 pounds ($120 USD) to print our boarding passes! Are you nuts? She did say that we could use the Internet computers and print our own for much less so we head to the Internet computers and attempt to print them. The computers don't work very well but I eventually get logged in. We have 30 minutes left to check-in.
Previously I tried to insert our birth-dates and it only accepted strange date ranges. My daughter was born in 2000 but it only accepted years up to 1998. My other daughter was born in 1997 but would only accept 1996 or less. I try again on the Internet computers and we've run out of time. You can only check-in up to an hour before. I return to the Ryanair booth and explain that the dropdown wasn't accepting the correct dates so I couldn't check two people in. He says there's nothing wrong with the website. I insist that it will not let me put in the correct information and that I can tell him what the problem is as I write code for a living. I'm beginning to be visibly angry.
I buy tickets on Ryanair.com
I try to check-in and it doesn't let me enter the correct birth-dates for two people
I don't print the boarding passes since I can't enter the right information.
I tell this to the Ryanair person and he tells me I'm lying and it's going to cost 45 pounds per person to check us in for a total of about $350 USD.
The plane tickets cost me $200 USD.
He's going to charge me double the price of the plane tickets to check us in and print our boarding passes! This is the worst airline in the skies!
Those of you who know me know that I have a great deal of patience which is part of being a teacher. I rarely ever get angry. I wasn't angry now, I was visibly angry. No, I was livid. My veins were bulging in my neck and my face was red.
Me: “This is what I fucking do for a living – your website is broken!”
He looked at me and said 'The website is fine otherwise we would have heard from users”
Me: “I'm telling you NOW!”
I very nearly went to jail right there when another Ryanair employee showed up and asked if he could help someone on the other side of the booth. We followed him. We had 4 minutes left to check-in.
He told me he'd only charge me for checking in 2 people as the other 3 were already checked in for a total of $200 USD. Yes, we paid them as much to print our boarding passes as it costs to fly an airplane 1000 miles. Stupid stupid company.
I will NEVER EVER fly Ryanair again. I don't care if they have a $1 flight and everyone else is $1000. I will never give my money to such a horrible company. I get it that they're cheap and you can't expect much but cheap does not mean evil. These people are evil. What incentive do they have to keep their website working properly if they make that kind of money from it not working?
The day is not over, but you have to give me a moment to compose myself. I feel angry even thinking about it.
The last time I flew out of Stansted Airport it was quite small. Since then they've added a really long gangway and a bunch of new gates. They've also made it impossible to walk from one corner of the square terminal building to the other corner. They've built this maze that winds you in zig-zag fashion through every single show selling perfume and bad jewelry in the building. We have 30 minutes to board the plane and they've made a 5 minute walk take 20 leaving 10 minutes to get to the last gate on the end of the terminal. Kris and Leah went ahead while I brought up the rear with the wheelchair and mother. I thought my mom was going to have a heart attack or pass out. She was very near expiring when we finally caught up to the others and we boarded the plane. Yes, we got on it right before it took off. Now all we had to do is sit back and enjoy the shitting flying experience of Ryanair.
The big day! Kris and the girls are headed to Warner Brothers Studio to drink butter beer on platform 9 ¾ while I'm taking my mother to Thornbury to hang out with a bunch of dead ancestors.
I realize when you're traveling alone you can squeeze the connections quite a lot and everything still works out – I've proven this more than once. When you're traveling with a large group you need more time. Time to get ready, time to get out the door, time for bathroom breaks, time for snacks etc. The larger the group the more time you need. You also need more time when one of those people is in a wheelchair or when they're elderly. Both of our groups had one in each category so we planned in a lot more time.
To get to Victoria Coach station we'd ride the bus for 15 minutes and then walk for 15 minutes as opposed to catching another bus and paying again. I'd planned in an extra hour just in case something happened as it always seems to. Seven minutes into our walk mother needed to find a restroom which took time. We then set off again and I wasn't worried because we still had 40 minutes of buffer since I'd already bought the tickets and only needed to retrieve them. How hard could it be to walk up to a machine and pull the tickets out right before boarding the bus?
Upon arriving at the station I asked the information booth where the booth was to pick up our tickets to Bristol – she told me gate 21 so we started walking. Along the way we saw a desk with the bus company name on it and asked if we could get our tickets, the lady ignored us and when we persisted she said no, we needed to keep walking to gate 21 so we did. At gate 21 we found our National Express booth and requested our tickets. That lady said she can't give us our tickets and we need to go to the ticket booth. I let her know that we'd already purchased them, we just needed to pick them up. She insisted we walk all the way to the other end of the station and stand in line. We're down to 20 minutes of buffer.
After booking it back to gate 1 and the ticket booth we see 50 people standing in line to talk to humans and the line isn't moving. We also see two ticket machines with a line of 10 people so we jump in line and soon find out one machine isn't working. We wait, I look at my watch. We wait some more and I look at my watch. We're down to 10 minutes before the bus departs, we have no idea where it's leaving from and there's still 5 people in front of us. On average it's taking 2 minutes per person to get tickets. If we don't make this bus we're not going because we can't afford to buy more tickets and my mother will be crushed. Going to Thornbury was the main reason she came and it's coming down to a poorly managed bus company. I tell our story to the guy in front of us who lets us go first and we retrieve out tickets in under 30 seconds. I'm not sure what the other people were doing but they weren't very good at it.
Still not knowing where our bus is we walk as fast as possible back toward gate 21 and as we pass gate 6 I see Bristol out of the corner of my eye on the sign but as I turn my head the sign changes to a new destination. Outside there was a bus with the door closed and a woman walking toward it. I ran after her to ask if she's going to Bristol which she is. We lets us on and pulls out of the gate.
Had I not asked the gentlemen in front of us if we could cut we wouldn't have made it.
Had I not glimpsed the sign as it changed we wouldn't have made it.
Had I not planned an extra hour into our schedule we wouldn't have made it.
Traveling without a guide requires a certain amount of strategy which paid off that day.
The bus exited London on a strange elevated roadway above the city which by itself wouldn't have been that out of the ordinary if it wasn't for the elevated car dealerships along the road. I kid you not, there were car dealerships 3 stories above ground so the people driving could see them. I've never seen that before.
We continued on through what is largely flat forested land where it's easy to imagine little meadows, castles and knights in shining armor.
We arrived in Bristol on time into a relatively small bus station where the city buses also pull into. Starving we picked up a sliced meat sandwich and ate it over a garbage can while waiting for the #79 city bus to arrive. The 79 drives through Bristol and several other little towns and past a shopping mall to get to Thornbury. Not terribly exciting but we did get to see a bit of Bristol which looked a bit eccentric and quaint. I wouldn't mind spending more time here at a later date.
Being prepared often includes using technology but in the case of Europe I couldn't rely on GPS as I didn't have a phone with data to load maps. I did however print out the stop names and times we'd be there so I could keep an eye on our progress by looking out the window at each stop name. It's hard to tell where the towns start and end as they're not clearly defined so the stop names worked out pretty good up until our stop. They'd called it the retirement center stop and on my list it was named something else. The next stop I didn't recognize nor did I recognize the one after that or the next couple after those. At this point I knew we'd gone to far so I ran up to ask the driver. He said “Oh no, it's too far for the town center you'll just need to stay on the bus until we get back there. There goes another hour.
Then the bus stopped and he motioned me to the front. “If you take a left here and walk about 10 minutes you'll be to the town center'. And off we went walking in the middle of a place that didn't look familiar to find a town we've never been to. He was right though and we were back on track.
Technology is amazing, I just have to say that. Before going anywhere I'll bring up Google Streetview and wander around the streets so I have an idea where things are. This works in towns that Google has driven through so some smaller streets aren't available. However, once we got to town I knew where I was and we proceeded to the Thornbury Castle.
I didn't really have much of a plan on how we were going to get around but there were three things on the itinerary – see the old family graves in the old cemetery, see the castle and go see the old family home. The castle and cemetery were within walking distance, the family home wasn't.
As the story goes my mother's family the Tayers were granted land by the King of England in the early 1600's for services rendered. We don't know what those services were but at the same time the King was having a castle built and this was a small town. One theory is they helped build the castle. Next to the castle is the church of St Marry's where most people of that era were buried and some of her relatives are supposed to be there too so this was our first stop.
We walked through the cemetery at the church and found graves from the 20th century, the 19th century and even the 18th century but nothing from the 17th. Maybe it was just too long ago and those spots had been re-purposed. On a whim I decided to go inside the church to see what it was like. This was likely the church that my ancestors attended. Inside we realized the floor was made of old gravestones and one of those stones belonged to on of her relatives! Another on the wall also belonged to the family. Both of these people lived in the late 1600's.
Happy, we went next door to the castle and wandered the grounds. Thornbury castle is part ruin and part hotel. Upon entering the hotel the concierge told us to wander the halls and take a look see but we couldn't go into any rooms as they were occupied. I had planned initially to stay a night in the old castle at the tune of $300 per room per night just to say we did it but budgets being what they were I canceled that. It would have been neat but there's nothing THAT fabulous about the castle from an experience point of view. We did enjoy sitting in the gardens as her family may have done once 400 years ago.
There were rumors that the castle had a pathway and door straight into the church so royalty didn't have to mix with the commoners. It's not there now but I think we saw signs of something having been there at one point.
Like I said earlier I wasn't sure how we were going to get to the old family home and to be honest I didn't have an address for it either nor had we seen any taxis anywhere. Mother said even if she didn't get to see it she'd be happy with the trip so we left the castle. As we were walking out a taxi was dropping off people. Knowing an opportunity when I see one I stopped the driver before he got back in his cab and asked how much it would cost to for 2 miles and he said 20 quid so we got in.
It remembered from Google maps where the old family home was in relation to the castle and pointed the taxi driver down a small country road. We drove for a lot longer than I thought and I figured I missed the street. I didn't remember exactly what it was but I knew I'd know it if I saw it. I told the taxi driver to turn around as we probably missed it and as he turned I saw a sign for Mumbleys Road.. That's it! Who could forget Mumbley's Road?
Thirty seconds later we're standing in front of a grand old house that was built by and lived in by my mother's family. It was a great moment.
I don't know how all of this worked out but it did. Our taxi took us back to the castle and was very interested in our old house. Before we left we ducked in and told the concierge that we'd found it and showed him a photo. He acted like he was being paid to care and then we left.
Our bus back to Bristol was driven by the exact same driver we had earlier who informed us that a round trip ticket would have been cheaper. In Bristol we had about an hour before our bus left so we stopped into a little fast food place where everything was 99p. That's right absolutely everything was a bit French looking and cost 99 pence.
We got back to London barely able to drag out feet another step. Kris and the girls were already there and their day worked perfect. They made all of their connections, drank butter beer and had a great time.
In the morning we take the Standsted Express to catch our plane. I've planned in an extra 2 hours of time that we don't need to ensure everything goes smoothly.
One of the conditions of taking my mother to Europe (is if there has to be conditions) is that we visit the old family home in Thornbury England near Bristol. The easiest way to get from Paris to England was via the Eurostar train that travels up to 200 mph between Paris and London. Originally I'd planned on two nights in Bristol with a daytrip to Thornbury and two additional nights in London for sightseeing. Two nights in one place really only gets you one full day so to be more efficient I changed those plans to include 3 full days in London with a daytrip to Thornbury. This would make for a long day going to Thornbury but it's just over two hours on the train to Bristol and then another 45 minutes on the city bus to Thornbury. Quick math says we'd have 5 hrs of travel that day which is doable.
I got 70 euro tickets leaving Paris' Gare de Nord station at 8:30 am and arriving in London's St Pancras station around 11 am. The Eurostar train has really made London and Paris accessible for daytripping. Before the channel tunnel was dug it would take you six hours to get between cities no matter if you flew (airports aren't in the city centers), rode a bus or took a train/ferry/train combo.
Gare de Nord was a reasonably short walk from our Paris apartment so we didn't have to add on metro fare or a taxi. Once in London we'd take the tube to Clapham Common station and walk about a mile from there. When we leave London we'll take the tube to Liverpool station and catch the Stansted Express to Stansted airport to catch our Ryanair flight to Trieste Italy – the closest place they fly to Slovenia.
Our apartment in London wasn't as central as I might have liked but it's what we could afford – London as you may have heard is a very expensive city.
London brings back many memories from the past as it was my very first introduction to Europe years ago. I've been to London many times over the years and in fact used to fly into London because the cheapest plane tickets from Seattle were often into London Heathrow.
My very first trip to London was very memorable. I really hadn't traveled beyond three timezones before so I arrived with jetlag and absolutely exhausted as I didn't know I was supposed to sleep on the plane. As soon as I got to my hotel I took a “short nap” and woke up in the dark. Then I stumbled around in the dark trying to find food…. Another time I flew into London on a budget flight too late to catch the tube so I had to ride a bus. By the time I got to central London it was 2 am and I was headed back to a different airport in 6 hrs. Considering the cost of London and how little time I'd have to sleep I didn't go to a hotel and instead slept in a doorway. Ah, the memories!
In looking for an apartment on airbnb.com I requested 6 different places and had all 6 either ignore me or turn me down. I finally found a “book it now” apartment in the Battersea Park area and jumped on it as it was as cheap as we were going to get and there was no waiting period for approval. The price - $260/night for one room and a pullout couch in someone else's apartment they currently live in! As they say - Welcome to London, I hope you brought money…. Just as a frame of reference we got our 100 square meter, 2 bedroom apartment in Paris for 1/3 that amount.
The trip from Paris to London was uneventful – too much so even. The group was excited to be riding in a train underneath the English Channel not knowing that it's no different than any other tunnel – it just takes a bit longer. It goes dark, and then it get's light. A bit of a disappointment. On arrival I attempted to buy Oyster cards so we'd get a discount on the buses and trains. After going through at least 2 bank cards we got the third to work and we were off to the tube which seems smaller than the last time I was on them. I know they aren't and I'm sure my brain is comparing them to other Metro systems in the world but really, they're quite small due to the size of the tunnels themselves.
We arrived in our little district and walked for about half an hour before arriving at the apartment. I got out my reservation sheet and walked up to the door only to realize that I didn't know which apartment she was in. I had no other choice but to ring each one and ask for our host. I could start from the lowest number or start from the highest – I chose highest and working backwards. After 5 numbers I got our host and she let us in. Had I gone from the lowest number we might still be there (kidding).
The apartment was small but we got one bedroom to ourselves and also a blowup mattress and the pullout couch. The host had a small boy with more energy than any one person should have. Adorable but only from a distance after you've had a shot or two of whiskey. We lucked out though because our host was going into the country to see relatives and would be gone most of the weekend so we largely had the place to ourselves.
The Battersea Park area turned out to be really cute and where “real” London is. The touristed areas are nice but when I went to the Sainsbury in our little district I didn't see any tourists anywhere. I like that. There were plenty of eating establishments, some nightlife and the aforementioned grocery store. We were on a pretty strict budget as we already knew before arriving that London was going to hurt. Our accommodations were more per night than our entire budget in other cities. Anything we spent beyond that would cut into our future trip so we were careful. We ate breakfast at home, brought sandwiches with us when we went out and even ate frozen pizzas one night. Another night we had Chinese and the last night we had Indian because you can't go to London without eating Indian! Three curries, naan, rice and pakoras were $100 US – our entire food budget for the day. Remember that our entire budget was blown just on the apartment and every pound we spent ate into our future days. Even though were were really careful we were quickly chipping away at our budget for Slovenia, Croatia and Italy but there wasn't anything we could do… It's London, bring lots of money.
Because we arrived on our first day before noon we hopped a bus and headed to Sloane Square where we'd see a bit more of the city center. Not wanting to spend more money we window shopped, took photos of some interesting buildings, sat in a park and then took the bus back home. But bus is half the cost of the tube at £1.50 per ride whereas the tube was £2.40. That's about $2.40 per ride each way on buses. That's twice the price of Paris but comparable to buses at home. The saving grace for the oyster is that you have a daily maximum of about £4.50 or roughly two rides. Once you've ridden the bus twice the rest of the day is free. Not a bad deal. Still the buses added $25 to our daily expenses. Had we used the tube it would have been over $40. Without an Oyster card it would have broke us. Insane.
For dinner we ordered Chinese at the place downstairs. The food was average and I didn't have to give up more than one kidney and two toes in exchange for dinner.
Warning: you will hear me complain more about the cost of London before this blog post is over…
Day two had us take the bus to Hyde Park Corner where we walked to Buckingham palace to see the changing of the guard. We had actually missed it by an hour but due to the rain they postponed it until we go there. It's either that or the Queen saw us arrive and ordered it just for us. It was kind of neat to see them do their walk but outside of that Buckingham palace doesn't have a lot to offer from the outside. It's not Versailles by any means!
After Buckingham palace we walked to Westminster Abbey, the Parliament and Trafalgar square. I had good memories of sitting on the steps at Trafalgar Square watching the street performers on the past. It's just not the same when people are freezing and huddled under an umbrella. Hungry we ducked into a small grocery to buy a $10 ham and cheese sandwich to get us by until we could get back to our apartment.
When in London eat Indian food they say so we did. My mother and I went across the street to the Bombay Bicycle Chef to get a menu and it had been raining all day so the floor was slick and mother's feet went right out from under her and she landed flat on her back. Normally when a 75 year old person falls it's bad but she slid into home plate and only needed help in getting back up. Later I returned to order our best meal in London – curry!
Our last day in London was going to be a big one. Mother and I were headed to Thornbury and the three girls were going to the Harry Potter Warner Brothers studio near Watford Junction in the outskirts of the city.
Kris had booked the tickets to Warner Bros studio months in advance but hadn't planned transportation. Upon learning it was going to cost $100 per person to get there she was nearly in tears. There's no way we could justify that so I spent the next hour trying to find a way… I ended up with a bus to Euston, London Midland train to Watford Junction and then the Warner Bros shuttle to the studio for $36 each person round trip. The reason I got the trip so cheap was that one way tickets on the London Midlands train were cheaper than round trip for certain times. I found the right times, combined it with a bus and voila! Still $30 per person get across town on a 45 minute train is still pretty nuts and $100 is downright insanity.
Keeping with the “we're way over budget” theme our train tickets to Bristol were about 3x the price that I thought they were when I checked two months prior. A bit more digging showed this to be true. Our only choice was to take the very reasonable bus which would take nearly 3 hrs one way to get there. Our 5 hr daytrip turned into 10 hrs but we could afford it.
You're probably starting to see a common theme here. If you think I'm whining a bit too much then please keep in mind that even though we cut as many corners as possible our last day in London cost us $660 USD without food. That's with taking buses, certain cheap trains, handicap discounts, oyster daily maximums etc.. Can you imagine what it would have cost if we just wandered around willy nilly seeing the sites? I'll tell you – right around $1000… in one day…. just for transportation for 5 and entry to Warner Bros studio for 3 people. Crazy place this London..
This is the fourth time I've gone to the Champs de Mars, stared at the Eiffel Tower for hours, read books, ate cheese, drank wine and shooed away the “Beer, Wine Champagne” sellers. Every year the first 5 hours go very well and then people start to fill in. People start to get nastier and more desperate and the fight for space starts. The last 15 minutes people just walking into the center of groups and stand there waiting. It all gets pretty nuts. This is probably the last year I do Bastille Day on the Champs de Mars unless I buy an apartment overlooking both the Champs de Mars and the Eiffel Tower (I can dream right?).
Several years ago they placed a stage at the opposite end of the Champs de Mars which made little sense as most people had to choose whether they wanted to see the band or the fireworks up close. This year they put a stage on the same end as the Eiffel Tower. This posed a bit of a problem too because the closest section of grass was now off limits for space reasons.
Overall the show was amazing as always. If it weren't for that last hour we'd do this every year. We did have one hitch though, in past years our apartment was near the Eiffel Tower so we walked home – this year we were in the 10th arrondisement which was too far away. We'd normally take the metro but with 800,000 people streaming out onto the street there's no way they will let them cram into the metro stations. We had 2.5 hrs until the last metro trains ran so we were not worried. So we walked, and we walked… We crossed the Seine and attempted to get the metro at the Alma-Marceau metro station but it was closed too so we continued to walk toward the Arc de Triomphe where we attempted to board the Line 9 metro to Republique. We were down to an hour and we were standing in a long line to get on it.
I ran down the hall to the Line 1 and there wasn't that many people boarding so after retrieving the others we stood in line there. In about 15 minutes and a couple trains later we finally got onto the Line 1. The Line 1 wouldn't take us home but it would get us further away from the madness where we could jump to a different line and get home. As the people packed onto the train we got pushed further toward the back. We were now down to about 30 minutes until the last trains run and I had to make a decision to either go to Bastille and catch the Line 8 all the way home or get off earlier at Hotel De Ville to catch the Line 11 which gets us close to home. I had two stops to make this decision while calculating the remaining minutes until the metro system stopped. The problem with going to Bastille is that we'd be on our current train longer making it less likely to catch the Line 8 home. We may get there and find the last train has already gone and we need to walk the rest of the way. Keep in mind that it's 1 am and we're all exhausted. I don't think we would have made it. At the last minute I chose Hotel De Ville. My reasoning is if we miss the last train it's closer to home so at least our walk would be a bit easier although it was still 1.6 miles on tired feet. Leah was in charge of the wheelchair, I had Piper and Kris had Grandma. As the door opened Kris and Grandma exited, Piper followed and I grabbed the wheelchair as Leah forged a path through the people. The metro Line 1 is an automated train meaning there's no driver so when the doors close they close. A nice couple saw me pushing toward the door and attempted to hold it but to no avail – my family was on the platform and I was stuck on a train that's now pulling away from the station.
At the next stop I exited and had to make a decision of walking back or crossing under the tracks to the other side and catching the last train in the reverse direction back to them. The last train wasn't for another 10 minutes and there's a chance I could walk it in that time since most Paris Metro stations are about ¼ file apart. The problem was my phone was about dead and I had no map, and it was dark and we had only minutes left. I crossed over and waited for the return train. It may take 10 minutes but I know I'll get there and if necessary we'll all walk home. My train arrived and exited to the platform which was on the opposite side as my family who was waiting patiently. As we went under the tracks to meet in the tunnel we had Leah run down to see if there was another Line 11 running. She came back up the stairs frantically waving her arms so we ran to the platform and just barely caught the last Line 11 to Republique which was about a half mile from our apartment. We got home at 1:45 am. The fireworks ended at 11 pm.
The problem with Bastille day is that cars don't move for at least an hour after it's over, the metro stations near the Eiffel Tower are closed and buses aren't running. There's no other option really than to do what we did which makes it difficult. This may be our last Bastille day.
Instead of doing a day by day breakdown of what we did in Paris I thought it would make more sense to talk about the sites we visited and activities we participated in.
Just to be clear, you cannot do everything in Paris on vacation without moving there. I once calculated that if you went to a different museum every day from Monday through Friday and then used the weekend to see a monument (Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe etc.) it would take you nearly 6 months to see everything. I've known people who've gone to Paris but spent days and weeks just sitting in their apartment then later complained about not having anything to do! If anything Paris has too much and you have to prioritize, just wandering around probably isn't the most effective way of seeing what you want.
Basilica St Denis
The Basilica of St Denis is in what used to be the town of St Denis which was outside the city of Paris. Paris has now absorbed the area and it's more suburb than it's own town. The area has a branch of the Paris University and a great Arab market as well. The area is a bit sketchy so keep an eye on your belongings but I still highly recommend going there.
Before visiting the Basilica I'd also recommend reading the Brief History of France so you know who the people are that you're going to run into. This book is a much shorter telling of the 2000 years leading up to now. There's so much history in these countries that it can be overwhelming. You don't have to be a historian but you will definitely get more out of the Basilica if you have a foundation of who's who in French history. And you'll be amazed that THESE people are here in this building.
Outside of Charlemagne, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette most people don't know a lot about French royalty so a quick brushup might be in order. The book I've linked above distills 2000 years down to 300 pages and for this basilica I'd focus on 800 AD to 1600 AD (about 50 pages).
The Basilica of St Denis is important because it's where all of the French kings are buried up until Napoleon's time. Napoleon is buried at Les Invalides in the left bank if you want to track him down. The original basilica was built in 475 at about the time the western half of the Roman empire fell – that's pretty early. Most of the current basilica were built in the 1100's and is the prototype for the Gothic style. After the Basilica St Denis was built copies of the Basilica St. Denis popped up all over Europe.
Clovis I, the first king of France was buried in a church near the Pantheon that no longer exists although the bell tower still resides inside the Lycee Henry IV. Later his bones were moved the the Basilica St Denis. Other people buried here are Charles Martel (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Martel), Francis I – the guy who convinced Leonardo de Vinci to hang out with him for the heck of it, Henri II and Catherine de Medici, Louis XIV the Sun King, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. There are many many other people buried here but you'd have to have some foundations in French history for it to mean anything. I HIGHLY recommend getting that foundation before you go!
While you're in the St Denis area visit the indoor St Denis market and also the outdoor “Flea Market” which sells just about everything from clothes to kitchen utensils. Note: this area is known to be a bit sketchy so keep an eye on your belongings but DO go…
Rodin's house and former studio is a small museum that isn't packed like so many others in Paris. Most of the artwork is in the garden so you can pay for just the garden pass if you want to save a few dollars. I've been in the house and in the garden several times and I enjoy the garden better. There you will see the Gates of Hell, The Thinker and some of this other works. The weather was turning to rain when we went so we didn't dilly dally for too long. The Musee Rodin is near the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides making it convenient to double up sites in one day.
You have to take the obligatory photo of you thinking in front of the Thinker. The Thinker is probably Rodin's most famous sculpture but it was really just one part of the Gates of Hell. Each portion of the Gates of Hell were also available individually.
I'd been traveling to Paris for 10 years before I finally went into the Pantheon. The guidebooks talked about it being a modern building and to not get it confused with the Pantheon in Rome or the Parthenon in Greece as those buildings were ancient. This is a true statement however it doesn't give the Pantheon credit. The Abbey of St Genevieve was built on this site in 500 AD soon after the fall of Rome. About 1800 AD all of it was demolished except the tower of Clovis which still stands inside the Lycee Henri IV (College Henry IV). The Pantheon was build just one plot over in the mid 1700's. This may seem new but keep in mind it still predates just about everything in the US!
The importance of the building for me is it's current use. After the revolution the Pantheon was converted to a “mausoleum for the interment of great Frenchmen”. Anytime a church is converted into a house of enlightenment I'm all for it. Some of the people who were buried here are Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Louis Braille, Jean Jaures, Alexander Dumas, Marquis de Condorcet, Marie Curie and Pierre Curie. That's a pretty amazing list!
The inside walls of the building are all painted in murals depicting various scenes in history. I love just sitting on a bench and looking at every detail of the paintings. One could spend a lifetime in this building doing just that.
Paris' most famous cemetery! You could spend a year going over each grave but we hit the highlights, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Chopin… The others are interesting too but you only have so much time.. Make sure you bring a map of the layout and where people are buried as scrolling around on your phone is not very useful as I found out.
The wedding cake church on the hill. A fairly new church built to remember the soldiers lost in the Franco-Prussian war. Sacre Couer is built on Montmartre – the tallest hill in Paris. Monmartre is festooned with tourists, tourist shops, mimes, human statues and such. Go to Sacre Coeur for one thing and one thing only – to climb it! This is not for the faint at heart as there's nearly 300 steps and no room to back out once you start. They make you enter the stair climb in the basement making it seem an even bigger accomplishment. Once you get to the top you're rewarded by Paris's best viewpoint. As you walk on tiny walkways around and between the towers you get to see all sides of Paris. Spend some time, relax and think about life – it's worth the effort. I've done this climb several times and each time I ask myself if I really want to go up there and once I reach the top I answer – YES. Don't mess around with the mimes, silhouette cutters, human statues and tourist shops at the base, just go straight for the stairs – it's why you came.
Versailles is the town of the King's court – Louis XIV to be precise. I have to say one thing concerning Versailles – get here early! If you're leaving Paris at 8 am you're too late. You'll stand in line for 2 hours before getting in. I highly suggest leaving when it's still dark out… The only reason we got in at all this years is because my daughter is handicapped so she goes in a different door. Had we not been able to skip the line we would have got back on the RER train and went back to Paris. I'm really not exaggerating here. Once inside you're jam packed into rooms that the king, or his wife or his kids or his second cousin's wife's handmaidens dog used to live in. The tour groups get a little irritating all cramming together into each room and running over whatever is in their path. I actually took a wheelchair through Versailles and lived to tell about it.
It's best to bring lunch as there's not a lot of choice in the cafe inside the museum. Another choice would be to eat outside the palace at a restaurant but everything in Versailles seems overpriced. On the same street as the train station there's also a Monoprix if you want to assemble your own lunch. We brought ours and ate it in the cafe inside the palace.
If you plan on seeing the grounds be prepared to pay a second time as they're charging for them most of the time now. You can also rent golf carts to cover ground easier. We walked. In the heat.
The French are known for many things but one of my favorites is their food. I've mentioned Provencal markets and how much I like them but Paris doesn't really have an equivalent in a lot of ways – and this is unfortunate for sure. Years ago there was a massive indoor food market in the center of the city called Les Halles but it was moved to the suburbs and is currently focused on the wholesale market. I've never been to the new Les Halles but the old one is now a metro station and an underground mall – neither of which interest me much.
There are several indoor markets in Paris that sort of resemble a Provencal market but they're really not the same. In Provence it seems the entire town is buying produce at the same time – in Paris a few people stroll the overpriced stalls and maybe even buy something – this is clearly not the same thing.
You do have a few market options in Paris that you just don't have in Provence or anywhere else in France which I'll cover here.
Two of the Paris covered markets were near our apartment this summer. We had the Marché Couvert Saint-Quentin in the 10th arrondissement as well as Marché Saint-Martin which looks and acts largely the same as the former. Both are interesting if you've never seen a real popular working market. I'd love to have either one in Seattle but the problem is that France has amazing, busy markets in other cities and these just aren't amazing or busy. Both try to act upmarket and offer wine stores, German import products, middle eastern cuisine etc.. The wine, produce and cheese they do offer is overpriced. Perhaps it's the cost of land in Paris which creates the high prices which in turn create a lack of activity – I'm not sure.
The closest thing I saw to a Provencal market was the indoor market at St. Denis – which probably resembles an Arab market more than anything. This thing is massive and reminds me as much of markets in Mexico or Turkey as it does a French market. This is probably because this market IS more Arab than French.
Ah Paris. I took my first trip to Paris in 2004 and only spent a day in the city. Paris and French culture in general felt very foreign to me – foreign enough that I didn't feel comfortable. I vowed to return and stay until I felt at ease so we did the next summer. We stayed in Paris for a month in the summer of 2005 and have been doing the same almost every year since. We've loved Paris enough that my oldest daughter quite both of her jobs in the US and moved there on an au pair Visa when she was 21. That was a couple of years ago and she's still there on a student Visa.
Paris is divided up into twenty arrondissements or districts. In the past we've stayed in the 5th, 7th, 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th arrondissements in the past and this time around decided to stay in the 10th, I'll get to why in a moment. The different arrondissements have their own character but my favorite is the 7th on the left bank. The arrondissements are numbered like a spiral (or snail) starting from the center of the city where the celtic people used to live and where Notre Dame is today. The 5th, 7th, 14th and 15th arrondissements are on the left bank. The 10th, 17th and 18th are on the right bank. The left bank is the home of the Eiffel tower, Napoleon's tomb and the Latin quarter with the Sorbonne University and Pantheon. The right bank hosts the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Sacre Coeur, Opera Garnier and Notre Dame. I like going to the right band but I like living on the left bank.
When the Romans paid to have Nimes built the local Celtic people built it in the same location as their village. As Nimes grew they needed access to more water to serve the population so the Romans did what they knew best – engineer a solution. They built a 35 mile long aquaduct to bring water to their fledgling city. Not only was this an amazing feet but part of it is still standing – the Pont du Gard.
The Pont du Gard is 160 ft high and nearly a quarter of a mile in length spanning a ravine. The Pont du Gard only drops 1 inch in elevation over it's 1100 ft of length. The entire aquaduct drops about 50 ft over it's 35 miles! The Romans were very precise.
While we were in Nimes we took a bus to the Pont du Gard. The Tango bus company's office is behind the train station in the small plaza. We were able to buy a family pass to Pont du Gard for about 20 Euros including transportation which is pretty amazing.