November 29, 2014

Mapping My Month: December 2014


ONLY 25 DAYS UNTIL CHRISTMAS!!!

Yes, I am one of those overly enthusiastic Christmas nutters.  I've been listening to Christmas music on the sly since early November, and I bought the first gift way back in July.  I'd planned to be completely done with my shopping by this time so I could just kick back and enjoy the season, but I'll be out there braving the crowds with everyone else.  'Tis the season!

Because of holiday festivities, November's and now December's travels were and will be confined to local destinations.  Although, in spite of a little snow, we did travel to Pennsylvania for a white Thanksgiving with my dad's side of the family.  It's the first time my immediate family has all been under one roof since my brother's wedding in June!



November RecapBerlin Wall at the University of Virginia, walking down "memory lane" at Charlottesville's Downtown Mall, touring the grounds of Virginia Tech while visiting my sister, experiencing the new tasting room at Midnight Brewery, trying the new BJ's Brewpub in the west end of Richmond, talking for 12 hours non-stop with a friend recently returned from Southeast Asia, driving through the snow-covered battlefield of Gettysburg, and traveling to Amish-country in eastern Pennsylvania.

I'm sure December's weekends will fill up with holiday parties, family gatherings, and Christmas shopping.  Realistically, we won't be doing any traveling this month (although I'd dearly love to sneak up to D.C. to see the Magna Carta while it's on display!).  Maybe we'll be able to do something special for New Year's Eve.  But you know what?  I'm okay with not going anywhere.  Not just because I feel like being close to home and family for the holidays, but also because (drum-roll please)...

We bought plane tickets to Europe!!!

That's right!  We'll be making our way back across the Atlantic in the spring for 17 days of traveling, exploring, visiting family, and making new memories with some dear friends.  It goes without saying that the last leg of our trip will be spent in Germany, but the first six days will be spent in a country we've not yet visited.  Stay tuned for a promo giveaway in a few weeks when we announce our travel destinations and plans!



Where did you go in November?  Got any plans for December yet?

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Linking up with Chasing the Donkey and other travel bloggers for the #SundayTraveler!

November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving


Happy Thanksgiving!  
Remember to give thanks and reflect on all the blessings in our lives - big, small, and in-between! 

Photo taken at Gettysburg National Battlefield this morning.

November 25, 2014

Selecting the "Perfect" Hotel


As a thrifty traveler, my requirements for hotels can be condensed to just three things: clean rooms, accommodating staff, and a safe location.  We cram so much into our itineraries that our hotel rooms are little more than a place to rest and recover before another packed day of sightseeing.  And until we can afford to stay at such specialty lodgings like the Hotel de Glace in Quebec City or the over-water hut hotels such as the Four Seasons in Bora Bora (in which case, the accommodations are an attraction in and of themselves!), we are more than happy to stay in budget to mid-level hotels to save a little money.

Sad about leaving London... and the Club Quarters Hotel
After we've settled upon a destination but are still in the early stages of brainstorming a trip, I begin perusing sites like Trip Advisor and Hotels.com to compile a list of hotel choices.  I skim the reviews for the good, the bad, and the ugly of hotels within our price range, keeping in mind that some negative reviews are written by people who simply cannot be pleased and are looking for the slightest provocation to write a bad review.

With TripAdvisor on one screen and Google Maps on another, I begin ranking hotel potentials.  While all of them must meet my three basic requirements, I also prioritize hotels based on amenities such as free breakfast, free WiFi, proximity to attractions, price, and the enthusiasm with which reviewers recommend the establishment.  And unless I'm looking for lodging in the U.S., I almost always avoid chain establishments.  I just can't bring myself to travel halfway across the world just to stay at a chain hotel like a Best Western!  (No offense, B-dubs.)

The Riverside Mamaison Hotel in Prague
With this method, even if my top choice hotel is booked, I have at least a few more options available up my sleeves thanks to my list compilation.  Generally, I try to reserve and book directly through the hotel.  While third-party sites such as Hotels.com or Orbitz may purport to offer the best prices, I've found that hotels actually tend to be cheaper when booked directly and save the establishment from ponying up some of their profits to the third-party website.

So what does an example of my list look like?  Here's the short-hand list I made when deciding where to stay in Rome:

Relais Forus Inn                                
$105/night                                        
Near Termini; affordable price; mostly good reviews                                    


Maior                                                  
$124                                                    
Rave Reviews; over budget          

Cesare Balbo Inn                              
$110                                                    
Hostel; good location                      

Hotel Andreotti
$72
Near Termini; good reviews; pretty rooms

Ultimately we decided upon Hotel Andreotti and were very glad we did (see my review here).  But there were many hotels that could've potentially been a "perfect" hotel for us, and it's important to note that what worked really well for us may not necessarily fit your traveling style or needs.  If you're looking to keep a reasonable budget without sacrificing amenities or location, sticking to mid-level hotels (like we do) and using our listing process may help you find your own "perfect" hotel (inn, guest house, or hostel!) for your travels!

Mamaison Hotel


How do you choose the "perfect" hotel for your travels?

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Linking up with Bonnie Rose & other travel bloggers for #TravelTuesday!

November 23, 2014

London, Up Close & Personal

For more from our trip to London, please see here!

Big Ben himself

The Madonna and Child at Westminster Abbey
Winged Victory on the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace

Representative of Agriculture and Manufacturing (Victoria Memorial)

A lion from Nelson's Column, Trafalgar 

"The name's Bond. James Bond."





The clocks in Burroughs Market
Some of the market wares

Tower Bridge


Staircase in the Monument to the Great Fire of London












Have these pictures convinced you to visit London yet?

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Linking up with Chasing the Donkey for the #SundayTraveler!

November 21, 2014

Thoughts from London


These were my Facebook updates on my 48-hour whirlwind trip to London this past February.  It brings back all the warm and fuzzy feels!

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Anybody home?!
Thoughts on Day 1:
-Five hour energy shots are worth their weight in gold.
-The Tube is AMAZING.
-Apparently 52' with a real feel of 45' makes Londoners break out their shorts, skirts, and fishnets. (Winter heat wave?)
-I've helped more tourists today than I ever have in the states.
-My life is complete now that I've seen the Rosetta Stone & the Sutton Hoo exhibit. Weepy glees.
-Buying the last minute ticket here was the best decision ever.



"Just you wait, 'Enry 'iggins, just you wait!
You'll be sorry but your tears will be too late!"
Thoughts on Day 2:
-My boots walked all over the graves of kings. I felt very irreverent.
- I practically wept at Chaucer's grave.
-Apparently part of a bobby's job description requires the possession of an amazing sense of humor.
-London needs to hire more pigeons at St Paul's so I can connect with my inner Mary Poppins.
-There is a 27A Wimpole Street!!! (My Fair Lady, anyone?)
-Enjoying sausages and mash at Garfunkles with Aunt Marcy and Uncle Doug couldn't have been better!
-The Tower is especially creepy at night.



Thoughts on Day 3:
-"Are Beefeaters vegetarians?"
-"Ladies, I once guarded David Beckham, and he asked for MY autograph!"
-The carvings in Beauchamp Tower are sobering, especially from those who were later executed.
-The ravens at the Tower do not quoth nevermore. It's more like "nevahmoh."
-I almost thought I saw Dick van Dyke dancing on the rooftops last night.
-When can I come back?!
 



What were some of your initial thoughts & impressions of London on your first visit? 

***
Linking up with A Brit and a Southerner for #WeekendWanderlust!

November 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Tower Bridge (2014)


Ah, Tower Bridge... it's quintessentially London!  It provides a stunning photo backdrop, but did you know you can tour the inside, too?

Have you been to or toured the Tower Bridge?

November 18, 2014

48 Hours in London


So... you're going to London!  The home of Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and Earl Gray tea has a million sights and activities to offer, but there's one catch:  you only have 48 hours.  How in the world can you possibly see such a sprawling metropolis in such a short amount of time?

While you obviously won't be able to see everything, you'd be surprised at just how much of London you can squeeze into 48 hours.  Here's a suggested itinerary for an extended weekend in the capitol of the United Kingdom based on my own visit in February 2014:

Thursday Evening
Catch a flight from your city to Heathrow or Gatwick airport.  If you're coming from the east coast of the United States, look for cheap deals on WOW Air, Norwegian Air, or StudentUniverse.com.  Bring just a carry-on sized luggage (saves you time at baggage claim) since this is a quick trip, and make sure to pack your sleep mask to catch as much shut-eye as possible.  You don't want to sleep away too much of your precious time in London!

TGT:  My flight departed Dulles International Airport at 10:20p and landed at Heathrow around 10a.  Although the movie selection was tempting, I slept hard until the flight attendants woke us up for breakfast.  Catching an earlier flight out from the U.S. will give you a little more time in London if you can manage it.


Friday Morning
You made it!  If you're staying in the heart of London (highly recommended if you can afford it), make a beeline for your hotel.  Take the Gatwick Express into the city (it drops you off at Victoria Station), or use the Tube if landing in Heathrow.  Don't be intimidated by the Tube; it's easy to learn and your best bet for getting around London quickly.  Load up an Oyster card with 10£ to start your adventures.  At the hotel, take a quick shower or just drop your bag and run - London awaits!

TGT:  We stayed at The Club Quarters on Gracechurch Street in the City as my husband was on a business trip.  If we had been on our own trip, we probably would have looked for more affordable lodging.  Remember that "affordable" is relative as London is expensive.  For a short trip, however, location will trump expense; book a hotel as close to the City center as you can afford.  I have my eye on St. Joseph Hotel for a return stay, though I cannot recommend it personally.  Or if you're looking for some cool hostels, The Guardian has some recommendations.


Friday Noon
Take the Tube to Westminster.  As you climb the steps up to ground level, look up and take a selfie with Big Ben!  For the best views of Parliament, walk across the Westminster Bridge (guarded by the fierce Queen Boudica) and don't forget to take a picture of the London Eye, too.  Back across the bridge, skirt around Parliament to see Westminster Abbey, located at the southern end of Parliament Square.  Pony up 18£ to go inside for 1-2 hours.  It's well-worth the money; some of the notables interred at Westminster include Chaucer, Henry V, Queen Elizabeth, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, and Tennyson, and the church itself is beautiful.

TGT:  I actually didn't visit Westminster until Saturday morning so that my husband and I could go together.  This itinerary cuts out some of the duplicity of our own trip.


Friday Afternoon
From Westminster, walk northwest through St. James Park towards Buckingham Palace.  During the off-season, changing of the guard occurs only every other day at noon.  During the ceremony, the square is mobbed with tourists and obtaining a good picture of the palace is difficult.  Snap unobstructed photos of the Palace now and return tomorrow for the show if you wish.  Walk northeast along the Mall and in less than a mile you'll be engulfed in the chaotic brilliance of Trafalgar Square.  A red phone booth is conveniently located nearby for a quintessentially-tourist picture of yourself, and double-decker red buses zoom through the streets regularly.  Catch one if you can!  Look right then left as you cross the street and go admire the huge lions surrounding Nelson's column.  The National Gallery dominates the square.  Admission is free, but be forewarned that you'll find it hard to tear yourself away from the original Monets and Rembrandts inside.

If you don't want to visit the National Gallery, walk just one more mile (it'll work off all the heavy British food you'll be eating for dinner!) north to the British Museum, arguably the best collection of artifacts in the world.  Like the National Gallery, there's no charge, and the Museum is huge.  Don't expect to see everything in one visit!  Check out the Rosetta Stone and other notable artifacts on the first floor gallery then pick one or two galleries to wrap up your afternoon.  The British Museum is open until 8:30 on Fridays, so you could grab a light snack from their cafe to maximize your viewing time!

TGT:  I chose the British Museum over the National Gallery.  No offense, Botticelli, but I was dying for a glimpse of the Sutton Hoo helmet!


Friday Evening
Give yourself (and your feet!) a break by taking the Tube from the British Museum out to the Liverpool station in the Bishopsgate ward.  Friday nights in this ward are bustling and full of life.  Treat yourself to some traditional eats and English ales at The Magpie, located just a five minute walk from the station.  After dinner, walk south down Bishopsgate/Gracechurch street to the Thames for some stunning views of the Tower Bridge at night before heading to your hotel for a well-deserved night's sleep.

TGT:  We walked all the way up to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge before going to bed.  Really beautiful under the lights!
 

Saturday Morning 
Rise and shine!  Start your morning with a hearty English breakfast before heading to the National Gallery (or British Museum, depending on what you saw Friday) and then the Changing of the Guard at 1130a in front of Buckingham Palace.  Arrive no later than 11 if you want any chance of seeing the action! or spend the morning at St. Paul's Cathedral in the City ward and then take a river taxi for waterfront views of the City.

TGT:  Our Saturday morning was spent touring Westminster Abbey then sprinting over to Buckingham for the changing of the guard.  Unless you arrive an hour early, you won't get a spot next to the fence.  You can get a pretty good view from the steps of the Victoria Memorial, which is directly in front of the palace.


Saturday Afternoon
After lunch, head back to the City Ward to spend a hour or two at St. Paul's Cathedral, which has been the national place of worship since its opening in 1708, although a church has been standing on this site since 604.  Be sure to climb up to the Whispering Wall in the dome of the cathedral and then up to the cupola for stunning views of London,

If you have additional time, skip across the city for iconic sites that won't cost you a dime!  Places like Scotland Yard, Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park, Abbey Road,  or Platform 9 3/4 (King's Cross Station).  For your final dinner in London, pick a place on Bond Street, Oxford Circle, or Tottenham Court Road.  Just like Bishopsgate, you'll find a lively atmosphere.  Cap off your night with a nocturnal walk near Parliament before spending your last night dreaming of how you can get yourself back to London in the near future!

TGT:  After some bangers and mash with family friends, we strolled up to 27A Wimpole Street, home of Henry Higgins in  Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison's classic movie, My Fair Lady, and then walked along Bond Street for a few hours, enjoying the atmosphere..


Sunday Morning
All good things must come to an end... but you can squeeze one more attraction in before a 5pm flight! Since 1078, the Tower of London has guarded the east side of the City ward and served as a formidable reminder of the ruling class, and no trip to London is complete without a visit.  Although originally intended to be a residence for royalty, the Tower of London is better known as being the final prison for traitors and deposed royalty, such as Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, and the little Princes.  Wait for a Beefeater tour of the Tower, both for entertainment and informational value.  Keep a special eye out for the ravens of the Tower.  Although the presence of ravens are usually a bad omen, according to legend their absence would portend a bad omen for London: if the Tower ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown - and Britain - will fall.

TGT:  The Beefeaters, or Yeoman Warders, are renown for their humor, but to receive such a prestigious post, they must have served 22 years in the military.


Sunday Afternoon
Make your way back to the airport, undoubtedly footsore and tired, but satisfied that you've maximized your time as efficiently as possible in one of the world's leading cities!


Have you been to London?

***
Linking up with Bonnie Rose for #TravelTuesday!

November 16, 2014

5 Places That Draw Me Back


As travelers, we have lists of all shapes and sizes.  It's almost a prerequisite in the travel blogging sphere that you have several bucket lists for every situation imaginable.  Top 5 Before 35?  Written.  10 Essentials I Don't Travel Without?  Done.  101 Most Beautiful Places You Must See Before You Die or You Are a Total and Utter Failure at Traveling?  Apparently travel-shaming is a real thing, folks!

In the quest to rack up the number of new places we've explored, we rarely consider what places we've seen to which we'd like to return someday, and for some, even just thinking about going somewhere you've already been is a ridiculous thought.  What?  Go back to a place already checked off your bucket list when there are so many other places you haven't been to yet?  Are you crazy?

But sometimes a place speaks to your wanderlusting heart like a soulmate, calling you back to explore more of what it has to offer.  What five places draws you back for more?  Booked.net wants to know and is hosting a promotional giveaway in which you could win an iPhone 6!

So what's my "do-over" list?

Deutschland
I've made no secret of my love affair with all things German.  Although I have German heritage through my mother's family, I never identified strongly with it until my first visit to the land of pretzels, beer, and castles in 2010 for our honeymoon.  It was love at first sight, taste, and exploration!  I've now spent a cumulative 47 days over three different trips to Germany, but we've barely scraped the surface of what Bayern (Bavaria) and Baden-W├╝rttemberg have to offer - let alone the rest of the country.  From the fairy-tale spires of Neuschwanstein Castle to the brooding shadows of the Black Forest and from the elegant opulence of the W├╝rzburg Residenz to the joyous exultation of the Germans over a World Cup win, Germany has my heart and is our European home.  Thankfully I married a half-German so I can have a little piece of this country with me wherever I go!


London 
Perhaps it was the spontaneity of the trip by booking on one night and flying out the next.  Perhaps it was because it was the first time I'd traveled solo internationally.  Perhaps it's because I spent little more than 48 hours there.  Or perhaps it was because London was just flat-out amazing, but its inclusion on this list was a no-brainer.  Exploring the Tower, walking by Big Ben like it was no big deal, strolling through St. James Park and staying in a posh hotel on Gracechurch Street - my expectations and anticipation of London were far surpassed by reality!  As much as I was able to see in so short a time, there are still plenty of things I want to do: visit King's Cross Station, see more of the British Museum, see Scotland Yard, have a proper English tea, and see stellar views of the city from the London Eye.  I adored London, and I want to see more of her!


Uganda
I am honored to say that Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, was my first international experience back in 2007.  The warmth of its people and the beauty of its land calls me to return and introduce my husband to the friends and adventures I met there!  A wildlife safari in Murchison Falls national park along the banks of the Nile river in northern Uganda is a must-do experience, combined with a cruise up the river itself.  I'd love to go get a glimpse of the silver-back gorillas in the jungles of southwestern region of the country and maybe finally see a lion!  My return itinerary would also include time in the capitol, Kampala, to visit with the friends I made there seven years ago.


Campania
Oh, bella Italia, you surprised me - in more ways than one!  While I wasn't a fan of the Italian public transportation system, our day spent on the coast near Sorrento was undeniably magical.  Crystal-clear water, blue skies, warm sun, oh - and swimming in ancient ruins?  Take me back now!  Next time I'd want to picnic on the volcanic rock as we feast our eyes on Mt Vesuvius across the water and venture further down the Amalfi coast to explore Positano.  There are some Greek ruins at Paestum, and maybe we could finally make the pricey trip to Capri and the Blue Grotto.  Wherever or whatever we do in Campania, it's sure to please!


Virginia
"Carry me back to old Virginia..."  When all is said and done, one place will always draw me back, and that's my beautiful home state of Virginia, located on the east coast of the United States.  We have almost every landscape you could possibly want: the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Atlantic Ocean, the forested banks of the James or Shenandoah Rivers, the bustling streets of Arlington and Northern Virginia, the historic sites of Jamestown and Williamsburg, and the longest waterfall east of the Mississippi at Crabtree FallsRichmond in particular is one place that will constantly surprise you - in a good way! - and was even featured as a Top 2014 Destination by Frommer's.  If you're bored in Virginia, it's your own fault.  We have festivals of all shapes and sizes, breweries, vineyards, and good eats.  While I dream and wonder about living in another corner of the world, I know that no matter where I roam, Virginia will always be my home and I'll always be a Virginia girl.

What five places would you like to revisit?


***
I specifically challenge Camila of The Things I Am Crazy For, Diana of Life in German, Adelina of Pack Me To, Danielle of The Lifestyle Project, and Katie of From Shores to Skylines to name their top five places to revisit!  (For more details, you can read about the giveaway here!)

Linking up with Chasing the Donkey for the #SundayTraveler!

November 14, 2014

Liars & Lovers in Rome


Ever wondered if there were a romantic way to find out if your lover is a liar?

Well, wonder no more!  Just buy a few plane tickets to Rome and march your curious self to the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin for your answer.  This medieval church, constructed in the seventh century, houses an ancient sculpture of a face commonly known as the "Mouth of Truth" in its portico.  At best guess, historians believe the sculpture is a first century drain pipe or manhole cover.  (Bear with me - in this case, drains are very romantic.)  As popularized by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, the Mouth of Truth purportedly detects liars by biting off their hand if they're cheeky enough to fib while their hand is jammed down its throat.  I would hazard a guess that maybe the face just doesn't like it when strangers shove their germy fingers in their mouth?  But I digress...

Spoiler alert: he passed the test.
So just coax your sweetheart to put their hand in there, ask them that particular question that's been nagging you since the day you met and soon you'll have your truthful answer - or a one-handed beau.

If you're seeking to continue this romantic venture, take a gander through the interior of the church.  While elaborately ornate back in its day ("Cosmedin" derives from the Greek word for ornate), this small basilica pales in comparison to St. Peter's Basilica, not just in size but in decor.  However, I preferred the geometric mosaics on the floor and the more respectful stillness of the visitors over the mayhem of tourists in the Vatican.  The absence of 15-feet tall cherubs hanging over me was also welcome.

Santa Maria has a distinctly Byzantine feel.  It follows a Melkite Catholic orthodoxy, which in short means their roots and liturgy feel more like Greek Orthodox but they are decidedly pro-Roman Catholic.  If that makes any sense.  At any rate, the church feels older (it is) and more genuine (in my opinion) than the glitz and glam of St. Peter's.

Source.
And to get back to the theme of lovers, did you know that Santa Maria in Cosmedin houses the head of St. Valentine?  That's right, the final resting place for the Saint of Love himself (or at least his head) is in this small basilica, although this is disputed as many places claim to have his body (in whole or part).  Dublin likes to think they have it all. 

Source.
St. Valentine lived and died in the third century, or so it's generally believed.  The legend of this martyred priest has outgrown any concrete facts, but the general story goes like this:  a Roman emperor decreed that young men and women could not marry because he thought his soldiers would fight better if they were single.  Despite this edict, Valentine performed marriage ceremonies for young people in secret.  When his actions were discovered, he was brutally beaten, tortured, and finally beheaded.  Think on that the next time you're out buying Valentine cards and candy.

Light a candle for the saint, say a prayer to restore your sweetheart's hand (if applicable), and relish this oasis of calm in the midst of Rome's loud hordes - Santa Maria in Cosmedin is a charm not to be missed.


Have you put your hand in the Mouth of Truth and visited Santa Maria in Cosmedin?


Cost:  1 euro suggested donation
Time Needed:  20-40 minutes
Accessibility:  Use Rome's metro line B and alight at the Circo Massimo stop.  Walk 1km northwest on Via del Circo Massimo and the Basilica is located at the northern end of the circus.
Tips:  Modest clothing is required for entry into the church itself, though not for the portico area housing the Bocca della Verita.  Shoulders must be covered and trousers must fall to your knees when in the basilica.  There may be a queue to enter during the high tourist season so make sure you get there in plenty of time before the church closes for the evenings.

Linking up with A Brit and a Southerner for #WeekendWanderlust!