July 5, 2009

Before Stonehenge, there was Woodhenge and Strawhenge


After a short train ride from Cambridge to London, where we checked into our hostel near King's Cross Station, we took another train to Salisbury. There was a bus tour offered directly from the Salisbury train station, that took us through town and out to the Salisbury Plains and dropped us off at Stonehenge. Salisbury was a pretty town, from what I saw out of the upper deck bus window. It would have been nice to have gotten out and walked around, but I wasn't complaining once we hit the monsoon on our way through the Plains to get to Stonehenge.

Salisbury Plains: driving through the monsoon

Rachel and I could NOT stop quoting Eddie Izzard. As part of his stand up act, Dressed to Kill, Eddie does a bit on Stonehenge, and it's bloody hilarious! Here, watch for yourself: Eddie Izzard on Stonehenge

One of the biggest Henges in the world!

The weather broke for us, just as our bus pulled up to Stonehenge, so we were lucky enough to see the stones without the rain pounding down on us. Although, we still had that relentless English wind. I liked that we saw the stones under such cloudy conditions. It's a mystical place, and the rain and wind only seemed appropriate - it gave it that eerie, ominous, and supernatural feel. As Laura would say... "Those are some morally gray clouds".

This is what happens when the Devil and Merlin team up with aliens...


July 4, 2009

Stickin' it to the Brits!

The last thing I wanted to do was travel - but the trip was already planned, train tickets pre-purchased, Bed & Breakfast and hostel booked, and my friends already there waiting for me. I decided it was better to be there with my friends, then in my room without them. Plus, Mimi would have wanted me to go. So I went. I took the train south across the border to Cambridge where I met up with Laura and Rachel. Bonus: Helen was there too!

We stayed in a quaint little B&B called El Shaddai. It was run by an ex-con, now born-again Christian. He was very upfront about it all, both his former life of crime and his new life of Jesus. He had just done a little harmless tax evasion - who hasn't done that once or twice?? At least he didn't murder anyone. I just made sure to double check my bill when I left.

Alf, (yes, Alf), had also written an autobiography about it, called "The Lord is my Shepherd" that he described as "earthy yet exciting" and... wait for it... he's just written "Wake Up! The Lord is Returning" - the sequel to his autobiography. How many autobiographies does one person need? And then there was the password for their wireless internet: Johnchapter3verse16. I was afraid they were trying to convert me... and I'm already a Christian!

Parker's Piece, Cambridge

Our B&B was right near the lawn, Parker's Piece, where there was a perpetual Cricket match going on. My first day in Cambridge, I walked around the main part of town and saw the market square, the beautiful buildings of King's College, and even crossed over the River Cam to see where all the students hung out on Common Ground, near Darwin College, which was where Helen was staying. (She was staying in Darwin College, not camping out on Common Ground... just to clarify. Although, she's pretty badass so I wouldn't put it past her to brave the outdoors and sleep on the fields.).

King's College

Cambridge reminded me a lot of Princeton. It's a small town, with the most gorgeous architecture, green lawns every where you look, complete with preppie students. Now British preppy is different from American preppy. I think the main distinction is that Brits are mostly skinny and pale and wear tighter clothing, whereas American preps tend to be athletic, so they bulk up and have a tan from playing sports outside in the sun all day and wear close-fitting, but not tight, clothing. Yes, that is a massive generalization, but go with it.

Laura punts

My second full day in town was the 4th of July! It was a little ironic to be celebrating our nation's day of independence... in the country we became independent from. So, in true American style, I was obnoxious about it! I bought an American flag and wore it as a cape when the four of us went out punting on the River Cam. I wore blue and Rachel wore red and white stripes - together we were the American flag. We had to do something to compensate the fact that Laura and Helen were Canadian...

Bridge of Sighs - England's got one too!

It was really pretty to be out on the water, weaving through the campuses, seeing the backs of all the colleges. On our way to return the punt, all of a sudden we saw a large boat coming toward us. It was a blowup raft of Thomas the Tank Engine, and it's conductor was a drunk American kid, wearing American flag boxers, and using ping pong paddles to propel himself through the water. He was chugging along ever so slowly, and I wanted to start chanting "I think I can, I think I can..." but restrained myself.  The lone punter belonged to a group of students at Darwin college who were having a BBQ in their backyard. (Just smelling the BBQ was enough to satisfy my love of American traditions). They were playing flip cup, and the loser had to go out on the river in Thomas the Tank. It was an inspired idea.

This is how I want to celebrate The 4th from now on!

That night, there were a few amateur firework displays, which was nice. But I'd seen my fair share of fireworks since I'd moved to Edinburgh. I almost feel jaded on the subject.  To finish off our American celebrations (with the two Canadians) we ate Pizza Hut and watched Independence Day in our room.

Happy Birthday, America! Suck it, Great Britain!
Or should I say... Lame Britain...

June 5, 2009

Schizofickle Weather

Now that James, my mom, and my dad have all visited me... it was Steve's turn! He and Katie arrived in the morning and I took them straight to their hotel - a swanky new place called Frasier Suites, that just opened across from St. Giles Cathedral. They dropped off their luggage and wanted to get right into sight-seeing mode. I took them for "brunch" at my favorite spot, Favorit, where we met Rachel and her parents. The three of them were getting ready to leave for the airport to go to Vienna for the weekend.

Inside Favorit

Steve and Katie weren't able to check into their hotel right away, so I asked them if they wanted a nap in my room.  Katie assured me that they wanted to be "tourist-nazis", so I gave 'em what they wanted. I walked them down to the Meadows, around through my university's campus, and back up to the Royal Mile where I dropped them at the Castle.

Two and a half hours later... I called them to check in. No answer. I don't have the best track record with dropping people off at the castle. Every time I do, hours go by, and I start to wonder if they somehow got lost, which is just ridiculous because I live right next door to the bloody thing. Steve finally called me back three hours after I had dropped them off and informed me that they had checked into their hotel and dozed off. But they motivated once again and all three of us walked down the full length of the Royal Mile to see the Palace of Holyrood House at the bottom.

Arthur's Seat

I told them to prepare - that we were going to hike up Arthur's Seat, an extinct volcano.  But I don't think either of them fully realized what that meant. Once we saw the palace, we walked through Holyrood Park, around the Salisbury Crags, until we got to the base of Arthur's Seat. We'd probably walked 2 miles by this point and we had't even started climbing Arthur's Seat yet. When we got to the base of Arthur's Seat, Steve turned to me and said: "woah, are we climbing that? That's like a mountain." To which I responded: "I told you we were hiking an extinct volcano... what did you expect?" And he gave a Steve-answer: "I mean, I knew we'd be hiking, but I didn't think we'd be like hiking." For the very last stretch of the climb, Katie picked a narrow, steep, and rocky pathway and forged ahead. Steve ran the last 30 or so feet to the top.

Steve and Katie at the top-ish

By the time we got to the summit it was about 7:30pm and the weather was beautiful: blue skies, glaring mid-afternoon yellow sunlight, (and yes I said "mid-afternoon" sunlight even though it was 7:30 at night), white fluffy clouds, and simply stunning views of the city and ocean. On the way down, we hiked the back side of the mountain to the ruins of St. Anthony's church, over-looking Margaret's Loch which was filled with swans. The whole backside of the mountain was in shadows now, but it was still broad daylight. It was strange, yet pleasant to walk on the shady side of a sunny night.

When we reached the bottom, we were all in agreement to take a cab all the way back uphill after our epic hike. We showered, changed, and met back up for a 9:15 dinner at my favorite restaurant, Vittoria's, on George IV Bridge. Great food, great wine, and in lieu of their great desserts, we had some yummy after-dinner drinks. After a relaxing dinner, around 11:00pm, we shuffled next door to Frankenstein's to meet Laura for more drinks and some dancing. I think Steve and Katie both really enjoyed that plub (pub/club), especially at 12:30am when the monster came down from the ceiling to the haunted organ music, thunder and lightning sound effects, and the waitresses dancing with tambourines on the bar to "Let Me Entertain You". Kate thought the monster should have gotten up and danced the Thriller dance. I'll be sure to drop that in their suggestion box. We left Franky's around 1am in the freezing cold rain. It was a solid day of tourism - I did not go easy on those two at all!


Day two wasn't any less eventful. I rallied the troops at 9am, walked them over to St. Andrew's Square in New Town, and put them on bus 15A to Roslin, because Steve was really interested in seeing Rosslyn Chapel. While they were uncovering the secrets of the Knights Templar, I ran around like crazy doing errands. I met them back in New Town around noon and we ate at a quickie sandwich place on Rose Street. Steve couldn't get over the weirdness in weather. It was sunny one moment, then raining the next, then it was sunny while it was raining. His favorite picture is one where I'm wearing my sunglasses while holding an umbrella over my head - which is a perfect definition of Scottish weather, fickle and schizophrenic: schizofickle... or ficklephrenic... whichever you prefer.

He also couldn't get over how people dressed in Scotland. He must have said this four or five times: "I don't understand why people think it's warm here?!" I agree with him - it's never warm in Scotland. Don't let anyone try to convince you otherwise. It's either freezing, just cold, or not-as-cold - but it's never actually warm.

After lunch we hopped a train at Waverly Station to Leuchars, and then took a bus the rest of the way to St. Andrews. Steve and Katie went into the British Golf Museum, right on the shore, and I walked along the beach and took pictures of the North Sea. It was so windy and cold that my fingers went numb from snapping pictures, and my nose felt like stone. The wind did a number on the ocean - choppy waves made for a really rough surf.

The shores of St. Andrews

We saw the Clubhouse and the famous bridge at the 18th hole, where the seagulls napped, and a few guys were finishing up their game. Then we did a little bit of shopping for pink golf balls, and I convinced Steve to buy the preppiest black, blue, and white argyll shirt there ever was. Katie and I held up measuring tape to see if one of the golf tees would be big enough to fit her father. (I found out later that we, sadly, had failed, even after all that measuring).

The links at St. Andrews

Shirt measuring

Walking through town, we passed by the St. Andrews University buildings and I was SO VERY thankful that I had chosen Edinburgh over this remote seaside town. St. Andrews was like the Lewisburg of Scotland, except 20 times smaller and more isolated. We saw the ruins of St. Andrews Castle from the outside - the gate was already closed for the evening. Then we ate dinner at Little John's. It was delicious.

Castle ruins

Jumping on the bus and train back to Edinburgh around 8:15pm, we had just enough time to put on an extra layer of clothing and grab some hot chocolate at Starbucks before meeting for our Ghost Tour at 10:30pm. This tour was enough to scare me out of the underground vaults forever!

May 31, 2009

Bagpipe Battle Royale

I've mentioned many times how the tourists swarm on the Mile and I'm sometimes afraid to leave my room during the day. I've also complained often about my buddy, the Bagpiper, who sets up shop down the street from me and toots his pipes all day, everyday. Well, what I haven't told you is that it isn't just one guy. He would probably explode if he played the pipes for that long. They switch posts every hour or so, kind of like the Changing of the Guard. They also don't just stay put, they move around to different spots on the Mile - closer to my flat. This is illegal. There is a law restricting noise on the Lawnmarket stretch of the Royal Mile, meaning no pipers can come higher up then High Street on the Mile... but that doesn't seem to stop them.  And now that it's tourist season, no one seems to care.

Well, I stepped out of the Mylne's Court Close on Sunday afternoon to go buy some groceries.  I didn't make it more than 10 feet down the Mile when I saw a crowd of people gathered.  At first, I figured it was some sort of street performance, but the sidewalk is pretty narrow in front of Deacon's Cafe, and there's car traffic allowed up there, so I took a closer look.  I saw two guys in kilts wrestling each other.  It was two bagpipers fighting over their territory.  How ridiculous?!  The funniest part was that it was a 6' scrawny 15-year-old holding back a 5' scrawny 75-year-old.  You could tell the boy wanted to stick up for himself, but didn't want to hurt the old man, so he just sort of kept him at arm's distance away, as the little old guy fought for his life.  He probably thought the youngun' was disrespecting him and taking over his spot - the spot that he had probably piped in for the past 50 years.  Of course the second thing that goes through my head is that they were on the Lawnmarket stretch and it's illegal for either of them to pipe their anyway.  The first thing that went through my head, naturally, was a Bagpipe Battle Royale!

It got me thinking, that there's probably underground bagpiper gangs, that each have their own territory in Edinburgh.  Like the Old Town gang, the New Town Gang, The Royal Mile Gang, etc.  Just like you would never drop in on a local Hawiian's wave, don't mess with a Scottish piper's turf... or should I say cobblestones?  But this gave me the great idea of having a huge Bagpiper Battle Royale.  Let them all duke it out, they can even use their pipes as weapons, and the last man standing deserves to play wherever he bloody well pleases, the Lawnmarket law be damned!

May 27, 2009

A Cow's Contemplation

Lazy rain on lonely hill
I stop myself mid-chew,
And think on subjects so profound...

Whether to moo, or not to. 

May 23, 2009

Loch Ness and Lindisfarne

On our last day in the Highlands, we drove along the banks of Loch Ness. We went out on the Loch on the Jacobite Spirit. It was my second time out on Loch Ness, but I'd never been up this high on the Loch before, so I got to see the ruins of Urquart Castle. The water was really choppy, I felt like a pirate on the high seas. No sign of Nessie, though. There was a cute sign on the boat to discourage occupants from smoking. It said: No Puffin', and had a picture of the bird with a red line through it. It was adorable, and not to mention completely accurate, since we, sadly, saw no puffins on this trip.

Urquart Castle

As we continued to travel back toward Edinburgh, we stopped at a lay-by on the highway so that my mom could see the castle that they used to film the TV series "Monarch of the Glen". Since I had seen the castle before, I stayed in the car with my dad, and watched as my mom climbed over the road barrier, through the trees and disappeared down the short but steep banks to the edge of the Loch for a better view. After sitting in the car and seeing the minutes tick past with no sign of my mother re-emerging, I turned to my dad and said: "at what point do we assume she's fallen into the Loch and venture down to retrieve her?" Just as I said this, she popped up again, thankfully. I mean, I know I'm a lifeguard, but Scottish lochs are cooooooooold.

  Adorable and health-conscious - double whammy!       

We made it back to Edinburgh that night and I welcomed the comfort of familiarity of my own bed. The next day (our last day with the rental car) we drove down into England and across the Causeway to Lindisfarne, Holy Island. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were able to explore Lindisfarne Castle, and see Bamborough castle across the North Sea, back on the mainland. I visited Bamborough back in September and remembered looking out at Holy Island. It was weird to be doing that in reverse. We also saw the ruins of Lindsifarne Priory, which was where they got the stones to build the castle. We ate lunch at The Ship, where I had the most amazing pasta dish ever! Maybe it was because I was technically in England, not Scotland - but they finally put flavors and creaminess in their pasta sauce! I wish they delivered... to the mainland... and a half hour north across the border into Scotland... My mom also introduced us to Lindisfarne Mead. It's basically sugar and honey in a glass.  It's so yummy, that you'd never think it was 14.5% alcohol! So that's two reasons to go back to Lindisfarne... honey alcohol and amazing pasta!

Lindisfarne Castle

Since it is an island, and there is no bridge connecting it to the mainland, we had to cross back over the causeway before the tide came in and the roadway disappeared under water. Otherwise we would've been trapped on the island until dinnertime when the tide went back out. People were lined up along the causeway to watch the water rise. Apparently, none of them were looking at the signs that depicted jeeps floating away in the current. We got ourselves safely to high ground as quick as we could. And by high ground, I mean back to the top of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.        

Lindisfarne Priory

May 22, 2009

I'll put my telephoto on

The day of rain. It was bound to happen - we can't just travel through Scotland without a full day of rain. Fortunately for us, the rain stopped and the sun came out around 6pm. Since the sun doesn't start to set until 10pm in May in Scotland, we still had plenty left of the day to enjoy the sunshine.

Isle of Skye

We spent the day exploring the Isle of Skye. We ended up driving around the entire perimeter of the isle, which was good because there wasn't much else to do on the island in the rain. And this way, we could all enjoy the beautiful and dramatic scenery from the comfortable, warm, and dry car.  

Driving around the coast of Skye

We did make a few stops, though. Our first stop was at the Giant Angus MacAskill Museum in Dunvegan. A real dude, born in the outer Hebrides of Scotland in 1825, made the Guiness World Book of Records for being the world's largest "true" giant that ever lived. He was 7'4" and weighed over 500lbs. They had built a model to his exact size and scale inside the museum. I'm 5'9" and finally felt short! Except when I stood next to General Tom Thumb. There was actually a picture taken of Angus and Tom standing together in the mid-1800s. Now there's a picture of Angus, Tom, and Kat taken at the beginning of the 21st century. Angus was born in Scotland and he died in Nova Scotia, so he came full circle from old Scotland to new Scotland. My mother had been to Nova Scotia and saw where he was buried. If you looked closely at the model of Angus, you could spot a teeny tiny Canadian flag pinned to his lapel.

 Angus, Tom, and Kat

Our next stop was at Dunvegan Castle. Inside you could see the ripped, torn, faded, and disintegrating fabric that was left of the Fairy Flag. There were many versions of the story that told how the flag came to be in the possession of the MacLeods and what its powers were. But the general idea was that the flag could be used to summon help in a time of desperate need, perhaps even to summon a Fairy Army. 

Dunvegan Castle

Next, we pulled over at the Kilmuir cemetary where Flora MacDonald was buried. She's famous for hiding Bonnie Prince Charlie during his last stand during the battle of Culloden. She dressed up the prince to look like an Irish Spinning Maid which granted him safe passage off the island of Benbecula to the mainland where Prince Charlie could escape.  Her twin sister Fauna MacDonald was buried on the Isle of Earth near the Castle Sand... well, I thought it was clever. 

Flora MacDonald's grave

By this time we had become experts at getting animals to pose for us. I think it helped that my mother always remembered to put her telephoto on. I know what a telephoto lens is, but I'm still not exactly sure how to put it on. But what I do know, is that it's fun to say with a ridiculous British accent. Way more fun than saying "I zoomed in".  

Highland Cattle

We stopped for lunch in the town of Portree, Skye at a pub called MacNabs. Then we drove past Knock Castle on the Sound of Sleat (which is just about the coolest name ever, and I feel obligated to write an entire story about it now) down to Armadale Castle. Armadale was castle ruins surrounded by beautiful gardens. There was a wedding going on inside. Normally it would be outside in the spectacular gardens, but it was raining. But that meant that we could explore the castle ruins without disturbing the ceremony. And we all know how much I love to explore castle ruins!  


Back in Dornie, across the road from our B&B was the Dornie Hall Car Park, right on the waters of Loch Duich. So I had my mom take a picture of me strategically covering up parts of the sign. "Dorney Park and Wild Water Kingdom!" Of course you have to say it in that voice that they use when your log flume is pulling up to the gate at the end of the ride and they say: "Enjoy the rest of your day at Dorney Park AND Wiiiiiild Water Kingdommmmm" (and they get all low on the water park part). Can you tell that I miss PA?