Founder’s Lodge in the Shamwari Game Reserve


A frequent question on the ‘net’ is which Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth is the best – and while I can’t vouch for any of the others, I can tell you that the Shamwari Reserve was amazing.

But I’m ahead of my tail – which is not an unusual position.

We start the day in the absolute lap of luxury that is the Conrad Pezula. For the first time in our trip – I’d rather not leave. In fact – I’m even thinking of buying real estate. It’s only the discomfort of the South African reality that keeps me from chatting up a real estate agent. I just can’t get my head around the constant locked access points, focus on security, and the fences. There is a very obvious lack of respect and even comfort between colours and classes that just makes my skin itch. But that’s the topic of another blog.

Today we must drive to Founder’s Lodge in the Shamwari Game Reserve, and we’ve done the GPS thing to find out how long it will take to drive to Port Elizabeth and counted backwards. We must leave by 9:00 to make it there in time for lunch and the afternoon game drive.

Breakfast turns out to be more of an adventure than I’d planned on. I wanted to eat on our balcony – sitting in the sun and enjoying the stunning view. To do that – I must make coffee. And there’s a single serve coffee machine in the room. Perfect. Until I try to figure out how it works.

I’m old, but not stupid – and the thing stumps me. It just won’t turn on. Yes, I checked that it was plugged in, and yes I checked that the plug was on. No action. So I call the front desk. They tell me there’s a switch on the machine, hidden in the back. I try that – nope. It isn’t going to turn on. And worse – out of the 4 coffee packets they have given me – I’ve used up two. One in the first attempt – a second in the next attempt.

They will send someone. Who within seconds is there – with another machine. He checks our machine, agrees that it is not turning on, and plugs in the newer machine. It turns on – (green light on the front), and we thank him.

Try 3. I put in the coffee thingy – put the mug under the spout, and push the green light. The machine gurgles and burps and starts producing coffee. And doesn’t Stop! I fill my mug, and I’m on the 2nd mug when I turn the machine off and give up. I’m calling the office – again.

Seconds later another young man appears at our door – who shows us that to stop the machine from producing coffee you must push the button on the front when the light turns red… It offers you options you see – the first time it turns red, that’s a single espresso. The 2nd time – espresso Double, and the third time – Americano!

Problem – in learning how to use the machine – I’ve used up all the little single serve coffee things they have given us. So another trip from the front desk to give us a few more pouches of coffee.

I’m sure there is someone at the Conrad Pezula who is giving up on making any money on our stay! We have definitely kept their staff occupied.

Breakfast done (whew) – we call the front desk (yet again) for luggage pickup, Victor hikes up to the office while I continue to drink my lovely coffee enjoying my fabulous view and try to work up the courage to actually leave. But I have no choice – the bellman with the golf cart arrives, takes our luggage out to the cart and offers me a drive up the hill. We absolutely must leave.

When I come back to South Africa – perhaps in another life time – this is the place I want to stay!

We drive down the Head, and head East along the N2. This is a ‘major’ road that winds along all the Garden Route – but in this section it is just one lane in each direction, with large shoulders they use to create space for cars to pass on the right. Remember – drive on the left! At the sides of the road at first are what I’d call middle class housing, but it quickly becomes either township or informal settlements with the corresponding piles of garbage. Question to self – why is everything so clean except the areas near the townships and informal settlements?

Eventually even that bit of housing disappears and we are driving thru fields of grain, some irrigated, some not. There are also herds of cows and sheep to see, and the occasional horse farm. It’s not the most exciting driving – although the view of Plettenberg Bay is stunning. These are some of the finest beaches in South Africa, but we are on a mission – we must get to Port Elizabeth.

The road is often actually 3 lanes – achieved not by widening the road, but by changing the location of the paint. So imagine two lanes with large shoulders. To get three lanes – you get rid of the shoulders on each side – and either make the no passing line on the far right of the 2nd lane (we have two lanes heading east), or to the far left of the 2nd lane (we have one very narrow lane heading east – they have two lanes heading west). It’s actually pretty neat, although my husband thinks they should make the passing lanes appear only on the uphill sections – he can’t pass the heavy trucks on the down hill portions, they gain too much speed.

Speaking of speed – the limit here is 120 km/hr. And no one goes 120, except us and the occasional truck. So we are pretty consistently the passed, not the passer.

After about 2 hours of this, we decide to enter into the GPS the actual address of our destination – and discover to our alarm that it isn’t in Port Elizabeth – it’s an hour NORTH! Oh, no. We’d calculated our trip based on getting to the reserve in time for lunch – and now we are definitely going to be an hour off.

Mad checking of paper work later – we realize that lunch doesn’t even start till 2:00 PM – and the game drive is at 3:30. We should just make it – but there’s no time to waddle. Not like we’ve been going slowly – but we try to pick up the pace a bit.

The outskirts of Port Elizabeth appear – first informal settlements, then townships, then middle class housing and finally the city itself. It’s a huge port – I count over a dozen giant container ships at anchor in the bay – and I would imagine there are some actually in the port, but it’s not visible from the N2. Which has become a 4 lane highway at this point – and the roadway switches from concrete to asphalt. My husband says that the driving is easier on asphalt – I don’t know or care – I just want this road trip to end.

As we steam pass a gas station – I say – there’s a gas station – but my husband is focused – we are getting to the reserve on time.

Suddenly I see an Elephant on my left! Wow – it’s an Elephant!. We are driving past the Addo National Elephant Park – and the next stop will be the Shamwari Reserve. I’m getting excited.

Meanwhile the N2 is down to 1 lane in each direction again, and the side roads are not all paved. We’ve left Port Elizabeth (and what passes as civilization) far behind.

It is at this moment that my husband checks the gas gauge. We are at 1/4 tank – and we need to find a gas station. I keep my eyes peeled – but we are far from anything that even looks like a town. Hopefully there will be a gas station near the lodge.

The instructions say – take the unpaved road at Sidbery and follow the signs. We do as told, and find our selves facing a formidable wrought iron gate. Oh dear – what did we do wrong? We stop to try to figure things out when a guard appears to ask us – where are you heading? We tell him Founder’s Lodge – and he’s immediately reassuring. You are fine, you are right, this is the right place. You have arrived!

Whew.

It turns out that the Founder’s Lodge is inside the reserve, and we’ve arrived at a back door. The gate is there to keep the animals in – and given the number of Elephants, Rinos, Lions, etc that we will see – I totally get it.

Our welcome at the Lodge is lovely – Susie, the manager, greets us with cold towels and a drink of our choice, and quickly ushers us into lunch. We ask about gas – and are assured that they will get a spare tank with 10 gallons or so for us tomorrow. Meanwhile, they will park the car – we need to go into lunch.

There are only 6 rooms in the lodge, a total of 12 guests. We are divided into two groups, each with our own Ranger who will take care of our every need from dawn to bed time. One group are 3 couples who came together from the Cape Town area, our group is composed of two couples from Port Elizabeth, and us.

Our Ranger is Freddie – and he’s a charmer. He joins us at lunch to explain that the game drive will start at 3:30 – right outside the front door of the lodge, and we should dress warmly – we won’t be back till after sunset. He also asks what drinks we’d prefer for ‘Sundowners’ – I opt for water. I’m just not that big a party kinda gal!

Our quick tour of the Lodge is, as the welcome made us expect, impressive. Our room has a wall of glass facing out onto the private reserve of the Founder – independent of but adjacent to the Shamwari Reserve. Using the concept of an infinity pool, the garden appears to continue smoothly to the watering hole for the animals of the Reserve about 150 meters away. But actually there’s a wall with electric fencing separating us from the animals – at least the animals who would be daunted by a wall. Fortunately, there are no predators in our private reserve – so while the baboons and monkeys might be an issue – the larger vegetarians are happy to stay on their side of the fence.

Onto our quick tour of the Lodge (it’s lovely), and then onto our ‘Safari’ vehicles to start our first game drive.

These are very upscale vehicles indeed. Modified Toyota Land Cruisers – there three rows of two leather seats, so each person has an unimpeded view to the side and because the seats are raised one above the other, to the front as well. There is room for a driver and a spotter – but Freddie will be serving as both for us.

Turns out that all vehicles in the park are exactly the same design, color and style. That makes it very easy to spot any unauthorized vehicles – and Freddie starts our tour by telling us that the Shamwari Reserve has had no poaching incidents in the past 15 years. They have 24/7 anti-poaching teams – and they are armed and serious. You do not touch our animals. Kruger Park, on the other hand has had over 300 incidents this year – and while the numbers are down from 2016, any Rino poaching is bad. Folks involved with the animals are working hard to educate people on the absolute uselessness of killing Rino’s for their horns – they are made of exactly the same material as our fingernails – but folks seems to love to ignore the truth. It’s sad.

He also warns us to keep our hands inside the vehicle – the shape of the vehicle is known to the animals and they won’t bother us, but if you break the shape by sticking an arm out – you will alarm the animals. He also warns us to not make loud noises – or to call to the animals. They will in fact turn away if we do that – so we’ll get the opposite of what we’d like as far as pictures go.

And we head off. For our first drive, Freddie decides to head North – into the wilder, less traveled part of the Park. There are tracks carved thru the bush that keep the vehicles off the slow growing vegetation, yet allow access to almost all parts of the huge park. The rules for the drivers are simple – stay out of sight of other vehicles, but stay in contact by radio in case someone spots something exciting. And stay on the cleared tracks. There are parts of the park where you can drive off road, but generally that’s done either to go around a wash-out, to allow another vehicle to pass, or to get closer to a Cat. All other game is to be observed from the already tracked ‘trails’ in order to avoid disturbing them – or killing vegetation.

As we drive along, I’m impressed by the beauty of the place – despite knowing that there is a fence all around us – the place feels wild and free, and a lot greener than I remember either the parks in Kenya or Botswana. There are fairly large trees growing in the sections where the Bushman’s River winds thru the park, and the open ‘grass lands’ seem to go on forever. And game abounds. Zebras with colts, Springbok’s, Kudu, etc are everywhere to be seen. Freddie spots an Elephant across a valley from us, and heads in that direction. He’s a solitary Bull – and he is huge. Mildly chomping away at the tops of Acacia Trees, he ambles along, at times ahead of us, at times in back. He takes a quick right and heads up a steep hill – and Freddie tries to follow on the trail. Suddenly the Elephant is in front of us – right in the road. We can’t pass him, and he’s headed straight into the sun. Lousy photos – cool view! Finally Freddie takes a chance and at a widening in the trail, drives carefully behind the Elephant to put us ahead of him with the sun at our back. We take lots of very good photos – and then the radio bursts into life – they have spotted a Cheetah. So we leave our elephant to head in that direction.

The Cheetah is just sitting on the ground behind a bush – casually watching us watching him. So beautiful, and so peaceful. We also spotted a sleeping lion – there is little as boring of course. Well satisfied with our game drive, we stop at the top of a look out for a much needed ‘pee’ break and Sundowners. What an amazing landscape.

There are about 10 Lodges in the Shamwari Game reserve, most much larger than ours – and we have driven past several. I think ours is just perfect – but it’s nice to know there are options if we want to return.

I’m thinking that what really matters is the quality of your guide and his (her) ability to position the vehicle so that picture taking opportunities are the best. That often means knowing not only where the animals are – but to guess where they will be going – and keeping track of where the sun is since we can’t shoot into it. And since you are supposed to stay on the tracks – being on the right track at the right position at the right moment is an art!

Back at the Lodge, the vehicle circles around to the Boma – a raised area with a fire lit to welcome us home. The staff is lined up to greet us – and hand us warm drinks.

Sigh – I’ve gone to heaven and it’s in South Africa.

Signing off to ready myself for ”The Founder’s Dinner” – The Soup Lady

Whales – By George – I found Whales!


We wake to another beautiful day in South Africa – blue sky, blue sea, cool breezes. I’m finding it a bit cold, and since today we are going out on a Whale Boat Excursion – I choose to over-dress. I’m wearing almost everything I brought that’s warm – and thinking I wish I had more!

Yesterday I forgot to mention the odd thing. When we drove back from JJ’s Grill, we were stopped just below the entrance to the Conrad Pezula. There was a swing barrier and a guard checking your reason for going past his post. The odd thing – I didn’t see a guard gate when we drove up in the afternoon – nor when we drove back down for dinner. It’s a pop-up guard gate – only visible at night. Different, right?

Back to today – We enjoy the elaborate buffet breakfast provided by the hotel, and then wind our way back down to Knysna. This time we look – nope, no guard gate. But onto our adventure. Whale Odyssey takes small boats out into the ocean to see the whales 4 times a day – and it leaves from Thesen Island, a paradise of lovely shops, cute restaurants, and adorable housing located across a causeway from the main town of Knysna. The folks at the hotel have recommended a restaurant for lunch – the Ile de Pain – I’m guessing French influence here? The sparkling cleanness of Thesen Island is very impressive – it’s a lovely enclave, without a guard gate. First one I’ve seen in all our travels. But based on the ‘odd’ thing last night, I’m guessing that a gate appears on the cross way after dark. And access to the ‘residential’ part of the island is barricaded by a huge metal gate and a swing bridge. So sure you can get on the island – but don’t get near our houses…

Our Whaling trip starts at the Odyssey Shop where we join up with our fellow whale boaters – there are 12 of us, and we are given life preservers and basic instructions – primarily follow the Captain’s Instructions.

Our Captain takes us to our boat – it’s tiny, but with super powerful outboard engines. We’ll find out soon enough how necessary those are. We take our seats in rows of 3 or 4 – and soon cast off. Because we’re old, slow, and polite – we’re last to board. So I’m sitting on the end seat on one row, Victor on the end seat of a different row. Turns out to be great seats though!

The Captain tells us that when he stops the boat – we are free to move around as we wish – and there are plenty of grab rails to make sure we don’t have a problem going over board. But when he says – SIT Down Now – we are to take the first available seat and SIT. That means he’s going to be doing something that will rock the boat – or he sees something that will rock the boat.

He makes sure we are all clear on this point, that no one is feeling ill from being on a boat – and with a “Yes Sir” – we are all ready to go.

Our trip takes us thru the Lagoon, and between the Heads and out to sea. The trip thru the Heads is truly neat. The Captain slows the boat to a crawl and watches the waves coming in thru the narrow neck. When he sees several smooth rollers in a row – he guns the engine and off we go. We shoot thru the neck and up and over the rollers. These waves are so large that often at the top, the engines are out of the water completely!

There is a Whale Spotter positioned high up on the Eastern Head – and he’s radioing instructions to the Captain. He manoeuvres the boat away from land and towards the East – moving towards the position described by the spotter. All of a sudden he says – this is too good to miss – and turns the boat sharply towards the South. We are quickly among a pod of around 200 Normal Dolphins – who think the arrival of a boat is great fun. They jump and splash and swim around and in front of us – around and around we go among the Dolphins – snapping away madly. The Captain says they are fishing, and rounding up a bait ball – but they still take time to play with us. You just know this will be the highlight – how often have you ever seen a pod of 200 dolphins at play?

The spotter radios down that he has seen a whale – and off we go among the huge waves towards the designated location. And when I say huge – I mean these are large waves. They tower over the boat – but since they aren’t breaking this far away from shore, we just roll. Up and over – or along a trough, the ride is actually fairly smooth given the size of the waves and boat. Lucky I guess – I spoke to other folks who took a boat out on Tuesday, the day we got blown off the Penguin tour, and the boat just made it out from the neck before the Captain announced – this is too rough, and they headed right back into the harbour.

We find the whales that the spotter had seen – and it’s underwhelming. I’m sorry – yes, they are huge – yes, there are 4 of them – but all we can see from our low vantage point 50 meters away is a broad back floating inches above the surface of the water. They aren’t even really blowing – I was expecting towering heights of water, but no – little puffs – and that’s it.

The first pair opt to dive – and they are gone. A second pair appear a bit further off – we move towards them, but like the first pair, they are busy doing their thing, and not really showing off for the tourists. Did someone forget to send the fax?

We piddle around in this area hoping for something more thrilling, and then head back. Whale ride over.

As I said – the Dolphins were definitely the highlight – and they were amazing. So I’m pleased – and I buy a sweatshirt to prove that I was here at 34 degrees South Latitude! Bonus, it’s warm and cozy. And as stated many times this trip – it’s been a lot cooler than I’d thought it would be (90 degree days dropping to 70 degree days… seriously confusing to this old body).

We eat lunch as planned at the Ile de Pain – and it’s wonderful. I opt for a flat bread with olives (they grow olives in this area) and it is delightful. A bit overly generous with the olive oil, but that’s been a theme here in South Africa – if you’ve got it in abundance – flaunt it! And apparently Olive Oil is on that list.

It’s back to the Palace for a Spa Treatment. I know – totally outrageously extravagant – but oh so relaxing. My husband has a hot stone massage which he rates as one of the two best he’s ever had. I had a lovely Swedish massage – and enjoy every minute. After the massages, they put us on massaging water beds for 15 minutes of ‘cool’ down. Totally extravagant and completely delightful.

Dinner is at the Anchorage – a tiny (6-7 tables, tops) sea food restaurant in downtown (can you call part of a 7 block city – downtown) that boast super high ratings and great reviews. And it totally deserves them both. Our waiter – Benjamin – is a riot. He clearly loves his job, his restaurant, and his food – and delights in making sure we pick the best options of the bunch. He and my husband get into a bit of a discussion on the subject of dessert – and not surprisingly, Benjamin wins. His suggestion of a milky chocolate concoction that is unique to the Anchorage is a clear winner. For the main course – I try the Prawns. Everyone has been raving about the Prawns here on the Whale Coast – and I’m finally convinced to give them a chance. It’s a bit like eating tiny lobsters – lots of finger work involved, and your reward is really just the sweet tail parts! Prawns, by the by, are what we would call Shrimp – but these are the giant size versions. Almost 5” long, they are about 50% head and legs – just 50% tail.

Victor gets Angel fish. This is surely not the same fish we call Angel Fish in the Caribbean – it’s a fairly large filet of a very delicious white fish. So good food and delightful service. Perfect.

Back to the Conrad Pezula and yes – the gate has re-appeared. Our fire is lit, and after enjoying the view, the stars, the absolutely giant full moon, we settle in for the night.

Tomorrow is a long driving day. I do look forward to those. (Not). But it can’t be helped. We must get to Port Elizabeth for the last few days of our trip along the Garden Route.

Signing off – The Soup Lady

We Shoot – We Score!


Our plan for today is simple – we leave Stellenbosch, head just 30 minutes down the road to another town renown for it’s Wineries – Franschhoek – and do some more taste tests.

The winery Victor has chosen for us to visit is another larger one – Boschendal. And we’ve pre-arranged our wine tours. Victor discovered that by pre-arranging, you get much better hosts – and frequently a private tour. And Boschendal is no exception. The great-grandson of the original founder of the winery (now employed here by the current owner) is our host – and he regales us with tons of information about not only the wines, but also the Hugenaut history of this area of South AFrica. His name is Francois – but of course he speaks no French. That is long gone, but the naming tradition continues. Interesting.

Today is Sunday – and on Sunday everyone that has a bike uses it in this area. We pass rider after rider on our way to the winery – and not surprisingly – are surrounded by riders and their families who have made the estate their picnic ground. In a word – it’s mobbed. But our tour is private – so there!

Naturally – they have organized how to ship wine to the states – so two cases later, we head on to lunch (extremely forgettable meal at Fyndraai), and drive into Franschhoek. We are greeted at our newest lodging – Le Quartier Francais – with the news that we have been upgraded to a suite – and we are the first guests in this newly renovated space. And it is best described as huge and fancy! The art around the lodging is outstanding, the art in our suite makes one gasp – and the entire room is so huge I have to take pictures. The living room area has a fireplace (which they offer to light should it get cool), and the bathroom features not only the mandatory huge free standing bathtub (but please don’t use it – we are having a water crisis) and double sinks – it has a heated floor! Curiously to me, the toilet and the shower are both glass enclosed rooms. Odd – private but not so private if you get my drift.

It’s rather early in the day – so we opt to wander the one Main Street of Franschhoek and look for a book store. The first one we find is called the Treasure Box, and it’s a used book store run by an elderly lady. The door to the shop has a metal fence across the front – and a note to ‘ring bell and pull the gate’. We do so, and when we ask why the protection – she admits that she was robbed at gun point and decided not again. She also lets us know that her husband died suddenly (5 years ago), and she still has never discovered all the codes he used on the internet things – like bank accounts and wifi passwords.

Oh.

We buy a cook book from her – which she lets us know does NOT contain any recipe she would cook – it’s about Africian, not Afrikaner cuisine, and we head back out to explore. The rest of the village is composed of either tourist traps or stores for locals like 3 different grocery stores and a pharmacy. Despite the warning from the gal at the Treasure Box – we find that the village feels quite safe.

Our hotel was the site of a world famous restaurant for many years – but it closed in June (the chef wanted more time with her family) but the newly opened replacement is La Petite Colombe. The tasting menu looks very interesting, and by our standards is not terribly expensive, so we opt to give it a try.

An excellent choice as it turns out. The 12 course meal is well prepared, well served – and very interesting. I thought only one of the dishes wasn’t an absolutely standout – which is probably a record. My favourite courses were the “meet the chef” which had us up at a ‘chef’s table’ in front of the kitchen enjoying a soup made with expertly seasoned freshly made noodles, and a quail egg, the Asian style tuna that was yummy to the last dribble, and BBQ quail and lobster tail combo that hit all the right notes.

My husband of course had the wine tasting with his meal – I opted for sparkling water and a few sips here and there.

A wonderful meal to go with a wonderful suite and a wonderful day.

Signing off because bed is definitely beckoning- The Soup Lady

Fiery Furnace – Must Do Hike at Arches NP


(OMG – another unpublished post just sitting in my draft folder. Well – better now then never I say)

Read about Arches – and you’ll read about Fiery Furnace – a 3 hour adventure hike into the fins, canyons, and crevases that are the Fiery Furnace. You can take the ranger lead version (which we did) by either signing up 90 days in advance – and paying your $15 – or you can take a chance on the ranger led version having space when you arrive. There are also numerous privately led hikes into the Fiery Furnance – smaller groups of folks led by qualified guides for lots more $$.

I knew when we’d be at Arches – and I knew we wanted to do this hike – so I opted for the Ranger led version – and signed up the requiste 90 days ahead. So worth it!

I’d orginally thought it would be Sophie – my husband – and myself. So I got 3 tickets. But my husband got scared by the description – they certainly don’t make this hike sound like a walk in the park – and he opted out. The good news – the description didn’t scare 9 year old Sophie one bit – and my friend Kit decided to join in! So the 3 of us rose early, ate a quick breakfast and headed out. One ranger – and 30 hikers made up our group. The composition was interesting – easily a majority of the hikers were from across the seas – Holland, Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand – and of course France. Ok – we speak french, so it’s easy for us to spot folks from France – but even so – I’m thinking that if I did a visitor head count – I’d find that folks from France out-number visitors for all other countries – including the US! And I’m begining to feel like the token Canadians. I can count the Canadians I’ve met on one hand – minus 3 fingers!

But as usual – I digress.

We start the hike with a ranger check list – Welcome to the Park, Protect and Preserve, Bring and Drink Lots and Lots of Water, No leaving trash, No grafetti. We are at altitude – say something if you feel dizzy, see stars, get grumpy!

The first sign of dehydration is often grumpiness – some people have been dehydrated their whole lives…

Ranger Sue does a quick shoe check – yup, we all read the warnings and we are wearing proper shoes for the hike – and off we go.

A weather note – we are seriously lucky today. It’s cooled down a bit after last nights rain – it’s a decidedly moderate 90 – and there’s a bit of cloud cover. Should be great in the fins.

Sophie bounces to the front of the line – along with all the other younger folks on the hike. She’s the youngest – but not the smallest – so she feels like she fits right in – and she and the other kids set the pace behind the ranger.

The old folks – and that would be me – at 68 I’m the oldest on this hike – bring up the rear guard. The good news – there are 3 gentlemen in the group that take turns helping Kit and I navigate the steeper, deeper, narrower, more challenging portions. We scramble up stone faces, slide on our butts down rock slides stopping ourselves against carefully positioned stones – do a duck walk across a carvass – and wiggle our way thru some seriously narrow slits. It’s a hoot! I’m loving this! The beauty is simply astounding, when I take a moment to enjoy it! Fortunately, Ranger Sue is very aware of the old folks struggling in the back – and sends the kids off to explore a crawl thru arch while we get a chance to catch up with the crowd.

Once inside the fins, there are no obvious trail markers – although Ranger Sue clearly knows where she is going. And we pass at least 2 ‘private’ tours – headed in other directions thru the narrow canyons, winding stone faces, and arches that make up the Fiery Furnace.

Along the way – Ranger Sue takes time to talk a bit about the geology of the land – but mostly we are concerned with not falling, not slipping, not hurting ourselves!

When we arrive at a ‘room’ that Ranger Sue calls “Hidden Arch”, we take a breather, learn about the juniper, which apparently ‘self prunes’ to keep the healthy portions alive – and do a very cute exercise.

Ranger Sue says that there are 4 reasons folks come to Arches – To make Memories, To have an Adventure, from an Eco perspective, and for the Beauty. She asks us to divide up into those 4 groups – and probably not surprisingly – I’m in the Adventure group with all the younger folks! In thinking about it – it’s not really ‘Adventure’ that got me here – it’s the challenge. Can I still do this – and more importantly – for how much longer.

Challenge aside – this has been a wonderful 3 hours – I’ve decided that I’m still young enough to handle at least this much scrambling, wiggling, and rock climbing – and still have a smile on my face.

We get back to what passes as civilization in Arches – a pit toilet, a parking lot, and a sign showing information about the trail – and say thank you to Ranger Sue.

On to our next challenge – signing off for now – The Soup Lady

Glasgow – not so great – but I’m glad I visited


In thinking back on it – There was no way that Glasgow was going to compete with Edinburgh. Our new friends from last night had told us that we were going from ‘culture’ to ‘clutter’ – and they were of course correct.

Our Glasgow Air BnB is at best adaquate – and totally loses when compared to the palace that is Isaac’s and Derek’s pad in Edinburgh. It’s a tiny 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom flat in a forgetable building above a store that sells wall paper in an industrial part of Glasgow. The living/dining/kitchen space is tiny, and the only table is hogged by our host Neil’s computer. To add insult to injury, he’s ironing when we arrive – so there’s his laundry everywhere. I’ll give him credit for asking what food to buy for our breakfast, but he’s also clear that we are on our own. He works evenings into the night, and won’t be up in the morning. He also has no maps to give us, and can’t even make suggestions on places to visit. Still, he welcomes us warmly, and that’s a good start.

Our room is basic – a bed, a window, a tiny desk, and the best part – an en-suite bathroom. That and the location near the city center are the best parts of Neil’s place. Oh well – this is our 6th Air BnB in 30 days – I guess one had to be 4 star. And after Isaac and Derek’s place – I’m not sure what would be needed to be 5 star.

Surprisingly – Neil tells us that he’s fully booked – and the income from Air BnB pays his rent. Hmm.

Anyway – we make our selves comfy. After he leaves for work, we move the computer off the dining table, fold away the ironing board, and basically create a space we can at least enjoy dinner in! We walk up to a nearby grocery store, get the makings of a nice dinner – and decide to tour Glasgow in the morning. We’re done for today.

The next morning – our one and only day in Glasgow – we opt to start by finding me a place for coffee – and then decide to check out the Cathedral. After that – well – we’ll go from there.

Unlike all of our other locations, this one is mostly industrial and shopping – so no upscale coffee shop to be seen. We hike up hill towards the Cathedral, going thru the ‘university’ section – I’m thinking there is bound to be coffee for the students. And I’m right – there it is! A cute coffee shop, with take-away latte. Color me happy.

The tour of the Cathedral is wonderful. The guide (where do they find these people) is super knowledgable, and very easy to listen to, and the history is very neat. Our fellow tourists are a german choir – and at one point they ask to test the acoustics. Lovely – totally lovely.

We then walk across to the St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art. Seriously – St. Mungo’s of Harry Potter Fame. St. Mungo was a real guy – and he’s the patron saint of Glasgow. The Museum is well worth a visit. There’s a fairly large section devoted to different religions, comparing how various religions treat the same ‘life’ events – birth, death, marriage, coming of age, etc. It’s fascinating. They do lump some religions into big groups – Jewish and Christian are just two groups, there’s no effort to distinquish between variances in these groups, and probably justifably. There is a lot more difference between Christian and Sikh say.

We then stroll thru the University Campus, and wend our way towards downtown Glasgow. We check out the bronze of the Young Queen Victoria in George’s Square, admire some of the truly incredible building designs – and we grind to a total stop to admire one building that features an absolutely huge abstract metal peacock running the entire city block. Naturally, we also visit the Lighthouse – Glasgow’s center for Architecture.

Soon enough, we’re back at our overly cozy pad for dinner, relaxing, and bed. Tomorrow we begin the long – and since I’m writing this after the fact – thankfully uneventful trip back home.

So ends our 31 days in the UK.

We visited at least 28 museums, stayed in 6 Air BnB’s, visited 7 cities (London, Oxford, Birmingham, Morecambe, York, Edinburgh, and Glasgow), met some amazingly interesting people, ate glorious meals, learned a lot of history, rode the tube, took the train, traveled on buses and even managed one uber taxi.

And we did it all UNDER our $3000 Canadian per person including all travel budget.

The Intrepid Traveler and the Soup Lady rock another trip!

Signing off until the next time there’s something to report – The Soup Lady and her sidekick – The Intrepid Traveler.

Edinburgh – A Perfect Day


Some days are simply the best – and when you say goodnight – you know that this will be a day you’ll be talking about forever. That totally describes our third day in Edinburgh. An absolutely perfect day.

It started off really the night before. We’d gone to Evening Services at the Roman Catholic Cathedral – a totally enjoyable meeting with a wonderful sermon all about how G-d is just waiting for you to do your part. It reminded me of the old joke – A man keeps praying – G-d, let me win the lottery, G-d, let me win the lottery. After years of this, he finally hears a voice – “Buy a ticket already!”

If you don’t participate – you will never know what you are (or are not in some cases) missing! Anyway – it was a lovely, clearly local event – full of reminders of things upcoming (they are having a cocktail/mocktail party to fund raise and ‘meet the neighbors’ for example). The Priest was clearly playing to a full house – and knew it.

Services over, we returned home and our hosts warned us before heading out for the evening – tomorrow we are having a ‘brunch’ party with some friends – but it should be over by 5:00.

So pre-warned, our plan is to stay gone all day. Shouldn’t be a problem – Edinburgh is such a cool city.

Our first stop is Gladstone Land, a National Trust House that dates back hundreds of years – and has guided tours. The bottom of the House is a retail shop full of interesting things (plaid and wool being very popular motifs), but it’s the upstairs that you can only see on the tour that is the real prize. Our guide is at least 90 – and he makes it clear that his knees aren’t up to going quickly up the narrow sprial staircase (not original, built by the NT). He’s probably our best guide ever. His knowledge is encyclopedic – not just about the history of the House (it’s amazing), but about what the NT does and doesn’t do right. We alternatively laughed and sighed with him. He’d walk into a room – and ask – “Any Questions”. We’d just have to pick out one item – and he’d have the bit in his teeth and be away! He talked about making Bannock – and showed us Bannock flippers. He described the real estate doings of Gladstone (he was a terrible business man – but amazing at real estate), and made the rooms and the furnishings burst into life.

Wow. The Intrepid Traveler and I agree, not for the first time, that the Canadian Museums have seriously got to up their game. The Brits and the Scots have totally got us beat.

We leave 2 hours later much impressed with the challenges of living in Edinburgh thru the ages, and completely amazed that any of these buildings survived at all – let alone is such good shape. They knew how to build in those days – seriously solidly! This particular building was at least 5 (walk-up) floors – and it’s not a unique example. Some buildings are known to have been 14 stories – this is pre-elevators of course. The top and bottom floors were for the ‘lower’ class – middle floors for the ‘upper’ class. You can guess why!

Next on our list is lunch at a pub (this and Fish and Chips were on the Intrepid Traveler’s must do list). We bypass Onik (with it’s roasted pig in the window), The Witchery, and The Boosy Cow to eat at Deacon Brodies Tavern. Delicious Fish and Chips to share works for us – and we chit chat with our fellow dinners before venturing out again.

Our next stop is The Real Mary King Close, but I keep seeing men in Top hats, morning suits (that’s tails and grey pants – just FYI) and carrying large wooden batons. We passed a group heading down hill on our way up to Gladstone’s Land earlier, and are spoting more groups heading back up hill now. Can’t be a wedding – they aren’t ‘groupy’ enough. So naturally – curiosity gets the best of us, and we stop a pair to ask – “who are you”. And are rewarded by meeting two members of the Society of High Constables of Edinburgh. Today they are mostly ceremonial, but once they were the police of the city. And they regal us with a bit of their history starting in 1611 by order of King James VI. The older man of the pair tells us that he’s the last veteran of WWII in Edinburgh. He fought in Germany for 6 months at the end of war, having just turned 18.

You never know if you never ask!

On to The Real Mary King Close. We know this is going to be touristy – it advertises heavily, and you can find it mentioned on every map and in every guidebook. But our hosts thought that it was worth doing, despite the rather ‘touristy’ feel – and I must agree with them. You are greeted by a young guide who plays (rather on and off) the part of one of the folks known to have lived in the Close. The Close itself survived in tact because in 1875 or so, the city condemmed it, and built the Council Chambers (where our friends the High Constables were meeting) on top of the close.

Eveyone living in the close had to move out, and the rooms were sealed. So while the Close is now underground, it wasn’t always like this. In the late 17th century – this area was a warren of living spaces – some upscale (on the higher floors – above the stench of Edinburgh), and some lower class. But all happy to have a place to call home.

The tour lasts an hour, includes some pretty neat talking pictures that give you a bit of a flavor of life in these spaces in those days – and a rather dingy and dark room intended to impart the flavor of life in these spaces during the plague.

It’s not at the incredible level of the Jorvik Viking Experience in York, and our young and very friendly guide did her best but didn’t have the wealth of knowledge, nor the freedom to deviate off the route that our other guides did – but I did find it an interesting experience. I’m glad we did it – but I’m also glad we did it last!

Tours done – we decide to walk down the Royal Mile – mainly because every guide book says to do it, but eventually run out of steam and knees. We hop a bus – planning to get off at the port and at least catch a peek of the Royal Yacht “Britannica”. But before we get all the way to the port – we spot a huge Tesco’s! Food – glorious food. So we jump bus and do a quick shop for dinner. We’ll need food for tonight (It’s just past 5:00 and surely the party is finished), and tomorrow because our journey is taking us to Glasgow and we don’t know the lay of the land there.

Shopping done (We have become incredibly fond of Tesco’s Roast Chicken – I admit it), we grab a bus back home. Walking up to our cozy home, we spot two young guys standing on our stair case. We take bets that they are from the dinner party – and are proven right when they greet us by saying “You must be Isaac and Derek’s guests!”

How did they figure that out so fast. Do you think Isaac and Derek were talking about us?

We walk up to the flat and are greeted by Derek who invites us to join the party. After saying no a few times, we finally admit to being totally keen to meet some locals – and join in.

One of their friends, a very good amateur chef, has made roast pork with apple sauce and potatoes – and two fabulous desserts. The Pavlova is a killer dish – she’s planning on submitting it to a cooking contest in the fall, and I’m sure she’ll do well. There’s wine (lots and lots), there’s chocolate, there’s cheese – and there’s delightful conversation.

We are easily as curious about their lives as they are about ours – and when one conversation lags, another one even more interesting begins. At around midnight – The Intepid Traveler and I admit that our stamina is not up to more of this – but our new friends delight in singing us ‘good-bye’.

Memorable day, memorable evening, memorable place, memorable people.

It’s been a perfect day.

But tomorrow we’re off again – it’s a bus to Glasgow this time – so we trade hugs and thanks – and say good night.

Signing off – The Intrepid Traveler and the Soup Lady.

On the road again – this time we’re bound for Scotland


We leave Liz’s place with much sadness – we had a wonderful time at her house – and we loved York. I’m not sure how Edinburgh and Glasgow can possibly compete – but I guess we shall find out.

We retrace our route to the train station, and as is traditional – arrive too early. Never mind – I shall have a latte while we wait.

We board the train – and again watch the scenery fly by as we head North. Wait a minute – we’re not heading North. My head is pretty sure of this – and when I check on the compass I have on my iphone – it agrees. We’re heading West. Why would anyone want to go West to end up North?

Looking hard at the maps – and thinking about the geography of the UK – I realize that the island of Great Britian doesn’t actually run North South – it’s slanted a bit towards the West. And York is not in the middle of the island – it’s actually quite close to the Eastern Beaches. So the train is heading away from the beaches before the track curves northward.

Whew. We really did want to get to Edinburgh tonight.

The scenery is pretty much the same as it was on our way from Manchester. No dry stone fences, lots of sheep and cow herds, and the occasional horse or three. After about 2 hours, we actually find ourselves running alongside the North Sea. Lighthouses, beaches – and the occasionally cement block house left from WWII – dot the sea side. Sometimes the cliffs plunge off directly into the sea, other times the land takes a gradual slope seaward – but this is an island – and finally – after 4 weeks of touring – we’re seeing the proof.

In Edinburgh, we are once again greeted by a monster of a train station – lofty glass roof and steel ribs clearly label it ‘Victorian’. They were really, really good builders for sure.

We get our luggage off the train (just a bit of help required this time), and find a lift, find an exit, and start walking towards our Air BnB lodging. Isaac and Derek have been emailing and messaging us non-stop – they want to be sure to be home when we arrive to make sure we have no issues with the keys. They also know that we are going to need help up the steps. Good thing they made sure to greet us – their over-the-top, most amazingly beautiful home is a giagantic flat in an A listed building dating over 230 years ago. And it’s up 3 very tight flights in a very small and very narrow spiral staircase. But Isaac grabs one case in one hand, one case in the other – and without stopping for breath fairly runs our cases up to the flat.

Wow. Oh Wow. Seriously Wow. No – really. Wow.

I’m speechless just walking into the entrance hall. This place is glorious.

Later in the evening, Derek explains the limits that being in an A listed building puts on a renovation – but right now – we are just simply stunned. The entrance hall is larger than my daughter’s flat in London. The bathroom (just for us – no sharing) is huge as well – and the ceilings seem to go up forever. We estimate them at 18 feet high, based on Isaac’s height of 6’4″. We’ve never seen spaces like this in the UK outside of palaces.

Isaac shows us our room, explains how the locks work – and excuses himself. He needs to go back to work – but he will be home tonight to make us welcome.

We quickly shop for dinner at the nearby Tesco’s – and then try to locate the Roman Catholic Cathedral. We know it’s here – it appears on both our map and on ‘Maps’ on my iphone, but we can’t spot it.

How do you hide a Cathedral in plain sight?

Well – it turns out that it is hidden on purpose. Religious freedom in the UK in general, and Scotland in particular has never been guaranteed – and at the time that the Cathedral was first built – Catholics were on the out. So the founder of the Cathedral squeezed it in on an anglular corner, squished between two houses and a series of shops. Today the Cathedral is much much larger – but it is still slightly angled to the street – and thus is only obvious from very certain viewing angles. Interesting stuff, eh?

Once we’ve gotten the basics out of the way, we decide to ride the tram and the bus to the Royal Mile, the ‘high street’ of ‘Old Town’ Edinbough. Our lodging is in ‘New Town’, built starting in 1750 – ‘Old Town’ dates back to Medieval days and there are parts of the Edinbough Castle that date back to 1000 AD. Of course, this location has been occupied for much longer, but much of it was originally built of wood – and Henry VIII wasn’t a fan of Scotland after they refused to allow his 2 year old niece Mary, Queen of Scots to marry his recently born son, Edward. The nerve of those Scots! So he invaded 3 times (refered to here as the ‘Rough Wooing’) – twice burning Edinbough to the ground – and leaving frustrated the 3rd time because the town folk had finally made their houses of stone.

We admire the beauty of Princess Gardens (former location of the sewer of Edinburgh as we will find out), and wander up the Royal Mile a bit. We check out St. Giles Cathedral (Church of Scotland) and luck into a story-teller in the Chapel of the Knights of the Royal Thistle. He entertains us by pointing out some of the more interesting wood carvings (Angels playing bagpipes among them), and explains in great length the details in the royal seal.

After learning about the Order of the Royal Thistle, we wander back out of the Cathedral and explore ‘Old Town’. We walk down one close, up another, visit the ‘Grass Market’ where cows and sheep were once sold, and finally quit for the day by catching a bus heading back towards Princess Street.

Everywhere you turn in the touristy parts there are Tartans for sale of all colors and prices, and the war like sound of pipers fills the air. It’s a beautifully warm day – hot almost – and the folks of Edinbough are taking full advantage of the high latitude (at 56 degrees – it’s light until almost 10:00 PM). Folks are picnicking on every grassy spot we can see.

Isaac and Derek’s place is perfectly located. Right at a tram stop, right across from the Roman Catholic Cathedral, and within easy walking distance of a nice sized grocery store. Color us happy. You can get almost anywhere in Edinburgh without getting wet!

We hike back up the 3 flights, and make ourselves a lovely dinner. Isaac arrives home – followed soon after by Derek (only 6’3″ tall) – and they invite us to join them in the living room. It’s another glorious space – huge paintings are carefully selected to suit the space – and the massive windows have shutters flung open so that the air and the view is easy to enjoy.

We sit and chat, and chat and sit – and suddenly realize it’s almost midnight. Conversation has flowed so easily, and so naturally – it’s a shock to realize it is so late.

Of great interest to us are Derek’s challenges with doing their renovation. The rules for A listed buildings (their’s is over 218 years old – for sure. Derek has looked up all the previous owners – and there are many) are complex – and unbendable. You can not touch any existing wall if the original moldings are still evident. Which means that the only rooms they could touch were the bathrooms (there are 2 – one upstairs for their use, one downstairs for our use), and the kitchen. So the kitchen is completely modern as per Isaac’s desire. They were able to put a gas fired insert into the main (huge) fireplace in the living room – and they could also replace the old radiators with new ones that fit better into their color and design scheme. I’ll bet they work better too.

They were also able to add ceiling roses and replace ceiling lighting fixtures. And of course all the electrical had to be torn out and replaced – but without damaging the walls too much please!

There are fireplaces in every room – including their double sized bedroom with it’s view over the Firth of Forth, and even one in our ‘guest’ room. The shower in our bathroom is our idea of heaven – a rain shower, and a shower wand. And large enough for two. One note – our hosts are very very tall – and everything is sized to suit them. So we have to stand on tippy toes to reach the sink in our bathroom, and can only get things off the bottom most shelves in the kitchen. Good thing the guys are so happy to help out! I think they think it’s pretty funny.

They have been working on this project for all 7 years that they have been living in Edinbough, and only deemed it mostly finished in Feburary.

Georgian heaven with a modern twist. Stunning.

We say goodnight – and upon advice from our hosts – shut the shutters. At this elevation, the sun (and most of the inhabitants apparently) get up very early.

Signing off amazed that we lucked into such a beautiful Air BnB – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Finally the Viking Experience


During breakfast – Liz reminds us to be sure to walk the top of the walls of York – so we head out to do just that. I’m determined to find the Viking Experience, but I’m also determined to revisit one of the ‘charity’ shops we checked out yesterday – they had a lovely Silverplated Serving knife and fork that would be great for our Regency Dinner parties at home.

We are rewarded in many ways. The walk along the wall starting at BoothBar (which means Booth’s Gate – or the Gate of Booths – in reference to market stalls that would have existed here hundreds of years ago) is lovely. We are 30 to 40 feet above the ground, with clear views to either side of the wonderful gardens behind the homes on either side. Another York Must do!

We hit the Oxfam charity shop – and my serving knife and fork are still there. If they are there – I was meant to have them – so I buy them. Jill finds a gift for her daughter at the same time – so we are both happy.

We continue on walking the wall – and eventually end up at the King’s Pond – a water feature in Medevial times that protected a huge section of York from attack. Nearby is a decommissioned church that now serves as a ‘reservable’ place of meditation. You book ahead on line, and are given a code to enter in the keypad on the door.

We’ve been constantly impressed with how creatively folks here are dealing with the issue of old, but under used churches. Some are turned into housing of course, but others stay churches, albeit smaller, and house cafes, restaurants, or even public service offices. In this case – another less appreciated need is being met. How nice.

We are now back at the York Castle Museum – still no Viking Experience – and decide to finish what we’d started the day before. The highlight of this visit is the Prison Section with audio/visual projected lectures by 5 of the famous inmates of the Prison. They tell you their side of the story – and then in the end, you can read up on the historical accounts. Morbidly facinating. I’ll save you some time and tell you that none come to a very good end!

Ok – now I’m getting serious. I will find that Viking Experience or else!

And of course – it turns out to be a lot easier to do than our mis-adventures can explain. It’s hidden in plain sight down a narrow passageway into Coppergate. Ok – just a bit of Old Norse for you – gate means road, bar means gate. This area is called Coopergate because it is presumed that ‘Cooper’s’ worked here making wooden objects. That information is revealed during our Viking Experience.

Bit of York arcological history now – in 1976 to 1980 a huge cache of Viking material was found hidden for over 1000 years in the wet clay (aka oxygen deprived) soil of York in this exact location. They were digging the foundations of a shopping center – and everyone was shocked to find over 40,000 Viking remains. The wet soil had preserved them so well that even pieces of material – including a silken head scarf were perfectly preserved. Most dramatically – there was even a Viking helmet found – complete and in perfect condition. No swords were found however – this was not a burial site – these were the remains of an entire village street. Pig pens, wooden houses, personal grooming items, all the stuff of ‘comfortable living’ were found right here – right under our feet. Incredible.

So of course a museum was created to house the artifacts – and in doing so the Jorvik (York in Old Norse) center was started. It was always intended to be an immersive experience – aka Disney-esque ride thru time to the time of the Vikings – but by Christmas of 2015 it was getting old and tired.

So nature intervened with a huge flood. Ok – maybe not on purpose – but the result was the same. The entire center had to be refurbished and re-imagined – and it just reopened under a month ago. I can’t speak for the old display – but we can tell you that the newly opened display has a ton to recommend it!

You can choose to pre-book, which puts you in one line, or you can take your chances and queue. We did the latter, and were rewarded by entering before the folks that had pre-booked. Not sure how that happened.

One interesting note – remember that Serving Knife and Fork I’d bought? Well they were not allowed in the center – and thus had to spend time with the ‘Viking’ on guard at the door. All of the staff is dressed from head to foot like Vikings – From men with long beards that were either braided or tied, to gals sporting Viking shoes, dresses and head gear – the staff were impressive in not only their appearance – but also their knowledge of the place and the Vikings. All were either archologists or story tellers – and they were great – if you bothered to engage them. Here-in lies the rub. It is easy to run thru a museum without talking to a single interpreter – and if you read reviews of the center that earn it less than 5 stars – that is what happened.

It is not sufficient to just ‘ride’ the ride and leave. It should be about learning about the Vikings – but we can understand how folks could easily get confused by the ‘Disney’ feeling that the ride conveys. It’s wrong – but understandable.

Anyway – we enter down a staircase into a large space that has a glass floor. Under our feet are evidence of the dig – including re-created timbers, objects and the like. Video footage on the walls explains what it was like on the dig – and invite you to participate in a current dig happening only 200 or so yards away. In one corner is a costumed interpreter with objects that you can touch and handle, and in another corner is a computerized interactive exhibit on the challenges of conserving the materials of the primary items found – glass, wood, metal and stone. Most folks just line up for the ride – missing the good stuff in the corners. So sad.

The ride itself is amazing. The detail is incredible – sights, smells, sounds are all here to make sure you know you are visiting a living viking town. I actually ride the ride 3 times to try to see and hear everything. There are audio interpretations in 12 different languages – including an ‘adult’ English and a ‘child’ English. Of the two English commentaries – I actually prefered the ‘child’ version. In that version, a young male voice pretending to be a local of the period explains to you what you are seeing from his point of view. “Oh, there’s my friend Eric, he’s been learning how to make knives from his father – looks like he might be doing better.”

From the front of the ‘ride vehicle’ you can see that the ground underneath is complete with muddy footprints and sewage. There are rats hidden here and there as would have been the case in those days, and tiny details add to the realism in surprising ways. At one point, a figure in a boat suddenly looks up at me and welcomes me in ‘Old Norse’ – it’s actually a staff member!

But you can’t appreciate the level of detail in just one ride thru – good thing that the ticket they sell you is good for a year.

When the ride ends you are in a small, but very complete exhibit area – with at least 3 interpreters willing to take time to answer in great and loving detail any questions you might have. There is a young man making coins, the hard old fashioned way by slaming the dies with a hammer. We chat with him on the origins of coins in general – and Viking coins in particular.

This is a wonderful experience – but as with most museums – you take out what you put in. Take time to chat – it’s wonderful.

Lunch is a brief respite on a bench in Coopergate and a lovely chat with a Welsh gentleman who lets us know that he was very anti-brexit. We’ve actually not come in contact with folks who voted yes – but since it was a 50/50 vote – that’s not totally surprising.

Our next stop was supposed to be the Viking Exhibit in the Yorkshire Museum, but instead we opt for the physically closer and much less demanding Barley Hall. This is a medieval home that once belong to The Lord Mayor of York. Suitably large and painstakingly re-done – it’s now a quick and dirty history of Henry VIII. The exhibits are interesting, and I must admit that I didn’t know that much about Henry VIII coming in, but the lack of guides and the limited about of interior furnishings made this tour a very quick in and out. Not our favorite museum, but after the two ‘Must Do’s’ of the Jorvik Viking Experience and the York Castle Museum, it’s almost a good thing. We’re pretty wiped and keen to head back home.

Liz is shocked to see us this early – but we hand over our bottle of wine and tell her not to worry – we’re going to hide out in our room and nurse our feet and backs into better shape with a spot of tea.

A couple of hours later – and suitably refreshed – Liz annouces dinner. Again we are impressed. After bringing each other up on our travels today, our conversation centers around her desire to enlarge her Air BnB empire by buying another flat. We are keen to find out how that goes down – but of course won’t ever know if she doesn’t keep in touch. So I’m seriously hoping she will read this – and keep in touch!

Another relaxing evening enjoying the birds, the bees – and Liz’s wonderful backyard and it’s off to bed.

I think this is becoming a pattern!

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Still no Vikings – but the York Castle Museum is a Must Do


We are awoken early by the birds. Liz’s house is just outside the city walls – a 200 year old Victorian that she has carefully restored – and there are lots of trees – and lots of birds. A flock of geese call the open space behind her place home, and there’s a colony of doves that spend the night perched in a tree in her neighbor’s yard. Dawn at Liz’s home is a sympthony concert on steriods.

We head downstairs for breakfast, served at a table in her ‘living’ room. Delicious Quarker Oats, some yogurt, your basic local buns, coffee or tea, and a bit of fresh fruit combine for a perfect start to the day. Walking past Liz’s door alerts the excitable Bertie to our presence – and he’s perfectly happy to start the day too. Liz drops in to check if we have any questions about where to go and what to see – then sends us on our way with specific directions to return for dinner at 6:30.

We repeat our walk into the walled city, and wander around pleasantly lost amid the mydrid shops and wandering tourists. Our official destination is the Viking Experience, but the maze that is Old Town York is more challenging to navigate than expected. Liz had suggested that we take a ‘Squiggle’ or narrow part between buildings into the back area behind the ‘Hole in the Wall’ – one of zillions (yes I counted) Pubs. We are in the narrow laneway behind the Pub when the bells of the Minster announce 10:00 AM. No sleeping late in York I’m going to tell you! Peter (that’s what they call the big bell that sounds the hours) is seriously loud. You can feel the vibrations all the way from your feet to your head.

We wander in the gardens, quickly visit the old chapel (now library), and see the Treasurers House. We check out some of the ‘charity shops’ dotted amongst the more touristy offerings, buy a Cornish Pasty for lunch, then head toward the Viking Experience. We twist and turn – and eventually end up looking up at a castle on a mound.

It’s Clifford’s Tower – the site of one of the darkest days (not my words – that’s how they describe it in the history notes) of York’s long history. In 1190 approximately 150 Jewish citizens of York were trapped in the tower by an angry mob. Egged on by wealthy men who were in debt to the Jewish Moneylenders and had not secured Royal Appointments and thus could not repay their debts, the mob surged around the then Royal Castle. These events were cronicled by at least 3 different sources at the time. In the end, most of the Jews committed suicide, the men killing their wives and children, and then killing themselves. The men owing money to the Jewish Moneylenders then burned their notes, thus freeing themselves of the debts, and the land and possesions of the Jews reverted to the crown. (http://www.historyofyork.org.uk/themes/norman/the-1190-massacre)

The event is recorded on a plaque outside the tower for all to read.

But on to happier thoughts. Right beside the tower, which stands at the highest point of York, is the York Castle Museum. Not the Viking experience we were heading for – but it was on our hit list as well, so in we go.

The York Castle Museum is a huge winner. It occupies a former prision that was in use for over 400 years, and today contains not only information about the prision, but also a re-creation of a complete Victorian Street, an exhibit on the 60’s, a series of ‘demo’ kitchens dating from 1650 till 1960, and ‘demo’ Victorian Parlors from humble farmer to moderately well-off middle class. There’s a section devoted to toys from the 1900’s up to 2017 (truly fascinating), and a display on undergarmets that spans several hundred years.

This museum is almost impossible to leave! We can’t get enough of the complete Victorian Street scene – it extends for several blocks, is complete with period appropriate ‘smells’, and what really makes it great – knowledgeable guides in period clothes who delight in telling you about their times. Our favorite is a gentleman in a top hat who spends almost 30 minutes discussing his world. So cool.

We don’t finish – we simply run out of time and must head back to the Minster for Evensong, then on to Liz’s place for dinner. Fortunately, the ticket we got is good for a year – so we will definitely be back!

At Evensong, we are almost trampled by the rush of people trying to get good seats – but are rewarded for our slow pace by a young female priest who directs us up into the choir stalls. We are seated 6 seats away from the Dean of the Minster – the Very Revd Vivienne Faull – a lovely older woman whose face is featured on most of the marketing for the huge Cathedral. The Minster was spared by the German Blitz because it acted as a landmark for the German Pilots. We are told this by one of the tour guides, who was lucky enough to have given a tour to a former German Pilot! He told her that they would never have hurt it – if you were flying from the South and came upon a huge white cross in the middle of a green circle – you turned right to get home to Germany. And if you were flying from the North – it was a left turn.

And it’s actually a good thing that this lovely building was not hurt. The main tower is high enough to contain the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the vast vault with it’s Gothic finishings is the 2nd largest such building in Northern Europe. It was built between 1220 and 1472 – and is justifably one of York’s main visitor attractions. But we are here for Evensong – and are rewarded by a 45 minute long service sung by a mixed choir of 18 children and 12 adults. Lovely.

Our dinner with Liz is equally pleasant. We again chat on various topics – and Liz tells us the recent history of her lovely home. She has lived here for 10 years, and it was in the spring of the 2nd year that problems began. Her ground floor (aka basement) was flooded – not just once but 3 times. And it wasn’t just her basement – all the basements in the area suffered, and the city of York determined that the fault was theirs – inadequate sewers. So the city decided to fix the problem for the entire area of several hundred homes and businesses – and a major hospital – by building a huge underground water holding tank in the vacant land to her left. They made one tiny error. They ignored the sandy soil that lay adjacent to the site of the new construction, and in digging out the tank, caused an earthquake. Liz’s home literally split in 2 – while she was inside!

The house between her home and the ‘hole’ suffered more – but since it was owned by the hospital, which in turn is owned by the National Health Service, it was less of a problem. Since her home was privately owned – and terribly damaged, after some litigation, the city paid for her renovation.

And the home was saved – and better than saved – restored to it’s former glory. She took that opportunity to move the kitchen into the basement, making an extra bedroom on the ground floor. The work was only completed about 2 years ago – and she’s been doing Air BnB only since March.

We mentally observe that one would never have a conversation like this in a hotel – one of the reasons Air BnB is such fun is the delightful chance you have to really get to know a local!

The Intrepid Traveler and I eventually toddle upstairs to bed. Tomorrow we are definitely going to find the Viking Experience.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Getting your Spiritual High in London!


Feeling the need to get a Spiritual high? Well if you are in London – you are in luck. There are so many places to get a spiritual recharge in London, it’s hard to turn around without hitting one!

For us, we get our Spiritual Highs on by going to church. And since it’s Sunday – our options are almost unlimited here in London. In fact, picking just one favorite was too big a challenge. We ended up with two.

Since the Intrepid Traveler is Catholic – we historically gravitate towards Catholic churches, but we are hardly limited. We share an open door policy. If a place of worship has an open door – we are going in! Which explains why the Intrepid Traveler and I have attended weddings and funerals, births and first communion – and just about everything in between. We are definitely fans of religious ceremony, regardless of the specific religion. Buddist, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Private Weddings in China, Shinto Shrines, you name it – We’ve tried it.

But back to getting our Spiritual High here in London. It turns out that the Brompton Oratory offers a Children’s service on Sundays at 10:00, and at 11:00 there’s a Latin High Mass. I adore High Mass – so that was an obvious choice. But The Intrepid Traveler had heard that Anglican Evensong services were wonderful in London, so we did a quick google search – and found a site that listed every church with an Evensong service (mostly Anglican of course, but there were some Roman Catholic options – including Westminster Cathedral). And on the list was Westminster Abbey. Oh man – that’s sounds ideal.

There are 3 major reasons for seeing churches during services. Advantage One – they turn on all the lights. Too often the lights are turned off during ‘touring’ times – and it’s a challenge to see the decorations on the ceilings, or even into some of the side chapels. Advantage Two – it’s Free! If you want to see Westminter Abbey on Monday to Saturday – you’ll be paying a pretty penny. But if you are willing to go to Sunday services – you’ll see the Abbey for free – as the designers meant to be seen – as a place of worship. And Advantage 3 – they play music – the organ, the drums, the choirs – any and all of which add to the atmosphere – the spirtuality of the experience.

So our plan organized – we head out on the tube to London. Our location in Cheswick means a 30 – 45 minute tube ride, so we get an early start on the day – after I pop into my local coffee shop of course. The guys and gals at Cafe 430 are so well trained that when they see me open the door they grab the to-go cup and add in my 3 sugars. I just say hi – and pay my 2.2 GPB. Deal done. Cafe 430 – you do rock!

We take the tube to South Kensington, and encounter our first challenge – finding the Oratory. There are signs for the museums of course – but nowhere do we see a sign for the Oratory. I know it’s next to the V&A – and I use my iphone ‘Maps’ App to find the directions. This works great – until in concentrating on my phone – I miss my step and fall. Hard. Onto the road. In front of oncoming traffic.

Panic. The Intrepid Traveler tries to get me to my feet – but I’m not getting up that fast. I don’t think she could lift me in any case. Meanwhile the water bottles have flown out of the backpack onto the road, and my phone is lying about a yard in front of my face. And the traffic light is turning green. Here’s where the good news starts – right in front of us are a very good looking young man with his lady friend. They whip around when they hear the crash and he bodily hauls me to my quivering feet as his lady friend gathers the iphone and water bottles and we clear the road.

I’m dizzy, dis-oriented, and scared. My knees took the brunt of the fall, and we immediately check that I’m not bleeding. I lean against a handy lamp post and wait for my head to clear. When it doesn’t, our new friends help me across the rest of the road to a bench on the far side. I gratefully sit down – and they ask if we should call an ambulance. Having checked my knees, and knowing that I’m just feeling the effects of Adreline shock, I tell them no – and eventually they wish me well and continue on their way. The Intrepid Traveler and I sit quietly for a few minutes while I catch my breath, slow down my rapid heart beat, and stop feeling the world spinning around me. Eventually I feel well enough to go the few hundred feet to the door of the Oratory.

It’s well into the Children’s service – but I’m grateful to simply sit and listen. A children’s choir is hidden above our heads – and the music fills the large space. We kneel and stand and sit as needed, and eventually the service finishes with the priest congradulating the kids for trying. So cute.

We move ourselves up front (I much prefer the view from the front), and the High Latin Mass promptly starts at 11:00 with a short procession including 3 priests in gold cassocks. There is ample swinging of incense, and sprinkling of holy water. Not only the audience, but the altar get more then a fair share of incense – these guys mean business.

The mass is beautiful. The choir is an adult choir of about 12 men and women. Highly trained with beautiful voices, they compliment the organ perfectly. It’s splendid. During communion, everyone goes up to knee at the rail, and the priests move back and forth making sure that everyone is greeted properly. The Intrepid Traveler tells me that most Catholic Churches in North America have taken down the rails – or if they can’t do so – have the priests come ouside the rails to give communion. But this is old fashioned enough to stick to the older ways – and it’s to the rail you must go.

At the end they announce a reception to which all are invited, but we opt to leave and head over to the V&A for lunch. I’m still feeling a bit shaky, and the idea of a nice hot meal is truly appealing. We share one lunch for two, and an excellent lunch it is – Roasted Pork Belly with two sides. Yummy, and just over 11 GPB in total. We are doing great on our budget. Now if only I can figure out what I’m doing wrong with the tube fares.

After lunch we realize that the V&A have opened a new exhibit since our visit just 3 days ago. It’s a collection of giant photos from 12 of the world top photographers – competing to be photographer of the year. We slip in quickly to take a look and I’m immediately drawn to a series of photos of Japanese men and women smashed up against the glass windows of a series of subway trains. Sure enough – the pictures were taken at rush hour in Toyko – when pushers shove larger and larger numbers of commuters into the trains. They are stunning. There is also a series of photos taken of the inside of ‘container’ houses in Hong Kong. These 6′ square containers are home to thousands – including families, couples, and the odd bacholer. Everything you’d need to live in less room than a toilet takes here in North America.

We now wend our way to Westminster Abbey. It is a rather surprisingly long way from the V&A by bus – we might have made faster time walking given the congestion in downtown London – but after my fall, we are playing it safe.

Upon arrival, we’re ushered into the abbey (after they make sure we realize that this is a service, and we must sit tight for 1.5 hours), and led into the back half where royality sits. Unbelievably luckily, we manage to be invited to sit in the choir stalls – my specific seat is actually the seat of the Mayor of Wesminster if he decides to show up. I’m right behind 1/2 the choir – with a prefect view of the choir master.

Evensong is described in the ‘program’ as a service in song – and so it is. Even though this is a Church of England (Anglican) service – it is so similar to the Catholic one that it would be hard for me to explain the difference. Mainly – it doesn’t end with communion as far as I can tell. We sit quietly while the rest of the audience files in, and eventually the bells of the Abbey stop ringing to let the priests know to start the service. The choir gathers on the far side of the screen that divides the Abbey in half, and sings the first psalm. The voices are heavenly. Then they march in, escorted by two lay priests. They fill the 4 choir aisles reserved for them – two in front of me, two opposite me, and sing another psalm. Priests are marched in – more psalms are sung, readings are read, and the fully glory of the moment hits me. I’m in Westminster Abbey – listening to the organ that every Monarch ever to be corenated here heard – and hearing the voices of angels. It is the ultimate in inspiringly beautiful sound.

One young man, at most 7, looked like an adorable mischief maker, but opened his mouth and hit high notes I’ve never heard anyone sing before or I suspect again. Amazing.

After the service we went looking for toilets – and then checked out the cloisters. While I read the tomb stones, The Intrepid Traveler started chatting with Reverend Jenny from Austrialia. She is a 62 year old priest at Westminster, has been there for 2 years after a long career in various aspects of religious life. Among other highlights – she had served her first Eucharist in the Abbey just that morning. We must have chatted with her for 20 minutes – a fascinating woman with a unique career. Another highlight to grace an amazing day. Right up there with staying at the Shinto Temple in Korea, or visiting Koya-san in Japan.

After such an inspirational day, the trip home and our quick pizza dinner (just 1 GPB) is hardly worth mentioning.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler