Wednesday, October 2, 2013

couchsurfing and ceilidhs - scotland, week two.

one of the best parts of my entire trip was the train ride from stirling to fort william – it took about four hours and genuinely left me speechless several times. the route went right alongside loch lomond through the mountains, before splitting off to the west, straight into the highlands. it was absolutely breathtaking.
i spent two nights in fort william, which i was initially apprehensive about (tiny town, traveling alone) but it ended up being so great! when i arrived at the hostel, i met several fellow wanderers in the common room. i chatted with two belgian girls before offering an open dinner invitation to the room, and two australian guys took me up on the offer! so, i made two friends pretty quickly… which is weird, for me, but i’m kind of a different person when i travel. more on that another time. their names were ryan and kris, and they were on a two-month european tour before they headed to western canada to work at a ski resort for the season. ah, the vagrant life. we had dinner and pints, and then stayed up and chatted for a while. once we got back to the hostel, the universe smiled on me – my roommate for the evening was an older french woman who spoke pretty much no english. we talked for a long time, and since it was kind of a trial-by-fire surprise to me, i didn’t have time to get nervous about my french. it was a great practice session, and reminder that i do actually speak french with some level of ability. anyways.

the full day in fort william (friday) was actually not in fort william, per se… i had gone to fort william with the intention to ride the jacobite train (made famous by its use at the hogwarts express in the harry potter films!), but the night before, ryan and kris offered to let me tag along with them to the isle of skye for the day… i really wanted to go to skye, and the thought of having some friends to hang with the day was very appealing. basically, the decision came down to riding a really awesome train through some awesome scenery alone for 33 pounds, or riding a bus through the exact same scenery and then getting to go on the ferry to the island with friends for 20 pounds. so i went with the second option, and vowed to come back for the jacobite train with mary lyn or colleen or someone. (that way, i’ll have someone to quote the books with and not look like a crazy person.)

the trip to skye was gorgeous – i can’t explain the landscape. it’s so rugged and natural, and i had the distinct feeling multiple times that a group of tartan-wearing highlanders was going to come running over the hills at any moment. there’s something about scotland that really makes you feel like you’ve gone back in time. not just because everything is very old – it just has this spirit of longevity, like the land is inextricably tied with the history that has taken place on it. those mountains have seen things, man.

the next four days went by in a sudafed-enhanced blur – the cold, wet weather and constant traveling finally caught up with me, and i woke up preeeetty sick on friday morning. so, the continuation of my trip to inverness and aberdeen was a little fuzzy. however, i did tough it out enough to make my afternoon at loch ness totally awesome. i left my backpack at the tourism office of this tiny village and walked 2 miles up to urquhart castle – totally worth the visit. talk about history feeling alive! i was unsuccessful in my hunt for nessie… but i know she’s there somewhere. after the walk back to town, i had a nice little scone before hopping on the bus to inverness. as luck would have it, i recognized one of the castle employees at the bus stop, and we got to talking… turns out, he’s from virginia, but has spent the last 4 years at university in aberdeen! he told me about both inverness and aberdeen, and even pointed out a few key spots to check out once we got off the bus. thanks, craig! unfortunately, i was pretty much incapacitated the minute i arrived at the hostel… i laid down around 7:30pm – “just for a  minute” – and ended up sleeping until 8:30 the next morning. considering i usually can’t sleep for more than 9 hours, i was pretty sick.. but the rest did wonders, and i was able to enjoy a lovely day of exploration around the city. i had tea and a scone at an incredible bookshop called ‘leakey’s’ and then walked around for a while before stopping in a ceilidh bar to listen to some traditional music for the arfternoon. all in all, inverness was kind of a wash (thank you, medicated haze), but i definitely enjoyed the parts i did see, and it was well worth the stop, just to see loch ness on the way.

aberdeen was equally medicated, but i was lucky enough to land a couch with some really sweet couchsurfers who showed me around the city and introduced me to several other travelers and students! i got to see the beach, which was beautiful, and also a lot of the architecture around town. aberdeen is called the silver city and/or the granite city, because there were so many fires in aberdeen's history that the town council decided a while back that everything would be made of local granite... and they weren't joking. all the buildings are this sparkly grey... which is absolutely lovely in the sunshine, because everything glitters. but i hear it's pretty morose in the rain - grey ocean, grey city, grey sky. meh. i had a great first day with merle, a german girl doing her erasmus year in aberdeen, and then the next night, i met with another couchsurfer for drinks! it was a really fun few days, and i was definitely blessed to have such great accomodation and company - and weather! it was gorgeous and so not scottish both days i was there. i'm afraid i didn't really do aberdeen justice, but that just means i'll have to go back and enjoy it properly. :)

potentially the best day of my entire sojourn in scotland was the last day.. i got to see several sides of scottish culture, all within 12 hours. if you look on a map of scotland, my trip thus far was about 80% of a big circle-ish shape – all i had left was the finish the circle by getting back to edinburgh, for my flight back to dublin on wednesday. so, tuesday morning, i left aberdeen and headed south. there is a small town called stonehaven, just an hour or so south of the city, which ended up being one of my favourite places in scotland. i got off the bus about 2 miles south of stonehaven, in order to visit the coolest castle ruin ever, dunnottar castle. even the pixar animators thought so! i had brought a picnic along, so i spent part of the afternoon eating my lunch on a very, very old stone staircase and wandering around the rest of the property. from the castle, i walked along the coastal trail back to stonehaven – a beautiful pathway, right on the cliffs and through cow pastures. there’s even a wwi monument along the way. when i finally got back to stonehaven, i had the best scone and tea in scotland (and coincidentally, of my life) and then made my way to the train station!

once i finally got back to edinburgh, i went to drop my stuff off at my couchsurfing friend marlies’ apartment, where i would be staying for the night. i had a pretty quick turn around before i was scheduled to meet up with ryan and kris (remember those australians from earlier? they were in edinburgh for their flight to germany on wednesday!) to head to a real ceilidh! yay! a ceilidh (pronounced cay-lee) is a traditional community dance, where giant scottish men in kilts fling girls around the dance floor. well, not all the time, but that was the dream! in typical small world fashion, cameron and carly had befriended a local named jonathan, one of the employees of their bed & breakfast from the week before, and he had mentioned the ceilidh club that meets on tuesdays. since going to a ceilidh was #1 on my scotland list, i couldn’t refuse… and i even dragged my new friends along! we arrived at the dance hall and met with jonathan and his friends. the universe was smiling upon us, because with my two friends tagging, we were a perfect group of four couples! the rest of the night passed in a loud, sweaty, accordion-accompanied spinning blur. i don’t think i stopped laughing for two hours straight! ceilidh dancing is like a combination of jane-austen-esque country dancing and line dancing, but on crack. i had so, so much fun, and i am so grateful to jonathan for organizing that experience! thanks, jonathan! :)

the evening went by so quickly, and by 11pm, i was about ready to fall over. the group parted ways at the dance hall, and then i said goodbye to ryan and kris after our walk back to the grassmarket. 6am came much too soon, but i did eventually make it onto the airlink bus and out to the airport!

all in all, i had an absolutely unbelievable time in scotland. i made so many friends and even more memories – castles, walks through the countryside, new cities, all manners of transportation (train, bus, rental car, taxi, boat… if only i could have ridden a sheep!), lots of scones…. so much more. now that i’ve gotten a fairly extensive entry-level introduction to the country, i can’t wait to go back and spend more time in my favourite places!

i took over 700 pictures in scotland, but you can see my favourites in this facebook album, starting with picture number 43! (this post starts at 104!)

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