Scotland at last! First stop, Edinburgh

I have been having far too good a time in Scotland to bother with writing until now. I have been in Fort William for the last two days, am heading to Glasgow tomorrow, and unfortunately seem to have done some sort of damage to my right knee (I’ll explain later). So seeing as I can sit in my room (once again private with my own bathroom!!) with its lovely view of the surrounding mountains and loch, I thought I would rest my joints and get caught up on writing. Again.

From Newcastle, Edinburgh was my first stop in Scotland. In no time this city became one of my favorite in the world. The architecture, the ambiance, the sheer amount of things to do, not to mention the pubs, makes this city endlessly entertaining. The train station sits in a hollow between two hills and it’s a bit of an uphill climb no matter where you want to go. My hostel was up on the central hill of the city, right at the base of the castle. This was a prime location from which to explore. Not only did I have the castle directly in front of me, but also all of the other attractions and shops that are strung along the Royal Mile road that leads down from the castle to the Hollyrood House palace at the other end of the old city. In Edinburgh, at least around the castle, there seems to be a man dressed in full Highland garb playing the bagpipes on every other corner. You can walk almost the entire Royal Mile listening to the pipes. They seem determined to announce that you are soundly and squarely in Scotland, and nowhere else on Earth. The pride and energy they bring is incredible.

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First stop was to Edinburgh Castle of course. This impressive fortress, perched on the rocky hilltop, is an impressive sight. A fort in some form has stood on the site for hundreds of years. The history of the castle is long and it has been the focal point for many stories of royal struggles, but it has always been the seat of ultimate power in Scotland. As a military stronghold it does not have many beautiful embellishments but is no less interesting to explore. Currently the castle houses the royal icons of Scotland, namely the crown, sword, and scepter of the realm. The castle and its accompanying museum exhibitions were a great introduction to the history of Scotland. After exploring the castle, I visited the Whisky Experience to get an introduction to that most famous of spirits. After a brief overview of how whisky is made and the characteristics and differences of whiskies made in each region of Scotland, you are given a sample of from the region of your choosing. Once my head was filled with all of this learning, I set out to find a pub to get a more practical education.

Cannon keeping guard over the city.IMG_3541

Oldest bottles in the collection at the Whisky Experience.IMG_3554

My second day in Edinburgh was first spent exploring the shops around the Royal Mile and trying to decide what tartan souvenir I was going to bring home for myself. To give myself time to consider this important question, I took a walk to the base of King Arthur’s Seat. This is a steep, rocky hill by the shore that commands incredible views of the whole area around the city. Though not a long hike, it was definitely steep and I was met at the top with that strong Scottish wind. It is a wonderful taste of the Highlands right outside of the city. The base of the trail is not far from the Hollyrood House palace so I took a peek through the gates. Unfortunately I could not actually visit the palace since the Queen was currently in residence. Though I thought nothing of this at the time, a few days later I learned why she was in Edinburgh. She had come to open the session of the Scottish Parliament. A day later this event occurred and I had the very good fortune to catch a glimpse of her as she stepped out of her car and into the Parliament house. She was wearing a powder blue suit, complete with matching hat. She is also tiny. Honestly, HRM can’t be much more than five feet tall. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture, like I said I only caught a glimpse of her. But I swear, I saw the Queen of England.

View from part way up King Arthur’s Seat.IMG_3568

Did manage to get a picture of the crown though!IMG_3710

The next adventure took me slightly outside of the city proper. I paid a visit to the castle of Craigmillar, which sits on a lovely hill and has wonderful views of the city and shoreline. I loved this castle even more than Edinburgh for two reasons. Firstly, there were far fewer people as Craigmillar is smaller, lesser known, and on the outskirts of the city. Second, since the castle is smaller and not as popular, you can explore it in its entirety. Any room or tower that was deemed safe by staff was free range for visitors. This was the true castle experience in my mind. I obviously took far too many pictures and had a grand time imagining what it would have been like to live in the castle back in the 1500s. Craigmillar was also the first place where I really started to feel like I was following Mary Queen of Scots. She showed up everywhere I went in southern Scotland, but this castle claimed to be an especially beloved home for her. I must do more research on her life when I get home.

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View back toward the city. The big hill is King Arthur’s Seat. Can you find Edinburgh castle?IMG_3636

On my last day in Edinburgh I delved into its more recent history, specifically as related to a certain boy wizard. As JK Rowling’s home and where at least the first books were written, Edinburgh obviously played a huge role in providing inspiration for the wizarding world. I stopped by the Elephant House, that famous coffee shop where part of the Philosopher’s Stone was written, for a coffee and a share in its world changing ambiance. In the afternoon I took a free walking tour called the Harry Potter Trail. While it did not have quite as many stops as the tour in London, the guide was just as wonderful and knowledgeable. As a bonus she wore a beautiful black cloak that we were all envious of. We began in the Greyfriar graveyard where Ms. Rowling found names for some of her characters. Next door to this graveyard is also the private school her children attended and that helped inspire her vision of Hogwarts. We then moved on to other locations of inspiration or where writing occurred and learned more about her life and the years long process of Harry going from a figment her imagination to worldwide phenomenon.

Graffiti inside the bathroom at the Elephant House. The walls are completely covered with HP fandom.IMG_3724

Evenings in Edinburgh consisted of drinking. Well, not every evening, but the good ones did at least. I met a German guy in my hostel and we went out one night searching for good local beer and music. We found both and spent a couple hours at this tiny little bar where a wonderful pair was playing folk tunes. The singer was actually from Connecticut but had adopted Scotland as her new home. I had a great time singing along to everything I knew and joining in wherever I could, all while enjoying a few glasses of whisky.

Such was my amazing introduction to Scotland and I am so excited to spend a few more days in the lovely city. Until next time!

The North of England

To get back on the timeline of my trip, I was in the north of England in the last days of June and very first days of July.

 

The longest journey I have had in the UK so far was the train ride from Bath to Carlisle. This comparatively huge leap up the body of England took about six hours and required two train changes. Thankfully, I passed through the Lake District of England and got a glimpse of the wonderful scenery of that region. Rolling green hills, patchwork farms with stone walls, sheep ambling peacefully, all gave sufficient evidence as to why so many people praise the region’s beauty. Carlisle itself was not a disappointment in this area. Though I was only there for two nights, I did get a sense that the town, while small, had some lovely old buildings. I got a better sense of the surrounding countryside since this is the place from which I set out to explore Hadrian’s Wall.

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As the most northern edge of the Roman Empire, Hadrian’s Wall has no small amount of historical significance. The Emperor, Hadrian, had the wall built as a way to separate Roman controlled lands from the lands of the free peoples in the northern parts of Britain. While most people assume it was built to keep out the “terrifying hordes” of the uncivilized tribes, it was actually part of a treaty-like agreement with tribal chiefs to show that the Roman army would not advance on their territory. It did, of course, prevent the tribes from raiding the Roman-occupied lowlands. That is until the Empire weakened and Rome recalled most of its troops from the edges thus leaving its forts and towns to fall into tribal hands. Surprisingly, the Wall survived these, and all future political changes, rather well intact. Weathering over the subsequent 2000 years of course took their toll. Though originally standing nearly 10ft tall, the wall is now just under 6ft high in most places. Its width has also lessened. But it is still an impressive sight, at least in the area that I visited. Other places have seen more deterioration or destruction as people used the stones from the Wall to build their homes or other structures.

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The area I visited is one of the better-preserved spots of the wall. In fact, soil has built up on top of one section and there is a thick turf of grass right on top of the Wall. The Wall is wide enough that you can actually walk on top, an opportunity I did not pass up. This part of the Wall also sits along the edge of a cliff face. On southern facing side, there are rolling farmlands and it is obvious the area has been more densely populated for a longer period of time. The northern facing side, looking toward Scotland, also has farmland, but there are more forests and the landscape slowly becomes more dramatic. There are also the ruins of a large Roman fort, one of the largest in the region, that give you a glimpse into what life would have been like for soldiers on the outer reaches of the Empire.

Easy ways to get over other walls without risking sheep getting loose.IMG_3399

Anyone recognize this spot? I’ll give you a hint: it’s called the Sycamore Gap. It’s featured in the Robin Hood film where Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman have a chat here. So I’ve touched a tree that Morgan Freeman touched. This automatically makes me awesome.DSC01922

To get to the Wall from Carlisle, I had to take a local train to another, even smaller town where I caught a bus that would take me to the visitor center of the fort. After London and Bath, this very much felt like deliberately wandering into the middle of nowhere. I was a bit nervous to be going so far from my hostel on unfamiliar public transit, but all the locals and drivers were more than helpful. I spent about two hours walking along the wall and made my way back to Carlisle without any problems. To make it a true outdoor experience in England, I got caught in an hour’s worth of heavy rain so by the time I got back into town I was quite soggy. Loved the whole outing and would love to see more of the Wall in the future.

Oh and cows use the gap to get to different pastures. These ones were on their way home for the night.IMG_3410

Getting to Newcastle was a simple task of catching the same local train that runs from coast to coast on the northern edge of England. A much larger town, there was a lot more to see and do though I only stayed two nights. I cherished both of them, however, because I had booked a private room for myself, the first since I was in Denmark. Taking a break from communal sleeping dorms has been so important to help me keep my sanity on this trip.

Ornate door handle from the Durham cathedral.IMG_3436

Since the train ride from Carlisle only took a little over an hour, I got into Newcastle quite early. After checking into my hostel I spent the afternoon exploring the local castle, which creatively bears the name of Newcastle since, at the time it was built, it was the new castle for the city. Place names can tell you so much sometimes. Though a small castle with included museum, it was still fun to wander around. You could go up to the very top and stand out on the roof and one of the towers. The view over the city and river was quite good but the wind was extremely powerful so I did not stay on the roof for long. The museum also had a wonderful collection detailing life in the city of Newcastle from the middle ages until the 18th century and how the castle played important roles in the development of the city.

The Black Gate, one of the old entrances to the Newcastle fortress. Most of the walls have been destroyed over the ages. Though I love the name of the gate, it’s not as interesting as it could be. The gatehouse was given to a man whose last name was Black as a sign of prestige.IMG_3493

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Just a bit windy….IMG_3600

The one full day I had in Newcastle I actually spent in the nearby town of Durham, which was just a quick train ride away. The cathedral there, along with some of the buildings of the local university, were used as filming locations for the Harry Potter films and inspiration for the look of Hogwarts in the films. I of course visited the cathedral but because of graduation celebrations for the university I was not able to see any of those buildings. The whole town is lovely and old and sits on a spit of land surrounded on two sides by a river with accompanying forest. The only other thing I did in Newcastle was to watch Iceland embarrass England in their football match from the seclusion of my own room since it happened to have a TV. For me, this was an amusing way to spend a last night in England before heading to Scotland the next day.

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Hogwarts…IMG_3439

Oh and there’s this random sculpture of a black, vampire rabbit on top of a doorway in Newcastle. No explanation, just guards this one house.IMG_3495

Such was the end of my time in England. Until I come back, of course. Next up, my adventures in wonderful land of Scotland!

France: In Two Parts

(To FINALLY wrap up my time on the continent! It is very strange to think that I left France  nearly a month ago. I would apologize for taking so long in the writing, but I think most of you have learned by now that I have given up trying to keep a schedule and that posts will get completed when I find the spare time. I hope you are still enjoying them when they do show up! Now that I have France completed, next I can tell you about the amazing time I had in the north of England and the adventures I am having in Scotland.)

PART ONE: PARIS

Let me start off by apologizing to anyone who has ever dreamed of going to Paris or has been there and loves it. I did not have a great time in Paris. I did not have a terrible time, but throughout this trip I’ve gone to nicer cities and I’ve definitely met nicer people. Maybe someday I’ll get back to Paris and have a different experience and form a different opinion. For now, I lay out what I did in plain language because the city just did not inspire me.

I of course spent most of my time in that old district of the city that sits on the banks and islands of the River Seine. First stop was to the cathedral of Notre Dame. In truth this was the one thing I was most anxious to see and formed the majority of my desire to see Paris in the first place. Surprisingly, there is no entrance fee to get into the cathedral, which I appreciated, and the line moved quickly enough to get inside. The interior of the cathedral was not what I expected. It was probably the plainest church, architecturally speaking, that I have been in on this trip. The columns did not have beautiful carvings and there were almost no decorations of any kind. Even the pulpit and altar were not nearly as grand as I expected. The windows were the true glory of the cathedral. Any rumors you have heard in praise of the colored windows of Notre Dame I can confirm as true. For all the plainness of cathedral’s body, the colored glass more than makes up for it.

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Sorry the details are not very clear. I could not get close enough or zoom in any better. This window is really high up.IMG_2792

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Not far from Notre Dame is a little bookstore that is almost as famous as the cathedral within certain circles. It is called Shakespeare and Company and I encourage you all to look it up. It has an interesting little history. The philosophy of the place is so dedicated to the art of literature, that if you can prove that you are a struggling writer of any persuasion, you can petition to live on the site. Philosophy and potential perks aside, it is a very charming bookstore with an amazing selection set out in the classic haphazard style of all noteworthy old bookstores. There are even reading rooms up in the attic where those seeking a few moments solitude from the bustle of the city can curl up surrounded by a fabulous collection of old tomes. It is the ideal book lover’s paradise. There is also a small café whose service and food are quite commendable.

On another rainy day (I had almost nothing else whilst in Paris) I made the journey to the Eiffel Tower. It is indeed an impressive sight though finding a good view of it proved to be difficult. There were guards and barricades set up all over the base of the tower and blocking off a good portion of the parkland. I assumed this was partially normal and partially to deal with the increase of visitors due to the European football tournament. I was able to cross the river and stand on the raised end of another park to get a decent view of the tower. From there it was a fairly easy walk to the Arc de Triomphe and that crazy rotary road that surrounds it. I saw people standing right under the arc but I never did figure out how they got there. Paris is a huge city and walking between just the most famous monuments is very tiring. By the time I had explored this part of the city I was ready to head back to my hostel for a rest.

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View of the tower while walking to the Arc. Such a classic Parisian image.IMG_2813

Arc de Triomphe!IMG_2816

Probably the most interesting thing I did in Paris was visiting the catacombs. This is an experience I can recommend to anyone. Unless you have issues with narrow tunnels, then probably best not to go. The audio guide gives a very interesting account of the history of the catacombs, how they were built and what they were used for. There are several tunnels that must be walked through before you actually reach the burial chambers that are so famous. These are worth the walk. The first impression is of mild horror and revulsion. No animal enjoys being faced with piles of its dead brethren. But after a few minutes being so surrounded as you are by the carefully piled bones, you adjust to the sight and even begin to appreciate the peace and respect of the place. The staircase at the end of the tour is a little daunting. It is naturally a spiral staircase and it takes so long to climb it that I started getting a little dizzy by the time I reached the surface. Anyone who visits Paris should definitely take the time to see the catacombs.

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“Stop! This is the empire of the dead.”IMG_2823

The remains of thousands of people line these tunnels.IMG_2832

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On another grey and dreary day I climbed up the hill of Monmartre so see Sacre Cour and the view over the city. Sacre Cour is a lovely cathedral with huge murals on the ceiling and walls along with other adornments in precious stone. Photographs are not allowed, unfortunately. This seemed to be a theme for all of the most beautiful churches and cathedrals in Europe. I shall do my best to describe the interior. It has the most open floor plan I think I have seen. Churches are often described as having a womb-like feeling and this was especially true of Sacre Cour. The short entranceway immediately opens into a huge domed atrium that is directly connected to another dome that rises above the altar. There are small shrines that are tucked to the sides of these circular centers. The whole cathedral is rounded rather than angular. It feels like a giant stone embrace and though it is no less grand than other cathedrals, it has a much more loving atmosphere. I had the good luck to hear nuns doing a call and response reading. Their soft lilting voices warmed the space even more. A very lovely cathedral indeed.

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After taking in the view over the city, which is one of the best to be had, I strolled down to the graveyard where Oscar Wilde is buried. The grave marker is a horridly huge block of stone with a winged figured carved into one end. It’s terribly strange. The whole stone is also surrounded by glass. There is a very specific reason for this. Local legend holds that any woman who kisses the stone will be married within the year. I have no idea how this legend started, but at one point the stone was so covered with lipstick that it had to be thoroughly cleaned and the protective glass put in place. There are even signs asking visitors not to kiss the glass since even that has had to be cleaned. Still, a few amorous marks could be found off on one corner. Not wishing to take any chances with either cemetery guardians or matrimony, I did not kiss the glass.

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The very last thing I did in Paris was to pay a visit to the Louvre. I swear this museum is endless. Grand hallways lead to large chambers with small anterooms all of which have their own collections of painting, ceramics, or sculpture. There are even several atriums filled with huge and beautiful sculptures. After several hours of what felt like perpetual walking, I finally admitted that I would not be able to see even half of the massive museum. The scale of the place and its surrounding grounds is enormous. Several days could be spent in this one small part of Paris.

That most famous courtyard.IMG_2911

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Napoleonic apartments. That chandelier was the size of a small car, there were several others in the room as well. IMG_2916

Such beautiful white stone throughout the whole palace.IMG_2918

My favorite sculpture, nymph stung by a scorpion. Loved the way she glowed and her expression is so different from most other female figures.IMG_2908

As a final note about Paris, I did try to go visit Versailles. However, in true French fashion, it was closed due to a strike. To correct this disappointment alone I will have to visit Paris again in the future.

 

PART TWO: LYON

My first stop in France was in the southern city of Lyon. The train ride from Brussels took me through some of the loveliest farm country. The whole landscape was a soft patchwork blanket of grasses, stone fences, small, shrubby trees, and very content looking sheep and cows. Lyon itself, though not in the extreme south of France, felt so much like Italy that for a moment I felt like I was back at the start of my journey. The heat, the color of the buildings, the loud, expressive people, all so vastly different from the northern Europeans I had grown accustomed to over the past few months. The connection to Italy was strengthened when I climbed up to a lookout point on my second day in the city. Lyon was a Roman town and the layout of the city so strongly mimicked Rome I nearly laughed.

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There is honestly not that much to do in Lyon. There are some Roman ruins at the top of the hill at one end of town. These turned out to be a set of theaters that are still used today, with the addition of removable modern structures of course. There was a small museum attached to these ruins but I did not care to visit it. At the top of the hill there was a beautiful cathedral, whose name escapes me now, but it commanded an impressive view of the city and was a landmark you could see from nearly anywhere down in the valley.

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The only other activity of consequence in Lyon was walking to the large park just outside the center of the city. There is a very nice botanical garden and a little zoo inside the park, both of which are free of charge, and I spent a pleasant afternoon wandering around in the sunshine.

The other cathedral in town that I visited. Did not look like much from the outside, but inside…IMG_2688

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Gotta love that light!IMG_2701

As I said, there was not much to do in Lyon other than trying to avoid the crowds of football fans (Lyon was one of the cities playing host to the Euro 2016 football tournament). I spent the rest of my time relaxing in my hostel and making friends with other guests. Such was my experience of southern France.

Until next time!