Thursday, March 28, 2013

Harry Potter, Happy Potter.

I'm a Harry Potter nerd. I don't think this should come as a surprise after Tuesday's post, or my previous trip to London recap, but I just want to get us all on the same page. Harry Potter is my jam. Maybe I'll share pictures of the midnight release of the seventh book one day. I crimped my hair and met a giant linebacker for the Steelers - all while dressed as Hermione. Ain't no shame in my game.

I knew that on this trip to London, I wasn't going to miss the set tour of the Harry Potter movies. It had eluded Kate and I when we were in London previously (it opened the weekend we were there and was booked solid for a few months - womp womp). I was willing to rearrange the entire trip to make it there this time. So we booked that first. 

I was stressed about getting there, because travel coordination and timed events make me all crazy, but it was a painless train trip from the London Euston station to Watford Junction. From there, there was a bus emblazoned with Harry Potter to shuttle us to the set. I should have know it wasn't going to be hard - Steph had done it successfully before, and she once called to ask where the eggs were kept. She's also one of the smartest engineers I know and a definite animal whisperer. 

There weren't many sets, per say, because everything was often built and destructed in a week to make room for shooting and the next project. The Great Hall was built as a permanent set because of how often it was used. It was beautiful. The stone floor was real slate and it was actually really big (they fit up to 400 teens in there during scenes), as opposed to being a camera trickery deal.They also had different costumes lined up, and this is when I deduced that I am probably the same size as Daniel Radcliff. Kinda depressing.

The rest of the two stages they allotted for the tour housed different props, costumes, make-up, mini-sets, special effects, and a green screen area where you could fly on a broom and see what it's like to act in that setting. Everything was so interesting to me - apart from being a total fangirl, it was nice to understand the work that went into the production.

In the interest of not taking you on a step-by-step tour, I'm going to share probably too many fun facts.  

Pretty much everyone wore a wig at some point during filming. So that incredible jealousy I feel over Emma Watson's hair is probably totally rational, because it could have been a wig. 

The beds were built when the series first started, so the boys all outgrew their beds. To save time and money, they just faked it and shot the scenes from a different angle so you wouldn't see their feet hanging off the end. To further "age" the room, they added more and more decoration to their bedside tables with each film.


This is the hallway above the Leaky Cauldron. It looked like a real hallway in the film, but it was actually a scale model, maybe only about five feet tall and shrinking as it went back, that was shot close up so it appeared larger (and real). See how the difference in perspectives totally changes where you think you are?

The Gryffindor common room was a permanent set and a favorite among the cast and crew. How could it not be?! It looks so comfy. The paintings in here and in the movies are almost all real, and painted by the art department. They painted pictures of the crew, actors, and family members, disguised in century garb. 
The Goblet of Fire is carved from a single piece of oak. At this point, I was starting to think that maybe they could have taken some shortcuts.

The Potions classroom didn't lack any bit of the detail dedication either. All of the jars lining the walls contained weird looking ingredients, all hand labeled, and crafted from things ranging from plants to cheap plastic animal toys mutilated to look like verifiable potions ingredients. Dumbledore's office wasn't left out either. Each of the books lining the walls are rea;, though most are phone books covered in leather.

I was certain the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets was a special effect. The way it moves (and you can see it here) is unfathomable to me. It's all mechanical, though, so color me impressed.

The Weasely house, the Burrow, was super cool. There are different mechanical objects (like that pan and dish brush on the left) that you could control by moving your hand on a track pad much like your laptop mouse. Also, I love those CheeriOwls.

The only thing not original to the movies on Number 4 Privet Drive is the house number. Rupert Grint, who played Ron Weasley, took it as a memento when filming was completed. 

The special effects stage was amazing. I love the little mandrake, and you can see the Monster book of Monsters on the right and the dying little Voldemort on the left. Each were animated to pop up at scream, growl and lurch, and barely breath, respectively. That might be the most ecletic grouping of descriptions. They also had a to-scale Aarog, but I'm not including that out of respect for those afraid of giant spiders. Buckbeak was also there, chilling with some pumpkins.

Then there was Diagon Alley. I could have skipped up and down this short street all day. The shops were there, all decked out in their respective goods, and the intricacy was amazing.

The crown jewel (yes, the HP set tour is now on par with the Queen's diamonds), was the scale model of Hogwarts and the grounds. The art department made this so that the shots where the camera's swooping between towers or spanning over the lawns could be filmed. Is this not insane?!

Lastly, we passed through Ollivander's wand shop. All of the boxes have handwritten labels and some are animated to pop out, shake a bit, and get all magical. 

This is a just a snippet of the over 200 pictures I took here. I know I'm totally obsessed with the books and movies, but taking that out, the level of detail and craftsmanship was so interesting and impressive. Have you been anywhere like this? Where no one will take you seriously for how much you love it because they know you're a total fan? I feel ya.

PS I'm over here at Europe Itinerary talking about another England excursion. This site is awesome; if you need travel inspiration, or just want to virtually escape, check it out! 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Looping London.

With Zach's first international trip, I wanted him to experience as much as possible. He's heard me gush about cities, sights, foods, cultures, shopping, and little intricacies of different places for years. I wanted him to fall in love with travel the same way that I have. With that, we planned an eight-day backpacking trip to London, Paris, and Amsterdam. The first stop: London. This was my third trip to the city, and though I love it, I wanted to keep it fresh for both of us - thus the looping.  

PS I've covered my last trip to London over here

We hit some of the usual tourist and nerdy stops, such as Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross. This time, it was different. I'd been here twice before, and though it changed both times, it was just a relocation thing to redirect the hoards of Potter fans. This time, it was commercialized. I was very miffed. Luckily, you could take pictures on your own camera in addition to having a man in a train uniform take them as he gives posing directions. 

We also visited Abbey Road, signed the wall in front of the studio, and stopped by the Tardis in Earl's Court to satisfy Zach's latest obsession with Doctor Who. Yes, I'm putting this in here to embarrass you.

At Veronica's suggestion, we hit up the free walking tour. I would highly suggest this to anyone and everyone, because after this one, we hit them up in Paris and Amsterdam. Our tour guide was Sonja, and she had a background in linguistics so we learned a lot about the English language and its development with influences from France. For example, curfew. It was totally made up by the English misunderstanding the French when they were under a period of French rule (and therefore forced to speak French though many didn't know the language). The French instated a rule that all domestic fires were to be put out at a certain time - candles out, lamps out, fires out, and it's bedtimes. They called this couvrir (cover) feu (fire). Many of the working class couldn't pronounce that correctly and it evolved into curfew. It's unique to the English language, too. We have people from Germany, Spain, and Argentina on the tour and they had no idea what a curfew was. The same sort of situation happened with our food descriptions in English. Ever wonder why we have a different name for the animal and the meat that it produces? Okay, I didn't either. It's because of the French. The English workers would have to use the French name when serving meals to their superiors, but would use their English words amongst themselves. Thus, both evolved together and now we have a cow that produces beef, a pig that produces pork, and so on. I guess in Germany it's the same word for both - you see a cow in the field and a cow on your plate. I'll stop, as I realize this might not be everyone's jam. It's obviously my jam - I was totally intrigued. She also let us in on why Coco Chanel's initials were all over Westminster and we learned about the various kings and queens that have been in power and influential to the city. It was entertaining, educational, and a good summary of some major sites. Best of all, it's free, but they do run on tips so take some cash so you don't feel awkward.

We then hit up the Tower of London to see the crown jewels and one of the first castles in London. This was one of the original fortresses, and it's a very traditional castle in that it's a fortification, no a palatial pad. There's a lot of history here, ranging from beheadings to mysterious royal disappearances. That, and King Henry III had a polar bear here and would tie it on a rope and let it swim in the River Thames. 

We also toured St. Paul's Cathedral. I've been dying to get to the top of the done, and was foiled again. I did get one step closer - I got up to the whispering gallery and found out that it works. On the inside of the dome, there's a circular walkway on which you can hear the whispers of others across the dome because of some acoustic witchcraft. I don't get it, but it worked even though there was a pack of high schoolers whistling and trying to ruin my whispers. Color me impressed, Sir Wren. Unfortunately, the cathedral is a no picture zone, so I suggest you google around.

This pictures looks like I put an effect on it, but that's just how it turned out in the rainy London day. Strange.

To get the most bang for our buck and time, we took a daytrip with Premium Tours to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, Lacock and Bath. It was the best compromise - getting me to Windsor and Zach to Stonehenge. 

Windsor Castle was lovely. The Queen was in that day, as confirmed by the Royal Standard flag flying from the central keep. We quickly toured St. George's Chapel, Queen Mary's dollhouse, and the state rooms of the castle. The chapel was beautiful and the burial place of King Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, his supposed favorite wife, and the Queen Mum. The dollhouse was awesome, and didn't allow pictures, as most awesome places do. Everything was real so there were paintings inside, of which the actual artist just painted his famous work on a miniature scale. The plumbing worked. The toilet paper was real. Ah, to have that kind of money.

The state rooms were just as exquisite. The cool part is that the Queen uses some of the state rooms for official entertaining, so they're closed in the summer. At least I walked on some carpet that they royals have walked. Also, I saw three of the Queen's corgis. EEEEEEE!!!! And okay, I guess I'm not positive they were hers. I just know that she has a pack of corgis and that she was in that day and said corgis were spotted in a private access garden. Super sleuth says they're hers. We were in the Octagon room, listening to our audio guide and I was mindlessly staring out the window and across the courtyard garden to the Queen's apartments and trying to catch a glimpse of something in the window. No shame in my game. I then saw a furball, which I first thought was a fox. I was excited enough about that, but then realized that it was a corgi, and that he was with his two corgi friends and they were not listening to the handler man that was trying to coax/herd them behind a wall and out of view. They were sniffing bushes alongside the garden path. I tried to get Zach's attention without breaking sight of the pups and without letting anyone else know, because I'm crazy. I think this means the degrees of separation between Queen and I has significantly decreased.

All too soon, we piled back on the bus for Stonehenge. That just means I'll have to go back. Stonehenge is impressive. The sheer weight of those stones and the elaborate hinging is unfathomable without cranes and power tools. We heard a lot of the conspiracy theories through the audio tour, of which I've forgotten most and need to look into. Some were way out there.
We then went to Lacock for lunch. I had no expectations for this stop, but Lacock is the setting of many films because of it's appearance (such as some Harry Potter scenes) - there are no road lines and the entire town is owned by the National Trust, meaning that there are strict regulations on the appearance of the houses. It is also home to a certain pub - At The Sign of the Angel - where it is rumored that Prince Charles would meet with Camila during his marriage to Princess Diana. 

We continued on to Bath after that, but it was such a quick stop that we just hit the main attractions - the Royal Crescent, the Circus, and one of Jane Austen's homes. I talked about Bath over here if you want more details. Then we were back to London. That was four stops in one day, so we called it a night and hit Portobello Road in the morning.

Portobello Road is one of the largest antique markets. There was everything from books to binoculars, tea sets and jewelry, and everything in between. I picked up a few items for presents - which I'll probably share much later - but the fun of the market was the atmosphere - packed to the brim with people mingling - and discovering the little booths set up between winding hallways or crammed onto the street. That was also on my list of new things to do in London, so I'm happy I was finally there on a Saturday, and available, at that.

Sorry this post was so long - unfortunately, I don't see that changing in the near future. I'll cover the Harry Potter set tour next, then jump to Paris and Amsterdam. I might break it up in between, too - there's important news, the least of which is that Veronica just got a Great Dane puppy!

I'm linking up with some other great travel stories today - check them out and save them for your next vacation! 

Helene in Between

Monday, March 25, 2013

Picture This: Week 12.

I started a picture-a-day project this year. My intent is to try and appreciate every day, the good and the bad. That, and it's a fun way to see the year compiled into a bunch of snapshots. I'm posting weekly recaps of the past seven days. It's a fun way to recap the week and to keep me motivated to try new things and live it up every day. It's rarely ground-breaking, but I couldn't handle that anyway. Does anyone else do this? I'd love for you to share! You can start anytime, too - a new year doesn't have to start on January 1. I'd love to nose around your life and live vicariously. In the least creepy way possible. And PS - my sister does this as well, and is in the process of updating her blog. Check out my past weeks through the "picture-a-day" topic link on the right.

March 18, 2013

On Monday, I felt worse than Sunday. I tried to pound the water (I fully believe that I can drink sicknesses out of me), but by the afternoon I wasn't doing any better and had a trans-Atlantic flight on Friday looming over me. I mustered up the courage to call some doctors (and was denied), but one was helpful enough to recommend a walk-in center that would take me as a foreigner. My reward was a decadent sundae - complete with apples and brown sugar.

March 19, 2013

 I felt better on Tuesday, but not great. The gloomy weather matched my mood. Also, I still can't get used to the traffic patterns.

March 20, 2013

 By Wednesday, I was feeling so much better. My nose was starting to clear a little bit, the infection was gone, and my throat was doing marginally better. None of that is interesting though. Dad called in the afternoon and said he was done with meetings and thought he'd skip out - would I like to go to Chatswoth? YES YES YES!

March 21, 2013

Dad and I were trying to eat out the fridge the entire week, so I took the last remaining Trex (it's like a Crisco) and made some cookies for Dad so that he could have a treat when he returns. It's apparent I've been sick - I had no appetite for cookie dough.

March 22, 2013

Dad and I flew back to the States on Friday. I'm working on my paparazzi skills.

March 23, 2013

I met up with Alex and Kate on Saturday for some homemade cinnamon pancakes, mimosas to celebrate, and a playdate with Chandler. Alex introduced Kate and I to Yo Gabba Gabba, on which there are celebrity appearances. In this case, it was Jimmy Eat World, singing and riding flying cats and dogs. We were dying.

March 24, 2013

Speaking of cats - being at Mum's house and suffering from time-zone induced narcolepsy meant I woke up to some close cat faces quite often. Here's Dinah, probably trying to steal my earrings, as she's a magpie.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Fab Four Following.

That's right - we went to Liverpool! Honestly, I wasn't that excited at first. I was pumped for a new city to explore, but it wasn't my lifelong dream. I had no idea how awesome the city would be. I planned this trip for two reasons: 1) to get Zach excited about traveling abroad and 2) to do something Dad would enjoy. I really don't give either of them enough credit because a) Zach was excited to travel abroad and b) Dad loves exploring mining mills that most would fall asleep in, so Liverpool was like another scoop of ice cream in his travel sundae. I seriously stress myself out about people having a good time. I just read that Liverpool is on the list of top Europe travel destinations in 2013!

Liverpool is eclectic. The skyline's a definite mix of old and new, but that's every city with a history. These people are wonky. I mean that as the highest of compliments. They have all these oddities and humorous additions. Do you see little green things on the top of those white matching domes? Squint real hard. No? Yeah, the picture's a little far.

Unfortunately, this one isn't much closer, but I pointed them out. They're liverbirds (pronounced lie-ver rather than liver), which are creatures totally made up by Liverpool. These guys go way back, too - medieval times back. I can't remember what they're made up of, but I think it's something like the body of an eagle and the head of a phoenix. They're facing opposite directions and are chained in those directions because the story is that if they were to turn around and see each other, they'd fall in love and fly off, leaving Liverpool unprotected. The female's chained looking over the sea, protecting the boats, and the male's chained facing the city, making sure the pubs are open. Both quite important. But isn't that so quirky? I love these silly people.

Oh, and all fun facts are brought to you by our ducky tour. Again, we're quacky about those amphibious tours.  

We toured around the city, picked up some fun facts, and stalked a few Beatles spots (I missed the picture of both the place where John Lennon was first married and one of his apartments). We also saw the largest church in the UK, and the fifth largest in the world.

Seriously, isn't that thing a monster? It's probably not politically correct to refer to a church as a monster. The architect also designed the iconic red phone booths, so there's one of those in there, too. Style points.

We continued along and ended in the Albert Dock. There were tidbits of history here and there, but mainly it's associated with trade. They were real close with the Americans back in the cotton days, and even claimed that the American Civil War officially ended there when a Confederate ship surrendered. It's been a few years since my last history lesson, but I really don't remember that. Four score and seven years ago...

Much of the area in and around the docks is relatively new. They were hit pretty hard in WWII. 

Finally, as you can tell from the first picture in the post, we hit up Mathew Street, home of the Cavern Club, where the Beatles were discovered. 

We visited on a Saturday night, so there was a live band, which really kind of gave you goosebumps. Bonus points for them because they were actually good. The club itself is four flights underground, with low, curved brick ceilings, and, for obvious reasons, always packed. It was hot to say the least. That didn't take away from how awesome it was to be there, it just made me reconsider my choices in winter outerwear.

Everything about that place just felt so cool. I would definitely have been a teenybopper groupie fan girl. I got caught up in the hype of the building.

Lastly - superlambananas.

Jigga what? Apparently it had been too long since the Liverpoolians made up a creature, and it was because it was about 800 years, so they brought in this guy. He's part lamb, part banana, and that's enough for me to think him super. Then, in 2008 when they were named the culture capital of Europe, they made dozens of these guys to parade around. It was almost as good as puppies on parade.

Liverpool, I love you. I really don't know if I understand you, but I love you. 

I saw a ceramic superlambanana in the tourist store but passed him by - he was the equivalent of $45. I'm regretting this. Don't let me down, Amazon. PS - I have treasure from here, but I have treasures from London, too (a post I'll get to), so I think I'll just throw them all together. So hang tight, unless you're in physical pain from anticipation, then let me know.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cornwall Castles: Tintagel and St. Michael's Mount.

The weather was projected to be 50 degrees F over one weekend, so Dad, Mum and I jumped in the car and headed for Cornwall, England. Besides boasting delicious Cornish pasties, the area's also known for its beautiful coasts and is home to two castles on Britain's Top 10 Castles listing. Mum found the listing while watching TV a while back, and has been ticking them off her list. I'm lucky to have been around most of the time when she's visiting and am able to bum a ride and entry to most. We went to Leeds last April, and after our weekend in Cornwall, she has just two castles to go. After visiting Windsor last week, I just have one! And I'll updated you on that, soon. She was more dedicated than I, though, in that she rearranged the order of the top ten castles, assuming that Windsor and Sterling will fall into the number eight and nine places. Tintagel nabbed her top spot, and you'll see why. I would not be surprised if she emailed the Travel Channel to inform them that their order was wrong. I'm totally serious. 

Our first stop: Tintagel Castle. This is the legendary birthplace of King Arthur and set directly on the coast. The is very little to see currently; the site's in ruins with mainly just foundations and a couple stubborn walls.  That doesn't sound like a worthy introduction, but this place is gorgeous. I never expected to see a place like this in Britain. That's not a dig, it's just not what I ever saw in movies or imagined from books. The waters were Caribbean blue, the grass a deep emerald, and on the day we visited, we were lucky enough to see the sun and the sky. 

I really enjoyed this site because it was more of a hike and less of a house tour with replica furniture. There were rocks to climb where the path wasn't certain, caves to explore, and hills to ramble.

This all made Mum very nervous, but Dad and I enjoyed it - for a while. Once stairs started being involved, our buns really started to feel the burn. I've never had to pause while climbing stairs for body aches, but there was a lot of that here. They were steep and numerous, and I'm no mountain goat.

The view on the top was totally worth it. Now I have Beyonce stuck in my head.

So much of the original settlement has since fallen to sea and the land has largely reflected that. There's no barriers - you yourself could wash right out to sea, and I gave Mum a bit of a heart attack with my brave exploration. We all survived. I'm afraid this is a place I'm not describing justly and I don't have many fun facts (somehow the information pamphlets escaped Dad's magnetic fingers and there weren't many information signs).

We explored the coast as well, climbing rocks and making our way over some treacherous and maybe-not-really paths. This place was a total exploration free-for-all, which was scary and exciting all at once.  

Our second stop in Cornwall was St. Michael's Mount. Well, there was Land's End, too, which is not related to the clothing store, we learned.

This castle is on an island for part of the day and a peninsula for the other couple hours. We took a ferry out to the castle and walked back on the causeway after the tide had receded. How cool is that.

Plus, the ferry was a duck boat, and that's what this family is all about. So the castle. It was pretty good. It wasn't awesome or stuffed with crazy fun facts. False - Queen Victoria showed up here one day because she liked it when she saw it from the train and wanted a tour, but no one was home. Womp, womp. Prince Charles and Camilla also swung by once, but that's commemorated with a framed 5x7 in a corner of a room, so I don't think that was exciting to many. It was built by some guy when the area was a forest, the forest eventually eroded into a coast, the coast into an island, and it's been passed down through the generations as a family home ever since. A family still lives there. I can't decide if I'd love or hate to live in a castle that's on an island for most of the day. Curfew must be really strict and sneaking in impossible.

The climb up to the castle at the top was beautiful. It reminded us of Hawaii, but please note that none of us have been to Hawaii. I suspect there were a few more evergreens here than in Hawaii, too. 

 This was another steep climb, but it was easier on a sloped surface than on the stairs of Tintagel the day before. Once again, the view at the top was totally worth it.

 The surrounding Caribbean-blue waters made you totally forget the cold wind. 


How about those windows, too? I'm a sucker for geometry. They're just so gorgeous and symmetrical. The private gardens looked lovely from above as well. They almost look to be built into the ruins of former structures, but we couldn't get any closer to investigate.

The day grew on as we popped in and out of the castle into different chapels, rooms, and balconies, and the tide wore out allowing the aforementioned causeway come into view.

I wish I would have done a time lapse photo. Between the pictures Mum and I took once we spotted it, I think we'd be close. Must look into that. We finished the day off with a stop at the cafe for another Cornish pasty for Dad to kill some time because, as I said, we wanted to walk back and had toured the castle before the tide was totally out. Mum kept referring to it as her first time walking on the Atlantic Ocean. I'll clarify - it's not a floating causeway - it's rocks that are built up and make a path. I would think if we would've waited longer, we probably could've walked on the sand, but it would've been squishy. I think she was picturing water-walking shoes, a la da Vinci in Ever After. I love that movie. 

My boots, and feet, did get wet in the crossing. So maybe we did walk on the Atlantic. That's Dad's fault; he was rushing us. The last few waves were trying to cling on to their separated brethren so there was a small part of the causeway that we had to run/skip/jump some crashing waves. That doesn't explain why I posed like I had broken my leg on the causeway. I don't understand it either, but I'm just working on my angles, Tyra.

PS - want more travel stories? Check out the travel tag on the right. There's more to come as I document my trips taken while I've been on sabbatical. I'm linking up with some more travel posts - check them out! 

Helene in Between

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