Homeward Bound

So ten weeks of travel are at an end. I am happy and relieved that I managed it all, with only a few low moments. It gives me confidence going forward. No matter where I go, I reckon I can handle it.

There were so many memorable moments…

Spain: watching flamenco dancers in the upstairs room of a Madrid restaurant, part of the welcome reception for the volunteer program. Playing the role of newscaster in a skit as part of the program. Running around the resort grounds taking group pictures in crazy poses (e.g. “pretend you are flying” below.) Jiving with my new friend Toby in the bar, far too late into the night. Saying good-bye to the Spaniards and volunteers, with hugs and tears and promises to reconnect.

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France: Walking the streets of Paris, the morning light reflecting off the freshly washed cobbles, glancing off the rooftops. The waiter in a Menilmontant café persuading me to try the luncheon special and very good red wine. Giggly glances shared with students in our French classes as the teacher explained an exercise we couldn’t made head or tail of. Struggling to master the subjunctive tense and the use of the word “dont”. Learning about French cinema and the music of Serge Gainsbourg.

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Paris

Standing outside the house I lived in as a child in Montmartre, and remembering youthful escapades. Dining with family friends from that time, laughing and catching up as though no time had passed. Visiting Stratford friends in their beautiful flat in the banlieue and stuffing myself on excellent food and wine. The cafes of Paris, the Seine, the parks and vast squares.

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Door in Montmartre, but not “my” door

The exquisite light in the south of France, casting a magical glow on everything. Walking along the canal du midi, basking in the sun overlooking beautiful gardens. Gazing out my all bedroom windows, all the way to the snow-capped Pyrenees.

IMG_1503fullsizeoutput_f0eAmsterdam: Oh the canals! And bridges! And the chill truth of Ann Frank’s attic and all that went on in that stifling space. Van Gogh’s wild artistry. Playing dice with Scarlett in a coffee house, dodging the fierce cyclists (there are more bicycles than people in Amsterdam).

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Scarlett in Amsterdam

Scotland: Wandering the streets of dramatic Edinburgh, meeting the world’s best tour guide, Robert, on the steps of the Scottish Academy (‘wearing a wide-brimmed hat’). Listening to Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament. Trying haggis. Soaking in information while on coach tours. Standing on Hadrian’s Wall. Gazing out from Queen’s View over Loch Tummel. Scotland’s wild beauty.

IMG_1718IMG_1754England: Reconnecting with people from Atlantic College (where I did my last two years of high school) – not only Scarlett, but our room-mate Kate – with whom we saw Travesties and a 60’s V&A Exhibit. Lunching with our housemistress in Stratford-upon-Avon, 45 years after we’d last seen her. Driving to Norwich to visit another friend from the College and his wife. Motoring on the Norfolk Broads in their boat, sipping wine. Wandering through Norwich.

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Scarlett, Mary Ann, Bruce & I at Norwich cathedral

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Norfolk Broads

Reconnecting with my daughter-in-law’s parents, whom I only met at the wedding, at their lovely home in Saffron Walden. Meandering the English countryside with them.

Seeing theatre. Walking in Hampstead Heath, many times, with Scarlett. And especially spending time with Scarlett (probably rather more time than she wanted!) It is a bit mind-boggling to be so close to someone I met when I was fifteen, who has always lived at least an ocean away – and yet, here we are in our sixties, still having a great time together.

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Hampstead Heath

IMG_1856Of course there were less positive experiences, like sweeping up piles of foul dust in a dark attic in Ventenac-en-Minervois. And I must say the actual travel was less than inspirational. I spent a total of 12 days (out of 70) in transit. Enough to last a lifetime, really. Most irritating was the time spent getting to and from airports – particularly in London where it is both expensive and time-consuming to get into the city from ANY of the 4 airports. I will not miss the travel days.

And today is my last one (for a while). Stratford, here I come, with a great sack o’ memories slung over me shoulder. Thanks to everyone who made this trip special – not least of all, you, my blog followers! I’m ready to be home.

 

 

 

 

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Mar sin leat Dùn Èideann (Good-bye Edinburgh)

I might be almost as in love with Edinburgh as Paris, although the latter certainly wins out on weather. (And despite the title of this post, I don’t speak the Gaelic). It’s been quite cold and blustery the last few days, bits of sleeting rain and even a touch o’ the white stuff. Nonetheless a gorgeous city for walking, so many fascinating old buildings and closes, gardens, etc. Never a dull moment visually.

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interior Scottish National Museum

One of the highlights of my time here was meeting Robert, a friend of a friend, who took me on a long walk by the Dean Gardens, an area I’d never have found, which follows the Water of Leith (a river that runs through Edinburgh) for 7 kms. Robert is a retired architect so pointed out all kinds of interesting details and told me about the eras of different buildings. Our walk ended at the beautiful Royal Botanical Garden, with amazing views of the city.

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on my walk with Robert

IMG_1778IMG_1777Robert prodded me to go to a couple of other places that had not been high on my list: The Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish Parliament. I am not an avid fan of galleries, but he was right about the Portrait Gallery – in a gorgeous building, with portraits of Scots through history, including some great contemporary portraits (some photos) of the likes of Andrew Murray, Robert Carlyle, Sean Connery, Annie Lennox.

At the Scottish Parliament (also a stunning building, very modern) I was able to sit in on parliamentary debate for half an hour – lucked out and got to see Nicola Sturgeon (first minister) give an impassioned speech encouraging the entire parliament to reject the new UK bill which only provides tax credits for up to 2 children (well, a third if the woman can prove she was raped!!!)

Robert was a wonderful guide and raconteur, we had lunch one day – and dinner the next. We were talking about how much attention J.K. Rowling gets in Scotland these days (there is a whole section of the city that is a sort of Potter shrine, and the city bus tour points out all the places where she wrote the books.) Robert then told me a story of a friend of his who years ago was sort of in J.K.’s position, single mom (two kids) wanted to write, Robert was busy feeding her and taking care of the kids from time to time. He and other friends persuaded her to enter a contest, she won a bit of money, took a year off to write her first novel and won massive awards. Feeling rather envious, I asked her name. Kate Atkinson. Imagine!

Tuesday night, Robert took me to a Scottish restaurant in Grassmarket and I tasted haggis, rather reluctantly. Delicious. Then we’d bought tickets online to see the National Theatre’s touring remount of War Horse at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. We went there, picked up tickets, ordered coffee and realized that our tickets were for 2018 not 2017!!! Both guilty, we’d separately looked it up and failed to realize they were booking over a year in advance. Oh well. It was terrific meeting Robert, he has encouraged me to come back when the theatre festival is on, even offered me a bed. Maybe next year?

An oddity of the city: the local Lothian buses are excellent, run regularly, easy to look up times and routes online. You can buy a pass, sort of like an Oyster card, but for short-term it isn’t worth it. The challenge is that you cannot buy tickets and must have correct change for the driver – £1.60 (awkward amount). So I spent a lot of the week saving up change to be sure I could get around!

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Edinburgh Castle

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Castle from below

On my last full day here I visited Edinburgh Castle, which feels like the grand dame of all castles, perched on a rocky promontory called Castle Rock (an extinct volcano), visible from anywhere in Edinburgh, with a history dating back to the 12th century. The views (and hence defenses) are fantastic, although on a very chilly day I felt deep sympathy for the early occupants….brrrr.

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“inside” the castle

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View from castle to the sea

Then I stopped in at the writers’ museum, which celebrates the work of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. A cosy little museum (where I thawed out after the castle!) with nooks and crannies up and down spiral staircases.

Finally I went on the Edinburgh Dungeon tour, which was great fun (fortunately – unlike my “theatrical” experience on the first night with ghosts and ghouls). Basically we were taken on a “tour” through quite evocative underground sets, led by actors who played the parts of famous Scottish judges, executioners, torturers, witches, cannibals, body snatchers, anatomy doctors and plague victims – threatening us poor lost souls and taking us on house of horrors type rides. But really well done. We shrieked and laughed and got all shook up (as chairs moved under us, cobwebs swept over our faces, people leapt out of the shadows, and we plunged to our gallows deaths). Not everyone’s cup of tea, but right up my alley.

And so, time to say good-bye, but I will be back!

Scotland: Tour Highs and Lows

 

Edinburgh is fantastic, such a dramatic city, in terms of both landscape and history. Oh the craggy hills and deep gorges, the castles and dungeons and rivers and bridges and gardens and narrow streets and cobblestones. And the wars and murders and reivers and Romans and clans and enlightenment. Amazing.

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Palace of Holyroodhouse

I’ve been here 4 days now, staying in a lovely spacious flat, not particularly close to the old or new town, but I often walk and the bus system is excellent.

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Grassmarket

I’ve done three guided tours and can confirm that the quality of any given tour depends on the tour guide. My first night here I went on a walking ‘ghosts and ghouls’ tour. Sounded great, but in fact was pretty lame. The guide was a Frenchwoman (what’s with that? In the south of France I stay with Scottish people, in Edinburgh…). Her delivery was melodramatic in the wrong kind of way – and she conveyed very little concrete info. So it was neither scary nor funny, and consisted largely of her telling us, as we stumbled through very dark but otherwise nondescript underground rooms, that sometimes people on the tours saw things or felt things while on the tours. I did glean interesting info about body snatchers, but overall the experience lacked substance – felt like she was struggling to fill the two hours.

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hmmm…Edinburgh

On Saturday I went on a 10 ½ hour coach tour to Rosslyn Chapel, the Border Lands and Hadrian’s Wall. Ten and half hours is a lot of time to fill (and to stay awake!) But this tour guide (and driver) – Angela – was brilliant. It was a small coach tour (maximum 16 people, we were 8, I think). She had tales to tell us about everywhere we went – both fact and myth. She had also prepared a playlist of songs and comedy bits, all of which related to the places we were going. Who knew there were so many songs about building Hadrian’s Wall? Or living north of the border? Or about the reivers (gangs of thieves who terrorized the Border Lands for centuries.) We passed battlefields and learned about William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, and the endless wars between Scotland and England. She told us stories about a man who claimed to have been stolen by faeries and kept imprisoned for 7 years, and Michael Scott, the Border Wizard who accurately predicted his own death (by pebble to head), an ancestor of Sir Walter Scott’s.

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Rosslyn Chapel 

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Ruins of nearby Roslin Castle

Rosslyn Chapel (alas, most renowned as location for the Da Vinci code) is gorgeous and full of really unusual carvings. The border between Scotland and England is marked by a large stone which says “Scotland” on one side and “England” on the other. Notably there is a welcome to Scotland sign in English and Gaelic, but no such welcome to England…

And Hadrian’s Wall is remarkable – not because it is high (the remains only stand about 3’ or 4’ high), but because it stretches clear across England (something like 80 miles) in absolutely desolate countryside. All the stone quarried very close to the building – and many Romans and others spent years building it, far from home and family. You can walk along the top of it (about 3’ wide), in silence and wind, and feel you’ve gone back a couple of thousand years in time.

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Top of Hadrian’s Wall

IMG_1704IMG_1701So – that was a great tour. The next day I went to the Highlands with the same company, and Paul as tour guide. It was a very different experience. I got the distinct impression that he’d been at the job for too long. His commentary was perfunctory, he left us for far too long at Blair Castle, which is an interesting building and has impressive gardens, but no real history of note, and then played rather loud music that related to nothing the rest of the time (okay when it was Beatles for an hour, but some of the rest…)

IMG_1736However, when we got off the bus to walk in the wilds of the Highlands or through sleepy little Scottish villages, it was lovely. A sunny day (not warm, but sunny!) and again very isolated and quiet with stunning vistas of gorges and rivers and mountains and sheep and heather and bracken.

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Queen’s View

We had a stop at Queen’s View, a spot overlooking Loch Tummel which Queen Isabella, first wife of Robert the Bruce, apparently favoured. It was a bit unclear to me, given the nature of the guide’s description, whether she went there while escaping the English who were forever hunting her husband and family, or whether she just liked the view – and I even wonder if it was his seond wife, not firsts since Isabella never actually got crowned queen (thank you, Wikipedia). Apparently Queen Victoria liked it too, so it is worthy of its name.

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Hermitage

Another stop, at the Hermitage, a National Park on the banks of the River Braan in Craigvinean Forest, was equally magical. We walked some distance through ancient forests to a rushing waterfall. Stunning.

So despite the disappointing tour guide, we got a taste of the highlands. One pet peeve: it seems as though many places in Scotland are now more renowned because they’ve been used as film locations (Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, Downtown Abbey) than for their actual history. I don’t really care about the films – I can watch them. I want to know the history, which is , generally speaking, very colourful here!