Saturday, June 30, 2012

Go on an Edinburgh City Walk-About

After our first crazy night in Edinburgh, what with the airplane flying and Scottish singing and military-men dancing, you'd think I'd be too exhausted to get up in the morning full of energy and the need to explore. Well, if you think that, then you don't know me at all, and how obsessed I am with experiencing everything while traveling. I was up at 7:00 a.m., fresh as a daisy, much to Joey's chagrin. Ready was I to have him show me around Edinburgh, since he'd been there a whole week before me!

With our morning coffee, my hubby and I are ready to explore Edinburgh!

After we got ready and grabbed some breakfast from the Waverly Station mall, we headed east down Princes Street to Calton Hill, the "Athens of the North". This majestic hill overlooks Old Town Edinburgh and the Holyrood Palace, and also contains several old and Grecian style buildings and structures. Apparently Edinburgh during the 1700s was a major place of enlightenment, learning, and restoration. The 17th century was a dark period in Scottish time, and the best changes and hopes for a positive future sprang from the city of Edinburgh in the 18th century. As part of this movement, Calton Hill became the place for gatherings and inspirational structures.

Enjoying the view from the top of Calton Hill in Edinburgh

There is a partly finished replica Parthenon (unfinished because the city ran out of money for the project and never did finish it), the first observatory in town, a clock tower that is synchronized to the 'One 'O Clock' cannon/gun in Edinburgh Castle, and more up on this little hill.  It is a great place to walk around and soak in the history, plus the view of the rest of Edinburgh is fantastic from that height.  And, just to be easy on your wallet, visiting Calton Hill is free.

Calton Hill, a mini-Forum in the middle of Edinburgh

The view from the hill of Old Town Edinburgh is spectacular, not to mention the view of Holyrood Palace, the Firth of Fourth, and Edinburgh Castle.  A giant hill, located smack in the middle of Edinburgh like it was dropped there, overlooks Calton Hill: Arthur's Seat, a great place for hiking.

View of Arthur's Seat from Calton Hill - we climbed that!

Once Joey and I were done with Calton Hill, and were also thoroughly soaked due to the ceaseless rain, we meandered down towards Holyrood Palace via a couple of cemeteries. I love cemeteries! They are beautiful, peaceful, and have tons of history - especially ones in Europe that are hundreds of years old. Some big names in Edinburgh, and indeed all of Scottish history, are buried in some of the city's graveyards. The dates on the tombstones were ancient in my humble opinion, and the variety of tombstones and mausoleums quite striking.

A spooky / beautiful old cemetery in Edinburgh, Scotland

Old gravestone covered in ivy.

Our next but brief stop was the Robbie Burns memorial. I felt a great need to raise a shot of Scottish whiskey in the poet's honor as we passed.  We didn't stop to get closer, however, as it was raining and we were chilled to the bone.

The Robbie Burns Memorial

Down the hill we continued, aiming for Holyrood Palace, where the Queen will actually be visiting in a week's time. In fact, the palace was closed due to her impending sojourn, so we were unable to peek inside. We did get a few photographs of the grounds, but that was it. This palace and abbey are famous because they are location of Scottish anointments and coronations of new Scottish kings and queens. After this, the monarchs travel down the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle for their celebration.

Locked out of Holyrood, but still admiring its architecture

My favorite part of Holyrood was the quaint little building located right on the boundary of the palace grounds, flush against the gate.  It is called Queen Mary's Bath House. Rumor has it Queen Mary would take her private baths in the little structure, soaking in tubs of sweet white wine. History says, rather, that this building is far too public for a queen's bathing station, and was more likely used as a dovecot or summer hangout.

I'm so drenched it feels like I had a bath in my clothes - outside Queen Mary's Bath House

Rather than stop our tour of Edinburgh at Holyrood and head back to our lodgings, since it was still raining and we were damp through and through, we opted for one last power walk before heading back to the Royal British Hotel. We were so close to Arthur's Seat, that massive hill and park I mentioned above (formerly the Royal Hunting Grounds in days of yore). We just had to climb it.

Arthur's Seat, lush and green (I boosted the color a little on this, due to the gloomy day).

Miraculously, the sun came out and graced us with some heat and amazing photography opportunities, and that settled it. Up we went, hiking over a rough-hewn stony path bordered on the edges with foxglove, daisies, and some gorgeous purple flower I didn't know the name of. (If you know the name, please let me know!)

On the trail to the top of Arthur's Seat with some pretty purple flowers

The view from the top was breath-taking! I was very glad we had decided to do the hike in the end. In the middle of this bustling but historical city is this oasis of nature - if you are ever in Edinburgh, or live there now, take advantage and go for a hike! What a wonderful gift Arthur's Seat is! However, not every part is beautiful. We also passed a heart-breaking memorial for a rock-climber who had fallen to his/her death - it is a highly discouraged practice by the city of Edinburgh, but the people still do it, at their own risk.

The cliffs along the path going up Arthur's Seat.
The view of Old Edinburgh with Edinburgh Castle and Scott Monument in background

This was only half of our day. We went back to the hotel, dried off (it was STILL raining - rain, sun, rain, sun - that's how it went all day), and headed back out for more adventure - up next would be Edinburgh Castle, the Scott Monument, and Mary King's Close!  What a jam-packed day!

Friday, June 29, 2012

An Evening Out on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

I made it safely to Scotland, and have already had a whirlwind time! Everything went smoothly on my flight, with only a small delay at the London Heathrow airport due to major thunderstorms in southern Scotland. I landed at about six p.m. Edinburgh time, and my husband was there to greet me. I hadn't seen him in nearly two weeks, so his face was a welcome sight! We grabbed my luggage, hopped on an airport shuttle bus, and headed straight for the hotel - I needed a shower in the worst way after being on a plane for FOREVER. I hadn't slept at all either, but there was no way I was going to sleep just yet. I just wanted to freshen up, and get my Edinburgh on!

Landing in Edinburgh - everything was so green!

We started by meandering down past Waverly Station to the North Bridge, on our way to the Royal Mile. I instantly fell in love with the city: the beautiful architecture, the constant sound of bagpipes somewhere floating on the air, the cashmere and tartan shops every third store.

Crossing the North Bridge on our way to the Royal Mile

Joey took me down the Royal Mile to see the silhouette of Edinburgh Castle, the exterior of St. Giles Cathedral, and some other amazing structures that I didn't know the name of.

Headed down a curvy side street towards the Grassmarket area

I also hadn't eaten all day, other than the tiny breakfast on the airplane from Calgary to London, so we decided to stop and eat. There were a million and one choices. We moved down into the Grassmarket area, and all the pubs there had a unique twist. I recognized several famous ones from the various websites I'd used to research the trip: The White Hart Inn, Biddy Mulligans, The Last Drop, and a really cool one, The Banshee Labyrinth, which had caves and an underground theatre. We decided to eat at The Beehive Inn, a noted British-style pub. I had a craving for fish and chips, and it sure hit the spot!

Yummy fish and chips at this place!

After dinner, we strolled back up to the Royal Mile, intent on making it to Calton Hill before dark, as Joey wanted to show me the view from the top. However, our plans got drastically side-tracked, but in the best of ways! We passed a pub on the Royal Mile called "The Mitre", which had some live, rousing Scottish music playing inside. I love live bands, and led Joey inside. We plunked down at the bar and ordered a pint of Tennants, a Scottish brew, and watched and sang along with the performer. My favorite was his rendition of "Whiskey in the Bottle". An older gentleman stood next to Joey, and of course, Joey being Joey started up a conversation with the man. He was very friendly and excited to tell us all about Edinburgh. Everyone is so proud of their city around here!

Joey with our new friend, Billy

Billy, for that was his name, began rattling off some good pubs to visit, and good things to see. He was soon joined by his buddy Jim, who was just as friendly and good-natured. Jim was a major Beatles fan, seeing as he'd known John Lennon and Len Garry (from John Lennon's first band) as a youth. To prove it, he handed me Len Garry's business card , with his private address scrawled on the back! I knew my Uncle Al, the second-biggest Beatles fan I know, would have a heart attack to see this card.

Sitting with Jim, who seemed to know EVERYBODY!

After a round of drinks at The Mitre, the men instructed us to follow them to a "much better pub" with better music, according to them. They were so friendly and magnetic, we couldn't say no. They led us a couple of blocks away to a tiny neighborhood pub called "The Scotsman". It had about five tables in it, hardly any room, and it was packed! The musician had everyone dancing and singing. Billy bought us a round of Tennants, and we settled at a small table made of an old keg barrel. Beside us sat some young men, tattooed and muscled, all with buzz cuts.

Joey and I and our new friends, members from the Scottish military tattoo.

As we got to chatting with the boys (er, I should say, as Jim got to chatting with them, since it seems there's no one Jim won't chat with), we discovered they were from the Scottish military, had served in Afghanistan, and were top-notch bagpipers. They had, in fact, graduated that day from the highest class possible in military bag piping. The pub we were at was a military hangout, and these boys had their pictures all over the wall in their bag piping regalia. They were very interesting people.

Pictures of our new bag piping friends hung on the wall behind them

They were also very fun people. Between Billy and Jim and the military boys, Joey and I had a fantastic time: laughing, dancing, singing Scottish folk songs, and yes, having a beer or two. When Billy got a text message from his wife chastising him for not coming straight home after the football match, the older gentlemen said their farewells and took their leave.

Loving the Grassmarket district and the fun people found within...

We stayed with the military boys for a while more, until one of them named Tam broke out into a Scottish song about a nut growing into a tree that went on and on, reminding me of the "Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly" story. His loud singing and our howling during the chorus pretty much cleared out the rest of the pub. I never expected to end the evening of my first night in Scotland singing bawdy tavern tunes at the top of my lungs with the Scottish military tattoo, but there you have it. Anything can happen on the Royal Mile!

All in all, a very fun first night in Scotland! The Scottish are a crazy, friendly, and wonderful folk!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Scotland 2012: The Journey Begins

It is the last day of school today - an exciting day in its own right. My students and I suffered through one last final exam, and then it was a day of fun and games, with a water fight, a game of Predator and Prey, and an afternoon movie. Fun... but exhausting. And the day isn't over yet!

In my car, sitting calmly but full of promise, is my suitcase, jam-packed full of items for my impending journey to Scotland tonight. My husband is already waiting for me in Edinburgh, and has been for the last five days or so. His best friend recently got married to a lovely Scottish girl in a castle outside of the city, in a gorgeous ceremony. The castle was derelict and crumbling, but the ivy adorning the walls and the sunlight filtering in through the broken roof made it charming and elegant.

Set up for Jason and Emily's wedding in Dirleton Castle, Scotland.
The wedding in action - I'm so unhappy that I missed this beautiful ceremony!

Anyway, my hubby had a few days after the celebrations were over to explore Edinburgh on his own, and I look forward to joining him. I'm catching the red-eye tonight, and will cruise into Edinburgh by around 5 p.m. tomorrow evening. I don't plan on taking it easy, either! I only have 7 days in Scotland, and I huge list of things to see and do (not just a list, I actually have an itinerary on a PowerPoint document... I know, I know...). So far, my husband has toured Rosslyn Chapel WITHOUT ME, explored Old Town in Edinburgh WITHOUT ME, and much more - I have a lot of catching up to do, and he has a lot of repeats to see!

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle: I'm so excited to tour it! Image via.

So stay tuned - I will try to update as the trip progresses, but if not, I will post all about it once I return. And I promise, I WILL try some haggis, even if it kills me. I hope it doesn't.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Traveling through time in Old St. Charles Town, St. Louis

During my whirlwind work trip to St. Louis, my boss and I set aside one day, and one day only, to explore St. Louis before we had to fly back to Canada. We wanted to explore some unique and fun sights around our hotel area in Westport, rather than paying for a $60 taxi cab ride to the downtown area where the Budweiser Beer Brewery and the St. Louis Gateway Arch stand (although, I really did want to go back downtown so I could go UP the arch). We asked our concierge where to go, and he responded with a resounding, "Old St. Charles Town, of course!"

Original state capitol sign.

So that's what we did. No questions asked. We hopped in the cab, asked for Old St. Charles Town, and drove in the appropriate direction, not really knowing what to expect. What we got was a very pleasant surprise, and a day that I'll not forget.

The quaint, cobblestoned streets of Old St. Charles Town in St. Louis.

Old St. Charles Town, we were informed by our knowledgeable cab driver, was the original state capitol of Missouri, and the main street of the village has been preserved as much as possible in its original state. (See how I used "original state" twice there, but in different contexts? If only my Junior High LA students could see me now! Ha ha!) We were instantly charmed upon arrival. The streets of Old St. Charles Town were bricked and cobblestoned, the stores nestled in hundred year old buildings that used to be blacksmith shops and inns. Ivy and vines crawled up the old stone walls, wrapping around charming balconies and chimneys. We felt like we'd stepped back in time!

The streets of Old St. Charles Town from above.

Shopping is extremely pleasant in Old St. Charles Town - there are stores of every type selling a unique variety of wares. I bought a legitimate corn cob pipe for my husband from a tobacco store, tasted some local wines, and perused glass baubles blown by local artisans. Clothing, music, kitchen items, jewelry, household decorations, hair extensions: everything is sold on the main street of Old St. Charles Town. It was also home to Daniel Boone (I met his statue!).

Oh, Daniel Boone - you are such a gentleman!

There are also many inns, restaurants, and pubs lining the main street. My boss and I enjoyed a cold one atop the balcony of the Lewis and Clark Pub, much to my delight. It was a hot, hot day that day - so hot that the elastic on my sundress got a bit melty and snapped (and I had to buy an emergency sundress or face having to walk around all day with my saggy dress tucked into my strapless bra, which was NOT very classy looking...) The Lewis and Clark Pub had a fantastic view of the cobblestoned street and the Mighty Mississippi.

The view from the Lewis and Clark Pub balcony.

After relaxing at the restaurant / pub, we decided to stroll down to the river, since the view had looked so refreshing. There we found Frontier Park, a pretty green area dedicated to showing off some old train engines, the old train station, and the beautiful banks of the Mississippi. The park was virtually empty, with one lone jogger joining us. Very peaceful!

Frontier Park's pretty entrance, just a quick stroll from the Mississippi.
The old train station at Frontier Park in Old St. Charles Town

We wrapped up the day by visiting a shop where the owner made his own musical instruments called dulcimers, which he played for us. I was very intrigued, but couldn't afford to buy one for myself. There was also a small brewery that made fruit-flavored beers and had a lovely patio which faced a trickling stream and a working water wheel, where we stopped for dinner.

A dulcimer - my next musical instrument?
All in all, we spent a wonderful, peaceful, and quaint day down in Old St. Charles Town, and for anyone visiting St. Louis, I would highly, highly recommend this as a side trip for the day. Travel back in time, and return with some great shopping!