The Last Five Days.

The last five days in Scotland have been some of the best five days i’ve had all semester. Last Wednesday, J pseudo-surprised me by rolling out a suitcase from the arrivals gate at Edinburgh airport. (Pseudo, because it was meant to be a total surprise, but i’m very good at guessing and also am in the middle of exams, so certain details had to be divulged ahead of time). There was a lot of nervous tippy-toe walking around until he arrived, and even more (probably embarrassing) embracing when he did.

I couldn’t believe my blessings: he was here, with me, in my favorite place in the whole world.

Yet the excitement didn’t abate there- two of my very best friends from Mount Holyoke arrived the next day for a weekend trip full of milkshakes, late night catching-up-chats, and even a daytrip to the Trossachs for some hairy coo sightings! (Needless to say, there was a lot of hugs in the arrivals terminal of the airport this week!)

My favorite shot of the daytrip! Taken by Stirling Castle. (J should always wear a Hairy Coo hat, should he not?)

My favorite shot of the daytrip! Taken by Stirling Castle. (J should always wear a Hairy Coo hat, should he not?)

Enacting romance by the shores of Loch Katrine, the setting of Sir Walter Scott's "The Lady of the Lake."

Enacting romance by the shores of Loch Katrine, the setting of Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake.”

The view of Stirling from the Wallace Monument!

The view of Stirling from the Wallace Monument!

Called "THE Bridge" by civil engineers for its feat of genius, this rail bridge crosses the River Forth just outside Edinburgh!

Called “THE Bridge” by civil engineers for its feat of genius, this rail bridge crosses the River Forth just outside Edinburgh!

The Wallace Monument, Stirling.

The Wallace Monument, Stirling.

Our tour, which was the most excellent TheHairyCoo.com free tour, began in Stirling and made its way into the lower Highlands around a number of rather famous lochs. It was a beautiful, uncharacteristically rain-less day to spend frollicking on mountaintops and even feeding bread crumbs to the “dangerously cute” highland cows (for which the company is named!).

My favorite part was the stop off at Castle Doune, where the famous scene with the French guards takes place in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. J and i couldn’t resist clambering our way to the top to yell out our own (very poorly accented) French insults at my friends below!

Hairy Coos!

Hairy Coos!

Doune Castle - where the bulk of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed!

Doune Castle – where the bulk of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed!

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The view from the top of the castle!

The view from the top of the castle!

 

I was running on a high of can’t-believe-this-itis, especially when the tour guide of our day trip put on The Proclaimers as we drove past the lower Highlands. If a perfect day exists, that was it: Scottish mountains, excellent music, and a batch of my closest friends to sing along with.

Trying to get us all in the shot!

Trying to get us all in the shot!

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The last five days have been bliss, but now i have to face the last five days i have left in Scotland. And that, that’s just hard. The good-byes have been a mixture of late-night chats in the flat to quick, painful hugs farewell. My friends from MHC left this morning, and my dear flatmate Abby leaves tomorrow. It’s been a day of sad farewells.

J being here is enabling me to not ache so much for the Carolinas and their rivers of sweet tea, which is such a gift. I feel truly able to grieve for my last walks past the Scott Monument or cups of tea at the Elephant House.

It also means i spent half of my morning weeping over my cup of after-church tea, trying not to think too much about what life will be like without the hum of this rain-slicked, enchanted city.

And in the midst of this emotional farewell to the semester in Edinburgh, i have two exams to tackle and a life to zip fast in my suitcases. So the next five days are shaping up to be crammed – crammed with wadded-up t-shirts in my suitcases, crammed with farewell-to-Scotland activities, and a helluva lot of cramming for finals.

For days of auld lang syne.

Just outside the Writer's Museum, Edinburgh.

Just outside the Writer’s Museum, Edinburgh.

current jam: ‘come thou fount’ sufjan stevens.

best thing: having places and friends so wonderful that the time to leave them brings mourning. it’s the double-edged sword of loving something, i guess.

Faerie Frolicking on the Isle of Skye!

In the midst of all the excitement surrounding the Indiegogo campaign for Talking Taboo, i’ve let my recounting of Scottish Highlands adventures lapse. But no longer!

After our morning in Dornie admiring Eilean Donan Castle, Dad and i set off for the much-anticipated meander through the Isle of Skye.

Can you spy the Skye Bridge?

Can you spy the Skye Bridge? (Look to the right!)

Living in a flat with 11 other people and only one not studying abroad, i’d heard songs waxed lyrical about the beauty of Skye. It had only mounted my anticipation to see it myself – craggy mountains, frigid sea, ewes in such abundance i would have no shortage of puns to make.

My father, on the other hand, was not too ecstatic that the only thing i’d suggested we do, rather than just see, was the Faerie Glen south of Uig. (He was never one to clap in the Peter Pan scene when Tinkerbell fell flat). But Uig was at the northern crest of the Isle, so we took the morning to drive through Skye’s wee little towns and not-so-little countryside.

We also couldn’t resist a stop-off at a little knitwear shop called “Hand Spinner Having Fun!” Dad tried every sweater in their arsenal on, but to no avail. Being the size of a medium oak tree (as J would say) has its disadvantages. He did, however, procure for me a warm hat-like thing to keep my ears from getting redder in the cold.

The shoppe had a cat!

The shoppe had a cat!

The Cuillins.

The Cuillins.

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There wasn’t a whole lot of traffic to contend with, so i managed to snap what i think might rank in my top-ten favorite photos (of mine) of all time:

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Well, not much traffic save the rogue sheep or two.

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When we at last reached Uig we prioritized food over faeries (bet you can’t guess who prioritized that list!). There wasn’t a whole lot to be seen in town – a ferry (without wings, alas), two restaurants, and a gift shop. It was the kindly gentleman behind the counter who gave us better directions to find the odd road off the main one to get to the Faerie Glen. Suddenly, i was five years old again and half-tempted to buy the faerie dust for sale. Instead, we settled on post cards and set out for the road posted as “Balknock.”

And at its end we found the Faerie Glen.

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The Faerie Glen!

The Faerie Glen!

I clambered out of the car with a jolt, frolicking in the muddy sheep-paths and delighting in the conical hills.

“What exactly makes this a faerie glen, anyway?” Dad asked behind me. I was initially too busy clapping my hands and repeating that i did, in fact, believe in faeries, to answer.

“Isn’t it obvious?” I was all sass. “Faeries live here, Dad.” I think i even did my best toddler-pout.

He mouthed an “oh” and snapped another picture.

In the end, i think the glen won him over. We split paths, he up one hill and i its cousin, drinking in the damp glamour of this little corner of Scotland.

We took matching opposite-hilltop photos!

We took matching opposite-hilltop photos!

The rain was in a pelting phase by the time i at last un-muddied my boots and plopped in the car. Once more, i asked the universe to invent windshield wipers for glasses. We were off again, back to the south of the Isle. There was a bounty of waterfalls, a hop-off at the gorgeous Talisker distillery (we were too late for the tour, alas) and even a rainbow over the sea.

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Rainbow over the sea!

Rainbow over the sea!

We stopped in Portee for my favorite British delight, millionaire shortbread, and some hot chocolate to warm up. (I also may, or may not, have taken seven or eight maps of the island for my collection. They were free! I couldn’t resist!)

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Casual roadside sightings in Skye!

We were bound for the B&B which was nestled near more castle ruins and a seaside port. It was a charming end to a breathtaking day.

Dad would like you all to know he took this one.

Dad would like you all to know he took this one.

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I won’t say i convinced my father to believe in faeries, but i think Skye’s magic did a pretty good job of enthralling us both!

current jam: ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ janelle monáe featuring erykah badu

best thing: my friends come soon! and so does a certain non-medium-sized oak tree lad!

support talking taboo on indiegogo!

The Original London Sightseeing Tour

We pause in our Parisian program today for a London-town themed update…

J and i were running on a strict budget and even stricter itinerary in our five days (including travel) in Paris and London. There was no possible way we could do or see everything that we wanted – particularly in London, where the touristy spots are pretty spread out. The nature of being a really old city and having a lot of history to tell, i suppose!

Since we only had two days in London and J had never been, i wanted to find a tour that would enable us to at least see the bulk of the major attractions. After an inquiry with the lovely and helpful crew at the Original London Sightseeing Tour, our seats were booked.

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The Original London Sightseeing Tour is an open-top, double-decker bus tour that offers three routes around the center of London to choose from (everything from Buckingham Palace to the Tower of London is included). With the price of the ticket you also get a complimentary river cruise and walking tours, which my father and i had done when last we were in London in 2011.

Both the bus tour and the river cruise are best known for their engaging commentary, be it with a guide or through the multi-lingual commentaries you can access with (free!) headphones. It was from the commentary we learned tidbits about conventional London hotspots (like how the Magna Carta was signed in the Tower of London) and more unconventional details, like the filming location for the interior of Gringotts in Harry Potter was the Australia House!

The aforementioned Australia House!

The aforementioned Australia House!

J & i atop the bus!

J & i atop the bus! We elected the open-air part in spite of the cold!

But the best part, for our compressed itinerary purposes, was the hop-on, hop-off nature of our tickets. Good for 24 hours, we were able to utilize the bus to actually see London (a luxury not afforded on the Tube) and hop off at the sights we took time to explore: Saint Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, and Trafalgar Square.

The view of Saint Paul's from the top of our bus!

The view of Saint Paul’s from the top of our bus!

The view of the Tower Bridge from across the Thames!

The view of the Tower Bridge from across the Thames!

In case it wasn’t already apparent, i’m a big fan of The Original London Sightseeing Tour (long name and all!). Their staff were tremendously friendly and there’s no better way to see London than by the famous double-decker bus. I’d recommend this for any combination of travelers: families, couples, friends, groups.

It is thus with great delight i have something to offer all of you – a 20% off discount code! This code is only good from March 22nd – April 22nd, but you can book your tour up to six months in advance!

So if you (or anyone you know!) want to book an excellent bus tour and river cruise for an excursion to London anytime in the next six months, use the following code for 20% your ticket price: wanderingwrites.

You can make your bookings online (www.theoriginaltour.com) or over the phone at +44 (0)20 8877 2120.

Bon voyage! And be sure to let me know what you think of your tour of London!

**Edit: please note, as of now (23 April 2013) this code is no longer valid! Thanks! xo

current jam: ‘london calling’ the clash.

best thing: adventuring!

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!

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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!

 

Of Blossoms & Boats: Van Gogh at the Hermitage.

Refreshed from our wine-and-cheese induced sleep, Abby and i awoke in Amsterdam ready to brave the cold and wanting to explore. After a delicious breakfast at the hotel (have i mentioned the cappuccino machine?) we took a gander about the southern canal/De Pijp neighborhood, drinking in the quaint little bridges and houses stacked against each other.

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Some ten minutes away was our destination: The Hermitage Museum. Since the Van Gogh Museum is presently undergoing renovations, the bulk of their collection is temporarily housed here. I’d been waiting to see this exhibit really since my 12th-grade AP Art History class, when i’d first really studied Vincent.

It was sublime. Is there really any other word for visiting with Van Gogh’s work?

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Unfortunately, photography was strictly forbidden, so i have no photos to share of the actual exhibit. In some ways, i find restrictions like this liberating because it means i’m truly present with the art instead of constantly fiddling with the shutter speed on my Olympus.

Some of my favorite things we saw, though, were not the most famous members of the collection (like Wheat Field with Crows, though that was transcendent). There was a whole section devoted to Van Gogh’s study of Japanese prints, and his painted recreations of some of the prints in his own collection. To see how these pieces really shaped Van Gogh’s perspective as an artist in his formative years was really cool – especially the harsh angles and vibrant colors.

But lest we forget, the more famous works were also amazing to see. I hadn’t known that Almond Blossoms was painted for Vincent’s newborn nephew. Somehow, this idea that the blossoms were meant to celebrate new life made this work all the more endearing.

And the greens! Oh, the greens! I’ve always been enchanted by Bedroom at Arles­ and its quirky, incandescent spirit (my Art History teacher said once he always felt like the chairs were about to start dancing around the room). But it is even more lively in person – the dark patches outlining the bed and making up the floor are such rich tones of emerald that they illuminate the whole work. I was utterly intoxicated by the greens – the fishing boats at Saint-Marie series had me entranced.

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Bedroom in Arles, 1888.

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Almond Blossoms, 1890.

Fishing Boats at Sea, 1888. (I bought this one on a postcard!)

Fishing Boats at Sea, 1888. (I bought this one on a postcard!)

Some two hours later, we exited the gift shop (postcards in hand, of course) and made our way to Kerkestraat for the (aforewrittenabout) bike tour! Our afternoon was thus consumed by exquisite art and wheeling about town – what more could you want from a long weekend in Amsterdam, really?

That was really the bulk of our first day; the cold was too potent to spend too much time out with the sun going down. We returned to our new favorite bar/café, Onder de Ooivaar, for yet another round of wine and cheese. The next day promised a tour of the Anne Frank House, eating our way through the Albert Cuyp Market, and GIANT YELLOW wooden shoes!

current jam: ‘tout doucement’ feist.

best thing: ravioli.

of note: photos of van gogh’s paintings from here. 

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.