Eurotrip Destination #3: Oxford

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 8:01 am by Benjamin Ross

This is the 3rd entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

The third stop on my jaunt through the UK was Oxford. Getting there from Cardiff was a cinch, considering I bought my ticket half an hour before departure.  A high speed train from Cardiff whisked me off to some transit point in the middle of nowhere.  After a four minute wait, another high speed train picked me up and within half an hour, I was in Oxford.  The entire trip took under 90 minutes.

Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world with roots going as far back as the 11th Century.  It’s the prototype to which all “college towns” can trace at least some roots back to.
Unlike most American college towns which have well-defined campus areas, Oxford University’s buildings are scattered throughout the town, blurring the boundaries between the city and the campus.
The university itself is broken into roughly 40 different “colleges” with each student belonging to one of the colleges in addition to the university umbrella.
Architecturally, Oxford is a treat to explore.
The town of Oxford itself is very much a college town, with most local businesses catered towards a student clientele.
Oxford is a fantastic city to be a pedestrian, and a complete pain in the arse to drive through.  Streets are narrow, parking is difficult or non-existent, and flocks of pedestrians often crowd the street (which you don’t see here since this was taken at 8 in the morning).   While most North American cities have spent the greater part of the last half century facilitating drivers, many English towns, even the small ones, remain centered on the pedestrian paradigm.  Oxford is a fine example of this.
What’s behind this door?
The Radcliffe Camera, aka “Radcam” arguably Oxford’s most recognizable building
The University Church of St. Mary
This is All Souls College, one of Oxford’s most exclusive colleges.  Every year students compete for automatic 7-year fellowships to All Souls in what’s dubbed “the hardest exam in the world.”  The exam lasts 3-6 hours and recent questions have reportedly been as obscure as “Water, discuss.”
and another
Oxford colleges each have their own mini-campuses which are closed to the general public.  One of my classmates in Chicago had previously spent some time at Trinity College, and was able to arrange for me to take a tour with one of his old friends.
When you talk to students of Oxford, past and present, they will often identify themselves with whichever college they attended.  College function as mini-universities within Oxford, with each having its own residence hall, dining hall, and library, and holding its own exclusive social functions.
I don’t think I saw better manicured grass anywhere else on my trip.
Trinity Chapel
Now back in public grounds.  This the famous Hertford  Bride aka “The Bridge of Sighs.”
The Radcam Theater
The Bodleian library aka “The Bod”
more old cobblestone Oxford streets
and another view of the University Church (I think)
One of Oxford’s more recent tourist landmarks, the Turf Tavern secured its place in Oxford lore when Bill Clinton smoked pot (but didn’t inhale) on this very spot, the back patio.
Oxford also seems to be high on the wrung of Chinese tourist destinations.  There were few sites I saw which weren’t surrounded with SLR-camera-wielding Chinese tour groups.
Oxford is also home to some of the best landscaping I saw anywhere in the UK.
Oxford is a fine place to visit, and like Cardiff, is an easy day-trip from London.  With a history predating Harvard by roughly half a millennium, Oxford is the place to go to explore the history and development of the “college town.”  (I’m told Cambridge is as well, but I don’t want to start a war here).  It’s also fine town to take a relaxing urban walk, throw back a few pints at the pub, and bask in the company of some of the world’s brightest intellectuals.  Next stop:  Birmingham



Eurotrip Destination #2: Cardiff

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 4:47 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 2nd entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

Cardiff is the largest city and chief economic and cultural center of Wales.  That’s all I knew about it before making it the second stop on my trip.

Getting anywhere in England is easy.  With the high speed rail system, you’re never more than a 3 or 4 hour reach of any major city.  And with Megabus and National Express Coach, you’re hardly ever more than 20 pounds from your destination either.  My Megabus ticket from London to Cardiff, booked less than 24 hours in advance, cost a walloping 13 GBP.
Like most mid-sized UK cities, the core of Cardiff’s city centre consists of a pedestrian mall which serves as the metro region’s primary shopping district.
Although 21% of the Welsh population allegedly speaks the Welsh language, the only Welsh I heard during my day in Cardiff was on broadcast announcements at the train station.
While conspicuous symbols of Welsh national pride were abundant, for all intents and purposes, Cardiff felt very much like an English city.
Cardiff isn’t usually a place people visit for the architecture, but there are a few aesthetically pleasing older buildings.
…and a soccer stadium
While taking a walk through the park, I inadvertently ran into a cricket match between India and England.  I don’t know the first thing about cricket, but from what I could see and hear, it seemed like quite a party, especially among the Indian fans.
Cardiff’s most famous tourist attraction is Cardiff Castle.
The oldest extant section, the Norman “keep” (pictured above from the inside) dates back to 1091.
Cardiff Castle isn’t so much a castle per se as it is a campus of buildings and green space enclosed by an old cement wall.  Here’s a view from the keep, which is perched on a hill in the center of the “castle.”  In the background is the city centre.
…and an up-close view at some of the castle architecture
…and another view from the side
…and here’s a shot of the keep, perched on its mound overlooking the rest of the castle
some interesting signage
Cardiff is geographically small and compact, but there were a few old industrial neighborhoods I wanted to stroll through such at Butetown, just south of the city centre.  Located in the vicinity of Cardiff’s docks, Butetown became one of the UK’s first multi-cultural districts around the time of World War I.  Today it’s home to large communities, of Yemenis, Greeks, and Somalis.  Butetown shows signs of decay, including vacated and poorly maintained buildings.  Several locals advised me against walking around there at night.
What’s interesting from an American perspective is that the areas, locally defined as “slums” in the UK, are like a walk through the suburbs compared to many neighborhoods in say, the South Side of Chicago or North Philly.  There are certainly historical, economic, and sociological reasons for this, but part of the reason (I would posit) that the UK’s  streets are safer is the high levels of urban density which allow for more informal social control and more efficient policing.  In very few places did I encounter urban blight and sparseness in levels similar to that of most post-industrial American cities.
Just south of Butetown are the Cardiff docks district, which unlike Butetown, have seen a fair share of gentrification and redevelopment in recent years.
Here are the docks themselves, (schnazzy commercial developments not pictured)
more docks
Throughout much of the UK, South Asian culture has permeated in similar fashion to how Latin American culture has become part of the general culture in the US.  Nowhere is this more relevant than in the culinary realm, where even multinational fast food chains are quick to localize.
more old industrial Cardiff streetscape
UK cities, and European cities in general, have done a more effective job of embracing the social, economic, and environmental advantages of urban density, than has been the case in North America.  Cardiff is a prime example of this, exemplified by these newer residential developments, built up rather than out.
looking just down the river from the new mid-rises
another old neighborhood with dense housing blocks
and a view of the city centre from afar
more city centre
older mixed-use commercial/residential buildings in the city centre
and finally off to Oxford on the high speed train
Cardiff is an interesting town, and with its compactness and proximity to London, it makes an ideal spot for a day trip.  If you’re looking for an authentically Welsh cultural experience, Cardiff probably isn’t the place to find it.  From what I gathered, the smaller towns have retained more of the Welsh culture, while Cardiff has served as the de facto gateway to England.  Nonetheless, it was one of the more livable cities I saw in the UK, and was well worth the day trip.  Next stop:  Oxford


Eurotrip Destination #1: London

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 4:44 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 1st entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

London!  The economic capital of Europe, the gateway to the Western Hemisphere, the center of the Industrial Age’s most powerful empire.  Fittingly, London seemed like the ideal starting point for my 18 day tour through Europe, although I was corrected several times by Brits that England is in fact not part of Europe by their definition.  So here’s part 1 of a 14 part series on my recent trip through Europe…and the UK.

London is simply fabulous!  At first I thought it was jitters from finally landing in Europe, but London is truly one of the most exciting cities on the planet.
With the mix of new and old, of English and  foreign, and of wealth and squalor, London just about has it all.
In total, I visited 14 European cities, and when all was said and done, London takes the cake when it comes to architecture.  Walking through the West End (the de facto city centre), you can feel the monetary spoils of the Industrial Revolution flowing through veins of the Victorian housing and commercial blocks.
London is touristy, very touristy.  But it’s one of those cities where most of the tourist attractions are well worth the visit, both old…
…and new
…and somewhat old
…and royal.
The changing of the guard is the big draw to Buckingham Palace, but after warnings of crowds so big I wouldn’t be able to see the changing, let alone the guard himself, I opted to view the guard in his unchanged state.
London is one of those cities where you can wander around in any direction and inevitably run into something majestic, old, and famous without ever even knowing it was there.  The entire city is overflowing with history, and after checking 6 or 7 monuments off my travel notes, I gave up trying to figure out what was what.
Possibly the most famous tourist attraction in town is the Tower of London.
With a slew of museums and neighborhoods I wanted to see, I didn’t end up going inside.
The view is indeed quite nice from outside though.
Here’s Trafalgar Square, another major West End landmark.
Compared with its West End environs, there isn’t anything extraordinary about Trafalgar Square at first glance.  But something about this square just works.
I can’t put a finger on it exactly, but the more I passed through Trafalgar, the more I wanted to take a break, relax, eat one of those pre-packaged plastic triangle sandwiches, hacky sack, people watch, or a combination of the above.
It also helped that it was 70 degrees and sunny for the full two days I was in London.  Apparently, this never happens.
London is the host of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.  But if not for this sign in Trafalgar Square, I would have never even noticed.  This was quite the contrast to China in the years leading up to 2008.  You couldn’t go anywhere in Beijing (let alone the entire country) without overhearing the Beijing 2008 brew-haha.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is another one of Central London’s masterpieces of architecture.
The front steps of St. Paul’s is another classic London public space.  At mid-day, it was full of office workers on lunch break and tourists snapping photos.
…and a view of St. Paul’s from the side
…and a view across the street from St. Paul’s.  Central London is one of those places where every building looks different, yet somehow matches perfectly within the architectural theme.
Moving outward now…London has one of the world’s most efficient public transit systems, and getting almost anywhere is cake.  London was also a pioneer in public transportation branding.  It’s “roundel” is one of the most widely-recognized symbols in the world, and its system map, using color-coded lines and a non-geographic layout has become the template for public transit maps across the world.
The backbone of the system is the London Underground, or as it’s colloquially called “The Tube.”  With the first line opening in 1863, the Tube is the oldest underground railroad in the world.
In addition to the Tube, London has several lines of elevated mass transit, appropriately dubbed “The London Overground.”
And the newest addition to London’s mass transit network is the Docklands Light Rail (DLR), covering the vast Dockland’s district (more on that below), formerly not connected to the public transit grid.  All 3 systems (Underground, Overground, and DLR) work in conjunction with one another with free transfers from system to system.
London also has a dense network of buses with many of them running in dedicated bus lanes.  As a response to growing congestion, London became one of the first major cities to introduce “congestion charges” in 2003.  Private vehicles wishing to enter Central London between 7 am and 6 pm Monday through Friday are charged a 10 Pound congestion charge for each entrance, easing congestion for bus transit.
A web of commuter rail also surrounds London providing convenient transport from surrounding suburbs and towns to the city centre.
Attempting to navigate London with a map is a hopeless exercise in futility.  Even with a compass in hand, the simple act figuring out which direction you are headed is enough to make the head spin.  But London does have some of the most informative public signage I’ve ever encountered.  Unfortunately I didn’t snap a picture, but street signs are flanked with arrows pointing in every direction to landmarks, districts, and virtually anything else a tourist would want to locate.  Just follow the signage, and you can find just about anything, even without a map.  London’s hyper-informative signage even extends to casual reminders of which direction the traffic flows.
can’t remember the last time I used one of these
Or how about this “authentic Canadian-style” sports bar and grill.
more random architecture shots from the West End
rush hour
The city area of London is bisected by the Thames River.  Most of the river crossings are underwhelming, except for the illustrious Tower Bridge, constructed between 1886 and 1894
In addition to the bridge itself, crossing it on foot allows for some of the most scenic views of London skyline.
Much of London’s modern architecture is located along the bank south of the river.
With street grids and traffic patterns laid out long before the advent of steel, London has few skyscrapers compared with other world financial centers such as New York and Tokyo.  But a sizable chunk of the more recent office development, especially those areas just south of the Thames, seems to be employing the high-rise paradigm.
Here’s another shot of the Tower Bridge, looking north from the south bank of the river.
…and a final view of the bridge from the South
With my first day in London devoted primarily to exploring the more posh districts in the West End and just south of the river, I spent my second day exploring several of London’s ethnic as well as outerlying neighborhoods.  The first was Brick Lane, London’s Little Bangladesh.
Brick Lane was more disneyfied than I had expected, but still housed several streets worth of South Asian shops and eateries.
London is also home to a sizable Chinatown.   For a city its size, London’s Chinatown was mostly a disappointment.  It’s highly disneyfied and has all the characteristics of a downtown tourist trap.   With most of the restaurants and businesses catering to a non-Chinese clientele, I was led to believe that there are probably additional satellite Chinatown in the London metro area, with “Chinatown” now functioning primarily as an economic rather than residential district.  Anybody have any more info on this?
One pleasant surprise of Chinatown was this delicious Lanzhou “pulled noodles” restaurant I found.  You can hardly walk 10 minutes in any Chinese city without bumping into one of them, but in North American Chinatowns they can be surprisingly elusive.
Like most disneyfied Chinatowns, the conspicuous symbols of Chinese culture are everywhere in London’s Chinatown.  By my count, the red-lanterns-per-Chinese-resident ratio was hovering somewhere around 1:1.
The Chinese characters in this sign read “Old Hunan Village, Hunan Food.”  Gotta love deceptive advertising.
Moving on to the East End, which has traditionally been home to London’s working class masses.
Famously the origin of London’s Cockney population, the East End is now inhabited in large part by immigrants from across the globe.  Pictured here is the Middle Eastern market in Whitechapel.
In all my travels, the Whitechapel market is the only shopping district I have encountered where buqas and lingerie can be purchased from adjoining stalls.
And here’s the Spitalfields Market, one of the more gentrified parts of East London.
These next few pics are from the neighborhood of Hackney.  Hackney was originally an independent town just down the road from London, but with urban expansion in the 19th Century, it was swallowed up into the greater metropolis.  Hackney is also one of the few spots in the East End where I heard mutterings of Cockney still being spoken.
Old Hackney flats like these provided housing to the vast pool of human labor which flocked to the East End during the Industrial Revolution.
more flats
a small creek running through Hackney
recreational boats
more boats
Now shifting to the Docklands.  Located in East London, along the Thames, the Docklands were once home to the largest port in the world.   It was mainly from this port that raw materials from across the British Empire were shipped in, and manufactured goods were transported around the world.
As England deindustrialized, the port shrunk, until finally by 1980 all of the docks had been closed.  The 8 square mile swath of land lay derelict as crime and poverty set in.  As soon as the docks were closed, redevelopment plans were begun, which have turned the Docklands into a thriving high-rise financial, commercial, and residential district.
As you can see, very little physical remnants of the district’s past remain.
I should also mention, there is a free Docklands Museum housed in an old warehouse along the river, which was the most interesting museum I visited in London.  So much of London’s history revolved around the history of the docks, and the museum does an excellent job of putting it in perspective, as well as documenting the changes in the Docklands occurring in present times.
Another major recent development has been the Docklands Light Rail (pictured about 50 slides up).  Previously, the Docklands had been entirely cut off from the London Underground, but when the DLR first opened in 1987, the Docklands became conveniently linked to the rest of the city’s transit grid.
London is a magnificent array of lighting arrangements at night.  One regret I have from my visit is that I didn’t spend more time bumbling around at night and taking pictures.  This one is from Piccadilly Circus, London’s Times Square of sorts.
Victoria Station, one of London’s many commuter transit terminals.
glitzy shopping
Big Ben
up close
The London Eye
Westminster Abbey
…and a couple more random night shots from the West End
London is one of those destinations which receives an ungodly amount of hype on the travel circuit.  And it’s one of those unique places where the plethora of hype is well-justified.  Due to the time constraints of my trip, I only budgeted 2 days to explore this city of endless intrigue and excitement.  But even 2 weeks probably wouldn’t have been enough to take in all London has to offer.  With 18 days and 4 countries on the itinerary, I had a schedule to keep, so the rest of London will have to wait for another trip.  Next stop:  Cardiff, Wales.



Droppings from the Road #9: Rotterdam

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:07 am by Benjamin Ross

Rotterdam was completely flattened by World War II.  The city centre is entirely modern, and thus completely different from Amsterdam and Utrecht.  With its high-rise office towers and modern shopping centers, Rotterdam feels more like a modern metropolis than the former two cities.  It’s also the busiest port in Europe.

On the ground, Rotterdam feels much bigger than Amsterdam.  Had I not known otherwise, I would have guessed Rotterdam was Holland’s largest city.

From what I saw (which was admittedly quite limited), Rotterdam was the most multi-ethnic of the Dutch cities.  Lots of Africans, Middle Easterners, and a sizable Chinatown as well.

As I mentioned in my last droppings, English proficiency outside Amsterdam is still good, but not spot-on like it is in the capital.  One little quirk of Dutch people outside Amsterdam is that I’ve noticed is that sometimes when you ask them a question in English, which they understand completely, they will reply in Dutch, and continue speaking in Dutch, assuming that you understand what they are talking about.  It isn’t the sny “don’t speak English in my county,” and there is no hint of resentment.  Rather I think it’s just an honest reaction from a people who are just used to a bilingual environment.

The Dutch inter-city train system is phenomenal.  Trains running to all 4 cities in the Ranstad (Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Den Haag) on the half hour, tickets are cheap and can be purchased last minute, and the trains are clean and futuristic looking.  You could feasibly live in one of the 4 cities and commute to one of the others on a daily basis without major inconvenience.

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