1 Year Later…


Quiet morning amongst the cobblestones. 

It’s been one year since my last blog post.  Wow! That’s so lame.

I have journals and drafts of new blog posts that have just been sitting, collecting dust for the last year.  I need to commit to getting those posted, because I have awesome memories to share.

However, my reason for logging in today is that I have news…I’m going back to Europe!  Not an extended stay this time, just a week in London in the spring, but I’m still ecstatic to be returning to one of my favorite cities!  Plus, this time I’m not traveling alone–I’m taking my sister with me, which makes it even better.  We booked our tickets a few days ago, and since then I’ve been pouring over my lists and journals from last year.  I’m making new charts of things I wanted to do and didn’t have time for, and things that I want to show her.  It’s already shaping up to be a packed week!

So in prepping for this next trip to England, I thought I’d share a few of the photos I took last year on the last leg of my journey.  In fact, it was 1 year ago today that I arrived in Bath, after crossing the English channel via the Caen-Portsmouth overnight ferry.  It’s strange having a year could go by so quickly!


Last year: early morning stroll by the River Avon in Bath, England



Autumn light.

The Sun and the Sea (Sitges, Spain)

Look at this–two posts in one day!!!


One of several beaches in Sitges, near the old town.

At the beginning of September i had the opportunity to spend 2 extraordinary weeks with a family in Barcelona.  Spain hadn’t been on my original itinerary, but as things changed over the summer, this offer came up, and it worked out perfectly for me.

Spain had never been on my list of must see destinations, but several people I met on my adventures told me I had to visit Barcelona.  So I did.  BEST DECISION EVER.

I loved Barcelona, the family I was with, and Spain/Catalonia in general.  I will write more about my adventures in Barcelona, but for now I just wanted to share some of my pictures from Sitges, a little fishing village/resort town about 30 miles or so south of Barcelona.

A convenient day trip by train from the city center, Sitges has miles of beautiful villages, a delightful old town, and sunshine galore!


The white washed buildings and cobblestones streets of the old town.

I spent two days there, swimming in the Mediterranean (I have never swam in such perfect water–oh how glorious!) and soaking up the delights of the narrow streets.

One surprise to my American sensibilities was that the beaches in Spain are topless.  It was one of those things I knew, but had forgotten about, so I was taken back at first.  However, I soon grew to appreciate the fact that unlike in America, no one there was making a big deal about exposed breasts.  Mothers were playing with their children, retired couples were sunbathing together, some with tops, some without, and it was all perfectly natural.  I’m so used to female nudity in America being sexualized and media constantly obsessing over the perfect body type and was is and is not acceptable, and it was refreshing to see people completely at ease with themselves and each other.


Swimming in the sea, a perfect way to close out the summer!


Catalonia flag against a perfect September sky.

Sitges was the only town outside Barcelona that I got to visit, and honestly, it was the perfect escape from the city.  However, I am now obsessed with the need to explore more of Spain!!! Adding more destinations to my next itinerary.


Street scene, waterfront hotel.


The old church and clock tower.


Exploring narrow lines and marveling at local architecture never gets old for me.

Exploring Normandy Part 2: Cheese, Cider, and Postcard Villages


Church in Victot-Pontfol–exploring the cider route.

The cool, but sunny weather of last week has given way to rain this morning.  I don’t mind too much, because rainy days are perfect for snuggling up with my laptop and Bon Iver and catching up on my blogging.  Also, we had boeuf bourguignon with braised spice cabbage for lunch, which is the perfect rainy fall day meal!  Oh my tastebuds are happy.

So, backing up to last Saturday. The best thing about having a rental car was the freedom of exploring rural Normandy (or Normandie) at my leisure (well, more or less, as much leisure as I could pack into 48 hours).

Saturday, Sophie decided she wanted to have a down day, so I was on my own.  I was a bit nervous about doing both the navigating and driving, but the great thing about country roads is you can pull off to the side and look at maps and directions when you need to.  Also, cars can turn around, which is oh so handy!

Saturday dawned cold clear morning, so a mist was just rising off the fields as I set off, making for some gorgeous, eerie type photos.  By afternoon, it warmed to the point of being comfortable in long sleeves and sans jacket, with skies that were as clear and blue as a mountain lake.


The fog just lifting on a clear and chilly autumn morning.

After a couple detours down some tiny country roads, I first stopped in the small cheese making village of Livarot, about a 30 minute drive from where I’m staying.  It was a sleepy little village on a Saturday morning–pretty far off the main tourist drag, and not many shops were open, but  I wasn’t interested in shopping; I was there to visit the E. Graindorge cheese factory, La Village Fromargerie.


Mmm…Normandy is yummy.


Thanks for the cheese, cows!


Aging camembert in the cellars of La Village Fromargerie.

A self guided tour through the factory and the museum was delightful with displays and short video clips explaining the history of the company and the cheese production process the region.  As visitors progress through the factory, they pass through the aging cellars and packaging rooms from where the cheese is then sent for distribution.  The free tour was well worth the time, and concluded with the sampling of various cheese (can’t go wrong with free samples) and local products in the gift shop.  I picked up some camembert and apple cider (juice) for my picnic lunch.

From Livarot, it was about 30 minutes north to the village of Cambremer, a pretty little town right on the cider route–a 25 mile marked tour through the Pays d’Auge region of Normandy.  The cider route is a perfect way to experience the culture and culinary arts of Normandy.  While the D-Day sights give an important insight into history, this is rural life in Normandy today.  Stopping at various estates and in the local villages, you can sample cider, calvados, and other apple products, and tour the distilleries and orchards that make this part of France so distinctive.

I had delightful time at the Dupont estate, getting a private tour of the distillery and the Calvados and cider aging cellars.  Calvados is aged apple brandy, and if I understood correctly, many of the barrels are aged for as many as 30 or more years!  You have to have a lot of patience and apples to run an operation like that!  My tour concluded with a sample of their delicious fresh apple cider (non-alcoholic for me, thank you) and I purchased a bottle of sparkling cider to take with me.  I just broke into it a couple nights ago.  It is THE BEST sparkling cider I have ever had.  Sorry, Martinelli’s.

photo 2

Calvados aging barrels at the Dupont estate.  If I understood correctly, these particular barrels will age for about 30 years.


Touring the Dupont estate.

My final stop for the day was the popular village of Beuron en Auge, widely considered one of the most beautiful villages in all of Normandy.  It’s tiny–you can walk from one end to the other in less than 10 minutes– and full of half timbered buildings, antique shops, cider purveyors, and small boutiques to delight tourists.


Delightful half timbered home in the postcard town of Beuvron-en-Auge.

While it can be crowded during the summer, this weekend at the end of September was pleasantly tranquil, giving me plenty of time to enjoy my picnic of all local foods: cider, camembert, and a fresh baguette–and then go exploring.

photo 4

Dining as the locals do. The perfect picnic.

That, in a word, was my day.  Exploring at its purest.  Driving through France, in my adorable rental car, looking at a map but just turning down whatever road intrigued me.  Meeting local people, trying the local food that they were so proud of, and enjoying the autumn sunshine.  Perfect days are so rare, and this one was definitely one to treasure.

Exploring Normandy Part 1: Mont Saint-Michel and D-Day


Hi Friends!

Autumn has arrived in Normandy, and it is glorious!  My favorite time of year, and I am blessed enough to enjoy it in this pastoral paradise in northern France.

I have several blog entries started that I still need to complete and post, including my adventures in Austria, Bavaria, and Barcelona, so those will be forthcoming, but I wanted to share some pictures from this last weekend, because it was AMAZING.

This is another work away stay for me, so most days I’m just hanging out and working at the farm/B&B–it’s pretty remote, so without a vehicle it’s hard to explore, but this last weekend, my friend, Sophie, and I splurged on a rental car and had ourselves a great adventure!

I LOVED our little rental car.  It was a Toyota Yaris hybrid, and it was tiny and adorable, and I wanted to keep it forever.  Only drawback was that for a hybrid, it really wasn’t all that fuel efficient.  Still, we had a car and FREEDOM!!!  I was surprised at how easily I found it driving in France, even if some of the road signs were unfamiliar.  I did realize though, that I must drive too slowly to satisfy the local population.  Even going 10 kilometers/hr over the speed limit I still had people whizzing past me quite regularly.  However, not knowing France’s stance on speeding violations, I chose to error on the side of caution.

We started by driving to Mont Saint Michel, one of France’s great monuments and pilgrimage sights.  We got there late Thursday night, and got some beautiful views of the island all lit up at night, but unfortunately couldn’t find a good photographic location–the drawback of arriving after dark in a new place.  So we bagged the night shoot idea and got an early start Friday morning.

That turned out to be a great plan, as we had amazing views of the morning light.  The fog was just lifting off the fields and the water, so it made the island and the abbey look like it was emerging from the pages of a fairytale.


Morning light on Mont Saint-Michel.

There’s a small causeway and bridge (which just opened this year) stretching from the mainland over to the island.  There is very limited vehicle access, and the car park for visitors is on the mainland, so we parked and took the free shuttle over.  The island itself is very small, dominated by the huge abbey at the top.  There is one main street that goes up, and a couple of back ways as well.  We were there early enough to avoid the crowds of day trippers (the buses were arriving when we left about 10:30, so if you go, early is better!).


From Mont Saint-Michell it was just under 2 hours to Utah Beach where we began the D-Day portion of our sightseeing.  We only had a half day, so we ended up just seeing the American sector–Utah and Omaha beaches and the related sights.


Utah beach was an awe inspiring place.  I know that tends to be cliche, but this was truly one of those places that gave me an incredible sense of awe, gratitude, and humility.

The beach today is vast and peaceful. Being the end of September it wasn’t crowded, and visitors seemed to share a feeling of reverence about the place as they walked and looked and remembered.  For locals it’s the local beach, for horse back riding and family outings.

Various monuments remember the events and people who gave their lives over 70 years ago.  There is also a marvelous museum depicting the events leading up to and surrounding D-Day, including an exhibits on the rise of the Third Reich, the preparations for the invasion of Normandy, D-Day itself, and the following days, weeks, and months of fighting after the initial invasion.

I would have loved to have spent more time at this museum, but we still had a few more stops to make that day, so we had to move on.  For those visiting the D Day sights, I would recommend allowing yourself 2 full days so you can truly take your time.  One of the things I hate most is being rushed when I’m sightseeing.  But in this case, we had a rental car for a limited amount of time, and I really wanted to spend some extra time at the American Cemetery.


The drive from Utah Beach to the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer took us about 30-40 minutes.  The cemetery and visitors center sits on the bluff above Omaha Beach.  What was once a literal battlefield is now the resting place of more than 9,000 servicemen who died during the liberation of France.

Each grave is marked by a white marble cross or Star of David.  When the individual is known, the marker is engraved with their name, rank and unit, place of birth, and date of death.  If the remains buried there were unable to be identified, the marker simply reads “Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms Known Only to God.”


In addition to the graves, the cemetery also contains a chapel and the Memorial.  Behind the Memorial is the Garden of the Missing, which lists the names of 1,557 servicemen who died in Normandy, but don’t have a known burial.

When I visited it was a beautiful, perfect fall afternoon.  The first leaves of autumn were just starting to fall, and the rain that had plagued us off and on all day had dissipated.  Beyond the cemetery the English channel was a gorgeous blue, and the beach below was calm.  While I was writing in my journal, I could hear a lone trumpet playing taps.

It was such a privilege to be there, to listen and to remember.


We were able to spend some time walking on Omaha beach before back tracking a bit to Pointe du Hoc.  Perched on cliffs between Utah and Omaha beaches, this was a strategic point for German armed forces during World War II, and one of the key places of attack in order for the allies to claim victory in Normandy.

Pointe du Hoc was hit by intensive bombing prior to and during the invasion, and the scars left on the land are still there today.  Huge craters and a couple remaining watch towers and armories remain as a testament to the destruction.  I had never before seen an actual bomb site, and the size of some of these craters was astounding.

Still, the view from atop the cliffs was magnificent, and to be there at the close of the day with the sun sinking into the horizon was a glorious way to conclude our day.



This concludes part 1 of my Normandy exploration.  Stay tune for part 2, which should be posted in the next few days!

A Walk Through Prague’s Jewish Quarter


It’s no secret that Prague is considered one of the most beautiful and well preserved cities in Europe, largely due to it escaping relatively unscathed during the Second World War.  With it’s charming old town, romantic art nouveau architecture, and imposing castle atop a hill, Prague is a delight for tourists from all over the world.  And being there in August it literally felt like half the world had descended upon this central european capital!

Escaping the crush of summer crowds, I spent a morning away from the old town and explored Prague’s beautiful Jewish Quarter.  This area of the city is one of Europe’s oldest and best preserved Jewish neighborhoods.  Ironically, during World War II, Hitler decided that this would be the site of his “museum” to the very race his was seeking to exterminate.  Consequently, Jewish artifacts from destroyed synagogues and communities throughout Europe were sent here to be catalogued and kept.  While most Jewish neighborhoods were destroyed during Nazi occupations, this one was saved, though most of it’s inhabitants were not.

Today, walking through Prague’s Jewish quarter is a poignant reminder that this place has been home to the Jewish community for over 1000 years.  Prague’s Jewish museum is made up of several beautiful synagogues scattered throughout the area (spanning about 3 or 4 blocks).  A single ticket allows access to all the sights, including a powerful Holocaust memorial, a cemetery, and exhibits on Jewish culture and customs.

Entrance to the Pinkas Synagogue and Prague's memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

Entrance to the Pinkas Synagogue and Prague’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

In order to avoid long lines and tour groups, I was at the gates a little before 9:00 in the morning.  Starting early I was able to explore most of the sights without fighting crowds, and really take the time to appreciate the importance of this museum and the exhibits and artifacts that were displayed.  For anyone going to Prague, I highly recommend spending half a day in the Jewish Quarter.  Not only do you get a wonderful insight into this part of Czech history, but also into the culture of the Jewish people who have lived here.

One of the most popular and visited sites in the quarter is the Pinkas Synagogue, which dates back to the 16th century.  Today it houses the Holocaust memorial, honoring the thousands of residents who never returned.  Walking through the synagogue you see the walls inscribed with the names of 77,297 Czech Jews who were sent to the death camps.  The names are organized by communities, with family names in red, individual first names in black, and the individual’s birthdate and death date (if known).


A few of the names inscribed on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue.

An audio recording reads each of the names, and there is an unmistakeable reverence as you pass through these halls.

Upstairs, is the Children’s Art Exhibit featuring art work done by children held at the nearby Terezin Camp, where Prague’s Jews were kept prior to being transported to the death camps.  For me, this was the most emotional part of the museum.  These art works look like those you would find displayed in any elementary school, until you read the wall plaques and realize the unthinkable circumstances it was created in.


A child’s drawing depicts life in the Nazi controlled Terezin Camp.

The art is catgorized by topics–everyday life in Terezin, hopes for the future, even fairytales like children today might draw.  Each art piece has a small plaque accompanying it, giving the name of the young artist, and their birthdate and death date.  According to the guide, of the 8,000 children that were sent to Terezin, only 240 lived to see liberation.


Child’s painting of the Terezin camp courtyard.



A child’s drawing of a fairytale story: a dragon and a princess. The dates beneath the drawing show that the artist was just 11 years old at the time of her death.


Leaving the Pinkas Synagogue brought me into the Old Jewish Cemetery, home to over 10,000 aged and eroded tombstones, their faded Hebrew inscriptions sometimes hard to make out.


Morning sun in the quiet of the Old Jewish Cemetery.


From the 15th to 18th century this was the only burial ground for the the Jews in Prague.  Because of this, the graves had to be piled on top of one another, meaning there are actually about 80,000 people buried here.  It’s a quiet and contemplative place, seemingly tucked away from the commotion of modern day Prague.


The ceremonial hall of the cemetery houses an exhibit on Jewish burial traditions.

Exiting the cemetery, my next visit was to Klausen Synagogue.  This part of the museum contains exhibits regarding Jewish holidays and religious customs.  Displayed artifacts included elaborate Torah scrolls and menorahs from Prague’s Jewish community.  The upstairs depicts everyday life in the Jewish culture including the birth of children and marriage customs.  A beautiful canopy was displayed as well some typical home furnishings.


Gorgeous interior of Prague’s Spanish Synagogue.

From here I walked through the neighborhood to the Spanish Synagogue a couple of blocks away (with the help of one kind person who saw me studying my map and offered directions).  This ornate synagogue was absolutely breathtaking, having been built in the late 19th century during a time when European Jews prospered.  This synagogue covers the history of the Jewish people from the 18th century to the 20th century, focussing especially on Czech Jews in the 1900s.  A display case shows exhibits on many influential members of the community, including those men who were made the “curators” of Hitler’s Jewish museum prior to being sent to the camps themselves.

I concluded my museum tour here and spent some time strolling through the neighborhood.  Today this part of Prague is thriving: full of shops, restaurants, tourists, and local people living their lives.  This was my first visit to a major Holocaust memorial in Europe, and what I loved about it is that it covered so much more than just the events of 80 years ago.  I was able to travel through hundreds of years of history of this community and see how it reflects in the Prague of today.  This kind of an education is one of the things I love best about traveling!


For more information about visiting the Jewish Museum in Prague, visit their official site here.


Romantic Bruges


Bruges and I have a long history.  Years ago, when I was still in college, I found an article on Bruges lace while going through my back issues of Victoria Magazine. It had the most beautiful pictures of this place I’d never heard of before (Victoria’s photography was one of my main influences in becoming a photographer) and then and there Bruges ended up on my “Must See” travel list.

When my UK plans changed unexpectedly earlier this month, I was able to get another HelpX position in Belgium, and it meant I finally got to visit this city I’d long loved from afar.


A very popular sightseeing method!

While definitely touristy, Bruges lives up to the hype of one of the most picturesque places in Europe: romantic canals, cobblestone streets, horse drawn carriages, and a magnificent town square, not to mention the dozens of chocolate shops, lace shops, and canal-side restaurants scattered throughout this small medieval city.  One of the most prestigious ports in Europe during the 16th century, Bruges retains it’s historic charm.


The other lovely thing about Bruges is you don’t have to spend a lot to get a rich experience.  From the belfry tower (8 euros to climb) you’re treated with gorgeous views of the city and the countryside beyond.  Walking from the Markt square, you can find delicious, reasonably priced ice cream at DaVinci Gelateria or Belgian waffles (price goes up as you add toppings) at Oyya.  Pay 8 euros for a 30 minute canal cruise, or just wander the streets at your whim.


The busy, crowd filled Markt (main square) of Bruges.


Enjoying my first true Belgian waffle at Oyya. It was even better than it looks!


Rooftops of Bruges

While there are museums to visit, I chose not to.  Museums hold little interest for me when there’s so much to do and see on the street.  My first night there (arriving by bus directly from London) happened to be at the end of a festival, and the crowds were even bigger than normal.  The loud rock music from the concert was kind of destroying my romantic illusions, so I took a road leading away from the center, and found the quiet romance of Bruges where swans swam in the canals, lazy dogs watched from house windows, street musicians performed classical music (much more suitable for my mood), and residents rode their bicycles home for the evening.


This dog has a good life watching the boats and swans on the canal.

Bicycling is a popular mode of transportation in Bruges: the landscape is flat and the streets are often too narrow or crowded to make cars practical.  There’s something about all the bicyclists that just adds to the character of the town (and Belgium in general)! For tourists who’d like to explore the countryside a bit, or just get around the town more quickly, bikes are available to rent.


A common still-life street scene.

While I have said that Bruges itself is the main attraction, the one sight that definitely was a “must see” on a my list was Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna and Child at The Church of Our Lady.  I went on a Sunday afternoon (admission to the church is free but it’s a few euros to see the sculpture) and was absolutely blow away by the beauty of this piece.  The Madonna was the only work of Michelangelo’s to leave Italy during his lifetime, and is one of the pieces of art stolen by the Nazi’s in WWII and later recovered by the Monuments Men.  It is one of the few works of art that has literally moved me to tears.


Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, 1501-1504.

I do wonder if the charm of cobblestone streets, great art works, sidewalk cafes, gentle canals and rivers, and historical architecture will get old eventually, but even after a few trips to Europe, I haven’t hit that point yet.


Quiet canal and an early morning rain shower.





A (Sunny) Day in London Town


Good Morning, London!

Okay, so I’ve been to Europe a few times and have heard all sorts of horror stories about European train strikes, but I’d never experienced one until a little over a week ago in London.  I made my trek into the city (which took an agonizingly long time-2.5 hours to go 40 miles, and I thought Seattle traffic was bad) only to discover that no trains were running and all the tube stations were closed (hence the reason for the hellishly long bus ride).  I had a rather aggressive itinerary for the day, which made the tube kind of necessary, but rather than stress over my list I revised my plans, and can I just say, it was one of the best days I’ve ever had traveling!

Lesson to be had: it’s great to have a plan, but don’t let everything depend on it.  Sometimes you have a better time by just going with the flow. So, my new itinerary, which I entitled “Rachel Hoofs London” began at the Marble Arch bus stop, which was perfect as it allowed me to explore London’s Mayfair district.

I like to do my research on a city or country quite extensively before I go, but when I get there, I have the most fun when I have a short list of “sites” and can spend most of my time just exploring.  As it happened, this day was PERFECT for that.  Wandering through Mayfair, I was generally going in the direction of Soho and Leicester Square, but I got to walk through delightful little squares and gardens, including Berkeley Square (where, sadly, there were no singing nightingales–maybe it would have helped if I actually was there at night), and a delightful little piazza called Shepherds Market that has all sorts of neat shops and pubs, most of which I didn’t explore because it was mid morning and I had so much to do and see.  A definite must on my return list though!


Street Scene in Mayfair. How very English!

Walking through Shepherds Market I ended up on Piccadilly Street with all sorts of window shopping opportunities! I would have loved to have pretended I was a posh Londoner, but my camera equipment on my back and my jeans and t-shirt kind of gave me away.  Still, I popped into Fortnum and Mason’s (hey, if it’s good enough for the queen, right?) and Burlington arcade, where I treated myself to a couple macarons from Ladurée.  Bliss. 

Continuing along Piccadilly eventually brought me to Piccadilly Circus and then Leicester Square and the West End.  Behold the birthplace of my startled dreams!  Now, I was on a mission that morning: I needed to get to the Garrick theatre to try and snag a ticket to see Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh in A Winter’s Tale in October.  I’ll be spending a few days in London this fall before flying back to the U.S. and wanted to see that West End production.  Sadly though,  A Winter’s Tale was completely sold out for October, but there was another Kenneth Branagh production that’s on alternating nights, and I got a ticket for that one!

Yes, darlings, I finally get to see my Much Ado About Nothing hero (pun intended) in the flesh!  Hurray for flexible plans!  I may need to buy a new copy  of Much Ado for him to sign at the stage door, as mine is currently tucked away in a storage unit in Seattle.

So, my main mission was accomplished, but part of me still wanted to catch the 2:00 Old Kensington walk I’d originally planned on.  However, Kensington is not exactly near the West End and without the tube running, that left me with buses.  Now, I can navigate my way around any metro system like a champ.  It’s one of my unique gifts, plus  they have clear maps with the stops and the different lines.  If such a thing for the London bus system exists, I didn’t find it.  I wandered around the bus stops at Piccadilly Circus and eventually ended up walking to Trafalgar Square.  By this point I was getting frustrated, and I only had about an hour to make it to Kensington anyway, with no way of knowing how long the bus would take.  So I took a step back and remembered my new plan–and let the Kensington walk go.

Instead, I decided to give the National Gallery another chance:  this time they had no room closures and I was able to see my Degas and Renoir (the Monet was still on loan somewhere).  I also had a lovely lunch in the Gallery’s cafe and officially rescinded it’s nickname as The Gallery of Disappointments.


View from the National Gallery: Trafalgar Square and Big Ben

Looking at a map, I realized I was only about a 20 minute walk or so from the British Museum, and I figured that would be a worthwhile excursion.  That 20 minute walk ended up taking me considerably longer because apparently I’m like Dug from Up when it comes to getting distracted in London.

My first discovery was a little street just around the corner from the Garrick’s stage door: Cecil Court.  This may be my favorite discovery (thus far) in all of London.  This tiny little cobblestone street is just bookshop after bookshop.  Most of them selling used and antique volumes.  One delightful shop specializing in children’s books had an honest to goodness actual Dalek (half hidden by a bald eagle statue).  Another shop gave me Oxford flashbacks with its antique prints and maps. Sadly (luckily?) several shops were closed, otherwise I might have spent my whole day there!

Now off of my designated route, I began wandering through Covent Garden without much rhyme or reason, vaguely headed in what I thought might be the direction of the British Museum. More cobblestone streets decorated with bunting called invitingly to me, and I was detoured again when I came to Seven Dials, another discovery my careful research failed to uncover!

Seven Dials is an intersection in Covent Garden where 7 roads all converge on this one point.  Down each road you can find boutiques, restaurants, and theaters.  I chose one at random and ended up at the Donmar Warehouse.  I stopped and took a picture, even though Tom Hiddleston wasn’t currently performing anything there.

By this point I was well off my original course, but I figured the British Museum was a big enough landmark that at some point I’d see a sign pointing me in the right direction (this turned out to be true) and after a scenic walking tour of Bloomsbury, in which I fancied myself meeting up with Virginia Woolf and her pals, I finally found it!


At last! The Great Court of the British Museum.

Okay, here’s the thing with me and museums.  I love the idea of museums, but generally after an hour or so I’ve seen the highlights and I’m done (there are a few art museums that are exceptions to this rule).  Truth be told, spending hours wandering around and reading all the little plaques describing each artifact bores me to death.  This is one of the reasons why I love London: because there are no entry fees to the major museums I can go in and get my quick fix without feeling like I threw my money away or feeling compelled to stay because I just spent a bunch of money.  Thank you, London!

So, I saw the highlights of the Egyptian and Greek collections and I was perfectly satisfied.  However, let me tell you that it was thrilling to standing in front of the reliefs that once decorated the Parthenon and the statues that stood in Thebes over two thousand years ago.  It’s an experience definitely worth having, and it’s marvelous to see the artistry and skill of those ancient civilizations.   

Having looked my fill at the museum’s exhibits (and really, museum and ancient history buffs could really spend a full day or more there, there’s a reason this is a world class museum), I continued my exploration of London.  Covent Garden had all sorts of streets and shops, and theatre marquees to marvel at.  My wandering eventually led me back to Leicester Square where I finally got to sit and allowed myself to be entertained by street musicians.


My namesake! Actually this was part of an old hospital, but still..a fun little discovery near Covent Garden.


Exploring a Covent Garden flower market.

In Chinatown, I found a wonderful little hole in the wall place serving delicious homemade dumplings, and by the time I finished, the evening crowds in Soho were really picking up.  It was so much fun just to wander and feel the energy of that neighborhood: tourists and theatre goers and people meeting up after work.  I didn’t venture into the red light areas, though I’m sure that had it’s own ambiance as well.  Still, it was loud and crazy and lively and oh so much fun just to allow myself to be swept up in the party.

Gradually the scene shifted as I moved from Soho back into neighboring Mayfair.  Here the crowds thinned and the atmosphere became less rowdy and more refined.  I began seeing people dressed up for a nice evening out at a private club or exclusive restaurant.  Most of the high end retailers were closing up for the night, but now the bars and cafes were opening up for the evening crowd.  A couple art galleries were hosting events with attendees dressed to impress, and outside a couple of the very posh Mayfair hotels paparazzi were gathering (I found out later that it was most likely for Nicky Hilton’s wedding).


Twilight in Mayfair

I returned to Marble Arch to catch my bus home, but was once again detoured along the way at Grosvenor Square where they had all sorts of activities going on: a private party, a concert stage, and an outdoor movie screen!  Had I been staying in the city, I probably would have tried to join the festivities, but as it was I needed to catch my bus to go back to the farm.

Still, for a day that didn’t follow my original plan at all, it was still one of the best days of my trip thus far.  I absolutely love London, and getting to explore it on foot was a marvelous opportunity that allowed me to discover areas I otherwise might have missed.

London, I can’t wait for October; we still have so much to do!

Wondrous Oxford: Delightful Discoveries


The Bridge of Sigh’s at Oxford University

When I went to Oxford on Monday, it was with practically no preconceived notions.  But if the National Gallery was the Gallery of Disappointments, Oxford became the Emporium of All Thing Glorious.  It’s a virtual treasure trove of delightful shops, buildings, and a magical (FREE!!!) exhibit of my darkest bibliophile fantasies.  I was having so much fun I ran out of time to buy stuff, so another trip will be happening shortly.

Upon disembarking our bus on High Street, with no map, and only two destinations in mind (The Great Hall of Christ Church College and Alice’s Shop), my friend, Hannah, and I decided our best bet was to follow a young man in a black cape who looked like he knew where he was going.  And bless his heart, he led us right into Oxford University.  The first little bit was spent wandering and oohing over the gorgeous architecture whilst simultaneously searching for a tourist information office to buy a map.

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Handel’s original conductor’s score of The Messiah.

But we found something better: a library gift shop!  And it turns out the library gift shop was in the same building as the aforementioned FREE exhibit.  We wandered through the cafeteria and…tad-a! The Magna Carta just happened to be there (one of the 4 copies still in existence from the 1217 reissue).  But that wasn’t all…we continued exploring only to find a room housing all sort of delious literary and culture treasures, including HANDEL’S ORIGINAL CONDUCTOR’S SCORE FOR THE MESSIAH!!!  The score used for the first performance in 1742, with Handel’s own notations. I have never been moved to tears by a document like that one moved me.  And to top it off, next to it was one of Jane Austen’s notebooks.  All of this was part of a special exhibition called Marks of Genius, featuring the best of the Bodleian Libraries collection.


We were both in such awe, it took us until we got home to realize (after reading the pamphlet we took on the way out) that there was a whole other room that we missed completely!  Another reason to go back.  But boy did I feel dumb.  New travel rule: read the literature before leaving the museum, even especially if it is a surprise discovery!

That right there would have made the whole day worth it.  But we were just getting started.  Crossing the street we entered the courtyard of the Bodleian Library itself.  Turns out that you can only go in the library with a tour, and that they charge you for.

Boo.  As a general rule, I don’t like tour groups (there are some exceptions, special interest tours can be fascinating, but general museum tours I tend to find boring). I also have a philosophy that all libraries should be free to public, as I think books should be accessible to anyone.  But they didn’t ask my opinion, and they’d already given us a wonderful free preview, so we walked away.

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Taking it all in: exploring the courtyards of Oxford’s libraries.

Meandering up the street we finally found the tourist office.  Okay, there may have been a detour at a bookstore-but in all fairness they had a KILLER display of To Kill a Mockingbird and a promo for Go Set a Watchman, how could I not stop?  At the TI we looked at a map for Christ Church College and Alice’s Shop (conveniently across the street from Christchurch) and continued along our merry way down Cornmarket Street.

One of my favorite things about England is how they still retain the old, quaint names for so many streets, villages, and houses.  Cornmarket Street was a blast back into modern culture.  Gone were the independent stores.  This was chain store central, handy, I suppose, but nothing that made us stop.  I can go into a Gap store anytime.


Visitor’s entrance to Christ Church College.

When we reached Christ Church, we paid our admission fees, only to find out after the fact that the Great Hall was closed!  We arrived in Oxford with only two destinations on the list and that was one of them. The Great Hall (Dining Hall), was a primary filming location for the Harry Potter films.  It also features a gorgeous stained glass window dedicated to Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carrol) and Alice Liddell, who was the inspiration for his most famous work.  So something else to reserve for a later date.  I should stop having lists of “must sees.” England doesn’t seem that interested in my list or schedule!

We did tour the church itself (the only building we could actually go inside).  It was beautiful and had a lovely memorial to the students and faculty lost in the Great War and World War II.

Alice’s Shop, across the road, was right next door to a used and rare bookshop, so that was handy!  Alice’s shop is dedicated to all things Alice in Wonderland.  Actually, tomorrow Oxford is celebrating 150th Anniversary celebration of the book’s publication.  The shop itself is a former candy and shop that was frequented by the real Alice Liddell and her sisters.

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The final shop we found was an antique map and art print store.  Oh heavenly choirs, I could have spent hours in there!  As it is there is an antique map that is still calling my name.  I just have to decide if I want to part with that much cash in order to make it mine.  It’s a hand drawn 19th century map of Ireland, and it has Enistymon on it. I want it.  And Sunday is my birthday…we shall see!

By this point we were FAMISHED.  Hannah, being the excellent food guide that she is, found a cafe nearby with good reviews and local products.  The bonus?  It was in an old church!  Sadly though, we MISSED the window for lunch (to be fair, it was close to 5:00 at this point.  So we had to “settle” for tea and scones instead.  I don’t think we minded too much, especially since we got to enjoy our meal in the garden with gorgeous views of Radcliffe’s Camera (another library that’s for students, not visitors…)

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Afternoon tea at the Vaults and Garden Cafe.


Radcliffe’s Camera

After quenching our thirst and hunger, I was charged up again, but sadly, Oxford was not.  By this point it was near 6, and everything was shutting down for the evening.  We took a scenic route back to the bus stop and then headed for home.  Riding the bus, my tummy full of scones and jam, I mentally compiled a list of things to come back for.


Girl Explores London

Last week, after being in England for a full 6 days, I FINALLY made it to London!  Another dream come true on this trip!  The farm I’m staying at is only 40 miles or so from the city and close to transit lines, so I tried pacing myself, knowing I could return frequently.  I still covered a lot of ground though, and by the end of the day my feet and I agreed we’d done ourselves proud!

First stop: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliment!


View of Big Ben and Westminster Bridge from the South Bank.

Technically, I saw a bit of Westminster (including the abbey) before arriving at this top destination.  It took me a bit  to find my way from Victoria station.

I was lucky enough to arrive a little before 8:00 in the morning, which meant I still had some beautiful morning light, and the streets were relatively tourist free.  Mostly I was surrounded by people in power suits bustling off to work.  My favorite time in a new city is in the early morning before the crowds take over.  It gives me an entirely different perspective of a place.

I followed the Rick Steves’ audio walking tour of Westminster, which is was a delightful introduction to London and full of interesting facts.  It was easy to follow, beginning at Westminster Bridge and ending at Trafalgar Square.  The only problem was that my day started so early that when I reached Trafalgar Square at the end of the tour, it was still over an hour before the National Gallery opened.  It was for the best though.  I was starving so I killed time by scouting down breakfast at a nearby restaurant.

When the gallery opened at 10, I was able to walk right on in.  One of the benefits of free museums is no queues!  Sadly that was the high point, as none of the 4 paintings I especially wanted to see were on display.  Due to a staff shortage many of the rooms were closed.  I was able to peer through a door and see my Degas from a distance, but that was as close as I got.  Rather than staying in the Gallery of Disappointments, as it’s now been dubbed, I left to take a stroll down the Mall to stake out a good vantage point for…The changing of the guard! 



I had been on the fence for awhile about this particular British tradition.  Watching a bunch of men in fancy uniforms essentially punching in and out for the day in front of the palace didn’t seem like it was worth all the hype.  However, I had the time and was in the right area, so I figured why not?  I’d also read up enough to know that I could stand along the Mall between St. James Palace and Buckingham Palace to see the fanfare in street and not fight the ginormous crowds in front of the palace gates, so that’s what I did.

There were enough guided tours beginning to camp out along the street that I knew when I was in the right area.  I joined up with one of them that had a prime spot and waited for about 10-15 minutes next to a group of tourists from Mississippi.  Hearing that strong southern accent at such a British event tickled my sense of irony no end.

The parade itself was short and sweet.  We watched the horse guards retire and then the procession of the band heading toward the palace.  I got my pictures to satisfy my travel portfolio and I was done.  While seeing these men in their, admittedly impressive, uniforms was definitely a spectacle, I think I enjoyed the crowd watching even more.

With item two checked off my list, I strolled through St. James Park to catch the tube to…Borough Market. 




Borough Market is London’s oldest and best food market, dating back to the 13th century.  Today it is a gastronome’s paradise, filled with food stalls selling anything and everything your pallate desires: seafood, nuts, pastries, meats, produce, cheeses, breads, ethnic foods, olives, wines, and more. The smells and colors and textures, not to mention the tastes (hurray for free samples!) are an assault on the senses in the best of ways.  Between sampling, photographing, and stopping for lunch, it was a perfect way to kill a couple of hours before moving on to St. Paul’s Cathedral.


This is one of my favorite shots thus far, taken while sitting on the lawn behind St. Paul’s.

It turned out I misread the start time of my London Blitz walking tour, so I had an extra 30 minutes to kill, which I did quite happily lounging in the shade on the back lawn of St. Paul’s. Yes, there were lots of pigeons.  Yes, I was singing “Feed the Birds” in my head the entire time.

I met up with my walking group easily enough at the appointed time.  The tour was through London Walks, and they have a variety of walks focused on numerous topics and/or areas of interest throughout the city.  Their guides are all highly qualified, and I had heard wonderful things, so I was very excited about this walk. I’m pleased to say that it lived up to the hype!  We spent a couple of hours walking around the City of London.  Most of the remnants of the Blitz are gone now with new buildings taking the place of the destroyed ones decades ago, but you can still see shrapnel scars on the exterior of St. Paul’s and there’s a lovely garden nearby in what once was a church that was destroyed during the air raids.  Now only 3 skeletal walls remain.


Remains of Christchurch Greyfriars in The City of London. Now a garden, this church was destroyed by bombs during the London Blitz and never rebuilt.

London is full of war memorials and monuments to important people in it’s history, but there was one memorial we saw on our tour that touched me more than any of them.  It was the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park.  This little memorial was set up to commerate the selfless deeds of ordinary citizens.  Reading through the various plaques was quite touching, and many of them dated back to the late 19th century.  Especially moving were the plaques dedicated to children, some no more than 10 or 11 years old who died saving a younger friend or sibling from catastrophe.  I never would have found that park or memorial on my own, which is one of the reasons I find these walking tours such a great value.


Touching tribute on the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice

Following the walk I was able to go into St. Paul’s for their Evensong service.  While there is a fee for touring the Cathedral, it’s free of charge to go in for worship services, and I enjoyed sitting in that marvelous space (sorry, no photos allowed) and listening to the service. One thing I wasn’t aware of, not being Catholic, is how much standing and sitting is done during the service!  My aching feet, which had been literally pounding the pavement all day, were a bit dismayed that they had to continue to stand during a good portion of the evensong.  Still, it was a nice way to close my first day in London.

Coming up next on Rachie Discovers London: exploring the boroughs of Kensington and/or Hampstead, and possibly a visit to Westminster Abbey!

Great Craic: Pubs and Trad Sessions


I can say, without reservation, that getting sick while traveling SUCKS.  I came down with a nasty cold last week on the day I went over to Kilkenny to spend a couple of days with my old college roommate and her family.  When I got back to Doolin on Thursday night, I felt like death, and so I missed out on the Doolin Folk Festival this last weekend.

Talk about a heartbreaker– I had been looking forward to this weekend for weeks, especially because the trad sessions at the pubs have become one of my favorite things about the area.  To be honest, if the tickets had been less expensive, I probably still would have gone, sick or not, but I didn’t want to spend so much money and not be able to enjoy the experience to the fullest.   Luckily, I still have the pubs, and since I finally seem to be over the worst of my illness (knock on wood) I’m trying to cram in as much great music as I can into my last couple of days in Ireland.

Doolin is famous for its folk music and trad (traditional Irish music) sessions.  All four pubs in the village feature live sessions nightly starting about 9:30.  That being said, I’ve found that the overall experience on any given night varies widely.  In the month I’ve been here, I’ve been to all the pubs, and the craic has ranged from “meh” to outstanding.  I have yet to figure out the perfect formula for an outstanding experience, though I think it’s largely subjective, based not only on the music, but also on the atmosphere and the crowd on that particular night.  It’s amazing to me how much a session, with the same musicians in the same pub, can vary so much just based on the crowd that night.

Quick tip for those wanting a more authentic trad experience: STAY LATE!!! I’ve noticed that a lot of the tour groups and day tourists leave after the first hour or so, but the later it gets, the better the craic!  At least that’s been my experience.


Trad session at Fitz’s Pub.

So, getting back to how I got from “meh…” to “wowza!” sessions: I had been here for a couple weeks and had yet to hit a really good session, so I asked around and was told by several locals to look out for signs advertising Blackie O’Connell and Cyril O’Donoghue.  I was on the lookout, but it was still just by chance that I went into McDermott’s one Monday night and they were playing.

Between sets: Live session at McDermott's Pub with Blackie O'Connell, Cyril O'Donaughe and Foolin in Doolin.

Between sets: Live session at McDermott’s Pub with Blackie O’Connell, Cyril O’Donoghue and Foolin in Doolin.

Holy Amazing, Batman!  

This is one of the times I wish I shot video as well as stills. These guys are masters and are an absolute kick to see perform.  Watching Blackie on the Irish bagpipes is incredible.  How he makes such a complex instrument look so effortless, I have no idea, but I love watching him play.  And Cyril’s vocals are mesmerizing. HIs version of “The King’s Shilling” is probably my favorite song that they do (and they played it for me by request last night, which was all kinds of wonderful). I admit that I’ve become a bit of a groupie as I’ve tried to hit at least a couple of their sessions each week!  It’s always a delight.


The piper and the fiddler.

Non-traditional music is also thriving in the area.  A week or so ago I went with a couple friends to a bar in Lahinch, another small village just a short drive down the coast.  That night we slistened to two Irish bands with completely different styles of music than the trad sessions. These groups had a folky-alternative-bluesy quality (how’s that for a description?) that I happened to love.  It actually reminded me quite a bit of the Seattle indie music scene, so it was almost like a taste of home–with a bit of a twist!


The group “Mongoose” performing at Kenny’s Bar.

Live music has been a huge part of my travels, and I’ve been blessed to have some incredible experiences: a classical concert in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, featuring an amazing string quartet, a baroque concert in a church on the Piazza Navona in Rome, and now these amazing trad sessions in the local pubs of Doolin.  There’s just something about music that enriches my travel experience and enhances my appreciation of different cultures.  I can’t wait to enjoy more as I continue traveling!

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