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Roma, Eataliano

We’ve landed in Italy, folks. Brace yourselves, there’s about to be a lot of food on this here blog for the next several posts. Screw the Hunger Games, welcome to the Eating Games.

First of all, Italy is amaze-balls. The people are effusive and expressive and stylish and beautiful. The architecture is grand, ancient and impressive nearly everywhere. And, of course, the food is phenomenal. Also, we finally got some much-appreciated sun. So, basically, we’re in heaven.

While much of Rome is beautiful, it’s quite touristy in the places you’d expect. Our neighborhood, on the other hand, while still somewhat touristy, definitely had a lot of local flavor. We were often the only English-speaking patrons in local cafes and on the cobblestone streets, and we just adored it. I think it helped that we chose an Airbnb apartment off the main tourist attractions’ streets and tucked into the stylish alleyways near Piazza Navona. This didn’t mean we were far away from the good stuff, though. We were practically right above one of the great gelato spots: Gelato del Teatro. The fig, cheese and almond offering was the perfect treat to grab on the way in the door after a full meal of pasta.

Plus, Piazza Navona is definitely the best piazza. This can’t be beat.

As soon as we’d dropped our bags at our flat, we went out seeking our first tastes of that famous Italian food. We settled on a cozy restaurant a few blocks down the lane from our place. It was not a mistake. My cannelloni was divine, and the boys enjoyed their first tastes of the Roma carbonara (so different from – and better than – what you get in the States). This is also where we downed our first liter of Italian table wine (absurdly cheap, and oh so fine). Oh and fun fact: carbonara was invented as something to feed American soldiers during the war. The Italians thought, well, Americans like bacon and eggs, let’s put in on pasta!

We spent the better part of one day on a food tour in the Testaccio neighborhood, which was an epic feast, and super informative. Small world, our awesome guide, Tiana, grew up in the town next to me in Massachusetts! What made her even cooler, she knows her food, loves it and takes it seriously. And better yet, she taught us all about it. We started our day the way Italians do, taking our coffee and cornetto standing at the bar. Italians are not often in a rush, unless they are driving or eating breakfast. From there we moved onto a classic margherita pizza, pausing from the face-stuffing to take a photo with the master.

At a fantastic meat and cheese shop (called Volpetti) we gnawed on some pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, a wild boar salami and Prosciutto di San Daniele. In the Testaccio Market we made our own pomodoro bruschetta and a caprese salad. Lunch at Flavio Al Velavevodetto was the highlight for me, because we got to nosh on loads of pasta and wine. Their caccio e pepe (a Roman classic) was lovely, as was the unique yolk-only carbonara (talk about tasting like bacon and eggs!), but the best was the amatriciana. Divine. In Roma, they generally use tonnarelli (not spaghetti) for the cacio e pepe and often guanciale in place of bacon. It was also pretty cool that this restaurant is built into Monte Testaccio, a large hill made entirely of shards of terra cotta from discarded olive oil containers.

Lest you were worried we didn’t eat enough sweets on this tour, our last stop was at a gelato spot where we learned how to distinguish authentic gelato from the fake stuff.

In between all the calories we took quick digestion breaks while exploring a few cultural attractions like the non-Catholic cemetery where Keats is buried, and a former slaughterhouse turned contemporary art museum slash art school slash rec space.

Fortified from all the pasta, we did some serious walking around Roma’s must-sees. First up was the Pantheon. Cool, no? And it’s absolutely free. Worth the entry price, for sure.

Next up were the Coliseum, the Forum and Palatine Hill. It’s amazing how the city has just been built up seamlessly around these ancient ruins. To be honest, I found these bits a little less exciting since I have a hard time getting into the history when I’m just looking at ruins, but the sheer number and size of the ancient and intricate churches, buildings and statues in this city (and country, really) is just mind boggling.

The gigantic Victor Emmanuel Monument is huge beyond comprehension. Our guidebook said the guy’s mustache is wider than I am tall!? Insanity.

The Trevi Fountain, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rome, was completely covered in scaffolding, and drained of water. Womp womp. So we walked to the Spanish Steps instead. And the fountain in that piazza was covered with plastic, as was the church at the top of the steps, including a big billboard advertisement in its stead. Total womp. So we took a picture that showed how we felt about it, and promptly left.

We woke early our last day to beat the crowds on our visit to Vatican City. Highly recommend this move, as the herd and queue were insane when we left. It’s a really, really big church. Again, not a big religion or history buff, so I’m not the best critic here, but…I was kind of more impressed with a few other churches we saw in Italy, especially one we’ll cover later in Tuscany.

That said, we walked up to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, and it was definitely worth it for the views of the city. The stairwell is extremely narrow in parts, though, and claustrophobia inducing.

A few other areas we perused were Campo de Fiori (a bit touristy, but fun to visit, just avoid most restaurants on the piazza), and Trastevere (Piazza di Santa Maria is beautiful, and its church is lovely) . The riverfront area on the walk to Trastevere was pretty cool as well. While it was in sleep mode when we walked by during the day, it looks set up for some cool restaurants and hang-out areas.

My favorite part of Roma was just meandering down the narrow roads enclosed by multi-story buildings. While there are no modern skyscrapers in the city (nothing may be built taller than St. Peter’s Basilica), most buildings are about five or six stories high, and they are old, old buildings with small windows, all connected to each other, so you feel kind of like a mouse walking through a giant maze, unable to see what is around the next corner until you discover another ancient church or spill out onto a dazzling piazza.

Also, these continuously running water fountains all over town are pretty cool.

And the food and drink places on all these adorable streets and alleyways are to die for. One random find that I have to give a shout out to is Giulio Passami L’Olio, where we stopped for a few pre-dinner drinks during their aperitivo. While we didn’t sample the foods, they looked and smelled amazing, and we enjoyed a phenomenal wine recommended by the waiter.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I have to give a bad shout out to Roscioli. It gets rave reviews, but it was the most offensive service I can ever remember having. I don’t know what was up with our waiter, but he was awful. The pasta was great, but surprisingly the burrata was underwhelming, and the wine he recommended was the complete opposite (oaky, buttery) of what we had asked for. (They have gigantic wine lists at these spots, so big they fit in books, so we put ourselves in the hands of our not-so-trusty waiter to help steer us towards a new Italian find.) Also, it’s pricey, and there are TONS of amazing Italian eats for much less money than they charge here. So, skip it. Anyhow, that’s my rant. I rarely go out of my way to talk about places I view negatively, but I was so offended by this experience, and our snooty, rude, and wine-clueless waiter, that I have to warn you guys. That is all, the rest of Roma was fantastico!

Practical Info

Transportation: We arrived on an easyJet flight from Amsterdam, which was much less smooth (it was fine, just long lines for everything) than our first easyJet experience. From Rome’s airport (FCO) we took a taxi to our apartment. There is a flat rate of €48. I think this covers up to four people and luggage, but confirm and also be sure your taxi isn’t licensed elsewhere and not bound by the fixed fare. I think there is a bus into the city for ~€5 and an express train for ~€14.

We walked much of the city and also used taxis, which are not that expensive. For example, the fare between Piazza Navona and Piazza Testacci is €9-10. We departed for Tuscany with a rental car picked up from Hertz on Via Sardegna.

Accommodation: We stayed in an Airbnb place on Via dei Coronari, a little northwest of Piazza Navona and a fairly easy walk to Campo de’ Fiori and to the Vatican. This is a great area full of piazzas and narrow cobblestones streets with plenty of shops, restaurants and bars. It is far from the subway, but we loved the location. Other popular areas to look include the Piazza Venezia/Forum/Colosseum area and the Spanish Steps. A friend of mine prefers to stay in Trastevere.

Food and Drinks: This was our first stop in Italy, and we were fired up for pasta et al. The cuisine differs by region in Italy. I think everywhere we visit will have ample pasta and gelato, though. Among other things, Rome is known for its cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) and its carbonara pastas. These typically cost €7-10. It is a good idea to book a table at popular restaurants, even if only doing so in the afternoon for dinner that evening. The rumors of inexpensive and pretty good table wine seem to be true. We found bottle-size equivalents for €5-10 at many places.

Some places we particularly enjoyed include Flavio Al Velavevodetto; Ristorante Tre Archi da Loreto; Gelateria del Teatro; Cul de Sac. We had a pre-dinner bottle of wine at Giulio Passami L’Olio and loved the vibe and non-sweet Malvasia Bianca.

We were especially disappointed with Roscioli. Kenny said he could only think of one place where the hype to reality ratio was worse (The Hump in Santa Monica). The food was good but overpriced, and we did not like our waiter at all.

Other places we considered or couldn’t get into include Armando Al Pantheon, Pizzeria Da Baffetto, Pizzeria Ai Marmi, Forno Campo de’ Fiori, Il Gabriello, Cesare al Casaletto…

Here is a list of stops we made on our Eating Italy tour: Barberini; Volpetti Piu; Volpetti; Testaccio Market (Enzo e Lina stall, among others); Flavio Al Velavevodetto; Trapizzino; Giolitti.

I am obsessed with hydration, and therefore I am a huge fan of Rome’s abundant public water fountains. These are usually low to the ground and continuously stream water. They also have a neat feature where you can plug the spout with a digit and then water shoots out of a hole, facilitating drinking straight from the tap.

Activities: As with most places, we did not cram in as many museums and historically significant sights as possible. One could spend a whole lot of time on these in Rome. Consider research on buying tickets in advance and/or reserving time slots, as this may be required and/or save you a multi-hour line.

We did visit the Pantheon (free); the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill (€12 ticket gives access to all); Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican (basilica is free, the dome costs €5 to walk the whole way up or €7 to take the elevator part of the way, the museum is separate and we skipped it). Trevi Fountain was fully shut down and covered by construction, as was the fountain in Piazza di Spagna and the church at the top of the steps. :(

Our little walking with lots of eating tour (Eating Italy: Taste of Testaccio Food Tour, which costs €75/person and takes four hours) was very enjoyable. As was just strolling around the city’s many narrow lanes and piazzas.

September 2-5, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday)

::so many types of tulips::

Amsterdam

Within minutes of arriving, I had visions of myself living in Amsterdam. It’s such a pleasant city, full of cobblestone street flanked canals (many of which are lined with houseboats), row-houses with enormous windows, and quaint rounded bridges decorated with posted up bicycles. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a centrally located European city with easy access to its airport and train station (Centraal Station is walkable from most areas around town, and the airport is only a 15 minute ride from there!).

I’m particularly obsessed with the Jordaan neighborhood. I could totally live there for a few years, what with its impossibly cool shops and restaurants, yet mellow, casual vibe. The only glitch in this plan is that it’d be challenging for me to make friends because all the Dutch women are legit a foot plus taller than I am. How would we converse?

Plus, if we lived here, I could reignite my middle school aged self’s passion for clogs.

Unlike the rest of the city, the red light district kind of made me cringe. We went over there largely because as a first time visitor to Amsterdam I felt compelled. Though it was early evening, late afternoon even by most people’s standards, and far from its prime (as I’m told), it was not my scene. We saw but one woman standing on offer in a crystal bedazzled thong in a window box, but that was enough for me. While I’ve heard the legends of the local sex shows, e.g. ping pong balls (or wait, is that Thailand!?) and the live sexing, I just couldn’t stomach it. We had a much tamer tourist experience and stuck to the Sex Museum, which offered somewhat PG versions of the red light world (using the term PG lightly because there were still pictures of fully nude people engaged in sexual acts and descriptions of and images of some fetishes that put 50 Shades readers to shame…that said, it’s a museum, so…).

I knew Amsterdam was a big biking city, but I hadn’t anticipated the full extent of it. There are bicyclists, and bikes, everywhere. And you really notice the lack of vehicular traffic, which is incredibly nice as a pedestrian.

Having arrived fairly late our first day, we wandered around until we found an enticing pizza shop, grabbed a pie to go, and sat outside on the side of a canal. So enjoying the moment, I looked at Alan and told him this is going to be one of the nights I look back and cherish, someday when I’m sitting in an office and missing this journey. This despite that I was sipping sparkling water and not wine! It helped also that the pizza was insanely delicious. Like, Italy good.

I hadn’t realized the Netherlands were so well known for their gouda. It’s damn good. We sampled many at the Cheese Museum. All were amazing, but steer clear of the florescent blue one. Not sure what happened there. If you’re up for another non-museum-y museum, check out the Tulip Museum next door. We just perused the gift shop and later the tulip selection at the Bloemenmarkt (floating flower market). They have some serious bulbs. Tulips are no joking matter here.

We got our culture in at the Van Gogh museum, which is perfect because it’s just the right amount of art to keep you entertained and not overwhelmed. We actually walked the entire museum, which has to be a first for us! (Hooray! Little gold stars for us!). Van Gogh’s work is, of course, amazing, and there are also a handful of pieces by other artists scattered among the exhibits. It’s done in a really nice way so that you can follow his evolution as a painter.

While fairs are generally awesome, I was really bummed that there was one set up in the Museumplein so that it blocked my shot of the IAmsterdam sign. I got over it pretty quickly when we tried mini Dutch pancakes with powdered sugar.

It was in Amsterdam that we met up with Alan’s brother, Kenny. He was on the tail-end of business school travels. We hung out with him and some of his Kellogg friends for a couple days in Amsterdam before the three of us headed to Italy. One of Kenny’s classmates is a Netherlands local, so she was able to guide us around to some great bars and a tasty Indonesian meal (aka rijsttafel). She also put us onto La Chouffe beer, which tastes almost as good as its logo is cute.

We ate well in Amsterdam. A romantic dinner at Restaurant Vlaming for just Alan and me was delightful, as well as the aforementioned pizza, pancakes, and Indo food. The highlight, though, was probably the late night Dutch fries. If you think putting mayo on your fries is gross, you are right, but you are also wrong. It is gross, but it’s amazing. And the garlic mayo is on point. We also happened upon this shrine to cured pig one day, and after ogling the hind legs we enjoyed a cone of Iberico ham. Nom nom nom.

Practical Info

Amsterdam is just a delightful city, and not only due to its liberal attitude towards marijuana and prostitution. It oozes cool, and yet it’s so accessible.

Transportation: We arrived on an easyJet flight from London Stansted. There are frequent trains from the airport (Schiphol) to Centraal Station; the ride costs €5 and takes about 15 minutes. From Centraal, you can walk, take a tram, take a taxi, etc. depending on where you’re going. It was a 15-20 minute walk from Centraal to our Airbnb spot on the far end of Lindengracht. We walked everywhere we went within the city. By the way, the score is definitely easyJet 1 : Ryanair 0. This was a much better experience than our flight from Cork to Liverpool. That said, I wrote this before onward travel on easyJet from Amsterdam to Rome, where it took an hour to drop our bags and clear security at Schiphol. I don’t know how much blame lies with the airport vs. the airline, but…

Accommodation: We stayed in an Airbnb apartment on Lindengracht in the Jordaan district. This area has many boutique shops and nice restaurants, and it is quieter than some more touristy areas. We thought it was lovely for a stay, especially if you could find a place a little closer to Prinsengracht just to save the extra few minutes walk each way. We visited the nearby textiles market on Westerstraat and the Noordermarkt flea market, both on a Monday. If you want more action, you might prefer to stay closer to Leidseplein (Kenny and his classmates stayed at Dikker en Thijs Fenice Hotel), which has the added advantage of being much closer to the museums, or perhaps stay near Rembrantsplein.

Food and Drinks (and Smokes): Pizza our first night at Da Portare Via was solid. Dinner our last night at Restaurant Vlaming was great. Rijsttafel with Kenny and crew at Kantjil & De Tijger was very enjoyable, from what I remember. We had a relaxed breakfast at Café ‘t Smalle. If you love ham and will open up the wallet for it, don’t miss Ibericus. There are proper restaurants plus cafes or fast food type places all over the central areas. An Amsterdam staple is fries with mayo-based sauces. Fresh squeezed OJ is ubiquitous. Amsterdam knows what’s up…they give you the marijuana to enjoy, the coffee to help you stay awake and the OJ to aid your immune system. Among other places, we had drinks at Cafe Hoppe, which is a classic old Amsterdam pub.

And now, to coffee shops. These are where you can buy marijuana and related products. Cafes are places you drink coffee and maybe eat. You might have heard rumors that tourists may no longer buy weed here. Entirely unfounded. You can find countless articles online listing the best or most famous coffee shops. Some are mini-chains. I won’t offer reviews, except to say that Dampkring has an impressive selection and was my favorite in that sense.

Activities: Amsterdam is home to some great museums, especially now that the Rijksmuseum has reopened after an epic renovation. We visited the Van Gogh Museum, buying tickets online (€15 each) to skip the queue. Other popular and reputable stops include Rembrandthuis, the Anne Frank house and the Heineken tour. Then there is the cheese museum (more like a shop with some info, and tons of free samples) and the tulip museum.

On the less reputable front, there is the Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museum, and the sex museum (which we visited, costs €4) that is moderately entertaining but not that great. Just strolling the canals and shopping (the Nine Streets area is popular) is great. We perused the Bloemenmarkt (a floating flower market), which was nice, though there are more bulbs and seeds than grown plants. A boat tour always seems like a good idea, but I’ve never done one.

August 30 – September 2, 2014 (Saturday-Tuesday)

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Londontown

Believe it or not, this world traveler had never been to London until now. We came to rectify this situation and to visit friends. Also so we could see if I loved it so much that we would decide to move here (probably not since my phobia of large crowds is growing, but it’s a pretty impressive city).

While everyone swears that it never rains like it was when we arrived, well, it was raining like it was (vigorously, for hours straight). And I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out the weather pattern in Europe: if you need to walk from public transportation to your place of resting, with luggage in tow, it will rain. And then if you want to walk long distances, or go for a hike, it will rain. This seems to be the case throughout the UK at least. But don’t worry about us. Despite the rain, we made it to London and used the opportunity to spend some good QT with old mates. (Also, I have like zero pictures except for when it is not raining, hence the near zero photos I have of spending QT with old mates.)

One reason London is awesome is that a lot of awesome people live here. Among them, our friend Billy, who graciously let us stay with him at his apartment that he had barely even moved into yet. And I mean barely, he still had no WiFi, nor hot water for the first few days! Luckily we are used to not showering (see: our entire six month backpacking trip through Asia). And one of the best parts of staying there was its location: Chelsea. What a beautiful area. On the walk from his flat to the nearest tube station, you pass these stunning city mansions that I would just die to live in. And I quickly learned that London is similar to Los Angeles in that it kind of feels like a massive collection of suburb-ish neighborhoods. Surely there’s at least one that’ll tickle your fancy.

High on the list of awesome people now living in London: my oldest friend, Kaitlin, and her super Irish (and super awesome) husband-to-be. We spent lots of time reminiscing and partying like it was ’99. Because I actually did spend New Years Eve of Y2K with Kaitlin, though we spent that sober and most likely playing dress-up in her basement because we were just that cool at age 13. Anyhow, our rendezvouses were a perfect excuse to check out another, less touristy neighborhood in London: Chiswick. We visited her flat to love on her adorable fluffball of a cat, Holden, and walk the Chiswick high street. This ‘hood was much more my speed, and I imagine if I did live in London I’d opt for something with this calmer, less crowded, somewhat residential feel.

The hostess with the mostest, she also took us on a walking tour to Kensington Palace, Hyde Park and the surrounding area.

During our days on our own in Londontown we got out and did lots of walking around some of the city’s other more touristy bits. The scene at Big Ben and Westminster Abbey is insanely crowded, and since large crowds tend to give me the heebie-jeebies, we took our snap-snaps and headed on. Pushing our way through the masses of tourists (I know, I know, I’m one of them, but still, they are, and I am, annoying), to see Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and the fancy schmance ‘hood of Mayfair.

One of the highlights of our visit to London was high tea. As you may or may not know, I practically live and breathe for scones, and clotted cream is the peanut butter to my jelly, the butter to my cup, the knick to my knackered. I did a bit of research on hotels to visit for this uber-English tradition, and decided to go with the Athanaeum for two major reasons. First, they do not have a crazy dress code (I’m realizing more and more that I am good at packing for extended trips to Asia, not so much fancy Europe… but don’t worry I’ve been shopping to correct that. Stay tuned for (gasp!) an outfit change in the upcoming posts, including what may or may not be a red leather jacket I purchased at an Amsterdam flea market), and more important, they offer what is called the “Gentleman’s Tea,” so there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Kaitlin and I of course opted for the classic crustless finger sandwiches and cakes alongside our scones and champagne, while Alan got to savor his with a suet pastry crusted miniature beef steak and British Ale Pie, wild boar sausage roll, homemade seasonal terrine, chili cheese straws with decadent ‘Welsh Rarebit’ dipping sauce, warm wookey hole cave-aged mature cheddar and crispy bacon scones, hot and sticky mini toffee pudding, a wedge of whisky fruit cake, homemade whisky chocolate truffles, and a dram of Scotch whisky (but of course). The leisurely experience certainly doesn’t come in under budget, but it’s a boatload of food, which is essentially unlimited and of course worth it in my opinion (I think Alan’s also). We rolled out of there satiated and then some.

To walk off our “tea” (I’m embarrassed to say that we barely touched the tea!), we wandered over to Buckingham Palace, through Wellington Arch and Knightsbridge and into Harrod’s for a stroll. While we didn’t purchase anything due to aforementioned tea feast, that place is pretty amazing (if a bit hectic and pricey). I’d love to head back there one day for picnic supplies (and maybe a designer purse).

On another afternoon (where we got some sun for a change!), we walked along the South Bank of the Thames River. This area was fun and lively, filled with shops, restaurants, pubs, the occasional historical site and the coup de gras: Borough Market. This might be our favorite thing in London (surprise, surprise, it involves food!). I actually had to convince Alan to go here. When I told him it was a fresh foods and prepared foods market, his response was “we’ve seen a million of those.” (I know this is so out of character for Alan, so, in full disclosure, he was fighting a cold.) Ah, but we’ve seen a million markets because we love markets! And this was no exception. Yummy samples, fresh fruits and veggies, and tasty prepared foods. Win win, win.

And of course, we walked across the London Tower Bridge, stopping to take selfies in front of it. An obligatory act.

Another area we adored is Shoreditch. While we’re probably not hipster enough to live here, it was much fun to walk around and admire the street art. As you can probably guess, this part of town has a much younger, hipper (hipster) vibe, with loads of bars, graffiti, and even a food truck courtyard. The highlight involved… wait for it…food! No, but really, it was also the experience. Next time you’re in London, take a stroll round Shoreditch and then head over to Brick Lane for some bomb and cheap Bangladeshi/Indian food dinner. But don’t walk into the first restaurant you pass, walk up and down the street and let yourself be reminded of the crazy world that is India as you are accosted by men hawking their menus to you and offering you a deal should you choose their establishment for your Indian fix.

You’ll notice the conspicuous absence of many touristy things done here, most notably visiting any of the many (mostly free!) world renowned museums. Well, we weren’t feeling very arty or history-y. And to top it off, Alan (the make things happen-er of the pair) was sick most of our time here. And when you travel non-stop for a year plus, you give yourself permission to skip some of the “unskippable” things sometimes. We need reasons to come back, right?!

Last, but not least, of our reunions in London was an evening with Marie, Alan’s (well, really more Kenny’s) former French au pair, who now lives in London. We met up at the Science Museum for what they call “lates,” which is basically an event where regular activities like the zoo, or the science museum, turn into bars and interactive exhibits for the night. (Surely this counts as visiting a museum even if it’s not art or cultural!) It was great to meet Marie, and it’s hard to go wrong with a silent disco.

Practical Info

Transportation: We arrived at King’s Cross on a train from Edinburgh. It took ~4.5 hours and cost £65 each. London is huge, and getting around could involve anything from walking, to multiple buses and trains or even boats. If you plan on using public transport more than once or twice, invest in an Oyster Card. It costs £5, which in theory you can get back, and then you top up and the rides cost way less than paying single fares each time.

We departed on an easyJet flight to Amsterdam from Stansted airport. London has several airports, and none that you’re likely to use is particularly convenient. Stansted involved a taxi ride to Victoria Coach Station followed by a two-hour bus ride (cost £21.50 for two tickets with fees). There is also an express train from Liverpool Station. The point is, do your research on all your options including where apparently cheap airline flights leave from and how the extra time and cost of getting there impacts the analysis vs. other flights or trains etc.

Accommodation: We stayed with Billy in Chelsea, a quieter area with many nice bars and restaurants and a wealthy clientele. Most visitors will want to stay some place a little more central. I am far from an expert, but here is my quick take: Knightsbridge is more central, loaded with wealthy Arabs and their super-cars. Mayfair is posh and maybe a little boring, but pretty central. Soho, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus etc. are more crowded, in parts very touristy, but also the most central. We liked the South Bank walk (from the Royal Festival Hall to Tower Bridge) and perhaps you could stay there. If you like more of a hipster vibe, consider Shoreditch (there is an Ace Hotel there).

Food and Drinks: High tea at The Athenaeum was a lovely way to pass an afternoon. Jenni chose this place in part because it offers a gentleman’s tea, which includes lots of savory dishes with beef or bacon and a dram of whisky (the whisky selection at this hotel is legit). It is also pretty much all you can eat and does not have a strict dress code.

Dinner at Aqua Nueva with Kait and Sean was great, and there is a lovely patio for drinks with views. Gourmet Burger Kitchen is a chain, but quite good. Same for Carluccio’s. We had drinks at Babylon at the Kensington Roof Gardens, and I think maybe there is some part that wasn’t open for our visit and this part may have flamingoes?

A meal at one of Brick Lane’s several Indian/Bangladeshi restaurants is an experience. Prepare to be harassed by hawkers offering specials and discounts. Many are not so well-reviewed, but we chose Sheba and it was delicious. And London-cheap at £31 for three people.

Activities: London is home to several world-class attractions and museums, many of which are free and virtually none of which we visited. Two friends told me the Churchill War Rooms is their favorite. Two others picked the Victoria and Albert. I won’t try to list them all here. Several people said the Tower of London is a great experience. London is also known for somewhat reasonably priced theater.

I read good reviews and a friend recommended London Walks tours.

August 25-30, 2014 (Monday-Saturday)

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On The Fringe

Scotland continues to impress. A solid pseudo-country all the way through. Edinburgh is one of the most visually impactful cities we’ve ever seen. Walking around the downtown area is honestly mind-blowing. One might venture to say that it feels like walking through Gotham city. Gasp – did I just make a Batman reference? First the Scotch drinking, now this? Someone keep an eye on me before I start enjoying the Hobbit or Star Trek or some other retched thing (apologies to the large majority of you people in the world who actually enjoy action movies, manly drinks and/or fantasy).

Part of the reason we hit up Edinburgh when we did was for the festival timing. Our visit coincided with the Edinburgh International Festival, the Military Tattoo (though we sadly didn’t act fast enough to get tickets), and – most important – the Fringe. The International Festival offers an impressive selection of shows through which you can enjoy the finer arts (e.g. dance, music, art). We attended one show of the International Festival variety. Having seen the movie Pina a while back and being obsessed with her work and the soundtrack ever since, we went to see the Pina Bausch directed and choreographed show, Sweet Mambo, at the Edinburgh Playhouse. While it was so artsy as to be on the verge of artsy-over-our-heads, it was absolute beauty and a complete steal at only £12 a ticket. If you’ve not heard of Pina or seen her work, rent the movie Pina immediately. What she does with the human body and the stage are just breathtaking.

The Fringe, on the other hand, is where things get weird. In a really good way (almost always). The Fringe is essentially a humongous collection of shows throughout the city. This ranges from street performers to comedy shows, to theater performances, burlesque shows, live music and more. A lot of shows are paid and require advance ticket purchases, but a huge number of them are absolutely free of charge. And while some may be worth their entry price, we visited many free shows that were a delight. In fact, I think we hit up a total of seven shows while at Fringe, five of which were free.

It feels like the city was practically built for this festival. The Old Town area is dotted with venues, ranging from bars and pubs, to a warehouse turned barnyard themed music venue, to these large multi-storied event halls with show rooms and pubs on each floor. I’m not sure if these venues are open year-round or how they are utilized outside of the Fringe, but they are some seriously cool event spaces. There are also outdoor areas with venue spaces set up in small pop-up style tents and buildings, with food trucks and bars spread out around them. One we checked out even had an astro-turf lawn for hanging out on.

We are big fans of comedy (I mean, who doesn’t enjoy laughing, right?), and so we attended many comedy shows in various forms. Highlights included what amounted to, essentially, an incredibly weird play. Comedy theater? I’m not entirely sure what to call it, but it was most certainly strange, and parts were hilarious. The show, called Grandees, was performed by three people in a small room with minimal props. One of my favorite comedy shows was Northern Ireland’s stand-up comedian, Luke McGibbon (#luketony). We were two of six guests in attendance. I couldn’t tell if his embarrassment at the small crowd was part of his act, but I literally cried from laughing at what he claimed was once reviewed as the worst part of his show. Check him out, though be warned I am a sucker for see-what-I-did-there kind of jokes and Alan often teases me that the worse a movie or TV show is, the more likely I am to enjoy it…that said, Alan enjoyed as well. And it’s pretty cool to chat with the comedian pre- and post-show. A Room With A Jew by Joe Bor was good entertainment as well, and Alan somehow got roped into an on-stage interactive bit during the performance, as well as getting called on a few times throughout the act. Ahir Shah’s show was also terrific, in a somewhat stand-up, spoken-word combo, or, as he calls himself, an incredibly funny lecturer.

We only saw one horrible show and it was at 11:30 pm in a bar quite far from the Old Town area. So, I guess our advice would be to steer clear of the free late night shows in sub-prime venues. We are almost certain that these two guys got up on stage as part of a dare or a fraternity-pledging related hazing. And I literally fell asleep in my chair to spare me from the pain.

We switched it up a bit for a blues and burlesque show called Hotter than Hell. Awesome. We did little music since the options were too overwhelming and unknown, but we did enjoy some time at the Cow Shed in between comedy shows one evening. Overall, we were blown away by this festival. Highly, highly recommend a visit to Edinburgh while the Fringe is on.

While we spent a large part of our time in Edinburgh enjoying the entertainment that the various festivals had on offer, we took a break to explore the rest of the city. The long walk to Leith is maybe not worth the journey (at least if you’re just meandering, as opposed to walking there to enjoy one of Leith’s many F&B options), but it was interesting to see all the “Yes” campaigners out to educate the Scots about why they should become an independent state.

The walk to (and up) Calton Hill was definitely worth the excursion, as it afforded some phenomenal views of this epic skyline. They even have a national monument up there that looks vaguely Parthenon-esque. Not for nothing is Edinburgh called “Athens of the North.”

On the way into Edinburgh we stopped in the town of Stirling to do the whole castle thing. I’ve never really been one for history, or tours, or ancient things in general, but this castle was next level crap. Well, the building itself, its historical significance (especially for Braveheart fans) and the location are great, but the castle is this gigantic impressive hunk of old stone set on a phenomenal site, and they’ve gone and plastered the walls inside and painted them with an interpretation of a medieval (also, how awesome is the British pronunciation of medieval?) castle that might be used to decorate a second grade classroom. What the funk?

Anyway, the town of Stirling was quite lovely, and we enjoyed a quick meander around the cobblestone streets and old gothic buildings before and after our tour of the fake-interior castle. For a sense of the castle’s historical significance, consider this quote on display there: “Over the course of 50 years Stirling Castle changed hands eight times between the Scots and the English. Because of its strategic position above the River Forth, where Scotland narrows between the Forth and the Clyde estuaries, Stirling Castle has always been fought over. But never more than in the 1300s when, during the Wars of Independence, the Scots were fighting for their freedom. If you held the castle you held the crossing. If you held the river, you could hold the realm.”

Practical Info

Edinburgh is a stunning city, at its most dramatic in and around Old Town. August is jam packed with festivals, most notably the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (billed as the largest arts festival in the world). If you like comedy, theater, cabaret and more, it is well worth going out of your way to attend. We found the festivals a little overwhelming at first. Note there are multiple contemporaneous festivals and their listings will appear in separate places. So e.g. the Pina Bausch dance we saw was part of the International Festival, while everything else was part of Festival Fringe. Fringe itself has an extraordinary number of shows, from early morning until the wee hours. I think I searched online for free comedy or cabaret for one single day and got 400+ results. There are street performers plus venues all over the city, with most of them in Old Town. Some of these venues are year-round brick and mortar, but might be regular theaters or pubs or instead might have five floors with rooms on each floor. Some are like pop-up areas created for the festival, perhaps with several little theaters and some F&B options. We found a book purporting to list four major companies/venues. These are Underbelly, Assembly, Gilded Balloon and Pleasance. The Cow Shed is a covered space with bands and bales of hay. The Three (aka Free) Sisters was a fun venue. I would suggest a mix of free and paid shows to sample greater variety of talent and production expense; and I do not mean to suggest the paid shows are always better! Note that at all “free” shows they will pass a bucket or wait at the door, and you are expected to pay something if you enjoyed the show. If you only want to visit one city in Scotland, and leaving festivals out of the picture, we would say choose Edinburgh for sheer beauty and history, and choose Glasgow for partying and a more cutting edge vibe.

Transportation: We arrived by rental car from Dufftown, with a long stop in Stirling on the way. We returned our car on arrival, figuring it would be more hassle than help. We departed on a train to London King’s Cross (~4.5 hours). It seemed you could buy tickets online at the National Rail site or the Virgin site, among others. We walked everywhere in Edinburgh. There is no underground, but there are buses and trams.

Accommodation: We stayed at a gorgeous Airbnb apartment at the corner of Dundas Street and Henderson Row. I think this is on the edge of the Stockbridge neighborhood. It is residential and attractive, with a cluster of cafes and shops nearby. Most of the top sights are in/closer to Old Town, thus you might prefer to stay over there. Some places I came across that are well-located include The Balmoral, Motel One, Radisson Blu and Hotel du Vin. We didn’t mind our location because we enjoy walking and got to see more of the city.

Food and Drinks: Breakfast at Roamin Nose was great; at Cuckoo’s Bakery it was OK. Lunch at Soba was pretty good. The lasagna at Giuliano’s was tasty. There are tons of options in the Old Town, and outside there are many clusters of restaurants/bars, including: Rose Street; Hanover Street; Thistle Street; Broughton Street; Commercial Quay and Shore in Leith. Some places I wanted to try include the dogs, The Vintage and The Shore (the latter two are both in Leith). Many Fringe venues have restaurants or food trucks.

Activities: We spent most of our time attending festival shows and walking around. There are plenty of museums, the Edinburgh Castle and Royal Mile, Calton Hill, Holyrood Park, the Scotch Whisky Experience, the Royal Yacht Brittania, etc. On the way from Dufftown we spent a few hours in Stirling, a beautiful old town with cobblestone streets and home to Stirling Castle. While the castle’s location and historical significance are impressive, we found much of the inside rather bizarre in its cheap looking reconstruction. Tickets cost £14 each.

August 21-25, 2014 (Thursday-Monday)

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A Denouement of Drams

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” – Mark Twain

I arrived in Scotland already resigned to saving distillery tours for a future visit. My travel companion is not so interested. But then a series of coincidences (or were they?) conspired to have me visit four distilleries. Excessive rain and wind limiting outdoor options in Glen Coe, and all of a sudden I was at Oban. Wait, there is a distillery on the Isle of Skye and we’re going to be there anyway? Our friend in London’s spare bedroom isn’t free until the 25th, so we have an extra day to work with? Let’s stop in Speyside between the Highlands and Edinburgh.

Many a tome has been penned on the topic of Scotch whisky, and I am far from an expert. So this post is not an attempt to comprehensively cover the topic. Rather, I will share a few of my experiences, mention some things that surprised me, and also cover in the Practical Info section our night in Speyside and a few tips. I will over-simplify many things, and I will generally use “whisky” only to mean single malt Scotch whisky. And yes, here they spell it without the “e.”

There are five single malt regions of Scotland, though they are not necessarily entirely distinct and there may be some overlap. The five are: the Lowlands, the Highlands, Speyside, Islay, and Campbeltown. To generalize, Islay whiskies are often the most heavily peated and smoky. Speyside are often more sherried. Note that Speyside technically lies within the Highland region, and it is home to approximately half of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries.

Making whisky is actually a pretty simple process. There are only three ingredients: water, malted barley and yeast. To qualify as “Scotch whisky,” the whisky must be produced at a distillery in Scotland, aged in oak casks for at least three years and carry an ABV of at least 40%. There are countless variations in temperatures, types of casks, time frames, etc., but the basic process is as follows:

  • Barley is malted. This means it is soaked in water, which causes germination. Then it is dried in a kiln to halt further growth.
  • The malted barley is then run through a mill, and the goal is to break down the barley and typically get about 20% husk, 70% grist (grits?) and 10% flour.
  • The entire mixture is then added to the mash tun, where it is combined with hot water to convert the starches into sugars. The resulting sweet liquid is called worts. It is drained and the remaining solids become animal feed.
  • The worts is cooled and pumped into washbacks, where yeast is added to begin the fermentation process. This usually lasts 2-4 days and the resulting wash has an ABV around 8-9%.
  • The wash is then pumped into copper pot stills and the distillation process begins. Scotch whisky is usually double distilled (Auchentoshan is triple distilled), so you will see one or more pairs where one still is larger and the other smaller. The wash first goes into the larger still and is boiled, and since alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, alcohol vapor is produced. It is then condensed and that liquid is called low wines, usually about 20-25% ABV.
  • The low wines liquid is pumped into the second, smaller still and boiled again and the resulting liquid has a much higher ABV. Distillers talk about the head, the heart and the tail. The first bit of liquid that comes out of the second distillation process has a very high ABV and some unwanted properties, and the last bit of liquid that comes out has a low ABV and also some unwanted properties. So these parts (the head and the tail, aka foreshots and feints) are recycled back with the low wines into the second still, and only the heart becomes the new-make spirit.
  • This new-make spirit is a clear liquid, usually with an ABV around 70%. Most (all?) distillers then dilute this a bit with water (to perhaps 63.5%) before filling the oak casks for the aging process to begin.
  • After the whisky has been aged in oak casks, it is diluted again (usually to 40-48% ABV) before being bottled, unless it is bottled as cask strength whisky.

Among the key variations and nuances in how whisky is made, perhaps the most obvious to the palate is whether peat is burned to dry the barley during the malting process. If so, the resulting whisky will have a smoky taste, depending on just how much peat is used. Examples of very smoky whiskies that I’ve tried include Laphroaig, Talisker and Lagavulin. Interestingly, peat is odorless when raw. If you do a Google search for “Dave Broom flavor map,” you will find maps illustrating where certain whiskies fall on the spectrum between delicate and smoky and between light and rich. Here is an example:

I would say the next most influential difference is what type of cask is used and for how long. Whisky almost always begins in an ex-bourbon cask and stays there for 10-20 years. Sometimes it is finished in a sherry cask for 6-12 months, possibly even a port or rum cask. Occasionally whisky is aged in a sherry cask from the beginning.

Here are a few things I learned:

  • Hardly any of the large distillers malt their barley on-site. Rather, barley is typically malted at specialist facilities and then delivered to the distilleries. There are exceptions to this. I believe Balvenie still does floor maltings, but I’m not sure they cover all their production needs in-house.
  • The huge majority of oak casks are ex-bourbon casks imported from America. There is a simple explanation: by regulation, bourbon casks may only be used once, thus providing a fairly inexpensive stream of oak casks for Scotch whisky distillers.
  • All the color in whisky comes from aging in the cask(s), it is a clear liquid when it enters the cask.
  • The oak casks are porous, and the evaporation rate is usually 1.5-2% each year. This lost liquid is referred to as the angels’ share. This gave me an entirely different appreciation for why older whiskies are more expensive (without opining on whether they’re worth it). Not only are they rarer and require more time in storage etc., but more of the original amount has disappeared. Keep whisky in a cask for 25 years, and you’ll have only half the liquid you began with!
  • Cask strength means whisky that is not diluted before being bottled. I think some alcohol evaporates over time (?), so an old cask strength whisky might be 51-52% ABV vs. a younger cask strength might be 57%.
  • After the wash is distilled, the liquid runs through a spirit safe, which literally has a lock on it, to avoid tax-free diversion of the spirits. I mentioned the head, heart and tail above. To separate these segments, someone manually moves a lever and the liquid falls into a different receiving vessel.
  • I believe that all whisky is aged in a bonded, duty-free warehouse. The taxman must take his, but it would be impractical and unfair to tax the whisky so many years before it could be sold and before all the angels’ share disappears.

It is true that hardly anyone puts ice in their whisky here. They insist that it dulls the flavor, and besides, the mercury rarely pushes up in these parts and whisky is viewed as a warming beverage. However, it is very common to add a few drops of water to a dram. This is said to open up varied flavors and aromas. You might try the whisky untouched, then add a few drops and see which you prefer. If you see me pull out a medicine dropper at the bar, stay calm.

One of the biggest disappointments is price. Because taxes are so high, you will typically pay no less for a bottle at the distillery itself than you would pay at a store in the US. I have not done much research on what you can find in the US if you look hard enough, but I think it is fair to say that you can try a lot of whiskies in Scotland that you can’t easily find anywhere else. And though prices are high, the system is conducive to more affordable tasting. Pours are smaller, usually 25ml, so for £3-5 you can try many whiskies where in the US you’d have to buy a bottle or at least a more expensive, albeit larger, serving.

The four distilleries I visited are Oban, Talisker, Glenfarclas and Glenfiddich. It was interesting that even though Oban and Talikser are owned by the mega-behemoth Diageo, those distilleries were smaller than the other two. Glenfarclas definitely had the most independent feel to it, while Glenfiddich may remain a family business but the distillery is enormous and more corporate feeling. You generally may not take photos on the Oban or Talisker tours and generally may on the other two. I recommend making a reservation even if you read that it is not necessary, as many tours do sell out. I only made it onto an Oban tour because of a kind woman who sold me her ticket. And I’m told Balvenie (and I’m guessing others) can book up weeks or months in advance. I will summarize my visit to each.

Oban

  • Set right in the middle of the eponymous town, apparently because the distillery was there first and the town grew up around it.
  • Signature malt is the 14 year (taste included on tour), a nicely balanced dram with a hint of smoke.
  • The tour costs £7.50, but it (and the other Diageo distillery tours) is free if you become a Friend of the Classic Malts. The tour includes a tiny taste straight from an 11-year-old cask, and also a souvenir glass. Only seven people work in the distillery (not counting the visitor center etc.).
  • At the visitor center there is a little tasting bar where most drams cost £3. This is how I came to try the Lagavulin Distillers Edition and ended up buying a bottle.

Talisker

  • The only distillery on the Isle of Skye.
  • Signature malt is the 10 year (taste included on tour), heavy on the peat smoke with pepper on the tongue.
  • Tour costs £7.

Glenfarclas

  • Owned by the same family since 1865; the tour costs £5 and includes a taste of the 10 year.
  • I think they have the largest mash tun in Scotland.
  • The tour leader told us that a taller still with a longer neck will yield a lighter spirit (such as Glenmorangie or Ardbeg), while a shorter and stouter still will yield a richer/heavier spirit (such as Lagavulin).
  • He also said they heat their stills from underneath using gas. They tried internal coils for a while but found it impacted the flavor, so they switched back.
  • One of the few that uses almost all sherry casks from the start. The flavor will differ significantly from the first-fill vs. a later fill, so they blend the whisky from casks with different fill seniority.
  • They mature all their whisky onsite, and store casks for some others, too.
  • In the midst of a drought, they invited famed BBC weatherman Ian McCaskill to open a new warehouse. It proceeded to rain for months, so Ian now has his own gift cask maturing on site.

Glenfiddich

  • Owned by William Grant & Sons, who also own Balvenie.
  • The world’s top selling single malt.
  • There is a well-reviewed cafe/restaurant on site, called the Malt Barn.
  • A regular tour is free. I did the Explorer Tour, which costs £10, and there are more expensive options. With the Explorer Tour, I got to taste the 12, 15, 18 and 21 year olds. The 12 and 18 are similar in composition, while the 15 is made with a method unique to Glenfiddich and the 21 is finished in a rum cask. Pioneered by legendary Malt Master Dave Stewart, the 15 is “aged in European, American, and New American oak to carefully release the virgin cask flavours, the whisky is then mellowed in our unique Solera vat before being married in Portuguese oak tuns” (emphasis added).
  • While some whiskies begin in bourbon casks and are finished in sherry casks, here for the 12 and 18 year they age the whisky separately and then combine the bourbon-aged and the sherry-aged whiskies in a marrying tun before bottling; about 80-85% bourbon and 15-20% sherry.
  • This distillery is massive, with 24 mash tuns vs. maybe 1-8 at others I saw, and here they’re made from Douglas fir vs. the more common stainless steel. They have 28 pot stills vs. maybe 2-8 at others I saw.
  • A rarity, they have an on-site cooperage. Casks are made only from oak staves, metal rings and river reed which creates the seal, i.e. there is no glue or nails.

Aside from these four distilleries and the various drams I tried therein, the other single malts I recall tasting in Scotland are: Auchentoshan Three Wood; Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year and Caribbean Cask 14 year; Aberlour 10; Mortlach 15; Glenfarclas 15; Glenmorangie; Glenkinchie; Ardmore 10; Bunnahabhain 12; Highland Park 12; Macallan 10; Bowmore 12; Benromach Traditional.

Practical Info

I mentioned the five whisky regions above. The only region that we visited specifically to taste whisky was Speyside, as it was a fairly convenient stop between the Highlands and Edinburgh. Speyside has the greatest concentration of distilleries (I believe Islay is a distant second), and there are many towns where you could sleep and lots of options for guided tours. We stayed in Dufftown, which is home to Glenfiddich and Balvenie. They say, “Rome was built on seven hills but Dufftown’s built on seven stills.” We considered staying in Grantown-on-Spey and drove through Aberlour which looked quaint. I am told the Aberlour distillery tour is among the best.

I did not do any multi-distillery guided tours because Jenni was not interested and it did not seem the right fit for this trip. If you are serious about visiting and tasting, though, it might be a good idea. In addition to a driver and knowledgeable local, you can get access to distilleries that are otherwise closed to the public. The Dufftown Distilleries Walk sounded appealing, but it is not offered on Wednesdays. Conversely, the nosing and tasting evening in Dufftown is offered only on Wednesday, but I skipped it. You might look up the Malt Whisky Trail for some regional info.

In addition to distilleries, there are quite a few castles in these parts.

Transportation: We drove from Ullapool to Dufftown, and Inverness is right on the way but we did not stop. It would be a 3-4 hour drive from Glasgow or Edinburgh. You need a car to get around Speyside, unless you go on a tour.

Accommodation: We stayed at Fernbank House in Dufftown. Karen is an excellent host (she gave me a ride to Glenfiddich as I was pressed for time, and also gave us muffins and fruit for lunch), our room was spacious and nice and breakfast was great. The only negative is it’s a one+ mile walk into town and the road is narrow and windy with no sidewalk. There are B&Bs in town, but these were already booked.

Food and Drinks: The Royal Oak in Dufftown may be my new favorite bar, or at least Pearl is hands-down my favorite bartender. She has been in the pub business for 52 years, and sampling some drams with her advice at this little dive was wonderful. I would like to return with some friends and nobody needing to drive afterwards, and just sit at her bar for hours and hours. Our only meal was dinner at D.J. Chippie, a pretty low quality fast-food joint but with friendly service and, according to our B&B host, meticulous cleanliness. Recommended restaurants in Dufftown include Taste of Speyside, The Stuart Arms and Tannochbrae.

Activities: I covered most of this above. Beyond distilleries, you might look into the Whisky Museum in Dufftown, Speyside Cooperage, the Knockando woolen mill, and castles. There are some whisky festivals that sound fun, and it was a shame our visit (not just here but anywhere in Scotland) did not coincide with a Highland games event.

August 20-21, 2014 (Wednesday-Thursday) (just our time in Speyside)

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Ullapool

As we are nearing the end of our time in Scotland, I can now confirm that it rains a lot here. It poured on us many times the last two weeks, with at least some rain it seems every day. We gather that this amount of rain is somewhat unusual, and while a bit of a damper on the hiking, it does make for some spectacular rushing rivers, gorges and waterfalls (even if the treacherous drives and flooded roads made them difficult to access).

We stopped on the drive to Ullapool to appreciate some of these waterfalls a bit closer up. Corrieshalloch Gorge and the Falls of Measach are impressive. I wasn’t a huge fan of the wobbly suspension bridge and precariously placed overlook, but who couldn’t appreciate the views?

We also stopped a few times to snag photos of these awesome highland cows. Looks like this guy was sick of the rain too, no?

We did little in the little town of Ullapool, and this felt appropriate.

Chief among the handful of things we did accomplish was the drinking of much Scotch whisky. I know this might come as a shock after my recent post in which I referred to the stuff as firewater, but…I’m kind of getting into it. I suppose it’s inevitable when trying to be a good sport for your husband who visits four distilleries, and tries nothing short of 20 some odd single malts. Or maybe it’s just that I like identifying scents in a drink’s bouquet (is a Scotch’s fragrance still called a bouquet?). I may be the only person to smell linseed and cotton candy in a dram of Glenmorangie, but at least I’m getting something more than the smell of jet fuel now. And the whisky paired well with our meals, especially at The Arch Inn. We went with some Scottish classics. Alan finally tried Cullen Skink (and the award for weirdest food name ever goes to…), which is basically thin clam chowder with smoked haddock in lieu of clams. He enjoyed. I tried the scallops with black pudding, which, in small doses (the bloody sausage, that is), is not half bad. But the highlight was definitely the braised ox cheek. I don’t know if it was the ox, or the Scotch, but after the first bite I found myself idly mumbling to Alan, “cheeks are so good. If you die and I have to eat you to survive, I’m totally gonna eat your cheeks.” For my sake, let’s hope I learn how to braise before Alan dies and I’m forced to eat him to survive.

P.S. For a little behind-the-scenes peek at our life on the road, and some of our not so gourmet meals, here’s a lunch in the life of round the world travelers: PB&J in the car. I’m embarrassed to tell you how many times this has happened.

We also checked out the live music scene one night, and this was surprisingly impressive. We got tickets to see Rab Noakes and Kathleen MacInnis in the tiniest venue that ever was. I was blown away by this performance. Rab has a very folksy sound, and a few of his songs are Dylan-esque. (In fact, he covered one Dylan tune). On his own, he’s great, but when accompanied by the angelic and ethereal coo of Kathleen, it’s transporting. Incredible performance. They have sadly not yet recorded anything together, but I’m holding my breath that they’ll release their version of “Two Sisters,” an eerie song about murder, that’s surprisingly sweet and beautiful.

Walking home after the show, we happened to hear the tail end of an accordion performance at a larger, but emptier hotel lounge (the Caledonian). We stumbled in and sat with the one other couple in attendance to listen to this man’s last few songs, having a lovely chat with the three of them afterwards. Our man on the accordion even played Bonanza for us when he found out we are American.

Our efforts to hike were somewhat hindered by all the rain (and, who are we kidding, all the whisky), but we were able to motivate to make the quick trek up to the top of Ullapool Hill, which offered a pretty view of the town and surrounding waters.

Practical Info

Ullapool is a popular base for exploring Wester Ross/the North West Highlands. It is a small town and easy to walk around; the often-present ferry seems to dwarf its surroundings. I can’t say exactly why, but Ullapool seems to be the kind of place where younger international folks post up for a while and work in the hospitality sector.

Transportation: We drove from Isle of Skye, taking the bridge across and then turning left onto A890; then left on A896 past Torridon and through Glen Torridon to Kinlochewe; then left on A832 past Loch Maree and up to Gairloch, continuing on past Dundonnell; and finally left on A835 and into Ullapool. Just before the junction with A835 we stopped at Corrieshalloch Gorge for a short walk to a suspension bridge and viewing platform for the Falls of Measach. It was windy and pouring much of the time, which meant that some views were obstructed but the rivers and waterfalls were superb. I said “that’s effing awesome” countless times. A bit of water made its way onto the road, but we were fortunate to avoid any of the serious flooding or landslide activity that has recently hit these areas.

Accommodation: We stayed at Riverside guesthouse (B&B) on Quay Street. Charlie is a very friendly host, it is easy walking distance from downtown and the room is spacious. On the other hand, it is styled a bit more like a motel than a quaint B&B, and the walls are very thin. When booking only a week or two out in August, our options were extremely limited.

While hiking up Ullapool hill, we came across The Stonehouses, which might be great for those on a bigger budget wanting self-catering luxury. The Ceilidh Place offers accommodation, in addition to a bar, restaurant and small events venue. Something we haven’t mentioned yet is that there are campsites all over Scotland. I think beyond the formal sites, there are liberal regulations allowing you to camp all over. Anyway, there seems to be a campsite just about in the middle of town here.

Food and Drinks: Dinner at The Arch Inn was very good. I tried Cullen Skink for the first time and we shared a delicious braised ox cheek. Jenni also began her career as a Scotch whisky taster, finding floral notes in the Glenkinchie, cotton candy and linseed in the Glenmorangie, and some sort of Christmas candle in the Balvenie DoubleWood (where I got vanilla). Dinner at The Ceilidh Place was also good and the space is maybe a little nicer, though I preferred the food at The Arch Inn.

Activities: A relatively short hike up Ullapool Hill is a perfect way to get some exercise and savor views of the town and water. We walked straight from our B&B and it took about an hour and a half. One night we went to a concert at The Ceilidh Place’s event space, which cost £9 and was terrific.

We were more in errand/relax mode here and the weather continued to be poor, so we didn’t do much else. You might check out a boat trip to the Summer Isles, one of the myriad hikes within easy reach, or a visit to Ullapool Museum.

August 17-20, 2014 (Sunday-Wednesday)

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The Misty Isle

On the drive out to Skye we made a quick stop to get our castle on. We chose the Eilean Donan to pop our Scottish castle cherry, largely because it’s one of the most hyped, also because it was on the way. Pretty awesome building in a stunning location. We found it neat that it’s privately owned and presumably the family can just hang out and weekend there. Alan remarked how he appreciated Scotland since it made you feel like you were in Scotland, as opposed to places that are lovely but really if you were knocked unconscious and dropped there, you could have guessed any number of locations upon awakening. But it’s hard to guess anything other than Scotland with bagpipers, castles, mountains, a cold blustery shoreline and a Scotch whisky in hand.

Once on the Isle of Skye, we drove out to Elgol one day to catch the boat to Loch Coruisk. While technically on Skye, rather than a separate island, this mountain-ringed lake is accessible only via boat (or long hike) and is so remote that you truly believe you’re on a deserted island once there.

The ride in affords some fantastic views of the surrounding landscape and the few white houses dotting it. It seems like almost all the homes in Skye are white, which only makes the contrast of green, blue and white more stark (when blue skies actually appear, rare as they are).

The boat also pauses alongside a seal colony on the way there. How are seals so cute? Honestly. Their adorable whiskers and the way they seem to wave hello.

Once at Loch Coruisk we braved the river crossing in search of the best views. The water was a bit high, making the way across challenging. I was lucky enough to be assisted by not one, but two strangers who passed quicker than I.

There were no good samaritans to help me on the return across the river (except Alan, sort of), but fortunately my forced walk through the water helped clean the mud off my boots from my multiple accidental introductions to peat and mud sinkholes.

Luckily the messy and soggy walk was well worth the views. Quite spectacular. And we even saw a small herd of deer!

But the most beautiful scenery on Skye had to be the awe inspiring views at the Quiraing. I am so glad we accidentally fell into a hike around this area. This was a highlight of our whole trip.

The hills here are full of jagged, steep rocks, but they are blanketed by verdant grasses. It looked almost like the scenery you might find in the American west, but lush and green. The land sweeps upward then ends abruptly in a cliff, with pinnacle formations and ocean views a constant presence.

The pictures really speak for themselves. It’s intoxicating up there.

We hit up our second Scotch whisky distillery with a visit to Talisker. Whisky is always a little strong for my pallet, but the 10:30 am tour and tasting was pushing it for me. Alan, on the other hand, was a happy camper. We had signed up to be Friends of the Classic Malts at the Oban distillery (another Diageo brand), which meant we got free tours at Talisker (woot woot). But the highlight, for sure, was seeing Alan’s eyes light up as they stamped his “passport.” This must be what it feels like to take a little boy to a train museum.

Just up the street is a most adorable lunch spot: the Oyster Shed. Boy did we fall in love with this place! We ordered fresh oysters that were shucked right before our eyes, and with the purchase of six we got a glass of wine for free (something for me to enjoy now, eh?). There is also a little stand of sorts just outside the shed where you can order prepared foods and we also picked up small crab rolls. Certainly hit the spot. (Pro tip: do not be tempted by the jarred pates. We made the mistake of buying the pheasant pate with morello cherries and it had the exact same smell, appearance and consistency as the canned food we used to feed my cats).

We rounded out that wonderfully lazy day with a slow drive around some more of the beautiful Skye scenery, stopping to pop into a few art galleries and one delightful tea shop. I will never get enough of tea and scones.

Or this stunning Scottish scenery!

During a brief respite from the rain (actually it might have still been raining on us at this point), we got a stunning glimpse of the full arc of a rainbow. Positively picturesque.

And we spotted these two bunnies chasing each other around a small concrete box, and it was cute enough to become an internet meme.

The grand finale, and one of the most striking vistas we’ve seen, was Neist Point. This tiny peninsula juts out into the sea, and is adorned by a beautiful lighthouse. You can walk out to the end, but we smartly opted instead to walk up a bit towards the rocks on the other side of the small bay. We were surprised to have the area almost entirely to ourselves, and the view was well worth braving the gale force winds. I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that it’s this cold here in August!

The cows and the sky were not so bad to look at either.

We spoke recently of a hotel that completely made our stay: Hazel Bank in England’s Lake District. Well, our B&B on the Isle of Skye almost had the capacity to break our stay, what with its moldy fruit breakfasts and sharp cracked toilet seat (ridiculous that they haven’t changed that), not to mention the fully carpeted bathroom (the germs that must stick in there!!). And of course there was the aggro chicken welcome committee. This chicken came uncomfortably close to pecking our ankles, and I have to say it was rather creepy. But it was kind of cute and funny, so I won’t blame the innkeeper for that one. And I’ll give them props (despite Alan’s allergic reaction and consequent dismay) for their adorable little cat. He was such a sweetie.

And because Skye is just that beautiful and I couldn’t stop taking pictures… here are a few more to savor.

Practical Info

The Isle of Skye has appeared on lists of the world’s best islands, and it lives up to the hype.

It is a good idea to reserve accommodation far in advance. I contacted perhaps 30-40 places and only one was able to offer us a room the four nights we wanted. And while this place wasn’t so bad, it may be the only place we’ve stayed on the (Europe) trip thus far that we would not recommend.

Transportation: We drove from Glen Coe/Fort William. It is a scenic drive, and the stretch of A87 east of Dornie (I think it may be Glen Shiel) is terrific. There are some ferries from the main land to the island but we took the bridge. It is cheaper (free) and doesn’t require any reservations, and this way we could stop at Eilean Donan Castle right on the way.

On the island, it is highly recommended to have a car (there are at least a few petrol stations, and at least the ones by Portree and Broadford seemed reasonably priced). There is bus service, but that would be very limiting. It is a big island and driving between points may take a long time, e.g. it is about an hour and a half from our B&B to Elgol.

Accommodation: We stayed at Skye Redwood House, which is right by Greshornish House Hotel on Google Maps, in or near Edinbane (about half an hour from Portree). It has a nice waterfront setting and a very spacious room and the owner seems nice and well-intentioned, but we cannot recommend it (at least the B&B portion, there are also self-catering cottages). Loving touches are absent; the toilet seat had a huge and bothersome break; there was mold on the berries at breakfast; in four nights they never cleaned the shower or emptied the trash; the list goes on…

Food and Drinks: I should mention that lox-lovers will enjoy Scotland, as eggs with smoked salmon has been on the breakfast menu at most B&Bs. The pizza at L’incontro in Portree was on point, the service not so much. We picked up crackers, cheese and pate from Relish another night. There are several dining options in Portree.

Dinner at Edinbane Inn was good and it is a cozy, pub-like setting. After visiting Talisker distillery we had lunch at The Oyster Shed, which sells game and seafood including delicious, plump oysters shucked when you order. They also sell various pates and some cheese. Tea and scones at Ceiteag’s in Glendale was lovely.

The Three Chimneys is touted in local print, and I think Kinloch Lodge has a Michelin star.

Activities: A visit to Loch Coruisk is highly recommended. You could hike there, but I think it’s very long and may be hairy in spots. We did what most do, which is take a boat from Elgol (book ahead, at least in summer). We went with Misty Isle. They take you to Coruisk and on the way you see a seal colony. Then you have an hour and a half to walk around before the return boat, or you can stay longer and take a later boat. We started to walk around the Loch but realized it was a long trip on very muddy terrain. Depending on recent rainfall, you may need good balance to cross the river at the start of the circuit without getting wet. Misty Isle charges £20/adult and we were very pleased with their service. Bella Jane is another company that offers this trip.

Our hike around the Quiraing was a highlight of our whole trip. The scenery is just magnificent. There is an obvious parking area around the high point of the minor road that cuts across the Trotternish peninsula connecting Staffin and Uig. We did the hike counter-clockwise, i.e. we headed out along the base and returned above the escarpment. It took us about 2.5 hours. Also on the Trotternish peninsula (which we circled clockwise) is the famous Old Man of Storr. The hike up is steep and a couple miles, which I didn’t realize so I only went about half way in my flip-flops.

Talisker is the only distillery on the island, and we enjoyed our tour. It usually costs £7 each, but was free for us after we joined the Friend of the Classic Malts program (also free).

Eilean Donan Castle is not on the island of Skye, but it is nearby. Admission costs £6.50/adult.

Other things you might look into doing: Dunvegan Castle; Coral Beaches near Dunvegan; Fairy Pools near Glenbrittle; visiting galleries and craft shops, see http://www.art-skye.co.uk; sea kayaking through various operators.

August 13-17, 2014 (Wednesday-Sunday)

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