Category: Travel Tuesday

Wrocław

The biggest obstacle to overcome with traveling to Wrocław, Poland was not getting there, it was learning how to properly pronounce the name of the city. With all trips to countries that speak another language I try to learn the 5 basics in their language:

Hi – Cześć
Goodbye – Do widzenia
Please – Proszę
Thank You – Dziękuję
Cheers! – Na zdrowie!

Luckily I knew some of these in Polish already since my grandpa is Polish but it’s a tough language to learn and properly speak/annunciate. So far I’ve visited 4 different cities in Poland over the last 2 years and each one has been completely different from the other. It is quite an expansive country covering a lot of ground. However the reason we picked Wrocław at this time of year was to visit the Xmas Market there.

First a little history on the city that is called the “Venice of Poland.” It is a university town in the southern half of the country about 3 hours NNW of Krakow. It is also one of the biggest cities that is closest to the borders of both Czech Republic and Germany. In fact Wrocław, at one point or another, has been part of the Germany, Prussia, Austrian Empire, Hungary, Bohemia before becoming part of Poland with the redistribution of land after the end of WWII in 1945. The saddest part about the city in regards to the war is when it was destroyed. The city, at the time of the war called Breslau and part of Germany, was a strategic spot on the river and thought of as a fortress city to be city to be held at all costs. In February of 1945 the Soviet Red Army sieged the city and held the Germans inside for almost 3 months destroying much of the city. The Germans finally surrendered 2 days before the end of the war but the damage had been done to the city.

This was pretty evident walking around as you had a gorgeous Market Square and many incredible buildings and architecture throughout many parts of the city but also had the depressing post-war housing on random blocks throughout it as well. You could go from bright-colored, intricately designed buildings and facades to dreary, grey, cement apartment buildings then back to historic churches and buildings in a block or two. Looking back I’m actually sad I didn’t get any pictures of these to compare and contrast the styles. Also, while I’ve got some pictures below my Facebook album has plenty more.

Since the war however Wrocław has been totally revitalized and today is a cultural center in Poland. Not only is it the 4th largest city in Poland (population-wise) but it’s the only Polish city in the top ten places to visit from London according to the Guardian. It’s know as having a high and growing standard of living and was also named one of the 230 “Best Cities to Live” in the 2015 according to Mercer coming in at #100 (in case you’re interested Vienna tops the list).

It will also host events such as the Theatre Olympics, World Bridge Games and the European Film Awards in 2016, IFLA Annual Conference and World Games in 2017 and has been named as European Capital of Culture and World Book Capital for 2016. Exciting times for a city which has been, literally and physically, all over the map. It really seems to be coming into their own. However we were in town for really 1 main reason, the Xmas Market which runs for about a month from November 20th to December 22nd this year.

The Market Square, which is quite large, has wooden stands and stalls lining the streets selling everything from souvenirs, clothes to blankets to hats to plenty of food. Desserts, smoked meats, cheese, chocolate gingerbread, candy floss and mulled wine make up just some of the offerings you can find amongst the vendors. Sadly however there seemed to be quite a few repeats with the same items being sold on each side so there were probably only 1 street worth of unique stores and the rest were just their other stalls. Either way it was a blast.

There were rides for kids, a huge tree, open air and real wood-burning fire pits near the mulled wine section (which is where we spent plenty of time) and of course some dwarves, horses and Santa walking around. While we knew we would be occupied with the markets we certainly spent some time during the day exploring the rest of the sights in the city.

We spent some time in the Old Town (Ostrów Tumski) area when we crossed Tumski Bridge and went to the top of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

Found some cool street art and art exhibitions on the streets around town.

We had some of the best ice cream at the Polish Lody.

We found some delicious food and beer at Targowa … as well as some cleverly named craft brews.

We had drinks at the oldest pub in town, Piwnica Świdnicka, which lived up to both of the things I read about it. An amazing basement beer bar and restaurant in the bottom of Town Hall dating back to 1275 … which is also sort of a tourist trap due to the prices there. (Now in full disclosure Poland is ridiculously affordable and cheap from $ or £ so the remark of high prices is in relation to any other bar we visited in town for a beer).

Ate way too many pierogies at Pierogarnia Stary Młyn … and I mean way too many! (I’ve also got to say that our homemade ones are better … gonna miss those this year at Wigilia)!

We found Jatki street which has a colorful history. Back in the day it was the alley where all the butcher shops were located. Now it has been refurbished and turned into art galleries. To pay homage to their predecessors though, at the beginning of the alley you can find some large statues of the animals which were slaughtered and sold in the butcher shops of old.

We found good food and beer at Szynkarnia (twice) which was a quick walk from our hotel, Hotel Puro, which was ideally located and a great spot.

We also tried to go to the Panorama of the Battle of Racławice but with our luck it was closed for 10 days for cleaning and construction while we were there. So we walked across the street to check out the Bastion Ceglarski.

Saw one of the most beautiful sunsets and magic hours ever in the Market Square.

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Finally, and most importantly, we got to go on a dwarf hunt! That’s right, the city has created a fun “game” of sorts placing little dwarves all around town for visitors and locals to try to find. It all started in 2001 and today there are over 255 as they continue to pop-up throughout town. Each dwarf has a name, reason for being put up (and usually for being put in a specific spot in town) and a person or company who pays to place and maintain it. We found almost 40 of them but had to buy the book so we could learn more about this fun feature of the city … here are some examples:

So while I highly recommend going to Poland (well definitely Krakow or Wrocław) for a super affordable trip I think we have also found an annual event … Xmas Market hunting. I am a fan of checking out ones that aren’t going to be extremely packed and on everyone’s list. Those “off the beaten path” places are great and I love when I tell someone I’m going somewhere and they have absolutely no idea where that is.

Happy holidays and happy exploring out there!

– Beard

Living On Airplane Mode

We’ve been in London for exactly 5 months now and for the entire time I have lived in Airplane Mode with my US phone. I actually started this trend last year when I traveled outside of the States for 2 months and didn’t feel like racking up international call, text, roaming, data charges on top of the expenses of traveling, eating, drinking, etc. 2 years ago when I was gone for 2 weeks my bill for an international plan and all the things that came along with that plus the re-ups along the way was around $300 extra which is just silly in today’s world.

Therefore this week I’ll not only highlight how I lived on Airplane Mode but some tips to help you out. I’ll also preface this by saying that I did get a UK sim card for an old phone I brought along so I was able to set-up calls for interviews and things out here but it is literally the cheapest and most basic plan I have ever seen and was surprised they even had something this small anymore.

When I board an international flight nowadays I simply turn my phone into Airplane Mode and don’t turn it off until I land back in the States. This way I’m still able to do the most important thing on a flight, put on some music to help me fall asleep … the drinks help too.

With more and more cities implementing free wi-fi zones and areas all over it’s become easier and easier to travel like this without getting screwed by your mobile provider on outrageous rates. Plus a huge majority of stores, coffee shops, restaurants, bars, museums, etc all have free wi-fi as well. While it may not be super prevalent I always scan my wi-fi networks to see if there is an identifiable and easily recognizable network based on the name of the place I’m at.

Most companies seem to be good about setting up the names of their network to align with the name of the business or something other than a mashup of numbers and letters. While not all places make it that easy it’s always simple to go ask someone if they have wi-fi and what the password is if it’s protected. Most people give it out but I’ve found plenty of spots that don’t offer it as well.

One of my main criticisms thus far has been the lack of wi-fi in a lot of the better coffee shops around town. I realize that you don’t want people coming in for a £3 cup of coffee and taking up a seat and using free wi-fi for 5 hours but there are ways around it. Through the ‘magic’ of technology you could limit an IP address to 30 minutes of free wi-fi per day or have a unique code you enter from your receipt that allows you to logon for an hour. But instead they have stuck to their guns and shown their pride for wi-fi free zones when you ask at the counter.

However it is quite simple in almost every major city and growing to be easier in places that are far removed as well with the continued spread of the technology and need/want for wi-fi. I was shocked at some of the places we found wi-fi last year while exploring Iceland or in small towns in Czech Republic or random spots in Poland.

So armed with my Apple iPhone, some convenient apps and a nose towards seeking out free wi-fi I have been able to survive and thrive while cutting costs. So here are some tricks, tips and general insights:

  1. iMessage keeps me connected to those I really care about … people who also own iPhones. I will admit I freaked out a bit because after being out here for 2+ months and having no issues at all with my iMessage I woke up one day to find a Verizon update for my phone which then required me to re-verify my # via SMS text message or a phone call. Since this wasn’t possible I simply started using my iCloud/me email address to send and receive iMessages with other iPhone users. As long as you’re connected to wi-fi you’ll be able to send iMessages (blue messages) to those like-minded Apple users via wi-fi.
  2. Whatsapp and Viber help keep in touch with those poor suckers who don’t have iPhones. Sure there are other apps that do the same thing, work off wi-fi to send messages and make calls, as opposed to using phone data but these are the 2 biggest and best ones around today. The cool thing about these is that they’ve evolved from messaging and also allow you to make calls without racking up international rates, crazy fees or otherwise since it’s all done via wi-fi.
  3. FaceTime, as well as Skype, help me feel closer than I am with people. I’ve only used Whatsapp a few times to call people and, even though I absolutely hate talking on the phone, it’s a good feeling when you can have technology bring you literally face to face with someone else. I routinely talk to my family using both of these methods … I mean how can you not love the fact that we spoke to my grandma last year from the town in Slovenia her family was from or that I just spoke to my grandparents the other week as they were sitting on their balcony while on vacation in Arizona.
  4. You save so much battery it’s almost silly not to. It’s been great not having to charge my phone multiple times a day because it’s not constantly searching for signals or using up mass amounts of battery to run apps in the background. Now I am also a bit OCD about closing out apps when I’m done with them and no longer will be needing them for a while so that helps but I’ve noticed a huge difference in my battery life
  5. Offline is the new online. I always feel connected because so many apps have features to save things for offline use now such as Gmail for important emails in case you can’t get wi-fi, Google Drive so I can edit or look up info without having a wi-fi connection, Spotify so I can still have plenty of tunes everywhere I go without having to connect. One of the newer features of Google Maps lets you save offline maps and directions now on your iPhones as well which leads me to my next point …
  6. Google Maps is literally the best thing ever. I have a pretty solid sense of direction and tend to pick things like that up very quickly … I walk from Point A to Point B once and I can always remember how to get back, street names, etc. Not everyone’s that lucky and sometimes I’m lazy but I’ve lived off Google Maps a lot since moving to a brand new and huge city. The most disorienting thing for me out here is coming out of new tube station and not really recognizing which way is N, E, S, W or which way I’m supposed to go. You could also use your Compass app (which is built into to every iPhone and can’t be deleted) but Google Maps is usually a solid option, even without wi-fi, for a few reasons:
    • As long as you’re signed in, it will remember places you’ve searched and usually bring those up first when you’re looking at an area on the map
    • Be sure to zoom in and explore an area when you do have wi-fi so it’s already in the apps memory, this way it’s quicker for it to pull up even if you can’t find wi-fi
    • As I mentioned you can now save offline maps and directions
    • They’re moving towards a model that will not require anyone to need to be on wifi to use and explore Google Maps … while that is still a ways off the future if bright
    • Maybe I’ve been lucky but whenever I open the app within a few seconds it locates my position perfectly on the map and I’m off

So if you can afford to actually take a vacation where you don’t need to be on call and do what you’re supposed to do, disconnect and relax, I suggest you take a shot at using Airplane Mode and saving some money on crazy international plans and fees … then just spend it on more drinks and meals!

– Beard

One Night In München

In honor of Oktoberfest kicking off this past weekend I’m looking back on our quick but fun trip through München last summer. Now we only had 2 days, got great weather and packed in a decent amount of sights. There’s a ton more to do and share and I’m sure we’ll be back to Bavaria at some point for some romps through the country but here’s a fun story from the first night  trip to the home of Oktoberfest.

Since we were  taking the train in and out-of-town (from Regensburg and onto Salzburg) we decided to stay at a hotel close to the station. Normally this doesn’t seem like a great idea but it worked out well and you’ll see why later. But I will say that the main train station here is not in some far out area of town like a lot of cities, it’s a quick 5 minute walk to the main area of town and maybe 10 minutes to the town square.

The day we arrived it was already late afternoon so we simply took a stroll into the city center to find a beer (that wasn’t tough) and a place with wifi so we could decide where to eat that evening. It was a Friday in June so the weather was beautiful and the streets were filled. There were a couple of places we had either found by ourselves or were recommended by others who had been. Obviously we wanted the authentic German experience, food, drink (aka beer) and atmosphere for our first dinner in town.

This is where the location of our hotel came in because after being on the road for exactly a month we didn’t want to stray too far this evening. We’d paced ourselves well and knew that Lindsay and Maggie would be joining Amelia and I the next day so we decided to not go too big and have a calmer night. We chose to head just down the road to a restaurant with a biergarten named Augustiner Keller.

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We walked in and the place was packed so we knew it was going to be special. There was a restaurant which we looked at and decided to try our luck in the biergarten since, again, we’re going for the atmosphere. The place was packed and we walked around for a bit before seeing a table for 8 that only had 3 people (a guy and his 2 kids) sitting at it so asked if we could join their communal table. We could see the hesitation as he asked us how many people we were. We thought this was kind of rude and we were just asking out of generosity since everything was open seating and there were no beers or place settings at any of the other 5 seats. Finally he agreed to let us sit if it was only us 2.

We got talking to him and his kids (who were visiting from Iceland which was our first stop on our journey) and he was much more pleasant than our first impression had left us believing. We came to find out that the reason he had been so hesitant to let us sit with him was that he actually owned this table and had since the 80s with some friends. You see there was probably 75% or more of the biergarten which was long communal tables with shitty service, paper plates, plastic cutlery and paper napkins. the other 25% (or less) were private tables that people paid a hefty price for and are passed down through families and generations that they have whenever they want, get A+ service, real china plates, silver cutlery and cloth napkins.

We couldn’t believe the luck we had fell into with this table as another one of his buddies showed up to the table with his son. So there were 7 of us eating pretzels twice the size, chowing down on authentic German food and drinking steins of beer (well not the kids).

We thought this night couldn’t get any better and in our small talk with the owner of the table, we asked him if it’s always this crowded. He sort of laughed and said “wait, you don’t know what tonight is?” Turns out that it was the Summerfest and one of 3 nights a year that they have a live band play in the biergarten hence the overflow of people and electric atmosphere. After a couple of hours the rest of the party was ready to take off as they’ve gotten in their few German drinking songs and anthems. They told us that we’re welcome to stay at the table as long as we want and they’ll take good care of us … so we spent a couple more hours and a couple more steins there. The band actually broke into a Gipsy Kings 3-song block at one point in between traditional German songs. This was a night to not forget and has given us a great story that we sort of stumbled into.

The next day Lindsay and Maggie got in and we continued our tour of the city and then onto the rest of our trip. Our only regret was that they weren’t there that night to experience the Summerfest at AK but I guess if they were we wouldn’t have gotten to sit at the special table … everything works out for a reason I guess.

– Beard

Bruxelles

Now we all know that Bruxelles, and Belgium in general, is known for a few things:

  1. Beer
  2. Waffles
  3. Chocolate
  4. Mussels
  5. Fries

 


But this post isn’t going to be about those things. Instead I’m going to focus on 5 facts we learned that you may not already know and what made the capital city so fun to visit (in addition, of course, to the aforementioned items).

Fact #1

Bruxelles is a bilingual city. The country is almost split between 2 languages with French prevailing in the southern half and Dutch in the northern or Flemish half. Some German is also spoken but French and Dutch dominate and the location of Bruxelles, while technically in the northern half, is now far more French-speaking although almost everyone speaks both (as well as English).

The major change over to French came the Belgian Revolution in 1830 ironically when Belgium became an independent country and then chose to incorporate more French than Dutch language in the parts of the country. It actually is a controversial issue in parts of Belgium as a lot of people think that Dutch should be the true national language. Especially given the fact that in 1695 France set ruin to the capital city when they overtook it under King Louis XIV. It traded hands a few more times before the 1830 Revolution however I suppose if you wanted to find a silver lining here, it’s also sort of nice to almost immediately be bilingual, but not every looks at it the same way. They also have 2 parts of government which more or less represent those different factions.


 


Fact #2

Bruxelles-Capital Region is actually made up of 19 municipalities. Of course the main one is the City of Bruxelles which is the capital of Belgium. However there are 18 others which form the region. Now another controversial point is that they all have their own mayor, council, executive and function as different areas which can be tough for proper and equal government across the board. Obviously consolidating, like the rest of the country has done, would mean less politicians there. In 1831 after the Belgian Revolution the country was split into 2,739 municipalities but that has obviously been consolidated into cities with the Bruxelles-Capital Region being the main exception.


 

Flag French Name  Dutch Name
Anderlecht.jpg Anderlecht Anderlecht I
Auderghem.jpg Auderghem Oudergem II
Blason Berchem-Sainte-Agathe.svg Berchem-Sainte-Agathe Sint-Agatha-Berchem III
Coat of Arms of Brussels.svg Bruxelles-Ville Stad Brussel IV
Coat of arms of Etterbeek.svg Etterbeek Etterbeek V
Evere-Blason-1828.png Evere Evere VI
Armoiries Forest.png Forest Vorst VII
Ganshorenwapen.gif Ganshoren Ganshoren VIII
Coat of arms of Ixelles.svg Ixelles Elsene IX
Armoiries Jette.png Jette Jette X
Coat of arms of Koekelberg (escutcheon).svg Koekelberg Koekelberg XI
Coat of arms of Saint-Jean-de-Molenbeek.jpg Molenbeek-Saint-Jean Sint-Jans-Molenbeek XII
Coat of arms of Saint-Gilles.svg Saint-Gilles Sint-Gillis XIII
Coat of arm Municipality be Saint-Josse-ten-Noode.svg Saint-Josse-ten-Noode Sint-Joost-ten-Node XIV
Blason Schaerbeek.svg Schaerbeek Schaarbeek XV
Uccle Blason.png Uccle Ukkel XVI
Watermaalbosvoordewapen.gif Watermael-Boitsfort Watermaal-Bosvoorde XVII
Coat of arms of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre.svg Woluwe-Saint-Lambert Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe XVIII
Coat of arms of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre.svg Woluwe-Saint-Pierre Sint-Pieters-Woluwe XIX

Fact #3

Bruxelles is both the de facto EU and NATO capitals of the world. Both have their main administrative buildings and offices there. Obviously this has meant that many conferences take place in the town (it ranks third in the world in this category). This also means that there are plenty of ambassadors and journalists all over as well. However this also means that lobbyists have made their way here as they normally do.


 


Fact #4

Bruxelles boasts 2 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The first was one of the most gorgeous town centers/market squares I’ve been to, The Grand Place. It’s a mix of public and private buildings which are almost more amazing at night than during the day. After the bombardment and destruction of this area in 1695 by Louis XIV they outdid themselves picking up the pieces and rebuilding as many of the buildings are from the end of the 1600s. I’ll really just let the pictures do this one justice.


 


The other World Heritage Site, which we didn’t see this trip, are the 4 townhouses from Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta. Built near the end of the 1800s, they are now Hôtel Tassel, Hôtel Solvay, Hôtel van Eetvelde, and Maison & Atelier Horta.

Fact #5

Finally Bruxelles hosted the Expo 1958 or the Brussels World’s Fair. Now it wasn’t their first, they also did so in 1888, 1897, 1910 and 1935, but it was the first one after World War II. The last one before WWII was in 1939-1940 in San Francisco and showed off the 2 newest addition to the city, the Bay Bridge (1936) and the Golden Gate Bridge (1937). But getting back to Expo 58, the big site to see, which we took advantage of checking out, was the Atomium. It’s a replica of an iron cell blown up 165 billion times. It saw 41 million visitors during the fair and still attracts plenty of people the 20+ minutes it takes to get there from the city center. Now the spheres you can get to via stairs and escalators were not all that impressive as a “museum” but taking the elevator to the top sphere, which also has a restaurant, gave you great panoramic views of the city.


 


So having only done a little over 48 hours in Bruxelles, I can’t wait to go back … and don’t worry there will be more posts on the food and beer I mentioned earlier!

– Beard

London Calling

This week I thought I’d share some tips with how I am becoming more and more familiar with my new home city of London. Some you’ll be able to use anywhere, some are more specific to London (or cities where the apps I feature are available).

Now the fact that I have visited this mecca of diversity, and 3 times before we moved here really didn’t play into much of my knowledge. Mainly because each time I was here it was either for school or I was interested in the tourist agenda as opposed to acting like a local.

Tip #1

Use Your Feet – don’t get me wrong I love public transportation, Uber and black cabs out here however taking the time to explore an area on foot will give you the best vantage point. I enjoy getting intentionally lost sometimes because you can find those unexpected gems, find new routes or shortcuts to where you want to go or just grow your knowledge of what’s out there. Sure it takes longer to walk somewhere than bike, cab, train, etc but there’s nothing better than walking to point A and finding points B & C.


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Tip #2

Open Your Mind (And Your Mouth) – first up, the mind. Try new things you normally wouldn’t to expand your horizons be it a new type of food/restaurant, a sporting event, museum or some specific cultural activity to your city or area. These things can be a great way to get to know not only a new side of your city but about yourself as well, you may surprise yourself with what you like or are capable of. Also don’t be afraid to talk to people and make new friends even if it is just randomly talking to someone in a bar, coffee shop, browsing through records/books or waiting for a bus. Randoms can have some good tips or ideas you would have never thought of and can be a useful asset when used properly.

Tip #3

Read & Review – I try to take the time to read reviews and do research prior to embarking on a journey. Whether it be to a nice dinner somewhere or simply a trip to a café I like to have some knowledge of what I’m walking into before I actually do. Once I do experience something I will (although not as often as I should) write a review. It’s good to let others know your experiences with something however I feel like you can tell a huge difference between the 2 different types of reviewers:

  1. The Connoisseur – these are the people who write a lot of reviews, some good, some bad, some neutral; they are truly meant to give the reader a fair opinion of the spot in question so it can help formulate your decision to go or not; I will sometimes click or check to see how many reviews the user has posted on the site to get a better idea of their activity and possibly motive
  2. The Extremist – these are the people who only get on to post an overly fabulous review or, more likely, a scathing, horrible review of the worst experience they have ever had; obviously take the bad with a grain (or two) of salt unless you notice a very consistent trend in the reviews for a specific spot but don’t throw too much weight behind a stellar review otherwise you’ll be disappointed if your experience doesn’t live up to the “ABSOLUTE BEST ____ IN THE WORLD!!!!”
Tip #4

You Can Do It, Put Your App Into It – smartphones are your friend in this world and you literally hold so much information in the palm of your hand so utilize it! Here are some of my favorite apps and/or websites for travel or knowledge-sourcing:

  • Eater – I used this site and app religiously in San Francisco to stay atop the food and drink game in the city (and still do) but they have it available in multiple U.S. cities and hopefully continue growing their international presence; they also have sister sites/apps such as Curbed (House/Home), Racked (Fashion) and The Verge (Up & Coming Assortment)
  • OpenTable – again, being a concierge in my previous life, I used this so many times a day I could recite the restaurants in reverse alphabetical order in San Francisco but this is a true global site and app with tons of info on restaurants as well as more-cultivated reviews
  • Yelp – while this seems to be bigger in some areas of the world and country than others I’ve found it pretty helpful out here in London but it usually required a bit of wading through those “extremist” reviews in the U.S.
  • Google Maps – to some this may seem like an odd choice but I assume you haven’t used the full power of google maps then as it’s far more than a map but brief descriptions, more & more user reviews, website, phone, etc; usually you know where you’re going so why not explore the area and enhance your search

Now these may all seem like pretty obvious and well-known choices. Chances are you’ve used at least 3 of these at some point while trying to find something. Obviously there’s a reason for this as almost all have a growing global presence and at least a semi-cultivated user review base. So don’t gloss over the usual suspects and take advantage of their full usability.

Tip #5

London Living – now that we got the broad spectrum sites and apps out of the way let’s focus on some specific to London. Since we’ve been here less than 4 months I’m obviously still adding to my arsenal and not including all the people/places I follow on social media so please pass on any others you use as well.

  • The Nudge – by far my favorite site and app for two main reasons. First they have a good focus on smaller, underground things happening in the city and secondly they don’t overload you with info and emails. I’ve found some great restaurants, bars and activities in the city thus far thanks to The Nudge.
  • Time Out – they’re a little bigger and have a wider range of topics than the previous option. While they still include hip, new things they also branch out into more of a Groupon feel with their travel options and ideas.
  • Fever, Dojo and Socialite – I’ve clumped these 3 together because they are different versions of the same idea. Basically you sign up and pick as many (or few) topics that interest you as you’d like them they tell you what’s going on that may interest you. Some are very specific things such as a list of football clubs while others are vague like the arts. I’ve started using these 3 most recently so haven’t delved too intensely deep yet but they each show promise for their purposes.
  • Londonist – another site/app like the last 3 but a bit more well-established with a wide-range of topics covered for your enjoyment and cultivation.

I hope this article will be able to help you a bit no matter where you live as well as if you are visiting London anytime soon! Obviously if you’re out here let me know as I am more than happy to lend my “expertise” but, like I mentioned earlier, I’m always looking to learn new things in and about my current city.

– Beard

Let’s Take A Bath

Over the last bank holiday weekend we not only visited The Cotswolds but took an extra day after that to overnight in Bath before returning to London. The last time I was in Bath was 2001 when I visited the UK in high school. Now while small things like restaurants and bars have changed the main sites of town looked exactly the same as I remembered them.

We decided to head into town earlier than expected as it was raining in The Cotswolds and we’re glad we did. It gave us added time to look around and get a tour in before dinner. We decided that the B&B life was pretty good in The Cotswolds so we’d stick with that in Bath and booked our 1 evening there at the Pulteney House. The place was well-located just outside the main city square and across the River Avon but a 5+ minute walk to the downtown. It was also right down the street from Great Pulteney Street which is a famous road in the city leading to the Pulteney Bridge which connects Bathwick (in the east) with the city of Bath.


Great Pulteney Street

Great Pulteney Street

Laura Place Fountain

Laura Place Fountain


The street was a grand idea for a tourist attraction that never really lived up to its billing. It was conceived by Sir William Pulteney and completed in 1789 by Thomas Baldwin. The street was 1,000 feet long and 100 feet wide with the façade of all the buildings being the same whether it was commissioned as a home, office or hotel. At the far east end of the street now stands The Holburne Museum which is a collection of works from the estate of Sir William Holburne, a famous Bathonian back in the 1800s. At the far west end of the street lies the Pulteney Bridge which doubles both as a bridge as well as shops along the River Avon. The other cool thing to see, if you walk down the steps is the weir in the river which gives it a cascading effect.


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We also took a walk up to the No. 1 Royal Crescent which is a massive building consisting of 30 townhouses built in Georgian style in the shape of a crescent. It, like Great Pulteney Street, was also built in the late 1700s and today still features 10 townhomes, 18 homes which have been split into various size flats, the Royal Crescent Museum and the Royal Crescent Hotel. On the tour, which we chose to forego, you can visit up to 13 rooms which are staged to depict how they would have originally looked in the late 18th century. The view from outside however is the most impressive in my book and the real reason for visiting.


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The other thing to see in Bath is something you can’t miss as you come into the center of the city since it stands out quite prominently. The Bath Abbey  is an impressive site with a long, rich history which is all but commonplace out here but still one of the reasons I love exploring and visiting these sites being from the U.S. where we see a building 200+ years old and think it’s ancient. The 1st monastery on this site dated back to 757 CE and stood until the Norman Invasion in 1066. The other interesting fact about the first monastery is that King Edgar, who started his reign in 959 CE but was officially crowned King of England at the Anglo-Saxon Monastery in 973 CE … Elizabeth II visited the Abbey in 1973 to celebrate the 1,000 year anniversary of this occasion.

After the Normans invaded in 1066 and destroyed the building they constructed a Norman Cathedral which took around 100 years to complete as they say it was consecrated sometime in the 1160s. During the 13th century the Bishops moved their seats from Bath to Wells and the cathedral started to get less use and turn into a state of ruin in the late 15th century.

The current Abbey was started in 1499 and but wasn’t completed by the time Henry VIII ordered all Dissolution of all Monasteries in 1539. Ironically enough the Abbey was finished in 1616 and one of the main contributors who donated money to help finish the project was Elizabeth I who was King Henry VIII’s daughter.


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Now the last, and most well-known tourist attraction in Bath, is the old Roman Baths in the city next to the Abbey. This was one of the best and most impressive tours I’ve been on with tons and tons of information, history, gorgeous sites and was well worth the money. Definitely allow plenty of time to truly soak in (pun intended) all the info … I would recommend at least 1.5-2 hours.

Immediately I knew that the tour and baths looked different from when I visited and toured them back in 2001. In fact they had a £5.5 million renovation finished in 2011 and it absolutely shows plus they’ll be continuing to update over the next few years and following phases of this project. It is quite amazing however to think that the Romans who occupied this territory back in 60-70 CE originally built these baths and many parts are still quite well preserved today, granted work and new construction has taken place throughout the centuries. The Romans found a way to harness, direct and capture the hot spring water which flowed through the town by using drainage techniques which allowed for both steam and sauna rooms as well as circulating water in and out of the pools to keep them fresh.


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We didn’t visit the Thermae Bath Spa this time but that’s certainly on our list for a future visit to or through the city!

– Beard

Land of Hills and Sheep

My parents are in town this week and mark our 4th visitors to stay with us (although only the 3rd unique visitor) and the first family members to make the trek across the pond. It was both of their 1st times ever to London so as soon as they landed we got did what every 1st time tourist to London does … got out of the city and spent a lovely weekend in the countryside. Luckily my parents were not only down with the plan but kind of suggested it. Such troopers and truly making the most of their empty nest at home now! They wanted to have a full experience of the UK in their 8 days here and take as much in as possible. Plus we figured that a couple relaxing days in the country would be better to get over any jet lag than bumping elbows with thousands of other people trying to see the sights in town. So on the recommendation of my worldly uncle and wanting to go somewhere I haven’t been either, we decided on The Cotswolds … literally meaning sheep enclosures (Cots) and hills (Wolds).

I figured this was simply a small, super quaint town, a couple of hours outside of London in the gorgeous rolling hill countryside of the UK. Well I was right on almost all of it except for the small part. It is roughly 25 miles (40km) wide by 90 miles (145km) long and stretches from big cities such as Bath in the south to Stratford-Upon-Avon in the north; Gloucester and Cheltenham in the west and almost out to Oxford in the east. The Cotswolds is also what they refer to as an AONB or “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty,” a distinction it received in 1966.This essentially means it’s a cross between a national park, a Unesco World Heritage Site-esque spot (which the UK denotes for themselves) which usually has a town(s) in it … and the name is for good reason as the pictures will show you. 2 other quick things that the area is known for are their thatched roof (which weren’t as prevalent as I suspected) and yellowish-tinged limestone from the area which makes up a huge majority of the homes there.

Quite side note/trip, speaking of Unesco World Heritage Sites that we took on the way out to the Cotswolds was the world-famous, and Spinal Tap inspiration for the song of the same name, Stonehenge. While we all wanted to see this epic site none of us really expected to be blown away by some super old rocks but I must say that we enjoyed it far more than we thought, especially for the somewhat hefty entrance fee of nearly £20/person. So after some shopping in the gift shop we boarded the bus out to the site. Upon exiting the bus you see up close just how massive most of these stones are and how, 4,300+ years ago, it had to be such a massive task to not only erect and place them but to do so all the way from 156 miles away in Wales where the stones originated from.

The other thing that was nice about having the bus system is that it somewhat controlled how many people were out in the field at once so it didn’t become overly crowded and unmanageable to move around the walkway. The path that leads around all sides of the stone monument keeps you rather close but far enough away that you can’t damage anything or get hurt and get some amazing pictures, such as these:



So after a quick stop for a random late lunch along the way in Avebury, which ironically enough has the Avebury Henge, that was smaller and of course not near as famous, we were finally off to the Cotswolds. After doing a bunch of research and narrowing down our places to stay to 2-3 different sections we decided to go with Bourton-On-The-Water which is commonly referred to as the “Venice of The Cotswolds.” Being a small, quaint town it is also the land of the B&Bs so we chose to stay at Manor Close this visit as it was in the heart of town and not a bad price for a weekend outing (plus they had availability which was tough to find as it was a bank holiday weekend). Now there will be plenty of pictures below but instead of doing all the research for you on the top things to see and do in each area I’m simply going to highlight what we did … so pretty much the same thing. Of course some of it is the stuff you will find in any guidebook or website but we also found some, what we think, were hidden gem spots. I will also preface this by saying that a lot of this was possible because we rented a car to get around the area as the public transportation isn’t as spectacular as London’s.


 

Manor Close

Manor Close

View from our room to the back courtyard

View from our room to the back courtyard


The first evening we arrived around 5pm and pretty much stayed close to home. We walked around our cute, quaint little town, hit a couple of shops, snapped plenty of incredible pictures, stopped for a pint at the local pub and got some dinner. The highlights of the town were definitely the river that ran through the middle of it and, even though it was only 6+ inches deep, it was really enhanced the atmosphere. You immediately noticed the yellow limestone featured in just about every single home, building, church, etc. Although we didn’t actually go into either the Cotswold Motoring Museum or the The Village Model (which includes 1/9th replicas of the town and from what we could see through the gate were quite impressive and well-crafted) they were 2 tourist spots in town. We did walk up and down both sides of the high street and hit a few of the shops that stayed open “late” on a Friday but decided the best thing we could do was to spot at a pub for a pint. The spot I had seen online and lived up to the reviews was the Kingsbridge Pub. Although it was your normal pub atmosphere on the inside they not only had some outdoor seating in front which looked over the river but a large outdoor patio on the side which also had some river views and a place for live music at certain times. While we didn’t hear any music we did sit outside and do some drinking and people-watching.



 

Finally we needed to grab some food and after canvassing the town decided to stick with the more authentic British spot and go to the Rose Tree Restaurant. It was a busy place and booked up inside as we didn’t have a reservation but we were again fine with sitting on the patio, even with the chill in the air, as we again had some river views. As always we went with some family style ordering and did the Stilton and broccoli soup, crab and shrimp salad, mushrooms in Stilton and whiskey sauce and risotto with sun blushed tomatoes, peas, cashews and cheese. Both items with the Stilton were the winners I believe as the pungent-ness of the Stilton was cut by both the broccoli and whiskey. The risotto was also a favourite on the cool night however the only good thing about the salad was the crab. After a long day of travel for my parents and an early morning for us as well we called it a pretty early night so we were all ready to go exploring the next day.


 


We started Saturday off with a delicious English breakfast from our B&B complete with a runny egg, bacon, sausage, tomatoes and mushrooms. After eating way too much we decided that the best thing to do was walk it off so we went exploring on one of the many public footpaths (not to be confused with footbaths) that led out from Bourton-on-the-Water. They are quite easy to find and pretty well marked and a great way to get around the entire area.

After walking about 1.5 miles we ended up at Lower Slaughter, horrible name but gorgeous little town. And when I say little I mean little as there were 2 of the nicest and probably most expensive hotels in the area here, The Slaughters Country Inn and Lower Slaughter Manor, some residential homes and 1-2 other little places to eat/shop/stay. My uncle had recommended the former as a place we should stay but the town was a little too quiet and the price a bit too much for what we were looking for. From there we continued the trek up to Upper Slaughter. The neat thing about the 5-6 different legs of the path we were on (this one was called Warden’s Way) was that they all had a different look and feel. Some were trekking through the middle of a large field with a strip cut out for you, some were down a narrow tree-lined path and others were right through the heart of town and looked like you were going through someone’s front or backyard. Upper Slaughter was a bit bigger than Lower and again offered some gorgeous scenery, views and photo ops. At this point we were probably just over 2 miles from our place so we decided to start heading back to get in the car and start exploring the other little towns that weren’t as close by as it was almost noon by this point. We did stop back at the little shop in Lower with super-friendly owners where we picked up some trinkets and had a coffee and piece of cake on the back patio looking over a small pond and rolling hills.



We decided that the best way to maximize the rest of our day was to essentially drive around the high street areas of each town, park somewhere for no more than an hour and explore a bit on foot while going to find the 1 main attraction the town was known for. First up was the large town (for Cotswolds standards) located just outside the western edge of the actual AONB called Gloucester. We went straight to the Gloucester Cathedral which you could see as you entered town. The gothic looking place was not only quite massive and intricate at every turn but also a place where they filmed some scenes from some movie made into a book called Hairy Potters (I think I spelled that right although I’ve never seen or read any of these). The church was also famous for another reason. After almost being torn down by King Henry VIII, it was saved for one reason. A former King, Edward II, had been buried there a few hundred years before which essentially prevented him from tearing it down and saved the church. The small area around the church was cute and quaint although you could tell that if you drifted outside of this it became a bit urban and lost the feel of The Cotswolds. Down the street from the church was a cute and cleverly named spot called the Comfy Pew which served up food and drink with some outdoor seats looking directly at the church. So after taking a walk through the church, and the classic car show which happened to be going on outside of it, we spent maybe 20 minutes visiting a few different streets in the area before deciding we’d seen enough and it was time to get back to nature and the small town feel we had hoped to see.


 


Next up was Winchcombe which will forever hold a dear spot in our hearts and memories. Pulling into town we saw a wedding letting out around 2pm with 2 great, old Bentley’s ready to chauffeur them off to presumably the famous Sudeley Gardens and Castle for pictures which we would be visiting later. We parked and took a stroll down the lovely little high street in what had your typical Cotswolds village feel to it. When we reached the end we backtracked and went down the only other street with some shopping and restaurants on it in the hopes of finding some traditional afternoon English tea service. While we checked out a few spots none of them really seemed that special and we finally asked the last one we entered for some advice. They mentioned that while they only serve tea, clotted cream, jam and scones (we were also looking for the sandwiches and cake as we hadn’t had lunch) that we should try the White Hart Inn. We realized we had passed it earlier and figured we might as well give it a try to continue our traditional English eating habits we were quickly forming. After sitting down in a pub-like atmosphere we made our choices and placed our order. When the tea came out I couldn’t help but notice it was Numi brand tea bags. Okay not very traditional but maybe the rest will make up for it. I’ll cut to the chase here and just tell you that it didn’t … at all. The sandwiches we received, instead of being cute near bite-size quarters like you see in the movies and any other place for tea service were full sandwiches cut in half on massive slices of bread that would be full meals anywhere else. The cake was again nothing special and the scone, while better than expected, couldn’t really save this meal. Not to mention the fact that we were either done with or had cold tea by the time any food came out. Our first bust but we didn’t let that stop us. We decided to get out of there and redeem ourselves at the towns castle and gardens. We arrived 40 minutes before closing time and were told that the last admission had been 20 minutes before that so at this point Winchcombe was on our shit list and should be abolished from The Cotswolds (although I’m sure the gardens were lovely).



We hightailed it to Broadway after realizing that we now only had a few minutes before our next tourist attraction also closed at 5pm. Luckily we were met with a smile and a bit of compassion here as the ticket lady let us pay and head up 5 minutes before closing time. The Broadway Tower, although not very tall, is strategically placed upon a tall hill at the north end of The Cotswolds and offers some spectacular views of the valley below. This “Saxon” tower was completed in 1798 and stands only 65 feet tall. It is also odd in the fact that as you can see below it only has 3 towers or columns. It is a folly, as the Brits call it meaning a decoration tower, although it did serve as a military lookout during the wars. Also next to the tower lies a bunker which was build during the 1950s but decommissioned in 1991 after the Cold War threat was over.



We decided to also head into the actual town of Broadway as it was the runner-up for our places to stay. Immediately upon getting into town it had a weird feel of the uniqueness of The Cotswolds along with the happening, posh, new place to be seen more than see for yourself. The high street was full of nice hotels and B&Bs and restaurants with the occasional pub mixed in. Nicer shops lined the streets although it still had the feel of old facades. Broadway is known as the “Jewel of The Cotswolds” and now I see why. It’s not so much the most gorgeous or picturesque town out there but the nicest and newest and, judging from some of the houses, maybe one of the richest. The place we were going to stay, Russell’s, looked nice but a bit too modern although we did love their slogan of “a restaurant with rooms.”



Finally that evening we decided to end our journey searching for a recommendation from a local in Lower Slaughter. We arrived in Chipping Campden a little after 6pm and immediately fell in love with the long and authentic high street, buildings and homes lining all the streets as well we drove in on and it was our first real look at the thatched roofs. We also benefited from some amazing sun as it was slowly starting to go down and absolutely lit up the sides of the limestone it was shining brightly upon. After all our searching we had found the town we had thought of and finally waiting for. After taking a stroll down the high street, taking some pictures and planning our next vacation here, we stopped at the recommendation from our buddy in Lower Slaughter of a live music spot with a great piano player on Saturdays in the middle of town called Huxley’s. Upon arriving we of course hit more bad luck as they were closed for a private party that evening. So again it was not to be although we took a walk through the Old Market Hall and finally followed a throng of people heading into the cathedral for some sort of performance. While we didn’t have time to stick around and see what it was all about we did snap a few more lovely sunset pictures of the hills surrounding the northern country.



On the way back home to Bourton-on-the-Water we just drove through, although didn’t stop at, both Stow-on-the-Wold and Moreton-in-Marsh. We freshened up at home and were off to dinner around 8pm at a spot I had found while doing some research earlier in the week called the Wheatsheaf Inn in the town due south of us called Northleach. Now I am not going to go into detail here on our dinner tonight as it was so good that it deserved to be featured in a Foodie Friday segment so keep an eye out for this at the end of the week!

The next day we checked out of our B&B and headed down to Bath but on the way stopped at a few more towns, this time to the east and south of where we stayed. The first town we drove through (and almost missed because it was so small, was Swinbrook. We took a couple of one-lane, two-way traffic roads to get to the small village which I believe had a church, pub and B&B plus mostly locals. The first stop was Burford and was a hilly (for the area) but happening little town full of life on a Sunday morning with locals and tourists getting coffee/tea and pastries or a bit of exercise along the high street as the shops started to open. We really enjoyed the feel of this town as well but it was marred by some pretty awful coffees and sub par pastries. We were going to go to Huffkins which had been a bakery and coffee shop there since 1890 but decided to go to the nicer, newer French bakery (Maison Blanc) a bit up the road we had already passed. The coffee tasted like battery acid and was by far the worst flat white and cappuccino we have had in the UK thus far.



Bibury was up third today and since it started raining a bit, and the town was again on the smaller side with not much open we chose to drive through but not stop and get out of the car. We also drove through, but did not stop at, Barnsley and Cirencester on our way to Tetbury which had gotten a lot of hype from people. Upon arrival we realized it was a bigger town than expected with a few main streets of shops, restaurants and hotels. We parked along one of the streets and began to check things out. Now it may have been that more than 1/2 the shops were closed in the middle of the day for the holiday bank weekend or that the rain was again starting to fall but we didn’t get the hype of the town. I mean just because Charles and Diana visited and shopped there once in 1981 didn’t mean it was THE spot to be in the area. The market would have been nice to see as well but we settled for driving around town a bit and calling it a day before heading down to Bath earlier than expected.



All in all The Cotswolds vacation was a huge success for finally getting out to the gorgeous countryside, getting the parents acclimated to the British lifestyle before diving into the faster-paced life back in London, checking off a bunch of places (including Stonehenge) and finally getting behind the wheel of a car. I highly recommend a visit to the AONB for your next long weekend and do yourself a favour and stay in a B&B as well, it’s a refreshing take on hospitality and the ideal way to do this kind of trip … not many frills but personalized and friendly service (plus an English breakfast)!

– Beard

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