Christmas in Scotland

Last fall, I spent about 10 days in Scotland on my first solo trip overseas. I thoroughly enjoyed that trip (you can read all about it here), so I was thrilled when my sister suggested that our family spend Christmas there this year. We emphatically said, “yes!”.

This trip was different from my first in several ways, primarily that we were going there for Christmas in order for our family to be together, so we didn’t plan as much out ahead of time. We flew into Edinburgh, and spent a few hours that first afternoon and evening checking out the large Christmas market located at the Princes Street Gardens. We then headed to Ayr, which is along the western coast of Scotland, where we spent three days relaxing, exploring, and celebrating the holiday. From there, we headed to Edinburgh. We took a day trip into the lower highlands, and another day was spent exploring Edinburgh before we headed out. Below are some things we did in each location.

Ayr:

Lang Scots Mile & Robert Burns

Ayr is located along the western coastline, and is a small city/large town. We spent 3 full days here. Our first full day in Ayr, we walked along the Lang Scots Mile, which goes along the beach, and then to the Robert Burns Path. Robert Burns was a famous and beloved Scottish poet, who lived in Ayr and nearby Alloway. We visited the Auld Kirk, which is the scene of the witches’ dance in Burns’ poem “Tam O’Shanter”. My sister, who had previously visited the church, told us the story that is outlined in “Tam O’Shanter” (you can read the poem here).

The story goes that Robert Burns was out drinking at the pub Tam O’Shanter (which still stands in Ayr). After a night of drinking with some friends, he jumped on his horse to make his way home to Alloway. As he was riding, he passed the Auld Kirk (the Old Church), where he noticed a glow and decided to inspect the scene closer. He saw a bunch of witches dancing around the fire, but they noticed him and chased after him. He jumped back on his horse and steered her toward the Brig O’ Doon (a bridge), as he knew that witches can’t cross over water. One of the witches grabbed hold of his horse’s tail but she pulled the tail right off, allowing Burns to escape over the Brig O’Doon and to safety. His poem is supposedly about the events of that night.

After visiting the Auld Kirk, we walked over to the Brig O’ Doon, walking past the Robert Burns memorial on the way (unfortunately, it was closed, but we got a view of it from the bridge). We then walked back toward the Robert Burns Museum, where we walked along the Poet’s Path, which outlines the story with artwork. From there, we headed down the road to Robert Burns Cottage, which is where he was born, then walked back to Ayr. The entire walk was about 5 miles, but the weather was great and it was mostly flat.

Christmas Walk & Traditional English Christmas Dinner

On Christmas day, we relaxed at our Airbnb, then took a short walk along the beach in Ayr. In the evening, my sister made us a traditional English (not Scottish) dinner. Her boyfriend and his mom joined us, and they had helped plan the meal. We had a roast chicken, roasted carrots, green beans, Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes, and brussel sprouts. Before the meal, we opened Christmas crackers (they’re filled with small presents, and you and another person pull on the handles to break it open) and put on our Christmas hats. After the meal, we tried traditional English desserts, such as Christmas pudding, Christmas cake (a kind of fruit cake), and mince pies.

Lang Scots Mile & Walk to Greenan Castle

Our final day in Ayr, we walked the Lang Scots Mile again, this time staying right on the beach and walking along until we reached Greenan Castle, some ruins on top of a steep cliff. We climbed up to the castle and enjoyed the view before heading back to our Airbnb. This walk was also about 5 miles. That evening, we celebrated my birthday at The Treehouse restaurant in the center of Ayr. The food was delicious and the atmosphere was very beautiful.

Day Trip to Lower Highlands:

After spending some time in Ayr, we headed to Edinburgh. Train service was down between Glasgow and Edinburgh, so we arrived much later than planned and walked around the Old Town a bit the first night, after dark. The next day, we took a day trip through Rabbie’s Tours. I had been on the same tour last fall, but it was the only one available at late notice. It was a different tour guide, with different stories, so it was still an excellent trip.

The Kelpies

Our first stop on the tour was to see The Kelpies, huge metal statues of two draft horses. I wrote more about my first visit here.

Loch Lomond

Our next stop was along the shore of Loch Lomond. It was a rainy day, but our family decided to do the 20-30 minute walk along the shore that our guide suggested. I wrote more about my first visit to Loch Lomond here.

Stirling Castle

We visited Stirling Castle in the afternoon. Last year, I explored the castle on my own, but this time I joined one of the free guided tours, which was very informative. I would recommend doing the tour, as it really provided some extra information about the castle and it’s inhabitants over the years.

Edinburgh:

We had one full day in Edinburgh, so we spent a lot of time walking around and visiting the main sights. We walked over 8 miles this day!

Dean Village

We started our morning walking from our Airbnb in the New Town to Dean Village, a picturesque neighborhood in the middle of New Town. We walked along the Water of Leith, passing by St. Bernard’s Well and walking under St. Bernard’s Bridge. We spent some time walking around Dean Village and taking in the beautiful buildings.

The New Town

In the mid-1700s, Edinburgh was a dirty, smelly, and unsanitary city with closely crowded buildings. The wealthy wanted to escape this disgust, so plans began for what is now called the “New Town”,  which was built in stages in the mid- to late-1700s. The New Town was carefully planned, with wide roads, spacious Georgian buildings, and lots of green space. We walked from Dean Village back to Stockbridge Market, where we grabbed some sandwiches for lunch and we stopped at Golden Hare Books for my brother. We then walked towards the Old Town, walking through some beautiful neighborhoods of New Town.

The Old Town

We had scheduled a free walking tour through Sandeman’s tours. The tour wound through the Royal Mile and connecting streets and closes (alleyways). Our guide told us about the history of St. Giles Cathedral, some of the statues that line the Royal Mile (including the statue of David Hume, who is a relative of ours!), Edinburgh Castle, Grassmarket, and Greyfriar’s Cemetery. After the tour, we went in St. Giles Cathedral, walked up to see the castle up close, went along Victoria Street (rumored to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter) and then headed back over to the New Town.

Calton Hill

Just off of Princes Street in the New Town is a small hill called Calton Hill. You can walk up the hill to visit several unique monuments, as well as stunning views of the city below. We walked up just before dusk, allowing us to experience the views at night. We spent a while up on the hill as daylight turned to darkness. Afterwards, we walked back over to the Old Town and got some tea and treats before heading back to our Airbnb for our final night.

I’m so glad we got to spend some time together in this beautiful country, and can’t wait to come back someday to explore more of it (namely, the islands that I haven’t been able to see on either trip so far!).

Exploring Chattanooga, Tennessee

Pedestrian bridge overlooking the Tennessee River and Coolidge Park

A few weeks ago, my family traveled to Tennessee to celebrate my cousin’s marriage. It was a beautiful wedding and so much fun to be together with extended family that, despite our best efforts, we see far too little of.

Coolidge Park Carousel Ticket Booth
Coolidge Park Carousel

It was a quick trip- just 3 1/2 days- but we had a free day on a cold but sunny Friday, so we headed to downtown Chattanooga to see some of the sights, along with some of our extended family. My aunt and uncle moved to Tennessee about 28 years ago. We’ve visited them many times, and I remember going to the Chattanooga Aquarium (we didn’t stop there this time, but it is a phenomenal aquarium!) several times as a kid, but I’m not sure I’d ever walked around downtown before.

Coolidge Park Carousel
Coolidge Park Carousel

We started off at Coolidge Park, which is right next to the Tennessee River. We walked around a bit, then stopped at the Carousel. This indoors carousel is a restored 1894 Dentzel carousel, with 52 hand-carved animals and a calliope band organ. Despite being a group of adults, we payed $1 per person to ride the carousel. It is really stunning!

Coolidge Park
Me- at Coolidge Park
My mom- at Coolidge Park

We then walked across the Tennessee River on the Walnut Street pedestrian bridge, built in 1891, to the Bluff View Art District. We saw some of the outdoor sculptures at the Hunter Museum of Art, then walked through part of the art district, including a sculpture garden.

Coolidge Park with Walnut Street pedestrian bridge in the background
View of Tennessee River from the Walnut Street pedestrian bridge

There was a crew competition, with thousands of participants and teams, taking place on the Tennessee River. It was really cool to be able to watch as the teams rowed, and before heading back to my aunt and uncle’s farm, we walked along the riverfront to see them up close.

There’s plenty more to see in Chattanooga, but this was a perfect way to spend a few hours on a Friday afternoon!

Going Home (to Moldova)

 

I recently returned from a fairly short trip back to Moldova to visit my host family. I spent about a week in my village. I arrived just over a year after I left Moldova at the end of my 2-year Peace Corps service there. I was blessed with cooler-than-normal summer temperatures (so thankful! a few weeks before I went, it was hovering around 100 degrees), and my host family made sure I ate lots of ice cream.

My three oldest host nieces joined me in the village so we could spend time together. The week was mostly spent at “home”- reading, drawing, playing, and talking. We also walked around my village and visited the public library, the park/playground, and school. It’s summer vacation in Moldova, so I didn’t see many students (just a couple who I passed on the street) or either of the partner teachers I worked with when I lived there. This was a bit disappointing but not entirely unexpected. I did get to enjoy some tea and cookies with a small group of teachers from the school I worked at one morning.

I spent my last evening in the capital with my host sister and her family. We took a very brief trip to the city center, where we walked around Cathedral Park for a short while. Some day, I’d like to go back for a longer amount of time and visit some of the attractions and wineries I never visited when I lived there, but it was a nice, short trip spent with some of my favorite people!

Ireland: Dublin

After my trip in Scotland, I flew to Ireland, where I would be meeting my sister the following day. My sister was moving to Dublin, and I met her there to provide some support her first few days there when searching for an apartment and such. We also did a bit of sightseeing and walked around Dublin quite a bit. I arrived the night before, grabbed a bite to eat, and spent the evening at my Airbnb since I was pretty tired.

The following morning, I met up with my sister at the hotel we had booked (they kindly let us store our luggage there until our room was ready). We grabbed brunch, then planned the rest of our day.

We had debated between visiting Guinness or Jameson, and ultimately settled on doing the Jameson Whiskey Bow Street Experience since we’re not really beer drinkers. The tour was very good and entertaining! After the tour, you get a free drink, and while we were in the main bar area, we met a woman from Dubai. We talked quite a while and made arrangements to meet up with her the following day. We stopped at a cafe and had scones and hot chocolate/coffee before meeting up with one of my sister’s friends in the evening.

The following morning, we checked out an apartment bright and early, then headed to the Liffey River, where we had booked a kayak tour of Dublin. It ended up being just the two of us, a young man from Hawaii and our tour guide. The river’s current was a bit stronger than usual, so the tour guide dragged us up the river in spurts with his motorized boat. The good thing was that this meant we were able to go further up the river than usual. The guide gave us some information about the different sights from the river and some Irish history.

After our kayak tour, we grabbed lunch at a pub, then met up with our new friend from Dubai for a short walk through St. Stephen’s Green. In the afternoon, we toured a co-working space for my sister (it was really cool), walked around Trinity College, and went window shopping in the city center.

The following day was my last full day in Ireland. We went to a late brunch, then hopped on a bus to the National Botanic Garden. We spent a couple of hours there, walking around the greenhouses and grounds.

Later in the afternoon, we headed back to the city center and went to the Chester Beatty Library, which is more like a museum. We saw some of the oldest maps that include all 7 continents as well as the some of the oldest known pages of the New Testament of the Bible (the handwritten pages are written on papyrus and the oldest dates to 150 AD). Photography was allowed in almost all areas of the museum, and there were so many cool things to see! We stayed until closing time and still didn’t get to see everything!

The following morning, we grabbed a late breakfast, then I got a bus to the airport. I definitely want to go back to Ireland sometime to see the rest of the country, but I was thankful for the time spent with my sister and exploring Dublin.

 

Scotland: Edinburgh (Part 2)

Sorry for the radio (or blog) silence the past month. Life got busy, but I do have two more posts to share about my trip to Scotland and Ireland this past October. You may remember that during my trip, I used Edinburgh as a home base from where I took several day trips. I also spent two full days (and another half day) exploring Edinburgh. I wrote about the first day here. My last day in Scotland was likewise spent in Edinburgh.

St. Gile’s Cathedral, Royal Mile
Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, Royal Mile

On my first full day in Edinburgh, I mostly just wandered around, but there were a few places I knew I wanted to visit, so on my last day, I tackled those places. I started off at Edinburgh Palace. This palace and its grounds overlook Edinburgh and make up one end of the famous Royal Mile. I walked along the Royal Mile up to the castle, then spent a couple of hours wandering around the grounds.

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle
St. Margaret’s Cathedral, Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

There is a lot to see here, including some of the oldest buildings in Edinburgh. The oldest part of the castle, St. Margaret’s Chapel, was built in the 1100s, while the newest parts were built in the 1900s. While definitely an interesting tourist attraction, it is also one of the most popular attractions, so it is usually very crowded. The main attraction, other than the castle itself, is the Crown Jewels of Scotland. These have been used in the coronation of several Scottish kings and queens and are really quite stunning, though you generally have to wait in line to see them.

Palace of Holyrood
Palace of Holyrood
Abbey ruins at Holyrood Palace
Abbey ruins at Holyrood Palace

From Edinburgh Castle, I walked all the way down the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace. Holyrood Palace is the official residence of the queen of England and is open as a museum when she is not in residence. It’s a pretty palace and it’s definitely interesting to get a peek into the spaces the royal family uses when in Scotland. Photography is not allowed inside, but is allowed on the grounds and gardens. There are pretty abbey ruins in the gardens.

Greyfriar’s Bobby

After visiting Holyrood Palace, I walked towards a couple of other tourist attractions: Greyfriar’s Bobby and Elephant House. These two attractions are close by one another in the Old Town. Greyfriar’s Bobby is a small statue outside a pub with the same name. In the 1800s, this dog became well-known in Edinburgh after he visited his owner’s grave every day for 14 years following his owner’s death.

Elephant House is well-known because it is supposedly where J.K. Rowling wrote most of the first Harry Potter book. It’s a small cafe and generally very crowded. I didn’t go inside, but walked by it. I also walked down two well-known streets in the Old Town: Candlemaker Row and Victoria Street.

The Elephant House
Candlemakers Row
Victoria Street

I spent the evening with some new friends from my hostel. We went to dinner together, then to a traditional Scottish pub for a drink before turning in for the night.

Out at a pub with new friends from Germany, France, and Chile

The following morning I had an hour or so before I needed to be at the airport, so I joined a new friend from Germany for a walk to a farmer’s market. We walked through Princes Street Gardens and checked out the market, then I caught a bus to the airport to catch my flight to Dublin.

Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens

I’m so thankful for all that I got to see and do in Scotland, and I hope I can visit again sometime soon! On my next trip, I’d like to go to the islands and northern Highlands, but I just didn’t have time to do it all this trip.