Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Ashton and Will go to Europe

I am finally back in Oxford after five weeks of travelling all over Europe. I had limited internet access and no time to really sit down and write a blog, so I will proceed to tell you about the last five weeks of my life. Don't worry. I'll break it up into a few different posts, so you can take breaks. I'll start with my trip with Will to London, Amsterdam, Paris, and the Forest of Dean.

Will arrived in London on the 14th, and I was to meet him at Victoria Station. Little did I know just how big Victoria Station is! I couldn't find him at first and called him in a panic, afraid I would spend the day helplessly wandering the busy streets surrounding the station. Finally, I spotted him outside of Sainsbury's in the Victoria Shopping Center in his patched pants and travelling hat. It was so relieving to see him! We spent the day wandering around London. We went to Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben - all the big city sites. It was beautiful, although I did expect Big Ben to be a little bigger. :)

That night the woman working at our hostel suggested an area with Indian cuisine. We found a small restaurant with some delicious food. Will was talking about his lamb dish from days after that. Then we went to the Covent Garden where we had a pint at Will's first English pub. It was really busy and loud, and we ended up next to an older couple who were either newlyweds or having an affair. The PDA was too much to take, so we headed back the hostel as soon as we could squeeze ourselves between them.

The next day we wandered around some more and came across a proper Irish St. Patrick's Day parade on Picadilly Street. It was quite the celebration, with everyone wearin green, Irish flags, and Guinness mad-hatter hats. We took a lot of pictures of an adorable little boy all decked out for the occassion. After stopping at the Primark on Oxford Street to get our own St. Paddy's attire, we went to the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, where people were using catapults to launch enormous water balloons into the air!

That evening we rode the London Eye. We literally hopped on because it is in constant motion, and for the next half-hour we rode in a little bubble up, up, up over the city. It was spectacular! As we got off, it was startig to get dark. (The sun doesn't set here. It's up one minute, and then it's dark. There is no progression with the beautiful orange, red, blue, and purple hues we're used to in Missouri. The London Eye glowed red and the museum behind it was the background for a light show. Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament were also lit up at night. Gorgeous!

It wasn't all wonderful in London, however. Will made his first ATM transaction, and his debit card was promptly shut off. He called Bank of America several times throughout the trip...all in vain. It put a damper on things and could have been disastrous had he been travelling alone. He had me to borrow cash from, though, so it all ended up ok. Maybe he was planning it from the start to get me to pay for everything... :)

From London we flew to Amsterdam and arrived around 11 a.m. tired and hungry. We found our way to the Hemp Hotel (yes, hemp) with the help of some nice locals. The hotel only has five rooms, each with a different theme and decorated with hemp materials. Ours was the Afghan room. It wasn't the Ritz by any means, but it had a wonderful charm that we would not have found anywhere else.
Amsterdam is famous for its pancake houses, so that's where we headed for lunch (although we found that many restaurants and stores aren't open until nearly noon). We went to a pancake house called the Carousel, where I had a huge pancake with apples and bacon in it. Yum!

Bellies full, we were ready to go exploring. We went to the Van Gogh museum first - one of Amsterdam's most famous destinations. I ad no idea how diverse his painting styles were, as I was only familiar with his later works. After that, we went to Anne Frank's secret annex where she and her family hid from the Nazis. The rooms are all empty now, as Otto Frank wanted them left unfurnished, but the bookcase/door which guarded the entrance is still there. I held my hand on the little handle on the back of it for a longtime, imagining all the times they pulled it closed unsure if they would be discovered. Anne had decorated her small, narrow room with cutouts from magazines, which were still on the walls. It was hard to think about how a 13-year-old girl could spend two years of her life hiding in an attic with blacked-out windows...only to die in Bergen Belsen just weeks before the liberation. I am so glad I had the chance to see it; it makes me appreciate what I have.

That night we went to the place I was worried about the most - the Red Light District. We wandered around it aimlessly for a little while until we happened upon a tour led by a lively and entertaining British guide. We joined the group, and he led us through the streets that span four canals of the district. He showed us gay clubs (one of which called "The Cock Ring"), a condomerie with condoms in any design from the Statue of Liberty to Maggie Simpson, and of course the famous windows where women (and some men) offer 15 minutes of sex for about 50 euro. Will and I laughed for about 15 minutes after seeing one of the girls invite a boy who couldn't have been more than 17. His face was priceless - one of those "me?" faces, like a supermodel had just asked out the biggest geek at the party.

The next day we wandered through the canals and found a little market where we tried Amsterdam's famous fries for lunch. We ate them on the edge of the canal and took in the beauty of the city. This was also St. Patrick's Day, so in our green, we headed to the Heineken Brewery. I thought Will would like it, but it actually ended up being a great time for me too. Will bought a personalized bottle of Heineken, and we both discovered that Heineken actually tastes pretty good too, especially their extra cold taps! We ended the night back in the Red Light District, where we had delicious waffles with chocolate on top!

As we checked out of the Hemp Hotel to take a train to Paris the next day, the woman who managed the hotel told us not to let the Parisians get "too French" on us. After a 4-hour ride, we arrived at St. Christopher's Hostel. (Great, new place). The next day we took a four-hour walking tour through Paris. Our guide, an Aussie named James, was equally entertaining as he was informative. We saw Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, the Champs Elysses, the Arch di Triumph, Napolean's Tomb...the list goes on and on. After the tour we wandered arond the city before going to the Eiffel Tower. It was cold and windy on the second level of the tower, but the view totally made it worth while!

Day two in Paris included a traditional French lunch and a trip to the Louvre. Will didn't like what he ordered, but when you can't read the menu, it is kind of luck of the draw. The Louvre is huge, of course, so we spent our time in the main gallery where the Mona Lisa is, the sculpture garden, and Napolean's apartments. Very cool.

After Paris, we spent a night back in Oxford before heading to the place we were most looking forward to - our Bed and Breakfast and the Forest of Dean in Blakeney. The proprietor, Marian Buckmaster, was there to greet us when we arrived at the Old Nibley Farmhouse and showed us all around her beautiful home. After we unloaded everything, Will grabbed his camera, and we set off for the forest via a little public footpath Marian showed us. It went right through the neighbor's field, which was full of sheep. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the woods, picking which way to go on a whim. We found a few mines and a couple of rope swings too. We had a wonderful time, and the weather was gorgeous! We stopped through to visit the sheep again on our way back, and when we did a little lamb came right up to us. It was really something.

The only problem we found was the (lack of) transportation in Blakeney. Nothing was open around our B&B, so we called a taxi to a little pub called the Bailey Inn. The pub was filled with friendly locals who served us great pizza (of all things), gave us information about renting a car the next day, and helped us get a taxi home.

The next morning we woke up excited about having our first English breakfast. We went downstairs to find tea, locally made juices, smoothies, homemade poached berries, yogurt, and homemade granola! Then the REAL breakfast came! Sausage, homemade toast, bacon, eggs, mushrooms, and homemade jams. We ate so much we could have died (happy). We had decided the previous night that we were going to rent a car so we could get around. We found our way to the rental place, but after about 2 hours of aimlessely driving down the wrong side of the road, we decided that the car wasn't a good idea. So we went back to the B&B and wandered the forest again - a much better way to spend the day.

That night we nibbled on the lunch Marian packed for us, since we didn't eat any of it after being so full from breakfast, and watched Indiana Jones. As we were leaving to go to a pub for a drink, I took a bite of the cake she had made. Mistake! My mouth started feeling funny, and Will raced downstairs to ask if there were peanuts in it. Sure enough, there was, and Will had to stab me with my Epipen. Within minutes I was fine, just couldn't sit still for a little bit with all the adrenaline running through me, and we went to the pub. Will had a glass of Ashton Press cider in my honor, although he didn't really like it, and I had some juice. The pub was full of locals with really thick accents. It was great to listen to them talk, even though I could barely understand them. We had another fantastic breakfast the next day before heading back to Oxford. Will hopped on a coach the day after that, and our Eurotrip was over...WHEW! End of part one! More to come soon!

Links to more pictures of our trip:

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