Christmas In London…Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park

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I’ve been on a quest to sample as many London Christmas markets and activities as possible between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Today’s schedule included a visit to the Alpine/German themed Christmas market in the Southeast corner of Hyde Park, Winter Wonderland.

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I entered the park through the North entrance, close to the ferris wheel and tilt-a-whirl.  I really prefer the more traditional, low-key craft-type markets and this had a more…ummm…Santa-on-acid vibe.   I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it at first, but walking through the crowd watching little kids laughing, moms and dads sharing bumper cars and middle-aged couples dancing to Christmas disco music, it grew on me.

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 Mercifully, the fair organizers placed beer and wine huts at regular intervals throughout the ride and carnival section of Winter Wonderland.

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The food choices were endless…cookies, candies, sausages, kebab and various items ending in  -wurst.  Perfect for fueling up for a few passes around the ice rink.

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The Winter Wonderland rink is supposedly the largest outdoor rink in the UK.   The ice wasn’t very crowded early in the evening.  The area around the rink was crowded with spectators, clearly enjoying the spectacle of the very patient “ice guides” leading the tourists/novices lurching around the ice.  The skate hut rents skates for both kids and adults or you can bring your own.  I can’t wait to bring the Mister back with me.

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The ambience of the park changes at twilight.  As daylight fades, the crowds swell, the lights glow and “biergardens” and “pubs” throughout the market turn into happy post-work gathering places, filled with live music and free-flowing beer.

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Angel’s Market has row after row of chalets filled with things to sample and buy…

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I had a great time walking around Winter Wonderland with a cup of mulled wine to warm my hands. Entrance is free and it’s a great evening out even if you don’t plan on riding rides or hanging out in the biergarten…bundle up! It’s cold out there.

Things to know

Ambiance is best late afternoon or evening…probably more crowded as well.  Can’t have everything!

Entrance is free.  Rides are between 2 and 4 tokens (tokens are £1 each) and ATM’s are available.

Check times and information here…Winter Wonderland.

Christmas In London…Twinkle, Twinkle, Christmas Lights

One of our favorite family traditions involves a trip to  New York City around the holidays.  We admire the big tree in Rockefeller Center, watch the skaters beneath the tree and walk by all the spectacular, animated window displays.  We’ll have Christmas in London this year and enjoy all a London Christmas offers, beginning with Christmas lights.   Nothing sets the  mood for the holidays like walking past millions of twinkling lights.  The Mister and I began our tour of lights on Regent Street (above) which boasts a Twelve Days of Christmas theme.  The first display has a partridge in a pear tree, the second….well, you know how it goes.  Beautiful.

Our next stop was Carnaby Street for a Rock n’ Roll and Rolling Stones Christmas….

and past the Christmas trees encircling Liberty department store.

We braved the Oxford Street crowds, which, around Christmas, can make you lose your will to live.  Oxford Street was decorated from end to end with a…variety of themes.   The stars were spectacular and my personal favorite.

Nothing says Christmas like two reindeer fighting over a jar of Marmite…

or an elf  flying with a grilled cheese sandwich?

Debenhams and John Lewis department stores were literally wrapped in beautiful lights.  Selfridges had a more subdued theme with lit garland and beautiful window displays.

We wandered north to Marylebone High Street, which was quite festive with lit ornaments and pretty store windows.

South Moulton Street lined the length of their pedestrian walkway with towering arches of  blue, twinkling lights.

The jewelry and boutique stores in Mayfair took a classic approach to decorating.  Fitting for the neighborhood, yes?   I plan on walking through Covent Garden and St. James sometime soon.  I suggest you  go find your special someone (children are especially keen) and walk through the streets of London.  Check here for a wonderous light display near you…

Question:   I haven’t seen one doorway wreath or string of Christmas lights in a window! I’m not looking for anything over-the-top, but no lights? No candles? Do people not decorate their houses?

Christmas in London

My seasonal calendar is off-kilter.  No traditional Thursday Thanksgiving meal this year. The stores and streets have been decorated for Christmas since the end of October.  I’m conditioned to the cycle of Halloween, Thanksgiving and then… a manic post-Thanksgiving 3 1/2 weeks of shopping, cleaning, decorating and cooking. The Christmas season is rolling out gradually here, giving everyone time to enjoy the small things that come with the holiday season.  I like it.

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I met The Mister at Southbank on the first day of the Southbank Christmas Market.  The Christmas lights were on, tempering the gloom of the misty, foggy dreary London afternoon.  We walked past the little huts, decorated with greens and sparkling Christmas lights, past the street buskers playing Christmas carols  and stopped at the hut selling mulled wine and warm, roasted pecans.  A perfect way to kick off the Christmas season.

Stay tuned for more Christmas in London posts 🙂

A Weekend Away: Engelberg, Switzerland

Our plan derailed almost immediately.  A few days in Zurich, followed by a weekend in Wengen and the Lauterbrunnen Valley.  Perfect.  What we didn’t know?  The small mountain towns in Switzerland essentially shut down from the end of October until the start of ski season in December.  My initial emails and calls to Wengen, Grindelwald and Murren revealed a total of one open hotel for the weekend.  We pictured empty streets, closed shops and very few open restaurants.     Thankfully, friends suggested a visit to Engelberg and all was saved.   I gathered dinner from the Coop store across the street from the Zurich train station on Friday night…roast chicken, salads, beer for The Mister and a little bottle of red wine for me.  Perfect.  We bought our tickets from the machines in the station and we were off. I was a little disappointed to travel at night and miss the scenery along the way, but…I was more disappointed that I forgot to bring a cup for my wine.  I needed something to wash down half of a very dry roast chicken and ended up swigging out of the bottle when no-one was looking.    Very classy.  One has to make do.

I love the Swiss trains…fast, clean, efficient. It makes you wonder why we can’t have decent train service in the States.  We made it to Engleberg in 2.5 hours with one train change in Luzerne. We rolled our suitcases around the corner from the little station in Engelberg and checked into our hotel, The Spannort. I can’t say enough nice things about this hotel. The front desk was incredibly welcoming and helpful, the rooms were comfortable, and modern with a traditional Swiss vibe.  Best of all was the view when I woke up in the morning!

The Mister and I couldn’t resist a gondola ride to Mt. Titlis, so we walked over to the gondola station and stood in line with the skiers, snowboarders and not-dressed-for-the-mountaintop tourists in heels. The ride to the top is as spectacular as the view from the top.

The final gondola (there are three total in the trip to the top) rotates slowly to provide a 360 degree perspective. The ride up was too crowded to take any pictures, but the ride down was virtually empty and provided lots of opportunity to click away without anyone’s head/skis/fuzzy hat in the way.

The summit station had a “glacier walk”, where you could walk through (you guessed it) a glacier, a movie theater with a short film about the mountain, a few gift shops and two restaurants/cafes.  Was it touristy?  Yes, if you wanted it to be.  The Mister and I spent most of our time outside, watching the skiers hit the slopes and the tourists (clearly some had never seen snow) slide down the small hills in their street clothes and throw snowballs at each other.  We also found a few quiet corners to absorb the majesty of it all…

The ride to the bottom offered a different perspective.  Can you imagine what it would be like to live and work in a place like Engelberg?  I’m not sure I would get anything done. I’d be staring out the window every minute of every day.

We left the gondola and walked back into town to Kloster Engelberg, a Benedictine Monastery founded in 1120.

The monastery offers guided tours once or twice a day, depending on the season.  We walked the grounds, visited the flower shop

and the dairy.  I watched the cheese-making demonstration while The Mister chose a cheese for a mid-day snack.  I also ate some fabulous monastery gelato, which is calorie free since it is made by monks.

The monastery church is open to the public. We happened to walk in during organ practice, which added to the experience.  The spectacular interior took me by surprise after seeing the churches in Zurich.  All are lovely in their own way, but the interior of this church was stunning.

It was mid-afternoon and my gelato was wearing off…time for lunch.  There were quite a few places in town for a meal, but our hotel recommended taking a more traditional “Swiss” gondola to a cafe for a light lunch and a glass of wine.  We walked 10 minutes along a lovely hiking path to the Ristis/Brunni cable car and ended up eating a nice lunch at the restaurant half-way up.  We planned to hike back down to Engelberg, but ended up sitting on the sunny deck for a few hours with a plate full of food and a beer in each hand.  Next time.

We made it down to the bottom (by cable car, I’m embarrassed to say) in time for a long walk in the valley.  We didn’t get very far. We  were distracted at every turn by beautiful mountain vistas, bell-laden, picture-perfect Swiss cows and endless picture-taking opportunities.  We were also inspired by this verrrryyy elderly couple walking home after hiking in the mountains all day.  Wouldn’t that be a blessing at any age?

Things to know:

It is worth investigating the Swiss Pass/Half-Fare Pass if you plan on doing multiple gondola rides and various forms of transportation.  The big, tourist gondolas are expensive!  Check here for options…http://www.swiss-pass.ch/    If you decide the Swiss Pass isn’t a good option for you, most of the hotels will give you a small discount card to use for various venues in town.  Check with your hotel.

Check the weather before heading up the mountain.  Our Swiss friends told us that we had been extremely lucky to have a perfect day on the mountain.  I can’t imagine how disappointing it would be to pay for an expensive gondola ride and not see a thing at the top.

The smaller gondolas offer a spectacular view OF the mountains.  And beer.  And decent food!  Consider these a good option if you don’t have the time/money/inclination to go to the top of Titlis.

The October 31  to December is slow season in Switzerland.  While there were plenty of things  to enjoy in Engelberg, there were still a number of hotels and restaurants closed for refurbishment and/or breaks.  We had everything we needed, but check before you go!

There is a property boom everywhere in Switzerland.  We finally asked someone what the tall, flagged posts were all over town.  They are surveyors stakes.  Everywhere.  If you have the cash, now is the time to buy 🙂

Remembrance Sunday London 2012

“At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month silence fell across the battlefields of Europe.”

On Remembrance Sunday, silence fell across London in respect for the men and women who suffered and died  in the service of  their country.

We had visitors in town the day before and walked through the gardens surrounding Westminster Abbey.  Lining the paths were thousands of wooden crosses, some with names, some with pictures, all hand-written and carefully placed according to the service members unit and where they served.   The endless row upon endless row of these little wooden crosses was a stunning reminder of the heavy price Britain paid in war.  Watching elderly men and women on their hands and knees searching the crosses for the name of a friend or family member was just heartbreaking.

The Queen, members of the Royal Family, the Prime Minister, members of Parliament and representatives from the Commonwealth placed wreaths at the Cenotaph before thousands of veterans and their families marched past  to pay their respects. Everyone wore a red poppy (The Queen wore 5?), a symbol of Remembrance.  The celebrations did not end with the ceremony at the Cenotaph.  We saw bands, regiments, clusters of soldiers and sailors paying respects at different memorials throughout the city.

The Cenotaph, post ceremony, filled with red poppy wreaths.

We happened upon this ceremony at the Guards Memorial in St. James’s Park.  The memorial features 5 bronze figures representing the Foot Guard Regiments (Grenadiers, Coldstream, Scots, Welsh and Irish) and sits across from  Horse Guards parade grounds. I’m not sure of the significance of the bowler hats and umbrellas…if anyone knows, please leave a comment or send an email!

It was only fitting that we join one of the many Remembrance Day celebrations in the pub, surrounded by Her Majesty’s Forces, raising a glass to those who served and those they left behind.

Interesting Facts/Things to know:
Women who lost their service-member husbands or family members are allowed to wear their medals on ceremonial occasions.
The ties worn by ex-servicemen on special military occasions often delineate their branch of service and speciality (Thank your for the special lesson, members of the military engineer corp at the Ship and Shovell pub!)
Moina Bell Michael, an American schoolteacher, started the tradition of wearing a red poppy. She sold red, silk poppies to raise money for ex-servicemen.