Thursday, July 31, 2014

Travel tales: Scotland part 2

Where was I....? Ah, I covered Edinburgh in this post, but that was just the first couple days of our little Scottish jaunt.

Day 3 saw us on the road to the Highlands. We were bound for Inverness, but thought we'd stop along the way to see some sights and have some lunch. Which ended up involving a distillery tour at Dalwhinnie and a pie from the servo.

The distillery tour was great - our guide was an entertaining fellow, and as I consider whisky one of my hobbies (...what?!), it was interesting to see how the golden liquid is produced. We also got a tasting and a souvenir glass. Being a bit serious about my whisky, I opted to pay for an additional tasting of three whiskies, paired with locally made chocolates - purely for scientific research purposes, you understand.

Whisky and chocolate - a match made in heaven.
Fortified by good Scotch whisky (me that is; Bike Boy was driving), we forged onwards to Inverness.

After checking in at our B&B, we set off to explore the town. We *may* have been distracted by a pub we stumbled across and abandoned our walking tour prematurely. Dinner, drinks, walking distance from our accommodation...what more could you want?

The Castle Tavern. Who could resist the warm glow of those lights and the musical clink of glasses?

The following day was dedicated to sightseeing. After fortifying ourselves with a massive breakfast, courtesy of our hosts, we soaked up a bit of Scottish history at Culloden battlefield and wandered through the glorious gardens of Cawdor Castle.

Then it was onto the REAL reason we were in Inverness: to have dinner with my lovely blogger mate and ex-pat Aussie Shauna and her fab husband. We chatted for hours about Scotland, Australia, travel, food, this and that, and generally had a fun night - and managed to not take a single photo. Oops. Bad bloggers.

Oh, I did take this one of Loch Ness from the pub car park (no monster in sight, sorry).

Leaving Inverness next morning, we drove along the length of Loch Ness and around past Ben Nevis, stopping at Fort William for some pretty decent fish and chips for lunch. The scenery changed markedly. Along the loch it was green and lush with wildflowers blooming, but as we climbed up into the hills, it became wild, bare and dramatic with patches of snow glinting on the higher slopes. There aren't many places you can stop for photos though, so this is about all I have:

SNOW. On the last day of June. 

Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness. 

I dunno. Somewhere between Ben Nevis and Fort William

We stayed in the beautiful village of Luss for our final night in Scotland. I could have happily stayed there for a week. It was so peaceful, so pretty and our accommodation was GORGEOUS.

I did have a creepy feeling of being watched though. Possibly something to do with the stuffed birds, fish and deer heads hanging on the walls of the bar and restaurant. Decorating with dead animals is a thing in Scotland, apparently.

Luss - on beautiful Loch Lomond
We took a short cruise on the loch before we left next day, and then we were on our way to The SOUTH. That's how all the road signs are written, in capital letters. I felt I had to shout "THE SOUTH!!!" every time we passed one. It amused Bike Boy endlessly. Especially after about the tenth time.


We bypassed Glasgow, stopped very briefly at Gretna Green (horrible tourist trap, don't bother) and we were heading on into Cumbria for our next adventure.

Scotland, you won me over. I'll be back, just as soon as I can.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

There's no place like home - a traveller's perspective

Blogging whilst travelling is problematic. iPad blogging apps are awful - if they work at all, you can't format anything the way you'd like, and sometimes uploading photos is quite impossible.

If I'd taken my MacBook, I could have managed it quite easily. But then there's the worry about an expensive item being lost, stolen or damaged, not to mention that carry-on luggage restrictions can be quite awkward to comply with on budget airlines without the extra burden of a laptop bag. And it's too big for a hotel room safe, so you end up lugging the thing with you everywhere. Not fun when you're walking up to 27km a day.

So over the next few weeks, I'll aim to do a series of retrospective travel posts instead. Boy, do I have some things to say about airports, airlines and accommodation options. This trip was a series of "firsts" for us; not just our first trip to Europe, but first experiences with all kinds of transport and accommodation options. The trip was overwhelmingly positive, but there are traps for the unwary and I'm going to share them to hopefully save others some inconvenience.

Travel is fantastic. You get to see things, do things, meet people and try new foods that you wouldn't find at home. There were many times that we exclaimed: "This is GREAT! Why don't we have this at home?" But the biggest thing I took away from our trip was a new appreciation for all of the good things we have here in Australia. Number one being SPACE.

We were also underwhelmed by the food - we did have some fabulous meals, but overall we eat better at home. Our restaurants here in Melbourne offer top quality food, better in many cases than France and especially Spain. Who knew? And surprisingly, England provided some of the best food we had on our trip.

Costs in the UK and Singapore were horrifying. Yes, Paris can be expensive, but not so much if you avoid the major tourist areas. And Spain was relatively cheap overall. But most things in the UK cost 50-100% more than we pay here. £1.35 for a litre of diesel fuel? Holy crap! That's about $2.50. I just filled my car this afternoon and paid $1.48. Restaurant and pub meals: double. Wine: double. Transport: double. Seriously, a glass of (pretty ordinary) wine cost up to the equivalent of $18. The average was around $13 or $14. I can buy two bottles from Liquorland for that amount.

All that aside, the good more than outweighed the bad over the past seven weeks - but we're still happy to be home. We really missed family, home and familiar comforts, especially in the last week or two. We're also relieved to not be flying anywhere in the immediate future, given recent events. More on that later, too.

Of the five countries we visited (France, Spain, Scotland, England, Singapore - I'm not including Malaysia, as we've been there before), our favourite was France - by a very small margin over England and Scotland. Sorry, ancestors...

Here's a small glimpse of the wonders of France. I'll get to the rest in a later post:

The magnificent French Alps, from le Bourg d'Oisans in the valley below.

Paris viewed from the top of the Eiffel Tower, looking SE toward Montparnasse. C'est magnifique!

M. Monet's beautiful water garden at Giverny.

The over-the-top magnificence of Versailles

Now it's back to eating Vegemite, drinking cheap wine and sorting my 2,600 photos into a highlights package that can be shown to friends and relatives without them dying of boredom.... Yes, it's good to be home.


Thursday, July 10, 2014


When last we left our intrepid travellers, they were departing Spain. Um...yeah. We've been so busy enjoying the UK that blogging has once again taken a back seat.

Anyhoo....Scotland was a blast. First impressions? Awesome. We got to passport control at Edinburgh airport and the queue for all the non-Brits, non-EU residents was a bit long. *sigh* Surprisingly, it moved quickly and we were greeted very pleasantly by a lovely Scottish man, who politely asked us a couple of questions, smiled, briefly discussed beer with Bike Boy and then wished us a good holiday and waved us on our way. A huge change from the Spanish officials we dealt with, who couldn't care less about you and don't even make eye contact, let alone have a conversation.

We then found the airlink bus to the city and WOOHOO! It had free wifi. On a bus! It also dropped us on Waverley Bridge, right across the road from our hotel. 

As soon as we were checked in we headed for the nearest pub - which was about 50m from the hotel, AND was one on Shauna's recommended list. A pint for Bike Boy, a G&T for me and our evening was off to a great start.

Edinburgh itself was fun. We were right in the Old Town, where you couldn't stumble more than a few metres without happening upon another pub. The castle was only a few minutes walk away, along with a number of other historical sights. The town is just charming, if a bit wonky like most old places, and there's no shortage of things to do. 

There was also pretty much any kind of food you could want - although we drew the line at haggis nachos. That's taking fusion food a little far....

One of our favourite things in Edinburgh was the Literary Pub Tour. If you ever visit, look it up. It's worth a go, especially if you like literature and/or pubs. ;)

We had far too little time to enjoy Edinburgh before we were in our rental car and heading for the highlands. I "knew" intellectually that driving through the UK wasn't the same as driving in Australia. You know, you're off to Bright, or Shepparton, or Wodonga for the weekend. You turn onto the Hume Highway, set your cruise control for 110kmh and barely vary your speed for the next three or four hours. Not in Scotland, Sunshine! 

First, the roads are only two lanes wide. Two narrow lanes. No emergency lanes, no kerbs, no footpaths... If a wide vehicle comes the other way, you may have to move over into the roadside bushes. Or back up a-ways. Then the roads go up and down and around blind corners, often with sheer drops and no crash barriers. Not exactly relaxing driving, but boy, is it pretty! 

We made it to Inverness unscathed though. Turns out there's way more than whisky to see around there. This post is already getting a bit long though, so Inverness will have to wait. 

More anon...

P.S. Sorry, can't seem to add links. Will have to wait till I get home to a real computer, not some shitty mobile device.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Tales from Spain, part 3

Our brief stay in Seville was good. The restaurants still mostly offered poor service and overpriced food and we walked away from quite a few...but we eventually found a gem just around the corner from our hotel. Seriously the best food we had in Spain. Dinner was so good that we returned for breakfast the next day.

The other highlight of Seville was the Real Alcazar (royal palace). It's the oldest palace in Spain still in use by the royal family. The courtyards and gardens were spectacular.

Real Alcazar: The courtyard of the maidens. This beautiful space featured in Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven". The pool was removed and the whole thing paved in marble for the movie, then returned to its former state afterwards.

The tiling was beautiful and the colours were mainly teal, blue, ochre, white and black. Just my thing. :)

Acres of gardens, fountains, and more. So much to see!

From Seville, we took the train to Granada. After a very short time wandering around the town, we decided that Spain was pretty much forgiven - that town rocks! It had a whole different vibe to the other places we'd been. Restaurant and bar staff treated us like they actually wanted our business. Plus, there were heaps of locals out shopping, eating and just doing their thing. It felt safe and relaxed and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.

The whole reason for our visit though, was to see the Alhambra. It lived up to all our expectations. From the Alcazaba to the Nasríd Palaces to the beautiful gardens, it was just amazing. Well worth the detour south. I fact, if this had been the only thing we'd seen in Spain, I think we'd both have been satisfied.

Just a small part of one of the three Nasríd Palaces. Breathtaking.

The Alcazaba. Fascinating old fort, well preserved - and great views from the walls.

More of the Nasríd Palaces. Sorry, formatting is tricky on the iPad. Makes it difficult to keep photos in order....

After Granada, we flew back to Barcelona, as it was the only place we could fly on to Scotland without it being an epic adventure. We made the most of our short time back there, visiting the one Gaudi building we'd missed the first time around, Casa Batlío. Although the entrance price was an outrage (€21.50 each - that's a total of more than $60), it was really something. We both agreed that we were glad we went, but spent quite some time bitching about the price.... As you do.

We also scored a hotel room on the 20th floor, giving us a top view of Joan Míro's "Woman with Bird" sculpture at a nearby park. Who needs art galleries? ;)

And I added a Sagrada Familia charm to my Pandora bracelet. So all up, a satisfactory return visit to Barcelona. 

Spain highlights: 
Barcelona: La Sagrada Familia & Casa Batlío 
Logroño: Food & storks
Madrid: Museo del Prado
Segovia: Roman aqueduct & alcazar
Seville: Real alcazar
Granada: the Alhambra

We're glad we went, but neither of us is very interested in returning.

That's Spain all caught up. Next instalment: Scotland.