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Day 8: A Cross-Country Drive and Crossing to Scotland

in which your author doesn't get nearly enough sleep, drives through his great-grandmother's hometown, and arrives in one of his favorite cities anywhere!

semi-overcast 40 °F

From what I recall of the morning of Day 8 – and do forgive me, as I must admit I’m now writing these posts from the distance of slightly over a week ahead! (the blog must be completed) – I awoke frustrated about the fact that I was granted fewer than five hours of glorious sleep in the quite comfy and large hotel bed. This would be an ambitious travel day of crossing the country in the morning and ending up in a different country by afternoon, and leaving at 7:30am would be crucial to making the day work as planned.

We stumble downstairs; I ask if we can grab coffee to go and am told plainly by the kind-but-not-messing-around man in charge of the hotel’s breakfast service, “No.” (I've forgotten we’re Americans used to breakfasting on the run and the Irish simply won’t have that!) I grumble about the time to Danny and Amy and we sit while Graci and Mark join us; Mark orders a veggie breakfast for us – by this point the breakfast man has told us leaving at 8am will get us to Dublin on time, though I do want to see a bit of Athlone on the way – and we’re all sitting and drowsily enjoying our last moments in Galway. As I guessed, we really didn’t leave enough time to spend in this town, and because it’s “the off-season of the off-season,” I fear we’ve missed out on the typical festive character of the town that I witnessed when I visited in 2008. Still, it was great to solidify the mental picture of the town I began forming almost six years ago, so when I visit next I'll have an even better idea of where I am!

We pack up the car – I’m flummoxed after somehow losing my Red Sox hat (which was later located in Stranorlar!), and say fond farewells to our serendipitous travel companion, Mark, The Pride of Magherafelt and Enabler of One of Our Most Fun Experiences Of The Trip. (Flights on the fly to Edinburgh were too expensive, but something tells me this isn’t the last we’ll see of our Irish friend. Perhaps next time we will watch some “American football” and eat some “MackDonald’s” with him?)

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I last only about 45 minutes behind the wheel and Amy kindly takes over, driving the remainder of the three-hour trip to Dublin. I had wanted to stop in Athlone, a small-ish town in County Westmeath, because it’s allegedly the town our great-grandmother Bridget Creighton came from in 1882. As the family history goes, she was only 5 and came over with her mother on a boat; she got deathly ill on the journey and her mother prayed she wouldn’t die so they wouldn’t toss her body overboard. Luckily (especially for us!) she didn’t, and raised a typically large New England Irish family. We didn’t get out of the car in Athlone, but drove through its downtown section, and it looked perfectly nice, if small. The midlands don’t get nearly the same tourist traffic as do coastal cities like Dublin and Galway, but there’s a charm nonetheless. I look forward to spending more time in Athlone on some genealogy-dedicated trip in the future!

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We get to Dublin with what feels like plenty of time, but Amy is a ball of stress, having not yet printed out her crucial boarding pass; RyanAir is very cheap to fly, but if you don’t bring a printed boarding pass they charge you 80 Euro to print a new one! We find our way (barely) to the hotel Amy has booked for our last night in Dublin and I repack my computer bag with essentials for a 2-day trip to Edinburgh. (RyanAir also charges lots for checked bags so we all made sure to slim down for the trip.) Amy wants to stay behind to try to get her ticket printed at the hotel, and the rest of us head to the airport on the hotel shuttle. I don’t have a good feeling about splitting up like this!

We manage to get on the plane (after forgetting to have our boarding passes stamped by Irish customs and encountering a sympathetic and very helpful gate agent who does this for us) but alas, no Amy. (We wouldn’t see her until much later that night, after she caught the next flight, unfortunately at a not insubstantial financial loss.)

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Arriving in Edinburgh, we take five or so minutes relaxing in an airport lounge; a poorly timed rest, as it turned out, because just as we are about to board our bus to the center of town, a frantic airport agent tells us to evacuate the area because the airport is undergoing an emergency closure! We wait for over an hour in a small room crammed with would-be passengers, and information is sorely lacking. (What kind of fire drill tells people they can’t leave the area?!) Finally I approach someone official and state that we’re not trying to stay at the airport, but leave it and go into town, and she matter-of-factly says “Oh, you can just walk out.” (Good thing I asked – we might still have been waiting hours later!) While we're waiting, Danny and Graci, ever in good spirits, entertain themselves with Mad Libs.

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Later we found out there was a false alarm based on a suspicious package, and the airport was in fact shut down for a number of hours. We walk over a mile to find a bus. Not the best way to drop into town but we at least feel better off than our dear, poor friend stuck at Dublin Airport! Here's the shot where I say "put on the face that represents your last hour"; somehow it comes out looking like the album cover for an indie band.

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We hop on a double-decker to town, sitting on top in front. (Why don’t they have these in the US? Apart from being fun, they seem an efficient mover of people. Then again if we did have them perhaps they wouldn't be as fun?) Approaching the center of Edinburgh, I start to recognize neighborhoods and landmarks from my trip in March, 2011. (Especially the Castle, which looms ominously over the entire city.) Edinburgh is an eminently “memorizable” city – after having spent only five days here I really felt I could “see” the layout of the city in my mind.

The bus lets us out on the North Bridge; as Danny gets out he hears bagpipes. We walk up through a neighborhood I remember, and pop our heads into a cute café where I remember eating some rather mind-blowing vegetarian haggis in 2011. They don't serve food for a couple hours, so we press on; Graci and Danny grab loaded baked potatoes from a neighboring shop with a friendly attendant. She has me take a photo of her in one of the trademark British style red phone booths. Welcome to Scotland, Graci!

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We make the rather long hike to our Airbnb, and are disappointed to discover that although the place is clean and the furnishings are nice, there’s only one large bed for the lot of us. After a fairly pathetic attempt at a nap, Graci and I decide to hit the town a bit while Danny is collapsed in sickness-recovery mode on the couch. First stop is the afore-mentioned Arcade Whisky and Haggis House, by now open for food. I thoroughly enjoy my veggie haggis, and also my first scotch back in Edinburgh, a Balvenie 15. (I think? I remember I wanted a fairly expensive one for my first scotch whisky back in town.)

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The area in front of Edinburgh Castle is completely deserted; when I was here in 2011 there were swarms of people about. Graci seems floored by it (understandably).

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Walking down to Grassmarket, it’s noticeably quieter than my last visit. (It’s also fairly early at night, but still the city seems pretty dead.) Speaking of dead (bad segue), we read the text at the raised circle where hundreds (thousands?) of religious dissenters were publicly executed; Edinburgh is a city that wears its ghosts plainly. (The ghost tours proceeding around us add to this feeling.)

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We stop at another pub (the Black Bear?) for more ridiculously-inexpensive-by-American-standards scotch on "malt of the moment" sale (Dalwhinnie 15 and Highland Park 12) – I think Graci is starting to get one reason why I love this town so.

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We walk up a street and I recognize where I am – right by what could be, apart from the Castle, the most famous landmark in all of Edinburgh: the beautiful statue of loyal Greyfriars Bobby, pilgrimage spot for dog lovers all over the world. (As detailed on my last visit.) I really like coming back to cities I love.

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We make our way over to a pub called the “Brass Monkey” which a few locals have recommended. It’s a bit more lively, and sort of fascinating in its low-light Brooklyn hipster vibe (doesn't really feel like a proper Scottish pub, but more student-friendly) but my social graces are exhausted so I retire to the back room where enormous mattresses are spread out (Apparently the bar plays movies in this space at 3pm every day.) I spend about an hour texting with a great new friend. (Wink.)

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After a while we head out and outside the bar I meet one of the friendly chaps Graci has befriended – a friendly intellectual type with a very cool handlebar moustache!

We get back to the flat and wait for Amy to arrive. Not the most exciting day, especially in comparison to our previous day of travel serendipity –although we did successfully execute (so to speak) a somewhat crazy itinerary of waking up in Galway, crossing over to Dublin, and going to sleep in Edinburgh! – but at least we all made it to this fantastic city, by hook or by crook, and we have the next couple of days to explore. I have such a soft spot in my heart for Edinburgh and can’t wait to revisit certain spots and show this town off to the crew! If only any of us could manage some decent sleep...

Posted by coolmcjazz 17:59 Archived in Scotland Tagged edinburgh dublin athlone galway 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!

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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 1: A Lovely Edinburgh Welcome

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

overcast 45 °F

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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