15 Tips for Traveling to Bruges and London

My husband and I just got back from an amazing trip to Bruge and London! We did a lot of things right this time, and we screwed some things up as well. Since I felt like I wasn’t able to find a lot of practical tips before we left, I’m anxious to tell you what we learned! I imagine many of these tips will be appropriate for other international travel, but since our trip was so specific, I don’t want to generalize.

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1. Minimalize your luggage. This is now my number one rule for all travel. Squeezing down to a single carry-on bag and a medium sized purse was the smartest travel thing I’ve ever done. Packing cubes were a great addition to this, but now that I know for certain that I can do 12 days away from home in one tidy little bag, I’m sold. If you can get it down to that, you’ll feel vastly superior to people in the airport lugging around four huge suitcases. Imagine carrying those from the airport to the tube to your apartment and back again. Whether you choose a backpack, a roller, or a spinner, you will be amazed at the ease with which you can zip around London and get *all* of your luggage quickly and easily up those tiny little staircases in Bruges.

2. Upgrade your seat. It cost us about 10% of our ticket price to upgrade to Economy Plus. That four inches of extra leg room was amazing, especially on the longer, exhausting plane trip back from Europe. I also noticed that you have a better chance of having an empty seat in your row in the slightly upgraded section. Six to eight hours is a long time to sit in one spot. Having some room to jiggle my legs was totally worth the extra money! And you can upgrade after your ticket purchase so that you can spread the money spending around a little bit.

3. Fly direct. If you can get to an International airport, do it. Drive there. Layovers add to travel stress and increase your chance of missing that last flight that takes you to paradise! 20140916_095804

4. BYOE. Bring your own earbuds or small pair of headphones that you know you like. The headphones on the planes are total crap, and you are most likely going to want to watch a movie or TV show on your long way across the Atlantic.

5. Don’t put all of your monies in one currency. We were convinced at the airport to exchange our dollars for Euros only, which kind of screwed us when we got to London. We should have at least had 50 pounds or so in our pockets when we got there. You can exchange everything back to US dollars at the airport, or exchange your Euros to pounds or vice versa in a bank on a weekday. So be prepared!

6. Get a chipcard. America will be moving to chipcards (Credit cards that have an electronic chip embedded) in 2015, but until then you may need to ask your bank or credit card company specifically for a chipcard. There are a few places in Europe that will not accept a credit card without the chip in it, and you don’t want to get stuck. Purchasing train tickets at the kiosk was iffy at points, even with a chipcard, so have a back up plan. Our chipless ATM card worked fine in every cash machine we tried, though.

6. Tipping is optional in Europe, but appreciated in small amounts. When paying cash I’d leave the server with the jingly change and that seemed to work well. Oh! And be patient in restaurants! You may want to order your drinks and food at the same time, as it is sometimes hard to flag down a server. You will have to specifically ask for the check when you are ready to pay, and it may take a while for that to happen. But relax! You’re on vacation!

20140915_0806517. While you’re tipping your server, talk to them. Just chit chat. Hell, talk to everyone! My friend got one of the Harrod’s counter sellers to totally dish on some of the super rich customers that she’s dealt with and some of the crazy questions they ask. And we got a great cab recommendation from our pub server one night.

8. Know that pay toilets exist. Keep a pound/Euro in change on you in case you have to pay to use the only toilet available.

9. Get out and about. Not just in town, but through the country. Take a bus tour or a driving tour outside of London or in the Belgian countryside. Europe is gorgeous, and you’ll get to glimpse a bit of the lifestyle of the out-of-towners.

10. GoogleMaps is your friend. If you won’t have cell phone access overseas, learn to use the ‘save map offline’ function of GoogleMaps. You can mark all of your must-see places while you’re at home, leave your GPS locator on, and at least be able to see where you are in relation to your landmarks. Here are Google instructions for saving those maps.

11. Learn about VAT before you leave. If you want to get your VAT money refunded to you, you will need to ask for a VAT receipt for each transaction at the time of purchase. Each of the VAT receipts will have a form to fill out, and you’ll want to do that before you get to the airport when you are leaving London. When we were there the line for VAT refund was about 20-30 minutes long. You may want to set your VAT priorities before you leave home so that you have a game plan and know whether requesting the refund is worth it to you or not.

12. Know where to stay. Bruges is only about a 40 minutes walk from one end of town to the other. Staying in the middle of town in an apartment found through Home Away (Similar to Air B&B) was perfect for us. We were able to have breakfast at ‘home’ each day, and pop in on the apartment often as we were out and about to drop off jackets and purchases, or to take a nap or have a nibble. In London we stayed in an apartment near the King’s Cross and St. Pancras Underground stations. While London is huge and we weren’t able to use that apartment as a central location, being near those two large stations gave us direct lines to nearly any place we wanted to go. We planned our sightseeing by location and were able to minimize our travel time. Those stations also have a couple of grocery and pharmacy stores, as well as restaurants and take away kiosks for a quick dinner on your way home each evening. 20140920_100910

13. Take a tour. The double-decker bus tour in London gives you a good lay of the land and helps you find points of interest that you might want to check out later. Or just hop off the bus for instant gratification, then hop on another one when you’re done at that site. I do recommend the live narrated tour, and I do recommend sitting in the top of the bus. You’ll be up there with the tour guide and be able to ask them questions. The canal tour in Bruges is pretty short, but you’ll get to see parts of the city that you won’t be able to otherwise. It’s a great, relaxing history lesson as well!

14. Get the app. We found the Android app Tube Map London Underground to be very useful as we were able to use it offline. And using the Kabbee app we were able to schedule a reasonably priced taxi to the airport in London. Speaking of which, flat fee cabs are the way to go in London. The Kabbee app allows you to schedule these on the fly.

15. Get away from it all. This may go without saying, but try to walk the road less traveled. Skip the Hard Rock Cafe and get take out from the chip shop down the alley. Find a small chocolate shop a few streets away from the center of Bruges instead of elbowing your way through the hoards at the shop in the center of town. These are the shopkeepers that will have time to chat with you. They can give you recommendations on restaurants and pubs and other things to do in general.

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Cardinal Afternoon

So. I had a fucking crap day. It’s all good, but it was like someone was throwing rotten vegetables at me all day and I had to duck and dodge and deal with all these unexpected erruptions. I kind of surprised myself when I got home by grabbing a beer and the nocs and heading out to the back yard. I’m kind of pleased that I found myself backyard birdwatching for relaxation. It’s something I’m really growing to enjoy!

When I had pulled into the driveway a hawk that’s been hanging out in our yard lately swooped my car, so I headed towards the copse of trees I thought he had landed in to try to find him. I didn’t see My Hawk, but I did see one of the little lady cardinals that usually hang out at the bird feeder. As I am prone to do, I whispered, ‘Hello Mrs. Cardinal!’, and watched her for a bit through my binoculars. Then I realized that Mrs. Cardinal doesn’t have an orange beak. It’s black. Hunh?! So I Sibley’d (Hey, if ‘Google’ is a verb now…) Cardinals and found that juvenile’s have black beaks until they come into their own and get orange beaks. So I’ve now met Young Cardinal!

I looked for more movement in the trees. I saw my little girl again, then heard something shuffling in the leaves under the trees. Probably a squirrel, but I’ll take a look. At the base of the trees was the ugliest cutest cardinal I’ve ever seen! His beak was shades of black and grey with orange at the base. His coloring was so mottled he looked like he had been painted by Jackson Pollack if he had had an ugly grey and red phase. This bird was so awkward and looked so much like the teenager that he is!

I know I get overly excited about these things, but I’m so stoked to have a whole family of Cardinals living in my trees! I hope I can catch these teens at the feeder this week!

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Woodpecker Afternoon

Or, A Post for Lala Because a Text Message Would Have Been Too Long

I took a little walk around the yard with the dogs early this afternoon. I don’t know if it was the coming rain or just the time of day, but the birds in my yard were going nuts. Totally cray-cray. I’ve never noticed so much birdsong and little ones flitting around from tree to tree in my yard all at once. I thought I spied a little black and white bird that doesn’t frequent my feeder, so when I took the dogs in I grabbed my ‘nocs.

I headed back out to our little pine forest and realized it’s a great place for spotting birds in the trees. The birds seem to run from tree to tree and there isn’t a bunch of cover so I can spot them pretty well for a n00b. I caught sight of the black and white bird again, noticed the red spot on top of its head, and recognized it as a woodpecker. But it wasn’t a Pileated, so it was a new one to me! Very exciting! I kept seeing more flitting, and as I checked out the new birds, I found another unPileated woodpecker, this one without red on its head. Very very exciting! I need to run inside and check The Book!

So I check The Book and I’ll be damned if there aren’t a shit-ton of non-Pileated, black and white woodpeckers with and without red heads. Jeez. I was smart enough to actually take The Book outside with me this time.

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I take my urban wilderness spot again, and watch for the bird… watch for the bird… found her! No red on her head. Check the book. Lots of woodpeckers. Book. Bird. Book. Bird. Back and forth, checking checking. That’s it! Downy! Downy Woodpecker! Definitely it, unless… unless it’s this other woodpecker on the next page, the Hairy Woodpecker, that looks *exactly* like the Downy. What the fuck? There is no difference between these two birds, and they are both in Florida year-round. Oh, look, the Downy has a note: Conspicuous tuft of nasal bristles. Bristles? Dude. Sibley. I have some pretty kick-ass binoculars, but how the hell am I supposed to see fucking nasal *bristles* at 50 feet? Seriously? Seriously. Jeez.

UPDATE: In the ebirds.com log there is an entry for Downy/Hairy Woodpecker! Ha! I don’t have to choose! Take that, Sibley!

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A Little Something That I Forgot

Tonight I was cleaning up some posts that had dropped their photos, and taking a big look at this here blog overall, I noticed that in the ebb and flow of me going back and forth between blogging and not blogging, I missed a few things. I missed a *lot* of things!

While I posted a play-by-play of starting the makings of the costume that I wore to the Medieval Fair in 2013, I never posted a single picture of the finished product! I can’t say that I’ll ever get around to writing up the details on this, as that was quite a while ago, and lord knows my memory is pretty damn shot. But here are the pics from when I was getting dressed:

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And here are the nice shots that La-la took of us. Sophia’s dress was graciously made by my mother-in-law!

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So there’s that, and here’s to catching up and staying on track!

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Routine

Chris and I just returned from our annual trip to West Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. Every May we drive north from Florida, we tool around Appalachia visiting family and friends, and we drive back home. This lends a lot of time to chat, listen to an audiobook, knit, and think. And I think a *lot* on this trip. A crazy lot. I get some of the most *magnificent* ideas! Earth-shattering, life-changing ideas. Business plans and lifestyle decisions are made on this trip. I get so relaxed on this vacation, spending time with people I love, that my creative Pandora’s box gets thrown wide open with abandon. Now that we’ve been back for a day and I’ve had some time at home, those thoughts and ideas have rolled around in my brain and I feel like my skull is going to explode.

So what now? What do I do with all of these lists in my head? Where do I focus this crazy energy?! In past years, it’s all led to nothing. Well there was the one year when I came back and asked Lorena, ‘What if we quit just talking about it and opened up a yarn store?’ But other than that, and yes, that was a huge one, nothing. Nada. I came back home each year, and comfortably slipped back into my routine: wake, work, sit, home, pet, sit, drink, eat, surf, sit, sleep, repeat. Often with a ‘knit’ or ‘sew’ thrown in there once in the while, but still.

We’ve been back a couple of days now, and I feel weird. I haven’t been particularly motivated at work, and I’ve easily slipped back into my crappy routine at home. I’m cranky and sad and confused. If I’m going to break the vacation cycle, it needs to be now. Well, not right now, because we’re heading to The Bushes in a few minutes just like we do every Wednesday. It’s our routine. But tomorrow. Tomorrow I need to break the cycle. I need to come home from work and work some more. I need to make *something* happen. Anything.

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A Walk In the Garden (Not my garden. A public botanical garden.)

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TV-Free Tuesday

Tonight is our first experiment with TV-Free Tuesdays. I thought I might be tempted to work on more creative endeavors if Chris and I weren’t glued to the telly evey night of the week. So tonight Chris cooked us a bigger and better and more delicious dinner than normal, and I’ve gotten all caught up on my video games. Hey, I didn’t say it was screen-free Tuesday. And now we’re listening to record albums and laughing (‘Is this your Rod Stewart album? The pages are stuck together.’   ‘Well, yeah. ROD STEWART.’) and I even read a whole book and made a little blog post. Not too shabby. I’ll take it.

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Adventure Monday

I have Mondays off, and I generally like to enjoy the company of my friend Debby on those days. We find a place to hike for a bit, or visit a park, or whatever. Then we’ll do some shopping or grab some lunch and a cocktail. She’s always up for a bit of an adventure, so sometimes we end up in unexpected places. Today was an unexpected places Monday, for sure.

I had picked up a local magazine yesterday because it had a cover of interest. And inside I found North Central Florida’s Dial and Discover tour. You check out a map online, drive to one of the historical places on it, dial the phone number on your cell phone, and you hear a recorded message of the history of the site. It sounded like a perfect Monday Adventure!

As I was checking out the Cross Creek map, I saw one little note about popping by the Antioch Cemetery in Island Grove, as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is buried there. Having been to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park a few times, I was more interested in a little adventure further out into the sticks to her burial site. So even though this attraction isn’t on the Dial and Discover tour, off we went! After, of course, stopping for lunch and beers at Blue Highway in Micanopy.

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Looking over the dashboard of June, driving down a well-cared-for dirt road towards Island Grove, FL.

Marjorie’s grave is at the Antioch cemetery near Island Grove, Florida. It’s a neat little graveyard with many lavishly decorated graves. There are benches and little figurines and decent sized statues all over. Plus, we found some fox poop and an entire shed snakeskin! (The wild animal trifecta was rounded out nicely later when we saw a few sandhill cranes pecking around a rural yard.) As you can see, Marjorie’s marker is simple and understated, reflecting her preferred way of life.

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On our way to Island Grove, Debby and I noticed two things: 1) The dirt road we were driving on for many miles was impeccably cared for, and 2) next to each sign pointing the direction to the Antioch Cemetery was a sign pointing the same direction to the Island Grove Winery. It being an adventure day, we were sure to follow *both* signs!

Now, I’m not a wine drinker. At all. Though I do love a cold glass of bubbly, the sweeter and cheaper, the better. Plus, I don’t care for muscadine grapes, which are what most Florida wines are made of. So I was pleased to learn that as we drove down the Island Grove Winery driveway we were passing blueberry and blackberry bushes. We entered an adorable little gift shop and tasting room, and were greeted with a three or four swig glass of each of the eight or so wines that are available right now. The listing read like a Jolly Rancher menu: blueberry, blackberry, green apple, raspberry, peach, strawberry, cranberry. And these sweeties are right up my alley. I imagine most wineauxes would have visibly cringed when the server started speaking my language by saying, ‘Sometimes I like to mix these two together and add a little Sprite and a couple of ice cubes!’.

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So yeah, that one was a true Monday Adventure! Oh, and those remarkably well-kept dirt roads? The upkeep is done by the winery as at the height of the season there are many semi trucks using that road daily. Best quest ever.

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Feel Better Tea

I am not sick. But Chris has a pretty horrible sore throat, and I took him to the doc in the box yesterday for a strep test (Negative.), so I had to sit in the waiting room with all of those other sick folk. But I was a bit off-kilter today. Physically, I felt like I was walking through mud. Mentally, I was as fuzzy as a peach. So even though I’m not sick, I stopped at the grocery on the way home from work to grab supplies for Feel Better Tea. If I’m not sick, Feel Better Tea will keep me from getting there as well as it helps me feel better quickly when I *am* sick.

If you’re sick, or just thinking about getting sick, head over to Retro Food and check out TW’s recipe for Feel Better Tea. I usually make it as instructed, except I don’t add any sugar. Ever. At all. I don’t know what that means, but I get plenty of sweetness from the juices. And this time I used half echinacea tea bags and half regular black tea bags. It’s not as tea-y, though, so I’ll keep the echinacea next time but add more regular bags. It’s easy enough to stick a fresh teabag in the mug when I go to heat up my next cuppa to make it stronger.

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Monday Walkies

Deb and I explored a new walking trail today. This one is a city park that’s part of San Felasco off of 43rd St. kind of behind Cox Cable. Anyhoo, I know this picture doesn’t do the site justice, but this ‘temporary pond’ really looks like a place that gnomes and fairies would live. It is completely magical!

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