A Travellerspoint blog

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To the top of Edinburgh

sunny 57 °F

I’ve always wanted to be a world traveler. After a trip to Costa Rica two years ago, Matt and I planned a long trip to Chile for this November, not realizing that another adventure was also about to fall into our laps.

Through a series of interesting circumstances, Matt and I have ended up with a deal for a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, which we absolutely could not turn down.

To get to Scotland from the States, a layover in New York-Newark is likely before the tedious, neck-stiffening ride over the Atlantic. A long night of travel (a two-hour flight from Columbus to Newark, a two-hour layover, and a six hour flight across the pond to Edinburgh) turns us groggy messes when we finally arrive. There were some highlights of the flight though—especially the beautiful nighttime flight over New York City and the Statue of Liberty. Plus, the international flight has free TV shows and movies on the personal screens on the back of each seat, which always makes for a more interesting and bearable flight. I jump around from some of my favorite TV shows before settling in for the movie “Brave,” the new Disney/Pixar movie set in Scotland. It seems appropriate.

Of course I do attempt to sleep on the way over and manage to cat nap a few times, but I’ve never had much luck sleeping on planes. Matt, however, ends up getting about the equivalent of a full night’s sleep thanks to his narcolepsy.

When we finally arrive in Edinburgh, it obviously is going to be one of those rare sunny days that Scotland gets far too infrequently. We rush through immigration and I say a little prayer of thanks when I see that both of our checked bags arrived safely. Outside, we climb aboard a double-decker bus with comfortable leather seats and Scottish music playing softly over the speakers. Despite the frenzy of cars buzzing about through the streets and the heavy traffic, the huge bus careens through impossibly narrow streets, around tight turns and up, down through the hilly neighborhoods without trouble.

Through the glass we watch the Edinburgh landmarks as we sail past them: the gothic Scott Monument, its stone flanks and spires a dark, age-worn salute to Sir Walter Scott; and, of course, the imposing and fairytale-like Edinburgh castle, squatting upon a high bluff just on the other side of the Princes Street Gardens. We hop off the bus outside the bustling Waverly Station and drag our luggage up the steep, cobblestone Cockburn Street. Cockburn twists and curls uphill from Waverley Station and ends at the intersection of the Royal Mile. It’s lined with vibrant storefronts, robin’s egg blue and tiger lily orange and sea foam green, with flower boxes on the sills and curtains fluttering in the flats above; people obviously reside in these. Tourists and locals brush by us in a bevy of languages and accents. We find the door to our apartment about halfway up the short street but have to wait about an hour for the landlord to check us in, so we sit at a small café across the street to pass the time.

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The large wall-to-wall picture windows of Café Cockburn give us a front-row seat for people-watching the scene outside. Across the street from us is an eclectic mix of shops: an antiques shop, a Scottish souvenir shop, a tattoo and body piercing parlor, and a Mexican restaurant. Visitors flit in and out of the shops, sometimes snapping photos of the street or shop windows as the shopkeepers and bartenders take their smoke breaks.

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After Jack the landlord meets us on the street and takes us up the tight spiral staircase to our apartment on the third floor, we exhaustedly drop our bags on the floor and explore our new abode. There are two apartments per floor in this particular building, three floors of apartments total; upon entering our apartment, you can walk down a hallway with two rooms on each side—a bathroom and bedroom on the left and a kitchen and living space on the right. The windows in the kitchen and living room look right out onto Cockburn, and you can hear laughter drifting up from the street and even, once in awhile, bagpipes. I have no idea where these bagpipes are coming from, but the music is so subtle at times that I start to wonder if I’m just hearing it in my head.

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With the beautiful sunny afternoon ahead of us, we decide to take advantage of the good weather and do the complete opposite of what anyone else who just traveled through the night without sleep would do: climb Arthur’s Seat.

Robert Louis Stevenson described Arthur’s Seat as “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design.” Located at the eastern end of the Royal Mile, it is the highest peak in the hilly Holyrood Park and has paths and trails cross-crossing all across the park. It is clear that this place is a main destination not just for tourists, but also for local health nuts and dog owners.

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The hill, which is actually an extinct volcano, rises to a height of 823 feet above Edinburgh. After walking about half a mile down the Royal Mile to reach Holyrood Park, we stand at the edge of the park next to the Scottish Parliament building, wondering if we would even be able to make it to the top. We examine one path that winds around the city-side of the park toward a sharp vertical bluff and see that it is extraordinarily steep and rocky. We decide to save that one for another day and take the “summit path” through the center of the park and hike upwards through grassy hills dotted with purple and yellow wildflowers and thistles. The path quickly turns from an easy paved trail to a narrow, rocky and surprisingly steep hike. There are no switchbacks up THIS mountain!

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Along the way we pass countless dogs, probably about half of them border collies, running happily around their owners and sniffing the grass. We stop several times to rest and take in the expansive panoramas, snap pictures and rest our tired muscles. Finally, we reach the summit, which is not at all grassy like the land surrounding it but rather rough, volcanic-looking rocks forming craggy peaks. The sheer force of the wind shocks us immediately. We brace ourselves against it and find ourselves having to yell over it, at times losing our balance as we try to navigate our way across the rough rocks.

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But those views… oh, those views. To the west, Edinburgh spreads out far below us, the bustling curving streets now just a tightly packed canvas of spires and stone. To the east, the port town of Leith hugs the Firth of Forth, and north along the coastline is the Forth Bridge jutting across the water into Fife. I’m not sure I will ever forget those magnificent views and the way they made me feel so small up on that mountain.

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The hike back down through the park is relatively quick and easy. By the time we make it back to street level, we are exhausted and hungry. We stop into a small pub along the Royal Mile called the White Horse Bar; the bar window proclaims in scrolling letters that it was established in 1742, and the inside is quaint and pretty much what you would expect from a small pub in the middle of Scotland’s capital: buzzing and full of lively people. We talk to the bartender about our climb up Arthur’s Seat and meet some Pennsylvanians sitting at the bar. With our fellow Midwesterners who are Penn State fans, we lament our football teams’ issues this season and the penalties both OSU and PSU face.

We settle into the corner table with two pints of Olde English cider and order what I call our “victors' meal.” Matt chooses stovies (a meat and potato stew) and oatcakes, while I order cottage pie (traditional minced beef over mashed potatoes with bread). We happily rest our sore legs and enjoy the animated conversations around us. The White Horse is the smallest pub along the Royal Mile and arguably the most authentically Scottish. It caters mostly to locals and thankfully hasn’t prettified itself or its menu for the tourists. I find it warm, charming and very welcoming, as well as true to its Scottish roots.

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The walk back to the apartment is chilly; the clouds have covered the sun, which later reappears as we make it back to Cockburn. We curl up on the two couches and nap for a couple hours, until our appetites return with a vengeance at about 8 p.m.

The streets of Old Town would be eerie at night if there weren’t couples still eating dinner in the many restaurants and open-air seating, live music and drunken chatter from the pubs, shops lit up with their doors open, and people milling about in the Royal Mile. I’ve never seen buildings as ancient as these or as full of history. But the people who are out and about, enjoying the night make it youthful and vibrant.

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We settle down for dinner at a burger and pizza restaurant called the Filling Station. Though it looks like your typical pub-type restaurant from the outside, we realize shortly after being seated that, comically, it is an American-style restaurant. The menu is expansive with every type of food you could want, from steak and burgers to flatbreads and fajitas. The walls are covered in ‘junk,’ just as any TGI Fridays or Applebees is, and Motown and popular American rock is playing over the speakers; the tracks switch from the Supremes to Soul Asylum to the Temptations. For awhile, we feel like we had never left the States. Matt orders a sirloin steak with steak fries, slaw and salad garnish, and I order a “Californian Classic” pizza with goat cheese, mozzarella, mixed peppers, onions and tomato slices with a tomato pesto sauce. We top off our late dinner off with a cappuccino for me and an espresso for Matt.

The night air is chilly and clean. Ohio feels about a million miles away; this place, with its meandering cobbled streets and endless walls of stone, is a sharp contrast to the endless grids of new home constructions and suburbia. There is so much to see, so many places to explore in this lively labyrinth that the next two weeks are sure to be an adventure.

Posted by GoWander 15:47 Archived in Scotland Tagged edinburgh old_town arthurs_seat cockburn royal_mile

Wind, whisky and wild Scots

all seasons in one day 55 °F

We wake up at 9 a.m. after a good night’s sleep and decide that we’ll spend the day visiting the Edinburgh Castle, the most famous attraction in the city.

We have breakfast at a coffee house café on Cockburn called the Southern Cross Café. We grab a table up in the loft area and order a breakfast combo called the “Big Belter,” which includes two fried eggs, steak with sautéed onions, two pieces of rashers bacon, two sausage links, two hash brown cakes, baked beans, black pudding, toast and a fried tomato. We split up the food into the things that Matt can eat (the bacon, sausage, and tomato) and what I can eat (the hash browns, baked beans and toast). And just to try it, we each take a bite of the black pudding, which was sliced into a little black hockey puck that we say looks like a slice of sausage that was lit on fire and charred to a crisp. Just in case you don’t know, black pudding is a blend of seasonings, onions, and pork fat mixed with the main ingredient: coagulated pig’s blood, which is filtered, simmered with the other ingredients, and poured into casings, similar to how sausage is made. The dish has been a staple of Scottish cuisine pretty much since the practice of slaughtering and eating animals has been in existence, yet it is still a national favorite to this day. It is very popular with breakfasts but is also eaten at other meals of the day with various toppings and sauces. We both had a small taste, expecting the worst. But my reaction was some thoughtful chewing followed by a “Not bad, actually.” It comes apart easily when you slice your fork through it and, taste-wise, it is mild but has one indistinct flavor in it, probably from the seasonings. I can’t pinpoint what that flavor is but I’m certain it’s not the blood, thankfully. I suppose I might actually like it if I didn’t know what was in it.

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We polish off our hearty breakfast with a breakfast tea for Matt and a cappuccino for me, and then walk west down the Royal Mile toward Edinburgh Castle. The day is noticeably chillier than yesterday; the sun comes out here and there, but when it is behind the clouds, the wind is frigid and light raindrops mist on the streets. I guess this is what they mean when they talk about weather in Scotland. It can be sunny one minute and raining the next (and sometimes even snows during the summer months). The sidewalks are still crowded despite the periodic rain and cold, the passersby huddled in rain jackets or hidden underneath umbrellas.

As we come closer and closer to the castle, the Royal Mile narrows and becomes even more ancient-looking, if that’s possible at all. Just short of the castle the two-way road splits and is very narrow—only wide enough for one car and no parking on the sides of the street—and skirts passed a dark-stoned, very old gothic cathedral.

The castle perches atop a high, rocky cliff above all of Edinburgh, a high stone wall seeming to dip into and emerge out from rocky outcrops, as if the castle was built from the earth itself. The castle has been here as early as the 1100s and was a royal residence until the early 1600s. It was also a military garrison that was used heavily during the Scottish Wars of Independence against England in the 1300s.

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Inside the stone walls is not just a single castle, but what I would describe as a campus of old stone buildings, some built more recently than others as the Castle Rock underwent various uses. In addition to the main castle structure, there is also a very small stone chapel, a cathedral-looking building that had been used as both a barracks and a dining hall, several prison areas (one for disgraced soldiers and the other for foreign POWs, each very different from the other. The soldiers were held in a cell house while POWs slept in crowded rooms in hammocks strung from beams), dank cellars where human bones were just recently found, cannon ramparts, and, believe it or not, a dog cemetery where the soldiers’ dogs were buried. There are also many old buildings that were converted into museums or exhibits (such as the crown jewels building, which holds the actual royal crown jewels, sword of state and scepter, as well as the National War Museum). One building was converted into a small café, another a whiskey-tasting shop where we taste a whiskey called Columba Crème, which is blended with cream and honey.

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We spend a few hours exploring the castle and taking in the views. The wind is sometimes unbearable when we stand at the panorama platforms that peek over the high castle walls; it blows so strongly in from the Firth of Forth and up over the stone walls that it is actually difficult to hold the camera still to take a picture. The weather continuously vacillates between sunny and overcast and rainy. When our hunger finally gets the best of us, we walk back down toward the Royal Mile and eat at a quaint pub located at the fork in the road we passed before. The pub, the Castle Arms, is a comfortable and popular stop with trendy décor mixed with the traditional pub atmosphere. I order a chicken BLT with fries and Matt orders a smoked salmon salad with a Stowford Press cider, and we watch the heavy rain that had started just when we made it inside.

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We originally planned to shop the cool trinket stores on the Royal Mile, but we both are pretty tired and my feet hurt from standing so long, so we run a few necessary errands before our trip back to the apartment. We stop in Waverley Station so I can print off my train tickets and get a feel for where the various platforms are. Once I feel confident enough that I will be able to figure everything out for my first solo train trip, we walk north from Waverly to the bright, modern Princes Street.

Princes Street is a far cry from the streets of Old Town. Since it is the first street you would encounter when walking into New Town, the newness of it (new, meaning 1800s) and modern fashion stores like you might see in a mall are punctuated by the lines of city buses in traffic. Immediately south of Princes Street is the famous Princes Street Gardens, with splashes of colorful flowers and carefully manicured grass that looks like a perfect putting green. Rising up from the middle of the gardens is the imposing Scott Monument, which looks a little like remnants of abbey ruins or an ancient stone rocket ship.

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We grab some groceries to take back to the apartment, but the exchange rate prevents my frugal self from buying more than the 12 pounds ($19) I ended up spending on just a few items. We carry our groceries back into Old Town and relax for awhile, resting our exhausted feet. We eventually both fall asleep at a little before 5 p.m. and don’t wake up until it is dark outside, a little after 8 p.m. Groggily we get dressed for dinner and go out into the cold night. Cockburn seems quieter, emptier than it did yesterday, probably because it is a Sunday night and not a Saturday night of drinking and cheers.

We grab a table at a tasteful pub/restaurant on the corner of Cockburn and the Royal Mile called The Albanach. In the bar area, the patrons are rowdy and ordering pints and whisky. A group of young Scots sit a few tables over, yelling excitedly at one another in an accent so thick I can’t understand what they are saying. Eventually we move into the back restaurant area, the tall windows looking out onto Cockburn. Matt orders a lamb shank with vegetables and mint jus and I pick out a steak burger with the works: English cheddar, bacon, lettuce and tomato, plus fries and slaw on the side. After dinner Matt carefully reads through a menu of 250 whiskies and selects one called Aberlour A’bunadh; it’s described as having honey and custard aromas, with flavors of apples, pears and plums plus a cinnamon nutmeg spice. You can certainly smell the honey and custard (the trick, we learn, is to smell the whisky from farther away than you would smell wine, as in down by your chest. Otherwise you just smell the strong alcohol). When Matt takes his first sip, he does a little cringe and is taken aback by the “burniness” of it. I take a sip as well and notice that, compared to the whisky that my dad sometimes makes me try, this burns the throat much more and lingers. The aftertaste is fruity; when Matt talks, I faintly smell apples.

The whisky menu itself is pretty fascinating. All the whiskies are accompanied by a detailed description of the fragrance and tasting notes, and some of the flavors that are infused in them are downright bizarre. Here are some of my favorite whisky flavor descriptions and flavors: peat smoke; polished wood; pine; dry Christmas cake with slightly burnt edges; “rather waxy”; “oily mouth feel”; fresh-mown hay; mint sauce; baked banana; Christmas pudding; “sea-laced flavors”; cereal bar; marshmallow; beeswax; coconut; “spicy sea spray”; bread and butter; “sea meeting the land”; medicinal seaweed; briny beach; grass; tobacco and leather; “sweet peach stone nuttiness”; coffee; toasted almonds; cookie dough; charcoal; and burnt caramel. But my ultimate favorite oddball: toothpaste.

After dinner, we walk to a small, lively pub on Cockburn called the Scotsman’s Lounge. There is live entertainment every night and tonight’s is a comical guy playing guitar and singing popular songs. He has three huge stacks of sheet music in laminated covers, which he flips through ceremoniously in between songs. He jokes with the crowd, and the crowd goes wild for him. Like the Albanach, this pub is full of rowdy Scotsmen, but even more so. A table of four completely wasted guys get up and dance with each other, putting their arms around each other, slow dancing, jokingly grinding at times. Next to them, a middle-aged blond woman from California does what I can only describe as that that Russian dance where you squat down almost to the floor and then pop up, kicking your legs. The drunk guys love her enthusiasm and they all dance in a circle together, wiggling their hips and singing along to the music.

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The singer plays an impressively wide range of music. A few songs we don’t recognize, but he also sings Elvis “Jailhouse Rock,” the theme song to Scrubs (Lazlo Bane “Superman”), and Faces “Ooh la la” which I recognize as the opening credits song in “Without a Paddle.” And, in a fun twist, in the middle of Edinburgh and in a sea of drunken Scots, he plays Johnny Cash “Ring of Fire,” playing the trumpet part with what sounds like a funny little kazoo. The whole place erupts in singing, fist pumping and dancing. We sing along happily, amazed that these Scots are so excited about one of our most iconic American songs.

No matter where we go, it seems like there are little slices of home everywhere.

Posted by GoWander 16:36 Archived in Scotland Tagged whisky edinburgh edinburgh_castle cockburn royal_mile black_pudding waverley

Into the countryside

all seasons in one day 55 °F

Both of our phone alarms wake us up at 6:45 a.m. sharp, and Matt gets ready to go to work while I get ready for my day trip to Pitlochry. We are both out the door at 7:50 and go our separate ways, Matt toward the Royal Mile and me toward Waverley Station.

I can't deny that I am a little nervous about traveling solo via a complicated train system in a country I'm not familiar with. I make my way into the station and stand in the crowd of other travelers waiting for the Inverness train information and platform to come up on the main screens (only about 10 of the departures are up on the screens at once, so you can't check where your platform is until about 15 minutes before departure). I chat with a Chinese lady standing next to me who is also waiting for the Inverness train; she asks if I am English and I tell her that I am a half-Chinese American, explaining that my mom is from Hong Kong. We bond immediately.

Waverley Station is big, loud, dark, complex, and intimidating. There are at least 20 platforms separated into groups of about five spread out in various areas, and people rushing about speaking emphatically in their native tongues. I feel like a fish in a much bigger, scarier pond than I'm used to. When the platform number is finally posted, I have only five minutes to find my train, which is a bit of a hike from the main area.

The train departs promptly at 8:34 a.m. and I settle into my window seat, watching the landscape pass by. We first cross the Firth of Forth, where there are fishing boats anchored and small marinas dotting the shore. Once across the water in Fife, we follow the coast to Kirkcaldy . It's low tide this morning, so there are exposed rocks, drying seaweed and sand extending out from shore. We then cut north, where farmland dominates the landscape just as it does in Ohio. There are sheep, horses and cows grazing and small stone houses with smoke spiraling from their chimneys, and beyond the farms are endless rolling hills. Once the train passes through Perth, the landscape becomes more rugged and wild. Hills covered in thick dark trees push up close to the tracks, and there are dramatic cliffs that look like they are on the verge of dropping boulders onto the land below.

After two hours of travel, the train pulls into the Pitlochry station before it continues up to Inverness in the Highlands. Immediately, I track down the local tourism office to find out if there are any good nature walks nearby, and it turns out that Pitlochry is famous for its beautiful nature walks and their accessibility by foot. The gentleman at the tourism office shows me a map of all the different walks and suggests a 3-mile loop south of town. The Edrodour Path, he says, is an hour and a half walk and is well-marked with color-coded signs. Sounds good to me.

I walk south to the path and enter a bright, airy forest with narrow dirt paths that wind through the hills. No one else is in sight; there is complete silence except for bird songs and the sound of a nearby stream. It's rare for me to find a nature path with such stillness that I literally feel like the only one in the woods. We've become used to always hearing the chatter of children in our metroparks or walking through crowds of people in Hocking Hills. This solitude is refreshing. It's what a true nature walk is supposed to be.

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I continue climbing the path, which then takes me along a high bluff next to the 90-foot Black Spout Waterfall—an unexpected surprise. I climb down to the stream that feeds the top of the waterfall and watch the cold water cascade in smaller waterfalls before spilling over the falls. The weather is bipolar again today. After brief periods of rain, the sun comes out and warms the air before giving way to more rain. Thankfully, the trees overhead block most of the droplets and form a nice rain canopy.

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My stomach starts rumbling when I make it back into town so I stop at Victoria's coffeehouse and restaurant for a tomato, pesto and mozzarella panini with salad and chips. I also order a foamy cappuccino for a little warmth and energy.

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I take some time to walk through the town and explore the many quaint shops lining the main drag. Pitlochry has every type of shop, from tartan weavers and souvenirs to pottery, baked goods and antiques. I finish my souvenir-buying within about an hour; really, the town is so compact that, as a fast shopper and an even faster walker, I could make it through the whole town before most women make it through one or two shops. I make another round through the town and go into the stores that I missed, and then head back to the train station to wait for my 2:30 p.m. train.

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All and all, Pitlochry was beautiful, with the sweet little shops and the surrounding hills covered in dark trees. Even the train station is charming; the waiting area looks like something out of a movie or a postcard, much different than the cold beams, sheet metal and concrete of Waverley.

When I get on the train to Edinburgh it is nearly full, but luckily I have a seat reservation and sit next to an overweight middle-aged man in a brown fishing sweater. He tells me he lives is Glasgow but was visiting a friend up in the Highlands, near Inverness. He talks to me about weather in Scotland (the rainy southern belt versus the drier Highlands) and I talk to him about weather back in Ohio, how it has been so hot this summer that the grass is shriveled and dry, and how we don't have nearly the amount of lush green that Scotland does.

It's raining when the train pulls into Waverley, and the sidewalks are full of colorful umbrellas hurrying over the puddles on the pavement. When I get back to the apartment I relax for about an hour until Matt comes home from work, and we go to the Royal Mile Tavern for dinner. I order a steak and Guinness pie, which is tender steak pieces cooked in a Guinness gravy over fries and topped with a puff pastry roll. Matt orders a salmon filet with mash, vegetables and dill sauce, with a Magners Golden cider.

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After dinner we walk to the Albanach (where we had dinner last night) to try another whisky. Matt chooses a 15-year-old Highland malt called Springbank, and its flavors are described as sherry, toffee, dark chocolate, mandarin and smoke. You can smell the rich toffee notes and really taste the smoke, but we can't pick out the other flavors. I take a few sips and compare its taste to “sucking on a piece of campfire ash,” but Matt says that he likes it.

It's Monday night, and the streets are quiet and wet with rainwater. We are comfortably settling into life in Edinburgh—the rain, the pubs, the omnipresent bagpipe music.

Until tomorrow, Edinburgh.

Posted by GoWander 14:05 Archived in Scotland Tagged whisky royal_mile waverley pitlochry scotrail

Oasis in the city

sunny 56 °F

We both wake up early and, at about 8 a.m., walk out into the cold streets to grab breakfast together before Matt leaves for work. We stop at every cafe and coffee shop we see, figuring that people would be grabbing some food or ordering coffee and baked goods on their way to work. However, that is definitely not what happens here. Every coffee shop is closed; we don't find a single place to eat that opens before 8:30 or 9. Wouldn't the morning rush be prime time for the coffee shops? Chalk this up as another big difference between Scotland and the U.S.--no early breakfasts or pre-work coffee!

After our unsuccessful but refreshing walk through Cockburn and the Royal Mile, we return to the apartment and I lay half asleep on the couch while Matt makes his food. After he leaves, I can't seem to drag myself away from the barrage of American shows (Ugly Betty, Rules of Engagement, Supernanny US), especially not when it feels so good to relax and not rush off for somewhere.

A little after 10, I shower and head out the door for a walk up north into New Town. The entire walk is pretty much a steep grade downhill, and the bright wide streets and Georgian-style townhouses with wrought-iron gates, railings and balconies are very striking compared to Old Town.

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By Edinburgh standards, New Town is relatively modern. But by Ohio standards, it is still pretty old. Most the buildings were constructed in the mid-18th and 19th centuries as an answer to the overcrowding in Old Town; the streets are laid out in a grid and are very light and airy. And, I notice, the streets are lined mostly restaurants and cafes, offices, or townhouses, not nearly as many shops as Old Town. But I do like it; Old Town, despite the beauty and history, can be considered cramped and dark even on a sunny day, so a walk into New Town is a nice excursion.

While in New Town, I visit the Royal Botanic Gardens, which is described as one of the most beautiful places in Edinburgh. And it really is. Once you enter the gates, there are woodlands, paths, rock gardens, beautifully manicured hedges, and flowers everywhere. The gardens are laid out by region or theme. For example, there is a Scottish heath garden, native woodland, Chinese hillside and pavilion, Chilean terrace garden, and a section in the center of the garden where, while standing on the hill, you can see the rooftops and spires of the city over the trees.

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I spend a few hours wandering along the paths and admiring the landscaping. And the weather is simply perfect; though it is the standard chilly 56 degrees, the sun continues to shine and adds a touch of warmth. It is easy in this Garden of Eden to forget about the hustle and bustle of life just outside the garden's gates and hedges.

I grab lunch at a quaint, stylish cafe a couple of blocks from the botanical garden called the Circle Cafe. It has high ceilings, beautiful stone and brick walls, and stone slab floors, and patrons are seated at the tables eating lunch or having afternoon tea (advertised as coffee or tea with finger sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, and homemade cakes). I order an open-face skirt steak sandwich on ciabatta with lemon mayonnaise. Yes, it is as delicious as it sounds.

I notice that, unlike in the States, it is perfectly normal for people to eat alone in restaurants (I'm guessing that is because there are so many travelers in Europe, and also the culture calls for more of a cafe-centered type of lifestyle). There are a few people just sipping their cappuccinos, reading the paper or writing in journals. I suppose while going to a cafe in the U.S. is largely a social affair, the cafes over here have a sense of leisure, a chance for people to decompress.

The walk back into Old Town is pretty much how I expected it to be—tiring. It's all uphill for two miles so I walk slowly and take in my surroundings. Overhead, Scottish construction workers with syrupy accents clamor around scaffolding outside a renovated building, singing in unison at the top of their lungs. When I approach Princes Street at the southern edge of New Town, I hear bagpipes like I normally do while walking around Edinburgh, but then I notice that it is accompanied by drums and realize its a Scottish band. I join a crowd of people near the National Gallery and the Princes Street Gardens, and the group, the Spitting Blowfish, has the bagpiper and drummer, as well as a guitarist. They end up being pretty entertaining so I stick around until the end of their set.

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The Princes Street Gardens are nearby, so I walk through the gated garden and pass numerous people lounging in the plush grass, sipping Starbucks or talking on their phones. I reach the Scott Monument and pay 3 pounds to climb all 287 steps to the top. Along the way there are different tiers where you can take a break from the extremely tight stone spiral staircase and check out the views; each time, I think I'm at the top of the monument until I find another set of stairs to climb.

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From each lookout point, the views are incredible in every direction. Because it is such a clear day you can see all the way to the sea in one direction, and then Arthur's Seat and the castle in others. I can still hear bagpipe music on the wind but I can't tell where it is coming from.

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The walkway around the top spire is so narrow that you cannot walk freely around it if there are other people up there with you; it is impossible to move past each other. The staircase leading up to the top is also very narrow, so narrow that both of my shoulders bump the sides as I climb. It's a good thing I'm thin. At one point on my climb back down, there is a group of people making their way to the top and we end up in a stalemate. We all take off our backpacks and flatten ourselves against the walls of the staircase, and our stomachs rub against each other as we squeeze past. Not ideal, but it works.

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By the time I reach the bottom of the monument my legs are burning and I'm more than happy to return to the apartment to relax. When Matt comes home from work a little after 5:30, we go to dinner at a pub on Cockburn called the Malt Shovel. It is tastefully decorated with worn leather seats and antique photos on the walls. We each order a cider (I get an Aspall Draught Suffolk, which is appley and tastes a little like sauvignon blanc. You drink this one over ice. Matt gets Country Perry, a pear cider) and for dinner, I order hand-battered cod and chips and Matt gets a sirloin steak with peppercorn sauce and veggies. The cod is enormous and stretches across my entire plate, the batter satisfyingly crispy. I should note that this is the first time in my entire life that I've ordered seafood at a restaurant; normally I just take a few bites of Matt's because seafood makes me nervous, but you can't go to the UK without ordering fish and chips, right?

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After dinner, in the tradition of our trip, Matt orders a 10-year-old Isle of Jura whisky, which has notes of almond and spice. I don't really taste either of those flavors, but Matt says its good. So far, he says he likes the campfire ash from last night the most.

Tonight, satisfied by our tasty dinner and drinks, we plan to relax and just watch a little TV or read. I've pretty much been sightseeing and never sitting still since we arrived, and now that Matt is doing a 9-to-5 routine this week, we both need to put our feet up and recuperate. I also need to plan my excursions for tomorrow. Who knows what the day will hold?

Posted by GoWander 14:30 Archived in Scotland

Royal Mile = royally hard on my wallet

sunny 57 °F

The morning is sunny, the forecast clear of any rain. After Matt leaves for work, I put on my hiking gear and head east down the Royal Mile toward Holyrood Park, stopping at a few shops along the way. I buy some Christmas gifts, which I stuff into my pack, and then barter with one of the shop clerks to get a discount on an Edinburgh sweatshirt for myself; we end up chatting for about 20 minutes after I make my purchase.

It is a beautiful day for hiking around Holyrood Park, not too cold but just a little windy, as always. I start out on the same path that Matt and I took on our climb to the Arthur's Seat summit, then veer off on some paths that follow the valley between Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags.

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The interesting thing about Holyrood Park is that footpaths zigzag like spiderwebs all over the hills, through the valleys, around ponds. You basically can go where you want to go and do whatever kind of hike you want to do. When I pause to take pictures and admire the hills around me, I see specks of people following the countless paths and trails. Some are tourists, others are walking dogs or jogging. All these different people brought together by a love for the outdoors and the sunshine.

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When I'm ready for lunch, I head back to the Royal Mile and stop at a restaurant called Cafe Vivo. I grab a seat in front of the window, sink into the comfortable leather seat, and order a goat cheese, chicken and sun-dried tomato panini on a crisp baguette and a cappuccino. I'm torn between watching the pedestrians hurry along the sidewalk and staring at the assortment of brownies, cakes and truffles at the counter. I tell myself that it is okay to splurge and that I would grab it on my way out. But at the last minute I decide to save my money—I'll be spending enough of it while shopping in the trinket stores.

And spend it I do. I duck into almost every store, picking out gifts and looking at the plaid tartans that remind me of Catholic grade school. When I finally decide to call it a day and head back to the apartment, I feel like I've accomplished a lot of what I needed to do but still flustered by spending money. Keep in mind that 1 British pound equals about $1.60 USD. I constantly estimate the amount in my head, which helps me be at least a little more judicious with my purchases.

Matt returns to the apartment a little after 5:30. We are not going out to dinner tonight because he is meeting his boss for drinks tonight and will probably end up eating at the pub. I decide not to go so that he can stay out later (since I like to go to bed early) and bond with his work friends. I heat up a microwave pasta meal and look forward to catching up on some reading and relaxing.

Tomorrow I will be taking a train trip about half an hour east of Edinburgh to the coastal town of North Berwick. It is supposed to rain, unfortunately (what luck that both of my train trips have been rainy days!). But I'm looking forward to seeing another city, especially one that is on the coast. It should be pretty different from the hectic Edinburgh and the bucolic Pitlochry.

Posted by GoWander 12:24 Archived in Scotland

There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing

rain 52 °F

After a pretty good streak of weather, the luck runs out today. The forecast calls for rain pretty much all day, with temperatures at about 52 degrees. I pack up my rain gear, Gor-Tex boots and base layers, and walk to Waverley for my second solo train trip. I'm heading northeast up the coast to the seaside town of North Berwick, just half an hour away. A much easier commute than the two-hour ride to Pitlochry.

This time I easily navigate Waverley, merely glancing at the departure screens for a few seconds to get my platform number, then walking through the maze of corridors to get to Platform 4. This train seems to be filled mostly with locals; they aren't dressed like travelers (they wear skirts, ballet flats, and suits—no hiking boots or waterproof packs) and are only carrying small purses or briefcases.

About 80 percent of the train empties as the very first stop, Musselburgh. I'm not sure what is in Musselburgh, but maybe they are just on their morning commute to work. That seems common here, people taking the trains in the morning with their coffees and laptop bags as they come in from the surrounding areas or vice versa.

When I arrive a short time later at the North Berwick station, I walk a few blocks toward the harbor and immediately am taken aback by the stunning beauty of the beach and the sea in front of me. I walk out into the sand, all the way to where the sand gets soggy and wet when you step on it, to admire the algae-covered rocks and the handful of boats anchored just offshore. Dogs run through the wet sand with their owners; gulls and terns sit on the exposed rocks cleaning their feathers. Just to the east, the quaint buildings of downtown North Berwick huddle next to the cove with just a stone seawall separating them from the sand. At that moment, I don't even notice the mist or the cold; I feel taken over by the beauty of this seaside community, with its moored boats and waves tapping the sand.

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Instead of walking back to the street, I follow the beach toward town. The air is heavy with the comforting smell of salt and kelp, and the rain makes everything seem cleaner and fresher somehow.

I eventually reach a short peninsula where the Scottish Seabird Centre is located. The center is an educational conservation project, with a gift shop, cafe, a learning area for kids, and daily boat trips around Bass Rock, an island about a mile offshore where puffins and gannets nest. Bass Rock is the largest single colony of gannets in the world. I had seriously considered taking the 1-hour boat ride around the island, but with the rain and cold, I'm not sure it would have been a good idea. It was one of those large zodiac type of boats with a bunch of seats up in the front, completely exposed to the elements. Not great for a rainy day, so I decide to explore the beaches and town instead.

After meandering through the Seabird Centre's gift shop, I sit down in the cafe near the windows that face out to the Firth of Forth. I sip a cappuccino and munch on a roast beef and horseradish baguette with salad and chips.

When I go back outside, it is raining harder than it was earlier. I walk farther out onto the peninsula and find a small harbor locked in by a thick pier, and all the boats (mostly sailboats) sit on the exposed mud on their hulls, still tethered to one another. I'm confused by this harbor. I'm assuming that the tide rises enough that the boats will be able to float and move during high tide, but they are so packed in that it seems like it would be rather tricky to get out if you are the farthest from the narrow entrance. It's probably a pretty exact science to maneuver them around each other.

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Farther out in the peninsula I find a rough, rocky footpath along a spit of land jutting out into the sea. Since it is low tide, you can see the waterline where the seaweed and barnacles form a clear boundary, and there is even an old pier off the side of the footpath that clearly would be underwater during high tide. I descend the steps to the pier and it gets very slippery about halfway down. I do my 'slippery rocks shuffle' that I've perfected after years of walking around slick, algae-covered rocks.

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I walk into town and check out the shops in an effort to have a little break from the rain. The downtown is really not very big, mostly just one main drag of pubs and shops, so I don't spend too much time in town before heading back to the outskirts for more exploring.

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At one point, when my pants and base layer bottoms have soaked through with rain water, I walk out onto the beach behind a large mass of rocks and pull out my rain pants as well as set the rain cover for my pack. I instantly feel warmer and more prepared to face the weather.

I walk east along the coastal road and ascend a bluff with paths and benches overlooking the sea and the beach. Because I am waterproof from head to toe, I sit on one of the benches and just listen to the sound of the rain on the grass around me and the waves on the beach. I don't notice or care about the rain. I'm all alone on this solitary bluff, just me, the waves and the big sky.

The sea and the sky are both a foggy gray, mixing into each other to form one big wall of colorless nothing. If it weren't for the couple of islands in the distance, I wouldn't even know where the horizon is.

On my way back down the bluff and toward town, I take a detour onto the Glen Walkway, a nature walk just past a golf course that takes you into a thick, dark forest. The path follows a rushing creek and curls past ruins of old stone buildings, one of them a mill from the 1300s. Today the mill is just two walls covered with ivy vines. With the sun hidden behind the clouds, the forest is very, very dark—beautiful, but at times a little ominous. My eyes start to play tricks on me; I keep thinking that I see something out of the corner of my eye and I turn with a start, then realizing that it must just be the wet leaves of the trees moving in the breeze.

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The walkway spits me out somewhere near a sports field that I hadn't see before, and I have no idea where I am. I cut through a residential neighborhood at the base of North Berwick Law (an enormous and steep hill similar to Arthur's Seat, except it is just one strangely isolated hill instead of a series of them), where locals are hauling bags of groceries into their homes or walking their dogs. Pretty much every dog I see is wearing some sort of rain jacket—this must be the norm here in Scotland with all the cold rainy weather they have.

It is also interesting that every local that I talk to comments on the miserable weather. Here are people who live in a notoriously wet and chilly country, and they say that this weather is even too much for them! I guess everyone has their limits. While I don't think too much of the rain at first, the longer I am outside the more anxious and tired I get. The cold just zaps your energy, and my wet hands are starting to hurt. I decide it is time to warm up somewhere and get out of the rain.

I stop at a place called Tiffany's Tearoom and order a cappuccino and a tomato basil soup—warm comfort food. I've had more cappuccino in Scotland than I think I've ever had; almost every establishment has coffee drinks on their menus and people seem to drink them at all hours of the day.

By the time I finish warming up and eating, it is almost time to catch my 4:30 train back to Edinburgh. I hike back to the station and fall asleep on the train. When I wake up, the train has stopped at Waverley and people are already climbing off. It's a good thing I didn't sleep through my stop!

Matt comes home from work after grabbing drinks with some of his coworkers, and we walk to the Royal Mile for dinner. The Royal McGregor Bar is basically right across the street from the Cockburn intersection; I order a bacon cheddar burger with chips and a Kopparberg pear cider, and Matt orders a Thistly Cross cider and New York strip steak topped with two fried eggs. After we eat we stop at a whisky shop and taste some samples before buying a bottle—a 15-year-old Dalmore, which is a Highland single malt described as citrusy and spiced with cloves, cinnamon and ginger.

Tomorrow's forecast is much better than today's, so I'll have to find a good outdoor activity to take advantage of the weather. Matt will be at a software conference tomorrow and Saturday at Our Dynamic Earth, a science center with interactive exhibits about planet Earth. Starting on Sunday he will be finished with work and we will be able to start sightseeing together again.

Before bed I watch a TV show about Great Britain ghosts. Probably not the best thing to watch while staying in a medieval neighborhood...Just a thought.

Posted by GoWander 15:15 Archived in Scotland

Mary King's Close, a slice of the 17th century

sunny 57 °F

The sun is shining and the air crisp when Matt leaves for his conference; I make a cup of Nescafe to ease into the morning. I decide to start the day with a trip underground to Mary King's Close, which is an old neighborhood that was completely covered when the Royal Exchange was built directly on top of it.

My tour starts at 10:30 a.m. and the group descends several flights of stairs into the underbelly of Old Town. It is musty and dark, dimly lit by some old fashioned lanterns and the guide's flashlight. The tour takes us down the old streets and into the different homes and shops, giving us historical information about the 1600s and the stories of the families that lived in each house.

Edinburgh in the 17th century sounds like it was an absolutely horrible, unsanitary place. The poorest of the poor lived in tiny stone rooms—sometimes 10 to a room—with dirt floors and low wood ceilings. They had buckets for urination and such, and when the buckets were full, they would dump the contents out into the hilly street. Of course, the streets were extremely steep so all the feces ran down through the streets, mixing with the sewage from other homes and pooling into Nor Loch (today Princes Street Gardens). People would drink that same water and get horrible diseases like cholera, but they didn't have the knowledge about disease and sanitation like we do today, so many died from drinking or fishing from the rancid water of the loch.

These cramped and unsanitary conditions made Old Town and especially the area around Mary King's close a hotspot for the bubonic plague, with the large population of rats that spread the disease. Our guide explains that roughly half of the people who lived in or around the close died from the plague, one of them being Mary King, who owned a few properties along the close.

That is one of the stories surrounding a home we enter; as soon as I walk into what was the bedroom of the home, I recognize it immediately from an episode of “Ghost Hunters International.” There is a large pile of stuffed animals, a tradition that had started about 20 years ago when it was “discovered” that a little girl named Annie allegedly haunts that room and, it's believed, was one of the plague victims left to die. The dolls and toys range from Barbies and teddy bears to Spongebob Squarepants. There are some photographs and even a CD in the mix. The room is extremely cold and creepy; the stuffed animals, covered in dust, leave a haunting impression in my mind as we continue the rest of the tour.

The main streetway of Mary King's Close is really quite amazing to see. It actually looks very much like the narrow closes that are still exposed to the city today. We stand at the bottom of an ancient stone alley with a very steep incline (you would never find something this steep in today's streets), lined with thick stone walls, small doorways, and windows. Looking up, the close extends several stories up until it is cut off by the floor of the building above. The operators of the tours have hung clotheslines across between the buildings, and shirts and pants hang like flags across the close. For a second I forget that I'm underground because the darkness simply feels like nighttime, and it truly feels as if I traveled four centuries into the past. The fact that the entire close is buried beneath the city makes it feel like a fossilized society, completely frozen in time and space. To think that people lived in these streets and even died here in droves is surreal and sad. Those who did survive the plague were eventually forced from their homes when the Royal Exchange building was built in the mid-1700s, the walls of their family home used as the building's foundation.

I'm glad I decided to take this eerie tour because it gave me deeper insight into the history of Edinburgh and its people. Although pictures were not permitted on the tour, I found the Ghost Hunters International episode in which Mary King's Close is investigated. It gives a good visual to accompany the things I've described; the only real difference is that today there are a lot more dolls and stuffed animals for Annie than there were when the GHI episode was filmed.

GHI Part 1

GHI Part 2

After spending an hour underground, the bright sunlight is startling and intense. I walk back toward Cockburn and stop at a cafe called Cafe Marina and buy an Italian panini to munch on before I continue my day. I decide that it would be a good day to go to the beach resort town of Portobello, which is about three miles from the city center. Three miles is a little far to walk one way, so I figure out the bus schedule and hop on the 26 toward Portobello and Seton Sands. It takes a little under 20 minutes with all the stops; I sit on the second level of the double-decker bus and grab the very first seat, which is interesting because you basically get a picture window in front of you, and it feels almost as if you are driving.

I hop off the bus at the Portobello High Street stop and walk straight down to the beach. This beach is much different from the beaches at North Berwick. While North Berwick had expanses of sand strewn with rocks and drying kelp, Portobello is a typical sand beach that would be great for swimming or skimboarding. What I can't figure out though is why anyone would want to swim in Scotland to begin with. The average temperature in the middle of summer is 59 degrees, a far cry from Ohio's 90-degree heat waves.

I follow the promenade along the beach, lined on one side by hotels, town homes and a sailing club. There are a lot of dogs playing fetch with their owners and couples sitting on the many benches facing the sea. I sit down at an empty bench and look out at the waves tripping over themselves near the shore. Across the Firth of Forth I can see the coastal towns of Fife, and to the east is the North Berwick Law in the distance. It really is the perfect day to just sit by the beach and soak up a little sun.

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When I'm ready to move on, I walk inland a few blocks to downtown Portobello to see if there are any good stores or cafes to explore. I window shop down the main drag for a little while until I am ready to find my bus stop and head back into the city.

When Holyrood Park and Calton Hill come back into view over the rooftops, it feels like I'm coming home. I'm amazed by the sense of belonging I already feel in our little flat on Cockburn and all the familiar cafes and pubs I walk by every day. And with Matt leaving for work every morning this week, this now feels like our routine, our life. I know it's misguided since we will be leaving in a week, but we've been here long enough now that I feel comfortable and settled.

Posted by GoWander 11:53 Archived in Scotland

Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time

sunny 56 °F

I wake up early with Matt so we can go to breakfast together before his conference. We stop at one of the few places near our flat that opens at 8:30—Garfunkel's restaurant on the Royal Mile. We grab a seat in front of the window and sip cappuccinos; Matt orders an omelet with a side of sausage and I have an eggs benedict: two poached eggs and ham on thick malt bread, topped with savory hollandaise.

After Matt starts his walk toward Our Dynamic Earth, I head back to the flat to figure out my plans for the day. With the forecast calling for clear and sunny skies, I decide to walk through New Town to Dean Village, which is about a 20 minute walk from Princes Street.

Dean Village, located on the Water of Leith, is a historic milling village that today is a picturesque haven within the city. I walk down a steep curving street and find myself in a sleepy fairytale of a town, with beautiful stone homes, bright flowers, and a rushing stream with bridges and footpaths. Many of the homes back right up against the stream, and I imagine what it would be like to live in one of them and hear the rushing water when the windows are open.

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I meander through the maze of quiet cobblestone streets, admiring the beautiful architecture before I detour down near the stream to walk the path along the river bank. It's hard to believe that this beautiful little postcard village has been inhabited for 800 years and was an important industrial center. Today, it is quaint, quiet and a step back in time to simpler days.

On the walk back through New Town I take a detour down George Street, the area's premier shopping strip. The wide street is lined with clothing boutiques, upscale restaurants and wine bars. It feels nothing like Old Town. Women wear dresses and heels, the men blazers. I don't stop into any of the stores here; it feels like an expensive stopping area in the States where girls spend their paychecks on Coach purses. I don't see any pubs or whisky shops, just block after block of a Beverly Hills-esque sophistication that I didn't expect I'd find in Edinburgh.

I return to the apartment and take a nap after I have some lunch. At about 2 p.m. I head out again to the Royal Mile and walk toward Holyrood Park for a hike up to Salisbury Crags. The crags themselves look like a fortress wall surrounding the rest of the park. They wrap around the western edge of the mountainside like a crown, in a series of high jagged cliffs and bluffs that tower above the city. I take the steep rocky footpath up the hill directly below the crags. Like the paths leading to Arthur's Seat, this path is very tiresome as it continues to climb at an uncomfortable grade; I wish that I had worked out more before this trip, but the exercise invigorates me and I start to enjoy the burn in my calves and my lungs. The views of the city and the Firth of Forth are a beautiful distraction as I hike, and since I had started this hike later in the day, the sun warms the air enough that I wear just a t-shirt on my climb.

The path to the crags curls around to the far side of the park, where other walkers are taking a shorter, winding path straight up the hill to Arthur's Seat. I make my way up a grassy hillside to get to the highest point of the crags, which just beyond a steep dropoff offers the most unobstructed views of the city. I sit along the edge to rest my burning calf muscles and gaze down on the city below, so quiet from this high perch. I know that somewhere down there, there are bagpipers playing on the street corners, people getting on the Waverley trains to distant towns and villages, and probably many, many pairs of eyes gazing right back up at me on the bluff, just as I always do when Holyrood Park is in sight.

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I hike back down through the park and start my walk back up the Royal Mile toward Cockburn. I stop at Canongate Church and the surrounding ancient kirkyard (graveyard). I walk the rows of enormous headstones, most dating back to the 1700s and 1800s, and notice how many children are buried here. I find a headstone for a family that lost 7 or 8 children, about half under the age of 6 and the rest in their early 20s. I notice that death during childhood must have been fairly common and see that, in many cases, the parents outlived all of their children.

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Back on the Royal Mile, I duck into a fudge shop and buy a little bag of fudge—chocolate hazelnut, white chocolate pistachio, chocolate coconut, Italian nougat, and whisky. I had resisted the urge to buy sweets from the many fudge shops and bakeries here, but my will power disappeared after that long walk through Holyrood Park.

My legs are exhausted and sore by the time I make it back to the flat, so I flop down on the couch and relax for the evening, napping on and off. Matt and his coworkers go out to a bar up in New Town after their conference is finished for the day. Tomorrow Matt and I can start sightseeing together for the rest of the trip; I feel like I haven't seen him much at all, like we've had two vacations separate from each other. I'm not sure what we will do tomorrow, but it is supposed to be sunny again so we will have to take advantage of the weather.

Posted by GoWander 13:37 Archived in Scotland

A (long) walk on the wild side

sunny 56 °F

We wake up a little after 8 a.m. and walk into New Town, where we grab breakfast at a little cafe on George Street called Caffe Centro. It's a bright, tasteful eatery that is already nearly filled with people. Matt orders a cappuccino with his breakfast of scrambled egg with smoked salmon and wild mushrooms, and I order a breakfast panini with bacon, sausage, baked beans and Swiss cheese.

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After breakfast we walk east down Princes Street to Calton Hill, a prominent landmark within Edinburgh. From most parts of the city, Calton Hill is a visual staple just as the castle and Arthur's Seat are. The park is filled with various monuments, including the Nelson Monument that looks a little bit like a lighthouse, as well as the National Monument that is reminiscent of a Greek acropolis. From the various observation points that look down on the city, we have, without a doubt, the best view of Holyrood Park, Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags. The castle and Scott Monument are visible in the distance, as is the port town of Leith and the Firth of Forth.

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We wander around Calton Hill for awhile, snapping photos of the monuments and admiring the view of the rest of the city. When we are ready to move on, we follow the winding paths back down to street level and then follow Elm Row toward Leith. It is a fairly long walk—over two miles one way—through upscale, commercial New Town, through streets with overflowing trash bins and newspapers laying crumpled on the sidewalk, to the waterfront of upscale apartments and historic restaurants.

Located at the mouth of the Water of Leith, the town of Leith is Edinburgh's shipping port and has a riverfront walk lined with seafood restaurants, coffee shops and canal boats. We walk along the river and check out the canal boats that line the promenade; it appears that many of them have been transformed into restaurants or even business offices. Since it is Sunday, most of the boats have their gangways pulled up until the work week starts.

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We stop for lunch along the riverfront at the Kings Wark, a restaurant/pub with quite a fascinating and illustrious history. The building originated in 1434 as a royal residence, storehouse and armory for King James I. The interior of the structure was destroyed in 1544 during the Hertford invasion and was rehabilitated by Queen Mary; it was later converted into a plague hospital. Today it's a beautiful restaurant with thick stone walls and wood plank floors, and a menu full of local seafood and UK favorites. I order a blade of Scotch beef topped with horseradish cream, Yorkshire pudding with onion gravy, and roast potatoes. Matt has baked smoked haddock with brown shrimp, caper and parsley butter, roast potatoes and vegetables. We both wash our lunches down with a Strongbow cider.

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After lunch we walk around Leith and, when we need to give our legs a break, stop in to a cool bar for cappuccinos. We sit in a glass-enclosed back patio with comfortable armchairs and loveseats, and notice the interesting paintings on the walls. One wall itself has a big, somewhat creepy painting of an evil-looking bartender holding an absinthe bottle as an evil-looking female patron sips from her glass and another patron is passed out at the bar. We notice that there are little green fairies painted sporadically around that wall and that there are decorative absinthe bottles being used as candle holders in some built-in alcoves. It appears we found a bar that serves absinthe and flaunts it in the décor. We joke about trying it but decide that hallucinations might dampen the rest of our day.

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We then walk a mile northwest to Newhaven, a little seaside town that has a tiny harbor and some nice-looking seafood restaurants. We walk on the pier enclosing the harbor and then head through town a little ways; we notice on our walk back that what we thought was a big Gothic church has a sign out front that said “Alien Rock – Come climb with us!” Intrigued, we walk through the doors and see that this old church had been transformed into a rock climbing center, with walls of all skill levels covering the entire interior of the building. Interestingly, the original ceiling of the church is still visible, as is part of a stained glass window peeking over one of the climbing walls. We are absolutely enthralled by this discovery and spend some time watching expert climbers haul themselves up the harder section, clipping carabiners on their way up.

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We make our way back to Leith for dinner at a place called Khublai Khan's, which is a Mongolian buffet with exotic meats. And I mean exotic. So here's how it works: you add a starch to your bowl (noodles or rice) and add whatever vegetables you want. Then you choose from a huge selection of spices and sauces to mix in (as well as a menu of suggested combinations of flavors). Then add your meat. Here is what they have: zebra, kangaroo, wildebeest, venison, ostrich, camel, a game mix of venison, pheasant and rabbit, wild boar, baby octopus, prawns, squid, mussels, haddock/cod, and the regular beef and chicken. I assemble bowls with wild boar and camel, while Matt puts together bowls of zebra, kangaroo and wildebeest.

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We try a bit of each other's food and determine that we like the camel and the wildebeest the best (both are very tender and mild), but they are all very good. I also get a dessert with my meal—a toffee pudding with ice cream. It's actually more of a toffee cake drizzled with toffee syrup a la mode. We've noticed this dessert on pretty much every menu here in Scotland, and now I understand why.

We leave Khublai Khan's feeling stuffed, but we decide to make the 2-mile walk back to Old Town instead of taking the bus. To pass the time and take my mind off my tired feet, I sing Irish songs under my breath. By the time we make it back to New Town and Princes Street, the sky is painted with the oranges and yellows of the already-set sun. Scott Monument is a stoic silhouette against the evening colors; Edinburgh Castle, atop its perch above Princes Street Gardens, has a deep pink hue to it, as does the entire panorama of the Old Town rooftops.

When we finally trudge up Cockburn to our apartment, we flop down on the couches and relax for about an hour before we go back out to the Royal Mile at about 9. We somehow manage to grab a table in the packed Whiski Bar and order a first round of cider for me and a Bruichladdich Organic whisky for Matt (which has notes of toffee in the nose and a very light smoky aftertaste). Second round is a Bailey's latte for me and, for Matt, an 18-year-old Glendronach (aged in a sherry cask, with some sort of smoke or peat aftertaste).

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At 10, a traditional folk band—Old Town Sessions—begins playing a set of toe-tapping fiddle music and lively beats, as the crowd cheers and claps along. We stay for the duration of the first set and head back out into the 45-degree night, which feels refreshing after the balmy, body-heated warmth of the pub. On our walk back to Cockburn, we pass pub after pub, each with a live band that can be heard from the sidewalk. The songs range from traditional folk to contemporary pop; the Scotsman's Lounge has the singer that we watched on our second night here. Everywhere we walk, the night is alive with guitars and fiddles.

We return to our flat and happily take some time to put our feet up. Let's do the math—to and from Leith is about 4.4 miles total, plus 2 miles to and from Newhaven and Leith. And taking into account the walk up into New Town for breakfast, the hike up and around Calton Hill, and the walk down the Royal Mile, I'd estimate we walked about 9 miles today.

And tomorrow we are in for another busy day—a train trip! Finally Matt will be able to get outside Edinburgh and see a little bit of the surrounding area. But right now, we are looking forward to a good night's sleep.

Posted by GoWander 16:22 Archived in Scotland

Stirling, the heart of Scotland

rain 51 °F

We wake up early for our day trip north into the central Highlands to Stirling, a city that has had vital importance to the history of Scotland. The morning is cloudy and cold; we grab layer after layer of quick-dry shirts, base layers, and Gor-Tex jackets and pants, and easily locate our platform at Waverley.

The train has only a small handful of people on board, and we relax into the hour-long ride north through farmland filled with grazing livestock and tilled soil. When we pull into the Stirling rail station, we walk through the store-lined streets following signs for Old Town, which is the historic center of the city. Along the way we stop for breakfast in a small cafe called Old Town Coffee House, where Matt orders a vegetable omelet and I order bacon, baked beans and a slice of toasted bread topped with egg. We sip cappuccinos as we eat, not quite ready to face the chilly day.

After breakfast, we walk uphill through a maze of vein-like streets and historic stone buildings, ending up at the Stirling Castle, a fortress on a rocky crag that was integral to both the Scottish and the English during the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century.

It was said that “He who holds Stirling holds Scotland.” The English and Scottish fought viciously for control of the castle, and it actually changed hands a number of times throughout history. William Wallace fought here, as did other famous Scottish knights and warriors. Being here at the Stirling Castle is an opportunity to experience a cornerstone of Scottish culture and one of the most significant sites in the entire country.

We explore the castle for a few hours, walking through the beautiful flowering gardens, following the walkways along the ramparts, and exploring stone turrets, the royal bedchambers, and the courtyard where James V housed a lion, a symbol of royalty. The castle incorporates some educational exhibits as well, such as an explanation of the roles that various people played in the castle (woodcarvers, jesters, musicians, etc), an analysis of two skeletons that were found on the premises to examine how they died (one had its skull smashed with a blunt object, the other chopped with a sword on the forehead and shot with an arrow through the chest. At the time of excavation, the arrowhead was still lodged in the torso), and war strategies about how to achieve victory if you are the invader trying to capture the castle (starve the enemy out, use a trebuchet to blast parts of the walls down, etc) vs. the defender of the castle (keep rations low, promptly repair damaged walls, use cannon fire or boiling oil to incapacitate attackers).

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But what we find especially remarkable is the view of the Highland mountains just a short distance from the castle, shrouded partly in cloudy mist and alluringly mysterious. These hills are bare of trees and instead are rocky, grassy monoliths that I'm just dying to hike. I can only imagine how windblown those peaks must be; from here on the high ramparts of the castle, the wind is biting and oppressive. We can barely hear each other over the sound of the wind on our Gor-Tex hoods, and our fingers start to feel numb from the wet cold. I keep my fingers tucked into my sleeve but still, nothing feels dry and nothing feels warm.

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After a few hours we make our way back down from the castle hill into town, where we are famished and ready to warm up over lunch. We check out a few eateries and settle on a nicer restaurant called The Golden Lion, where I order a chicken Caesar salad with a cappuccino and Matt orders duck breast with a Magner's cider.

By the time we finish lunch, we only have about an hour until we have to catch our train out of town, and now that the rain is falling in cold, powerful sheets, we walk through the local mall and look at the different stores that are popular in the UK. I see a lot of clothing stores, with cozy sweaters and tweed jackets in the window displays, that I could see myself shopping at if I lived here in Scotland, but Matt and I come across an interesting Japanese brand called Superdry, which looks to be the trendy, Abercrombie-type brand of the UK. I personally wouldn't shop here because of how Abercrombie-like it is, but there are a lot of the young people grabbing graphic tees and zip-up jackets off the racks.

We hop on the 3:30 train and head south a short way to Falkirk, where we jump on a bus for about 15 minutes until we reach the Falkirk Wheel. The Falkirk Wheel is something that Matt had said interested him because it is “an engineering masterpiece.” In person, it is an impressive, vertically rotating metal lock that connects the lower section of the canal with the rest of the canal that extends from the top of a high hill. Apparently, these two canals were originally connected by the traditional type of filling-and-draining step locks that you would be accustomed to seeing, but the wheel was built to lift or lower boats via a more efficient circular boat lift.

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Today, the wheel is a tourist attraction and, from the looks of it, a day excursion for the family. On site, in addition to offering canal boat rides up on the wheel, there are some food stands (closed because of the cold weather), hiking paths, a playground and a series of interactive water features that all flow into one another and incorporate engineering principles. For example, at the very top of the hill is a pump to allow water into the maze of water scoops, spouts, valves and curving water channels that are designed to teach children to consider the progression of the water flow and how each section will impact the rest. If I close this valve here, it will redirect the water into that water feature, but if I spin this wheel, it also scoops water and dumps it into a channel leading over that way. We pump, spin, and turn the rain-covered metal until our hands are almost numb.

There are no boats being transported in the wheel while we are at the site, but eventually it does complete a slow 180 degree turn right before we leave to catch our bus back to the train station. The large metal tub that holds the boats in a large scoop of water rolls on wheels to remain upright as the wheel turns, finally settling at the opposite landing of the canal. Matt says that this is the only lock in the world of its kind, and I can agree that it is an engineering masterpiece if I've ever seen one.

We bid farewell to the Falkirk Wheel and jump on the bus toward to the rail station. Our bus driver asks if we are American and then exclaims, “Why on earth would you want to come to SCOTLAND? With this horrid weather?” He says that this year has been unusually wet, and all summer has pretty much been like today, that the sun of last week “WAS the summer.” When we arrive a couple blocks from our train station, he halts the bus and calls to us that this is our stop, giving us walking directions the rest of the way to the station. We pull our rain hoods up over our heads and easily find our way to our train platform.

I fall asleep on our way back to Waverley, my head slumped against the window. By the time we arrive back in Edinburgh, the sky is dark from the setting sun and the thick cloud cover, even though it is only 6:30. We walk back to the flat to drop off our hiking packs and change out of our waterproof gear, then make our way back to the Royal Mile to try out a new pub for dinner.

We end up at The Mitre, a pub just a few doors down from Whiski, where we listened to the live music last night. Upon doing a quick Google search, I read that the cellar of the basement is allegedly haunted by the ghost of a 17th century bishop. When I announce this to Matt, a server who is taking dinner orders at the table next to us turns around and says, “So the cellar is haunted? I always heard ghost rumors but didn't know it was in the cellar specifically.” She says to another pub employee who is sitting at a table nearby, “Remember when I told you that I thought I saw a ghost?” She finishes taking the table's orders and drops them off at the kitchen, then returns to our table to tell us the story.

She says that a month or two ago, she was changing a keg down in the cellar and from the corner of her eye saw a figure in a gray cloak run into the spirits room. She was stunned for a moment then walked into the spirits room after the apparition to see if anything or anyone was there, but the room was empty. She does explain that, if it was indeed a ghost, she didn't feel threatened by or afraid of it, and she believes that it is a good-natured presence.

Another employee nearby chimes in, saying that a ghost-hunting group recently came to the pub to do an investigation and videotape the place. Whether these stories are true or not, we will never know for sure. But Matt becomes caught up in the fact that the knife at his table setting is magnetic. He keeps lifting his fork and my utensils with it, saying that the ghost must be lifting the silverware. He even calls the “ghost waitress,” as I call her, to our table to see. She is skeptical and asks if she can try, wondering if he is pulling a trick.

We order a good pub dinner of Aspall's cider, a fillet with peppercorn sauce for Matt and a burger with smoked back bacon and Stilton for me. After dinner Matt follows up with a Glenmorangie Port whisky, keeping up his after-dinner whisky tasting tradition. We want to jump from pub to pub along the Royal Mile, getting drinks at the ones that we have not been to yet, but it is raining again and the wind is painfully cold. I'm shivering as soon as we step out into the rain so we head back to the flat instead to relax and take hot showers.

There really isn't a plan for tomorrow. I think we will probably shop along the Royal Mile together (believe it or not, Matt and I have not yet done that together, even though it seems like I have been in each of those shops a handful of times). With another Scotland weather forecast in store, I'm sure there will be several cappuccinos throughout the day as well!

Posted by GoWander 15:44 Archived in Scotland

A sampling of UK guilty pleasures

overcast 54 °F

Exhausted from a busy few days, we sleep in late this morning and head out for breakfast at about 10:30 a.m. We grab a table at the Southern Cross Cafe (where we had eaten last week) and order two cappuccinos, with a croque madame topped with fried egg for me and a plate of bacon, hash browns, sausage, and egg for Matt. The day is cloudy and spits rain every once in awhile, but at least it isn't the constant rain that we had yesterday.

After breakfast we we walk up and down the Royal Mile, picking up random items from the souvenir shops and browsing the whisky stores. At one shop I test out a miniature bagpipe, which ends up sounding more like an injured goose. We also stop into an antique maps store that sells framed maps as old as 100, 200 years old, some of which I would be very interested in buying if they were a little more affordable. I came across some beautiful antique maps of Ireland as well as an old artistic street map of Dublin from the late 1800s. We look at a shelf filled with antique books and, laying front and center by itself on a shelf, is an atlas of Cuyahoga County, Ohio from the 1870s. How this book found its way to Edinburgh is beyond me. We set the book on a nearby table and flip through the delicate pages, examining the detailed maps of the various cities and comparing the population numbers of the rest of Ohio's counties.

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After shopping for awhile, we have lunch at Deacon Brodie's Pub where we order two ciders (a Magner's spiced apple and rhubarb cider for Matt and an Magner's spiced apple and honey cider for me). The rhubarb cider is especially good—smooth and sweet, with a pinkish color to it. To eat, Matt has a wild boar and chorizo burger—without the bun—and I have tomato soup and a side of rosemary-and-garlic breaded brie wedges with a caramelized onion chutney for dipping. I love stopping at these historic pubs, whether it be for lunch, dinner or just drinks, and being a part of this pub culture. There is such an interesting mix of people, relaxed atmosphere and sense of history that is hard to find back in Ohio.

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The story of Deacon Brodie, who the pub was named after, pervades throughout the area. A real-life Jekylle and Hyde, Brodie lived during the 1700s and was a respected citizen of Edinburgh who held various revered day jobs. His second life, however, included nighttime burglary, a gambling habit, two mistresses and five children from different women. Eventually, Brodie was tried for thievery and hung right in Edinburgh; ironically, he was executed on the very gallows that he had designed not long before. Deacon Brodie's Pub pays homage to this notable figure of Edinburgh's history and even sells pub shirts with a hangman on the back. Though I love pub shirts, which are few and far between here in Edinburgh, the hangman is just a little too morbid for my taste.

We make it through the rest of the shops on the Royal Mile, stopping at two fudge shops to pick up some more flavors to try, including chili chocolate, chocolate orange, and mocha espresso. Weighed down by our shopping bags, we walk back to the flat to drop off our bags and warm up.

At about 7 we walk down the Royal Mile for dinner, in search of a pub that we haven't visited yet. We end up at a place called the Canon's Gait, located near the bottom of the sloping Royal Mile close to Holyrood Park. In the 1500s the French tailor of Mary Queen of Scots lived in the space that the bar now occupies, outside the city walls. We each order a Magner's cider, and I order a salad with chorizo, tomato, goat cheese and onion, while Matt orders Scottish smoked salmon. However, I think he didn't recognize the type of pasta listed in the dish and, when he realizes that he can't eat the dinner because it is mostly pasta, we end up switching. The pasta is actually delicious; it's tossed in some sort of light lemon-basil butter sauce, and the smoked salmon adds a rich flavor to it.

When we are finished with dinner, we walk a few blocks up the Mile to Whiski to try to grab a table before the live music starts. We each order straight whisky (I order a 15-year-old Dalwhinnie and Matt has a cask-strength Caol Ila, which makes his breath smell like he smoked a cigar) and talk about getting another round, but the alcohol (and probably all the walking we've done) makes us sleepy so we head back to the apartment early.

We watch TV for an hour or two before bed, tasting small pieces of the fudge we just bought. I have to say, some of the UK television shows are really bizarre, yet I'm ashamed to say that some of them do grab my attention during those nights when I need some mindless TV time before bed. Here are a few of the more outlandish TV shows that I've come across this past week and a half:

Geordie Shore – This is basically the British version of Jersey Shore, set in Newcastle, England. It is a smorgasbord of binge drinking, arguing, and hookups—trash TV at its best. Like Jersey Shore, it's a cast full of irresponsible, hate-worthy people, yet thanks to MTV, these types of people end up on TV shows instead of fading into obscurity where they belong.

Top Dog Model – Aspiring models compete for a national ad campaign, undergoing a series of photo shoots and challenges along the way. Except the models are dogs. It is a lot like America's Next Top Model, with a panel of judges (one of which completes a Tyra-like speech—“Only four dogs will continue in the competition to be the Top Dog Model,” etc) and a creative director who is on set and examines the dogs' performance. The judges watch the final ads in the judging room and deliberate the merits of each dog model. Think “Top Model” meets “Toddlers and Tiaras,” plus dogs.

Celebrity Juice – I'm actually not entirely sure what the premise of this show is. It has a bizarre and flamboyant host, and the guests on the show mock the week's tabloid news and celebrities. There are a lot of sex jokes, one-liners and politically incorrect humor. But they also do strange competitions, like to see who can stand in a bucket of ice water for a set period of time or, my personal favorite, pop some balloons. Of course, this isn't that easy; the man doing this particular timed event had what looked like a pink phallus strapped onto the front of his crotch (with a pin on the end) and had to stick the phallus through holes in a series of boxes to pop the balloons inside. You can imagine what this looked like; I can guarantee that this sort of thing never would make it to American TV screens.

Even just watching TV can be an experience in of itself here, not that I've watched that much. Usually we are too busy or having late dinners. But sometimes I do come across a real gem of a show that makes me wonder incredulously where the heck I am.

Posted by GoWander 15:31 Archived in Scotland

The quintessential Scotland in Stonehaven

semi-overcast 56 °F

We wake up at 7 a.m. and get ready for a day trip two hours north to Stonehaven, a small seaside town on the North Sea. But with the worst September storm to hit Great Britain in three decades having passed through just yesterday, Stonehaven was barraged by 100 mph winds, heavy rain and waves that crashed over the breakwater and flooded the streets along the coast. In fact, the waves were so heavy in the harbor itself that a boat sank and others were turtled. We wonder if spending two hours on a train to get to Stonehaven would just mean a long train ride to discover that nothing is open. At the last minute, we decide to take a chance and go ahead with the trip, figuring that if nothing is open, we will just come back.

The ride up north takes us through many coastal towns, and surprisingly the weather is starting to clear. There are brief periods of rain, but most the two hours are sunny, with blue skies making an appearance for the first time all week. Our spirits are lifted and we are hopeful that the day trip will not be a wash after all.

By the time we reach Stonehaven, however, the rain is falling in a downpour that drenches the streets; we put on our rain gear and our waterproof pack covers and walk the mile into downtown Stonehaven. Many of the roads near the beach are covered in driftwood and debris, left over from the storms of the previous day. I remember seeing news footage of sea foam completely covering streets, the fronts of houses and cars. Even a small dog was caught on camera hopping through the foam as if it were deep snow.

We don't stay in the town for too long and instead make our way to the notoriously beautiful Dunnottar Castle. We hike up a narrow street lined with fields and grazing cows just south of downtown Stonehaven, and miraculously, the skies clear as we hike. The rain stops about halfway to the castle, and I say a little thank you to the fickle, unpredictable Scottish weather for giving us a break this time.

As we approach Dunnottar Castle, we are amazed by its imposing stature on a high seaside bluff, surrounded by crashing waves save for a paper-thin rocky trail connecting the bluff to the mainland. Dunnottar Castle dates back to the 5th century and has been captured by Vikings, set fire to by William Wallace (he burned the chapel to the ground when English soldiers were hiding inside), and had various Scottish royalty visit and stay within its walls.

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The rich, almost unfathomable history of this place is sensed from the moment you lay eyes on it. The ruins of the castle lay spread out across the bluff, a series of winding stone staircases, chapel walls, homes and stables (all of which without roofs) that, considering their age, are in impressive condition. Well-preserved bread ovens are covered in a thin layer of green moss. What we guess to be an ancient stone sink stands against the wall. One wall of a stone chapel stands as it did back when it was built, arched with two Gothic-style openings for windows.

We wander through the plush grass between and through the various buildings, and explore the various paths along the edge of the bluff where we can see the waves pounding on the beaches and rocks below. At times I just stand and stare out at the view, stunned silent and almost brought to tears by the surprisingly blue-and-turquoise sea and the way the sun shines across the waves and the grasses.

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There are two aspects of the castle that make it an absolutely wonderful place to visit. First, it is not overrun with tourists. Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle both had crowds of people walking every which way, and you couldn't take a picture without someone ending up on the background. At Dunnottar, there are some visitors, but not many (probably because of the 2 and a half mile walk to get here, plus how far up the coast it is). During our time within the castle walls we see at most 10 people total, but most the time we feel as if we are the only people in the entire area.

The second reason why we love Dunnottar is that visitors are able to freely explore and touch pretty much everything. We climb a dark spiral staircase up three floors in what was probably a large home or even palace for royalty, when in other castles visitors would have been confined to the first floor. Only a few sets of stairs in the entire castle are blocked from visitors because they are too dangerous, but what we love is that we feel as if we are the first to discover the castle ruins. It is there for the taking, beautiful in its simplicity—not prettied up by exhibits or imitation period pieces.

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Never before have I been so overcome by a place and captivated by its beauty. When we have seen all there is to see in the castle, we hike the path back to the mainland and walk to the adjacent grassy bluff that overlooks Dunnottar and the surrounding beaches. We take a few photos of this dramatic landscape and sit on the edge for awhile, watching the waves and the regal silence of the stone ruins. We see a couple of seals far below us in the surf, their heads popping up through the briny wash before, with a flip of their fins, curling back beneath the surface. The sun glints off the water and casts the ruins in a warm glow. When it is time to leave the castle and head back to town, I am reluctant to leave and periodically look back over my shoulder.

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The walk back into town feels long, especially because it is almost 2 and we haven't eaten since early this morning. We walk immediately to the historic Stonehaven harbor to see the boats and the waterfront. The harbor, lined with B&Bs and pubs, is filled with boats and gear such as fishing buoys and old-fashioned lobster traps. We walk on the pier in the center of the harbor and see a pile of what used to be a small boat that was cracked to pieces, probably during the storm. But besides this, there is no evidence of the storm from the day before.

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We head back into the center of town and eat a quick lunch at a cafe before returning to the rail station. Matt sleeps most of the way back and I attempt to read my book but am constantly distracted by the scenery. We pull into Waverley at 6:30 and return to the apartment to drop off our gear and change before dinner. When we walk in, we see that the main hall light is on, even though we both remember that I had turned it off. We check to make sure that nothing was stolen and also notice that the apartment hasn't been cleaned, so it wasn't a cleaning person who came in. I announce to Matt that there is only one logical explanation: “Ghosts.” He doesn't really argue; he says that its possible we just forgot to turn it off, but acknowledges with a perplexed look that he remembers I turned the light switch off as we were heading out the door.

As we are leaving for dinner, we deliberately switch the light off and I say to the darkened apartment, “Please leave our lights off. We are trying to save on electricity.” Matt gives a little chuckle and shakes his head.

We walk down the Royal Mile to hit a pub that we have not yet been to, the World's End. The pub got its name because it is located right where the old city walls were, and part of the walls actually form the foundation. And for the citizens of Edinburgh who always remained within the confines of the city, the city walls would have been, in a sense, “the world's end.”

I order fish and chips—haddock breaded in a beer and pepper batter, with chunky chips and peas—and Matt has a ribeye steak with chips, peas and mushrooms. We top it off with two Strongbow ciders and, from our corner of the bar, enjoy the pub scene unfold before us. After dinner we head to Whiski for a sticky toffee pudding for me and an Irish coffee for Matt. We finish the night with some whisky—I order a Edradour and Matt has a Kilchoman Machir Bay. We want to stay at Whiski to hear their live music but I start to crash after such a busy day, so we walk back to the apartment to relax for the evening.

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Tomorrow is our last day here in Scotland. We don't really have any plans, other than the various odds and ends that we wanted to see, do or buy here. Tonight I hope I will have sweet dreams of the most beautiful place I've ever seen, high above the rocky Scottish shore.

Posted by GoWander 16:06 Archived in Scotland

Cheers, Edinburgh!

sunny 55 °F

After a slow start to the morning (which involves eating fudge for breakfast and watching a British house hunting show) we head out to a couple of whisky shops so Matt can buy a bottle to take back to the States. We also stop into the Scottish Whisky Experience, which gives tours of the whisky-making process and has a good selection of labels and accessories (drams, tasting glasses, whisky stones, etc).

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After a walk through New Town and trendy George Street, we have lunch at Milne's Bar, located about half a block north of Princes Street. Matt orders a sirloin steak with a side salad and a Strongbow; I have a veggie burger made from some sort of delicious mixture of mozzarella cheese, pesto, sweet potatoes and onions, plus chunky chips and a cappuccino.

Before heading back to the apartment, we walk through the Princes Street Gardens to the mall before returning to the flat to relax. At about 7 we go out to dinner at our favorite bar, Whiski. Matt orders a venison steak with fondant potato and salad, and I have a steak sandwich with caramelized onions, chips and salad. We go through a variety of drinks (for Matt, two pints of Strongbow, a 15-year-old Glenfarclas, and an Ardmore; for me, a pint of Strongbow and a 12-year-old Auchentoshan) and relax for a couple hours, listening to a Scottish-Irish folk band, the Gorms. The band consists of a fiddle player, a female tin whistle player and a guitarist who also plays the bodhran; I sing along to “Will You Go Lassie Go” and “Star of the County Down” while Matt drums softly on the table.

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Back at the apartment at 11:30, we engage in a packing frenzy and struggle to fit our many souvenirs into our luggage like a game of Tetris. We clean, fold and organize in a semi-tipsy state that makes us just want to sleep, but we have too much to do before we need to catch our early flight in the morning.

During the past 13 days, we have endeavored to see and do as much as we could pack into a day. Here are our selections for the most memorable experiences we've had during our trip to Edinburgh.

Favorite experience/activity:

Shannon
1: Exploring Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven
2: Hiking to Salisbury Crags

Matt
1: Exploring Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven
2: Pub-hopping with coworkers, including a private whisky tasting

Favorite pub:

Shannon
1: Whiski Bar
2: The Malt Shovel

Matt
1: Whiski Bar
2: The Albanach

Favorite food/meal:

Shannon
1: Fish and chips from the Malt Shovel
2: Sticky toffee pudding from Whiski

Matt
1: Venison steak from Whiski
2: Exotic meats at Khublai Khan

Favorite whisky:

Shannon
1: Edradour 10 YO
2: Dalwhinnie 15 YO

Matt
1: Glendronach 18 YO
2: Glenfarclas 15 YO

Favorite aspect of Edinburgh:

Shannon
1: The sense of history—and mystery—of Old Town
2: The vibrant pub culture

Matt
1: Everything looks so historical and old
2: The interesting mix of travelers' different languages and cultures

This is our last night in Edinburgh. The past two weeks have flown by in what feels like a blink, but I can honestly say that we have made the most of this experience and taken advantage of every day. I have fallen in love with this ancient city, the bustling pubs and the history around every turn. Tomorrow, when we fly back home, I know I will miss this vibrant city with its friendly people and rain-slicked cobblestones.

Novelist Pat Conroy once said, “Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” No matter where we go in life, the experience of Scotland will never leave us. The smell of the sea in North Berwick, the waves crashing below Dunnottar Castle, the otherworldly green of the grass, the melodic hum of a pub full of conversations—these are sensations, images that will never be forgotten.

Until we meet again, Edinburgh. Cheers!

Posted by GoWander 16:08 Archived in Scotland

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