Scotland – August 2012 – Part 2

Wednesday, 1 August 2012:
We didn’t really have any plans again, so we set out to see what we could get to by bus around Inverness.  We were told that the Glen Ord distillery was a short bus ride away, so we decided to do that.  Visiting distilleries is always fun (especially the sample at the end) and this one happened to produce a single malt that was not available in the US, so that was a real treat.  From there, we took the bus a few stops back to the little town of Beauly where we had lunch and explored the old Beauly Priory.  The priory is another ruin, so even though it was cold and rainy (again), I was still pretty happy to be there with the camera.  We made it back to our hotel for a quick change, then it was off for a dinner, and a pint or two at our favorite pub in Inverness.


Thursday, 2 August 2012:
We were up to catch a 7:30 bus from the Inverness bus station to go all the way up to Orkney.  At the time, it seemed like a good way to get there without spending more than just the day there (bringing along luggage, etc).  We probably should’ve made the trip to Orkney for a day or two, but it ended up being a nice primer, should we ever get the chance to go again and spend more time.  The bus ride involved a tour guide, who did a great job explaining the sites as we went along.  Finally we made it to a very foggy John O’Groats and hopped the ferry up to Orkney where we met a smaller bus with a driver/guide.  We stopped first at Kirkwall, grabbed some sandwiches for the bus, and saw St. Magnus Cathedral.  Then it was off to Skara Brae, a site I had wanted to see since I was a child and our school was visited by the author of a book about Skara Brae.  Then it was off to the Ring of Brodgar, a quick stop at the Italian chapel, and then back to the ferry at 5pm.  We made it back to Inverness around 8pm where we got dinner and then collapsed back at our hotel.  The whole day was a whirlwind adventure, with lots of time spent on the bus, but both fantastic tour guides totally made up for the time spent sitting around.  We got a ton of information that we might not have gotten had we hopped a quick flight up and stayed in Orkney a few days.


Friday, 3 August 2012:
After much deliberation, we decided to rent a car for the day.  We debated over it a lot – Doug was pretty worried about driving on, “the wrong side of the road,” whereas I was pretty confident that it wouldn’t be too difficult.  The roads aren’t nearly as congested as ours, they don’t drive as fast, and I had a nervous co-pilot to help keep me in line.  We picked up the car (a zippy little diesel, manual transmission Ford Fiesta) and made our first stop at the Black Isle Brewery.  Really fascinating operation – all organic, grown on the property, brewed on site, complete with a sweet brewery dog.  Then we were off, grabbed some food at a grocery store and found a nice spot in Elgin to have lunch.  Then, with our Diageo whisky passports in hand, we made a stop at the Cardhu Distillery where we were given a sample of two of their whiskys, but skipped the tour.  Our last stop was at Cragganmore where we took the last tour of the day.  None of the distilleries allow photos anywhere inside, but we did get samples!  We had dinner, watched a beautiful sunset, and had another pint at Hootananny, and then back to the hotel.  I wish we had decided on the car earlier since we would’ve had time to see more, but it was still an incredibly fun day.


Saturday, 4 August 2012:
We had signed up for an all day tour of the Isle of Skye, complete with an incredible guide/driver from the area.  We had originally planned on having two other people with us who were unable to make the trip last minute, so it was a little pricey, but for what we got (the information, being driven around and not getting lost, the knowledge, special little stop offs that aren’t on the maps), it was WELL worth it!  Our first big stop was at Eilean Donan castle, the famous castle that’s splashed all over travel advertisements for Scotland.  Gorgeous!  Husband wore his kilt for the day, so I managed to prod him to take a really great photo in front of the castle.  From there we were off to Skye.  We made some lovely, picturesque stops along the way including a quick stop to have a drink of fresh, peaty water coming off the hills before lunch.  From there we grabbed some ice cream and head off to see more sights which included Kilt Rock (and a hilarious warning sign).  The whole trip was amazing and I can’t get over how absolutely beautiful Scotland is.  We just have nothing at all like it at home.  We got back to our hotel around 7pm, and then were off to our dinner reservation at Hootananny.  We timed it so that we were able to have a table and see Tweed when they came on stage that night.  They’re a fantastic local band we had seen once before and couldn’t wait to see again.  They didn’t disappoint!  It was a great night.


Sunday, 5 August 2012:
We slept in a good bit after being out a little late the night prior.  We decided to take it easy and take a walk down to Floral Hall, the local botanical garden.  On the way there, we heard this strange sound, and as we turned around to see what it was, we saw a Border Collie bolting at top speed, dragging a sign behind him.  At one point, I’m sure the sign was upright (it was weighted, but clearly not enough) in front of a coffee shop, but something spooked the poor dog and he took off running.  He was coming straight for us, so as he got closer, husband and I lined up to block the path.  I stuck my foot in the middle of the sign which was a big metal frame with a swinging sign in the middle, coming out with a REALLY badly bruised ankle, which stopped the dog.  Moments later, a woman comes running around the corner yelling, “MY DOG!  MY DOG!  STOP HIM!”  Good thing we already had!  She came over, explained that he was a new rescue and had been badly treated on a farm before joining their family and was still easily spooked.  She thanked us over and over.  By this time, the coffee shop owner had come along to collect her sign while we snorgled the dog, applying liberal amounts of love.  Then, we were on our way to Floral Hall which was really beautiful.  The weather, unfortunately, was not – a persistent drizzle and chill – so the outside areas weren’t quite as nice as we’d have liked, but it was pretty nonetheless, and much bigger than it looks from the outside.  We walked back along the canal, looking for blackberries, but it was a touch too early in the season.  We went to lunch and took our time, and did a little shopping around Inverness.  Then it was back to the hotel for more of the Olympics while we watched my ankle turn even funnier colors.


Monday, 6 August 2012:
Hopped a train around 11am for Aberdeen.  Arrived at Aberdeen around 1pm.  Husband had a class to take which was our excuse for taking an extended vacation, so now it was time for him to get going on the class.  We did lunch at our local favorite, and were back to the hotel somewhat early for dinner and more olympics coverage.
Tuesday, 7 August 2012:
My ankle was still swollen and achy (not broken, just banged up) from the encounter with the dog in Inverness, so I took it easy and did some shopping.  Husband had his class, so I was on my own for the day.  We met up for dinner back at the hotel and got to bed early again since husband had to be up early again for class.
Wednesday, 8 August 2012:
I decided to head out to the beach with my camera since it was a nicer day and I was feeling up to a good walk.  It was still a little overcast, but the beach was empty and chilly which suited me just fine.  I wandered around, finding that a bunch of bright purple jellyfish had washed up on the beach along with a few red/orange ones as well.  The tide was out, so there was a LOT of beach to cover.  I zig zagged back and forth, watching snails inch along the rocks, wee little fish trapped in tide pools, and took great big breaths of fresh air.  I had finished my project for the Ravellenic Games, so I brought that along and grabbed some pictures of it too, since I had a nice background.  Met the husband back at the hotel for dinner.

Color Affection

Thursday, 9 August 2012:
Husband passed his class earlier than expected, so we were off for a day in Stonehaven, a really lovely little town I enjoy visiting when we’re in Scotland.  We had a great lunch and some pints, and hten we were off to Dunnottar Castle.  The regular route up, along the coast, was closed for construction which was a shame, because it’s a really beautiful walk, so we ended up taking the shorter, detour route.  Then it was back down to Stonehaven and the railway station, and eventually Aberdeen.  We had dinner at Slain’s Castle which is this really neat pub inside an old cathedral.  It’s all decorated in a style Dracula himself would approve of – maybe a little goofy, but the theme works, and it’s definitely unique.
Friday, 10 August 2012:
We were up EARLY to be at the airport by 5am.  From there we hopped through London.  On the way home, our flight was diverted to Bangor, Maine since weather, severe thunderstorms, has closed the Newark Airport.  We sat there for I think two hours until the storms finally passed.  A bunch of other planes had landed as well, so we weren’t alone.  However, since it was an international flight, we couldn’t leave the plane, so it made for a boring situation, just sitting there waiting for the go-ahead to take off and then land again at home.


All in all, the trip was wonderful.  If I could’ve changed anything, it would’ve been to switch days off Inverness and over to Edinburgh or take a few of the Inverness days off to Orkney.  The little taste of Orkney did give us a hunger for more though, so hopefully on another trip, we’ll schedule in some more time!  The rest of the photos exist over here on Flickr.

Scotland – August 2012 – Part 1

This is going to be another VERY belated post about travel we did last year.  Seriously, I need to get better about putting updates on the blog in a more timely manner.  I’m splitting this up into two parts since it’s going to be WAY too long otherwise.  Here’s Part 1, Part 2 to follow!

For photos of the trip, see the complete gallery on Flickr, here.

Thursday-Friday, 26-27 July 2012:
Left Newark airport late in the evening on the 26th and arrived at Aberdeen, Scotland (via Heathrow) on July 27th.  Got a cab to the hotel which was in downtown Aberdeen with both my big travel backpack and husband’s.  Originally, husband was supposed to meet me in Aberdeen and take the train down to Edinburgh, but his schedule was changed last minute and we decided to meet in Edinburgh since he wasn’t going to make Aberdeen on time.  At that point, it was too late to change any of the reservations, so I just went ahead with the plan as it was.  The only downside was having to tote around his luggage and mine (two enormous backpacker type backpacks).  Had dinner and some ale at Old Blackfriar’s and went back to the hotel early to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.  I had decided to participate in the Ravelympics Ravellenic Games, so I picked up my yarn and needles and cast on, somewhat tickled to be casting on while watching the opening ceremonies in the local time zone.
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Saturday, 28 July 2012:
Got up and walked the short walk to the railway station with both bags, and made it there for a 11am train.  Arrived in Edinburgh around 1pm where husband was already waiting for me.  He’d even checked into the hotel already!  We had lunch and wandered around Edinburgh for a while.  Husband had been there years ago in college, so some of it was familiar for him.  Edinburgh was all decked out for the Olympics with a big olympic rings display setup on the hill, visibile for quite some distance.  We signed up for a tasting at the Scotch Whisky Experience (the Platinum Tour), so around 6pm, we headed over there.  It was totally a touristy thing to do, but it ended up being very educational, and a fun way to start our trip.  The staff was very knowledgeable and we got to see the world’s largest whisky collection.  It was REALLY impressive to see all the bottles lined up like that on lighted shelving, dates ranging from the late 1800s up through the present.  The guide explained that most of the stuff wasn’t fit to drink anymore since the seals had come undone and it had been evaporating over time, but it’s still worth a lot.  We went on to have dinner and some ales and then it was off to bed, but not until we watched a little more of the Olympic coverage.


Sunday, 29 July 2012:
Got up and had breakfast and then it was off to tour Edinburgh Castle.  On the way up to the castle, we stopped in the gift shop where we sampled Bruadar whisky which was AMAZING.  A bottle may or may not have followed us home.  The castle was more than just a castle – it’s a whole complex of chaples, war memorials, prisons, residence for the guards, among many other things.  We were done with the castle, having seen the crown jewels and all, around noon, and headed off for lunch.  Then, it was off to The Real Mary King’s Close, a small alleyway that had been built on top of over the years and forgotten about.  The tour was FASCINATING – the way people lived, how tight and cramped the conditions were, but that they made do with what they had.  The close and the homes off the close, now underground, had largely been left as they were for hundreds of years.  Photos weren’t allowed since the Royal Exchange is above the close (security and all), but it was well worth the visit.  After that, we wandered around and had some ales, took a ghost tour of Edinburgh, and had more ales and dinner before going back to the hotel.


Monday, 30 July 2012:
We decided to head out to Incholm Island for the day since the weather was nice, and the trip involved a boat ride (for my mariner husband).  It was a gorgeous day for it, and we spent a good while wandering around the island – through the old abbey where we encountered a man who broke into song, inspired by the acoustics of a little chapel room.  This is the kind of place I love – a partially ruined old stone building with LOTS of character, tons of fun to photograph.  The island also had remnants of battlements from WWI and WWII.  Wee baby seagulls were almost done fledging, so the adults were still on alert.  Doug happened to step just a little too close to the edge of the path where a fledgeling was hiding on the ground and he got dive bombed by an adult gull.  Hilarious.  He kept ducking down the whole walk back, thinking he’d be attacked again.  Sometimes it pays to be the short one since they didn’t bother me at all!  The boat took us back down the Firth of Forth, underneath the bridges, including the Forth Bridge which only carries rail traffic and was opened in 1890!  On the trip back, we also saw a few seals in the water and basking on buoys as it got colder and started to rain.  When we got back, we made our way to pre-dinner pints, then to dinner where we had things like Haggis nachos, including their famous, fresh caught haggis, and sat with a couple from Wales, a family from Belgium, and another group from Scotland.  Had a blast and spent a lot of time there, enjoying the random company and food.  Really lovely way to end our stay in Edinburgh, and I wish we could’ve had a few more days there.



Tuesday, 31 July 2012:
We woke up, had breakfast, and then it was off to the train station for a train to Inverness.  We arrived at Inverness and made it to our hotel by 2:30.  We had no real plans for the day, so we took a relaxed walk around Inverness, had an early dinner, and went back to the hotel for an early bedtime (and some more of the Olympics).

Valentine’s Day

I don’t post a bunch about daily life, but I figured this was worth it.  Husband is out on the ship for Valentine’s day, but he has access to the internet, so boxes tend to arrive at the house for holidays.  Our two dogs were gifted cupcakes from the Healthy Hound Bakery which they DEVOURED in no time flat.  I usually split one of the big cupcakes in a half for an evening treat.



For me, there was a box of fancy Swiss truffles from Teuscher which I promptly paired with a yummy whisky aged in sherry barrels.  The whisky is a special cask strength edition from Glenallachie (18 years, 57.1%) that we picked up in Scotland on our first trip there.  The label inside the truffle box tells me that I have to eat them within ten days.  Somehow, I don’t think this will be a problem.

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More Letters from Italy

While on a recent trip home to celebrate the holidays (a belated celebration since my husband wasn’t home on December 25th), my mom found another stack of letters written in Italian to Nellie Gasparri, my first cousin, once removed. The way mom explained it, when Nellie died in 2007, the folks cleaning out her house found these letters, didn’t know what to do with them, and handed them off to my mom for safekeeping.  This is just one of the letters that I managed to translate.  My knowledge of Italian (where I was fluent about 10 years ago) has degenerated to about the level of a 5 year old, but I can manage a decent translation with the help of Google Translate and a dictionary.  The hardest part is reading the handwriting, misspellings and all, and working through the local phrases, grammar, etc that can vary WIDELY from town to town.  Fortunately, this is pretty close to the area where I studied abroad, so that makes it easier.

I added punctuation and paragraph spacing to make the letter easier to read in the translated version.  Interesting to note, Silvio Gasparri, the man to whom the letter is written, died 18 July 1944, two years before the letter was written.  Nellie, his daughter, had corresponded with one of Silvio’s sisters in Italy a number of times, but the earliest letter we have in that set is from 16 February 1947.  I suppose it’s possible that two years went by without any notification to family in Italy about Silvio’s death.  The overall tone of the letter is pretty sad – a mother wishing for news from her son, hoping that everything is okay, but wondering if something bad happened.

Click any image to open up a larger version.

Montebuono, November 3, 1946.

Dearest son,

It’s been a long time, even years, that I waited for news, but I always waited in vain.  I thought something has happened to you.  Until now I thought that maybe one day I would have had your news as we rejoin hands.  There is always news from other Italians in America, but I have always waited in vain.  Think, my son, on the great pain I suffer.  Think of my age that I’m 81 years old and have no hope of seeing you again before I die.  It could be a consolation to have news from you, comforting for me and for all.

I have written you twice after the end of the great holocaust of the war but I have had no response.  I am forced to make a search for you through the American President.

The situation in Italy is bad.  Life is very expensive such that if you don’t live anymore, you pay a lot.  Expensive and you don’t earn anything.  You believe that you need to go almost nude and drained, but who cares.  I would be happy only to hear from you.

Please write soon, my son, that you would lift a great sadness from my heart.  I hope that this letter reaches you and finds you and your family in good health.  I won’t even say that I’m well because age prevents it but it will make do.  Pietro and your family are well. I won’t say anything more for the moment.  I will write you more at length another time.  I give you a hug and a kiss.  You and my grandchildren should be great.

Now I sign, your affectionate mother,

Rosa Lombardi.



Oktoberfest 2012 – part 2

Wednesday, 26 September 2012
The trip on the night train was a little rough.  Doug and I were both coming down with some sort of illness (congestion & low grade fever) and neither of us really slept.  We got into Florence around 6am and found the bus station to catch the bus to Siena.  In my sickie fog, I had to ask a local (in Italian) where the station was because I couldn’t quite remember.  We found it, caught the bus without a problem, and made it to Siena around 7:30 or so.  It was still REALLY early, so we figured we’d find the hotel and leave our luggage until it was official check in time.  Well, between when I booked and when we arrived, the hotel had changed addresses, and we had no idea.  We stood outside, feverish and bewildered, until someone passing by saw us with our backpacks (and thank goodness I still remember enough Italian) and communicated that the hotel had moved, it was up the street.  It was still MUCH too early anyway, so we took up a spot in the Piazza del Campo and alternated taking naps on the sun-warmed bricks.  After we finally checked into the hotel, we found a pharmacy and some cold meds and then went back for a long nap since we were both pretty well beat.  It ended up being a very off day, but we needed the rest pretty badly.  We did manage to get up for a walk and dinner later in the evening and then it was back to the hotel for sleep.
Siena Panorama


Thursday, 27 September 2012
We had booked a tour with a local company, so we got up and met our guide, Gianni, at the entrance to our hotel.  It may have been much more expensive than renting a car and driving around ourselves, but not having to drive and having the knowledge that Gianni had was really worth it.  Gianni took us to some little known places, knew the best wineries to tour and sample, and taught us about the wineries and how they worked.  We visited during peak harvest season, so most of the operations were in full swing and really neat to see at that level.  We stopped at the Borgo San Felice which was once a town, but had been completely bought up by a hotel company.  The whole thing, except for one house, was a resort.  As Gianni explained, people slowly moved away, closer to Florence and Siena, and this little town out in the country was getting emptier and emptier.  It’s happened a few times, apparently, and all sorts of celebrities will rent out the town for a weekend for events.  We made two stops at wineries for wine tastings, had an incredible lunch at a small, family-run restaurant, and wandered through little Tuscan towns all day long.  We got back to Siena around 5pm, wandered around for a while, and found an amazing dinner – wild boar was ‘in season’ and pici was on the menu, so we had our fill of some very regional and typical Sienese food.


Friday, 28 September 2012
We got up early, found breakfast (espresso and a pastry) and got a taxi to the train station for the train to Rome and then out to Ostia.  There was a snafu with the hotel that I was pretty pissed about.  We booked the hotel four months in advance, but somehow they were overbooked and we got bumped to a ‘sister’ hotel that was further away and probably the most gaudy and tacky hotel I’ve ever seen.  Think Caribbean (palm trees, etc) meets Rome, meets China, with a military museum, ALL AT ONCE.  The room we were brought to was clean enough, but we couldn’t walk anywhere which was one of the benefits of the hotel I had originally booked at.  The plan for the day, since Rome was really a stop over for our flight to Brussels, was to go to Ostia Antica nearby.  It’s basically like Pompeii without the volcanic activity.  Really, IMHO, better than Pompeii, because you don’t have to go through Naples and it feels SO much bigger.  We spent the afternoon wandering through the ruins, and then went off to find dinner.  Well, the restaurants didn’t open till 7:30 or 8pm, and were pretty firm about that time, so we walked around and had a glass of wine at a cafe to waste time.  We ended up at a really wonderful little place that even gave us a complimentary cordial to finish the incredible dinner.  We got our pickup back to the hotel and prepared for the flight the following day.  By this point we were both feeling better and not hitting the cold medicine as much!
Saturday, 29 September 2012
The hotel had a shuttle service to the airport which was nearby in Fiumicino, so that was thankfully an easy transfer.  Our flight was pretty short and we arrived in Brussels in the early afternoon.  A short train ride later and we were brought practically to the front door of our hotel.  Not bad!  The hotel was a B&B based out of an artist’s studio and the retired couple who ran the whole operation were really sweet.  The rooms were SPACIOUS and each had a different theme and color scheme.  Really neat – it felt so comfortable and like home.  Breakfast consisted of bread brought up in the morning with a layout of spreads (jam, nutella, etc) and coffee/tea, all do-it-yourself in the kitchen on your floor.  I really loved this setup and how well it worked.  We had been in Brussels the year prior, so we had a pretty good handle of where we were and where we wanted to go.  First stop was the Cantillon Brewery, my personal favorite brewery, ever.  They still make beer in the old fashion, using wild yeast, and have such a limited production that we can’t get it at home, so we brought a few bottles home.  Then it was off to Moeder Lambic for a few more beers before dinner.  The beer tends to be not as strong (ABV 5% or so), so it’s easy to sit around and enjoy a beer or three and not get totally sloshed.  We walked around the area around our hotel for a while, saw the Manneken Pis and the usual crowd gathered around him, had dinner, and made it back to the hotel.


Sunday, 30 September 2012
We figured not much would be open on Sunday, so we decided to head back to the Military History Museum since we knew we missed a section of it the last time, plus, it’s free to enter!  We did sleep in a little though and took our time getting going in the morning.  On the walk there, we wandered through a flea market and oogled all the things on display, mostly antiques.  Turned out that we didn’t miss nearly as much as we thought we did at the museum, but we did get to go to the roof top and see a full panorama of Brussels which was pretty neat.  The musuem also had a special exhibit on the day-to-day items of soldiers during World War I and II which was pretty fascinating.  The things they brought with them, the things they were issued, things they made themselves.  After the museum, we went to find Wafels and Frites, as you do in Brussels.  We made a few stops for food and beer as the day went on, lingering for a while here and there, having a taste of some AMAZING Chimay 150th anniversary beer.  There was of course, Delirium, and another stop at Moeder Lambic before dinner which was Doug’s favorite, Waterzooi, and I had the Flemish Rabbit.  Brussels, I love you, and would love to spend more time seeing the rest of Belgium!


The following day, which I don’t need to make a whole entry about, was our flight home, involving a 7 hour layover in Washington, DC.  Ick.  The joys of frequent flyer miles flights.

Overall, the trip was incredible – from the crowded and crazy fun time at Oktoberfest, and then to the more relaxed trip through Italy and Brussels, it was really an awesome vacation.  If you’d like to see more photos, I’ve got the full set uploaded to flickr, here.