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Sunday, May 31, 2015

My Life in May: London and Edinburgh and Paris, Oh My!

For the first two weeks of May, I was off gallivanting on another continent. And as you may have gathered from my two previous posts about this trip (here and here), I had a completely fantastic time!

Here, I will share a fraction of my experiences and pictures from my trip to London, Edinburgh, and Paris. If I were to share all the details and all the pictures of my trip, this post would be novella-length!


I have so much love for all things British it seems, so London has always been at the top of places I needed to see in my lifetime. I'm so glad I was finally able to visit and that I was able to take in a great amount of the city's history in the process!

The Natural History Museum is an absolute must to see for any science nerd! I spent an entire day there, from the museum's opening to its closing, and I still didn't manage to see everything. I got to see some of the world's greatest treasures here (in my opinion): a first edition copy of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, the original Iguanodon tooth and thumb discovered by Mary Mantell (Iguanodon was the second ever dinosaur genus to be identified), the original Archaeopteryx fossil discovery (first ever bird), and a ton of Mary Anning's gorgeous marine reptile fossil finds! If you aren't as familiar with historical palaeontology as I am, then you'll just have to take my word for it that these specimens are major treasures!
With some of Mary Anning's original marine reptile finds

No pictures were allowed while I was inside Westminster Abbey unfortunately, but it is truly a sight to behold. Most of England's monarchs have been laid to rest here in ornately carved tombs.

An entire day was also spent at the Tower of London, the historic castle that was built by William the Conqueror in 1078 following the Norman conquest of England. The Tower has had many uses over the centuries including a royal residence, an armoury, a menagerie, and a prison for many high-profile persons, so you can imagine how much history there is to take in just in this one place.
Henry VIII's suit of armour to protect his massive frame and umm, other assets...

Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster

I spent a not insignificant amount of time hunting along the River Thames for some treasures to take home with me. I found some cool fossils (horse teeth and clam shells) and loads of centuries-old artifacts (bits of pottery and fragments of carved clay pipes, and the like)! In this picture, St. Paul's Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge can be seen in the background. In the other direction stands the reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

Of course I had to make time to go see the five story Waterstone's book store at Piccadilly Circus! I didn't buy anything because I wouldn't have had room in my luggage, but I did spend plenty of time admiring the pretty UK covers of my favourite books.

After binge-watching and loving the TV show Mr. Selfridge last year, I knew I had to see Selfridge's department store on Oxford Street for myself. It is just as grand as it is depicted in the TV show!

This is another one for the paleo-nerds out there. In the 1850's, Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned to create the first ever models of dinosaurs and other extinct beasties, and these sculptures are still on display in Crystal Palace Park. I can't even say how COOL it was to see these historic sculptures in person finally! You can probably tell that there are some key differences between dinosaur models today and what people thought dinosaurs looked like in the 1850's.

Abbey Road is really just your typical unremarkable crosswalk. And yet, I would have been remiss if hadn't gotten my Beatles photo-op for my dear dad who has been a Beatles super-fan since the beginning.

I also had to check out Fleet Street (à la Sweeney Todd) where I found an old mid-1600's pub from which to order some meat pies. Thankfully, these meat pies contained no human flesh harvested from a demon barber... at least not to my knowledge...


Edinburgh was my favourite of the three cities I visited and may even be my favourite city ever! Of course, I say this having spent only a few days there and it was only on one of those days that it was actually raining. But I just dug the overall vibe of the city. I've never been the most patriotic person, but there was something about strolling the streets of Scotland that made me feel very proud of my Scottish heritage and made it feel like I was coming home.

The Royal Mile

Hill-top view of Arthur's Seat

A historic kirkyard (AKA graveyard) with a view of Holyrood Palace in the background

Edinburgh Castle, a 12th century fortress. I spent an entire day here exploring because hi, CASTLE!!

And it was up on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle that my boyfriend proposed to me! Suffice it to say, YES it was perfect, and YES I said YES!


In Paris, I had the opportunity to break out my very rusty French language skills (I went to a French immersion school from K-9). I was pleasantly surprised that I was still able to communicate and comprehend the language fairly effectively! My time in Paris was quite a bit more laid-back than my time in the UK. I spent a lot of time strolling through Paris' many manicured gardens, eating tons of macarons and ice cream, and lounging in the sun. Either exhaustion finally set in after being up on my feet all day every day for over a week in the UK, or the laissez-faire attitude that permeates all Parisians got to me. Probably a bit of both!

Oh, Versailles, you gloriously gaudy piece of architecture, you. While at the Château de Versailles, you can tour the chambers of the monarchy exactly as they were from the late 1600s to the late 1700s. The insane gaudy opulence on display in each and every room is almost too much to take in, and my feelings alternated between complete awe and complete disgust at the amount of wealth on display. But the Château along with the accompanying gardens are undeniably beautiful.
Versailles' Chapel
Hall of Mirrors
Les Jardins

La Tour Eiffel

Cathédrale Notre Dame

Shakespeare and Company! I immediately fell in love with this little charming independent bookstore that's across the street from Notre Dame. Also while I was there, I crossed paths with Natalie Portman who was doing some bookshelf perusing of her own. Random, I know.

Beautiful Montmartre

Le Louvre

Arc de Triomphe

Just like at the equivalent museum in London, I spent a significant amount of time at the Natural History Museum in Paris. The above picture is the hall of comparative anatomy with a mind-blowing skeletal display of every group of vertebrate animal.
With a baleen whale skeleton
With a massive ammonite fossil

But I think my favourite sight seeing attraction in Paris was the Catacombs. Underneath Paris lies miles of excavated limestone filled with millions of human skeletal elements. These 18th century ossuaries hold the remains of 6 million people.
Artfully arranged skeletal elements
There are really no words I can use to describe how hauntingly beautiful this place is. It's not your typical tourist attraction as it was a very sombre and humble experience, but it's also one of the most astounding sights I've ever seen in my life.

Blog Posts in May:

Muggle Monday: In Which Aylee Attempts to Infiltrate the Wizarding World
Muggle Monday: Harry Potter Studio Tour Recap
My Life in April: RENT, Mockingbirds, and a Trip Hiatus

Best Book Read in May:

Eeeeep FINALLY!! Is it just me or do these books just keep getting better and better? Because I absolutely loved every minute of my reading time with Heir of Fire and my Queen Celaena. Now the waiting game for Queen of Shadows begins!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Muggle Monday: Harry Potter Studio Tour Recap

It's time for Muggle Monday, in which I highlight something from the Harry Potter world. This is somewhat inspired by the Mundane Monday posts by The Mundie Moms.

But let's be real as to why I made up this feature: I just want the opportunity to post something about Harry Potter.

When I was in London at the beginning of May, I had the great opportunity to finally see the Harry Potter Studio Tour! Or as it is called by its official name: Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter. I prefer my name for it though as it is much less of a mouthful.

Anyways, this tour takes place at Leavesden Studios, about an hour outside London, which previously hosted the cast and crew for the filming of the movies, but now is open to the public for visitors to tour the original sets and props. The tour is a bit pricey, but I was so impressed with the actual volume of things you got to see! There are two huge studios to make your way through, filled with props and sets, as well as an outside portion of the tour. I thought I would share a few of my pictures and my experiences for anyone who is interested:

The first big set you get to see is the Great Hall. I WAS SO EXCITED!!

The level of detail that went into every set item is insane. The pictures in this post will show only a very small fraction of what you actually get to see on the tour.

Here, upon glimpsing into the Mirror of Erised with my boyfriend, we see a boy in a stroller next to us. This must mean our true heart's desire includes children! Or something.

A lot of what some people might assume are special effects on screen are actually very complex and very cool robotics.

I didn't have time for this in my schedule while there, but you can actually get dressed up in robes, hop on a broomstick in front of a green screen, and try your hand at playing out Quidditch scenes! Would have been good for a laugh!

All aboard the Hogwarts Express!

(click on photos to embiggen)
Have I mentioned that the amount of detail that went into each and every prop and set is INSANE?! I never understood how none of the movies ever garnered a nomination for Best Art Direction at the Oscar's, and after seeing it all in person that fact is even more baffling to me.

Mmm, Butterbeer! That is, "Mmm, Butterbeer" in small doses only. For the love of god, do not attempt to chug this sickly sweet drink.

Where it all began.

Dearest Dobby.

In Diagon Alley! Also featuring Mr. Devil Eyes to the right. Full sets that can be seen on the tour also include the Gryffindor Common Room, the Gryffindor Boys' Dorm, Dumbledore's Office, the Potions Classroom, the Burrow, and Ollivander's (among many others).

And for the pièce de résistance, a huge intricately detailed model of Hogwarts. This thing is GLORIOUS. And none of my pictures really do it justice. You'll just have to see it for yourselves!

Some tips and advice:

1. You must buy your tickets online in advance; you cannot purchase them onsite (thanks to Alison for this tip!)

2. Try to go at non-peak hours/days/seasons because there was a ton of people and a lot of waiting time for photo ops.

3. Plan to spend a healthy amount of time while you're there. They were telling everyone that it would take about 3 hours to see the entire tour, but this must only be if you're there with an impatient child or are not an über Potter fan?? Because I could have EASILY spent 5-6 hours there just taking it all in.

4. Go with a backup camera or portable phone charger. I was taking SO many HDR photos on my iPhone that it ran out of battery halfway through the tour despite being almost full upon arrival! Thank goodness I still had the bf's camera or I would have been pretty upset as I would say the second half of the tour contains some of the most exciting things!

5. Do not go with a touring company. I chose to go see the studio through Golden Tours because I thought it would be a convenient and relaxing way of getting there (otherwise you have to figure out the public transit to get outside of London). I definitely regret making this decision. Not only was the experience vastly more expensive than it needed to be, but the tour company only scheduled in the 3 hour time minimum that the studio organizers suggest. Like I said, I could have easily spent 5-6 hours there so to have felt so rushed through the whole thing was a major disappointment for me because it really felt like I was not being able to appreciate all the little details like I would have liked. At the end, I had to sprint right through the gift shop, out the door, and down the street just to make it to my bus on time. If you're anything like me, then you will want NEED more time and it would be worth figuring out what transit to take to make it happen.

Alright, enough of my ramblings! I hope I was able to give a good overview of the studio tour as well as some helpful tips so that you might know what to expect if you ever visited yourself. Of course, this recap pales in comparison to the real thing, I assure you!