All is well, even if you haven't heard anything from us. We've been traveling around Europe by plane trying to see a few spots before the sailing season starts but the more we see the more we want to do so I don't think we've gotten anywhere really! We left our boat hopefully safe in Valencia after finding out that insurance would cover the things that were stolen, less the $2500 deductible. Ouch! Spring was in full swing in Valencia, it had warmed up to short sleeved shirts in the daytime and there was a lot of bustle getting the city spiffed up for summer so we decided to say goodbye to the sun and head to England to spend some time in our foul weather gear!
Flying around Europe is simple and cheap, especially if you pick your days. Because we have a Spain marina address rather than having to use our USA address, things are automatically substantially less. Like the car rental was 2/3 less! Odd how that works. So far we've visited the UK, Netherlands, Prague in the Czech Republic and we are now in Normandy. What a trip it has been.
We spent a couple of weeks in England, the land of tea & cake, tidy hedges and wooden toilet seats. We had a rented car and really covered some ground and met up with friends along the way who added a lot of insight to what we saw. The first stop was York, where we walked the old city walls and went to a great train museum. They had a cutaway of a steam engine and a guide to explain it all which was very interesting. England really values its train network and during WWI it carried soldiers to & from the front lines, the latter in hospital trains.
We felt there was only time to visit Edinburgh for Scotland but we know we want to return to get into the highlands for some hiking- but in summer! We had fun walking the canals and touring the city there. Two days wasn't enough to begin to understand the Scottish accent!
We walked Hadrian's wall and marveled at the history & the pretty, rolling hillsides dotted with sheep. I find that driving around England is a little like being in a fairy tale landscape. And all the houses & farms have been around nearly twice as long as the US has. Jon thinks that in England you just take care of a house rather than own it, before passing it on to the next caretaker. I love the picturesque old farmhouses and we stayed in a couple of them too. We also loved the real food available in the grocery stores. We move around a lot and don't want to eat out all the time so we have gotten to know a thing or two about Europe's grocery stores!
Then we headed to the Lakes District to do some hiking and meet up with David and Tamsin from the boat Twice Eleven, who we crossed the Pacific with. It was great to get together and catch up, to meet their cat named Crunch (he liked to sleep the day away in the closet that housed the water heater) and do some hiking together. But on the day we hiked the Green Gable, it poured and we couldn't see a thing so David sent a pic at the summit where we stood the previous day so we could see the views we missed. But because of the rain, we never got any decent pictures of our get together which bothers me because I don't know when we're going to see them again! We were already off on another hike in a different area of the Lakes District park, which was great too. It alternated between gentrified, rolling, carriage paths and windy grass ridges. A British lady told me that there is no such thing as bad weather in England, you just have to have the right gear. And we did, once we replaced our rainpants, so we were pretty much impervious to it.We found that the British people walk all the time and they have greenways all over.
Then we headed to Conwy, Wales to visit Richard & Ali. I shared a great birthday in Spain hiking with them the week before and now we were going to do some more on their home turf. We walked right off the boat, through the lovely castle dominated town and onto the hillsides that make up Snowdonia National Park. Beautiful weather and great company. Then we came back to the boat for a great British meal that Ali whipped up and local beers. Richard told me that he has sailed around the world and his favorite place is Conwy, right where they started. It's a great spot, I agree.
Once we were on our way again we stopped to explore the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct at Richard's suggestion. Completed in 1805, it is the longest and highest aqueduct in Britain and there is a pedestrian path beside it on one side and nothing but the metal edge on the other! Narrow canal boats can transit it at any time. We also looked at the elaborate lock systems for navigating the canals. A lot of them are self operated and stacked all in a row one after another. And then to top it off, we stayed aboard a large version of one on the Thames River that night because it was convenient to Oxford. While we were pretty interested in doing the canals someday, we have cooled somewhat as it seems even slower than ocean passagemaking. At 3kts, that would be half speed and I think we would go bananas. Plus, there is the freedom of being at sea on a go-anywhere boat; that freedom doesn't come in any other form. So we accomplished something on this day- probably not going to do the canals!
We got up early the next morning to catch a tour of the Mini Plant Oxford because I've been dying to tour a car factory and this was the perfect place & timing. We weren't allowed to take any pics but the tour was amazing. There were more than 1000 robots, 40 people to operate them in one of the major parts of the facility and we got to see nearly every step of the car making process except the paint area. Watching the robots at work making each car with a "just in time manufacturing" concept was amazing. Literally each car in the line has a different combination of options so the robots know which parts they need for each car, and everything is organized and ready to go. The robots simply pull the parts from one moving line, turn and then install them in the cars as they move along in another line. It is surreal, watching them move. We both had a great time and learned so much.
We explored downtown Oxford, went to beautiful museums, visited the old college grounds. Then we checked in with friends Julie & Geoffrey who we met last Fall at our marina. They have the cutest cottage with a thick, thatched roof in the Cotswolds and a lovely garden filled with flowers. We spent a day touring Bath, where Julie grew up and it was one of those days where you pack in so many things it felt like 2 days. We started out with a fancy homemade breakfast, drove to Bath, walked the town, had a classy lunch at the Pump Room, coffee overlooking the river, went to a local art museum, went to a neighboring town famous for antiques with an exchange market that went on forever, stopped at an old pub, and then topped off the night with a great dinner sitting in the welcome warmth of the fireplace. It was a great day.
Driving around in England was funny in that we felt like we were always on narrowish roads whipping by hedges on both sides. We visited Avebury, a quieter place not far from Stonehenge. This site is one of the largest of Britain's surviving Neolithic henge monuments. It's hard to contemplate how an ancient civilization could make such a thing. We scored an unexpected parking ticket at the trailhead but I contested it and won. Never had that kind of success in Boston! We made our way to Salisbury cathedral since it's one of the largest in England and got there in time for Evensong. Even though we aren't religious, we can appreciate this massive cathedral for all the architecture and work that went into it and witnessing the church alive with choir song and candlelight was really nice. In this cathedral, you sit right in with the choir in that special section of the cathedral that I don't know the name of so you have a close up view of which choir boys are singing the strongest, who is yawning, who forgot to bring their music and who doesn't know the words.
Then we moved to London and did the usual tourist things. The art gallery was excellent and the landscapes a welcome change from all the Renaissance art we've seen this past year. I used to think Game of Thrones was violent.... I really enjoyed this museum. We joined in for another Evensong at St Paul's Cathedral since the timing was right. I saw a picture of this cathedral today, while in the D-Day museum. It was peeking out of a swarm of smoke from WWII bombings by the Nazis. I don't know how it survived. We did a lot of walking and enjoyed all the pretty buildings and things that London is famous for. After just over two weeks and over 300 roundabouts, we drove to the airport and headed off to Amsterdam.
We had a week in the Netherlands that wasn't nearly enough. In Amsterdam we stayed on a river hostel boat right in the middle of downtown since it is parked there for the winter and for some reason I loved that place. It was called the Vita Nova, we got a great room and the morning breakfast spread included making whatever you wanted in the griddle so of course it was bacon, eggs & crepes and the works every morning we were there. And Jon was in heaven. Amsterdam had a great vibe and reminded me of Venice but it is more vast. And it is ship shape clean. The red light district was interesting and we never did get used to walking past all the ladies in the windows. The Rijksmuseum could be the best museum I've ever been to and the vastness of their collection was admirable. We've never seen so many bikes, ever! We joined the crowd and rented them on 3 of the days. The first time we biked out to the windmills. There are paths going every which way, all intersections well marked with ferries crossing the canals to connect them. There are as many canals as there are bike paths and we found the whole scene so unique in the places we've been to. Everything was green and spotless and so organized. Dutch houses have huge windows and it seemed every one was filled with vases of blooming bulbs. We missed the tulip fields by about 3 weeks but we still saw a lot blooming bulbs in people's yards and in the markets. We'd really like to come back and bike the country. Given what we spent on trains in the week we were there, it is probably the best way to do it!
We took the train north to the town of Dronten to stay with friends Gerrit & Anne-Mieke from Fruit de Mer and had a great visit. We learned a ton about the polders & dikes and the history of Holland through their eyes as well as museums in their area. Gerrit's father participated in the extensive government project of cultivation of land following the reclamation and diking of Zuiderzee Bay in the north of Holland. The creation of these polders is what makes up a big chunk of the Netherlands and a lot of the farming is done here. In return, he was provided with the farm that Gerrit grew up on. It was this farm that Gerrit sold many years later and the money was used to buy their boat to sail around the world, Fruit De Mer. Nice story. We rented bikes and toured a beautiful old residential & farm area together with numerous picturesque canals that you can skate on in the winter if it gets cold enough to freeze. I would like to do that someday. We ate as much Dutch food as we could including herring & eel along with Anne-Mieke's great homemade cooking and got a good feel for what it would be like to live in a land that is lower than sea level. We had such a nice time with these guys and picked their brains with all of our Dutch questions but I still have some more! I did see a lot of wooden clogs, they are the steel toed boot of the country- we saw construction guys wearing them. It used to be that you could tell which part of the country a person was from just by looking at their clogs because each region was different.
Then we headed south of Amsterdam to Utrecht to see that city. It is smaller than Amsterdam with no famous red light district but it had a great downtown with canals set below the streets which makes it unique. We spent our last evening back on the Vita Nova and got together with Jan Bart & Monique from Victory. Even though they have traded two boats since we last saw them, they will always be Victory to me. We hadn't seen them since Vanuatu, or at least that is what we all came up with. We popped some champagne on the top deck and then went out for pizza. It was a great evening and a good topper for our time in Amsterdam. We both really enjoyed our time in the Netherlands and can't wait to go back.
It was an easy hop to Prague and yet it felt like a completely different world. It seemed like you could still feel the effects of communism on the people. The are a bit stern and reserved. It reminded me of Greece in that everybody smokes and there is a lot of graffiti but littering is frowned upon. We had a brand new apt close to downtown (these are plentiful here) which was lovely but there was only one odd thing about it. The windows (all two of them) were completely covered by this massive billboard that was lit up with floodlights at night. So we were darkness deprived at night and never knew what was going on outside but other than that, it was a great place to stay!
We toured the Jewish area for a day which was moving but painful. Not that we wanted to re-live the events of Nazi Germany, but we are right in the heart of it here. To have that nightmare end and then launch right into communism is overwhelming to consider. And you know that most of the adults you see have witnessed communism themselves and might very well have had a relative who was exterminated. No wonder there seems to be a seriousness to life here.
We also toured Prague Castle which was much less well done in our opinion as there was very little to explain it. We got goulash, tried multiple brands of their famous beer and spent as much time in the old town as we could. We also did the zoo on a perfect sunny day which is set on a hillside with fantastic views. Then our time was once again up and we made our way back to the airport to leave for Paris. But we got delayed 7 hours because of the shooting at the airport where we were to land. I've never seen so many military men in an airport. I feel bad for Paris. We finally got there, but lost much of the day. Bummer!
We have a car rented and are traveling some of the Normandy & Brittany coast and doing the Normandy beaches and D-Day history. It is once again very moving because the story is so intense and evokes such emotion and the scenery surrounding it all is just beautiful. I wish I had a sense of pride about my home country at this point in time but neither of us do. I saw a small framed picture of our frowning president today looking very un-presidential on the wall of the Battlefield Memorial. It shouldn't be in a place where Americans gave so much.
We've had a wonderful time exploring these places and learning all we can. And we've been met with so much generosity from both friends and new people we've met. They've made this trip in many ways. This is a great place to be.
Clicking on any pic except the top one should take you to the album for that country. I haven't done Prague or Normandy yet.