Scotland & Ireland 1999
Journals of Sharon Frenz
This has been a day of contrasts: in languages, in modes of transportation, in feelings. I have felt intense fear, calming peace, undo anxiety, and sheer delight. To start with, I really do not like to fly and today is no exception, even if it is flying to Brussels, Belgium. The thought of being so high up, with no control of events, scares me to death. Bert says the worst part of any flight for him is the take-off. His hands hurt from the constant pressure exerted by me as I squeeze them ever so tightly. I am fortunate that the take off from General Mitchell in Milwaukee is a smooth one and he is fortunate that it is fast, since the plane is small. We are up, served a drink and a snack, eat a small sandwich and land in Newark before I know it. We wait around the airport in New Jersey, grabbing a bite to eat at a fast food restaurant there and then board the big plane to Brussels. This take-off is smooth, but long and Bert's fingers turn a bluish tinge before the captain releases the seat belt sign and I release Bert's hand. The plane ride again is smooth and we while away the 7 hours eating two meals, watching Entrapment staring Sean Connery, thinking of answers for the crossword puzzles and reading. Soon it is 1AM Milwaukee time or 8 AM Brussels time, and we descend to land.
Upon arriving at the airport, our first experience is confusing. Of course the signs are no longer posted in English. So we follow the crowd and find ourselves in a line awaiting customs. It moves rather quickly, but upon reaching the desk, a wagging finger brusquely tells us we are in the wrong line. Sure enough, one place is for passengers with European passports and the other place is for NICHT EURO NATIONALES. We enter the correct line for non-European nationals and are asked the standard questions of the where, why and how long our stay. The clerk stamps our passport and we are officially in Belgium. We find a luggage cart - amazingly free - and put our carry-on luggage atop it as we head for the toilets. Thank goodness, that word is recognizable in any language. Since we have no local currency our next stop is a money exchange. This is fun, trying to find one when signs are in French and other non readable languages. Finally we see a booth that looks like a currency exchange and ask if the man speaks English. He does. We do. Our business is transacted and we end up getting the equivalent of $40 in Belgium francs for a fee of $4.50. (I think we should have exchanged some money before we left). We find the baggage claim and soon our two suitcases can be seen traveling along the conveyer belt. Before leaving Milwaukee, I had locked my suitcase and now the lock is missing, but nothing else. There was nothing of value in there anyway. With suitcases in hand and packs on our backs we are ready to find our hotel. We have no idea where it is or how to get there. So our next order of business is to find an information booth. Again information is a word recognizable in most languages. The sign directs us to the train heading for the city center. With tickets in hand, we board the train and 20 minutes later arrive at the Central Station. Now we have to find which metro will take us closet to our hotel. Again look for an information booth, ask directions, and buy tickets. Unfortunately the metro has lots of stations and lots of directions. Again we ask which metro to take and which stairs to descend to get the train in the correct direction. As we climb upstairs and downstairs, I think to myself that this country is not wheelchair friendly. We count the stops and after three we get off. Our next decision is which exit to take to reach the street we want and then which direction to walk on that street. Amazingly we find that quickly and walk in the right direction although addresses do not go up in any kind of logical order. Strangely, it takes a rather short time to traverse one block and forever to traverse another. Finally we find Europa Continental but since it is still only 10 AM local time, our room is not ready. We decide to grab a delicious, all-you-can-eat breakfast, for the equivalent of $18 each but hope it will be included as the breakfast in our room rate. After breakfast we are taken to our room and we take a nice long nap.
After our nap, we opt to walk the city on this warm, sunny day. With map in hand we head to the arch we see from our hotel. It houses an auto museum and a historical museum in a park like setting. Many young families are enjoying the sunshine. Since we are close to the Indian district, women are wearing black cadars that seem oh so hot to me. We then turn towards the city center and walk on the shady side of the street passing government buildings, shops and offices. We stop for a coke in a park and watch the people play and relax by the fountain before again heading to the city. After about an hour of slow walking we reach the center and find beautifully old buildings encircling a common town square. In even-numbered years, the area is planted with flowers, but today, it is open and full of tourists. Restaurants face the center and offer outside sitting areas. We grab a seat, order a beer and watch the people. Many shops line the square as well and I buy some Belgium lace coasters and a hanging window ornament before we indulge in a dinner of mussels and fries, a Belgium delicacy. It takes us about 30 minutes to walk back to our thankfully air-conditioned hotel.
The consignor arranges a city tour that will pick us up from the hotel at 11 AM. We have enough time to eat the hotel's fantastic breakfast of eggs, cereal, yogurt, fresh and canned fruits, sweet rolls, cold meats, smoked salmon, delicious homemade breads, juice and tea. Our tour starts with about 20 people of different nationalities and our guide explains the sites in five languages. On the square, the buildings date back to the 1400s and 1500s, having been rebuilt after a devastating fire. The tour bus passes the Atomium - a 6-story-high structural model of iron atoms - built for the Brussels World's Fair, St. Mary's Cathedral, the botanical gardens and ends at a lace factory. I force my hands into my pockets so they are not tempted to buy more lace articles, the cheapest being lace laminated into a key bob for $6.00. After the 3-hr. tour we walk to the shopping district and stop at jewelry shops to inquire about my Gucci watch. The wrist band has broken and I have it taped. Store after store tells us the watch has to get sent back to Gucci and that takes three weeks. I know the minimum charge in the states would be $75. Giving up on that idea, we try to find the famous statue, Manniken Pis. Supposedly, a little boy put out a war time fire by going wee wee and a statue was built in his memory. The Belgium people even decorate that little statue in varying costumes of the seasons. The diminutive 3-ft. statue is wedged in the corner of a small one-story building, appearing too small to claim such popularity. But sure enough, there he is, with water ejecting from his nude granite body and crowds of people snapping pictures. More shops, a nap on the square and dinner of pizza and beer in restaurant alley entertain us before our walk back to the hotel.
After another fantastic breakfast, we put our packs on our backs and each roll our suitcase down the street to the metro station where we board the train to the city center. Signs at the train station are in five languages, none of which is English. Every step of the way, I ask directions, sometimes more than once. The weather is hot and sunny, but thankfully the train is air conditioned, although crowded, and we finally reach the ferry dock at Oestadt. We pay the $90 ferry fare, using up all our Belgium money and the balance charged to VISA. The crossing of the channel takes only three hours. Bert is outside on deck the whole time and I decide to stay seated far away from the crowds of school-aged children on holiday, running wildly on the decks. I have no local currency and find myself very thirsty. Using VISA, the minimum charge is 5 pounds so I buy 4 waters and 2 wines and store the untouched bottles in my pack. The cliffs of Dover become prominent way before we dock and they are every bit as impressive as I imagined. At the ferry dock, we ask directions to the car rental. Since its too far to walk, the clerk calls for us and soon a car is picking us up outside to take us to the rental office. The car is a very, very small English one with stick shift and NO air conditioning. Our first experience driving such a car on the left side of the road is hair raising and I decide to find a B&B here in Dover. We get lost within two blocks and find ourselves outside of town on an unmarked road with no idea where we are. I see a motel-like place and we stop to ask for vacancies but find they are all booked. Bert turns around in starts and jerks, choking the engine on more than one occasion, but finally we find the street that advertises numerous B&B's. My first inquiry finds a vacancy and I take it. The showing of the room and agreeing on a price becomes a familiar procedure in the weeks to come. Val of Valjay B&B tells Bert to park in back, tells me where to find a money machine and says all the restaurants in town are good. Jay of Valjay B&B drives our car into the small parking lot, because Bert cannot get it into reverse. Seems the English cars have a trick-pull up or push down to get reverse. Our room is in the front of an older house with one double and two single beds. Thankfully, a nice breeze blows in the bay window. The room is outfitted with a sink but the toilet and bath are down the hall. We walk to the town center, about a mile down the hill, get some money from the ATM and eat at the best looking restaurant we can find. We have Indian food, but it is none too good. It is a shame that Dover has such beautiful natural scenery with its white cliffs but does little to maintain its town's appearance: I find it rather seedy and rundown.
After an enormous English breakfast of two fried eggs, two pieces of English bacon, two sausages, a roasted tomato, two pieces of toast with butter and jam, tea, juice and Muesli, we depart our friendly hosts, with map in hand. For the next 3½ hours we drive the motorway north, around London and stop to stretch in the tiny picturesque town of Woodstock. We buy some drinks, grapes and peaches, visit a museum to use the bathroom facilities, and poke our heads into various shops before heading on. After Oxford we get brave and decide to try some country roads. Bert is really a good driver and gets us to Stratford-on-Avon, a distance of 188 miles from Dover. The town is jammed with people and driving through it is tedious. We have poor directions for our booked B&B, Ravenhurst, and at a gas station next to a Safeway store - would you believe it - we ask where the road is located. We are not far away and soon we are shown our rooms (one room has a bed and another room has the bathroom, loveseat and telly). We find a map of town and walk to the Royal Shakespeare Theater to pick up our reserved tickets for tonight's performance of Midsummer's Night Dream. It is beastly hot, but cooler along the water's edge. We sit on the cement embankment and watch the people navigate the river Avon in their rented boats. People are milling around the park some sitting, some watching a park performer, some playing cricket. Now that is a funny game. One man holds a long stick. Another runs like mad for about a block before madly throwing a ball at the man with the stick. The man with the stick swings and suddenly two men run about 300 yards to another two sticks poked into the ground. The score advances for no apparent rhyme or reason and the process repeats itself. It is difficult to distinguish the two teams since everyone is dressed in white long pants, white shirts and white shoes. We walk back to our B&B, strip down to our skivvies, and nap just to cool off. At 5:30 PM we walk to one of the restaurants we deemed reasonable from the posted menus outside each establishment, for dinner. Bert has fish and fries and I have lasagna. That with two pints of beer comes to $20. The price is not bad, but the portions are lunch size. We leave hungry. It is still hot and I am now wondering if the theater is air-conditioned. We make our way to the highest level of the theater and find our seats along the side. I wish I had brought the binoculars. The play is hilarious and the best Shakespeare performance I have ever seen. With very little stage setting, the play is totally carried by the young performers. We walk back to our B&B hoping to see a shop open for a snack. We find none and satisfy our hunger with the small bottle of wine from the ferry and some cheese and crackers from the plane.
After our English breakfast this morning, we load up the car and follow the scenic A3400 to the M42 to the M6. We make good time, even thought the scenic roads are narrow and windy with frequent round-abouts. The country is sprinkled with rolling farmland and scenic towns. But it is different than rolling hills and farmland in the U.S. Here, stone fences separate the farms, scenic towns have buildings older than the Declaration of Independence, and castles pop up unannounced just anywhere. The motorways are our equivalent of expressways with 3-4 lanes of traffic zooming from 50-75 mph depending on which lane we drive in. Surprisingly, every 20-30 seconds I see an RV - actually caravans, as they call them here. One in ten is like our Class C motor homes, but the large majority are cars pulling trailers. I even see one Class A motor home. Caravan parks are abundant, but most are just a green spot on a farmer's field. After two hours of driving the motorway, we stop at a Welcome Break - a full service rest area. With no air-conditioning in the car, we are very hot. We purchase two bottles of cold Coca-cola and two T-shirts for $18. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect this heat and I am happy that I stuffed a pair of shorts in the suitcase. Even Windemere in the Lakes District is not cool. The hordes of people make the area oppressive and I am happy just to visit the tourist bureau to book a B&B. The nice older gentleman finds us one not far from town. Again, after being shown to our comfortable en suite room, we strip to our skivvies and take a nap, hoping it will cool down later. By 6 PM it looks like rain, but it is cooler so we walk the mile or so to town, find a pizza restaurant and order a salad and pizza. The pizza is terrible with each of its 8 wedges loaded with something strange. Each piece is a triangle of either corn, tuna, chicken, shrimp, pineapple, pepperoni, ham or olives - not mixed. Bert and I fight over the pepperoni piece. After that we are still hungry, so we share an ice cream sundae. The only good thing about this meal is the $21 price tag.
Our drive today takes us north of the lakes district. Again we favor the scenic narrow roadways. We stop at the Brokehole Visitor Center - a former estate beautifully positioned on a hill overlooking Windemere Lake - and drive to Grasmere to walk the streets of this picturesque town. Another five miles down the road we stop at a rest area on Lake Thirlmere. Every turn we take becomes a Kodak moment. We take pictures of the lake, of ferns, of the road, of rock fences meandering up and down the hills like a miniature wall of China. This area of England is a National Park only since 1951 and it amazes us that wealthy individuals have not bought up the land and planted estates on the shoreline of the lakes. We pass through tiny towns with names like Uldale and Coldbeck, just mere outcroppings separating sheep farms. And sheep farms abound. Again they are delineated by the ever presence stone fences and the sheep are "branded" with varying colors of paint sprayed on their backs. I wonder why that does not affect the color of the wool at shearing time. We take more pictures of sheep on the road. My goodness, the road is just a single lane and now we have to share it with the sheep. We reach Carlisle a little late and it is difficult to find a street with B&B's on it. Finally we come across a row of older houses with the familiar B&B signs. The first two have no vacancy, but the third has a room. Dinner again is a disappointment, but cheap. It is served at a local pub and is a mixed grill of sorts with tough pieces of lamb, steak, ham and pork chop. Along with fries, peas and a pint of beer it comes to about $10. Bert says his hamburger, fries and beer are ok at $5.00.
Another full English breakfast - this time including mushrooms and pork and beans - primes us for our morning drive. We drive through Galloway Forest Park, enjoying its still lakes and quiet country. A drizzling sky does not hinder Bert from walking the trails with binoculars in hand while I look through the gift shop. He has gotten ten life birds in the last five days. And he says he has not even been birding. That is like me saying I have bought 10 new dresses and have not gone shopping. We are curious about the caravan parks and drive into one. We must look funny without a caravan attached, because people peer at us. The park is nothing more than an open field, no hook-ups, no water, no tables, no toilets, no nothing that I could see. We drive a road labeled B7027, so narrow that only 1½ cars can drive side-by-side. If two cars approach, both have to get their left wheels off the road onto the grass to pass each other. I notice the abundance of fireweed, a plant I thought was exclusive to Alaska. We stop for the night at the quaint fishing village on the Firth of Clyde called Dunure. Our B&B has a view of the Firth that you would die for. We have a private bath next to our room that includes a whirlpool tub, all done in black marble. The lady of the house must smoke, because I smell it in the hall and she coughs a lot but the room is clean and fresh. She even does our laundry for $7.50. I give her our dirty clothes and then we walk the mile down to the small village. We circle the ruined castle on the hill, where Mary Queen of Scots spent three nights some 436 years ago. It was the seat of Kennedy's of Carrick. We have our first delicious dinner of the trip, at the only restaurant in town, the Anchorage. It consists of a fresh seafood salad that Bert and I share. Crab, lobster, trout, shrimp and salmon on a bed of lettuce served with fries and a pint of beer. We top it off with raspberries and Drambuie over ice cream before we walk the hill back to the B&B. We find our clean laundry on the bed and it is even ironed when we return.
The table is set with the finest china, a glass bowl of fresh fruit already placed at each setting. Our hostess brings in freshly baked bread, straight from her bread machine, to accompany the already full Scottish breakfast. There is no difference between the full Scottish breakfast and the full English breakfast, except the name - still the same fried eggs, bacon and cooked tomato with toast and cereal. We spend the rest of the morning leisurely driving to Glasgow. Since I think it will be difficult finding our hotel with no more of an address other than "Charing Cross," we drive to the airport to drop off our rental car. I figured this would be easier to find than an Avis drop point in the city center. In hindsight this was a costly ($20 taxi to hotel) and unnecessary idea. The rental drop was one block from the hotel. Charing Cross was an exit off of the motorway. But that is hindsight. Maneuvering narrow roads - some one-way - in bumper-to-bumper traffic, not really knowing where we are going - stopping to ask directions every block or so - is not my idea of fun. Our hotel for the next ten days is a cheap version of a Super 8. Our corner room on the 8th floor is very spacious, but the rate of $80 per night is without breakfast. We walk the 1½ miles to the exhibit and take care of registration, meeting old friends and business acquaintances from years past. Since it is still early and the evening ceremonies do not start until later, we walk back to our hotel. I am not impressed with the streets that we walk. Trash accumulates on the sidewalk and graffiti mars the walls. It is just not clean and inviting. In the evening we walk again to the SEC, the place where all the action takes place the rest of the week, and attend the opening talks and entertainment. I fall asleep during the Ewald address and Bert nudges me awake before I embarrass him and myself with a loud snore. Finally the entertainment starts. Young men and women dance traditional Scottish dances in original Scottish attire. Another young woman, plays a harp and sings old Gaelic songs in a most lovely voice. I do not like bagpipe music, but the Scottish band makes me just want to get up and salute. At the end of the presentations, we walk to the reception with an honor guard of bagpipes and musicians flanking our side. Food and drink flow freely at the reception, although lines are long. Hors d'oeuvre are followed by platefuls of traditional Scottish food: potatoes, stew, noodles, topped off with a delightful chocolate cake and ice cream. All this is included in our registration fee, an expensive deal that Bert took care of and a fee in an amount I do not remember. I start to feel like a fifth wheel, unable to talk to anyone in a room full of 2000 people, so suggest we walk back to our room. The evening is cool and comfortable and even I enjoy my sweater.
I found a shopper's paradise. Around 10 AM I walk two blocks to the main shopping street. Much of it is pedestrian-only, except for major crosswalks. Crowds are already bustling about. I stop for breakfast at an Irish fast food place called Abracadabra. I have a delicious baguette filled with two eggs, yummy bacon (really ham) and a cappuccino for $4.50. I then proceed to walk up the right side of the street stopping at every store that meets my fancy. I quickly realize that I will not be buying any clothes here; the styles are just too European and the colors blah. I do find a lot of gifts for Christmas and best of all a watch. Taping my watch band closed every morning is getting old. I look into watch repair shops here. I find a whole street of jewelry shops. One after another tells me the same story. It must be sent in for repair. Finally I ask the price of a new one. I negotiate a little bit, realize that with a new watch I will have my own set of spare parts, and leave the store with a new watch. I shop for six hours traveling 4 miles round trip, and still miss many, many shops. I find a wonderful grocery store and buy some rolls, cheese, juice, cereal, fruit, chips, and UHT milk that does not need refrigeration. I beat Bert back to the room. When he arrives we walk to an Italian restaurant and have a pizza for dinner before we head to our whiskey-blending party. Along with 100 other guests we sample 10-, 17- and 23-year-old Scotch from Glengoyne Distillery. To be Scotch it must come from Scotland, of course, ferment from barley, distill to a certain alcohol content and age in oak barrels for at least 3 years and one day. The barrels are not brand new ones, but used ones purchased from the whiskey distilleries in America. We learn the scotch making process and are given a chance to take Glengoyne Scotch and blend it with others to make a blended scotch. The distilleries do this so their product is more affordable for more people. Oh my, can you tell the difference between even a good blend and a single malt. Even I can discern the bitterness that results from a blend. We taste and we blend the evening away drinking our fill of scotch. The party was not free so we ended up paying $40 for our blending fun. A bottle of 17 year would have been cheaper, but we enjoyed the experience and the company.
Not much going on today. I spend most of the day in the room planning for the rest of our trip. At 6 PM we walk to Marks and Spencer, a department store, for a reception they are hosting. It is kind of rinky-dink with little food or drink of substance. We walk another mile to the Bruecher - a vendor - reception in the museum of art, but we are too late for their food. It is stifling hot and after I look at the artwork hanging on the walls, I sit outside waiting for Bert to finish gabbing with the people there. He doesn't finish soon enough so I go to retrieve him. Since he has not finished looking at the art, I walk along with him commenting at how dumb and, in some cases, sacrilegious, the works are. So much of it deals with death and the goolish. Even a display of Elvis has him at his worst. I am starved and finally I tear Bert away to look for dinner. We end up eating at the Abracadaber, each having a stuffed pita with chicken and fries. Not much but pretty cheap.
Another great anticipated shopping experience. I have read about the traditional old flea market called the Barrows and picture it like the one in London Missy and I attended 10 years ago. It was fantastic and I could have spent all day there. I do not mind the 2-mi. walk since the day is cool and I expect great shopping. I follow the map and see nothing much as I get closer. A young man asks me where the Barrows is. I must look like a local, but I have to tell him I do not know either. We both look at the map and realize we are only a block away. I walk under the age-old arch that says Barrows and see booth after booth of just plain junk. Things that I am too embarrassed to sell at a garage sale are being sold here. The area is about the size of a football field but has nothing to offer me. My walk back to the hotel is not as much fun as the walk here. I do pass another Spencer and Marks department store and walk in to browse. I find a maroon cashmere sweater for $75 and buy it for Bert. I purchase more groceries at my favorite grocery store and eat a lunch of smoked fish on a roll in our room. The market may have been dumpy, but the exercise was good. When Bert returns we walk to the Gallery of Art for another reception. This one is another dud. The museum houses few famous artists, one to two Cezanne, Monet, Rembrant, Rubin, and Picasso and the food is skimpy. After the reception we are starved and eat with another couple at a good Indian restaurant. Bert and I split the meal, plenty of food for a late night snack at $30.
Another day of more shopping. I found a whole area I have missed on my other outings. It is a closed-in mall of sorts with many stores, called the Galleria. Unfortunately the biggest department store is closed today. I visit a travel agency and get some brochures on the ferry to Ireland. I discover the trip to Inverness, involves a subway trip to reach the train station. The subway is a good mile from our hotel and I do not relish the idea of lugging our suitcases there. Besides, after reaching Inverness, we still have to find our B&B. Therefore, I book a car. Even that involves a taxi to reach the agency. Since there is no reception tonight, we eat at an Indonesian restaurant.
The conference has scheduled numerous excursions today. We signed up for the Isle of Arran trip and now we walk to the SEC to board the bus. We have noticed that no matter when the scheduled departure time, we had better get there 30 min. early to beat the mostly-Oriental crowd. Since our walk is 30 min., we misjudge the time and arrive at 8:45, only 15 min. ahead of schedule. Fortunately we are first in line for the third and last bus and it leaves sharply at 9 AM. In Texas, a bus this prompt would leave a lot of latecomers behind. Our guide explains some of the Scottish words and we learn that "firth" means mouth of a river. Other words include "ben" meaning hill, "loch" meaning lake, and "inver" or "aber" meaning the place where a river meets the sea. It is said that the river Clyde made Glasgow and Glasgow made the river Clyde. Apparently, the merchants needed a transportation link to trade their textiles for sugar, tobacco, etc. so they deepened the river and built ships for trade. Our route follows the river Clyde and I notice again how the cities end abruptly and the country begins. There is no such thing as urban sprawl - just city, then country. We are dropped off near Ayr where we board a ferry for the 40-min. crossing to Arran. Again, we board the bus that takes us to Brodick Castle - Brodick, a Viking word meaning broad bay. The castle is small and has not been used since the early 1900s. Apparently the previous owners could not pay inheritance taxes on the castle and extensive grounds, so the state took it over. Taxes at the time were high and many landowners lost their property. The grounds and gardens are more impressive than the castle. One neat little area has a small round building all covered inside with pinecones most impressively arranged in patterns. We arrive back to the hotel at 7:30 and walk to an Indian restaurant labeled the best in Scotland. We choose to have the buffet of all-you-can-eat for $38.
All week long the news commentators have been touting the day of the eclipse. Many people have driven to Cornwall in Southeastern England for the event, where the sun will be totally darkened for a few minutes this afternoon. Unfortunately it is raining and cloudy in Cornwall but the weather here is perfectly sunny. I walk to the SEC to meet Bert. I do not find him, but look at the eclipse with others standing outside. One man lets me use his special glasses and I see the moon moving across the sun. I make a pinhole in a sheet of paper, but that does not do it justice. Farther north here in Glasgow, the sun will only be 85% blocked by the moon; thus the day only gets dimmer and not dark. Pictures on television show how the day actually got totally dark in Cornwall since the sun was completely covered. It looks spooky and I can appreciate how early man would view this event as a sign from the gods and be frightened.
Bert wants to start early this morning for our trip to Edinburgh. We arrive at the train station next to our hotel at 8:30 and proceed to purchase a ticket. I ask how much the ticket is and he says, "13." The ticket agent told me yesterday the price was $17 round-trip. I give the agent $20 and he informs me I do not have enough. I say, "I thought you said the price was 13" and he says, "Yes, 13." Puzzled I say 13 again. He says yes, and upon listening closer I think maybe he is saying 30. Sure enough he is and they say we both speak English. The price this morning is more and, upon more quizzing, I find out that commuter hours are more expensive. So we decide to walk to Queens station and by the time we get there it is 9 AM and the ticket price is lowered. Upon arriving in the city we purchase an all day ticket for an open-air bus tour of the city. We can get on and off whenever and wherever we wish all day long. This city is fantastic: picturesque, clean, great shops, and the Edinburgh castle as the crown jewel high on a rock overlooking the city. This castle is picture perfect and one that could be a great movie set. We get off the bus at the castle and spend the next four hours touring. I can just envision the peasants milling around the lower regions as royalty looks from the high windows of the castle. Even the castle itself is impressive with its massive fireplaces in each room, wooden ornate carpentry, and paintings on plastered ceilings. To think that this was created all in the 1400s before Columbus even set sail for America is mind expanding. The grounds are impressive and the ticket price includes an audio tour on cassette. We are able to turn it off and on at our own pace and, by pressing different codes, can learn more details on lots of subjects. Numbered signs are posted at various parts of the castle and have corresponding audio. A lot of Scottish history is covered and it can be confusing. The tape does a very good job of keeping things straight and leading the listener through the many historical periods of the castle. Of course, every one is interested in Mary Queen of Scots, who became queen at 18 months, was married 3 times and abandoned her infant son, James, in Scotland when she returned to England. The two factions fought for years and finally the English surrendered and James became King, later to become King of England also, due to his bloodline. The only drawback to the tour is the hordes of tourists competing for space. I suppose the numbers are compounded today because the Edinburgh festival is also going on. Crowds of tourists are also packing the streets and city park, craft booths and areas surrounding street performers. It is a mad house. Unfortunately, by the time we leave the castle it is time to catch our return train to Glasgow. There is absolutely no time for shopping. We need to get back to the meeting for the planned Celigh, a Scottish party. This too is wonderful with plenty of food served on a buffet line, plenty of room to sit and eat it, and plenty of drink with our 8 coupons. We taste traditional haggis, a rice and meat-stuffed sausage that is quite tasty. We watch conference participants dance traditional dances and of course we listen to the ever-present Scottish bagpipes, before boarding the bus back to the hotel.
Our room is so large that the 20' rope I brought for the wash, stretches from the closet to the window and still leaves room to walk around. Our socks and underwear hang limply from the line and dry slowly in spite of the window open to its 3-in. maximum. Tonight is the final fling and we walk the 2 mi. to the college where it is held. Because of the unknown food supply at these things we stop for supper at a pub along the way. All the previous functions we attended, whether purchased separately or included in the cost of the meeting, were included in our packet. I have carried each of them in my purse and pulled them out as needed. Often the tickets were never collected. Not tonight. We are among the first to arrive and when the doors open maybe 6 people are ahead of us. Of those six, two have what the gatekeeper calls unacceptable tickets. It is the announcement of the final fling but not tickets to enter. There is a lot of arguing and the organizer of the conference is requested. Meanwhile, they are told to wait outside. It is raining and they refuse. Another group of four are told the same thing and they just walk in. It seems the correct tickets were to be obtained at the information booth at the conference. Oh oh. As far as I can see, the tickets we have look like all the other tickets we've used, none of which we obtained at the information booth. When our turn arrives to enter we are told the same thing. Bert argues also and we are told to wait with the others. About 20% of those entering have the same problem. The organizer arrives and a good argument ensues. Other people are piling up and finally he gives up and lets us in. Apparently the old church where this is held, only holds 200 people. I anticipate I will feel crowded and food will really be short. We find a table with some real old friends, Orin Davis and John Ricci. We have seen John over the years at various meetings but we have not seen Orin since we left Northwestern, even though he travels frequently with John. It is good to reminisce. Thankfully the closing program is short. Food consists of small ham and cheese sandwiches with wine to help wash them down. Lines of course are long and slow. By the time the fling is over, the rain has stopped and we walk back to the hotel.
Slainte Mhath is pronounced Shan sa val and means Good Health. Here we are drinking 17-year-old Scotch at 10:30 in the morning. We were so close to Glengoyne distillery that we decided to take the tour. We wait around until it opens and then find out there is $5.75 charge per person to take the tour. We are too embarrassed and stubborn to leave after we waited so long, that we pay our money. Too bad whiskey isn't the currency of the day as in ages past. Scotch is made from malted barley, which is soaked for three days until it sprouts and then dried and mashed. Water from the stream flowing at the distillery is added along with yeast. The mixture is then distilled to 75% alcohol, blended with 95% grain alcohol, and aged in used oak barrels for a minimum of 3 years and one day. The longer the aging process, the better the Scotch. The barrels, we are told, come from America and were used in whiskey production there. At the barrel stage, the alcohol content is 63.5%. It gets further reduced to 40-43% depending upon its age. This has been the process here since 1833 when whiskey became legal. Only 20% of the distilleries are privately owned today. It is unfortunate that our tour is in August, since the distillery is shut down for vacations and maintenance. 70% of the cost of Scotch is tax. Too bad for Bert. Even in Scotland the 17-year-old bottles are pricey, but we relent and buy one for $34 and intend to drink during the trip. We continue our drive along rolling hillsides, mountains, birch and evergreen trees, rivers, lakes and small towns. We stop at the woolen mill in Callender and eat our lunch in the Trossacks area. The country is beautiful, dotted with grazing cattle and sheep in the distance, but slow going. We travel only 164 miles in 8 hours time. We stop near Balmoral Castle, where the queen is vacationing today. The tourist bureau service calls a number of B&B's before booking us into the Inver Hotel, a place we passed some 6 miles back. The hotel is a 300-year-old stage coach inn three miles from town and is built right along the roadway's edge. Sheep are grazing in the backyard and across the road is a salmon fishing river. During the salmon run, the inn is crowded, but now we share it with only a few others. The weather turns rainy and cool and Bert and I sample the Scotch before we walk downstairs for dinner. We share a delicious meal of herring salad, venison casserole and banana meringue ice cream dessert. Our room is comfortable but our bed is so soft I almost get lost in it and find it hard to turn.
We are awakened to the sound of bleating sheep from the pasture next to our window. As we drive in the directions of Aberdeen on the east coast of Scotland, the country reminds us of California with its treeless mountains and then later of Valdez, Alaska. The mountains are not nearly as tall and are not snow-covered, but the winding road reminds me of the pass at Valdez. Cloaked in tundra, absent of trees, the heather paints a violet beard on a brown face. Today is Bert's day to bird and we drive to spots he has been told have birds he wants to see. He finds three lifers, I think. From my perspective, it is a long way to drive just to increase a life list by three, but I enjoy the constantly changing landscape in spite of the intermittent rain. Every turn of the road has a picture in it and I have to restrain myself from taking too many photographs. I have already used three rolls of film just getting this far. We stop at another woolen mill, this one known for cashmere. We buy another sweater for Bert in a bright red wool, but not cashmere - still too pricey even at the factory. We arrive in Inverness around 4 PM. I want to check out the boat and gather information about its location, what is furnished and what is not and scout the area for grocery stores to make the best use of our time tomorrow. We have no map of Inverness and find it larger than we expected. We must circle the city center three times before giving up to ask directions. Once we know where everything is, it is easy and Caley Cruises is not far. Unfortunately all is closed and not much is going on. We do see boats that could be the ones we will be taking and I am impressed at their large size. An Ernest Hemingway type man emerges from one of the boats and we learn that he has had some sort of mechanical problem with equipment they brought from the states and has had to say over two nights. He hopes to be on his way in the morning. I wonder if it has any thing to do with the cruise company but he assures me it is a personal thing. Suspicious and unfriendly at first, he warms up as we talk and tells us his name is John Muir. We meet his wife also, but his teenage daughter remains hidden in the cabin of the cruiser. He is a geographer and she a mathematician from New York. They tell us where to get our groceries, what to buy and even offer us tea. But we need to find our B&B, which I had booked ahead, and get dinner. All we have is the name of the B&B, Lyndale House and its address, 10 Baliferry. Here we go again, circling the city and finally giving up at a gas station to ask directions. Our hostess is a bit domineering and incessantly talks about how we should arrange our morning to return the car, get groceries, and travel to the boat yard. I finally just want to get away and agree with what ever she says. Our room is very small with hardly space for our small suitcase. The bath is down the hall and smells a little musty and has a shower that is either scalding hot or ice cold but no in-between. The TV has no remote, but since it only has three stations - all uninteresting - it doesn't much matter. We try to follow the directions our hostess gave to a bar for dinner. She said it is just down the street and to the left. But which way down the street I do not know. We walked in the direction she pointed since she would not or could not tell us which way to turn as we left her house. We wander around enjoying the pretty city on the river but are never quite sure of the way. As luck would have it, we find a restaurant and it is the one she mentioned. An Australian couple, John and Ruth Lawless, from Sidney, also staying at Lyndale House, are eating there also. We join them at their table and enjoy a pleasant meal with them. We talk a mile a minute and even laugh at the same jokes. Before we know it, we spent three hours there and it is time to walk back. We exchange e-mail addresses and receive a gracious invitation to visit them if we ever get to Sydney.
I get a poor night's rest, but morning finally arrives. Our host draws a map, without street names, to the Arnold Clark agency for our rental car return. Only when Bert asks where the Safeway store is, does he know how to get there. We saw that store many times yesterday as we circled the city. The agency returns Bert in time for breakfast and we again eat with John and Ruth. Our hostess noticed that we turned a different way than she directed us last night and asked us where we went. We informed her, we just went for a drive. She did not need to know we wanted to buy our groceries last night, in spite of her advice to buy them this morning. Unfortunately by the time we got to the store, it was closed. She again gives her funny directions to the Tesco (I thought she said Tesso). When I ask, "Do you mean, go left on Bishop?" She says, "Yes, that way" as she points out the window. I nod in agreement, still not knowing which way to walk. After she leaves, I ask if Bert understood and he said no. Oh well! A while later she comes back to our table and in a haughty tone only a displeased Brit knows how to use, she asks, "If you want to go to the Safeway, you will need THREE taxis." Apparently because Bert asked about the location of the Safeway as a landmark this morning, she thought we wanted the Safeway store to do our groceries. I informed her that Tesso was just fine. So off we go searching for a Tesso store even though we have no idea to look for. We walk in the direction of the city center, hoping we turn in the right direction, in case she is watching. We buy some last minute souvenirs, rent a fishing rod, bait and tackle, and really do find the Tesco store. It is a very nice large store full of everything we need. Forty-five minutes later and $150 poorer we call a taxi, hoping we have purchased enough provisions to last the week on the boat. The taxi first takes us to the B&B to fetch our luggage and then on to the boatyard. We are so excited to see our 32-ft. cabin cruiser. We barely get our stuff loaded before it is time for training. For the next hour we, and six others, are told a gazillion things about the boat: how to start and operate, how to check the oil and water, how to navigate the canal, how to steer using the propeller since no rudder exits, how to moor using the wind; plus safety procedures, routing, bridges, lock procedures, etc. After that a young girl shows us how to operate the frig, heater, toilet and stove. WOW! At 4:10 PM sharp we start our engines and begin swerving left and right down the canal towards our first lock. Bert says steering is like maneuvering a car on ice. An impatient pause follows each turn of the wheel, followed by a slow turn that gains excessively and requires a compensating turn the other way. The wind is blustery and it too pushes us. All seven boats zigzag single file down the canal, looking like their drivers have had too much to drink. I wisely keep my mouth shut for fear I may be given the wheel. As we approach the lock, I climb to the bow using the leeward side. For you landlubbers, that means I make my way along the left side of the boat to the front. I throw the rope to the lock master on my right and he grabs it, twists it around a hook and passes it back to me. Meanwhile, Bert is deftly slowing his engine, steering the wheel reversing the engine and shutting the engine off all at the precise moments to stop us on a dime and avoid running into the wall or another boat. I remain at the bow, holding the rope as the lock fills with water and we rise to the next level. Finally the gates open and we can depart. I decide that I have had just about as much excitement as I can handle for one day and that we should moor for the night right here at the mouth of Loch Ness, Dochgarroch Lock. One of the trainers drives with us and directs us to a mooring place. After only one poor attempt, we land. We settle down with a sip or two from our 17-year-old bottle, take a walk and eat the best meal we've had since leaving home. I cook pork shops, potatoes and canned corn. We use the bottle of wine we got with our 4 tickets at the Ceiligh. The breezy conditions of the afternoon have abated and the canal is as smooth as glass with only the nasty midges (tiny insects that bite) to keep us inside.
Scratch, Scratch, Scratch. Knock, scratch, tap. I hear noises as if someone is trying to loosen the knots tying the boat to the moor. I sit up, fumble for my glasses, open the curtains, look through steamy windows, but see nothing. I maneuver out of bed, find my shoes, search for the light and go outside to look some more. "Who is it?" I ask, but no one answers. I return to the cabin and see that it is 1:35 AM. By now Bert is also awake and wondering what I am doing. We crawl back into the bed and I still hear the noises. Boy, is this going to be a long night. The bed is so uncomfortable also. The top is nine feet across with plenty of room for our upper bodies but it quickly narrows to 18 in. - just barely enough room for one set of feet, let alone two. I have a charley horse from attempting to keep out of Bert's way. Morning arrives and with tea cup in hand, I walk to the lock keepers hut, but find no one there. Finally at 8:30 I find the skipper of another boat and ask him if he has heard the weather report for today. He has a newspaper and I read about slight showers and moderate wind. We take off anyway and find Loch Ness as smooth as glass. On a Beaufort scale, a 1-10 scale that measures the ferocity of the waves, I'd give this a 2. We just could not ask for better weather. Our first stop is Urquhart Castle. The designated mooring place has room for only one boat and one is already there. We slow the engines to a crawl and notice that the people in the boat are getting ready to leave. What luck! Bert maneuvers the boat to perfection and we slip next to the pontoon without a hitch. The castle, now in ruins, is picturesque and we enjoy tramping around the grounds, attempting to visualize historic life here. At lunchtime, we are back in the boat, drifting with the wind, eating our ham and cheese sandwiches. I try a little fishing with a very feisty worm, but no fish nibbles today. Around 4 PM we approach Fort Augustus and its four levels of locks, plus a swing bridge. After a not-too-graceful mooring, we finally tie off our boat and reconnoiter the area. We hear that traveling through the four locks takes ninety minutes. Since a group of boats is now just going up, it will be three hours before the next group can go and that is closing time. After talking to the lock keeper we decide to moor here for the night and go first thing in the morning. This gives me plenty of time to watch the procedure. The locks are right smack in the middle of the small picturesque town. People by the busload are milling around just watching the boats move along through the locks. Every other building along the lock canal is a restaurant or a gift shop and we have plenty to do. At dusk we return to our boat and eat lamb burgers, pork and beans and salad-again a better meal than ones in restaurants. Drowsy eyes tell me it is an early bedtime tonight.
We follow four other boats into the first lock. Another boat follows us and ties to our side. During the next 75 min. we become fast friends with Malcolm and Isabell from Elgin, Scotland. They are on a 4-day holiday, away from their two boys, age 13 and 15, and testing out their new, sporty speed boat. We talk of teenage problems, work and their boat. She is a part time housekeeper for a hotel and he is a butcher. She also helps Malcolm with his new catering business. We part ways at the end of the locks as they speed up the canal and we putt-putt along, only to find them awaiting us at the next lock. Again we converse, talking about barbeques, America and Scotland. All of a sudden she disappears and returns with a disposable charcoal grill for me. How nice. We part again and again we meet up. By now the wind is a very brisk 25 mph and we opt not to sail across Lock Lochy, a 20-mi. 4-hr. trip. We try to remember how to moor in conditions of waves pushing the boat into the mooring. We decide to let the waves push us bow first into the pontoons and we aim for an empty spot, only to have the waves push us farther down than we intended. We finally end up in the corner where the pier meets the shore; here the waves can push us no more. To protect the boat from the constant movement of the water, we securely tie bumpers between the boat and the pier. We hear gale force winds are expected and we are glad we decided to stop for the night. The Water Park is a misnomer. There are no huge swimming pools with slides. One small indoor pool, big enough for 12 people, is housed in the main building. It is however a nice resort, with small rental A-frame chalets, a sauna, solarium and restaurant, all packaged in a nice wrapping of Scotch pine forest on the shores of Loch Oich. Remember John and Barbara Muir from the first day? We meet up with them and their mysterious mechanical device again. He moors at three different places before he stays put. Each time is scary as his daughter tries to land the boat way too fast and twice ends up coming in sideways. Once as her boat turns sideways from the force of the wind, her bow grazes ours. Had the distance been smaller, a piece of our boat would have landed into the lake. He lets one of the workers at the resort drive the boat on the third attempt and he lands the craft ever so smoothly, using the waves and the wind to his advantage. It seems John needs electricity for his mechanical device. You can imagine all the scenes we go through in our minds on what this mechanical device is, before he feels obligated to tell us it is his breathing machine. Now it all makes sense. Dinner tonight is baked turkey breast over sliced potatoes, onions and mushrooms in a cream of chicken soup sauce with canned corn. Yum!
The wind is not tooooo bad this morning, so we are the first ones off. But as the minutes increase so does the wind. The 20 miles to Fort William over Loch Lochy is lonely, with barely a soul on it. We share Lagan Lock with a huge fishing boat. The lock master is uncharacteristically non-friendly. Others have been especially helpful to us novice boaters. This man is a bit edgy as he tells me to throw the stern line first. After thinking about the wind direction, it makes sense. A strong wind behind means throw the stern rope first. I am the skipper today, and encounter waves of three feet. The waves are behind us, so the ride is not bad and we finally arrive at the pontoons at Neptune's Staircase, so named because it consists of a set of eight locks taking the Caledonian Canal from its present height to sea level. Ben Nevis is hidden behind cloud cover and it has started to rain again. I turn the wheel over to Bert and he maneuvers the vessel easily and gently to the pontoon. The wind is gusty, yet the boat responds nicely to the captain's hands as he slowly backs up. Bert does GOOD. By now the rain is really blowing so we decide to call a cab to take us into town. The driver is a talkative chap and he points out various landmarks along the way. We shop a bit on the pedestrian mall but find no goodies to buy. We decide to walk the 2½ miles back. It takes us forever and I fade fast. We stop along the pathways and partake of the ripening raspberries. We visit another castle in ruins. We finally arrive at our boat with feet that say we walked at least 5 miles. After a pick me up of wine and a spaghetti and salad dinner, we hit the sack early.
Our diesel engine punctuates the quiet morning air as we head back the 60 miles to Inverness. For the next two hours, we motor up the canal to Laggon Ave - a 6-mi. section of canal lined with trees. In spite of the morning quiet, we see very little wildlife and fewer people. Loch Lochy is only slightly choppy and I try my hand, for the sixth time, fishing. The results are the same as the first five attempts, in spite of nearby fish farms, gulls hovering in the air and three other fishing boats. We moor again at Great Glen Water Park to take advantage of its washing and showering facilities. We moor in the same place, next to the cement embankment in front of the sports house. We swim in the small pool, shower and wash our clothes before we take a walk around the end of Lock Oich and over the swing bridge to the Well of Seven Heads monument. It is a pyramid-shaped structure topped with seven small heads, representing the heads of the seven men who lost their lives in clan war. We return to our boat and light the "Barbie" that Isabel gave us a few days ago. We grill our turkey breasts and eat them with potato salad and peas.
After five days, we have a routine. Hearing Bert light the refrigerator on deck and the heater in the cabin each morning is my cue to get out of bed. He then takes an hour's stroll outside, just enough time for me to meet the day with a smile. After using the commode, I grab the long handle with a black knob that runs parallel to the wall and follow the operating instructions: "To flush toilet: Close the lid and give 8-10 steady pulls using the full movement of the pump handle; pause for five seconds; then continue pumping as before for another 5-6 strokes." I am sure glad I do not have to do this at home. What a pain! We motor across Lock Oich and moor at the dock at Invegrary Castle. The day is warm, sunny and calm. I snap a picture of the castle and trees reflected in the water. We motor on through the canal towards Fort Augustus just enjoying the majestic scenery, serene water and the ever-present bleating sheep. At Kytra Loch, we meet a couple from Detroit: Charlie and Barbara. Their sailboat, Sayonara, was shipped to Ireland last year. Like us, they have sold their house, and have chosen to live on the boat. They must like it, since this is their fifth year at sea. We moor for the night at Fort Augustus after traveling the set of four locks. Other tourists watch and take videos of the procedure. We must get out of the boat and pull it from one lock to the next and sometimes the people get in the way. We look like pros this time through. Amazing what five days can do! Later, Charlie invites us out to dinner but we had just bought some sausage and must decline. We accept the invitation for after dinner liqueur and conversation. Barbara was a CPA and Charlie a lawyer in their previous life. They have no regrets about their decision to live full time on the boat. I understand the full time part but would not choose a boat. Even theirs - though luxurious - is cramped. They are on their way to London where they intend to berth at the foot of the Tower of London on the Thames for six months.
We have had sunshine. We have had clouds and wind. We have had rain. Today we have fog. Looking out our cabin windows as we eat breakfast, feeling comfortably warm with our little propane heater, everything is quiet. Not a creature is stirring in the fog-shrouded morning. I look out at Loch Ness and can almost visualize a monster in the distance just as the fog starts to lift. We diddle around for a couple of hours and finally it is clear enough to take off. The lake is as clear and as flat as a mirror. Again we are the only ones crossing and all this beauty is for our eyes alone. Toward noon we stop to moor at an old unused pier. I am afraid it is not the place designated on the map, because it is so decrepit. We tie the boat securely to iron poles sticking up through the uneven rocks, before walking to the park noted on the map. It is a beautiful day and the hike up the hillside is invigorating, as is the view from the top. We can see all of Loch Ness and the few boats now on it look like toys in a bathtub. The sun glistens on the water and it is hard to imagine how this lake could ever be rough and treacherous. I want to get back to Inverness before the locks close, so we push on. Several hours later, we just make my timetable and are the last boat into the lock today. We moor to the pier where we started our adventure at six days ago. I throw all our leftover food together and we have a stir-fry of vegetables over spaghetti noodles for dinner. We finish the evening with Scotch - I am liking it more and more - and play another game of gin rummy before hitting the sack.
Breakfast, our last meal on the boat, consists of all the leftover peanut butter, jelly and bread. Out of our original $100 of groceries, we only have ¼ bottle of catsup and a roll of toilet paper that we do not know what to do with. I will leave them on the boat for the next mariners to come aboard. We call a cab to take us to the Hertz booth at the train station. Only one woman runs the little site and she is overwhelmed with work. Our Ireland insurance paperwork (that we paid $100 for) is not ready, nor does she know anything about it. She dispatches our car, but we must come back in another hour. We drive downtown to return the fishing pole and then back to the Hertz site. The side view mirror is loose on our car, the trunk is difficult to open and the gear shift is coming out of its housing. We ask for an upgrade, but no cars are available. This car is the pits. We reluctantly take it anyway and head out of town enjoying the ride along Loch Ness. We can now see the same views we saw from our boat, now from the road. I like the water view better. What took us 3½ days to travel by boat only takes us two hours by car. We stop at Oban and find Luggenbeg Guest House, a B&B in town for 34 pounds or $51. The proprietor, Donald MacKinnon, gives tea and cookies to refresh us. After a shower we walk the town, find some more Scottish gifts to buy, drink cider at a pub, and go to McTavish's Kitchen for dinner and a show. The next 3 hours we eat and are entertained by two women and three men, singing, dancing to the sounds of traditional bagpipe, fiddle and accordion.
Another glorious day, full of sunshine greets us after our breakfast. Feeling quite full from a traditional morning meal complete with black pudding and a meat-flavored oatmeal loaf, we drive south along the western coast of Scotland. Since we are only 90 miles from our destination, we detour along a 30-mi. single lane road skirting the peninsula of Knapdale. Ancient stones standing erect for centuries break the landscape. These stones were placed throughout Scotland for unknown reasons. Bert of course finds birds to view through his binoculars, finds limpet shells along the shore, and scenery as great as in Alaska. Campbeltown is a small port and offers few accommodation choices. We drive around its picturesque bay and find a nice looking house with a great view of the water and village. The lady of the house lives alone and loves flowers. Our room is nicely furnished, complete with a fireplace and bay window overlooking the water. A set of rules, printed on a white sheet of paper, rests on top of the mantle for us to read. No food, no alcohol, no baths or showers without appointment, no children and no removal of top covering on bed. But for 18 pounds, the price is right and the view is free. We walk to the small shopping area and sample Black Bottle, blended Scotch. It tastes good enough to buy and take home. We eat at the only restaurant in town that we both fancied. It is a nice looking Indian place with food I'd rate below average. We are the only ones dining in the place.
I could hear the wind all night. Our hostess even asks me at breakfast if I get seasick easily. Looks like our ferry crossing to Ireland may be a rough one. It is so windy and dreary out. Not to worry. After loading our car onto the second car deck, I park myself in the cafeteria, a quiet place to read. Bert can stand outside in this drizzle with his binoculars ready for flying feathers all he wants, but I intend to stay warm and dry. At 2:15 we arrive at Ballycastle, Northern Ireland. Already I see bunches of redheads and freckled faces. This area seems poor to me, but it may be colored by the dreary day. In the dreary town of Portrush, we find a dreary B&B offering a very small room with no bath. Bert opens a door in the room and finds it is a closet. With the door open, our room doubles its size. The bedspread has hairs on it. I try not to think about who was the last occupant and am thankful for both a top and a bottom sheet tonight. The town reminds me of Galveston stuck in the 50's. Advertised as a play ground resort area, all it offers is cheap arcades between abandoned storefronts covered with graffiti. With an absence of parking facilites, we are forceed to park our car over 3 blocks from our B&B and I am thankful for the rollers on my one suitcase. We put on our raincoats, ask about a restaurant and walk in the drizzle. We find a nice park along a peninsula and walk the path around it. This park has the best scenery I have seen so far; however, many of the buildings surrounding the park look abandoned or in need of repairs. Frommer's restaurant recommendation is a winner. We dine at Ramore Wine Bar and have the best meal since we left home, all for $30. Two pints of beer, two baked potatoes, salad on a dinner plate full of mixed shredded veggies, two duck quarters for Bert and a poached salmon topped with shredded carrot for me. Yum.
Today is still dreary but at least dry and warm. We backtrack a few miles to see the Giant's Causeway. We are early and therefore beat the crowds and have the stupendous area all to ourselves. Some people call this the eighth wonder of the world. A series of thousands hexagonal volcanic columns, protrude from the shoreline for over three miles. We descend the walkway down to the shoreline, with some columns at our feet and others towering above us. Bert decides to walk the wooden stairway up and along the tops of the cliff. I return the way I came, via the easier sloping roadway. At the top of the cliff is a nice gift store that occupies my time until Bert returns. Tourists favor this area of Northern Ireland as a beach retreat but I still find it tawdry and dreary. It certainly is not the Gulf coast beaches to which I am accustomed. We continue to Strabane and stop for the evening at Haw Lodge, a 3-room farmhouse B&B run by the same woman for over 20 years. She recommends that we dine at Martha's Vineyard, a pub that serves food. Tonight is American night and we can choose American food like pork chops, steak and Tandoori chicken all with salad and fries.
We cross the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland itself without fanfare or signage. Changing countries, we only notice the transition in the prices. They are finally reasonable. We only drive 50 miles and obtain a room for the night at the Frommer-recommended Castlereigh House at 10 AM. We give our hostess a deposit for the room, but do not even move our suitcases in. We want to spend the beautiful sunny day, driving the coastal route and not miss any of the highest cliffs in Europe. The road narrows. Ssigns - if they exist - are in Gaelic with many not on our map. We bump and swerve along and miss Slieve League cliffs. We stop in the tiny village of Glencolumbkille. A local priest, alarmed at the exodus of young people, opened a Folk museum. Built by the local people in the form of a historical small town, complete with thatched cottages furnished in period artifacts. The tearoom there, serves Guinness cake that smells better than it tastes. We continue on through Glenesh Pass and stop at an Adara woolen craft center to use the restroom facilities. I purchase a sweater and Bert gets a lifer. I seem to have missed a day in this journal, because I know today is our anniversary, August 27. We celebrate at a very cute restaurant, Kitty Kelly's sharing mussels, a seafood platter and tiramasu, and Irish coffee. We drive back to our B&B, which at 38 pounds is now cheaper than 38 pounds in Northern Ireland ($50 versus $64). The ensuite bathroom in this four-star establishment has a shower, but it is directly in front of the commode with a curtain around it. After showering, the floor must be mopped. I find this very strange.
What a fun day. This is getting addictive and maybe we should travel abroad more often. The only problem is finding bathrooms when you need them. Not many tourists travel the north and west of Ireland, so amenities are minimal. We get into the habit of using a restroom if we see one, whether we need it or not. Today we use one at the beach. However I have to use the roadside later in the afternoon. Besides the beautiful scenery, today I notice bleeding hearts growing wild along the roadsides. We visit ancient, very ancient, burial grounds. I read about this preserved Neolithic cemetery in Frommer's book, which gives fair directions. We follow the road to Carrowkeel by carefully watching anything that looks like a sign from Castlebalwin. We are never sure if we are on the right road or not. It sure is not well traveled. The guide says to follow the road until it narrows and becomes a grassy path. Then get out and take a short walk to the tombs. We come to a gate in the road and assume this is the narrowing that the guide speaks about. We park our car and start to walk, UP HILL big time, to what looks like the end of the road. When we reach that spot, the road becomes gravel and there is a little map showing the monument. It does not look too far and so we walk some more, UP HILL. We come to a turn in the road and yet it still goes on. We notice a car coming towards us and I wonder how that car got here. We walk onwards and UPWARDS. Meanwhile I keep my eye on the car and notice it stops in front of the gate, someone gets out, opens the gate to let the car through and shuts the gate again. So we were never at the end that the guide spoke about. Now I can't quit. It just cannot be that far. We walk some more - UPHILL, of course. Finally we get to the end. I mean, even I know it is the end. The gravel road stops abruptly at the edge of a cliff. THIS is the end that the guidebook mentions - all that walking UPHILL for nothing. Now begins our short walk UPHILL along a narrow dirt path not well marked to the first grave. Fascinating! To think this edifice was built over 5000 years long ago. Some of the tombs still have passageways that can be explored, but the one I went into on hands and knees had collapsed. Piles of stone arranged in mounds denote a gravesite. Then heavy flat stones are arranged vertically to make walls, above which a large flat capstone balances horizontally to form the roof. One could spend hours here exploring the sights. The view alone from the top of the mountain is worth the hike. However, I have to go to the bathroom and bad. I decide I must walk downhill to a relatively hidden place and use nature's facilities before some other tourists arrive. I then start back, a much easier route I might add, since it is now all DOWNHILL. And to think if we were a little smarter we could have driven most of the way. Oh well, I did need the exercise. This whole area of Ireland is full of megalithic gravestones, standing stones, ring circles and dolmens. When your eye least expect it, they pop out of the landscape. We spend the remainder of the day at Drumcliffe Church and the William Butler Yeats grave site. Here a bathroom is readily available and even though I do not need it, I use it. The visitor center is well done and has a very interesting interactive computer setup. The little town of Westport is darling with a tree-lined river and a good shopping area. Unfortunately we arrive after shop hours and must contend ourselves with window looking. Tonight is Saturday and I thought of attending a church service but it is standing room only. Everybody seems to attend mass in Ireland. I notice those standing outside are men. I surmise it is not because they are late, but either want to get out first or are a wee bit ashamed of their conduct the past week and do not want the priest to see them.
Spectacular, simply spectacular! I know of no other words to describe the seacoast scenery of today's drive. We start around 9 AM and drive around one of Ireland's largest islands, connected to the mainland by causeway. The guidebook calls it breathtakingly beautiful, unspoiled and varied and the guide is not wrong. We wander around the island , moving from high cliffs overlooking tiny villages and plunging to sea level edged in golden beaches. Everywhere, rocky outcroppings tell the story of a harsh environment, not softened by trees and untamed by man. Small patches of cleared fields circumscribed by stone fences tell a story of hard work. Abandoned stone houses tell another story of a family moved on through death or emmigration following the potato famines. Wild, yet peaceful, highlands and boggy peat-filled lowlands are dotted with sheep. But after our 9-mi. tour on Skyline drive near Clifden, Bert and I are really sick of our little car. Between the bumpy Irish roads and the weak springs in the car, we are ready to stop. Driving through town, we notice crowds of people. We find a B&B not far from the action. After settling into our room, we ask about dinner possibilities. Again neither Bert nor I can understand our host's thick Gallic accent. But Bert gets something that sounds like Fartie and I get something about the color yellow. We head down the hill to the center of town. We first stop at the county fair and watch a mare and pony show with spirited horses and their young colts giving their owners a work out. After that we watch a tug of war between two teams of young strapping men. This must be serious business here, because crowds of people lined the roped off area offering their boisterous support of their favorite team. Later we watch youngsters - hoping for a blue ribbon - lead their donkeys around a ring past the judges. One of the donkeys has a wee bit too much male hormone and gives the announcer and crowd unexpected entertainment as his embarrassed young owner tries to control him. We are too late in the day to see the rest of the exhibits. I would have liked to see the crafts and homemaking stuff. I suppose Bert sighs with relief as we pass the sign that says closed. We walk further into town and see a restaurant called O'Faren's and one called O'Flarity's. We pick the one that is yellow and not the one that is next to a yellow building. Dinner was fine.
The smell of burning peat is only one notch better than the smell of coal. Mounds of peat are piled next to houses ready for colder months ahead. Dried peat fills plastic bags as they line the roadside waiting to be loaded into trucks. Sunken trenchs attest to the previous presence of peat. Freshly dug peat left in the fields to dry makes the landscape rugged and uneven. In such an environment, I do not expect the spectacular. But I have learned to expect the unexpected on this trip. And, here before us, the Ciffs of Moher are spectacular. They stretch for 5 miles along the coast, sometimes reaching 700 ft. straight up from the sea. A nice visitor center and large parking lot attests to the hordes of visitors. Enterprising young capitalists hawk T-shirts, display handmade jewelry and sing Irish songs along the path to the cliffs. We are grateful for the available restrooms. I am amazed at the lack of protective barricades along this stretch. Here we are in blustery wind, 700 feet above the rocky shore below, without a fence between the edge and us. Only our common sense keeps us from going too close. One dumb couple lies on their tummies and crawls to the edge to look over the precipice. Another girl steps pretty close to the rim so that her companion can take a picture. They do this in spite of signs warning the reader that the cliffs may break away. We spend a good part of the afternoon here, walking the paths along the cliffs and marveling at their beauty. Earlier in the day we stopped at Dunguaire Castle to buy tickets for tonight's medieval banquet. We also booked our B&B before our sightseeing. We return there now and after changing clothes, we drive to the castle a little early. We walk around it, admiring its fantastic view of the bay, pretending to live in the 13th century as we await our call to dinner. We enter the castle and are greeted with costumed servers offering us mead to drink. They sing old Irish ballads, bawdy ditties and recite assorted poetry throughout the evening. We are escorted upstairs and take our places on benches in front of a stage. Pitchers of wine and salads of wondrous salmon set before us at our table. We offer the following toast before the feast begins.
Good health to those I love.
Good health to those who love me.
And good health to those who love those who love me.
Each course is preceded by some sort of entertainment. Because I am front row center, I am presented with a traditional Irish betrothal ring, worn in one direction by young girls at the time of their betrothal and another direction after their marriage.
It is a tedious day of driving today even with our stops at Bunratty Castle and the Dresden factory. The castle charges too much money and we only view it from the outside and of course peruse the gift shop. The scenery is rather boring, as we must cut a path inland for a while. We make a detour to the Dresden factory but even it is closed for a worker holiday. However, a saleslady allows us to walk through the showroom and view the fine porcelain. I find a cute little leprechaun Christmas tree ornament for $10. All the other figurines were out of my price range. I needed to use the rest room so I got to walk into the factory. It is much smaller than I thought it would be with hundreds of white figurines lining the shelves against the walls waiting to be painted. All the painting is done by hand and two women were busy with their brushes as I walked through. The day is rather dreary and unfortunately we miss some beautiful scenery as we drive throught narrow Conor Pass. Still it has some sense of beauty even shrouded in fog. We stay at another Frommer-recommended B&B called Dulnin House. We are offered tea in the conservatory and enjoy this glassed-in room overlooking the gardens and water fountain outside, as we sip our tea and eat homemade tea bread. We drive down to Dingle for dinner and walk both sides of the street looking for a restaurant. I have been having troubles with an upset stomach, so I forgo the delicious Irish beer tonight and I opt for sparkling water with my pork chops. Bert has Irish stew. We wonder if any pub is having Irish music tonight but it is too early and I do not want to wait for it. We go back to our room, read more in our books before falling asleep.
We dine on a sumptuous breakfast. For a change we have a choice of things to eat besides the usual bacon and eggs. It is hard to pick between mushroom savory omelet, pancakes and honey, scrambled egg and salmon, or porridge with Bailey's Irish Cream. Bert chooses the later and I choose the pancakes. Both are delicious and filling along with toast and raison bread. It is still a dreary day and we miss quite a bit of scenery as we bounce and jostle down the road in our sorry car. We stop at prehistoric Fort Dunbeg for a walk atop its walls and view of the bay. Bert stops at Killarney National Park for some birding and I opt to stay in the car reading my book. My stomach still feels a bit queasy. Lots of people mill about in this park, but I compare it to a city park and certainly not the expansiveness of a U.S. National Park. It reminds me of New York City's Central Park with bicycles for hire and horse drawn carriages to rent. On the park grounds, Muchross House and Gardens are open for view, but again, in my opinion, not worth the charge of admission. We take a nice stroll around the perimeter and wonder why the owners never really lived in this Victorian mansion on the lake, using it just for a party house. The setting is very beautiful. We stay in a B&B close to the center of busy touristy Killarney. Most of the shops are getting familiar now and I can pass up their doors without entering. We walk to a pub recommended by our hostess before retiring for the night.
Finally a wonderfully sunny day for our drive around Ring of Kerry! The guidebook suggests we take the circle counterclockwise, but in hindsight, I would choose the other way around. That way you are on the inside lane and do not have to cross the road to park at the pullouts. The Ring of Kerry is a 110-mi. circular route, popular with tourists. We start early and beat the traffic. The road winds around mountains and cliffs and at times there is nothing between the edge and us. Again, peat farms are ever present along with abandoned stone houses left during the potato famine of the 1850s. Over 70% of the area's people either died or emigrated. It was a famine that need not have been so devastating, if the English had been a bit more kind-hearted. We notice a ferry to Valentia Island and park at a spot that looks to be a place to queue up. There is no signage alerting us of the 4-pound charge to cross, and therefore we are surprised when after we are on the ferry, someone comes to collect the fee. We make another detour to Staigue Fort and again are surprised this time by a 50 pence fee to see it. I think I am being nickeled and dimed to death. The walls of this fort are 13 ft. thick, made entirely of stones, without a speck of mortar, and have survived since 1000 BC. The panoramic view from the fort is spectacular. Along with busloads of other tourists, we do a bit of shopping in the cute village of Sneem, before finding our B&B for the night in Kenmare. It is a room in a house with a fantastic view, but has a smelly, unidentified odor to the bathroom. Dinner tonight is at The Atlantic bar. I again have Salmon - this time grilled - served with chips and a pint of Smithwicks. I have grown very fond of Smithwicks these past days. Bert prefers Guiness Stout.
In spite of the smelly bathroom, our B&B breakfast is superb with bowls of assorted fresh fruit, wonderful muesli with chopped nuts and dates, and the traditional egg, sausage and bacon breakfast. We stop at medieval Cromwell's Bridge and a stone ring for which we are charged another $1.50 per person. It certainly was not worth the charge and had I known ahead of time, I would not have even gone. I am really tired of these charges and do not think the U.S. has all these fees. I have gone into plenty of parks, museums and monuments free of charge. The whole of Nanchez Trace is free as are the museums in Frankfort, KY. Around noon we come to a street fair, I think they call it a car boot sale. People from all over come to town with stuff to sell from their car trunks. It is terribly crowded but we find a place to park and Bert and I split up. I walk the aisles of stuff, mostly junk, and run into this funny-looking, short, stocky Irishman with merry eyes, who wants a wee kiss. I am taken by surprise and tell him no. He asks "Why 'ot?" I almost have to laugh and say the first thing that comes into my mind. "I am American." As if he would not want to kiss an American. That does not deter him however and he persists. He replies, "'Wah't differnce 'oes 'at 'ake? You wat e kiss, don ye?" I give him a quick peck, aiming for his cheek, but he quickly turns his face so it lands on his mouth. He says I have a nice body. Now I really do almost laugh. He asks how long I am in Ireland and then wants a goodbye kiss. I firmly tell him no, that one will last me all day, and walk away. Next we stop at Drombeg Stone Circle. The small charge here is worth the price. We are given a short history of the 17 standing stones, their placement, the purpose of the two huts and cooking trough not far away. The circle is high on a gently sloping hill to the sea and the view is breathtaking. People were cooking here since around 153 BC. Amazing! In the early afternoon we stop because we are tired of the jostling from the car and rough roads. For dinner, I have a lovely cold salmon plate with assorted salads and, of course, Smithwick's.
The Blarney Stone is not at all what I expected. The castle itself is impressive with its massive square tower reaching some 83 ft. into the sky. We climb the narrow circular stairway up, up and up. I cling to a wall the whole time. Except for the stairwells, each floor is open to the bottom and as we get higher and higher, the view gets better. The famous stone itself is at the very top and wedged into the outer wall. If one wants to kiss it - and many do - you have to sit on a rug, lie back 3 to 4 feet over nothing but two metal rods, tip your head upside down and kiss the stone. The stone is worn smooth by centuries of kissing and I can only imagine how much slobber is left behind. I choose not to partake in that Irish tradition. Supposedly the first Queen Elizabeth wanted an oath of allegiance from the Lord Blarney. The silver tongued Lord smiled and flattered the queen but never gave the oath. Exasperated when she received yet another flattering letter, the queen said, "That is nothing but Blarney-What he says he never means." In the 1830's Father Prout wrote "There's a stone there/ that whoever kisses/ Oh! He never misses/ To grow eloquent." So that is why thousands of people kiss the stone. We then visit the Rock of Cashel: castle and church ruins sitting impressively atop limestone outcroppings 300 ft. high. We purposely drive a scenic route through an area called The Vee, but in my opinion it is not much to look at - just a big switchback overlooking a large agricultural valley below. Tonight we stop at Dungarvan, a dumpy seaside town with its best restaurant Merry's, dumpy to match. It looks like the locals come here and I enjoy watching an older couple silently eat their meal. She chastises him at the end for giving too big a tip and removes it from the able. I wonder what people think watching Bert and I. Atypically, we have the worst meal in Ireland here, fatty lamb and mushy fish. Our B&B is brand new, but cheaply made. We picked it because the main house looked so cute. However when I balked at the $70 rate, the hostess takes us to cheaper rooms in another two-story building at the back, with just 4 bedrooms in it. Even these rooms are too expensive at $60, for what we get. It includes a bath ensuite and the same breakfast as the other guests, but nothing else.
Our last day in Ireland is spent at Waterford, Wexford and Rosslare. We go into the Waterford Crystal factory, an impressive glass building but do not take the tour - too expensive at $5.75 per person. We also do not buy any crystal - also too expensive. Instead, we visit Reginald's Tower and since it is Heritage Day, our entrance fee is free today. Such a deal! 1000 years old, its 12-ft. walls stand straight and tall on the banks of the river Suir. It may have been an important fortification, but it lacks appeal to my modern practical nature. Mostly empty of artifacts, I am glad we did not have to pay for the privilege of climbing the narrow steep stairs to the third story. Our next stop is the Irish Center in Wexford. This is a hooky manmade place that traces Ireland's history from the stone age to the present via miniature villages of each period. At the Wexford Wildlife Preserve, Bert tramps out to see some birds while I stay back to read in the car. Soon a game warden stops his car and tells me, Bert is not supposed to be on that land. I ask him how we can tell him that. He then goes to retrieve Bert and shows him where he can look at birds. Later, we retrieve our ferry tickets in Rosslare, find a B&B, and I shower and read while Bert takes the car to yet another birding spot. We finish our stay in Ireland at a traditional Irish pub and eat a late dinner of salmon in Hollandaise and chicken kiev so that we can catch the local music performed by 2 guitars, 2 accordions, 1 spoon and 1 recorder. I find it amusing that one of the guitar players is a priest. This is really a local thing and people of all ages come to listen from children of 3 years to old couples in their 70s and 80s. Eerily, one man reminds me of my dad, compete with the same mannerisms.
Today is a tedious day of driving. After an uneventful ferry trip across the English Channel we must make the 6-hr. trip through Wales to Birmingham. I have often worried about not having a place to stay tonight but Bert did not think it necessary. It was necessary. We really blow our budget when we find little choices of places close to the airport. The first two B&B's, and the only ones we see, are booked. The traffic is busy on this super highway, we are tired and do not want to spend more time looking. We stop at a hotel and decide to stay at it. We really blow the budget. $150 for just a room-no breakfast. We eat dinner at the hotel also and it is as expensive. $50 for a skimpy meal that leaves us so hungry, we finish all the remaining crackers and cookies in my bag. So much for convenience! This is our last day abroad and I've enjoyed it. Tomorrow we catch our plane back to Milwaukee. We came with only one small suitcase and a backpack each. We leave with 6 extra ones, although small, all stuffed with our gifts and souvenirs. It is a good thing we had a car. I would not have wanted to lug all that stuff around. Trying to get it packed is tough enough and I am afraid I will have to throw out a pair of shoes. I just cannot find room for them. But Bert, the great tight packer that he is, gets it in someplace. We fall asleep early, since tomorrow it is breakfast at the airport after we drop off our car and check in.