Scotland is voting this year (2014) for their independence. Our anthem during our vacation as well as Scotland’s future national anthem:
We had quite the debate on where to go for spring break. Once we had finally found reasonable plane fare we decided upon the land of the Scots. One week before we were set to leave Naples to Edinburgh Lufthansa, our flight provider, decided it was a good time to go on strike. All flights from Lufthansa were cancelled. All week we kept checking as they added more and more cancelled flights. Luckily, the last Lufthansa flight they cancelled was the one right before ours. We made it!
We spent the next couple days in Edinburgh exploring and finding our way around. We visited the Scottish National Gallery and the National Museum of Scotland (which houses lots of great artifacts, of particular interest to us were ancient Viking artifacts and runes, a neat printing press, and Dolly the Sheep (the first mammal cloned from an adult cell). This museum was incredibly nifty, we stayed for many hours. While in Edinburgh we loading up on Christmas gifts, ate too many fish and chips, and tried some traditional fares, such as haggis with neeps and tatties, fresh salmon, mussels, and blood pudding. In case you are wondering, haggis is great, blood pudding is not. We then took a five day bus tour through Scotland, including the Isle of Skye. We stopped about every 30 minutes to go hiking, see castles, ruins, other sites, hairy coos, waterfalls, lochs, cliffs, dinosaur tracks, a white sandy beach, various towns, etc. It was non-stop action packed and we saw way more than we would had we attempted this ourselves. All this and more helped make our Scotland trip one of our best vacations whilst living in Europe.
We made our way through the cities, towns, lowlands, highlands, lochs, glens, and fjords. The weather was generally a bit chilly (which we quite enjoy). It tended to rain at least once a day, though hardly worth getting an umbrella out for. Our day we spent on the Isle of Skye was just the opposite, it rained all day. We still did tons of hiking and site-seeing and we were soaked to the bone (totally worth it). We did rent some wellies from our hostel, so it saved our shoes from the soupy terrain.
Some highlights, outside of all the breathtaking scenery, was one spot in particular on the cliff side high on the Isle of Skye. It was incredibly windy and rainy; you had to shout to the person right next to you. This particular place was the MacDonald castle ruins from about 1600 where Donald MacDonald, the son of the MacDonald chief, and Margaret MacLeod, the sister of the rival clan’s chief, were hand fasted and lived. Donald was a crazy man not to cross. He cut out Margaret’s eye when she didn’t produce a male heir. He sent Margaret back to her home sitting backwards on a one eyed horse (which he also cut out), accompanied by a one eyed servant and a one eyed dog. This reignited the feuds between the clans, and was then known as the Wars of the One-Eyed Woman.
Another highlight was our stop at the 14th century Doune castle, where a majority of any castle scene seen in Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail were filmed. Part of the entrance fee included a headset guide. Justin and I were so excited we were basically running through the castle trying to recognize places. The castle itself is nearly empty inside. On our head sets were lots of facts about the history of dukes and queens staying there and what each room was used for. We realized after all that less interesting stuff they had facts about Monty Python after them. So we had to go through the whole castle again and listen to commentary so we could fast forward it to get to the good stuff, like the history of Spamalot, elderberries, African swallows, and wooden rabbits.
We also saw the Castle Aargh! at the end of the Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Castle Stalker in Argyll). You need a boat or take a swim to get there, which we didn’t have/do, so we admired from a near distance. We saw the viaduct where Harry Potter first met the Dimentias and Hagred’s house location (the house had been picked clean and taken apart so there wasn’t really much left of it other than some stones).
We went Nessie hunting on the great Loch Ness. We did not see her. We did, however, decide to take a dip. The weather outside was about 7° C/45°F. I’m not sure what the temperature in the water was, freezing is my best guess. It was uncomfortable walking in and out because it is all rocky. If it were dirt or sand I’d have stayed longer. What was neat about it was that once we got out of the water we were warm (because the air was so much warmer than the water). We didn’t need to put our winter coats and scarves back on!
Those were the top highlights. Among other notable things we adventured include The Hermitage forest/waterfall/hiking, the Dalwhinnie distillery, Inverness field of bunnies, Culloden battlefield, Clava Cairns (5000 year old burial site/tombs/standing stones from the Bronze age), Loch Maree, Loch Torden, Loch Garonne, Eilean Donan castle, Dunvegan castle, Maddy Faine waterfall by Storr Loch, Fairy Glen, the white sands of Morr, Ben Nevis, Glen Coe, Ceilidh (pronounced like Kaylee) dancing/bar, Glen and Loch Lonan, St. Collen’s Kirk, Kilchurn castle, Rob Roye country, Argyle National Park, Stirling Castle, the William Wallace monument, and of course tons of sheep and hairy coos!
Justin and I spent Valentine’s and President’s Day weekend in Vienna, Austria and Bratislava, Slovakia. Our first day was spent in Bratislava. It reminded me of a very mini version of Prague, though without anything particularly spectacular. The old town is quaint with red roofs. There is a castle where at the top you have a nice view of old town and the river Danube. We stayed the night at a botel right next to the castle and old town, overlooking Bratislava’s famous UFO building on a bridge. The botel was a boat/hotel, if you didn’t pick up on that. It was a little crappy, but very convenient. I can see that Bratislava is a good party town during the summer, but during winter, it is quite empty and lackluster…which was both good and bad. We found a small bar/restaurant with some neat decorations (if you see a small guy in a cage in the pictures that’s where that was). There were a lot of random statues all over the city which was a nice surprise. And there were a lot of people walking their dogs.
Our last half of the long weekend was spent in Vienna. Go from a mildly drab but quaint Bratislava to a city full of nothing but luxurious palace style buildings as far as the eye can see-Vienna was quite the change. Vienna was really fancy and very nice to walk through. There was a magnificent cathedral in the heart of town and a number of museums, two of which we ventured. The Museum of Art History was pretty great. There was a whole room dedicated to Bruegel paintings. (While in Europe I have given myself a bit of a challenge to visit every Bruegel painting, I am a few museums shy, but this was one more to check off the list.) There was an awesome Medusa’s head painting by Peter Paul Rubens, quite a lot of nice Dürer’s, Gustav Klimt’s, and even a couple mummified crocodiles in the Egypt section. Didn’t think about it until later, but we visited a lot of places Hitler did as well…go history!
Overall a great weekend away. Happy Valentine’s Day…Happy President’s Day!
Justin and I flew to Kansas for our Christmas break. Christmas is way more fun with family, without them it is just another day. Oh how glorious the colder weather and snow was! And reasonably priced delicious food! We are looking forward to moving back to the USA in a few months. We better get some visitors this time. In case you are unaware, our next duty station is Ft. Meade, Maryland.
Our Norway vacation started in Amsterdam/Haarlem, Netherlands. We spent the weekend there and went to the port to start our cruise…which was moved to Rotterdam. Once we made it to Rotterdam and on the ship we set sail for Hamburg. We spent the day walking around there. We found a Russian submarine turned museum that we entered. Justin gave me all kinds of fun submarine/nautical facts as we were inside.
Our cruise ship’s Norwegian itinerary is why we joined the cruise. It covered a lot of distance and went to some places we would not be able to get to otherwise. Since we had some distance to cover we were more or less on land one day, one the ship for the next, back and forth. Our ship days were us being lazy and spending lots of quality time in one of the ships many bars…the Tiger bar. It only occasionally got boring being at sea, but Justin loved not having anything to do, as he is normally super busy with work. Norway this time of the year is light 24/7. Some of the pictures you will see were taken around midnight, but I bet you’ll never know which ones! Mwuahahaha! We saw tons of islands and fjords and lots of scenic nature niftiness.
Our first port stop was Bergen, neat town. We spent some time wandering the pier area and seeing what all the little shops had to offer. We made a trip just south of the city to Fantoft Stave Church (Stavkirke). It is an old Norwegian church that combined old Norse religion feel with the newer Christianity. If you are a black metal fan, it was one of the churches burnt down by Burzum’s Varg Vickernes…and rebuilt or else we would not have been able to go to it.
Crossed the Arctic Circle at 66°33’44”!
The port of Tromsø we didn’t have anything we really wanted to do, so we just wandered about and peeped into the windows of Macks brewery…the northernmost brewery in the world. We went to an art museum, really nice paintings of the landscape, polar bears, ships, etc.
Moving closer to the Svalbard archipelago…in Longyearbyen! We did some Christmas shopping for you all…get excited. This town is really tiny and is a seasonal place. Since it is summer time it is open…still need hats and gloves. It was chilly. There are about 3 stores and 2 places to eat, a grocery store, and a post office. We went biking for about 4 hours/22 mile which took us out of the town for some nature seeing. Saw our first glacier and husky farm!
We cruised through the Magdalenefjord, which was perdy. Granite mountain chains permanently covered by snow and glaciers that reach the sea. It was a whale hunting operational base between the 18th and 20th centuries. 79° North…and about 50° F.
In Honningsvåg we went on another approximately 4 hour/22 mile bike journey…which we were really glad we reserved bikes from the ship because the town was tiny and mostly closed down. We saw about 10 wild reindeer here and there. The first reindeer we saw was just hanging out in someones back yard. The rest were in small groups munching on some grass. We stopped at a bar towards the end of our journey and had some coffee and Norwegian cake, which turned out to be cinnamon buns. At this bar there were a handful of reindeer watching us from the hill above.
Last Norwegian port before we ended again in Amsterdam…Geiranger! Probably the most scenic place as it is tucked away a the end of a fjord…the Geirangerfjord. After disembarking from the ship we walked around and found a kayaking hut…which interestingly enough, the guys working it were from Boston. We kayaked for an hour and wandered the town afterwords. There were tons of waterfalls in this fjord we saw as we were entering and leaving the fjord. Too many to count.
Made it back to Amsterdam/Haarlem and finally Naples. The airline lost one of our pieces of luggage and found someone else’s tagged as our missing luggage…a lost luggage reference number mishap, so not sure if we will be getting our bag back. One of your Christmas presents was in there as well as a library book, and tons of clothing. The worst part is to fit our stuff in our two bags (for some reason, don’t ask me why) 4 pairs of our shoes were split between the bags…so we have one shoe from four different pairs…what were we thinking?! I really hope we get them back…
I went all over the Balkans the past couple of weeks…aka the former Yugoslavia plus Greece and Turkey. I bused around via an Australian company called Busabout. The bus takes you from city to city, lets you wander for a day or two, pick you up again and move on.
I traveled to Turkey (Istanbul, Gallipoli, and Eceabat), moved into Greece (Kavala, Meteora, Thessaloniki, Athens, and Parga), Albania (Gjirokastra and Tirana), Montenegro (Budva and Kotor), Croatia (Dubrovnik and Split), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Mostar and Sarajevo), Serbia (Bosnia and Nis), and Bulgaria (Sofia and Plovdiv). This sounds like a lot of countries and cities…and it is…but they are all pretty tiny and neighbors of each other.
There was so much history in the area from practically the beginning of time that my brain kind of turned to mush once I hit Serbia. I won’t go into too much history or this post will never end, so you can look it up yourselves. I will give you bits of information I found particularly interesting in each place.
Turkey is full of mosques! Duh, right? They really are everywhere, wherever you look! Baklava…mmmmmm. I learned I hate Turkish delight, sad, because every desert shop was filled with nothing but the stuff.
Greece, awesome…so much to see and do. It’s funny how they were at the top of the world back in the hay day. I think they figured they’d done the best stuff for the western world and decide not to progress any more (for the past few thousand years)…you still cannot flush toilet paper in the toilet or drink the water. Sadly Athens is starting to look a lot like Naples with all the graffiti and crumbling and unfinished properties…due to the tanked economy. Did you know in Greece if you don’t finish building your house you don’t have to pay property taxes? So many people finish their house then leave one part looking unfinished so they can claim they are not done.
Albania, I think my favorite country on the trip. They just got rid of communism about 5 years ago, so it is like a different world there. If a building is unfinished they will hang or pretend to be killing a puppet or stuffed animal from the construction, so evil spirits won’t enter the place. There are bomb shelters everywhere…I visited one and there was a squatter living there, lol. Albania is dirt cheap! People only started driving in the country a few years ago as well…cars used to be reserved for only the top government officials, it was buses for everyone else. I climbed a former communist leaders mausoleum (which Albanians have desecrated with graffiti and smashed the windows). You can crab walk up the side to the top to get stunning views of the city, and slide back down like it’s a playground. They build a tower a few years ago that was supposed to be the new highlight of Albanian architecture and a feature of the city (also in the very heart of the city)…once they had built the entire structure’s framework they realized it was leaning so they gave up and left it…the leaning tower of Tirana! Also due to mass migrations out of Albania and some genocide here and there Albania needed to boost their population. 20 years ago the average amount of kids per woman was 11. Nowadays it is 7.
Montenegro, party party party! I was at a club on the 4th of July and they happened to shoot off fireworks…probably not for me, but just because they know how to have a good time. =). I swam, boated, visited the fortress, and everything in between.
Croatia…hmm what to say…Dubrovnik was nice, walked along the wall surrounding the old city. Stunning views galore!
Bosnia and Herzegovina was neat. Had some amazing ice cream in Mostar as I wandered about. I visited the spot in Sarajevo where WW1 started with the death of Franz Ferdinand. Sarajevo was pretty interesting in general. Their last war during 1992-96 left people in the city unable to go out at night or risk getting shot by snipers. The people were unable to collect dead bodies to have funerals (or they whole funeral would get bombed and therefore have lots more people dead), so they would bury people as sneakily as possible in any field or park. So all of the cities parks and even just grassy corners of streets are filled with tombstones nowadays…and they are everywhere! You can still see bomb blasts and gun shot marks all over the buildings in Sarajevo.
Serbia was kind of boring. There was a nice park with great views of Belgrade across the river though. Dinner was good.
Bulgaria was great in Plovdiv. Lots of neat Ottoman architecture and windy little get lost-in streets. Sofia was kind of bland. There was a protest going on in Sofia in the main center. They were protesting their dislike for being a member of the EU…as their economy is not as good as it used to be before they joined.
Enjoy the photos and videos!
Justin and I got some cheap plane tickets to Geneva…so that’s where we decided to go for the long weekend. We split up our weekend between Geneva, Switzerland and Chamonix, France.
Chamonix was a scenic little ski town with access to Mt. Blanc. Mt. Blanc is the tallest mountain in France. We were planning on going to the top, but sadly it had been rainy all week and it was too cloudy to see anything. Regardless, Chamonix was still the highlight of our weekend. We could see the frost line in the trees on the mountains all around us, that was pretty cool. We had a really good lunch which included escargot, rabbit, steak, and salmon. Neither of us had had escargot before and it was really really really really good…really. While we were eating it started to snow. So living in Naples where it flurries only once every 20 years makes you really want some good ol’ winter weather, so snow was a nice surprise. It was off season so we were able to stay in a nice resort hotel. We attempted the sauna…I did not like it so we left after a minute. Plus there were two French men in tiny bikini swim suits…so…awkward much? We hot-tubbed and swam in their outdoor heated pool.
Then we made our way back to Geneva to spend out the rest of our weekend. We arrived on Sunday afternoon, so there wasn’t much open. We walked around for a few hours and then took it easy for a bit, then walked around a bit more. Geneva is known for it’s fountain Jet d’Eau in Lake Geneva (shoots up 460 feet high). I think old town Geneva was nice, scenic and neat architecture. We visited CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN is an international organization whose purpose is to operate the world’s largest particle physics laboratory). Lastly, the Geneva airport had amazing sandwiches.