Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Kilts, Whiskey and Green- SCOTLAND!

This past week we had a "puente" which I know I've mentioned before, but just to review it is a long-weekend due to a holiday.  This puente we got Wednesday, Thursday and Friday off due to Spain's labor day and the Cruces de Mayo festival. About three months ago Amanda and I were thinking ahead about how we wanted to spend this time-off.  We decided to look for the cheapest plane ticket we could find and let the trip choose us.  So I looked at several trips, and the cheapest flight (70 euros round-trip!) was to Glasgow, so we went with it!

Tuesday after work we hopped on a bus to Malaga and caught a late night flight to Glasgow.  We arrived after midnight, went straight to our hostel in Glasgow and went to bed.  We woke up the next morning and caught the train to Edinburgh straight away.  The train was inexpensive and only a 50 minute ride.  The first thing I noticed about the architecture in Scotland is that it's all very dark and gloomy looking.  Instead of the bright Mediterranean and classic renaissance architecture that I'm used to seeing in Europe, most buildings are made of out dark stone which have become weathered by years of rainfall turning them black and giving them an eerie look. Beautiful in their own way. The first day in Edinburgh (pronounced Ed-in-bur-oh) we explored the "Royal Mile", the old main street of Edinburgh which now is lined with restaurants, cafes, shops, museums, etc.  We enjoyed a cafe lunch and tea, happened upon a delicious fudge shop, and caught a free walking tour of the city!  Our tour guide was fantastic, he really knew his stuff.  We learned a lot of interesting things about the old city but the general theme is that Edinburgh built city walls, 1 square kilometer wide, centuries ago.  Due to fear of attack, as the city began to grow in population, the buildings grew up rather than out to remain within the city walls.  There were reports of buildings nearly 20 stories high, made out of WOOD! The city remained within the walls until they finally built "New Town" (the first city scape designed on paper) in the late 18th century.  I could go on about the history for a while... but I'll move on.  Later we visited the famous Greyfriar's cemetery where Greyfriar's Bobby (the famous dog who slept by his owner's grave for 14 years) is buried as well as the real Thomas Riddell, Sir Walter Scott and other celebrities.  That night we decided to go out for a classic British meal, fish and chips.  Afterwards we went to a local pub and tried local cider.  It was a chill but good night.

Day 2 in Edinburgh we woke up to great weather (50s and sunny) and the sound of bagpipes and we were feeling ambitious. We decided to tackle Arthur's Seat, a 40 minute hike up an extinct volcano overlooking Edinburgh.  We were dripping sweat by the time we reached the top but it was worth it for the views.  In one direction you can see the city of Edinburgh in its entirety and the other direction the port of Leith can be seen bordering the North Sea. And in every direction, green rolling hills, exactly what one would expect in Scotland.  We enjoyed some traditional Scottish butter shortbread cookies at the top to celebrate the climb  Then, we snapped some photos and made our way back down towards the city.  We went to The Elephant House for lunch, the café which JK Rowling often went to write the Harry Potter's books. The waitress even pointed out her regular table to us.  As a fan of the books, it was simply magical, and the food was fantastic too!  We spent the afternoon visiting the Edinburgh castle (just the outside because it cost 16 pounds to enter) and the GIANT National Museum of Scotland which contains exhibits of Scotland's history and much more. That night we went to a vegetarian baked potato joint and split a potato topped with cheddar cheese and baked beans.  Later, we joined our hostel for a free pub crawl where we met a lot of cool travelers from the hostel and got to see a bit of the Edinburgh nightlife.  I took this opportunity to try some local whiskey, and I wasn't disappointed. The whiskey here is incredible, even Amanda (who isn't a big fan of whiskey) agreed. 

The next day we woke up bright an early for our Highlands tour.  We grabbed some stuffed breakfast rolls on the way (I had sausage and egg) and went to our meeting point.  We joined about a dozen and a half others on a mini bus with a Scottish tour guide.  He took us to a whiskey distillery, a farm, a few small towns and of course, Loch Ness.  Although it was a rainy day (the only wet day of the trip!), it didn't matter because in my opinion the views from the bus throughout the drive were the best part. The Scottish highlands are stunning, with tall rocky mountains that blend into the rain clouds, and endless waterfalls, creeks and rivers.  If you're ever in Scotland, don't miss it!  The tour was over 12 hours long, so it's safe to say after the long day we were exhausted.  We grabbed a light dinner and went to bed.

Saturday we woke up and checked out of the hostel.  Before leaving for Glasgow, we treated ourselves to a Scottish breakfast , a "must-try" according to many.  For 5 pounds we got two sausages, two eggs, baked beans, a potato pancake, 2 pieces of bacon, a cooked tomato, and blood sausage.  I managed to eat it all, but wasn't hungry again until about 9pm that night.  It was delicious, but a little too heavy for my taste. Afterwards we traveled back to Glasgow.  After arriving and finding our hostel, we met with friend of Amanda's who was completing her master's there. We went out for tea and then she showed us around the West End and Glasgow University.  The West End is the university part of towns and has tons of cute shops (lots of them second-hand charity shops), restaurants and pubs.  Like an American college town with a Scottish twist.  The university is also stunning, many people think that JK Rowling was inspired by it's architecture when creating Hogwarts.  We finally settled down at a pub for dinner and indulged in mac n' cheese, something I haven't had in nearly 9 months.  We were also brave enough to try "haggis balls" which were sheep stomach balls, battered and deep-fried.  We were nervous to try the Scottish staple, but they turned out to be pretty good as anything can be when it's deep fried. That night we worked our way into the centre to meet up with Amanda's friend again and some of her local friends.  The Scottish are very friendly and welcoming people, and we had a nice time.

Our last day in Scotland we decided to visit the Kelvingrove Museum which everyone in Glasgow had been raving about, they weren't kidding.  After our breakfast tea (which I´m now hooked on) we went to the museum.  We saw that they offered free guided tours, so we decided to take one and luckily we were the only people!  So a tour guide took Amanda and I around the enormous museum for free!  The museum is an interesting mix of animal exhibits, art collections and historical artifacts.  We could have easily spent the entire day there but we had a flight to catch so we only spent an hour and a half there and saw the highlights.  Later that day we took a train to the airport and flew back to Malaga.

One last comment about the kilts!  Before Scotland, I thought kilts were mostly kind of a joke; something they wear just for the tourists.  However I found out, that's not true!  Men wear kilts to special occasions. Instead of a suit, they wear a shirt, tie and kilt! Furthermore, many of the men sport the traditional tartan (colored wool plaid) of their family clan. Anyone with a traditional Scottish name will have a family clan which has it's own code of arms and colored tartan! I had no idea that those kind of traditions still live in Scotland, but I found it really fascinating.

My overall review of Scotland is great!  Although it was cold (40s and 50s all week), we only had one day of rain and for a Minnesotan, the weather was extremely bearable.  Although the pound is a little scary (1.7 to our dollar), we always managed to find affordable food/drinks and nearly every museum is free!  Our only big expense was the day-long highlands tour which was well worth it.  The history of Edinburgh is very interesting and I think even people that usually don't like history would find it interesting.  Also, the little presences of Harry Potter magic was fun for a fanatic like me.  The food was tasty although heavy on the meat and potatoes.  And like I said earlier, there's nothing better than a big cup of breakfast tea to warm you up after a day in the Scottish cold.  Glad I got my green fix in Scotland, because now I'm back in Almería for one more month of desert heat and beaches!   

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