Friday, July 22, 2011

Hail Britannia

With months of extensive email correspondence our friend Scott and I nailed down a date and time to meet up in London for a drink and some dinner along with his sweety Laura. We would fly into Heathrow Airport early afternoon, take a train into the Green Park station which is near where they were staying, and meet at a certain pub about 6:PM. That seemed long enough for us to find a hotel by our usual method of random search considering we would be arriving into London about noon.

We exited the tube station at Green Park and discovered we were in the center of the Rodeo Drive of London making our search for a reasonably priced hotel near impossible. The temperature being on the warm side and the search with packs on backs not being very successful, we decided to have some lunch, and more importantly a cold beer. After our lunch, I left the bags with Sharon at the restaurant while I scouted the area for a hotel in our price range, hopefully without having to take a second mortgage out on the Phoenix house. 

The Bustamanta Mermaid at the Mermaid Hotel
Briskly walking the streets passing by the Bentley dealership and every posh designer label shop imaginable, I let my intuition take me into a pleasant little lane just south of Oxford Street. It was there I saw the small sign of the Mermaid Hotel hanging off the side of some tall lovely old buildings and directly below the sign a door leading upstairs above the restaurants below. Walking up the steep narrow stairway I came to the small office with a counter and stacks of luggage behind me. Then I heard a rapid succession of footsteps coming up the stairs. It was the desk clerk that quickly stepped into his post and asked how he could help me. I explained my need for a nice reasonably priced double room and he replied they only have one room for  one night though maybe other nights might be available if I check the desk the next morning. I asked the price and it was within budget plus it included breakfast. I secured the room, skipped down the stairs through the door out onto the quiet street with the room key in hand, went into another unmarked door off the street, up four flights of stairs, (half way up was a large Bustamante sculpture of a Mermaid behind glass) dropped off my daypack into the cute top level room and retreated back to the awaiting Sharon with the incredibly great news. I couldn't wait to show her the unmarked door from the street where our room was because it seemed so funny to find such a room in this area of the city that sported hotels way beyond our budget. 

Winding myself past the boutiques again realizing I had ventured quite away from the restaurant but it didn't matter much because we had a room where we earlier felt doomed. I found Sharon kicked back reading from her Kindle and I said " Pack up, we've got a room". I played up the situation walking back to the hotel and the long winding walk supported my gentle warnings. We finally arrived at the door and I exclaimed "this is it." We made our way upstairs past the large ceramic pastel colored Mermaid sculpture which Sharon immediately identified and thoroughly enjoyed, and after the four flights of stairs I opened the door to the room which was much larger and beautiful than she expected plus the room had a great view out into the cafe street scene below. 

Pubbing it up in London with friends Laura and Scott
Children violating the rules at the Lady Di Memorial
We got settled into our room and then readied ourselves to meet up with our friends from Arizona at the Aubry Pub near the American Embassy and only a few blocks from our room. We guessed at a turn onto Aubry Road, walked one block and I saw the profile of Laura in a long black coat on the corner among many others standing outside the pub. Being Friday afternoon, all the pubs are brimming with customers. Making sure it was Laura, we called out her name and she spun around with a wide grin on her face. It's always great to see a familiar face when traveling for so long. Soon Scott arrived and with the pub so full we decided to move down the road to another pub to begin our reunion. After a few pints of bitter we went to an Italian restaurant, met up with their very cute daughter Kayla and finished off the evening filling our bellies with pasta, great wine, and rousing conversation. Our friends were leaving the next day so we all said goodnight.

The following next few days Sharon and I toured the city by tourist bus (kind of silly but fun) and walked through the parks. One of our most favorite stops was at the Lady Diana memorial fountain in Hyde Park. It's a whimsical water feature that had a sign clearly stating No Wading or Swimming while hundreds of children (and their parents!) played gleefully running up through river like rushing waters behind the fence supporting the warning sign. I believe Lady Di wouldn't have it any other way. 

The elegant old Grand Hotel on the seafront in Brighton
The third day we packed up and took a train south to Brighton, a small seaside resort I first retreated to 29 years ago while avoiding the military draft for the ongoing conflict in Viet Nam. At the train station I inquired about a rental car and the information desk said it was just around the corner so we walked over to their office and reserved a car to be picked up in a couple days to tour the southwest area of England. While at the rental office we inquired about a bed and breakfast we could stay at and were pointed in the right direction towards the seafront. While living in Brighton, I remembered the Grand Hotel, a place known to comfort Oscar Wilde and his companion Bosie. At the time I couldn't have afforded to stay in such a beautiful place but I had dreamed some day I could so when we walked by this hotel we stopped in to inquire if they had rooms and at what cost. They did have a room left and the cost was surprisingly reasonable. So I was able to live out a dream in this fine historical inn on the seafront of Brighton.
It's delightfully silly how a stack of rocks attracts so many

Brighton was certainly fun and wonderful in a very British way but we needed to move on into the countryside because I wanted Sharon to experience a true bed and breakfast in a small village and also see Stonehenge. 

A beautiful day at the beach English style
We picked up our fine right-hand standard drive economy car and ventured along the southern coastline of Sussex towards the monoliths of Stonehenge. The day remained cloudy with light rain only allowing the sun to peak through a few seconds every hour while we threaded the narrow hedgerows connecting the country villages of southwest England. Unexpectedly we drove upon Stonehenge setting out in the middle of a lush green rounded off hill and pulled into the lightly attended parking area. From what I heard by others whom have visited this curiously placed stone formations before that there was developed around the site when in fact the stone circle was in a pleasant empty setting surrounded by rolling farmlands. I was delightfully surprised and photographed these world renown stone stacks feverishly. Finally the fun wore off and I jumped the low rope barrier and pushed over a fairly large stone. This brought about a choir of jeers from the other visitors. (not really..they loved it). The sun began to lower onto the foothills so it was the signal to now find a place to spend the night. I thought this time and place would be perfect to find a country pub that had accommodations for the evening. We drove north on a narrow farm road that bordered a military tank practice operations area for quite awhile until we saw a sign for pointing to a small village advertising a B&B. The winding road brought us to an old inn that had a note on the door to call this number for information. Sitting in the parking lot was a man that said just knock on the door loudly. We did and a rounded head of a man just out of the shower poked out of the window right above the door asking what we wanted. He stated his inn was full for the night but across the main road in other town there would be other B&B’s. So back in the car down the road to the main road turn across the main road onto another narrow hedgerow lined lane we drove until we came to the village of Market Lavington. Slowly navigating the main street of this town we spied a pub with an accommodations sign so we pulled over, parked, walked across the road, entered the pub and ordered a couple pints. After a couple long pulls off my glass while chatting it up with a couple of inquisitive locals, we inquired about a room for the night from the bartender and indeed they had and they also cooked up great English food from their restaurant in the next room. That night we were graciously served lovely traditional English dishes, went upstairs and slept wonderfully, got up early to photograph some of the town, had a full English breakfast and made our way back to Brighton after exploring more villages along the way.

My Brighton hideout in 1972
Returning to Brighton was much easier because I had more experience with the car and we took the motorway most of the route in lieu of the country roads. Arriving back to the seafront about six in the evening to find many of the B&B’s in town were full but our luck would bring us to the lovely little Modan B&B just down the street from the flat where I lived in 1972. The older couple were so typically proper British and thrilled we selected their place to stay. That evening after having great Indian food, we walked along the seafront out to the Brighton Pier to capture a bit of nostalgia dreaming how things were and how lucky I was today.

The next morning I pulled car up to the B&B, loaded the bags in the boot and drove to the rental car agency to drop off the car next to the rail station. We were a little concerned about making our flight to Ireland on time because threats of a labor work slow down were looming so we got to the rental office just before eight and the office didn’t open until nine. Fortunately a worker from the agency was sitting in his car in front of the office so we left the keys with him, grabbed our bags, hiked up to the train station, bought our tickets to Gatwick Airport, boarded the train as it pulled out five minutes later. The train pulled into the airport station. We walked into the airport (very convenient) and checked our luggage to Dublin at the Air Lingus counter. Within two hours we would be in the land of milk and Guinness.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Leaving a conservative neatly organized society of Luxembourg to the tongue in cheek silliness of Amsterdam is a lesson in opposites socially speaking. The dutch love their country from what I can glean in conversations both in and out of the Netherlands. I love these people for embracing diversity and tolerance though within the last few years of massive immigration their welcome mat has been worn thin.
It doesn't get much more fun than this

On the train we actually executed an advanced plan to exit the train station by turning left to locate a bicycle rental company so we could ride through the streets with our packs on our backs to search for a hotel. The plan worked flawlessly. Bicycles rule this city and for good reason. Most streets are extremely narrow, parking is a trick only the Dutch can make happen, and navigating up, over, and around the city maize seems impossible even for a seasoned traveler as myself. So we located the MacBike rental office, rented two common looking steeds, and off into the hinterland we did peddle. A word of warning when peddling in Amsterdam, it's residents take cycling very serious so bicycling without direction, purpose, and lack of control is not tolerated its citizens. Everyone from Dad riding with two kids, Grandma shopping, or the nattily dressed businessman ride with conviction with no monkeying around.

Within a half hour we found the very elegant Hotel Doelen, a small hotel on a quiet back street in the center of the city. We dismounted, locked our bikes to a building and toted our luggage into our room and then off to explore this ancient fascinating commerce port. Our destinations included the Rijksmuseum to see the Rembrandt works, the VanGogh Museum and ride by the Ann Frank house which we didn't go in because of the massive line around the building. Then we decided it was time to stop by a coffee house to sample some of the special coffee at the Jolly Joker. Our experience there was more than we both could have imaged so we retired to our hotel room for a few hours.

This ain't your Grandma's coffee but it is the richest kind
Amsterdam is very quaint just to stroll around and wander into a pub or a restaurant. Both of us had been dying for some Thai food for a long time so we decided on eating Thai food for the first evening meal and without disappointment. The spice, the coconut, and the textures satisfied our desires for one of our favorite cuisines. OK...we were not quite fully satisfied because the next nights dinner was again Thai food but at a different restaurant that was even better. Yes at times we can be very repetitious and boring though not having Thai for four months we needed our fix more than just once for such a long celibacy.

First Class Train from Amsterdam to Paris...very nice
After four days in Amsterdam we boarded our first class high speed train directly back to Paris so we could catch our flight to London. When I use three world cities in one sentence it makes me shiver with delight.  Our brief return to Paris allowed us to meet Kasia, the very charming daughter of the gentleman who was the owner of the apartment we rented in Paris on our previous stay. Lisa Wines arranged for us to meet at an Italian restaurant and then we went for a night cap drink at a corner cafe. We told Kasia we were going to Ireland and she insisted we contact her mother who has a 300 year old thatched roof cottage to rent in Kells south of Dublin. We promised we'd try to contact her but first we must see London and a portion of its surrounding country side.

Perfect Luxembourg

CURRENT PREFACE: After visiting many metropolis's throughout the world this postage stamp city and country stands out to be the front runner of all. It seems way too good to be true but our inquiry amongst it's residents held steadfast that Luxembourg has won our prestigious "Most Perfect City in the World" award. Would I want to immigrate to perfection? I don't think I could handle the pressure of living up to it's flawless surroundings so Bisbee don't worry, we aren't going anywhere but home.  

Down to the last day in Paris and a quick decision had to be made whether to go directly to the Netherlands to spend our entire five remaining days on the European continent or make a quick side-trip stopover somewhere on the way to wooden shoe land. Then I had a geographic recollection regarding a mini-country somewhere on the northern border of France called Luxembourg. I knew nothing about this little known or heard from nation and that alone was cause for their monarchy to welcome us upon our arrival.

The City Hotel with the train station on the left
Semi early Friday morning we sobbed as we said our goodbyes to best friend Lisa and arrived by bus at the Nord Est railway station. Crossing the wide boulevard of traffic and the even wider arrival area fronting the station we found the ticket office that is now known as the slowest service queue in rail history. I knew what train we needed and allowed for an hour to purchase the tickets, find the platform and have a cup of coffee. I didn’t allow for everyone in front of us to plan their complete summer holidays with each ticket agent. I could have used a ticket issuing vending machine but our country, the old backward USA do it our way, doesn’t adhere to the rest of the world’s latest embedded chip technology for credit cards which disallowed any hope of an alternate method to purchase tickets and left me standing in line anxiously waiting until ten minutes before my train was scheduled to leave. One of the three ticket windows opened for our service and we rushed up first asking if the saleswomen spoke English and she instantly referred us to the next clerk which was busy. I didn’t let a little communication issue stop me at this point to purchase two one way tickets to Luxembourg for the next train. Within five minutes we had our tickets, walked quickly out of the office into the boarding area, checked the platform location,  showed our ticket to the rail master and boarded the train with a couple minutes to spare. The only hang up was we were in the wrong car…yes it was a second class coach but our assigned seats were in another car so we just sat meekly in some random seats and fortunately no one claimed the seats for the three hour trip to Luxembourg.
Bridges and manicured gardens

There was a light rain when we stepped outside from the picturesque train station and though the King, the mayor, nor a large crowd of citizens gathered to formally welcome us, the genuine happiness in the faces of the general public was welcome enough. We walked around serveral blocks of streets for about 45 minutes scoping out hotel possibilities and decided on the City Hotel because it was close to the rail station and the penthouse corner room with a view of one of the main streets was great plus they provided a great breakfast included in the price of the room.

Every country could use one of these
Upon checking in I decided to query the elderly cheerful desk clerk about his country, which he was a native. “How are your politicians?” I asked. His reply was quick and direct. “They seem very honest and they work very hard”. I couldn’t believe this but his sincere answer without hesitation lead me to believe it was true. “I don’t really hear of Luxembourg getting involved in any wars, how can that be?” He smiled and said the country hasn’t been to war in 250 years except for that “German thing” which they didn’t have anything to do with and he doesn’t foresee anything in the near future.  When asked about hiking around the city, “We have many beautiful hiking trails through our city so it is not necessary to travel very far.” Is this utopia or what? It was getting late so we dropped off our bags in our beautiful room and walked through the ultra clean streets of the old part of the city. What we first encountered in the early evening light was truly as our desk said. Beautiful streets, walkways, pedestrian paths, and trails all around the city with views of many ancient buildings, incredible green landscapes, and very tasteful shops and restaurants populated the old city center plus everyone was really friendly and again our inquiry to everyone we meet seemed to be very happy to live in their country.  We wandered (got it right Lisa) into a large square where a large stage was set for an orchestra performance. There were small booths selling sausages, beer, and wine so we had a couple glasses of wine and within 15 minutes the youth brass orchestra began to play. The weekend music festival was put on by the "Ministry of Respect". Yes can you believe this country has such a governmental agency? This is what the US needs more than ever! The setting was storybook like and the musical performance was flawless.
The train station

We ate dinner at a restaurant recommended by our desk clerk for traditional Lux food. Sharon had the culturally recognized thick ham steak and I had a local fish. Both dishes satisfied our culinary desires and we slowly strolled back to our hotel along the quiet streets of our new favorite city.

The morning gray skies and low hanging clouds didn’t dissuade our desire for the urban hike on the trail we caught a glimpse of the night before. The river canyon cuts through the center of the city and provides a lengthy lush pedestrian pathway for visitors and residents enjoyment. A light drizzle put a gloss varnish on the stone steps leading down to the path making it very slippery. Once at the bottom, the manicured parkway lead us through the maze of trees, bushes, lush carpets of grass, and interesting historic homes and churches. The rain increased just after we ducked under cover of a small family entertainment spot featuring miniature golf . The rain drained from the last cloud and the sun made its début as we continued our hike under the high stone arches of the bridges above, threading the paths dividing the well organized gardens and eventually the path popped us out onto the winding narrow streets of the city routing us back into the central zone where again another music venue began as part of the weekend festival.  So incredibly beautiful this city was I couldn’t help wish that all city planners should be required to visit Luxembourg as example of how to make use of common areas in an urban environment.

The next morning we reluctantly boarded our train to Amsterdam leaving our beautiful City Hotel room and Luxembourg, a city so great they had to name it twice…Luxembourg Luxembourg. (sorry New York, you aren’t the only one)

Friday, July 1, 2011

French Wines

Nairobi International Airport compared to other international airports rates at the bottom of our travels. The wait area for flights is circa 1950 with a strong emphasis on bad duty free strip mall like shopping in a dimly lit aisle way. Our three hour wait seemed like it would never end after experiencing the 40 minute drive from our hotel to the airport on the rain soaked potholed construction wrecked streets. It was a definite sign for us to move on.

Lisa Wines guiding us from airport to apartment..isn't she cute!
Anticipation ran rampant through our veins to board our flight for Paris to meet our dear expiate friend Lisa Wines. Lisa has been very successful at reinventing herself as an international marketing instructor in Paris where she now calls home. Schools out for the summer and we get to have Lisa to pal around Paris for a week. While in Greece we communicated with her and she arranged for us to rent her friends apartment in the outer ring of Paris but close enough in the city to take the Metro or buses anywhere. She gave us the crash course on how to travel in and around Paris giving us the tools we needed to explore this incredible city.

Paris apartment..our bed on top
Our flight out of Nairobi first took us to Doha, Qatar where we switched planes and got to walk about the ultra modern sleek airport. Qatar was obviously not hurting for government funding for its infrastructure unlike the rest of the world. Within a couple hours we boarded our direct flight to Paris. Surprisingly both of us slept well on the plane and when we landed at the Charles De Galle Airport, deplaned, immigrated; bag retrieved and stepped into the international greeting area the wide smile of Lisa was a welcomed sight.  Quickly after our reunion Lisa guided us to the train and whisked into the center of Paris to our new home for a week. Stepping off the train we schlepped our bags to the apartment well not quite up to the apartment. First Lisa having to get up so early to meet us at the airport forgot the keys so Sharon and I sat across the street at the corner café and drank coffee, read books and munched on pastry until Lisa made the 45 minute round trip to her apartment to retrieve the keys.
Locks of Love... Paris affectionate tradition for fresh love

Before she left for the key retrieval she informed us on a personal matter that may affect our immediate occupation of the apartment. Her former boyfriend might be there because they share the same friendship with the apartment owner and the boyfriend being in a victim of an economic calamity, uses the apartment during it’s lull times to seek refuge from the boulevards.

The Bradley Museum...impressive indigenous art collection 
Lisa returned and I pointed out to her the window of the apartment opened while I wasn’t looking so there is a good chance someone is there.  After briefing me on the situation and what to expect when the door opens, I took the keys and hiked up the five flights of stairs to introduce myself and explain the situation. I unlocked the door and surprised the ex-boyfriend at the door and his female friend sitting at the dining table. After his assessment of the situation, he made a phone call to the apartment owner who admitted he forgot about our arrival. After hanging up he began to pace while repeating the situation as being  “very uncomfortable” and after short discussion and mutual understanding of each other’s dilemma, he kindly apologized and said the apartment would be clean ready for us within three hours. I returned to my timid awaiting posse at the corner cafe explaining the plan, grabbed our bags, hiked back up the stairs to the 4th floor and stored the bags in the apartment until later.

Now without the bags we could roam about freely and the first thing was to get some food at a bistro to stave off our 15 hour travel hunger. Lisa brought us to one of her favorite spots only a few blocks away. With sandwiches and salads quelling our appetites and organic (Bio) wines soothing our weary bodies, we began our first exploration of the sights of Paris. First came the Sacre Couer, a massive cathedral  capping one of the highest view points of Paris affording us a fantastic view of the city and our first view of the famous Eiffel Tower from Lisa’s secret spot. Like baby ducks following in line with the momma duck, we bounded down the hilltop to the fabric district and into the African neighborhood.
Painting in the Louvre depicting early cell phone user

The afternoon began to fall away so we returned to our now vacated apartment and settled in. The days following our arrival were packed with traditional sight seeing, aimless exploring, silly consumption of wine, watching movies, doing laundry, endless silly conversations, and confirming just how great it is to have such a wonderful friend. Our destinations were the usual Cathedral at Notre Dam, The Louvre, and the Eiffel Towner but the surprise museum was the Bradley Museum for indigenous cultures.

Our week went by so fast but the time had come for us to move on for a few days to explore the Benelux countries before returning to Paris so we can catch our flight to London tomorrow.

Our last day in Paris we entered a restaurant during the summer and left in the spring. During those imaginary months, we ate wonderful food, drank the organic wines, and sampled unique single malt whiskey. The sunny day turned cold and rainy and sitting in a warm dry café trading stories was the perfect last supper to commemorate our visit. 

Later that afternoon I had to make a decision as to where we would go the next morning. I have no science to this last minute selection of direction and if it didn’t serve me well I would search for another format but usually in every case my off the cuff choice works out. For months I’ve had Amsterdam on our schedule directly after Paris and I wanted to show Sharon the Reich and the Van Gogh museums but I felt there had to be something more….that’s when Luxembourg floated through my mind. Being such a small country, I always skipped by it and now I felt this was my opportunity to quickly take a peek at this funny little country for a couple days.