Friday, December 18, 2009

Europe: Manchester, England

The last leg of my United Kingdom journey took me to Manchester, England where I was to meet up with a friend named Mike who works for Image Metrics (IM), the company I work for in California. IM also has an office there in Manchester so I had planned on stopping in to say hello to everyone, and Mike had offered to let me stay in the spare room in his house while I was there.

My train brought me into Manchester Piccadilly Station where I had a short five minute walk into the city center and the location of the IM office. Shortly thereafter I found my way and said hello to some guys I hadn't seen in months. I knew a couple of the them but I got to meet some others who I'd heard of but not met yet, so that was nice. A couple of times a year they come to the States to work for a few of weeks so that's how I'd met some of them already. These guys were still working technically so I tried not to bug them too much and instead hopped on my laptop and tried to recover three full days of no internet and soak up as much news and information as I could. Checking emails, replying to comments, learning about all the crazy stuff that'd happened while I was in Wales. I needed my fix! ;)

Towards the end of the day, Mike's girlfriend Kate arrived at the office and we all hopped on the bus back to their house about twenty minutes away. It's a very nice place in a seemingly great neighborhood in Manchester. They had a cat named Brian who reminded me a lot of our cat Charlie back on Cape Cod and he happened to be very friendly, so that was nice!

Mike had a Squash game to play that night that he couldn't get out of, since he is the team captain, so he'd be gone for a few hours. While he was gone Kate and I went down to a local pub called "Kim's By The Sea". There we were meeting up with a very close friend of theirs named Mora who had just that night arrived home from a year long stay in Caracas, Venezuela. She's studying for her doctorate and doing research into the role of education in socialist countries. We got to hear some great stories about her time there. We're brought up in America to hiss and cringe at the first mention of communism and socialism, so it was really, really interesting to hear first hand the perspective of someone who had lived there for a lengthy period of time. We heard a great deal of stories some fun and entertaining and others a bit scary, but all incredibly interesting. Mike arrived a bit later and told us how he had totally crushed his opponent and won the game, so we celebrated with four or five pints of beer. A couple more friends stopped by before we closed out the pub and headed back to Mora's house for more drinking and a backyard bonfire. They told me it had been raining constantly in Manchester lately and this was one of the first nights it hadn't rained, so a bonfire was perfect! We spent the night telling stories, drinking Venezuelan rum, and listening to some awesome music before stumbling back to Kate and Mike's place at about 3am.

The next morning was painful, but a traditional English breakfast at a nearby cafe and a nice, big cup of coffee made it all better. I think it was about noon before Mike got into work that day, it was slow going getting up and ready in the morning, heh. I went with him to the office for awhile and worked on some tools I had been writing, and just relaxed for a few hours fending off the headaches with aspirin and lots, and lots of water. I finished a pretty rad tool I had been building, so to celebrate I went out and got some lunch at a burrito restaurant nearby.

One of the main reasons I had come to Manchester was to see a metal concert. Dragonforce was playing that night at a local venue and I was able to get Mike and I on the guestlist because I've known the band for a few years. Since Mike didn't get into work until noon, he was a bit later than anticipated getting out of the office so I left a bit early to meet Kate and some of her mates at a pub called, "The Jolly Angler". We waited for Mike to finish up and then met him back in the city center where we headed off in the direction of the Manchester Academy, where Dragonforce was playing with Sabaton and a few other bands. A few pub stops on the way and we finally made it to the venue at about 9:30pm, where Dragonforce was just getting ready to go on. Great timing! During the set I did quite a bit of dancing in the mosh pit, and ended up with a body full of bruises and a swollen eye as souvenirs for the night. The band played for about an hour, finishing up a little after 11:00pm. Normally I'd hang out for awhile and meet up with the band and have a few beers but we were both seriously tired and banged up so we decided to head home instead of waiting. It was a short walk back to Mike's house thankfully and sleep was a welcome thing.


The next morning we again went and got another epic English Breakfast at the local spot but this time Kate, Mora, and Rob came with us. It was about 1pm by the time we finished and during breakfast we'd decided it would be fun to go see an FC United game. They are a local football team that is quite well-known for being semi-new to the leagues but working their way up through them quite fast due to their skill. They had an extremely loyal fan base who follow them everywhere, so it sounded like it was going to be an exciting afternoon. We hopped into Mike and Kate's car and drove about thirty minutes to the field where they play. A bit early for the game, we hit the pub for a beer first and then found our way into the stands and got seats right behind the goal keeper. Calling them seats is a stretch really, since technically we stood up the entire time cheering and chanting. This particular team is in one of the lower leagues, sort of like what we'd call the Minor Leagues in America. As such some of the rules were different, and the one main rule difference for the crowds is that in the big-time Premiere League you aren't allowed to stand up at all. People kind of hate this, so to spite, in the lower leagues you always stand up the entire time! They literally didn't stop chanting, singing, and cheering for the WHOLE GAME. It was awesome, and inspiring to see such passionate loyalty from the fans. It's almost like the team and the fans are a single entity, the team is one the field playing as hard as they can while the fans are there to support them in every way they can. You can really see how the players are driven by it too, it makes such a difference when they cheer louder and heckle the opposing team. Like I said, inspiring to see such camaraderie. Unfortunately the team had a loss that day and some fans weren't all that happy about it. The keeper of the other team had actually punched one of the FCU players and started a fight on field, so the fans were tense and a fight broke out in the parking lot on the way out. Crazy stuff! Intensity and passion go both ways I guess right?

I was so tired after the game that when we returned to the house I ended up just relaxing for a couple of hours and doing some blog writing. We'd planned a pub crawl that night so we made sure to have a nice dinner, and Kate cooked us some vegetarian fajitas which were excellent! I got a great amount of food, got some rest, then suited up to head out that night and party.

The first place we hit was called "Briton's Protection". It was so packed that we only stayed for a couple of beers but it seemed a decent place. They have a giant selection of whiskeys to choose from if that is your fancy, but I just stuck to beer. Next stop was "Peveril of the Peak", a pub that had the entire outside covered in artistic tilework. I use to do tile work when I was younger so I had a vague idea idea of how difficult it was to build. It was really nice and to see the entire building covered in them too. Inside we played a few games of darts to 301, drank a few pints and met up with Rob and a mate of his. Rob had told us about a band that was playing at a place nearby called "The Green Room". We bounced over just in time to catch the headlining band we had come to see, a group called, "Thingamabob and the Thingamajigs". They were a pretty talented band that played funk music. They all had top hats on and one guy had an insanely awesome mustache. The kind you win contests with. In fact Rob told us last year he entered in the world mustache competition and placed well. It was excellent! At one point they played a song I think they called "The Monkey Song" or something like that where he made the entire crowd sit down and make monkey noises while he was playing. It was fun to say the least. Good music, good beer, good people, a great night so far. When the band ended we headed out for one last stop, a pub called the "Sandbar". This pub was excellent because it had Orval, my new favorite beer I had discovered in Brussels weeks ago. I drank a bunch of it. Mike, Kate and I discussed Belgian beers and hung out for a bit before we called it and trekked home to their place.

Peveril of the Peak

The next morning I woke up, packed my gear and got a ride to the airport with Mike for my flight back to Paris. It had been a great time in Manchester with some new friends and some excellent memories. Thanks to Mike and Kate for letting me sleep in your spare room and being so hospitable!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Europe: Caernarfon and Northern Wales

After leaving London, England my next stop by train was a town in northern Wales named Caernarfon. A friend named Iestyn that I knew from online animation school lived here and we had intended to meet up for the first time. About two hours or so on the train from London brought me into a station in a town called Bangor, where Iest was waiting to pick me up.

Even before I arrived in Bangor, just looking out the windows of the train I could already tell that this was going to be an incredibly beautiful place to visit. In mid-December with no leaves on the trees whatsoever, you could look in any direction toward the horizon and stare in awe at the endless rolling hills of green grass and mountainous hills. The land itself is so vibrant and alive. It was refreshing to be reminded of just how pristine and amazing nature can be when left to herself.

Most of the Welsh landscape looked a lot like this.

When Iestyn picked me up at the train station around noon, we exchanged a few words appropriate to a first meeting of online friends, and took off in his car towards the castle town of Caernarfon. I had a reservation at a hostel in the town called "Totters", only a short distance from the train station. In the car on the way there I got another dose of the beauty of Wales. This country is certainly in no short supply of sheep…in fact they seem to be overrun by them! So many in fact, that the farmers have to put colored spots on them to tell who they belong to. It's somewhat comical to see thousands of sheep all spray painted different colors amongst the sprawling, green backdrop.

Sheep are painted different colors so the farmers can tell who they belong to.

There are scores of old stone walls, gates, towers, and homes littering the land. Some of them decrepit and crumbling away into history and others looking like they had been built just years ago. After a short drive, Iestyn told me about how the town of Caernarfon is well known because of it's giant castle. In fact, the town itself is inside the castle walls. Yes, my hostel and the town I stayed in are inside a castle. We arrived a few minutes later, I stared in awe for a good two minutes, and finally walked towards Totters.

It definitely took me a little while to take it all in and really accept the fact that I was, well firstly that I was in Wales. Secondly that I was within the walls of Caernarfon Castle. And lastly, that I was about to spend three days here exploring and seeing who knows what else! The town is right on the ocean so you've got the sea to one side, and you can stand on the wall of the castle and look out over the water. Wow! I'd only been there thirty minutes and could have written a novel about how amazing it was.

Caernarfon Castle. The town is inside.

We found our way to the hostel and I got checked in while Iest waited outside near the water, fighting off seagulls who undoubtedly wanted to pilfer and make quick work of his Mars candy bar. The hostel was quite nice, very homely and laid back. I was actually the only guest which was great, might as well have been a hotel. The only issue I had with it was that there was no internet whatsoever. It was going to be a long three days with no contact to the outside world. But, I couldn't think of a better place to spend time away from the computer than where I was. My hostel was right on the outer brim of the castle wall so when you walk outside there are two turret towers facing the sea. (I just typed that sentence and had to reread it for accuracy because it sounds so awesome.) I ogled for a moment, and we left to get a bite to eat at a local deli. The prices here are decent, not as cheap as Prague but nowhere near as expensive as London or Paris. Indeed it was a healthy medium, proper prices.

We grabbed a sandwich for the road and hopped into the car for the drive to a place called Porth Neigwyl, or in the English name, "Hell's Mouth". One of the reasons I had come to Wales was to hopefully do a bit of surfing. Hell's Mouth is one of the most famous breaks in the United Kingdom and regularly gets double overhead and perfect. I had heard about it from Iestyn and really wanted to see it first thing. It takes about thirty minutes normally to drive to Porth Neigwyl but we took a scenic detour through the country side just to see some sights and spent the next hour or so enjoying the surrounding terrains. When we arrived, we could tell before even walking out to the beach that it was going to be savage as the wind was blowing hard and onshore. We walked out to the break and sure enough, it was huge, blown out chaos in the water. Unrideable and dangerous. In Welsh, "Porth" means "Beach" and "Neigwyl" I believe means "Devil". So… Devil's Beach. Appropriate I'd say looking at the surf! It's impressive to see such a great break though, even when it's not surfable. Iestyn mentioned there was another beach nearby named Porth Oer that we could check out, though it usually isn't as good. We drove about another twenty minutes north-west and found that Porth Oer, or "Whistling Sands" in English was actually looking quite nice. Hell's Mouth faces the south west, and there was a moderate south wind blowing which was wrecking the surf. Whistling Sands though faces the North West so the south wind was blowing offshore and even though the waves were only about waist high at the time they were peeling nicely and looked quite fun. I took a mental note before we left to head back into town. The local surf shop was called Off-Axis where a friend of Iestyn named Johnny worked. We stopped by on the way back to ask Johnny if we'd be able to rent gear the following day to hit the surf. They said it was no problem and to give a call in the morning so they could meet us here whenever we needed it. It seemed like surfing was a go at that point, I couldn't have been more excited…though it was about 33-34 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside. Whistling Sands is called Porth Oer in Welsh which translates to "Cold Beach". Hah!

Porth Neigwl - "Hell's Mouth"

Later that evening I met Iestyn and a buddy of his at a pub right next door to my hostel named the Anglessey Arms. We played a bit of pool and it was there that I learned that pool in the UK is quite different than what I'm use to in the United States. The table, balls, and cues are slightly smaller, and instead of having stripes and solid colored balls there are simply reds, yellows, and a single black ball. It's played almost the same way except there are a few minor rule changes. Such as, when you scratch, your opponent gets ball in hand behind the line but also two shots. If you table scratch, he also gets two shot. Small things like this. Overall it was fun but difficult to get use to since everything is sized differently. The pub was a bit dead so after a beer we headed off to the next stop, Alfred's Pub I believe it was called. I met a few more of Iestyn's mates here and we had a few pints and exchanged adventure stories. Iestyn and his friends are mountaineers, meaning they work as guides and lead hikes and treks through the mountains of Wales. Recently, Iestyn and his girlfriend went hiking through Scotland with naught but a backpack of gear and sleeping bags. It was snowing and frigid temperatures in the mountains the entire time and from the sounds of it they almost died, several times. He wouldn't have it any other way though. He's a giant, red-bearded mountain man who would probably spend his entire life living out there in the cold mountains if the world would let him. It's certainly not my cup of tea but it's the type of thing as a man you can't help but just listen in awe to the stories and tales of ultimate bad-assery.

After the pub I got a good nights rest at Totters. It's been awhile since I'd slept real well as the hostel in London was a bit of a bust with a very uncomfortable bed. Also, with no internet to keep me up all night it was quite easy to just fall asleep and recuperate some energy. In the morning I had some breakfast at the hostel and met Iestyn on the corner to head out to do some surfing. We wanted to check the surf again before calling the shop so we went to Hell's Mouth and it was the same as it had been yesterday, blown out and savage looking. There was no way I'd be able to surf it in my current (lack of) shape, and even if I'd been able, it didn't look much fun. We cruised up to Whistling Sands where I was hoping it'd be tame and offshore again, and sure enough it was looking fantastic. Waist to chest high, offshore wind, peeling lefts and rights, nobody out. We called the shop and went and picked up some gear. I ended up with a 7'10" board and a 5.4mm wetsuit with 6mm boots. Even in the frigid water I was sure to be warm with this winter suit combo. Iestyn had something similar, though I believe his suit was a 4.5mm. Apparently mountain men don't need the extra millimeter. :) We cruised down to Whistling Sands again, suited up, and hit the surf.

As we were walking down we met a guy who looked like he'd been there awhile and we chatted with him on the paddle out. It had gotten bigger, it was now pretty consistently shoulder high which looked to be a lot of fun for sure. The guy was from the eastern coast of England and was an avid surfer so it was cool talking with him. I was the first guy he'd ever met from California, which he thought was awesome. He was friendly and showed us where to paddle out and told where the rocks were so we knew a bit of where to be. We surfed for about two hours before my hands were a bit too cold to function and two overhead waves crushed the hell out of me and let me know it was time for me to be done. Not surfing for two months and then jumping into super cold water with a thick winter wet suit and overhead waves was kind of a silly idea, but it was damn fun anyway! The guy we had met before was finishing up so we all walked to the cars, and while we were drying off he goes, "You mates look like Vikings out there, surfing with those giant beards." We both had pretty gnarly beards going at the time, but to say we look like Vikings? That was easily the coolest compliment I'd ever received from anyone, ever. Made my day! We dropped off the boards back at Off-Axis and headed back north towards Caernarfon for some lunch and some rest.

That night we went out to another local pub that had an interesting name and story. It was built in 1522 and even the current owners don't know the real history of the place, and as such there is a mystery behind the actual name of the pub. It's either called, "The Black Boy", or the "The Black Buoy". The latter obviously being the more politically correct title, but the former is what most people call it now. There are two signs, and everywhere it says the title, it says both titles. It's quite interesting really. The food was good and the beer was better. I was able to try a few semi-local Welsh ales named Snowdownian and The Purple Moose. Definitely one to check out if you ever visit Caernarfon. Took it relatively easy that night, went to bed early and got a record two nights sleep in a row.

The Welsh Flag Is A Dragon. Awesome!

The next morning Iestyn drove me to Bangor again where I'd be catching the train to Manchester to visit Mike Rogers and the Image Metrics office. We said our goodbyes, thanks, and promised to meet up again someday whether it be in America or here again in Wales. My time there was fantastic and I feel like I know just a little bit more about the world after visiting.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Europe: London, England

As the end of my days in Europe drew near, I had about two weeks left to plan what I wanted to do with the remaining time. For a bit I visited the idea of going to Morocco, Africa to surf near a village named Imessouane. I had the entire trip planned and was literally a click away from booking it, when I had some second thoughts and decided to go another route. The trip to Africa would have been some serious fun, and a great adventure...but with the money and time required I knew I could probably visit many more countries instead. So, first I went to Prague, Czech Republic. (Read about my trip to Prague here.) After Prague, I returned to Paris and had about ten hours before I had to leave again for my next stop: London, England.

My flight to London was around 2pm, so I left for the airport at a nice, comfortable hour for once as opposed to six in the morning or something like that. I had enough time that morning to eat a good breakfast, clean the apartment up a bit, and leave confidently knowing I hadn't needed to rush and probably didn't forget anything too important. Metro to the Roissybus again brought me to the airport and I checked in with no troubles and had a pleasant hour long flight to London Heathrow airport. Upon arrival in England I had to explain to customs why I was an American coming from Paris, but then leaving from another city and going back to Paris. She was nice and all, but in the end I ended up having to explain quite a lot for her to understand how I was doing all of this with no visas, etc. Finally I got my passport stamp and went off to find the underground trains, or the "tube" as the call it here.

A friend of mine who works at Image Metrics named Nick lives here in London and I was off to meet him in the city. I took the "Piccadilly Line" to the Piccadilly Circus stop and climbed out of the underground and into the city. My first impression was sort of a mellow, panic. There were about nine billion people around walking in all different directions, all with somewhere to be and quick. It was much like a Times Square sort of feel. I had drawn myself a map on how to find our meeting spot, but realized right away that I hadn't drawn quite enough and was pretty much lost right away. I was suppose to meet Nick at 3pm but hadn't even gotten off the train until about that time, so I was already late and had no idea where to go! My mobile phone is unusable due to not turning on international roaming yet so I couldn't call finally I asked someone and he pointed me in the right direction. I was suppose to find "Soho", a lively area in London where the pub I was meeting Nick is located. A few minutes later and after asking one more guy for directions, I found the place and met up with Nick.

The first thing we did was head to a pub right on the same street named, "Crown and Two Chairmen". It was funny carrying my big suitcases into a pub, but luckily we found a back corner table against the wall where I had room to store them so they wouldn't get stolen, or forgotten after a night of drinking! We had a couple of pints there before a friend of Nick's named Joe arrived, and another guy named Mike shortly after that. Joe worked with Nick at Autodesk and Mike was a friend of Joe's who works for HP. We spent the next few hours drinking and talking, telling stories, etc. Mike has a lot of foster children so hearing stories about them was cool. He's also an avid reader and recommended some books I should read. "Why God Created The French", "The Lovely Bones", and "How The Irish Saved The World". He is Irish and spent a good bit of time telling me all about the torrential rains in Ireland and how some of the smaller villages were almost completely underwater. Doesn't sound like too much fun, you know...being underwater. As the beer kept flowing, the stories became more and more exaggerated which turned into a pretty funny memory now...we kept giving him shit all night about his whole country being underwater. A friend of all of theirs had a band who was playing in King's Cross, London so we all hopped into a taxi and made our way to a pub called, "The Cross Kings". Technically, their friend was the singer but had left the band and they now had a new singer. Apparently she didn't leave the band of her own will and had been ousted due to her traveling, so the new singer on stage was a bit of an awkward scene. It was a bit of a critique more than just enjoying it for some. The band played some decent funk music and was fun to listen too though in the end. We stayed there for another few hours until about 11:45pm and then Nick wanted to head back so we didn't miss the last train to his place.

On the way home, we managed to almost miss the train we were already on by getting off thinking it was going the wrong direction. It was going the right direction afterall, so thankfully we got onto the next one which was actually the very last one of the night...then we somehow lost the ticket on the way out and narrowly avoid a 50£ fine when the guys just got annoyed with us and let us out for free. Finally we made it off the train, and found some food at one of London's premiere Kebab shops (or so I hear anyway.) Next we stumbled onto a bus, met a guy from Montreal, and finally made it home to Nick's place where his two awesome dogs named Coby and Mojo were waiting for us. His girlfriend Kim was away for the weekend so the dogs were happy to see people after most of the afternoon alone. The couch was nice, and sleep came quickly.

The next morning I woke up to the dogs climbing all over me and a bit of barking, but feeling relatively okay considering how much beer I had put down the night before. We spent the morning relaxing and watching some European Football and planning out what to do that day. I had to budget wisely since my bank won't let me take money out anywhere but France, so if I overspent I'd be stuck with no cash. Nick had suggested I explore the South Bank area so I walked to the nearby train station and caught a train to Waterloo Station.

The South Bank is a nice area in London that is on the south side of the Thames river that runs through the city. It contains the "London Eye" as well as a good amount of museums, restaurants and markets. In fact, there were many christmas markets setup all around the area, similar to the ones I saw in Prague. Selling all sorts of trinkets, holiday gifts, great foods, beer, and loads of other things. I spent a few hours wandering through all of this, exploring the area. I came across a lot of interesting things on the way. A large group of people holding signs that read "FREE HUGS" and "PRACTICE RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS". They were a bunch of young guys and girls just giving hugs and giving out free candy, pretty cool. :) I saw some street performers dancing and singing, a couple of Mimes, and all sorts of characters performing various, random tasks to entertain the flocks of tourists walking along the banks of the Thames. Towards the center of the South Bank area is the Westminster Bridge, which when you cross it to the North side leads you to Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and all sorts of other big London sights. It was rainy quite hard so I only walked across the bridge to get an up close peak at Big Ben, and decided I'd come back for the full tour tomorrow. As it went there was a giant protest going on in the area about Global Warming and Climate Change. So many people had come to protest that they had closed half of the Westminster Bridge and there were enough people to fill up the entire thing. It was a sight to see for sure. I snapped a couple of photos with my cellphone and headed back towards Waterloo Station and the train towards Nick's place.

View From Westminster Bridge - Thames and the London Eye

Climate Change Protests on Westminster Bridge

Back at the house, I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and writing the rest of my blog post about Prague. We watched a game of Rugby which was fun, I'd never seen it played before so I learned about the rules of the game and such. Around dinner time we decided it would be cool to make some sushi for dinner, so we got some supplies at a local market and came back and made some epic salmon and creamed cheese rolls with cucumber and avocado. Not a bad home made meal! Nick is moving to the States soon and as such he cannot bring his wine collection with him. He offered to drink some since it might have to get sold or go to waste anyway, so we ended up drinking a couple of bottles of some real good wine. I wish I could remember the name of the wine...but I never can. Watched some football games and a couple of films and called it an early night.

Street Performers on the South Bank.

Christmas Markets bustling with people on the South Bank.

Even with the early night I don't think I got up until about noon. Traveling is exhausting! After a cup of coffee and a shower, we took the dogs for a walk through a nearby park and then went for some lunch at a spot called "Nando's". Then, a drink in a neighborhood pub called, "St. John's House & Secret Library". It's actually two separate pubs in the same building which is kind of interesting. Tasted a beer here called, "Tiger" which was excellent! Later on we went back to Nick's place and Kim had returned from her trip in Paris. We were introduced, chatted for a bit and then I grabbed my stuff and left for the hostel I had booked nearby.

About fifteen minutes later I was headed to the train and realized that I had forgotten to write down directions on how to get to the hostel from the train station. I knew the name of the road, and I remembered from looking at the map that it was right next to it practically so I figured I'd just find it. Mistake. I got off the train and spent about forty-five minutes looking for it before I had to admit defeat and find a map. I ended up walking up and down this one road about five times and in the process, lost my beanie (hat) that'd been in my back pocket. Noooo! I had a spare but it was back in now I'd need to go the rest of trip in the UK without a hat. Shit! It was damn cold and I'd regret this later for sure.

Skateboarding and Graffiti area on the South Bank.

I finally made it to the hostel called, "The Walrus Waterloo". It was pretty nice looking when I walked in, a bar in the downstairs of it filled with people and in a nice area right near the South Bank and Waterloo station. I got signed in and went up to my room where I met four people from Spain! That week there was a holiday in Spain so the four of them had taken a trip to London for the week. They didn't speak a lot of English so I didn't talk to them all that much, but it was nice to meet some more people anyway. That night was kind of mellow, I spent some time wandering around the area and had a couple of beers but went to bed relatively early.

The next day was excellent. The hostel had a free continental breakfast in the morning with toast, cereal and coffee which was a perfect start to the day. I filled up, grabbed my coat and scarf and headed out for my first touristy stop of the day, Westminster Bridge. This is the same bridge the protest had been on a couple of days earlier, but now it was nice and clear. It was a bit of a cloudy day which was a shame but besides that it was a tremendous view of the surrounding areas from the bridge. When you cross the bridge to the North side of the Thames River you are met eye to eye with Big Ben, the famous clock that sits outside of the Houses of Parliament. I took some photos, enjoyed the view, sat in awe of the amazing architecture of the buildings and then moved on to the next stop, Westminster Abbey. It's amazing as you can imagine. I spent about an hour there walking around and looking at everything. I didn't have my camera unfortunately but I snapped a few pics with my cellphone.

Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.

After the Abbey I left and kept walking North towards the Royal Parks and Buckingham Palace. The parks are absolutely stunning, they're so huge that I spent a good two hours just walking through the different areas and looking at birds, wildlife, flowers, and all the things it had to offer the passer through. When you get through the parks, you come across Buckingham Palace, where the British monarch lives. (The Queen, etc.) It was just like you'd think really, enormous, beautiful, filled with tourists and people walking around snapping photos, and those guards with the really big black furry hats who aren't allowed to talk or even acknowledge your existence. It was definitely a cool thing to see. I got lucky and happened across it right in time for the "Changing of the Guard" ceremony at the front of the palace. It's sort of a parade where the new guards march down the street and replace the guards in the front of the palace, it happens once per day. Random, but it reminded me a lot of the scene in Final Fantasy VII in the town of Juneau when the Shinra soldiers are marching down the streets. :) After seeing it all I spent another hour or so in the parks before heading back towards the hostel for a beer and some lunch. I stopped by the Christmas Markets on the South Bank on the way back for a beer and a brought-wurst German sausage. It was excellent.

Buckingham Palace

I don't even know what this crazy bird is! Anyone know?

"Great Tits" are a common sight in the Royal Parks during the colder months. Har Har.

That night, since I hadn't met anyone at the hostel I took the train back to Nick's place and had some dinner and wine with him and Kim at a restaurant called "Out of the Blue". It was unique because on Monday nights they allowed you to bring your own wine to drink as long as you paid a £3 corking fee per bottle. Nick brought along a couple of his epic wine bottles and I ordered the Mussels and chips again...a recurring theme! I've tried them now in four different countries, and...London wins. They were so, so good at this place. Anyway, dinner was fun. You can also bring your dogs with you to this restaurant so Coby and Mojo hung out under the table while we ate and drank. We talked for hours about all sorts of random things, telling stories and enjoying the wine. After dinner we said our goodbyes and I promised to help Nick and Kim move once they got into their place in the States. They had been so hospitable and nice to let me stay with them that I had to repay the favor! The train took me back to the hostel where I had a beer in the pub and went to sleep.

The next morning I caught the "tube" to London Euston Train station and got onto my train headed for the city of Bangor in Northern Wales.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Europe: Prague (Praha), Czech Republic

I've just returned from a three day trip to the beautiful city of Prague in the Czech Republic. I had three days open in between returning from Corbigny and flying to the United Kingdom, so after a short debate between Prague and Barcelona I booked a flight and hostel and left the next morning for Eastern Europe.

My first trial was figuring out to get to the airport at six o'clock in the morning. Thankfully Richard showed me the "RoissyBus" which is a bus leaving from the Opera metro stop in Paris with a non-stop service to Charles De Gaulle airport. The bus left at 5:45am, but the first train didn't arrive to take me to Opera until 5:38am so I thought for sure I'd miss it since it's its at least six or seven minutes from Parmentier (M) to Opera (M). I arrived at Opera at about 5:46am and ran out the exit to find the bus just pulling up. In hindsight, the bus didn't actually leave until 6:00am so I wouldn't have missed it, but I was definitely worried. A half-hour drive later I checked into my "SmartWings" flight, cruised through security with my carry-on and boarded my flight to Prague.

An hour or so later we landed at the Prague airport and I grabbed my pack and headed out towards the exit. The first thing I needed was some cash money. I had a bit of a snafu with my bank where they wouldn't let me use my ATM card in any country besides France. In order to rectify the problem I had to fax them three forms of ID front and back and three signatures, with a contact phone number and then wait up to forty-eight hours for them to call back at their convenience. Seeings how I didn't have a scanner, fax machine, or phone, this wasn't going to I have no access to my money outside of France. My option left was to bring enough Euros with me to exchange for CZK (crowns), so I swung by a currency exchange booth in the airport on the way out and traded my money. The exchange rate is about 25Kc to 1 Euro ($1.50 USD). More on this later. After getting crowns I bought a bus ticket for 26Kc and jumped on the bus that would bring me to the city center. I had directions to my hostel with me which instructed me to take the bus, then get on the metro, then get on a tram, then walk...haha. It sounded confusing, but ended up being easy. One cool thing I learned right away was that a single transportation ticket works on all forms of transport. I can use my same ticket for the bus, train, and tram. It has a 75-minute time limit on it so I can use it for whatever I like within that time. You can buy different lengths for whatever your needs may be. After following all of the directions I finally made it to the "Little Town Hostel" and to my room.

When I got in to the room I met a guy from Quebec named Alexis who told me a bit about the hostel and how it had been. He's a backpacker who has been traveling for quite a bit so it's always nice to hear stories and where all he has been, etc. Apparently all of the ten beds were full now that I'd arrived so I was bound to meet some people soon enough. After getting settled in a bit and locking my gear in the locker I got suited up for a walk and headed out on the town. Equipped with my map from the hostel and some nice warm clothes that I'm incredibly glad I brought, it was time for adventure! It was COLD in Prague! Way colder than it had been anywhere else I'd visited so far. So glad I brought warm clothes. So, so glad.

My first stop on the walk was food. I was a bit wary of spending too much money since I didn't have access to my funds, and what I had was just what I I decided to just get something quick and grabbed some Kebab. After eating a decent meal at a really good price, I wandered into a couple of souvenir shops to see what they had and realized something amazing...things are cheap here! Having been in Paris, I got use to paying a lot for almost everything, so it was very refreshing to see things priced normally. For instance, a pint of beer in Prague costs between 25 and 50 Kc normally. That equals to about 1-2 Euros. The cheapest pint of beer I've found in Paris was 4 Euros, and in most cases you're looking at 7-9 Euros for a pint of quality beer. Don't tell anyone, but I even paid 12 Euros for a pint once in Paris. (That is $18 USD). I realized then that I could probably drink about a hundred pints over the next couple of days and not run out of money. Brain cells maybe, but I'd have plenty of cash. :)

I kept on walking and eventually made my way to the main city square in "old town" where I came across the famous Christmas/Holiday Markets! This was amazing! It smelled of roasted chestnuts, wine, and wurst. I spent a long time wandering through the markets tasting different foods, looking through the shops at all the trinkets and holiday gifts, and admiring the sites it had to offer. Everyone was so happy and into the Christmas spirit that it made me very excited to go home in two weeks. It's one of those things that makes you realize how simultaneously the world can be so big and yet so very small at the same time. People all over the earth are merry and happy during the holiday season, and it's truly inspiring and an amazing, enjoyable experience to be around them.

In the old town square there is a clock tower they call the 'astronomical clock'. It's very neat and interesting looking! I read a bit about the history to know what it was and what it does, you can read about it here. Prague Astronomical Clock Wiki.

After exploring a bit more I walked back to the hostel and met a few more of the hostel-mates who were from Canada. We talked for awhile and shared travel stories, before they all got ready to head off to an ice-hockey game at a nearby rink. Yes, the Canadians found a hockey game to go Prague. Lawl. Alexis from Quebec also went with them so I was by myself at the hostel awhile just writing and catching up on emails, etc when yet another mate came by named "T". He was from Malaysia and spoke little English so our conversations were limited, but he seemed like a pretty cool fellow. Few minutes later I checked out to see where the good beer pubs were in Prague. The first one I found was called, "Hastalky Dedek Restaurace". The first thing I noticed was that it wasn't as touristy as most of the pubs near old town and my hostel, as they didn't immediately start speaking to me in English. I asked for a pint of something good and was given a "Mušketýr" by the barman. Great stuff! Cheap too, it was about 30Kc for a pint. Check them out here:

After the pub I decided to go visit Prague Castle. It's the largest medieval castle in Europe, holds the Guinness Record for being the largest "ancient" castle, and as you can imagine is just absolutely breathtaking. In the pic below you can see it up on the hill.

It took me about forty-five minutes to walk up to the castle and I spent another two hours or so exploring and taking photos with my cellphone. Part of me wants to write and tell you all about it, but it's simply just too amazing for words. It's a castle for fuck's sake. A CASTLE. I was just blown away the entire time. Unbelievable stuff.

To see more pics of the castle that were actually taken properly, look here. Or if you like, read all about it's history by visiting the Prague Castle Wikipedia Article.

After returning from the castle I decided my next stop would be some eats, so I stopped into a steak house I found and grabbed a seat. I ordered a chicken steak with a fruit sauce and a side of chips (French Fries). The food was great, as was the beer I had with it. It was a coffee flavored beer called Chodovar. I was completely stuffed, and kind of drunk so I decided to head back to the hostel to see what was happening there. When I arrived, there were yet three more people in the kitchen who I'd not yet met. A girl from Montreal, Quebec, named Camille and a guy and girl traveling together from Brazil named Victor and Mairra. They had just finished cooking an amazing dinner as I walked in. Soup, cheeses, bread, vegetables, olives, wine, etc. and were so nice and invited me to join them. Even though I was completely stuffed from my meal just minutes before I decided to sit with them and have a glass of wine and try some of Victor's amazing soup. We talked, ate, and drank for a couple hours then, great fun. All three of them had great stories of backpacking all over the world and Europe. This is what traveling is all about for me, just meeting these amazing people, getting to know them, hearing stories and sharing some of my own. Eventually all of the Canadians returned from the hockey game and we had almost the entire gang there finally. As you can probably guess, we all decided to go do some drinking! There was a pub in the basement of the hostel so we hopped in the lift and went down for some drinks and some fun! Along the way we picked up one more mate from another room named Simon from Norway. We all drank a lot of beer, did some shots, and learned from the barmaid how to say "cheers" in Czech. Na zdraví! My first day in Prague came to an end a few hours later, not a bad start.

The next morning I had the worst headache I can remember having in recent weeks. Thankfully it didn't last very long but I was damn shocked at how much it hurt for a bit there. Drinking from noon until midnight will do that I suppose. I had ordered breakfast at the hostel so I got dressed and went and ate in a room across the hall. Simple but good. Juice, Coffee, toast, muffins, and cereal. Camille and Alexis from Quebec were both headed off that morning so we said our goodbyes, facebook friended, and they were off. I spent the next four hours simply wandering around the city. I spent some time in the markets again, had some sausage and hot wine, and explored a lot of the city. Here are a few pics from the cellphone.

One of the most beautiful things in Prague is the Charles Bridge. It's a very historic bridge since it was the first one built that crossed the Vltava river and connected Prague's Old Town with the Prague Castle and the other adjacent areas. It's stunning really. Another piece of history that words won't do much for. Google it if you're interested. I crossed the bridge on the way back to the hostel and headed back inside to rest for a bit, a four hour walk does wonders on the feet. Ack!

Later that day a new hostel mate arrived, a girl named Jessica from Arkansas, USA. We talked for a bit about all of the places we had traveled and such and exchanged some cool stories once again. I ended up hanging out with her for most of the day and exploring a bit more of the city. We even got a few pictures of us doing some gymnastics on the Charles Bridge hah, I did a handstand. Did I mention it was ridiculously cold? Coldest city I'd visited yet, so removing my jacket to do a handstand on the bridge was a big deal! But, how many times in my life would I be able to do a handstand on the Charles Bridge, sitting high above the Vltava River, in the city of Prague in the Czech Republic, in Europe? Probably not many. :)

I was running out of cash so I need to hit up a place to exchange a bit more currency. Thankfully I had discovered 100 Euros that I had hidden in my belt weeks and weeks ago. Yes I am damn smart. There are so many Currency stores in Prague! At least one on every block and sometimes more than that. If you ever visit, exchange at the airport only enough to get your bus ticket (26Kc) but save the bulk of it for later where you'll get a much better rate. Whilst exploring I had seen one of them advertising 2500Kc for 100 Euros. I had this number in my head so I was going to check every exchange place until they offered me this. The first one I went in offered me 1800Kc. I almost laughed out loud, and started to walk away when the guy said "Wait! 2400Kc". I wanted to slap him through the glass, like I'd really take him seriously with an offer going from 1800 to 2400. 2400 isn't bad but I just laughed and walked out. I visited six more stores, the first five offered me 2400 and the sixth did the same, but as I was walking out he says, "Fine, what do you want?" I replied, "2500". "Okay fine." he says. My elite negotiating skills are awesome aren't they? Hah! I returned to the hostel with my money and we hit up an Irish Pub for some dinner. JJ's I think it was called. Good food, friendly people, great beer. As I said in my Tips For Traveling Europe - Part II, Irish Pub's always deliver.

Returning to the hostel we met yet another two people who had arrived at the hostel. A girl from China and a girl from Korea who was living in Ireland and traveling around. Such interesting people everywhere!

The next morning was my last in Prague, so I had planned to use the time left to spend a bunch of money. I wanted to buy some Christmas gifts and souvenirs, as well as try some of the food in the Christmas Markets that I hadn't tasted yet. Jessica was going off on a tour of the Castle so we said our goodbyes and I headed off into the markets to spend my hard earned crowns. Some great gifts came out of this by the way!

The only mildly exciting thing left that happened was when I couldn't figure out for the life of me where the heck to buy a train/bus/tram ticket. In case you were wondering, I finally found them for sale at the local Tabac. (Tobacco Store). Tram to Train to Bus to Plane to Train and I finally got home to my apartment in Paris. As tired as I was, the next day I was leaving for London! I had an amazing time in Prague thanks to the great city, the nice and amazing people I met, and everything else the city had to offer. I'd recommend it to anyone! Try to visit some day!

Next it's off to the United Kingdom for the week!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Europe: Traveling! Huzzah!

Hello! Bonjour! Dobry den! Morgen! Hola! The past week has been slow on the updates as I've just had too much going on to sit down and write a proper log of it all. I've spent a few days in Prague, now I'm in London visiting a friend, soon it's off to Wales to see Iestyn and Hell's Mouth, then it'll be Manchester to see Mike and the gang and catch a Dragonforce show at the Academy. Then it's back to Paris for one day to pack my gear, hand over my apartment keys and fly to Boston to visit my family for the Holidays. I promise I've got some great stories, but it'll be a bit before I get them all up here. I hope everyone is having a great couple of weeks!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Europe: Jay's Tips For Traveling In Europe - Part II

Second round of my random tips for visiting and traveling in Europe. If you'd like to check out the first round, scroll down to the bottom of this article for a link.
  • Almost everything is closed on Sunday, so buy whatever you need before then and prepare for a nice relaxing day.
  • You can get stamps at tobacco shops.
  • A lot of websites won't work outside of the United States. Hulu and Pandora for example. These sort of sites will block you if have an out of the U.S. IP address. There are plenty of programs out there to spoof your IP and work around this. Google has the answer.
  • H1N1 flu is a big deal everywhere, even though nobody seems to have it.
  • Karaoke bars will usually have about 80% songs of their own language, and 20% everything else. American songs somewhere in that 20%.
  • Irish Pubs are your friend. You always know what you're going to get and they always deliver.
  • They use coins here a lot more than in the States, and stores want you to use them. For example in the US if something costs $3.79 we'd just hand them a $5 dollar bill most of the time, or maybe four $1 bills. If you sat at the register counting out exact change most people would be annoyed. Here, it's the opposite. It's rude to give bills if you have exact change, and you're expected to use exact change any time you can. Especially at smaller shops, bakeries, etc. There are 2€, 1€, 0.50€, 0.20€, 0.10€, 0.05€, 0.02€, and 0.01€ coins. Yes there is a two cent coin. It's weird and next to useless in my experience.
  • Most banks (at least in Paris) have both outdoor and indoor ATM machines. I advise going to the ones inside so you don't get mugged. Especially if you're a lady.
  • Don't carry all of your cash with you, and don't keep it all in one place. Money belts are cool.
  • Bring your passport with you everywhere, or at least have a copy of it on you on at all times.
  • The US Dollar is currently a lot weaker than the Euro and the British Pound. So even if some things seem to be the same price they are actually more expensive. Keep an eye on the exchange rates so you know what you're spending. Also, traveling in countries where the Dollar is stronger than their local currency has the opposite (positive) effect.
  • Gasoline is a bit more expensive in Europe than in the US, but not by too much. And they refer to it as Petrol, not gas or gasoline.
  • If you plan on driving, be humble and ready to learn some new driving rules. Roads are very slim and with different traffic laws it can get dangerous if you aren't paying attention.
  • France Specific: Cut or tear off a piece of baguette, then tear with your hands. Don't cut the tip off the cheese. Slice it from the side so it always leaves a tip.
  • Maybe France Specific: The family I'm staying with this weekend sometimes drinks coffee or hot cocoa out of a bowl with a spoon like we would with cereal. Not sure why, but it's cool!
  • France Specific: Visiting the French country-side, I've yet to meet anyone who speaks English. Not one single person.
  • Roads signs and speeds in Europe are in Kilometers Per Hour (KPH) as opposed to Miles per hour. (MPH) In fact, everything is in the metric system, and as much as I hate to admit it...after using it for awhile it makes so much more sense and is awesome.
  • Scooters and motorcycles are everywhere. E-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e.
  • You can find free WiFi at any McDonalds as well as a host of other random places. I've yet to have any trouble finding free random street WiFi either, just walk around and sit on a bench and check the nearby networks.
Read PART 1 OF EUROPEAN TRAVEL TIPS here or read about some adventures from Central France.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Europe: Corbigny, Vezelay, and Central France

On Wednesday, I left with my friend Richard to visit his home town of Corbigny located in the Burgundy region of France. Richard lives in Paris and is a friend I met through working in CG a couple of years ago. His family has a house (and a seriously enormous amount of farms and land) in the village of Corbigny about a three hour drive south of Paris. We left in his car and headed south around 3pm, got stuck in a little traffic, but were able to arrive at our destination around 7pm.

Burgundy Region, France

It was dark so I didn't see much of the country side or the town on the way in, but when we got to Richard's house it was a sight to see! It's a beautiful house filled to the brim with all sorts of trinkets, art, books, weapons, world currency, puppets, souvenirs, and scores of great items from countries all over the world. Richard and his family have traveled to many places and they have such great things to look at from the trips it's like a museum. Very cool! Richard's father doesn't speak any English so we haven't really been able to talk much besides Rich's translating for us. He had dinner waiting for us though which was great. Fresh pheasant he had just hunted that day, potatoes, vegetables, fresh bread, and...epic wine. His Dad is a French wine connoisseur and opened a bottle of red for us that can only be described as mind-blowing. I wish I could tell you what it was, it was a 1999...something. He picked it out to go with the meal and I must say it was absolutely awesome. The best wine I have ever tasted. Dinner was followed by a fresh apple tart made with apples from their garden outside, and a nice cup of coffee.

The next morning we woke up to breakfast where we had fresh croissants, coffee, and fresh bread from the local bakery. Got ready to go out and spent the first part of the morning hiking through the forest and a local field of Corbigny. One of the local fields has a large monument in a farmer's field where a plane crashed in 1934.

We explored the monument a bit and then went for a walk through the forests behind it for awhile, it was partially raining and cold as hell but it sure is nice to see TREES for the first time in awhile. And I don't mean palm trees or the ones you find in Paris, I mean a real forest. The kind that you could start walking through and not ever find your way out. There weren't any leaves on the trees though because of, well you know...Winter...but it was great anyhow. Stumbling upon old tree houses and the like, reminded me a lot of my child hood growing up on Cape Cod and doing the same sort of thing. The climate and geography here are much like the Cape in a way.

Not all that exciting, but...trees!

After the forest we headed back to the house for lunch where we had one of the best steaks I've ever tasted, a glass of wine from a bottle that I probably couldn't afford with a week's paycheck, mashed potatoes and some fresh bread. This is lunch by the way. (I love this place!) Next we left off on a thirty minute drive to visit the nearby town of Vezelay. Vezelay, France is an amazing town located on a large bluff overlooking the surrounding Burgundy region. It contains one of France's oldest and most famous Romanesque churches, the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene. We visited the church and got to explore a crypt underneath before walking the grounds and seeing a fantastic view of the surrounding valleys from atop the bluff. Here is a photo I found of the city.

Vezelay, France

I picked up a souvenir from Vezelay before we headed back into Corbigny for another epic dinner at the Adenot House. That night we had a meal known as Croque Monsieur/Croque Madame. It's essentially a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, the latter with a friend egg on top. It was great! The combination of French cheese, ham, butter, and eggs delivers just an exquisite taste. All natural food, probably from a farm right nearby. Richard's father uncorked another epic bottle of red wine from his wine cellar and we enjoyed a great meal. For dessert we had a fresh apple pie, yogurt, and coffee.

This morning we woke up and after another breakfast of fresh bread and croissants we hopped in the car for an hour ride to visit Richard's aunt and uncle on their farm. The farm is so big it stretched from one horizon to the next it seemed, their house sitting atop a great bluff overlooking the farmland spread out for miles (kilometers, har har) in all directions. They didn't speak any English either, so again Rich was the translator for us. His aunt greeted us with a glass of "Porto" which I can only describe as a ridiculously potent wine. Your glass is filled up with only about as much as a shot in the States (an ounce or so), it tastes sweet and rich like a sweet red wine but has a much higher alcohol percentage. It's tasty, heh. While waiting for his Uncle to finish work, we got to spend a half hour or so on their Four Wheeler romping around their land in the woods. So. Much. Fun. Haven't been on one of those since I was probably 16-17 or so. We finished up, cleaned off (some of) the mud, and went back to the house. For lunch we had fresh salad, another steak, scalloped potatoes, and fresh bread. Yeah...this was lunch again, they eat well here! Some apple cider and a yogurt for dessert.

We spent awhile at the house and then decided we would drive to Magny Cours, a large F1 circuit about 20 minutes away. We wanted to go there to do some kart racing on the kart circuit they have and got lucky when we arrived and were the only ones there. We had the course to ourselves! We paid roughly 60 euros each for 5 tickets, (5 runs each) which was about 30 laps over the course of two hours. This was my first time ever driving a kart on a real circuit, and it was some of the most fun I've EVER had. It had rained that morning so the track was wet still, so I started off pretty slow while I got used to it and we got the tires warmed up. I think my first lap time was something around 1:28 and by the end of the day I had a lap time of 1:10:967. 18 seconds shaved! Richard has done this a hundred times and his best time was 1:10:300 so I was really happy with my lap time for my first day. I really want to try it again once I get back to Los Angeles. My body is sore, my head hurts, I'm tired, and I can't wait to do it all over again.

This is the kart circuit at Magnys-Cours.

After racing we drove to another place yet again where Richard wanted to show me his land. His father had given him a large spot of land nearby and we wanted to hike out through it and look around. Rich hadn't been here in while so he wanted to walk through, but also it was fun just to explore and see everything. We walked awhile and came across a large river flowing through the middle of it, skipped some stones, hung out a bit then headed back when it got dark. We came back to the house again in Corbigny after that, where we just had yet another epic dinner. Beef, sausage, vegetables, potatoes, bread, and what was described to me as "the best bottle of white wine you will probably ever taste in your life." Even Richard's father was apprehensive about opening this one. For dessert we had the Adenot Family's secret recipe Chocolate cake. So good! After dinner his Dad showed us his wine collection, which was unbelievable. He had several bottles from the 1950's and probably a bottle from every year in between. I can't properly describe how awesome this is. Just believe me.

After dinner his dad wanted to show us his hobby, collecting rare old documents related to his family's history. He has documents dating all the way back to the 12th century. Un-freaking-believable to see and touch these. Eight hundred year old pieces of paper, err, leather I should say, just in a folder we can see and touch and read. He had traced his family's heritage and history and built a family tree reaching back to the 1500's. He said it has taken him over twenty years to complete what he has done so far. Stop and consider that for a moment. It's amazing and inspiring.

Here I sit now in front of a warm fire, watching Star Wars and writing to the world. Tomorrow will be a relaxing day filled with more great food, alcohol, good stories, and who knows what else.