Welcome to Argentina, Hello Buenos Aires!

Hostel Inn Tango City - Buenos Aires, Argentina

The final leg of my flight from Phoenix to Buenos Aires stretched from Florida, across Cuba and then down to Buenos Aires. During the flight, I had the pleasure of sitting next to an expat who was returning to Argentina for the first time in over 20 years.   As the hours ticked by he shared stories of his childhood adventures, insights into the Argentine culture, as well as tips and suggestions on how to stay safe and things/places to avoid. The tips were useful, they re-affirmed what I’d already been told, and added finer details on places to be mindful of, signs to keep an eye out for, and ways to dress and present myself which would reduce my appeal (shoes, clothing, watch etc.).

After a long wait to get through immigration, he mentioned that he was meeting his brother and that there was a possibility that they’d be heading into the city to drop some stuff off.  He cautioned that he couldn’t promise a ride, but if they were heading in my direction, they’d be happy to give me a lift. I evaluated my interactions with him and decided it was a great offer.

As it turned out, by the time we got out of immigration and connected with his brother and cousin they needed to head in the opposite direction and wouldn’t be available for a lift.  Eager to help though, they played the role of translator and made sure I found the stand for Manuel Tienda Leon.  The company offers budget shuttles into downtown Buenos Aires which then transfer travelers into smaller taxis for door-to-door service.  At a cost of 50 Pesos it’s a fantastic deal when compared to the ~150+ Pesos for a Taxi to/from Buenos Aires international airport.

My hostel, the Hostel Inn Tango City, was located in the heart of San Telmo which is generally noted as one of the oldest and most historical neighborhoods in Buenos Aires.  The staff was friendly and the room was good. I checked in, found my bed, tossed my stuff on it and then headed to the shower before collapsing on my bunk for a hearty nap.

A short while later I awoke to the sound of rustling as several of my roommates returned from a day out on the city.  As it turned out the room was an 8 bed dorm of which 6 beds were occupied by a great group of 6 Australian girls on a multi-month knockabout. The 8th bed was empty.  Five of the 6 are pictured below, as well as two random guys we met on the Pub Crawl.

The Pub Crawl

We quickly got acquainted before getting cleaned up, tracking down a bite to eat and then heading out on the town for a Pub Crawl we booked through the hostel.  Usually hit or miss, Pub Crawls are an ideal option for travelers interested in getting a fun dose of night life.  The crawls themselves usually have a ~$10 flat initial fee which results in a mixture of free drinks and night long drink specials. Pub Crawls typically also offer a guide who leads the group through 3-4 bars and then eventually leaves everyone at a local night club.   Despite an initial hiccup (the bar we were scheduled to start at had unexpectedly closed forcing us to re-locate to a pizza shop) the Pub Crawl ended up being a fun one with a hearty group of travelers from a mixture of hostels across the city.

We wandered through a variety of bars and pubs before eventually piling onto two chartered buses for a quick bus ride to an industrially themed night club which boasted a multi-story layout, pumping music and a fun ambiance.  Eventually, foot sore, sweaty and hungry we abandoned the club which was still in full swing and set out in the hopes of finding food.  No small task at 4:45AM as it turned out, as most of the local fast food joints were closed (albeit briefly) for cleaning.

As we enjoyed a quick meal and tall glass of water dawn came and went. Eventually, with only a brief grumble about the sun we hailed a cab and wandered our way back up to our hostel bunks hoping to stealing a little sleep before the day began in earnest.

The city

My first full day spent in Buenos Aires was simple.  Mostly one of transition – I meandered the San Telmo district aimlessly.  Still stiff from the club the night before and the long plane ride from the states, I found the architecture and general feel of the San Telmo district to be very similar to rural areas of Madrid, only with a slightly dirtier/grungier South American feel.

Fearful of pickpockets I left my camera at the hostel, though now in retrospect and after subsequent time spent in Buenos Aires that was completely unnecessary.

In San Telmo I quickly tracked down a small hole in the wall. The place lacked a major sign and seemed to be serving one of two meal options. I saddled up to the small bar area and was nearly dumped onto the ground by loose screws securing the bar stool.  With a chuckle and only slightly ruffled pride I tentatively eased into the next stool along the bar and was met by a minor wobble.

I ordered my meal, and then looked on with mixed feeling as I realized I was sitting directly in front of the Chef’s grill/hole in the wall.  A small dark pit recessed into the wall which housed just enough room for a massive open faced wood grill piled with meats, large sweaty man in a dirty white apron sandwiched between a small table area piled with raw (and cooked) meats waiting to be heated and served.

Eventually my brisket(?) arrived with a coke, some bread, delicious fresh fries and some local seasoning.  I dug in greedily and chewed away contentedly before heading back to the hostel and re-connecting with the girls for another night out on the town.

The following morning promised a new adventure.  It was time to catch my flight from the local regional airport (a fixed 50 peso taxi cab ride)  to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego.

The time had come to visit the ends of the earth.

Dublin Part III

Still slightly drowsy, we rubbed sleep from our eyes and made our way downstairs. Tossed a few hamburger-like patties in the microwave for breakfast and said our good-mornings.

After recharging cameras, writing a few blog posts, and socializing for a bit David and I met up with three English girls – two of whom we’d met briefly the evening before. After chatting for a while the five of us set off to meander through the city…we made our way down across Temple Bar, past vibrantly colored pubs and wound towards Trinity College and it’s gorgeous campus, situated in the very heart of Dublin. Passing through the huge outer doors/compound walls, the campus opened up before us with large greens, beautiful trees and historic buildings. Pausing periodically for pictures we wound our way through the campus before striking out and heading north towards the bronze statue of Molly Malone – famous fishmonger by day and immortalized lady of the night. You’ll find her name affectionately referenced in a number of Irish songs and as the namesake of a similar number of Irish pubs.

We paused with Molly to take a quick photo, while Lizzie leaned in for a quick squeeze, before cutting across to the Dublin tourist center. The center, like a number of other buildings in the Isles, is in an old converted cathedral. Large, spacious and beautiful, the interior is jam-packed with booths, fliers, and tourist gear.

From the tourist center we found a small bridge across the Lithie River and down along O’Connell Street. Pausing so our English companions could grab a cup of tea, we braved intermittent raindrops and soon found ourselves wandering through a slightly more rugged section of the city. The industrial feel quickly gave way to office buildings and a beautiful river walk. We spotted a 3-masted schooner tied up about a quarter of a mile down the river.

We wound down past a rather powerful monument commemorating the potato famine with gaunt, holocaust-esque bronze figures, before getting a good look at the ship from a narrow walking bridge that crossed the river.

Tired and footsore we climbed up the opposite side of the river-walk and back across Temple bar. Pausing to pick up cooking supplies for dinner at a small market, we found our way home and set to the task of a nap and preparing dinner.

By the time we set to cooking dinner, things were bustling. As we all piled into the kitchen, ducking and dodging each other we made new friends, shared food and stories. Eventually, eyes glazing over with full stomachs we settled in for another round of Kaste Gris. With the Danes laughing along joyfully we butchered the pronunciation, took our turns throwing the small pig-like dice, shouting, hollering and applauding good rolls.

As the evening progressed, we rounded up a good group of Brits, Danes, Austrians and a few others and then set off to the Porter House. There we listened to live music until close, before heading across the street to the Turks Head – a small club/bar which was offering Salsa. A few dances later, they called it a night, leaving us to start our own dance party – congo line included – in the bar/nightclub part of the venue. Eager for new surroundings, we migrated back to the Czech Bar shortly thereafter where we continued to dance, drink, and mingle well into the evening.

Not to be outdone by the previous evening, by the time we finally returned to the hostel, we quickly settled into the common room where Rasmus played a few songs as we sang and wound down.

Prague Part 2, Vienna & Bratislava

Bit of time to kill before I catch my bus to Croatia, so hopefully I’ll get caught up! It’s brutal how easy it is to fall behind and I hate writing when things are not still fresh in my memory…but here goes!

Prague continued: The show and ballet I saw were both the highlights, but in general Prague is a very musical city. It was not unusual to find street performers which always livens up the experience. On the first day I explored the natural history museum. Quite a different experience than many of the others I’ve seen. The whole thing seemed stuck in time. The exhibits came in basically three different forms…the mineral exhibit, the early human artifact exhibits, and the stuffed animal exhibit. The early human exhibit was interesting, but fairly small. It consisted of a few old artifacts prior to and including the start of the bronze age and a bunch of bones. The mineral exhibit was large, but very different in feel as all of the gems were locked away in old wooden cases with viewing windows. It would not surprise me to learn that they dated back to at least the early 1900s. The stuffed animal exhibit was just that. Rooms and rooms of anything and everything they could kill and stuff…a very weird vibe to it, especially as some had not weathered well and as a result the various butchering cuts and stitches were becoming evident. The building itself however was gorgeous with a beautiful interior.

Night life – while I spent just about every night mixing and meeting people, I only spent two of the nights out at the main bars/night clubs. The first night I did a pub crawl. So far these have been a fantastic way to explore the city’s night life and meet other people. The crawl was lead by an odd American and his sister, and took us to 4 or 5 bars and clubs before ending at a night club. Both were friendly and the crowd on the crawl, despite being almost all guys, was a good group. We wandered the bars, hitting up some interesting ones, some dead ones, and some boring ones. At one point, while walking through the bottom levels of a club that was just starting to pick up, I encountered a group of friendly Nigerians selling weed and smoking it in the bottom part of the club. It struck me as really odd, especially since the people working at the club must have been aware of what was going on. Needless to say, I ended up back upstairs fairly quickly.

The second major evening out was my final one in Prague. I formed up with a couple traveling from England that were at the hostel and then set off to meet an Australian guy I had met in Frankfurt at a club recommended to me. To be honest, it was really bizarre. There were loads of beautiful girls on the subway and around parts of town, but at night in the bars and clubs they were nowhere to be seen and it was mostly tourists. When we arrived finally at the club recommended as a locals joint there was a massive line. I think we were the only 3 (4 once Brad joined us) foreigners in line. But, as we talked to the people around us it turned out the club was all inclusive so the door cover included unlimited drinks even though it cost a good bit more. We’d all hit up happy hour at our hostel and decided to check out another club instead – apparently one of the largest in Europe that was in the tourist district and a good 5 stories tall with different themed floors.

We set off for the club and after a brisk walk and quick tube jump we were there. The place was just starting to pick up. We did a quick walk through of all the floors and then because it was a bit brighter and completely ridiculous, ended up on the 3rd floor which was oldies with light up squares on the dance floor. There is nothing like a huge white dance floor with bands that lit up in different colors to the music. It was definitely fresh out of the movies. We grabbed a beer (the great thing about Prague was even at the club half a liter was only about 2 dollars US) and started dancing a bit. Before long others came out and joined us and we had stumbled into several others from the hostel including a big group of girls from the States of all places. We spent the next few hours dancing (during which I realized that the beer I had been ordering was 12%…ouch). It’s been a slow process, but I guess my ballroom stuff is finally starting to help me on the non-ballroom dance floor. Within about 15 minutes, I had two of the American girls repeatedly tell me how good I was and that they were intimidated. They would rotate intermittently throughout the night until the night club got so hot that I took my leave and headed out for air.

The Prague castle is interesting but was a bit disappointing. Overlooking the city it’s not a castle, even in the more Eastern Euro-German sense, it’s more a monstrosity with a wall stuck on top of a hill with large marshaling grounds and a cathedral in the middle. Still the view was beautiful.

On the day I caught the quartet in the small library that I loved I got out right around sunset and made my way down to the river. Luckily there was just enough cloud cover to make for a few fantastic minutes as the buildings and trees reflected on the river water and cast everything in a rosy hue.

The main Prague cathedral was pretty impressive with fresco and gold paint everywhere. They definitely were all about the gaudy look. The inner city itself was beautiful with a great mix of architectural styles. Many of the buildings had fantastic doors with a very old, medieval, almost castlesque feeling. It was also really interesting to see how many small courtyards there were and in many cases there were arches and small walkways between the streets creating a kind of interconnected maze. There is also a large astrological clock in Prague which draws a lot of tourists on the hour for a little animated show. The clock itself was beautiful…the show was dumb. It’s just a bunch of figures on a circular piece inside the clock. Two small doors open and they walk up to the window and look out as they revolve past.

It’s an odd thing how in Prague and Vienna to a lesser extent they often build right up to/around their cathedrals. They usually, but not always, still leave the public square part, but it can also be a ways away from the cathedral.

Vienna: Vienna is a very different city than Prague. Every bit as beautiful as Prague, if not more so. It still has the rural industrial feeling but the inner city is composed of large grass areas, squares, and ornate buildings. You can see the wealth that the rulers had and invested in the city in their massive palaces and buildings. While some of the buildings are gothic, most have been designed with greco-roman architecture in mind. In fact one of the main buildings (I believe it was the Parliament) is a massive building that was obviously based upon the Parthenon in the Acropolis though it also has distinctly Roman elements (two curved, sweeping walkways to the entrance). Located between the walkways is a huge statue of Athena with various figures at her feet. I believe it’s closely based on the statue of Athena that was originally located in the Parthenon. At each of the 4 corners of the building’s roof there are huge bronze chariots with horses in motion. They are elegant and beautiful.

Located in the heart of the city is the palatial area which now spreads between the city hall (a stunning gothic building) and the old palace which is now a set of classical reading rooms, modern library, set of museums and galleries. Between the two sets of buildings there is a huge park with gardens, statuary, another much smaller greek building, and large grass areas. Off to one side mirroring each other with fountain-filled gardens are two identical buildings which are now used as art and sculpture gardens. These buildings are massive and incredibly elegant.

Beyond that area are Vienna’s wandering streets. In the older parts of town each building is strikingly different though they are all based on the same uniform architectural style. Most of the facades have some sort of figure or scroll work supporting, surrounding, and adorning every window, corner, and door. On some of the buildings the null space is then painted with ornate images. The theaters and opera houses are exactly what you would expect and right in line with how i envisioned them. They fit right in with the rest of the Viennese theme.

While I would have liked to have seen a show like I did in Prague, many were expensive or playing odd pieces I didn’t have a desire to see. I did however attend an Opera at the old opera house. The ticket was 2 euro for standing space, which while a fun thing for a quick peak at the house and the show, was definitely NOT the way to see the opera. Despite enjoying the show, at the first intermission I took my leave, my legs were killing me, it was hot, the view was poor and the acoustics were marginal (we were located all the way at the back in the top). While not as small or ornate as the opera house in Prague it was definitely very impressive.

I met an Englishman who was killing some time after having plans fall through. He was staying at the hostel, but had lived in an Austrian town a bit outside of Vienna for a while a bit back. On the day I’d set aside to tour the city, he was eager to join me, and offered to play tour guide. Apparently, he’s also a fairly proficient musician (level 8 cert) and about to start a masters program in linguistics. As we wandered the city he had all sorts of fun tidbits to share. In addition to covering the bits I mentioned above, we also walked through a large outdoor market street which runs all week long. While there we were passing a wine shop selling (I believe it’s called Vino?) and we stopped for a drink as he introduced me to it. Made from the thicker parts of the wine that they sift off it is apparently only available a few times a year and because of how it ferments cannot really be exported or sold elsewhere. I tried a red, he had a white – it was a potent wine, but also had a champagne feel to it. Much thicker than wine, it would settle if you left it sitting for more than a minute or two. It had a much sweeter and juicier element as well. All around a very pleasant drink.

Later, again ready to rest our feet after hours of walking, we made our way to a small dingy coffee shop he had found during his time in Vienna. The sign looked like it was straight from the 40s and the interior was dark, musky and brown. The walls had mismatched wallpaper, which definitely came from a wide variety of mixed fashion styles and decades. (It reminded me my childhood when my grandparents would take me to the old Brown Derby for hot chocolate. This place though was much older and grungier.) In some places the wallpaper had peeled off…in others it looked as though it had burned and in others people had written all over it. The chairs and tables were piled into the place and the lighting was marginal. The place was fantastic! We made our way to a corner and ordered our coffee and rested our feet. I felt as though I should be madly writing an opera, book, or poetry.

Yesterday I decided to check out Bratislava (some of you may remember it from Euro trip) – located about 50 k (or miles I’m not sure) from Vienna. It is a 10 Euro round trip bus ride and takes about an hour and a half. Lewis (the guy I’d toured Vienna with), Sarah (A kiwi girl I bumped into in Prague and saw again here in Vienna) and I were preparing to set out when we also picked up another American (his name escapes me at the moment). We set off, caught the bus and were in Bratislava by noon with open minds and high hopes. I’d heard that it was worth a visit but not worth an overnight stay. That was an exaggeration. The city itself is an industrial mess with a skyline that is interesting only because of the number of smoke stacks. It has cheap multi-story residential buildings being built and smog. The old city itself has one or two beautiful buildings. The rest are built in a very simple, very plain architectural style that was generally bland and boring. Even the castle perched up above the town on the hill reminded me more of a Holiday Inn than a castle. We explored the city for 2 hours or so, then looking for more to see and feeling like there had to be something we were missing started looking at postcards…unfortunately, everything on the postcards we’d seen. The only really cool thing was a set of bronze statues they have built on/into the streets. One is a camera man peaking around a corner, another is a classicaly dressed figure leaning on a bench, and the third is a chubby construction worker up to his shoulders in a manhole leaning out.

Hungry and done with the city we looked for a restaurant. We’d each converted between 5-15 euro into the regional currency. For me that meant my 10 Euro got me 330 or so SK dollars. Initially we’d expected to find keepsakes, have to pay for museums etc. No such luck. Not wanting to take the hit transferring it back we looked for a restaurant with what might be regional food willing to pay a bit more than usual to get rid of the notes. The place we found must have been an old monastery or wine cellar. It was a a maze of small rooms that wound down into the earth with small domed ceilings, brick walls, and odd paintings on the walls. We settled in, ordered, then waited eagerly for food…which unfortunately ended up being nothing like what we ordered. The waiter completely messed up two of the 4 orders (I think he just didn’t want to cook the pork knuckle i was going to try) bringing us instead plates of spaetzel with goat cheese, and another with sauerkraut and bacon instead of the goat cheese. Not having the time to wait 40 minutes more for them to correct the order we made do and ate hungrily. After finishing the meal we still had some time to kill and a few SK left. Somehow we found an old lady selling a bottle of Bratislavian mead (of all things) and decided to try it. We chipped in for the 150 SK we needed for it, got 4 cups and headed down to the river (Danube i think) where we sat around waiting for our bus, reflecting on how shitty a town it was and commenting on how odd the mead was. I guess at least now I can say i’ve been there, and it only cost me 20 Euro.

Next stop Croatia. Catching the 6 o’clock bus this evening. Wish me luck!

Leaving Leeds, Exploring York and Arriving in London

It’s currently the 23rd, around 3 o’clock. I just arrived at my hostel in London and am taking a bit to update things before heading off in search of dinner.

Day 8 – Cont. (Evening) – After making my previous post I joined back up with Meagan and her flat mates at which time we headed to the local University pub to watch the soccer game that was on. When the game ended we wandered around and explored various destinations before eventually ending up at a fun little pub that consisted of a barge with the side cut out and a building built around it.

Day 9 – Leeds -> York. I woke up around 10, threw everything in my bag and began the trek across old town to get to the train station by 11:00 for my train to York. The weather was nice, with just a very slight drizzle and no wind. I made good time and arrived a good 30 minutes early which allowed me to catch an alternate direct route commuter train. By 1:00 I was in York. Once in York I found the local tourist office, got my hands on a map and made my way to one of the two hostels they suggested. Luckily it was centrally located in the old town and only a 5 minute walk from the rail station.

The hostel itself was definitely C grade. Instead of changing out the complete sheet set each night, they left the bottom sheet, then changed out a sleeping bag like sheet which laid on top of the bottom one. This barely kept the dirty old comforter off of you. The beds were squeaky old metal/wood bunk beds and instead of a common room they had the kitchen or a movie room. The staff was friendly however, and the people I met there were all fantastic. After arriving I dropped off my bag and set off into the city.

The city of York itself is a pretty awesome city. The architecture is great! Most of the interior streets are closed or limited to car traffic and everything is vibrant and fun. York cathedral is fantastic. Not only is it massive, but it is majestic, clean, and had a uniform flavor to it that really makes it special. In addition to the city’s main cathedral it’s dotted with small/medium-sized churches and cathedral’s. During my wanderings I would say I easily saw 8-12 of them. It’s also very easy to see why the city was so popular with the Romans and Vikings. With it’s fantastic location and a decent sized river that flows through the center of the old town it’s no wonder that it’s evolved as it has.

As I wandered I explored the old streets laced with modern retail and eventually found my way to the York Gardens. There I paused for a brief snack before continuing my meandering up past the old Cathedral and then back into the heart of the inner city. The architecture is definitely different from Leeds and Edinburgh, while they had a strong Victorian element. The city of York was dotted with inns and homes that had the classic plaster covered thatch with dark wood boards.

In the inner city I discovered an outdoor market, on – go figure – Market Street of all places. As far as I could tell the market ran every day (at least that I was there) and featured a few outdoor butcher shops, fish mongers, 4 or 5 fruit and veggie stands as well as a number of clothing and odds and ends kiosks. I picked up some fresh meat, a sweet potato and some baked beans.I made my way back to the hostel to cook dinner, converse with the other travelers and grab a quick nap.

After my nap – refreshed and roaring to go-I met up with a few of the others and continued what’s become a hostel ritual… socializing briefly before heading out in a small group to explore the city’s night life.

Day 10 – I awoke to a nasty, rainy day. Eager to explore the city further, I struck out – motivated to brave it. My first stop was the rail station – where I initially planned to book my ticket for the following day to London. As things turned out, all of Saturday’s advanced bookings were sold out, which meant I either had to stay until Sunday and get the discounted rate (more than half the same-day purchase price) or do the same day and pay the 2x rate. I elected to spend an extra day in York, and booked my ticket for Sunday. In the grand scheme of things – it’s a good thing I did.

After booking the ticket and exploring the city a bit more in the rain, I went to the Jorvik Viking center – what I hoped would be an in-depth museum dedicated to the early Viking city and artifacts. It ended up being a big disappointment. On the old excavations they had built a Disneyland type ride – where you sat in little cars that went through a 5-10 minute ride. The ride consisted of slightly animated dummies that had been reconstructed to show what the excavations had found. It was boring, simple minded, and smelled bad. At the end of the ride there was a museum component, but it was limited and consisted of maybe 5 minutes worth of content. Annoyed and wet I wandered around the city a bit longer before finding a cheap place for lunch. I headed back to the hostel to take a nap and watch a movie with some of the others. BTW – English beef/meat sucks.

After the movie and a nap the in-house pub opened up at 10:00, I headed down to see who I’d meet. I connected with another guy from the US, a girl from Finland, and a Canadian. After a drink, as we all got acquainted, we decided to head into the inner city and explore. All in all, it was a pretty standard evening at the pubs – apparently York has a pretty decent night life with something like 300+ pubs within the inner city…it’s a huge destination for Hen and Stag Parties (bachelor/ette). Met a few locals who were all incredibly friendly and fun. Eventually got back to the hostel, then sat around talking until 4:30 in the morning. Ouch.

Day 11 – Woke up and was on the streets by 10:30, meandered around old town a good bit. Explored some back streets, the market, and a huge food and drink festival that the city was having. The weather was significantly better and allowed me to explore a lot more. As I wandered I ended up stumbling into a small furniture/antique/random crap shop. The place was great, full of anything and everything deemed interesting…it was a mess.

York castle is actually just a small tower on the top of a dome, so in that respect I was a bit disappointed. However, the old roman walls which are almost all still intact were awesome. In many ways the day was similar to Day 9 – just checking out odd streets, weird architecture, random stores etc.

On a side note – I’m trying a new travel strategy. As I mentioned previously English meat sucks. They might even inject water into it. While I was in the inner city I passed the equiv. of one of our GNC’s having a sale. In the window they were advertising muscle supplements (protein, amino acids, minerals etc). They had mid-sized powder bottles (it’s for shakes – like creatine supplements but sans the creatine) for a really reasonable price so i picked one up. So far I think it’s been helping. Not only as a tool to offset any dietary failings I might be having as I travel, but also because it’s specifically catered for workout routines. Since I’m walking all over the place – the shoe seemed to fit & so far it seems to have had a positive effect.

After exploring for a good chunk of the morning, I picked up some carrots and stopped at the old merchants hall (think of a banquet hall with thatched/plastered walls etc) and ate them in the garden.

Running out of time – so the evening was spent much like the previous three, but with new people. The Finnish girl again, an extremely tall Aussie over doing security work, and then another American from Florida. Another fun evening, exploring new places and seeing a different side of the city.

Today I woke up – caught a train – and then ran into major delays. Apparently there was an issue with a bridge on the route which delayed our train 40 minutes. After that though it was smooth sailing. I got into London, figured out the metro, and got to my hostel.

Will update soon – ton more photos on facebook as of today!

Scotland

It’s about 11:00PM Sunday evening here – and I’m just winding down from an incredible 3 day tour of the Isle of Skye and Scottish highlands. After arriving and meeting a few of the guys in my sleeping area we hit up the town and explored a bit.

Day 1: The first night a group of 4 of us formed up and headed down to the local Three sisters Pub which has a large outside area and was showing the Scotland-France soccer game. The pub was packed and the energy level was insane – after a lot of back and forth Scotland eventually scored which resulted in an explosion of activity and excitement…everyone was jumping up and down and shaking things, pints, and pint glasses fell to the ground left and right, and the whole crowd was jumping up and down in excitement. After things settled down a bit Scotland eventually won, 1 zip which led to another round of celebration. From there we explored a few other pubs, met a number of other travelers and eventually found our way back to the Hostel.

Day 2: I woke up fairly early, did some wash, got settled and set out to explore the town with Chris – one of the guys from the night before. We started with a 3 hour free walking tour of the city, which covered history, and was just a great general intro to the city. Edinburgh is really incredible, because as a capital city – it’s incredibly small and has a fantastic historic/old town. In addition to the old town and tenement buildings, the closest part of the new town was all built in the Victorian era at the same time on a master planned design. So it has an incredible classical uniformity, beautifully laid out pedestrian and motor oriented areas and a great standard look. When the tour ended we explored the city proper a bit, found a market, the bus station, the train station, and a number of other random stops before returning to the hostel, cooking dinner, socializing with a few randoms in the kitchen, then taking a quick snooz. About 10:00 we woke up and made our way down to what I hoped was going to be an active Salsa club. Unfortunately, it was a standard night and the turnout was poor – i’ll try again Monday (which is a designated salsa night). After leaving the salsa club – pretty much upon entry we walked around a bit more and sampled a few other random pubs. Unfortunately, while Edinburgh has a ton of natural beauty, it’s missing natural beauties. About to give up and call it a night, we stumbled into an odd Cafe/bar that had a great local crowd and was full of attractive, friendly girls. After an hour or two we called it a night – both having early mornings.

Day 3: I decided to do a 3 day Isle of Skye/Highland Tour to really get a good taste. The tour consisted of 10 people. Myself, Simon (our Driver/Tour Guide, 2 other Americans, A Tasmanian, A Hungarian, 3 People from Taiwan and 2 Germans. From Edinburgh we made our way straight into the country side. Our first stop was the castle where Mary Queen of Scots was born for coffee/tea and to introduce ourselves. From there we made our way to a historic battle field where Simon shared a mixture of folklore and history with us. After the battle field we meandered through the lowland country side – which included a brief stop to feed/see a harry island cow (had to throw tater and carrot slices at the fat thing to get it to come visit/eat some more). When we crossed into the highlands we made a quick stop to look at the country side/rolling mountains/talk about peat at which time Simon also pulled a bottle of single malt Scotch Whiskey from his pocket and explained what made it special, before teaching us a traditional toast and then passing the bottle around. The bottle of scotch followed us throughout the trip and served as a fun little tradition whenever we had stops that were exposed, especially cold, or rural and significant.

After our introduction to the Highlands we continued on making a few other stops to explore lochs, glens, or take pictures. Eventually we arrived at the valley of Glencoe made famous in songs and folk lore that recalls the massacre that occurred there. The place itself is incredible. A riveting valley with rich waterfalls and steep, graceful walls all around you. We parked and walked the 1/4 of a mile or so down to the river where we paused for more lore/history before making the way back up to the bus. When I get photos up – this is definitely one set you need to see. From Glencoe we continued along our way making a few other stops and eventually coming to a reconstructed version of an old castle. The castle sat out on a small island and was connected by a bridge. Rebuilt to spec in the early 1900s it was incredibly picturesque. As the sun set, and the golden rays of dusk started to reach out and embrace the castle we took a few photos, shivered from the cold northern wind and piled back in the bus. From there we had one final brief stop at a super market to pick up food for the evening and headed to the hostel. All the while the sunset was one of the most incredibly and gorgeous sights I’ve ever seen. In fact, it was so incredible, as we wound down a 1 lane rural road we stopped to just take it in for about 15 minutes (the whole sunset lasted a good hour).

We reached the hostel which was a great little place, then started cooking – as part of the tour we all paid an additional £35 which included lodging, breakfast, and dinner. We BBQd Ribs, Hamburger, Sausage, and Chicken before all heading to the local (tiny) pub to meet some of the locals and reflect on the day.

Day 4: (The Isle of Skye) – The day was a blustery, cloudy, rainy day – one quite different than the day before. We left our main packs at the hostel (we’d return there again for the evening after making a circuit of skye) and piled into the van. The first 30 minutes or so was pretty quiet as everyone suffered through their respective hangovers and tried to figure out what exactly had happened the night before – but then shortly after that we all got back into touring mode. A good 20 minutes took us to the main bridge from the mainland into Skye and another 10 minutes later we stopped at a lookout that sat across from a huge, majestic, bald, sweeping mountain. At the foot of the mountain and all around us there were – what looked a bit like large ant hills made in the peat. There Simon told us about the folklore that claimed that each was a Fairy den and how the locals avoided harvesting peat from them out of respect. As the weather continued to deteriorate we piled back into the car and made our way further up the coast. After a few other fun stops for local lore, history, or fun photo shoots we came to a set of high cliffs that reminded me of a miniature version of the cliffs of moehr (Moore?) in Ireland – except, unlike those cliffs a waterfall shot out and off the down one side, spilling crystal blue water out and down the 200 or so feet to the rocky cliffs below. On the other end of the lookout we could see the sheer cliffs as they plunged into the sea.

We left the cliffs and made our way to one of the old ruler’s former castle. The castle was perched majestically on the side of a cliff overlooking a bay, with a large island. The spot we stopped initially gave us a great vantage point while Simon told us a bit of the history. From there though, several of us decided to brave the rain and howling winds and make the 10-15 minute walk the long way to the castle. It was well worth it. After arriving at the castle and exploring it briefly the others (who had stayed in the van and come around to walk out a shorter – straight but less interesting path) arrived as well. Hunkered down in a corner overlooking the bay Simon again recounted more of the Castle’s quirky history. As we made our way back down to the van we had to cross a stretch of exposed coastline. The wind was so fierce that you could lean halfway into it. The sheer power of it inflated your cheeks and stole the breath from your lungs as the soft rain stung your face. It was incredible! The energy, power and crispness. The castle behind us, cliff to the side of us, beautiful gray torn ocean out past us and highlands in front of us.

Drenched, cold, and excited we continued on a short way where we elected to stop at a small goods shop. Where we picked up sandwiches, hot pies, and drinks – before heading down to the coast where teh waves were crashing in. Huddled in the van we pulled up onto the dock and faced out into the wind and the bay while we ate our meals and watched the wind blow the rain past us. The sea and sky merged into one gray, glorious entity as the waves came crashing in onto the black rocks dotted with orange seaweed and kelp. After finishing lunch we continued along our way and eventually came to stop at a beautiful waterfall near the road. Behind the waterfall as a majestic backdrop was an incredible stone formation that looked like a spear or spire sticking up from the mountain. Again after a few photos, a lot of water, wind and rain, and a few people slipping and sliding on the wet grass/hill we paused with the waterfall crashing down beside us to listen to Simon recount the story of an old man (who later became the stone spire) and the brownie he helped.

From there we continued along the way – almost all 1 lane roads – surrounded by hundreds of waterfalls, awe inspiring highland mountains, beautiful lochs, and peat covered in blooming heather (a beautiful red/purple low bush) to what Simon called the fairy Glen. The glen was a beautiful little area with a climbable spire – about 100 feet up that offered an incredible view of the valley, loch etc. Just visible through the mist and fog across the valley were huge waterfalls. Meanwhile in the glen there were sheep everywhere, wild ferns, peat, old treas covered in green moss, small streams and a gorgeous waterfall. We explored the glen for a good 40 minutes. It reminded me of some of the opening scenes in the Lord of the Rings/the parts around Rivendell – only it was real, the rain was still falling but more of a light mist and with just a bit of wind.

From there we continued along and stopped for goods and a snack at one of the larger towns on Skye. We checked out an interesting Himalayan bizarre they were having, i grabbed some chips (fries) and then we headed home.

I’ve left bits out, and I’ll try and follow up when I have better internet access – needless to say though – it was incredible.

Day 5: The return – I’m out of time now but it was also a great day. Mixed weather we stopped at Loch Ness, an incredible canyon where there was a beautiful waterfall with jumping salmon and moss covered trees, the last battlefield ever fought on British soil and a quick scenic stop. I’ll have to continue later as I’m out of time. Hope to get photos up soon!