Monday, May 01, 2017

Travelogue -- England and Paris 2017

In April, I was asked to travel to England to do some work onsite with a software development company we were outsourcing with. Even though I knew the days would be busy and hectic, I was excited for the trip and my wife was excited to join me and do some sightseeing on her own while I was working.

Work was in Brighton which is a fun seaside resort city on the southern coast of England. Lynette quickly remembered moments of joy from Jane Austen tales of her characters going to Brighton and she was even more excited at the prospect. We stayed in a reasonably priced 4-star hotel called Jury's Inn Waterfront which, as you might expect, was down on the coast with a great view of the ocean and the nearby Brighton Pier.

The hotel amenities were comfortable and acceptable and the staff was quite friendly and very helpful. The beach and ocean were a wonderful draw to me (as usual) although the temperature was rather chilly and the beach was pebble rather than sand so I didn't take any opportunity to just lay down and watch the water like I normally would. Still it was awesome being right on the oceanfront for the trip. The nearby Pier was a fun attraction as well. It had a boardwalk vibe with street vendors, arcade machines and carnival rides. The style and atmosphere was fun.

My office was a short 5-minute walk from the hotel and I spent most of my daytime hours there. The downside for me was that the shops and sights of Brighton (at least during that time of year) largely closed down by 6 pm so by the time I had finished my work day, most points of interest were shutting their doors. We did find some great places to eat for dinner as well as some late-night snacks at the numerous pubs. We thought perhaps the Pier would be open later as a gathering point for after hours family fun but it also closed down fairly early. I didn't do any additional research to see if the early hours were a year-round occurrence or just in the off-seasons of spring and winter considering a beach town may be more accommodating to tourists in the summer months. At the same time, I had to remind myself that I was there as a "working" tourist so the schedule constraints wouldn't apply to normal travelers. In fact, my wife had a wonderful time exploring the sites and offerings of Brighton.

We took the time to explore the Royal Pavilion. Built in the late 1700s as a "pleasure palace" for King George IV, this was a lavish and crazy exhibit of architecture and design. The initial intent was to be a seaside retreat for the King (then Prince of Wales) to recover from physical ailments in the healthy sea climate. It quickly became his go-to locale for outrageous parties or indiscreet romantic trysts. The design showcases a gaudy style based on mistaken English interpretation of East Indian and Asian tastes. The exotic styles illustrate a case of having far too much money to spend and not knowing entirely what to do with it. The Pavilion is set up for a self-guided walk-through of the premises and they have audio narration available for playback through your smartphones. I highly recommend the audio not only to provide greater insight into what you're seeing but also for the chance to partake of the wry British humor in such a magnificent and outrageous setting. My wife was also able to visit during the day and be part of a traditional English Tea in the Pavilion tea room.

Just behind our hotel and winding up and down the main streets of town were the Laines. Navigating along cobblestone paths and passages between fun European stone building were dozens and dozens of wonderful shops ranging from quaint to exotic. While there were some shops with your standard pre-fab souvenirs, we had more fun exploring the small local shops where artisans showcased their talents. There were great examples of classical and modern art as well as beautiful custom jewelry, clothing and other high-end merchandise. We found fun candy and ice cream shops and music and bookstores catering to local taste.

While I was working, my wife took some time to explore the beach and museums as well as to visit a nearby castle in Lewes Castle just a quick bus or train ride down the road. She was initially nervous about exploring on her own as she has self-proclaimed to have no sense of direction. I helped outline the bus route and she was on her way. She came back that night gushing about the fabulous adventure she'd had in Lewes. The 1000-year-old castle was a fun chance to step back in time and explore architecture and history that you just can't find in the United States.

The exhibits and guides were fabulous and really impressed her. While navigating Lewes, she took a few missteps but had a great time doing so. She met a woman who was helping caretake a local church. The woman invited my wife into the cemetery behind the church (which were beautiful in themselves) to look at "a unique view of the castle that the public usually doesn't see." From behind the church she stared along the backside of the castle wall.   She also took a brief walk to Anne of Cleves house. Anne was a wife of Henry VIII and her home was another trip back in time centuries to the Tudor era.  The day trip to Lewes was well worth her time.

On the weekend, my wife and I dedicate each day to longer trips.

On Saturday, we took a whirlwind trip to Paris. Rising early, we caught the train from Brighton to London where we transferred to the Eurostar to zip across the channel to Paris. Sadly, we missed the first train across which cost us an extra hour but we made the best of it. The train ride was fast and smooth and we were there before we knew it (although it did take a few hours). We found our way to the Metro and emerged just across from the Louvre.

Knowing we only had a single day to see as much as we could, we didn't enter the Louvre itself but instead worked our way through the Tuileries gardens to take in the awesome sculptures and topiary as we worked our way towards the heart of the city. We followed the Avenue de Champs Elysees down to the Grand Palais where we took a turn around the block to admire the fabulous architecture and ambience of the Grand Palais and neighboring gardens.

We stopped for a quick lunch at a Brasserie just across from the Grand Palais (actually across from the Palais de la Decouverte portion of the Grand Palais). My lovely companion was giddy with delight as we sat on the patio seating of the darling French cafe.

After lunch, we decided to walk along the Seine for the rest of our afternoon and headed towards the famous Tower. The path along the Seine was lovely. To our right were rows of fabulous buildings each with their own wonderful architectural charm. To our left, people sat on the wall and ate or chatted while beyond them the Seine flowed by with various ferries and water coaches. Before long we were at the bridge directly across from the Eiffel Tower. We paused for pictures and to admire some of the "living statues" entertaining passersby. Crossing the bridge, we noted the huge line to get through the security checkpoint to reach the tower.

In the interest of time, we took a few pictures from beyond the security checkpoint and decided to take a leisurely stroll through the surrounding park and gardens. We found another corner cafe and had a small snack of hot chocolate and macarons. Both were divine (perhaps the flavor was slightly enhanced by the charm of being in such a magical location). Sadly, we realized our time was nearly over so we worked to obtain a few requisite Paris souvenirs and worked our way back to the train station just in time to catch the last train back to London. Our whirlwind adventure in Paris had lasted just over 5 hours but it was wonderful fun.

The next day, we rose early in Brighton and hopped a train to London. We unintentionally planned our day trip the same day as the London marathon so numerous thoroughfares were blocked or highly congested. Still, we were determined to do and see as much as we could. We began with a stop at the Tower of London. We had received very good advice to see the Crown Jewels first (if you wanted to see them) since the line is shortest early in the day. So, after entering the Tower gates, we beelined to the Jewel Howes. Before that day I hadn't fully understood what was meant by "Crown Jewels." For some reason, I had thought it literally just meant the "crown" and the jewels in it. On the contrary, the "crown jewels" includes more than a hundred ceremonial objects and the associated regalia and clothing that are used for various royal events, most notably coronations. The Jewel House was under armed guard and featured immense walls and ultra-secure doors. The jewelry was over the top and a lot of fun to look at.

After viewing the jewels, we decided to take the guided tour (which is free with the price of admission). The tour guides are the "Beefeaters" (officially known as Yeoman Warders). They are part of the Royal Bodyguard and can only become Yeoman Warders after serving in the military for over 20 years. Our guide was a wonderfully energetic and hilarious man. He brought so much life and joy to the tour. The tour lasted about an hour. When we were first buying our tickets, I heard some other tourists expressing skepticism as to whether they really wanted to go on a guided tour versus just exploring on their own. I can recommend the Yeoman Tour as a "must do" activity when visiting the tour. I acknowledge that they don't take you into every area of the Tower but they provide such a lively, fun and informative addition that I can't imagine a visit being as complete without their help. We paused for lunch in the Tower before continuing our journey.

After our visit to the Tower, we took the bridge across the river and began meandering towards the Globe. There was so much literary history I wanted to see but with the short timespan I decided that a visit to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre would suffice. Along the way we found many great spots for fun pictures of amazing architecture whether it was an ornate church or a picturesque office building, it was all neat. At the Globe, I took some time to explore what was there, interact with the staff and peruse the gift shop. Since the Globe is a working theatre, I didn't have an opportunity to tour the place but I acknowledged that I must come back some day and see a show (or two or three).

After the Globe, we walked across another bridge and up towards St. Paul’s. At this point we started getting stuck in Marathon traffic so we dropped down to the underground and took a quick ride over towards Parliament and Westminster. The final path of the Marathon ran right past Parliament and then down the road to end in the parks by Buckingham Palace. Working our way through the crowds, we walked around the outside of Westminster Palace and Westminster Abbey and then took the Birdcage walk right alongside the Marathon path down to Buckingham Palace. We looked through the palace gates at the guards doing their duty and explored the nearby buildings to see what might be open for tourists. Sadly, the museum and gallery were closed.

We found our way to a nearby pub (which promised an "adventurous" menu) and enjoyed a relaxing meal. It was also a much-appreciated rest for our legs...checking our pedometers we had walked nearly 17 miles. I tried to convince the group (one of my co-workers had joined us) that after dinner we should walk up the road to Kensington Gardens before making our way back to Brighton. I was keen on Kensington for its literary tie in to J.M. Barrie and Peter Pan. Showing them the map I tried to point out that it's "fairly close" (although upon checking the scale of the map, it looked to be about a 2-mile walk). With the sore feet and legs of my fellow travelers, I was overruled and we instead walked the half mile to Victoria Station to catch the trains back home.

The next day, I bid farewell to my wife and one of my fellow as they caught a flight home. I stayed for another 4 days to finish up some additional work. Back in Brighton I couldn’t do much more sightseeing in non-working hours but I did manage to find the Brighton area board game group and joined them for their Tuesday night gaming session which was fun.

Back home we received postcards we sent and shared photos and souvenirs with the kids. It was an adventure that was wonderful fun. We saw and experienced so many amazing things in such a short amount of time. I can't wait to do something like it again.

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