I’m writing this post with my Apple MacBook Pro. This is a big deal in Nikkyland.
My first laptop was a trusty 15.4″ Acer acquired right before going to college. It was big, powerful, and was about as portable as a large water yak. It quickly got a permanent side living by my desktop computer screens in the dorm, and was only ported around when I felt it was worth the effort. It was stolen in 2011, and the replacement was a generic HP Ultrabook that I was still (sparsely) using until fairly recently.
These systems almost immediately had their Windows operating systems replaced with Ubuntu Linux, and were my main Linux systems over the past decade. As such, I tended to classify these as better to be productive on because of the Unix-y functionality and better software package management. Windows is for photos and games, you see.
As the Ultrabook turned 5, I started looking for replacements.
Simultaneously, I’ve been running on Apple-based laptops for the past three years at work. First a 15″ super powerful MacBook Pro, and now a 13″ MacBook Pro Retina. Learning how to be productive on the pseudo-Unixy Apple systems was frustratingly annoying as they lack many of the essential tools developers really do need, and instead we have to rely on 3rd party package managers and hacked-up solutions in order to get things done.
Yet after a few years I found myself not exactly hating working on them. Once I realized that it’s basically a system to use a browser and run a code editor on, it didn’t require a lot of maintenance or thinking about. It just worked in its own weird frankenstein way, the hardware was reliable, and it was well constructed.
The announcement of the late-2016 MacBook Pros with the touchbar seemed like a good time to jump ship onto the Apple side of the aisle. A few weeks after their release, I plopped down for the 13″ MacBook Pro with TouchBar. And that hurt a little, even with work paying for half of the system.
A month or so of waiting, it arrived! These models have received a lot of press attention, so here are my impressions after using it for a few weeks.
It’s not hard to regard the touchbar as anything other than a gimmick, and at launch a precious few applications support the touchbar besides Apple-made programs. However, it does show a surprisingly amount of utility once some sort of effort is made to integrate it with daily use.
I went through a lot of thought before eventually landing on the smaller 13″ model. Although I could certainly use the extra power, it’d immediately land where my other larger laptops are: left at home. I don’t miss the larger size at all, especially with my desktop providing most of my computing power.
Much wailing and gnashing of teeth was had over the announcement that this model would only have 4 USB-C ports and 1 3.5mm headphone jack. As an Android user who has a Nexus 6p, this was absolutely wonderful news.
I can charge my phone using a native USB-C cable from my laptop, and I can even use my fairly highly rated USB-C phone chargers to provide ~15W of power into the laptop. It’s not enough to replenish the battery when under heavy load, but it’s a handy trickle charger that can either fill your battery up overnight, or significantly decrease your battery usage.
This means I can use any of the Monoprice Obsidian chargers I already have around the house and work for sustaining my battery without toting around the larger 61W Apple charger, and that’s a real handy thing. With new USB-PD chargers coming on the market, it’s not too far away where you could get a replacement charger that’s just as good as the Apple one, but cheaper, can also charge your phone, and has 4 or so USB ports for charging other devices as well. This is a huge travel win if I can bring less chargers.
Scotland, pt. 1: Edinburgh, St. Andrews, and Inverness. You’re reading this right now!
Scotland, pt. 2:. Isle of Skye, Oban, Stirling, and Glasgow
After the Basque portion of the trip, we met up with Brian and Amber for a fortnight exploring Scotland via car. The idea of a followup to our 2013 Ireland Trip has been floating around for a few years now, and when we originally envisioned this journey it included all of Great Britain. We quickly realized that most of our destinations were in the Scottish Highlands, and condensed the plan to include less geographic area so we could spend more time exploring the area.
September 29th, 2016: Edinburgh, Scotland
The stately capital of Scotland was the logical start to the trip. After flying in and meeting at the airport, we took the tram to the center of the city before settling in at our apartment near the Royal Mile. We ate pizza, drank cider, and did nothing else of much note for the rest of the day. Everyone had been up way before dawn, and we all crashed early.
September 30th, 2016: Edinburgh
Most people choose to do the Royal Mile on their first day of Edinburgh so they can get the touristy parts done while simultaneously getting oriented. Since it was going to be rainy all day, we decided to spend our time at the Scottish National Museum.
After the museum and a nice hot baked potato for lunch, we continued on towards the Maison de Moggy: a cat cafe. Checking in for our scheduled time, we quickly set ourselves loose exploring the various cats that lived here. Although Fabian the Norwegian Forest Cat, Pauline the Maine Coon, and Sebastian the British Short Hair were all popular, Elodie the Sphinx was the star of the show.
The cats basically ignored us and slept unless there was food available. The Sphinx however, was rumored to be an outstanding cupcake snatcher and we were adamantly warned not to let any food unsupervised: even for a moment.
Being mostly hairless, the Sphinx loved to live in a basket next to a heater. Unfortunately for the hairless creature, the other cats were extremely aware of this wonderful heat source and would steal the seat every chance they got.
After a much too short hour, we reluctantly parted from our furry relaxation for some more serious matters: whisky tasting.
Dinner was Indian food from the place below our apartment. This resulted in us getting curry grease all over the apartment and our clothing for the rest of our stay.
October 1st, 2016: Edinburgh
Cat cafe and history completed, it was time for the Royal Mile! Except we were doing it backwards and starting at the Scottish Parliament and then working our way up to the Edinburgh Castle. Why? Because our Parliament tour was scheduled for early in the morning!
A recent building, the Scottish Parliament was an outstanding piece of modern architecture’s take on what a democratic institutional building looks like. Airy and light, it embraced eco-friendliness and open government while hiding little symbols of Scottish Nationality throughout.
Making a leisurely stroll up the Royal Mile, we soon bumped into the Edinburgh Castle. Naturally we went inside.
The military value of Edinburgh Castle is apparent as it the volcanic plug it is constructed on looms over the entire city. With three steep sides on the hill, there exists only one approach to the castle itself. They needed this advantage, as the castle has been the site of numerous sieges over the centuries.
October 2nd, 2016: Edinburgh to St. Andrews
Today is the day to pick up our 2008 manual transmission petrol Peugeot or similar rental car. When we showed up to pick up the car, turns out the only thing they had available was an automatic diesel DS 5 by Citroen. Free upgrade? Sure! With Brian in the driver’s seat, we pulled out into midday Edinburgh traffic and headed off towards St. Andrews.
The town of St. Andrews serves many roles. It’s the home of the Old Course at St Andrews Links, which is more-or-less considered the spiritual birthplace of golf. Founded in 1413, the University of St Andrews lives within the city as well.
Arriving on Sunday, we lucked into a particularly good day to visit St. Andrews. For you see, on Sunday the Old Course is open to all to wander around: there is no golfing. Naturally we took advantage of this situation and wandered around a bit in the glorious Scottish sunshine.
After wandering around the course for a bit, we pulled out our guidebook and started a walking tour of the town. Home of the ruined St Andrews Cathedral, the town still retains many characteristics of a pilgrimage destination. All of the main roads lead towards the cathedral, and only small secondary alleyways called “wynds” run perpendicular to the main streets. Following a few of these as they run past backyards and stone walls, we inched our way closer to the cathedral grounds.
Reaching the evocative ruins, we poked around at the few remaining walls and towers that still survived.
We were kicked out of the cathedral grounds when it closed, and made it to our luxury Premier Inn in Dundee for the night.
October 3rd, 2016: Dundee to Inverness
As we traced our way through the heart of Scotland, the first stop of the day was the small town of Pitlochry. Home of two whiskey distilleries, we visited the extremely small production facility of Edradour for a tour of the distillery.
Nestled between two small streams, the whiskey product is the original small batch distillers. They were hipsters before it was cool.
Further along down the road, we kept our eyes peeled for a small sign next to the highway for the Leault Working Sheepdogs. The only real instructions we had was that it started at 4pm, and to just show up. Turning down the dirt pull off, we’re suddenly alone by ourselves in a small grass parking lot in the middle of a field. Soon another car ambles down the path, and exactly at 4pm a tour bus shows up as well. We all get out in the chilly air and wait around when the owner appears and starts shouting commands punctuated with whistling. As the dogs raced around the field, they locate and consolidate a small group of sheep. Responding to the mixed commands, the dogs would quickly pop up to their feet, run around, and then drop back to a crouch when finished.
Within a few minutes, all of the sheep had been herded back to our general direction.
Wading into the flock, he suddenly pulls one away from the others.
After shearing this 🐑 sheep 🐏 , the owner started talking about what they did at the farm and the tradition of shepherding. Soon enough, he launched into an anti-EU regulation speech that led us to refer to him as “Mr. Brexit.”
Shearing completed, Mr. Brexit grabbed a number of plastic water bottles with rubber nipples on the end and handed them out a few of us. Almost immediately a large cluster of lambs were running down the path and eagerly brushed aside everything in their path to the delicious milk.
The cuteness wasn’t over. A litter of puppies was brought out and distributed.
Herding, lambs, and puppies complete, we piled back into the car and made it the rest of the way to our home for the next two nights: Inverness. Checking into our condo, we cranked on all of the heaters and settled in for the night.
October 4th, Inverness
Although not a particularly exciting city, Inverness is considered the capital of the Scottish Highlands and is a convenient base station for visiting nearby sites.
First stop of the day was the Culloden Battlefield. In 1746, the Jacobite forces were decisively defeated by loyalists in the Battle of Culloden. The end of the Jacobite uprising, the battle represented the final military action opposing British rule over Scotland. Laws were put in place to help weaken the clan system.
The grassy battlefield was windy and cold, and was an evocative sight as visitors followed the audio guide throughout the contours of the battle. Near the site of the final charges, small engraved stones represented the locations where the highlanders of various clans fell.
After Culloden, we headed back to Inverness for a brief lunch. While digesting food, we wandered into Leakey’s Bookshop, which was a bookstore located in a former small church. With a wood burning fireplace in the center, spiral staircase, and books stacked everywhere, it was a peaceful place to browse.
Bookstore urge scratched, we headed South towards Loch Ness and drove along the shores for a bit before arriving at Urquhart Castle. Situated near a strategic point on the lake, the semi-ruined castle was surrounded by beautiful scenery and was a good place to wrap up the day.
October 5th, 2016: Inverness to Skye
After visiting the “Highlands Capital,” we were on our way West towards the Isle of Skye.
First stop of the day was the box canyon of Corrieshalloch Gorge. A steeply dropping canyon, the Gorge was viewable from a suspension bridge hanging far above the river channel, and from a platform that hung over one of the gorge sides.
A short trail connected the bridge crossing to the viewing platform further downstream.
Perhaps even more exciting than the gorge was the detour we took to get there. The road traced along a wide array of water projects, all drenched in the stark Scottish sun.
There was one more stop before reaching the highlands: Eilean Donan Castle. It’s hard to miss, and we couldn’t resist the chance to stop by and take some pictures.
Refueled and ready to go, we crossed the bridge over to the Isle of Skye. The largest member of the Inner Hebrides, Skye features a large number of geological features, and as we went further inland, we passed by the volcanic remains of the Cuillin in the center of Skye. The clear skies and sunny day ensured maximum visibility. Stopping in the town of Portree for resupplies, we kept going North until we managed to find the caravan where we would be staying for the next three nights.
What’s a caravan, you may ask? It’s a single-wide mobile home. It was simple, but offered a great view, remote location, and plenty of heat. After watching The Fellowship of the Ring (Extended Edition), we went to bed and rested up for the first day of Skye exploration!
Basque Country Tour: Bayonne, France; Pamplona, Spain; San Sebastián, Spain; Bilbao, Spain. You’re reading this right now!
Scotland, pt. 1: Edinburgh, St. Andrews, and Inverness
Scotland, pt. 2:. Isle of Skye, Oban, Stirling, and Glasgow
September 21st, 2016: Bayonne
After an excitingly delayed TGV trip and short walk from the train station, we arrived in the French town of Bayonne. Nested near the coast along Adour, Bayonne is in the northern portion of the French Basque Country. The strategic importance of this location is indicated by multiple castles, impressive ramparts, and the legacy is continued with excellent transportation connections.
It’s an ideal start of a Basque Country tour, which is why we’re here! Arriving in our starting hotel, we meet our guide at the 17:00 welcome meeting. Based out of San Sebastián, Agustin would be our guide for the next 9 days and 8 nights while we journeyed through Southwestern France and Northeastern Spain: the Basque Country.
Along with Augustin was the approximately other tour members, who introduced themselves after the basic groundwork of the tour was presented. All had been to Europe previously, and most had been on multiple Rick Steves’ Tours: for one particularly intrepid this was their ninth tour!
Introductions over, we followed what would be the fairly standard plan for arriving in a new city:
Orientation Walk: our guide takes us through a quick jaunt around our neighborhood and points out landmarks, public transportation, laundromats, ATMs, and stores.
Followed shortly by…
Group Meal: around half of our dinners are part of the tour group, and more often than not this means the first night in a new city is a shared meal
Our meal was an introduction on the Basque culinary tradition: lots of wine, and lots of food. Pintxos are always present: they’re often known as tapas. Basque meals aren’t fast affairs. They typically last two to three hours with plenty of salad, pintxos, main courses, and deserts. Despite our vegetarian leanings, the vegetable dishes were plentiful in a land of fish and meat. Also introduced was Basque Cider, which flat in nature and poured from height in order to aërate.
September 22nd, 2016: Bayonne
We’re up bright and early, and after a filling breakfast head off to our main walking tour of Bayonne! Winding through the town, the colorful architecture of the Basque culture begins to reveal itself, along with the political protest signs that still hang from the balconies.
Although no longer a major seafaring waypoint, Bayonne hints at their wealthy history through their grand cathedral that’s quite a bit larger than would be expected for a city of its size.
After a brief coffee stop, we headed on towards the real point of starting in Bayonne: the outstanding Musee Basque.
Meeting up with our local guide, who resembled the French version of John Roderick, we explored the history of the region and people through their sport, religion, and traditions.
Museum complete, we grabbed some bread and sauces to eat a picnic lunch on top of some ramparts near the city center before spending the rest of the day exploring.
September 23rd, 2016: Bayonne to Pamplona, via St-Jean-Pied-de-Port
We packed up and got on our bus towards Spain, but not before a stop along the way.
Although not the primary focus of the tour, much of our route roughly traces one of the main routes of the Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James. This is a pilgrimage route through northern Spain towards the Santiago de Compostela. Many of the towns along the way are night stops for pilgrims on the way to their final destination, and the universal sign for these pilgrims is a scallop shell, which can be seen dangling from backpacks and along streets.
As a pilgrimage route, hikers come from all over Europe, and while there are many approaches to take, one of the primary starting points for the main journey is the walled town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. This portion is referred to as the French Way.
We had a few hours to spend wandering the small town full of pilgrims, and naturally climbed the city walls to the citadel near the top.
After St-Jean-Pied-du-Port, we hopped back on the bus to journey to Spain via Roncevaux Pass, a high mountain pass that was the location of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 between Basque Forces and Charlemagne’s Army. Cut off by the Basque, Roland rallied his troops for a last stand before being wiped out. There wasn’t much left to be seen of the battle, but the valley was strategic enough.
Soon enough we were over the pass and in to Spain!
After passing into Spain, we made a stop at the village of Roncesvalles, which mostly had a claim to fame by hosting a number of churches as well as a fairly impressive large and old hostel for pilgrims. Along the Camino route, every 10-20 miles featured a hamlet that catered to weary pilgrims looking for a place to hang their dusty shoes and grab a bit of hot food before their journey the following day.
Our day ended in the Spanish town of Pamplona, which was starting up their celebration of the Little San Fermín festival. This name may sound familiar, as the ‘regular’ San Fermín festival hosts the running of the bulls. Turns out that the regular festival used to be in late September, but they moved it to earlier in the year because it consistently had bad weather, and they created the ‘little’ version for where it used to be. This meant Pamplona was going to be rocking and partying our visit!
September 24th, 2016: Pamplona
If you were cool and into Ernest Hemingway, you probably would have read The Sun Also Rises. Alas, we aren’t that cool and neither of us knew that it was because of this book that the city of Pamplona was on the map. Ever hear of the Running of the Bulls?
As mentioned previously, we were in Pamplona in the midst of their secondary festival of the year, and while it didn’t feature bulls, it did give us time for a uncrowded walking tour of the city that morning. Why was it uncrowded? Because the entire town was working off their collective hangovers for the next night.
Tracing our steps across the downtown, the route of the Running of the Bulls was clearly marked by postholes in the ground: this is where the inner and outer layers of fencing goes in to guide the runners and the bulls themselves. Dings and notches on walls and doors mark where the horns of the bulls collided before they continued forward to their doomed destination. The bull ring sits at the end of the course: empty. It is only used during the main festival and is otherwise a large civic structure unused for the remaining weeks of the year.
The Pamplona cathedral was notable for its brilliantly lit rose (above), and a fully preserved medieval kitchen.
We were back for another group dinner that night in Pamplona, and this time it was at a Txoko, which is a Basque gastronomical society. These are traditionally male-only places where the men could go and join a private club with friends who would cook for each other. Today, women are often allowed to visit these clubs, but the kitchen is strictly off-limits.
Although not strictly matriarchal, traditional Basque society did place women in positions of power and decision-making that was quite a bit more than the surrounding cultures. One oft-repeated line about the gastronomical societies is that they were set up by men and remained male only because it gave them a place to “be themselves” outside of the household which was female-controlled. It seems like somewhat of a stretch, but this is the explanation given for why these clubs were men-only.
Wandering through the crowded party streets of Pamplona, we ducked into a small below-ground hole that opened up into a narrow dining room with an attached kitchen. The women all went to one side: against the wall, while the men were on the opposite end with their backs to the passageway. Here we would all be the servers, and would ferry out food and drink from the kitchen.
Three hours later, and completely stuffed to the brim with Basque food, we headed back through the party to the former palace where we were staying.
Ah yes, the Palacio Guendulain is where we were staying in Pamplona. As a former royal residence of Queen Isabella II, it was quite the snazzy place for a Rick Steves’ Tour.
September 25th, 2016: Walking the Camino de Santiago; San Sebastián
Leaving the litter-strewn streets of a hungover Pamplona behind, we hopped on our bus for a quick jaunt up a nearby mountain.
With large wind turbines on the ridge top and a small jeep selling snacks nearby, we all disembarked for the hiking portion of the tour.
Hiking? You may have noticed that the Camino de Santiago is a pretty big part of the overall experience of this tour: one of our fellow tour members had already done the 28 day hike the year before, and was planning on doing it again right after the tour ended.
We would only be doing a short segment: 9 kilometers or so, and mostly downhill. Along the way we’d be seeing some villages many pilgrims stopped at, and see a bit of the Basque Countryside.
The journey was peaceful, and our fellow trailmates would often pass us with their scallop shell softly hitting their pack as they hustled by.
After two brief stops in small villages, we started on the third and final segment of the day’s walk.
Our destination was the 12th-century Iglesia de Santa María de Eunate, known in English as the Church of Saint Mary of Eunate. Peaking between the hills, the Romanesque church started to reveal its location as we came nearer. Not much is known of the church’s history: it isn’t near a modern town, and not much in the way of documentation is present. Featuring an octagonal plan, one theory is that it was constructed to serve as a hostel for pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago.
After exploring the church, our few hours on the Camino was complete, and we were ready for a tasty (and lengthy) meal at a nearby winery in the Spanish Basque countryside! Once again full of food, we encountered a rainstorm on the way to the seaside resort town of San Sebastián.
Nestled along a beautiful bay between two hilly peninsulas, our bus went to the top of one of the hills to get a better view at what would be our home for the next two nights.
September 26th, 2016: San Sebastián
Known as Donostia in Basque, San Sebastián is positioned along the Northeastern coast of Spain, and is a resort town that lies along the La Concha Bay. After our morning walking tour of the city, Tracey had noticed that her phone had died.
This may sound familiar, as it also died on our trip to the East Coast earlier this year with the exact same symptoms. After some efforts at resuscitation, it appeared that it was similarly dead as the previous trip. Swapping the SIM into my old Nexus 5 that I bring along for just this exact purpose, we got her up and running again with cellular service. That task complete, we sat on the breakwater for a picnic lunch.
Task complete, we began to hike up and around Mount Urgull, home of a park and military fortifications built during the past 800 years. Tracing our way around the mountain, Tracey suddenly realized that the Nexus 5 had died as well. Uhoh.
Near the top of Urgull, the fortifications offered excellent views into the bay and the nearby Mount Igeldo, which is where we stopped by the previous day for a contrasting view of the bay.
Back down the mountain we went, and along the way to the water level promenade some lizard friends were spotted basking in the sun.
Back at the hotel, we managed to resurrect the backup phone, and all was good. But it was now time for one of those less exciting parts of travelling light: doing laundry. Finding a nice automated hole-in-the-wall facility, we took an hour or two to have a reading downtime while our laundry was cleaning.
Laundry complete, it was off to enjoy the beach!
Capped off the day with some vegan takeout. Yummy yummy.
September 27th, 2016: Gernika and Bilbao
And we’re on our way to Bilbao! Following the coast, we arrive for a stop in the town of Getaria. It’s the hometown of Juan Sebastián Elcano, who was the first person to circumnavigate the Earth. There was a nice monument for him, and after stretching our legs exploring the area by the water, we continued on towards our next stop.
In 1937, the Basque region was one of the few remaining areas under Republican control during the Spanish Civil War. Nationalist forces were greatly assisted by Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe, and it was requested that they bomb the symbolic capital of the region: Gernika. In one of the first targeted bombings of a civilian population, the Germans destroyed the bridges leading away from town before launching additional waves of aircraft who plunged further explosives upon the civilians before strafing them. Resistance in the town was crushed and it soon surrendered.
We saw the Basque Parliament.
We saw the Basque Oak tree. Or at least one of them. Turns out they swap them out fairly often and keep the wood of the old ones in a yard behind it.
The modern parliament building featured some excellent stained glass.
Gernkia behind us, we arrived in Bilbao in the middle of a rainstorm. The largest city of the Basque Region, Bilbao was heavily industrialized and used to be a major mining and steelmaking hub. After suffering economic depression, the city was reinvented on the back of the Guggenheim Bilbao.
Orientation walk done, we got some sweet in-trip clothing reinforcements from H&M before settling in for vegan tapas.
September 28th, 2016: Bilbao
The morning Bilbao walking tour ended, naturally, at the Guggenheim Bilbao. Here, the building is the exhibit. There’s art inside, but it’s not very relevant and quite frankly is completely over classed by the building that housed it.
In the afternoon I went on a trip to see the UNESCO Listed Vizcaya Bridge. Not only did this present an opportunity to see a rare transporter bridge, it also was a trip via the Metro Bilbao, and I’m never one to pass up a chance to ride a new subway system.
Transporter Bridge? Well. It’s a thing when you want to transport people and vehicles across a river, but also want to allow ships pass through. That little suspended cabin hanging from the structure moves back and forth. On either side is a passenger cabin, and between them is a deck that allows the transport of cars and bikes. I wish there was something awesome to say about riding it, but that was a very pedestrian experience. Or at least as normal as it would be to move in a suspended cabin across a river. It’s like a ferry except slightly less rocky.
We finished up that night with our final group dinner. Saying goodbye to our fellow tour members and guide while consuming multiple pounds of food, it was a fitting end to the trip.
September 29th, 2016: Bilbao to Edinburgh
Waking up at approximately way-too-early, we grabbed a taxi through the abandoned morning streets of Bilbao to the local airport.
When we were transferring planes in Brussels, there was a pleasant surprise! We’d be on a British Aerospace 146! A short lil’ plane with four lil’ jet engines on it, things were looking super fun until we realized our seats would be in a row without windows. And, naturally, the overhead compartments were much smaller if your seats were by the overhead wing, and hint: ours were.
Luckily, the Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45 can fit underneath a seat of even this small airplane. And we were on our way to Scotland!
Most of the photos in this post come from my Bordeaux and Basque Flickr Album. Others are directly from my phone. As always, check out the Flickr link if you’re interested in seeing my favorite pictures from this portion of the trip.
Here’s the plan for my next few posts: I divided this trip into five chunks to make these photo essays a little more manageable.
Bordeaux, France. You’re reading this right now!
Basque Country Tour: Bayonne, France; Pamplona, Spain; San Sebastián, Spain; Bilbao, Spain
Scotland, pt. 1: Edinburgh, St. Andrews, and Inverness
Scotland, pt. 2:. Isle of Skye, Oban and the inner Hebrides, Stirling, and Glasgow
September 19th, 2016
Finding a place to get over jet lag is one of the most important early steps of any trip involving a long flight, especially if that’s an eastbound time zone change. We decided to spend two nights in the southwestern French city of Bordeaux. Rick Steves claims that “Bordeaux is french for boring,” but after looking at some maps and checking out the new efforts of the city to rehabilitate the historic and downtown core, it seemed like a good choice. Bordeaux is roughly the size of Tacoma, Washington, and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for 18th century architecture.
After two long-haul flights we arrived in Paris Orly for a brief recharge before taking the third and final flight to Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport.
The final slog from the airport to hotel is always the hardest part of any European trip. You’ve been up for probably 20+ hours with only an hour or two of light sleep on the flight, your stomach is growling, and there’s always a bit of culture adjustment when dealing with a new city and mostly unfamiliar language. Dinner that night was at Ye Olde British Expat pub (not the real name), which while perhaps uninspired, did provide us with English speaking staff and excellent veggie burgers.
After which we promptly went to bed at 21:00.
September 20th, 2016
Up bright and early, we started exploring the downtown core that the city is known for. Originally a walled city, the inner core showed scant evidence of the existing walls except for a few freestanding guard towers. Rising above the urban morass, they were a reminder of the historic and strategic significance of this location.
Along the waterfront, nested between the tram lines and the river, was a pedestrian walkway which had a distinctive work of public art: it created a foggy mist that people could walk through and disappear quickly in the shroud of moisture.
All that exploring can really tucker you out though. By 15:00 I had reached a wall and fell asleep in a coffee shop.
Fun side note! Not only was I in the depths of jet lag, I also decided to completely cut off my caffeine consumption at the beginning of the trip. It was a very dark and low energy first few days.
Recovering energy, we went to the Musée d’Aquitaine, which contained lots of artifacts tracing the history of the region through recovered artifacts and records. One of the more striking pieces featured was the remains of a large gothic church rose window from a ruined building.
September 21st, 2016
It was a train day! The only train day on this entire trip! Besides being historically interesting, Bordeaux is also on the main TGV fast train line running South from Paris, and it was under two hours away to our next destination of Bayonne.
But first, we checked out Wok to Walk, which Tracey had excitedly found out existed in Bordeaux. It’s a Wok fast food restaurant, but their ingredients were fresh and had plenty of options for our picky dietary preferences. Remember the name, because we’ll go to these places multiple times in the trip.
We finally get to the train station and hopped on for a quick journey for the start of our Basque Country tour.
Dear lord. My last post was in May, and when I neglect the blog for long I’m essentially required to make a new Fun and Exciting wrap up of everything I’ve been doing besides writing things.
So what have I been occupying my time with?
All I really remember from my sophomore year in college is living in the dorms and watching Hardball with Chris Matthews constantly as we held onto every shard of news and analysis of the Clinton/Obama Democratic primary. The general election appeared with exactly zero loss of momentum, and by the time the actual vote came along, any interest I had in politics came to a screeching halt.
And then 2016 happened. Trump Happened. And I’ve been sucked right back into every shred of news and analysis. Spare time now consists of reading the New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Politico, and twitter. Twitter has completely taken over my life and I mostly only do other things when there’s a lull in the action and/or the internet is broken.
We’ve been to a few weddings this summer, which is a few more than usual.
The first was a lovely low-key affair with my dear friend Serene and her lovely husband Brian. Held in their cozy backyard, we sat on pillows and ate vegan food during a nice summer evening.
The second was a complete contrast, held at the Washington State Capitol House of Representatives. My aforementioned sophomore college roommate Brian got married to his wife Amber, and I even wore a tuxedo since I was in the wedding party!
Eyeballs and Earholes
When not beaming political things into my face, I spent some time exploring the wonderful games XCOM2 and Orbital Trading Company. The former is an outstanding turn-based tactical strategy game, and the latter is a real time economic strategy game. They’re both outstanding.
Since we last spoke, the best book I read was The Martial Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. They’re a fun and quirky collection of Science Fiction, and a lovely way to spend a few commutes on the bus.
Immediately after the wedding of Brian and Amber, Tracey and I headed off to the Basque region for a Rick Steves’ tour of the area. There’s going to be more posts and pictures about that later, but the hot take is that it’s a pretty swell region.
After the Basque tour, we were off to Scotland to rendezvous with Brian and Amber for a two week roadtrip through Scotland. Despite the rumors of near constant rain on the west coast and highlands, it was sunny skies and beautiful weather throughout the entire trip. Thanks for nothing, rain pants.
While much of the city is currently working themselves into a froth about a few dozen super scary people wearing anonymous masks that may break in a few windows of generic megacorporations, I took the opportunity to head off to the Washington Park Arboretum and check out the local wildlife scene.
The island trail was aptly named, and as usual there were large amounts of muck and standing water all along the marshy path. After fording a particularly mucky section in my boots, the trail suddenly opened up and was free of humans.
Settling off to one of the side docks, I was able to identify some lovely Wood Ducks before a resident pair of Canada Geese decided to stop on by.
The area was so devoid of foot traffic there were frogs sitting along the path that would loudly chirp and jump into the water when I got within 10 feet of them. I wasn’t able to actually see one of these frogs until much later, when I was able to spot a rather large black toad at an extreme range with binoculars. As usual, one of the most visible signs of the changing conditions at the trail was visible in the form of a bench that only allowed access via water.
One particularly challenging stretch was around a foot of a water/mud mixture with a very tenuous central core of small branches. After witnessing the only other people on the trail barely make it across without falling, I used a combination of balance, luck, and a very long stick to ford my way across.
After the spotting of a very elusive pair of American Goldfinch, a peaceful gathering of Mallard Ducks quickly escalated into a fight between two drakes and a hen. A struggle ensued.
The hen was able to wrest herself away and fly off to freedom!
After crossing a final marsh, the main path resumed and more pedestrians showed up, including a couple with an extremely large off-leash dog. This was a sensitive wetland area that clearly had “no dog” signs, but not only did they ignore that, they decided it didn’t even need to be on a leash with all of the migrating birds around.
Friendly reminder that if you’re going to be on a trail with your pet, make sure you’re following the rules and not being a total asshat.
United States history was the theme this year on our spring vacation as we charted a course through Boston, New York City, and Williamsburg, Virginia. Taking the trip to the airport is normally a Bus->Link transfer, but with the new Linkstation completed, we got to ride the train directly from the new station directly to the airport!
One redeye flight later, we arrived in Boston early on Saturday March 26th, 2016. After dropping off our backpacks at the hotel, we went out and explored the Public Library, Back Bay, and other neighborhoods to get ourselves oriented. The best way to figure out a new city is using the soles of your shoes.
Easter Sunday brought with it the idea to explore the Freedom trail while the weather was cold but moisture-free. After the traditional Easter breakfast at a bookstore/cafe, we started the trail in earnest. Cemeteries featuring revolutionaries and just ordinary folk were seen and pondered.
Past government buildings were seen and photographed behind us.
And, of course, the current Massachachusetts state house was found and photographed.
Faneuil Hall brought with it crowds (Easter Sunday was still busy! Who knew?!), food, and most importantly: sugar-filled snacky cakes.