Sunday, July 30, 2017

Scoping Out Scotland Part 2: Iona, But No Puffins

After wrapping up our time in Edinburgh, we headed out on the long drive to Oban, our base on the west coast of Scotland.  Matt did an awesome job driving our standard SUV on the left side of Scotland's crazy roads.  The highways are great, but once you leave them, the roads are narrow and twisty.  So getting anywhere takes three times longer than you expect.  It amazes me that tour buses are able to handle these roads so successfully, but they seem to be everywhere.

Our first stop was at the Falkirk Wheel, a huge contraption that moves boats between two canals with 80 feet of elevation change.  Twice each hour, the boats are docked in the wheel, which then turns 180 degrees to move the boats either up or down like a huge elevator.  It was pretty amazing to watch the wheel effortlessly move 4 boats around at a time.  In the 1930s, it would take half a day for boats to descend through the locks in this area--now it takes 5 minutes.  All this is done using the energy of 8 tea kettles. Here's a link to a time lapse video of the wheel in action.

Natalie was most excited about the bathtub of rubber duckies in the gift shop.
Rubber ducky, you're the one ...
Next we landed at Stirling Castle, which sits atop a rocky outcrop in the foothills of the Scottish highlands.  A number of Kings and Queens of Scotland have lived at the castle and it was subject to siege at least 8 times.  We weren't particularly interested in seeing the indoor spaces of the castle, so we spent our time checking out the wonderful views over the valley and letting Natalie run around on the very green lawn.

Robert the Bruce.  He's a fan favorite in Scotland.

Every castle needs some canons.

The grass is always greener in Scotland.
Nice harbor in Oben

We spent the night in Oban and hopped on a boat to begin our journey to the Inner Hebrides.  Our initial boat ride to the island of Mull was uneventful, but when we arrived to catch our bus to the port for our second ferry, we learned there had been a bus accident and the road to the second port was completely blocked. The bus company estimated that it would be a five hour wait before we could leave the tiny boat port.  About an hour later, the bus manager agreed to take about 20 of us in a mini bus the long way around the island to the port.  The two hour, white-knuckle, bus ride was a lot of twisty, single track roads, but pretty spectacular views. 
Apparently not all the bus drivers in Scotland have perfect driving records.  This guy was pretty good, though.
Turns out, by the time we made it around the long way across the island, the buses had been towed away and the road was reopened.  The crazy bus ride wasn't necessary, but we didn't mind it since the kiddos slept through 80% of it and the views were great.  

After another ferry ride, we finally arrived on Iona.  Iona is a small, mostly-car free island made for wandering and relaxing.  The centerpiece of the island is a centuries old abbey that lead the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland.  We befriended an older man after our ferry ride, Mr. Roberts, who had been coming to the island for over 50 years.  He had helped with the restoration of the abbey many years ago and had continued to come to the island ever since.  After spending just a few minutes checking out the village and the abbey, it was easy to see why Mr. Roberts had spent so much time relaxing on Iona.

Iona has a number of residents of the four-legged variety.  We were all very excited about our first close encounter with Scotland's famous Highland Cows.  They are pretty hairy dudes.

The next day, we had hoped to take a boat ride to Staffa to check off two bucket list items.  We had missed the puffins in Iceland when we visited and had reluctantly had to cut a trip to the Giant's Causeway when we were visiting Ireland.  Staffa has a puffin colony and the same kind of rock formations that made the Giant's Causeway, so we were excited to visit.  Unfortunately, the weather wasn't cooperating.  It was going to be very windy and the boat captain didn't recommend that two adults who get seasick take two little kids on a two-plus hour rocky boat ride.  So the puffins and fake Giant's Causeway will have to wait for another trip.  

So we went for a hike around Iona instead.  The kids were ready in their rain gear.  The weather started out fine ... but then ... Scotland.  Torrential downpours.  Oliver wasn't happy.  We almost turned back, but we pressed on and ended up having a pretty fun hike.  Iona is only 3.5 square miles with no actual hiking trails, so we just set off and climbed to the top of hills when we wanted to get our bearings.

So ... it was windy.
Once we had successfully conquered hiking Iona, we headed back to our hotel for some delicious food and a few minutes of bug hunting.

Oliver enjoyed some sweet potato as his first food

The kids were awesome during the boat-bus-boat ride back to Oban, so we celebrated with fish and chips for lunch, a distillery tour for Matt, some ice cream for Natalie, and a great meal at a Scottish gastropub for Kristin.  The rest of the night was spent enjoying the view from our hotel room.

This was before the ice cream.

Views for mom and dad.  Coloring for Natalie.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Scoping Out Scotland Part 1: Edinburgh

We'll admit it.  We've been terrible about updating this blog the past year.  But we have some renewed incentive now that the end of our time in Europe is fast approaching.  We have less than 3 months to go and are packing in as much travel as we can in the next few weeks before the apartment packing begins. Let's see if we can keep up with the blog posts in the process (and maybe share some long overdue ones in the process)!

How is it this bright and sunny in Scotland?  (Spoiler:  It doesn't last the whole trip.)
Since our last entry, we've been joined by a new traveling companion.  Oliver has been a very sweet addition to our family, but having two rather demanding travelers had made our travel a bit different these days.  We've been spending a lot more time on slowing things down and seeing fewer sites ... but looking for more playgrounds, rocks, sticks and ice cream each day. We've still been having lots of adventures, despite having an extra 20 chubby pounds in tow.

Our first stop on our travel blitz is Scotland.  Matt has been excited about hiking around with the kids, so we figured this would be a great destination. Especially since it is about 20 degrees cooler than anywhere else in Europe in August.  Armed with Matt's birthday present, a new kid-carrying hiking backpack, we headed to the land of Scotch, golf, and shortbread.

A view of Old Town Edinburgh
We found a great flat on Homeaway for our time in Edinburgh.  It was located in the "New" part of town in a 1800s townhouse.  The neighborhood had a number of hip restaurants (which we crave in super traditional Germany), yummy bakeries, and easy access to the great takeaway meals from Marks & Spencer.  

Yup, that's our kid eating a haggis and pulled pork sandwich.

Our first day was spent exploring Edinburgh Castle, which sits at the high point of the city on a strategically defensible rock.  Some of the buildings on the hill date from the 12th century.  
Oliver is impressed.

Once you reach the top, it is easy to understand why Scots have been living on this hill for centuries.  It has wonderful views across the city and to the sea.  And is the best place for setting up your cannons if you are looking to defend a castle.  Natalie thought it was particularly good for running around.  

Watch your step on those cobblestones.

Natalie thought this guard post was for dancing.  She had a private dance party in it for about 20 minutes.

While we were visiting the castle, they were setting up for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.  Nope, it isn't a tattoo artist convention.  It's a military band and performance festival held each August in an open air stadium on the Edinburgh Castle military parade grounds.  It's one of the many popular events in Edinburgh in August, which means big crowds and high prices.  Although we were sad to miss the pomp of the Tattoo, we were happy to visit Edinburgh at the end of July when it was a bit less busy.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the beginnings of the Royal Mile.  The buildings in Edinburgh's Old Town were built many levels high, creating the some of the world's first skyscrapers.  But it also meant lots of people living in a small area of the city, which meant it wasn't the cleanest historically.  It has been cleaned up and awaits a flood of tourists, most of whom are darting in and out of souvenir shops.    

Day 2 was spent wandering around the New Town and the Royal Mile.  The edge of New Town has great views of the Old Town.  In between these two areas, there is a valley that is a drained loch called the Princes Street Gardens.  The landscaping is lovely, and Edinburg-ers seem to spend a lot of time relaxing on the grounds.  

Say goodbye to those blue skies.

The gardens includes a very cool flower clock, which takes two gardeners nearly a month to plant.  All of the pieces are organic, other than the clock mechanism itself.  

Our last stop along the Royal Mile was the Place of Holyroodhouse, the 16th century castle that is home to Queen Elizabeth II when visiting Edinburgh.  Scotland's royal families have preferred living here, over Edinburgh Castle, so the castle complex is huge. QEII prefers spending time at her other Scottish castle, Balmoral, so this castle is used by her for only about 1 week a year.    

We didn't stay here.  It was a bit pricey on Airbnb.

Our last day in Edinburgh was spent like our first two days--filled with more wandering.  We headed to the south side of the city to do some shopping in the cute streets behind Edinburgh Castle.  

There was even a cute Harry Potter-themed shop.  We can't wait to share those books with Natalie and Oliver, but for now it just made for some cute pictures.  Natalie's officially tall enough to be a Junior Witch/Wizard.

Having checked out the back of Edinburgh Castle, we headed to our flat again, ready for more adventures in the rest of Scotland.


Friday, July 1, 2016

Belgium Revisited...Brussels, Bruges, and Ghent

My dad loves mussels and good beer, while my mom loves chocolate, so it seemed like a great idea to (re)visit Belgium.  Taking advantage of the long 4th of July weekend, we booked a night in Brussels and then four in Bruges.  This trip ended up being the longest European vacation Kristin and I have taken since moving here...we save extended stays for when we travel longer distances (India and the USA).

So one day (Wednesday) we hopped on a train after lunch in Stuttgart, had a 2 minute layover in Frankfurt to literally just cross the platform, and then we were in Brussels!

Little more comfortable than 5 of us in the car
Acting on a tip from the guide book, our first stop after dropping our bags was a great place off the main square for dinner.

The mussels were even better than I remembered...
After dinner and a bit of walking around, Dad and I left the ladies to chocolate shop while I took him to a bar we had discovered on our last trip to Brussels.  By some claims, Au Bon Vieux Temps is the oldest bar in Brussels (proudly serving for over 300 years!), and they regularly have one of the best beers in the world available as well.  What better way for father and son to celebrate visiting the fine beer capital of the world?

Westvleteren Brewery, at the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus, was founded in 1838 and for the last 70 years has consistently brewed 60,000 cases of beer, not a drop more.  The monks heavily discourage the reselling of their beer, so to get it from them you have to call their "beer hotline" a month in advance and place your order.  You then have to show up at the prescribed time and each car is limited to one case of beer.  Their Westvleteren 12 has been named by a few groups as the best beer in the world, so you can imagine the demand has gone up, up, up as the supply remains flat.  We felt fortunate to find a place that offers it, especially at a reasonable price.  Welcome to Belgium.

Thursday morning Kristin, Natalie and I played tour guide and showed my parents all of the best highlights of Brussels.   

360° view of the Grand Place (click to enlarge and then scroll around)

Normal view of the Grand Place
Fuel for the tour

And of course Manneken Pis

With tour tour of Brussels finished, we headed to the station and hopped on a train to Bruges.  Earlier in the day we had checked out of our hotel and left our bags in luggage lockers at the station.  As we were reassembling them, Natalie decided to explore one.

There are frequent trains from Brussels to many parts of Belgium, making travel extremely easy. We arrived in Bruges in about an hour and then we settled into our Airbnb house.

After a couple of days with 90° temperatures and no air conditioning in Stuttgart and Prague, we welcomed the temperatures in the 60s that kept us in jackets.

Growing up in a house built around 1920, I thought I knew about old houses.  This one was built in 1673!  It was nicely restored and provided a great base for our adventures over the next few days.

Just walking around Bruges was a pleasure.  The town is full of interesting old buildings and the canals cutting through it add loads more charm.

The first night we easily found a good cafe and enjoyed a great view of the quintessential bell tower.

The next day, Friday, I took Dad to the Bruges Beer Museum as part of his birthday present so we could learn a little more about what Belgium has to offer.  In a country with three official languages (Dutch, French, and German) and a museum catering to tourists from around the world, the museum took a novel approach and didn't post any captions next to the exhibits.  Instead, there is just a picture and you use the camera on the provided iPad to get the description in text or audio in your preferred language.  Some exhibits even have videos associated with them.  It was a clever solution that I expect to see in lots more museums in the future.

My favorite part was a wall where they had paintings of all 11 monasteries that produce Trappist beer, as well as a picture of their hallmark beer (in the proper glass, of course!).  Each had a code next to it so you could learn more about their history.

I don't know why it was so dimly lit
The rest of the day we continued to explore the city.

Toward the end of the day, we were all getting tired (except for Natalie) and just happened to find ourselves only a couple of blocks from De Halve Maan brewery (the only active family brewery in Bruges), so of course we had to stop.  I have heard mixed reviews about the brewery tour so we skipped that and just relaxed on their terrace while sipping some great local beer, their Straffe Hendrik quad (more serious than a dubbel or tripel style beer).  


Saturday was Kristin's birthday!  The sun was shining so we decided to walk out to some windmills that border the main canal around the old town.  It was amazing to see how they were built to pivot in a circle to continue to capture the wind.  Twenty-five formerly surrounded the city, with many built in the late 1700s, while four survive today after having been rebuilt over the years.  

The little girl on the left was at the park for fencing practice.  Very cute.

We then headed downtown for a delicious lunch at Cambrinus (awesome place!) before meeting a local guide and photographer from Photo Tour Bruges.  Kristin joked that it was a present to herself but the tour was great fun for everyone.  Our guide Andy showed us lots of forgotten corners of the city and helped Kristin learn about the best ways to capture them with her camera.  Get ready for lots more pictures...

Natalie was just excited to run around while mom stopped to take lots of shots.

Full disclosure: the guide, Andy, actually took this one.  The rest are Kristin's handiwork.

Still mom's favorite subject

After another wonderful day exploring Bruges, we relaxed for happy hour on the patio of our place.

Westmalle for me and Rochefort for Dad
Kristin and I then headed out to a fancy birthday dinner, while Natalie went to dinner with her grandparents.  We don't use many babysitters in Stuttgart so we really appreciated the night out.

The next day we hopped a train south for about 30 minutes to Ghent.  While a little bigger and more diverse than Bruges, it also has many amazingly old buildings and embraces its waterways.

We started in the center of town, craning our necks to admire the medieval belfry that is actually the tallest in Belgium (take that Bruges) and was originally built in the 1300s.  Across the square from it is Saint Bavo's Cathedral, which we got to tour the inside of (unfortunately no photography is allowed).  The frescos were amazing, but I think the basement was even more interesting, where you can even see remnants from the wooden Chapel of St. John the Baptist that was built in the site in 942.  Not a typo...942!

What can I say...she's in every second or third picture I take!

The building on the right is one huge building with lots of different facades.

Behind the statue was the old Socialist Party headquarters, with some great architecture.

The other prominent church is Saint Nicholas' Church, which was built even before the belfry in the 1200s out of blueish stone from a river in western Belgium.  It still stands in the trade hub of downtown Ghent.

Just when we didn't think it could get any more medieval, we came across the Gravensteen.  It's an incredible castle from the 1100s that gives a great sense of how intimidating such a structure was in the middle ages.  Natalie was asleep and we were running short on time so we decided to save a tour for the next time we're up that way, which I hope isn't too far off.
This castle is just sitting in the middle of the city.  You turn a corner and are magically at Medieval Times.

Of course when she did wake up, Natalie got to experience her favorite part of Ghent...her first trip on a carousel.

Despite pouring when we first arrived, we were lucky to have great weather the rest of the day and really enjoyed our side trip.  I could have spent a couple more days in Ghent, and hope to at some point, but I'm glad we spent the bulk of our time in Bruges.

At the Ghent train station hopping the train back to Bruges

Feeling ambitious for our last day, we packed up our suitcases, left them in a locker at the train station, and rented bikes to pedal out to the countryside.  It was fun (and flat!) following the canals and enjoying the scenery.  We even got caught at a drawbridge waiting for a barge going through a lock, which was pretty cool to see.  From the number of barges we saw around the city, this must be a frequent excuse for drivers arriving late.

According to Mom, we rode at least 73 miles to a cute little town of Damme, about halfway between Bruges and the Netherlands border.  Again we really lucked out with the weather, perfect for such an activity.

Natalie fell asleep on the way back.  When we stopped to wait for Mom, I braced her head while she kept snoozing.

Time for one last hurrah with mussels and beer
While not anxious to leave Bruges, some of us were happy to return the bikes.  We then gathered our luggage and hopped on the train for a relaxing ride back to Stuttgart.  Luckily (and by design) we had enough of a layover in Brussels that I was able to run to the supermarket down the street and grab a few more beers, which are the best souvenirs.