Friday, September 30, 2011

The Cotswolds -- From Thatch to Palace Patch

Another lovely day, and we can't figure out why people always complain about the weather in Britain. We have no complaints at all. Plus we have a room with a view. From the second floor of our private little stone cottage perched at the top of the driveway we look down upon the rear garden of the house next door. It looked so peaceful, certainly a respite from whatever weary work the day brought. Every square inch of the garden had something of interest. Perhaps we have too much land at home? Seems the Brits can do more with less than any other group of people on the planet (at least the ones we have run into). It is so well planned and planted - someone either has a very green thumb or has a real passion for topiary organization and splendor.

Friday - September 30, 2011 - Moreton in Marsh, England

Up, at em and out by 8:15 and parked in the little town square of Chipping Campden a short time later. What a gem this place is. Said to have one of the loveliest high streets in the Cotswolds, it's easy to understand the designation. Built on a crescent slope, one side of the street is lined with large stone houses that were once home to the wealthy wool merchants, with the lower side filled with smaller, more utilitarian buildings, shops, hotels, etc. Everything is neat, clean and picture perfect.
Right in the town square is the old market, you can't miss it. We staked our claim on a park bench right beside the old market and walked across the street to Sarah's Coffee Shop in the Noel Arms Alms Hotel. Arriving just as it opened we bought our picnic breakfast, returned to the park, and retired to watch Chipping Campden wake up in the warm morning sun.

Most of the buildings were built in the 15th century and they still looked darned good. Made of the same warm honey colored Cotswold stone, the unified fronts pleasantly went on as far as the eye could see all bathed in the warm morning sunshine. A major marketing town known for the finest wool in Europe, we were able to imagine all the traders/buyers negotiating their deals in the little market. They came from many countries, as far away as Italy, so it must have been quite a an experience to behold on sale days with the multitude of languages spoken.

One of the current major draw to the village is the number of spectacular (no hyperbole here) thatched roof cottages (they are called cottages but some are rather large homes) that dot the streets just a short walk from the center. This particular house (which I am pretty sure we walked by the front of was for sale and listed for £1.3M (or about $2.1 million). Heck of a cottage. It was a delight just walking through the neighborhood and it reminded us of Beverly Hills where every home was not just landscaped but manicured. Decided we couldn't afford the gardener's weekly tab, and heaven forbid you had to replace the thatch roof. You are not going to get Sam's Roofing from they yellow pages to do the work ... it requires an artiste.

We stopped at St. James Church, noted for it's beauty, grace and light. As this was a very wealthy wool town, the church benefited. It is wonderful. Inside is a very classy tomb (in Abelard and Heloise style) of old Sir Baptist Hicks and his wife ... some great sculpting there. What really caught our attention was an arched cabinet/closet in the wall. Inside were two statues, a husband and wife. The husband died in 1642 and the wife commissioned the statues and closet and had it sealed until she died --- 38 years later. On that day it was opened revealing the young lovers together forever. Great story.

We retrieved our car, negotiated the absurdly narrow streets out of the village and began our trek to see the one "must see" of the day, a different type of cottage (more like we are used to from Newport), Blenheim Palace.

On the way we couldn't pass up the opportunity to make a quick stop in Stow-on-the-Wold (meeting place up on the hill - we like their name better), just 10 miles to the south, and in our path. Its a bit touristy, with some very old rickety looking building that you imagine will crumble into rubble at any moment. Oh, and I probably haven't mentioned before that on this trip, even at our ripening ages, we are the youngest people on tour. It appears that with all the kids back in school the tourist sites are left to us oldies, and in this town there were plenty of them spending the kids' inheritances.
And as you can see by the menu at Digbeth's place even a simple lunch is not cheap (multiply the pounds by about 1.6 to get the dollars). A bowl of soup and some garlic bread seems a little pricey at $12, but hey it is on the Wold. (More on that subject at Blenheim where we saw that in spades).
One of the reasons we wanted to stop here was the abundance of little alleys (called Fleece Alleys) where the shepherds (?) would bring their flocks before taking them to market both here in SotW or at CC Market. The alleys are very narrow, forcing the little bo-peeps' charges to line up single file for ease of counting and probably critical scrutiny by potential buyers.

The other reason is a church door. Sounds silly, I know, but J. R. R. Tolkien spent a fair amount of time in the Cotswolds, and some believe he sketched the rear entrance to the church and used it as inspiration for the door into Moria. (If you click on the picture and enlarge it you can see how beautiful it really is.) The yew trees have been growing there forever it seems, and you have to imagine there is much mystery behind that door. And I'm sure there is. We enjoyed a brief visit inside, greeted by a volunteer who could not have been nicer and more helpful. So if you are in the town, which is very nice we recommend a visit.

Down the road a bit was the place we sought: Blenheim Palace. Not to sound critical, but it really looks more like a mansion than a palace, but I guess that is just semantics, or my imagination of what a "palace" looks like. I'm thinking Caesar's in Vegas. The picture to the left (Wiki) almost makes it look like a government building, I think. It is big, and has wonderful formal gardens through which you can wander. Why did we pick this one instead of Windsor or Hollyrood in Scotland?

Two reasons; the main draw for us was that it is the birthplace of one of the most satisfying, important, cigar chomping, and grumpy looking old men in history: Winston Churchill, my hero. For as long as I had a career, I kept one of his quotes above or on my desk. Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. For another example of typical Churchillian thinking see the note at the bottom. The second reason was that along the way the various dukes that owned it lived the good life, ran out of money, and the only reason the place is still privately owned by the landed gentry is because of a fortuitous marriage to an American heiress (a Vanderbilt) who shared daddy's money and brought the place back to solvency. More later.

Blenheim (Blen-em --- not Blen-hyme) palace is a magnet house, no doubt about that as it seems to attract a lot of metallic colored hair people. The very large parking lot was almost full. Everything is on a grand scale, including the grounds (2000 acres) which contains an immense man made lake (10 years to build and lined with two layers of clay - see I do listen to the tour guides), and a lawn large enough to hold Wembley Stadium. It has an interesting soap-opera history as well. The guy who started it all was John Churchill who fought against Louis XIV's (Versailles) army at the battle of Blenheim in Germany. John won. The English and French had been battling for territory for years and with this battle things seemed settled, finally. As a reward John was made "Duke of Marlborough", and awarded some land and money for a house so he built this monster.

As with many following generations, the wealth of the forebearers morphed into the excesses of the successors and along with most of the money the Churchill name was lost (no male heirs - enter the Spencers). It was the 9th Duke who finally figured that something drastic had to be done, so he married the 18 year old American, Consuelo Vanderbilt. They were married in NY and along with Connie came a nifty $2.7 million dollar dowry (about $67M today). Before long dollars were converted into pounds and the old bling was back in Blenheim. Alas, the marriage lasted only 10 years, but it was enough. There is a nice portrait of Consuelo that used to hang in Belcourt Castle in Newport, the Vanderbilt summer home. The current Duke (No.11 if you are keeping track) appears to be a pretty shrewd character, figuring he would let the public finance his abode. He's on his 4th wife, a little younger - about 30 years? - Iranian ex-pat (Lily Mahtani née Sahni) who looks pretty stern in her boobage portrait at the start of the tour). The entrance fee is $30 a pop, and they hold all the concessions on the property: 6 gifts shops and 3 restaurants. The WCs are free.

The big question is what happens when the currently breathing Duke doesn't. Who inherits? There is all kinds of intrigue there. When asked, if the guide knew, she wasn't telling. The Duke and Duchess still live in the palace, strictly off limits to those of us paying for their dinnerware, and will on occasion wander the halls mingling with the tourists. I asked the guide what they call him when they see him wandering in his bathrobe, and the answer was "Your Grace" of course. Yeah, why not?

Now for the best part. Before the tour began we wandered through a special exhibit dedicated to Winston Churchill, future prime minister, warrior and quintessential quote machine. His dad's cousin (Duke in Waiting) owned the place or was going to, and his mom was "supposedly" only 7 months pregnant at the time. Lady Randolph Churchill (the Brooklyn NY born Jeanette Jerome) went into labor right in the middle of the St. Andrew's Ball which was being held at the palace. They rushed her into the nearest room (an old chaplain's bedroom that was being used to collect all the furs and coats of the attendees), threw everything off the bed and onto the floor, and it was in this room WC took his first breath. So, even though he was born there, he didn't grow up or live in the lifestyle and I think we are all better off for it. The collections in the adjoining rooms are fascinating and there are many of his original paintings, drawings, and writings. That was worth the price of admission.

The tour was fine, the tapestries and some of the artwork amazing, and the guide really was very informative, but with no sense of humor. Didn't see the Duke, or the Duchess wandering, but did contribute by having a nice lunch at the Pleasure Gardens Cafe.
Wandering out the side door, we eased our way into the secluded little Secret Garden behind that wing of the palace. It was perfect. We found ourselves a nice bench and while Kat wrote out postcards to Alyssa and Jonathan (the last two) I enjoyed the solitude and a nice smoke in Winston's honor. I am sure he would have approved.

By this time we were exhausted by all our hard touring so decided on Tesco's in M-in-M for some yogurt and finger foods, took them back to our cottage and enjoyed our last evening in Blockley. A note: while we seldom watch much TV while traveling, we do turn it on for background noise on occasion and was surprised to see the Michael Jackson/Conrad Murray murder trial broadcast on SKY TV. Live. Weird. Turned it off fast to settle in for a good nights sleep that we would need in preparation for our next days' travel. We are heading to Wales - the land of beautiful accents and beautiful countryside.

Note: If you enjoyed reading about Shackleton, you will probably enjoy a book by Sydney Wignall, "Spy on the Roof of the World" written in 1996. It is the story of a couple of British mountaineers who entered Tibet to climb Gurla Mandhata (which was forbidden) and were captured as spies by the Chinese occupiers, back in 1955. They got clearance from Winston himself, his attitude being: we should help all British expeditions overseas "because you never know what useful intelligence they might bring back." (pg. 17) They were indeed captured, interrogated as spies, and finally released to make their way through the "unpassable" winter passes from Tibet into Nepal. The Chinese of course were sure they would die on the way. Great read.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Beds, Beer, The Bard and Blockley - The Cotswolds Becken

Now that we are 25,000 feet above the beautiful British Isle, and heading south toward a London airport we never knew existed, it's time to reflect on our short vacation in Scotland. They are a funny lot this bunch. Very proud of their national identity, no doubt about that and they seem a rugged, hearty group. Short anecdote: we were accosted (in a nice way) by a petition solicitor, who looked every bit like one of those log throwers, or at the minimum a rugby player, who asked if we were Scottish (Scaw-tesh). When we demurred, he said simply, "That's unfortunate for you" and went on to the next person walking along. Everyone we met was very nice and congenial, and Edinburgh itself seems like a wonderful introduction to Europe if you've never been. We only got lost once, driving back to the guest house at night we ended up at the waterfront, which was good because we had always wanted to see the Firth of Forth (great name) and we did. Our only suggested improvement would be to put up a road sign on occasion, or at least indicate the direction of travel. The cardinal points on a compass were developed for a reason (probably by a Scot - they invented a lot of things including the decimal point) and are free. We did not get to see the Highlands, nor go to a Scotch Whisky factory, or get to St. Andrews, opportunities for a future visit. I like their spirit and frugality, and that two men (Knox and Smith) who had such a profound impact on our civilization came from such a small bit of land is remarkable.
(Ed.note: if interested in more Scottish accomplishments, I can recommend the humbly titled book by Arthur Herman: "How the Scots Invented the Modern World - subtitled: The true story of how western Europe's poorest nation created our world and everything in it." Shy aren't they?) And while we are on the subject of frugal, our airline (Easyjet) is so cheap they don't even talk to you. Or have someone at the bottom of the stairs to tell you which way to go. We love them.

Thursday - September 29, 2011 - Moreton in Marsh, England

We left our digs at 8:05 and turned left onto the main road (an easy feat when you think about it) and within moments were approaching EDI - Edinburgh airport. When we got lost on the previous trip it was because that in addition to having minimal street and highway signs, the few they do have are hidden behind bushes. We were quick to spot the little blue airport sign peeking out from the greenery and exited left just in time.
The airport is compact and easy to navigate, and within minutes we had returned the car, made it through security and were waiting at the gate to board our 9:30 flight to Stansted airport just outside London. No frills, on time departure into a wonderfully clear sky. We could see the aforementioned Firth of Forth from our seats and noticed a few very nice manorial homes below us. Very nice. When planning this trip we thought we were pretty clever. Our itinerary has us traveling to the north of London then over to Wales, then south in a band across and back to London. So we fly into Stansted, which is north of London, rent a car and drive around then return the car to Heathrow at no additional charge ... now we will find out how smart we were.

First Stansted airport is larger than expected but easy to navigate. The long walk to baggage claim works perfectly as the bags arrived at the same time we did, and since we were flying domestic there were no customs or passport control. We picked up the car (a compact with an arm rest), and in minutes were cruising westward at 75 mph, having no idea what the speed limit was, just being passed on a regular basis.
The scenery changed from country to real country very quickly and in just under two hours we were in "THE COTSWOLDS", home of the thatched roof cottages, quaint roads and friendly people. We had read and heard of and romanticized this area for decades and we were finally here. And it lives up to the billing.

There are street signs here, maybe a little hard to find and all but they seem to point us in the right direction. We were heading for a little place called Blockley, our hotel (The Crown Inn) being on the high street, which we all know from our Elizabeth George novels is equivalent to our "main street" and Blockley is either right in or right next to Morenton-in-Marsh. Close enough for the Cotswolds as we were about to find out. You just have to trust your instincts, and it's a bit of fun navigating the "just a little too small" roads.

Blockley is really pretty easy to find and there is only one street that could claim the title high, and surely enough right in the middle of a string of ancient row homes and buildings is a very narrow stone lined passage with an overhanging sign that announced our arrival at our hotel. The buildings all seem to have a soft yellow golden glow to them, characteristic of the locally quarried stone which gives a gentle patina to the entire region. Through the gate we went, up a ridiculously torturous winding narrow driveway to the car park at the top. It reminded us of the Villa Bonelli in Fiesole. We were glad to walk down to reception to check in. It seems we have the upper floor of our own little 17th century stone cottage, with a very nice view and a lighted patio right outside the door. We're happy.

And mellow. The travel had been easy, the scenery sublime, and the setting was everything we could hope for. Difficult to explain but this area seeps into your joints in the same way Provence does the first time you visit that part of southern France.
No wonder people rave about the region. We were a bit tempted to leave the car safely atop our high street perch, but with a whole afternoon ahead of us and a perfect (for me - 85 degree, sunny, record setting) day, it seemed a trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon (a mere 15 miles north) was in order.
We all know that this little town upon/on the river Avon is the hometown of William Shakespeare, or at least most of us do. You can't forget it once you enter the town limits. Home to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), it is a small, compact town with a great canal lock system passing through, and one of the more picturesque little rivers banks we've found.

Before we get to the touristy stuff, we were mesmerized by a long sleek canal boat passing through the Stratford lock. It's like the Panama canal in miniature, and the boat people seemed so natural tending to the closing and opening of the gates, like we would open and close our garage doors. On the side of the lock is a street-like sign pointing the way to London (only 85 hours and 185 more lock negotiations to go through) as well as other distant locations.
Like any adult child boy, I could have spent the afternoon watching the process but we had things to see. It was just at that point in the afternoon when the tourists start heading for their coaches and the place kind of empties out. We've experienced this phenomena in Venice and Disneyworld and it always leaves you feeling a little special. Like you have the place to yourself before the dinner crowd shows up. The lighting gets softer and the shadows start to melt.

We found old William's house, didn't go inside, but were impressed that as a pilgrimage site it exceeded our expectations (as compared, for example with the little stone room St.Catherine of Sienna lived in). It was easy to imagine all the literary folk who's footsteps we were standing upon gazing at this particular timber building. We know there is all kinds of controversy over where he actually lived, and who owned what house, but we didn't care. We were at the center of the literary universe and enjoying it.
Other than the really cool Shakespeare coat of arms over the ancient door, there wasn't much to see from the outside, so we decided to go see where he was buried. The Holy Trinity Church is a short walk away and it's a lovely church in a wonderful setting. Worth the walk even if you are not a Billy Bard fan. Will was baptized, married (they think), was a deacon, and certainly was buried in this church. His grave is at the base of the altar along with a few of his family members. We were glad we skipped the house and went over to the church.
As we entered we were greeted by one of the volunteers (church member?) and graciously invited to take our time and all the pictures we wanted; quite a difference from Rosslyn chapel and other places where you have to "buy" a photography license for a few pounds. The church has a very pleasant "feel" to it and given the time of day, we shared the space with just a couple of other visitors. It was so pleasant and the setting seemed perfect for a bit of contemplation.

The altar itself is contained within a beautiful stained glass window banked chapel, and everything is in very pleasant proportion. There are plenty of notices and boards to read and it's a great experience. The outside of the church is as pleasant as the inside with great old trees that snake their way around the side graveyard. There is also a door that is the perfect frame for a lovely lady.
Stratford upon Avon is really a lovely little town and we meandered along with the Avon through the center, passing by a bevy of rental boats each with the name of one of Shakespeare's characters ... what would have seemed touristy/tacky in another setting did not seem so at all.

For dinner we decided on the Windmill Inn which was just OK. We should have and didn't solicit some local advice for dining. The crabcake appetizer was more cake than crab, Kat had the burger, I fish and chips and mushy peas (that's what they are called, not an adjective), a first for me.

We are now used to the idea of ordering at the bar, finding a table, and having the food brought to us. It actually seems kind of a reasonable thing to do, eliminating all that phony introductory welcoming waiter to happy to be there customer dialog. Plus it gives the customer a chance to check out the very cool beer pulls, nothing sissified about them.

We took a last leisurely walk along the riverfront,the sun was just setting and the light was soft upon the Avon. We were not far from our stony hotel but it still meant navigating the little streets in the dark. Driving around the Cotswolds during the day is just plain fun, not so much at night, as the streets are not lit, narrow and all the charm of the daytime seems to disappear with the sunset. We made it back to Blockley in no time and retired up to our private patio for a cigar and a little good conversation. As we sat there, we could hear the kitchen crew as they cleaned up after the dinner service accompanied by what we thought was a choir, perhaps practicing in the little church at the top of the street. It had been a great day and the area was living up to its expectations.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Our Pregnant Launderette and the Royal Mile

We are enjoying our stay at the Acer Lodge guesthouse. The house itself is nicely arranged. There are five rooms in the front that are available for rental and just off the entrance foyer there is a door leading to the back of the house where the family lives. It is clear that the home was designed and built for just this purpose. It is quite a good idea, and since we have not really seen this type of arrangement before, wonder if it is unique to Scotland and/or the British Isle. In the Azores the rooms in private homes were really just part of the house and you walked through private living areas to your bedroom. Just wondering. The other thing I realized in reading the journal from yesterday is that I didn't give Rosslyn Chapel the attention that it deserved. Forget the Da Vinci code reference, it is quite a lovely chapel on the inside, full of light and it has a cozy feeling to it. It was built as a Catholic collegiate church by the Sinclair family, who were descendents of another Norman (French) bloodline and remained Catholic until the reformation. Perhaps it is the French influence that makes it so appealing. In any event it is only 7 miles from Edinburgh, and certainly worth the ride.

Wednesday - September 28, 2011 - Edinburgh, Scotland

It is a sparkling and according to the locals, most unusually warm day for the end of September. It is also "must do laundry" Wednesday, which is priority one. We wanted an early start, so after a quick breakfast, we followed Terry (our host) out the door (he was on his way to work), and thought about how to navigate to the laundromat we found last night. It was to the right in the direction of downtown so that meant crossing the two outgoing lanes of traffic and working our way into the commuter rush traffic in the far lanes. Terry had told us that "taking a right out of the driveway is not as daunting as it seems." Just that he had to tell us that, told us a lot. In fact, he was right. The stop lights to either side gave the slightest gap and we scooted into one.

We expected to spend the morning doing our wash and dry but were more than pleasantly surprised when the young, pregnant, couldn't have been nicer dear behind the counter told us that she would wash, dry, and fold our laundry for 10 pounds 50 and it would be ready to pick up at 5:00. Not only was that fewer Euros than we had expected to feed into the machines ourselves, it freed us to spend the whole day sightseeing. Dropping the car back at the Acer Lodge (much easier to find, once you know) we grabbed the bus for the short ride into the city.

Instead of heading directly into the maelstrom we found two things: a pastry shop (with the coolest taxi outside) and a nice comfy park bench on which we could eat our pastry breakfast and write out some post cards (to be honest I was writing in the journal, and Kat was writing the postcards, but at least I did sign them). It was without a doubt one of the more pleasant experiences on this trip. The flowers were still in bloom and the scent of fresh cut grass was in the air. It was cool and clear and we had our jackets on. Exactly what one would expect from Scotland at the end of September. We looked up toward Edinburgh castle and after some discussion decided that we would not forgive ourselves if we didn't walk the Royal Mile, touristy as it might be. Because after all we are tourists and this is one of the seminal experiences in Edinburgh. If you haven't been, go. The main road runs between Edinburgh castle and the palace of Holyroodhouse (if you remember from Stirling, rude (rood) means cross so this is the Holycross Palace). From our little vantage point in the West Princes Street Gardens, it looked like a formidable climb to the castle.

There is significant construction going on, particularly along what looks to be a tram line that runs east-west and must have been very handy when it was running. But the royal mile is up a street or two, and given the warm (quickly turning hot) day was rather crowded and full of life. People were carrying their jackets and the arms of a lot of very fair skinned Scots were already turning red. (Ed. note: In fact it was over 29 degrees - breaking a 100 year record - hooray!)

So now onto the famous:

We started at the Edinburgh castle side and walked east toward Holycross. The views from the castle are excellent, a commanding position and from this vantage point we could distinguish the little benches we sat on in our breakfast park. There were cranes about (mechanical not aviary), building what would become a mini-stadium right in the castle square in anticipation of the national tattoo. Don't know what that is .. no problem, neither did we: Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo 2011 is a short video that may help. We stopped to leak in the famous loos (according to all published reports the loos are consistently awarded best in Britain status; didn't find anything really special about them), and decided to leave the castle tour for another visit; the day was too fine.

There is plenty of architecture to admire. Edinburgh used to be one of the most visited and polluted cities in Europe and the wear shows on the exterior of all the buildings. I'm not saying that it's charming, but there is a certain patina that is pleasant. As you wander along the mile, you pass these charming little closes, basically an alley between two buildings that was "closed" up with a wall and a door that was locked in the evening. Some of these little alleyways were shortcuts to the lower streets. We wandered down a couple that now lead to enclosed courtyards which were quiet and extremely pleasant.

I guess you can't really describe Scotland and Edinburgh particularly without paying some note to religion (a discussion of which I prefer to avoid). It seems as linked as the Vatican with Catholicism. So, this is the city where John Knox, after learning at the knee of Calvin, began the Scottish Reformation and converted the mostly Catholic country to Protestantism. Got rid of rituals, and got back to the basics. It's also the country that burned about 17,000 witches (you can see a little plaque up by the castle), and destroyed a lot of Catholic buildings, etc. Go figure - it's amazing what's done in the name of religion.

Knox's main church was St. Giles, just a little way down the Mile from the castle. It's really a great church, and we did go in to find old John's statue, and admire the stained glass. Kat found the National Covenant, a fascinating document, signed in blood by some soon-to-be martyrs. To really get this you have to go back to 1633 when King Charles I appointed Scottish Episcopal bishops in Scotland. Big problem. It's an interesting story and worth the read if the Scottish Reformation is your thing. It's not mine, so time to move on.

Frugal as ever,the Scots want 2 pounds (about 3 bucks 20) to take pictures inside, therefore if you want to see what it looks like,and it really is beautiful, please Google it or click here. There may be some Scottish blood in these veins - I wonder? Back outside you can see the distinguishing feature of the Edinburgh skyline, the church cap. It is symbolic of the crown of Scotland and dates to about 1500 (and reminds us a little of the top of the William Wallace monument in Stirling).

There is something interesting to see all along the walk. One of our treasure hunts was to locate a distinctive array of cobblestones on the street. We must have walked around the cathedral 5 times before we came across the "Heart of Midlothian". We should have just looked for people spitting, because the local rumor is that if you stand on the rim and spit into the center, you'll get some amount of good luck. I can only wonder what old J Knox would have thought about this ritual.

Forward march. There are stores for every little tourist niche you can imagine. Need a kilt? Men's kilts, ladies kilts (didn't know ladies wore kilts and wonder if they go commando as well), kids kilts? Well there's a store for you. And you can get your Scottish family history done while you wait - I wonder how far back the Silveiras go in Scottish history. All of this variety is packed wall to wall along the street, intermixed with closes, lands, pends, wynds and gates.

Not too far down the way, you come to a really interesting little tavern: Deacon Brodies. This fine upstanding member of Edinburgh society, a cabinet and guild deacon during the day turned into a rascal and burglar at night. True story - he was hanged for his shenanigans and inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde." You have got to love his sign that tells the story from both sides. It's not quite the same story, as the Doctor went off the deep end, and in real life the Deacon went swinging on the gallows.

Back in the 18th century, Edinburgh was a crowded metropolis with 10 story skyscrapers, and a real tourist attraction, so they've been at this a long time. Along the way we explored a couple of small alleyways that used to link the main road to the parallel roads. They are intriguing and inviting. One interesting close was called the White Horse Close, where the Edinburgh to London stagecoach would leave on it's 8 day journey to Scotland Yard. I hope they had better luck finding it than we did.

Getting toward the end of the Mile, we landed at Canongate, right in front of the imposing Canongate Tollbooth, which currently houses a free exhibition called "The People's Story." What we were after and the real find in my opinion, is embedded into the back wall of the building: the grave of my Scottish hero - Adam Smith. It's actually in Canongate cemetery along with some friends of Robbie Burns. I couldn't resist throwing a coin over my shoulder onto his grave, imagining that he would have appreciated the free-market gesture. (For a better description of this part of the walk, may I suggest this link?)

To Adam Smith, my hero:

Finally at the end of the walk we approached the gated community known as the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It is a fancy castle that is the home to the queen when she visits her northern subjects. It's nice looking but expensive to visit. We figured she's got enough money without us paying the admission price, so we passed. Not sure that we missed anything. Two bus rides later, we were at Davidson's Mains. It is a cute little Edinburgh village with some shops, a nice residential area, an interesting looking inn with the quintessential touristy name, and our laundry. As promised, our clothes were cleaned and folded and we were thrilled with the service. Our still bubbly young friend (after a very hot day in a laundry and pregnant to boot) explained to us that we could cut through the park directly across the corner, and emerge onto Queensferry Street about a quarter mile from our lodge. Perfect, no bus, no car, just our four legs and some fresh laundry.

We liked Davidson's Mains so much that we decided to walk back there for dinner at "Ye Olde Inn", which as it turned out was not touristy at all; much more of a family restaurant with a conservatory in back and a very nice outside area with picnic tables and space for the kids. Given the warm day the outside tables were full with families enjoying a brew and conversations with their friends, the kids running around just having a ball. It was fun, the food was quite good (I can't get enough fish and chips) and I had the pleasure of another Cali-80 local beer. Life is good.

Returning back through the park to our lodge we checked out with Gillian (we had an early flight the next morning) and expressed our appreciation for their hospitality. What a nice way to end a wonderful day, with clean clothes, a warm shower and a cozy bed in Scotland. Tomorrow is for flying back down south and exploring an area that we have read and heard about for years: The Cotswolds. Sleep well.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Great Scot - Robert was a Frenchman

We can see the little Italian restaurant that we ate at framed nicely in the hall window. We would definitely eat there again. Our room is situated in one of the wings of this comfortable old hotel directly opposite the entrance to the courtyard parking lot. I like the view from our window, the architecture intriguing, and the tower clock is actually telling the correct time. Stirling is a very pleasant little town, and our walk up to the castle last night couldn't have been nicer. As I said yesterday, we passed the Church of the Holy Rude, with it's fascinating signs. What is a rude we wondered. The sign told us that Mary Queen of Scots' son King James VI's coronation took place here (rather than Westminster Abbey), and was presided over by none other than that old rascal John Knox himself. There is some interesting history to discover here. (Ed. Note - in fact the term rude translates to cross, so this is the Church of the Holy Cross, and James' coronation was the only one in a church other than Westminster Abbey that is still standing.)

Tuesday - September 27, 2011 - Stirling, Scotland

Post breakfast, we strolled back up the hill toward the castle, past a charming little park that just begged someone to come and sit, and relax and take a load off. We didn't. We continued onwards and upwards arriving at the little "top of the town cemetery" (my name for it - it's called the Old Town Cemetery). They certainly know how to do tombstones here, with statuary scattered throughout. One really cool glass encased memorial caught our attention. A young woman of 18 who was drowned in one of the local firths, because she refused to renounce her Protestant faith. They obviously took it seriously back then.

We wandered upward until we came upon a thoughtfully placed bench at the highest point, a just perfect spot for reflection and meditation. To our left we could see the castle of Stirling, and off in the distance just to the right a tower built to memorialize William Wallace. Just below us is the river Forth winding it's way through the valley under the famous Stirling bridge which we cannot see as it is hidden just behind the trees. It was a lovely spot.

We walked over to the medieval walled castle complex, complete with battlements, moat and drawbridge. It's not as imposing or visually interesting as say old Mad King Ludwig's place in Germany. Instead there are a series of buildings, all burnished by age and time save one, that looks as if it has been sandblasted to a beautiful golden beige. In the large courtyard it seemed a tour bus was arriving every few minutes, each packed with a goodly number of school children obviously on a day long field trip. They were adorable to watch, lining up neatly by the bus under the watchful eyes of their keepers. It was a coin toss whether to tour the castle with the kids or leave it for a future trip while we explored the rest of Stirling. Heads (ours) won and we returned to the hotel to check out and retrieve our little Vauxhall.

Driving in this part of Stirling was a breeze. No one keeps track of what side of the road they drive on, and it seems they park wherever they please. Everyone patiently navigates around the double parked cars and you really get the feeling you are in a bumper car amusement ride. It was kind of fun. We had one of those graphic, not to scale maps provided by the hotel. It worked fine and before long we were pulling into the parking lot beside the visitor center that serves the William Wallace monument, high upon the hill before us.

The Braveheart Monument is a good choice if you can climb and don't have heart problems. (Optionally, there is a bus that takes you from the visitor center up to the monument but that is clearly for woosies, and we are not. Yet.) We walked up a steep winding path and panted our way through the large portal at the base of the monument, ignoring what must be a beautiful view over the valley. There is a little gift shop and toilets, and some very nice monument ladies ready to sell us tickets so that we could climb the 246 steps to the very top of the monument. There are no elevators, so beware.

What there is, is a spiral, stone, one-person-wide staircase (with two way traffic - reminiscent of Montmartre) with a good size riser on each step that challenges my calf muscles to lift my 11.5 stones skyward. Just when you think you can't take another step, you come to a platform and exhibition room. The first is a tribute to Wallace himself and is very well done. In a glass case is Wallace's broadsword and it is monstrous. At 5 and 1/2 feet, it is almost at long as I am tall. (Ed. note: there is a question as to whether this is actually his sword. See reference if interested. Whether this is the actual sword or not it is indicative of the size of swords used in the 13th century. The battle at Sterling bridge was in 1297.) It's clear that Billy must have been an imposing figure, standing over 6 feet 6 inches with sword raised in combat.

In the corner of the room stands a full sized mannequin with a plain white cloth covering where his face should be. When you press a button on the stand, a video projector displays an actors face on the white cloth. It slowly comes to life and a booming voice tells the story of Wallace and the battle. It is mesmerizing. So lifelike that you begin to believe Wallace is in the room with you. It was as good as any animatronic character at Disneyworld. And the speech he/it makes is eloquent, stirring his passion for freedom in our own little bravehearts. Around the room are a number of very lifelike figures, and Kat decided to have a face off with one in particular. There are also interesting sideboards, my favorite includes Wallace's quote: "I am a Scot. I don't have to ask anyone for my independence." If you don't know the story, watch the movie.

It was a nice rest, but we had miles to climb before we slept. After about 80 more steps we entered a room filled with busts of many of the heroes of Scotland. Bobbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott and my very favorite, Adam Smith. His very clear position on economics and Gekko-greed, enunciated right about the time we began our (American) war for independence, really resonated with me in my first year economics class. It was he who said:

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."

Contrast that with the government can borrow and spend it's way out of anything philosophy of the 383 miles to the south Cambridge born fellow, John Maynard Keynes, whose economic policies are currently (2012) being followed by the idiot-in-residence of our maison blanche. Was there ever a greater contrast?

Back to the monument. The third room near the top is a gallery where the story of how they built the monument is told. Probably the least interesting. The only thing left to do was to climb those last few steps and stand upon an exposed perch which gives you a 360 degree view of the remarkable countryside. Finally at the top we stood below the eight massive arches that give the monument its distinctive look from a distance. It was cold, misty, and blustery so we didn't linger long. Just long enough to appreciate the winding river Forth as it made its way through the valley, under Stirling bridge and by the castle on the bluff. It really is picturesque and worth the climb.

The descent was much easier, and we graciously yielded way to anyone we met making the ascent. At the gift shop we bought a little refrigerator magnet that celebrated our accomplishment and feeling pretty good about our effort, but not good enough to forgo the courtesy bus ride back down to the visitor center and parking lot. It was at this visitor center where we bought a magnet for Kat's brother Rick, who is a great punster and lover of things British. The magnet says in Scottish: Gonnaenodaethat. Here's the young cashier helping us with the pronunciation:

Back in our little car, we scooted over to the Bannockburn Heritage Center, a destination that I was lukewarm about back in Studley when we were planning the trip. I'm glad Kat was more that 50% wanting to go because we had a blast. It is a serious site, the battlefield where Robert the Bruce (actually Robert de Bruse - he was French Norman as well - that must really fry the Scots) fought the English, outmaneuvered them and banished them for good.

The attached visitor's center is quite whimsical and entertaining. There is the standard fare of artifacts and displays, then you enter a room where lying about is an assortment of medieval period clothes, shields and even some chainmail (which is extraordinarily heavy and induces a feeling of claustrophobia), just waiting to be tried on. We were like kids in a candy shop and got the biggest kick out of playing dress up knights and damsels. It was fun and we highly recommend it. After this period of adolescent reversion, we stopped in the gift shop for some "traditional Scottish ice cream". It was unflavored (no vanilla added) frozen sweet cream and it was delicious. Less in this case was definitely more.

We decided to make one more stop on the way back to Edinburgh and our guest house. We had talked about a drive-by of Rosslyn Chapel, the obscure but now famous little church that was featured in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. We had no intention of going in but once there were fascinated by both the architecture and the displays in the visitor center. We entered the church where a tour guide was giving a short introductory lecture, then let us all roam at will. For 200 years there were no windows, just wood shuttered openings that subjected the soft sandstone (both inside and outside) to the elements. By the time the glass windows were installed the damage had been done. The apprentice's pillar is fantastic, as well as many of the carvings - the entire interior is covered in carving and quite amazing to see. In 1954 a cement wash was brushed over the carvings inside and there is an impressionist's softness to all the artwork. There are plenty of myths and legends and speculations surrounding the chapel and the crypts, and the guides did not try to dispel any. We really did appreciate the chapel, and glad we went, but there was little doubt in our minds that had Dan Brown not memorialized it in his best selling book and movie, the deterioration would be continuing and there would be no porta-potties in the parking lot.

Our last major challenge for the day was to find our guest house (The Acer Lodge), check in, and perhaps get some laundry done (we were not yet at the critical stage for laundry but it was fast approaching). Queensferry road, where our accommodations were located, is a major east/west road between the suburbs and city center. It is four lanes (2 each way without a divider) of non-stop traffic. Our lodge sign and street number can best we seen heading east into the city, and of course we were heading west - away, but at least on the correct side. Made no difference we missed it. Pulling a u-turn at the next intersection, we came back toward it on the wrong side of the street and passed it again. Like doing a binary search, we halved the distance and finally were able to crab slide our way into the driveway and parking area. The lodge itself is a traditional Scottish dormer bungalow and our hosts Gill and Terry could not have been nicer. The room was clean and spacious, well insulated against the street noise, quiet, and just right for us. We asked about self service laundry, probably not, but there was a laundry down the street a wee bit, 5 minutes by car (we didn't tell them it took us 5 minutes to get into their driveway).

The end of the story is that the Scots must be morning people, as we did find the laundry (closed), stopped at an inn for dinner (stopped serving at 8:00 and it was 8:10), and settled, not in a pejorative way, for some excellent Chinese take out that we hurried back to the lodge to eat in our bedroom. It had been a full day, we were very tired and sleep came like a thunderbolt. Ah, Scotland.