Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Olympics Fever

We've all got it around here- Olympics Fever.  It's all Olympics, all the time!
There are over 20 different BBC channels covering all the Olympic events.  While I do miss some the the US television coverage highlighting the American athletes, I am amazed by all the events that are aired here in the UK.  Yesterday my 5 year old and I were captivated by table tennis, and today I watched the Queen's granddaughter, Zara Phillips, win her first Olympic medal in the equestrian events.  And even though we are enjoying all this TV coverage, I can't wait to see some of the action live and in person.
I'm sure you've heard about the frustrations, disappointments, and confusion surrounding the ticketing process.  I tried to get tickets through the public ballot last year with no success.  I was lucky enough to score football (soccer) tickets when they became available in January, and have managed to grab a couple other events in the last few weeks.   Never mind that I had to google "canoe sprint" to figure out exactly what I would be attending, or that I will be spending next Saturday morning watching race-walkers (the very sport I remember ridiculing as a pre-teen).  This is the Olympics, taking place in my adopted city and I'm going to be part of it!
So far I have come up empty-handed in my quest to get tickets to an event in the Olympic Park.
I'm not giving up yet.  Apparently, more tickets will be released each night as the organizers attempt to get as many fans in the seats as possible.  So I plan to spend the evenings on my computer, repeatedly hitting "request tickets" until I get lucky.
And until then, I'll be watching on TV and hoping the US women's soccer team ends up in the final so we can be there to cheer them on to another gold medal.  It's going to be a fun couple of weeks!

Anyone else planning to attend the games?
What's your favorite event?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Punting on the River Cam

Took advantage of a rare sunny day to visit the lovely town of Cambridge.

Toured the chapel at Kings College.  Awesome (in the truest sense of the word).

Enjoyed a guided punt on the river Cam.  The river was crowded with boats; it was all quite festive.  There was a bit of bumping and banging, and a few close calls.

I was very glad we had a guide to navigate and share some interesting stories about Cambridge as well. 

One of my favourite tales of the day was about Prince Charles, who was a student at Cambridge in the 1960s.  Apparently, he had the same bodyguard with him through all 3 years at the college.  The bodyguard had to attend all classes and lectures with the Prince.  At the end of the 3 years, the guard felt he should be allowed to sit the final exam.  The royal family wasn't too keen on that idea, but the college decided it was only fair.  The bodyguard took the exam and, as it turns out, got a higher score than Prince Charles!

I especially enjoyed the stories about all the pranks carried out by Cambridge University students over the years.  From Santa hats and traffic cones being placed upon the spires of the chapel, to unsuspecting first year students being ushered through a phony "fire exit" door and ending up right in the river- these young people have come up with some pretty creative tricks.  We even bought a book on the subject at the campus bookshop!

The whole family enjoyed the beautiful views of the colleges from the river.  Such a fun thing to do on a sunny summer day.


Friday, July 20, 2012

The Ceremony of the Keys

No photos allowed- so this one is from Google
No one does ceremony and tradition like the British. Every night, for over 700 years, the guards at the Tower of London have held a special ceremony to ensure the safekeeping of the Tower, its residents, and, of coarse, the Crown Jewels.  A small number of people are allowed to witness the ceremony and we were lucky enough to have tickets for last weekend! 

At 9:30 we were escorted inside.  Of course, it started to rain.  We were drenched, but it did add to the spooky atmosphere of the Tower at night. The Yeoman Warder (commonly called a Beefeater) explained the specifics of the Ceremony and reminded us to be perfectly silent throughout.  He escorted the children to the front for a better view, and then it began.  There was marching, a lantern, the slamming of the huge doors, the jingling of giant keys.  And then the highlight:  An armed guard shouting, "Halt!  Who comes here?"

It was pretty exciting.  I was amazed that this exact ceremony is held every night, and has been for so many centuries.  It is the oldest surviving military ceremony in the world.  As an American, it's hard to even comprehend a tradition that dates back so many years. 

After the gates were locked I noticed my five year old looking a bit scared.  He was wondering how we were getting out.  Thankfully, the guests are allowed to exit through the Lion Door (which is an ancient "doggie door" used when lions used to stay at the Tower).

It was such a fun night- made even better because we were able to share it with our dear Australian friends who were on holiday in London.

Tickets to the Ceremony of the Keys are free, but must be requested in writing well in advance.  For more information click here.

This was one of the more unique experiences I've had in London and something we will all remember for a long time to come. 

Have you been to the Ceremony of the Keys?
What other unique things have you seen or done in London?  


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Here Comes the Olympic Torch

Today the Olympic Torch passed through our area.  We joined the crowd at the Ascot Racecourse to cheer the torch through Berkshire.
Waiting, waiting, waiting from our perch above the Parade Ring
The Torch Relay dates back to the ancient Olympic Games.  Before each Games,  the Flame is lit from the sun's rays during a traditional ceremony at the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece.  It's quite the tradition!
The rain came down and the "brollies" went up
After the Flame is handed over to the host city it is carried by a series of Torchbearers spreading the message of peace, unity and friendship.  8,000 torchbearers will carry the Flame through the United Kingdom this year.  During its 70 day journey, the Flame will be within an hour of 95% of people in the United Kingdom.  Which means many, many people all over the country will have a chance to see it.
There it is- right behind us!
Denise Lewis, who won a Gold medal in Sydney in the heptathlon, carried the Flame into the racecourse and made a lap around the Parade Ring.  I love her enthusiasm!
Denise Lewis carries the Flame through Ascot Racecourse
Then the Flame was handed off to Frankie Dettori, a jockey famous for winning seven races in one day.   His horse was a less enthusiastic participant, and was quite spooked-  first by the inflatable "rattles" in the crowd and then by the Flame itself.   But once Frankie had the Flame, they took their lap to the cheering of the adoring crowd.
Frankie Dettori carries the Flame
And after all that waiting, the kids were rewarded with a fun fair and a Mr. Whippy. 

You can follow the route of the torch relay here.  The Flame will end its journey in 17 days when the last Torchbearer lights the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony, marking the official start of the Games.  I can't wait to watch that on TV!  Will you be tuning in, too?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Fields of Dreams

When I saw Monique's photo of the beautiful English lavender fields, I immediately put a visit on my to-do list.  There is a very short window of opportunity for viewing these gorgeous fields.  They begin to bloom in mid-June and are harvested in mid-July. 

 So yesterday we packed up the family and headed 2 hours north to the Cotswolds to see the lavender for ourselves.
 Truth be told, the rest of my family had no interest in seeing blooming purple flowers.  But they humored me and agreed to go. 

 Predictably, it was wet and rainy.  

 We wore our wellies.

We had 20 dry minutes to walk through the fields before the downpour began.  Then we ran at full speed to the gift shop where I gathered some lavender goodies to take home.

It was not only quite a sight to see, but quite a scent to smell as well.

Do you have a favorite lavender recipe?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Wimbledon on a Whim

Attending the Tennis Championships at Wimbledon has been on my London wish list.  I applied for tickets through the public ballot months ago, but was not awarded the opportunity to purchase any.  I wasn't prepared to spend a small fortune buying Debenture tickets and I had no interest in camping overnight in a park to get tickets through The Queue.

So I had pretty much abandoned any hope of seeing the tennis this year.  And then I read Laura's post about the Wimbledon Queue.   And my hope was renewed.

In a matter of hours I booked a babysitter and hatched a plan. 

Yesterday we put the plan into action.  We traveled by train to Wimbledon station and then boarded the special shuttle bus that goes directly to the tennis club.  (From the shuttle bus drop off, it is a loooong walk to The Queue.  If I were to do it again, I would just get a taxi from the station directly to The Queue).  I was prepared, and a bit excited, to take my place in the infamous Wimbledon Queue, but as luck would have it, there was absolutely no line!  They still handed out queue cards and stickers so I guess I technically queued at Wimbledon.

We passed through security and right up to the turnstiles.  Tickets after 17:00 were only £12 each!  Once inside, we headed for the resale ticket kiosk. 

As spectators leave for the day, they hand in their tickets which are then resold to latecomers (like us) and the proceeds are donated to charity.

The queue here was quite long, the the kiosk didn't even appear to be open.  No one seemed to know who would be playing next or on which court.  About 30 minutes later, as I approached the ticket window, we finally confirmed that Venus and Serena had just started their match.  So we bought £5 tickets and dashed off to Court 2.

We were thrilled to find ourselves in the second row just a few yards from the action.  I was afraid the noise of my shutter clicking would disturb the players-  that's how close we were!

At one point we had a brief rain delay which is all just part of the Wimbledon experience.

As you can see, there were many empty seats.  I think most people (including Wills and Kate) were watching the Centre Court match between Murray and Ferrer. 

Many spectators watch the Centre Court match on TV from the grass
After the match we checked out the famous strawberries and cream, had a Pimms, and hit the gift shop (the only place at Wimbledon that accepts credit/debit cards).

It was such a fun evening.  I'm so glad we had a chance to experience this English tradition!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Paris by Playground

For Father's Day we took Tom on a Playground Tour of Paris.  In between playgrounds we managed to sneak in a bit of sightseeing, too.  Our 9 year old served as our tour guide on this trip.  She read The Lonely Planet Not For Parents book about Paris and was able to tell us something about nearly every place we visited.   ("Hey, is this the Place de la Concorde where Marie Antoinette was beheaded?"  or "Oh, that's a Wallace Fountain!" or "See that flame?  It's a duplicate of the one the Statue of Liberty holds.")  That girl is a real gem!

We stayed in a family suite at the recently renovated Hotel de l'Empereur which was located right behind Les Invalides and within easy walking distance of many sights, including the rue Cler market and the Eiffel Tower.  We soon learned that navigating the Paris Metro with a stroller and 3 kids is a real challenge, so we did a lot of walking.

Day 1

Catching a glimpse of the Mona Lisa
After a "quick" tour of the Louvre (the kids used this book as a guide) we made our way across the Seine and added our own padlock to the Pont des Arts.  (Read the story of these love padlocks here).

We marveled at the rose windows inside Notre Dame and imagined the hunchback up in the tower.

The center of Paris.  In front of Notre Dame.
Our driver had suggested  Relais de l'Entrecote for dinner and it was amazing.   Diners start queuing up 20 minutes before the restaurant opens. There's no menu, the waitress simply asks how you like your meat cooked.  Then the food comes out- the most delicious salad, frites, and steak.  Unlike most French restaurants, it's fast so it was a good choice with 3 hungry kids.

Queuing up for a delicious dinner
We wrapped up day one with a little playground time, of course!

Day 2 began with a walk through the rue Cler market where we bought the most delicious strawberries to munch on our way to the Eiffel Tower.  We ate them so fast I didn't even get a photo- but trust me- they were gorgeous!

It was a clear, sunny day and the crowds at the Eiffel Tower were huge.  The wait for the one working lift was several hours long so we opted to take the stairs (nearly 700 to the second level).  If only we had known that you cannot leave your stroller at the bottom!  Poor Tom not only had the baby on his back, but the stroller in his arms as well.  It was quite a workout but the views from the top were amazing.  It was definitely a highlight we will all remember for a long, long time to come!
The view from the top!
We spent the rest of the day recovering with carousel rides, cotton candy, crepes and ice cream cones. 
We tromped through the playground at the Trocadero and bounced on the trampolines in the Jardin des Tulieres. 

Well, some of us bounced.

Day 3
We saved the best (playground) for last.  Sure, you have to pay to enter the playground at the Jardin du Luxembourg- but it is worth it.  The kids spent hours running around, riding the flying fox, sliding and digging in the sand.  They took a spin on the old carousel and tried to spear the rings with a wooden sword. 
We strolled through the beautiful manicured gardens. On the weekends you can sail a toy boat in the pond or go for a pony ride.
It seems everywhere you look in Paris the view is simply breathtaking.

Before meeting up with some California friends for our final dinner, we stopped by Les Invalides where we saw the impressive tomb of Napoleon.  My daughter remarked, "That's a pretty big coffin for such a small man."
Napoleon's Tomb is beneath the gold dome.
The kids are already talking about the "next time" they visit Paris.  I don't know when that will be, but I am so glad they got to see this amazing city.  It wasn't a weekend full of museums and late night leisurely dinners at Michelin-star restaurants but it was a weekend full of family fun and happy kids.  It's the kind of trip we do best.

Planning Paris with your kids?  Check out these cool city walk cards.  We found them really useful and fun!

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