Three five-mile tests

Left to right: Merrell Barefoot Contour Glove,
Merrell Luxe Mid, Merrell Tetra Strap Waterproof

So I've had time to do some walking, but haven't managed to post about it, and I'm behind on five-mile tests.

First up, in order of the photo if nothing else, was the Merrell Barefoot Contour Glove. I got these for hiking, because I wanted to see how it went with a minimalist shoe, and these, which have a waterproof leather upper, looked like the best fit for that. I walked in Rock Creek Park two days in a row in some pretty serious mud, and they had fantastic grip. Even better, with literally no break in and only a pair of silk liner socks from REI, they went about 12 miles (new personal record!) the first day and 8 the second with only the slightest hot spot on one ankle that went away when I readjusted the laces. They are pretty waterproof for barefoot shoes, but I didn't expect them to be fully waterproof since they don't go up to the ankles. A little moisture did seep in from the top, but not much given how muddy it was. So, basically, these shoes are so fantastic, they laugh at 5 miles.

Second in the photo is the Merrell Luxe Mid. These are apparently approved by the American Podiatric Medical Association, which made me suspicious, but I bought them anyway, because they were cute, and Merrell doesn't make a huge amount of cute shoes. They even have a little bit of a heel, and after a year and a half of not wearing heels at all, it feels pretty strange (but nice) to be just that bit taller. I walked five miles in them in one of my loops around the Jefferson Memorial, and they were okay, but my feet were feeling it by the end. These don't have Q Form, and they would have been much better with it. That's what you get for listening to podiatrists, Merrell, instead of sticking with what you know — I like wearing these to work, but they're not as good for travel as I would have hoped.

Last in the photo and one of my favorite pairs of shoes of all time, are the Merrell Tetra Strap Waterproof boots. I bought these in both tan and black at the end of last winter on clearance, and I am so glad I did. Because I can't wear a lot of shoes that are in style, it feels so nice to put on these equestrian boots and, instead of envying others' footwear, actually get a lot of compliments on my own boots. I would love them just for that, but they also happen to be waterproof, so they are perfect for rainy weather. And they're quite waterproof — once I realized I was walking in a puddle that went up to my shins, only because I was splashing my thighs as I walked and then looked down. I wear these a ton, but hadn't put them through the paces of a true five-mile test, and still haven't taken them through a RunKeeper-tracked one. But I did wear them on a rainy weekend in New York City where we tromped all over the place, and I feel reasonably sure that they did at least five miles in a day, and although I had some foot fatigue, overall they did quite well. So I'm including them. I heart these boots.


Tips for Amtrak travel

A Northeast Regional train car.

My parents recently took their first trip by train, using Amtrak to get to a Canada/New England cruise that departed from Montreal and ended in Boston. And helping them prepare got me thinking about what I've learned over the years in taking the train.

So here are 10 tips for enjoying Amtrak travel. These apply to short- and middle-distance trips (I ride the Northeast Regional frequently, and have also ridden the Acela, Carolinean, and Downeaster). I haven't done any of the long-distance routes like the Empire Builder or City of New Orleans, although I'd like to someday.

1. If it's called a "Snack Car," don't expect gourmet meals

It's "snack" for a reason. If you want a bag of chips or a cookie, a glass of wine or a beer, you are in great shape in a snack car. Do NOT think that you are going to get a gourmet meal here, although it will be better than what you'd get on an airline. My preference is to purchase my meals at the train station beforehand, or pack a lunch/dinner, and bring it with me. For me personally, I have a hard time leaving from Union Station in DC without a Corner Bakery Chop Salad. Yum.

2. Yes, it is slower than the ideal plane time, and yes, there are delays.

Note, IDEAL plane time. That is assuming your flight isn't delayed, and you don't have some sort of ridiculous connection to make, which you then miss because your flight was delayed. This year, I've flown six times and had a delay of more than an hour three of those six times. So when you compare your Amtrak train against a plane, be sure to factor in potential delays there, as well as the time it takes to get to the airport and get through security, so you can sit there waiting for your delayed flight.

I've only twice EVER had delays on lines Amtrak owns (Northeast Regional/Acela), and the one I knew the cause of was an equipment issue. I travel on Amtrak more frequently than I fly, so that's a pretty good track record. On tracks Amtrak doesn't own (such as the Carolinian's route), you do see more frequent delays due to yielding for freight trains. But you don't have to sleep overnight in an airport for one of those.

And yes, on any train, anywhere in the world, if someone jumps on to the tracks, you are screwed, because there will be police, and they will take their time to do what they need to do. This is the one thing that can bring any route, no matter how usually on-time, to a halt. So if that's what happened, you need to be looking into alternatives immediately. Fortunately, incidents like this are few and far between.

3. Chemical toilets get gross after a certain amount of time.

On a lengthy train ride, don't expect to use the toilet in the 10th hour of your ride and have it smell like a rose. Obviously, this is different on long-distance routes where they have points to refresh the toilets. But on routes like the Carolinian, it seems there is a certain point where they stop servicing the toilets, and aside from you not being able to use them, things can get a bit smelly.

Lessons here — don't take a seat near the toilets, and don't chug water near the end of your train ride. Two or three hours toward the end of your trip, hit the restroom whether you need to or not. The good news on Amtrak is that if the restroom in your car fills up, you can walk down the train and probably find another that's not full yet.

4. Yes, you're on a train for a long time. Deal with it, accept it, and then embrace it.

Do you want to compare this to being on a plane? Because really, let's. So after opting out of a body scan because you don't want cancer 5 years from now, necessitating a pat-down, you and your quart bag and your carry-on bag are waiting for your delayed flight. Eventually, they start boarding the flight, but because all the people in line in front of you have brought their ginormous carry ons due to the checked baggage fees, the overhead bins fill up and they need to start gate-checking bags. This takes extra time as there are people in the middle of the plane with their giant carry-ons who need to work their way upstream to get them gate-checked. So your flight is ready to leave 20 minutes later than it could have been, when the airport you're flying to issues another ground-stop due to weather, and you sit there on the tarmac, buckled in to your tiny seat and unable to move, until you're finally able to take off. Then once your ears stop popping, you can move around and use approved electronic devices until it's time to land. That is, assuming that the weather issues that caused the ground-stop have cleared up -- otherwise, you're sitting on the tarmac somewhere else. Oh, and I forgot to mention that there's another seat half an inch in front of your knees.

To sum up, the train is the tortoise, and the plane is the hare. While the plane is filled with drama and delay, passengers on the tortoise are siting in their nice big seats and stretching out their legs, walking up and down the train with no thought to a seat belt light, stopping in to the cafe car for a drink if they're so inclined, and using the restroom whenever they want to. Yeah, they might be delayed, but they're delayed in a not-altogether unpleasant place to be (as long as per #1 they brought sufficient food). So whatever it is in this world you need to keep yourself occupied and happy over the course of a long train trip, whether it's a Kindle, regular old book, iPod, or something else (aside from the scenery, which may distract you from whatever you bring, anyway), bring it. If it's a book, try to bring something special -- something you know you won't want to put down. I did a day trip to New York on Amtrak once and brought Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who Played With Fire," which I ravenously finished that day.

5. Remember the Quiet Car. Love the Quiet Car.

The Quiet Car is the best thing about both the Northeast Regional and the Acela. Basically, it's a car in which you cannot have cell phone conversations, and must talk in a whisper. It's meant to be a library-style environment. I'm not going to lie -- once I was on the Acela where a really drunk guy was on the quiet car next to me and kept making cell phone calls, despite all of the other passengers' attempts to police him. (Some sociologist is definitely missing out in not doing a study on the dynamics of quiet car passenger policing.) Generally, though, this is an uber-quiet bastion of the train where you can work, read, or sleep with no interruptions.

6. Don't stay in your seat.

Yes, in even coach it is the size of a business-class plane seat, and yes, you have business-class leg room, and you should enjoy these things. But also enjoy the fact that unlike a plane OR a car, you can get up out of your seat and walk around anytime you want. Take advantage of this. Walk the length of the train if you're feeling restless.

7. Train naps are the best naps.

There is something about the motion of a train that has lulled me to sleep on countless trains, both here and in Europe. If you're feeling sleepy, go with it. And if you've chosen to follow the quiet car advice, you might be asleep for quite awhile. Don't worry about missing your stop, though, because the conductors put a piece of paper on the luggage rack near your seat noting where you're supposed to get off, so they'll warn/wake you if they need to. You can also set the alarm on your cell phone for extra security.

8. The piece of paper is a bit mysterious, so take precautions.

That piece of paper that the conductors put on luggage rack near your seat...I've heard that you are supposed to take it with you (leaving yourself open to having your seat taken if you choose to sit in the cafe car for awhile), but it'a all a bit mysterious. I personally usually leave the paper, together with some sort of cue that my seat is taken (a book, sweater, or Corner Bakery salad on the seat will do the trick). But then I'm sure to carry my ticket stub for the train on me, so that if a conductor stops me, I can show that I'm supposed to be on the train and I've already had my ticket looked at.

9. Travel light, and be ready for stairs, but don't worry about exact dimensions.

When you travel via train and public transit, you do want to make sure that you're using light baggage (in wheeled baggage, the latest Skyway carry-on is my favorite when airline rules aren't a factor). Amtrak has extremely liberal guidelines for carry-on luggage, but what you don't want to do is be like the French girl on one Regional I took, who had a giant (29"+), heavy roll-aboard, and when our Regional departed from a platform where you needed to walk up a few steps with your luggage, was screwed to the point where another man had to carry her luggage up the steps for her.

So on Amtrak, no one is going to make you put your bag in a sizer. But on many routes without checked baggage, you will be responsible for all of your luggage. So learn light packing techniques. Everyone should actually be able to live out of a carry-on-sized bag for an indefinite amount of time with a little learning and advance preparation. As for stairs, in addition to any legitimate stairs you think you will encounter, plan on at least one escalator being broken during your trip. On Amtrak, you can carry a tremendous amount of baggage without having to check it, so make sure you're ready for the amount of baggage you bring.

10. Remember that the snack/cafe car has seats.

A couple things might happen. You might have chosen to sit in the quiet car, but since had a call that you need to follow up on. Or you might be seated in an area with rambunctious people or kids (usually it's the kids...I'm just sayin'). Or you might just have gotten on the train with timing that made it impossible for you to sit together with the rest of your party. Regardless of what your driver is for not being happy with your present seats, remember that you might have other options. Check out the Cafe (Acela) or Snack (other short/middle-distance routes) Car, which has seats in addition to a booth for food sales, to see if there might be a better spot for you to sit, at least in the interim. And if you have a glass of wine while relaxing and enjoying the scenery, well, more's the better.

And a bonus tip for those leaving from or going through New York...

11. Penn Station is a hole.

Blame this one on New York, not Amtrak, will you? New York had a beautiful Penn Station which trains came in to, but it chose to castrate it for the space Madison Square Garden is in now. This is exceedingly unfortunate. I feel sorry for people who start their Amtrak trips here instead of somewhere like DC's lovely, organized Beaux Arts Union Station. But they're still probably better off than they would be if they had chosen to fly or take the bus, so don't feel TOO sorry for them.

So in Penn Station, do still follow my earlier tips and make sure you have a decent lunch from here or nearby before you board your train. Just don't expect it to be as lovely as boarding a standard Amtrak train in a decent station. And keep in mind that there is an Amtrak waiting area, although it's a bit hidden. So grab your food and hang out here until a track is posted for your train.


5 mile test: Merrell Heather and Sundial dress

Merrell Heathers and a bit of my Sundial dress.

In my last trip to Europe, I took a Patagonia convertible skirt/dress that did pretty well, with one glaring issue — it was cotton, therefore easily wrinkled, and if I'd have washed it, it would have taken ages to dry.

I spend a fair amount of time on Merrell.com, and while I was there, I ran across the Sundial dress, which I liked the looks of, as well as its 90% polyester/10% spandex fabric blend. So I ordered one, tried it on, and loved it. It's got a flattering empire waist, and is super-comfortable. I've worn it to business meetings, and driving (and pushing my car due to an unfortunate battery incident) on the Pennsylvania turnpike. It always comes out of my suitcase without and wrinkles and feels exceptionally comfortable and nicely fitting when I wear it.

So it didn't really need to go on a 5-mile test — it's pretty much already proven its capabilities. But I wanted to go on an after-work walk, and it was something I could wear to work and then go out and sweat in during DC's hot, humid summer, without worrying about it.

I wore it with Merrell's Heather sandals, which are my sandals of choice for something to kick on and wear around my condo, or even to the pool. They have excellent arch support, and a microfiber footbed, but no ability to adjust the fit, so I was curious whether they'd have the same rubbing issues that I ran into with the Merrell Bassoons.

So I set out on my favorite loop around the Jefferson Memorial, down the National Mall to Union Station, just over 5 miles total. Overall the Heathers did pretty well, until about the last mile or so, when they started to rub in a few places on the top of my foot. Things were a little irritated by the time I got to Union Station, but with no permanent blistering.

The Sundial dress, meanwhile, provided plenty of ventilation during the walk. In addition to the natural ventilation of a dress or skirt, this particular dress has the ability to ruche a portion of the back to create open ventilation between your shoulder blades (check the link to Merrell's site for a photo of this), and it was hot enough that I actually made use of this feature during my walk. This dress is going to have a hard time staying out of my suitcase on future trips.


In which I try video suitcase reviews

So I've been wanting to talk about suitcases for awhile, because, well, I'm mildly obsessed with them. But the more I started to think about the format for a review, the more I thought that pictures just weren't going to do it justice.

And so here we have the first (and probably last) ever video review I've done:

Details on the two newer suitcases:

International Traveler IT-0-1 is listed as a 3.7 lb weight for the 16-inch bag (which is actually 17 inches in length). I got it for just over $65 including shipping on clearance.

Skway Ultralite is listed as a 21 inch bag (in reality 23 inches in total length), and 5.2 lbs. I got mine for $40 but got an amazing deal on it. You're more likely to find it for around $70-$75.

You can still find the older Skyway No Weight online (it also sells under the Union Bay label) in a few corners of the Internet, but I can't say I'd recommend it unless you really like everything I described about it and can stomach the extra three pounds, or it's critical for you to be for-sure under 22 inches. That's not usually the case for me, and yet I can't bring myself to get rid of it, because that bag really served me well in Europe.

I tested the weights on all of them with an analog luggage scale and they're pretty close to what was listed.


5-mile test: Merrell Pace Glove, Pure Glove, and Bassoon

Lovely Rock Creek Park, site of two of my walks.

It has been quite hot here in the Washington DC region, so I've mostly been on hiatus with distance walking. I had done a couple of five-mile tests awhile back, though, that I still haven't blogged about.

Bassoons (with my toenails blurred because they look terrible)

I wear the Bassoons to work all the time, and they feel fantastic. The footbed has a great, arch-supporting shape, and the thick leather straps were comfy from day one — no break-in required.

I had high hopes for it, then, when I set out on the first five-mile test I've done with a pair of sandals, with one of my usual walks around the Tidal Basin. And they felt great through about four miles. Somewhere around that mark, though, my foot started to chafe as it moved against the leather footbed, so that the bottom of my foot felt a bit sore.

I survived the five miles (actually, 5 1/2), but by the time I got to my end point of Union Station, it felt like the bottoms of my feet were on fire, and they eventually ended up developing a blister under there, then finally peeling, many days later. It was pretty disgusting.

So, the Bassoons are great for a reasonable amount of walking, but if you do get the warning signal of chafing underfoot, don't ignore it.

Pure Gloves

I've blogged about the Pure Gloves before, as I took them on my last trip to Europe. I decided they needed an actual, measured test, though, and set out for a walk through Rock Creek Park, which I'm lucky enough to live near.

I'm pretty torn on hiking shoes. So many people hike in hiking boots, and usually I walk in RCP in trail runners. But I can't help but wonder if a good pair of barefoot shoes are better for hiking, in the same way they're better for running, as being more natural and allowing your foot to support itself.

After walking just shy of 6 miles in the Pure Gloves, I'm leaning much more towards barefoot shoes for hiking. With their Vibram soles, traction was never an issue, but they felt much more natural than the bulky trail runners with their huge tread. I wore them sockless, which makes them the first (and only) pair of shoes I've worn sockless and gotten through five miles without any blistering.

The only problem I had with them is that my second toes are actually longer than my big toe, but with its bulk, the big toe had pushed out the fabric in that area, so that it was rubbing on my second toe, and the second toe on my right foot was feeling pretty numb by the time I got home.

I've since washed them and put them on a shoe tree while still wet, in an attempt to stretch out the fabric just a bit more across the whole toe area, and that seems to have done the trick. There'll have to be another distance test for these, I suppose. I also bought them in a newer all-leather version that Merrell put out more recently, which I have high hopes for, especially as a travel shoe.

Walking in the Pace Glove.

The Pace Gloves were my first pair of barefoot shoes, and the ones I usually run in, if I'm running. But in the interest of further proving out this hiking in minimalist shoes theory, I decided to also take them on a distance test in RCP. And I was going for serious distance with these — I wanted to try to hit double digit miles for the first time since my foot problem.

They did not start out so well. Like the Pace Glove, I wore them barefoot, but for some reason these rub my achilles far more than the Pace Gloves, and they started rubbing raw just a couple of miles in. I already knew this could be an issue, so I brought some band-aids, and put them on, but in the heat they quickly started slipping on my sweaty ankles. I'd also brought some very thin athletic socks, and had to put them on. This let me finish the walk without much further damage, but I had blisters over my achilles on both feet.

Everything else did quite well, though. I did 10.18 miles, and although my feet definitely felt it by the end, they weren't overly sore. I think the next time I go for double digits, though, it will be in my stretched-out Pure Gloves.


Self Merrell-cation

The worn tread under the big toe of my (formerly) beloved Via
Spiga boots shows evidence of years of over-pronating

I've mentioned my bad foot quite a bit on this blog, but I've never really explained how it came to be.

That is partially because I don't really know how it came to be. I know the day it started — it was in February, 2010, the week we got two blizzards here in the DC area. I hadn't been doing a lot of high impact exercise, and in fact I'd only left my condo building once the entire week. But one day I looked down, and my right foot was swollen.

Very, very swollen. It wouldn't fit in any shoes of mine aside from my trail runners, which were pretty roomy. After some of the snow had melted, I had to make an emergency trip to DSW, where I looked around for shoes that both fit and felt comfortable. I ended up landing on a pair of black Merrell clogs.

I saw my primary care physician. She thought I'd sprained it, but recommended going to see a podiatrist if it stayed swollen. It did, so I saw the podiatrist. There were x-rays, a soft cast, and then an air cast. The odd thing was, it didn't really hurt very much. But the bones in there went snap, crackle, pop when I walked, and it was disturbingly swollen.

The swelling lasted for weeks, as I wore the air cast but also tried a variety of home remedies. One — a poultice of sea salt, ginger powder, and honey (Trader Joe's Desert Mesquite, if you're curious) — made the swelling go down drastically after the first application. The podiatrist didn't believe me, but I swear, every subsequent application brought the swelling down a bit more. That brought with it a new set of problems, as there was even more snap, crackle, and pop, and the lower the swelling got, the more there was actual pain.

I did another round in the air cast, which made no progress. I got an MRI on my foot, which showed only some degeneration in my big toe joint, which the podiatrist pooh-poohed as not being a possible cause. Gradually, over the course of several months, the swelling went down to the point where you might think it was a normal-looking foot. That is, until you saw my other, lean and bony foot. The podiatrist referred me to a vascular specialist. The vascular specialist spent half an hour telling me I had chronic lymphedema, then looked at my MRI results and decided the problem was this degeneration in my big toe joint. So basically, the two doctors had gone around in a giant circle.

I went to see another podiatrist for a second opinion, this one affiliated with Johns Hopkins. He got my hopes up for awhile by thinking it was a rare problem with my lisfranc ligament that just wasn't showing up on the MRI. So I got a CT, and guess what, it didn't show up there, either. He also concluded it was lymphedema, and referred me to a lymphedema clinic.

But I wasn't buying it. Whatever happened to my foot, it happened quickly, and clearly only to one foot, and that didn't sound like chronic swelling due to failure of the lymph nodes to me. So before I committed to the lympedema clinic, I decided to find a really good lymphedema specialist, and scheduled an appointment with one at the Cleveland Clinic before the Thanksgiving holiday (my family lives in Ohio).

I discovered when I saw her why the Cleveland Clinic's doctors are so good — they take the time. She spent more than half an hour with me, going over my medical history and the history of my foot problem, and examining me. And her conclusion? It was probably likely that the swelling (edema) was secondary to a problem in the foot. She referred me to a foot and ankle orthopedist at the Clinic, who also spent a good half hour with me, and then came up with the most realistic conclusion: nobody might really ever know exactly what's going on in my foot.

By then the snap, crackle, pop symptoms had been overshadowed by serious stiffness and pain in my arch, and he recommended trying the logical thing — orthotic arch supports. But he also said something that really made me think, and that was that, even with the mystery swelling, I have good feet. I don't have funky arches, or plantar fasciitis, or anything like that. I nearly cried. For the first time in a long time, I felt some hope as it related to my feet.

And there was another cause for hope. I'd been wearing those Merrell clogs pretty much every day to work, so before I left for Thanksgiving, I'd ordered some new shoes from Zappos. I chose a couple brands, but ordered heavily Merrell on the success of the clogs. One pair, Merrell's Brios, probably changed my life.

Merrell uses something they call Q-Form in women's shoes. The idea is that women's hips are wider, so our legs don't go down straight, like men's. This makes us walk differently, and badly, as far as our feet are concerned. Q-Form compensates for this with a shock-absorbing air cushion in the heel, build-up on the sides of the feet, and varying densities throughout the rest of the foot. Essentially, it stabilizes your foot throughout the whole stride, keeping you from pronating or supinating. There was Q-Form in my clogs, but because your feet tend to move around a little in clogs, I didn't feel it as much.

I sure felt it in the Brios, though. All of a sudden my arch was well-supported and my foot was completely stabilized. Gradually, all of the pain and stiffness left my arch. I began to realize that I had been over-pronating for many years — essentially pulling myself along with my big toe as I walked. I began to understand how I was supposed to be walking. And when I tried on some of my old shoes — Skechers especially, but even my New Balances weren't innocent — I saw how they had in fact been contributing to all of this over-pronation.

I started buying more Merrells. Not every pair felt as good as the Brios, and there were quite a few pairs that went back to Zappos. But when I found a pair that worked for me, they really worked. By December, the arch pain was gone, and replaced with some pain and cracking in my big toe when I was barefoot. FINALLY, the thing that was actually a problem was showing its symptoms. And as long as I wore my Merrells, the toe didn't hurt.

I procrastinated getting the orthotics, but finally did order them. When they came, they were a disappointment — they didn't feel nearly as good as the standard Merrell insoles, and the big toe joint cracked away when I walked in them. At this point, I decided to bail on medical science as far as the foot was concerned. The doctor had only recommended them as something worth trying, and while trying the orthotics had been a disaster, trying the Merrells was a rousing success. I stopped trying to find a "cure" and started accepting that this was the way my foot was going to be now. I put the orthotics on the shelf and bought even more Merrells.

My foot has gradually gotten better this year. It's still a bit swollen, and probably always will be. But I decided to follow the doctor's statement that my feet were essentially good feet, and stop letting it be a concern. No more only riding the exercise bike because it was low impact. I started walking more, and nothing bad happened. I got to the point where I could walk 5 miles without any problems. I bought a pair of Merrell barefoot shoes, and although they didn't have Q-Form in them, now that I'd learned to walk properly, they felt good too, because there were no messed-up shoe-ey bits getting in the way. I gradually built up the strength of my feet by walking and even running a bit in the barefoot shoes. A few weeks ago, I walked a full 10 miles in the barefoot shoes, and nothing bad happened to my foot.

After I posted a negative review about them on Yelp (this had more to do with billing issues, but also I felt the orthotics did not fit well), the manager of the orthotics place asked me to come back and have a fitting with him, at no extra cost. I did, and he was impressed by my Merrell sandals, going so far as to say he was going to recommend them along with his usual recommendation of Birkenstocks for sandals (which obviously can't hold orthotics). He wanted to try me in a cork rather than a plastic orthotic, so he took a new mold of my feet.

Merrell insoles on the top, orthotics on the bottom. Almost the
same shape, but the Merrell insoles are thinner and don't dip where
the big toe joint goes, which caused the cracking in the orthotics.

After he did, he looked between the red foam shapes of my foot, and my Merrell sandals. Wow, he said, they're the same shape as the sandals. Orthotics, he said, make shoes that don't fit your feet work for your feet. But what I'd done was go out and find shoes that fit my feet. It's possible that Merrells just happened to be exactly the right shape for my feet. But judging by the number of other people I see leaving shoe reviews who say they only wear Merrells now, my feet aren't the only ones they're perfect for.

I don't worry about my feet anymore. After spending much of last year wondering if I'd ever be able to walk more than a mile again, that's something I don't take for granted. And I did take my feet for granted before this happened. My main judge of shoe success was not causing blisters, regardless of what they were doing to my foot innards. I put them in $20 shoes from Target, and Skechers, and all manner of high heels. If the mystery swelling hadn't happened when it did, I'd probably have bought a pair of Skechers shape-ups, and right now I'd be wrecking everything from my hips to my feet.

Merrell insoles on the top, Skechers insoles on the bottom. You can see the
giant dip in the Skechers' big toe joint area, which caused my over-pronation.

I can't get back all of the years I spent over-pronating in bad shoes, but at least now that I've had to pay the consequences, I know that I have to put my feet in good shoes. Merrell dominates my shoe racks these days, and most of what's left are shoes I just can't quite bring myself to get rid of yet.

So if you read this blog and wonder why I'm such a Merrell fanatic, well, that's why. My feet are stronger than ever, and I'm back to walking when I want, as far as I want, and that's because of Merrell.


A tale of two palaces

Chateau Versailles

When I decided to put Paris in my itinerary, and began thinking of what I wanted to do there, it didn't take long to resolve to go to Versailles. I felt the need to see this grandest of palaces, like it was the thing to do.

So on the Tuesday of my time in France (generally a no-no, as the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, and so everyone goes to Versailles, but that was just the way the days fell), I hopped on the RER train from my hotel in the suburbs, transferred to another RER train in the city, and went out to Versailles. As I've already noted, entry was a debacle.

Crowds and opulence, the Versailles experience.

Once I got inside the gates, I began to see how ridiculously crowded it was. By the time I picked up my English language audio guide and made my way up to the royal apartments, it was pretty much wall-to-wall people. Dutifully, I shuffled through the rooms with the rest of the crowds, listening to bits of my audio guide, but refusing to be like so many of the other tourists who were dead set on listening to ALL of the audio for EVERY single number, and holding up the rest of the crowd as they stood there with their little plastic boxes up to their ears.

Only slightly opulent.

Fortunately, though, the audio guide wasn't actually all that interesting, and it was quite uneven. Most of what I heard focused on the functions of the rooms, and only occasionally did it throw out a bit on Marie Antoinette, or anyone else of interest. So I resorted to doing what everyone else was doing, shuffling through the rooms, gaping at the opulence of it all, and taking pictures. Finally, I reached a point where it dawned on me — no wonder the people revolted. If there is one takeaway from Versailles, it's that.

The famous Hall of Mirrors.

The apartments began to feel like an endless string of opulence, to the point where I was desensitized to gilt and paintings and frilly bits. It was only after much more of all of these that I made my way out into the gardens, which I don't think I fully grasped the scope of until I walked and walked and walked and walked and still was not even halfway to Marie Antoinette's house.

A "small" area of the gardens.

They were mindbogglingly extensive, but not quite what I'd expected out of gardens. There were plenty of landscaped bushes, and fountains, but flowers were few and far between until I got to Marie Antoinette's house and the Grand Trianon, both of which had some lovely flowers.

Much of the gardens were like this — tall, landscaped bushes and dusty gravel paths.

Roses outside Marie Antoinette's house (Petit Trianon) — finally some lovely flowers.

It was a day made largely for exhaustion. Exhausting myself by shuffling through room after room with the massive crowds, and then lengthy walks through the gardens. Exhausting both of my camera batteries by taking interminable photos and videos of all the opulence I saw. And by the time I left, that was all I felt, was exhausted. I'd seen things, lots of things, but it wasn't any sort of enriching experience, just an empty, gilded day.

Perhaps that should have turned me off of palaces, but back in England several days later, on Friday, the last full day of my trip, I still headed to Hampton Court Palace. I should have known things were going to be better when I stepped inside of the ticket office with my internet ticket confirmation in hand, and a woman waved me over to a side counter immediately and gave me my ticket, a map, and some other pamphlets.

Base Court, and a Henry VIII impersonator.

My entry, and my visit, were interrupted at times because they were holding a funeral at the palace, for a woman who had been living there on invitation of the Queen. I didn't realize there were people still actively living there, but it certainly intrigued me. And the funeral was an odd but understandable reason to be interrupted; the palace had gone so far as to have special apologetic and explanatory signs posted around the palace grounds.

Grand, but more sedate — Cartoon Gallery in Mary's Apartments.

I'd come to the palace like many, I assume, to see the old stomping grounds of Henry VIII. But what I hadn't realized is that it's actually two palaces, Henry's Tudor-era palace, and a later Baroque addition built by William and Mary, and used up until Georgian times.

The Tudor and Baroque palaces meet, with the arms
of Elizabeth I and William and Mary visible.

Neither of the sections boast anything remotely so grand (or ostentatious) as the royal apartments of Versailles. While they easily fit the definition of palaces, it's in a more sedate, English style — think the rich tones of wood paneling instead of gilt and over-the-top detailing.

Bedchamber in Mary's Apartments.

But in spite of this, I found Hampton Court Palace to be far more enjoyable, and far more interesting. It was enjoyable because it was in reasonable proportions — it felt like just the right amount of palace and grounds to tour — and also because it was far less crowded. Only Henry VIII's apartments were crowded, and even those were not to the point where you literally couldn't move, which did happen at Versailles, so bad were the bottlenecks.

It was far more interesting, though, because it told stories, and those stories were quite interesting. Not fair, you might say, with the exploits of Henry VIII, how could it go wrong in storytelling? And you, Carrie, you might also say, would be quite primed for the experience (albeit not in a completely historically accurate way), having watched four seasons of The Tudors.

Great Hall of Henry VIII's apartments.

Well, yes, I don't deny any of these things. But Hampton Court Palace had an exceedingly interesting story to tell, and it went out and told it. Versailles, meanwhile, I would argue, was sitting on an equally interesting story in Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, but it never managed to shape the experience into storytelling. Meanwhile, at Hampton Court Palace, I found myself interested in monarchs I'd never really known anything about, such as Queen Catherine, who was actually the first queen to live in Mary's apartments (Mary died before they were completed).

Kitchens to feed a palace full of people.

Hampton Court Palace also gave a more complete experience, allowing you to tour the kitchen and begin to get an idea of just what went into preparing meals fit for a king. And then there were the gardens — the open portion was probably a tenth the size of those at Versailles, but again, that was a more manageable proportion.

The Rose Garden, one of the true highlights of my trip.

Coming from the Palace, I began at the magnificent Rose Garden, had a quite decent for a tourist attraction lunch at the Tiltyard Cafe (in one of the towers where the King and other spectators would watch jousting), and then continued on through the Maze, a not-very-wild "Wilderness", and then in to the largest portion of the gardens open to the public, the Great Fountain Garden.

Great Fountain Garden's sculpted trees, with the Baroque palace.

The Great Fountain Garden was all giant sculpted trees, paths, and flowers, all centered around a large fountain, with the Baroque palace in the background. On the other side of the palace complex were another set of daintier, even more sculpted gardens, plants and flowers neatly balanced. These all were much more along the lines of my expectations for royal gardens, and they were uncrowded enough to make walking around in them quite enjoyable.

More lovely gardens, with the Baroque palace.

Super-sculpted gardens, and so many chimneys.

No one would call Hampton Court Palace more grand than Versailles. It is not nearly so large, not nearly so luxe, not nearly so popular. But that — and its stories — were precisely what made it far more enjoyable. I had a lovely walk in the gardens, and I learned things, and as I left, I certainly felt enriched.

More flowers of Hampton Court's gardens.

Maybe I didn't give Versailles the best chance, coming on the day I knew it would be most crowded. But even when you take away the crowds, it just wasn't as well-done, on many different levels. If I had it to do again, I would have maneuvered my itinerary so that I could go to the Louvre first and view Napoleon III's apartments. If I did that, and still had a desire to get my gilt on, only then should I have headed to Versailles.

Napoleon III Apartments at the Louvre.
Probably sufficient for my French opulence quota

To bring this post to a close, I should reveal that while I was at Hampton Court Palace, I had the song "I'm Henry the Eighth" in my head. You know, the one by Herman's Hermits — "second verse, same as the first!" In my head THE WHOLE TIME I was there.

And I still enjoyed myself more than I did at Versailles.


The one bag report

Ready for packing. Note: I didn't take the netbook on the end table.

Last year, I attempted to travel in Europe with one wheel-less carry-on bag. It didn't go so well.

I was still convinced that light travel was the way to go, but I realized that I needed wheels to make it work for me. So I picked up a lightweight roller bag, and had been quite successful in using it in the United States for trips. This was, however, the first time I got to put my new wheeled one bag travel style to the test in Europe, and also the longest trip I'd tested it on. I'm happy to report that things mostly went very well. Here are some details...

Logistics & Luggage

There are a lot of different reasons to travel with one carry-on size bag. Avoiding checked baggage fees or lost luggage is a popular reason, but it's not why I prefer to travel this way. I like the freedom that comes with traveling light, and it becomes particularly important if, like me, you take a lot of trains and public transport.

Packed-up Skyway. I usually roll items to pack them as it saves space and cuts
down on wrinkles, but still lets you get to things quickly (I had four different
one-night stays), unlike the bundle method, which is also popular among one-baggers.

On this trip, I actually checked my bag — a 7 lb Skyway No Weight wheelie — on three out of the four flights I took. I flew British Airways to London, which was the one time I carried it on and the only time I had some angst about my bag choice (it gets slightly wider at the base, and had to be sweet-talked by the BA flight attendant into fitting into the narrow overhead bin on the 767). But it did fit, and that meant that at least my bag had made it over the Atlantic with me. I flew a Monarch charter flight from London to Greece, which had a 5 kg (11 pounds) weight limit. Plus you were limited to one bag. Not one bag and a personal item, just one bag period.

Some people are capable of making that weight limit, but I'm not THAT much of an ultralight traveler, so I paid to check the bag. Then since I was already going to be checking it, I took advantage of being able to take larger liquids, and picked up a medium size American Cream conditioner, Catastrophe Cosmetic face mask (critical with lots of sunscreen clogging my pores), and Volcano foot mask while I was at the Lush Spa in London, as well as sunscreen from Boots, and some very very good port at Barry Brothers & Rudd, which went down far better than ouzo while we were in Greece.

I brought a large Reisenthel Mini Maxi Shopper tote that could fold up into a pouch, and used this as my one bag on the plane. It held my purse, chargers, toiletries, medication, laundry supplies, and enough clothes to survive on if my "big" bag was lost. A note on the purse — at the last minute, due to neck pain, I decided to leave my trusty messenger bag at home and picked up a Nine West shoulder purse. It was definitely better for my neck but needed to be just a bit bigger so it could hold a larger water bottle, food, and purchases if needed. I've since bought a Merrell Gretta bag that I think is going to be perfect as a travel day bag.

I didn't fill up the Skyway when I packed it, so there was a fair amount of room for souvenirs. I made it all the way to Paris with just it as luggage, but in Paris I bought wine and some gourmet food items, and maxed out the space in the Skyway. So the tote bag came out again as overflow luggage. With the wine in it, even the lightweight Skyway made for a tough lug up four flights of stairs in my last hotel. But then again, those stairs were so rough I was out of breath and in need of a cup of tea ANY time I walked up them.

Overall I was so much happier with wheeled luggage. I never really encountered any cobblestones so it was all smooth rolling (and the Skyway with its rubber telescoping handle and wide wheels is a VERY smooth roller). The telescoping handle was smooth and therefore easy to extend when I got off of trains, and the bag also had a rubber-covered handle close to the top of the bag that I could reach down and grab (with the telescoping handle still up) to quickly handle stairs. Another side handle was key when I needed to lift it into luggage racks on trains.

Clothes & Laundry

When you do one-bag travel as a woman, you typically only have room for 1-2 bras, 3-5 pairs of underpants, 3-6 shirts, and 3-4 dress/pants/skirts, and those numbers include whatever you're wearing. So doing laundry along the way is essential, and it's the tradeoff you make for not being a Sherpa while in transit.

It also means you get a bit obsessed with how fast things dry. If things are taking two days to dry, and you only have a limited number of clothes, well, you run out. And if you're only staying overnight somewhere, and things take two days to dry, you have a suitcase full of wet clothes. Gross. As a result, a lot of places sell specialized travel clothes made of synthetic blends that dry fast. The trouble is, I don't like travel clothes because, well, most of them look like travel clothes. You would never wear any of them in normal life to go to work or out to dinner, and yet you're walking around some major European capital in them, looking like a great big tourist.

I got a pair of travel pants last year, and while they did dry quickly, I didn't like the way they looked or the way I felt wearing them. So this year I made it my aim to only take clothes that looked normal, and I accomplished this by mostly taking normal clothes. My biggest find was a pair of polyester/viscose/elastane dress slacks that had originally been from Express, but I found at a Gabriel Brothers for $5. After repairing a hem (the sole cause of the $5 price), I washed them and was amazed to find that not only did they dry quickly, they also dried wrinkle free, so they never needed to be ironed. And they were nice, normal pants. I've worn them to work in addition to taking them on my trip. In addition to these, I did take a pair of jeans (they take forever to dry but can go several wears between washes), a pair of synthetic yoga pants, and a convertible skirt/dress from Patagonia. This could be worn either as a bandeau-style dress or a side-tie skirt and was quite versatile, but unfortunately slow-drying 100% cotton. If I had it to do over again I'd try to find something similar in a synthetic fabric.

Patagonia convertible skirt/dress, Express poly/viscose/
elastane pants, Express jeans, and across the legs, C9
synthetic yoga pants. Not pictured are a pair of jogging shorts.

For shirts, I found two synthetic tops I liked at Express, but should have left the one with tank top straps home as it was chilly enough in the evenings in Greece that I didn't get the wear out of it I thought I would. I also brought two C9 duo dry cotton-polyester shirts from the exercise clothes section Target, in black and purple. These were comfier than 100% synthetic, dried fast, and looked like normal v-neck t-shirts. I did bring one actual travel shirt, a Merrell Cambia. However, although it definitely has a polyesterey feel, I found it to be comfortable, and more importantly, it didn't look like a travel shirt. It dried very fast and I wore it quite a bit.

Clockwise from the upper left: Express mesh floral top (almost always had to wear layered because it was cold at night in Greece), Express synthetic v-neck floral tee, Merrell Cambia button-down travel shirt, shelf tank top (didn't get much use), purple C9 tee, black C9 tee.

I also brought three outerwear items. The first was a thin shrug sweater, the second a light 3/4 zip fleece (less than $4 on clearance in the exercise section at Target), and the third a military-style trench coat, again from Express. I almost always travel with a fleece, and I am almost always very glad I brought it. This time was no exception, as it got quite cold at night in Greece and our house didn't have heat. But the real star here was the trench coat. I got it on sale for about $50 and loved the style of it, and that it was machine washable cotton so that it could be spot cleaned if needed (and it was needed). It looked good, and I felt nice wearing it around Bath, Paris and London — much nicer than I would have in a heavier fleece or some other sort of travel jacket. I think I got more respect from people I encountered, too, with my trench coat and cute red Skyway, compared to my REI fleece and eBags backpack of last year. A lot of people assumed I was traveling on business, and I don't think that was a bad thing.

Trench coat, shrug, and fleece

A note about Paris, before I delve into laundry. I had been totally freaked out about what to wear there before I went. I'd heard that jeans were an absolute no-no, and had the impression that beautifully stylish French women would be walking around in pants and dresses with their fashionable scarves, judging tourists. This was not, in fact, the case. People were wearing all sorts of things in Paris, including jeans. I will say that there was a higher proportion of scarves, and that everyone seemed to have some sense of personal style, but it was not expressed by everyone wearing Hermes. My nice trench coat was more than enough to make me feel comfortable, style-wise, and as I am not really a scarf person, I should have left the one I brought at home.

Laundry was actually the biggest challenge at our house in Greece. It didn't have a washer or dryer, so we all did sink laundry. Fortunately, there was a clothes line, and anything hung up there dried quickly in the sun and breeze. Unfortunately, rooms in the house were quite damp, and on my last full day there, it poured down rain much of the morning and afternoon, so even with my synthetic clothes, getting things dry was a challenge.

Following Greece, I had a series of one-night stays in Portsmouth, Bath, and Castle Combe, which meant that anything I washed had to dry overnight. But I took advantage of the fans in my hotel rooms in Bath and Castle Combe, and turned them on the items I washed for the night. Everything was perfectly dry by morning. I was in Paris for three nights, and so conducted a larger-scale laundry operation on my first night. Still, although I did a bit of laundry almost every day on my trip, it went quickly, and it was definitely worth it to have a much lighter bag to carry, and fewer things to have to pack up whenever I changed locations.

Best & Worst Gear

Here are some of the things I was super-glad I took:

Merrell Waterpro Sables: All-time best travel shoes ever. I blogged about the shoes I took in an earlier post, so I won't go into too much detail, but suffice to say, these shoes were ridiculously comfortable and versatile. I've walked up to 7 miles in these shoes, submerged them in water, and felt comfortable wearing them in cities (having the trench coat helped with that). Note: the link goes to the Waterpro Crystals, the Sables' very similar-looking replacement.

Express trench coat: Already covered this one, but it's worth repeating. Traveling in May, a nice trench coat was more important for looking good than any other article of clothing, and I loved wearing this one with its slightly aggressive military styling.

Kindle: It probably goes without saying that a Kindle is great for traveling. But it was so key to traveling light, and I loved being able to read whatever book I was in the mood for and not feel like I had to ration books so I wouldn't run out. It was also easy to read while standing in line, and that made lines a lot less terrible. It's a good thing it has such a great battery life, too, because my power adapter was usually taken up by my thirstier cell phone or camera battery charger.

Droid 2 Global: When it came time for me to get a new phone last year, I went for this smart phone that has quad band GSM. Although I had to go easy on my data usage since data plans are super expensive for Europe, it was so nice to be able to check the weather and my email wherever I was. And since it had wifi, anytime I was staying a hotel with free wifi, I could go crazy on the data. It also served as my MP3 player.

Lush Ultrabalm: There was nothing this stuff couldn't do. It served as a lip balm, cuticle cream, and a balm for irritated skin (including, erm, the skin that gets irritated by cheap toilet paper, which you tend to have to use more of when traveling). It took pine tar off of a friend's feet after he went hiking in sandals. And I even used it as a shoe shine for my leather Merrell Brios.

Here are some things that didn't work so well:

Joby tripod: The concept is great, and I think I am going to still get use out of this thing, but maybe not for most traveling. There just weren't really a lot of situations where I needed a tripod. I'm a point-and-shoot kind of girl at heart.

TravelRest pillow: This was a complete fail, because I couldn't get it to inflate on the plane. So basically it didn't get used for my overnight flight, and spent the trip taking up space in my suitcase because I couldn't bring myself to throw it out.

Sea to Summit Drylite Towel: I got one in an extra large size because it needed to serve two purposes. It had to be a light, packable beach towel for Greece, which it managed nicely. It also needed to roll up my washed clothes to squeeze the excess water out of them. This is where it failed. When I washed it after using it as a beach towel, it bled so much blue dye that I didn't trust using it for clothes. And I had pre-washed it as instructed before leaving, so that wasn't the issue. I ended up using the towels at my hotels, and lucked out that I never had a towel shortage. So I need to find a colorfast microfiber travel towel, or bleach the crap out of this one.

Sport nozzle Platypus Platy bottle: I love the idea of the lightweight Platy bottle, which takes up no space once you use it. But I used the same one I did last year, and apparently it was too old, because the nozzle failed and it leaked in my purse (fortunately no electronics were harmed). I'll stick to the screw-cap Platys from now on — less to fail.

What I wish I'd brought:

Steripen: I thought about getting one but then decided against it because I couldn't get a clear answer on why the water in Skiathos wasn't drinkable. Was it the mineral content? Bacteria? Who knew. We ended up buying large bottles of water like the rest of the island, and fortunately the convenience store down the road from our house had recycling. But on the rest of the trip I really could have used the Steripen, especially if my Platy bottle hadn't failed. I was on the go a lot and not quite confident enough in bathroom faucets in public restrooms to fill my bottle there. So I bought a lot of bottles of water, and was not happy with myself about it. If I'd had the Steripen I could have filled up anywhere that had clear tap water and felt good about it.

Neilmed Sinus Rinse: I started coming down with a cold in Skiathos and would have paid very good money for one of these, which is an easier to use and more portable version of a neti pot. But I couldn't find one, in Skiathos or even at a very large Boots in Portsmouth. In Skiathos I ended up MacGyvering one out of a bottle of contact lens solution with the tip cut off, some boiled water, and salt, which was better than nothing. And Boots did have a highly pressurized saline spray that I bought and took to calling the "nose rocket." But neither was as good as the Sinus Rinse. Lesson learned — I'm never traveling that long without one again.

And so that's the one bag report for this year's Europe trip. All in all, I think it went far better than last year, and I think I'll be able to take what I learned this time around and do even better and pack lighter next year. Possibly with a different suitcase, but more on that later.

For now, here's an annotated list of all the stuff I packed. And if you're interested in starting on one bag travel, the One Bag and One Bag One World sites are great places to start. I will note though that my advice is a bit different than a lot of what you'll see on those sites about non-wheeled luggage — it's a personal choice, and you need to think about your upper-body strength and any health issues before you decide to go wheel-less, especially now that there are more good lightweight wheelie options out there. Rick Steves' site also has a nice section on packing light that takes a realistic look at wheels vs. no wheels, among other things.

Jane Austen's England

Bath Abbey at night.

After my negative reaction to France, I got to thinking about why it is that I'm always so happy when I'm traveling in England, when everywhere else in the world can be hit or miss. After all, Paris, Dublin, and New York — all major tourist cities — have never really clicked with me.

And I started thinking that perhaps literature plays a large part. Two of my favorite novelists — Jane Austen and Patrick O'Brian — both set their novels around the time of Georgian and Regency England. London has always held some sort of special lure for me, but beyond it, I find it's the places mentioned in the books of these two authors that I'm often compelled to visit.

Portsmouth features heavily in O'Brian's books (and is seen in a less-favorable light in Austen's Mansfield Park), and I've now been there three times, each a delight. But this time around I wanted to spend a little more time in Jane Austen's world, and that prompted a repeat visit to Bath.

The first time I visited Bath, I hadn't really been an Austen fan. I started trying to read Pride & Prejudice in my early 20s, and bailed early into the book. I couldn't handle the looping, intricate formality of the language back then. Fast-forward through all 20 of O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books, and it seems natural to me now, and when I tried Austen's books again, I was hooked.

Roman and Regency all rolled in to one.

Bath is the setting for one of my very favorite books, Persuasion, although neither Austen nor her heroine Anne Elliot liked the city, preferring the countryside to a place of so much gossip and posing. I, however, enjoyed myself very much this time around. After a lovely, relaxing evening at the Thermae Bath Spa, I woke the next morning and took an early walk around the town.

A pan around the Crescent.

There are few places so consistently historic as Bath — only the Royal Mile in Edinburgh comes to mind. All of the buildings with their cream-colored Bath Stone facades and their wrought iron details are largely the same ones Anne Elliot would have walked past. My walk took me through Bath's two most architecturally famous features — the Circus and the Crescent — around the gardens, and then eventually to the Jane Austen Centre.

Georgian Garden.

Jane Austen might not have liked Bath, but Bath certainly loves Austen, calling her its most famous resident. And in the Centre, a row house similar to the one up the street where the Austens actually lived, you get both biographical details of her life, and a greater understanding of what it was like to live during the Regency era (including an understanding of just how very rich indeed Mr. Darcy's 10,000 pounds a year made him).

Jane Austen Centre.

After touring the Centre's museum, I went upstairs to its Regency Tea Rooms for a cream tea. If you've never had cream tea, you should — it's a pot of tea, with scones, jam, and clotted cream. Clotted cream is made through some sort of magic performed on regular cream that solidifies it, and if you take the best aspects of butter, cream cheese, and whipped cream, and blend them all together, well, that's what clotted cream tastes like, and it's even more fantastic when combined with jam on a fresh, warm scone.

Cream tea, nom nom.

Moving on, because now I really want a cream tea and alas there is none to be found in Silver Spring. After the Austen Centre, I went to the nearby Assembly Rooms. These were where the Regency semi-elite gathered for balls, tea, and music (the true elite were more often engaged in private parties), and it was strange walking through them because I'd already seen them in movie versions of Persuasion, so they were new and familiar at the same time.

Ballroom at the Assembly Rooms.

The Assembly Rooms contain a quite nice Fashion Museum in the basement, which really covers a full evolution of women's fashion. And as a special exhibit for the royal wedding, they were showing wedding dresses from various years.

Wedding dresses on display.

I did some more walking, back down through the city, but soon enough it was time to take a cab to Castle Combe. If you read this blog, you know I have quite an aversion to cabs, but it would have been more expensive to rent a car (plus the whole driving on the opposite side of the road thing), and there really is no other good way to get there.

Adorable Castle Combe.

Castle Combe is a delightfully tiny little village in the Cotswolds. If I had just come from Persuasion's Bath, then this was much closer to Emma's Highbury, and as Emma is my other favorite Austen book, I was completely charmed. I learned the full story of Castle Combe from the cab driver who took me to the train station the next morning. He explained that it had been full of mills for the garment industry back at its height, but then the river shrank, leaving the mills inoperable, and the town frozen in time.

This could totally pass for Highbury.

There's not a lot to do in Castle Combe, but I had a lovely afternoon and evening there. I checked into my room at the Castle Inn Hotel, and marveled at the exposed beams, crooked walls, and impressively renovated bathroom for awhile. Then I headed out for a walk. This was a full-on English walk, through forests and sheep pastures, over stiles and through gates, along impossibly green countryside.

Walking in the Cotswolds is delightful and sheepful.

Then I cleaned up and washed the sheep poo out of my shoes, went to the pub across the street (the only pub in town) for a pint, and back to the hotel restaurant for dinner. It was there that I discovered I actually do like mussels, or at least I do as long as they're fresh Cornish mussels in a garlic cream sauce.

Fresh Cornish mussels...mmmmm.

I had breakfast early the next day, as I was due to head back to London and from there to Paris. And it was at breakfast that I got to talking to the server about where I lived, and traveling to the United States. She asked about San Francisco, a place she's been wanting to travel to, and as I've been there, I could give her some details about what I enjoyed. Then, to my surprise, she asked about North Carolina.

North Carolina? My sister lives there, so I also had some details to offer, but I was puzzled as to why, of all places, she was interested in North Carolina. Then she offered up that she liked the books of Nicholas Sparks. Ohhhh. I haven't read any of his books, but I knew they were set in the Outer Banks (another place I've been).

And you know what? I bet if she ever makes it to the Outer Banks, she'll enjoy them just as much as I enjoyed Bath and Castle Combe. Because there's something about being in the place of your favorite characters, walking through the scenery you've read so well-described. When you've already connected to a place in a great book, it's so much easier to love it on arrival.