Visiting London at Christmas

Christmas in London, New Year’s in Edinburgh — sounds romantic, doesn’t it?

My travel partner and I celebrated Christmas and New Year 2018 in the UK. Based on our experiences, celebrating Christmas and New Year in the UK can be memorable. To enhance your enjoyment, you should understand and accept certain caveats.

Baby, it’s cold outside. Temperatures never got above 45° Fahrenheit. It is a damp cold, being at sea level and close to the water. The morning of our day trip to Stonehenge, the temperature gauge on the bus showed 2° Celsius (35.6° Fahrenheit).

One of the best times to avoid Stonehenge crowds is early on a cold winter morning with frost was heavy on the grass.

Find your own ride! Public transportation in London and most of England shuts down on Christmas Day. Don’t count on the Heathrow Express to get you into London if you arrive on Christmas Day. Forget the tube. It’s closed as well. Your best choice is a hotel shuttle or a taxi. We pre-booked a taxi to take us from Heathrow to Westminster. Our cost was 68 pounds. Transport is limited to a lesser extent on Dec 26 (Boxing Day) and Jan. 1.

Pre-book your Christmas lunch. Most restaurants in London close on Christmas and Boxing day (December 26). The restaurants that are open have limited hours or only take reservations for a set menu.

Bring your patience when you land at Heathrow on Christmas morning. We counted two officers working passport control on Christmas morning. We waited 2 hours to get our passports stamped. The wait would have been longer but around 11:00 am, more staff arrived to check passports.

A lot of other people visit during Christmas week. Expect crowds at all the major tourist attractions. Be prepared for crushing crowds if you venture to Edinburgh for Hogmanay, the city’s 4-day New Year celebration. The air smelled of candle wax as we gently pushed our way through the throng of bystanders watching the Torchlight Procession. Our goal was an Italian restaurant (Bella Italia at Northbridge Rd and the Royal Mile). We were seated right away. The meal, and the view of the people were excellent once we got there.

Edinburgh, 2018

Your London rewards for accepting the caveats with grace and good humor are plentiful! You can see holiday street and store front decorations and enjoy traditional holiday fare. Two hop-on hop-off bus companies run on Christmas Day. If you are a Christian, you can also Christmas evensong service at Westminster Abby or St Paul’s. Maybe the best reward is the relative quiet of a city that stops to enjoy the Christmas holiday.

Mayfair street lights
Streetlights near Piccadilly Circus
Northbank street lights
Trafalgar Square

Your Edinburgh reward is celebrating the new year with thousands of other revelers. If you choose to take part in any Hogmanay activities (https://www.edinburghshogmanay.com/whats-on ), plan in advance. I’ll cover driving into Edinburgh in another post, but my final caveat is DON’T EVEN THINK about driving into Edinburgh during Hogmanay. Edinburgh Waverley station (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edinburgh_Waverley_railway_station) is a ten minute walk down the hill from the Royal Mile and accessible to the new town.

Barcelona, Spain – Strolling La Rambla and La Boqueria

Schedule some time to stroll down La Rambla on your next trip to Barcelona. Be sure to stop at the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria (la Boqueria) market

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la Boqueria
If you visit la Boqueria at mid-morning, you will see an abundance of fresh seafood. If you visit hungry, take advantage of the ready-to-eat food available. Carry your snack to the paved area behind the market and grab a cement seat. You can nosh and people watch here, especially in the evenings.
Dates and chocolate
Dates and chocolate
 
I kept returning to La Boqueria  for a snack or a quick dinner. Should I have a freshly made sweet crepe, a savory crepe, or a piece of chocolate? Wandering through the market, I found myself thinking about how I will prepare that fish fillet over there, or which spices to use when I roast the piece of meat in the next aisle, or nibbling on that hunk of cheese…
Jarmon
Jarmon
 
I made a vow to come back to Barcelona with a friend(s), rent a self-catering apartment, and shop the market daily. My small meals will have to suffice until then. 
 
Besides fresh produce, mushrooms, and meats, vendors sell many varieties of candy, desserts, breads, crepes made while you wait, empanadas, wines, and fish. Lots of fish. 

 

Pollo
Pollo
Funghi
Funghi
La Rambla
Running from the  Plaça de Catalunya to the Christopher Columbus statue,  La Rambla is an ancient street with outdoor stands and cafes to accommodate the tourist crowd. But if you look around you, you will see intriguing architecture and signage. Be sure to mind your belongings.
Holiday greeting
La Rambla dragon
La Rambla store front

To get to La Rambla on the metro, take Line L3 to Placa de Catalunya station. People watch at Placa de Catalunya and then make your way to La Rambla.

Black Sales
I arrived in Barcelona on Thanksgiving day 2015. Coming out of the metro at Plac de Catalunya, the first thing that caught my eye was the sign for the “Black Day” sale. They were having Black Friday sales in Spain! I later learned this trend began a few years earlier. I wish I had gotten a photo of one of the signs but I didn’t think about it.
Placa de Catalunya

Tangine in Tangier

I spent most of my time in Tangier, staying in the kashbah while in Morocco.  The kashbah  is the fortified upper part of the old city overlooking the port. For first rate service, and a plentiful breakfast on a rooftop terrace, stay at La Maison Blanche. (http://www.lamaisonblanchetanger.com/)

My top-floor room had a window overlooking other rooftops. What struck me most while looking at the other rooftops was the contrasts. Some roofs are quite inviting while others have practical purposes – hanging clothes and storage.

kashbah rooftops
Kashbah rooftops
Kashbah rooftops
Kashbah rooftops

Two ferry companies service the Tarifa, Spain – Tangier route. The 40-minute crossing was smooth and uneventful. An officer stamps passports during the trip. All I needed to do when I landed in Tangier was have my luggage scanned.

In many ways, staying in the Tangier kashbah is like a stay in a European town. Instead of church bells in the morning, the call to prayer echoes through the air several times a day. Instead of a vegetable vendor calling “Frutta fresca” and “Vendura fresche”, a fish merchant pushes a cart laden with fish every morning. His call is the Arabic equivalent of “fresh fish,  get your fresh fish here”.

Two of the three nights I ate dinner in the  kasbah. The first night, I dined on food from the El Morocco Club. The club was packed so a server delivered dinner to my hotel. I enjoyed every bite of my meal. El Morocco serves French Moroccan cuisine and liquor.

The second night, I ate in a small restaurant which appeared to be the first floor of someone’s home.  The chef/owner arrived in Tangier years ago. Her chicken tangine is wonderful and includes vegetables I have never seen before.

On my last full day in Tangier, my guide took me to Assilah. We drove along the coast.  The beaches on the route are deserted with some  pockets of development.  My guide explained that Morocco doesn’t have a beach culture. Many owners of beach estates are from other countries. Stops along the way included Cape Spartel lighthouse and the  Cave of Hercules.

An estate outside of Tangier
Cape Spartel lighthouse – where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean meet
Cave of Hercules
It is said Hercules rested in this cave after he separated Europe from Africa.
Moroccan beach
Wildlife

The streets of the Assilah were almost empty that December Saturday.

Assilah – Low tide
Interesting corner in Assilah

Every year, Assilah hosts an international mural competition.   Many of the murals are colorful.

Mural at Assilah

I found the Mujaheddin  Graveyard very interesting. Each family has a tile pattern, like the Scottish clans have their tartans.

Mujaheddin Graveyard with tiled grave markers

Looking back on this trip, there were times when my lack of local language skills made me uneasy. When I got over my discomfort and relaxed a bit, I enjoyed the trip. In reality, my greatest discomfort occurred on my return to Europe. Security was very tight due to a recent incident. The ferry passengers stood single file waiting to see passport control.  Armed guards scrutinized the people in line. Sadly, security is necessary all over the world.

I would like to visit Morocco again…ride a camel  into the desert and sleep in a Berber tent…see Marrakesh, Casa Blanca and Chefchaouen…

Ireland by Car

An iconic three leaf clover

A road trip is the best way to visit the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.  Unlike many European countries, trains are scarce in rural areas. From the USA, you can fly into Shannon (County Clare) in the west or Dublin airport in the east.

At first, the thought of driving on the right side of the road was intimating until a taxi driver in Dublin advised. “Follow the guy in front of you. Make wide left turns and close right turns.”

Busy roundabouts were other stressors.  Learn the roundabout rules – cars in the roundabout have the right of way and move to the inner lanes if you are exiting at the 3rd or 4th turn.

The best piece of advice I can give you about renting a car in Ireland is buy full insurance coverage on the rental car. Spend the money on vehicle replacement costs. The rental agency associates examine every inch of every returned vehicle. A few scratches from a roadside bush, or a mirror shattered hitting a fence post to avoid a tour bus on the Slea Head Drive could cost you more than the insurance.

Oops

Slea Head Drive is a scenic coastal drive near Dingle. The road is narrow and most of the sites (famine era cottage, stone huts, and feeding the animals) are a steep walk uphill.

https://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/attractions-on-the-dingle-peninsula-co-kerry/outdoor-attractions/the-slea-head-drive-sli-cheann-sleibhe.html


Famine era cottage on Slea Head Drive


Inch Strand Beach


Feeding the sheep on Slea Head Drive


Stone huts on Slea Head Drive


Nice drive