Tours

I Rode a Horse!

Finally. I am 34 years old, grew up in a fairly rural area and I even went to summer camp, yet somehow I have managed to live my whole life without ever having ridden a horse. No more, my friends. What better place to try my hand at equestrian sports than Argentina, home to gauchos and ranches galore? Okay, so I didn’t rope any bulls or gallop through a field of cattle, but I had a fantastic time nonetheless.

Our lovely hotel in Maipu, Tikay Killa, arranged for Phil and I, plus three other guests (our new friends Dan, Lyn and Sophie) to experience the countryside in a whole new way. We threw down our bikes and mounted horses instead. I was a bit nervous, but very excited to ride a horse for the first time. Cesar, our guide, offered me a helmet since I was a fledgling rider, but I declined feeling quite confident in my abilities. With a bit of an assist from Cesar, I mounted Esperamiento, my horse. I got a 30 second lesson in riding–“Pull back to stop, pull right to go right, and left to go left.” Sounds simple enough. We were off!

In fact, it was that simple. Cesar’s horses were well-trained and listened to everything. After getting used to the feeling of being bumped around and realizing I wasn’t going to fall off, I began to relax and enjoy the countryside. Our ride began on a back road, complete with cars, dogs and kids playing. This was great practice in navigating the horses into single file lines and even stopping when necessary. Thankfully, we soon turned off the road and onto a dirt track which wound through a nearby vineyard. I was taking my time, allowing my horse to walk and still getting the hang of how hard to yank on the reins when I needed him to stop eating snacking on the surrounding grapevines. On the contrary, Phil was in his element. It isn’t as though he has tons of equestrian experience, but he had his horse, Noche, trotting and almost to a full gallop before I could say “yee-haw.” Smiles filled our faces as we traversed the vineyard.

We didn’t stay on this dirt trail forever, however. I expected fairly easy terrain, and all in all it was. But Cesar wanted to make sure we got our money’s worth. We walked up a rocky slope to get a beautiful view of the vines below, but it was going down the slope that seemed a bit more treacherous. Luckily our horses were sure-footed and didn’t slip a bit. Once at the bottom of the hill, we headed toward the Mendoza river. I assumed we would ride along it, but instead we crossed it! Only 1-2 feet deep at the point of crossing, our horses easily managed through the water and up the bank on the other side. Sophie, who got stuck with the hungry horse, had to urge hers on a bit more because he constantly wanted to stop for snacks and a drink. I understand how that feels–it was hot out there and those horses were working hard. We crossed back over the river several times, trekked through the mud and wound our way through tall brush. It was a blast! I am so glad we didn’t simply stick to the dirt road–in retrospect that would have been much less fun. Feeling very confident in both my abilities and those of my horse, I began to bring him to a trot as we headed back to the stable. I didn’t mind going fast, but man it hurts a lot more to be bounced at those speeds, so the trotting didn’t last long. After riding for about two hours, dismounting Esperamiento was a welcome relief to my aching legs. Despite the minor joint and muscle pain, I had a wonderful time and will definitely try my hand at horseback riding again in the future.

Lyn has to sit on the floor of the backseat to make room for all five of us. Luckily, she’s flexible like Gumby.

This being our last day in Mendoza, we couldn’t leave without going to one more winery. The five of us got into a taxi (Lyn sitting on the floor in the backseat) and headed to Carinae, a small winery run by French couple Brigitte and Phillipe. Besides running a winery, this couple loves astronomy and sometimes hosts star gazing alongside the wine tasting. They have several different options for tastings, all named after an astronomical object. Not offering any views through the telescope today, we focused on the wine instead. We were each able to try five different varieties. I’m not sure if it was because I was warm from riding in the sun, or just because this is becoming a new favorite, but their Torrontes was the most delicious I tasted. This wine is such a wonderful surprise for those who often find white wines to be too sweet. When you smell a Torrontes, it is very sweet and sometimes flowery. But, there is a reason why it is called the “lying grape.” When you taste it, the sweetness is understated and instead it is a bit tart with a dry finish. I have loved trying this variety at many of the vineyards we have visited, but Carinae’s version is my favorite. We bought a bottle for the group, one for back at the lodge and yet another for Phil and I to take on the road. Yum!

Once back at the lodge, we popped the bottle of wine, sipped and enjoyed our last hour together. All heading our separate ways, we were thankful for having met one another and sharing in two great days together. After an exchange of contact information and big hugs, we said goodbye to Maipu. The trip to this small part of the Mendoza wine route is exactly what we had hoped it would be. We couldn’t be happier with this part of our trip.

–Brooke

Doesn’t she look like a natural? Watch out Clint Eastwood, this girl’s your next Western star!

The ride was beautiful with flowers in bloom everywhere.

The wines available at the Carinae tasting. Delicious!

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Categories: Argentina, Diversions, Friends, Mendoza, Surprises, Tours, Unusual Experiences, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Continuing to Explore Buenos Aires

Greetings again from Buenos Aires! It took a day of resting, but we’ve both recovered from the lingering effects of a long couple days of travel. It’s easy to pick up a nasty case of jet lag and a general rundown feeling after traveling on three buses and two 8+ hour intercontinental flights. Now, we’re ready to hit the streets running! We started yesterday with an excellent, free walking tour of the downtown area of Buenos Aires. Our guide Virigina was animated, informative, opinionated (in a good way!) and lively. It’s not the first time we’ve stumbled across a free walking or biking tour that has been simply exceptional. Given Virginia’s enthusiasm, amount of information delivered and the fact that the tour was was entirely in English, the Free Buenos Aires Walking Tour was exponentially superior to the Tangol van tour we took the day before. Although central Buenos Aires is considerably sleepier on a Saturday, we still managed to enjoy the sites and cover a good chunk of the area on foot.

Virginia – our awesome Buenos Aires Free Walking Tour Guide!

The first thing we quickly learned on our tour is that Portenos – residents of Buenos Aires- absolutely love protests, marches and demonstrations. The protests are almost always peaceful and somewhat well organized, but they are also nearly non-stop. Brooke and I have already seen half a dozen different groups in action since our arrival and that doesn’t include the permanent encampment of Falkland Island War veterans rooted right next door to the Casa Rosada (the central government’s “Pink House”). We’re likely seeing more protests since our hotel is close to the city center, but were also told that as many as 20 loud, vocal gatherings like these happen each week. What are they protesting? It ranges, but just about every conceivable topic is covered. Yesterday, a large crew was gathering in remembrance of the two year anniversary of the death of former Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner. Given their propensity for protests and their insane devotion to football, I think that the next time Argentina wins (or loses) the World Cup, the only calm place to be around here is Uruguay. Speaking of football, there is a “Superclassic” match today between the city’s two top teams that is the biggest thing happening in town. Every television in town seems to be tuned to the game.

Over the course of the walking tour we were able to take in some of the Bueno Aires architecture which is a blend of Italian, Spanish and French influences. The city, which just celebrated its bicentennial, has tons of grand 19th century buildings and homes, many with grand balconies. Our tour led us through some of the small green spaces that are scattered throughout town with adjoining fountains which only function sporadically. BA even has its own, iconic towering “oblesico” monument built in the 1930’s that does a good impression of a mini Washington Monument.

Sadly, the Obelisk, like several of Bueno Aires’ old, grand moments and statues, is placed well behind fences. It’s a shame, but given the excessive graffiti found throughout the city and the number of homeless looking for a place to sleep, it’s clear why they are there. So far. we’re actually seeing more graffiti in Buenos Aires than we’ve seen in almost any other city. Everything from banks to subway cars to historic buildings are tagged. What makes the vandalism unique is that it is often comprised of phrases rather than images and it is almost always political in nature. Another way to protest? Perhaps, but it is ugly. Yesterday we saw a cross walk where even the white painted strips were hit. From city to city, we’ve seen so many otherwise nice buildings ruined by spray paint. About three percent of it is captivating, quality art, but the rest just makes a place look trashy. We’ve come to the conclusion that whomever invented spray paint should be strung up by their toes and whacked by pillows repeatedly.

Overall, it was a great tour of the area. Virgina even told us why the Pink House is painted pink. (Spoiler: no one really knows why). The tour did end on a bit of a uncomfortable note as a creepy, drooling homeless dude followed closely behind members of our tour group at the obelisk plaza. It’s hard to ignore the significant homeless and poverty issues prevalent throughout the city. Traffic and Congestion also seem to be a persistent issue all over town. In fact, we learned during our tour that due to the lousy traffic, the president flies into the city by helicopter every day from her house outside of town. Brooke then pointed out that she could just live in the city, but I seemed to be the only one to think that was a good idea.

After the tour, Brooke and I found ourselves meandering down one of the pedestrian streets looking for lunch. Along the way, we bypassed a surprisingly large number of Burger King’s and McDonald’s. In fact, I’ve been so seeing many Mickey D’s and BKs that I’m starting to think I’m seeing the same location twice. Later, we took the free tour of the Casa Rosada. Lovely building, but most of it was partitioned off since it’s a functional government building. We spent about 15 minutes trying our best to translate the biographies under the portraits for famous Central and South American leaders.

But enough sight seeing! Later last evening, the time had come do to what everyone who visits Argentina must do: Tango! Well, we’re not actually going to Tango (classes come later this week), but we did attend one of the iconic shows and dinners at El QuerandiEl Querandi – one of many old Tango Halls in the city. It was a great experience and a rare treat to have a nice, full night out. Over a tasty dinner of empanadas (I just can’t get enough empanadas), steak and flan, Brooke and I marveled that after all this time traveling, we still haven’t run out of things to talk about or gotten tired of each other’s company. I’d say that bodes well for our life together.

The show itself was entertaining and fun. A live four piece band walked us through the history of tango while the numbers alternated between traditional tango singers and impressive tango dancers. Taking in a dance performance isn’t usually on the top of my list, but these guys were good. We preferred the dancing to the singing, but it was a wonderful show all around. The meal came with a couple of bottles of wine which also were rather wonderful. We’re getting a head start on our guidebooks advice to enjoy at least one bottle of wine per day while in Argentina!

-Phil

Categories: Argentina, At Night, City Visits, Destinations, Tango, Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

¡Buenos Días, Buenos Aires!

After 10 cold, cloudy and often rainy days in Scotland, we were delighted to wake up to the sun beaming brightly through the window in warm Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Still adjusting to the 5 hour time difference, we were up bright and early, ready to see a new city!

One of the reasons we were excited about Argentina is because Phil and I both know a very small amount of Spanish.  Normally, one of the first things we do upon arrival in a new country is ask how to say basic phrases, like “hello”, “please”, and “thank-you”.  However, thanks to a few classes at good ‘ole Miami University (and of course having lived in New York City for six years) we are both able to crudely communicate basic ideas and we can even understand quite a few phases in Español.  I was so proud when I was able to buy subway tickets and not use any English at all.  The ticket agent even asked me a question and I was able to respond.  Wow! What a change from struggling through Eastern Europe.  However, one of the things I find interesting is that there is far less English spoken or on signage here than we have seen in almost every other country.  Luckily, we are able to manage our way through Spanish well-enough to figure out where we are going, but if we didn’t have any knowledge of the language, Buenos Aires would be quite a struggle.

We originally intended to start our day with a hop-on/hop-off bus tour in order to get an overview of the city.  After searching for the bus for a bit, we finally found a line 25 people deep waiting to board.  When the woman who worked for the bus company, clad in bright yellow, informed us the next one would be in about 40 minutes and we’d just have to wait in line until then, we decided this wasn’t going to be the best option.  We didn’t want to waste so much time just waiting around and clearly with lines like this, they don’t have enough buses in operation.  We decided instead to explore some tours suggested by our hotel.  We found the Tangol office at the end of Florida Street and chatted with Enrique.  We lamely tried our Spanish, but we all found English was much easier to communicate with.  Tangol offers all kinds of tours and excursions, from a 6-hour walking tour, to an all day Gaucho expedition.  We inquired about various city tours and their Argentinian Fútbol trip.  We had tons of information swimming in our heads, so for starters we decided to go with a 3-hour city tour on a small bus.  We figured this would be just as good, if not better than the hop-on/hop-off tour because this time we would have a live guide who could answer all of our questions.

After killing some time walking up and down Florida Street, the pedestrian only shopping street, we boarded the bus.  We discovered that we were the only 2 of 16 passengers who spoke English; the rest spoke Spanish and Portuguese.  Once again reminding us how inferior we feel in the language department, our guide Fakundo, gave the tour in all 3 languages.  However, we often felt his translations into English were a bit of an after thought.  We could pick up a few words in Spanish here and there–enough to know that he wasn’t giving us all of the information in the English translation.  Still, we managed to glean some new information and see some new neighborhoods.  We drove down the avenue Nuevo de Julio, the widest avenue in the world at 140 meters across. (Correction: we’ve since found out that Argentians just like to SAY it is the widest avenue in the world. Turns out that there is a much larger one in Brazil. Don’t tell the Argentians.)  In the center of this avenue we saw the Public Works building with an iron likeness of Eva Peron on either side.  One side looks in anger and seems to be speaking with vehemence toward the wealthy area of Buenos Aires.  The other side is a friendly iron portrait, smiling down on the lower class sections of the city.  Images of Eva Peron can be seen everywhere, and the people still speak of her as a true Argentinian hero.

As we continued our drive, we saw the elegant and sophisticated neighborhoods of Palermo and Recoleta. We then drove toward an older futbol stadium which is home to the Boca Juniors.  Driving through this area immediately reminded us of Wrigleyville in Chicago. Every shop and storefront had jerseys, team colors, flags and mascots hanging from the windows.  This area is clearly centered on their love of this team.  It is situated right alongside the colorful neighborhood, La Boca.  This used to be one of the poorest neighborhood in Buenos Aires.  The materials for the tenements were leftovers from other buildings and the paint used was whatever leftovers would be handed over to the people.  Because of this, the whole neighborhood is a mish-mash of colors and textures.  It has become a center for bohemian and art culture; streets are lined with paintings, cafes and tango dancers.  Although perfectly safe, our guide warned us that you wouldn’t want to stray too far from this neighborhood at night.  There is still quite a bit of poverty in Buenos Aires and in fact they have 3 shanty towns inside the city.  Apparently outside the city there are many more.  The largest one in Buenos Aires lies very close to the wealthy area and holds 60,000

One set of protesters wanting acknowledgement and benefits for their part in the Falklands War.

squatters.  Our guide explained that they have been there for decades and it is almost more like a neighborhood than a shanty-town.

This overview of Buenos Aires was certainly interesting.  Phil thinks this city has one of the biggest dichotomies between rich and poor that we’ve seen.  To be honest, I’m not really seeing the wealth.  I see poverty everywhere, buildings covered in spray paint and protesters in at least 2 spots in the city.  There seems to be struggle and unhappiness.  At the same time, there is also great pride in their heritage–signs for tango shows, classes and clubs are everywhere.  We have only just arrived, but I am interested to dive a little deeper and see how my impressions of Buenos Aires evolve throughout our visit here.

–Brooke

Categories: Argentina, City Visits, Differences, Landmarks, Reflections, Surprises, Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Farewell Scotland, Buenos Dias Argentina!

Before the clouds, anywayOur time in Europe is coming to a quick close. Brooke and I spent one last quiet day in Edinburgh today before we shut the door on Scotland and set our sights on our next and (can it be?) final leg of our Round The World Trip: Argentina and possibly Chile. I’ve enjoyed being in the same country for more than just a handful of days. It’s allowed us to see more, do more and offers a nice change of pace. There is less debating nightly lodging choices, zero sweating inter-country transportation details and no need to work our key phrases in new languages. One big lesson learned on this trip: longer stays over fewer stops has its benefits! Of course, the other side of the coin is that you see a smaller number of places in the end. At this point, I wouldn’t trade any city visit for more time in any other city. Okay, maybe less or zero time in Guangzhou. Sorry, Guangzhou.

Last night, for our last evening in Edinburgh, we enjoyed a quiet dinner at a cozy pub called the Green Mantle. If there is one thing that Scotland isn’t hurting for, it’s cozy pubs. We were first lured in by the rare promise of dinner being served after 7:00 PM and it turned out to be the perfect place for a meal and drinks. Intended or otherwise, our meals keep coming with potatoes served in one form or another. Chips, jacketed, crisps, boiled and more. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I’ve consumed at least one potato every day since I landed in Scotland. Each one was exceedingly delicious so I’m not complaining, just pointing out that this might be a terrible place to visit if you have some strange, unique potato allergy. To our dismay, the bartender at the Green Mantle told us that we missed the ubiquitous Pub Quiz evening be one day.  Probably for the best since our skills at American Bar Trivia probably don’t quite translate directly into British Pub Quizzes. Questions like “Which footy forward kicked the equalizing point for France in the 2006 World Cup” would sabotage me.

Over buffalo burgers and tasty Tennet’s lager, Brooke and I mulled over some final reflections on our time in this part of the world. I know we’ve said it before, but it bares repeating: The Rabbie’s three day tour was outstanding and we can’t recommend it enough. Some of our most exceptional experiences abroad have been with knowledgable, passionate locals who have led walking, biking and bus tours. That includes our time with a lively guide at the Edinbugh Castle Tour and the extraordinaire Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour. A plan to do more of these tours moving forward is now part of our agenda. We were introduced to a great website named Viator.com that aggregates tours. Kind of like a Kayak.com for sight seeing. The tours left me with more stories, facts and impressions on Scotland and The Highlands than my wee brain can possibly remember. Local Scots are such a proud people who wear their Scottish Pride and passion for history right on the hem of their kilt. It tends to rub off; we feel like we’re leaving Scotland beaming with pride even though we’re just visitors. In the end, we’re both so glad that we included Scotland on our itinerary. Aye, a great visit.

This morning, we decided to take the day to regroup and relax. There was sleeping in. There was a postcard writing blitz. There was window shopping. There was time in a coffee shop. When you travel for four months, we’ve found that you need these kind of days to keep you sane. We did stumble across a unique store called “Americandy” that left us rolling our eyes. The theme of the store is that they stock all of the incredibly bad-for-you, over-the-top candy that’s popular in the states, but harder to find in Europe. We’re talking NERDS, GummyWorms, and Twinkies. So, to be clear, the one store we saw that boasts selling American goods is peddling the worst junk you can imagine. The kicker? They also sell boxes of cereals such as Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms but no other breakfast foods. A bit eye opening that a stores that sells novelty candy has kid’s breakfast cereal bunched in.

And, yeah, they even have the Blues Brothers out front.

Soon the time came to leave Edinburgh. The bus ride out made me a bit sad, but the unrelenting fog that blocked the usually stunning view of the Edinbugh castle made leaving a little bit more palatable. Actually, we split town just in time as the forecast calls for snow on Thursday. (Go ahead. Ask me about the Buenos Aires forecast. That’s right. 75 degrees and sunny!) Brooke and I were kind enough to leave Edinburgh just the way found it – in the rain! Our bus ride out of town gave us one last lovely view- rows and rows of captivating, old, giant homes made from stone that have been turned into B&Bs and small hotels.

Stop! Time is getting away!Right now, we find ourselves back in Glasgow while we wait for the overnight Megabus to speed us down to London. We’re downing just a touch of whisky (the true Scottish way is to spell it without the “e”!) and killing some time at a bar. Now that I’m back in Glasgow, I can say that Edinburgh feeels much bigger and more cosmopolitan even though it is the smaller town of the two. I’m also clearly hearing now how the accents vary so dramatically in this country. Man, I can’t believe I missed it before. Speech patterns change even over just a few miles. Most of the time I have no trouble understanding the locals, but other times I struggle to pick up every third word. Hell, it might very well be like this in every country we’ve visited, but since we actually speak the English language, here it is much more noticeable. We’re told that every little region of Scotland has its own accent. But the important thing is that apparently absolutely no one speaks with the strange brogue that Sean Connery invokes.

What's a sheep's favorite song? Ba-ba-ba-Babara Ann.So, we find ourselves changing gears again. Time to break out the Lonely Planet book on Argentina and brush up on the little Spanish we know. (“Donde esta la biblioteca?”) We’re not just leaving the United Kingdom, we’re leaving Europe where we’ve been hanging out since early August. It always takes a little adjusting mentally to go from one region of the world to another. But, as always, we’re ready to discover and absorb a new place. It’s another chapter closed on our RTW trip as we say goodbye to lovely Scotland (and Europe for that matter!) and head west.

-Phil

A much quieter High Street in Edinbugh at night!

Just your average pub lined street in Edinburgh!

Categories: Beer, Exploring, Scotland, Self Guided Tours, Tours, Transportation, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Goodbye Highlands

Sadly, today was our third and final day in the Highlands of Scotland with Rabbie’s Tour.  It seems like twice an hour we turn to each other and say, “I’m so glad we decided to do this tour!”  We have learned so much and had an overall more rich experience because we did this with an expert.  Rabbie’s (or another tour of its kind) is definitely the way to go for anyone out there thinking of taking trip to the Highlands.

Our guide, Doug, telling us the legend of how the Cuillin Hills were formed.

The day greeted us with clear blue skies and loads of sunshine, something we aren’t terribly used to here in Scotland.  We began with a drive down from Portree into the heart of the Cuillin Hills.  There are two major parts of these, one is called the Red Cuillins and the other is the Black Cuillins.  Like everything in Scotland, there is a legend about why these hills look the way they do presently.  It is a bit too long and involved to share here, and I really couldn’t do it justice by trying to write it out anyway.  Suffice it to say, it had everything to do with a battle between an arrogant giant and an Amazonian woman, both too prideful to admit defeat to one another.  Of course they ultimately fell in love, but that is neither here nor there.  The rigidity of the top of the hills is said to be made from their hacking away at one another in battle.

The history of Scotland is steeped in legends of this kind, but occasionally there are true stories to go along with them.  In this case, Doug told us of a young gurkha from Nepal who visited the Highlands.  When he stopped in for an orange juice at a local pub he was ridiculed for not drinking whiskey.  He explained to the man that he was not in Scotland to drink, he was there to visit their beautiful hills.  The man replied with disbelief, “Hills?  Those are no hills, those are mountains.  It would take me all day to climb to the top and back down again.”  The man from India was amused and replied, “That is no mountain.  I could make it to the top and back in less than an hour.”  The Highlander believed this man to be a liar, trying to make a fool out of him, so the gurkha decided to show him.  He took off his shoes and socks and began running up the hill.  He made it up and back in 59 minutes.  Amazed the Highlander insisted they share a whiskey together.  As they sipped, a man from another clan walked in and when he was told about this amazing feat, he didn’t believe it for a minute.  The two Scots began to argue and it looked as though a fight was going to break out.  The gurkha, wanting to avoid a fight, jumped between them and said he would prove it.  Again, he took off his socks and shoes and ran up the hill and back down.  This time, it only took him 58 minutes!  This all took place in 1902, but years later the story inspired the locals to begin a race up this same hill.  The Glamaig Hill Race draws hundreds of runners each summer.  Of course, they run with shoes and socks, but the record time for this 4.5 mile, 2500 foot run is 44 minutes and 27 seconds.  We failed to get a picture of the hill.  To see what it looks like, click here. Pretty impressive!

There are tons of stories centered upon the Highlands, both truth and legend.  We were also told the story of the Sisters of Kintail.  To make a very long story short, these 5 sisters were waiting for 5 brothers who were supposed to come for them from Ireland.  They waited so long, their father was worried they would lose their beauty.  He enlisted the help of a seer, who turned them into mountains so they would be beautiful for all eternity.  And they really are spectacular.  In fact, this may be the most beautiful part we saw in the Highlands.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that the fall colors are in full effect, the sun was shining bright and the weather was wonderfully mild.  We have taken some amazing photos here in Scotland, but the ones looking out on the 5 Sisters of Kintail are my favorite.

The 5 Sisters of Kintail showing their eternal beauty.

We continued to wind our way down toward Edinburgh.  We made a quick stop to see some “Hairy Coos”.  These long-haired cows are everywhere, and they look so much different from the ones most of us are used to seeing at home that we decided it was worth a short photo stop.  We then made the obligatory stop in Loch Ness, where we were told of some strange and unusual happenings, but none of us was inspired enough to swim in the loch or even go on a boat ride trying to find Nessie.  Instead, we had a leisurely lunch with some new friends.  As I have already said, one of the best parts of Rabbie’s tours is the small group size.  We only had 14 people in our group, plus our guide, Doug.  This allowed for some great time with everyone and we met some really great people.  We found ourselves spending much of our time with Melissa and Crystal, two women from Minneapolis (though Crystal now lives in London).  We had tons in common and are all excited to have made new friends.  We are already toying with the idea of another trip together, or at least a meet-up in our respective home cities.

Melissa, Crystal, Phil and Brooke after dipping our heads under Bride’s Veil falls.

Alas, we had to say goodbye to the Highlands, goodbye to Crystal and Melissa, and goodbye to Doug and his myriad stories which lasted to the moment we arrived in Edinburgh.  We absolutely loved this tour and we are now considering finding something similar on our next stop in Argentina.  We have one more day in Scotland and we will be sad to leave it.  This 10 day country stop has certainly met and even exceeded our expectations.   We can certainly see ourselves coming back here someday.  Until then, slàinte mhath!

–Brooke

The “hairy coos” of the Highlands.

New friends enjoying drinks together in Portree.

These gorgeous views are everywhere across the Highlands.

Brooke tries Irn Bru, Scotland’s most popular soft drink. Tastes like cream soda with a splash of bubble gum. Very sugary!

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Exploring, Friends, Landmarks, Reflections, Scotland, Tours, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rabbie’s Tour of the Highlands–Day 1

Today began our adventure to the Highlands and the Isle of Skye with Rabbie’s Trail Burners. After loading up the van, 14 excited passengers led by our driver/guide Doug, left Edinburgh to explore the vast Highlands. Much of our day was dedicated to actually getting to the Isle of Skye, though we did stop several times along the way to appreciate the scenery and take in some local sights.

When we arrived in Scotland, we knew that we wanted to see the Highlands. After all, we wouldn’t really be seeing the country without making this part of the journey. We briefly considered renting a car and driving ourselves. We did this in New Zealand, and while that was fun, it was also tiring and involved some harrowing driving in the rain (on the wrong side of the road). Worried we might be in for something similar here in Scotland, we decided to go with a guided tour instead, accepting that it would be a bit pricier. Within 30 minutes of beginning the tour, I knew we had made the right decision. Our guide, Doug, immediately started telling us stories about the history of Edinburgh as we pulled out of the city. One story I loved takes place at the Edinburgh Zoo. They have had a penguin colony since the early days of the zoo and once, over 50 years ago, the penguins accidentally got out of their enclosure. However, they didn’t run wild or get out of the park. Instead, they walked in a single file line around the park and then right back into their pen. The interesting part? They’ve been doing it every day since then. That’s right. Each day at 2:15 pm the zoo keepers open the door and the penguins commence their parade. Apparently it is quite the spectacle and an attraction for many tourists. It is these kinds of stories which Doug has been sharing with us all day. We are so filled with information and our tour has only just begun!

Aside from the fact that they are said to have awesome guides, one of the reasons we chose Rabbie’s tours is because it caps the number of participants at sixteen. This allows for more interaction among the people and also more flexibility. This flexibility proved useful when we drove past our first loch. The water looked like glass with the trees and mountains reflecting off it. Doug thought it was too beautiful to pass up, so we pulled over for a few minutes to take in the scenery and snap a few pictures. If we had been on a bus with 45 tourists, we probably wouldn’t have stopped and it certainly would have taken more than 5 minutes. We appreciate that Doug takes advantage of the small size of the group to take engage in these kinds of experiences.

As we made our way into the Highlands, Doug regaled us with stories of clans and chieftains, marriages and murders. One of the most gruesome occurred in Glen Coe when the Campbells took advantage of the kindness of the MacDonalds and killed them in cold blood while they were sleeping. Thirty-seven MacDonalds died including their chief. There are still pubs in Glen Coe today who will deny service to those with the name Campbell. Historical tales like these captivated us throughout the long drive. Doug has amassed an amazing wealth of knowledge and he is such a wonderful story teller, as so many Scots are. Not only did he entertaining us as we drove, he also played DJ by sharing music from Scottish artists both old and new. I think the more scenic the landscape, the more traditional the music became. This was fine by me. What could be more perfect than driving through the Highlands, gazing at the mountains, glens and lochs, and hearing the Scottish pipes playing on the radio? Absolutely wonderful.

We made several stops for photos, but the main attraction we visited before arriving in Portree, on the Isle of Skye, was Eilean Donan Castle. This much loved, photographed and filmed castle is set on the side of a Loch Duich at the base of a mountain. It couldn’t be more picturesque and it could have been really awesome. If it was the original castle. Which it isn’t. The original one was destroyed during the Jacobite uprising in 1745. The one which stands in its place is a recreation from the 1920’s. Still very cool. All based on the original plans. But honestly, seeing modern wedding photos and decorations was a bit of a letdown. In fact, part of the castle is still kept by the McRae family for private apartments where they take vacations. It’s no wonder this picturesque castle has been used in films such as Highlander, James Bond and Brave (in animated form). It is in such great shape because it isn’t actually very old!

After the castle, we drove toward Portree. With a population of 5,000, it is the largest town on the Isle of Skye whose total population is approximately 10,000. Still, this is by no means a large town. We managed to walk around and check it out in about 10 minutes. Of course our walk was made quicker because it was after 6pm therefore everything was closed. After all, it is Saturday night. God forbid something should be open until 8pm. We managed to scrounge up some fish and chips for dinner before heading back to our hostel for the night. We are exhausted. Even though we weren’t traipsing around all day, like we will be tomorrow, the drive was a bit mentally exhausting. Doug has shared so much history and many great stories. I’m grateful Phil and I have each other to help us remember it all…well, at least most of it!

–Brooke

In front of Eilean Donan Castle. See, we bought jackets!

The views are just stunning! We won’t be hurting for beautiful pictures over the next couple of days.

In front of the foothills near Glen Coe.

Our transportation for the next few days. Pretty stylish, right?

Categories: Driving Abroad, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Scotland, Tours, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Sun Shines on Edinburgh

After a rainy arrival in Edinburgh yesterday, we were happy to see the sun shining bright this morning.  Sure, there were clouds looming in the distance–this is Scotland in October, after all.  Now that we are seeing it by the light of day, it is clear how different Edinburgh is from Glasgow.  It immediately feels older, more preserved and more traditional.  It also has beautiful views at every turn.  One minute we find ourselves peering over a bridge down to a beautiful park, the next we are staring up to hills lined with Gothic style buildings.  Wanting to take full advantage of this sunny-ish day, we made a list full of possible things to do and decided to start where any visit to this city should:  Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh Castle is impossible to miss.  It sits upon the highest point in the city, rising high for all to see.  Although we were told this is a “can’t miss” attraction, we were a bit turned off by the steep admission price of £14.50 per person.  That price makes it one of the most expensive attraction in town, and we questioned if this was the best use of our time and money.  After a little more research, we decided it was worth it and climbed the steep hill toward the entrance gate.  Visually striking, this castle is a labyrinth of twisting, turning cobblestone streets.  Upon entrance, we learned a short guided tour is included in the price of admission.  Already feeling the ticket was paying for itself, we stuck around to meet Gavin, an awesome and charismatic tour guide who gave us the basics of the castle grounds.  First covering the age of the castle, and the many different iterations it has gone through over the years, Gavin regaled us with stories of Scottish history as though he were performing a well-rehearsed play.  He took jabs at the British in all the appropriate places and spent a good five minutes railing Mel Gibson for his portrayal of William Wallace in Braveheart.  Actually, he landbasted almost every fact about this film including the title character.  Braveheart is actually the name given to Robert the Bruce, not William Wallace.  His passionate stance against the film is more a symptom of his love for Scottish history than his hatred of Mel Gibson (thought it’s a close call).  As we toured the castle grounds with Gavin, he explained that the castle is still used as a military base today.  Besides the few buildings still in use by the military, most of the remainder of the grounds have been turned into museum exhibits.  We visited the National War Museum, the Prisons of War exhibit, and the Honours of Scotland.  In this last exhibit, we viewed the history of the Scottish crown jewels–the sword, the scepter and the crown.  These are the oldest crown jewels in Europe and they sit beside the Stone of Destiny.  This stone has been used for centuries as the seat of the incoming king or queen at the moment of coronation.  It was stolen from Scotland over 700 years ago by the British and not returned until 1996.  Gavin is still a wee bit upset about this!

One of the highlights of the Edinburgh Castle was watching the One O’Clock Gun.  A tradition reaching back hundreds of years, the one o’clock time signal used to be done with a flag being hoisted in the air and then dropping exactly at one in the afternoon.  This helped railroad workers and ship’s captains to keep their times accurate before clocks were what they are today.  However, the weather in Edinburgh is not known for always being crystal clear and it wasn’t always possible for people to see the flag.  They incorporated the firing of a gun so the signal would be clear, even when the weather was bad.  Though no longer needed, the tradition continues every day at 1pm. Perched at the castle wall, a soldier comes out, loads the gun and fires off into the distance.  Surprisingly, there are a number of places around the world who still continue this tradition, including Ft. Henry in the United States.  One of the best parts of watching the gun fire is the gorgeous view from the spot where the gun sits.  We could see across the entire city, to the Firth of Forth and over to the island of Fife.  We were grateful it was a clear day.  Before we left the castle grounds, we made sure to head to St. Margaret’s Chapel, not only the oldest building on the grounds, but also the oldest in Edinburgh.  It was probably built around 1130 and it takes approximately 30 seconds to soak in the entire space.  Still, it was worth stopping in.  All in all, Edinburgh Castle was expensive, but worth the price of admission.  The guided tour was really wonderful, and we both feel like we have learned so much more about Scottish National History in this one visit than we did during our entire time in Glasgow.

It was a lot of this. Highland soldiers and royalty. Over and over again.

Continuing our bit of Scottish History, we visited the National Portrait Gallery.  This free museum is filled with portraits and sculptures of all the famous folks of Scotland, from Bonnie Prince Charlie to Sean Connery.  Unfortunately, the galleries holding portraits of modern members of Scottish culture were closed to prepare for an upcoming exhibit.  So, we walked around viewing portrait after portrait of James the VI, James the VII, James Edward Stuart–there were lots of James’.  We both enjoy portraits, but after a while they all started running together and we were just about done with visiting museums.

With a sprinkle beginning to fall, we decided it was time to head to the grocery store.  It was finally time to take advantage of our wonderful Air BnB home and cook dinner for ourselves.  I can’t express the comfort we both felt in cruising the aisles of the grocery store for ingredients.  Our hostess is away for the duration of our stay, so we have her apartment to ourselves.  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it almost felt like being at home tonight.  A fire burning in the fireplace and rain falling outside, we warmed up by cooking a familiar dish, drinking a bottle of wine and watching my favorite Masterpiece Mystery series, Inspector Lewis. Neither of us has been homesick much on our trip, but this evening made us both long for the comforts of home.  We’ve already decided to cook tomorrow night, too, before heading out on a Literary Pub Tour.  We are really looking forward to it.  Cross your fingers that the rain stays at bay again tomorrow!

–Brooke

Yep, we’re in Scotland!

A view of Edinburgh and out to the Firth of Forth.

Phil meets a bagpiper.

Gorgeous views from the castle walls.

Categories: Budget, castles, City Visits, Destinations, Europe, Homesick, Landmarks, Museums, Relaxing, Scotland, Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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