London, UK: The Last Hurrah

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Happy New Year! I’ve been a bit of a slacker; the holiday season makes it easy to lose track. ¬†I’ve been sitting on writing my final London musings, so here they are. ūüôā

We started our day by strolling through Hyde Park. It was a grey (gray!), drizzly day, the type you always hear about when someone talks about England, with the added bonus of the occasional thunderstorms and¬†wind. Many people proclaimed throughout the day that we were¬†in the midst of a hurricane! Regardless of the official rainy day nomenclature (I’m not sure if an English hurricane is the same as a U.S. hurricane), we set off to make the most of our time in the city.

The stroll through Hyde Park was nice, with its perfect fall foliage. The leaves covered the ground and the park foot traffic was light, as people were likely avoiding the rain. It’s definitely hard to believe that that much open space is right in the heart of¬†a huge metropolis. We walked by the Princess Diana memorial, using the park as a shortcut to make our way to Harrods.

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Hyde Park

See, I’ve wanted to go to Harrods for a long time – probably after seeing it on some Travel Channel special. I had heard about the glorious food market, which is the primary reason I wanted to go. The food market did not disappoint. I loved strolling past the glass displays of macarons, chocolates, and other house made chocolates. I grabbed some elderflower ¬†loose leaf tea – a flavor I don’t typically see a home. We spent a few minutes admiring the shops, mostly because the room fixtures and ceilings were adorned with fancy decorations, not because I dare buy something from a couture shop. My wallet thanks me!

We walked by Buckingham Palace, which wasn’t as grand as I had imagined. I don’t know – maybe I had never really paid attention on television or in movies when it showed the palace and the changing of the guards? I guess I was expecting an imposing palace, with large grounds and gardens in the front. Don’t get me wrong – if someone offered me the place to live rent-free, I wouldn’t refuse. ūüėČ But I guess I was expecting something… more¬†magnificent? To me, Buckingham looked like it could be another government building, rather than what my mind conjures up when I think of a royal palace.

We also checked out Westminster Abbey. Initially, the line in front made us worry that the wait would be long, but it moved pretty quickly! The Abbey was a bit pricey (something I noticed about London in general). It was really nice inside, and I enjoyed seeing the numerous interior rooms, and watching the history unfold by seeing the different era styles evolving as we walked through. It was hard to believe that some of the shrines, flooring, and marble there was from the 13th century! There were a lot of different historic periods represented and a lot of recognizable individuals from history buried there – Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are in chapels opposite to one another; Elizabeth had the grander setup, from what I remember.

Our last stop in London was visiting the Tower of London. We got there with about an hour to explore before the doors closed. It was cool walking along the walls, and enjoying the night time view of¬†the Tower Bridge. We saw the Armory building and some of the weapons/cannons/knights armor (armour ;)) displayed. Our last stop on the grounds was seeing the opulent crown jewels. They were a sight to see, and the building even had a moving sidewalk in one portion to make sure the crowds didn’t monopolize the standing room in front of the displays. It was crazy to think of how valuable those jewels are. It kind of makes me wish that I had somewhere to wear a crown.

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Tower Bridge from the Tower of London

London, UK: The British Museum, Gordon Ramsay, and a Little Cruise on the Thames

The next day, we popped over to Trafalgar Square before checking out the British Museum. Luckily for us, the British Museum was free! We only had approximately and hour and a half before¬†our lunch reservations, so we explored the globe¬†by checking¬†out Chinese ceramics, the Japan and South Korea Gallery, the Americas, and the¬†Ancient Greece and Rome exhibits. I also got to see the famous Rosetta Stone,¬†after fighting through a large group crowding¬†the glass display.¬†I couldn’t help doing some light¬†reading afterward¬†on British Museum treasures – heaps of praise online of how well-displayed and cared for artifacts are in the British Museum (and other Western museums); however, I definitely overheard commentary that the British Museum treasures should be returned to their respective countries (in more colorful language, of course).

For one of the trip highlights, we enjoyed lunch at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze; it was not a disappointment! I realize Ramsay might be a controversial figure, but one thing is certain- that man knows food. The restaurant menu consists of numerous sharing-sized plates; we ended up ordering the burrata, sushi, potatoes and spice aubergine, and button mushroom risotto for lunch from the vegetarian menu. For me, the highlight was the risotto and its perfect, creamy consistency. Seriously, the best risotto of my life. For dessert, we had yuzu curd and whey (with miso shortbread, basil, and pear). Seriously, if you get the opportunity – go! The restaurant was a lot more laid back and casual than I had imagined and the service was more attentive than any other place I’ve ever been. I love Gordon Ramsay even more now!

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After enjoying our time at Maze, we headed back toward the London Eye to take a¬†boat cruise (because I’m obsessed with boat cruises!). It was the perfect way to see more of London on such a drizzly day. We took the 3:45pm tour, and while we didn’t get to see the sunset (I’m not sure if one normally could see it, but with the thick overcast my hopes were dashed early in the day), we did get to slowly watch the sky darken and the city start to light up. Our tour guide, Joshua, was hilarious, telling stories of various buildings and bridges along the river banks, while continuously keeping us on our toes with his humor. He also tested us on our knowledge of London Bridge,¬†joked¬†about stolen British treasures, showed us the “invisible” bridge that just wouldn’t be destroyed, and relayed to us that the only bridge completed on time and under budget was done with the first all-woman construction team. ūüôā He also humored me at the end of the trip by saying “boxer shorts!” in his dreamy English accent.

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Tower Bridge and the HMS Belfast

 

London, UK: The BBMak Inspired Eye

While I’ve wanted to visit England for a long time, it has never been at the very tip-top of my list. Rightly (or wrongly), I¬†have wanted to spend my vacation time traveling to¬†countries much¬†more culturally different from my own. UK culture, with its music, television shows, ¬†movies, stores, and traditions (and celebrity chefs!), are very similar or the same as the U.S. But hey, there are some things I cannot complain about, like the fact that¬†Gordon Ramsay can infiltrate my television any day of the week!

Regardless of my greater love for the other half of Europe, I could not pass up an opportunity to¬†check out London. ūüôā We arrived in the late afternoon, quickly checking into our Hyde Park hotel and immediately heading over to the London Eye. The London Eye has been on my “must see” list for London since I can remember; I’m not sure what exactly sparked my interest. Was it hearing rave reviews from friends who had visited? Seeing photos of the famous Eye in skyline shots of London? Early 2000s era BBMak music videos? (Don’t judge!)

The Eye was pretty cool and much like most things in London, very¬†expensive. We didn’t book online, but the ticket lines moved quickly enough that I didn’t mind the wait. We opted to get the package with the Eye and the river cruise (which we took the next day). The capsules were comfortable and clean, and luckily they didn’t cram us all into them like sardines, which is always a fear with popular tourist sights anywhere.

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The London Eye capsule ahead

We were fairly lucky while on the Eye, because it had to temporarily stop, allowing us to spend an extra 15 minutes checking out the views over the Thames River. We visited on a foggy, drizzly day, but luckily the night sky gave us a lot to admire.

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The view of the River Thames from the London Eye

While heading back to the metro station, by happenstance we ran into an amazing night food market. Fresh burgers, piping hot waffles topped with ice cream, Indian curry puffed rice, and fresh squeezed juices! There were dozens of stalls serving international fare. We opted to get some freshly-made Portuguese pastel de nata (custard tarts) and dessert waffles.

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Not a bad welcome, London!

Athens, Greece

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The Hephaisteion, the Agora of Athens

After landing in Athens and getting ripped off by a Greek cab driver, we unpacked quickly, left the hotel, and hopped on the metro to check out the sights. We were fortunate (it was completely unplanned) to be in the city for European Heritage Days from September 24 to 26. This meant that all of the popular sights in the city, such as the Agora, Acropolis, and select museums were completely free!

For our first day, we grabbed lunch right next to the Agora. Greek food was a welcome sight after all of the Adriatic cuisine. We checked out the Ancient Agora and the surrounding grounds, which included the Ancient Agora¬†Museum, the¬†Stoa of Attalos, and the Hephaisteion. The Agora Museum was small and I wondered why they didn’t maintain some of the architectural features of the building. Walking in, I was slightly disappointed that the inside looked like it could have been in any modern building. The top floor was pretty awesome, though, with sculptures and views of the grounds and Acropolis in the distance. I don’t know too much about archeological treasures, but I enjoyed looking at the museum exhibits.

Afterward, we wandered over to the Acropolis area. It was a nice breezy day, and the area was packed. I don’t think I have anything creative to say about the Acropolis that hasn’t been said by someone else already. There was a lot of construction and preservation work going on in the area.

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The Acropolis
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Athens from the Acropolis

On our second day, I wanted to check out the City Sightseeing open-top bus tour. I know a lot of people dismiss these sorts of tours as too tourist-y, but I’m a tourist so I’m not above these things. ūüôā I had a really good experience riding these¬†buses in the past, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it out.

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From the City Sightseeing bus

Overall, it’s not something I would recommend for Athens. The sights are pretty central in the area, and I found that most of the highlights were within walkable distance from each other. These sightseeing buses are much better for cities where the attractions are sprawled far from one another. There were also detours, due to a local marathon, which nobody notified us of, so there were a lot of skipped stops for the first half of the day. Still, it allowed us to hop-on and hop-off to different sights, including the Archeological Museum and the Temple of Zeus, and drive by the old Olympic Stadium.

One thing that stuck out to me in Athens was how sprawling the entire city is, and how much graffiti there is. There are definitely beautiful, well maintained areas, but the amount of graffiti even in the tourist center was surprising to me. It made it feel like a city that people actually lived in.

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Graffiti glory

On our final day, we checked out the Acropolis Museum, which I liked but I found laid out really confusingly. The interior was beautiful and I especially liked the displays where they showed what the sculptures looked like right after they were created. There is always the vision of these pristine, white stone sculptures, but a lot of them were actually extremely colorful and ornate.

We walked over to the Botanical Gardens, which was a little disappointing. I could see this being a welcome getaway from the hustle and bustle, while still remaining in the city, but I wish the grounds were better maintained. We saw a pond that was so crammed with turtles, that they were fighting for areas to rest out of the water. There were also deceased turtles floating in the pond. I really wanted to like the Botanical Gardens, but it struck me more as a park than a place to learn about different plants and see a lot of variety.

We left late morning the next day. The Athens airport was tiny, all of the shops and cafes were outside of the secure area, and what’s up with the lack of restaurants? We made the mistake of thinking we could get to the airport early and grab a leisurely breakfast before our flight. Not the brightest idea, since there were virtually no¬†options. There were some nice stores to purchase Greek goods, though – so we grabbed some sesame honey bars, olive oils, and baklava for the road.

I am looking forward to traveling back to Greece someday and spending time outside of Athens, especially since we didn’t have time to spend on any of the numerous islands. I enjoyed the food in Athens, and it was great to see all of the sights I’ve read about my entire life. I think we spent the right amount of time in the city, and I don’t think we really missed much else. Also, we were sure to stay extra vigilant in the city. I read a lot of horror stories about pickpocketing and general theft in Athens, so we were sure to take extra care, especially during rush hour on the metro. I also found the restaurant owners extremely pushy in the city center, so keep your head down and keep walking!

Tirana, Albania

Traveling within the Balkans is a very interesting, and sometimes stressful, experience. For the majority of our trip, we enjoyed traveling by rental car. It was awesome and highly recommended, because it allowed us to set our own pace, dictate where to go, and enjoy the scenic road travel.

One of our hurdles was figuring out how to travel from Podgorica to Tirana. Due to, as we were told, the lack of reciprocal insurance agreements and possibly high amount of car theft in Albania, it was impossible to travel with our rental car from Podgorica to Tirana.

When we were researching various solutions, we did not come across information about reliable train links between the two cities (we saw on forums that the train was slow, but had a hard time coming across any information about the train – I don’t even know if the train exists). We thought that perhaps a regional bus would be the best method of travel, however we were warned that the bus stops were not consistent, and sometimes you would be dropped off in locations outside of the city or would be expected to transfer between buses. A stressful situation for someone who wants to outline exact travel plans before departure.

We finally settled on traveling between the countries by taxi service, something that had not initially occurred to us. A little over 3 hours in a comfortable car, with no crowds, no mystery bus stops, and a schedule we dictate? Sign me up! The going rate was only around 90 euros, and we made sure to tip our driver well since he had to travel roundtrip.

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As soon as we crossed over into Albania, three cows immediately walked into the street and we had to circle around them. What a welcome wagon. ūüôā The drive included fields with mountain views behind, fortress atop hills, and a lot of bicyclists. We also drove through a few towns along the way, able to catch small glimpses of everyday life.

We ended up staying at the Plaza Hotel, which was absolutely gorgeous and arguably one of the best hotels that I’ve stayed in. It opened this year and was pristine. The staff was hospitable, the room was clear and modern, and best of all? All guests had access to the spa.¬†The location and price were¬†also great, and we were able to walk across the street to the Albanian National Historical Museum and Skanderbeg Square.

The National Historical Museum did not allow photos, so I have nothing cool to show. The museum was pretty nice. A lot of the early archeological exhibits had English signage, but it become increasingly rare further into the chronology. I would have loved to read more about the Albanian Communist era, but by then the English signs were practically non-existent. Guess I’ll have to find a book on the topic instead.

albania_nationalmuseum.jpgSkanderbeg Square was undergoing a lot of construction to make way for a large pedestrian area. I’m sure it will be nice when it’s completed. ūüôā

We spent less than 24 hours in Tirana, but are excited to go back to Albania and see more, especially the coastal areas. Tirana was a good departure point for our next stop: Athens, Greece!

Podgorica, Montenegro

We enjoyed an early morning breakfast in an abandoned Old Town Kotor before preparing for our trek to the country’s capital, Podgorica.

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Deserted Kotor in the early AM

On our drive, we decided to cross through the Lake Skadar National Park. We had seen photos of the beautiful lake and it was on the way, so we thought “Why not?” The national park was indeed beautiful, but we were a bit disappointed. I’m not sure if it’s the particular route that we picked, but we had a difficult time finding a place to stop and enjoy the scenery. There was a small stop off, with the tourist office and a small shop. However, there were few places to actually enjoy nature. Instead, there were groups of men who would jump at the opportunity to sell you boat ride tickets as soon as you exited your car. I think the next time in Montenegro, we’ll have to do better research about where exactly to go in the Lake Skadar region, rather than deciding to drive through aimlessly.

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Lake Skadar

We were a little afraid as we got closer and closer to Podgorica and it seemed we were no closer to civilization. Luckily, the city emerged from the empty fields pretty quickly. I felt a little bad for Podgorica, as I heard it referred to as the “most charmless capital city in Europe” with warnings on online forums that included “If you have to skip anything on a Balkan itinerary, skip Podgorica.”

Granted, we were only in the city for a¬†day and a half. We walked a bit around the city center, grabbed some food, and enjoyed the parks. The city has a ton of greenery, which is always welcome in my book. Podgorica was a good place for us to recharge before our trip to Albania. There were a lot of small coffee shops and the pace was very relaxed. I’m not sure if it’s somewhere I would say I¬†have to return to¬†but I certainly wouldn’t mind returning, especially to¬†use it as a jumping off point to explore all of the places in Montenegro we did not have a chance to experience. We definitely want to come back to see the old royal capital, the Northern mountains, and the monasteries and historical sights dotted around the country, so returning though the airport in Podgorica is a very real possibility. Note to travelers: You will get very confused at the lack of car rental return signs at the airport. They don’t exist. Park the car and look for someone with an orange vest.

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Millennium Bridge, Podgorica

On TripAdvisor, the number one place to see was the Hram Hristovog Vaskrsenja, a large church in the middle of a huge gravel parking lot. The church is very new and while it was nice to see, nothing really stood out to me as overly special.

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Hram Hristovog Vaskrsenja, Podgorica

Kotor, Montenegro: The City Walls & A Small Trip to Budva

The weather was absolutely perfect during¬†our stay in Kotor. We woke up on our third day, ready to conquer the City Walls. When I first arrived at Kotor, I questioned why one would build walls up the side of a mountain to protect the city below. When I climbed said walls, I¬†really wondered why one would build walls up¬†the side of a mountain. Its actual function and usefulness to protect a city aside… (maybe someone can explain it to me), it was nice spending the day outside, enjoying the weather, and enjoying a leisurely walk.

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Old Town Kotor and the Bay from the City Walls

To me, the climb wasn’t difficult. But I would suggest going up at a reasonably cautious pace. There are stairs, but they are fairly narrow and congested by the crowds traveling in both directions. Often times, people had to step aside onto the rock or gravel paths to pass a group of travelers using the stairs. I could not imagine how some tourists were walking up the paths with flip flops. The bottom of my feet hurt just thinking about it!¬†All in all,¬†it took about 30 to 45 minutes to hike all the way up.

Still, the views were quite nice. I preferred the views of the Old Town from about halfway up, since you could see the entire city. Once you get to the top, you get excellent bay views, but the city is a little bit hidden due to the angles. There was also excellent mountainous scenery behind us.

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Mountain views at the top of the City Walls

After trekking up the mountain, we decided to spend the rest of our day checking out Budva and finding the famous Sveti Stefan. While the island was beautiful, it was uneventful since it’s limited to people staying at the resort. There were groups of people standing at the¬†road scenic outlook point, snapping photos of the island below.

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Sveti Stefan

We got caught in a rain storm and found a little tavern to have lunch, so it was still a nice, albeit slightly uneventful outing. I am sad that we didn’t get to experience more of Budva, so I just have to add it onto our “for when we return to Montenegro” list. The drive between Kotor and Budva was nice; we found a little backroad and got to see some cool clouds hovering over the mountains. Oh, and Budva’s newest waterpark… ūüôā

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