Afternoon Tea on a Double Decker Bus

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IMG_2013On my final day in London there was one thing left that I needed to try: the desserts. I wanted to taste the cakes, lick an ice cream and devour an entire pie. Alright, maybe not an entire pie but after indulging in the food and drinks it only seemed wrong I was going to leave without trying a single dessert, which is why I ended up on Brigit’s Afternoon Tea Bus Tour.

Funnily enough while I was on the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus the Afternoon Tea Bus stopped right next to us at a light. I did a double take when the people on the bus started waving to us with a biscuit in their hand. I took a quick picture of the bus so I could search for it online later and I’m glad I did.

The bus tour is something you have to do with your girlfriends, sister, daughter or even husband. There was a man on our afternoon tour who was actually a bus driver. He wanted to take the tour because he wanted to experience London from the point of view as a traveler, though he drove the same exact route every day.

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Afternoon Tea Menu

It was a cozy experience that I completely fell in love with. I got to indulge my cravings with cucumber sandwiches, chocolate cupcakes, macaroons, scones and more while taking a ride through London. Since you have to buy your tickets in advance you get to pick where you would like to be seated, the lower or upper deck of the bus. The upper deck is closed so it’s still a perfect choice and doesn’t hinder your experience if it’s raining or chilly outside. There’s staff on board for each deck that will bring you extra desserts and refill your coffee or tea. I thought it was a genius idea to use insulated cups, designed with Brigit’s logo, for the drinks. I really wanted to experience high tea but I would not have been if I was burned by hot water or had it sloshing around from a china cup.

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A view of the lower deck of the bus.

The bus itself was extremely inviting. I loved the simple decor. Fairy lights hung in the back, the food was already set up when we got there, with pink napkins and cutlery and matching doilies. The Afternoon Tea Bus Tour is essentially the grown-up version of having a tea party at the American Girl store.

Since I had seen most of London already after a two-week trip it was nice to sit back and relax, learn some new information about the city from the onboard guide and talk to other travelers about where to go and what to see. I was also able to marvel at the fact that I had done so much during my trip. I got to gaze at Buckingham Palace again, see Harrods in the daylight, and watch the passerby’s as we coasted along Notting Hill.

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Salivating over the desserts! 

The tour itself was an hour long so it didn’t take out a significant chunk of the day. If anything it helped me remind myself to slow down and enjoy to my final day abroad because I would soon be back to reality.

 

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Je me baladais sur l’avenue: 48 Hours in Paris

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In the shadow of the Iron Lady.

It looks like it’s going to be a trend for all of my trips to spend 48 hours in another country. Italy might have stolen my heart years ago but Paris is an entirely different story.

Taking the Eurostar from St. Pancras station to Gare du Nord (The Paris Nord Train Station) proved simple. The tickets weren’t too pricy but the hotels were. I had misgivings about going to Paris. Everyone I talked to said the Eiffel Tower was ‘underwhelming’ and the food was ‘okay.’ What I say to these people now is: Ha! Utter blasphemy.

The train ride itself was comfortable. It took about two and a half hours so I occupied my time by reading a book. I thought I was going to get a view of the countryside but there wasn’t anything to see besides train tracks and wired fences. I lost myself in The Girl On The Train, which was an utter coincidence. I had been holding onto the book for the past three months trying to find time to read it but kept failing miserably. It was probably not the best time to read it because my imagination got the better of me and I started to look at the others around me before we boarded and wondered if there were any secrets they were holding. You know…were they or were they not killers, cheaters, etc. I swear I am perfectly normal.

I finished the final ten pages in a hurry as the train came to a stop in Paris. If I’m being honest the moment I got off the train I was underwhelmed with my first vision of Paris. Yes, I was still in the station but I had been really impressed with the Underground in London. If anything Paris was reminding me of New York. Men with guns everywhere (for your safety), the large scary drug sniffing dogs and people yelling all around you. It’s a good thing I’m a New Yorker. I knew how to push through the crowd.

Once I finally left the station it was extreme culture shock. I think I felt so overwhelmed because I couldn’t figure out at first how to purchase a ticket for the train. I was that person. You know, that person who doesn’t know how to use the MTA machine or has bills that are folded every which way so the machine won’t take them. That was me in another country creating traffic while travelers waited impatiently behind me. With sweat on my brow and what I assume were curses in French I gave up. I didn’t bother asking someone for help because I didn’t actually know where I was going.

I caved and took a taxi because my luggage was too heavy anyway. My first pitstop was my hotel. I felt dizzy as the driver sped past cars and circled roundabouts to the Hotel Elysees-Opera. Maybe it was because of the cold weather but I didn’t love the area of the hotel. There just weren’t enough people around. I wanted to experience the hustle and bustle of Parisian life. However, my wallet appreciated the hotel because most of the places to stay in Paris were pricey. It was between staying somewhere ritzy or splurging on food. I chose the latter.

Thanks to preconceived notions I was convinced I wasn’t going to enjoy my trip to Paris. I had this eerie feeling inside of me but I tried to push past it and I did. Naturally, I used the City Mapper app on my iPhone to locate the train and get me from point A to B. After checking in I ventured out again this time determined to buy a train ticket. I stepped to the side and was able to figure it out by watching other people and boarded my first train.

Can I just say I was extremely impressed, slightly confused and a bit horrified when I got on and off the train? I was impressed by how large the trains were and the fact that you could go from the front to the back of the train without any issue (on newer trains). I mean there was no partition, or door, to go through to get from one cart to another. Weird but I kind of wish it was like that in New York because hearing the rattle of the train as you go from cart to cart slightly terrifies me. I was confused and a bit horrified when I got on another train and the doors didn’t slide open. You had to unlatch a hook and then the train doors would open. Horrified more because I couldn’t figure it out at first and almost got stuck on the train. Ha! I am not equipped to handle any sort of machinery, no matter how basic.

Since I was in Paris for such a short time I took my classic Hop On, Hop Off Bus. Seriously, I recommend it especially if you visit when it feels like it’s zero degrees outside (really 25). Even though the bus itself was freezing due to no heat I got to listen to a short history behind Paris and key places/monuments.

My first stop might have been the touristy decision but I just had to see the Iron Lady. Ah, the Eiffel Tower! To the people that say it is small and it isn’t impressive I say you need to get your eyes checked out. The excitement I felt from seeing the Eiffel Tower from afar doesn’t hold a candle to how I felt when I saw it up close. I went to see the Eiffel Tower twice, during the day and at night so I could see it sparkle. Watching it sparkle was purely magical. Everyone stopped what they were doing and just stood there in awe (with their smartphones in the air). I felt part of something important as I basked in the glow of the structure.

Since everything closes relatively early in Paris during the wintertime I had to pick and choose what I wanted to see in a short period of time. I knew one of the stops I needed to make was at Palais Garnier. The Palais Garnier is an opera house with 1,979 seats built from 1861 to 1875. The theatre was used as the setting for the novel The Phantom of the Opera. I unfortunately have never seen the play but I was captivated by the film.

The entire opera house was gorgeous. The grand staircase was breathing taking. I wasn’t sure where to look, left, right or up. I could imagine these men and women from high society dressed up in their smart clothing and beautiful gowns walking up the staircase ready for the nights opera.

I stepped into the grand foyer with its gold ceilings and walls, marveled at the paintings and chandeliers and felt absolutely common. The auditorium was interesting as well. It’s the largest stage in Europe and where a scene of the Phantom comes from. According to our guide the crystal chandelier (7-tons, can you imagine having that hang in your dining room let alone dusting it?) in the theatre was loose, broke free and killed a member of the audience.

After marveling at the opulence of the Palais Garnier I quickly visited the Notre Dame. It was a quick visit because I was hungry and the temperature started to drop. I’m not a huge fan of taking photographs of religious relics so here’s the outside of the Notre Dame and a peek inside, where I lit a candle and said a short prayer.

 

Stomach rumbling, before I ventured inside my next spot, the Musee du Louvre, we stopped for a quick breakfast/snack. Our crepes were delicious and filling, giving my traveling companion and I (my mom folks) enough energy to master the museum. Heading to the Louvre is an all day event. I knew from photos, films and books the museum was expansive but to see it in real life was on a whole other level. We spent three hours getting lost in the museum, seriously, we got lost trying to find the Mona Lisa even though there are signs everywhere leading you to it. I spent too much time mulling over Greek history (because this is fromnytogreece after all). For the life of us we could not figure out how to use the gameboys they gave us to make our own walking tour. My advice is if you can fit it into your plans take the guided tour because we felt frustrated and a bit put off by the contraptions hanging around our necks.

IMG_1918For me, the Mona Lisa wasn’t the highlight. I had my mom running around behind me as I searched for the statue of Mary Magdalene. The nude figure is provocative, clothed only by her hair, I was impressed with the detail and carvings of the slight wave in her hair cascading down her back.

IMG_1953To end our trip, our final stop was a boat ride along the river. In my opinion it was too chilly to really enjoy the boat ride. I spent the ride back warming up inside the boat but everyone else around us enjoyed it. It felt serene as we sat down and passed the sites of Paris but I think you could pass this on a warmer day and opt to walk along the water instead.

Enjoy the song below that played on a loop on the Hop On, Hop Off Bus: 

 

 

62442: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

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The Palace Theatre 

I remember the first time I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I was in the third grade and the book was on the banned reading list. I had to remove the sleeve and read the book in my lap because Catholicism and magic didn’t go hand in hand. By the end of the first chapter I was hooked. I needed to know all about this Harry Potter.

Like most fans Harry is still a huge part of my life. The books and the films signify my childhood. Though to be completely honest I still read the books, own too much official merchandise that it embarrasses my family and I’ve had the inkling of wanting to get a tattoo (sorry mom!). When the Harry Potter Play was announced I knew I had to see it.

It didn’t matter that I lived in New York and the play was going to be in London. I would have traveled to the far ends of the earth to see the play. Hell, I would have spent half my yearly salary in order to see Harry come to life. The day the tickets were announced I was on the bus to work and kept obsessively refreshing the page in order to get my hands on some. The panic was real and my anxiety was at an all time high. I was sweating as I went through the tunnel on the express bus and lost my internet connection therefore losing my tickets just as I was about to submit my credit card information.

I had to start all over again. Refresh–head into the train station. Refresh-shit, there’s no internet connection on the 1 train.  Refresh–crap, I have a meeting at work.

Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.

Yes!

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The elusive tickets! Refresh, refresh, refresh…worth every penny.

The earliest tickets I could get were two years away but it didn’t matter. I was heading to London to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child! It was all I could talk about that day.

If I’m being honest it was all I could talk about for the past two years. With every month that passed I was getting closer to London. When the play started I refused to read any reviews and I went back and forth about reading the screenplay. Once I got the book in my hands I caved. I could still be surprised once the time came but I could also secretly memorize every single line (I told you I’m obsessed) and still shake my leg in anticipation throughout the entire play.

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I was in the third row! Here’s a view of the stage from my seat. Getting ready for Part II.

Two years later, once I finally made it to London, seeing the outside of the Palace Theatre was a dream come true. As I followed my map on my iPhone, each step I took was filled with an overwhelming sense of joy. I tried to play it cool as I stood on line but my heart swelled at the red and gold of Gryffindor scarves from the others waiting with me. We were all buzzing. It felt like magic.

The play was not a let down. I’ve read reviews and talked to people about the play after I saw it–and yes, they are mixed. I myself felt nervous when I was waiting for the play to begin. What if it didn’t live up to my expectations? But it did. In order to #keepthesecrets I won’t going into too much detail but I will say this:

During the last act of the performance there was not a dry eye in the theatre.

img_1774I wept openly as did everyone around me, men, women, people of all ages were moved by the performance of Harry and co. Since most of the scenes were relatively short, the ‘magic’ they were performing didn’t feel overdone. It came in quick bursts, sometimes in the blink of an eye, that even I had a hard time figuring out the mechanics behind it.

The actors were superb. They brought to life the magical world that I had fallen in love with. Jamie Parker’s (Harry Potter) performance was so raw. The emotions he was portraying felt real. There was a moment where I had the urge to scream out loud in order to warn him of the tragedy to come.

If you can get your hands on some tickets I’d recommend the play in a heartbeat. You’ll be experiencing more than a play. The sense of community is astounding, sitting there with more than a thousand other fans buzzing around you, the energy doesn’t compare to the one at a ball game or concert. It’s greater. The nostalgia factor will be high and if you’re a true fan once you sit in your seat you’ll feel a sense of home. Just remember to bring a packet of tissues and offer to share with your neighbor. Trust me, you’ll need it.

 

Hop-On, Hop-Off: A Tour of London

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A wide shot of Buckingham Palace.

 

Even though I’m a native New Yorker I get lost in my own city. No matter where I work (or how long) I rely on my map in my iPhone to get me from Point A to Point B. Public transportation? Yeah, not a fan. I find nothing thrilling about waiting in a dirty train station for a train that may or may not come in five, ten or fifteen minutes. Don’t get me started on the garbage, the rats or the smells.

However, I completely understand when people come from other countries the excitement they feel going on their first NYC train ride. It’s the same way I felt when I first got on the train in London.

The train was clean. It was quaint. The novelty didn’t wear off during my two week trip there. Hell, if New York trains were as clean as the ones in London I would cease all of my complaints.

Getting around London was easier than I thought. Still, I used to my phone as a guide. Yes, I got lost several times but taking the wrong route sometimes leads you to a better one.

When I was planning my trip to London there wasn’t that much planning involved. I went with one ultimate goal: to see the Harry Potter play. Of course I also wanted to see the sites and be a complete tourist. The easiest way to go about that for me was to buy tickets for the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour.

I’ve taken the same bus tour in Spain, Greece and Paris. If you like to see things at your own pace like me with minimal guide then I’d highly recommend the bus route. I could have easily taken the train to get from museum to museum but the bus allows you to see everything you’d be missing while underground and with minimal walking.

I am a big fan of minimal walking.

Especially when it’s the middle of winter and snowing on your much needed vacation.

Even though I complain about the weather, the perfect vacation for me doesn’t involve tanning at the beach. I like to see museums, marvel at the architecture and eat too much food.

Here’s a list of the some of the highlights on ‘The Original’ bus tour:

  1. St. Paul’s Cathedral
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A partial view of St. Paul’s Cathedral

As a Catholic I make it my mission to visit at least one or two places of worship when I’m in other countries. With my anxiety it gives me a sense of calm to know there are other people out there in the same vicinity that are seeking guidance from a higher power, whoever that may be. The only thing about visiting religious sites is you usually cannot take pictures inside. To me that isn’t a major downside. Putting away your camera allows you to quietly reflect and capture the essence of the place even if it is for a short period of time. For Americans, seeing St. Paul’s Cathedral is especially interesting because Lady Diana and Prince Charles were wed there.

2. Buckingham Palace

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Here am I cheesing in front of Buckingham Palace. Enjoy the mother-daughter duo taking selfies next to me. They were just as impressed as I was!

Did you really think I was going to come to London and not visit the Queen? Go figure it was raining in London practically everyday I was there (or snowing) so I didn’t catch the changing of the guards. I couldn’t go inside Buckingham Palace either because they have summer tours. So if you ever get to go inside you have to promise me you’ll write in detail about the experience and share it with me. I didn’t feel like I missed out though because the outside of the palace itself was mind boggling.

For some reason I assumed because it was winter time there wouldn’t be a lot of people around. Wrong. Apparently I’m not the only one that likes a cold vacation. There were several groups of people (with selfie sticks) running around the palace taking photos. We all stared in awe at the gates and the crest of the House of Windsor.

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Not to mention the sheer size of the palace. All I’m saying is it would make a great AirBnB listing.

3. The Tower of London

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Do you remember sitting in history class and learning about all of the different battles, fights and beheadings that happened back then? Yeah, this is where they took place. The Tower of London was originally a royal palace and then became a defense system in the late 19th century. It is a fortress and it is actually extremely spooky. Maybe it was because of the snow but I felt an eerie chill the entire time I was there. I don’t believe in ghosts but twenty-two executions took place within the Tower, that information itself spooked me out just a bit.

It was worth fighting that feeling because the Tower of London is where the Crown Jewels are! For security measures you aren’t allowed to take photos but it was great to see a video of the coronation of the Queen and see the different crowns wore by several monarchs, the coronation spoon (over 800 years old–I mean really, a spoon!) and more.

4. Tower Bridge

As you exit the tower of London you will see a perfect view of Tower Bridge and the prettiest view of London. To be honest it is rather expensive to walk along the glass suspension walkway. I didn’t realize you had to pay. I’m sure photos from the top look amazing and granted it’s an experience but I’m also afraid of heights so it wasn’t a necessity for me. The bridge is a must see because it’s iconic and is a good photo opportunity.

5. The British Museum

If you wanted to you could spend an entire day here. The British Museum is huge. It has several floors all dedicated to different collections ranging from South Africa, Korea, China, Iran, Greece and more.

If you couldn’t tell from my blog I have a lot of love for Greece. I can admit I spent a little too much time looking through the sculptures and artifacts from Greece. However, the obvious highlight at the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone. As a lover of history to see the Rosetta Stone in real life was thrilling. Yes, I get excited over hieroglyphics and granite slabs. I know what you’re thinking…I am a cheap date.

The bus tour of course includes a number of other stops and sites to see but I wanted to put emphasis on these five locations because I visited these stops on my first day. Convenient? Yes! Traveling can be overwhelming, especially when you want to see everything but you’re on a time crunch. I’ll admit it might not seem like much but when you take into account the sheer fact I spent easily two hours at some of the bigger sites the day was practically over before it started.

London Calling

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My first day in London. A view of the London Eye and Parliament. 

After all these years I truly believed going to Greece was a fluke. I look at pictures and think ‘Did that really happen? Was I actually there?’ If it wasn’t for this blog I wouldn’t even remember the person I was back then or the experiences I had.

When I came back from Greece I never thought I’d have the opportunity to go anywhere again. To be frank it was expensive and traveling wasn’t the priority when I was just about to graduate from college. I needed a job. I needed a decent paycheck. I needed to #adult.

It wasn’t until 2015 that I started to plan my next trip. It happened unexpectedly. The funds were still nonexistent. I had a freelance job that paid me decent money and a second gig on the side but I was doing nothing. I felt unfulfilled, depressed and bored with life. Which is why when I received an e-mail that there was going to be a Harry Potter play in London I knew I had to go.

Call me a Potterhead. Call me a nerd. The truth of the matter is I felt a yearning. I had to get out of ‘dodge’ and the play gave me an excuse. It was 2015 and the earliest tickets I could get were for January 2017.

I can assure you I did not hesitate putting my credit card information in and pressing submit.

I was going to London…it was just going to take me a few years to get there.