A Travellerspoint blog

Day 3: Corked, Uncorked, and Who Kilkennied?!

in which your author gives a 100+ year-old item a visit to its former domain, eats delicious things, hears mahler in an irish pub, has amazing old and new friends, and almost dies of plague, again

rain 40 °F

“I love waking up to rainbows…”


…said Amy as we stepped formerly dank, dark Cork into the bright new morning. The sunswept sky seemed to contain fissures from which pockets of rain emptied themselves politely, and we’re immediately graced with a full rainbow extending itself majestically in the very direction of the center of town. Cameras are grabbed, oohs are ahhed. What does it mean?!


Let me backtrack slightly. By the time of the rainbow, it’s around 11am and it’s already the earliest Irish morning we’ve seen so far. I woke at around 9:45am, quite proud I’ve both arisen fairly early only one day into the five-hour time difference, AND quite happy to have seemingly (though quite falsely) kicked The Plague Bug From My Brother.

We had a loose idea of plans in Cork to meet with a friend – let me call her "@freckledpast," a knitter, baker, and sewer with DC roots whom I knew only from Twitter. (Brief footnote: many people, almost none of them on Twitter themselves, give me guff for what they see as the pointlessness of social media. The story which follows is one of many I’ve experienced which prove the lie to that canard!) Yet since our lovely Cork hostess had no steady internet connection, I couldn’t get in touch with @freckledpast – henceforth known by her actual name Evin – and thus we needed to get into Cork as soon as possible to establish contact. So we started walking, in search of free wifi under the end of that rainbow.


I snapped some shots on the twenty-minute walk into Cork – the first time I’d actually used my real camera and not my iPhone. (Technology has certainly improved since my first Ireland trip. And/or I am far too lazy to worry much about photo quality.) The streets are rugged, time-worn, residential units tightly squeezed together. Dormer windows.

Things get more picturesque when we make the turn into city center: pub signs in reds and yellows, old, crumbling establishments, brightly screaming billboards.


We walk along the lovely canal and are beginning to get a feel for the outskirts of downtown Cork.


Amy claims a hunch on a vegetarian café, and scampers up a set of stairs to find out if they have wifi.


We get the thumbs up and are subsequently treated to an enormous spread of scrumptious veggie options, probably the best food we’ve had on the trip so far – Amy is entranced by an Irish take on samosas, me with a bulging raspberry scone, and we add full breakfast plates of other veggie-friendly goodies on top of that. (This particular restaurant has been open thirty years in what our kindly waitress describes as an extremely vegetarian-friendly city.) With our first steady wifi connection in what feels like days I scramble to publish my first blog post of the trip, knowing that skipping the first would lead me to possibly abandon the whole works!


Evin, already demonstrating great patience, tells us to meet her at the Cork Central Library which is just over a footbridge with a large Ferris Wheel in front. She notices our confused tourist gait straight away and we meet not only her but her devastatingly precious 2-year old Liam. I run into the library to procure sleeping arrangements for us in Kilkenny where we’d be off to that night, and Amy and Evin chat while Liam grins his way through a much-desired carousel ride.


As I alluded to in my last post, there’s an element of reconnaissance adjoined to the Cork side of this trip. About three years ago, I came across a brown paper sleeve which would originally have housed a 78 rpm record, of the variety found ca. 1905-1910 or so, in a bin of dusty old records in a Salvation Army in Brockton, MA. (I remember at first passing on it then going back to find it again a few days later.) I don’t believe I even paid anything for it at all. God knows how long it had been in the US, but it had originated from a record shop found at 34 Grand Parade, Cork, a place where one could not only purchase records (the brand new American-invented tech fad sweeping Europe) but also send telegrams, and even participate in something called “oxygen.” For years I’ve displayed it holding a 78rpm record of my partial namesake James McCool, an Irish tenor from Philadelphia recording around 1905. Knowing I was visiting Cork for the first time, I decided to bring it along and stop into whatever became of 34 Grand Parade…


…which as it turned out was very close to the library, about a 2 minute walk across the street. As we approached what was now an Adecco Temp Agency (ironically, a place I once did some work for when I lived in NYC) at 34 Grand Parade, a pretty, vivacious blonde woman was locking the door. I approached her: “So, this is a reallllly strange thing but I thought you might be interested in this – I’ve brought it all the way from America.” Any worry I had that this curio may have been more interesting to me than anyone else was erased as her face scrunched up with disbelief. “This is so amazing! Please, come in!” “Did you have any idea this used to be a music shop?” “None at all!” We spend a minute inside she gives me her card, and I promise to send a copy. It’s really a special and very unusual moment. I wonder what the sleeve itself thought?


We continue walking and enter the English Market, which our hostess Caitriona had mentioned was an essential visit. Inside, we’re overwhelmed with the sights and scents of fresh meat and fish and other produce. I pick up some “award-winning” brown bread crackers and raspberry vanilla jam for the folks. Evin and Amy are chatting like old friends, Liam is tumbling around and seems a natural explorer of spaces, and since I’m still feeling significantly under the weather it’s nice to not have to worry about being so “on” with a new friend.


It’s chilly and starting to drizzle so we stop at a local chocolatier Evin recommends for a hot drink, and we all nestle into an upstairs lounge area for some mochas and caramel flapjacks. (I remember how delicious these were from Edinburgh.) Liam takes an apparently new liking to chocolate and given the quality of the stuff I don’t blame him.


We carry on and the rain is stronger, and while she heads home to get Liam some fresh clothes, Evin directs us to a pub called Hi-B Bar on the second floor of an old building around the corner. We’re warned (for the first time) that the owner was one of the most famous creatures in all of Cork, a cantankerous crank notorious for both his much sought-after pub (rated as the #2 “must see” pub in all of Ireland, we’re told) and for his, shall we say, old fashioned approach to customer service.


I enter the pub alone and am greeted with a warm smile from the barmaid, a thin, early-30-something brunette with a sweet face and demeanor, prepping the bar, playing Sinatra. We chat pleasantly for a bit and then my eyes boggle upon seeing the framed photo of Gustav Mahler which sits in front of one of the stacks of hundreds of CDs. An Irish pub open since 1926 with an ornery owner whose father opened the place and who loves Mahler? Could this be any more my scene?


I brazenly disobey the “no mobiles allowed in the bar” sign (sorry, couldn't help it) and snap a few shots and my companions show up. Within 15 minutes, the pub fills and conversations effortlessly spread, generally centered on the uniqueness of the pub itself, which one patron describes as “your great-grandfather’s sitting room,” also known for mixing in what the barmaid calls “famous politicians and crazy alcoholic Dave who may be homeless.” Overheard at the bar #1: “I’ll have a whiskey, thanks be to God.” The major topic of discussion, however, is "THE OWNER" – who isn’t in the pub but who lives upstairs and may or may not be watching all of us on closed circuit camera – and his unorthodox take on customer service: a woman orders a Heineken and he will only serve her a red wine. When he doesn’t appreciate a businessman’s conversation, the owner marches over and cuts off the fella’s tie! Overheard at the bar #2: “How old is he?” “84.” “Oh crikey, he was that age ten years ago!”


At one point Liam bumps his head, starts a two-year old wail and jokes are passed about how many adults have cried in the pub for less cause. The barmaid offers to heat up his milk bottle. Can’t say I’ve ever seen that on a cocktail list.

This pub vibe was exactly what I needed: friendly, warm, packed with stories and even a dose of classical music: the barmaid heeds my suggestions on Mahler and we depart only after the end of the Adagietto from the 5th Symphony. Imagine that?

We say our goodbyes to our lovely and helpful new friend Evin (and our tumbling wonder Liam) – who swiftly complies THIS lovely melange of illicit photos from the pub...


...then really hears it from her Cork friends about her own photo-taking (thanks for putting your social life on the limb for us, Evin!) – and we hop in a cab to defend against what is now a full-on rain beating down on Cork.


Our driver is as colorful as most Irish cab drivers seem to be, and asks us if “yer man was at the High B? he’s a crazy one!” He gives us a bit of Cork history on the way back to our place, delivered in the unmistable thick Cork dialect. We grab our bags just as Catriona arrives so we quickly tell her about our day, say a proper goodbye and hop in the car, departing for Kilkenny. (Who killed Kenny?!)

Sadly, given the craic of Cork we hadn’t left quite enough time – and then proceeded to make a wrong turn out of the city costing us 25 minutes – and had issues with the GPS giving us directions to the wrong place – AND had no cell or wifi service – AND AND it’s absolutely teeming rain and poor Amy is driving ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD on some of the windiest country roads imaginable with seemingly oblivious drivers whizzing by in the opposite direction… and thus by the time we got to the Kilkenny area ostensibly for dinner with a friend’s brother, we were not only behind schedule but horribly lost, and our dinner plans fell apart. Glumly, we drive to the Airbnb we had reserved in Kilkenny, greeting our cheerful hosts Corey, a 40-something Kilkenny native and Nadia, a 30-something Bulgarian native, far earlier than they had expected us. They set out some tea and biscuits and it’s lovely to be in another cozy home. (More on these guys tomorrow.)

Corey is driving to see his granny and we hitch a ride the half a mile or so into downtown Kilkenny, a town I visited for just one night on my first trip to Ireland in August, 2008. One goal of mine is to find a pub where I visited with an ex in August 2008 in which I heard some brilliant trad music, and where I also shot some video that I ended up using in my American Popular Music classes for seven years. Problem is, my fever is rapidly increasing and I know I’m not well at all. We enter Langford’s Hotel, a stunningly gorgeous, massive structure with multiple glistening function rooms, designed by the same local architect who designed Madonna’s house. We sit and have some food at the bar (my mashed potatoes are disappointingly clumpy and not as good as my Dad’s; then again few versions are) and I have a half pint of local Kilkenny Ale and I sink further and further down into the depths of this nasty sickness. I barely have the energy to stand, never mind make small talk with my poor travel companion. After what feels like hours we leave and walk in the direction of Corey and Nadia’s, with the hope of locating the mystery 2008 bar along the way. We try every place Corey had mentioned, but no luck. Even with luck, I’m not sure I would have been able to do much beyond collapse into a heap anyway. We get back to the Airbnb and I do in fact collapse into a heap, with a forehead that feels like a stove. Amy asks them for cold medicine (which they are generous to provide) and they make me the most glorious hot toddy (called a “hot whiskey” around here) I’ve had since my mother made me one so as to ward off laryngitis the night before my high school musical opened. I drink it all and eventually fall asleep. A long, complex day peppered with heavy cold rain, but also warm and wonderful people to lighten the burden.

Posted by coolmcjazz 16:53 Archived in Ireland Tagged cork kilkenny Comments (1)

Day 2: Put A Cork In It! (sorry)

in which your author and his trusted companion navigate both the treacherous deep south of Ireland and the treacherous maybe plague bug

semi-overcast 40 °F

Like Day 2, this entry – which also represents Day 1 of 2014 – will be* short and sweet gritty. We began at Laura's in Dublin, still a bit wrecked from jetlag, sleeping in way past the fervent desires of our pre-trip itinerary. The major goal for the day would be to procure our rental car and drive it to Cork, about three hours to the south. Since I had stayed up until 5am Dublin time the previous night, I was still not quite rested, yet more important, by the morning began showing alarming signs of having full-on caught whatever bug my brother Dan had passed on during the ride to the ride from Massachusetts to JFK airport. Body aches, sore throat, raspy voice; and though we had done a fine job mixing water in with our Guinness on New Year's, my immune system was clearly weakened. We had some breakfast including porridge, Irish yogurt, and lovely Irish bread Laura had left out for us – I've found that one of the great charms of this country is that even the store-bought bread is textured and beautiful – and set out for the Budget rental car office which was about a twenty minute walk past the Royal Canal made famous by this classic Dubliners song (or if you must the recent Justin Timberlake version which like much of his work is actually better than it should be.) It's nice to connect the thin threads between the area where we were staying and the Auld Triangle prison, pub, and song.

The car rental experience is about as fraught with near-tension as you might expect it to be (oh hello, $1000+ credit card "security deposit" mentioned only in the fine print) though our Polish clerk is helpful and gets us set up in our small black bug which we instantly and incorrectly suspect to be a dreaded manual transmission. We decide to rent a GPD system (he cuts us a deal) which has become an essential. My first tentative passage down THE WRONG SIDE OF THE STREET in Dublin is shaky at best and not aided at all by the driver behind us honking because of how slow I'm driving. Turns are an endeavor.


I spot a large market on the right side of the street and it takes about fifteen minutes just to turn left into a neighborhood, negotiate those mostly one-way roads and , and make our way back to it. I buy all manner of liquids including OJ and hot tea and cold green tea and Cadbury caramel bars (ok, not a liquid) and also some Irish version of Theraflu called "Hot Berry Panadol" which I instantly prepare with hot water. Amy recommends we have some food at Bodkin's Bar next door (I am only realizing at this very moment that I don't know where my leftover burrito ended up) and the youngish bartender tells me I can't bring in coffee from outside and I eek out "Oh, it's Theraflu (he has no idea what that is) and I'm very sick and it's not coffee and..." and he just sort of nods and we now have an agreement. I order a surprisingly delicious burrito with soy chorizo (how that option was made available in a random pub in Ireland I've no idea) and Amy sketches me as I eat, titling it something like "Jason... Near Death." My friends are fiercely talented, yo.


Eventually I get us out of the city, and though I'm in such a sad state, the ever-terrific conversation with Amy – one of the most consistently intellectually curious people I know – manages to keep me up. We listen to one fantastic Irish trad CD I purchased in York, PA last 4th of July on repeat about four times. My bladder is on overdrive given the constant intake of liquids and we stop three times at surprisingly jam-packed rest centers – Amy is fascinated by the sensational headlines of the local newspapers. She takes over the wheel with about an hour left and finds the left-side thing equally intimidating, though we're on a divided highway so it's somewhat easier until we get into the city.


We find our way to the sleepy seaside neighborhood we're to stay at in Cork and locate our Airbnb house – it's dreary, drizzling, and somewhat chilly and we're both very tired after the significant drive. The screenshot below is but one of four which I took of directions in case our GPS didn't work – we are finding the lack of internet access a persistently vexing issue, and in a way I don't remember experiencing on prior trips. Can I italicize and bold that?


Our host is a 40-something lovely blonde Cork-born woman named Caitriona who lives with her pre-teen son Andrew. She's got a real-deal Cork dialect – full-bodied, sharp and intense, and certainly a quick-talker. We chat for twenty minutes or so and I show her the record album cover from Cork ca. 1900 that I've brought from home, originally picked up at a Goodwill in Brockton, MA. (More on this in tomorrow's post.) She makes an offhand remark  – quite funny to Amy – about the appeal of American reality shows like STORAGE WARS: "in the US you bid on a storage facility for somebody else's old stuff and you get valuable items but in Ireland nobody would do that!" Snort.

Though I'm exhausted I recognize this blog ain't gonna write itself so I stay up composing my first post while Amy goes for a midnight run through Cork. She takes almost an hour and returns just as I'm starting to get slightly worried. Through no fault of anyone's save for this nasty bug which I incorrectly predict has already reached its most intense stage, I don't sleep well. Here we are the following morning:


And that's all from sunny Kilkenny, where we are off to explore a medieval castle and then finally meet up with Dan and Graci in Dublin! (Yes, I tend to write these entries days afterward in other towns...)

  • I seem to have yet to master the art of the short blog post. Who was that 19th century man of letters who wrote something like "This is a long letter because I didn't have time to write you a short one?" That's my fella.

Posted by coolmcjazz 04:58 Archived in Ireland Tagged cork Comments (1)

Day 1: Bhliain Nua Sásta from Dublin!

in which your author and his travel companion land and breath in the delicious smell of irish peat!

semi-overcast 45 °F

Forgive me, dearest travel blog, for it has been one year, ten months, and thirteen days (?) since last we spoke, exiting Amsterdam and my favorite top floor Dutch haunt on a layover after a too-brief Scottish adventure. This distance, for the record, is far too long – though I am pleased my streak of annual Europe visits was kept intact by the auld skin of its teeth as I landed in Dublin on the final day of 2013. (Dublin counts as part of Europe, yes? Yes.) This is my third trip to Ireland – other stops occurring in August, 2008, and in January, 2011, and I’m just so jazzed to show it off to my brother (his first trip – see below for his fancy packing maneuvers) and friends.


I write from sullen, seaside Cork – the entirely of Ireland seems asleep today after the shenanigans of last night – where my traveling companion, the hearty Miss Amy Morse and I have safely landed after driving about 3.5 hours in an exceedingly safe manner in our black, stoutish rental car (perhaps we shall name him Murphy?) which must be driven on the wrong side of the road, by a driver perched on the wrong side of the car. I’m actually quite ill, having picked up a nasty, brutish bug from my brother Dan as he drove me to JFK Airport in New York on Sunday, me crowing at him “Don’t worry; I never get sick.” He and his friend Graci – yet to be met by your blogger but already a riot in the tone of her Facebook posts – arrive in Dublin tomorrow, and we will drive back up to meet them on Friday.


Last night was my first New Years outside of the country, not to mention the first New Years in which I actually celebrated twice – once at Midnight in Dublin, and five hours later, watching the tweets flood in over Twitter from the side of my bed. (Glad you made it to 2014 in one place, friends.) New Years has for a long time been an important holiday for me, dating back to reunions with music camp friends in high school, and I’ve always celebrated the fact that it’s the one day of the year when you can greet strangers on the street with wishes of happiness and not get odd stares.

We arrived yesterday even earlier than our scheduled time of 5:10am, grabbed a coffee – Irish but not that Irish – and experienced our first mini-crisis when I walked outside and realized I didn’t have my favorite long blue scarf to guard against the impending and persistent Irish bluster. Is it on the plane? Does it have a new owner? Did I leave it in my brother’s car? Time will tell.

Two friendly chaps helped us get on the correct bus and we eventually made our way over to Drumcondra, a gritty, high-character (in more ways than one) area in North Dublin. Our lovely Airbnb host Laura was exceedingly welcoming and pleasant, and we chatted excitedly about the trip and other topics including, naturally, the Pope. Amy fell fast asleep.


Day 1 of her self-pledge to “run every day” commencing, Amy explored the neighborhood while I conked out for only an hour or so, my internal time clock wondering what day, year, or century it was.


We began our journey into Dublin City Centre, in search of New Years craic, around 17:00, and decided to pop into a pub about two blocks down Drumcondra (?) Road called The Auld Triangle.


Laura later explained to us that the name came from the triangle which would be rung at the old Mountjoy prison not far from where we were. The depictions of IRA hero Bobby Sands (whose hunger strike I saw depicted in excruciating detail in this amazing film) on the outside of the pub made me guess this would be sort of charged spot, and that was realized when our instant friend Paul spoke extensively about current Irish politics and immigration., and we took in the décor, festooned with political slogans and remembrances of athletic triumphs. I only heard about 60% of what Paul, a soft but incessant talker, said. Ruddy, odd-faced men with wrinkled sandpaper faces stared up at the ceiling, wearily waiting for who knows what? Odd-faced men, straight out of Beckett But men! “Up Where We Belong” played on the jukebox.


We have our first Irish Guinness and Paul buys us both another, slightly extending the desired length of our drop-in, and when we leave, he extends to Amy what would soon call “an extended remix hug.”

We continue on the path toward downtown, dropping into a few pubs to use their facilities, running into a man from Arlington, MA who gives us lengthy directions. We stop into another pub for a quick pint and talk about dreams and relationships. Amy says “Nobody writes in a bathroom stall, for a good time, have children.”


We arrive at bustling Temple Bar and put our names in at a busy brewpub with many floors, playing “Freebird” and feeling a bit college for our tastes. By this time we’re both quite hungry and are graced with some terrific pizza slices across the street.


We make it back to the brewpub and are seated on in a tight enclave amidst revelers and frantic waitresses. A band starts to play familiar American pop songs, and though they are somewhat competent musicians they seem to have all the originality of a stack of Manila file folders. People barely clap. “Maybe They’ll Take a Break?” Our food is not terribly good. The waitress tries to get away with taking 50 Euro on a 24 Euro check (“Are you sure?!” she asks, holding my change in a tin, and I respond, “Yes, I’m sure… that that’s my change." “Are you sure?!” she exclaims again, continuing to hold the tin and perhaps hoping I was too intoxicated (I wasn’t) to catch the mistake of leaving a 1000% tip on service we barely experienced. Grumble. I get my change, leave a far more reasonable tip, and we amble down to the street, having experienced perhaps our first mild letdown. Amy says “I wonder where the grownups are?”


We walk the streets of Dublin, wading through crowds of revelers and as I take a selfie outside the famous Temple Bar, a group of teenagers jump in.


I recognize a dance hall once billed to me as “The most authentic musical experience in Dublin,” and recognize the plastered smile and cruise ship atmosphere from the window. We end up in another large brew hall, this one with almost equally bad music (a balding chap manning professional DJ equipment and halfheartedly karaoke-ing himself through another set of too-familiar songs. No one pays him any attention. I’m starting to crash and can’t even finish my beer.


We walk on, considering where we should spend midnight, approaching in about fifty minutes, and after passing a pub I immediately circle back saying, “no, this place.” We get in and order a pint and it suddenly dawns on me that I’m in the same locale where my favorite Facebook profile photo was taken in January, 2011, after the Swampoodle development week. I’m instantly in a better mood, and the vibe is relaxed and cheerful. We attempt to recreate the photo although the lighting is a bit off given that I’ve (smartly) left my good camera back at Laura’s and use my iPhone instead.


At about ten minutes to the hour we find ourselves in a much more raucous pub with a solo singer-guitarist leading the crowd in cheers and songs. Everyone is friendly and most in the young crowd are cheerfully half in the bag. “They’ve come all the way from America!” “Mary Mack, she had bones like razor blades!” “Bada bing bada bing. Pavarotti!” “Bottle of vodka – f*ck the neighbors!” “Goodnight everybody. Take care of each other – that’s all that maters.” Here's some video:


We stick around making grown-up talk with a friendly couple from Belfast – a public relations expert curious about Twitter, and her motorcycle photographer boyfriend, who once took pictures for a play by Owen McCafferty, author of Scenes from the Big Picture. I give her my card and we do hope they’ll be in touch to show us around Belfast where all four of us will be on Saturday.


We say our goodbyes outside to the hyper-friendly young folks from Belgium and Brazil, and after grabbing some delicious, spicy Middle Eastern food to go from a jam packed café, we manage to hail a cab. The cab driver isn’t quite sure where our place is and drops us off a good twenty minute walk away, it’s nice to smell the peat in the air and spend the first hours of 2014 walking briskly and collapsing into a heap.

Amy has returned from her second run, this one through dark Cork at 11pm, and comments on my pages of writing: “You seem to have some great content there. Did you capture the way the city streets gleam because of the way the street lamps glisten?” No, but thanks for the verbiage. Great artists don’t borrow, they steal.

Posted by coolmcjazz 03:43 Archived in Ireland Tagged dublin newyearseve Comments (0)

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!


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


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.


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.


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.


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!


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...)


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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! :)


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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)

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