Visiting the Tower of London

The breakfast buffet at NH Collection hotels is always a treat. It’s a buffet with baked goods including frosted cakes, Belgian waffles, full English breakfast items including tomatoes, mushrooms, and sausage, fresh fruit, and a topping bar for scrambled eggs. That’s what I always think of it as but it’s actually a station to choose your own ingredients for an omelette.

We took the Underground to the South Kensington Station. Even though it’s a stop in the city and above ground at this point, someone has lovingly maintained a flower garden and has also placed hanging flower pots full of petunias around the platform.

While David visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, I visited the Natural History Museum. It was my favorite Museum last year and this summer did not disappoint. It was over 90 degrees in London so the lines were long, and it was hot and crowded inside, but so worth it. I love how the museum has retained rich wooden cabinets probably from the early 1900s with collections of fossils, rocks and minerals, birds, insects, and dinosaurs. Most magnificent is a giant skeleton of a blue whale suspended over one of the halls. One of my favorite galleries is Images of Nature which I loved last year as well because it describes the value of drawing nature yet this year posed an interesting question: if the only visual records we have of extinct species such as the dodo bird are drawings, how do we know which of many illustrations were accurate? Did the artist leave out any important details? I will share this with my students in the fall who will be keeping an illustrated journal of the Blanding’s turtle throughout the year.

The Natural History Museum remains my favorite museum, but for David it’s the Victoria and Albert. He says he could spend all day in there.

After meeting David, we had lunch in the outside garden of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Children played in an outside fountain pool in the courtyard and surprisingly, many were wearing bathing suits.

The highlight of our day was a trip to the Tower of London. It is officially the queens royal palace and is located on the north bank of the Thames River. Much of it was built in the 1200s. We took a 45 minute tour with an engaging and entertaining guide dressed as a Beefeater. We learned there are about 30 families living within the compound and we saw their half timbered homes guarded by royal guards. Our guide also told us tales of executions and it all sounded quite grisly. In one of the towers called Beauchamp Tower, graffiti messages from prisoners were inscribed in the walls, most with incredible letters cut into stone. We toured the Crown Jewels and saw the royal crowns. A moving sidewalk inside keeps people from lingering too long and holding up the line.

In the courtyards are ravens who sit on cannons and peer out of holes on the stone walls. Legend has it that if the ravens leave, the monarchy will fall. We learned they do clip their wings so they can’t fly long distances, but we saw them out and about strutting around and making a loud squawking noise.

On the way back to the hotel, we took a river boat which is basically just a way to get from one point to another on the water. There are so many on the river moving from one side to the other they spend a lot of time just waiting to dock on a pier. We noticed people looking for treasures along the shore where people can still find things from long long ago when the river was used as a dumping ground.

Tonight we went back to a restaurant we like called Zizis. It’s a chain where they make fresh brick oven pizza with a thin crust. Tomorrow it is supposed to be much cooler. We will be going to Greenwich for the day.

We’re Off to London

Our breakfast this morning at the B&B in Oban was delicious. It was wafer thin freshly cooked pancakes smothered with fresh raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries, and dusted with powdered sugar.

From our B&B it’s a ten minute walk to the railroad station, but when I asked our hostess if she was sure we needed a taxi as she suggested, she laughed softly and said, “Yes you do. it’s pouring!”

Our train from Oban to Glasgow had only two coaches. It was old and rickety, but it was better than other train experiences we have had where there have been no seats and we were left standing. Our seats were facing a table and joining us was a man named Norman from Oban who grew up in Glasgow just after the war. He was so friendly and talked with us the entire three hour journey. He had been a merchant seaman at one time and had traveled around the world. As a child he lived in a tiny house. His primary school had showers and on certain days, everyone took a shower because they might not have had this opportunity at home.

I asked him about my maiden name MacFeiggan to find out what he knew and he agreed with the man we met the other day that the original spelling was McFiggan. “Spelling was variable, though,” he said, “When your ancestors emigrated to Canada some family members may have even spelled it with a ph or a v.” He said it was Gaelic and probably had its roots in Ireland.

Once we arrived in Glasgow, we took a bus to the airport. “Which airport are you going to?” asked the driver. We had no clue. Our tickets just said “Glasgow” so we had to hope for the best on his bus and in the end it was the right airport bus. On the way we met a young man from France who had seen puffins yesterday on one of the islands called Staffa Island near where we had stayed. He showed us a video. The puffins came right up to the camera within inches of his lens. “It was magical,” he said and he was right. It’s a place we will want to visit in the future.

Our flight on British Air to London Heathrow was one hour. If you had a more expensive ticket you got to board the plane through a jetway and were served a complimentary meal. The rest of us had to climb the steps off the tarmac and the last step was so steep onto the plane, it was a little scary. You could only buy a snack, but could not even use cash. It was quite different than what we were used to with this airline but had we taken a train, it would have taken 7 hours.

It is very hot in London so we were grateful it was a short Underground ride to our hotel, the NH Collection in South Kensington. We stayed here last year and it’s in an ideal location. Tonight we ate pizza at Zizi’s and visited the area around Westminster. The London Eye was closed but beautifully lit. We stopped in an arcade of all paces and played some games. We gave our winning tickets to a young child,

Back at the hotel we are grateful for air conditioning. Tomorrow we will visit the Tower of London and explore more of the sights.

A Pilgrimage to Iona

Breakfast this morning was really pleasant in a room overlooking the sea. A full Scottish breakfast consists of eggs, sausage, grilled tomato, mushrooms, and a flat potato scone. We really love the Kilchrenan House. It’s the former retreat of a textile magnate. There are 14 rooms but we think we have one of the best ones with a bay window overlooking the harbor.

Today was a full touring day to visit the Isles of Mull and Iona. We headed out from our B&B down the winding road to the ferry terminal thankful we had sweaters and jackets. The ferry was massive and big enough to carry cars and 18 wheelers. Passengers eagerly lined up to board, many with backpacks and walking sticks. “Let’s go to Castle Somewhere tomorrow home of Sir What’s His Name,” said a man sporting a blue baseball cap behind me. It was a funny moment because his whole family nodded their heads in agreement.

The ferry crossing was only 45 minutes and very smooth. We arrived on the isle of Mull and boarded a coach for a 1.5 hour ride across the island. Chris, our coach driver, gave us a warm welcome and explained that 130/150 miles of road on the island are single track meaning when two cars meet, someone must give way. We drove by a small stone primary school called Lochearhead Primary School where today there is only one student. This is a safe island where people leave their doors unlocked and their mobile phones on their dashboard. Everything looked so green that it was surprising when Chris announced, “This has been such a dry summer a cafe had to close because they ran out of water.” On the other hand, maybe it was a joke. Chris gave a very informative tour of the island sprinkled with numerous jokes such as,”If you liked the tour, mention my name on TripAdvisor, but if you didn’t like it, say Derek was your driver.”

Mull was a desolate island of stark beauty. Formed over a million years ago by a volcano, it has manmade islands on its lakes where thousands of years ago, access was only by a set of submerged stepping stones placed in a mysterious pattern. Rolling hills were covered with ferns and tiny wild flowers, and perfectly planted pine forests seemed to appear out of nowhere. Highland cattle with long horns and shaggy fur grazed near the road seemingly unafraid.

The bus dropped us off at a small port for our final 12 minute ferry crossing to Iona. Iona is a small island off the west coast of Scotland in the Hebrides. It is known as a pilgrimage site for the abbey and as “The cradle of Christianity” in Scotland. St. Columba who was a scholar and soldier founded the monastic community there and it was from there that Christianity was spread throughout Scotland. It is believed that the Book of Kells was written there and later moved to Ireland due to Viking raids.

Iona is visited by over 130,000 people every year. It is known for being the center of Gaelic monasticism since the 6th century and is a place of peace and restoration of the spirit. At its ancient abbey, Ancient Celtic crosses from long ago are elaborately decorated with intricate woven designs. At the church there was a small service taking place for a couple to renew their vows.

The town is very tiny but we discovered a wonderful craft shop where all the crafts were made locally such as a knitted sheep needle felted with fibers from local sheep.

The trip back by bus and boat was very tranquil and everyone seemed to truly enjoy the trip. Dinner tonight was at a seafood restaurant where we dined on fresh scallops and lemon sole. We watched the ferries come in and people fishing even though it had started to rain. Tomorrow will be an early day. We will be flying to London.

Oban: A Scottish Seaside Town

This morning on the news we heard it would be another record breaking day for temperatures in Europe. We were lucky though. For us in Glasgow, it started out as a sweater weather kind of day.

We took a three hour bus ride north out of the city to Oban, a seaside town in the Hebrides. Once the bus left the city limits, the landscape changed dramatically. Huge hills rose up beside the winding road dotted with pine forests and small whitewashed houses with slate roofs. Lakes seemed to appear out of nowhere like giant puddles on the barren landscape fed by rushing streams. There was beauty everywhere we looked.

Oban is a seaside town that was once a popular holiday destination until short haul flights came into vogue to whisk people off to warmer climates. Today the town has many old Victorian hotels and B&Bs. Our accommodation the Kilchrenan House is a B &B just outside town. Our room has a bay window overlooking the harbor.

We walked into town to make a reservation for a day trip tomorrow and met a man who asked if we were of Scottish ancestry. When I told him yes, my maiden name was MacFeiggan, he said, “oh yes, that’s McFiggan. It’s a name found on the border of England.” I was astonished. This is the first time anyone has recognized this name, but not only that, it confirmed what I had seen on an envelope sent to my ancestors in Canada in the 1860s from Scotland. That is how the name appeared to be spelled.No wonder I never found it in any phone book in Scotland when I was 10.

Scotland is famous for Scotch whiskey and we toured the Oban Distillery which was established in 1794 and is known worldwide. Our distillery tour group was from all over Europe and North America and our informative guide was great. He passed around little glasses of whiskey for us to savor the orange and honey scent and said, “Have a wee swirl and a wee nose and you will see.” In one room he served us each a sample in a tiny glass with an etched design. Right as I mentioned to David it would be nice to buy a glass like this, our guide proudly announced, “The glasses are a gift for you and here is a nice box to put it in for safe keeping.”

Dinner tonight was at a seafood restaurant. We had mussels and salmon and it was fresh from the sea. After dinner we walked along the waterfront. It stays light here until well after 9:30. We feel very lucky to be in such a pretty place.

Glasgow: A Day of Museums, Festivals, and a TV Show

There’s a heatwave in Europe this summer. Temperatures in Spain are close to 115 degrees Fahrenheit which is a record and in London it’s in the high 80s. We are lucky. Here in Glasgow it was nice and cool today with weather in the 70s and no rain,

Our day started with a nice surprise. At breakfast everyone was presented with a basket of fresh strawberries. To be fair, there was also a card for Trip Advisor, but we appreciated the sweet treat anyway.

The subway system here was the third built in the world. There’s only one route which is a circle around the city so it’s easy to navigate. We took it to the Riverside Museum which is a transportation museum. When we arrived it wasn’t open yet so we watched young children play on a huge beach they had created. Soon a cheer rang out from the crowd, the doors to the museum opened, and we all headed inside.

Inside the museum were old cars, trains, bikes, buses, and trucks. In a recreation of an 1895-1930s town, children eagerly tried on old fashioned clothes for an old time photo. Upstairs, an adorable exhibit had children learning how to cross a street safely using a crosswalk. It was so cute to see a group of preschoolers waiting for the crosswalk signal to turn green and beep again and again.

One interesting exhibit was a van from Pakistan beautifully painted with intricate designs.

Behind the museum was a tall sailing ship you could tour. I have no idea how anyone could have survived such tight living conditions. Kids were invited to swab the decks.

Buchanan Street was a beehive of activity. We ate lunch at the Willow Tea Rooms designed by Mackintosh, the famous architect from Glasgow. Tea Rooms were designed to be an alternative to pubs. The pièce de résistance was a three tiered stand with scones, sandwiches, shortbread, and cakes with whipped cream it we decided on a salad instead. My tea was served cold over ice with a steaming hot pitcher of the same tea with no mug. I thought it tasted like watered down Hawaiian Punch.

After lunch we toured the Lighthouse Scottish Center for Architecture and Design. The building, designed by Mackintosh, was built in the 1890s for the Glasgow Herald. Today it’s a museum and you can climb a series of winding steps to the top for a sweeping view of the city.

Just down the street was my favorite store, Cath Kidston. I love their floral and nature patterns and the entire store smells of roses and sweet pea flowers. As usual I circle the perimeter of the store about five times before making my selection. I wish they had a store in America.

On our way back to the subway we spotted a huge festival for the European Championships here. We noticed that people were just walking in to the bag check area so followed them in. There was a festive atmosphere with people enjoying food and drinks on benches conveniently placed around a stage. Huge screens showed some of the events and we could see dignitaries being interviewed in the broadcast booths. We were just taking it all in when a man from the BBC invited us to join in a live broadcast. It was a short clip where the reporter gets everyone to cheer and the director stood behind her and led us in a dance. It was a lot of fun.

Dinner tonight was back at the Ubiquitous Chip where we ate when we first arrived. We love this restaurant and the fish with pea and potato purée is amazing. On the way back to the hotel, people were outside at cafes. This is the first weekend of European vacation. We’ll miss it here. Tomorrow we head north to the small seaside town of Oban.

Exploring Glasgow: Day 2

Glasgow is a vibrant living city, yet it is often overlooked by visitors to the UK. Although it was overcast with occasional rain, we were able to get out and explore and could not have asked for a better day.

Right down the street from our hotel are botanical gardens. The grounds are beautifully maintained and inside the Victorian style glass greenhouses are entire plant ecosystems including a rainforest type setting and desert. All of the plants are carefully labeled and it was hard to believe you were inside a building.

For years we have traveled to Europe without a phone and have successfully gotten kind people to ring a hotel for us if we were running late. Today, though, with Google maps and instant access to information, a phone is essential. My phone is unlocked and for $25, I was able to buy a 30 day SIMS card with 8 GB of data from Vodaphone. I can use it in France and Italy as well and it’s a better deal than I have in America. We also use the phone for a hotspot for the iPad.

Once the phone was set up, we turned on Google maps for walking and were guided to the home of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. He was the most celebrated architect in the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Rather than following the ornate Victorian trend, Mackintosh designed his house to be open with muted colors and an air of simplicity. The hanging lights were actually ones people would want to buy today.

The Hunterian Gallery celebrates William Hunter: medic, researcher, author, midwife, teacher, and collector. He had a staggering collection of objects such as 7600 insects, Roman ruins from the Antoine Wall which extended across Scotland for 20 years, a gold coin from 294 BCE taken from the statue of Athena at the Parthenon, a mummy, and cabinets of curiosity containing organ specimens. Most curious was a chair where students sat for oral exams with an hour glass on top.

We stopped for lunch in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery. David had a tuna sandwich mixed with cottage cheese which I didn’t think sounded good, but he said was great. The museum itself was amazing and featured a countless number of exhibits with one description for adults and one written for children in a large font. There were numerous animals on display such as tigers and giraffes. The museum acknowledged that long ago they collected many artifacts from amateur archaeologists but today it would be unethical to take things from other countries or buy animal specimens.

In the evening we went to the Sharmanka Kinetic Theater. Sharmanka ( Russian for barrel organ) is a theater of kinetic sculptures created by Eduardo Bersudsky. He originality carved wooden sculptures and then connected them to motors. The theater held 20 of us and started with calliope music and the figures moving. Then we moved around the room in darkness following lights and music. You never knew which creation would start moving next. Each moving display had music and was metaphorical. For example, A Time of Rats was about a difficult time in Russian history. Some of the mechanical depictions were creepy and like being in a house of horrors with moving ram skulls, a silk elephant’s trunk, and shoes moving up and down as a globe spun with a spinning umbrella on top. It was outright bizarre, but genius at the same time.

Other items used in the displays included a wheel chair, old sewing machines, pulleys, wheels, baby carriages, Venetian blinds, and pots and pans.

After the show it was raining so we headed back to our hotel with a stop at a restaurant Bread Meats Bread. The veggie burger was a sautéed veggie sandwich. Other options included a hummus burger or a classic grilled cheese. David tried their locally made Scotch, but I don’t really care for it.

Tomorrow it should be drier and we look forward to visiting the downtown area of the city.

Summer Holiday 2018 Begin: Hello Scotland

Ordinarily our blog begins with an enthusiastic description of our North Atlantic crossing. This year is somehow different. Our departure was a mixture of joy and sadness. While on the one hand we are looking forward to great adventures, we are feeling sadness by our loss of David’s mother in June and more recently by our loss of our beloved Aussie, Cooper. This trip which we almost cancelled will hopefully be a healing time for us.

Our Aer Lingus flight left Boston at 10:00 pm which is a late flight for us. The cabin was kept in darkness the entire way including dinner, but as a new day dawned over the North Atlantic our moods brightened.

Our connecting flight to Glasgow was on an ATR 42/72. It’s a plane with propellers. We have flown on them before and always feel we are stepping into a different world where we are half awake and everyone else is local, wide awake, and ready for adventure.

Our accommodation is the Argyll Western. It’s tartan themed. We booked it in February when we found it odd that most Glasgow hotels were fully booked. It turns out this week is the European championships here: track and field, swimming, gymnastics, etc.

Tonight we ate at the Ubiquitous Chip in the trendy west end. We had organic salmon and west coast hake which was delicious. After dinner we walked through part of the botanical gardens here. The greenhouses are Victorian and will be fun to explore.

I have actually been to Glasgow before, but it was a long time ago. I was only 10. My memory of our time here was it was rainy and dreary. I remember looking through the massive phone books to find my maiden name MacFeiggan and being disappointed it wasn’t there, probably because in reality the spelling was changed several times. In a story I wrote on the first day of fifth grade about my trip to Europe, I never mentioned being here in Scotland at all, but I still have a small windup doll I bought wearing a kilt.

It’s drizzling tonight and may rain tomorrow but we don’t mind. Tomorrow we’ll go out and explore this city. We look forward to what we will discover.