27 April 2011

Road Trip Day 2: Stonehenge & Canterbury

On Saturday we set out bright and early in search of Stonehenge. After the GPS led us off-road (literally), we finally found the famous stones. They are absolutely in the middle of nowhere. We were driving along with nothing on either side of the road, and we then we spotted it all of a sudden. The only thing to keep Stonehenge company are the tourists and sheep grazing nearby. We were really lucky to have beautiful weather again so we were eager to spend some time in the sun wandering around Stonehenge. I will admit, I left with a new sunburn. My wimpy white skin was no match for the equally wimpy English sun.
Elizabeth and me at Stonehenge.
You can't go up to it anymore, but there is a wide circle roped off around it. As I'm sure you all know, Stonehenge is infamous for its mystery. We don't really know exactly what it was used for or who exactly built it, but that really only adds to the experience. We enjoyed the audio tour and especially enjoyed the gift shop. I was tickled by a sweatshirt that said "Stonehenge: Est. 3000 B.C." But alas, I left with my mandatory coffee mug in hand.
There was no way I could leave without a Mom Picture first.
Canterbury Cathedral
The front of Canterbury Cathedral.
From there we made our way to Canterbury. The drive was a few hours from Stonehenge, so we again passed the time jamming to some tunes and appreciating the views. After dropping our bags off, we immediately set off in search of the famed Canterbury Cathedral. I always love visiting massive cathedrals and churches. The decadence never fails to impress and I am always genuinely amazed with the result. In this instance, the Canterbury Cathedral is massive. We wandered the grounds and surrounding courtyards for quite a while before heading off for dinner. After an oh-so-delicious Italian feast, we returned to Canterbury Cathedral for their Easter Vigil mass. 
Enjoying the grounds of the cathedral. Check out that sunburn.

Inside Canterbury Cathedral for mass.
Upon entering we were immediately given a candle and 36-page booklet for mass. That should have been our first warning that mass was going to be loooong. After sitting in our seats, the whole lot of us filed outside where there was a fire roaring. The Archbishop of Canterbury was there, and he began the service by lighting a big candle and some incense from the fire. We then all filed back into the church -- slowly, might I add. In the doorway we each lit our candles, which only bottlenecked the group. At this point, all of the lights were turned off inside so were forced to navigate via candlelight. Oh, there was also some great singing going on up front. For about 10 (excruciating) minutes, a man sang loudly and monotonously. Let's put it this way, his song alone went on for 2 pages of the booklet. Aaaaand that's about how the rest of the mass went. After hearing a couple more songs that threatened to lull is to sleep and the stories of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea and Jonah and the whale, we were itching to escape. We had already been there for 70 minutes and were only 14 pages into the booklet. It was shaping up to be a looooong(er) mass and were were already nodding off. At the first available moment, we made our escape. All in all, it was a bit disappointing. We were all jazzed because we were going to Easter mass at Canterbury Cathedral, but we didn't enjoy it at all. I will say that it was cool to have the Archbishop of Canterbury give mass, but that's all I really liked about it. Needless to say, I don't think I'll ever convert to the Church of England. 

26 April 2011

Road Trip Day 1: Bath

After bumming around Edinburgh for a couple of weeks, I headed down to England to visit Elizabeth. On Good Friday I hopped on an early flight and met up with Elizabeth at London Stansted at about 7:30. After downing a couple of lattes and donuts, we were on our way to Bath. From there the drive was a few hours, so we spent our time catching up and jamming out to some music.The views were pretty amazing - a lot of rolling hills interspersed with bright yellow fields of rape flowers. 
Entrance to the Jane Austen Centre.
We arrived at Bath around noon. After freshening up a bit, we headed out to see the town. After walking around the High Street a bit and grabbing a quick pasty for lunch, we made our way to the Jane Austen Centre.The museum itself is pretty small, so it didn't really take too long to go through the entire thing. We did enjoy the fact that all of the workers were in period costume and that the history of her life was covered quite thoroughly. Plus, Mr. Darcy -- and I'm talkin' about the good BBC Darcy -- was everywhere. It should really be renamed the Colin Firth Centre. When you walk in, you are immediately greeted with his handsome face welcoming you. Most rooms had his picture somewhere, but the best was the gift shop. Most things being sold had his face on it, including a full size poster. I especially appreciated the poster on display, complete with an Oscar newly attached to it. I left happy, with my Mr. Darcy coffee mug in hand. 

Entrance to the Roman Baths
Our next logical stop was the town's namesake - the Roman Baths. I entered the museum with really no previous knowledge of what the baths actually were. Sure, I knew about the public bathing aspect, but that was pretty much it. The baths themselves draw from the hot springs, which then run into the river. There is a prevailing belief that the water can cure any ailment, so the baths were traditionally used as a cure-all. Their origins date back to the Roman occupation of Britain between the first and fifth centuries. Once the Romans withdrew, the Roman Baths were gradually built up over the next few hundred years. In its heyday, the baths were a way for the elite to socialize and Bath became a resort town. People would flock from all over the country in search of a place to rent for the summer months, where they would enjoy the richness and relaxation that the Roman Baths had to offer. 
View of the Great Bath with the cathedral in the background.
Mom Picture - always a classic.
Sacred Spring - due to underlying gases that are released, it looks like it is boiling. 
The Frigidarium - the cool pool of water that was entered after the Great Bath.
We didn't have much else on the agenda after the Roman Baths. We checked out the Circus, which is a circular ring of townhouses. They are divided into three equal sections and date back to the middle of the 18th century. In the center of the ring are a few large trees, which look like they were probably planted as saplings when the Circus was completed. Jane Austen writes about walking in the Circus, so we naturally tried to follow in her footsteps. It's kind of funny, really, how much Jane Austen is associated with the town of Bath. During the about five years that she lived in Bath with her family, she complained constantly of writer's block. Austen was apparently turned off by the richness of the resort town and she could not wait to return to the country.

20 April 2011

Cherry Blossoms

Two years ago while visiting Kari, Cat, and Blythe in Washington D.C. I was able to (barely) catch the cherry blossom trees. The beautiful flowering trees are just one of the many things that the city is known for, so I was thrilled and became a wee bit obsessed. 
Cherry blossoms....beautiful!
Cherry blossoms and the Capitol Building. Win!
Which brings me to now....I am having a major love affair with Edinburgh at the moment. There are cherry blossoms all over the city, which has made an already beautiful city all the more charming. I've spent the last couple of days walking around with my camera out, feeling like it's my first week all over again. I wasn't expecting them, so the flowering trees have been a lovely surprise.
I love the color pink, so this suits me just fine.
Throw in the castle, and I'm a happy woman.
Princes Street Gardens are all the more gorgeous.
Princes Street....makes me love shopping even more, which is probably a bad thing.
The Meadows - makes for a great walk home.
Mom Picture, of course.

16 April 2011

Hey Oban you're so fine...

Check out that blue sky...doesn't
 happen very often here.
Two years ago when I studied abroad in Edinburgh, I was blessed with some pretty great flatmates. I've already spoken a bit about Kari, so now it's Catriona's turn. Catriona is from Oban, which is in the Western Highlands. She invited me for a small visit, so I jumped at the opportunity. On Monday morning I grabbed a train and was on my way. The train itself was gorgeous. The view out the windows were breathtaking and I kept grabbing my camera in an attempt to capture it. 
Beautiful view from the train window.
Catriona met me at the train station and we were immediately on our way. Our first stop was a little beach. Oban is right on the Atlantic, so the ocean and the surrounding Highlands were remarkable. There was a little swing set at the beach. It was quite possibly the most beautiful view I have ever had from a swing. It sure as heck beat Woodview School's playground.

Now this is the life...
I mean, the view is only OK...
From there we made out way to Castle Stalker. Now, anyone that has ever been to Scotland will recognize this from the postcards. It is completely surrounded by water on Loch Laich, so you can't go up to it. Instead, there is a little overlook cafe where you can admire the view while sipping a cup of coffee. On a fun note, it was apparently used while filming Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 

Castle Stalker, straight out of a postcard.
That night, Catriona and I made a delicious Italian feast for dinner. It was perfectly complemented with the beginning of our Grey's Anatomy fest. We rented season one of our mutually favored show, and it was beyond finished by the next night. I'm not sure if we should be proud or ashamed.

It looked kinda like a tiny Colosseum.
The next day started at Oban's finest, McCaig's Tower. A rich old man, John Stuart McCaig, designed and built the tower himself. It was meant to be a monument to his family, but it was unfinished. When he died, he stipulated in his will that his money go towards finishing the tower. Needless to say, his family was pissed. They sued for control over his estate and the money then ended up going to his sister. The best part is that when his sister died, she also left her money to the same thing. The exact same lawsuit and outcome followed. Anyways, despite the harried past, McCaig's Tower is a pretty cool and quirky place. It is set high up in Oban, so the views from the walls are beautiful.

View from McCaig's Tower. Hello Atlantic!
Enjoying the blooming spring flowers at McCaig's Tower!
Our next stop that morning was Dunstaffnage Castle. This is apparently one of the oldest standing stone castle in Scotland. It was built in the early 13th century. Dates like that always blow my mind. I mean, it's older than my entire country! Dunstaffnage has some interesting history. There is some speculation that the Stone of Scone was once there, although it is more likely that it was at Iona. Since the 15th century, the castle has been held by the Clan Campbell. To this day, there is still a post called the Hereditary Captain of Dunstaffnage. Nowadays, the only requirement of the office is that they have to spend 3 nights a year at the castle. Considering there is no roof and it is apparently haunted, I'm not sure how awesome those 3 nights would be.

Oban is, according to Catriona, the seafood capital of the world. So for lunch we had to get some. After a delicious seafood pie, we were on our way again. For the afternoon we took a drive to the Bridge Over The Atlantic. Built in 1782, you cross the bridge to get to the Isle of Seil. It was actually kinda freaky driving over it. It's only one lane, so you have to be sure that no one is coming from the other direction. Also, the arch is so high that you lose sight of the road when you're going over the top. It's a very simple bridge, but the view is, again, beautiful. Actually, I'm not sure that the views were ever once underwhelming the entire trip.

Pretty pretty pretty!

Afterwards, we had a bit of an unintentional adventure. While driving around, we hit a huge pothole and got a flat tire. We pulled the car over and grabbed our cell phones, only to discover that we didn't have a signal. Well...that's a bit of an issue. There were some houses nearby, so Catriona ran over and knocked on their doors in hopes of being able to use a phone. Unfortunately, no one answered there...and at this point we were at a bit of a loss. Neither of us had ever changed a tire, so we weren't sure how to even begin. (Note to self: LEARN!) Luckily, a car happened to pass by and Catriona flagged the driver down. As she was asking to borrow his phone, he offered to have a look at it. He ended up changing the tire for us, which was absolutely amazing. We both felt like a slob watching him do it, but I couldn't help but feel like this was a scene directly out of a movie. He was our knight in shining honor, saving two damsels in distress. On the plus side, we were at least stranded along a beautiful shoreline. 
Pretty stellar place to be stranded.
Frolicking in Glencoe.
We settled on a visit to Fort William. We drove very leisurely, stopping frequently to get out of the car and take pictures. I think I made Catriona stop like 50 times - it was that pretty. It was a fairly rainy day (shocker) but that type of weather tends to suit the landscape. With the mist and grey clouds, the Highlands look majestic and like something out of a movie. I especially enjoyed driving through Glencoe. There, we stopped and walked along the road a bit. Glencoe is known for its scenic Highlands and an infamous massacre that happened there in 1692. I have been to Glencoe before, but had always been slightly disappointed. I'd always been to the visitor center, which doesn't provide very remarkable views. Driving through the park, however, I feel like I finally got the Glencoe experience.

Just one of the many beautiful views during our drive.
Check out the perfect reflection in the loch!
Catriona and me. Holy skinny arm Batman!
After a lunch stop in town, Catriona and I headed the Fort William gondola. This gondola brings you up the Nevis Mountain Range. Ben Nevis the highest mountain in the United Kingdom and all of the British Isles. At 4,409 feet, it's a pretty impressive sight. I really enjoyed this part, since it was a cool experience and it provided me with gorgeous views -- which is my favorite part of any trip. It's apparently Britain's only mountain gondola, so it's a fairly unique experience over here. Luckily it wasn't that far off the ground, because then I would have really been freaking out.

Pretty sweet views during our gondola ride.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this little trip. Oban was gorgeous and I couldn't believe that this was where Catriona grew up. I felt like this was more of a genuine Scottish experience -- goodbye coach trips! I hardly knew ye.

View of Kilchurn Castle from the train - another one of Scotland's standard postcards.

I woke up one morning and this was outside my window. Catriona was not as impressed and excited as I was.
Daffodils are everywhere! Makes me feel like spring is officially here.
Skinny arming it with Castle Stalker. I sense a new picture category...
Mom Picture, or Sororitastic Picture?
I could not get over the combination of the Atlantic and the Highlands.
One of the 50 times I made Catriona stop so I could take a picture.
Dipping my toes in the Atlantic!
Hair, billowing in the wind. Majestic Mom Picture.