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.