A Travellerspoint blog

Day 3: Thrifting, Scotch and Victorian Kitsch!

in which your author finally begins to admit to himself he's only here to visit pubs

rain 45 °F

Out quite late the previous night, late night Facebook checking, catching up with what I’ve missed about the interminable GOP race, and actually being smart and booking a ticket for a Highlands bus tour Saturday (the initial plan was to do this Friday but I smartly opted to not try to get up at 7 after getting to sleep by 4am!)… all of this led me to decide that Day 3 would start out with no pretense of getting up early. I would get up when I woke up, and this turned out to be about 12:15pm. Have I mentioned how infuriating it would be for another person to travel with me in this manner?

I also opted, in the interest of time, to skip writing about the previous day. I have less free time (typically, traveling on trains) on my hands here than in my 2010 trip, so I’m better off prioritizing seeing things rather than writing. (I write this from a bus in the Highlands heading back toward Edinburgh, so this is a nice mix of gorgeous scenery and writing time!)

A light, cold drizzle accompanied me as I walked back toward Shelter, the shop where I had met George the previous night; I wanted to buy the shirt I had seen in the window, but surprisingly it had already been sold that morning! I rummaged through and satified my shopping urges with a few other clothing selections: a terrific blue sweater, a funky button-up shirt, a smooth gray blazer, an LP of traditional Scottish song and a tough-to-find double LP of Mahler 6 with Rafael Kubelik and Fischer-Dieskau singing the Ruckert Lieder.

[Note: It’s funny when you write these things and you tune out your present surroundings… I wrote the three preceding paragraphs on a bus, and I pick up the story at Edinburgh Airport, finish it on the plane to Amsterdam, and I'm not actually posting it until now when I'm in my room there! Anyway. Carry on.]

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I walk around in the drizzle and come upon the famous statue of “Greyfriars Bobby,” a terrier who was so loyal to his master that he allegedly went to his master’s grave every day for 14 years after the fellow’s passing. (I guess that was before they put the “No Dogs” sign up?) I took a bunch of photos and got all bleary eyed thinking about my Fenway, another loyal terrier who my gorgeous, amazing, awesome girlfriend and (equally so!) roommate are doing a fine job hanging out with in my absence.

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I then took another (!) cemetery stroll through Greyfriars Kirkyard, the drizzly gray of the day fitting the scenery, passing by Bobby the dog's grave, reserved for the front garden.

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I walked back to the flat and dropped off my purchases, then made it the short distance to Edinburgh Books, which came highly recommended as a place to lose track of time! It’s a terrific, multi-level bookstore and I ended up buying some sheet music, a book on Mahler (shocking) and some Scottish history items including a Robert Burns commemorative pamphlet from the 1950s. I have a nice conversation with the man closing the shop, telling him of my ancestral roots in Barra, a tiny island in the lower Hebrides; somewhat shockingly, he says he happened to be there during 9/11, and that it was difficult to get news!

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Quite hungry now, I make my first stop into The Cloisters, a traditional pub recommended for their wide beer selection, great food and helpful staff. It’s now 6:30pm on a Friday night and the place is packed, and they’re no longer serving food; I order a scotch at the bar anyway and chat up a nice fellow named Albert who quaffs a half pint while waiting for his bus. (I believe I've happened upon my new scotch discovery of the trip – Benromach, which was sold at The Cloisters as their "malt of the moment" – many pubs have this, and they're typically only under 3 pounds, about US $5. Any similar scotch would be close to $10 in the US, surely.) The helpful bartender recommends another tavern with pub food not far away called The Golf Tavern, and I make my way there, greatly assisted by the wifi signal that I pick up outside of an old church. (Also, I must mention that absolutely everyone on the streets of Edinburgh seems to be helpful when you ask for directions!) Note: I thought he had said "gulf" – if I had known it was "golf" I probably would've looked elsewhere! :)

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I order a veggie burger and peruse the scotch list, and take a seat at an old common table close to the bar where a few architecture students are conversing. After a bit they welcome me into their conversation and they’re really friendly; a few are from England and one from Norway. We chat for a while about architecture and traveling, and they strongly advise me to get to an ancient pub called Canny Man’s, about a mile away. Are there any unfriendly people in this town? If so I haven't come across them. See you on Facebook, lads!

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I take their advice to hop in a cab and make it to one of the most visually impressive spaces, never mind pubs, I’ve ever seen. The Golf Tavern fellows had hyped it a great deal, and I was slightly worried I wouldn’t be allowed in wearing sneakers, which I had changed into due to the rain. (They call them “trainers” here.) But I ended up having more fine scotch (the prices were higher here) and getting welcomed in by two young women who work in advertising, one of whom was a former employee.

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Old brass instruments hanging from the ceilings, signs which appeared to have been placed in the mid-19th century, cartoons on the bathroom wall dated from 100 years ago, room after room of kitsch Victorian splendor. Signs were posted all around saying “no cameras, no cell phones” so I dared not tempt fate; I was later told it was only because so may local dignitaries like to drink there, they don’t want their faces showing up on random photographs! There’s a short Indian man wearing a light blue sweater at the bar drunkenly trying to start singalongs; I’m surprised to hear he’s a regular! I did manage to grab one photo before leaving; by this time I was lounging around with one of the bartenders and the bar area had emptied out so I felt it was safe. (Also, get a load of the rather 'politicized' scotch list.) What a place.

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I trek it back to my flat and get to sleep laaaate. Fun fun fun!

Posted by coolmcjazz 18:48 Archived in Scotland Tagged scotland edinburgh Comments (0)

Day 2: To the health of... SHHH!

in which your author sleeps in and wanders the city streets

Day 2 began exactly as planned, with a bright wakeup at 8am Edinburgh time! It continued with an added "quick nap" of slightly under 4 hours. Ah well, at least I tried. Sort of.

Leaving the flat later than I would’ve liked, I stop for breakfast at a cute café to write my first blog post, which ends up taking longer than it should. (Argh, time management!) Eventually, I commence walking toward downtown Edinburgh, stopping in at St. Cuthbert’s Burial Ground for around 25 minutes. The tower at the entrance was originally set up in order to look out for “bodysnatchers,” who would make handsome sums selling fresh corpses to the medical school; more than a year’s worth of the average man’s pay could be made selling one body. (Creeeepy.)

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Many of the graves are full of expression and the style of inscription remind me of the old graveyards of Boston and some Caribbean islands I’ve spent time on. Quite a beautiful place, especially with the majestic Castle looming in the background. (Also: Perhaps another reason I might eb tough to travel with. I seem to like old cemeteries a lot!)

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I keep walking and stop into an HMV, browsing CDs but not buying anything; it’s nice to see a dedicated room for classical and jazz the way they used to have at Tower Records in Boston.

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The street is busy with pedestrians, bikers and shoppers.

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I spend about an hour in the Scotland National Gallery, which like the National Gallery in DC is totally free. The collection, which features hundreds of works including a stunning Rembrandt self-portrait and some terrific Italian Renaissance works, is truly impressive. Unfortunately (and unlike DC), photography isn't allowed upon entering the gallery, so I only get one shot. (Postcards it is!)

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A few pieces stick out including Titian’s The Three Ages of Man and one of a minister ice skating, one of Scotland’s most famous artworks. There’s also a fine special exhibit going on of sketches done in red chalk, including a piece by Raphael. I make some small purchases in the gift shop after including some delectable white chocolate cardamom candy which I pick at over the rest of the day.

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Exiting the Gallery I walk along the Scott Monument, thinking of the impulsive decision to come here based on the photo on my bathroom wall as I discussed in my first post. I stop at a bench and ponder my next move, consulting my Lonely Planet map and my already-worn list of recommendations (courtesy of the terrifically helpful @hipharpy, a harpist based in Texas who I know only from Twitter and who I’ve never met in real life… thanks Shana!)

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I’m told that the park I’m in is closing so I leave and cross a bridge heading toward the Royal Mile. I stop into a small whiskey (whisky? I've seen it spelled both ways here) shop, but am finding the prices on full bottles not much better than in the states so far. It’s more enjoyable to sample a broad range in the pubs anyway before deciding on one I might want to seek out to bring home. (So far my vote is Benromach, though I may hold off completely out of not overspending!)

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I’m really hungry at this point so I decide on a place called Arcade Bar, a “haggis and whisky house” with a nice vibe. I take a chance and order the “Robert Burns” veggie haggis, which sounds potentially disastrous but actually ends up being one of the best veggie-substitute meals I’ve ever had: spicy, soft-textured meat substitute layered on top of mashed turnips and potatoes, surrounded by a delicious whisky gravy. I have two whiskeys with dinner (a Cardhu 12 from Speyside and a Dalmore), and also indulge in a warm sticky toffee pudding with caramel and ice cream. OM NOM NOM. (With hindside, probably the best meal I had over the whole trip.)

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I keep winding my way around and consider rushing to the Lyceum Theatre to see Of Mice and Men, but realizing there’s probably not enough time, I happen to walk by upon the office of a “ghost tour” and pay for a ticket. (This company, Mercat Tours, came well recommended in my guide book.) In the 15 minutes prior to the start of the tour, I manage to kill time sampling 3 small glasses of hand-pulled local ale at a cute pub close by.

The Tour starts at the Mercat Cross, the site of public executions and torture as recently as the 19th century. The tour guide is an imposing, dour fellow straight out of ghost tour guide central casting, and he starts us off by demonstrating a true story of public torture at the Cross. As the story goes, two Englishmen stopped into Edinburgh and had a drink at a tavern. One raised his glass and toasted “To the health of the king!” The other one listened and clanked his glass. Problem was, the King had just been killed and Oliver Cromwell (a figure Lonely Planet tells me is despised equally by Scottish, Irish, and British people alike) was in charge, and such a toast was tantamount to treason. Word got out and the visitors were dragged to the Mercat Cross, where one had his mouth ripped apart to either side of his ears, and the other had his ears cut off – thus, one for speaking and one for listening. Our guide demonstrates this on two English tour participants, and concludes this portion by advising us to take two pieces of information: 1) The Scots are possessed of a wonderfully ironic sense of humor, and 2) Be careful who you toast to in Edinburgh!

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The tour continues through the back alleys (called “closes” because the buildings are so close) of old town Edinburgh and the tales are entertaining and spooky. There’s a group of really annoying self-absorbed Italian college kids who are laughing and chattering loudly amongst themselves, oblivious to the rest of the group. At one point the guide says he’s looking for a responsible-looking person to be in the back of the group for when we enter the underground vaults… and naturally, picks me! If he only knew… ☺

The vaults, which the BBC called “the most haunted place in the UK” are actually quite intensely creepy, each room lit by but a few small candles. The guide tells of the various spirits which have been experienced in each room, and thankfully a gentleman silences the Italian group with some choice words.

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We’re encouraged to look for figures and “orbs” in our photos, and though this shot was taken in a very dark room and I turned the camera, does anyone see the figure (who looks rather like Grandpa Simpson) seated in the back?

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The tour ends in a separate room called “Meggatt’s Cellar” with more stories; most of the tour participants didn’t pay the extra 3 pounds for this portion so it’s nice to be in a smaller group of 7 and sit and listen to tales of Edinburgh, including the famous tale of Burke and Hare, 19th century bodysellers who turned to murder; Burke was hung for his crimes and his body was given to the medical students! A copy of his death mask is passed around the room. After each story the guide raises a glass to toast the protagonists... I fel slightly frightened when one of them was "the King!" Overall, once I got past the self-consciousness of such an obvious tourist activity, the tour was fun and worth the 13.50 pound fee. (Though I am bummed I never made it to see the Lyceum show.)

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Exiting the vaults I walk to a beer bar called Brew Dog which had been recommended by Alistair the previous day, and there’s a cool punk aesthetic and local crowd of college students. I drink a house-brewed IPA with Simcoe hops, and as you may be able to tell by the chalk beer list in these photos, I guess I was responsible for kicking the keg?

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After consulting my tour book, I take the rather long walk across the bridge to an absolutely gorgeous Victorian-style pub called Café Royal, where I enjoyed a peaty and complex Lagavulin 16. The book mentioned that the bartenders like to stack the bottles back to back on the shelves above the bar, creating what appears to be a mirror-effect. Even though I had read this earlier, at first glance I was still fooled! The friendly bar staff laughed when I asked how long they’d been doing that. A female bartender saw me taking photos and advised me to go into the bar in the adjacent room, presently closed. The mirrors and opulence of this room provided what I think are some of the coolest photos so far on the trip.

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I walked back toward the flat, stopping for a few nighttime pictures at "my favorite corner of Edinburgh" (the Scott Monument from Hanover Street, natch), resisting the strange urge to show passersby the photo from 1860 that I have on my phone. I'm able to zoom in on a child walking in the 1860 photo and enlarge the photo on my phone; I took another photo of this and wondered what became of the kid.

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I keep walking and was pleased to find the Sandy Bell still open; this pub is famous for their traditional music, and both my guide book and @hipharpy called it a must-visit. Sadly the musicians in the back were packing up, but I took another scotch and some photos with the hopes of coming back another night.

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Leaving the pub, I grab a quick falafel with chips for “take away” (the prices are cheaper here if you do that), then stop to admire a shirt in a secondhand shop window. As I’m standing there, a scraggy-looking fellow comes up next to me and recommends the shop based on their mission of helping local abused children. We strike up a conversation and within about a minute I can tell this guy is going to be a friend. As he would later say: “In the sixties we used to have a saying; if you instantly click with a person, take off with them – if not, run away!” (He also instantly became my friend upon uttering "artists fix what politicians screw up!")

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George just turned 60 the previous day, and is a natural conversationalist with wide ranging passions: community service, photography, ministering to homeless people at his church (he reminds me of my Jim Bruno, the former priest and eternal hippie who once introduced my parents), but most of all music. When I mention I have a degree in jazz trumpet, his eyes light up, he practically grabs me and says “Okay! Let’s walk!” We walk a ways and find a bench to sit on; he sings a few songs (Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” and another by Jesse Colin Young) and I share Raglan Road which I learned after hearing it in Ireland. His eyes leap out again when I mention my master’s thesis on Keith Jarrett; he had just played Köln Concert at a church service. Over the next 90 minutes, we walk and talk and share stories and experiences; at one point while walking on the sidewalk, he insists on switching places with me, as a “gesture of local protection!” I come to find out that he had been not only an associate of the historian David Attenborough , but also had been a war photographer in Sri Lanka, and once had been tortured for two hours after helping to expose war atrocities. He spoke movingly of returning to Sri Lanka a few years ago to make peace with his history there. We exchanged mailing addresses (e-mail not his thing) and he tells me about the website where some of his stuff can be found. Conveniently, our walk takes us past the street I’m staying on, so we depart and agree to meet at the Sandy Bell Saturday night, which will certainly have music as it’s St. Patrick’s Day!

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So I’m fully back to having that sort of experience where experiences and newness are packed in so closely, And it feels great!

Posted by coolmcjazz 19:02 Comments (0)

Day 1: A Lovely Edinburgh Welcome

in which your author returns to writing too much about his travels

overcast 45 °F

“I always loathe the last entry, the one where you have to pack up the hours you spent living that constant state of newness into some neat summary, all the while not knowing when your next travel adventure will arrive down the pike.”
--me, Barcelona, February 2, 2011

Forgive me, trusted travel blog, for it has been 406 days since my last entry, but I am so pleased to jump into my next travel adventure here in Edinburgh, Scotland. I write from a cute log cabin-decored café close to my flat, later in the day on Day 2 than I would have hoped, munching on a scrumptious yet distinctly foreign-tasting banana muffin, the Beach Boys playing in the background.

One nice thing about returning to travel is revisiting one’s process and for me this includes writing about my experiences, so rather than jumping out into the city today – it is 12:30 in the afternoon here, after all – I’ll sit here and drink coffee and write about my arrival yesterday. BUT I’ll try to go fast because the city awaits!

Skipping an audition in Baltimore due to last-minute packing, I scurried off to the Metro to start the journey to Dulles, which as any DC-based traveler knows isn’t the most convenient place to get to via public transportation. All went fine and I ended up at the airport OVER three hours prior to my flight. The flight was uneventful; I made small talk with a fellow from Mumbai. (I enjoy that about flying; the person next to you might be headed to anywhere in the world.) I purchased my ticket for this trip on the very day that my $250 travel voucher on Delta (from the delays in Barcelona last year) expired, but Delta had farmed out the itinerary to KLM. I’d never flown KLM before; I was impressed by their on-flight entertainment, watching some travel documentaries on Berlin, and another on a man attempting to visit every country in the world in one year. Dream big.

Arriving in Amsterdam for a two-hour layover (which became three as the flight was early), I walked around the modern airport and re-acclimated myself with the traveling photographer’s eye. I couldn’t find any caramel stroopwafels inexpensive enough to buy, though those were one of my most distinct memories about my last visit to Amsterdam. (Note: I’ll be making a more substantial visit to this city on my way back, and am expecting to stay in the same place I stayed on this unforgettably fun visit almost two years ago.)

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In a lounge area I came upon a gorgeous Kawai piano which I played a few notes on softly; I walked away and a few minutes later, while perusing a nice art installation of “Dutch winter scenes,” I heard some terrific stride piano start up. Teaching piano lately I’m usually seen as the expert so it’s invigorating to hear someone do things I can’t come close to doing – stride versions of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “On Green Dolphin Street.” (Perhaps this was his “street set?”) The guy – a fellow traveler – gets up and I replace him, playing my usual set of “Body and Soul,” “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and “How Long Has This Been Going On,” receiving some nice appreciation from the loungers when I finally close the lid. I was worn out from the long Atlantic flight (on which I barely slept) and this was a nice creative invigoration. I made it to the transfer gate perfectly on time, and on the second leg tore through this fascinating book on Scots history.

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Arriving in Edinburgh, I get a flash of emotion on touching down; although I’ve visited my half-mother country of Ireland twice now, it’s my first trip to Scotland, the other half of my ancestry, and though my Scottish ancestors came specifically from a distant island in the Hebrides called Barra (my mother knows the family tree for hundreds of years), Scotland is still Scotland.

I get off the plane and am met by what feels like a biting coolness in the mid-40 degree range (compared with DC, which has been tropical lately) and overcast skies. I hop on a bus to the city and upon realizing that I don’t get a signal, borrow a kind fellow’s cell phone to call my host Alice. (Be nice to tourists – you might be their first impression of your city!) We wind through the bustling, London-esque streets of the old city and I get off on a street with a ravishing view of Edinburgh Castle in the near distance. I had seen an ad in a paper on the bus that Starbucks was giving away free lattes today, so I pop into one and grab a burrito, having a nice chat with a woman in front of me in line, who recommends taking in a bus tour of the city – so far, Edinburgh citizens are nice, helpful, and welcoming!

After getting slightly lost, I spend about 20 minutes walking to my rental flat, down the corner from a sad old abandoned church in bad state of disrepair. I'm let in by another resident, and Alice shows me to my simple, smallish room. The apartment itself is homey and will do fine for my purposes.

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Resisting the very strong urge to sleep – apart from about 30 minutes on the first leg I haven’t slept in over 24 hours – I unpack and venture out into the city, fully-charged camera in tow. (I remember making the mistake of napping upon first arriving in London in 2010, and it took longer to shake the jetlag than it should have.) The castle is majestic and ancient, towering over the city and reminiscent for me of the medieval walled city of Carcassonne which I visited in 2011. I winded my way around the back section and decided to not go in just yet, opting instead to walk a bit down the famous Royal Mile. (Not the one which is a pub two miles away from me at home, which sadly, I believe just closed.)

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A block away I enter a store dedicated to all sorts of Scottish products, focusing on traditional woven goods, and there’s an enormous weaving machine with a live operator on the ground floor. I pick out a few items to purchase on a return visit. (I don’t want to lug around anything just yet!)

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A short distance later I come upon “The Scotch Whisky Experience,” which though obviously a tourist trap I had heard from a few people was worth “experiencing,” and this proved to be quite true. (My trusty Lovely Planet guide describes it as “Walt Disney meets Johnny Walker!”) After paying the 12.50 pound fee for the basic “silver tour” (that’s about US $20.62) I’m put in an amusement park-style bucket seat and the “ride” takes me through a video-enhanced, cheeky narrative of the whisky-making process. This part was cute, but thankfully the ride empties out into a tasting room with a live host who happened to be really passionate about scotch and led us through an informative class on how to distinguish the four major regional varieties of Scotch whisky (Lowlands, Speyside, Highlands and Islay!) For my tasting, included with the price of my tour, I go big and pick the “Laphroig 10 year” from Islay, rich and peaty, like a mouthful of burning smoke. Our guide Alistair leads us into something truly impressive, a display room packed with scotch bottles – the largest private collection of scotch found anywhere in the world. (The collection was owned and donated by Claive Vidiz; Alistair makes a point of telling us how Vidiz was “not a scotch snob, and that his favorite scotch in the collection was “the Budweiser of Scotches” Johnny Walker!

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Here’s a rare pre-mixed Johnny Walker with Coke purchased for an Australian dollar, and the most expensive scotch in the collection, which Vidiz paid $1,000 for in 1969 – apparently it’s the blue, custom-made bottle which makes it expensive, rather than the booze!

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In the collection room, Alistair gives us further instructions on adding water and how to judge the aroma of a scotch; like wine there are many subtleties to be found here, as aroma is a keener sense than taste. The tour ends up, not surprisingly, in a pub, where I spend another hour and chat up Alistair who has taken over the bartending duties. I order Balvenie 15 aged in a port cask and a “105 degree cask strength” (60 proof!) Glenfarclas; both are delightful. I tell travel stories with two Americans seated next to me at the bar; both are brand new to Edinburgh and we compare notes on stuff to check out.
Feeling the three strong scotches, I leave the Experience (realizing later I left my free sampling glass at the bar – will have to return to claim another one!) and walk downhill and around a bend through the downtown area.

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Probably the major catalyst for taking this particular trip hangs on the wall in my bathroom – it’s an old framed photograph of a city scene in Edinburgh taken in 1860; I bought it at a thrift shop a few years ago, and have always like the way the shot captures the easy bustle of everyday city living. One of my goals was to stand in that very spot – viewing the Scott Monument from Hanover Street – and take another photo of the same location in the present. This is a nice moment.

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It’s also quite convenient, as I’m headed to a vegetarian restaurant called Henderson’s, which Lonely Planet calls “the grandmother of Edinburgh vegetarian restaurants.” The recommendation is a great one and I thoroughly enjoy my meal of soup, risotto, and local oatmeal stout, using the free wifi to check in on Facebook.

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Ambling down George St., I pass by a light installation of Scottish Enlightenment quotes (these are Adam Smith), and come upon a church where a classical music recital is about to commence. I spontaneously decide to take it in and it’s a nice, somewhat tame sampler of student renditions of classical works; the highlight for me was the opening Magnificat by Pergolesi. (I fight to stay awake through the relatively placid music and wonder whether this 90 minutes and 7 pounds were the wisest use of time for someone who hasn’t slept in 36 hours!)

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I walk around, getting a bit lost and end up passing on my intended destination, a beer-focused pub which looks a little slow from the outside (and not in the greatest area) and end up in the Grassmarket area, where hundreds of witches and Scottish Presbyterian Covenenters (who dissented against British rule) were hung hundreds of years ago, including one affectionately known as “Half-hangit’ Maggie” who allegedly survived the rope! I end up in a quirky pub called “The Last Drop” (the irony of the name doesn’t strike me till I’m inside) where I drink ¾ of a pint and have some packaged shortbread and realize my tank is fully on empty.

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I make it back, download the day’s 200 photos (!!) and collapse into a heap. It’s 10:45pm local time and I set my alarm for 8:00am. We’ll see how that turns out in the next post. WHICH I PROMISE TO MAKE SHORTER AND LESS DETAILED THAN THIS ONE. ☺

Your subheading here...

Posted by coolmcjazz 07:21 Archived in Scotland Tagged scotland edinburgh Comments (0)

day 14: an unplanned holdup! (not the robbery kind)

in which your author endures two travel-related headaches and bids a fond farewell to another travel adventure

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Well… apparently Nick and Sydni's wish for me, which concluded my last post, didn’t quite stick. I should probably draw a big line here to indicate that my real trip ended with the absinthe night, and the travel difficulties which ensued and extended my trip an extra DAY AND A HALF (thanks Delta!) felt like an anomaly. Loooong story short (OK, somewhat short), we sat on the runway for an hour and a half before being pulled off and told that there was a mechanical issue with the engine. We wait another two hours in the airport before they cancel the flight and send us to a hotel downtown. It’s a huge hassle all around, with hundreds of annoyed and under-informed passengers placed on busses, and I’m already exhausted when I get back and have a meal at the hotel. I end up sitting with two cool gents, and we share our travel experiences; Patrick is a recent college grad/offensive lineman (no kidding!) from San Diego (and new Facebook/Twitter friend!) and Sebastien is a suave former model and fashion designer living in Miami. Without having had my daily coffee yet, I make the crucial mistake of having a beer with lunch, which ignites a small headache which over the next few hours would slowly develop into a migraine like I haven’t had in years. I walk up toward Montjuïc and the Palua Nacional (one attraction I hadn’t been able to see) and walk around, though I don’t pay the admission fee into the Museu d’Art Catalan. It looks impressive, but I’m no longer in full-on art-appreciating mode. (The gift shop indicates plenty of highlights, and as I had gotten rid of every last Euro in the duty free shop earlier, I’m doing what I can to not spend more!) Outside, I take lots of photos, but am fading fast and walk back to the hotel, where I take a few scenic shots out of my window before collapsing into a heap and falling asleep around 8pm.

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The next morning I’m awoken by a surprise phone call at 7am saying the shuttle is leaving for the airport. I leap up, rejuvenated, pack in two minutes and we’re herded to the gates; I stop to repack my already bulging backpack with the wine and beer I purchased at the duty-free shop the day before. (Annoyingly, thinking I was finally in the clear I bought more at the shop, then had to do this again upon reaching my transfer at JFK the next day!) Though we arrived at the airport at 7:30, our flight doesn’t actually take off until 3pm. (So, over eight hours of waiting at the gate, while the part doesn’t even arrive until 9am, and takes six hours to install – why did they bring us there so early, you ask? To save from having to pay for another hotel day, I would imagine! Boo, Delta!) During the time waiting in the airport, I witnessed more angry, impatient older travelers than I ever care to again – the people who were actually scheduled for the flight that morning were really put out by the fact that the people from our flight doubled their waiting times in line, of course completely oblivious to the fact that we had waited over 24 hours longer than they had. Some of the shouted comments of the angry mob in line behind me made toward the ticket workers were so nasty I wrote them down in my phone: “Get that girl out of there! She must be the dumbest person in the world!” Yikes! Note to future self: don't ever get angry, old, and entitled.

Once on the plane, we fly over the mountains of Spain; uninhabitable jagged mounds of brown dust topped by a thin sifting of white snow covering only a selection of the peaks. We fly from the edge of Europe to the edge of North America, and I watch the wobbly wings cut through the cottony clouds as we descend to JFK airport, where I wait another two hours for my transfer, finally, to DC.

With the possible exception of the final 36 hours, this was another terrific travel experience, such a unique mix of creative energy, new and fascinating friends, and places I’d always wanted to see. I don’t know when my next major trip will be; I certainly never would’ve guessed last summer that only six months would pass before making it back to Europe, so who knows. Suffice to say I’ve made enough of a habit of this travel writing thing that I expect to continue doing it. I think it’s pretty amazing that over the life of this blog I’ve received close to 22,000 hits (14,643 on my July trip plus 7,207 on this one, not including this entry!), so I thank all of you who have checked in with me. If you write it, they will read it, I suppose? I wish you all the best in your own life adventures, and stay in touch!

Posted by coolmcjazz 12:43 Archived in Spain Comments (2)

day 13: graciath a barthelona... y adioth! (maybe.)

in which your author meets new friends, takes in the town, and samples the green fairy in hemingway's bar!

semi-overcast 45 °F

Tell ya one thing I’ve learned about being a budding travel writer. I always loathe the last entry, the one where you have to pack up the hours you spent living that constant state of newness into some neat summary, all the while not knowing when your next travel adventure will arrive. I’ve been home for eleven days now, and just like the last entry for last summer’s trip, I’ve taken my sweet time composing it, perhaps in an attempt to savor the flavors and colors of experience. Truth be told, I think by the final few days of this trip I was ready to get home and resume normalcy; there are wonderful advantages to seeing the world, but living out of a overstuffed backpack on recycled clothing is not one of them.

Happy I got to sleep relatively early the previous night, I got up about as early as I had on any day of my solo week (10am?), and set out to conquer the town. The previous night I put out a call on Twitter for Barcelona “must-sees”; my oh-so cultured social media friends had plenty of suggestions, though the most consistent were Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, and Las Ramblas, where I had explored the previous evening. So not much mystery to the day’s itinerary – which was fine with me after close-to-2-weeks of exploring!

I make my way through the Sants Estacio train station, a ten minute walk from my lodgings, and descend into the subway; I find that as systems go, the Barcelona subway is clear, clean and easily managed. While in the station, I’m noticing something about this town which seems consistent and distinctive. Perhaps it’s because I’m extra-aware of my surroundings, but everyone seems to be making eye contact as they pass by, as if all residents are continually on guard?

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I get off at Vallcarca on the green line, which from one of my many maps appears to be the closest stop to Park Güell. Surprisingly there doesn’t appear to be an obvious way to get from the subway station to the park, which is surprising considering it’s surely one of the major tourist destinations in Barcelona.

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A nice woman eventually directs me en español (I understand about 75% of what she says) through some construction to the long escalator which will take me up to the park. Starving, I find a cute café and order a coffee and piece of apple cake, while Brad Mehldau plays in the background.

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After climbing up multiple plateaus on probably the longest escalator journey I’ve taken in my life, I arrive at the top by the entrance to Park Güell. Apparently this park was designed in the early 20th century for use as a wealthy residential area, but was later converted into a municipal garden.

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Walking along the ascending circular path are enormous, lime-green cactus plants which have been re-birthed as canvasses for carved initials and graffiti.

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The view from the curved walkway of beautiful Barcelona, stretching outward toward the Mediterranean, is majestic, and absolutely one of the highlight scenic vistas of this, or any trip I’ve been on.

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At the top of the pathway there’s a large precipice with a stone cross, and a number of tourists surround it with cameras. Though there’s an edge of chill, the air is almost spring-like, and everyone is in good spirits to be in such a place.

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Approaching the top, I hear a man’s grainy voice singing over… the 12 bar blues form? Though it’s incongruous to hear music which sounds like it belongs in a Tennessee juke-joint at the peak of a Barcelona municipal garden, the guitarist is really good, and I hold off on ascending to the top and shoot some video.

When he finishes, I strike up a conversation and find out that Robert Pugliese is an ex-pat from Tennessee, living as a street musician in Barcelona. We have one of those conversations which seems only possible between deep music lovers; he speaks in detail about his blues guitar influences, including Robert Johnson and the lesser-known (to me, at least) Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDonald, and passes on a wealth of information about the history of the metal dobro which he’s been playing, which I had mistaken for a guitar. (It's from Slovakian origins?!) I wish I could transport this guy to my class to lecture on early blues. I buy a copy of his CD and climb up to the top of the peak.

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On the top, I do some camera swapping (“Can you take my picture?” “Yeah, can you take ours?”) with three friendly Americans who like me are taking in all the gorgeous scenery. I sense a connection to them, though as a solo traveler it’s a bit daunting to say “Hey, I don’t know a soul here. What are you guys doing the rest of the day?” We part ways and I take a minute to breathe in the air, again wondering if I will ever make it back to this spot.

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I descend and walk past Robert The Bluesman down the curved trail, and at a small opening I turn and descend in the direction of where some music and dancing is taking place below.

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I order an overpriced (though delicious!) Sangria and cheese sandwich on crusty bread, and walk toward the plaza where a brass band is playing Spanish music. Lo and behold, my photo friends from above are seated close by, and as this is a good twenty minutes later in an enormous park, the serendipity seems too much to resist. We sit and chat about the town and our backgrounds; Nick and Sydni are married American church-workers-who-don’t-want-to-be-called-missionaries living in England, while Jazmin is a Univision journalist visiting from Chicago. Jazmin shows off her impressively organization skills by pulling out a list of “things to try in Barcelona” and offers me a piece of local cheese (queso de Cabrales) which she has checked off the list; it’s really pungent, and taking a bite pushes my eyebrows toward the sky. I imagine this cheese would be better appreciated after building up to it, and maybe accompanied by a nice Albariño!

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At some point I mention my ill-fated trip to the closed Bar Marsella the previous evening, and Jazmin points to it on her list! So, evening plans, done and done. We agree to meet there at 7:30, and it’s nice to enjoy the rest of my day knowing I have a plan in place for the evening. On the way out of the public square I pass by a woman dancing flamenco, and I stop to buy some bracelets and silk scarves from merchants sitting on the sand. (I have a few left, friends – who wants em?!)

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At the base of the Park, tourists mill about with cameras, soaking in the distinctive Gaudi flavor; I pop into the colorful gift shop, which warns patrons to beware of pickpockets, and pick up a few trinkets.

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As the afternoon is waning and my time is growing short, I decide to pay for my only solo cab ride of the trip to get to Sagrada Familia, which ends up being only around 7 Euro. I have a broken-Spanish conversation with the cabbie on the way, and he reminds me to be careful at night around Bar Marsella!

I leave the cab and walk around the imposing cathedral of Sagrada Familia, which stretches to the clouds, flanked by scaffolding – apparently this church has been in a state of continual construction for some time. I walk around and take lots of shots, then walk in and join the phalanx of tourists all craning their necks to take in the enormous vertical expanse.

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Clearly, Antonio Gaudi wasn’t a fellow who believed in restraint; geometrical shapes define faces of ornate religious statues, a heavy metal door is carved with Biblical words, while greens, blues, and red-oranges glow through simple circle and oval stained windows in the high archways. The church is structured in a Latin cross, where “branching columns of different heights rise to give the feeling of a forest.” The detail of Gaudi’s vision is extraordinary and almost childlike; I’m pretty sure I’ve never been in a place like this in my life.

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I should say that when I looked at pictures of Antonio Gaudi’s work online, the word which came to mind was in fact… “gaudy.” My tastes in architecture and art are primed by travels to grand and classical 16th century cathedrals with my father in Italy, and even when I visited Paris I found the gothic style of Notre-Dame very much to my liking. That said, seeing Gaudi’s work up close, and especially walking through the exhibit describing his process, containing hands-on demonstrations, places his work in a context which encourages deeper appreciation. Gaudi was fanatical about studying the processes of nature and mathematics, and it’s inspiring to see how he applied these concepts to his cathedral.

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Though its cold, I take another walk around the cathedral, and call home for a few minutes – it’s amazing how well the cell phone signal to the US is from all this distance! My father, who visited here in the mid-1960s, asks me if the church façade still looks like it’s melting away. Sure does!

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I walk back underneath the cathedral through the museum, where even more detail regarding Gaudi and his methods are found; the admission fee to get into the church was fairly high but I see why given the terrific presentation of all of this stuff. Sagrada Familia was well worth seeing and it absolutely does the city of Barcelona proud.

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Outside the cathedral, I ask for directions to Casa Calvet, where a Facebook friend has told me to try the Guanaja chocolate cake, and I make my way past meticulously crafted store windows, swanky tapas joints and more architecture museums which I don’t have the energy to investigate. Sadly, the restaurant is closed, but I consult my map and walk toward the Arc de Triomf, stopping in a beautifully designed South Asian goods store where I purchase a scarf for myself and a hat for a friend.

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After a quick view of the Arc, where kids are playing soccer, I descend into the subway, where there’s a creepy looking guy wearing dark sunglasses standing directly in front of the entry gates, watching people enter the station. (Yikes.) I make my way back to Binita’s place, grab a refreshing shower (always a fine substitute for an actual nap), and head back out to meet my new friends, and this time, having a better idea of what to expect, I bring my nice camera, having finagled a way to stuff it under my coat.

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I arrive at Bar Marsella at 7:31 and am alarmed when I hear someone in the sea of prostitutes call out “Jason!” (I joke with the three, “How did they know my name?”) Bar Marsella doesn’t open until 10:30, so we make our way past the shady-looking people back out onto Las Ramblas and decide to explore part of the Gothic Quarter. It feels safer already to be in a group!

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Ever the journalist, after just one day here, Jazmin already has an impressively clear idea of where we are and where we should go, and as we wind our way past twists and turns in an old part of town, the others and myself feel like we’re being given a tour by a true local! We stop briefly into a beer bar, which Nick is impressed by; apparently they don’t get many craft beers living in the English countryside! We decide that food is a priority, however, so we resolve to find some tapas and come back.

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We arrive at Sagardi, where the three had been to the previous night, and it’s my only genuine tapas (pronounced “tapath” here!) experience in Spain. Dozens of delectables on bits of bread line the glass cases, and after we find a spot standing at a table, waiters stop by with other savory samples which are tough to resist. It’s a sort of never-ending smorgasbord, and even eating vegetarian I’m exposed to lots of new flavors. (Even the mushroom tapa was great, though my favorite was the fried goat cheese!) We also share a bottle of a sparkling white from the Basque region called Talai Berri. I see why this business model is so strong; you fill your plate when you first walk in hungry, then they bring out other stuff which looks too good to pass up, and they charge you by the number of toothpicks you leave on your plate. The others make a special request for a jam & cream cheese (but better!) dessert tapa which they had had the previous night, and the chef makes a new plate of them just for us! Also, at some point a child walks by with his dog in a bag?!

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We move on and walk our way back to the beer bar La Cerveteca, and luckily find another standing table in the crowd, where we talk about beer and jobs and travel and it’s great fun getting to know these folks. This feels much like what I experienced meeting Americans on my trip last summer, and I love the ways strangers can easily come together over beers and conversation.

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Walking back in the direction of Bar Marsella, which we are by now resolved to see, we stop into a French chocolate shop, where I peruse for chocolate for my roommate who is kindly watching my dog over my 2 week trip; I hold up a green box and blue box and ask “Quien es mas macho?” (Everyone votes for the blue.) I also buy a mantecado (solamente uno? Dios mío!), made with lemon juice and cinnamon and Jazmin and I agree it’s one of the finest pastries we’ve ever sampled.

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We make it to Bar Marsella, which upon arrival is open but empty, find a table and the men order two absinthes. (Does anyone ever order anything else here?) The waiter brings back two of the neon green potions with a bottle of spring water which has a pinhole drilled into its top. (Something tells me this wasn’t what Hemingway used, but it works.) Balancing a sugar cube on a fork, we pour the water slowly over the sugar, which melts into the liquid. The taste is actually better than I had imagined, with strong herbal notes led by anise; in fact it’s smoother than the version which I had brewed at home last fall. (Imagine that.)

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Sydni takes my camera and wanders around the place taking shots, so it’s nice that I have a few nice ones of me in this setting, which isn’t always the case. (Note to Nick: buy this girl a camera!) To say that the ambiance is astounding is an understatement; the place reeks of history and this is even more palpable actually sitting there and enjoying the storied liquor with friends.

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As the place fills up to near capacity, I walk around and take more shots. Bar Marsella is a terrific way to close out my long trip, and we pack up and head back out to Las Ramblas, where my new friends (yay Facebook!) walk to their hotel and I take the train back to Sants Estacio. What cool people I’ve met on this trip. I love how traveling makes you cut through so many formalities; I think people present the best of themselves when they’re in unfamiliar lands, so you really get to know positive, relaxed sides of people, and it’s the best way I know to meet interesting people from all around the world.

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The following morning, I miss my intended train to the airport, and get on one which will get me there with barely enough time to check my bags for my international flight. The train is packed, and I amble with my bags toward the one available seat. As I sit I look to my right, and who am I sitting next to? NICK AND SYDNI. No way! What are the chances of that? (And can we get another absinthe here?) We depart at the airport and wish each other well in our respective travels. I'm about to say goodbye to Europe again... or so I thought!

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[Note: I tried to make the following day part of this, but I had exceeded the limit for words in one entry! Guess I'll have to make a separate post!]

Posted by coolmcjazz 11:21 Archived in Spain Comments (2)

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