Glasgow to Loch Ness to Home: The End of a Great Trip

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We woke up at 7 am for our last full day of the trip. Big plans, and a lot of driving. Breakfast consisted of sandwiches we made for the trip, plus a special treat.2016-08-18 19.45.54.jpg

We were debating the options for how to get up to Inverness and Loch Ness. One was a bus tour, but that gave us absolutely no control over the trip. Another was a train to Inverness, and then either rent a car or take a bus to Loch Ness.  But we decided that the best option was to drive it ourselves. Who can pass up a chance to drive through the Scottish Highlands, and especially in our Mercedes Benz A180?  We had to drive this thing!

The trip was just under 300 km, and once we were well out of Glasgow, it was gorgeous. We got into the highlands, and the rolling hills covered in trees soon gave way to treeless hills covered in purple heather and green scrub. Just amazing. The pictures taken from a moving car don’t do it justice (but click on them anyway to get a sense).

We eventually got up to Inverness, which is just north of Loch Ness, and very close to the North Sea.  Inverness is beautiful on its own, but we just blasted through, stopping only to get mustard for our homemade sandwiches.

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Without having any real idea on where to best see the 37 km long Loch Ness (and Nessie!), we decided to head to the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition. Big mistake. This centre is located 3 km from the loch itself, and is just a tourist trap. You can’t even see the loch from this combination of minimal exhibition, care and souvenir shop.  I asked one of the very bored parking attendants where the best place to visit the loch was, and he unhesitatingly said Castle Urquhart, and gave me directions.

Castle Urguhart was incredible! It’s located on a strategic piece of land slighting jutting out into Loch Ness, giving it an excellent view up and down the loch. Originally set up as a simple settlement in the 6th century, Castle Urquhart was built in the early 13th century, was soon captured by the English King Edward I, and went on to play a very important role in the wars for Scottish Independence.  Eventually it was destroyed by inhabitants in the 17th century to prevent its use by the Jakobites. So much history!

The castle ruins have many features still intact, and plaques did a great job of explaining the functions of different rooms and walls. This was my favourite place on the whole trip, and it being situated on Loch Ness was just a huge bonus. (Oh, and pay attention to the Latrine picture.  Yes, they pooped out of a hole in the upper floors, and it fell to the ground at the base of the tower.)

Eventually it was time to go home, and here’s where it got interesting.  It was starting to rain harder, and we were heading straight back down the loch towards Fort William.  Then it got darker and rained even harder.  The road back was like a narrower version of Irish roads, so narrow that there was rarely a centre line, and involved constant hills and turns.  Twice during the ride back our Apple maps told us of major problems ahead (not surprising given the conditions) that added over 40 kms to the white-knuckled trip.

But the good news is that one of the detours took us right beside the Dalwhinnie distillery, so we stopped in for a single malt tasting and the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. They’re very proud that Dalwhinnie is Scotland’s highest and coldest distillery. (Stock photo below as it was too rainy to get a good pic ourselves)

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After 5 hours we eventually made it back to Glasgow. Dead tired, we barely had enough energy to get pizza and hunt for Pokemon. Glasgow is a little darker version of Edinburgh, but still with amazing buildings and a wonderful sense of history (Glasgow City Chambers picture to the right).

They also have a massive Royal College building with a large relief sculpture of James Watt (a brilliant guy who. among many other things, invented the Watt steam engine which lead to the Industrial Revolution.)

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We were up even earlier the next morning, and were off to the airport. I had to say goodby to my Mercedes Benz A180…  And then we were on our way home to Canada.

This was a wonderful trip, and I really enjoyed spending so much time with Kevin.  We saw a lot of Ireland, from the beaches to the ports to the cities.  And we saw two of Scotland’s great cities, plus a magnificent trip through the Scottish highlands.  Didn’t see Nessie, but Castle Urquhart easily made up for it.

 

Edinburgh to Glasgow: Our First Glitch

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We got up fairly early to get out of the suburban hotel and took a taxi to the Edinburgh Waverley Train Station.  The idea was to put our bags in storage for the day, and then wander the city. The problem here was that while standing in a long Left Luggage line (not to be confused with Lost Luggage), we noticed that it would cost us £12 per bag for the day.  Just to store it in a big room! So we looked up options and found out that the Bus Station was only a 5 minute walk away, and we could get a locker for the day, easily big enough for both of our bags for only £6.50.

With our bags away, we started exploring this magnificent city filled with beautiful stone buildings. Everywhere we went, history was staring us in the face, and there were all these fascinating little archways leading to more areas to explore.

There were a couple of interesting aspects to the day.  Edinburgh was hosting the Fringe Festival, which meant there were thousands of people on the streets, as well as extremely goodfringe festival crowds.jpg street performers. And when these performers were in front of old buildings, it worked!  The one truly jarring visual was the Royal Bank of Scotland, est. 1727, with Fringe Festival tents and activities taking place on the front lawn.

It was amazing that so many people were able to withstand the unseasonably hot temperatures for Edinburgh.

waverley station.jpgOnce we’d had enough sightseeing, and were tired anyway, we gathered out bags and headed by train to Glasgow.  It only cost us £12.50 each. Definitely a bargain.And in fact Waverley station itself is quite a marvel.  It occupies a few city blocks in a low valley in the downtown area, and has roughly 25 acres all under a roof.

 

It’s when we got to Glasgow that the problem started.  I had rented a EuropCar through RentalCars.com and after a 3 km walk got to the EuropCar office. There I found a problem.  They wanted an extra £56 for me to return it to the airport, and an extra £24/day for mandatory insurance that RentalCars didn’t tell me about. That’s a LOT of extra charges.  i checked my agreement, and it stipulates that unless you call RentalCars.com from the rental car counter, they will not offer any refunds.  So I tried and the very friendly EuropCar tried to get in touch with them for over 30 minutes. No luck. Kevin tried online. No luck. Finally we gave in and took the car and all those massive extra charges. Pissed, but nothing we could do about it until we got back home.

But there was a silver lining. EuropCar upgraded us to a Mercedes Benz A180 !!!!  Which is great.  Because we certainly got good value out of it on the very next day……

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Kilkenny to Edinburgh: Enough of Ireland!


We woke up to another overcast day, but with light rain. After unsuccessfully checking the televised news for any hint of Canadian Olympic results, we headed out for more exploring. This time we headed away from the castle, eventually finding ourselves at St. Canice’s Cathedral. It was built in the 13th century, but the site has been used for Catholic worship since the 6th century. It’s a massive old cathedral, and many of the glass panes are now basically opaque. The cathedral is also surrounded on 3 sides by very old tombstones and monuments. Most far too faded to be legible.
However, it was the 100-foot tall 9th century Celtic Christian round tower that grabbed our attention. It’s a narrow tower with a shallow foundation and a slight leaning to one side. AND IT CAN BE CLIMBED!

Somehow I forgot to take a picture of it. But you can see a file pic here.

The climbing is all inside the very thick walled tower, where the widest space inside is maybe 5-6 feet across  at the bottom. This means the wooden ladders are almost vertical, and the landings are very narrow. In fact you have to kind of twist off to the side to get onto each landing. By the upper levels it was probably 4 feet or so wide. And when you get to about 7 feet from the open roof, you go up 5 well worn, very narrow and very wet rock steps. It was fun, and the resulting view was magnificent (panorama pic at top of post). The view even makes the castle look tiny. Those early Christians were smart!

We then wandered back to the hotel, checked out, and headed to the Dublin airport. It was about a 2 hour drive, in a light rain. In other words, quite boring.

The only odd aspect to the flight involved boarding. We had a gate that lead to a bus that took us to the plane. Nothing unusual there. But they made numerous announcements that it was very important that rows 1 to 10 board first. So rows 1 to 10 got on the bus first, and they naturally took the bus seats. And so when the rest of us got in the bus, we stood, close to the exits. They made another announcement on the bus that rows 1 to 10 had to board first. The bus stopped and of course rows 1 to 10 were last to get off because they were seated. Now we couldn’t tell who was in rows 1 to 1, so we all just lined and got on.   Very strange.

The rest of the day was uneventful. Landed, taxi, hotel, eat, walk about 5 km looking for Scottish Pokemon, then sleep.
But as a teaser, tomorrow wasn’t boring at all.

Cork to Kilkenny:  Our Trip Goes Medieval


It was another overcast day when we got up, but we had big plans!  Ok, unavoidable plans. Shopping.

We downed the suspect instant coffee provided in our room, and headed out.  And then found out that many shops are closed Mondays and Tuesdays, and the others don’t open until 10. That left us time to sit down for a leisurely breakfast. At 10 we hit the shops and did what we had to do, or most of what we had to do. And then back to the hotel to check out and head on to our next stop: Kilkenny.

This drive was less than 2 hours, or would have been if we didn’t get a little lost looking for gas. Words you don’t normally want to hear together, but we were fine. Really. We checked in to our beautiful hotel right in the heart of Kilkenny, and were so hungry we ate in the hotel restaurant before even going to our room.  Once again, the staff were incredibly good at handling allergies.  Ireland is amazing that way!  The shepherds pie was also the best I’ve ever had.  Best of all, it was smothered in cheese!


After that we headed straight over to the famous Kilkenny Castle, located a 3 minute walk away.  It’s an amazing castle in incredible shape. The castle was built at the start of the 13th century, and was sold to Kilkenny in 1967 for £50. Since then, they’ve had numerous restoration phases leaving this a wonderful example of medieval living. 


Not surprisingly, every room had a fireplace, or two, and there were staircases all over the place. All the rooms we saw had been beautifully restored. There were also quite a few worldly elements, including a Moorish staircase and two Chinese rooms.  But my favorite room was the long, tall and spacious Picture Gallery.


There was also a wonderful man working there who clearly loved what he was doing.  We ended up chatting with him about the deteriorating heraldic and genealogy linens, started in the 13th century and running through to the 17th century. He mentioned that every few years the Butler group meets to discuss, correct, argue and generally have a great time about the accuracy of the transcriptions. We also talked about the contents of the library, the trade offs between dry versus wet moats, the Sally ports, and many other features of the castle.

After touring the castle, Kevin and I went for a walk around the outside of the stone wall surrounding the incredibly large grounds. This place was certainly designed to be defended! I also noticed a sign that said the walkway was restored to its present condition in 1861.


Supper involved us wandering around Kilkenny, including their quirky version of Diagonal Alley.  Many restaurants were closed, and we didn’t like others, so we went back to the hotel restaurant. Again, their allergy awareness was fantastic, and the food was great.


We also noticed that people and culture here seem more natural than the other Irish locations we’ve been in. Yes, they cater to tourists, but here it seems that they offer their culture instead of offering what they think will make them the most money.  It’s hard to describe, but we both noticed.

That’s it for another great day in Ireland.

Kilkee to Cork: Back to Civilization

We woke up on Monday to brilliant sunshine, apparently rare for the denizens of Kilkee. As a result the place was packed. We checked out at 11, threw our bags in the car, and decided to explore the coast south of Kilkee. Although it looked like the Southern side of Kilkee bay was just a jumble of rocks, it turned out these rocks are host to swarms of migrating humans.

The tidal pools are the big draw. There were probably a dozen of them, and some were deep enough that people dive into them. The temperature must have been fine as well, as kids from about 2 to 90 were enjoying them. Kevin and I went into a smaller pool (we didn’t bring our swim suits with us), and found it quite nice, other than discovering that barnacles are sharp, and seaweed is slippery.

There must have been hundreds of people on those rocks, far more than were actually on the beach itself.

Before long though we had to pack up and get on the road to Cork. It was more or less identical to the ride to Kilkee. Beautiful wide smooth roads and uncomfortably narrow county roads. Cork itself looks huge, with a massive downtown and lots of industry. Surprising as the population of Cork City is only about 120,000.

But it’s the entrance to our Hotel Isaacs that blew me away. You walk through an arch off the sidewalk into a beautiful little retreat with a tall rock waterfall at the other end. And the rooms are really nice, with 4 USB charging ports spread around the room, plus a North American plug at the little desk. 


Oh, and the wifi actually exists. Its hard not to be impressed. After settling in, we headed out for a long walk. Cork has steep hills heading into the touristy city Centre. It also has a wide canal going through that’s very similar to Dublin, along with a vibrant restaurant and shopping area. 

Supper was quite enjoyable, with both live Irish folk music and televised Olympics. But the biggest problem with the Olympics is that they only show uk athletes. Nobody else gets a mention.

And now for a completely irrelevant history lesson.  No need to keep reading. Ogham (pronounced oam) is the primitive written form of the Irish language, used roughly between the 2nd and 6th centuries. It’s primarily written vertically and read from bottom to top.


It’s pretty cool stuff. Now, if you wanted to write out a word, you’d just make the cross lines on the vertical line in Irish. For instance, the word CLANN, meaning ‘family’ would look like this.

And that’s the end of this completely random lecture on ancient Irish languages that has absolutely nothing to do with Kevin and I.

Dublin to Kilkee: The Great Trans-Continental Car Adventure


We were up the next morning at the crack of 11, grabbed a quick breakfast, and set off for our grand trip across the great continent of Ireland. From east coast to west coast in a single day (actually about 4 hours). We took the wide, smooth M7 highway for about 2/3 of the trip. Wide lanes and sparse traffic made it a dream. It also allowed me to see the benefit of hedgerows. The median separating east and west traffic used about 10 foot tall hedgerows the whole way, and it was rare indeed to even see the other side. Even taller hedgerows lined the sides of the highway.  
But once we got off the M7, the highways got ridiculously narrow again, and coupled with speed limits of 100 km/hr it certainly had my attention. Imagine our Ontario country roads, but 3/4 the width, faster speed limits, and absolutely no shoulders. Ok, if you’ve imagined all that, then add cyclists.  I’m not kidding. Although I only passed 3 of them, that’s at least 3 who are crazy.

We reached the sleepy seaside resort town of Kilkee without incident. Checked into the B&B, and were soon exploring the town. What surprised us the most was that the sand beach was about 50 metres from waters edge to the sea wall. A massive beach that was well populated by people wearing long sleeved shirts and long pants.


After incredibly delicious fresh cod and chips, we decided to head out to a nearby long and tall promontory for the view. Looking back we were amazed to see 3 different whirlpools out in the bay. Hard to show in the picture, but these whirlpools were there for the hours we were walking.  Here’s one of them.


From that amazing and slightly scary promontory, we then went farther north to another even taller and longer and scarier one. Gorgeous views, along tall cliffs. The pictures just don’t do it justice. This will definitely be one of my favorite times from this trip.

During our walk we saw one island that looked exactly like the Luke Skywalker island from the movie, but turns out the real island is just a little farther south down the coast. 

And then as we were walking past we saw a familiar cave/cliff formation to the north. Looks just like the seaside cave from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Turns out, it almost is! The Cliffs of Moher, which is the one used in the movie, are basically in the same set of cliffs, but about 50 km north of us.

We headed back to Kilkee after that, wandered a bit through the town, ate some pizza, watched the Olympics while drinking Guinness, and that was it for another great day in Ireland.

Getting Here – Dublin

Before I explain what this blog is about, I need to say something.

Guinness really is better in Dublin than it is in Canada. I didn’t think that was possible.

Ok, the blog.  Kim couldn’t take time off work, and we had a chance to use a lot of West Jet points (thanks Doug!), so Kevin and I decided to take a trip. Based on West Jet’s few European destinations, we quickly settled on Ireland and Scotland.

The flight over the pond was pleasantly boring.  There was an annoying period where we sat on the Dublin runway for an hour while they sorted out gates.  But that was all part of the anticipation.

The next problem was that we got the car at 8 am, and our hotel room wouldn’t be available until 2. That meant we had 6 hours of sleep-deprived entertaining ourselves. Or go someplace pleasant and mindless to while away some of those hours. The Avis woman suggested nearby Malahide castle, and that sounded ideal.

The excitement really started when we got our rental car, and for the first time I was driving on the other side of the road. And such narrow roads they are!  I only drove onto the (luckily very low) curb a few times before starting to get the hang of it. Kevin was brave enough not to say anything about that, just uttering the occasionally soft “left, not right”.

I have to tell you, the first few roundabouts were very exciting, but without incident.

We got there at 8:30, and couldn’t help but notice how incredibly green everything was. Right down to the green moss growing on the green vines that were covering the green trees.  A lot of green.

Amazingly we got the closest parking spot, which wasn’t surprising as we were the only ones there.  And then we found out it doesn’t actually open until “half 9”.  After a brief huddle figuring out that meant 9:30, we headed into downtown Malahide for much needed coffee and real food.

Here’s where we had a pleasant surprise. Each food item was labeled with codes indicating the presence of 13 common allergens. Kevin checked and found that it wasn’t mandated, it’s just that pretty much everybody labels food like this. Needless to say, we were impressed.

At 9:30 we headed back to the Malahide castle and did a short tour. The old buildings were old and kind of interesting. But the only thing that really impressed us, other than those cool trees – see pic below, were the acres and acres of carefully manicured lawns that seemed to have no purpose other than being green. No football pitches or golf courses or gardens. 


From there we decided to drive to our hotel in downtown Dublin, and hope they could at least take our luggage off our hands. The trip into heavy traffic went pretty well, but we just couldn’t figure out what the road markings mean.  Kevin noticed that the white lines separating cars driving in different directions were more often dashes than solid.  And the markings between lanes going in the same direction were more often solid than dashes.  

Luckily the hotel could take us right away. And about 15 minutes later we were asleep in our room.

We headed out after that to explore Dublin and get something to eat. Initially Dublin had the feel of a large town rather than a city of 1.8 million. But once we hit the city Centre people were everywhere.  Probably as many people as pubs!  Yes, that many people! Oh, we also passed a few heraldic shops, and one really amazing looking Pen shop.


We ended up eating at the Temple Bar in the famous Temple Bar district. It’s a rather large bar with the largest tv I’ve ever seen. I might have read somewhere that in the 18th century it had the largest tv north of Florence. Or something like that. And that’s where I discovered first hand that Dublin Guinness really is better than anywhere else I’ve ever had it. And their curry was fantastic. 

On the way back we went along the canal, and started to see the real size of Dublin.


We headed back to the hotel for relaxation, and then about 8 went back out for food. Again, we noticed the fantastic allergen notification system in the menu. This really helped Kevin relax regarding food. Oh, And I had my first Beamish Stout. Excellent!



And that’s the first day.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Dublin has a very strange and interesting architectural mix of the whimsical along with jarring impositions of different styles.