Archive for the ‘Melle’ Category

Gables, canals, bikes, art and books

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

Or, Sherry and Melle do another trip.

This time we went to the Netherlands, staying in Amsterdam, and Belgium, staying in Antwerp.

Starting in Amsterdam

The palace on The Dam

Palace on The Dam

Flight in was pretty uneventful and we managed to keep going until check-in at 2pm, which left us with no sleep for 24 hours or so. Hotel location was excellent, just off the Dam Square and walkable to the train station. The other good thing about our hotel? It was the repository for the Big Book of Amsterdam. I managed to read it from cover to cover and it was like the Delphic Oracle of all things Amsterdam – much to Melle’s chagrin, I’m sure.

On first glance, Amsterdam is a bit like Temple Bar in Dublin and not fair for the comparison–dirty, lots of garbage, and always looking like there was a crazy party the night before. Mostly this is the case around the Red Light District and they clean it up pretty quickly.

Walked past Anne Frank’s house but about the only thing you can see is big line-ups. We also saw the Old (Oude) Kerk and the New Kerk. Old Kerk had some beautiful paintings on wood that are sadly disappearing.

The church in the attic

Another interesting museum was the Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Dear Lord in the Attic) – it’s a house that has a full Catholic church in the attic that was hidden when Catholics were no longer allowed to worship in public. The sheer logistics are boggling, and it has some nice furniture and tiles.

As one would expect, there are enough cobbles to make high heels a hazard. Wisely, most Amsterdamians (Amsterdammers?) wear sensible shoes, which also makes it easier to ride their sturdy bikes. Bikes are EVERYWHERE. We contemplated how many would be left if they had a bike clean-up day, since it’s pretty obvious that more than a few have weather a few seasons or twelve in the place they’ve come to rest.

After a 2-hour nap, we set off on the longest search evar for a restaurant to eat at, and ended up back at the first one we saw and liked. I had a great lentil soup and a decent duck, with mediocre wine (the norm, as I soon discovered – beer choice is awesome, but not so much the wine).

Then came Museum Day, or should I say part one of Museum Day, since we ended up hitting many museums during our trip. We started off in the Flower Market, which is a lovely spot of colour in the morning, then we made our way to the main museum (Rijksmuseum) – some amazing Vermeers, furniture and so on.

Dollhouses were for the Housewives of Amsterdam back in the day

Then in a park we noticed a ticket kiosk for the Van Gogh exhibit, since the Van Gogh museum was closed for repairs. So we bought some.

Turned out to be the smartest thing in vacation planning history – by the time we got to the Hermitage where the exhibit was, there was a line about 3 blocks long to get in. And like the rock stars we are, we went straight to the front and straight into the museum just by waving our little tickets around. We found out that, not only was this the first day the exhibit was open at the Hermitage, but they had a special touring exhibit of the Impressionists at the same time. Double-score.

Snarfy attendant wouldn’t let us take in our cameras, and they we got in there and everyone else seemed to have their cameras and iPads fully operational. I was not impressed.

Speaking of iPads, this is the first trip where the tablet has made an impression. I must say that people still look kind of weird walking around the streets or exhibits holding up their tablet to various things and taking pictures. Still haven’t figured out what the advantage would be, and it sure is a lot more to carry and position (besides being a nice beacon to people with less-than-welcoming intentions).

At this point we were starving for lunch, but could not get service for love or money. First place had no server, second place had stopped serving lunch… Finally found a cafe for sandwiches and beer. Thanks to the big walk among the museums, we had now seen most of the cultural areas in Amsterdam.

Had an amazing Indonesian meal that night, finished with the best decaf espresso I’ve ever tasted (I’m sure the mango-papaya sorbet didn’t hurt either). Thanks, Yelp.

Only downside to our hotel was that the back street was a thoroughfare from one bar area to another, so we were treated to intermittent catcalls and singing through the night. I swear I heard Paul Anka about 2am. I had no idea he was popular with hen parties.

 

Great picture of the many types of gable in the city.

Then there is morning in Amsterdam. We started to feel like we weren’t off to a good start until we had our “breakfast weed” (aroma only).  Usually it was just a wiff as we went past a coffeeshop, but sometimes it was a dude (always a dude) walking down the street. Also, they don’t like to eat early. Nowhere to eat before 9am except for one or two intrepid cafes and our hotel restaurant which had a buffet for the price of a nice pair of shoes.

We took the train up to Utrecht on a Monday, and discovered the second rule of Netherlands – which is the Netherlands is closed on Mondays. And the third rule, which is that Utrecht doesn’t open until noon, unless it opens at 1pm. Nevertheless, we did manage to get to see the cathedral there, and it is a pretty little university town.

Very interesting story with it – there’s a tower and the cathedral, and a kind of square in between. Turns out there was more cathedral there, …until a tornado whipped through there in 1674. Though the history of this church is more complicated than that – it was fought over, half-completed, Catholic, Protestant. In fact, many of the statues and religious decorations are defaced – thanks to some hooligans in the Reformation who wanted to take vengeance on idolatry.

The cloister at the cathedral in Utrecht

Seeing as everything else was closed, we settled in for some tea on the canal, literally. There was a cafe built on a bridge. I had my usual – “fresh mint tea”. This is something I found in Amsterdam, but it’s all over the Netherlands. Basically, you pick some mint from the garden, shove a fistful in a glass, then pour hot water over it. It’s usually served with honey and a biscuit. I keep meaning to see if mint in large quantities turns into something other than “medicinal”. We were also offered mayo only with our fries whenever they were ordered – when I asked for ketchup the one time, they thought I was nuts.

During our late tea back at the Dam, Melle discovered that the pigeons of Amsterdam don’t have all their toes. Them are some mean streets. After a nap, we went off to a neat restaurant on a canal that is built into the cellar and had lots of meat and a few vegetables. we were into the swing of things by then – not finishing dinner until close to 10pm.

Tour to the islands

The next day we went on a tour to Marken, Volendam and a UNESCO heritage site that has some of the original traditional windmills (there aren’t that many left compared to the heyday).

We had brief demos of cheese-making and clog-making at Marken. The village has a lot of traditional houses – many of which were originally built on stilts back when it used to flood all of the time until the Dutch built a dam (as they are wont to do). So now the lower areas are all closed in – no doubt for the rec room and mod cons.

Traditional windmills on a rainy day

From there, we hopped on a ferry to the island of Volendam. Mostly a tourist kind of place, but we had amazing fish & chips for lunch – like, fish right off the boat fish, and since it was a bit blustery and rainy, it was hot and perfect. By the time we got to the windmills, it was pouring, but it was quite neat to see the saltbox houses and windmills along the small canals. Felt very Vermeer. Thankfully, we didn’t have any complete douchebags on this tour, though we did have one lady who talked on her phone through most of it.

Big pet peeve of the modern age – a tour guide is NOT TELEVISION. Why pay money to take a tour if you aren’t going to listen to it??

Off to Antwerp

I was very thankful to have the tablet along for the trip – while planning the train trip to Antwerp the night before, I stumbled on the fact that the train union in Belgium was staging a one-day strike on the day we wanted to travel. I was able to book bus tickets instead, but seriously – random train strikes are not cool.

View of the cathedral at Antwerp

Again, we lucked out with hotel location, though we couldn’t find it for the one-way streets on the way in. It was a short walk to the Grot Markt and not far from the tain station for the ride home – and blissfully quiet.

If The Netherlands doesn’t open until noon, Belgium closes at 7pm. Also, lots of pizza places.

Cathedral was impressive as cathedrals go. Bonus art exhibit while were there – not that we needed more art, but it became the them of the trip. We also walked out to the harbour front and saw a plaque for Canadian soldiers who liberated it in WWII. Back at the square I had an excellent beef stew, and the night’s entertainment was watching a young Japanese business man trying to keep his senior happy – they ended up ordering most of the dishes on the menu and half the beers and hardly touched any of it.Also noted: Belgians really like pop music, especially from the 80s.

Brugge

It’s everything you heard. Definitely a must-see. We were there for a full day. Square was cool. Tons of great architecture and museums. Took a boat ride on the canals. Saw still more art. I still pick Carcasonne for pure “holy shit, history!”, but it was a great day. The beautifully preserved medieval town hall would do nicely as a library, if a bit ostentatious. Had a great mussel soup for lunch and the first real salad of the trip.

Main square in Bruges (Brugge)

That night’s meal back in Antwerp was our favourite–at Het Elfte Gebod–a bar/restaurant across from the cathedral that is famous for its collection of religious statues. Great meal – duck confit with orange jus and veg, followed by lemon tart and an Oban. When I specified “no ice”, the server said “but of course”. He was a good man. Melle had a huge St Bernardus beer (10% alcohol) and was a little tipsy by the time we got home.

Hardware for the 1600s.

For our final day in Antwerp, we picked out a few more museums. Went to Rubenshuis first. He was a very wealthy man in his time, that’s for sure, but if you have a royal patronage, that’s the way it goes. Unbelievable how much they have preserved, and painted leather wallpaper was the decorator’s tip for the day. Also saw way more Jesii (Jesuses?) than strictly necessary for one day. After a bit of shopping and a coffee in the main square, we went to the Plantin-Moretus Museum. Plantin was a well-known and successful printer and publisher in the early 1600s and his son-in-law Moretus took over the business after him. The place is like it was 440 years ago – with working presses (2 from 1604), print machinery, stamps and an impressive collection of early books, including a Gutenberg.  Melle was well pleased she got me out of there, and without my trying to stuff anything in my bra.

After another pizza lunch, we hit our last museum.  A modest one where there used to be an “orphanage” – where women used to drop off their girl babies to be raised by nuns. The twist is that they would often leave a half a playing card with the baby, in case they wanted to have a reunion sometime later in life (one assumes poverty or lack of a husband drove them to do this). The building once had a purpose-built “shelf” on the outside where people could deposit their babies. There was one for boys as well.

And that was pretty much it – one final nice meal and then a looong and interesting day of travel home.

Going home

Ended up taking a taxi to the train station instead of walking because it was pouring rain, and as if to mark our departure, the cabbie had 80s pop blasting – we were entertained by a particularly campy, talk-singing earnest song about “Geanie”, made all the more delightful when Melle figured out it is by Falco and has a video almost equal to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.

Anyway, we printed out our boarding passes only to find out that we were on standby, and could not know if we actually had seats on the plane until about 45 minutes before final boarding. After lunch we made our way to the gate, got through a full bodyscan at security, only to be told that we were, in fact, in line for a flight to Mexico City. Hoofed it to another gate, waited. Then heard the announcement that our flight was delayed 2 hours. Waiting at the front of the line. Lovely man at the counter could not find tickets with our names on it, but after some exchange in Dutch with his supervisor, we had tickets! Upgraded to comfort class! From there, the flight was A-Okay, if late.

Very tired when we got home, though, since it was about 4am as far as our body clocks were concerned.

Pictures!

 

 

Or maybe “quirky”

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

The other night, Melle and I attended a lecture by Robert Wittman at KW|AG in support of his book Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures. Wittman is a pretty jovial speaker for a FBI guy and he did a great job of getting in plugs for the gallery, the local police services, and his book, of course.

You could hear the collective gasp of horror when he showed us a priceless wooden tea caddy from the Penn family that was unceremoniously dumped in the river and lost when the “mastermind” asswipe who stole it got nervous and told his girlfriend to dump the goods.

Before I got there, I was playing TV ping-pong between Buffy “Pangs” and the Brier (that’s curling, folks) and was really torn on which thing was more exciting even though I’ve seen “Pangs” about 10 times now. “A bear. You made a bear!” “I didn’t mean to!” Seriously, if you aren’t laughing at that, you are a cold, cold person. Plus, Canadian curling championship which is chess on ice and you won’t tell me different.

It was a 10/10 entertainment experience in one night. If I could have worked in the Perimeter lecture as well, it would be an 11.

Upon sharing my delight at the TV choices, Melle said she worries about me sometimes, but I know she means that in the best possible way ;)

Though if I’m looking at the dating pool, this may be a telling sign as to why I’m single. Not *everyone* would think Buffy, curling and stories about art theft and recovery, with a wishful thought towards a physics lecture makes a good evening, but I think it makes me interesting. Or something like that…

Twinkle in his eye

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

A few weeks ago, Melle and I attended the last, last performance of this year’s production of The Tempest at Stratford. The run was supposed to close on the Sunday, but they added a Monday matinee for charity so we got some tickets. We weren’t sure if we’d get a bunch of hungover people from the original wrap party basically phoning it in, or a tight troupe wanting to give it all for their last show. I think we got effort, but not so sure on the quality of some of the performances.

If you’re not in the know, the play starred Christopher Plummer. And he clearly enjoyed the role. It was a pleasure to watch him deliver so naturally what others were struggling to do. Plummer just delivered Prospero – with some wry here and some drama there and some anger over there. On paper, I can’t say I’m a fan of this character, but I thoroughly enjoyed what Plummer brought to it.

He was matched by Julyana Soelistyo, playing Ariel. Truly a sprite of a woman, she played Ariel as no one’s fool, but one very interested in playing others the fool – not with too much malice, and with a lot of playful indifference. And her lyric interludes were whimsical with a bit of an edge. From what I read of her bio (she’s new to Stratford), she was up for a Tony for Golden Child.

Their mutual admiration society was most evident in the bows. Plummer pointed to her several times during his own (well-deserved) standing ovation and his smile was genuine, indeed.

Now on the not so much, Trish Landstrom, playing Miranda (Propsero’s daughter) was a definite mis-cast. Default delivery face was a very unfortunate constipated befuddlement. Yeah, like that. Her elocution wasn’t bad, and from what I could tell, her timing was good, but I just couldn’t get past the face.

Bruce Dow and Geraint Wyn Davies were mostly entertaining as the mostly drunk and  temporarily ambitious Trinculo the Jester and Stephano the butler. Though Davies’ Scottish accent seem a bit ephemeral. Of course, I canna bite at him too hard since he is Forever Knight.

Dion Johnstone, who I liked as MacDuff in that other play, gave a great physicality to the part. Complemented by the excellent costume design by Paul Tazewall – it was half fish, half beast. Very earthy despite the nautical theme of the play.

The ovation for Plummer at the end was genuinely heartfelt, and if he doesn’t return for another year at Stratford, I can say I saw his last performance. Definitely a pleasure.

Walking

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

Though I didn’t intend to be quite so participaction, I’ve logged quite a few kilometers since Tuesday. Tuesday night I walked to the library. Wednesday night I walked to Melle’s, then over to Barleyworks, then back to Melle’s and then back home. On Thursday, Melle and I walked to Victoria Park, and then that night Melle, Andrew and I walked about 20 minutes each way for fireworks. Then today, Melle and I drove out to Cambridge to walk a trail by the Grand River.

In summary:

- Tuesday: 5.6 km

- Wednesday: 8.5 km

- Thursday: 12 km

- Friday: 12 km

That’s 38km+ in 4 days. Tomorrow, my feet shall rest.

Days 6 & 7: Ayr and Culzean Castle

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

For the last leg of our tour, we went to the seaside – West Coast. Ayr is a cute little town that is great if you like to golf and if the weather is nice. Unfortunately for us, neither of us likes to golf and the first day we were there was miserable.

From the train station, we found our B&B after getting turned around a few times and a bird shit on my arm–one thing you should know about Ayr is that they aren’t very imaginative in their urban planning, what with Beresford Street, Beresford Road, Beresford Crescent and Bellevue Lane, Bellevue Street, Bellevue Place and Carrick Road where we stayed had 5 different names, so have a map and don’t get too drunk. Chalmers B&B was lovely and our room was spic and span with crown moldings to die for. It was my turn for the little bed. Even though it was windy as hell and a bit rainy, we headed out to find the Tourist Info and seaside.

Had lunch at a funky place in the downtown area called The Treehouse, and it poured while we were in there. We were the only people except for a crazy dog-walker that ventured on to the promenade in the afternoon and all we got for our troubles was a sand facial. I was envisioning a nice walk on the beach and maybe some lounging but it was not to be.

Ayr Beach

No one but us, the wind, the sand, and a crazy dog-walker

So in the end this day was a bit of a bust and if I had to do it over again, I’m thinking we would have booked elsewhere. Dinner was a pleasant surprise though – quite authentic Italian at a seaside hotel – the Ariabiata sauce was fresh and the olive oil was thick enough to run a luxury car. After dinner we had a yen for dessert and whisky and found the Beresford Wine Bar & Art Gallery which was marvelous in the way that only fabulous gay owners can muster: really interesting art on the walls, gorgeous cufflinks on the owners and sprite of a waiter who had a quick wit and a firm grasp on the nature of whisky and sweets. A real gem.

We caught the local bus the next morning out to Culzean Castle and Park. This was a very different castle experience, in that a) the castle is intact and b) it’s set up as it was in the 18th Century, which is pretty damned recent in castle time. The 500-acre estate includes a deer park, swan pond, walled gardens, walking trails in woods and across fields, as well as a stretch of beach. The castle has been in the Kennedy family since the middle ages (not those Irish Kennedys, one of the guides was quick to point out). But in the time-honoured way, some gambling, some drinking and all around profligacy left the clan in a situation: taxes owed were more than worth of estate. Ergo, now it’s a “national trust treasure”.

Culzean Castle

The castle approach - nice pile

A Kennedy helped Mary Queen of Scots off her husband Lord Darnley in 1567, and it was another one who was arrested for drunk driving and go over 20 mph in the 1920′s.

The castle itself was redesigned and extended in the 18th Century by Robert Adam in the grand neoclassical style and it’s this phase of its life that has been preserved. We couldn’t take pictures inside (again) but the furnishings and design were quite something–gave me additional fodder for my imagination the next time I read some late 18thC parlour lit.

The grounds were gorgeous – we walked many kilometers I’m sure, through the gardens and to the pond and then I also found some crazy path through the woods to the steps down to the sea. The day was gorgeous as well -sunny and mid-20s, so it was quite a nice wander. By the end of the day, however, I think we were feeling it in our feet after a week of “hills go up”.

Castle garden at Culzean

Walking down into the formal garden at the castle

Culzean Beach

The end of the walk down to the beach

For our last dinner in Scotland, we went to the Carrick Inn up the street from our B&B. Dinner was good – and I had Cullen Skink as my appetizer, which is the very Scots version of chowder I guess, with smoked haddock (very good) and potatoes in a cream base. Definitely the kind of thing that would warm your innards on a cold and wet night. When it came time for my whisky though, our waiter, who was all of 16 (and looked 14), was at a loss on recommendations. I asked if they had any Caol Ila so he went off to check with the bartender. Came back and asked me if I meant “Kahlua” to which I replied, “what kind of Scot are you? Kahlua?” In the end, I had to walk over to the bar myself to find a suitable selection. I mean, really.

And that was it, pretty much. Our next morning was a leisurely breakfast before heading off to the airport (where I did find my Caol Ila, and a big bottle of it at that).

All in all, a wonderful week away.

Full photo album for Ayr & Culzean

Day 5: Nutters! (but not so much)

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

I was much anticipating our nutters tour – also known as The Da Vinci Borders Tour. My priorities being a) to see Rosslyn Chapel and b) to make fun of said nutters I was hoping would be on the bus with their tattered copies of the tripe disguised as a novel by Dan Brown, trying to give each other secret handshakes and muttering about Albinos.

If you want to read something interesting with conspiracy and Rosslyn Chapel, do yourself a favour and pick up Foucault’s Pendulum instead. But I digress.

Unfortunately, instead of enjoyable nutters, we got stuck with a touring group from Denver comprised of a gaggle of teens and their cougar escorts who did nothing to dispel the stereotype of American females for those who know them only from episodes of Wives of… and slasher films. The ersatz leader insisted that the tour guide read the oeuvre of Diana Gabaldon because she’s awesome! and her books are awesome! and historically accurate!

The only other people on the bus were a lovely couple from Cornwall who were equally horrified.

Also unfortunately, Rosslyn has been under construction/renos for quite a long time now so the outside was fully obscured by scaffolding, and once inside we weren’t allowed to take photographs AND the barrel ceiling was all covered up.

But back to the beginning. Our tour guide was a bit of a sprite with a nice lilt and the gift of gab, when he wasn’t giving us tmi on the troubles with his cousins on his father’s side.

We drove out into the lowlands and down to the borders first to take in Scott’s View over the Tweed Valley – reported to be one of his favourites. From there, we stopped on some back country road and followed a path through a small wood (trespassing on some poor farmer’s land, I’m sure) to “the original Wallace monument”, which our guide introduced as “Homer Simpson in a skirt and an abomination”. He certainly is a shambles: his kilt’s on backwards and it’s about as short as a Denver cheerleader’s, and he’s got a bit of a paunch.

Scott's View

Reminds me of a little of a lake outside Dublin owned by the Guiness family

Homer Simpson Wallace

Mostly Simpson, but maybe a bit of the Iliad in there as well.

We then headed into Melrose for some time to visit the Abbey there and have lunch. I quite liked Melrose Abbey – known to be the resting place of the heart of Robert the Bruce (only his heart, after it was taken on a grand tour to Spain on a botched pilgrimage to the Holy Land), and also boasts the only known gargoyle of a pig playing the bagpipes. I took a lot of pictures at the abbey, since it had much that I like – ruins in a peaceful setting, a graveyard, some dead knights, and remnants of medieval tile that are to die for.

Melrose Abbey

Open air beauty

Medieval tile at Melrose Abbey

can't get these at the Home Depot

While eating lunch in a little town square, we were visited by some rooks – like a bucolic cousin to the urban pigeon – who were pretty sure they were fooling us about their interest in our dessert.

Keeping with the templar theme of the day, we went to a small templar chapel outside of Rosslyn. In fact, I think it was called the Temple Chapel. Chapel is a ruin, but it was one of the most interesting graveyards I’ve seen in a while – wonderful folk art on the headstones. It was also in this little village where the guide related a story that there was a bell that chimed all of the time, but the villagers stopped it up with a rope once the famous “templar treasure” was found beneath the chapel. Heard later on the way back to the bus, “so they really tied up the bell? who found the treasure?” Sigh.

Temple Chapel headstone

These are his kids (hopefully)

Finally, we made it to Rosslyn. It did not disappoint despite the tarps and scaffolding. I got to see the Apprentice Pillar! And the maize! And the green men! As well as the light spot on the wall where the Da Vinci hollywood types put some well-meaning props. I spent a lot of time reading through the plaques that highlighted some of the many wondrous things in the chapel. They are hard at work removing the grey slurry that was put all over the original golden sandstone in a misguided attempt at preservation – and it will be something to see in the sunlight once the original facade is restored. There is a scrolling picture tour at the official site if you want to see more.

We made it back to Edinburgh early afternoon and later headed over to The Grain Store – a mid-priced restaurant on Victoria Street off of the George IV bridge (which you wouldn’t know was a bridge unless someone told you, since it’s elevated and completely full of buildings – very cool). It specializes in local foods, and I thoroughly enjoyed the meal: awesome scallions with fresh peas and bacon, followed by a lamb ratatouille & potatoes.

On the way home, we stopped at The Malt Shovel–great name for a pub–for some scotch. Excellent thistle stained glass while we were enjoying our whisky.

My conclusion on this day? I could live here. No problem.

Photo album for Nutters Day

Day 4: Stonehaven, Dunnottar Castle and the Path of Doom

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

We started off fairly early on the train to get up to Stonehaven which is a few hours up the coast. We got to go over the Firth of Forth (still best name for a body of water, evar), and the Firth of Tay, and then past a whole lot of rapeseed (canola to North Americans) and sea paths and the like.

It’s a quaint harbour town, with a beach that faces the North Sea – though it wasn’t too bad wind or weather-wise when we were there. Apparently, Stonehaven is tagged with being the first place to deep fry a Mars bar, thus further cementing our broad understanding of Scottish cuisine. Also, it should be said that it seems to be requisite that one owns a dog if one lives on the North Sea. I’m not sure we saw anyone without one on the boardwalk.

Stonehaven Harbour

Looking out to sea, Billy

In any case, after a quick tour there and through the marina, we began the path ascent toward Dunnottar Castle. The path started off well enough through some fields and up toward what turned out to be a portal, or a war memorial, if you don’t have an imagination. It was beautifully situated in the middle of nowhere, overlooking the sea and the town below.

Stonehaven War Memorial

Faeries dancing the middle - it could happen

We paused for a few photos and lookout, and then continued another kilometer or so toward Dunnottar Castle, only this part of the path is what I fondly refer to as the “path of doom”. For someone with Meniere’s, vertigo is a problem, especially when you are walking on a path wide enough for one person, with no railings, and only a foot or so of ground between you and a cliff and the North Sea. I approached this challenge by planning how many feet I had to go and then walking straight ahead with no stops and no looking to the side until I reached the next “landing” where the ground afforded a safer, less twirly-in-the-head view of the site. Melle, meanwhile was sauntering and looking out and taking pictures–generally doing things that would have made me nauseous if I could see her, but thankfully she was behind me most of the time.

approaching Dunnottar Castle

Path of Doom, Melle, Castle

Happily I prevailed over the path of doom and made it to the Castle approach, but it was down a cliff and then up a cliff and the handrail was on only one side, so I chose this as a good time to have a zen moment, and sat in a nice patch of grass well back from the precipice while Melle ventured on to the Castle proper.

Dunnottar Castle has a long history. Its origins are in the dark ages, William Wallace won a battle there, and they hid the Scottish Honours here for a while when Cromwell came looking – he eventually tried to burn it out, but some ladies escaped in a boat with the honours and saved them. These days, it’s a little ruined, but the seabirds have settled in quite nicely. You can see from the pictures why it would have been a great place to lay in, in its day. And it’s in the current rotation of Windows 7 screen savers, so natch. Also, it was used by Gibson in his “Wallace” movie (a source of constant amusement to actual Scottish people).

Dunnottar Castle

Dunnottar Castle - home of guano and a staircase to nowhere

We walked past some rather disinterested cows on the way out toward the car park, intending to take a forest path back to town, but then we realized that if we booted it, we might make the next train instead of waiting for an hour, so we headed back along the main route, partly closed down due to a little mudslide – must have been some wet weather in the Spring.

So there we were, speed-walking through town, round past the grammar school, up past the B&Bs, chugging toward the station and had our toes in the parking lot when we heard the train whistle signalling that it had just left the station. We missed the damn train, literally, by about 2 minutes. So, we had a somewhat cold and windy hour break at the station, not wanting to chance missing the next one.

Got back to Edinburgh with some time, so went over to the Knox House. An authentic house first built in 1490 and then added to over the years. It’s preserved now in its 16th Century incarnation. Even though it’s known as Knox House, they’re not really sure if he ever really stayed there (besides the fact that he was a bit of an arsehole). The most impressive room is the wood room – original panels and engravings and they’ve outlined what would have been vividly painted scenes on the ceiling, including the Tahitian girl…

Tahitian Girl at Knox House

This in a house of pious folks, who knew?

So then it was a bit more shopping before finding a pub over on Rose Street, on the other side of Waverly. In keeping with my native tastes, I had some chicken thing stuffed with haggis. Melle in the meanwhile, was excited to have found the first genuinely free wifi since our arrival, and was lost to the Interwebs with glee.

By this point, we were well walked and tired of things that go up, especially things that we have to walk on, so we were happy to head back to the hotel.

Photo album for Stonehaven & Dunnottar

Scotland Day 3: Edinburgh

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

The train from Glasgow to Edinburgh was straight  forward and our lodgings in the city were in a spectacular location – right by Waverly Station, with Chalmers Close connecting it to the High Street from the back. I totally recommend Jury’s Inn Edinburgh for that reason alone.

View from the Tourist Centre toward our hotel

This time, we couldn’t get an early check-in, but at least we were able to dump our packs there before heading out for some sightseeing. As in Glasgow, we opted for the hop-on/hop-off tour to get us oriented. I must say that Edinburgh runs strong against Dublin, Ireland as one of my favourites. The architecture is sublime, and there are enough bridges, crazy walks, closes and easily walkable districts to keep one content for a long time.

The other cool thing about where our hotel is located is that it was like being in the thick of a personal Ian Rankin what’s where – we were right by the Caledonian, Fleshmarket Close, Mary King’s Close (more on that later), High Street, Princes Street, and so on. Though we didn’t make it to the Ox.

Anyway, we elected to stay on the bus for the whole route, and that worked out well, since we could take in all of the info and spend the afternoon doing our own thing (plus we were on the top deck for a change and didn’t want to give up our seats). At lunch, we got into our room to freshen up, and then it was off to the Castle.

On the way, we did a decent amount of shopping – if you are looking for jewelery, kilts or even kitsch, you’ll find it here. Oh yes, and whisky too.

Edinburgh Castle is a ghastly £13 to get in, but it was worth it. Some awesome-looking guards were out front with great spats. The Castle is built on an extinct volcano, and there are records of there being a fortress there as early as 600 AD. By 1130, some of the buildings that are still there were already built, including Margaret’s Chapel – which I would have loved to have seen the inside of, but it wasn’t open (apparently you can rent it for small weddings – that would be gorgeous).

Margaret's Chapel at Edinburgh Castle

Beautiful - and you can see how it's situated on the rock

In the 1300′s the Castle changed hands between Scotland and England several times due to its strategic and symbolic significance. David did some work in the 1400′s and then James IV built the Great Hall in 1511. The “Honours” are also assembled during this timeframe, and we got to see them as well (they spent some time in other castles during various seiges – like at Dunnottar, which we also visited, to keep them away from the filthy hands of Cromwell in the mid-17th Century). James VI was born in the Castle to Mary, Queen of Scots, and of course he went on to become James 1 of England.

The Scottish War Memorial – in the former St Mary’s Church –  is one of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen of that type. No pictures allowed inside, unfortunately. It was very quiet and respectful in there, though you could hear people turning pages in the books of the dead – just looking at names, or looking for relatives, I suppose.

James’ Great Hall was great. Also rentable for weddings and parties. The hammerbeam roof is original and amazing – puts that new fangled one at Stirling to shame. Though the rest of the room is pretty much a reno from Victoria’s reign.

Original ceiling in the Great Hall

That's some aged wood

Fortuitously, on the way back down to our hotel, we found the Real Mary King’s Close, which is something that was on my “want” list. This is one of the only ways you get to see the “old” streets from 17th Century Edinburgh, preserved underneath the modern construction. Back in the day, the Close was a group of very narrow streets with tenements up to 7 stories shadowing the bottom. The were all oriented from the main street down toward Nor Loch, and that’s where all of the sewage ran to as well – so you can imagine how clean the air was.

On the tour, the in-character guide tells you a lot about the plague and about the ghosts that supposedly haunt the Close. Mary King herself was fairly prosperous – earning a whopping £100/year, though the dentist was earning double that. There was one man still living there in the 19th Century who didn’t want to move out. He also had the only flush toilet, which he positioned in the front room where he could show it off by using it with the front door open. They did eventually get him out, and it was amazing to still see some of the Victorian wallpaper in his old townhouse.

After a bit more shopping, we headed back to the hotel to offload and get ready for dinner. We wandered over the bridge to Rose Street area. As we were crossing a street, there was a young couple with a scrawny baby in the carriage and he was carrying on to high heaven about something. So Dad pulled him out and Mom placed on his head a jaunty tam o’shanter that was bit too big, but it was the magic hat, man. Little guy was giggling and happy to see the world after that. So if you are ever down in the doldrums, put on your jaunty cap and you’ll be fine.

I had a real craving for pizza, and we found a decent Italian restaurant. I had some great crumble for dessert – not so scottish, maybe, but very yummy.

It was amazing that it stays light so late at the northern latitude. We were wondering around close to 10pm with twilight barely setting in.

Photo album for Edinburgh

Scotland Day 2: Trossachs, Loch Lomand, Aberfoyle, Stirling, Glengoyne Distillery

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

We booked a 1-day tour out of Glasgow to give us a taste of the highlands, and of whisky via Rabbie’s Tours. They max out at 16 people, which ensures you get some attention, except for when your group also includes two incredibly loud, rude Portuguese women and a group of Italians who have more interest in smoking than in national trust buildings.

Stirling Castle is much photographed and frequently visited. It’s  the historical navel of the country, so to speak. James VI really spiffed up the place, though his first wife never got to see the final result. Being a good planner, he was sure to situate the mistress quarters well by the King’s and at the far end from the Queen’s.

Find the Mistress' Quarters

Find the Mistress' Quarters

Mary, Queen of Scots was crowned there (though Mary of Guise her mother ruled on her behalf for 17 years). The chapel is pretty intact with original paintings and trompe-l’oeil. There’s also a cool project underway right now to create reproduction tapestries showing a parable of Christ’s life – and as in medieval times, the weavers are using the faces of real people who work at the castle in their work.

My father would well appreciate the ceiling in the banquet hall which has also been restored recently. It’s comprised of about 350 oak trees without any nails. And then there’s Douglas garden, a “peaceful” place so named because a poor fellow named Douglas was chucked out the window after the King murdered him. Good fertilizer and all that, I suppose.

We spent a good few hours at the castle, along with eleventy hundred other people. Wallace is a big hero here – close by Stirling is where is supposedly weakened a bridge, allowing half of the English force to get across before it collapsed, effectively splitting the attack force in half. And Robert the Bruce is also a superhero, and it’s his statue that gazes out over the hills at the entrance to the castle. Bannockburn isn’t that far away.

Aberfoyle, where we stopped for lunch, reminded me a lot of Lunenburg, NS, a town where the houses are quaint and the only business is tourism, thanks to Scott’sThe Lady of the Lake. We had some fish & chips, sadly without newspaper, but it was piping hot and sufficiently salty and vinegary to satisfy the craving. At the tourist center they had sheep-herding demonstrations as well as birds of prey on display – owls are unnerving – heads shouldn’t be able to do that.

From there, our little bus wound around little roads going higher into the hills around Loch Lomand. Our guide Juliette was doing her best at this point to shush/ignore the Portos who were loudly talking on their cell phone for Pete’s Sake. It was hot and sunny, and there were campers at every lookout where we stopped. We also saw some Highland Coos!

Ach

Ach

By the time we got to Loch Lomand, it was mid-afternoon, and with the sunny weather and tour bus trade, the place was packed. Some foolhardies were even trying to swim, though I imagine the water was still at March temperatures. The loch itself is Scotland’s biggest in size (not volume – that’s Loch Ness), and its many islands contain everything from summer cottages, to wallabies, to a nudist colony. We did a fairly steep hike with the guide up to the top of one of the hills, along with a few others from the group. Very nice view of the loch, and then around the lochfront on the way back to the pub, where Melle drank a pint in about 90 seconds flat before we had to board the bus again.

Loch Lomand

Not the nudist colony

And then we were off to the whisky :) The distillery tour was at Glengoyne, which produces a non-peated whisky. I wasn’t sure if I would like it, since I like my peats, but the 17-year in particular had a nice finish. The distilling process was interesting, and I tried the 10-year, 17-year and 21-year, but no certificate! You’ll have to take my word for it that I’m a certified whisky-taster in 2 countries now.

After I had my fill of tasters, it was back to Glasgow. Dinner was at The Dhabba, an Indian restaurant also in the Merchant District – the hot dishes weren’t so hot by Canadian standards, but the ingredients were genuine and the server was very pleased that we knew the dishes and the fact that it was Northern cuisine.

Photo album for Stirling, Loch Lomand…

Scotland Day 1: Glasgow

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

If you were wondering where the hell I’ve been, I’ve been to Scotland! And in addition to that I’ve been going through the process of interviews and accepting a new job, and then getting back into the swing of things here at home – result being that I’ve not posted in a while.

Things I learned in Scotland:

  1. Hills go up
  2. My scotch cabinet has pretty much the same selection as your average pub in Scotland.
  3. Anything can be made better with a jaunty tam o-shanter.
  4. The length of Wallace’s sword increases each day.
  5. People can spell my name in Scotland.
  6. It’s not “cow”, it’s “coo”.

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Before we even got on the plane, we had our first entertainment. Going through security at Pearson, the lady in front of us got stopped for carry-on inspection. The reason became clear when the inspector pulled out the family-size fruit salad in tupperware, the side salad, the can of sprite, and a full bottle of ranch dressing. I’ll go out a limb and guess that she doesn’t get out much. Most surprising of all though, was that she got to keep the salads.

We landed at around 8:30 in the morning Glasgow time and it was pretty easy to find a bus to take us downtown to where our hotel was. Conveniently located not too far from George Square and the train station, so that worked out well. There was a big bed and a little bed in the room, so I took the little bed for this part of the trip. They did well to get us a room that early, and we were much relieved to be able to freshen ourselves up a bit before assaulting the city. Even though we didn’t sleep much on the plane, we like to hit the ground running and go all day to get on schedule as soon as possible.

Weather was already heating up for what would eventually be a 27 degree day – enough to send the natives into paroxysms of glee, rip off most of their clothes to reveal milky white skin and lounge about the commons.

Up at George Square, we got to see Wellington in his Glasgow hat – always some version of a traffic pylon, and currently a sporty orange stripe number with a green base. We speculated if the colour choice was on purpose, since we were there on the actual day of an Orange walk in the city. As far as we can tell, the modern incarnation involves a bunch of buddies getting together and singing defamatory songs, drinking lots, arguing about footie, and then buggering off back home on Sunday. Not a lot of people wearing green that day, in any case.

We caught the hop-on/hop-off tour from George Square as a way of getting around the city. You’d never know that it wasn’t high season yet – it was a struggle to get to the top deck and we had to wait a few times at the stops to get back on the bus. One of our stops was the cathedral, necropolis and infirmary.

The cathedral, also known as St Mungo’s (which, best Saint name evar), was one of the few to survive the dismantling of the reformation. True to form, some belligerent of the faith surrounded the cathedral when the reformists came a calling and threatened to do in kind if they touched a stone. The cathedral has some interesting features, and a whole white chapel in the basement, as well as a “Blackadder” walk. It’s also where I took the megacool shot that ought to be on a book cover.

I was not worthy to lift it

We wondered up into the necropolis, which is still very much in use. Gorgeous place to go for a walk if you don’t mind crypts and headstones. We got accosted by an old amateur historian (who was possibly a history professor from nearby Strathclyde Uni), who told us all about the Deacon/President of Strathclyde who got to meet Queen Victoria twice when she visited.

Sunny day of the dead

The infirmary is famous for being one of the foremost medical training facilities in the UK and beyond.

From there, we caught a bus over to Glasgow Uni – very nice campus, and home to the Macintosh House Museum – they basically packed up the house and moved it into the building. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take pictures inside, so I have one shot of the door and that’s about it. You can see some of the contents at the museum site. The dining room was pure noms.

By this point, our inertia was fading in the sun and we went back to the hotel for a bit of relaxation before heading out for dinner. We ended up at City Merchant in the Merchant District, who specialize in fish. I had Pollach with blood sausage mash. They like to put blood sausage and haggis in everything – mash, meat, breakfast, lunch… It was quite good, and I paired it with a Chilean merlot that worked out quite well. Dessert was Scottishy scots – I went for sticky toffee pudding and a whisky I’ve never had before – Caol Ila. Think a clod of peat dipped in oil, dragged across some Islay dirt and distilled with some mineral water. That’s the stuff, man.

In the end, I grabbed a bottle of it from the duty free on the way home, which was a good choice, since it’s available in very limited locations here in Canada.

By this time it was 9:30 and we were tired and anxious to get our sleeping schedule fixed, so it was back to the hotel.

Photo album for Glasgow