Wednesday, January 21, 2015


November 18

I got up early, with three different alarms set, and hurried over to the hotel for my tour pickup. There were two other people who eventually showed up there also waiting for my tour company to pick us up. I could have had a drink while I waited - an iced tea was only 5£. Yikes!

The tour bus took everyone back to the tour office at Victoria Coach Station - where I had failed to arrive the day before, but had walked past two or three times without realizing it. I asked two people where it was while we were standing right in front of it, so I wasn't the only one without a clue! There was time to kill before the buses which went to the different tour destinations arrived, but I stuck close, not wanting to risk missing my tour again.

The bus was nearly full, but not completely. I was able to have two seats to myself since I walked all the way to the back of the bus. The ride was about 2 hours, but the bus driver, who wasn't an actual tour guide, spent a lot of the time telling us about what we were passing, so it was as good as having a tour guide.

Before we got to Stonehenge, the bus driver, Chris, told us that we were getting close, which side of the bus it would be on, and that he expected to hear us all say things like, "Oooh! Look at that!" as soon as we crested the last ridge and could see the stones. We did our best to not disappoint him.

We got out of the bus and walked down a hill to the tourism center where we were all given little recorders which played the tour information as you walked on the path around the stones. The stones were actually about a mile from the tourism center and a shuttle took you to them. Then you got out and followed a walking path, at your own speed, in a circle around the stones.

I asked a woman, who didn't speak English, if she would take my picture with the stones and she looked at me like I was asking if I could stab her and take all her money. I asked a few more people and finally got a taker. A bossy taker who didn't like where I was standing and had me move several times.

I got the shuttle back to the gift shop and took care of a lot of my Christmas shopping, even getting Christmas cards with Stonehenge on them. I had a little snack in the Stonehenge diner, then it was back on the bus for 2 hours, back to the city.  Chris polled the group about where we wanted to be let out, and we got out at Kensington, I think. Once again not far from Harrods.

I went over to Harrods and this time went in and did the whole business. I ate at a tea shop upstairs - an open faced cheese sandwich. The tea I ordered, they were out of. I had to settle for a rose tea, which was pretty and tasted fine. I ordered a dessert to take back to the hotel for diner, but the waitress, who I would guess was Greek, told me it was better if I went downstairs and ordered it there. They were all marked up in price by 1£ for being served to you in the restaurant.

I went downstairs and the man working the pasty counter must be the happiest man in all of England. You could tell he absolutely loves his job. He gave me a map of the store and told me that no matter what, before I left, I had to go up to "shoe heaven." I didn't really feel like it, but I went up there and I have to say this is where maybe I differ from a lot of women. I do like shoes, don't get me wrong, but I didn't find a whole floor devoted to shoes to be very interesting, especially since I wasn't looking to buy any shoes.

It was dark again, and I had to decide if I wanted to buy a ticket for the underground or walk back to my hotel. I decided that since I just had to cut up through Hyde Park, nearly perfectly north, that I would walk through the park. Unfortunately, the park is poorly lit. There was a carnival being set up, but it wasn't opening until right after I was scheduled to leave London.

It was hard to see my map in the dark, and I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere because I didn't make it directly north in the park. 

I made it more northeast, and had a very long walk down the road to my hotel. And as another example of why it is so easy to get lost in London, the street signs had different names for the streets I was on, depending on how far west I got. I wasn't even sure at first I was on the right street. I asked someone and she told me I was and that I was going the right direction.

After walking for ages, loaded down with shopping bags from Stonehenge and Harrods, I finally made it back to the hotel. Dinner was my pastry from Harrods and a cup of chamomile tea.

I had a hot bath and watched TV while packing my suitcases. I finally had to expand the zipper on the case, but I was able to get everything in.

These guys live in the field right beside Stonehenge.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Making the Best of It in London

November 17

Since the internet was weird at my hotel, I couldn't do as thorough a job of researching where I had to get for my tour in the morning. I had ridden the underground enough the day before, though, to have a general idea of how long I needed to get to the tour office. I asked the man working the front desk in the morning if he knew where the tour office was and how best I should get there. I told him I was planning on taking the underground, but "no, the bus is much better. It stops right in front of the hotel!" he assured me.

From a carousel near the river.

He told me to get on bus 148, show the driver where I was going on my map, and everything should be fine. I got on the bus and discovered that they only accept pre-paid tickets. The driver had already pulled away, so I was stuck on the bus at least to the next stop. The bus didn't go where the guy in the hotel thought, though. The driver, calling me "that lady," as in "that lady, where were you going again?" let me off a few blocks from where I needed to be with maybe two minutes to get to the tour. I kept hoping the tour bus was running late.

A public pay toilet near the London Eye.

I walked quickly in a light drizzle to the street I needed, but could not find the place marked on my map by the front desk man. I asked several people and it turns out, it is almost impossible to find someone in London who is from London and knows anything about the city. I even asked a man cleaning up trash bins, theoretically working for the city of London, who it turns out was from Africa. He told me to ask someone with a cigarette, which seems like very strange advice, indeed. I roamed around and around.

A kid giving money to a busker. The busker was excellent, by the way. 

I walked up the street in one direction until it was no longer the street I needed, passing Buckingham Palace and calling that my visit there for the trip. I turned around, after I was already 10 minutes late, and I went into a hotel and asked if they could call the tour office to find out if I had any hope of catching the bus. The tour office told the man in the hotel that I had 6 minutes to get to their last pick-up location. The hotel put me in a cab. After we're driving for a while, the cabbie asked me if I had a map he could look at. He didn't remember the address he was taking me to and he didn't really know the street anyway. We finally got there and he let me know…14£ later.

I'm reflected in there.

 I got to the tour office and, yes, I was by now very late - almost 40 minutes after when I was supposed to originally get the bus. I was crying. I had to sit down for 10 minutes and calm down before I could even explain to the man in the tour office what happened. He was able to cancel my full-day London tour for the next day and I book a Stonehenge 1/2 day tour, which doesn't go to Bath or anywhere else. It was discounted by 50% because I was so miserable about it. They would be picking me up one hotel over, so I only had myself to rely on getting me to the hotel in time.

I spent the day walking around the city trying to do the things I would have done on the full-day tour. I headed straight to the London Eye and while I was in broke down. They got it fixed in about 1/2 an hour and I was able to ride it. 

Then I went to the Tower of London, where they were dismantling a memorial to fallen soldiers, where the moat around the tower had been filled with thousands of ceramic poppies. A sign said the poppies were for sale, but I asked in a shop and he said they sold out weeks ago - treating me like I was a little bit stupid for not realizing this. 

Is the Tower of London a popular wedding destination?

From there I went to lunch and had a veggie burger which was seemed to have been deep fried. I walked to St. Paul's - I don't know if you can go in, but other than the museums, I didn't go in any of these places. 

Paddington visits St. Paul's

From St. Paul's there is a walking bridge over the river to the Tate Modern. 

The walking bridge has many locks on it with love inscriptions on them.

All of the museums in England boast being free, but they have boxes inside asking for 4£. I paid it at the Tate Modern when I went in, only to discover that there were 14£ tickets needed for most of the exhibits. I looked at the few exhibits which were free and I really do think modern art is garbage.

It's just a piece of cloth on the ground!!!!

I walked along the river, back to the London Eye, stopping in a shop to get Richard Ayoade's book (Moss from the IT Crowd), and crossed over the river at Westminster Abbey. Again, I didn't go in. I continued down the river to the Tate (not modern) museum. It also had limited free exhibitions, but I enjoyed the one I saw which was a history of British art, set up by decades. I didn't give them any money, figuring they could get it from the Tate Modern where I wish I hadn't contributed.

The sun was nearly down, since it was nearly 5 PM, so I got on the underground and came back to the room for a rest. I feel like I'm giving Nice a run for its money here with walking. For dinner I popped down the road to a pub where I had a "jacket" potato with cheese in it. I also ordered water, but never got it. 6£ for just the potato, and that, it seems, would be the cheapest I could eat in London, short of fast food.

Cross your fingers that I see Stonehenge tomorrow.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

'Ello, London

November 16

I checked out of the hotel in Nice, leaving a little thank you gift for Vanya for being so helpful, and got a "transfer" taxi to the airport. It was an absolutely beautiful morning.

I didn't take the time to get any breakfast before heading to the airport, so I tried to get a snack out of a vending machine, but it ate my money, dropping me down to under 4 Euros remaining in cash. I went to a coffee shop and broke down, using a credit card to get a pain au chocolat and a Coke. The plane had a vegetarian hummus sandwich option, so at least I wasn't going to be starving by the time I got to London.

I arrived at Gatwick airport and bought a ticket on the Gatwick Express train which took me to Victoria Station in Central London. From there I had to use the underground (I guess I could have taken a taxi...) to find the stop nearest my hotel (Lancaster Gate) and then make my way on foot to my hotel. Sounds like a great plan, but I had no idea there would be so many steps in the subway stops, and I guess since it was Sunday, all of the trains I got on were extremely crowded, which with my suitcase was not the easiest.

Once I got to my stop and made it outside I had no idea where to go. There were no maps inside the station. Outside on the street there was a map, but as I would learn with all maps in London, it was terrible. There was a woman from Thailand looking the map as well and we learned we were both looking for the same street, so we decided to walk together. Well... We almost walked to Paddington station, which was not correct at all. We asked several people on the way if they knew where our street was. The first three people were Russian and had no idea. The next woman was American and had a general idea because she remembered seeing it not that long ago. She suggested we head in a certain direction and ask again. We did. Finally we met someone who gave us correct directions and asked a woman with a buggy if she knew where the numbers we needed were. She had no idea and just told us to look. Thanks, lady in London. We otherwise wouldn't have thought to look at street numbers. Not that it helped. We were at number 2 and I needed 99, which was at the end of the block. But the Thai woman needed 50, which was somehow not on that block at all.

I didn't stick with the Thai woman once I got to my hotel. Sorry, Thai woman! On a side note, she was just switching hotels for the night because she was planning a divorce from her Englishman husband who she was afraid would find her if she stayed in the same hotel for more than one night. She also booked the room through a friend. Her advice? Never get married.

I checked into the hotel and went up to my room. Which was huge! The biggest hotel room I had on my trip. A double bed and a single bed, which just became the place I put stuff. There was a very small TV and a desk, with all that you needed for a proper cup of tea, including biscuits. It was early in the day and I had nothing planned, so I decided to do some exploring. The underground ticket I bought was good all day, so I was set.

I went downstairs to the lounge (the only place with internet access in this hotel) and I wasn't able to connect because there were too many users. I sat there for about 45 minutes trying to connect, then gave up. I had to go back up to my room to drop off my iPad before doing anything else.

I asked at the front desk where I might find some famous stores I had been advised to visit - Selfridges, Harrods, Marks and Spenser, etc. The front desk people (one who was French, and one who didn't seem to know the city) snickered at me. "Are you serious?" They suggested I should go to Kensington Palace and see if I could see Kate and baby George. Um... I can think of nothing less interesting sounding to do. Reluctantly they told me which underground stop to get off of and gave me "just walk that way" kind of directions.

I got off the train at Oxford Circus, I think, and was in the heart of a huge shopping district. I found Selfridges and went in. I found Marks and Spenser and skipped it. I walked for a bit and then got back on the train and headed to the south side of the park to Harrods, near which I also found Harvey Nichols. I stopped in to Harvey Nichols and had high tea, which was adorable. I walked in and out of Harrods, not really in the mood for more shopping, and made my way back to the hotel. Dinner was in my room, eating the leftovers from my high tea - which were plentiful.

Internet in the hotel was working in the evening, so I was finally able to check in with the world before going to sleep - making sure to still be fully in my street clothes and shoes for lounge internet time.

Paddington Bear is all over the city.

A Christmas display at Harrods, I think.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Casinos, Rain and Perfume

 November 15

I was picked up at 8:50 AM by Sebastian, our driver for the day. We stopped and picked up Sandy and Jeff, a couple from Australia, and Andrea, a woman from California who teaches at the international school in Zurich. At least I wouldn't have to worry about what part of the tour I was missing because it was in Russian. It was a very rainy day, to put it mildly, and Sebastian started out in an obviously bad mood. I sat in the front seat, near Sebastian, and had to hold my seatbelt most of the trip because seatbelts are the law in France, and mine was broken.

We were driven through Villefranche to Eze, another medieval village. There was nothing open in the actual medieval part of the city, so our little group walked around a bit and then Jeff treated us to coffee and tea.

From the village we went to...the Fragonard perfume factory! Sharif had assured our tour that the factory in Grasse was the best one, but he was lying to us. (I still think I hate him a little.) The factory in Eze was larger, and I once again dug out my credit card and bought something.

From Eze we went to Monaco. Sebastian informed me that if I wanted the full-day tour, he would pull over in Monte Carlo and let me out of his van. Alone. On the side of the road. In the rain. With no idea what to do or when another van might come by to pick me up. No cell phone. If I decided on the half-day tour, I would continue with him, but the company was not going to return any of my money. So the next time you are in France, book with Med Tours or Startours! They love to take your money and not give you what you've paid for. Sebastian also thought the afternoon tour, which would theoretically pick me up, might be canceled because of the weather. I did not get out of the van.

We stopped in front of the casino in Monaco and were let out to take some pictures. We were only allotted about 15 minutes, so not enough time to go inside and lose the 20€ I had planned to lose there. Sebastian returned early, and we were all glad to get back in the van, out of the rain.

The rest of the tour was just driving around. We drove the Formula 1 track through the city, went down to the waterfront, went through tunnels. The rain was so heavy that water was coming up onto the road at the port and a wave crashed and hit the full side of the van. We drove through huge rivers of water streaming down from the mountains, making its way to the sea. Sebastian also informed us that the sewage water from Nice was pumped out into the sea. So despite looking beautiful and deep blue, the water isn't that clean. Sebastian finally started to loosen up as we were returning to Nice.

Sebastian offered to drop us back at our hotels, or anywhere else in Nice we wanted. We decided that the four of us would stick together a little longer so we had Sebastian drop us at Sarao, a restaurant he recommended. Luckily, it was good. We ate a leisurely lunch and the rain died down a little. The four of us walked down the Promenade des Anglais and went to a chocolate expo which was open for the weekend in a tent near the water. Free samples of chocolate and cookies made up my dessert.

She's dressed in chocolate.

Sandy had scheduled a massage for the afternoon, so we said goodbye to Sandy and Jeff at the chocolate expo and Andrea and I walked down the shore back toward out hotels. After a brief rest in the hotel room, I met up with Andrea again and we went to a casino near her hotel - I had 20€ I didn't spend in Monte Carlo burning a hole in my pocket. We both had bad luck and left with just some change, which we didn't even bother to cash out. We split a pizza for dinner, with chamomile tea, and headed back to our respective rooms.

Packing took about an hour, but I managed to fit everything in the suitcase without having to resort to unzipping the expanding section...yet. I showered and went to sleep, setting the alarm for my early trip to the airport.