Monday, August 24, 2015

Sixteen Days in the UK - Part 4

Part 4: A little hiccup in our plans 

On Wednesday, we slept late. We were exhausted from all of the travel and moving around and driving, so we took a lazy day. After breakfast, we did a little bit of shopping (Boots, Oxfam, and even a yarn shop) and took more photos. In retrospect, we probably shouldn't have started talking about how we couldn't wait to go home. 

We had one thing on our calendar that had been scheduled since April - a tour of Castle Stalker, which was the castle out in the lake at the very end of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." The castle is a private residence, so they only do one tour a day, for 12 people. We had reservations for Wednesday afternoon. We decided to go see Dunstaffnage Castle on the way to Stalker, since both are near Oban. 

Remember when we pissed off the faeries? Well, they were still mad. 

We were finally motivated enough to leave at 2:30pm, at which point we discovered a flat tire - the front driver's side tire was completely useless. [Unusual for tourists, usually it's the left side that gets run into curbs and such...] Sigh. We went back inside and called Hertz. They sent a roadside repair guy, who changed the tire to the donut, and gave us a card for the closest tire repair place. Of course, since Oban is a tiny town full of one way streets, we had to drive an extra mile in a big circle to get there. And it was clear from some online reviews that Hertz UK was not going to pay for the tire. We debated for a while, but in the end John chose the nicer tire, because we didn't want Hertz to come back and charge us again if we bought one that wasn't good enough. Sigh.

The Castle Stalker tour was scheduled for 5pm. Unfortunately, having spent the afternoon at the tire place, we were just parking the car at the hotel (at 5:15pm) when they called to see if we were still coming. Sigh. We went back to the hotel and had dinner, and went to bed early. We were glad to be done with that day!

Thursday, things were looking up. After breakfast, we decided to go to Dunstaffnage and to the Castle Stalker overlook. But when John went to get the car from the overflow lot, the NEW TIRE was about half flat. ARGH! So, back to the tire shop for us. They were very nice, and basically admitted that it could've been human error in not filling it 100% the day before. They pumped up the new one, and checked all the others, and then we were off! 

Since we missed Dunstaffnage on Wednesday, it was our first stop on Thursday. Yet another amazing castle built on a large rock! We climbed a tall flight of stairs to enter a large open courtyard. This castle was besieged by Robert the Bruce (a McAlpin descendant) in the 1300s, and the newest building is the gatehouse, built in 1500. The chapel is a few hundred yards off in the woods, much more deteriorated than the main buildings. We couldn't get over how thick the walls were for the chapel, and how narrow the window openings. The path through the woods looked like something out of a fairy tale - vibrant green ferns, thick trees, and a hushed whisper through the leaves. I started singing songs from Sondheim's "Into the Woods" as we walked back. 

Then we were off to Castle Stalker. While we couldn't go over to the little island or go into the castle, there is a lovely little cafe on a hill overlooking the site, so we stopped there and took some pictures and had lunch. (The zoom lens on my camera is awesome!) The tide was out, so we probably could have walked across the marshland, but we didn't think of it. The food was tasty, and we bought some scones for the road. 

After lunch, we decided to take the long way around to Callander, our last stop before going home (ahem, or so we thought). Driving through the Scottish Highlands was just breathtaking. We came around a bend and there was a pull-off for parking beside a mountain, and we could see a rocky outcropping with a waterfall about halfway up. Why not? The sun came out, and although it was windy, it was gorgeous. John took some amazing panoramas, and I started climbing the hill towards the waterfall. Here's a picture of me halfway up the hill. It was pretty steep, but it was so beautiful, I just kept climbing!

Even with the new tire, those faeries were still angry. As we were driving through the Highlands, marveling at the countryside, John's phone buzzed with a text message. There wasn't much cell signal out there, but there was just enough for a message to get through from British Airways that our flight home on Saturday was CANCELLED. Cue minor panic! But since we were in the middle of nowhere and there was nothing we could do, we forced ourselves to continue enjoying the scenery and just kept going. 

We found the Old Rectory (right next to St. Andrew's Church, amusingly enough) and checked into our little room. Our bathroom was right over the front door! First order of business, call BA. After an hour on the phone, we determined that the first time they could get us across the pond was Tuesday. Whee! But since our tickets back to London were booked separately, they couldn't change those without another £200+ fee, so we couldn't stay in Scotland for the weekend. ARGH. We went out to clear our heads and check out Callender, but by then it was close to 6pm, and things were closed. 

Dinner at the tiny restaurant in the hotel was actually really tasty - or maybe that was the cider talking. I found us a good deal on a hotel in Kensington for the weekend, and we resigned ourselves to spending three extra days in London. 

Friday - more castles!

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Sixteen Days in the UK - Part 3

Part 3 - Eastern Scotland 

On Monday, we were at the point where we HAD to do laundry. We looked online and found a place in Lochee, near Dundee -- an hour away. We found the place, and the ladies were happy to help us with soap and change for the machines. It was a small town, and the Scottish accents were so thick we could hardly understand sometimes, but we got the job done. 

We left the laundromat and headed for our next castle, Dunnottar. This was the one day that we had "real" Scottish weather - chilly, drizzly, and grey. But we were also out on the east coast, looking out over the North Sea. To get to the castle, you walk down almost 200 steps, almost to sea level, and then you walk across a bridge and back up almost as many to get to the gates of the castle. It was exhausting!  The site has been inhabited since the Picts, so that's thousands of years. There's a space in the hillside where it's reported that the Earl Marischal kept a pet lion in the 14th Century. Some of the buildings are falling down, others were built later so they're still standing. Each of the castle ruins that we visited had at least one room that had been recreated in period style. At Dunnottar, it was a sitting room, with a beautiful fireplace. 

After we recovered from hiking back down and back up all those stairs to the car, we set off for the hotel. We had decided earlier not to have dinner at Kinloch, so we headed into the town of Blairgowrie. Driving around was a little bit eerie - everything was closed! Yet another place where the sidewalks roll up at 5pm. We ended up eating in the restaurant at the Royal Hotel Blairgowrie... we were the only ones in the place. They were having a special, "pint and a pie for £10" so we took them up on it. By the time we left the restaurant, there were people on the streets again. 

I will say that all that fresh air and hiking made for a good night's sleep. We had a lovely breakfast at the hotel on Tuesday, and then we were off driving west. We did want to take the scenic route, but the mapping software accidentally put us on a smaller, narrower road than we intended. [Scotland has M roads (big highways), A roads (2 lane wide roads) and B roads (1 1/2 lane narrow roads).] John had a heck of a time with the twists and turns and oncoming trucks! Eek! We rerouted ourselves to an A road as soon as possible. 

As we went past Loch Tay, we took a wrong turn (another B road), but this time it was a
good thing - we ended up at the Scottish Crannog Centre. We were just in time to catch the guided tour of the Crannog and try out the ancient tools. A crannog, we found out, is a dwelling that was built as far back as 2500 years ago, on wooden pilings out over the water of the Scottish Lochs. The crannogs were large enough to hold up to 20 people, and their animals! (Must have smelled great...) The Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology has studied the remnants of a few of the hundreds of crannogs that may have existed, and rebuilt this one in the style of the originals. We also tried out the primitive lathes, rock drilling and knitting tools, and took a turn through the museum. What an incredible accidental "find!" 

Then we were back on our way to Oban, which was still about 2 hours away. We drove through some lovely countryside -- the sun started to come out as we made our way west -- and stopped to take pictures at least once. We also apparently drove through a rut that would cause a problem later... but we didn't know it at the time. 

We found the lovely seaside town of Oban, checked into our hotel (dragging our luggage through a half-dozen fire doors and up two flights of stairs), and went for a walk. It was high season for tourists in Oban - there are boat trips to see otters, seals, and lots of nearby islands, advertised everywhere. After dinner, we wandered back through town and stopped at the War and Peace Museum. The museum started with a display for the 50th anniversary of WWII back in 1995, and grew from there. John spent a lot of time talking to some of the veterans who staff the museum. 
The sun didn't go down until almost 10pm, and we were in bed with our eye-shades on soon thereafter!  We didn't know it yet, but Wednesday would be the most sedentary day of the trip... and not just because we were exhausted. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sixteen Days in the UK - part 2

Part 2: Edinburgh and Scone

We flew into Edinburgh on Friday evening. The flight was relatively empty, but there were clearly some shenanigans in store - "Marilyn Monroe" and his buddies were on our flight, probably heading for a stag party. 

We figured out how to take the tram into town, picked the tram station that looked like it was the closest one to our hotel, and got off. Edinburgh is beautiful, but I wish someone had warned us in advance about the hills. The path we chose from the tram stop to the hotel, while shortest on the map, took us past the Royal Scottish Academy and the Scottish National Gallery and up a GIANT staircase, over the same hill that the castle is sitting on. Once we made it to the top of the hill, we turned right and took a lovely curved little street (Victoria) back down the hill to the "Old Town" part of the city. Our hotel was on Grassmarket, which is a lovely open space that had been a marketplace back to the 1300's. One side is lined with pubs and restaurants, and the other side has a couple of hotels. The view from our hotel room was worth all of the hiking. (Photo above: Edinburgh castle, left, and the giant stands that they built for the Military Tattoo, which are really ugly.

After we recovered from the hike, we went across to the Beehive Inn for dinner. We ordered their "favorites" platter, so we got a little bit of fish 'n' chips, sliders, meat pies, and mushy peas. We were soon surrounded by a huge group of guys speaking .... Norwegian? Swedish? German? ... who each ordered the giant fish 'n' chips platter. We finished our tasty vittles and our beers (or cider, in my case - I became a big fan on Strongbow cider on this trip) and went back to the hotel to sleep. 

On Saturday, we had breakfast in the room overlooking the castle, and then hopped on the sightseeing tour bus (love those hop-on, hop-off buses!) to go to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This is where the current Queen stays when she's in Edinburgh. This was also the first of many places we visited that had a connection to Mary Queen of Scots. We toured the palace and then the Holyrood Abbey (right), which was founded in 1128. The ruins were beautiful. We also went to the exhibit on Gold in the Queen's Gallery. 

Then we started another tradition for the trip: we stopped for a bite to eat at the cafe in most of the castles we visited. (Usually because we ate a big breakfast and finally got hungry after all of our touristing!)  

After Holyrood, we got back on the big bus, and rode all the way around the city to Edinburgh Castle. We could have walked the Royal Mile, but this way we got to see more of the city (and sit for a while). The castle was incredible. So many buildings, with so much history! We saw the Scottish Crown Jewels, and got our first glimpse of the Stone of Scone in the case with the jewels. Of course, we couldn't take a photo, so we don't know if it was the real thing. 

On the outer ring of the castle, we came upon Mons Meg, a massive cannon that has been there for almost 600 years (left - and those are the cannonballs, next to John's right foot)! There was a military history museum, and the Scottish National War Memorial, which was overwhelming. Every regiment that sent fighters to WWI and WWII had a memorial wall carved in stone, and a book with names of soldiers lost. A new book was set out for soldiers lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. (There were quite a few McAlpines in the various books.) 

The Castle is so high on the hill, on this impregnable stone, it's easy to see why the location was ideal hundreds of years ago. We couldn't imagine how soldiers in any kind of battle gear would be able to climb the walls.  

By the time we had seen everything, the castle was closing for the evening, so we walked
down the stairs back to Grassmarket. (I was really glad we hadn't walked UP them...) We had to have a little bit of a rest, and then we went back out to a different pub for dinner. The White Hart Inn has a really interesting history - many famous patrons, including Robbie Burns and a clever pair of grave robbers broke bread there. The cellar is supposed to be haunted! The mugs hanging from the ceiling (see right) apparently contain notes from previous staff members, to be taken down and read by the new staff. We watched a girl climb up and grab one of the notes during dinner. The American couple next to us tried some haggis for an appetizer - they had never heard of it before. We opted not to have the haggis nachos, but more Guinness and Strongbow hit the spot.

Sunday we got up and looked for a less hilly way to get to the tram. Turns out that going to the next stop, while it was a slightly longer walk, was mostly flat. So off we went, back to the airport to get our rental car. Yes, that's right, John was going to drive us around Scotland - with a manual transmission - on the wrong side of the road! 

We made our way out of the airport and onto the highway, remembering to stay in the slow lane on the *left* side as much as possible. About an hour north of the airport, we followed signs to Scone Palace. This is the home of the "Stone of Scone" - or at least, it was the original home. Turns out it's also an actual home - the family still uses the downstairs quarters when they are in the area. It's also the house where Dido lived, and where the painting still hangs. Dido Elizabeth Belle (her story was dramatized in a movie, called "Belle") was the daughter of Rear Admiral Sir John Lindsay and a slave woman. Lindsay brought her to live with his uncle, the 1st Earl of Mansfield, who later would be instrumental in ending slavery in England. 

Inside the palace we saw a couple of display cases with large brown serving pieces and bowls that looked like they were ceramic, but we'd never seen ceramics in such a rich brown color before. The guide told us that they were made of papier mache! We weren't allowed to take pictures, but this image is in the guidebook. There are 70+ Vernis Martin papier mache pieces in the collection. 

Outside the Palace, next to the chapel, is the stone. Being a McCalpin, John decided it was high time that his family reclaim the crown of Scotland (Kenneth McAlpine was the first King of the Scots, in 841). So he sat down on the stone and proclaimed himself king. (Looking back on this now, I think he may have "angered the faeries" when he did this, and brought a little bit of bad luck upon us later in the trip.)   

We stopped for a sandwich and a scone (of course) in the cafe, and then went on our way to find Kinloch House, our next hotel. This is one of a few properties in the UK that are part of the Relais et Chateaux group - our honeymoon hotel in Santa Fe was also one of these. Needless to say, two nights in a country hunting lodge were a little bit different! 

We were slightly disappointed that there was no air conditioning, and in fact no real way to move air in the room at all. We left the windows open as much as possible. But the room was lovely and the bathroom was huge - and strangely, covered in mirrors. The lodge has a beautiful walled garden up the hill in the woods, so we went exploring. We chatted with the gardener for a while, and took some pictures. Then it was time to go back and freshen up for dinner. They served an amazing three course meal (not inexpensive) - this is the kind of place where they reserve a table for you automatically, and you have to specify that you won't be there. We chose to have dinner elsewhere the next night. 

Having exhausted ourselves from driving and castles and excellent food, we went to bed. Monday would bring a whole new kind of adventure: Laundry day! 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sixteen Days in the UK

Before I start writing about the amazing castles and wonderful places we visited across the pond, I have to talk about the pre-trip craziness. We almost didn't go! 

In mid-June, I came down with a stomach bug... I thought it was something I ate, but I have since heard that others caught it from something in the water. This is not something I would wish on my worst enemy. But then, because I was eating what I thought was the right thing - the BRAT diet, mostly - for the better part of three weeks, my gall bladder got cranky. So then I was taking antibiotics for the stomach issue plus antispasmodics. And still feeling awful, and working from home. To add insult to illness, on the Thursday before we left, I went out to run some errands, and got rear-ended at the traffic light a mile from our house! Now, the kid was not moving fast - he was already stopped, but his foot slipped - so it didn't do much damage. I took his info, but really, he was so young and earnest (damn those puppy dog eyes) and the damage was so minimal, I'm really not going to bother. 

And now, on with the trip: 

Part I: London & Oxford

We left on July 4th. I was so excited to go back to London, I was willing to miss the fireworks and fun on my favorite holiday. And BA now has a direct flight from Austin! When we got in on Sunday morning, we met up with mom at the airport, and headed into town on the tube. It was warm in London, but we seem to have missed the "heat wave" they were having the week before. We were staying at a two bedroom apartment that I found on Airbnb, and the owner was nice enough to let us come in early, while she was still cleaning up from the last visitors. So far so good, right? 

Well... at this point we discovered that this first floor apartment at the back of the building overlooked the tube tracks, about 40 feet below us. And since there was no air conditioning, we had to keep the windows open. And the trains run every 3-5 minutes. Sometimes it was so loud we couldn't hear the TV. [Apparently I missed that part on the AirBnB reviews -- I definitely added it to mine!]  On the plus side, we were also right above the Sainsbury, so we could get groceries and supplies. By supplies, I mean, we bought a wine bottle opener because although the host left us a bottle of wine as a "welcome" gift, her kitchen didn't have an opener. No wonder the last guests didn't drink it!

After a quick rest, we went out wandering - trying to stay awake as long as possible - and ended up at Kensington Palace. I was really feeling weird, but we sat outside and had some water and snacks in the garden. Here's mom and "Vicki" at the palace. We had dinner at a kebab place in Earls Court that mom likes, and then went back to crash. I will say, it was nice to watch Wimbledon in real time. I was rooting for Andy Murray, because we were going to be in Scotland by the time the finals were on. Sadly, he didn't make it that far. 

Monday morning we took the tube to Covent Garden for the standard Monday morning Fratkin family activity: the Covent Garden flea market. It was surprisingly empty, but it was fun to look around. I bought some "Keep Calm and Carry On" socks. I was very conscious of the fact that we still had two weeks of travel ahead, and I didn't need to carry anything extra! 

We walked from CG through Leicester Square and past one of the antique shops where mom knows the proprietor. We stopped for a chat, and then headed down to the Mall, to see the tail end of the Changing of the Guard. Standing on the Mall sidewalk about 500 ft from the circle in front of Buckingham Palace, some of the guards passed us on their way in, and the band passed us on the way out, so we got to see enough, and we didn't have to cram in like sardines with all the other tourists. 

After lunch, John and I went off to visit the Churchill War Rooms. Unfortunately, everyone else on the planet also wanted to go to the War Rooms after lunch, so we skipped it. We walked along St. James' park, past the Ivy Lodge, the Guards Division Memorial, and across into the Horse Guards parade area. I never noticed the two giant cannons on either side of the park, but of course John did. [Photo of the Cadiz Memorial, right] Then we walked across to Victoria Embankment, and along the Thames up to Westminster. We took pictures of the London Eye, but we didn't really feel the need to go on it. After some ice cream and photos of Big Ben, we took the tube back to the apartment. 

Dinner was leftovers from the kebab place the night before, with some rice and naan and salad from Sainsbury. I will say that the UK supermarkets carry a wonderful arrangement of individual or small portions of tasty things. I think it's partly convenience, and partly the fact that homes in London tend to be small and have very small kitchens. 

By Tuesday, we learned that the tube stops running at midnight and starts again at 6am. Even with earplugs, it's hard to sleep through that, but we tried. The only thing on Tuesday's agenda was the Imperial War Museum. [Requisite photo with the big guns, left.] As it happened, we were on the tube at 11am, on the 10-year anniversary of the London bombings. We didn't realize until halfway there, when it dawned on us that there were very few people on the tube.  

The museum was full of school kids in uniforms, but we managed to avoid them most of the time. It has been completely redone since the last time I was there, and they have added displays about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Really sobering. We didn't even get all the way through the museum.

We stopped for lunch at a pub, and I discovered a wonderful drink - Fentiman's Rose Lemonade. It's pink and bubbly but not sweet. I'm thinking I might have to get some (World Markets here I come)... and probably mix it with gin. :) 

I finally felt well enough to eat Indian food, so we met the whole CASC group at Noor Jahan, which the Fratkins have been visiting on every trip for at least a decade. It was extra tasty, particularly since I'd been eating so blandly for so long. 

Wednesday, we were up and out early, because we had to catch a bus to get up to Oxford for the CASC-UK HPC Meeting. We took a taxi to Victoria, and the bus comes every 20 minutes or so. Being tourists, we rode upstairs at the front window, and marveled at how the bus driver managed to squeeze between and get around things. 

When we got to Oxford the gloomy weather was brightening up. On the way to the hotel, we cut down a side street and I could swear I recognized the scenery from an episode of "Inspector Lewis" on BBC. Turns out I was right - and not only that, they were there FILMING! They called for quiet, and since our suitcases made way too much noise on the cobblestones, we stopped and waited. They filmed the scene, and then people could move again, so we continued on our way. We walked right by Laurence Fox (DI Hathaway)! He's just as good looking in person as he is on TV. 

The Buttery hotel is also a cafe (and the meeting point for most of the walking tours of Oxford). They gave us the room just opposite registration, so we were looking out over the street and the tourists. They also gave us a standalone A/C unit, so the room was cool enough, and the tourist noise mostly stopped after dark. Of course, "after dark" is close to 10pm up there. 

We went out wandering and got a quick lunch, and then I had to report to the meeting at the eResearch Center. John got his bearings in Oxford, and then he joined us for a nice dinner at Kellogg College

Thursday, I spent the day at the meeting, and John got to be a tourist. When I saw all of his pictures, I was jealous. There are dozens of colleges and universities in Oxford, many of which are older than the United States. We'll have to go back. The meeting continued on Friday morning, and then we hustled over to the coach station to catch the bus directly to Heathrow. We had a nice lunch at the airport - Terminal 2 is fancy! - and then we were off to Edinburgh. 

Edinburgh - read next post