Month: July 2010

Ireland 2010

Monday, after landing in Dublin, we jumped right on the train heading south to Limerick (yes, it is a city). The next day, we drove west, stopping at Bunratty Castle that included a reconstructed Irish village (much larger than the Scottish one) then on to the Cliffs of Moher. What a fantastic sight, but it is also hard to photograph! Continuing the rock fascination, we putted around looking for the Burren (not so easy to find, but we explored an abandoned church along the way). We did eventually find it; a field of rocks broken apart in small crevasses… well, you have to see it to understand. Also featured was a small monolithic manmade rock formation. Very neat landscape!


And again, to continue the rock theme, on Wednesday we drove to the Rock of Cashel. This was a monastery in its day, built atop a hill with a commanding view of the Irish countryside. We took the guided tour, then made our way back to Limerick to catch the train up to Dublin.


Thursday was my birthday, and I wanted to see some awesome libraries. Our first stop was at Trinity College to see the famously lovely library; however, no photography allowed. No photography allowed!! I was so put out. So we left for the National Library, also no photography… then to the Beatty Library at Dublin Castle (we toured the castle as well) – it was featuring an old religions exhibit we walked through – but not very photogenic, and finally the Marsh Old City Library that was exhibiting old medical texts (some β€œcures” were very interesting), but again, no photography! It was not my day. We wrapped it up with a new local play called Bookworms, a humorous drama about a book club that invites their husbands and secrets start popping up.


We had seen a lot of Dublin walking around on my birthday, so we filled in the last day with a walk to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Guinness Storehouse. Comparing the Guinness brewery to the Heineken brewery, I liked the one in Amsterdam more. Of course, I don’t drink, so a drinker may say otherwise. The next day we flew back, quite exhausted from our vacation. I’m thinking attaching the second leg of the trip (Ireland) may not have been ideal, but I am glad we went.


Scotland 2010

On Father’s Day, we boarded a flight to Edinburgh via Dublin. Renting a car, we made our way to the Bonham B&B where Herr’s parents were at and enjoyed a lovely meal with them. Afterwards, we took a long walk around the neighborhood basking in the great weather we will have experienced the entire trip (this, we have been told, is highly unusual).

We woke to bright skies and drove south to Rosslyn Chapel. Rosslyn has beautiful masonry, but the chapel is privately owned and thus no photos. πŸ™ It was also undergoing major repairs – thanks to the increase in patronage – but we got the general idea before heading farther south to Melrose Abbey. Melrose is a lovely area, and the abbey was destroyed a few centuries earlier in the general strife between England and Scotland. It’s massive size is definitely worth visiting. We spent some extra time in Melrose, stopping by for some ice cream, visiting the local book stores and public library, and a few other shops. If we had stayed longer, we could have seen some summer festivities (a horse race followed up with a lot of drinking I believe… guaranteed to be entertaining). Unfortunately, we weren’t going to be there overnight and trekked back north to a very-hard-to-locate B&B out in the farmlands. They were extremely friendly though and educated us on the proper pronunciation of Alnwick, our next destination.


In the morning, we left for the south to Alnwick, known for some scenes from Harry Potter films. I was very excited to visit this for the renovated gardens, which we walked through first. The entrance opens to a water garden with several water statues and featured a bamboo labyrinth (fun!). Green archways snaked up along the large fountain to more gardens atop a hill. From the gardens we took a path to Alnwick. Walking up to it was intimidating; it is surrounded by tall walls sitting on a hill. We took a guided tour of the grounds before entering the castle itself. A side note: the words castle/fortress and palace are not interchangeable. Castles are dark and mostly stone with whitewash painted on to brighten it up. Very utilitarian. Palaces could pass as really fancy hotels with an emphasis on opulence. So, imagine our surprise when we enter this castle and see what appears to be a palace interior! Marble everywhere. No pictures of the interior because it is still in use, but again, worth visiting!


From Alnwick we followed Hadrian’s Wall – or what’s left – to Carlisle. Along the way we stopped a few times to see some of the forts that lined this disputed border and walk along the wall ruins. The ruins aren’t terribly easy to find though, so I’m glad we were able to crawl over at least one section. We hunkered down in a fancy four-room color-coded B&B in Carlisle to prepare for the races the next day.


Before we left for the track, I determined I did not have appropriate attire. Herr and I checked out the shopping district and purchased a lovely linen suit complete with hat and bright pink heels. πŸ˜€ To my dismay, breaking in tall heels at the races is a bad idea. Not much seating, and it was not nearly as nostalgic as it seemed to be. That is, if one reads historical romance novels from England, the races are NOT like that anymore. Herr placed a few two pound bets (lost every time too) before we gave up and drove north to Callandar.


The B&B in Callandar was a quaint house atop a winding road. We ventured into town for dinner and found a restaurant/bar. I should mention the World Cup was going on throughout this trip, and as we ate, we were able to observe one of the matches with another couple. Having our fill of football and angry drinkers, we called it a night for a big day tomorrow.

Our first stop out of Callandar was to Lake Mentieth. The weather was drizzly (one of the few instances the weather wasn’t all that great) as we putted in a small tug of a boat out to the island that houses the ruins of Inchmahome Priory. We were the first group of eight people out to the island, so we had run of it to explore. Once we had our fill of destruction, we walked the trails around the peaceful island. It was all very lovely, even in the mist.


We piled in the car and drove to Stirling Castle. Along the way we spotted Doune Castle – well known for Monty Python and the Holy Grail – so of course we stopped. It’s a very square castle, but Herr recalled several of the scenes for our amusement (they were also highlighted on the audio tour). A bit more of a drive brought us to the city of Stirling; a beautiful area with the occasional cobblestone street. Stirling is at the very top of the hill (notice a trend…?) and had absolutely spectacular views. By this time, the weather had cleared up as well, so we could see quite a ways out. Stirling looks like a hodgepodge of structures and is under some heavy renovation, so we didn’t get to see too much of it. We took the tour of the grounds spotting several unicorns along the way, had some lunch, then began the drive north to Fort William on roads that wound alongside several scenic lochs.


In Fort William we had a B&B that faced the loch. A few blocks away we ate a lovely seafood dinner. Herr had reserved first class roundtrip tickets on the Jacobite Steam train, which takes most of a day. What spectacular views too! The only drawback is the airborne coal particles that gets in everything, and the large puffs of coal smoke that soaked through the cabin while passing through tunnels. I stuck my head out the windows most of the trip back to get some fantastic photos but spent half the time rubbing pieces of coal from my eyes (and the camera). Even if you aren’t a Harry Potter fan (this is the train used in the movies), the scenery is incredible and worth taking the trip.


After the train ride, we took the next day to drive alongside the rail tracks back to Mallaig (the northern point where the train turns around). From Mallaig, we were able to take the car ferry across to the Isle of Skye. The island is much smaller than I thought it was, so we were able to have lunch in Portree, a fantastic little port city. We rounded the Trotternish Penninsula to see some of the natural wonders including Kilt Rock and a couple lovely waterfalls. We pulled off the road to check out a reconstructed village that highlighted early Scottish life. Most other places were closed by the time we left, so we drove back down to the southeastern tip to stay at a B&B right on the harbor.

Sunday brought in some large fluffy clouds that we chased across the bridge back to mainland Scotland to see Eilean Donan Castle, also known as one of the most beautiful castles. It sits on a mound accessible by a stone bridge, and with the hills and lochs of Scotland as backdrop, it is hard to disagree. No photos of the interior though; it is still privately owned and used on occasion. This was the last leg of the Scotland trip, so we drove back south alongside the lochs until we found our B&B at a bagpipe school in Glasgow. It was here, after a morning whirlwind bus tour of the city, that we went separate ways with Herr’s parents, drove back to Edinburgh, and caught our flight to Dublin, Ireland.

Eilean Donan.Glasgow.

See more photos in a previous blog entry.


Amsterdam Day 1

We were to take the high speed train to Amsterdam, but when we stopped at the Frankfurt Airport station, we were diverged to the very scenic route that added an hour to the trip. Later, we found out two trains passing each other in a tunnel had an incident where the bistro car door came off one and took out the side of a car on the other train. Good reason to divert us.

Amsterdam is a well planned city with some of the narrowest houses I have ever seen with the most “waterfront” property. The main station is located on the river, and when we stepped out it was like walking straight into chaos. The first hour was the most difficult; the pace in Amsterdam is much different than most places we have visited. The hotel was suitably located, but was a maze inside (and had a distinct odor about it). In need of serious repairs, somewhat inoperable sewage system, and a terrible view to a brick wall with a pigeon nest, we tended to stay out most of the time we stayed there…

Our first night was spent just wandering around town, which worked well for orienting ourselves for sightseeing the next day. We went to see a ballet in variations at the opera house that Herr enjoyed immensely having just finished performing in Cats.

Amsterdam Day 2

We walked straight to Anne Frank’s house. It is something to see the mill with the house above, then step into the rooms the Franks and friends occupied. Afterwards we made a stop to the Pancake Factory http://www.pancake.nl/ and had some good ol’ Dutch pancakes and poffertjes (I had an apple and raisins traditional pancake and Herr had a Mexican pancake filled with meats, veggies, and fruits).

We stopped by the Nieuwe Kerk (“new church”, but it is now only acts as a museum exhibition area) before heading to Rembrandt’s House . I enjoyed walking through the house. Like most houses in Amsterdam, it earned its space in height rather than width, and it was full of artwork that Rembrandt had purchased (only a few were his). I caught a sketch printing demonstration while Herr wandered off with the camera.

The house museum closed not long after we arrived, so the visit was brief. We decided to check out the botanical garden, but it was also closing, so we went to a garden park along the river and sat on the canal bank for a while watching the birds playing in the water. We ate dinner at a small outdoor restaurant (I burned my mouth really bad πŸ™ ) and headed back to the smelly hotel.

Amsterdam Day 3

Our goal was to find an Openbare Bibliothek, but when we got to where it should have been, there was only an empty building. We found out from a passerby that the branch had been closed for renovations for a while. So without experiencing the library, we went to the Van Gogh Museum. We arrived early enough to avoid the really large crowds, which made the viewing more pleasant. The Rijk Museum is currently under renovations and has portions of its exhibit up at the airport, so we did not stop by there.

The Heineken Experience was our next stop, and it was a fun museum despite my tee-totaling stance. Herr enjoyed a few extra beers on my behalf. We got out of there fast enough to take the tram up to the main library that sits behind the main train station. I was so impressed with the library, it is on a completely different level than other libraries I have visited in terms of its in-library set up and services. For example, on the top floor is an eatery restaurant with open balcony to the harbor and movie theater. I’m talking like 12 floors with a big escalator. It was awesome.

We ran back down, stopping by the famous narrow bridge and had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe. We’re almost spent on Hard Rock Cafe food, but it is tradition to get the glasses at each location we visit (we may cut the eating part and just buy the glass in the future). We still had a half hour before our evening canal boat tour, so we took a quick walk in a park across the street before jumping on the boat.

Only three couples total on the ride, so it was a nice quiet affair. We learned some very interesting facts like the reason the water in Amsterdam doesn’t smell nearly as bad as Venice is because the Dutch use their locks to circulate fresh water in every night. The sun had set and night settled when we finally returned to the dock. Walking Amsterdam at night felt a lot safer than one might have thought. The candlelight canal ride was a great way to end our stay in Amsterdam.

Lisse Day 1

In the morning, we went to pick up the car that would get us to our b&b and Keukenhof just outside Amsterdam. Finding the rental place turned out to be most difficult. No one knew where it was. I eventually found the exact address online at the visitor’s center (we only knew it was supposed to be at the main train station), and we followed the main road that wrapped around the station until we came to where it should be. But the street addresses skipped! On a whim, we crossed the street to look at the parking garage, and lo and behold, it was in the parking garage. Oy!

After the car pickup fiasco, we got on the road as fast as possible. We were warned traffic is terrible to the Keukenhof, but we were in luck! No staus and only a few other vehicles 10km outside the gardens. It was quite a chilly day, but the sun was out and made for some beautiful flower photography. We wanted to send tulips for Mother’s Day in the States, but customs made that nearly impossible. So, instead we bought ourselves some amaryllis bulbs (they are both already in bloom) and a bag of tulips that will arrive in October (when they should be planted).

The bed and breakfast (more like a hotel) was also amazing. We purchased a package deal (tickets, one night, and a 4 course meal made by their renowned chefs) for a great price, and it was well worth it. We pulled up to see Aston Martins, Rolls Royces, and other exotic sports cars parked outside this country mansion. It was a conference of high delegates, but that set the bar pretty high for our little Fiat rental car. πŸ˜› The food was excellent (never had beef tartare before), the rooms so much nicer than what we went through in Amsterdam, and the setting just lovely and quiet. We didn’t enjoy the facilities to their fullest, but I would have if I only knew!

Lisse Day 2

We left early to check out the North Sea. The country mansion sits on the edge of a national park, and that was very neat to drive through. The North Sea? Not so friendly… the winds were incredible! I was hoping to go down to the beach and check it out, but I could barely stand up straight. The Dutch like to wind surf. πŸ˜› Herr went down closer, but I had to sit in the car. Very pretty, but I think there’s a minimum weight limit…

We missed our exit returning to Amsterdam and ended up going in circles. I was panicking before we finally got back on the road, and we made it back to the parking garage with only five minutes to spare before I would have been charged an entire extra day. Too close! After that we took it easy waiting the hour and a half before our train departed.

Now, this all occurred after the volcano eruption in Iceland. All our seats were reserved, so we had no problems with anything. However, back on our first day, we did not get to ride the high speed line because of the accident. Well, Herr got permission from the conductor to stay on the train instead of moving on to our reserved seats on another train at Cologne. Bad bad bad. First, we never reached top speed because DB had not determined what caused the door to tear off the train. Second, there wasn’t a direct train to Heidelberg. We ended up on a train to Mannheim that was packed with people trying to get someplace due to the volcano. We stood the entire time, crunched amidst luggage and people trying to move. I was not happy, but we made it home.

Note to self: stick to your reservations.