London Diary – Christmas Markets and Beethoven!

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November 2017

Going to Germany for the first time and for its legendary Christmas Markets. Where to was the question. Berlin, Dresden, Munich or Cologne, the list goes on. It however didn’t take long for me to decide on Cologne for its proximity to Bonn, birthplace of Beethoven.

Cologne

The prettiest part of Cologne is the river front near Cologne Cathedral. The view from both side are pleasant.

Cologne Cathedral is probably the largest cathedral I’ve seen apart from St Peter’s In Vatican. It is quite magnificent if you can see past its shockingly blackened exterior. I did wish it had been cleaned.

Weather was grey the majority of the time, cold in low 30s, and grew even colder on the last day when light snow turned into continuous light rain.

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Luckily the Christmas Markets are truly phenomenal and there are many of them. We visited Christmas Market at Cologne Cathedral, Old Market Christmas Market at Cologne City Hall, St Nicholas Village, Angel’s Christmas Market at Neumarkt, Harbor Christmas Market at Cologne Chocolate Museum overlooking Rhone River, and Stardtgarten Christmas Market in Belgian Quarter.

Each has its own theme in decorations and my favorite is St Nicholas. While there is some variation, you find similar treats and folksy crafts at them all. We did a little shopping and lots tasting of local delicacy, to name a few, Bratwurst, Currywurst, Reibekuchen – a delicious potato pancake, and Gluhwein everywhere, which is severed in a mug or glass uniquely designed for that specific market.

The river side Chocolate Museum is also a fun place to visit. Its café has nice view and lots chocolaty treats.

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Bonn

Beethoven is one of my two top favorite composers and it was a touching and inspiring experience visiting the house where he was born, which is now an interesting museum. Among others, you can see the clunky hearing aids he used, which did not work well at all. What a genius and truly my hero, despite the loss of his hearing, he continued to create great music.

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And of course, there is a Christmas Market in Bonn too, located at Münsterplatz Square, not far from the house and there is a grand bronze statue of Beethoven at opposite side of Bonn Cathedral.

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London Diary – Cornwall – where a Legend is born!

 

Oct, 2017

4th time to Cornwall, loooved it as usual, despite the weather. Included in this visit, Padstow, a charming, sophisticated waterfront town, Port Issac, a beautiful seaside town and yes Doc Martin’s Portwenn, and Tintagel, breathtaking sea view made magical with its link to Arthurian legend.

Padstow

First day at Padstow weather was stormy at sea, windy and rainy on land. We drove around and explored anyway. Looking for Bedruthan Steps, we ended up at Beach Head Bunk House, where we got a glimpse of the violently surging waves in the distance. Next we stumbled across Trevone Beach where there is a parking lot with view to the sea and beach. We sat inside the car and watched the waves slashing against the rocks, an awe inspiring scene.

I chose to stay at Padstow mainly b/c of Metrolepole, a sister hotel to Fowey Hotel that I liked very much. Having not giving much thought to the town itself, it was a nice surprise when Padstow turned out to be so much more than expected, a lively and lovely town with finishing port. Among a number of restaurants you might come across multiple places owned by Rick Stein, a fancy seafood restaurant, a cafe, and a casual seafood place, which was our favorite, superb seafood in casual setting.

Prideaux Place was a most unexpected and happy discovery, what a stunningly beautiful 500 year old house with its Gothic arches and castellation. It immediately reminded me of Thornfield of Jane Eyre.

Alas, the house was closed to visitors for the year. With a lucky twist of event that worked out in our favor, and thanks to Sue, the sprightly and kindly 80 year old house keeper, and Carmen, our guide, we got a tour of the house. Photos were not allowed inside, but I was given a few exceptions. The mediaeval great hall has a ceiling covered in exquisite carving. It was concealed by a faux ceiling for no one knows how long until the current owner Peter Prideaux-Brune discovered it as a boy climbing around inside the house. Making the visit more interesting, we met Elizabeth Prideaux Brune and learnt of the family’s connection to Jane Austen. Great grandmother of the current owner Peter Prideaux Brune was JA’s great niece.

An architectural gem, fascinating history and stories to go with it. Don’t miss it if you are in the area. Here is the link to its website: http://prideauxplace.co.uk/

 

 

Port Issac

Thanks to Doc Martin, Port Issac is better known to the world now. A lovely coastal town surrounded by stunning views, it certainly deserves the attention. The shop featured as Mrs Tishel’s Pharmacy is in real life a candy shop and sells yummy fudges. Chatting with the young woman at the till, I learnt that the shops is turned into Mrs. Tishel’s pharmacy for several weeks for filming and then resumes its nornal life afterwards. Also according to her, season 9 has been booked, filming will start in 2018 and air in 2019. Season 8 is being shown right now on ITV in UK.  The next season will be a little bit of a wait for Doc Martin fans. There are guided tours available. It is also easy to do a self-guided walk around town. Watching the show now is a little more interesting, since I now recognize some of the locations.

Tintagel

If you’ve seen Tintagel, you’d understand why it’s been linked to Arthurian legend. Dramatic coast was made even more atmospheric by the foggy weather that day.

The view on the coastal path between Glebe Cliff to Barras Nose is unrivaled. Other highlights are St Materiana’s Church on Glebe Cliff, Tintagel Castle on its namesake island, Merlin’s Cave, Barras Nose Headland and Camelot Hotel.

In the village, the Old Post Office, a National Trust property, is worth a visit, a time capsule of a post master’s household, cute as a button. King Arthur’s Great Hall was closed. With commanding views and colorful interior, Camelot Hotel is another interesting landmark of the village, where we had cream tea before leaving.

Arthurian Legend is probably just that, a legend. Tintagel is nonetheless symbolic of the search for the chivalry and ideals that Arthurian Legend embodies. That to me is part of its magic.

 

London Diary – A perfect birthday on Isle of Skye!

(A fore note: Although shamefully delayed, so glad I did not give it up. Writing this travelogue was to some degree reliving the joy and excitement of the journey itself.)

Jun, 2017

I had been asked many times, “have you been to Scotland yet?” Now, I can finally answer, “yes, yes, yes.” We made it to Scotland this Jun. So glad we did too, Scotland is beautiful and its highland is simply breathtaking. Endless mountains, valleys, lochs, and castles in-ruin or intact, there is a picture everywhere you turn. Scottish highland is the most scenery concentrated place I’ve ever been.

Edinburgh

We opted to try the train. The ride from London Kings Cross Station to Edinburgh Waverly Station was an interesting four hours’ journey. Apart from the countryside, Durham, New Castle and Royal Border Bridge are some of the lovely sights on the path. The track is right by the sea near the border, visibility was however extremely poor at the time due to the dense fog. As soon as the train veered away from the sea, the fog lifted and sky cleared.

Tre train ride was a nice little warm up for the journey ahead. Once in Edinburgh, we were ready to pick up a rental car. To our dismay however, there was a huge kerfuffle with the reservation. We tried multiple rental company before we finally got a car. Not a pleasant start. Luckily, it was back to smooth running in Edinburgh after that.

Picturesque surrounding hills, grand monuments, awe inspiring castles, clean and neat neighborhoods, Edinburgh is lovely, and vibrant with an interesting mix of people and variety of dining options. Most iconic would probably be formidable Edinburg Castle located on Castle Hill. Overlooking the city it is truly amazing and enjoys stunning views far beyond. Outside of main entrance to the castle is where the famous Royal Mile begins. Right at this western end of the Royal Mile there are a couple of fun things to do. Whisky Experience offers tour with tasting and a visit to its stunning Whisky collection, where you find the oldest bottle in the collection from 1897 and a 50 year old Balvenie valued at £27,500. It is interesting even if you are not a Whisky drinker. Across the street is Camera Obscure, which is fantastic fun for young and old alike. The rest of the Royal Mile is lined with more landmarks, shops and restaurants.

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Views from Calton Hill is far reaching and rewarding, including a perfect view of the hills known as Arthur’s seat and that of Edinburgh’s dry skiing slope. Nelson Monument is open and visitors can climb up to the top for panoramic views of the city and beyond. While up at the hill, I spotted a colossal shaft of cloud hung in the distance over the bay north of the hill, my first spotting of an isolated shower in its entirety, cool phenomenon. National Monument is a popular spot on the hill. It is not easy to get up to its terrace, probably not allowed, but it deterred not the group of high school or college aged youth who gathered on the terrace, later changed into black robes and started singing. Alas they were shortly afterwards stopped by pouring rain. Luckily we had finished our visit to Calton Hill by then.

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P.S. Don’t be afraid to try Hagis. The Cellar Door serves a delicious Hagis starter dish.

Rosslyn Chapel

I learnt of the 15th century Chapel from a BBC documentary. Everything about it is fascinating, and its story of being featured in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, which in turn put it on the global tourist track and helped bring in the fund to restore it, piqued my curiosity further.

In about 30 minutes we reached Rosslyn Chapel south of Edinburgh. Though small the chapel is truly magnificent. Almost every inch of its surface inside is covered with beautiful carvings, ranging from simple to intricate but all riveting. An introduction is given regularly inside the chapel. Sit in one of those, it is informative, well delivered and makes the visit so much more interesting. Take one of the brochure and take your time to find all the featured carvings. Photos are not allowed inside.

Before you leave, don’t forget to visit the partly ruined Rosslyn Castle close by. Situated in a secluded spot on a cliff and reached only by a draw bridge, the ruined castle is evocatively beautiful.

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Loch Lomond

Weather that had been mostly sunny while in Edinburgh turned unfavorably the morning we were heading towards Isle of Skye, it was grey and rainy. I expected not much for the 6 hour drive ahead of us. I was however pleasantly surprised.

On route, we drove through Glasgow downtown before going further north to Lock Lomond. Driving along the lakeside, there is no mistaken about the long reach of the lake as the largest in Scotland. There is a convenient rest stop and nice view point at Inveruglas where lake cruise is also available. Although we did not take up the cruise, a few visitors did. Our next stop is Falls of Falloch, an impressive, roaring water fall; where we also found hordes of midges and spotted a notice about a dog that had fallen into the water.

Not long after we came upon The Green Welly Shop, café and shop in one with ample parking space, it couldn’t have been timelier. It serves homely but tasty food; I had an onion soup with bread and butter, it was delicious.

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Isle of Skye

Ten or fifteen minutes back on the road, the surrounding began to change, more and more intense it became, mountains loomed from all sides, lakes appeared one after another, and ribbons of waterfalls meandered down the mountain sides. We realized we were going through Glencoe Valley. Grey, low hanging clouds there maybe, pouring rain there maybe, it could not shroud or dampen the beauty of the surrounding. If anything, it added a somber and mysterious quality and accentuated the greenery around.

From there on, it was a feast of beautiful scenery all the way. Eventually the view opened up and the bridge connecting the highland with Isle of Skye loomed ahead.

Planning and arranging for this trip only a couple of weeks in advance, accommodations in Isle of Skye had already been almost all taken up. We were lucky to find availability at Mackinnon Country House Hotel, a charming house with lovely garden and mountain-view. It was not without hiccup before we got settled in though. Upon arriving and eager to check in, we were told the reservation made via Expedia.co.uk had been received, and it was fully booked. After a couple of hours of working with Expedia and the house to try to sort things out and find alternative accommodation, there was nothing available. Just as anxiety was turning into despair, the house informed us they did have something available after all; a cancellation, which, again due to some mix up by Expedia, had not been discovered by the house until that moment, and it was exactly what would accommodate us three. A stroke of luck? Whatever that was, we were only too happy to leave all that behind and settle in. The rest of our stay was fine, breakfast room was elegant, breakfast was excellent and service at breakfast was superb.

Waking up the next morning, weather showed sign of improvement, and by the time we left the house for our self-guided tour of the island, the sun was beaming down at us happily. Indeed it remained glorious for the rest of day and the sun did not set until 10:30PM. What could have made it better? It was my birthday! A wonderful day exploring stunning Isle of Skye with my “boys” by my side, it was the best birthday ever!

Here is to hope that my words and pictures do justice to the joy and excitement I experienced that day on Isle of Skye, thus preserving the happy memory. Highlights of Isle of Skye are Portree, Old Man of Storr, Kilt Rock, Duntulum Castle, Dunvegan Castle, Idrigill, Cuillians, Fairy Pool, and Carbost.

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Eilean Donan Castle

This picturesque castle has been praised as the most romantic castle by many. It is still privately owned and family members come to stay occasionally but the castle is open all year long.

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Fort Augustus Village

It is a small village on Loch Ness with parking, a number of dining options, shops and cruises. At noon, its lock was quite busy with boats going out to the lake, attracting a number of onlookers.

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Urquhart Castle

Whilst in ruin, this castle, advantageously situated on the bank of Loch Ness, is atmospherically beautiful.

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Inverness

Capital of the highland and a lovely city!

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Glencoe Valley, Ben Nevis, Spean Bridge, Fort Williams and others

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London Diary – Pink Floyd at V&A

Jul 28, 2017

Thanks to dear Lauren who is a fan, we went to the Pink Floyd exhibit at V&A. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Going into it knowing little about the band, I learnt lots and became fascinated by the music and the band’s journey. I can imagine the joy it brings to the fans, introduction, memorabilia, videos, and a very cool audio guide that plays automatically the relevant content and music as you come into range.

Alas, sad as it maybe, it seems that all parties must end, and the band did not stick together all the way. Nonetheless there is no denying the musical brilliance of the band.

The grand finale, a segment of a live reunion concert from 2005 projected on all four sides of the performance hall, is evocative both in sound and image, Pink Floyd through and through! I walked away with that in my memory.

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London Diary – To Canal Museum and Granary Square With the Bronte Group

Jul 27, 2017

Courtesy of the Bronte group in London, I discovered the Canal Museum. It is located at Battle Basin of Regent Canal and a short walk from British Library, Kings Cross and St Pancras International.

Albeit small, the museum is informative and interesting, telling the story of building and using of the canals and people who built and lived by the canals. Among others, I was surprised to learn that most canal barges were drawn by horses until WWII.

The building that houses the museum is itself a piece of interesting history about the trade of ice importing and ice cream making in the 19th century.

After museum visit, we walked to Granary Square along the canal. As we sat down by Regent Canal to eat our sandwiches, weather turned favorably, sun was shining on us and warming it up nicely. I couldn’t have asked for better timing.

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London Diary – Jane Austen Day at Painshill

Jul 16, 2017

A lovely day out in Surrey! We went to Painshill for Jane Austen day and discovered what a gem that Painshill is. A classic English 18th century landscaped garden, it couldn’t have been a more perfect setting for a JA day.

London Diary – San Francisco and Bay Area for My Niece’s graduation!

May 11- 18. I absolutely loved the time in San Francisco and bay area with my sister and family.

Here are some highlights in random order.
California blue is stunning. But while the sun is shining, it can still be chilly in San Francisco. In the meantime, it is 10 degrees warmer in Napa and Sonoma. One day I was shivering in the chilly wind of San Francisco, the next day I was getting sunburn in Berkeley.
Attending my niece Tina’s graduation from UC Berkeley, both university and department commencement, couldn’t be more proud and happy for her and her parents.
Finding stunning views of SF from Marina Headland in Marion County and of Golden Gate Bridge from Land’s End.
Being treated to lots yummies, giant crabs at Crab House at Pier 39, French at Gaspar Brasserie and Morocan at Michelin starred Mourad in SF downtown, Chinese in Richmond and Spanish at La Marcha Tapas Bar in Berkerley.
Having a lovely day in Napa and Sonoma Valley, delightful lunch at Bouchon Bakery in Yontville, tour and wine tasting at beautifully dreamy Castello di Amorosa.
The holiday would have been lacking without that trip to the awesome SF premium outlet in Livermore .

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