Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bloggo Ventiquattresimo – Mini-Travels Twixt Major-Travels 1: Bill's Two Cities Tour

I have not received a wealth of mail begging for more blogs since my Edinburgh post, but I was thinking today that much of what I’ve been doing on this side of the great pond might be considered newsworthy, so I thought I’d regale you with a few journeys within London since I returned from Edinburgh.

Saturday morning 27 August I joined Bill and between 25 and 30 students for his inaugural walk in London, which he calls the Two Cities Tour. Why TWO cities? Because London is a tale of two cities in many ways. The city of London was founded by the ancient Romans, and was known as Londinium. A good bit of Roman wall that surrounded the city remains intact, notably in the area near the Tower of London and the area around the Barbican complex. That set of buildings houses offices, restaurants and theatres, but is also home to The Museum of London. 
The Roman wall at the Barbican

At the beginning of its collection is a section devoted to Roman London, and if you look outside rather than in, you’ll see large sections of the Roman wall. I’ve always enjoyed that section, because while I am examining small artifacts, models of buildings and some sculpted figures of ancient Romans at different tasks, I can turn my head to the windows, glance outside, and realize that the artifacts, buildings and people belong right where I see them, versus the Elgin Marbles, for example, that should properly be housed in the new Acropolis Museum in Athens rather than a wee bit west of the Museum of London, in the British Museum.

The Roman city housed within these walls grew into the City of London. In the 6th century, after the Christianization of Rome, a cathedral (a church that houses a bishop) was built, according to legend, on the site of a temple to Diana that may or may not have been the site of the present St. Paul’s Cathedral. By the tenth century a cathedral stood on the highest hill in London until it burned to the ground in 1087. On that same site was built another St Paul’s, ancestor of today’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.
St Paul's Cathderal from the South Bank
As time passed the Romans left it behind and invading Germanic tribes, including the Angles and the Saxons, first took, then settled in to this place. These were followed in the ninth and tenth centuries by Viking invasions, and for years the domination of the area shifted between Norse and Anglo-Saxon control. Finally in 1066 the Normans invaded and took firm control. Normandy is located south of England along the northwestern coast of France but was founded in the tenth century by Norsemen (Danish and Norwegian Vikings). William, Duke of Normandy (after the invasion aka William the Conqueror), was crowned king.

William’s (the conqueror’s, not Sheasgreen’s )coronation occurred at Westminster Abbey.
Westminster Abbey
 Where was this? In the SECOND city of Bill’s tour, that of Westminster, adjacent to and just west of the walled Roman city, settled by Saxons and known as Lundenwic. An abbey was probably built there in the eighth century, and in the eleventh century Edward the Confessor, the penultimate Saxon king of England, had a vision of a complex that would include a royal palace and a church, and ordered the building of each. The church was called Westminster, as it was located west of London Center and St Paul’s Cathedral. Westminster Abbey was dedicated to St. Peter, in fact its full title is The Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster. So from that time Saints Peter and Paul watched over what would become greater London.

Westminster was established as the political center of London, and remains so today. It includes the great abbey, site of the coronation of kings and queens, and burial place of seventeen monarchs, and the Neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament, which of course controls the United Kingdom today. The City of London, on the other hand, was and remains the center of Great Britain's monetary power. Monetary and political power: a potent mix!
Bill and students at the Westminster Pier, the beginning of the Two Cities Tour
Bill’s tour begins on Westminster pier, just outside of the Westminster underground station, beneath a statue of Boadicea (or Boudica) in her chariot. She was the bold queen
Boadicea and Big Ben
of a local tribe who vanquished the Romans and sacked the cities of Londinium and Verulamium (St. Albans), but who subsequently suffered defeat by a force of 10,000 Roman soldiers and committed suicide by poison rather than be captured by the enemy. Just behind and above that statue stands one of the great icons of London, Big Ben, and to the left of it the Houses of Parliament. He explains the history better than I did in my notes above, then takes students across to Whitehall, where he continues his tale of two cities, walking and stopping to talk at Number 10 Downing, the Horse Guards (changing of the guard ceremony while we were there), and at Whitehall Palace before heading to Trafalgar Square and finishing the first portion of his tour.

Bill & students on the South Bank
He next leads students across the Thames via the Hungerford Footbridge, and walks along the beautiful South Bank for nearly all the rest of the tour, stopping for rest and victuals at the excellent Royal National Theatre (where this trip we were caught in a strong rain storm and sheltered under it’s unusual but in this case protective architecture). Farther down the river he takes us into the Tate Modern, a great museum housed in an amazing building, and up to the seventh floor café, not for food but for the spectacular view of the city that can be seen from that vantage point. Very near to the Tate is the New Globe Theatre, where we pause to remember its founder, Sam Wanamaker, and there is also a stop at the site of the old Globe. This Saturday we were very lucky in that the Rose excavation site was open. A woman talked about the site and the plays that were and even today are put on there, even though the place is buried beneath a huge office building, just next to the entire footprint of the Rose Theatre, a rival to the Globe in Elizabethan England. It is logistically next to impossible to stage plays in this place, but clever directors rise to the challenge and produce plays by Shakespeare, Marlowe and others to audiences of no more than fifty people at a time.

Bill then takes us to Southwark Cathedral, home to a memorial to Shakespeare, and on to the Borough Market, one of the finest in London, where we stop (and where some feed) for about twenty minutes. We continue the walk until we get to the Tower Bridge 
Bill and students in front of Tower Bridge
and head back across the Thames to the Tower of London, last stop on the tour. We do not go into the Tower, as it is a very expensive place and would take an entire day in itself to do it proper justice, but stand instead next to a statue of a Roman emperor in front of the ancient Roman wall that once protected Londinium many centuries ago.

It’s a great tour and it covers a great length of the two cities. It also takes time, usually over four hours, this time because of waiting out the rain at the RNT and the lucky stop at the Rose, taking over five hours! Exhausting, but a great learning experience and also great fun.

Did I just write the word “Exhausting”? Indeed we were, but Bill and I were not finished. We walked back across the Thames for a pint at a pub near Borough Market, then crossed Borough High Street to a little known burial site, in Redcross Way, called Crossbones (also written as two words, Cross Bones) Graveyard. There is almost nothing to it these days, except for an long iron gate covered with flowers, candles, inscriptions and photos. 
Bill at the Crossbones Graveyard
You can peer through the gate and see a small empty yard, empty except for one plain but pretty cross made of green foliage lying on the ground. It seems like a place that time forgot, except that apparently not everyone forgot. More on that, but first the fascinating history:

Winchester Palace was located in the South of London, very near the new Globe. It was built in the twelfth century to house bishops of the district, who were very wealthy landowners as well as men of the Church. Among his many privileges? duties? pleasures? the bishop was allowed to license prostitutes, who became known as The Winchester Geese. No surprise that there were prostitutes plying their trade in and around the South Bank, as it was a district of entertainments, bear-baitings and as you now know, sexual pleasures. But certainly a surprise – a big one for me – that a bishop should be regulating them legally, while prostitution was completely illegal just across the river to the north. All very well, but what do the Winchester Geese have to do with Crossbones Cemetery? They were buried in that unconsecrated graveyard.

But they weren’t the only ones. Later outcasts of many kinds, including cholera victims, were also put to rest here. In fact it became completely overcrowded, numbers of bodies estimated by the Museum of London at as many as 15,000, many of them children. In the first years of the new millennium local residents opposed the development of the site on moral grounds, and won their suit, so that in the middle of an upscale neighborhood there exists a decidedly downscale memorial to prostitutes, outcasts and plague victims. At 7 pm on the 23rd of every month vigils and services are given in honor of the unknown dead.
Inscription on the gate at Crossbones Graveyard

I was strangely touched, not only by the history, but by the community effort to remember and keep buried the dead. I doubt this site plays a part of many, if any, tours of the city, but it was fascinating and moving to me.

And that was the end of Bill’s Two Cities Tour, the very last visitation admittedly for Bill’s and Dottore Gianni’s eyes only.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bloggo Ventitreesimo – Dottore Gianni’s Ultimo Edinburgh Festival

Almost as soon as I stepped off the train at Waverley Station, Edinburgh, I became aware that I was less than enchanted by this usually enchanting city. You might say that my heart is still in the highlands, you might say that I’ve taken this trip once too often. The  rail station was undergoing renovations, so my usual path out (The Waverley Steps) was closed off. This meant walking up the ramp into one of the busiest streets in town, particularly on a Friday afternoon during festival season. I managed to make my way through heavy, plodding crowds, as bad as pushing myself around Times Square.

I got to my hotel, the Albany Ballantrae, and was immediately struck by condescending atmosphere, which I had encountered the last time I stayed here, two years ago. It calls itself a boutique hotel, but whatever that vague term means there is little to back up that claim. A boutique hotel provides more than one plastic cup in the room. In fact even lowly non-boutique hotels often trust their occupants with a glass. Boutique hotels have accessible wi-fi. This one claims to have it but I cannot connect to it, whereas in the three decidedly non-boutique hotels I stayed at during my highland fling I connected easily. Boutique hotels should not be lazy about breakfast, but this hotel is. Continental breakfast only, unless you want to pay an extra fee for hot breakfast – but at least you have to let them know you WANT a hot breakfast the night before. The hotel also rolls back its breakfast hours on weekends. It normally starts at 7:30 am, but here you can’t get food until 8 am on Saturdays and 8:30 am on Sundays, which means that I will not get the included breakfast until Monday. Boutique hotels ARE often full of themselves, and such is definitely the case with the Albany Ballantrae. Ah well, perhaps I protest too much, but neither my arrival at the station nor my reception at the hotel boded well for a great last foray into the Edinburgh Festival.

Frustrated at the hotel I traipsed off to the Hub, fighting crowds on The Royal Mile every meter of my way, where I managed to pick up all the tickets to the Beijing Opera we will see tonight. I did a little shopping as well, got back to the hotel and prepared to meet students back at the station, then headed over about an hour early, had a not very good tuna sandwich from The Upper Crust, whose baguettes often destroy my Upper Palate. Then a pint of ale from the pub at the station. Got the students and the TenEycks off the train – twenty-seven students! I’m probably just not half the man I used to be, but that’s a lot of students to cart around. They had had a bad trip, waiting five hours on the tarmac in New York, barely making the train, and rather punchy from the experience, quite understandably. After a good night’s sleep and a good morning’s breakfast, they should have a grand time here, and I plan to show them a fine weekend, no matter how little I may enjoy it myself.

I arose early as usual on Saturday, the first full day of our weekend at the festival, and also as usual checked outside my window and BBC weather. It looked surprisingly good! And that of course is a very good sign. The sun is shining, there looks to be a chance of showers tonight, but otherwise partly cloudy to clear on Sunday AND Monday? Unheard of! Tuesday looks to be wet, so we may get drenched on our way to the train station for our return to London, but weather-wise at least, this may be a fine trip.

So perhaps it’s time to readjust your attitude, Dottore Gianni! It’s too late for that, I fear, but I strode out towards the hostel with confidence, and was pleasantly surprised that all the students were down for breakfast, that all seemed enthused for the day. Steve, Becky and the boys were raring to go as well, and after a few admonishments re keeping up with the pack and watching carefully at all street crossings, we left the hostel and got rather easily to Waverley Station, considering the size of the group. Opposite the station the tour buses line up and we always try to get there early, so we can get the entire top of a bus to ourselves. 

We chose MacTours, which runs vintage buses through the Old Town and New, and usually features completely open tops – this particular one did not, so a few of us were stuck under a canopy, but our tour guide, the first woman that I’ve ever taken the trip with, was very knowledgeable if not all that witty, and the tour was a fine one. I did something after that I’ve never done, partly because the weather was so nice. I took them into Prince’s Street Gardens and regaled with a few stories the guide had omitted, then issued some more instructions and gave out tickets for the evening performance that we would attend at the Edinburgh International Festival. I also took a group photo at the Scott Monument, which turned out to be smashing, then took them up to the Royal Mile, where we were soon engulfed by buskers. Got another shot in front of the Fringe Box Office and let them all go in their separate directions.

Students at the Sir Walter Scott monument

Steve and Becky, their boys and I then had lunch at the Deacon’s Café, luckily uncrowded at the time, and serving its usual excellent soup and scones. They too went on their merry way, and I was left alone to do as I liked for the entire afternoon. It was such a lovely day that I decided to stroll slowly in the direction of the show I would see at 1:15. 

I descended into Grassmarket, one of the friendliest spots in the city, where a market was in swing, and of course where all the outdoor seats at the several pubs, bistros and bars were filled. Then I wandered over to Cowgate, to Greyfriars’ Kirk across from the Museum of Scotland, and finally to my destination, major Fringe Venue The Gilded Balloon. I bought a ticket for Nobody’s Home, alum Will Pinchin’s show at that venue, and settled in to see it.

Will studied at the LeCoq Institute after graduating from Ithaca, met his wife there, and they formed a company that focuses on physical theatre. This piece focuses on a U.S. vet with post-traumatic distress syndrome, but tells the story as if he is a modern-day Odysseus, trying to return “home.” He IS home, with his increasingly frustrated wife (played by his wife in real life, Dorie, who plays all the other characters). It was a unique and I thought fascinating way of looking at this all-too-prevalent disorder, and it was executed with impeccable timing and very strong performances. Very glad I went! I had a pint with Will, Dorie and some other of their friends, then strolled back to the hotel.

There I rested, then charged back out to get a bite before seeing the play we chose at the Edinburgh International Festival. I had wanted to eat at Pizza Express, but it was packed, so I ended up at Pizza Paradise, which was anything but – first it was hot as Hades (placing it in a location on the far side of paradise), second the food was mediocre, to put it kindly, but at least it was expensive! Made it from there to the Festival Theatre, met up with some students, also with Steve, with whom I had a gin and tonic for the first time in memory – very tasty…and a nice antidote to Pizza Inferno!

And then on to the Beijing Opera, The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan. Beijing Opera is an acquired taste, and most of the students did not acquire it at this performance. This Asian version of Hamlet was interesting to me, but I wish for their sakes and mine that it had had more action. Nevertheless I judged the evening to be a qualified success. Steve and I left for our respective “homes” in Edinburgh, while many of the students found a pub that stayed open late and ended their evening that way.

A group of students at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre

The morning started out less promising than had Saturday, the skies gray and threatening, but still we headed out for the castle and had a reasonably good few hours there. A sudden sharp shower sent everyone scurrying for the few indoor spaces the castle offers, and I think some of the students were hoping for something more romantic and ruined in nature, otherwise the morning went well.

We then snaked our way slowly through the crowds down the Royal Mile, stopping at the area known as World’s End so that the students could grab picnic lunches for their next event of the day: the climb up Arthur’s Seat. 

I left them under the good care of Anna Reetz and walked back up the Royal Mile with the TenEycks and with Mandy Perry, who I think would have loved to make the climb with the others, but she was nursing a broken toe and wisely chose to stay behind. The TenEycks and Mandy found a place to have lunch, and I continued on alone, my usual and generally preferred method of travel. I took a walk past some of my old haunts in Edinburgh, including Ryan’s Bar, the International Book Festival, and the entire length of Rose Street. Pleasant and nostalgic, but longer than I’d intended, particularly after the walk from hostel to castle and from castle all the way down the Royal Mile. So I really crashed when I got back to the hotel. I worried a bit for the students on Arthur’s Seat, but by early afternoon the day turned more and more lovely, and I’m certain they enjoyed their brief life at the top.

I’m now back in my hotel room after having a light supper at a place in my neighborhood, along Broughton Street, called Treacle. I had a great time, though I think I was probably 20 years older than anyone else in the place. And now I am watching Verdi’s Requiem, broadcast live on BBC 4 from the Royal Albert Hall, one of its many Proms concerts, most during the month of August every year. Tomorrow looks to be another good day as well. Here’s hoping, as it’s my last full day in Edinburgh, probably forever, and the students’ last as well, for this trip at least.

Not a lot to tell about today, as after breakfast everyone was left to their own devices.
Several of the students who had not climbed Arthur’s Seat on Sunday did so today, 
Monday's climbers of Arthur's Seat

others planned on visiting museums, seeing more shows at the Fringe etc. The TenEyks went off in search of amusement for Parker and Riley. I went for a long walk – or maybe it wasn’t that long, and I’m just getting tired quicker?  -- more or less down memory lane. I took some photos and sat for a while in Princes Street Gardens. I visited the National Gallery, always a favorite thing to do. I was somewhat disappointed that the Titians were in storage, in favor of an exhibit of National Portrait Gallery items, as that gallery is now being restored and will re-open in November, but I was rewarded by stepping up into my favorite portion of the Gallery, the Renaissance section, as they have included (on loan) a Madonna and Child by Leonardo da Vinci, in addition to the madonnas by Rafaello and an exquisite pieces on the same subject by Botticelli. And then I walked the short distance to my favorite Scottish shop, the inexpensive and touristy Edinburgh Woollen Mills, and bought a very warm sweater that I’ll be able to use frequyuently when it gets colder out, which it most certainly will.

I’m to meet some of the students at the Theatre Royal Bar in a little over an hour, and then meet the TenEycks for dinner Italian style at 6 pm. After that an early night in front of a very early morning – and back to London! And, oh! As of 4 pm the weather has held beautifully, making this hands-down the winner of the BEST WEATHER for three full days in a very unpredictable Edinburgh.

Addendum to Monday on Tuesday morning: Anna Barth had said she’d deliver students to the Theatre Royal Bar, and she did, for which I thank her very much! There were ten at first, then twelve (at which point we joked about it being the last supper!) and then at about 5”45 two more joined us. I was flattered by the attention and touched at this gathering on my last trip to Edinburgh, and we all had a very nice chat about traveling while in London, and on other subjects as well – more o’ that!

I bid farewell to some of my best friends in Ithacs, the TenEycks, after a dinner at Giuliano’s that took too long to get to the table. Once delivered it was quite fine, but I could tell the family TenEyck was more than ready for this trip to be “history.” I hope they are having a safe journey back across the great pond.
The Family TenEyck with Scottish ancestor
Tuesday morning:
I am very impressed with this group, as all twenty-seven got downstairs on time!The bagged breakfasts were ready for us, and we were rewarded by our early arrival by the train being already in and ready to go at track 11, one of the easiest to get to at Waverley Station. We are now nearing York, after we’ll have a direct run to London, arriving at 11:55. It’s now about 9:40 am. So if all goes well getting onto and off of the tube, we should be back at ICLC by 12”30-12:45. Here’s hoping! Oh, and if we’re not you probably won’t know about it, as I am declaring this the end of Dottore Giann’s Bloggo Edinburgho, and of the end of his trips guiding students to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. May the trips continue long after this one, in the younger, very capable hands of Steve TenEyck!

If you are yearning for more I may write something before then, but the next scheduled trip is to Bath, Glastonbury and Stonenge on the weekend of 9 September. Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bloggo Venteduesima: Highland Fling : Coming Down from the Highlands

The last grand tour of my Highland Fling is history. The day trip to Oban was the warm-up, but the two great, long days in a row, the first to Skye, the second to the Orkneys. were the highlights of the highlands. I’ve already noted the giddiness I experienced on Skye, and the sense of history, even pre-history, I felt in the Orkneys. Such days are rare even for one who, like me searches for such experiences every time I travel. So! How to come down from the highlands?

Physically it was a gradual descent. On Wednesday, as planned, I spent in a more relaxed manner, getting to know more about Inverness, a town I have come to enjoy more every day I spend there. I started out walking up the River Ness in the direction I’d not yet traveled. I passed the University, which is located very near to my hotel, then some athletic fields, and then on to the islands of the River Ness. 

This is one beautiful park! As the river widens, several tiny islands come into view. The city has very smartly placed charming little bridges in that area, so that one can get from one side of the river to the other, but by a meandering route on paths through trees and small streams. Except for the bridges the area seems to be a natural wonder, but I began to notice strings of lights in places, and also a few floodlights. This makes the islands less than completely natural, but also accessible by night as well as day, a very well set up park in the city. As I was walking, so were many others, mothers with prams, businessmen, serious walkers and joggers. You’d never know you were only a few blocks from downtown. Every city should have such a park, but then every city should have a river as lovely as the River Ness coursing through it.

After exploring the islands I visited the castle, which is mostly a police court these days. I remained outside, but the height on which it sits provides great views of the city. 

Just down from the castle is the city museum, which is a very user-friendly, simple and quite informative look at Inverness and the surrounding highlands from pre-history to the twentieth century. Just one of many examples: you can press a button and hear how to pronounce Gaelic words, such as the popular toast, “Slainte,” one I’ve always feared to offer, as I am not sure how to say it. And I must admit that writing now, not two days later I have already forgotten, but that’s down to my memory or lack thereof, and not the clever device set up at the museum. While we’re pronouncing, I’ll remind you of what I found out from Joe the driver on the Skye trip; that the Scots pronounce “Gaelic” “gal-ic,” not “gay-lic” as the Irish say it.

While at the museum I decided to have a light lunch. The soup was an Scottish vegetable broth and was a hearty, tasty treat. It was accompanied by a really meaty wheat bread, which kept me content for the rest of the afternoon. I then wandered the shopping district, popping my head in to several places, nearly buying a sweater or two on sale, searching for the perfect Harris Tweed cap – I’d actually found it earlier in the trip, but decided against buying as I was sure I’d find one just like it elsewhere. Lots of Harris Tweeds since that shopping moment, but none so perfect as the one I’d passed up. Always the way…

Then back to the hotel to write. I have been struggling to keep up the blog, and to post accompanying photos. I’ve taken hundreds of snapshots since my fling began, and I insist on photo-shopping them to the best of my meager abilities before putting them up for public display, so I’ve been quite busy when not out flinging chronicling said flinging. It’s good for me to write as close to the experience as possible, as whether I like it or not, my memory is not what it used to be, alas and alack, hey nonny, too friggin’ bad, but there you have it.

I decided to cap off my highland adventure with a little traditional music at one of the oldest pubs in Inverness, The Gellion’s, a tiny place that promises such music nightly. 

I ordered, sat at a small raised table, and ate a modest dinner washed down with a tasty ale, whose name alas I’ve forgotten – ah, memory! The musical duo seemed modest at first, two kids barely out of their teens, the lad a fair guitarist, the lass a surprisingly fine fiddler. They spoke not a word, and she giggled occasionally when she got a fancy passage right, but their music was fresh, enthusiastic and joyful, all I could ask for on my last evening in the highlands. As I left I gave the lass a thumbs up and she flashed me a broad smile and returned it!

The next morning (this brings us to yesterday, 18 August) in a light rain I hastened to the train, caught it, and headed down from the highlands. You could see them disappear with each stop – fare thee well! I changed trains at Perth and 20 minutes later arrived at the lowlands city of Dundee. I chose it almost solely because it was an hour’s train ride from Edinburgh, so that today’s trip would not be at all taxing, but it turned out to be a nice surprise. It’s hardly a tourist mecca, but it is a university town as my taxi driver proudly observed, boasting 23,000 students. He told me it was less expensive than other college towns in the U.K. and apparently very protective of and welcoming to its students, a proper melding of town and gown.
A park in Dundee
On a side (and sad) note, British university prices are set to soar next year, from about 3,000 GPB to as high as 9,000. Students have protested kingdom-wide, last spring rather violently in Westminster. BBC news is filled with stories of A-levels, exams in different subjects which are much of the basis for getting in to university. This year, passing you’re A-levels with flying colors is more important than ever, as it’ the last year students will be accepted at the lower tuition rate. Just this morning there was an interview with two that did not attain the grades needed, and the distress was clearly evident. Rightly so with that very steep increase.

Back to Dundee. I walked to the city center, nearly a half hour brisk walk from my hotel, but I needed the exercise, and though the clouds lowered no rain fell. I bought a very light jacket with a hood, something I’ve done without for many years of coming to the U.K. but that I’ll surely find useful, maybe even in the next few days at Edinburgh. I got it in a store that announced a “final sale – everything must go,” though it didn’t look as if the store was going anywhere. The price wasn’t bad, and I also picked up a compass, as I’d lost mine shortly after arriving in the U.K. In an era of smart phones equipped with gps that may seem hopelessly old-fashioned, but it comes in very useful when I don’t know whether I’m walking north or south. And I continued my search for the perfest Harris Tweed cap, still to no avail. Does it await me in Edinburgh? Stay tuned.

After about two and one-half hours I headed back to the hotel. While walking I discovered the brilliantly named hair parlour: Benjamin Barker: Barber and Shop! 

If you’re a fan of nineteenth century penny-dreadfuls or of Stephen Sondheim you will recognized the name of a man aka Sweeney Todd! When I got back to the hotel I posted my find on facebook and got inundated with responses – what can I tell you? I live among a theatrical tribe!

After the post I wrote more for Dottore Gianni’s blog (somebody bloody has to!), and napped a bit. Then went to dinner at a place recommended by the hotel, the Don Michael Italian restaurant. It wasn’t as good as recommended, but it wasn’t bad, and the proprietor brought me a small limoncello as a treat at the end – warmish rather than fresh and chilled from the freezer, but still, it’s the thought that counts. All in all a fine evening. I turned back to the hotel, but thought the better of it and went back the other way, in search of Sweeney Todd, er Benjamin Barker. Found it still open, and “Benjamin” working on a customer – hair and beard only, I hoped! I surreptitiously snapped a photo, returned to the hotel (the Shaftesbury, a friendly establishment and a pleasant place to spend a night or so), posted the photo on facebook and got even more response.

Now it’s the next morning and I’m writing again, the very last post of Dottore Gianni’s Highland Fling, and thinking again about coming down from the highlands. Physically I am very much in the lowlands, but I never want to lose the inimitable high I discovered, breathlessly, in the highlands of Scotland.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bloggo Ventunesimo: Highland Fling : The Orkneys

Dottore Gianni’s trip to the Orkneys was as incredible a journey, in a quite different way, as that of the day before on Skye. This journey was longer, a large tour bus taking us all the way to John o’ Groats, one of the few places where ferries take passengers from the British mainland to the Orkney Isles. 
At John o' Groats: The Last House in Scotlandl
or just a tourist trap?
It’s a full three hour bus ride just to the ferry, then a 45 minute ride across the North Sea to the “mainland” of the isles which is an island itself, only much larger than the other islands that comprise the Orkneys. In the “highlights” tour I booked, another tour bus picks the passengers up when the ferry lands, and off you go on a six-hour tour with stopping points to some of the most famous sights/sites of the mainland/island. It is designed in a smart, compact manner, a very well planned fourteen hours.

The bus left the Inverness station at exactly 7:30 am. As I noted above, it was a large tour bus, equipped with as much in the way of facilities as large tour buses can bear. I don’t usually travel on bus tours, but one thing I remembered was that there is a toilet on board. Given my needs, I decided to seat myself near it. Above the toilet was an area where our hostess, a young Scottish lass that I’d have taken for not more than fifteen years old had I seen her on the streets, fixed coffee and tea for passengers, as well as snacks and drinks of other kinds kept in a variety of interesting mystery boxes. I watched her as she worked in a very skilled manner under difficult circumstances. Getting around on board a bus, especially one coursing through a place like the highlands, with hairpin turns and tons of bumps, cannot be easy.

A note to remember if you’ve not traveled on a tour bus. Do NOT seat yourself near the toilet! Ghastly odors emanate from the toilet! In short order after the bus bounced away from Inverness, four old people made the trip, each on the heels of the one before, and judging from the vile smells I can only imagine what in the name of god they must have had for supper the night before…spicy curries? Sausage and mash? Bean soup? Worse? I was so repulsed that I determined to make it to the ferry terminal, which had roomier and more private facilities, before I attempted any of my own…eliminations. I really believe that most other passengers felt the same way, as after the first four, few others ventured anywhere near the place. In fact the young hostess had to enter it to put more toilet paper in, and another worker for the bus company, who happened to be seated not far from me, whipped out a spray can of Glade or some similar “freshener” for her to use before she entered the contamination zone. She politely refused his offer, but as soon as she closed the door, mission accomplished, he sprayed the area anyway. Thank God!

Other than that noxious nuisance there was much to enjoy during the bus ride. We hugged the eastern coast of northern Scotland, which is startlingly beautiful. The hostess provided commentary as well, though it seemed as if she was reading it from a script rather than telling stories. Still, she provided information I’d never have got otherwise, even if it was delivered in a programmed, perfunctory manner. She showed us young seals on the banks of some of the lochs, also noting that dolphins can often be spotted, though none of those appeared on our trip. She pointed out distilleries, including Dalmore and Glenmorangie, and another I’d not heard of, Clynelish, which exports most of its single malt. She also noted the northernmost distillery on the mainland, Old Poultney. When she spoke of the Dalmore, she noted that while in casks a small amount of whiskey is lost to evaporation – this is called “the angels’ share,” which the distillers think of as their loss and the angels’ and the customers’ gain – because of this “heavenly thirst” fewer than 1,000 bottles of the 40 year old variety have been created.

She told us the story of Sutherland County, the least populated county in Scotland, averaging two residents per square kilometer, where sheep outnumber the people ten to one. She explained the cause for this when she pointed out the 100-foot statue of the Earl of Sutherland, that he himself created in honor of…himself. It’s very good to be the earl. But not his people. Today there is still clamor to tear it down or set it afire, because the not-so-good earl along with other wealthy landowners realized that they could make more money from sheep than from taxing the people who lived on and worked their land. The result? The Highland clearances, a nightmarish evacuation of thousands who no longer had the means to live.

And she offered information on other landmarks, castles and cattle, and the city of Wick, home to Old Poultney scotch and also at one time the center of a major herring industry, last but not least home to what the Guinness Book of Records acknowledges as the shortest street in the world! Some of this may seem rather silly, but her observations really helped the long journey seem somewhat shorter than it was.

The trip is timed to the ferry, and the ferry waits when it has to, as the buses provide most of its passengers. But we passengers had to wait at least ten minutes for the ferry this time around, as it was inexplicably delayed, and when we finally got going the rather dilapidated looking vessel took longer than the usual amount of time to get us to the Orkneys. It was a gentle enough journey, and not unpleasant, but the delay did cut down our valuable time on the isles.
Leaving the mainland behind
 The buses were waiting for us, and bustled us off as soon as possible on our journey. These buses too were large affairs, though without toilets, which was just as well in my book. The driver was also the tour guide, a large, grizzled old fellow who was really quite good, much more energized that the young lass on the bus to the ferry. He was full of information and delivered it in an off-the-cuff, humorous manner.

The first of our highlights was Scapa Flow, a large body of water whose history of use by navies dates back to the time of the Vikings. 

It is primarily known, however for actions in the both world wars. Our guide was a former member of the Royal Navy, and had many stories to tell us, including when early in World War II a British battleship was sunk due to the disrepair of the defenses against U-boats. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, ordered strong barriers built to prevent further attacks. Much of the labor utilized to accomplish this task was performed unwillingly by Italian prisoners of war.

From Scapa Flow we motored to the largest city in the Orkneys, Kirkwall. 

This charming town boasts the impressive St Magnus Cathedral, begun in the twelfth century in the Romanesque style; 
St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

also a good museum of Orcadian life and history (I visited cathedral and museum briefly), charming shops and a harbor filled with fishing boats but which welcomes cruise ships as well. Our guide noted that it might be smart to check your calendar for a visit to Kirkwall against cruise ship landings, as the smallish city can be completely overrun by hordes of cruisers, characters far more difficult to deal with than Vikings, particularly when shopping for souvenirs. We had a quick lunch stop in that town, and I ordered out from a classy little sandwich shop called The Reel, which focuses on music, offering lessons as well as performances. I ordered a chicken sandwich, and the chicken turned out to be delicious, chunks of breast meat with a hint of lemon on a bed of lettuce. Happy surprise!

Kirkwall is also home to Highland Park, one of my favorite single malt scotches. Sadly the distillery is just out of town and I would never have been able to make it back to the bus had I chosen to visit. Our loquacious driver told a fine story on Magnus Eunson, the man who according more to legend than fact first concocted the whisky in the late eighteenth century. He sold his wares illegally and the authorities knew it, but they could never find his “still.” It seems he was a church elder and used a chamber just under the church’s altar to store the distilling equipment!

On the way to our next highlight, Skara Brae, we passed the tiny village of Orphir, which consisted, according to our driver, of little more than “a church, a shop and a pub, all you really need in life from cradle to grave.”

I have not yet described the look of Orkney. First, it is in the north: at approximately the same latitude as St. Petersburg Russia and Greenland. It’s also a beautiful place, partly because of the water that seems to be nearly everywhere, and that keeps the climate more clement than either of the two areas just mentioned that sit parallel to it on the earth. The terrain is hilly, though not nearly so dramatic as that of Skye, for example, or of much else that is characteristic of the highlands. What makes it most interesting is its lack of trees, which helps to create the feeling of what our guide/driver called the “Orkney big sky.” 
Orkney Big Sky
Sky, sea, barren hills – unique, but also essential to the survival of ancient sites. If there is no wood, how does one build shelter? Stone is one such material, and the kind of stone found on the Orkneys is relatively easy to cut and shape.

It also lasts longer than wood, which is why the 5,000 year old Skara Brae has lasted longer with more elements intact than other surviving Neolithic sites. Seeing Skara Brae was the deal breaker – the main reason I decided to take the long day trip to the Orkneys. I have seen many old sites, but at Skara Brae I experienced a feeling impossible to explain. The ancient village sits in a beautiful, small natural harbor. When I looked out at the sea from the Skara Brae I sensed the durability and adaptability of the human race. It made me feel more human and more alive, feelings Dottore Gianni feeds on and reaches out for more than ever these days, as la vita e troppo breve. Outlines of ancient buildings near the sea. Another means of taking one’s breath away.

Skara Brae
Skara Brae is only one of many discoveries in the Orkneys. It was come upon after a really strong storm hit the Orkneys in the mid-nineteenth century. More recently and very near the site of Skara Brae the Cairn of Maeshowe, the Standing Stones of Stennis and the Ring of Brodgar are proving feasts for archeologists, and all of them have been named a World Heritage Site by the U.N., the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. 
Part of the Ring of Brogdar,
with heather in the field to the right of it
We stopped at the Ring of Brodgar for a short photo opportunity, and our driver told us something of the others as we drove past them.
The Ring of Brogdar, from a distance
Only one more “highlight” remained, and at this point we were more or less racing towards our ferry to the mainland. But the short stop at the so-called Italian Chapel was fascinating. This lovely little church was built by Italian prisoners of war during World War II as a labor of love, as opposed to their forced labor building the Churchill Barriers on Scapa Flow; a most unusual task, but very likely one that lifted spirits in a dark time; touching, no matter which side of the war you were on. 
The Italian Chapel
Quick photos, back on the bus, and on to the ferry. A whirlwind tour, and all I could hope for on this particular highland fling. But of course such a tour leaves one wanting a good bit more. Perhaps that’s the intention.

On the bus ride back the sandwiches we had ordered on the way to the Orkneys were delivered. I had a tuna and cucumber on delicious wheat bread. Then I sat back, put on my headset and mixed Haydn with Highlands – there was something about that particular blend of beautiful music and wonderful scenery that put a perfect cap on my journey. Haydn in the Highlands? I would like to be doin' just that, lads and lasses!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bloggo Ventesimo: Highland Fling 4: The Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye – sounds magical, doesn’t it? Without knowing anything about an “isle of skye” I think I’d be tempted to visit.This isle was one of the primary drivers behind my highland fling, and I did know nothing of it, except that Talisker Whiskey is distilled there. And much as I love my wee dram, I promise that whiskey was not what lured me to the Isle.

At 9:15 am eleven intrepid travelers boarded a comfortable minivan with large, clean windows (the better for photography along the way), and took off for Skye, driven and guided by an amiable fellow named Joe. He was Glaswegian by birth but did much of his growing up near Inverness and worked on Skye itself for seven years, so he knew the territory well and shared many personal as well as geographical and historical stories and insights along the way. On the way to our destination the weather was predictable in that it was completely unpredictable. Those of you who are panicked by references to Macbeth (sorry! The Scottish Play!) should skip this paragraph, as I am about to quote from it: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” Whether or not Shakespeare ever actuslly saw Scotland he got the weather perfectly in that one short sentence. Nearly every day I have seen in Scotland, and by this time I’ve seen quite a few, this statement nails it. Of course the tone in Macbeth (damn! Again, so sorry!) is ominous, whereas Joe the driver put it less poetically but more positively, bursting out happily with the words, “Where else in the world would you get sun and rain at the same time?”
Okay, I just left the dressing room, spit, and turned around thrice, so not to worry, I can continue safely with my story.

In Scotland you see a lot of this sort of weather.
To quote the Scottish play: "foul and fair"
The concept for this trip was to introduce us to more than just the Isle. You have to get to it from Inverness, which is a bit of a journey itself, and as you head towards Skye you see beautiful highlands along the way. We made several stops, some to refresh and relieve ourselves, some just to take photos. The first stop was at Strathcarron. It takes longer to type the name than to view the village, which consisted of a hotel, a post office, a few houses, a stained glass shop, a red telephone booth and a rather interesting chicken coop. The hotel housed toilets and an assortment of breakfast goodies. I’d already eaten, so I took the time to circumnavigate the village – not much of a trip, but of course surrounding the village were beautiful mountains, green fields, streams. All in all not a bad place to which to retreat from the cares of life in…well, just about any place more “civilized.”

What interested me most was the chicken coop. 

Joe was convinced, and I would hesitate to disagree, that it was the only chicken coop in the world with stained glass windows. I wanted to be sure it wasn’t just a highland yarn Joe was spinning, and sure enough the windows did boast staind glass, one hopes from the shop across the way. God forbid a rival creator of stained glass should have got the contract! The other peculiar aspect to the coop was the tv antenna on top. Joe, and here I think he WAS spinning yarn, told us that the idea was to allow the hens to rest easy, lulled by the dulcet tones of tv talk, but that the plan was foiled (or might I say fowled?) because none of the chickens could agree on which channel to watch!

And on we rode towards Skye. Joe spoke knowledgeably about the mountains and the ecology of the area. He pointed to mountains that had once been the domain of red deer and their natural predator, the wolf. When farmers moved in they raised sheep. When you have a natural predator you tend to figure out ways to avoid it, and red deer are clever creatures, so the wolves began to take the much easier route by attacking the farmers’ sheep instead of the deer. This angered the farmers and the wolves began to be hunted with vigor, so much so that they were nearly wiped out. The result? Good for the farmer, in that sheep thrived, but not so good for the natural balance of things, as so did the red deer, to the point where THEY have to be culled annually. So the wolf is gradually being re-introduced to the area, a move praised by ecologists, damned by farmers. The battle continues. Moral of the story? Not sure there is one really other than the obvious. Humans, well intended or not, have mucked up the natural world. One of many many tales of this kind, and hardly restricted to the highlands of Scotland.

Anyway! Everywhere we turned there was another beautiful vista, often the other side of one we had seen as we wound our way through the dramatic terrain. 

And if it had been raining and mist-ridden on one side, it was as often as not sunny and gorgeous on the other (“so foul and fair…” sorry!) It often seemed we were not observing the same mountain we’d seen only fifteen minutes before.  I suppose I could use a word here that I have tried to avoid in every paragraph: breathtaking. When Dottore Gianni’s breath get’s taken away every few minutes, he becomes dizzy, giddy, dazzled by the light and dark sides of the mountains. And gradually the good doctor became aware of it and after feeling slightly sick, weak at the knees, gave way to it. The day produced a sort of natural high that was as beautiful as it was unusual. Breathtaking.

We’re not even to Skye as yet, and there are many more tales of our move towards Skye. Would you like to hear the one about the road sign that states: “Strom Ferry – No Ferry. ” Of course you would, but it’s one too many to relate here! We stopped again a slight distance from the great bridge to Skye. The bridge itself is an impressive sight but pales next to the natural scenery. Once across that bridge we had at last reached Skye. Skye!  And not much had changed actually. The scenery remained beautiful, Dottore Gianni remained in a dizzy, giddy state…ah!
In the distance, shrouded in mist, mountains called the "Five Sisters"
Our first stop on the Isle was for lunch at the Broadford Hotel. We were given menus early in the trip and had a great choice of two courses for £10. Joe phoned our orders in ahead so there was almost no wait for the food.We also had the option of eating elsewhere, but the village of Broadford boasts its hotel, a food co-op, a sandwich shop and little else but everything else: charming houses, beautiful views of mountains and lochs…and very changeable weather. While a picnic seemed a good idea in theory, the possibility of becoming soaked and remaining so for the next many hours was strong, So I, along with most of the others, opted for lunch at the Broadford Hotel. Which was splendid! Watching my waistline as always I opted for light fare: the Haggis starter and the pie made of local Scottish beef and ale, all washed down with a McEwan’s 80. No need for a lot of supper that evening! I had had haggis once before, on a day trip to the Highlands. It was better that first time than I thought it would be, but I doubted I’d ever do it again. I asked Joe if I should have the soup (the Scots make wonderful soups!) or haggis. He smiled and all but rolled his eyes. Haggis, hands down. This time delicious! Cooked in an oatmeal cake on a bed of summer vegetables. Heavenly haggis! Never thought I’d use that word duo to express my feelings for this particular delicacy. The pie was at least as good. The beef had been slow-cooked to the point where it literally melted, flavourfully, in my mouth. Heaven again! And the McEwan’s was…McEwan’s – it never fails.

After lunch I took a walk, accompanied part of the way by the tall, willowy, and very beautiful young woman, a Japanese IT specialist, who’d sat down next to me at lunch. Another reason for the giddiness of Dottore Gianni! Most of you who are reading this will I hope not roll your eyes at me as Joe did, as most of you will know that Dottore Gianni has an eye for beautiful women. He confesses it freely. Fortunately he has no more than an “eye” for women. Others of his sex have much more than that, and go for much more than that. She was traveling alone, I was traveling alone, and for a very short time we enjoyed the pleasure of each other’s company. Besides, solo travelers always depend upon the kindness of strangers to take pictures of them! Right?

Of course I’m right. And then we journeyed onward into Skye, to a rocky beach so beautiful that…well, when a fellow traveler asked what would happen if he were late to be picked up by the van, Joe reminded us that he could not wait for stragglers, as there were many of us, headed for distant destinations, some later that very day. I said to the fellow traveler that I would not mind being late, if it meant that I coulds stay here for the rest of my life. 
The Black Cullins
The view from the beach was in part the sea, in part the magnificent Black Cullin (Scottish Gaelic: Cuillin – btw, Joe explained that the Scots pronounce the word “Gaelic” not as the Irish do, who say GAY-lic, but instead GAL[as in my gal sal]-ic), jagged mountains that seem to rise not from an archeological fault line so much as from an ancient saga…something out of The Lord of the Rings, perhaps. I looked at the mountains and the sea, and the collection of small sturdy houses that shared that awesome view. And I can no longer use words to express the feeling. I had found SKYE.

And then we rambled back to the mainland, along scenery that looked sometimes the same, sometimes very different from that which we’d seen already, even though we were retracing our path along the same roads. Most of these roads had one lane only, with areas to pull into that allowed traffic going the other direction to proceed. It’s a constant negotiation, and it seemed not an unpleasant one, at least not the way Joe handled it. As we neared the bridge to and from Skye, I began to notice something that somewhat irritated me. Tourist shops, all with special deals for the traveler, gas stations, quick-stops with everything you’d possibly need for your journey to/from Skye! We had had a few rich hours outside of the commercial world we know so well and give ourselves to so easily. Now we had left Skye we were back in the mire. So it goes. But how nice to have had a taste, for one brief shining moment, of that lovely Isle.

We had one last stop to make on the way back, that to a small but important Castle of Eilean Donan, first built in the thirteenth century, situated to protect the area from Viking invaders. 

It was dramatic to walk through its worn passageways, and the landscape surrounding it is of course marvelous to behold. The castle’s history is too complex to detail here, but in a nutshell, it was named for a seventh century bishop, later saint Donan. In the thirteenth century the clan MacKenzie held it, and the MacRaes were first their servants, then their protectors. In the eighteenth century it figured prominently in the Jacobite uprising, then was abandoned until the early twentieth century, when it was restored by the McRae family. Joe regaled us with stories about the battles in the nearby mountains between British troops hidden in the trees and the massacre of Spanish soldiers loyal to Bonnie Prince Charlie. Joe really made the history of the area come alive for all eleven of us. The five pounds I gave him for a pint afterwards was hardly recompense for his well-told tales. We then followed the banks of Loch Ness back to Inverness, arriving just about twelve hours after we started. A full, fairly exhausting, but breathtaking day. Certainly a highlight of Dottore Gianni’s Highland Fling!

More to follow, on another great journey, to the Orkneys. But the sky is a brilliant blue in Inverness, and I must get out into it before the weather changes – after all, the rule applies, as the bard maintained: “so foul and fair a day Dottore Gianni has not seen…” Sorry!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bloggo Diciannovesimo: Highland Fling 3: Wrapping Up Glasgow and Investigating Inverness

After the exciting trip to Oban, Glasgow was bound to be not at all disappointing, but somewhat mundane in comparison. Also, the cold/flu/whatever-the-bug was worsening, and with several highlights of me wee Highland Fling still to come, I took it somewhat easy. 
Glasgow University in the distance
open top bus tour

I opted for the open-top bus tour of Glasgow, which offered lots of photo opportunities, but was a bit comical in its errors – trying to do too much, getting behind schedule and racing to the finish. The tour lasted nearly two hours – it was meant to be informative, but I was surrounded by a gaggle of Scottish women who could not stop talking and frequently screeching with laughter, so that much of what the tour guide had to offer in way of information was drowned out, either by them or the noise of traffic or construction work. Still, the tour gave me chance to see, albeit only briefly, a good bit of the city that I’d not have been able to hoof it to, especially the charming university area and the hip west end surrounding it. Seeing that part of town left me wishing that I’d booked one more day in Glasgow, but onward and upward Dottore Gianni goes – he knows, after all that la vita e troppo breve and that he must charge ahead!

After finally leaving the bus I was quite hungry, and took a chance that probably the best known place to eat in Glasgow, The Willow Tea Rooms, was not completely packed. 

I had to wait only a few minutes for a table at this art nouveau dining spot, bright because of the skylight, and of course delightful because of the Rennie MacIntosh design. I meant to have tea and soup, but instead opted for the special, the Willow Tea Room chili made with Scottish beef – I have had more red meat this trip than I had in the entire year preceding it! But it was quite lovely, and I met a couple from New Jersey, she American, he Scottish, who had just been back from the highlands, so there was pleasant conversation as well as good food to be had in the Willows…

Then I returned to the hotel and crashed for a while, in fact too long, because by the time I got out again the drug stores had closed and I was running out of vitamin C etc. So I decided on a different kind of medication – spicy penne con salsiccio (more meat) and vino roso and a run-of-the-mill Italian place. Quick note – the Scottish seem every bit as in love with Italian restaurants as we in the U.S., or at least ME in the U.S. or wherever else I may be. It struck me while I observed the clientele that I had never been to a Scottish city and not eaten at an Italian restaurant! Sorry! Oban was an exception, but then I had under two hours there an no gelato shops were in evidence on my quick tour.

And then I pretty much crashed again. One of the many difficulties in becoming ill within about 24 hours at the beginning of a long-ish jaunt is that I was constantly trying to catch up and never quite able to do so. Too exhausted to write, I opted for the mechanical task of getting my photos labeled and cropped and tidied up for blogs, Picasa, facebook. I’m falling behind on those as well.

Then I slept, had a last breakfast in Glasgow, and caught the train to Inverness. I’m delighted to say that the weather brightened more and more as we headed north! We changed trains in Perth, which was an ordeal because there were 6 minutes to change, and seven tracks to choose from, with no central board announcing which track would take us where. Several other passengers and I were searching, finally caught a rail official who pointed us to the proper track – of course it was number seven, and we had been dropped at number one. But as with the train from Glasgow to Perth, the seat reservations had not been able to be arranged (a continuing theme on Scotrail) so it was every passenger for her or himself. Fortunately the train was not full, we all got on just as it was pulling out, and had an enjoyable two-hour ride through highlands, not quite as dramatic as I’d seen on the way to Oban, to the lovely city of Inverness.

Of which more after breakfast!
Inverness from a bridge on the river
And a tasty breakfast it was! Take a note: You want the Winston Guesthouse when you visit Inverness. There is a tough, compact, middle-aged woman who runs it practically by herself (along with “the boss,” as she calls him or her, a shadowy figure I’ve never seen). As friendly as she can be. The room is more like a bedroom in a house than a hotel room, small but with all the amenities. The breakfast offers a choice of cereals and fruits – in the fruit bowl bananas, fresh plums and peaches and tangerines, as well as yogurt (I had peach and passionfruit, a yummy combo). I also had freshly scrambled eggs and bacon and wheat toast. Good start to a long day of touring.
The River Ness

The Winston sits on the River Ness, just across the bridge from the old downtown, less than ten minutes’ walk from train and bus stations. When you walk out the front door of the hotel the first thing you see is Inverness Castle, a series of church spires, and bridges down the river to what I can only assume is the famous Loch beyond. Just across the nearest bridge is the tourist center, so along with fine appointments a fine location. And only £60 a night, in this their busiest season.

So, back to the beginning. I took a taxi to the hotel. The driver was very friendly, pointed out the visitor center to me, and jawed a bit about the weather, which yesterday was simply gorgeous. Admittedly even a hint of sun seems wonderful after days of gray, but yesterday the sky was a deep blue, with large puffy and occasionally threatening clouds, perhaps 69 or 70 degrees with a brisk breeze. Beautiful weather for walking. The short walk I planned turned into a two-hour investigation of a place that, after the first touristic blush wears off, shows signs of a faltering economy, and as all over Great Britain disaffected youth. Still, many of the old buildings were quite nice, the walk along the river was one of the finest I’ve had since I’ve been on this side of the great pond, and I was also able to pick up vitamin C and the British version of Tylenol. While I walk, I of course look for restaurants. 

Many along the river were quite pricey, as you’d guess, but I found The Waterfront, a pub/restaurant (I mean this in the sense that as usual you order drinks from the bar, but if you let them know you’re eating you’re immediately seated and waited upon), at about 4 pm, discovered that they started serving dinner at 5, had a pint of McKewan’s 80, a powerful choice on an empty stomach, headed back to my hotel, and back again a bit after 5 for an early dinner. Advertised as featuring local fish, it was not quite as brilliant as I’d hoped, but tasty local salmon with potatoes and “summer root vegetables” slightly overcooked, was, for £9.95 not bad at all.

No matter how much I enjoyed myself, I was quite tired upon my return to the hotel, and had no energy to write. Managed to remain awake until a bit after ten pm, dosed myself with medication, and slept until breakfast, just described, and am now making up for lost writing time just before I get on the tour bus to The Isle of Skye.