Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Train travel”

Freeway Free in Scotland: All Aboard the Royal Scotsman

You have figured out by now that our tour of England, Wales, and Scotland is a splurge trip, not designed for budgeting backpackers.  A week of travel through Scotland aboard the Royal Scotsman is not for the faint-of-checkbook, but a taste of luxury sweetens the cup of life. (Does that sound like a folk saying?  I just made it up.)

Your trip aboard the luxury train “Royal Scotsman” begins with a kilted and shako’d bagpipe player piping you aboard.  It continues with gourmet meals on Villeroy & Bosch china, an open bar with hundreds of choices of whiskey, wine, etc. in the observation car, and lectures en route by a noted regional scholar.

You roll along through verdant countryside, viewing the landscape through spotless windows, pulling over at night on quiet sidings in quaint villages.

And of course, there are stops along the way at a number of Scottish distilleries in order to activate our  taste for Scotch whisky.  I’m afraid my pictures, as well as my brain, got fuzzier and fuzzier as the trip progressed, so  the final banquet, with fine food, fine china, fine wine, and several guests and all the staff dressed in formal Scottish regalia, will be left to your imagination.  If you have yearned to travel like a member of Queen Victoria’s retinue, this was a week for wish fulfillment. IMG_0670doc

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Freeway Free in Britain: Discovering York

20180721_174408docI  was thrilled to be going to York long before I had seen a picture or read an itinerary – as a long-time fan of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, I’m convinced that Richard, Duke of York, got a raw deal in Shakepeare’s heavily politicized portrait of him as Richard III, hunchbacked arch-villain. So I was eager to see the city which had given him his title, and which, according to history, mourned his overthrow by the usurper Henry Bolingbroke.

York has a lot more than Richard III going for it, though.  It has a beautiful minster cathedral which rivals the best of France’s Gothic cathedrals, with stunning stained glass and a flowerlike central vault.

Unlike most European cities, York still has a nearly intact city wall, which makes for a charming and informative stroll along its ramparts.  From any vantage point on the wall you get views of the minster, plus sneak peeks into verdant gardens, lively back yards, and the lives of modern Yorkists.

Within the wall the city maintains a medieval character wit its narrow twisting streets and odd alleyways, while somehow exuding a modern energy and excitement.   Outside the wall are other points of interest, including a really comprehensive railway museum calling attention to when York was a rail center for all of northern England.

My railway buff husband would love to spend more happy hours there, while I would return for the alleyways and pubs and to walk a few more miles of the wall. 20180721_095012doc

 

Freeway Free in Wales: From the Castle to the Pits and Back

20180717_145638docAmong the hazards of a pre-organized group tour is that one day may be PACKED with events and places to see, while the next may find you bus-bound as your itinerary hustles you off to the next attraction.  (Above is a view from the bus of the beautiful Welsh countryside near Snowdon. Time to explore on your own, and time to digest your experiences may both be limited.

Today we explored the depths of a slate mine (damp, dark, dusty),

rode on a narrow-gauge railway (clattering, quaint, cramped),

explored Portemeirion, a fantasy village created as “an homage to Portofino” by a self taught architect (eclectic, imaginative, erratic),

ate dinner at a World heritage site castle (lavish, lamb, local lore),

and watched border collies herding sheep into their home pens (energetic, efficient, effective).  20180717_145701

Lots of diversity, but almost too much to take in.  By the end of the day, I am most clearly remembering those border collies herding the sheep as we sat on the wall of our guest house, quietly and remotely and restfully watching.

 

Next Week: Freeway – Free in Wales: Life in the Village, Life in the Castle

 

 

Freeway Free in Wales: Hanging out at Bodysgallen Hall

20180716_211431docWe are still traveling first class:  we were picked up at the Manchester Airport by Jason, a deferential fellow with a strong accent.  He loaded our gear into a Mercedez limo/van, and off we go through misty rain (the first rain in six weeks, Jason says) to Wales, home of unpronounceable names.   We are staying outside of Llandudno in a 17th century carriage house named Bodysgallen Hall.  The castle for which this ample residence formerly served as gatehouse is visible from our windows, at least a couple of miles away across the valley.  Talk about an impressive entrance!20180716_185011web

Our  room has  mullioned windows and a lot of toile and chintz and Turkish rugs. The welcome reception for our group included a harpist as well as a wide sampling of local whiskeys and not-so-local wines.

Now the sun is setting through my mullioned windows, my spouse is in PJ’s reading about tomorrow’s itinerary, and I am contemplating one more tour around the garden outside before turning in.

Next week: From the Castle to the Pits and Back

Freeway Free in France: Back to the 7me Arrondissement

My favorite pied a terre in Paris is the Jardin D’Eiffel, just off the market street Rue Cler (see above) by one block. 15 years ago when I first stayed the decor was dominated by giant yellow Monet-esque flowers on Royal blue  on drapes, pictures, and murals throughout (see below) , and the clientele favored busloads of Canadian and German students and tourists on a budget.

The old Jardin has undergone a 21st century revamp, and is now robed mostly in subtle shades of gray with some paisley drapes to brighten the feel (see above).  The elevator, however,  is no larger;  it can accommodate two people and two suitcases on if you are on friendly terms, or you can stash the suitcases in the elevator, push the button,and race the elevator up the stairs. DB and I are sharing a room facing the street – not the best, as the next door neighbor is the police station and we expect to hear sirens all night.  From the back rooms, if you lean out the window, you can glimpse the Eiffel Tower.

We arrived after an efficient breakfast at La Vielle Auberge, a lightning transit to the train station in Souillac, a bit of a hassle with ticket’s but we eventually got on the train and enjoyed four hours of French scenery, shading from Romanesque yellow sandstone  with steep-pitched roofs and bell-towers in the Dordogne to white stucco with mansard roofs and steeples in the Touraine.  Gare Austerlitz is large and bustling but well-signed, our Algerian taxi driver was friendly and expansive about  what we should be sure to see in Paris, and the staff at the Jardin welcomed us like old friends.

We took the Metro to the Place de ‘l’Opera and picked up our museum passes for two days of urgent museum – going.  This may be our last joint adventure for awhile, as we each have different plans for our stay in Paris.    WB missed the Louvre on her previous visit and expects to spend two days there, but wants also to fit in the renovated Musee d’Orsay, the Rodin, the Pere LaChaise cemetery, and perhaps a tour of the opera.  DM has a friend dating back to a working stint in London  who came to meet her and is staying at the Jardin, and also has a cousin who wants to return the hospitality DM showed him in the states, so after tonight’s dinner  she will not share evenings until Sunday. Dianne has not been in Paris in decades and has murky memories, so she may take the #69 bus tour around the city per Rick Steves’ recommendation and then follow her interests. 20160922_230844web

I have in mind the renovated d’Orsay tomorrow together with l’Orangerie which houses Monet’s water lilies, then there is another exhibit at the Grand Palais I want to find out about, and I need to visit Notre Dame and the Holocaust victims memorial and of course Berthillon’s ice cream and the Art Deco atrium of La Samaritaine, and Le Pere LaChaise cemetery with WB on Sunday.  Our walking tour will have been good prep for pounding all this Gothic pavement. Right now we are getting cleaned up in preparation for a celebration meal at l’Affriole, which it appears has developed enough of a reputation that Michele (who is French with family and friends in Lyon) had heard of it.

I am trembling at the potential cost.  But we have economized greatly up until now, having scrounged for lunches at the hotel breakfast buffets and having dinner and breakfasts prepaid during our hiking tour.

20160922_073111docWe decided to walk back from L’Opera (which was undergoing a revamp of its own behind a Rene Magritte-inspired façade) and stopped at a street-side cafe on Rue Tour Maubourg for wine, tea, and people -watching. We saw Cinderella’s glass coach go by, pulled by a rather ordinary brown horse and with two dotty English tourists inside.  Such is life in a tourist city.

Unfortunately l’Affriole did not live up to my memory. New management has revamped the decor here also, opening up the front of the place for sidewalk seating, which leaves one exposed to the curious glances of passers-by and other hazards.  In our case, a large dog decided to deposit an equally large souvenir on the sidewalk just by our table, and the dog’s owner loftily prepared to ignore the awkward incident until the restaurateur bounded out and demand she clean up after her pet.  She argued, gave in, and “cleaned up” by kicking the mess to the curb, then wiping her shoe carefully on the edge.  Not the most appetizing of beginnings.

The food, instead of bringing on the sort of ecstasy seen in “When Harry Met Sally,” did not measure up to either my memory or the best of the food we had enjoyed while hiking. So much for my “local expertise”.  But I still have a few 7me arrondissement aces up my sleeve.20160922_070928doc

 

 

A Piece of My Mind: Could Local Lucre Grease our Wheels? (Los Altos Town Crier March 1, 2017)

P1050177cropI am a big fan of public transit, taking the train regularly to Sacramento and San Francisco to visit family, taking BART to the Symphony or to museums in San Francisco, riding Light Rail and Muni in San Jose and San Francisco.  But I am somewhat reluctant to recommend these services to some of my more fastidious friends, since CalTrain and BART in particular are more than a little grungy.

In the past 20 years I have traveled on public transit systems made similar to BART, and have seen cars and stations in Taipei, Atlanta, and Washington DC get upgrade after upgrade.  In the same period of time nothing has happened to BART, except that the forty-year-old cars have gotten dirtier, smellier, and more worn.  The windows have become so scratched that it is almost impossible to read the signage at each station (especially since very few of the station signs are lighted) and there has never been any interior electronic signage to tell where you are.  And the rails have become noisier and noisier, to the point where going around a bend in a tunnel is now acutely painful to the ears.  The noise is so intense that any on-board announcements are completely indecipherable.  When I take BART to San Francisco, I wear earplugs. 

So why can’t we update BART as often as Taipei updates its MRT?  Of course, we have an absurd idea that public transportation should be self-supporting, and with fares kept low there is little money for upgrades and maintenance.  Yet there are other public services that do not pretend to be self-supporting, and yet manage to stay up to date.  We don’t expect libraries to be self-supporting through their collection of fines, or schools to be self-supporting through sales of tickets to sports events and concerts.  Why can’t…. but wait a minute!  What do schools and libraries have that BART doesn’t have?  They have Friends!  They have Foundations! 

What if we had a BART Maintenance Foundation, similar to the Los Altos Educational Foundation which maintains our high level of school quality , and a Friends of CalTrain, as effective and dedicated as our Friends of the Los Altos Library?   And what if we could inveigle some of our more affluent local residents to become involved?  Just think what we could do!

Latest estimates for total electrification of CalTrain come to about $1.76 billion.  That’s a paltry 3% of Mark Zuckerberg’s current net worth.  A donation to the Friends of CalTrain would certainly earn him a bunch of LIKE’s and maybe a free engineer’s cap to wear when the hoody is in the wash. 

New BART cars are currently running about $3.2 million per car. Why not invite some of our technocrats to purchase naming rights to a BART car?  Certainly more prestigious than buying a Lamborghini that you can only drive in your underground garage because it is too expensive to crash test.  And think of all the rainbow-framed Windows  sending out a subliminal message! 

Upgrading the infrastructure of BART is a bit pricier – $3.5 billion per current estimate – but there are lots of opportunities for appropriate philanthropy. $915 million is needed to update the control system;  maybe one of those companies working on self-driving cars could help under-write the self-driving BART system.  Another $432 million will renovate the Maintenance Center in Hayward.  Might not another local company want to be LinkedIn for naming rights?  That leaves 107 miles of track to be maintained at  roughly $20 million per mile.   Why not set up an Adopt-A-Track program similar to the Adopt-a-Highway program which keeps our highways tidy?  There could be little mileposts along the track: “If you like this quiet ride, you’ll LOVE our electric cars!” “Our software keeps your sales on TRACK!” “Trains or data – easy access is our specialty!”

OK, so upgrading and maintaining public transit isn’t quite on the same cosmic level of good-deed-doing as curing cancer or eliminating malaria.  Still, this is an opportunity to improve the daily quality of life for an average of 430,000 daily riders. Who would like to step up?

Things to do now that Football is Finally Finished

20150130_161859webFootball season is over!  No more sitting in a cave watching pixels flash on a TV monitor while the sun is shining outside and all your vertebrae beg to be un-squished from that armchair!  What will you do with all this free time? Here are some ideas to get you started.  (Full disclosure:  we are not football addicts so we had a head start on alternatives!)20150125_115440web

 

Why not? Take public transportation to the city. Feel the freedom of not having that 2000 lb anchor dragging you into dark dank parking garages too far from where you really want to be. And there are great possibilities for people – watching.  (Can you see the little blond girl in pink sitting on her mother’s lap beyond the bicycle?  I missed the shot of her flopped upside down, hair streaming almost to the floor, as she solemnly regarded the world from a different point of view, but the memory gives me a smile every time.)

 

The Grove Restaurant on Mission Street, San Francisco

 

Why not? Eat at a restaurant you have never tried before. This is the Grove Restaurant on Mission Street, whose décor oddly evokes a ski lodge.  I wish I had stopped to take a picture of the delectable poached eggs on avocado toast which I was served here, but I was hungry and devoured them before I thought.  (They serve the breakfast menu all day.)

20150125_124259webWhy not? Check out a small specialized museum’s feature exhibit. This is the California Historical Society on Mission Street in San Francisco.  The excellent exhibit on Yosemite is closed now, but their next exhibit will feature the Pan-Pacific Exhibition of 1915 which gave us the Palace of Fine Arts and Treasure Island.  I think it’s a don’t miss! The exhibit hall also features a graceful staircase to the inaccessible second floor.  A plaque informs us that this is the Nancy Pelosi Staircase, as she first announced her candidacy for the US House of Representatives from this stairway. History is everywhere!

20150201_143932web Why not? Go for a walk in the woods. These twisted trees seem almost to be dancing in the sun next to the Crystal Springs trail in Huddart County Park on the Peninsula.

 

 

Why Not? Check out some public art.  The two figures are emerging from the walls of the Millbrae BART station.  The non-representational structure above graces a lawn at Stanford University.

Celebrate!

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Freeway Free in Spain: Toledo Transit

Bus to ToledoWe started off at a good hour for our expedition, arrived at the station in plenty of time to catch the 9:20 train, only to find that it was sold out. Next available train on a busy commute and tourist day was at 12:20. Scratch.

We went back to the hotel by Metro to save energy, I said something about our failed plans to the desk manager, and he replied quickly, “Why not go by bus?” Turns out the express bus leaves every hour, from a station about a half hour away by Metro.

With one thing and another we got to the bus station in time for the 11 AM bus and we were in Toledo by noon. A wonderful town for traipsing around.

The Last Supper - Toledo Cathedral facadeWe started with the awesome (in the original sense) cathedral, a soaring flamboyant Gothic/Baroque structure on the outside, with a wonderful Last Supper going on in sculpture across the front above the main door. If you look at it from the rise of steps across the plaze, you can see down onto the table where the sculpture was careful to provide both bottles of wine and a plate of rolls as required.
On the inside more of the same – a LOT more. In addition to the profligate use of gold from the New World to decorate altars, clothe icons, and create 10 foot-tall monstrances to hold the Host between communions, it contains more great paintings than they have room to hang or light or even identify decently – a whole set of Christ and the apostles by El Greco hung kitty corner to the viewer behind a grate, Titian, Correggio, and Rembrandt hung in a half-lit chapel on a temporary scaffold in front of the altar and again behind a grate.

St John and Cousin Jesus

St John and Cousin Jesus

The most awesome thing about the Toledo Cathedral is the detail – everywhere you look there is an artwork that would be worthy of its own exhibit in any other context.  For example, this mosaic of John the Baptist with his young cousin Jesus – at least 30 feet tall over the door of the cathedral – not even mentioned in the audio guide or anywhere else – but so powerful!

We got halfway through the audio tour and elected to pause for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant Winifred had located online nearby. (We are on a veggie kick since being greens-deprived in our first day in Madrid.) There are good and bad veggie restaurants – Madre Tierra  was excellent – a wonderful salad and then a cream of spinach soup so thick and rich I could have eaten it with a fork.

Virgin and Unicorn - Choir stall - Toledo Virgin M crowning a saint in ivory - Toledo Saint and demon contending- choir stall - Toledo Jacob and Esau? Choir Stall - Toledo

Then back to the cathedral for the rest of the tour of amazing carvings and sculpture.  (See some of the amazingly evocative carvings in the choir stalls above)

The art highlight – the Sacristy- was closed for renovation, which was probably a blessing in disguise. Otherwise we would never have made it to the El Greco Museum, which had a different set of apostles, much better displayed, hung in a setting designed to recreate a 15th century home such as El Greco might have lived in during his time in Toledo – quite charming.

Back to the bus, stopping for Winifred to pick up some mementoes and gifts. The express bus was full, so we took the milk run, whistle-stopping through a series of villages and small towns, letting off matrons who had been shopping for their week’s supplied in the supermercados of Toledo, taking up young people who had been visiting their families for the holiday and were headed back to Madrid – it was fun to make up stories to explain the meetings and partings.

Evening on the bus

Freeway Free in Merida: Ramblin’ round the Roman Ruins

Roman theatre in MericaIf you OD on medieval ruins in Caceras, you have options.  How about Roman ruins instead?  Merida, another World Heritage Site, is only an hour’s train ride away.

Wow!  Those Romans were some engineers!  Stuff they built 2000 years ago is still being used  in Merida, such as a magical open air theatre where we happened upon a kind of rock n roll High School Musical version of “The Rape of Europa” (That giant white caterpillar with black antennae is supposed to be Jupiter as a white bull).

Temple of Diana - Merida

The Temple of Diana has a 15th Century villa built INSIDE.

Roman bridge - Merida

A graceful bridge across the Guardiana River is used now by pedestrians and bicycles as part of an extensive trail network.

Arc of Trajan - Merida

Cars still rumble under Trajan’s Arch.

Roman road leads to ongoing archaeology

In many places the original Roman roads form the substrata for current city streets.

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Museo National de Arte Romano

And there is a great museum next to the theatre and amphitheater which makes sense of it all.

Freeway-Free in California – San Luis Obispo side streets

Moms&Kids fountainSan Luis Obispo is more than Higueroa Street and the Cal Poly Campus. Here are some of the highlights we discovered as we explored the side streets.

  • The San Luis mission – we visited  just as it opened. A mother with three toddlers in tow was inspecting the kid-friendly fountain in the plaza which shows a mother bear with two cubs and a little girl playing together. The mission is one of the more humble in the California String of Missions, but with lovingly painted interior decoration including fool-the-eye columns, and a dormant mission garden which must be lovely when the arbors and trellises are in bloom.Fremont theatre - day
  •  The flamboyant old Fremont theatre, an art-deco mashup that looks like it was assembled from carousel leftovers.  At night, the vintage neon lights up the whole street.Fremont  Theatre - night
  • Phoenix Books – this labyrinth  of used books is organized eccentrically – e.g. the historical novels of Bernard Cornwell can be found in the Mystery section, snuggled  next to the crime novels written by Patricia Cornwelll. Why? “Because they are married, don’t you think they should be together?” explains the owner. Bernard’s wife is named Judy, but that  is beside the point – The oddities of categorization only encourage browsing for the perfect book to be reading by the fire in our cosy B&B.
  • The upscale pedestrian mall which is tucked unobtrusively in between Monterey and Higueroa Streets.  The architecture is designed to blend in unobtrusively with  the mission and all those 1890’s buildings, but it includes a movie multiplex,  Chico’s, California Pizza Kitchen, and of course a Peet’s coffee on one corner and a Starbuck’s on the other, if you’ve had enough of organic and artisan for awhile.
  • Tiny Bubble Gum Alley off Higueroa between Garden Street and Broad Street. Someone stuck a piece of chewed bubble gum on the wall of this narrow walkway – then others copied this action about one million times – and there it is.Crossing the tracks in SLO
  •  .Tthe  elaborate trusses of the pedestrian overcrossing at the Railway Station which allows you to hike from downtown to one of the friendly rounded hills over looking the town and the campus without having to dodge cars or trains.
  • Down at the foot of Higueroa Street at the other end from the mall, you will see a family waving at you from the balcony of a homely 50’s motel… but wait!  that’s a mural!the Two-D Motel

Feeling hungry?  We liked:

  • the Big Sky Café – wonderful local produce, seafood, dairy, in a large, informal, bustling, and friendly  space – we ate here twice and didn’t run out of items we wished we still had room to try.
  • Ciopinot :   Definitely not the college hangout – mostly graying couples like us, or groups of thirty-somethings celebrating.  Excellent sea food, including “No Work Cioppino”  (that means pre-shelled clams and crabs – no bibs required!)
  • Novo :  if weather permits, opt for dining outside next to meandering San Luis Obispo creek, under trees hung with lanterns,  and walls decked with bougainvillea in bloom.
  • House of Bread (on Marsh Street at the foot of downtown) – the perfect place to buy bread to go with that artisanal cheese you bought at the Farmer’s Market.

NOTE:  I will be setting off on another adventure next week, so there will be a hiatus.  Read some past posts and stand by for further freeway-free travel!

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