We ended up being very busy in the Advent season with a number of activities for the kids, so we did not get to as many christmas markets as we had hoped. A colleague had mentioned to me that one of the several markets in Cologne remained open until January 6th, so we decided to check it out a few days after Christmas. Clare needed to get her screen replaced on her iPhone, so we used the Apple Store appointment as an excuse to get there (turns out it was only the screen protector that was cracked after all!). The kids had been asking to go ice skating in London, but we said no because it was super crowded. So this time we said yes. Clare was patient while the three of us went skating. It was certainly one of the most pleasant skating experiences of my life. With mulled wine and smoked meat wafting through the air, surrounded by pine trees, in the historic downtown of Cologne, with the cathedral in the distance. It was worth the price.
After seeing 2000 year old civilization in Italy in October, we decided to go back even further in time in December to visit experience the druidic magic of the sunrise during the winter solstice at Stone Henge. Clare found a tour which would take us from London to Stone Henge, where we would get to stand right in the middle of the rocks, a privilege only 1% of visitors to Stone Henge get. Usually you can only look at the stones from a path around the perimeter.
Before our adventure to Stone Henge started, we had a few adventures along the way. Clare had booked an apartment in London back in June, and shortly before the money was due for it, she had the feeling that it might be a scam, after reading a review that it was a fake address. So she ended up booking 2 rooms in a regular hotel instead. It started to seem more and more like National Lampoon’s European Vacation. We had also booked train travel from Aachen all the way to London, taking the Eurostar train from Brussels to London. But then we learned that the French train service was on strike, and there was a pretty good chance that our train from Aachen to Brussels might be cancelled. So at the very last minute we decided to drive to Brussels instead and park there. We ended up parking at the best parking garage ever – Park Indigo. Not only was it freshly painted and clean, but it had hanging foam dividers between each parking spot, and classical music playing. And it was only 15 Euro per day, half the rate of the parking at the train station, and only 3 blocks away.
We arrived safely on Saturday afternoon as planned, after a very enjoyable train ride. After checking in at the hotel, we went to the London Eye, the big ferris wheel by the Thames. Spencer didn’t want to go, so he and I went bowling while Meg and Clare went on it. Then we had some tasty Korean mexican fusion street food, headed back to the hotel, and called it a night. Sunday morning we woke up at 3 a.m., quickly got dressed, and headed out in a cab to the place where the bus was picking us up. We got on the bus right around 4 a.m. and arrived at Stone Henge around 7 a.m., where we had about a 20 minute walk to the stones. Meg was wearing her new scout jacket, which is waterproof and quite warm, and was eager to show us all how she is a better hiker than us, and kept walking ahead, in spite of my requests not to. When we got to the stones, the Druidic ceremonies were just about to start. I set my backpack down for a minute to pull out my camera, and then Meg was gone. A minute or two later Spencer and Clare came back to me, and we could not find Meg, but the ceremonies were starting, so we just walked towards the stones. Soon we were crowded in by hundreds of people, and there was no turning back. Meg ended up finding a security guard, and ended up watching most of the ceremony with them. After the ceremony was ever it didn’t take too long to find her, and she didn’t seem that worried about the whole thing. It seems she had even a better spot for viewing the ceremony than the rest of us. That is one independent girl!
While Stone Henge was the big reason we went to England, we also had some time to explore London as well. After we got back from Stone Henge we had a little time to relax, then we headed to Westminster Abbey for an organ concert. Once again, Clare’s research was spot on – it was fairly expensive to get a tour of the church, but concerts are services and are free, though it did require a ticket in advance. It was a very nice concert. Afterwards we had dinner at a typical London pub.
The next day we headed first to the Tower of London, which housed many famous prisoners throughout history, as well as the Crown Jewels. We walked along the Thames some, then had pizza at a place recommended by a work colleague from Naples. We toured the National Gallery at Trafalgar square a bit, walked past Buckingham palace, and then headed back to the hotel with tired feet. Clare and I had a date at a nearby Indian restaurant and brought back some takeout for the kids.
The next morning it was time to get back on the train already. We got to King’s Cross station with enough time to stop by platform 9 3/4, where they have set up a Harry Potter shop. The trip back on the Eurostar train was very enjoyable, and our car was waiting for us back in the nicest parking garage ever. We got home in time to open a few presents before shutting our eyes and dreaming of der Weihnachtsmann.
After Stone Henge our tour bus continued on to Salisbury, which has one of the largest churches in England. Unfortunately we could not go into the church itself because they were having services, but we did get to tour the grounds a bit and we also got to see one of the original copies of the Magna Carta, which is also housed there. You’re not allowed to take pictures of the Magna Carta itself, but we do have a few pictures from inside the room.
This year we celebrated Thanksgiving ahead of time, on Sunday, since we don’t get Thursday off in Germany. Last year a half-American, half-German couple in Würselen were gracious enough to invite us to their house. This year we hosted. There were 10 of us total, so we added our patio table to the mix, and decided to put on some Oktoberfest tablecloth Clare had picked up for 10 cents. So, you can call it Novemberfest if you like 🙂
We spent most of the weekend preparing – shopping, cleaning, and cooking. I had ordered a turkey from the butcher about 3 weeks in advance. On Friday they called me to say that it was not available. Apparently the delivery company had just told them. They did have turkey breasts available, so I ordered one of those. Then on Saturday morning our friends called to say that they found frozen turkey at the grocery store. So we ended up getting both just in case. With a lukewarm water bath the frozen turkey thawed successfully, so we ended up having a ton of turkey. Clare made a fantastic turkey soup. We have been eating leftovers all week. Thursday we had a complete Thanksgiving meal a second time with all the leftovers.
Even though life in a foreign country continues to be tough some times, I am thankful we have had the opportunity. The week before thanksgiving we had parent teacher conferences, and both Spencer’s and Meg’s teachers all said that they are doing great, especially since they have only been speaking German for such a short time. We are really proud of both of them. Now it is time to celebrate Advent!
Several weeks ago some of the kids in Spencer’s soccer team went to play laser tag, and the kids (and I) got hooked. Today I finally bought a membership card so I can track my points between games. It is fairly exhilarating, and we all get very sweaty. It is also a good way to calm my mind, and focus on the present.
It turns out that the place in Würselen about 1 km away is one of the best around. Just another great reason to live in Würselen. In addition to a large area and several moving walls, they also have really cool art made from bicycle parts, like this alien figure.
While Clare were doing the wine tasting on Monday, we asked the honeymooning couple what their favorite thing was in Sorrento, and they said taking a boat tour of Capri. This hadn’t really been on our list before, but we decided to try it, and indeed it was one of the favorites of everyone. It was one of the most expensive things we did, but it was worth it. The boat ride was very relaxing. It left from the port just a 2 minute walk from our apartment, the guide was great, the weather was beautiful, and seeing the coast of Sorrento and of Capri up close from a small boat is surely the best way to enjoy its beauty. Capri itself was not that interesting to us. We enjoyed a nice pizza lunch near the harbor, searched for the funicular to the top of the island for 20 minutes, finally found it, and then just did some souvenir shopping.
One of the big highlights of the trip was definitely going to Pompeii and Vesuvius. After much research we decided to simply take the train, and then get a guide once we got to Pompeii. That turned out to work quite well. The part that was less than great was taking the public bus to Mount Vesuvius. On the way there, Meg had to sit on Clare’s lap, and I had to stand the whole way. On the way back, we actually missed the bus! There was one scary moment where we were worried we might be stranded on a volcano, but ended up getting a taxi and not having to pay a fortune. Vesuvius was not quite as cool as I thought it would be, but I think the kids really enjoyed seeing it, and putting together the two – without the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79 CE, Pompeii would not have been preserved like it is.
After having a good experience on the train on Monday, we decided to venture further on Tuesday – a hike to the Regina Giovanna bath, to visit Roman ruins at the tip of the peninsula of Sorrento. We stopped by the grocery store again on our way out for some sandwiches, since we didn’t know if there would be any place to get food near the baths. When we arrived at the train station, there was a train on the tracks. It seemed a bit early, but we got on and waited. After about 10 minutes of waiting on the train, the conductor looked at us and told us to get off. The train was “kaputt”. So we waited another 30 minutes for the next one, which seemed to be working. Now we started to understand the reputation of the “worst train in the world”.
We only needed 2 stops to get Sorrento, at which point we first decided to try to find some goggles or snorkeling gear for swimming, since the kids had forgotten their goggles (fortunately Rob had remembered his, so we could share). We found some snorkles, got some gelato, and then headed to the bus stop. We had been told it is a good idea to buy round trip tickets for the bus, so we did so. The bus ride was fairly uneventful, but it was good that we had our GPS, because that way we could see where we were going on the map, since they didn’t announce any stops. Right as we got off the bus we found some vending machines, and decided to get some extra drinks for the hike.
We had read that the hike was quite challenging, but actually it turned out to be relatively easy for us. Most of the hike was on a nice cobblestone paved path, so the 1-2 kilometer within about 20 minutes. The trickiest part was when we finally got to the ruins, and could see the protected swimming cove – we couldn’t figure out which path to get down there at first, but eventually we did. The water was definitely a degree or two colder than by our beach the day before, but still quite swimmable. It was good that we got there when we did, as it started to get quite crowded shortly thereafter. After about an hour of swimming we dried off and found a place to enjoy our lunch. On our way out of the sea we saw an octopus hiding among the rocks; its head was about the size of a volleyball!
After lunch we looked around the ruins a bit more, then headed back up the trail. Going uphill was of course slower, but still not too bad. A bus arrived just as we got to the stop, but apparently not the bus we wanted – our return tickets were for the SITA bus. This was an EAV bus, which was not even listed as a possibility on Google Maps. We decided to wait for the next one. It zoomed by 20 minutes later without stopping. Then another EAV bus came, and we decided to just pay on the bus. Only now we didn’t know exactly where this bus was headed. We got off near the train station, and found a train back. It was about 5 p.m. when we got back to the apartment, and the kids had not had enough swimming. Clare went down to the beach with them while I made dinner and booked a boat trip for Thursday.
We got a relatively slow start again on Monday. After breakfast, we got dressed and headed up the elevator to town. There happened to be a market going on, which we perused, but nothing caught our fancy. We went to the basilica, which was fairly unassuming from the outside, but very beautiful inside.
After the basilica we found the train station, which we would need to use later, and then headed further into town. We found the Deutsche Bank ATM (just down the street from Hotel Klein Wien), and a very nice Gelateria right across the street. After some window shopping, we headed to the grocery store, and then back to the apartment.
After some lunch we had a little time for some swimming at the beach. Then we made some food for the kids, and Clare and I went off to a wine tasting in Sorrento. Our first experience with the so-called “worst train in the world” was actually not too bad. We did end up getting back after the elevator had stopped operating (after 8 p.m.), which meant we had to walk down the switchback road, but it actually was not too bad because there was not much traffic by this point. We stopped at a different pizzeria this time for another tasty treat to enjoy at home with the kids.