A blog about my life and travels...

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Thames Bridges Bike Ride 2013

Some days you just can't wake up. You hit the snooze button a few times but just can't bear the thought of getting out of bed. Today was not one of those days. I had been waking up hourly since about 4am waiting for my alarm to go off. It was a mixture of excitement and nervousness, like applying for a new job. Today was my first long distance bike ride, the Thames Bridges Bike Ride.

To top it off, I do not have joy joy feelings of cycling in London. It seems weekly a cyclist is getting injured, and although I have had some practice out on the roads, I still was not too confident.

The day however, was perfect. Blue skies and a dabbling of happy clouds, it was hard to feel nervous on such a beautiful day. I showed up to Southwark Park and started off, grateful the ride was on a Sunday and not many cars were out and about.

After remembering to turn on my Garmin (*face palm*), I went over Tower Bridge, where my fiancee was snapping photos a la paparazzi of me. I smiled and continued on... hopefully I would see him soon at the finish line!

It really angers me when cyclists do not follow the rules of the road. To be fair motorists do it too, generally as a result of experience and thinking 'whats the harm?' so that is probably the same mentality of cyclists; but considering how many accidents occur in London I was surprised to see as many road violations as I did by cyclists. I am sure I broke one or two too... a few times I felt like I was "just pulling in front of" cars due to not knowing which lane to be in. However, turning left on a red? Come on!

Once we got out of London proper was when I felt I was really able to speed up. It was wonderful to see all the activity along the Thames, with a lovely breeze and the sun still blazing away. I enjoyed watching the rowers in formation, and all the dogs playing merrily on the banks.

Richmond Park had the toughest hill on the course, but was not nearly as bad as the hills in the New Forest. However, by then I was in the mid-upper 20 mile range by then, and my legs were not in a happy place. Thanks goodness for my Camelback.. and then going downhill!

The last few miles were gloriously traffic free, giving me time to look around and more or less amble to the finish right across Hampton Court Bridge, where Tom was ready to take more photos of me getting my finishing medal.

In all, it was an amazing route. I feel much more confident now on roads, although I still feel avoiding the central bits of London during rush hours still to be a good idea! Will I do the Palace to Palace up in Warwick next Sunday? Sheesh I just finished this one-- give me a break! :)

You can still donate to the Stroke Association at my JustGiving page... thanks to everyone who donated, you have helped countless others with your generosity! 

Friday, May 10, 2013

My First Cycle Ride in London

Food is truly a wonderful motivator. Nice weather helps too. I finally convinced myself to go for a quick cycle ride during lunch today. I felt stupid having my socks over my right pant leg, but kept telling myself its better than getting jeans stuck in gears on a busy road. This being my first time on my new bike on the road, I decided to not clip in.

View I had for lunch... perfect!
In short: I did not die, AND I got a tasty lunch at the Mayflower, a cosy pub along the Thames with nice outdoor seating! I even whipped out the laptop to do some work over since the day was shaping up to be so nice (and here I thought it was supposed to rain, but to be fair its expected in London). It was actually quite hard to find a place to stick the bike, but I found a good spot eventually, and worried about the bike being nicked most of lunch.

My pride of the ride was successfully navigating a roundabout-- with no one honking or a bus veering down on me. I was even able to cycle up (down? I guess its a perspective thing) Tooley Street to drop by Evans Cycles to figure out my gear issue (hint: it was a user error). That street, is -TIGHT-. Not in a good way. And the pedestrians just waking into the street without caring that they are not supposed to go (rote mann!kein grüne mann!) I shudder when I think about Trafalgar  Square or anywhere near Covent Garden... maybe with time! Ha.

This ride was not about distance, it was about getting out there on the London roads with the bike to get comfortable with the gears and handling. Getting some sun and exercise was just a happy side affect :) 5.84 miles down.

View Cycling in London - Die Erste Zeit! in a larger map

Friday, April 12, 2013

Ponies and Donkeys and Sheep... Oh My! Cycling Through the New Forest

In my quest to shape up for the Thames Bridges Bike Ride ~(have you donated yet to my worthy cause?) happening in about a month, I decided to try some cycling in the New Forest, which is about 90 minutes from London. Since I -still- do not have my bike (thanks PruHealth!) I had to rent a bike. Luckily, Brockenhurst was not short of cycle rental shops, and I was soon on my way. I loved the landscape of the New Forest, very beautiful. Oh and let's not forget the ponies. It's a bit creepy turning around and -poof- there is a pony. I said hi :o)

The New Forest is definitely... ermm hilly, although it does not look it. It is much hillier than London. And I am just getting over the flu and have not exercised in a a while. The whole thing did not go as easily as I hoped, but I did manage to huff and wheeze my way into the Burley Youth Hostel. 
The YHA was very nice, although a bit off the beaten path. The only issue really was come 0800 the next day, no one was at reception and I needed to grab my bike! When I walked back at quarter to 9 someone was there... but I felt bad for the families and people who has ordered breakfast that morning. 
I was feeling a bit sad passing by all the stops and areas for walking. The New Forest has roughly 100 miles of cycle paths and over 143 miles of walking routes. Enough to keep people busy for many weekends!  

It was a quick 7 miles back to Brockenhurst, and with my impeccable luck, I dropped off the bike just before the rain started. Amid the rain I still managed to get in a quick walk and say goodbye to the ponies.
All in all it was a hair under miles. The things I learned:
1) I am worried about the comfort of my seat... and the comfort of my butt :)   After the first day it was not the happiest thing, and I was wearing cycle shorts. 
2) Cycling when under the weather is potentially not advisable
3) Although the first day I did about 23 miles, considering how hilly it was I feel pretty confident for the London race
4) I got a bit more used to traffic... but it still freaks me out. And let's be honest, London traffic is something special :)
5) If I want to do multi-day journeys, I need a pannier. A backpack is a killer for long journey.

My route is below... I wish I had time (and the space!) to pick up some beers at Ringwood Brewery (I passed it right by on my ride).. another time. PS It did not take me 23 hours to cycle this, the Garmin app calculated my moving time to be about 4 hours. I know this is wrong, and looking at the Garmin, it missed my loop between Ringwood and Burley.. so maybe I cycled more than I thought!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

London Loop: London's Own Long Distance Path

The Marker for the London Loop-
The Kestrel
There are many long-distance walks in the England. There is the Coast-to-Coast (my favourite) clocking in at 200 miles, the Pennine Way is about 270 miles(ok this does end in Scotland, but just barely) , and for those who really didn't feel like going to work for a few months there is the South West Coast Path which is a staggering 630 miles.

Now as I sit here in my London flat I wonder, are there any long distance paths around London? There is of course the Thames Path, but that only traipses in thru London. It starts (or finishes) in the hilly Cotswolds (where there is another long distance path, the Cotswold Way). Is there one that can be tackled easily in weekends if need be, and utilises London's already awesome transport system? Why yes-- the London Loop!

Dubbed 'The M25 for Walkers'. this trail is 140 miles long and pretty much circles around London. The joy of it is that the path really takes advantage of the green spots in London. Yes, you will go thru residential areas, but most paths do that... and in this manner the trail can be broken up into manageable chunks. In fact, there is only 1 section that has a start/end point outside the 6 zones of the London Transport System....

Grab you oyster card... Lets Go!

The book we will be using on this fun adventure to guide is 'The London Loop' by David Sharp. You can pick it up online, at your favorite bookstore, or if you are still unsure, rent it from your library!

Section 7: Kingston to Donkey Wood

We arrived at Kingston station about 20 minutes after leaving Waterloo Station. There was a trail marker right outside the station indicating where we were to head to. Now I should mention there were spots on the trail where it was NOT entirely obvious where to go. If you look at our GPS map it is quite obvious where these points are. I would never suggest walking a path going solely on signage. Use a book, plot your route on a map/GPS... never rely on one source!

I will only touch on some of the aspects of this section of path.

Bushy Park

The deer didn't seem to mind us....
This was the first section of our walk and by far the nicest part of it. Bushy Park is one of the Royal Parks and the 2nd in size only to Richmond Park. What it lacks in size though it more than makes up for in content. Seemingly almost domesticated deer graze idly as you walk within mere feet of them. If you are lucky they may look up at you, only to return to their munching. This park was once owned by Cardinal Wolsey as well as the beautiful estate adjoining it, Hampton Court. However, a visiting Henry VIII liked it so much, he decided to take it from the Cardinal. I suppose that is a compliment? If you only fancied staying near Bushy Park or if you wanted an 'easy' day-- I highly recommend going to Hampton Court. It looked like a lovely place, with its own gardens and maze!

Bushy park is full of lovely grassland, ponds, wooded areas, and gardens. In fact, I could not get over the colors bursting from some of the flowers in the park, particularly in the Woodland Gardens. Azaleas and rhododendrons from soft white to bold pink were surrounded at their feet by small carpets of bluebells.  Top it off with a quaint cottage and you half expect Snow White to pop out from around a tree.

Shot Tower in Crane Park

Crane Park

Crane Park logically follows the Crane River. There are numerous paths to take here, but if you follow the river you can't go wrong. The highlight of this section was the Shot Tower, which back in the 16th Century was part of a gunpowder mill. Its function? Men would drop molten lead into a vat of water to make shot... seems a bit extreme? Nowadays it is used as a Nature Center.

Hounslow Heath

After another road diversion (there is a pub there, stop if you want a pint or food!), you are back on green at Hounslow Heath.  And what green it is! It seems a bit untamed and wild, a contrast from the nicely designed Bushy Park. However, that is one of its best attributes. As far back as the Norman Times Hounslow Heath has been in the record books. It has had many uses: hunting ground, prime location for highwaymen and robbers, agriculture, and even a dump. Luckily most of its former functions (sadly except the last) have disappeared, leaving a lovely nature reserve full of paths for walker, cyclists, and horses.

According to the book, the Crown and Sceptre Pub was shortly after Hounslow Heath on Staines Road. However, much to our stomach's dismay, the pub was boarded up. With not much farther to go, we trudged thru Donkey Wood and then shortly came face to face with Heathrow Airport. A quick walk down the A30 (on pavement of course) brought us to Hatton Cross Tube station.


Blue bells
 All in all-- I think the path in this section does a great job in trying to highlight the green spots in the area. It is hard to top a spot like Bushy Park or Hounslow Heath, however Crane Park and Brazil Mill Woods had a few tricks up their sleeve. It was sad to see so much trash around in some areas, and if I had gloves and a garbage bag I might of made it a litter pick-up walk as well. (some parks have volunteer groups to help in this aspect, so I may just have the opportunity!)

I hope I have persuaded a few of you to pick up a book on the London Loop or check the website and go out and walk a section of it. Everyone's perception of a trail is different, so go out there and make your own memories :)

GPS Mapped Route

View London Loop: Kingston to Donkey Wood in a larger map

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Day in London: Brompton Cemetery to Museums

Let's face it: London is expensive. However, it is possible to spend a whole day going to interesting and free places (well excluding Tube and food). This trip includes roughly a 2 mile walk thru Chelsea/Kensington from a Victorian Cemetery to the famous 3 museums in South Kensington. See the route we took below:

View Brompton Cemetery to Kensington in a larger map

Brompton Cemetery is easily accessible from Earls Court , West Brompton, or Fulham Broadway tube stops. Originally created to help cope with the sudden increase in population (and therefore deaths) in London, it was opened in 1840 and houses over 35,000 monuments. Remember that Brompton was considered on the outskirts of London back in those days, so placing a cemetery there seemed a great idea to help with the dirge of disease and hazards of overcrowded cemeteries in Central London.

We started at Earl's Court (and were greeted by a TARDIS... a good sign!) and made our way to the North Gate of the cemetery. The day was cloudy and there was a chill in the air-- perfect for cemetery walking. There are rows upon rows of gravestones and tombs, many overgrown with years of neglect. However, it added to the solemness and ambiance of the place, and there were some freshly laid flowers on some to assure us that the dead have not all been forgotten.

From Wikipedia
Brompton does have its A-list of celebrities. I was excited to see that John Snow was buried here. John Snow was an anesthetist (he actually administered anesthesia to Queen Victoria when she was in labor) and epidemiologist, and his major claim to fame was linking cholera to the water supplies in the city. Thanks to his work, London began to build better sewage systems (thus giving us the Albert and Victoria Embankments), and making cholera a disease of the past. In doing so he also revolutionised mapping techniques (ie mapping poverty areas to areas of disease) . I highly recommend reading The Ghost Map if any of that sounds vaguely interesting. :)

Beatrix Potter lived close to the cemetery and actually used some of the names from the gravestones in her stories. So although not famous in life- Mr. Nutkins, Mr. McGregor, and even Peter Rabbett- became famous in death. 

Walking thru the cemetery itself is impressive, and even more so when you get to the crypts. These were recently made famous by the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movie, as it was where Lord Blackwood was laid to rest (or was he?? dun dun duuun).

Emerging from the South Gate, one has all sorts of options. Football (soccer) fans can head right and see Stamford Bridge, home of the Chelsea Football Club. We headed left on Fulham Road towards the museums. Along Fulham Road are plenty of pubs, cafes and restaurants in case you have built up an appetite. I recommend Goat In Boots, a pub with a decent list of ales and interesting food selection.

Our walk took us past St. Augustine's Church, which was built in 1876 (keeping with the Victorian theme here) and is a lovely building both inside and out. I highly recommend stopping to snap a few photos!

A few minutes later we made to 'Museum Lane'. This road houses three great (and free!) museums. The Natural History, Science, and Victoria & Albert Art Museums can keep anyone busy for hours, making it a great way to spend the rest of a gloomy day. Be careful though you may have to queue as others may have the same idea!

If the queues are too long (or its too nice a day to be indoors), you are a few blocks south from Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.  Best way to see them both? Rent a Boris Bike!

The South Kensington Tube stop is close by, allowing you to get to wherever you need to go after a long day of some amazing, free, London sights.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Celebrating Spring in Stuttgart

Everyone in the world knows about Oktoberfest-- the big festival in the Fall which has been going on for hundreds of years in Munich. Did you know it started as a celebration for the wedding of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese? Well... every year something similar happens in Stuttgart, a city in the adjoining state of Baden-Wuttemberg, not only in the fall but in the Spring as well...aptly named Frühlingsfest (Spring Festival)


Dirndl's in Action
So, if you want to be authentic, one needs proper trachten (costumes) to have for Fest. This is dirndl's for the ladies and lederhosen (literally meaning leather pants) for the guys. There are of course the cheaper halloween ones but in Germany there are stores especially for them-- ranging from reasonable to downright expensive!

Walking into Fest is like walking into an amusement park-- there are plenty of sights, smells, and sounds catering to young and old. There are rides ranging from the calm and serene to the white knuckle roller coasters. Never trusting the games (and my German being a bit bad) myself I am sure they are like any games you find in an amusement park. And the food! You have your typical plump sausages (wurst), dried fish, fries (pommes), pretzels (brezeln), and of course for the sweet tooth, plenty of candies and chocolates!

One of the many tents in Stuttgart's Fruhlingsfest
However, the real excitement is walking into the Fest Zelts (tents). The slightly stale smell of beer stained into the wood, mixed with the salivating aroma of the hendl (chicken) turning on the spit. This... is fest!

It starts with one maß (liter) of beer. Thats when you dig into the chicken. The slight buzz pairs nicely with the salty chicken skin and moist meat. The Prosit (cheers) song starts and everyone sings along and raises their glass. Be sure to look at everyone while you cheers-- it bad luck otherwise!

The evening continues-- more maß's are imbibed, more songs are sung, and before you realize you are up on the wooden table seats (not the table itself, thats a no no!) dancing and swaying to the music. You look around, everyone is up with you... everyone is laughing and singing along. Fest is definitely one of those experiences when is does not matter if the person next to you speaks a different language. All you need to do is raise your glass to theirs and shout "Prost!"

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Malaga, Spain

View of Malaga Heading Up to the Castillo
Malaga is one of the oldest known cities in the world, with records dating back to 770 BC. Naturally, a city with such a long and diverse history will have some very interesting buildings. Add to that Malaga's location along the coast and their love of food and wine-- you have yourself a perfect city to explore and indulge in. Vamanos-- a Malaga!

Edificios y mas (Buildings & more)

There are two things which strike you when walking around Malaga. One is its amazing waterfront. The puerto (port) is newly developed to be more pedestrian friendly and now boasts many stores and restaurants along the eastern side. There are also many places where one can simply sit and enjoy the sun and views. Bring a book and soak it in!

The beach (playa Malagueta) is along the eastern side of the port and stretches as far as the eye can see. Dotted along the beach are ice cream stands and little playgrounds for the ninos (children). Runners are a common theme here, as regardless of temperature the azure water makes a stunning companion. However, what really adds to the backdrop are the mountains. One of the best features about Malaga is you could go from slopes to sea in a matter of hours. Malaga is truly a city of environmental diversity.

Walking into the city you notice the Castillo de Gibralfaro and Alcazaba looming above you. These were built in the Moorish style in the 10-11th centuries. Those willing to huff and puff up to the Castillo will be rewarded with sweeping views of the city and to the other side the mountains beyond. For the more relaxed traveler the Alcazaba is much easier to reach, with an entrance at street level. Alcazaba  literally means "citadel" and is a great place to lose yourself in its beautiful gardens and marveling at the Moorish architecture.

However, the Alcazaba is not the oldest thing around, the Teatro Romano was actually covered up during the construction of the Alcazaba, resulting in it being lost for centuries. It was recently discovered and excavated-- now everyone can wander thru the stands or even stand on the stage of this amazing structure dating back to 2nd Century BC.

La Manquita
Another dominating feature of Malaga is its Cathedral, lovingly called 'La Manquita' by its citizens. Upon closer inspection you realize why it is called so... one of the towers is incomplete! Some say it was because Spain ran out of money as they were fighting a war at the time of building. When talks arose to complete the structure, everyone asked "Why? We like it how it is... it has always
been this way!"

I would be remiss if I did not mention that Malaga is also the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, the world famous artist. You can actually see his birth place near the Plaza de la Merced, and the church (Iglesia de Santiago) where he was basptised. I highly recommend peaking inside the church, it has lovely statues and the woman at the door is wonderful answering questions about the church and Malaga in general.


Spanish tapas and wine... perfect!
Tapas. Vino. These are the common things one visualizes when Spain is mentioned. A trip to Malaga does not disappoint. There are all sorts of amazing dishes to try, and of course being on the coast the seafood is especially delicious. Cod, hake, and shrimp are all easily obtainable. Of course there is also manchego (cheese made from sheep's milk) and chorizo (pork sausages). Most tapas are served with a type of cracker which is local to Malaga, its shape reminding me of spaetzle, just much thicker. The wine in Spain is world renowned, but little known that Malaga itself produces a special wine. Malaga wine is a sweet wine, not like Riojas which Spain is famous for. It is a wonderful  after dinner wine to sip and enjoy while your food digests. My strangest food combination? I had a toastada (toasted bread) with fresh cod and orange at El Pimpi. It seemed a bit strange, but it was love at first bite! Watch out when eating downtown outside, as you will be accosted by people asking for money or wanting you to buy lottery tickets-- simply say 'No gracias' and they will move away. At El Trillo (great place if you want a meal rather than tapas) the owner kept chasing a man playing the accordion away, I never saw a man playing the accordion run so fast!

Another wonderful Spanish classic is the churro. Each area in Spain makes their churros a certain way, with Malaga's looking almost like long tubes. Light, hot, and dipped in warm chocolate-- these little guys are a wonderful breakfast to have before starting out your adventures for the day. Recommend Casa Aranda and having them with Cafe Con Leche (coffee with milk). Saboroso!

So Much More...

Unfortunately my time in Malaga was quite short, and there were so many things I did not have time to do. There was a Museum which talked all about wine, another for Pablo Picasso, as well as one about Flamenco, which of began in the Andulsia region, which Malaga was not in shortage of any. One place that looked especially nice was the Teatro Cervantes, which has performances almost nightly. I suppose there is always next time... 

So if you want to soak up some sun, take in some culture, and explore history up close-- Malaga is a great option. It is also pretty reasonably priced, with tickets to the Castillo and Alcazaba being less that 6 EUR total. The food is also quite reasonable, with tapas as cheap as 2 EUR. And don't be afraid to order house wine,  in Spain it is generally always delicious!

Malaga-- TravelinMoose Approved!