Month: June 2010

Scotland, Day 3 – Edinburgh

Day 3, after our now-standard Jurys Inn breakfast, we packed up and trekked off to the Queen Street station for the quick jaunt to Edinburgh. Our new hotel (another Jurys Inn), turned out to be spectacularly well situated, a block from Waverly Station and a mere skip up Chalmers Close to the Royal Mile. We were pleased enough about that that we got over the clerk at reception attempting to charge Sherry’s credit card repeatedly for the room…

The Salisbury CragsThe weather continued to be fine, though it had cooled slightly, which was appreciated. We made our usual jaunt over to the tourist info centre, then took a spin ’round the city on the hop on/hop off tour to orient ourselves. (Though, amusingly, a goodly number of Ian Rankin landmarks were within spitting distance of the hotel, apparently.)

We actually rode the bus all the way around (what can I say, we finally had upper deck seats), then returned to the hotel briefly to actually take possession of our room before attacking the city’s lovely sights with a vengeance.

High Street, or the Royal Mile, starts at Edinburgh Castle and courses downhill to Holyroodhouse Palace. (No tours while we were there, however, as there was a royal in residence.) We hiked up to the Castle, just in time to get sprinkled on. They were setting up for a tattoo, and I’m sure it would have been quite the spectacle.

Stained glass window in St. Margaret's ChapelThe castle itself is pretty cool, though certainly a tourist trap par excellence. (Not sure the views of the city entirely make up for the £13 highway robbery admission price.) However, we found Sherry’s Xanadu (a shop that specialized in books and rare whiskeys), and the splendidly tiny and Romanesque St. Margaret’s Chapel, which, alas, we couldn’t enter. (Though apparently it can be rented for very small weddings.)

It was amazing, too, how the Castle really was built right on the hill’s volcanic basalt. It juts pretty much out of the walls and foundations in spots.

We got to see the Crown Jewels, or “Honours”, which, interestingly, still show damage from some of their adventures throughout history. (Talk about an epic game of “keepaway”…) The War Memorial (in the former St. Mary’s Church) is a lovely place, and was fascinating just to wander and watch. People were leafing through vast books — searching for names of relatives among war dead. (Interesting to me as there are none in my family.) There were also two older gents re-applying silver leaf to an altar in one of the small chapels.

Great Hall with hammerbeam roofKing James’ Great Hall was even more impressive than the one at Stirling Castle. Similar soaring hammerbeam roof, though this one is original. One helluvan arms collection lining the walls, too. My brother would give his right arm to get his hands on some of that stuff. (Good thing he’s left-handed…)

After the Castle, we wandered back down the Royal Mile, and came across one of the attractions that was on Sherry’s must-see list, The Real Mary King’s Close. (Alas, no photos were allowed.) The closes are those little alleys that run off the larger streets (like High Street/Royal Mile) down to what was the Nor’ Loch).

In this case, when the Royal Exchange was built in 1753, the buildings that had gone up storey by storey along Mary King’s Close were demolished above two stories, and the original street was essentially entombed below. (The tenements could soar over a dozen storeys, so things at ground level got pretty dark and close, even before buildings went over top.)

Our tour guide was the “clenger”, basically a guy whose job it was to remove the plague dead and burn their houses and effects. The tour was fascinating, though definitely not for the claustrophobic. Houses for the poor in those days were tiny, often one room, low-ceilinged, and everything got mucked out into the street — household garbage, chamber pot contents, animal waste and hay from stables, you name it. And when it rained, it all got washed down into the Nor’ Loch. Is it any wonder they eventually drained it?

Edinburgh architectureMary King (or Marie King, in those days) was a real person — a fairly prosperous seamstress and widow who lived in the close with her family in the early to mid-1600s and rented her house and luckenbooth (basically a collapsible market stall at the front of her house) for £100/year, which wasn’t pocket change in those days. That the close was named after her was testament to her prominence in the community, since it was quite rare in those days to name anything after a woman.

We learned of some of the locals scandals and quirky neighbours, including the final resident of the close who remained there until the 19th century. We couldn’t go into his house as the floors are no longer stable and the still-hanging wallpaper is full of arsenic, but you can see into the washroom at the end of his front hall, installed there since he had the first flush toilet in the close, and would use it, doors open, in full sight of the street, to show it off. Classy!

After returning to the 21st century, we did a spot of souvenir shopping (found one jewellery store in particular that specialized in Mackintosh-inspired designs and which proved to be a rich vein of family gifts) and then cleaned up at the hotel before heading out for dinner. We’d been told that this one particular area in the New Town was excellent for restaurants, but… not so much. Unless your definition of excellent is a few fast food chains.

However, we decided on an Italian place — Bella Italia — that’s part of a chain in the UK, and had quite a tasty meal with salad, pizzas, wine, decadent dessert, and coffee. As per usual, we weren’t real night owls (though it wasn’t getting dark til around 10pm, anyway), and so headed back to the hotel after dinner to get our energizing sleep to prepare us for the following day’s jaunt to the east coast and Dunnottar Castle.

Edinburgh Photos

Unphotographable

This is a picture I did not take of a young couple standing in the pharmacy line at Shoppers, beside each other but not touching, bodies tense enough to shatter, the guy with a Plan B box clutched so tightly in his left hand you’d think it would explode if he dropped it.

This is also a picture I did not take of the same couple, five minutes later, walking down the sidewalk, hand in hand, leaning ever so slightly into each other, casually discussing why chocolate milk is more expensive at convenience stores, the drug store bag swinging casually from the guy’s right hand as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

Scotland, Day 2 – Stirling Castle, Trossachs National Park and Loch Lomond, and Glengoyne Distillery

Day 2 saw us heading back up to George Square, where we sorted out which of the several Rabbie’s tours meeting at the tourist centre was ours. Out tour guide was Juliette, a York transplant to the greater Glaswegian area, and a hodge podge of international folks — including two obnoxious Portuguese cougars, a couple gents from Bahrain, a student couple from France, a middle-aged couple from Italy (the husband of which was more interested in smoking often than anything else), and, of course, Sherry and myself.

Stirling CastleFirst stop of the day was Stirling Castle, yet another landmark where you’d have no idea that the high season had not yet started. Once we recovered our bearings after bad directions to the castle tour in English, we proceeded to be regaled with history, stats, and gossip by a most entertaining and very Scottish ginger-haired gent. Plenty of royal adventures and such there, with Marys and Jameses aplenty. (And apparently plenty of James’ offspring of the “Fitz” persuasion in the local area, if you know what I mean…)

The castle has changed considerably over the centuries, partially due to strategic necessity at times, and partially due to damage and whatnot at others. The palace is currently being restored (like Rosslyn, it’s been going on for some time), so we didn’t get to see it. But once it’s done it’ll be a showplace of 16th century art, architecture, furnishings, etc. The guide did point out where the queen’s apartments are, at one end of the building, where the king’s apartments are, at the other end of the building, and where the king’s mistress’ apartments are, directly above the king’s (with, presumable, discreet staircase, and apparently used by the Duke of Buckingham in James VI’s time…)

The Great Hall has been restored, complete with painted exterior and hammerbeam roof made up of 650 some oak trees and nary a single nail holding it all up. It can be rented for special events, and comes with thrones. The chapel royal has fresco work on display, including a fake window to symbolize the “false” spiritual light of the earthly realm, as opposed to the true illumination of heaven, represented by the large, real window at the other end of the room. Mary Queen of Scots was crowned here, and a ripe old age of nine months. They also had the first offerings of the new versions from the set of Unicorn Tapestries (allegory of the life of Christ) that were being created on-site (you can watch the artisans work, but no conversation or photos allowed).

The Douglas Garden is a quiet space off in a corner, the perfect place, apparently, to dump a recently deceased earl out a window if you (King James II) and your cronies have just offed him for being insufficiently malleable in your position heading up the most powerful family in Scotland.

Statue of Robert the Bruce outside of Stirling CastleAnd, of course, there’s a big statue of Robert the Bruce out front, and an excellent view off towards the hills and Stirling Bridge (site of the famous Wallace battle — Bannockburn is nearby as well), and the official and impressive Wallace Monument, where his sword, which may or may not be 5’6″ long, apparently resides. (Some tours go there, but ours didn’t.) The day was a warm one, so we got ice cream on our way back to the parking lot. 🙂

We headed for the hills after that (literally), with a brief stop at Doune Castle, which was kinda same ol’, same ol’, unless you’re a castle junkie or a Monty Python fan, as that’s where The Holy Grail was filmed. We stopped for lunch at Aberfoyle, a village within Trossachs National Park, which appears to fancy itself a bit of a wool centre. They even had a rather overheated looking collie doing herding demos with sheep and ducks. We purchased some fish ‘n’ chips for lunch from a dreadlocked gent, then headed up, up, and away to the largest (by surface area) loch in Scotland.

With the warm and sunny weather continuing (apparently the heat wave extended right to the south of England), Loch Lomond was as packed as Grand Bend would be on such a day. Finding parking for our big van was a bit of a challenge. Our group split, with some of us electing to hike up the big hill to take in the view, and the others doing… who knows. Smoking and talking on the phone, if the day to that point had been any indication.

Loch Lomond and one of its islandsAfter puffing and sweating our way up the hill, we were treated to an excellent view of the loch, sailboats, and some of the private islands (though not the one that’s a nudist colony). The French couple with us kindly took several really awful pictures of Sherry and I. (Note: hooking your camera to your belt loop under your t-shirt does not make for elegant lines…)

Coming back down the hill was a bit of an adventure, with a wayward autistic boy, a very shaggy dog, some dedicated sunbathers and wadings, and a hiker with truly mind-boggling breasts sharing the trail. We had about five minutes before leaving, so I treated myself to one of the fastest pints I’ve ever drunk. It hit the spot for sure, and Andrew would have been proud.

And finally, off to our last destination of the day — Glengoyne Distillery, and our only distillery visit on the trip. (Once you’ve seen how one distillery works, you’ve pretty much seen how they all do, and we’re rather more interested in just drinking the results.) We started the tour with a shot of whiskey, which, given the day’s heat and exertions, made remaining away through the instructional video a challenge.

Ram's head... flask?We got a detailed verbal tour of the distillation process through a couple different rooms, though there wasn’t really that much to photograph. A tasting was included in our tour, so we headed down to the bar/shop after, and between the planned tasting and our charms, had a snort of the 10, 17, and 21-year-old vintages. Tasty stuff — Highland single malts, unpeated, as it’s not common in the area, so closer to the Irish whiskeys that I like than the licking-a-woodstove types Sherry likes.

We picked up souvenir sparkplugs (Andrew inherited mine), and then it was time to head back to Glasgow. We checked at the Central train station about getting to Edinburgh, and found out it was most efficiently done via the Queen St. Station, just on the other side of George Square. Good to know. Dinner in Merchant City again, this time northern Indian at The Dhabba (least spicy Indian food evar) and a chat with an interesting Nepalese-Indian gent. The streets on the way back to the hotel weren’t quite as scary on a Sunday evening, which was a relief. And so once again we called it a relatively early evening so we’d be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for Edinburgh in the morning.

Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond, and Glengoyne Distillery Photos

Unphotographable

This is a picture I did not take of an approaching-elderly Chinese man exiting the elevator at my apartment building in a cloud of cloying aftershave, wearing skinny jeans, an oversized white t-shirt, and sporting a Justin Bieber haircut.

Scotland, Day 1 – Glasgow

Well, we’ll begin at the beginning, back at Pearson in Toronto. We flew out in the evening, and so Andrew had the poor fortune of driving us to the airport during mid-to-late afternoon on the Friday of the May 24 long weekend. Whee!

Couple fun things happened at the airport. First, I got a phone call shortly after we arrived, which turned out to be the HR lady from the company Sherry was interviewing with, wanting to chat with me as one of her references. I was in no hurry to call her back, so left her a voicemail after we had dinner and went to the gate, with Sherry sitting right there, no less. And really, when you happen to know Sherry is leaving on vacation, and you get a voicemail from a reference saying you, too, are leaving on vacation, it’s not terribly hard to put two and two together, I don’t think.

Next, the woman in front of us going through security clearly wasn’t a frequent flyer. Her backpack got x-rayed twice, then searched… revealing that she was carrying, amongst Lord knows what else, a Tupperware container of fruit salad, a plastic container of store-bought garden salad, a can of Sprite… and a full-size bottle of ranch dressing. Amazingly, they let her keep the salads. And honestly, had they let her keep the dressing, how many hours was that going to be unrefrigerated?

Our flight was with Air Transat via Thomas Cook, and surprisingly comfortable. Sherry indulged in her odd habit of squirreling away snacks, saving some of one of the meals from the flight until I can only imagine it was ground to powder. Neither of us are great plane sleepers, but we managed to cobble together a few hours of shut eye. Good thing, too, since our flight landed shortly after 8am, local time.

We arrived to a bright, sunny day, which turned into quite a warm day, somewhere around 27C. Which is nice, though a bit much when you’ve got a big pack strapped to you or are climbing stairs or hills. (Given the first two days were inching toward 30C, I was a bit worried, having brought only two t-shirts and one pair of lighter pants.) Getting the bus from the airport was easy, and we only had a couple wrong turns before finding our hotel, managing to stumble across the Orange walk in the process. (Really, more of an opportunity to hang out with the lads and tip a few than anything else these days.)

After freshening up and shedding some layers, we headed out and oriented ourselves, stopping by the Tourist Info Centre on George Square and availing ourselves of the Hop On/Hop Off tour. I am a fan of those, though apparently no one told the tourists it wasn’t the high season yet, as the buses were surprisingly busy through the day. I also started to notice at that point that the UK (and, apparently, Europe in general), has nowhere near the wifi coverage we know and love here in North America. My iPhone remained largely useless for the trip.

IlluminationOur first hop off was at Glasgow Cathedral (St. Mungo’s), though I’d initially planned to hop off near Strathclyde University to get a picture for Andrew, since his dad went there. Except it turned out that Strathclyde is really ugly and somewhat modern, and not some photogenic and elegant sandstone landmark.

The cathedral is one of the few to survive the Reformation intact, due to sheer bloody-mindedness of the locals, it sounds like. (In Glasgow??? The hell you say!) and is located next to the celebrated Infirmary where many a great medical mind has been trained (though it was unfortunately swathed in scaffolding) and the Necropolis. We wandered through both the main and lower levels of the cathedral, enjoying both the gorgeous effects of the bright sunlight coming through the windows upstairs, and the antiquity of the knight’s tombs and various nooks and crannies downstairs to the sides of Blackadder Aisle.

After that we headed back to the Necropolis, which is both sprawling and still in use. I’m coming to learn that the dead get some of the finest real estate and most enviable views in many cities. Some very impressive monuments, decay, and interesting stories, ranging from men of vast distinction to families whose children seemed to die off in appalling numbers. I saw my co-worker’s name (James Stewart) well represented, and even the grave of one James Lyall (same name as Andrew’s stepbrother) and his wives, both named Eliza.

Got an impromptu history lesson from a passing elderly gent (history prof, perhaps) about the Rev. Duncan MacFarlan, who was apparently an exceedingly important gent in his day, distinguishing himself both within the church and academe, meeting Queen Victoria twice, and garnering the tallest spire in the Necropolis.

TARDIS!After having a bit of fun with the local TARDIS, we hopped back on the bus and continued through the city, passing, for a second time, the equestrian statue of Wellington on Queen Street out front of the Gallery of Modern Art. Per tradition, this imposing statue was fashionably topped with a traffic cone. We can only imagine the jaunty orange and white striped pattern with a green band around the bottom was in honour of the Orange walk. Apparently sometimes both Wellington AND his horse are wearing cones. Which, you must admit, is pretty awesome.

When we next disembarked, after some serious jetlag-and-sunshine-induced head bobs (we declined to get off to check out the tall ship) at Glasgow University, we enjoyed seeing quite a number of kilted gents (looked like there was a wedding), and took a tour of the Mackintosh House, which they seem to have picked up and moved wholesale from wherever its original location was in the city. No pictures inside, but much oohing and ahhing over the furnishings and interiors. There was also plenty of bare, pasty flesh on display, as days like we got are anything but the norm in that town. Unsurprisingly, we saw more than one sunburn by day’s end.

Duke of Wellington statue outside the GalleryAfter that, we were pretty much wiped and famished, so we grabbed sandwiches for a late lunch and headed back to the hotel for a spot of relaxing and freshening up before heading out to hunt down dinner. We also stopped to buy water, and I picked up a can of Irn-Bru to try it, receiving a bonus limited edition glass with it. I was expecting it to taste orangey, probably because it looks a fair bit like MacDonalds’ classic orange drink, but in fact it tasted to me like bubble gum and aspartame. Not a winner, but apparently great stuff for hangovers.

Despite the apparent blanketing of the entire country with pizzerias (and, to a slightly lesser degree, Italian restaurants in general), we settled on City Merchant, in the Merchant City area for dinner. It’s quite a good seafood place, and I dove in to local foodstuffs with the West Coast Fish and Shellfish dinner (which included my first langoustines) and a pint of Belhaven (my first, but not my last). Sherry had the sea bass special and a Chilean merlot.

I started my sticky toffee pudding adventures (with a cappuccino) for dessert, and Sherry started her whisky (UK spelling) adventures with a new one: Caol Ila, recommended by the server to go well with her clootie dumpling. (Most. Scottish, Dessert Combo. Evar.) There may be less petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico than there is in that scotch, I tells ya.

After that we headed back to the hotel for an early-ish evening, passing many a weekend reveler, which left me wondering how anyone tells the difference between the hookers and the mere party girls. Heading to our beds, we became familiar with two sleep-related trends that followed us the whole trip: bloody hard mattresses with very flat pillows, and waking up way too early. (Because it’s summer and they’re more north than we are here in Ontario, sunrise is some time around 4am, and sunset is not til around 10pm.)

The next morning saw us off on our first tour, to Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond, and the Glengoyne Distillery!

Glasgow Photos

Catching up

Sooo… hi! Been a while. Good reasons, though.

Sherry and I went to Scotland. Working on my usual trip write-up now, but in the mean time, the photos are here: Scotland, May 2010.

After we got back, I did some laundry and got re-acclimatized on Sunday, then hit the sack early in order to be at St. Mary’s Hospital at 6am on Monday (bless Sherry for being my driver) for my semi-long awaited laparoscopic cholecystectomy, or gallbladder removal for the non-medically inclined.

Both the date and time of the surgery changed at least once, and in somewhat bad timing, the last time change occurred while we were away, and I didn’t get the message until Saturday evening when we returned from Scotland. Whew. Ahh well, it all worked out. And after a week of recuperation, napping, and part-time working from home, I’m nearly back to good as new, with only four small scars for my trouble, and a weird pain when I yawn, which will hopefully go away soon, too.

And now life returns to normal, with my birthday coming up and intermittently lovely summer weather.