Sunday, January 29, 2012

Port Isaac, Cornwall aka the Home of Doc Martin

If it's not enough that I like Agatha Christie, I'm also obsessed with Britcoms (from the 1970's on to today). One of the prettiest, although not my favorite, is a drama called Doc Martin which was a spin-off of a movie called, "Saving Grace (with Colin Ferguson)".
Doc Martin (yes like the boots) is set in a quaint seaside fishing village in Cornwall called Port Wenn. Imagine my surprise when I learned there is a real-life Port Wenn, only called Port Isaac.
I drove the hour or so from Land's End and as if a precursor of things to come, my GPS F'ed up. Basically, I ended up driving through 20 miles of cornfields, one lane roads with high hedgeroes on each side (if an oncoming car approaches, one of you needs to find a lay by and pull over...or reverse until you find one and yes, this happened to me), and cow fields.
Convinced I was going the wrong way, I finally headed down this steep tiny cow path and all of a sudden, the village appeared.
I thought driving with other cars coming at you along the hedgeroes was bad. I was completely unprepared for what you do when another car comes at you and you are cemented in by two 13th century buildings.
After a long stare down, the other driver must have figured out I had absolutely no idea what to do so he gave way. Thankfully, this was almost opposite my hotel, The Old School (which is used in the Doc Martin series as the village school). Unthankfully, I had just passed the hotel, so I had to somehow turn around, among hordes of tourists and oncoming traffic. I just managed to turn around and nearly took out a sandwich board sign announcing the daily specials at the deli across the street.
Port Isaac is beautiful and isolated and amazing. But one night is just about enough. There's not a lot to do there as the beach is a working beach for fishing boats and not suitable for swimming and there aren't any museums or shops except tacky souvenier shops.
So, I drank. And walked around. And then drank some more Cornish cider.
I met some local people who were nice enough to hang out with me and tell me a little about the town.
Apparently, the town is completely dividied over Doc Martin. Half love the show because it brings in tons of tourists (they told me tourism went up 90% since the show. Especially with Australians who apparently come there in droves to see where Doc Martin lives. When I was there I met a father/son team from Richmond, Virginia who came because of the show).
While the other half hate it....I'm actually not sure why...I guess the added tourists and the annoyance of having to deal with TV crews.
I hung out at the Golden Lion, which is a pub but also a nice restaurant. (damn hyper link isn't working but it's a beautiful place right it).
On an odd note, one of the regulars stopped in. He's a guy in his late 20's, early 30's and he had no freaking bottom front teeth. And this didn't apparently bother him or anyone else (I'm pretty sure he had a girlfriend). He looked like a 5th grader who had just lost their bottom teeth and are proud of it (except this guy was shaved bald and pretty rotund).
What is it with the English and teeth? I'm sorry but sometimes stereotypes really are true....

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Land's End, Cornwall

One of the other places I really wanted to visit in England was Land's End. Just the name alone is romantic. Land's End lies at the most westerly point of England and there really is only one hotel to stay at...the appropriately yet perhaps unimaginately named Land's End Hotel.

(see hotel at far right)

It's about 9 miles south of Penzance (yes, that Penzance..again a big thank you to Andrew Lloyd Weber or whoever wrote that damn thing). The closest other village is Sennan, which by calling it a village is very generous.

It consists of a bar, post office/general store, small grocery, mechanic and one other bar which is a long climb down a cliff (well, maybe more accurately very steep hill). It is however, very famous for surfing and I was told that in the summer it's insanely packed (like a 2-hour wait for dinner in the pubs...apparently Land's End is a very popular family/teenager vacation spot).

To get to Land's End, you literally follow the road until it ends. The hotel/tourist center is the only thing there and you can pay for the day to park and explore or stay the night.

Caveat: There isn't much to do here but that definitely adds to the mystique. I had thought there would be a small town or something but Sennen (at a mile away) is the closest. So what is there to do? Walk, hike and birdwatch. All of which are fun but for 1 night at most. I unfortunately had booked 2 nights.

Night comes early to Cornwall (and the gray marine layer which adds to the dusk) and I pretty much just hung out at the restaurant on site and in my room. Note to future self: Do not drink too many Cornish Rattler ciders (damn that shit is super strong!) and accost other hotel guests.

The village of Sennen does have an interesting old church (complete with a plaque of the names of all the villagers who served in World War 1 and World War 2).

The most interesting thing to me was the First and Last Inn which is one of the 2 aforementioned bars in town. Depending on your viewpoint, it would be the first or last inn you would see. It apparently was a haven for smugglers and other ne'er do wells back in the day.

I just found it full of chatty old men (who for some reason had an obsession with watching Judge Judy reruns) and a bartender from Sheffield who was on the run from the law). Go figure.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Torquay, Devon, England

After leaving Watership Down, I drove for about 6 hours to my next destination: Torquay (tor-kee). All I really knew about it is that it's where Fawlty Towers was supposed to be set and Agatha Christie had lived there (yes I like Agatha Christie and yes I know this ages me by about 50 years).

For me, it was mostly a breaking point to my destination in Cornwall. But it was a pretty little seaside town. They have been trying to market the area as the English Riveria for decades now. Not sure if they've succeeded since I've never been to the French Riveria but I suspect that they're not since the first I had heard of this moniker was when I did my Internet research (seriously wtf did people do before the Internet?)!

Overall, it was a cute town but I think much better explored with friends. I walked around by myself for a long time (it was Sunday so a lot was closed or had limited hours). One thing I learned this trip is that there is very little all day food places (except fast food). Most pubs/restaurants close between 2 and 5 for food. Which I guess I should have known since I did a work abroad trip to London when I was 19 and worked in a bar that totally closed during those hours but I thought it was just a peculiarity of that bar.

I was repeatedly offered Sunday roast which is basically beef swimming in fat and gravy, mashed potatoes, veg (ugh what an ugly word) and who knows what other awfulness. I definitely reconfirmed my position that British people can't cook. I ate more cheese and tomato (tomaaato) sandwiches in that week than in my whole life and only about 2 were decent. One actually had mayo on it and another had oil (not sure of what variety) dripping out the end of it. Shudder.

I'm also not so much into the beach. I love looking at it but I can't be assed to spend the whole day just laying out (hello wrinkles, crows feet and cancer) or actually swimming (rule #1 don't swim in anything you can't see the bottom of). So maybe Torquay is not so much for me.

But the owner of the B and B I stayed at was from London and he said after moving to Torquay, he would never go back to London. This was said while at the same time mocking the local radio station which for some reason kept playing El Debarge songs during the mornign drive time hour. What decade do they think it is down in Devon? lol.

Although it was weird because somehow Leo had gotten one of El Debarge's songs stuck in his head a week or so before my trip. Coincidence? I think not.

I stayed at the Cleveland Hotel which was clean and the couple who owned it was very nice (in fact they accidentally charged my 5 pounds too much and the owner came running out to catch me before I drove off). A nice B and B but it was about a 15 minute walk to the water. There are plenty of hotels closer, but I'm not sure how much they charge and most of them seemed pretty janky.

Watership Down, Hampshire

I went to England a few months back to accomplish some "bucket list" things. And yes, I know I'm old if I reference a bucket list.

There were 2 places in England I specifically wanted to see. One of these was Watership Down, which is an actual place and not just a book (which I had previously thought). The book (of the same name) is a epic journey type story but told through anthropormophized rabbits. It can be read as a children's book or as an adult book (kind of like Harry Potter). The author, Richard Adams, lived in the area and used to make up these stories to tell his children and eventually started writing them down. There is also a movie version of the book.

It lies in Hampshire which is about an hour or hour and a half drive from London (I hit a detour though so maybe it's shorter). I also had the disadvantage of learning how to drive on the opposite side of the road (I had done this once before in 2003 but it never really gets any easier).

There is limited accomodation in the nearest village of Kingsclere which doesn't really surprise me because I learned that the British don't really think the book is that big of a deal and are a little surprised that people come from so far away to look at a hill. (I know I'm not the only one..I did Internet research). In fact, no one I asked (who didn't live there) knew where Kingsclere even was or had even heard of it. Some people I talked to in the village had never even been to the hill even though they were life long residents.

The hill (or down as the English call it) is however, a popular place for walkers and cyclists (and apparently thieves since there were signs posted everywhere not to leave valuables in your car....sigh....a sad juxtaposition of rural tranquility and urban reality).

I stayed at the George and Horn which I thought was great. It's a 16th century inn with a pub downstairs. Granted it's not 4 stars but I don't have a 4 star budget. There is a parking lot in back and they serve food which was convenient. I got to meet some of the locals and they took me to my first rugby match. Granted, it was a local game of 15 year-olds but it was interesting to see what people do in a rural village in Britain.

It is true...the pub is the center of life in England. It was Saturday night and the whole village was out and they all know each other. English people always say that they aren't like Americans in that they go to the pub to socialize, not to get wasted (like Americans). All I can say, is bullshit.

The pubs do close early but the majoroty of those people that night were out to get off their heads (and nearly all suceeded).

We checked out the other pub in town, called The Swan. I had read about this pub/inn and it had gotten good reviews but these must have been from people in their 90's. It was Saturday night and there was no music on and people were reading newspapers. It was near dead silence in there. Trust me, I'm not into clubs or crazy bars but this was ridiculous. If you want to be quiet and read the paper, stay at home for chrissakes. I think if you had even tried starting a conversation with one of your friends in there, all the other patrons (who really were about 90..except for a lone group of teenagers...umm super weird) would have given you the serious stink eye.

The next day I went up to see the hill. I got good directions but it's still tricky to find. You have to go through the village of Ecchinswell and I use the term village loosely since it consists of 1 pub and a bunch of houses. Although I was told every year they re-enact witch dunkings in the river behind the pub. Oh those crazy English.

Unless you're a fan of the book, the hill is really no big deal. A nice place for a walk (which I did) but nothing to write home about. Although I did see Andrew Lloyd Webber's house (yes, that Andrew Lloyd Webber, he of Cat's fame) and apparently he's a real least that's what I was told. Personally, not being a fan of musicals, I could care less. Unless maybe to call him a douche for writing so many of the damned things.

There are tons of rabbits running around on the hill (and plenty of rabbit poo so tred carefully) although there weren't any signs marking it was Watership Down, so who knows? I might have been staring at just some dumb old hill.

There is apparently a walking path but it's about 10 miles so I skipped it. On the path you can see other things in the book, like Nuthanger Farm. I'm just not that ambitious.

So that's at leat 1 thing crossed off my bucket list. (Did that term even exist before that Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman movie exist or did they make it up?)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Puerto Rico Baby

In late June of last year, we got a call in the middle of the night that Leo's mother was sick and in the hospital in Puerto Rico. This was a Monday night. By Tuesday morning, we were on a plane from Detroit to San Juan. The airlines have this thing called "bereavement flight" or something like that, where if there is a death or sudden illness in the family, you can fly at the last minute for a (somewhat) decent price.

As we descended into SJ, the pilot said over the intercom, "Wwwweeeellllcooommmeee to Puerto Rico!" and alot of people clapped. Leo told me it's a tradicion when people land in PR. A lot better tradicion than flights I've taken from Mexico where people pray and make the sign of the cross upon take-off.

The first thing I learned is that Puerto Ricans love them some parades and getting in their cars, blocking the streets, waving flags and shouting. And apparently they love traffic jams. What we learned had happened was there was a basketball player (originally from PR) who plays for some team that had just won the whatever big basketball contest and was returning to the island. You would think the guy was a king the way everyone was so excited. It took us an additional 2 hours to get out of that mess.

According to Leo, all Puerto Ricans love a celebration...they celebrate their own holidays and the mainland US's. And any other they can think of.

After we got Leo's mom sorted, we walked around old San Juan, which wasn't that exiting to me since it was very touristy although we were there in the hurricane season.

One day, we drove the MIL to her hometown in the center of the island,a little town called Comerio (River eater is the best translation I can think of). Apparently, year ago a little boy got caught in the river's tide and called out that the river was eating him.

It definitely isn't a tourist town so that was what made it so interesting. We walked around the downtown, hung out around a church plaza and went to a hippodromo (horse betting track bar) that the MIL's cousins owned. Weird to say but it looked like a divey corner bar that could have been found in any Midwestern town. Old arcade games, smell of smoke, TV's in every corner and cheap beer.

I also learned in Comerio that Puerto Ricans have a special word for OJ. In other Latin American countries, it's called jugo de naranja but when I asked for this in the store, the teenage boy working there just looked at me until he had an epihany and he's like, "Ohhhh, jugo de china" which means Chinese juice. I have no idea how orange juice would have anything to do with China but that's just how the Puerto Ricans roll I guess.

One other trip we took was driving along the top of the island to reach the "Surfing Capital" called Rincon (or corner). Apparently it's a world famous town but not being a surfer I had never heard of it.

It was a cute little town but if you're not into surfing, I didn't think it was worth the trip (it took us about 3 hours) because it's a regular 2 lane road with stop lights the whole way there. There is an airport there though so if this is your destination, I highly suggest you fly.

What finally made the trip so memorable though it that we helped the MIL clean up some stuff around her house and since it's in the tropics, the breezeway to the car port/garage is an open wrought iron gate.

Leo and I were moving some bags and we were like WTF smells so bad? We couldn't figure it out, we smelled everywhere until finally, I was like, "Ok, it's's my shirt." Turns out a stray cat had gone through the garage and sprayed all over the bags (I had carried them to my chest while Leo had just picked them up which was why my shirt reeked).

Leo was like, " El gato hizo pipi" and laughed. Nice. This was how we spent our 6th wedding anniversary...getting sprayed by stray male cats.

Memorable at least....

Monday, January 2, 2012

Plaza de Armas y Paseo Ahumada, Santiago, Chile

This was the best video I could find about the "tourist track" in Santiago. The Paseo Ahumada is a pedestrian only walkway which was great for people watching, although I it is contrasted with the most abject poverty I've ever seen.

Of course, there are panhandlers/beggars or whatever you want to call them but I saw 2 men who were laying on the ground, shirtless and with their cups out for spare change. What was different about them though were both these men were hunchbacks.

Like hunchbacks so bad they couldn't stand up straight. This was something I never thought I'd see. I don't know anything about the Chilean medical system so I don't know if these men get free medical care and they are just begging for money for booze (this is one case where I can definitely see being an alcoholic) but it was very disturbing and sad.

And yes, I did give them money.

Santiago, Chile

I returned to Santiago by bus from Valparaiso. Santiago was actually a pretty cool city and I wish I had budgeted more time to visit. I only spent about 2 days there.

The subway is the extensive and very cheap and there are quite a few vegetarian restuarants. I've always heard people from Argentina are supposed to be so attractive but I thought the Chilean people were much better looking on the whole (and not a man bun in sight).

I rented an apartment which is definitely the way to go if you're going to be more than a few days. I recommend Inmoba Apartments which are located in the Providencia section of town. This was the area I liked best, although Barrio Bellavista was also great--this area is full of cafes, restaurants and bars. While I like travelling solo, I'm not a fan of eating by myself and as a female, I don't really want to chance going to a bar solo in a foreign country.

Which is why I like renting short term aparmtents. You pay the same or less as a hotel and you can buy your own food/wine. I love checking out grocery stores in different countries (did you know that in England they call eggplants aubergines? Learned it in a grocery store. Oh snap.)

Then I climbed to the top of Cerro Cristobal, which wasn't entirely intentional. I was wandering around and saw all these people heading up a walking path so I decided to follow. When I saw the zoo (it's at the bottom of the hill) I knew where I was but if I had known how high that freaking hill is, I probably wouldn't have attempted it.

It's a pretty gentle incline but it NEVER ends! You cant take a funicular (they have these in Valparaiso too) but I was too far in for that. There are benches along the way to take a break so it wasn't really too bad.

The day I went, there was some kind of religious festival going on (how many religious festivals can one person get caught in in Latin America?...I was hotel bound for 3 days once in Costa Rica because of Easter Week where everything shuts down. Did not know that before I booked the trip).

There is a church and HUGE statue of the Virgin Mary at the top of the hill. As well as refreshment stands selling this weird drink of peach juice with huge wheat kernels in it (mote con huesillo). I wasn't brave enough to try one.

The view from the top of the hill was definitely worth the trek although the smog kinda kills it.