Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Back again to Edinburgh

Last month, my flatmates and I decided we would head to Edinburgh for a day of museums and tours. Yesterday, we finally did it!

The day started at 9:45, when we left our flat to catch the 10:36 train. I was sure we weren’t going to make it, especially considering Donald’s habit of missing his trains. It took about an hour to reach Edinburgh Waverley, where we met up with Gavin, who had gone home to Peebles for the mid-semester break.

Tyla always gets away with a child's ticket, but it meant she had to sit away so they wouldn't know she wasn't under 15. Not fair! Her ticket cost half the adult fare.

First stop was the National Museum of Scotland, which housed Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal to be successfully cloned. On the way to her display, we went through exhibits about the history of Scotland, including artefacts from the witch-hunts.

One of my favourite parts was the technological history exhibit, which featured a first-generation iPod. I couldn’t believe they had one in a museum. It made me feel really, really old, considering I had my third generation until just last year.

Some of the museum reminded me more of a science centre, such as this robotic arm that would spell out whatever was written into its computer.

Next we went to the Talbot Rice Gallery, which had an exhibition for Alastair Gray. I wasn't a huge fan of the art, though some of my flatmates, such as Anton, said it was one of the day's highlights.

Next up was the Surgeon’s Hall Museum, which displayed surgery tools throughout history, as well as photos and information about interesting surgical cases. No photos allowed inside unfortunately. I’m not keen on seeing anything medical, but it was definitely an interesting museum.

From there, we went across the street to stop for lunch, where I had some delicious Scotch pie and chips. Essentially, Scotch pie is pastry with meat inside, and it was pretty tasty.

My flatmates got very excited upon seeing this advertisement. We have a few songs that are played multiple times every day in my flat, and Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side is one of them.

We walked along the Royal Mile until we found a fudge house, but after such a big lunch, I couldn’t bare the thought of eating any of it.

The last museum was the Scottish Whisky Experience, which took participants on a little barrel ride detailing the process of making Scotch whisky. Then we got to learn a bit about the characteristics of Scotch whisky and how it varies depending on where in Scotland it is made. For example, the lowlands makes whisky with a citrusy smell, while highlands has more of a honey vanilla scent. Speyside whisky is meant to have a tropical banana smell, while Islay whisky has a distinct smoky scent.

We each got a taste of whisky and got to keep the little glasses.

We saw a room filled with different types of whisky, including one from 1897. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to taste this one!

Some of them came in cute little containers.

We wandered towards Edinburgh Castle, but it costs £14 to go inside, so we’ll save that for another day.

From here, we got spectacular views of the city.

We headed to a pub called the Halfway House for dinner, where we shared some haggis, neeps and tatties, the traditional way to eat the meal. Neeps are mashed turnips, and tatties is what Scottish people tend to call potatoes.

I had tried haggis before, but just a wee taste. This is the first time I had it made in a traditional way. It’s not too bad. It’s ground meat with lots of oats, which really give it its flavour. I’d definitely have it again. I see it everywhere on pizza, which sounds kind of interesting. I’ll have to give it a try.

Finally, we went on a New Europe Tours ghost tour. I picked this tour because I really hate being scared, but I’m really fascinated by some of the dark history. They advertised that it focused on storytelling rather than having actors jumping out and trying to scare the tourists in that manner.

The guide said this bridge was built and as it connected the old and new city, the government wanted the oldest person to go across it. Unfortunately, she died a few days before the opening, but since she was so excited, they decided to bring her across. And thus began a bridge connected with death. Our guide, James, said the part we were standing on had collapsed and killed many people living underneath. It's also one of the most popular suicide locations in Edinburgh, with a few people jumping each year.

It was definitely still scary, especially as we walked through the Old Calton Burial Ground. They warned us coming inside that it was open to the public all night, and thus we might encounter some people who enjoy hanging out in cemeteries at night, and who sometimes like to jump out and scare tourists. Not good for my nerves!

There was one particularly creepy gravestone. Our guide said some people believe this picture to have taken shape naturally due to the weather, while others think it was intentionally placed there. I can’t remember whose gravestone it was, but apparently it went against the person’s wishes to be buried there, leaving a very angry ghost.

At one point, the guide brought us inside a mausoleum (after telling stories of creepy happenings inside the David Hume mausoleum, which has since been closed) and told us stories of body snatchers and grave robbers. Apparently, it was legal to take people’s bodies since it was not considered their own belongings after death–although it was illegal to steal their belongings, which remained in their possession.

Our guide explained that sometimes, people were buried six feet under, with other people four feet under, and finally someone else two feet under. He described times where it was raining so strongly in Edinburgh that some of the topsoil revealing old bones underneath.

It was also apparently not so rare for people to be buried alive due to inaccurate testing for death. Therefore, there are rumours of strings reaching from graves to a bell, which a person was to pull if they were still alive after being buried, which subsequently lead to the sayings “saved by the bell” and “deadringer” (though a Google search shows sites saying this may not actually be the origin).

Next we headed up to Calton Hill, where we got some of the most stunning views of the city. We were being told stories about evil faeries and demons whilst walking through a dark path heading up to a half-built ancient-Greek-style building and a monument with a cross on top. Normally, I would have been far more frightened, but I was captivated by the view. I wish my camera could have captured it much better, but the photos can’t do it justice. I’m going to have to go back in daylight to see it again.

About a fifth of this building was built before they realized it wouldn't serve any good purpose, so they halted construction. Therefore, there's a fifth of a Greek-style building sitting at the top of a hill in Edinburgh.

Although the tour was meant to go from 9:30-11, we were barely two thirds of the way through at this time. However, we had to catch an 11:33 train from Edinburgh Waverley, so we missed some of it. Gavin had to catch an earlier bus, and Matti has returned to Finland for a family emergency, so we’ll do the ghost walk again with them later in the spring, and plan to take a taxi back to Stirling.

This day has shown me that there is still so much to see and do in Edinburgh. I just know I’ll be back more than a few times, and I just can’t wait!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Guinness is good for you!

Last week, I went with a few friends on a weekend trip to Dublin, where we took a walking tour and visited many places.

This was my first experience on a Ryanair flight. It was definitely the scariest plane ride I have ever taken, though it was likely because of the distance rather than the fault of the airline. The flight was a bit less than an hour long. It felt like we had taken off, stayed in the air for 10 minutes, and began our landing. This meant the whole flight hadn’t reached a high enough altitude that the plane would stop shaking so much and my head would stop spinning. When it took off, it made this awful alarm-like sound, and it kept feeling like something was wrong. But alas, we arrived safe and sound. It was the first time I’ve ever seen the line for non-EU arrivals to be much shorter than EU arrivals–though I suspect most Ryanair customers are Europeans.

One strange part of the flight was the ongoing advertisements. There were constant announcements telling passengers about what they can buy, including non-smoking cigarettes. When we landed ahead of schedule, the intercom played a victorious sounding trumpet melody. Very strange airline, but I’m not complaining since it cost us less than a bus ticket from Ottawa to Toronto.

We arrived at our hostel, Dublin Globetrotters Hostel, close to midnight. We checked in, put our bags away, and headed into Temple Bar to see Dublin nightlife. My first impression was that it was a lot emptier than I had pictured, especially considering it was a Friday night. We ended up walking around the main pub area, though we quickly decided it would be wiser to head back to get rested so we’d be ready for a long Saturday.

The next morning, we woke up fairly early and headed down for the complimentary “Irish continental breakfast.” It was pretty much what I would expect from a continental breakfast in North America: eggs, toast, bacon, sausage, fruit, coffee, tea, and juice. The only part that made it different was the beans. We then headed out on a free walking tour of the city.

This is the second New Europe Tours free walking tour that I’ve done. They’re really great. Our tour guide, Chris, emphasized the historical side of telling stories, rather than stressing the entertainment value.

Some of it focused on the humour behind some aspects of Ireland, such as their statue of Lady Justice. Apparently, the artist decided it would be a good idea to have her hold working scales, meaning that when it rains, one of the sides fill, the balance is off, and someone gets executed for speeding.

The front of Dublin Castle. Not much of a castle. The tour guide joked about how miserable it is compared to something like Edinburgh Castle.

The back of the castle, however, was a bit more grand.

The architecture is very interesting in Dublin, with such a range of styles. On the right is neo-gothic, the middle is more modern, and the left is what the tour guide said could only be described as lego blocks.

Temple Bar during the day. It's essentially a small area filled with many pubs.

This library is part of Trinity College, which apparently holds every book ever published in Ireland. It's also the filming location of the Harry Potter movie library scenes. Unfortunately, it was closed to the public when we came about on the Sunday, so we weren't able to get inside.

The Irish painted all of their mailboxes green to differentiate themselves from the iconic red English mailboxes. Unfortunately, they did not chisel off the sign of the crown.

The tour guide talked a lot about why there is so much animosity between Ireland and England, emphasizing the potato famine. This is when Irish workers were forced to live in mountains mostly living off potatoes because the English farm owners found it was cheaper than allowing them to live off the farm on which they worked. When potatoes became infected and died, the English did not allocate funds to help the Irish people, and continued exporting their crops. Almost a third of Irish people died, some of whom tried to emigrate and were often denied entry, for example when they tried to enter Canada through Montreal. There was a monument to this famine that showed a group of people starving and withering away.

I really enjoyed this tour, although it was almost four hours long. I think I might switch my courses next semester so I can get into the history of Northern Ireland after 1916. I don’t know much about the history, so it could be interesting!

Next we took the all-important tour of the Guinness Brewery. It was not so much of a brewery as a museum depicting the history of Guinness and how the beer is made. There were past advertisements and even one doctor’s letter prescribing Guinness. They say it cures insomnia!

This is Alessandra and me in the room devoted to barley. It was almost like a sandbox but filled with barley instead. There were areas dedicated to each of the four ingredients in Guinness: barley, hops, yeast, and water.

At the top of the brewery was the Gravity Bar, where we got a pint of Guinness and saw a view of Dublin from quite high up. I kept hearing about the amazing view and that this would be the best part of the tour, but it was much too crowded. We could hardly stand there, let alone sit and enjoy our pints, so we took a couple pictures and headed into a room where we sat with the sound of old Guinness commercials that proceeded to stick in my head for the rest of the trip. “Guinness is good for you!”

That evening, we went to a restaurant with traditional Irish food, where I ate some Irish stew. It wasn’t bad, but definitely not worth the £18. It almost tasted like Campbell’s beef chunky soup, including that overly salty taste.

The next day, we woke up early, ate our Irish continental breakfast, and began our day. The highlight was the Old Jameson Distillery, which took a former distillery and converted it into a type of museum, demonstrating how Jameson whiskey is made.

At the end of the tour, they gave us each a glass of the whiskey and we could choose if we wanted to mix it. I had mine with Canada Dry ginger ale, which was actually quite good. We also got to taste three different whiskeys: one from Scotland (Johnny Walker’s black), one from the US (Jack Daniel’s), and Jameson. We had a taste of each and told the guide that we all preferred the Jameson whiskey (although in reality, the Scotch was better) and received little certificates designating us whiskey tasters. Saori and I purchased “Jameson-infused fudge” to bring home to our flatmates, and we moved on.

Our group of travellers split up from here. I stayed with Saori and Alessandra, and we wandered around a bit until settling on a Starbucks, where we chatted and people-watched until it was time to head back to the airport.

This flight was much smoother, and it only took about 35 minutes of flying to touch ground in Glasgow.

All in all, Dublin was lots of fun. Once again, it was no Edinburgh, but it had its charm and I enjoyed learning about the history.

And now, back to reality. I'll try to get another post up this week covering Thanksgiving dinner and a few other little events of the week.