Clint and Laura's Trip to Scotland and Paris
We arrived without difficulty yesterday and Laura's brother Eric and sister-in-law Ellie have been amazingly hospitable. They picked us up in a borrowed "communal" and we weaved through rush-hour traffic to arrive at thier flat on the Northeast end of Edinburgh. Eric took us on a day-long walking tour of the beautiful and historic city, narrating historical factoids from the perspective of an American academic ex-pat. The sun made a rare appearance thoughout the morning and highlighted the amazingly green and lush Arthur's Seat, a small mountain smack in the middle of a major city. Our hands lingered on the ancient stonework as we passed though the streets, marvelling at the history here. We grabbed a guiness and a spartan corned beef sandwich on white toast in a basement pub in a back alley (called a "close") then walked up to Edinbugh castle for a look out on the city. At the end of the day Ellie made a fantastic meal made from organic local produce and we shared a glass of wine while we planned our next few days. It was a wonderful first day of our honeymoon.
Feeling a bit jet lagged after hitting the ground running yesterday, we slept in a bit then headed out for a jog/hike up Arthur's Seat. Although steep at points, it was the perfect thing to get our blood pumping and work out some kinks from the plane. There was a beautiful 360 degree panoramic view of the city from the top. We had planned to hit a castle tour after this, but by the time we got showered, grabbed a bite to eat (The Piemaker had great meat pasties), and walked to Edinburgh Castle, it was 3:30 and we wanted more time there, so we walked down and toured the National Gallery of Scotland, seeing some great works of art from all over the world including local Scottish painters. Then we wandered through a few shops and met Eric and Ellie back at the flat before heading out for a couple of pints. Laura and I then had went out for Thai to commemorate our cancelled trip to Thailand.
We finally hit Edinburgh Castle at a reasonable time to take the tour. It is pretty amazing to see the history of the place, castle built upon castle built upon destroyed castle. The saga of war and destruction is mind-boggling. Just incredible is the feeling you get when stepping into a 600 year old room, or walking across centuries-old cobblestone. We clearly have come catching up to do on our history. Afterwards we did a little tourist shopping, had some hot chocolate, a latte, and some carrot-parsnip soup and read our books a bit with old town Edinburgh as our backdrop. Not bad. After wandering other downtown streets and getting more of a feel for the city, we took a tour of Mary King's Close. A close is essentially a narrow, or "close" alleyway between the buildings of old Edinburgh. The doorways of 600 people in 1-12 story buildings would open onto any given close as they ran down from the main street. Every day at the same time, everyone would throw out their excrement and eventually it would make it down to the Nor Loch (lake) at the bottom, which aside from serving as an open sewer, was a source of fish and drinking water. Ew. Mary King's Close is interesting in that in 1753, after the New Town was built, it was able to buy a block of the Old Town for the new Royal Exchange on the cheap. They built the Royal Exhange, now the City Chambers, on top of many existing structure, leaving much of the lower areas, even the close itself, intact. Although somewhat contrived, the "historical guides" take you through the close and rooms still somewhat preserved off of it, left essentially unused for 250 years.
The adventure begins. The plan: rent a car and drive an hour north of the city to go climbing and see some historic sights. The problems: 1. Scottish weather - dreary and raining to start, we were not to be discouraged. 2. Clint initially couldn't find his driver's license (soon found at the flat) and Laura was not happy (to say the least) at the prospect of driving. 3. The drive on the wrong side of the effing road! After the slowest rental car checkin on record and some highly stressed driving on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road in ridiculously narrow streets by Laura, Clint found his license and boldy took on the challenge of getting out of town. All in all, it went well, meaning that we're still married and we didn't crash the car. Our butt cheeks had plenty of exercise from clenching them all day in mild to moderate terror as Clint put 99% of his concentration into driving properly on backwards unknown roads with Laura navigating and shouting the occasional "CURB!!" when the left side of the car skidded along the shoulder or curb, and "WRONG SIDE!!" when Clint would occasionally revert to "normal" driving on the right side of the road after getting out of the car or after the occasionally confusing roundabout. Chevy Chase's "I can't get left" scene from European Vacation kept flashing through my mind and we adopted the mantra, "mind your head" (used in British stairways and low points) when getting back into the car to remind us which side of the road we were supposed to be on. The climbing, at Benny Beg, to the west of Crieff, was very nice despite the wet patches and the downpour that ensued after we packed up. We then went south to Sterling and to the William Wallace memorial. Overlooking many of the major battlefields of the time, including the ones where William Wallace himself defeated the English in 1297 at the battle of Sterling Bridge and where he was then beaten in 1298 at the Battle of Falkirk. Also the field of Bannockburn can be seen, where in 1314, the army of Robert the Bruce defeated the English again, essentially winning Scotland's independance. The memorial is a strong and graceful tower which looks out upon the whole valley and houses statues and busts of Scotland's greates heroes as well as William Wallace's giant two-handed broadsword. It is quite dramatic overall and inspiring. We need more heroes these days. Ellie, Laura and I wound up the night at the Scotch Whiskey Society (a member's only club) with a wee dram of some interesting whiskeys and some good conversation with some friends of Eric and Ellie's.
We got another late start, which is part of what a vacation is about I think, and went with Ellie to the Edinburgh farmer's market. We picked up some ginormous brown crabs for dinner, then Laura and I found a nice sunny corner cafe for lunch. We still didn't get our reading time in, but we wandered through the non-touristy shopping district for a few hours looking for gifts and people-watching (which is always fun). Laura and Ellie headed to the gym, while Eric and I chatted with thier Aunt Fiona, then we initiated the feast. Mashed potatoes, salad, and four giant crabs, that I, as the resident Maryland crab expert, had to figure out how to prepare. All in all it went well, generating an impromptu version of "Old Bay" with a mortar and pestle while Ellie made homemade garlic mayo and lemon butter for dipping. The alien crustaceans fell to the mighty steam of our slightly too-small pot one at a time. We toasted to our nuptuals then after the feast was through, we showed (tortured?) Eric and Ellie the highlights of the ceremony and reception.
We slept well and had a relaxing morning, catching up on the blog and watching some real news (BBC rather than the biased sensationalized American version) over coffee and muesli. Despite our late start, Ellie quickly planned a bike ride to The Falkirk Wheel, the world's only rotating boatlift and apparently quite a feat of engineering. We wouldn't know, since we didn't quite make the 30+ mile ride. Neither Eric nor Ellie had made the journey, and although they bike a bit around town, the bikes are not what you'd call "competition quality" and we had a few repairs to do to start out. Two flats and no tubes, so Ellie valiantly headed out ahead to the bike shop to save time and Laura and I walked in that direction until we met up on Princes Street. I quickly fixed the flat that couldn't be patched (but forgot one crucial thing, which we'll discover in a moment) and we set out on the trek. We got a little lost finding the canal in Edinburgh but then we were off. After about an hour or so, a ravenous hunger came over the group and we stopped to eat all three of the cliff bars that we brought and one of the 3 bananas (we later found out that Ellie scarfed one on the way out of town as well). Laura and I also swapped bikes and as I tried to straddle the monstrosity that was too large for even Eric (he's about 6'1 and I'm 5'7", I realized why Laura disliked it so much. The seat was too far back and angled upwards, essentially stabbing you in the grundle (the taint, the undercarraige, the perineum, etc.) with every pedal. Ouch. Once adjusted, the front tire was flat again and I realized what a wanker I am, to use a British term, in that I had forgotten to check the inside of the tire before putting the new tube in. This explained why the big thorn that punctured the old tube did the same to the new tube as well. Ellie patched it an we were off again. The ride itself was incredible, rolling along beside the calm canal, through rolling Scottish hillside and through trees, tall grasses and scrubs, as well as the occasional small town. We were slowed often by passing walkers with their dogs, other cyclists, gates to prevent motorcycles (we think), and swerving under bridges on 3 foot wide wet cobblestone turns. Nobody actually went into the canal, but Ellie got close as she skidded in some mud near the edge. We became ravenous again and devoured a few bags of chips in a small town before ordering a bad pizza and strange veggie prakoras and we were off again. After 5 more miles or so, time was catching up to us and we had to decide whether to catch the train back early or keep slogging on where we would arrive at the wheel possibly in the dark after it had closed, making us late for dinner with Eric. We decided to bail and had a humiliatingly short train ride back to Edinburgh after our 5 hour long bike ride out. Although we didn't make it to the wheel, the ride was fantastic. The day was capped by dinner at The "new original" Khushi's (is that an obscure Spinal Tap reference?), an incredible indian restaurant, leaving us sated for adventure for the day and stuffed with food.
We got up early, excited to sit in on an into to moral philosophy lecture at Edinburgh University by our very own Professor Ellie Mason, PhD! Unfortunately due to a scheduling kerfuffle (an excellent UK term), Ellie wasn't actually lecturing. Oh well, we were actually pretty disappointed to miss the lecture but Ellie felt bad and treated us to some coffee and tea before we headed back to pack for our trip to Paris. I had haphazardly figured out the timetable and we got packed, headed out and made it to the airport with a blazing 30 minutes to spare. After this incident, Laura has been made self-elected "Keeper of Appointments and Timetables" for TPV (Team Pura Vida) (an election fully supported by other members of the cabinet, however). Due to another scheduling kerfuffle, we had a brief layover in London, but not enough time to expore at all. We finally made it into Paris, and after waiting for our bags, then waiting some more, and a little more. . , we became part of the irritated, tired and somewhat smelly mob crowded around the British Airways customer service counter. In our usual TPV fashion, we shrugged it off fairly well, filled out our forms (we did almost offer one of the reps some coffee though, she was painfully slow and almost seemed to be nodding off!) and after a few loops around the terminal, found the train station to Paris. We made it to Le Plaza du San Michel (I don't know if that's right, but I'm putting a "Le" in front of everything which seems to work), one of my sister Stephany's favorite neighborhoods in Paris, and found our Hotel les Argonauts. Besides the late-night plate-breaking at the Greek restaurants downstairs and their tea-bag and leopard skin decorating tastes, it was a great deal in a great spot!
No bags meant no clothes and no clothes in Paris means - SHOPPING! We went down rue du Rivoli and hit some department stores and shops to outfit ourselves with some fashionable Parisian duds on the cheap. After a $30 underwear incident by myself (we somehow managed to return them later without a word of french!) we managed to find some reasonable priced clothes, some toothbrushes, and deodorant. We freshened up at the hotel then started our walking tour. We walked past Notre Dame, the Louvre, up the Champs del Elysees, then took a metro back to San Michel, and fell asleep to the sounds of tourists and breaking plates with the occasional "hoopa!" below our window.
Touring really began in earnest with a tour of Notre Dame with it's magnificent gothic archetecture and stained glass rose windows, then the incredible collection of impressionist art at Musee d'Orsay. We saw classic paintings of Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Redon, Seurat, Cezanne, Gaugan, and pretty much every other pre, post, and impressionist painter you've ever learned about in art history class. We zipped up the metro to the neighborhood of Montmarte to the famed Sacre Cour, or Sacred Heart church. After another few circles around the streets due to my sea-turtle like internal compass (isn't uphill always North?), we located the church and were treated to a sweeping view of Paris. We went up the narrow, dusty, seemingly unending spiral staircase to the top of the dome and were rewarded with even better views of the beautiful city below. Because it was afternoon and many people chose not to navigate the ancient stairway, it was also nice to be almost alone at the top of the city. The 4€ tour also included the "tombs" below, or "basement" as I would call it, that were also almost deserted and somewhat spooky, echoing footsteps and plenty of dimly-lit nooks and crannies with larger-than-life statues of former church officials with small glass cases with some of their crusty bones in them mounted on velvet. Creepteresting. We then went out on the lawn in front, continuing to enjoy the view and romantically shared a bottle of mediocre French wine, a baguette and some brie. Definitely a good "honeymoon moment". We then walked through the seedy red-light district to reach the famed Moulin Rouge where tour bus after tour bus dropped off tourists from all over the world. Laura located a great little restaurant back up the hill in Montemarte in the Let's Go book called Le Soleil Gourmand and we were treated to a great dinner and Laura finally got some veggies! When we got back from dinner lo and behold, our bags had arrived! And not a moment too soon. Laura's socks were getting squishy from 3 days of use and I had already managed to get brie on my new pants (which I had pseudo-hemmed using the pins from my new shirt.)
The Louvre, where in the hell do you start? We started fairly early, touring the incredible ancient Greek, and Italian statues. It is really interesting to see the change of subject manner - from greek and roman gods and mythological creatures, to almost exclusively Christian themes. The skill is just unbelievable in both the sculpures and the paintings. We got the audio-guides (the regular ones, not the new "DaVinci Code" audio-guide which culminates in "finding the holy grail." Yippee) and navigated as much as we could until we decided to hit the "big ticket items" including the Mona Lisa and a few other DaVincis, Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo, and took our time through the other renaissance painters before we ran out of museum steam. We walked out and hung out in the garden for a while before we noticed a crowd of people and flashes of cameras only to find that this was the big entrance to some sort of fashion accessory show. We stuck around to see some ridiculously dressed model-types stroll in and photographers scurry to get their photos before heading for a nice circuitous stroll through the Gardines de Luxembourg, even running into a small eco-exhibition, past the Pantheon, and down the famed Rue de Mouffetard, where writers such as Descartes and Hemingway used to live and hang out. Wandering through these neighborhoods is pretty incredible, you really get a sense of history and can envision famous writers, artists and philosophers sitting in these dark historical cafe's and bars sipping wine and collaborating with their peers. The night was capped off by dinner at Au Vieux Paris, a hidden, quaint traditional Parisian restaurant near Notre Dame. They supposedly use produce from an organic farm near Paris (we later found out how the fois gras is produced - not so humane apparently.) and you get to walk through a hobbit-sized door, down some crooked steps into thier little wine cellar to pick your own wine for the meal. We had le menu Gastronomique, with all of their le specialities - scallops, fois gras, duck de l'orange and a tarte for dessert. WOW. It was really, really good. The other great thing we discovered was that Laura does not get headaches from French wine! Score.
Heading out. We had a really great time in Paris - we only ran into a few really rude people including the girl at Starbucks and the guy who wouldn't sell us tickets at the metro. We felt like we got a good feel for the city by walking around so much. Despite our lack of luggage for 3 days and our complete and utter lack of French language skilles, we did pretty well. We didn't even have to use the "contra la guerra" mantra that Ellie taught us before we left to protect ourselves. I think that my guise of speaking Spanish first when we encountered non-English speakers worked well, since they didn't seem to identify my mediocre command of that language either! In the morning, guided by the newly elected "Keeper of Appointments and Timetables", we made it smoothly to the airport by train with time to spare, the plane left on time, and we arrived back in Edinburgh to a cheerfull "Hello" in English! Whew! It's so nice to be back where your language is spoken. Stepping off the curb, however, we almost forgot to "look right", and about the whole driving on the wrong side of the road thing. The rest of the day was spent relaxing for the most part, reading and updating the blog. We then feasted on crabcakes that Ellie made from the leftover crab, some fairly excellent vegetarian haggus (that is, haggus without the spare sheep parts and not wrapped in an actual stomach), and more organic vegetable delights.
We motivated to a special museum exhibit at the Royal Scottish Academy from the sculptor Ronald Mueck. He used to work in Jim Henson's Creature Shop and has developed his skills to create "hyper-realist" sculptures that although portraying humans in amazing detail, their proportions are distorted to give each sculpture a different feel and more emotion depending on the subject. It really was amazing. We had lunch at Henderson's, a "fast-foodish" place that serves local, organic fare - we need one of these in SLO! I found a sweet Scottish wool sports jacket as we slowly made our way back to the flat and got the butternut squash in the oven and prepared for our outing to the climbing gym. The Alien gym is built in a refurbished church and let me tell you, it was great to get back in a good rock gym! (now that I finally have one around the corner from our house it's utter crap - Crux in SLO.) We went home very tired and feasted on butternut squash enchiladas made by my new bride Laura. They are always fantasitic!
Not to be defeated, Ellie, Laura, and I dragged Eric along to conquer the 33 mile bike ride to Falkirk Wheel. We borrowed a fourth bike and headed out, this time fortifying ourselves with Ellie's porridge and packing sandwiches. The ride was again incredible, but Eric, not having done any sort of exercise in many moons, fell valiantly to the canal's dirt-trailed torture mechanism and took the train back to Edinburgh from Linlithgow. The three of us cycled on and made it to the wheel some 8 miles later. The trail along the canal at one point went through a 650 meter tunnel over wet cobblestones with stalactites and water dripping from above. We went by some interesting locks that would drop a boat down 5 or 10 feet at a time, but nothing like the Wheel, which drops or raises boats 78 feet on the same amount of power that it takes to boil 8 kettles of water! We did get to see it move a boat from the top of the canal to the bay below, a fairly impressive feat of engineering. We were very upset to hear that we had to ride back up the hill to make it to the train station , but we forced our sore quadriceps into action and made it to the train 5 minutes too late. We had to cancel our reservations at the swanky and creepteresting Witchery restaurant and are now readying ourselves for some fantastic Indian food engorgement instead.
Driving in Scotland: Round Two! We rented a car again to head off for the highlands. As a child Ellie and her family lived in the Northwestern highlands on the ocean in an old schoolhouse built in 1875 in a small town named Altandhu. They named it Tigh na Cloinne, meaning "house of the children" in Gaelic. Donald, Ellie's father, was kind enough to let us stay there for free for 3 nights on our last week. We took our time heading up, enjoying the views of the Scottish highlands and stopping at the Dalwhinnie distillery for a tour. Scotch whisky is quite a complicated matter, one to be savored and discussed, especially among Scots. Dalwhinnie is a very smooth and light whisky, without much of the smoky flavor that is characteristic of the Western islands. Sounds like I know what I know what I'm talking about, doesn't it? It must have been a good tour, either that or I sampled too much whisky ;). Actually it was only a few sips - it was hard enough to drive on the opposite side of the car and the road, plus there was the prospect of the one-lane road to Altandhu. The drive actually wasn't bad, aside from confusing an occasional driver by pulling over to either side willie nillie. We arrived on the coast as the sun was setting over the ocean, we dodged a few sheep in the road, and arrived at Tigh na Cloinne ready for a relaxing meal in front of the fire.
Relaxation at last! Although we have thouroughly enjoyed our honeymoon so far, staying with other people and travelling around doesn't necessarily equal romantic times and relaxation. We slept in until 10 or so, woke up slow (a la "Banana Pancakes", a Jack Johnson song), then wandered around the property and along the rocky shoreline. Despite the incredible beauty, there was quite a bit of trash that had washed up, especially small bits of rope and line that had presumably fallen off of fishing boats. We cleaned up most of the trash then made some lunch before heading to Stac Pollaidh, known also as "Stack Polly", the most climbed peak in Scotland. The hike was fairly easy but we gained a lot of altitude quickly. The view was nothing short of breathtaking - the ocean to the west, the landscape spotted with lochs, peaks, and hills with hardly a sign of civilization to be seen. Incredible. After heading down we took a driving tour of the small "towns" around Altandhu then stopped off at the pub for a pint and a sample of whisky.
Day 16: We awoke slowly to a grey cloudy sky and a drizzle of rain. It turned out to be a wonderful day of relaxing and reading in front of the coal stove in the large living room. When we actually ventured outside, it was much warmer than we thought. We walked in the drizzle to the local pub and had a pint of ale, some lamb (it was actually more on its way to mutton), and some locally caught scallops. Another great day together.
We got up early and headed back to Edinburgh. There was a town on the way back called Blair Athol with a castle and a touristy wool/cashmere store where we stopped for lunch. The name was better than any other part, we entertained ourselves for a few hours talking with a lisp about the Blair's "Athol", the knights of the round Athol, the fountain of Athol, etc. "How was your trip to Blair Athol?" "Well, it was dark and kind of smelly." Nuff said - you get the jist I'm sure. We got back to Edinburgh and prepared for our swanky dinner out at The Witchery, a very cool old restaurant right down the hill from Edinburgh castle.
The return home. The "Keeper of Schedules and Timetables" got us to the airport on time with no difficulties or snags, further fortifying her position with her constituents for the next elections. We got to share a flight with Eric, as he was heading back to visit family as well but didn't end up sitting with him due to a full plane. We watched a few episodes of Green Wing, a fantastic British hospital comedy, somewhat akin to Scrubs and did our best to endure the 24+ hour journey back to SLO. We made it back at midnight to a happy puppy and a warm, clean home. Thanks to Mike and Marie for house and dog sitting!