Wednesday, 27 April 2011

April 27, 2011 - The Highlands

I've always been a sucker for mountains reflecting into crystal clear lakes, but I think it's safe to say that I have officially lost my heart to Scotland.  This country is beautiful!
Yesterday, Susan Gavin and I spent the day touring around Edinburgh, and what busy tourists we were!  We began the day with a visit to Rosslin Chapel.  This is a relatively small church filled with incredibly ornate carvings throughout the 500 year old limestone interior.  The curator tour guide explained that there used to be about 10,000 visitors each year to this chapel, but then Dan Brown wrote a book, upon which Richie Cunningham based a movie staring a very serious looking Tom Hanks, and now 130,000 visitors make their way to the chapel each year.  It's well worth the trip - you could easily spend years just staring at the carvings in the walls.
Another of our stops was Mary King's Close, a tour of Edinburgh's underground.  Although the tour guide was just slightly on the cheesy side, it was interesting to see how the closes, houses and businesses were set up in early Edinburgh, and it became very evident why disease was so prevalent in the Old Town.
Today, I began a 3-day tour of the Highlands with Haggis Adventures, a sister company to Shamrocker Tours (which I toured with in Ireland). 
We began with a stop at the Wallace Monument in Stirling, where our tour guide gave a very descriptive account of William Wallace's key battles (and pointed many of the historical inaccuracies in the movie "Braveheart"... this continued on throughout the day). 
Next stop was the beautiful Glencoe - a deep rolling valley surrounded by huge mountains and waterfalls.  Although the landscape is absolutely stunning here, the history of Clan MacDonald in this area is perhaps not.  Another very graphic story from our tour guide ensued.  I was diggin' it... some of the more squeamish on the bus - not so much.
Our third hike of the day was in Glen Nevis, along the foot of Ben Nevis.  No gory history here, just more amazing scenery in the shadows of Britain's highest peaks.  The fields are dotted with heather brush (which is brown now, but for two weeks of the year will be purple/blue).  The gorse is golden yellow, and the leaves on the trees are out in full now.  I spotted a handful of red deer, and we continue to drive past lots of sheep and cows - only now they are Highland cattle rather than crossbred beef animals or Holstein heifers.  (Crispin would be in heaven here, Cait!)
Our hostel for the tonight and tomorrow is in Fort Augustus, which is on the edge of Loch Ness.  After supper this evening, a few of my travel mates and I walked down to the loch to take a look.  The water was so still and clear that it was just begging to be paddled upon... but alas, no canoes in ready sight (sigh)!

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

April 26, 2011 - Talking to Strangers

Remember when your kindergarten teacher told you not to talk to strangers?  That was a load of bull, my friends.
Having left London, I took the train to Newcastle, which evidently is the Hen/Stag Party capital of the United Kingdom, if not the world.  This was evident by the throngs of high-heeled, mini-skirted, sash and bunny ear wearing squealing crowds running into and out of pubs at record speed throughout Easter weekend.  And the girls were out of control, too!  I stayed in Jesmond, a suburb of Newcastle, just a simple Metro ride from the city centre, equally well served with pubs and hotels, but on a slightly more economical scale. 
My first day in the area, I spent the day exploring the Roman ruins well north of town.  I took the train to Hexham, followed by a bus out of town to explore Hadrian's Wall (or as Carolyn would call it, "The Hey, Adrian! Wall").  Hadrian was a Roman Ruler who built this wall to protect his empire and keep the Britons out... Hadrian's Wall still exists in some form along with footprints and ruins of some of the milecastles and other houses along the way. 
The first place I alighted the bus included an excellent stretch of Hadrian's Wall, as well as the Housestead Ruins.  I did not enter the Housestead Ruins as an additional admission was required, but I explored the Wall, which now is used as the fence for a sheep pasture.  If the wall was good enough to keep the Britons out, it should be good enough to keep some sheep in!
Walking back to the bus stop, I recognized a young woman who had also gotten off the bus at the same time I had about an hour earlier.  She and I began to compare notes about the ruins, the weather, our travel plans, and before I knew it, we were travel companions for the rest of the day. 
My new travel companion and I next stopped at the Roman War Museum where we watched a 3-D movie about the history of Hadrian's Wall.  3-D glasses do not fit over regular glasses, nor do they work if you require regular glasses to see in the first place.  Good film.  I think.
After the movie, we went to the museum in the cafe to wait for the bus and continue visiting.  I should explain that the bus only comes around once every 75 minutes, and this particular stop did not have much more than a 25 minute 3-D film to offer.  We were so caught up in conversation, that we missed the bus by 30 seconds.  So naturally, we picked up our backpacks and ran hell bent for leather, chasing after the bus, screaming at the top of our lungs.  OK, so the bus makes a hairpin turn on it's route and passes the stop again in 5 minutes, but we didn't know that.  We looked pretty cool. 
We laughed all the way to the train station, and then parted ways.  If you're going to talk to strangers, maybe exchange names at some point in the day-long conversation...
I have now arrived in Edinburgh, and I must say that I have fallen in love with this country!  I was greeted at the train station by Susan, my dad's cousin, who took me to her house before she had to report to work.  Susan lives literally steps from Hollyrood Park.  Just outside her door is an extinct volcano, the exploration of which was my first order of business.  Having summited the volcano, I could see the most incredible view of the city of Edinburgh.  Susan was able the finish work early, and spent the afternoon walking along the Royal Mile and around the city core sourcing places to visit today. 
Leaving Scotland to the tail end of the trip was definitely a good idea!
Stay tuned...

Friday, 22 April 2011

April 22, 2011 - It's the name of the bell, you know

Well, having said "beannacht" to the wonderful country of Ireland, it was time to return to England.  I flew from Dublin to London's Heathrow airport where I obtained an Oyster card (multi-use city transit pass) and then took the Tube into the city.  This weary traveller was greeted by a smiling Carolyn Jarman, a longtime friend from camp and youth group days.  I have been staying with Carolyn and Brad at their place in the borough of Islington for the past few nights... a welcome change from hostel dorms!

My first day in London was naturally laundry day!  Oh, and of course an opportunity to wander around the neighbourhood where Carolyn and Brad reside.  I picked out a park on a map and decided that it would be an ideal place to go and sit with my guidebooks and work out a plan for the next little while.  As I was making my way toward said park, I began to think it was odd that maps of London are printed upside down (with south going up).  Then I noticed that the sun was rising in west that morning.  I happened to glance down at the Princess Auto compass/thermometer that hangs on my day pack zipper, and wouldn't you know that it too wasn't working properly, but was off by a full 180 degrees!  So either being so close to the Prime Meridian was throwing my compass off, or, the slightly less likely scenario was that I was walking in the wrong direction.

After eventually finding a park with trees under which to sit and plan to coming week, carried on with a walking tour from one of Carolyn's "50 City Walks of London" kit, which took me down and around the Arsenal Football Stadium.  I tried to stalk some players for you, Cait, but being the day before game day, the place was deserted.

The next day was my attempt at being a super-tourist in England's capital.  Me, and every other tourist in Europe apparently.  My plan was to join a walking tour around the city, but since I don't care about Harry Potter (I know, blasphemy!), I settled for a hop-on, hop-off bus tour instead.  I was able to experience the commentary of about half a dozen different tour guides this way - some are very good at what they do (funny, charming, and kept rambling even while we were stuck in traffic), but then there were the other who just recited the necessary facts from rote, and one guy who whined about the heat and took every opportunity to point out how many more stops until his shift was over.  I actually stayed on his bus for a while, just to see how long he could complain - turns out, until the much sought after crew change finally arrived.

I stopped at the Westminster Bridge to see the Parliament Buildings and Big Ben.  An important point to note here:  "Big Ben" is actually the name of the bell which chimes inside the clock tower, not the name of the clock itself.  This will be pointed out to you many, many times throughout your visit to the city.  I saw the London Eye, but on advice from other travellers did not actually ride said ferris wheel.  Then I headed over to Buckingham Palace to elbow my way through a crowd, look at some guards and then flee the scene as quickly as possible.  

I spent most of the afternoon at the Tower of London, following a guided tour by one of the Tower's Yeomen - the lady beefeater no less!  She was hilarious!  She talked about the various towers and buildings within the Tower of London, the prisoners kept there and some of the most infamous executions.  While there, I also toured the Royal Jewels.  It amazes me that people will stand for what seems like forever outside in the hot sun in a queue, spend significant money on admission, only to push and elbow and rush their way through the actual exhibit.  Bloody tourists!  (Oh, hold on, Kettle is calling me...)

I jumped back on the bus to make my way back to an appropriate Tube station, and in doing so, saw the round-a-bout that Chevy Chase drove around in European Vacation, and also saw the MI-6 and MI-5 buildings.  Someone at the front of the bus asked what the difference is between MI-6 and MI-5, and I said, "one" (I thought this was under my breath...) The tour guide started to chuckle and didn't stop until in a panic he blurted out the trivia about the next building we passed, so he never did answer the question.  Now, if Hollywood is at all accurate (and I refuse to live in a world where it's not), that would suggest that one is for covert operations and the other is for overt operations.  But clearly Wikipedia will need to be consulted here.

Having had my fill of overcrowded, overheated metropolises, yesterday I took the train to Bath for a day trip.  I toured the Bath Abbey, which has a rich history of being destroyed or deteriorating and then rebuilt over and over again.  The most recent renovations took place from 1991-2000.  I then toured the Roman Baths and Pump House.  The audio tour was complete with bonus commentary from Bill Bryson... I was very excited about this, and may have squealed in delight (but naturally blamed it on the 5 year old conveniently standing behind me).  The architecture around the Roman Baths is quite interesting, as is the history behind it, but the pool itself is fed by water from the only hot spring in Britain, and has been left stagnant, untreated and fully exposed to the elements for decades upon decades.  The only creatures who enjoy this water now are thousands of species of algae.  

While in Bath, I also took in the Botanical Gardens and the downtown square.  Although Bath is a tourist destination, the crowds were much more manageable and generally well behaved compared to the day before.  The train ride back to London was also quite lovely, looking out over the fields of canola in bloom, and happy sheep and cattle on pasture.

Today is my final day in London, and then I head northward this evening.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

April 18, 2011

The last few days have presented many, many contrasts for our little tour group here in Ireland.  When I last wrote, I was in Galway.  From there, our Shamrocker bus made our way from the Republic of Ireland into the United Kingdom - that is to say we headed into what is widely known as Northern Ireland.  The transition from the ROI to the UK is very quiet.  Suddenly the road signs are in miles rather than kilometers and they are only in English, and restaurants and stores ask for Pounds Sterling rather than Euros.  Some neighbourhoods are decidedly United, with curbs and lamp posts painted blue, white and red, while other communities are clearly Republican.  It's somewhat odd, and yet I'm told even a year ago the atmosphere was much more tense than it is now.  This is progress.
Our first night in Northern Ireland was in the town of Enniskillen.  Our tour guide arranged for the group to take a booze cruise that evening.  We walked down to the waterfront and boarded the boat, and began our nautical tour of Enniskillen.  Everything was going well - Roy and Pam finally set a date for their wedding and Meredith won the limbo competition, but then Michael took the mic and started making an analogy about how Dunder Mifflin was the boat and the boat was sinking, and then things got out of hand.  Or maybe I saw that on TV once.  But I am sure that what did happen was our boat took us out to a tiny island to explore the ruins of Devenish Monastery, a 13th Century Abbey.  The ruins included  church, a house, a tower and a cemetery.  It was very cool to explore these ruins as the sun was setting.
The next day, we headed for the town of Derry, aka Londonderry, aka the Walled City, aka Slash City, aka the Maiden City, for a walking tour with a man named Martin McCrossan.  Martin talked about the long history of the city, from the 1689 siege by England lasting 105 days up to the very recent war between Protestants and Catholics.  We saw the wall which was built to divide the city in the '60s and heard about the thousands and thousands of people killed in bombings and shootings during the last 50 years.  Derry is filled with giant murals depicting the protests and casualties and waring within the city.  Our walking tour ended at the "Bloody Sunday" Memorial where we heard about the two inquiries which took place into the events surrounding that day which injured 26 and killed 14 - the second inquiry only finished last year, but brought about a dramatic sense of relief and calm to the residents of Derry.
Needing some time the digest all that we learned from Martin McCrossan in Derry, our group headed to The Giants Causeway.  This is a geolocial feature along the coast which is so unique and fascinating, I can't really describe it and do it any justice.  Think huge hexagonal patio stones which have been pushed upwards into columns of different heights.  It was weird, but so cool.  Google it - you'll see what I mean.  From the Giant's Causeway we made our way to the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge - a rope suspension bridge 20m in length, 10m over the ocean connecting the mainland to a tiny island.  From the way people were freaking out, I was getting pretty excited to cross the bridge, but frankly, I think it was a bit oversold.  Maybe if you're afraid of heights it would be a more harrowing experience.  The view from the island on the other side did not disappoint, however!  Definitely worth waiting in the queues for that view of the ocean, and Scotland in the distance!
The final day of our Shamrocker tour began in the city of Belfast, with a Black Cab tour to learn about the violent political history of this Northern Ireland city.  Again, Belfast is spotted with giant murals along Falls Road (in the Catholic community) and Shankhill Road (in the Protestant community) showing important figures in the peace process of this region.  We also stopped at the ironically named "Peace Wall" which is 30 miles long (although broken up so that streets can run through it) and easily 50' high.  This wall was built between Falls Rd and Shankhill Rd to separate the Catholics and Protestants, and even though the waring has come to an end, these two communities largely remain segregated to this day.
Belfast is filled with fences and gates, especially around the centre of town, and houses and businesses still have bars on their windows (many windows are plexi-glass rather than actual glass...).  These fences are now opened for regular hours each day as the peace process in Belfast continues.  A tourmate asked why the fences are still needed at all, since the warring has stopped in Northern Ireland, and we were reminded that this is a process of changing behaviours and long entrenched beliefs - it is not a simple as throwing open the gates and saying, "OK everyone, you're all friends now!"  The majority of the 4700+ casualties in the city of Belfast were a result of "tit-for-tat" bombings and shootings.  You can't change that over night.
So there we were, learning about history which was still very much still happening.  A huge contrast to the majority of the other history I have been taking in on this adventure which has all happened hundreds and hundreds of years ago.  It was so sad, yet the residents of Belfast are incredibly optimistic and adamant that things will NEVER go back to the way they were.
Now I am back in Dublin, exploring the city, and preparing for a flight back to England.  Ireland has been great, and I am already making plans for my return...

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

April 14, 2011

If you ever go across the sea to Ireland,
Then maybe at the closin' of your day
You will sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh
And see the sun go down on Galway Bay.

Or how 'bout this one:

Well, I took a stroll on the old Long Walk 
 Of a day -I-ay-I-ay 
 I met a little girl and we stopped to talk 
 Of a fine soft day -I-ay-I-ay 
 And I ask you, friend, what's a fella to do 
 'Cause her hair was black and her eyes were blue 
 And I knew right then I'd be takin' a whirl 
 'Round the Salthill Prom with a Galway girl 

Hey, guess where I am right now?  Galway... I much prefer this city to Dublin.  It has a more relaxed pace and small-town atmosphere even though it is overrun with international tourists and businesses.  The "old Long Walk" that Steve Earle refers to in Galway Girl is the pier in town, which is the longest on the island.  People would walk the length of it and then kick the end of the wall on the pier for good luck - a few tourmates and I gave this a whirl last evening when we rolled into town, just to see if it was song worthy.  We also went to a pub off the Salthill Prom to listen to some Trad Music after dinner... Mr. Earle was definitely onto something.

Yesterday was a rainy, rainy day.  Moreso than the usual "liquid sunshine" that periodically graces our bus windows, but rather it was a cold, hard rain.  Real, storied Irish weather.  Our first stop of the day was to Poulnabrone Portal Tomb in the Burren, a rocky, creviced area of the country known to be overrun with fairies and leprechauns.  

We made a pit stop to a local pub to wait out the rain and hopefully allow some of the fog to lift, and then it was off to the Cliffs of Moher.  These Cliffs are amazing, breathtaking, beautiful, stunning, and altogether inspiring.  Although there was some fog to work through, it just added to the eerie awesomeness of these incredible cliffs rising 214m out of the raging Atlantic.  Following our visit to the Cliffs, we carried on through the Burren, and into Galway, including a view of Galway Bay.  

Today our Shamrocker tour group took public transit followed by a ferry over to Inis Mor (Aran Islands), for a day of exploring the island.  There are bike rentals available, or visitors can hire a horse and cart tour, or a seat on a tour bus.  One of my roommates and I decided we would explore the island on foot.  Aran Island is filled with rock fences dividing the landscape up into tiny little paddocks.  There are almost no trees, only thousands and thousands of miles of rock fence, hundreds of years old.  There is a seal colony which calls the island home, an interesting lighthouse, and Dun Aonghasa, a 3000 year old fortress built on the edge of a 300-foot cliff.  Aran Island is a Gaeltacht population (Irish speaking), and the locals are either fishermen or cater to we, the spoiled tourists.  The island is also known for the Aran Sweaters - back when the fishery was the only industry on the island, each island family had it's own unique sweater pattern of cables etc. stitched into their woolen sweaters so that individuals could be easily identified to their family... particularly if they fell victim to a shipwreck.  Nice, eh?  The island is beautiful, the weather was perfect, and it was excellent to have a day full of physical activity.  Our entire group is pooched tonight after playing hard all day on Inis Mor.

Boys I ain't never seen nothin' like a Galway girl.

April 9, 2011

The beauty of travelling alone is that you can adjust your schedule on a whim and nobody cares.  I'm in Horley now... where is Horley?  About a 10 minute bus ride from the Gatwick airport - handy, as I am flying to Dublin tomorrow.  I decided I'm not going to Bath anymore (the city, not the practice), as I spent an extra night in Salisbury.  I'm diggin' the small towns and country side, and I have made dodging big cities into somewhat of a sport.
Salisbury was great.  While there, I took a bus out to Stonehenge to verify the accuracy of the stock desktop photo on the farm computer.  On the way, the bus passed a pasture full of the biggest pigs I have ever seen... at first I thought they were large square straw bales, then as we got closer maybe overfed charolais bulls, but indeed just massive pigs (yup, my eyesight is THAT good!). 
After Stonehenge, I jumped off the bus at Old Sarum, which was the original townsite for what is now Salisbury.  Old Sarum is essentially recovered ruins of a castle built by William the Conquerer as well as the footprint for the adjoining cathedral.  Climbing through the ruins reminded me a lot of when the boys and I used to climb around the old stone barn foundation - only I would have gotten in a lot of trouble had I dug any stones out of these walls...  although that would have been cool, as the walls were made mostly of flint stones (yes Curtis, Fred, Barney and Wilma, but no sign of Betty). There were very few people at the Old Sarum when I was there, and the site is flanked by sheep and horse pastures, so I revelled in the peace and quiet and spent an extra long time there.
The real drawing card of Salisbury is the Salisbury Cathedral, home of the tallest spire in Britain, the oldest (possibly only?) working medieval clock, as well as the best preserved copy of the Magna Carta.  The Cathedral was huge, lavish, and inside was filled with 800 year-old burial tombs... everywhere - in the walls, in the floor, and as independent monuments.  Sue, this was definitely not a "running" church!  It was very strange to walk around on top of all of the tomb stones.  At one point, one of the tour guide volunteers walked up to me and asked if I had a camera.  Thinking I might be busted, I confessed that yes, I did, but I was keeping it safely in my bag.  "Well, pull it out and take some pictures!"  OK, so not a museum as much as a living church.
I have been loving travelling by train.  I get to see so much more countryside and farmland this way... OK, and one heavyset, elderly topless lady, but you know, noone likes tanlines!  The only glitch to not having a rental car is that it takes a lot more creativity to get myself to the out of town attractions, but so far I haven't done too badly.
Tomorrow I head to Dublin, and spend the next 8 days touring Ireland on a hostel-based bus tour.  Should be fun, could be crazy.

April 6, 2011

I arrived in Gatwick, England after a 7 hour flight around noon yesterday.  The plane was late arriving into Toronto, and therefore we were delayed leaving by about 90 minutes or so.  Air Transat sure likes to pack their patrons onto their planes, especially in Economy class.  I had the brilliant forethought to request an aisle seat, and therefore my elbow and/or shoulder was banged every time a flight attendant passed by.  Seriously, the seats and aisles were tighter than those of West Jet planes... but to make up for it, I sat next to a very friendly man who was returning to his native Belfast for the second time in 45 years to surprise his brother at his niece's wedding.  This fellow used to be a professional soccer player and lived in both Edinburgh and London before finally moving to Grimsby (why, he did not elaborate), so he gave me a list of pubs to visit in both cities as they were his regular stomping grounds back when he "had hair longer than mine."
When the plane was landing my ears neglected to pop, but they did start to ring and begin to fill with a piercing pain.  I wasn't sure if my new former soccer playing friend and I were quite at the stage in our relationship where I could ask him if he could check if my eardrums had actually burst, but I was pretty sure that if he saw blood running onto my shoulder (and thus his) he would probably say something.  My ears still did not pop or stop ringing as I approached customs... try sounding even a little coherent and remotely intelligent to a border officer when everyone sounds like Charlie Brown's Teacher!
Once I made my way through customs, I took a train south to Brighton, a crazy touristy town on the coast of the English Channel.  I had two hours before I was to check into the B&B I had reserved, so I thought I would take a walk around town and get an idea of the layout of the area.  It seems my terrible sense of direction is not limited to North America... I spent two full hours trying to find the street where this B&B is which was repeatedly described to me as being "just 5-10 minutes that way."  Eventually, with the help of a friendly McDonald's manager and later a Boots pharmacist I tracked down the elusive street and checked in.  But I proceeded to get lost FIVE more times before the day was over.  On the other hand, I am pleased to announce that British motorists have yet to kill me, and I have given them ample opportunity, as I constantly look the wrong way first when crossing the street and I have no members of the Alan family tugging on my t-shirt this trip.
Today, I spent the day wandering around town some more (although I haven't made my way back to the B&B yet, so who knows if Charlotte Street has been moved yet again!), and toured the Brighton Pavilion (Prince Regent George IV's "play house").  I've concluded that I definitely do not want to live in a palace any time soon, nor be a tour guide for French middle school tour groups.  Other than that, just lots and lots of walking... which is a good thing, given my new found love for Cornish Pasties!
Tomorrow I am heading to Salisbury for a while, and then slowly making my way back toward Gatwick.  On Sunday I fly to Dublin to play in Ireland for 8 days.
I think that's about it for now.  I made it here alive and in one piece, caught up on sleep last night.