For this trip, we decided to check out the Queen Mary 2 as transportation, and we booked on the seven-day Transatlantic crossing for our return to the US. My parents had done this trip several years ago and really enjoyed it, we like travelling by ship, and it’s the QM2, so…
In part because of the labor actions impact train travel, one of the strikes was scheduled for the day before the ship was set to sail, we decided to spend some time in Southampton, which was an easy decision because even a quick search brought up plenty to keep us entertained. After all of the historic buildings in London and York, and even after seeing newer neighborhoods in Lancaster built to replace places damaged during World War 2, Southampton definitely brought home just how much bombing the Germans did during the war. There were just enough remnants of the older structures to get a sense of how much was missing.
We also met a friend in New York City. One of my (Lisa’s) friends from my hometown. Another person Facebook has made accessible. While we enjoyed a lovely dinner at a nice NYC restaurant, we figured out he and I had not seen each other since the mid 1980s. Not that anyone eavesdropping on the conversation would think that the way we chattered away. Dan is such a good sport.
We arrived in England with minimal itinerary and plans beyond checking out London and the Museum, seeing our friend in York and getting to the dock before our ship sailed! There were intermittent rail and tube strikes planned during the few weeks we were there which added to the degree of difficulty associated with our no plan planning strategy. So, we decided the easiest thing was to only take direct trains and travel on the non-strike days. Birmingham got on our radar because it had a site where we could use our shiny new British Heritage Membership, it had a direct train from York, and seemed big enough to keep us entertained for a few days. Beyond that, it was going to be an adventure. We got very protective of this city we knew nothing about when the reaction folks had when we answered the question “where are you headed next?” was often “Birmingham? Really? Interesting choice, what are you going to do there?” But we did get one more enthusiastic response from the lovely woman pulling our pints at the pub – “Oohh, I love Birmingham!” When I asked what we should do there, she replied “I have no idea, I went down for an interview, had a really good meal – can’t remember where – and came back, but it was nice.” Good enough recommendation for us.
If you have hung in on this post this long, here is a bonus story. Liverpool has two football teams, Aston Villa and Liverpool FC. During our tour of the jewelry factory we got to the shipping department and were given the option of checking out the shipping room, but our tour guide would not be joining us. Did I mention that they basically turned over the whole place to English Heritage, and by whole place, every item, tool, record, metal shaving, dust, and office decor. Anyway, we entered the room and it was decked out in Aston Villa paraphernalia, posters, articles and player photos from previous decades. Didn’t take much to deduce that the tour guide was a Birmingham FC fan.
So, York is a pretty old city and you can find remnants from when the Vikings were in the area, remains of Roman structures and walls, and buildings dating back to the Middle Ages. Most of the medieval walls remain around the city center and are a fun way to walk around and check out the historic skyline. York got put on our itinerary for this trip mostly as an excuse to catch up with a guy we met on previous travels. We met Ian on the ship we took to Australia, he was looking for a place to eat his lunch one day, so we invited him to join our table. And, as you do on long sea voyages, we ran in to him all over the place after that. Super nice guy and thanks to the wonders of the internet we have been able to keep sufficiently in touch that we were able to schedule a day to hang out in his part of the world. It was great catching up with him!
As we communicated with Ian leading up to our getting together in York, he offered suggestions for our time in Yorkshire. One recommendation was a day trip to the coast to see the city of Scarborough. So, we hopped on the train, enjoyed a scenic ride through some bucolic British countryside, bought the local tourist map for 1 euro from an interesting map vending machine, and headed – up hill, as usual – to the local castle. The views on the walk up were amazing as the castle was situated at headlands and the coastline in this part of the world is pretty good looking.
York was a very fun visit and this post just touches on a few of the things that struck me or had a good photo. We will be back!
Based on zero planning besides “we should spend at least three weeks in England, so June 1st makes the most sense for our flight to London” we arrived the day before the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee activities were set to begin. Fortunately, our usual dumb luck with things had us find a very nice accommodation just far enough out to avoid the worst of the crowds but remain within easy distance to things we wanted to see. Dan decided we should go to the British Museum before they started to return some of the artifacts as they would be easier to see while they were all in one place, and we could always travel to see them again. While we were very close to a tube stop, there were numerous closures and schedule changes due to the Jubilee, construction, and intermittent “labour actions” so we will have to return to really experience London’s transit.
We spent a fair amount of our time in galleries displaying British items, including the finds of archaeological digs of Roman, Celt, and Viking communities. There is a room devoted entirely to timepieces – clocks, watches and such. The level of artistic and mechanical detail was amazing. There was a Middle Eastern room that included a lot of information about coffee; Dan’s favorite item learned was how in one place the host served you strong coffee until your hand shook just the right amount. We then moved on to the Egyptian collection and WOW, the amount, the variety, the sheer audacity of the collection. The comments about the looting and arrogance of the collection are based in truth and well deserved. It was also extremely popular and somewhat informative, however the sheer volume, especially of burial artifacts, was overwhelming.
From Coimbra we caught another convienent and affordable train to Leiria. As we walked in from the train station – which was not quite as close to the center of town as we had hoped – we passed through some nice parks along the river, spied the local sports stadium, and saw the castle on the hill above town. Our adventure from the train station was a good lesson in the limitations of using your phone for navigation. We assumed the station would be close in, or have obvious busses, or cabs because that has been our experience so far. Alas, the Leiria’s station is situated on the edge of the city, and away from the central city. There were no cabs waiting to collect random travelers and the bus stop had no information. A quick search for directions on our phones offered no bus options to our hotel, but it was within 3 KM, so we started walking! It was a lovely and doable walk, even with our bags, but a little more than we usually like to take on. We discovered the busses do run from the station to close to our hotel, but for some reason even all knowing Google does not have their routes or timetables. Lesson learned, we’ll either do a bit more research or ask next time!
As we got to the top of the castle complex and wanted to explore the partially restored tower a group of college students asked if we could wait for 9 minutes to go in as they were taking some measurements. We explored the grounds as other groups of students also wandered around. An instructor correctly interpreted our curiosity and said they were devising a plan to rebuild the tower as a class project.
Another day, another delightful train trip! This trip wound through farmland more than from town to town and then along the river. One crop we were able to identify, rice! Figueira da Foz is primarily a beach town, known for having one of the largest beaches in Portugal and all of Europe. Foz shows up in a lot of coastal town names, including a pretty swanky neighborhood in Porto, and it means “mouth of the river.” There are several options for the source of the name of Figueira da Foz, but one of them is that there was a large fig tree near the mouth of the river, so that’s a pretty good reason for the name.
We had a lovely few days in Figueira de Foz, but we apparently didn’t take too many photos. We will try to do better when we go back – because everyone was very nice, the beach was beautiful, and the food was good we will most certainly return.
Aviero is a beach town with a canal! Everyone in Porto referred to it as the Venice of Portugal. While there was a very nice canal, and we have never been to Venice, it seemed as though that claim might be a slight exaggeration. This was another easy day trip from Porto, just an hour’s train ride from the main station in Porto. It was a lovely day for the ride and the tourist information center at the train station set us up with a nice map and tickets to take the canal tour on one of the traditional boats. Aviero’s traditional use for the canal was to transport the salt from the nearby salt flats and for harvesting a specific algae used as fertilizer. The salt process is no longer commercially viable, but they still harvest some in the summer using the traditional methods so the tourists can see how it was done. Nowadays, the boats are used to give tourists a nice ride through town to see the lovely tiled covered buildings.
Aveiro is also home to the first open air mall in Portugal, built in the 1990s and still a bustling place these days. We didn’t make it to the salt flats or the beach on this trip, so we will have to return some day.
We spent most of our time in the Porto area using Matosinhos as our base. From here we ventured into Porto, took our day trips to Braga, Guimaraes, and Aviera, and generally got comfortable navigating the area. It is a busy port city for cargo, cruises, and fishing. And it also has some beautiful beaches.
Coimbra is on every “what to see in Portugal” list. So, we packed our bags and hopped on the train. It was a comfortable and scenic trip south of Porto. The train system was easy to use, convenient, and very reasonable. One of the folks who pointed us to the francesinas in Porto turned us on to the train systems app which made it really easy to find and book our train travels.
When we arrived in Coimbra and checked into our hotel the woman who helped us was so enthusiastic about what we could see and do! We were arriving just as the University term was ending so there were lots of students in town doing end of term activities, including lots of Fado singing. Fado is traditional Portugese singing and Coimbra is considered to be quite the hotspot. While we are still avoiding crowds and stayed away from the really big gatherings we did come across groups of students in their black academic robes singing and playing as we wandered around town. It was very enjoyable.
One morning we set out from the hotel with no plan. Dan said something like “let’s just take a short walk to the other side of the river.” At least we brought the backpack and water bottle because we ended up spending most of the day meandering up the other side of the river valley, visiting an impressive Monastery, and wandering around a new neighborhood.
Coimbra also has a large cemetery with mausoleums that can be seen from the river valley. After spotting them, we put that on our list of places to find. One morning off we went, uphill, in that direction.
Coumbra is a city with a lot of history that also has the energy of a university town. The narrow streets and hilly terrain give you the opportunity to turn a corner and find something fun every time you head out.