Category Archives: hotels

Finland 2018 (Part 1a): Jyvaskyla

By complete accident, 2018 has turned out to be the year of travel, featuring everything from short weekend getaways to the countryside for the purposes of hearing nightjars vocalizing on the heath to much longer jaunts halfway around the world for work. One of the few trips I’d actually been aware of and planning for fairly well in advance was a visit to Finland with some friends, one of whom took the lead in planning the entire affair; I just said ‘yes, that sounds great!’ to all of her suggestions and then handed over money whenever she asked. A few months after that trip was first conceived, I was offered an opportunity to contribute to a symposium at a conference that also happened to be in Finland—as it turns out, in pretty much the same portion of the country. So it happened that, having never been to Finland in my life (and having previously been to Scandinavia only once), I found myself visiting twice in one year, going to the Lakeland area both times. I’m not usually so disorganized, but this is the kind of unexpected thing that happens when you are working too hard to pay attention to details.

That said, it’s not exactly like this was a regrettable mistake. Finland is awfully pretty, and mid-June is a fantastic time to visit. My final destination was Jyvaskyla, which I reached by train. I rode a local train to Tikkurila, about 15 minutes from the airport, and disembarked there to wait for the inter-city train. I wasn’t properly in the countryside yet, but already the air was clear and fresh and wholesome. Although the sun was shining brightly, the air was that comfortable sort of magical moderate temperature where you could wear anything from a sleeveless shirt to a hoodie and be comfortable.

Lake Jyvasjarvi, Finland

Although the ride to Jyvaskyla was fairly lengthy, it was very pleasant—not just because the seats were comfortable (wide, with head rests that didn’t bend my neck and with footrests to help my knees!), but because the landscape outside the window was so picturesque. There was something sort of familiar about it, which I at first attributed to the fact that I’ve read books and seen movies set in Scandinavia. But then I realized: It looks exactlylike the parts of Minnesota that I have visited. The evergreens—many (all?) of which I know are plantations rather than original natural forest—are stately; the lakes (which increased in number the further north we travelled) are an eerie black that contrasts beautifully with the surrounding vegetation; the homes, built in the traditional style, are welcoming; and the endless lupines are enchanting. The scenery was gorgeous…

…and then the train pulled in to Jyvaskyla. I’m not saying that Jyvaskyla is the leastattractive place I’ve ever been, but I amsaying that it isn’t the most attractive, and it certainly didn’t live up to the precedent set by the countryside we passed on the way to the city. It has an attractive square with an old church/town hall in the middle and some grounds where people can (and did) lounge in the sun, and there are some residential neighbourhoods with more of those beautiful, inviting Finnish-style homes in a rainbow of cheerful colours. There is a fantastic ‘activity trail’ (this is actually what it’s called—reflecting the fact that people don’t just bike and run but also do more unconventional activities like cross-country rollerblading) that runs all around Lake Jyvasjarvi. There are also some great cultural facilities, such as the events venue where my conference was held, the University of Jyvaskyla, and a selection of museums (more on which later). But so many of these were built in an extremely modern, functional style. Although Finland achieved independence from Russia in 1918, Jyvaskyla, at least, still very much has the look and feel of mid-century Soviet territory.

Lots of this sort of angular, modern-looking thing in Jyvaskyla. I disliked most of it but obviously this one amused me because it looked like a Star Trek comms badge.

My hotel was right in the middle of this sea of concrete blocks, which was a bummer in terms of aesthetics but quite handy in terms of access to the train station (5 minutes away) and the conference venue (an additional 5 minutes beyond the station). I was also right around the corner from a great grocery store, which was convenient given that I had deliberately selected accommodation with a ‘kitchenette’. I put that word in quotation marks because it was described as a kitchenette—which, in my mind, involves a particular bare-minimum set of appliances and resources—but consisted merely of a kettle, a microwave, and an empty and never-quite-cold minibar fridge.

It is worth describing my hotel in a little more detail, because it was weird in other ways. It had no reception desk, no check-in or -out, and no keys. On the day of my arrival in Jyvaskyla, I was emailed a door code that enabled me to pass through four portals: a barred gate giving access to the front door, the front door itself, a door to my floor, and the door to my room. The hotel was easy to spot from the sidewalk because it was labelled quite clearly, but then the main door was hidden away around to the side in a gated parking lot. There was nothing wrong with it and I never had any trouble with anyone, but it all somehow felt a bit seedy. My room had two single beds, both of which were permanently attached to the floor, positioned side-by-side under a wall-mounted reading light at just the right height to prevent you from sitting up comfortably in bed. There was also a dining table at which there were two chairs and two single-sized futons folded up into seats; none of these was very comfortable to sit on for very long. Oddly, the room also featured an unexpectedly (and unnecessarily) large television, and there was a hairdryer that I could plug into an outlet in the bathroom, so it wasn’t a totally ascetic existence—though I also wouldn’t describe it as comfortable.

In case you are wondering how I dealt with the matter of sustenance, I will tell you now that my solutions were inspired. Taking a cue from the other former rulers of Finland, Sweden, I bought supplies for smorgasbords: some of the seemingly infinite types of wholesome cracker (sturdy enough to build with, I think); some soft cheese; cucumbers; tomatoes; and shredded cabbage salad. To construct and contain these, I also purchased a set of transportable cutlery from a camping store, and a collapsible bowl. A matching collapsible cup gave me something out of which to drink my raspberry-flavoured sparkling water (purchased by accident because I had no idea what the label said but could tell the water contained bubbles, which is what I was after), and I already had a travel mug out of which to drink tea and some cup-of-soup mixes. The bowl could be reused for yogurt and granola at breakfast, which I also supplemented with a steady supply of fresh fruit. I even splurged and bought a pack of reusable plastic containers so I could take my lunch to go and whip up a batch of trail mix. The best part? All that culinary equipment—plus a scrub-brush I’d bought to help me do dishes in my bathroom sink—returned home to the UK with me. Best souvenirs ever, am I right?

Smorgasbord dining. Don’t be jealous of my mad food prep skills.

You maybe are thinking that, brilliant as this solution was, it sounds like something you’d do as a PhD student rather than a full-time employee. To that I would say: yes, probably, but I really hate eating out over and over because I have a very sensitive stomach and inevitably I wind up feeling unwell when I have to cede control of my diet to strangers. Also, Scandinavia is not cheap. Finland was not as bad as I expected, actually, but I spent more than I would have liked just on a few basic ingredients, so I can’t imagine how much it would have cost to have purchased a full meal multiple times a day for the entire duration of my stay. At this point, I probably could go without eating smorgasbords for the rest of 2018, but actually it was quite pleasant while I was doing it.

It was a bummer that my hotel wasn’t a bit more lavish (or, really, even fractionally lavish at all), because I ended up spending a fair amount of time there. To someone without a vehicle providing access into the surrounding countryside, there is a limited amount of entertainment to be found within Jyvaskyla itself – and I did partake of these things, which I will describe in more detail later. Those didn’t take that much time, though, plus I was on deadline to write a magazine article. I needed to read quite a bit of research before actually composing the piece, and I had always intended to use a portion of my Finland getaway to accomplish this. I had imagined that it would happen under slightly more comfortable conditions, but, having recently weathered such a hectic, non-stop period at work, it felt incredibly decadent and indulgent to be able to just sit, and read, and think, and create. As with the food I was eating, simple and uncomplicated did not mean unappealing.

Uncomplicated, but very appealing

So what did I do when I ventured out of my little dorm-style room?

The ECCB conference. This is why I went to Finland to begin with, and obviously it would have been remiss of me to skip my own talk. I was one of eight people in a symposium dedicated to thinking about how science communication (‘scicomm’) can achieve conservation goals by helping people connect with nature. I had the dubious honour of being the first speaker, but I think I did a decent job setting the tone. The room was packed, which was gratifying even though I suspect the audience was perhaps more interested in some of the more globally recognizable contributors. I haven’t spoken at this sort of conference for a few years and had therefore never observed the new live-tweet culture from the lectern; it was so strange to see a dozen people lift up their phones and take a photo every time I changed slides—but it was also encouraging, since I could see that people were engaged and interested. I did some live-tweeting of my own during my fellow presenters’ talks, partly to help draw attention to the event, partly to pass on useful tidbits to some of the scicomm-lovers who follow me online, and partly to create a record of advice that I could later consult myself.

Selfie taken in the symposium room in between speakers

I also attended a keynote lecture by the poet-scientist Madhur Anand, who read some of her poems, talked about the process of writing them and blending science with verse, and, in turn, verse with conservation action, more generally, and then answered questions from the audience. Although I am neither shy nor lacking in confidence, I hate asking questions in a conference setting (I did not have a good experience my first time around, and I think it has haunted me ever since). However, I did pluck up my courage to ask Madhur the following: I’ve read a lot about how there has been an increase in the popularity of poetry, and yet when I chat with friends and colleagues, I get the sense that I’m in a minority as a regular reader of verse. How does this compare with the sense you have of your audience / potential audience, and what does that make you think about using poetry as a means of scicomm intended to influence public opinions about nature and science? She confirmed my impression that, while poetry may be increasingly popular, it’s not really at Stephen King levels of sales—though there are some extremely popular ‘Insta poets’ (e.g., Rupi Kaur) who are changing this. She also pointed out that quality may outweigh quantity when it comes to the scicomm value of poetry; where it has been incorporated into projects, it has been very impactful because of how strongly it affects people’s emotions and opinions. It was a thoughtful and interesting answer towards the end of a thoughtful and interesting talk, and I look forward to reading her book A New Index For Predicting Catastrophes.

Thinking about how poetry can help us understand complicated concepts in surprisingly accessible ways

Lake Jyvasjarvi. I had originally planned to hike all the way around the lake using the activity trail, but I ended up doing the western loop twice rather than the whole thing once. The section that I selected seemed to run through more wooded areas, which was nice not just for the sake of aesthetics, but also for shade and protection from the sun; I had forgotten to pack sun cream (this is not a supply that seems essential for a trip to northern Europe) and was acutely aware of how close and intense the sun felt even on cooler days. Starting at an access point near the conference centre, I a) walked west along the northern edge of the lake, b) headed down to the University of Jyvaskyla campus where there is a suspension bridge that allows you to cross to the other side and head through the trees for a while, before c) coming back to another bridge that you can either head under for some additional walking (to do the full loop around the lake) or cross over to return to where you started. I could never really lose myself in nature because the city is still very much right therealong the entire pathway, but it was still very calming to be by the water, and there was some good wildlife viewing to be had: I saw fieldfares and redwings in their summer habitat, a mama great-horned grebe with a chick on her back, a lady mallard leading her ducklings to water, a common toad (the first toad I’ve seen in the wild in years), and more chaffinches than I have ever seen in my life. It was great to be able to strike out from my hotel room and have such a spacious and pleasant walking path so close by. All cities should have something similar.

Lupines along the path

The Craft Museum of Finland. There is, as I said, only a limited number of options for organized outings in Jyvaskyla, so it’s not entirely surprising that the Finnish Craft Museum makes all the ‘Top 10 Things to Do in Jyvaskyla’ lists. However, it genuinely is a top-ten destination, and is one of the most enjoyable museums I have ever visited. It has three main types of exhibit:

  1. Static displays providing information on a range of different crafting genres that are and have been important within Finland (e.g., spinning, weaving, knitting).
  2. Static displays on traditional Finnish dress (which may seem unrelated except when you consider the fact that a) both the costumes and the materials used to make them have been, and to some extent still are, constructed by hand, and b) the entire idea of a national costume, and what different types of national costumes arose in different areas and in different eras, is itself a bespoke creation.
  3. Rotating displays showcasing…whatever is deemed interesting and relevant. During my visit, there was a collection of ‘outsider art’ from contemporary crafters who are not really part of any formal artistic or crafting movement or community—in other words, people whose work is often called ‘folk art’ rather than ‘real’ art, even though many (including me) would argue this is an arbitrary and condescending distinction.

The Museum isn’t very large, physically, and yet, thanks to a clever use of space, it manages to fit in quite a bit; it kept me entertained for several hours because I felt compelled to read every last plaque and interact with every last hands-on display. One thing I particularly liked was how there were drawers of ‘extras’ underneath many displays, such that if you were intrigued by a particular exhibit, you could see additional examples or find out more about techniques / context by sliding open the drawers to view the supplementary information. There was also a craft room where you could go in and experiment with different activities and techniques—including fairly advanced things like soldering and whittling.

A selection of Finnish national costumes
A felted crafter and the source of her wool

Not to be materialistic, but the Craft Museum has a wonderful gift shop full of unique handmade items; it also leads next door to a larger associated independent shop that has an even wider range of artisan items ranging from food and luxury toiletries to ceramics, hand-printed tea towels, and upscale clothing. I wanted somany things, both for myself and to take home as gifts, but I had almost no spare space in my luggage (especially once you factored in the dishware I had purchased and would need to transport home)—plus the prices were exorbitant. I love to support artists and I understand why they charge what they do, but it’s costly enough in my own currency; trying to afford it despite unfavourable exchange rates in a very expensive country was just more than I could manage. Maybe I can save up for a splurge during my next trip to Finland.

The Alvar Aalto Museum. In my wildest dreams, I would never have expected to enjoy a museum devoted to architecture and design. I visited the Alvar Aalto Museum not because I had ever heard of Aalto (I hadn’t, though he is internationally renowned) or because I had a particular interest in his work, but because the museum was so close and got exceptionally high reviews online. Entry was only €6 so I figured I had nothing to lose. Another way to look at it is that I also had an opportunity to gain quite a lot, which I did—in particular, knowledge of and respect for Alvar Aalto and his impressive work. I had such a great time that I got home and composed a lengthy Twitter thread just to share my excitement. I have reproduced it here for those who didn’t catch it the first time around (i.e., pretty much everyone):


As I was wandering through the museum (which is also incredibly well designed, as you might expect given the focus of the venue), I had a flashback to 6thgrade when my wonderful art teacher (shoutout to Mr Stobart!) introduced us to the basics of drafting and set us loose on designing blueprints of our dream homes. I can still picture the project I produced for class; I also remember enjoying the activity so much that I kept designing house after house for months afterwards. Obviously, given that I went on to be a scientist rather than an architect or engineer, I eventually grew out of my design phase, but the appreciation for clever and attractively shaped buildings has remained. It was fun to take a few hours to reacquaint myself with my interest in this topic.

I encountered quite a bit of unusual and intriguing street art in Jyvaskyla

The one obvious thing I didn’t do in Jyvaskyla was properly visit the university campus and explore the facilities there—including the natural history museum. However, given what I do for a living, I figured I have had more than enough experience with university campuses; plus, I was already planning to visit an even larger museum in Helsinki at the end of the trip, so ultimately I couldn’t feel too guilty about leaving this one destination off my itinerary.

Thus, despite the amount of time I’d spent holed up in my hotel room doing nerd work, I felt pretty satisfied with my stay in Jyvaskyla. I had gone for quality over quantity in terms of activities, which allowed me to experience those fewer things at a less exhausting pace, and therefore in a deeper, more memorable way. This is often something we either don’t do when traveling, or don’t have the luxury of doing, and it was a good reminder to myself that I am not just permitted to take it easy, but will, in fact, probably benefit from doing so.

Stay tuned for the next instalment to find out whether I internalized this lesson sufficiently to put it into action when I relocated to Helsinki for the final two days of my trip…

Spa day!

Back when I was a university student, I used to think that life was pretty hectic at the end of the year. There was all that studying to do, all those exams to take, all that packing, and, of course, summer employment to find. Until this year, I didn’t really have any appreciation of just how incredibly stressful things were for all the other people involved in the end-of-semester routine–the academics who had to grade a mountain of papers in very little time, and the administrators who had the monumental task of turning a collection of grades from individual assignments into final averages for each course, across the year, and–for graduates–across the entire academic career.

Thanks to the fact that I was one of those overworked administrators this year, my schedule over the last couple months has been absolutely crazy. I’ve been arriving early, leaving late, working through lunch, sometimes getting to the end of the day and realizing I hadn’t even made time to take a “comfort break.” Towards the end, I also started waking up in the middle of the night, pondering how best to tick off all the things on my to-do list. Needless to say, this left me feeling a bit weary.

To give myself a light at the end of the tunnel, I booked myself a spa outing on the Saturday after the last day of term. Originally, I was just going to go for a couple of beauty/relaxation treatments and then return home, but then I realized that the date of my outing coincided with the first full day of the Falmouth Sea Shanty Festival. I couldn’t bear to return home to a long evening (and night) of boisterous maritime music right on my doorstep, so I also reserved a room at the historic Falmouth Hotel. Decadent? Yes–but also delightful.

2014-06-13 17.01.27
The vegetarian grill

In a way, the celebrations actually began the night before, with an end-of-year BBQ arranged by the geographers in our college. We all chipped in a few quid and brought our own main dish, and the organizers went out and purchased all the rest. It was an amazing feeling, after so many weeks of preparation, to finally click the button that released all the grades to the students, then walk outside to a beautiful Cornish spring evening, drink a freshly made mojito, gorge on a juicy burger, and then finish it all off with some homemade cupcakes and chat with colleagues.

2014-06-13 17.02.05
Our sun-drenched patio, through the haze of smoke wafting up from the grills

The next day, I slept in until 8 AM (pretty impressive for me), ran errands at a leisurely pace, and then made my way to St. Michael’s Hotel and Spa. It’s only about a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment, but although I regularly walk past the hotel, I’d never actually been in. Unsurprisingly, given both the location and the time of year, there was a wedding party lounging in the front garden upon my arrival, and I felt a bit awkward strolling up in my casual attire and backpack. It is quite a nice hotel, and I certainly didn’t match the look of the other clientele. Luckily, there is a separate entrance for people who have come to use the spa/pool/gym facilities, so I was able to duck out of the way and make sure I didn’t accidentally photobomb the bride and groom.

St. Michael's entrance
Right this way for rest and relaxation!

I had scheduled both a Swedish massage and a manicure, but I wasn’t sure about the order in which they were going to be given. Part of me wanted the manicure first since I knew the massage would leave me in a stupor, but part of me wanted the massage first so that I wouldn’t be totally groggy when it came time to walk up the street to my evening accommodations.

It turns out that my “beauty specialist” (Carly) had planned for the latter option. I started with a full hour of massage on my back, shoulders, legs, and arms. It’s always amazing to me how quickly the time can fly when you are getting a massage. An hour of any other activity–grade entry, for instance, just to use a recent relevant example–can drag on seemingly forever, and yet a massage seems to be over in the blink of an eye. I could feel Carly locate and attack several knots–mostly in the shoulder area, and likely stemming from the hours of computer time I’ve put in over the past several weeks. There was one point, between her work on my left and right legs, when I actually began to fall asleep just in the amount of time it took Carly to go fetch a new bottle of massage oil. Clearly, I was exhausted.

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Lubed legs post-massage

The hour was over all too soon, and I was led out into the waiting area to pick my nail polish and allow Carly to prepare the treatment room for Round 2. I looked for a color that was attractive and elegant without being too loud or over-the-top; eventually, I settled for a sparkly gold. It wasn’t until Carly was about to apply the polish that I realized it was not dissimilar to the hue I purchased for my junior prom, for which I wore a (matching) glittery gold dress. Time has obviously not affected my fashion sense too much (for better or worse).

Unlike the massage, the manicure provided ample opportunity for me to chat with Carly, which was a little awkward. She was very nice, but I was still a bit dazed from the massage and was therefore struggling to have any coherent thoughts. We did, however, manage to discuss the ins and outs of beauty school (I find it amazing that each student is expected to learn things as diverse as manicuring and massaging, rather than specializing in one particular area), the purposes of the various things that she was doing to my hands, and also the fact that one of the folks in the wedding party upstairs had set fire to the banquet table during dinner.

Painted nails
Gold and sparkly

My nails looked quite lovely when Carly had finished, but they were still in a delicate state. I was escorted to the Relaxation Room and advised to wait at least ten minutes before touching anything; at that point, all of the varnish and protective coats should be dry, allowing me to pick up my bags and head off. Unfortunately, as is typically the case when I paint my nails, I managed to brush one finger against something within about two minutes of completing the manicure; this left me with nine beautiful nails and one with a little scar. *sigh*

relaxation room
The “Relaxation Room” at St. Michael’s

Waiting in the Relaxation Room was a bit weird because I couldn’t really do anything. I wanted to look at my phone but couldn’t yank it out of my bag. I wanted to read a book or magazine, but couldn’t pick one up. I wanted a drink of water, but couldn’t figure out how to extract my bottle from my backpack. Luckily, my ten minutes of waiting passed about as quickly as my 60 minutes of massage, and I was soon able to head out into the absolutely stunning evening.

Falmouth Hotel
The grand old lady of Falmouth’s waterfront strip

I made my way up the road to Falmouth Hotel, which I’ve only visited once before. That previous trip was associated with an education away day, and involved one of the hotel’s meeting rooms; I’d never previously been upstairs to one of the guest rooms. My room was a tiny little space on the top floor, with a window overlooking the back garden. It was oriented in the general direction of my apartment and, to my horror, I could actually hear the sounds of sea shanties wafting in on the breeze! Luckily, the noise wasn’t overwhelming, and I was able to drown it out with a bit of music from my MP3 player.

Once ensconced, I immediately set about the very important task of giving myself a facial–one of those girly activities that is much easier to accomplish either when the menfolk aren’t at home, or when you are away from the menfolk. My typical “treatment” involves a series of three different masks, and as each one worked its magic, I sat in the wide window seat, basking in the sun, listening to music, and playing word games on my phone. Much better than worrying about students’ grades.

After all of that was done, I took a quick shower to rid myself of the excessive amounts of massage oil still glistening on my skin; actually, I was so well lubricated that I’m amazed I’d been able to sit down anywhere without sliding off the seat. Feeling limber and refreshed, I headed back downstairs to take a stroll along the seafront. On the way, I paused to admire the dramatic lighting in the main stairway of the hotel:

The simultaneously spiraling lights and staircase made me think of DNA

The evening had gotten much cooler, but it was still really lovely. There wasn’t much of a breeze, and the water was incredibly calm; rather than hearing the waves rushing towards the sand, I could only detect the faint sound of them lapping ever so softly at the edge of the beach. By that point in the evening, many people had headed back inside, so I pretty much had the sidewalk to myself.

Pendennis Point sunset–one of the best views in town

I headed down towards the Swanpool Nature Reserve so I could sit on my favorite bench and take in my favorite scenery. I love walking around at twilight, which I have always found to be a magical time of day. It is nice to live in a place where it is safe to do so, and where you can enjoy such a gorgeous landscape when you do. I sat for a while, listening to music and watching the quaking-grass shiver in the light breeze that was just beginning to roll in off the water. Beautiful.

quaking grass
Quaking-grass waving gently in the golden sun

Before it could get too cold or too dark, I eventually left my perch and headed back towards the hotel, where I sat in the lobby for a while to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi. When I’d had enough of being beaten at word games by my friends and family (how rude of them!), I headed upstairs for a blissfully calm and quiet night of sleep.

I’m going to need a few more relaxing weekends to fully recharge after this crazy semester, but my spa day certainly went a long way towards getting the process started. Perhaps I should treat myself more often. =)

Valentine’s Day failure

Now that I’m no longer working for myself, I don’t have the sort of flexible schedule that allows me to accompany Sasha every time he goes abroad to engage in academic shenanigans. It’s sad. Last autumn he toured around Vienna without me, and in February month he headed to Mainz, on the outskirts of Frankfurt. Despite my inability to travel with him to the continent on this latest trip, I was, at least, able to arrange to meet him after his flight deposited him at the Bristol airport. The beauty of this plan was that it gave Sasha an excuse to not drive straight home after a long day of travel, while also giving me an opportunity to make reservations at Jamie’s Italian, which I’ve been longing to visit.

Sadly, the reality of the excursion was nothing like the vision I’d had in mind when planning it. To start with, the massive storms we’ve been experiencing have both washed away and flooded various portions of the tracks between Plymouth and Bristol, requiring passengers to hop shuttle buses between train stations.

Image courtesy of Express & Echo

Because train travel has been so highly disrupted, First Great Western has been extremely lenient about tickets; they’ve been letting pretty much anyone ride at any time regardless of what reservations had previously been made, because it’s either that or lose all their customers to alternative modes of transportation. This turned out to be extremely good for me, because I somehow managed to book tickets for March 14th rather than February 14th–a fact I did not discover until I reached the Penryn station, ready to depart on the first leg of my trip. I thought I was going to have to shell out an additional £60 for my journey–especially galling because of how incredibly inconvenient and time-consuming I knew it was going to be: the normally 3-hour trip had morphed into something at least twice that long because of all the bus transfers.

Mid-journey selfie

The exact procedure turned out to be even more complicated than I’d anticipated. I first rode a train from Penryn to Truro, where I then waited for 45 minutes for a train from Truro to Plymouth. At Plymouth, I hopped on a bus to Tiverton Parkway, where I transferred to a northeast-bound train. I had thought this would take me all the way to Bristol, but, no, I only got as far as Taunton, where I had to disembark and hop yet another bus for the final leg of the journey into Bristol Temple Meads. Once there, I had to walk in bone-chillingly windy and rainy conditions another mile or so to my hotel. I really was earning my king-sized bed and Jamie Oliver feast.

Entrance to the hotel, the Thistle Grand

I must admit that, all along, I had a deep-seated feeling that something would go wrong. I didn’t know what it was, but I could just feel it coming. When the train ticket thing didn’t cause any problems, I thought maybe it would be the journey itself; when I was successful at arriving, at long last, in Bristol, I suspected the issue would arise with Sasha‘s journey rather than mine…and this time I was right. First his flight was delayed; then it was canceled–and not even because of the horrendously blustery weather we were having, but because of a technical glitch with both the first plane he was supposed to take and then the one sent to replace it. The airline sent him and all the other passengers to a nearby hotel, with a promise to contact them later with a plan of action. I, meanwhile, was left to order room service and sleep alone in the middle of my ridiculously spacious bed.

Even so, all was still well. Our culinary adventure was scheduled for 1:30 PM on Saturday, giving Sasha plenty of time–or so I thought–to make it back to the UK. On top of this, I’d scheduled myself a massage for 10:30 on Saturday morning, so I knew I had plenty of ways to amuse myself until his arrival.

Artwork in the passageway running under St. John’s

As per usual, I woke up at the crack of dawn, which left me with plenty of time to see some sights before heading to the hotel’s spa. Within just a few steps of the hotel’s front door, I was already finding photogenic buildings and decorations: The Grand is located right on the outskirts of Old Town, so there are all sorts of antique structures and facades to admire up and down the road.

Facade of the building opposite my hotel

When I left the Grand, the weather was merely overcast, but soon it became drizzly and then, eventually, downright miserable. My delight at finally having the opportunity to see more of Bristol than just the train station and airport soon turned to dismay that I was stuck outside in sleety conditions at a time of day when there were no businesses open, and therefore no shops or restaurants for me to take refuge in. There was, however, a cathedral.

Bristol Cathedral, beautiful even on the dreariest of days
College Green, the last thing I managed to photograph outside before the weather drove me into the cathedral

When I set out from my hotel, I had no idea where I was going, and no final destination in mind; I was just following my instincts and wandering wherever I liked. That haphazard process happened to lead me to the cathedral, and I happened to arrive there just as the skies opened up and dumped down a flood of icy rain. I don’t believe in fate or destiny, but if I had been a character you were watching in a movie, you definitely would have recognized that the screenwriter had used the weather as a tool to facilitate a desired scenario. I was left feeling as though something important was going to occur, and that it was going to happen inside that church.

Whenever I see ornate altars like this, I always expect a ray of light to come shining down, and a heavenly choir to start singing. Never happens.

For better or worse, however, life is not a movie, and nothing exciting did happen. Sorry to disappoint. Still, the cathedral really was quite lovely, and I was the only person in there for most of my visit, which was strangely awesome–it’s not often you get to have a building that large all to yourself.

One unexpected bonus of the tour was being able to see a display of artwork contributed by local high school-aged students. There were some really incredible pieces that I would have offered to buy had I been in a gallery. I was really impressed at both the originality and the execution of the work. I took photos and would show them here except that I’m a little worried about copyright issues and whatnot, so instead I’ll show you this:

Jesus: the original superhero. If modern churches had decorations this cool, there would be a lot more people in attendance every Sunday.

This is the oldest object in the entire cathedral; it was carved in the 11th century and shows Jesus restoring Adam and Eve to virtue after conquering Satan and standing on his head. Just around the corner, there was also a nice brass plaque showing a very serene-looking St. John the Baptist:

Is it just me, or is this strangely reminiscent of Buddha?

As I walked through the choir, I encountered a pulpit with a huge open Bible. I happened to glance at the words as I passed, and I felt compelled to stop and read the whole passage:

It may contain a lot of ridiculous proclamations about women and gays, but the Bible does also have some nice parts.

I have to say, I like that bit about hope. Also the part about family. I wish people spent more time reading Romans and less time reading the outdated stuff in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Bristol Cathedral nave

I eventually finished my tour of the building and emerged to discover that, conveniently, it had finally stopped raining outside. It was, however, still so overcast that it was actually darker than it had been when I’d awakened that morning.

Shoes dangling from a tree on the edge of College Green. Don’t ask me for an explanation.

I headed back to the hotel spa for my much-anticipated (and much-needed) massage. It was worth every penny, particularly because the masseuse was able to work out a painful knot I’d had in my neck for weeks. I was feeling very limp and blissful by the end, but I think we all know that there was no way my Zen state could last for long. When I emerged from the subterranean spa facility, my phone regained signal and picked up a message from Sasha saying that he still hadn’t heard from his airline and that the earliest he could conceivably return to Bristol would be 4:30 PM–three hours past our lunch date at Jamie Oliver’s.

That left me to amuse myself for another five hours, and I already had a few ideas about how I might do that. I put my luggage in storage at the hotel, reluctantly canceled the lunch reservation (it seemed a bit excessive to have such an extravagant meal all by myself), and headed back out into the city. This time I put my wellies on so that I would be prepared if it rained again. Naturally, it was sunny for the rest of the afternoon.

Another unexplained Bristol phenomenon: Why was this ship on the exterior of a building near my hotel?

My main destination was the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, which, because of its proximity to Jamie’s Italian, I had previously identified as a potential place where Sasha and I might amuse ourselves if we had some time to spare before or after lunch. I went there by way of Park Street, which features a variety of shops–not least of which is Hobgoblin Music, a specialist in folk and acoustic instruments. My favorite whistle was purchased from Hobgoblin via Amazon, and I wanted to stop by the store in person to see what other treasures I might find. A mere fifteen minutes and four new whistles later, I was ready to go absorb some culture at the museum.

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

I’d hoped to see an exhibit of award-winning nature photography that I’d seen advertised on the gallery’s website, but I never could figure out where it was on display–or if it was still on display at all. However, I found something even better:



Mummified cats! (just as aloof in death as they are in life)

…and also:


In fact, there was a whole wing devoted to Egyptian artifacts. I was in heaven. When I was young, I wanted to be an Egyptologist; I eventually abandoned that dream because I thought that maybe all the good stuff would have been uncovered by the time I grew up (probably not a bad idea, to be honest, though frighteningly practical for someone that age). I still love to learn about ancient Egypt, though, and it’s always a pleasure to see “material culture” (as my Geography colleagues would call it) in person.

The museum had many other interesting items on display, including dinosaur bones, stuffed animal specimens, a collection of antique pianos, a variety of Roman artifacts unearthed in western England, a room full of dragon-themed Chinese artifacts, and several galleries’ worth of paintings.

Irish elk, a.k.a. “giant deer,” an extinct species that was one of the largest deer ever to have lived (which it did during the Late Pleistocene)
Animal-themed Delft tiles

I’ve never really thought of myself as much of an art-lover, but every time I visit an art gallery in person, I seem to find a painting that really captivates me. My all-time favorite is The Watersplash, which I stumbled across in Bath. The Bristol version isn’t quite as wonderful, but I’m still rather fond of it:

Les Adieux

The painting, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot, is full of all sorts of imagery to which we might not immediately be able to assign meaning today, but which would have resonated with viewers during Tissot’s era (the painting was produced in 1871). For example, the scissors represent the imminent separation of the two lovers, but the ivy and holly along the fence indicate that the pair will eventually be reunited. Lovely–and what an appropriate find for Valentine’s Day weekend.

When I’d had my fill at the museum, I headed back down the hill to find a nice cafe in which I could have some tea and maybe do a bit of reading. Little did I expect to encounter even more artwork out on the street:

My third Banksy in four months!
Brightly colored birds basking in the sun
Prayerful angel

I found the last of these along an alleyway leading into the St. Nicholas Market, which both smelled and looked delicious–there was a huge variety of internationally flavored foods on offer, along with non-edible delights such as jewelry, artwork, and flowers. I kind of wish I’d passed through the market earlier in the day, before I’d eaten lunch and spent a bundle on whistles. Next time Sasha and I visit a city with a market, I do hope we manage to get the timing right–we’ve missed out in both Camden and Bristol, so fingers crossed that the third time’s the charm.

I bet my dad gets jealous when he sees this selection of gourmet coffee

After being on my feet all day, I was quite happy to kick back in the cafe. It was tempting to push myself to keep exploring the city while I had the time, but I needed a bit of a recharge. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just my feet that were hurting after all that walking; I was also feeling the first pangs of a migraine that would end up plaguing me for nearly two weeks.

Once I’d drunk up, I headed back to the Grand Hotel to pick up my suitcase and embark on the final leg of my journey. Rather than make Sasha drive from the airport into the center of the city, I opted to catch a shuttle between the train station and airport. This had the added advantage of allowing me to greet Sasha in true Valentine’s-Day-weekend fashion at the gates; we may not have had our luxurious hotel room and decadent lunch together, but at least we were able to manage a quick embrace and then a tedious three-hour drive home together. After five years, romance is still alive in this relationship!

In all seriousness, this was about as spectacular a failure as I’ve ever experienced on a trip, but I think I did a pretty good job salvaging things. Even Sasha didn’t complain that much, despite having been stuck in a boring airport for so many hours. Whatever else you might say about us, you have to admit that we are a couple that can roll with the punches.

Signs of spring despite all the late-winter storms