Monday, December 31, 2012

In with 2013...

After a whirlwind Christmas, including three turkey dinners and a zillion hours excitedly recounting our favorite travel moments from the past four months, it's time to get back to normal life here at home. However, without jobs or a house, this means catching up on the posts we've let lapse while recovering from jet lag and working off the pumpkin pie we scarfed down last week. 

In addition to a detailed account of our time in Salisbury and Bath, including a visit to Stonehenge, we have a growing list of posts to share over the next little while. As well, we are looking at the plausibility of another adventure, or two, in 2013 to satisfy our travel bug.

While we work at getting back into the swing of things, here are our New Year's Resolutions for 2013...
  • Give more time to exploring our local attractions 
  • Expand our travel-blog reading list
  • Rework our blog's format and add a few more features
  • Carry the camera around at home as we do while traveling
  • Venture out of our comfort zone on future trips
  • Try new foods in the countries we visit
  • Remember what we packed needlessly in 2012 and pack lighter
  • Snap more photos of ourselves - in addition to the scenery
  • Indulge on occasion and worry about pinching pennies a bit less
  • Recognize each day how fortunate we are to be able to explore the world

As we welcome 2013 and the travel opportunities before us, we are excited to share every detail here and hope you'll follow along! 

Have you made any travel resolutions for 2013?

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Merry Christmas from Travis and Calli!

The combination of Christmas approaching and us just getting back home (safe and sound if you were wondering), our posting frequency will probably decrease over the next few days. But don't fear, we will be back to posting about the final few days of our trip plus a few more posts we never got around to finishing and some recaps. 

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Homeward Bound

It's true, we are homeward bound, and to be honest it couldn't have come at a better time. Although we have enjoyed ourselves immensely over the past four months in Europe, the constant wafting of Michael Buble's Christmas album from storefronts throughout England has us dreaming of a white Christmas surrounded by friends and family. 

We also seem to have picked up a dirty-hippie vibe somewhere along the line and regardless of how recently our clothes were laundered (a week ago), or how many days we have gone between showers (two), we can't seem to shake it. As a result, it's probably best that we head home, before we are denied access to some of the nicer public buses and grocery stores, we've already given up on sit-down restaurants. 

After an extensive root analysis, I think our hippie "charm" all comes back to the fact that we desperately need haircuts - so much so that the hairdressers may be my first stop once we get home. Don't believe me? Check out this before and after of Travis' hair. Where a proud man once stood, well groomed with military precision, now sits a dirty, confused, Italian-Stallion; I even saw him tuck his hair ever-so-lovingly behind his ear today, while reclining on a bench, one leg crossed over the other...

Before: So handsome and well groomed
After: He's hardly recognizable with those long locks (via)
Actual After: Just to clarify, Travis has not turned into Roberto Mancini

And since you are thinking it, yes we could have simply taken an hour and gone for a haircut. However I am too cheap to pay for anything other than a $20 chop at First Choice Hair-cutters and Travis is holding out until we get home for his Nonno to cut it (not because it has any special meaning to his Nonno, but because Travis has trust issues - and his Nonna normally slips him some secret cash and a piece of lasagna after the cut. Talk about double dipping).

Unfortunately, getting home from London isn't as easy as J.K. Rowling and those darn Harry Potter books make it look. Unable to acquire anymore floo powder (I used my last pinch picking up the dry cleaning last week), we are waiting patiently for the more conventional method of flying home. As a result, we are camping out at Gatwick Airport for the night before our nine hour flight to Las Vegas in the morning, where we will then have a seven hour layover, a two and a half hour flight to Vancouver, and a four to four hundred hour drive home depending on the weather conditions.

Cramped flights and uncomfortable sleeps aside, enduring these next two travel days is worth it simply for that feeling of being in our own beds. Also, we have to leave sometime, I'm pretty sure the United Kingdom doesn't want us staying here, especially in our current physical condition. 

To play fair: Travis isn't the only one who has seen better days

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London Walking Tour - Along the Thames

Following our successful walk through Westminister with a guide from London Walks, we decided to tighten our purse strings and tackle the banks of the River Thames the next day with only the help of our trusty tourist map.

The iconic Tower Bridge

Starting at the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, we happily snapped photos and meandered along the river bank before making our way up to St. Paul's Cathedral, the Millennium Bridge, and Tate Modern.

Is that Richard Petty Blue?

Crest on the Tower Bridge

The modern shoreline

One of the things I really enjoyed about this part of London is the contrast between the historic stone fortress, rows of traditional narrow shops, and modern glass skyscrapers. It's quite a sight to see the Gherkin peak out from behind the fortress walls of the Tower of London, or the curvacious City Hall nestled on the river bank next to the Tower Bridge.

The Gherkin making an appearance...

... and again.

Classic English pub and name

St. Paul's Cathedral

I spy with my little eye, St Paul's Cathedral in the background

Although we had our map, it stayed tucked away most the day as the city has put in small area maps along the major streets every two or three blocks - tourists seem to still be benefiting from the 2012 Olympic Games. As it turns out, all we needed for a great day out was a quick stop at lunch to warm up with some fresh Vietnamese Pho. 

The Millennium Bridge and St. Paul's

Millennium Bridge

A surprise find

Mmmm warm Pho!

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2 Million Years of History at The British Museum

Returning to London at the end of our trip was something we were really looking forward to. As we were a bit preoccupied with the Reading Music Festival back in August, we were unable to see anything other than the Natural History Museum and a little glimpse of the city's major sights. Picking up where we left off, our first stop was the British Museum, which, like many of the amazing museums we've been to, really requires multiple visits to see everything. 

The Greek Revival facade of the museum

The amazingly designed Great Court

With a focus on human history and culture, the British Museum is home to a huge collection of about 8 million artifacts from every continent. As we wandered among huge Egyptian sculptures, fully intact Greek temples, intricate hieroglyphic tablets, and primitive human tools, we were immediately impressed with the wide range of civilizations and time periods on display. However it was also hard to grasp the immense period of time covered by the museum's artifacts. The oldest man-made piece in their collection, a stone chopping tool found in Tanzania, dates back 1.8 to 2 million years, a time frame impossible to comprehend, and I regularly found myself trying to fathom how these items had survived for so many years and in such good condition. 
Paleolithic hand-axe - 1.2 million years old

Collosal granite statue of Amenhotep III

After our trip to Athens, one of our favorite displays was the Parthenon Gallery, which houses much of the marble sculptures and friezes from the Ancient Acropolis. Although highly controversial, with the Greeks calling for their return to the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, this display helped pull together a lot of the information we gathered in Greece at the beginning of our trip and made our visit to the Acropolis feel more complete. 

Mesopotamian wall relief

Canada is represented too with a totem from Haida Gwaii

One of the best things about London, for both locals and tourists, is that entry into many of the major museums is completely free. Not only do these free attractions help make London a bit more affordable, especially for the always budget-conscious backpacker, but a visit to any of these museums, even the few you aren't quite sure you will enjoy, is completely risk free. Pop in to see one painting, or wander a couple halls, or use the bathroom, without feeling obligated to "get your money's worth". 

The Grenville Library houses many interesting books and items

*Although entry to the museum is free, there is often a fee to visit any temporary exhibits. Check the museum's website to confirm free entry or any applicable admission fees.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

London Walking Tour - Westminister & the West End

Having thoroughly enjoyed our two walking tours in Berlin and our photo tour in Brugge, we decided to give guided tours another chance in London. Turning to London Walks and their "London Tour" we set out to explore all of the city's iconic sites in Westminster and the West End.

Statue of Richard the Lionheart outside the Palace of Westminster

Elizabeth Tower (with Big Ben inside)
Arriving at the Westminster tube station, our tour meeting place, we emerged from underground at the base of the Elizabeth Tower, renamed this year for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Often confused for Big Ben, which is actually the nickname for the bell within the clock tower, this tower is likely London's most recognizable landmark. It felt incredible to be so close to such an iconic symbol, as though we were finally experiencing the "real" London, and our guide Tom had lots of fun facts to share about the tower as well as the Houses of Parliament overall.
Westminster Abbey

Sting's house

Prying our group away from Big Ben, Tom led us through Westminster to the famous Westminster Abbey, St. James' Park, and Buckingham Palace, including numerous stops of interest in between - we even saw Sting's House.

The view towards Horse Guards - No beach volleyball this time of year

The view towards Buckingham Palace

As we made our way toward Buckingham Palace, Tom pulled us aside to point out something quite unique. It seemed that luck was on our side as we were just in time to see guests arriving for an audience with the Queen. At first this didn't make much sense, however we were quickly informed that guests of the Queen do not simply drive up to the front gates of Buckingham Palace. Instead, they are transported via horse drawn carriage from St. James' Palace to Buckingham Palace entrance one block away, complete with police escort and a trumpeter to announce their arrival. As we stood along the sidewalk, we saw not one but two processions pass by followed by the changing of the Horse Guard.
A special guest gets to meet the Queen

Changing of the Horse Guard

Although the weather was a bit cold at times, we really enjoyed our tour and the new information we left with. London Walks offers an astounding number of tours, making it next to impossible to choose just one and ensuring there is something there for everyone. 

Buckingham Palace - voted ugliest building in London

A member of the Queen's Guard in their winter uniforms

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Paris Museum Roundup - the Louvre

We couldn't leave Paris without a visit to its (and probably the world's) most famous museum, the Louvre. After postponing our visit until Friday night, when entrance is free to those under 26, we entered the iconic glass pyramid and descended into the museum's entrance hall. 

The famous glass pyramid and Tuileries Garden

The Louvre...well, half of it anyways.

One of the more spectacular buildings we've laid eyes on this trip, which is really saying something, the Louvre is both elegant and a bit intimidating. With over sixty thousand square feet to explore, and thirty five thousand items on display, it's nearly impossible to see everything in just one visit; however, we were determined to give it a shot for as long as our feet could handle. 
The glorious, golden Apollo Gallery

Upon entering the impressive lobby under the great glass pyramid, we were surprised to find no lines...seriously, none at all - and after waiting for hours at the Vatican, Uffizi, Prado, and others this was simply amazing.. After taking a minute to warm up (it was freezing outside) we simply walked to one of the collection entrances and presented our passports for our free entry. With map in hand we decided on a rudimentary plan of action and set off. 
Looking out through the glass pyramid

After wandering through the museum's extensive collections of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities and 13th to 19th century paintings, we found our way to the sculpture collection. Easily our favorite space in the museum, the sculptures are displayed in a large, multi-level space with thirty foot ceilings and lots of glass that is immediately calming. It was also a great spot to hang out on a bench and rest our aching feet. Oh, and the sculptures were amazing - some of the best we've seen in any museum on our trip. 
The amazing salon of French sculptures

In addition to the museum's stunning architecture and displays, we really loved the way our visit to the Louvre brought together many of the parts of our trip. We were able to see Islamic carvings from Cordoba and Granada, pieces of the Parthenon marbles from the Acropolis in Athens, "halves" and "pieces" of sculptures that we'd seen "the rest of" somewhere else, and many others. This, and the British Museum (stay tuned), has really allowed us to put the historical part of our trip into perspective.

The Codex of Hammurabi (via)

Perhaps the Louvre's most famous resident, the Mona Lisa receives the majority of the acclaim. However, despite the fact that a good number of visitors skip the rest of the museum and only see it, it is a fairly underwhelming piece of art, especially compared to Leonardo Da Vinci's many other paintings and sketches. Nonetheless, this doesn't stop the crowds from forming, and it is one of the few places in the museum where you notice the crowds (amazing considering 15,000 people visit every day). 

The Mona Lisa  by da Vinci (via)

We ended up using almost every minute of our time at the museum and were able to see a good amount of the things we wanted. Here are some more of our highlights:

Psyche revived by the kiss of Cupid (via)

Winged victory of Samothrace

Assyrian relief sculpture (via)

The Seated Scribe, over 4000 years old (via)

If you are planning on visiting the Louvre, there are many excellent articles out there to make your visit a more efficient and rewarding one. We would suggest at least looking at the map online if you are going to be pressed for time. You can visit the website of the Louvre here, and if you are interested in seeing some of the best and most interesting objects, the collection catalogue can be found here. There is free entry for everyone on the first Sunday of the month, and for under-26's on Friday evenings from 6:00-9:45.

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Paris Museum Roundup - Musee de l'Orangerie

The second museum on our docket in Paris was the Musee de l'Orangerie. Located in the corner of the beautiful Tuileries Garden beside the giant Ferris wheel, it is another of Paris' fantastic museums focusing on impressionist and post-impressionist painting. 

The Tuileries Garden - a lovely place for relaxation

The Ferris Wheel and pond at the end of the Tuileries Garden

Once inside, the hustle and bustle of the busy Place de la Concorde is quickly forgotten as you are transported to a world of calm and reflection. Natural light filters down through the ceiling and the recently renovated pale stone interior create the perfect habitat for a couple of hours of art enjoyment. 

The museum itself has two main sections, the bottom floor containing the collection of Paul Gillaume, and the upper floor containing Monet's eight Water Lily murals in two oval rooms. 

The collection of Paul Gillaume, a mechanic turned art dealer turned art collector, is comprised of the works of many of the masters of the past 2 centuries, including Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Cezanne, and many others. Like any of the museums we've been to, there were some we loved and some we didn't love (and even some we REALLY didn't love). 

Paul Gillaume as painted by Amedeo Modigliani (via)

Claude Monet - l'Argenteuil (via)

Paul Gauguin - Paysage (via)

Andre Derain - Arlequin et Pierrot (via)

Although this collection is fantastic on its own, the real reason that people make a stop here is the two rooms of Monet murals. Displayed in two ovular rooms designed by Monet himself, the canvases follow the curvature of the room and depict the water lilies in the gardens surrounding his home at different times and in different lights. He wanted a place for people to come following the end of WWI to be at peace, and this is definitely achieved through the diffused light and sparse decoration of the two rooms. 

One of the rooms containing Monet's Water Lilies (via)

Although our visit was primarily the result of a combination ticket with the Musee d’Orsay, by the end of our visit we were happy we made time to visit the Musee de l’Orangerie.

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Hey there!

Calli and Travis returned from a four month trip through Europe more excited than ever to hit the open road. Who knows where they'll end up next...

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