Sunday, 29 November 2009

Washington and then New York for Thanksgiving

Some months ago, Fran who is one of my oldest friends (we first met in 1969) invited us both to New York for Thanksgiving – what is the point of being retired if you cannot say “yes” to invites like that? We have been to New York a number of times but I (Paul) have never been to Washington so we decided to visit the two cities over the period of a week. This will be my seventh trip abroad this year (five for Pat) and take our air-mileage count towards 60,000 for the year – not very green but that’s the way it is.

In the old days (pre Internet), travelling abroad involved the minimum of planning. When we went to the Middle East for three months in 1970, we knew from a large scale map of the area that there was a railway line between Baghdad and places east, so we (correctly) assumed we would find out about the trains when we got there. Now with the internet, you can find out train times, book, pay for and print tickets, reserve seats etc.  We also used the internet to book our plane tickets, select seats and check in; book parking near the airport; get our visas; order dollars; buy trolley tour tickets; get timetables for the trains from NYC out to New Jersey; research what was on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then work out the bus route, how much it would cost, where to buy a bus ticket – the list is endless. So this is very much an internet planned holiday. Whilst some of the mystery and leaving things to chance has gone, it has been replaced by the “pleasure” of research and planning and using credit cards – in most cases you also get a discount for doing the work yourself.

Getting to Heathrow is never a pleasure but the M25 behaved itself and the traffic was much lighter that the previous week when I drove the same route to a gravel pit near to the airport to gain a cold water Dry Suit diving

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qualification (the underwater visibility can be judged from the photo), and also the week before that when we went to Iceland. T5 operated efficiently although I do not think I will ever like it. Our plane took off over an hour late due to problems with the buses and a cargo door that would not close and two films later (Julia and Julie; plus something totally forgettable) delivered by a somewhat antiquated BA video system, we arrived in Washington and 17 hours after closing our front door in England, we opened the door to our hotel room

The Omni Hotel in Washington is one of a chain of large hotels scattered

Omni Hotel Washington

across the USA. We chose it partly because of its location but mainly because of the price and many good reviews in Trip Advisor. Reviews have to be taken with a lorry load of salt because too often they are used to let off steam, get “your own back” or are written by hotel staff. The general message about this hotel was good, it offered instant rewards if you joined their “club” (free wifi, pressing; morning tea etc) and most interesting, the services of a “Rooms Leader”) who emailed us to tell us that her task was “to ensure we had a great time”). We tested her out before we came by asking for advice on what to do the day after arrival – she delivered the goods with detailed suggestions which turned out to be spot on.

The hotel was built in the 1930s and claims to be “Art Deco” but this is not obvious. Its main claim to fame is that the Beatles stayed there when they appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show”, President Clinton played his saxophone in the Ballroom at one of his inauguration balls, Frank Sinatra sang there (as did Lisa Minnelli) etc etc. Our room was about 10 CVUs (10 times the size of our Australian camper van, 1 camper van = 1CVU) and the bed was about 2CVUs. Luckily there was a phone on each side of the bed so we could phone each other if we got lost in the bed or did not want to shout across the bed.

TripAdvisor contributors recommended eating at a cafe opposite the hotel called “Open City” because it was cheap and reasonable quality – they were correct and the draught beer was particularly good.

Day one – Eastern Market housed in a wonderful old building,

 Eastern Market 1

with high quality interesting food inside and numerous craft stalls outside

Eastern Market 2

then walk through Capitol Hill

Capital Hill 0 Capitol Hill 1

past the Supreme Court

Supreme Court

past some superb street lamps

Street Lamps

through the arboretum still showing autumn colours

Autumn Trees

across the National Mall (with the Washington Monument in the distance)

National Mall

and onto the National Gallery of Art which is full of the most wonderful paintings, sculpture and much more. The gallery has a “top items” sheet (which you pick up from a desk near the entrance) designed for the time poor. This shows you the exact locations of the most popular works and thus you can see the best of the museum in about an hour.

The Reader

The Reading Girl Pietro Magni 1861

 picture 1 picture 2

as you walk from one major exhibit to another, you pass through rooms laden with great art – these are two rather nice pictures

walkwat through light exhibit

This is an exhibit (with Pat in it). An underground corridor has become an optical exhibit with lights moving up and down the corridor which you ride down on a travelator.

internal trees

The museum also has a number of atria filled with plants and trees within which one can just sit and recover. Quiet a fantastic museum and well worth a future return visit.

On to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum to touch a piece of Moon Rock and see numerous plane and space exhibits

Touching Moonrock

and then back to our hotel, somewhat exhausted.

Day two

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The day starts with a “hop on hop off Trolley Tour” around Washington which, although time consuming, does enable us to see many of the sites of the town. The trolley drivers double up as guides and over the course of the next two days, we meet many of them and each one knows things which the others do not.

We gaze at the White House from afar and then go to the White House Visitor Centre to see the plans and history of the building;

White House

then back on the trolley to see Union Station and then the Library of Congress. Putting to one side the fact that it is the largest library in the world and has the most amazing website where you can browse from afar much of the collection, it is housed in the most beautiful building. We were fortunate to be able to join a tour and learn about the history of the building, and its design and construction.

LOC Ceiling 2 LOC Ceiling 1

All of the illustrative elements in the ceilings and walls tell individual stories and have meanings and these are covered in some detail in the Library of Congress website and therefore need not be repeated here. After this, we continued the trolley ride around Washington noting a few places to visit the next day and then went back to the hotel for a much needed sleep.

Day three

We continue the Trolley Tour and start with a visit to Arlington Cemetery,

Arlington 1

which contains over 300,000 graves of ordinary people as well as the

Kennedy Grave

rich and famous such as the Kennedys.

The nearby Lincoln Memorial is also the place where

Lincoln Memorial

Pat and Lincoln statue

Martin Luther King made his famous “I have a Dream” speech.

Mall from MLK position

As we were standing on the spot, one of the National Park staff started to play the speech (lick on the link above to hear it).

The nearby Museum of American History contains and extraordinary variety of American ephemera such as Dorothy's red shoes from the Wizard

Dorothy's Ruby Slippers

of Oz” which seemed more purple than red but apparently that was due to the effect of the filming lights

Julia's Kitchen

a replica of Julie Child’s Kitchen – this was particularly interesting because we saw the film Julie and Julia on the flight over to Washington. There were some videos of Julia Child’s cookery programmes playing and it was quite astonishing how accurate Meryl Streep had got the voice and mannerisms.

Mary Lincolns Ball Dress

Every President’s wife donates a dress to the museum (one wonders what will happen when they get a female president) and the above is the dress belonging to Mary Lincoln. One could spend hours at the museum looking at the astonishing variety of exhibits.

Day Four  - Train from Union Station to New York Penn Central then train out to Fran.

A challenging day travel wise, the train to New York broke down twice en-route and we had to transfer to another train and then when we got to New York and called Fran, we found out that we did not have her current phone number and therefore could not arrange for her to meet us at her local station (that was plan A) – a necessary since we did not know where her road was. 

Plan B was to go to her nearest `station and then ask anyone where her road was, since we knew that it was close to the station. The problem when we arrived there was that everybody we asked denied any knowledge of the road, there were no taxis at the station and no street maps. As is often the case, the kindness of strangers came to the rescue and someone found out the phone number of the local taxi firm and phoned them ordering us a taxi. It turned out that she lived only about 500m from the station and so we arrived by taxi, somewhat relieved. The

Fran's House

house was clearly identifiable from the greyhound insignia above the

Greyhounds Inside

house door and the dedication to greyhounds continues inside. Luckily we did not have to resort to “Plan C” which was to find a hotel and then work out what to do next.

Much of the immediate area around the house is straight out of “Its a Wonderful Life” and one expected Jimmy Stewart to be around every corner. Most of the houses were very picturesque in a traditional American sort of way and clearly showed a lot of money.

Old House

The most touching element for me was that all of the street lamps were genuine working gas lamps – something I had not seen for 50 years

Gas Lamp

(since they were replaced along the road I lived in London).

Dog Walkers

Occasionally one meets a pair of dog walkers on the street.      

Day 5 – Thanksgiving

A day of continuous eating with more food than anyone could reasonably manage.

Chefeuse

Fran did most of the cooking although an excellent gravy was made by someone from the old country. The overall food plan seems to be to make as many dishes as possible and then eat as much as possible (when we were in DC, we discussed Thanksgiving with one couple and they said they routinely made 14 different dishes for the main meal).

It was decided that we would dress suitably for the occasion with pilgrims' collars and ties since Thanksgiving celebrates the first autumn harvest of the earliest pioneers.

Pilgrim's Table

Pilgrims eat Thanksgiving Dinner

The turkey would have fed a medium sized town

Turkey for 44 !

Did we overeat by the end of this gargantuan feast?

Full Assistant Chef

Yes.

Day Six – West Side Story

Where else should one see West Side Story than New York?

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So it was into NYC by train to a theatre on Broadway to see the show – sung partly in Puerto Rican Spanish

Knackered 

then back to Fran’s for leftovers.

Day Seven – Home again,Home again, jigety jig.

Shopping, then pancakes, followed by a slightly tense drive to Newark airport due to very heavy traffic and then an easy flight back and into bed.

Washington was wonderful and deserves a second visit and New York was as frenetic as always and will get another visit.

Thanks Fran – are you coming to us next year?

Friday, 6 November 2009

Three days is long enough to see Reykjavik

Having just passed three score years, my present from three score years and one was a short holiday to Iceland – a country to which neither of us have been to before. Iceland suffered tremendously in the recent economic collapse and is said to be virtually bankrupt as a country, hence it has become affordable to the casual tourist rather than a place where any expenditure caused a sharp intake of breath and a conversation with your bank manager. Never-the-less, it is still not cheap and our impression is that costs are about UK plus 25%.

The hardest bit of getting to Iceland was the drive from home to Heathrow around the M25 – the rest of the journey was easy, a comfortable plane only about 25% full, a Flybus coach awaiting us at the airport and then a minibus to the hotel – why can’t all countries be this organised and efficient?.

Reykjavik is a small town, typically Nordic in appearance built around a bay and on a hillside. It seems to be quite a large city and certainly is well spread out – there is little land pressure and hence most buildings are only a few floors. 110,000 of the 320,000 Icelanders live in the capital.

Although Reykjavik is not the liveliest of cities, it has a fearsome reputation for drinking (despite the cost of alcohol and the weather). The streets are clean and tidy, traffic is light, and pedestrian numbers low. Scattered around the  town are numerous silent building sites – a consequence of the national financial position. One of the most famous is the new national concert hall which stands as an incomplete monument to lost wealth.

What can you do in three days?

Wednesday Morning (sunrise around 9 am) Рshort walk around town with a visit to the National Art Gallery (not worth it unless you are in to modern blobs!), see some nice old buildings which look really nice in the half light and cold. Lift to the top of the Hallgrímskirkja Church tower to see the town

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laid out all around, if you time it close to the hour then you get to hear the

View from Church Tower

Clarion which is of course, longest at noon.

Wednesday afternoon – visit to the Blue Lagoon. This is a world famous outdoor pool (not really a swimming pool) where the silica rich waters are thermally heated and hence are covered in steam throughout a winter’s day. An efficient bus system takes you there in about 1 hour, upon check-in you are given a neat bracket which is your pass throughout the complex – it opens the entry gates, opens and closed the lockers, can be used as a charge card at the cafe etc.

Having hired towels and robes, we changed into our swimming wear, had a shower and an inside acclimatisation bathe and then

Acclimatisation

went outside into the steam. The pool is about 1 metre deep

Blue Lagoon General 

on average with some deeper spots but one can stand anywhere in the pool and just soak in the heat. Scattered around the edge are buckets of silica mud whose application is said to be good for the skin, having covered your face, you then swim around and let it wash off.

Blue Lagoon Pat

90 minutes was enough so it was a shower and something in the cafe. The shop there sells most things you do not want and amusingly, all of the most famous brand of Icelandic outdoor wear bore labels showing it was made in Latvia. Why come to Iceland to buy an souvenir made in Latvia?

The moon had risen when we left and headed towards the bus stop and

 Moon over Blue Lagoon

was shining down over some of the pools. The thermal power station

Power Station

nearby looks quite eerie when surrounded by steam.

Wednesday evening – Northern Lights. Two coaches of eager northern lights viewers were driven out into the dark countryside – well reasonably dark for a full moon evening! The northern lights stayed in bed for the whole evening and so we had a few hours driving around the cold darkish Icelandic countryside.

Thursday – an all day trip on the near mandatory “Golden Circle” – power stations, geysers, waterfalls, tectonic plates and politics. Our guide was a mine of information including such pub quiz gems as: “there is a golf course in Iceland for every 5,000 inhabitants” (60 in all); there is a swimming pool for every 1500 inhabitants” (200 in all); and “there are no polar bears in Iceland because last year they shot the only two bears to swim over to the country from Greenland in the last 20 years”.

The Power Generating Station is an impressive and noisy piece of

Generating Plant

industrial architecture which produces 700MW of energy a year. The process is simple, you drill a hole until you reach super heated water created by volcanic lava, let the water turn to steam to drive turbines which then generate electricity. The hot water is then used to heat houses and eventually gets pumped back down into the aquifer. Iceland sits across two tectonic plates and hence geothermal power is available in many places in the country. If you live there, you can dig your own well in the back garden in the hope of striking hot water.

Melt water from the largest glacier in the country has created the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall

Gullfoss 2 Gullfoss 1

and nearby, there are a number of geysers, in particular  Geysir and Strokkur.which either explode every few minutes or simply bubble away

Geyser

with very hot water.

The countryside around is very spectacular in a barren Scottish sort of way and the drive through the Thingvellir National Park was very beautiful.

Scenary 3 Scenary 1 Scenary 2

The fractured rock is a result of the separation of the two tectonic plates (Eurasian and American) which are drifting apart at a speed of 2 cms per year thus resulting in the geological thermal characteristics of Iceland. The Thingvellir (“parliament plains”) was also the place where Icelandic Chieftains met for a “parliament” meeting once a year starting in 930 AD to elect leaders, argue cases, and settle disputes - sometimes peacefully, sometimes not.

Friday morning gave us the chance to visit the National Museum to see a very well laid out display of numerous artefacts from Icelandic history and then (as is often the case) to quickly see something which had been recommended by some other travellers, an outside exhibition of sculpture

Sculpture 4 Sculpture 2 Sculpture 3

by Einar Jonsson. We were amazed at how much emotion was conveyed in each of these sculptures, each of which seemed far more than a piece of cold bronze.

The trip back was as easy as the trip back – a nice way to celebrate turning 60 – thanks Pat.