A long weekend in England

Four days of the Easter weekend means the chance to drive somewhere far away! Huzzah! Bec and I headed down south with a stash of chocolate and many car singalongs.

First stop was Lyme Park – Pemberley in the 1995 Pride & Prejudice, of course!

17862297_10154380913621269_1887257515114774884_n17904124_10156160383808298_5904173940230339351_n17951970_10154380913136269_2632137471559407462_n17952000_10154380913061269_266509923809882167_n

The next morning we headed to Great Missenden, a sweet little Buckinghamshire village that houses the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre! The museum was lovely, and so was the walk we had around the sunny countryside.

Onward, then, to Leicester – specifically, to the cathedral where Richard III has been reinterred. There is a wonderful visitor’s centre there as well, where you can see learn about his life, his reign, his death, and his discovery.

York! I have never been to York, though it has been recommended to me many times. York in the spring is absolutely charming. Evensong in York Minster is incredible. The crooked, poky York Shambles, and the haunted Golden Fleece, the ancient Clifford’s Tower and the wonderful York Castle Museum.

Happy days 🙂

The Brontes in Brussels

I love a good excuse to travel. This trip to Belgium came about entirely due to an earlier trip – when I went to Manchester for the Bronte Society conference last year.

One of the speakers at that conference, Helen MacEwan, is the founder of the Brussels Bronte Group, and she had mentioned to me the dates of their upcoming events. Saturday April 1st was a double lecture and Sunday April 2nd was one of their guided walking tours of Brussels. What better excuse to book some flights and a couple of extra days to sightsee?

So after our lovely couple of days in Bruges, I made my way to the Universite Saint-Louis (managing to order my breakfast in French, hooray!) and listened to Helen deliver a lecture on Charlotte’s legacy in Brussels, and what the Belgians thought of it. It was a wonderful, very interesting lecture – Charlotte is not known for her kind remarks about Brussels and, in fact, said some quite nasty things about Belgium and the Belgians. And of course, she was struggling with the agony of unrequited love while staying here – Monsieur Heger, a married man, ran the Pensionnat where Emily and Charlotte were staying and was the object of Charlotte’s affections.

Both Villette and The Professor were heavily inspired by Charlotte’s experiences, and both novels are filled with thinly-veiled autobiographical detail. Charlotte and Emily lived in Brussels between 1842 and 1843. Charlotte was there for longer – Emily was far more homesick, and refused to go back after returning home for Aunt Branwell’s funeral. The girls had originally gone to Belgium to gain a proper education in French and perhaps German in order to open their own school back at Haworth. Helen has written extensively and brilliantly on the sisters’ time in Belgium and I would strongly recommend her book The Brontes in Brussels.

We broke for lunch and I ate mine (ordered in French again!) in the Botanic Gardens overlooking a pond. There were the tiniest ducklings I had ever seen, as well as tortoises, two very self-important mallards, moorhens, and even a small marsupial that might have been a water vole or a rat…I’m not actually reading a Bronte novel at the moment. I’m getting through L.M. Montgomery’s backlist and am up to Rilla of Ingleside (yes, reading it for the first time – shame!) I was thoroughly enjoying it, while still managing to get distracted by the menagerie of animal life around me.

After lunch we rejoined for a talk from Sam Jordison focusing on the Brontes in the public eye. This turned into a discussion of Haworth, and why the village made it into a series called Crap Towns that Sam has written about the worst places to live in the UK. He made a few points worth noting though – Haworth used to be such a health hazard, that it is no wonder the Brontes didn’t live longer. Now the town that killed them is cashing in on their legacy! It’s a harsh viewpoint, but an interesting one.

After the talk a large group of us went to the pub where I had a proper Belgian hot chocolate, before I met up with Sean again. We took a quick excursion to Waterstones to buy Helen’s book and then went back to Bier Circus for dinner – it was so lovely we just had to revisit. On the way home, Sean bought me a proper Belgian waffle – they are best with no toppings because the dough they are made with is so good on it’s own!!

The next morning it was the guided walk around the Bronte related places in Brussels. It started out the front of the Chapelle Royale, the Protestant Church of Brussels. Charlotte and Emily worshipped here on Sundays. It’s in the Place du Musee, which also houses the site of a former art salon that Charlotte attended. From here, we walked up to the Place Royale and the Parc de Bruxelles, both of which Charlotte would have been very familiar with, and both of which appear as disguised locations in Villette. Down the Belliard steps, just across the road from the Parc de Bruxelles, is the former site of the Pensionnat Heger. It has been completely demolished, and nothing remains, but the research by Helen and others has placed it almost exactly. A plaque was mounted in 1979 to mark the location. We finished up on Rue Villa Hermosa, one of the only streets left that would have been there in Charlotte’s time, and used to lead directly to the Pensionnat.

We had lunch in the garden of the Belvue Museum in the blazing sunshine and chatted, trying to keep ourselves from snoozing in the unseasonable warmth. Then Sean and I made two more Bronte pit stops – first, to see another, less legal plaque that was put up in honour of the Brontes about fifteen years ago and never removed, and second, to see the inside of the Cathedral of Saint Gudule. This enormous church was where a desperate Charlotte made confession on the night of September 1st, 1843, despite not being Catholic – another event that made it into the pages of Villette.

Afterwards, we had time to kill and gorgeous weather, so we drank more beers and tea, sat in the sun, ate frites and a massive meringue-and-cream confection, and eventually moseyed to the airport. Despite the holiday being busy, I really did feel rested afterwards. Perhaps it was the sun, or the beautiful scenery that did it. I would go back to Belgium in a second, regardless.

Belgium

The plane flight to Brussels Charleroi was cramped and uncomfortable and pretty much everything one expects from an encounter with Ryanair, but it was on time! We were on a shuttle bus into the city of Brussels at about 5pm. It’s was very light outside, and we discovered quite quickly that we’d packed too many clothes for the warm, humid weather. Once we’d had a chance to dump our luggage and stretch ourselves out, we picked a restaurant and aimed for it.

Brussels is rough around the edges, like all the best cities. The touristy area in the centre is beautiful at night, and I’m excited to see it in the daytime on the weekend. The beautiful parts of the city remind me of Paris – intricately decorated frontages, frescoes and balconies, little winding cobbled streets lined with restaurants and chocolateries. There are wafflehouses and giftshops selling lace, and pubs and bars with encylopaedic beer menus.

17626380_10154331335031269_4094664016444717205_n

We went to a tiny little tucked away restaurant called Bier Circus and it was worth the half-hour uphill trek from our hotel on the edge of town near the Bruxelles-Midi station. They specialise in cooking meals with beer in the food, but my chicken and mushroom vol-au-vents were, as far as I can tell, unscathed by beer. I’m not the biggest beer fan, but I was determined to try proper Belgian beer, so asked for advice from Sean and our waiter. I ended up with lambic beer with peach juice and I loved it so much I had another lambic beer, this time with cherry juice. It didn’t taste like beer, just a slightly sour fruit juice. It wasn’t very high-alcohol either, so was easy to drink. We had frites and stoemp (mashed potatoes with leek and carrot) and Sean very much enjoyed his meatballs and the various beers he tried. The restaurant was busy, and therefore a bit slow with the service, but had really pleasant and chatty staff. I would definitely recommend!

Stuffed full of food, we went for a walk through some of the aforementioned cobbled streets and ended up at the Delirium Café. It was so busy! Even for a Wednesday night it was full of studenty-backpackery types. I was absolutely knackered at this point so we only stayed for one drink, but it would be a place worth coming with a group of mates at the start of the night.

We walked back to the hotel, stopping to buy a couple of delicious rum-ball type confections, and when we got back to the hotel, Jaws was on. A quality way to finish off the evening.

We both had a pretty awful sleep, but we soldiered on this morning and packed up, checked out, and went to the station to grab some breakfast. We ended up on the long train to Bruges. The normal route would take just over an hour, but ours was more like two hours and fifiteen minutes. It didn’t matter though – the sun was shining and the Belgian landscape is quite beautiful with its meadows and streams and farmhouses and little towns.

Bruges is obscenely beautiful. It was a short fifteen-minute walk to our hostel and we had a cup of tea and a look at a local map before heading out. We followed a recommended path toward a beguinage, a complex to house beguines – religious women who are not exactly nuns. It was peaceful, sunny, and covered in daffodils. We wandered down to the Minnewater, before heading on through the winding cobbled streets, passing the smallest bridge in Bruges, the Halve Maan Brewery, and the tiny little Stoofstraat (Bruges former ‘red-light’ alley). People ate ice creams in the sun and walked their dogs (including a nine-month-old chihuahua named Lola that I made friends with). There were canals and tiny bridges, lovely gardens and cafes, and plenty of people. We went to the 2BE bar and saw their permanent exhibition of every Belgian beer in the Beerwall (I think the current count is over 1700 beers) and had a drink before heading to Burg Square for waffles, a small sunbathe, and a quick look inside the Basilica of the Holy Blood.

We came back to the hostel for a brief rest and then headed out for dinner. Unfortunately Sean’s pub crawl was cancelled, so instead we spent a lovely night eating Flemish beefstew (me), ribs (Sean) and lots of frites and beer. We checked out a wee pub called t’ Poatersgat which is possibly most the affordable in Bruges, before heading back to the hostel to sit on the peaceful rooftop terrace. We headed inside only to get a message from Flick back in Melbourne, and we were able to Skype with her before we went to sleep!

Bruges is obviously geared toward tourists, but unlike a few other places geared toward tourists, I haven’t seen too many places trying to rip people off. The Belgians are really friendly and all speak perfect English as well as Dutch and French and probably a million other languages. They are very proud of their traditions and embrace them, with so many places selling chocolate, beer, and lace. There’s even a chocolate museum and a museum about frites (French fries) in Bruges.

The next morning we headed out on a walking tour which took us to some of the places we had seen previously, but others that were brand new, including a couple of locations from the film In Bruges and the oldest bridge in the city. It was not quite as warm as the day before, but still too hot for a jacket. The photos continued to be beautiful without me even trying. Bruges is a most photogenic city!

We stopped to buy chocolates before heading back to the hostel to collect our things, and then we trained back to Brussels. We’ve booked a hotel here for the next two nights and have just come home from a delicious ramen dinner. We had an ice cream and a drink afterward and people-watched – the city is very busy tonight! Sean has continued on to a pub crawl and I’m deciding whether to have a bath, read a book, or watch television…choices, choices!

 

 

Nice things

St Andrews was grey and wintry and gorgeous. I went up for the Stanza Poetry Festival – only a fleeting visit where I wandered down the the shore and the ruins and had no time to see any events!

17103259_10154259317791269_4400028222441757562_n17103511_10154259317786269_4100706646968037146_n

I’ve been busy with work for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation – see my pride and joy, the Pride & Possibilities journal here. I’ve been to book clubs, wine nights, late nights at the National Museum of Scotland, lectures on the Bronze Age by Historic Scotland, and a gathering for lovely Sophie who has headed back to Aus. Basically, life has been full and wonderful. I went to another brilliant Jane Austen Society event in Dunfermline and I’m off to another tomorrow. I’ve been learning to run. It’s hard and awful but it’s doing me good and I can feel the benefit when I’m not swearing and gasping for air. I went to an event at Waterstones with Hannah Kent. She signed my copy of The Good People and I met Monica McInerney in the signing queue! I’ve been trying to read even more than usual, and my to-be-read list is growing longer every day. We’ve been tuning in every week for the new season of Broadchurch and re-watching Game of Thrones. I’ve seen two amazing pieces of theatre – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and 9 to 5 – and last night I saw the new Beauty and the Beast in all it’s gorgeous, cheesy, nostalgic glory.

How lucky we are to live in this city. How lucky I am to have a job, and a flat, and some money to travel. Here are some photos of beautiful Edinburgh.

I’m sorry this blog sounds braggy and disgusting, but honestly, it’s so easy to be dragged into melancholy and sadness by the state of the world these days. It feels nice to reflect on the nice things, when we can, instead.

 

 

2017 has started well

Liverpool is a lovely city, but even lovelier are the people I know there. I had a lovely overnight trip of chatting, lots of tea, and a trip to the Liverpool Central Library.

Burns Night is an annual Scottish celebration of the life and poetry of Robert Burns. We went to a friend’s place where we ate a traditional meal of haggis, neeps, tatties, whisky, wine and poetry. I’m also currently completing a short online course on Robert Burns, but the accent I have not yet perfected…

I’m learning to run. It’s slow and often painful, but it’s in a social group who don’t mind us slowpokes at the back. I can already feel the difference – it’s easier to stick to it when there are other people with you.

We watched Trainspotting 2 in a cinema with Leithers. There was an obnoxious drunk guy dragged out of there halfway through and the movie was brilliant, recognisable Edinburgh scenes popping up every second minute. A true Leith experience – I loved every second.

The Scottish Borders are beautiful. We have a wonderful friend who lives in Galashiels and she has a CAR. What a difference a car makes! Yesterday we drove to Melrose Abbey, rumoured burial site of the heart of Robert the Bruce. The ruins are brilliant in the winter sun, which was setting over the valleys as we drove back via Scott’s View. You could see the mist in the shadow of the hills. No wonder this was such a beloved view of Sir Walter Scott!

This morning we went to Dryburgh Abbey, burial place of the great man himself. Sir Walter Scott loved these ruins also, and it’s easy to see why. Today was more overcast and misty, and the rose-tinted stone walls looked like a painting. We saw the Dryburgh Yew, the book cupboard where the monk’s used to keep their library, and graves of Scott and Earl Haig.

The next stop was Kelso Abbey – these ruins are smaller and less impressive, but still worth a visit to marvel at their imposing height, especially if you’re a sucker for a well-preserved historic ruin like I am.

Lunch was at The Teviot Smokery, a gorgeous little restaurant. We didn’t get to see the water gardens because of time restrictions, but I would definitely stop past next time. We arrived at Jedburgh Abbey just in time for last admissions. This is the largest and most impressive of all the Borders abbeys, so I would recommend leaving longer than half an hour to do it, especially as they have an audio guide option as well. As it was though, we still had a good opportunity to walk around the whole site and get some good photos. Despite it being the most well-preserved abbey, it doesn’t have any specific features that draw in tourists (such as Sir Walter Scott’s grave or Robert the Bruce’s heart), so it tends to be overlooked a bit I think. It’s a shame because it is a truly awe-inspiring place – I definitely recommend it!

We had enough sun left to get down to Carter Bar, a point on the English-Scottish border with two large boundary stones. The views are brilliant.

We drove back to Galashiels through Hawick and caught a train back to Edinburgh. There is so much more to see, and we have less than a year to fit it in!

 

Home again!

We’re back in beautiful Edinburgh but I will miss lovely Iceland! Our last day was spent sleeping in (I know, I know, but we were super tired!) and then once we’d checked out, we went to PrikiĂ°, the oldest coffee house in Iceland, for breakfast. We went for a quick walk along the shore to see the SĂłlfar sculpture, but it was exceedingly quick because it was raining sideways again!

After two buses, a flight, a tram, and another bus, we are back in our apartment in Leith. It was a thoroughly wonderful week, full of experiences that I will treasure forever. The really touristy things like the Blue Lagoon, the Golden Circle, the Northern Lights, and the beach at Reynisfjara were all brilliant. They are well worth doing! But the other bits, the tiny towns, the Icelandic food, catching up with Jules & Damon and driving through the endless landscape was just as special. My advice to anyone going is to bring more money than you think you will need – it’s not fun to be on a teeny tiny budget in a country this expensive because you tend to be constantly missing out on things. And read Burial Rites before you go! Next time, I plan to do the northern region of the country. And maybe it would be nice to go in summer….

Beautiful Reykjavik!

We said goodbye to Jules and Damon and then closed up the AirBnb and left. Our last full day in Reykjavik! We’d booked two beds in a hostel dorm and headed there to store our luggage until we could come back and check-in. Instead, when we got there, the lovely guy at the desk upgraded us to the hotel that’s attached to the hostel, to a lovely private ensuite room which was already ready, so we were able to check-in straight away! It was so unexpected and kind!

16177465_10154139839316269_9120575530646352406_o
The view from our room!

I lay down on the bed and immediately wanted to go back to sleep but, we got up instead and went out in search of lunch. Our best friend at the front desk had recommended a place called Cafe Babalu and it did not disappoint – beautiful tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches and a piece of Nutella cheesecake to finish! Thoroughly full, we headed to HallgrĂ­mskirkja, the big tall church in the middle of Reykjavik, for a couple of photos.

Then we went our separate ways – Sean to another thermal pool, and myself to the National Museum of Iceland. This was really interesting and well worth going to see, but I just found it hard to reconcile with the 1500 krona it cost for admission. There are plenty of other just as nice museums around the world that are free! But I did enjoy it, and I also got to see an item of personal interest. Anyone who has read Hannah Kent’s 2013 novel Burial Rites will know the story of Agnes Madnusdottir’s execution, the last execution to take place in Iceland. The axe-head and chopping block used in this execution are on display in the museum. Yes, I’m aware it’s a bit morbid, but it’s a wonderful novel and a very tragic and interesting tale. There was also a badstofa on display, which is a room from the 18th and 19th century farmhouses, like the houses Agnes would have lived in.

Afterwards I had a lovely walk back through Reykjavik, stopping to have a hot chocolate and read when the weather got bad again. Sean and I met up at our hotel and went downstairs for dinner and a couple of drinks, a quick walk, and then Sean headed off again. He’s gone to a pub crawl and I am snuggled up in bed with a book, the television, and wifi. Bliss!

Bláa lĂłniĂ° (Blue Lagoon)

We saw the Northern Lights! They weren’t bright, but they were definitely there. My phone camera couldn’t capture them, so the photos below are from Jules and Damon. It was freezing and quiet and perfect. They show up a bit brighter and greener on the photos than they do to the naked eye, but it was an experience I will never forget.

Breakfast was eggs and skyr, an Icelandic yoghurt-type product that is crazy good. My favourite is the lemony one. We left our nice place in Borgarnes and headed to Arkanes for a quick coffee and a sticky-beak. We then drove to Grindavik for lunch – finally, some fish in Iceland!

Then it was on to the Blue Lagoon! Yes, it’s a tourist-y experience, and yes, it was amazing! It’s not cheap, but the basic fee includes entry, use of a locker, and a silica face mask (bring your own towel!). You can enter through a warm pool that runs from inside to outside, or you can brave the icy air and enter via the door, walking across the icy ground to the pool. It was utterly bizarre and wonderful. It was so misty and foggy that you could not see the opposite end of the lagoon, and when the weather did clear, you could see the mounds of snow on the banks. Meanwhile, you are toasty and warm and comfortable in a pool about 37 degrees Celsius. There is a swim-up bar, also a swim-up kiosk to get your face masks, multiple little bridges and rocky shelves to sit and relax, as well as a waterfall, a steam room, and a sauna. For extra money you can receive in-water treatments including massages and extra things like bathrobes and complimentary drinks, but the basic fee was enough for us. I paid extra for a sparkling strawberry wine and a banana skyr smoothie with the nifty wristband they give you for such transactions. I didn’t bring my phone in, so the following photos are from Jules.

We left the lagoon after a couple of hours, thoroughly tired and possibly a little dehydrated (drink lots of water, guys), and drove back to Reykjavik. While looking for our accommodation, I slipped and fell down a flight of icy steps and felt like an idiot and will have one impressive bruise tomorrow. But we then went out for dinner – a wonderful Japanese chicken salad – and cheap mojitos, so that helped. Reykjavik is beautiful at night!

Tomorrow is our last full day, and Jules and Damon fly to Norway. This week has gone so fast, and our bank accounts are suffering, but it’s been wonderful. One more day to explore Reykjavik!

Gullni hringurinn (Golden Circle)

The day started with a chance encounter by the side of the road – beautiful, majestic, incredibly smelly Icelandic horses! Jules and I took our selfies and patted their little frozen heads. Their breath was warm and huffy and frost hung from their manes and noses.

Then, it was onwards. The first stop was Kerið, the volcanic crater. It was frozen solid and some brave (idiotic) tourists were walking on it and stomping. You can walk all the way around the top of the crater which provided us with some lovely photos of the sunrise.

Haukadalur contains amazing geothermal features, the most famous of which is probably Strokkur, a fountain geyser that erupts extremely frequently. The walk up to Strokkur is peppered with miniature hot springs and fumaroles. It’s incredibly weird to see the steam issuing from the earth and from the surface of the water. The streams are incredibly tempting, especially in the cold weather. All you want to do is put your hand in to see if it is as warm as it looks. Don’t. The water is generally between 80 and 100 degrees Celsius and will burn you.

Just a hop, skip and a jump down the road is Gulfoss, an absolutely mind-blowing waterfall in a canyon of the HvĂ­tá river. There is plenty of viewing platforms and opportunities for photos, but they don’t do the size of it justice.

We went in search of lunch afterwards and stumbled across Efstidalur, a lovely hotel on a dairy farm that served excellent, fresh lunches made with entirely local produce (either their farm or a neighbour’s farm). You could eat and watch the cows, or the snowstorm outside. Afterwards we bought enormous ice creams and said hello to the farm dog, who wasn’t supposed to be inside and knew it. It’s been a good day for animal encounters!

Our last major stop for the day was Þingvellir, the national park. The national parliament of Iceland was established there in the year 930 and the split between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates can be seen clearly in several places. This is another one of those parts of Iceland that simply does not look real. I can’t believe a place like this exists on the same Earth that I live on.

15994497_10154135540276269_2569347954615212095_o15994593_10154135541936269_8588463820312843498_o15994621_10154135539951269_4608064047404223018_o16107181_10154135539431269_8589996040300221056_o

We’re staying in Borgarnes and are off on a Northern Lights hunt tonight. Wish us luck!

Jökulsárlón

Reynisfjara was dark when we left this morning, closing up our little cabin and driving back into Vik for sustenance for the road ahead. The view from our cabin would have been mind-blowing in full light. Perhaps next time there will be a return visit…

Coffee and tea in hand, we set off into the snow. The landscape of South Iceland (SuĂ°urland) is a brilliant, beautiful, extremely changeable beast. The lack of trees in this country is striking, and is most noticeable when the terrain is flat, stretching away from you on all sides in a sea of white. It doesn’t feel like Earth. It feels like something out of this world. We were driving alongside the largest glacier in Iceland, Vatnajökull, but the mountainous sides were not always visible.

We stopped for photos at the foot of the Öræfajökull volcano and wondered at the intense blue of the glacier that shone through. It continued to flirt with us all the way along the Ring Road until we finally arrived at Jökulsárlón. This is the iceberg graveyard, the lagoon where the glacier breaks apart before floating to the Atlantic Ocean. The blue of the ice is visible for miles and it looks like a painting come to life. You can walk right to the shore (carefully) and pick up the ice. The water tastes salty from the sea tide. It is one of the most exquisite sights I have seen in my travels.

It is a long drive – about three hours from Vik – and we were headed back past Vik to Selfoss so we had a long day of driving. It passed quickly enough – you can never get sick of the Icelandic scenery – and we stopped for a quick, surprisingly tasty truckstop burger for lunch. By the time we had arrived back in Selfoss, it was pitch black again. We are staying in an absolutely gorgeous farmhouse just out of town and Jules and the boys cooked a fantastic meal of chicken carbonara. I washed my hair (long overdue), and there is wine and playing cards and music. I think we’ll all sleep well tonight, but we might be up for the Northern Lights if the forecast is good…