Last Days in Scotiland

Posted September 1, 2010 by andrewinvadesbritain
Categories: Uncategorized

I know I haven’t posted anything here in recent weeks, but that was the intention all along. I guess I needed a break from documenting my travels – and frankly, I haven’t been doing a whole lot of it lately, what with the impending trip and all. In fact, in case you missed it, the very last sentence of my previous blog post was: “I figure I’m going to lay low in Edinburgh for the next couple of months before my trips, so don’t expect too much to read in this blog for a while.” So there are really only a few things to mention.

And speaking of the impending trip, it’s full steam ahead now. As of the time of this writing, Brendan has arrived in Edinburgh and is now passed out asleep after an overnight flight in which he slept not a wink. We’ll be going to the Highlands on Thursday morning, spending two nights in Portree on Skye, one night in Inverness, one night in Thurso, and two nights in Stromness in Orkney. Then we’re back to Edinburgh on September 8th, have a day of rest and re-packing on the 9th, then it’s down to London the 10th, and a flight into Berlin on the 11th. I’ll briefly explain our intended route: after staying in Berlin a few days, we head east through Poland, and work our way up to the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) before flying out of Tallinn, Estonia, on October 6th, and into Bucharest, Romania. From there we’ll head into the heart of Romania (Transylvania) before going westward through Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, then travelling in a northerly fashion through Germany and ending up back in Berlin on November 23rd. The next day, we fly back to London, and that marks the end of the trip. 74(ish) days in total. If you actually want a more detailed itinerary, let me know and I’ll send you a copy, but I can pretty much guarantee that our route won’t look exactly like what we have planned at present.

As a sidenote, one of the first things Brendan said when we exited the train station and headed towards my flat was “wow, this place is ridiculously picturesque”. And you know, I think he’s right. I’ve had the opportunity to live in a beautiful city for nearly the past year, and while on occasion I’ll become desensitized to it, more often than not I’ll be able to look up and around and appreciate what’s around me. It’s a nice feeling.

So the summer months in Edinburgh is festival season. Most significant of these several festivals is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is the largest performing arts festival in the world, and it runs for most of the month of August. In fact, it ended yesterday, meaning the droves of tourists who flooded the city for the month of August are now gone, now leaving only slightly smaller droves of tourists. I didn’t participate quite as much as I would have liked, but I did get to see two standup comedy shows – Lee Nelson and Jim Jefferies. I won’t bother explaining who they are, but they were both funny (especially the latter). Youtube them if you want, but prepare to be offended if you do.

And now for the only thing in the past two months I took pictures for: my climb of the Buachaille Etive Mor on Sunday, August 15th. So I spent the night in Glasgow, then very early the next morning (try 6:15am – I haven’t seen that time of day in YEARS) to drive to Glencoe, which is near Fort William. It’s an absolutely spectacular bit of countryside, but I don’t really need to say that, you’ll find out when you see the pictures.

As far as I can tell, Buachaille Etive Mor (pronounced is actually a ridge connecting four summits to create one mountain. We climbed two of these summits, Stob Dearg and Stob na Doireand the ascent and descent totalled about 6.5 hours. It was definitely the most difficult of the climbs I’ve done so far (Ben Lomond in particular was a cakewalk compared to this). Much of it felt like a balancing act, with constantly loose boulders, and if it wasn’t that, it was uncomfortably loose scree where it sometimes felt like we were taking two steps back for every step we took forward. But we made it to the top without any major problems, and I’m glad we did, because the views were amazing, as you’ll see below.

Stob Dearg - imposing.

A wee bothy dwarfed by the mountain.

This is what we had to climb up.

It's hard to look good next to this.

Some nice scenery.

What's that thing uglying up the scenery?!

The one where I squat like a frog.

Some of the local wildlife.

By the way, if you’re one of those people who skips the text and only really looks at the photos (and I can’t say I blame you), we’ve got the perfect solution for you. We’ve set up a Flickr account to post photos in, so you can access that by going to – but if you’re one of these people, you probably won’t have read this part and thus will never know about our Flickr account. Too bad for you.

Finally, I’m not sure how many blog posts I’m going to be able to make during the trip, but don’t expect anything too extensive. If I manage to get anything out, it might just be in point form, but then the Flickr account will hopefully be enough to sate your appetite. Adios amigos!


Dublin & Ben Lomond

Posted July 4, 2010 by andrewinvadesbritain
Categories: Uncategorized

“The Irish ignore anything they can’t drink or punch.”


Whoever said that quote is probably anonymous for a reason. Anyway, here’s a recap of my trip to Dublin, and some other crap.

Friday, June 11th:

This morning started off with me in an upscale Edinburgh neighbourhood at 9am, when a middle-aged gentleman, blazing drunk, powers down the street, singing at the top of his lungs. I have no idea what he was singing, since it wasn’t any particular recognizable tune, and I’m not even sure it was in English. A sign of things to come? Probably. An elderly man who was walking by stopped and turned around to stare at the inebriated fellow, as if it was the most outrageous thing he had ever seen in his life. Sir, no disrespect intended, but you live in Scotland – you shouldn’t be as surprised as you look.

However, nothing beats what I saw a few weeks ago: a 12 year old boy on top of an electrical box at 7:30am, swinging his can of beer and singing like he was at Oktoberfest. Sad, yet hilarious.

So yeah. Work came and went, and the flight was short and painless (but delayed by 25 minutes). I arrived at my hostel a little after midnight. Of course, I had to stumble around in the dark and try to put my bed together since there were people sleeping in my room. Which is understandable when it’s after midnight, but I find it very irritating when there are people sleeping in my room in the middle of the day, which happens surprisingly often at hostels.

Saturday, June 12th:

I started my first day in Dublin with a tour of Trinity College. This is the only college of what is officially known as the University of Dublin, and it was founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I, making it Ireland’s oldest university, and also its most prestigious. It’s an attractive campus for the most part, but it has some unfortunately hideous 1970’s communist-style block buildings scarring it. The tour was very short (about a half hour) and cost €10, which would have been a complete ripoff were it not for the fact that it included a ticket to see the Book of Kells and the accompanying mini-museum, which cost €9. Whether or not the Book of Kells is worth paying €9 to see is a whole other matter. This book, set in four volumes, is an exquisite and painstakingly crafted book that took years and years to complete. It’s sort of like a picture book of the four gospel books of the Bible. If you can appreciate it for what it is, then it’s definitely worth it.

One thing Dublin has a lot of is Americans. Lots and lots and lots of Americans. I might well have heard more American accents than Irish ones during my trip. In the Temple Bar district, generally you can tell an American from a Canadian (or anyone else, for that matter) by the volume of their voice, as well as the clothes they wear (usually a college or NFL shirt). One older man on my Trinity College tour was particularly proud of his Irish heritage. He even as far as to wear a Notre Dame shirt, Notre Dame coat and Notre Dame baseball cap.

In the afternoon, I went to the National Museum, which was great. Lots of Irish-related artifacts and some other not-so-Irish-related stuff. My favourite exhibit was the four incredibly well-preserved ancient corpses, known as the bog bodies. Facial features can be clearly made out, some still have hair on them, hands and fingernails still intact, as well as some other pretty mind-blowing things. Google “bog bodies” for examples, if you’re interested. Not for the faint of heart, but definitely worth seeing if you can manage it.

Later on, I took a walk around the famous Temple Bar district, and it was quiet and peaceful. At night, I again took a walk through the district and, not surprisingly, it was exactly the opposite of quiet and peaceful. Very very crowded, and I got shouted at a couple of times just walking down the street. And in case you were wondering why the Temple Bar is famous, it’s because it’s an area full of pubs and clubs in one of the biggest party cities in the world. I can’t imagine what it was like on St. Patrick’s Day.

Sunday, June 13th:

On Sunday, I visited many of the same sites I had visited on Saturday, except this time with a guide to explain everything in (probably embellished) detail. The tour was free (guides work on tips alone) and I thought it was well done, and enjoyable for the whole 3+ hours. However, it rained on and off pretty much the entire time, and by the end it was a downpour. Good ol’ Ireland.

All that rain must have made me thirsty because, after drying off, I decided to try to go to the Guinness Storehouse, which was about a half hour walk away from my hostel. With the Storehouse clearly marked on the map, one would think it would be easy to find. Not so, and I was warned of this beforehand, but I foolishly brushed off the advice. One hour later, completely drenched, I found it… and it was closed. Well then. Might I never get to drink a pint of the black stuff fresh from the factory?

Monday, June 14th:

Last day of the trip. With an evening flight, I had a whole day of sightseeing to do. First thing on the agenda was a trip to Dun Laoghaire (good luck figuring out how that’s pronounced!), a short monorail ride southeast of Dublin. It’s a very nice seaside town with some good easy-walking opportunities, which I took full advantage of. I walked down the east pier to visit an old lighthouse. Then I walked to the nearby village of Sandycove to take a look at the James Joyce Tower. It’s a small martello tower, and the writer Joyce, one of Ireland’s most famous sons, lived there for a time. There’s a museum inside, and I was considering going in until I saw that it cost around €6. I’ve never read any of his work, so no thanks.

Once back from Dun Laoghaire, I made a second attempt to get to the Guinness Storehouse, because who wouldn’t want to spend €18 on a museum? This time, it was much easier to find, and it wasn’t raining either. I was expecting the place to look more like the old storehouse it used to be, but it’s not. Instead, it’s six or so floors very slickly-presented displays. There are displays on how Guinness is made, the history of Guinness, advertising, and lots more. One of the highlights was the “free” pint. You could choose to either pull your own pint, or have it poured for you. I chose the demeaning task of pulling my own. A perfect pour, of course. And damn tasty, as well.

And that was it for Dublin. Too short, of course. I’m hoping I can come back to Ireland again sometime, preferably to see more of the rest of the country.

Trinity College grounds

Christ Church Cathedral

The Temple Bar

A very cool Oscar Wilde statue - just as flamboyant as he was.

A view down O'Connell Street. Notice the needle-looking thing above the statue's head - that's the Monument of Light, something Dubliners aren't particularly fond of, and it has been given several unfortunate nicknames.

The Wall of Fame in Temple Bar. There are some obvious ones there (U2, Sinead O'Connor, Van Morrison), but my personal favourite is Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, in the bottom-right corner.

Looking towards Sandycove from the East Pier in Dun Laoghaire.

Dun Laoghaire

My Goodness, My Guinness!

The following weekend, I stayed in Edinburgh and did nothing of note for the first time since, well, I can’t remember. Probably since the winter. People have started calling me a “machine”, so I’m beginning to wonder if I have a problem. Maybe it’s for the best that I stayed at home this weekend, since I have to save my pennies for my upcoming trip around the Highlands and Europe (more on that in a bit).

On Saturday, June 26th, I was back at it again, this time to Ben Lomond. This is one of the better-known mountains in Scotlands, and very close to the Cobbler. Also, unlike the Cobbler, it’s a true munro, being over 3,000 feet high.

The way up the mountain seemed to take no time at all. There was nothing particularly difficult about it, and it seemed surprising that this mountain was actually bigger than the Cobbler. Reaching the top was almost anticlimactic. No tricky jumps? No loose rocks? No dangling ledges? What is this?! I think I’m going to need to up the difficulty level on the next one. There were, of course, nice views of Loch Lomond and the surrounding mountains, but it was very hazy, so we couldn’t see very far. It all adds to the Scottish atmosphere, though, so I wasn’t too upset.

The way down proved to be much more difficult. More tricky jumps, more loose rocks, more dangling ledges, it rained for a while, and my bad knee started acting up near the end, but it was a lot more fun than going up the mountain. If only we had chosen that route on the way up.

The bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.

That's me... I think.

Looking down from the summit.

The route back down.


And again.

As many of you know, Brendan will be coming over from Halifax and we’ll be going on a couple of trips – one short, one long. He’ll be arriving in Edinburgh on August 31st, and around September 2nd we’ll be going to the Highlands for 5 or 6 days, to Skye and Orkney. Then, on September 11th, we’ll be flying into Berlin to begin a trip around Central and Eastern Europe, including but possibly not limited to Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. We’ll be flying out of Berlin on November 24th. Things are bound to change, since the only things set in stone so far are the flights to and from Berlin, the first 5 nights in Berlin, and a flight from Tallinn (Estonia) to Bucharest (Romania).

Following that, I’ll be going back to Halifax on November 30th for a visit and, if everything goes as planned, I’ll be leaving on January 4th to return to the UK. Looking forward to eating at Harvey’s seeing everyone again!

I figure I’m going to lay low in Edinburgh for the next couple of months before my trips, so don’t expect too much to read in this blog for a while.

Another Stupid Update

Posted June 8, 2010 by andrewinvadesbritain
Categories: Uncategorized

“What could have been more thrilling and rewarding than to have conquered pain, exhaustion and the humiliation of looking like a navigational engineer, to stand on this beautiful, silent top drinking in the view across Loch Long to Ben Lomond? I was elated, and have continued to be every time I haul myself to the summit of anything higher than the top deck of a bus.”

-Excerpt from “The First Fifty” by Muriel Gray

Have I ever mentioned that I love islands? If I haven’t, I’ll say it now: I love islands. You might be asking why, and I would tell you: I don’t know. I can’t really explain it. Just go find an island and see for yourself.

On Saturday, May 15th, I added another island to the list, this one called Holy Island (aka Lindisfarne), off the northeast coast of England. It’s an island with a castle and a ruined priory, so I don’t think I need to explain my reasons my going any further. The place is quite isolated by English standards, but unfortunately the touristy feel to the whole place (which I was a bit surprised about) took away from that somewhat. Still, it was a nice place.

Holy Island is one of those islands that can be reached without the use of a flotation device, but only at low tide. Otherwise, the road to the island is flooded. So my friend and I had a relatively narrow window of time to get on and off the island, not to mention walk around and generally make the visit worthwhile. If we were to miss the bus back, we’d be stuck there for the night (that didn’t happen).

First thing we did was check out Lindisfarne Castle, a small castle perched on top of a small hill. We walked there from the village, although many other lazy punters took a shuttle service for the mile or so trip to the castle, on a beautiful day no less. Like many other castles, this one was converted into a liveable domain in the late-19th/early-20th centuries, and there are several very eerie black and white photographs throughout the castle showing people in the castle’s rooms over 100 years ago. But no photography allowed inside, of course.

After a walk around the environs of the castle where we trudged through a whole lot of sheep crap (only in Britain will you find that farmers let their sheep empty their bowels all over castle grounds), we went back to the village and poked our noses around the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory. Also equipped with a small 13th-century church and some weird-but-cool statues, these were impressive ruins indeed, but not as jaw-droppingly awesome as those at Tintern Abbey in Wales. Kind of sucks that when you see the best of something first, everything else is bound to disappoint (relatively speaking, of course).

Prior to going back to Edinburgh, we stopped off in Berwick-upon-Tweed (again!) and saw, among other things, a viaduct, swans eating algae off of rocks, a completely ruined Berwick Castle, some chavs lunching on the walls of said castle, and a park bench. Now look at these pictures.

Lindisfarne Castle

Looking over at the village from Lindisfarne Castle.


Part of Lindisfarne Priory

Priory, graveyard and castle.

One of the weird statues I mentioned.

On Sunday, May 23rd, I decided to climb a Scottish mountain. This one, called Ben Arthur, or better known as The Cobbler, is northwest of Glasgow and Loch Lomond, in the Trossachs. It’s not quite a munro (the Scottish name for a mountain over 3,000 feet high), but at 2,946 feet (or 884 metres), it’s close enough. Being between 2,500 and 3,000 feet, that makes it a corbett. To put this into perspective, the highest point in Nova Scotia is White Hill in the Cape Breton Highlands, being 1755 feet/535 metres high. There are 284 munros in Scotland.

The main thing impeding my ability to climb a mountain in Scotland has been the lack of accessibility without a car, but I finally found a sucker climbing companion at work with a car to go with me. I’d been wanting to do this pretty much since I got to Scotland, and I even read a book about it (see quote above). This day, I was finally getting that opportunity. But would I make it to the top…?

Leaving my flat at 8:30am, it was overcast and had recently rained, so you would think I wouldn’t be hopeful for the weather in the Trossachs. Thankfully, the weather in Scotland is extremely erratic, so it was hot and sunny when we got to our destination. And somewhat less thankfully, it was sunny enough to make people at work go “ooooh” and grimace when they saw the back of my neck the next day.

Anyway, this being both of our first mountain climbs in Scotland, we took the walk up pretty slowly. The climb could be broken into three parts. The first part was a long, steep, zig-zagging track leading to the second part, which was sort of like a slightly inclining plateau, and made for easier walking, despite the constant need to rockhop over brooks and the like. The third part was by far the longest and most difficult part of the hike. It consisted almost entirely of what is known as “scrambling”, which is exactly what it sounds like, and involves rocks and the side of a mountain.

Being at the top of a mountain is an amazing feeling, and makes all the hard work worthwhile, particularly since the views of the surrounding area are excellent. And I also made it to the actual summit, called the eye of the needle, something most people who climb the Cobbler don’t do. According to one particular website (, “this peak is usually crowded on a good day by an ‘audience’ waiting to watch those daring enough to tackle the ‘eye'”. It wasn’t easy to climb onto the eye, and required some creative climbing and a bit of a balancing act while looking over the edge of the mountain. Still, I was surprised that I actually got a round of applause from my “audience” below.

To the Cobbler! A view from the plateau.

A intimidating-looking peak (but not the summit).

Looking down on Loch Long.

Into the wild.

Eye of the Needle

Me on the Eye of the Needle.

After that, you’d think I’d be giving the hiking a rest for a while. Guess again. The next week, I back at it again (albeit on a smaller scale), this time in the Lake District in Cumbria, in northwest England (and as I write this, two days after the fact, I’m watching a news report on a guy who’s gone on a shooting spree around Cumbria). Getting there involved renting a car with a friend and driving down on Sunday, May 30th for an overnight stay.

Before arriving in the Lake District we stopped in Carlisle, a small city in England near the Scottish border. For what it’s worth, it seemed like everyone there was ugly… not that there’s anything wrong with that. We visited Carlisle Castle, a big red-brick fortification that’s otherwise not particularly noteworthy. Except maybe for the “licking stones” in the dungeon that prisoners used to lick for moisture. Yummy! I tried to lick the stones, but was met with some disapproving glares. Huh? Nothing wrong with trying to experience history in a creative way.

This trip kept reminding me of the cult classic comedy film “Withnail & I”, where two out-of-work actors (read: booze- and drug-addled lunatics) from London go to the Lake District for a “recuperative” holiday. The elegant countryside and cute little villages is a perfectly inappropriate setting for the characters in the film, which I find deeply hilarious. Thankfully, we didn’t experience any of the same hilarity in the film, since we’re not… out-of-work actors.

In the two days we spent in the Lake District, we took two long walks. The first one, on Sunday, was yet another jaunt through fields full of sheep feces. Yes, the signs directed us through farmer’s fields, over fences, through farms and villages, and down two-lane highways. Plus, I got to see some of the rattiest sheep I’ve ever seen in my life, as well as sheep having coughing fits on two separate occasions, undoubtedly a product of the poverty associated with sheep farming in this area. Despite that, it was a very nice walk.

The Lake District is a very attractive part of the country, and so, unsurprisingly, it brings in a lot of tourists. Lots and lots and lots and lots of tourists. On this particular weekend, since it was a bank holiday, it was mostly English tourists – ones around 40 years old with shaved heads, beer guts, football (soccer) shirts and Midlands accents (for the women, it’s the same except for the shaved heads). Which brings me to the walk we took on the second day, to see the Aira Force waterfall and climb up Gowbarrow Fell. I knew something was up when it took us maybe five minutes to find a parking spot. The path leading up to the waterfall was crammed full of these Typical English Tourists, townies who think that walking half a mile up a hill in the Lake District is equivalent to walking the length of the Appalachian Trail. And the waterfall was a big disappointment, to say the least. I’m pretty sure this was the first time in my life where I had to wait in line on a hiking trail.

Further up the hill, past the waterfall, was the turn off to the Gowbarrow Fell path. Now this was more like it. A little more than half the size of the Cobbler, but still a relatively challenging hike – just ask the wheezing, nearly-dead 50-somethings we passed on the way up. The summit affording some very nice views of Ullswater and the surrounding area.

Carlisle Castle

The inhabited Dacre Castle, viewed from a graveyard in the village of Dacre.

Typical farmland scene.

Sheep and lambs. There's got to be 50 sheep for every Lake District resident.

The dinky little Aira Force waterfall.

Ullswater and surroundings.

A view from the top of Gowbarrow Fell.

Me next to a pile of rocks.

Last topic in this edition is a visit to a place just west of Edinburgh called Go Ape, with a bunch of folks on Saturday, June 5th. According to their website, they “… build giant obstacle courses up in the trees using ladders, walkways, bridges and tunnels made of wood, rope and super-strong wire, and top it all off with the country’s best zip lines”. I’d say that’s a fairly accurate description. Obstacles ranged from mildly amusing to exhilirating, and from easy to extremely difficult to avoid falling off. Thankfully, if you fell off, you only dropped a few feet before the cords tightened on your harness and you were able to haul yourself back up. However, our minds weren’t put at ease at the beginning when the instructor told us that two people have fallen out of the trees (because they didn’t attach their cords properly). Furthermore, the instructor made liberal use of the word “fatal”, which I proceeded to drop into conversation on a regular basis while up in the trees.

One thing the website description left out was the tarzan swing, which made the rest of it seem tame by comparison. Basically, you get tied up to a rope and you have to jump off of a platform and freefall for a bit before the rope tightens and you go crashing into a rope net. Just think Tarzan with a much less graceful landing. It wasn’t so much the fact that we were several dozen feet up in the trees that made it scary, but rather that we had to jump off a platform with nothing below to catch us. I hesitated when I first looked over the edge, but thankfully I didn’t make a fool of myself and instead told the logical part of my brain to screw off and took the plunge. A pretty freaky experience, but I’m glad I did it.

Giving you an idea of what Go Ape is like.

Someone going down a zipline.

My foot on a tightrope.

Off to Dublin on Friday. Pray that the volcanic ash will stay away (although being stuck in Ireland isn’t exactly like being stuck in, say, Dartmouth).

Highland Roving

Posted May 17, 2010 by andrewinvadesbritain
Categories: Uncategorized

“O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye”

-The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond (Traditional)

The quote above is obviously from a very famous song, but I’m guessing many of you aren’t aware of the meaning and origin behind the song. Supposedly it’s about two Scottish brothers who are captured by the English and who are given a decision to make. They have to decide which of them will live and which one will die. Just another reason the Scots haven’t always been on the best of terms with the English. Anyway, just thought I’d share something depressing with my readers.

Incase you didn’t know by now, Thursday, April 15th was the day my parents arrived from Halifax, after spending the previous week or so in London, Ironbridge Gorge and York. Obviously, after seven months, it was good to see them. I didn’t really do anything of interest with them in Edinburgh itself, since I was working, but on the weekend we took a much-anticipated trip to the Highlands – the first for them, and the first “real” one for me (I don’t really count the overnight stay in Inverness as a real trip to the Highlands).

So the plan was to stay Saturday and Sunday nights in Fort William, a drab town in a beautiful location near the west coast, and then take a trip to the Isle of Skye on Sunday, and drive back Monday. Surprise, surprise – it worked out as planned.

So what are the first things that come to mind when one mentions the Scottish Highlands? Beautiful landscapes? Yes. Sheep? Sure. Highland cattle (or hairy coos)? Of course. Unpronounceable names? You betcha. The Highlands has all that, and more! …er, well, actually, that’s all it has. But what’s not to like about that?

Day one started off a little rough. Edinburgh is notoriously bad for driving, with myriad no-turns and one-ways and no-ways. So we eventually gave up and went back to the hotel and weeped. Actually, that didn’t happen, but it might’ve if we hadn’t got out of there eventually.

The first sight was a just-to-say-we’ve-been-there drive through (not) beautiful downtown Falkirk, then the drive took us through Stirling (where I’d already visited in October), the touristy town of Callander, which I remember as the furthest north I went in 1994, then on to Glencoe and finally Fort William. Between Callander and Glencoe is where the scenery really started to change from rolling hills to much more rugged terrain. Pictures could explain it a lot better than I could, so scroll down if you want. Or read on, I don’t care.

Once arrived in Fort William, we went on a search for the nearby yet elusive Ben Nevis. And who’d have thought that the highest mountain in Scotland would be so hard to find? Well, not exactly that it was hard to find, but that we didn’t know which mountain was Ben Nevis. From our point of view, they all looked the same height. After some arguing and hair-pulling, we decided that Ben Nevis didn’t actually exist, and was only a ploy to get tourists to come to the perfectly unspectacular Fort William. Content with our discovery, we headed back to the hotel and hit the hay.

Early to rise on day two, since in order to get to Skye and back by next Thursday, we had to get on the road early. There are two possible ways to get to the island. One is to catch a ferry in Mallaig, and the other is to cross the bridge connecting Kyle of Lochalsh and Kyleakin. The route to Mallaig is where the Harry Potter train travels, but taking a ferry must have seemed a tad risky for a day trip, so we opted for the bridge. The Harry Potter train route is renowned for its scenery, but the alternative was definitely no slouch in that department. But then, it’s a bit hard to find boring scenery in this part of Scotland. Of note on the way to Skye was Eilean Donan Castle, the most photographed castle in Scotland, and used in films like Highlander and one of the Bond movies. It’s a nice little castle in a very nice spot, but somehow didn’t seem worth paying a visit to when we had business to take care of on Skye.

Once on Skye, it was a lot of sheep, very few humans, and a lot of nice scenery, but little time to stand around dumbstruck, since we were headed for the northern end of Skye, called the Trotternish Peninsula. This peninsula was reportedly the most scenic part of the most scenic island in the country. But would it live up to expectations? Stay tuned.

One third of the way around the peninsula loop (going clockwise) was the village of Uig. This happens to be where a Canadian friend of mine lives, so we paid her a visit. She took us to a little place called the Fairy Glen, an extremely cool little place just a few minutes drive out of town. The place seems a bit surreal, like you’ve entered the realm of the fairies, I guess. In the middle of it all was a cone-shaped hill among other cone-shaped hills, so we climbed to the top of that. And at the bottom of said hill was a very old rock spiral which, if you walk through backwards, summons a fairy. And fairies are generally nasty (and invisible) creatures that do bad things to you. So naturally, I walked backwards through the spiral and summoned a fairy. And if this all sounds a bit strange to you, I can tell you with 100% certainty that many people in the Highlands (and Ireland, and even parts of Nova Scotia too) really do believe in fairies. Looks like my religious studies degree finally came in handy.

North of Uig was where the road got very narrow, the countryside very rustic, and the scenery very spectacular. They weren’t kidding about this place – sheer cliffs, distant islands, and mountains all around. And I might have thought this the most isolated spot in the world if it weren’t for tourism. Okay, I guess it’s no Ascension Island, but from up there, it seems like there wouldn’t be a city for light years around. At the very tip of the peninsula was a small ruined castle on the edge of a cliff, called Duntulm Castle. It was blocked by a fence and a “DANGER, NO TRESPASSING!!!” sign which, to me, means “come on in and have a look around!”. And so, obligingly, I did, making sure to lean as dangerously far over the wall as possible.

We made a few more pit stops on the peninsula. Of particular interest was the Quiraing, a plateau with some striking views of the landscape. From here you can see just how few trees there are on Skye. But more importantly, I got to take the picture of a young Indian couple, probably on their honeymoon.

Once off the peninsula, it wasn’t long before we hit the capital of Skye, Portree. A veritable metropolis compared to the rest of the island. Where all the action happens (relatively speaking, of course). Still, it’s just a cute little port town where we grabbed some fish and chips at a local pub.

After several hours, we finally managed to escape the island. Based off a tip from a (now clearly insane) group of old folks from the hotel, we hit the backroads and headed for a village called Plockton. What a weird place. It’s got palm trees. I still can’t figure out what exactly it was we were supposed to do in Plockton, but hey, it’s got palm trees.

To cap off the day, I rambled around a rustic Highland graveyard while my parents tended to a headlight malfunction. A LOT of driving on the day, but well worth it.

Day three. Time to head back to Edinburgh. Our route took us east through to the busy tourist hub of Pitlochry, then south to Perth, the “Kingdom” of Fife, over the Forth Bridge and back into Edinburgh. This was mostly a day of diligent driving, but we did make a couple of stops.

The first stop was at Blair Castle, just outside of Pitlochry. I wouldn’t so much call this a castle as I would a palatial home. This whitewashed building is chock full of pretty much everything you would expect a Scottish palatial home to contain, and then some. Art, fancy rugs, stuffed polar bears, and deer antlers, to name but a few. And holy crap, so many deer antlers. I’m surprised the entire deer population of Scotland hadn’t been wiped out by the crazy family that owns this place.

The other stop before heading back to Edinburgh wasn’t so much a stop as it was a failed attempt at a stop. Granted, we did get out of the car, but we didn’t actually do anything. This was in Kinross, where we attempted to catch at least a glimpse of Lochleven Castle, which is on an island right smack in the middle of Loch Leven. Unfortunately, a glimpse is all we got, since we couldn’t seem to find a good place to view it, and it was long past closing time anyway. You win some, you lose some.

Finally, the pictures:

A very rough route map. Black is day 1, red is day 2, blue is day 3.

The landscape gets hillier - a sign of things to come.

A munro near Glencoe.

The Commando Monument at Spean Bridge.

A nice view on the way to Skye.

The famous and over-exposed Eilean Donan Castle.


Looking down at the Fairy Glen from the top of the hill.

Looking up at the hill from the Fairy Glen.

Looking out towards the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides) from Duntulm Castle.

View from the Quiraing.

Kilt Rock. They call it Kilt Rock because it looks like a kilt... I guess?

That little rock sticking out to the right of the mountains is the Old Man of Storr.

World War I monument at sunset in a Highland graveyard.

Blair Castle

'Bout time I showed a picture of some hairy coos, eh?

By the way, I’m certain you’re wondering if anything came of my fairy-summoning in Uig. And as a matter of fact, yes. Monday morning, I woke up with terrible pain on the right side of my rib cage. So now I have a pulled rib muscle, which apparently is the worst type of muscle to pull since it takes 6-12 weeks to fully heal. This, of course, makes basketball, and occasionally life, difficult. So now I know to never again mess with the fairies of Scotland. I can’t think of any other possible reason why I would have pulled a muscle in my sleep. None at all. It had to be the fairy. Let that be a warning to you all.

Sunday, May 2nd was attempt #3 at crossing the perilous Firth of Forth to reach Cramond Island. Was the third time a charm? Read on and find out!

You might remember that the last two times I tried to get to Cramond Island, I couldn’t get all the way across the causeway because of the tides. This time, thanks to a little planning and determination, as well as waking up at the ungodly hour of 8:30am (!!!), I made it! Or rather, we made it. Thirteen of us, in fact. I still can’t figure out how thirteen 20-somethings (or thereabouts) all managed to get up at 8:30am on a Sunday with the singular purpose of walking to an island. And writing “walking to an island” just seems weird. Shouldn’t islands be inaccessible by foot?

The island is a decently cool place, if only for the fact that it has several (graffiti-covered) World War II bunkers on it. It also supposedly has Roman ruins, but I didn’t see any evidence of that… not that I knew what to look for. The pictures could probably do a better job of describing the place, so here you go.

Cramond Island from a distance.

Looking back towards the shore. Low tide means we made it!

Beautiful World War II bunkers.

Finally, Monday, May 3rd was a Bank Holiday, meaning I didn’t have to work (obviously). So instead of living the slacker lifestyle I’m known for, I got up early again (at 9am – what’s gotten into me?!) to head to a little town called Glasgow. Maybe you’ve heard of it? When I arrived in late morning, I spent all of five seconds in the city centre before heading to the West End. This is the nicest area of town (lots of sketchy areas in Glasgow), and it’s where the University of Glasgow is located, as well as many of the best museums and sites the city has to offer. It’s also where I spent most of my time during my trip to Glasgow as a 9-year-old.

First thing I did was head to a little place called Kensington Court. This is where Terry, Zee and Bronwen lived when I visited in 1994. Looking at the place now, it is, in my opinion, an ugly and out-of-place building in an exceptionally attractive neighbourhood (sorry guys!). Anyway, just a neat memory I had fun reliving.

Next up was just a bit of walking around, trying to remember as much as I could. Byers Road, the University of Glasgow, Kelvingrove Park. I seem to remember some of it quite well, although I’m not sure if it’s because of the pictures. One place int particular that I strangely remember was a little restaurant on Byers Road called Little Italy, I was amazed to find it was still there. Funny how the brain works.

Before heading home, I went for a stroll through the Kelvingrove Museum. It’s an impressive building from the outside, and an ineresting place inside. One of those museums with a little bit of everything – from art and wildlife exhibits to furniture and a display on mental health in Glasgow. Speaking of mental health, one of the mental hospitals in Glasgow was called Glasgow Royal Lunatic Asylum, a not-uncommon type of name for a mental hospital back in the day. The name didn’t get changed until the 1930’s, when I assume the word “lunatic” began being used in more colloquial ways. At least they didn’t euphemize the names of these places like they do now.

Kensington Court

Looking through the Memorial Gate at the University of Glasgow.

Kelvingrove Museum from Kelvingrove Park.

Kelvingrove Museum

An interesting, and creepy (and inexplicable) display in the Kelvingrove Museum.

Finally finally (I mean it this time), I booked a flight to Dublin for June 11th and returning on June 14th. Nothing planned thereas of yet, but I just thought you folks would like to know. Actually, I just wanted to make you all jealous. Ciao!

First Trip to the Continent

Posted April 27, 2010 by andrewinvadesbritain
Categories: Uncategorized

“If you look like your passport photo, you’re too ill to travel.”

As probably all of you know by now, I took a trip through Belgium and the Netherlands at the beginning of the month. Here’s the day-by-day chronicling of my six-day trek. Enjoy.

Thursday, April 1st:

Work today was particularly stressful, since the financial year end was the day before, and there’s an upcoming implementation of a new finance system. That means that I’m pretty much swamped at work now, although it definitely ensures I’ll be employed for a while longer yet. Needless to say, I was particularly “chuffed” to be going on my long-awaited holiday. The flight was relatively painless: no hassle at security or about my bag size or weight (Ryanair is usually very stingy about that, since that’s how they make their money) and the flight was ahead of schedule. The airport we landed in is called Brussels Charleroi, but it’s not in Brussels, it’s in Charleroi, which is an hour’s drive south of Brussels.

On the bus ride over, it actually took me about twenty minutes to realize that we were no longer driving on the wrong (i.e.: left) side of the road. For a very brief moment, that realization made me a bit homesick. Thankfully, Belgium is not as backwards a country as the UK, so they’ve got with the program like the rest of the civilized world. The reason for driving on the left has to do with your sword arm being on the inside of the road. For some reason, we don’t use swords in cars like they did when horses were the chief mode of transportation. One can dream though, right?

Once in Brussels, it was past 11pm. And believe it or not, I didn’t find my hostel until around 12:30am. Granted, the bus dumped me at the other end of town, but it was a test of patience to read a terrible map at night when all I wanted to do was go to bed. I would never call Brussels a dangerous city, but I have to say I felt a bit vulnerable walking around at night with a suitcase.

Sites of interest on this fine evening included: a very obvious Asian prostitute; a madman pacing around in the subway station talking very angrily to himself, to the simultaneous delight and horror of bystanders; and about 30 homeless people lined up against a wall, all sleeping, or passed out, or whatever it is homeless people do when they’re lying on the ground.

Friday, April 2nd:

Early morning today, despite the late night. I don’t like to let the world pass me by while I sleep, you see. Actually, that’s not true, I love sleep. It’s just that on this particular day, I had places to go. That place, if you must know, was Bruges. But before heading there, I took a quick look around town (i.e.: I looked around me as I was walking to the train station) and managed to see the cathedral pictured below. It wasn’t even listed in my guide book, so it must not be very important. And I’ve seen about 8,000 of these things already. Silly Brussels, thinking it can impress me with its massive, beautifully-constructed cathedrals.

By the way, when I arrived in Charleroi the night before, people there were speaking French, which is understandable since it’s in the southern part of the country, known as Wallonia, which is predominantly French. Brussels is fairly central but a bit to the north and in Flanders, so I was expecting to hear mostly Flemish, but in fact most people here seem to speak French. People greet you first in French, unlike Bruges where it is Flemish, and signs in Brussels always list French first, then Flemish. This suited me just fine, because I’ve been able to practice my French, with pretty good success.

Also worth mentioning (or maybe not, but I’m going to anyway) is that in Belgium they speak Flemish, but in the Netherlands they speak Dutch. Until a few months ago, I thought that Flemish and Dutch were two different languages, but I’ve discovered that they’re actually pretty much exactly the same. The Belgians just call the language Flemish because they’re from Flanders. After all, it makes no sense whatsoever to name your most commonly-spoken language after a different nation, right Canadians and Americans and Australians and Kiwis and Scots and Irish(wo)men and Welsh(wo)men (etc)?

So, Bruges. Sickeningly picturesque, and just as touristy. Dare I say it’s a tad fake? But who cares, this place looks so disgustingly nice, it makes me want to vomit. Trust me, once you’ve been to Bruges, you’ll understand. And regardless of what Bruges may or may not be, it is most definitely a behemoth of a tourism money-making machine, and they make that no secret. So touristy, in fact, that I felt like I was being sucked into a giant vortex of tourism, also known as the world’s biggest tourist trap. Except this vortex was made of winding cobbled streets framed by beautiful medieval buildings, and Belgian chocolate – much more appealing than your regular run-of-the-mill vortex, so I didn’t resist.

For the most part, I just spent a lot of time walking around and admiring this little city. I managed to spend a grand total of €10.70 on sites and food while in Bruges, which is quite a feat, considering the city almost hypnotizes you into spending money. I spent €4 at the Belfort, which got me a coupon for free admission into the Stadhuis. €3.90 went towards my lunch, which was a strange concoction called a mitraillette: a slab of meat, veggies, and fries, topped with a sauce of your choice, and all stuffed into a baguette, including the fries. Weird, but good. Finally, €2.80 was spent on a rather small amount of Belgian chocolate. But it was worth it. Incredibly worth it. So worth it, in fact, that I feel compelled to describe its deliciousness with a multitude of swear words, but I can’t because this is a G-rated blog.

Alright, enough hyperbole. The Belfort is the most recognizable building in Bruges. It’s basically just a really nice big building with a clock tower where you can climb to the top for a fee (and spend loads of money at the gift shop when you’re done). 366-odd steps to the top makes for a decent hike, and some nice views. The top of the Belfort tower also happens to be the place from which a particular character in the film In Bruges tragically falls to his death. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to re-enact the scene, if only for the sheer excitement of it. After all, I was dismayed to find out that half of the top of the tower was under construction so I couldn’t get the full panoramic view. And they didn’t give us a discount! If that doesn’t make you want to plunge hundreds of feet onto a stone street, I don’t know what will.

The other thing I saw in Bruges was the Stadhuis, being the town hall. It’s a nice looking building, and it had some museum-type stuff in there, mostly to do with the paintings on the walls. But you probably don’t care anyway, so here are the pictures:

Cathédrale des Sts-Michel-et-Gudule, in Brussels.

The Belfort, where I contemplated a gory death.

A view of a typical windy street, from the top of the Belfort.

Stadhuis/Town Hall

Bruges: sickeningly picturesque. See what I mean?

The Begijnhof, a cool little nunnery on the edge of the city centre, complete with real nuns and... slanty trees?

Once back in Brussels, it was still light outside, so I decided to stroll around town a bit to see what else the city has to offer that I might have missed the first time around. What it has to offer is this:


Behold, the Mannekin Pis! The eighth wonder of the world! Sorry, but I’m just not into national symbols enough to be impressed by a one-foot tall statue of a baby that pees. And while we’re at it, why is a peeing baby statue considered a national symbol? This country has issues.

In the evening, I got to practice my French a lot more. In my 8-person dorm, six were from Paris and one was a fluent French speaker from Brazil, so I was eager to get some more practice, and that I did. I definitely haven’t spoken that much French since high school, but it felt great to do so, and I’m surprised by how much I remember (and how much I forget).

Saturday, April 3rd:

Another early morning, although that’s pretty much the norm when you stay in hostels and they have lockout periods. The train ride to Amsterdam was nearly three hours, so I had plenty of time to take in the scenery, which consists mostly of towns and trees and flatness. Lots and lots of flatness in Belgium and the Netherlands. The only difference between the two countries in that regard, it seems, is that the Netherlands has more water. And there seems to be an advertisement featuring Richard Hammond’s mug at every train station.

Walking off the train and into Amsterdam Central Station, I realized that I forgot to pay for my hostel stay in Brussels. Shortly after that moment of excitement, I realized that I didn’t have my passport with me (I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the continent of Europe for having open borders). Well then. I called up the hostel and they said I could pay when I returned to get my passport. So now I have to make an inconvenient return to Brussels. I know it’s partly my fault for being absent-minded and forgetting to pay and get my passport back from the hostel, but I remember that at the time when I checked out, the girl at the counter just told me to put my keycard back in the basket, and then just went back to doing whatever it was she was doing. Didn’t ask me to pay or anything. Annoying.

Anyway, having arrived in Amsterdam in the early afternoon and meeting up with the friends with whom I was staying, I had plenty of time to walk around and get acquainted with the city. The only problem was that it rained pretty much the whole time, and quite hard a lot of the time. We even got trapped in a downpour of hail for a while.

Despite the weather, I got to see a lot of what I have to say is a very cool, unique-looking city. It’s not just the architecture that makes the city unique, but also the canals. Because of these canals, Amsterdam became historically one of the top trade cities in the world, and undoubtedly contributed to the city’s (and country’s) wealth. You can just tell by looking around that people live well in the Netherlands. Better than in the UK, I would say. Of course, like everywhere else in Europe, most people in the big cities live in flats/apartments, because there just isn’t the space for houses like we have in Canada.

And then there’s the other side – the hedonistic and extremely liberal lifestyle – that makes the city unique. Marijuana is legal, as long as it’s bought and smoked in “coffee shops”, which seem to be everywhere. I didn’t partake, since I have a cold anyway, and neither of my friends were smokers. They said that the coffee shops were mostly just for the tourists anyway. And they seemed kind of lame if you ask me, with paintings of Bob Marley and peace symbols and marijuana leaves on the windows.

Besides legalized marijuana, there’s the Red Light District. We took a walk through it that evening, and it just seemed really sleazy. Scantily-clad women dancing around and beckoning behind street-side windows, with half-drunk groups of men shouting and knocking on the glass and calling them names. Again, mostly for the tourists. The best thing about the Red Light District was a story I had heard from my friend – apparently some Canadian guy she met paid one of the prostitutes a lot of money (around €50) so he could get behind the glass and strip down to his underwear and dance around and beckon, etc. Money well spent.

To cap off the night, I got to experience one of the other things Amsterdam is famous for (no, not assisted suicide): the legendary nightlife. we met up with a couple of other Dutch folks and ended the night at a bar with a live band, which was pretty cool. At night, the tourists don’t seem to die off – if anything, it gets even more crowded. And the nightlife is very different from the UK, where it’s mostly pubs with a smattering of dance clubs. Amsterdam seems to be able to combine the two, so it’s a bit more like Canada in that way.

Here are some pictures from the day:

I'm in the 'a' of 'I amsterdam', trying to get out of the rain.

Canals and boats and spires and stuff.

A brief moment without rain.

In an outdoor urinal. My life is now complete.

Sunday, April 4th:

I finally got to sleep in today – much needed. One of my two friends had homework to do, so the other friend was burdened with the task of leading me around the city for the day. It’s great to not have to use a map, although Amsterdam couldn’t have been nearly as confusing as Brussels, since it’s laid out the same way as the canals, as a half-circular grid, for want of a better way of describing it.

Today, as with yesterday, I got to eat a few things for which that the Netherlands is known: fries, beer and stroopwafel (a strange, but good, flat biscuit-type thing with a soft chewy centre), but more importantly, cheese. I may call my Dutch friends cheeseheads, but I mean it in the most flattering way possible, because cheese is delicious.

After a lot of wandering around and eating, the three of us went on a canal cruise, at the surprisingly reasonable price of €8. You may have noticed that I didn’t pay for any of the other many extremely overpriced attractions in the city, like the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Anne Frank House. That’s because they’re, well, extremely overpriced, and I’m on a budget and I’m with two university students, so I’m not going to force them to pay €10-€15 for each of these attractions. Besides, to me anyway, the best way to experience Amsterdam is to just walk around. And that we did. A whole lot of it. Thankfully, besides a couple of brief showers, the weather held up well, despite being an uncharacteristically cold day for April.

Some pictures:


Boat and church, a common theme in Amsterdam.

Another 'I amsterdam'. We get it already!

World's smallest beer.

From the window of our canal cruiser.

Typical Amsterdam architecture.

Monday, April 5th:

This day, I got to sleep in again, and then said my goodbyes and thank-yous and took off on another boring three hour train ride to Brussels to retrieve my passport. But Brussels was not my final destination for the day – that would be Ghent, a Flemish city about a half hour northwest of Brussels.

Passport retrieval: great success. Forgetting passport in the first place: epic fail.

All in all, an uneventful day. I arrived in Ghent in the evening and got to my hostel just before sundown. Supermarkets were closed, so I went to a Turkish takeaway and ordered something pretty much at random: something called Turkse Lange Pizza met Feta Kaas. It ended up being some sort of omelette-type pizza. Definitely not what I normally would have ordered due to my aversion to eggs, but it wasn’t terrible. The rest of the night was spent chatting to an Aussie and Kiwi backpacking duo, and an older English couple from Cheshire who were cycling around Belgium. Good on them. I only hope I’m as physically fit as they are when I’m 70.

The hostel, by the way, is called Ecohostel Andromeda. It’s a completely eco-friendly hostel run by a very friendly young hippie lady. But here’s the kicker: it’s on a boat. Very cool idea, and a nice hostel as well. I’d recommend it if any of you are ever in Ghent.

Ecohostel Andromeda

Tuesday, April 6th:

The last day of my trip, much to my dismay. As much as I love Edinburgh, it means I have to go back to work and earn money and be responsible and all that boring stuff. But first, I get to visit the city centre of Ghent.

Holy crap, this place is beautiful. In my humble opinion, it puts Bruges to shame. Even though practically the entire old city centre was under construction, it was still beautiful. How this place has managed to escape mass tourism is beyond me, but I can’t imagine it’ll stay that way for long, so you’d better get there before the crowds find it.

After I picked my jaw up off the ground and reattached it, I headed for the Gravensteen, which is a castle in the middle of the city. It doesn’t get much more “castle-y” than the Gravensteen. Thick walls, turrets, and imposing-looking – and conveniently surrounded by the city so that any potential invaders would have to plow through droves of peasants before reaching the gates. Also, completely restored after years of neglect (there were pictures of the castle from the early 1900’s), it now apparently doesn’t much resemble what it did in the 12th century. ‘Creatively’ restored, as my guide map put it.

There were no guided tours, at least not while I was there, so I had to settle for a video guide (an audio guide with a video screen). And it was terrible. Basically, it involved banter between a cast of characters in medieval costume in various locations around the castle. Except it also involved out-of-character banter between the actors on set, complete with sexual tension and other completely irrelevant subplots. And to make it more irritating, it was dubbed, and poorly acted. I guess it made an earnest attempt to explain the importants points about the castle in a creative way, but it was not my cup of tea. And besides, why would I want to watch a video when I could be looking at the castle instead?

Aside from the video guide, I enjoyed my time there. Of interest was a little one-room torture museum. Nothing compared to the retch-inducing insanity of the one I went to in Prague, but cool nonetheless. It’s not a particularly tall castle, but it was taller than all the other buildings surrounding it, so the rooftop afforded some good views of the city, especially of the spires in the main square.

Today was, again, a day involving a lot of walking around, and it wasn’t hard to see most of the city centre in few hours. Including in this walking around was a walk up Ghent’s Belfort. It may look like a church, but it’s actually just a watchtower, or something to make the city look nice. Of course, the views of the city were fantastic.

St. Niklaaskerk, despite looking very nice on the outside, was bitterly disappointing on the inside, so that could have been why it wasn’t listed in my guidebook. St. Baafskathedraal, on the other hand, was nice inside and out. No pictures inside, which I was fully expecting, based on previous experience. Inside was the option to pay €3-€4 or so to view the famous painting known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan van Eyck. Curiously, though, there was a full size replica at the back of the church – free to view. Uh, what?

Finally, after a delicious lupper of Belgian fries (the secret is that they’re double deep-fried – looks like I just cut about 30 seconds from the end of my life), it was time to say goodbye to the city of Ghent and, eventually, to the country of Belgium. A long, flat journey back to Brussels, then to Charleroi Airport.

The flight home, aside from being depressing due to the fact that I had to go back to work the next morning, was boring and uneventful, except for when one of the pre-recorded Ryanair in-flight advertisements started skipping and said “chardonnay” about a dozen times in a comically rhythmic fashion. I was half expecting a generic dance beat to start pumping through the speakers, and the flight attendants to start dancing they were on ecstasy. Thankfully, that was not the highlight of the flight, because at the end, we flew over Edinburgh, which looked spectacular. Generally when you’re in the air, everything on the ground looks flat, but with the Edinburgh Castle Rock and Arthur’s Seat, it felt like I was looking at a nighttime 3D map. Very cool.

The first thing I saw upon entering the city centre. Forget the construction zone, this was still awesome.

The Gravensteen

A construction crane spoiling an otherwise great view of Ghent's spires.

View of the Gravensteen from the Belfort.

St. Niklaaskerk

St. Baafskathedraal

From left to right: St. Niklaaskerk, Belfort, St. Baafskathedraal and St. Michielsbrug (bridge).

Interesting buildings

That’s all folks. Stay tuned for a trip to the Highlands and Skye in the next episode.

3 Castles and a Concert

Posted April 6, 2010 by andrewinvadesbritain
Categories: Uncategorized

“Saddle your horse
shoulder your load
Burst at the seams
Be what you dream
And then take to the road”

-Frank Turner, “Journey of the Magi”

And on that incredibly sappy note, I bring to you the latest edition of Andrew Invades Britain.

First of all, my impending trip (actually it’s not impending, because I’m sitting in Brussels writing this right now). I mentioned a couple of blogs posts ago that I’ve booked a flight to Brussels for April 1st, and I’m coming back on April 6th. There were no set plans then, but now I’ve decided that I’ll be staying the first two nights in Brussels and travelling to Bruges. Then I’ll head to Amsterdam where I’m staying with friends for two nights, then it’s back to Belgium for a night in Ghent, and maybe a visit to Ypres if I have time. My flight cost me £20 return and all-in – if you know the first thing about flying in Europe, you’d know that I have a ticket for a Ryanair flight. They’re definitely the cheapest airline to use if you know what you’re doing, but they’re notorious for being sneaky with extra charges. Hopefully I’ll get through security (both ways) with minimal fuss (I’m only bringing a carry-on bag).

Speaking of carry-on bags, it’s always fun to go to airline websites and read what isn’t permitted as carry-on luggage. Some particularly interesting items on the Ryanair website include, but are far from limited to: cross bows, catapults, harpoon and spear guns, cattle prods, ballistic conducted energy weapons (laser), lighters shaped like a firearm, ice axes & ice picks, meat cleavers, machetes, throwing stars, blow torches, knuckle dusters, rice flails, num-chucks (sic), infected blood, bacteria and viruses, material capable of spontaneous ignition or combustion, etc. At first glance, it looks like they’ve got their bases covered… but I’m sure I could hi-jack a plane with a toothbrush if I was menacing enough.

Before I get into the meat of the post, I just wanted to mention that six months ago last Monday, I arrived in Edinburgh. And six months ago the Monday before last, I arrived in the UK. I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s hard to believe how quickly time has gone by. For better or for worse, this has probably been the quickest six months of my life. Hopefully the next six months don’t go by nearly so fast.

Alright, so the reason the blog post is named what it is. Yeah, you’re probably thinking: “ugh, not MORE castles. Andrew, you have a problem.” You know, I probably do have a problem, but I don’t care. Castles are cool.

On March 14th, I ventured alone back to North Berwick, which was showcased in my previous blog post (the town harbour, by the way, was pretty much demolished in a storm a few days ago). This time, however, I didn’t stay in the town, but instead I walked the 2.5 miles to Tantallon Castle. A relatively easy walk until the last half mile or so, when the sidewalk disappeared and I had to walk on the side of the road and dodge oncoming cars. Apparently they expect you to take the bus there? The walk back, if I may briefly get ahead of myself, was supposed to be a bus ride due to a sudden downpour, but since it was Sunday, the bus conveniently didn’t run until sometime that evening, several hours away. However, in classic Scottish fashion, the rain stopped about 15 minutes into my walk and thenceforth made it much more bearable. Yes, I just used “thenceforth” in a sentence.

As you’ll notice from the pictures, Tantallon Castle has been under siege several times in its history. It also doesn’t help that it’s been eroded by the extremely high winds on the site, since it’s on a cliff directly above the ocean. Though it may be a ruin, there’s still enough of it left to make it look imposing. The castle pretty much looks like a curtain wall, but it’s actually quite thick and has a network of stairwells that allow access to the top for some nice views.

Approaching Tantallon Castle.

Around 100,000 birds nest on this island, called Bass Rock. A chapel and a lighthouse are also on the island.

View from the courtyard.

View from the top.

Obligatory proof that I was there.

Two days later, since basketball practice was cancelled, I instead went to a concert/show featuring a dude named Frank Turner. I knew some of his stuff before this, but I know a lot more now. I guess you can call it folk music with heavy punk influences – he used to be in a political punk band, after all. I know it’s a difficult combination to imagine, so I guess you’ll just have to do the research yourself. The best thing about Turner, by the way, is that’s he’s an excellent lyricist. And he definitely puts on a good show, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have pursued his music further.

The opening act, Chuck Ragan.

Frank Turner and keyboardist.

Music and stuff.

Rockin' out!

March 20th was another castle excursion, this one a bit further than I usually travel to get to a castle. But when I saw the pictures, I made it my mission to get there. A pilgrimage for the castle-obsessed, I guess. It’s called Bamburgh Castle, and it’s in a town called Bamburgh, in Northumberland, in north-east England, on the way to Newcastle. Viewed from the exterior, it’s definitely a contender for the nicest-looking castle I’ve seen so far – or building, or that matter.

The ride up there consisted of a 45 minute train ride to Berwick-upon-Tweed (mentioned in a previous post) and a 45 minute bus through farmland and twisting back roads to get to Bamburgh. Rinse and repeat for the journey back home, and I actually spent more time on transportation than I did in the town and castle. But it was worth it – of course it was worth it, it’s a castle!

Location can often make a world of difference in how nice a castle looks. Bamburgh Castle is definitely a benefactor of this phenomenon. It’s set on a beach, and looks fantastic when viewed from there. The interior was somewhat similar to Edinburgh Castle, except for the lack of museums (it had two instead of five or something like that) and plaques – just a general lack of information throughout. It’s also far less crowded – understandable, considering it’s in the middle of nowhere. Okay, enough rambling, here’s the part that matters: pictures!

Bamburgh Castle, as seen from Bamburgh.

The keep - I'm assuming it's the biggest building in the castle.

Bit of landscape for you.

The result of trudging through sand dunes to get a decent photo.

Shot of the castle from the beach.

My personal favourite.

The next weekend, on March 28th, I didn’t go to a castle… okay, who am I kidding, of course I did. This one, however, was one I had been to previously, in 1994. Dumbarton Castle is what it’s called. It’s in Dumbarton, about a half hour east of Glasgow (boy, these Scots sure are creative with their castle names, aren’t they? I’m still waiting for one called the Castle of Doom or the Fortress of Eternal Peril, or something like that). It’s always hard to tell how much I actually remember from that trip in 1994, and how much I only think I remember due to the pictures. Either way, it was a dark and miserable day the time I went in 1994, but warm and sunny on this particular day in 2010. That would change later, but are you surprised?

Dumbarton Castle isn’t really a castle in the traditional sense. It’s moreso just a cluster of buildings and stairways on and around two big hills/small mountains. This cluster isn’t very picturesque, but there’s just something… cool… about the place that I can’t quite describe. Or… maybe the cool part was the wind. Except it was a cold wind. Don’t quote me on this, but I think it’s the oldest known site in the UK, or maybe Scotland, where there’s been a fortification of some kind. Like a true professional researcher, I’ll check my facts after I publish.

Feeling guilty that I dragged three people to a castle so I could relive childhood memories, I let them take the reins after that. Trust me, I could have done a lot more childhood memory-reliving than I did, and I probably will eventually. We went back to Glasgow, where we were situated briefly before heading to Dumbarton, and headed to the West End for a drink and a bite to eat at a pub located in a church. Considering Glasgow is less than an hour’s train ride from Edinburgh, it seems a bit nuts that this was actually my first time back in Glasgow since 1994. Obviously I’m going to have to make a day or a weekend of it sometime soon.

By far the biggest building in Dumbarton Castle.

Summit #1. Also known as The Beak.

Magazine, with Summit #2 (aka White Tower Crag) in the background.

You might be able to make out Glasgow in the distance.

Being idiots on White Tower Crag.

Thus concludes the latest instalment of Andrew Invades Britain. As you know, I’m in Brussels at the moment, but I’m not writing about it yet. All I’ll tell you is that I went to Bruges today, and I did not see any racist midgets. Hopefully that teaser will whet your appetite for more blog!

Happiness is money, travel and a gimp knee

Posted March 8, 2010 by andrewinvadesbritain
Categories: Uncategorized

”My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I’m happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right?”


Greetings earthlings. Ready for another round of in-your-face blogging action? Excited? Of course you are.

Now back into full-on tourist mode. This is largely because I FINALLY got a bunch of money back from the UK government that they had been withholding from me. I can’t be bothered to explain the situation in detail, but I’ll tell you that it has something to do with holding back a portion of your earnings while you wait for the government to give you the equivalent of a Social Insurance Number. But yeah, I got the money back, so who cares now. I’m now able to go see the places I want to see and do things I want to do, so long as I have a job. Who says money can’t buy you happiness? Actually, I think Anonymous might have said that.

Sunday, February 21st: This day consisted of a trip back to England for the first time since November. A place called Berwick-upon-Tweed, or just Berwick (pronounced like “barrack”), which is the northern-most town in England. It’s actually changed hands between Scotland and England something like 12 times, but for now it’s property of the evil cousins to the south. Even though their football team plays in the Scottish league.

For this day trip, a whole crapload of people (two Canadians, two Italians, one Dutchwoman and one Englishman) were taken hostage and thrown gagged and blindfolded onto the train to Berwick, or BUT as we preferred to call it. Only 45 minutes away, this makes a great place for a day trip from Edinburgh, and can also be used as a jumping-off point for several castles and historic sites in the area, a few of which I intend to see in the future.

Twas a rare brilliant February day, and not terribly cold either. You’d be surprised how difficult it can be to see the sun at times in this country, but at least it’s least not a Canadian February. Ha! Berwick is a nice, quiet place and a typical seen-it-in-the-movies English town (if you’ve seen Hot Fuzz, you might understand why places like this always evoke mild fits of laughter from me). It’s an oceanside town, and it’s also a riverside town, hence the “upon-Tweed”. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Stratford-upon-Avon, etc: the town is always “upon” the corresponding river. If you didn’t know that already, you do now.

Back on track… I’m writing like an 8-year-old without his ritalin tonight. Nice place, quiet place, oceanside town, riverside town. We took a walk around a portion of the town walls, and took in the sights without actually paying to see the sights. It’s a good way to spend a day, and I need to consider doing that more often. We also went to a Somerfields (again a reference to Hot Fuzz) and bought a bunch of food to have a “picnic” next to the local lighthouse. And by picnic I mean throw all the food on top of the surrounding wall and have a free-for-all. Afterwards, we partook in the British ritual of ending one’s day at the pub (I had a beer called, I think, Secret Kingdom), where we got a talking-to by a local man with a chip on his shoulder, then into the wee hours of the morning back in Edinburgh.

A very church-looking town hall. If you click on the photo, you might be able to make out the bears chained to trees, the town's symbol.

Looks like a good place for clam-digging.


Reminds me of home a bit.

A view of part of Berwick from the town wall.

Picnic/free-for-all next to the lighthouse.

The next weekend, I was intending to go somewhere for a day trip when, on Friday the 26th, I was involved in a knee-on-knee collision with my own teammate at my basketball game. I somehow managed to stay in the game by hopping around on one foot (we had no substitutes), and I somehow managed to score 10 points, 8 of them post-collision. Since it happened shortly before halftime, at the half we decided I would float at halfcourt instead of playing defense. That sounds like a great way to score some easy points (and give up a lot), but it’s not so easy when you’re basically one-legged and the opponent quickly gets wise to the situation. Needless to say, we got thrashed in that game.

So yeah, by around midnight I could barely put any pressure on my leg, so I decided to go to the hospital the next day to see what was wrong with my knee. Even though the UK has a socialist health care system like Canada, I only had about a 3 minute wait. Are Canadians all hypochondriacs or something? The nurse practitioner at the hospital told me that I have an inflamed ligament in my knee that grinds up against my kneecap when I try to walk, or something like that. I haven’t played basketball since, but I’m itching to get back on the court. I am, however, walking mostly normally, or rather I’ve given up limping in favour of just grinning and bearing it. I guess now it just looks like a strut, which is fine because I’m cool. So cool it hurts. Hurts my knee.

On the following weekend, on Saturday, March 6th to be precise, after a failed attempt to get to St. Andrew’s, I was able-bodied enough to manage a very late-in-the-day trip to North Berwick, a seaside town east of Edinburgh. It wasn’t so much a day trip as it was just an excuse to get out of Edinburgh for a few hours to roam around somewhere much more sparsely populated. My friend and I had some good Thai food there, and went a completely uninspired pub called The Golfer’s Rest (North Berwick is home to two golf courses), which we left behind after one drink. A wander around town, the town beach and the wharf made for an inexpensive evening.

East end of the beach at dusk.

East end of the beach at dusk.

West end of the beach, after dark.

Finally, on March 7th, I headed back to Cramond with a few friends in another attempt to reach the elusive island (I wrote about this a few blog posts ago). Sadly, that attempt was once again in vain. We got about halfway down the causeway when it started flooding behind us. I ended up having to take off my shoes and run through the water in my bare feet. Oh well, third time’s a charm, right? Next time, I’ll make sure we check the tides and GET THERE ON TIME.

So close, and yet so far away.