Dream For Three

Jul 03 2015

Paris in review

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We knew that there was a heatwave about to hit France before we left London, so I won’t comment too much on the temperatures. Suffice to say that even 40°C without high humidity is extremely nice – we had no problems with it at all.

One of the first things I noticed (apart from they have left-hand drive cars) was the limited road markings and the casual disregard for those that are there. Most of the streets we encountered were one-way, with the only markings being for a bus lane, which the taxis appeared to use as well, without batting an eyelid. The general principle, when driving a car, is to move forward as far as possible and as quickly as possible – if the person in front of you doesn’t move within a second of getting a green light or other right of way, toot your horn.

The pedestrians are perhaps worse than the drivers, because they just cross the roads when nothing is moving. Although, having said that, at all of the intersections we encountered the cross signals were automated, so you couldn’t get any satisfaction out of standing there tapping a button incessantly. When crossing the street, if a car can move but you’re in the way, expect to be tooted at.

One of the most efficient forms of transport appears to be bicycle, with many people riding to work, even in their suits and in the hot sun – I’m not sure how that works at the other end. The big surprise to me (and perhaps I noticed more because I’m a male) was the number of women in dresses, short skirts, and even mini-skirts riding bikes – mostly with a well-placed item in the basket on the front of the bike.

We only used the Metro once, and it seemed about as easy as the London underground, albeit that you seemed to have to go further to reach the desired platform. One comment I overheard from another tourist was that when they took the Metro in the morning (our trip was late morning), the passengers kept piling in and everyone was expected to squash up, despite the lack of available space. I don’t remember seeing the same thing in London, but perhaps the trains run more frequently there.

The worst people in traffic appear to be the motorcyclists – they will drive on the wrong side of the road (even when there’s an oncoming or turning bus), they all move to the front of the queue of cars, they will ride through pedestrian crossings (while pedestrians are crossing) – they just don’t seem to give a damn.

For all of that though, we only saw one minor nose to tail accident while we were there. The only other disruption was traffic being diverted as some “VIP” was driven up to Les Invalides and Musée de l’Armée.

The roads and paths themselves are also interesting, with a large number of those we encountered being uneven cobblestones – we even witnessed new cobblestones being laid, so it’s not like that because they have been there for centuries. It did make walking on them for long periods of time a challenge and DW, with her foot injury from years ago, was experiencing problems from this.

On to the people. It has long been believed that the French are arrogant people who would barely give you the time of day if you can’t speak their language. I am pleased to report that in Paris, at least, this is generally not the case. I believe that it would be easy to do most of the tourist activities and dine out in Paris without being able to speak French. However, they are very happy if you can even speak a little bit of French to them, where possible. Perhaps this is more indicative of the tourist industry, since the only exception to this (that we experienced) was from someone not generally dealing with tourists. There was only one restaurant where the waiter spoke entirely in French, even though he knew we weren’t French and he could manage some English, but that gave me a chance to put my schoolboy French to good use.

Another thing that struck me about the people is the number of them who smoke – it was very noticeable and it was difficult to find places where there was nobody smoking. However, I rarely felt I was breathing secondhand smoke or that the smokers were in anyway endangering my health.

Facilities are interesting – we struggled to find a laundromat (15 minutes walk away), although there were reportedly a lot of them around. Pharmacies (or Chemists, if you prefer) are also quite abundant. However, it wasn’t until our second-to-last day before we noticed the local supermarket – it was down an escalator from a side street just around the corner from our hotel. It’s nothing like the supermarkets we have, but there are many places to buy everyday essentials.

Rubbish bins were more common than in London, but all the smokers just seemed to chuck their butts on the ground. This provided a full time job for many people sweeping/cleaning the streets in the morning.

It’s not uncommon to see plenty of water on the pavements in the mornings, before the sun dries it up. We eventually noticed that this was because many people out at night, and those who live on the streets, just pee anywhere, including on walls and doors of houses, churches, shops, etc.

Having experienced the tourist version of Paris and witnessing how everyone gets around, I can understand why we see so many tanned and trim French people. I think I would like to experience other parts of France as well, after improving my language skills, but I don’t know that it would be enjoyable working in Paris – it seems like a high stress region.

Jul 03 2015

Lost in Venice

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Since we visited the Rialto markets yesterday afternoon, we decided to relax this morning and head out a little later – we were doing the three island tour at 11am.

We walked down to the waterfront and had breakfast at a place not far from San Marco Piazza (Saint Marc’s Square). DW and DD both chose the buffet breakfast, while I had the Euro breakfast (bread, croissants, butter, jam, coffee, and orange juice). Since the buffet finished at 10am, DW and DD were advised to get everything they wanted as soon as possible.

After breakfast we headed up to the ticket office and exchanged our voucher for tour tickets. We were offered the 10:30am tour, but opted to stay on the 11am since the earlier one was already boarding. We then wandered the streets around San Marco, where DD came across a t-shirt she liked in one of the stores – it was 19.95€. We suggested that she should wait until after the tour, so we don’t have to carry it with us (and also so she can have time to think it over). As we headed back to the boarding platform we also came across a nice watch for DW, but at 11,650€ it’s going to have to wait for another time.

Once on the boat, we headed out to the island of Murano, where they make a lot of the blown glass items for sale all over Venice. We were given a demonstration of the process (but not before having to stand outside in the heat for about 10 minutes), and then we were taken through to their shop. There were many lovely items for sale, but most were really expensive. I took a few pictures before we were told that pictures were not allowed (although there were no signs to that effect).

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Outside again we had a few more minutes to look in the other shops. I took the opportunity to buy more water as DW and DD used the local facilities. We then bought a glass clock from one of the other stores (most of which had cheaper prices than the factory) – hopefully the clock makes it back to NZ in one piece!

The second stop on the tour was Burano, where they made a lot of hand-made lace. The process was demonstrated and we were told that some of the smaller ones can take a month, with seven women working on them, each using a different type of stitch. Again, the prices were quite high and DW pointed out later that washing the clothes would have to be done by hand. Around Burano we noticed the buildings were all different colours, which is apparently so the fisherman would know which was their house when they returned from being at sea – I don’t know how much I believe that, but it seems plausible and it makes for a good story. We also noticed a bell tower with a definite lean on it – coincidentally, there was nothing built in front of this tower in the directon of the lean.

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We had a longer stop here, so we took the opportunity to have lunch (a roll for DW, a margherita pizza for DD, and a sandwich for me, plus some cold drinks). We then headed back to the boat for our last stop.

The final island was Torcello, home to the oldest church in Italy, I think. It was quite hard to hear the guide, over the boat engines and because she was repeating everything in about five languages, but I thought she said it was built in the 600′s. Checking on Wikipedia, it seems that it was first built in 639 – so I must have heard correctly. The church was about a 10 minute walk from the boat but, once we got there, we decided not to pay the extra 9.50€ each for the guided tour and more stairs to the top of a church tower.

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Before returning to the boat we had a slushy each (the two flavours were strawberry and mint with lemon) in the shade of a tree. It wasn’t long to wait before we could get on the boat again and make the 45 minute trip back to Venice. Both DD and I managed to sleep during most of the trip, as did many other passengers.

Back at San Marco we headed to the apartment to cool down and rest a bit before continuing our day. I took this opportunity to research the weather in Venice, because it felt very humid today and it was overcast. It turns out that July has the most sunshine hours, particularly the beginniing, while August is the hottest. The humidity ranges between about 70%-80% and the average rainfall for July is 60mm – DW and I shared a joke about that being 2mm per day.

DD was getting agitated about her t-shirt and was keen to go and get it (she had had time to think it over and confirm she wanted to spend her own money on it). In fact, she even suggested she could go by herself and find her own way back, although I didn’t have enough cash to give her anyway.

It was around 5pm when we headed down to the waterfront and back to San Marco – we let DD lead the way so she could prove that she would be able to get back. She managed to navigate her way to the shop and she found the t-shirt, tried it on, and we purchased it. As we left the stop a few drops of rain started to fall (yes, I do mean drops – it was nothing). DD informed us that she was looking for another trinket – since she was being engaged in this part of the trip, we decided to let her lead the way. During this time it continued to spit and people were putting umbrellas up all over the place, as we wandered along uncovered, soaking up the minimal amount of cool water coming down!

DD looked in almost every trinket shop she could find – and about two out of every three shops sells trinkets in Venice. Eventually we suggested that she wasn’t finding what she was looking for, it would be cheaper elsewhere (eg. Florence or Rome) and we should probably start heading back for dinner. Leaving her to lead again, she took us around in circles before we took pity on her and suggested she look for San Marco (which is generally well sign posted).

After a lot of meandering and many wrong turns we eventually got to San Marco – it had stopped spitting by now and we figured it had been about 1-2mm of “rain”, if you could call it that. Since she now “knew where she was”, DD bolted ahead as we dawdled along behind. We rounded the corner to the waterfront at San Marco just in time to see her going up the first bridge (there were three bridges we had to cross before turning left down a side street). As we got to the top of the first bridge, she was just disappearing over the second.

I decided I couldn’t trust her not to get herself lost (at which point we would have no way of finding her), so I ran ahead to catch up with her. As I got to the bottom at the end of the third bridge, she was halfway up the fourth bridge. At that point she turned around, saw me, and gestured to ask which way she should go – I gestured back that she should return to me. I then went back to the top of the third bridge to wait for DD and DW to arrive.

We pointed out (again) how easy it is to get lost and suggested she stay with us, since we need to have dinner anyway. She said that she had leftover pizza (from lunch) back at the apartment and that’s where she was heading – no consideration given to what we would have!

DD then charged on again, this time taking the side street, as she was supposed to. We continued to dawdle behind and caught up with her again at the first intersection, where she couldn’t remember which way to go. Once we headed in the right direction she charged on again. DW and I stopped at a pizza place not far from where we had dinner last night, which was only about 100m from the apartment. DD started to head back towards us, but then carried on when she saw us go into the pizza place. We got back to the apartment with our pizzas and drinks in hand, which reminded DD that she wanted a drink as well – teenagers, eh?!

During our “travels” we came across yet another tower that was leaning, this time in Venice. I have come to the conclusion that at some stage the Italians forgot how to build stable towers.

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So now we can tick off another goal – getting lost in Venice (although, to be fair, DW and I had managed to do a good job of that on our own the afternoon before).

Jul 02 2015

Tongue tied

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We woke early today, as we have done most days, but allowed ourselves time to relax – our airport transfer was due to pick us up at 7am. We decided to have breakfast at the airport, so we headed to reception around 6:30am – the shuttle was already waiting. The checkout process was quick and easy, so we were off by about 6:55am – most of the time was spent loading the luggage, because there were two other pickups on the way to the airport.

We arrived at our terminal just after 8am, going directly to print our tickets and luggage tags – I had completed the rest of the check-in process yesterday, online (when I had received an e-mail from Air France about it). I couldn’t believe how many people were struggling to apply their luggage tags – it’s not that hard and the instructions are provided (albeit in French, but with pictures too). We skipped past that lot and continued on to baggage drop – again, no issues there. By this time we were ahead of schedule, so we got breakfast and sat down to eat it before going through Customs. We have been continually surprised at how little is checked going between countries in the EU – it’s like they’re all just one big country.

Through to departures/boarding and we had more time to spare – the plane was on time, but there was a gate change. The flight was a little bumpy and DD managed to catch up on some sleep (enough to make her pleasant for a while).

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Arriving in Venice, again a lack of customs checks, there was a mad rush for the water taxis and ferry. We decided to avoid that rush and have a bit of lunch – we only had a drink and cookie on the short 1:40 flight. After lunch we approached the water taxi reception at the airport, as we had planned, who said it would be 120€ (euros) but there was a one hour wait. We were advised to head down to the dock and get a taxi with a different company down there. We were the first in an eventual stream of passengers, so we got the first taxi, which arrived in about 10 minutes – that cost us 110€ instead. The ride was great and we were dropped outside the hotel.

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After check-in, an intro to the room, a description of where we are and how to get places, and some basic unpacking, DW and I headed out to discover where we had to be tomorrow. We left DD in the apartment with the wi-fi.

Taking the first of many wrong turns, we eventually ended up in St Marc’s Square – it was literally packed with tourists! We wandered a bit further and found the Rialto Markets, where we were heading early in the morning – a few vendors were still there, so we got some cherries and strawberries.

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We decided to head back to the apartment, aming to get milk on the way. After several false stops and a bit of misdirection, we eventually found some about 100m from our apartment. The catch was that it was long life milk in a plastic bottle on the shelf, rather than in a fridge – it sort of made sense, once we thought about it.

Getting back to the apartment we collected DD (who had dozed off again) and headed out for dinner. We chose to have it at the nearest open restaurant (which was only just opening). The service was a bit lacking (I didn’t get my second beer and DD didn’t get ketchup for her fries) and the prices were high. We got some gelato for desert from a few streets further on and returned to the apartment to eat that with the cherries and strawberries.

Although we are slowly getting there with the Italian, I find that I keep trying to say Oui, Non, and Merci.

Jul 01 2015

Heatwave high on our last day in Paris.

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We only had a few things planned for today, which is just as well because the temperature was expected to get to 40°C as the heatwave hit. We were expecting a fax from the transfer company for our pickup tomorrow, so I asked at reception – several people wanted to check out at the same time and another lady wanted a taxi – I was impressed as the guy at reception switched effortlessly between English, French, and German, as well as doing several things at once.

After breakfast at the hotel DW and I went out to find a laundromat (we had passed one on the way back to the hotel from Sacre Cœur on the first day). After a few streets I decided to use Google Maps to speed up the process – it turned out that the closest one was the one we had seen on the way back. After putting all the washing in, we realised that mine was missing, so I headed back to the hotel (15 minutes) while DW waited with the washing (which was going to take 45 minutes anyway). After returning we loaded my washing into another machine and put both loads through the dryer. We had a coffee across the road whle we waited – again, the service was very good.

Returning to DD in the hotel, we headed to the Metro (or RER), which was just at the end of our road. We purchased three single tickets (I had done some research the night before) and eventually found the right platform.

The trip was quick (five stops, 12 minutes) and we turned up outside La Maison du Chocolat, where our tour for the day was starting. We had about 90 minutes before the tour started, so we found somewhere for lunch – it was now 32°C at midday. After lunch we did some shopping (which we could afford) and headed back to La Maison du Chocolat for our tour. We found an assuming statue in that area too, which seemed to be constructed out of all sorts of weird and wonderful things.

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Our guide arrived and, after confirming our booking (apparently she wasn’t expecting us) we started the tour. Unfortunately DD decided to take on the role of surly teenager and refused to be involved in the tour events (tastings and takeaways), including gelato on a scorching day. We decided to ignore her and not let it spoil our tour.

After sampling many chocolates, eclairs, caramels, gelato, and other goodies, we were directed to our next stop (Musee d’Orsay) by the guide. We were going to take the Metro, but it turned out that a 10 minute walk was faster and easier.

At Musee d’Orsay we looked around the sculptures, including the additionof a miniature Statue of Liberty in June 2015.

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There was no easy Metro access from Musee d’Orsay back to our hotel (because of a station closure on one line) so we ended up walking back, stop for drinks along the way. I thnk we’ve spent more on water than anythng else in Paris! By now it was 7pm and 39°C, so we stayed in our room for the rest of the night – none of us were really hungry, especially after the tour. However, I did finish my chocolate eclair that we bought yesterday afternoon.

Jul 01 2015

We dare not breathe

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Today we planned to walk up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, take our lunch cruise on the Seine, and then go up the Eiffel Tower. Since La Place de la Concorde (the foot of the Champs Elysees) wasn’t far from our hotel, we decided to walk there and get breakfast on the way. We stopped not far from La Place de la Concorde and had a semi-traditional French breakfast – croissants, bread, jam, and coffee, although DW added in some protein in the form of eggs and bacon as well. I would mention the brasserie by name, but they all look the same after a while and I’ve forgotten most of the names already.

After breakfast DW realised we had left the confirmation form for the cruise in our room. We headed back to collect it – which was about 10-15 minutes in each direction. We returned to La Place de la Concorde and continued on to the Champs Elysees. It was quite a hike to the shopping secton, but we managed to see them setting up for some upcoming show or parade – possibly to do with Bastille Day.

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(Excuse the slightly blurry photos, there was something over the lens)

Once in the shopping area we quickly realised that most of these were not the sort of shops we could even afford to breathe in – all big name fashion brands. But, it was good to see what was there anyway.

Upon reaching the end of the Champs Elysees we took some shots of the Arc de Triomphe and then figured out how to get to it – crossing the road from any of the outer areas to the Arc was simply not an option. It turned out that there is a tunnel going under the road to the ticket office. We purchased our tickets (to go up to the top) and headed through – it was still early and we managed to beat the rush of tourists. Under the Arc we took a moment to take in the scenery and rest (after our walk) before heading up the steps. The climb up the winding 200-250 or so steps was exhausting, but well worth it. We spent some time on the first level before climbing the last few (about 25-50) steps to the very top. That provided us with some wonderful views over Paris.

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We had seen a video online about the traffic at Arc de Triomphe but, once you see and understand how the Paris traffic system works, it’s not as bad as it looks.

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After the Arc (and descending the 300 or so stairs, including those through the tunnel), we headed back down to the Disney store (one of the few we could afford to enter, apart from souvenir shops), we took the Hop On Hop Off bus to the Eiffel Tower. It was nearing the time to check-in for our Seine Cruise so we decided to find out where it was. It was lucky we did, because we were directed to pier 3, then pier 5, and finally pier 7. However, once there it was easy to confirm and get onboard. The cruise and the meal were very nice, including some live entertainment. All told, the cruise took about two hours.

Returning to the Eiffel Tower we decided to give our legs a rest and take the lift to the first/second levels. This was a long wait in the ticket queue (in the hot sun), followed by another long wait in the lift queue. We finally got up there and had a look around. We decided not to go higher, but managed to get jn the wrong queue. However, because it costs to go up further, and we hadn’t paid, we managed to exit the queue at the front. We then took the lift back down again before catching the Hop On Hop Off bus back to somewhere near the hotel.

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We collapsed back at the hotel, after a day on our feet. DW and I then headed out for a nice French dinner (where I had to use more French than I had anywhere else), and we picked up McD’s for DD on the way back – she had opted to stay in the room, where she had internet access.

Jun 30 2015

Springtime in Paris

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We started the day with breakfast at the hotel – available from 7am, it was perfect for an early start. After breakfast we ordered a taxi to take us to the Louvre – our research told us to get there early and head straight for the Mona Lisa. Arriving just after 8am, there were already about a dozen people in the queue (the Louvre opens at 9am). While waiting I took a few pictures and worked out where the Mona Lisa is. When the doors opened they let the priority ticket line through first then, after a few of them had gone through, they started our line. After a quick bag search we arrived at the foyer, not sure whether we had to pay. There was a queue at a ticket booth, so we joined that and bought our tickets, which saved us a lot of time in the end.

The Louvre is an absolutely massive place, but we found the path to the Mona Lisa was well marked – although it was quite a long walk. Arriving there, the crowds were already building up but we could get close to the rope. In the end DW and myself both managed to get right up to the rope. Passing by later (on our way back) we noticed that the crowd was already bigger than when we were there.

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We walked through most of the rest of the Louvre and then headed off to catch the Hop On Hop Off bus just outside. At this stage we were ahead of schedule, as we had planned to spend more time there. We took the bus to Notre Dame where again the line was very long, but it was moving quickly. Once inside we looked around and took some photos – not much to see, just another cathedral really. Still ahead of schedule, we stopped at Cafe Quasimodo for lunch, which was just down the road a bit. We were going to visit St Chappelle (across from Notre Dame) but decided to do some souvenir shopping instead – plus, we needed hats to shield us from the hot sun. We also got a T-shirt for DD.

On the bus again, we headed to the Pantheon. The most interesting part of this was the crypts, where many famous French people are buried, including Marie Curie. After the Pantheon we headed back to the street and did some shopping before taking the bus to Musee de l’Armee.

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At the Army Museum we went through the courtyard and then found the tomb of Napoleon. We also stopped for an ice cream and a drink (although service was terrible) and DW and I went through the war section (which proved quite long). We then took the bus to Musee d’Orsay, but arrived there to find it closed at 6pm (we arrived at 5:30pm), so we decided not to go in.

We took the bus to Place de la Concorde and then changed buses to go up to Printemps (which means Spring in French, but it’s a huge fashion store, much like Harrods in London). After going through many levels in two buildings, we decided that it wasn’t for us (for example, there was a thin jersey DW liked which was 70% off, but the original price was 440 €).

Having had enough for the day, we stopped at a cafe for dinner and then returned to the hotel, which proved to be about a three minute walk. We bought some chocolate eclairs on the way back (our second lot for the day).

Jun 28 2015

London – my thoughts and impressions

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London is a huge city that seems to be built on top of itself. For the most part it is tall narrow buildings, cramming as much as possible into very little space. The streets are narrow and it surprises me that there isn’t more gridlock – but perhaps that’s a credit to the public transport system.

We found that the tube was easy to navigate and relatively intuitive. Having said that, we never used the buses and the coaches/trains were well organised.

The people push and shove and don’t tend to move out of the path of anyone else, unless it’s at the last minute. But they do tend to maintain two distinct streams and as long as you’re in the right stream, moving at a reasonable pace, it’s not a problem. There is none of the politeness that we had expected, except from other tourists, the tour guides and assistants, and the souvenir shops.

Food is interesting. We were aiming to sample the local cuisine in each city visited, but we struggled to find such a thing in London. Jason and Nicole pointed out that a lot of traditional English food is really a take on Indian or other Eastern cuisines. While in London I think we ended up eating Italian the most. Although we struggled to find a food estabishment served by “traditional English people” (once in all the time we were there?) we have been told that this is to be expected.

One of the things I was surprised to find that I liked was all of the history and how it ties back to the Royal Family and even the Romans – I’ve never been that much interested in history. Then again, maybe that’s because of the NZ and other irrelevant history I’ve been fed when I was younger.

Would we return? Yes, definitely. But, I have a nagging feeling that it is the sort of place best taken in small doses. Now MK, on the other hand, is a beautiful place with many (all?) of the expected amenities, in close proximity to London. It was beautiful countryside without the rush and stress that I could imagine would be found in London.

Jun 28 2015

Au Revoir London, Hello Paris!

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Although I had a good sleep, DW had been up early trying to get the washing dry – after four hours in the washer-dryer it was still damp. We had a bit of time left (our train to Paris wasn’t leaving until 11am), so we packed the washing and headed down to the local laundrette (the first coin operated one in London, apparently). We chucked in £1.50, which gave us 15 minutes of drying, then headed across the road to Cake Create Bakery for breakfast. Two bacon and cheese croissants and a sausage roll for DD, we headed back to the laundrette to find our clothes dry. Everthing was packed back in the bag and we returned to the apartment to eat.

Checking the rest of our itinerary the only thing we were supposed to confirm in advance was the pick up at Gare du Nord, Paris – that was to be done two days ago. I called the number provided and successfully confirmed our booking.

After breakfast we packed and made sure nothing was left behind. We were ahead of schedule, so we checked out (a five minute walk up the road) and then took a taxi to St Pancras Station. The taxi driver managed to squeeze three large suitcases, three smaller cases, and three people into his reasonably small car – grumbling that the person who arranged it should have mentioned the amount and/or size of luggage.

The check in at St Pancras was very easy and we only had a brief wait before the EuroStar boarded and departed. The journey was only 2.5 hours and we barely noticed when we went through the chunnel. The meal on the EuroStar was alright, albeit a bit small perhaps.

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Arriving in Paris it was easy enough to get out of the station and we found our transfer driver waiting, as arranged. He too was worried by the amount of luggage and people – his car was about the same size as the one in London. But he managed to fit it all in and I tried to hop in on the driver’s side – apparently France has left-hand drive cars.

We arrived at the hotel just before 3pm, which was the check-in time. Our room wasn’t quite ready, so we waited about 20 minutes before completing check-in. During the drive to the hotel I came to the conclusion that I would hate to drive in Paris – it’s full of one way streets, the street markings appear to be indicative only, and the aim is to move forward as far as possible before even thinking about stopping. In fact, I personally believe that the street markings are there to give tourists a false sense of security.

After settling in we decided to head up to Sacre Cœur for a visit – France has a heatwave coming and temperatures are already up around 33C. It was a half hour walk to Sacre Cœur and we went inside (providing a small donation). We were going to walk to the top, but there was a service on and we didn’t find the stairs. If we get time we will return later to do that. We purchased a few items in the store anyway. Heading out again we discovered the way we were supposed to approach it, so we returned that way, wading through thousands of tourists and souvenir shops. We made our way back to the hotel through the myriad of one-way streets, taking our lives in our hands at times, grabbing Subway for dinner (about 20m from the hotel). We found that the cross signals all seem to be automated (you don’t need to press any buttons), but most people just cross if there’s no vehicle within hitting distance.

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One of the few non-souvenir shops down that strip was Le Petit Musée du Chocolat (the little chocolate museum). Inside were some amazing sculptures or structures made out of chocolate, as well as plenty of chocolate and lollies to buy.

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Jun 28 2015

The Olde Thatched Inn

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Today was a bit more of a relaxed day, heading out to Milton Keynes to visit friends. We took the tube West to Edgware Road, then changed trains to head East to Euston Square. From there it was a short walk to Euston Station where we manged to get tickets for the 9:10am train reasonably cheap (compared to what I had seen on the internet anyway). We could have taken the 8:43 train, but it was already 8:35 and we hadn’t had breakfast. The guy at the ticket counter asked if we were from NZ – I asked if it was my T-shirt or accent that gave it away, to which he replied “It’s the way you said nine-tin”.

The journey was quite quick – about 30 minutes and Jason was there to pick us up. We noticed that many of the seats around us said “Reserved” but most of ours were “Reserved from Crewe”. However, once I realised that Crewe was one of the stops, it made perfect sense. A young asian girl said that DW was in her seat – when we pointed out there was a spare seat, she insisted she had booked a window seat. DW moved into the spare seat and I sat next to the asian girl. I had to chuckle to myself when she spent the whole time eating asian food (Joy Tofu?) and watching a movie on her phone – I don’t know that she looked out the window once.

Arriving at MK, I managed to go through the gates without issue, but DW’s and DD’s tickets were both rejected. They were both let through after a quick check of the tickets.

It was a short car ride to Jason and Nicole’s. We had a bit of a catch up, a tour of the cottage and the gardens, and then Jason and I went on to talk about work. DW mentioned that we couldn’t find the Annie and Clarabelle carriages (Thomas the tank engine) when we were at Hamleys, so Nicole found they were at the local Toys R Us and reserved them.

We headed out to the Olde Thatched Inn for lunch, which was a very nice meal – thanks to Jason and Nicole for shouting us! While we were out and about, we dropped by MK Central to pick up the carriages. We finished off with a tour of the town and then back to the cottage. After a bit more of a chinwag, Jason dropped us all back at the train station so we could return to London.

As it was our last night in London we decided to drop by Victoria Coach Station to see if a souvenir place was still open – DD had seen something she wanted to get when we went to Stonehenge. Arriving there around 7:30pm we found it was closed. We then searched for somewhere to have dinner, because we didn’t want to eat at 10pm again. We found an Italian restaurant named Prezzo upstairs somewhere between Victoria Coach Station and Victoria Train Station – it was probably the best dinner we had had in London.

After dinner we took the tube back to Notting Hill Gate and walked back to the apartment. Although the day wasn’t so rushed, we had done a reasonable amount of walking since returning to London, so we crashed out reasonably quickly – not before DW put a load of washing on though.

Jun 27 2015

Soaked in Bath

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Today we had a Coach tour out to Stonehenge, including stops at Windsor and Oxford. We had breakfast at Caffè Nero just outside our door and then headed down to Nottinghill tube station to head over to Victoria. We were suposed to be meeting at the Victoria Coach Station, but directions were a bit misleading and it wasn’t obvious how to get to the Coach Station. One lady was helpful, but only to the point that she said turn left at the lights and keep going – someone will be there to help you. Another stop down that road and we were directed again to head further down the road. We eventually found the Coach Station and then (after a bit of searching) found then Evan Evans Tours office. They had a bit of trouble locating our booking saying that we were supposed to call 48 hours earlier to confirm the time (because it was an open booking) – even though our travel agent said that it was all booked and confirmed for 8:45am 26 June. The lady at the counter was very accommodating and switched us to a Stonehenge, Windsor, and Bath tour instead, including all entrance fees (which apparently the other one didn’t cover), for no extra charge – saving us £21.

Our tour guide (Emily) and driver (Steve) were very good. They both contributed a lot of informaton and history to the trip, helping to pass the travel time. The first stop was Windsor Castle, which was a fascinating place to visit. I got plenty of shots from outside, but no photos were allowed inside (although the asian tourists seemed to think they were exempt, pretending that they didn’t understand English). In fact, they were the same with the crown jewels at the Tower of London. Our biggest problem was the lack of time, which was the same for all stops on the tour. However, we managed to do some souvenir shopping and get a bite to eat before heading off to Bath. I was tempted to buy a battle of Waterloo chess set (£250), but thought better of it when considering the weight and how much more travelling we have ahead of us.

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The next stop on the tour was Bath – it started to rain as we headed further West, but that was expected. One of the things we didn’t know, but learned on the trip, was that this was where the Sally Lunn buns originated (by a French lady who was a baker’s assistant), by Solange Luyon – she was nicknamed Sally Lunn by the people of the area. We headed in to the Roman Baths and learned about the history of these, including a tasting of the water at the end – you could tell that there are a lot of minerals in it, but it was drinkable. When we left the Baths we were running out of time to get back to the coach, but we managed to get some original Sally Lunn buns, some fudge, and ice cream. We wanted some more substantial food, but most of it was sold out by the time we got there and all of the shop entrances were being blocked by tourists trying to keep out of the drizzle, because they didn’t have umbrellas. DW had her umbrella, but DD and myself just braved the water in true Kiwi style.

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Our final stop, heading back East and out of the rain, was Stonehenge, which is what I really wanted to see. I know it’s just a bunch of rocks and mounds, but the when, why, and how questions continue to intrigue me. We spent about half an hour wandering around the rocks and hearing about the history and what we have discovered since. We then headed back to the souvenir shop where we probably bought more than anywhere else.

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Heading back to London, the coach dropped us off at Gloucester Road, from where we walked up to Kensington Gardens, doing some exploring on the way, and heading back to the apartment at the other side. During this walk we also saw our first squirrel, followed by the second, third, and fourth – they were not being very “secret”. For dinner we decided to try the local fish and chips (now around 10pm), which were pretty good. The Mr Fish shop was about half a mile (800m) up the road, so not too far away – although it seemed longer after such a long day. After dinner we collapsed into bed for a well earned rest.

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