Tuesday, June 30, 2015

and I will come again, my Luve...

The street names read like a book of pastoral poems: Lilyhill Terrace, Willowbrae Avenue, Meadowfield Drive. It should, therefore, be a lovely walk.

It's not. The Internet is a funny thing -- at once a wealth of information, but, too, it's a mix of good and bad ideas. When travel books were more in fashion, things were less hit or miss. Most authors weren't published if they lacked credentials, so that when you read their list of, say, good gardens or best museums, you could assume that things would be as they appeared in print. (Slightly more iffy were hotel and restaurant descriptions; these have mostly benefited from the Internet's wide sweep.)

When I googled "places to walk in Edinburgh," hoping for some interesting, more remote destinations, I came to a listing of 15 musts. And since I'm inclined to like park settings, I picked number six on their list: Dr. Neil's Garden. Google tells me it's an hour's walk from where I am. So perhaps an hour to get there, an hour once there, and an hour on the return? Perfect.

Right after breakfast, where I actually fortify myself with Scottish salmon one last time...


... I set out. In my neighborhood, all is quiet on this working Monday. I pass an interesting doorway or two...


... and then pick up the long and busy London Road to the side of Arthur's Seat (Edinburgh's big peak jutting out to the east). As I walk, the road proceeds through possibly the saddest neighborhoods of the city. I am reminded that when you google the fastest way to a place, it's not necessarily the prettiest way. Eventually I veer toward a residential area of modest but well tended homes and here at last I am rewarded with well tended gardens and smart entryways.




And now I'm in the last stretch. I turn into Church Lane, which weaves along the base of Aurthur's Peak. This is where I am to find Dr. Neil's Secret Garden. The website reads: "Dr Neil’s Garden is one of Edinburgh’s most secret gardens, but is one of beauty and a place for inspiration,  meditation and contemplation.  A wonderful collection of  plants and flowers fills this peaceful space."

But where is the darn thing? I pass a church and then immediately enter Holyrood Park. Did I miss Dr. Neil's gate? I backtrack. I ask. I get some vague directions. I walk along the length of the street. Nothing.

Finally I ask the right question at a local pub: does the garden have a name plate by the entrance?
Oh no, it doesn't. It's just a gate. Just go inside it. Right by the kirk (aka church).

I showed you the gate in my last post. It does open and it does lead to a garden that is small. Very small. And, I'll be blunt: not especially interesting. You'll tell me I'm spoiled by the Botanic Gardens and by Hornel's garden in Kirkcudbright. But I think I am open to new and modest arrangements. I like many groupings of plants, honestly I do. But here, my camera dangles around my neck, uninspired, barely used. Here -- this is the classic shot that appears in most discussions of the garden. It's of a bridge over a pond.


There is one small compensatory moment -- it's right toward the end, as I'm leaving the garden. Toward the side, there is a lovely blooming rhododendron (you can faintly see the kirk in the background).


Instantly, the whole Scottish adventure dances before me -- from the first day in Dumfries and Galloway, through the hills of Islay, to the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh: rhododendrons that blazed my walks up and down the hills and dells of this beautiful country. Scotland has four National Botanic Gardens and collectively, they grow 700 of the 1000 species of this flower. And so it is fitting that on this last day here, I should come across a splendid display once more.

I do not retrace my steps afterwards. I take the longer road, this time to the west of the mountain...


... and though I don't get to my destination 'afore ye, I have a quite pretty walk at the base of St. Arthur's and so long as I am nearing all those scaling paths, I may as well scale one and, from the top, take in the views of the city.


Rather harsh beginning of a hike has a pleasant resolution, even if I added another hour to my ramble.

Having done the high road, I'm now back at the low roads. First a look at the Holyrood Palace, where the Queen resides when she is in town.


...Then at the very modern Scottish Parliament Buildings right across the road.


From there -- up up along the Royal Mile again. Severe in these blocks, isn't it?


And then I am back in the New Town again, pausing at John Lewis department store to pick up a sweater with sheep on it for Snowdrop. You'll see it when the cold days of autumn and winter roll forward.

And of course, I stop for tea. On my funky Broughton Street of "Bohemian" cafes and eateries.


At my b&b I settle my accounts and chat with a visitor -- a friend of my hosts here. She has a most unusual profession -- she ships your pets abroad. I find her working on a transfer of a a couple of dogs to Iceland, a cat to Miami and a horse to L.A..
By boat? I ask. I can't imagine there being a horse on one of my flights across the Atlantic.
Oh, no -- plane.
You put them to sleep?
Not at all. We don't even drug them.
And they survive unscathed?
Haven't lost one yet!

You might wonder what it would cost you to ship that favorite horse you've spotted perhaps at the Royal Highland Show: 10,000 pounds. A steal, no?

And speaking of luxury and excess, I break down and do something I never ever do: I reserve a cab to the airport. It's three times the price of a bus ride, but the thought of scaling all those hills toward the distant bus stop with my whisky bottles, blankets and Snowdrop gifts in the middle of the night (my flight leaves at the unfortunate hour of 6 a.m.) leaves me cold. There was a time where I would have done the walk (for example, carrying Turkish carpets and bottles of wine up and down the steps of the Paris metro), but I feel that after you reach the age of maturity (which in the UK is set at 60), you deserve an occasional break.

Dinner? I go back to a place Ed and I ate in. Twice in fact. It's called Fishers and it has... fish. With one pause for Andrew's spicy meatballs, it's been nearly two weeks of fish. I order a mixed Scottish fish appetizer...


... and a fish main course and as I plunge into my meal (it's so excellent!), I listen to the conversations around me. A party of twelve to my left, a party of three to my right. The threesome are complaining amongst themselves about the bread. They want "czarnyj." Black, in Russian. The woman has gold everything dangling everywhere. She looks very dazzling in a severe sort of way, but there is no laughter in her face or voice. Perhaps she is happy, just not on on this night. I listen more closely, wanting to get comfortable with a language I rarely hear these days. I must brush up. I'll be traveling to Russia later this summer.

The waiter is solicitous. Maybe he thinks I'm lonely. He asks me why I am in Scotland. I tell him I'm becoming a frequent visitor. He's delighted. When he finds out I'll likely return next year, he throws out some places I really must see. He's missed his calling -- he knew very little about the food he served me (it's true that I often ask ridiculous questions of the poor wait staff). But he surely knows his beloved Scotland!

As I get up to leave -- oh! in six hours I'll be leaving my room already! -- I thank him for his suggestions. He smiles broadly and says -- I like to think I've changed people's directions!


And so it ends. From Robert Burns:

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile! 

Six hours later, a cab comes up to 25 East London Street. A very kind and polite driver helps me with my bags. Such luxury! I revel in the comfortable ride! Then I put myself in mind for the flights -- to Amsterdam (the airport there is all torn up! that's okay -- here's where I grab a breakfast anyway...),

 Scotland trip-1.jpg

... then onto Minneapolis (hello younger daughter!), and finally to Madison, and with Ed -- home. To the farmhouse, where flowers are blooming and cheepers run for bread and the sun shines faintly but surely over the land around us.

Monday, June 29, 2015

a teaser

As always, on the day of traveling home, posting on Ocean comes with a bit of a delay. Typically, when in Europe, I write in the evening and polish in the morning, but this time my journey begins at 3:30 a.m. and so for now, I offer you only this teaser:

The one (and perhaps only) interesting thing about Dr. Neils' secret garden is that it indeed is secret. It's behind this unnamed, unadorned, rusty, and seemingly locked gate.


Come back later, tomorrow, to read the full account and the conclusion to this very sheepishly Scottish trip.

an Edinburgh Sunday

It falls into place for me, it does. Sometimes, I cannot see how some days will develop and I'm somewhat surprised when nothing crashes and, in fact turns out quite well. I suppose this is such a day. I take no credit for the good result -- there was no great planning behind it. As often in life, it was a matter of luck.

Breakfast at Ramsays offers many choices, but I find myself scaling back a bit. Islay was for mornings of wee drams and Scottish salmon, for roasted tomato and scrambled eggs. Now I must recall the saner moments of maybe a boiled egg or two (for the energy I'll need today) and some fruit.


After, I talk a bit to my hosts. Sharon was born along the Royal Mile (the main historic street in this city) so she has Edinburgh blood seeping through her. Together with Norrie, she runs this small guest house with creative enthusiasm. She tells me -- I'm always redecorating! By the time you come back, your room will look different again! And she is right that I will come back. If I go to Islay again, I have to stop at one of the two big cities on my way out. Edinburgh wins, as does her guest house.

They suggest I take a walk to the Royal Botanic Gardens. It must be scrawled all over my face: loves flowers! And they mention a market not too far from the Gardens and, too, I know from a conversation I had yesterday with a shopkeeper that in that same area (Stockbridge), there will be a very special race in the afternoon. Alright! My day is set.

But I don't head for Stockbridge right away. As the clouds let go of a few drizzles, I head up restaurant alley -- Broughton Street, which Sharon has tagged as always having been rather Bohemian and I have to say, there's evidence of that...


And then I cross the great divide between New Town (where I am staying) and Old Town (where 90% of tourism takes place)...


... and I head for the Royal Mile, which links the Palace with the Castle (and this always makes me smile, because we have one such "royal mile" in Madison, linking the university with the legislative headquarters in the Capitol. Same thing, no?).


I walk up High Street...


... toward the castle and then I have had enough and I come down a multitude of secretively hidden steps to the New Town again.

I'm ready for some New Town strolling. What's this? Another store with children's clothing? A wee girl is trying on wellies. I want these! -- she says with conviction.


Snowdrop is, of course, too young for wellies. I settle for a lovely jacket, a jumper, a t-shirt that has a mouse holding up balloons telling you to have a nice day. I like that: a child's message to the world -- try to have a nice day, okay?


And now the Royal Gardens. First of all, I must note to all considering a venture here -- they're free, unless you want to go to the "Glasshouses."

Everyone wants to go to the Glasshouses. Indeed, there is a line with a two hour wait for the Glasshouses. Why? Because there is a Titan Arum (otherwise described in the media here as the New Reekie, because it stinks) in full bloom right now. Perhaps you don't know this plant? Well, neither do the Scottish people as it is the first time in recorded history that a Titan Arum has bloomed here. These plants bloom only every million years or so, and therefore if you miss it now, you'll not have another chance to see with your own eyes how very.... ordinary it is. The reason I happen to know this is that, of all things, my university back home, had a Titan Arum spring forth in bloom oh, maybe a decade or two ago. It flowered in the building right next to my office. No lines, no fuss. I saw it and yawned.

My walk through Edinburgh's Botanic Gardens proved once and for all that you can have many seasons in one day here. It rained. The wind blew. It drizzled. It did not drizzle. The sun came out. The sun disappeared and it rained to high heavens. And then the sun came out for good. Well, sort of. All this in the space of about two hours.

And here's my Gardens verdict: exquisite! Superb! I loved every minute there.

Let me invite you for a walk. Without much commentary. And know you're seeing just a wee bit of the extensive display.




(timed release selfie)


(when it rained, these guys hid in each others arms)


(these two preferred playing with swords than looking at a meadow of flowers)


And so on. Oh, and don't forget the view onto the Castle...


I'm almost ready to leave. But there is this sign announcing that the exhibit of Nicolas Party's pastels has been extended through today.

Let me take a look. One of the best things about travel is that you find things you wouldn't have otherwise known to look for. Who is this Nicolas Party?


You wont have heard of him. I can't even find a wiki page, though he isn't a completely new face on the art scene. (read about him here.)

A one sentence summary would read something like this: he once was a graffiti artist, but after studying at the Glasgow School of Art, his work exploded.


At the Botanic Gardens, the house dedicated to exhibitions explodes alright -- with sunshine and wall painting and canvas painting and it is all so beautiful!


There isn't anyone there. The entire citizenry of Edinburgh is out chasing the Titan Arum. Well fine, but in my mind, the real treasure is right here, free, without lines.

I walk out of the Gardens and as I walk toward the heart of Stockbridge, I look for the market. I must be on the right path: he's carrying a bag of foods.


And yes, I am surprised to see him in a kilt. I see kilts, of course, in the expected places: on the Royal Mile, to get tourists to throw down coins...


At a wedding.


(And not only on the groom.)


But rarely on a gent carrying groceries from the market.

Okay, onto the market. It's kind of an interesting one because it really doesn't address the produce needs of a common household. Yes, I found a stand or two with fruits and such, but most of the vendors lure you with the smells and flavors of (freshly) prepared foods. The biggest draw is the paella. Me, I sampled these:


...wondering all the while if someone could taste the difference between a Hendricks Gin macaron and another Gin macaron.

And now it is nearly three and I need a pause. For tea and a scone. Here:


As I sip my tea and contemplate smelly plants and the state of the world, a woman comes in with her baby and, too, what I have to guess is the baby's aunt. They sit next to me and they place the little boy in a high chair and feed him a cheese sandwich with cucumber. A proper British late afternoon snack. Of course I ask all about this adorably friendly little guy. How old? Eating sandwiches, is he?


Nine months. And yes, he's usually quite good when out and about, though this was his first sandwich in a restaurant.

I smile many times over.

And now it's three -- I am ready to witness the big race. This is its twenty-fifth year and so it is, in this neighborhood at least, a big deal!

Here's how it works: the organizers drop from the bridge yellow ducks into the river. At the next bridge, the first duck to come in gets a prize. I do not know who actually gets to claim a prize. I don't even know how it is that so many people know about this race and turn out for it (my b&b hosts had never heard of it).


But I do know that it surely displays some of what we could call back home British humor. The organizers wade into the river and splash each other and eventually, at least one or two fall down and get drenched. The crowd roars! After that, it just gets a tad wild. Someone plays a bagpipe, and the race of the ducks begins.




I leave you with that image of the ducks moving right along. I do not know who won and of what consequence this is for humanity or even for Edinburgh people. But it surely brought out the grins in a whole lot of those standing around me.

Dinner? Well, I go to the second closest place to me -- just across the street from where I am. The place is called The Ox and yes, it is a pub, with pub food, though I think you'd be pleasantly surprised if you want to veer toward healthy eating. My fish soup is very good...


and I am delighted to get with it (upon request, but still...) a bowful of kale and another of a spring salad.

And the sun comes in and out and the people walk in short sleeves and who can find fault with any of this?!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

from island to city

If you don't like departures, I say leave in the morning. Focus on your next destination, don't think about the one you're leaving. That's the theory.

Mixed skies outside. They'll have a fine morning on the island. Who knows what the afternoon will bring.


I go down to breakfast -- a most special breakfast, artfully prepared, this time with a wee dram of a Bowmore festival virgin oak matured whisky. This is a big deal dram, an unusual dram, generously presented, as is everything at the Bowmore Guest House: generosity is Andrew and Alison's way of life.


The brothers are already at breakfast and their Scotsman friend is there as well. They ask where I'm heading next and I admit it's Edinburgh. I am a reluctant visitor to this most popular of all Scottish destinations. I lived there once, for a month, or was it longer? I returned to it with daughters, and too with Ed and I can't say I'm excited about returning yet again to this city that is always crowded with visitors, so that it feels more like a picture post card (it's so much prettier than Glasgow!), rather than a real place with real people in it.

It strikes me that the Scotsman may suggest some outings for me. He is never at a loss for suggestions.
Give me a minute to think.
His brow really does furrow and he comes back with an idea (go to the royal burgh of Linlithgow!), which I will indeed execute, if not this time then next. Here's my wise Scotsman, with the two brothers:


And now the clock is ticking so I am about to raise myself from this room of such warm feelings when Andrew comes back with a dram glass from Bowmore House for me to take home.


An Islay person would not pour a whisky into a big tumbler. Rather, they would use these chubby dram glasses and though I have one (and only one) at home, it does not have the magic words on it -- Bowmore Guest House. I'm thinking I'll be enjoying whisky more this winter. Bourbon casked or sherry casked... with a whiff of peaty smoke and a hint of dark chocolate, crushed black pepper and flowering currants, and maybe raisins.

I linger just a few seconds more. There's a fleeting mention of trips to be taken in the year ahead, a confirmation once again of my visit next summer, a final good bye.

I drive out of this lovely little town...


And in ten minutes I am at the airport. There, I give a nod to the Islay sheep, promising myself that I will henceforth not touch lamb or veal, because really, these young ones deserve to reach adulthood...



And I make my way to the wee plane, with a not so wee anymore suitcase.

A little girl is in line ahead of me. She's crying in her mom's arms and so I set out to distract her from her woes. Especially since I can do it in her home language -- Polish. She is a wonderfully polite little girl and she answers all my questions, and wishes me a good morning, and before the hour is over, I learn that she has spent most of her young five years on Islay: her parents work at a hotel there -- the Port Charlotte Hotel, which the mom praises to high heaven -- such nice owners! so kind! -- but I only smile. I will never switch from my beloved Bowmore Guest House. I do tell her I'll stop by for dinner there next year -- her husband is the cook.

The mom and daughter are traveling to Poland to visit the girls' grandparents for a few weeks. It's so cheap these days! The discount airlines make it so easy -- we're always going back and forth. The most expensive is the flight from Islay to Glasgow. We would have taken the ferry, but there is the strike.

She asks where I live now and when I tell her, she nods, knowingly. My relatives, they're all over -- in Germany, in Canada, in Scotland. It's a different world now. We go to all corners of the world!

I think about how it isn't so different for Americans. They do not need to leave home to find work and leisure travel to Europe is expensive. Flight fares just keep going up. If you insist on traveling anyway, you best be good at curtailing all other spending habits.

I ask the young Polish mom about their winters are on Islay. Is the hotel quiet then?
Oh, but there are visitors! The hunters come up in the fall -- from Greece and Spain. And in January, the Japanese come for the whisky.
I think about how this small little plane transports us all -- in for a few days of something that we cannot find anywhere else on earth, then out again to our routines back home.

Our flight is on time, the bus to the city is ready and waiting, the train to Edinburgh runs every few minutes and I catch one without fuss or bother.

Edinburgh is packed. Not just crowded -- packed. Like our Capitol Square Farmers Market: packed with outsiders, wanting a piece of the pie.


I can understand it. Unlike Glasgow, it's everything to everyone. It's got history, it's got the looks (in a somber sort of way), it's got shops, restaurants, pubs -- where loud drinking brawls seem to be tolerated (men cavorting). It's also got the hen parties (women cavorting). It's got cultural events, fantastic museums and men who wear skirts and play bagpipes.

So there are crowds. It's to be expected. If you go to the Eiffel Tower, you're not going to be alone.

But unexpectedly, I am saved, saved by my wonderful b&b.


It's called Ramsay's, but don't bother looking at their website because it's dated. They're waiting for a photo shoot to put up new photos it since they've redone the interiors. Right now they're looking sleek and modern and terrific. And the prices are great. (But they only have four rooms; last year, I tried booking in January for a June visit and I was too late.)


In addition to being a very nice b&b, it has a location that makes it a lifesaver (or more accurately, an Edinburgh saver) for me. It's down the hill from city center, into the thick of "new town" and there's not much here for tourists to seek out so it feels very neighborhoody and nice.

(across the street from Ramsays)

Around the corner, there is a street with many, many eateries -- of the type that the people in this neighborhood would frequent. Here, it's this set of blocks:


After the roar and din of city center, it's fantastically normal here.

I walk. A lot. I never make it up to the old town, where the castle and the Royal Mile and all those big time attractions tower over the city. Instead, I meander through the "new town..."


...down to funky Stockbridge (where Ed and I hung out last time we passed through). Let's see if you can guess what catches my eye!



... down and up, up and down I walk, giving myself the luxury of doing a bit of shopping for Snowdrop.


(I ask in this store how young are their haircut clients. The clerk -- a lovely, terrifically helpful and friendly sort -- tells me they just cut the hair for a six month old! An unusual little girl, with lots of hair!)

I spend many hours on walking, browsing, browsing, selecting...

(all of the above!)

... and walking some more. And the weather is so very terrific. The clouds do roll in, but they keep their moisture to themselves and I notice that the temperatures (here and on Islay too) are starting to climb into the low sixties. Uff! A heat wave!

In the evening, I just go to the place that is two doors away from where I'm staying (the Riparian Rooms). My hosts like it and it is, in fact, quite nice in a very simple, nouveau pubby sort of way. I order one of their wonderful gin cocktails -- this one with loads of blackberries, so that it is wickedly drinkable! -- and then settle in for some vegetable puree..


... and a pot of west shore mussels.  If there is one meal that I think Ed would have loved, it is this one. the mussels are plump and plentiful and the price is delightfully modest.

This, too, is Edinburgh and I shouldn't forget it. Every city is a compilation of neighborhoods. I am so happy that I seem to have found one that feels good for me. Quiet, but not austere or staid.

It's a good way for me to end my days in Scotland. I may not have to leave the city tomorrow to find my contemplative moments. I may just stick around and walk those city hills some more.