Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Italia - Part II: WWOOFing, Marche

As it turns out, my apprehension about living with complete strangers and doing some actual work for 10 days, was completely unfounded.
We arrived in Pesaro, the nearest city to our first farm, after a couple of train rides and some very strange looks from other passengers as we munched down our lunch - apparently you're not supposed to eat on the train, but the absence of signs to this effect meant we were blissfully unaware... and not starving! The lovely weather we'd had in Rome had deserted us, to be replaced by a chilly wind, which wouldn't be out of place in an Invercargill winter. Brrr.
One of our hosts, Manuela, arrived at the train station about the time we were prepared to open our bags and put every item of clothing on, in a bid to keep warm, so that was a stroke of luck. I had been mentally running myself through the selection of Italian I know, in preparation for a bit of a chat on the way home... and with the help of my trusty phrasebook, Manuela's english (which even though she protests, is still more intelligible to me than the chat of most English teenagers), and some primary school root-word recollection, we managed. First hurdle: jumped, although probably knocked over.
The farm is only small, but it is in a beautiful spot, on the side of a hill, overlooking a picturesque valley. They grow olives, have bees, a veggie garden and chickens, geese, and guinea fowl, which may just be the most ridiculous birds in the world - they make one hell of a racket, and spend more time making this noise than trying to actually run away from whatever has caused it in the first place. They're hilarious to watch though.
We met the rest of the family when we arrived at the house - Ettore, their youngest son, Gregori, the middle son, and Lobo, their dad, Manuela's husband. I'm pretty sure Lobo is a nickname, and that his actual name is Luciano, but I didn't get around to asking. Ettore speaks a bit of English, as they spend 3 hours every Thursday learning it at school - he's such a great kid, full of beans. Both Lobo and Gregori speak english too, so between all of us, we had a pretty great level of communication going, and they mostly tried to speak to us in Italian first, so it was great for me, and I learnt A LOT.
Our first task, and one that took up most of our days, especially Kent's, was putting up a fence around the chicken houses and olive grove - they've had problems with hunting dogs and foxes getting in and taking a liking to their chooks, so this was priority number one. It wasn't quite the same as the fencing we're used to on kiwi farms, but it should keep the predators out and the chickens in. I also did some weeding in the vegetable garden... thought it would be pretty easy, but ended up feeling like I had the back and knees of an 80 year old! It was nice to accomplish something though, especially as, being an organic farm, all weeds need to be dealt with manually, as they can't spray or anything like that. We did a few other bits and pieces, but it certainly wasn't hard labour, and they only asked us to work until lunchtimes, so we spent most afternoons walking around the countryside, enjoying the sun.

The second night we were there, Manu & Lobo had a birthday party to go to, so they invited us along - what an experience! The Italians certainly know how to have a great time, but not in that getting horribly boozed way - the dancefloor was full not long after we arrived, and I would doubt anyone had more than a couple of wines by that stage. There was dressing up, group dancing like we used to do at school, a bit of capoiera (at least I think that's what it was) and a mighty singing of 'Tanti Auguri', which is exactly the same tune as 'Happy Birthday'. The guests were all very friendly towards us, and even though most of the festivities were in a completely different language, it was so much fun, just to be a fly on the wall.
We also went to a meeting of their organic co-operative/exchange group, and to the birthday dinner of their oldest son, Tommaso (who has two boys of his own and lives away from home). Manuela took us to visit the showroom of her fashion designer friend, and arranged for one of their other friends, Daniela, to take us into Urbino with her one day. It was so nice to be included in their lives like this, and it meant I had a big lump in my throat as we left - I do hope we'll stay in touch as they are such a lovely family, and we both agree that this was a wonderful experience.
The big question was, would the next farm be as good as this? Was it possible? Find out in the next exciting installment!...
E xx

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Italia - Part I: Rome

I have a confession to make: I am supposed to be packing, but it all seems so final, putting everything into our bags and making plans for New Zealand, so I've decided to procrastinate by reliving our month in Italy... surely this is a much better use of my time.

A long time before I met Kent and realised just how great it is to see the world, I decided that I wasn't really interested in travelling, with the exception of Italy. It's the only place in the world that I have always desperately wanted to see, so it's perhaps a bit strange that we left it until the very end of our travels to go there. The danger of course, in really, really, really wanting to go somewhere, is that it will turn out to be rubbish and the disappointment will be a bit much to take. Kent did warn me of this, but he needn't have bothered - after years of thinking this might be my favourite place, I was proved right... YAY!

As this was our last trip and neither of us has been gainfully employed since before Christmas, our aim was to have the best possible time for the least possible money; not such an easy task when the Euro is almost worth the same as the Pound now and Italy is a fairly expensive country to start with. This is where Kent came up with a cunning plan: WWOOF-ing. This is a global scheme which allows you to work on an organic farm in return for food and board. It's an excellent way to experience the side of a country and its culture that you just couldn't as an ordinary tourist. Our friends we visited in Norway, Pete & Ginny, are wwoofing there, and have been for almost a year, so we had a bit of an idea of how things might work. Being organised as we are, our cunning plan was only formulated as we were heading home from France, but even so, we managed to find a couple of farms willing to take us on short notice.
Before all that we had a few days in Rome, to relax before starting the first real work either of us has done in quite some time - good practise for Kent for the farm though!
The ridiculousness of Rome is that you basically can't go anywhere without virtually tripping over history - triumphal arches, churches, monuments, obelisks, ruined buildings, you name it, it's everywhere, and just there for the world to see - things like this still amaze me, probably because NZ is so new in comparison. All this history is not exactly surprising, considering it used to be the centre of the western world; I get the feeling you could spend a month here and still only really scratch the surface... and we only had 2 days!
Our hotel was a hop, skip and a jump from the Colosseum, so we headed that way first, only to be met by a large number of people with the same idea - and it wasn't even tourist season yet, gulp! It was incredible, and just insane to think that it was built a couple of thousand years ago and lots of it is still standing. Whilst my parents are very thorough, I doubt any of the houses they've built in the last 20 years will still be around that far into the future.
Our tour included a visit to Palatine Hill, where Rome was founded by Romulus in 753BC (on my birthday, no less) and the Roman Forum (which takes ruins to ridiculous heights), so we whiled away the day taking it all in, and enjoying the sun... such a nice change from all the dodgy weather we've had on our travels this year.
The next day we strapped on our walking shoes - jandals, in my case - and hit the big touristy spots: the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, St Peters Square, and Circo Massimo. Brilliantly, the city really isn't that big, and it's pretty easy to walk to most of the sights, so it was good for those of us keeping an eye on the budget.

We were a bit knackered after this, and I was a bit nervous about our first farm - sitting about playing with music all day is one thing, but I hadn't partaken in manual labour for a very long time, so I experienced a bit of 'what have I got myself into?' anxiety... it was a bit of an early night, before our adventures continued...
Eryn xx

Sunday, 15 March 2009


After the ferry docked in Newhaven (near Brighton) at 9pm, we hurried off and headed for Salisbury, where we were staying overnight before our VIP visit to Stonehenge...
We managed to wangle an out-of-hours access visit, which basically means you can walk in and around the stones, rather than being confined to the path which goes arounJustify Fulld the outside, about 10-30m away. The only downside was that we had to be there at 6.45am, although when you consider that it's about the same time as the sun is getting up, it's not such a bad time at all!
There was only the two of us and one other couple there, which was great, as during open hours it is chocca, even in winter.
There's not a lot you can say about these stones really, except that they are huge, and must have taken a very long time to get there. It is pretty impressive:

The rest of the day involved getting back to Sheffield to get the car all cleaned and ready to sell, with a minor hiccup when Kent accidentally unlocked the boot, put the key back in his jacket, his jacket back in the car and shut the boot. OOPS. Luckily we have insurance for this sort of silliness, so after a wee wait in the chilly wind, a recovery man came and broke in for us. Cold comfort came from the fact that the workmen, security guys and staff at Stonehenge all attempted to help us break in, all to no avail.
No joy with selling the car either, but hopefully someone will want our wee gem (thank goodness that someone is unlikely to have read anything on this blog and will be blissfully unaware of what a pain in the arse it has been).
We're off for a month in Italy on Tuesday, it's our last trip before we head back to NZ, and we're doing things a bit differently this time, so we're both really looking forward to it.
Talk soon,
Eryn x

Saturday, 14 March 2009

France - Part Two: Normandy

A text from Rod confirmed what we already thought might be the case... rain was on its merry way to Normandy. I'll let you fill in what was said after we learnt of the forecast.
Kent was still determined to get over to Normandy though, so we loaded up the car on Saturday morning and drove for almost 11 hours, making it most of the way there, passing through Le Mans (some of the main road is on the race circuit, so we got to drive on a bit of it), the Champagne region, and the Loire Valley, including passing through the town of Chablis. I thought it might be bigger, having a wine variety named after it and all, but no. It was about the size of Dunsandel, and half as interesting.
Kent had mentioned the idea of 'free camping' from the start of the trip - a few words from Patrick put us off doing it in Germany (the words 'illegal', 'moved on' and 'big fine' were used), the snow was a bit of a problem in Austria, and in the northern parts of our trip it was just too cold for wusses like me to be roughing it. This night, however, there were no excuses, as we were not really anywhere near any decent hostels or open camping grounds, so free camping it was... We found a small town (I wanted to be in a built up area so that baddies would be less likely to murder us) with a parking area by a water tower and pitched the tent. I ended up sleeping in the car (condensation-tastic!) while Kent had both mattresses in the tent as he doesn't fit in the car horizontally. Safe to say it wasn't the best night's sleep I've ever had, but it was free, and did mean we were up mighty early in the morning.
We drove to Caen first thing, and had a brief walk around, although not much of an idea what was what as the information office was closed (helpful). We did go to Chateau Dulac, which was, almost a thousand years ago, allegedly home of William the Conqueror, although as most of Caen was bombed during 1944, there wasn't very much left, and what was there didn't appear as old as the guide books have you believe. There was a great Normandy museum inside the castle walls though, so it wasn't a completely wasted trip.
We had already found a camping ground near Bayeux, one which said it was open all year, but we'd heard that before, so were a bit nervous about it, but fortunately, it was where it said it would be and it was open - hooray!
The inital plan was to visit this part of the country to see the Bayeux Tapestry (almost 1000 years old now, and in pretty good nick). I hadn't really clicked that it was in Normandy, where the D-Day landings happened, which added a crazy number of things to see and do to the list, but we had five days before we had to catch the ferry home, so it was definitely do-able.
Our first WWII stop was a series of German bunkers, complete with guns, some in various states of disrepair after being whooped by the Allies. There used to be a huge line of bunkers right along the coast of France (the Atlantic Wall), which the Nazis thought was pretty much indestructible. It wasn't, and the results are littered along the cliffs. It is surreal that there are plenty of reminders of the D-Day campaign, and that we could just wander all over this place where so many young men (on both sides) died. You can read all you like about history and be taught about it at school, but I don't think you really understand until you see some of the destruction which remains (and even then it's still far from real to me). Sorry to be a bit morose, but as always, I was fairly humbled by all the monuments and museums, and had a bit of a lump in my throat through a lot of them, particularly the cemetaries. We went to Arromanches (code named Gold beach) site of an artificial port from D-Day, and the American Cemetary, which overlooks Omaha Beach.

The next day was forecast to be raining heavily, so we opted for inside amusement (and something a little lighter) but thought it was about time we had the funny noise our car had been making most of the way through Europe sorted out first. This would have been fine, had either of us spoken fluent French, and whilst I can communicate a few basics, explaining what was wrong with our car, considering we weren't even sure, was a bit beyond my capabilites. So we found ourselves at the Bayeux Information Centre, where the very nice lady pointed out that she couldn't be sure if any of the mechanics she knew spoke English, as she always spoke French with them (touche!), but she kindly wrote down a translation of what we thought the problem was and pointed us in the direction of the Renault garage. We were pretty worried that they would see us coming and start rubbing their hands together in glee, but actually, the exact opposite happened - the young mechanic (no english) took Kent for a drive, couldn't figure it out, so took it into the workshop, had a bit of a look and figured out that it was a loose something, sorted it all out, told his boss (good english) who told Kent what the problem had been, and when we asked how much it would be for the time, he said it was free... yet again: why does everyone think the French are so awful? They are clearly lovely, and I can't imagine getting that kind of service for nothing on this side of the channel!
The rest of the day was spent looking at the Bayeux Tapestry, which was fantastic, and yet again, it was just right there, with hardly any people around; the Journalist Memorial, which commemorates reporters who lost their lives in combat zones since 1945; the British Cemetary (which includes 8 New Zealanders) and the Bayeax D-Day museum, which was very well done, but was a lot to take in.
Kent had found a brochure for a cheese village about an hour's drive away, so we went there in the morning, it smelled a bit inside the factory, as cheese often does, but the tour was pretty good, and it was free, our favourite price. To make up for it, we bought a couple of cheeses to take back to Rod & Lou... despite sealing them in airtight containers inside a plastic bag, they continued to remind us of their presence for the next 2 1/2 days until we got them to the fridge in Sheffield - mmm, pongy!
The Chateau a Guillame le Conqureant (William the Conqureor's Castle - apparently this was his main one) wasn't too far away, but unfortunately was a bit disappointing. We'd already seen some footage from the Normandy campaign in WWII which showed some of the castle at Falaise getting hit by bombs, so knew it wouldn't be in the best condition, but instead it has been reconstructed, and in parts is just ugly and awful... such a shame, but it is probably a big money spinner for the town, so you can't really blame whoever's in charge for having a go.
We attempted a look at some Roman ruins the next day, but after driving for over an hour to get there, and parking, we walked into the visitor centre to find all the displays covered in sheets, and the whole thing being redecorated...aaargh! Technically it was open, but the receptionist didn't speak English, and only managed to nod when I said 'ferme?' (closed). Surely it wouldn't have killed them to put a sign up in the carpark???! Instead we went back to the seaside to look at Le Grande Bunker in Ouistreham, a 4-5 storey concrete tower, from (you guessed it) WWII, built to back up the Atlantic Wall defenses. It was taken almost completely undamaged by 4 British troops in July 1944, even though there were over 3o Germans inside at the time. Outside, there was one of the landing craft they used on D-Day which was reused during the filming of Saving Private Ryan - it's the one Tom Hanks et al were in right at the start, so we had a bit of a nosey at that too. The town also still had some 'dragon's teeth' in the sand dunes, which were kind of cool to see, although the spiky sharp nasty bits had been removed earlier, so the coolness was diminished somewhat.
And then it was Friday, our last day, so we took the coastal route from Le Moulay Littry, where we'd been staying, to Dieppe, where our ferry left from... we passed through some of the most gorgeous little towns either of us has seen, with beautiful old houses and long sandy beaches (and the odd yummy patisserie!), slightly gutted that we only discovered them on the way home, but at least we saw them.
K & E x

Sunday, 8 March 2009

France - Part One: Alsace-Lorraine

More crap weather.
We spent the morning organising the rest of our trip and thought we better make good use of the rest of the day, so went to the Memorial L’Alsace e Moselle, a tribute to the people of Alsace-Lorraine & Moselle, an area which has changed countries quite a few times in the last couple of hundred years, as it’s right on France’s border with Germany, and we all know how much heed they used to pay to whose country was whose.
It is an incredible museum (although for 10E each, it would want to be), so well done and we both loved it, so much so that we fast ran out of time to look for somewhere to stay that night, making it to the information centre with minutes to spare, but then deciding that actually, it would be worth driving the two hours up the road to the castle we’d stayed in last time we were in France. I called the woman there, and it was all sorted, until we got on the road, and all of a sudden the raindrops took on a rather snowy look… as did the roads, but we kept going, passing cars with snow chains on (uh-oh) until we rounded a bend on a mountain road to find a couple of lorries in trouble in the snow. Even the snow plough wasn’t enough to convince us that pushing on through was a good idea, so I called the castle lady back, cancelled and we headed back where we came from.
We met a couple of Brits in the hostel that night, who were in this part of the country to do some skiing – when we said we hadn’t realised there was a ski field near, one of them wondered aloud why anyone would go there in winter if they weren’t skiing… good question! They did say that the weather on the coast as they had driven from Calais was lovely though, so this perked us up a bit, and Kent decided that we’d attempt to drive most of the way to Normandy the next day in the hope that we might find the sunshine... fingers crossed!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Hills Are Alive

We had our first day apart in ages here, as my primary purpose for making Kent drive all the way here (I don't have an international permit) was to see the sights from The Sound of Music… he reluctantly agreed to come, but refused to go on the tour with me, something about it being a girls’ film. Fair enough, as it left him with time to wander up to the Fortress that overlooks the city, and to be honest, much as castles are great, I can have too much of a good thing.
The other four people on the tour were horrified that I was unaccompanied, but the driver was very spirited and had us all chatting in no time. Am disgusted with myself for admitting it, but I did nearly cry when I saw some of the sights (yes, am well aware of how pathetic this is). In my defense, it is one of my favourite films, and as a fairly latecomer to travelling, it hadn’t ever really occurred to me that I would ever be anywhere near the gazebo where Ralph and Leisl sang ‘You Are 16, Going On 17”… Ahhh. The tour was fabulous, going past the lake where the children and Maria fell in, the tree lined lane where they hung as Captain Von Trapp drove past, the house they used as the façade for the house, etc etc etc. We finished up in the lakes district, well out of the city in Mondsee, home of the church that Maria and the Captain get married in. After that, our tour group convened in a café eating apple strudel…mmmm!
Don’t think Kent’s exploits were as great as mine. He disagrees.

We met up in the afternoon and wandered around the old city, took in Mozart’s birthplace and some other stunning buildings (there are just so many of them and they’re everywhere, but somehow we stay interested) then walked back up the hill (366 steps) past the Fortress he went to in the morning for a lookout over the city – again beautiful, if only we’d had fine weather!
Our trip to the guesthouse was almost as eventful as the previous evening, as we opted to take the bus, which went near (or what we thought was near) to our street, and then walk the rest of the way. ‘Near’ was probably a bit of an exaggeration, but the exercise on the hike home was probably good for us.
We left the next morning in quite thick fog (notice a common theme here?) and figured that the scenic route we’d chosen to Lake Constance in Germany, via Innsbruck, would be anything but… but we were wrong. Pretty much as soon as we cleared Salzburg, the fog lifted, the sun blazed and we were treated to a breathtaking drive through the Austrian Alps! We lost count of the number of ski fields we drove past, many of them with lifts starting from the road – that is my kind of skiing… no perilous mountain roads to navigate before you get there either. The only downside to the drive was the unannounced toll at the top of an alpine pass (which neither our 2009 driving atlas nor the TomTom picked up…grrr). You might think this sounds a bit cheap of us, but there are tolls right throughout Europe and some of them are pretty steep, so we had been doing our best to avoid them… it ended up being one of two that we paid for the whole trip, so it’s not so bad.
The sun was still shining when we got to Innsbruck, but there was still quite a way to go before we got to our accommodation, so after a quick drive up the hill to see the ski jump that they used at the Winter Olympics in 70something, and a look at the cemetery, which was the first thing the skiers saw once they left terra firma on said jump, we took off again, bound for another location I had begged to add to our itinerary… Neuschwanstein Castle, back over the border into Germany. It’s the one Walt Disney based the logo on and all the guidebooks point to it being very picturesque… although it wasn’t ever finished, so we didn’t bother with the interior tour. Instead, we aimed the car up the hill and drove past all the suckers who opted to walk. The fact there were no other cars up there (and the filthy looks from walkers) would suggest perhaps we should have joined the masses, but there were no signs saying ‘KENT AND ERYN: LEAVE YOUR CAR AND WALK UP, YOU LAZY BASTARDS’, at least none in English, so we did it anyway, and no one said a word. Rebels, huh?
It was pushing dark now, so we roared towards our ‘open all year’ camping ground on Lake Constance, only to find it closed. So it was more a case of ‘open all year, except for when we’re not… which is now.’ It was a very small town, with not a lot of options, and our guidebook was all out of solutions, as so much of this part of the world closes down for the off-season. Luckily, Kent had thought to come up with Plan B, a hostel in a town about 20K away, so we programmed the satnav for Fredrichschafen and found it… only to discover it was the world’s most expensive hostel, but beggars can’t be choosers, so there we stayed. Despite it’s pricy-ness, it didn’t have a kitchen for guests to use, which meant we ended up cooking on our camping stove at 9pm in the freezing – oh the tales we have to share with our children!
Something you might not know about Fredrickschafen (go on, admit it, you’d never heard of it till now) is it’s where all the Zeppelins were made (the balloon-y kind, as opposed to Led-variety). It’s on the border with Switzerland too, so the Allies were a bit hesitant about bombing it. There’s a pretty good museum, with English translations, all about them… including some actual bits from the Hindenberg, which was well cool.
We indulged in our second bit of misbehaviour that afternoon, deciding that the Rhinefalls would be a good place to visit (I suspect the main reason Kent wanted to go was that he’s been there before and he loves to remind me how much more travelling he’s done than me…). The only bad thing about this is that it’s in Switzerland, which in itself isn’t a problem, but you need a special sticker to drive in the neutral land, but we refused to get one as you have to pay for a whole year and we were only planning on it being about 40 minutes. The Germans at the toll point said they thought it would be ok – at least that’s what we think they said, them not speaking English and us not speaking German. Thankfully, we managed to break into and back out of the country without being pulled over by one of their scary military conscripts at Swiss Army knife point.
We crossed another border (it’s still a novelty to get into another country without leaving the comfort of our car) and stayed that night in Colmar, France.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Bruges to Dierdorf to Salzburg

We escaped the hostel early the next morning, much to the delight of the people staying in our dorm (that'll teach them for snoring through most of the night!) and got on the road. Despite all these countries being next to each other on the continent, some of them, especially Germany and France, are massive and take some time to drive through. We stopped in Tournai, (still in Belgium) which used to be the capital of Gaul. I think Kent was hoping there would be some kind of memorial to Asterix there, and he was a bit disappointed when not only was there nothing about him there (I have suggested this is due to his being a fictional comic book character, but Kent was having none of it), but nothing much was open, as this part of Europe pretty much shuts up shop from 12 -2pm. Bugger.
Over the border into Germany, our next stop was Dierdorf, about halfway between Köln and Frankfurt, to stay with Patrick, an exchange student I went to school with, and Denise, his girlfriend. They’re both fairly outdoorsy, so it wasn’t a big surprise to us that they’d lined up a walk in the Rhine Valley for the next day… although the distance was a bit of a shock to my legs – 22km. Fortunately, most of the way the weather was lovely, warm enough for just a tshirt, and enough sun to give us a bit of a pink tinge. The scenery was just amazing, as we were on the top of the valley for a lot of the walk, and passed a number of beautiful castles, so Kent was in his element.

Patrick’s aunt wasn’t very well the next day, so they went to visit her the next morning, leaving us with some recommendations: the Westerwald Open Air Museum, which was all in German, but gave us a good idea of some of the local history; Schloss Stolzenfels, a very pretty castle on the banks of the Rhine; and Deutsches Eck (German Corner) in Koblenz, where the Rhine and Mosel rivers meet… all of which we enjoyed, even without our escorts.
Denise saw us off the next morning as Patrick had left for Berlin for work, and we hit the road, in yet more rain, towards Austria, calling past Eichstatt, a gorgeous old medieval town, which we would have spent more time in, had it not been raining and mostly closed for winter! We also went in search of one of ‘Mad’ King Ludwig’s castles, near Prien, but failed miserably as it’s on an island in a lake and we couldn’t see it for the fog!
By the time we arrived in Salzburg, we were both a bit frayed by the constant weather, so it was really helpful that there are two streets named Bergstrasse in the area, and we chose the one right in the middle of town to look for our accommodation – of course, it was actually the one on the outskirts… but we got there in the end! It was a room in a woman’s house – she was lovely, very welcoming, and the house was toasty warm, although slightly creepy as most of the downstairs walls were covered in antlers from deer, thar and chamois...hmmm.
Adventures to be continued...
K & E x

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Hull to Bruges

We're just couple of days into our driving trip to the continent, which started out being a month, but after realising just how difficult it is to dry your jeans at this time of year, and how hard it is to find a laundry in the first place, we've scaled back to a more palatable (and washable) 16 days.
It started auspiciously enough, leaving as we did from what is reportedly the worst place in Britain: Hull... we were only there for about 10 mins, so I couldn't possibly comment.
We caught the overnight ferry to Rotterdam, which was 10 1/2 hours, which we slept through, then it was off through the Netherlands to Bruges in Belgium.
We meant to come to Bruges last time we had the car over, but ran out of time, and we're so glad we finally made it, as this has to be one of the most lovely cities we've visited. The centre of town is really well preserved from medieval times, with narrow winding streets, gothic cathedrals, and lots of beautiful old buildings.
The highlight of the first day will have to be the Friet Museum... yes, an entire museum dedicated to fries/chips. To be honest we only went for a bit of a laugh, as we didn't think there would be much to see, and fries does seem like a ridiculous subject for a museum. My, were we wrong. As it turns out, fries are a national dish in Belgium, apparently they originated here, and they've been perfecting them ever since. There is even a medal system to recognise those who have owned or worked in the chippy industry for over 15 years... brilliant. It was really rather good, and the sample at the end beats English chips hands down - although they do cook them in beef tallow and horse fat. Ick.
Bruges is relatively small, so it's quite easy to get around almost all of the sights on foot, so we spent the rest of the afternoon doing a bit of a circuit around the outskirts of the centre, looking at the old windmills and canals etc.
The next day we walked up the Belfry, which is kind of the main landmark in the city, as it's so damn tall. There are quite a few steps up, but the view from the top is worth it, as is the sound of the bells (although they could warn you when they're about to go off, as I nearly leapt out the window when they started clanging away!) and the room where they control them from.
Still on foot, we went over to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which houses some actual drops of Jesus' blood... which obviously were dried by the time they got them into the church but apparently they turn back into liquid during times of trouble. Riiiight. The Basilica itself was tiny but gorgeous, and worth the visit, blood or no blood.
There are a ridiculous number of museums, so we had to choose just a couple (Fries was clearly non-negotiable) and Kent snuck the Chocolate museum in to our itinerary... it was great, but a bit unfair for those of us who are allergic to chocolate, as it smelt amazing, and there were samples. It did mean he got my portions though, so I was able to negotiate a proper museum into the plan next - SintJan Hospital museum, which was home to a few gruesome looking medieval medical tools, and a whole host of amazing art from the church part of the hospital. Across the street is the Church of Our Lady, home of one of the only Michaelangelo sculpures outside Italy, Madonna and Child - it is just sitting there, in the church, for anyone to see... I'm constantly amazed by how open the access is to so many beautiful and famous things. The best part was that there was virtually no one else there, so there were no pesky bloody tourists obscuring our view and getting in the way of photos! Speaking of which, here they are (the photos, not the tourists. Obviously:

K & E xx

Friday, 20 February 2009

Eryn's Fish was the Biggest

When friends that we borrowed off Rod, Pete and Ginny, decided to move to Norway for a bit of a change, we decided we should visit. Having booked the late evening flight we again headed toward London in the car into a blizzard. Bergen airport, where we were flying into had been snowing heavily that day and, as we found out, was delayed by more than three hours. So at 2:30am we walked out of Bergen Airport to two feet of snow. We finally got to the Bed and Breakfast, that did not serve breakfast, at 3:30am.
We had a good three hours sleep before heading to the ferry terminal. A nice start to a cruisy, relaxed few days away from it all.
Pete had warned us, and we knew from previous, that Norway was expensive. But the ₤200 or $600 for the return ferry ride even surprised us. It was a four hour ferry from Bergen to Floro. Very beautiful trip through the fjords, it was a great day weather wise, unfortunately it would be the best we had.
Pete picked us up form the port and took us back to their boat mooring, which was a ten minute drive. Then onto the wee boat for the five minute trip across the fiord to their Island, Groening. The house they are in is beautiful, very farm cottagey.
The first job for the day was to feed the sheep. This involved filling two sacks with free-flow hay, putting this in the boat and delivering it to the bit of the other islands that the sheep were on.

No blow by blow any more. The next three days were filled with: fishing, both Eryn and I caught some, they fed us for two nights, Eryn's was the biggest; feeding sheep, about 100 of the 180 total; eating some amazing food that Ginny made such as Venison stew, fish soup, lamb leg and deserts.Other interesting notes: I fell in the fjord, no doubt Pete's fault. We were coming into beach and I nobly was standing at the front reading to jump ashore and pull the boat up, when we hit a seaweed covered rock, boat went left, I went right – into the water. Eryn caught a fish, it was the biggest fish caught in Norway that week according to our estimates. On the third day it got above freezing. We hit record highs of 1.5 degrees. Pete rowed across the fiord. Only took about 25 minutes. Went for a drive around one day. Had a look at some of the farms Pete wants to get hold of.All done, a very good trip. No desperate days of 5 museums per day, no schedules and yet I survived.


Tuesday, 10 February 2009


Despite Mother Nature's serious attempt to thwart our travel plans, we managed to make it to Marrakech with no holdups whatsoever... a bit of a relief really, as the preceding day had been full of nervous phone calls to airlines, airports and rail companies. The plus side of the 'wintry blast' was an incredible view as we took off over London - definitely worth everyone else's inconvenience, I'd say!
The hotel was something quite special - the ceiling was hand painted in an ornate design, there were two four-poster beds, a balcony and harem-style couch... essentially, it was everything you thing Marrakech will be like. Good start.
Our first morning we walked about 25 min from our hotel in the new town to the Medina, mostly to visit the Information Centre... which was closed. Helpful. We weren't overly surprised as the guidebooks do all say that hotel staff are a lot more informative than the centres, so it wasn't too much of a spanner in the works. We went past Katoubiya Mosque, the tallest building in the city (in fact, there are laws which mean nothing near it can be taller than 3 stories, and buildings in the new city cannot be higher than it, so the view from the top is reserved for Muslims, as us infidels aren't allowed in mosques in Morocco - never mind, we had our own cunning plan for this - more about that later).
After lunch, we had a quick wander around Jamaa El Fna (the main square) and into the souks, after being stern with ourselves that we would NOT be buying anything today, no matter how guilty the vendors made us feel... it worked and we walked out unscathed (but eyeing up a few shiny things). It was here that we made a small mistake... pausing. Yes, you might think stopping briefly is a perfectly legitimate action whilst taking in a new city, but it isn't. Not in the main square anyway, as we found out when pounced on by a snake charmer who was anything but. Oh he was all smiles as he draped one of the reptiles around Kent's neck (I had the good sense to step back) and another on his head (eeew), then grabbed our camera so he could take a photo of us... but the smile soon stopped as we tried to leave without giving him the equivalent of the GDP of a developing nation. Kent managed to placate him with the equivalent of 20p, but I was concerned for a while there that we weren't getting the camera back...

The next day we stayed a bit closer to home and walked to the Majorelle Gardens, which are/were owned by Yves Saint Laurent. It's in the thick of the city, next to a busy road, but the high walls make it feel really quite peaceful and the gardens themselves are beautiful, with lots of exotic, err, things (not sure what it all was, but pretty all the same) and bright pots and walls.
The forecast for the next day was a bit bleak, so we opted for a bus trip to the Ourika Valley, which is in the Atlas Mountains - the other side of which is the Sahara Desert. [Eryn has left the building] The twelve year old boy that was to be the guide showed up with his people mover, fashionably late. And we were off, picking up two french women on the way. It was about 80kms to the top of the road. Most of that through very poor-looking flat semi-desert with the occasional shop selling either dead animals, of various kinds, with heads and legs on; or what some would call food shops, that were all seduced by coca-cola's offer of free shop painting, in a pretty red colour. After 40kms of passing horse and carts, dodging old men on motorbikes, being passed by tossers in Mercedes and honking furiously at all of them and more, we started to climb into the valley. At some points the road was breaking up a bit and at others the rivers we were working through had a lot of cars in them.
We stoped at a "genuine" Berber house and had a look at the way they lived and their facilities: the old water powered mill and the cooking and sleeping facilities. We also stopped further up at an Argan oil co-operative store and production unit. Argan is a type of plant that does not grow anywhere but southern Morroco. They make it into both a food oil and skin oil. We didn't buy any.
As the SNOW [in Africa] got heavier we stopped at one of the cute little bridges to take some photos. When we got to the top we were not keen for the three hour round trip walk to the waterfall so we headed home via another carpet store. But there was nothing as good as the Turkish carpet we had, so, much to the salesman's consternation, we bought nothing.
The next day we headed to the port town of Essouira. "Two hours" the bus guy said, only four hours 40min later we were there. Not the nicest town in the wet but we had a reasonable look around the port, bastion, markets and a museum. No doubt on a very nice summer day would have been very nice. Was getting home going to be the smooth two hours it should have been? No. Five hours later.
Sunday, God's day, the aforementioned infidels God's day. If Eryn hadn't been convinced that this is a very dirty stinky city yet, she was going to be by the end of the day. We had a walk through and around town. Quite a lot of walking for the day. We headed into town to have a look around before heading through to the tanneries on the other side of the Medina. Having walked around for about an hour and then popping out of the centre in the same place we went in, oops, we followed the city walls around it to get to the tanneries. The tanneries is the traditional place all the animal skins are tanned the natural way. In piss and bird shit. It smelt a treat. Was a very interesting process. Sing it with me.... You put the camel skins in the shit; you take the camel skins out; You put the camel skins in the piss; you take the camel skins out; You put the camel skins in the bleach; you take the camel skins out; scrape off all the meat; that's why it smells so sweet.
We had a look around two and into the shop with all the made and dyed leather goods. But we didn't buy anything, were getting good.
Also went around to the old Badii Place massive old palace built over 25 years. Was said to be one of the most luxurious and best decorated in the world at the time. Only lived in for 80 years. It is said to have taken 12 years to get all the good stuff, gold, tiles and ornaments out when the new emperor was demolishing it. Still in good enough state to get a decent view over town and see how huge it would have once been.
Last full day. Eryn was really keen to walk away from town up some hill at the back of town. And even though the guys at the hotel said it was dangerous Eryn just said "nah, it will be fine, aggressive drunk Africans nor scorpion and snake sandwiches bother me, lets go". So I dutifully followed. We headed about 25 minutes walk away from town towards some hills with old middle age city walls on them. Then up we went, took some photos and back down the other side. Fearlessly beating a path through the drunk Africans, mercilessly slaughtering hordes of snakes and inciting internal warfare amongst the ranks of scorpions that amasses to meet our arrival.
Had another wander around town and bought a few things. Had our fifth dinner of chippie sandwiches. That night was the first we went out to the evening market in the Jamaa. Every night dozens of dinner restaurants set up shop in the square and staff pester the money out of all and sundry walking past.
And that was much as it went down in Africa.

Kent... and Eryn who doesn't know this is up yet...

Monday, 2 February 2009


After a quick turnaround from Turkey, we piled the car up again and headed west, towards Wales. We've both been there before, me when we were on holiday in 2006, and Kent when he stayed with Louise's parents and worked on the coast for a few weeks a couple of years before.
Our first attempt at leaving Sheffield didn't go so well - the car refused to start. We have been worrying for the last few months that something might go a bit haywire with the car while we're cruising about, so, fortunately, we took out some breakdown cover before we left Ipswich... phew!
It was very dark and a lot later than intended by the time we made it to our accommodation near Newport, on the Pembrokeshire coast, so we headed straight inside... a static caravan, which was a new experience for both of us, and not too bad although it ended up being so cold in the bedroom that we slept on the couches in the lounge by the gas fire! We did a wee bit around Pembrokeshire over the next couple of days, visiting Britain's smallest city, St David's (population 2,000, but it has a cathedral, so it gets to be a city), Fishguard - site of the last invasion of Britain (by the French in 1797 - embarrasingly shortlived), Pembroke Castle and St Govan's Chapel, a tiny chapel perched in some cliffs - it was gorgeous! We called past Pentre Ifan, an acient burial chamber nearby, which beggars belief, the massive rock on top seems to be balanced on the tiniest points of the support rocks, and yet it's been standing for thousands of years. After a false start when we went to one place that seemed a non-event, we found the actual attraction was a reconstructed Iron Age village (thatched roof round houses), called Castell Henllys. The map didn't show it as anything particularly noteworthy, so it was great to just stumble across it... we ended up spending ages there. We managed to sneak in a visit to Cilgerran Castle and Carreg Sampson burial chamber on the way home too.
We left Pembrokeshire for Mid Wales, and despite having a fairly full day planned, the car had other ideas, deciding that today was the day it would make noises that you normally expect to hear coming from a tank, rather than a 1L car... so we found a garage and got it checked out (times like this make me miss being able to call my Dad to ask what's wrong!). As it turned out, the muffler had come lose and was past its best, so a new one was summoned and arrived within a couple of hours, so it wasn't a complete waste of a day, and we managed to get to Mwnt (no idea how to say that, I'm afraid) for lunch and Llandovery to see the ruins of the castle there, before driving to our digs, England and Wales' most remote hostel, Ty'ncornel. It was quite a way from everywhere, and the last mile of the track was a bit iffy, but the reward was a converted farmhouse, with an open fire, and no one else staying. Once the fire was roaring, we defrosted a bit and decided we would once again have to sleep in the lounge as the rest of the place was a bit Arctic... Kent even got up a few times in the night to keep the fire blazing - so sweet of him!
We stayed with Louise's parents, Sue & Cyril, in Berriew for the next three nights and they were fabulous hosts, and in an ideal place for some cruisy days, checking out a huge antique shop, Stokesay Castle, the ruins of the Bryntail Lead Mine, and Ludlow, where I finally had my watch fixed (perhaps now we will get up earlier?). We also went up the coast to Harlech, the site of one of the most impressive castles we've been to, then it was onto a Roman amphitheatre site (as we later found out, we didn't look at the right things there though), 500ft underground into some slate mine caverns, then another burial chamber.
When we holidayed, Kent's father suggested we go to Portmeirion, but we ran out of time, so we made sure we went this time around, and it was well worth the visit. It's an 'Italianate' private village, created by an architect who saved some old facades of buildings in other towns around the country and built up a really colourful, beautiful little town. The weather was a bit average when we were there, and it was still lovely, so I imagine in summer it's even better. From there, seeing as we just can't get enough castles, we stopped off at Criccieth Castle before we went to our bunkhouse at the end of the Lleyn peninsula (the sticky out bit on the west coast in the north of Wales). We walked along one of the headlands the next morning, which, despite our host's estimation that it would take an hour, took over 3, although the scenery was amazing.
Our last day in Wales was Sunday, which meant lots of things were closed, including what seemed like the entire town of Holyhead, which we drove all the way across Anglesey Island to walk around, but never mind, we still had a quick walk around near the marina for a look at the yachts and ferries. We were mostly just killing time until the Segontium Roman Fort opened, so as soon as it did we were on the doorstep, wandering around, absorbing the history... it never ceases to amaze either of us that these remains have been there for SO long - these ones started being built in 78AD! The volunteer working there was really interesting too, he really knew his history, so it was great to talk with him about all sorts of Roman and other history. I have just read that back and realised what utter geeks we are... but it's hard not to be. Photos, geeky and not-so-geeky, below:

Then we drove back to Sheffield, some of the way in some fairly heavy snow flurries - it was very pretty, but a bit worrying as all we've seen and heard in the news today is how much there's been all over the country, trains into London are mostly suspended, the roads are trecherous and Heathrow has had to cancel lots of flights and delay others... and we're supposed to be flying from there to Marrakech tomorrow afternoon after driving to Ipswich and taking the train from there... eek! Never mind, am sure we'll get there in the end...

K & E x

Thursday, 22 January 2009

A City with Two Tales...

Another week, another country... Last week was Istanbul, which was a LOT different to anywhere we've been previously, and, thankfully, a bit warmer than we expected, yay! It seems we've come away with slightly different impressions of the place, so:

Kent wasn't impressed with Istanbul mostly... things didn't really start well on our first day, when we went to the tourist information centre and asked for some, well, information. The man there was less than impressed that we had walked into his domain, expecting to be helped and decided the best way to deal with us was to be bloody rude. Nice.
Things got even better when we walked into the Grand Bazaar that afternoon... he hadn't really anticipated just how forward and pushy the merchants would be... as it's winter, there are very few people around, so they were keen to make a sale out of those who were there... us! Virtually every single shop we walked past had someone in front of it who asked where we were from ("New Zealand." " Aah, key-vee, key-vee!") and didn't really want to let us get away without buying something... Kent was NOT into this approach at all. We did get better at this though, and our visit to the Spice Bazaar a few days later was less painful for him... plus he bought a massive bag of proper chewy dried apricots for 3YTL (about 50p). To slightly compound the problem, our hotel was in the middle of the Bazaar district, so there wasn't really any escape from the relentless "Hello nice couple, you like something to eat/tea set/new jeans/turkish delight?"
We did however discover that real Turkish Delight is actually really, really, yummy, and not at all like that rubbish they put in the Roses chocolates! Also, their fondness for Apple Tea and how frequently people offer it to you when they are attempting to make a sale is brilliant - we brought some back and are making our way through it rather nicely.
We trekked up to one of the universities to see a Salvador Dali exhibition in its museum, it was interesting, and the paintings themselves were colourful, but mostly it was an eye-opener... I know this just demonstrates my lack of artistic understanding, but it seems the guy was a bit of a nutter (sorry if he's your inspiration) who was rather self obsessed. I'm probably going to be lynched by crazed art students now.
His biggest highlight was going to see Galatasaray play football. I have to confess that even I enjoyed it, in spite of the cold, the crowd, though small was very loud and it was quite a festive atmosphere. Galatasaray won 4-2 over Mulatyaspor, although we accidentally supported the wrong side for the first 18 mins of the game - in our defence, we were supposed to be supporting the home side, who play in dark red and yellow vertical stripes... one team was wearing said dark red and yellow stripes, and the other was playing in white, so we assumed the former was 'our' team... thank goodness Galatasaray scored first, and we figured it out, although it was somewhat bewildering when the crowd (wearing home colours) erupted in cheers when what we thought was the opposition (in white) scored!
Kent was disappointed with most of the touristy things, as there doesn't seem to be the organised preservation that there is in the UK and other parts of Europe. They were pretty expensive and there isn't a lot of information for the fee you pay. He did really like the Yedikule Hisar (Fortress of the Seven Towers) though, and the adjacent city walls... although the homeless shanties "built" in the terraces beside the wall weren't really to his taste! It was a bit of a shame that we only made it there on the day before we left, or he might have had a better time...

I LOVED it! The noise, the hustle and bustle, the riot of colour in the Bazaars, it was fantastic. Although the rude man in the tourist information office did throw things into a bit of a spin to start with, once we had our bearings and worked out the public transport system though, it was pretty good. I loved the Bazaar - most of the men are pretty good if you just say 'no, thanks' and smile at them, and they seemed to know when they were flogging a dead horse... apart from the guy who managed to blindside Kent and talk him into buying a backgammon set unexpectedly, we managed to escape fairly unscathed. We also watched a couple of the merchants playing a couple of rounds of Backgammon while we were there; they made our games look positively snail-like! We made the mistake of giving in to one of the restaurant chaps near our hotel, thinking that if we dined there once he would be satisfied... oops! He was a bit persistant after that, but seemed to realise it was all just a bit of a laugh and didn't make a nuisance of himself.
The Muslim aspect of life there was really interesting - there are mosques everywhere you look (not surprising, as there are 15 million people in the city) and the call to prayer plays five times a day from the speakers on the minarets... the first time we wondered what on earth was going on (as the prayer wasn't what we consider 'tuneful'), but it's actually quite eerily cool.
We visited the Blue Mosque (alright, but not as pretty inside as Aya Sofya), Aya Sofya (a former church, turned mosque, turned museum), Topkapi Palace, Galata Tower, Istiklal Caddesi (the modern shopping street) and all the usual tourist spots, which were quite pretty.
We took a ferry trip over to the Asian side (Istanbul straddles both Europe and Asia) for a day, and had a wander about there, and took in a belly dancing show (Kent ended up strutting his stuff on stage with a couple of the dancers! Photo below) in an underground establishment that we think might also have been a brothel... classy.
The fish market was also a bit of an experience, am not particularly good with fish in the first place, but it was mostly the cooked whole sheep heads on display that caused a bit of squeamishness with me - but travel is all about getting into a different culture, so it was ok.
Plus, we ended up buying a carpet from a less pushy man outside the Grand Bazaar, on our last day. We negotiated with three different shops and finally found one willing to come down a bit further on one we both love, so it was a happy (and slightly heavier luggage) note to leave on.
As usual, click on the photo below and it will take you to the album...

More when we're back from Wales.
K & E x

Monday, 12 January 2009

Scotland Part 3 of 3

Finally, we'd made it to the part of our Scotland trip that we had been most looking forward to - a couple of days on the Isle of Tiree, the outermost of the Inner Hebrides. A nice change, as the island is in the Gulfstream, so it's very windy, but quite a bit (4-5 deg) warmer than most of the mainland, so it was a welcome break from freezing conditions to just standard cold.
We arrived after a 4hr ferry crossing, and were immediately a bit stuck... there was NO mobile phone coverage, and we were on foot, 7.5 miles away from our cottage...eeek! Not to worry though, a lovely couple of locals drove past us as we were walking from the ferry terminal and asked where we were headed and did we need a ride? They even stopped off at the shop and waited for us so we could pick up some groceries! This is probably due to it being quite a small community, so the people are very friendly... which showed again when we arrived at our cottage (which was cute-as-a-button, see pics) and there wasn't any coal for the fire, and I had to walk a mile or two to find a house with someone home to use the phone to order some... luckily, that lady was also very obliging. And again in the afternoon when we were walking the 3.5 miles back from the shop with a couple of things we'd forgotten, a woman stopped off and gave us a ride... so refreshing, and exactly what either of us would do in the circumstances if the tables were turned.
After a warm toasty night in front of the coal fire, watching a DVD we had a lazy morning, before heading off for a walk around the coast and up one of Tiree's two hills. The island itself is quite windswept and interesting - it's so windy that there aren't really trees, or proper gardens, which is quite different, and it really feels quite serene and sort of deserted, but in a good way. We walked along a beautiful white sand beach, up some massively steep cliffs and over the top of one of the peninsulas before tackling the hill - which was only 146 metres high, so not especially tough. Topped that off with a walk down it, through really marshy scrub getting completely sodden feet on the way, to Hynish to see the old pier and some older buildings from the construction of a lighthouse which is 12m offshore. We managed to spot a seal swimming in to shore here, but the little bugger wouldn't come onto land while we were there, so we began our walk home, rapidly losing light, with 4 or 5 miles ahead of us... unfortunately the Tiree-an desire to give us a ride back didn't rear it's head this time round.
We left the island the next morning determined to go back there for longer sometime... we definitely recommend it.
Our ferry the next day was a little later and we arrived in Oban mid afternoon for a jaunt around the town to see some of the sights, including McCaig's Tower, which was inspired by the Colusseum, and sounds as though it might be out of place perched atop a hill in a port town, but actually looks like it has always been there, even though its only just over 100 years old.
We popped into the Falkirk Wheel on the way across country; it's a massive structure that lifts boats between 115ft between two canals - quite cool looking.
Then we headed for a place that I've wanted to visit since I was little - Guthrie Castle. My family (on Mum's side) are Guthries, and it was only sold by some (I suspect very distant-) relatives 28 years ago. It's now privately owned, and a couple of cousins have tried to visit in past years with no luck. Fortunately I happened to see online that it does weddings, and seeing as we're having one of those soon, I called and asked if we could have a look through it as a potential venue. This was both great, as it was beautiful - the castle itself is very grand and the grounds are amazing - and depressing - as I now really want to get married there, but the logistics of tying the knot on this side of the world probably won't work. Never mind though, we can still say we've been there and seen it... including the Trophy Room, which features a full-size real stuffed bear, amongst other exotic (stuffed) creatures. Click on the photo below for the full experience!

We drove back to Stirling that night to stay in a hostel, where I watched Braveheart for the first time... which was quite timely and I did enjoy it, although it was pretty easy to pick out the bits they used a bit of artistic license and Hollywood-ised.
There was a farmers' market on the next morning, so we went to that, bought far more bacon, venison and Highland beef than was really necessary,and then walked up the hill from the backpackers' to Stirling Castle. The howling wind and pouring rain really wasn't helpful for walking between the buildings, but we did stumble across the Tapestry Studio, where weavers are recreating a series of seven large tapestries. Each one takes about two to three years to complete, with three or four weavers working on it full time! There was one weaver in the studio while we where there, and it was fascinating to watch her working, it's such painstaking work and not hard to see how it takes so long to finish.
It was hard to believe that we only had one day of our Scotland adventure left, and we still hadn't been to Edinburgh, so we left bright and early on Sunday morning, and called past the beautiful Tantallon Castle, which is further east along the coast from the city. It's one of those castles you see on postcards - perched on a clifftops jutting out into the Firth of Forth - lovely, and still in fairly good nick. We had to tear ourselves away from this to head into Edinburgh, where we made it to the National Museum of Scotland at about lunchtime and managed to see the bottom floor (out of seven!!) in the almost three hours we were there - not the best time management, so we will have to go back and see more of both the museum and the sights - before we had to start the trek back to Sheffield to hurriedly do some washing before our flight to Istanbul. It's quite tiring, all this holidaying!
Take care,
K & E x

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Scotland Part 2 of 3

Another early start on the 2nd of Jan, back to the mainland, via Kylerhea, which has been used onscreen in a few movies/tv shows, including 'Made of Honour' from last year. Yet again it was mighty cold, and Kent still made me take my top two layers off... but he forgot about my earwarmers, so I look a bit of a duffer in the photo.
We passed by Eilean Donan Castle again, and then drove towards Inverness, along the shores of quite a few different lochs, including Loch Ness, where, despite us both being smart enough to know better, we looked a few times to try and spot Nessie... ridiculous! We visited Urquhart Castle, which sadly was blown up by soldiers leaving it in 1692 - so the Scots couldn't use it - but is on a site where there has been people living since before 580AD, and the current castle, or parts of it, have been around since the 12oos. It's quite beautiful, and in such a great location right beside Loch Ness.
We drove pretty quickly through Inverness - it seemed fairly dreary, with not a heck of a lot to do at this time of year, so we headed straight on to our accomodation, in another wigwam. The frost that night was bloody hard again, so much so that we had to hang on to each other when walking to the showers as even the dirt path was slippery. The next day was windy -the kind of wind that will slice you into a thousand pieces given the chance, so it was a bit like being back in Invercargill!
We went to the Culloden battle site - which sounds like it's just a field, but this is probably one of the highlights of the whole trip... it's the site of the last ever battle on British soil, and marked the end of Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobite rebellion. It was after this that the English banned Clan colours, kilts, bagpipes etc. The visitor centre is amazing, definitely the best we've seen and was packed with information, and the battle field itself seems very well perserved, with markers of where each site was and headstones for the individual clans (about 1,500 highlanders and only 300 english were killed). From there we drove around the corner to the Clava Cairns, ancient burial mounds, which were quite eerie. There are a few of varying types and ages, but the oldest is from about 2000BC - just incredible to be on the ground that has been walked for so long. They're very cleverly designed too, with quartz on the opposite wall of the boulder mound doorway, angled to shine in the sun on the shortest day... and we think we're clever!
After marvelling over this and getting progressively colder, we got back in the car and drove to Fort George, which was pretty big and cool, for a bit of a look at some military history.
The next day dawned a bit bleak, and we hadn't seen any snow as yet, so we thought a drive up a mountain was in order to put an end to that. We headed to Aviemore, in the Cairngorm National Park, and then drove up Cairngorm Mountain while it was snowing quite heavily, to ride up the funicular railway to almost the top of the mountain. Visibility was shot, so I was slightly concerned that we wouldn't a) be able to see anything and b) be able to get back down... I was bang on with the former, but thankfully not with the latter. To be honest, I wouldn't really recommend this as there is very little up the top and the visitor centre is very preachy and not especially informative. To make up for it, we did a drive-by of another stone circle in Aviemore on the way back, but stayed in the car as it was less impressive than the ones we've seen previously (that's us, stone cirlce snobs!), but did drive through the pretty village of Carrbridge, to see the spindly old stone bridge - very nice, over a small river with heaps of snow and ice in it.
After a what felt like a cross country wild goose chase, we took in an ancient Pictish Fort site at Burghead (the Picts were the early people in Scotland, after Neolithic people, but before the Scots), which was little more than some earthworks, but Kent did unearth what we think might be an old iron key, which may or may not be proper old... I've decided it is, as it's cooler in a history-geek way.
We left Invernessshire the next day, and headed for the one bit of the trip that I had requested ages ago - a trip on the train over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which is used in the first Harry Potter movie as part of the route on the Hogwarts Express. It is breathtaking in the movie, but in reality it's just soooooooo much better, I don't think words will really do it justice. Whilst I took in the sights on the train, Kent drove along and then climbed halfway up a mountain to take a photo of the train as it crossed the viaduct... such dedication! We met up in Arisaig, a sleepy little fishing village around the corner from Mallaig, and made our way to Oban, stopping off at a couple of monuments - the Prince's Cairn, where Bonnie Prince Charlie often sailed to Europe from, and the Prince Charles Edward Stuart Tower, both of which were set in some of the most stunning scenery. We stayed in a backpackers in Oban that night, ready for our 6am ferry crossing to the Isle of Tiree the next day...

Last installment on the way.
K & E x

Friday, 2 January 2009

Scotland Part 1 of 3

We left Sheffield for Dumfries and Galloway on the 27th of December, just in time for the milder weather to stop and turn a bit nasty... this was fine though, as I managed to talk Kent out of camping and into wigwams (which are sort of like wooden tents, fully insulated, with heating and electric)... thank goodness too, as you might have heard that there's been a 'big freeze' on here over the last week or two - brrr.
Warmth sorted out, we called past various spots along Hadrian's Wall on our way up. It was built by the Romans in 122-123AD to mark the northernmost border of their empire (and perhaps to keep the Scots out?!) and used to run the entire width of the country. It was originally over 12ft high, and some parts of it are still very impressive. That took up our first couple of days, as we drove to quite a few sites along the Wall, including a wander up to the highest point, which we reached just at sunset.
We then spent a couple of days seeing the local sites before a bit of a drive to Crainlarich, on the way calling past Doune Castle, which, amongst other things, featured in 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' (it's the castle they pushed the Trojan Rabbit up to), and the William Wallace National Monument near Stirling... surprisingly, he didn't look much like Mel Gibson, although I overheard someone saying that they re-made one of the statues at the memorial to resemble Mel's version of Wallace when the movie came out.
Our accomodation that night wasn't especially great, so we took off pretty early the next morning for the Isle of Skye - it was another fairly big drive, but broken up with visits to Glencoe, Fort William, Inverlochy Castle, Neptune's Staircase (a long series of canal locks) and Eilean Donan Castle. We had a good start when we drove past a massive stag just a few metres from the side of the road, with no fence to keep us out or him in. Kent even managed to get quite close to him to take photos and he hardly even moved - clearly not concerned in the least with becoming venison! The rest of the drive was even better, breathtaking, even - the frosts the preceding few days were SO cold that everything was white - it looked more like something from Narnia! We also stopped at one of the many lochs - as it had frozen over completely, and was solid enough for me to walk on (not bad considering how soon after Christmas this was!!), although Kent faced a few scary moments with a crack or two. I wisely stayed the hell away from him.
We arrived on the Isle of Skye well after dark and celebrated New Year's eve by going to sleep about 9pm... it's all rock'n'roll for us, I tell you. We started 2009 with a beautiful sunrise (the benefit of such long nights being that you don't have to get up early to see the most gorgeous part of the day) and realised there was quite a bit to see, so we had a wander to Neist Pt lighthouse, which we broke into for a better look. We did notice the 'towns' on the island are sort of unusual, the houses are very spread out and there's not a feeling of order or connection to them, which was a nice departure from the mainland. It wouldn't have been Scotland if there hadn't been a castle, so we headed back to Dunvegan Castle for a quick look - it's privately owned, so the admission charges where absurd, meaning we had to sneak in... rules? Schmules.
Right, now for the photos:

More to follow shortly...
K & E x