Tag: London

8 Amazing Airbnb Homes

8 Amazing Airbnb Homes

Airbnb’s Most Amazing Homes

Sometimes picking a place to stay when we travel is as much fun as planning where to go and what to see.  There are some truly amazing homes available on Airbnb that you can rent.  They’re so good, they’ll make you want to book the place to stay and then plan your trip around its location, instead of vice versa!

1. The Seashell House – Isla Mujeres, Mexico

airbnb most amazing homes

This home in a gated community on Isla Mujeres seems like it was made from two giant shells.  In fact, shells dominate the decor inside the house as well. The plumbing fixtures are also shells, pouring out water into the sink and shower.

airbnb most amazing homes

Shells are also built into the walls both inside and outside the house, and the property features a stunning view of the water. Isla Mujeres is a small island off the Yucatan Peninsula, and the closest airport is Cancun. The property includes a private pool, two king beds, kitchenette, wifi, and air conditioning. The rental fee for the Seashell House is from $308 per night, and it sleeps a maximum of four people in two bedrooms. The property has received 131 reviews with an average rating of 5 stars. Click here to see its listing on Airbnb.

2. Underground Hygge – Orondo, WA

airbnb most amazing homes

This Hobbit-inspired home is nestled right into the mountainside of the breathtaking Columbia River Gorge. The doorway and windows are round, providing renters with an amazing view of the surrounding countryside.

airbnb most amazing homes

The house is outfitted with many natural elements – the floor appears to be made of log slices, the fireplace and chimney are made of stone, the sink basin is made of well-preserved natural wood. It isn’t hard to imagine a peaceful little hobbit living here. Staying here does require a bit of a hike uphill to reach the property from the parking area, and I really wouldn’t recommend staying here if you’re claustrophobic at all. (The largest room is 7 ft 10 inches by 11 feet. Also, if booking in winter, you will need a vehicle with four wheel drive, as they do get a lot of snow December – March.  The property is available to rent from $250 per night, and it sleeps two. The property has received 185 reviews with an average rating of 5 stars. Click here to see its listing on Airbnb.

3. Skylodge – Calca, Peru

airbnb most amazing homes

For those who want their lodging to provide them with an unforgettable experience, there are the Skylodge Adventure Suites in Peru’s Cusco region.  We actually saw these from our train to Machu Picchu in May.  They are “transparent luxury capsules” that are attached to a mountainside in the Sacred Valley of Peru. This may be the only hotel that you have to climb a mountain (1300+ feet) to enter. I’m a little unclear about how the booking works. It appears as though you make a reservation for one person, but they say that maximum occupancy for the three pods is 12 people. Rates are from $462 per night, which includes a gourmet dinner with wine, transportation from Cuzco, professional bilingual guides, and breakfast in the morning. There is a strict cancellation policy, so be sure you are going to stay there before you book. The property has received 53 reviews with an average rating of 4.5 stars. Click here to see its listing on Airbnb.

4. The Cozy Palace Bamileke Suite – Marrakesh, Morocco

amazing airbnb homes morocco cozy palace

This gorgeous little place just oozes romance, with colorful tiles, arching doorways, and a four poster bed. It is a suite in a riad – a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard.

amazing airbnb homes cozy palace morocco

A skylight fills the bedroom with natural light, and the courtyard is the perfect place to relax.  Guests also have access to a rooftop terrace which provides excellent views.  The suite accommodates up to four people, and rents from just $42 per night!  The property has received 401 reviews with a 5-star average rating. Click here to see its listing on Airbnb.

5. Old Smock Windmill – Kent, England

How many people can say that they’ve slept in a windmill?  You can, if you rent this renovated windmill in the English county of Kent.

amazing airbnb homes old smock windmill kent england uk

You will have three floors at your disposal.  Each is furnished with modern conveniences while retaining the rustic look of a bygone era.

amazing airbnb homes old sock windmill kent england uk

Notable features and furnishings include a copper basin sink, walk in shower with under floor heating, gas wood-burning stove, and a patio/deck.  The rental fee for the Old Smock windmill is from $235 per night. Sleeps a maximum of four people in two bedrooms. The property has 154 reviews, with an average rating of 5 stars. Click here to view its Airbnb listing.

6.  San Giusto Abbey Tower – Tuscania, Italy

amazing airbnb homes san giusto abbey tower italy

Built in 1146, San Giusto is a medieval monastery located in a beautiful valley one hour north of Rome. The tower has been recently restored and decorated, taking into consideration the beauty and austerity of a 12th century building: medieval charm and modern comfort. 

amazing airbnb homes san giusto italy

As you can see above, the decor is very much in keeping with the building’s age and purpose. If you are looking for a luxurious, spa-like environment, this will not be what you want. On the other hand, if you want to feel like you’ve stepped back in time, you will probably enjoy this.  The apartment has 4 floors: living room and kitchen, 2 bedrooms (each with a bathroom) on the upper floors and a terrace that overlooks the valley. The tower rents from $184 per night and can accommodate up to four guests. The property has 64 reviews with an average rating of 5 stars. Click here to view its Airbnb listing.

7.  Jack Sparrow House – Cornwall, England

amazing airbnb homes jack sparrow cornwall england uk

If quirky and cozy is your thing, you will love this little house! (Have I mentioned that I think Cornwall is the most beautiful place on earth?  Why, yes, I have.) It consists of a comfortable room with a seating/kitchen area downstairs and a romantic bed on the second floor with beautiful views of Porthallow Bay.  

amazing airbnb homes jack sparrow house cornwall england uk
The cabin has been lovingly constructed with careful attention to detail. There is a toilet in the house, but shower facilities are located nearby in a converted horse trailer. The Jack Sparrow house rents from $134 per night and, needless to say, it can only accommodate two people. This property has 138 reviews with an average rating of five stars. Click here to view its Airbnb listing.

8. St Pancras Clock Tower – London, England

amazing airbnb homes st pancras clock tower london england uk

There’s a new place on my bucket list!  There are two Airbnb apartments located inside the clock tower above St Pancras International Station in London. It features a 30 ft high room in the tower overlooking many of London’s landmarks such as St Paul’s Cathedral.

amazing airbnb homes st pancras clock tower london uk

Not only is sleeping inside a clock tower a really cool experience, but the location of this clock tower is exceptionally convenient for visitors to London.  From there, you can walk to many of London’s sights, including the British Library, the British Museum, and the West End. The tower does not have bells, and road/rail noise is minimal; however, you should be aware that the windows are not curtained and light will stream in from sun and/or floodlights. The apartments accommodate up to four people and rent from $147 per night.  The property has received 341 reviews, with an average rating of five stars. Click here to view its listing.

If you haven’t tried Airbnb before, what are you waiting for?  This is just a small sampling of the unique and cozy homes available on their site.  Click here, and you’ll get $40 off your first Airbnb stay!

Amazing Airbnb Homes
Buckingham Palace Opens New Exhibit of Royal Gifts

Buckingham Palace Opens New Exhibit of Royal Gifts

PLEASE NOTE:  This exhibit has now ended.

It’s Good to Be the Queen

During its summer opening (July 22 to October 1), the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace will hold an exhibit of over 250 items given to Queen Elizabeth II.

It is customary when heads of state from different countries meet for them to exchange gifts as a symbol of diplomacy. Because Queen Elizabeth II has reigned for over 65 years, she has received quite a few of these royal gifts. This exhibit highlights some of the more spectacular items she has received from over 100 different countries. The gifts are special not only because of their beauty and rarity, but in many cases they are also special because of who presented them to the queen. Many of the gifts were from notable world leaders (past and present), including US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, South African President Nelson Mandela, and President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China.

Here are some of the items that will be highlighted at the exhibit:

Vessel of Friendship (China)

buckingham palace exhibit royal gifts vessel of friendship china

This is a model of the treasure ship in which navigator and diplomat Zeng He sailed in the early 15th century. The prow of the ship features a dove and olive branch medallion, representing peace. The sides of the hull contain elements from Dunhuang frescoes, as well as traditional Chinese symbols of friendship and peace.

Yoruba Throne (Nigeria)

yoruba throne beaded chair nigeria buckingham palace royal gifts exhibit

The Yoruba people of Nigeria presented this throne to the Queen in 1956. Embroidering the beading and creating patterns for beadwork chairs and footstools is an important spiritual exercise for the Yoruba people. The designs denote many aspects of spiritual life – power, the past, the future and respect for ancestors and descendants. Beadwork and royalty were closely associated in this culture, so owning vast quantities of beads was considered a source of wealth and status. The wealthiest Yoruba kings employed craftspeople to embroider their clothing and other objects. These ornately-decorated pieces, in turn, became an important part of their regalia.

Totem Pole (Canada)

buckingham palace royal gifts exhibit canada totem pole

Another hand-crafted item, the First Nations of Canada’s north-west coast carved this totem pole. It features the mythical thunderbird at the top, with its wings outstretched. The aboriginal people of Canada believed that the bird brings thunder by flapping its wings.

Salt (Salt Island, British Virgin Islands)

buckingham palace royal gifts

Salt Island, part of the British Virgin Islands, used to pay tribute of a pound of salt every year on the monarch’s birthday. Over time, as salt became less valuable and more easily attained, the custom ceased. The Governor-General of the British Virgin Islands reintroduced this tradition in 2015, presenting this bag of salt for The Queen’s 90th Birthday. The bag features a scene of an islander collecting salt.

Coconut Baskets (Tonga)

buckingham palace royal gifts exhibit coconut baskets tonga

Queen Salote of Tonga presented these baskets to Queen Elizabeth II during her Commonwealth visit in 1953.  The baskets represent an industry that Queen Salote had re-established on the island of Tonga. Queen Salote endeared herself to the British public during Elizabeth II’s Coronation.  Leaving the Coronation service at Westminster Abbey in the rain, she insisted on riding in an open carriage, and rode back to Buckingham Palace waving to the crowds.

UPDATE: The exhibition is now closed.

The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Brothers Studio London

The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Brothers Studio London

First, a Confession:

I have waited over three months to write a post about The Making of Harry Potter. I hoped that giving it some time would subdue my zealous enthusiasm and help me not come across as a total geek.

Alas, it did not.

I took almost 200 photos there, and when I looked through them to decide which ones I would include in this post, I could only narrow it down to thirty. I will try my hardest to cut out more as I am writing. But it will be painful.

Suffice it to say that if you have ever watched a Harry Potter movie, there is only one thing that should be at the top of your list for London attractions: The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Brother Studios in Leavesden.

Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

According to the web site (link at the end), the tour is supposed to take about three hours. However, I strongly recommend allowing almost an entire day for it. Three hours is probably the bare minimum time, and does not include transportation to/from the studio tour. (Details on transportation are also at the end of this post.)

When you enter The Making of Harry Potter building, you are in a large lobby area, with giant photos of the cast members staring down at you. Alan Rickman’s Snape is there. It made me a little melancholy to see him as I’ve been a fan even of his for decades. He really knew how to create memorable characters! A few props are there as well, including the flying Ford Anglia that Ron and Harry borrowed in The Chamber of Secrets. From the lobby you proceed to the queuing area and enter a maze of barrier straps, winding back and forth. While there, you get to see the famous cupboard under the stairs from Number 4, Privet Drive.

Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour Cupboard Under the Stairs

Once you reach the front of the line, you are ushered into a large, mostly dark and very empty room, where you watch a video presentation. It really isn’t very long but you feel like it is because you just want to get to Hogwarts, already! After the video, you move into a great stone room that looks like the outside of a castle. Pause for dramatic effect, then the doors open and you are ushered into…

Great Hall Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

…the Great Hall at Hogwarts!

The long tables are set and they seem to stretch on forever. Mannequins behind the tables wear the characters’ costumes. And of course, Headmaster Albus Dumbledore is at the head of the hall, flanked by Professors McGonagal and Snape.

Between the tables and the platform on which the professors would stand is, of course, the Sorting Hat, ready to announce the Hogwarts house for every new student.

Sorting Hat Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

At this point on The Making of Harry Potter tour, I’m enjoying myself and pretty wowed by everything that I’m seeing, but starting to have a bit of anxiety creep up on me because it’s a little too structured. I don’t like being led about like a dog on a leash – I want to explore and set my own pace. Luckily, it turned out that I had no need to feel even the slightest bit anxious. Our guide opened a second set of doors from the Great Hall and we walked out into the remainder of our studio tour, where we were free to explore as much or as little as we wanted to.

At that point, I went from a dog on a leash to a rat on crack – pinging from exhibit to exhibit and rushing around in circles because I wanted to see everything all at once. I didn’t have time to read the signs, darn it!  I had stuff to see!

Eventually I found a happy medium and was able to calm down. Good thing, too, because there are details that you don’t want to miss in this tour.

Most of the things that I zinged past so quickly were technical exhibits – how they actually made certain items in the film work. Floating candles in the great hall, for instance. (To be honest, I missed a lot of this. I wish I had taken the time to pay more attention, because I’m sure it was really interesting.) Once I had started to breathe again, I found the exhibit on wardrobe distressing pretty fascinating. You’d be surprised how much work goes into making a smudge of dirt appear on an actor’s jacket!

There was a beautiful display from the Yule Ball scene in Goblet of Fire:

Yule Ball Costumes Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London
Harry and Cho Chang’s outfits in front; Hermione’s and Viktor Krum’s in back.

Moving on, we made it to the Gryffindor rooms. First the common room:

Gryffindor Common Room Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

and then the boys’ dormitory. Here’s Ron’s bunk:

Gryffindor Boys Dorm Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

There were so many items that had great significance in the plot of the seven Harry Potter books and movies, and seeing each one was a thrill.

Film Props Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London
TOP:  The Mirror of Erised and Godric Gryffindor’s Sword.
BOTTOM: Harry’s Invisibility Cloak, Dumbledore’s Pensieve, and the Tri-Wizard Cup

(See what I did there?  Five photos in one!  Pretty clever, eh?)

We got to see lots of the settings from the movies, which felt so real, I wanted to sit and stay for a while. Here is Dumbledore’s office, which had many items from the books/movies – the pensieve, the sword of Godric Gryffindor, the paintings of former headmasters, and so many books! (Fun Fact:  It turns out the books lining the shelves of our favorite Headmaster’s office are telephone directories that were altered to look like antique volumes!)

Dumbledore Office Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

And there was Snape’s Potions classroom. Melancholia struck again when I saw the figure representing the late, great, Alan Rickman.

Snape Potions Classroom Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

There were plenty great details in the potions classroom. First, the apparatus used to make Felix Felicis:

Felix Felicis Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

and a few copies of Advanced Potion Making here and there.

Potions Classroom Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

They also had self-stirring cauldrons, but that doesn’t translate well into a still photograph.

One set that gave me absolute joy was The Burrow, home to the poor-in-money-but-rich-in-love Weasley family.

The Burrow Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London
You can’t tell in the photo, but the knife in the foreground was chopping the carrot by itself.

At The Burrow, Molly’s knitting needles were clicking and clacking away whilst knitting a blanket, and there was the famous clock that showed which family members were home and which were in mortal peril.

Weasley Home Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

There are so many more exhibits I could write about and show you, but I have to draw a line somewhere. There were Professor Umbrage’s proclamations, floo powder sets, the Ministry of Magic statue, Tom Riddle’s grave, Hagrid’s Hut, the Leaky Cauldron, the Chamber of Secrets door, Mad-Eye Moody’s trunk, Lupin’s trunk, the Clock from Azkaban, the Hogwarts Express, Diagon Alley, and so much more!

Oh, okay, one more photo before I move on. Remember the Deatheaters meeting at Malfoy Manor in Deathly Hallows Part 1?

Malfoy Manor Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

Outward and Onward

When you finally tear yourself away from the exhibits and head out, you find yourself at a food court with a couple of different options for meals and snacks. My daughter and I could not resist the soft-serve butterbeer ice cream, which was so creamy and sweet!

Butterbeer Ice Cream Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

After leaving the food court area, you head outside and see some of the exterior sets. For instance, the Dursley residence, AKA number 4, Privet Drive.

4 Privet Drive Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

Where Technology & Magic Meet

From there, you head into the second leg of the tour, bringing you back to the technical aspects of how the movie was made. Learning how they filmed Hagrid was especially interesting. Apparently not all of the scenes with Hagrid are actually Robbie Coltrane. They had an insanely realistic looking animatronic head that they used as his double:

Hagrid Head Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

This portion of the tour also included Dobby, the Gringott’s goblin, Buckbeak, Aragog, Fawkes, and more.

The grand finale to the tour is just amazing. I won’t tell you what it is, but suffice it to say that it is – no pun intended – absolutely magical.

As thrilling as it is to read about these things and these places in a book, and to see them on the big screen, it is even more so to stand in the midst of it all and feel like you’re actually there. If you’ve ever read a Harry Potter book or seen a movie, The Making of Harry Potter deserves a top spot on your bucket list.

The Warner Brothers Studio Tour’s address is Studio Tour Drive in Leavesden, WD25 7LR. Telephone 0345 084 0900. To get there, take a train from London to Watford Junction. Outside the Watford Junction station, you can get a shuttle bus that runs to the studio. The studio has hours that vary from day to day; consult the schedule when planning your visit. 

How to Maximize Your Savings on Rail Travel… and Possibly Even Travel for Free

How to Maximize Your Savings on Rail Travel… and Possibly Even Travel for Free

On our recent trip to the UK, we had a bit of a rail travel nightmare. We were leaving Northern England (Newcastle) to head back to London. The trip was to last about three hours, roughly 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM.

All went smoothly until we arrived at York, when the operator announced that the train line was closed due to a herd of cattle on the tracks near Peterborough. We were advised to disembark and catch a different train to Manchester, from whence we could take yet another train to London. Since the train to Manchester was essentially carrying two trains’ worth of passengers, many of us rode standing up, packed in the cars like sardines. It was not fun.

Further problems (and delays) ensued when the driver of the Manchester-to-London train fell ill. Long story short, we arrived in London around 5:00, a full four hours later than we planned.

During the Manchester-to-London ride, the operator made an announcement that because there was a significant (i.e., more than 30 minutes) delay, we would be eligible to receive a refund for our rail travel. I honestly didn’t think much about it because, ugh!, paperwork is not something I care to bother with when I’m on vacation. But once we got home, I looked into it.

Delay Repay in the UK

Sure enough, Virgin Trains (the company we booked with) has a “Delay Repay” policy. If your train runs 30-59 minutes late, you could receive a 50% refund. If your delay is 60 minutes or more, you can receive a full refund for your rail travel. And depending on how you booked, you might even get it automatically!

I was skeptical, though, because the train I ended up arriving in London on was a different carrier than the one I had originally booked. In fact, each of the three trains we took to get to London was with a different carrier. I wasn’t sure who to apply for the refund with, so I applied with Virgin Trains East Coast (our originating train in Newcastle) and Virgin Trains (the one that actually got us to London… finally).

Within a week Virgin Trains contacted me to say that they were denying my refund request because of inadequate documentation. Well, that’s it, I figured, no refund for me. Imagine my surprise when nearly two months later I found this in my mail from Virgin Trains East Coast:


A refund check for the full amount we paid for that journey! Now, granted, it is going to take a small eternity for it to clear the bank due to currency conversion, but it’s still close to $70 that I wouldn’t have received if I hadn’t tried.

And it turns out Virgin is not alone.  Other rail travel operators have generous compensation policies for delayed passengers as well. I was lucky in that the train operator advised us we would be eligible for a delay, but if he had not, I would have had no clue. It pays to be aware of your rights as a passenger. Thus the purpose of this post. 🙂

In addition to Virgin Trains and Virgin Trains East Coast, other UK rail companies operating with a Delay Repay policy are

  • CrossCountry
  • East Midlands Trains
  • Greater Anglia
  • Great Northern
  • Southeastern
  • Southern
  • Thameslink, and
  • TransPennine Express

Elsewhere in Europe

Within the EU, there are refund policies in place for rail travel as well.  If your arrival at your destination is canceled or delayed by an hour or more, you are entitled to the following compensation:

  • full and immediate refund upon cancellation of the journey
  • return journey to your original departure point if the delay prevents you from completing the purpose of the trip
  • transportation to your destination, including alternative means of transportation if the rail line is closed
  • meals and refreshments proportionate to your waiting time
  • accommodations if you must stay overnight as a result of the delay

If you decide to continue your journey as planned or to accept alternative transport to your destination, you may receive compensation of:

  • 25% of the ticket fare, if the train is between 1 and 2 hours late.
  • 50% of the fare, if the train is more than 2 hours late.

And, finally, if your luggage is lost or damaged on a rail journey within the EU, you have a right to compensation, unless it was “inadequately packed, unfit for transport or had a special nature.”

  • Up to € 1300 per piece of registered luggage – if you can prove the value of its contents.
  • € 330 per piece if you can’t prove the value.

Remember, forewarned is forearmed. Knowing your rights as a rail travel passenger will prepare you for any scenario!


A Still Life Drama… Whatever That Means

A Still Life Drama… Whatever That Means

The Problem with Monday Evenings

On our most recent trip to the UK, we found ourselves with odd chunks of time to fill in London. Sunday evening, Monday evening, and Tuesday morning. American Airlines took care of Tuesday morning by changing our 2:25 pm flight to an 11:00 am flight. On Sunday evening, we rode the London Eye. Monday evening turned out to be a bit more problematic.

You see, we were going to the Warner Brother Studio Tour Harry Potter experience in Leavesden on Monday, and estimated our return to London at about 4:30 pm. Most museums close at 5:00 or 5:30, and by the time we rode the tube to get there, we would have very little time to actually see anything. I was very excited when I found out that Dennis Severs house was open on Monday evenings, and booked a reservation.

dennis-severs-house-exterior london


About Dennis Severs’ House

If you haven’t heard of Dennis Severs House, I will try to explain in as straightforward, unbiased manner as possible.

The house is (according to its creator, Dennis Severs) a “still-life drama” – an imagination of what life would have been like inside for a family of Huguenot silk weavers. Mr. Severs recreated the rooms of the house as a time capsule in the style of former centuries, adding components that make the rooms appear lived-in, as if the inhabitants of the house have just stepped out a few minutes before you arrived.

There is no gift shop, and there are only a few rules.

  1. Do not touch anything in the house
  2. Turn off your cell phone
  3. Do not talk, to yourself or to others.  You must complete the tour in silence.

Rule #3 proved somewhat more difficult than I would have expected, because I kept wanting to ask WHY?  First and foremost, why can’t we talk? But also, why is each room so different from the one before?  Why did Severs choose these time periods?  Why Huguenots? Why silk weavers?  Why, why, why?

That being said, I did manage to hold my tongue for the entirety of the tour, save one barely audible whisper to my daughter when we got close to the end to see if her thoughts were tracking with mine. More on that later. Here’s how the tour went down.

Just before entering, we received instructions about The Rules.  We were warned that candlelight was the only illumination in the house.  Thankfully, it was early in the evening, and some additional light entered in through the windows.

The Cellar

We entered the house and were directed to the cellar.  There we found a dark room with a crater in the ground and an explanation about the Spitalfields area, which was named for St Mary Spital, established in 1197 to treat lepers. (Notice the similarity to the word hospital?)

dennis-severs-house-cellar london

I had no background knowledge on the area when we visited, but in trying to gain a better understanding of the house after our visit, I read up on it. In doing so, I learned that Spitalfields was historically associated with Huguenot refugees from 1685 onward, and that many of the refugees were silk weavers by trade. They settled in the Spitalfields area (then outside London) to avoid the restrictive legislation of the City of London guilds.

The Kitchen

Our next stop was the kitchen. It was rustic and cozy… a nice change from the dankness of the leprosy crater next door.

dennis-severs-house-kitchen london


The Eating Parlour

Back upstairs we went to the ground floor. We were motioned away from one room (the grand finale, as it turns out) and directed to the other. It was the “Eating Parlour,” which according to the house’s web site, is in the Baroque period, and a study in contrasts.

dennis-severs-house-eating parlour london

Notice the bright white objects and how they contrast with the darker colors of the room? It is supposed to signify politics in the era following the English Civil War – Catholic or Protestant, Whig or Tory – King George or King James, etc. A note in the room alluded to the fact that the next generation, located upstairs, lived more extravagantly.

Sadly, this detail went right over my head. As an American, I haven’t learned enough about the English Civil War to pick up on these nuances or understand the significance in the time period. However, it was a lovely room, and I enjoyed the sounds and smells that made it so realistic.

When we finished looking around the Eating Parlour, a guide motioned us upstairs. A huge multi-tiered display of fruit stood on the landing. According to the house’s web site, we were entering the Georgian era, and their placement on what English call the first floor (we Americans would call it the second floor) is symbolic of being more noble and refined. Everything seemed delicate and expensive. We even skirted carefully around the fruit display for fear of knocking it over.

The Smoking Room

The first room on this floor was the Smoking Room. Essentially, it was the Man Cave of that era, symbolized quite well by the William Hogarth painting on the wall “A Midnight Modern Conversation”:

rsz_william_hogarth_-_a_midnight_modern_conversation at dennis severs house london

We failed to pay much attention to the painting until we read a note on the table. It told us that the room replicated the one in the painting, complete with overturned chair.

dennis-severs-house-room-with-painting london

This room, according to the web site, symbolizes the practical disadvantages of all-male extremes. In this room (and all the others), there is a great amount of attention to detail.

dennis-severs-house-details london


The Withdrawing Room

Moving on, we entered the Withdrawing Room.

dennis severs house withdrawing room london

In contrast to the Man Cave next door, this room contains a female presence. Evidence of etiquette and gentility abounds.

Up once more we climbed the stairs. We entered the more intimate areas of the house – the bedrooms. According to the web site, this is the meaning behind the bedrooms:

Now “I think” should develop into “I feel”, and the colours in the Chamber and Boudoir are the pastel hues of sea and sky – to lift the imagination and inspire it on. So intimate – femininity, family, children’s toys and humour – as well as evidence of ‘a passion for’ – ephemera, oriental porcelain and flowers. The idea being to warm cold Reason so that you might look down on the same primitive and brutal world from which you once rose to see it as ‘picturesque’. In doing so you enter the back door to the romantic age from 1780 – 1837.

They were lovely rooms, and I especially enjoyed looking at the woman’s vanity table. But I didn’t get any deeper meaning from it, and this is where I started becoming frustrated. All the way through the house we had seen notes that were telling us to look deeper, to find the connections, to experience the setting before us, etc. I was beginning to feel that I must have missed something because I didn’t see much of a deeper meaning, regardless of how well done the rooms were.

The Upper Floor

That nagging sense of confusion exploded into a complete sense of bewilderment when we went to the uppermost floor. Hanging in the stairwell area were multiple lines of laundry hanging to dry. The paint on the walls was chipped and peeling.

rsz_dennis_severs_house_top_floor_laundry london

Shabbiness and squalor continued into the final room.  A huge bed dominated one side of the room, its once luxurious velvet curtains frayed and faded, its covers rumpled and unkempt. Beside it was a threadbare chair with a lumpy cushion seat.


In one corner of the room opposite the bed was a desk, quill pens, books and papers. Forever in love with books and papers and writing instruments, I felt a great attraction to that corner of the room. I found the rest of it, however, revolting, and half expected a rat to scurry across the floor at any moment.

rsz_dennis_severs_house-dickens-room desk london

What you can’t see in this photo is a note implying that you are standing in Ebenezer Scrooge’s room from A Christmas Carol. That totally blew my mind, but not in a good way. I was (sort of) buying into the whole presumption that this was the house of 17th/18th century Huguenot silk weavers. So what does Dickens have to do with that? If you know, please clue me in. If you’re as confused as I am, this is what the web site says:

However, on the Top Floor, now stripped of any prettiness and filled with lodgers, what good are Reason and Romance on their own? You are 100 years old; you are wise. And with harder times and the Spitalfields silk trade sweating towards its collapse – a visitor joins with an age to reach more deeply – through sentiment to the Soul. A sense of angst is necessary to understanding the house’s next generation of Early-Victorian reformers.

The Back Parlour

Having completed that room, it was time to journey back to the ground floor and enter the grand finale room. It is the back parlour, decked out in regalia to signify the beginning of the Victorian era.

dennis severs house back parlour london

I was so thankful not to end the tour on the creepy upstairs derelict room! Once we finished looking around in the back parlour, we stepped out onto the London street, looked at each other, and said, “What the heck WAS that?” before bursting out in laughter.

So, Should You Go?

Here’s my take. If you enjoy historical reenactment and fantasize about how cool it would be to go back in time, you would probably enjoy touring this house. If you hated literature classes that had you analyze the writings of an author and presume to know why he chose to say that the bird in the tree was a canary instead of a mockingbird – and what deeper, philosophical meaning that choice implied – you should probably pass on seeing this place.

Me? I’m somewhere in the middle of those two camps. I certainly appreciate the attention to detail and the thoroughness of the scenes. However, I resented the implication that if I didn’t get all of the connections, I was (as the Brits say) thick.

I think there should have been some more background information provided prior to the tour.  It would have been especially helpful for the non-British who don’t know about Huguenot refugees, the silk trade, or the English Civil War.

Your mileage, of course, may vary. If you’ve been to Dennis Severs’ house, please let me know what you thought of it by commenting below!

Dennis Severs House is located at 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, London, E1 6BX. Telephone:+44 (0) 20 7247 4013. The house holds tours at various times on selected days of the week.  Consult the web site or call when planning your visit.  

The Sherlock Holmes Museum, London

The Sherlock Holmes Museum, London

Our family loves the BBC show Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch.  We’ve watched every episode more than once and always wait eagerly for the next season to come out. (It takes a small eternity about 18 months between the time you watch the last episode of a season and the release of a new season.)  My daughter is without a doubt the biggest Sherlock fan in the house. So when the time came to decide what each of us wanted to see and do on our UK vacation this year, she immediately requested a trip to the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London.

It’s located, of course, on Baker Street. When the Sherlock Holmes stories were published, the address 221 Baker Street did not exist. Years later, the street was later expanded.  The Abbey National Building Society moved in to the premises located at 219-229 Baker Street. They received so much mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes that they employed a full time secretary for the express purpose of answering his mail. The Sherlock Holmes museum, on the other hand, was in a different location on the same block. For 15 years, the museum and the Abbey National Building Society disagreed over who should receive and respond to mail addressed to the famous consulting detective.

The museum is actually between 237 and 241 Baker Street. It’s in an 1815 townhouse similar to the one described in the stories, with two entrances. The larger entrance leads to the gift shop and ticket counter.  The smaller one, marked with a subtle 221B over the door, leads to the museum proper. This door is usually guarded by a uniformed character who checks tickets and tells visitors when they may enter. (The museum rooms are small and would become over-crowded if too many people entered at the same time.)

sherlock holmes museum london detective outside

While you’re waiting, you can also try on a Holmes style deerstalker hat, hold a pipe near your mouth, and have your photo taken with said costumed character.

Once inside, you progress through a series of beautifully appointed rooms with subtle details about the famous detective.

sherlock holmes museum london

pipes at the sherlock holmes museum in london

sherlock holmes museum london

On the upper floor, life size figures re-enact scenes from the Sherlock Holmes stories. Here is Irene Adler and the King of Bohemia from “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

irene adler scandal in bohemia sherlock holmes museum london

I haven’t read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories.  In fact, I’ve only enjoyed the character in a modern day setting.  I really didn’t enjoy the museum that much. I didn’t connect the character with the period decor and items, nor did I recognize the importance of most of the objects on display. For fans of the literary works, I’m sure it would be fantastic.

The BBC show and, to a lesser extent, the Robert Downey Jr movies, have reignited interest in the Sherlock Holmes character.  Because of that, I expected them to at least receive a nod. There was no acknowledgement of them at all, save for a lot of BBC Sherlock merchandise in the gift shop. If the modern iterations of the character are important enough to make money from, surely they must also be important enough to devote a few square feet to a display about them.

For fans of BBC’s Sherlock, I would recommend skipping this museum. For die hard fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing, it’s a definite thumbs up.

The address for the Sherlock Holmes Museum is (of course!) 221B Baker St. London NW1 6XE.  Telephone: 01+44+207 224 3688.  Open 9:30 am to 6:00 pm, every day of the year except Christmas.

Travel Trivia

Travel Trivia

I often joke that I can remember a fact that I learned in fifth grade, yet I can’t remember why I walked into another room.  It’s not quite that bad, thankfully, but I do have a knack for holding on to useless knowledge.  So I thought I would share some of my favorite bits of travel trivia.  I hope you find them as interesting as I do!

  • One state in the US has more national parks than the other 4 – California is home to nine national parks. (Alaska is a close second with eight.)
  • The largest active volcano on earth is Mauna Loa, in Hawaii. Its last eruption was in 1984.
  • The Philippines has the only national flag flown differently depending on whether it is at war. The blue portion is on top in times of peace and the red portion is on top during war time.

philippines-flag travel trivia

  • At 5772 miles long, the Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest railway in the world. It crosses 3901 bridges.
  • The Republic of Nauru, an island nation in Micronesia, has no capital.
  • South Africa, by contrast, has three capital cities:  one administrative/executive, one legislative, and one judicial.  Fourteen other countries have two capitals.
  • Three countries in the world are completely surrounded by only one other country:  Lesotho, San Marino, and Vatican City. Lesotho lies within the country of South Africa, whereas San Marino and Vatican City are within Italy.
  • In the list of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one still stands today – the Great Pyramid of Giza.

great_pyramid_of_giza travel trivia

  • Many people have heard that the city of Venice Italy is slowly sinking. However, it may surprise them to learn that Mexico City is also sinking – at 10 cm per year, a rate that is ten times faster than that of Venice.
  • The world’s oldest subway is London’s Underground. At its opening in 1863, it measured four miles long. Today, it is approximately 250 miles long.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these bits of travel trivia! If you have a fun fact to share, please comment below.

Ten Libraries That Should Be on Every Bibliophile’s Bucket List

Ten Libraries That Should Be on Every Bibliophile’s Bucket List

I love books.  I mean, I pink-puffy-heart love books.  Always have.  I could easily spend hours in a library or book store, even without taking any books home.  Just looking at them, holding them, and thumbing through them is, in my mind, an excellent way to pass the time.

So I was thinking about some of the nicer book stores and libraries I’ve visited, and I thought it would be a great thing to create a travel bucket list for bibliophiles like me.  So here are what I think are ten of the loveliest libraries you could ever hope to step foot in.

1. The Strahov Monastery Library

The Strahov Library in Prague, Czech Republic contains over 200,000 volumes, including over 3,000 manuscripts and 1,500 first prints stored in a special depository. Admission will cost you a little over $4.


2. The Klementinum

Also in Prague, the Klementinum’s Baroque Library Hall is the stunning home of the Czech National Library, housing 20,000 books from the early 17th century onwards. The hall is decorated with magnificent ceiling frescoes, and remains unaltered since the 18th century.  Admission is less than $10 and includes a guided tour of the entire complex, not just the library.


3.  The George Peabody Library

Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland houses the George Peabody Library. It is stunning.  The library’s 300,000 volume collection is particularly strong in religion, British art, architecture, topography and history; American history, biography, and literature; Romance languages and literature; history of science; and geography, exploration and travel.  Admission is free, but if you want to have your wedding there (be still my heart – wouldn’t that be amazing?!?!) you will have to rent the facility.


4.  The Austrian National Library

Located in Vienna, the Austrian National Library is another beauty. It is the largest library in Austria, with 7.4 million items in its various collections. The library is located in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. Admission is free.


5.  The Morrin Cultural Center

Located in Quebec, Canada, the Morrin Cultural Center is designed to educate the public about the historic contribution and present-day culture of local English-speakers. The library provides access to English-language books in a largely French-speaking city. Admission is free.


6.  Trinity College Library

The library at the very top of my bucket list is the one at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. The ancient Book of Kells is located at this library.  But perhaps even more famous is its Long Room:


7.  Stuttgart City Library

I am very partial, as you can see, to libraries with multiple levels of shelving, dark-ish interiors, and  art.  It almost feels like a home, inviting you to come inside, relax, and get lost in the pages of a volume.  However, the much more modern Stuttgart City Library also appeals to me for the exact opposite reason… here the books are definitely the stars of the show, and little can distract you from them.  Admission is free.

Stuttgart City Library Germany.jpg

8.  Royal Portuguese Library

Okay, back to dark and cozy.  The Royal Portuguese Library in Rio de Janeiro Brazil is just that.  It is the largest library in Latin America and the 7th largest in the world.  Its collections include about 9 million items. Admission is free.


9.  The Mortlock Wing State Library

Located in South Australia, the Mortlock Wing State Library is housed in a stunning Victorian era building built in the French Renaissance style.  It has two galleries and a glass domed roof.  Admission is free.


10.  The King’s Library

Finally, the King’s Library (part of the British Library, and also called the King George III Collection) in London is not to be missed.  When King George III came to the throne in the mid-eighteenth century, England did not have a proper library.  He set about the business of acquiring book collections and setting up a royal library.  Today, many of the books from his collection are on view to visitors behind UV-filter glass.  Admission is free.


So, there you have it.  Ten amazing, beautiful libraries that you can visit in your travels around the world.  Have you been to any of them?  Let me know in the comments if you have, or if you think I overlooked an amazing library that should have made the list.

A Must See Painting at London’s National Gallery

A Must See Painting at London’s National Gallery

A Sixteenth Century Masterpiece

If you visit the National Gallery in London, there is a remarkable painting that you must see.  It is The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, dated 1533.

London's National Gallery must see painting - The Ambassadors by Holbein
Photo via Flickr by Tayete

At first glance, it seems to be a fairly typical painting of two Tudor-era men.  The man on the left wears secular clothing. The man on the right is dressed in clerical garb.

In between them are an assortment of objects, including two globes (one of earth, the other a celestial globe), a quadrant, a portable sundial, an astronomical instrument called a torquetum, open books, a lute with a broken string, and a hymn book.  Hidden behind the folds of the drapes is a crucifix.

Over the centuries, some scholars have stated that the items represent a unification of the Church and capitalism. Others think they could represent conflicts between secular and religious authorities.

But that’s not all.

Perhaps even more interesting than the objects and their potential symbolism, however, is the object on the floor at the bottom of the table.  It doesn’t look like much straight on, but when you move to the right of the painting, you can see that it is a skull. This is an excellent example of anamorphosis – a distorted projection or perspective requiring the viewer to use special devices or occupy a specific vantage point (or both) to reconstitute the image.  Watch the skull come into focus here:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNlgLSRZaos]

The anamorphic perspective was an invention of the early Renaissance.  Perhaps Holbein was showing off his talent at this then-new technique.  Perhaps he wanted to startle people who walked up the stairs past the painting.  Or perhaps he wanted to encourage contemplation of life and inevitable death, for the inclusion of a skull is a memento mori, literally a reminder that we all must die.

Whatever the artist’s intentions, the painting is exceptionally well done and full of fascinating details.  If you’re in London, do be sure to check it out.  It’s located in Room 4.

If you’re not likely to get to London any time soon, click here for an interactive image that allows you to get a close up look at different parts of the painting… just click on the area you would like to see in greater detail.

The National Gallery is located in Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN, United Kingdom. Telephone +44 (0)20 7747 2885. Admission is free. The museum is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm (10-9 on Fridays).  Closed December 24-26 and January 1.

Pinterest and header photo of National Gallery via Flickr by Jim Bowen.

National Gallery Must See Painting by Holbein the Younger.
What Big Ben Is… and Isn’t

What Big Ben Is… and Isn’t

I’ll give you the bottom line first. Big Ben is a bell, not a building or even a clock. You cannot see Big Ben in this photograph:

Big Ben

And sadly, unless you are a resident of the UK, you never will see Big Ben. The interior of the tower is not open to overseas visitors, although United Kingdom residents are able to arrange tours (well in advance) through their Member of Parliament. But there is no lift, only 300+ stairs, so maybe it’s just as well.

However, that will be changing. Next year, a three year long major renovation is due to take place. In addition to essential maintenance on the clock mechanism, a lift will be installed in the tower. The clock will be stopped for several months during the maintenance, and there will be no chimes. Striking and tolling will, however, be maintained for important events. Tours will also be suspended at the end of this year until the work on the Tower and Clock is complete.

The tower in which Big Ben resides was renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to honor the queen for her Diamond Jubilee. In times past, it has also been known as the Clock Tower or St. Stephens Tower.

The clock is famous for its accurate timekeeping abilities. Each face of the clock bears a Latin inscription at the bottom which means O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First. 

On top of the clock’s pendulum is a small stack of old penny coins; these are to adjust the speed of the clock. Adding or removing a penny will change the clock’s speed by 0.4 seconds per day. In August of last year, the clock was discovered to be running 7 seconds fast. Coins were removed from its pendulum to correct the error, which caused it to run slow for a time.

Big Ben is the largest bell inside the Elizabeth Tower, and it is formally known as the Great Bell (there are four smaller bells known as quarter bells). It is 7 feet 6 inches tall and 9 feet in diameter.

Big Ben Bell London


Big Ben was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, who also made the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry was established as a business in 1570 and is still operating today. The Foundry can be toured, but tour availability is limited and must be booked well in advance. For more information, check the Foundry website.

Back to Big Ben. How it came to be called that is a matter of opinion. Some believe it was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, who oversaw the installation of the Great Bell. Others believe it was named after English heavyweight champion Benjamin Caunt.

Most people nowadays use the name to refer to the clock, the tower and the bell collectively, although sticklers like me cringe upon hearing it.

So, to review:

  • the bell is Big Ben or the Great Bell
  • the tower is the Elizabeth Tower

Any questions?