Luckily, we both pack light, so we managed to carry everything in our backpacks. I brought:
We left Anchorage early in the morning, connected through Chicago, and arrived in London early the next day. A long, painful flight; but the transcontinental United 737 had cool LCD panels in the back of every seat, the food was excellent and plentiful, and they served wine with dinner. Transcontinental flights are pretty cool.
We arrived, went through customs without difficulty, and took the tube to the heart of London. We got off at Picadilly Circus, wandered down past Buckingham Palace, saw Big Ben and the amazing Houses of Parliment, walked past Westminister Abbey, and wandered down to Victoria station. We found the small but charming B&B the Romany Hotel nearby for the night.
As the tall son of a builder, Europe's tiny rooms and stairwells, and noticably slanted walls initially annoyed me, but I got used to them quickly. I suppose a centuries-old building, even if imperfect, has its own charm.
In the morning, we met Inge Sheve McMillan (one of our friends from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks) at Gatwick, where she had a layover. We then took a train to Cardiff, Wales. The English/Welsh countryside is quite beautiful, and I took many pictures of the clouds. After arriving late in the afternoon, we wandered about Cardiff, which despite its giant stadium, slummy south side, and overcommercialized castle, actually has some very nice parts. We stayed at the Backpacker, a passable bar/hostel west of the stadium.
While trying to get a better picture of a 14th-century church, Layla and I climbed the steps to the entrance to the (closed) mall across the street. As we were taking out our cameras, I noticed something moving by the side of the building-- a security camera, swivelling to look right at me! Europe (and increasingly the US) is blanketed by security cameras; but it was quite disturbing to think that at that instant, some security guy in some distant room was sizing us up as potential criminals.
We skipped the castle, which looked a bit like a circus inside, but were quite impressed by the remains of an abbey to the northwest-- a stone crypt lid was arranged in the center of the crumbling brick. Latin words were forged in iron and pressed into the stone with ornate, flowing celtic end caps. All the dates listed were Anno Dominae MCCC (the 1300's), which impressed the heck out of us. We spent another night at the Backpacker.
We left Cardiff for Fishguard, Wales. The train pulled past several nuclear power plants on the way, and stopped briefly in Swansea, where another college friend of ours, Dan Shorey, once went to school. Fishguard is a ferry port, and possibly the most beautiful place we visited. We actually stayed in Goodwick, which is across the moor from Fishguard, but certainly all part of the same community.
Goodwich was beautiful-- we stayed at the excellent Beach House B&B and spent the evening hiking. The hills of Goodwich are folded white limestone, covered with various smallish brush.
Our 11am ferry was cancelled, leaving us several hours to explore Fishguard proper. The town wasn't particularly impressive, but there was a stone circle and well-maintained path leading around the town hillside. We found the seaweed-covered steps and foundation of what was presumably a lighthouse for the nearby harbor. The metal railings still clung to the sides, even after the lighthouse had totally washed away, leaving a very Myst-ian feeling.
The Stena Line ferry left at 3:30 pm. It was a gigantic boat-- 10 stories high, with 4 bars, 2 restaurants, a movie theatre and 3 decks of cars. The journey to Rosslare, Ireland took about 5 hours.
We took a bus from Rosslare directly to Wexford, a nice, old town with a castle near the coast. As we wandered, looking for a hotel, we passed an old woman walking by the castle. Now, in America, the typical pedestrian would just hurry by, glaring and clutching her purse; but despite the fact that I was wearing my leather jacket, unshaven, and unslept, she asked if we were tourists and if we needed help finding anything! What a cool place. We stayed at the incredibly nice Weissford Inn, near the bridge. The only bus to Kilkenny left at 7:40 am, so we didn't take much time to explore Weissford.
After a change at Waterford, we arrived in Kilkenny, Ireland around noon. This is a nice little Mideval village of around 20,000. It has a 13th-century castle, several cathedrals from the same era, and large sections of the original, 800-year-old town wall. Tons (literally) of old stonework, everywhere. We stayed in a large commercial B&B directly between the Black Abbey and St. Canice's cathedral. We visited:
We arrived in Dublin, Ireland at about 4pm. We stayed at the incredibly crappy supposedly-rennovating "City Hotel" on lower gardiner street. The floor was dirty, beaten wood; the bathroom floor was some unidentifiable cardboardlike substance; half a curtain; non-flush toilet. Sometimes, it's better to keep on walking.
The Dublin Museum on Kildare street, however, was amazing. 3-10 thousand year old Celtic wood, ivory, stone, and metal work. Beautiful, amazing, flawlessly executed designs in gold and silver. Wonderful spirals covering 7,000 years of history.
We spent about 5 more hours in the Dublin museum and then took Irish Ferries to Holyhead, Wales. The ferry, the Jonathan Swift, as a good deal smaller and faster than our previous ferry. In Holyhead, we ate and slept in the Crown, a nice bar/B&B across from the train station. Nice folks, but they seemed to be out of almost everything.
In the morning, we took the train to London, and got very cheap Euroline bus tickets to Paris. The bus left Victoria station at 9:30 pm (leaving us several hours to kill) and was long and painful. A woman and her three screaming toddlers were booted from the bus at Dover (she had an invalid, pre-dated visa), freeing up a seat so Layla and I could sit together.
We finally arrived in Paris, France at 6:20 am. After some initial language (and early-morning) shock, we got some money, figured out how to use the subway, and went downtown. They subways are apalling-- crowded, dirty, smelly, and poorly marked. We did laundry in an immaculate fully-automated laundromat and ate breakfast from the little grocery shops (the cafes weren't yet open). We spent the day wandering about Notre Dame and the surrounding amazing area. The architecture is just unparalleled.
We stayed at the fairly draconian M.I.J.E. Hostel near the Bastille.
We moved our stuff to the much cheaper and friendlier 20 Rue St. Antoine hotel. About 3/4 of a mile down the Rue Rivoli is the enormous, famous Louvre. It is all it's cracked up to be. We didn't bring our cameras (and aren't sorry), but we saw:
Wandered a bit; mostly read and napped.
Saw the Arc de Triomphe (impressive) and Eiffel Tower (amazing view). We got taken by street [con] artists who called us over, chatted us up, drew us, and then wanted 500 ff ($100) per drawing! Layla, shrewd bargainer that she is, claimed poverty and talked them down to 200ff ($40) for both drawings.
The crowd on the middle tier (the top tier was closed) of the Eiffel Tower was quite nasty. Without a clearly marked line or elevator attendant, people formed a large clot near the elevator, all wanting down (it was a hot day). When the elevator arrived, people just elbowed and pushed, knocking over little kids, getting sweaty and angry, etc. Crowds, if left uncontrolled, can be quite evil.
Intending to leave Paris for Germany, we arrived at the Gare de Nord via subway. Inexplicably, the only path from the subway to the train station proper was blocked by (impassable) subway ticket punching-machines-- we had to get an attendent to let us into the station. Even though we had already bought tickets, and knew the exact time, train, and destination, we had to wait until 15 minutes before departure before they would announce the terminal the train would leave from.
Once they finally announced the terminal, we boarded what we thought was the correct train; only to find that the destination was wrong. After a broken French conversation with an impatient attendant, we discovered that our train was indeed on this terminal; but about 1/2 mile down the tracks. As we hurried madly down to our train, we passed dozens of panic-stricken people streaming in both directions, obviously suffering from the same confusion.
This seemed fairly typical of France to us-- it would have been extremely easy to clearly indicate the correct train long beforehand, but instead they used a pointlessly ambiguous designation (terminal #, without specifying the train) and waited until the last minute to tell you even that.
Our next stop was Cologne, Germany. My great-great grandfather Joseph Pekel supposedly came from nearby.
Cologne is a nice little town on the banks of the Rhine: clean streets, amazing hotels. We stayed at the Hotel Rossner.
Early in the morning, I awoke to find the bed crawling with dozens of tiny, blood-sucking ticks (try finding that in your handy tourist phrase book!). The hotel staff were horrified, and gave us another room immediately.
We spent the day in the excellent central Museum of Art. Both bizarre modern art (a square, coal-black canvas; a computer-controlled pnumatic clicking machine; a video tape of a woman's red lipsticked lips repeating "Ich leibe dich") and fine art were well represented. A huge wing of 14th-16th century church art; and several cool works by Dali, Picasso, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Monet, Cezanne, Manet, Degas, etc. We spent about 5 hours there, and saw about half of the museum. Ouside lies the enormous Dom, a 450ft church spire.
Germany, especially in contrast to France, seems clean, spacious, and sensible. Signs are plentiful and clear, and we rarely had any trouble figuring out what the heck was going on. The train station, in particular, was extremely well laid out; and documented to the point of absurdity (you could tell exactly where the lunch car would be in a train arriving 20 hours later).
We took a train to Amsterdam in the afternoon. We spent the remainder of the day seeking a hotel room-- sadly, Amsterdam was full that night. We checked about two dozen hotels-- no vacany.
We had an excellent, reviving meal at "Het Elfde Gebode", a sidewalk bar/cafe in the red light district (I had my first glass of port, and was immediately hooked). Amsterdam is a fairly sanitized place of debauchery-- the red light district feels like the Disney version of prostitution-- not at all explicit, very safe, and quite touristy. The streets in Amsterdam are divided into strips-- about 1/2 of the width is for pedestrian traffic, 1/4 for trains and buses, with just 1/4 shared between bicycle lanes and cars. Just enough windmills were present to fulfill the stereotype.
We were accosted in the train station (where, since we couldn't find a hotel room, we intended to leave) by a rotund mustacio'd character with a thick slavic accent:
"You hlookingk for room tonight, no?"
"You are hwanting forh how many nights? 3? 5?"
"You will pay... 300f ($120)?"
The man took us to the bus, and during the longish ride said "Are going to Java Plein-- it hloops arount..."
We both suspected he was a con artist, out to rob or kill us; but it turns out he actually did have a nice, clean room. It wasn't set up as a hotel in any way; but we had a (shared) kitchen, washer, and bathroom. Pretty cool-- the guy heard that there were lots of tourists looking for rooms and decided to make some cash from his spare room. Adam Smith's invisible hand strikes again!
We saw the Anne Frank house, visited a cyber cafe (mac-driven, American-owned, so I can't complain), and visited an excellent park near Java Plein.
We checked out of our spare room, finished our laundry, and visited the Rijksmuseum. Quite cool-- Rembrandts (painterly ease; amazing data compression) and Vermeer (photorealistic, radiosity-like rendering with paint). Underneath the museum, an amazing brass pentet played classical music in the amazing accoustics. Fun tunes like Ave Maria, Mozart, Bach, etc. Very cool.
In the evening, we caught the red-eye Euroline bus to London. The driver was comically incompetent (driving in circles; pointing out "If you have any wacky-crack or other drugs; just get rid of them here" at the last stop before the channel). The searched the heck out of us at the border (not suprising, coming from Amsterdam). We crossed on the chunnel, which I found rather unimpressive-- there aren't any windows on the train, so you can't tell that you're moving at all.
We hit Dover at sunrise, which was much more impressive than the night version, and pressed on to London Victoria. We ate breakfast, caught the tube to Waterloo, and then took the train to Salisbury. Salisbury is a nice, small town where we spent the remainder of our time in Europe. The town has several enormous parks, is crossed by streams, has a huge cathedral and is near Stonehenge. We stayed at the excellent and inexpensive Cathedral Hotel.
We got "Day Explorer" tickets from Wilts & Dorset, which let you ride free on any of their frequent buses between Salisbury, Stonehenge, Avebury, and points in between. Stonehenge was impressive, but definitely packed with tourists, which diminishes the wonder significantly.
Layla and I were much more impressed with the little-known Avebury, which is a larger and older monument than Stonehenge. It's also noncommercial; the landowners derive their income from the sheep which graze among the stones, as they have since before the monument was erected.
Avebury is a 1/2 mile diameter ring, with a 10-20ft deep defensive trench along the inside and 10-15ft high berm outside it. The inner trench is lined with gigantic, irregular stones. No particular theory of the origin and significance of the stones fully explains them, to me-- defensive structure, astronomical calculator, ancient novelty item, etc. They are cool, however.
We spent our last full day in Europe lounging about Salisbury. Salisbury has an excellent cathedral, moved to its present location in 1220 from nearby Old Sarum Castle (now just foundations). The cathedral close houses an original copy of the Magna Charta, one of 4 in existence, and a multitude of 13th-17th century artifacts (letters from Queen Elizabeth, etc).
The cathedral itself is quite amazing, as you can see from the pictures, but is unsettlingly skewed from 800 years of gravity and poor foundations (it's basically stone on mud). The gigantic, dozen-ton spire, added later, can't help.
We took the 8:40am to London Waterloo, then the tube to Heathrow, and United back to America. I got off in Chicago, to start the semester at UIUC; Layla continued on to Fairbanks to collect her belongings, dog and car for the trip down to Illinois.
The trip was excellent-- a great honeymoon and a great experience. I'd heartily recommend it to anyone with a few weeks and a few thousand dollars to spare. It's striking how integrated the EU has become-- no passports or customs anywhere on the continent. But as in Pulp Fiction, it's the little differences that you remember-- the rough brown toilet paper in Germany, the weird-shaped rooms and toilets everywhere, and the amazing British sky.
I had an amazing time.