Friday, February 10, 2017

Italy 2016

In October of 2016 Michelle and I decided on a great way to celebrate our 32nd anniversary. We celebrated it early, and in Italy.  It took a couple of years of saving, but we began planning early and started making reservations in March.  I'll say it up front: there are a number of places you'll want to visit in Italy and several of them require reservations well in advance. Others require tickets that you can get on the spot, but you'll want to know the requirements in advance.  To make the most of a trip like this, I recommend doing your research up front. Michelle handled most of this for us and we had so much more fun as a result.  Tickets were so important to have in some places that I'm using the abbreviation AT in this post for the places we had advance tickets and found it helpful, not counting planes, trains and lodging.

We started by taking the bus from Albany to New York City, then the LIRR out to JFK airport.  From JFK we flew Emirates Airlines directly to Milan.  Then in Milan we took the train from the airport to the Milan Central train station.  From there we walked to our apartment not far from the station. All our accommodations on this trip were at Airbnb's and they couldn't have been better.  In every case we paid about what we would have for a hotel, but instead got something closer to an entire apartment.  In many cases with laundry facilities.

Once in Milan we walked to the Milan Cathedral. We didn't have tickets for this one and we didn't want to wait in the two lines for tourists. So we agreed not to take pictures and reverently went in the side reserved for worshipers.  We sat quietly in the cathedral and enjoyed it in a way closer to its intended purpose.

After leaving the cathedral we took a Metro train to a smaller church named Santa Maria delle Grazie.  This unassuming little church is where daVinci's "Last Supper" was painted.  Thanks to tickets (AT) purchased far in advance we were able to go in and see this masterpiece.  It is amazing to see, in person, this work that we've only seen in books for so many years.  It was a great experience.

We left to go back to our apartment, and soon found that the train drivers were on strike!  Initially we thought we would just walk back, but soon realized it would be too far, so with the help of a tobacconist with very good English we found a (very packed) streetcar that got us home.

The next day we boarded an early train to Venice and arrived mid-day. We dropped our bags at the apartment and walked over to St. Mark's square and Basilica. We toured St. Marks (AT), then in the evening we went to Chiesa di San Vidal and listened to a beautiful performance of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" (AT).  It was gorgeous.

In the morning we met our apartment-mates.  In Venice we were in a two-room apartment, of which one room was ours.  The couple from the other apartment was heading off on a cruise, so they gave us their day-pass for the vaporetto.  We used that to scoot around the islands for the rest of the morning.  Then in the afternoon we boarded the train to Florence.

Once in Florence we found our way to our apartment to drop our bags, then walked to the downtown area just for a quick glance... and gelato.

The next day was Monday and it was the first of many climbs we did in Italy. We were at Brunelleschi's dome by 8:30 AM to climb to the top (AT).  This is the dome on top of the Florence Cathedral. It's quite a climb to the top, but you are rewarded with a great view when you get there.  It was good to climb early in the morning while the air was still cool.

After climbing down from the dome we walked over to the Baptistery of St. John.  You can read more about that here, but especially read about the doors.  Since you weren't there, I'm including here a photo-sphere I took inside.

After the baptistery, we went to the Duomo museum (AT) and saw the actual doors from the baptistery along with a host of other beautiful pieces of art and scupture.  At this point it was our appointed time to climb Giotto's Campanile (bell tower), where we were rewarded with another great view.

At this point in the day we didn't have firm plans so we accidentally made the best impromptu decision. We walked over and visited the Basilica di Santa Croce. We didn't know it, but inside this single Basilica are the tombs of Galileo, Ghiberti, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Rossini, and others, as well as funerary monuments to other Florentines such as Dante, Marconi and Fermi.  The tombs and monuments were amazing and there was an equal amount of stunning artwork as well.

On Tuesday were were up bright and early to be in line for the Galleria dell'Academia (AT), which houses Michelangelo's statue of David. We were among the first in the door and went straight to the statue and so had a bit of time there with very few people before the crowd grew.

After the Galleria, we made another impromptu decision that turned out to be fun.  We boarded a bus that would take us back closer to the center of town.  But we decided that since our ticket was good for 90 minutes, to just ride the bus and see where it went.  It went way out of town into the countryside before stopping for a few minutes and then returning.  We still got where we wanted to go, but we got to see the true Italian countryside as well.  The bus dropped us off near the Pitti Palace, which we toured next.  This building is not terribly attractive from the outside, but the inside is a palace in every sense of the word.  I've included another photo-sphere here to give you an idea.

From the Pitti Palace we took the bus over to Piazzale Michelangelo where you get a great view of Florence.

Next we walked and rode the bus to the Uffizi museum.  This museum is filled with so much art and sculpture that you could spend days there.  We used a "Rick Steves" podcast as our tour guide and it took us through the museum stopping at the most important pieces without dwelling too long in any one place.  This got us through in a reasonable amount of time without wondering if we missed something important.  At this point we were quite tired so we went back to our apartment and found a restaurant nearby where we had Steak Florentine (of course).

Wednesday morning we checked out and headed to the train and rode to Pisa. In Pisa we did what everyone does: visited the leaning tower. Once again, we climbed to the top (AT).

This was just a stop along the way, though, as we were headed to La Spezia.  This is a town you may not have heard of but it is the gateway to the Cinque Terre, which was our destination for Thursday. Wednesday was the 26th and two earthquakes hit Italy this day, but in a region far from where we were, so we were unaffected.

Cinque Terre is a group of five small coastal towns that are connected by roads and hiking trails. We had heard it was a beautiful hike and we were not disappointed.  Even though two shorter sections were closed due to rockfall, the longer sections were open and we had the most (strenuous and) beautiful hike imaginable.  This was partly because the weather was perfect. A cloudless blue sky, a gentle sea breeze off the ocean to cool you down as you climb, and post-card-perfect scenery.  This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. Michelle's FitBit recorded 33,325 steps, 14.27 miles, and 210 flights of stairs for this day!


So many stairs. So many.

This is how narrow the trail got at one point!
As wide as that one stone, and it drops of precipitously.

Sunset in Riomaggiore

Needless to say on Friday we needed a down day.  We relaxed in the apartment until about noon and then met our train to Rome.  When we got to Rome, we found our apartment, but then we were hungry. The apartment was very close to the Vatican, so it should not be surprising that the restaurant we stumbled upon was Osteria dei Pontefici.  What a great place.  The waiter spoke no English and we spoke no Italian, so there was much pointing and a bit of surprise in our orders, but it was delicious.

Saturday morning we headed to the Villa Borghese.  While the whole park around the Villa was beautiful, it was the Borghese Gallery that we were headed to. Advance tickets are a must here.  We saw several people turned away.  It would be sad to travel thousands of miles for a once-in-a-lifetime visit and miss something like this. The gallery had amazing artwork, but it was the sculptures that we really enjoyed.

After the gallery, we spontaneously decided to rent and ride a "Bici Pincio". This little pedal buggy - with electric assist - was a blast.

From the Villa we walked down to the Spanish Steps. These are famous, but their fame brings crowds and they were too crowded to really be enjoyable.  From the steps we took the subway to the Trevi Fountain and found the same.  Massive crowds that really detracted from the enjoyment. We then took the subway again to the Piazza della Repubblica before taking a bus back to our apartment for the night.

Sunday we planned to go to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum and many of the sites in the area.  We took the bus to the train station where our plan was to take the Metro to the Colosseum. When we got off the bus we were met with an enormous crush of people trying to get ON our bus. We couldn't understand why, but we got off and headed to the Metro, only to find it closed.  It turns out that in the night there had been another earthquake and the Metro was closed for a safety inspection.  Boarding a bus looked like it would take forever, so we just walked to the Colosseum.

Then we walked all. over. town. The sites were amazing and we walked ourselves to death. We ended the day by visiting the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano.

Monday was our last full day in Italy.  We woke up and headed straight to the Vatican Museum (AT) which was a short walk from our apartment.  This is an amazing museum, and there was an enormous crowd waiting to get in.  After touring the museum we visited the Sistine Chapel.  The chapel is beautiful, but our memories are all we took out because they don't allow photography in the chapel.  After the chapel, we visited St. Peter's Basilica, which is an amazingly large and beautiful building.  Among other things here we saw Michelangelo's "The Pieta".  We saw a lot of sculptures on this trip, but this one was one of the best. Michelangelo truly was a master.

From St. Peter's we took the bus to the neighborhood of the Pantheon.  This too is an amazing building to visit.  At this point though, we were tired; especially our feet. We were fortunate enough to find a bench we could sit on and listen to a podcast about the building.  After resting a while, we walked over to Piazza Navona, which is a nice public square.  In this piazza we found a restaurant/gelateria named Tre Scalini. Here we purchased the most delicious gelato treat called a Tartufo.  I do not think we could visit Rome again without buying and devouring one of these.

To end the day, and our stay in Rome, we took the bus to Castel Sant'Angelo. We climbed (again) to the top and made it there just before sunset. We were able to watch a beautiful sunset from the top and see the lights of Rome come on.  It was a perfect ending to our trip.

St. Peter's Basilica at twilight.

On Tuesday the hostess for our apartment had arranged a taxi for us to get to the train station.  We had an early train and it turns out that since it was November 1st, it was a holiday in Italy (All Saints Day) and the buses and trains were not running on normal schedules.  The taxi had to take the long way to the train station because the earthquake had damaged one of the bridges we would have taken. But we got to the station with plenty of time. From there it was the train to Milan (at 300Km/hr (186 mph)!), then another train to the airport. The plane back to JFK, then three more trains and we were back in Albany.

If you're looking for a way to celebrate your 32nd anniversary, I recommend this itinerary.

I would make 3 recommendations if you're planning a trip like this:
  1. Make as many advance reservations as you can. It may mean you call Italy and talk haltingly to an Italian agent, but it's worth it. Skype has cheap rates for calling abroad.
  2. The Roma Pass.  In Rome this gave us unlimited use of busses and the Metro as well as free or discounted admission to many sites.  Well worth it.
  3. Only take a backpack and a small carry-on bag.  You'll appreciate the mobility.  Laundry facilities in our apartments made it possible to carry fewer clothes and travel light.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Reading Recommendations

I was recently perusing a blog written by a friend giving recommendations for how to fit reading into our busy schedules. Modern advances in electronic devices have made it possible for us to read books in a variety of ways and places. This is to our advantage because as life gets busier, time for reading becomes scarcer and we must seek out creative ways to fit reading into our schedules. The old adage, of uncertain origin, that, “The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them” still holds true. My blogger friend gave a variety of recommendations for reading material, but to my disappointment, they were almost entirely works of fiction. As a genre I consider fiction to be reading about things that are not, nor ever were, nor ever will be. With time becoming so precious that we must seek out innovative ways to work reading into our lives, should we not focus on making sure that the time spent with our books is time well spent? I prefer to think that we should read “of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come”*. This way when we finish a book we are left with something when we are done. We have gained knowledge rather than simply entertained ourselves. Perhaps some do not read non-fiction because it sounds like a class assignment. Perhaps they are kept from good non-fiction because they know not where to find it. As a counterpoint to my friend’s recommendations I would like to provide my own list of recommendations for non-fiction reading. Maybe my friend will see this list and find it interesting.

In no particular order:

“The Journals of Lewis and Clark”, Bernard Augustine DeVoto, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, E. J. Carter. 1814. This is a difficult book to read because it is recorded just as the original authors recorded their journals, with spelling, grammar, punctuation, verbiage, colloquialisms and capitalization – or lack thereof - intact. However, it is worth the price to be able to see North America in its virgin state and discover it anew with Lewis & Clark. While I read this in hard copy, it actually may be more accessible in audio book form.

“The Guns of August”, Barbara Tuchman, 1962. This book is the winner of the 1963 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and is an outstanding book. One might wonder how a book about just the first month of fighting in the First World War could be interesting, when the war dragged on for 4 more years. Reading this book establishes the answer.

“Bible and Sword”, Barbara Tuchman, 1984. The Middle East is never far from view in current events. Reading this book helps one understand why the region is so utterly and completely messed up. Sadly, comprehending this book also reveals how extraordinarily difficult it will be to unravel this Gordian Knot of politics, religion and enmity.

“The Zimmerman Telegram”, Barbara Tuchman, 1958. This book reads like a modern detective novel, with the added bonus that it is not a novel. It is a very quick read which reveals one of the causes that drew the United States into the War to End All Wars.

“Benjamin Franklin, An American Life”, Walter Isaacson, 2003. I listened to the audio CD version, though I confess to ripping it to MP3 for convenience. A very informative account of a truly amazing man and patriot. His life was full of fantastic accomplishments, though I feel he had quite a sad family life.

“The March of Folly”, Barbara Tuchman, 1984. An interesting book in that it does not follow a single event or plot element. Rather, by example, it illustrates how governments manage to work against their own self-interests.

“Massacre at Mountain Meadows. An American Tragedy”, 2011. Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Jr., Glen M. Leonard. I work at a research center and I've read some scholarly research in my time, but nothing approaches this for being authoritative.  I don't think a paragraph goes by in this book but there are 3 or more references.  To wit, the book is 430 pages, but of that, 200 pages is acknowledgements, notes and references.  It is an unbelievably well researched book.  If you want to know what happened in this tragic incident, this is the book to get. At first it's just an interesting look into life in Utah circa 1857.  But it builds to its heart pounding and heart wrenching conclusion.  From the beginning you know how the story ends, but you still feel amazed - and sickened - when it does.

“Inferno. The World at War. 1939-1945”, Max Hastings, 2011. An excellent book on what was really the sequel to World War I.

“D-Day. June 6, 1944”, Stephen Ambrose, 1994. You don’t need to see “Saving Private Ryan”. Why settle for docu-drama or historical fiction when you can have the whole, unvarnished truth. Read this book.

“Over the Edge of the World”, Laurence Bergreen, 2003. An amazing account of the circumnavigation of the earth. You thought Magellan did that, when, in fact, he died before the journey ended.  Just wait until the end of the book when you learn that this was the voyage where they learned about the need for an international date line.

“Mayflower”, Nathaniel Philbrick, 2006. An excellent account of the first pilgrims who arrived in North America and their interactions with the Native Americans.  I listened to this as an audio-book and highly recommend it.  There are many Native American names to stumble over and listening avoids that hurdle to finishing the book.  Have you heard of King Philip’s war? Did you know King Philip was a Native American?  I didn’t think so.

“The Big Short”, Michael Lewis, 2010. This book should be required reading in congress and every high school. It is a relatively accessible explanation of the financial meltdown of 2007-2008.  While written to focus on a few individuals who saw the meltdown coming (hence the title), the description of the state of affairs on Wall Street is jaw-droppingly appalling.  It makes me ashamed that our country allows this to happen unchecked, and disgusted that people would want to operate in such opposition to the interests of society.

“Into Thin Air”, Jon Krakauer, 1997. A gripping account of a tragic confluence of circumstances on Mt Everest.  At times I felt that the author got carried away with superlatives, but overall a good read.

“A Night to Remember”, Walter Lloyd, 1955. A quick read, this book is a very factual and not romanticized account of the sinking of the Titanic. I'm glad I read it. I feel I have a much better understanding of the tragic event. I also understand better the times in which it happened, which, in part, contributed to the disaster. It was published in 1955 when the author still had access to survivors of the accident for first-hand accounts.

“Unbroken”, Laura Hillenbrand, 2010. If you have not heard of this book, get someone to help you lift the rock under which you live.  Many things could be said about this book, but what came across to me was the depth of human suffering that can be endured, and escaped, though not unscathed. I have new appreciation for the human capacity for cruelty as well as endurance and forgiveness.

“The Professor and the Madman”, Simon Winchester, 1999. A fascinating account of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. If you like the Oxford comma, you’ll love the account of the dictionary. No really. It’s a book about a dictionary and it really is interesting.

“Endurance”, Alfred Lansing, 1959. This is another book that illustrates the amount of suffering a human can pass through while retaining their mental faculties.  It is an exciting adventure story that is as astonishing as it is true. It’s one of those “can’t put it down” books. There are many accounts of this expedition. I recommend Lansing’s account.

“Lawrence in Arabia”, Scott Anderson, 2013. A very good account of T. E. Lawrence's contributions to the war effort in the Middle East during WWI, but also a good account of how imperialism really fouled up the Middle East. It may have happened anyway, but Britain, France and the US guaranteed and even hastened it. A side lesson that I took away was how much can be accomplish in life in a short time. Read this book, then understand that everything in this book Laurence accomplished by age 30.

“Destiny of the Republic”, Candice Millard, 2011. A well written book covering a topic that is not well known to Americans. It begs the question, "What could have been?", had an intelligent man, without huge political ambition, elected almost accidentally, been allowed to serve out his term. It also illustrates the depths of depravity plumbed by those motivated only by self-aggrandizement. An excellent read.

“Operation Mincemeat”, Ben Mcintyre, 2010. A very enjoyable book about one particularly interesting intelligence operation in WWII. An excellent read which illustrates the detail that is required for a truly successful intelligence operation to work.

“The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks”, Rebecca Skloot, 2010. This is another book that I was glad I listened to as an audio book.  There was a lot of Southern, African-American, language in this book that was brought out in the audio version that I think might not have been communicated as well in print. This is a remarkable account of how African Americans were treated in the 1950’s.

“Shot all to H**l” (title edited for sensitive readers). Mark Lee Gardner, 2014. This is an account of the last major job pulled off by Jesse James and his gang.  It’s a quick read and you learn much more about the man you knew previously only by name.

“Lost in Shangri-La”, Mitchell Zuckoff, 2011. This is a very good book about a harrowing ordeal that you likely didn’t even know happened during WWII. Yet there is video of it on YouTube now! I find it amazing that aboriginal tribes could survive so long into the 20th century undetected by the outside world. The ingenuity required for escape from this inaccessible, primitive valley was remarkable.

“Twelve Years a Slave”, Solomon Northrop, 1853. That’s right. Not the movie, but the book. I did not watch the movie, nor do I intend to. This book was sufficient to reveal to me the depths of man’s inhumanity toward man.  We live today with the echos of this kind of ill treatment of our fellow man.

“The Gathering Storm”, Winston Churchill, 1948. I just finished this book and Churchill’s prose is amazing.  It is no wonder he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953, in part due to this book. I consider it a classic that should be required reading in government and in schools. Who would not want to learn the lessons of WWI and WWII from those who were best acquainted with them?

I have many other recommendations, but I’ll stop here for now. Some might criticize me for not allowing for any reading of fiction.  That is not so. I read fiction, but when I do, I choose very, very carefully.  So the following are my recommendations for fictional works.

“Pilgrim’s Progress”, John Bunyan, 1678. That’s right – 1678. This book has been in continual print longer than any book in the English Language. Sure, they read this book in “Little Women”, but have you read it?  I didn’t think so. Is it a good book? Meh.  But we don’t always read books because they are the best book we’ll ever read. You will be a more educated person for having read this book. You will also know where the term “Vanity Fair” comes from. I’ll give you a hint: It’s not a 17th century fashion magazine.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852. This is fiction, but it reads like fact. Slavery was the worst. I cannot emphasize enough how many problems I think we have brought upon ourselves through this “peculiar institution”.

“Frankenstein”, Marry Shelley, 1818.  This book is not the horror story you’re thinking of.  It is considered a classic for a reason. It is a very dark book, but not full of gratuitous violence. The creature in this book is actually a thinking, reasoning, intelligent being.  It becomes very understandable why he becomes a “monster”.

“Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc”, Mark Twain, 1896. This book should be considered historical fiction.  However, I consider it very educational about a historical person people know little about beyond her name.  I highly recommend it.

You may note that some of these books are old enough to be in the public domain. I should point out that there are a number of free, public domain audio books available through

Those are my recommendations. I hope you will find this list helpful in broadening your reading horizons and as you consider what you will gain from the next book you select for reading – whatever the format.

- Glen

*Not my words. Reference available on request.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

California Transit Authority

We went to Proctor's to see the California Transit Authority on Saturday night.

Yeah, we went to a rock concert - I know, very unlike us.  But it was great - even if it was REALLY LOUD! Fortunately Glen remembered to get ear plugs for us, and I  used mine from the start!

Danny Seraphine (drummer) and Bill Champlin (vocals/keyboard/guitar) were part of the original Chicago Transit Authority which became the CHICAGO we all know and love.   Those two formed a band that plays a lot of old Chicago plus some new things they've done.  I can only hope that when in my mid-60s like they are I'm still doing as well. 

When they did "Saturday In the Park" it took me back to the summer of 1976 when I was 16 years old, it was Saturday, the 4th of July, and I WAS at a park (Liberty Park) in Salt Lake City, UT.  Good memories!

Glen and I had a blast!  It was a great way to spend a super cold January night!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Our Happy 30th Anniversary

In our last post I promised to follow up with more details on our trip to England. This is to follow up. Get comfortable if you plan to read this whole post.

We departed from JFK airport in New York on Thursday Oct. 23 and flew to Gatwick airport, South of London, arriving around noon on the 24th. There we rented (ok, “hired”) a car to drive for the first 6 days of our trip. In our whole trip I think we only made three wrong turns and the first one was when we came right out of the airport. Thanks to the abundance of roundabouts in England, that mistake was quickly remedied and we drove through terrible traffic on the M23 and M25 to Windsor. We took with us our GPS (or, SatNav as the locals call it), loaded with maps of England. It was an absolute lifesaver and we feel it was indispensable for the trip we planned with so much driving.

We arrived in Windsor around 3PM after having flown through the night with not much sleep. However, we forged ahead and visited Windsor Castle that afternoon.  At the castle we toured St. George’s Chapel, and the state apartments. Both were beautiful and magnificent.

After touring the castle we spent the night at a B&B in Windsor called “Dee and Steve’s”. Michelle researched and booked all of our accommodations before our trip and this B&B was a wonderful place to stay. We would recommend it without hesitation.

The next day, Saturday, we left Windsor and headed to Stonehenge, our next stop.  Anyone who has used a GPS knows that it sometimes takes you on roads that you might not have thought to take. This was the case during our whole trip, but since we were on vacation and wanted to see the country we didn’t mind it a bit.  We arrived at Stonehenge around noon on Saturday after enduring horrible traffic on the A303 for the last 3 miles before Stonehenge.  We were about 30 minutes late for our reservation time, but they were not particular about the times so we had no problem getting our tickets. Stonehenge is one of many so called, English Heritage sites. English Heritage sites offer what is called an Overseas Visitor Pass. This pass allows you entrance to many such sites throughout the country. We bought it in advance and picked it up at Stonehenge. We would recommend this as well to anyone visiting the country. There are many places we went because we had the pass and it made it free, or half-price.

Stonehenge was fascinating to visit. The countryside around is largely flat and the day we were there it was a bit windy, but very pleasant.

After leaving Stonehenge we drove to Bath. The entire city of Bath is apparently a UNESCO world heritage site. We got there about 3PM and, after wading through traffic, found a place to park.  One picture below we took in Bath just to remember the car we drove.  We walked to the site of the Roman Baths and took the tour there.  It was amazing to see these ancient baths and learn how they were built and have been used over the years.

Saturday night we spent at the White Hart Inn in Bath. The next morning we drove to the area around Gloucester.  Our first stop was the Gadfield Elm Chapel. This tiny building, on an unbelievably tiny road, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, was the first church building owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons).  If you’re wondering how the first building owned by a church founded in New York in 1830 could be a building in a Gloucestershire backwater you can read more about that here.

We gave ourselves a self-guided tour of the chapel, which was quick, because it’s a tiny place. Then we drove over to Gloucester and attended church in the Gloucester Ward. After church we drove over to the Gloucester Cathedral and toured it. They were offering tours of the crypt that day so we were able to go there, which you can’t do every day.  For fans of the Harry Potter franchise you should know that this Cathedral was used in one of the Harry Potter films.  While walking to the cathedral the church bells were ringing and it was fun to listen to them.


After leaving Gloucester we were headed toward Stratford-upon-Avon, which is where we planned to spend Sunday night. At this point we had to make the painful decision to bypass some things that might have been fun to do had we had more time. We bypassed Tewkesbury Abbey, and Sudley Castle and just contented ourselves with our drive through the Cotswolds.  En route we called the guest house where we were staying that evening and got directions as to where to park, we were told to park on their “frontage”. This was puzzling to us at first, but when we arrived it became clear what it meant. We were supposed to pull right up over the curb and onto a patch of pavement right in front of the building. It was a new concept to us, but as with most things in England it was extremely space efficient. Stratford-upon-Avon is the birthplace, and burial place of William Shakespeare.  Our schedule on this trip was tight, so we did not take any official tours in this town. We spent Sunday night in the Emsley Guest House, which I believe was our favorite place to stay in the entire trip. On Monday morning we simply walked around the town and enjoyed the scenery, the history, the river, the swans, and went to see where Shakespeare was buried.

After our short tour we got back in the car and headed to Warwick Castle. We had heard it is one of the best preserved castles in England. What we also learned is that it has been turned into a bit of a commercial venue. Nevertheless, it was still fun to visit and see the castle, climb the turrets and see the armor and weapons of the knights.  Because we were there during the week preceding Halloween the castle was decorated accordingly. What better place could host a Halloween celebration than a castle? It’s got dungeons, they had witches and headless horsemen. It was a perfect Halloween setting. We climbed the tall turret at Warwick Castle going around and around the small circular stone staircases that lead up and down. It was the first of many such staircases we would climb on this trip. One of the things we realized on this trip was just how ancient the history in England is. Warwick castle had signs thanking visitor for helping them celebrate their 1,100th birthday!

From Warwick Castle our next planned stop was the small town of Brooksby. But between us and Brooksby was Kennilworth Castle with its Elizabethan Gardens. We didn’t have much time to spend here, but since entrance was free with our English Heritage pass, we felt we could make an abbreviated stop here. We visited for just about an hour before we were on our way again.

We arrived in the small town of Brooksby at about 4PM. The building which was previously Brooksby Manor is now a reception hall associated with the Brooksby Melton agricultural college. The staff graciously allowed us to see their central hall and visit the adjacent church of St. Michael and All Angels. Since the buildings are part of an active college there was not much else to do, so we drove off in the direction of the town of Hoby and found the spot we were looking for. It’s the exact spot where our son, Brett, had taken his picture when he was serving as a missionary in the area back in 2010.

From Brooksby we headed to our next stop, which was Cambridge. This meant driving a considerable distance after dark. Let me state here that this was the most nail-biting driving we did on our whole trip. It was dark, I felt awkward driving on the left, and the speed limits on the tiny British roads seemed amazingly fast.  After quite an adventure-filled drive we arrived at the Ashley Hotel in Cambridge. We got up Tuesday morning to glorious weather. We had worried about visiting England in late October and had been warned that it could be quite rainy. As it turned out we enjoyed great weather during all but one day of our trip, and the weather on this Tuesday was truly magnificent. It was perfect because on this day we wanted to take a punting tour on the River Cam. We learned a lot about the town and colleges that make up Cambridge University on this river trip.

After punting we walked into town and toured the Kings College Chapel. What an amazingly beautiful church. This day in Cambridge was one of the real highlights of the trip. Partly because of the weather and partly because of the beautiful buildings we were able to see.

Some time in mid-afternoon we decided it was time to leave and we began our next drive to Canterbury. This drive was a bit long, due partly to hitting the outskirts of London at rush hour, but we finally got to Canterbury at about 5:30PM. We were a bit rushed because we wanted to attend and listen to their Evensong service. So we quickly checked into the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge, parked and dashed into the Canterbury Cathedral just in time to catch most of the service. They had a wonderful choir and organ. It was a beautiful service.

The next morning, we got up and toured the Cathedral. The Abbey in Canterbury was initially started in about the year 600. That’s right, about 1,400 years ago! The Cathedral itself only dates back to the time of William the Conqueror – 1066AD! A mere 948 years ago.

In the early afternoon on Wednesday, we went back to our car to find not one, but two parking tickets on our windshield. In our haste the night before, we had placed our parking permit on our dashboard without filling it out. The town of Canterbury has since graciously agreed to rescind our fines since we were able to explain our case and provide proof of payment. Lesson learned.

We next drove the short distance to Dover, but by now the weather had turned very foggy and rainy. We drove to the White Cliffs of Dover, but could barely even make them out through the fog.

This made it easy to shorten our stay there and we then headed to the adjacent Dover Castle.  This was another English Heritage site. We toured the castle and climbed up and down many more circular stone staircases. We saw them telling spooky ghost stories to children in one of the chambers. Dover castle has been around since Roman times and the remnants of a Roman lighthouse are still there.

At about 4:30PM we decided to head back to Gatwick. Our arrival at Gatwick was the end of our driving tour. We’re so glad we “hired” the car and took this trip because we saw so much more of the country, including tiny, out-of-the-way, places on our own schedule. We were able to stay in B&Bs and smaller hotels and meet locals in a way that most tourists never do.

From Gatwick we took the Southern railway to Victoria Station in London. Victoria Station is a short walk from the Cherry Court Hotel where we stayed. If you’re interested in efficient use of space, England is your country. And if you’re interested in the ultimate in space efficient rooms, the Cherry Court Hotel is for you. Our room was very tiny, but it had a private bath; and for a hotel located as conveniently as it is you can’t beat it for the price.

On Thursday morning we took the Tube (London’s subway) to Westminster. We came out and saw Big Ben and Parliament immediately, but then turned and walked back through St. James Park toward Buckingham Palace, where we watched the changing of the guard. Did you know that the soldiers at Buckingham Palace don’t always wear red coats? Neither did we. This day they were all dressed in gray (or is it grey?) coats. With an amazingly large throng of people we watch the ceremony.

On this day we also visited the Wellington Arch and the Apsley house, home of the Duke of Wellington. Both are English Heritage sites. We had not heard of the Apsley house before, but were glad we went. Among other things, there you can see the sword taken from Napoleon at Waterloo.

From the Apsley house we took the Tube to Trafalgar Square, and then walked to Piccadilly Circus.

Friday morning we were up bright and early so we could visit the Tower of London as soon as it opened. We had heard the best way to see the Crown Jewels was to get there first thing. This we did and as this particular day unfolded we realized it was the best decision we could have made. Because we had gotten there early we were able to see the crown jewels without waiting in line at all. This was Friday, October 31st; Halloween.  It also happened to be the warmest Oct. 31st on record. It was sunny and 70⁰F. This also combined with a special display they were having at the Tower commemorating Remembrance Day (Veterans Day in the US). In the mote surrounding the Tower they had placed red ceramic poppies; one for each life lost in World War I. We in the USA have no concept for the sacrifices endured by the British people during the Great War. The display at the Tower was beautiful and moving, and tens of thousands were there to see it.  The press of crowds made it almost scary.

After the Tower, we took the Tube to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s is another beautiful cathedral. Here we climbed yet more circular staircases, ultimately climbing to the Golden Gallery, 111 meters (364 feet) above ground. From there you get amazing views of London that you can’t get many other places, except perhaps, the London Eye; which is where we headed next.

We heard that the best time to ride the London Eye was at sunset. We wanted to do that, but the line is very long and timing things to do that can be a challenge. We learned that you can buy tickets in advance and that you cannot ride before your ticket time. But, you can ride any time after your ticket time. So on Wednesday afternoon we had purchased tickets for 10AM on Friday. Then we showed up around 3:30 on Friday and gauged when to get into line. We managed to hit it perfectly. The sun set while we were riding so we got to see the lights coming on all over London. When we came down we were able to see the many sites around Westminster with their lights on, which make them beautiful.

It was late after the Eye, but we decided we’d make a dash for the British Museum. We got there one hour before they closed. Conveniently, they had a pamphlet giving you highlights to see in about an hour. We took the lightning tour and were so glad we did. We got to see, among other thing, the frieze from the Parthenon and the Rosetta Stone.

On Saturday, we got up and went to visit Westminster Abbey, but found out that it was closed to the public for a special meeting for Scouts relating to Remembrance Day.  At this point in our trip we hardly felt cheated, having seen so many other cathedrals.  We took some pictures around the Abbey and Parliament, then took the Tube back to Trafalgar Square where we did another lightning tour; this time of the National Gallery. Michelle especially enjoyed seeing the Monet paintings.

After the Gallery we took the Tube one last time to our Hotel, then the Southern railway to Gatwick, and the flight back to JFK. In retrospect it feels like it was a bit of a whirlwind trip, but it was a fantastic experience and a perfect way to celebrate 30 years of marriage and the raising to adulthood of 4 children.

Congratulations if you read all the way to here!