Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Scotland the Wet and Cold

“The coldest winter I ever spent was one summer in…..Aberdeen!” (The original quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but apparently he never said it, so my paraphrase will be okay). Damn, it was cold! Especially after leaving Budapest where the temperature as 25 degrees Celsius (around 76 degrees F for my American audience). Back in March I had asked my Aberdonian friends Mike and Vanessa Chew when would be a good time to visit. I’d been threatening to come for several years and finally wanted to make good my promise. Mike thought for a few seconds and then told me that the best time to visit Aberdeen and Inverness and the Orkney Islands was in June; best weather during the year, most possibility of sunshine, least possibility of rain, not very cold then, etc. In other words, June would be as good as one gets in Scotland. Okay, sounds good to me. I made my reservations for June 14 through 23 and prepared myself for the Scottish weather. My primary purpose in visiting Northern Scotland was to see Skara Brae, the stone-age settlement in the Orkney Islands. I’d read about this incredible archaeological site and, since I’d seen other such sites around the world (Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland, the Hypogeum in Malta, etc.), I wanted to add Skara Brae to my collection of ancient sites. And besides, I was ready for another adventure. So, on the afternoon of Thursday, June 14, 2012, I was off to see the world once again. I had kept up with the weather reports online, and was disheartened to see the forecast was for rain and cold all during my visit. Thanks, Mike; I’ll get you for this. I packed accordingly and, after a wonderful overnight stay in London Heathrow, arrived in Aberdeen around 8:30 Friday morning. Vanessa Chew was waiting for me at the Aberdeen airport, thank goodness. The weather was cool (14 degrees) and overcast with some light rain. Lovely. We took the scenic route through Aberdeen and along the coast road down to Newtonhill, where the Chews live. Vanessa and Mike were taking care of their 20-month-old granddaughter Emma for the weekend, so I got to meet her and her mother Rosie. Mike and Vanessa have three children, Sarah, Paul and Julia, all around 30 years old. Paul’s partner is Rosie. Julia also left her English Bulldog Winston (what else?) with her folks, and the house was a constant flurry of ins and outs, people coming and going all the time, just like on TV. It was great. I caught an afternoon nap while Vanessa was off at a party, then Mike and Paul came home and Paul fixed lamb burgers for dinner; scrumptious. Mike and I then took off for Stonehaven down the coast aways for a short nip into a local pub, where I had some Thrapplehouse cider at The Ship Inn, after which it was home and a nice long night’s sleep. Cold, rested and ready, I leaped out of bed on Saturday morning all set to hit the adventure trail. Mike and I went into Aberdeen for a walk around and some shopping. Had a light lunch of steak pie at the Prince of Wales Pub, took an after-lunch walk and stopped for another beer at Ma Cameron’s, Aberdeen oldest pub. After a brief rest at home, Mike and I headed out for an architectural tour of King’s College, which is where daughter Julia went. The evening was rainy and cold and windy, and I was really not in the mood for anything to do with this damn winter weather I had hit. Vanessa’s sources told her it was the wettest, coldest, nastiest June in living memory. I can believe it. Me for a cozy fireplace and a good book. But Noooo. There we were at the entrance to King’s College with 16 or so other sturdy, crazy people and a tour guide, and we were off to the races on our two-hour tour. Fortunately, the rain and wind let up after awhile and the weather, which still cool and overcast, wasn’t terrible. And the tour actually turned out to be pretty interesting, especially when we stopped for a pint at the Machar pub after the tour ended. Sunday we did a drive to Arbroath, a small coastal fishing village south of Aberdeen. The highlight of the day was lunch at the Ship Inn, featuring a local specialty, Smokies: smoked haddock, nicely accompanied by a pint of Best. Rain hit again as we were walking along the waterfront, so it was back in the car. On the way home we stopped at a local junk shop/flea market before continuing. Paul fixed supper again, lamb shanks (from black-faced lambs, no less!) and roast chicken, veggies, potatoes, etc, and all from scratch. Due to an early morning the next day, it was an early night. Time to head off to Inverness for four days. Mike and Vanessa dropped me at the train station with instructions as to when and where to meet on my return on Thursday, and I was off. Well, sort of. I had my Internet ticket, but was supposed to get a regular ticket using the ticket machine in the train station; unfortunately, the Aberdeen station’s entire computer system was down and I was unable to get my ticket. Showing the conductor my email ticket would have to do for this leg of the trip. After breakfasting on a lovely Cornish pasty in the station, it was an uneventful two-hour ride to Inverness on our tiny train (only two cars). We went stopped in towns named Dyce, Insch and Elgin and made good time. The Trip Gods must have been in a good mood that day, as when we arrived in Inverness the sun was out and there were blue skies visible between scattered clouds. I walked to my hotel, only about five minutes from the train station, checked in and set out for a walkabout around the city. Well, Inverness is absolutely wonderful. Clean, green, well-maintained, beautiful old, old buildings made of stone, the bucolic River Ness and even a castle on a hill. I walked for a couple of hours, visiting several of the sites I had researched, including Leakey’s Used Book Store, The Phoenix Pub, Johnny Foxes, The Waterfront Pub and the High Street. I wanted to try The Waterfront Pub for lunch and got there around 2:15 PM. I was reading the menu posted outside when a nice lady came out and informed me they had stopped serving lunch at 2 PM, but dinner was also nice. She changed the menu as I watched, and I noticed that no matter how nice dinner was, it was also half again as expensive as lunch. Nice try, Lady, maybe another time. Another customer lost. So I walked back across the river and had a tasty Angus Beefburger at Johnny Foxes, along with a pint of Best. Good food, fair service. Walked some more and had a brief nap. My hotel was adequate, rather plain Jane but certainly satisfactory. I was hoping for more local color from a place named the MacDougall Clansman, but it was not to be. The local hotel service rated it as a two-star place, and it was without frills of most any sort. But it was only 40 pounds a night, the bathrooms were clean, breakfast was satisfactory and the owners were very accommodating, and I rarely ask more of my hotel. At least the dining room had a Scottish motif, with pictures of the local laird and his claymore, tartans around the room and even a piano in the lounge in case a tipsy guest wanted to play a Scottish air. I decided to try the Hootananny Pub and Restaurant, featuring live Scottish music later in the evening. I knew they’d have pub grub of some sort, so figured I’d also have dinner there. I settled in with some good Black Isle beer and asked for a menu. The Hootananny Pub was attached to a Thai restaurant and they served Thai food. Interesting. Actually, the food was very good – very good – and I was happy with my choice. The music started around 9:30 (it was still light outside and remained so until nearly midnight) and was a nice variety. Two guys who played guitar, fiddle, banjo and flute – not all at once, of course. The music was lively and fun and the crowd was appreciative. A good evening. Tuesday was my all-day trip to the Orkney Islands to see the stone age settlement Skara Brae. Up at 6 AM, met the bus at the nearby bus station at 7:15, off by 7:30 for a two hour and 45 minute drive to the almost farthest point on the British Isles, John O’Groats. It was an easy ride up the west side of the Moray Firth, with countryside not what I expected: rolling green hills, farms and sheep and cattle, neat and tidy, clean and well-maintained. But no highlands! Anyway, caught the ferry at John O’Groats for a one-hour cruise to the Orkney Islands, landing at South Ronaldsay island, the southeasternmost tip of the Orkneys. During the cruise we were able to buy our tickets to Skara Brae on the ferry; I had thought they would be included in the $100 tour fee – silly me. Another nickel-and-dime ripoff. I really hate that they don’t tell you about all the little extra charges. Anyway, we caught our island bus there for the 30-minute drive to our first stop, Kirkwall. As we drove, our driver told us about our surroundings (holding a microphone in one hand while she drove with the other!). Turned out we were on the eastern edge of Scapa Flow, a famous wartime anchorage for British and German naval vessels during the last century. Look it up on Google for more details. We had an hour in Kirkwall for lunch and to check out the St. Magnus church. Naturally, we only really had time for lunch, plus it started to rain and I figured that was it for the day, rain and more rain. Once we were on our way again however, the rain stopped and stayed pretty much away for the remainder of the trip. I must say, however, the Skara Brae experience was exceptionally well presented. There was a main information building (not enough time to read everything available) and a very nice reproduction of one of the stone houses which we could go through. Then down a path to the seashore and the actual small village of seven stone houses connected by hallways. Fascinating. And older than the Pyramids of Giza. Again, we had an hour to do it all, which meant I missed entirely the large country estate of the man who excavated Skara Brae. They really have to have better timing on this trip. Next stop was the Ring of Brodgar, a large circle of standing stones, only a few of which were left. Another interesting site, but as I walked the circle I could tell any power which may have been there in the ancient past was long gone. We drove past the Standing Stones of Stenness, another ancient and alliterative site, then made a quick stop at the Italian Chapel, built by WWII POWs. Back to the ferry, across the North Sea to John O’Groats and on our bus back to Inverness, arriving around 9 PM. Whew! A long day; of the 13 ½ hours we were gone, nearly nine were spent on bus and ferry. I was in sore need of some liquid sustenance, so wandered down to Johnny Foxes for a couple of beers before heading to my hotel and bed. Wednesday was my day of rest in Inverness and I used it wisely. I walked all over town, including up the River Ness aways, a truly beautiful walk. The weather cooperated with some hazy sunshine, which helped. After breakfast at the hotel, I visited Leakey’s Used Book Store, a HUGE store next to my hotel, and browsed happily for an hour or so; even picked up a few books. I browsed the Victorian Market and the Eastgate Shopping Center. I walked up to the castle and had lunch at The Castle Tavern next door: haggis, neeps and tatties, finally! Topped off with a Best beer, it was pretty much a perfect noontime meal in the perfect setting, with a view across the river. More afternoon strolling, a short nap and up to Blackfriar’s Pub for a nice Thistly Cross cider or two. I had their steak and gravy pie as an appetizer, which was great pub grub. Dinner was a really good Angus beefburger at Wetherspoon’s across from the hotel. An early night for the weary traveler. My train didn’t leave until 4:30 PM on Thursday, so I still had more time to see the last few sights, which I spent the morning doing. I picked up the few souvenirs I needed for family and friends and self and had a lovely Beef and Abbott Ale Pie for lunch. I wandered over to the train station around 4 PM and caught my train on time. Got back to Aberdeen at 6:30 and met Vanessa in the shopping center attached to the train station. We did some last shopping at Marks and Spencer’s (for black and white puddings and real bagels!), and then Mike joined us for a movie (Angel’s Share – a well-done little Scottish flick). Dinner at Zizzi’s in the center (a large oval Sicilian thin-crust pizza) rounded off the night. Friday, my final full day in Aberdeen. It always goes so quickly! Mike and I drove up to the real Scottish highlands, just so I could say I’d seen them. We stopped in Ballater, near Balmoral Castle, and picked up some haggis for me to take home from a neighborhood butcher that turned out to be a supplier to the royal family. On to Braemar for lunch at the Fife Arms, where I finally had my venison burger. Yummy. The weather was overcast (what else is new?) with spotty light rain, but nothing serious. On the way back we stopped in a few more small villages just to see what was up, and also checked the River Feugh to see if the salmon were running, but the rains had swollen the rivers to the point where the downstream rapids were much too fast and heavy for the poor salmon, so maybe next time. Up late on my travel day, Saturday, June 23. Mike and Vanessa and Julie took me to lunch at their country club, the Kippie, for fish and chips. The weather may not have been great during my stay in Northern Scotland, but I sure ate well! Julia drove me to the airport and we took off around 5 PM, transferred through London Heathrow from 6:30 to 8 PM, and home to Budapest around 11 PM. Two short, easy flights. A minibus home and I was unpacked and in bed by 1 AM. Another good trip, mainly thanks to my friends Mike and Vanessa. Even the less-than-perfect summer weather couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm, and I did all the things I wanted to do and saw everything I wanted to see. Check another one off the list!