Manchester–traffic, Trafford and Thomas Cook takes us home

Of course, the adventure had to end sometime.  After a whirl-wind couple of days in Stratford, it was back on the train, and up to Manchester.  We just had time to fit in one more visit with the Huttons, so they picked us up to spend the day at the Trafford Centre–a shopping mall of epic (if not West Edmontonian)  proportions.  Fortunately they were driving, because even a month spent in the UK did not improve our understanding of the odd motorway signs, the vicious round-a-bouts nor the strange penchant for driving on the wrong side of the road.  Of course, a Briton will be quick to point out that I have the latter point quite backwards.

Three know this is a DEADLY serious event.....as the scores will out

Manchester seems to be a spread-out sort of a city, but our views were limited to the airport and the Mall. Not enough of an impression to give much reflection, but the mall was a great place to wander and relax, as malls often are, and the addition of Lego Land makes it a great family destination. Speaking of families, this picture from LegoLand highlights that even members of different families know one thing to be true….there are definite differences between boys and girls….(click for full sized version)

Advice:  When you arrive at the main Manchester rail station, there is a direct connection to the airport right there. However, it is not a train, but rather a commuter/metro-style subway train.  So you won’t find any amenities like washrooms or vending machines on that train…..

After our final tearful goodbyes with the Huttons, all that remained was a good night’s sleep before the arduous flight back across the Atlantic….homewards.

 

Manchester airport is divided into 3 terminals. Within each terminal are the duty-free shops and cafes you would expect. It was a simple walk through covered overhead walkways to get from the Radisson Blu to the International terminal. Once we had checked in and dodged the perfume and cologne spritzers in the duty-free shop, a breakfast and a comfortable rest was all that remained to our time Abroad. From our vantage point in the terminal we could see our Thomas Cook plane being loaded and prepped for take-off, and regardless of the fact that we really didn’t want to leave, it was time to go home…

We have an idea how our suitcase got damaged on the flight over.

Stratford-Upon-Avon-the Reads in the land of the Bard.

Stratford-Upon-Avon was another magical stop.  From our B&B owner picking us up at the Train station (humorous point:  he also must have stopped for a packet of rice on his way to get us.  I can just hear the conversation:  “I’m just off out to get the guests”  “Jolly good, love.  Would you stop and pick up some rice for dinner?”

Bed and Breakfasts really do make traveling a different experience. You get some of the pampering of a hotel stay– no making beds or washing dishes–and some of the ease of staying with friends, but the freedom to do what you want…..as long as you show up for breakfast on time!

The Heron Lodge was on of our top-stops, from the aforementioned station pick-up to the friendly chit-chat of the owners, and not to mention the breakfasts–in the top two of all the breakfasts we had.  Location was good, and this was the one place we made use of the Hop-on, hop-off buses. The B&B was only a 10 minute walk to Ann Hathaway’s cottage, which was the location of one of the stops, so we made good use of the route to get to all the Shakespeare houses and back.

Just a short walk, through a lovely pastoral neighbourhood

Advice: buy passes to all the houses.  It wasn’t cheap, but they are good for unlimited visits for a whole year. It wouldn’t be a bad plan to piggy back with others you know might be visiting. 

There are 5 houses in the set of Shakespeare houses– Ann Hathaway’s cottage (where she grew up and the couple lived briefly).  There are some good stories about Ann’s heirs and how they profited from her connections.  There is Nash house– where Shakespeare built his final home.  It no longer stands but there is a hopeful archeological dig going on beside the original structure that is still standing.   Hall’s Croft where Shakespeare’s daughter lived after she wed, Mary Arden’s farm, where William’s mom grew up, and Shakespeare’s birthplace, which features a very well presented retrospective of his life and works, as well as celebrates some of the many fine actors who have shared his gifts.

Note the lean on the second floor.....

Stratford-upon-Avon is a little awkward to get to by train– it seems that the trains get a little more “no Frills” the further south they go, and the entire trip from Liverpool to Stratford took half a day, required 2 changes (one in a really bare-bones stop, second only to Bidston in its lack of features) and had no services on board, except toilets.  Still, there is nothing to compare rolling through the British Countryside on comfortable seats, anticipating your next destination….And once you get there, take it all in from the view from the canal.

The tour guide on our boat was named Romeo. He even produced his driver's license to prove it.....

 

And the rest….

I’ve been feeling this pressure about returning to finish up this blog, and then a bit of guilt when I don’t, and then in my typical “Let’s overthink this” style, I realize at least part of the problem…..I wish the vacation didn’t have to end.  However, end it did, more than 3 weeks ago, and I haven’t updated my faithful readers about the rest of our time on the Wirral, nor about Stratford, Manchester, and the ride home.

So maybe, if I delay telling the rest of the tale for a bit longer, part of me will still feel like it’s on vacation?  🙂

On the Wirral

Our stay with The Huttons of Heswall….

When we planned the trip, we went knowing that most of the time away we would be on our own– no friends, no family, just us, until near the end of the trip.  It turns out that we have some family friends who live near Liverpool, and while we hadn’t seen them since their visit to Canada 4 years previously, we set aside some time to stay with them. As an added bonus, they decided to meet us in York before we headed west to the Wirral Peninsula, and their little village of Heswall.

if you look in the reflection of the mirror, you can see that I managed to get all, or at least parts of us all, in the picture

Breakfast for seven at the Friar's Rest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting to Heswall turned out to be a bit trickier than earlier train journeys. Firstly, there was the Phone Issue. Advice: When we left Canada, we confirmed with our mobile phone provider exactly what the charges would be for calls and texts abroad. There are a variety of options, the big thing being how much you plan to use your phone. In our case, calls overseas started at $3 a minute and texts–both incoming and outgoing–at 60¢ each. Because we wanted to have all 4 of our phones as a back up in case we were separated, we didn’t consider any other options. One possibility is “jailbreaking” the phone and getting a SIM card installed when you arrive in Europe, another possibility is pre-ordering a cell/SIM card from any number of providers and taking it with you, or buying a pay-as-you-go phone card. Based on our experience, in future, I would bring an old cell phone with me, get a SIM card installed over there (many Vonage, Orange, O2 and other providers all over England and France, as well as funny little sidewalk kiosks that sell phone cards and SIM cards). Also, do not rely on finding a pay phone. I did find a few, and some actually did use an “old fashioned” coin slot and for 60p I was able to call a cab.  However, that relies on not only having the correct sort of change in your pocket, but also on finding a coin-op phone.  Many of them were set up to only accept calling cards. Finally, if your plan is to ignore the expense and use the cell phone you are comfortable with– think on, or at least make sure you do your homework. In the UK, cell phones require a variety of different prefixes to be added before the number, and it is not readily apparent what those prefixes are–sometimes a *, sometimes a +, and in order to text, I needed to add +44, and remove the 0 at the start of my friend’s number. If you have a smart phone with a data plan, you may want to be sure you understand what the costs will be.

All of that is a precis to how we wound up in Bidston.  Please return to this post soon for the rest of the story…Gee, I would have thought it was bigger....

 

York….survives Romans, Vikings, Normans…and Canadians

The rest of our York Adventure…..

York was another of our longer stays– 5 nights in total. We slept well, and certainly ate well….to the point of not wanting to eat another meal the rest of our vacation (we did, though).  On the recommendation of our B&B chap, we headed up to The Mason’s Arms for our first dinner. We weren’t terribly hungry that day, so we returned the next night so we could do justice to the huge meals. Then, we just had to take our friends the fourth night….and it was just bad luck that we couldn’t find another place on our last night, so had our 4th dinner in 5 days at the pub.  On the upside, we felt like locals!

York is a city very proud of its history, but also of its present state. The museums, just like the pubs and shops, have a very modern feel,  in an ancient setting. One of the best examples is how the stories of the York Prison are told:

In the basement of the York Castle Museum are the empty cells of the prison. There is very little signage or information, and certainly no colour or decoration– the bleakness that would have greeted the original inhabitants surrounds you.  As you enter each cell, a motion detector signals an overhead projector to begin– and “live” characters in period dress appear on a wall within the cell and tell their tale.  There are over a dozen historic real-life people to learn about, and hearing their stories in such a unique fashion lends an ethereal reality to the whole visit.

On the day we visited there was also some light-hearted kids’ activities set up in the courtyard, including Jousting, Archery and a turn in the Pillory.

I’m not sure who was a better sport here….

We didn't bring any rotten tomatoes or old fish....Apparently they were the best shots the guy had seen all day...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The York Pass allowed us access to as many attractions as we could fit in in 3 days. In retrospect, we should have started our passes the first day we were there (the days had to be consecutive), because our third day was spent in the free-to-enter National Train Museum. So, while I’m sorry to have missed a few sites, I’m happy to have reason to return to York again some day.

They put our room numbers on the table every morning to avoid confusion

 

York…Vikings, Romans, and Brits, oh my….

York was our last big stop on this journey. We planned to spend 5 nights, and powering through as many attractions as we could. As I was planning our itinerary, anyone I spoke to who had visited York expressed the opinion that we, and especially the short people, would love this ancient city, nestled in the midlands of England.

 

They were not wrong. There isn’t a destination we visited that I wouldn’t return to, but York is one that I would go out of my way to see again. So, armed with our York Passes, we set off to discover the past . York is an intriguing example of a tourist destination that has taken into consideration the desires (and whims) of tourists while still attempting to respect the needs of the year round citizenry. Even still, it’s with a salute to the residents of York that I write this, for surely the infestation of tourists must be an ongoing, yearly source of irritation. As with any city that was planned with the transport needs of horses and maybe buggies in mind, the modern automobile is not well suited for inner-city navigation. Despite the ordinance that bans coaches and city buses from within the city walls, cars, delivery vans and taxis do daily and frustrating battle with the tourists that throng the streets.

Au revoir Paris, ‘allo York

At the very least, leaving Paris aboard the Eurostar was about a million times better experience than getting there aboard Juan’s Bus of Horrors. So, although it was sad to leave The City of Lights, it was nice to be going out in style. A look at Gare du Nord
The Eurostar is a fast train– a little over two hours from Paris to London. Fast, seemingly reliable, bloody expensive (about $150 each, one way) but not especially stylish. Considering the feat that digging the Chunnel must have been, it was neat to experience it. Along with a few hundred other people.
And so we headed to the mystical and ancient city of York…

 

Paris…a city of contrasts

I wonder if most people have a particular image when they think of Paris. It’s a bit like walking through an archeological dig every day. There is the stylish, chic, cutting edge of style Paris, then there is the dark and tumultuous Paris of the revolution, there is Paris through the eyes of the master artists, and there is the Paris that is a modern big city, set in ancient and royal stones. The Palace of Luxembourg is now home to government offices. At the Arc de TriompheVersailles is surrounded by suburban housing, the gargoyles of Notre Dame look down on sleek office buildings, which in turn surround medieval abbys and monasteries. All of these and layers millions of people walk through them daily.
Aside from the metaphorical contrasts, the observable contrasts are everywhere as well. Wholesome, healthy food, and cigarettes being smoked everywhere. Wine and beer a common morning beverage. Traffic roaring past all night, church bells ringing throughout the day. Ethnic diversity in foods, clothing and music, all presented in the Parisienne style.

Possibly the strangest day…..

Picture this: Versailles, lunch in a Paris cafe, the Eiffel tower, and a boat cruise on the Seine. Sound like the perfect day in Paris? I thought so too….. Interesting how misguided we can be.

Versailles, though lovely, was a rushed trip through the royal apartments, cheek-to -jowl with a thousand other sweaty tourists. Lunch was in an Irish Pub, in the heart of Paris, seated at a table with a non-English-speaking Spanish family (who very kindly tried to include us), served by fellow from India. Lunch consisted of pate, a roast chicken leg and thigh, or half breast, and a mound of potatoes and gravy as big as your head. What would you expect for a dessert? Did you guess “chocolate mousse”? Don’t worry, you are not the only one….
A quick walk back to the tour office and aboard the bus again. Thinking we were going directly to the Eiffel Tower, we were surprised to find ourselves on an extensive city tour. Finally, the Towere, and up to the second platform. A wonderful experience, amazing to realize the history underneath and around you. (you, and the thousands of other tourists…).

Home by way of the Metro….no less than 3 changes, but we managed it, and arrived back to our little apartment to discover the owner had left us a note and an email providing the correct code for the street gate. Hooraaaay! We finally belong!

Better days in Paris…

So, after we eventually got into the apartment, our Paris holiday began. We got up Sunday morning to the sound of church bells ringing all over the city. The first order of the day was to find out if we could actually leave and return to our apartment. A little juggling, figuring, fiddling, and then just decided to stick with using brute force. Off we went to find breakfast. Across the street to a little partially outdoor cafe, where, even at 9 in the morning, beverages from the bar were being enjoyed, and the outdoor tables wreathed in smoke. We order from the choice of breakfasts, ending up with delicious chewy sticks of buttered bread (tartine beurree), croissants, cafe creme (haven’t quite figured that out, it seems to be a combination latte and cafe au lait), the husband had 2 fried eggs with his, and we all had ice cold orange juice. A marked difference from all the warm juice we got in the UK. Maybe the cold hurts their teef? In any event, after leaving the breakfast bar, we wandered further up the street and found a Sunday market. Yay!! Taking our bounty home and “opening” the gate, we went back up the 4 flights of stairs to enjoy all the goods. Another walk in the afternoon and the evening spent reading, watching French tv and listening to a violent rain storm. The day ended as it began: the chiming of church bells.