A Travellerspoint blog

March 2012

Day 5: A Hasty Scottish Goodbye and Return to Familiar Digs

in which your author hits the pause button on travel writing... for now!

sunny 50 °F

Sunday marked my last day in Edinburgh before departing for an overnight stay in Amsterdam, and thus I had a big decision to make regarding what I’d spend that time doing. I had heard wonderful things about Rosslyn Chapel, which is a 30 minute bus ride outside the city, but I also had yet to explore Edinburgh Castle, obviously one of, if not the, major landmarks here. I opted for the latter; as with visiting Paris in 2010, I don’t mind not seeing all the major sites of any given city because it gives me an instant agenda for whenever I may return. Prior to leaving for the morning, I grabbed a couple of shots of my room, partially to prove the fact that I wore my MacKinnon plaid tie in Scotland!

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I pop by my favorite corner café for a coffee and a caramel flapjack, and walk around the castle toward the Royal Mile.

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One recommended place I hadn’t yet ducked into was Coda Music, a delightful CD shop focusing on traditional music. (I can’t imagine something like this existing in the US, even for traditional “American” folk music!) I’m fortunate to find, and for only 7 pounds, a recording made at Sandy Bell’s (the music pub I’d visited a few times while here) way back in 1977, though being in the store makes me wish I were more familiar with the names and sub-genres of Celtic trad music.

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I round the curve and decide to give my favorite Edinburgh street corner one final pass, taking a few more daytime photos of the Scott Monument, contemplating when (if ever) I’ll come back to this corner. I head back up toward to the castle, choosing a windy, flower-laden path snaking its way around and overlooking a gorgeous view overlooking the city.

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I arrive at Edinburgh Castle and it takes about 20 minutes to wait in the ticket queue; I should have ordered one online! I’m a bit bummed to have to pay full price given that I only have time to stay for 90 minutes, but I find out there’s a 10% discount due to two of the exhibits being closed for renovation. There’s a sign marking the spot where the province of Nova Scotia, destination point of my Scottish ancestors from Barra, was given over to Sir William Alexander of Menstrie, Earl of Stirling, in 1625.

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The castle is well worth the trip. The city views are terrific, and the ancient rooms include the Scottish crown jewels and the room in which James VI of Scotland (James I of England) was born in 1566. Apparently the room was painted and decorated with the hopes the King would visit, and he never did!

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In the "Great Hall," a Queen Victoria impersonator and her consort add to the royal flavor; visitors (myself included) clamor around them like paparazzi for photos though we are all well aware she’s not the real Queen! (Oh, tourists...)

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I leave the Castle and make my way one last time down the top of the Royal Mile, stopping in to pick up some MacKinnon Clan souvenirs and decide against purchasing any of the tourist-magnet scarves priced identically at any of the cookie-cutter shops along the way. Walking past Grassmarket, I stop into a bookstore, pick out a nice Chardin book on traveling for my father, but then realize I’m out of pounds! The cash machine close by isn’t working, so I continue on my way toward my last lunch in town, stopping at another Shelter store in (unfulfilled) hopes of last-minute gifts.

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I have only about 30 minutes to order and enjoy lunch at the Cloister’s and decide on soup and veggie haggis spring rolls; had I more time I might’ve tried the Camembert Pie! The food goes down great with a stunning Plum Porter (would love to try to brew that at home!) and I hurry back to the flat to gather my things and make the 3:08pm bus to the airport, making a short video upon entering the flat.

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Due to my reading the schedule incorrectly, the trip to the airport is twice as long as I had anticipated, but thankfully I still have plenty of time to check my bags and catch my flight to Amsterdam. On the flight I befriend a chatty young female photographer who is leaving for Curacao for four months to work on a tourism project, and staying overnight in Amsterdam. Hello Katharina!

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Upon arriving in Amsterdam I take the train to Centraal Station, only a few blocks away from where I’d be staying; this is the same place I stayed at for one night during my trip in July 2010, so I’m looking forward to revisiting somewhere I didn’t imagine I’d ever get back to. My Italian Facebook friend Danilo meets me at the station and we walk to the flat; it’s terrific to be there amidst familiar digs. I unpack and head out to retrace my steps of almost two years ago, walking about two miles around past numerous canals toward the very active Centrum area.

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I pick up a falafel (distinctly not as good as the last one I had in this town) and stop into a bar for a beer. It’s incredible to not only find one of the best beers in the world Westmalle Triple on tap, but pay 3.25 Euro for it – such a beer would cost around $11 for a bottle in the US, never mind on tap. It’s absolutely delicious, and it’s all I need. I chat briefly with a couple fellows visiting from the US, and make my way back toward the flat, stopping at a candy store for some stroopwafels to bring home and a brownie.

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It’s remarkable to be back in this place and it reminds me of my life-changing 2010 trip – Amsterdam is the first city from that trip which I’ve come back to, and even though it’s only for a few hours it’s a terrific way to close out this particular journey. I manage to get about three hours of sleep (!), oversleep and rush to the train station, say goodbye to Amsterdam... and still end up with plenty of time to make my flight back to Washington. I give into temptation at the Amsterdam airport, purchasing a nice Glenfarclas single malt, for much cheaper than it would have been in the US. (Shockingly, I pass on buying the world's most expensive bottle of scotch, which costs... TWO-HUNDRED-AND-FIFTY-THOUSAND EURO. No verification yet of the rumor Mitt Romney's family uses the stuff as tap water.)

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On the flight, I watch The Help (much better than expected!), write a blog entry, and thank my lucky stars that I’ve had such a positive trip, with hardly any regrets. I’ve made a Europe trip in every calendar year since 2010, and kept a detailed log of each one on this journal; I'm also pleased to be notified that my previous entry from the Highlands was “featured” on the Travellerspoint home page! I'm also starting to take pride in the stamps I'm collecting on my passport.

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My incredible-how-did-I-get-so-lucky girlfriend is waiting for my at the airport when I arrive, accompanied by a wonderfully overstimulated furry four-legged friend named Fenway, who sticks his head out of the car window on the drive home. Back in DC, the following day I show my students a short video of the music from the pub, and tell them: “You never regret the money you spend on traveling, because it’s life experience, and you can’t ever replace that!” Cheers, all, and thanks for keeping tabs on me – ‘til the next adventure, keep stickin' yer heads out the window of life! :)

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Posted by coolmcjazz 11:11 Archived in Scotland Tagged scotland edinburgh amsterdam Comments (0)

Day 4: The Highlands and St. Patrick's in Scotland

in which your author finds neither the loch ness monster nor the holy grail

semi-overcast 50 °F

Scotchy, scotch, scotch. Down in mah belly. Staying up til the wee small hours in dimly lit pubs, chatting up strangers and hearing stories about life in this rich old town. All are fantastic ideas at night, but the sun comes up and the morning toll must be paid; this time it took the form of a 7am wakeup to make an 8:00 call for a pre-booked bus tour to the Scottish Highlands.

A rush to get to the Castle, about 2/3 of a mile away, in 10 minutes. No time for food, and the realization that I had no more cash, nor time to find an ATM, and the looming possibility I might go the entire morning without food. With a rough rider, kilted Scotsman behind the wheel taking no prisoners on the bumpy, windy country roads, 350 miles of which we are about to cover.

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I recently learned that “I feel nauseous” is incorrect; the proper phrase is “I feel nauseated.” I also recently learned I have great personal willpower to resist nausea when seated in the back row of a tour bus, and that Excedrin (aka manna from the Gods) is second in importance perhaps only to my passport on a Scotland packing list.

As my body recalibrates its relationship with existence, I write about Day 2 and start to enjoy the vivid scenery mere miles outside of Edinburgh. Our tour guide is another rogue straight from Scottish Central Casting – “Youse think eyyye havv a funny accent? Noo, I’m from herr… YOUSE are the ones who have accents!” We pass a McDonald’s which he introduces as “the American embassy,” and indicates a large field on which “legendary Scottish battles have been lost miserably”… it’s a rugby field. “No food, no drrrrink, no talk, you listen to me, I’m the teacher… breathing is OK but don’t breathe too much – this is good Scottish air and we don’t like to waste it on tourists!” He has this funny manner of repeating phrases twice for emphasis and ending almost every sentence with “Yah?” and there's even a touch of DeNiro amidst the thick brogue. Although the tour is mostly young couples, they’re not a particularly participatory bunch (the couple in front of me switched off headphones on some insipid heavy metal), but the guide does his best to keep things lively.

We pass Linlithgow Palace, birthplace of Mary Stuart in 1542, sacked by the British – that appears to be true of practically every old fortress in this much maligned country. One particular treat for me is passing by the castle used in the filming of Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail. (“What, the curtains?”), a film I’ve probably seen at least 32 times. (35, sir. Yes, 35.) We don’t get a very good look at it from the windy road, but I can at least see the building. No luck finding the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch at any of the gift shops nearby though.

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The Highlands are as advertised; gorgeous and green, expansive and packed with mountains. This region constitutes 85% of the land mass of Scotland, but only 10% of the population reside here (90% of the land is owned by a wealthy 100), not including the many visitors, who include skiers, hikers, rock climbers (15-30 are killed every year on Glencoe Mountain alone), and bikers following “cycle paths for psychopaths!” We pass by Ben Nevis, at 4,600+ feet, the highest mountain in the UK; I recall my father told me he climbed it years ago.

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We make a few quick stops for photos and at the first rest stop I’m pleased to find a cash machine; all the food at the rest stops is overpriced, though I was pleased to indulge in a delicious Scottish pastry called a “caramel flapjack,” which are fairly common to find. It’s also somewhat depressing to see “Made in China” on some of the cheaper items! Outside the first stop, there are two friendly Highland cows (allegedly celebrating birthdays) named Hamish and Honey, who both look like stouter, shorter Snuffleupaguses. (Shockingly, MS Word doesn’t recognize that last word.)

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After about three hours of stories set to Scottish music, we arrive at our major destination, what our guide describes as “maybe the most famous body of water in the world,” the impressive and legendary Loch Ness, which at a mile wide and 22.5 miles in length is truly monstrous in size. (Sorry.) We disembark at Urquhart (“Urk-heart”) Castle, a ruined fortress sacked by the British numerous times; the ruins date back over a thousand years. After watching a brief film reenacting some of the castle’s violent history (featuring the equivalent of “industrial work” for Scottish actors, presumably) I walk down and climb around the ruins, taking seemingly thousand of photos in the hope I’ll get at least one worth printing and framing. A Red Sox fan from Cape Cod takes my photo in front of the ruins.

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Staring out at (and videotaping) the waters, I can’t say I didn’t try to coax Nessie out of her dark depths. (I believe there was a Six Nations rugby match on which probably explains her absence from the surface.) Waiting for the boat at the shore, (slightly ironic after being read the riot act to not show up late for the boat lest we want to swim back to Edinburgh!) I taste a bit of the Loch water and the guide described, it’s completely clean; apparently it’s purified by the presence of the ancient peat.

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I think there’s at least the shadow of a monster in this photo?

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Our “cruise” across the Loch is fairly uneventful but it is nice to be out on the water. It’s one of the few times I actually feel lonely on the trip, as it appears to be almost all couples, families, or groups of friends and I wasn’t feeling the chatty vibe from the group.

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I make it through the most treacherous part of the journey – the gift shop – with my funds (mostly) intact, and we begin to cross the Highlands for the trip back south, accompanied by a gorgeous setting sun and musical selections from “The Last of the Mohecans” (once filmed in the area) and some truly wretched bagpipe and electric guitar hybrid music featuring the guy from Dire Straits.

A worthy trip nonetheless, and at 38 pounds certainly a better plan that it would have been to rent a car (which started at 60 pounds not including gas) and navigate the mountains on the wrong side of the road. Next time I’d love to actually visit a distillery, though I’m rather happy to stay away from the golden liquid on this particular day!

We arrive back ahead of schedule and I stop for some pub food, which unfortunately takes waaaay too long and is fairly bland (microwaved mac and cheese?) and pushes back my plan to drop off my things (including my battery-dead laptop which I didn’t want to lug around on amidst drunken St. Patrick’s revelers) and meet George at the Sandy Bell sometime between 8 and 9. By the time I actually make it there it’s about 9:20 and he’s not around. I’ll have to drop him a postcard.

The Sandy Bell is packed and seems to contain quite a lot of overflow from the Irish pub across the street, and it’s mostly greened up college students who are putting the “bro” in “brogue.” The musicians finally start up in the back but they’re mostly tuned out. I chat up the friendly guitarist, who teaches flute and traditional music at Glasgow Conservatory, and decide to walk around a bit more before possibly coming back later, with a fervent desire to sing my Irish pub song on the holiday in an actual trad music pub. And importantly, to take my annual St. Patrick’s Day photo of a pint of Guinness balanced on my head.

I walk in the direction of Greyfriars, snoop in on a ghost tour in the much-spookier-in-the-dark–and-allegedly-haunted cemetery for a minute, then down a street where, upon eying a pub from the outside, I’m literally pulled in by a guy yelling “come on in here, it’s so much fun!” He introduces me and the entire pub shouts hello. This sort of thing only goes on in Europe, I swear. I chat with a few Americans, but quickly decide the vibe is a bit much for my energy, and leave after a few minutes, walking down streets I hadn’t been down previously. One thing I’m enjoying about Edinburgh is that after only three days here, I’ve already got the geography mostly down; the Castle is a convenient landmark.

I walked a good deal on this night, probably as much as any other time on the trip: past the Grassmarket (the spot where Coventers were burned now used as a styrofoam container disposal area, sadly) and all the way around to Lothian Road, which extends to the east of where my flat was. I eventually located Bennet’s, another British pub recommended by @hipharpy, and stopped in for a quick malt, which confirmed for me my satisfaction with Benromach.

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As it was still fairly early on a weekend holiday, and not wanting to turn in my Irish card, I make the large loop around in the direction of the Sandy Bell, making a quick stop into The Brauhaus, which claims to have the largest beer list in the city. It’s a welcoming, small-size pub with a truly impressive selection; I enjoy a half pint of local American-style IPA and continue on my way.

The musicians are on break when I get back to the packed Sandy Bell, I order my half pint of Guinness, which a drunk local woman makes fun of me for at the bar – I’ve finally met an unfriendly person in Edinburgh! I take the self-portrait in the men’s room and return to perch by the musicians.

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The fiddle player, who is quite extraordinary, and the jovial bass player, the spitting image of Samuel Beckett, start to trade back short bits of music. There’s clearly a lull and the other players aren’t joining in yet, so I summon the courage to ask her if they’d play “Raglan Road” (which the intentions of my singing along) to which she blurts out “NO” even before I finish the question. The bass player leans over to me to say “she’s married!” and I say no, I was just asking for a song; he says which one, I say “Raglan Road” and he starts playing it, impishly following my lead as I join in singing. The fiddle player (reluctantly, haha!) starts playing along, and though the pub is loud, I’m able to sing at full strength and be heard in the immediate vicinity. We do three verses and the bass player shakes my hand vigorously. Victory! That was a goal and I remember regretting chickening out on this when I was in my last trad pub in Dublin, so it’s a great way to celebrate the holiday and close out the day. My trip is more than half over and I’m still collecting highlights by the hour!

Posted by coolmcjazz 17:04 Archived in Scotland Tagged scotland edinburgh Comments (2)

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

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“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. ☺

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

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