Monthly Archives: September 2011

Edinburgh ….. the Gateway to my Scottish Adventure

I made the observation in earlier posts that San Remo encouraged its visitors to relax and leisurely take it all in and that Florence – by dearth of benches – urged her patrons to ‘just keep perambulating’. What struck me first in Edinburgh was the sheer number of benches. It’s not a very big city and at its core they were literally lining the streets and park walkways – side by side. Then I began exploring the city and realized why. The gentle rolling landscape from the air morphed into steep hills on the ground – lots of them. Edinburgh encourages you to rest – frequently. I’m sure I had no choice. And how did women in very high heels do it? Going downhill was just as arduous – it felt like an urban version of mountain climbing at times. In retrospect -all those hours and hours of walking in previous locations was just training for wandering up and down the many many hills in this absolutely beautiful city. And Scottish weather? Well – I’m from Seattle – enough said…

My next observation was just how friendly everyone was especially after London. When I had to ask for directions I not only got very detailed descriptions but many times it was just a precursor for a conversation about where I was from, tidbits about the best restaurants, the best whiskey, the best pubs, etc. And, a word about pubs here – I had no trouble meeting many folks who instantly included me in their little evening circle. Generally it seemed it was because an American provided fodder for disseminating all the sources of ill in the world (of course – the Americans!) But it was all in good fun and good natured plus they took as well as they gave. They were delightfully candid and had no compunction what so ever about asking very personal questions and sharing their lives with me. That whole Northern Latitude reticence just wasn’t at all the case here. Buying rounds for everyone was standard protocol and repeated often and at alarmingly frequent intervals. “No thank you – I’m ok for now” was always greeted with – well – another round. Since I am Scottish by heritage I could keep up – but just……. It was great fun.

Speaking of entertainment – as soon as I got off the bus from the airport – I was greeted with the wonderful sounds of bagpipes. Street corner musicians invariably play the bagpipes and to my untrained ear – they sounded really good. There was even a free concert by a young band who’s genre I can only call “bagpipe fusion”. While I can’t attach the video I took – imagine a guy jumping up and down to the beat of his drummer while simultaneously playing bagpipes – really well. No mean feat. I was fascinated….

Food…. Any visit to Scotland would not be complete without Haggis. Now, I have heard horror stories about this interesting delicacy. But I am always willing to try anything once and so – I tried Haggis. I found it wonderful and did not ask the contents being satisfied that there are times in life when ignorance is truly bliss. However, having shared this experience with family – my brother Chris just had to send me the recipe complete with his own interpretations. While I can applaud the Scots for being frugal as well as ecologically minded and making use of any and all of a sheep – I will be refraining from Haggis in the future. Tatties and Neeps are pretty wonderful – potatoes and turnips – but mayo on fries? I have to draw a line in the sand. This is not unique to Scotland – I was introduced to it in London and – well – it’s still faintly disgusting to me. To each his own.

Instant coffee abounds in the UK even with Starbucks on every street corner in London. I never saw one in Italy – no big surprise there – they are pretty proud of their coffee. I imagine that they may even have banned Starbucks (I really don’t know) Edinburg has a few Starbucks scattered about but I am determined not to step foot in one on my trip and so instant coffee it is. It’s not too bad once you get used to it. Really. I just can’t bring myself to drink tea instead. It is interesting that there just isn’t the variety of veggies you’d find in the states. Cost of distribution? They just aren’t that into them here? Too cold? Who knows but salads that contain anything other than lettuce and the occasional carrot or tomato are hard to come by. What I have come to appreciate on my journey is that Europeans don’t ‘supersize’ portions. Instead, presentation and quality are the focus – at least in the places I enjoyed. And the cheese here!!!! Better than Paris in my opinion.

Scottish Malt Whiskey is in its own special category. Marvelous stuff and many brands you can’t get in the states. And – its CHEAP here – even the good stuff – Yea!! Suffice to say – I have tried at least 11 different kinds and am nowhere near done yet. Thank god I am within walking distance of my digs. On a recycling note – I have seen houses made from old whiskey barrels and yes – they are round.

I have never seen this many men’s knees in the daylight in my life outside a football (soccer) game. Yes, kilts are in abundance -worn not just by older men either. Not having had a good wind twirl up any kilt in my vicinity – yet – I can neither confirm or deny that particular myth. What I find delightful is that Scottish men have felt so secure in their manhood down through the ages that they have been wearing the equivalent of a ‘Man Bag” for centuries. I asked a few men if they had anything in their Sporrans and they produced wallets, keys, cigs., etc. There you go Stateside Guys – be brave – start a trend…..

As nearly everywhere in Europe – history abounds and I found many establishments who were proud to laud their bit (is that redundant?) – here is a sample:

Having visited both the Edinburgh and Stirling castles – I will save those for another post. Suffice to say – after I seriously huffed and puffed my way to the top of Carlton Park Hill and took in the alternate views of Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth it is easy to see why some in these parts still believe in magic and the fairy people……

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London Reflections….

As I leave London and reflect not only on wrapping up this little leg of my journey but the past month – I had the following insights and observations. Again, no particular order of significance – just some random thoughts…..

As a person who knows what ethnocentrism is and does try to remain open to cultural differences and not insisting that they do it my way -subscribing to the “When in Rome” theory of travel – I continually amazed myself at how the little expectations from home kept coming up. Case in point – we have street signs on the street back home. Makes sense to me. In trying to navigate initially I couldn’t find a single street sign – not a one. I finally asked a friendly looking person where the street signs were and she looked a little surprised and pointed up to the side of the building. Well….who knew…..and now I know. Do you think there is any social significance in a London street called “Petty France”?

Traveling gives me plenty of opportunity to realize afresh that I’m just not as smart as I’d like to think I am. And in the first half hour in London I had a number of Brits who were more than happy to remind me. In trying to find my B&B by the published directions I managed to get myself completely lost and they were only about a 3 minute walk from the train station (read a very small radius) After what seemed like forever I finally found Ebury street – Yea! – but which way were the numbers going? They seem to go up so I trudged that direction but then they started getting smaller – What?? So, I asked a nice looking lady if they were indeed getting bigger as I headed in THAT direction. She told me in an exasperated tone, “Well, as you can see as you look down the street here that the numbers are getting larger and if you are looking for 113 Ebury street this is obviously the even numbered side so you are going to have to be on the OTHER side of the street, Correct?” Wow, I felt like the kindergartner that just got scolded by the teacher. Ten minutes later -after checking into the B&B – Simon, the proprietor, told me my room was just up the landing. I looked around a little confused and he repeated “up the landing!” (what in the hell is a landing?) “Ya gotta go UP Girl, UP” I was told. Well….who knew and now I did. His exasperation was probably precipitated by our earlier conversation in which – after he handed me a slip of paper with the wireless network name and password that I swore read “DangerMoose” and repeated it as such – I was told it was “DangerMouse” and did I need glasses? I was by this time keenly aware of my flagging intelligence and I just wanted to get to my room, pee and not move for awhile – or talk to anyone.

I stuck my key in my room door lock…… and promptly broke it off… in the lock. Not kidding. I stared at it in utter disbelief. The worst part was I was going to have to go DOWN the landing and tell Simon. And I still had to pee. Simon looked at me incredulously and told me that had never happened before,,,,ever. I choked back a snarky reply especially after he told me it would take most of the afternoon to fix so I’d better just head out and see the city. Adding insult to injury I still had to pee and had to ask if there was a bathroom available (it was seriously becoming an emergency) Sighing he told me go UP two landings and watch my step. At least it didn’t require a key to get in. As I left the building it started to rain but armed with the knowledge that street signs are on buildings, even numbers are on one side of the street, odd on the other – I had a fantastic afternoon. If I had to figure anything out – I applied good old fashioned American ingenuity and figured it out myself……frankly my self esteem just couldn’t take another beating that day. I will leave out British coins and the completely illogical relationship between denomination and size…. LOL!

All that being said – there are little angels everywhere. The wonderful gentleman on the train who helped me take my backpack off and then helped me put it on at our destination. The delightful woman who helped me puzzle out the train schedules. The internet cafe guy that let me use his private wireless so I could use my iPad to skype an emergency call. He did proceed to diss my iPad but I gave him that one – I wasn’t in any position to argue. The fantastic train ticket guy who saved me about $50.00 and 2 hours of time by figuring out an alternate route. Countless people over the course of the last month came to my rescue, aided me, and in general – saved me from myself. Being willing to sound stupid and ask the question anyway and make mistakes – in public no less – has been a great growth opportunity. As a recovering perfectionist – this has been a little difficult at times but overall has lead to some of the nicest folks and the best experiences. I was a little angel for others as well in numerous capacities. All in all – my faith and basic belief that most people really are decent has been restored. At the end of the day I think we all go about achieving the same goals and aspirations – just differently.

The House of Parliament makes the White House look like a shack.

I’m not sure how I feel about continually running into folks who know more about my country and country’s politics than I do. They are simply more interested than I am. I figure if there is anything hugely important to know – someone will tell me.

Of course I had to see the Tower of London. Ok, another mark for the dumb – or perhaps under informed girl. I thought the tower was literally just one big tower. What I found most interesting is that men back then – unlike the huge hunks that play medieval roles in movies – were actually kind of small if you take their armor as a measurement. A testament to how strong they were – those broad swords were huge and heavy. I got to stick my head in a half helmet to get an idea of what the field of vision was like – pretty much nil. The only comforting thought would be that your enemy couldn’t really see either. I imagine the battlefield to be Slash, Hack and Hope. A number of pieces of Henry the 8th’s armor were on display. I was a little taken aback by this suit. Check out what else he was protecting. Big Armor, Little……? Draw your own conclusions.

Westminster Abbey is equally as impressive but St. Margaret’s right next door is much more intimate, free, no lines and has a lovely stained glass window that Henry the 8th had made for Catherine of Aragon – presumably before his affair with Ms. Boleyn. It creeped me out a bit when I realized I was walking on graves in the aisle between the pews. I tried to be respectful but there wasn’t much of a choice – the markers took up all the space. So I just tried not to think about what I could be stepping on. I find it an interesting way to honor the dead. That and the plaques on the walls. Many dated back to the 16th century and some were as current as the 1990s. St Pauls – The Actors Church – was another great little gem. Noel Coward is one of the honorees. There were also wall to wall graves on the floor and ground outside but by this time I didn’t mind so much…..when in Rome……

I did manage to see Harrods department store but that’s only because I had to pee and department stores typically have restrooms (free restrooms…) I possess a bladder the size of a walnut and my meanderings always have to include frequent bathroom breaks which is a huge inconvenience but, I digress… Kim, if you are reading this – Harrods is Your Store!! I have no idea what Niemen Marcus is like but I am sure Harrods is right up there. Traveling for 3 months with only one pair of shoes – sensible ones at that – and being a shoe collector myself – I did have to go to the shoe department just to look. It was hard to tear myself away without a purchase but I am traveling carry on only and there just isn’t any room in the inn so to speak. The princess in me was heaving heavy sighs all over the place but one heft of my bag without any additions made me happy I resisted temptation. My Naots are the best travel shoes ever – although I may hate them by the time this journey is over. Maybe I’ll bronze them……

Another note on Harrods – this I found a little disturbing. Their fall window displays included a number of stuffed animals. Each one of these windows had the following notation in small print on each display window “all of the animals in these displays died of natural causes” ……… Really? I mean – if you have to go to these lengths to be PC – why bother?

Back to bathrooms and varying degrees of need. London has this thing were you need exact change to use most public loos. Inevitably I’d feel the urge, heed the call only to discover that I did not have exact change – along with several other people in the same boat. Made for a few truly uncomfortable scurries around to locate a sympathetic bar person who’d let me use their facilities. My catholic guilt (I am a recovering catholic) would then kick in – and I’d feel compelled to buy a beer by way of fair exchange. Ultimately this was poor strategy for obvious reasons. I learned though – new city? Include WC locations as part of the orientation walk.

London’s Tube is a cinch to figure out as are the trains. Back home I would definitely use public transportation if we had a system that was remotely reliable. I know they are working on it but – please – cities like London, Paris, Boston, New York, etc. have been doing this successfully for eons – what is our problem???

Hyde Park – London’s version of Central Park. Fabulous and worth a wander.

The Tate Modern. Worth getting lost to finally find. Ai WeiWei’s Sunflower Seeds was the most impressive piece to me. Each one of these true to size seeds is handmade in porcelain and hand painted. Google the history and significance of this exhibit – you might find it interesting as well. Taryn Simon’s exhibit is worth following as well – in my opinion.

Food – I am hip to try anything once. I had julienned jelly fish in Japan and that was really weird. I have to say – traditional British fare is largely uninspired – at least what I tried. Bangers & Mash was really greasy sausage and mashed potatoes in a sea of gravy. I actually had to make a moat out of my potatoes in order to try the sausage without it drowning in the gravy first. This will definitely be on the never try again list. Local beer was out of this world though. The whole pub culture was a lot of fun although being a single female typically earned me a lot of eye time. Oh well….someone has to do it. I’d just stare back…..and smile. Now that got them to get back to their own beers quick!

As I said in my last post – I could have an affair with London and I did – 5 days and now it’s over. Like many affairs – started quickly – burned brightly – and then sputtered out. I have to say while I did thoroughly enjoy it while there – I am not in any hurry to come back. No harm, no foul – we just don’t have that much in common. Steinbeck made the observation in Travels with Charley that sometimes a journey continues for years after the journey’s end – other journeys die before their intended finish. The London piece of this journey definitely ended on time and within budget and that’s that. Time to move onto Scotland and my own cultural DNA.

London and the official start of fall for me….

Ok, the first day of rain and overcast skies was like a breath of fresh air and felt like home (Seattle). Now into day three – I am shaking my head and laughing at myself for the times I looked out my apartment window in Florence and – seeing the clear blue sky – actually cursed inwardly. I guess that marks me as a true Northwester. Folks from the Pacific Northwest who’ve been there awhile can probably attest to the same feeling. If we don’t get some grey skies and showers on occasion…well…we just start to get a little itchy. London has been an experience of extremes for me. Going from the lazy, heat filled days in a small city to this megatropolis that is constant motion, noise and bustle has taken a bit of getting used to but I love it! What a great city – Paris is still my number one but I could have an affair with London…

Just as with Florence – guidebooks abound with all you could ever want to see or know. The following are memorable bits so far on my meanderings. I have spent three days simply walking Everywhere. I think I have logged about 21 hours so far. Thank god for my Naot sandals – even so – I have returned to my little B&B room completely fagged as they say here. And soaking wet!

As big as London is – it is a walking city. I could have jumped on the tube and perhaps saved a little wear and tear on the joints but would not have seen nearly all the grandeur of a place that is steeped in this much history. Being from Seattle – a neophyte city as compared to the rest of the civilized world – I am stunned by so much visual evidence of a country’s growth and growing pains and will to survive. That so many of the buildings and public art has survived since the 16th,17th, 18th centuries – two world wars and the Blitz plus untold numbers of local skirmishes over these hundreds of years is simply amazing to me and a testament to the designers and builders. At home we just don’t have much in the way of historical evidence except of the indigenous population we did our level best to eradicate. I wonder if any of the buildings that grace our skyline will survive into the 25th century and what a lone traveler would make of them by comparison. And- you’re right – there is none.

Popular attractions – while most of the hardier tourists where braving the elements outside Buckingham palace waiting for the changing of the guard – I wandered over to the House Guard stables and witness the little known Changing of the House Guard. It happens every day at the same time but these are the Queen’s mounted guard. Being a horse lover – this was a delightful little discovery and there were no crowds at all. The guard comes from Buckingham palace down the city streets in tight formation in all their finery – swords included – on matched black horses. There is all the pomp and circumstance – lots of boot stamping by the soldiers on the ground, hoof stamping by hungry steeds, bellowed commands and ringing of bells. It was fabulous and a definite must see. As a note – these are regular soldiers who have the honor to be in the ceremonial guard but are also doing tours of duty in the real world.

Museums – London has seen fit to make most all of the national museums free – with an encouragement of donation. In a very expensive town and the dollar to pound exchange rate – I certainly appreciate that. The British Museum has been my fav so far but that’s because it has lots 3D stuff – sculpture, porcelain, weapons and the like – I’m not a huge fan of paintings. As a local friend of mine commented this morning – he loves to pop in periodically and see what we (Brits) have nicked from other countries. And, apparently some of those other countries are asking for their stuff back. What is really wonderful is that you are allowed to take pics and videos. Unlike Florence where photos inside a museum are grounds for expulsion or, at the very least, stern words from staff. I took more than my fair share today and it will be wonderful to share with folks when I get home rather than trying to trust my aging memory.

I will leave off with that for the day – more to come. As I celebrate almost a month on the road – there are truly only two things I miss. My Beloved and a bathtub – in that order. But certainly not in equal orders of magnitude…..

Lucca and Cortona – little jaunts out of Florence

Sometimes you just have to get out of dodge – even when Dodge is as lovely as Florence. I just couldn’t take one more day of jostling in the heat and competing for bench space so I took two little day trips to Lucca and Cortona.

Lucca is a beautiful little gem of a city – walled, quaint and the best part was renting a bike complete with a basket and bell and riding around the entire city on top of the wall. First in one direction – then the other. It was a fine way to see the city from above and decide what I wanted to concentrate on when I got to wandering around. You would think that such a small city would be a cinch to navigate around but I actually got lost! Beautiful little squares, the usual touristy shops, one incredible garden with wrought iron chairs strategically located where you could sit and contemplate the cool fountain to your hearts content. There are dozens of very fine outdoor cafes with some of the best food I have had so far in Italy. And I had more delightful conversations with more people as well. Only about an hour and a half out of Florence with a direct regional train – it is a must see. But make sure you mark in your mind where you came in at! Thinking there could be only one way in and out of this walled city – Wrong! – I ended up exiting out the other side and the furthest away from the train station I could be – thank god for good walking shoes and the ambulance that caused everyone in the roundabout I got myself stuck in the middle of to stop so I could scoot through three lanes of traffic. That earned me some looks I am still trying to decipher the meaning. I’m pretty certain they weren’t meant to be pleasantries. But all were gracious and I managed to get to the station just as the train was arriving – a huge stroke of luck.

Cortona…… Ok, I chose it because it was close on, cheap to get to and had been captivated by its charms in the movie Under the Tuscan Sun. Suffice to say – just as there was plenty of artistic license taken with Frances Mayers true story – I am pretty sure the fountain where Katherine assumed La Dolce Vita under the influence of champagne was imported into the city just for the movie. I could be wrong but I couldn’t find it. Be prepared for some serious hill climbing. Worth it to get to the top though. I was afforded amazing views of Tuscany just as far as the eye could see. As I was walking down those steep little streets I had to wonder how did horses way back when get up and down those flagstones in the rain without slipping and falling? Did the riders get off??? Strange thing to wonder about but that’s what came to mind. Worth the trip but don’t expect to see what was portrayed in the movie. Another direct train out of Florence but I am sure Sienna would have been a better choice for a day trip.