Wednesday, May 27, 2009

AWOL in Deutschland

The wind pushed loose hair off my face. The morning sun began to tint my skin one shade darker. Dandelion petals floated in the air. As I sped around a grove of pine trees and a florescent yellow field of flowers appeared in front of me, I felt completely off the record. On a late morning bike ride through the countryside I felt a million miles and years away from classes, internships, back-logged e-mails and agendas. I considered myself "missing in action" -- not bad for a change of pace. After a semester studying in London, instead of flying home, a friend and I planned to spend two weeks visiting my cousin in Bavaria, the southern region of Germany full of heritage, rolling green hills, yellow rapeseed flower fields, pretzels and beer.

Castles and the start of fest season

My first weekend included sifting through German antiques in a family-run shop that filled the stone storerooms of an old castle grounds. The unique interior and friendly owner who poured glasses of fresh-squeezed juice made the trip feel more like exploring the basement of a long-lost relative than shopping.

Sunday took us to another castle (warning: Germany has a lot of castles). My cousin, her husband, my friend and I went to a "Garden and Nature" festival at Hexenagger Castle, an outdoor market on the grounds of a hilltop castle with booths selling a lot more than gardening supplies: hammocks, jewelry, wooden crafts and art. My cousin explained May meant the beginning of the summer "fest" season, a time of traditional outdoor German celebrations. I quickly learned no German fest is complete without brats, beer and fish grilled on a stick. We stopped for a noontime snack: beer, pretzels and salt-and-peppered cheese (simple, but delicious). We caught the beginning of the village orchestra show before heading home. Although my cousin's husband was hoping for traditional German tunes, the ensemble of adults and children played a few contemporary selections.

Stepping back into medieval Germany

Monday sent my cousin and her husband back to work, leaving my friend and I to explore Bavaria with a train schedule and my pocket-size German phrasebook (and some golden advice from my cousin). We planned to spend the day in Rothenberg ob der Tauber -- a medieval city untouched by modern architecture, business and franticness. A 700-year-old wall surrounds the city. Old clock towers and wooden cottages make virtually every street postcard-worthy. We wandered the Christmas shops, climbed the old town hall tower and sampled the local fare: schneeballs ("snowballs" of buttery dough baked until crunchy and covered in powdered sugar, cinnamon or chocolate).

Because the city's original planners were not as concerned with accessible train routes as they might be today, getting to Rothenberg required taking four different trains. Three were late, causing my friend and I to cross of fingers each time we pulled into a station and a bit of panic (unidentified train whistles + announcements in German = a lot of running up and down platforms). Thanks to my little German phrasebook and a couple of friendly locals, we didn't miss one of our eight trains.

A history lesson

We switched gears on Tuesday, spending our day in Nuremberg at the museum built in the remains of the Nazi rally grounds. A skeleton of the half-completed giant Congress Hall took my friend and I on a four-hour tour detailing the rise of the Nazi party straight through to the trials of Hitler's followers in the city at the end of WWII. After the exhibit we walked out to the Zepplinfield -- Hitler's parade grounds where he addressed masses (the exhibit indicated the field was the size of 12 football fields). Now, the enormous space resembles ancient ruins, an eerie monument in decay.

The cities of Bavaria...

We spent an evening in Regensberg -- a medieval city with Roman roots and uniquely untouched by the destruction of WWII. We walked along the River Donau (a.k.a. Danube) and across the old bridge. Then we sampled the city's international cuisine -- first tapas at a Spanish Bodega hidden in a corner of one of the city's cobblestoned streets and then we sat outside for a late Thai dinner. Like most university towns, the international influence was strong.

Friday, my cousin and I took my friend to the airport to bid her auf Weidersehen and spend the afternoon seeing the top sights in Munich. First, we sipped apfelschorle (fizzy apple juice) in the Marienplatz (the central plaza in the city, just outside the Neues Rathaus, the new town hall). We visited Frauenkirche (the city's Catholic cathedral) distinguished by two towers at the facade (said to resemble beer steins...coincidence?). And, we ate a traditional sausage lunch at Hofbrauhaus -- the beer hall Hitler used for many of his infamous public addresses.

Friday night, my cousin introduced me to one of my favorite German traditions: stammtisch. It's a weekly dinner among a group of friends that usually takes place at the same restaurant with the same people. I met some of my cousin's crew at a local German eatery. I'm hoping to convince friends back home to adopt the weekly unwind.

The Alps are alive with...

I gazed out the window of my cousin's 1992 BMW as it buzzed down the Autobahn Sunday morning. We had just driven through the southern edges of Munich when the gray and white peaks of the Alps popped out of the ground. Speckled with green forests and mounted in front of a bright blue sky, the mountains were stunning.

My cousin, her husband and I left the house early Sunday morning to give us a full day to play in the mountains in Berchtesgaden. We took a boat ride on the still waters of Lake Konigsee.
About halfway along one side of the lake, the driver stopped, pulled out a trumpet and began to blow a tune; the chords echoed off the sides of the surrounding mountains. Gorgeous views rewarded us when we stepped off the boat on the opposite end of the lake to explore.

When a few gray clouds began to roll in, we opted to finish our afternoon inside rather than out. We toured the salt mines a few miles away. We donned official black salt mine jumpsuits and boarded a train that took us deep inside one of the Alps' peaks. The temperature dropped about 20 degrees, as did the light level. We disembarked and flew down a series of wooden slides turn-of-the-century miners used to reach their posts. In the next hour we learned how the miners took the salt from deep below the towering mountains to our tables. The living history lesson included a boat ride across the underground salt lake.

We drove into the Salzburg for dinner that evening. The city's intimate shop-lined streets offer the ideal setting to enjoy the end of a warm spring day. After dinner we could not resist the last outdoor table at a cafe for a glass of wine and the city's specialty -- Salzburger Nockerl (a fluffly white souffle cake sitting on a tart raspberry sauce).

The following day we wandered Salzburg. High on the list of sights to see was the Salzburg Cathdral, different from its other European cities' namesake cathedrals because of its Baroque style and grand organs (one in each of the four corners of the center crossing). We took the funicular (an uphill rail car) up to the Salzburg Fortress (Hohensalzburg), a nearly
1,000-year-old castle built on a hill above the city for fortification from outside invasions. We toured the staterooms and old towers, which provided an ideal view of the sprawling city. Then we began a steep hike down the backside of the fortress. After about 20 minutes through a grassy field and forest, we came upon a restaurant with big wooden outside tables overlooking Salzburg and delicious Spargel soup (spargel is a white, variety of asparagus grown in Germany, in season for a short time each year -- May).

For the rest of the afternoon, we followed our own self-guided "Sound Of Music" tour. We found the Mozart Bridge, the gated cemetery that inspired the final search scene in the movie (which took place on a Hollywood set), the mansion that inspired the Von Trapp's lakeside villa and the actual gazebo where two teenagers sang about how old they were. We almost broke out in song...

On the move again

A few days later I boarded my flight back to the U.S. As I left European soil, it was hard to believe my bags were packed and my semester had ended. But, it was even harder to believe where the semester had taken me... As I scan the pictures on this blog I pinch myself to remember it was my finger that pressed the button and my eyes that saw what was beyond the viewfinder. And, as I settle back into the routine of summer internships and another semester on campus, it is my challenge to remember not only the landmarks and the photo-worthy, but the people I met and the different cultures I experienced.

Thanks for reading -- cheers!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The last days of London

A royal tea party

As I crossed the street and walked through Black Lion Gate into Hyde Park, I walked into a postcard. The sun lit every leaf and blade of grass a bright green. Mothers pushed kids in strollers and dozens of owners walked their dogs. The lilacs, tulips and petunias had finally all come out, filling the park with pockets of lush purple, red, yellow, white and orange.

Faced with very few days left, a friend and I decided to spend our last Friday afternoon in London at Kensington Palace for a tour and afternoon tea. We lucked out with picture perfect weather -- 60s, sunny and breezy. Despite the mountains of work piled up in our flats, we both agreed it was the perfect use of the day.

The red brick palace was extravagant, but livable compared to the more ostentatious Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. The first floor highlighted the tour by showcasing Princess Diana's dress collection. One of my favorites was a form-fitting pale blue beaded evening gown, soft, but sophisticated.

We stopped for refreshment after our tour -- traditional afternoon tea at The Orangery, just next-door to Kensington Palace. At a patio table, we each sipped cups of Darjeeling, "the champagne of teas," and nibbled on an apricot tart and a fruit scone with jam and clotted cream. I felt a million miles away from e-mails, due dates and review sessions.

On the British Seashore

With a mechanical jerk, my carousel horse lurched forward in sync with a familiar march playing in the background. Behind me, my friends made faces as I snapped a picture. In front of me a rocky beach and the blue waters of the Atlantic stretched across the horizon.

My friends and I spent the better part of Saturday in Brighton, a seaside town with a bit of history and a lot of character. The resort town "came into fashion" in the late 1700s when King George IV (then the Prince Regent) began spending time at the waterfront for his health. The first stop of our day was the Royal Pavilion, George's opulent and eclectic weekend home (a.k.a. palace), which is open to tourists today.

We spent the rest of the afternoon along the beach, findin
g the occasional shop, carousel and ice cream cone.

At the Globe...

Sunday allowed us the unique opportunity to see Shakespeare as it was intended to be seen -- on the stage. Some friends and I ordered tickets to see "Romeo and Juliet" at London's Globe Theater, a recreation of the original Globe Theater where Shakespeare's plays were performed in the 1600s. Despite high school frustrations with Shakespeare's old English, I laughed out loud at the poet's jokes when I saw them live in front of me.

Our student budgets afforded us the standing seats on the floor in front of the stage. The Shakespearian-era theater is round -- a horseshoe shape ring of seats with a rectangular stage to close off the circle. Unlike the covered box seats, our area was completely open-air without a roof. We were all thankful for clear skies and mild temperatures.

British clockwork...

I rolled over and pulled my sheets over my head. With a start, I realized I was awake (and not because my alarm was ringing). I grabbed my phone off the nightstand and saw that I had slept straight through the first alarm I had set. So much for trying to finish my term papers before I had to run errands...

It was the day before the day before I left London -- my last day in London I would not spending packing my life of four months into two suitcases and two carry-ons. The day was scheduled to be jam-packed.

I just made it to my appointment in Covent Garden to get my hair cut. Then I jotted around the market to pick up a few last minute souvenirs and packing supplies. Thank goodness for the sun, which kept my energy up and my freshly cut hair dry. I dropped off my photo collage book to be bound; I had arranged my Italy pictures into a book for my final project for my photography class. I went home to finish up the final edits on my term papers and rushed over to school to print them and turn them in.

I had some time to relax in the afternoon over a cup of tea at the cafe in the park at the end of my block with my London relatives. The warm spring breeze, brightly-colored tulips and dozens of people playing in the park reminded me how much I was going to miss London.

I had just enough time to change clothes and walk back to Covent Garden to meet up with friends for a pre-theater drink. We had tickets to see "Billy Elliot,"
an original London musical about a boy who wants to dance. A classical ballet duet with grown-up Billy and 12-year-old Billy highlighted the show in the second half.

Oh, London!

Monday, May 25, 2009

A weekend in the British countryside...

Our bus pulled off the two-lane road about 30 minutes after we had left the pub we lunched at. There was not a building in sight. We unloaded and began walking along a dirt path up a gently sloped green hill. I could make out three tiers of about 25-foot tall ridges ahead as we reached the top of the first hill. My professor explained we were looking at the remains of the 6,000-year-old Maiden Castle. The grass-covered rings once stood as imposing earth walls to protect the site's ancient inhabitants. Our group walked the perimeter and loaded back onto the bus.

Twenty-five classmates and I were halfway through the first day of a two-day trip to Dorset -- a county of sea-side towns and farming villages in southern England. Miles from the traffic-filled streets of central London in mid-April, I saw a slice of the quieter British life and a geological goldmine.

Earlier that afternoon we had seen the Cerne Abbas Giant: the figure of a naked man carved into the chalk layer of a Dorset hillside. The region is known for its chalk found just below the surface. We stopped half of a mile away for the best view.

We also stopped at Lulworth Cove, known for its Purbeck marble, drug up the river Avon to Salisbury hundreds of years ago to build the cathedral. Years of ocean's wear and tear has pushed the rock up to form the coves. Before we left, we also sampled the area's other specialty -- Purbeck ice cream. Strawberry trumped all -- and I'm not normally a fan of strawberry ice cream.

Our hotel in Weymouth looked directly on the British sea. We dropped our bags, grabbed a quick drink at a pub down the street and the group took a short ride to the Isle of Portland for a picturesque sunset. This tiny pseudo-island (actually a peninsula) is famous for its namesake stone used to build Westminster Abbey.

Back in Weymouth that evening, we ran across some local musical talent in one of the seaside town's finer establishments. "Tamborine Man" was playing at the pub and invited us to share our musical genius with the locals. Of course, we complied....

We began the next day with a cliff-side hike along the English Channel. We crossed fields of cows and sheep; climbed through caves; and stayed a safe distance back from steep cliffs over the crashing waves. Just before we finished, we hit a "surprise" in the trail -- a valley along the cliff. That translates to a very long staircase down and a very long staircase up -- nature's own StairMaster.

I tried an English specialty for lunch at the pub -- a jacket potato (mine had garlic and mushrooms). Then we explored the remains of Corfe Castle, reverting back to our five-year old selves running around the castle ruins. We took one last coastal hike along Chesil Beach before bus took us home to London. I walked into my flat exhausted, sore and sandy (especially my feet).

After a good night's sleep, I woke up Sunday for another day of exploring England's southern countryside with my uncle and his London friends. We drove about two hours before reaching the town of Chichester. After stopping for tea -- because that's what you do in England -- we toured the Chichester Cathedral.

Next, we stopped at Arundel Castle for a quick look around, which turned into an afternoon of wide eyes and lots of antique furniture. The oldest medieval parts of the castle are almost 1,000 years old. The newer additions house the current Duke of Arundel and his family during the winter months (when the estate is closed to the public). The castle design resembles Windsor Castle and the inside resembles a life-size doll house. The furniture collection comes from all thousand years of the castle's existence and from across the globe. Ornate carved chests, silver pieces and portraits fill the rooms. My favorite room was the library, rich with dark wood, red velvet curtains, plushes couches and books on every wall.

We made one more stop for tea -- because that's what you do in England -- and we drove back to London. One lesson I learned from the day: if you are going to marry rich, find someone who is going to inherit a castle.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Art and Easter in London

I experienced a minor panic attack last week when I looked at my planner and realized my semester in London is nearing its end. I dug out my notebook and began scribbling everything I still wanted to do and see in the British capital before my I fly away May 1. Then I got to work.

Thursday afternoon, my friend and I hopped on a red double-decker to Somerset House, a royal house turned ministry office building turned museum. By a stroke of luck, we picked one of the two days this month that the museum conducted free guided tours about the building's history. So, we learned who had lived in the house, we saw the five graves that are curiously in the building's basement and we found out which Hollywood hits had used Somerset House as there backdrop. We also toured the Courtauld Gallery featuring Van Dyck, Rubens, Renoir, Seurat, Monet and Van Gogh, amongst others. Seeing the masterpieces in the regal Georgian house seems entirely fitting for the collection.

Friday morning, I took the tube across town to Westminster Cathedral (for a Good Friday service). Less than a ten-minute walk to Buckingham Palace, I decided it was about time I saw the changing of the guards. I approached from behind the palace and as I came to the gate, I found several hundred people had my same idea. At 10 minutes past 11 (the ceremony supposedly started at 11.30), I could hardly see the guards' red jackets through the iron bars. At least six police managed "crowd control," keeping everyone on the sidewalk. I walked across the street to the center fountain and watched. After about 20 minutes of slower music, which uniformed musicians played sitting inside the gate, everyone stood up and put their chairs away. The massive gold-adorned iron gate suddenly began to open, the band began playing a traditional march and they stamped out in perfect unison. Then another group left and another. The gates closed and all of a sudden, the crowd began to migrate in all directions away from the palace. The end.

Left with a few questions about the iconic ceremony, I walked on to Trafalgar Square, passing the brilliantly colored tulips of Green Park along the way. I grabbed a quick sandwich and walked out to typical London showers. So, I chose an indoor activity for the afternoon -- the National Gallery. Nervous about running out of time in London, I attempted to see the complete museum. A word to the wise...there is a lot to see...probably too much for one afternoon... But, I still could not draw myself away from the masterpieces. I saw a Da Vinci drawing, Caravaggio paintings, Rembrandt, Raphael, a Boilly oil painting (I found the polished detail by the French 19th century painter fascintating), Monet's water lillies and Van Gogh's sunflowers. The collections take visitors through centuries of art in a single visit.

My flatmate and I walked down our steps a few minutes before 9 Saturday morning. With friends traveling over the long weekend and no other plans for that evening, we decided to visit the half-price ticket stand. We had a list of musicals ranked to our preference as we set off for Leicester Square to find tickets. The lady at the ticket booth slowly and painfully dampened our spirits. "The Lion King" was sold out. "Hairspray" was not offering half-price tickets that evening.The only "Billy Elliot" tickets left, even at half-price, topped our price range. And, the list of "no's" continued. Dejected, we headed back into the morning drizzle to catch the tube home. Just next to the station was one more half-price stand and we decided to ask one more time. "Billy Elliot?" No. "Hairspray?" No. "Chicago?" Two half-price tickets, front row, just off-center. Sold to the two ecstatic flatmates standing in the rain.

The dancer in me loved being inches from the action. We saw every wink Roxie gave, a very lucky spot for viewing the subtleties of a Fosse show. "Cell Block Tango," "Roxie" and the finale stood out as my favorite acts. The energy and rhythms made me tap along with the choreography. Being right in the action made the show that much stronger. After the show, the rain outside pushed my flatmate and I into a cozy Italian restaurant just around the corner from the Covent Garden theater. We split a bruschetta and a tiramisu and gushed about the show.

Before dispersing for our respective Easter morning services, my flatmate and I gobbled down quick hot cross buns--my Mom always said they made her think of Easter, and in a weak moment at the grocery store, I grabbed a pack for Easter breakfast. As another friend and I walked into Westminster Cathedral about an hour later, we faced quite a different scene than I experienced Friday morning. The dark brick church was illuminated by enormous sprays of Easter lilies at the front of the cavernous structure. People packed the entire nave of the church to its capacity. And the voices of the full choir filled the space with traditional hymns.

After mass, we met up with friends who had dispersed at different services and found an Easter brunch. We found a pancake restaurant in Chelsea that served thin pancakes with a diameter the size of a car's steering wheel, topped with anything from apples and cinnamon to chile con carne to lamb stew to sundried tomatoes and feta. I ate up every bite of my veggie and cheese pancake, which I found very similar to a crepe. With gloomy weather overhead, we chose to nix the Easter walk through Hyde Park and indulge in Easter naps.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Au Paris!

After a two-hour-and-15-minute train ride, it took me a minute to catch my bearings as I stepped onto the platform. I was in Paris! The Eurostar high-speed train makes the 214-mile trip an easy jaunt from London, through the "Chunnel" (which only takes about 20 minutes) and across the French countryside.

My friends and I had all eaten sandwiches on the train, but by the time we checked into our hotel around 10 o'clock we were in desperate need of a little refreshment. We found a cafe down the street with tall glass doors lining the front, outdoor tables and French food. We scrolled the menu for something to snack on. But, neither the frog legs or croque monsieur sandwiches struck our stomachs. We ordered wine and asked the waiter for a baguette, but he said they ran out of bread for the night. We toasted our drinks and hoped the next day would promise a more appetizing spread. So, when the waiter came out of the kitchen carrying a heaping plate of French Fries, we looked at each other wondering how we had missed the familiar fare on the menu. Much to our surprise, he set the piping hot plate down in the middle of our table. "From me," he said. I suddenly found a warm affection for French cuisine.

The Paris weekend was not just vacation, but a study trip for my architecture class. First thing Friday morning, we saw the "Grande Arche" (the 1982 version of the "Arc de Triumph" -- a square arch big enough to fit Notre Dame underneath). We toured the Villa Savoye, a weekend home designed by French architect Le Corbusier. Don't let the 1920s date deceive, the geometric lines and flat roof of this second home looks contemporary even by today's standards. Walk in the front door and a ramp leads up to the second floor. From modern to decadent, we continued on to the Palace of Versailles (arguably the most opulent in all Europe). Visitors get a flavor of what's inside as soon as they pull up to the gate; it's all gold. The Hall of Mirrors alone boasted over a dozen crystal chandeliers and the pristine formal gardens stretched in all directions around the palace. We finished our day's tour at an architecture museum just across the river from the Eiffel Tower.

After dinner that night, one of my friends suggested climbing to the top of Montmarte Hill to the basilica, Sacre Coeur (because everything worth seeing is always on top of a hill). As soon as we climbed the last set of stairs to the top, we knew exactly why she wanted to come up. Sitting on the steps of the Byzantine-style church offered a spectacular view of Paris, the lights of the buildings and Eiffel Tower flickered across the jet black sky. Though I expected to be nearly alone in front of the church at 10:30 on a Friday night, I was quite wrong. Bring snacks, bring a bottle of vodka and bring your friends -- half of Paris was enjoying our view. We found a convenience store and a bottle of wine, and soaked in the Parisian night. And on our way down the hill, we happened upon an outdoor cafe, a waiter named Niccolo and some delicious chocolate crepes.

The next morning, we jammed the morning with Paris sights. We walked the Latin Quarter, saw Sorbonne University, poppped into Notre Dame, crossed the River Seine and finished at the Louvre. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the art haven. We saw sculpture by Michelangelo, the arm-less "Aphrodite" from the 2nd century and Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa." The famous lady will never disappoint viewers, but a rope keeping visitors three yards from the painting and protective glass left me feeling that I could have more closely examined the painting from a book than in my 60 seconds in front of the masterpiece. I found the profile view of the Mona Lisa most interesting -- a scene of outstretched limbs waving cameras toward the wall. Another highlight of the museum was seeing the remnants of a medieval castle which were discovered underneath the museum when the recent subterranean renovation occurred. Visitors can walk along the old castle walls which mark the size and shape the mammoth structure had been.

That evening we saved the Eiffel Tower for after dark. After waiting in line about 20 minutes for a ticket, we got on the double-decker elevator to the first floor. We walked around the observation deck and took in the spectacular view of the city. Then, up we went again. A second elevator takes the fearless all the way up to the top of the spire. It's a little like being at the top of the Sears Tower, but instead of more than a hundred floors of offices between you and the ground, there's only a few steel criss-crosses. Just don't think about it... There's also an incredible view of Paris -- my favorite was looking up the River Seine.

By the time we reached street-level, waited around for the light show at 10 o'clock, caught the metro to the Latin Quarter where we had planned dinner and found a restaurant, we finally faced food at midnight. Baguettes and Dijon never tasted so good -- the waiter refilled our bread basket three times before the end of the meal. Along with my carbs, I ordered one of my French favorites: French onion soup (just "onion soup" in Paris).

Before catching the train home Sunday afternoon, we made a few quick stops. We saw the famous cemetery, Pere-Lachaise (resting place of notables from Oscar Wilde to Frederic Chopin to Jim Morrison). We walked the perimeter of the Centre Pompidou (the Parisian arts center built inside out). And, we took a stroll through one of Paris's more inviting parks in which we encountered half the city either jogging or taking yoga classes in the mid-morning sun.

Au Paris...a city of lights, a city of art and a city of renowned baguettes.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The fam comes to London

I walked up the escalator in Heathrow's terminal three and on the bench ahead sat my Mom, my Dad, my brother and little London! We found the Underground's ticket office, bought everyone oyster cards (the "golden tickets" to London's tube) and headed back to the center of the city to start their week of spring break.

With too full a schedule to let jet lag interfere, as soon as they dropped their bags, it was straight to Portobello Market in Notting Hill -- my favorite outdoor market full of antiques, jewelry, books and food. We found the "Travel Bookshop" from the 1999 Hollywood classic (a favorite in our household), Notting Hill. We also found the "house with the blue door," which had been painted black (an attempt by the homeowners to go incognito from swarming fans). Then back to Portobello Road for some shopping and a drink at (what we coined) the "purple pub" to reconvene and show off our loot. Back in central London, we walked the River Thames to catch a glance at Big Ben, a traditional pub dinner and a late-night ride on the London Eye (London's trademark ferris wheel).

After years of Dad taking me on his favorite runs, on Sunday, I finally got to take my Dad on one of my favorite runs: down Southampton Row to the River Thames, along the Embankment to Big Ben, past Downing Street and the Guards House, through Trafalgar Square, past Charring Cross Station and the Savoy and back home to Bloomsbury. I think he liked it...

Later, the whole family caught the Italian mass down the street from my flat and headed over to the east side of town. I wanted to take everyone to my other top London market, the Sunday UpMarket on Brick Lane. After surveying the pots of simmering curries, thai noodles, falafels, crepes and baked goods, everyone chose their favorite. This time I tried the Japanese pancake -- a flat cake of cheese, cabbage, veggies and a soy sauce drizzled on top with a soy rice cake on the side. The rest of the fam chose an eclectic mix from crepes to pot stickers to cous cous. As I sat down to eat with my Mom and sisters, my Dad and brother were sitting down a couple tables away with a Brit to learn the rules of a board game that resembled a cross between checkers and marbles.

Later that evening, we made our way back to Covent Garden for dinner and a last drink at the Princess Louise (a treasure of a pub just around the corner from my flat) before having to bid my older sister farewell. Her flight took her back to D.C. the following morning.

The first few days of the week were a blur of class by day and London with the fam by night. I made a quick wardrobe change Monday after class and met the fam for a fish and chip dinner at "Fryer's Delight," not much to look at, but still the best fish and chips I've had in London. Then, off to Leicester Square to see "Les Mis," a treat for anyone who loves music or theatre. The voices, set, story and overall effect were unforgettable. In the intimate Queen's Theatre, the show blew me away. We finished the night with gelato sundaes from one of our favorite Italian restaurants in Soho with my roommate and her Mom.

Wednesday afternoon, the family decided to take a romantic train journey out of London to the English countryside to see Salisbury, Stonehenge and Bath. Forget "romantic train journey, think "National Lamphoons comedy of errors." My family learned long ago, "phone first" on vacation. We forgot the lesson. First we rushed out of a crowded tube to catch our train from Paddington Station. But, my stomach fell to my toes as I looked at the departure board, which was not displaying our train. Our train left from Waterloo Station -- I had written down the wrong one. So, back on the rush-hour tube trains across town. We jumped on a 5:20 p.m. train out of London just before it pulled away. But, smack in the height of rush hour, there was not a seat to be found on the train. It was not exactly the image of cross-country train travel I had painted for my family, but an adventure nonetheless.

We found seats after the train cleared out after the first couple of stops and pulled into Salisbury about an hour and a half later. We found a delicious dinner at a classic Salisbury pub, "The Haunch of Venison" and settled into our cozy hotel, "The Red Lion."

We nearly got blown away at Stonehenge the next day and spent the better part of two hours exploring Salisbury Cathedral. Then back on the train (this time a bit more relaxed) to Bath.

We spent Thursday evening and Friday exploring the charms of Bath. We saw the namesake Roman Baths in the morning. Steam still rises from the water that still fills the ruins of the baths the Romans used hundreds of years ago. At the end of the tour, visitors can taste the "bath water," which is supposed to be rich in minerals. At the height of the baths, Romans were advised to drink five liters of the "curing" water before breakfast each day for their health. One sip of the warm, iron-tasting water was plenty for me.

That afternoon, we had traditional tea with a family friend and a walk through the picturesque hillside neighborhoods of Bath -- lovely. And, first thing Saturday morning we caught our train back to London.

We toured the grounds of Wimbledon on Saturday afternoon and the accompanying museum. Then we shared a splendid last dinner in London together with family friends at their home in South London. The homemade English trifle dessert was a big hit -- layers of berries, custard, ladyfingers and cream. The evening flew by as food, drink and conversation flowed easily.

And in the early hours on Sunday morning, after lots of hugs and kisses I waved the family down the street and off to the airport. I turned around and walked back up the many steps to my flat with lots of happy memories from my family's and my sister's weeks in London, thrilled to have been able to share all the treasures I've found here.

My better half in London

As I heaved my suitcase (stuffed with goodies from Italy) up the last step of the six flights to my flat, I heard a tiny yelp from my room. My sister came running down the hall to meet me with a bath towel wrapped around her head and arms outstretched to greet me.

She arrived in London just a few hours before I did that day to spend the week of her spring break with me in lovely London. Since she had hit all the "must-see" tourist spots her first time in the city with her high school choir four years earlier, we enjoyed some of the other quainter bits of the UK capital.

Once she dried her hair and I unpacked the dirty laundry from my suitcase, we hit the streets for Covent Garden and a long-awaited sisterly shopping trip. I took her to my favorite tea shop, the boutique that does not have one article of clothing I don't like and we found a theatre shop that sells pop-up books of theatre scenes, vintage play scripts and puppets. On a small wire magazine rack, we also found books of cut-out paper dolls, including the same ones that had entertained us for hours growing up (a set of a Victorian family dolls). We found a pub not too far away and toasted our first pints out together (the first time we were both legal together).

The next morning, my sister experienced the best weather I have encountered in London since I arrived. So, we took the tube to Greenwich to peruse the Sunday markets and stand on the Prime Meridian. My sister walked right over the line -- I had to stop her, pull her back and point to the gold marker before she realized she missed it. We stopped for traditional outdoor market chow -- one of my favorite things to do in London. She tried a cheese and onion pie, I ate a chicken kebab. Then we went for a scenic stroll through Greenwich Park.

The rest of the week flew by: class by day, seeing the best of London with my sister by night. I had Wednesday afternoon off, so we made a visit to the Houses of Parliament. After a quick queue outside, we walked into the Great Hall and watched some of that afternoon's debates in the House of Commons and then in the House of Lords. The subject was (big surprise) the economy. It was something like watching Congress in Washington, D.C. from the public viewing gallery, but the building felt like a Gothic palace and rather than long rows of desks in both chambers, there were long rows of benches. Really, no desks?

That night we saw a London original, "Phantom of the Opera." From voices to set to story, the show exceeded expectations. The female lead's voice boomed through all of Act II and I sat on the edge of my seat waiting for the phantom to pop out at any moment. We found a late dinner after the show, some wine and enough conversation to be the last ones in the restaurant.

Thursday morning we decided to break out of Central London, so we hopped on a train to Cambridge for the day. The intimate village offered plenty of shops to browse, Gothic-style academic buildings and enough bakeries to ruin a tummy line. Before 12.30, some of the colleges opened the gates of their campuses. So, we strolled the gardens of Christ's College -- beautiful flowers, but we both found it a little odd that walking on the grass was prohibited. After a relaxing cafe lunch, we could not resist the sweet smells and delicate-looking cakes in the bakery next door. We each took the baker's recommendation, a sweet plain scone with raspberry jam and whipped cream. Sinfully delicious!

Back in London Friday, we hit the must-sees: Elgin's marbles and the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, Buckingham Palace and Harrods. Taking advantage of the sun, we took an afternoon stroll through Hyde Park. We reclined London-style and tried out the striped lawn chairs on the grass for a while.

After meeting friends for a pub dinner Friday night, we rested up before some other visitors landed in London....