For someone like me who finds the dark lining of every situation, planning a trip is possibly more fun than the actual execution. The possibilities are endless (even on a tight budget) when planning. In reality, the weather can be uncooperative and itineraries are downgraded.
As much as I love to fork over my travel information to TripIt, I’ve learned to only provided the big scheduling items: flights, hotels, other transit with confirmation. Then I printed a copy of this itinerary for NPY’s family to know where we were at a given time.
For the detailed planning, I was gleeful to create a three-column spreadsheet on Google Drive as we finalized the three cities we would visit and to each column, I would drop the ideas I would come across from haphazard Googling and people’s suggestions, roughly separating food from attractions in those lists. As the trip grew near, I added columns to add admission prices and opening hours, tallies to get the best deal out of London Pass and the Museum Pass and, finally, a column to nail down the date we would visit.
After amassing a lot of places to hit up, it was time to drop pins onto a Google Map. And, perfect timing, there was a nice update to Google Map introducing layers so I could separate the planning by city and had a layer for each city. The Google Map helped me cluster attractions for each dayand figure out the best area to find somewhere to eat. Sometimes (most times), I would plan a day and it still didn’t take place as planned so in the evening, I would update the Google Map with where we did actually go, add the spontaneous things we did, so the ldn-ams-par 2013 map and spreadsheet was an accurate record.
In the planning stage, you process so much more information and places than you will actually go to. NPY only wants to be involved when I know where we are going and this time, he was really empowered because I let him do the navigating. Each evening when I figured out the itinerary, he would search each of our destinations in his Maps app and the directions and map would cache so we could navigate by GPS during the day. Finally, I practiced logging in a Bullet Journal to track our expenses every day. (I was very accurate.)
We’ve been back for nearly a month so here is the few-frills breakdown.
Sunday 13 October to Monday 14 October
We took what qualifies as a “red eye” to London, leaving Vancouver at 8:40 p.m. and arriving in London at 1 in the afternoon with a full day to go. I was cheap and suggested we take Tube all the way to the hotel. Heathrow Express gets you to central London faster but we would still have to negotiate two Tube lines to get to our hotel. By Tube, it was longer duration (twice as long) but we could get there in two Tube lines altogether… except there was a problem on the Picadilly Line and we had to dance around and transfer around it – three trains in total and an outdoor transfer at White City. When I once paused to pick up my suitcase to carry it up one set of stairs, one guy just picked it up and took it up for me! He’s very kind and to thank you, I did utter, “You’re very kind!” The hotel was a little bit of a surprise to me so I wanted to be back out, tire us out completely and we went to the heart, visiting Oxford Circus and Picadilly Circus at night. We ran into Jamie Oliver’s Diner and had a light dinner.
Tuesday 15 October
I planned for us a light meal at Hummus Brothers before hitting the British Museum but their hummus really sticks to your ribs. It was my second time at the British Museum and we saw more Egyptian artifacts than I want to see. So we had to breeze through other exhibits but we did see the Rosetta Stone. Our rush was to get to Leicester Square and the London Pass Redemption Booth before it closed. Once we had the pass in our pockets, we walked south from Leicester, checked out the National Portrait Gallery (“a whole gallery with pictures of people!”), Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park. We went to Harrods (my first time) and marvelled at the food halls and how decadently houses can be decorated. Our stop was at Ice Cream Parlour with the most fascinating composition of fellow patrons such that I thought we had stumbled upon some cultural festival. Dinner was a taste of Indian in London at Masala Zone (but wasn’t very good) followed by a walk around Covent Garden (it has Shake Shack!) and Chinatown.
Wednesday 16 October
Day 1 of our three-day London Pass
We took a train to Windsor to visit Windsor Castle but got a bite to eat at Horse and Groom first (a disappointment). At Windsor Castle, I’m impressed by how fabulously the royal family entertains and the artwork on display created by royals including Prince Charles and Princess Victoria. On the way to the west end of London, we went to Fortnum & Mason which is a girly tea lover’s dream come true. Then we watched Billy Elliot! In London! I didn’t think I’d have much other occasion to watch it and Victoria Palace Theatre is a great venue for the moving musical. At Leicester Square we wanted to go for Chinese right across from the station but it was closed so we went to socially conscious Tokyo Diner. It was so satisfying.
Thursday 17 October
Day 2 of our three-day London Pass
There were things to get done so I front-loaded them. Food first and it was at Borough Market. I was looking for a cheese toasty stand but couldn’t find it and we had pie instead and picked up some pastries that we ate in a Caffe Nero (that’s so Chinese). I wanted to visit Borough Market anyways but it was also close to the business district and we could pass by the mothership (the London office for my firm) en route to real tourist destinations. I was well worth it as the More Place area is nice. And we still had time for the Tower Bridge Experience (one of my favourite bridges) and Tower of London (for which I was ribbed for not visiting last time I was in London – um, I was saving it for seeing it with someone special!) Right by the Tower of London, we got a deliciously satisfying burger at Gourmet Burger Kitchen (a chain) and then took a Thames river cruise down to Westminster Abbey/Big Ben area. The area was chock-full of tourists and we pulled off some evening Big Ben shots. It was high time for a Chinese meal so we strolled Chinatown and explored its depth and had dinner at Leong’s Legend [Yelp]. It is such a successful restaurant they have a restaurant a few streets over called Leong’s Legend Continue.
Friday 18 October
Day 3 of our three-day London Pass
We were headed to Wimbledon! NPY made the request and since he so rarely suggests anything, I try really hard to make it happen. We certainly needed a respite from … overt tourism. It was all by Tube and it took a while and we arrived in a sleepy town that didn’t feel artificial like the area immediately next to Windsor Castle. The tour was great but 90 minutes long and we saw what we wanted to see, heard so many tennis stats and got into some exclusive areas. We returned to London but it turned out we had missed Westminster Abbey as it closes earlier on Fridays – darn! I still haven’t seen it in two trips to London! Well, then there’s something still to see for me! So we just had lunch – scotch egg and fish & chips, finally, at St. Stephen’s Tavern Pub near the Abbey. We had to muster up the energy for two more museums. We hit up Victoria & Albert and it was primarily to see an exhibit NPY’s client has and the current fashion exhibit delighted me, of course. We had really late tea at Le Pain Quotidien in the Kensington area – the place was hopping. Then we were off to Tate Modern which I also hadn’t visited before. To our surprise, the audio guide was free with our London Pass and the tour was loaded onto Android devices. Besides the art is more interesting in general to NPY, he also liked using the device (more modern than the old school ones at Windsor Castle) and he wanted to visit every art piece the audio guide had to describe. We enjoyed caffeinated drinks on the top floor cafe of the Tate and perhaps for a little too long because we couldn’t get into The Table nearby – its kitchen closed – and we had to settle on Del’ Aziz. We took the bus back to our hotel because the Tube had closed by the time we head back and on a Friday night, we experienced the clubbing crowd full force and what Shoreditch has to offer. Renao crowds outside and even on the bus. We so don’t fit in!
It was early in our trip, on Friday, just five days in and I really marvelled at how many days I had been away from work. I’ve been away for just as long (longer since I always take the weekends) but I haven’t been so AWAY in a while. And to think we still had over a week left!
Saturday 19 October
Given the Tube and luggage fiasco/experience when we arrived in London, I asked the reception desk how much a cab costs to St. Pancras which is “nearby” but two Tube lines never mind that we’d have to get to the first line from the hotel. Best 15£ spent! St. Pancras is a really nice station and would be the nicest one we’d pass through. Our second-class cabin on Eurostar was dingy but it wasn’t full and we had lots of room. We also learned NPY gets lulled by the train motion and can fall asleep quickly. So I was a little bleary eyed when we arrived in Brussels for which I had little planned for the three our layover. Train travel in Europe is not luxe and we couldn’t “check in our luggage early” so we scrambled to convert some Euro notes to coins to feed a storage locker and then wandered around. I was looking for moule frites and I had an idea what I wanted to pay but not seeing it near the station, “settled” on Mer du Nord which has really great reviews. It’s a fish market that also serves really fresh food and the crowd around the counter is so daunting. I was not the most adept at getting my order in – much like the controlled chaos around a bar at a club but being a girl doesn’t help. Still, a great and fun meal. Then we wandered some streets that were pretty touristy and we also walked through a gay neighbourhood then an Arabic neighbourhood. You can tell the latter by the lack of women present. Upon boarding the Thalys train to Amsterdam, I realized I should have selected as our destination the Amsterdam airport instead of the central station as our hotel was closer to the airport. No problem. And thank goodness – it was pouring rain when we arrived and we could take a hotel shuttle and tuck into the cozy, clean and relatively modern Novotel room. We took a drenched walk to nearby Vomar (grocer) aand then picked up some pasta (carb-loading) from La Bocca next to the hotel. While we didn’t explore the neighbourhood of the hotel beyond that, it was nice to be in a really residential area. I also hoped and hoped that heavy rains the night before would mean clear skies during my run!
Sunday 20 October
I’ve done some destination runs and arrived in the city the Saturday before and walked far more than I should have. But to run 8K after a week of a lot of walking? When there is a limit to how many steps I can take (it’s pretty high) before exhaustion hits, I go and take thousands of steps running 8K only to end up at the same point? Crazy! The day was a lesson on how to take the transit in Amsterdam. Lessons learned included: how finicky the national rail can be to the point of telling you your train is delayed and then cancelling it out of the blue; to always look at the end destination listed on the front of the train so you don’t get on the wrong line; and the importance of tapping in and out lest you get locked into a station. I slid into the race just in time and trying to meet up with NPY after wards wasn’t the worst possible. But we were ready to leave the waves and waves of runners ASAP. After the transit scramble before and after running, a pancake/pannokeuken “breakfast” at Pancake Bakery was deserved, in my opinion. It was just a bit of a dive. Then we went to the Anne Frank House/Museum nearby where the queue looked horrible but wasn’t so bad afterall. It was a touching experience and I want to read the book again. We walked around the area, visiting Westerkerk (not open to visitors that day), the Homomonument and ended up at Dam Square where a midway was set up. Boo… but there are other squares out there. Dinner was pre-arranged and reserved at Restaurant Moeders which lovingly gives tribute to mothers everywhere. We had a traditional Dutch meal of stamppot and dessert. Then we walked by some coffeeshops in person but didn’t go in and trekked through Chinatown and nearby De Wallen (Red Light District). It was eye-opening and great fun to finally see how it all is.
Monday 21 October
The major goal of the day was to change hotels. It was a chore and I didn’t know if the area was going to be fringe because it would be just my luck. Turns out NH Carlton was good, “Parisienne” in feel in the room. I was very happy. We went for a walk and found the flower market (Bloemenmarkt) was right next door and then we ran into Kalverstraat. We were looking for Begijnhof, the “secret garden” which is hardly a secret any longer. Then we were off to a real windmill and local beer at the Brouwerij’t IJ brewery and while the beer was okay, the whole feel was disappointing.. not a renao bar, just a little bit too chill. We were back in Chinatown for a Surinam/Chinese meal at Kam Yin which NPY remembers the most as it was the one time in two weeks he ate rice! As much as the midway was gaudy, it did add lights and sounds to Dam Square and we got a drink after dinner at one of the bars at Dam Square and took it all in.
Tuesday 22 October
We couldn’t take it entirely easy all visit long so we were off to the Van Gogh Museum and it was a zoo but really orderly. As in, I felt bad when I kind of inserted myself into the crowd admiring a piece of work and not just going along the conveyor belt from one painting to the neighbouring one. Rijksmuseum was just next door with the “I Amsterdam” sign that is 45% blocked by a sea of people, a far cry from when we ran by it on Sunday morning. Then, after pie at De Taart van m’n Tante, we went to the Heineken Experience which is a big marketing push and I’m cynical of the associates’ enthusiasm. I’m used to beers that have different flavours instead of just one kind of Heineken. I made it through two glasses and had to forgo the third one. The interactive experiences were kind of cute and we go into it except it never emailed me the photos it took. Grrr. We were in it partly for the canal “tour” that is included that just took you around the corner and up so you can visit the Heineken brand store. It was long enough to take photos and my camera had died so it was only crappy cell phone photos all day. Then we went to Bojo to go for Indonesian rice table meal . Except I went out on a limb and got “Indonesian cubes of sticky rice” and they were not at all what I thought and I seriously regretted it. We didn’t want to call it a night and from NPY’s Yelp’ing, we checked out Metropolitan for gelato and then a drink at chill Cafe de Jaren, both great finds.
Wednesday 23 October
Another travelling day and I felt bad for NPY who doesn’t like it much at all. We spent our last hours in Amsterdam wandering around Kalverstraat again. Another Thalys train – three hours this time and the longest one thus far – and we were in Paris, our final destination! Once again, I didn’t know the distances or value and we took the Metro to our hotel. It wasn’t fun in the least because the stations were really humming at that hour still and we learned the hard way to be observant which exit to take because it was impossible to cross the street if you find yourself on the wrong side at Port Maillot. Our fourth and final hotel on the trip and I was really worried because it was old and not so well reviewed but we got upgraded! The room was beautiful and instantly comfortable and modern. I was happy as a clam. We ventured out for a walk because we could see the Arc du Triomphe but first, dinner at Il Naturale which was just okay for Italian food. We walked to the Arc and took all the required night time shots and walked a little on the Champs-Elysees.
Thursday 24 October
Day 1 of our two-day Museum Pass
We were back at the Arc the next morning, almost on schedule and picked up our Museum Pass and ascended to the top for a great view of … we didn’t know what we were looking at. It still made me very happy to be atop my favourite arch in the world. We came back down and then head to the Louvre and spent sooo much time in the Egyptian sculpture but, compared to the British Museum, I gained a better appreciation of them as artists. I’ve also concluded that NPY is most fascinated with that region’s artifacts. Being short on time and the museum is massive, we used the highlights pamphlet as a guide for which rooms to see in the museum broke our fast-paced walking to see some stuff in the rooms in between. NPY Yelp’ed Sanukiya and we had expensive (but pretty good) noodles and rice bowl. As a break between museums, we went to Tuileries Garden where it turns out there was an outdoor fiac exhibition – more art. It’s a beautiful garden to stroll through. We were exhausted already upon arriving at Musee D’Orsay (we spent four hours at the Louvre!) and I was disheartened that taking photos was not permitted. Still, the impressionist paintings on the fifth floor delighted me. It was just overstimulating to see all the Monets and Pisarro. And I discovered I like Sisley. There was a long line up for the special exhibit Masculin but we skipped it. I had heard the recommendation to visit the Latin Quarter so we did without further research where to go. Thus, I learned it was not “Latin” as in Spanish food and there were tons of French brasseries with “formula menus”. We picked one with a decent-looking menu and the right price point but it wasn’t so great. It’s not even foodie talking, but they were ultimately lazy and cheap. NPY searched and we sought out Buddha Bar for a drink. I just wish we weren’t so tired and could enjoy the cool places, although I thought Buddha Bar was possibly propagating stereotypes.
We were barely into our Paris leg and we were talking about going home. I was a little disappointed with myself to want to go home but it was a challenging trip! “Three more sleeps,” I already said.
Friday 25 October
Day 2 of our two-day Museum Pass
On the way to the Pantheon, we visited the Luxembourg Garden and it was beautiful and peaceful – NPY liked it more than Tuileries. I didn’t quite appreciate the Pantheon… we were getting a little tired but the crypt was cool, the final resting place of some names I recognized such as Marie and Pierre Curie, Hugo, Dumas and Braille. I got *this close* to the Curies’ tombs. Then we went to Notre Dame and it was, by contrast, really busy. The place is so ultra Gothic and dark with special sights like Jesus’ crown of thorns, preserved. Our Museum Pass included a tour of the towers which was also a great view and we were surrounded by menacing gargoyles. We actually passed on ascending to the top of the tower because the crowd control was seriously causing delays in our schedule and we were done with stair-climbing! We also visited the Archeological Crypts at Notre Dame and it didn’t seem so real to me. A bit boring to me, haha. We found Pont Neuf which isn’t so special except for the love locks – yawn – and then picked up a quick bite at La Corona. One more museum and it was Centre Georges Pompidou which has a hideous facade on both sides! But it felt like a carnival inside and we skipped the special exhibits we didn’t have access to to visit the permanent exhibits which “only” occupied two floors. And what floors they were with intriguing modern art pieces. NPY Yelp’ed a burger joint near Bonne Nouvelle station, Big Fernand, where the queue looked daunting for prospects of securing seating but turnover was rapid and we ate comfortably enough. It was satisfying but then we were looking for dessert and got into Laduree on Champs-Elysee before they closed – thank you for being open until 12:30 a.m.!
Saturday 26 October
We had to plan our Saturday so that we could be around a good Internet connection at the time we needed to check into our flight, at 2:45. Or was it 3:45?
NPY and I had a debate throughout Friday about what time to check in to our 2:45 p.m. Sunday flight given the clocks “fall back” overnight on Saturday-Sunday. Do we check in at 2:45, “24 hours in advance” as if no daylight saving time, but actually 25 hours before the flight? Or 3:45, truly 24 hours before the flight? It happened last year, actually, when I was flying from Vancouver back to Toronto, also over daylight saving time. I couldn’t check into my Air Canada flight until 23/24 hours in advance but British Airways (this year) has a countdown clock that kind of confirmed to check in at 2:45, 24 hours before assuming no daylight saving.
Since I visited my office in London and sighted the Amsterdam location from afar, I just “had” to visit the Paris office. There are about five offices in Paris but we found the one with the sign on street level. Then we were off to the Grand Arch which completes the three arches of the Historical Axis of Paris. Grand Arch is also located next to Les Quatre Temps, a mall, where we got a baguette at Pomme de Pain, shopped C&A and checked-in from an Apple Store. Then we were off to finally see the Eiffel Tower, from the base only. What a zoo. I was ready to leave after we got our requisite photos. It had rained and the park near the tower was drenched and felt seedy. We visited another shopping district at Galeries Lafayette. They had a great souvenir section where we could shop for tasteful souvenirs and that’s where we picked up our Paris souvenirs. Then we were back in Latin Quarter for a cheap dinner but we ended up in L’Assiette aux Fromages and I meant to order raclette but thought it was also “fondue” and we got fondue. It was nonetheless a nice experience to cap off the trip.
Sunday 27 October
We’re headed home! After all the lugging of suitcases through public transit, we treated ourselves to the Le Cars Air France shuttle direct to the airport. We were at CDG two hours before our flight and enjoyed our 15 minutes of free wifi. Our verbose pilot explained how wind gusts in London was delaying everything. This resulted in a delay of an hour when we originally had a two hour layover at Heathrow. Upon arriving at Heathrow, a One World agent held a tablet so it was unmistakeable that Vancouver-bound passengers should stick with him. Armed with neon orange Express Connection (“Express Pass”, haha) we breezed through the passport check and security and got to our gate with a 747’s worth of passengers. Only to be told the Vancouver flight was delayed by an hour – because the catering had been delayed by the wind gusts! Other than getting into Vancouver increasingly later in the evening, it allowed us a breather in nice and new Terminal 5 of Heathrow, get some Walker’s crisps, you know.
Two weeks away and all off the running around – three cities, four hotels, three trains, three flights (two of them trans-Atlantic) – was exhausting but the prospect of seeing new things kept me going. There wasn’t ever a moment with NPY that I wanted to shun him in that we had been traveling together for too long – one indication to me that he is “the one” because – god help me – I get tired of everyone after some point.
I’m so proud of NPY throughout the trip. I put him through so much and really felt for him when we saw how cramped the BA long-haul flight was. And all the non-glamorous train travel. And all the stairs at tourist sites and in the subway stations. Poor boy got callouses on the soles of his feet and I rejoiced, “Welcome to my world.”
So, after two full weeks (left at 8:40 p.m. on a Sunday, returned at 8:35 p.m. on a Sunday), I’m not abashed to be happy to to return home. We were really looking forward to eating healthy and home-cooked food (even my crackpot version of Chinese food), doing laundry, that first Chinese meal (Deer Garden Signatures), washing the gunk out of my hair (I won’t make the mistake of 1. daily use of volumizing shampoo 2. not packing Drama Clean or something purifying), and wearing my e-ring again!
At at several points, I asked NPY, “London or Amsterdam?” or “Amsterdam or Paris?” or “London, Amsterdam or Paris?” and “Would you return to London?” For me: London, Paris, London (Paris is a close second) and yes! It has been perfectly splendid to have the opportunity to conduct this trip.