Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Last Days

The last three days in Scotland were a whirlwind of travel, eating, castles, and shopping. We left the self-catering flat in Inveraray on Thursday morning and drove about an hour over to the village of Luss on the western shores of Loch Lomond. Since we hadn’t yet had breakfast, we stopped in at the Loch Lomond Arms Hotel for a bit. This is a classically appointed place, with wildlife artwork and 30’s vintage taxidermy of all sorts adorning the walls. A sort of luxurious country hunting lodge vibe permeated the place, and I would not have been surprised to see Prince Charles come around the corner in his tweed and wellies.

Unfortunately it is hard to get just a “bite” to eat for breakfast in Scotland, and an hour later we staggered out of the joint in yet another 10am food coma, brought on no doubt in large part by the heaping bowls of porridge, extensive hand-made puff pastries, eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, yogurt and granola that seems must accompany every proper start to a Scottish day.

From Luss we continued on around the southern part of Loch Lomond. It was a wet morning and the views of the lake did not do justice to its reputation. We arrived at Stirling Castle around 11am and spent a good amount of time there. Stirling is a neat-looking town, and particularly the very old part just outside the castle walls looks like it has seen quite a few seasons. We missed the Argyll House and Bannockburn and the Wallace Memorial and I’m sure another half-dozen or so worthy exhibits. But for its part, Stirling Castle held up its end of the bargain quite well.

Stirling is situated on a dominant rocky outcrop at a key peninsula between two great lowland river valleys With the ______ and the ______ on either side, Stirling is the gate-keeper of sorts to Scotland’s bounty and has been duly fought over during the ages. I think one exhibit said that it changed hands between the English and the Scottish 8-10 times in the last 14th and 15th centuries. Pivotal to the crusades of Wallace and Robert the Bruce against the British, it is as teeming with history as the walls are with cannon ports.

Stirling Castle is still very much a place of fair maidens, noble warriors, fearsome dragons and magical unicorns, to wit:

Stirling Castle is also the Regimental Museum for Princess Louise's Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a unit of great renown and esprit de corps and the source of the appellation "The Thin Red Line" representing more than 125 years of unbroken service to the Crown. From the Crimea and the fields of Balaklava to the Boer War to various theatres of the First and Second World Wars, the famed A&SH has stood unbroken.

After leaving Stirling we arrived at our posh accommodations in the hip Edinburgh neighborhood of Stockbridge, just on the outskirts of New Town. This was a solid hotel choice and being a small boutique probably offered more bang and location than other similarly situated places. Kim and I eloped from the group for a nice dinner at the Mussel and Steak Bar. The seafood over here is really top notch and I could gorge myself on a few more mussel pots without much in the way of hesitation. 

Aside from a brief stroll around Grassmarket and New Town after dinner, we basically only had one day (Friday) to spend enjoying Edinburgh. And we surely did enjoy it. 

Friday was, according to the locals, a “one in a million day,” sunny and clear and warm in the high 60’s. The Scots and all their tourists came out in throngs to enjoy the nice day and there were literally hundreds of people sunbathing in the various parks and lawns. Needless to say we saw quite a few sunburned shoulders the next day in the airport. We decided to skip most of the touristy locations and the hop-on/hop-off bus tour in favor of just strolling the streets and soaking up the city. We walked up Princes Street and George Street shopping, crossed over to Old Town and cruised the Royal Mile for a pre-lunch whisky tasting and some more shopping. 

We made it up the Edinburgh castles but just looked around the outer enclosure without going in. I am sure it is fabulous, but that would have been a several hour commitment and at this point we were a little castled-out. Old Town is really neat and the maps and photos don’t do justice to the way the city is built solidly around very dramatic changes in elevation as the 500-year old blocks of Old Town filter down among the crevices of the rocky escarpment on which the castle sits. 

We went back to the Grassmarket and Cowgate and Greyfriars, looped past the Univeristy of Edinburgh grounds and stopped in at the Royal College of Surgeons. Unfortunately the museum here closed last month for a year of two of refurbishment, so we missed the very gruesome exhibits on grave-robber autopsies and 17th c. pathology specimens. Doc was very disappointed and i think that might have been the quirky-interesting highlight of the trip if it was open. Maybe fodder a week-long “business trip” for Doc to research medical procedure and pathology history for an upcoming journal article? At least it would be a pre-tax trip...

It only took 5 straight hours of walking the hilly streets and alleys of this city and after a late lunch at the local patisserie we headed back to the Nira Caledonia for a nap. A nice pizza dinner by the banks of the Leith and drinks and dessert back at the hotel bar rounded out a very nice day.

I should have known when the fire alarm went off in the hotel at 5:30am that we were in for a rough departure day. The siren was a false alarm but we never really made it back to sleep and arrived downstairs for breakfast and check out somewhat worse for wear. Checking in at the airport was another disaster, and after waiting an hour for the “security guy” to come back with our passports we discovered that U.S. Airways had inadvertently cancelled our reservations on the return flight when they “fixed” our inbound flight a week earlier. Seriously. I don’t have anything nice to say about the airline so I won’t say anything. But every leg of our flight with USAir has been characterized by gross and total incompetence. Things are so screwed up that we may not have been on a single US Air flight this trip, as we flew over on BA and are coming home on United. Boo.

So now we are landing at CLT at 11pm instead of GSP at 8pm. All in all not a huge delay, but the 2-3 hours of denied boarding and missed connections and frustrating delay and incompetent and misleading staff is enough to take a few years off the old ticker. Flying isn’t what it used to be, that’s for sure.

But I will tell you one thing - even at Angels 35 and halfway across the G-I-UK gap, I am certain it is going to be damn fine to see those little Sugar Bugs poke their heads into our room tomorrow morning.

Signing Off For Now-
Doc and Matilda

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