Archive for January, 2013

On the Set of Harry Potter

The day before Christmas we had tickets to visit the set of Harry Potter, which is based at the Warner Brother’s studio just outside of London in Watford. I had been waiting months for this day and it would not disappoint. It’s very cliché of me to talk about how much Harry Potter means to me, but lets face it, Harry Potter has come to define the childhood of my generation.

Having been said literally a million times before, I’m going to say it one more time, Harry Potter changed my life. It was a huge part of growing up and I can’t imagine what my life would be like without these stories. I always loved the fact that each year a new book came out, Harry and I were the same age. No, I never had to fight any Dark Lords (except maybe my parents), but I still felt like as I grew up, Harry was growing up with me and I could relate to many of the emotions he was going through. The Harry Potter books were important, because they taught me about loyalty, love and courage, but they also meant sometime much more to me. It’s easy for any book to spew morals out at readers, but it’s harder for a book to leave a lasting impression on people’s lives. That type of thing is only achieved through the best of books.

For me Harry Potter is memories. My parents were the ones who introduced my sister and I to the books sometime in 1998. Before my sister and I went to sleep every night they would plunge us into the dazzling world of Harry Potter. Soon the books were just too good to read only at night. When my family and I went to Sunriver, a resort in Southern Oregon, we listen to the books on CD for the four-hour drive. On the audio CD’s there was a british man who acted out all the voices and made the books all the more entertaining. The long drive to Sunriver would have been the perfect opportunity to catch some sleep, but my sister and I would always stay awake, listening to Harry battle monsters and overcome all challenges.

When the new books came out, usually over the summer, my family and I would always be at the beach. Therefore, we would drive every summer about a half-hour to get to Lincoln City, where there was a little bright blue bookshop, called Bob’s Beach Books, that sold the books at midnight. My sister, my friends and I would buy the books on the hour and then hungrily read them as we drove home. Despite the fact that I get sick from reading in the car, I still couldn’t put the book down. Soon the midnight release of the books got big enough that it was moved to the public library and a bunch of dedicated fans would sit around reading the previous book before midnight.

The books themselves hold memories too, and I mean both in a literal and figurative way. When I open any of the Harry Potter books, I can remember where I was when I read them. One of the pages in the 3rd book has a grass stain on the side from when I sat in our backyard in the summer, or a corner of the 4th book has been bitten of, because my rabbit decided he was hungry. I remember where I was when I cried because of Dumbledore’s death and I remember exactly where I sat when I closed the last page of the last book. I can still recall the feeling of finishing the entire series. The satisfaction of having a wonderful story finally finished and the tinge of sadness, knowing that another book would never come.

Perhaps even more important than anything, Harry Potter taught me to love books. I read a lot before the Harry Potter books, but nothing came close to exciting me in the way that they did. Books are precious things and it’s thanks to Harry Potter that I think this way. These books taught me that I could go anywhere my mind could imagine, that I could be anyone I wanted to be and that I could face any challenge that I came up against. Harry Potter taught me that there are billions of journeys that I haven’t even started and it gave me a hunger to devour as many stories as I possibly could. It was the start of a journey that will last me a lifetime.

Just like the books, the Harry Potter movies were as important. Most of the movies would come out in November, right around my birthday. My friends and I would stand in line for hours waiting for the midnight premiere and just like in the books, the actors grew up and matured right along with me.

So, if you were wondering why this visit meant so much to me, there you have it. All these memories culminated into a sort of emotional visit to the Harry Potter set. Thirteen years (more than half) of my life.


We took a train from London to Watford Junction where a double-decker bus plastered in scenes from Harry Potter picked us up. The bus drove us directly to the set, which was about 20 minutes down the road. The town itself was very cute, with small houses and quiet roads and it reminded me of Privet Drive.

Arriving at the set.

Warner Bros Studio

One of the chess pieces.

There were three of them outside, all of them were around eight maybe nine feet tall. There were a number of other chess pieces inside the studio as well, but many of them were actually destroyed during the filming process.

Chess Piece

Outside the studio we talked to one of the employees about what it was like to live where they were filming. She said that there was a lot of security and they were never able to get close enough to see any of the actors, but sometimes they would see explosions from the fields and know that a movie was being filmed.

Once inside the studio we could only line up if we did a dance, our choices were the robot, moonwalk or gangnam style. I chose the moonwalk, but most people did gangnam style, it was great entertainment while waiting in line.

Harry’s cupboard under the stairs. It stood off to the side of the line so that we could peer in as we walked by.

Under the Stairs

Under the Stairs

The line filed us into a small room with screens hung up around the walls. They showed all the countries that the films were released in and from there we entered a small theater where Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint introduced the set on the screen. After the short film ended the movie screen pulled up and suddenly we were standing in front of the entrance to the Great Hall.

Entrance to the Great Hall

The Great Hall was decorated for Christmas and the tables for Gryffindor and Slytherin were standing on opposite sides of the hall. All along the tables are fake pieces of food. Originally, they used real food, but as you can imagine it began to get a little smelly after a few days. The hall was a lot smaller than it seems on-screen and there is no real ceiling. The floor is entirely made out of stone.

There were a lot of details in the hall that I’d never noticed before in the movie. The Hogwarts crest is engraved over the fireplace. Next to the hall doors there are very faint paintings on the wall, which were first painted and then faded to look hundreds of years old. All around the tables stood mannequins with the original clothes worn by the characters. Harry’s first cloak stood behind the Gryffindor table. At the front of the hall was the wardrobe for Dumbledore, Hagrid, Flitwick, Snape and a few other characters.

Great Hall

The Slythrin’s table.


Hogwarts crest over the fireplace.

Hogwarts Crest

The Great Hall then opened up into a larger area with multiple sets and props. As I walked through, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Everything was so much smaller than it seemed on film, but there was so much more detail to all the props and sets.

The ceiling of the Great Hall. It’s probably only a little bit larger than a door, but when filmed it is impossible to tell its actual size.

The Ceiling of Hogwarts

The “ice” sculpture for the Yule Ball in the fourth movie.

The Yule Ball

Along with the sets, there was also a wardrobe area with many of the wigs and clothes worn by the characters. What surprised me the most was that the many stages of change in the wardrobe of each individual character was meticulously thought out. Below is the shirt Harry wore in the last movie. You can see the different stages of wear and tear as the movie wore on.


An optical illusion. The chair is probably the perfect size for a doll in real life.

Leaky Cauldron

The boy’s dormitory.

The Dorm

The giant door to the Chamber of Secrets. The snakes can actually move like they did in the movie. The same is true for the vault into Gringotts.

Entrance to the Chamber of Secrets

The potions room. Many of the potions were stirring themselves.

Potions Room

The entrance to Dumbledore’s office. This particular piece does not move, but there is also another one that turns into stairs and spirals up.

The Griffin

Dumbledore in his study.

Dumbledore's Study

Hagrid’s Cabin. For many scenes in the movie, Hagrid’s head was fake to make him look taller.

Hagrid's Hut

Umbridge’s Office.

Umbridge's Room

Along with the sets above, there was also the inside of the burrow, the Gryffindor Common Room, and the fireplace of the Ministry of Magic. Along the way there was a room where we were all given cloaks and the chance to ride a broom with a green screen in the background. The brooms were surprisingly comfortable and easy to sit on. A metal seat was built into the broom and it was covered by the cloak so that it wouldn’t be filmed.

The large set room exited into the backlot, where some of the larger sets and pieces are kept. Outside, we had lunch and our first taste of Butterbeer, which was super sugary soda with some sort of cream on top.

The Knight Bus.

The Knight Bus

Number 4 Privet Drive.

Privet Drive Number 4

Harry’s destroyed home in Godric Hollow.

Godric's Hollow

The crooked Bridge to Hogwarts. Although not in the original books it was important in the movies. It was disorienting walking along the slanted path.

 Hogwart's Bridge

It was raining while we were outside so we hurried along after making sure that we had taken enough pictures of the sets. The next room was all about the magical creatures and animatronics. I was even more surprised after exploring this room. A lot of the creatures that I thought were completely computer animated were actually sculpted and made into a robot. Many of them could move on their own. One of the more impressive creations was a life-sized robot of Lupin as a werwolf. He probably stood eight or nine feet tall. The creators also made a rigging that attached the wolf’s head to the actor, but it turned out too heavy and so they had to scan it into the computer.

The head of a mermaid.


A full-sized Thestral to the left and the head of the Horntail on the right. This dragon head actually breathed fire during filming.



Aragog, the giant spider. The head of the Basilisk is in the corner and it’s skeleton sat just below.


My favorite animatronic creature was Buckbeak. He actually began moving while we were there and we got the chance to bow to him. He was incredibly life-like.


The architect of Hogwarts. He wasn’t originally in the books, but was added into the movies.

The fact that the creators of the HP films added so many extra details to the films was something that I had never realized before and really makes me appreciate the process a lot more. After going through the sets, I need to go back and re-watch the movies and try to catch some of the things I saw.

Hogwart's Architect

After exiting the animatronics room we walked straight onto Diagon Alley. Like many of the other sets it seemed so much smaller than on-screen. Many of the stores were destroyed from their last film, but the attention to detail was dazzling. Gringotts stood at the beginning to the alley and a patch of snow sat next to it. The snow would sink in as if Harry were walking under the invisibility cloak.

Diagon Alley

After passing trough Diagon Alley we were brought into the drawing-room, where everything that we had seen that day first came to life, as diagrams and paintings and even small paper models. As we passed through the planning rooms we rounded the corner and were met by a full scale model of Hogwarts, which was used for shots of the castle. As we walked around the model the lighting changed through the cycle of 24 hours and when the lights went down little flames flickered inside the windows of the castle.


The final room was filled to the ceiling with wand boxes, which had the names of every single person who worked on the movies. The boxes covered all four walls, top to bottom.


I didn’t want the tour to end, but it really brought the entire experience of Harry Potter into perspective and it won’t be something that I will forget soon.

Our second day in London was just as full as the last. We rode the underground to the Tower of London. The fortress, which sits right along the Thames was built by William the Conqueror and over the years other royals added to the fortress. The Tower is very impressive, although it was strange to see the old castle  surrounded by more modern and taller buildings.
Tower of London

Upon entering the fortress we were greeted by Water Lane. This area was originally part of the river, but the water was pushed back.


Looking down on the entrance to the fortress.

Inside the Tower of London

Just a quick walk down Water Lane is Traitors’ Gate. This is another entrance to the fortress, but not one that many people would be happy to use. Originally, the gate was meant to be used as a water entrance to the fortress, but during the Tudor’s time it was used as a prisoner’s entrance. One of the more famous prisoners to pass through this gate was Anne Boleyn.

Traitor's Gate

After Traitors’ Gate we made our way along the Wall Walk, which took us around the outside wall of the fortress, showing what life was like for the soldiers, how they would have defended the tower and even what life was like for the animals in the royal menagerie. After the tower walk, we came to the building housing the Crown Jewels and from there we headed to the White Tower.

The White Tower is a fortress within a fortress. It stood for the king’s power and I can only imagine how impressive it looked sitting atop its hill next to the Thames. Today, it is full of old relics of past kings and knights. Hopping joyfully on the lawn before the Tower are the famous ravens. If the ravens leave the tower it will fall, along will the power of the monarchy. Today, there are seven ravens, although there were originally six. I suppose it doesn’t hurt to be safe.

White Tower

After leaving the Tower we headed along the river and took a stroll over to Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge

Just across from the Tower of London on the other side of the Thames is the HMS Belfast, which was a used as a warship during WW II.


When we boarded the HMS Belfast, I was immediately impressed. The tour took us through level after level of the ship and really went into detail about how each part of the ship had been used, who had used it and what its purpose was. My favorite part was climbing down a small ladder to reach the engine rooms, where we had to duck under pipes and walk on small walkways to find our way through the maze. Every few minutes a recording of the working engines demonstrated just how loud the ship was when moving. I have a newfound respect for the men that worked down in that dark and confusing place.

The Engine Room



The Belfast's Weapons

It probably took us a good hour and a half to make it through the ship and that was after getting lost a few times. Once we came up on deck the sun was already setting and the city began to glow.

A stark contrast between the stone Tower of London and the new glass buildings on the left.

Along the Thames

The Tower Bridge at night.

Tower Bridge Night

Hello London!

Our time spent in Paris was amazing, but it was time that we moved on. Our last destination was London and it would be in London that my family and I would celebrate Christmas!

To get to London we road through the Channel Tunnel (aka, the Chunnel), which is an underwater train tunnel that crosses the English Channel from France to England. It was exciting and nerve-racking thinking about crossing through a tunnel that was surrounded by water. However, going through the tunnel itself turned out to be rather uneventful, which is probably a good thing now that I think about it.

Once we arrived at London at London St Pancras we were met by a spattering of british accents. Although it wasn’t like home, I felt relieved that I was finally back in a country where English was the main language. It made me realize just how much I had missed hearing those familiar and recognizable words. From the station we hauled our suitcases out the front doors and decided to drag them down the street for a few blocks to our hotel, which was really close. My family and I made sure to look for cars driving on the opposite side of the street, which even with the LOOK LEFT or LOOK RIGHT signs on the ground, was still hard to remember.

We made it to The Hotel Russell in one piece and were greeted by the warmth of the sun (it would be our only day in London without rain).

The Hotel Russell near Russell Square Station.

Russel Hotel


Just across from our hotel were the famous London telephone booths. Don’t let the bright red exterior fool you though, inside they smell like any other telephone booth (not good) and upon the walls are a number of scantily clad women with a telephone number next to them (you can probably guess on your own what they’re advertising).


We didn’t have much of the day left to go exploring, so we wandered over to Charles Dickens’ house and took a few photos of the outside, because the museum was closed. We then made our way to an small Italian restaurant. The meal was delicious and the waitress was more than happy to chat with us and give us some information on what there is to do in London.

That night we all rested well for the day to come.


The following morning we all trooped down to the Underground station for what was going to be a day packed full of sightseeing. There was a long line for the elevator at the station, so my family turned to walk down the steps, but we turned right back around when we saw the sign proclaiming that it was 175 steps to get to the Underground. What we didn’t realize was that the elevators were large enough to fit a small car inside, so we made it to the Underground without any fuss.

One thing I loved about the signs in London… the exit was called the “way out”. I have no idea why someone decided “way out” was better than “exit”.

Way Out

We road the Underground (the trains are surprisingly small, I could have touched the ceiling) to Parliament and came out of the station right under Big Ben. I’ve said it before, but it still amazes me when I go somewhere and see famous sights. There are so many movies, TV series, and books set in London, so many in fact, that I felt like I knew London without even having been there. In reality there’s nothing as inspiring as seeing the sight for yourself.

Big Ben

The Clock of Big Ben

After admiring Big Ben, we headed to Winston Churchill’s WW II bunker. He only spent three nights total in the bunker and the bunker itself was never bombed, however it was the base of operation for Churchill during the war. The bunker consisted of sleeping quarters for his officers, war rooms, meeting rooms, the map room, a kitchen and rooms for communication. Churchill even had his own secret room with a telephone that connected directly to the President of the US (FDR at the time). Today it is a museum, which has kept many of the original rooms intact and has added a room specifically dedicated to Churchill and his life.

Churchill’s room. He loved maps, so the walls are covered in them, he probably thought of strategy in his sleep. Although he didn’t often spend the night in this room, he always took a one-hour nap during the day.

 Churchill's Room

Correspondence room. During the war there were a number of workers here sending and receiving messages. There was always at least one person there.

Secretary Room

The tunnel to the map room. The walls of the tunnel are made of concrete. The map room is filled with maps from ceiling to floor, which are covered in so many pins that they are more hole than map.

The Map Room

Churchill’s bunker was impressive and a great museum, but it was a relief to finally step outside again and breathe fresh air. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to work there for most of the war. The bunker halls and rooms were lit, but the light was dim and orange and the small hallways and constricting rooms couldn’t have been relaxing. Of course most anything was preferable to actually being out on the street while the threat of an attack hung over the city.

After the museum, we crossed the street to St. James’s Park, which surrounds a small lake. The park is filled with birds of all kinds and hundreds of squirrels. All the park creatures were daring and approached people with the hopes of a snack. The squirrels were especially brave and would walk onto the pathway and take food from people’s hands. We fed a few of the squirrels and one started to climb my father’s leg until he got scared and shook it off.

St. Jame's Park

A curious squirrel.


We walked through the park until we came upon Buckingham Palace. For some reason the Queen’s Guard was not wearing their red uniforms. I’m not sure why, so if anyone knows, please feel free to tell me!


A guard with his bearskin cap.

The Queen's Guard

Lock and Key

The Queen Victoria Memorial in front of the palace.

Victoria Memorial

Soon after the palace we took a taxi to 221b Baker Street, which is the famous residence of the London detective Sherlock Holmes. To the left, is the actual apartment, which is set up to look like his house. To the right, is a shop where the souvenirs and tickets are bought. The apartment was fun to wander through. The first and second floor consisted of rooms set up with various knick-nacks and items from Sherlock and John’s life. The third floor had wax figures from all the cases Sherlock had solved. I had quiet a scare on the third floor, where an old man sat against the wall with the wax figures. At first he sat very still and I thought he was apart of the exhibit, but he suddenly began moving I had to do a double take before I realized he was alive!

Sherlock 221B

Our last stop of the day was the London Eye. It was pouring rain, but lucky for us the line was not too long. The Eye was beautiful and glowing blue in the rain. As we walked up to the enclosed carriages they didn’t stop, but moved along the ramp at a slow pace and we had to stumble our way onto them. The carriages held around 20 people.

Big Ben from the Eye.

Big Ben from the Eye


A word of warning for any who want to visit the Louvre. Yes, it is an amazing museum. The sheer size of the place could count as a work of art in itself and I was truly amazed when I first saw the building, it was more like a palace than a museum. Even if you don’t go inside, at least stop by and take a gander at the place. It’s impressive to say the least. However, this museum was exhausting and a little overwhelming at times.

The Louvre is home to some really famous pieces and if you know that you want to see one in particular, go for it! My family and I, however, were not at all prepared. Basically, all we knew was that we wanted to see The Mona Lisa, but there are a lot of other really famous pieces in the museum. Some of my favorites were the Code of Hammurabi, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace (see below). There were also large sections of the museum housing a number of marble statues. This was my favorite part of the museum, because I felt like I walking through a garden of stone.

The glass pyramid of the Louvre (the entrance).

The Louvre

Winged Victory of Samothrace


A sculpted head from Egypt.

Egyptian Bust

I thought the crowd around Mona Lisa was hilarious. Everyone (including myself) pushed and shoved their way to the front to see this smiling woman, take a picture and then amble on.

Mona Lisa's Crowd

One of the more interesting statues in the museum. It depicts Hercules battling Achelous (a river god), who transformed into a snake.


After the Louvre, my family and I met up with some relatives who also happened to be staying in Paris. It was only a coincidence that we even met up, but it was a pleasant night. Dinner was seafood and although I didn’t order them, my fish came with two snails. I was in France… so I had to try. I won’t be eating another snail again, but mostly it tasted like fish with a strange texture.

After dinner we walked around the Arc de Triomphe and admired the lights of the Champs-Élysées before retiring for the night.

Avenue des Champs-Élysées


I thought that Schönbrunn was the largest palace anyone could possibly want or need. How wrong I was.

Versailles is by far much larger and grander than Schönbrunn, both in the size of the gardens and in the size of the palace itself. However, like Schönbrunn it started as a hunting lodge and was slowly expanded and built into what we see today. Once it was transformed into a palace, the seat of the French government was moved here and the kings of France had their homes in the palace. It was only after the French Revolution that it was no longer occupied.

There are a few different sections of the palace that can be explored. We took a tour of the King and Queen’s Grand Apartments, which are set off to the right of the palace. They built this section, because the king and queen wanted an area where they could live separate lives from the court and have some peace and quiet. The King’s Apartment was very impressive, although the rooms were smaller than I thought they would be. Many of the rooms had hidden doors that led into secret sections of the apartments where the king could spend his time alone and working on official business.

The rest of the palace has been transformed into a museum. Below is a model of the palace when it was in the first stages of its construction. Although it is large, this little place is nothing compared to the vast palace today.
Versailles Model

The palace and the gardens today. The two buildings in the very front of the model are the stables.

Model Today

The front gates.

Versailles Front Gates

Inside the front square.

Inside the Gates

The Queen’s bed. The queen never actually slept in this bed, but simply received her guests in this room.

The Queen's Room

The Hall of Mirrors.

Hall of Mirrors

Even more impressive than the palace were the gardens. The garden itself could hold a small town, with enough space for people to live comfortably. My family and I decided it was worth the money, and we became the ultimate tourists by renting a golf cart and touring the gardens that way. It was a good thing we did, because it would have taken us well over an hour just to get to the Grand Trianon, which sits on the other side of the garden from the palace.

The Gardens from behind the Latona Fountain. The large lake in the center is called the Grand Canal, after the canal in Venice. There used to be two gondolas floating in the lake as well.

Latona Fountain

The Apollo Fountain

Apollo Fountain

Notre Dame

We were in Paris, so of course we had to visit Notre Dame. Thanks to Disney, my sister and I had a number of songs to sing about the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The front of Notre Dame is actually rather plain, the two towers hide the back of the tower making the church look smaller than it really is. It was the 850th anniversary of Notre Dame while we were visiting, so there was some sort of exhibit in front of the church, plus some bleachers for people to sit on and admire the architecture.
Front of ND

We climbed the left side of the tower first. The entire tour takes you up through the left tower across the small bridge and then up again to the very top of the right tower. From there we were allowed to walk around the small tower and see the city from various angles. The only disappointing thing was that the bells were being worked on, so we had no luck seeing them.

The steps up to the lookout.

The steps were worn down by so many feet that they were more like bowls that steps.

Stairs up to ND

The back of Notre Dame.

From the top of ND

The famous gargoyles of Notre Dame.

The church is said to be one of the better examples of Gothic architecture both in France and in Europe as a whole. I’ve seen a lot of churches on this trip, and I have to admit that these were probably some of the most beautiful and creepy gargoyles I’ve seen. Each and every one was different in shape and character. Some were just sitting looking over the city, while others held smaller creatures in their hands and enjoying a meal.


Over Paris

After descending the right tower, we visited the inside of the church, which really put into perspective just how huge the cathedral really was. Once we exited the church we headed towards the back and it took on a completely different look. I actually like the back of Notre Dame the most. It has huge arches that shoot out from the main building and form into sturdy pillars, making the building look like a creature, ready to lift its massive body from the earth.

From the Back of Notre Dame.

A typical street in Paris.

The streets of Paris are just plain dirty. There are unpleasant things all over the streets and sidewalks, but despite this I felt like Paris streets had a certain charm and character that I hadn’t yet found in any other European city. There was always a small restaurant to stop at on every corner and the buildings were smashed together creating small alleys, each of which seemed to hold its own special secret.

Paris Streets

I was told by a friend that I needed to visit a bookstore not too far from Notre Dame. After not much searching at all, we arrived at Shakespeare & Company. It is a very unassuming shop, just off the main street and somewhat hidden behind a wall, but despite this it was my favorite place in Paris. True, I was born to love books, but even one who reads only one book a year would appreciate the charm of S&C.

Even before entering the store you have travel through thick curtains to see inside. As I pushed them aside, I felt like I was entering another world. The rooms of the store hardly fit together. It was almost a game to try to discover all the different nooks and crannies the store was hiding. Books covered the ceiling from top to bottom, they were piled on tables and overflowing in customer’s arms (especially mine).

S & C

The first floor of the building is a store, while the second floor is a living space, but also holds a number of books not for sale. There was a small living space, a cubby for writing, a small nook for reading and a bedroom with a piano. Basically, I want to this place as my home.

WIndow Seat

A small cubby filled with notes and a simple red typewriter.

Writing Corner


After buying the store out, we headed back to the apartment as the sun set. Every hour after the sun sets, the Eiffel Tower puts on a light show and sparkles in the sky. We were barely able to catch the show and ended up watching the beautiful sight from the side of the tower.

The Eiffel Tower at night.

Orange Sky

Under the Tower at Night