Blog: Travel

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Pictures from Barcelona and Montserrat

I'm slowly sorting through the pictures from our trip. We spent a couple days in Barcelona, where we took two tours: a half-day tour of Montserrat, and a full-day city tour. The latter had lots of architecture by Gaudi. (There was a Picasa link here but it's broken now. Thanks Google.)

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Home from Europe

I've been away for a couple weeks (and thus haven't seen anything on LJ or DW); we spent a couple days in Barcelona and then a week in Rome and environs. I expect to post more later (including pictures, once I sort through them), but some short bits for now:

When we booked English-language tours we were not expecting them to actually be bilingual or trilingual. A guide repeating things in multiple languages has one of two effects: either not everybody hears everything, or the bits are small so there's time for all of them. We experienced some of each. I'm not sure how one looks for an English-only tour, but next time I'll know to look. (All of our experiences in this regard came from a single company, Green Line Tours in Rome.) Yes, I know how Anglo-centric this makes me sound, but I'm probably never going to be fluent in Spanish or French.

We took a small-group tour (eight people) of Barcelona. That worked very well. But the bigger surprise was our half-day trip to Montserrat; we didn't know what to expect or how interesting it would be, but our guide was very good, and when he gave us some free time he gave a good overview of options for spending that time and how long they should reasonably take. (For example: you can hike up to that point for a nice view and it should take about 15 minutes, and if you go another 10 minutes up to that other point you'll get an even nicer view.)

We saw the Pantheon on our last day in Rome. We almost didn't (we were getting tired), but we figured we'd seen all the other archaeological sites so we should see that one too. I was expecting a shell of a building, like the others. There's less inside the Colosseum than you think from the outside, and ditto the Forum. With the Pantheon, though, there's lots inside. Some of it is church do-overs of the original structure, but some original parts remain. Very impressive.

The church is everywhere. There was a pervasive assumption in the parts of Italy we visited that of course everybody is Christian (and probably Roman Catholic). One tour guide referred in passing to a synagogue (that we didn't get to see) as a "Jew church". I knew that Italy is a Christian country, but its implications were more extensive than I'd anticipated.

We went to Ostia Antica, which was described in one review as "Pompeii done right". We also went to Pompeii. Both were interesting. Ostia Antica did more with less; Pompeii is better-preserved but the tour was more shallow. (A different tour might of course go deeper.)

The hotels we stayed in had wardrobes or clothing racks but no drawers, and had no alarm clocks (or clocks at all). We were surprised.

The Vatican museum sure is big. You walk a while just to get there, and then a while longer to get from the ticket office to the actual entrance, and then a long while inside (and we didn't see anywhere near all of it), and then a while longer to get out... I think we walked five miles that morning.

I drank a beer in the Munich airport, but it was not a new Oktoberfest offering, just a weissbier. Oh well; at least I've had beer in Germany. :-)

Meals in Italy take at least an hour and a half. Universally, in our experience.

I've seen cab drivers in other countries claim the meter doesn't work, but I've never seen one outright lie about the fare before this trip. We saw the price on the meter right before a driver in Rome cleared it and told us a higher number. Sheesh.

Our flights were all fine. (Lufthansa, operated by United.) I was a little surprised not to go through passport control when going from Barcelona to Rome; sure, EU citizens can move freely, but I thought everybody else had to get stamped on the way in and out of each country. But no, my Spanish entry stamp and Italian exit stamp both have EU logos in them, and not having an Italian entry stamp was not a problem for getting out. Huh.

I had previously had a very good international-flight experience at Newark. This time, on the way back, it was hard to find where we needed to go. A little investment in better signage would pay big dividends.

Trip to DC

Dani and I went to Washington DC for a few days. (I start a new job next week so vacation time will be limited for a while, hence this timing.) Here are some random notes.

The Smithsonian is big. Really big. Actually it's a bunch of museums. We knew all this, and knew that we'd barely scratch the surface, but knowing it and experiencing it are different. We knew that "museum fatigue" would be a challenge and we figured we'd just cope with it as it happened (instead of trying to carefully orchestrate things). Sometimes the answer was "um, want to see this possibly-interesting half-hour show in the planetarium/Imax theatre?".

The Air & Space Museum was a priority for both of us. On our first visit, after wandering around for an hour or so on our own, we were able to join a guided "highlights" tour. As with the British Museum, this is totally worth it in my book. Yes, we spent more time on the Wright brothers than I would have on my own, but we learned cool stuff that was worth learning. And because the tour was only about an hour and a half long, we could then explore more on our own. (And as you might have picked up, we came back for a second round another day.)

I've read a lot about the space program of the 60s and 70s, watched the documentaries, listened to the music ( :-) ), and was glued to the TV for parts of it. (Yeah, like many others, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.) Even so, even having seen the pictures, I was a little blown away by how small the early capsules were. Standing next to a Mercury capsule was quite educational.

We also made two visits to the National Gallery (and still didn't see most of it). Part of it we dispensed with quickly -- there we were wandering through some rooms when each of us realized that the other doesn't care for impressionists either. Great; let's go see something else. :-)

Having Wikipedia on tap was valuable in the gallery. There were lots of religious paintings with random saints who -- as far as we knew -- weren't part of the scenes being depicted. Being able to look up who those guys were was handy, even if it didn't answer the question of why they were there. Saint Jerome (from, IIRC, the 4th century, but that doesn't stop him from being in all of Jesus's major events) was extremely common, like that guy who insists on getting into all the family photos.

They have a large painting -- seemed like about 8 feet tall by 12 feet wide, or thereabouts -- of Daniel in the lions' den. It made us wonder where such a painting was hung originally. If it were something about Jesus I could imagine it being over (or near) an altar or otherwise in a church, but Daniel and the lions? But would a painting that size have been practical in someone's home in the early 17th century? Where was this painting intended to be hung?

We went to the National Zoo on what turned out to be the hottest and most humid day we were there (oops, but we were expecting rain for the rest of our visit). Very disappointing -- the only big cats I saw were a lioness and two of her cubs (no tigers), the pandas were likewise not in evidence, and the ratio of paths we had to walk down to animals to be seen was high. I understand, of course, that the animals should be given nice enclosures with hiding places and I certainly want the animals to be treated well. I was just disappointed by the resulting experience for us. (On the other hand, the small mammals were quite nifty and some of the apes were interesting to watch -- yes indeedy, tool use is not a problem.)

We noticed that the Spy Museum and the Crime Museum were near each other and thought to do both in one trip. The former was rather disappointing and we didn't go to the latter. I was hoping for more about modern techniques, particularly electronic stuff. I felt like I didn't learn much about surveillance, identifying threats, and such that I didn't already know from watching Burn Notice and Person of Interest. Oh well.

Other places visited:

  • American Indian Museum (brief visit): very interesting restaurant, which was recommended to us.
  • Natural History Museum: I wanted to go into the butterfly habitat but the line was long, no one was around to sell me a ticket, and it was the end of a long day. But we enjoyed some of the other exhibits, particularly the bones.
  • Tour of (some) monuments. The FDR monument (more elaborate than he wanted, we were told) was quite nice. It also had a progression of waterfalls, leading us to identify all other waterfalls we saw (like one at the zoo) as extensions of the FDR monument.
  • Bureau of Engraving: they have a ~45-minute tour where you see how (paper) money is made. You have to get tickets in the morning and then come back later for the tour, which is a bit of a hassle, but we were able to get the last tour of the day so at least that didn't break up the rest of the day. (It's a significant walk from there to anywhere else we wanted to be.)
  • We tried to go to the Museum of Industrial Arts but it turns out it's been closed for a while. Oops.
  • No, we did not try for the White House (requires planning far in advance, and the benefit-to-security-hassle tradeoff seemed unfavorable). I kind of wanted to go to the Capital but that requires tickets via your congressfolks and we probably left that too late too.

We saw two shows, The Magic Flute (which I previously wrote about) and Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Folger Shakespeare Library, which was fun and I hope to write about later.

We are both comfortable with plenty of walking, yet we felt somewhat worn down at times. (Temperature and humidity in the upper 80s probably affected me; I've never been good with wet heat.) The Metro is certainly helpful, but there's still a lot of walking. We needed to be able to mix in some things to do while sitting down, but there didn't seem to be much of that. (We'd tried and failed to get an evening riverboat tour; in retrospect we should have tried for an afternoon one.)

By the way, yes we know lots of people in DC and I'm sorry we missed you all. We were a little gun-shy about trying to add "organize all the social stuff with all the people there" to our list.

Day-trip: Oxford, Warwick Castle (and passing mention of Stratford-on-Avon)

I enjoyed this day-long bus tour. Our first stop was Oxford, where the university is made up of 32 individual colleges. Our guide told us that students apply to Oxford and are assigned to colleges, though I think applicants can indicate preferences. Many lectures are open to the entire university, and according to our guide you can study most subjects at most colleges -- it's not like there's a math college and a fine-arts college and so on. Anyway, he took us to one of them, Christchurch.

The dining hall may look somewhat familiar to some of you: Read more…

Paris day trip

A coworker pointed out to me that if we were going to London anyway, we might consider a day-trip to Paris. I hadn't realized that it was only about a two-hour train ride. So we did that.

We booked a tour package that started/ended in London, so they arranged train tickets and the local guide. That was absolutely the right thing for us beginners to do -- and I would not do it again. Lesson learned: book our own train tickets (and get to choose the times and the seats) and either find a local tour or use the on-and-off tour-bus loop. This worked ok, but I would have allocated the time differently. Read more…

London trip (A few photos)

I'm having some trouble with Picasa tonight, so the other two albums (Paris and Oxford/Warwick) will have to wait, but meanwhile, a few pictures from our trip to London in January: Read more…

London: brief notes

We went to London for several days. I'm hoping to write more about some of this later, but meanwhile, some unorganized notes:

Food prices: whoa.

We booked a two-day pass on the "original tour", an on-again, off-again bus loop with several routes. (The main route has live guides; the rest have recordings.) This was a good way to see a lot of the main sites; you can get off at anything that seems interesting and pick up another bus later. We didn't do enough of that "getting off and back on" thing; I would do that differently in the future. (That is, we ended up chewing up time to, on our own, get back to some of those places later, when we didn't really need to.)

That bus tour comes with a riverboat tour on the Thames. That is not worth the time; there's not much to see from the river, really. I think that would have been true had it been sunny and warm, too, but I can only speculate as it rained every day we were there. (On the other hand, there is quite a bit to see from the Seine, so that river tour is quite worthwhile.)

The London Underground served our needs very well. Our hotel was within walking distance of three different stations, signage was very good, the on-train announcements were excellent (upcoming stops, where this train is going, transfer points, etc), and we never had to wait more than a few minutes for a train. I do wonder, though, how those with mobility issues can use it; I saw no lifts and there are a lot of stairs and escalators. Yet one of the stations we passed through regularly seemed proud of its track having step-free access. I never did figure that part out.

Street signs, on the other hand, were often lacking. We had to rely fairly heavily on GPS and map apps to figure out where we were and where to go once we got off a train. We would have been seriously hindered without smartphones. (Fortunately, T-Mobile's data plan works overseas without extra fees -- or so they told us, but of course we'll check the next bill.)

We bought a powered USB hub (with international power plugs as a specific feature) to charge phones and tablets and tested it for several days at home. It died a day into our trip -- shorted out, it appears. Fortunately we also took conventional adapters, but must remember to write a bad review for Amazon.

We also bought a couple of travel umbrellas (small enough to fit in a coat pocket). They were flimsy, hard to open, ugly, probably made in a sweatshop in China... and I'm very glad we had them.

We booked a day-trip to Paris. Seeing the city was nice, the tour guide was so-so, we didn't really spend enough time in some of the places, and the organizing tour company was terrible on logistics. If doing it again, I would buy our own Eurostar tickets for the train to Paris and then book a local tour separately. We booked through Viator (local operator: Evan Evans). Must remember to write a bad review, err, somewhere. (Where do people review tour packages?)

On the other hand, the day-trip we booked through Viator/Evan Evans to Oxford and environs was very well-done. Must remember to write a positive review somewhere.

Anything that could be tied to the Harry Potter movies was. This is where they filmed such-and-such scene, this room was the model for the dining hall, this chess set was the model for the giant chess pieces in the first movie, $actor slept here... Harry Potter and Napoleon were the common references, with the latter definitely taking a back seat.

When in London one goes to the British Museum, of course. While there we took the guided "highlights" tour, a brisk 90-minute run through selected exhibits all over the building. I thought that was a huge win; yes we also spent a lot more time wandering around on our own, but the place is huge and this way I got at least tiny samples of rooms we never would have gotten to otherwise.

There are two basic approaches (that I've seen) to museum exhibits: "display stuff" and "tell a story". The Tower of London tends to the latter -- so they channel you to walk through spaces along a certain path, stringing out documentation and related sidebars and stuff along the way. Both styles work, but the latter doesn't lend itself to sampling -- if you want to see part of it you walk through all of it. We did a lot of walking that day (and a lot of stair-climbing).

We saw two shows, Wicked (which was excellent!) and Spamalot (which was silly and fun). I wish we'd seen more, but it wouldn't have fit -- the day-trips took out two evenings, and we also didn't want to be up late the night before the Paris trip, which (allegedly) had a 5:45AM call at the train station. (It didn't really; that was part of the bad logistics.) But still, two good shows!

Some may recall that, a year and a half ago, Air Canada badly messed up most of my flights and in the end said "tough luck". On this trip we flew United; on the return trip our first plane was late and it looked like we were going to miss a connection (especially since we hadn't known that we'd have to change terminals at O'Hare and go through a long security line all over again), but fortunately the second plane was also late so we made it. But I'm telling this story because, while we were in that long security line, United was busy pro-actively confirming just-in-case seats for us on a later flight and sending us email about it. What a difference in customer service!

Spamalot (short notes)

That was very silly (as expected, given the source). One thing I didn't expect, and greatly enjoyed, was how "meta" the show is. Several songs comment on the show itself (e.g. "this is the song that goes like this", talking about standard tropes), and the watery tart's solo midway through the second act was hilarious. (No spoiler here, but if it comes up in comments, consider yourself warned.)

Providing the lyrics for the final song (hey, some people might not know all the words already) so the audience could sing along was a nice touch.

There are a few hooks for localization. Some cities scan better than others, but I assume touring companies are up for the challenge. :-)

Wicked (short notes)

We saw Wicked tonight in London. I previously only knew the short (two-sentence or so) description of the show; hadn't heard the soundtrack or much about the show.

Great show! There is a lot of complicated stage-craft (and lighting-craft) in this show and the production we saw was smooth and effective and at times visually stunning. I'm sure I missed a lot of smaller details from row T, but even so I thoroughly enjoyed myself. We also had a good cast and (except for the finale) excellent micing, so everything was clear. I loved some of the humorous bits in the show, too. ("Blonde." :-) )

And let me also say how thrilled I am to see a starring female role written for an alto. I was beginning to doubt that these existed.

I hadn't considered the difference between touring companies and long-term residence. Building out the production pays off when you'll be there for a year or ten... I don't think I've ever seen a show that's been in its theatre for more than about three weeks before.