Photo of the Day: Looking Down on Edinburgh

During my July visit to Edinburgh two years ago I decided to take a sunset hike up to Calton Hill (which is around 10:30 p.m. that time of year). Once you get to the top you are rewarded with breathtaking views of Edinburgh, such as the twilight scene captured in this photo.

Date: 7/5/2014
Camera: Nikon D5100
Click for larger view

You can view more featured photos at my Photo of the Day Collection.

Eurotrip 2014, Part 10: Edinburgh Castle

July 6, 2014: I awoke on my final day in Scotland, took one final look at the garden outside my window, and then headed downstairs to check out of my room. The train back to London would not be leaving until the late afternoon, so we had one free day left to spend in the city, and our hosts were kind enough to store our luggage in a room in the guest house after checkout so that we could enjoy the day without dragging around suitcases.

I chose to spend my final day visiting Edinburgh Castle and the Old Town, so after breakfast I headed outside and began the long walk to the castle. Between the distance and stopping for photos, it probably took me about an hour to get there. Here are some photos I snapped along the way.

Finally, I reached Edinburgh Castle and presented my ticket, which I had purchased online ahead of time and printed out. The castle did not disappoint–gorgeous architecture and stunning views of the city below. Some highlights of the castle itself were the 12th-century St. Margaret’s Chapel (the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh), the Great Hall (featuring a musical performance by a minstrel), the prison barracks, the Scottish War Memorial (in spite of some dude disrespectfully allowing his children to climb all over the lion statue as if they were in a playground), a touching little dog cemetery, and exhibits depicting medieval castle life.

After leaving the castle I made my into the Old Town to do some shopping, soak in the festive atmosphere, and eat a late lunch. I found a little hole-in-the-wall joint serving doener kebabs, which was perfect, as it has become a tradition to eat at least one doener kebab on every Eurotrip since I had my first one in Vienna back in 2007.

Here are a couple of photos from my walk in the city, including one shot of a woman dressed in a stormtrooper uniform—never expected to see that in Scotland. 🙂

I wanted to do a tour of Mary King’s Close, but there wasn’t enough time, so I meandered about the Old Town for a while longer (stocking up on various kinds of shortbread cookies for the wife) before making my way back to the guest house to grab my luggage and catch the bus to the train station, where I boarded a train for the roughly 5-hour ride back to London. The train arrived late in the evening, probably around 9:30. I said my goodbyes to George, who was a great guide, and gave him a good tip. I then headed back to the same Cartwright Gardens apartment building in which I had stayed during my first week in London.

However, checking back in to my flat turned out to be a 45-minute ordeal. I hauled my luggage up two flights of stairs, went to open my room, and there were people already in there–they had double-booked it. Luckily, I heard voices on the other side of the door before I tried to open it. By the time they sorted my room and provided me with everything they kept forgetting, I had run up and down two or three flights of stairs five times. I ended up in the same 3rd-floor room I had occupied during the previous week, which I liked better than the 2nd-floor room they initially tried to give me anyway, and the familiarity made me feel as if I was arriving home, so all was well that ended well.

After unpacking I collapsed into bed following nearly a week of getting very little sleep. I didn’t have definitive plans for the next day until the evening, when I would be heading to the theater district to see a show, so I decided to sleep in and not set a wakeup call. The rest of the week was mostly booked solid, so tomorrow would be a lazy day.

View more of my photos from Scotland.

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Eurotrip 2014, Part 9: Sunset on Calton Hill

July 5, 2014: After returning from the Scottish Highlands I took a brief break before heading back out into the city. On the recommendation of my guide George, I decided to take a sunset hike up to Calton Hill, which offers breathtaking views of Edinburgh. But first I stopped for dinner at a fish & chips place, where I tried a fried cheeseburger, which was basically a cheeseburger deep-fried in batter like you would do with chicken. It seems that this type of frying is quite popular in Edinburgh, as there were many similar items on the menu, including deep-fried pizza, though I didn’t get a chance to try that.

Once I finished shoving that deep-fried decadence down my gullet, I continued on up to Calton Hill. Here are some photos I took along the way (click on any photo to view a larger version in a gallery).

I arrived shortly before sunset, which is around 10:30 p.m. that time of year, and was immediately grateful for George’s advice—the views were indeed spectacular. I would not have time on this trip to climb Arthur’s Seat, the large hill that looms over the city, so this was the next best thing. I stayed well into the night, so the following photos run the gamut from sunset to night shots. In addition to photos of the Calton Hill monuments, some of the wider shots showcase the picturesque cityscape, including Edinburgh Castle perched high on its hill, while shots from the other side of Calton Hill feature the sunset over the Firth of Forth.

At one point I climbed up onto the Greek-looking structure visible in a couple of the photos, known as the National Monument, an unfinished memorial to soldiers and sailors from the Napoleonic Wars that now appears to be a place for young people to hang out. The climb onto the monument was much harder that it looks—I actually needed a hand from one of the guys already up there, who was kind enough to help me up. Only after getting to the top did I realize that at some point I would have to make the long jump back down. 🙂

Eventually it was time to make the long walk back to my room. I arrived around midnight and got to bed as quickly as possible after packing my bags. In the morning I would be checking out of the guest house and then spending the day at Edinburgh Castle before catching the train back to London.

So, do I recommend a visit to Calton Hill? Absolutely! It’s well worth your time.

View more of my photos from Scotland.

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Eurotrip 2014, Part 8: A Journey Through Braveheart Country

Flash Forward: The Scottish Highlands

July 5, 2014: My first full day in Scotland got off to a hectic start. I was scheduled to embark on an all-day tour of the Highlands, culminating in a cruise on Loch Ness. The bus would be picking me up at 7 a.m. so I set my alarm for around 5 a.m. in order to have plenty of time to get ready. At one point in the morning I awoke but assumed it was still early since my alarm hadn’t gone off, so I started to go back to sleep. Something, however, told me to look at the clock and when I did, it read quarter-to-seven!! My alarm had never gone off and I now had just 15 minutes to scramble around like a chicken with its head cut off—forget breakfast or showering, it was all I could do just to get my ass out the door in time to meet the bus. I would have been devastated if I had missed out on the Highlands tour; it was my main reason for coming to Scotland.

I made it on to the bus in the nick of time and we were off . . . well, not quite. We had to pick up some more passengers, who were apparently running late, and we ended up waiting an extra 15 minutes, so perhaps the bus would have waited for me as well—but I’m glad I was there on time; I would not have wanted to make other people on the tour wait for me.

Our bus driver also turned out to be our guide, and I found him to be quite entertaining and knowledgeable. He talked over the intercom throughout our journey, treating us to interesting tidbits of Scottish history, as well as current events like the impending vote for independence from the U.K. He was a wealth of information, and I was impressed that he could be that engaging while also driving the bus (and it was a long drive to the Highlands and back). I was somewhat annoyed that other people weren’t paying attention to him, either talking loudly among themselves or playing with their mobile devices, but if that’s how they wanted to spend the long bus ride, not learning anything, to each their own, I guess.

Before reaching the Highlands we passed by several landmarks, a few of which I photographed from the bus, doing my best to minimize window glare (you can click on any image in this post for a larger view).

I think this monument is related to the Battle of Bannockburn.
Stirling Castle
The Wallace Monument
The castle used by Monty Python in “The Holy Grail.”

At our first rest stop I managed to gobble down a late breakfast, and then it was off to Braveheart country. The Highlands are absolutely breathtaking—beauty in every direction and sparsely populated so you can really envision what it must have been like to be a Highlander back in the day. I also enjoyed the best views of lakes (or lochs, as they are called in Scotland) framed by mountains I had seen since going through Switzerland, though I think I liked the Scottish Highlands even more. There’s just so much green, largely untouched by civilization, it’s like a dream. I’m sure there are harsh winters, but that didn’t stop me from fantasizing about living there. Here are some photos from the bus.

Scenes of the Hogwarts Express in the HP films were shot on this railroad.

Looks like a boneyard.

About halfway into the Highlands we made a brief stop for photos, and what a gorgeous location it was.

Later in the day we made another stop for lunch and I took the opportunity to hit the ATM (my use of the ATM here was reported as potential suspicious activity to my wife back at home). Before long we were back on the bus and bound for the home of Nessie: Loch Ness. Upon arrival, we toured the ruins of Urquhart Castle, which sits on the shore of the loch. This castle was once owned by the Grant clan (the large tower is known as Grant Tower) and, as my wife’s last name is Grant and she has Scottish ancestry, I choose to believe that her family owned the castle. 🙂

After touring the castle it was time to hop on a boat for our cruise to the other end of Loch Ness. One thing you notice about the water is that it looks almost black. This is due to a high concentration of peat in the water. The low visibility resulting from this murkiness is one reason the myth of Nessie has perpetuated even into the 21st century.

The cruise was nice and relaxing, with spectacular scenery. Here are some photos.

At the end of the boat ride it was time for the long drive back to Edinburgh. As the bus driver dropped us off, I noticed that nobody else appeared to be tipping him, but I felt that he’d more than earned it, so I gave him ten pounds and thanked him. I wish I remembered his name so I could recommend him as the driver/guide to ask for on this tour.

I arrived back at my room around 8 p.m., but my night was not over. Soon I would be heading out for a late dinner followed by a hike up Calton Hill to catch some views of Edinburgh at sunset, which in this case was around 10:30, but that excursion will be covered in the next installment. In the meantime, I leave you with one final panorama of Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle. If you are ever in Scotland, a trip to the Highlands is a must. It is one of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever visited.

View more of my photos from Scotland.

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Eurotrip 2014, Part 7: Off to Scotland

July 4, 2014: While the rest of my American brethren were busy celebrating Independence Day, I was hopping on a train in the country from which we won our independence, bound for Scotland.

Following a late night at the Monty Python concert, I awoke at 4 a.m. to get ready and check out of my London flat. It would have been nice to keep the apartment through the weekend and just bring a small suitcase for my three-day Scotland trip, but doing so would have been too expensive (the rental prices really skyrocket on weekends), so I packed everything up and lugged it all the way to King’s Cross station, where I met up with my tour group.

This was my first of two tours booked with International Friends (the second would be Amsterdam on the following weekend) and would prove to be the best part of my entire two-week stay in the U.K.; I just loved Scotland.

Our guide, George, introduced himself and gave us our train tickets, and before long we were on our way. There were reserved seats on the train for our group, which was nice, as I was able to have a pair of seats to myself. The ride took about 4.5 hours. After arriving in Edinburgh we hopped on a bus for a driving tour of the city. Here are a couple of photos from the bus ride.

Following the tour, we were dropped off at our guest houses. Most of the people on the tour chose the cheaper, shared rooms, but I upgraded to a nicer guest house with my own room. The only other person from the tour staying in my guest house was our guide George. The guest house was a cute, old building. The room was basic, no frills, but it was fine for two nights. The evenings were cool enough that the lack of AC didn’t bother me. The wi-fi was too weak to reach my room, but I didn’t really care about that—I hadn’t traveled to Scotland to surf the web.

After getting settled in I took a walk toward the center of the newer part of the city (we stayed on the New City side of the river); it was about a half-hour walk to the city center. Along the way I got my first taste of Scottish weather as it began pour. I ducked into a pub to eat a late lunch while waiting out the rain. The bacon and brie sandwich was pretty tasty and the glass of prosecco hit the spot.

I then ventured back out. Here are a couple of photos from my walk.  Due to the weather, I didn’t take too many photos on this day, but I would take a ton over the next two days.

I meandered a while longer and then headed back to my room. Later in the evening I accompanied George to a bar in the center of the city, where we would be having an optional group get together. For a while it was just the two of us, but then a few more people from the group showed up. I treated myself to some fine ale as well as a small glass of whiskey. I’m normally not a big whiskey drinker but Scotland is famous for its whiskey, so I had to try some.

Then came the big decision: do I try haggis? I had been leaning against it but I decided that I couldn’t go to Scotland without at least trying it—besides, I figured that if I can eat scrapple at home, there was no reason not to give haggis a go. So I ordered chicken stuffed with haggis in a whiskey gravy. It was actually pretty good, though probably not something I would ever crave.

Shortly after finishing dinner I headed back to the room. I had been functioning on just a few hours of sleep and I had a very long day ahead of me in the morning—a 13-hour round-trip journey into the Scottish Highlands. But before heading to bed I gazed out my window upon the latest sunset I had ever witnessed.

View From My Window

In New Jersey we’re used to it getting dark, even in the summer, by 9 p.m., but here in Edinburgh, the sky still had not gone completely dark by 11:30 p.m. Pretty wild.

View more of my photos from Scotland.

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Eurotrip 2014: The Movie

I still have to get around to writing and posting the journal for my trip to Europe this past summer. In the meantime, I have created a movie out of the videos I shot in England, Scotland, Paris, and Bruges. You can view the HD version by selecting 1080p from the quality settings of the video.

Scotland Panoramas

I’ve been home from my Eurotrip for nearly two months now and I’m still busy culling and processing all of my photos (it takes a long time to whittle over 2,000 photos down to around 1,000!), so it will be a while before I begin posting journal entries. In the meantime, here are some panoramas I took in Scotland. You can click on any of the photos to view a larger size…

This first one is my favorite.  Taken during my trip to the Scottish Highlands, it’s what I like to call an accidental panorama, meaning that it was not originally intended to be a panorama, but when I saw the two separate photos next to each other, I realized they were close enough in composition to be stitched together into a panorama that looks much better than either photo individually. It’s such a beautiful area it almost doesn’t look real; I want to live here.

This next one was taken at the same stop. The white house in the distance is basically all by itself–now that’s what I call privacy!

This one was taken from the grounds of Urquhart Castle on the shore of Loch Ness. The castle was once owned by the Grant family, who are most likely my wife’s ancestors, so being there was pretty neat. If you squint hard while gazing out over the loch, you might be able to catch a glimpse of Nessie. 🙂

This final one was taken at sunset from the top of Calton Hill in Edinburgh.

You can see more photos from my trip via the links below. The only ones I haven’t gotten to yet are Paris.

Photo of the Day: Edinburgh Castle Dog Cemetery

During my exploration of Edinburgh Castle in Scotland I happened upon this small garden that has been used since the 19th-century as a burial place for regimental mascots and officers’ dogs.

A dog lover myself, I found this to be quite touching, and the image stuck with me as much as anything else I saw in the castle, so I thought I’d share it.

Date: 7/6/2014
Camera: Nikon D5100
Click for larger view

You can view more featured photos at my Photo of the Day Collection.

My London Visit Has Become an Epic Eurotrip

It began with a passing thought:

Monty Python is doing a reunion show in London this July. How cool would it be to go see it live? And while I’m over there I could tour some of the UK. I’ve always wanted to visit England anyway.

That was way back in the early fall. I wasn’t very serious about it at the time because I had just returned from Mexico and was a bit worn out from all of the traveling I had done since 2011: in a two year span I had visited Italy, Croatia, Switzerland, Peru, and Mexico. I figured I could use a year off from international travel, so I pushed the idea to the back of my mind, where it sat for a few months, never quite going away.

Then a couple of weeks ago I decided to see if there were any Python tickets still available. I got a great deal on a mid-level seat from a ticket brokering service for practically face value, and from there my trip was born. The original plan was to stay in London for about a week, take some trips around the English countryside, and visit Scotland. However, when I realized how easy it is to travel to so many places in Europe from London, my plans began to expand: A day trip to Paris? Sure! A three-day journey to Amsterdam and Bruges? Hell, yeah!

I knew I wouldn’t have time to do all of this in a week, so I extended my stay to just over two weeks. The downside is that the cost of the trip has skyrocketed. I didn’t realize how much everything was adding up until after I had already planned everything (I was in sticker shock after my relatively inexpensive visits to Peru and Mexico). I thought about scaling back to save some money, maybe skipping the Amsterdam tour and shortening my stay, but I don’t know when (or if) I’ll ever be in this position again, so I decided to go for it.

I had considered just heading over to London and winging it, and there’s something to be said for the laid-back nature of such a trip, but I prefer to plan ahead (I guess it’s my OCD nature), so I’ve already booked all of my tours for the two weeks, leaving myself a few days of free time to explore London. I’m the type of person who functions better with some structure anyway, and these tours will force me to do much more than I otherwise would–if left to my own devices, I would probably sleep half of my days away. 🙂

I did a lot of research into lodging in London; it’s not a cheap place to stay. In an effort to keep expenses down, I eschewed traditional hotels in favor of a no-frills studio apartment near Kings Cross. I could have gone even cheaper with a B&B or hostel, but this seemed just right for my sensibilities–a decent sized room with air-conditioning and a private bathroom. Having to check out each weekend when I leave for my trips will be a pain, but it didn’t make sense to rent the apartment for the entire 15 nights when I would be away on weekends (during which the price of the room would drastically increase).

So here’s my rough itinerary:

Days 1-2: Fly in and free time in London.

After checking in to my room, I may do one of those hop-on, hop-off bus tours to get acquainted with the city. I also just realized that my first week in London will coincide with the second week of Wimbledon, so it might be neat to head over there and see if I can get into a match.

Day 3: Paris

I’ll be taking the Eurostar train through the chunnel. The trip includes a guided tour of Paris, a two-course lunch with sparkling wine on the Eiffel Tower, a cruise on the River Seine, and an optional visit to The Louvre, which I think I will skip since I’ll only be there for the day and it’s my first time in Paris. The Louvre would be really cool to see, but I’d rather spend my only afternoon in the city wandering around and soaking in its atmosphere.

Day 4: Stonehenge and Bath

I chose a sunset tour because I thought that would be a cool time to see Stonehenge. I booked special access so that I can walk inside the circle among the stones (most people must view them from behind ropes). Earlier in the day we will be visiting the town of Bath (another place on my must-see list) to tour the Roman Baths and Pump Room. After that we visit a Saxon village called Lacock, where we will have dinner in a 13th Century inn.

Day 5: Monty Python

I’ll probably do some walking around London and also packing for my trip to Scotland during the day before heading to the O2 that evening for the Monty Python reunion show, aka my entire reason (or excuse) for taking this Eurotrip.

Days 6-8: Scotland

This trip includes a tour of the city of Edinburgh, and I will be taking the second-day optional excursion to the Scottish Highlands, including Loch Ness (I’ll keep an eye out for Nessie!). I chose free time for the third day, during which I am planning to meander about the city and possibly tour Edinburgh Castle.

Day 9: Free Time in London

Maybe I’ll swing by the Battersea Power Station to duplicate the iconic Pink Floyd Animals cover (sans flying pig). I could check out Abbey Road and Baker Street as well; turn it into an an unofficial classic rock tour. Or maybe I’ll just relax and ride the ferris wheel all day. 😉

Day 10: The Cotswolds

I’m very much looking forward to this tour of the old English countryside, including visits to the historic riverside villages of Burford and Bibury. The tour originally included a visit to Stratford Upon Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace), but it sounds like we will now be visiting Stow-on-the-Wold instead.

Day 11: Leeds Castle, Canterbury, Dover & Greenwich

The first stop on this excursion is a private tour of Leeds Castle before it opens to the public. We then head to Dover for lunch and a photo op at the famous white cliffs. The next stop is Canterbury and a tour of the Cathedral followed by free time to explore the city. Then it’s off to Greenwich where, after a short walking tour, we will take a river boat along the Thames back into the heart of London. The cruise apparently includes a reception of tea/sparkling wine and scones. Sounds good to me!

Day 12: More Free Time in London

My last full day in London will probably be a good time to hit all of the touristy places I might have missed earlier. I’ll also be packing for my three-day Amsterdam trip.

Days 13-15: Amsterdam & Bruges

My first day in Amsterdam will include a walking tour, a canal cruise, and an optional evening walking tour of the Red Light District. The second day includes a trip to Zaanse Schanse, a living Dutch Museum, before heading back to Amsterdam in time for lunch, with visits to the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum, Heineken Brewery, Anne Frank House, and Dam Square. On the final day we head to Bruges, a beautiful city I’ve been wanting to visit since seeing the movie In Bruges (I wasn’t sure I’d ever make it there). Following Bruges, we arrive back in London late in the evening, giving me enough time to check in, pack, head to bed, and wake up early to fly back home.

Looking back at the itinerary now, I can’t believe how much I crammed into it (I think I went a little nuts), but it’s going to be one helluva trip. And I’ll be doing it solo. If you had told me even a few years ago that I would be flying to Europe for two weeks by myself, I would have said you were crazy. I’ve come a long way in terms of my confidence to travel alone.

Anyway, I’m glad that all of the planning and booking is behind me so I can just relax until the summer (other than trying to learn some French and Dutch). The only things I haven’t planned out ahead of time are places to eat, so I’d be grateful for any dining suggestions, particularly in London. One of the coolest aspects of becoming more involved with the blogging community has been sharing travel stories and tips with my fellow bloggers, so any suggestions you may have about things I should do while in London would be most welcome. 🙂

This will be my first overseas trip during the summer (all of my other trips were in the fall or spring), so it will be nice to not have to worry about packing layers for a change. Hopefully that means I’ll be able to travel lighter, though I don’t think I’ll be able to do the whole thing in a carry-on like I did in Mexico . . . and speaking of Mexico, I think it’s time I got back to writing up the journal of my trip. I need to finish it before June!