Saturday, November 22, 2014

A little cottage by the sea... and some sad history

 
After a couple of days in Dublin, we headed north. I had booked a "cottage by the sea" I had found on the internet. It looked to be only a couple hours drive at most. Of course, everything takes longer than you think as the roads always go right through every small town. And of course you have to stop for drink and bathroom breaks. But there's always intriguing sights on the way. These are just two of a "herd" of seven (!) kittens we spotted while parking our car.

My daughter had turn-by-turn directions to the cottage on her ipad, but despite that it took us almost an hour to find it, even when we got to Newcastle, where it was located. We drove by the cottage about a dozen times, not realizing that what looked like a pathway up the hillside was supposed to be a road. We finally asked at the visitor center, where the woman showed us on a map exactly where the cottage was located. Even then, we drove by it twice more. Finally, we figured out where we needed to go. The cottage owner, Margaret, (bless her heart) had waited for us, even though we were almost two hours late and she had to drive back to Armagh that night.
Our destination was more than worth the trouble. The Slieve Donan cottage is charming and beautiful. Plus, it had the best internet service of anywhere on our trip, over 60 satellite TV channels and a fully equipped kitchen with a washer and dryer. Pure heaven for travelers. 

Besides it's other perfections, the setting was magical. Not only the lovely gardens, including the back one I could see from my upstairs bedroom, but also the postcard-perfect harbor view from the front. That night, I walked the short ways down to the sea wall and stared in awe at a radiant full moon lighting up the Irish sea. 

 

But there always seems to be a dark side to even the most enchanting aspects of Ireland. The address for the cottage is "Widows Row" for a rather chilling reason. In 1846, boats from Newcastle and another nearby fishing village were caught in a gale. Seventy-six seaman perished, 48 from Newcastle. Those men left behind seven widows and 118 children (those Irish were fertile!) and so the town got together and built them a row of cottages, including Slieve Donard cottage.  
  

Friday, November 14, 2014

"There was music in the cafes at night..."

 "... and revolution in the air." --Bob Dylan 
 
Up to now, I've documented our journey chronologically. But when we got to Glasglow, we didn't visit tourist sites, but mostly walked around and absorbed the atmosphere. While Edinburgh seemed very traditional and old, Glasglow felt young, edgy and full of energy.
The vote regarding whether Scotland should be independent had taken place only a week or so before, and my son, who teaches 4th grade, asked me if I could send him pictures of anything related to the vote so he could discuss it with his class in a lesson on real-life politics. We saw nothing regarding the vote in Edinburgh, but on the way through the West Highlands, we saw a tiny "yes" sign by the side of the road outside a small village. In Glasglow there was more evidence of it, as I spotted several signs in business windows, including this one at a traditional Irish pub.
 One of the delights of both Glasgow and Dublin was the street musicians. They set up on the streets, playing for the pounds or euros people toss in their instrument cases. Some of them are amazingly good. This two-piece band sounded like a full-on punk rock band. 
In Dublin in the Temple Bar district we saw similarly talented individuals and bands, including this group that was impressive enough to draw this large crowd.

 Most of the street musicians play contemporary music, everything from current hits to classic rock. But this young duo in Dublin entertained shoppers with the traditional bodhran and pipes. I wondered a bit whether their parents were unemployed and what they earned was perhaps an important source of income for their family. Among the well-dressed, prosperous looking crowds in the Dublin city centre, you also encounter panhandlers and homeless people who are literally sleeping on the streets. Ireland is still struggling economically.   
Dublin had its own political excitement as during our second weekend stop there, over 30,000 protesters demonstrated in the streets over a new charge for water. For the formal protest march, the police blocked off the streets, which meant our taxi driver couldn't through and had to drop us off about eight blocks from our hotel. While it was inconvenient (and a real workout) to drag our suitcases through the crowd all that way, the excitement of being in the middle of "history in the making" more than made up for it.
 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Glen Shiel and Magical Mountains

On the way to the Isle of Skye, if you go by land, you pass through spectacular mountain scenery to reach the Kyle of Lochalsh, which means the strait of the foaming loch. After passing through the strait, you reach a small projection of land where a bridge connects the mainland to the island. On the way to Skye, I was so focused on getting there that I couldn't appreciate the amazing beauty of the landscape around me.  Although I took a couple of pictures when we stopped for a bathroom break.

But on the way back, I simply had to stop and "be a tourist" as my daughter refers to it. It was a cloudy overcast day, but in some ways the soft light seemed to bring out the colors and make the mountain landscape seem even more magical.     
I didn't mention it, but on this route to Skye, the road passes right by the famous castle, Eilean Donan. Since I had already stopped for photo ops twice, my daughter didn't want me to pull over and I figured most people had already seen pictures of this beautiful attraction. But now I regret not taking my own. I did stop to take pictures later of a tiny "castle" that is my new dream home.
 An aside:  Perhaps it's because she grew up in the Rocky Mountain area and finds mountain vistas rather ho-hum, but the only time my daughter got excited about the scenery on our trip was when we were on the coast. She has a strong affinity for the sea, which I jokingly attribute to her "Viking blood". The hero in my first Viking book, Storm Maiden, is based on her father. The book opens with a poem I wrote that begins: "You say you're Irish/But I look into your eyes, blue as the North Sea/And know you're an immigrant like all the rest." Although my husband's reddish hair (strawberry blond when I met him and then turning to auburn) and fair skin are typically Irish, his fine, narrow face and features and pale blue eyes seem very Norse to me.
My daughter also loves cities, and part of the reason for our quick trip (and lack of pictures as we drove through the beautiful Glen Coe area) was that we were on our way to Glasgow, where she hoped to enjoy the pleasures of the city.
To be continued...
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Fairy Glen and Skye, magical Skye

So many people told me that the Isle of Skye was a must-see in Scotland. And I was totally down with it because I could drive there. I would love to visit all the other isles, but ferries freak me out a bit, not only because I get seasick, but also the idea of driving a car onto one worries me. I can drive on the "wrong" side of the road and am finally getting good at roundabouts, but don't ask me to back up or squeeze into a small parking space.
I had three things I hoped to see on the Isle of Skye. But by the time we got to our hotel (it's a long drive from the highlands), I only had an hour before it got dark. So I chose the Fairy Glen as the my "must see" and drove like crazy to the other end of the island to Uig, an amazing little village surrounded by spectacular scenery.
Outside of Uig I found, on the third try, the tiny road my internet directions told me to take. I followed it, hoping I wouldn't meet another car (it was barely wide enough for my tiny vehicle). I'd almost given up when I saw in the distance another car that looked like it might belong to a fellow tourist. I drove a little further and found the fantastical place known as Fairy Glen.
It gets its name from the whimsical land formations and overall enchanted vibe. I never seen any place quite like it, in all my explorations in the British Isles. All I can do is show pictures.
 
 
 
By the time I took the pictures and absorbed a bit of the enchantment, it was nearly sunset and I knew my daughter was waiting for me to go to dinner back at the hotel. So, I got back in my car and drove back on the winding, mountainous road as fast as I dare, given the errant sheep I knew might be lurking around the hairpin curves. Not to mention the distraction of the incredible visions of sky and sea and mountains, cliffs and rolling hills. For such a small island, the variety of landscapes Skye offers is amazing.  We barely spent fifteen hours there, which was not nearly enough time to begin to absorb the magical beauty of the place.
In the morning, I managed (despite the cold, raw wind) to get a couple more pictures of the coastline by the hotel. 
 And then it was goodbye to Skye... at least for this trip.
 
 
 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Owls and the Pussycat

 
                                    
From Stirling Castle, we drove north to the Cairngorm Mountains. Cairngorm means green or blue hill. But in fact, at least this time of year, these "hills" appeared more pink than blue or green. I think the color comes from the dried bracken (a large coarse fern) that grows everywhere. You can see it more clearly in the picture below. 
                                   

We could hardly have picked a more beautiful time to visit the highlands, with the trees just beginning to turn and the landscape a rich tapestry of green and gold and rust.   
                                                                       
I wish I'd taken more pictures, but I was "on a mission" and it was a long drive to our destination, the Highland Wildlife Park, where I hoped to see one of the most elusive and threatened creatures in the British Isles (if not Europe), the Scottish wildcat.
                                    

 Since they think there are less than 800 left the wild, I knew this zoo park would be my only opportunity to glimpse this rare creature. And glimpse is about all we could do, as the two cats we saw moved almost constantly, pacing rapidly through the maze of branches and "catwalks" in their pen.
They look much like domestic cats (or "moggies" as the British refer to them), except for their unique markings, that are somehow more wild looking than the typical tabby stripes. 
                                     
 These markings are especially distinctive on their faces. The other thing that distinguishes them from domestic cats is their gorgeous, plush tails.

Besides the wildcat, we saw all sorts of wonderful creatures, like these two owls.
 
 
 This is great gray owl. They are truly "great", as in huge. This a close-up from about 20 feet.
                                        
 European wolves. They look bigger than American wolves.
                                    
                                                            A lynx family. This is dad.
 A wolverine. They are extinct in Europe, although there are hopes of reintroducing them, and they are rare in the U.S. They move with the strangest loping gait. This one didn't seem fierce at all, but I've heard that they are formidable fighters and will even take on a grizzly bear if there's food
involved.
 The always adorable red panda.
                                     
                                                       The very odd-looking Pallas cat.
And two polar bears that their keeper called for their feeding by yelling, "Here lads! Here lads!" (Love it!)
The Park was only indeed our only chance to see the fauna of Scotland, at least alive. While driving we saw a great deal of roadkill, including two small deer (sad) and literally dozens of birds, many of them pheasants. We found out why when we spotted a pheasant in the middle of the road. We pulled up right next to it, and it didn't move. Unlike the game birds I've seen along the roads in the U.S., the pheasants of Scotland have apparently been bred for hunting for so long that they've had the common sense (Get out of the road, stupid bird!) bred right out of them!
A car was coming behind me, or I would have taken a picture of the pheasant. But he looked much like this.
 BTW, wouldn't "Scottish Roadkill" be a great name for a rock band! We saw some amazing bands on the streets of Glasgow and Dublin. But that comes later. Our next stop after the Cairgorms was the Isle of Skye. Coming soon.