Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

On Wednesday, a few of us headed to the Edinburgh Filmhouse again. This time we succeed in seeing a British movie, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Only once we were in the theater did I learn that it was a psychological thriller. It's about English spies during the Cold War and has a start-studded cast (Colin Firth, John Hurt, Gary Oldman).

It was a really great film and very well done artistically. I didn't really think it was a thriller, but that was completely fine with me. Still, it was dark and somewhat gruesome.  It's not out in the US yet, but I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a movie in December. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Road Trip Day 4: Nevis Range, Glen Nevis, and Edinburgh

Our hope was that the weather would be nice on Saturday morning so that we could go hiking near Ben Nevis, which is the tallest mountain in the British Isles at 4,409 feet. It looked decent outside so one of the house owners suggested an easy hike for us.

Even though it was one of the easier ones, there was an intimidating sign at the beginning:

Certain parts of the hike were a little tricky. Especially when we were scrambling across wet rocks:

Midway through the trail, but our ending point, was Steall Falls:

The hike was amazing. I did have a small fall, but that was inevitable. We stopped at the Glen Nevis Visitor Center after the hike. We couldn't see Ben Nevis from where we were hiking in the Nevis Range, but we got a better sense of it from the visitor center. It rains about 355 days a year there. We heard that winds were over 85 mph at the top of the mountain that morning, but there were still people trying to summit it. 

In all honesty, I can't really say much about the drive back to Edinburgh. I was dead asleep up until we stopped to see the Antonine Wall. It was difficult to find the site, but Kathleen caught the worn out sign. The Wall was built by the Romans and was made of turf. Today, you can still see the road but the turf just looks like a hill running by the road:

The last road trip stop was the nearby Falkirk Wheel. While it sounded like it might be a civil engineering feat, Kathleen and my mom figured out it was designed mainly for tourists after reading the information plaques. 

We then arrived in Edinburgh, only a couple hours before the car needed to be returned. I gave a quick tour of my dorm and we headed to the Spoon Cafe. Spoon is on Nicolson Street and replaced the Nicolson Cafe, which J.K. Rowling's brother-in-law owned. It was one of her favorite spots when she was writing the first few books.

My mom, Kathleen, and Charlotte headed off to the hotel after dinner, leaving me to return to the dorm. The road trip was a great way to see the country and it was perfect timing to get a visit from family just as I was starting to get homesick!

Road Trip Day 3: Skye, Eilean Donan, and Fort William

The next morning, there was no rush to get out of the house. The heavy wind and rain mad the warm bed so much more appealing. The hosts made us all a proper fry-up, meaning eggs, toast, stewed tomatoes, mushrooms, and haggis. The only thing missing was the beans (but that was totally fine with me). We had planned to take the ferry back to the mainland, but when we called it was shut down. Though the website fails to mention it, some of my Scottish friends later told me that the ferries are often shut down going to and from Skye. The bridge is a much safer bet. The rain lightened significantly and we decided to head out to the town's distillery.

I had been hoping to go on a whiskey distillery tour for a while so I was very excited. The tour took us from the mixing of the ingredients to the mash room to the fermentation room and ended in a storage room. We all had a taste of the Tallisker whiskey at the beginning, but none of us were too fond of it. Kathleen and Charlotte had been sampling a couple different types and favored Dalwhinnie's. The tour was a little underwhelming, but I can now tell you why the Tallisker whiskey has a peppery, smokey flavor. 

We walked outside and it was immediately obvious why Skye is such a vacation destination. The sun was shining on the hills off in the distance. 

In the summer, the water gets pretty warm because of the Gulf Stream. People from all over Great Britain drive here to enjoy the warm sea-lochs and Cuillen Mountain Range.

We checked a few more times over following hours, but no ferry was running before 2:30pm. We decided to drive back over the bridge before going down to Fort William. On the way to Skye, I had noticed a castle that looked familiar. My mom and Charlotte looked it up and found that it was the Eilean Donan Castle. It's out in the middle of a loch and possibly the most photographed castle in Scotland. The man who rebuild it in 1912 did so after having an image of it in a dream--and it still looks like it's out of a dream.

Once we got to Fort William, we stopped to book rooms for the night and ended up at a guest house. They suggested we try out the Alexandra Hotel, which is supposed to have authentic Scottish music in the evenings. We actually spent most of dinner listening to 90s and Top 40 music. When the local performer did come on, it seemed like she was going to be doing more American country than Scottish folk. Still, the food was good.

After dinner, we wandered around the small town. It's main attraction for tourists is a base for those visiting Ben Nevis and other outdoor attractions. 

Road Trip Day 2: Findhorn, Culloden Battlefield, Loch Ness

We stayed in Findhorn on Wednesday night. The town is centered around the Findhorn Foundation or community. It's a New Age community that you might compare to Yogaville in Virginia or the communes that popped up in the 1960s and 70s.

This was in the backyard of our B&B:

A meditation room inside a trailer: 

The nature meditation center was described to us as a hobbit house:

After Findhorn, we stopped by some standing stones, Clava Cairn:

Then we went to the Culloden battlefield. Charlotte and I were very excited to see Highland Cows, or horry coos!

The Battle of Culloden was one of the most devastating in Scottish history and meant the end of the clan system:

From the battlefield, we drove through Inverness to Loch Ness--the most anticipated part of the trip for me! The Clansmen Hotel sits on the loch and does boat cruises so we stopped there. They have a very large Nessie store and quite a bit of humor about the possible monster:

We started out on the top deck of the boat to get the great views:

Urquhart Castle is in ruins, but is still one of the most visited castles in Scotland (right after Edinburgh and Stirling). This has to be because of its perfect location on the loch shore:

Because we didn't start the boat tour until 3pm, we were pretty late in getting started on our drive to Skye. It was dark soon after we crossed the bridge to the island. The combination of wind, cliffs, and almost no road signs made for treacherous conditions. I have to give Aunt Kathleen a huge round of applause for getting us through all that. When we finally made it to the B&B, the question of dinner came up. My mom and I ventured to a nearby place, finding the winding roads just as confusing the second time around. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Road Trip Day 1: Perth, Dunkeld, and Birnam

My mom, Aunt Kathleen, and Charlotte left Edinburgh on Monday morning to go to Stirling. They spent nearly two days there, seeing the castle, the old town, and the Wallace monument. On Tuesday evening, I took a train from Waverly and met them in Perth. It was my first time taking ScotRail and it was fairly pleasant, except for the few moments where I accidently got on a train to Glasgow. Fortunately, I was able to get on the train to Perth before it left.

We stayed in a very pleasant B&B in Dunkeld, but it was definitely out in the boonies. The next morning, we went straight to the wildlife preserve. Scotland was very progressive when it came to wildlife preserves and national parks. One of the pioneers of the American National Park system was John Muir, a Scottish immigrant. The highlight of the preserve was the osprey nest, but it wasn't the right season to actually see ospreys.

Next, we headed down the road to the Dunkeld Golf Course. It was the first Scottish golf course I'd seen up close and it was very, very hilly.

The main attraction in the actual town of Dunkeld is the cathedral. It is on a riverbank and took over 200 years to complete, from 1260 to 1501.

It was very chilly, but luckily the sun was out. 

We walked across the bridge to Birnam and found a path by the river. Perth is Big Tree County because of the primeval trees you can find there. The most impressive one is the Birnam Oak, which has wood slats supporting its branches so it doesn't collapse. It is also known as MacBeth's Oak because it inspired the line:

"Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him."

Birnam was a childhood vacation spot for Beatrix Potter, and is said to have inspired many of her stories.

The garden animals were adorable. We got lunch inside the Beatrix Potter Museum/Community Center before starting the drive to Findhorn. Findhorn is past Inverness and Nairn. The drive up is beautiful and goes through the Cairngorns. Unfortunately, I can't stay awake on road trips. I was passed out for the entire thing and missed my first chance to see the Highlands.

Fiona Visits Edinburgh

My friend Fiona visited last weekend, October 14th-16th. It ended up taking her eight hours to get from London to Edinburgh by plane because of plane and bus delays. She finally arrived at Waverly, where I met her. We spent some time walking around Princes Street, through the fields. One of the amazing things about Edinburgh is that, even though you are in a city, you can sit by a field and smell the grass. Even though it's October, sometimes the breeze smells just like spring. 

As I tried to explain the architecture in Edinburgh, I slipped up a little.

Me: Because of the all the Grecian influenced architecture, Edinburgh is known as the Athens of Europe.
Fiona: Isn't Athens the Athens of Europe...?
Me:...Yeah. Edinburgh is the Athens of the United Kingdom.

The next day, Fiona and I went to the Grind House for coffee and croissants. We wandered around campus until meeting up with my mom, Kathleen and Charlotte. I showed everyone around Teviot, the main student union. We had lunch at the Mosque Kitchen and then headed to the castle. It was really fun walking up to the castle because a wedding party was just leaving. They were riding in a Rolls Royce and had people wandering around in kilts. 

After the castle, we walked around the Royal Mile, stopping for coffee. We had dinner at Angels with Bagpipes, which is definitely the best food I've had since coming to Scotland. We followed dinner with a Ghosts and Ghouls Tour. Edinburgh's underground vaults are famous and I had been saving the trip for when I had visitors.

I found the tour fairly underwhelming--there was a lack of scary stories. But the vaults were fairly creepy, especially with water dripping from the ceiling.

Fiona and I finished up the weekend by making the obligatory visit to the Elephant House!

To The Theatre!

On Wednesday, October 12th, Molly, Lorrie, and I went to the Filmhouse. One of the UK phone providers, Orange, offers a buy one get one free deal on Wednesdays. Since Lorrie and Molly both have it, we decided to take advantage of it. We originally tried to see One Day or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, both British films, but neither time worked. We ended up seeing Midnight in Paris, the new Woody Allen film. We each paid under three pounds because of the Orange discount and the student price, which might be the lowest amount I've spent on a movie ticket in my entire life.

The film was amazing! I saw it only three days after coming back in Paris so I was very excited to see Owen Wilson or Rachel McAdams walking around places I'd been. I felt like a little child whenever I recognized a location. 

All of the acting was great. Rachel McAdams seems to have out-bitched her performance in Mean Girls. I rarely like movies that involve time travel, but this was very artfully done.

That night, we noticed posters for the play "Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off" at the Lyceum Theater. It was coming up on it's closing weekend so we decided to go the next day. We'd heard good reviews and wanted to take advantage of the student ticket price.

The play was very good. I found the accents challenging, especially Mary's. She was raised in France, but spoke English with a Scottish accent. The actress was trying to imitate this, and it made her fairly hard to understand. The English accents for Elizabeth and those surrounding her were much easier to comprehend. The costumes and the set were possibly the most impressive part. I was not a fan of the ending, where the actors and actresses are suddenly in a modern day park setting. As I understood it, the idea was to compare Elizabethan politics to playground politics.  I thought the interpretation was too literal and disconnected from the rest of the play.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Au Revoir

I woke up early Sunday morning to go to Montmartre, the arts district of Paris. It was the fourth day of the local wine festival. I took a tour, despite the rain. The Abbesses metro stop is the only one i saw where everyone took the elevator up. Montmartre is on the biggest hill in Paris, and the climb out of the metro is way too steep and too long. The tour started by the only brick church in Paris. 

Montmartre wasn't always part of Paris. It was a countrified village outside of Paris, full of windmills and gypsum mines. Because it wasn't in Paris, the rent was a lot cheaper so it attracted (and still does attract) artists. Van Gogh lived on the top level pictured below:

Though most of the windmills are gone, they are still the symbol of Montmartre. That's why the original Moulin Rouge put a windmill on its roof. We saw one of the few originals that remain:

There is a lot of local street art around the neighborhood. One piece is from the short story, "The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls":

The wine festival was celebrating the harvest from the small vineyard there. It's the last remaining one in Paris and was originally much larger. This bit has been maintained by the locals. The wine is actually supposed to be horrible, but the bottles are auctioned off at astronomical prices because of how hard it is to get. 

Across the street is the oldest cabaret in Paris, Lapin Agile:

The tour ended outside the Sacre Coeur. The national church is directly next to the local Catholic church and has a controversial history. In 1871, the Paris Commune was formed and anarchists and Marxists ruled Paris temporarily. It was a very revolutionary time in European history and most of the revolutions ended violently, including this one. The French Army took back the city during La Semaine Sanglante (the Bloody Week). Over 20,000 working class Parisians were executed as a result of the revolution. After this, the Church  decided to build the Sacre Coeur as a repentance for those deaths and the National Assembly voted to dedicate it to them. Many working class people, including the residents of Montmartre, saw it instead as a symbol of domination. The original plan was actually to knock down the local church, but there were too many objections. Even though the church is a beautiful sight from close up or anywhere in Paris, it's sad to think about how it's affected the character of the neighborhood. Most tourists only go to Sacre Coeur when they visit this area, missing everything else.

The view from the top of Montmartre was breathtaking, despite the fog that had descended upon the city:

My last stop in Paris was L'As Du Falafel, which was strongly recommended by Fran and Bob. It is the most famous falafel shop and it's in la Ville des Juifs (Jew City). That was probably my favorite meal of the weekend.

It was so hard to leave Paris and I still can't believe how lucky I am to have visited. I found out that I can still speak French, but my accent is as atrocious as ever. I'm so grateful to Fran and Bob for housing and feeding me. It felt like a weekend away from college/study abroad life to be in a real home with family. I basically have to go back to Paris when the weather is nicer because I did not even attempt to go near the Eiffel Tower or Versailles. I would also love to see more of France. And thanks to any readers who managed to get through the franglais I dropped in to these four blog posts.