Diary of a Europe trip

We just got engaged, and, despite the daunting task of planning a large event, we were very excited to plan our first transatlantic trip together, to see friends – new and old – and to experience the fun, historic city of London and take the train to the Netherlands.

London – and all of Europe, really – is simple to navigate, but only after you get used to it (and/or know what you’re doing). That said, we didn’t do either – we weren’t used to it, nor did we know what we were doing. Thankfully, the signs were in English. After landing, we managed to find our way through Heathrow station and onto the “tube” heading in the right direction towards central London. It was a longer ride than we hoped for, but it was straightforward enough and we didn’t even have the most baggage of anyone on our car, which made us feel a little better.

We were back on our way, with just a few quick stops before arriving at our hotel in Southwark, south of the River Thames. It’s a part of London that was industrial, and is certainly still blue collar, but I’d argue it’s on the cusp of being a new, hip neighbourhood. I wouldn’t be surprised if real estate there is cheaper, by comparison, but you’re just as close to central London as some of the more well-known places.

We settled into our hotel with everything we needed. It was walking distance to a nice pub and that was our first stop for food in London. A burger, beer, and pizza later (on a patio overlooking a lush park), we went for a short walk around.

After a much-needed nap, we jumped on the tube with the intention of seeing a play. We figured it would be a great way to force us to stay awake a little later, and, seeing as we were right downtown, it would work out well. Unfortunately, on Sunday, most plays aren’t on, and the ticket kiosk had closed for the day by the time we arrived.

Beautiful views of downtown London await you on its famed London Eye
Beautiful views of downtown London await you on its famed London Eye

So, we got back on the tube and headed over to Big Ben and the River Thames. There, we walked towards the London Eye, a big ferris wheel that gives tourists panorama views of the downtown core. We paid a little extra for the VIP line, but it was certainly worth it. We skipped a queue of nearly 50 people and got right in front. No wait, and 30 minutes around on the Eye was well worth it. Lots of pictures and great views.

Following that, we were both feeling peckish and it was time for a quick dinner. We found a couple of decent restaurants on TripAdvisor that were walking distance from our hotel – but as we ventured out and got closer to where we wanted to go, it was becoming clear that none of the spots we thought of going to were actually serving food then (it was about 9 p.m.) and one didn’t even serve food on Sunday.

We were able to finally find a neat restaurant underneath another hotel where Steph enjoyed her first taste of fish and chips, and I had IMG_1389 a piri-piri sandwich (also with chips). The English love their Indian-infused spices, and I was happy to indulge in it.

A strong sleep was followed by another brilliant day in central London. We awoke to blazing sun and temperatures in the high-20s. We would find out later that Monday was the hottest day of the year so far (hitting 28 at one point). But it was a nice change, and a pleasant escape for us, having suffered through the coldest winter on record in Ottawa.

We toured London with friends and were happy to have local tour guides as we walked through Borough Market – a ‘must-do’ – which opens for lunch most days of the week. We got there just after 10, so things hadn’t truly opened yet, but we could sense the buzzing atmosphere a place like that could generate on a sunny Saturday. Local farmers and butchers all set up shop in this square, and we even sampled some delicious paella and curry from two very large woks, meant to feed a whole day’s worth of hungry passers-by.

IMG_1611

From there, we went to London’s newest attraction, The Shard. It’s the tallest building in Europe, and houses a combination of offices, shopping, hotel and residences. It’s a site, and it’s right on the River Thames, adjacent to the London Bridge. The Bridge was also great to see – it’s too bad they didn’t keep the Olympic rings up there (it makes sense as to why not) but we got to see it open and close, and walked across it. The London Bridge didn’t fall down, either.

Stunning London Bridge
Stunning London Bridge

Lots more walking after our time at the Bridge, through London’s most posh neighbourhood, Hyde Park. Elegant homes, shops and hotels were at our fingertips, none of which we venture into except for Selfridges, owned by the Weston’s and home to lots of items to not necessarily purchase, but look at.

From Selfridges, we went to the other end of the shopping spectrum where Steph bought a dress from Prymark for 5 pounds(!). However, it was us and seemingly half of London that was in that shop. A zoo!

We managed to find ourselves in front of Harrods, the other London shopping staple, by mid-afternoon.

Following that, we headed back to the train station and got our first experience of the London commuter train to Stevenage, our friends’ hometown, and our home for the next three nights.

Centuries-old buildings with thatched roofs awaited us in the English countryside
Centuries-old buildings with thatched roofs greeted us in the English countryside

The train was very simply and straightforward. Stevenage is a small, old village (there’s “Old Stevenage” and “New Stevenage”) that’s been established for a thousand years. Old Stevenage was home to copious restaurants, pubs, and shops. Steph and I enjoyed the smaller village feel a little better than we did the bustling cityscape. We’re excited to return to the U.K. again and check out everything else outside of London.

While in Stevenage, we enjoyed a “proper” curry dinner – complete with naan bread, salad, dips, and chutney – a IMG_1082“proper” roast dinner – with homemade Yorkshire puddings, roasted potatoes, turnips, carrots and peas. We also went out with our friends to a neighbouring town one night where the bar was 400 years old! Rumour has it that it was haunted, but the beer was local – Abbots Ale – and the conversation was lively. No televisions, and even if they had some, no traditional North American sports would be playing because of the time difference.

During the other two days we spent there, we enjoyed two more full days in Central London. We (along with everyone else in London, it seemed like) saw the changing-of-the-guard at Buckingham Palace and walked from there to Westminster Abbey, and then back to Parliament (and Big Ben) before stopping for lunch at another pub (of course) before taking the tube to Covent Garden. That part of London was fantastic for people-watching, walking, and eating (unfortunately we had already done that) and we were happy to set a return to that part of the town the following day. We enjoyed a quick trip to the Tower of London as well, before turning around at heading back to Stevenage.

We were happy to see all these places in person, take photos, and enjoy the historic setting we found ourselves in. We understand how people can spend a week in London and feel like they hadn’t seen anything, but we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves trying to take in as much as we could of the city and the culture.

The Lion King - a spectacle not to be missed by audiences of all ages
The Lion King – a spectacle not to be missed by audiences of all ages

Our final day in London started off a little more slowly, but we found ourselves back in Covent Garden again and enjoying a fantastic Thai lunch. Portions were large, as were the flavours, at a very reasonable cost (Siam Central, for those of you heading that way). After lunch, we walked to the Lyceum Theatre to take in a matinee showing of The Lion King. The costumes, the singing, and the coordinated dancing/acting were all spectacular.

After our final evening in Stevenage, we awoke very early the next day to catch our first of four trains from London to Den Haag (‘The Hague’) in the Netherlands. Four hours and 45 minutes later – across four different countries – we had finally arrived to visit one of Steph’s friends. We enjoyed a nice tour of Den Haag, saw many historical and modern places, along with a small bar for a drink, and an Italian place for dinner.

Steph and I just thought that the sun never goes down in the Netherlands. We had a very long day and were ready for bed by 9:45pm, but the sun was just starting to set, and when I woke up the next morning and looked at my clock at 5:45am, the sun was already up again.

was very interesting, and although it may not be a tourist centre, it’s worth the trip if you’re in the area. You can get anywhere in the country in 2h30m, and although the population is quite high – 16 million! – and it has the highest population density of any country in Europe – it doesn’t feel that way.

Be advised, though: we found things very expensive. For example, the bus is 4 Euros, for a one-way trip! That’s basically $7.50 (CAD)! That was a tough pill to swallow, but it’s the nature of that particular country. And now we realize why everyone rides his or her bike.

Bikes surrounding the canals in Amsterdam
Bikes surrounding the canals in Amsterdam

The next day we took the train into Amsterdam for a real bout of tourism. Anything you can think of when you think ‘Amsterdam’ we probably saw – including a few things we probably didn’t want to! It was a very beautiful city that, again, was rich in history (and chocolate and cheese and beer). We saw many palaces, churches, and beautiful buildings as we talked around the city centre.

Obligatory tourist shot
Obligatory tourist shot

Our day also included a visit to the Van Gogh Museum – very cool to see all those original paintings in one place, and to see how much he influenced a number of painters – and walking by Anne Frank House. We didn’t go in – the lineup was much too long – but we hear it’s something to behold, and really makes you appreciate her story that much more.

Amsterdam Cheese Company = cheese lover's dream
Amsterdam Cheese Company = cheese lover’s dream

Another patio lunch – which included my favourite beer of the trip, Leffe Trippel (an 8.5% beer that was golden in colour, delicious, and strong) before walking back to the train station again and heading back to Den Haag.

We rose early again on Saturday in order to catch another four trains (across the four countries, again) back into London for our final night of the trip, where we stayed in a very intimate hotel called the Antoinette, in the village Kingston-Upon-Thames. We had seen everything we wanted to see in London at this point, so we were happy to have arrived in good time from the Netherlands and get to our hotel to relax again. The weather was less than desirable – for the first time all week! – but we tried making the most of it by walking in-and-out of shops in town.

From there, an eight-hour flight awaited us before we landed at home. Once we set foot again on our native ground, we’d be well versed in tube riding, English pub culture, the royal families in both the UK and the Netherlands, and full of proper English meals and Dutch delicacies.

Wheels up, until next time!
Wheels up, until next time!
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