Friday, July 23, 2010

July 6: Dunnottar Day

It was like waking up in my own bedroom this morning, just the one in my seaside house in Stonehaven.  Waking up slowly in a comfy bed, listening to the gentle roar of the ocean outside, breathing the sea air... heavenly.  I never wanted to leave.  Like I said, this is what B&Bs should be, staying with a friend you've just met who likes to make you breakfast.  So this morning, I was sitting in the living room, watching the early moning waves lap at the shore and listening to a lovely soundtrack of these and muted kitchen noises, as the day began with Alan and Mum preparing our morning feast.  They not only give us a short menu of selections from which to choose, they also gave us a choice of a starter.  A starter for breakfast?  I don't question, I just obey :)

This was to be the day we would hike a couple miles south along the coast to Dunnottar Castle.  It was sunny and gorgeous out with the thinnest layer of gauze across pieces of the sky.

Alan's mum greeted me this morning; this was the first time I actually met her, and she was an absolutely lovely lady.  As we chatted about our plans for the day, Alan emerged and put on music in the open living/dining area, and a interesting choice, at that.  It sounded a bit like dance club music, and I knew I recognized Abba in there somewhere.  It certainly made for a light-hearted and fun breakfast when Chris joined me.

We both tried the Scotch Porridge to start, which was thick and creamy like oatmeal, and quite good, though insanely filling.  The toast quickly followed, accompanied by softened butter and preserves.  Chris went with the Traditional Scottish breakfast (fried egg, sausage, bacon, and a choice of mushrooms, baked beans or roasted tomatoes), and I went with scrambled eggs and bacon, simple enough.  The coffee was good, the orange juice nice and cold, and the company friendly, as we spoke briefly with the French tourists also staying there.  We politely finished off our fruit, which actually made me feel less full, before returning to the room to re-cooperate from breakfast before starting the hike to Dunnottar.  The lesson:  Eat less tomorrow.
The hiking trail bought us up above Stonehaven, giving way to beautiful views.  Along the way we came upon a memorial to the fallen during the World Wars, something we'd be seeing a lot of throughout the trip.  We'd seen it from the town below, standing alone atop a hill, and were curious about it.  Within the structure were words written in the stone, a kind of prayer for those who fought and died for their homeland.  May they never be forgotten.

Being that the memorial is perched on the top of a modest hill, we could see Dunnottar in the distance and carried on.  I must have stopped every five steps to snap another picture from another angle as we neared the castle, as the slightest change made for an even better shot.  The sky had grown grey as we hiked, and we were just hoping the rain would hold off until we reached the castle.  It did, so that was nice of it.

Dunnottar Castle stood before us like a ghost, perched on the edge of jagged cliffs against a darkening sky.

We walked through the various rooms, all still mostly in-tact aside from the roofing, of past inhabitants and tried to imagine actually living there.  The area closer to the water was like a small village, and I guess it was in its day.  We photographed everything from the old brewery room to the bread oven in the kitchen.  One room still had an ornate ceiling brilliant with color, and several of the fireplaces still showed original inscriptions dug into the stone.  My ancestors were made Hereditary Great Marischal back in the day, and built Dunnottar before moving on to Caithness, where a feud ensued with the Clan Gunn.  I walked through the chambers of the Marischal and wondered about the people who had slept in that room, taking a moment to allow myself to fantasize having lived here during that time in history.

With a soundtrack of waves and seagulls, it certainly sounded like home :)

After returning to Stonehaven, having taken a possibly unhealthy number of photos, we wandered around Stonehaven to see what there was to see not right along the water, then ended up walking all the way down the beach to a short boardwalk area, lined with cafes, just before the town border where Stonehaven ends and Cowie begins.  Meeting the end, we headed back to the Beachgate to drop off some things we bought along the way and take a rest.  Upon our return, we found a note attached to the lampshade from Alan.  He'd found a few ciders we'd bought the previous day when we was making up the room and put them in the fridge for us, and wanted to let us know.  I loved this guy.

After a short nap (I LOVE vacations!) we decided it was necessary to try one more local item before leaving the next morning.  We made our way back to the small fish and chips shop on a corner where we'd seen the banner advertising this locally-created treat, paid our money, and watched with interest as the fry guy dipped both of our Mars Bars into the batter and then dropped them into the lovely vat of oil.  If we were picky, we might have had a problem with the fact that as other people came in with their orders, he dropped fillets of fish into the same batter and the same vat to fry alongside our chocolate, but we're pretty easy-going.  It's all bad for you, and we figured the thick, fried outer shell would keep anything too fishy from attaching itself to our chocolate bars.  Yes, I'm seeing how disgusting it really was recounting it here, but whatever, we still ate them.  The first bite was hesitant and a little fearful.  Five minutes later, these suckers were gone and we were licking our fingers.  They were really good!

Dinner this night would be at the semi-famous Tolbooth down at the harbor.  And the food love continues...

Starter: We both had one of the evening's specials, a crayfish gratin, made with a tomato, spinach, and shellfish hollandaise.  I could have licked my plate, it was so delicious.

Main:  Chris tried the monkfish wrapped in Parma ham, and I opted to try to highly recommended Aberdeen steak, which came with broad beans and fondant potatoes over onion puree.  I see why the Scottish are so proud of their beef, and probably moaned a little while eating the potatoes.  Ridiculous.

Having had our dessert before dinner, we walked back to the B&B to hang out, unable to get a hold of Gary on the phone.  We decided it would be nice to hang out at the Beachgate and try some of the seasonal cider we'd bought, which Alan had chilled for us.  What began as a relaxing and quiet moment in the living area turned into a party for four, as Alan's mum found us there while she was in the kitchen watching a football game, and Alan arrived home shortly after.  Alan was so pleased that Chris and I felt comfortable enough to treat the place like our own home, hanging out in the living room and having a drink, he made a couple drinks for himself and Mum and joined us.  They sipped their gin with lime and we tipped our ciders, and talked and laughed until midnight.  We talked about where everyone had been in the world (Mum's quite the traveling lady), and I told them all about my family and how I hoped at least some of them would be able to make it over sometime.  Of course, I would send them to Alan because I knew (and still know) they'd love this place and its hosts.  Alan's mum talked about hr children and their children, where everyone was living and doing with their lives, all living fairly close by in Aberdeen.  We discussed accents, and Alan had us rolling when he did an impression of a nephew of his whom he can hardly understand anymore, for he's taken up talking like his co-workers, a more country group of guys.  We told them about the people we'd met the night before at the pub, Darren, Gary and the owner we couldn't understand.  Mum talked about the new, fancy golf course Donald Trump is building a mile from where he daughter lives near Aberdeen, the protests that have gone on and the damage done to the construction of the place because many people believe it will mess with the wildlife.  We talked about the great food and they asked us what we'd had there and how we liked it, complaining that the restaurants ripped everyone off for a meal Alan offered to make us if we stayed one more night.  I wished we could find a way to stay in Stonehaven one more night, of only for the company and promise of scallops, but it just wasn't possible.  We had such a fantastic night with Alan and Mum, and would love to find an excuse to revisit them in the future; they're wonderful people.  

PS - Alan had a pet tortoise whom we got to meet before departing in the morning.  Meet Speedbump.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The 'Forgots'

I forgot to explain the Keith Place picture, for those of you who haven't known me as long as others.  Keith was my last name before marrying Chris, when I added Cole to the end.  The town of Keith is located a couple hours north of Stonehaven along the upper eastern coast of the region, but we opted not to visit due to limited time and much to see.  Could this be part of why I'm an east coast girl?

I also loved that fact that two of the friendliest and most helpful people we met in Stonehaven were named Alan and Gary, since Alan is also my Dad's name and Gary, my brother's.

Fun :)

July 5: Welcome to Scotland

Stonehaven, Scotland
Aberdeenshire in the Grampian region

Although England and Scotland are clearly smashed right up into each other, we knew when we'd left one and entered the other.  England is beautiful, but Scotland is breath-taking.  You see it in the hills.

Something about these hills, with stonewall barriers and grazing sheep, hilltop towers and low hanging clouds of varying depths of grey with peeks of blue sky poking through here and there, puts me at ease, comforted.  It's similar to how I felt in Ireland, especially the first time touching down, seeing the bright expanse of emerald green stretched out before me.  Something in this foreign place is deeply familiar.

Is it my heart recognizing something here?  Blood flowing more easily because part of it came from this place so many years ago?  If this is the case, why don't I feel this familiarity in England, having English blood, as well?  It's just something about these hills.

The music of the Highland bagpipes is the anthem of this place.  The hills rise and fall with rolling grace before plunging into the depths of the sea that embrace them.  The creeks and streams tumbling over the land carry the memory, the history of this place, the breaks in its crust scars of the past.  A heavy but balanced sky is always overhead, shading the dense forest a deeper black.  The clouds are dreams, sometimes heavy and dark, but sometimes bright and easy.  Dark, light, and glowing blue share the same sky, sunshine and rain equally important.  Without both in balance there would be no lush and healthy landscape, beautiful and majestic as it is.  Raging rains to cleanse the air, bringing relief, but then the sun shines so strongly, a sweet sunshine kiss to the land.  This place enchants you with ease.

When we arrived to Stonehaven, I was quite frankly giggling over the beauty of the place.  We were to stay here because of its proximity to Dunnottar Castle, the cliff side ruins of a place believed to have been put there by my ancestors so many years ago.  What a treat it was to find this place was worth visiting all on its own.  A small, harbor village on Scotland's east coast, it's a quaint and pretty little place full of friendly faces and gorgeous scenery.  We stayed at the Beachgate House Bed&Breakfast, located right on the beach, a charming and well-furnished home with fantastic hosts, Alan and his mum.

This is what a B&B should be; it really was like staying in someone's home.  The view from our upstairs room went straight out across the sand to the rolling ocean, the soft and constant roar of waves a wonderful lullaby to send you right off to sleep.  It was rather perfect.

At Alan's suggestion, we walked from the Beachgate along the boardwalk in front of the B&B along the beach to the harbor, and to the Ship Inn for dinner.  This is where my raving about Scottish food begins.

The UK has gotten a terrible reputation for the cuisine.  When you think of England, Scotland, and even Ireland, good food is generally not at the forefront, but why?  Yes, I've tried fish and chips and didn't care for it, but I'm not big on fish.  When my brother and his wife visited Ireland a few years back, they were quickly cured of their curiosity of Irish cuisine and often opted for fast food for the familiar and acceptable taste of it.  This was sad to me because I really do believe a place's food is an important part of its culture, but it's hard to keep trying when your taste buds get burned right off.

This was not the case as we traveled through Scotland, not at all.  Chris and I make a point of trying whatever's local, and the more local, the better, everywhere we travel, and Scotland would be no different.  Perhaps it was the very bad rap the food has that made for such a surprise, but we did not have a bad meal in the week and a half we spent here.  And it began in Stonehaven.

Starter: Cullen Skink - a very traditional soup, many call comfort food.  Now fish soup does not peek my interest (and the name doesn't help) as I'm not a big fan of most fish, but this delectable bowl contained smoked haddock, onion, and potato in a creamy base.  It was fantastic, seriously, I cleaned the cup with my bread.  Chris had the same and loved it, as well.  Moving on.

Main: For Chris, it was steak and Guinness pie, hearty chunks of roasted beef cooked in a thick Guinness gravy inside a crusty, pie shell.  Delicious.
For me, it was one of the specials, pan-seared scallops with sweet pea risotto - phenomenal!  It helps with the freshness when you can catch what's on the menu just outside.

Dessert: For Chris, Bailey's Cheesecake.  Do I need to explain?
For me, it had to be the ever-famous Sticky Toffee Pudding, a square of cake with dates cooked in surrounded by a shallow sea of thick, and yes, sticky toffee sauce.  Looks simple enough, but knocks you out when it enters your mouth.  Ridiculously delicious.

After dinner we waddled down to a pub, not ready yet to return to the B&B, where we met Darren, an English oil man. Apparently Darren has a place in Stonehaven because it's a nice in-between spot when he's in town for work, having to make trips to Aberdeen and Edinburgh, among other places in the UK.  He wasn't shy about offering suggestions on how to spend our time there, and turned out to be quite a lover of Scotch.  When he stepped out for a cigarette, and there was room for someone else to get in a word, the owner and a Scotsman named Gary down the bar were quick to amend Darren's list, wondering aloud who this guy thought he was not even being from Stonehaven and telling us what to do.  Although we couldn't understand most of what the owner said, we could tell he was being friendly and helpful and did our best to keep up.  In the end, he asked where we were headed after Stonehaven and wrote us a list of towns we should pass through, dictating a more scenic route between destinations.  Darren returned and conversation continued, him talking about waiting around for his American wife to get things in gear for him to get his Green Card to live in Austin, Texas full-time, and Gary trying to pipe up from the other side of Darren with  conversation we could more participate in.  After a round of Scotch (that I could not choke down) on Darren's tab, we headed back to the Beachgate for the night.  We couldn't get over how abundantly helpful people were, and how eager to engage the strangers from out of town.  Gary had actually asked what our plans were the next evening, asking if we wanted to meet up.  He said he could show us around a bit, or just grab a drink together.  So we swapped cell phone numbers with him and left it to be decided the next day.  How friendly are these people?

I am in love with Stonehaven.

The 4th of July in the English Countryside

Oxford, Windsor, Stonehenge, and the White Horses

Oxford on the first day there - forgot to include these yesterday.

Christ Church of Oxford

Life on the I miss college

Hey...why didn't Gainesville have a nice stream running through it?

Tiny hot-air balloon

After a tasty, English breakfast, we began the day with all American music on the radio in celebration of American Independence Day.  That was fun.  A visit to Windsor Castle was first on the agenda, just about an hour's drive from Oxford.  Chris still drove like an Englishman (on the left) without incident and we even passed a sign for Marlow on the way, a family name.

I hadn't stopped to consider that Windsor is an actual town, so we were a little surprised to find this cute town, complete with narrow streets full of shops, restaurants, hotels, and pubs surrounding the famous royal residence. After close to an hour in line we entered the premises, snapping pictures and reading here and there about the history of England in the various museums set up within the walls.  It was a nice day to be out, so we soaked it up while we could, expecting much rain for this trip.  Of course after visiting the castle we ha to stop into one of said pubs for refreshment in th form of a cider :)

After Windsor, we were off another hour to see the mysterious Stonehenge.  Even though the site is now surrounded by fencing to let you know where to stop, we were still able to get close enough to photograph every angle around it.  I was disappointed that the blue and sunny sky had slipped behind expanding grey clouds, but was still super excited to get to be there at all, as seeing anything in England would have been a moot point had we opted to fly rather than drive.

I didn't feel the deep sense of mystery I expected when I first laid eyes on these ancient rocks, but I was moved by the fact that I was standing beside them in those fields, looking at something that has baffled historians for years.  It had been so sunny only an hour away, but the sky darkened and filled with thick clouds a we neared our next stop.  I don't know, a bright sunny sky kind of seems to clash with the sight of these stones to me for some reason.

In the gift shop we saw information about the White Horses of this part of England and grabbed a map detailing the locations of eight in the area.  We decided to seek out the oldest and most famous, the Uffington White Horse.  These White Horses are areas on hillsides where deep trenches have been dug out and filled with crushed white chalk, and have been done so in patterns that reveal enormous horses.  The Uffington White Horse has been studied and analyzed and dated to be from the Bronze Age, some 3,000 years old, although coins were found from the Iron Age with an image of this Horse on them.  We found it, parked and walked out to see it, but at our angle it looked like little more than some white streaks on the hillside.  The best view of this one is an aerial view, so we took what we could in the ways of pictures and headed back to Oxford.  Here's an image I borrowed from Wikipedia to give you an idea:

Now here's my attempt:

Here's another one, not nearly as old, we caught on the way:

But we got to see two prehistoric wonders this day, so it was a good day, nonetheless!

Back in Oxford we headed downtown to find something to eat, loving the feel of this university town.  On the way we passed a highly drunk man, who called out to us (thankfully from across the street), "I need to masturbate profusely!"  I gave a thumbs up, but Chris told me not to encourage the drunks, and I suppose he was right.  We made it downtown without incident.  It was late and we were starving, but somehow even though this is a university town full of students and bars, nobody was serving food past 9pm! We were flabbergasted, and highly disappointed that our only option was fast food.

So McDonald's it was, a fine meal to end our first day in the UK.  Happy 4th of July!