The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Corwall, Buckingham Palace, and How To See Vienna In 45 Minutes

The first question I got when telling people I was going to Cornwall was “Where?” and/or “Why?” So first, a few nerdly facts. Cornwall is the southwesternmost corner of England. Celtic in origin, they even have their own language (Cornish), their own chickens (Cornish Game) and some residents even advocate some form of independence (along the lines of Scotland or Wales). Called the West Country along with neighboring Devon, it’s known for its rocky coasts and Arthurian legend.

Great view of London from the plane (as always, you can click to enlarge):

So in one positively exhausting day I flew to London via Munich, took two trains to the town of Exeter, and rented a car to drive to my first destination, Torquay (Devon’s “English Riviera”). I was a little nervous—I’d had some experience driving on the left side of the road in Australia, but this time I wouldn’t have Colleen to poke me when I went on the right (wrong) side of the road.

Actually, driving on the left is easy: a lane is a lane. The harder part is being completely unable to judge the clearance on your left side! And this was much worse than Australia. The roads in Australia were wide and open; in this ancient part of England they were built before cars and had barely enough room for one to pass another. In fact, in some spots there wasn’t enough room for two cars to pass; one of you would have to back up and let the other through! And there are high hedgerows and walls on either side, which not only does the country a disservice (it’s very beautiful but you can’t see it!!), but it was positively maddening!! And then don't get me started on the traffic circles!…But, I digress…

I spent two nights in Torquay and two nights in Newquay (Cornwall’s “Surfing Capitol of the UK”, but really, Hawai`i needn’t worry about any competition). The Imperial Hotel in Torquay was lovely and is featured in some Agatha Christie novels—though it was unseasonably hot and not air-conditioned. It seems that most hotels in England have no air conditioning but full complimentary tea service, so that even at the height of summer you can’t cool off but you can enjoy a steaming cup of tea. But again, I digress…

The first day I was exhausted and spent it all in bed. Now, I’ve been called by a hotel’s front desk before because I had the “do not disturb” sign out and it was already mid-day and they wanted to make up my room. But this was the first time I’ve ever been called by the front desk because “they were concerned” that I hadn’t even taken in my paper! probably thought they had a stiff in room 311. So it wasn’t until the second day that I got out to see stuff, and spent much of it driving though Dartmoor National Park:

Dartmoor is famous as the setting for The Hound of the Baskervilles, as well as the wild Dartmoor Ponies (who have a hairstyle similar to a number of girls in my high school yearbook):

I hiked to the top of one of the tors (a rocky outcrop atop a moor), and it was just about the windiest spot I’d ever seen. Click here for cheesy self-video!

From here I drove up to Tintagel on the north shore. The sweeping coast here is crowned by the ruins of Tintagel Castle. According to legend, this is where King Arthur was born and where the Knights of the Round Table lived. In reality it was built in the 12th Century by the Earl of Cornwall who used the legend of Arthur purely as propaganda to consolidate his power. But just try to tell that to the merchants in town who sell Merlin souvenirs, new-age crystals, and delicious Excaliburgers.

That evening I arrived at my second destination, the Headland Hotel in Newquay. It sits by itself on a promontory, surrounded by sea on three sides, and is quite impressive upon first sight:

The next day I drove through the town of Penzance (yes, that Penzance) to Land’s End—the westernmost tip of England. They say that it is a spectacular sight, with wild, rocky coasts and islands and lighthouses…but sadly it was COMPLETELY fogged in. You couldn’t even see the water's edge:

But the fog did make for some haunting views of the church and churchyard in nearby Sennen:

From here I drove past Saint Michael’s Mount, a small tidal island crowned with a castle. The low fog made it all the more beautiful. For those of you who are familiar with France, you’ll note the striking similarity to the Mont St. Michel. Indeed the ancient Norman invaders noticed the similarity, too, which is why they gave it the same name and built a similar church on top:

My last stop of the day was The Lizard Peninsula and Kynance Cove. This spectacular spot on the southern shore of Cornwall was breathtaking, especially hike to the hidden gem of Kynance:

When I got back to the Headland Hotel, I walked on Fistral Beach, which is about the widest I’ve ever seen. It was a beautiful place to watch the sun set, and there were some striking jellyfish on the sand:

Coming back into London by train, I went through Paddington Station. And yes, Paddington is there:

After the business portion of my trip (which included a day in utterly forgettable Birmingham) I had a free afternoon, so I headed to Buckingham Palace. Since her Golden Jubilee, the Queen has opened the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace to the public during the summers while she is away at her summer home in Balmoral. It was her gift to the nation. I think she’s also hit on hard times now that the royals have to pay taxes. You still can’t get into the private quarters, unless, of course, you’re Michael Fagan.

Photography is not allowed in Buckingham Palace, but of course I didn’t let that stop me from sneaking a few pix. As you can see, picnicking is also forbidden, which was unfortunate because I was hoping to bust out a blanket and some sandwiches in the Throne Room:

The aforementioned throne room. I have to say they were surprisingly well-worn and in need of a good upholstering (Ralph?):

The Music Room, also used for other functions. It’s where Prince William was baptized:

A typically ornate ceiling:

One room is used for a different display every year. This year it’s dresses made for the Queen during her reign. It was quite interesting, actually. Each dress is made for a specific state event, and that’s usually taken into account by the designer. For example, a dress made for a visit to California had a pattern made up of California Poppies. Another dress made for a visit to Thailand had panels of yellow that matched the color of that country’s own royal order. I also noted that she is TINY—and so was her waist for most of her reign (a few recent dresses showed some disappearance of the hips, but give the woman a break—she’s 80 now):

This fireplace had a cheap paper cutout of fire in it. Maybe the Royal Family really has hit on some hard times…

The backyard:

Cheesy self-pic of me in the backyard, trying to look regal:

Here’s the guest throne!:

My tour continued to the Royal Mews (fancy word for stables). This is where the horses, carriages, and cars are all kept. Being summer, most of the horses were away at camp. But all of the coaches were there to see. This is one of the most commonly used coaches (I forget it’s name), seen at royal weddings and state functions and the such:

This is the remarkable Gold State Coach. It’s huge and richly ornate, decorated with gilded statues and oil paintings, and requires 8 horses to pull. It was built in 1762 and has been used for every coronation since George IV. It was last used in 2002 as part of Her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee celebrations:

Here is it in action at the Golden Jubilee in 2002 (I didn’t take these, natch):

Finally, here are a few shots of "Big Ben, Parliament!", and Westminster Abbey:

That night I had a great and fun dinner with Céline, Gary, and Clay (the crew from CDM Europe, which is based in London) at Roka. But this was also where things started to go down hill. I had been sick during much of the trip, which wasn’t fun. Then when I tried to pay for our dinner (actually courtesy of Carol DiSanto, a wonderful managing parter at CDM), the waiter announced to the entire table that my card had been declined. Classy!

Meanwhile, my plan from here had been a simple one. Austrian Airlines has a deal that if you fly business class between the US and someplace in Europe outside of Austria with a connection in Vienna, they’ll let you spend one night in Vienna all expenses paid! So I figured, what the hell. I’ never been to Vienna. I also got myself a top seat to see La Bohème at the Vienna Staatsoper on my one night there, adding yet another jewel to my crown of visits to the world’s greatest opera houses.

I was to arrive in Vienna early on Saturday so I would have the afternoon to sightsee. And I was leaving late on Sunday so I would have some time the second day as well. Then I got a call that my attendance was required at a meeting in Paris on Sunday and Monday, so I had to change my plans and leave early on Sunday morning for France. That meant I lost Sunday.

Well, my flight Saturday morning was delayed. I was also forced by the new security policies at Heathrow to check my carry-on camera bag. I finally got to Vienna—but my camera bag didn’t. By the time I filled out the reports and all and got to my hotel, I’d pretty much lost my free time for Saturday, too! So this was essentially just a very complicated trip to the opera!

Well, the opera was great, and the sense of history in such a great house was palpable.

Exterior of the house:

Ceiling of one of the halls of the house:

Panoramic view from my seat (click to'll be just like you're there!:

Looking back into the house from near the stage. I sat in the front row of the giant box in the middle:


I got back to my hotel around 10:00. I had an early flight to Paris the next morning and knew that the lights on most monuments went out at 11:00. But I couldn’t resist seeing at least a little of Vienna. It seemed like such a wonderful city (and I was right). So I did a fairly complete nighttime tour in record time!:

The familiar roof of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the heart of Vienna:

The “Figaro” house, where Mozart lived while writing The Marriage of Figaro:

Not the most spectacular sight, but I have to say the most exciting: the statue of Johann Strauss Jr. in the Stadtpark. It just says “Vienna” more than anything else, and was beautifully lit under a full moon:

The famed Hofburg:

Close-up of the Austrian Parliament:

Right about then, the lights went out on all the monuments. That didn’t make for good photography, but I didn’t let that stop me from strolling until about 2AM past other great and beautiful sights. What a great city.

Well, if you only look at my blog for the pictures (kinda like how I read National Geographic), you may as well shut down or browse over to a porn site now. As I mentioned, my camera bag was lost, which contained my film camera and the better of my two digital ones. Just to update you on that tale…my camera bag was found the same day it was lost and sent to Vienna, but by then I was in Paris. So they sent it to Paris, but Air France was FIVE DAYS behind in delivering lost bags to people’s hotels. So they sent it to JFK on 9/11. NOW THEY’VE LOST TRACK OF IT AT JFK AND AS OF SEPEMBER 23 I STILL DO NOT HAVE IT (or it’s $3000 worth of contents)! But I digress…

United had rebooked me on an Air France flight to Paris from Vienna. I checked in with Air France with no problem. I got a nice window seat. I got my boarding pass and checked my (remaining) bag. But an hour later when I tried to board the plane, I WAS DENIED (much like my AmEx card in London…). Turns out United can’t actually ticket passengers on Air France—and they never told me that. They wouldn’t let me on and had my bag removed. To make an extremely long story extremely short, United rebooked me on later flights TWICE MORE, and BOTH TIMES I was AGAIN denied boarding because they hadn’t properly ticketed the reservation. Austrian Airlines finally fixed the situation (bless them!) but I’d spent EIGHT HOURS at the airport and had to pay. I gave up my day in Vienna, and missed my meeting in Paris. It was terrible. For those of you who care for the long story, you can click here to read my angry letter to United.

Paris was fine, but two days later on my flight home from Paris I lost my one remaining digital camera and my new iPod Nano—and they were never found. Meanwhile, my camera bag is still lost at JFK and United has done nothing to make up for their ineptitude despite three angry letters. Good times, good times.

So sadly in the end it all kinda sucked. But as time and the pain passes, I’m trying to hold on to the beautiful memories of Cornwall and Vienna. And that’s a sentence I’ll likely never use again.


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