Tag Archives: UK

Travel Thursday: Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh castle.jpgAlthough I think London is the foreign city that has my heart, Edinburgh is a close second. I don’t know if it is the stunning architecture, the incredible history, the friendliness of the people or the fact that it is just big enough to feel like it would take months to really see it all, but still small enough to feel homey, but I adore it. In fact, despite my sheer adoration for everything London has to offer, if I was really going to pack my family up and move them to a city in the UK, I’d probably pick Edinburgh. London would be the place for me if I was single, but Edinburgh definitely seems more like my speed with a husband and two kids.

Not that I’m moving over seas any time soon (or ever).

I’ve only been to Edinburgh twice, but both time I’ve visited Edinburgh Castle. I guess that’s not really a surprise since both times I was leading a student trip and if there’s a castle or cathedral in the area, it seems student trips will stop there. We actually visited three castles/palaces and three cathedrals during our nine day trip (and one of those days was spent entirely in flight).

Edinburgh viewEven by castle standards, Edinburgh is pretty spectacular, if for no other reason than it has the best view of any castle in the UK that I’ve visited. I love the fact that it is set up on top of the hill. The view is breathtaking. Since I’d already visited the castle three years ago, I didn’t do nearly as many touristy things on this visit. I’d already seen the crown jewels and watched the one o’clock gun fired. So this time I spent a lot more time just walking around and taking everything in. I got to casually stroll through the castle, which was lovely. I spent time looking out over the entire beautiful city. It was such a nice break from neurotically counting my students to make sure they were all accounted for.

It was also nice to have just a bit of time to myself. On these trips, I rarely let students out of my sight, however, since there is only one way in or out of the castle and I knew my students would have no way to get into any trouble or get lost inside the castle, I was able to give them all an hour to just explore and enjoy. Sure, I made them promise to stay in pairs (and most stayed in groups of 4 or 5), but I let them feel a bit more grown up and explore without one of the adults looking over their shoulders. This also meant I got some quiet time to myself. Sure, I could have hung out with the other chaperones, but we’d also been together pretty much nonstop and it was nice to just walk around and take it all in.

The history at this castle is pretty amazing. Even by the old standards of the UK, this castle is old. St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building within the castle walls dates back between 1130-1140. It is so amazing to not only see this building still standing, but to be able to step inside and touch this piece of history. I also have to admit to being more than a little obsessed with the TV show Reign for awhile, and even though I know that about 90% of the “historical” element to the show is bunk, I still loved following the story of Mary Queen of Scots. To me it is so cool to visit the castle where she actually gave birth to her son, James VI.

Although I’m not big on military history, one of my chaperones is a former Marine and he thought it was pretty cool that the Scottish National War Museum and memorial are located inside the castle. He did have a slightly funny moment when he saw what was labelled as a soldier’s privy and thought it might a bathroom set up for military members (as part of a thank you for their service). Since he had to go to the bathroom, he was disappointed to find out it was just a exhibit of what bathrooms were like at the time prisoners of war were kept in the castle.

castle far offSpeaking of bathrooms, the only downside to visiting the castle this time was that I really had to go to the bathroom! I got a little turned around and could only find the bathroom in the cafe. Unfortunately there were only two stalls and the line actually extended out the door, around the corner, up the first set of stairs, onto the first landing and partially up the second set of stairs. I think I spent 20 minutes of my free time in the queue waiting for relief. I was really glad I had not followed the lead of my students and gotten coffees to help warm up on the slightly blustery day.

Long wait for the bathroom aside, it was a great day.

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Munchie Monday: Rococo Bee Bar

Rococo Bee BarI know I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but I am willing to spend rather ridiculous amounts of money on chocolate. Some people go on shoe shopping sprees. Some have an affinity for purses or tools, or for people like my husband, Magic the Gathering cards. I always tease him about the thousands he has spent on cards over the years. He fires right back at me about chocolate. I can honestly say I spend way less on chocolate each year than he spends on his Magic addiction, but that is not to say the chocolate bills don’t rack up.

On my recent trip to the UK, my students joined in on mocking my spending habits. While many of them thought nothing of dropping 30 pounds on clothing from Oxford, 50 pounds on jewelry in London or in one case, over 100 pounds for a cashmere sweater in Edinburgh, when I spent 47 pounds at a chocolate shop in York, it was days before I heard the end of it.

Not that I cared much. I don’t like clothing with logos or names on it, I hardly ever wear jewelry and don’t even want to think about caring for a cashmere sweater! Yes, I’ll take my edible spending habit any day.

When I went into York Chocolate Story, I really, really wanted to take the chocolate tour. York is, after all, a chocolate city. Yes, that’s right. While other cities in the UK earned their wealth from wool or cotton or steel or coal, York has pretty much always been known for its sweet treats. They have a chocolate trail where visitors can follow in the footsteps of chocolate development. This was my kind of city. On our initial walking tour we passed about a dozen sweet shops and I made sure to memorize where the ones that specifically dealt in chocolate were.

Despite my complete love for chocolate, I’ve only ever been on two chocolate tours before, once in Hershey, Pennsylvania and once when my husband and I went on a bourbon themed trip in Kentucky. We found a small family owned chocolate shop that did tours and then tastings of bourbon balls and it was great. I’ve wanted to go on several other tours, but I’m always on vacation when I find them and inevitably no one else wants to go with me. Since I was chaperoning a student group on this trip and they wanted to shop for souvenirs, this tour was another pipe dream for me. Instead, I had to settle for a visit to their cafe and shop.

At least it was a really cool shop with tons of candies to choose from. It was really hard to limit myself. I wanted so many of the delicious looking treats, but I limited myself to a box of filled chocolates from York Chocolate Story, a tin with some sort of amazing looking chocolate bark, three large chocolate bars from various localish confectioneries, a box of six truffles from the chocolate case and one tiny bar from a company called Rococo Chocolates.

Until I grabbed this bar, I had no idea it was “London’s Best Luxury Online Chocolate Shop.” Turns out I managed to miss their actual shop when I was in London. Despite being in Covent Garden twice during my three day stay, I didn’t find them–in all fairness, one of the times I was tied up with a student who was having a panic attack and didn’t get to see anything there. I really wish I’d have gotten to visit the star. While York Chocolate Story did have a decent selection of Rococo’s chocolate bars, they didn’t have any of the specialty Roald Dahl ones and I would have bought at least three of those: one for myself and one for each of my kids who love Dahl’s books.

Basil and limeI grabbed the miniature Basil & Persian Lime dark chocolate bar. I wanted to try this one since it was a flavor combination I’ve never had before. Whenever I am somewhere new, I often try to find truly unique chocolates. Anyone can make a regular old milk or dark chocolate bar (granted with varying degrees of success), but I like to try the more exotic. I’ve had spiced chocolate before, but usually it’s cardamom or ginger or chili. I’ve never had, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen, chocolate infused with basil. I was also hoping the tartness of the lime might offset the bitterness of the dark chocolate. Although I have gotten much better at appreciating and even enjoying dark chocolate, I still like it best when it is paired with something tart like raspberry, lemon or lime.

The bar itself is very cute to look at. I love the detail of the bee on each section of chocolate. I was wondering why it was called a “bee bar” and while I’m still not sure if there is a connection other than the design, I liked the connection I could verify.

My first taste of the bar was a bit off putting. The basil was VERY strong and the lime marginal. However, as it slowly melted on my tongue, the basil died away and the lime became the lingering note. The dark chocolate was definitely bitter and not that offset by the basil or the lime. It was not an extremely bitter dark chocolate though, so I found it tolerable. On one of my bites I did sort of feel like I was actually crunching on dried herbs–not so much in taste as in texture. I found it slightly unnerving, but not so much that I stopped eating it.

The bar did leave a slightly odd aftertaste in my mouth. It was slightly herby and slightly sour. I definitely wanted a big drink of water after I’d finished with two squares of the chocolate. After that, I still had a lingering taste of chocolate in the back of my throat, but it was just barely there and sort of nice.

I split the other two squares between my kids and they both really liked it. Of course, they are far less picky about sweets than I am. Probably because they are not allowed to blow their allowances on chocolate bars.

Overall:

Taste: 7/10
Appearance: 9/10
Value: 6/10 (at $2.45 this bar is a bit small for the price)

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Chocolate Monday: All Butter Caramel & Sea Salt Biscuits

caramel sea salt biscuits.jpgI don’t know why I find it so adorable that people from the UK call cookies biscuits, but I seriously do. During my most recent trip across the Pond, our tour guide was discussing some of the linguistic differences between American English and British English. One that she was quick to point out is the difference in the idea of biscuits. She told us about how appalled she was when she first heard someone from the States talk about biscuits and gravy because the thought of putting gravy on cookies is revolting.

While I would have loved a good breakfast of our biscuits and gravy while I was in the UK, I was just as happy to get to try some truly fantastic version of their biscuits. For the record, they do have cookies in the UK. And they do have something that is sort of biscuit like–at least by American standards. Their “biscuits” are usually called scones (although not really like our buttermilk variety at all and usually filled with fruit). Their cookies are similar to many of our cookies–the soft, freshly baked kind you get out of the oven in America are also called cookies in the UK. In the UK, a biscuit is a hard sort of prepackaged cookie like Chips Ahoy! or any variety of Keebler cookie.

all butter caramel and sea salt biscuitsWhile I was visiting Warwick Castle, which is actual history meets Medieval Times, I found a delicious sounding package of biscuits in the gift shop. Although they were not chocolate, they caught my eyes because they had one of my favorite flavor combinations: sea salt and caramel. I make a pretty mean caramel sea salt brownie and I’ve had truffles and caramels with sea salt, but I’d yet to have any sort of cookie, no matter what it is called with the combination. I had to buy them.

Oh my gosh am I glad I did! They were not just delicious sounding, but actually delicious! The cookies are very rich and buttery. The first bite, which has the perfect crunch, actually left my lips feeling a bit greasy. I know this sounds gross, but it was amazing! It was clearly the real butter used in making these cookies. The butter feel on my lips reminded me of times when I’ve eaten a flakey, buttery pastry. YUM!

Although the cookies was initially crunchy, it basically melted in my mouth. This is no doubt partially due to the butter content and partially due to the perfect texture of the cookie.

The caramel flavor is deep and creamy and just as the taste was beginning to fade, there was a great kick of salt to add a lovely savory component. It is nearly impossible to just eat one of these circle of heaven. Outside of Girl Scout cookies, I am not usually one to eat any sort of crunchy cookie. I’ll do it if I really need something sweet and there isn’t really anything else available, but crunchy, prepacked cookies are always a last resort. Even Girl Scout cookies tend to stay in my cabinet longer than they should (I still have three packages) because I just get tired of these types of cookies. But I don’t think I could ever get tired of these. It’s probably for the best that they are an entire continent away from me. It’s also probably good that despite seeing similar tubes of cookies in other souvenir shops, I never saw another package of these biscuits. I am afraid of how many I might have purchased.

The tin of a dozen cookies was about $5.60, which would be outrageously priced, even by Girl Scout cookie standards, if they weren’t so dog gone good.

Overall:

Taste: 10/10
Appearance: 8/10
Value: 9/10

 

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Travel Thursday: UK Day 1-Edinburgh

Edinburgh long.jpgThree years ago, I led a student trip with EF Tours that went through England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. While I loved each country, since it was an 11 day tour, we didn’t get much time to spend in each country. We spent the most time, four days, in Ireland. From there we took a ferry over to Wales where we spent less than 24 hours, most of which was either on a bus or in a town well after everything had shut up for the evening. The next morning we were on the road heading to Edinburgh. We got to spend a day and a half there, but it was not nearly enough time. I fell in LOVE with Edinburgh.

So, when we were planning our next trip, I knew Scotland had to be more of a destination. In fact, I wanted it to be one of our primary destinations, so I picked the England and Scotland tour. I was so excited to be going back to one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.

We landed in Edinburgh, after some rather hellacious turbulence, a little before 10 in the morning (UK time). I’d been up since just before 9 am EST, which meant by the time we touched down, I’d been awake for 20 hours. Since the best way to avoid major jetlag is to stay awake and keep on trucking, that is exactly what we did. We boarded a bus, amidst some truly terrifying wind and headed first on a bus tour of the city and then on a walking tour of it. Despite being on a plane and a bus for many hours, I still managed to get over 14K steps in on that first day during our walking tour.

Scotland Writer's MuseumSince I was sleep deprived, I don’t remember every single place we walked by on that first day. However, one of the first places we passed was the Edinburgh Writer’s Museum. On my first trip no one had alerted me to its existence, but it was in a simply amazing building. Since we were walking and only stopping for pictures and a brief explanation of what the place was, I didn’t get a chance to actually visit, which was probably for the best since it is dedicated to Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Although I have read some of Burns’ and Scott’s poetry, Stevenson is the only one I feel really acquainted with and even then, I’ve only read two of his books, Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, so a visit to the museum might not have been the most interesting to me. Still, the building was the perfect example of why I fell in love with Edinburgh on my first visit. The buildings are breathtaking. Even the “new” portion of the city looks completely historic.

We passed by the museum on our way from the new section of town to the old. Although, like I said, it’s hard to separate the two since pretty much every building in the city looks like it is at least 200 years old. One think the Scots definitely have on us is a sense of true history. America is such a baby country in comparison!

Since our tour guide found out early on that many of us were Harry Potter fans, she made sure to point out some historic Potter sights. The first of which was the Balmoral hotel, the place where JK Rowling wrote several of the Harry Potter books. She also took us past the Elephant House cafe, where Rowling also worked on her books, making sure to mention the cemetery the cafe looks out over where many of the names of her characters came from. In fact, not long after we stopped outside the famous eatery, which was jammed packed with other tourists waiting to pay homage, we headed to that very cemetery.

Edinburgh cemetaryWhile my group was quite hungry and wanted to find lunch rather than explore the grounds of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard looking for their favorite character’s names, we did get an initial look around, which included some really cool stories about hauntings that supposedly have taken place in the graveyard. In addition to some rather terrifying looking mausoleums, when we met back up with the rest of our group, we found out that some of them had a sort of spooky encounter while they looked at the graves. One of my students went to pick up what she thought was a piece of trash on the ground, near one of the mausoleums. Despite being gated, as soon as she got close to it, she heard strange noises coming from inside. At first she thought they might have been animal noises, but then realized it was some sort of metalic clinking. Only one other person was near her, a fellow classmate, and he heard it to, but moments later, it went silent. They said they didn’t stay to find out what had made that noise, but bolted pretty quickly.

gothic rocketThe Kirkyard was the last official stop on our walking tour. After that we had plenty of time to explore on our own before we had to meet back at the Walter Scott memorial, which our tour guide lovingly referred to as the Gothic Rocket. Apparently it is open to climb up for a small fee. A few of my students contemplated it, but realizing how exhausted they were decided that since they’d been up for about 28 hours, they shook the idea pretty quickly. Instead they spent their time doing a little shopping among some of the “posher” stores on the main drag. I’ve been to the UK five or six times now and I’m not really that interested in shopping, especially not for clothes, but I went in and stood in the front of stores while they had looks around I did find a Whittard’s tea shop, which I know from previous trips that I love, so I did get my group to head in and to my delight, many of my students also fell in love with their tea. I think everyone walked out with a Whittard’s bag.

Despite being so tired that some of my group actually fell asleep in The Jolly Ristorante while waiting for their food, we had a great first day in Edinburgh. By the time we got to our hotel, Edinburgh First Pollock Halls, which was actually dorms for the University of Edinburgh, we were very ready to go to sleep. We’d been up for about 32 hours and wiped out doesn’t even begin to describe how we felt. Still, we were all excited about our next day, when we’d get a chance to explore even more of this amazing city.

Edinburgh city

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Wildcard Wednesday: Flying

I took my first plane ride when I was six years old. For many people, this might not seem very impressive, but it was 1981 and people didn’t fly nearly as often. By 1982, I was flying as an unaccompanied minor 2-4 times a year and felt like an old hand in the airplane biz.

As a kid, I loved flying. Since I was flying from Indiana to California (and back again), I had nearly four hours to kill on each plane ride and I filled that time with books, games, toys and snacks…lots of delicious honey roasted peanuts. I was pretty cute back then, so I could always get the flight attendants to give me extra peanuts. In fact, one year, in large part because I was very upset to be leaving a visit with my dad in order to go back home with my mom (who I lived with 10 months out of the year), I was actually allowed to pass out all the peanuts to the passengers. One man was so appreciative he gave me a card with $5 in it. Back then, that was a heck of a lot of money for an 8 year old.

Today I am not quite as enamored of air travel. Knowledge of airplane malfunctions and crashes, no matter how statistically small, have taken their toll. That’s not to say I don’t fly. I still really love traveling, but I’m far more wary when I step on an airplane. I spend the entirety of take off and landing either praying or holding my breath and hoping all will be well. After all, statistically, malfunctions and crashes are more likely to happen at these times. Once I’m in the air I’m usually pretty ok, but the turbulence which used to remind me of the thrill of a roller coaster now has me seriously on edge.

Recently I flew to the UK. The first leg of our flight was from Indianapolis to NYC. We were in a tiny plane and actually in the completely last row of said tiny airplane. We felt every single dip and bump. It wasn’t horrible, but I spent way too much time trying to distract myself from worrying over noises, dips and shaking. Thankfully I had a student I really like sitting next to me and was surrounded by several rows of my other students, which kept things pretty much upbeat. It was the very start of our British adventure and everyone was not only wide awake, but super excited about the trip, so my nerves were mostly ok.

Our flight from NYC to Edinburgh started off pretty well. We got off the ground with no issues and even before we were airborn I found out the vast selection of in flight movies were available, so I settled back and started Game Night, a movie I’d wanted to see when it was in the theaters. Not only do international flights offer a plethora of movies, but they also feed passengers. And often. During those six hours we had two meals and a snack. I wasn’t even half way through with my first movie before the flight attendants were in the aisles offering that initial snack, which was great. I hadn’t liked the sandwich I’d had while we were laid over in NYC, so I gave it away. That bag of snack mix and Coke Zero were very welcome. Not as good as honey roasted peanuts would have been, but I understand the change.

Since I knew we’d have to hit the ground running when we touched down in Scotland the next day, I tried to get some sleep. Despite having a comfy neck pillow, tons of leg room (somehow I’d managed to score a seat that had double the leg space because it was located at the end of the mid section of the plane, right in front of the bathrooms) and a sleep mask, I really couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t just because my seat didn’t recline. I’ve never been successful at sleeping on planes. There is just too much noise (even with earplugs), motion and lack of true comfort.

Although I was quite sleepy after being up for 19 hours and knowing I still had at least 12 more hours to be awake, I gave up and started watching Red Sparrow, another film I’d wanted to see in the theater. I was pretty glad my seat was not near any of my students as I could only imagine the comments I would have gotten from them about the content of the film.

We flew into Scotland during a rather nasty storm that had wind gusts of up to 50 mph. Since we were on the tail end of it, we were able to land safely, but we encountered the worst turbulence I’ve had in my 30+ years of flying. I have never once been motion sick on an airplane, but it took all my concentration not to throw up during that landing. Others on the plane were not so successful. Thankfully none of them sat near me. Unfortunately, several of them were right next to other members of my group, so once we were off the plane, I got to hear very detailed accounts of the vomiting that took place somewhere behind me.

Although the flights may be longer, I really do prefer international flights over domestic ones. I like all the little extras you get: sleep masks, earbuds, movies, extra drinks and food. The food may not be the best, but it’s also not horrible. In fact, on the flight from Heathrow to NYC, I had a truly tasty pizza twist thing. Plus, I got to watch The Greatest Showman, Thor: Ragnarok and most of Bad Moms. Sure, they were movies I’d already seen, but they kept me entertained and happy. Over seven hours on that plane felt like less than the just under two hours from NYC to Indy, mostly due to the movies.

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