Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Another weekend, another excursion

Do you realize that I come home in week? How ridiculously fast has this trip gone?

This past weekend Lizzy came up to Edinburgh for the weekend. I had been saving a lot of my local “touristy” things for this weekend as it was good to have someone else to do them with rather than traveling alone again. Friday we took a daytrip through Haggis Tours (Stoner and Helter will remember them from our last trip) to see Loch Ness and Glencoe. If you haven’t seen the facebook pictures yet then stop right now and go take as look, because the scenery was absolutely stunning and we had as bright and sunny of a day as they ever get in Scotland. Note: a bunch of the pictures have a dark blue tint to them as they were taken through the tinted windows of the bus.

The trip started early on Friday (here’s the link to the path, we did it in reverse: http://www.haggisadventures.com/Scotland/Day-Tours/Loch-Ness.html). Much of the day was spent on the bus, which at first sounds horrible, but turns out to be amazing. The tour guide was a native Scot named Dan who spent the entire day telling story after story regarding the history and geography of what we were seeing, as well as an endless number of jokes. The scenery was amazing and even Dan said he had never been on this trip during the fall while it was this sunny. Most of the land we were driving through was devoid of any signs of human inhabitation, a fact most people love about this area. I’m not so sure where I fall as far as that argument, because this land used to be absolutely teeming with highlanders. Almost all of them were driving out of their ancestral homelands during the 19th century highland clearings and the area has clearly never recovered. Even the towns that still exist are beginning to fail as their younger people head off to university and never return, and who can blame them? There isn’t much in the way of jobs there outside of tourism or what few farms are left, and so the younger generations are all heading off to the city. Dan did tell us that there have been a number of government efforts to repopulate the land but I wonder if that will ever happen. It reminds me of the empty spaces up in the mountains in Pennsylvania, places that used to be thriving but have all but become abandoned since the coal and steel industries have moved elsewhere. I found myself saddened looking at the country side and wondering what it would have looked like a few hundred years ago, with clan dwellings and animal herds spotting the landscape instead of an empty (but beautiful) landscape.

Anyway, enough of my pondering and back to the trip. First stop was a little town called Dunkeld, consisting of not much more than an old half ruined cathedral sitting next to a river, and it was STILL a wonderful stop. I am in love with old stone buildings, and you don’t get much more picturesque than this. It sits right in the bend of the river Forth overlooking a beautiful stone bridge and looks like something pulled out of a movie. Apparently we were making good time to that point because afterwards Dan took us on an extra stop to the site of a Scottish War Memorial, though not for the memorial. It was our first view of many of the mountains of we were going to be driving through that day, as well as Ben Nevis, the highest point in the UK (those are the pictures of the mountains that end looking at a parking lot with an RV in it…I promise I’ll get around to tagging them some day). We hoped back on the bus and headed to Fort Augustine and Loch Ness for lunch and a boat tour. I didn’t come to Loch Ness the last time because we decided that the only people who went there were stupid American tourists looking to be amazed by some stories of a Loch Ness Monster. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The loch is HUGE, several hundred feet deep in some places, and bordered by sheer cliffs on both sides throughout most of the portion that we got to tour. The water appears almost black due to the runoff from the peat bogs that surround it, which apart from reducing the visibility through the water to almost nothing (and I’m sure ,fueling the legends about a monster) has the effect of turning the loch into a perfect mirror. A boat ride of an hour felt like 10 minutes as I did nothing but take in the surroundings. It’s amazing I even remembered to take pictures, so check them out.

After Loch Ness we had one more small detour before driving through the amazing Glen Coe. We stopped next as a small town called Inverlochy to see the remains of 13th century castle again positioned in a bend in the river on beautiful ground (got to give it to the medieval Scots, they knew their landscape). It was at this point that I decided that although we were in the middle of nowhere and at least an hour bus ride from the nearest hospital, it had apparently drizzled here a bit that morning and the stones were wet, the walls of the castle rise about 20 ft high, and I have poor health care covered here, the best way for me to experience the castle would be to climb to the top….obviously the owners of the castle had experiences with stupid kids like me before and all of the easy ways up were gated off (though I would like to let the organizers know that all this did was force me to find more dangerous routes to the top). Unfortunately the stop was short and I never made it to the top of the outside curtain wall, but Lizzy has some grand pictures of me attempting the climb and I’m sure the other travelers are now judging all Americans very poorly after watching me do it.

The final part of the day was spent driving through Glen Coe, a huge beautiful valley right in the middle of the highlands. The hills here (I have trouble calling the mountains, because they are small even compared to what we have in Virginia) jut up steeply and have peaks that look like they were carved with a knife. Apparently the land here was formed when a piece of prehistoric Canada broke off from North American and came crashing into Scotland. Most of the peaks were formed by volcanoes, which were cooled quickly as huge glaciers moved across the landscape and scrubbed the peaks clean. I can’t describe how sharp the outlines of the hills are here so you’ll have to look at the pictures to get a real idea of what I’m talking about.

Saturday we spent doing some of the things I have had on my to do list but have been holding off on. We started early in the morning and headed up to Edinburgh Castle (have mentioned I love castles?) with a girl named Kathy that we had met on the tour the day before. Not much to say here, it’s a castle, and I loved it, though if you’re here and you want to see a castle, Stirling is the place to go. We spent the better part of the afternoon on a FREE 3.5 hour walking tour of the city. I had been on this before the last time we were here but Lizzy hadn’t seen much of the city and I didn’t remember enough to be a good tour guide (plus it was FREE!). Completely worth doing again, and did I mention it was FREE? We had intended on going to a museum in the afternoon but were sort of museum-ed out after the previous weekend so we took a hike up Calton Hill. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the sun was setting behind the castle while we were up there so I got some great pictures. After Calton Hill we had a quick bite to eat at the Elephant House, the cafĂ© where JK Rowling wrote much of the first Harry Potter book. After dinner we took a short trip to a great little pub called Sandy Bells which has a trad music session every night, and where I managed to look like the most popular kid in Edinburgh as I knew the entire group standing just inside of the door (total coincidence I promise. Just happened to be a bunch of the Triathalon club, which most of my flatmates are in).

One of the last things on my list was to take a trip a bit further north in Scotland to see the coast and the North Sea, so we decided to take a couple of hours and trek about St. Andrews (only an hour train ride away). St. Andrews is a beautiful little town that you can walk end to end in 20 minutes, sitting right on the eastern coast of Scotland, and famous for having one of the oldest golf courses in the states. I don’t play golf but it was still pretty sweet to walk the Old Course (its open to the public on Sundays because they don’t allow play on Sundays). We also spent some time walking the huge expanse of beach that sits between the golf course and the North Sea, which also happens to be the place that the famous beach scene in Chariots of Fire was filmed.

At this point most of you are probably thinking something to the effect of “Damn that sounds like a great weekend, and I’m very jealous I wasn’t there”, and you would be right to do so…but we haven’t even gotten to the best part of the weekend. Have I mentioned yet that my flatmates are awesome? Sunday night they arranged a family style dinner of Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties. The food was amazing and it again made me feel like I was part of their crew, which I have been unbelievably grateful for. I have a secret plan to force all of them to move to the states with me when I go back, but I’m not sure it will work.

That’s it for now. There’s only one more week until I fly home! Tomorrow night we’re doing a going away dinner for me and this weekend I’m heading to Ireland for a 3 day trip down the west coast of Ireland (Galway, Doolin, Cliffs of Mohr).

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