Tuesday, August 18, 2015

London: A City of Museums, Parks, and Cathedrals

We have been so lucky.  By spending our holiday in Northern Europe we have had a second summer in a row without one uncomfortably humid  day. We love it.

We had quite an extensive itinerary planned for today which took us through St. James Park that practically borders Buckingham Palace.  It's a very pretty city park with winding walking paths, ancient shade trees, and a pond with different species of birds. Not all are native. In fact a sign says the pelicans were originally a gift from Russia.

Today all of the birds, most gifts from other countries, are protected through the generosity of companies such as Tiffany's.

Our self guided tour of London took us to Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum which is part of the Imperial War Museum.  It was Churchill's secret underground headquarters along with his cabinet during WWII which was necessary because of the bombing of London. It's a fascinating walk through underground chambers which  have been left mainly untouched since the war when it was a secret headquarters.  Churchill hated the underground. He said it confirmed the enemy's power. Using our audio guide we learned that the ceiling of the bunker was fortified with steel 6 feet thick. This gave many of the people  working there a sense of security but the truth is it wasn't as safe as they thought. If a bomb had hit the building, it would have collapsed. It was also vulnerable to chemical attacks.

We read the personal reflections of many of the people who worked there. They described Churchill as being determined and demanding. He often put a sticker on documents that read "Action this day!" yet  he was a kind man with a good sense of humor.  The kitchen staff had a cat named Smokey who slept on Churchill's bed on the few overnights  he spent there.  

The museum itself was very interactive with videos, photos, and transcripts. I heard some tapping and saw children excitedly  lined up in front of a hands on exhibit.  Upon closer inspection I discovered it was a manual typewriter.  "This is our most popular exhibit for kids," a museum guide told me with a smile. " The only problem is we need to order our ribbons from China."  Churchill hated noise of any kind. The actual typewriters used had sound silencers on them.

The Thames River has quite a current causing the water to appear to be churning in all directions. We took a boat down the river to the art museum Tate Modern.  The boat passed the London Eye which looks like a giant bicycle wheel. It was quite crowded. It looks like you would have an amazing view from it, but it costs over $30 US per person so we gave it a pass.

The Tate Modern is housed in an old power station. The exhibits are displayed by concept rather than by artist. We visited most floors and saw paintings and sculpture with a geometric concept.  There are three giant frames for example with bold blue borders with a different colored stripe accenting each one.  One odd exhibit to me is called Sugar and Oil. It is a black and white video showing what happens when crude oil is poured on a stack of sugar cubes.  An interesting exhibit is  a series of vintage radios turned into a high tech robot.  There are also impressive paintings by Picasso. Children are  invited to draw pictures using a high tech stylus. Their artwork is  projected on the wall.  On the top floor is a nice cafe with panoramic views of the city.

St. Paul's Cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren who worked on it for over four decades in then1600s.  It is the fourth largest cathedral in Europe and was where Charles and Diana were married in 1981. The church is considered England's national church. By the time we got there it was ready to close within an hour and at $27US a ticket, we decided that was too expensive so we did something different. We went to a 20 minute Evening Prayer Service there. It was a very peaceful and calming experience with prayers and readings from psalms.

Today we are off to the British Museum and to my favorite store, Cath Kodston. I can't wait!

Monday, August 17, 2015

We're Off to London

At breakfast this morning while sharing our experiences in the Cotswolds with Carole, the owner of the Cornerways B &B in Chipping Campden where we are staying, the doorbell rang. It was a neighbor bringing her a loaf of whole grain brown bread hot out of the oven.  She surprised us with several toasted slices and it was delicious. 

Even though it was Sunday, several of the shops were open including one called Dandelion. In their  window I had noticed some pretty hand painted ceramic necklaces. It turns out they are made by the owner. The shop has artsy handbags, photo cards that capture the daily life in the Cotswolds perfectly, and scarves decorated with hares and dogs. I love shops with items truly from the English countryside and not wooden signs saying, "A polite thank you for not parking here." I find myself lingering over the items. 

Lots of road work on the way to London. Traffic cones are lined up like soldiers and on the side of the road are life size photos of children saying, "Our dad or mum works on this road project."  This is a friendlier sign than the one they have that says  bluntly "High Risk Crash Zone."  We stopped at a roadside stop for Costa coffee, similar to a Starbucks.  When I was a child I used to amuse myself reading my parent's Egon Ronay's guide to England which often included brutally honest reviews of roadside stops saying  "the hamburgers taste like a horse hair mattress." Those days are over but the two roadside stops we visited have some peculiar things: slot machines,  Christmas Tree Shop type knick knacks, and even tents.

After returning the rental car we took an express bus to London to Victoria Station. We are staying in a budget type B&B in a very nice neighborhood. It's clean and tidy.  We ate in an atmospheric pub and walked walked down to Buckingham Palace. It was dusk and I thought it would have floodlights showcasing it, but it didn't.  People were photographing the guards who stood still like statues.  We walked a little further and suddenly Big Ben appeared behind some trees. I have seen it before, but close up with it looming ahead of us it was like seeing it for the first time. It's dark now so we decided to head back to the hotel to get a good nights sleep for a full day of sightseeing tomorrow.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Picture Perfect Villages in the Cotswolds

This morning at breakfast, Carol, the owner of the Cornerways  B & B where we are staying in Chipping Campden gave us a list of must see villages in the Cotswold that are not always on the tourist trail. With our map in hand and the GPS in the car to guide us, we set off on a full day adventure touring the northern Cotswolds.

Our first stop was Broadway which is known as the "Jewel of the Cotswolds."  It is a very pretty village with honey colored stone cottages either with slate or fully thatched roofs.  Down Kennel Lane live some cream colored fox hunting dogs pictured on the front cover of a book about the Cotswolds we had seen at the B&B.  The dogs were all behind an iron fence silently lined up on their hind legs. Their heads moved in perfect unison watching their owner who was just coming home. He opened a door to an enclosed garden and they bounded off without a sound. 

Following a long winding road with hundreds of cyclists,  we pulled into Stanton. There are no businesses, cafes, or accommodations that we could see. It is just a pretty village with one Main Street of houses and a church.  Hedgerows were neatly trimmed, roses were in full bloom, and lavender swayed in the breeze with fat bumble bees buzzing about.  In front of one house was a simple wooden table with a sign that said "Fresh Mint."

I have always known about Upper and Lower Slaughter. My parents talked about visiting it years ago and even owned a memoir written about the area. I will look for the book in my old bookcase filled with their favorite books.  Driving into town, we were immediately struck by how it is one of the prettiest villages we have ever seen. We stopped for lunch at the Cotswold Inn, a lovely inn with indoor and outdoor tables.  The inn is so old there are signs kindly posted everywhere to warn the visitor of old wooden beams on a low ceiling.

After lunch we followed a one mile footpath along the stream that ran through the town and through the fields to Upper Slaughter.  Just at the end of the village was to me the most perfect house. It was a tiny cottage made of stone with pots of wild flowers on the door step and a basket of handmade lavender sachets for sale in a tiny wicker basket. 

Hiking to Upper Slaughter was a sensory experience. The smell of roses, honeysuckle, and at times, woodsmoke filled the air.  Water gurgled  in the stream, sheep calmly bleated, doves cooed in the distance and tiny gravel crunched beneath our feet. Arriving in Upper Slaughter we were surprised to see a tiny village with an elegant wedding about to take place at a manor complete with vintage cars. We had been told the village is often so quiet that it looks like no one lives there.

Bourton-on-the -Water is known as Little Venice. We visited it yesterday and wanted to go back and take photos, The Main Street in the village runs beside a crystal clear stream with tiny stone bridges. Today the town was much more lively and although it was chilly, children were wading in the stream beside the ducks.  There are shops in town that are mostly independently owned and it was fun to browse their tempting gifts.

Time moves slower here in the Cotswolds. We could have gone on touring villages all day.  

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Exploring the Cotswolds

The Cotswolds are beautiful: honey colored stone houses with slate roofs, roses in full bloom,  flower boxes bursting with wildflowers, and the endless sound of doves cooing. Even though the weather was not on our side this morning, we set out to explore this picturesque part of England.

Less than 30 minutes away from where we are staying in Chipping Camden is Blenheim Palace. It is England's largest palace and the home of the Duke of Marlborough who actually lives there today. It is situated in a 2,000 acre park like setting with forests, lakes, gardens, fountains, and even a miniature railway for children.  There was a very nice exhibition about the life of Winston Churchill who was born in the palace, caught his first fish there, and even created tents with umbrellas on the vast grassy areas when he was seven. "Protector of Europe's freedom" it proudly proclaimed over the door. On display we saw uniforms and letters he wrote to his mother and his wife. "He was Prime Minister and a great man," I heard a mother tell her young daughter who was studying a family photo.

The main part of the palace made of honey colored stone is stunning with a huge gravel courtyard. We headed up the stone steps to the entrance where umbrellas were lying on benches and pressed up against walls. "How thoughtful of the museum to provide loaners," said a woman. "I'll take this pink one with the elephants." Just as I was about to say I didn't think they were loaners, she dashed down the steps with a child's umbrella.

We took a guided tour of the palace. We saw room after room with tapestries, elegant clocks, massive portraits, Meissen China, and carpets and furniture from France.  At first I thought our guide was a bit of a stuffed shirt, but he interjected his stories with humor and even admitted he is an extra in the latest Tom Cruise film Mission Impossible 3 that just came out and was filmed there one night.  It was a formal and extensive tour. Right as the guide was saying,"This fine tapestry of the Duke was hand sewn in Belgium," a cell phone rang with a hip hop ring tone.  A couple in front of me shook their heads in dismay and glared at me compelling me to tell them it wasn't mine. I think the man was a little embarrassed when he pulled his own phone out of his pocket to check it and it was indeed his phone. Flustered, he quickly stuck it back in his pocket without turning it off and it actually rang again.

Behind the palace is a private Italian garden, a hedge maze, a rose garden, fountains, and gravel paths to the water's edge of a large man made lake that wraps around part of the property. "Imagine the ability the first Duke must have had to envision the palace and the lake. This was all created by hand," said an English couple visiting with their two young grandsons. Looking back at the sweeping view of the palace, we couldn't agree more.

Bourton-on -the-Water is a pretty Cotswold village often known as Little Venice because of the shallow canal with willow trees that hang low, ducks, and tiny stone foot bridges.  We were advised to visit either early or late and that was good advice. Although many of the shops were closed, the hoards of tourists were gone.

Dinner tonight was at a Mediterranean restaurant. It was in a beautiful intimate setting right here in town and all the tables had tiny candles. This is such a friendly and pretty place. I think I could live here! 

Friday, August 14, 2015

From Copenhagen to the Cotswolds

It's a transition day. They're never any fun, especially when it's a bright sunny day in the place you are leaving.  As usual it means getting up early and heading to the airport to meet the two hours in advance requirement, but today we flew to England so the transition wasn't quite as hard.

We have flown on Easyjet before, just this past week too, and their seats are under$60 for a no frills flight.  In the Copenhagen Airport before boarding I spotted a small satellite shop of the wonderful Danish design store we had been in yesterday.  Once again I was tempted by the Danish Eco water bottles. "Just think. This is your last chance if you are leaving Denmark," said the salesman so I caved in and bought one.

London Luton Airport is north of London. It was raining when we arrived and we heard hail and thunderstorms were in the forecast for London and that the train to London would not be running due to flooding. Thankfully we were headed for the Cotswolds via our rental car and didn't encounter rain at all. 

We are now at a B&B in Chipping Campden.  It is so beautiful here that I want to do it justice by describing it well so for now I will give you a flavor of it through some photos we took tonight.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Perfect Day in Copenhagen

Danish design is impressive. My mother and father told me this when they visited in 1963 and with this being our second visit to Copenhagen, we couldn't agree more.  Copenhagen is elegant with its foot in the past, but always looking forward to the future with sleek clean lines in its modern architecture.

We walked down the waterfront this morning to Amalienborg Palace with its fountain down on the water's edge. We learned that if the flag is hoisted above the palace, the crown prince is in residence and today the flag was flying much to everyone's pleasure.

Young royal guards dressed in outfits fit for royalty walked back and forth and stood motionless with their arms folded.  On their heads was a 12 pound hat made of Canadian bear fur that they can only take off if it's above 30 Celsius. There's something about palace guards that makes people want to pose. Tourists jumped happily beside them for a grip and grin photo, but if they leaned in too close, they were nudged aside with the guard's gloved hand.

These guards were more than decorative. They may have been wearing the same uniform for over 100 years, but in their hands was a very 21st century weapon.  Suddenly the royal doors to the garage swung open. All cameras were aimed ready to see who was leaving.  I pictured a slick black Mercedes or BMW with tinted windows, but instead it was a smart looking BMW electric sports car with men in suits inside.  A second car that pulled out was a BMW electric car with a woman driving it.

A short metro ride took us to Our Savior's Church. It was beautiful inside with an old pipe organ that took up an entire upper wall and was from the 17th century.

The main attraction of the church is the wooden tower with a sweeping panoramic view of the city and an opportunity to climb further to the top on stairs that wrap around the outside of the church.  Climbing the stairs was a bit of a challenge. What started out as a wooden staircase, turned quickly into a series of steep narrow steps with twists and turns. Toward the top people huddled in corners or clung to the center wooden pole to allow people to pass. I found it a bit scary going down, but when asked by a tourist going up if it was all worth it, I gave an enthusiastic yes.  From the top of the church we could see Tivoli and the SAS building which is a hotel where my parents stayed designed by Arne Jacobsen.

Illums Bolighus is an amazing Danish store with beautiful Danish designed items.  It's a store that was created by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen of Denmark.  There is something for every price range from a small wooden soldier to a handsomely carved animal selling for hundreds of dollars plus furniture which I am sure was incredible. I smiled to myself when I found a wooden bear my mother had bought in 1963. It still looked stylish today. While admiring some stylish Eco water bottles, my thoughts were interrupted with, "Those bottles are the perfect Danish design created with no glue." Apparently we were too enthusiastic about the bottles because suddenly the salesman was giving us a tour of fine glass tea and coffee pots with a unique "Danish twist" as he put it. We had to politely say thank you to get away and with that we were informed that we shouldn't bother with the upper two floors because they were more expensive.  We chose some great items and left pleased with our purchases.  For David's mother, we chose a beautiful hand carved wooden dog, and for ourselves some beautiful art prints,  and a handmade beaver.

One cannot come to Copenhagen without taking a canal boat ride. Our guide pointed out all the modern buildings and told us their story. One glass building called the Black Diamond building which is the Copenhagen library is shaped like a diamond so that when the sun reflects off the sea, the windows will   glitter like diamonds. We passed the royal yacht and saw two cruise ships head out to see.

Before heading back in, we stopped by the Little Mermaid statue which was surrounded by tourists. She sits on a rock just offshore, but has been vandalized several times. "The Little Mermaid has had her head chopped off twice," said our guide,"and the first person to do it was an artist who threw the head in a lake and wrote a book about it."

Tonight we went to Tivoli. It is a magical place at night with tiny ponds, fountains, retro games, and thousands of tiny lights. Once again it's an example of how Copenhagen has one foot in the past, but looks forward to the future. There are sleek roller coasters and an airplane ride that looks positively terrifying just to watch as it tosses and turns its screaming passengers about.  Yet there are rides that are probably from the 40s and children are enjoying them just as much today.  There are wooden boats, small Ferris wheels that look like a hot air balloon is over each seat, and merry-go-rounds with giraffes and elephants.

We played an old horse racing game where the horses move depending on which slot you throw balls into. Dave is very good at it and won a tiny teddy bear. Walking back to our hotel we both agreed, Copenhagen is a great city and we hope to return again soon.

A Day of Visiting Statues

Statues,  statues, and more statues. This could be the theme of our day in Copenhagen today.   We started out in what appeared to be a little known exhibition called The Lapidarium of the Kings. The concept of the exhibit is that over the centuries Danish kings used sculptures in public spaces, gardens, palaces, and castles to show power.  Within 50-350 years outside though, statues fall into serious disrepair. Why then do statues sometimes look so perfect? This museum housed in what was once Christian the IV' brewery gave us a glimpse into the world that is statue restoration.

This is a new exhibition and we had almost the whole place to ourselves.  Walking over old sandy cobblestones, we found ourselves in what might be a sculptor's restoration studio. Each room, some quite musty, had a theme whether it was fruit facades, horse statues, or statues of people. We learned that to restore them, they are covered in silicone and a plaster cast is made. Then the stone cutter goes to work. There was an excellent video to explain it all, but it was in Danish with no subtitles.

Next we saw an exhibit called April 9 which told about the invasion of Germany during WWII at 4:00am. The Danish were overwhelmed and surrendered in four hours. It was just a small exhibit with mostly guns and uniforms, but there was a huge searchlight on display.

The last time we were in Copenhagen we visited the  Ny Carleberg Glyptotek. It's a museum with artifacts from ancient Egypt and Rome as well as a few beautiful paintings by Van Gogh and Monet.

My favorite was a painting by Van Gogh that showed a wheat field in Saint Remy in France. The colors were stunning.

When  we first walked in, though, there was room after room of more statues.  I noticed that most of the busts, and there were hundreds, did not have a nose.  They actually had a display of noses behind glass to explain that originally artists restored the noses, but people complained the busts were no longer authentic so they took them off.  The Egyptian section was amazing. To get to the section of Egyptian funerary art, you descend a dimly lit stairway into a small room with mummies and artifacts found in tombs.

Lunch today was in the museum. In the Danish tradition, sandwiches were made with brown bread and were open face. Delicious! The cafe is overlooking an atrium decorated with palm trees and a fish pond. 

I spotted a gift shop near our hotel called Hans Christian Anderson. As I was admiring the bright red and blue wooden soldiers in their miniature sentries and some lovely wooden ducks wearing brightly painted Cath Kidston style rain boots with polka dots, I saw a man dressed in a dark suit wearing a top hat ready to read a book. He turned his head toward me so I scurried out of the store to avoid being trapped at story hour.  On the way out I glanced back in the window and laughed to myself. It was an automated mannequin.

Tonight was a laundry night. We hiked about 20 minutes to find the launderette and thank goodness there was someone else there who could explain the process of getting soap, and operating the washer and dryer all from a central control panel with directions in Danish. It's late now, but back at the hotel people are strolling down the walkway on the water's edge to see the Little Mermaid. It's another statue and this one we'll see tomorrow!