The Last of England

My final day in London was to include attending a big Oktoberfest bash that was co-sponsored by two famous Munich breweries. However, the Friday event was cancelled just as I was about to leave for it (thank goodness for text msgs). Apparently the promoters were unprepared and overwhelmed at the event the night before and called it off today. I hope I can get a refund.

That’s the Shard skyscraper looming overhead
So, I turned instead to one of my favorite places, the Borough Market, a vast open-air market beneath the south end of London Bridge. This is a terrific collection of food stalls and other vendors, and I highly recommend it. 

Right at the market is a fine old pub called the Market Porter. No TVs and lots of American Country music on the sound system. Great cask ales available. This is said to be just one of two pubs in the UK allowed to open from 6-9am to serve the early-arriving market workers. They open again at 11am for the rest of us, and it’s a great people-watching venue.


The Millenium Bridge and St. Paul’s on the other side
After a few pints there and a great organic chicken wrap from a stall in the market, I strolled over to the Riverside Walk, which winds along Thames, passing The Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern museum. The weather was great and everyone was enjoying the sun.

I’m homeward-bound tomorrow and have a feeling this may be my last European trek, for a while at least. It’s been 15 years of this for me and I, and travel, have changed. I’m not really enjoying it in the same way any more. So I’m looking forward to getting back to my house and seeing Fall. Thanks for following along with me and, as always, Safe Home!

London’s Libraries and Museums

I spent yesterday riding London’s excellent “tube” system and visiting museums. I got a shock early on, though, when I bought an “one-day off-peak” travel card for the metro and discovered the price had gone from 5.6 pounds to 12 pounds, in just two years! Who’s running this system – the Washington Metropolitan Transport Authority? (that’s an inside joke for D.C. area readers)

The Treasures Gallery
First stop was King’s Cross to see the British Library with its 1.7 million books and Treasures Gallery. The latter includes things like original scores in Mozart’s hand, a Shakespeare First Folio, a Gutenberg Bible, and more. Really a treat to see these amazing written works in person.

Then it was on to Russell Square and the British Museum. Their Egyptian collection is still superb but, like so many things about this trip, it all seems to have gotten more crowded and crass. For example, the donation boxes that used to suggest a 1-pound donation at the main entrance are now duplicated just about everywhere inside and demand a 5-pound donation. There’s also a lot of signage about the “Sainsbury Gallery” (named after a local food chain) but that kind of sponsorship, an unpleasant if necessary fact, is hardly unique to the British Museum. And there are now food trucks in the outer courtyard – proper, navy blue trucks – but still shocking. I felt the need to pause and consider the massive cultural ramifications over a pint of Trooper in a nearby pub.


My new chapeau from M&S
Then I went to Oxford Circus and did some shopping at the Marks & Spencer store, before walking through Soho and getting a great burger for lunch at Byron.

Finally, I ended up at Trafalgar Square, where the cheap sidewalk entertainments are getting out of hand. Between the eight “living statue” performers, the hip-hop duo, and the ten pavement chalk artists, and the crowds, it was hard to walk through the area right in front of the National Museum. Honestly, how many hovering guys in gold suits do you need to see? 

I won’t use the term “good old days” and I know everything changes over time, but it seems as if it’s so often for the worse. Well, at least the art in the National Museum was still great.

Visiting Oxford and Reading

I hopped on a westbound train yesterday and rode out to Oxford for my traditional visit. I got a shock when I found that Far From the Madding Crowd, the CAMRA Pub of the Year a few years ago and one of my favorites, was gone, replaced by a Tesco food mart! Too bad. 


The Turf Tavern in a quiet moment
I visited the White Horse, King’s Arms, and Turf Tavern and enjoyed several half-pints of different English ales in each. The White Horse is an interesting place: built in 1551, it’s one of only two pubs in Oxford left “untouched” and has no TVs, no jukebox, and no game machines. When they renovated the kitchen after a fire in 1980, a witch’s broom was discovered concealed in a wall. For fear of superstition no one would touch the broom, so they simply left it there and boarded it up again, where it remains to this day. 

After a further hour of amiable wandering around Oxford, taking in the wonderful old architecture and envisioning episodes of the Inspector Morse, Lewis, and Endeavour TV series, it was back on the train to Reading.


Unique menu board at the Vaults & Gardens Cafe in Oxford
I lived in Reading in 2008 and always get a nostalgic kick out of visiting. I met up with Mike Mather, my colleague when I opened my firm’s first office there, and we talked UK politics and rubgy (the Rugby World Cup competition is currently in progress in London). Mike is always a font of entertaining and exuberant ideas.

Then I went to my firm’s new offices, which are very nice, in nearby Green Park. After a brief tour, Steve, Glyn, and Tim took me out to The Swan Inn, a very traditional English pub, for a pint. I enjoyed several pints of Timothy Taylor’s “Landlord”, four-time CAMRA Beer of the Year, and it was delicious! We had a great evening and I thank them for being so entertaining and giving up a few evening hours for me. 

Returning to England

I had a relatively nice train ride from Amsterdam yesterday to London. “Relatively” because on the leg to Brussels I had to sit with my back to the direction of travel, which I dislike. On the French Thalys train web site it’s always a roll of the dice for me when trying to select a seat facing the “correct” way. Then there was the lady in the seat behind who hacked and coughed like she had pneumonia all the way – and the car was full so I couldn’t change seats. No ill effects for me, though. At least the service was good, my changeover to Eurostar for the run to London was easy, and Lady Phlegm did not follow me to London.

The “chunnel” train is always nice, the staff is very pleasant, and the food is reasonable. When we got to the tunnel mouth at Calais, I was particularly interested to see the high number of track-side security guards and all the additional new razor-wire fencing. There have been a lot incidents in recent months of illegal immigrants trying to get onto Eurostar trains (under the carriage, on the roof, etc.) to get to England. There’s a squatters’ camp with some 3,000 of them nearby, and some have died in the attempt. I saw none.

On the ride from St. Pancras Station to the Paddington Hilton, my Black Cab driver had some strong opinions about Uber. Mostly along the lines of how unfair it was to regulate the professional cabbies but allow Uber into the market with little or no regulation (and I agree with him). At the moment, there’s a London court case in progress affecting the Uber app but any decision is not expected to seriously impede Uber. 

I was shocked upon arrival to see that Paddington Station is under seriously renovation, with large areas of “The Lawn” blocked off. I also had unprecedented difficulty getting a decent room at the Hilton, which was shocking. Their app for online check-in and room selection is misleading and apparently interferes with getting a Hilton Honors member room upgrade. In the end, I had to go to and reject two rooms before getting a decent one. The second rejectee was on the top floor with a terrace and rock-star amenities, but sadly it came with rock-star damage: stains down the wall, shower stall mold, abused furnishings, and a plastic bag wrapped around the ceiling smoke detector! Thank God for the cell phone camera, as I was able to document all this in pictures when I returned to the lobby to speak with the hotel manager. 

One amusing thing about that room was the 55″ flat screen TV mounted on two columns right at the end of the bed. You could get a suntan from it while sleeping! Too bad if you wanted to watch it without being in the bed. I’m now in a regular, nice Hilton room. 

Honey, I’m home!

I went upstairs to the Mad Bear and Bishop pub for a pint of good English ale and was not disappointed. The Rugby World Cup was on the TV and it was fun to watch while enjoying my pint. The sign above shows when casks of ale were tapped (opened to allow some air in and start secondary fermentation) and when they were subsequently first served. Nice to see that kind of information and rare, too. I’ve never seen a sign like that before. 

I’m off Oxford and Reading for the day tomorrow.

A Visit to the ‘t IJ Brewery

No, I’m not exactly sure how that’s pronounced either, but no visit to Amsterdam is complete without a stop at this great craft brewery.

It’s located right beneath the last remaining windmill in Amsterdam, where the original brewer used to live. Take the #22 bus from Centraal Station to get here.

Here’s their nice Black IPA. Creamy and not too bitter, with Simcoe and other hops, at 5.4% ABV, a very drinkable beer. I also had their Pilsner and their Amber Ale; both very tasty. 

Since my last visit, they’ve updated and expanded their tap room, to very nice effect. Seating space was tripled inside and new glass walls give a view into the brewery. I was the third person through the door when they opened at 2pm on a Monday and by 3pm the inside and outside seating were full – popular place, no? Their bottled beer is available locally, but a visit here should be on any beer lover’s list when visiting Amsterdam. The windmill is pretty dang cool, too.

Venice End Notes

It’s a very foggy morning here in Amsterdam and a fine time to finish a few left-over thoughts from my visit to Venice. 
I cannot emphasize enough how difficult it is to get around Venice with a suitcase in tow. Almost all the streets are made with pavers or cobble stones, which are horrible on suitcase wheels. There are a lot of canals, so there are a lot of bridges you may have to carry your suitcase over. Knowing how to get to your hotel and planning a route in advance is essential, and may affect which vaporetto (water bus) you take. Street signs and building numbers are often non-existent. Don’t think that Google will necessarily show you the way, either. I can’t tell you how often I see folks dragging their bags, looking at their cell phones in panicky confusion as darkness nears. Google can be, and often is, highly inaccurate in Venice and the availability of cellular signals can be spotty. If you’re lucky, your hotel has noticed this and worked with Google to correct their information. If not, well… another piece of good advice is plan to get to Venice by midday or early afternoon. Get your hotel to send you exact instructions about finding it. And, unless you’re wealthy and can afford a private motorboat taxi ($100-120 one-way to/from airport) and a stay at a luxury hotel with a canal-side dock ($500+/night) do not even think of bringing more than one wheeled suitcase per person. The crowds on vaporettos and the walkways make this a horrible experience.

One of the few remaining gondola works in Venice
I saw something interesting the other day: a sign at a shop saying “Stamps and mailbox available here”. Now, this is probably news to the Italian Poste system, because this had nothing to do with them and, I think, borders on fraud. I have always been successful sending postcards and letters via the Poste but perhaps their track record is poor, because private mail systems have appeared. Yes, when I asked in the shop, it turns out they sell special “GPS Mail” stamps (at twice the price of those from Poste) and they have their own private “mailbox” for you to use. The stamps include a bar code and, as their flyer breathlessly informs you, if you get their app you can track your postcard! Now, this sounds to me like a solution looking for a problem, but perhaps there is a demand for it. Or maybe their real goal is to get you to buy/install their app. I saw one other private postal system advertised elsewhere in Venice, too. 

Venice has become a bit like Disneyland: way too many tourists and an over abundance of cheap trinket shops and pushy sidewalk vendors. The mental strain of just walking anywhere or riding a vaporetto is very tiresome. There were a few times when I was distinctly aware of how unsafe my situation was due, for example, to complete blockage of aisles by suitcases inside a boat (you’re supposed to leave them in a special area up front but perhaps there was no room there). Tourists pay no mind to conductors, many of whom just stop trying. I’m afraid the lustre has gone off a bit for me, but maybe coming a little later in the year (as I usually do) would help.

A Very Bad Air Travel Day

Here’s how my 1 hour and 35 minute flight from Venice to Amsterdam became a stress-filled, 12-hour journey. 

I made a rookie mistake and failed to check on my flight status before leaving my hotel. This is really an important thing to do when departing from the Venice aiport because a) the airport is hard to get to and it takes over an hour to get there; b) the airport is too small physically for the volume it handles and doesn’t accomodate long lines well; and c) airport staff and travellers are often quite stupid.

Once it was announced that our morning KLM flight was cancelled (due to heavy fog in Amsterdam), I got on my cell phone right away while standing in line and booked myself on EasyJet flight at 5pm. However, I still endured hours standing in lines, getting conflicting info from KLM staff about possible earlier flights, refund authorizations, and what not. 

Cooled my heels at the airport all afternoon, watching my half day and evening in Amsterdam vaporize. My EasyJet flight was packed, naturally, and I encountered many bad travel cliche situations: I had a middle seat due to my late booking, there seemed to be negative space from my knees to the seat in front of me, the fellow on my left seemed to have ADHD and constantly jiggled his legs and worked the seatback tray latch incessantly, the fellow on my right had a major case of halitosis with onion/garlic bad breath, and so on. It was a long seeming flight.

At least my luggage arrived in AMS with me and catching the train into town went smoothly. Arriving at 7pm meant I couldn’t get a Hilton Honors hotel room upgrade and that means no access to the Executive Lounge, so the nasty effects will ripple through the rest of my stay. In the larger scale of bad things happening in the world, this was very minor (if stressful) and all is well now. Van Gogh Museum, here I come.

The view from my Amsterdam hotel room

The Cicchetti Crawl

Now here’s a nice Venetian tradition: cicchetti, Venice’s answer to tapas. These tasty treats, each 2-3 bites and made with today’s fresh ingredients, are on offer at bars across the city. You have one or two, with a small glass of wine, chat with locals and other travellers for 10 minutes, and then move on to the next bar. An excellent social event!


A mini ham sandwich
Rice and meat on the left; mini pizza on the right
One of my favorites (which I ate before remembering to pull out my camera) is the deep fried Zuccini flower, stuffed with an anchovie. Very fresh, very tasty.

OMG – The Food!

I had lunch today at the Taverna San Trovaso, near the southern end of the Accademia Bridge. I try to have at least one meal here every time I visit Venice because it’s so reliably good. 

What you’re looking at is Mezzalune ai Porcini ed Olio Tartufato (homemade ravioli stuffed with porcini mushrooms and truffle oil). I suspected that it was going to be fabulous so I deliberately avoided an appetizer or pre-meal bread. Mama mia! The first bite flowered across my mouth, bloomed into my head, and quickened my pulse. What an amazing dish! I paused between almost every bite to savor how good it was. It was incredible and after finishing it I didn’t want to leave my table for a long time because doing so would break the spell. If you come to Venice, you must try this taverna.

    The Doge’s Palace and More

    I’ve passed the Doge’s Palace many times in my Venice visits and finally went in for this first time today. This was where the elected head of the Venetian Republic (the Doge) lived and where the governing councils met. A kind of White House/Capitol Hill combo. It’s smaller, of course, but makes up for it with lavish decor.

    The inner courtyard of architectural delights

    Apparently, they wanted everyone to keep their eyes on heaven, or at least on the best approximation of it that large-scale paintings and several tons of gold leaf could manage.


    The central entryway ceiling sets the general tone
    They had a fire that required a complete interior do-over in the 1500s, and we see the result of that effort today. One goal was to impress upon foreign trade envoys that they were dealing with the World Leader in commerce and luxury.


    Imagine the scaffolding and hours of work needed to put this in place!
    I focused my camera upward mostly but the rooms themselves also had ornate marble fireplaces, richly-tiled floor mosaics, and extravagant wall treatments.

    For the 1300-1500s, the Venetians were remarkably democratic (if you were from a patrician family) and had an orderly, elected succession of Doges. The paintings are primarily devoted to religious scenes and the city’s great achievements in trade and battle. Along with about 80 other painters, Titian, Tintoretto, and Bellini all got large commissions during the post-fire renovation.

    And this is the Big One, the Great Council Room, one of the largest rooms in Europe in its day. The Doge would preside over a council of as many as 2,000 members (all from patrician families – common folk were not invited). He was also advised by two other lesser councils. The artwork and ceiling are just amazing!

    I was going to take the tour of the basement prison and the “Bridge of Sighs” but at the last minute I noticed a small sign informing the public that the ceiling height was 2 meters (just about 6 feet) in many corridors. That sounded a bit claustrophobic to me, so I decided to just enjoy the bridge from outside.