Castle-Spotting & Whiskey-Sampling

Stop one on our epic Scottish Road Trip: Oban, a port town on the West coast. Dotted with brightly painted homes and endless wool boutiques, Oban boasts of a booming care home population and even more ferry rides to the surrounding islands.

The Oban port!

The Oban port!

We, however, were there for the whiskey.

My Dad is a connoisseur of alcohol-producing-places and the tours they offer. He and His-Buddy-Mark in their 1989 semester of living in Denmark frequented the brewery down the block so much they were unofficial tour guides by the end. When the tour guide of the Oban Distillery asked what other distilleries he’d been to, i swear he listed every bourbon in the US.

So he’d hunted, far and wide in the land of the internet, for the best whiskey distillery in the land of Scotch. Oban, he decided, held the prize: it was one of the smallest distilleries he’d heard of, so the tour promised to be up-close and personal. Looking over the boiling barley-and-sweetwater mixture in a 32,000 litre contraption, i thought the proximity divine. I also thought my Dad was going to pee himself he was so elated. “Normally, all the distillery stuff is behind glass!” he exclaimed gleefully.

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Looking gleeful with a sample of Oban scotch in hand!

Looking gleeful with a sample of Oban scotch in hand!

Two wee samples and a free whiskey glass later, we were more than pleased with our time in Oban’s Distillery (such a fun and inexpensive attraction to see, should you be planning a trip to Scotland!). Then a fish-and-chips later, we were back on the road bound for the northwest coast.

Scotland is not renowned for its weather. That whole saying, “don’t like the weather? wait five minutes,” surely was born here. Everywhere else i’ve heard the saying employed it’s been a Southern hyperbolic stretch. In Scotland, i oscillate between opening an umbrella and taking off my scarf every ten minutes.

So much for hyperbole.

But for us, blessedly, this day was of a kind i hadn’t seen in Scotland for a long while: a day where the sun was the norm and the rain, novelty. Glistening lochs and sun-dappled mountains embraced our tiny rental car, the clouds lazy white and the beauty of this incredible country unparalleled.

And then, in a serendipitous and ridiculous manner only Scotland can produce, we stumbled upon an old castle. On an island. In the middle of a loch.

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A castle! On an island! In a loch!

on the road

Dad focusing intently while learning to drive on the left - no easy feat!

Dad focusing intently while learning to drive on the left – no easy feat!

We learned, via a conveniently placed roadside gift shop, that it was Castle Stalker on Loch Linnhe. And we learned, via the stunning and uncharacteristic sunshine, that it looked like something out of The Princess Bride. Mostly, i just learned in Scotland to expect the unexpected – including random castles alongside the motorway.

current jam: ‘girl in the war’ josh ritter.

best thing: such incredible, humbling opportunities to see so much of this stunning country!

Top 5 Things to Do in Amsterdam.

I’ve written about all of the things below in greater detail, but if you’re planning a trip to Amsterdam in the near future, these are the condensed top 5 things i would recommend doing! (See all my writing on Amsterdam here.)

1. Albert Cuyp Market. If you want to see a local side of town, this – the oldest street market in the Netherlands – is it. The market is exploding in stalls of things to try – everything from frites stands (mmm!) to lingerie shops. We took a full morning to peruse the selection and mostly ate our way through, devouring a powder-sugar-covered waffle at Wally’s Wafels and gorging ourselves on local olives. The prices are unparalleled for such gourmet food! (The market runs Monday – Saturday, 9 am – 5 pm).

top 5 - market

2. A Bike Tour. Really, i’m sure any company will do you just fine; Mike’s Bikes was great for the youthful, edgy side of Amsterdam (if a little heavy on the information about weed and prostitution for people not looking for that sort of entertainment) but if you want to get the lay of the land hop on a bike and go. It is the local way of getting around, after all!

shop cats make for the best bikes!

shop cats make for the best bikes!

3. The Van Gogh Museum. While the actual Van Gogh museum was undergoing renovations whilst we were in Amsterdam, the Hermitage Museum displayed the bulk of the collection in a special exhibit. Regardless of their housing, Van Gogh’s paintings come alive off the walls and force you to pay attention to their kinetic, vibrant energy. Though this is on the pricier end of Amsterdam museums, it is worth every cent!

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4. Dam Square. Though this is certainly the touristy center, there are so many great little shops to peak in (and wonderful people-watching!).  As a connoisseur of cheesy souvenirs, i loved shopping in Dam Square Souvenirs which is full of beautiful – if pricey – wooden shoes and other lovely Holland-themed merchandise. The best part, though, is the enormous yellow wooden shoe outside. Free mega-tourist-photo-op!

top 5 - souvenirs

5. Eat. Anything, really, but especially the bread, cheese, sausage, and frites! The Albert Cuyp Market is definitely the place to eat your way through, but don’t let your gastronomical exploits end there. Our favorite restaurant was van Kerkwijk, in Amsterdam Centruum. The menu is recited by the wait staff, who are warm and friendly folk, and it’s a selection abrim in quirky combinations (like steak slathered in strawberry sauce and goat cheese – shockingly good!). Another great place was right next to our hotel, the Café Onder de Ooievaar – the cheese and sausage plate made for a sumptuous late-night snack!

top 5 - eat

Bon voyage!

Highly Honorable Mentions:

The Anne Frank House (it was a wee bit crowded for this claustrophobic, but still very powerful – book tickets online & try to go first thing in the morning, rather than in the afternoon!)

if you like my condensed travel reviews, you’d probably like my tripadvisor profile!

current jam: ‘shake it out’ florence + the machine.

best thing: magna carterrrrr!

 

Markets and More Eating (Amsterdam, Day 2!)

If the Albert Cuyp Market was a field, i was a plow.

I’ve never been surrounded by so many sumptuous and tempting things to try – from the wafels to the hot chocolate to the small bucket of olives i purchased. Plus, as a mayo-loving french-fries eater whose allergic to ketchup, i just adored the frites stand that sold paper cones stuffed with fries slathered in mayo. And the cheese, sweet Holy Mary the cheese! The displays were utterly intoxicating.

(Note the bicycle!)

(Note the bicycle!)

We’d decided, for our second day, to set aside the whole morning to explore the oldest street market in the Netherlands: the Albert Cuyp Market. Lining the block were some of the most eclectic stalls i’d ever beheld (including my experiences in pre-burned-down Owino Market in Kampala). There was an entire pharmacy spread wide under a tent and in the cold, more lingerie shoppes than i could count, a plethora of places to purchase scarves and the like, and a few stalls reserved for Amsterdam-themed souvenirs. Interspersed between the flower stalls (oh, the tulips!) and garter belts were the main attraction: street food.

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(Van Gogh had followed us, even here!)

(Van Gogh had followed us, even here!)

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It was as good as it looked!

It was as good as it looked!

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Making the famous frites!

Making the famous frites!

frites!

Frites!

I love street markets – the chaos, the food, the cool vintage things you can find, the food, and the experience of feeling like a local. As much as i may love doing silly tourist-y thing (see me in a large wooden shoe, below) i always try to find at least on thing per travel destination that gives me some sense of what it would be like to live there. Naturally, we were not the only tourists strolling about the market. But tourists were in a serious minority here, amongst the clamor of Dutch-speaking voices selling flowers and toothpaste and lingerie. I’d easily say this was one of my most-favorite things we did in Amsterdam!

Having sufficiently eaten our way through the market, we made our way over the Dam Square for more sightseeing. At the sight of THE LARGEST SHOE i have ever seen, there was a lot of squealing and leaping in to take pictures. So much for trying to blend in!

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About a block or so up from Dam Square is the (in)famous Red Light District. We chortled our way through all the funny little shops and such surrounding the red-lamped alleyways, but they definitely are not the reason i’d wanted to go to the city. And the whole district is clearly geared for people visiting the city, not the residents themselves. The gift shops are certainly amusing to visit, but once i’d cracked up at enough genitalia plastered on velvet hats (et cetera) i’d had my fill. Definitely would not say this was the family-friendly place to go on a holiday to the city, but as two young women walking around in the middle of the afternoon we felt pretty safe and took the whole thing in with a sense of humor.

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This is not the Red Light District, but it IS a picture of a red lit sign at night, so it metaphorically serves a purpose!

This is not the Red Light District, but it IS a picture of a red lit sign at night, so it metaphorically serves a purpose!

By then it was high time we ate, again. Utilizing a combination of my Lonely Planet guidebook and the MOST EXCELLENT TripAdvisor City Guide App, we arrived at the quirky and chic van Kerkwijk. With whitewashed, wood paneled walls and candles adorning the tables, we knew this promised to be a unique place to dine.

Turned out there’s no written menu at van Kerkwijk, so our gracious waitress just plopped right down at our table and talked us through the extensive list of their eclectic combinations. When asked what was a truly Dutch thing to try, she explained that the port-city-nature of Amsterdam meant all Dutch food was really a mash-up of European and Indonesian cuisine. We asked for an appetizer that involved bread and cheese, so she brought out a bleu cheese paté-type-thing that was incredible. For our entrées, Abby had steak with strawberry cream and goat cheese, and i had Indonesian chicken. We split a salad and (of course!) frites with glorified mayo.

The incredible cheese-and-bread combination!

The incredible cheese-and-bread combination!

It was an exquisite capping off to two days and three nights of fabulous dining. But, alas, the next morning we were whisked off to the airport leaving behind Amsterdam’s canals and bike lanes for a flight home to Edinburgh.

Though we’d only had an all-too-short time in Amsterdam, i was utterly entranced. It is a beautiful place (even in the cold!) and i am ever grateful for the opportunities i had to visit.

current jam: ‘day that i die’ zac brown band.

best thing: productivity. back to dale martin, for now.

of interest: i’ve added a new page at the top of the screen! it’s still a work in a progress, but have a look if you like!

The Only Way to See Amsterdam is from the Seat of a Bicycle.

Amsterdam boasts of being the only city in the world that houses more bikes than people. The bicycles clutter the canal sidewalks, over-run the cars in the streets, and nowhere can one be found in the City Centrum where there isn’t some whizzing ding of a bell making music. (Especially if you’re a tourist walking in the bike lane). There are even special traffic lights just for the cyclists!

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bike lane from inside a tram!

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Naturally, then, the best way to see the city is like a local. At the advice of one of my flatmates, on day 1 of our Amsterdam Adventure, Abby and i took a gander with Mike’s Bike Tours. The ride spanned 2.5 hours and the major circumference of the city – seeing everything from the Anne Frank House to a Picasso statue in Vondel Park. The bike shop even had two shop cats!

CATS AND BIKES

The tour definitely does not shy away from talking about the naughtier sides of Amsterdam (as in, prostitution and drugs) so i wouldn’t recommend it for anyone wanting to stick to pretty canals and old churches.

But Abby and i had a blast wheeling around Jordaan, the Museumplein, and sweet little streets lining the canals. Our fingers and toes were frozen solid in the sub-freezing weather, but there was a pit stop for a much-need hot cocoa and the most delicious apple turnover i’ve ever had in my life at the Bertram & Brood. And, since you asked: yes the Red Light District felt safe, and yes: going about it during the daytime is certainly less seedy than at night. The women who work there are, after all, human beings engaging in a legal and heavily guarded profession.

Right: best place for apple turnovers i've yet found; Left: the church next to the Anne Frank house.

Right: best place for apple turnovers i’ve yet found; Left: the church next to the Anne Frank house.

I have to admit, though, i sort of pictured the Red Light District to be like a scene from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. You know, 19th-century can-can dresses and simpering red lips. I fear to say my imagination did not match the reality at all!

Riding a bike in Amsterdam, though, is no joke. Sure, the whole city is as flat as Kansas, but being on a bike here is kind of like driving a car in New York City. You have to constantly be aware, assertive, and unafraid to stick to your decisions (even in the face of an oncoming tram!). At one point, a father and his toddler son whizzed past me so fast i – literally – backpedaled. The most embarrassing part? The kid had one glasses like me and looked ridiculously cool for someone who couldn’t have been older than four.

Europeans, ya’ll. I am constantly being out-fahsion-ed. Even by the babies.

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It doesn’t get more quintessentially Dutch than a windmill and bikes!

 Our noses falling off from the cold, our legs sore from out-pumping oncoming traffic, and our ears stuffed with fun tidbits about Nieuwmarket and the vivacity of Dutch life all made for a great afternoon in Amsterdam. Should you ever get the chance to voyage to this once-quaint-seaside-villa, be sure to include a bike tour into your stay!

current jam: ‘lovely ladies’ from les misérables. (i can’t help it! stuck in my head after all that!)

best thing: apple turnovers.

Ruins on the Beach: St Andrews Daytrip!

I thought, in all my travel-savvy wisdom, that New England had prepared me for cold weather. “Well, i have lived in Massachusetts for two years now,” i’d chortle, scoffing at well-wishers warning me to pack extra long-johns.

Woe to those who think they are smarter than the people who actually know what they are talking about.

Scotland is cold. Like, i wasn’t kidding when i said i’d seen cold weather. MA is in the negatives (farenheit) at present. But there’s something to be said for scuttling between classes in the frigidity to find solace in stuffy rooms cranking with 100-year-old-and-still-chugging heating systems. At school, i am at most half a mile from the other end of campus.

Not so when half a mile from me here is my school. Not to mention, like, the grocery store. Needless to say, i’m learning all over again how to layer – long johns included.

But none so much as when i spent a day frolicking about a snow-laden St. Andrews.

St. Andrews is a quaint village north of Edinburgh and also on the coast of the sea – the North Sea, that is. Prepped for the cold, i donned an outfit suitable for the tundra in the wee hours of last Saturday morning: thick wool socks, long johns, jeans, tank top, t-shirt, sweater, knitted scarf, Nepalese hat, StayPuff Marshmellow Woman Dipped in Chocolate Coat (TM), fleece-lined wellies, nuzzling gloves, and a pack of kleenex next to my trusty chapstick in my right pocket.

Though you practically had to roll me in the snow to get to the car, i was warm.

We arrived around 10:30 AM to what seemed to be naught but a shy seaside villa – but is a place, in fact, laden with history. Duchess Kate and Prince William met here, at Scotland’s oldest university; Chariots of Fire was filmed on the beach; golf was invented here; and, from the sprawl of castle and cathedral ruins alike i could tell this had been a center of Scottish life for a seriously long time.

first impressions of saint andrews

Naturally, in a place filled with such rich history, we took full advantage of the academic offerings by running amok on the nearest beach and daring each other to splash about in the (COLD!) ocean. It was stunningly beautiful, the clouds dotted with pinks and turquoise and rolling over a crashing sea. Even the frigidity couldn’t stop that salty tang, the taste of the sea.

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the castle ruins as seen from the beach!

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Since the weather, for Scotland, was unusually beautiful we scampered up from the seaside to explore the ruins of a medieval cathedral. Amidst the pink-and-blue sky, jutting out on a cliff overlooking a reflective sea, was the skeleton of a bygone era. There’s just enough left of the cathedral that i could envision what it had once looked like, in all its gothic splendor. Yet the remnants of the cathedral’s history were overgrown with the reality of the present: mortality.  Closing in on what i could only presume was once the perimeter of the church were hundreds of tombstones, some so whitewashed we couldn’t discern a date or name.

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Part of what remains in the cathedral is the above tower, looming over the sprawl of graves and remains. It’s still open for tours, so the lot of us went to work climbing its spiral staircase. This, easily, was the most terrifying part of the day: the stairs were calf-steep, and there was barely room for one person on each step. I spent the entire time clambering up with one hand on the wall for balance and the other in a death grip on the railing.

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Perhaps medieval towers are not the best place to discover one is mildly claustrophobic.

We, my flatmates and i, were a cacophony of swearing whilst clambering up the stairs. It was only as we crested – at last – the top of the stairs that the swearing turned into gasps of shock and delight. The view of St Andrews spread wide beneath us was breathtaking, the little red roofs sharp contrasts with the navy foam-capped sea and slick grey cobblestone streets.

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We drank in as much of the scenery as we could before deciding it was high time for lunch. Thanks to my trust Lonely Planet Scotland guidebook, we found a place revered for its amazing Fish & Chips: Tailend. I’d not had this classic British dish whilst in Scotland, so i thought it was high time to dive into some haddock with my cup of tea. The fish was perfectly battered, the chips ah-mazing, and the tea rounded off the meal beautifully.

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By the time we’d all tucked in, the weather had changed from glorious to gory in typical Scottish fashion. To avoid the onslaught of hail, sleet, and snow balled into one, i went shopping across the street. There was time enough for a quick, and very damp, romp about the castle grounds before finding solace on a warm bus bound home for edinburgh. Alas, the precipitation cocktail prevented me from snapping any pictures from the castle – but i count the day a roaring success nonetheless!

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current jam: ‘feeling good’ michael bublé

best thing: booking flights!

of interest if you like this: my tripadvisor profile.