September 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
Day Eleven: AKA The Last Day.
It was bittersweet, and already from dawn did we feel the diminuendo of the trip, of the thrill, of the timelapse that we experienced on this great island. But we did our best to stretch it out.
After a very long morning of breakfasts (yes, multiple) and lounging in the conservatory (I have always wanted to say that), reading travel books and listening to the rain pounding on the metal roof above us, we packed up our things into the car and continued through the Lothians, south. After a few minutes, we entered the Lammermuir Hills, which was kind of almost exactly like I have always imagined them to be in Lucia di Lammermoor.
For our midday hike, we stopped by St. Abbs, a tiny harbor just a couple of miles north of the Scotland-England border.
There wasn’t much to it other than a cafe’ and a few boats- which was exactly as it should have been:
This one was my favorite:
Although I much preferred stalking the sea gulls in the harbor and watching them scream at each other like an old married couple:
From the harbor was a walking path that continued along the coast for a long, long time.
There is a nature reserve stretching up from St. Abb’s, complete with a loch and the usual herds of sheep:
… and the last lighthouse for us on this trip:
It was a quirky little structure, not any bigger than a shed, and without the tower. Just a light booth perched upon the hill, with a foghorn (apparently, Scotland’s first audible fog signal) a few feet below it. Not exactly what I was expecting, especially considering that it was designed by the Stevenson brothers (whose daddy was the genius of the Bell Rock Lighthouse, which is practically the opposite of this cute, compact structure)… but, somehow, it was the perfect surprise to the end of our Grand Coastal Lighthouse Adventure.
After that, it was time to hike back against impressive winds:
Then we drove through some army-style pig farms:
, and crossed over into England. The next few hours consisted of rain, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and bags of potato chips in every possible imaginable flavour (and more). At the end of the day, we arrived in Nottingham and its invisible castle, staying with a couple of Couchsurfers who greeted us with homemade falafel and oatmeal cookies and life lessons and language lessons that lasted late into the night.
As we collapsed onto our squeaky air mattress and set the alarm for four hours later, we thought about just how big and impressive our Scottish loop was. In the eleven days that passed since we landed in the East Midlands and drove west, and then north, we were nothing but flabbergasted and on a perpetual high of life and beauty and love and digestive cookies and everything great. And then we drove, in considerably less days, east, and then south, and our high lowered with our latitude. And, now we were back where we started from- but had so much inbetween. So many adventures and landscapes and laughs and lifetimes, that it seemed almost crude to separate them back into days. So many different night accommodations and so many different breakfasts and so many different sunsets and so many different accents, that tracing our frenzied route on a map on the airplane back to Italy felt impossibly detached.
This was a short, compact trips, and not my usual type of travel. And yet… even this little bite of Scotland was enough to make me fall in love with it and try plotting a way to return- for much, much longer.
September 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
Day Ten of our Scotland Adventures was the only day in which we woke up in a city. . . and by the time we took the twenty-minute stroll into the center, I was ready to leave. By city standards, Edinburgh isn’t terrible, but compared to the rest of Scotland, I don’t understand why anyone would want to be in in instead of out of it.
Even if it was full of cozy cafe’s and art boutiques that made me wish that I had a kitchen to decorate and wasn’t flying back to Italy on Ryanair. From underground cellars to rooftops patios to church corners, quirky cafe’s could be found everywhere:
Then we trudged up to the top of the castle hill, poked our heads in, and headed back out. With the entire castle turned into some sort of performance venue, my favorite nook of it was the couple of stereotypical phone booths lodged in the corner:
After that, a brisk stroll down The Royal Mile, which was full of souvenier stores and fancy tea rooms serving porridge and scones and cuppas:
, and a couple of smaller museums:
At the end of the Royal Mile was the Scottish Parliament Building, with the unexpected Holyrood Park reaching out to the sky. I have to admit that it was pretty cool to see such an impressive peak and green park thrown in the middle of a flat, grey landscape.
From there, we started to loop back, taking a detour through the Regent Gardens. At the top of Calton Hill, we found another scenic wedding photo shoot (this time complete with cannons!):
After a blueberry ice pop and a funky art show/sound installation at the Collective Gallery, we wove our way back down and found a court full of international food trailers. We tried the haggis burger and cinnamon crepes, and then took a stroll down Dundas Street. Just as the first downpour we experienced out of the car started to come down, we ducked into a gay cafe’ (literally, and it was the most colorful and fun place ever) for some onion soup and ale:
I was a little disappointed (but probably more shocked and thrown out-of-place) by Edinburgh. Despite is being a big city, I was looking forward to seeing this artsy cultural center with a great theatre scene. But I think that it is meant to be its own trip; fitting it into a tour of rural Scotland does not work too well.
So, by the time that we rolled into Snawdon, a “village” of two houses (one of them our last B&B of the trip), I was back to feeling content and giddy with the fresh air. Our house was a perfect farewell night to Scotland: cozy and personal and intimate and a bit kitsch:
With warm bathrobes and sunflowers in the fireplace:
Our host was an intriguing man that dabbled his interests in a vast variety of hobbies and thus provided a steady stream of interesting conversation. We nibbled on his dinner together, and then (for the first time all trip; finally, whoot!) sipped on different bottles of whiskey and attempting to find corresponding adjectives for each one of them (this got easier the more we drank). We also tasted Slow Gin, Snawdon’s own elderberry liquer that tastes like unicorns and rainbows in a bottle (but so much better).
After all that city and drinks, we collapsed into bed with utmost eagerness to do nothing but pass out and hope to wake up to a dreary, drizzly morning.
Good night, Scotland!
September 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
Upon waking up to Day Nine, we found the skies no less cloudy than they were a few hours ago when we curled up in the front seats of the car. Without saying a word, we shed a couple of layers of socks and continued driving through the countryside of Grampian, amidst school towns and flattened fields. Our enthusiasm for driving away from the Highlands plummeted to new levels of depression as we passed the outskirts of clunky Aberdeen. That’s when I knew that we needed a break; some sort of seaside stroll to revive the spirit of our coastal road trip.
So, we turned off at the exit for Stonehaven. We left the car at the edge of town, by an ‘art deco pool’ that the city seems to take great pride in:
, and then strolled into town. It was a quaint little place, with the average age of its inhabitants about 75 years old. I particularly enjoyed all of the statues around town- of sea animals and dragons and little girls and ships:
And, oh, the comfort of the cliffs once again. After seeing them every day for a week, that inner-side drive from Durness to Aberdeen was painful. It was good to have some elevation on the horizon again (even if the north sea was infinitely more appealing):
The hike was gentle and scenic, with golden fields:
They did that thing again, where they surprise you with a ticketing office after you walk up and down too many steps. But, we declined and instead had a picnic on the beach underneath to the shouts of German kids throwing pebbles into the waves. Then, a return stroll into town, a beachside promenade, and via!
We hopped over to the next town, Johnshaven:
Then, via! again. A pit stop at a pick-your-own-fruit farm (we didn’t buy admittance into their plastic-covered fields, though we did help ourselves to cleaning out their mulberry bushes), and then an afternoon in Arbroath. While I enjoyed the museum at the Bell Rock Signal Tower, I was a little bit disappointed that the actual Bell Rock Lighthouse was so far away that it was a mere smudge on the horizon. Eleven miles out on sea, this is the oldest surviving sea-washed lighthouse… and I kind of wanted to see more than just a dot of it. But, we came too late for boat tours, so we contented ourselves with peeking into all of the smokies nooks and ate fish and chips in the harbour:
We had kind of been hoping to find some lovely, secluded little town to stay in for the night, but we weren’t inspired by anything. So, we decided to spend a night in Edinburgh and see what all of the hype was about. We checked into the Original Raj Hotel, an Indian-themed house with an entertaining staff and elephant statues as guardians to the villa grounds.
We checked out the harbor (we do need to, after all, maintain this water theme) and Stockbridge, a bohemian nook northwest of New Town. We admired the purple castle on top of the hill and got lost. More on that (and more) next time though- Exploring Edinburgh!
September 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
Day Eight was the last of our “Driving North, North, Northest!” days. Unoftunately, the country ended at one point and we had to loop back down. And, while the looping down was (almost) always entertaining and full of its own adventures, it did not have the same awe-striking grandeur that our Highland Adventures had. So, in a sense, this was our last day in the “wilderness” of Scotland. What a great last day it was though!
Our day started a bit before 5 AM, when I rolled over and cracked my eyelids open- only to see the horizon begin to glow orange and the layers of mountains bathed in different shades of purple. There was a wall window right by our bed, which made for wonderful sky gazing all night, and a marvelously warm and comfortable sunrise of the purest, undiluted colors imaginable.
A couple of hours later, we migrated upstairs for a breakfast that turned into a brunch, and then into a lunch.
The couple that was were staying with grew many of their own fruits and veggies, and made their own butter and yoghurt and breads and teas, and everything tasted fresh and delicious. From the granola mix, to the cheeeses, to the poofiest scrambled eggs that I have ever tasted, this morning lounge session was thoroughly enjoyed as we chatted away about art and life and Scotland.
Eventually, we found the strength to force ourselves to repack our bags and once again get back into the car. We passed more hidden lochs and hilltop benches:
Conditions were good for crossing! So we waited and watched the little boat transfer people across, eight by eight. And, just as it was our turn to get on the boat… I turned around and said, “let’s go for a walk.”
I’m not sure why. Cape Wrath was the uppermost destination of our road trip through Scotland, and the lighthouse that I wanted most to see. Mayhaps the skies were too sunny; I had always envisioned seeing the lighthouse with grey clouds and a light drizzle and mighty waves beneath. Mayhaps I was tired of sitting in cars, and spending two hours in a van on the other side of the water wasn’t too appealing at the moment. But, whatever the reason was, I just… didn’t feel like it.
What I did feel like doing, though, was taking a walk. Along the coastline, on the cliffs:
So that is what we did. We started along the unmarked path, and then scaled down the rocks to the perfectly white sand below:
It was ridiculous, this clarity of colours. I mean, does this look real? I felt like I was walking through some CGI beach in some adventure video game:
This is not what I think of, when I think of northern Scotland. Bu, here it was. Just white sand, blue waters, and little waterfalls trickling off mossy rocks:
And, as if this wasn’t cool enough, something truly magical happened as we were strolling along the beach. The low tide came in.
To the north of us was the Atlantic Ocean (or is it the Norwegian Sea? or the Arctic Ocean), to the south of us was the Kyle of Durness. And between these two bodies of water, usually connected, the sand came up to play and presented us with all sorts of crazy patterns.
This year, I had planned to go see the salt mines at Uyuni, but fate made me postpone that travel until 2015. Instead, I ended up here, in the quicksands of northern Scotland– and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. We tried to cross all the way to the other side, onto the Cape Wrath Peninsula, but were stopped by a mini river of currents right by the western shore. But, that’s alright- walking on the bottom of the ocean was fun enough by itself:
Then, we drove another couple of miles to the little seaside town of Durness. We stopped at the seaside cemetery (I would like to be cremated and my ashes released in the Isle of Skye, but if I had to get buried, this place wouldn’t be too shabby):
, and took an art/chocolate pit stop at the Balnakeil Art Village, a series of old war bunkers converted into art galleries and chocolate stores. I think that it’s a nifty idea, and added a really unique feel to the ginger cookies. After that, a short stroll through Durness:
, and a mini hike down to SMOO Cave- referred to as Subsurface Military Onshore Operations during the war. It is one of Britain’s largest caves (the largest cave?), and you can take a small boat tour inside:
Then, we took one last stroll to the northern cliffside, where we were accompanied by bunnies as we stared off into the distance. I loved the fact that there was nothing separating you from the North Pole. Between you and the Arctic, just water.
After that, we started our trip back down south. It was the first time we drove south in over a week, and our hearts weren’t feelin’ the beat. It was uncomfortable, to be driving back… and away from the water! There was nothing between Durness and Inverness (thank goodness for those two not-too-yummy ginger cookies, for that was dinner), though I doubt that we would have been able to bring ourselves to stop anywhere had there been something.
Inverness was a dark and scary place. We pulled into the outskirts of it around 10 PM, and already from the distance, all of the light pollution made us cringe. The giant stores and neon signs and parking lots and ugly cement buildings did nothing to cheer up our spirits. Our minds and hearts were still in the Highland Wilderness, and we did not want to be there.
So we took a fast-paced stroll around the city center, stocked up on digestive cookies, and left. We drove for another half hour before starting to look for a place to pull over for the night- without much luck, despite our multiple detours down tiny roads and into deserted parking lots. We ended up in scary parks and in a private airport and driving around the perimeter of an army base… until finally giving up and pulling into one of those parking areas at the side of the highway, next to a couple of 18-wheelers.
Not the most scenic sleeping spot, but we were exhausted and had no motivation to keep driving. We crossed our fingers that the morning sun would illuminate us with some inspiration, curled up with three layers of socks, closed our eyes, and smiled nostalgically at the thought that twelve hours earlier, we were somewhere between a homegrown breakfast and the sunny bottom of the ocean.
September 17, 2014 § 2 Comments
Day Seven found us celebrating our one-week anniversary in the UK by driving all day through beautiful landscapes- kind of what has established itself as the norm by this point.
After a lazy morning with a full Scottish breakfast (sausages and eggs and more meats, oh my!) in our little bunkhouse, we (painfully) bid arrivederci to the Isle of Skye and continued driving north through the Upper Highlands.
The road was, as always, mesmerizing. Except for the fact that we were in the red on the gas meter, and our rental car so kindly made it a point to point out that we were another five miles lower every few minutes. And, like I mentioned before, there ain’t much between one shack and another in the Highlands.
Somehow, as travel luck would have it, we pulled into Ullapool with some ten miles left. Celebration dance on the harbourside, next to the gas station!
And then we continued driving north. A couple of kilometers before Lochinver, Mr. Italian and I pulled over for a spontaneous hike to Kirkaig Falls.
The walk was simply breathtaking, starting lower in a bushy forest and then gently rising up to the mountaintops.
Between the fields of violet, we also found splashes of orange, which made for an exotic contrast:
After this little detour, we got back into the car and passed Lochinver. Northwest of this little post town, the landscape changed yet again- into a series of islands (floating mountaintops?) in infinite lochs; compact, but by no means limited.
It’s hard to capture and explain the peculiarity of this area. It is as if someone flooded a rough mountain range, and you are left with only the mountaintops to visit. Every corner brings you to one of these little slices of isolated bliss:
After a few more minutes, we found ourselves at Clachtoll Beach, one of those hidden coves with that white sand and turquoise water that you find in travel magazines. So, clearly, we took advantage of the world’s most perfectly situated picnic table (although haven’t I said that about every picnic table in Scotland?) and nibbled on our breakfast leftovers:
Since we were only a mile or two from where we would be staying at that night, we decided to bathe in the sunset light and make a quick hop out to Stoer Lighthouse. Which, I must admit, was my favorite lighthouse of the trip.
There was no one there; just the cliffs and a field of trampoline-like grass upon which I jumped my little heart out. Ahead of you, just sea and the setting sun. Below you, waves and caves. All around you, just blue and green and wind. (And a little bit of mud.)
Ready to get our toes dry again, we hopped over the hill and checked into our favorite accommodation of the trip: a B&B in the middle of heaven. Cozy and elegant and modern and warm. One of those rooms with wood on all six surfaces, really poofy covers, a high-tech shower, and a self-designed layout that leaves you full of surprises. Huge walls made out of glass, artsy accents everywhere, and the most delightful couple to talk the hours away with.
This place convinced me that I need to move to this region of the world…. and soon! What a beautiful life, filled with art and love and comfort in a land of wind and water and grass. Yup, count me in.
September 13, 2014 § 1 Comment
To put it briefly, the Isle of Skype is a little bit like all of the beauty of New Zealand compacted into an island that is reminiscent of Caribbean skylines that have floated into polar climates. And more. It’s one of those places of the world that is absolutely surreal- beauty on such a scale that it seems like a painted backdrop. One of those places that is almost intimidating in its honesty, full of the sublime and rich with emotions that you have never tasted, but have always been craving. Those emotions that come straight from the earth, that are unfiltered and explode with an intensity that make you feel like a speck; an eyeblink, an single breath.
This island is nature, in all of its glory:
After a late morning and several cuppa‘s, Mr. Italian and I headed over to the Fairy Pools for a morning walk. It is an easy, yet breathtaking, walk through a field that ends in a series of little waterfalls, with the dramatic Cuillin Hills (er, Mountains?!) as the backdrop.
After a picnic of exotic vegetable chips and an assembly of cheddar-y goodies, we left the western side of the island and drove through the heart of it to the other side. The inner drive was no less impressive than the coastal route; mayhaps even more so for its sense of isolation and continuity. There was nothing on the roads except for sheep (and those certainly did not lack!):
It was a pleasure to observe all of the fishermen going about their fisherman-ly duties on these heavy northern boats that simultaneously draw on aspects of bathtub toys and Antarctic expedition machines:
I wonder if one grows accustomed to the chilly weather and rough conditions of this stretch of sea? I was bundled up in multiple jackets, and there is Mr. Fisherman, with merely a little pullover and a cap. Brrr.
After a pitstop to look at the Lealt Gorge and Lealt Waterfall, we pulled over on the side of the road, a little bit before Kilt Rock. I hopped a ‘Danger! Stay Away!’ fence, and then plopped myself belly-down on the edge of a cliff jutting a couple hundred feet above the sea… and found myself in heaven:
We continued northward, looping back after another trespassing adventure into Duntulm Castle, as the sky started its descent toward the sea. The northern tip of this peninsula was like an exhale to the breath you had been holding driving there- a sweet, satisfying release.
(Can I become a shepherd and live here, please?)
And then raided the Cooperative Food store for an international makeshift picnic consisting of hummus, sun-dried tomatoes, guacamole, pita bread, cheeses, and a bottle of malbec. Then we raced up the Waternish Peninsula to enjoy our dinner with the most amazing (and freezing and windy) sunset to keep us company:
Fingers and toes and ears thoroughly frozen, it was time to drive back to our cozy wooden cottage for another cuppa. Wrapping up a day of natural splendor with a comfortable couch, thick novels, silly board games, and blues music to sway to provided the ideal contrast of simple to the day’s grand. And then, grounded again in your flannel pajamas, you take a peak outside and the affair with nature’s indescribable scale begins again.
Because you see the sky, perfectly black, with more glimmering gems in it than you thought was possible. At this point, you stop trying to understand, and you don’t care if the line between reality and fantasy is blurred, because you just accept your fragile presence in a playhouse too grand to comprehend the parameters of, and you plunge into the thrill of losing yourself in its boundless stage.
(And the next morning, this emotional journey just kept on growing in intensity, so stay tuned!)
September 12, 2014 § 2 Comments
And so, Day #5 sees Mr. Italian and I drive from one island to another, continuing northward into the Highlands and just keeping on getting impressed by every single turn in the road.
We woke up to another frosty morning in the car; our pathetic attempts at getting out shoes to dry on the top of the car failed miserably with the constant drizzle that surrounded the Loch Lomond region. However, we did manage to keep the reeking stink of the muddy shoes out of the car, so it wasn’t a completely desolate situation.
Arriving from Ayr and the Isle of Arran, this was our first day of exploring mainland Scotland and seeing these Highlands that I have been dying to see. And they certainly did not disappoint!
Can you imagine driving through this scenery for hours?
And it only getting more and more impressive?
And the blues more blue and the gold more gold?
Needless to say, it was very difficult for us to articulate any sort of words. We just rolled along in silence, gaping and gasping and laughing and getting giddy with the cool air. We had a pit stop at Fort William, where we stocked up on warm breakfast rolls and listened to some impressive street music (if that guy become’s Scotland’s Glen Hansard, let me just say that… I told you so!). Then, we hopped through the Old Inverlochy Castle (and saw the Harry Potter train, at the train depot right next door!) and took a mini stroll around:
And then we zoomed onward, northwest. Once we passed Fort William and left all of the tourist buses behind, we had empty roads for the next couple of hours. It was almost stifling, the grandeur of the nature around you, and the stillness (except for the wind, but even that, despite its constant blow, seemed strangely still) that accompanied the intensity of the colors. No cars, no people, no fences, no buildings, no animals. You could just get out of the car and walk to the top of any of these soft, green, tall hills- well, probably not, because you would sink in the constant layer of mud, but so it seemed, and it was a liberating thought. We learned that if a building exists, it’s important enough to be put on the European Atlas we were traveling with- even in this is just an abandoned shack or a single house, it was put on the road map. Misleading, when ignorantly planning out food and gas stops. No sir, not in the Highlands!
Eventually, we made it to Eilean Donan Castle- one of the most recognizable castles of Scotland that appears on all of the shortbread tins:
From there, we moved to the Kyle of Lochalsh and over the bridge that leads to the Isle of Skye. If I had to pick one part of the world to spend the rest of my days on, it would be here, on this island. I didn’t even know nature existed on such a scale.
But, before we properly tackled Skye, we first tackled a boutique cafe’ in Broadford. This was definitely our one fancy meal of the trip:
And then, it was another short stretch of driving to our bunkhouse, through scenery that seemed like some sort of backdrop in some sort of fantasy movie:
Then, an indescribable (and unphoto-able) sunset over a cliffy bay. And then, checking into our cozy bunkhouse- which was, ideally, a few minutes above the Talisker distillery. Yet away from everything else; isolated, under the starry sky, with fuzzy blankets and a tea cabinet and a fireplace, with a quirky design and board games, and inspiration to move away from everything, forever, and build my own purple bunkhouse.
It also had a heater, so, for the first time all trip, I slept comfortably and without my winter coat. In other words, a perfect night in the perfect place. Which just kept getting more perfect the next day, so keep on stayin’ tuned!