Return from Scotland

On Saturday morning, I got up at 2:50 am (yes, that’s not a typo) having slept for three whole hours. Took a very quick shower, and tried to keep moving and not doze off while I waited for Dave to get out of the shower. Our friends were nice enough to get up at 3:30 am to take us to the Edinburgh airport (and I hope they were able to go straight back to sleep when they got home).

Things for us were pretty uneventful for the rest of the day. We flew from Edinburgh to Amsterdam – a gigantic airport! We couldn’t believe how long it took us to walk from the C terminal to the G terminal, and how many shops and stoned people we saw along the way. (Okay, they probably weren’t stoned, but people really should pay better attention and try not to run people over or cut people off when they’re walking through an airport.) We sat in the Amsterdam airport for about three and a half hours, dozing, reading, trying not to be COMPLETELY bored. Finally we went through the security for our gate, where we waited for almost another half hour to finally board our flight to Newark.

The flight to Newark was pretty good – we had a good amount of leg room, and individual TVs in the backs of the seats in front of us. It was one of those planes where there are rows of two seats next to the windows, then rows of three in the center, so Dave and I didn’t have any extra seat-mates.

It took forever to land in Newark, but finally we did, and got through Customs and Immigration with no problems. We found our car just where we had left it in the Economy parking lot, and we headed for the Jersey Turnpike and drove up to Connecticut. We spent the evening and the next morning (Easter) with Dave’s family, and finally headed home after brunch.

We arrived at home around 8:30 pm and went to pick up our puppy. Lucas was so happy to see us! We missed him so much!

Driving tour of Scottish highlands

Our last day in Scotland was Good Friday, which in the U.K. is a bank holiday. This means that Paul and Michelle had the day off from work, and could hang out with us all day! Paul offered to spend his day off driving us around Scotland – really the only way to see the countryside.

Since none of us are morning people, we didn’t get on the road until 11 am. It was a pretty strange weather day – alternately sunny, rainy, sleeting, and snowing, but always windy and chilly. It was a good day to be inside a vehicle rather than outside walking around. We took the freeway up past Stirling, driving for an hour or so to a small town called Killin. Here we admired the Falls of Dochart, and spent a bit of time in the visitor center. We weren’t quite hungry enough yet for lunch, so we got back in the car and drove for a couple more hours.

As we passed Glencoe, the gently rolling hills started to turn into what might actually be described as actual mountains. There were even a few snowcaps. We stopped a few times for Dave to get out and take photos (the rest of us didn’t want to get out in the cold). The scenery was quite lovely, particularly the many lochs we passed.

We finally arrived in Fort William, the intended terminus of our trek. The goal was to visit the Ben Nevis Distillery, which is at the base of the mountain Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Scotland (at 4,406 feet). We were starving at this point, it being after 2 pm, and we were freezing cold as soon as we got out of the car. We ate at what was probably the closest restaurant to the spot where we parked our car, a restaurant with the not-so-auspicious name “The Great Food Stop”. We walked in and it seemed a lot fancier than the name might have indicated. The service was S-L-O-W but the food was okay and not as pricey as the decor would have suggested. We didn’t get out of there until well after 3 pm, and we hustled back to the car and drove to the distillery.

When we arrived at the distillery, they informed us that we had missed the last tour of the day, and that we would have to come back at for the next tour at 11 am tomorrow. Of course, this was not an option for us. We inquired as to whether we might just do a tasting, and they said that they only do tastings at the end of the tours, which we would have to wait to do at 11 am the next morning. They were quite snooty about our having arrived too late, and we were rather put off by it. After coming all that way, though, we still felt the need to poke around a bit, read the displays in the lobby and gift shop area, and buy a couple of postcards and a small bottle of whisky.

Shrugging off the defeat, we headed back to the car. Paul suggested that we drive down the coast to the seaside town of Oban. Michelle and I dozed in the back seat as we drove into the setting sun. We got to Oban perhaps an hour later. Paul and Michelle took us to their favorite spot there, a monument on a cliff called McCaig’s Tower. It was a neat spot, and offered a beautiful view of the bay. It would have been a good place to sit for a while, have a picnic, and watch the sunset (which wouldn’t actually take place for another hour or so)… except that it was, still, very cold and windy and not too pleasant to be outside. We would have spent some time walking around Oban, which was very quaint and scenic, but it was too bitter out. It was also too soon after our lunch to stop for dinner or even tea, so we piled back into the car and headed back in the direction of Edinburgh.

We were getting to Stirling around 7:45 pm, so we decided to stop there for dinner, rather than get back to Edinburgh to find that everything had closed. Michelle had studied there about ten years before, and had a few ideas of places where we might eat. However, we got into the center of town to find that the restaurants were no longer there! We ended up eating at this American-themed restaurant called The Filling Station. I don’t recommend it! Not only was the food not great, the service was terrible. As I told Dave, “We’re never eating there again.”

We got back to Edinburgh rather late, and had to pack and get ready for our EARLY flight the next morning.

Last-minute scrambling

Today was our last day to sightsee in the general Edinburgh area, so today was quite a bit less relaxed than the previous days had been. There were a few things that we wanted to try to see before we left, and it was a bit stressful to try to cram it all in.

Dave, Michelle, and I tried to get out earlier in the morning than we had been, and took the bus into the center of the city to eat breakfast at The Elephant House, a lovely coffee house that has the distinction of being the spot where J.K. Rowling wrote a good bit of the first Harry Potter book. (She wrote the end of the last book at the city’s fanciest hotel, the Balmoral – very telling about her change in circumstances.) Even without the Harry Potter connection, it’s great cafe – simultaneously spacious and cozy, with large tables (a good place for students to study) and an excellent view of Edinburgh Castle through the west windows.

After a quick breakfast, we went across the street to the National Museum of Scotland, which has several floors of exhibits that take the visitor through the entire history of Scotland, from pre-history to modern times. We knew we didn’t have enough time to see everything, so we focused on medieval up through Victorian times. It still wasn’t really enough time, and we felt very rushed to try to read things that we found interesting, skip things that weren’t so interesting, and see as much as we reasonably could. Although it sounds pretty linear, the truth is that each floor’s exhibits are arranged topically rather than in a timeline, so it was confusing to get the whole story of things. Their collection is quite good – from huge swords to a medieval church ceiling to a life-size mill pump and a train engine. It was worth seeing, but we should have planned to spend 3-4 hours in there instead of 1-2.

We had to rush off to try to catch a bus out to the countryside, so Michelle hailed us a cab and we barrelled down to St. Andrew’s Square, where the main bus station is located. Michelle left us to go off to work, and Dave and I then had a frustrating adventure trying to figure out what bus we were supposed to take, and when, and how to get change for our 20-pound note to buy our bus fare. It all went awry, based on bad information and unhelpful information desk workers. When the bus finally came, the bus driver wasn’t able to give us change, so we had to wait for another hour for the next bus. We were pretty grouchy, but we ducked into a sandwich place across the way, regrouped, and got change when we bought our sandwiches. We walked around a bit to kill some time, and ended up catching the bus on Princes Street.

Our ultimate destination was the Glenkinchie Distillery (which of course makes Scotch whisky), which is about 20 miles outside of the city. There are very few buses that go in that direction, the closest one being to the town of Pencaitland. We caught the 44B and rode it for over an hour, through various little towns along the Firth. It would have been a fairly pleasant ride if it weren’t for the stresses of the day, and the fact that we weren’t sure we’d make it to the Distillery in time to see anything. When we were almost to Pencaitland, Dave pointed out that we wouldn’t get to the Distillery before 3 pm, which is when we had been lead to believe they would have the last tour, because the Distillery closed at 4 pm. He asked if we were still going to try to go all the way to the Distillery!! Of course we would, after all that hassle and travel.

The bus driver told us where to get off in Pencaitland, and advised that we had quite a walk ahead of us to get to the Distillery. A woman getting off the bus with us told us that it was about 2 miles. Indeed! Two miles down a hilly, blustery, country road, not having any idea how long it would take or what we would be able to see or do once we arrived to our destination. Again, it would have been quite enjoyable under other circumstances, but we were so pressed, Dave didn’t even get a chance to take photos of the countryside.

We finally arrived at the Distillery – which was surrounded by what was basically a tiny factory village – and found the visitor’s center, and entered. We were greeted and asked what they could do for us, and we explained that we had been hoping to take a tour. They told us that there were no tours just now because this was the two-week period in the year when the distillery gets refurbished! So, we hadn’t missed the tour because there was no tour. However, there were some exhibits about the history of whisky and how it is made, and there was a tour guide on hand to give us a personal explanation of whisky and to offer us a tasting. The exhibits were well done and very informative, and the guide was a very nice older man, who was very kind in answering all of our questions. The tasting made it all worth it – not only did he give us samples of several different whiskys, but he explained a lot about where different types of Scotch whisky originate, and gave us a little map that explains which whiskys are lighter and which are stronger. Very helpful for my future Scotch buying excursions!

It was getting to be closing time, so we bought our discounted bottle of Glenkinchie whisky and got ready to leave. Our guide was kind enough to drive us into the town, since he was on his way home anyway, saving us a 2-mile walk against the wind (and slightly tipsy to tell the truth). He dropped us at a bus stop a couple of towns away from the end of the line, giving us a bit of a jump start. We got there with about 5 minutes to spare, so we didn’t even have to wait for very long.

Got back to Edinburgh and did a bit of shopping on Princes Street, then headed back to Michelle and Paul’s apartment. Paul had to go to his church to work on an Easter-weekend project, so Michelle, Dave, and I went to a nearby pub called The Bailie to have some dinner. Very tasty burgers! Then we headed out to Joppa, which is right on the Firth, and picked up Paul from the church. We were thrilled to get to see the church in which Paul and Michelle were married. We walked along the promenade on the beach for a couple of blocks to the nearby pub called the Dalriada, where we enjoyed a drink and some incidental bagpipe music. It was getting late, so we finally headed home, and got to bed perhaps a bit later than we should have.

More Edinburgh-area highlights

The goal for Wednesday was a spot a bit outside of the city: Rosslyn Chapel. We boarded a bus and went 30-40 minutes out of the city to a “wee village” called Roslin. Just off the main intersection of the town is a chapel of much renown and controversy (most recently because of Dan Brown’s book – you may have heard of it – The DaVinci Code.

The truly amazing thing about the chapel, and the true reason to go and visit it, is the intricacy and diversity of the stonework. The chapel was built 1446-1450 or so, incorporating a variety of architectural styles and a range of themes in the stonework. Of course the main reason it’s famous and controversial is that some people think the Holy Grail is buried underneath the chapel (which it may be; it has been sealed for 300 years and the current Earl of Rosslyn won’t disturb it); other reasons for controversy have to do with potential links between the chapel and the Knights Templar and the Freemasons, who are of course controversial in their own right. Whatever may turn out to be the truth of all of this mystery, the chapel was certainly worth the trip out of the city, just to see all the stonework and hear the stories. Also, the chapel is currently covered by a large scaffold and canopy, so you can actually walk up to the roof level and stair at the upper stonework from eye-level. Very cool.

Afterward we had lunch at the pub on the corner, where we had probably the best pub lunch so far – quite a bit of very quality food, for the same amount we’d been used to paying for mediocrity. If you’re ever in Roslin, I recommend the pub at “The Original Inn”. Great atmosphere and a very friendly and helpful staff.

We took the bus back into the city and weren’t quite sure what to do next. On the way, we heard a 70-year-old Scottish man tell his 50ish friend all of his woes with his church, the Gas Board, and others. It was such good entertainment, I was very disappointed when his friend got off the bus and we were left only listening to his mutterances to himself.

We finally decided to spend the afternoon hiking up to Arthur’s Seat. We almost did so the day before, but it was cold, overcast, and starting to sprinkle at the time. Today was warm(er) and sunny, a much better day for hiking up to a 823 foot summit. Of course by the tme we got up there the sun disappeared, but being up there was well worth the hike. There are fantastic 360-degree views of the city, the outlying areas, and the Forth (aka the bay). However, it was VERY windy. While we were up there we met a guy from Orange County who told us a story about how he was hiking around the hill with a 120 lb female friend one day and she got picked up and blown away 3 feet. I didn’t feel too comfortable with this, so I was quite happy to start heading down the hill.

Cold and tired, we stopped at The Bean Scene and had some wicked cafe mochas, then we hopped on the bus and headed home. We got fish and chips (with authentic Edinburgh brown sauce – tasty!) “takeaway” (aka To Go) for dinner and ate in Paul & Michelle’s apartment.

Dave had requested an outing to hear some live Celtic music, so Paul drove us back into town to a pub called Sandy Bells, where we listened to some musicians do a jam session, and had some drinks. As it approached 11 pm, we realized we needed to finish up and get ourselves home; we were in bed around midnight.

Edinburgh must-see spots

Our strategy for Tuesday was to be sure to see the most important highlights to be seen here in Edinburgh, so that we could take Wednesday and Thursday to fill in with whatever we missed. The priority, of course, would be Edinburgh Castle, which was our first stop in the morning.

The structure that became Edinburgh Castle is the foundation of the city. The oldest structure at the Castle is St. Margaret’s Chapel, built around 1130 AD. The rest of the castle was built in stages over the centuries as the demands of the times required. The result is an impressive fortress and (now) tourist attraction on a high hill overlooking a busy, lovely European city.

We saw most of the key attractions at the castle, including the Great Hall (exactly as you would imagine a medieval “great hall”), the Scottish Crown Jewels (aka the Scottish Honours), a prisoners’ dungeon where American rebels were held during the Revolutionary War, and St. Margaret’s Chapel. We skipped most of the explicitly military exhibits, but we were on-site for the One O’Clock Gun, which they shoot off daily.

As it got to be lunchtime, we headed out of the Castle and down the Royal Mile. We ended up at a pub called the Jolly Judge, where we had a small lunch and a pint each. I forgot that the pints here are more than 16 oz. It was okay, though. It was cold outside and the pints didn’t help. So we sought out a shop where we could buy something warm. Dave bought a knit cap with the Scottish flag on it, and I bought a nice plaid wool scarf.

We kept heading down the Royal Mile, all the way to the new Parliament building. My opinion: the new building, on the outside, is UGLY. We did go inside, and the architecture inside is interesting enough and well-thought-out enough that I had a much more positive opinion once inside. The debating chamber is particularly interesting. The inside didn’t really revise my opinion of the outside, though.

We walked across the street to Holyrood Palace, but it had closed for the day. Then we started wandering a bit, aimless, until we finally realized that we had the time and energy to walk up Calton Hill. We went up there, where there was a really excellent view of the city and of the Firth (which is the bay on which Edinburgh is built). It was well worth the hike.

Then we hiked home, the weather being reasonably sunny. Paul made us a tasty haggis dinner. For those who have heard of haggis and are scared, fear not! It’s tasty, much like a peppery meatloaf. I recommend it to any meat eater.

After dinner we drove to the Forth Rail Bridge, which is a pretty cool cantilever bridge (according to Dave). It wasn’t lit up as well as we had expected, but we got a good view of it.

Then off to bed!

Day trip to Glasgow

At the urging of our friends James and Arbory, we took a 45-minute train ride from Edinburgh to Glasgow to visit. The weather was nice – chilly, but mostly sunny and not at all rainy. The train ride was nice, across the green Scottish countryside.

We came out of Queens Street station, got ourselves oriented, then walked several blocks to the Glasgow Cathedral. This was a very interesting space, and had quite a few lovely stained glass windows. We poked around here for a while and Dave took lots of pictures.

After a short while I realized that it was really lunchtime, so we walked back toward the center of the city to the Willow Tea Room, which had been designed by renowned Scottish architect Charles Rennie Macintosh. The decor was really interesting and fun, and the meal was delicious. We of course also had tea, which was lovely.

Then we went to a museum called The Lighthouse. It features contemporary art, and also is built around a much older building designed by Macintosh. That being the case, there is one entire gallery devoted to his work, and his life and times. We also hiked up the tower that he had designed, up a spiral staircase. It was quite a hike but it was worth it, because the top of the tower had an outside balcony that went almost all the way around, affording great views of the city and the outlying areas.

We spent quite a bit of time there, and after we left we walked down to the River Clyde for a bit. It wasn’t too scenic, but it had quite a few interesting bridges crossing it. We walked along it for a few blocks, then headed back up to find a subway station. We took the subway (which isn’t much of a system – it’s just a loop – but it works) up a few stops and then went to find the Glasgow School of Art, the original building of which was designed by – yes – Charles Rennie Macintosh. It was approaching 5 pm by now, though, so we didn’t take the tour.

We walked around a bit until we got to the next subway stop, then got back on and went up to Glasgow University. It was a beautiful campus at the top of a hill, with amazing views. There wasn’t much to do there either, so after we’d walked around for a while, we started heading in the direction of finding dinner. We ended up at a pub called Stravaigin, where we celebrated St. Patrick’s day by Dave having Guinness and I had Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. I had haggis for dinner, which was YUMMY – I completely recommend it.

It was getting late, so we took the subway back to Queens Street Station and got there just in time for the 8 pm train. It was a smooth trip back and we hiked downhill (amazingly!) back to Michelle and Paul’s house, and spent the rest of St. Patrick’s Day just hanging out, having a quiet evening with our friends.

First day in Edinburgh

Believe it or not, after only sleeping about three hours on the plane, we didn’t then take a nap. Instead, we went to a two-hour-long Palm Sunday mass. If we had known it would be THAT long, maybe we would have rethought it.

Since Michelle and Paul had to be at their respective churches rather early, Dave and I had a bit of time in the morning to gather ourselves, shower, etc. However, that meant that we had to get ourselves to church, which meant a hike through the city (all of which is uphill) to get to Michelle’s church down in the center of the city. It took a lot of energy that we didn’t really have, but it was quite nice, and it was great to see the city so quiet – apparently Scottish folk don’t get up that early on Sundays.

Michelle works at an Episcopal church called Old Saint Paul’s, and their church service is undeniably “high mass”. Of course being Palm Sunday, this was taken to the next level. The church service started with incense and a hymn, and then the entire congregation (which was impressively large) processed down the block, around the corner, and back, singing hymns all the while. This wasn’t too bad for us, because it kept us awake. We didn’t fare as well during the rest of the service, even with the variance in sitting, kneeling, and standing. There were a couple of instances where each of us almost fell down while standing up because we were nodding off. Most difficult was the lengthy singing of the passion (instead of reading from the Gospel of Matthew about Christ’s death). We finally rallied during the communion time, which was quite nice. After the service we helped Michelle clean up the kids’ area, then we managed to get Paul to pick us up, so we didn’t have to walk home.

After we got home we went back out again in search of lunch. We ended up at a pizza place called Pizza Express, which was quite tasty. Then we got coffee (very necessary for Dave and me at this point), then drove out to the suburbs to visit Paul’s family. We had a thoroughly enjoyable visit with Paul’s mom, dad, and brother, and they also gave us a home-cooked dinner. We were all completely wiped out by the end of the evening (Michelle and Paul having gotten up earlier than normal in order to pick us up at the airport), so we were glad to get back and go straight to bed.