Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Scotland Part 2: Castles & History

All around Scotland are reminders of the history that has shaped the country ... there are so many castles here that you lose count. Some are ruins, some are still homes. Some try to recreate a long-gone era, some keep moving with the times. In and among the castles are many monuments, gardens, and other historical homes.

Our first truly dramatic castle sighting was on the ferry from Oban to Mull. Duart Castle (below) sits alone as you turn the corner toward the Craignure ferry dock. We later visited it, passing the MacLean clan cemetery on the way in to the castle.

Some of the castles have extensive gardens and grounds to explore. Pictured below are: Cawdor (is this where Duncan died in Macbeth?), Crathes (we didn't see the ghost of the Green Lady), and Glamis, with it's nice photo exhibition of the Queen Mother.

Ruins abound across the country. Many of the castles were destroyed to ensure they couldn't fall into enemy hands. Two of the ruins we visited are pictured below. Urqhart sits on Loch Ness ... we didn't see Nessie, but perhaps the rain scared her away. Loch Leven sits on an island (in -- you guessed it -- Loch Leven), and is one of the castles where Mary, Queen of Scots was held. To get to the island you take a ferry (in this case, a very small boat); the poor ferry driver was getting soaked this day!

We visited a few historic buildings as well. Our favorites were the Hill House in Helensburgh (designed by the famous Glasgow architect Charles Rene Mackintosh) and the 18th-century Duff House in Banff.

Scotland doesn't immediately leap to mind when we think of WWII, but there is a lot of world war history around the country. The Commando Memorial looks out across a sweeping view of Lochaber and Glen Nevis. Outside of Poolewe is an old training ground with old gun hides; many Russian sailors set out from here during the war.

It wouldn't be a vacation without a visit to some gravesites, right? At least not for us. The Clava Cairns might not look like much, but it is amazing to think that we were viewing burial mounds and standing stones that date back to 2000BC. A little more recent, but still old, were some of the gravestones in the Stirling Holy Rude cemetery, like this one dated 1696.

Some of the cities were protected by impressive fortresses. Unfortunately, the weather kept us from snapping impressive pictures. Below are Stirling Castle, the view from Stirling to the Wallace Monument, and Inverness Castle.

We'll leave with the most scenic of our Scottish castle stops. First is Castle Stalker (Rochelle loves the name); it's privately owned but there is a great viewpoint from the highway. If you're a Monty Python fan, you might recognize it as Castle Aaaarrrrggghhh!

Second is Eilean Donan, restored in the early 1900s by the MacRaes. It's no wonder why this is one of the most photographed spots in Scotland. Luckily the weather held for us as we toured the castle.

Stop by next week (August 6) for our final Scotland installment on the wildlife (as in animals, not pubs)!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Scotland: Land & Sea

We left Scotland after two weeks with many memories and even more photos. Scotland is a land of contrasts. Things change instantly. From land to sea. From civilized to remote. From rainy to sunny (mostly rainy). We hope to share some of those contrasts with you over a few weeks. So we'll publish three posts: today we'll feature Land & Sea, next week (Jul 30) Wildlife, and the following week (Aug 6) Landmarks. (Click on any of the pics to enlarge)

Our first five days were spent having a blast in the Loch Lomond/Glen Fruin Area with the Johnson-Rondenet-Smith clan. Joining them in their vacation rental, we totaled four adults, seven kids, three cats, a goose, a parrot, at least 10 peacocks, numerous wild birds (including a barn owl that visited at night), some dead birds/mice (thanks to the cats), and a gazillion midges. At least the occasional showers helped scare away the midges sometimes. Right: some of the changing scenes from the house.

Above: Views from Bute, including one of the many ferries from the area

Above: From the ferry to/from the Isle of Mull. Same lighthouse, different views/days/weather!

One of the things that struck us is how quickly the scenery in the highlands and islands can change, as you can see in the following pictures.

From lush green to desert-like moonscapes

From hills hidden by fog to hills covered in heather

From inland waterfalls to islands made of geometric stone (Staffa/Fingal's Cave)

At Inverewe Gardens (above) you can see the unexpected. The gulf stream moderates the temperature and some tropical species are grown there.

Driving in Scotland is nothing less than a heart-pounding adventure. Rochelle called the roads "Scotland's Disneyland Ride." One-track roads abound, where the locals zoom through and you have to be on your toes, ready to pull over at a moment's notice (literally). The pics (above) don't do it justice, it's one of those things you have to experience yourself.

The setting of some of the towns can rival the countryside. Here are two of the most scenic we visited; Tobermory (Isle of Mull) and Culross (Fife).

Finally, we'll leave you with our favorite sunsets (below). The first is from Poolewe, just outside of our hotel. The second is from our evening drive around Loch Ness -- can you spot Nessie?

Don't forget to come back over the next two weeks for our other Scotland installments!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A Quick Visit to Normandy

Having only a short weekend, we decided to focus on the gardens and abbeys of Normandy. We managed to see a lot despite the occasional thunderstorms that followed us the entire trip. We spent our first night in Rouen, taking a nice stroll around the old city center. The center has no less than three gothic churches, including the Cathedral Notre-Dame (which was the subject of numerous Monet paintings) and the very modern St. Joan of Arc. Rouen is infamous for being the city where Joan was held and burned at the stake. Speaking of death, a weird find was the courtyard of the Aitre St-Maclou. It used to be a plague cemetery, and the timbers are all carved with macabre symbols of death. The rest of the city center is a little less macabre, with a nice mix of stores and restaurants. We had dinner at La Couronne, a traditional restaurant that prides itself on famous visitors ... from Salvador Dali to Sophia Loren.

Pictured (click to enlarge) from Rouen: Notre-Dame, Aitre St-Maclou, Great Clock, St-Joan-of-Arc

The next morning, we hit the "Abbey Road." Our first stop was the Abbaye St-Georges in St-Martin-de-Boscherville. It's amazing to think that this church was built in the 1100s, and the beautiful garden is from the late 1600s. Deciding to be very french, we bought a picnic lunch from the patisserie and charcuterie, and stopped along the river Seine for a nice break inbetween rainstorms.

Pictured: St-Georges abbey, garden, and details from columns

The next stop on Abbey Road was at the spectacular ruins of the Jumieges Abbey. We narrowly escaped a drenching as we huddled underneath the old entrance to the church until the rain passed. Even the pigeons had to hide from the rain (see below). The ruins have a kind of eerie peacefulness about them, even with other visitors walking around (but thanks to the rain it wasn't crowded).

Pictured: Jumieges ruins

Our next abbey, St-Wandrille, is still a working place of worship for Benedictine monks. The monks pray in silence and there are numerous signs asking visitors to respect the silence. Still packing in the sights, we were off to the Chateau de Beaumesnil. Finished in 1640, it no longer serves as a residence, but the grounds and the first two floors are open to visitors. During our stop in the small town, the police shut down the main road for some sort of motorcycle rally. We don't know what it was for, but the participants and spectators were enthusiastically cheering and honking as they drove through the town.

Pictured: St-Wandrille window, Beaumesnil chateau and bikers

The next morning it was off to Giverny and Monet's garden. Monet lived the last 33 years of his life in this small, peaceful town. Well, it would have been peaceful without all the tourists. It is amazing to see the source of inspiration for many of his works, but you do have to elbow a lot of other people to see it. On the way out we were surprised to see two parrots grooming themselves in the tree of one of the village homes.

Pictured: (above) scenes from Monet's garden, (below) parrots in the trees of Giverny

On our way home we picked the town of Beauvais to stop for lunch, for no other reason than our guidebook said it had some good restaurants around the town square. We were surprised to see a festival going on. Turns out it was a medieval fair centered around "Jeanne Hachette" (literally "Jean the Hatchet"). We found out later (thanks again, Wiki) that she is a legendary heroine who ripped down the flag of enemy troops in 1472, an act which revived the town's defenders.

We had a classic medieval lunch of chicken thigh and potatoes served on a slice of tree trunk. Rochelle heroically mustered up the courage to try to order in French, and was heroically saved by the fine English of the servers. Rochelle's French skills failed her when she was asked if she was enjoying the food. When Rochelle answered "tres bien," the waitress thought she was speaking Italian. So Rochelle tried "heerlijk" ... the Dutch word for "delicious." That didn't work either, and when Rochelle told the waitress that it was Dutch and that we lived in Holland, the waitress gave her a dirty look and groaned. Evidently the French still have some of that famous attitude!

Eating peasant food, watching the entertainment (and the boisterous crowd), and being harassed by the waitress was one of those unexpected finds that made the trip extra special.

Pictured: from the festival--poster, musicians, tightrope walker

Next post: Week of July 22