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.

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