Monday, August 24, 2015

OT: Europe Trip--Day 13--London-Duxford-Stevenage

We got up early and took showers this morning as we had a great deal planned to do for today. Checking out of the hotel, we walked four blocks to the subway (tube) station. A couple security guards were standing there and one came over to help us, he could tell we were new to town. He helped us buy our tickets out to Heathrow, where we had a rental car reserved. The plan was to then drive north to Duxford to see the Museums there and then to Stevenage to have dinner with our good friend, Mike Shreeve, whom I'd met years before photographing airshows.

We hopped on the tube and began the long ride out to Heathrow. I was expecting an hour ride and it was an hour-ten. We got out at the Terminal and then caught the shuttle bus over to Hertz. We waited about 10 minutes in line in the modern building, then it was our turn to talk to a customer service rental rep.

After our difficulties driving in Belguim, we had decided we needed a car with GPS. We asked if they had any cars with GPS available and she went to check. Coming back, she said they had two, but they were both premium rentals. We asked, "How much?" and she said she'd talk to the supervisor to get us a rate. After she'd left, I told Sky we couldn't afford the premium car, even if it was a Nissan 380z or a Bentley.

She came back, quoted us a rate and I told her no. She then called to see if they'd had any recent returns with a GPS. They hadn't, but they had something like a GPS and I said fine. She printed out the form, hand me sign, handed us a map and we walked out to find the car.

We and another gentlemen pulled up to the same car at the same time and looked at each other. We compared license plate numbers and key fobs. You guessed it--they'd rented the same car to two different people at the same time!

We both went inside to see the supervisor. Boy were they apologetic! I let him take the car as he had to pick up his daughter who was waiting at the Terminal and they found another car for us. The agent gave us a free upgrade and we went out to find our car: a white Honda Civic. We laughed...just like home! Except for driving on the wrong side of the road, on the wrong side of the car and shifting gears with the wrong hand, it was no big deal! (Sarcasm intended.)

We stowed our bags, hopped into the car and fired it up. Air conditioning to low, blowers to speed and Sky starts to set up the pseudo-gps, which actually worked very well for us. Leaving the lot, I only hit the curb, on the left-hand side of the car, twice. He only yelped three times. We were off to a good start!

The gps found our way to the Interstate/Motorway and we were on our way to Duxford. Sky yelped about four more times that I was about to take us off the road and I corrected. I had been worried that I'd want to drive in the right-hand lane. That wasn't the problem, I wanted to go off the road to the left. Traffic was light and in an hour and a half, we saw the Aerodrome on our left and pulled off the Motorway into the parking lot.

Duxford is a former Battle of Britain base which now houses the Imperial War Museum, the American Museum and Stephen Grey's collection of airplanes.

We walked in, paid our admission and walked out to the airfield. We walked down to Mr Grey's collection first as many of them were out of the hangar. This was Spitfire/Hurricane heaven!

A Spitfire basks in the English sun.

 A Hurricane rests among it's contemporary Spitfires.

Looking across Duxford.

 Hawk 75, an American-built Curtiss P-36.

 War Trophy--A captured ME-109 on a beach scene.

Don with a Hurricane and Duxford.

A Bristol Blenheim Mk IV cockpit.

B-29 in the American Museum.

We walked on down past the American Museum to the Armored Vehicle Exhibit. The American Museum was closed for remodeling. They only had two airplanes in it: a B-29 and the B-52. I managed to get a couple B-29 shots thru the fence and then walked down to see the vehicles with Sky.

Vehicles displayed outside the Museum. The Tank is a Russian T-34.

Sky with a German Tank inside the Museum.

We walked down and toured the Military Vehicles building. They had a few older tanks, but mostly the more modern variety. Then we walked back and had a proper English Lunch at the Canteen. I had a coffee and it was a little stronger than I was used to. 

A flyable Bristol Blenheim outside the hangar.

After lunch, we toured the Battle of Britain Hall and then walked down to see the Hangar on the other side of the entrance/gift shop. They had a Mosquito hanging from the ceiling as well as a Typhoon. The biggest attractions for me were the Lancaster bomber and a Concorde. The Concorde was open for tours daily, but we arrived to late.

By now, my knees were shot. I was tired. We went back to the gift shop and browsed around til about 10 minutes before closing. Then I went and sat in the car while Sky wandered over to see the Hurricane (fiberglass replica) mounted on a pole.

We just had to wait about five minutes before my photographer friend Mike Shreeve showed up. We decided to go have dinner at a local pub he knew down the road. It was thoroughly enjoyable, Sky having a burger, me trying out their lasagna.

We said our good-byes. Sky and I drove for about 45 minutes to the village of Stevenage, about 1/2 way to London where we spent the night.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

OT: Europe Trip--Day 11--Paris-?

   We awoke in Paris not knowing where we'd be spending that night. I made coffee in the room, took a shower and changed into fresh clothes. While Sky took his shower, I pondered our options. Go straight to the Paris airpot (CDG) and catch the first flight out to anywhere close to London? Go to the train station (had to go there to get to CDG) and see what Eurostar had come up with? I tried calling Eurostar but was placed on hold for five minutes and didn't want to use up my International Plan on hold, so I hung up.

Sky came out and I proposed to him that we go to the train station, head up to Eurostar to get the latest from the source and then if we couldn't get to London on them, head up to CDG to catch a flight. He agreed.

We walked the few blocks to the station and went up to yet another line. This one was considerably shorter though, we were about number 8 to be served and time passed quickly. We went up to the counter and we helped by a very nice, about 35-year old French woman. I told her we were supposed to go out yesterday on the Eurostar, which had been cancelled.

She nodded. I told her we had been told there were no more tickets for today and asked that we be rescheduled for the first available train.

She smiled and said, "You can make the 10:50 train if you hurry, would you like to exchange for that one?"

I looked at my watch. It was 10:20. "Sure if you think we can make it."

She took our tickets, stapled the new ones on them and wished us well. I was impressed.

Sky and I hurried through passport and customs control and ran down to the boarding lounge. I asked the agent when we would board and he said "Right now, gate 4, you need to hurry!"

Sky and I took off, running 50 feet to the gate, running down the escalator and running down the walkway til we found our coach. Boarding it, we heaved our bags up into the overhead storage and sat down. It wasn't til then, I think, that either of us realized that we were going to London. It came to us both at the same time as we broke into broad grins and gave each other a "High-5". 

The train ride was uneventful, a bit anticlimactic. You couldn't see anything as the train went through the chunnel and in short time, we were at St Pancras Station in London.

I figured we'd take a cab to our hotel. That ended up being a bad decision. It took us 40 minutes of waiting in line and another hour in the cab to negotiate London traffic to get to the International House, a dorm building for the University of Westminster. I hoped that they still had our rooms. I had sent an e-mail the night before from Paris but had not received a reply.

The cabbie was entertaining. While we were stuck in traffic, he let Sky get out, go into a store and grab a couple Cokes and get back in. He asked what our plans were and I told him. Visit the Imperial War Museum, ride the London Eye and the next day, take the tube out to Heathrow to pick up a rental car to go to Duxford. He said we'd picked an excellent spot to stay. The IWM was right across the street from where we were staying, the London Eye-a giant ferris wheel on the banks of the Thames-was just six blocks away.

My travel agent had done well. (Thanks Gina!)

He dropped us off, only charged us 3/4's what the meter said and left. We walked into the Dorm Hall to be greated by a nice young lady. They had got the email, were happy to see us and still had our rooms. We checked right in, took the elevator to the 4th floor and found our room. It was small. They had the beds tucked underneath the desks. But it was good enough for us and the price was far cheaper than any other hotel in London. 

We dumped our bags, went back downstairs and asked "How far to the IWM?"

"A couple of blocks, it's just across the street," was her reply and we headed out.

Careful to look to our right, we crossed the street and walked through the park to the Museum. The Museum had free admission, the usual bag search and we were in. I told Sky if we got separated, to meet up at the big guns in front of the Museum.

 The Imperial War Museum.

A Spitfire and V1 rocket coming into the Museum.

We walked through the World War II display, which though taking one-half of a floor of the Museum, wasn't very big. Walking to the other side, we went through the World War I exhibit. They had an early Mark V Tank, a Sopwith Camel and many uniforms and weapons.

Sky took off by himself and I went to the Holocaust Exhibit. Very sobering, very solemn. I don't even want to talk about it.

I finished early and went out on the steps to wait for Sky. After 20 minutes, deciding I wanted a coffee, I went to little stand in the park and grabbed one. Then waiting 15 more minutes, I decided to go looking for him inside. I hoped he hadn't gone back to the hotel. I was relieved to find him almost as soon as I stepped inside. He was downstairs at the bookstore, buying some posters. I went down, greeted him and looked around. Nothing there I could live without.

He said he was done too, so we walked the couple blocks back to the dorm to drop our stuff. The dorm didn't have any food available, which we knew, so after dropping our bags, we went across the street in another direction to a local pub. Ordering burgers and fries, which seem to have become a universal food, we chatted about our plans for the next few days. We finished up, paid our bill and went back to the hotel to grab our cameras.

We grabbed our map and headed out to what was turning into a gorgeous early-summer evening. Finding the London Eye was no problem, the line was for tickets wasn't too long and moved quickly and before we knew it, we were stepping into a gondola for a ride.

The London Eye-opened in 1998 provided the then highest view of London.

 View from the top looking towards Big Ben.

Sky enjoying his ride on the London Eye. 

After the 30-minute ride, Sky was hungry (really?). He grabbed an ice cream cone while I grabbed a few more snaps of the eye. We thought about staying and buying another ride, this time at dark, but were tired and decided to head on back.

We did stop at a great little Pub, The Steam Engine, to have a Coke and a really good raspberry-flavored beer.

Then we headed on back to the dorm, our London stay almost finished. Tomorrow, it was Duxford all day, spending the night in Stevenage.

OT: Europe Trip--Day 10--Normandy-Paris-Paris

     We slept in this morning after last nights "celebration". All we had on todays schedule was to take the rental car back, catch the train back to Paris. Ride the Metro from the Gare St Lazare to the Gare du Nord and then hop the Eurostar-the fast train that goes through the Chunnel to London and go to our hotel arriving shortly after 6 PM.

Everything went according to plan. We easily found the Rental Car place, they called a Cab to take us to the Train Station. We rode to Paris We found the Metro to the other train station and then walked the length of the train station to get to the Eurostar departure area (after only having to ask directions three times).

They had passport and customs control right there and we breezed right through them to the departure lounge. As we hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast, we went across the hall from the departure hall to have a jambon et fromage sandwich (Ham and cheese sandwich) and a Coke.

Going back to the lounge, we found it filled so we sat on the floor and waited for our departure time.

And then in happened. They announced the train was delayed due to the Calais Dock workers staging a Hissy-Fit er...protest on the tracks. They had put old tires on the tracks and set them of fire. "Oh great," I thought. "We're going to be here all night."

We waited for about an hour when they announced that ALL Eurostar service was cancelled for the day! Crap, now what do we do? They had to have a cancellation policy similar to the US airlines but I had no idea what that policy was and the people at the gate were not of any help. I sent an email to the hotel where Sky and I had stayed just a few days previously to ask if they had any vacancies-they quickly responded they did not. Sky and I went back to the ticket office and stood in line with 150 other people but I knew they didn't know when the tracks would reopen. This was throwing a serious curveball into our plans.

 Sky tries to get Internet service to check the flight schedule to London
while waiting in line at the Gare du Nord Eurostar Ticket Office.

An agent outside the ticket office handed us copies of the cancellation policy, fortunately written in English. While Sky looked at that, I called my wife, had her call AT&T to add an International Data plan and if she could, to start looking to help find us a Hotel in Paris for the night. I knew it would be expensive but I didn't want to sleep in the train station with our bags and then not be able to get to London the next day.

My sweetie came thru for us! In 10 minutes, she texted me that I had the international calling plan, in another 5 minutes, she texted the name and number of a Hotel in Paris that have availability on Trip Advisor. We were still about 30 people away from the ticket counter so I gave them a call-no vacancies. They were full that night.

This was going to be tougher than I thought. Another text came across with another hotels name and number. I called them and they responded too that they had no vacancies for the night. Dang the luck!

It was getting time to think about some serious improvisation on our plans. I had Sky, because his phone could get the free Wifi service from Eurostar, look up flights to London that night and the next day.

We moved up in the line, we were now about 15 folks away when the announced that they were out of tickets for tomorrows trains and were closing! Man, talk about upping the heat!

And then my phone rang.... I picked it up and saw that it was an international number? Who could be calling me? I answered it and the voice said, "Hello, did you just call me? A half-hour ago? This is the Hotel Helussi."  I replied that I had, to check on vacancies for the night and was told you had none. He replied, "Well, that was then. We've since had a cancellation and have a room available. Would you like it?"

Wow! What service! He was like our guardian angel! Would I like it? I said maybe, just two quick questions; Did he know how far away they were from the Gare du Nord and how much was it?

He told me they were located just 6-8 blocks from the station and that it was 250 Euros a night. I cringed, that was a lot of money. I asked him to let me think about it a minute when Sky pointed out that our Eurostar compensation was about $220 Euros a night and that wasn't bad for a room in Paris with no advance notice.

I took it. He said great, didn't even need my credit card number to hold the room. He asked me if I needed directions to the hotel?

I did.

He said it was simple, leave the train station, turn right and go about 3 blocks, turn left, walk down that street until we hit rue de Bellefond and we'd be there. Would take about 20 minutes walking time. I said we'd be right there!

We left the train station, started walking west down Dunkerque towards the street where we'd turn left (forget the name of it now). I spied a Subway and asked Sky if he was hungry. (Dumb question since he's always hungry!) We went in, ordered a couple subs to go and then kept walking. My phone rang again and it was the Hotel. Just asking if we were having problems finding it. I replied no, sorry, we had just stopped off for a quick sandwich and were on our way now.

Ten minutes later we arrived to find him standing at the doorway, enjoying the nice evening. We went inside and he checked two very fatigued and stressed travelers in. I told him he was our guardian angel and that we couldn't expect such service even in the states and thanked him profusely. I asked him what his name was, told him he was getting a great review on Trip Advisor. He told me "Adrian" and thanks. Then he carried my bag to the elevator and rode it with us to our floor. Took us to and let us into our room.

I thought it looked like Heaven. He then said we could have anything in the mini-fridge, it was included in the room rate. I looked inside and saw a couple Heinekens and a bottle of wine and said we'd be fine as I handed him a few Euros for his troubles. I could relax a little and think. Sky and I ate our sandwiches, tossing back and forth several ideas. I asked Sky if he'd run downstairs and get me another couple beers. He said he couldn't, wasn't old enough. I laughed, told him it was France and they wouldn't care. While he was doing that, I called the Eurostar booking office but it was closed. I posted our dilemma on Facebook as I had several English photographer friends and they all replied with suggestions. They planes were all full to London, but we could go to another city and then take the train to London. This looked like the best choice if Eurostar didn't have the tracks open tomorrow. It'd cost us an extra 400 bucks but it was worth it. It'd also leave us short on time, we had no spare time built into the schedule so something would have to go. We both, after agonizing over the schedule for several minutes, agreed that we'd bypass visiting Abbey Road Studios (where the Beatles recorded) and that would put us basically back on track if we could get to London the next day.

We went to bed that night hoping that tomorow would be a better day.

Sky watches the sun set from our balcony in the Hotel Helussi.

OT: Europe Trip--Day 9--Bayeux, Saint Mere-Eglise, Utah Beach.

     Woke up to a rainy day in Bayeux, the first of our trip. We couldn't complain as the previous day had been so glorius and our plans for the day were to visit all the Normandy Museums. We went downstairs and had breakfast at the Hotel and then headed past the Cathedral to our car. Fortunately, it didn't have a parking ticket. We hopped in, my able Navigator by my side and hopped on N13 to head west to Ste Mere-Eglise.

Ste Mere-Eglise is famous for being the first city to be liberated during D-Day and for Paratrooper John Steeles' parachute getting snagged in a church steeple. 

First we stopped at the "Dead Mans Corner" Museum, located just outside of Ste Mere-Eglise in Saint-Come-du-Mont. This Museum is properly called The Centre Historique des Parachutistes du Jour-J, which translates to the Historic Center of the Parachutists of D-Day. It honors the men of the 101st Airborne who jumped in the wee morning hours to capture the road to Carentan. The Americans goal was the city of Carentan, they could only get there on that road and they had to wait for Tanks coming from Utah Beach for support.

"The first tank arrives at the crossroads and attempts to continue towards Carentan. It comes to a brutal halt when it gets a direct shot that kills the tank commander, Lt. Walter T. Anderson from Minnesota. From this day on, and for several days, the wreck of the tank and the corpse of Lt. Anderson hanging from the gun turret will stay on the spot. For the Americans, this location will always remain the “DEAD MAN’S CORNER”." Centre Historique des Parachutistes du Jour-J.

We arrived at the Museum just as it opened. It's a small Museum, packed with relics, history, uniforms and the fuselage of a C-47.

Beginning of the Tour-You receive the same briefing the Paratroopers got that night.
The man is a hologram, projected into the dark room.

After we received the briefing, we were ushered into the fuselage of a C-47 painted in D-Day markings to make our "jump." As we took our seat, the engines fired up, the airplane shook, the smell of burnt oil permeating everything...I like this flight sim! We taxied out besides a couple other C-47's and took off for our drop zone. As we got closer, the antiaircraft fire increased great, rattling the fuselage like gravel. We could see the plane besides us take a direct hit and plunge into the ocean. As we got close to our drop zone, our plane took a couple hits, we were going down! The pilot managed to find an open farm field and bellied us in to it. Whew! We were alive for now. Time to get the enemy!

We then left the Museum and went down to the corner, Dead Mans' Corner. As it was still drizzling, we didn't stay outside long and went back to the car. We got back and N13 and headed into the village of Saint Mere-Eglise. It's a small town, reminds me of small-town Iowa with it having a Church instead of a Courthouse in the town square.

We parked in the square, paid our 2 Euros and went to look at the church that Paratrooper John Steele got hung up on his D-Day landing.

A mannequin of John hangs from the Church year round.

Then we spotted the Musee Airborne Museum across the street and decided to take refuge from the drizzle. The Museum is located on the very spot where a house that caught fire that night was located. This is a good museum, which has a Sherman Tank, A C-47 Dakota troop transport and a Waco Glider on display.

Sky in front of the Sherman. The Church is in the background.

The C-47 has mannequins representing General Eisenhower and Airborne troops.

We went through that, looked in the bookstore and walked outside hoping to go to lunch. It was still drizzling, so we walked a couple blocks down the street to a sidewalk cafe that had it menu posted and ordered. There weren't very many people out that day, only four of us were having lunch in the Cafe. 

Leaving Saint Mere-Eglise, we went over to Utah Beach. They had a Museum as well and we spent most of our time in it to avoid the rain.

Utah Beach

A closer view.

Statue of men coming off a landing craft ouside the Museum.

We went inside, paid our admission and started to look around. They had uniforms, weapons, maps on display, the ususal stuff. When I rounded the corner and this beautiful B-26 Marauder came into view. a big smile came across my face. "Sky, come here! You won't believe this!"

Wow. A Marauder. I'd only seen two before, the CAFs' before it crashed back in the late '80's and Kermit Weeks' one down at Fantasy of Flight. This one was in the best shape I'd seen. 

Sky in front of a B-26 Marauder.

Don in front of the same plane.

We finished up there and decided it was time to head back to the hotel. We hopped back on N13 heading East and rolled into Bayeux to discover many of the streets were blocked off for their Solstice Celebration. It took us an hour to find out how to get close and we ended up parking right across the street from the Cathedral and walking to our hotel. Then we had the pleasure of listening to live bands til midnight as part of the Celebration.