Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Three Days on Anglesey

Last Sunday, Martina and I left Winchcombe, heading for Cheltenham Spa and our trains onward. We had such a great few days together, and the heavy rain as we made our way to the train station seemed a sign that it was the time to end our walking trip.

Martina headed down to London, but I spent the day with a friend from Nottingham, his partner, and their two kids. It's been awhile since I'd seen Mark, perhaps since we all met for a play in Stratford ages ago. How fun to be in their new house, talk with. Mark and Katrina, meet the new baby, try to get the 2 1/2 yr old to smile, and just catch up. Mark pulled out his photos from his 1996 trip to Chicago, and we just laughed at how young we all look, especially my very young brothers!

Then, too soon it was time to board another train to Runcorn, where I would meet Claire. We were spending the next few days at her family caravan on Anglesey, so we drove straight there. It had been nine years since I last made my way into Wales, when Claire and I went to Beaumaris and I spent a few days on my own castle hopping in north Wales. This time we'd enjoy the caravan and celebrate my 41st birthday! Claire had premade delicious vegan food, so we had amazing stuff to eat for the four days.

Monday seemed like the day with the least amount of rain in the forecast, so we decided on a National Trust property, Penrhyn Castle outside Bangor. This "fake" castle was finished in 1837 over the remains of a much older castle. It's massive and gorgeous, with a beautiful walled garden and views stretching around the countryside. Inside, you wander through the gorgeous living quarters, up amazing staircases, and through the kitchens. There was a gift shop in the stables, a railway museum, and lots of photographic opportunities. Such a great few hours!

Then, it was home for lunch. The weather seemed to be holding out, and the tide was low. One of the Ball family caravan activities is to walk the coast to the Ship Inn in Red Wharf Bay. So we packed our rain gear and went to the beach, walking around and over rocks and moss. We arrived at the Ship Inn a bit chill but nothing a warm pub and a pint of cider couldn't fix. It felt like a perfect pub, full of kitschy memorabilia, ambience, people with dogs, candles. We couldn't linger too long due to the tide, so we headed back. We only had a few trouble spots and one wading through the shallow water, but the coast is beautiful, making it a lovely walk regardless!

Tuesday, I woke up to the sound of heavy wind and rain. Nothing could dampen my spirits, as I was on vacation. That being said, the rain stopped, and Claire figured it was our chance to take care of the break in weather. We packed our gear and made our way southwest from Bennlech to Newborough to do a lighthouse tour. Claire knows how much I love them, so she took me to one of her favorite spots, Llanddwyn.

What a gorgeous day to walk the beach to this island. It once was a holy pilgrimage site to St Dwynwen, and the remnants of the old church and two crosses still in honor of her. What a gorgeous island with its sea grasses and flowers, the sound of the waves crashing, and two lighthouses. The first Twr Bach is small and used more as a tower than lighthouse. The second Twr Mawr is larger and has more of a working lighthouse feel. They are both painted white and are surrounded by cliffs and sea views. The sun came out and blue sky could be seen! There are a few old cottages dotted around the island. I did not see any of the wild ponies on the island, but the rest was too pretty to care.

We then went back to the car, making our way back east, passing through the town with the longest name (Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goth), to lighthouse #3, Penmeth Point. We had a quick lunch in the Cafe (tea and beans on toast is the best birthday lunch) and meandered down to see the lighthouse. Painted in more traditional white and black, it sits in between Puffin Island and the Anglesey coast. Again, the sun and blue sky were showing themselves. When leaving the point, there are a few sites to see: an old dovecoat, St Simeon's well, and St Simeon's church. The dovecoat was the first I'd ever seen and a bit creepy if you imagine it filled with birds.

We meandered back to the caravan, passing through the lovely Beaumaris. I was last here in March 2006, when it was cold and quiet. Now it was crowded due to school holidays, as people flooded to the castle. We came home, popped open the prosecco, and enjoyed a birthday meal made by Claire. She even made a chocolate birthday cake and brought candles. We watched some amazingly bad tv shows (I think British tv rivals the US for bad reality tv) and just chilled. I enjoyed checking Facebook for all the birthday messages, and I Skyped Todd for a birthday chat. A great day for welcoming in 41.

This morning, my last full day in the UK, we started off with a morning excursion to the nearby fishing village of Moelfre. The sky looked ominous but held off rain. We took a beautiful walk along the coast there with cute little cottages, people walking dogs, the sea crashing below us, and lots of photos. No wonder Claire and her family come to Anglesey. There are so many cute little places that you'd miss if you didn't know about it.

It was then back to the caravan for lunch, a pack up, and the return to Liverpool. We spent my last evening with Claire's lovely parents, Marie and Gerry. I've been having dinners with them on my visits for the past twenty years, and I do love their company.

So now all I can do is sleep, wake up, and head to the airport. This decadent month long holiday is over. I've loved every second, relished every cup of tea, and now it's time to get back to my Chicago life and plot the next trip. Thanks for following along, the 18 of you who seem to be reading :)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

An Anglesey Birthday: 41 and Counting!

I have always enjoyed birthdays away from home. I think it started when I was 13 and away in Wyoming riding horses at Girl Scout National Center West. When everyone sang happy birthday, the memory stuck with nostalgia. 28 years later, and I still value celebrating my birthday somewhere new. (Truth be told, I love birthdays and just like to celebrate!)

This year, I decided to extend my trip an extra week to celebrate. I was disappointed last year that I couldn't be abroad on my birthday, but I figured taking a trip while I was still 40 and turning 41 still counted!

Today has been a fabulous day. It started off wet and windy, but when Claire and I left for a lighthouse adventure day, blue patches of sky could be found. I'll write in more depth tomorrow about my three days in Anglesey with Claire, but a birthday spent walking on a stretch of new coast and photographing lighthouses with a generous friend was just perfect. Prosecco, presents, and birthday cake!

This whole trip has been about celebrations, really. I've felt so honored to have these amazing people in my life, and spending time with them has been a big gift to myself. I've met all these people during pivotal experiences in my life. Somehow 20+ years have passed in some cases, and I can hardly believe it.

I have family and friends that I love in Chicago and all around the world. I have a great partner. 41 feels overwhelmingly rich.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

A Cotswold Trek

Martina and I planned three days in Winchcombe so that we could walk and hike the many paths around here, including parts of the Winchcombe Way and Cotswolds Way. The weather has had slightly different ideas.

Thursday we arrived in Cheltenham and were picked up by the owner of the cottage we rented. It made it so much easier than finding our way to the cottage via bus. The drive was full of the rolling hills and gorgeous countryside we were after. I felt so excited to get started, ignoring the rainy weather forecast.

Our cottage is in the center of Winchcombe, and it is just as homey and quaint as I expected. There's a gas fireplace for if it gets chilly in the evening (we've had it on every night for warmth and coziness), a cute back garden (haven't got much use out of that), a great downstairs living space and two upstairs bedrooms. The kitchen is just big enough for us to cook our meals, prepare our endless cups of tea, etc. verdict: would totally rent this place again.

After we settled in and had a cup of tea, we chose a quick one hour walk and went out. It was overcast but the perfect temperature. The walk took us around Winchcombe, passing and ending near Sudeley Castle, just up the road. There were sheep and dogs, flowers and gorgeous houses. It gave us a great sense of the valley where the town sits.

We then decided to take advantage of the first day and went into Sudeley Castle. We had 2 1/2 hrs to see the exhibition, house, and gardens, and we barely had enough time. There are many Tudor connections here: Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn came here, Katherine Parr (Henry's last wife who survived him) lived and died here, and Elizabeth I came here many times. So, it's historic but still a private home. Like at Hatfield, you could get up close to be room and see the various artifacts. Petty great stuff.

Outside, the gardens are gorgeous. There are a few, and they are mostly traditional style with Celtic knot patterns and fountains. Bright and colorful flowers everywhere. Part of the house was burned down thanks to Oliver Cromwell, and the ruin of that part of the house still stands. Then, there is the chapel where Katherine Parr is buried. Simple and small with a marble tomb reinstalled in the 1800s.

We meandered into the gift shop and meandered right home. We'd been walking for four hours. It was time to eat and chill.

Friday we woke up to a very wet day. It chucked it down at a steady pace all day and all night, hammering on the sunroof. This wasn't Chicago style summer rain, but rain that fell at a consistent "you'll get drenched if you go out" rate.

So we hunkered down to a day of long chats, teateatea, and food. At lunch we ventures down to the cute pub, The Lion, and ate their tapas lunch specials. It was so relaxing to sit, eat, chat, and chill in the cosy pub with a mixture of old and new decor. We then window shopped our way through the small shops in town, enjoying the novelty of a new place with potential treasures. On the way home, we stopped at the local church, which was having a book sale. Books of all types were spread out on the pews of the church, and we browsed while looking at the church. Another night with the fireplace on, food, and a movie.

Today we woke up to clouds and some blue sky and no threat of rain. Our plan was to do two hikes that appeared to meet up ish with each other, to see the Belas Knap burial mound and the Spoonley Roman villa mosaic floor.

The first hike up to Belas Knap was easy to follow and took us along the Cotswold Way. We met some sheep (who had some of the most pathetic bleating sounds I've ever heard), enjoyed gorgeous views of the countryside, and generally found it a good challenging and short morning hike.

Belas Knap itself is not much to look at, but it dates from 3000BC. It's basically a mound of earth with various stone arches that was a burial ground. When it was excavated in the 1800s, at least 40 skeletons were found. It's on a high hill. So the views were also sweeping

We followed the trail down,and we thought we were following our map to the next trail. The map, however, told us it would connect with the other trail at the wrong spot. So we walked up at least a half hour in the wrong direction before stopping for lunch and heading back. Thank goodness for the cell phone's navigational ability to confirm we were in the wrong place.

So we head back and manage to find the right trail that had been incorrectly described in the walk guide. Finally, we knew where we were. The problem was that trail markers disappeared, and we were left to just read the descriptive text on our map and keep our fingers crossed.

We reached the path to the Spoonley Roman Villa mosaic, and it wandered through thick, muddy trail. Just when we were about to head back, we saw something. Hidden through the overgrown forest floor was a small iron roof. Underneath it were two plastic tarps with rocks weighing them down. We removed them and lifted up the tarp to find a gorgeous mosaic design underneath. What a cool thing to be able to visit out at the actual spot. A piece of old Roman Mercia at our fingertips.

We then retraced our steps to the main trail and experienced the most frustrating part of our hike. The path led through a field but it was soon indiscernible through  the high grass. Since the grass was so high the markers, if they were there, were hidden. We finally found a farm road which made me super relieved; it went downhill and in the general direction of Winchcombe. Finally, after several hours, we saw a farmer in his jeep and asked him if we were headed the right direction. We were, by some miracle. He'd had several lost hikers show up at his house that day, due to incorrect trail markers.

I could have cried when I saw Sudeley ahead of us. Almost home, in one piece, with only sharp thorn scratches. I iced my knee and drank tea, our bodies aching a bit. Turned on the gas fireplace, ate dinner, and chatted. Tomorrow we both move on different places, and today was a long but enjoyable day. I can barely keep my eyes open!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Welwyn and London

How the time has flown the past few days! I'm on a train to Cheltenham Spa with Martina, and I have four days to catch up on!

Sunday in Welwyn Garden City was the perfect day to chill. We had a nice morning, full of Charlie time and just relaxing. After a very full day of walking at Hatfield House, all out joints were a bit tired. In the afternoon, Jayne took me over to Debbie's house. Debbie and I were neighbors in Nottingham, and I hadn't seen her since she'd been married and had a baby. How great to meet Stephen and play with the adorable 3 year old Daisy, who was fascinated by filling tiny traffic cones with water and pretending it was ice cream. It made me miss my nieces and playing with them. Another lovely afternoon catching up with a friend and haring about her life and the past few years. Then, back to Jayne and Scott's for awesome Chinese food: tofu and veggies. Pure delicious!

Monday I hung out with Jayne and Charlie, helping her get ready to take care of Scott and Charlie. Scott was having a procedure on his nose to help him breathe better, so he was going to be home recouping for a few weeks. So in between Charlie's feeding, I repacked and she got ready. Monday afternoon she put me on a train, saying, "you can only visit next time if you bring Todd." Made me laugh and made me happy that Todd was missed.

I made my way to Candice's house, where we had a great meal and did some more catching up. She just found out she got a new job, so we had celebrating to do. I made some yummy avocado pasta and are with the neighbor's cat keeping us company. I'm not sure if I mentioned in a previous post, but Candice lives in a great old building that once houses single working women. A hundred years ago, there would have been a communal dining space, but now everyone has cute little kitchens. Her place made me feel nostalgic about my studio back in '06-'09.

Tuesday morning I went straight to Walthamstow Central to meet Lucy. We last had dinner the night of the epic snowstorm in 2010, and it had been even longer since I'd seen Simon and the girls. They were all in school, so she took me to the Olympic Park. What an amazing space! The landscaping, kid space, and overall aesthetic is a feat. They really have made it into a place where people and families can enjoy the day. We found a little cafe and popped a squat under a tree. Lucy and I had met back in 1993 when she came over to be a camp counselor at the Girl Scout camp (Camp Wa-Ha-Na-Ha), where I also worked. So we've done quite well keeping in touch.

When we got home, I got to meet the girls, as they won't  remember me from a visit ages ago. Evie is a tall eleven year old just finishing primary school. She had her end of school disco hat night, so lots of preparation. Freya is nine years old and clearly the girly girl of the two, and she was making peppermint cremes for her teachers. Bob girls are absolutely lovely, and they clearly love each other quite a lot. Simon is a teacher, so he was feeling quite ready for vacation, as his last day was the next day. It was a fun family night, partaking in the family rhythm. Simon got them to bed, and Lucy and I went to the local pub, where to my happiness there was Savanna, South African cider. Nothing could have made me happier.

Wednesday morning I headed down to the Globe to inquire about tickets for the afternoon performance of Richard II. I had a few hours to kill, so under Jayne and and Lucy's recommendations, I took a boat cruise on the clipper out to Greenwich. What a great view of all the old warehouses and the river Thames. I'd never done that in all my years, and it was amazing. At North Greenwich, I got off and did the cable car, which takes you high above the city and back again. I got a little shaky knees, but the view of the city and all the cranes at work was a unique view.

I then went back to Bankside and to the Globe. I bought my cushion and found my lower gallery seat. I really know nothing about the play Richard II, so it was all new to me. I feared up when the trumpeters signaled the start of the play. Finally, after all these visits, I finally got to see a performance. How fun watching the actors interact with the groundlings, causing the audience to laugh and further egg them on. Wow was it fun. I cannot wait to come back and see another show of a play I know well. I sorta wish I could have been a groundling (tickets were sold out), but I did enjoy sitting out of the sun on a cushion.

I then went up to Kings Cross, where I me up with Luke, a brilliant artist we met when in residency in Vermont. Luke took me on a beautiful walk along the canal up into Camden. What a great walk. It's a walk I've never done, and quite the secret perfect path! I met Luke's wife, Anneke, and his son, Jake, who will be coming to SAIC (school of the art institute in chicago) in the fall, so lots to talk about! (Anybody have a room for rent for August-December?) Luke showed me his work space, which included some of his Vermont pieces. It made me so nostalgic for our residency in 2013. Anneke made an amazing meal, and we all chatted and laughed. Todd and I look forward to having Jake over in the fall, though he is so outgoing that he won't need our help!

After dinner I met up with Martina at the exact time Luke drove me there. She had booked an airbnb, which was a room in someone's flat. There were two women from Brazil also there with the two guys who live there. It was so great to finally meet up with her and prepare for our trip today. We slept to the sound of carts on the cobblestone streets and birds far too early.

Now we are in the gorgeous Cotswold countryside, shortly to arrive in Cheltenham and on to Winchcombe!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Prince Charlie and Queen Elizabeth

Nothing epitomizes awe like sitting across from a friend and watching her as a new mom. Yesterday, I arrived and spent the day on the couch watching the ritual of baby Charlie: feed, sleep, play, fussy, feed, sleep, wake too soon, etc. Jayne and Charlie are pretty as a picture together, the exhaustion of his needs are there, but there is also immense love. I may not have kids of my own, but I so value being a part of the journey with my friends, even if from afar.

When Scott came home, it was the other piece of the family puzzle, watching the family rhythm. Turns out the Friday rhythm is putting Charlie in the baby bjorn strapped to Scott and through the woods to the pub. This is a real earn-your-dinner kind of evening walk. A half hour later and we were sitting outside sipping and drinking. I met a gorgeous St Bernard, and ate some yummy sweet potato fries. Then, it was a work-off-your-dinner walk through the woods. Half way through, Charlie let it be known he was ready to eat NOW. So in the most idyllic little path crossroads, Jayne fed Charlie. Both the walk there and back, we discussed Game of Thrones (tv series and books) and the various possible storylines. It's fun to be nerds together in the middle of the woods!

Today was another incredible day. Candice came up from London, and we all went to Hatfield House together. None of us had ever been, so it was a new experience all around. I've always wanted to go, as it is where Queen Elizabeth I spent her childhood. Think Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth. Unfortunately, some rude rich person had booked the old palace (Elizabeth's house) for a wedding. I mean, how rude. So, we contented ourselves with the big new (1611) house, the antique market, the lovely gardens, and the way-too-long walk to the tree where Elizabeth found out she was queen.

It was an absolutely gorgeous day for walking inside and out. What was even better was being there with friends who also drool over historical houses and gardens. Charlie did quite well all day. It's the life, being pushed around in a pram all day. Someday I'll come back and see inside the old palace, but we did get to see the gardens from afar and the musicians playing some lovely classical music-and some strange covers of rock songs.

We saw Candice off back to London and came home for a wonderful dinner of roasted veggies and tofu (lamb for them). Again, lovely. Jayne and Scott went into get-Charlie-to-bed mode, and I relaxed into the nice California Zinfandel Scott poured. Scott and I chatted while Jayne was giving Charlie his late feed, then he crashed, and I watched the end of Eat, Pray, Love. Last night I caught he beginning and tonight I caught the end. While my romance happened in Chicago, not abroad, it made me miss Todd and appreciate the other lovely moments of travel.

The waiter in a Dubrovnik who had so many tables that he kept forgetting about us, bringing us wine on the house and saying, "you are on vacation. You should be relaxed."

The woman who politely told me not to pronounce the second 'w' in Welwyn Garden City.

The schoolgirl in a hijab that pointed me towards Kings Cross when I couldn't orientate myself.

The American flight attendant who figured out he was lost the same time I did on his way to Trafalgar Square. We helped each other get there.

The friends who feed me so well that i wish I could pay back the generosity immediately by dragging them all to Chicago.

My journey may not be as romantic as Elizabeth Gilbert's journey (though hers wasn't easy for sure), but it's my own.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Tolkien, Birmingham, and London!

Here I am in London Kings Cross station, staring at the place where the old Harry Potter 9 3/4 platform used to be. Now there is an organized place inside the station where you stand in an organized queue right near the Harry Potter store. I know I'm a purist about these things, but I wish it was at the real place :) but it's fiction after all.

I am remiss in posting about Birmingham, so here goes. Jackie and Eric planned wonderful days out with great food! He rain didn't cooperate on Tuesday, and we had a lovely lazy morning waiting for it to clear a bit. After lunch, we went out to Worcester, which is somewhere new for all of us. We enjoyed the river walk that took us on a long meander past the plentiful swans (a swan sanctuary apparently), pretty riverside houses, a great bridge, and a lock with riverboats. Despite the on and off spitting rain, the camera going in and out of the bag (love the durable iPhone camera), I loved the meander.

We then climbed up the steps to the Worcester Cathedral. I love the architecture of church's and cathedrals, and this one didn't disappoint. The ceilings are gorgeous, and there are lots of fabulous little details to photograph. Quite surprisingly, there are two tombs, King John and Prince Arthur. If Prince Arthur hadn't died, Henry VIII might have never been king and Elizabeth never born. History is a fascinating game of luck, I think. What's the line from GoT? "You Live or You Die." After a nice walk through the town center, we ambled back home, passing a group of gypsies in their traditional carts, their horses grazing every which direction.

We had a delicious dinner of veggie tagine. The strange warm feeling in my calf was still persisting, so to be on the safe side, I went to the dr Wednesday morning, and everything looked fine. I was told t take some ibuprofen as it was probably just a muscle or nerve issue in the leg. I wouldn't be surprised if the Dubrovnik heat and all the walking had strained it a bit.

So, after the dr Wednesday, we went off on a Tolkien tour of places in Birmingham. First stop, Moseley Bog. Tolkien spent four years in a house nearby, and he explored these woods. The bog was the inspiration for Tom Bombadil's Old Forest in LoTR. We found a lovely little place for the gourmet picnic Jackie made, surrounded by flowers, trees, and birds. Seemed an appropriate idyllic hobbit lunch!

Next stop: Sarehole Mill. This mill has been a working mill for a long time. In Tolkien's childhood, it was a flour mill, and one of the men was a bulky grumpy man that served as a model for Farmer Maggot (?), where the hobbits like to steal veggies. The tour guide was fantastic and told us all about the history, explaining how it evolved as a mill, what it would have looked like a hundred years ago to Tolkien, and how it operates now.

Last stop: the two towers. In Edgebaston, there are two towers that may have inspired the LotR towers. One is a Waterworks tower built in a Victorian style and the other is an old gothic tower thought to be a hunting lodge in the 18th century when it was built. You can only get near them and need to imagine what it might have looked like to Tolkien. Jackie and I both agree that Tolkien signposts are needed to really engage the Tolkien visitor. I could do that!

We meandered back home to another awesome meal (veggie curry),and Jackie showed me her art room, where she is busy creating some amazing textile pieces. There are so many of us trying to Crete alongside our day jobs. We all watched the new "Night at the Museum" film, a fun way to end a day that started a bit stressful.

Thursday morning, Jackie and I meandered to a craft center near her, the her. What an awesome place. Thank goodness I don't have much room in my bag. I would have bought so many things. I have two weeks to go, and space is still limited. We had tea/coffee in the little tea shop, watching the ducks and their chicks swim in the two ponds. I really can't wait to come back here again someday with a bigger bag.

Then, it was off to London to meet Candice. I arrived early and left my luggage at Kings Cross before heading to Piccadilly Circus to take a photo for mom. Then, a photographic adventure in one of my favorite places: Trafalgar Square. The lions, fountain, National Gallery, St Martin in the Fields, Big Ben in the distance. I love his place.

Then, Candice and I met in the front of the National Portrait Gallery in a flurry of excitement. It's been too long since seeing all these friends. We sat for a little chat and then went into the Audrey Hepburn photography exhibit. These photos showed a great variety of her life, and many came from her two sons. They showed both black and white and color photos, but pink was the dominant color. I couldn't resist the exhibition catalogue, as I'm working on some poems about women in film. It was a small exhibit but quite wonderful.

Candice and I then enjoyed a great dinner at Woodlands Indian restaurant nearby. There's nothing better than catching up over a good meal. We then meandered back to her gorgeous flat in Herne Hill and a cup of much welcomed rooibos.

Now I await Jayne and little Charlie in Welwyn Garden City for the next adventure. New baby #2, new house, a visit to Hatfield House. Two weeks done, two more to go!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Back to Britain

A three hour flight makes a world of difference. We took off in heat, blue sky, and sunblock and landed in chill, grey sky, and rain. I have to tell you that it felt wonderful. To feel cool seemed like such an unexpected relief.

Dubrovnik and all the places we visited are gorgeous. I would visit again in a heartbeat but maybe not in July. That being said, It's exhausting and sticky to be constantly refreshening the sunblock, not to mention expensive! Though I'd rather do that then have sunburn.

Claire's dad, Gerry, fetched us from the airport, and we got home to a nice cup of tea, unpacked the bags, and started my laundry. I brought just the right amount of clothes, but they really needed a wash. Now my bag is full of mostly clean things so I don't look a sight the next week or two.

Sunday was a lovely day with Claire, her family, and her church community. I went along to mass with her, and we stayed for the church BBQ, which looked suspiciously like a luau with ukulele players and leis. I got to see MaryRose, who I met in Chicago two years ago when she visited Claire. I also finally met Claire's sister-in-law Christine and baby Francis. So wonderful to watch families expand between visits.

After the BBQ, we went shopping for the family dinner in the evening and started the cooking. We had such a lovely evening relaxing and talking over dinner and playing with Francis. What an adorable boy who's getting the speedy crawl down pat. I do love how twenty years of visits have also given me a chance to know Claire's family.

This morning I left on an early train to Birmingham for two weeks of friend pinball. Since my trip is longer, I get to take more time about it. Now I will spend a few days with Jackie and Eric in Redditch.

They met me at the train station, and off we went to the art museum for the William Morris and Andy Warhol exhibit. What a fantastic exhibit linking the artistic interests of two seemingly disparate artists. The presentation of their works alongside each other was so interesting. As a Pre-Raphaelite lover, I really enjoyed the Morris works and the Burne-Jones/Morris tapestries. I also loved the background on Warhol's interest in Hollywood.

We then headed to Lunch at Wagamama, which I've only ever had in London. So delicious. Then, we headed back to their house for a chat, making a Mexican dinner feast, a movie, and general chilling. They are into week two of their holiday, so they are also in chill mode! They are in a new house, so it's lovely to see their new place, Jackie's art room, the cute back garden.

I'm now going to sign off and prepare for two days of gallivanting with them!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Last Day in Dubrovnik

Our last afternoon in. Old Town. We are sitting in a little cafe, Klarisa, jus inside Pile gate, while we whittle away the next hour before our airport pick-up. Seems like he perfect time to write the last blog on Croatia.

Turning back to yesterday, we woke up and realized we didn't have a plan. The company where we rent sent over one of the owners to retrieve Claire's bikini that still lurked in the tree where I dropped it. He said, "The wind was crazy last night! We couldn't sleep because of the wind and rain. There was a tornado outside Venice!" I didn't correct him as to the displace mr of said bikini...

He suggested we go off to Cavtat for the day, which we gladly did. We packed up our beach gear and caught the boat. The ride was about 45 min and just choppy enough that I was happy to get off before the usual maureen reaction occurred. We had a nice lunch right on the harbor, then meandered on the peninsula path for a beach.

We found a quiet somewhat secluded beach, where I could have shade and Claire sun. Having spent four days this week on various beaches on nice sun loungers in shade, I'm coming around to beach holidays. I get a nice relaxation on the beach and time for the journal and a book.

We caught the 5:30 or tried to, but it was too crowded to get on, so many of us had to wait for the next boat. Luckily, we only had to wait 10-15 minutes but we were going to barely get back on time. Docking at 6:45, we rushed home to shower, dress, and make our dinner at Nishta only 15 min late. Thank goodness Old Town is small! The dinner again was superb: appetizer, dinner, and dessert. Heaven.

We tried to get to see part of the opening ceremony for the summer festival, but it was VIPs only. We did get moved aside by some security guards as at iPs were brought to the entrance and shook hands with Someone Very Important. We could see some from behind the barricade, but only the choir atop the building for the national anthem. They did some pretty great video projections on the side of the building in the square.

We soon left and went to Banje Beach to watch the fireworks. They started late, but we watched all the VIPs hike up the road and the boats position themselves. When the fireworks started, they were brief but lovely. It made me think about July 4th and how people are more aware of combat veterans who might be suffering from PTSD in their neighborhood. What must it be like to hear fireworks when you spent the war holed up in your city with those sounds all around you. Soon it was time to meander back home for our final sleep in Dubrovnik.

Today was a morning of hustle and bustle. We packed and cleaned and prepped for our day out. Today has been a day of shopping, souvenirs, churches, food and drink.

First church, the coal Cathedral. Nothing too special, but we did pay the 20k to see the treasury. It turned out to be a very small room, containing the arm, leg, and perhaps the skull of St Blaise gilded in a case. What a gruesome strange tradition.

We then went over to the Dominican Monastery which had a much better holding for 30k. A gorgeous cloister garden, two interesting museum rooms, and a lovely little church. An eclectic collection of art in the church and interesting old jewelry from Dubrovnik. Finally, up the steps (aka GoT steps to the Sept) to St Ignatius church, which had an elaborate altarpiece. And that was that for the churches.

So, off we went to have a drink above the sea just outside the city wall. We enjoyed our juices in the shady cliff and then went back to a lovely little cafe in the same square as St Ignatius. A little shopping and we are here, listening to jazz on the speaker and relaxing.

It's been a wonderful week in Dubrovnik, and I'd come back in a heartbeat. We've eaten well, seen some beautiful places, visited two new countries, and had a fabulous time together. Now it's time for England and more friends and their babies and much much more.

I am, as always, grateful I can do all this travel.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

A Day on Lokrum Island

I'm sitting on the island of Lokrum, a short 10 min boat ride away from Old Town. It's a gorgeous day again, and we are perched on sun loungers under the shade of pine trees. The cicadas chirp above us, and the waves lap below. It couldn't be a better spot.

We had a decadent sleep in today, so I didn't roll out of bed until 10am. Then it was a quick breakfast, making of peanut butter sandwiches (glad I brought my jar with me!),  and the first coat of sunblock for the day. We did a quick food shop and caught the boat to the island.

When we arrived, we heard towards the fort. Why not start the day with activity then totally sink into relaxation. From what we'd heard, this is an island of walk, swim, walk swim. Thrown took us past a small old church, a monastery, the botanic gardens, and a long olive grove. Then, up, up, up. What started as a path brought the pine forest, soon turned into a paved inclined walk straight in the sun. It was one of those brutal walks that takes 10 min but feels like forever.

At the top of the fort, the view is endless. It is a great 360 view of the island, Old Town, the islands, and mainland. There are older structures falling apart, which I love. Old brick and stone and vegetation creeping everywhere. We then meandered our way back a shadier path along he coast, which brought us back to the monastery and he botanic gardens. The Croatian man who started the garden wanted to see how vegetation from around the world would grow here. It was going well til the war, when it took 50 shells and destroyed much of it. Prickly pears, cactuses from the US, palm trees in various varieties.

We then meandered to be monastery grounds for lunch. We ate under the palm trees while all the mama peacocks led their little babies around. It was quite fun to have them strut right past us; Claire might not have bought it was fun...).

We had done the hiking, now it was time for beaching. We reserved our two wooden beach loungers under the pine trees and went into the rocky sea for a swim. You need your water shoes to walk on the rocks, and I word my teva's in. I am not a big sea/ocean swimmer, as I don't like the deep endless water. This water was warmer than Lopud and quiet. It was a nice little float. A bit shy about the sun, I got out and let Claire keep floating.

Back to our loungers to read and journal and enjoy the view. Then it was time to visit the "Dead Sea" mini lake for a dip. Surrounded by trees and rock, with a little cave you can swim into, it is fed by the sea but doesn't make me worry about boundless depths. It was a peaceful bounce around and a wobbly in/out on very slippery rocks.

After a final chill, we went to the restaurant in the monastery garden. Such a beautiful spot to sit and have some lemonade and dessert at the end of the day. The garden in the monastery has a Game of Thrones connection, too. In Quarth, there is a party for Daenerys where they are wandering a garden and joke about taking parts of the golden peacock and selling it for an army. The producers put in a peacock because of the island.

A quick ferry ride back and we were back in town. The streets were crowded, and they were preparing for a concert in town. We went home, dressed, I Skyped Todd :), and off we went for dinner. It's hard to find a place that fits when you're hungry and there are places every ten feet.

As we walked, we heard music and went in search of it. In front of the cathedral, the orchestra was clearly practicing. Tomorrow night is the opening of the summer festival and the various instruments were tuning. What a sound as they echoed off the buildings. We found a restaurant nearby (the menu actually identified which items could be made vegan), and we ate dinner to the orchestra playing pieces of their program and opera singers also sounding out various parts. We couldn't have asked for a nicer night.

We find ourselves a bit unclear about what to do tomorrow during the day. We aren't quite up for a full day tour, but a half day one wouldn't be bad. So it's a mystery how we'll finish up our trip. Tomorrow night we know we'll eat at the vegan restaurant again and stand with the hoarded of crowds in the square for the opening of the summer festival.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Fantasy, History, and War (plus food and a beach)

As usual, I have two days to catch up on, as I didn’t have the energy last night. Not sure how I’m going to muster up the energy tonight either, but I will! Then, I’ll have to regurgitate it all in my journal as I haven’t done either for two days. Oh, the difficulties of travel! J

Day 4 (Tuesday) we started off yet another bright blue sky day in Dubrovnik with a Game of Thrones walking tour. There are several on offer from multiple companies, so that tells you how popular a ‘thing’ it is. Claire came along for the tour, though she hasn’t read or watched, due to the promise that the guide would talk about Dubrovnik history at the same time.

Most of you know that I’m a fan of book/film/TV pilgrimages, send Claire and I have done a few together: Lyme Hall (where Colin Firth jumped in a lake in 1995), Prince Edward Island for Anne of Green Gables, Karen Blixen’s house north of Copenhagen (independently, we’ve both been to Blixen’s home in Nairobi). So now, Game of Thrones. I have to say, the tour was fantastic: interesting stories about filming, engaging guide, photos from the show to coincide, and lots of Dubrovnik history.

I won’t bore the non-readers/watchers with a blow by blow / scene by scene account (you can see photos on Facebook) but a few tidbits. The guide pointed out that last season (5) they filmed 10 days or so in Dubrovnik, but when they start shooting next season in Sep/Oct, they have only scheduled 3 days. The guide thinks this tells us something about the focus for next season… Another interesting fact, when they shot the ‘shame’ scene for the finale, they had to close down a street for three days, which meant closing down several restaurants and compensating temp. This is a busy city, so it mustn’t have been cheap!

One of my favorite parts of the tour was the fortress where many scenes were filmed. Its across the way com Old Town and gives an excellent view of the city. It also has its own interesting history with the Dubrovnik republic’s history with/against Venice. The usually canons, thick walls, and only 12 men to hold it (21) if really needed extra manpower.

One of the funniest bits was when the guide took us up a hill where a certain wedding took a place. “I know what you’re going to ask me,” he said, walking to a patch of ground scattered with dog poop. “This is where the little bastard died.” There were chuckles from the crowd. “And look, there is dog poop send the grass is actually green here, so nature must have liked that death.” It wasn’t a real person’ death we were talking about, so only a bit morbid...

The tour ended as all kitschy ones do: with a photo op. A chance to sit on the iron throne ad brandish your sword. Neither Claire nor I seem intimidating in our photos, so we’ll just have to follow someone else on their quest for it.

After a rewarding tour, we stuffed some salads in our faces, then went off to book our next day’s adventure to Montero: a new country for both of us. We came home, relaxed, and went out to the War Photo Museum. This was a provocative set of exhibits about war, particularly the current crisis in Ukraine (the current exhibit) and images com Dubrovnik during the war and siege. Powerful images and videos that bring the bustle of the current city into sharp contrast. You look into the mountains right above the city and think of the empty Old Town and how the streets were life-threatening from those above. Having just read Lynsey Addario’s autobiography, “It’s What I Do: a Photographer’s Life of Love and War” this exhibit really interested me. It is a type of photography that doesn’t interest me in terms of my own work, but I am interested in the stories the photographs tell and the photographer’s bravery in getting them.

Then, wouldn’t you know it was time to go out and eat again. An interesting thing to do after seeing images of people lining up for food and fresh water. For dinner, it was Taj Majal, a misnamed restaurant with Bosnian cuisine. Claire’s food was definitely more Bosnian than my gazpacho and roasted veggies. Regardless, my food was excellent. We rambled up and down streets then called it an early night.  

Today/Day 5 (Wednesday), we had to leave at 7am to catch our tour to Montenegro. The streets were quiet and empty as city works cleared garbage and restaurants began to put out their tables and chairs. We waited a bit nervously for our bus, send finally it came.  We were a group of 13: Americans, Brits, French, Canadians, and Russians. The tour was all in English, which we certainly appreciated. The basic itinerary: cross the border into Montenegro, coffee break, tour of Kotor, free time, travel to Budva for lunch and beach time, quick stop at St Stephen’s Island, then a ferry across the fjord and back on the road home to Dubrovnik. 12 hours door to door.

It was a beautiful trip all day, the only interference being the 100F (38C) day. My lord was it hot, hot, hot. We had been contemplating a day trip into Bosnia and Mostor, but once we heard it was 40C yesterday, we crossed it off our list after today. Regardless, today proved a great adventure.

After picking up all the other people, we were on our way. Along the way, the driver and guide told us about the area, the war, and the buildings that were destroyed and not rebuilt: the factory that used to make yogurt he loved as a kid, the hotel overlooking the sea, the many houses along the way. Yet, despite these losses, there is a lot of building being done, which shows its growth and how much tourism also helps reinvigorate the city.

The border crossing we took was a quiet one the locals use, and it is perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. It must certainly be the most beautiful border crossings I’ve ever seen. Once we pass through ‘no man’s land’ between the two borders (the border is not yet ‘fixed’ between the two), we cross into Montenegro. Claire is not happy that I get a stamp to mark my next country, but she doesn’t.

We stop to take photos of two churches in the middle of the lake, then stop for a quick coffee with a gorgeous view. We pose, we sip, we stretch our legs. It’s a bit cramped in the mini van, and after two hours it’s a good break. Then, off we go to Kotor, the town with old town walls that climb up the mountain side.  A guide meats us outside the gates, and she gives us a great tour around the small walled city. Stories of merchants, squabbles, and war. It’s a gorgeous walled city with many different churches, restaurants vying for space, and a stunning photo op every two seconds. We even arrive just in time for a traditional dance in the main square!

After the brief tour, we are left to our own devices. Claire and I stroll around the different churches and narrow streets. The city walls literally climb the mountainside. Dubrovnik’s Old Town walls are 2km all around, whereas Kotor’s is 5km and steep. With only an hour and a half, we opted for an amble and a café stop. Claire enjoyed her ice cream, and I enjoyed my real lemonade. Soon, it was time to meander back up to our pick up point before heading to Budva.

As we made our way to Budva, the host began to feel more oppressive. The point of this stop is lunch, beach, and another walled city. With only less than two hours, all were an impossible feat. Food always comes first, and we dug in. As much as I wanted to see the walled city, I began to feel like I should just go sit on the beach for awhile first.

So, I meandered with Claire to the quieter beach our guide had recommended. It was quieter, but my lord it was hot. Even in the shade it was too hot. When I plugged in the Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion, I figured out it had been 100f sell day. I sat on the beach in the shade knowing that a swim would do me good, but too tired to put in the effort to change into my swim suit and coat my other uncovered body parts with sunblock. This type of heat is just too oppressive.

After only time for a 15 minute swim, Claire emerged and we headed back to the mini bus. The last stop was to the viewing of St Stephen’s island. In the 50s (I think), it was bought up by a private company, and now it’s a vacation destination for the rich who want privacy. For example, Prince Charles and Princess Diana spent their honeymoon here in 1982. The guide rattled off other names like Elizabeth Taylor, Bruce Willis, and Pamela Anderson. You can only visit the island if you are paying for accommodation or have a lunch/dinner reservation. With accommodation costing 1,000 Euro a night, I cent imagine what a meal costs. 

Finally, it was time to take the brief 10min ferry across the fjord and return to Dubrovnik. I tree to take as many photos of mountains, sea, and abandoned buildings as I could. Soon, we were walking like zombies back to our nice little flat and moaning as we plopped on the couch. We eventually plucked up the effort to shower, dress for dinner, walk down the three flights of stairs, and find a table at the restaurant literally right outside our door.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Dubrovnik, Days 1-3: A Feast for the Eyes

Claire and I arrived in Dubrovnik Saturday evening and watched it appear in all its glory from the plane. The old town surrounded by blue water and blue sky. It's hard not to get excited when you see it from this view. As we passed the city to land at the airport, I couldn't help but feel like urgent: we must get there fast! Luckily our taxi was prebooked, and he was waiting for us!

On the drive he talked about the war and how it affected him and those in the city. He pointed at the mountain to our left and said, 'That's Bosnia. They got the rocks, we got the coast. But many had to die for it.' That's what Dubrovnik feels like so far: a resilient city that still shows its scars. If you were in Italy across the sea, you might assume the remnant of a stone building was an ancient ruin. Here, you aren't sure if it's a ruin of war or just decay.

He dropped us off at Pile gate, and Ana met us to take us to our apartment for the week. She gave us her insider's knowledge and left us eager to explore. We have a cute tiny loft flat for the week right in old town. We shopped for groceries, ate a nice meal out, and collapsed for the night. Or rather Claire collapsed and I was jetlag wide awake. Until 4:30 in the morning.

Day 2 (Sunday) began with a later than expected start to get to the walls. When cruise ships dump for the day, up to 9,000 people can swarm the streets of old town, so everyone recommends starting the walls early to avoid the crowds. Though we started just after 10am, we were thrilled that the crowds didn't show up. We walked up the steps and started a fabulous two hour trek around the Old Town. The view change around every corner: sea, church, overgrown ruin, laundry on the line, mountains. Also around every corner is a little café offering shade from the scorching sun and a cool drink. I've walked castle walls before, but none compare to Dubrovnik. the walls give a birds eye view of what I love most: the perfect blend of rundown and rebuilt, blooming gardens and solid stone.

After two hours, we finished and needed a break from the sun, finding a lunch menu that suited both our tastes. We guzzled water, ate our salads, and rested in the cool shade of a quiet side lane. With no cars in Old Town, all the streets are narrow thoroughfares, like you'd find in most old European cities. We spent the afternoon resting, napping, and making a sketchy plan for the next few days. Then, it was time for dinner with a view.

Getting dolled up, we headed out the north gate (more stairs, they sighed, as they were still recovering from two hours of up-down-up-down walls) and to the cable car. If you're going to watch a sunset, first go high! Atop the mountain, we looked down on Dubrovnik and the Old Town, trying to find a way to take a photo without the cable car wires. There's a little restaurant at the top, aptly named "Panorama" to sit and watch the sunset. Alas, no view tables available, but we ate with a view of sky and the mountains into Bosnia.

After asking the waiter if the risotto had dairy, he assured me it didn't. We ordered appetizers, wine, and dinner, watching the sky melt from blue to a blush pink. We ate olives and salad, sipping our wine, and sighing into the relaxed vacation space. The risotto came with a tell-tale stringy cheese quality to it, and when my waiter assured me there was no cheese, another waiter confirmed there was. So, off went the risotto and out came the roasted rosemary potatoes instead. I really don't like to make a fuss, which is why I ask the questions, and I would have happily ordered roasted potatoes to enjoy the view. When I travel, I really don't expect to eat that interestingly, and that's fine with me. That being said, when they brought the potatoes out, they also brought out steamed spinach and garlic and said both were on the house. They both hit the spot, and I was full and content.

We paid our bill and rushed over to the other side of the cable car just in time to see a fabulous sunset over the islands north of the city. It reminded me of standing atop Table Mountain and looking down on the water and city. We shot a gazillion photos, then traveled down the car, taking in Old Town all lit up. A bief still and then back to collapse in the apartment. And gratefully, collapse I did.

Today (day 3) was beach day. Claire is a vacation beach gal through and through, just as I am a see/do gal, so beach we did. We headed off on the fairy to the island of Lapud, where the only sandy beach is in Dubrovnik (all the rest are rocky). A brief slow boat trip (no waves in the sea meant no seasickness for me!), and we docked in Lapud. A short walk through the boardwalk and up through a neighborhood, you encounter men with beach buggies and golf carts to take you to the beach a mile away. So you pay the 10k and off you go. I would have enjoyed the trip if our driver wasn't so rushed, got caught in a divest off the road, and then gunned it--the tire kicking up gravel and dirt all over me and my brand new camera. I had to shout for him to stop and notice. I was one furious woman at that moment. My. Brand new. Camera. Covered. In. Dirt. We got there, disembarked, and furiously cleaned off my camera. Photos seem okay, but focus wheel makes a dirty sound when its being used...

This is what travel is: s frustrating moment that is then followed by a great day. We sat on chairs under an umbrella all day. These kinds of beaches are new to me. I'm not used to being in shade and a comfy beach lounger. I can do this kind of beach vacation! My journal, a book, a great view. I took a few dips in the beautiful but clear water, watching the little fish swim near my toes. We watched people run from their shade to the water, kids screeching as the hot sand hit their feet. What a hot, hot day. But there was shade and blue sky and water. What can one say about a beach day, except aaaaahhhhh. Just why vacation is necessary.

At 4, we packed up and headed back to town (same golf buggy driver, if you can believe it), and we sat safely in the back. A brief stroll on the boardwalk, and we found a restaurant suitable for idyllic snack pre-ferry and read our books. Returned to Old Town on the ferry, heading straight home to wash up, doll up, and go out for vegan/veggie food.

Nishta restaurant is written up in guidebooks. Rick Steves straight out says its the most reliable food in town. When we arrived, all the outdoor tables were full, so we ate in the tiny, warm inside space. This meal was incredible. Let me just say this straight off the bat. I had a salad over a slice of flatbread that had a gorgeous dressing. Claire had their veggie samosas (fun fact: this auto correct keep wanting to say Samoans not Samosas). Then the main courses. I had a vegan pasta with tofu and veggies which was so flavorful I wanted to lick the plate. Claire had the veggie Indian dish, which she enjoyed. One has to do dessert when at a vegan restaurant, especially when traveling. we moved outside to an empty table, just in time to see that there were fireworks going off in the distance at the harbor. I had an almond panna cotta and Claire their chocolate mousse. Go to this restaurant.

 After dinner, our feet guided us right home. They should have guided me right to bed, but the blog must be done! I'm going to bed now. There is a Game of Thrones tour to be done tomorrow...

Saturday, July 04, 2015

First Day

The First Day
Departures flood you with emotions: sadness at leaving loved ones for awhile, stress over getting everything on the to-do list done, worry that everything will be okay, and excitement for the adventures and friends that await. This trip everything seems heightened, and getting through security to the gate was even a stressful exercise in patience.

On board the plane, I am a kid in a candy shop: what movie can I watch? Should I watch two or try to get more sleep? For some entirely unknown reason, I've not brought any books or ebooks with me. So, the flight is a place for journaling and movie watching. I haven't been journaling much lately, but I'm dedicated to getting words down on this trip. It's very natural for me to write while traveling, the floodgates open as soon as I'm through security. This blog has always helped me access the immediacy of the experiences and the stories.

By the time we landed in Dublin, I was tired, and the five hour layover didn't entice me to go explore. Instead, I window shopped the stores, sought food, and logged on to the free wifi. This immediate access to communication has transformed the way I travel, and when I don't have wifi and access to searching out helpful info on the internet, I feel oddly disconnected.

Dublin has free wifi. Manchester gives you a free hour. It is strange, however, not to have the ability to call or text on my phone. I need to rely on email and Skype, which suits the slower travel pace.
After snoozing at the gate and on board the brief flight (5 hr layover for 35min flight), Claire whisks me off through Friday night traffic as people head to Wales. Today is a day for quick catch-ups and packing all our stuff into one bag. The strict carry on rules and expensive baggage fees have us working all our stuff into one bag. It's going to be hot in Dubrovnik, and at least our clothes take up less space.

What's loveliest: sitting in a room face to face with a dear friend in her home, drinking tea, eating good food, laughing, watching Wimbledon. I will be doing this many times over the next month, and I am already in awe of this contentment.

I've come to see this trip as a Harvest--a gathering of gratitude for friendships that began long ago and some more recent: 1993, 1994-1995, 1998, 2013. These friends I've met on three different continents, and over the years we've managed to stay connected. This trip isn't just about these wonderful friends but their families, too, as I spend time with their families of origin and now their own partners and children. Most wonderfully, it's about seeing them face to face and capturing these moments to hold on to until the next visit. I gather gratitude like I gather photographs: abundantly.

Day 2: on to Croatia!

Thursday, July 02, 2015


Well, it's almost time for me to head to the airport and start my next big adventure. More stories and misadventures soon!

I have also finished a new website! Check it out at

Talk to you on the other side of the ocean!