August 2016

Off to find Hadrian’s wall…or something

August 31 – All packed up we had a delicious English breakfast. Our host had called us a taxi and we were leaving our baggage there while we went to tour the Arbeia Roman Fort. For some reason I thought this was part of, maybe an end point, for the wall but turns out it was used more for supplying troops along the wall. So kind of related but not really. It was still well worth the extra effort.

Entry is free and there was a lovely volunteer guide that showed us around the site and gave us a lot of great information. The experience would not have been as enjoyable or informational without her assistance.

Tour complete it was time for us to get our bags and get headed to Edinburgh. I called the taxi company that had dropped us off earlier. A very flirty dispatcher answered the call and assured me I was way too “exotic” to be visiting South Shields. I got a good laugh and thanked him for his charm. Guess they don’t get many American tourists?

Back on the train and we were headed to Scotland. I was beyond excited to see Edinburgh. Someone had recommended we sit on the right side of the train on our journey. It was a great tip. Lots of nice views of the sea along the way. I snapped some pictures through the window along the way so there are some reflections, but still lovely.

Off the train in Edinburgh finding a taxi coming out of the station was easy. We like easy! We’d rented a nice airbnb for a few days. Mary and her daughter were on their way up from Reading to join us so we wanted to have some extra room.

Another day short on the site seeing but long on the travel. Fortunately the getting from point A to point B is the best part.

Headed north

August 30 – We were headed north in hopes of finding Hadrian’s wall on our way to Scotland. I’ve got a knack for finding obscure, out of the way places and this choice was no different. We spent most of the day on a train from Reading to Newcastle Upon Tyne. Lots of lovely rural countryside lining the rails.

Off the regional train and onto a local train we made our way to South Shields. The walk to the B&B seemed short but a bit hilly, not unbearable but unexpected. We got checked in and got a recommendation for dinner from our host.

With the workday quickly approaching we hustled down to the beach where several restaurants were available. Our choice wasn’t great, for me anyway. The beverage options were limited. I don’t recall exactly but seems the only thing left was diet. The items of interest from the menu also weren’t available. Hangry I opted to order nothing in protest. I knew there was a fish & chips place next door that would have something I’d eat. Jennifer ordered and ate. While she finished up I took a little walk on the beach. The evening light was perfect.

Jennifer caught up with me, I got some food to go, and we headed back to the B&B so I could get to work.

Stonehenge

August 29 – Mary took some time away from work and drove me and Jennifer out to Stonehenge. I had been taken past there when on my first trip to England in 2002, but I welcomed an opportunity to get a closer look.

We took our time going through the visitor center then made our way outside. Peeked into the Neolithic houses and tried our hand an moving the big stone. Didn’t budge.

I think our timing was nearly perfect since there was no line for the shuttle that drops you near the Stone Circle. It was a great day to wander the English countryside. The line of cars backed up on the motorway was an interesting sight to see as well. I guess being a lookie-lou is easier than stopping by and paying to see it.

Back at the Visitor Center a little shopping was done then we grabbed a snack at the café before heading home. I was pretty excited when I discovered they had cream tea! I swear I could live on clotted cream, jam, and scones. Yumm!

IMAG0269 The rest of the day was spent hanging out and repacking.

Quick stop in England

August 28 – The taxi was waiting for use as we got to the lobby. We were off to the airport for an early flight back to London. At the airport we were surprised to find the taxi fare was nearly double what we had paid several days before. Turns out the flat rate only applies to certain hours. Not a big deal, it was so much easier than trying to sort out a bus at such an early hour.

The lines for Ryanair customer service were long, not a surprise either. This time Jennifer and I took the divide and conquer approach. While I stayed in the ridiculous line she checked out the quicker moving line next to us to see if it would be sufficient. It was. High five! Boarding pass in hand and passports checked we made it to the gate. We took turns getting breakfast while the other sat with the bags. Hooray! A reasonably decent meal without having to pay the ridiculous airline price.

The rest of the flight was seamless which was a relief. We breezed through customs and I decided to stop at the ATM for some cash before heading to the bus. Decline! Well that is weird. The card worked just fine in Athens. I attempted to get the account balance and it was declined as well. I was concerned my purchase that morning in Athens then again in London immediately after the flight may have triggered a fraud alert. Nothing could be done at the moment so we moved on.

Jennifer had her heart set on exploring the British Museum but I wanted to get someplace where I could get my debit card issues handled. We decided to take separate busses. Looking back I’m not sure why we opted for busses rather than taking the train. Regardless, I took both of our bags and headed toward Reading while Jennifer headed in to London.

Navigating with both bags wasn’t too much trouble since we were both packing light. Good thing since I had a little trouble finding my way from the bus stop to the Paddington station entrance.

Once at Mary’s I checked my account online and didn’t see any issues with my account. I called their fraud line to see if there had been a hold put on my account. Nothing.

Mary, Aeris, and I went for a nice little swim at the local pool then got an ice cream at the Burger King next door. Later in the evening Mary took me to the grocery store where I found an ATM and had no issues withdrawing money. I was relieved!

It was a wonderfully low key afternoon.

 

Athens and the Acropolis – DreamTrip Day 3

August 27 – After breakfast we loaded on to the bus for a half-day tour of Athens. It was a short drive to parking lot for the Acropolis. This is another one of those sites that felt surreal. You see pictures and read the stories and myths but never imagine you’d be seeing it in person.  Stunning.

Time running out I made my way back to the parking lot. I got a little turned around and exited a different way than we’d entered. I was a little concerned but eventually spotted what I believed to be the correct parking area. I stood in the shade for a bit and was joined by others from the group. Whew.

The bus eventually found a place to park and we loaded up to continue our tour around Athens. We made a stop for photographs at Panathinaikos Stadium. Another impressive structure. You can pay to get in but our time was limited and I wasn’t sure what there really was to do except walk the stadiums stairs.

We made a stop at the Parliament building and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where we found the Greek version of palace guards. No tall, fluffy hats but same stoic face and rigid stance. They did have a guard for the guards that would give tourists warnings if they were doing anything that was not allowed.

Several other sites of interested where passed as the guide provided us their history. I took pictures as best I could. One final stop near the shopping center to let off the shoppers then we were returned to the hotel for an afternoon on our own.

Jennifer and I freshened up then walked down the street to get a picture of Dromeas, the glass running man statue, at a nearby intersection. We stopped at a casual little restaurant and had a nice lunch outside. It wasn’t as amazing as the meals we’d had at the hotel, but it wasn’t as expensive either.

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Back at the hotel we took the remaining time before dinner to get online and take care of things.  With another fairly early flight in the morning we were making or confirming our travel plans and trying ensure we didn’t encounter too much drama on our return flight.

That evening everyone gathered in the hotel restaurant for a farewell dinner. It was an interesting evening. The Chinese travelers seemed none too impressed with the meal. They did make polite smiles and the daughter was doing her best to translate so we could have a conversation.

Another wonderful adventure coming to an end.

Island Hopping – DreamTrip Day 2

August 26 – We started with a hearty buffet breakfast at the hotel then made our way to the lobby. A short bus ride through Athens to the port gave us quick glimpses of some of the Olympic stadium and up the hill to the Acropolis.

We boarded the ship for a full day cruise of the Greek islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina. It was early but already really warm. It seemed like the perfect day to be out on the water. The early departure time made sense once we realized it was a 3 hour tour to the first island. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself as the “Gilligans Island” theme song rolled around in my head. Thankfully the weather didn’t get rough and I enjoyed a wonderfully relaxing trip to our first stop.

We didn’t get a lot of time in Hydra. It appeared the only transportation on the island was the donkeys that were loaded up with supplies from incoming ships. With the exception of the chatter of locals and tourists the island was very peaceful.  Jennifer had been coughing since her arrival in Paris so when as we browsed through one of the shops we took an opportunity to ask the clerk about a pharmacy. We completed our purchase and headed up the hill. We patiently waited as the pharmacist chatted with someone he clearly knew. Fortunately for us they were speaking in English and the conversation was quite hilarious. Good natured ribbing and I couldn’t help but insert myself. We had some good laughs, Jennifer got some advice and medicine, and we rolled back down the hill. We walked to the opposite end of the bay, snapped some pictures and started to make our way back toward the dock.

Our second stop was Poros. It was another short stop but there was gelato! We wandered down the street along the water looking for a place where we might be able to dip our toes into the water. No such luck.

Aegina was our last and longest stop with an optional excursion to the Temple of Aphaia. Off the boat and on to a bus that squeezed through some narrow streets and up the hill to the Temple site. It was beautiful. The view of the gulf and surrounding area was as incredible as the temple itself.

The cruise back to Athens was shorter than the trip out but was still delightful. We disembarked the ship and the bus returned us to the hotel. We opted to keep things simple by having dinner at the hotel. Again, it did not disappoint!

Off to Athens – DreamTrip #3

August 25 – It was an all too familiar tale of travel struggles that greeted us trying to get to Athens Greece.

I will provide details below for those of you who want to know what led to what was likely the most unnecessarily stressful series of events on my trip (see below the pictures). For the sake of a quick summary:

  1. I believe Stansted Airport is absolutely the worst airport I’ve experienced
  2. Ryanair flights are cheap for a reason, worst airline I’ve experienced

The good news is, by some miracle we made it on to the plane in time to board. The morning hadn’t gone smoothly so breakfast ended up being an odd coffee (with the filter built in to the lid) and miscellaneous snacks. Followed by an incredibly obnoxious person seated next to me that literally turned his back and proceeded to lean on me until he got a sharp elbow to the ribs. He then proceeded to fart and just be genuinely obnoxious. All I could think was “wow, your mother must be so proud”. Somehow I made it through the flight without totally losing my cool but the combined with the rest of the events of the morning had left my blood pressure high.

Man was I happy to be off that plane and yay, we’re in Greece! Hard to be mad about that. We took at look at the train schedule and thought we’d figured out which bus to take. Sadly finding the actual bus stop was not quite as simple. After wandering around in the heat for a bit I said “forget it, lets just get a taxi”. Some things just aren’t worth the struggle.

Despite what felt like a long distance from the airport to the hotel the taxi fare was only 20 euro. We had a very friendly driver that spoke English so we talked with him along the way. He mentioned Athens was a beautiful city full of the typical Greek villas. In the 1960s the city saw huge growth due to immigration and a lot of the communist style concrete buildings were build to accommodate all the growth. I’m sure the old city was stunning but time marches on, right?

We got checked in to the hotel and were greeted by the DreamTrips host. In our room we found a delicious platter of fruits and desserts, a bottle of wine, and gift bags that included filtered water bottles. We unpacked a bit and headed to the hotel restaurant to get something to eat. The incredibly sweet and helpful waitress made some meal suggestions and I was so pleased with my choice. I guess I was so eager to dig in I didn’t bother with a picture.

We lingered long enough the rest of the DreamTrippers were making their way into the restaurant for the Welcome Reception so we simply moved to one of the reserved tables. As has always been my experience we met some wonderful new friends that we looked forward to sharing some fun memories with in the coming days.

*Details from the morning struggle: we had arrived at Stansted with what should have been plenty of time. The day prior we had attempted to check in to our Ryanair flight but were instructed we had to check in at the airport. We made another attempt to check in using the kiosk at the airport and were again denied. We made our way to the line we thought was correct to get checked in. After waiting for quite some time we were told by the clerk at the counter we were in the wrong line and directed to another line on the other side of the wall. The line was enormous and incredibly slow moving. As we waited people were being ushered to the front of the line because they were at risk of missing their flight. There was a lot of tension building as the people who had been waiting in line were being delayed further. As the time ticked away our risk of missing the flight grew. Closing in to the start of the line more people were brought ahead. People around us started to protest. I started to protest. Things were getting heated. The guy monitoring the line was an asshole and his attitude was not helping calm the situation. We were at a point where we were going to miss our flight. Seriously, over an hour and a half in this mess. We still had to get through security and to our gate 30 minutes before departure. I continued running my mouth and they finally called us forward to get our tickets. Apparently the usual process calls for you standing in yet another line to have your passport checked. Out of time and a filter for my mouth they took care of it for us. We were ushered by the asshole to the security line where he tried to get them to put us through the “express” line without charging us the additional fee. No luck, of course. What a bunch of pricks! Another line, another fee, more stress. We get into this “express” line. Its a weird line where there are 4 or 5 slots and people queue behind each other in lines. I made the mistake of taking the last slots. All the people in the lines for the prior slots kept placing their bags in front of mine. My bag was going nowhere. I pointed it out to the gal monitoring the situation and she told me not to worry about it and move on to the scanner. Bitch, I am worried about it. Everyone elses stuff is being pushed in front of mine. It does no one any good to have me standing over there still waiting for my bag! She finally paused everyone and moved it forward. Was that so damned hard?!? Obviously I’m stressing. The “30 minutes prior to your departure” had come and gone. And another delay, Jennifer didn’t realize cream counts and a liquid and is forced to open her bag so they can do an additional check. My head is about to explode. We get that situation dealt with (she had to throw it out) and make a mad dash to the gate. But first you have to get through the spiral of stupidity that is Stansted. It is literally a spiral of bad perfume, Toblerone, and whatever shit you usually find at the airport and you have to walk in a circle around all of these things to get to the terminals. I HATE THEM ALL SO MUCH!! We finally make it through that shit show and down corridor after corridor to get to where there are actual gates. At this point I’m just going. I’m not even looking to see if Jennifer is keeping up. If at least one of us can get there maybe they’ll hold the plane for the other. It was with a lot of sweat, RAGE, and relief that I got to the gate and joined the tail end of the line to board the plane. Jennifer made it as well. No one died that day, at least not by my hand). Never again!