Monday, September 26, 2011

Hadrian and a Stirling Experience

Here I am sitting in a city and country of writers, penning my journal and what am I thinking about? I'm thinking that I am a pretty good driver with a good sense of distance; how close I am to other cars, and buildings, and such. While Kat showers I have decided that the roads, alleys, and tiny parking slots we've seen during our short visit to Edinburgh versus the large sized vehicle we are motoring around, will not mix. Warning thoughts are going through my brain like contra-indications on the side of a medical prescription bottle: "May cause scraped side panels or dislocated mirrors." So job one this morning (after my shower and included breakfast) will be to swap out our full size saloon for a mini-something. We will be glad to trade all the space and luxury for peace of mind and a harsher ride. With that decision made - we Kept Calm and Carried On.

Monday - September 26, 2011 - Edinburgh, Scotland

Today, our entire agenda is to "see Hadrian's wall." Of course not all of it as it carries on for 73 miles, and our guess is that once you've seen a mile of it, blah, blah, blah. The countryside in the Northumberland region, which is where the wall is, is rumored (by our crepe dealing family on the southside of the Thames) to be exceptional.

A beautiful, sunny. and cold Edinburgh morning greeted us, but we were assured at breakfast that the day would warm quickly, and in fact warm weather was on the way according to the forecasters.

We will see.

I am skeptical.

I am also in a less than generous spirit with our hotel provider which is really unusual for me and perhaps the reason for my skepticism. I don't like to take showers, considering them a necessary evil. Actually the shower is fine, it's the transition from warm/hot shower to cool/cold air before drying that bugs me. I try to avoid it, and will stand under the stream much longer than necessary simply to avoid that moment. Small thing in life, but it's one of my small things. I am always suspicious of showers in Europe that use the on-demand heater that fluctuates from warm to hot to cool. This morning, just after I lathered up my bod, the water turned COLD and yes I know I'm shouting. Kat (who has the opposite feelings toward showers - she like to get to cool as quickly as possible) with what I think was a wee bit of enjoyment, called the front desk and a new room was found with a working shower for me to rinse off. Enough complaining - on with the trip.

Since I was in such a great mood, I was actually looking forward to returning to the airport to swap our car for something smaller - I may have been looking for a fight. None to be found there, as the same agent who rented us the car last night was bright and cheerfully only too glad to exchange our large Vauxhall for a baby Vauxhall, at no charge to us.

Our plan was to take small scenic country roads and since Kat is a wonderful navigator I was able to concentrate on our periodically spoken aloud mantra: Drive on the left, look to the right. Goofy as it sounds (the talking aloud part) it really seems to work. And with the exception of a center arm rest, our little car was fine. Soon after we left the airport and headed south toward the border, the countryside morphed into beautiful, green, lush farmland. The road was narrow but excellent, with two lanes and a 60 mile (not kilometer) an hour speed limit. Pass at your own risk signs were not necessary. Dotted along our path were small rural, neat as a pin villages where the speed limit dipped to 30. Every now and then we'd encounter farmers on large (and exclusively John Deere) machinery making their way along with us. Everyone waves.

The farther south we traveled the greater the incline/decline ratios of the hills we were traversing. In places the road ahead resembled the view one gets from the top of the first climb in a roller coaster - Are you kidding? As the signs flash by we could just catch the grade - 7%, 10%, 14%, crazy curves, and the lovable dips: the single, double, and the ever popular SEVERE punctuated nicely by an exclamation point! Dairy Queen would be jealous. It was a trip.

We took Rick Steve's advice (he is never wrong) and decided to make our one stop at the wall the Housesteads Roman Fort. At the visitor's center there are restrooms, a small museum with some artifacts and a really cool roman altar (1), and a couple of good maps (2) to orient us to the location. Leaving the center there was a blustery cool wind that greeted us and we could just imagine what it would be like up at the fort, about 1/2 mile away.

In fact, contradicting what I had expected, the higher we went along the path (dodging both grazing sheep and the inevitable result of sheep grazing) the calmer and warmer it became. And it was really beautiful.

We stood atop this northern boundary of the Roman Empire on this tiny British Isle. It separated the barbarian hordes of the North Highlands from the conquered and therefore civilized citizens of the southern empire. There is still a raging debate about the real purpose of the wall, because looking at it almost 2000 years after it was built, it's easy to see that anyone not using a zimmer frame could have scaled and crossed it as easily as we did. It may in fact have been built just to give the Roman soldiers something to do during their 400 year reign over Britain.

In any case, it was beautiful, surprisingly still and very peaceful. We spent almost an hour just wandering among the stones and meadow. Very pleasant indeed, and well worth the trip. And, something else to cross off our travel bucket list.

Leaving the fort we headed west along the wall line to pick up an M road. These are high speed (70 mph) 3 lane motorways with none of the drama of the rural paths we took to get there. Consistently good, and boring, within an hour and thirty minutes we were northwest of Edinburgh in the small and lovely town of Stirling. Stirling is home to one of Scotland's most important castles - Stirling Castle by name sitting high atop the largest hill in town. The battle cry "He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland" fired up William Wallace and Robert the Bruce - of Braveheart fame. More of them later.

What we didn't hold was the exact location of our hotel.

Our lodging for the evening was the scaffold entombed Barcelo Stirling Highland hotel, perched half way up the hill to the castle. Easy to find once you have that little tidbit of information. We spent about 1/2 an hour driving around the lower part of Stirling, at one point even being flicked off by a Mercedes driver (in a lowly little C-class no less) - a first. The Barcelo is a nice older style hotel, comfortable and not as stuffy as it looks. The desk clerk recommended a little Italian restaurant just down the street, with the unfortunate name of "Mamma Mia" (try to get that damned tune out of your head), and off we went.

Run by a couple of engaging young men from Bari, Italy, the MM provided us with an excellent dinner and engaging conversation. Kat had a creamy red sauced sausage dish, and I the lemon salmon with pepperoncini pasta. Wonderful.

The little town sparkled below us as we made our way up the slightly misty street, past our hotel to the castle entrance at the top.

We passed the Old Jail, Argyll's lodging (we don't know who he was but he had some really cool digs), and the Church of the Holy Rude, all beautifully preserved medieval buildings. There was not another soul on the streets, and we realized we held Stirling castle. The love of my life and I were, on this night, for these few moments, the rulers of Scotland. I wished I could find that Mercedes driver now.



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