Paris and London in 11 Days – The Highlights

It’s been almost two months since Europe.

I initially refrained from writing about it. And took forever to sort through my photos. And then…really wanted to recap it. The trip was memorable for many reasons, but here are 10 highlights:

10. Le Jambon, and Other Adventures in Food

Paris, you love your ham. Ham quiche. Ham omelette. Ham baguette. So much ham! Ham in all the things!

Save for the epic Moroccan tagine had at the restaurant under our flat and our lovely afternoon market picnic, I was pretty unimpressed with the food in Paris. The wine, however, was great. But ham!

So, I was unsurprised when the only meal available on the Eurostar was, you guessed it, a ham and cheese sandwich, and was VERY excited as we pulled into St. Pancras, because A) I had always wanted to see the station (and it was very beautiful) and B) I knew there was a giant Marks & Spencer in there, and I was hungry. Dear, sweet M & S, I am obsessed with your prepared meals, my goodness. So many options for vegetarian folk like me. I wish you were still in Canada, although I suspect I would never cook, and my chocolate digestive consumption would be off the charts. Probably for the best that you’re just an occasional treat.

Thank you, England, for always having food I love and can eat. Indian food! Jaime’s Italian! Hot cross toast! Mmmm.

9. Premier League Game

Premier League Game soccer pitch

I went to a football game, and had a great time! If you’d asked me (or better yet, my Dad) a decade ago if I’d be sitting in amazing seats at a Premier League game I would have laughed. If you’d asked me if I understood what was going on, I would have snorted.

We couldn’t have asked for better weather, and as I sat in the 20+ degree sunshine singing along with “He’s going to Braaazillll!” I felt pure happiness. Also, Southampton utterly destroyed Newcastle 4-0, so that was fun to watch too.

8. Adventures in (Trying to Find) Absinthe

Wandering the Left Bank at night and exploring Shakespeare and Company were quintessential Paris moments (save for the fact that everything in that bookstore minus the ONE book I purchased were in English). We debated other Parisian activities. Drink wine? Well, yes, I did that a lot. Eat cheese and baguettes? Yup. People watch? Check, check. So we decided to track down some absinthe. For whatever reason, our attempts to ask our waiter where to find it (perfectly legal, to boot) were unsuccessful. We might as well have asked for crack with a side of hooker given the emphatic “Non, Non” we received as a response to our inquiry.

7. Manchester Craft & Design Centre

Felt puppets I tagged along on a trip to Manchester, a city I quickly fell in love with despite the drizzle and chilly weather. This was in large part to the charming Craft & Design Centre I dragged Steve to upon our arrival. Home to 24 artists who design, create and make in the on-site studios, it’s a fun space to wander and purchase goodies for friends or yourself (I did both). I highly recommend popping by if you’re in the area.

6. Book Shopping in Soho

I picked up Bob Dylan’s Chronicles from a small book shop in Soho. From the outside and initial shelves, it looked like a rock n’ roll book shop. Upon closer inspection, it was also a sex shop. I don’t want to talk about what was behind the cash.

5. Stonehenge

Stonehenge

I went to the ‘henge! Having been to Avebury back in 2011, and having been uber-impressed with it, I was a bit jaded initially and didn’t think I’d like Stonehenge. In fact, it was pretty cool. It was misty, cold and raining…quintessentially English. It was quite busy, but still very impressive to see, and I’m pleased to be able to check this off my life bucket list.

Also inexplicably – you can buy booze in the “henge cafeteria. Nothing like a liquid lunch with a bunch of old, giant rocks.

4. Slowly Catching Up on Pop Culture

Congratulations to me for finally seeing Phantom of the Opera. No, I haven’t been living in a cultural vacuum or under a rock for 20 years, yes it’s ridiculous that I hadn’t seen it at some point, yes I quite liked it, thank you.

We also saw a tremendously entertaining performance of Matilda. This was definitely one of my favourite Dahl books growing up, and it lived up to the hype. See this if it tours.

3. Bond in Motion Exhibit

It took a lot of persistence on Steve’s part, but there now exists a photo of the two of us, in tuxes, doing a Bond-style pose.

Also at this fabulous exhibit – the largest official collection of official Bond vehicles. On display at the London Film Museum in Covent Garden, I majorly geeked out at this. The Aston Martin DB5! The Lotus submersible! Goldfinger’s Rolls-Roynce Phantom III! GAHHHH. It was amazing. Expensive, but amazing.

2. Taking Art “Seriously”

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Paris has fabulous museums and galleries. We wandered the Louvre (much more tolerable than last time; the urge to stab myself in the eye was non-existent this time), Musee d’Orsay (which featured some of my favourite Degas and Renoir paintings, all housed in a beautiful former train station) and the Musee Rodin (which remains my favourite museum anywhere, although I resisted the urge to bust out an interpretive dance this time).

It was lovely to wander these places with someone with a similar appreciation for art. But more importantly, the realization that I am dating someone amendable to A) taking pictures of me doing goofy things (see: the Louvre shot above) and B) participating in said goofy photos (see: imitating the statues in the Rodin Museum, also above). This was a pretty crucial discovery about our relationship.

1. Climbing the Eiffel Tower

Standing on top of Eiffel TowerSitting under the Eiffel Tower (preferably with a beverage) is one thing. Climbing up it and experiencing its beauty from the top is another. To celebrate Steve’s 30th cancerversary, two unlikely climbers – one with one functioning ACL, the other super clumsy – made their way to the top.

Warm sunshine guided us until the clouds rolled in…and in…and in…and dumped a lot of rain. But, our efforts were rewarded with tremendous views of the city and it was the perfect way to spend our last day in Paris. Also, I DIDN’T FALL.

I was really honoured to join in the celebrations for this awesome milestone.

This was a trip full of meeting friends, family and also getting to bank some serious time with someone I don’t have the luxury of seeing frequently. Getting to explore Paris and London further were a nice bonus.

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The Uber-Impressive Minack Theatre

Minack Theatre

At first glance, the Minack Theatre in Porthcurno looks as though it was built by some ancient empire. Nestled into granite cliffs overlooking the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, the venue hosts an array of drama, musical and opera performances throughout the summer months. We popped in for a visit on a non-show day, and my socks were blown off (it is a tad windy) by not only the venue, but the tenacity of its creator.

The Minack Theatre was planned, built and financed by one very plucky Cornish woman, Rowena Cade. A fan of the stage in her youth, she moved to Cornwall following the First World War and settled in a house overlooking the sea near Porthcurno. Due to its remote location, entertainment options were scarce, so Cade became involved with a local theatre group in 1929. Sensing the need for a more dramatic stage for the group’s next production of The Tempest, Cade initially offered her garden before adopting a “go big or go home mentality” and instead opting to build a stage into the cliff beneath her house.

Minack TheatreDespite having no previous manual labour experience, she learned the skills needed from her gardeners and they built a theatre. Into a cliff. So determined was she to bring this project to life, Cade and her gardeners even rebuilt the theatre following its destruction in World War II. Every winter until she was in her eighties she worked away, developing her own techniques for working with cement so that it would mimic the appearance of granite, and lugging sand and reclaimed materials from the beach below (including 15ft beams! This woman was a machine). It truly is remarkable to see the theatre as it stands now and realize that it was built not by a team of labourers or fancy equipment but by sheer determination and grit.

From the start of April to the end of September, the theatre is open to day visitors from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., except during certain ticketed and children’s performances. There’s a small exhibit honouring the life of Rowena Cade – a worthwhile stop to gain an even greater appreciation of this beautiful space.

Also a worthwhile stop – Porthcurno Beach. Just don’t blow over the side of the cliff on the path down.

Porthcurno Beach

The Donkey Sanctuary

Courtesy of The Donkey Sanctuary
Courtesy of The Donkey Sanctuary

The less SEO-friendly title of this post should have been “How I found myself in the English countryside wearing a donkey on my head”, but that’s not really very searchable.  In reality, it was actually the opposite – the donkey was using my head as a comfortable chin rest. But it took several hours of persistence on my part to get that stage, starting with a chance meeting in a barnyard.

As a slight fan of donkeys (in actuality – a big fan), I’d been eager to visit The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, Devon for some time. After stellar recommendations by family and friends, it became my only must-visit during the trek to the UK earlier this summer and lived up my expectations – rolling hills, fresh air, lots of good walks and a boatload of friendly donkeys.

The world’s largest donkey and mule charity organization, The Donkey Sanctuary aims to protect and promote the welfare of these animals worldwide, and is open 365 days a year. Since it began, the organization has provided 14,500 donkeys and mules with a sanctuary for life and consists of eight farms in total. Only one is open to the public – Slade House Farm – which is where we found ourselves on a warm May afternoon.

We began our day with stop in the main yard, where donkeys wander freely and meet and greet guests. There were lots of people fussing over the animals, but my eyes wandered to a shy donkey leaning into a corner on the other side of the yard. “This one,” I thought to myself, “needs a hug.”

Teddy

As it turned out, Teddy the donkey initially thought otherwise. He seemed pretty content with standing by himself, away from the crowds. I gave him a little scratch and then left him alone, appreciating that as an introvert he clearly needed some quiet time.

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We wandered the fields, visiting the various donkeys on-site including the delightfully shaggy Poitous. It was a beautifully clear day and you could see and smell the ocean from parts of the trails. As we wandered past fences donkeys would mosey on over, happy to greet us and linger for a hug and some attention (and photos – what photogenic animals! They clearly practice their posing). But in the back of my mind, I couldn’t stop thinking about Teddy and was determined to give him a proper hug.

IMG_2824Back in the yard,  I made a beeline for that donkey.  He was tucked away in a barn, but ventured over to see me and was more receptive this time around. He leaned his head in and I gave him a small hug, scratching his ears gently. My Mum, sensing a good photo opportunity, grabbed my camera and I knelt down to ensure that I wasn’t blocking Teddy’s face. As she set the camera up, I suddenly became aware of a large amount of sniffing going on around my head and then suddenly a very warm sensation – and realized that my blonde locks were dangerously close to becoming an afternoon snack for Teddy. Thankfully, he instead chose to plop his chin down and pose for the photo, and that’s how I found myself with a donkey using me as a resting space.

Following our visit, I contacted The Donkey Sanctuary for more information about Teddy the charmer. Public Relations Manager Suzi Cretney shared that he came from a farm with his mum, Clara. His old owner used to take him to Palm Sunday services at their local church and was, said Cretney, “always very well behaved”. When Clara passed away, he was paired with a popular donkey named Nelly but since her passing he’d taken to the single life.

“When his legs are being brushed, he loves nothing more than resting his head on the grooms back – making it difficult for them to stand up!” said Cretney. Which, in retrospect, explained Teddy’s cheeky enjoyment of my head.

Want to bring a little something for the donkeys but aren’t sure what they’d like? Cretney advises guests to bring carrots or ginger biscuits, which you can drop off in a collection bucket at the Visitors’ Centre. If you were as surprised as I was about the biscuits, it’s because they’re helpful for the vets when dishing out some of the “less palatable” medications (they also find them quite tasty!). As tempting as it might be to feed the donkeys your treats, it’s easy to mistake your fingers for snacks – and it also ensures that all the animals get a fair share of the goodies.

Check out their website for more details and to help plan your visit. Special thanks to The Sanctuary for providing the additional information and lovely photograph!

Eating ‘Round the World – English Cream Tea

English food is more than cheese and chutney, despite what this blog might lead you to believe. There is, of course, the ultimate in English fare – the cream tea (there are also numerous other items that are well known, such as fish and chips, bangers, and many pies that contain ingredients I don’t want to talk about). But for this post alone – let’s talk about the cream tea!

A delicious combination of tea with scones, clotted cream and jam, the cream tea is readily available in quaint cafes, restaurants and even pubs across England. For a proper one, however, you must go to Devon and Cornwall. Who “owns” the cream tea remains a bit of a mystery (seriously – there have been battles over which one reigns supreme), and both varieties are certainly very different. You can’t play neutral on this one and declare “Erm, I like both” when asked which is your favourite. Only one can be declared a winner.

In the interest of journalistic fairness, I felt it was important to sample both a Devonshire and Cornish cream tea to present a balanced review. I also enlisted the assistance and taste buds of my parents to weigh in on this important matter. Therefore, I present to you the ultimate test, polarizing opinions everywhere: Devon vs. Cornwall – Which cream tea takes the cake? (scone?)

First, some vital stats:

Cornish Way

  • Traditionally served with a “Cornish split”, a slightly sweet bread roll. While these are now harder to find, the methods in which the scones are to be eaten remains the same – first a healthy spread of jam, followed by a dollop of Cornish clotted cream. Butter can also be involved here, if your arteries are thinking “Let’s really make this interesting!”

Devonshire Way

  • Split the scone in two, topping each side with a spoonful of Devonshire cream followed by jam. No butter allowed!

Taste Tests

Cornish

Cornish Tea
Before…
Cornish Tea
After. As you can see, I clearly didn’t like it.

Location: Hole Foods, Mousehole, Cornwall

The Challenger: Two baked-on-site scones (not warm, although it was nearing the end of the day)
Accessories: Your choice of blackcurrant or raspberry jam with a little side pot of Cornish cream. Oh, and a big pot of tea.
Thoughts:  Generous amounts of both spreads and the scones were golden on top, a bit crispy. Inside, they were dense and able to support a nice glob of cream and jam without falling to pieces. The Cornish cream itself was thick on top with the consistency and colour of a soft butter. Sacrilege alert – I ate mine the Devonshire way as I just can’t wrap my head around the idea of putting cream on top of jam – sorry Cornwall. My Mum, however, prefers the Cornish method and was pretty content with the results of eating it the “traditional” way. We all agreed that the scones are excellent and the tea is perfection. Eaten overlooking the harbour, so bonus ambiance points awarded.

Score: 5 out of 5 cups of tea

Devonshire

Devonshire Cream Tea

Location: The Pea Green Boat Cafe, Sidmouth, Devon

The Challenger: Two warm scones with a dusting of icing sugar
Accessories: A generous pot of Devonshire cream and a prepackaged strawberry jam. And a big pot of a tea.
Thoughts: Warm scones! Big points right there, although they had a taste more like a tea biscuit than the sweetness of a scone that I’m used to.  The cream was a whipped consistency and a bit runnier and paler in texture and colour. I’m familiar with Devonshire cream as that’s all we can get in Canada, but I have to say – the Cornish cream had a more appealing taste. I ate my scones the Cornish way this time (why not do things backwards?) and have to say – jam first may be better (Mum, if you’re reading this, you were right). The tea itself tasted far superior here – whether it was due to our front-row seats to the ocean I’m not sure, but I need to toss in some bonus ambiance points again.

Score: 4.5 out of 5 cups of tea (minus 1/4 cup for the texture of the cream and another 1/4 cup for the scones)

The Winner: Cornish! Apologies to my Devonshire-resident Nan and her love for their clotted cream.

In all seriousness though, they’re both delicious. Try them both out if you’re trekking around England! Perfect for quieting that pesky grumbly tummy between lunch and dinner.

Day Tripping – Marazion

Have you heard of Marazion?

If you live in the UK (or even closer, Cornwall), likely yes. If you live outside of it, like me, probably not. Which is a damn shame, because it’s a really lovely place.

Upon maneuvering ourselves out of town (you can read about that adventure here or visualize what it felt like here) we headed to Marazion for lunch and a wander. Here’s three things you can do in this wee gem of a town:

IMG_26901. Get Your Stroll On
Marazion is small and perfect for a wander. Along the winding main street you’ll find a few little shops and galleries, some of which cater more to tourists but are still worth a look. There’s also a nice path along the waterfront where you can gaze at St. Michael’s Mount or better yet, go across to it. When the tide is out you can follow a causeway across to it; the tide was unfortunately very much in when I was there, and we opted not to take a boat across and just look at it from afar.

2. Eat
I guarantee you the best lunch you will have in Cornwall at  Delicious: Marazion, a great little deli just on the far side of town. Get it? Deli? Delicious? I was sold by the fact that they were punny, and also had bunting. They could have sold nothing but ham and I probably still would have gone in. Parked in a window seat (good for spotting drivers trying to navigate around double decker buses on the small roads – seriously, what is with these roads?!) my Dad and I tucked into cheese and chutney sandwiches that were the biggest sandwiches I have ever seen, let alone consumed. Freshly grated Cornish cheddar with a mean bite, sweet and tangy chutney, fresh bread and coleslaw on the side. I opted for a gluten-free bun which was a wise decision as it helped to contain the downpour of cheese making a hasty escape – I wasn’t going to let any of that deliciousness go to waste! People often scoff at the idea that British food can be good, but everything is fresh, simple and reallyfreakingdelicious.

As an aside, I would be very interested to know where my cholesterol levels stood at the end of this trip, but that’s neither here nor there.

Following our sandwiches, we grabbed lattes and seriously the best hot chocolate of my life to go, and I was sad to leave. I dreamt of cheese that night…

IMG_27013. Beach Yourself
Maybe it was from the half-pound of cheese. Maybe it was the fact that the sun had finally come out and everything was warm and smelled like sea salt. Maybe we were tired from the stress of getting the car out of Mousehole that morning. Whatever the reason, we parked ourselves on the beach to look at St. Michael’s Mount and take in the views of the sea and promptly fell asleep. Families around us poked around in the sand and played, we snoozed through the whole thing. Choose your own adventure on that beach, it’s nice and peaceful.

The Charm (and Hell) of English Roads

Roads in Cornwall (like much/most of England) are very small. You bump along with hedges poking in both sides of the car and suddenly have to slam on the brakes as a truck peels around the corner in front of you. Then, in a well-organized series of maneuvers, someone always pulls aside just enough for each person to pass and you continue to barrel along until this happens once more.

Again and again and again.

I don’t quite understand why all roads have the hedges-as-fences approach – in addition to creating the feeling that you’re trapped in a maze since you can’t see over it to place where you are, it also makes tucking over quite difficult. Is this just a more eco-friendly way of keeping sheep and other animals penned in? Or does it just allow the English to turn a blind eye to the constant near-misses that are happening?

MouseholeAt any rate, if you think that you’ll be fine once you arrive in a town or village think again. We stayed in an adorable fishing village called Mousehole with what must have been the narrowest streets of all time. It didn’t help that the only car we could rent was a Land Rover – perfect for plowing across streams (which we did actually do at one point) and down motorways, not so perfect for village streets that a Fiat would have trouble winding around. And so there we were one morning trying to get out of town when we came face to face with a giant delivery truck approaching, a dead-end road behind us, a line of cars to our left and the realization that a real-life game of Tetris was about to begin.

My dear Dad, bless him, did the best that he could. But the delivery truck wouldn’t budge, and a long cue of cars began to line up behind it. So I did the only thing I could think of – I jumped out and pleaded for help from the first car to our left.

“I’m very sorry, but there’s a giant truck coming and we don’t know what to do because we’re not from here!” I cried to the driver. He smiled in response and said “Oh, not from here? American, are you?” “No!” I replied, “Canadian”. “Even worse!” he said jokingly before hopping out of his car to see what the situation was.

Thanks to the kindness of that man, he helped direct my Dad into a corner so that the truck could pass, commenting that it was far too big to be in the town in the first place and reassuring us that the resulting traffic jam had not been our fault. And then he asked where we were trying to get to and guided us out of town.

So, kind sir, thanks for the helping hand, and reinforcing the notion that it’s always a good idea to ask for help when travelling!

Visiting The Lost Gardens of Heligan

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I went to a botanical garden and liked it.

To be fair, I always enjoy photographing flowers and leaves. I’m never overly fussed about the gardens themselves – they smell lovely, but after awhile my brain gets bored and starts humming to itself or occupying me with thoughts about lunch and then I realize I’ve been awkwardly staring at tulips for who knows how long.

I visited Cornwall at the end of May with my parents who are big garden fans, and in the spirit of being a good travel companion I agreed to check out the Lost Gardens of Heligan near Mevagissey. The weather was unseasonably cold and grey and many of the flowers not yet in bloom, but it was still quite the beautiful place.

IMG_2628The gardens were created by the Tremayne family over a period of time spanning from the mid-18th century up to the beginning of the 20th century, but were neglected after the First World War. Uber-neglected. Restoration only began in the 1990s (you can find several great TV shows and books on the subject) – a pretty phenomenal feat when you see how much work they’ve done in a relatively short timeframe.

The contents vary depending on the area that you’re wandering – from fruit and veg gardens (including Europe’s only remaining pineapple pit), to a sub-tropical “jungle”, to massive rhododendrons.

Highlights for me, however, were the rock and plant figures designed by a local artist and her brother – the Mud Maid and Giant’s Head.

And the hard-working pigs.

I can only imagine how beautiful Heligan must be when all the flowers are in bloom (and it’s warm enough for you to thaw out your fingers) – check it out when in Cornwall. Pack good walking shoes for the trip – many of the paths are quite steep!