Monday, November 30, 2009

Christmas Time in the Big City!!!

It is no secret that I loathe Christmas music. I think it was the year I worked at Gap Kids for the holidays to make some extra money that put me over the edge. The same 30 songs in the exact same order played over and over again for almost 2 months straight is enough to send anyone to the nut house. However, pair that up with people coming into the store, singing along and commenting about how great the music is... well, that made me the pseudo scrooge that I am today! I say pseudo because I love all other things Christmas. I just wish we could leave the music out of the holiday!!!

Since we are heading home for the holidays this year Chris tried to convince me that we should skip the tree. Ha! Like he ever had a chance of winning that argument! I have been daydreaming about all my ornaments and fun holiday stuff since the 1st note of crappy Christmas music hit my ears! I almost refused to go on our weekend get-away to Isle of Wight because I wanted to get the tree on Friday. So today after work I got the bus to the Flower Station and picked out a tree London style. Basically that means that I picked a tree that I never saw unwrapped because when I asked the guy to unwrap a few he laughed! It was a rather grumpy laugh so I decided not to push my luck, paid for the tree and hailed a black cab! Yes, I brought my tree home in a black cab!!! I must say it was a bit easier than carrying it the 6 blocks home like we did last Christmas.

Luckily, when I got the tree home and opened it I was pleasantly surprised to find a decent tree. All that is left is to toss the lights and decorations on it and wait for the presents to show up!!!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Isle of Wight

A few weeks ago we started talking about getting out of London for the long weekend. I told Chris that I pictured us hold up in a cabin along the shore with a fire burning, warm blankets and nothing to do but relax. I must have looked at a hundred rentals on the web and found nothing that was close enough, far enough, cheap enough, cozy enough... or just plain enough! When Wednesday rolled around and we still had no confirmed plans I started making a mental list of things to do over the long weekend... laundry, cleaning, Christmas shopping, more laundry... I was prepared to give up the idea of nothing but R&R. But Chris came through in the eleventh hour... literally... we emailed an Inn on the Isle of Wight on Wednesday night, they responded midday Thursday, Chris booked the room and 2 train tickets for noon on Friday! By 1 pm on Friday we were munching turkey sandwiches as we chugged through the English countryside and the rain!
The other hope I had for the weekend was a nice long walk along the coast and a chance to break-in my Hunter Wellies...

Check!As soon as we got checked in and dropped our bags in the room we were off to check out the area. Here is Chris admiring our future summer home. And yes, this modern monstrosity sticks out like a sore thumb... I preferred the more traditional English cottages.

Now this is the kind of place where I could cuddle up in front of the fire with a good book, a glass of wine and a fat cat at my feet... when will Chris be making partner???

The beach is not the white fluffy sand that I grew up with in Florida. But I have to admit that I enjoyed the natural pebbles and sea shells that were scattered along the shore. I just needed a bucket to help collect all my treasures!

The end of November is the off season for the Isle of Wight. And for good reason... it was freezing! I asked Chris if he wanted to pack his hat, gloves, scarf, etc and he said no. I tossed his hat in my bag"just in case" and by day 2 he was wearing my scarf! Next time I just pack for him ;-)

We only had a few hours to explore before the sunset. We walked along the shore and then made our way inland before heading back towards the hotel. I loved these puddles and was really wishing I had a tripod to prevent the pictures from being so blurry.
We headed back to the hotel where we enjoyed a few pints in the pub along with a game of darts. Neither Chris nor I have any clue how to play darts; other than the basic concept of throwing the pointy end of the dart in the general direction of the bulls eye. So we made up our own rules and laughed our way through the afternoon as Chris threw for Yahtzee! After darts we enjoyed dinner and then headed to the room for a pleasant surprise...

The BEST turn down service EVER, hands down!
We returned to our room to find the radio playing relaxing tunes, the bed turned down with hot water bottles warming each side of the bed, slippers laid out next to the bed and the lights in the bathtub glowing blue!!! I don't think I could have asked for anything more... except maybe a chocolate on my pillow ;-)

This picture does not do the bathtub justice but it will have to do! The tub was big enough for 3 or 4 people. It had blue lights inside the tube and the faucet is that little silver circle in the picture on the ceiling next to the rain style shower head! Yes, the water falls from the ceiling into the tub! Oh and did I mention that there is a TV embedded in the tiles? Calgon take me away...

As we tucked in for the night (after hour long bathes each,) the rain started to fall and lulled us off to sleep. Needless to say, we both slept like babies and woke up to sunshine!!!!

And a few clouds... but look at those blue skies in between the clouds!

So I realize that it looks overcast in the picture but when it is November in England beggars can't be choosers! We take any hint of sunshine and blue sky that we can get! Here is our hotel, the Seaview Inn... doesn't look like the sort of place that would have TVs in the bathtubs!

We looked online, spoke to different people at the hotel and even chatted with a guest at breakfast about things to do. However, in the end we decided to go out for a wonder and enjoy getting lost. We figured the island is not that big and we had plenty of money to catch a cab back to the Inn if we got too far away so why not! Plus, Chris had been out for a run in the early morning and had scouted a potential path.

We started off along the water since the tide was heading out and we had plenty of room to walk.

It seems like every house we passed had a cute name on the gate or over the door. This was one of my favorites...

Eventually, the beach became impossible to walk on so we headed inland along a muddy path. We were flanked by green fields and woods. The air was crisp and my wellies kept my feet bone dry! I had a ball splashing through the puddles and trying not to avoid the mud!

I can definitely understand why Londoners have country or coast homes. It was so peaceful and relaxing to be out walking without doubledecker buses brushing past at 60 mph or having to dodge tourists. One thing is for certain, if we ever lived in a place like this we would have to get a doggy! We must have seen about 20 Border Collies in our 2 days and they were all having the time of their lives running, barking, and herding any and everything in sight!

We walked along the edge of the Priory Hotel and gates like this one marked the entrances on either end. Unfortunately, we had to continue our walk along the main road. I tried in vain to snap pictures while dodging cars... wasn't I just saying something about not missing this???
We walked through St Helen's and then headed back to the coast and enjoyed the houseboats in Bembridge...

Leave it to me to make friends with a pirate along the way. I told him on of my pirate jokes... he didn't seem to be very amused. He must have had barnacles in his ears ;-) It was at about this point in our walk that I realized just how heavy rubber boots are, especially when you have walked about 4 miles... We found a cute little pub and were ready to tuck in to a pint when Chris decided to see what else was around. The Lobster and Crab Inn was recommended and right on the shore... it looked deceivingly close on Chris's Blackberry map so we were off again.

In the end, it was worth the extra mile we walked. We sat outside and drank a pint, enjoying the sea views and then headed inside for crab cakes by the fire.

For the record, the camera is level... it is the fence that is going downhill!

England's coasts are known for their chalk cliffs and Isle of Wight is no different. Most of the southern and eastern coast on the island are nothing but cliffs. We only caught the edge of it but is was lovely to say the least. We considered a walk along this beach but decided that it was time to head back to the hotel for a quick nap before our massages!
We made it back just in time, too. As we kicked off our shoes in the room it started to pour! This was the theme of our weekend. When we were outside if was cold, windy and damp but not raining but as soon as we headed inside it would come down in sheets! After a quick nap, we headed to the Inn's spa room. Chris enjoyed a 60 minute massage while I was pampered with a 60 minute facial and 30 minutes neck, shoulder and back massage. So this was not on my original weekend wish list but I consider it a compromise since our room did not have a fire place!
After a nice long dinner, a bottle of vino and some sticky toffee pudding, we were ready for our nice warm bed and the sound of rain on the roof top. We slept-in until after 9:30 this morning before heading down for a Full English fry-up and fresh squeezed juice! It is hard to believe that we actually left this little bit of heaven to return to London! What were we thinking???
Until next time... XOXO

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

4 Americans, 2 Brits, an Irishman and a Bengali... No, it isn't a joke! We had some friends over for a traditional Thanksgiving meal on Thursday. The food was delicious (if I do say so myself) and the company was even better. I learned another valuable lesson... convection ovens cook much faster than regular ovens... However, since I was basting the bird every 30 minutes I was able to pick up on the fast cooking and in the end it was cooked to perfection. I love this Tom Colicchio recipe and don't think I will ever like another turkey as much. Even Chris said he thought this was my best turkey yet! Add the sweet potatoes with praline topping, green bean casserole, roasted garlic and sausage stuffing, mashed potatoes, and top it all off with bourbon spiked pumpkin pie... We had a feast fit for the Queen!
After all the work we put into the feast we decided to get away for the weekend. Chris found a last minute deal on the Isle of Wight, booked the train tickets and away we went... after all the dishes were done! More to come on the Isle of Wight but not now... we have massages in 10 minutes ;-)
Until then...

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Budapest at a glance...

It is hard to believe that it has been almost 3 months since our trip to Budapest! It is even harder to believe that I am just now posting the pictures!! I am going with the old cliche; Better late than never.
Budapest is a city that has experienced every possible up as well as every possible down. It was once a capital for the Austro-Hungarian empire and that is when Parliament was commissioned. Designed by an architect who studied in London, it closely resembles the English Parliament building in London. However, I must admit that given Hungary's current position in Europe and the world, this building looks incredibly out of place. We toured the interior and were amazed by the marble floors, walls, columns... it was everywhere and then we learned it was all fake! The hundreds of stained glass windows on the other hand are 100% real and 100% originals! During the German 'occupation' the windows were removed and stored under the building in sand and miraculously survived the war.
I use the work 'occupation' lightly because in the beginning Hungary was a German Ally. They tried to skirt the line they said in hopes of protecting their Jewish population but in reality... they were just as angry about their loses in World War I as the Germans were so they hopped on the Nazi bandwagon in an effort to regain their once prominent status in Europe. Before it was all over, Hitler ordered the country occupied and the Soviets 'liberated' the country in 1945 following a months-long siege in Budapest that left the city in rubble. One in ten Hungarians died in the war and those that survived experienced 44 years of Communism. In the end, the Hungarian experience from golden era to communism has left the people somewhat pitiable. They feel like everything 'happened' to them.
It has taken the city longer than most to rebuild and repair the opulence of their streets, buildings, etc following the fall of the USSR. However, a few days in the city and it is easy to see that the efforts are heating up...
There is scaffolding on just about every street which is not an unusual sight in Europe... but it is chunky wood scaffolding! The last time I saw wood scaffolding was when my grandfather had Mennonite carpenters working on his home in Tennessee!
Budapest was constantly trying to out-do Vienna in it's golden age. For Hungary's 1,000th birthday in 1896, the country commissioned buildings, parks and monuments by the hundreds including the Parliament building. However, I think the main thing they copied from Vienna was the cafe culture. Many of these cafes, like the one above, are being returned to their former glory. Most of the cafes are enormous and with the exception of a few utterly empty! The picture above was taken at about 1 pm along Andrasst Ut, one of the busiest streets in Budapest!
Another area undergoing renovation all over the city are the hotels. Budapest's fastest growing money maker is tourism so it makes since that the hotels are being spruced up. We stayed at the Art'otel along the Danube on the Buda side of the city. Our guide book listed the hotel as a $$$ splurge especially in peak season (when we were there, of course) but our room with it's amazing view of the river and Parliament was only a little over $100 a night!
The reception area and most of the rooms are in a modern, recently built building that is connected by a courtyard to a renovated row of townhouses. It was an interesting mixture of old and new that somehow worked. We ate our breakfast on the courtyard with the above balcony as our view.
Our room had views to the north of Parliament and to the south of Chain Bridge. Directly behind us was Castle Hill and an area known locally Buda Hills. Budapest was once two distinct cities, hilly Buda to the west of the Danube and flat Pest to the east. We tackled Buda in less than half a day and were disappointed to learn the the guide books were right to say that Castle Hill is much better from afar. The castle itself is a fake made to look real from a distance with faux painting. And while the Fisherman's Bastion was beautiful, it is more impressive to look up at it from the Pest side of the Danube. Amazingly enough, they charge you a few dollars to climb the stairs and walk about 25 yards along the top of the bastion. We watched tourist after tourist pay the fee and then exit within minutes a bit dejected only to find a free viewing area at the exit! Sometimes it literally pays to do your research before hand!

For a rather small city, Budapest has half a dozen bridges over the Danube. Above is the Liberty Bridge which leads right to the Gellert Hotel and Baths. Taking the waters is a Hungarian tradition that should not be missed! In our five days in Budapest we visited three thermal baths, once of which was also a water park, complete with wave pool and slides! There is nothing like soaking in hot, thermal pools after hiking all over the city.

We ended our time in Budapest at Keleti Station. Nothing makes me feel further from the US than a European train station. Though most are damp, dusty and covered with centuries of grime, it is impossible to not see what they must have been like in the hay day of train travel. They were built with attention to detail and make most modern day airports look like bus shelters! Too bad for us, our night train to Prague would quickly erase the romantic feelings of nostalgia for a bygone era and if the train ride itself didn't do the trick, the communist era train station on the other end would get the job done!

Next stop... Praha!
Until then, XOXO