And we’re back.

September 26th, 2010, 2:24 pm PST by Greg

We left off with Rome…

The cruise ship docked in Naples the next day: it’s a port city, so no shuttle buses to worry about. We had no agenda in Naples, other than to eat pizza.

We walked around the city a bit, but mostly killed time until our lunch at Pizzeria Brandi. They are the creator of Pizza Margharita, and that’s exactly what we had. We had planned a second lunch before leaving the city, but all the restaurants closed for the afternoon and we were foiled.

Then, an at-sea day and the next day at Palma de Mallorca.

I had been thinking of Palma as kind of just a place for them to stop the ship for the day, so I wasn’t expecting much. It ended up being one of the prettiest places we went the whole trip. The guide books said that it was a late-night party city and things didn’t really get started until late morning. We got off the boat at around 10:00, but everything except the occasional coffee shop was closed until noon or even a little later. Two notable finds: a cathedral with palm trees (which was both beautiful and novel), and café bombon (espresso and sweetened condensed milk in equal parts; look for it at your local Cafe Artigiano soon).

Then we took an extra day in Barcelona before we made our way back.

On the way back, we spent a few days at my parents’ place in Ontario. That was fairly uneventful, as a family gathering should be.

All told, we were gone 25 days. That’s just about my limit for travelling: I’m glad to get back to my own bed. However, our bathroom is dirty, and I don’t think the maid is coming.

Florence and Rome

September 15th, 2010, 1:29 pm PST by Greg

The last two days have been spent cruising to cities that aren’t ports: Florence and Rome. Both days involved a 1.5 hour bus ride from the local cruise ship port into the city. So, all of a sudden, our 12 hour port days shrunk to 8 hours in the city.

In Florence, we stumbled on the Galileo Museum, which was very cool: collections of old scientific instruments from Renaissance Europe, including some stuff from Galileo. At the time, science was all about showing off at your benefactor’s parties, so a lot of the instruments were built to look cool. Finding that was a happy accident.

But the biggest highlight, by far, was lunch. We had copied some pages out of Italy for the Gourmet Traveller to bring with us and managed to find one of the places for lunch. Look at our lunch. Just look at it! Best food of the trip, by a wide margin. (Although I’m hoping Naples tomorrow will give it a run for its money.)

Today was Rome, starting with a tour of the Vatican. The Vatican is full of all this, like, old stuff. Mostly with pictures of Jesus and Saint Peter on it. The rest of Rome is full of old stone stuff.

I don’t know why I’m the one writing about Rome, frankly. Kat’s much more into old things than me: I tend to zone out the moment a tour guide mentions a year.

The Sistine Chapel is a helluva thing, though. And I’d like to point out that I Totally Did Not take any illicit pictures of the ceiling by holding my camera in front of me and casually pressing the shutter.

Tomorrow: Naples.

Mega-Money Monte Carlo and Nice Nice

September 13th, 2010, 2:30 pm PST by Kat

Yesterday we started the cruise portion of our trip. It was pretty much a relaxation day as we had a leisurely morning and then made our way to the docks in the early afternoon. Once on board, we realized that Norwegian’s “freestyle cruising” (i.e., no set times for meals) seems to suit us just fine. We pretty much spent the rest of the day either eating (b‎ig surprise), reading or exploring the ship.

Today was our first port day, and it pretty much started off as moneyed as can be: we docked amongst mega-yachts on the floating pier in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Monte Carlo was pretty much as we imagined it – everywhere you turned there were either yachts, mega-yachts, Porsches, Lambourginis, Ferraris or Rolls Royces! And then there was little ol’ us, in our flip flops and birks! 🙂 Since we do not, and will likely never, have enough $$ to actually DO anything in Monte Carlo, we did the one cool free thing we could think of – walk the Monte Carlo F1 circuit. The circuit snakes along the waterfront, around the casino (which we walked into but didn’t play – $5 minimum on the slots!), and underneath the Grace Kelly Theater and then back to the waterfront.

After our leisurely stroll, we headed back to the ship to join our first shore excursion – a bus trip into Nice, France. While on the bus we drove by the villas of Elton John, Diana Ross, Bono, the late Yves Saint Laurent (which had a LONG escalator down to the water), and Greta Garbo. This villa was where Grace Kelly met Prince Rainier. We also drove along the same stretch of road that claimed the life of Grace Kelly on the actual anniversary of her death. Upon arriving in Nice, we then changed modes of transportation to what Greg called “the most embarrassing mode of transportation ever” – a little white tourist train, complete with build-in audio headsets! We toured Vieux Nice on the train and even saw where Angelica used to eat gelato when she was here! 🙂

Tomorrow we will be visiting Florence, Italy, where I’m hoping to find a trippai, a street vendor selling tripe! 🙂

Edit from Greg: the full list of impressive cars I remember seeing: a Ferrari 599, two Tesla Roadsters, Porsche 356 (from about 1960), Rolls Royce Phantom Drophead, Lamborghini Giardo (I think), Austin Martin DB9, Ferrari 430, and various AMG Mercedes and Porches. At one point, a Mazda RX-8 went by and I thought “well, that’s a little cheap, isn’t it?”

Sunny Sussex by the Sea to Boisterous Barcelona

September 11th, 2010, 12:54 pm PST by Kat

My conference went well. It was quite weird giving a bird talk to a room full of people who study plants, but I think it went as well as could be expected. The point of my talk was to show the plant researchers using controlled environments (growth chambers, greenhouses) what kinds of other research can be done using the same chambers. The highlight of the 2-day conference was a visit to the Millenium Seed Bank and Kew Botanical Gardens at Wakehurst Place. The seed bank was amazing and quite beautiful. They were one of the first Millenium projects approved for funding. At present they are processing/storing the seeds of 10% of the world’s plant varieties. They dry and freeze the seeds and periodically test them to ensure that they are still viable. By 2020 they hope to have 25% of the world’s plant varieties stored there. It’s an important thing to do, and I’m glad someone is doing it. The botanical gardens were gorgeous too. We got a behind the scenes tour, which included the back growing plots and greenhouses. I was also able to see a Chinese tree that has only flowered twice while at the gardens – the first time was 27 years after it was planted at the gardens, and the second was this year. Apparently, the first time it flowered, the head gardener was on vacation, and he missed it! When we left “sunny Sussex by the sea” it was chilly and misty.

In contrast, the last three days we’ve spent in Barcelona have been sunny and hot. We’ve eaten our way around the city and have seen many of its breath-taking sights. We had fruit at Mercat de la Boqueria (food market), lunched in the Barri Gotic near the Catedral de Barcelona, had tapas just off of La Rambla (Taller de Tapas is very good!), saw the monument to Christopher Columbus (who happens to be pointing the wrong way if he’s supposed to be pointing towards the New World), had paella on the Barceloneta beach, and had traditional Catalan food. In between meals we found time to visit Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia and the Olympic stadiums and arenas on Monjuic. So yes, we’re definitely enjoying the food and the sights here in Barcelona. We’re saving La Ribera neighborhood, which has a Catalan gothic church and the first covered food market in Barcelona, for our last day in Europe.

It’s an interesting comparison between London and Barcelona. In London, we didn’t find the food all that exciting (although I did enjoy the pies and pasties), but then again, we really didn’t see any British people eat (just drink). In Barcelona the food is amazing, and everywhere you look people are eating (and drinking) at all times of the day.

Tomorrow we board the Norwegian Jade for our Mediterranean cruise. Looking forward to crepes in Nice, tripe in Florence (at least I am, not sure about Greg) and pizza in Naples!

Mmmm… England

September 7th, 2010, 6:34 am PST by Greg

We’re currently ending the University of Sussex leg of the trip: Kat’s conference. She should probably be writing about that since it’s her party, but since I’m the one with my feet up all day in a residence room, I have more time to actually do it.

I’m actually enjoying what feels like a vacation from the vacation. I walked around Brighton and the university. Read a bunch. Surfed the web. Good stuff.

But as I near in on my third day at the university, I’m starting to feel like a hunter-gatherer: most of my time is being spent trying to ensure an adequate food supply.

I was prepared to come to England and learn that everything I had heard about British food was exaggerated. I really was.

But, the food options available to me (here and London) seem to fall roughly into three categories: (1) pub food, (2) pre-wrapped sandwiches, and (3) restaurants that are too expensive for an average meal. There is also a minor fourth category: (4) food from elsewhere on the planet, adapted to British tastes.

(1) The pub food is good, for what it is: unseasoned meat and starch. For example, pies (meat filling and crust) and fish and chips (right there in the name). I’ll also throw into this category the full breakfast and while there is a certain awesomeness to it, it’s still fundamentally meat and starch. This can only sustain one for so long: barely a vegetable to be seen.

(2) Douglas Adams was certainly exaggerating somewhat, but this quote rings true:

There is a feeling which persists in England that making a sandwich interesting, attractive, or in any way pleasant to eat is something sinful that only foreigners do.

‘Make ’em dry,’ is the instruction buried somewhere in the collective national consciousness, ‘make ’em rubbery. If you have to keep the buggers fresh, do it by washing ’em once a week.’

Marks and Spencer seem to have been able to step cautiously away from this advice, but one store can only stray so far outside the norm.

(3) We did have a very nice meal in London at a place that was a little too expensive to go to regularly. Oddly, it was still full of men standing around, drinking beer, but not eating.

(4) In an effort to break into option 4, I just bought a “mexican bean wrap”. Much to my dismay, it was actually a cleverly-disguised option 2 sandwich. It was a pita (!) containing about a tablespoon of bean-like substance (with the volume of the thing being made up by pita, not filling). The pita was stale enough that the term “steel reinforced” came to mind.

Really, Marks and Spencer has been keeping me alive. A few days ago, Kat and I got a couple of cornish pasties (pub-style meat + dough) and some prepared food from M&S to round out a meal. I took one bite of some pasta salad and realized that the parsley on it was both green and uncooked. I was so happy to have a vegetable (small though it was) that I turned to Kat and said words to the effect of “this is mine and you can’t have any!” I did eventually share.

London Wrapup

September 4th, 2010, 4:08 pm PST by Greg

Our time in London is almost up: we leave tomorrow for the University of Sussex for Kat’s conference, which is the theoretical purpose of the trip.

We have covered London pretty well, considering the short time we were here: British Museum, Greenwich Observatory (and thus the Prime Meridian), Westminster Abbey, and we walked around/past Trafalgar Square, Westminster Hall, Buckingham Palace, Trocadero, Chinatown, Covent Garden, London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Certainly the highlights for me were the British Museum and Westminster Abbey.

The British Museum (motto: “we’re going to steal your antiquities, but promise they’ll still be around in a hundred years, okay?”) has an awesome collection and I’m glad I had a chance to see it. The Westminster Abbey (motto: “if they’re important and dead, we have them here”) audio tour was narrated by Jeremy Irons, which alone was enough to put it near the top of the list. Also Newton and Darwin (and a bunch of kings or whatever) are buried there.

I have posted a few photos from the trip. More will appear when we get back (and Internet-access-permitting, through the trip).

But more importantly, I have several questions about British people, based on observations made in and while walking past British pubs.

Question 1: Do British people not eat? Every restaurant and pub we walked by were filled with guys drinking beer. I don’t think I saw more than a dozen people actually eating in restaurants the whole time we were here. That was consistent across the whole after-work time span. Do people skip dinner just to drink? Do they somehow rush home and eat before getting to the pub at 6:00?

Question 2: Following up from the previous evidence: Where are the women? Every pub I was in was about 3 men (drinking beer) to each woman (drinking white wine). I assume women do something and don’t all just sit at home when the men are out? Are there places somewhere with 3 women to each guy?

London, day 0.5

September 3rd, 2010, 12:16 am PST by Greg

As I write this, it is the morning of our first full day in London. We got in yesterday mid-day.

So far, so good. We are saying in a hotel just around the corner from Trafalgar Square, which is walking-distance to a lot of stuff.

We found the hotel with not more than 10 minutes of walking in the wrong direction. After checking in, we walked the neighbourhood for a bit and walked by Buckingham Palace.

My initial impressions of London:

  • I miss streets that meet at right-angles. Take for example this intersection near our hotel. It appears on our pocket map as five streets that come together, but when on the ground, is 100 m of roundabout where “we want to go straight” is not a useful thing to have deduced from the map.
  • When in China, the dominant feeling was “wow, everything’s big”. Tienanmen Square, for example, is almost incomprehensibly huge. Here: everything so far has been smaller than I imagined it. Buckingham palace: not all that big. I think I should be more in the New York mindset: everything very dense and close together.
  • British pubs are funny places. Need to investigate further.