(From my 2006 trip to England, Scotland and Paris)
I’m starting this while sitting at Heathrow airport just a couple of hours away from my departure flight. I’ve had a great trip, but it’s been “on the move” every day since I got here. That, coupled with the surprising rarity of internet cafes along the way, has kept me from sending out any email dispatches from the road. Nevertheless, I thought I’d sit down and share some of the highlights with you while I’m still on English soil. Though it will likely get completed at home…
I arrived in London on Oct. 21, and was met at the airport by my friend and travel companion, Tessa. I met Tessa while traveling in Africa a couple of years ago, and we’ve stayed in touch and become friends. She lives just outside of London in a very nice little village called Dorking. Now, I could spend quite a bit of time making fun of the name (and, in fact, I *have*), but there are more odd names to come. So there’s no sense in getting too preoccupied with this one.
We left the following day (Sunday), heading straight north towards Scotland. Our first day took us through the English countryside. Beautiful dry stone fences lining narrow roads meandering through one tiny village after another. And puppies. Puppies everywhere. This must surely be “Puppy Season” in England, but Tessa swore there was no such thing. We stopped in one of these beautiful settings to have lunch. The weather has been cool and a bit damp, but not much heavy rain. By the end of day one, we had reached Windemere, in the “Lake District” of northern England. We found a nice simple room in a B&B, and spent our first evening in the “Hole in the Wall” pub listening to American folk songs sung by Brits — mixed in with a few traditional tunes for the Queen. We capped things off with a go at karaoke with some of the locals. We made about ten instant friends (all be they drunk, rowdy, and no older than 20) with a sketchy rendition of “Sweet Caroline” (Neil Diamond transcends all borders!). Tessa whispered “Moondance” – and so it was. So, in summary, day one was: scenic countryside, pubs with Guinness, and puppies. If this was heaven, Lord take me now. 🙂
The next days were all Scotland. Our first night in Scotland was in Edinburgh. I can say, this is the most beautiful city I have ever seen. More so than San Francisco, Stockholm, Vancouver, or Siracusa. If I had visited Edinburgh when I was in my early 20s, I’m sure I would have moved there. All of the buildings are grand and historic. Gardens and green spaces abound. And the history swells towards you everywhere you turn. That afternoon we visited Edinburgh Castle, which looms over the rest of the city and which also stole my prescription sunglasses. So, there’s my excuse to go back.
Tuesday we headed north with our sights on Loch Ness. We stopped mid-day at our first distillery – Edradour. It is the smallest of the distilleries, and is one of few that still use many of the traditional methods. Our bellies got warmed with a sample, and we took the somewhat snoozy tour. It is amazing how the more you understand about Scotch, the better it tastes.
We passed through more rich countryside and arrived on the southern tip of the loch by nightfall. Our inn was right on a peninsula on the water, facing east. Loch Ness is a long, narrow, pewter body of water surrounded by gentle hills. It was a wet and grey day, with the wind whipping up a small storm. Sound like good pub weather? Well, it surely was.
Wednesday, we drove through the most amazing natural scenery you can imagine. The Gramian Mountains that run through the Cairngorms National Park are mammoth and covered with dormant, copper-colored ferns and dotted with heather. The grass that covers the landscape is long, tri-colored blades of greens, reds and yellows. I was expecting everything to be green. But the glorious earthen tones of the Gramians were such a special surprise, I was utterly speechless as we drove through them. From time to time, a small waterfall or stream would catch my eye — the white streaks contrasting against brown, rust, and dark yellows. The water comes down the mountainsides from an unseen source, with a brown hue from traveling through the peat moss. This is the same magical water that is used to make Scotch. At one point, the beauty was so overwhelming, I turned to Tessa after what must have been an hour of silence and said, “I don’t know what to say.” She didn’t either.
It was easy to get caught up in visions of ghosts riding across the mountainsides, and imaging what life must have been for those ancient people. For me, it was especially compelling knowing that through me runs the same family blood as those Highland clansmen. Trying to not sound too mystical, I found myself feeling drawn and bound to the landscape – as though there was something quite legitimate about my long-time yearning to visit this place.
Mid day we stopped at Eilean Donan Castle, which is one of the iconic castles of Scotland. You see it a lot on travel brochures and such. Its natural setting was quite beautiful, sitting on a loch. But the interior has been updated – not restored, updated – in the 1940s. It was a bit odd walking through passageways that date back hundreds and hundreds of years and yet encountering upholstered furniture and framed family photographs.
We arrived on the Isle of Skye in the mid-afternoon, where we were staying at the Kintoch Lodge. The Kintoch is owned and operated by Claire MacDonald and her husband, Godfrey, who is the current High Chief of the MacDonald Clan. Claire is the Martha Stewart of Scotland, so staying at her lodge and eating her food was quite an indulgence. After we checked in, we made our way up the road to the Clan Donald Center, and small campus that includes a shop, museum, castle, garden and genealogy center. I spend about an hour with one of the research assistants reviewing the MacDonald family crest I had with me. After some investigating, and a bit of education on the history of the clan, I was able to establish that my family is linked historically with the Clan Donald of the Isle of Sleat. The Sleat MacDonalds are historically (and also in present day) considered one of the leading families of the clan. Historically, it was the Sleat MacDonalds who held most of the power and influence. Funny though, no one offered me a free drink the entire time I was there.
That evening, we were seated at our own reserved table in the dining room of the main lodge. We shared the room with about 20 other guests, so it was a very intimate gathering. Everyone else seemed quite proper, and the longer we sat there the more it felt like we had secretly infiltrated the aristocracy. The meal was so wonderful, and the setting so cozy, opulent and highbrow, I leaned across the table to Tessa about mid-meal and said, “I wonder when they’re going to kill a peasant.” That got us laughing, and then it was like being two kids trying to behave during church. All of a sudden, everything was funny. Including the very eerie old paintings of children dressed in formals and staring at us with red demon eyes. This is obviously a place for romantic getaways and the like, making it all the more fun to be the only laughing people in the whole place while everyone else whispered and sipped.
After dinner, we enjoyed a few glasses of scotch by the fire before becoming too annoyed with some of the other guests. So we walked back to the house where our room was. In between, I spent a few minutes of solitude out on the lawn, facing the Sound of Sleat, with a Scotch in one hand, and the rain pattering down on my rain jacket.For two minutes, I sipped my Scotch in the rain, staring into the absolute blackness of the sound of my clan, wondering about all of the lives between theirs and mine.
Thursday, we drove further into the island to see a little village by the name of Portree. That was our first, and only, day of significant rainfall. We had a few pints in a pub, then headed back east towards Inverness – the only significant city in the Highlands.We had earlier mapped out our tour of the distillery region for the following day. We found a wonderful little inn at Beauly, operated by a young Scottish woman and her husband who had only bought it three months earlier. Through our chats, we discovered that she was a MacDonald too. So we shared a smile and a handshake, but still no free drink was offered to me.
Friday was spent rolling through the hills of the Speyside region, visiting distilleries. We visited four significant distilleries that day – Glenlivet, Cardhu, Edradour and Strathisia (the oldest). By this time, we were not particularly interested in tours anymore. We just wanted our free sample(s), and an opportunity to buy larger volumes. It was clear that the larger distilleries were not particularly interesting, because only certain stages of the process occurred on site, and much of the resulting whisky wound up in crappy blended scotch further down the line. In Edradour, we found a more genuine boutique distillery, and a mighty mighty fine 16-year old bottle that was the best of those I’d sampled.
We had planned to stop in Banff on the northeast coast. Little did we know that Banff was playing host to the annual Scottish National Ploughing Championships. That’s right – ploughing is big time in Scotland. So we had to make our way through the rain further east and a bit south to Peterhead.
Now, I don’t quite recall exactly what the guidebook said about Peterhead, but it wasn’t kind. Peterhead is a dark, damp, grey place. It’s an industrial city that happens to be situated on beautiful coastline. The only inn recommended in the guidebook was right next to the prison. I’m sure it was a nice enough place, but we at least needed to be able to walk to a pub without strolling along razor wire. We found a rather unpleasant “hotel” right in the middle of town. We took a walk and found a local pub to enjoy a pint before making our death march back to the awful place. The city smelled like day-old fish left on the pier next to barrels of gasoline. The hotel smelled like a damp stable. The whole place felt very defeated. In retrospect, however, it proved to be an important part of the trip for me.
This is the first trip I’ve taken that could be described as “conventional.” My other trips have been aligned with volunteer work, and usually have kept me in one place for a long time. What I had been missing on this trip up to this point was having a deeper understanding of the reality of Scotland. Not just the historical sites, castles, cozy inns, and charming fishing villages. My experience is that you never find the soul of a place where visitors flock.
At its very least, Peterhead could be described as the raw, leathery flesh of Scotland. It had not been dressed up. There was no effort to invite visitors. It was a city of utility, not polish. It was simply the home of hard workers, fluorescent-lit markets, greasy factories, and close-knit families waking up to the same east rising sun. By this time, Tessa and I had driven more than 1,000 miles – through tiny villages with no name, large cities, and rich countryside. With each mile, we passed by the lives and histories of countless people. People sitting down to dinner at dusk. Young boys playing rugby in a downpour. Hospitals and senior care centers full of grief. Mothers pushing babies. Men walking dogs. Every pair of eyes I saw, every lit window. they made me wonder: “What is your life?”
When I was little, we had an encyclopedia set from the early 1970s. I also recall us having a very large, awkward world atlas that smelled funny, and from time to time National Geographic would show up. Maps were everywhere in one form or another. These colored outlines that give names to specific places of longitudes and latitudes. They give us bearings. They help direct our journeys. Much like a roaring fireplace or the crashing ocean can hold a person’s aimless gaze for hours, maps have always been able to draw me in. In and under the colors and lines. I’m drawn to, and frustrated by, the unanswered questions of maps. Those are the questions that can only be answered through experiencing a place. What’s it smell like? What do the people talk about? Where is their happiness? What kinds of birds do they have?
The residents of Peterhead wake up every morning to the smell of the refinery and fish auction. They talk in thick Scottish accents about family, jobs, and sports. Their happiness is in friendships. The only birds are gulls and ravens. I saw much more beautiful places in Scotland, but I believe Peterhead answered the most questions, and touched me the most.
We were anxious the next morning to head south along the coast to see the incredible Dunnottar Castle. The castle is situated on a cliff side, with a long decent down to the entrance. Once inside, you climb back to the top of the cliff where the castle sits. Dunnottar is more the remains of an ancient community then it is simply a castle. My first reaction was that it felt like the Machu Pichu of Scotland. The grass was unusually green, and the remains had been extremely well preserved. Unlike some of the other castles that had been altered well beyond anything original, Dunnottar is simply the skeletal remains of a once impressive holding. Ovens, dungeons, the chapel, bedrooms, stables, fireplaces – all still there. It gives you the chance to put your hand on a wall, and become overwhelmed with the physical connection you just made to those who touched that same wall centuries ago. The coastline above the castle was jagged and misty, topped with rich grasses that looked like wet crushed jade.
A few hours south, we stopped in St. Andrews – best known, of course, for its golf courses. It is without question a pretty place, but also more than a bit unwelcoming. This is where Prince Andrew attended college, and the streets abound with the next generation of aristocrats. The remains of the cathedral, castle, and the long sandy beach that was used to film the opening of “Chariots of Fire” were the only highlights.
Our destination for the night was Stirling, and we arrived just at nightfall and found a very nice little inn just down from Stirling Castle. If “Stirling” rings a bell, then chances are you’ve seen Braveheart. Stirling was the setting for William Wallace’s first major battle with the British, at Stirling Bridge. This battle was not re-enacted entirely accurately in the film, but the basic parts from the movie were on track. Stirling is a great small town, very scenic and lots of character. It would have been fun to spend a bit more time there, but we got our best fill of the town the next day with a visit to Stirling Castle, and the National Wallace Monument atop a hill overlooking the town.
As you might guess, Braveheart has created a bit of a cottage industry in Stirling with countless visitors coming only to visit the Wallace stuff. I have to confess, I was a bit mesmerized by it all – especially the case holding William Wallace’s sword (authentic). I did manage to stop short of posing next to the actor portraying Wallace or the ridiculous statue of Mel Gibson as Wallace in front of the gift shop. Others, however, were not able to resist.
We left Stirling and spent the next 8 hours in the car, intent on getting back to Dorking that night so we could visit London the next day (Monday).
Monday was spent in London whizzing past the most notable attractions. Big Ben, Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey. I’m sure one could spend a week in London going to museums, visiting sites, and seeing theater. I have only minor interests in all of those things. My favorite part of the day was my 3 o’clock Guinness and our walk through the park.
Tuesday morning we woke up early to take the Chunnel train to Paris – a 2 1/2 hour journey, 20 minutes of which is spent traveling underneath the English Channel. We got to Paris around lunchtime, and headed directly to La Lourve only to find that it is closed on Tuesdays! This was a huge disappointment, so we strolled on to the Arch de Triumph and towards the Champs Elysees. Paris is a fascinating place, with one familiar site after another cropping up.
After lunch, we walked to the Eiffel Tower. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to stand at the foot of such an icon. All your life, you have seen images of it. But nothing prepares you for how huge it really is. We chose to climb the 700 steps to the second level. By the time we got there, the elevator to the very top had accepted its last groups. But from the second tier, you have an extraordinary view of Paris. We were heading towards Notre Dame when the very questionable water I drank at lunch caught up with me. So we had to cut our city tour short, but my belly recovered by that night.
I got home last night and am fighting a bit of a cold now, along with jetlag. I’m glad to be back in my big bed after sleeping on child-sized twin beds with hard and flat pillows for ten days. I hope this finds everyone well.
Sorry, again, to have to present this all in one big swoop. I know it makes it harder to read (and write). But didn’t want to miss the chance to share what I could. I appreciate having so many who want to come along – if even through a journal.