Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Come one, come all, to see world-famous Rocks!

The realm of tourism is full of kitsch, replicas and false history. Real mummies, wax museums, medieval torture dungeons, etc. We’ve all seen them. Apparently, we humans can’t resist good fanciful fiction if it’s better than the facts. But I believe the greatest marketing coup of all time has to be selling rocks. I can almost see some shamster concocting a whopper of a tale about rare and ancient stones, charging people admission to see them and laughing all the way to the bank.

But rocks are serious business all over the world. Just think of Plymouth Rock, the Blarney Stone and the mother of them all, Stonehenge. It turns out that when we blindly chose to run a race in Salisbury, England, we were placing ourselves within ten miles of this mysterious ancient ring o’ rocks. We figured we better go see it and when we found out that a bus would pick us up in town and haul us out to the middle of the fields where said stones lay, we knew it wouldn’t get any easier. Away we went on a classic red double-decker bus, with tour narration entertaining and educating us all the way.

We queued up to get into the big grassy field, grabbed audio guides and circled the circle. You can’t get very close (unless you pay extra for an after-hours tour) so you walk slowly around the fence perimeter while listening to a lot of archaeological information that basically amounts to this: These rocks are really, really old and no one knows what they were for. Granted, it’s pretty amazing that primitive folks could haul these multi-ton rocks to their present location, especially when modern humans tried to recreate the river journey with a rock of similar size and their raft promptly sank. Plus, they schlepped them over land for miles before standing them upright in a very specific orientation. So, I say kudos to the Neolithic people.

Let’s face it though- rocks are rocks. I can’t say I was disappointed because my expectations weren’t too high. Stonehenge was exactly as I thought it would be and looked just like every photo I’ve ever seen of it. It’s just nothing much to write home about (except that I sort of just did).

Friday, August 20, 2010

Icons of London

Tower Bridge (not London Bridge, as I thought)

Big Ben- one landmark that lives up to its name!
(though Big Ben is only the name of the bell inside the clock tower)

This one did not go to
the Ministry of Magic- too bad!

Buckingham Palace- big but not beautiful.
The flag was flying so we knew
Her Majesty was in residence.
How many books have I read that take place in London? In how many movies have I seen images of the city? And when I finally arrived there, it was just as I expected and even better.
We spent nearly three days hopping around the city- from Pimlico to Piccadily Circus, Westminster to West End, Soho to Southwark, Hyde Park to Holborn, Buckingham Palace to the Borough Market. We saw great landmarks, wandered in neighborhoods and sampled English ales in many dark, wood-paneled taverns including one that was a favorite of Charles Dickens.
I love being in cities that seem to equally embrace their history and their future. One of the most visited attractions is the Tower of London- a fortress, garrison, palace and prison that dates back nearly a thousand years- and it is right in the middle of the city, adjacent to the Wall Street-like business district. And there is not just one London. It seems that each neighborhood has its own unique flair and certainly a few days doesn't do justice to the many personalities of the city. I can't wait to go back... but there are just so many places to go!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

30 Long Kilometers

As part of our marathon training, we decided to run a 30k (that's nearly 19 miles) race. There aren't many of that distance but we found one in Salisbury, England. It was the local firefighters' charity event. So off we went last week for our first visit to the UK.
I didn't know that southwest England was so very hilly! This event was a trail run so it was literally through fields, forests and pastures- the cows were surprisingly calm as they watched me run through the herd, dogding pies and hoping they didn't stampede.
It was beautifully scenic with all those rolling hills through the countryside. One minute I saw a quaint thatched cottage at the edge of the woods that looked straight out of a Grimm Brothers storybook. Ten minutes later I was running past a bonafide castle, looking for a troupe of Jane Austen characters to step out of the garden.
This photo is after the race, which did eventually come to an end. We're standing in front of Salisbury Cathedral, which is really quite breathtaking behind the scaffolding. (When you ask a stranger to take a picture, you never know what you're going to get!) Anyway, the cathedral is 900 years old so I guess it's entitled to a face lift. Shortly after this, we were happily situated in a 18th century tavern replenishing fluids and calories with a celebratory ale and traditional English pub food. Aaah- life is good!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Those crazy Dutchmen!

For those of you who missed it, the soccer World Cup tournament ran from the second week of June through the second week of July. It happens only once every four years and is a VERY big deal in Europe.
This year the United States was in the tournament and won their group in the first round of games. Germany also played well, losing in the semi-finals to Spain, but winning third place. We were in Berlin for both of their last games and the town was painted black, red and gold! TVs were set up outside at cafes and pubs all over and there were crowds around all of them.
The Netherlands made it to the final game, which happened to take place the evening that Susan and I arrived in Amsterdam. We thought it would be fun to be there for the excitement. After we'd spent seven hours on 100-degree trains, packed in like sardines and dealt with two hours of delays, we were less enthusiastic about Dutch soccer. Due to the train delays, we got into the central station just one hour before game time and the city was in absolute chaos. Although the their flag is red, white and blue, the team color is orange in tribute to the royal family, whose last name is Oranje. So everyone and everything was citrus-colored and it was deafeningly loud with the South African vuvzela horns.
We waited over an hour for a tram to get to our hotel. We were tired, we were hungry and thirsty and we were in no mood for frenzied celebration. After we checked into our B&B, we found a tiny Surinamese restaurant where we had a great dinner and watched the rest of the game with the family who owned the place. Sadly, the Netherlands lost to Spain and we were glad that we were no longer in the city center, where many fans did not take the loss well. In our neighborhood, a deathly hush fell over the crowds at the nearby pubs and restaurants. But the Dutch spirits were not down for long; when the team arrived home on Tuesday and made a parade through the city on the canals, the 200, 000+ fans once again turned the town orange and shut down the city's transportation system! Second place is not too shabby!