After touring Berlin, it was off to visit Scandinavia! Over two weeks, we’d visit Sweden, Denmark, and Norway as part of a Rick Steves’ Scandinavia Tour. Was this tour in May 2017? Yes. Am I writing this in September 2018? Yes.
Not all of this trip was new territory: I previously explored Stockholm and Copenhagen in 2011. The rest of the journey, including all of Norway, is going to be my first time.
The itinerary started in Stockholm, and spent a night in Kalmar before heading off to Denmark. Urban and progressive Copenhagen was contrasted with the idyllic island of Ærø. Tracing our steps back to Copenhagen, we took an overnight ferry to Oslo. Spending a few days in the bustling capital of Norway,
May 14th, 2017: Arrival in Stockholm
Germany has the reputation of being an orderly and well-managed country. This perception should be examined in light of the Brandenburg Airport project. During the Cold War, Schönefeld Airport served East Berlin, and Tegel fulfilled the same role for the Western part of the city. After reunification, 15 years of planning culminated in ground being broken in 2006 for the new Brandenburg Airport that would replace both aging facilities. With a targeted opening year of 2011, we certainly flew out of Brandenburg. Being 2017 and all. Right?
Well, not exactly. 2011 turned into 2012, and then 2013. And now somewhere in the range of 2020 or 2021. A combination of corruption, poor planning, management, and many other un-germanly traits has doomed this airport into perpetual delay.
All this to say, the flight to Stockholm left from a terminal in Tegel airport that was a glorified warehouse with some seats bolted onto the concrete floors.
One fast train later, and we were in downtown Stockholm.
There were a few hours to use up until the tour introduction meeting at 1700, and an impromptu visit of the stations of the Stockholm Metro was in order. While I’m always in the mood for exploring a new transit system, the Stockholm Metro is particularly special because it’s essentially a large transit art project.
Each station had a different theme. Some had detailed “graffiti” on the walls.
Others embraced their subterranean nature by using the rough-hewn walls as a canvas for colorful patterns and colors.
This stationeries featured matching walls and floors while retaining a plain rock ceiling.
Harsh lighting beckoned travelers to the escalators that climbed into the rock. Continue reading →
After much angst, packing, repacking, and deliberation over every piece of clothing I packed, I shoved a bunch of extra crap in my bag at the last minute and headed off to the airport. Most of the flight was spent trying to get some wholesomely useless sleep between watching Beauty and the Beast.
May 10th, 2017
Quick connection through Amsterdam, and we were in Hamburg and on the way to the city center on one of the wonderful German Trains. It’s been said that Hamburg is really known for its thriving port, which really excites Germans and people who have never seen ports before. Living in Seattle, we’re exposed to ports basically every day and the luster is somewhat dulled. It’s a city that’s in the middle of a generally well-regarded redevelopment effort: old warehouses are being converted into trendy mixed-use housing and a shiny new philharmonic hall has recently been completed.
The only real objective the first day on the ground after a transoceanic flight is to stay awake until 8pm, no matter what. If you don’t stay awake until 8, jet lag will spoil the next week of your trip. YOU MUST STAY AWAKE.
So we went to the port.
Hamburg is certainly set up to have tourists visit the port. There are plenty of businesses and tours that help capture the port essence that some of us crave. Water taxis ply around the harbor shuttling people too and fro. We grabbed one of them.
Hamburg being a moderately large German city, it has a U-Bahn. I had no choice but to ride it whenever possible in order to perform research on how efficient and extensive it is compared to basically every city in America.
Our energy levels were running low and it was barely the afternoon. If there’s one thing gentrifying German hipsters like, it’s coffee. Hitting up a coffeehouse and roster in a former warehouse, we bumbled our way through ordering multiple shots of the strongest coffee they had. This provided around 4 minutes of energy per shot before settling down into the doldrums of jetlag. It was not great.
Nestled upstairs in another warehouse, a uniquely German attraction came before us: Miniatur Wunderland. This is nominally billed as a model railway project that went somewhat overboard. They went a LOT overboard in all of the good ways. Spanning two large floors, this project contained multiple zones that each had hundreds of trains, vehicles, and people. Day/night cycles? Got it. Airport that has planes taking off and landing? CHECK. Floating cargo ships? You bet.
Even as we were basically sleepwalking through this magical place, it was astounding to see all of the time and effort the team who maintained this railroad put in over the past twenty years.
Hidden everywhere are small little stories that play out. People move about. Businesses are ran, parades suddenly start, and occasionally there will be huge miniature fire responses. What’s remarkable is that all of the vehicles aren’t on tracks: they’re conveyed by magnets underneath the floor and a computer system will dispatch them live through the system when their story plays out.
Let’s take the above image as an example. At a particular time, the computer system will page all of the vehicles above to come to this building which suddenly is on fire. Where ever these trucks may be, they will reroute to this fire and dynamically steer around all of the normal “civilian” traffic on the roads. Once they’re done, they’ll all go back to their fire stations, or maybe get peeled off to go to some other smaller event. It was really quite astounding and probably way cooler if I wasn’t asleep.
May 11th, 2017
Next stop? Berlin! This city had been on my list for a very long time and after another wonderful train ride, we arrived in the thriving capital of Germany.
Our AirBnB was a flat near the upper floors of the above building. Built during the time of the DDR (East Germany), it was intended to house families of high-ranking party members. Featuring such cool amenities such as “bare concrete walls” and “elevators that only stopped every other floor,” it was essentially purpose-built to house me.
Adorning the one of the walls was a photograph of a variety of hopeful looking East German women at a mass game. I’d like to think that the faces of each reflect a different component of the East German experience during the 1980s.
To save costs, the elevators only stopped at every other floor.
May 12th, 2017 – Birthday!
My birthday was being started in style with a tour of the Reichstag. Rebuilt after the reunification, this symbol of modern Germany was the perfect start of a day that would be filled with World War II and Cold War history.
The Brandenburg gate is one of those monuments that you don’t fully know what it looks like, but the minute you see it you just know what it is and what it signifies.
Tracing the way through Berlin, frequent consultation of the walking tours was required.
Oh hey, it’s a surprise! Taking a UBahn somewhere.
When in Berlin, it’s time to eat currywurst! Finding a stand near Checkpoint Charlie (itself a commercial hellhole with no historic value left), much munching of vegan currywurst and fries was had. Behind me is the former Ministry of Aviation building, one of the few remaining public buildings that survived the bombings in the waning days of World War II. Note the general fascist architectural design.
It’s not to say that some members of the public don’t entirely miss East Germany. There’s a certain nostalgia for some parts of life in the DDR. The pragmatic Germans refer to this as Ostalgie (basically east nostalgia). Visiting the DDR museum, the exhibits portrayed life as it would have been for citizens of those behind the Iron Curtain.
This is me in a Trabant. A small car that is made (somewhat) of cardboard, it got you to where you were going. Usually.
You can also make like you’re a stern bureaucrat ready to dole out paperwork at an impressively slow pace. Hello comrades.
May 13th, 2017
Saturday started out with a rainy trip to the laundromat. Our next destination was Scandinavia, and as this is largely a laundry desert it was important to top off on fresh clothing. The rest of the morning was spent visiting the Topography of Terror, a museum based on a former Gestapo building that chronicled the rise and fall of the Third Reich.
Memories of East Germany and the Berlin Wall are fading with our generation. We never knew a world where Germany was divided, and the city is rushing to preserve relics of a past that may quickly be bulldozed over. Seeing part of the wall: another historic sight that is instantly recognizable, was certainly a somber experience.
A poignant memorial exists in one of the parks surrounding a piece of extant wall that commemorates all of the men and women who were killed at the hands of the East German border guards.
May 14th, 2017
With Berlin behind us, it was time for one last trip to the aging Tegel Airport. In theory, this airport should have been replaced quite a few years ago by the mostly complete Brandenburg Airport, but in a strange happenstance for this country, the project is mired in construction delays, shoddy workmanship, and is perpetually “a month away from opening.”
So we were flying out of Tegel on AirBerlin, which was a failing airline that finally went out of business in late 2017. Their “terminal” building was a large warehouse, and the flight was (naturally) delayed.
Soon enough AirBerlin finally decided our flight could take off, and it was off to Stockholm!
The last post is finally arriving! It’s been almost six months since we actually visited Reykjavík! I’ve only visited Iceland once before in 2012 for a brief 24 hour interlude, and since Tracey has never visited we decided to take a nice two night siesta in the city on the way back from Europe.
Reykjavík isn’t a particularly large city, only around 120,000, nor is it a particularly tall city: the most prominent building is the Hallgrímskirkja.
We basically had two main objectives while in the city: drinking plenty of hipster coffee, and getting Icelandic wool products. This could easily be accomplished in a day and a half of sightseeing, as the sights are compact.
Iceland has been populated for centuries, but never has sustained a very large population. Although their parliament no longer meets in the fields of Þingvellir, it’s still housed in a humble building near the center of the city.
In case you were wondering, the Þ, or thorn, is an archic letter that still survives in modern Icelandic: it’s pronounced ‘th,’ more or less.
Wondering through the streets, there’s a striking amount of color that pops through the concrete grey of the city. When even a slight amount of sun is shining, it pierces through the shroud of grey.
Street art is found on almost every empty wall. It’s heavily skewed towards contemporary art rather than the more graffiti inspired art that’s found in many American cities.
Locating the Handknitting Association of Iceland, we stuffed our bags with sweaters and blankets. The Icelandic sheep produces a dual coated fleece that’s combined into a wool called Lopi. Unspun, it combines both the longer weather-resistant outer layers with the shorter insulating fibers. The result is a fairly rough product, but it’s fairly effective at resisting water, wind, and cold.
We then set off in search of supposedly the “most popular” place to eat in the country: a hot dog stand called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur.
It was a fairly normal boiled hotdog in the Scandinavian tradition, but it had peculiar toppings: crispy onions, raw onions, sweet mustard, and rémoulade.
Finished with Iceland, we flew back home to Seattle and took the traditional light rail from the airport while ordering take-out Thai from our favorite vegetarian restaurant. Between Global Entry and the train to Capitol Hill, we were back home faster than ever!
Everything is written from this trip! You can see my other photos from Iceland on my Flickr. I plan to write another post wrapping everything up with a heavy dose of planning and packing analysis. It’ll sure to be devoid of thrills and fun.
Continuing our theme of only experiencing Western Scotland in the bright brilliance of the October sun, we set out from our caravan in search of the rugged Western Coast and scenic hiking.
Making our way past the best named Loch of them all—Snizort—and some single lane roads, we ended up at Neist Point. In the distance we could spy the outer Hebrides, but our goal was to locate Neist Point Lighthouse, which is supposedly located on a cliff a mile or so beyond the end of the road.
Except there was no lighthouse to see. Only fields, stairs, and rusting infrastructure that could conceivably be used to resupply a remote lighthouse station. Still, we trusted the trusty guidebook and set forth with snacks in hand.
Following the old resupply path and rounding the outcropping, Neist Point suddenly made itself known. There was a lighthouse after all!
It was converted into some sort of hostel years ago, but was abandoned quite recently. Sadly, many of the outer accommodations were vandalized and unmaintained, but the main portion of the lighthouse seemed to be intact.
Many selfies were taken.
Next stop of the day was the Fairy Pools. These aren’t actually fairy related, but instead just a series of pools in a river coming from the (extinct) volcanic portion of Skye. Hiking across the rocks we spent a lovely afternoon in the waning sun surrounded by eroding peaks, water smoothed rocks, and other curious visitors.
Fairy Pools explored, it was just about time to head back to the caravan for the night. When all of a sudden, a Hairy Coo appeared! Screeching to a halt on the side of the narrow road (single lane, naturally), Tracey ran out of the car and got some lovely pictures of this particularly hairy cow ambling towards greener pastures.
Coo photographed, we returned to the Caravan for reals and since the WiFi was horrendously unreliable, watched Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It was just lovely!
October 7th, 2016
Today’s plan: driving tour of the Trotternish peninsula on Skye. As geological formations passed us by, signs of a more industrial past were hidden along the coast.
Ruined castles dotted the landscape, but the strategic value of Skye has been important to British security even in the last century: a WWII-era lookout post was constructed on the Northern tip of the island.
Along the route, the Skye Pie Café beckoned with its invitation of filling Scottish pies. They did not disappoint.
We essentially had this scenic part of Skye to ourselves.
October 8th, 2016
After saying goodbye to the cozy caravan that had been our home on Skye, we started the next leg of our trip with a drive to Glencoe.
Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a traffic jam suddenly appeared! What could this be?
And then miles down the road, we suddenly found out the cause.
Wind turbine blades were being moved along, and the load was so lengthy they couldn’t pull over for miles to allow overtaking traffic!
It’s about this point in any trip that there’s an overwhelming desire for burritos. Notwithstanding that burritos are nasty shit in Europe, we found a chain bar in Glencoe that claimed to serve these delicious meals. They were not delicious: lesson still not learned.
Our destination was the small seaside town of Oban. A fishing town, it offered many ferry connections to other parts of the Inner Hebrides, but that would come tomorrow. First we had to explore the town!
Walking from the SYHA Hostel, we made it to the top of Oban and a rather out of place monument appearing at the crown of the hill. A local cat was here to greet us in the dying sun.
As the sun set behind the Inner Hebrides, it offered some excellent opportunities for photographs.
Dinner was fish and chips (what else?) before retiring back to the hostel common room for some soccer.
October 9th, 2016
Here’s the plan for the day: we take a large ferry from downtown Oban to the Isle of Mull, which is the second largest island in the Inner Hebrides. Once on Mull, a bus will meet us there and drive us across the island to Fionnphort. This hamlet has a small port that will take us on a ferry to the Isle of Iona, where we’ll stay for a few hours before taking the reverse journey.
As we waited in the Oban ferry terminal, it seemed like we weren’t the only people with this idea. A few hundred people from a local tour company showed up as well. Lame.
The bus across Mull was narrated by the driver, who offered plenty snippets of island life. Pointing out the only Munro (3000m+ peak) on the Isle of Mull—Ben More—he noted that there’s an annual hill race to the top. Speaking of races, there’s also the Mull Rally race every year that winds through the island via roads. They’re a competitive bunch.
Crannogs also appear on the island. These prehistoric structures are small artificial islands that hosted small fortified houses. Since they’re in the middle of lakes, they’re easily defensible. The structures are long gone, but the rough pile of stones remain and are strewn through the Mull lakes.
Scrambling on the second (much smaller) ferry, we make the short hop to the Isle of Iona. This small practically car-free island is the regional center of Christianity in this part of Scotland, and hosts the Iona Abbey.
Tracey and I toured the Abbey while Brian and Amber went to have what they reported to be a very tasty lunch.
Along the way we found a pair of Hairy Coos, which Tracey named Fred and George. Unfortunately for us, they were extremely disinterested in posing for pictures.
Piling back in the small ferry, we explored Fionnphort for half an hour. Although hardly even a village, it did have some local characteristics: cows on the beach! It seems that free range Hairy Coos would wander around in the port. After watching them for a bit, the bus returned to port us back to the Mull port and we soon were back in Oban for the evening.
October 10th, 2016
Our second day in Oban was always planned rather loosely in our pre-trip itinerary, and we decided to spend the day and see what local sights we could find. But first, it was time for breakfast.
The Oban Chocolate Factory was just what the doctor ordered. Delicious waffles and coffee awaited us and provided fuel for the day!
There’s not too much to do in Oban proper, but the Dunollie Museum and Castle was plenty close. Although the castle is not much to look at (it’s more of a tower), it offered great views of the bay, and the museum was an interesting look at the life of the local lords who still lived in parts of the house.
Dinner was, quite naturally, fish and chips. It’s basically legally required in Oban.
October 11th, 2016
It was time to leave Oban, but not without first stopping by Oban Chocolate Company for yet more waffles and coffee. Today we were off to the town of Stirling, which features the aptly named Stirling Castle.
The weather had turned unusually misty for our day in Stirling, so we were happy to be indoors at the castle, even of the interiors were rather lackluster.
It was pretty clear why they decided on a castle here: the hill it was on featured commanding views of the surrounding countryside.
Our hotel for the night was Inglewood House. This is where Brian and Amber decided to stay in a fancy place on their honeymoon, and it looked like as good a place as any to luxe it up. Driving up to the manor house, it seemed like we were the only guests for the night.
Actually, we think we were the only guests for the night, and it suddenly got slightly creepy. Not so much scary, but the sense that one may get when they realize that they’re living a story that could be very much the start of a horror movie. You know the troupe: tourists from out of the country in an old house, and they’re all alone.
October 12th, 2016
Nothing happened to us, and after the other members of the party had a nice stay in the spa the following morning, we rolled out.
First stop of the day was at the Helix park, and as we walked along the paths, we came across a series of locks that were remnants of the industrial past that put Falkirk on the map.
However, there was something particular about these locks. They were human powered!
The claim to fame for the Helix park is the Kelpies, which are giant horse sculptures that honor the contribution that these creatures made towards hauling ore and materials along the local canals.
We had a jolly good time walking around the Kelpies.
Close by is the Falkirk Wheel. Part of the aforementioned canal system, the wheel approaches the question of differing water levels in a fundamentally different approach than the locks. Whereas the locks used a series of rises and drops to facilitate interconnectivity, the wheel navigates the difference in one fell swoop.
Before our eyes, a small canal boat putted up into the bottom of the wheel. It suddenly groaned to life, and slowly rotated a full 180 degrees until the boat at the bottom was suddenly at the top!
Engineering marvels seen, we pressed on to the city of Glasgow. Navigating the confusing streets of the city, we ended up at our stop for the night.
We started the day in a manor house with crystal chandeliers, and ended it at a disgusting hellhole of a hostel. I’d probably describe it as “urine strewn,” and we all thought we were bound to get bedbugs.
It was such a dirty place, we went on a quest to find sanitizer wipes just to get things clean enough to tolerate.
October 13th, 2016
Spoiler alert: we didn’t get bedbugs, but we were thrilled to be leaving.
After a quick jaunt to the Glasgow Airport, we flew together to Reykjavík before parting ways with Brain and Amber. While they were going back to Seattle, Tracey and I were going to spend a few nights in the city. This will be the subject of a new blog post which is tentatively scheduled for 2019.
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!
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.
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.