Yves' visit to London

Our last visitor was the one and only, master of his own destiny, Yves - known to all as “Dom’s Dad”. 

He joined us in London for our final 10 days, which meant helping us pack, and eating all of the leftover sweets (Maple Syrup, Maple Toffee and Maple Butter). We took it fairly easy for the 10 days, visiting our favourite sites one last time and just enjoying each other's company.
Yves had a lot of fun spotting all the crazy expensive luxury cars driving through the streets of London.  He fulfilled one of his lifelong dreams of seeing a real Rolls-Royce (3 actually) in person.

Biking Belgium

We decided to spend a long weekend biking in Belgium.  On Friday morning, we folded up our bikes, hopped onto a high-speed Eurostar train, and arrived in Brussels 2 hours later.  

Bruges

From Brussels, we took a local train to Bruges where we intended to spend the afternoon seeing the cute canals, squares, and shops, but it turned out that everything was closed because it was a national holiday. On the plus side, there was a huge stage in the main plaza with music/entertainment, so we picked out a nearby patio and had dinner while watching the show.



The next day, we cycled a 50 km loop to the coast and were really impressed with the cycle network here.  The car-free path from Bruges to the coast along the canal was particularly beautiful.  We were surrounded by unending rows of trees that protected us from the wind and light sprinkle of rain.

The actual costal cities were a bit disappointing. There is a cycle path running down the coast, but it runs alongside a busy main road, is not as well maintained, and you can’t actually see the sea from it. The area is quite industrial and the coastal city of Blankenberge looked like an overcrowded beach town with no soul. We stopped for a quick lunch of burgers and Belgian fries with curry mayonnaise. 


On our return trip, we were caught in a huge downpour and arrived back in Bruges soaked to the bone. Despite the rain and the costal town not meeting expectations, we still had an amazing day and would recommend it to everyone. 

Bruges To Ghent

We cycled about 50 km from Bruges to Ghent along another super flat, scenic path, away from the main roads. 


When we arrived in Ghent, we noticed Market booths in the distance, so we dropped the bikes off at the hotel and wandered over to check out the Market. To our surprise, we had arrived in Ghent on the last day of the Ghent Flanders Festival. Apparently it’s a huge 2-week-long music festival with 10 stages showing a variety of free music performances. We wandered around experiencing the sites and sounds, bought sausages, had dinner, and returned to the main area to watch a really good reggae band, Jahneration, playing on the main stage that spanned across one of the canals.

On our last day, we woke up to pouring rain. On our Eurostar train from London to Brussels, we were given a warning, that our bikes had to be in bags.  Since we didn't want to take any risks returning home, Dom braved a quick 10 km round trip in the rain to get DIMPA bags from IKEA. By the time Dom dried himself and we checked out, the downpour settled to a light mist and the sky eventually opened up to a lovely day.  We visited the Medieval Castle in the middle of the city and witnessed the city squares return to normal as they tore down the various festival stands, stages, and rides.

We then returned to Brussels and took the Eurostar back to London.  Lucky us - the Standard Premium tickets that we had picked up on sale meant we got dinner and wine for the ride home! :)

Food experience

One of the best things about travelling is tasting different foods everywhere you go!  On this trip, we found some local dishes to try: 
 - Belgian Fries: Every restaurant serves fries with the meal and we had way too many, but the best fries we had were in Ghent at a touristy fast food joint called Frituur Trans Hooiaard. They had several options for sauce (besides Belgium's typical "mayonnaise"), but we went with the one they recommended, "Joggie sauce", which was quite tasty.
 - Belgian Waffles: They were a bit expensive for what you get, but it was worth the experience - the taste and texture was unlike any waffles we had tried before - very dense and full of sugary goodness :)
- Stoverij: A traditional Flemish Beef Stew, served with Belgian fries of course!
- Gentse Waterzooi: A classic Flemish Chicken Stew with a soupier consistency.  Very delicious!
- RoomeR: A deliciously light and fruity liqueur flavoured with Elderflowers.


Weekend in Wroclaw

While researching for hidden gems to visit in Europe, we saw a few posts mentioning Wroclaw, Poland.  Our Polish coworker, Rafal, mentioned that Wroclaw (apparently pronounced “vr-oat-swavf”..?!?) is his favourite city in Poland, so we decided to book a weekend there.

Despite arriving quite late at night, we decided to bus and walk to the apartment we had booked.  We arrived at a an older run-down building and quadruple-checked that the address was indeed correct.  We pushed open the large, rotting wood door to reveal a pitch black hallway and staircase.  The walls had graffiti and there was litter on the floor.  

Thank goodness for cell phones.. we managed to navigate our way up the creaky wooden stairs and found our apartment. We opened the door to our beautiful apartment room!  ..and breathed a small sigh of relief! ;)

We spent the first day wandering the city’s parks, huge square, and eating yummy food!


We did decide to check out the Racławice Panorama, which houses a 100 year old painting of the Battle of Racławice.

We ate at a “milk bar”, which is a cafeteria-style restaurant serving traditional Polish food - we had no clue what any of the items on the menu were.  Fortunately the staff was super friendly and helpful.  Everything was very inexpensive, so we just pointed to random items on the counter and were really happy about how delicious everything was!  Of course, we returned to the same place for lunch again the next day :).

Our co-worker, Rafal, also happened to be in Poland visiting family/friends for the weekend, so we met up with him for dinner and a beer.

We were supposed to meet up with him at the beach on Sunday, but we got a little distracted on our way there...

We heard some music in the park and saw hints of an ongoing festival… a rum festival. 

After slight hesitating, we decided to pay the admission and enjoyed a lovely chill afternoon lounging in the warm sun sipping rum and watching bartender competitions in Polish.  They gave out free cigars and poured samples of many different rums from around the world.  The 2 we enjoyed the most were:

1) "A. H. Riise" from Denmark

2) "PuntaCana" from the Dominican Republic


After closing down the rum festival, we took a short stroll through the Japanese Gardens.

Interestingly, you will find little gnome statues along random sidewalks throughout the Wroclaw core. They’re usually doing something related to the store/restaurant that they’re near.  So, for example, one Bank had a gnome counting money, and one bar had a gnome pouring a drink, etc.  Lucky for us, Jen had an strange innate sense for spotting them everywhere we went :). 




Flo’s Visit to London

Jen’s friend, Flo, came to London to visit us and her cousin, Melissa, who she'd never met before. We accompanied them to some of the usual tourist sites: Buckingham, Big Ben, London Eye, British museum, etc.

We also took a really nice City Cruises ferry to Greenwich, where we visited the Greenwich Market and straddled the crowded meridian line near the Royal Observatory. 

Since Flo wanted to check out a show, we decided to see Wicked. We were really blown away by the incredible voices of the main actresses!  None of us knew what the story was about beforehand, so we really enjoyed captivating storyline - a very clever backstory of Elphaba (the wicked witch of the West) and Galinda (the Good Witch) from the Wizard of Oz.  

We also decided to check out the Secret Cinema: Moulin Rouge. Secret Cinema is an interactive cinema experience where you become immersed in the world of the movie.  After purchasing tickets, we were each given characters and suggested items to bring/wear so that everyone attending would contribute to the decor and ambiance of the event.  In our case, we were both assigned “writer” roles, while Flo was assigned an “illustrator” role.  Half the fun was shopping for costumes at Camden Market and dressing up :) 

When we arrived outside the “secret” location, we snapped a few pictures before sealing our phones and proceeding through security.  We were transported to Montmartre, Paris, 1899, where the elaborate sets and actors allowed us to actually experience the characters and atmosphere of the Moulin Rouge. 

We spent about 2 hours eating/drinking and wandering through the interactive world that was filled with actors playing out their characters and performing acts on various stages. Eventually they gathered everyone into a big parade through the "streets" and transported us into the Moulin Rouge viewing area to watched the actual movie.  During the movie, the interactive actors continued to re-enact various scenes and performances in parallel.  After the film, most people stuck around to continue drinking and dancing.  

It’s a pretty pricey event, but the unique experience made it worthwhile. 


Montenegro & Croatia

Since Jen’s parents were doing a cruise that ended in Rome, we decided to meet up with them for a long weekend in Croatia.  We picked them up in Dubrovnik and drove to Montenegro where Sharon found a really nice Airbnb in the old town of Kotor. 


We wandered the old town and stopped for dinner at “Tanjga Family Restaurant” since our Airbnb host said they had really good BBQ.  We weren’t sure it was the right place as felt more like a butcher shop, but the guys behind the counter helped us pick out some the different meats and salads, and sent us to sit in the garden at the back.  It totally felt like the perfect backyard BBQ - they brought out a huge sharing platter of chicken breast/leg, ribeye, sausages, bacon, burger, salads, sauces, bread.  What a feast!  The fun friendly staff, atmosphere, and delicious food were just perfect!


We woke up early and climbed up to the top of the cliff with Jen’s dad.  After about 1350 steps (290 meters) we reached the fortress at the top and took in the view of the bay and old town. 

We then drove to Lake Skadar National Park, only to discover that the local Tourist Info Centre is closed on Sundays :(   We were hoping to do some light hiking around the Nature Reserve, but the area isn't very well marked.  Luckily, some local tour operators were more than happy to help us (despite the fact that we didn’t want to do their touristy boat ride).  We did a short hike to one of the old villages, Godinje. 

On our way back to Kotor, we stopped at a couple of other coastal towns along the way including Sveti Stefan and Budva.  Since we enjoyed the previous night's BBQ feast so much, we returned to the same place for dinner again!!

We spent our last 2 nights at another Airbnb in Dubrovnik, Croatia.  We visited the old town and, of course, stopped for some delicious pre-dinner gelato.

We ate diner at a Bosnian restaurant recommended by both our Airbnb host and Trip Advisor. The Bosnian food was quite similar to the Montenegrin food - huge meat platter with few vegetables. Again, the food was delicious albeit a lot more expensive since we were in the touristy old town of Dubrovnik.

We spent our last day wandering the rest of old town and eating more gelato :)  

Jen’s parents were returning to Calgary from London Gatwick, so we all flew to London together.  They stayed with us for 2 nights and took us out for Fish & Chips for Dom’s birthday dinner!

Bath to Bristol

Now that we had folding bikes, we were constantly on the lookout for interesting opportunities to use them (beyond our monthly Costco trips). One of the cycle trails we found was converted from an old train track linking Bath and Bristol (~ 26km). 

We took an early morning train and had a delicous breakfast at "Rosarios" in Bath.  Then rode the cycle path to Bristol encountering long dark tunnels, pretty views of the country side, and an old heritage steam-powered locomotive along the way.

We dropped our bikes off at the hostel in Bristol and explored around town.  A lot of Bristol was destroyed during the second world war, so it's generally a city with a more modern feel, but there are still some older surviving areas and markets that that were worth visiting including the really nice walkway along the river.


After a great day of biking and walking, we ended up at a local pub called The Stables, where you can get a "flight" of ciders to taste.

On Sunday, we cycled a 24km loop along the Avon River to a tiny town called Pill.  On our way there, the tide was really low so you could barely see the river and several boats were completely beached.  The tide actually shifted so much that on our return ride, all of the boats were floating normally in the river.

We ended our day back at The Stables pub again where we drank pear and blush ciders, snacked on pizza, and enjoyed the live Jazz music while waiting for our train back to London.

Charlotte et Céline à Londres

Besides taking Dom’s mom and aunt to Ireland, Cambridge, and Canterbury, we also showed them some of our favourite areas in London.

Less than 50 meters from our place is the Marylebone Farmers Market, which occurs every Sunday from 10:00 to 14:00.  It’s fairly small, but we often go there for our weekly vegetable, bread, milk, and butter supplies.  Charlotte and Celine bought some delicious quiches and chilli sauce.


Our favourite sunny-day stroll is through Regents Park and along the canal to Camden Market.  Both of them absolutely loved the shopping at Camden Market. :)

We also stopped by Spitalfields Market and Brick Lane to show them some of London's street art scene.

Lastly, we did a quick tour of the National Gallery, introduced them to our favourite local foods (fruit ciders, scones with clotted-cream, fish&chips, Thai street food, etc.) and visited a few other miscellaneous places such the local Gunmakers pub right across from our flat.

Canterbury

For our last day-trip with Charlotte and Celine, we visited Canterbury, home of the archbishop of the Church of England.  We assumed it would be just another town with a huge church but we were pleasantly surprised to discover that it's actually a really cute town several nice walking streets and parks.

Of course, we couldn't go to Canterbury without visiting the beautiful cathedral.  We lucked out and happened to be there while a choir was practicing, making the experience even more magical!



Cambridge

After 6 days of intense driving (on the left side of the road) in Ireland, we decided to take the next 2 weekends easy doing day-trips from London by train. Our first trip was to the university town, Cambridge. 

The only thing we knew about Cambridge was that it’s one of the 2 major university towns in the UK.  Luckily, we found a really interesting free walking tour where they told us many interesting facts: 

  • Cambridge is made up of 31 colleges.  
  • Students in the UK are only allowed to apply to either Oxford or Cambridge.  If your application is rejected from one, you aren't allowed to apply to the other.
  • Apparently Prince Charles got rejected from Oxford but Queen Elizabeth managed to get him admitted in Cambridge anyhow.
  • Henry VIII founded Trinity College, the now richest college in the UK, owning the O2 Arena in London as well as a large part of Tesco
  • Many students claim that Trinity College is the birthplace of the famous dessert that they call "Trinity Burnt Cream".. more commonly known as "Crème Brûlée"
  • Girton was the first female college to be established in Cambridge in 1867, but women students were not considered full members of the university and could not receive degrees.  After several attempts, it wasn't until 1948 that the vote finally passed allowing women to become full members of the university.
  • Our guide told us that in the past, women could be arrested and thrown in jail if they were caught talking to male students (even if the man had approached her).  The grounds for arrest was "distracting men from their studies", and they could be held indefinitely without any proof being required
  • Most of the colleges in Cambridge were men-only and refused to allow women admissions until around the 1970-1980s.  Magdalene College was the last - in 1988 they were forced to admit women, resulting in their male students protesting in the streets.  Apparently they wore black and carried a coffin labelled "the death of education".

Our guide was quite opinionated about the difficult history for women at Cambridge.  We were pretty surprised to later find out that Cambridge actually still has 3 colleges that only admit women.  Apparently they're now re-assessing their stance on admissions for transgender students who identify with the female gender.


At one point, we were wandering the streets and heard oddly muffled music and singing. We looked around to find the source and finally realized it was coming from one of the garbage cans!  It was definitely one of the most unique street performances we've seen in our travels …best costume ever :)

Dublin

Dublin was our last stop before heading back to London. We started our visit by walking through the shopping district toward St. Patrick’s church.  The church is considered important because St. Patrick is credited with bringing the Catholic religion to Ireland.

While we waited for Dom's mom and aunt to visit the church, a random nice gentlemen decided to strike up a conversation with us and recommend we visit the first public library in Ireland: Marsh's Library. We followed his advice and visited the really cool early-18th century library that was filled with super old original books and had an exposition showing various notes and doodles made by past (famous) visitors, in margins of the old books. One interesting feature of the library was the reading cages that were installed to prevent theft of the books. 

It was the perfect time of year to visit the parks as they were all filled with tulips everywhere.

We passed a good part of our day just walking around the town and shopping streets.

We also decided to do the Guinness Factory tour, despite the fact that none of us are really beer fanatics.  The tour was extremely “touristy”, but it was interesting to learn that it all began when Arthur Guinness signed a 9000 year lease for the factory.

Dom and I experienced our first taste of Guinness… sadly, for us, it pretty much tasted as expected - like beer :(

They taught us how to pour a perfect pint of Guinness, so now we're certified Guinness pourers.

We went to Dublin’s oldest pub, The Brazen Head, for drinks and dinner.  Jen had an unforgettable Beef & Guinness stew.  
The pub had a unique folklore “story-teller” performance happening upstairs, unfortunately we got there too late so it was too full for us to attend.  Guess we’ll just have to come back another time!!