Thursday, May 30, 2013

Day Two: London

Friday, May 18th

We woke up at 7:30 AM after an early-ish night and feeling very rested on a full 8 hours. Forgoing the full English breakfast offered at the hotel, we walked to Pret-A-Manger where we feasted on yogurt parfaits. Delicious! Then, we made our way to the Tube. You can buy single ride tickets or you can take advantage of the Unlimited Ride Daily Pass. This was 9 pounds per person (I think) and was well worth it. It also counts on buses all within Zone 1, I believe.

We navigated to the Tower Hill station where we met Kate for a full day of touring
beginning with the Tower of London. We purchased tickets for 21 pounds each (about $32 USD) and proceeded onto a very informative tour (included in the ticket price) with a yeoman warder, also known as a Beefeater, named Jimmy.

We heard many sordid stories of the Tower, from the moat filled with human excrement to numerous imprisonments and sentences of death to be performed on Tower Hill. Among the notorious executed on Tower Hill were Thomas Moore (he was Catholic) and James Scott, who tried to take over England in a coup of sorts in the 17th century. We then made our way to the private execution area. Here, Henry the VIII's wives met their fate, as well as Jane Gray among others.

The most notable takeaway? Do not try to overthrow the British crown, it often ends badly. We then went to the chapel where they buried the bodies, and where services are still held on a regular schedule to this day. Anyone can attend if you tell them at the gate on Sunday morning that you'd like to come in. The medieval structure was beautiful and sad at the same time because of the sheer number of people who were buried after being executed (1500). We bid our tour guide adieu and went to see the Crown Jewels. John's favorite was the royal orb, mine was the imperial crown. No pictures allowed in there, sadly. And only a moving walkway so as not to linger.

We then climbed several different towers, viewing ancient graffiti of condemned souls, implements for defense and various rooms that held prisoners and royalty. 

Carved by a prisoner

Fun fact: All the beefeaters live within the Tower walls with their families. Their houses have these fantastic turquoise doors.

Tower Bridge, NOT London Bridge

We left the Tower grounds and got street fish and chips. Street fish and chips include bones and skin on the fish, not very appetizing. We found a better specimen the next day. Since our weather was good, we proceeded to walk to St. Paul's stopping at a Tescos along the way to see a British grocery store. 

Obligatory London Photo Ops

St. Paul's. There are hardly words to describe the beauty and magnitude of this cathedral. Unfortunately, no pictures allowed inside. In a way, that's better. It is a place of worship after all. And you really need to see it for yourself in person.

Upon walking up the stairs we encountered gigantic doors. 

We enjoyed the audio guide learning that in modern money, it would cost 50 million pounds to erect and its architect, also buried there, was Christopher Wren. We then hiked about 267 stairs to the Whispering Gallery where you can whisper along the wall to a person far away and they can hear you. Pretty Cool. Then, we hiked up even more stairs to get this view.

Deciding against going up another 150 stairs to the very top, we made our way down, which frightened Kate and the German who was grasping both rails in front of me like he was going to tumble all the way to the ground floor. 

Below the altar area is the crypt. The British use the crypt to honor its greatest citizens with burial for the whole nation and world to view. Among notables buried in the crypt are Admiral Nelson, who defeated the French and Spanish navies at Trafalgar preventing Napoleon from invading Britain, The Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and many others. 

After leaving St Paul's, we broke a cardinal rule of vacation by visiting an eatery we have at home. We went to Starbucks. In our defense, it was just coffee but, the rule was broken nonetheless. When John ordered and received his coffee, we discovered his new name.


We then proceeded to take the tube to Covent Garden which is a giant open market/ shopping area in London. Big crowds, numerous shopping options and street performers were the hallmark of this stop. Not enough time for shopping though. Much to my dismay.

We walked through the theatre district and wandered until we found a little pub to wet our whistle. 

After resting our feet, we decided to head to the south bank of the Thames for dinner prior to meeting Tom after for drinks. He was playing football (soccer) all day. After much admiration of the velvet walls and old times decor that were hallmarks of this pub, we took a double decker bus to the South Bank. We dined on pizza and wine and then crossed the Millennium Bridge and headed to Soho. Very energetic, very effusive, celebratory crowd in large numbers enjoying a London Saturday night. We also had our first experience with a paid public toilet. Very clean! We bar hopped for a bit until we could sing Happy Birthday to Kate at midnight. Eventually we parted ways and crashed into bed.

Only a few hours on Sunday in London and then it's off to Paris!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Travel & London Day One

Thursday, May 16th

We loaded up the car and an excited (unknowing) Sadie and drove from Dayton to Cleveland in the morning. After dropping things off with the in-laws and saying a sad goodbye to Sadie, we head to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Dropped off the car and got through check-in and security in no time flat. Having a little time prior to boarding, we stopped for a drink before our connecting flight to Newark.

I have never flown overnight and certainly not for the length of time it takes from Newark to Heathrow so I was unsure what to expect. I'm not a good plane sleeper as it is but it was crucial to catch at least a few zzz's because we needed to sight-see all day Friday and not sleep the day away. Well, despite the melatonin, fancy neck pillow and eye mask, I didn't sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time and not for many little spells like that either. Not fun. But hey, when we land.....we're in LONDON!

Friday, May 17th

There are several options for transportation from Heathrow Airport into the city of London. The most expensive is hailing a cab at the station. You don't have to pre-plan that but you will pay a premium for it. The cheapest is the tube. That probably only costs about $10 but you do have to lug your bags through the turnstiles, up stairs and escalators and as the train gets closer to the city, it becomes increasingly more crowded. It wouldn't be so bad with just carry-on luggage but we had some mammoth bags. You can take the Heathrow Express which ends up being 20 pounds per person. The ride into the city is just about 15-20 minutes and drops you off at Paddington station. We were going to do that until I started researching private cars since there were two of us. We booked a sedan pick up only 1 day in advance for a total of 44 pounds with Hummingbird Airport Transfers. The driver met us in Arrivals with our name on a board. We were early and so was he, which was nice. The car was comfortable and the driver was friendly. It was great to just get in the car and go instead of having to deal with a train for only a couple pounds more. Definitely more comfortable too. Cannot recommend this enough. We paid in advance through Paypal but tipped him upon arrival.

He took us to our hotel which was the Mercure London Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury is a great location and was recommended to me by an expat friend currently living in England. We were very close to the Russell Square tube station, several restaurants, cafes, pubs, and stores. We also walked to the British Museum and several other attractions. If you've never been to Europe, just know their hotel rooms are very small compared to those in the States. The room was clean though and ours was ready upon arrival at 10:00 AM even though it was several hours prior to check-in. That was great! We were able to drop off our bags, splash some water on our faces and head out to explore!

We were HUNGRY so we headed around the corner and found this cute pub, the Friend at Hand. It was not crowded and had a typical menu of pub fare.

I had a burger and John had this beauty. It's a steak pie in pastry and it was delicious.

After lunch, we figured out the London Tube, and made our way to Wellington's Arch. Here we caught up with a free walking tour. The Sandeman's Tours are highly recommended online with great reviews and this one was free! Be sure to tip your guide at the end though. They deserve it. Being out in fresh air and walking is also a good way to beat jet lag. The Sandman's tours are available all over Europe so no matter your destination, check into it. You won't be disappointed. As it happens, this tour hit all the spots we were going to visit on our own anyway so we got the history and did not have to navigate on our fried brains.

Wellington Arch

We began by viewing Green Park, learning about the dalliances of King Charles II. We then saw Buckingham Palace, making our way to see the residence of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles and Camilla. We did not see the changing of the guard but did see the guards on duty. 

Gates at Buckingham Palace

We passed through an area where they shot Skyfall, as we were near the old offices of MI6. We also saw the royal grounds where they bring out the horses, which during the London Olympics was used for beach volleyball, sand imported from Brazil. 

We then saw the back of 10 Downing St., Churchill's wartime bunker and other protected areas of government where British business was able to be maintained while London was blitzed by the Nazis. After that, we made our way to the House of Parliament and Westminster Abbey and saw Big Ben. 

Westminster Abbey

Me, Big Ben, Neon Scarf

Our tour concluded, and we discovered that we shared a special bond with our tour guide as he had met his future wife, a fellow Ohioan, on one of his tours. We proceeded to head back to our hotel, where we were hoping to get a little down time. We laid down on the bed and the phone rang. Kate had arrived and the front desk wanted to know if I would like to come down and get here. Would I!?

We hung out in the room for a bit, formulating a plan, and listening to John saw logs for a few minutes. We decided we'd go grab a couple pints while waiting for her boyfriend, Tom, to finish work and meet us for dinner.

Old Pals!

We decided on an Italian place nearby. John had lasagna, I had delicious pesto pasta. It was then concluded we would call it an early night and head off to our respective respites. Off to dreamland.........

P.S. This was our actual anniversary day. :)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

European Adventure: Planning & Logistics

Well, the trip has been taken. It was INCREDIBLE! From May 17-May 24, 2013, we celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary in London and Paris. This will be a detailed blog of planning, what we did, and what loved, etc and so on. I'm going to break it up by the day so you'll actually read all of it.

Come along for the ride!

John and I spent a long time discussing where to go in Europe for our anniversary. A Mediterranean cruise was mentioned as was just Paris but in the end, we settled on flying into London, taking the Eurostar to Paris and then flying home from there. For those not in the know, this is called flying 'open jaw', into one airport and out of another. And, it can actually save you money. It was cheaper for us to fly open jaw and pay for the train between than to go only to Paris. We ended up flying out of Cleveland because that included free dog boarding (with my in-laws) but it was also cheaper than our local airports. If you're willing to drive a bit to a different departure spot, that can help too. So, when planning, look at LOTS of scenarios and options. Be flexible!

My preferred airline is United so that's what we booked. I was dangerously close to a free ticket following this trip so I looked at other airlines but was leaning this way. I tracked the prices of the tickets for months. Itineraries for flights are typically available about 13 months ahead. The prices were holding steady but I was still hoping for a good deal. On Thanksgiving, John suggested checking the prices by chance. They were down! Prices do fluctuate throughout the week and during different times of day so don't always look at them on a Saturday morning. For us, the seats were around $1,000 each. Hello, air miles!

Tickets bought 6 months out!

Next up, Eurostar.

Tickets/itineraries for the Eurostar are only available 120 days in advance so we had a little time to decide how many days we would spend in each city and make our list of must-see's. OK, I made the list of must-see's and said to John, "Look! This is what we're seeing." The Eurostar prices go up the closer to departure and for popular times, they will sell out. Two one-way tickets set us back about $120 total.

After that, lodging.

This was a tough one as I wanted to be central to the sites or at least close to a good tube/metro station but also walkable to restaurants and cafes and not break the bank. Just know that hotels in Europe are pricey, mmkay? I did my best, and succeeded at keeping them around $200/night but it wasn't easy. I booked the London hotel directly through their site because they were having a sale. I booked the Paris hotel through because I got a good rate. The prices did go up closer to the dates of travel and I probably should have booked them further in advance. I was coached on a location for London by a friend who lives there and in Paris by a friend who'd been there recently. That helped a lot but I still researched the heck out of the lodging. More on the hotels later on but they were:

Mercure London Bloomsbury

Le Grand Hotel de Normandie

Booking online also gives you the ability to pay in full in advance. This was a large chunk of the budget that was nice to take care of months ahead.

I would have been able to book tickets to certain attractions ahead of time and while I did have a pretty stringent itinerary, I didn't want to lock myself into a day and time if we needed to be flexible. In London, you can book/pay for your Tower of London tickets online and in Paris, the one that would save you the most time is booking the Eiffel Tower tickets. By the time I looked at the Eiffel Tower calendar, the only available tickets were at 11:00 pm at night and I wanted to see it during the day. Buying ahead doesn't save you money but it does allow you to skip the ticket line (NOT the elevator line) but we decided to take our chances. As it stands, the weather during what would have been our time slot was awful and would have been pretty miserable.


Even though Europe uses the Chip & PIN system for credit cards, American cards will still work over there. However, you may have some issues with ATM's and getting cash. We didn't want to show up empty handed so I changed US dollars into both pounds and euros to take over with us. It took 24 hours from ordering the foreign money and my picking it up and was easy enough. I was really glad we did that. It was a bit difficult to estimate how much we'd need in each place but we just did our best and knew we'd end up charging most things anyway. we go!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

On Holiday / Bon Voyage

It's finally HERE! I have been dreaming about this trip for years and years. I have officially been planning it for at least a year. Today, John and I leave to celebrate our 5th anniversary in Europe! Traditionally, the 5th anniversary gift is wood. Something wooden vs. a European vacation? I think I'll take the latter. Who knows? Perhaps London or Paris will have a wooden key chain I can snap up.

John has been feverishly practicing his 'bonjour' and 'je ne parle pas francais.' That's all he's bothered to learn. We'll be relying on my expertise and the kindness of etrangers.

I am so excited I cannot stand it! Fish & Chips. A pint at a real pub. Iconic landmarks. Creperies et macarons! Walking in the footsteps of history. More stamps in my passport. Crossing something of my bucket list. And of course, most importantly, spending beaucoup de temps avec mon mari!

Full report upon return.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Recipe Reblog: Crockpot Salsa Verde Chicken

Back to crocking this week with a slightly belated Cinco de Mayo type recipe!

Crockpot Salsa Verde Chicken

This is another recipe from Gina's Skinny Recipes and it is a keeper! If you're unfamiliar with salsa verde, it's salsa made with green tomatillos instead of regular old tomatoes. It is not spicy but it does have a different flavor (a GOOD different) than regular salsa. I used the Kroger brand of salsa verde so you don't have to get anything fancy here. Target's brand Archer Farms has one as well. The other ingredients you can definitely find in your spice cabinet. I made this overnight using frozen chicken breasts. Yes, I put the frozen chicken in, threw on all the other ingredients and voila! I would double the amount of spices it calls for though, just to punch it up a bit.

After it was done cooking, I shredded the chicken and put it in tortillas. Stuck those under the broiler and voila again, dinner!

Happy Mother's Day!!! 

I don't get to be with any of my mothers today but I'll sure be thinking about them. Don't forget to call your mom and all the special ladies in your life. You wouldn't be here with them.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Beer Me: Chocolate & Monkey

Two really tasty brews for you this week. Our regular beer guy wasn't there for last Friday's tasting but he left some delicious choices in his absence.

 This is the 72 Imperial Chocolate Cream Stout from (who else?) Breckenridge Brewery. I took a crappy picture of it in the little plastic cup but am not posting it. Believe me when I tell you that it's dark.

From the Site: "Brewed with chocolate from Colorado's very own Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, Inc., this Imperial Chocolate Cream Stout is full of rich, toasted chocolate notes with hints of dark fruit. 72 Imperial will take you where you need to go. Just sit back and enjoy the ride."

Good gracious this was delicious. Smooth and dark and heavy on the chocolate. Only 11 IBU's (bitterness units), 7.2% ABV. At $9.99 for a 4-pack, it's worth every penny. 


This is White Monkey from Victory Brewing Co. out of Pennsylvania. Sorry I forgot to take a picture of the bottle on this one and they don't have it on their site.

From the site: "Since his birth in 1997, our beloved Golden Monkey has remained playfully delightful and profoundly satisfying. His soul continues to glow with the wisdom of ages and inspired our own stroke of genius. Restless from his continuous journey to joy, we felt that some quiet time in American oak barrels that once matured white wine would further soothe this ale’s silken soul. After his three-month retreat, Golden Monkey emerged refreshed and invigorated with new character and flavor nuances that only make him more profound, and possibly even more playful."

Beer aged in wine barrels? Count me in!! At 9.5% ABV it only comes in the 750 mL bottles (I think) and I can't remember how much they were but it would be worth it. The oak wasn't overpowering and the coriander came through really nicely. If you can't find White Monkey, Golden Monkey is also really good.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

In a Fight

-Weeds in my yard. Take notice. You are not welcome 'round these parts. I spent 3 hours digging and pulling last Saturday. How do dandelions multiply so fast? They are like rabbits. Plant rabbits. Or something. Return from whence you came and not into my freshly mulched flower beds.

-Hey girl(s) at yoga. Quit kicking over your metal water bottle during class. I don't care if it was an accident. It's loud and disruptive. If you are not aware of your personal surroundings, you need to back up out of that standing bow pose and recognize.

-Sadie! I am mad at you for barking at nothing all the time. That is all.

-Almond milk. Why you gotta taste so good but be so much more expensive than regular milk? I mean, I get it. Cows continually produce milk but once the almonds are used, that's it. You have so many fewer calories than regular milk and you are so easy to digest. Lucky for you, cows, you aren't out of business yet because your product is so cheap.

-Person who booked the seat next to me on the long haul from Newark to Heathrow. That seat was empty for months and you just haaaaad to have it, didn't you? Well, please shower and keep to yourself. And don't laugh at my eye mask and ear plugs. We all need our beauty rest.

-Exchange rate in England and France. You are terrible. Please stop being so uneconomical for travelers. Sometimes I like to pretend the prices are actually just dollars. I say to myself, Oh that's not so bad. Then I do some quick math in my head and cry.

But, in ten days, I will deplane in London and all these fights will fade away.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Wine Me: Apothic Rose

I know, I know. Thursday is beer day. Stay with me! I just HAVE to tell you all about my new favorite Rose wine, Apothic Rose.

I am a big fan of the Apothic White and blogged about that here. This is the latest offering from the Apothic line and it is a winner! They blended Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon to produce the perfect California summer sipper.

From the bottle: "This first cut of Apothic Rose is a fragrant and succulent blend, snipped fresh from the vine to create ripe flavors of strawberry and watermelon. Apothic Rose derives its vibrant hue from am ancient winemaking practice called saignee, which means 'to bleed' intense color from the grape's red skin."

You would not believe how much watermelon flavor comes through on this one. I'd call it a middle of the road semi-dry. There's some sweetness there too so if dry isn't your thing, don't let that deter you. But, it's a good example of a rose. You should be able to find this for around $13.00.

I know what you're thinking. Ashley, this sounds like it would make a fabulous sangria! And you would be right.......recipe forthcoming as soon as I have time to put on my mixology hat.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

April Running Round Up

April was a pretty good month for running although it could have been a lot better if the weather had been more springlike and less winter. Looking forward to May's outside miles.

Although this is me in one of my favorite tops on yesterday's run out of doors. Hooray! Look at how much sun there is!

Here's what my Brooks logged over the last 30 days.

Apr 2: 5 mi in 43:48, 8:48 pace
Apr 4: 4 mi in 33:53, 8:35/8:35/8:26/8:19
Apr 7: 4 mi OT in 37:??, new shoes-no inserts
Apr 9: 1 mi TM in 9:30, allergies :(
Apr 14: 6 mi OT in 56:51, tough but strong, 9:28 avg pace
Apr 16:  4.1 mi TM IN 34:59   8:48/8:34/8:27/8:17, calf pain
Apr 20:  4 mi TM IN 33:30, 9:14/8:03/8:02/8:49
Apr 21: 7 mi TM in 63:??, 9:07 pace
Apr 23: 4 mi TM in 35:16,  8:49 avg pace, AM run - tough
Apr 25:  4.2 mi TM IN 35:42, 8:56/8:28/8:23/8:16
Apr 27: 4 mi OT in ???
Apr 30: 4 mi OT in 37:53, 9:29 avg pace,

51.3 total miles

Some solid work there, right? Here's what I think I've discovered. The speed work and strength training I've been doing is actually helping my outside speed. No kidding! That plus my awesome Garmin Forerunner constantly telling me my pace.  So far, I've successfully abandoned my orthotic shoe inserts for the time being. And as much as I love the treadmill, I'm really looking forward to running outside. Maybe that means I'm becoming a real runner.