A Travellerspoint blog

Minsk

Minsk, Belarus

On approach, all I saw out the window were farms and trees until seconds before we landed, and even then I'm pretty sure the buildings I saw were related to the airport. Minsk is clearly not a sprawling metropolis.
Welcome to Minsk Airport

Welcome to Minsk Airport


The captain announced the temperature at close to room temperature, which surprised me. When I had packed 2 weeks ago, it was supposed to be near freezing. I packed gloves and a hat and saved my thermal shirt for Minsk. It seems I should have worn it in France of Scotland and just kept a t-shirt for Minsk.
Health insurance line

Health insurance line


Upon entering the airport, everyone had to go through immigration, even if transferring. But first, you need to buy the Obligatory Health Insurance (if you don't have your own already). I wasn't sure what they'd count, so I got it to be on the safe side. It was $2 or 2€ for a day, which is about the best dollar to Euro exchange rate you'll get. You could, of course also pay by credit card.
At immigration, they are serious. They checked my health insurance papers, even though I had just gotten them a few meters away. They looked at my passport through an eye loupe, some kind of special light, and felt the texture of the picture page as well as skimmed through it. I wasn't special. They did that to everyone. I've never had anyone look so closely. Who exactly is trying to come here so desperately?
If you were going on to Russia, you needed to also fill out a customs form because I guess the border is open.
I used the ATM just inside baggage claim to get my first Belorussian rubles and headed for the bus. It's a small airport and easy to find. There's a stand out front where you can buy your ticket with a credit card, although you can also pay the driver by credit card. I'm surprised as credit cards are one of the methods of reducing corruption. Cash amounts can be fudged and pocketed, but credit card payments have records. Belarus is known as "Europe's last dictatorship" (why Russia doesn't count, I don't know) and I would have expected a much more cash-based economy and less traceable credit card-based.
outdoor plane museum

outdoor plane museum


The bus was playing American pop music when I got on, but the driver turned it off for the drive. At the airport exit, we passed a series of older planes that made up sort of an outdoor aviation museum. We then drove through a lot of fields of crops and grass well-groomed enough for a golf course. Forests and small stands of trees broke up the fields, but it was a while before we saw any towns. The houses were mostly plain and nondescript.
the road between the airport and city

the road between the airport and city


Surprisingly, we also passed several monuments and memorials. They didn't seem to be anywhere in particular, just randomly placed on or near the side of the road.
After about a half hour, we reached the city. Here, we passed plenty more memorials and statues. Every other corner seemed to contain a park full of them.
statue in a park

statue in a park


For the most part, Minsk seems to be a city like any other. The traffic seems a bit better, but that may also be because the roads are so wide. Tons of people walk the wide sidewalks, and I occasionally see a biker using the bike lane. This city is clearly planned. There seem to be a general lack of the old-town narrow and winding streets of other old towns and a plethora of wide, square blocks.
For the most part, everything is in Cyrillic, although Burger King, KFC, and some other foreign brands aren't. (Dominoes and the Terminator movie posters are in Cyrillic.) But otherwise, it could be any other city.
For the most part, the architecture is pretty Soviet and bland, although there are a few buildings that are thoroughly decorated with carvings and fancy balconies, and could have been stolen from 1700s France or Austria. Or course, I saw a plaque saying one such building was built in the 1950s, so who knows what was here before the Soviets and what is new.
I downloaded this walking tour and was attempting to more or less follow it to see the main sights. For the most part, the walking tour covers the important and interesting buildings. Although there was one not on the tour that was interesting. It was clearly some sort of institution and weird animal noises were emanating from it. They seemed recorded since they were so loud and there were no animals in sight. But I couldn't figure out what was going on.
The issue is that while I can read the Cyrillic alphabet, I don't actually speak the languages. So unless the word is a name or cognate it's pretty useless to me.
Also, the tour had me crossing a bunch of streets that I couldn't cross at street level. A lot of intersections require pedestrians to use an underpass at the metro station on the corners. I didn't use the metro trains themselves, but the tunnels for it seemed pretty standard. Small shops sold snacks or other trinkets commuters might need. (I got a cherry cream pastry thinking it was cherry cheese. It didn't taste particularly different or special.) Musicians filled the tunnels with music in hopes of earning something. The only difference between this and any other metro that I noticed was the lack of escalators. If you can't do stairs, I have no idea how you'd cross the street. The flat parts of the stairs meant for bikes are too narrow for a stroller or wheelchair, but also much too steep.
plaques on buildings, not sure what they're for

plaques on buildings, not sure what they're for


The tour also only covered the large buildings, but not the tons of building-side memorial plaques. Every once in a while, I'd see a series of plaques with people's faces and a description. I couldn't understand who they were or what they did, but they were clearly important.
stadium

stadium


As for the sights on the tour, they were for the most part interesting examples of architecture. For example, the stadium looks like it has large lacrosse sticks sticking up from it. Not sure that was the intention.
Gate to the City

Gate to the City


While the "Gates to the City" were pretty fancy, the big KFC sign on one of them did sort of detract from the old-Europe charm.
Communist decorations at the top of the Gate to the City...

Communist decorations at the top of the Gate to the City...


...and KFC decorations at the bottom

...and KFC decorations at the bottom


Without condoning the animal abuse that goes on in many circuses, I love that this country has a national circus. Like all buildings here, it had a bunch of statues out front. But the clown here had a red nose that stood out from the rest of the metal statue.
circus clown

circus clown


When I got to Gorky Park, it was filled with families and kids. One toddler was discovering fallen leaves as his dad tried to catch the perfect photo of the kid playing with them. Other tiny kids wheeled around on trikes and powerwheels. I don't know what differences I was expecting, but the people in the park here are doing the same things as people in parks everywhere.
kids in park

kids in park


The only real difference is I didn't see a single homeless person or beggar. Sure, there were musicians performing for change in the metro, but they weren't just sitting there with a sign asking for handouts.
Unfortunately, the ferris wheel in the park wasn't moving. It's a pity because I would have loved to ride it and get a good view of the city.
guy fishing in the park

guy fishing in the park


The tour path took me past their Independence Square (circle) with a big pole-monument sticking up the center, and around to the National Philharmonic Hall, changing directions at a shopping mall. Everything had tons of statues out front, even the mall.
statues in the park

statues in the park


Independence Square

Independence Square


statues at the shopping mall

statues at the shopping mall


DSCF4557 caption = more wall plaques

DSCF4557 caption = more wall plaques

I was following the path of the tour until I got to an area where some cop was turning the cars around. As I approached the corner I needed to turn at to continue on the walk, I heard walkie talkies. I didn't see flashing lights indicating a serious emergency, so I kept going. They were filming something. The crew had large video cameras and the corner was completely blocked the way I wanted to go.
So, I turned back to the main street with intentions of picking the tour back up a few blocks further up.
But then I saw a restaurant and realized how hungry I was and how much my feet hurt. The walk wasn't that long, but I've been on my feet and walking hours more per day over the last 2 weeks than I usually am, and I'm starting to feel it.
Belorussian flags, hopefully you can see the "woven" pattern

Belorussian flags, hopefully you can see the "woven" pattern


Kiosk with the woven pattern at the bottom

Kiosk with the woven pattern at the bottom


The restaurant, like many of the buildings here, has the sort of "woven pattern" from the Belorussian flag on it. In the cases of some of the other buildings I've seen it on, I wondered if it had some sort of meaning. Here, I'm assuming it means the restaurant has Belorussian food. I'm glad, because so far, most of the food establishments I've seen are American fast food, bars, or the occasional cafe.
It was probably a touristy restaurant as they did have English on the menu and the waitresses all wore "traditional" costumes. However, the waitresses didn't speak English at all (water was beyond their vocab, which is ok as that's not the local language) and the Belorussian was right next to the English, I presume so that the pointing game worked.
It's certainly more of an adventure to order when you can't ask questions. First, I got a horseradish beverage. I wasn't sure whether this was going to be a sort of soda (like Dr. Brown's celray) or if this was alcoholic, but I was intrigued. It turned out to be a shot of a horseradish alcohol that burned, both from the alcohol and from the horseradish. I also got a plate of vegetables that was just that. There was no dressing, nothing added, just chopped vegetables presented on a platter. While I probably would have preferred a proper horseradish sauce, the shot did come in handy for adding some flavor to the vegetables. Finally, I got their version of latkes. They use a finer grate and the pancakes are chewier and not crispy. They came with sour cream and I enjoyed them.
When done, I considered backtracking and trying to see the rest of the walking tour that I hadn't gotten to. But it was getting late and I needed to make sure to get a bus back to the airport tonight as they don't start running early enough in the morning for me to catch one then. Still, even in the dark, I had a clear view of the many statues and wall plaques scattered about my path.
flowers left at a wall plaque

flowers left at a wall plaque


Despite the late hour, tons of people strolled through the streets and the parks. I was never in a place where I couldn't see at least a dozen people, even on side streets. The main streets continued to be full. It the sidewalks weren't as wide as a 2-way street, they would certainly feel crowded.
Kid climbing on statue

Kid climbing on statue


Back at the bus station, I got my ticket and waited for the bus. The other buses were going direct to places like Moscow or St. Petersburg, not cities I'm used to seeing transport to. Mine took me up the main street, giving me another chance to see most of the buildings I'd seen on foot. I also got a chance to pass more of the casinos I've seen advertised. This doesn't seem like the place I'd feel luckiest gambling, but it seems to be big business here.
Gate to the City at night

Gate to the City at night


What isn't a big business is tourism. I didn't see a single souvenir shop the entire way. I saw virtually nothing in English that seemed aimed at anybody but locals. And while I was wandering around with my camera out, there weren't many others who were taking pictures at all. Compared to the sites I've seen over the last few days where you can't sneeze without hitting a tour group, not seeing a single tour guide or large group the whole time was quite a change.

At the airport, they weren't opening the check-in counters until 2 hours before the flights, so anybody who says you need to be here 2 hours ahead doesn't know what they're talking about. Also, they don't show which security you're supposed to go through until then, so if you have a connection, you're just waiting outside security until then. Fortunately, the food and souvenir shops are open late and open early, so you can eat and shop. Unfortunately, this is like the Istanbul airport where the wifi isn't free. You have to get a text message and get charged to get a code for the wifi. I really don't see why an airport would rather you pay your phone company than them for wifi.
For first snack, I got what I thought looked like yogurt with fruit. It was actually tuborog cheese with fruit, but completely unlike the tuborog we get in the grocery store. It was more like saltier, less sour solid yogurt here, as opposed to the large soft curds we get.
Another interesting difference in this airport: announcements are made in Belorussian, English, and Chinese, and the departure board rotates between the 3 languages. There must be a lot of Chinese tourists or business people coming here, although to be the largest tourist group doesn't take too much.
Also, I've never seen a contact lens machine before, but here, you can get new dailies from a vending machine. Past immigration, duty free is pretty much the same as everywhere. There are only 2 food choices though- a snack bar with muffins or Burger King.
Once I board this flight, my vacation is officially over. I'm not excited for it to end, but it's been a fabulous time overall.

Posted by spsadventures 08:21 Archived in Belarus Comments (0)

Monks of Mont St. Michel

Mont St. Michel, France

Today we are off to see Mont St. Michel, which is a 3+ hour drive from Paris. We had no issues getting our rental car and were soon out of the city.
The road to Mont St. Michel is mostly highway that runs through Normandy. There are tolls every few miles. I think we must have paid about 20 Euro in tolls one way, but it's hard to know as they come in odd amounts- 3.7€ here, 5.7€ there. The scenery is mostly flat farmland with scattered forests, but not midwest-see-forever-flat, more of a flat enough you can't say there are hills, but there are gentle slopes and rolling waves in the land. It's very green here and the scenery is only occasionally broken up with a tiny industrial zone, village, or rest stop.
When there is some point of interest, the sign for it contains a sort of drawing for it in addition to the name. So even if you don't recognize the name, you can tell that it's a church, or park, or castle, or World War 2 beach.
We knew we were hungry and that food at the actual tourist site would be super expensive, so we agreed to stop somewhere before Mont St. Michel.
We attempted to stop at the first place I found, but the waiter came out to tell us that they were having a private party and he couldn't seat us. We passed some restaurants that were rejected, and found ourselves already in the Mont St Michel tourist site. We parked and decided to see if the part of the town not on the abbey island would have cheaper food. The first restaurant we ducked into was empty, but the guy told us he had no room for 2. I thought he was joking as it was pretty empty. But he was serious as they were set up for groups that were just arriving.
Mont St. Michel

Mont St. Michel


We continued on our way towards Mont St. Michel, and ended up walking the whole way there. I'm glad we walked it instead of taking the shuttle bus. The walk gave us a chance to view the island from multiple angles, to look out over the grassy area and watch the sheep munching away, and to just absorb the scenery.
sheep near Mont St. Michel

sheep near Mont St. Michel


There was also an option to take a (paid) horse carriage ride with some of the most loudly clopping horses.Horse ride

Horse ride


As we approached, I spied what looked to me like a Shinto arch. We speculated as to what it was- maybe a high tide marking, maybe showing where the 10-year flood level would be (it said 10 years on it). Later, we found out that it was exactly what we thought- a Shinto monument at the monastery because their twin city is in Japan.
Shinto Arch

Shinto Arch


We walked through the city gates, still looking for food, and resigned to the fact that prices just doubled compared to anything we would have found outside. The first restaurant we saw had a large group in front of it. The tour guide explained that the best omelettes in the world were made here and we could look through the window to watch them do it. The lady making them just looked like she was whisking away, and they came out huge and looking more like a highly risen pancake than eggs, so we checked the prices. It was 40€ for one omelette. We were sure we could do better than that.
streets of Mont St. Michel

streets of Mont St. Michel


As we walked along the cobblestone streets past the old buildings, we noticed that a lot of the restaurants featured the "Mont St. Michel omelette." When we finally settled on a restaurant, I had to order it to see what the fuss was all about, (but paying only 16€, which felt like quite the deal.)
The omelette was too huge for it to be a one-person meal. It's best split. The outside is sort of like a skin, and the inside is foamy and somewhat runny. All of the flavor has been beaten out of it, which I didn't mind too much as I'm not a fan of eggs. But it really needed to come with something in order to make it edible past a few bites. Fortunately, the table had a powerful French mustard that helped. Still, no variety in a dish that large wasn't very appealing, even if the texture was nice.
After lunch, we continued on our way up to the abbey. The streets are steep and narrow, lined with tourist shops every step of the way. It's very uphill, and just when you think you've arrived, you start the stairs. This is a mountain after all, and I suppose we should have expected multiple flights of stairs.
Abbey

Abbey


We had timed our abbey visit for the afternoon English tour. The guide was very knowledgeable and really helped us understand the abbey. She explained that the abbey was built at the very top of the mountain by a monk who the Archangel Michael came to in a dream and told to build it. It has been damaged and rebuilt several times over the more than millennium that it has been around. So, there are sections built in the Roman style, sections built in the Gothic style, and sections built in more modern styles.
Roman style section

Roman style section


Also, we're really only seeing the bones of the building. In the medieval times, the walls would not have been bare stone. They would have been whitewashed and painted with the colors of the day. To make an equivalent, we're seeing the studs of a modern house, after the wallpaper and drywall has been torn out.
inside the abbey

inside the abbey


Knowing that paints quite a different picture in the mind of what it would have been like as a pilgrim here. The monks have always accepted pilgrims and tourists as it was popular to come on a pilgrimage in order to see if you could get the Archangel Michael to put in a good word for you with the guys in charge of heaven. We saw where the rich pilgrims would be put up with fireplaces and space, and where the poorer pilgrims would be put up in a slightly lesser condition. But the monks didn't have heat at all, so they were worse off, especially in winter. Except, they did have heat in the infirmary.
Abbey church

Abbey church


So the monks were doing their thing, accepting pilgrims (who brought donations), selling souvenirs of the pilgrimage, and adhering to a Benedictine code, when the French revolution happened and made them all flee. The French revolutionaries took over the abbey and turned it into a prison.
We saw the equipment they installed and used to haul up all of the supplies needed for the many prisoners kept here. A couple of prisoners would hop inside a big wheel and walk. That would pull a rope that raised packages of food and other supplies.
big lifting wheel

big lifting wheel


The history of the Abbey continues without monks through the time when the Germans occupied it in World War 2 (but didn't damage it), until more recent times when a group of monks and nuns were invited back. They live here today, although they aren't Benedictine per the guide.
ramparts

ramparts


We walked the city ramparts back down to the entrance. They have a great view of the plain surrounding the abbey. At the time we were there, the water level was low, and the abbey was basically in a mudpit and wasn't really on a detached island. Hundreds of people walked across the mud towards the abbey, many barefoot. People still do this today as part of their pilgrimage. (We had used the bridge.)
pilgrims walking to the abbey

pilgrims walking to the abbey


The ramparts were much less crowded than the city streets and had souvenir shops and restaurants on only one side. It was a pleasant walk.
At the bottom, we bought what they called a beignet, but it didn't taste any different than Dunkin to me.
The tour guide had told us to be careful with our snacks as the seagulls in the area were known to snatch sandwiches straight out of people's hands. We got to witness this first hand as a seagull made an attack. The stories are true.
Watch out! He's dangerous!

Watch out! He's dangerous!


Having walked the half hour from the village to the abbey, we didn't feel the need to walk it back, so we grabbed the shuttle to the parking and headed back to Paris.
About when we wanted to switch drivers, we pulled over into a random small town that had some restaurants currently open, at least according to google. It was still a bit early for the French to be eating dinner, but we were hungry. Half the restaurants in town were closed and didn't even open until 7, so we got a nice view of the town, their pretty church, fountain, and town hall before we found a place to eat that was open. But we were able to get dinner and get back on the road.
cute town

cute town


As I drove in the dark, I realized the impact of light pollution. The roads here (including highways) are not lit at night. So as I was driving through the countryside, I mostly just saw black and car lights. But periodically, we would come across a town that emitted a red glow into the sky. It would soon pass and we would be back to darkness.

Posted by spsadventures 01:09 Archived in France Comments (0)

Euro Disney Princess

Paris, France

We're staying at a proper hotel and not a hostel, but the breakfast is basically the same. Good thing I had some veg left over from last night.
We got on the metro during rush hour, and the trains were packed. As we moved out towards the suburbs though, they cleared out. By the time we were a few stops from Disney, there was one other family in our entire car.
You may be wondering why out of all of the fabulous French things to do in Paris, I'm going to Disney.
1) I've been to Paris 4 times in the past 4 or so years, so I've already seen (and still remember) many of the wonderful sights there are to see. (See here, here, here, here, here for those blog posts.)
2) The friend I'm travelling with really wants to go.
So, we're going to have a fun day riding rides and taking pictures with Disney characters.
The train to Disney is mostly above-ground, so I got to see a wide variety of neighborhoods and architecture. Some areas contained neat little rows of quaint houses that were probably around when Les Miserables took place. Others contained funky modern factories and schools with rooftop gardens.
Disney Entrance

Disney Entrance


We arrived at Disney and the lines began. A line for security, a line to get in, a line to have your picture taken with a character, a line for the rides, a line for food, even a line for the bathrooms. Fortunately, I brought a book. While standing and reading isn't as nice as sitting, it's still an enjoyable enough day. And every once in a while, I got a reading break to go on a ride.
The rides are more or less the same as other Disney parks, but the Pirates of the Caribbean here speak French instead of English. The castle is Sleeping Beauty's instead of Cinderella's. It's smaller. But it's got the same teacup ride and same character-shaped waffles (I got mine Darth Vader-shaped).
Villan Show in front of Sleeping Beauty's Castle

Villan Show in front of Sleeping Beauty's Castle


Our real adventure came on the Dumbo ride. It started. Whee! And then it stopped midair and we sort of dropped a few inches. An announcement was made to just stay there, as if we had a choice, and we were lowered to the ground. As unexciting as the ride is, I admit that I would be a little upset if we had waited 20 minutes just for it to break while we were on it. They started it up again, gave us a super-short ride, and kept on as if nothing was wrong.
Another difference is the I don't remember so many people dressed up last time I was at Disney in the states. Here, tons of kids are wearing character costumes and approximately 1/3 people have some sort of Mickey/Minnie ears on. I've seen them in every color of the rainbow, every fabric from sequins and velvet to plastic and knit, and with tons of different themes. Pumpkin ears are popular, but I've seen rasta Mickey, plenty of sorcerer's hats, and even ones spouting chipmunks.
Disney does know how to entertain. Theme musicians played at the lunch spots during lunch. We got caught in a parade, and we saw a show featuring a bunch of villians (half French and half English). For those of us who are a bit older and less entertained by the same song on repeat and dancing wheat, it was interesting to admire the craftsmanship and engineering that goes into it all. It was like watching a magic show and trying to figure out how they do it.
Disney Parade

Disney Parade


The only particularly bad thing was the food. I got a "Hakuna Matata salad" with zero flavor. I couldn't tell if the orange chunks were squash or mango, and they had the exact same flavor as the lettuce, onions, and peanuts- none.
We rode most of the rides, although we didn't ride the Peter Pan ride, despite it being #1 on my friend's list because the wait varied from 70 mins to over 110 minutes and she wasn't interested in it enough to wait that long. We also got our picture taken with Pluto and Darth Vader (who also speaks both French and English here). Here is one place where I feel this Disney excelled. You don't just catch the character and get a quick photo and autograph. The characters actually spend time with each visitor, hugging and dancing and teasing and having fun appropriate to the personality of the character.
I admit I didn't have high expectations for the day, but I had fun and came away satisfied.
Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower


Once back in the city, we decided to check out the Eiffel Tower at night, as it was a 10 minute walk from the hotel. It is very different at night than in the day. They lit it up with lights that blink and sparkle and really make it stand out. It feels more decorative and fun at night, while during the day it seems more like a serious piece of engineering.
For dinner, I got a salad with goat cheese rounds and mustard dressing that would count as delicious any day, but compared to lunch, it was amazing. I'm not looking forward to leaving all of this amazing French cheese behind.

Posted by spsadventures 01:04 Archived in France Comments (0)

British Stones and stolen stones

London, England

Since our tour left at 8, and the British are known for punctuality, I rushed through dressing, packing, and eating. The breakfast had tiny pancakes, but was otherwise an unremarkable hostel breakfast- toast and jam, cereal and milk...
We made it just in the nick of time, only to realize that the tour leaves at 8:30 and check in is at 8.
Fortunately, that gave me time to get a breakfast samosa and use the tiny restroom located in a back closet of the snack shop.
Today's tour company is Golden Tours. It's not really a tour, we're really just getting a direct ride to Stonehenge, an audio guide, and a direct ride back. It's an audioguide more than we would have received with the original company we booked, but it was also 10 pounds more.
The bus is nice enough, although the seats are a bit too reclined for back support. There are seatback entertainment screens, but not a lot of actual entertainment. I couldn't get the wifi working. But all was fine as I quickly fell asleep. They had given us headphones as a recording periodically told us what we were seeing outside the window, but I only caught one or two before I was out. At some point, I was vaguely aware of the recording giving us some sort of Stonehenge history, but after waking, I remember none of it at all.
I awoke just before the driver pointed out Stonehenge on our right and started giving instructions for how to take the shuttle bus to the stones, see the visitor's center, and get back in time.
It was raining. Not a light drizzle, but full on rain. Fortunately, the bus driver gave us ponchos with our audioguides, so at least the top half of me was dry. Between the ponchos and my umbrella, my lower legs were still wet, and rain was getting in my shoes because I was not smart enough to wear my boots today. My feet will be wet the rest of the day.
Neolithic Village

Neolithic Village


It wasn't supposed to rain all day, so we looked at the visitor's center first. It has displays showing the results of archaeological digs in the area and also some showing how Stonehenge was built in stages. Most importantly, it is indoors.
Even though it was out in the rain, I was excited to see their Neolithic Village. They have built a group of huts in the way they think the people of the time lived. The roofs are thatched and tall, but otherwise, they remind me somewhat of the Masai homes we saw in Tanzania.
Unfortunately, the roofs are thatched. One of the homes had a sign on the door saying that it was closed due to flooding. The others were also all locked up so we couldn't get in.
Stonehenge

Stonehenge


Even though it was still raining, we took the shuttle bus out to the stones. We'd just see Stonehenge in the rain. Juggling the audio guide, camera, and umbrella was a challenging task, but the audioguide really helped in understanding the stones. It explained a bit about how it was built, but also how it was restored. Despite looking so solid, the stones have fallen at times, and many actually have concrete supports in the bases to help make sure they don't fall down any more. What I also found interesting is that the ancients who built this (way before the Druids existed) used wood-style joins to keep the stones together. You can see the stone "pegs" sticking out of the top of some of the large stones where the lintels have fallen off.
Eventually, the rain lightened up. And then ceased. Unfortunately, I was on the wrong side of Stonehenge when the rainbow came out, so I have a picture of the rainbow, but not one with the rainbow AND Stonehenge as the rainbow had disappeared by the time I got to the other side.
Rainbow

Rainbow


Now, birds started to flock to the stones as the sun started drying everything out. I packed up the umbrella and poncho and enjoyed Stonehenge in a new light. The stones are big, but the site is basically exactly what you get in pictures- no surprises.
Birds on Stonehenge

Birds on Stonehenge


Once we had circled them twice and listened to the audioguide and gotten out of it what we could, we hopped on the shuttle bus back to the visitor's center. The ride is short, and the view is of the surrounding farms. It looks like it would be a nice place to hike, if it was drier and wee had more time.
sheep on farms

sheep on farms


A guy in the gift shop was giving samples of some amazingly delicious products like raspberry butter, sloe gin, and Christmas mead. I'm kind of regretting not getting some to bring back.
We only had a few minutes for lunch at the cafeteria, and then we were back on the bus, right at the time the driver said to be. He waited 10 minutes, and headed towards London once more, apologizing for the wait. It is company policy, he explained, to wait 10 minutes and then leave, if people are late to the bus. It looks like 2 people got left behind and have to make their own way back.

Since we had a couple of hours before our train, we decided to tackle the British Museum. My friend got the map and headed to all of the highlights. I have been here before and so I just wanted to see a few items. I had started the Khan Academy Art History course, and several of the videos focus on items that are held at the British Museum. Years ago, when the British Empire was still in charge of everywhere, they ripped the walls off of a palace in what is currently Iraq. These walls and the palace guards are now in the British Museum, just waiting for me to come see.
at the British Museum

at the British Museum


Recognizing the controversy, in the middle of their Parthenon display (they also have entire walls), they have a brochure explaining it. More or less, they say:
1) The Greeks already have almost half the walls already, and they're on display in their museum, so they can't claim they don't have enough or that the walls need to be returned to the actual building they came from.
2) So many more people get to enjoy their shared human cultural heritage when pieces of the walls are in the British Museum and not just Greece.
3) They weren't stolen. They were taken with permission of the rulers at the time they were taken. And it's certainly not the fault of the Brits that the Ottoman rulers of the time were happy to give away others' cultural heritage. Imperialism was just how it was back then. The Brits didn't exploit in this specific case, a different Empire did the exploiting on their behalf.
While I recognize that a lot of the stuff in the British Museum was straight up stolen, taken during imperialist exploitation, or "gifted" by rulers trying to stay on the Brit's good side, it is still interesting to see the goods.
I didn't see everything I wanted to as some rooms were closed, but I saw enough to be excited and happy I came.
We grabbed our bags from the hotel to go catch our Eurostar through the chunnel. Just outside the train station, a small market had been set up. We had a full hour to kill, so I investigated and somehow ended up with a bunch of delicious cheeses, some bread, dried tomatoes, and pickled peppers. Surprisingly, when I asked the bread guys what they recommend to go with the blue cheese I had just bought, they suggested a raisin bread. It complimented the sweeter blue I got swimmingly, but I didn't really appreciate the stronger blue with it.
The train seats were big and comfy (especially compared to a plane) and I had plenty of room to spread out my picnic. But the ride itself isn't much in the dark. You can't really tell when you're going through the chunnel or not and there's no amazing view.
Upon arrival in Paris, we checked into our hotel and called it a day. Tomorrow, we'll venture off again.

Posted by spsadventures 00:57 Archived in England Comments (0)

Mary, Queen of Scots

Edinburgh, Scotland

Yesterday:
We took off and landed on time, which worked perfectly for me. My friend's flight was delayed so that she arrived only minutes after me, and we took the bus to the center of Edinburgh.
We are staying at the Royal Mile Backpacker Hostel and so far think it's great. The front desk lady was super helpful. The rooms and beds are named after books and characters. I'm Little Miss Trouble. The lockers are big, but thin, so I had to unpack a bit to fit my backpack and all my stuff in, but that's no big deal because it all fit and I'd have to unpack to get at my stuff anyway.
As soon as we dropped our stuff off, we went to go find food, not knowing what would be open at this late hour. Fortunately, there is an Indian+Thai restaurant that shares an entrance with the hostel, so we didn't have to go far.
The food was delicious. But I'm most excited about trying my first "local" drink- Irn Bru. It tastes like cream soda. Yum.
One unfortunate thing I've discovered- despite having been to London fairly recently, my money is no longer good here. Just after the last time I was here, they started printing new money. And apparently nobody accepts the old money anymore. You have to go to the bank to exchange it for new bills. Except that you can't just go to any bank, you have to go to the bank that printed the bills because they all print them differently. I was not aware of that. But my old bills said Bank of England and had the Queen on them (as would new bills printed by the Bank of England), while my new bills did not, even though they are equally valid. I was unaware that the bills could have different faces on them. That would be like the various mints in the USA not just putting their little letter mark on the money that most people don't even know is there, but some putting George Washington Carver on a $1 instead of George Washington.

Today:
Doorman at fancy hotel

Doorman at fancy hotel


We somehow ended up at the fanciest hotel in town for breakfast. Their restaurant, Brasserie Prince offered a full Scottish breakfast for less than I would have expected at such a fancy place. The meat one came with haggis (described by my friend as a "wet meatball"), blood pudding, bacon, beans, eggs, toast, a broiled tomato, mushroom, potatoes, a slice they called scone, and maybe more that I'm forgetting. The vegetarian one replaced the meat items with haloumi and a vegetable sausage, but was equally huge and hearty. It was all delicious, even the butter and the jam tasted exceptional. I also love that they had literal lumps of sugar on the table for people to put in tea. I'm used to sugar packets or maybe perfectly manufactured cubes. These are misshapen, each different from the last. Sooo British!!!
actual lumps of sugar

actual lumps of sugar


We bundled up and made our way through light rain to Edinburgh Castle, where we had tickets scheduled for 9:30 am.
Edinburgh in the morning rain

Edinburgh in the morning rain


We grabbed our audioguide, a map, and then noticed they had some sort of game for kids, so we got one of those as well. To play, you needed a writing implement, which we lacked, but the guy at the cafe was nice enough to lend us one for our duration at the castle.
First, we saw some cannons and the view. Then, we climbed some special stairs (70 steps, which was one of the answers on the kids sheet). We toured some of the museums and buildings within the castle.
Guards at the Entrance to Edinburgh Castle

Guards at the Entrance to Edinburgh Castle


Several museums were dedicated to Scottish soldiers and the wars they fought in or what they used to fight those wars. Some wars had different names here than what we learned in school. A lot of them were against the English, until they were with the English. But what I found most interesting were the uniforms. Some of the mannequins were rocking plaid pants or other interesting plaid formal items.
Plaid Pants Uniform

Plaid Pants Uniform


They also had a whole building as a memorial to these soldiers.
Soldier Memorial

Soldier Memorial


Another interesting building was the St. Margaret's chapel. It is the oldest building in Edinburgh, having been built in the 1100s. It's quite small- only a few people can fit in it at a time. The stained glass is worth seeing though.
chapel stained glass

chapel stained glass


We also saw the crown jewels of Scotland. They're in a case, but you can get right up to them. Also in that case is a stone. This "Stone of Destiny" is what all of their monarchs sit on during their coronation. After hundreds of years of this tradition, the stone was stolen by the English around the 1200s. When the ruler of Scotland merged with the ruler of England, the ruler of both would be coronated on it, but it stayed in England until fairly recently, despite the Scots wanting it back.
Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle


Personally, I just finished a book starring Mary, Queen of Scots, who gave birth to her son in this castle. I found it exciting to see where she came from and to imagine the history taking place here. The Great Hall was perfect for that. The stained glass here has the coats of arms of various Scottish royalty, and the walls are decorated with the weapons that would have been used to defend the castle (or to push Mary, Queen of Scots out).
Great Hall

Great Hall

Coat of Arm Stained Glass

Coat of Arm Stained Glass

After the castle, we walked down the main street a bit. One souvenir shop advertised that they had a working tartan cloth weaving factory inside. I love seeing how things are made, so we went down to it. It may have been active at some moments in time, but it was abandoned when we were there, which was disappointing. More so because there was no elevator and we now had to go back up 3 flights of stairs after having seen an empty factory.
tartan loom

tartan loom


We grabbed a quick but uninteresting lunch in a nearby restaurant, and headed back up towards the Scotch Whisky Experience.
It starts out with an amusement-park-style ride where you sit in "barrel" cars and are moved along tracks as you see a presentation on how they make whisky. Then, you get scratch-and-sniff cards to smell while you watch a video explaining the different whisky styles from the different areas of Scotland. Finally, you get to taste the whisky. That's singular. You have to pick one based on your scratch-and-sniff card. My best suggestion is to go with a group of 6 people so you get a taste of each. They gave us our whisky glass to keep at the end, but I would have much rather gotten tiny shots of multiple whiskies to compare than 2 fingers of a single whisky and a glass that I can't really fit in my suitcase.
Whisky Room

Whisky Room


In the last room, after the tasting, you see some guy's collection of hundreds of unopened whisky bottles. It holds the Guinness record for the most and some of the bottles are actually quite interesting. Some have odd shapes or are really old.
We exited and headed towards our tour. On the way, we passed some street bagpipe players. I really actually enjoyed their music. I think that bagpipes get a bad rep, because when they're actually playing songs, they sound quite nice.
street bagpipes

street bagpipes


Today's free tour was run by Sandeman's. The guide was funny and took us on an educational walk around Edinburgh. I noticed a lot of things that I wouldn't have without him, and heard tons of great stories.
church wall statues without cones on their heads

church wall statues without cones on their heads


Like it's apparently a normal thing for Scots to place orange traffic cones on top of statues' heads. The city comes and removes them. The Scots put them back, which is technically not illegal as long as the don't cause damage. One city spends about 60k pounds per year just removing the cones. But the Scots think it's good fun.
Another story is that there was some guy who died. His dog was so loyal/heartbroken that he never left the grave of the dead guy. The locals started to take care of him because he wouldn't budge- for over a decade. Today, there is a statue of him, tons of shops named after him, and his grave has a huge stone. Even today, kids bring sticks for him to play with.
We heard a stories about a half-hung lady, grave robbers stealing corpses for the medical university, the fights between the Scots and the English, the various market areas in town, and the heart of Midlothian (a torture jail, don't propose to your girlfriend there).
Midlothian Heart

Midlothian Heart


But my favorite was the etymology of the phrase "shit-faced." Apparently, in the days before toilets, people would dump their chamber pots out the window with only a shout to let those below know what was coming. The city made a law to permit this dumping only twice a day- once at a specific time in the morning, and once at a specific time in the evening. But the evening time was when the bars let out. And the drunks might be stumbling home and suddenly hear a noise, so they'd look up to see who said what. Splat!
official coat of arms. Yes, that's a unicorn.

official coat of arms. Yes, that's a unicorn.


One tip we picked up on the tour was to check out the roof of the National Museum for a fabulous view of the city. We did and you really could see everything. But in order to get there, we went through the museum a bit. I'd love to come back to it because it looks so interesting and we didn't really have any time there. We briefly saw Dolly (the first cloned sheep), some airplanes, and whisked by some display on stones and another on statues of people. A lot of the areas looked really interactive, with lots of kids playing games and lots of moving parts.
museum

museum


But we didn't have much time left in the city, and we at least wanted to glance at Holyrood Palace, the Queen's home in Edinburgh. After a super-brief picture stop there, we headed back.
Holyrood Palace

Holyrood Palace


We needed to do some reorganizing at the hostel. Our tour for tomorrow was cancelled via email today and so we needed to find a new one if we still wanted to see Stonehenge. (We did.) I needed to print my boarding pass and make sure my luggage was organized for the flight. Then, we were off to the airport.
This airport security did not inspire confidence in me. My ID was not checked a single time. We did go through security where they weren't letting people through with bottles of water or big boots, but anybody could have picked up an accidentally dropped boarding pass and hopped through. It wasn't checked at the airplane door either. They just rushed us all through.
We made it to London and the hostel just fine, but it was late. When I set my alarm for the morning, it said that it would ring in 5 something hours :(

Posted by spsadventures 00:54 Archived in Scotland Comments (0)

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