Swimming, drinks, and a visit to Porvoo

The past two days have been hot here in Finland. Today it actually got up to 27 celsius, which I believe is about 85 farenheit. We've been sweating a bit.
Yesterday we dealt by the heat by going to the swimming pool. My cousins and i enjoyed the sunshine and some swimming, and Michelle and I even tried aqua running (known as deep water running in the States).

After we swam, we went in the sauna in the women's lockerroom, where clothing is expressly forbidden. An old woman in the sauna kept adding more and more water to the coals, making it very hot. 
We followed up our swim by meeting Michelle's friend Iiris for drinks on the river. I had more cider, the usual, and even got to try out the roads on the way there. That makes Finland the 6th country I've driven in.

Today we took a trip to Porvoo, a small town on a river about an hour east of Helsinki. There we wandered through craft and antique shops, listened to some really weird music, ate ice cream in the park, and made a few purchases here and there.

I was able to send a few things home with my uncle, who headed to the States the day after I arrived in Finland, and I'm excited to have room in more suitcase for more gifts (and things for me).

We had meant to climb the hill where the castle used to sit in Porvoo, but due to the heat and our exhaustion, we settled for sitting in the shade by the river as we ate banana bread and drank coffee.

I wasn't kidding about these Finns loving their coffee. Today I had it on three different occasions. Good thing I like it!

Tomorrow we are meeting Michelle when she gets off work downtown to see some sites and shop more. I think the shopping will be a common theme throughout my visit.


Helsinki and Beyond

I've made it to Helsinki. Well, I actually landed two days ago.

There's a heat wave happening here, and after all the rain and clouds of Great Britain, I couldn't be happier.

Yesterday we took advantage of the nice weather to go out to an island. I concluded a 24-hour period of many kinds of public transportation for the trip out. Including my travels to Helsinki, in just over 24 hours I took a taxi, train, bus, plane, car, tram, and ferry. And today we're biking.

The island was an old fortress, built during the time Sweden and Russia were fighting over what is now Finland. There were tunnels to explore, which we did, though we had to use our camera flashes for light.

We also had a nice picnic lunch by the sea, with bread, cheese, juice, and fruit. After soaking up the sun for a while, we also enjoyed ice cream and coffee.

I'm definitely not in Great Britain anymore. Tea is a thing of the past, except in the evenings, as the Finns really like their coffee.

After visiting the island, my cousins and I did a little shopping. I found a couple things, but our energy was low due to all the sun exposure. (No sunburns though!)

We had a nice dinner of salad and salmon, before playing three games of salad (*ahem* Scrabble) with my aunt's neighbor Tiina. My cousin, Michelle, and I played as a team and even won one game.

Today we have big plans that involve swimming and a beer or two in the evening. Things are getting crazy.

As a side note, it stays light here forever. Apparently that happens when you are close to the arctic circle. Last weekend was midsummer, which is a huge party in Finland during the time the sun doesn't set at all.


Bath and Salisbury

Today was our last full day in Great Britain, which is crazy!  We had saved our day trip out of London for today, and it ended up being very fortuitous, as the weather finally became summer-like and being in the city would have been a bit miserable.

Before we could get to Bath, we had to get through a series of unfortunate events.  First, the hotel staff looked rather scared when we asked if breakfast had started yet (it was 7am and breakfast apparently starts at 7:30am).  Then we had almost made it to the tube when I realized I didn't have my tube pass (though it may have actually been in my bag) or my BritRail pass (most definitely in our room).  Next, the underground station we needed was closed due to flooding.  However, when we turned around, it was open in the other direction.  Needless to say, we caught the train an hour later than planned.

The train out to Bath took an hour and a half, allowing us to sit back, relax, and read a little.  Once in Bath, we found our ways to the Tourist Center and purchased tickets to the Roman Baths and the Fashion Museum.  Both had audio tours that were informative and interesting but very different features.
In our wide skirts and corsets--sorry for the blurriness!
Our time at the Fashion Museum was disrupted by a fire alarm and power outage.  Luckily no one was actually in danger, but we spent quite a lot of time sitting around outside with the National Osteoporosis Society.  We were also lucky enough to claim a corner of shade early on, though perhaps we should have offered it up to our elders.

Between the Roman Baths and the Fashion Museum, we had sushi, a fun change from most of the food we've been consuming on the trip.  I'd show you pictures, but I ate mine too quickly.

From Bath, we took the train an hour to Salisbury.  In Salisbury we walked to the gorgeous cathedral.  It was really beautiful (and quite wonderfully cool inside).  We finished the trip with a dinner in Salisbury, complete with a glass of cider.
Our last train ride together! :(
The trip back to London was quite successful (no mishaps) and now it's time to pack.  I'm off to Helsinki tomorrow for a fun two weeks with family.  I don't promise updates every day, but I will do my best to keep you informed.


A "Lazy" Saturday in London

I say "lazy" because even though we didn't have much planned, Christine and I still managed to do a lot of walking.

After sleeping in and having breakfast in our room, we headed off for Portobello Market in Knotting Hill.  Yes, like the movie.  It was packed!  The street was lined with shops and booths, and the crowds were out in force.  We both got a few goodies, but didn't nearly have the time or patience to really sort through the goods.

Once we fought our way back to the Tube station, we headed towards Harrods and tea at The Capitol Hotel.  I picked up a few French Macarons from Harrods (to sample as we travel on the train tomorrow).  Then we had tea in a small room on the second floor of the hotel.  It was nice to relax and be quiet.  We even got tea sandwiches twice.  The waiter was so nice.

Following tea, we headed to Harrods to take things in.  They had a big sale going on, so things were more crazy than usual.  Plus, you may not be aware of this, but Wimbledon is happening, so there are even more people in town than usual.  We saw the food halls, visited the toy area and the pet area (the puppies were so cute/sad), and the Princess Di memorial (her boyfriend's father was the previous owner of Harrods--he sold the store just in the past couple years).

We made it back to our hotel, got takeout from an Indian restaurant up the street, and are now settled in for the evening.  It's going to be an early day tomorrow as we are headed to Bath and Salisbury. 

Also, I don't have any pictures from today.  Sorry!  I'm a slacker.


London Continues

I probably should be sleeping right now, but we have plans for sleeping in and breakfast in our room (amazing!), so instead I'm blogging.  And using as many commas as possible.

Today was our second day of using the London Pass around town.  I think it's safe to say we got our money's worth.

We started with a trip to Churchill's War Rooms and Museum.  The place was incredibly interesting.  The entire basement of a building on Whitehall was reinforced and used as the government headquarters during World War II.  All the rooms had been recreated and an audio tour provided detailed information.
The Churchill Museum
The museum itself was crazy.  It was very interactive, but provided a ton of information about Churchill, his family, and his interactions from others.  My only regret was I didn't have more time to go through it all.
Changing of the horse guards.
We darted from there to the parade grounds for the horse guards for the changing of the guard.  The horses are gorgeous, the sun was out, and it was cool to see the ceremony (even if it was crowded).

From the horse guards, we walked to Trafalgar Square for a few touristy pictures then headed into Covent Garden for lunch.  After consulting Mr. Steves, we picked Belgo Centraal.
The countdown for the London Games at Trafalgar.
The restaurant is located underground, specialized in mussels, and has a huge variety of beer.  The atmosphere was great and the bathrooms were semi-unisex.  Overall, I loved it.

From Covent Garden, we took the tube back down to Westminster Abbey.  The lines were long and the church was crowded (I blame the Royal Wedding), but the audio tour provided a huge amount of detail about the church, its history, and the many different tombs on the premises.

After wandering around the church, we stayed for the evensong service.  The choir was amazing, made up of men and boys (who actually attend a school that is connected to the church).

Next up was dinner before our second (and sadly final) show of the trip.  We walked to a little seafood restaurant (aptly named Seafresh) down the street from the theater.  I got the Fisher's Pie, combining the wonderful ingredients of fish, veggies (or veg, as they say here), mashed potatoes, and cheese.  Yum!

Then it was off to the Apollo Victoria Theatre for Wicked!  I loved the show in a completely different way than Billy Elliot.  It was much more spectacular and Elphaba's voice was so powerful!  It was fun to see a book I've read come to life on stage.

Now we're back at the hotel.  Christine is already asleep for the night.  I'm headed there shortly.  Two more days here in London (though one will be in Bath).  Hard to believe.  I know, I keep saying that.


London A Go Go

Today was a jammed packed, touristy day in London.  We decided to purchase the London Pass (which covers a number of main attractions) for the next two days, which meant we needed to be productive to make it pay.
In front of the stage at Shakespeare's Globe.
The first stop of the day, once the pass was purchased, was a tour of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.  The theatre was rebuilt after it burned down (finished in 1996 or 1997) to look like the original.  Not only did we learn a lot, but most of the tour was spent sitting in the theatre, a nice break for our feet at the start of the day.
In the upper deck of the Globe.
We walked from the Globe to the Tower Bridge.  There we went up to the top to explore and learn more.  We also had a really cheesy picture taken that we didn't purchase.
The Tower Bridge
Following the bridge, we went to the Tower of London.  There we grabbed some lunch and plotted our strategy.  Our first stop in the Tower was the Crown Jewels.  So ridiculously amazing!  Also, if Britain really gets into a budget crisis, I think they have a few resources. 
The site of the Royal Jewels.  Sorry there's no pictures of the good stuff--it wasn't allowed.
Then we visited an exhibition about a tower prisoner to get a feel for what life was like.  We finished we a trip to the White Tower which houses the armor from many many years of kings.  I don't know if you are aware, but England is kind of old. 
Changing of the guard for the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.
After the Tower of London, we walked to St. Paul's Cathedral.  Um, wow.  We started by climbing up to the Golden Gallery via the Whispering Gallery.  It was something like 530 steps.  Then we had to climb back down.
Crazy dragon at the Tower.
We also checked out the crypts, which house tombs for Wellington and Nelson--pretty important figures in England's military history especially.  The entire tour of St. Paul's was an audio tour with iPod touch-like devices, which added a lot and made it possible to go at your pace.
In the actual city of London.  Also, they are big on dragons.
We didn't have time to tour much of the main level of the church, but we did attend evensong.  It was a completely different service than the last evensong we attended and included communion.
A miniature bean.
After catching the Tube home during rush hour (crowded and a madhouse), we walked to Hard Rock.  The wait for a table was 1.5 hours, but a two-person table opened on the patio when we arrived, so we got to sit right down.
At the top of St. Paul's.
I had a pulled pork sandwich with mushrooms and cheese, and basically inhaled it.  Also, we got free hot fudge sundaes (though they were a little light on the fudge) because of our London Passes.  We're getting our money's worth!
Dinner...get in my belly.  Also pictured: Christine's fajitas and my raspberry mojito.
Tomorrow we going to finish strong with the London Pass.  I'm trying not to think about how little time we have left here (though I am really excited to head to Helsinki!).


Day 2 in London: Wet and Wild

Let me start with a couple disclaimers:
- This post has nothing to do with a wet t-shirt contest.
- I'm tired and should be sleeping (I totally typed shleeping first), so I can't be held responsible for the quality of the writing.
- We are no longer going to Brighton (thanks Mom!).  There's just too much to do and see in London.
The mounted guard, his horse, myself, and a random woman.
For our second day in London we took advantage of the last few hours of our bus pass to do a walking tour that followed the changing of the guard.  We saw the mounted guard, then walked from St. James Palace to Wellington Barracks to see the guard change over.
The changing of the mounted guard.
It was exciting, fast paced, and our guide was awesome.  We didn't actually see the full exchange in front of Buckingham as it was very crowded, but our tour guide assured it we weren't missing too much.
Changing of the guard from Buckingham Palace, led by the band.
After the tour we walked back towards Hyde Park.  Unfortunately we had to make a quick stop by the for a costume change.  Fortunately, the hotel is 10 minutes from Hyde Park.
Birds in a drizzly Hyde Park.
Once we made it back to Hyde Park we set off to follow the Princess Diana Memorial Walk.  The first 15 minutes were wet, as in pouring rain.  It was lovely.  The only upside was the emptiness of the park.  I actually ended up taking my glasses off and walking around in a foggy daze.
Part of the Diana Memorial Fountain.
Along the walk we saw the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, the Serpentine, and a lot of birds.  Also, dogs are apparently allowed to roam off-leash in much of the park, except near water as a few birds have met with an untimely death because of it.
Kensington Palace (currently under construction to remodel) and gardens.
We made our way through Hyde Park to Kensington Gardens and finally the Orangery at Kensington Palace for tea.  It was delicious and the building was beautiful.
Mini orange tree at our table--so cute!
More tea!
After partially drying out at the Orangery, we finished our tour of the park with visits to fountains and the Peter Pan statue.  Our timing for leaving the park was perfect as a major concert was just opening for the evening.
Peter Pan!
We had time to stop by our hotel for a rest (and a shower for me) before heading to dinner at the Jagged Hare and to see Billy Elliot at the Victoria Theatre.  The show was amazing!  Loved it times a million!
At Victoria Theatre.
Now we're back, having planned our day tomorrow (and for the rest of the trip, mostly, too).  And I should be sleeping, but I wanted to blog should I wouldn't fall behind.

Dedication people.

P.S.  A picture of my new shoes, since a few people asked.


London Ahoy! (also: Warwick Castle)

We made it to London this afternoon.  Let me just say that traveling by train with a 50lb suitcase--not so much fun, especially in the small train stations without lifts (a.k.a. elevators).

After a quick breakfast in Stratford, we caught a train to Warwick and then a taxi to Warwick Castle.  After wrestling our luggage into a couple lockers in the parking lot, we set off to explore.  While the castle was interesting, very well maintained, and extensive, it was also expensive. 

Both of us decided it wasn't worth the money, especially with many of the other castles we've seen along the way.  However, it would be a great castle to take kids to, with many different fun activities.

We hopped back in a taxi and onto the train for London.  The train unfortunately did not have proper luggage racks, so Christine and I ended up sitting cars apart where we could find space to sit with our luggage.  I finished Sense and Sensibility, and made it partway through Pride and Prejudice (I'm working through Jane Austen) on the way into town.
See--fancy schmancy.
Once in London, we hailed a cab to our hotel and checked in--to the fanciest place I've ever stayed.  If only I could truly do this beauty justice.  As I told my dad in an email this evening, I feel as though I need a new wardrobe just to stay here.

After situating ourselves slightly, we set off to catch the hop-on, hop-off bus around London.  This was a great way to find some of the most famous sights and orient ourselves.  (Insert many stereotypical London photos here.)

Our plan after the bus (which ended up being almost 4 hours with traffic and construction) was to go to the Hardrock for dinner.  However, the wait was 2 hours!  Instead, we settled on a little place just a couple blocks from our hotel.  The food and service were good. 

We made it home in time to unpack, plan out tomorrow, and collapse into bed--or in my case write emails and blog posts.  Tomorrow night we are headed to see Billy Elliot, so this may be the last you hear from me for a few days.  Hard to know for sure though!


Oxford and Indian dinner

Today we got up bright and early (a.k.a. 8am) to head off to Oxford to explore for the day.

Even though the weather report threatened rain last night, it was sunny and bright until after dinner this evening.

After our two-train trip (Stratford does not directly connect to many locations), we set off into Oxford to explore campus and get to know a little more about C.S. Lewis.
Used in Harry Potter--for realz.
We saw Christ Church College first, and then meandered our way to Magdalen College (where Lewis attended).  Unfortunately, many colleges around Oxford (of which there are 38) around Oxford were closed, probably due to final exams.  This included Merton College, which J.R.R Tolkien attended.
The cross was actually cut from the bottom of the altar.
Magdalen didn't open until 1pm, so instead we headed off to The Eagle & Child (or as Lewis and his cronies called it, the Bird & Baby) for lunch.

We waited in line and fought our way to a back corner table.  The place was very cozy and I could almost imagine the Inklings (the group Lewis and Tolkien met with there) gathered around a table with pints.

After lunch, we went back to Magdalen (pronounced maudlin) to explore.  The man at the desk gave us a student discount (neither of us were smart enough to bring our ID cards with us) and a pamphlet to guide us.

The college was gorgeous and very well manicured.  It was also fun to see students passing by or relaxing on the lawn. We were tempted to rent a punt on the river, but decided we weren't quite prepared for it (mentally or otherwise).

We walked back through town to the train station.  Back in Stratford, we dropped off our things in the hotel and were off for dinner.  All this pub food left us wanting something different and we settled on Indian food, thanks to a recommendation by Mr. Steves.
So much food!
Avon Spice featured a £10.59 special, with a starter, main dish, selection of rice, and nan.  The service was amazing (probably because we were one of two tables there).  They pulled out our chairs, put our napkins into our laps, and dished our food.  I kid you not.  Also, our bill came with complimentary shots. (SN: The butter chicken was a little--okay, a lot--on the sweet side.)
The Royal Shakespeare Company theatre.
After dinner, we walked down to the river, dodging a few rain drops here and there.  Now we're back "home" for the evening, relaxing, catching up on correspondence, and figuring out our plan of attack for tomorrow.

It's time for London!