23 May 2010

On the Road Again: Scotland

I am blessed once again with a week with my daughter in a foreign place. Not that Scotland is as foreign as SouthEast Asia, but there are sufficient differences: Toto, we are not in Kansas any more. Language trips off the tongue with a lilt and an occasional unfathomable sound. People do not smile as they approach, but exude a friendliness that is just under the surface. Ask a question, you get a story. I had expected a sort of small London, not at all, nothing like it. Elegant is the word that keeps coming to mind. A native tells me that Edinburgh is not really a city, rather a large village. That’s it.

Restaurants are small, intimate and the food surprisingly sophisticated. We especially enjoy vegetarian and organic cafĂ©’s and wonderful seafood, beyond the obligatory fish and chips.

Not much traffic except in spots leading to the city’s outskirts where rows of charming houses prevail. Many buses go in all directions, easy to get around, but we prefer to travel on foot, exploring streets wide and narrow, streets leading suddenly to broad vistas of the harbor down below, or to the castle that looms above like the beacon it was meant to be. The residential sections were designed, after forfeiting independence to join the union as the united kingdom, in a way meant to please the King. Street after street of row houses in some sort of limestone, flat facades with very little molding or finish, but tall elegant windows, and doors, often painted in contrasting colors like blue or purple. Repetitive but not at all boring, these rows of small buildings stand like old trees, elegant and proud. However most streets have no trees, not even urns or buckets of foliage, thus rather stark, with wide unobstructed sidewalks, but every few blocks or so, there is a crescent or small park, or one of the several large parks that punctuate the city, with tall leafy trees that bring the green of a very green country to the city.

Because of the generally low roof lines, church spires and monuments and the castle peek to their full height as in punctuation. Beautiful sights. We delight in the botanic garden, the many tiny streets off the Royal Mile that lead you to a stunning city garden or an old school or some other surprise, a 2-mile river walk that leads to the port town of Leith, and in the winding streets leading to Stockbridge, a trendy neighborhood near our flat which is bright and drafty, exactly as you would expect in an old row house in New Town.

There is history here, quiet and regal, unpretentious. I’m told it is a business center for the country and huge Royal Bank of Scotland buildings are in every district. Only a few taller more modern buildings occupy a business area in town, and a few large but recessed urban shopping centers. We stop one rainy day at a huge incredibly comfy movie theater to see Robin Hood, seems right to watch in a place facing similar power struggles way back in the 12th century. California in contrast seems like a psychedelic poster to me from here, 2-dimensional and surreal, and New York too frenetic and closed in.

We spend one full day in Glasgow, just a 45 minute train ride through incredibly green rolling hillsides. Glasgow is much bigger, taller buildings, more eclectic and also marred by poor attempts at development years ago as well as prolonged urban blight. It seems a younger city, Dana feels a stronger vibe here. The university area is gorgeous, the botanic gardens bigger and even more beautiful. Dana is delighted by the herbs growing there and we wander through an orchid show as well. It is a sunny Saturday afternoon and families linger on the lawn, children run around and play or ride their bikes and there is a lovely relaxed ambiance. The Scots seem to know how to enjoy themselves without much fuss.

On the way back to the US, I am delayed in London by black ash. Nothing to do about it, and frankly I don’t mind another day away. I wish I had taken a bit more time to explore. Perhaps I’ve become spoiled, one week on holiday used to be the norm and now it is not enough. Air New Zealand, a wonderful friendly airline with comfy planes and lovely free wine, puts me up at a 4-start hotel near Heathrow and after I check emails for the first time in a week, I read, enjoy a lovely buffet dinner at their hip restaurant bar, watch a bit of TV, try to sleep, prepare for the long ride home, which turns out to be easy. I watch the entire first season of Glee which makes me laugh, a lot.

So, I check Edinburgh off the long list of places I wish to see, now a fond memory of a place that, if it were not for the general gray and often cold rainy weather, one would be happy to live. Someday I might like to go back to the fabulous art, music and theater festivals that happen throughout the summer, must be great, although likely a different vibe. I think I’ll keep the memory of this elegant place just as it was. Now I’ve got my sights set on Turkey. Next year.

Pics at http://picasaweb.google.com/maple57/Scotland#

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