Castles and Lochs in the Highlands

It’s been a busy week as family has been in town. I met everyone in Edinburgh this past weekend because I got a Gianni and Laura on this trip and, obviously, they had to see Edinburgh.

Like the last trip, we also planned a trip out to the Scottish Highlands. There’s something otherwordly about the Highlands. This time, we opted for a castle tour rather than a trip all the way out to Loch Ness. That trip, while beautiful, was an exhausting day.

We got up early for our 8 am departure. We got to the meeting point and Clan Garbagnati took over the back of the bus. Once the whole group loaded into the bus, our tour guide explained the itinerary for the day and we departed from Edinburgh.

Our first stop was actually just outside of Edinburgh to see the three bridges at the Firth of Forth. As our tour guide noted, each of these bridges were built in a different century.

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After our photo stop, we continued our exit from the Edinburgh area for about an hour to our first castle, Doune Castle. We passed this one during the other Highlands trip. Yes, this is a historical castle, but it was also the filming location of many important shows and movies, including Outlaw King, Outlander, and (perhaps most importantly) Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

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The difference between the last trip and this one is that I have seen all of the seasons of Outlander available to me on Netflix right now since then, so I got to nerd out on some of the Outlander trivia during the trip. Actually, as silly as parts of the show are, I now know a lot of information about the Jacobite uprising. Probably more collective Scottish history than I got from watching Reign. In any case, other than being the filming site of Castle Leoch from the the show, we also saw Claire’s escape hatch from season one while we waited for the castle to open.

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The ticket price to Doune Castle includes an audio guide. The audio guide has the historical information, information about the filming of Holy Grail and a whole separate audio track for Outlander, narrated by the Sam Hueghan (the actor who plays Jamie Fraser). Anyway, the castle was pretty cool in that it was very stereotypically castle-esque (is that a thing?). We even saw what was at some point the bathroom of Mary Queen of Scots. We were the last ones on the bus, though, as is our usual story.

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From Doune Castle, we officially crossed over into the Scottish Highlands and drove for a while before we made a pit stop and food stop at Loch Lubnaigh. It was supposed to be a quick stop, but everyone ended up ordering hot breakfast sandwiches (the whole tour, not just us).

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We also saw someone swimming across the loch, which was mind blowing given how cold it was in the Higlands.

After loading up into the car, we drove for quite some time towards Kilchurn Castle. The castle is a ruined castle sitting on the edge of a loch that looks like it’s an island. I believe it even was at some point. Given the wet weather, we had a bit of a muddy hike out to the castle. After that point, we got to explore the outside of the castle for a little while. It was unfortunately not open, but it was still fun to walk around. It was probably my favorite of the castles of the day.

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After hiking back to the bus, we had a thirty-ish minute drive to Inverary for our lunch stop. This included a very brief stop to see Inverary Castle along the way. While the castle is open to tourists in the summer, it is closed for the winter for reparation and because people actually live there, so we just saw the outside.

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We stopped in Inverary for lunch. Our guide recommended one restaurant, but it was crowded, so we went to a different one. Of course, the restaurant we went with was painfully slow, so we barely made it to the bus on time. Everyone else apparently had some great food like scallops. Our food wasn’t bad, we just had to scarf it down at lightning speed so that we could make the bus.

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From Inverary, we made our way into the mountains for a little while for a stop called Rest and Be Thankful. I actually assumed that this was one of those roadside restrooms and cafes, but it actually held some historical significance as the place that people would stop on the way up and down the mountains.

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After another hour, we hit Loch Lommond for our last major stop before heading out of the Highlands. I’m pretty sure we visited Loch Lommond last time we did our Highlands tour. If it was, it wasn’t the same part of the loch. I walked along the shores of the loch for a while and watched in horror as another batch of tourists were harassing an enormous swan. I walkeed all the way out to a church in the town, but then got lost on my way back. I delayed our bus a little bit.

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We had a long drive back from the Highlands, during which time most people (myself included) fell asleep. I woke up for our brief photo stop at Stirling Castle before falling back asleep until waking up to an exchange between the tour guide and one of the other tour attendees regarding the historical accuracy of Reign. Come on, no one was pretending that show was accurate.

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We made our way back to Edinburgh a little before 7, where gave Gianni and Laura a brief evening city tour. More on that in my next post. All in all, our second day trip into the Scottish Highlands was a lot of fun. As I’ve said before, there’s something about that area that’s just very special and it was fun to have the time to explore (or at least see) different castles throughout the day.

Edinburgh, Pt. 2

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We had to switch hotels on our third day in Edinburgh, so while we were able to sleep in more than we had the day of our Loch Ness trip, we didn’t really get to sleep in that much. We threw all of our stuff together from one place and stored our stuff with the next place. Surprisingly, the whole process was mostly painless.

I had set us up on a walking tour in the afternoon, so we had the rest of the morning to kill from there. We hopped around between potential brunch spots before we ended up near the university and at this diner-style restaurant near the university called Mums. The food was good, but the most important part was the quality time I got to spend with my family.

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Between the hunt for a restaurant and the food itself, we didn’t actually have much time before our tour started, so we went to the meeting place and started the tour. On the tour, we walked around the old town and learned more about the city. One important thing we learned was that we were quite literally down the street from the Edinburgh Castle, which we had not yet visited at that time. Surprisingly, there was not too much overlap between the tours even if we did learn the origin of the term “shit-faced” for the third time in just over twenty-four hours. The tour was good, but had we done it again, probably would have had us do the castle for the first part of the day. We didn’t actually have time to go into the castle and probably should have. Oh well.

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The tour ended right around the time when we could check into hotel number two, so we spent quite some time doing that before somehow managing to drag everyone back out. Umma and Mia went to do some shopping, so Chris and I ran into St. Giles Cathedral, which we had learned earlier in the day is not actually a cathedral despite the name. The church was pretty, especially the Thistle Chapel where you can see an angel playing a bagpipe. For future reference, you have to get a permit to take photos inside the cathedral. I didn’t know that, but we didn’t get in trouble because the place was about to close. I ended up donating some money because I felt guilty, though.

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We met up with everyone back outside and finally made our way up to Edinburgh Castle. Almost. We found out along the way that the Scotch Whiskey Experience was still open despite the fact that we had been told earlier in the day that it closed at 2 pm. We ran inside to see if we could get tickets and then with the twenty minute wait finally made it up to Edinburgh Castle. It was dark and we just bought tickets for a whiskey experience, so clearly had no expectation that it was open and we’d be able to get inside, but it’s still a pretty epic castle.

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(By the way, those last two photos were taken within like ten minutes of each other.)

We then lined up for the Scotch Whisky Experience. Now, I’m not sure what we expected from this experience. We knew some level of whisky tasting would be involved and this was certainly something on my Edinburgh bucket list, but weren’t really sure what the rest of the “experience” would be. It was actually quite fun. You start off in a ride of all things, where a ghost walks you through the process of making whisky (a spirit teaching you about spirits, get it?). It was cute, but our tour guide earlier in the day hyped many more puns than we got. Either that or the puns were way above our head.

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After the ride, they bring you to a video where they walk you through the different scotch regions of Scotland. They use a scratch and sniff card to walk you guide you through the flavor profiles that you can expect from each of those regions. From there, you get a history of blended malts before you get to choose the whisky you want to taste.

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With five of us, you would have thought that we would have each gotten a different one, our group doubled up on Speyside and no one tried the Lowland or blend. I got Campbeltown, but Mia’s Highland was the best of the bunch, IMO. You get to try your whisky in a room with an enormous whisky collection (I think the biggest scotch whisky collection or something?). It was a bit much, but also pretty and kind of awesome. The tour ends after that point. You can buy more whisky and obviously end in a gift shop. The bonus is you get to keep the cup.

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After that, we ran around looking for a place to eat before ending up at a pub. I got some fish and chips and pretended that I tried to use my newly minted scotch whisky knowledge to order some whisky. On the upside, I was able to order the drink that time around. On our first night, I was almost not served alcohol because I could not find ID to prove my age (#humblebrag?). Chris also tried to help an Italian couple order their food. We still aren’t sure if he actually succeeded. After dinner, we called it a night because we had an early wake up call for flights home the next morning.

Other things I missed about our trip to Edinburgh:

  • We did see the Elephant House (which is famously the cafe that JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter). We actually almost ate dinner there one night, but the menu didn’t look that exciting.
  • If it wasn’t forty pounds, I absolutely would have bought one of the many Harris Tweed dog coats that we saw at the stores around town. Also, they had dog kilts, which killed me.
  • The embarrassing Lost fan in me kept calling the philosopher Desmond and not David Hume.
  • We had a relatively short layover in London Heathrow on the way back to Basel. Despite the fact that we did not have much time there, we somehow managed to fit in lunch at Wagamama because James is strangely obsessed with that place.

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So, I’ve said this a million times, but I really liked Edinburgh. The town was beautiful, full of some great stories, and just all around fun.

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Edinburgh, Pt. 1

It’s been a while, but it’s been a busy week. Things were chaotic while everyone was in Basel which was followed up with a weekend trip to Amsterdam (plus a surprise A Team reunion). Now everyone is on their way home and I am hanging out waiting for my gate to be called for my trip back home to Basel.

But, let’s get back to Edinburgh. Did I mention that I loved Edinburgh? We really didn’t venture too far from the Royal Mile, but the city was absolutely lovely. We’re going to do a two-parter again. I think I could have done everything in one post if I wanted to, but I’m posting from my phone and I don’t trust myself to not mess something up if I do it all in one post.

I met everyone in Edinburgh after a very early morning series of flights. I didn’t get to Edinburgh until late morning and ended up getting off the tram several stops early due the fact that I didn’t listen to Chris’s very clear instructions. It was fine, though, just meant that I got to walk and take in some of Edinburgh. I met with Chris and Mia on the street, who then got us back to the apartment we were staying at. After all was said and done, we didn’t leave the apartment again until 1, which meant that we had a short day in terms of daylight.

Our first stop was (obviously) lunch. We were going to find a place to sit down and eat but then my hipster Spidey senses went off and we saw a line of people going out the door for a restaurant. We did the one thing we had to do and stood in line for some pulled pork. The restaurant, Oink, is pretty straightforward. They do pulled pork sandwiches that you can get in different sizes. You can get a topping and a sauce and the crunchy skin parts. I thought the food was good, but this also led to what ended up being a trip-long debate on the appropriate meat-bread ratio of a sandwich. Chris and I are on team more meat, which is why we enjoyed our sandwich. Apparently there are others who are not on that team and those people are wrong.

From there, we walked down Victoria Street to the Grassmarket area, where we found an open air market. There was some shopping and more food (although we didn’t eat the macarons we got until later).

We then went to the nearby Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. We did walk around the graveyard a little, but we went to see Greyfriar’s Bobby because that was the one thing I absolutely had to see while I was there.

Bobby was a small dog who was adopted by one of the night guards of the kirkyard (John Gray). He and Bobby were inseparable for two years until Gray’s death. Bobby continued to go to the kirkyard to stick by Gray’s grave and to do the night rounds every day. At first, they kept kicking him out, but he eventually became a regular fixture and stayed there until his death 14 years later. The story tugs at every dog lovers heart and it doesn’t help that he looked like Bruce. We somehow ended up at Bobby’s statue almost every day of our trip and left him sticks at his grave on our last visit there.

There are more interesting things to see at the kirkyard, though. For Harry Potter fans, you can see a number of names you can recognize from the books, including Thomas Riddle, a Moody and a McGonagal. We spent about a minute trying to find those graves, but ended up walking around.

Speaking of Harry Potter, though, we followed up Greyfriar’s Kirkyard with a trip to one of the many geek culture stores in town. We didn’t spent too much time in it because it was essentially ThinkGeek the store, but I definitely came close to buying an ugly Christmas sweater.

We shifted to the Royal Mile and made our way down High Street to Holyrood Palace, stopping along the way at various touristy shops in search of “SFC plaid.” We also got some incredible fudge.

At Holyrood Palace, we debated whether we had enough time to do Arthur’s Seat. The hike up didn’t look bad until we saw how small the people at the top were. There wasn’t much light left in the day, so we decided to save it for another time and ultimately didn’t do it at all due to time and not having the right shoes for that sort of a walk. Next time.

We walked back to up Royal Mile with the intention of making it all the way up to Edinburgh Castle. We didn’t make it to the castle. Instead, we stopped along some small exhibit and then decided to take a break at the apartment for a while. In retrospect, we probably would have gone up to the castle if we knew how close the apartment was. Oh well.

After a short break, we made our way to the Ediburgh Christmas Market to officially kick off the Christmas market tour of Europe. We got our hot toddies and mulled wine and walked around the market a while. We even split a sausage and some garlic mushrooms for a Garbagnati signature pre-dinner snack. I opted out of the mushrooms and almost got us raclette, before deciding the line was too long for something I could get back in Basel. Also, we were just about to eat dinner.

We then had dinner at the Greyfriar’s Bobby pub (told you we saw a lot of Bobby), where we tried haggis (actually pretty good) and ate meat pies.

On our second night, Chris, Mia, and I did an Edinburgh ghost tour after our Highlands tour (and after almost eating at a Frankenstein themed pub because we could). Edinburgh seemed like a good city for ghost stories and we felt like we’d be able to find a good ghost/creepy history tour (rather than a ghost hunting tour, which are almost always awful).

We went with the City Explorers tour, which was fun. I liked our guide Kenny. He also put Chris’s acting chops to the test when he needed someone to help demonstrate what the public forms of punishment looked like. I could have done with less late night time in a graveyard but that’s just me.

Fortunately, the tour didn’t end too far from where we were staying so we grabbed a famous deep fried Mars bar (meh), walked up a surprisingly empty Victoria Street (inspiration for Diagon Alley) and called it a night.

This is a good stopping point and my flight is almost boarding, so we will pick up later with the rest of our stay.