The Hello Bar is a simple web toolbar that engages users and communicates a call to action.

A 7 Day Road Trip Through Rural Scotland Day III

by Alex Berger on April 24, 2014

The Scotland Road Trip Map

The route, color coded by day, I took during my road trip through the Highlands.

In Part I of this series I shared with you the adventures and experiences of my first two days on the road. This included the trip from Edinburgh through Glen Coe to Ratagan before outlining my second day which was dedicated completely to the Isle of Skye.  In this post we pick up where I left off as I leave Skye and the most famous part of the highlands behind in favor of delving into Scotland’s far less known northwestern coast.

The Road To Applecross - Scotland

Day 3 – Ullapool Bound

The folks at the front desk of the Ratagan Hostel suggested that (if I was up for it) I consider driving the switchbacks on the back road to Applecross. With two days of Scottish driving under my belt, I was a bit anxious about the concept of hairpin turns and a narrow winding one-lane road with two-way traffic but they promised the view would be worth it. So, what choice did I have? The lump in my throat grew and indecision struck me ever so briefly when I arrived at the turnoff for the road and was met by a giant sign warning off all but the most experienced drivers. With typical tourist bravado I paused to take a photo of the sign, muttered to myself, laughed, and pressed the accelerator to the floor. The first quarter kilometer was easy enough. That is, with the exception of the large trucks that came pummeling down the small paved road and left me more concerned that my little beetle would end up plastered to their front grill than stuck in a bog. With a death-grip on the steering wheel, I took a deep breath and pictured myself as Jason and the Argonauts dodging and battling the Harpies while pressing forward.

Mountains Draped in Clouds - Scotland

After a few blind turns the road jogged up the side of a small hill and wrapped towards a series of nearby glens. With each new turn new mountains emerged from the mists covered in the tree-free rich green and purple hues you’ll only find in Scotland. Over the course of a 7 minute drive I found myself seemingly transported back into time as is likely to happen when traveling Scotland’s remote roads. Through it all, I couldn’t help but expect some mythical beast or pre-historic pterodactyl to come gliding in my direction while prowling for tender morsels for its hatchlings.

The Falls - Road to Applecross

Luckily the road was well paved, albeit covered by a fine layer of gravel. Traffic was light, but just thick enough that when we did meet it left both vehicles skidding across the gravel before coming to a halt…almost always as we rounded a blind bend or invisible hilltop.

The Road To Applecross - Scotland

Just as I was starting to get a bit cocky about the drive and wondering if the switchbacks had been over-stated I rounded a final bend and was met with a naked green valley cut in half by the bright white thread of a rain-fed stream racing its way towards the nearby loch. With a cloud ceiling that hovered just below the top of the peaks the view reminded me of a more pristine, albeit ever so slightly smaller, Glen Coe. The only sign of man’s presence was the old old scar left by the road and a set of small, weather worn power lines as they it worked their way beneath the ever vigilant gaze of the old Scottish peaks en-route to the summit.

Lost In Time - Road to Applecross

The road was intense with barely enough room for the car in many spots: A steep drop on the left and the car-rending jagged facade of the water-worn crumbling mountainside to the right. Luckily, there were several viewpoints which gave me a chance to pause, relax, and enjoy the view while letting the occasional car pass me by. Something which added to the experience, as the view down the length of the valley, past the small waterfalls, and over the meandering stream was one of my favorite views of the trip. The soul-moving beauty of the place and the moment was magnified by the slow throb of adrenaline as I prepared to continue each new-leg of the drive … something made that much more dramatic by the sight of a thick fog slowly drifting down from the heights of the nearby peaks.

The Road To Applecross - Scotland

Within a matter of a few brief minutes the fog settled completely over the valley immersing it in a thick blanket of damp grayness.  After reaching the top of the switchbacks I continued along the road for about 1km before pausing to marvel at the alien sight of the Scottish countryside as it vanished into nothingness around me. It was deeply eerie, particularly because the fog dampened all nearby sounds leaving the road in absolute silence with the exception of the soft rustle of grass or tinkle of water dripping into one of the small nearby lakes.  While I often write about the power and beauty of expansive views that take the breath away, the intimate closeness of moments such as the 10 minutes I spent relaxing beside my car along the side of the road on my way to Applecross stand out in my memory as equally powerful and goodsebump raising.

Romantic Reflections - North Western Scotland

Moments of reverie concluded, I contemplated my next course of action. I had no clue what stood before me in the fog should I decide to continue on to Applecross, if there would be a lunch venue open, or how far off it was. I only knew that what had already been a rather thrilling drive up the switchbacks promised to be an even more harrowing drive back down now that the fog had reduced visibility to just a few feet. With a lot of miles to cover to Ullapool and the day racing by I flipped on some haunting Celtic music, turned the volume up, rolled down the windows and opted to every so slowly and carefully re-trace my steps. While challenging, the drive back down was every bit as beautiful as the drive up had been. Some 20 minutes later I once again sat before the large warning sign, a beaming smile of accomplishment plastered on my face as I re-joined the main road and continued along past small farm houses, B&Bs, and a mixture of tiny lochs and rolling green hills.

A Country Lane - Scottish North West

With an eye on the fog-turned clouds I decided to pick up the pace and to see if I could leave them behind. One of the great things about Scotland’s temperamental weather is that it is always changing and hyper local. Raining in the mountains? Head 15 miles to the coast nearby and you’re apt to find sun and dry beaches. The opposite true? Strike for the mountains and you’ll no doubt leave the bad weather behind. Following this approach I had just started to leave a light rain behind when I saw a gorgeous waterfall from the road. Curious if I could get close to it, I turned down a rural Scottish lane which turned out to be a road to what I believe was a small campground. My exploration turned out to be short lived as I rather quickly was forced to pause when I found my path blocked by a closed gate. With the path to the waterfall a no-go I snapped a few photos, enjoyed the view, and then made my way along A832 which wound through a lush forest beside the shores of Loch Maree.

Scotland's Victoria Falls

To my surprise I spotted a marker for “Victoria Falls”. Not expecting much, but eager to see a waterfall sharing the same namesake as Zambia’s Victoria Falls – arguably the greatest waterfalls in the world – I pulled into a small dirt car park. The car park itself didn’t look like much. The trees in the area around it had semi-recently been harvested leaving a mixture of ugly stumps, gnarled roots, and mixture of blooming wildflowers.

Scotland's Victoria Falls

Luckily the area in the immediate vicinity of the falls had been spared. With the heather and other local flowers in full bloom, I settled in atop an old tree stump and delighted in my little discovery. The waterfall wasn’t the grandest or the most beautiful, but it was still one of the best I had seen so far on the trip and is a must-see if you find yourself in the area. Scotland’s mini-Vic has a beautiful drop, lovely greenery surrounding it, and if you’re lucky is awash not only in rich green hues, but also purples, reds, yellows and golds.

Massive Tides - Scotland

Not a mile goes by while driving the back roads of the north western coast during which you don’t want to stop for a stroll, to explore some small loch, or to wander down an even smaller rural road. In so doing you’ll have the chance to discover some of Scotland’s best kept secrets…most of which are only known to locals. There are also a number of slightly larger towns along the road which offer a mixture of limited culinary options and various activities. To my surprise I learned that it is possible to take sightseeing cruises dedicated to whale watching, sea lions, diving, or even in some cases killer whales. The harbors are also well worth a visit at low tide, so you can properly see and experience northwestern Scotland’s drastic tidal extremes in which water levels rise and fall by as much as 20+ feet.

Scottish Beaches - North Western Scotland

Another of Scotland’s best kept secrets are its beaches. With harsh weather and its cold climate thoughts of Scotland’s coasts often bring with them visions of jagged stony shores, dramatic cliffs, and crude pebble beaches.

A Brilliant Scottish Beach

While you can find all of that and more along the coastline, you’ll also find some of the most picture-perfect beaches in Europe with incredibly fine golden, white, and yellow sand, crystal clear water and ample beach access. The downside? It’s often still far too chilly to take a swim or to properly enjoy the beaches for anything beyond a relaxing stroll or brief bit of sunbathing.

The Photographer - Corrieshalloch Gorge

With a careful eye on the clock, I was forced to sprint the last leg of the trip to ensure I reached Corrieshalloch Gorge and its stunning waterfall a bit before sunset. I had been introduced to the gorge a few years previous while doing a multi-day tour of the north western coast and the Orkney Isles. At the time our visit was rushed, but I fell in love with the spot. Not only because of the dramatic waterfall, but also because of the gorge with its plant-covered near-vertical walls. The path down to the gorge from the road is brief, but zig-zags through a small wild-flower garden. Upon reaching the gorge you’re met by a floating suspension bridge that free-hangs over the the falls offering a gut-twisting view…particularly when the small bridge starts to sway slightly.  For perspective as to the size of the gorge note the photographer in the above photo located at the center of the bridge.

The Falls - Corrieshalloch Gorge

While I’m unsure about the orientation, I suspect that the falls would be every bit as impressive at sunrise (perhaps more so) than at sunset.   The best view of the falls is from a metal overlook situated on the opposite side of the gorge and about a 5 minute walk past the bridge. While not for those with height fears, the platform extends out from the sheer wall of the gorge and has an open railing and metal grate for a floor leaving you feeling almost as though you’re getting a bird’s eye view.  The sound of the falls combines with the sound of the near-constant mild breeze which floats down the canyon while gently stirring the trees which sprout from the walls of the gorge in apparent acts of grand acrobatics and utter defiance of gravity.

Ullapool Harbor - Scottish Highlands

The last one to leave the gorge, I made my way back to my car before driving the remaining 15 minutes down and into the area’s largest town: Ullapool. Home to a large market, a number of fishing vessels, a plethora of B&Bs, a few hotels, and a large hostel it was the perfect place to crash for the evening. I dropped off my bag, picked up some fish and chips and then sat enjoying the sunset as the sky turned violet before drifting into darkness.

Ullapool Waterfront

As with every leg of this trip, I could have easily gone slower and spent more time exploring side roads or relaxing along the way at any of the numerous wonderful spots I found during the drive. The region is also crisscrossed with what are reputed to be incredible hiking trails. Stay tuned for the next post in this series which will follow Day 4 of the adventure and cover the far reaches of the north western coast of Scotland, including Smoo Cave before marking the start of my gradual return to Edinburgh.

You can view all of my photos from this leg of the trip in the flickr album here.  Missed Part I which covers my first two days on the road?  See it here.

{ 0 comments }

An Instagram Tour of Chianti in 15 Photos

by Alex Berger on April 17, 2014

I recently had the pleasure of spending a week wandering through Tuscany.  As part of the trip, the local tourism boards invited me on a three day blog trip in the Chianti hills focusing on the area around Tarvarnelle.  While the high quality photos from my dSLR will follow soon, here is a cross section of my 15 favorite instagram photos from the trip.  All were shot on an iphone 4s and edited in either the VSCOCAM app or Snapseed.

This is the lion of Florence. Found in Florence’s Archaeology museum is is roughly the size of a real lion and one of the most beautiful pieces of bronze sculpture I’ve seen in the past year. The museum is located in the heart of the city and a great alternative for those of you who are sick of the long lines at some of the city’s more famous locations.

One of my favorite things to see and do while in Italy is to spend time at agriturismos. For those who haven’t had the pleasure yet, these are typically old farms/estates which now offer rooms and locally sourced food almost exclusively grown on the premises or in the immediate area. They also often have their own vineyard and olive oil which tends to be exquisite. This photo is of the patio at the Paganello Agriturismo where we enjoyed fantastic wines and an extremely fresh vegetarian-friendly meal.

Another shot from Paganello Agriturismo/Fattoria Il Paganello, with a view out over the vineyard and of the surrounding countryside. Their locally produced wines (pictured in the wineglass in the photo) include “Quanta Cura” a delicious Tuscan red, as well as Il Paganello Chianti and Chianti Riserva.

For years I’ve stared out the windows of my passing train or bus at all of the tiny hilltop towns that dot the Tuscan countryside. This blog trip provided the opportunity to finally get in and explore many of them. This photo comes from the entrance to the Palazzo Begliomini in Tignano. As you can see, the entrance was guarded by a fierce and ferocious guard dog.

What is a visit to Italy and its vineyards without a good shot of an old wine cellar? This is one of the numerous rooms at the Badia di Passignano monastery.

Another absolute favorite was the Monastery at Badia di assignano. This beautiful old facility has a gorgeously frescoed church, sprawling wine cellar, wonderful views over the surrounding countryside and fortress inspired design.

Another shot of the exterior of Badia di Passignano. Quite the impressive looking monastery ehh? There’s also a high end fine dining establishment owned by the Antinori family situated immediately outside its walls.

Italy has a long and rich history and reputation for craftsmanship. During the blog trip we had the opportunity to get an up close look at how handmade silver pieces are made at Argento Firenze. This photo is of one of the employees (he was over 80 years old) who still does enamel work on things like silver cuff-links. I honest expected the experience to be quite boring and was fairly disinterested going into it. However, watching the craftsmen work and learning about how they do what they do ended up being an extremely interesting experience and one of the highlights of the trip.

As a huge space geek the opportunity to visit the recently opened Osservatorio Astronnomico (astronomical observatory) and to see both Jupiter and the Moon up close and personal was one of the highlights of the trip. It was also extremely interesting because we learned how Galileo modified and built his telescope and used it to chart his ground breaking discoveries. This is a photo taken through the telescope on my iphone, so it doesn’t fully capture just how amazing it is to see the moon in its intricate detail. The experience of being in the dome, and tracking the stars and moon was also an absolute blast.

The best view in Florence can be found at the Piazzale Michelangelo which overlooks the city. With a beautiful tulip garden, and a view that encompasses the palace, duomo, and ponte vecchio it is ideal for enjoying a glass of wine and watching the sun set.

Located just outside Florence the new Antinori Cantina is an incredibly unusual building. A mixture of active vineyard, restaurant and museum the building has an ultra-modern design which was completed in 2013. The wine is fantastic and the facility is well worth a visit to explore its highly unusual architectural personality.

The picturesque charm of Tuscany’s rolling hills with their low hanging clouds and orderly vineyards just outside the town of San Donato in Poggio where we stayed at the Del Giglio B&B which was one of the cutest B&Bs i’ve seen in a long time and which had lovely owners.

One of the trip’s greatest surprises was Arezzo. Situated an easy and convenient train ride from Florence the city was nearly empty while Florence was positively overflowing. It is home to a stunning cathedral, beautiful Sienna-esque square, and lovely mixture of views and history.

While the Ponte Vecchio gets all the glory, Florence’s other bridges can be equally photogenic. Particularly late in the afternoon as the sun’s yellow hues brings out the color and textures of the local stone.

{ 4 comments }

Aged Paint – Weekly Travel Photo

April 11, 2014

Just around the corner from Kastellet, Copenhagen’s historic star-shaped fortress, are a series of old buildings dating to the 1600s which served as the fortress’ military barracks and naval dorms. Painted a vibrant military orange, these ancient buildings are awash in charm and character. Their brick walls and windows are all uniquely shaped having gradually [...]

Read the full article →

Moonrise Over Ouray – Weekly Travel Photo

March 21, 2014

Situated in the heart of southwestern Colorado the small town of Ouray rests at the foot of spectacular mountains.  Made famous by its hot springs the sleepy little town also serves as a nexus from which ribbon-like roads snake out into the nearby mountain passes as they attempt to wind through the San Juan Mountain [...]

Read the full article →

A 7 Day Road Trip Through Rural Scotland

March 12, 2014

Scotland. The land of primal music, men in kilts, Braveheart, and scotch. It is easily my favorite country in Europe.  There’s just something about the naked beauty of the Scottish Highlands that captivates my imagination and draws me back time and time again.  It’s a place that is perpetually kissed by rain that serves as [...]

Read the full article →

The Night Rider’s Lament

March 12, 2014

(Family Photo, Europe, 1995) There’s an old country classic that has always resonated with me.  It’s one of my favorites and always touches my soul in a way few songs are able to.  The song, Night Rider’s Lament, is an old cowboy song about a cow hand reading a letter from a friend late at night. The [...]

Read the full article →

Mush! – Weekly Travel Photo

February 28, 2014

When the news arrived that I had won a trip from Denmark to the sleepy town of Churchill, which sits nestled along the banks of the Hudson bay in central Canada, I was excited and unsure what to expect.  A few weeks later I found myself standing astride a dog sled as a pack of [...]

Read the full article →

Nude Austrian Saunas For Beginners

February 27, 2014

There are moments in every person’s life where you pause and ask yourself…how did I end up right here, in this moment, at this point in time? For me, one such moment came in the form of a sweat covered, completely naked, Austrian man’s knee resting casually against my own in a lovely dry sauna [...]

Read the full article →