Who would have thought? With 2012 comes a new chance to visit London. We’re looking at four nights, four days – just like the previous visit – but this time in company with dear Husband and a couple of friends. I can barely wait!
Let me take you back to Scotland for a minute. It’s been a while, but I still have a few details I would like to share from my favourite castle: Dunnottar.
We’ll start by the entrance. Walk through the gates, follow the narrow lane up towards the main buildings. Just inside the gate there’s a door on the left. The door is locked. On the right there’s a hole in the wall which has for a long time been closed (it’s the first time I’ve seen it available to visitors). I’ve just found unexplored ground and feel the excitement rise. The ground is a little slippery, the doorways are low and we have to bend our heads to enter. The hole is a narrow tunnel that turns further to the right and leads to a small room of only a few square metres. There is no roof though so light streams down from holes in the wall further up that have functioned as window in the floors above us. On the wall opposite us is an old looking door with a padlock…
We cannot go any further. Only our imagination is left to explore the room behind the door, the scent of wet stone, the enclosed rooms, and the mystery of what might have been. We return to the entrance of the castle and continue up the cobbled road leading up to the main buildings. We turn left and pass a small room. The room is dark, but the air changes and, although invisible in the darkness, you can feel the walls surrounding you. We have no torch, but a few flashes from the camera reveals a room that looks like it was never finished. There’s stones and rubble in the corners, and one wall is sloped, as if though someone have started digging to increase the size of the room, but given up. We return to the fresh air outside. Continue further up the road, passing a small hut where the entrance tickets are sold. We turn right, see a small tunnel in front of us. A railing has been set up on the right side, as the cobbles are slippery. The cobblestones are small and round, similar to those found on the surrounding beaches. Images of people crouching over the steps in front of us appear in our minds. Crouching while roughly jamming the stones into the ground. We do not want to lose our footing on the slippery stones so our eyes fix on the step in front of us. The cobblestones form a pattern. The image of the centuries-old stone layers change, they place the cobblestones with greater precision, patterns are debated and decisions are made…
At the far end of the castle we enter a rather large room, but the ceiling is low. A window at the far edge has increased in size over the years and is now simply a big hole in the wall. A placard on the wall near the entrance tells horrific storied of people who’ve been held captive in the room. More than a hundred souls have been trapped here at the same time. The room feels cold. It chills you to the bone. The hole in the wall opens for the rays of the sun to reach the dirt floor. We walk slowly over to the hole. The rays reach us and their warmth make us even more aware of the cold we feel inside. The outer wall runs straight down to the cliffs and ferocious sea. To our right there’s a small stretch of grass it’s far from the hole, impossible to reach, but by tilting the camera, finding the right angle, it looks like it could be reached with a careful, strong, and lucky leap. The view is beautiful. We shudder. Of those who escaped there were few survivors…
I must admit the christmas feeling was not very prominent when I left for London. I was supposed to stay at home for a few days and get the house ready for christmas while also working on a wee project. Everything was postponed with the sudden trip to the English capital. While there, the majority of the hours I was awake were spent at the British Library, and except for a christmas tree (or were there two?) outside, the library didn’t show many signs of it us having entered the month of December.
I was in the city over the weekend and as the Library was closed on Sunday I had one day to explore the area. I spent seven hours on my feet, walking most of that time and, according to google, covering quite a few miles! I was in more of a touristy-mood rather than in search of the christmas feeling, but a few drops here and there at least helped fill the container of christmas joy, which is now full to the brim.
After walking along the Thames from The Savoy and up to Millennium Bridge and Saint Paul’s, I came across a man who sold roasted almonds. Roasted almonds is something I only eat during the christmas holidays, needless to say I was glad to see the man. Unfortunately though, substituting breakfast and lunch with a handful of sugar-coated almonds was not my best move, but I did find a small shop a little later where I found some fruit to accompany the lousy attempt of raising and evening the level of my blood-sugar.
London’s greatest contribution to the christmas feeling was bestowed upon me the next day. After a long day at the library I had dinner at a small pub next to the hotel I stayed at. After spending the previous days getting used to being on my own in public places, I now sat back and relaxed. I had christmas decorations hanging above me, a good book in my hand (Orwell’s 1984) and the Pogues playing in the background. No one conveys the christmas feeling any better than a drunk, swearing Irishman!
Dunnottar Castle is my all time favourite castle. It is the location of the castle and the surrounding nature that really attracts me to it, and that as well as the fact that I’m left to explore the grounds exactly as I please makes this my favourite.
I wanted to tell you about this some time ago, as the last few posts from my Scotland road trip, but as you know, suddenly came December, and suddenly came London, and Dunnottar had to wait.
The castle is just a short walk from Stonehaven, which again is a few miles south of Aberdeen on the North-East coast of Scotland. The location of the castle is to die for, and one can clearly see the advantages of having such a stronghold in times of trouble.
It costs about a fiver to get in (we’re talking local currency here) and then you’re left to roam the grounds. There are signs here and there telling you where it’s not safe to climb, and also a few plaques of information placed here and there.
From the northern walls you can see a war memorial which fits in beautifully with the atmosphere of the castle. It looks somewhat like a small watchtower or beacon of warning to warn the castle dwellers of the Vikings coming from the north (now, there is little evidence of Viking activity along exactly this stretch of coastline, but go with flow here)
After being asked whether I’d like to go to London for a work project and six hours later, after booking hotels and plain tickets, packing, gathering together everything I’d need for the job and doing a bit of laundry to make sure I didn’t run out of clothes while away, I found myself on a plane towards the capital of England.
I’ve been to England once before, in York, travelling with a group of about 30 where I was picked up at the airport, driven to the hotel, and given plenty of information on where to go, what to do, and what to expect. This time I’m in a slightly larger city, all by myself, with a building I need to go to and a paper in my hand saying my boss trust me with the responsibility. Quite a different approach to England in other words.
It’s a little odd travelling by myself. I’ve travelled alone before, but never stayed anywhere all by myself without knowing anyone or having anyone to talk to. I went out to eat today. I found an ok pub, not too far from the hotel nor from work and I really enjoyed sitting there by myself. I was a little twitchy at first, didn’t really know where to look, what to do, but then I just sat back and took everything in. I was sitting in the corner of a pub, a bright corner fortunately, next to a window. Outside I could see christmas decorations and as I sat there Paul McCartney’s voice reminded me that this was a wonderful christmas time. I started drifting off, thinking about buying home a few christmas decorations for Son and Husband. I’ve wanted to go to a large European city before yule, go to markets and see the various decorations. And now, after working as hard as I can here for a few days, I have more days off around christmas that I can spend with my family. A win/win situation. I smiled to myself and had to agree with Paul, it was indeed a wonderful christmas time.
Next to my table sat a couple. It became obvious from their conversation that they didn’t know each other well and was probably on one of their first dates. The woman was talking a lot, on and on about a family situation, and after every third sentence or so she added: “But I don’t care”. In my head I finished that sentence for here “… I just go raving on and on about it anyhow, ironic isn’t it?”. The man was quiet, for obvious reasons. He did get a word in every now and again, he was more reserved than the woman, talking slower and without the gestures she so enthusiastically used. He had his back towards me, but I can’t imagine his facial expressions being any more dramatic than his gestures. His stories were met with more or less random “ah hah!”s and a person looking more out the window than at the man talking to her. Then he asked her something, and the stage was hers again. She reminded me a bit of myself, which is a scary thought. I know I can get very enthusiastic when talking about something that excites me, but I do hope I show more attention to the people I talk to. With the many interesting people I have around me and do talk to, it would be a real shame if I didn’t. I found myself trying to picture myself as a single woman in my late twenties. I met my husband at 15 and we have been together ever since. How dramatically different I would have been as a person without him. I’m glad I’ll never know!
Being at a completely new place, with nothing familiar around me except for the contents of my bag and logos and brands I know from back home, I found comfort in the music played in the pub. Music is the best therapy. “Let it never be said, that the romance is dead” said a familiar voice, while Husband’s face popped up in my head and brought a smile to my face. I had finished my dinner and was getting ready to leave. More people entered the pub, accompanied by Killers asking the always relevant question: “Are we human? or are we dancer?”.
Things didn’t go according to plans after we reached Oban. We didn’t really have any plans as such, at least none that were set in stone, and sometime the things you don’t plan, or the things you would never even imagine, result in memories you’d rather not be without.
We were fortunate enough to find someone with a bit of local knowledge and an opportunity to tail these locals on or way to Edinburgh. The new route would be about an hour longer, but it would include two castles we otherwise wouldn’t have seen, good company, and cheap petrol at a petrol station in Glasgow (which in theory makes up for taking a longer route?).
I do believe it was indeed the most sensibly alternative, as a severe lack of sleep due unforeseen events the day before, could affect my sense of direction, mood, and in general my ability to think. Driving behind a huge white van made life a little easier. Even if it did get quite close every now and again, when I forgot I was driving a Vauxhall with a set of breaks quite different to the set of breaks I operate on a regular basis.
It was, anyhow, the castle I wanted to mention here. I say mention as I have very little to say about it. It seemed to be somewhere in the area of Middle of Nowhere, which made it perfect. Due to a lack of wellies, a flooded river, and travelling companions who weren’t too eager to have shoes and trousers ruined by wading across said river, we only saw it from afar. But in return, nature put on a display of colours that made up for not getting to climb the walls and search every nook of a ruined castle. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
In not many of the world’s countries can you find yourself on a coastal road boasting splendid views around every corner, only to find the cherry on top, a freakin’ castle stuck on a small islet a stone-toss from the shore. I did not see it coming and immediately became a significant hazard to others driving the same stretch of road at that time. I can’t remember the two lovelies in the car with me saying anything from me spotting the castle, to making an abrupt turn out onto a muddy side road which seemed to lead nowhere except closer to the sea.
We parked the car near a wee house (we were good at finding those that day). The house seemed almost deserted and I simply had to get closer the castle asap. I crossed my fingers and hoped nobody would mind our mischievous parking, but I wasn’t even out the door before the door of the house opened. A man appeared and I expected to be chased from the property with a stick. I was getting my my heavy Norwegian accent ready as well as the innocent and naive, hopeless-tourist look. But, apparently, a group of thee young women seems to have a good effect on polite Scots. He smiled at us, explained that he was expecting a lorry and gave us instructions for how to get closer to the castle as well as where to find a shortcut that would take us back on the main road afterwards. I love Scotland!
A bit of jumping over small brooks and joking in and around a kissing-gate took us down to the beach where the view silenced the three of us. Or silenced us the best you can silence a group of three, who, combined, have been through a few too many literature courses.
(and yes, the castle is the one from the Monty Python films)
A few miles south of Inverness is a lovely, little town called Drumnadrochit. I awoke in my bed at Craigmonie Cottage B&B at 7am after proper 8 hours of sleep. Usually very fond of sleeping and eager to take advantage of any chance I have to sleep in, I chose to act against the nature of my being and snuck out trying not to waken the girls. A sore throat, newfound knowledge on how to shoot in manual mode, a mist covered Scottish valley, and an intense desire of not letting a single minute go to waist while in Scotland, I stumbled out into the cold morning, camera in hand and with birds singing both in the trees around me and in my heart.
I made a 24-hours supermarket we had passed the day before the goal of my walk. Strepsils was what I was looking for and a tea that could help rid me of this cold.
The road was dead, except for the occasional passing car, and the town seemed deserted. We had seen many houses for sale the day before, and as I walked around the number increased. The silence of an early Saturday morning increased the feeling of walking through a ghost town. As did scenes reminding me of old British television shows, and thus also of decades passed.
The tiny supermarket became a shocking contrast to my short walk along the road. Open 24 hours and with several customers appearing as I came close to the building the town suddenly seemed to spring to life. The moment though was short lived, as they had all vanished by the time I had payed for my few items. As I exited and turned my back to the shop all signs of life were again gone, except for, ironically, a flock of crows decorating the fence of a deserted football field.
I decided to take a different route back to the B&B. I turned off the main road and continued past the church to a residential area. The houses didn’t look to be very old, still quite a few had signs marking them for sale. I tried to get a little lost, but I did not succeed and simply walked in a large circle back towards my companions, good conversations in good company, and an increased appetite for the awaiting homemade breakfast.
It was a cold and windy Friday morning. I was getting my pulse up making sure everything I needed was in the suitcase. It was not at all an early flight I had to catch, but my brain has proved over and over that it works best under pressure – five minutes before I should be out the door is when the brain decides to wake up and remind me of everything that should come with me across the fjord. This never fails. This morning I also wanted to take Son to kindergarten as I would not get to enjoy his company for the next four days.
The day before I had called Charlotte at the Craigmonie B&B to make sure our reservation was ok. She had a wonderful Scottish accent. I was in my office by myself, and as I hung up the phone I closed my eyes, her voice echoed in my head and the butterflies took flight. I smiled, drew my breath and could finally feel that the trip was just around the corner.
At the airport I was greeted by one of the world’s most wonderful ladies. Our eyes met and our smiles widened, yes, we had both been smiling to ourselves. We checked in, walked through security and found ourselves on the path to a new adventure.
Due to a full plane my travel companion had been seated with a group of coffee drinking Brits, I was placed among alcohol consuming Scandinavians. Accompanied by a slightly drunk Dane, who sat closest to the window, I first saw land. The cliffs and beaches of the eastern coast of Scotland stretched out in front of me. I looked north, knowing that I couldn’t, but still hoped to, catch a glimpse of Slains Castle near Cruden Bay. Then I looked in the opposite direction, hoping we were far enough south for me to spot Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven. Both were too far away. The wee plane descended a little as we flew over land. As if the pilot knew how thrilled I was to be back, the short flight over the city became a short sightseeing tour for me. I saw Union street break up the maze of roads beneath me, the hospital was still there and I could see the railway lines running out of the city. Under us, on the right, just escaping my view, was the University, the football stadium, the view from my former lecture room and the room in which I spent no more than a few months. We crossed the Don and Dyce appeared. The plane steadily descended. I saw the roads, I knew the shops, many of the signs were still the same. And I saw the road which we would soon follow north. The plane touched the ground and shortly after came to a halt in front of the terminal.
It felt like coming home. I get the same feeling when I have been on vacation and return home after being gone for weeks. I only spent a few months in this country, I’ve spent more time in other countries, but still this feels special. There is a comfortable and safe feeling connected to this place, a country of which I’ve still only seen very little. There is no logical explanation, still I must admit, it feels like home.
Krakow is a beautiful city, there is no doubt about that. However, after four days both my husband and I felt like we’d seen what there was to see. The city was affected by the massive amounts of tourists visiting, and though beautiful it seemed to lack some of its soul. I find a city a lot more interesting if you can blend in with the inhabitants and see the city as they do. This seemed difficult in Krakow, as tourists dominated the urban picture. The city centre appeared to be abandoned by its inhabitants. As we visited in July, we shouldn’t have expected anything else, still it’s sad to see the city not being used as anything but a giant museum.
Most shops in the city centre must owe their existence to tourists looking for cheap and inauthentic memorabilia. The book shops had a good selection of books in English and other foreign languages, and books about Poland and Krakow were on every shelf. We visited two of the three major shopping centres in the city, and were pleasantly surprised by the atmospheres there. This seemed to be where the locals went. Polish was spoken everywhere, and not everyone understood English.
The shops varied from the typical brand stores; Puma, Nike, and the like, to similar shops with a lower price setting; the make-up store Inglot for example, seemed to compare well in quality to many of the high street brands in Sephora. Prices are ridiculous compared to prices in Norway, for most things, however, certain brands (again Puma and Nike) seem to have the same prices all over Europe. We did, however, find a few treasures hidden in the Jewish district.
We did try proper Polish cuisine, the restaurant could probably have been better though, though it seemed to be among the better at first sight. What we ordered sounded good, but looked worse, it was also very plain, both in taste, presentation and variation – Husband had a piece of meat and rice covered in gravy – with no salad, vegetables or anything to spice up the visuals or the taste. Food elsewhere was very good. Restaurants had varied menus, and the quality of even the cheapest locations seemed to be rather high.
Language was never a problem and most who were in contact with tourists spoke English quite well. I did however have an encounter with a shop assistant in a shop in one of the shopping centres. The assistant only spoke Polish, but pretended to understand everything I asked about. We actually held a long conversation, or it might be considered two monologues, between the two of us.
Near Krakow is Auschwitz Birkenau, a concentration camp from the second world war. We did not visit. Tour companies offer daily trips at quite a low cost from most hotels and also from the city centre. We visited the salt mines Wieliczka, which I have already talked about here.
I was a little disappointed by the city, but can only blame that on myself. We visited in July, when the city is crowded by tourists. I would have liked to go again, but then not in the worst tourist season. We walked and walked for hours every day, and even while moving away from the city centre, were unable to find the soul and spirit of the city, which I hope and believe would have been more easily found in October, rather than July.