The Ultimate Christmas Present

January 05, 2015

(Originally posted on my old personal blog, Adventures with KHill!)

I was close to not writing a post about this trip since it was so quick, but my dad (the blog’s biggest fan) urged me to do so if only for preserving my own memories. So here goes!

First, some backstory. One of my best friends from my freshman year of college, whom I sadly haven’t seen enough since then, is studying this year at Oxford. Another of my best friends was going to visit her over winter break and do some traveling around Europe with her, and she kept telling me that I should join. I thought it would be totally out of the question due to money, but decided to propose the idea to my parents and grandparents. They were all on board to give me the trip as my Christmas gift, which was a wonderful surprise. So off I went! Did I mention how grateful I am to have the most loving, selfless, supportive parents and grandparents in the world?

Monday: I got my plane ticket a month before the trip and flew over to London a couple of days after my last final, so it was all kind of an amazing whirlwind. Upon landing in London, I met my friends in the airport and we had a happy and delirious-from-plane reunion. Then, we hopped a bus (double decker, of course) for a quick stop at our hotel by the airport to drop our stuff off and get cleaned up for the day. It never fails to amaze me how a shower can make one feel like a new person and forget all about the fact that you’ve been awake for 24 hours already. We then got on the Tube and headed into town, which was a longer trip than I realized but it was cool to see how the outskirts of London look and I LOVE public transportation, as I discovered last summer…We got off at Piccadilly Circus and as we emerged from the Underground station, it became real for the first time that I was actually in London. Piccadilly Circus is like London’s Times Square, with all the big neon signs and such, but all the modern things are juxtaposed against these beautiful old buildings that just give you a feeling of classy British-ness. (On that note, if anything in this blog sounds less than eloquent or just particularly dumb, I am blaming it on jet lag…a week after returning home.) From there, we walked for a bit before finding a place to buy tickets for a particular bus tour company that my friends had looked into. For anyone wondering, Big Bus Tours in London is great for Hop-On, Hop-Off tours. Our ticket was valid for 48 hours and included a boat tour down the Thames! Nice. So anywho, we used the bus at the start of the day to get us to some places that we wanted to see. We saw Trafalgar Square, with a mysterious large and blue rooster statue in the middle. We got off at Westminster Abbey which is STUNNING in person, but from there I also discovered my favorite building in London - the Houses of Parliament feat. Big Ben. Seriously, Big Ben (which I know is technically the bell and not the clock tower, blah blah) is so, so beautiful in person and I was in awe. I could not get enough pictures of it and it got prettier every time I looked at it. From right across the bridge from Parliament, we got back on the bus and rode it around the South Bank, where we saw some things like the London Eye. We got off again at St. Paul’s Cathedral to take some pictures, including one in a famous red telephone booth. Funny thing about the telephone booths - there are some all throughout the city where you can get free wifi. Wifi telephone booths? What kind of futuristic world do we live in? After that, we walked on to Millennium Bridge, nicknamed the Wibbly Wobbly Bridge for how faulty its initial construction was, and crossed over to walk some of the South Bank and see the Globe Theater, the only building in London that is allowed to have a thatched roof. It was so cool to see the Globe; even if it’s a recreation, you just get a sense for how far back London’s history goes and it’s easy to imagine people in Shakespeare’s times coming out of a show there. If we’d had more time, I would have liked to see a show at the Globe. We found a Starbucks where we refueled (honey almond hot chocolate for my anti-coffee self) and we walked a little more before deciding to catch the Big Bus again. This time, we caught the line that drove us right across the Tower Bridge and past the Tower of London as the sun was setting. We sat in the top of the bus in the front four seats so we had the most incredible view of the city and the Thames against the sunset. I seriously had to pinch myself, it felt that perfect. We drove right up to Big Ben and got to see it at dusk for the first time…I was in love. We decided to take the bus for the full loop, so we got to see a lot of the west side of London, including Hyde Park, Chelsea, a little of Buckingham Palace, at night. It was the perfect conclusion to a jam packed first day in the city. On the way back to the hotel, we made a stop at Kings Cross Station to see Platform 9 and 3/4 from the Harry Potter series. Turns out, Platform 9 and 3/4 is not really a platform but rather just a wall where they have added a sign and some Harry Potter props and people line up to take pictures. So we felt foolish but also shamelessly excited as we waited in line with the others and posed with the scarves from our respective Hogwarts houses on the “platform.” After that, we headed for home base. Once we got back to where our hotel was located by Heathrow, we sat down in a pub for a delicious and filling meal. Then I passed out in my bed for approximately 10 hours dreaming sweet dreams of Big Ben.

Tuesday: You’re probably exhausted from my description of Monday, but I’m going to assume that it’s just my dad reading this and that he wants full detail. We woke up on Tuesday and packed all our things once more to switch to a new residence closer to town. We stayed in the Wombat Hostel, which coincidentally had only opened in London the week before we got there. We were all thrilled with the new digs - clean, great location, friendly staff, and cheap (the real kicker). So after we dropped our stuff there, we headed toward the Thames to prepare for our boat tour. We all grabbed a to-go lunch from Pret a Manger (what I have determined to be a British Panera) and ate it on the pier overlooking the Thames and Tower Bridge while we waited for the boat. The boat trip was only 30 minutes or so but it was really cool to see the city from that angle and to get to travel under all the bridges. And how many people get to say they’ve ridden down the Thames, the same river the Romans traveled when settling in England? The boat let us off right by the Houses of Parliament, and we caught the Underground nearby to head toward the day’s biggest adventures - Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden aka the studios where all eight HARRY POTTER movies were filmed!!! The four of us were being extreme nerds the entire day but did not even care because this was one of the coolest experiences ever. The studios house a ton of the original sets, props, and costumes from the Harry Potter films, and it was unreal to see it all in person. I could go on for pages talking about all the things I saw there, but I think that all Harry Potter fans should make the journey there themselves and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. I will say, though, that seeing the Hogwarts model on which they filmed all exterior shots of the school was potentially a religious experience. It is so intricate and beautiful and I was in awe. So we spent around 5 hours at Harry Potter studios and ate dinner in their cafe before heading back to the hostel. Perfect day 2 in London!

Wednesday: This day was super easy in terms of the travel and planning involved, which was verrrry little. We were traveling with a tour group to see Stonehenge and Bath, so the tour bus picked us up at this swanky hotel near our hostel and the day was all planned out from there. Our tour guide’s name was Claudia and she was a sweet British lady from Nottingham, like Robin Hood! First, we went to Stonehenge. STONEHENGE. Admittedly, I was expecting to be underwhelmed; how cool can a pile of rocks be? However, my privileged millenial expectations were blown out of the water when we got there. It is so beautiful, mysterious, and well preserved. I can so appreciate an archaeological mystery. I found myself listening to every little story on the audio guide and my friends and I took pictures and observed it from every angle. It was truly breathtaking and something that I think everyone should see. Then suddenly, we only had 15 minutes until we had to be at our bus and Claudia had already informed us all that the bus can and will leave without latecomers. So we high-tailed it back to the parking lot, which is humorous because we were forced to ride this tram back to the visitors center on the way that moved at approximately 3 miles per hour. Then we made it onto the bus just in time, and my friend even got to run (literally run) into the gift shop to get a souvenir ornament. From there, we were off to Bath. Holy cow, Bath. I had no idea what to expect from Bath and it turned out to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever traveled. The whole town was designed by an architect-turned-city planner in a very particular style so that the buildings are all cohesive and made from the same pretty white stone. There were so many gorgeous townhouses and parks and a gorgeous abbey in the middle. There was a bridge over a river that was SO stunning and apparently one of only a few bridges in the world that contains shops and restaurants on it. All the streets were decked out with Christmas lights and decorations, and it felt a little bit like I was in a dream. I could completely picture myself living there. The whole city was so charming and I just wanted to explore forever. But since we only had a couple of hours, my friends and I decided to forgo seeing the Roman Bath for which the city was named in order to see more of the city. I’m so glad we decided to do that; I felt like we really got more out of our time there and got to look in some of the cutest shops and see some beautiful architecture. We also ate some excellent food in a little cafe - a very worthwhile excursion. I was sad to leave Bath, but know I’ll be back sometime. When we got back to London that night, we ate at the first decent looking pub we could find near the Tower for dinner. The hilarious part of this was the bouncer who tried to ID us when we walked in, but we had all left our most legitimate forms of ID at the hostel and he literally said the words, “What are you guys, like, 14?” After explaining that he was 6-7 years off and that we only wanted food, he let us stay and all was well. I think this was the night that we went to our hostel’s bar when we got back and the music they were playing was essentially stolen from my iPod circa 2007. So many laughs, another fun day.

Thursday: We all got up in the morning and it was one friend’s last day in London after she had spent a semester at Oxford, so we all accompanied her to the Underground. This is when one of the most hilarious and horrifying but mostly hilarious moments of the trip occurred. The other three of us were carrying parts of her luggage and she had her biggest suitcase. We all got onto the Tube, and then the doors closed, shutting her out. We were all banging on the doors and windows and yelling trying to get it to reopen. It was a 5-second crisis. One friend was in the middle of shouting “JUST MEET US AT THE NEXT STATION!” when the kind Underground operator reopened the doors and let our friend on. We were relieved before realizing we would have to spend another half hour or so on the Tube with all these people who had just witnessed our screaming, fist-pounding meltdown. I was almost in tears from laughing so hard. We parted ways with our departing friend quickly at Kings Cross, then the rest of us headed to Windsor Castle. This was another wonderful surprise of the trip. I had heard Windsor described while we were in London as “quaint” and “cozy,” which is why the Queen chooses to live there. However, the place was absolutely huge. It was a whole little village within the castle walls. Tickets were not expensive, and we got to see sooo much. We started out by going to St. George’s Chapel. There were so many gorgeous little alcoves where people can go to pray and everything was so detailed. All around the floor, there were giant marble gravemarkers for all the royals or knights or others buried in the chapel. I was just walking along in the choir area when I stepped onto a marker for KING HENRY VIII. King Henry VIII was just buried right there. I am a big Tudor England nerd, so that was just insanely cool. There was also a balcony built for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, so that she could watch some ceremonies even though she was Catholic. I have been in a lot of big, beautiful churches all over Europe, but this was the first time I’d ever really been somewhere with so many mementos and such from these hugely famous royals about whom I’ve read and studied a lot. It was amazing. From there, we watched the changing of the guard, which was less amazing and more funny. There was a lot of incoherent shouting and marching and their hats are just so funny. What is less funny is that they carry AK-47s…what?? That kind of defeats the illusion of being in Ye Olde England. After that, we headed toward the interior of the castle and saw a few guards marching and - I kid you not - the lead guard stuck his tongue out at us. It was the best moment that I didn’t catch on camera, my biggest regret of the trip. So the first place we went inside the castle was to see Princess Victoria’s dollhouse. It was a doll version of Buckingham Palace and, naturally, it was bigger than my closet and nicer and probably more expensive than any home I will ever own. From there, we went into this exhibit that had a bunch of documents from England royals on display. There were love letters from Albert to Victoria before they were married, a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Victoria following the death of Albert, a note from Queen Elizabeth II to her mother after surviving the WWII bombing of Buckingham Palace, handwritten memos from Winston Churchill, and more. SO interesting to read and I was in awe that they were all so well-preserved, even documents dating back to the 1200s where the script was hardly legible. I really loved that exhibit. From there, we went into the state rooms, which was a much more extensive part of the visit than any of us expected. You can actually tour through many rooms of the castle and see where the queen does her entertaining and receives guests, where they have had family Christmas dinners in the past, etc. They were all so beautiful and I would like to know who does Lizzy’s decorating for her. Once we were through there, we scurried back to the train station to catch the train back to London, picking up lunch along the way. Back in London, we quickly navigated to the Tower of London so we would have enough time to check it out before its closing time a couple of hours later. We got there just in time to catch the last free walking tour of the day with one of the beefeaters. He just gave us the lay of the land and some fun little anecdotes about all the torture and beheadings that took place there. Real lighthearted stuff. You can see the actual spot, marked with a little memorial, where Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey were beheaded. It’s hard to fathom that that was real and not just a story you hear in history class. We got to see the Crown Jewels, which I had not realized were kept in the Tower. They are very sparkly. My favorite part was this giant gold cauldron encrusted with so many gemstones that was literally labeled “Royal Punch Bowl.” I can just imagine Queen Elizabeth whipping that thing out at parties. It can apparently hold forty bottles of wine. FORTY. From there, we saw a bunch of the armor and weapons used in England throughout the centuries, and another building where many men were held before their executions. You can see the carvings in the walls of initials, messages, etc. that were actually made by royals and other Englishmen executed in the Tower. Kind of eerie but also interesting. The sun was starting to set by this point and the Tower would be closing soon, so we really wanted to make it to the tower wall to get a good view of the Tower Bridge at night. We could not figure out to save our lives (funny because Tower of London) how to get there, so we ended up speed-walking through nearly every part of the Tower we hadn’t yet seen (with the exception of the townhomes - there are townhomes in the Tower of London where people actually LIVE. What??). We finally made it and it was SO worth it. I just thought the Tower Bridge was so beautiful and seeing it at night was perfect, especially for my last day in London. After that, we checked out the Tower gift shop before heading off to our final London destination - Buckingham Palace. Even though it was night time, the palace was nicely lit and it was pretty unreal to see it in person. The very balcony where William and Kate kissed for the world to see! What a time to be alive! So we snapped a few blurry and dark pictures, ooh’d and aah’d, and went on our merry way. Perfect ending to a perfect London trip.

Friday: Guten Tag! This was the day we headed to Germany via Basel, Switzerland. We woke up early to catch the train to the airport, this time London City Airport. Much quicker to get to and much smaller than Heathrow. The whole travel process was very easy and when we got to Basel, we caught a charter bus to Freiburg, Germany. Our few minutes in Switzerland were nice. Not much to see around the Basel airport, but I’ve been to a different part of Switzerland before and remember it being a beautiful country so I will just trust that that hasn’t changed. At the bus station in Freiburg, we met up with my friend’s sister who is studying at the University there and was essentially our guide to the city. She helped us with getting tickets for the Straßenbahn, which is basically a cable car system that runs throughout the city. She took us to a cafe called Salädchen, which was like a Chipotle but with salads and baked potatoes. I was incredibly hungry so the baked potato with dressing over salad was the best meal I had ever eaten at the time. In hindsight, it was still pretty good. From there, we walked to our apartment, but got lost and ended up walking most of downtown Freiburg. From our accidental tour, I could tell already that I liked Freiburg. It had cobblestone streets and sidewalks, everything was very walkable, the public transportation is super convenient, and there were so many stores and restaurants. It’s the kind of place I could see myself studying or working or living. I say that about a lot of German cities, though… When we got to our apartment, which was the most perfect little place ever, we sat down for a while and had some hot tea and coffee. After we had sufficiently recharged, we made our first foray into the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market). It may have been the most perfect place I have ever been. EVERYTHING WAS CHRISTMAS. There were a lot of little cabin-y huts set up where people were selling food, crafts, ornaments, etc., and it was all Christmas themed. I don’t think I stopped smiling the whole time. One of the best parts of that first night was getting to eat one of my favorite German foods - Currywurst! I also had a waffle with powdered sugar on it. It was such a perfect first day back in a country that I love so much. Once back at the apartment, we decided that we all needed some rest for the next day after constantly moving the whole week, so none of us set an alarm clock for Saturday…

Saturday: …which led to the best night of sleep I have had in years. We slept til at least 11 a.m. and it was killer. We all felt like new people when we woke up. We had a leisurely breakfast at home with bread, cheese, and salami we bought at the grocery the night before, then we got on the Straßenbahn to head to my friend’s sister’s apartment. It was in a more modern side of town, but still very clean and cute. We hung out there for a few minutes and met one of her German roommates, then the four of us headed back to downtown. We went to the Freiburg Münster, the big cathedral in town. It was - as expected - so beautiful on the inside with elaborate stained glass windows and a life-size nativity scene. Then, we decided to climb the 250+ stairs to the top of the cathedral. Just as I was thinking how miserable of a walk it was, we reached the top and paid our 1 euro to the lady who has to WALK THOSE STAIRS TO GET TO WORK. What a job. Bless that woman (extra blessings since it’s a cathedral and all). The very top was super windy and cold but had some really great views of the city and the architecture on the Münster itself. We also waited in the bell tower for the half-hour ring of the bells which was loud but also a bit anticlimactic because there is one small bell that rings only once on the half hour. Still a worthwhile journey. After that, we went back to the Christmas market (of course) and did some souvenir shopping. For dinner, we wanted to go to a brewery, but it turned out to be very crowded so we went to another restaurant a little farther away. It ended up being a great choice, as it was nearly empty and their dinner special was schnitzel - the food we all wanted to order. I LOVE schnitzel, if any of you loyal readers (dad) remember from last summer. It was a wonderful dinner and another great night’s sleep.

Sunday: We got to sleep in just a little on this day too, which is always nice. We had another homemade breakfast before heading to the bus station to get on our bus to Strasbourg, France! That’s right, people, fourth country in a week. I am a fortunate lady. The bus ride was about an hour, and as soon as we were dropped off, we saw a big map designating all the Christmas markets in town. Strasbourg calls itself “Capitale de Noël,” and it quickly became clear why. In basically every square in town, there is a Christmas market set up and they all have different themes. For example, one was totally Belgian themed and they had a Belgian waffle vendor and souvenirs from Belgium. One of the bigger and more crowded markets was right by the beautiful church, Notre Dame de Strasbourg. There, I bought a little handheld cheese and bacon flatbread for lunch with chocolate covered strawberries on a skewer. I like the way those people do street food. We made it to all the Christmas markets to which we could easily walk and they were all really spectacular. All the streets also had Christmas lights and decorations strung across them. Strasbourg takes Christmas very seriously. The town itself also looks like a fairy tale and was everything I could have wanted my little taste of France to be. Towns as pretty as Strasbourg are apparently a dime a dozen in the Alsace region of France and I would love to see more. For an early evening snack, we went to a little cafe and ordered nutella crepes. How could we have gone to France without trying crepes? After that, we did a little more market browsing before realizing that we had to be at our bus back to Freiburg very soon. We ended up making a train with me in the front and zipping through the crowds of people at what felt like warp speed but was probably just a slightly-faster-than-normal walk. It was really hilarious, actually, and hopefully did not annoy too many of the people we passed through. It was also nice to see all the lights lit up as it was starting to get dark. We would take 3 second breaks to take pictures of Christmas lights in the middle of our race against time. In the end, we made our bus and made it back to Freiburg in time to get one last go-around in the Christmas market and get back to the apartment to pack :(

Monday: This was the day we came back home. There is not much to tell about this day except the very beginning. Our train to the Frankfurt airport was at 4:47 a.m., so we were up before any other living being and were the only people out on the streets of Freiburg. The Straßenbahns weren’t even running yet, so we had to walk to the bus station, but it was actually really serene and beautiful to walk in near-silence among the Christmas lights in the city. The only thing interrupting the silence was my rolly suitcase on the cobblestones that wanted to make sure everyone in the neighborhood would hear it. You’re welcome, Germans. Our train was the fanciest high speed train I had ever been on, and we were all loopy from being up so early, so my friends and I did some exploring and found an unoccupied cabin. We sat inside and reenacted scenes from Harry Potter when Harry, Ron, and Hermione are sitting in their cabin on the Hogwarts Express. We were laughing hysterically at ourselves and it just made me very happy.

I suppose that leads me to how thankful I am to have had this trip with these people. It was one of my favorite trips I’ve ever taken and as I sit here on my first night back at school, I’m dying to be back in London or Freiburg. Thank you thank you thank you, parents and grandparents, for making my Christmas so magical. I love my family, I love my friends, I love this world, I am loving life.

Kaitlyn