Thursday, March 29, 2007

First Day in Scotland 2007

I woke up having no idea what time it was but hoping it was close to our final approach. It’s not easy sleeping in the middle seat on an airplane, trying to respect your neighbors’ spaces, but I did it. Now my shoulder and neck were aching from that bizarre angle I was holding them while I slept. Right when I was thinking I really couldn’t take much more, the lights came on and the smell of warm croissants wafted down the aisles. The few times I’ve flown into Europe, the breakfast always seems to be croissants.

We arrived at the Edinburgh airport a little earlier than Willie was picking us up, just enough time to brush my teeth, get some cash, and take some sips of Al’s coffee. I didn’t want to drink too much coffee because I knew that we would be heading into the countryside, and I figured there weren’t too many opportunities for potty breaks.

Willie got there with the van, which sat, I guess, 17 if 2 sit in the front with him. So, you’d think we’d have plenty of room, considering we were only 11. But imagine how much luggage 11 people carry, and it has to go somewhere, so it goes in those back seats. We all tried to pack light, except for the guy who brought a large empty bag in preparation for all the whisky bottles he would be buying. For those curious, you can bring back around 7 bottles per bag and each person is allowed 2 bags.

All loaded up and with everyone chattering excitedly, we headed out to Glengoyne Distillery, by way of Sterling. We didn’t get out and see any of Sterling, just saw the castle and the Wallace Monument from the window. One of these days I’m going to get to Sterling.

I don’t think any of us fell asleep on the ride to Glengoyne, surprisingly. We were all just too excited. Unfortunately, Glengoyne was not the best of our tours. Oh, it’s beautiful and our tour guide, Lauren, did her job very well, but it was just a regular tour. These guys are professional distillery tourers (is that a word?) and don’t usually get the usual thing. But, it’s the first time they’d been there and it’s not like they new the manager from Whisky Fest (yes, all these guys go to Whisky Fest every year with the Dell, too, and know many of the managers and distributors—they are very serious about their single malts). Plus, the arrangements may not have been made early enough for a more behind-the-scenes kind of tour.

Glengoyne is in a unique position, literally. It’s location makes it both the lowest distillery in the Highlands and the highest distillery in the Lowlands, all you have to do is cross the street. The A road separating the distillery from it’s warehouses is the border line between the Lowlands and the Highlands. A very busy road, I might add.

We started our tour with a wee dram of 10-year-old single malt and a movie about the history of the distillery. It was a nice introduction to our trip. The distillery tours are basically the same: Get some history, see the mill for grinding the malted barley, see the Mash Tun, see the Washbacks for fermenting, see the Stills for distillation, and see the warehouse for maturation. Then, unless you got a taste before hand like here, you get a sample or two in the tasting room, which just happens to be very near the gift shop. The gift shops are almost always really nice with glassware, clothes, water pitchers, postcards, and the like, in addition to the whisky.

This tour actually ended in the gift shop, so that our guide could show us all the bottles available, especially the really special and expensive ones. And I thought I showed great restraint when our cute little guide said this particular bottle of 1984 was such a great bottle because that was the year she was born, and I did not disgustedly say “Oh My God.” (I graduated high school in 1984.)

We were expecting more tastings, and they did offer us a taste of certain bottles, but they were in the same little cups we take communion in instead of the dram in a nice glass. The others bought their bottles, we bought a glass because one of the ladies bought a bottle for the van to pass around on the way to the next distillery. I told you these people were serious about their whisky. Oh, and we paid for our tour. It might seem odd to mention that, but this was the only tour we had to pay for because the other places either new this group or Willie convinced them to waive the tour fee, considering how much we would be buying in the gift shop. And we did not disappoint in that area. In fact, we contributed greatly to the Scottish economy in those 10 days.

But no time to loiter, on to the next stop.

In another hour or so, we were at Auchentoshan (Aw-ken-tah-shun), close to Glasgow. This distillery is distinguished by it’s triple distilling, as the Irish whiskeys do. All other distilleries in Scotland distill twice. It is a lovely whisky, and a fantastic tour.

Distillery manager Ronnie (I’ll have to put his last name in later) gave us the tour, and he was great—funny, knowledgeable, and he started out with the Bay City Rollers! S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y NIGHT! And music is still important to him as one can tell by the music that plays in the tasting room. It was the only tasting room that had music playing in the background.

Ronnie did something unique on his tour. He had glasses of spirit (that’s whisky out of the still, before it’s in the cask) for everyone. This is potent stuff, the term “fire water” comes to mind because it is just pure alcohol. But instead of taking a wee sip like other places, he had us pour a little into our palms, clap our hands to brush the water away, cup our hands, then smell. Wow. It smelled as potent as it tastes. Most of the people around me were saying, “Ooohhhh that smells so good.” But then, they’re crazy people. OK, it did smell pretty good, and I would much rather smell it than taste it.

When we got to the tasting room, the flight had caught up with me and all the energy of Scotland couldn’t make me stand up any longer. I also couldn’t hide my exhaustion and crankiness was starting to rear it’s ugly head. Willie was starting to hurry us along a little because we still had almost 2 hours to get to Tarbert where we were staying the night. But the tastings are the best part and people want to linger. Al was all pumped up at this distillery, and where at Glengoyne he vehemently wasn’t going to buy a bottle, here he wanted to buy 2. However, he was going back and forth and couldn’t make a decision about a certain bottle, so when he went to the restroom, I bought both of them. This is why we balance each other so well—when I’m indecisive, he isn’t, and when he’s indecisive, I’m not. I knew that he would wish he had bought that bottle, so I just went ahead and got it for him. Of course, it broke the ice and now he was ready to buy scotch.

I slept on the van ride to Tarbert; I think all of us did. And even though it was dark when we arrived, I could tell that Tarbert was a lovely seaside village. The Anchor Hotel was a lovely hotel that was recently sold to Richard and Hugh, who are very welcoming. It seems like the hotel is in good hands. Plus, Richard’s dog Tess, a 9-year-old black lab, was there, too, so I got a dog fix. Our room was comfortable, except for the hard mattress, not that I noticed or cared that night. The down comforter was warm and soft, that’s all that mattered.

Just a couple of things about hotels in Scotland:

• No place we stayed had washcloths, so if you’re used to having one, you might want to bring one with you, or buy one there and throw it away when you leave.
• Bring a travel alarm clock because many rooms do not have alarm clocks, nor do they have reliable wake up calls.
• Pack light because chances are you will have to walk up a few flights of stairs; not many places have a lift.
• All rooms come with a hospitality tray with the makings for tea or coffee and a shortbread cookie or some other snack.
• Many of the hotels, especially places in remote areas plan ahead, so let someone know if you’re planning on eating dinner or breakfast there.
• Stay at a place that offers breakfast; you always get lots of choices from eggs to kippers to cereal and yogurt.

The dinner at the Anchor was delicious. I had smoked haddock on mashed potatoes with a dill sauce. Richard put on a funny little show for us, showing up in a kilt tucked into the back of his boxershorts, a baseball hat on backwards, a cigar in his mouth and carrying a bottle of scotch, a huge one. Tess barked at him and we laughed. He recited a poem as if he was drunk, then poured a dram of scotch for everyone.

We all headed up to our rooms—well, not all, a couple of guys stayed down in the pub. We were ready for a good night’s sleep, exhausted from our first thrilling day in Scotland.

Edinburgh 2003

We finally made it into Edinburgh and found the flat at 64 Findhorn Place. By the way, that’s pronounced fin as a fish fin—FINdhorn. I drove around until we found a parking place, and I parallel parked (yes, I did). And I didn’t move the car until we left 5 days later. Why drive? There was a bus stop on the other street, and cabs were easy to flag down.

The flat was perfect. Four bedrooms, one being a box room, which is a euphemism for closet with a bed in it. But hey, a separate bedroom for each of us. The kitchen had everything we needed, and there were 2 bathrooms and a great living room with a bay window. It was bright and cheery and I loved it.

Mom got introduced very quickly to how much people walk in the UK. And to the fact that Edinburgh is a city with A LOT of people. It was one big anxiety attack waiting to happen, but she muddled through. One little stress point between Mom and me was that she wanted to know at all times exactly where we were, exactly where were we going, how we were going to get there, how long it would take, and wasn’t there an easier way to do it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t give her that information, and my philosophy was that we’ll just keep walking in this direction and we’ll come up on it eventually.

Mom decided to sit down on one of the benches and people watch while we headed down to the Tourist Information Center (TIC). Conveniently, the train station was next to the TIC, so J and I headed down there to get tickets to Ft. William, but the wait was going to be a long time, so she went to get some food for Mom, got Jen, and headed to back to Mom while I got our train tickets. They all had their first official fish-n-chips, but I got the better end of that deal because I talked to some really nice people to pass the time. One lady I talked to had a daughter who lived in San Antonio (where I was living at the time) and she had just gotten back from visiting her. We just marveled in the coincidence.

Waverly Station is beautiful and is the nicest train station we saw in the UK. It’s like walking into another world. You leave the city above ground and walk down into this open-air structure with cars coming down to a small circle to drop people off, kiosks of coffee and newspapers, busses dropping off and picking up tourists, and, of course, trains. The platforms are numbered with TVs showing the arrivals and departures. You go into a separate building for tickets, but this, too, is a huge open space, with a high ceiling with skylights and a domed center of stained glass. All the while, the city of Edinburgh is above you, with people hurrying from place to place.

Edinburgh is divided into 2 halves—the old town and new town. The dividing line is Princess Street Gardens. Old Town includes the Royal Mile, from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Castle. The New Town includes Princess Street, Charlotte Square, and all the newer housing. I preferred old town, despite the tourist trappings, but then again, I haven’t spent too much time in New Town. No one will believe this, but I wasn’t interested in shopping, at least not in the major department stores or high-priced boutiques of New Town. I wanted old and historical, to linger in make-shift museums and used bookstores, galleries, and pubs in buildings older than our country.

Edinburgh Castle is a must-see for every tourist. Wear good walking shoes because the castle grounds are cobblestone and you are constantly walking up hill. The castle, itself, is on top of a hill and there is no parking at the top. Take your time, stop and look over the beautiful city, and you’ll be fine. I think there is a courtesy vehicle that can take people up the hill, but I didn’t look for it, so I don’t know for sure. The castle is home to the Scottish Crown Jewels, the Stone of Destiny, and memorials to the soldiers. And at 1:00, of course, you can hear the 1:00 cannon every day. And yes, someone inevitably will ask, “What time does the 1:00 cannon go off?”

The first time I went to the castle, audio guides were free, but unfortunately, that’s changed, but get one anyway. They are easy to use; there are signs throughout the castle with corresponding numbers you punch into the player. As you listen to the commentary, it’s easy to forget that you are one of hundreds of people looking around the castle as you enjoy your private tour. Plan on spending the better part of the day there. Stop for lunch in the cafe and sit in the sunny back room with beautiful views of the west side of the city.

The excitement for us at the castle that day was the thunderstorm that blew in. Hail! Cold, stinging, slapping, pea-sized hail. J and I took refuge in the bookshop while it blew through, then headed to the cafe for a comforting bowl of mushroom soup and a cup of tea. It was actually kind of fun. I don’t know why I feel the need to laugh uncontrollably when caught in a storm. Guess it washes away all the pretensions I put forth—the make up, the hair style, the concern about clothes. And you really have to feel that way about rain if your are going to be in the UK because it rains a lot and storms quickly roll in and may or may not roll out.

So, what else did I do? Well, we took a day and each of us went out on our own. After missing the bus stop I thought I wanted and ending up at an even better stop (riding the bus is such an adventure), I got on a tour bus and headed to Old Town. The tour busses are a great way to get around because you can get your bearings, then hop off and on for a 24-hour period. I rode up to the Royal Mile, then I hopped off to walked up and down the Royal Mile for awhile. I went The Writer’s Museum and read exhibits on Walter Scott and Robert Burns. The Robert Louis Stevenson exhibit was closed, darn it. I came out with a new respect for these writers and nice paperback on a literary tour of Edinburgh, which I haven’t even cracked the spine on, but I will.

I also went to Gladston’s Land, a museum owned by the National Trust reconstructed to represent life in the 17th century. There were tour guides in each room, in addition to the laminated information sheets that are typical of touring homes like this. I’m self-conscious reading those things because I don’t read very fast nor comprehend quickly. Besides, I’m not such a art guru that I really care about who did every portrait. Actually, this place wasn’t so heavy into art as it was furniture. However, there were amazing painted ceilings that they discovered in the restoration.

Time for some libation. So, I went to Deacon’s Brodie, a great little pub just down from Gladstone’s Land. The pub is named after William Brodie, the inspiration for Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Brodie was a respectable councilman and pillar of society by day and head of a gang of robbers and villains by night. He was executed for robbery in 1788. I was the only woman alone and drinking a pint of beer. I wasn’t uncomfortable with this until I looked down to the end of the room, and there was an older couple and the woman was shaking her head and frowning at me. I’m not sure if she was thinking, “Poor dear all alone” or “Hussy.” I ignored her and talked to a nice man who gave me some suggestions of places to visit.

OK, quick run down on restaurants and pubs:

• John Leslie’s Pub was across from the flat and was my favorite pub. It must be the favorite of a lot of people because it was voted Pub of the Year by CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale). J and I really enjoyed this pub. It was small and dark with really wonderful beer and cider. Mom enjoyed it too when she came and even had a half-pint of ale.
• Since we were there for Mother’s Day, I took the ladies to The Bell Inn and we had a very nice steak dinner. Many nice restaurants offer a price fixed dinner. For around £13.95, you can choose two items (starter and entree, entree and dessert, you get the idea). Makes it pretty easy to decide what to order that way.
• The Elephant House is a coffee house that says it is one of the places where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter. Katie Couric said on Dateline that the coffee shop where she wrote is now a Chinese Restaurant. Who knows? Who cares? I have a picture of the front of the Elephant House and as far as you or anyone else knows, that’s where she wrote Harry Potter. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
• No trip to the UK would be complete without Take Away, and I found a great place right up from the pub near our flat. Don’t remember the name, but trust me, it was good, especially after a pint or two at the pub. If you have an aversion to things fried, don’t go. Oh, what the hell, go anyway! One meal of deep fried food won’t kill ya. And be sure to get malt vinegar to go with it.
• Milne’s Pub—This pub is in New Town and was huge compared to other pubs I’ve been in. It was 2 levels with a bar on each level, which was very handy in deed. They have live music in the evenings and a friend of mine who has been here several times has named this her favorite pub. It’s not the small, cozy pub of John Leslie’s but it had cozy pockets and didn’t lose it’s feeling of a pub. I would imagine it’s pretty hoppin’ at night, but, alas, I was only there for a brief time in the middle of the day.
• Plaisir du Chocolat CafĂ© and Pastry Shop—This little shop is full of delectable and decadent sweet pastries. It’s a great place to stop for tea or to get something to take home for later. But really, why would you wait to eat something so wonderful? Unless of course, you buy one for now and one for later. This shop is just down on the Royal Mile.

There’s so much more to do in this city, and I just scratched the surface. Edinburgh is the first time I fell in love with a city. I’ve heard from several people that I have to go to Glasgow, and maybe if I had gone to Glasgow first instead of Edinburgh, I’d feel this way about Glasgow. But I felt at home in Edinburgh—actually in all of Scotland. My friend who’s been there a couple of times said she thinks she’s done Edinburgh now, no need really to go again. How could anyone be done with Edinburgh? I can’t wait to go back.

Maybe a B and B Next Time?

My first trip to the United Kingdom started in the Highlands of Royal Deeside, Scotland. Braemar to be exact. Braemar is a tourist village with a minimum of three tour busses every day. The big numbers come in during ski season and the Highland Games, a rousing, yearly sporting event of traditional Scottish games that if you don’t have tickets now, you’re too late. There’s Braemar Castle, Balmoral Castle, hiking/walking trails, and scotch distilleries for your touring pleasure. And if you go to Scotland and don’t go the Highlands, then you haven’t seen how truly beautiful Scotland is.

We rented a self-catering cottage in Braemar as our base for day trips. Victoria Cottage was a well-furnished little cottage with one drawback that we weren’t prepared for—meter reading with coupons. All of the electricity was powered by £5 coupons we inserted into a box by the front door. This caused some anxiety about running out of electricity, so my thrifty husband remedied this by refusing to turn on heaters or lights in any room we weren’t in. Now, it was October, with temperatures in the 40s/50s (F) during the day, lower 30s at night, and being from southern Texas, I was cold. There was a stove in the living room with a bucket of coal and a basket of wood and newspapers beside it. Have I used the term “Spoiled Americans”? We weren’t very good at lighting the stove, I’m afraid, so I spent most of my time in the cottage turning up the space heaters with my husband coming behind me and turning them back down. It was, however, a pretty comfortable cottage and was within walking distance of a pub, a definite plus.

The days were filled with sunny, clear skies and a lot of wind. Of course, saying it was windy in the Highlands is like saying the summers were hot in San Antonio—bit redundant. Our day trips consisted of driving up the curvy, 23-percent grade roads of the Grampian Mountains, resulting in my first experience with car sickness. We visited 10 percent of the scotch distilleries in Scotland and spent the rest of the time trying to see as much as we could squeeze into one short week.

So, after that much activity, you would think that I would sleep well. But at night, the clear skies were replaced with storm clouds carrying torrential rain, pushed along by gusting winds. Too say it was dark would be an understatement. There were no street lights up where we were, and our bedroom had paneling on all four walls plus the ceiling. It was like sleeping the bow of a boat. I would lie curled up under the down comforter, listening to rain and wind slap against the cottage, knowing there were ghosties about. How could there not be? All I could think about was Wuthering Heights. I knew Catherine was outside my window, tapping with the rain saying, “Let me in. Let me in.”

And of course, since it was the middle of the night and I was awake, I had to go to the bathroom. So, I nudged my husband awake and said, “I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Then go,” he mumbled.

“You have to go with me,” I replied, but it was too late. He had already drifted back into a peaceful sleep. After all, he didn’t hear the ghosts rapping on the window or walking in the loft above us. So, I gathered all my courage to face the ghosts and the cold, not knowing which one I was dreading more. I grabbed my flashlight (thank God I brought a flashlight) and headed off for the bathroom in the back of the cottage.

As I entered the living room, I braced myself for what I might see. I fully expected a Gollum-like creature to be squatting in front of the stove, putting logs in while mumbling, “Gollum freezing. Silly hobbitses don’t know to stay warm. We hates them!”

But it wasn’t there. Only shadows and the sounds of rain and wind followed me to the bathroom and back to bed.

Seven nights in that cottage and I never saw a ghost. I read through the guestbook and searched in between the lines for hints of paranormal visions or thoughts experienced by other visitors, but it seems I’m the only paranormal one. Since I now know what to expect, a self-catering will be easier next time, but then again, there’s something to be said for a nice, warm, ghost-free B and B.

Why This Is Here

I have another blog on Blogger, but I thought I’d start one here for a place to put some writing. I like to go exploring and I like to travel. I don’t do either as much as I would like to, but this will be a place for writings about what I have done.