Category Archives: United Kingdom

How to Plan the Perfect Weekend Trip

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The view over Salzburg, Austria

So far this year I haven’t had time to cover them, but I’ve been on a few weekend trips both in the Netherlands and abroad.  One of the main reasons I wanted to move to Europe back in the day was the allure of the weekend trip- I knew I wanted to do my astronomy PhD which is definitely more than a full time job if you look at the hours (or how often one posts to her blog), but I also wanted to spend a decent fraction of my weekends exploring and that is a lot easier to do here.  It’s part the scale of things- it was a 2.5 hour drive from Cleveland to Pittsburgh with nothing in between, here that amount of time puts you in Cologne or Brussels- and part the infrastructure of public transport and budget flights is so much better.  And gee, having to pick a weekend in London versus Barcelona is much more interesting than Columbus or Buffalo!

Valkenburg Castle- the only castle built on a hill in the Netherlands

Valkenburg Castle- the only castle built on a hill in the Netherlands (pretty much on the border in the south with Belgium and Germany)

That said, I have a slight reputation now amongst my friends on my weekend trip planning, so I promised to write down a few tips.  Mind, a lot of these points and websites work outside of Europe too, but how well really varies depending where you are- one nice thing in Europe for example is I have never had to think about transportation at a given destination (as I have yet to be proven wrong in my assumption that there will be excellent public transportation), but you certainly can’t always make that assumption in much of the USA.

Climbing the city walls in gorgeous York, England

Climbing the city walls in gorgeous York, England

1) Planning ahead. I have many hobbies, and I like to joke that one of them is planning trips I might not necessarily take because I can only be in once place at a time.  And this is in many ways true, because unlike the many reasons people travel if you’re just going for a weekend you likely don’t care where you are going specifically on a particular weekend.  Sure, I have my list of places to visit, but I don’t usually care if I visit a particular place in a particular month within reason.

Maastricht, Netherlands- about as far south as you can get and still be in the country, with definite French influences!

Maastricht, Netherlands- about as far south as you can get and still be in the country, with definite French influences!

To take advantage of this I know of two good websites to see what’s good on a given weekend.  The first is Google Flights, where you enter your given dates, starting airport, and all parameters you want (time, price, connections), and it generates a map of all the flights that meet your criteria and the prices that match.  The second is Zap Travel, a site where you enter your details from a starting destination (“weekend skiing in March” or “long weekend Germany 3 star hotels” or what have you- you can do longer trips as well) and it returns to you a list of places that fit your criteria with flights and hotels.  Both are quite useful but in different ways.

Beer Hall in Salzburg- you grabbed a stein off the shelf, washed it and then got beer poured straight from the barrel!

Beer Hall in Salzburg- you grabbed a stein off the shelf, washed it and then got beer poured straight from the barrel!

2) Try to get in by dinner on Friday night if at all possible, even if it’s a late dinner.  This is because a weekend is a really short time- you often barely show up before it’s time to leave again- but somehow psychologically there is a world of difference between showing up near midnight and collapsing into bed and waking up early Saturday and briefly going out and trying a local dish (and then collapsing into bed).  It just somehow makes the entire weekend seem that much longer.

Ruins of St. Mary's Monastery in York- once the wealthiest monastery in northern England, it was shuttered by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

Ruins of St. Mary’s Monastery in York- once the wealthiest monastery in northern England, it was shuttered by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

3) Don’t take the Monday morning flight.  I think everyone learns this the hard way- when you first start the weekend trips you see that 6am Monday morning flight home, and think how much nicer two full days in a location would be instead of rushing to the airport on Sunday.  But it’s a trap!  A 6am flight means you have to be at the airport at 5am, meaning in many cities you have to leave where you’re staying at 4am, meaning you’re not enjoying your Sunday night cause you’re trying to sleep so you can pay for an outrageously expensive taxi cause public transport isn’t running that early. (Plus, honestly, even if you stay up Sunday night is rarely interesting anywhere if you’ve just lived through Friday and Saturday nights.) You still get into work on time- heck often earlier than anyone else if you’re an astronomer like me and no one shows up before 10am anyway- but heaven help you if your job requires thinking and you woke up at 4am that day.

This isn’t to say I don’t take Monday morning flights still- I will if visiting a place with friends or family for example, as time with loved once is precious, or if there is an absurd price difference that is over the cost of an extra night.  But if I’m just going on my own I now get home by Sunday.

"Are you telling me that my children have been running around Salzburg dressed in nothing but some old DRAPES?!"

“Are you telling me that my children have been running around Salzburg dressed in nothing but some old DRAPES?!”

4) In a city, stay at a place near the train station.  Or metro line that brought you from the airport, or wherever.  I normally wouldn’t, as train stations are rarely located in super interesting areas in themselves, but they are central and a big place requires navigating public transport instead of walking anyway.  Much better to dump your bag and hop onto one of many options from the station to see something you want to see then spend an a long time getting somewhere with your bag just to dump it… and then do the same thing Sunday in reverse.

The Bridges of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands

The Bridges of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands

5) Beware the budget airport.  Now this depends how much disposable income you have to devote to your traveling habit, and often going is better than not going at all even if you are spending an extra two hours traveling each direction, but things that are worth schlepping out for a week away make rapidly less sense when we’re just talking about a few days.

Hellbrunn Castle near Salzburg, Austria

Ok, that’s all I’ve got for now… and I will now post this before I have even more weekend trips’ pictures to post!  But don’t worry, I’m jetting off yet again tomorrow on a bit of an adventure that I’m sure to post many things about.

Maps from Parts Unknown

I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that a geek who loves to travel also has a fondness for maps. I’ve had them on my walls for years and years, first to mark all the shortwave radio stations I’d heard and contacted and then to mark where I’ve been once I started visiting them.  I think being a map person is one of those things you either are or you aren’t- upon renting a car you either study the random free map they give you in great interest at some point during the journey, or only bother to grab it when vainly trying to figure out where you got lost.

Anyway, last June I happened to be in London the same weekend as the London Map Fair held for a weekend at the Royal Geographical Society.  It is the largest antique map fair in Europe (I knew- who thought there’d be competition for a thing like that?) and while I usually hate shopping the idea of pawing over various maps throughout history sounded like a really fun thing to do.  Throw in the fact that it was held in the building of the same society where Charles Darwin and David Livingstone and Ernest Shackleton would discuss their explorations over cigars and brandy and I was sold!

It turns out the Royal Geographical Society building itself wasn’t that interesting- it was rebuilt as one of those boring modern places, so Shackleton certainly never visited it- but the map festival itself was wonderful with prints and sketches and globes of all corners of the world stretching back hundreds of years.  You certainly wouldn’t be allowed to handle centuries-old art and take a few home for a reasonable price to boot, but apparently this does not apply for maps.

Now if I am anything I am a geek first and a romantic second, so after looking around I knew what sort I wanted- a map where eventually the borders end, and a cartographer filled in the blank space with an intriguing “parts unknown.”  I know we lucky to live in an era where seeing the entire world is possible in a way unimaginable to previous generations, but I still feel a slight twinge at being a few centuries too late to be a proper explorer.

Anyway, the reason you’re hearing all this now is while I visited the fair many moons ago is I finally got around to framing what I bought there!  To start with the pièce de résistance, this is a map of North America from 1759-

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Continue reading

Artie Aardvark Studies Southampton

Continuing our series of our lovable scamp exploring various interesting astronomical locations, Artie Aardvark has graciously agreed to cover a recent visit of mine to University of Southampton.  Take it away, Artie!

I was very excited to go to Southampton!  People told me it would be rainy in England, but the weather was actually very nice.  Here I am making friends with the ducks in Southampton Common on my way to the university.

Once I arrived, it was time to help with work.  Most astronomers these days do not work at their observatories most of the time but instead get their observations and spend months or even years analyzing them.  I suppose this is nice because then you don’t have to spend all of your time in the middle of nowhere anymore!  Here I am working on the code for a particularly troublesome data set.

Later in the afternoon, however, it was time for a break to explore the University of Southampton campus!  We of course first stopped at the LOFAR antenna next to the physics building- it’s not a real antenna, but a pretend one to show you what they look like.  It is kind of funny to think that a metal pole in the ground is a radio astronomy antenna because I thought they looked more like the Westerbork ones I visited once, but it turns out what really matters is what wavelength you are looking at.  Radio frequencies all have a matching wavelength that can be anywhere from sub-millimeter to longer than a football field from their peak to trough, similar to how waves in the ocean can sometimes be very tiny and sometimes very giant.  The wavelengths LOFAR is interested in are about as long as this pole, so that’s how big the antennas are- the fact that they are cheap to build helps too!

After that, I also enjoyed exploring the Southampton campus because it was very green like a giant park.  In fact, it was quite the jungle in some places!

It was really fun to explore all the plant life and clamber around for tasty bugs, and… oh no!  I’m stuck!  Yvette, help!!!!

Whew, I got saved!  To regale those who missed my adventure, after work the astronomers were nice enough to take me to The Crown Inn, a very cozy pub just down the road from the uni.  Where I got a nice big pint all to myself, and Yvette told me to take it slow but it was so tasty I didn’t and why did she say that anyway…

Zzzzzzzzzzzz….

When I woke up later I’d missed out on a lot, and boy did I learn my lesson!  So even though there was real Duff beer to be had during the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror marathon on Halloween I didn’t have very much of it.

Thanks to everyone in Southampton who helped me with the pictures!

Bonfire Night in Winchester

It is a curious general rule of the world that every nation I’ve ever heard of has a special holiday dedicated to fire and blowing things up.  I’m not sure why this is, but my best theory is that most people are closet pyromaniacs and it’s best we indulge in this bit of fun on a regular basis lest we snap and set fire to something that actually matters.

The most popular such holiday in the United Kingdom is Guy Fawkes Night, usually known as Bonfire Night or “the 5th of November thing in V for Vendetta” depending on your knowledge of Britain.  Usually this is celebrated by a torchlight procession to a giant bonfire followed by a fireworks display, and because I was in southern England this year we decided to head for Winchester, the ancient capital of England that hosts a rather nice Bonfire Night every year. Continue reading

Artie Aardvark Observes Oxford

Once again we turn to the lovely Artie Aardvark for his observations, this time for the LOFAR TKP meeting that took place in Oxford earlier this month. Take it away, Artie!

I was very excited to visit Oxford ever since I first heard that there was going to be a meeting here about transient observations using LOFAR! Oxford is a very special, very old place, and the university has been here since the 12th century. While in Oxford I even got to stay at one of the old colleges where students still study and live today, called Keble College. It was very pretty! Continue reading

A Weekend in the Cotswolds

I was in the UK for a meeting last week in Oxford, and in my world that translates into “what’s nearby for a weekend trip?” The Cotswolds were the obvious choice- the area filled with lovely rolling hills and tiny villages just west of Oxford- so my fellow astronomer-in-crime Jess and I rented a car to go out and explore. We were actually quite lucky with the weather- it didn’t rain buckets until the last day, and there were even times of blue sky- so lots of rambling (hiking to the American lot), exploring picturesque villages, and making various bets on the Euro Cup matches playing in the tiny village pub ensued. All in all a great place to spend a weekend, and certainly a picturesque one!

An Edinburgh Weekend

Because I am still quite the “you mean I can be in another country in an hour?!” shock that comes from living in Europe, last weekend I went to Edinburgh.  Now I’ve actually been to Edinburgh before and left the place rather smitten, so when I was thinking of going on a break someplace I knew and where they spoke English, it was a bit of a no-brainer when the airfare was cheap to boot.  It’s not like I’ve met a Dutchman who didn’t speak English, mind, it’s just incredibly novel to get on a bus and realize you can read all the signs after losing that ability two months prior! Continue reading

Summary of the U.K.

The interesting thing about the United Kingdom is you can never let go of the feeling that there’s something very… proper about it. I blame stereotypes for this- when you think of the British some stuffy accented professor comes to mind, meaning I’m always secretly entertained when I hear British people cursing with their accent. Though I should note that this doesn’t always apply to Scottish people, where you are lucky to understand them at all.

Highlights:

  • I know you’re not supposed to say this, but I hit a streak and the weather was wonderful- I even got pink wandering around Cardiff, which I am aware is just not supposed to happen. I spent about two weeks here and it rained about two days the first week and only one the next, making me suspect they had better weather here than what everyone else had back home.

  • I have a confession to make: I never quite got over being delighted with the British newspapers. Back home we like to think rags like USA Today are complete fluff but believe me when I say their British counterparts have nothing on us- for 40 pence you can buy a hundred pages of newsprint which you can finish feeling no more enlightened about the world than when you started. Though the articles unfortunately often stop short of giving you the really important details. Take the above article- by showing up in a jar of Marmite, what is Jesus trying to tell us about yeast extract? Does he endorse it over other breakfast spreads, for example?

  • I am indebted to Doug and his hospitality in particular in London (and, I suppose, his hippie roommate who bought a new guitar instead of paying his rent so I had a place to sleep). Plus London is cool. Can I run away to Camden or the South Bank and never go home?

  • I am in love with Scottish people, their scenery, Edinburgh, and their roast pig. And because Chris from Toronto was sad that he was not mentioned in my original writings about Scotland, he gets a mention here.

  • I really enjoyed my time in Bath, as it’s a lovely little city and my hostel there was the one I enjoyed the most out of the U.K. ones I stayed at. The one in Cardiff may have been rated the best in the world but St. Christopher’s gave me a free Stonehenge tour and had Strongbow for 1.50 pounds in their bar- what’s not to like?

  • Lowlights-

    • I spent a night in Manchester which I didn’t mention before, mainly because I exploited all the touristy things to do there in a few hours. I think if you lived there it would probably be a nice enough place, but not much to do if you’re a tourist really.

    • And while I know we all knew this before I went there, the price. Wow. I’m pretty sure I could have lived a week in South East Asia for what I would spend in a day in the U.K. No wonder you run into British tourists everywhere else in the world, everywhere else is cheap after home for them! And yes, this still stands even after their currency has taken a pummeling and is almost on par with the Euro… I hesitate to think of what it would have been like to visit here last summer.

London

I am now going to attempt the impossible and write a blog post about London without posting a picture of Westminster in general and Big Ben in particular.  This isn’t to say I don’t like either, but rather you all know what they look like and I’d rather focus on some of the more unique things I liked about this visit to London.  It’s a wonderful city in that “if anyone needs a PhD student let me know” sort of way, and the days of beautiful weather and great company didn’t hurt!

These are my hosts, Doug on the right and Ryan to his left, at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.  I met Doug and his lovely cousin Laura two years ago in New Zealand while they were on their gap year, and I received an all too kind invitation to stay in a spare room when I got to London.  Doug was kind enough to spend his days wandering about with me, which resulted in an odd mix of sights ranging from “tourists never come here” to “Doug has lived here for years and has never been here before.”  Just perfect and I am indebted to their hospitality!

But before I forget, the Globe!  If you ever come to London and have very little money but want to catch a show, do what all the broke kids do and head for the Globe Theater.  The yard tickets are 5 pounds a pop, the plays are wonderful (we had As You Like It and I nearly died laughing), and you’ll have one of the best spots in the house if you show up a little early.  Oh, and you can drink, a la what they did during the era of Shakespeare.  What’s not to like?

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None of the Londoners had any idea you could go see a show for so cheap (but you guys are going to be regulars now, right?) but made  up for it by introducing me to Camden.  Wow, what a great area.  Camden is an interesting combination of one of the best markets I’ve been to and the home of the punk scene in London, meaning you can spend many happy hours checking out the goods, eating delicious stall food, and people-watching.

And then, this being Camden, time for the pub!  Where a great band you would kill to hear back home is playing even in the late afternoon whilst you argue what counts as an “unusual pet.”  An iguana?  A tapir?

Here’s another place I was determined to check out but Doug hadn’t ever been to voluntarily- the British Museum!  I love the atrium here by the way, which wasn’t around the last time I visited here five years prior.

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Some of the cat mummies in the British Museum.  This place is fascinating because basically the British during their heyday went everywhere in the world and took the prettiest stuff back to London.  Obviously now this causes a bit of consternation in some relations- the Egyptians would really like their Rosetta Stone back, the Greeks are arguing over the Parthenon carvings- but until further notice the pirate’s treasure remains here.A sight we stumbled upon while walking from the British Museum- the infamous changing of the guard.  Apparently it happens twice a day but the middle of the night one isn’t half as showy- we watched  for nearly a half hour while the band paraded around, playing classic marching tunes like Elanor Rigby and the theme from Doctor Who.

Finally because I’m certain under normal conditions this doesn’t happen in London, a few artists were doing sand sculptures on the South Bank. (I love the South Bank by the way. Can I get a flat here when that PhD position opens up and promptly go bankrupt?) Possibly the best sand-sofa I have ever seen, because I have clearly seen so many.

PS- This blog post is stopping right now because on average it is a week behind, meaning right now I am in Greece with my parents and sister for the first time in four months.  And we are sitting at a table in Crete where the waiter gave us a bottle of Power Ade that curiously does not seem to be Power Ade, and we are on the fourth shot of this strong clear liquid.  My writing can’t stay clear much longer…

Cardiff

I came to Cardiff for two reasons: I wanted to dip at least a toe into Wales and because of the hostel.  I’m sure the latter reason sounds like an odd one to visit anyplace, but for months now I’ve been primarily relying on Hostel World for my hosteling information, and while some have been good and some have been bad it has not escaped my notice how at 96% the River House Backpackers in Cardiff is often rated the best backpackers in the world.  I soon became fascinated with this- what constitutes the world’s best hostel anyway?  Wasn’t it worth a two night detour to find out?

Anyway, this is the River House backpackers as seen from the water bus  that runs up and down the river.  To be honest it really is nice- excellent location and breakfast spread, above and beyond friendly staff, and a comfy lounge with big TV and the rest of the works.  While I can see why they win on the ratings scale, I confess this hostel was a reminder of how what you remember most about places are the people you meet which is a factor you can do nothing about.  For example, I was awakened at this hostel at 8am by a German girl blasting her hairdryer beside my bed who uttered an unconvincing “sorry” when I shot her the death stare known in the hosteling  world as synonymous with “you are being a jackass, stop now,” and it’s not like you can do a thing about that!  So it goes.

Anyway, Cardiff.  I like Cardiff.  The weather was this clear blue sky that makes you convinced the Welsh really have great weather they make up stories about so they don’t have to share (cue the maniacal laughter from anyone who has lived in Wales ever), and there’s enough going on in the city that you can happily spend some time exploring.  This here is a view of the enormous Cardiff castle that takes a few hours to explore properly.  My favorite  thing about it is it turns out residents of Cardiff can enter the castle for free so on days like this many do to picnic with their families, and after lunch the parents laze about while their kids are encouraged to run around with cheap plastic swords and other props.  Wouldn’t be awesome to grow up where your playground is a castle?!

I also realized I liked Cardiff Castle because it has the exact same layout as the Playmobil castle that we had back in the day- nice large square area in the middle, large gate, a tower on the corner, and residential houses on the side. This was possibly the favorite toy  my brother, sister, and I had as kids, and we spent many happy hours inventing adventures for two Barbies and a stegosaurus.  So I got a bit nostalgic about that…

The interior of Cardiff Castle is pretty sweet as well- the nobles that had it in the past century redid everything in a lovely classical style, so the whole thing feels a bit like Ludwig II’s castle in Germany.

Oh, and there was a falconry too!  They used to have peacocks at the castle up until two years ago as well, but they kept climbing up a wall and launching themselves into a busy intersection and wandering into Burger King.  Needless to say this caused much unhappiness on both sides, so the peacocks were sent to a farm far out in the countryside where there are no fast food joints to disturb for miles.

Perhaps I’m mean, but when I saw this museum I laughed out loud.  Perhaps the reason the Welsh could never defeat the English is they didn’t realize goats aren’t exactly the most frightening of creatures to have in your regiment?

Speaking of Welsh, I was always on the lookout to see how many differences there were between Cardiff and England proper, even though I’m told this isn’t “real” Wales yet.  Verdict?  It’s much more like England than Scotland was, but the Welsh really have the Scots and even Irish beat when it comes to speaking their original language.  Only 3% of Scots speak Gallic and you see  it on roadsigns occasionally, Ireland you see Irish most everywhere and they learn it in high school but hardly anyone speaks it, but in Wales it’s written first and lots of people speak Welsh over English!  The above is from a festival by the harbor that was a language festival where I couldn’t understand a word- the kids above are singing along in Welsh to the costumed characters in front- and you saw several kids wandering around working on their Welsh school assignments.  Speaking as someone who speaks an obscure language that has minimal use outside its borders, good for them.  Glad to see they still use it.

image254Finally, a sunset over the river with the Cardiff stadium on the side.  What a nice little city.  It was a short break from the capital I’d been slowly working in the direction of seeing all this time, London…