Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sandwiches at the Summit

Psst... guess what!  I discovered something important  the other day. No, I didn't learn what Scots wear beneath their kilts.  And no, I didn't meet the Loch Ness monster. But it was a major revelation, something you should know if you ever visit Bonnie Scotland.

I discovered the best place to eat a sandwich in Edinburgh.  Here it is:

No offence to all the lovely delis and cafes I've patronized throughout my time here, but no restaurant could ever compete with the atmosphere of Arthur's Seat.
View of Arthur's Seat from the Meadows (park).  The "seat" is the highest part in the middle.  The cliff face on the right, the one that looks a bit like a wall is called Salisbury Crags.
On a melancholy and I'll admit it, slightly hungover day, this 822 foot (250.5m) volcanic mass offered me a perfect midday escape from twiddling my thumbs, waiting for University to start back up, and complaining about how I miss all my Erasmus friends.  It was steep enough to burn some of the previous night's excesses, but gentle enough for me to tackle safely with a slight headache. The climb was precisely the kind of cathartic hard work my lazy body needed, and it helped me rid myself of all the restlessness brought on by a 6-week holiday.  By the time I reached the top and unwrapped my sandwich (brie, grape and chutney), I had a better sense of zen than any yoga session had ever given me.

Fun fact: Although many people believe it to be named after King Arthur, experts say the hill's name is likely a perversion of Ard na Said, Gaelic for "Height of Arrows"

At this point I could waffle on about the majestic, world-shattering view at the top of Arthurs seat, but if you follow this blog, you've heard me say this in my posts about Craighouse, Blackford Hill, The Scott Monument, and The Pentland Hills.  I realize that my trumpeting on about the city skyline is becoming meaningless, perhaps even annoying. Suffice it to say any high-up view of Edinburgh is wonderful, as Edinburgh is a wonderful city.  End of story.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Happy Burns Night!

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit

Tonight all over Scotland people are raising glasses of whisky and reciting poems like this- It's Burns night!  Like Saint Andrew's Day a few months ago it's a day of National pride, but instead of Scotland's patron Saint, today we're celebrating Scotland's favourite son.

Rabbie Burns was an 18th century poet from Ayrshire, and is one of the only Scots language poets to have been celebrated abroad.  Most famously he wrote Auld Lang Syne, A Red Red Rose, and To A Mouse, in addition to loads of patriotic pieces that have been converted into folk songs.

January 25th is Burns' birthday, and in addition to singing and reciting his songs, many Scots celebrate with Ceilidhs (folk dance- more to come on that!) and dangerously large portions of haggis. I'm not going out tonight (honestly because I'm still feeling the effect of last night's "class meeting" in a pub), but this weekend I'll have loads of Burns-themed events to choose from (I'm hoping to go to this one).  I can't wait!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Pros and Cons of the Organized Tour

For a lot of people, travel is about independence.  It's about choosing where to go, what to do, who to interact with completely by yourself.  It's about the sense of self-discovery that accompanies discovering new places, often at random and without forethought.

The idea of organized tours, then, turns off a lot of serious travelers.  "How can you achieve that gratifying sense of discovery on a trip that someone else planned?" they ask. To them, a structured trip that thousands of others have taken could never compare to travelling alone and experiencing something completely unique.

And to a point, I agree with this logic.  Independence is a big reason why I decided to uproot myself and moved overseas 5 months ago.  But as important as abstract ideals like independence and discovery are to me, they may be outweighed by practicalities like budgeting and safety.  Besides, I've had profoundly memorable experiences both travelling independently and on tours. When considering an organized tour, then, I think it's important to keep several things in mind:

1. Safety- A few nights ago, a Scottish friend did a rather insulting impression of me trying to drive a car in the U.K.  Even though I called him some of my choicest swear words, he made me realize how much safer it is for visitors to take a guide-driven bus Scotland than to try and brave the Highland roads on their own.  Plus, these tours guarantee you won't end up lost, in a bad neighborhood, or unable to find accommodation.

2. Tour Sizes- One of the best travel experiences I've had was on a tour with only 3 other people.  In just a few days together we felt completely comfortable together- we all knew each others names and backgrounds, we had our own set of inside jokes, and we knew that we'd keep in touch (and for the record, we do still keep in touch). In addition to being more personal than huge groups, small groups are more practical.  You're able to customize the tour to the group's wishes and because simple toilet and snack stops don't take all day, you have more time for sightseeing.

3. Partying- A quick look at the names and tag lines of many popular tours (Shamrocker, Wild in Scotland, and Haggis: Wild & Sexy) shows that organized trips frequently involve a lot of alcohol, and, well, some shenanigans.  I don't mind a bit of nighttime partying as long as my days on tour are filled with history and sightseeing.  Others might find the drunken revelry exhausting and childish.

4. Money- Nobody, except big nerds, loves doing all the math to figure out the cheapest way to travel, but in order to get the most fun possible out of time abroad, it's necessary to add up the expenses involved in each of your options, and then compare them.  In my experience, budget backpacker tours always were cheaper than renting a car and exploring on my own. Still, I'm sure this isn't always the case. So keep the calculator handy.

5. Local Perspective- The best tours have local guides who tell you historic and legendary stories, and can answer any questions you might pose.  I would never choose a tour operator whose guides didn't have a good reputation, as a guide's local perspective is the greatest benefit of choosing an organized tour.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Hiking in the Pentland Hills

Edinburgh is a city of hills.  The most famous are postcard staples Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat (so far neglected in this blog- I’ll get to them soon), and while they offer stunning iconic views, I prefer less well-known climbs that attract more dog walkers than tourists.  As a runner, I’ve become well acquainted with the hilly parks near my flat, and Napier’s Craighouse Campus hill Blackford Hill have become both a joy and a muscle-burning curse in my life.  After a booze and dessert filled holiday season, however, I recently craved an even more challenging hike than these, and decided it was high time for me to venture just beyond the city limits (check this fact) to explore the Pentland Hills.

A massive park just to the South of Edinburgh, the Pentlands are regular stomping ground for hikers, but not many tourists.  Because I visited in the middle of winter, there were even fewer people than usual on the trails, but the cold, wind, and mud I experienced on my 3-hour walk did little to diminish my experience.  I chose to follow a trail aptly named the Capital View, a loop starting and ending at Hillend Country park, winding alongside Midlothian Snowsports Centre’s ski range.

Even though the trail began just outside of the city, I was able to get to it via Lothian Buses, the city’s service, without any trouble.  This is one of the things I love about Edinburgh.  While it’s a buzzing cultural center that offers me such a new experience from my rural upbringing, I can step onto a number 15, and within 15 minutes be hiking through the wilderness. 

My ramble up and down the hills was exactly what the doctor ordered to burn off some holiday indulgences.  Challenging but not dangerously so, the path was reasonably well maintained with only a few muddy patches (and I can’t complain about those; it is January, after all.  And the views?  Well I’m not sure words can describe them, and I know that the photos simply don’t do them justice.  From the highest point the city seemed quite small, the Castle only a small rise in the skyline.  In the distance, the Firth of Forth and Dunfermline Blended into the sky in moody purple gradient layers.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Holy Hogmanay!

I can happily report, I survived my first New Year celebration in Scotland.

Let me rephrase that.  I survived my first Hogmanay.

Hogmanay is the Scots' word for the last day of the year, and in Edinburgh, it's one of many internationally renowned festivals that attracts flocks of tourists to this nations capital. While it's roots are diverse and a bit mysterious (Norse? French? Gaelic?), today it's a mish-mash of traditional and modern events.  This year's Hogmanay started with a Viking-inspired torchlight procession on December 30th and ended with the city's first ever New Years Games on January 1st.  And in between?  Let's just say there were plenty of raucous and ridiculous events for visitors to enjoy.

While I didn't participate in every part of Hogmanay this year, I was sure to check out all the free events, and had a wonderful couple of days.

The Torchlight Procession

Perhaps my most awe-inspiring experience in the city so far, this parade of thousands of torch-bearers turned the dark city streets into a glowing river. With my brother and my new friend Kayla, I followed the procession up to Calton Hill for a 360 degree firework show and the traditional burning of a Viking ship. It was magical.

The New Years Games

This year's Hogmanay included Edinburgh's first ever New Years Games, a family event based loosely upon games played in ancient Highland villages.  Another free event, the games were mainly based in the city's Grassmarket, with other venues across the city. To play, we had to join one of two teams, the "Uppies" (Northerners) and the "Doonies" (Southerners).  Because we're from a Northern US State, my brother and I were Uppies.

 We then visited each game to try to win tokens for our team.  There were traditional carnival cames like ring tossing as well as games of skill like a Minotaur's Labyrinth- my absolute favorite. Sadly, the Doonies won the overall games, but Mark and I had an absolute ball playing!