Sunday, September 8, 2013

Britain Revisited: Day 9--Final Day!

Sadly, day 9 was our last day in Scotland and in the UK in general. We decided to take this opportunity to book a day trip to Glasgow, Loch Lomond, the Highlands, and Stirling (all William Wallace territory for Braveheart fans). We had wanted to do Loch Ness, but it was a 12 hour tour, and we didn’t want to arrive back at 8:00 at night when everything was closed. 
I really encourage anyone who has just a few days in a particular city or town to take one of these day tours. It really is a great (and affordable) way to see some highlights of the terrain, and especially if you’re operating without a car, it’s a stress-free transportation method. 
It was somewhat unfortunate that our tour guide was almost impossible to understand. The poor guy had a slight speech impediment, but we were still able to at least hear him until he pulled the bus over on the side of the road and changed his microphone, worried that the one he was using wasn’t clear enough. But after he changed out the microphone, we couldn’t understand a word he said--the reception was so muffled and garbled. So we settled for sitting back and watching the beautiful scenery go by.
Once we reached Glasgow, further auditory interference occurred when a woman in the front decided to use her cell phone and put it on speaker. Noise that sounded like a distant radio station filtered through the bus, and the bus driver kindly asked if whoever was currently using their mobile phone would shut it off. Everyone looked at everyone else, wide-eyed with wonderment and suspicion (and a desperate desire to let everyone else know they weren't the offender) and the noise continued. Again, the bus driver asked if the offender would shut off their phone. Eager to ensure everyone else that they were not the culprit, people’s expressions changed to annoyance, and they craned their necks to look around ever more diligently. But the noise continued. 
Finally, the bus driver pulled the bus over to the side of the road and stopped. “There’s no point in us continuing on this journey with that sort of interference.” And we all sat, feeling like chastened children whose father had pulled the car over to the side of the road because we were acting up. Amazingly, the sounds continued to echo through the bus. 
Obviously irritated, the driver stood and marched down the aisle, searching for the rebel who dared to ignore his pleas. He found her in the second row, and although we could not hear all of what he said to her, his hand motions insinuated that he was hopping mad (I actually thought he might take the phone from her), and he ended his comeuppance with: “We can all hear your conversation! It’s broadcasting throughout the whole bus!”
Because the woman was not a native English speaker, I can only assume she did not understand what he was saying when he requested the phone call discontinue (or she was too engaged in the call). At any rate, he continued the tour with words of amiable humility. "I'm so sorry about that interruption, but it is my feeling that phone calls should be done in private." 
The tour through Glasgow was definitely a snapshot of the city. We did not exit the bus, and the entire city-at-a-glimpse took no more than 20 minutes. Glasgow is completely different from Edinburgh and its well-preserved antiquity. It feels much more modern, cosmopolitan, spread out, and …well, cityish. Although the business sector was attractive enough, I didn’t feel that I had missed anything by not spending time there. 
Soon we were back on the motorway again and headed toward Loch Lomond. Loch is the Scottish terminology for Lake, so like Loch Ness, Loch Lomond is a large lake frequented by tourists. It is really beautiful and all along the way there are castles and mansions to behold. Many of these abodes are frequented by celebrities and/or owned by people with oodles of money. Stephen and I made sure to find a seat up-top so that we could look out over the water. Everyone else had the same idea, so as we began the journey, the open-top part of the boat was jam-packed. Little by little, as the hour-long tour progressed, people began to excuse themselves to the downstairs area, as they became too cold to sit in the chilly loch air. But not us! Survivor Man and Woman were prepared! (I bought an ultra-touristy sweatshirt just the night before in preparation). We wore sweaters and long pants and brought additional jackets as well. Although I did break down and buy a cup of coffee at one point, we fared better than many.
**Just an interesting tidbit: Although we did not make it to Loch Ness, we were told that there had been another “Nessie” sighting while we were there. 

We left the loch and traveled to the highlands and a little village where we had lunch at a wool center. This was a fascinating place as it was kind of a combination of a clothing outlet (lots of inexpensive sweaters and other clothing), a petting zoo, and a dog-herding demonstration. We ate quickly so we could join the crowd outside watching a Border Collie herd ducks and sheep. I’ve seen this before, but I never tire of it. My grandfather owned several Border Collies over the years, and I know how smart these dogs are. Watching them do what they’re made to do is mesmerizing. They need very little instruction in these sheep and duck games (as they instinctively herd anything), and the “creeping” that they do is a natural, inborn trait. 
Our journey continued on into the beautiful highlands where we stopped for several photo opportunities—breathtaking hills covered in heather and thistles, and no pictures do them justice. Finally, we arrived at Stirling Castle. Stephen and I opted out of going inside, as we had already seen quite a few castles and were really more interested in finding a place to have tea or coffee. Just as we started to walk into town, however, we stopped to take  photos from the castle looking out over the town. A very nice group of Scots stopped us and askedif we wanted our picture taken, and with the most outgoing man of the group, we entered into a fifteen minute conversation. (The Scots really are SO friendly!) Turns out, this man and his wife live half the year in Florida (the cold half)and half in Stirling (the nicer-weather half). He used to be with the British armed forces, and he mentioned something about doing some commando work, in which he was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. Fascinating guy. And as he said, he and his wife were “living the dream.”  He also mimicked an outstanding American accent!

Walking into the town of Stirling, it was all down hill. So it was a lovely walk down town. Once we got into the main part of town, we were shocked to find that most of the shops were already closed. “It’s only 3:30!” I said in disbelief. “How do these people make any money if they’re closing down halfway through the day?” We did find an open restaurant, however, and had our coffee there before making our way back up hill to our bus. Not nearly so pleasant.

It was an hour or so back to Edinburgh, so we arrived a little after 5:00. We had departed the city in the fog, and when we returned, the fog over the town was as thick as ever. I was very concerned about confirming our 3 a.m. taxi for the next morning, which was to take us to the airport. Again—the phone problems ensued. I had forgotten that I had only agreed to the international data plan until the 21st of the month. That left us one day in Scotland without use of mobile devices. That included cell phone calls. I tried to use the phone in our hotel room, but I learned that I would have to give them my credit card deteails first. That sort of made me angry. I just wanted to make one 30 second local call. I couldn’t even use the calling card I had bought in London without giving them my credit card details! 
Feeling very frustrated and cut off from the world, I resolved to find a pay phone. Marching down to the lobby, I tried the pay phones on the wall, only to find that they, too, only took credit cards. Nearly demented with anxiety, I was less than calm as I demanded of the concierge if she knew of a nearby pay phone. When she said that she did not, I nearly shrieked with hysteria, but instead I snarkily replied, “Thank you for your help.”
At this point, Stephen stopped me and told me to take deep breaths because I was “getting crazy.” I knew this was true, because I actually felt my brain uncoiling, as evidenced by the irrational tears springing to my eyes. 
“Let’s pray right now to find a pay phone,” he said very calmly (I was so proud that he held it together when I was so visibly losing it!). This actually lowered my anxiety levels considerably, and as soon as we walked out of the hotel and emerged on The Royal Mile—there was a red phone box. My calling card still didn’t work with this contraption, but then this very primitive idea occurred to me. Why not actually feed change into the machine? 
My hands were shaking as I put the coins into the slot; it seemed highly unlikely this would actually work. Coins? In a pay phone? Ridiculous notion! I was amazed when I actually heard a voice on the other end of the line announcing the name of the cab company. The next morning’s ride was confirmed, and we were even more pleased to know that they would be picking us up at 4 a.m., not 3 a.m. 
I couldn’t believe how upset I had gotten over this, and I was even more perplexed by the immense relief I felt afterwards. But this was our last night in Edinburgh, and we were determined to enjoy it and not let that little episode bring us down. We ate at a pub on the Royal Mile called Rabbie Burns (a little phonetic play on the Robbie Burns pronunciation). For those of you who don’t know, Robert Burns was a very famous Scottish poet who wrote “My love is like a red, red rose…” (roll your r's and you'll have it!) This pub had some 700 hundred (I’m exaggerating) different kinds of whiskey (mostly Scotch Whiskey). Stephen tried one of the more illustrious ones, whereas I settled for a beer and fish and chips. In the whole time that we were in the UK, this was the only restaurant that didn't take our debit cards. I had to run down the street to an ATM to get cash, bypassing homeless street people with dogs (my absolute weakness). It took everything in me not to give them the whole of the 40 pounds I had just pulled from said machine. 
Afterwards we wandered in and out of tourist shops trying to decide where to spend our last half hour before we needed to get back to the hotel and get in bed if we wanted at least five hours sleep. The Fringe Festival was still in full swing and it was still impossible to make it down the road without having at least ten flyers shoved into our hands. We could hear a girl behind us handing out flyers to people as she repeated “Dirty Canadian, Dirty Canadian, Dirty Canadian,” over and over again. 
Stephen finally turned around. “What are you calling me?” 
For a brief moment, she was thrilled, thinking we were Canadian—only to be severely disappointed that we weren’t. But she gave us a free ticket to the show, which she described as involving “absolutely filthy country music.” We decided we would definitely pass on the "Dirty Canadian", and head to back over to Frankenstein’s Pub instead.  
Back at the hotel, we readied ourselves in preparation for the outrageous wake-up time. Remember that money that I felt sure we’d lost back in Wales? Well, it was still weighing on my mind heavily. I had been praying to find it, because now on our last night, we knew we would need to tip cab driver, buy food at airport, etc. I went through my purse again, all of the pamphlets we had picked up over the course of the trip, the pockets of Stephen’s jackets. No money. I finally gave up and decided not to think about it. It was gone forever. Chock it up to "the expense account."
The next morning, I found the twenty pounds in the pocket of the pants I had laid out to wear for traveling. I was overjoyed but embarrassed that I had blamed Stephen for the loss of the money. Unfortunately, I also managed to donate my sweater to the back seat of the cab just as we arrived to the airport. You find something, you lose something. Isn’t that the way it goes?
Stephen and I both agreed that this was the trip of a life time. It was good for us personally, as we had never vacationed somewhere that didn't involve family visits (save our honeymoon trip in 2007). It was wonderful to have this time to go somewhere together and just enjoy each other’s company and our surroundings. It also made me so happy that Stephen loved the UK as much as I did. He found wonder and awe in all of these places that I hold so dear, and he even expressed a desire to return and spend more time in various spots.
This was also a very healing time for me, as I mentioned before. There will always be such a special place in my heart for the United Kingdom. I love the profound effect it still has on me after so many years. Maybe it’s the fact that my family’s heritage is found in this place, or maybe it’s just an ingrained adoration for all things British. I will always want to come back here and continue to discover more about this wonderful country. When I left London in 1997, my heart was utterly broken; this time, as I left, I felt an indescribable sense of peace (minus the plane ride, of course). Almost twenty years after I first arrived in the UK, I returned to find many things were changed--many were the same, but ultimately--the world was at it should be.
I will leave this blog segment with lyrics I would never have thought to include in any of my writings before now, but there you go. That's the nature of living and learning:

"There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more
In my life I love you more"  -The Beatles

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Britain Revisited: Day 8

I’m sorry to say it, but this is the second time I’ve been to Scotland and endured terrible showers. When my mom and I visited Scotland in 2003 for Michelle’s wedding, my mother was so frustrated with the showers at our b&b, that when we returned to London, she insisted we stay in a hotel (some major chain like Hilton or Marriott or something) right by Heathrow Airport so she could have a decent shower.  I was really surprised to find that this situation was no better at The Jury’s Inn. Great hotel in other respects –within walking distance of The Royal Mile, very nice rooms, and relatively comfortable beds (although Stephen described all UK hotel beds as cardboard boxes with a sheet spread across them), and the most wonderful hot, British breakfasts (included in the cost of the hotel—yay!). But honestly, I just didn’t bother with the showers by the last day.

In order to get the water running, you have to turn this knob, flip this switch, rotate this dial—all without any knowledge of what any of the apparatuses are actually doing. We could get the water to maintain a relatively steady pressure, but it was ice cold. If we wanted hot water, we had to dance under a trickle that dripped down in one long stream. The worst of it occurred the second day. Stephen managed to get warm water running, but just as he was all lathered up—his eyes closed as the soap ran from his hair into his eyes—the water petered into a trickling stream (sort of resembling a leak from a faucet).

“Could you help me please?” he called desperately to me in the next room. But as I turned this knob and that knob, the water pressure changing only to unleash a freezing cold spray, I was forced to admit defeat. And Stephen was forced to finish his shower with ice-cold water. Having said all of this, my Scottish friends tell me that they have never experienced plumbing problems in all their years of living in Scotland, so maybe it’s just a conspiracy against tourists!

Our second day in Scotland was spent walking around the city. There really is so much to see in Edinburgh, and every sight is worthwhile. We decided to check out the National Gallery, but we never actually found a way to enter the building. Either it was closed due to the festival, or we simply never found the right entrance or the right building. Whatever the case, we had walked too far to backtrack and try to find it again. By 10:00 that morning, the streets were crawling with festival goers, and the ticket booth was near Waverley Station where the lines of people zigzagged back and forth and blocked a lot of the pedestrian activity.

Edinburgh has an old and a new section. The old section has the castle, tourist shops, pubs, restaurants, and gorgeous architecture. The new section is not far from the old (at least if you’re driving), and features many modern clothing stores, businesses, and some restaurants and pubs as well. We walked from the old section into the new, and as we had no particular place we were going, we ended up wandering—first up the street and then back down it. Soon it was raining, and we ducked inside Jenner’s (a department store somewhat reminiscent of Harrod’s, but on a much smaller and more manageable scale). By the time we left Jenner’s, it had quit raining, and we made our way back up the hill, into the old section of town, and back onto The Royal Mile, where we finally made our way into the National Museum of Scotland.

This is a truly interesting museum, as it has a little bit of everything. It’s mixture of natural history, Scottish origins and culture, and technological progress. The museum is multi-level (I think there are four or five floors) and architecturally open and very attractive. They were featuring an exhibition on Mary Queen of Scots, but that cost extra money (whereas the museum itself is free), so we skipped it. Actually, neither of us are big museum people (I think we discovered that on this trip), so we spent a little time looking at the old Victrolas and gramophones and paused for a mesmerizing 1:00 chiming of The Millennium Clock. This structure is hard to describe. All I can tell you is that it's impossible to stop watching it! There are four sections to the clock and each section moves independently at first, and then all of the animated characters move together. According to the museum, the clock is made up of “the best and the worst of the twentieth century.” With this in mind, there are human figures (including grotesques of Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin), animals (horses and monkeys), and all sorts of moving parts. Each of the four sections is representative of something, and apparently the piece is quite controversial amongst museum-goers, but I found I found it nearly hypnotic to behold. It reminded me a little of the huge clock in Melbourne that drops from the ceiling at 12:00 every day to play “Waltzing Matilda,” except the thematic material was much darker and less obvious in its intent.

We skipped the rest of the museum to find a place to eat lunch since we were starving (oh, I know—what else is new for us?). Much to my delight, just across from the museum was a pub called Frankenstein’s. You know I was all over that! I need to stop here just for a minute to express that I am not a huge Frankenstein monster lover. I actually find the monster sad and pitiful, and the story itself is tragic. What I love is the Victoria era, and the story behind the story. Mary Shelley (if you hearken back to my first blog entry about our trip, you will recall that I discussed Percy Bysshe Shelley’s wife and her demise in The Serpentine) wasn’t quite married to Percy Shelley at the time that she wrote Frankenstein, but they did marry later. As the story goes, Mary S., Percy B.S., Lord George Gordon Byron, and another bloke—John Polidori, were all hanging out together on a “dark and stormy night” in Geneva, Switzerland when Byron suggested they have a little competition as to who could write the best ghost story. Byron wrote the beginnings of a vampire novel he never finished, and Mary Shelley wrote a quiet little story about the horrors of science and the industrial age called Frankenstein. The novel was published in 1818. What has any of this to do with Scotland?  Well, nothing that I know of (although those more scholarly may correct me).  But this wonderful pub is there, and it is everything you might imagine from a pub with the name.

As we entered, I noted that the inside décor had been painstakingly ornamented to look like Victor Frankenstein’s lair. Electrical voltage emanated from circular outlets in the wall; green lights adorned the brown-paneled bar area; a statue of Frankenstein’s monster loomed in the corner; and two large screens simultaneously showed old black and white films of Frankenstein and some other movies involving Frankenstein's bride and the Wolfman. And as a bonus, the food was magnificent! I had a traditional fish and chips, and I can honestly say that it was one of the best I had the whole trip!

While sitting, we discussed what we wanted to do next, and I mentioned to Stephen that Mary King’s Close now had a tour affiliated with it (The Real Mary King’s Close is the title of the attraction).
A little bit of background information on that: When I first visited the UK in 1994 with Michelle (who was living in England at the time) she took me up to Edinburgh, and we spent a few days exploring the city. One of our explorations included a trip with Auld Reekie Tours to Edinburgh’s underground vaults. There is a long, long history with the vaults, but in an inarticulate nutshell, the vaults (chambers) held mostly storage and shopkeepers, tradesmen, etc. After flooding and disrepair, the vaults became a bevy of crime and squalor. Indeed, the dwellers had no sunlight, no fresh air, and no running water—so you can imagine the conditions this encouraged.  In the 1990s, the vaults were under construction, so when I toured them in 1994 and again in 1996, the vaults were partially unearthed but still under excavation. When I visited the underground city with Michelle, the ghost tour had strategically placed in the last room of the tour a man covered with a sheet. He jumped out with a “boo!”, scaring us all senseless on our way out. Yes, it was a nice thrill and we all laughed about it. When I went returned in 1996 with my friend, Lisa (who had come to visit me from America), I did the same tour, but this time, Lisa and I (and many others in the vault with us), experienced a dark presence (and when I say dark, I mean that it was not only an evil sensation, but it was a visible, dark, shadow-like entity) that slithered past us, causing mass hysteria and a near-trampling of the tour guide. This experience profoundly affected me, especially as it accompanied a room that had a pentagram on the wall, and we were told that witches often used that particular vault chamber for their coven meetings. The connection was not lost on me then, nor was it now as I suggested to Stephen that we return—not to the vaults per se—but to the underground of Mary King’s Close, once part of Edinburgh’s underground city.

With my previous encounter in mind, Stephen was skeptical about visiting this tourist attraction. After I read him the pamphlet, however, he was keen to go. Mary King’s Close (named after one of the inhabitants) is a close (or an alley) located under the Royal Exchange in Edinburgh. It’s actually one of several streets located in this area. It is 17th century and part of several alleyways that were covered and built-over in the modern age.  It was used in World War II as a bomb shelter, and it has also served as storage for the Royal Exchange over the years. Now it is an organized and commercial tourist attraction which begins with a gift shop and ends with souvenir pictures (really?). The tour guides are well-trained (most likely struggling actors), and unlike the stark, dark, primitive feel of the vaults (although quite honestly, the close feels a little ominous at certain points), this tour incorporates a touch of Disney Land, as the tour guides “interact” with talking pictures (video projections of bygone inhabitants) and special effects illuminate walls and project shadow figures as a disembodied voice tells a ghost story. If I had seen an amusement park train or car to transport us through catacombs mechanically animated with floating heads and talking mannequins, I would have howled with joy. But the Scots are a little more tasteful than we are about those things.

This was a truly well-done, professional tour that gave a nice glimpse of the underground city and what it might have been like to live down there in the 1600s (no thank you). I would highly recommend this tour, as it the tour guides are knowledgeable, and the stories that they have to tell about the underground city (and the fact that another city was built over top of it) are very worthwhile.

It was raining when we left Mary King’s Close (surprise!), we decided to head back to the hotel to rest before the very exciting event of meeting up with my long-time friend, Michelle.

Michelle and I went to high school together. We met in the 10th grade when we realized that we both shared a love of heavy metal music and long-haired men. (Thank you, God—for moving me on!). The last time I had seen her was in 2003 at her wedding when we’d only had about five minutes to talk.  It had been ten years since then! But when we saw each other in the lobby of The Jury’s Inn, it was like a day hadn’t passed. Michelle had not changed one iota! She looked exactly the same! (Stephen confirmed this later when we watched some video footage from 1994).

We walked to a local pub where we had dinner and reminisced about old times. I was only sorry that Stephen did not get to meet her husband, Keith, and I did not get to meet her daughter, Scarlett (Keith was babysitting), but I was very excited for Michelle to meet Stephen for the first time. Michelle is now the principal of a high school in Edinburgh, and I could not be more proud of her! She is such a charismatic, warm, and all-around beautiful individual, and I have always admired her spunk and her magnetism. Michelle, if you’re reading—you are a gem!

After a nice long dinner of comparing notes and catching up, we were off to the karaoke club to meet up with others I had not seen in ages—Shoena and Jane. These ladies were flatmates of Michelle’s back in the 90s, and I used to stay with them on my weekends in Edinburgh when I lived in London. Again, these women are unchanged. I complained about the plumbing, but perhaps there is something in the Scottish water that promotes youth? Maybe that’s why the hotel water is so stingy. It’s the best-kept Scottish secret and they don’t want it getting out!

Karaoke in Edinburgh was not what we expected. We were not in front of a large crowd. At Supercube, we were in a tiny room that housed around seven people. No one heard what we sang but us. We programmed the music into the computer ourselves, and it played the songs whilst broadcasting the lyrics on the wall. Wireless mics were provided, and a waiter was at our disposal—we only needed to press the call button for drinks or snacks or whatever.
We sang from 8:30 until 11:30. I sang until I was hoarse. Michelle and I reprised our “famous” recording from Virginia Beach (from 1992 or some such time) of “Hotel California.” Stephen and Shoena sang “Penny Lane.”  Michelle sang Miley Cyrus. There were renditions of Jewel, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Barbra Streisand, Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, as well as lots of artists I didn’t know. It was SO MUCH FUN!

Alas, I had to let Michelle go home, since she had an entire school to face the next day, and Stephen and I knew that we would soon turn into pumpkins if we stayed out much longer.

But it was a wonderful night, and I went to bed feeling good about the day…and auld lang syne…and Depeche Mode… 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Britain Revisited: Day 7

As we left Liverpool the morning of day 7, the cab driver ferrying us to the train station was appalled that we had stayed such a short time and had neglected the museums, cathedrals, and marinas for The Beatles hype.

“You Americans and The Beatles!” he said with great exasperation. “I can’t understand it! I don’t even think they can sing!”

That may be so, I thought to myself, but inadvertently, they are probably responsible for some of your incoming cab fare as the tourists come in and out of Lime Street Station. I mean, let’s face it—much of Liverpool’s charm comes from its affiliation with the band. But in all honesty, we really did like the city and would definitely visit it again to stay longer and see more sights.

The train ride from Liverpool to Edinburgh, Scotland, was the longest of our train journeys, and some of the most scenic. The transition from north England into Scotland was breathtaking—sweeping hills with grazing sheep and the stone fence lines dating back to who-knows-what-century! Our journey to the north was peaceful and uneventful, and we arrived in Edinburgh Waverley Station around 2:30 in the afternoon.

Fortuitously (and just as it had happened in Wales), the station was just across the street from our hotel, The Jury’s Inn. I should also state that our visit coincided with Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival—an annual, month-long performance gala, where every type of theatrical and musical performance takes place in every possible venue. They might perform right on the street, in a Cathedral, in a pub, or even in a hotel. At any given moment of the day, there are performances ongoing. This also meant that every hotel was full, and the streets were overflowing with tourists. Basically, we were very fortunate to get a hotel. Yay for early booking!

Therefore, my heart stopped arrested suddenly when the woman at the check-in counter told me that there was no booking under my name. Immediately, my mind rolled with images of desperate and expensive international phone calls to Virgin Vacations and potentially pounding the pavement looking for hostels that might have a twin bed that we could share. I also found that I could not understand a word that she was saying. I got that there was “noa booking unda tha’ name.” But everything else she said (accompanied by giggles and smiles) was completely lost to me.
Mercifully, once she took a look at my reservation number, all was well. The booked room was simply under my middle name—Clarke. Thank heavens I had the reservation printed out, because never in a million years would I have thought to check under a long-forgotten middle name that I no longer use (but it is still on my passport!).

After dropping off our things, we immediately headed for The Royal Mile, and I have to say that this was one of the best moments of the trip (for me, at least). As we transitioned from the alley (they call them closes in Scotland) into the main street, Stephen’s face was afire with excitement. Not only is The Royal Mile lined with one ancient building after another leading up to the epitome of it all—The Edinburgh Castle, but on this afternoon—well into the Fringe Festival season—the street was buzzing with activity! Street performers were everywhere, walking on stilts, juggling, eating fire, doing ridiculous street skits, and shoving flyers into tourist’s hands—advertisements for plays happening elsewhere in the city. We swam through the excitement, happy that this section of the street had been blocked to traffic. The Edinburgh castle seemed the best place to begin our three days in Scotland, so we purchased our tickets, and joined a tour that had just started at 3:00 (or 15:00 hours as they like to say over there).

After showing the cannon that fires every day at 1:00, the tour guide, a diminutive, freckled, spunky Scot, led us to a lookout where she pointed out a stretch of land in the distance just across the water. Because it was so overcast and foggy, we could just make out the blue outline of the terrain’s expanse.

With a smirk, she said wryly: “You won’t believe this, but I have been asked if that is Norway or France. I have even been asked if that is the United States.”

The crowd roared with hilarity at such a ridiculous notion; however, I felt sure that some person in our gathering was ever so happy that he or she didn’t open his or her mouth to ask this very question just as our guide assured us that the island was, in fact, part of Scotland. (And that the United States was not accessible by row boat).

Oh, what shall I say about the castle? There are so many components to it! I could write chapters about it! But I won’t.  Nevertheless, you probably should know that the castle is so old that there is evidence of some sort of building residing on this spot as far back as 900 BC! It seems to me, however, that much of the real history began around 1018 and beyond, as Scottish kings started taking the throne. (Nowadays they do recognize the English queen, and there is no king or queen sitting on the thrones of Scotland). If anyone has seen Braveheart, this cannot fail to excite them. Many of the displays walk through the lineage of royalty, including Robert the Bruce, and the tour guides are always quick to point out any and all connections to William Wallace’s freedom fighting. The Scots are proud of their heritage and their hard-won fight to win their independence from England.

Some of the truly touching and wonderful sites to see at the castle include: The National War Memorial; the Scottish crown jewels; and the Prison of War dungeon—recreated to look as it did in the 1700s. It was interesting to me to discover as we toured the dungeon and read the informational plaques, that during the 1700s, the French and Spanish prisoners were often given generous rations (even two pints of beer a day!) and they were the first to be released, whereas the American prisoners were treated as “pirates” and given half-rations (and not released until absolutely necessary). 
I must also mention that the castle also boasts a dog cemetery on site (instated by Queen Victoria to remember the soldier’s dogs). I love that!

We left the castle and wandered through many of the wonderful tourist shops along The Royal Mile. I really have to give the Scots some props here. I think their tourist shops are the least kitschy of any I’ve seen, and the mementos within are quality merchandise! This is the place to buy Tartans of your family clan, Walker’s Shortbread, and tea towels emblazoned with the official Scottish plant—the thistle.

By this time, it was late afternoon, and the skies grayed and threatened rain. We hurried into Deacon Brodies Tavern. I had been to this pub years ago with my good friend, Michelle, and it was so much fun to return to it now and see it teeming with people, all trying to avoid the rain. Stephen was in search of genuine Scottish ale, and sadly—he never really found what he was looking for (McEwan’s Scotch Ale). We sat down at a table to enjoy our spoils and ended up striking up a conversation with an unlikely bunch of lads beside us. It turns out that these gentlemen were all dairy farmers who had turned up in Edinburgh for a Dairy Farmer’s Convention! (Who knew?) We talked to them for ages, and I learned a lot about dairy cattle. For instance, I didn’t know that “small” farmers house around 250 cows that are milked daily. They warned me to stay away from buying dairy that comes from farmers with over 2,000 cows! They said that’s where you run into the abuse, poor dairy ethics, and bad practices. More than ever, I am now convinced that I want to buy my dairy from small, local farmers.

After leaving Deacon Brodies Tavern, we were in search of food. The farmers had given us a local recommendation of a restaurant known for its steak called The Outsider. Well, apparently we were the outsiders to this establishment, as we could not step over the threshold without a booking! They were completely full all night!

As we left that restaurant, it was suddenly pouring down rain outside, and rushing along the street, Stephen paused to take a picture of a Scotsman in full Scottish regalia standing in a doorway (only to find that he was  smoking a bad sort of cigarette…)

We ended up ducking into a small two-tiered restaurant called The Cellar Door. What a gem! We both had marvelous food and even better service! It was quaint and charming and the ambiance was low-lit and romantic. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful first day in Edinburgh. Afterwards, we strolled arm in arm back to our hotel, talking of the glories of Edinburgh and how both of us could easily live in this wonderful city! Huzzah!

But back at our hotel, we were cruelly thrust into the realities of Scottish plumbing…