Friday, June 17, 2016

CLASSIC TRIP: England, Ireland, Belgium 2005 - Part 3


Brugges

Just a quick word about the classic trip series of reports here, they are presented just as written on our old site, so the information...such as prices and such...may be dated.  They are accurate as of the date in the title.  This is the case in the story below...in 2005 Hoegaarden was a boutique and hard-to-get beer here in the states.  Since then, the company bought out Anheiser-Busch and is now the largest brewer in the world and you can find Hoegaarden in just about any supermarket now...

It took awhile, but we finally found the Ireland we came for.  Now, it was another trip across the sea, this time to Belgium.  Here's the final segment of our trip.

DAY EIGHT – The first half of this day is taken up with travel.. A 7:30am flight is schedule from Cork back to Heathrow. Again, it’s Aer Lingus time. It starts off well enough when a friendly worker is assigned to escort us to the gate. It soon becomes apparent that this was the only thing the airline had done. As this worker is frantically trying to find someone to help us board, the plane is loaded. The door is closed. The jet is ready to go. We’re still in the terminal – even though we arrived 2.5 hours early.

Finally, the food service truck is called back and commandeered to lift us up into the plane. The flight only leaves 1.5 hours after schedule.

We’re lucky in one sense, that’s just about how much our next flight at Heathrow has been delayed so we didn’t miss that flight.

I will not willingly fly Aer Lingus again.

The next flight is British Airways to Brussels. This is a short, uneventful flight with a professional and courteous staff.

It’s Tuesday and we’re in Belgium!

We pick up our rental car and head out. Our first stop is a mecca for beer drinkers, at least a number of American drinkers, the little village of Hoegaarden, about 40 minutes east of the airport.


Having a Cold One in Hoegaarden

This pretty and neat village of brick houses makes one of the best beers around, Hoegaarden Witbier. It’s a rare treat to find this delicately flavored brew back home and that treat will cost you big time ($9.00 on tap at the Yardhouse here in L.A.)

It takes us awhile to find the old brewery (a very large modern one sits at the edge of town) with it’s charming courtyard pub. The villages’s signage is very low key but we eventually make our way in and enjoy the best beer I can remember having. Along with the Witbier (which is as pervasive in Belgium as Budweiser is here), we enjoy the splendid dark Grand Cru that is not available in America.

I grab a pack of the Grand Cru to take to the hotel for later when we leave.
We have come here to Hoegaarden straight from the airport. It’s now time to head back to Brussel’s and find our hotel.

The arrival in Brussel’s puts us right on the street where the EU headquarters are located at the peak of rush hour. I have no idea where we are or how to get to our hotel. When I get a chance, I duck onto a side street where I can pull over and study our map.

I’m armed with several street maps of the city, none of which show the city as a whole. They all come in two parts. I seem to be on one side of the map and our hotel on the other. The big problem is that Brussels’ streets are a real labarynth. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to how the city is laid out.

St. Catherine's Cathedral and Plaza

With my wife navigating and several stops to pull over and study the map, we finally find our way to the hotel about an hour and a half later. The hotel is the Citadines St. Catherine’s, located on a time-worn but beautiful plaza dominated at one end by the St. Catherine’s cathedral and the other with a large fountain.

The Citadines is an apartment hotel, meaning a suite. We get a large suite on the third floor with a bedroom apart from the living room. It also includes a small kitchen and dining room. The bathroom has a bathtub only and is not accessible. It is separate from the toilet which is minimally accessible. The Citadines also has smaller studios which are accessible (I do not have details) but we wanted the larger suite and are willing to adapt.

Our room has three large windows, two in the living room and one in the bedroom, which offer spectacular views of the city. Parking is at an underground garage for an extra charge. There is a metro station in the plaza across the street but it is not accessible. According to the map in the station, I could only find four accessible stations on the metro system. Every bus I saw was accessible.

I go to the small market at the end of the block where 2 Euros gets me enough eggs, ham, coffee, and milk to make breakfast in our room for the next couple of days.

It’s still relatively early and the sun goes down very late this time of year, so we walk over to the Grand Place, Brussels’s old plaza. It’s about a six block walk from our hotel.

Brussels is a beautiful city with many old buildings, plazas, and cafes. It reminds me a lot of Paris with all the winding lanes and alleyways. It does have a kind of dingy glamour like a fading movie star. It’s kind of hard to describe. I really enjoyed this city, more than I did Paris, but you will be stepping around streetwalkers and junkies sleeping off their last fix. I guess this city just feels more real.

The late afternoon sun makes the Grand Place shine. This plaza is surrounded by intracately detailed buildings, each one created by crafts guilds hundreds of years ago. The guilds would be equivalent of our unions today. The ironworkers guild is in one building, the printers in another, and so on. Restaurants line the perimeter.

About two blocks beyond is Brussels most famous sight, the Mannekin Pis. Remember those cheesy fountains you see at your local garden center of the little boy relieving himself? Well, the original is here. Erected a few hundred years ago, the Mannekin Pis is just what the name says. A statue of a boy urinating into the pool.

The Famous Peeing Boy (no, not Tim)

Many stories abound as to its origins, my favorite is that the boy peed on a witch’s house that stood on the corner and robbed her of her powers. A museum stands nearby that houses the many costumes people have made for the statue over the years.

On the way back, we have dinner at one of the many restaurants lining the streets here. A pot of mussels cooked in a garlic broth, accompanied by steak, bread, and fries (which, of course, is a Belgian invention) is what is on our menu tonight. It is all very good. We wash it all down with Hoegaarden, which at 1.5 Euros is less than my son’s coke at 2 Euros. I don’t know if it’s this way everywhere in Belgium, but a glass of water on the side also costs a couple of Euros.

DAY NINE
It’s about an hour and a half drive to our next stop, Brugges. When coming into Brugges, you're directed to one of the many underground parking lots. Don't worry if you end up at an outlying lot, accessible shuttle buses will take you into town.

The old medieval port town of Brugges is a perfectly preserved masterpiece. The heart of the old city is spared much...but not all...of the vehicular traffice due to those underground garages. It's a strollers paradise with sidewalk cafes, chocolate shops, and museums galore.

The centerpiece is the main square where fishermen used to bring their catches via the canals that came in from the sea. The canals now stop about a block short of the square and the fish market has moved over by the city hall. Dominating the square is the tall clock tower with its hand operated carillon.

We start off with a hot cup of coffee at the first cafe we encounter upon exiting the garage and then start winding our way to the center of town.

A special note here for wheelchair users. Brugges is very bumpy. The roads, squares, and many walkways are, for the most part, cobblestones. In the Rick Steves book about accessible Europe, it is stated that there are smooth paths where cobblestones are that make for easy travel by wheelchair. We did not see any such paths, so be aware of this.

There are many chocolate shops along the way so we stop in at one and are offered many tastes of some of the best chocolate we've ever had. Of course, we have to by a few boxes to take home but it's very reasonable here and only sets us back about $20 for a pretty large assortment of sweets.

Market Day in Brugges

Emerging in the main square, it turns out today is market day. Vendors fill up the space with fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, cheese, and flowers. Being lunch time, we decide that our midday meal will consists of whatever we can come up with by walking through the market. Starting at the west end, a vendor is grilling delicious pinwheel sausages on skewers. Next, Tim and I share a bratwurst. Some good Belgian beer is purchased at one of the stands to help wash it down. To make it a little healthier, some plums, peaches, and grapes make a nice side dish. A large sampler buffet of cheeses makes for some great free snacks. Arriving at the other side, a cart is making the most delicious Belgian fries and we finish it off with a couple of orders and a couple of cans of Hoegaarden.

Wandering around the many alleyways, we emerge upon the gold plated magnificence of the city hall. We are looking for a restroom and find one that requires three steps up and then another three steps down. I spot a wheelchair lift at the entrance of city hall and a gentleman standing there says to come on up. It turns out that he is an artist who is having a show of his work in the lobby of the building. Good paintings and nice gentleman but we really need some facilities. He tells us that the bathroom we saw is accessible...and that the Flemish are a forward thinking socially aware people...but I cannot for the life of me see how they were accessible.

We finally had to make do at one of the restaurant bathrooms which at least was level if not fully accessible. I did not find any accessible restrooms in Brugges.

There are many beautiful canals here and many boats to tour on. All of them require the navigation of stairs so that option was out for us.

Later on, we found a restaurant on one of the back alleys that made waffles. I know that many U.S. restaurants serve Belgian waffles but I have never had one like the waffle we had this day. It was slightly crisp, very buttery in its flavors, light, and covered with melted chocolate and cream. Very sinful and delicious.

After Brugges we took a drive through the countryside. It's only a 30 minute drive to the Netherlands so we head north to add one more country to our list. The first thing we notice is when you get over the border, there are as many bicycles as cars...if not more. Every road has a corresponding bike path and many paths go beyond the roads. It's very beautiful and clean in this area.

Ijzendijke

We make a quick stop at a local pub in Ijzendijke, a pretty little town with friendly people, a windmill, and a small cannabis shop. A two hour drive across the Dutch countryside leads us back across the border at St-Niklauss, just west of Antwerp. From here, it's a short drive south back into the maze of streets that is Brussels.

One more night of rest overlooking St. Catherine's square and then we get back on the plane to go home.


Darryl
Copyright 2009 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 13, 2016

CLASSIC TRIP: England, Ireland, Belgium 2005 - Part 2

Blarney Castle


Previously, terrorists had bombed London and transportation was in a chaotic state..

On to Ireland. From our hotel, it’s a quick bus ride to Fullham-Broaday Underground station. The District Line takes us two stops to Earl’s Court station where we change to the Picadilly Line to Heathrow.

At the airport, we just change to the Heathrow Express train to get to Terminal 4, home of Aer Lingus. Everything at Heathrow involves a very long walk and this is no exception. On top of that, security barriers placed about 24 inches apart block entrance to the train platform. There is no signage for wheelchairs as to how to proceed.

We find an employee who uses a key to remove a security barrier allowing us to proceed to the train platform. A quick ride and we’re at Terminal 4.

Heathrow is one of the world’s busiest airports. This is made obvious when you enter the check in area and thousands of people are milling about. We find the Aer Lingus check-in counter and proceed through the process. After this, we head to security to go to the departure hall.

One thing I don’t like about Heathrow is that you are not told what gate you will be departing from. You must watch the departure monitors and about a hour before your flight, the gate number will be posted there. Until then, you wait in the departure hall.

At Heathrow, this is really just a very crowded shopping mall with very limited seating. If you want to shop, I guess it’s ok. If you just want to rest until your flight, you’re pretty much out of luck.

As our luck would have it, our flight was delayed. It wasn’t until two hours later that the departure gate was listed and then it was another very long walk to the gate (forty minutes). By the time we arrived, boarding was commencing and the helpers were no where to be found. Of course, this made us last to be boarded and the crew insisted that our son Tim have a window seat (in the back of the plane) which turned out to be just impossible to accomplish due to the very limited room between the seats and his weight (145 lbs.)

A stalemate developed between the crew and us. They wanted us to take another flight that wasn’t so full where the seating could be more properly arranged. We didn’t. This flight was already two hours late and counting. The captain had to come out and give his ok that Tim could have an aisle seat instead.

Once we pushed back and took off, it was about forty minutes to Cork in southern Ireland. Cork, at this point in time, has no jetways (construction is under way so this will change soon). Instead, we had to wait on board until the food service truck arrived. We were deplaned on the food service truck.

This was one of the worst flights, with matching service, that I’ve ever encountered. In addition to the previous, everything on board…from peanuts and soda to wine and beer…has to be purchased at high prices. Luckily, it’s a short flight.

Everybody has a bad day, and I’m hoping that’s the case this time, but this whole experience will be repeated almost exactly in three more days.

Finally, off of the plane. The airport personnel, including customs and immigration, are very competent and friendly. We quickly clear the passport control (Ireland uses a cool green ink for their stamp) and pick up our rental car from Hertz. It’s a nice SEAT wagon with room in the back for the chair, CD, radio, and A/C. It has a manual transmission which means that I will be doing all the driving (auto costs an extra $100)

For this portion of our trip, we’ll be staying in Limerick, about an hour’s drive north of Cork. More on that later.

After leaving the airport and finding our route with only one minor misdirection, we head north on the motorway to our first stop, Blarney.

The motorway to Blarney is a modern superhighway but once we exit, we get our first taste of typical Irish roads. Wow! It must be a real adventure to be a passenger while driving on these roads. I wouldn’t know because for a driver used to American roads, it’s just terrifying.
Most of the roads here are very narrow, maybe one to one-and-a-half of a lane wide when compare to U.S. roads. About 90% of these roads have no shoulders, only tall hedges or stone walls block all view around turns. Oh yeah, they are two-way roads that have many large trucks, tourist buses, and farm equipment using them. When arriving in a town, the hedges and walls are replaced by vehicles parked on both sides. Usually, these vehicles are parked half on the sidewalk with the other half in the road. Some towns we encountered also had festivals or flea markets that also took place in these still open roads.

So, for the remainder of this report, we’ll just boil the above paragraph to the above code when encountering the Irish roads: Irish road…AAHHH!

Blarney is our first Irish village (Cork is a large and modern city). It’s a pretty as you’d expect. Once through the town, you drive down a small driveway to the car park for Blarney Castle. The castle is located in a large park, which has a nominal entry fee of 7 Euros. There are not a lot of facilities here for wheelchair users. Consequently, disabled and one care giver (carer) are free so we ended up only paying one admission.

From studying up on the castle’s web site, it seemed that the famous Blarney Stone was up on the second story. Just maybe, I thought, I could man-handle Tim up there so he could kiss it but reality is much different.

Actually, it’s about ten stories to the top of the castle…a long, arduous climb up worn, slippery, small, narrow, circular stone staircases with only a rope dropped down the center to steady yourself. There is no way to get someone who cannot walk up ot the top.

My wife and I took turns going up while the other kept Tim company at the bottom. If you can get to the top, what you’re rewarded with is a grand view of the park and countryside and, of course, the right to kiss the stone.

Darryl Kissing the Blarney Stone

Legend has it that this stone was the pillow that Jacob layed his head on when he had his dream of the ladder going to heaven. It is supposed to impart magical powers upon those who kiss it. Specifically, you’re granted the gift of eloquence, or the “gift of gab.”

You cannot just go up and kiss it. You must do it properly. This involves laying on your back, staring up to the sky, and bending your head back to kiss it upside down. There is about a one foot gap (protected by iron bars) to stretch across the void to the ground far below. A gentleman there will steady you. It is good form to leave him a Euro or two for a tip. A photographer will snap that instant of the kiss and you can buy a copy on your way out. You can also bring your own camera for free.

Almost as daunting as the climb up is the climb down, against traffic. I really felt for the dad whose son got to afraid to continue and had to carry him down.

We also noticed about this time that it was really warm here. No, not just warm, hot.

Accompanying this was heavy humidity. It really felt like Charleston in August. I have been assured that this is very rare for Ireland and we just happen to hit it during this heat wave.

Gingerly, I drive back toward the motorway to continue to Limerick. Maybe ten miles later, the motorway fades into a two lane road for the rest of the way.

Following the hotel’s directions, we end up on the west side of town driving along the River Shannon into the city. We eventually found our hotel but with difficulty. I think the directions could have basically said the hotel was in the heart of the city next to the bridge and it would have been easier.

We are at another Jury’s Inn. This room is not as big or luxurious as the one in London. The accessible room could only sleep two but, to their credit, the management gave us an adjoining room for no extra charge so it was like having a suite. The only amenity missing from this room as compared to London was air conditioning. I’m told this usually isn’t a problem here but there is that pesky matter of the hot and humid heat wave we’re currently experiencing.

Location is great, right in the middle of the city, across the street from the river. There’s a nice pub, Schooner’s, next to an excellent Italian restaurant right on the river, across from the hotel.


Having Drinks at Schooners

In the summer, the day ends after 10:00pm so sundown drinks at the pub last well into the night. We had dinner, drinks, and came back to bed. At 11:30pm on this Sunday night…right outside our open (due to no A/C) window…road workers commenced jack hammering in the street. Oy, what a racket. They finished around 2:00am. At 4:00am, a group of drunks started singing very loudly on the sidewalk.

DAY SIX
With but a few hours of sleep under our belt, we make our way north heading for the Cliffs of Moher along the coast south of Galway. Along the way, we get into a big traffic jam in the town of Ennis. The bad thing about traffic jams here is that there is usually no alternat route. There is one road through town. In it’s defense, it appears that Ennis is building a bypass that will alleviate this in the future.

The reason for the traffic today is because there is a big hurling match going on. What is hurling? Haven’t got a clue, but a bit more on that later.

After we edge through the jam, we make a stop at Knappogue Castle. According to my pre-trip research, this is the most accessible castle I could find in Ireland that allows visitors. We pass through the very pretty village of Quinn, home to some impressive church ruins, and pull into the castle’s grounds just beyond.

It’s a quiet day here, I think only two other groups of visitors are here. We pay the entrance fee and a groundskeeper deploys a ramp so we can get in the front door. Being over 500 years old, access wasn’t included in the original build out so only the first floor is accessible. On this floor, you get to see the main hall with it’s large fireplace, the large banquet room, and a view of the chapel. Upstairs, there is a personal chapel and another ballroom.

Knappogue Castle

It is dark and smoky smelling in the main entry hall. Eerily, my camera won’t work in flash mode and I can’t get a good picture. As soon as I’m out of the castle, it works. Take it back inside, no flash. I have no explanation as to why this is.

The groundskeeper takes us on a little tour of the first floor and then accompanies me up to the top of the castle to show me some of the features up there. There are picture-postcard perfect views from the top of the surrounding Irish countryside with emerald green rolling hills dotted with cows.

After spending an hour or two here, we hop back in our little rental car and continue on arriving at the seaside village of Lahinch.

Due to the unrelenting heat wave, it seems that everybody in Ireland does just what we’d do in America on a hot, humid day…head to the beach. There is jammed traffic with cars parked everywhere restricting the already narrow roads. Gingerly, we make our way through it and continue on the short drive to the Cliffs of Moher. Massive crowds, many tour buses and not a parking spot to be found greet us. We also note the long, unpaved trail up to the top of the cliffs and reluctantly come to the conclusion that this just won’t be possible to see. It takes another five miles until we can find a spot wide enough for us to turn around.

Not wanting to completely waste the trip, lunch is had at the village of Kilconnel, overlooking Liscannor Bay and Lahinch. The food, pasta mainly, is very good.

Remembering the intense traffic in Ennis for the hurling match, I opt to take the coastal route instead. Lazily, we wind around the western Irish coast until we make it to the River Shannon. It’s not long until we reach the ferry crossing at Killimer. A twenty-minute cruise across this beautiful waterway and we alight in Tarbert, just a short drive along the river’s south bank back to Limerick.

DAY SEVEN
Adare proclaims itself the “prettiest village in Ireland.” That’s quite a claim considering the many charms of every Irish village we’ve been to. We have to take a look and it’s only about an hour’s drive from Limerick.

It’s an early start today and we decide we’ll get breakfast when we get there. Just after the massive Adare Manor hotel (looks like an awesome place to stay), we cross the river next to the castle ruins, and – just like that – we’re in the heart of Adare.

It is indeed beautiful with its block of preserved thatch-roofed houses and pretty park with the creek running through it. It seems we’re about half-an-hour early for anything to be open though.

The only place we find for breakfast is a little counter inside the visitor’s center that serves good food but not with the smiles we’ve so far encountered on our visit.

After eating, we walk through the town shopping and snapping pictures. That’s about the gist of it. Once the place opened up, it was pretty much taken over by the tour buses and the hoards they dispensed. We were now two for three with major Irish sites we wanted to see; loved Castle Blarney, disappointed in Cliffs of Moher and Adare.

We continued on to drive through the nearby countryside with a minor goal or reaching Tipperary. It’s not so much we wanted to see the small city of Tipperary, just that on the map it seemed like there was much Irish countryside to go through along the way. Indeed, in this case it was not the destination that mattered but the journey.

This was the best decision of the Irish leg of our trip. As soon as we let go of the recommendations of friends, guidebooks, and travel web sites, Ireland opened up to us as it had so far eluded us.

Village upon beautiful village greeted us as we went along. Castles, ruins of castles, ruins of abbeys, and little Irish rivers greeted us around every turn devoid of other tourists. A stop in a random pub was an invitation to make a new Irish friend. Finally, we’d found the Ireland we’d come to see.

Bruree, Ireland

Not long before we’d reach Tipperary, we crested a hill and had to pull over at the absolutely breathtaking vista that greeted us. Thankfully, the townsfolk here had built a small parking area and picnic tables at this very spot.

Words cannot describe this but I’ll give it a try. Black draft horses with shiny coats grazed on the grassy hillside in front of a sparkling river full of rapids and a tiny little canyon (maybe fifty feet long) full of little waterfalls. On the far bank, small houses painted in many colors faced us. At the east end of this village was the remains of an ancient castle, a turret covered in vines. At the other end was an old stone millhouse, its large water wheel long since retired but resting peacefully on the side of the building. The river makes a lazy, horseshoe turn around the old mill, cascading over the rocks as a local boy dips a line in to see if he can catch a fish.  This is the village of Bruree.


Idyllic Scene at Bruree

I just wanted to stop and stay here the rest of the day. As we were sitting in our little grassy spot, a local stopped by and invited us to the town’s little museum. We didn’t make it there but whiled away the time talking to the local gentleman before moving along.

In Tipperary, a pretty large city by Irish standards, lunch is gathered up at a collection of stands surrounding a parkling lot just off of the main street. Our plan is to head generally back toward the direction of Limerick and find a lonely castle to picnic at. It’s not long before we find it along the side of the road sitting in a small, grassy field net to a cow pasture.

Our Picnic Spot

This is the Ireland we’ve come to find. Picture postcard villages and ruined castles to lazily snack in front of. Friendly locals and lively pubs. All devoid of tour buses and hordes of people.

Back in Limerick, we visit St. John’s castle, an imposing fortress over the River Shannon. About half of the castle, really more of a fort, is accessible for wheelers but a major obstacle is the large courtyard which is covered in loose gravel. A lift takes you to the museum on the second floor and docents bring inaccessible exhibits out to disabled patrons. In our case, a docent brought out the exhibit on minting coins which is located in the basement of one of the turrets.
The evening is spent again having drinks at schooners while a local band entertains the pub crowd. This was our perfect day in Ireland, and also our last

It's not over yet, come back and have a beer with us as we travel to Belgium for part 3.

-Darryl
Copyright 2009 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Friday, June 10, 2016

CLASSIC TRIP: England, Ireland, Belgium 2005 - Part 1



Aftermath of Bombing
Picture courtesy of Wikimedia
Francis Tyers under CC BY-SA 3.0 license


Just about 11 years ago...on July 6, 2005...the IOC met in Singapore to award the 2012 Olympics to the chosen city. We were in London that day and there were a lot of celebrations...then the next day, the world turned on its head.   Read on to see what happened when we were in London, July 2005...

It was to be a memorable time to be in the city.

Our airline for the LAX to Heathrow portion this time was American Airlines. The service was good and the seats were wider and more comfortable than the last trip we took on Virgin Atlantic. For us, comfort and adequate service beat out Virgin’s amenities which include better service, better food, and vastly better entertainment enroute.

Our hotel for this first leg of the trip was Jury’s Inn in Chelsea…just a couple of miles west of the heart of London. Jury’s Inn is part of the Jurys Doyle chain, an Irish company that has hotels throughout the British Isles. It is in a very quiet area that is being built up on top of the old gas works. It’s a quick bus ride to the shops and pubs of Chelsea and the accessible Fullham-Broadway Underground station which provides quick links to the rest of the city.


The room featured a double bed with a fold out sofabed that would sleep three adults in comfort. Air conditioning, cable TV, radio rounded out the standard amenities. The room was large by European standards (about the size of an average budget U.S. motel room), well laid out, and featured a very large bathroom with a roll-in shower. Our cost was £59 per night (about $80 US)

DAY ONE
A bus ride to the Fulham-Broadway tube station. A ride on the district line to Westminster station. A ride on the Jubilee line to the Kilburn station. Finally, another bus ride to Abbey Road.

Londoner’s may be sad that the old Roadmaster double-deckers are being retired, but wheelchair users aren’t. The new replacements…double-decker, articulated, or smaller regular buses…are wonderfully accessible. A ramp deploys from the back door and a space is reserved.

This round-a-bout journey is what it takes to get a wheelchair from our hotel in Chelsea (Jury’s Inn) to the Beatles studio located at 3 Abbey Road, a ways north of Hyde Park.











Our first stop on this trip is to recreate the picture in the crosswalk that graces the cover of the Beatles Abbey Road album. We take notice of the studio in the smallish, neat white building just to the north of the crosswalk and read the grafitti on the wall in front and the road sign across the street.

Mainly a spot to take pictures, there is not a whole lot more to do here so we walk towards Lord’s Cricket Ground nearby. Tours are being given but at this time the sky opens up and a heavy, cold rain begins to fall.

We decide it’s time to take this journey indoors.

I hail a taxi and we head over to Harrod’s.

The famous department store is huge – get a map at the information counter near the northeastern entrance. Five floors of expensive clothes, appliances, furniture and more. The food hall is impressively expansive, drool inducing, and expensive. The seating, along counters, is unfortunately not friendly to the wheelchair user. It is a little telling that the most crowded counter was the Krispy Kreme stall.

The rest of the store’s departments are housed in smaller rooms. They were having a big sale that day. I remember as we passed through the women’s clothing department a rack of blouses that were 50% off. I checked the price of a random blouse. It had indeed been priced at half off. The original price of 800 pounds ($1,416) was now 400 ($708).

Luckily, there is not a charge to go in and look.

DAY TWO
It’s Wednesday, July 6th. We’re at Covent Garden passing time until the matinee performance of the Producer’s starts up the street.


A limbo dancer is entertaining the crowds for tips when a group of fighter jets roar low overhead. It is at his precise moment, thousands of miles away in Singapore, that the International Olympic Committee announces that London has been awarded the summer Olympic games for 2012. The jets, streaming red, white, and blue smoke are part of the celebration taking place a few blocks away at Trafalgar Square.

It is a joyous moment.

We go on to see our play. The wheelchair seating is excellent, twelve rows back from the stage. The staff at the theatre is also excellent and one usher is assigned to us to take care of all our needs such as getting to the restroom and even bringing drinks in. The play itself is quite good and funny. Ticket prices, as they always are in London, are a bargain compared to Broadway. Less than $100 for all three tickets.

We have found that for matinees, you really don’t need to plan that far in advance except for the most popular shows, early in their runs. I called upon arrival in London and easily reserved three tickets to this show which I picked up at Will Call. Previous trips I have used e-mail from the states, which turned out not to be really necessary. You may want to call direct a couple of weeks ahead of time if you want to go on a traditionally busy time such as Friday or Saturday night.

After the play, we start hitting pubs and celebrate the culmination of the years long struggle to get the Olympics with London’s locals. We end the evening at the Bar Room Bar on King’s Road having pizza and shooting pool with the regulars.

DAY THREE
This is the day we are to go see the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. While getting ready, Tim notes that the BBC is reporting an explosion in the Liverpool Street Underground station. BBC is reporting that it was caused by an eletrical surge.

All cleaned up, we catch a bus to Fulham-Broadway to start our day. Not having had any breakfast and noticing that there is a Starbuck’s in the station, we strong-coffee starved Americans decide to have some coffee and muffins to start our day.

At the counter, the server asks if I want it for here or to take away. Not really thinking about it, I say it’s for here and our coffee comes in ceramic mugs. My wife, not too pleased with this, asks why I didn’t take it to go so we could just take it with us on the train. I don’t really have an answer and we take a few minutes to drink our coffee before leaving.

After we finish, we head over to the station nearby down the hall. The worker there is closing the gate over the front of the station and putting a sign up outside that says “Entire Underground closed due to security alert.”

The crowds gather outside and I keep hearing more talk about the electrical surge. We go out front and try to catch a bus into London but no driver will let us on. Frankly, I’m starting to get a little PO’d at this but calmer heads prevail and we head back to the hotel where maybe we can catch a water taxi.

Since we’re there, we decide to stop at our room and go to the bathroom before continuing on. Tim turns on the TV and there is the bright red banner on the BBC with a large and frightening caption: “TERRORISTS BOMB THE UNDERGROUND”


Much like US crisis reporting, many rumors abound while facts are being gathered. First, it’s an explosion near King’s Cross. Then it’s six explosions throughout London. Soon it’s up to seven. There is a rumor that a bus has just been blown apart. At least two people are “reported” dead with many injured. Now it’s up to four dead.

Within the hour, London’s police chief is on the air saying that everybody needs to just stay where they are…do not travel at all. All Underground and bus service has been halted.
Of course, now we know that four bombs went off that day. Three in the Underground and one in a bus killing 56 and injuring hundreds more.

While it was probably planned to coincide with the G8 summit taking place at the same time, it was sheer coincidence that Rudy Guilani just happened to be eating breakfast about a block away from one of the explosion sites.

For us, most of the day is spent in the hotel bar where a big screen is set up on the BBC and the stranded guests watch the horrible news. Later that evening, local bus service in Chelsea is running again so we’re able to go about a half-mile into town to have a pub dinner.

Trapped on the Underground
Picture courtesy of Wikimedia
Adam Stacey under CC BY 2.5 license

Although stuck at the hotel and the surrounding are for the day and having our trip to Greenwich cancelled, we are very thankful that we took a few extra minutes before boarding the train. I would hate to think of trying to evacuate the Underground at non-accessible station or, even worse, through a tunnel.

It was a sad day but the locals put up a good front, were still friendly (although understandably miffed at the perpatrators), and the hotel staff very understanding. Besides the direct victims, those who got the worst of it were the thousands of London workers who had to walk many miles home that night.

DAY FOUR
The rallying cry throughout the city today is get back to what your’re doing. Don’t let them shut us down. London is open, come and enjoy. This is what you can do to support us.

Back on the Tube at Fulham Broadway

With that in mind, we took to the streets and underground and continued on. Today, we take the tube from Fulham Broadway to Wimbledon. This is actually one station beyond the famous tennis club but the closest accessible station. We are able to catch an accessible bus from the station wich drops us off immediately in front of the All England Lawn Tennis Club.

There is a museum here with many tennis artifacts such as the Wimbledon trophy, shoes, rackets, clothes (all worn and autographed by such stars as Venus Williams and Boris Becker), plus representations of Wimbledon over the years. There is a well-stocked gift shop but the highlight is actually going downstairs to visit Centre Court, home to the Wimbledon tennis tournament finals.
Centre Court, Wimbledon

Wheelchair users are escorted by a security guard and are able to get right up to the edge of the grass. The Royal Box is pointed out. We were there just about a week or so after the tournament ended and noticed the worn spots of grass that were reminders of what had taken place here recently.

Back on the tube, we navigated back to Fulham Broadway where we catch another train to Kew Gardens. It’s an accessible station here but on arrival, wheelchair users must take a two-block detour, cross a traffic bridge, and then continue on about three blocks to the gardens entrance. Upon departing, you do not have to make the two-block detour to the station.

Kew Gardens is a fantastic and large botanic park. It is a royal palace and the grounds seemingly go on forever. There are many highlights here and there is no way we can see them all.

Today, we concentrate on the large, glass hothouses which contain tropical plants from around the world. The day we were there came in the middle of an exhibit of original works by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. His works were extraordinary and were scattered around the grounds and mixed in with the plants in the greenhouses. Of particular interest were the large chandeliers hung in each of the greenhouses.

There is a nice cafeteria here where you can dine on pastas, sandwiches, fruit and wash them down with a glass of wine or a bottle of ale.

This is our last full day in London, tomorrow we move on. We have a dinner at the Rose, a local Chelsea pub, and call it a day.

...Stay tuned for Part 2 and the Emerald Isle.
 
-Darryl
Copyright 2009 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 6, 2016

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK



Standing in this spot, I’m realizing had I’d been here 15 years ago I’d be dead…swept away to a watery doom. Yet, today, it’s dry with brown, dormant grass and a placid, harmless looking river gurgling through the meadow.
Watch the Video!


Could there really have been that much water here, turning this great valley into a giant fishbowl?  Apparently so, according to the sign with a simple horizontal line several feet above my head.  This line marks the peak of the floodwaters back in 1997 that filled the floor of Yosemite Valley that very, very wet year.
Apart from pondering my imminent doom, we start off on the trail that winds along the bottom of the valley, here and there wandering over to the Merced River. It’s a smooth trail, either paved or built as a boardwalk, suitable for wheelchairs, bikes, and strollers.


From our parking spot at the chapel, we’re treated to expansive views of the tallest waterfall in North America.


Yosemite falls travels almost half a mile straight down to the valley floor before winding up in the Merced River.


The stark granite cliffs that let the falls plunge are perhaps the park’s most famous feature. They surround you here…envelop you…and overwhelm you, especially if it’s your first time here.


Carved by frozen glaciers a million years ago, the U-shaped valley is one of the world’s iconic sites. The shear faces not only inspire vertigo but serve as sudden drop-offs for upper level creeks and streams. Yosemite valley is home to at least 8 major waterfalls. The already mentioned Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Falls the easiest for a casual visitor to see.


We’re here on a mild winter day which means the meadows are a dormant brown while the 60 degree, sunny weather has us wearing short sleeves. Since it’s winter, the high country road up to Glacier Point is off-limits to us being closed for the season at Badger Pass ski area. The slopes at Badger Pass are also closed this winter day for lack of coverage.
After winter, a drive up to the point is a must where you can not only get some of the best views of the park but you can walk right up to a several thousand foot precipice and gaze straight down to the valley below. Not to worry, there’s a sturdy stone fence to keep you up on top…for the more adventurous, a nearby hike to Taft Point can give you those same views without anything in your way. Truly an adventure for the brave.


Continuing on we get to Swinging Bridge, which no longer swings, and offers a wheelchair friendly route across the river to the other side of the valley. The middle of the bridge affords more spectacular views of the giant falls.


The clear pools of the Merced under the bridge offer a spot to view the large, wild trout in the water below.
After our hike along the valley floor, along the river, and through the forests, we decide to take a break from the park and head outside to a spot our innkeepers told us about.


Just off of highway 140, on Triangle Road towards Mariposa, we find Butterfly Creek Winery down a steep, one lane road. With the winery in a barn and the barrel house nearby, we find the owner and a couple of workers relaxing after a hard day of pruning…along with about a half-dozen dogs wandering around.




The pups are friendly and one dachshund named Jake immediately jumps in our car when we open the door.
“That’s Jake, he thinks anytime a car door opens it’s his cue to go for a ride,” winemaker Bob Gerken tells us. Jake’s a cute and friendly guy and he accompanies us into the tasting room.


Bob enthusiastically pours us a tasting tour of the winery and I buy a case of his best.  It’s a friendly, laid-back, and unpretentious winery…my favorite kind.


Back in Yosemite, we head to the village to take in a drink at The Ahwahnee, one of the classic National Park lodges of America. The interior is vast and brooding once you get off of the small entrance lobby. You can see why Stanley Kubrick used the interiors as inspiration when he filmed “The Shining.”


Out back, the lawn melts into the park while kids splash…even on this winter day…in the outdoor pool.  5,000 tons of granite were used in the construction of this building. It was made to last.
We have one more stop to make on this day to the park.
Just beyond Bridalveil Falls is a tunnel that marks the transition from the valley to the high country. We pull into the parking lot for the famous Tunnel View. It’s here that we finally get above the trees and take in a view of the entire valley.


It is awe-inspiring and breathtaking…even if everybody in the park had the same idea at the same time.


-Darryl
Copyright 2012 – Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

THE COCKTAIL HOUR: Hot Dog Taste Off


It's not all drinking, all the time. You need some food to go with those drinks now and again.

One of the best examples of pub food is the humble tube steak known as the hot dog.  Tim and I are somewhat of hot dog snobs, for instance we need to taste a hot dog at each stadium we go to (Yankee stadium? Great. Dodger Dogs? Suck).

Watch the Video!

Recently, Burger King introduced hot dogs to their menu and we wanted to try them and compare them with the offerings at our more well established hot dog chain, Weinerschnitzel.

Burger King's version is all beef. Weinerschitzel's classic dogs are not but they do offer an upgrade to an  all beef sausage for an extra dollar. This makes both dogs the same price, $2.49 in our area.


One is an obviously better tasting dog.  You can see which one in our video above.

Cheers!

Darryl

Friday, June 3, 2016

THRILL RIDE: Highway 41 in Central California


My home state of California might be the location for some of the heaviest traffic in the country, but it is also home to some amazing backroads.






Last week, driving up by Paso Robles and Atascadero, I saw on the map that I could save about 10 miles by going from Highway 46...where James Dean died...to Atascadero via highway 41 and skipping the detour through Paso Robles.






Watch the Video!


I'd never been this way before but what a surprise! Having the road almost all to myself, I mounted the video camera, turned on record, and captured the ride.


The video above takes you along this great and thrilling highway as we drive from highway 46 to Atascadero via highway 41.


Hope you enjoy the ride...don't go on a full stomach!





Darryl
Copyright 2010 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved