Hi Everyone! I'm back and suffering from a certain amount of jetlag (but since that means I woke up at 6:00am with absolutely no effort, I'm actually not really complaining. I hope it keeps up!). It's a little scary to return to the wild, wonderful world of the internet, the hundreds of emails and tweets, feeling that I missed an entire generation in internet time, etc. But I promised I would tell everyone where I was going when I got back, and the answer is: the United Kingdom, with a stop in Edinburgh and an entire week spent hiking the length of Hadrian's Wall. I know I missed seeing a lot of you in the UK, and I'm really sorry! I would love to plan an entirely different trip just to see everyone! But really, sometimes you need to really get away all together, you know?
Anyway, here we go: The UK (in limited areas) Part 1.
Day 1: And we're off!
We're off to the UK! Edinburgh for a few days, and then we'll be hiking (or as they say in the UK, "walking") Hadrian's Wall. It's a combination of all the things we love best: history, nature, hiking, and beer.
Hello, London! Goodbye, London! We flew to Heathrow, and after a 5 hour turnaround (which, by the way is pretty miserable when you can't sleep on planes, and when your terminal has no water fountain...wtf?) landed in Edinburgh! As we left the train station, you could actually hear strains of bagpipe music in the air. I'm not making that up, and it's not necessarily an atmosphere thing...it's because they have bagpipe buskers on the streetcorners. 🙂
It's a beautiful city, though since we had to hike with our full packs up and down the steep parts of the Royal Mile to get out to the Bed and Breakfast...maybe we didn't think it quite so compelling at the time.
Bed and Breakfasts in the UK are interesting affairs. In the US, we associate "Bed and Breakfast" with artfully decorated, highly luxurious country homes and astronomical prices. In the UK, the range is much wider. Sometimes you get that artful luxurious country home, and sometimes you get what basically amounts to a guest house, with twin beds and a bathroom you're sharing down the hall. Of course, those are less expensive, but sometimes you end up rating the B&B by the number of spiders you find (final rating for the one in Edinburgh, 2 stars with three taken off for spiders). But it's ok, because we're here to see things, not spend time in a B&B.
We hiked to the B&B, dumped our bags, and immediately hiked back out again, to a restaurant called "The Dogs". The NY Times apparently loved it recently, and so did we! I tried haggis! I guess it was high class style haggis (the restaurant has a Michelin star), but it was GOOD! Great even!
Afterward, even though it was past 8pm, we still had several hours of daylight. The days are long in Scotland's summer, the sun sets around 10pm finally (after a very long twilight), and you start seeing daylight again around 5am. We took advantage of the time left to head to Calton Hill, up to the National Monument up there.
We got some great views of the city.
As well as of the Salisbury Cliff, behind which is Arthur's seat, the highest spot in the city (which, by the way is built on a very long dead volcano).
The National Monument itself (though you can't see from that angle) had a side opposite where you could climb up and sit, which was filled with drinking teenagers. And of course, at the top of the hill you can walk Hume's Walk, as required by a philosophy major. At this point, the light was finally fading, and we realized we'd been awake something like 32 hours. Time to collapse on something far better than a cramped airplane seat.
Day 2: Castles on Palaces on Castles
First things first. We woke up to this:
Edinburgh is famous for its castle, and it should be! It's stunning from any angle, and we took pictures from most of them.
But it has to be said. Usually there's a plaza in front, but it was full of stands for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a huge band festival. With the castle high on the cliffs, and the big stands in front of it...well it kind of looked like Hogwarts and the Quidditch pitch.
Once it has been seen it can't be UNseen. And after a while we were directing ourselves around the city in reference to the Quidditch pitch.
After starting off with a full English Breakfast (Consisting of one egg, bacon, sausage, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, and cold toast. I do not understand why the toast needs to be cold. For the record, I am for UK bacon over US bacon. The US bacon is more like crispy fried fat strips, while the UK bacon has a more country ham consistency. I really like that), we headed out to see the castle! We were warned there would be rain, but when it started it was NOT joking around. Thunder and lightning galore, and by the time we joined the line for castle tickets, we were soaked to the skin (expect where our excellent new raincoats were involved. An essential UK travel purchase. Umbrellas are entirely useless here). But at least it let up a little by the time we got "inside" the castle, which is good, because the castle is not really "inside". It's a high wall and towers with more towers and buildings inside it.
Side note: If you travel like me, you usually carry a small backpack instead of a purse. And it's probably not waterproof. When it rains, make sure your raincoat is big enough to fit you AND the backpack/purse. Trust me. Barring that, you can also put everything INSIDE the bag in plastic, which is probably a good idea to protect your passport, etc, anyway.
The castle is lovely, it's just what you always imagined castles should be like. The Platonic ideal of castles. The hill it sits on is incredibly ideal, a random flat-topped cliff rising out of a relatively flat area, with good views in all directions and only one way to approach it easily. With a site like that, it's no wonder it's been in use since the Neolithic.
We saw lots of great historical stuff, and got a few surprises.
1) William Wallace (that's Braveheart) wore armor, did not wear a kilt, and didn't look anything like Mel Gibson (Mel Gibson was about 6 inches too short).
2) Mons Meg, the GIGANTIC cannon that could shoot a 300 lb ball 2 MILES was built in...the 1400's. It's that old.
3) Macbeth was a real king! Not just a Shakespeare play! And apparently he wasn't that terrible.
4) Mary, Queen of Scots, apparently played golf.
We also saw the "Honours", aka, the Crown jewels, which are older than England's (Cromwell melted down England's during the Protectorate, but the Scots were able to hide theirs in time, and then they remained locked in a chest for over 100 years until they were discovered, still intact). The museum leading up to the Honours also contains a full history of the Scottish Monarchy, with life sized paintings and finally full size statues.
There was also a little reenactment involving Mary, Queen of Scots (the hands down most famous of the Scottish monarchs, followed closely by Bonnie Prince Charlie, James VI and I, and Robert the Bruce), and the many troubles during her reign. Amusingly, while Mary was detailed all the problems associated with her Frenchness, her religion, her issues with the Scottish lords, and her marriage, they tried to compare her favorably with Elizabeth I, who was, apparently badly off because she was bald. Or something.
The reenactment was in the gorgeous Great Hall of the castle, which was built for James IV's marriage to Margaret Tudor (the parents of James the V, and grandparents of Mary, Queen of Scots). It now has an impressive arms collection (including one of the great 6 foot broadswords). There's also the room nearby where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI and I (VIth of Scotland, Ist of England, succeeded Elizabeth I).
Part of the castle has been turned into a very moving memorial for all the Scotsmen (and women) fallen in war, listed by name from WWI on. It's got really interesting stained glass as well, complete with stained glass blimps and stained glass planes.
Finally, we visited what is now a barracks (Edinburgh castle is still in military use), to see the history of the the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. They used to be a cavalry unit, but now, cavalry units mean tanks. The Scottish dragoons are most famous for one of their members, Charles Ewart, capturing the Imperial Eagle standard from Napoleon's men at the Battle of Waterloo. In fact, Edinburgh Castle itself housed many French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars, who are responsible for the cobblestones which now pave the interior of the castle.
We stayed in the castle long enough to be completely deafened by the sound of the 1 o clock gun (a gun that goes off at, you guess it, 1pm, to signal to ships in the firth). They'd use a light, but the cloud cover (as was amply demonstrated that day) is often so bad that you'd never see it. So you need a really loud gun.
Then we were still very cold and damp, and wanted something warming. We headed down the hill to Wagamama! It's a chain noodle bar, but when I was living in the UK as a kid, it was my absolute FAVORITE place to go.
Once we were warm and finally dry, we hiked to the OTHER end of the Royal Mile (the street on which all the touristy stuff is in Edinburgh, the High Kirk, the Castle, the souvenir shops, the overpriced pubs...), to the Palace at Holyrood House.
The Palace at Holyrood House is a former Abbey that is now the royal residence of the Queen when she's around. Most of it is open to visitors (I was stunned by how nice it was to go in, actually, no searches, I could bring in my water. You know you can keep your shoes on at the airport there, too!), especially the areas renovated by Charles I and II, and the rooms used by Mary, Queen of Scots. It's really, really stunningly lovely. Great audiotour as well. The ruined Abbey which is next to and behind the palace as especially gorgeous in that brooding, Gothic, ruined way.
Afterward, we headed to a little tea shop for some fortification. I LOVE scones and was really looking forward to...what do you MEAN YOU ARE OUT OF SCONES?!?!?!?! There has to be some sort of tradition that when someone in the UK runs out of the scones, the sky falls, or something. I fly across the freakin ATLANTIC for a good scone and they were OUT?! The waitress mollified me with a Rockbun. It was ok. It was not a scone. The tea was good though.
(They haunt my dreams. You will be mine. Source)
But we needed the fortification, because we used the rest of the afternoon to climb up to Arthur's seat.
The trail was steep, but not that bad. And short. The view was lovely, though it was so foggy that none of the pictures turned out. I was hugely jealous, as we came down, to see tons of evening runners running up and down the paths. Sadly, my running shoes were on the other side of the ocean. 🙁
We went in search of a beer, stopping first at THIS cafe.
Sure. It looks like a normal cafe, but it is the cafe where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book!!! I would not be a true fan (and yes, I really am), if I didn't stop by and pay my respects.
We ended up at the Bow Bar, and found good beer and fun company. We found a random pizza place for dinner (it may have only been two days, but we'd had QUITE enough meat. Scotland has a lot of meat. Meat pies. Meat for breakfast, meat for lunch, meat on your meat. Meat in your meat. Would you like some meat with that meat?), and collapsed into bed. We THOUGHT we'd have an early night...but it really fools you when it's still light at 10pm.
Extra pictures from the day:
(For Laelaps. Sadly, it looked deserted)
Check for more travel blogging soon! Science will return. I promise.