Eurotrip 2014, Part 5: Bath and Stonehenge

Flash Forward: Stonehenge

July 2, 2014: After spending a couple of days in London and a day in Paris, it was finally time to explore some of the English countryside via a tour of Bath and Stonehenge. This was my second of several tours booked through Premium Tours, and would turn out to be the best one by far. I can’t recommend this tour highly enough. Just make sure you choose the option in which you see Stonehenge in a private viewing at sunset—I think this option is only available during the summer, and only on certain days, but it is so worth it. Whereas the public must view Stonehenge from behind ropes at a distance, this tour gives you access inside the ropes to walk among the stones. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The day began with a trip on the subway to the Marble Arch, where I would be meeting with my guide and waiting for the bus to pick us up. While waiting I snapped a photo of the arch. You can click on any photo in this post to view a larger version.

Marble Arch

The guide was a cheeky older fellow with a biting wit named David. In his welcoming speech to the group he told us that the company basically gets two types of reviews from people on his tours: those who loved him and those who hated him. I fell firmly on the former side, finding his humor quite entertaining, and a welcome change from the by-the-book guides you frequently encounter on these tours. I can see how some easily-offended people might not like him, but in my opinion he made an already great trip even more enjoyable.

Our first stop was the very charming city of Bath. On the way I snapped a couple of photos of the countryside from the bus.

English Countryside
A town in the distance.

The main attraction in Bath is the ruin of the Roman Baths, but the entire city is rich with character. It’s easy to understand why so many celebrities have homes here. We only had a few hours (most of which were spent in the Baths), but you could easily spend an entire day or more meandering through this majestic city.

While waiting in line to get into the Roman Baths, I befriended a couple who were on the tour with me after I overheard them talking about Monty Python—it turns out I wasn’t the only one to organize an entire trip to the U.K. around the Python reunion concert. We bonded over that (they were going to the show the day before mine) and also over Treme (the HBO show) and our mutual love of Trombone Shorty—they were from New Orleans and had seen Shorty perform before he was famous. I’m usually alone on these trips and too shy to strike up conversations, so this was a nice change of pace for me.

Outside the Roman Baths

Before long it was time to enter the Baths. I’ve always been fascinated with ruins, especially those of the Roman Empire, so I was very much looking forward to this.

The main bath viewed from the upper level.
The main bath viewed from the lower level.
Our guide David talked me into taking this photo in front of the “do not touch the water” sign.
The smaller bath. The water once rose as high as the dark area just below the tops of the arches.

After exiting the Baths I had free time to walk around the city. It was a beautiful day to enjoy a beautiful city (finally, a day without rain). Here are some photos from my walk around town. You can click on any collage photo on this page to open up a gallery.

I only wish I had longer to spend in Bath, but it was time to move on. Our next stop was an old Saxon village called Lacock. On the way I snapped a couple more photos from the bus.

Railroad Tunnel
Typical English countryside scene: a stone wall and field of roaming sheep.

Lacock, with its quaint buildings, is like a walk back in time. We had lunch reservations at a 14th-century inn called The George.

The George Inn

I can’t recall exactly what I ate (some sort of meat pie) but it was delicious and fresh (we had placed our orders earlier that morning to give them time to make the food from scratch), washed down with some home-brewed ale, and followed by a tasty dessert. This was my first proper English meal of the trip—and the most inexpensive by far.

After lunch we had a walk around the town. It didn’t take long to see why this was a key shooting location for the Harry Potter films. Here are some photos from our walk around the town.

Before long it was time to kick this trip up to eleven (as Nigel Tufnel might say) and hop back on the bus for our ultimate destination: Stonehenge. They no longer allow cars to park at Stonehenge itself (which is a good thing), so you must park at the welcome center, from where a shuttle takes you up to the site. While waiting for the shuttle I walked around the museum, which had lots of useful information about the history of Stonehenge.

Finally, the park closed to the general public and it was time to catch the shuttle for our private viewing. On the way to the site I managed to snap one heavily-zoomed photo of two of the many barrows (burial mounds) found in the surrounding area.

Barrows

Then we made our approach to Stonehenge. It’s impossible to put into words the feeling of standing on this ancient site, and photos fail to do it justice, but here are a few.

Having the entire place to ourselves was amazing, especially as the setting sun bathed the sky in pretty hues that made for some great photos. At one point our guide David had us be quiet and just soak in the atmosphere. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of a place like this giving off vibes, but standing there in silence among those massive stones was definitely goosebump-inducing.

Soon it was time to hop back on the bus and return to London. By the time I reached my apartment it was 11:30 p.m and I had been on the road for over 13 hours, but it was more than worth it. As I mentioned at the top, this was the best of all the tours I booked through Premium Tours, as well as the best day I spent in England during my entire two-week stay. And on that note, I leave you with one final photo of the sun setting over Stonehenge.

Stonehenge Sunset

View more photos from my visits to the English countryside.

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My London Visit Has Become an Epic Eurotrip

It began with a passing thought:

Monty Python is doing a reunion show in London this July. How cool would it be to go see it live? And while I’m over there I could tour some of the UK. I’ve always wanted to visit England anyway.

That was way back in the early fall. I wasn’t very serious about it at the time because I had just returned from Mexico and was a bit worn out from all of the traveling I had done since 2011: in a two year span I had visited Italy, Croatia, Switzerland, Peru, and Mexico. I figured I could use a year off from international travel, so I pushed the idea to the back of my mind, where it sat for a few months, never quite going away.

Then a couple of weeks ago I decided to see if there were any Python tickets still available. I got a great deal on a mid-level seat from a ticket brokering service for practically face value, and from there my trip was born. The original plan was to stay in London for about a week, take some trips around the English countryside, and visit Scotland. However, when I realized how easy it is to travel to so many places in Europe from London, my plans began to expand: A day trip to Paris? Sure! A three-day journey to Amsterdam and Bruges? Hell, yeah!

I knew I wouldn’t have time to do all of this in a week, so I extended my stay to just over two weeks. The downside is that the cost of the trip has skyrocketed. I didn’t realize how much everything was adding up until after I had already planned everything (I was in sticker shock after my relatively inexpensive visits to Peru and Mexico). I thought about scaling back to save some money, maybe skipping the Amsterdam tour and shortening my stay, but I don’t know when (or if) I’ll ever be in this position again, so I decided to go for it.

I had considered just heading over to London and winging it, and there’s something to be said for the laid-back nature of such a trip, but I prefer to plan ahead (I guess it’s my OCD nature), so I’ve already booked all of my tours for the two weeks, leaving myself a few days of free time to explore London. I’m the type of person who functions better with some structure anyway, and these tours will force me to do much more than I otherwise would–if left to my own devices, I would probably sleep half of my days away. 🙂

I did a lot of research into lodging in London; it’s not a cheap place to stay. In an effort to keep expenses down, I eschewed traditional hotels in favor of a no-frills studio apartment near Kings Cross. I could have gone even cheaper with a B&B or hostel, but this seemed just right for my sensibilities–a decent sized room with air-conditioning and a private bathroom. Having to check out each weekend when I leave for my trips will be a pain, but it didn’t make sense to rent the apartment for the entire 15 nights when I would be away on weekends (during which the price of the room would drastically increase).

So here’s my rough itinerary:

Days 1-2: Fly in and free time in London.

After checking in to my room, I may do one of those hop-on, hop-off bus tours to get acquainted with the city. I also just realized that my first week in London will coincide with the second week of Wimbledon, so it might be neat to head over there and see if I can get into a match.


Day 3: Paris

I’ll be taking the Eurostar train through the chunnel. The trip includes a guided tour of Paris, a two-course lunch with sparkling wine on the Eiffel Tower, a cruise on the River Seine, and an optional visit to The Louvre, which I think I will skip since I’ll only be there for the day and it’s my first time in Paris. The Louvre would be really cool to see, but I’d rather spend my only afternoon in the city wandering around and soaking in its atmosphere.


Day 4: Stonehenge and Bath

I chose a sunset tour because I thought that would be a cool time to see Stonehenge. I booked special access so that I can walk inside the circle among the stones (most people must view them from behind ropes). Earlier in the day we will be visiting the town of Bath (another place on my must-see list) to tour the Roman Baths and Pump Room. After that we visit a Saxon village called Lacock, where we will have dinner in a 13th Century inn.


Day 5: Monty Python

I’ll probably do some walking around London and also packing for my trip to Scotland during the day before heading to the O2 that evening for the Monty Python reunion show, aka my entire reason (or excuse) for taking this Eurotrip.


Days 6-8: Scotland

This trip includes a tour of the city of Edinburgh, and I will be taking the second-day optional excursion to the Scottish Highlands, including Loch Ness (I’ll keep an eye out for Nessie!). I chose free time for the third day, during which I am planning to meander about the city and possibly tour Edinburgh Castle.


Day 9: Free Time in London

Maybe I’ll swing by the Battersea Power Station to duplicate the iconic Pink Floyd Animals cover (sans flying pig). I could check out Abbey Road and Baker Street as well; turn it into an an unofficial classic rock tour. Or maybe I’ll just relax and ride the ferris wheel all day. 😉


Day 10: The Cotswolds

I’m very much looking forward to this tour of the old English countryside, including visits to the historic riverside villages of Burford and Bibury. The tour originally included a visit to Stratford Upon Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace), but it sounds like we will now be visiting Stow-on-the-Wold instead.


Day 11: Leeds Castle, Canterbury, Dover & Greenwich

The first stop on this excursion is a private tour of Leeds Castle before it opens to the public. We then head to Dover for lunch and a photo op at the famous white cliffs. The next stop is Canterbury and a tour of the Cathedral followed by free time to explore the city. Then it’s off to Greenwich where, after a short walking tour, we will take a river boat along the Thames back into the heart of London. The cruise apparently includes a reception of tea/sparkling wine and scones. Sounds good to me!


Day 12: More Free Time in London

My last full day in London will probably be a good time to hit all of the touristy places I might have missed earlier. I’ll also be packing for my three-day Amsterdam trip.


Days 13-15: Amsterdam & Bruges

My first day in Amsterdam will include a walking tour, a canal cruise, and an optional evening walking tour of the Red Light District. The second day includes a trip to Zaanse Schanse, a living Dutch Museum, before heading back to Amsterdam in time for lunch, with visits to the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum, Heineken Brewery, Anne Frank House, and Dam Square. On the final day we head to Bruges, a beautiful city I’ve been wanting to visit since seeing the movie In Bruges (I wasn’t sure I’d ever make it there). Following Bruges, we arrive back in London late in the evening, giving me enough time to check in, pack, head to bed, and wake up early to fly back home.


Looking back at the itinerary now, I can’t believe how much I crammed into it (I think I went a little nuts), but it’s going to be one helluva trip. And I’ll be doing it solo. If you had told me even a few years ago that I would be flying to Europe for two weeks by myself, I would have said you were crazy. I’ve come a long way in terms of my confidence to travel alone.

Anyway, I’m glad that all of the planning and booking is behind me so I can just relax until the summer (other than trying to learn some French and Dutch). The only things I haven’t planned out ahead of time are places to eat, so I’d be grateful for any dining suggestions, particularly in London. One of the coolest aspects of becoming more involved with the blogging community has been sharing travel stories and tips with my fellow bloggers, so any suggestions you may have about things I should do while in London would be most welcome. 🙂

This will be my first overseas trip during the summer (all of my other trips were in the fall or spring), so it will be nice to not have to worry about packing layers for a change. Hopefully that means I’ll be able to travel lighter, though I don’t think I’ll be able to do the whole thing in a carry-on like I did in Mexico . . . and speaking of Mexico, I think it’s time I got back to writing up the journal of my trip. I need to finish it before June!