A Whirlwind Trip in Southern England

England. It’s a place I have dreamed of seeing since I was little bitty. My history lessons about Henry the Eighth’s 6 wives (“Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived!”) and then my love for Jane Austen’s romantic tales set in the English countryside and my more recent overload of Downton Abbey episodes have been a few of the reasons that I have longed to go see the country of England for myself.

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It’s the place that the Pilgrims left in search for a different home… the place where sooty chimneys and thick London fog concealed the sky from little children in Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Burnett’s A Little Princess… the place that Alfred the Great, Richard the Lionheart, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and C.S. Lewis (yes, he belongs in this list!!) all called home. If you asked Tex, he could give you an entire other list of great knights and generals and admirals who also flew the English flag.

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To be in this land of stories, both true and fictional ones, was thrilling. We are already talking about when we can go back. I’ll give y’all a little run-down of what we did, and hopefully include some descriptions for your imagination to feast upon.

>> We took a C.S. Lewis walking tour in the City of Dreaming Spires, more commonly known as Oxford. I am so glad we did this. Starting at the famous Blackwell’s Bookshop (which was super fun to peruse), we walked from place to place listed on this itinerary to witness several of the places Lewis frequented. My two favorite stops were the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin where he preached his sermon “The Weight of Glory” and the Inklings’ favorite pub which they called “The Bird and Baby.” The town of Oxford is just beautiful, and had a very different feel from any of the other English towns we explored.

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The house that C.S. Lewis stayed in when he first arrived in Oxford.

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>> We had high tea! I hadn’t ever known there was a difference between just plain old afternoon tea and “high tea,” until a sweet friend recommended it to us. So, we found a place called The Grand Cafe in Oxford that actually offers high tea all day (which, I realize, is probably not the most proper way to do it, but it was very convenient!) and at a much more reasonable price than many of the London venues. From delicate smoked salmon and egg sandwiches to yummy biscuit-looking scones and sweet petit fours, we left feeling as if we had eaten a big meal rather than just an “afternoon tea.” The teas really were delicious. I had a hot peach tea and Tex had Earl Grey (we actually ordered vice versa, but then our orders came swapped, and we were both surprisingly pleased). Poor Tex was comforted by the sight of other men in the cafe… I don’t think this English tradition was exactly his cup of tea, but he was a trooper.

We hopped onto a train that took us from Oxford to Portsmouth via Southampton. I had found some good deals ahead of time through the website Trainline.

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>> In Portsmouth, we explored Lord Nelson’s ship, the HMS Victory. This was at the top of Tex’s list of things to see. And it was really neat. This ship was built in the mid 1700’s, and is open for visitors to tour all the levels of it. With the audio guides, we were able to walk through the timeline of the Battle of Trafalgar, but also to glimpse what naval life was actually like at the time. Down in the dark, musty hold of the ship, I was amazed by the hundreds of huge barrels, which were how food was transported and stored. Tex said that he was most impressed by the military functionality of the entire ship, even down to the captain’s quarters.

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>> We gobbled up our very first meal of Fish and Chips! Just across the street from the Historic Dockyard is a cute, blue restaurant called The Ship and Castle. After finding a seat and making our orders (by the way, we were thrilled to find that there is free tap water most places in England!), we struck up a conversation with an older Englishman. Turns out, he’s a huge Buddy Holly fan and was so excited that we were from his state. The English people are so very friendly. It seemed like anywhere we went, a kind English voice would pipe up and ask us a question or make some honest comment.

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Then we caught yet another train, this time from Portsmouth to London, for the last leg of our trip. The London train stations are massive, just for anyone who is wondering. I’m talking nice shops on the second story and food courts on the ground floor. For some reason, I was not quite expecting that.

>> We enjoyed an evening in London. Navigating the underground stations, stopping for a hot bite at the Southbank Centre Food Market, meandering over to Trafalgar square– these are the main things we did on our first night in London.

>> For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to book an Airbnb in the suburbs… I won’t go into all the details, but here it is in a nutshell: walking through the dark for a mile in a strange town, a misunderstanding about how to read English addresses, no WiFi, only a couple of screenshots of the map, two wonderful English gentlemen who directed us to the right house, nobody home, figuring out how to open the lockbox, and four shining eyes glaring at us as we step inside. Thankfully, they were nice cats.

The next morning began our full day in London!

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>> We ventured through the Tower of London. This was one of the coolest stops we made. It is still hard for me to wrap my mind around its multifaceted significance over the past 10 centuries. Built in the time of William the Conqueror, the Tower has seen the mysterious disappearance of Edward IV’s two young sons (whose skeletons were found under a staircase in the Tower), the execution of Anne Boleyn (the second wife of Henry VIII and mother to Elizabeth I), the imprisonment of Elizabeth before she became queen, and the torture of Guy Fawkes. Morbid, I know. But the Tower has also played an important part in the minting of the country’s money and housing of the Crown Jewels. For almost one thousand years, the English royalty used the Tower of London for these and many other purposes. One quick note: we got to see the Crown Jewels with our own eyes! I hardly knew such enormous diamonds existed.

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>> We ate a truly English meal at a stately pub called The Hung, Drawn, and Quartered. Guess where it was… Right across the road from the Tower. Ha! It was much nicer than it sounds. Here, we feasted on lamb and mushroom pies, which were downright tasty. We both agreed that it was our favorite meal of the trip. I want to learn how to make them!

>> We spent the rest of the day speed-walking past as many as we could of the most iconic London sights. We strolled over to see Shakespeare’s globe, stepped into St. Paul’s Cathedral, walked all the way to Buckingham Palace, and finally found Westminster Abbey and Parliament right as the sun was setting. The only place we slowed down to a more leisurely pace was in the Covent Garden Market, where we peeked into all sorts of delightful little shops. Tex and I enjoyed the bustling city even more than we thought we would. And honestly, we hardly scratched the surface. Now that we have a general idea of where things are and how the transportation works, I’m ready to go back and experience more. Already!

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St. Paul’s Cathedral

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Wow, that’s a lot of buildings. Maybe next time I’ll have more variation in my pictures!

Have I mentioned how wonderful it was to be in a land where English is the common language? Oh my. We were able to actually order what we wanted at restaurants and to understand where a given train was supposed to stop. Not to mention the daily necessities of “Excuse me,” and “How much?” and “We’re ready to pay.” I had no idea how much I’d missed the English language!

Love y’all!

A Long Weekend in Northern Italy

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Ciao! That’s Italian for hello. Also, the Germans use it to mean “Bye!” In Texas, it just means food and is spelled C-H-O-W. Those are the three languages I’ve encountered over the past week. My husband (who I will forever after refer to using “Tex”) and I are born-and-bred Texans living currently in southern Germany. And last weekend, we made the road-trip to northern Italy, where we stopped at Lake Garda, Verona, Vicenza, and Venice. It was lovely.

Here are the things we did on our first day:

»» Drove through the Austrian Alps in the rain. Even as we got into Italy, it kept pouring. My hopes of a hot Italian weekend and beautiful views of the Veneto countryside were sinking quickly. But within a short ways of Riva del Garda, our first stop at the lake, the Lord graciously cleared the skies. We met our friends there for a bathroom break (where I used my first squatty potty!) and also stuck our hands into the cool water at the foot of breath-taking mountains. Then we started driving down the little road on the eastern coast of Lake Garda. It was about a 2 hour drive straight from the north side to the southern tip, and it was so worth it.

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»» Made a stop at the Scaligera Castle on the peninsula of Sirmione. IT WAS INCREDIBLE. I think this was our favorite part of the whole trip. The castle itself is unlike any other we have yet seen. Not only was it built in the 13th century, but it still seems to be completely intact. It had a moat and two drawbridges and a tall tower that we climbed up to, and there we were met by some of the best views of the weekend. For our entrance to the castle we paid €6 per person. While the area does at first seem to be crawling with tourists, it was much less crowded feeling than the bigger cities we went to later. After the castle, we took a little time to wander through the old town of Sirmione. And we happened upon some of the best ice cream I have ever put in my mouth. Mascarpone e biscottino!!!! It’s a creamy gelato made with mascarpone cheese and little chocolate-y cookie pieces. Yum.

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On day two of our adventure, we:

»» Explored an ancient Roman arena in Verona. This was pretty neat, though there were lots of tourists there. This arena is actually older than the Colosseum in Rome. No, I don’t think it’s quite as grand. But, still, it was surreal to sit in the same place where people used to cheer on gladiators. Apparently, they now show operas in the arena. We didn’t watch one, but they were setting up while we were there.

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»» Ate our first real Italian food. There is an eerily empty road coming straight off the buzzing Piazza Bra, where the arena is. Here, we found a splendid little trattoria and pizzeria called Il Bacaro dell’Arena. Tex ordered a calzone filled with salami, ricotta, and some other kind of cheese, and I had gnocchi with a gorgonzola sauce. If I could go back, I would order that calzone. The generous amount of ricotta in it was what most enamored me. My gnocchi was delicious, but it was very rich. We both left feeling stuffed. Oh and it wasn’t too expensive! Around €8 or 9 for each of our plates.

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»» Toured Palladio’s Villa Capra la Rotonda in Vicenza. This beautiful piece of architecture has been on my bucket list for a couple of years. One of my college professors taught all about it and highly recommended visiting if we ever got the chance. Palladio designed it to represent the “sancta agricultura,” the idea of farming as a sacred duty. This is especially demonstrated by the four porticoes on each side of the villa, a characteristic which had only been used on temples and holy places until that time. (It was a bit tricky to find parking for our visit, but we finally just pulled off the side of the road in a neighborhood. It seems like any time we park anywhere here in Europe there’s always a little doubt in our minds whether we will find our car still there when we come back.)

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»» Bought ingredients for an authentic Vicenza meal– bigoli and duck sauce! After the villa, we wandered around Vicenza, gaping at the architecture and poking our heads into little shops. We came upon an adorable specialty foods shop (for lack of a better term) and browsed all kinds of pastas and sauces… They had asparagus sauce and rabbit sauce, to name a few of the more unusual ones. We tried asking the lady working there what was the best, but our ignorance of the Italian language kept us from clearly communicating the question. Finally, another customer came up and interpreted what we meant, subsequently pointing out the ingredients of the regional dish. Bigoli is basically a thick spaghetti noodle and duck sauce is, well, ground duck, I guess? We shall see!

»» Took a late-night walk around downtown Bassano del Grappa. Bassano is a rural town further north near the Airbnb where we stayed. It was busier than we expected for 10 at night! People were hanging around bars and ice cream shops and cafes all over the place. We stopped in at a lonely little cafe for a cup of Italian hot chocolate, which is almost a hot pudding. I would love to go back during the day and look around. It seemed like a fun town and felt pretty local.

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On our last day there, we took a train into Venice and:

»» Ferried over to the island of Murano to watch a glass-blowing demonstration. This also turned to be one of our favorite stops, and we hadn’t even planned it! My friend actually came up with this idea. And boy, am I glad she did! For only €3, we were admitted into a dark barn-like building along with a small group of people to watch how they make Venetian glass. The fellow’s glass-blowing blew my mind. Over a period of about 20 minutes, he crafted two beautiful vases with handles and a pretty decorative glass horse. He ended the show with a surprise… blowing up a piece of glass like a balloon until it quite literally popped! Stopping at this factory was very insightful to the area’s age-old industry.

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»» Got lost in the crowded, winding streets of Venice. We stopped for a short time at the Piazza San Marco, the most touristy part of the city (though really all of Venice is pretty darn touristy). After that, we just took off walking. Tex was the head navigator for most of the day, which I think he thoroughly enjoyed. “Take the next right. Over a bridge. Stay straight. Now we turn here!” On that note, a map is critical if you wish to find anything particular while there. We heard that cellphone service can be pretty spotty since the buildings are so high and the streets so narrow. It really is dreamy walking through this town built on water. Clothes hanging over the waterways. Mask shops on every corner. Mysterious alleys leading into bright piazzas.

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We decided not to shell out the money for a gondola ride, and ended out being happy with our decision. Instead, we got all-day passes for the water bus, which allowed us to travel to any island in the area or up the Grand Canal. On the particular day we were there, however, the Grand Canal was closed off for a big boat race, the Regata Storica. This race is several hundred years old. Pretty cool! We got to watch it for a bit from the top of a bridge.

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»» Ate, and ate, and ate… We tried slices of yummy street pizza, some more Italian pastas (spaghetti carbonara for Tex, and tagliatelle with salmon and cream for me), AND OCTOPUS! This was certainly our most adventurous dish of the trip. I’m glad I tried it, but I don’t really feel the need to have it again. Ha! Surprisingly, the tentacles were the tastiest part.

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That wraps up the details of our wonderful trip. Thanks for reading! There will be more coming soon ♥