Monday, August 30, 2010

July 13: Finally - Bernie Day!

And so it was Tuesday, the day Queen Elizabeth would be arriving to her Edinburgh palace.  We went to Glasgow instead to see some new friends.

Statue of Robert Burns
But before dinner at Bernie's house, we had a day to fill, so we made our way to his once home-town to do some looking around.  It only makes sense that we began the morning on a quest to locate something called a bacon roll.  We'd had sausage rolls along the trip so far, a delicious sausage lovingly surrounded by a doughy embrace most bakeries carried, but bacon?  We hadn't seen it.  And since this elusive bacon roll had apparently changed Jo's life (in Edinburgh), it only seemed right we should seek it out.  I'm not sure if what we had was what she had, but it was decent.  The way people in Glasgow looked at us when we described what we thought it was, it's either an Edinburgh thing, or we were way off.

We walked George Square and moseyed about the Modern Art Museum for a while.  We walked Argyle Street (the pedestrian shopping street) and High Street that ran through the center of things.  We found St. Mungo Cathedral, named for Glasgow's patron saint, though it sounded more like a college nickname to me.  And whether it was because we had come to the end of our trip and were growing exhausted, or had just surpassed or capacity to be overly impressed, we felt satisfied and moved on.

Having some time to kill and just a half hour drive to Bernie and Sarah's suburban town, we found a grocery store and packed the trunk with cases of Bulmers and Magners cider, an assortment of shortbread cookies, brown sauce, and potato chips.  Gluttons, you might say, but none of these things are findable in the rest of Europe, aside from a pint in a pub.  Bulmers is a British cider and Magners an Irish one, that we have searched for high and low.  Nowhere but in the UK have we found these fantastic hard ciders available at a regular grocer.  And Chris loves shortbread, so why not try a few fancy kinds they've got in the homeland?  Brown sauce is as common in the UK as barbecue sauce in the US; also yummy but impossible to find elsewhere.  And the chips...that one's mine.  I love chips.  I can't often allow myself to buy chips because they last such a minuscule amount of time in my presence, it's hardly worth the ungodly number of calories they carry.  But when you're staring at such an odd selection of flavors found only on the shelves of a foreign grocery store, it's difficult not to justify a few bags.  You know, to try.  So yes, we hit that grocery store and we hit it good.

And then it was time to see Bernie and meet Sarah.  I think I was a little surprised that it was actually happening, as it seems these kinds of plans are often meant at the time, but easily fall through.  But here we were on our way, with Belgian beer, flowers, and baby gift in hand, as Sarah was about seven months pregnant.  When we rang the bell of their pretty house I felt nervous, but Sarah's friendly smile put both of us at ease pretty quickly.  We said our hellos and I handed Sarah the flowers, thanking her for her hospitality, then quickly handed her the baby gift we'd brought them.  She was clearly surprised, and she thanked us and set it aside to open once Bernie was home from work.  Sarah showed us around their house a bit, explaining changes they'd made and how parts of the house had been somewhat falling apart when they moved in.  It was a tall home, four levels, I believe, with a few rooms per floor, beautifully arranged with a sophisticated touch.  As we stepped through the kitchen to get to the garden, it smelled amazing and I suddenly couldn't wait for dinner.  Out in their gorgeous garden, Sarah walked us around, pointing out the green house and the pond, the flowers and vines growing here and there.  It had come with the house, of course, but you could see they put a lot of love into it.  Sarah told us how the small pond had been frozen over when they moved in, so they hadn't known until the thaw that there were two fish inside - still alive!  They fed them and marveled over how they'd managed to survive all that time under the ice.  Then one day a bird swooped down, and that was it for the fish.

Bernie got home soon after and there were more handshakes and hugs all around and within a few minutes we were seated at the dining table talking over some nice Rose' wine.  Now we had already been told that Sarah was a great cook, but we still weren't prepared for the spread that was about to hit the table, one course at a time.  Half-way through this trip I'd wished I would have had the mind to photograph the food, just to add a visual to my raving reviews.  This was the night I did.

Course #1: Blood pudding with dark green salad with homemade croĆ»tons and apples, and balsamic drizzle.

When she sat our plates down she said right off that she wouldn't be offended if we didn't like it.  She and Bernie just really wanted to give us a real traditional Scottish feast.  Now the blood pudding, we'd had, but not like this.  Nothing at all like this.  This was thick and rich in flavor with hints of nutmeg.  Sarah explained they got their meat from a local butcher who handmade things like blood pudding and haggis on-site.  It was all local and lovingly made, none of that mass-produced stuff many Bed&Breakfasts served with breakfast.  No one left a morsel on their plate.

Course #2: Smoked salmon with cream and crackers; rare venison sliced over skirlie; and a haggis, neeps, and tattie tower.

I ate my smoked salmon without noticing the cream and crackers, it was so delicious.  The venison was heavenly and tender, over what is apparently an old Scottish favorite Sarah's dad suggested she pair with it, made of onion, oatmeal, butter, salt and pepper.  Yum!  And then the haggis...oh, the haggis.  Now we already liked haggis, but had yet to have it like this.  The haggis we'd had up till this point had been served on a platter in a more ground up state between blobs of mashed potatoes and mashed turnips.  When made into a tower, the haggis or cooked in a way that keeps it together a bit more, also making it possible to get a taste of all three elements with a single stab of the fork.  Insanely delicious!  We had no idea Sarah was a gourmet!

Course #3: Tea with sugar cookies, fresh raspberries, and a cheese plate.

With smooth green tea all around, we indulged further in this amazing spread Bernie and Sarah made possible.  It had been an incredibly enjoyable evening between the wonderful company and ridiculously great food, and I was so happy this came together.

I think what took me by surprise the most was how comfortable the whole night was.  We talked and laughed easily, and Bernie and Sarah seemed just as excited as we were to get together.  Bernie had even told some people at work about the Americans he had coming over for dinner, which made me laugh - I'm not used to being considered so exotic.  It seems he also relayed to them the whole rescue story from Prague, the strange coincidences there and the plan to meet back up here.  They thanked us again for saving Bernie from the dark and scary woods of the Czech Republic, swearing that a European wouldn't have done him the same kindness.  We said we'd just been happy to help out a nice person in need, and by the way, thanks for the feast!

Bernie and Sarah talked about old TV shows from the States they'd watched growing up, and Chris and I asked them about slang terms Americans associate with people from the UK.  Like did you know a Scottish person will likely have no inkling as to what you mean if you call him 'limey'?  As the wine flowed and the evening wore on our small attempts to mimic an English or Scottish accent were met with much laughter, and even a compliment or two.  We learned that the term 'Brit' refers to anyone living inside the UK, including people from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, not just those from England.  We learned that 'bloody' is pretty universally used, but 'ginger' is rather derogatory.

They opened the baby gift we'd brought and we were endlessly pleased they seemed to like it so much - a baby duck bath set and a onesie with an electric guitar on it for daddy.  We did meet Bernie at a metal music festival, after all.  Apparently because the pregnancy came so quickly after the wedding this was the first baby gift they'd really received, and we were excited to have contributed to the new addition.

When we left it felt like we were hugging goodbye old friends, promising to keep in touch and swap pictures.  It was the perfect way to end our Scottish vacation, in the comfort of someone's home over the best meal we'd had all trip, by far, and fantastic company.  Thanks again, Bernie and Sarah, for a fabulous evening!

Friday, August 27, 2010

July 12: Edinburgh, part 2

We started the day with The Real Mary King's Close tour of the underground.  Mary King was a prominent businesswoman back in her time, which was highly rare, so much so that they named one of Edinburgh's closes after her along the Royal Mile.  The closes were the narrow streets that lead to apartments of Edinburgh's original city, something over which the current city has been built.   It was an interesting historical tour lead by a colorful character.  Because it was tight quarters down there, our guide made sure to pull the "wee'ns" to the front and direct the "big'ns" to the back when we were all meant to peer in at something through a doorway, window, or hole in the wall.  An entire underground world has been uncovered and to walk through the rooms that once housed families struggling against the Plague was eerie.  The room that felt the strangest was that where a young girl was said to have been left to die many years ago.  As her ghost has been allegedly sighted often looking for a favorite toy, there is a great pile of dolls, teddy bears, and other toys that people have brought her to put her at ease.  This tiny room with its mound of children's toys was by far the coldest we entered, despite its being on the same level as several other rooms.

After walking the underground rooms of the city, we took our turn walking through some devoted to some of Scotland's greatest authors at the Writer's Museum.  I don't generally last long in museums, but I wandered from one case holding these writers' journal entries, first editions and tools to the next, reading every plaque of information with interest.  I liked reading about the lives of Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and seeing a writing desk once belonging to Burns gave me chill bumps.

Makar's Court is a courtyard outside the museum, and is paved with more and more flagstones bearing quotes from various Scottish writers.  It's an ever-growing literary monument just under your feet.  I photographed each one, even the ones I couldn't understand.  These are two of my favorites.
After the Writer's Museum but before venturing into The National Scottish Museum we came upon Greyfriar's Bobby, the statue of a dog who was so devoted to his person, he waited for him on his grave for years after his death, until eventually Bobby's time here ended, as well.  It's a famous story and people stop to take pictures with the statue often.  Just past the statue is the graveyard where Bobby the dog waited, and where he, too, is buried.  His grave is just inside the entrance gate, covered over with a great pile of sticks people place in remembrance.  I left one, too.

Moving on, we found a rather enticing looking menu down a side street from Chamber Street.  Mum's Real Comfort Food called to us from its unassuming position, humble and well-kept.  It was Mum's sausage and mash offer that held our appetites hostage, and brought us back from visiting the next place, Monster Mash, for a look at the menu a couple doors down.  Mum's menu offered a traditional spread of Scottish comfort food with a rather gourmet flair.  If you chose the sausage and mash, and we did, you got to choose which fancy sausages you'd like from the daily board on the wall, then which mashed potatoes caught your attention and which savory gravy from the menu.  We each tried one lamb, honey, and mustard sausage and one chicken and garlic, and Chris had Mum's house herbed pork sausage, too.  Then we both went for the red onion mash and sun-dried tomato and basil gravy.  The guy who owns and runs Mum's sat with us and chatted while he took our orders, explaining about the local beers he carried to help Chris decide.  I was happy with a Magners, as always.

It should be said that before we moved to Italy in 2004, I wasn't much of a sausage fan, and I have never been a fan of gravy.  Sauces I can drown in, but that typical brown goop people have to have at all the big holiday meals grosses me out.  But as with all of our travels, that which is typical, local, and/or strange sounding will make it to our plates at some point, and besides, it all SOUNDED really good.  Seriously, this may have been on of the best meals on the entire trip.  The sausages, ground up and made in the kitchen with all kinds of love and tastiness tasted like something off of a fine-dining menu, and the mash only complimented each bite with its subtle kiss of red onion.  But the gravy...oh, the gravy.  It converted me.  It's done and there's no going back for me; I wanted to drink it from my plate - and nearly did!

As we breathed in and drooled over our food we made conversation here and there with the owner when he wasn't busy.  We talked about Edinburgh's Annual Fringe Festival, and how we'd really love to make it back next August for it.  We talked about music and for a half hour after we'd finished eating, he told us his story and the story of this place, which turned out to be only in its third week.  (I'm realizing we never actually got the guy's name, and I feel a little terrible about that.)  So Mum's guy was traveling through Asia to set up a new location for Monster Mash, his former restaurant, leaving someone else in charge back in Scotland to manage things in his absence.  Having felt no need to legally protect the name of his restaurant, his trust was promptly betrayed the minute the contract was up, and said manager trademarked "Monster Mash."  What a welcome home!  So they packed up and took his restaurant name - three doors down the same road!  They were planning on capitalizing off of the reputation Monster Mash and its owner had built, and I'm sure did for a while.  Mum's guy got burned, but in the end decided to fight them in the business sense and let things fall where they may.  So he opened Mum's and they're growing in popularity, and rightly so.  Monster Mash's quality has fallen, and here's hoping their would-be customers are following their noses to Mum's a few doors down, because not only is the quality some of the finest we've experienced, the atmosphere is warm, inviting, and quite friendly.  At Mum's it's all local and homemade quality food with none of the pretension.  I told Mum's guy I'd be blogging about him, that I wanted to help spread along the kind of word-of-mouth that would bring him more and more hungry diners, so here it is!  So if you're ever in Edinburgh, really, you HAVE to eat at Mum's.

Feeling as if we'd made another friend in town, we walked back up the the National Museum for a little while.  But as I've mentioned, neither of us are big on museums usually, and we tired quickly of all the beautiful artifacts and history. At least we tried.

Chris and I took our time walking the streets and enjoyed being in the city.  That's our kind of travel, after all. We made sure to make it by Cornelius, the wine store in town that carried Andrew's wine from Porto, a red called Pinalta, picking up a couple bottles to take home and try.  Then we headed on back to the A-Haven to drop them off at the room. Whenever we saw David, either at breakfast or in passing as we came and went he always asked about our day or plans for it, and seemed genuinely interested.  He was also bursting with helpful information about everything we could possibly think of, which was nice.

When we ventured back out of the A-Haven we were on our way to that night's Literary Pub Crawl, something I kind of dragged Chris into.  It was a fun couple of hours, walking between a handful of pubs once frequented by Edinburgh's finest writers and watching the interplay of our hosts in full character, bickering back and forth about the lives of these writers and keeping us entertained.  We'd been a little concerned that we would be the older ones in the group; as it turned out, we were the youngest.  It was fun, anyway, even if we didn't have much to talk about with Baby Boomers from South Carolina, Iowa, and Georgia.

Having left dinner till after, our options were surprisingly few.  Honestly, who knew even the kitchens in the pubs closed before 10pm?  We figured it would happen, that we'd end up having at least one bad meal on this trip, so we weren't too upset about our day-old dinners.  We found a fish and chips shop, the kind of take-away place that stays open late into the night with such delicacies as fried cod, meat pies, and fried haggis, to name a few, which wouldn't be so bad if they hadn't been sitting under heat lamps since morning time.  So Chris had his fish and chips and I tucked into a rather stale piece of fried haggis with chips (fries), as well.  With rumbling stomachs and now greasy fingers, we sat in a small square near a strip of pubs and ate, too hungry to care how gross it really was.  As we talked over a meal at quite the opposite end of the spectrum from lunch, a man approached Chris and asked if he intended to finish his food.  Chris had momentarily set it down, but told the man he was, in fact, going to eat it, but asked if he'd like some fries.  The man, clearly homeless and a little drunk, said yes, thanks, and asked Chris to put some on the napkin.  I found this rather considerate, as it would make it so the man wouldn't have to stick his dirty fingers into Chris' food.  Chris did so, the man said thanks again and sorry to bother us, and wandered off across the square.  He hadn't asked for money, and he hadn't harrassed us.  He was just hungry, so it didn't take long to decide to buy him his own take-out from the shop our food had come from.  I was disappointed when I couldn't see him, but after a little while when we were done and ready to leave he walked in our direction again, wandering.  I stopped him and asked if we could buy him some dinner, and he accepted, choosing a meat pie and chips from the counter.  His name was Randle, and we stood and talked to him for a good while.  He told us about where he'd been, what he'd been through, where he often slept and how excited he was to be getting the keys to his own place in a matter of a couple of days.  It seemed a church he often went to for help with food and work and a place to sleep had set him up with a program that provided him a place of his own, given he attended therapy and rehab regularly, and got a steady job. He was doing it this time, he told us, and he was going to clean his life up and reconnect with his children, currently living in England.  He carried a cell phone so they could always get in touch with him, wherever he was, though it had been recently stolen while he slept in a nearby graveyard.  He started to cry when he spoke of them, unsure of how he would get their numbers with his chip missing with the phone.  He had no other way to contact them, and it broke my heart.  Randle seemed sincere and sad, and I was happy to have contributed in a small way with some dinner and a compassionate ear - or four.  As we talked he caught sight of an overstuffed, green lounge chair discarded by a dumpster, and made his way there to eat and eventually, sleep.  We wished him well, encouraged him to stick with it for his kids, and then we actually hugged him goodbye.  Are we weird?  Maybe, but drunk or not, this man had shared some of himself with us and we wanted him to know someone cared, even if we never saw him again.

Back at the hotel we checked email and finally heard back from Bernie (see Sonisphere Prague post).  Everything was set for our get-together the following day, so we headed to bed soon after so we could get up early to head over to Glasgow for the day.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

July 11: Edinburgh

We started the day with a breakfast that included haggis, a happy and filling surprise, and I think it made David happy that we liked it so much.  Once downtown we wound our way around the backside of Edinburgh Palace. It was an especially foggy day, thick clouds hanging low into the city, swallowing the tops of spires and buildings.

Up at Edinburgh Castle we had the wind to contend with, along with various entertaining tourists.  (One couple made their way around the castle grounds, the guy oohing and ahhing as he snapped photos of his girlfriend posing in slightly over the top, sex-kitten ways.  We casually followed behind for a few minutes to fuel our giggles.)  All gusts and giggles aside, the view was amazing, despite the fog.  We walked in and out of various rooms containing everything from specific battle memorabilia and arms to the royal apartments, looking over the royal family's old family photos and trying to imagine living in this place above the city.

Not far from the castle was the museum, Camera Obscura, where we entertained ourselves with a different kind of museum, altogether.  The museum is named after the lens it holds at its center, something by which we could spy on passersby below, strolling down the Royal Mile.  We learned a little history about the various locations of sister lenses like this, and the lens' story, itself.  But mostly, we just had a little fun playing for a while before moving on down High Street.

Lunch!  Already, you ask?  But didn't you have haggis at breakfast time?  Why yes, yes we did, but passing by The Baked Potato Shop seemed like a non-option.  If we were gluttons any one day of this trip, this was the day.  At this fantastic, little shop on could order any number of toppings on their potato, sized small, medium, or large. As it was a vegetarian establishment, we justified eating before we were quite hungry by calling it healthy.  At any rate, Chris' potato got a quick warm-up after receiving its cheese, onion, and pineapple, while mine only required the two hearty scoops of Greek salad to be complete.  Sounds a little off, I realize, but the taste was right on target.  There was something jarringly delicious about eating cool, fresh vegetables and feta cheese marinated in red wine vinegar with a blob of buttery, hot potato.  Did I mention a medium potato from the Shop was nearly as big as my face?  We may have been hurting a little afterwards, but it was worth every bite.

The Scott Monument
erected in honor of Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott

Looking down the Royal Mile

As we waddled down the street we stopped here and there to watch or speak with some of the street performers who call the Royal Mile their office.  Jo had told us about a couple, in particular, the night before, so it was fun to seek them out.

This is the world's most pierced woman, and she was more than happy to pose for my camera.  Of course I paid her a pound for her cooperation.

Noticing the increasing number of signs posted along the road forbidding parking for some important "exercise," we inquired inside a convenience store about said exercise.  Maybe we'd be there for some unexpected treat.  It turned out Her Majesty was due in on Tuesday, and this was the road she traveled to reach her house, Holyrood Palace at the end of the Mile.  The guy behind the counter said if we asked a cop they wouldn't say so, but that everybody knew what the signs meant, though her specific time of arrival was kept secret.  Kind of cool, the Queen of Britain being in town on holiday the same time as us, but we had plans to be in Glasgow on Tuesday and besides, who wants to sit around all day in hopes of catching a glimpse, modern royalty or not?  So off we went, on down toward Holyrood, itself, taking notice of the growing number of armed guards patrolling the area.

We walked around the outer borders of Holyrood, snapping photos of the magnificent vacation home and the beautiful hills behind it.  On the back side we came to a great, open park where people were flying kites in the distance or throwing Frisbees for their dogs.  One man ambled along with his dog, a big, slow-moving Doberman who turned out to be a 14 year-old pup named Nelson.  I try my best not to be one of those dog-crazed people who approaches strange animals without thought of their disposition or their person's wishes, but it's very difficult for me not to gravitate toward dogs when I see them out.  I'll casually move closer, looking at anything but the pup I want to pet, gauging said dog's notice and reaction to me, trying to catch the eye of the person attached to raise my eyebrows and motion toward the pooch, a silent request for puppy love.  I thought I'd made good eye contact with the big black dog suddenly loping toward me, and leaned down to reach for a scratch when he flew right by me, to my disappointment.  Seeing this and knowing exactly what I was up to, Chris just shook his head and smiled. We kept walking along the side wall of Holyrood, but this dog was intent on torturing me and my need for dog contact - I was missing Heidi.  Eventually our paths intersected with his person's and I complimented him on his cute dog.  Then I asked if I could pet him.  The man said he was surprised Nelson hadn't come over to me already, which slightly hurt the feelings of the part of me that assumes all dogs can tell how much I love them. So over Nelson ran at his person's request, ready for my eager scratches and pats.  The man's name was Andrew, and he wore a metal (music) T-shirt which spurred conversation about the metal music fest Chris and I had just been to in Prague.  Talk of music turned to talk of travel, which lead us into talk of Portugal and Andrew's vineyard in Porto, a city in the north.  A half hour later, we'd made another friend in Edinburgh, and one who seemed eager to help us out with a Portuguese trip in the future.  We haven't yet visited this country, and now that we've got the contact information of someone who knows it well, it seems more likely that we'll go.  And even more likely that we'll visit his vineyard while we're there :)  Andrew gave us the name of a local wine vendor who sold his wine if we wanted to try it, and we parted with a farewell handshake, pat on the head, and one more trip added to the list.

Holyrood was securely walled in, but the guards watched every person carefully who strolled close by.  I surprised us, then, how incredibly friendly they were when we approached with questions concerning whether or not we could pass.  The first guard's post was at a drive at the back of the palace, and we stopped to make sure we could cut across to get to the open park.  She said we could as long as we weren't hiding a vehicle.  Chris pulled the liners of his pockets out to show we were clean, we all chuckled and we walked on.  After parting ways with Andrew and Nelson we came upon another guard hanging around the mouth of a narrow alley that ran alongside Holyrood's wall, leading out to another road we wanted to get to.  When we asked if we could walk that alley, unsure about security issues, he said we could, as long as we promised not to scale the wall.  We promised and he laughed as he waved.  I love the people here.

As it was after six and anything with visiting hours was closed, we took a very long walk from Holyrood to Leith, what we heard referred to as the rougher side of Edinburgh, to stop by the room before finding dinner down by the docks.  As we made our way toward the water Chris pulled out the map to make sure we were on the right road.  As he did, a rather burly woman who approached walking the opposite direction made us both jump when she gruffly yelled at us, "What are you looking for?"  We replied, "A place to eat dinner," and she pointed up the cross street we'd reached, then down it.  "There's a place there, and there's more down that way.  You've got a lot of choices!"  We thanked her, she smiled somehow without smiling, and everyone went on their way.  Even when they scared you, these Edinburghians were super helpful.  We walked until we found the old harbor of Leith and ended up settling into a table at The Ship on the Shore.  Ready?

Chris ordered the smoked seafood plate, which, he says would have been better hot, but was good nonetheless.  I salivated over seared scallops over tiny green beans, sweet potato mash, and a piece of caramelized pork belly.  HOLY CRAP, it was fantastic.  That with Bulmer's summertime special, pear and apple cider, and I was maxed out on tastiness for the day.

Who said Scottish food was bad again?

July 10: The Road to Edinburgh

Sad to leave Skye so soon after arriving, but happy to have added it in at all, we enjoyed another hearty, Scottish breakfast and hit the road, bound for Edinburgh.  We pulled over shortly after starting our drive, along with a host of other tourists, to photograph a long and skinny waterfall, then again just down the road when we crossed a beautiful stone bridge that stretched over a glistening creek.

Goodbye beautiful Isle of Skye.

Further along the way we pulled over, seeing a hand-painted sign for local pottery.  We found a small shop selling locally made crafts, and while we appreciated them all, we left having only purchased some of the tastiest cheese scones we've ever had.  Apparently the ones we had were that day's special, loaded up with extra goodness like basil, onions, feta, and paprika.

Slightly, though not much farther down the road, we decided that the day's sunshine warranted another stop at Eilean Donan.  Such a difference a little sun can make.  The young bagpiper was a nice addition to the atmosphere, as well.

Now I used to have no trouble staying awake in my younger days, as old and decrepit as that saying makes me feel.  I was a night owl all through my school age years, studying or writing until the sun was nearly ready to rise again, which often meant sleeping until 2 the next day, to my father's disappointment (he didn't agree with such wasteful use of time).  I could road trip with friends all day and all night, throwing back coffee or Diet Coke to keep my reflexes in check, and staying up to keep another driver company was just as easy.

It's only been within the last couple of years that, especially if I'm not the one driving, given more than a thirty minute car ride I'm struggling to keep my eyes open.  It's the strangest thing, because when it happened, it happened as suddenly as I often conk out on the road, poor Chris.  It doesn't get much better when I'm the one driving, either, I'm afraid.  I'm turning the air down, the volume up, and shaking my head to perk up.  What are the ravages of age doing to me?!

Hence, I quickly arrived to the city of Edinburgh, though I'm certain it was a longer trip for Chris, who drove. We arrived to the A-Haven in Leith, a small but gorgeous hotel run more like a Bed&Breakfast, we'd soon find out, and met our host, David Kay.  After settling into our room up the beautiful wooden staircase on the uppermost floor, we called Johanna, the sister of a friend from our time living in Italy.  We'd met Jo on one of her visits to Elise and generally saw her every visit after that; once even for Thanksgiving.  Jo had moved to Edinburgh roughly nine months prior from Georgia - the country, not the state.  This girl has always amazed me; she lived in Georgia for a couple of years with the Peace Corps right out of college, working with the oppressed women in one region to educate and better care for themselves.  She had an apartment and a cat there, and that's where she met her current partner, Daniel.  Daniel was the Scottish businessman, oozing capitalism who came through on business, surprise, and (with some resistance) swept this strong, intelligent, feminist woman off her feet.  Now living together in one of the coolest cities I've visited, Jo is working at the university there to create and maintain international partnerships (right, Jo?) or something equally as interesting and stimulating as she pursues life on yet another continent.  Over drinks and catch-up conversation later that evening, she joked that he's trying to win her over with his capitalist ways, and she's trying to save his soul.

Back in our room, we made plans to meet up for drinks and dinner with Jo downtown, then promptly flopped down and took a post-drive nap.

A couple hours later we were making our way down the Royal Mile, the High Street stretch connecting Edinburgh Castle to the Queen's royal residence in town, Holyrood Palace.  We took in the shops, the mounds of deals on 'real' Scottish kilts and tartans lining the street, making mental note of things to revisit by camera the next day.  By the time we even made it a third of the way down the Mile to the appointed meeting place, a pub near Jo's flat, it was nearly time to stop.  So we did.  We ordered a couple ciders and found some seats, enjoying one of the final games of the FIFA World Cup games between Uruguay and Germany.  When Jo arrived it was hugs all around and more drinks while we caught up for a bit before dinner.

Ready for the next amazing meal?  We dined at a restaurant called The Dogs, where an old apartment, or several of them had been adorned with dog art and the necessities of an excellent eatery.  Chris and Jo went with the trusty pork belly, something I didn't expect to like but craved as soon as I tasted.  I ordered a braised pork and tomato pie with mash ... mmmmmmm.  Why don't we make more meat pies?  They're delicious!  The food was amazing, the wine, even better, and the time spent with Jo topping it all.  It's fun to listen to someone's slowly changing accent, especially when that someone is incapable of pretension.  Knowing someone in a foreign place makes visiting that place so much more enjoyable and personal, and Jo would be the first of two get-togethers planned for this trip.  As a gradually-becoming-local, herself, she made us feel more welcome, though the Scottish are already pretty good at that.  It was a nice way to begin our time in this great city, and we eagerly looked forward to our first full day of discovering Edinburgh.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

July 9: Isle of Skye

After a short farewell to Sarah Tree and her charming B&B at Loch Ness, we were on the road heading toward the Isle of Skye, a last-minute addition to the trip.  Although Scotland isn't an enormous country, there seem to be endless things to see, particular land and seascapes over which to marvel, and towns to appreciate.  Upon our new friend Bernie's suggestion, we shuffled around the last few days of the trip in order to make a stop along the west coast before heading south to Edinburgh.  Enter Isle of Skye.

But before we reached this beautiful isle, we stopped to see Eilean Donan Castle, a place known for its cinematic cameos in movies such as Highlander, The World is Not Enough, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and kind of surprisingly, Made of Honor.  None of these are why we wanted to see it, but it's interesting how popular this particular castle is in the media.  We pulled into the parking lot and feasted our eyes on the place, a simple castle at the end of a stone bridge, parked on a tiny island in Loch Duich.  The fact that the water level in the loch was so low took away from the expected beauty, as we'd seen it in pictures before setting out on this trip, and the pouring rain didn't particularly help.  With hood up and umbrella out, we walked around and tried to ignore the weather.  Rain or not, Eilean Donan was pretty cool to see in person.

On to Skye, the rain wasn't letting up, but we checked into our B&B in Portree, the capital of Skye, and set out to see what we could anyway.  The Isle of Skye boasts some amazing prehistoric landforms and great hiking, so we decided to attempt to combine those two elements by making what we thought to be a short hike to see Man of Storr, a particular rock formation near the east coast of Skye's Trotternish Peninsula.  Sticking our noses up at the rain, we trekked up the path into the heavy wood, slipping here and there on wet and muddy rocks and pine needles along the path.  We'd hike through a section of forest and then come to a small clearing, giving way to views of little more than a tiny rabbit and the heaviness of the air hanging above us, before creeping back into the trees.  Every once in a while we's swear this must it, this climb just ahead , as there were no signs to indicate how far this hike was.  Every once in while, we were disappointed to see the path stretch onward and upward as we panted and grumbled in the rain, completely unprepared for anything more than a mild walk a few meters from the road.

Eventually we came to a gate at the base of some beautiful mountains, over which our little trail climbed and disappeared.  Exhausted, thirsty, and pretty wet, we embraced our defeat and turned back.  Upon our return to the parking lot we got a look at this Man of Storr, and that would have to do for today.

Continuing our drive we decided to leave the Trotternish and cross over to the Waternish Peninsula, the stretch known less for its landforms and more for its appeal to artists.  As I'm a sucker for handmade pottery, we made a couple stops at some pottery shops to find some local flavor to bring back home.

 Ian Williams was one artist whose shop we found, a sculptor, painter, sketch artist, and writer originally from Wales, having moved to Skye after a career in London as a police officer.  Ian's taste in pottery may not have matched our own, but I had an enormous appreciation for his picture work.  Ian hand drew images from his new home, the beautiful Isle of Skye, and alongside many images were hand-scrawled notes, moments felt upon looking at the bird he sketched, thoughts or memories induced by them.  We talked for an hour about personal expression and how he came to this particular medium, and I told him about my own desire to mix mediums in a similar way.  This meeting reminded me of Kamil Vojnar in Saint-Remy, as I experienced another jolt of creative energy and need to create.  It was pretty cool.  We ended up buying a copy of Ian's book, a collection of his artwork inspired by Skye, and two small prints of my favorite images and comments.  Ian signed my book, and I admit I got a little thrill out of it.  He has, after all, managed to do something with his art and even has his own small gallery.

As we left Ian's the sun came out and it was like a different world.  We drove up the Waternish toward its farthest reaching point and saw the sea on both sides of the peninsula.  With the bright blue now stretched overhead, accented by the clouds and beauty beneath, it suddenly became quite clear how this place's name may have come about.  We pulled over often and took loads of pictures, but nothing could compare to being there in the sun's embrace on the deep green hills, looking out across the shimmering water and letting the air rush into our lungs.  I tried, anyway.

Finding the Dunvegan Castle closed for the day, we weren't too disappointed; it'd been an amazingly beautiful afternoon.  Our stomachs notified us that it was time for dinner, so we headed back to Portree to walk around town a bit and find a place to eat.

Portree's harbor

The Rosdale Hotel down at the harbor fit us in without a reservation, and it was time for yet another phenomenal meal.  Neither Chris nor I could resist the sound of local wild Skye venison with thyme mash, and it was heavenly.  Every bite was deeply savory and I could've eaten this all night.  Then came dessert.  Since Chris had yet to order some Sticky Toffee Pudding, that was his choice, while I went with what our server described as a very Scottish choice, fresh strawberries with a whiskey cream.  I'm not a whiskey fan, but it was fantastic.  Plopped over a deep dessert glass of beautiful strawberries was a thick cream swirled with sugar and oats, and I imagine whiskey.  I died a little in that dessert, in a lovely ecstasy of taste.  I realize I may be coming across slightly nuts or food crazy here, but it really was that good.  Oh, and Chris lapped up his pudding with equal vigor.

Back at the Bed&Breakfast we eagerly made use of the free internet connection and hit the hay.  The trip was already half over, but it felt like we'd only just arrived.