14 April 2012

jolly ol' England

After initializing my vacation in Paris, I was off to England for more formal matters. England is the land of which the Walker name claims origin. My earliest confirmed relation in England was christened in a small borough in Lancashire named Ashton-under-Lyne. I wanted to visit, so I headed to the closest major city thankfully only a stones cast away: Manchester.

UK border officers are a funny bunch. Each person they meet every day is a complete stranger to them, but their job demands that they ask as many questions about your trip as possible in a 90 second window. The gal at Manchester airport was a kind sweet woman by nature I could tell, but soon knew everything about my trip anticipations with the exception of the number of steps I predicted I would take. After passing that test, I headed into a new world that I had not yet encountered.

England is an amusing culture to Americans. They speak English, but we don't understand more than the first two words of any sentence. They love democracy, but still have a monarch. The British Empire once ruled most of the worlds population, but most British folk never travel more than a few dozen kilometers from their home and are quite content about it from what I gather. I on the other hand, love to travel across the globe, and Manchester was worth being a stop on this trek despite some snags.

My first order of business was to go worship in the LDS Temple just an hour north in Preston. Getting a train ticket there proved to be a little more complicated than I expected (and alot more expensive) but nothing a few more quid couldn't fix. The Preston Temple was lovely, and it was nice to take a break and get some quiet time to contemplate holy things. On my walk back to Chorley train station, I encountered something more man-made but still heaven sent: fish and chips.

I was hungry, but was more excited to go home and rest than eat. However, on my trek back to the train station there were no less than 8 signs tempting me to come and eat Browns Famous Fish and Chips. I envisioned some large pub that was touting one meal to attract customers, but when I arrived at the takeaway "chippy" at Parker Lane, I was pleasantly surprised. I opened the door and found a line of about 5 blokes in front of me snaking around the wall and back towards the door per the register. I payed close attention to the ordering process and was handed something that looked like this:

I couldn't resist dashing it with some 'Chip Spice' (which I believe was just seasoned salt) and dousing it with some onion gravy. I learned that night that a real English fish and chips plate actually dosent come in a plate at all, it comes wrapped in newspaper. If you are ever in Chorley, I highly recommend Browns. Its not the classiest place in the world, but as I walked back to my hostel chowing on a newspaper-wrapped mess of fried haddock and fries, I never felt more English.

The next day I bounced off to my primary destination: Ashton-under-Lyne. It took me a bit to find the proper way to take the trains, but the wait was not wasted as I got to a good lot of fine Manchester folks in their native environment. Despite being able to rarely decipher much of any words they said, it was neat to sit and listen.

When I arrived in Ashton, I was surprised to see a much busier place than I had expected. In reality, Ashton is a growing borough with a few large draws to town not the least of which include an indoor arcade (mall in America), an Ikea furniture store, and dozens of shops right in downtown. I only had to walk down the street to find St. Michaels church, the locale of my grandmothers baptism in 1804. The church had not aged terribly well, but I snapped some photos just to document. I was greeted by a baptism of my own; it started to rain. Welcome back to England Walker.

Unfortunately, I hit a snag. Hopeing to explore this church and the local history library down the road (and out of the rainstorm) I was blocked by the fact that they were all closed. Ironically enough, I had not realized when I had planned my visit, that the very day I was in town was an English Bank Holiday and one that closed most churches and national services; it was Good Friday.

Good Friday, but bad luck.

Nonetheless, Manchester was a pleasant time and I will return someday. That someday will be on a Thursday and will not be a bank holiday.

Upon arising on Saturday morning I caught my train headed to London, where the party would truly begin.

04 April 2012

Au revoir a Paris

The rest of my Paris excursion was no less exciting. I am still fighting off a spell of jet lag, but all in all, I've covered just about everything I wanted to experience.

Day 2
Kicked off today by going to the market and getting a smoothie for breakfast. I walked down the street, away from the shops, to enjoy it in some peace and quiet. When you walk in a busy neighborhood in the morning in Paris, all the markets are abuzz selling/delivering food to the local restaurants. I didn't have to wait long to taste the best effect of that interaction.

Confession time. I really had only two motives for going to Paris. Those reasons did not included seeing the Louvre, or visiting Versailles gardens, or brushing up on my French. Those of course, were nice side effects of such a stop, but not the prime mover of re-routing my whole European stay. Nope, I made sure Paris was a stop on this trip for really two reasons. One was this place:

Last time I was here, my life changed forever. I had no idea food could taste this good. I had no idea a simple lunch could be such an epiphany. I wanted, nay needed, to come back.

This creperie only opens for about 3 hours a day, five days a week. It is run by two French men and one dude who I can only assume is the kitchen help. It opens precisely at noon and closes up shop around 3pm.  Some people only need three hours a day to change the world.

When you arrive (and observe the formalities like immediately extending a dignified "bonjour"), you are seated as soon as Ludvig (the extremely well dressed and to the point owner) has a moment to direct you to an open seat and pull out the table for you. Take a few minutes to try and decide what to order, and before you know it, you got your lunch.

I had debated to go with last time's pick of ham/cheese crepe but I decided to branch out and get the cheese/mushroom/cream/cumin one. I can't pronounce its name let alone spell it, but it did not disappoint. Afterwards I got dessert as a matter of necessity. This crepe was much lighter, but filled with caramel sauce, nuts and sliced pears. I took my time through this whole process, about 1.5 hours. In France, the term 'fast food' exists, but it is a base offensive swear word. If I could choose a few hours of my life to be played on repeat, visits to this place would be in the running.

I didn't have the heart to take a photograph of my meal and degrade my favorite Parisian creperie into a tourist attraction, sorry all. Some things are just left better to your imagination. After bidding a fond farewell to my favorite crepe masters, I headed off to Versailles gardens for a nap.

Day 3

After eating a buttery croissant drizzled with some prune-honey (way tastier that you imagine), I was off to the Louvre to cover what I missed last time around. I was the first one in line to get in actually,as I used ol' Rick Steves trick of using the downstairs metro entrance instead of the pyramid. Since I beat the crowds, I figured I would say hi to these two gals before I hit up Egyptian Antiquities and the Flemish Renaissance wing.

After 3 hours of bumming around the best museum on the planet, I followed my Louvre tradition of eat lunch at the highest rated bistro I could find in a neighborhood nearby. This time I went to the Marais section of town just east of the museum and introduced myself to the Cafe des Musees. This place was rated in the top five for fixed-plate lunch menu's less than 100$ by a fabulous Parisian travel blog I adore. I figured I spent about that much last trip on my previous post-Louvre lunch outing, and didn't need to repeat it.

When I arrived, there was only a small table with one seat left in the packed cafe. The handy French waiter quickly wiped it clean and put me to work figuring out what I wanted. No need to scan the menu when they have a fixed-price set lunch. Today's lunch was two courses:

A flavourful chicken-liver pate

Roasted duck-breast drenched in heaven sauce with mashed potatoes

and for dessert: creme chocolat!

Yep. There is the secret. The best style of vacation only has three ingredients: a walk around the city, cultural visit, and as much tasty food as I can find.

Au revoir Paris! I hope I its not too long before we meet again.

02 April 2012

bienvenue a Paris

I was last in Paris only a year ago, and stepping off the plane it genuinely felt like I had never left. On the metro ride heading into the city, I smiled at the nice French gentleman and he knew exactly where I was from (American tourists always smile).

Le homme: American? (in that awesome Parisian accent)
Moi: Oui. (in my gallant but less effective attempt sounding French)
Le homme: Ah, bienvenue a Frànce.
Moi: Merci boku. 

Such a great interaction to start off my trip. The nice Frenchman then proceded to explain all of the cool things I needed to see, described a woman he knew (perhaps his daughter) who taught at Georgetown, and lobbyed for how cool President Obama is. Europeans, especially the French love Obama.  I pondered about trying to explain the virtues of the conservative political spectrum and that Mitt Romney actually speaks French and lived in France for a few years, but decided to resist the temptation to resume teaching Government on my first official day off. All of this conversation took place in subdued French (it is rude to speak loudly on the Metro).

I took out my trusty Rick Steves:Paris travel  book to write down some suggestions. My impromptu guide got a bit flustered and in a momentary flash of where I am sure I experienced the gift of tounges I understood as he authoritatively declared:
"You don't need a book to see Paris, you only need your shoes!"
Quickly realizing my error, I ruffled in my bags and produced my worn but clearly purposed Asics running shoes. He smiled, and gave me an approving thumbs up.

I spent most of the rest of the day staving off jet-lag and making good on his suggestions. Here is a short-list of the accomplishments for Day 1:

  • My favorite Parisian cathedrals: Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame & St Michel
  • Tasty food at the Latin Quarter
  • Arc di Triumph
  • Montemarte Cemetary (one of the largest in the world)
  • Evening walk on the Siene

I only had to spend 2 metro tickets and walk about 5 miles to get them all. 


In honor of the spring/Easter season, which is one of my favorites (for many reasons), I have decided to bring new life to my brain, my soul, and my blog.

Here are some updates from across the pond or if you would rather visualize them just take a gander as I post photographic evidence of my progress. Cheers!

New travel blog posts:
Paris #1
Paris #2
Benelux #1, #2, #3