Scotland Diaries: Flying Home and Final Thoughts

Saturday, August 24

Soundtrack: “The Skye Boat Song”

In the morning, we did the last of our packing and tidying up of the Airbnb. I swear that somehow, dirty clothes gain mass because it was way tougher to get all of my stuff back into their packing cubes  (the whisky, cashmere, and woolen goods I had accumulated didn’t help matters).

The entire trip, we didn’t post any driving photos so we wouldn’t jinx ourselves. After returning the car to the Hertz lot, we finally took celebratory photos of our two fearless drivers, Adrienne and Elizabeth, who took us across Scotland and back with nary a scratch in a rental Mercedes. I don’t think the Hertz employee who checked us in had ever witnessed such a lengthy photo sesh in their parking lot.

At the airport, I perused whisky in the Duty Free shops for too long, and ran out of time to fill out my VAT forms. This was a Big Mistake (see my travel tips below). We boarded our first plane to Heathrow and said our final goodbyes to Scotland.

Obligatory airplane window shot

As we descended towards Heathrow for our layover, I serendipitously spotted Windsor Castle on my side of the plane. Gahhh I’m dying for season 3 of The Crown.

Windsor Castle

On the long flight to Chicago, I watched two Harry Potter movies, feeling a little zing of happiness each time they showed the Glenfinnan Viaduct and Scottish countryside. What a magical trip we had. My heart was bursting with love for my friends and the week we got to share together. And now, I was grateful to be zooming home towards Kurt, hoping he’d bring our dog when he picked me up at the airport.

He did!

River!

 

In my final post, I typically share a few tips for anyone traveling to the same destination:

  • Driving: Everyone asks what it was like to drive on the left side of the road. Since I didn’t get behind the wheel myself, I can’t comment, but I think all four of us agreed that our plan worked out for the best. Having two drivers allowed for trading off throughout the trip, while also giving them both enough practice to get confident at the varying challenges (city traffic, narrow winding country roads, all the roundabouts, driving in all kinds of weather, etc.). Whoever was riding shotgun took an active role in assisting the driver by navigating and letting them know if the car was drifting too close to the left side of the lane. Renting a car allowed us lots of freedom to create our own schedule, but it added a sometimes stressful element to the trip. If you’re considering renting a car, definitely balance out the pros and cons of driving vs. taking trains and make whatever is the best choice for you.
  • VAT tax refund: gah, so I ran out of time to fill out the forms that I had been given in shops where I purchased whisky and cashmere. My best advice is to fill these out ahead of time, and allow extra time to find where you need to submit your claim at the airport in case of a line. If I had had my forms ready at the Glasgow airport, their process was quick and simple, but instead I filled them out on our first flight thinking I could take care of it at Heathrow. Once we got there, I had to track down the VAT window, which had a looooong line. They also required you to have the goods you were claiming with you, and I had checked all of my stuff in my luggage back in Glasgow. You can’t claim the refund once you’ve left the UK, so I missed my chance to get about £30 back. Ah well. Learn from my mistake!
  • Packing: The week before we left, the four of us had an ongoing text thread as we figured out what to pack. Be prepared for rain every day in Scotland. However (at least on our mid-August trip), it tended to be the kind of light rain that comes and goes throughout the day, and I preferred wearing a light rain jacket over carrying around an umbrella.  Wearing layers is definitely the way to go, as mornings and evenings are cooler and it warmed up quite a bit when the sun came out. Packing for outdoors activities like hiking, camping, and horseback riding is easy for me, but I struggled with figuring out a second wardrobe for city nightlife while still trying to travel as light as possible. Thankfully, people dressed pretty casually in the cities we visited, and I never felt underdressed in a pair of black jeans with a nice jacket. Here’s what I brought, which fit into 4 packing cubes and in my carry-on suitcase (I ended up wearing every single item at some point):
    • rain jacket
    • fleece layer
    • sweatshirt
    • flannel shirt
    • thin thermal wool camping shirt
    • water-resistant camping pants
    • 2 pairs of jeans (1 blue, 1 black)
    • 1 “going out” v-neck top
    • 4 t-shirts
    • 1 black long-sleeved shirt
    • 1 pair olive cotton capri pants (worn on plane)
    • black faux leather jacket
    • black short boots
    • waterproof hiking shoes (worn on plane)
    • stocking hat
    • pajamas, socks, and underwear
  • I also brought a small backpack which fit beneath the airplane seat, in which I carried my device chargers, universal converter, Kindle, notebook, sunglasses, and toiletries. The backpack has a lot of room to expand, which helped for the return trip and all of my souvenirs.
  • Just do it! This trip all came about because my friends and I first starting talking about going half-jokingly after I got everyone into Outlander, but then grew more serious over time as we started thinking, why not make it happen?. If there’s a place you’re dying to visit, do it–start putting aside money when you can, start doing your trip research, pull the trigger and buy that plane ticket, whatever it takes to make it into a reality. It will be worth it.

 

Scotland Diaries: Doune It Right

Tuesday, August 20

Soundtrack: “Take Me Out” Franz Ferdinand

Itinerary:

  • breakfast in Inverness
  • explore Doune Castle
  • drive to Edinburgh
  • ghost tour of the catacombs

Inverness
After a night of wine hiking and campfire, my body was calling for a big, hearty breakfast. We drove into town for a traditional Scottish fry up at the Rendezvous Cafe (fun fact: the Beatles performed there in 1960). Our breakfast included: a fried egg, bacon, link sausage, lorne sausage,  Stornoway black pudding, haggis, tatty scone, baked beans, mushrooms, sliced tomato, and toast. I tried haggis for the first time and enjoyed it. It has a savory flavor that Anita described perfectly: “It tastes like Thanksgiving.”

nom nom nom

Doune Castle
The drive to Doune took us through  beautiful Caingorms National Park (and thankfully, it had wider roads than Loch Lomond & The Trossachs). There’s so many places in Scotland that I want to return to for camping.

Doune Castle was originally built in the 13th century, and rebuilt a century later after it was damaged during the Scottish Wars of Independence. In contemporary times, it’s served as a shooting location for Monty Python & the Holy Grail, Game of Thrones (used as Winterfell in the pilot episode), and Outlander (Castle Leoch). These are three of my FAVORITES, so we were psyched for the tour. I have a lifelong fascination with castles, likely due to my love of historical fiction and fantasy novels, and this documentary that we watched multiple times in high school World Civ.

A Stark must always be in Winterfell

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone

The self-guided tour features audio tracks recorded by Terry Jones and Sam Heughan, which is a fun touch. Strolling around a castle courtyard with Jamie Fraser’s voice murmuring in your ear is about as good as it gets. The gift shop even features an Outlander-themed selfie station, complete with Claire’s costumes that can be slipped on over your clothing.

Edinburgh
We arrived in the city around mid-afternoon. Being in town during the last week of Fringe meant that the city was packed with people, but it also added a buzz of energy to the atmosphere. Street performers were ubiquitous, and we stopped multiple times to take in a song, drum line, or puppet show. I turned a corner and was awestruck by my first glimpse of Edinburgh Castle looming atop a hill above the city.

A troupe of drummers performers near Edinburgh Castle

After dinner at BABA, an excellent Mediterranean restaurant, we grabbed a few pints at a bar that featured haggis bombs (Irn-Bru with a shot of Jägermeister). From there, we walked to the Old Town area near St. Giles Cathedral and Mercat Cross, the starting point of our ghost tour. As twilight set in, the golden lighting made the city even look more storybook magical. A gothic tower twisted against the backdrop of blue sky, which at first glance looks like the home of a Disney villainess (in actuality, it’s Scott Monument, a Victorian-era spire honoring Sir Walter Scott). I’d only been in Edinburgh for a few hours and I was completely enchanted by this place.

Scott Monument

On High Street, we reached peak Fringe Fest crowds, and dodged people passing out fliers for their shows while navigating the packed cobblestone roads. The ghost tour took us through the alleys and closes of Old Town, and our guide shared informative stories about life in Edinburgh in the late 1700s. Eventually, she led us underground into the catacombs beneath the city, lit solely by candlelight. The air in the vaults was thick and humid, and we listened to true stories about murderers, bodysnatchers, and ghostly encounters.

inside the Edinburgh Vaults

To cap off the night, we had a few cocktails at a speakeasy hidden beneath a vintage barber shop. An elaborate menu noted the techniques used to create their cocktails, including Sous vide, fat washing, and centrifuge. We stayed until the bar staff announced last call, then walked back to our Airbnb, giddy on handcrafted cocktails and love for Edinburgh.

Scotland Diaries: a Day in the Highlands

Monday, Aug. 19

Soundtrack: “Forests and Sands” Camera Obscura

Itinerary:

  • horseback riding in the Highlands hiking near Plodda Falls
  • look for the Loch Ness Monster
  • high tea at The Loch Ness Country House
  • glamping in Inverness

The Highlands
One of the first lessons we learned in the Highlands was to add 30-40 minutes onto all our driving times previously estimated from our ignorant positions in front of Google Maps back home. We had booked a horseback riding tour through the Highlands, supposedly 90 minutes from Spean Bridge. However, the final stretch took us on a single-lane winding road in and out of a valley, with multiple byway stops in order to let oncoming vehicles pass. By the time we reached the stable, we were nearly an hour late and our group had left without us. Even the sheep on the stable grounds ran away from us before we could pet them. Our disappointment was palpable. But sometimes, things are just not meant to be, so we pivoted to a new plan: hiking to Plodda Falls.

Plodda Falls

The hike turned out to be the perfect thing to lift our spirits. A short walk from the trailhead led us to the top of the falls, and we ventured out onto a wooden bridge over 40 meters (131 feet) above the riverbed. Among the treetops, we had a fantastic view of the forest all around us. I’m telling you, the greens in Scotland are unreal–leaves, lichen, and moss saturated with chlorophyll and rain and fairy magic probably, to the point of bursting with color. We followed the trail down alongside the waterfall, where we got drenched with mist. I was thrilled for this chance to do some hiking before we reached the city-bound stretch of our trip, and happily stomped my way through puddles to get the most of out of the waterproof hiking shoes I’d hauled across the Atlantic.

Loch Ness

It’s a Sassenach summer

Fun fact: I have a Loch Ness monster tramp stamp (or as I call it, a Triassic stamp, ba-dum-bah!) I am a sucker for any sort of mythology, especially if it involves fantasy creatures. The area surrounding Loch Ness is full of kitschy tourist attractions, pretty similar to what I experienced recently in Roswell, New Mexico. This was where we did some souvenir shopping browsing the selection of t-shirts, tchotchkes, and calendars of men in kilts. We paid £7 each to enter a Nessie exhibit, which I found rather disappointing until we discovered a hidden OUTLANDER-THEMED ROOM (seriously, way to bury the lede, Nessieland!). After doing a quick change out of our hiking clothes behind a shed in a parking lot, we rushed over to our next agenda item, traditional tea service in a country house. Though first, we did a shot of whisky sharing Adrienne’s family name as we stood alongside Loch Ness, toasting with her clan motto: “If not peace, war!”

No Nessie sightings today

During our tea (which included Prosecco, cold sandwiches, appetizers, and a crowd-pleasing three-tiered tray of desserts), we noted the background music, a Spotify playlist of acoustic covers. Little did we know at this point the popularity of this particular playlist in Scotland, as John Mayer and Ed Sheeran would continue to follow us the entire week, crooning from hidden speakers in the corner of multiple coffee shops and restaurants. I always get a kick out of seeing what is popularly used as atmospheric music (for example, Sweden had a preference for pop tunes straight off every Dawson’s Creek soundtrack from the mid-aughts).

our tea time view

Inverness
We stopped at a Tesco to pick up wine and snacks for our night of glamping (I can’t think of the popular UK grocery chain without hearing Lily Allen sing in my head “She was struggling with bags from Tesco”). Our glamping pod was located in the outskirts of Inverness, a round little hobbit house with a fire pit. The pod was an adorable decked out with a double bed, two bunk beds, and a shower that made me feel like I was in a transporter from Star Trek. It was a cool night, slightly misty, and we craved a little more exploration, so we embarked on a “wine hike” through a nearby park. The wooded path was lined with holly shrubs, and followed a winding little creek.

Back at the pod, we made a fire, had some more wine, and enjoyed the peace, quiet, and lack of John Mayer.

our glamping pod

 

Scotland Diaries: Arrival in Glasgow

Friday, Aug. 16/Saturday, Aug. 17

Soundtrack: “Dry the Rain” Beta Band

Many months ago, three friends and I first began kicking around the idea of planning a trip to Scotland. The four of us are writers, and the plan originated as a writing retreat, but then our wanderlust, Harry Potter/Outlander fandom, and sense of adventure kicked in, and the plan for the quiet week in a Highlands cabin turned into a country-spanning road trip.

a street on a sunny day. A person in a yellow city smock leads a crowd of people waving rainbow and trans pride flags.

Glasgow Pride Parade

I was the first to arrive in Glasgow, having booked an earlier flight. I left work on a Friday afternoon and headed to O’Hare. On the plane, I watched Brave to get into the spirit. After a layover at Heathrow, I landed in Glasgow on Saturday morning around 10 a.m. From the bus stop, my 10-minute walk to the hotel turned into a 45-minute adventure as I ran into Glasgow’s Pride Parade. In no big hurry, I watched for a while, cheering and waving, then eventually found enough of a gap in marchers where I could dance my way across the street with luggage in tow. It was such a perfectly positive and joyful way to start my trip.

After I dropped off my luggage, I began my solo exploration. I love walking and wandering around a new city. I went into a local coffee chain, Cafe Nero, and tried to order, but was quickly reminded of the scarcity of drip coffee in Europe. Duh, this is why Americano is a thing, I reminded myself, ordering a large. My love of an oversized black coffee is very Americano.

As I walked along the River Clyde, the weather turned from sunny to gray, and the skies opened into torrential rain. I stayed out on the street just long enough to snap a pic of a large mural of Billy Connolly, hometown hero, then began sprinting in the direction of my hotel. Before I could get to the end of the block, the rain stopped and the sun came back out.  Ah, Scotland weather. As a Chicagoan, I have fond feelings for challenging weather, so I tied my rain jacket around my waist and continued my wanderings.

who knew Titanic Live was in town??

In the evening, my friends arrived after slogging through two layovers in two different countries. We were all in that slippery state of half-exhausted, half-exhilarated, so after a quick freshen-up, the four of us went for a few pints at the BrewDog DogHouse. After we grabbed an outdoor table, two locals asked if they could share with us. They began dispensing local tips, mostly consisting of how to properly trash talk each other’s favorite football club, when it’s acceptable to drop the c-bomb in Scotland (all the time), and the importance of ending a night of drinking with pizza crunch (i.e. deep-fried pizza). They also jokingly warned us of wild haggis potentially attacking our car in the Highlands (i.e. the Scottish Jackalope, but with way more fabulous hair).

After drinks, we said goodbye to our table friends and grabbed dinner at an excellent tapas restaurant. On a stomach full of sangria (speaking for myself), we explored the City Centre at night. I love being this far north in the world, where the nighttime light looks soft blue and magical.

Glasgow City Chambers

 

 

 

Denmark Diaries: Flying Home and Final Thoughts

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Our morning consisted of getting coffee and breakfast, packing our suitcases, saying goodbye to our friends, then taking the Metro to the airport. After a brief layover in Reykjavík (and a skyr for the road), we chased the daylight home and landed in Chicago at 6 p.m. local time and  1 a.m. Denmark time, blergh. It was sad to reach the end of our adventure–and have to return to work–but I was grateful for two things: my own bed and cuddles from our dog and cat.

Goodbye Copenhagen, you were lovely

A lot of people have since asked me what our favorite part of the trip was, and it’s impossible to pick one thing. Overall, Kurt and I both really enjoyed the experience of spending most of the week in one city, fully immersing ourselves in the various neighborhoods, culture, food, and scenery.  We had plenty of time to see everything on our to-do list and also explore, wander, and make our own little discoveries. The only thing that we ended up skipping was the Little Mermaid statue, mostly because a). our friend Zsolt told us that there’s not much else in the same area to make it worthwhile, and b) we saw exact replicas of it all over the place anways.

woman next to Little Mermaid statue

Little Mermaid replica at Carlsberg Brewery

Copenhagen had been on my wish list for years before we made this trip. I tend to be drawn to northern places over warm beach destinations for some reason I can’t quite explain, other than I must be half Wildling. Besides Denmark and Sweden, Kurt and I have been to Alaska and Iceland in recent years, and I am itching to travel to Norway, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Svalbard (Kurt thinks I’m crazy re: that last one). But I owe Kurt a few tropical vacations next, and I definitely want to someday visit the third country of my heritage, the Philippines, now that I’ve seen Ireland and Sweden. After being home for a few weeks, I find myself already looking at maps, daydreaming about our next adventure.

Denmark Diaries: Red Pandas and Hot Dogs By the Meter

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Is there anything sadder than being on the last day of an amazing vacation and getting an email saying that your flight is ready for checkin? All of the crying emoji.

In the morning, we got coffee and a breakfast sandwich from a nearby cafe and noticed that there was a large flea market going on in the parking lot right by our friends’ apartment, so we went to check it out. Kurt picked up a few various odds and ends, including some Scandinavian candlestick holders and a wall hanging. Since it was such a nice, sunny day, we decided to go to the nearby Copenhagen Zoo. I will fully admit that one of the reasons I was interested was because my friend Dani had a Game of Thrones celeb-sighting there once; she saw the actor who plays Euron Greyjoy while he was there with his kids. While we didn’t end up spotting any Danish actors, we saw something I was possibly even more excited about.

red panda on a log

red panda!!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to a zoo and the red pandas are hiding in the indoor part of the exhibit, out of sight from the crowds. I’d never seen one in person before. When we reached the exhibit, we were super lucky to see two red pandas actively exploring their habitat, climbing logs and using the fenced-in walkways that went over the paths like a habitrail. The up-close red panda viewing made my day.

Denmark is big on protecting personal freedoms, and as I joked to Kurt, this carries over into how close they let you get to kangaroos in the zoo. To our shock, people can actually walk into the kangaroo enclosure where  you’re kept on the trail by an ankle-high fence that the kangaroos obviously cross all the time. In the picture below, that’s me in the green shirt.

woman standing in kangaroo zoo exhibit

Me hanging out in the kangaroo exhibit, no big whoop

As an American who struggles with conversion to the metric system, I now have a new guideline: a half-meter-long hot dog is roughly equal to one-and-a-half feet of hot dog.

a man eating a half-meter-long hot dog

half-meter-long hot dog

After exploring the zoo, we took a leisurely last walk through the Frederiksberg Gardens. Plenty of people were spending the day outside, laying on blankets enjoying picnics while their kids ran around and played by the ponds or on the rolling grassy hills. Copenhagen is an idyllic place to raise a family, a fact that our friends can attest to.

For dinner, Kurt and I returned to Torvehallerne and ordered a charcuterie plate and a bottle of wine. Dani was able to meet up with us for our last night, and we had a nice evening out.

woman standing at Torvehallerne

last night in Copenhagen

As the night grew later and we said goodbye to Dani, Kurt and I wanted to make one final stop. We used our 24-hour Metro pass to return to Nyhavn to see the row houses lit up at night. The colorful buildings reflected onto the surface of the canal, and people sat along the banks, drinking and socializing.  Boats rocked idly on the water. Kurt and I found some open chairs in an outdoor seating area just outside the bar (I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet one of my favorite things about Copenhagen, which is the blankets laying on all outdoor seating in case of cold weather). Live music poured out from the nearby bar, and we had a last round of beer as we took in the sounds of people laughing and dancing to a cover of “Purple Rain.”

From the perfect weather to the amazing scenery, fantastic company, and fun music, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect final night.

Nyhavn sign

❤ Copenhagen

 

 

Denmark Diaries: Freetown Christiania and Nyhavn

Friday, April 20, 2018

In the morning, we went out with our friend Dani to a place called O’s American Breakfast. When traveling, in addition to trying new foods, I’m also usually curious to see the local interpretation of American staples. Since moving abroad, Dani had been in search of American-style pancakes, and the ones at O’s were big and fluffy, just like what you’d get at a diner back home.

After breakfast, Dani met up with a friend and Kurt and I headed for the Metro to Christianshavn. We were spending our day exploring Freetown Christiania, an autonomous district in a squatted military area. The area is probably most notoriously known as the “Green Light District” because of the proliferation of people buying and selling marijuana on Pusher Street. Weed is not legal in Denmark and the prevalence of dealers in the Freetown area ebbs and flows, depending on whether the community is currently putting pressure on forcing them out. One humorous observation Kurt made was the long line at the ATM next to the Christianshavn Metro stop, as people planning to visit Freetown loaded up on cash.

Christiania street art

I’s frowned up to take pictures of people and the activity in Freetown, so I only snuck a few snaps of street art

The area is filled with stalls and vendors selling t-shirts, jewelry, food, and drinks, so Kurt and I looked around for a little, dodging errant skateboards and unleashed dogs, then grabbed an outdoor table and a round of beers at Cafe Nemoland. Freetown draws lots of tourists and the people-watching was highly entertaining. While much of the crowd consisted of hippies who smelled like Otto’s jacket, I was approached by a 70-something English woman in a skirt suit who politely asked me where the loo was. The other best thing about Nemoland was the bathroom, which was an all-gender room with many stalls and a large aquarium full of fish next to the sinks, and I am sure I am not the first person to see it and want to reenact the scene from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

We got a second round of beers then took a walk around until we came upon a large pond. The banks were lined with people relaxing, smoking, drinking, and enjoying the warm sunshine. Someone had a jam box playing music. We sat in the grass, watching swans swim in the sun-dappled water. Denmark, I’m in love with you.

As we walked past the pond, we saw more of the residential area including houses, art studios and a preschool.

We eventually passed over the canal that acts as the Christiania border, then walked over to another iconic area we hadn’t visited yet, Nyhavn. The colorful row houses along the canal are possibly one of the most famous postcard-friendly views of Copenhagen. In the 17th century, the ‘potato rows’ were built to house shipyard workers, and the canals were notorious for heavy-drinking sailors and prostitutions. The writer Hans Christian Andersen lived there in the 1800’s, and nowadays, it’s a popular tourist destination filled with restaurants and stores.

couple standing in front of the row houses in Nyhavn

Nyhavn selfie

For dinner, we went back to the Nørrebro area for burgers and liquid nitrogen ice cream at Istid. I got banana ice cream with chocolate chips and vegan bacon pieces.

a cup of ice cream

yummmm

It had been a long but perfect day with plenty of sightseeing and food-tasting packed in. I was slightly in denial that we only had one more full day of our trip left, as I could easily stay in this city for much longer.