Okay, yeah, not so much a shock. But I realized something after last year's Paris visit, and it's that I really, really tend to prefer traveling in Great Britain to anywhere else I've been so far. There's so much I love about it — the history, the literature, the scenery, the architectural eye candy, and, not least of all, the cask ale. And while I enjoy traveling to new places, until such time as a new place steals my heart more, I came to realize it needs to share a hefty portion of my itineraries, especially as there are so many places in England, Wales, and Scotland that I want to visit.
So this year I decided I'd devote a large number of days to England, and, moreover, I would stop hopping around, willy-nilly, from place to place that caught my attention, and instead assume that I will be coming back, many times in the future. As a result, I focused my time outside of London in the southwest coast, in lovely Hampshire and even lovelier Dorset.
Everyone has been asking me since I've been back what my favorite part of the trip is. Impossible! I can barely choose a favorite thing from each place I went to, and I went to quite a few places. So I'm just going to share my whole itinerary (because it really did kick ass), and highlights from each place.
3 nights: London
After I decided to have a hefty-dose-of-England itinerary, it was logical to fly into London. And since my friend Matt hadn't been there yet, but had been wanting to go, I invited him to join in. We took a redeye out Wednesday night, landed Thursday morning, and commenced the jet lag death march. I introduced Matt to cask ale, and also learned that after two pints, I don't really mind being on the London Eye, even though I'm quite afraid of heights.
September turned out to be a good time to visit, as things that aren't normally accessible were open for visitors. We took the opportunity to tour Buckingham Palace (I, sarcastically, said there wasn't enough gold leaf, and after that there was even MORE gold leaf in each room we viewed). We also managed to fit in the Cabinet War Rooms, Westminster Abbey, the Tate Modern, a whole lot of shopping, and quite a few more pints.
Palace of Westminster, from the London Eye. Full London set.
1 night: City Night Line sleeper train
I am not a fan of flying, and if there is a reasonable train option, am usually going to go for that. Particularly in Europe, where a sleeper train saves a night of hotel cost and gets you there while you sleep. So as soon as I found out there was a Paris-Munich sleeper train, I knew it was the option I was probably going to go for. That meant a trip through the Chunnel on the Eurostar, and a brief layover in Paris.
The sleeper itself wasn't the greatest night's sleep I've ever had — it seemed like it was either hauling ass or stopped the entire night. But it was a good length of time, at 11 hours, to be on a sleeper, and I arrived in Munich reasonably well-rested. Matt had stayed over in Paris to visit a friend there, so I was a little nervous about making my way in a new city (with a new language), by myself, but I needn't have worried. I felt very comfortable traveling around Munich, although the city was clearly packed for Oktoberfest.
Paris Gare de l'Est. A little sleeper/Paris set.
1 night: Munich
When I had a brief outline of my itinerary set, back in February, I decided to book a cancellable hotel room for this night, just to ensure I had something. I'm glad I did, as many hotels were sold out, and the one I chose started to enforce a two-night minimum stay closer to fall. It was close to the train station, so I dropped my bag off and then went back to the train station to go to Dachau.
Going to Dachau was one of those things that I knew wouldn't be an enjoyable experience, but it was something I felt like I both wanted and needed to do while I was in Munich. There were points while I was there when I felt physically nauseous, and it gave me an uneasy perspective on the startling lack of diversity in Munich and Bavaria (particularly noticeable after coming from London). But still, I'm glad I went.
Dachau took up the entire morning, and after taking the S-Bahn back into the city, I had no desire to go to any other museums. So I spent the afternoon walking around, exploring the city and taking pictures. I even managed to time it so that I was at the Marienplatz when the glockenspiel went through its paces.
Dachau. Full Dachau set.
Marienplatz in Munich. Full Munich set.
4 nights: Garmisch-Partenkirchen
Ace house finder Meghan was extremely wise this time to find us a place outside of Munich to stay. Yeah, we wanted to do the whole Oktoberfest experience, but the city was not only crowded, but crowded with generally drunk people. So she found a place in this Bavarian town where we could take the train in to the city for our beer tent reservation, but otherwise enjoy peace and quiet at the base of the alps.
Oktoberfest was every bit as much beer-filled fun as you'd expect it to be, and operated on a much larger scale than I'd realized. The beer tent we were in (the Hofbrau tent), was just one of twenty-some tents that held thousands each. And beyond the tents, there were food stands, carnival rides, you name it. And thanks to the Germans' beer purity law, I was not hungover the next day, despite measuring beer consumption in liters.
Aside from the day we spent went to Munich for Oktoberfest, we spent the rest of our time in the town, which truly was this perfect little picture postcard Bavarian town. We hiked the beautiful Partnach Gorge on one day, and took a train and then cable car to the top of the Zugspitze, the tallest mountain in Germany. The latter perhaps wasn't the best idea for someone who needed two pints just to go on the London Eye, but for some reason I thought I would be alright. I wasn't. The area at the top of the mountain was much more perched on the top of the mountain than I'd expected. I went nowhere near the edge.
Yeah, that's me, standing on a table. Full Oktoberfest set.
With the lovely and windblown Meghan and Kristen on the top of the Zugspitze. Full Garmisch set.
No shortage of mountains and twee Bavarian buildings. Full Garmisch set.
1 night: City Night Line sleeper train
Although we had the house in Garmisch for five nights, I began to realize that if I took day trains back to England, I'd basically spend an entire day on trains. So I left the evening of the last night and repeated the sleeper-Eurostar trip. I thought there were going to be some issues with this leg, as the sleeper left Munich two hours late due to a brake problem in one of the cars, and I had less than two hours to make my transfer and get checked in for the Eurostar. You have to go through security and passport control before boarding the Eurostar, so I was seriously concerned that I was going to miss my scheduled Eurostar and have to buy a very expensive day-of ticket for a later train.
But as it turned out, the train made up all the lost time. And I actually slept better on this leg, despite my worry over the delay. The sleeper must really slow things down in order to give you enough time to settle in and sleep, and nicely enough this gave them a cushion.
Oh, and by the way, Munich train station on a Friday night: total shit show. Drunk people running to catch their trains, even drunker people in lederhosen propped up by their buddies (one of said buddies still drinking a beer with his free arm), ambulances driving through the station, and most disturbingly, a young child with an inflatable beer balloon. It was some serious people-watching.
3 nights: Portsmouth
Conventional wisdom holds that when traveling in southern England, you should base in London and take day trips. And London is very much a giant hub in the British rail system. But there are some drawbacks to basing in London — it's very expensive, and, while I love London, there's a charm to getting out of it and spending time in cities and towns of more manageable size. Not to mention English breakfasts, as a general rule, get better as you get closer to the actual livestock. I'd already traveled to Portsmouth three times, and I was quite comfortable with the city, so I decided to try it as a base for day trips this time around. This was in no small part influenced by the George Hotel, a lovely little historic pub and inn just around the block from the Portsmouth Harbour train station, where I paid about half of what I would have for a room in London. And for that I got not only a delicious breakfast every morning, but also a room that pushed pretty much all the Carrie buttons — exposed beams, disused fireplace, quilt on the bed, and a settee.
I arrived with just enough time to poke around the Historic Dockyard a bit, and have dinner in the George's pub. The next day was a Sunday, which is key, since the Watercress Line only ran on weekends during the time I was there. I knew that I wanted to visit Jane Austen's house, which was not too far away in the village of Chawton, but with Portsmouth as a base I needed to get a little more creative about how to get there. Trains run from London to Alton, which is a walkable distance to Chawton, but the line stops there. Which meant that to take a regular train to Alton from Portsmouth, I'd have to go nearly all the way back to London, and then work my way back. That seemed ridiculous, and eventually, I found an alternative — the Watercress Line.
The Watercress Line is one of an amazing number of historic rail lines in Britain which is kept open by enthusiasts. It runs from Alresford to Alton, and when I say historic, I mean it uses steam locomotives and vintage rail cars. If I took a regular train to Winchester, just a short trip from Portsmouth, it would then be a quick cab ride to get to Alresford, and from there to Alton. I could (and did) hoof it from there to Chawton. Which is the story of how a steam train became an actual legitimate leg of transportation on my trip. And while I greatly enjoyed touring Jane Austen's house, I got a real kick out of riding the steam train. My only disappointment was that because this day fell on a Sunday, I wasn't able to tour Winchester Cathedral, which had shortened visitor hours.
My second day trip was to Southampton, then on to Poole, and back to Portsmouth in the evening. At one point I'd considered staying in Southampton instead, and I'm very glad I didn't. The city has a number of remaining medieval buildings and walls remaining, which made for a good morning walk. And its Tudor House Museum was interesting, but its maritime "SeaCity" museum was a bit of a letdown — almost entirely Titanic-focused and very small. Poole, meanwhile, was a pleasant surprise. I went there mostly because it has a Lush Spa, and I had a "Good Hour" massage scheduled. But it has a beautiful historic area, leading right up to the water. If I were to make a list of the 10 best places I've ever had a pint (and you know, I just might, one of these days), the medieval banqueting hall of Poole's King Charles pub would most certainly make the list.
Of course, all of these day trips I made from Portsmouth shouldn't shortchange Portsmouth itself. I still had time for a serving of the best fish and chips on the planet at the Ship Anson, and a few pints at other historic pubs. And, of course, a walk through HMS Victory. I mean, how could I not, when I'm in the neighborhood?
HMS Warrior, at night. Full Portsmouth set.
Traveling all old fashioned on the steam train. Full Winchester-Chawton set.
Jane Austen's writing table. Full Winchester-Chawton set.
Tudor House in Southampton. Full Southampton set.
The Lush Spa in Poole. Full Poole set.
2 nights: Lyme Regis
The second Jane Austen-influenced portion of my trip was to actually spent two nights in Lyme Regis, which features prominently in my favorite Austen book, Persuasion. Even if I had never read a word of that book, though, I think I would have loved Lyme Regis of its own merit. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.Granted, my aesthetic for natural beauty tends more towards English countryside anyway, but when you combine the rolling green hills and hedgerows of the English countryside with dramatic cliffs, a historic sunlit hillside town, and, of course, the ocean, well, you've pretty much ordered up a place guaranteed to be loved by Carrie.
As soon as I arrived (via train from Portsmouth to Axminster, with a transfer in Salisbury, and then a bus from Axminster to Lyme), I checked in to my hotel, the Royal Lion, a 17th century coaching inn, and then made the short walk to the seaside. And immediately said: "Why don't I live here?" That's right, people of Lyme Regis. I hate all of you, simply for getting to live in such a lovely place every day.
I was left to make the most out of my short time there by walking everywhere I possibly could to explore, from the famous Cobb to the cliff-side wilderness to the faded pub well up the hill with a view of it all. And I also managed to fit in some shopping, and a visit to the city's cute little museum. Jane Austen, you can serve as my travel agent anytime.
Sigh. Full Lyme Regis set.
Sunlight on the Cobb. Full Lyme Regis set.
1 night: Sherborne
At one point, I'd thought about trying to cram Cornwall into my itinerary as well, but as other things sucked up more days, it became clear that would just shortchange everything. Still, after Lyme Regis I thought I'd like one more night somewhere, if just to ensure that I didn't have to deal with the bus (which ended up not being an issue at all) or a taxi, then the train all the way back to London. Somehow, Sherborne ended up on my radar, and it was nearly a perfect solution. It was about a half hour train ride from Axminster, on the line back to London, and a lovely little compact day of sightseeing.
Sherborne has four key things for the traveler. The first is just the city itself, with a large number of medieval buildings still intact, particularly around Sherborne Abbey. My Georgian-era hotel seemed like a new kid on the block by comparison. The Abbey, of course, is the second thing to see. It's relatively small, and I've seen a lot of cathedrals, abbeys and other churches in my travels, but as soon as I stepped inside I was completely wowed. It's beautiful, with such intricate fan vaulting on the ceiling that it makes Bath Abbey seem simple by comparison. The third and fourth items are Sherborne Castle, built on to a former hunting lodge of Sir Walter Raleigh's, and Sherborne Old Castle, ruins of the former castle, which was torn down during the civil war. All in all, it was a lovely little stop, except for dinner, which I'll blog about later (there certainly deserves to be a food post from this trip).
Sherborne Abbey fan vaulting: WOW. Full Sherborne set.
Sherborne Old Castle, and a little of the lovely Dorset countryside. Full Sherborne set.
2 nights: London
I got back in to London with about a day and a half of real sightseeing time left on my trip. Taking even more advantage of the trip timing, I did a tour of Westminster Palace (perhaps more commonly thought of as the Houses of Parliament), which I believe does tours only on Saturdays the rest of the year. In Buckingham Palace, I joked that there wasn't enough gold leaf. Well, apparently, they saved it all for this place. The only place I've seen that's more ornate is Versailles, but this Gothic-as-reimagined-by-Victorians may well have Versailles beat in the line of twiddly bits. The best part, though, was when a little kid from another tour group made a break for it and sat down in the queen's throne. The policeman was not amused.
I managed to fit in evensong at St. Paul's Cathedral — lovely as ever — before seeing Richard III at the Globe on my second-to-last night. Now that I've been, I don't think I'll ever skip an opportunity to see a play at the Globe, and this one, a fully traditional performance (read: men dressed as women), was very well-acted and so entertaining. Which is all the more impressive considering it was pouring down rain for much of it. I was glad I had a seat, which kept me protected under the thatch roof, and really felt for the groundlings out there in their ponchos.
My last full day, I had a Validation facial at the Lush Spa, which meant I was super-relaxed and had brilliant skin while I spent the rest of the day in Greenwich, catching some things I hadn't seen my last time there. The Cutty Sark has been undergoing restoration on top of restoration (it was damaged by fire during the restoration work), and was finally open during a visit of mine. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed by it — it's essentially a museum stuck inside of a ship, rather than an attempt to actually recreate what it was like in the ship. HMS Victory is a much better experience, in my opinion. I also visited the Queen's House, Royal Observatory, and Museum of London Docklands.
The cavernous Westminster Hall, one of the oldest parts of the palace. Full London set.
And that's the whole of it. I wasn't gone much longer than my usual Europe trips, but those extra couple days, combined with the fact that this was the longest amount of continuous time I've spent traveling in England, apparently made a difference. Like when I asked for ketchup ("tomato sauce"), or my bus ticket back to Axminster, and was amazed at how, well, British it came out of my mouth. Or when I got home and went to pay for lunch, and thought, "this money is so SMALL!" That's the price you pay for a kick-ass itinerary, I guess.