Category Archives: Culture

Whitby, England – Much More Than a Day Trip

Like nearly half the places I travel to, I decided to go to Whitby, England after someone told me I should check it out.  Previously I hadn’t heard of Whitby and, other than the few facts I learned from these friends, I really didn’t know anything about the place.  But I was able to find a nice inexpensive place to stay in Whitby so while in York I went to the Tourist Information Center and bought a one way bus ticket.  It was July 4th and after a beautiful two hour upper deck coach ride through the North York Moors National Park I arrived.  Although there were no fireworks for me on this Independence Day (for some reason they don’t celebrate July 4th in England like we do in the States!), it was a sunny, beautiful day, and I was in a new place so I got to walk around and explore (one of my favorite things to do!).

After a visit to the Tourist Information Center to get a map, and a visit to the grocery store to get dinner, I walked to my hostel, my home for the next two nights.  I was a little early and couldn’t check in for an hour so while chatting with the other guests I picked their brain for things to do. And the area has a lot of things to do!  Here’s a small list:

Low Tide on the River Esk - Whitby
Low Tide on the River Esk – Whitby
  • Whitby Abbey
  • Church of Saint Mary
  • Whitby Museum
  • Whitby Beach
  • Many different lengths of hiking trails
  • Pitch and Putt Golf Course
  • Whitby Jet Shopping (local jewelry, check it out)
  • Fossil Hunting (including dinosaurs!)
  • Relax watching the tidal River Esk (which is what I did after dinner my first night)

After a relaxing first night in Whitby I went out in search of adventure on day two (actually, not true…I went to see some of the sites).  I started at the surprisingly awesome local museum (which has, among other things, many fossils, all found within 20 miles of Whitby over the last few centuries, and many pieces of art carved from Whitby Jet).  Then walking toward the beach I stopped after coming across a game of bowling.  Not ten pin bowling like we know in the US, but lawn bowling.  Its similar to bocce ball except played with slightly different balls on a large, square, almost golf green-esque, well…green.  Hoping they would ask me to join them, I sat and watched for about 15 minutes as two locals played at this local bowling club. I could tell they were playing a ‘real’ match, as part of a men’s league or something similar, and wasn’t surprised when the invitation didn’t come. Leaving slightly dejected but glad I got to see an unfamiliar game being played I wandered along towards the beach.

Iconic Beach Houses - Whitby
Iconic Beach Houses – Whitby

Whitby lies on the North Sea and for people coming from more tropical beaches that might seem a cold place to get a taste of salt water. Not true, at least on this hot summer day.  The beach sits under the natural cliffs above and to get down there are many switch back trails that all lead to the iconic Whitby beach houses. These changing rooms are for rent for the day or week by people visiting the area and give life to this beautiful coastline.

After people watching for a while and dipping my toes in the cool North Sea water I continued down the beach toward Whitby Pier and the mouth of the River Esk.  On the way, away from the beach goers, I found an interesting mix of sand and stone that’s only uncovered during low tide. This is where I started looking for Whitby Jet.  Whitby Jet is a soft stone formed over millions of years from decaying wood under extreme pressure and heat.  Apparently, although I can’t attest to it since my search came up empty, you can find freshly uncovered-by-the-tides pieces of jet lying on the beach.  It must be true as I wasn’t the only one searching in the area; hopefully others had better luck!

The other stones searched for in the area, and more interesting to me than jet, are fossils.    The fossils range from small sea creatures, to prehistoric ammonites and birds and plants, to crocodiles and dinosaurs.  Seeing them in the museum was nice but luckily, at my hostel previous guests have left a small collection of jet and fossils (ammonite and squid).  They look just like the raw jet and fossils in the museum but I got to touch them!  One interesting note about searching for jet is you will find three different stones that look and feel like jet (it’s very lightweight).  You will find just regular black stones, which is what I found.  You will find coal.  And you will find jet.  The easiest way to tell jet from coal is to mark on a piece of paper with it.  Coal will mark the paper black and jet will mark the paper brown.  The black stones I found don’t make the mark on paper.

By the end of my first full day in Whitby I didn’t want to leave so soon so I added another night to my stay at the hostel which allowed me to spend a whole day hiking around the area as well as visit the Abbey and the Church of Saint Mary.

Whitby Abbey Ruins - Whitby
Whitby Abbey Ruins – Whitby
Whitby Abbey Ruins - Whitby
Whitby Abbey Ruins – Whitby

Whitby Abbey has seen better days.  Initially a Benedictine Abbey it hasn’t really been used since the late 1530’s in the time of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of Monasteries.  From then up to and including WWII there were many events that caused parts of the structure collapse, but since being taken over, managed, and preserved by English Heritage it has become an interesting and, as you can see, beautiful site to visit.  Sitting atop the eastern cliff above the River Esk its seen from many areas of Whitby, including the patio of my hostel where I took the tidal picture above (look in the upper right corner).  Sitting near Whitby Abbey, now dangerously close to the cliff face, is the Church of Saint Mary.  It has been there, in various forms, for over 900 years and has the most unique church interior I’ve ever seen.  All the pews have chest level walls as well as doors and it’s been this way for nearly 250 years!  It all makes for an interior that feels very ‘busy’.

'For Strangers Only' Pews in Church of Saint Mary - Whitby
‘For Strangers Only’ Pews in Church of Saint Mary – Whitby

If I get the chance to return to Whitby I’ll go without hesitation.  The advice I got saying it was a beautiful place to visit was spot on.  There is so much to see and do in Whitby and being a smaller tourist destination, for me, allows Whitby to have a less touristy feel even with thousands of people there daily during peak season.

Cemetery Surrounding Church of Saint Mary - Whitby
Cemetery Surrounding Church of Saint Mary – Whitby

A couple of additional notes on Whitby.  For those Dracula fans out there: Whitby is where, while on holiday, Bram Stoker changed the name from Wampyr to Dracula after reading something in a book from the library and the Church of Saint Mary graveyard is a setting in the novel.  Equally interesting is that Whitby is where Captain Cook sailed from on his great voyages.

Lucky Ducks Watching the Sunset at the River Esk - Whitby
Lucky Ducks Watching the Sunset at the River Esk – Whitby

5 Things I Learned in England

  1. The subway in London (they call it the Tube) is more expensive and seems slower and less efficient than other European cities I’ve been (and I only used it in Zones 1 to 4…the main area where I would think the Tube would be at its most efficient).  It could just seem slower because the distance between stations is greater than in Paris, where I was right before London, but that’s just a guess.
  2. I started seeing them the first day in London, so what is an off license store?  Off license stores (liquor stores basically) sell liquor that you cannot consume on the premises. On license stores (bars, restaurants, etc.) sell liquor that can be consumed on the premises.  I put this in because stores with ‘off license’ in the name are everywhere, in every town I visited in England.
  3. Most small family owned stores/shops don’t seem to specialize in one type of service or product line.  Example: a small store in Nottingham with a name like ‘Joe’s Off License Liquor’ also sells groceries, postage, prepaid phones and phone credits, magazines and newspapers, tobacco and accessories, fresh fruit and vegetables…you get the idea.  I wonder if it’s always been like this in the UK or if the mom and pop stores are doing everything they can to attract business these days.
  4. Public Houses vs. Free Houses.  What are they and what’s the difference?  (skip to the end of #4 for the short answer)  Before getting to England last month I knew what a public house was.  It’s a bar.  A tavern.  A pub.  Whatever similar name you want to use.  But I had never heard of something called a free house.  Being a budget traveler, and always looking for cheap accommodations, I was immediately interested when seeing ‘FREE HOUSE’ through the bus window on my way to Norwich.  As luck would have it a free house has nothing to do with a cheap place to sleep.  So what is it?  Basically the name free house evolved to denote a pub not tied to any particular brewery and ‘free’ to sell whatever beer they want.  Historically public houses in England were tied to (or owned by) specific breweries.  That said, the lines have become blurred in recent decades and nowadays looking at the name, public or free, may not give you an idea of the type of bar it is.  The short answer is: for most patrons in modern times there is no discernible difference in a public house and a free house.
  5. London’s weather.  It’s always talked about by travelers and locals alike.  London and rain, rain and London…they’re kind of synonymous.  Here’s what I learned: It always seems to look like it could rain…like it might rain.  But then it normally doesn’t, or at least not much. I know my 7 day sample size is pretty small but that’s all I’ve got to go from.  And as you can see from the picture below, the ‘nearly’ raining weather doesn’t spoil your time in London…there is always something awesome to look at!
    Tower Bridge - London
    Tower Bridge – London

    Bonus thing I learned!!

  6. The lesser known cities and areas are worth the visit.  I visited several cities, from large to small, and enjoyed everyone of them.  One in particular, Whitby, is an incredible city on the North Sea coast.  There is enough stuff to keep busy for several days and I’ll go back if I get the opportunity.  For the historian, a small but fantastic museum houses many interesting items including some impressive dinosaur fossils, all found within 20 miles of Whitby, and the ancient Abbey and Church sitting above the city on a cliff are an excellent visit.  For the outdoorsman there is a beach and several different hiking trails.  For the adventurer you can go fossil hunting along the cliffs and find anything from ammonites to crocodiles to dinosaurs.  Or you can just sit and watch the tidal river as I did on my first night in town (Abbey Ruins in the top right corner of this picture).

    Low Tide on the River Esk - Whitby
    Low Tide on the River Esk – Whitby

England in Pictures!

Real Ale – European Beer Culture Unfiltered #1

Way back in my college days I was like most Midwestern College students in that I drank what I could afford.  And like many Midwestern College students I seemed to drink more often than not so what I could afford was usually the cheapest bulk case of shitty beer in the liquor store cooler.  But for the better part of a decade my beer pallet has been evolving.  I’ve become a craft beer (particularly ales) junkie!  I love brown’s, red’s, pale’s, hefe’s…the list goes on.  While I don’t claim to be a connoisseur, I do enjoy trying beers from previously unknown breweries and new beers from my favorite regional and national craft brewers.  So it should come as no surprise to those who know me that I’ve tried local beers at nearly every stop on my travels so far.  Actually that may have been one of the things I‘d been looking forward to most when I started traveling!

Southern Europe was all about wine but now I’m getting to the areas where beer is king; England, Ireland, Belgium, the Czech Republic…  I’ll visit these places and more in the next few months. And doing ‘research’ along the way I’ll try to write in-depth blog posts about Europe’s beer culture.  Here’s my first report!

Real Ales in a London Pub
Real Ales in a London Pub

On my first day walking around London I kept noticing restaurants and pubs having ‘real ale’ advertised.  Real ale?  It’s a term I was unfamiliar with so like any good ale junkie I had to investigate.  The jaded tourism cynic in me thought this would be some London gimmick to trick tourists into paying a little extra for a pint but that couldn’t have been further from reality.

Here’s a simplified explanation of real ale but it should suffice for this post.  Real ale is a recent term (1970’s) given to beer made from traditional ingredients that goes through a secondary fermentation either in the cask it’s dispensed from or the bottle, and served without an extra carbon dioxide source.  In layman’s terms, real ale isn’t put in a keg like most people in the states are familiar with (while pouring ‘keg’ beer, additional CO2 gets added), isn’t pasteurized and isn’t filtered.  For real ale no extraneous CO2 is needed, the second fermentation provides all the CO2 needed.

So that’s the boring technical stuff.  Now,the real question…how does it taste?

Honestly, I was disappointed.  I tried six to eight different beers, from different brewers, in three different cities, within ten days of taking the Chunnel from Paris, and (with the exception of rhubarb ale, NO THANKS!) I tasted anything the bartenders suggested, and they all tasted about the same.  Forgettable.  From what I’ve read about real ales, adhering to the ‘traditional’ process is supposed to let hop and malt flavors develop but I thought they all tasted flat and a bit bland. Flavorless.  Even the so called ‘hoppy’ ales I tasted didn’t have the big flavor I was expecting (and accustomed to with hoppy craft varieties enjoyed across the pond).  I know it’s possible these real ales taste flat to me because I’ve become accustomed to beer with added CO2 stateside, but that doesn’t account for a lack of flavor in my opinion.

I remember several years ago when I first strayed from the volume pilsner producers in the US and began trying craft beers, I wasn’t immediately a fan.  I could tell it was something different but it was an intriguing difference so I kept trying them.  Not long after, there was no turning back. When trying the real ales here in the UK I thought my lack of enthusiasm could be, like before, because it was something new and different.  Maybe something that would grow on me.  But it hasn’t.  The difference between then and now, at least for the real ales I’ve tried so far, is they are boring.  You know when you try something and you aren’t sure if you like it or not so you keep trying it until you figure it out.  That’s not what is happening here.  I am 100% sure I don’t like what I’ve tried so far.  Let me put it this way: if I hadn’t been planning to write this article I don’t think I’d have tried more than two different flavorless real ales before moving on to something else.

After coming to this conclusion I thought there must be others that have this same opinion.  Either that or I’m a dumb Yank that doesn’t understand British hops.  To my surprise, it was the former.  Not only did I find those with like thinking, I found some in Britain…the hub of real ale production and drinking worldwide.  Check out this article for proof that I’m not a dumb Yank (at least not in this situation):

Craft Beer vs. Real Ale

The one redeeming quality I’ve gleaned from the real ale experience is the way it’s dispensed.  It’s either gravity fed from a tapped cask (cool) at the bar or manually drawn with a hand pump from the cellar up to the bar (very cool to a dumb Yank!).  While this is an interesting way of getting my beer poured it’s not nearly enough novelty to make up for the lack of taste.

Nottingham Bartender Manually Pumping Real Ale
Nottingham Bartender Manually Pumping Real Ale

On a completely off topic note (but still drinking related!); while walking through Norwich this week I passed by a whisky shop (no vodka, gin, rum or beer…just whisky).  After popping my head in I was pleased to see they not only had hundreds of different scotches, bourbons, and worldly whisky’s for sale, they also had three tapped oak barrels of their own blends and single malts (8 yr, 10 yr, 12 yr).  Customers could fill any of three sizes of bottle to purchase or take a bit as a taste test.  It was a good day!

The Shortest Night of the Year

Let me preface this post by saying I’m not normally a theater goer, I’ve never been a reader of Shakespeare and I knew next to nothing about the play I was going to see.  To say my expectations were low is an understatement.

Early on during my week staying at the Dover Castle Hostel in London’s Southwark neighborhood I did what I normally do in a new city.  I went for a walk.  It’s one of my favorite things to do upon arrival because it gives me a feel of the city layout (which is sometimes difficult to do from a map alone) and a feel of the city vibe.  It helps me understand the public transportation options and lets me see a lot of the sites along the way.

After a couple of hours I found myself on the south bank of the River Thames.  This eclectic area is a mix of trendy, historical, and touristy attractions, restaurants, hotels, and shops. It’s a nice walk even during the frequent London drizzle (which I found out a couple of days later) and while exploring I happened to come across Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.  Adjacent to the Tate Modern

Shakespeare's Globe Theater Surrounded by South Bank Activity
Shakespeare’s Globe Theater Surrounded by South Bank Activity

Art Gallery, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater is a modern recreation of the original Globe Theater which was associated with William Shakespeare and burned in 1613.

Not being an avid theater fan, going to a play has never been high on my things-to-do list but I decided to go see a play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater for a few reasons:

  • It’s kind of the touristy thing to do
  • The ticket was surprisingly cheap (5 pounds for a standing ticket in the Yard, the best view in the place)
  • Seeing a play written by Shakespeare being performed at Shakespeare’s Globe at midnight of the summer solstice seemed damn cool to me

    Front Row at Shakespeare's Globe
    Front Row at Shakespeare’s Globe

My ticket was for Friday, June 21st, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Queuing about 10:45 near the front of the line that night allowed me access to a front row spot in the Yard.  When I say front row I mean close to the action, elbows on the stage…front row.  Of the 700 groundlings in the Yard and 1500 people attending the sold out show I was one of about 30 with the best (and cheapest) ticket in the house and I wasn’t even a theater fan.  In the final minutes before showtime, talking with a steward who has been working at the Globe since it’s opening in 1997, I thought if any situation could change that fact, this is it!

Stage Set for the Taming of the Shrew
Stage Set for the Taming of the Shrew

I was there to see ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and the all female cast took the stage one minute before midnight, one standing literally right above me (I could have touched her shoes).  She played several characters including one of the leads.  If you are unfamiliar, as I was, with this comedic play, It’s about trying to marry off 2 sisters.  One of which (the shrew) is notoriously difficult to deal with.  All 7 actresses were multi-talented; singing, dancing, all played at least one musical instrument (many 2 or 3), and of course acted…with brilliant comedic timing.  It was a perfect night for an outdoor event and watching it from the Yard where you can almost interact with the cast makes this one of the most memorable things I did while in London.

So yes, seeing this play in this space with this cast in the middle of the night definitely made me at least a casual fan. And it’s not just because I had the lowest of low expectations.  The mainly avid theater going audience, and I, had the cast come out for 3 curtain calls.  My problem now is it’s all downhill from here.  I don’t know if the next show I’m able to see will measure up. But I’ll find out.

Inside Shakespeare's Globe Theater
Inside Shakespeare’s Globe Theater

5 Things I Learned in France

  1. The Paris subway system is a behemoth!  It’s vast but efficient and apparently you’re never more than 400 meters from a subway stop.  I thought it was great!  Easy to understand and navigate  ….and a good value. 
  2. In Brittany the church bells ring a lot…even during funerals.
  3. The French people are not as PC as I thought.  While in Paris there was a huge demonstration against the newly passed law allowing same-sex marriage.  The authorities
    Visiting Hours Don't Stop For Mass at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris
    Visiting Hours Don’t Stop For Mass at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris

    estimated over 150,000 people but the promoters claimed it was closer to one million strong.  I happened to walk through the area as they were setting up in the afternoon.  There was a big stage and for a quarter-mile  there were several video boards, and cranes with speakers hanging from them.  I thought it was for a concert or I would have taken some photos.

  4. It’s possible to spend two weeks in Brittany and only hang out with expats from the UK.  My tally for the 16 days in Brittany:  I met 2 or 3 French people and about 45 Brits.
  5. Notre-Dame is quite amazing even when there is a zoo of tourists (like me) roaming through in the middle of Mass.

Spain in Pictures!

Puerto Rico in Pictures!

France in Pictures!