Christmas in London

This year, we decided to stick around and see what the holiday season is like in this part of the world.  We were thrilled that Dom's mom could join us to celebrate Christmas!

During the holiday season, a huge area of Hyde Park is taken over by the Winter Wonderland.  It started out as a small Christmas market back in 2007 and had been growing bigger and busier ever since.  

Best of all - it's free to enter!  

We went on a weekday to avoid the long lines and were amazed at how the peaceful Hyde Park had been transformed into this, massive carnival event.

Christmas is actually a wonderful time to visit London.  The city is covered with beautiful decorations on the buildings and through the streets.  Every high street (aka shopping street) has its own theme and each shop tries to out-do the other with elaborate and artistic window displays.  

Leading up to Christmas, the shopping areas are absolutely packed with people all day and night long.  The atmosphere is energetic yet relaxed, and everyone is out in the streets eating, drinking, shopping, and having a great time.

Then, overnight, the entire city stops.  

We ventured out on Christmas Day and the first things we heard was... silence.  It felt like we were wandering out in one of those zombie apocalypse movies where it feels like something is very wrong - it just feels too eerily quiet.  The trains and buses aren't running, there are very few cars or people in the streets, the neighbourhood shops and restaurants are all closed.  We actually hear the sounds of birds chirping far off in the distance.

If you venture to the main high streets you eventually start to see a few places open and a handful of tourists wandering the streets.  It's the perfect time to take in all of the lovely decorations without getting bumped and pushed around by hoards of people.



Hampton Court Palace

As Christmas approached, Dom’s mom flew to London to spend 10 days with us.  

Several people had recommended we visit Hampton Court Palace, one of the many palaces of Henry VIII.  Since Dom's mom loves European history, we finally had a good excuse to make our way out there.

The entire grounds are huge so we spent several hours there.  The impressive kitchen was built to feed the hundreds of people living and visiting the palace during Tudor times, and Henry VIII even had a huge 12 foot wine fountain in the middle of the courtyard with both red and white wine flowing for guests to drink.  

If you do plan to visit Hampton Court, definitely check out the events they have going on beforehand.  Apparently they periodically have food festivals and even fire up the palace kitchens to cook some of the traditional dishes from Tudor times!

Dover Castle and Tunnels

Dom’s nephew, Emilio, is currently studying political science in Lyon.  He decided to hop on a train to come visit us for a weekend. 

Since we didn't have much time to visit Dover during our previous trip (where we hiked from Folkestone to Deal), we decided to bring Emilio to visit the Dover Castle and the WWII Fan Bay Shelter.  

Our first stop was the white cliffs of Dover, before hiking up to Fan Bay Deep Shelter.

The shelter is a network of tunnels and accommodations 23 meters below the surface.  It was built to house the artillery crew protecting the English Channel during WWII. Our guide was very enthusiastic about the tunnels and seemed to really enjoy the opportunity to share the experience with us. His excitement was contagious, making it a very interesting instructive experience.  

Dover's white cliffs are made of chalk which formed from the remains of animals that died and decayed at the bottom of the sea over a million years ago - yep that means the 110m high cliffs of Dover actually used to be at the bottom of the sea!  Since the tunnel walls are chalk, there are many names and dates carved into the walls by those living there during the war.


Before heading home, we stopped to visit the medieval Dover Castle which also has tunnels that were used as a war room during WWII. You can even go out to the balcony where Churchill stood to watch the battles taking place in the channel.

Newcastle

Part of Jen’s daily commute to Slough includes a 20 min train ride that costs £14.90 (return). We saw a seat-sale to go to Newcastle-upon-Tyne which is 3.5h by train and only costed £19, so we decided to go there for a quick weekend get-away. 

We didn't have any plans or expectations so we just relaxed, wandered, and checked out the markets.

We stopped by the mall to watch a movie discovered the longest foosball game ever! ;)

Folkestone to Deal

Being away from home, one of the things we miss is opportunities to go on hikes through the mountains. Obviously the London area isn't the most mountainous, but Jen did a bit of researched and found a multi-day architecture walk (ChalkUp21) along the southern coast, from Folkestone to Deal (around a 30 km walk in 2 days).

We took a 1 hour train to Folkestone, stopped for breakfast, grabbed some snacks for the trip, then made our way to the trail.  We hiked the North Downs Way Coastal Trail, stopping at a few places along the way: from big horns, to Napoleonic towers and WWII bunkers.

In Dover, we were greeted by the famous Banksy Brexit Street art.  We walked around town, saw the castle from afar, and went for dinner.  The city wasn't particularly interesting, but the castle looked really nice from outside so we made a note to come back and visit it and the WWII tunnels another day. 

The next morning, we set off for Deal along the white cliffs of Dover.  We admired the scenery of the cliffs while passing by the Lighthouse, St Margaret's Bay, the Dover Patrol Obelisk, and Walmer Castle along the way.

We ended our day like all great outings in the UK: with a meal and drink at the local pub!

Liverpool

One weekend we decided to visit Liverpool, home of the Beatles.

We visited a few iconic sites and the Beatles Story museum.  

Wandered around the city checking out the port and various architectural sites.

We also strolled through one of the most unique looking cathedrals we've seen in our travels - Metropolitan Cathedral.

Apparently Liverpool has the oldest Chinatown in Europe, and we happened to be there during Chinese new year!  We decided to stop by the Chinese supermarket for some supplies, checked out some of the New Years festivities, and ended our evening by warming up with a big bowl of noodle soup.

Before heading home, we stopped by the local Costco to buy a few things :)







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.

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. 


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.