Sunday, November 25, 2012

Edinburgh: Weeks 9-11

WOW. I cannot believe I have been here for three months already. Here we are nearing the end of November, and I have no idea where the time has gone. Eleven weeks in and things are just crazy busy! If I am not writing papers, I am reading books (upon books upon books upon books) or attending class or buying Christmas presents or registering for courses for my spring 2013 semester (back at Mount Holyoke, what?!) or catching up on much-needed sleep or maintaining and preserving what shreds of my sanity I still have left. I have not travelled quite as much lately, though my six-day trip to London commences this Thursday, and it is shaping up to be awesome. I am so excited!

I just wanted to take the time to write a bit about the fun things I have done over the past three weeks. While I have spent the majority of my time studying, eating, and sleeping, I have managed to sneak myself a few hours to explore and enjoy this beautiful city.

Monday, November 5th was Guy Fawkes Day, which commemorates the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. I had no idea how big of a celebration it is here in Edinburgh! I suppose it makes sense, however, since Scotland is part of Great Britain and all that jazz. Anyway, on Monday night, my friends Anna and Rachel and I journeyed to Calton Hill to watch the fireworks displays. The walk was quite far from our flat, and the steep climb up to the Hill itself is rather dangerous in the dark, but the views were completely worth it. Edinburgh looked SO BEAUTIFUL at night. And it seemed as though the entire city was out and about in celebration! I have never seen the streets so crowded and so full of life. The buildings were all illuminated with Christmas lights (not to be outshone, Jenners was bright pink) and the air smelled like food and cold and alcohol--but in the most delicious way. There were hordes of us piled at the top of Calton Hill to take in the fireworks, and there seemed to be displays occurring in all directions. You could even make out hundreds of itty-bitty specs of light on Arthur's Seat, where celebrations were also taking place! The fireworks were sub-par at best, with the exception of a few amazing ones from a bystander who set them off in his hands!! But it was the general experience that I will cherish. The city has never felt so alive.

Rachel and Anna with their sparklers.

On Sunday, November 11th, I went to a national rugby match: Scotland vs. New Zealand. It was AMAZING!!!! First of all, Murrayfield Stadium is HUGE, and this particular match was sold out, so the crowds were enormous. I made some new friends, Angela from Tennessee and Katherine from Canada (and Rachel and Marylou, though I don't remember where they are from). Our seats were pretty high up in the second tier of the stadium, but we could see the match really well. And what a match it was! New Zealand is the best rugby team in the world, and it has never lost a match to Scotland. This match was no exception--New Zealand won, 49-22. But at least it wasn't a complete shut-out. Seriously, the match was amazing and I really love rugby so it was truly an unbelievable experience! New Zealand did the "Haka" at the beginning of the match, too--it is an ancestral war cry and dance of the Maori cultural tradition. It was really cool to watch. Also! I felt kind of smart because I actually knew everything that was happening during the match, and I ended up being the one explaining the rules of rugby to the others. Never thought that person would be me! During halftime, the Scottish members of the British 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Teams came out and circled the pitch, which I thought was really neat. Scotland has SO MUCH PRIDE and it was on full display at the match. I am so lucky to have had this experience!

 Outside of the stadium.
With my friend Angela.
Ran into my friend Charles at the game-- what a coincidence!

 New Zealand performing the "Haka."
On Monday, November 19th, I rewarded myself for having survived ten days' straight worth of essay writing (three different essays, 27 pages total, you get the rather unpleasant idea). Emily and I went to our first ever Scottish ceilidh (pronounced "kay-lee"), which is a Scottish social featuring live Celtic music and a number of really, really cool traditional Scottish dances. (See the picture of us pre-ceilidh, all dressed up, at the top of the post!) The dances involve a lot of partner work, a lot of stomping and clapping, a lot of spinning around and holding hands and ducking under people and over others. We had an absolute blast. I think it might have been the most fun I've had since I got here. It put a HUGE smile on my face at a time when I really needed one.

This past Wednesday (November 21st), I went with my friends George, Jonas, and Sophie to explore a bit of Edinburgh, both old and new. We visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse (more commonly known as Holyrood Palace) first, which sits on the opposite end of the Royal Mile from the Castle. Holyrood is where the Royal Family stays whenever they visit Scotland, and it is also the setting for state ceremonies and other important functions. The majority of the current building dates back to the seventeenth-century, though parts remain from as early as the 1500s, including the ruins of Holyrood Abbey and the palace's northwest tower. The palace is absolutely beautiful both inside and out. We made our way through the restored parts of the Palace's interior, and I fell in absolute love. The tapestries, the rich fabrics, the beautiful chairs and all of the portraits, the crown moldings that are more intricate than any others I have ever seen, the queen's bedchamber with its ornate canopy bed--HOLY MOLY CAN YOU SAY DECADENCE?? (Unfortunately, photography is not allowed within the Palace, though a Google search will produce a number of impressive photos.) And the grounds are beautiful, as is the old Abbey. There are views of Arthur's Seat from so many windows of the Palace, as well. What a wonderful place it must have been to live (and to vacation now!). I definitely enjoyed Holyrood more than any of the castles I have visited during my time here, perhaps because of the fact that so much of the original furniture is still intact, which makes it much easier (and more fun!) to imagine what life must have been like all those centuries ago.

With (from left) Sophie, Jonas, and George.
Exploring the ruins of Holyrood Abbey.

Our second stop of the day was the Scottish Parliament, which is kind of ridiculously awesome. The building is located right across the street from Holyrood Palace. Scotland used to have its own parliament, dating back as early as the thirteenth century. The Acts of Union of 1707 saw the end of the original Scottish Parliament; it forced Scottish Parliament to merge with the Parliaments of England and Great Britain. However, in 1997, Scotland approved a referendum that, through the Scotland Act of 1998, restored the Scottish Parliament to its former glory. In 2004, the new parliament building was finally finished. It cost £431 million to complete, which is roughly equivalent to $688 million! The project ended up being about 30 times over budget...whoops. But it is really, really cool. The Scottish Parliament Building was designed by Enric Miralles, and it features very contemporary designs: steel, cement, and bamboo comprise the majority of both the exterior and interior of the building. Everything is sustainable. When viewed from above, the building looks like a bunch of leaves or waterdrops interconnected. I don't really know how else to explain it other than to say that it is kind of just really, really awesome, and far better seen in person.

The majority of the Scottish Parliament Building is visible in this photograph. The complex is HUGE and features views of Arthur's Seat (to the left, out of the view of the camera lens) and Calton Hill behind it.
(This is the only photo I did
not take.)

This past weekend I finished my Christmas shopping and spent some quality time with friends. Tomorrow marks my last week of classes--thank goodness! I must admit I have tired of them and am ready for a well-deserved break. I leave for London on Thursday with my friends Ahlam and Victoria, and we have a very packed schedule for the six days we'll be in the city. Hopefully I won't be too burnt out when I return on December 4th, since I commence my 15-day exam essay-writing extravaganza (or catastrophe, you choose) the following day. Yuck! I'll hopefully post about London once I've completed all of my essays...unless I die during the writing process, which is entirely possible given the sheer enormity of the work ahead of me. Ah well.

Until then, take care of yourselves! And, as always, thanks for coming along with me on this journey.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Edinburgh: Weeks 6-8

Hello everyone! I seem to have slackened off in my devotion to maintaining this travelogue over the past month. My apologies! Things have been crazy busy and I think it is likely to remain this hectic through the end of the semester. BUT I want to write about my trip to the Scottish Highlands before I completely forget everything.

I spent the weekend of October 27-28th traveling throughout the Highlands with my friends Sophie and Maria, and it was honestly one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The Highlands are absolutely incredible, and even though we made a ton of stops along our way up the northeast border of Scotland, I still feel as if what I have now seen is barely a fraction of the wonders tucked throughout this region of the country.

We started our journey at 7:00 a.m. and made our first stop at the William Wallace Monument in Stirling. It is quite a steep, brisk climb to the top of the mountain (where the monument sits), but it is completely worth it. The sun was still in the process of rising and the views from the summit were incredibly breathtaking. Stirling Castle stood upon its dormant volcanic crag in all its epic splendor. The monument itself is rather impressive, though because we arrived so early, we were unable to view the insides of the place. Bummer!

Sophie and Maria at the foot of the mountain.

We drove for a bit (passing some beautiful open fields and rivers with deep blue water flanked by trees--seriously, could Scotland be any more perfect?) and then stopped in Aberfoyle, where we met Hamish the Scottish Highland cow. Apparently he is very famous in the country (I had no idea)--there seems to be a Wikipedia page devoted to him and everything. Who knew? Hamish has a "girlfriend" named Heather and a daughter named Honey. They were all super shaggy, and Hamish has HUGE horns. I have to say I am a fan of Highland cows. They are so furry and big and have really sweet faces. Anyway, Aberfoyle was beautiful and it was such a great first peek at the Highlands landscapes, which are SO different from those in Edinburgh (obviously) and even from Stirling.

We had to drive quite a few hours before we reached our next destination, Glen Coe. On the way there, we passed sprawling hills, huge plains, mountains and rocks cutting into the land. I am still in awe of the sheer variety of landscapes in this part of Scotland. We also passed through Rannoch Moor, which is about 50 miles of boggy, lush moorland. It is flat and wet and dark and mysterious and gorgeous and so cool to look at. It was also featured in Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, which made me excited since I read that novel for my "Edinburgh in Fiction" course. (I am a dork, I know.)

Rannoch Moor.

By the time we reached Glen Coe I was positively giddy with excitement. I do not really know how to describe Glen Coe in any way that could even begin to do it justice. It is majestic in every sense of the word. The mountains are massive and they go on for miles and they are covered in lush moss. There are so many different shades of yellow and brown and green and grey. Glen Coe is so beautiful and stunning and overpowering. At the same time, the entire experience seemed completely surreal. These mountains seem so simultaneously dead and alive: sheep dot the hills but so do tons of scraggy rocks and huge boulders. We actually traversed Glen Coe on foot, and I am SO glad we did! The hike down was very muddy, slippery, and steep, but being in the bottom of the glen and looking up at the mountains rising starkly into the air was both utterly indescribable and completely humbling. We are but tiny creatures living on an unbelievably large planet that is truly owned by nature. My mind was completely blown! If I could only choose one place to visit again in the Highlands, it would be Glen Coe.

We next stopped in Fort William, the second largest town in the Highlands, which is charming and located right alongside Loch Linnhe, with Ben Nevis rising up against its skyline. After exploring Fort William for a bit, we drove to Urquhart Castle, which is located close to the little village of Drumnadrochit. The castle used to be a stronghold of importance in medieval Scotland, though today it is pretty extensively in ruins. Urquhart sits right on the shores of Loch Ness, and, not surprisingly, the majority of historical Nessie sightings have occurred near Urquhart! Unfortunately, there were no sightings of the Loch Ness Monster during our visit, but I can definitely see why the myth has yet to be dispelled--Loch Ness is GIGANTIC and very mysterious; it seems like the perfect place to hold such magical secrets in its murky depths. So no Nessie sightings, but Urquhart does offer positively lovely views of the loch. The funny thing about lochs in Scotland is that in some ways, they all look the same, yet I never tire of looking at them, and I am always blown away by their beauty. 

We arrived in Inverness around five o'clock in the evening and I was absolutely exhausted from all of the exploring we had done all day. Inverness is the "Capital of the Highlands" and is the most highly-populated part of northern Scotland. The city was really quiet, which we found strange considering it was a Saturday night. Still, we managed to find a cute pub to enjoy a cozy dinner of mac 'n' cheese over a lively discussion about feminism. Delicious and stimulating! Since most everything else was already closed, including seemingly every café and shop, we ended up heading back to our hostel around 9:00 p.m. The hostel itself was really nice and clean, and for my first ever hostel experience, it was not bad at all! I wish I could have explored more of Inverness. I did enjoy all of the Christmas lights strung up between the buildings though! (I just love Christmas.)  

We woke up around 7:30 a.m. and proceeded to depart from Inverness soon after. Our first stop on our long journey back to Edinburgh was the Culloden Battlefield, situated in Culloden (surprise, surprise). This was the site of the last battle of the Jacobite Rising of 1745. It took place on April 16, 1746, and only lasted about 40 minutes due to the sheer force of the government troops. Those poor Jacobites! Yes, William Wallace fought in this battle. Yes, this battle inspired parts of "Braveheart" with (you know, that little movie with Mel Gibson). Cool, right? 

The battleground itself is an absolutely huge flat expanse overgrown with moss and highland shrubbery and heather. It is very dim and gray and brown. (It was also muddy and wet during out visit, due to the previous night's rainfall.) Red flags mark where the English government's soldiers stood; blue flags where the Jacobites stood. There is a large memorial cairn in the middle, and dozens of gravestones marking the deceased members of certain Highland clans--in some areas of the battlefield we were essentially walking over dead bodies! Kind of gruesome but also sort of, kind of really cool. Walking through the Battlefield was a very sobering experience, yet at the same time, Sophie, Maria, and I had a jolly good time "recreating" the battle!

Our next stop was the small little town of Pitlochry, where we grabbed a yummy lunch and did a bit of shopping. I managed to find quite a bit of MacMillan tartan, which was exciting since it has proved very hard to find anywhere else in the country. I also picked up some delicious-looking homemade marmalade for both sets of grandparents--they will taste so good with Scottish biscuits! We drove for another few hours before arriving at The Hermitage, an absolutely GORGEOUS national park that features a river winding tumultuously over huge rocks and thousands of huge Douglas Fir trees. A lot of the trees had turned yellow and orange, and I felt like I was in Vermont in the early fall. It definitely helped to assuage the homesickness I had been feeling for a New England autumn! 

We ended our weekend trip with a brief visit to Dunkeld, a quaint little town that sits on the River Tay. We explored its Cathedral and grabbed yummy cakes at a cute little pastry shop. I had the most delicious chocolate mint cake--it had actual bits of mint leaves in it. SO GOOD. Dunkeld was such a charming, quiet little town. Just like practically every other place we visited on our trip, it had absolutely beautiful views of the mountains and the fall foliage. 

All in all, I LOVED my weekend in the Highlands. There really are not enough positive words to describe how wonderfully life-affirming and life-changing this trip was for me. It renewed my sense of self and my sense of why I am here in Scotland. It reminded me how small I am; it was humbling in the best way possible. It made me feel alive and vulnerable and adventurous and very, very free.

I think I found a part of myself in the Highlands. How wonderful is that?