Saturday, June 15, 2013

An Unexpected Detour in Newcastle

So things, unfortunately, did not quite go as planned in Newcastle!  Thanks to something of a comedy of errors involving me deciphering the northern English accent just a touch too late, missing an important stop from the bus by just one stop, and running all over the Newcastle waterfront for the better part of an hour based on directions given by friendly locals (which sadly were conflicting, confusing, and ultimately didn't help much!) I ended up missing my ferry across the North Sea to Amsterdam. 

Thankfully that did not mean my trip was too tragically derailed.  After taking a minute to collect my thoughts, reflect on that even though I had an unexpected delay in my trip it didn't mean my trip was over, dodging somewhere in the neighborhood of two dozen fare agents on a bad metro ticket (trouble is only trouble if you get caught!), and that this could just as much be an opportunity as a setback, I got myself settled in to a local hostel and found a flight which was leaving the following afternoon for Amsterdam from Newcastle airport for less than the cost of a new ferry ticket!  So seeing the opportunity I decided to settle in and cruise around Newcastle while waiting for my flight out.

 The streets of Newcastle

 The Grainger Street Market

An example of the old and varied architecture still standing in Newcastle

 The Theater Royal, currently showing the Pirates of Penzance!

 The Keep of the castle at Newcastle, the only remaining portion of the castle that is still standing to this day

 The new Moot Hall, built on the site of the original Moot Hall where town business was conducted and public meetings were held

 The Tyne Bridge, in the foreground are remains of the old town walls

 Just the sign I like to see outside of my kind of pub!

 A surviving section of the medieval town wall, which jutted north of this leg of Hadrian's Wall

Newcastle Chinatown Gate

And now it was time to hop the metro (legally this time) to the airport and wait for my flight down to Amsterdam.  Onward with the next step in the adventure!

Hark Hear the Pipes A'Calling!

Ahh Oban, how little I time I had to know ye!  The first thing that struck me on the trip north by train was the transition from Edinburgh and the lowlands of Scotland to the coastal highlands on the way up to Oban.  As much as they are a part of the same place it was clear very early on the lowlands and the highlands were two very different worlds in many ways.  In spite of this it was a pleasant surprise to find, whether lowlander or highlander, the Scots all around were as friendly and hospitable in Edinburgh as they were in Oban.

One of the many lochs that dot and shape the landscape of Scotland

 The mist-covered stark hills of the highlands, complete with Scottish weather!

The train ride up from Edinburgh gave an excellent view of some of the most rugged, beautiful scenery I've seen yet, and it definitely hit home how different the two places were.  Edinburgh and the lowlands, while colder and wetter than northern California, ultimately aren't too much different from the rest of England in terms of land and climate.  The highlands, on the other hand, gave a very strong sense that every bit of land and living people could make up here had to be scratched, hacked, and carved out of the foreboding lands further north.


After the train trip (by the way I LOVE the rail system in Europe so far!  Great for catching up on writing, looking at the scenery, unwinding, and NOT WORRYING ABOUT TRAFFIC!) I arrived in downtown Oban.  A much smaller place than everywhere I'd been before minus the colder weather and ancient ruins it wouldn't have been out of place on the central coast or New England, reminding me as different as things may be in terms of history, geography, and culture there are still so many things people share in common everywhere.  I wandered on the streets a bit before stopping off at the hostel, dropping my stuff off and grabbing a little dinner.

 Fried haddock with chips, an excellent dish I'd recommend to anyone passing through or staying a while

The joys of local caught fish!  If you stop through Oban I'd highly recommend getting some of the local seafood.  They know how to make it up here!  The next day, after much desired rest, I got up and got to seeing the sites and doing some hiking up in the hills above the town.

 A local war memorial for those who died in the World Wars

This memorial is one example, by the way, of why I think British and European policy towards war and defense is VERY different from the United States.  EVERY town I've been in has had some kind of monument to the war dead from the World Wars, something you don't see in America anywhere near as frequently.  Our country's experience in wars, ever since 1898, has always been one of where the fighting is something that happens, "over there."  Here it was something that was right in your face, with friends and loved ones not coming home, and the devastation sometimes hitting home itself.  Having experienced the two most destructive wars in human history would definitely weigh on the psyche in a way it doesn't in the United States and is definitely a lesson we could learn from.

Also like just about any fishing town they had a memorial to those who had been lost at sea.  It was simple, beautiful, and sadly looks like it has had some recent visits.  Gods watch out for those who risk their lives on the open ocean to pull back in a living for their families!

 A memorial to all sailors and fishermen lost at sea

From there I headed up into the hills above Dunnolie Castle, the ruins of what once was the seat of Clan MacDougall.  We'll get back to them in a minute, first up is the beauty of the highlands!

 A glen in the hills above Dunnolie Castle

 The hills above Dunnolie Castle

 A nice little spot for some reflection and rest

 The waves crashing up on the crags on the coast

 The beauty of the Oban coastline

 One of the towers along the seawall just below Castle Dunnolie

This boat below is how Clan MacDougall ruled the islands in the lands of Lorn, as the local region is known.  Based on the design of the old Viking longships the main improvement by the progenitor of the clan was replacing the traditional starboard steering oar with something much closer to what we would call a rudder and tiller.  This allowed their ships to turn tighter, faster, and maneuver more effectively than other vessels in the confined lochs, bays, and sounds of the western Scottish coast.

 A reconstruction of a Gaelic ship inspired by the Viking Longships which once ruled the North Sea and the Isles

Dunnolie Castle itself has long since fallen into ruins.  It once boasted a three story keep with a great feasting hall where all clansfolk and travelers were welcome to grab a spot to sleep and a bite to eat from the Chief's table.  Time and history were not kind to the seat of the MacDougalls, first seeing a loss of station from siding with Edward II against Robert the Bruce during the Scottish War of Independence, then seeing occupation by Cromwell's troops during the English Civil War, before finally being broken all together when the MacDougalls backed the Jacobites during the Jacobite uprisings and losing what little they had left, leaving them with a simple house just down the hill from the castle they once ruled the isles from.
 One of the towers of Castle Dunnolie

 The main keep of Castle Dunnolie

After hiking around it was time for another excellent bite to eat in town, some rest, and to get ready for the trip back down to Newcastle and the hop to Amsterdam!

 Another view of the streets of Oban

Farewell to the highlands!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Nemo Me Impune Lacessit!

Ah Edinburgh, a beautiful little city that really shows its age.  Where London was quite a hodgepodge of old and new there was a definite sense of layers, history, and preservation in the city on the Firth of Forth.  Where London was constantly busy, always a rush from one place to another,  Edinburgh had a much more laid back feel to it.  Granted this difference of atmosphere was probably partially because Edinburgh is about a tenth the size of London and also because I had no days of jet lag it was an interesting change of pace.

After getting off the bus and having a quick, cheap breakfast I took a little time to wander around the streets of Edinburgh on my way to the hostel.

The Walter Scott Monument

Rose Street, home to many excellent pubs and restaurants

After cruising around in New Town near the bus terminal I headed up to the hostel on Castle Rock.  It was perfectly located, just up the street from Edinburgh Castle, easy to get to, and right in the heart of Old Town.

The Royal Mile just at the foot of Edinburgh Castle

From there I took a moment to get settled in, upload the first batch of photos, and drop off my luggage before heading off to explore Edinburgh Castle.

The front gate of Edinburgh Castle bearing the motto of the Royal Scots Regiment, translated from Latin it means, "No one attacks me with impunity"

 Statue of William Wallace located to the left of Edinburgh Castle gate

Statue of Robert the Bruce, located to the right of Edinburgh Castle gate

In comparison to the Tower of London, which was built by the Thames to control the approaches to the city, Edinburgh Castle was built on an extinct volcano which archaeologists believe was the site of a hill-fort for centuries prior to its construction.  Walking around the walls at the top I could see why they picked the site, not only could you see most of the city from the battlements most of the walls were perched on sheer, rocky cliffs.

View of Edinburgh from the castle walls

Further in from the entrance sat the One O'Clock Gun, so named because it is fired every day at 1PM.  This started in the early 1800s to help ships in the harbor keep accurate time, essential for 19th century navigation which depended on the use of chronometers for determining their current latitude.

The One O'Clock Gun

Further up the castle were the Scottish War Museum, the Royal Scots Regimental Museum, and the Crown Jewels of Scotland.  Going into the two museums was an interesting exercise in comparison and contrast; in the War Museum most of the exhibits loudly trumpeted Scotland's more recent military history from the wars of the 17th century up to the end of the Cold War while the Royal Scots museum made a point of describing the downright deplorable conditions soldiers lived in up until the late 1800s, giving a much better sense of their day to day existence.

The inner yard, where the Great Hall, the Royal Apartments, and the Crown Jewels were kept
 The Crown Jewels of Scotland, compared to the multi-room display in the Tower of London with golden maces that were taller than me, were a much more modest affair that also were not allowed to be photographed.  One item which was particularly interesting was a silver-gilt wand found in the same chest the crown, scepter, and sword were kept in.  To this day historians aren't sure what the wand was for or why it was in the chest in the first place; if anyone has any ideas feel free to post them up!

From there it was on to a short dinner of Scotch Pie at a pub down the street from the castle before heading to Sandy Belle's.  Sandy Belle's was listed as having an open mic night for local folk music where people would bring in their instruments, all acoustic of course, and play until the pub closed.  I hung out at one end of the bar, enjoying the live music and the company of an Englishman named Tom who had lived in Edinburgh for the previous ten years and a German tourist named Lars who was just passing through.  All in all it was a great night with good drink, good music, and good company!

Sandy Belle's
The next morning I got up, grabbed some of the cheap breakfast offered by the hostel, and headed out to the National Museum of Scotland.  Amalgamated from two other museums the National Museum contains artifacts from Scottish history and other finds "borrowed" and "acquired" from the far corners of the world by Scots serving the British Empire.

 James Watt, the inventor of the first practical steam engine

 Dolly, the first successful cloned animal in the world.  Insert obligatory sheep joke here

A reconstruction of one of the first steam engines built by Watt

From there I trekked down the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace, the residence of the British Royal Family while they are in Scotland, and the Scottish Parliament building.  On the way I stopped off at a small museum along the way called the People's Museum which showed was life was like in Edinburgh at the end of the 18th century and a common person's view of everything from then up until the modern day.  I left wishing there were more museums like that in the US and everywhere else on my trip; considering how much attentions presidents, kings, and corporate tycoons get in the history books the average person's perspective is one that deserves a lot more time than it gets.  Further down the road I checked out Holyrood Palace; it was a pretty impressive place to see from the outside but what was even more impressive was Arthur's Seat, another volcanic rock formation rising up out of the earth to tower over Edinburgh.

Arthur's Seat
I hiked up the side, it was a rather long walk up but definitely worth it aside from the large, black biting bugs.  From up there I had another excellent view of the whole city.

Edinburgh from Arthur's Seat

From there I got cleaned up and headed out to get a bite of the most famous dish in Scottish cuisine: haggis!

Haggis with mashed potatoes, steamed turnips, and whisky sauce

In spite of the appearance it is MUCH better than it looks, if you have the chance to try some in Edinburgh I'd recommend 1780 on Rose Street for a chance to try some.  To finish out the night I stopped by at a little pub called Bannerman's, located under a bridge, to check out their rock/punk show for local bands.  Needless to say it was a great way to finish the night, my only complaint is they closed up sooner than advertised but that's understandable seeing as a huge rock festival called Rock Ness had just finished up the day before.

The show at Bannerman's

Now it was time to get to sleep, pack up, and check out before heading over to catch the train up to Oban, a little town on the western coast of Scotland.  Next up: the Highlands!

Farewell to Edinburgh and hello to the Highlands of Scotland!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

London Calling!

London is quite a city!  After getting settled in, recovering from jetlag, and waking up a bit I spent the last few days wandering around town, checking things out, and of course taking a lot of pictures.  Unfortunately four days is definitely not enough time to see everything but I managed to get in a lot of the highlights.

After catching up on sleep and resting from traveling around Parliament Square on Wednesday, I headed out into Southwark to the Tower of London.  

 Southwark Cathedral, on site since the early 1200s

After crossing the Thames via the London Bridge (which is the one with the famous name not the famous face, that would be the Tower Bridge) I wandered along through the streets just north of the Thames.  

The Tower Bridge, the most famous (and sometimes mis-identified) bridge in London

As much as it is far easier to travel around London by the Underground I think you really can't get the feel of a city unless you walk the streets, get a little lost, and explore a bit.  You never know what you'll find when you do it that way.

Monument to the Great London Fire of 1666

 After a few good hours of wandering I got to the infamous Tower of London, the refuge of kings, prison for traitors to the realm, and until recently one of the first armories in England.

 The Tower of London from the northwest side

The main gate to the Tower of London

The Tower has a rather gruesome history, infamous for torture, murder, and imprisonment in dark holes where many went in and few came out.  With the foundations built on the walls of an ancient Roman fort, the Tower has been expanded many times since then as new kings added more to fill it out.  Some of the more infamous sections of the Tower include the torture chamber in the depths of the fortress complex and the Bloody Tower, the place where two young princes are believed to have been murdered during the reign of Richard III in the War of the Roses.

The Bloody Tower

 The rack in the torture chamber

 The Scavenger's Daughter.  Victims were placed in the position outlined in white before the two iron bars were pressed together.  It was said to break people much quicker than the rack.

Of course just because one was a prisoner here didn't mean it was as bad as you would think.  If you were important enough the accommodations were nothing to sneer at, giving you plenty of time to catch up on a few things.  As always those who knew the right people were given a very different treatment.

 Sir Walter Raleigh's quarters in the Tower during his imprisonment

Sir Walter Raleigh's history of the world, written during his imprisonment.  Nothing like prison time to help give aspiring writers inspiration!

Of course not all the prisoners' quarters were so luxurious as Sir Walter's.  Many who passed through the Traitor's Gate directly from the Thames River were not so lucky.

Abandon all hope ye who enter here!

No visit to the Tower would have been complete without stopping by the famous Tower ravens.  There is an old prophecy saying if the ravens ever leave the Tower then the Tower will fall and England will go down with it.  Just to be on the safe side the Ravenmaster of the Yeoman Warders makes sure to clip their wings so they can't go wandering off.

One of the Tower's ravens.  This guy was easily as big as a hawk and quite the chatterbox

Going medieval in the Tower of London

After visiting the grounds I had the opportunity to view the famous Crown Jewels of the British monarchy.  Unfortunately I do not have any pictures of those to share since photography was pretty strictly forbidden in the room where they kept all the shiny stuff.  While they were quite something to look at me being me I couldn't help but wonder if all the blood and treasure put into acquiring them (including the baseball-sized South African diamond in the royal scepter) could have been put to better use.  One fun fact: the Crown Jewels in the Tower are NOT the original Crown Jewels.  Those were destroyed in 1649 after the abolition of the monarchy during the English Civil War.  The ones on display were made in the 1660s after Charles II was given back the throne following Cromwell's death.

From there it was on to the famous White Tower, the most iconic building in the Tower complex.  It served a wide variety of functions including royal refuge, gunpowder storehouse, records room, and currently stands as a museum.

 The White Tower, what most people picture when you say the Tower of London

By the way did I mention the Tower has a rather blood-soaked history?  This sculpture is supposedly on the site where some of the most famous blood-letting and executions took place the most famous of which was Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII who lost her head on May 19th, 1536 (same day as my birthday!)

The spot where many famous people lost their heads in the most literal sense possible

From there it was onward to St. Paul's Cathedral, one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England with known services going back to the 600s.  It achieved truly iconic status during the London Blitz by surviving when most of the city was in flames or blasted to pieces by German bombers.

St. Paul's Cathedral

After enjoying the evening in the company of other hostelers, including a Dutch student who was in England to take a test to prove his proficiency in English (he passed with flying colors, as one would expect for someone who got his bachelor's in English Literature) I headed out the next day to explore around Buckingham Palace.  The Palace itself was closed to visitors but the Royal Mews, where they house the carriages for the royal family, were open (for a nominal fee of course.  London is NOT a cheap city to visit!)

 One of the carriages of state, drawn by horses and made nearly a hundred years ago

The Royal Limo.  Queen Victoria refused to have one of those "mechanical monsters" housed in the Mews so her son waited to purchase this one until after she was good and dead.

No visit to the Mews would be complete without seeing the massive, four-ton Gold State Coach.  This thing was built in the late 1700s and has been used to ferry every single British monarch to their coronation since then.  It is so heavy the team of four horses can't move any faster than a slow walk.

 The Gold State Coach.  The word "subtle" was definitely NOT in the designer's vocabulary.

After that came Buckingham Palace, the home to the Royal Family.  While closed to visitors it always draws quite a crowd, including an outlaw biker club!

 Buckingham Palace

In the grounds next door to the palace were the St. James gardens, providing a small oasis of peace and greenery in the midst of the hustle and bustle of London.

The St. James Gardens

After a brief stop for lunch came time to head south and visit with a few people whom I've only, until now, had the chance to meet online.  First up was a short train ride to Coulsdon Town to meet Wendy, who first contacted me via Facebook over a year ago.  We had a lovely time in the park with her young son before it was time to head back to the train and for him to head back for his nap.

From there was a trip to the British Museum to meet with Thorskegga Thorn, an active Heathen in the London community.  For those who are unfamiliar the British Museum is the place where the British Empire put all the works of art and great archaeological finds they, ummm, "borrowed" from all over the world, the most famous of which were the great Parthenon marbles.  They had everything from ancient Egyptian works all the way up to the high Medieval period although, sadly, the section with all the Saxon and Viking stuff was closed for repairs.  That aside it was a great experience and great meeting Thorskegga in person.

After all that traveling it was time to get ready to head out.  After sorting out a slight snafu with travel arrangements I got my bus booked to Edinburgh, said goodbye to the Steam Engine, and headed out for my last day in London.

The Steam Engine at breakfast.  Free breakfast is the best kind there is!

I spent the day walking through Chelsea and Kensington, getting slightly lost before arriving at the British Museum of Natural History.

The main entrance hall to the Museum of Natural History

After wandering through the museum and seeing everything from prehistoric sea monsters to life-size replicas of blue whales I caught the Underground to Victoria to grab a bite to eat before catching my overnight bus north to Edinburgh.

 The Shakespeare Pub, home to a very solid and filling steak and ale pie

The bus ride north from Victoria Coach Station was uneventful and surprisingly enough easier to sleep on than the plane flight was.  I arrived in Edinburgh at 7:40 in the morning and after taking care of breakfast (3 pounds for bacon, a fried egg, blood pudding, some bread, two sausages and beans, best deal in the UK to date!) I set out for my hostel located on Castle Rock in the shadow of the imposing, ancient, and indomitable Edinburgh Castle for the next part of my trip through Europe.  Next stops after Edinburgh are a trip up through the Highlands to a little town called Oban, followed by a ferry ride to Amsterdam then onward to Berlin and Sweden!

Edinburgh Castle, built on top of an extinct volcano