Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sevilla, Part 1: The Long Journey

When we first moved to Europe, we made a prioritized list of places we wanted to see.  Most of them were shared, like Paris, London, know, the big ones.  But there were a couple surprises.  Paul really wanted to go to Norway, which had not been on my radar at all.  And me?  I wanted to go to Andalucia in Spain.

It just sounded so romantic.  Andaluuuuuusia.  Or, AndaluSEEEEaaaah.  However you wanted to go with that.  Plus, I'd dreamt about seeing the Alhambra since 9th grade when I first really got into Moorish history and culture.  I wanted the orange trees, the fountains in the inner courtyard gardens, the intricate arches and arabic calligraphy.  The spices, the seafood, the heat, the olives.  Spain!   Right?

So Spain was where we spent our 6th anniversary and our last adventure together before Hadrian arrived.  And I should add, was a big reason why we named him Hadrian in the first place.  Andalucia was the historical Hadrian's homeland, so to speak, and learning about the Roman influence in the area was a fascinating surprise for me.  

Anyway!  I'm sure you're here to learn about Sevilla/Seville and not to hear me wax rhapsodic about my dreams of southern Spain.  On we go then!

My first impression of Spain was Madrid, actually.  It was much cheaper to fly from Copenhagen to Madrid and then take the bullet train down to Seville.  I remember seeing the dry, high-desert surrounding the city from the plane, worrying a little bit about catching our train since we had to take a bus through rush hour traffic.  I remember people on the bus acting very alarmed when I got on, seven months pregnant with a stuffed bright orange backpack and waving aside people's concerned pleas for me to just take their seat!  

Side note: it wasn't that I didn't want their seat or didn't appreciate it.  Honestly, I kept turning them down because I was having trouble processing why so many people were suddenly acting so extremely deferential.  I felt shy and embarrassed to be singled out, I guess?  (I'm healthy and young and strong!  I don't need your seat, Mr. 65 Year Old Man!)  I think this was because, surprisingly, in Denmark no one treated my massive pregnant self with much deference - as I commuted by bike, bus, and train almost every day to Copenhagen.  So I wasn't used to it?  Plus, I think the Danish attitude had made me think that I must not have looked very pregnant.  ha ha.  I looked at the Spain pictures when we got home and was like, "HOLY moly I was big!"  So...yep. Denial.  Anyway, the point is that people in Spain were waaaaay more conscientious about pregnant women than I'd ever seen in my life.  Kudos to Spain.)

I remember us running (well, Paul running.  Me kind of sad-waddling after him) around the massive train station trying to find our track...or just the place where there were any tracks!  What was a bit disconcerting was seeing so many fully armed - we're talking armored vests and AK-47 - police just walking around (there was an echo of that when we went to Paris a few months before with my parents and sister.  Fully armed police all over the train stations...).  Plus the fact that we had to go through security and a metal detector to even get to our track!  Only in Spain did we come up against that.  It was actually the reason we were so lost in the train station - kept thinking, "Oh, well we don't want to go through that massive line to wherever!  We just want to find the tracks!"  

Let me just say here that the bullet train to southern Spain is posh.  Maybe the nicest train we've ever been on.  And a surreal experience to watch "Jack the Giant Killer" dubbed in Spanish.  Like...all the characters were named "Julio" and "Esparanza" or along those lines...but it was clearly set in England?  

Then we made it to Seville!

Aaaaaaaand had to take a taxi to get to the historic city center.  It's always strange for me when the train stations aren't just smack dab in the middle of the action, but that's the way it was in Seville.  Be prepared. You're going to pass a lot of mid-century apartment buildings before you see medieval streets.

Finally, we were dropped off next to the Cathedral and began our wander through some of the most interesting and get-lost-able streets and alleys we ever encountered in Europe.  I think Venice and maybe the Alfama in Lisbon could match or beat it.  Every now and then, the space would suddenly open up into lovely little squares with statues, fountains, and shaded by orange trees.

I was SO HUGE.  I am a travel ROCK STAR!
This was our "local square" just a couple turns away from our vacation apartment.  Our first night in Seville, we ate our first real paella at the seafood restaurant in the back there, with the white awning.  I remember a man sitting near the fountain, playing classical guitar and noticing the grey and white pebble patterns on the walkways as we ate.  I was so tired - it had been a long day with a lot of walking, but I was also jazzed to realize that I'd made it.  After dreaming about seeing this region of the world since I was 13 years old - here I was!  Eating legit chorizo in a gorgeous saffron paella, sitting across from a handsome man who actually married me, and seven months pregnant with my son.  Smelling roses and hearing that Spanish guitar, first night in Seville under the stars.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Norway: Surpriiiiiise!

One random Friday in August 2014, Paul came home from work expecting a nice weekend of grocery shopping, sleeping in, and streaming old episodes of The Amazing Race.


When he turned from the hallway to the living room, he saw me standing there with our travel backpacks and the most insane grin on my face that could possibly be created with my face muscles.  And I said,
    "Paul!  Pack your bag because we're goin' to NORWAY!"

And he just stood there...

And said, "....what?"

"Norway!  Right now!  We are going to Norway in literally ten minutes!"

Let me make this shorter than it could be and just sum up by saying that it didn't really seem to fully sink in for him until after we had actually landed in Bergen.   Which, you know, was pretty funny.  And also confusing.  Because I was like NORWAY NORWAY NORWAY! and he was like ::wide eye confusion silence shock::

The thing was that Paul had always told me about how he'd always wanted to see Norwegian fjords and that, since I was pretty pregnant by then, that we most likely would never get up there before we had to move away.

Well.  Challenge Accepted!

We went to Bergen for the weekend and pulled one long, all-day fjord tour on Saturday through Norway-In-A-Day (highly recommended).  And it was just a blast.  Even moreso for me because I love orchestrating surprises and I'd rank an international vacation pretty high for coolest possible surprise.

Our trip, because it was so short and dependent on a tour company was a bit more touristy than we were used to on our trips - Bergen, being a cruise port, meant there were a lot of older North Americans roaming the streets in camera'd packs but it had a lot going for it.  I especially loved staying so close to the harbor and walking around the old, wooden 19th century neighborhood, Bryggen.

The next day on the trains, ferries, and busses through the fjords was super great and exhausting and amazing and everything.  By that point, Paul was finally understanding that, yes, we were actually in real Norway and was really excited.  I feel like I'm writing too many words like "amazing" and "excited" and it doesn't say what I meant to say but I'm trying to write this really fast while Hadrian is asleep and I have a cold so my vocabulary isn't, shall we say, at its finest.  BUT I just wanted to say that it was all worth it.  It was so worth it.  It's always worth it to travel.

So, I guess, if you're a person who thinks all the time about how they wish they could go somewhere but "I can't right now" then...well, maybe that's true.  But first make sure about that.  Is it absolutely true?  Could you do it?  Are you just saying you can't because it seems like it would take too much preparation or time or you don't know if spending your money is the right choice?  Well...I can't really say what your experience would be, but we're pretty conservative people - financially, time-wise, prep-wise.  And we have never regretted any of our adventures for a second.  Money is just money, but what's most important are memories.

That's why we went to Norway for a weekend.  Because we could.  (And for the SURPRISE!)


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Leaving Skye and Scotland

The next two days we saw a bunch of amazing things on Skye.  The Quirang (above), the cliffs at Kilt Rock, the Fairy Pools, the harbor at Portree, and the McCleod clan castle.  On one drive we stopped into a rebuilt Hebridean village at the north of the island, looking out across to the Isle of Harris.

It was all too much.  Too much to try and talk about everything.  Just to say that it was beautiful and we finally found a McArthur scarf on our very last day on the island and practically in Scotland in a tiny shop in Portree.  Woohoo!

The day we left Skye, we took the long road back toward the east and center of Scotland where we had not been before, making a loop past Loch Ness (you just have to) and down to Pitlochry where we stayed for one last night before driving back to Edinburgh in the morning to catch our plane.

It wasn't until our last night in Pitlochry that we actually. and finally, tried haggis.  And I have to say, I was impressed.

As I was with pretty much all of Scotland.  We'll be back.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Hiking Skye

Do you see me?  I'm tiny and juuuuust to the left of center in my purple coat.

Perhaps the best memory I have of our trip to Scotland would be the morning we spent hiking The Storr on the Isle of Sky(p)e.

We almost didn't even try as we pulled into the muddy parking lot and looked at the thick fog rolling in.  We could see the Old Man of Storr volcanic formations appear suddenly every now and then as the clouds moved by.  We couldn't even see the mountain range behind it.

But, being the young bucks we were, we decided to give it a go.  At least get up to the Old Man of Storr and check it out, figuring we'd gauge the weather after that point.  It probably took a good 40 minutes just to get to the formation at the base of the mountain since a lot of the area had been clear-cut in the early stages of an invasive tree species eradication program - I guess the area around the parking lot used to be a man-made forest, but when we were there it was just gnarly mud and rocks.  It was rough goin'.

BUT!  BUT!!  When we got to the Storr, everything changed.  Sure the clouds were still moving in and out, but suddenly everything became beautiful and mysterious and adventurous (and not as muddy).  So we decided to just keep going up.

The further we went, the fewer hikers we saw and the more beautiful and quiet things got.  At one point it was just Paul and I hiking around the edge of what was clearly a glacial cirque and the fog was so thick around us we could only see maybe fifty feet up and down the slope around us.

We had no idea what was above or below or ahead, when suddenly a picture-window hole just appeared in the fog (it was so, so strange) and gave us a crystal clear, fog-framed view of the channel islands and sea, all bright green and gray and shimmering.  I really can't do the moment justice.  Both of our jaws just dropped and we stood there staring in silence until, just as quickly, the window closed and we were all in gray again.  It felt like magic, like the gray fog had become a crystal ball, showing us some mystical world for a second.  That's exactly what it was like - it wasn't a view from where we were, because we had been so disoriented in the fog for so long, we had no concept of our altitude or surroundings - it was just a floating vision.  I'll never forget it.

I don't know, I'm sure everyone will just skip right over that long paragraph there.  I just had to try and write down the memory at least.  For us, if anything.

We kept hiking up and up.  At one point the trail completely disappeared and we came across some Canadians who had turned around at that point, disappointed.  Well...we weren't going to turn around.  So we just off-roaded it straight up the mountainside until we reached a wide open flat.  It was us, some sheep, and more volcanic formations.  And now that we were on the ridge, we could sometimes see down the cut-steep valley on the other side.

And we kept going!

No trail, thick fog, we just kept going.  It was a grand adventure.

Finally, and a bit sadly, we found the summit marker at the edge of one final ridge slope and celebrated with some more sheep who kindly took our picture before we ate a little snack and began our hike back down.

Summiting the Storr has become one of my Life Memories.  You know the ones - those memories that rank way up there.  The ones that kind of feel like they defined an era for you?  That was Skye and the Storr for me - just Paul and I, wandering the wilds of the Scottish highlands together and completely on our own, colorful visions appearing in the sky, and just the sound of silence and sheep bells around us.  Heidi and Paul in Europe - the memory makers.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Isle of Skye: Part the First

Hairy Coo Sighting!

A really long time ago (college), I remember perusing a map of Scotland with a friend (because I like maps) and stumbling on a place called The Isle of Skye.  And I thought (and said outloud), "I have to go to there."  Except I didn't say it exactly like that because I wouldn't watch 30 Rock until I was in graduate school four years later, but you get my point.

And Paul was the guy who made it all possible.  It was pretty clear that spending three full days on Skye, the longest stretch of our trip, was all about me and checking off my particular dream.  And Skye is such a barren but also lush but also grey but also bright green but also remote but also's such a beautiful, strange, gorgeous rugged inspiring place.  We had a chance to maybe spend a day taking a ferry over to the Isle of Harris (because, I mean, come on), but Skye was so amazing, we couldn't justify it.  I passed of the Isle of Harris, people!  Can you imagine the pictures??  But the thing is that we got so many other, better, pictures on Skye.

The day we arrived, we drove up the west coast from Oban and over the small bridge on the island, which was pretty lucky.  It wasn't that long ago you had to take a ferry over.  And on our way, made a quick stop to see Eilean Donan, one of the most filmed/photographed castles in the world.  And it was no freaking joke.  In the middle of sound, surrounded by those highland moors and mountains.  Sheesh.  It was ridiculous.  This picture does not do it justice.  But it does start to capture the grey/green colors that we had been getting used to in the highlands and just explode on Skye.

As a side note, if you read "Skype" instead of "Skye" it's because every time I try to type it, that's what comes out.  The Isle of Skype.  Yep.

We took our time driving through about half of the island on our way to our bed and breakfast, which was essentially just a room in a little family's home (which was pretty cool but also made us introvert types feel super intrusive at the same time).  On the way we got our first up-close Hairy Coo sightings and the Black Cuillin mountain range.  The Black Cuillins are just amazing - razor sharp peaks, black against the sky...of Skye.  Sorry, that just happened.

It was a long day of driving, but we were really excited to be there.  Though, to be fair, it was also a little sad since it was our last big place to visit in Scotland.  But we were going to milk it for whatever we could.

Because it was Scotland.  And because we were on Skye.

(Okay, small addendum.  None of our pictures of Skye really do it justice because we aren't professionals, have a 10+ year old point and shoot camera, and were too busy staring to take pictures all the time.  So I'm just going to leave this link here and you can see what kind of landscape I'm talking about here.)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Castle Castle Castle Castle Castle Castle Castle

After our quiet stay in Glenlyon, our trip turned into Castlemania.

The day we left, it was just raining like crazy, which actually made our drive through the Loch Lomond National Park really....uh evocative?  Romantic in the literary way?  It was beautiful.  It also made our Castle tours very wet.

First, we hit up the Campbell Clan's current castle headquarters at Inverary where the clan lead still lives in his rich British aristocracy kind of way.  That's the place I learned that there is a thing called Elephant Polo (bored are we, aristocrats?).  And apparently that it was a big part of an episode of Downton Abbey - there were posters about it eeeeeverywhere.

And it was cool to see.  I mean, the wood paneled dining rooms, chandeliers, manicured gardens, tapestries.  Very castle.  Yes, wow.  But, it also felt a bit weird being there.  I mean, one room had family photos on a piano and, I mean, I was in their house you know?  Elephant polo or no, I just didn't think they deserved to have people gawking through their house.

BUT I also learned that that exact same piano was where a lot of the music for My Fair Lady was written.  Sooo, okay, I guess it was cool.

We had bigger things to find, though!

The next castle was a ruin on an island in Loch Tay - one of the McArthur castles.  And it was just pouring when we got there, but the hike through the causeway in our waterproof jackets and boots was just so Scotland.  The rain cleared up now and then, and the whole experience was just super cool.

And finally, we finished our drive on the western coast of Scotland in Oban, where we finally made it to Dunstaffnige Castle, the BIG McArthur castle, a place Paul had dreamed of going since he had heard about it as a little boy, ....and found a castle with signage that didn't say one word about McArthurs!  Ha!  It was sad and also weird and also funny?

But, Paul had his sources in order, shrugged off the whole "Campbells got to write the history, McArthurs didn't" injustice of it all, and just ran around in the rain all over that castle like crazy kids.  It was really fun, actually.  Especially since the rain had scared everyone else away.

We rolled into Oban, found our B&B (which was fantaaaastic and had amazing bathtub and bed and, well, breakfast and I miss it every day), and proceeded to walk down to the main street and eat the hands down best fish and chips in the world.

We also met a 65 year old Canadian man who had just retired and decided to spend his summer hiking through the Hebrides.  He was a doppelganger for that Ron Dunn character in Parks and Recreation - looks, voice, life philosophy.  It was  magical.

Oban is great.  Heatherfield House is great.  All the castles (everywhere!  There are castles everywhere!) are great!  The fish and chips on the main drag are perfect!  I'd love to go back.  It was a town that felt in so many ways like Coos Bay, Oregon - just a laid back, beautiful rugged coastal town.

All of that in one day, it was a bit crazy.  But totally amazing.  Because CASTLES!

And seriously.  Those fish and chips...

Friday, August 7, 2015

Sterling and Glenlyon: The Scottish Adventure *Really* Begins

The thing I remember about the picture above is that we took it right before descending on Sterling Castle's cafeteria where I really wanted some of their potato leek soup and then they told me they had just run out and then I proceeded to have a minor emotional breakdown at our table because I was so, so starving and nothing else they had looked even remotely edible (because....pregnant?  I guess?) and in a small way I thought I was about to die.

BUT, it was still a notable stop in our Scotland tour because 1) it was our first big stop outside of Edinburgh and on our way to the highlands and 2) battles and history and castle stuff.

Ehh, Paul really should be writing this one because really, when I think about Sterling all I can think about is soup and that there was a big marshy field that was important because a lot of people died on it...  And it was a cool castle, as castles go.  Way up on a crag.  Good views.  Strategic...walls...

Okay, moving on!

Earlier that day we rented a car in Edinburgh.  Which was very exciting for us because we rarely drove - just walked or biked.  It was a most excellent automatic (which we paid extra for so we both could drive) and we set off going past Bannockburn battlefield and Sterling with our final destination being a tiiiiiny tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiny village tucked away in a hidden valley called Glenlyon.

If you know Paul at all, you'll know that Paul is super into Scotland because his maternal grandfather's line traces their way back there (as McArthurs) and so he grew up with a lot of bagpipes in his life.  And this little village of Glenlyon was one of the places his family actually knows their ancestors immigrated from.

I'm not going to lie, the minute we turned onto a remote mountain pass with just us and a bunch of sheep...I knew it was going to be good.

We got to stay on in a little cabin on a farm and Paul was literally in heaven.  Like, he says things like, "When I die, I hope I wake up in Glenlyon."  Like a ghost?  Or something?  I don't know.  It's a thing for him.

While we were there, we mostly went on little hikes and drives in the area.  Stopped once at the post office/cafe where they gave us ridiiiiiiculously large hot chocolates and cake pieces.  And generally cooked up some Scottish hygge with our little wood-burning stove and absolutely packed floor to ceiling bookcases.

No cell phone reception.  No internet.  No noises.

It was really nice there.  Lovely.  I'd go back again, anytime.  But not as a ghost.  Or something.

Play us out, highland sheep!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Edinburgh: The Beginning of All of Paul's Dreams

The best advice I can give about Edinburgh is to stay as close to or on the Royal Mile as you can, unless you like hiking up mountainsides.  You go two blocks off that sucker and you're down some crazy 30% grade gulch on either side of the main sights.

The second best advice I can give is to go with someone who has been dreaming of visiting Scotland since he was a wee lad.

Now, I was about 13 weeks pregnant when we went to Scotland and so I was still pretty nimble - didn't really feel tired or large or anything.  But I have to say that I had a rough time keeping up with  this kid as he gleefully ran around.

Our first night there (mind, we got to our hotel at 7pm) he was determined to walk 2 miles to find the "Best Fish and Chips" in town with a fried Mars Bar for dessert.  Just as an example.

We walked that Royal Mile up and down for two days, hiked Arthur's Seat (something I'd regretted not finishing the last time I'd been to Edinburgh in 2004), found some underwhelming "American Pancakes," bounced back with way way way better pub food, took a pseudo-archaeological tour of one of the old, buried city streets, went up Carlton Hill, perused the National Museum (it was niiiice), traipsed around Holyroodhouse Palace and Abbey, and of course, ate at the Elephant House where Harry Potter was written.  Oh, meh, and saw that Castle.  ;-)

[Paul wants me to insert here that if you could only do one thing in Edinburgh, you have to go to the castle.  And be sure to take the guided tour "because accent."  Also, that two full days in Edinburgh is about right and that if you expect to find your family tartan in the giant tartan stores, only expect it if you're from "one of the big ones" - it was completely confusing to him that he just could not find a single McArthur (his mother's name) scarf in the entire city.]

It was great fun to show Paul all these things because originally he just wanted to skip right over Edinburgh and head straight off into the Highlands.  But you can't go to Scotland and not go to Edinburgh.  Well, I mean, you technically can, but you shouldn't.

Also the ratio of kilted bagpipe players to square kilometers is probably the highest in Edinburgh, so check that one off your list.

The Castle!  And Cannons!  And Crown Jewels!  And the Stone of Scone! And a giant parking lot in front with a smattering of food trucks!(?)

Gotta make a stop at St. Giles, the cathedral with the coolest steeple - and other historical importances.

Is it possible to stand more awkwardly?  Probably.  But this was a good attempt.  Also, eat at the tables in the back - they have a super view of the castle crags.

From the castle down to the train station and Carlton Hill, requisite back-of-Heidi's-head shot.

Holyrood Abbey.  My first time here, I sort of fell in love with it.  Was really happy to bring Paul to see it with me.

I know that most people think hiking Arthur's Seat is peanuts, but I was legitimately concerned about my ability to do it (in, you know, less than 4 hours or something crazy).  So it called for a little pre-hike bravado.

Paul could have skipped up the whole thing, though.  No problem.

View from the top! (He was kind of having a moment)

Loved the Closes.

::slow clap::  Nice.

P.S.!  Important retelling of a crazy story!   On our flight from Copenhagen, we sat next to a Danish Whiskey Enthusiast Dentist.  He was very friendly and told us we had to go to approximately 25 distilleries when we were there.  At the end of the two hour flight, we said goodbye.  The next day we randomly chose a pub (now, there are hundreds of pubs, okay?) to eat in.  And about ten minutes into our meal we hear this, "Oh!  Hello!" And it was the Whiskey Enthusiast!  From Copenhagen!  Sitting literally at the next table.  I can't even imagine what the statistical chances are for that to have happened - time of day, next table over, same pub, same day....  It almost made me think we really should go to those 25 distilleries because clearly this was a sign.
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