A 7 Day Road Trip Through Rural Scotland – From Ullapool Northward

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

In Part I and Part II of this series I shared with you the adventures and experiences of my first three 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. The third day documented the voyage from Skye up along the western coast to the small town of Ullapool.  In this post we pick up where I left off as I leave Ullapool and continue my exploration of the jagged, and largely empty, north western coast of Scotland. Impatient?  Jump to the fourth and final post in this series.

Pisa, the Cinque Terre & Verona

Before I start up again I just want to make a side note that hostels really are odd places. Last night was the worst hostel experience I think I’ve had thus far. Though that sounds overly negative as the vast majority of my hostel-based experiences have been fantastic. Due to the ridiculous nature of the experience I feel it’s worth mentioning. It occurred here in Trento at the local hostel. The hostel itself is great, 14 Euro for a clean bed in a 7 bed room with an attached bathroom and shower. The catch was, that I was the youngest in the room by a good 15 years. Initially I figured that would mean it was going to be a quiet night. If only…About 2 hours after I got there and checked in I returned to the room to find two guys arguing over which bed was which. The bunks in the unit were poorly marked and the two spent a good 20 minutes at least passionately discussing who got the cot. One of the guys may have been drunk and was annoying and over the top. The other was from Albania and turned out to be the only sane guy in the room.

As the argument over the bed finally was grudgingly resolved peace temporarily returned. I went for a walk, wrote an update, then got back to the place and prepared to go to bed. I had a nice chat with the Albanian guy who was in Italy working as a hotel concierge. The conversation was constantly interrupted by the Italian guy who had also been involved in the previous bed debate. He tried to debate geo-political and religious issues with me…in Italian. Those conversations wound down and we prepared to go to sleep. Another older, portly fellow had showed up during the discussion and made a B-line for bed. Shortly after we finished our discussion two other men showed up. One was a thin older gentleman who was probably in his 60s, the other was a rather large, cartoonesque looking man that I would put in his late 40s. The larger guy smelled horribly and as luck would have it…ended up in the bunk underneath mine. Those of you who know me can guess how thrilled I was. Think it ends there? Oh, not even close.

We turned off the lights and went to bed…turns out the guy underneath me and the other gentleman on the other side of the room snored…that I could have dealt with but these two managed something closer to a bellow than a snore. The older gentleman’s apparent response was to randomly shout what sounded like a dog noise. That collectively made it difficult to sleep…as if one wasn’t keeping me up…the other was waking me up. An odd phenomenon which was made that much more interesting as the original drunk Italian guy had his phone volume way up and somehow received 3 calls during the course of the night. Why he was getting phone calls at 3 in the morning…I don’t want to know. Even THAT should have been enough, but the night got that much more spectacular around 3:30 when the larger individual underneath me went from snoring to yelping, shouting and muttering. He jumped out of bed, frantically ran over to the light switch and turned on every light in the room. He then rustled through his bag for something…presumably some sort of pills. Five or so minutes later the lights went back off and things returned to normal. Needless to say, tonight I paid an extra 6 Euro for a private room!

Now that I’ve shared/vented on to the stuff that really counts.

From Florence Emily and I caught a cheap train to Pisa. There we figured out that we had a 1 hour layover before we split up. She was headed back to Milan/school and I was off to the Cinque Terre. We got off the train, made our way to the local bus, figured it out and caught it out to the cathedral and tower. We had about 20 minutes to poke around the grounds, take in the sights, take funny pictures holding up the tower and do the general tourist thing before jumping back on the bus and making it back with about 10 minutes to spare. The leaning tower is an incredible thing. The degree to which it leans really is fascinating. One of the best parts was the lack of weights or other obstructions around the base of the tower. When I had been there in ’95, in an effort to save the tower, they had large blue weights and fencing all around the bottom. This time the only thing that marred the tower’s beauty was a small set of netting around one stage of the tower.

From Pisa my train took me to La Spezia which is one of the mid-sized towns just off of the Cinque Terre. I had initially planned on using La Spezia as my base of operations, from which I’d planned to take quick day trips out to the Cinque Terre and surrounding country side. However, to my dismay there were no hostels or one star hotels around that had availability. A bit frustrated and unsure what to do I finally found someone who suggested a hostel located in the 2nd City – Manarola – along the Cinque Terre. I paid the 2 euro for a quick train pass and made my way there.

The train station for the town is located in a different cove than the town itself and connected by a long foot tunnel that goes directly through the mountain. I inquired at the station and then made my way to the hostel. It was located at the top of the town, which also was towards the back of the cove and at a significantly higher elevation than the water/train station. Oblivious to the beauty, I was on a mission and in dire need of a place to stay. The sun was starting to set and it had been a long day. I got to the top, found the hostel and was relieved to find an affordable room. I booked two nights, threw my stuff down, and headed back into town to explore a bit. I picked up some water, something to nibble on and then made my way down to the docks.

The town itself is tiny and you can walk from one end to the other in about 8 minutes. It would take less time if not for the steep hill it was built on. There is one main street, which is a raised/paved section that appears to run over an old stream which still runs under the road. As a result, as you walk down it you can constantly hear the sound of falling water. The terraced hills on either side are covered by grape vines and the town itself is full of small gardens that are green with flowers, kiwi vines, grape vines and fruit trees.

The harbor itself is a small thing, with a small breakwater and a path that winds down through 15 vertical feet or so of black jagged rocks. The water was a crystal clear blue as the sun set. The sea was calm, as the rose light of the sunset cast everything in hues of reds and gold. All the while the sea sparkled richly as golden light lit a stretch of it up. When the sun finally set I finished my conversation with two older Australian travelers also staying in the hostel and made my way back up. I ate a plate of penne, then headed to my room to read my book for a bit. The hostel was very quiet and far from a party hostel, as a result I took it easy.

The next morning I was up and out the door by 10. The day was slightly overcast but still bright, inviting and friendly. It suggested a sunny afternoon. I picked up a 1.5 liter bottle of water and told myself that it needed to be done and gone by the time I finished the hike. The water was smooth, the air slightly crisp. The fresh scent of the ocean filled my nose as I gleefully made my way down to the harbor and began my walk along the path as it traces its way along the coast between the villages. The water was clear with what I would guess was about 15 feet of visibility. The rocks a beautiful dark color. The hillside itself was a beautiful mixture of colors. The area between each town slightly different. The path traces along usually between 15 and 50 feet above the water. Though at some points, usually as you get closer to the towns, it climbs up the mountainside to considerable heights.

The walk itself is far from easy, but is well worth the energy. It snakes its way up and down the hillside with no apparent consideration for a hiker’s weary feet. In some points you are surrounded by low bushes and cactus laden with ripe red fruit…at other points you wind your way through olive groves that shade the path and cover it in the dark stains of fallen/smashed olives. At other points the path meanders through the small towns themselves as they perch, sometimes precariously on the side of the hills and at other times you find yourself in the midst of rich gardens, vineyards, and fern-covered valleys cut by tiny creeks that cascade down the hills. The towns themselves are something else. All of them are tiny, sandwiched onto the mountainside and they barely have room for a train station. More often than not the stop stretches into the tunnel.

The buildings are beautiful, picturesque things painted different colors, with laundry hanging from the balcony wherever there are not flowers or other random objects present. Most of the towns also have several cats which keep a lazy watchful guard on the tourists as they wander through. Because the tourist season has wound down many of the smaller fishing and tour vessels are pulled up and have tarps over them. They litter the streets around the harbor and add to the ambiance. The vineyards are incredible as they dot the rugged sides of the hills. It’s hard to imagine walking along harvesting the grapes. It seems like country created for goats…not men.

As I was walking I began talking to a couple moving at a similar pace. The conversations started and we ended up walking to the train together. Their pace was a little slower than mine would have been had I continued on my own. I figured that was probably a good thing as it encouraged me to pause and look at things I might otherwise miss or breeze by. The conversation wandered about as much as the path, which was nice. Something that both distracted slightly from the walk and my surroundings and by doing so enhanced my appreciation. It’s always been one of those things that truly frustrates me…the balance between experiencing and seeing everything you want to…and should see…and the glaze-over effect that goes with it where you start to loose appreciation.

After making my way to the last village I poked around a bit, got something to munch on and then caught a train back to La Spezia where I walked around with hopes of finding a book store with English books. As tends to happen while on the road, I’d forgotten that it was Sunday. As a result most of the book stores etc. were all closed and those that were open were too small to have an English section with anything I was interested in reading. I snagged a second dinner and waited for the train. It got back right as the sun was setting which gave me a chance to wander down to the docks again where I took it in and sipped on my water. From there I headed back up to the hostel and settled in for a quick nap. An Australian fellow I’d met the day before and who I shared the room with was doing the same and we ended up chatting for what ended up being a few hours. Apparently we both loved to talk and managed to talk about the most peculiar things… from fishing stories to stupid traveling antics. I think both of us were just bored, eager to chat instead of read, and wishing there was something more to do at night in the town. He was quite the character, a rough Australian from the north country…he was missing a few teeth and had some crazy stories.

Ahh, one other point – this one’s for Dad. As I wandered through the olive groves I thought back and chuckled at the time when we were all walking it as a family back in ’95. Dad, I just want you to know that for old times sake I reached up, picked a raw olive and ate it. It tastes every bit as bad as it did then and the taste stayed with me for a good hour!.

From the Cinque Terre I made my way northeast to Verona arriving around 6 in the evening. During the trip however I stopped briefly at Sestri Levante where I took two hours to walk around and made my way down to the beach. There is an old picture of me and Nate taken there years ago on the previous trip. In the photo we are both sitting on a big rock looking out to the sea. I had hoped to re-locate the rock and snap an updated photo…though it would have been different without Nate there. Unfortunately, I could not locate the rock but snapped a few off on the beach anyhow.

Darkness was settling over Verona when I arrived. The air was cold and humid, it had rained slightly recently and was threatening to do so again. I duplicated my now well established ritual for rough landings. I gave myself a bit to get my bearings and prepared myself for the stress of trying to find a place with no clue where to start by grabbing a Big Mac…ironically enough one of the few meals in Italy that actually fills me up and leaves me satisfied. After finishing my meal I hiked up my pants and wandered out the front door. I saw a sign for a hotel that was nearby and started towards it…100 yards or so later I was at what turned out to be a 3 star hotel. Frustrated and starting to feel a bit stranded I headed inside to investigate their cheapest room. 70 Euro wasn’t going to work, but the concierge was incredibly helpful. She looked up a hostel for me (I wasn’t even aware there was one in Verona) and even called ahead for me. Then directed me to a cheap taxi which got me there for 6 Euro.

The hostel itself was an odd thing…an old manor house of sorts. The dorms were in a long room with low vaulted ceilings. The hostel had a lockout at 12:00PM and closed the doors between 9:30 and 5:00. The bathrooms were down in a weird basement and the showers were old, school, gym-style group showers. I wasn’t thrilled about the place, but I was really excited to have a bed. I dumped my stuff off and set into the city to find an internet cafe and explore a bit. The good news…Verona is an incredible city. The bad news…there are no internet cafes…at all.

I walked down the old cobblestone streets and made my way eventually to one of the main bridges into the old town. As I approached it I was greeted by an incredible sight. It was dark out, crisp, and slightly damp. The water was running smoothly which provided a glassy surface. That surface reflected both a beautifully lit bridge and an old romanesque building with a tower and large beautiful dome framed by spear-shaped trees. It was a stunning sight, one that caused me to pause, stand against the stone railing and watch the river run by below me.

The bridge itself, when I finally continued on, turned out to be a pedestrian bridge that led into the old city. There I wandered the city streets aimlessly. It was about 8 o’clock in the evening. I’m quickly growing to love late night walks through European cities… especially ancient Italian ones. There are usually very few people around, the buildings have a majestic look to them, especially those made out of marble. The yellow lights, and everything else that goes with them, creates magical walks. Parts of the city were alive, others were ghostly quiet. I enjoyed both equally. Eventually I found myself at the old colliseum. It was lit by neon rose lights which highlighted the ruins and served as a subtle reminder of the blood that must have been shed there so many years ago. As I wandered along I found my way back to the river and there walked past a cathedral built in the red brick Veronesque style. With it behind me, there were golden colored trees that lined the path along the river. It offered another beautiful view looking back the way I had initially come.

That night was an an annoying one. I shared the dorm with two other random travelers and a large group of what I assume was some sort of French school group…though I think they were also some sort of a religious group as most were dressed in very conservative full body outfits (men and women) and none of the girls were showing much skin. That didn’t stop them, however, from being incredibly loud and annoying. It cemented my dislike for the hostel. The next morning I rose early after trying to sleep through the racket they were raising. I made the decision to see as much of Verona as I could and then that I would head out and make my way to Venice. There I hoped I could find a room over Halloween. Initially, I had hoped to use Verona as a base from which I could explore the northern country (Bolzano, Trento etc.) but now turned my eye toward Venice.

I put my backpack in storage and set off to see Verona by daylight. It was gorgeous. The architecture is fantastic and you can see the power and wealth that must have radiated from the city several hundred years ago. I made my way to the castle which is a beautiful red bricked creation with tulip-leaved castle walls. The bridge that leads into it is beautiful and has been used in several movies. As I crossed over it and looked at the castle I had the scenes from the movies playing through my mind.

Unfortunately it was raining off and on throughout the day which hindered my exploration somewhat. Despite the rain I walked back through many of the areas I had covered the night before and eventually found the balcony that has been attributed to Juliet. There I paused and enjoyed the beauty of the small area and chuckled inwardly as young kids and adults alike posed for photos next to the bronze statue of Juliet that sits below the balcony. The bronze statue has had the right breast worn to a shiny hue as people slap/grab it for good look as they pose with it.

I’m not sure why but I remembered the balcony and square being a lot different from when I’d been in Verona when I was younger. Then i would swear it had been on the opposite side of the small yard and that it had only been 5 or so feet off the ground. This one was on the opposite side and a good 15 feet up. The walls of the tunnel leading into the courtyard are covered in graffiti…from names to lover’s pacts. Even if it’s not real it’s a fantastic spot.

I made my way back through town and got my bag, then caught the bus through the rain to the train station where I caught a regional train to Venice.

There I’ll leave you for now. I’m off to catch my train back to Florence. Because of the hostels there and since I missed the Uffizi the first time I’ve decided to try and use it as a central base to explore the region around it. I may change my mind, but hopefully it will work out well.