Christmas Vacation 2009-10, part 2 – Nottingham, Cardiff, Oxford, London, and Munich

We arrived in Nottingham in the late afternoon of December 21st to spend Christmas with Jeremy’s family. Jeremy’s brother, Matt, moved to Nottingham with his family a couple of years ago to study a PhD in Theology, and his sister, Annie, and her family decided to trek over for a year at the beginning of 2009, so we thought why not have an English Christmas together? Jeremy’s parents have also been staying in the general area since October.

We didn’t do a great deal in Nottingham during this stay, mainly because we had visited in 2007 and also because Doyle vomitted as soon as we arrived at Matt & Bec’s door, so we knew it was best not to take him out to do too much. We did, however, have to buy a birthday present for Cara (Matt & Bec’s eldest), and our share of the Christmas dinner supplies (bread, fruit, cream, food and drink for the children, and table settings/decorations). Since Bec was also more than 8 months pregnant, it was nice for us to be able to help around the house a little bit. One of the highlights was Jeremy making murtabak from Malaysia to share with the family.

We also got to have a lunch at Annie and Matthew’s place, and we met their new baby Paige, as well as catching up with their other children, Ethan and Holly.

On Christmas Eve, we had a “high tea” at Matt and Bec’s place, which consisted of various finger foods, both savoury and sweet. Then the Christmas Day meal was a nice roast lunch at Annie and Matthew’s. Of course, before that, there was some initial present opening – I was expecting this would just entail Doyle from my immediate family, but no, I was incredibly spoiled and given John Barrowman’s CD by Doyle, as well as a large and heavy fitness device to hook up to the PS3 from Jeremy. You see, I thought getting to see a panto in Cardiff and a musical in London was my Christmas present from them! But more on those later. The main present exchange between family took place at Annie and Matthew’s place between the main course and the fruit/cheese course. Here I’ll make special note to highlight how brilliant Matt & Bec’s Brussels sprouts were (it was cooked with cream and bacon).

Of course, being the geek that I am, the biggest highlight of Christmas Day was getting to watch the Doctor Who Christmas special right as it aired!

I was unsure that we would be able to fit everything back into our suitcases after Christmas, but somehow we managed it, which was a good thing since we had to get a taxi at 9:30 the next morning. The taxi took us to the bus station where we were to catch the first leg of our bus trip to Cardiff for the day. It had a quick stop in Leicester, then we changed buses in Birmingham, and until the first stop the second bus made, I sat in front of a guy who was bragging about how much money he’d make on New Year’s Eve selling something for 15-30 pounds per gram. I don’t know what it was, but I can’t think of it being anything other than drugs. What was worse than sitting in front of a drug dealer was finding out that he was studying to become a surgeon. Not sure that’s the kind of person I’d want performing surgery on me.

Our bus arrived in Cardiff about half an hour late, but luckily I had accounted for the possibility when I booked the trip. We had enough time to check into our hotel and drop off our things before heading to the New Theatre to pick up our pantomime tickets and still have dinner before the show. It amused me that the panto was Robin Hood, set in Nottingham, where we had just been that morning.

Now, one might wonder why we would travel to Cardiff just for a panto, leaving early the next morning. Well, we had been to Cardiff on our last trip to the UK so we didn’t necessarily need to see it again, but this particular panto starred the aforementioned John Barrowman, who people might recognise from Doctor Who, Torchwood, and/or The Producers. I wouldn’t describe myself as a particularly big Barrowman fan, as I was more interested in going for the novelty factor of seeing someone from Doctor Who live in stage. However, that didn’t stop me from feeling like I was squealing inside like an excited fangirl every time he was on stage and did something I particularly enjoyed.

Robin Hood’s major drawcard was Barrowman, which meant the first act was littered with Doctor Who and Torchwood references, the first being when Robin Hood said to Maid Marion, “I know a guy with a TARDIS,” and she replied, “Who?” to which Robin Hood replied, with a wink, “That’s the guy!” Of course, there were other pop culture references, such as the cross dressing Friar Tuck calling himself Mrs Doubtfire, and doing a couple of Catherine Tate lines from her sketch show. Catherine Tate was itself somewhat of a Doctor Who reference since she played one of the Doctor’s companions.

Being a pantomime, the story of Robin Hood was changed somewhat. First of all, there was no Prince John, just the Sheriff of Nottingham, who had the help of a witch named Cassandra. She made Maid Marion completely disappear via a magic act, which in turn somehow made Robin Hood decide he had to find Excalibur and go to Camelot – where they then sung a number right out of Spamalot. Claiming the magic sword then made Cassandra switch sides, and then show Robin Hood his future – with an ice skating number to end act one! I wasn’t really sure of what the purpose of the ice skating was except that it gave them a reason to show off and a reason to cast some television ice skating stars, who were unfamiliar to me since I don’t live in the UK.

Maid Marion wasn’t the only cast member involved with a disappearing magic act, however, as Robin Hood was too. He reappeared in the box in the middle on the right, closest to the stage, and made me wish I’d gotten a seat there, because it looked like fun to be the boy that John Barrowman was somewhat flirting with while he prodded the Sheriff with his mistakes. I know I said above that I wasn’t a big Barrowman fan before, but after this panto, I could definitely see the appeal that I’ve known others to see. And he’s probably even more attractive in person than he is on TV – and I was only in the 5th row. Maybe it would’ve been even more improved if I’d got to meet him! (LOL).

All in all, I thought the detour to Cardiff on our trip was well worth it just to see this panto, though even walking through the city (and not needing as much protection against the cold as elsewhere we’ve been on the trip so far) reminded me that I did rather like Cardiff, and perhaps we should’ve spent another night there. Then again I probably would’ve been too tempted to try and see Robin Hood a second time before leaving.

We got up early the next morning so we could make sure we had time for breakfast before we headed off to the train station. We had to collect our tickets and then take a train to Newport, rail replacement bus to Bristol Parkway, then another train to Didcot Parkway before making our final connection to Oxford.

Unfortunately the streets weren’t labelled what I was expecting them to be when we arrived, so I took us around in a circle before ending up right around the corner from where I initially decided I was lost, before I found our hotel. It’s a shame, because it meant we had much less daylight time to see Oxford before it got dark around 4:15pm. Despite this, we did manage to see a lot of amazing architecture around Oxford, and the outside of Oxford Castle (which we were staying down the road from), which also had a hill we could climb to get some nice views of the city. I’d forgotten my camera, unfortunately, but Jeremy got some great photos.

Oxford is, in my opinion, definitely worth the visit. In fact we probably should have spent more than one night here too – but I wasn’t exactly expecting it to get dark so early when I booked the trip, nor to get lost as soon as we arrived since our accommodation is so close to the train station. Still, at least I got us into a nice apartment so we could self cater instead of eating out.

We didn’t have to be up quite as early to leave Oxford as we did Cardiff, but we still didn’t have any time to do anything beyond breakfast before leaving. We got into London around 11am, and switched to the Underground to get to our hotel. At this time of year, and with what little time we had, it’s pretty important to make use of the Underground – so we got day passes to use.

After checking in to our fancy hotel known as The Langham (Jeremy booked it using some of his frequent flier points) and having our luggage delivered to our room, we headed down to the theatre district, where I hoped to collect my ticket to Wicked. Only I couldn’t find the theatre, so we hopped back on the Underground in order to get to Shakespeare’s Globe on time to see Footsbarn’s Christmas show, which we had tickets for at 2pm. I would describe the show as a cross between a Shakespeare mash up and a circus show. It was a cool experience to see the traditional looking costumes (the most interesting, in my opinion, was the guy who was dressed half as Romeo and half as Juliet). Probably the most stand out part of the show was when a women fiddled (ie played the fiddle) her way across a tight rope walk.

Since we’d missed out on lunch, we headed back to the theatre district for some food – Pizza Hut. I’d hoped to have had their buffet, but it was over by then. So we had their happy hour special instead. Then I wandered off to try and find my theatre again, only to ask a local and discover it was a couple of Underground stops away! So I went back to Pizza Hut to find Jeremy and Doyle to let them know, and then head off onto the Tube. I didn’t really need to rush as much as I did, but at least I got to my theatre with plenty of time to collect my ticket for the show. I wandered around the general area since I had about an hour to spare, and ended up picking up some cheap books to keep myself occupied whilst I was seated before the show started, and during the Interval.

I’d first wanted to see Wicked in London in 2007, just from seeing the poster. I hadn’t heard anything about it before then, but since I’d heard about lots of fans of the show. So what can I say about it? I didn’t have the best of seats in the house (in fact I was in row R, very high up and where you can hire binoculars from to see better), but it did not disappoint. I immensely enjoyed the story of an alternative version of The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, and it was a great take on how propaganda and those in power can skew the truth in order to get what they want. It was also fun seeing all the different parts intertwine with the story I was already aware of. Seeing this show was definitely one of the highlights of this trip for me, so I am thankful that Jeremy let me get a ticket as part of my Christmas present, and that he looked after Doyle for me.

The next morning (Dec 29th) was a little relaxing. I stayed in the hotel room with Doyle while Jeremy went to use the pool and sauna area. Then we checked out and left our bags there while we headed back to the Globe Theatre to use our tour tickets, which we’d bought with the theatre tickets. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to take full advantage of the exhibition, and even had to leave the tour early in order to have enough time to collect our bags and get to the bus on time to get to the airport. In fact we barely made it on time! Luckily, we did, though, or we’d have had to a) pay for another bus or b) get the express train from a different location and pay twice as much.

Our next flight was to Munich, Germany. I wasn’t feeling very well, and on the flight I was reminded why I hate flying whilst I’ve got a cold – the pain in my ears was terrible. Thankfully it didn’t last too long, and I had been able to get some sleep on the plane before then. At this point in the trip, and with five cities in five days, I’d become incredibly exhausted. It was pretty late when we got to our hotel, but I was glad that it was easy to find, and that the airport is well hooked up to the city with public transport (we took the S Bahn train).

We slept in until 8:30am (though I was still tired) and were able to have our free breakfast, before I called my friend Iris to see if she was up for meeting. Unfortunately she was pretty sick, so we headed back out on the S Bahn to central Munich. We wandered down the shopping mall area and picked up a couple of things we needed before heading onwards. I snapped a number of pictures of the great architecture in the area, and then we happened upon a free city tour in English, which we were able to join. Our guide took us to a massive cathedral, which we had already visited, but gave us a story of local folklore, and how the cathedral was built in only 20 years in the fifteenth century. It’s a tale that the architect made up to save his reputation, and was about how he tricked the devil to help him. Also on the tour we were taken through some of the older history of the royal family, right up to Hitler’s reign and things that are reminders to that period, plus some probably lesser known details, like Hugo Boss getting his start designing Nazi uniforms, and that being the reason a lot of men joined up. I learned about Nazi Germany in year 11 in high school, but it was interesting to get some more perspective on it in Munich, and hearing about how Germany is really the only country in the world with a history of genocide that embraces that part of their history and teaches about it to try and prevent history from repeating itself.

We ended the tour at the most famous beer drinking place in the world, the Hofbrauhaus, where we decided to have lunch of various German sausages, potato salad, and sauerkraut. After that, we headed back off around the city and I hoped to go into the Residenz museum but by the time we got there, it was closing in half an hour so we decided it wasn’t worth it. Instead we found some more interesting architecture on our way to the art gallery, the Haus der Kunst, (used in Nazi Germany time to display propaganda art), which had a special exhibition of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

On our way back to our hotel, we found a special cake place known as a konditorei for dinner/dessert, where I tried a German egg noodle dish (garnished with cheese and fried onions like the fried onions I get in Malaysia), and some apple strudel. Then we went back to our hotel for an early bedtime.

Our second (and last) full day in Germany was New Year’s Eve. Jeremy wanted to take me and Doyle to see some castles, so we hopped on the S Bahn to the central station, and just missed the train to Fussen. Since it was 2 hours until the next train, we went back into the town area and popped into a museum, a church (Munich has a lot of churches), and Jeremy climbed up a tower to get some nice views of Munich before we headed back to the train.

So we took the train to Fussen, which took about two hours, arriving about 3pm. Unfortunately the Nauschwanstein castle was closed for New Year’s Eve (much like everything else that would’ve been interesting to see in Munich), and Hohenschwangau closed at 3:30pm, so we just wandered up around the outsides of the castles to take photos. Of course, as I’ve already pointed out, Germany isn’t particularly open for New Year’s Eve, and thus the restaurants we wanted to go to for dinner all shut by 5pm. Fortunately this meant we caught the only bus back to Fussen we had left available to us at 5:40pm so we didn’t miss our train (we had misread and thought we had until 6:20pm or so, not realising NYE was different). And the only restaurant open in Fussen was an Italian one, which was nice, except we wanted to have more German food before leaving Germany.

We did catch the last train back to Munich that night (7:05pm), and it was full of Germans already with alcohol in their hands, drinking, getting ready for NYE in Munich. The crazy more-than-necessary-alcohol-that-early-in-the-night I encountered on the train (not to mention the empty beer bottles strewn about) put me off doing anything to bring in the new year, so we just went back to our hotel and were in bed by around 10pm. No countdown for us, but we did see some early fireworks.

New Year’s Day didn’t allow for much in the way of sight-seeing since it was another travel day, but we did manage to meet up with my friend Iris at the airport, who was finally feeling a little better. So it was good to get to meet her, even if it was just at the airport. We were flying to Copenhagen, with a stopover in Dusseldorf. Copenhagen will be written about in the next post.

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