Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Scotland Day 8 - Kilmartin

Today (because I'm finally catching up, at least with a skeleton outline), I went a short-hour south of Oban to Kilmartin, an area with a large concentration of prehistoric sites, including standing stones and huge cairns, sites that had been used over and over again over the centuries by different groups.

It's often been said that the difference between Europe and US/Australia, is that in the former, 200 years is hardly any time at all, but 200km is way too far to travel in a day. In Australia, a 200km daily commute is not all that uncommon, but we have very little (European) architecture that is much more than 200 years old. In the (rather excellent) Kilmartin House Museum, there was a large panel showing key events over the past 14,000 years, including the most recent period of glacialisation (ending roughly 10,000 years ago (8000 BCE). It notes that cave paintings in Europe date back to ca. 30,000 years ago, but doesn't mention that there is evidence of far older cultures in parts of Australia (40,000 years is the lower estimate, upper estimates are more than twice as old as that).

I'll add more info later that I glean from the photos I took of the various panels. It being a little after midday, I thought I'd have a cuppa tea before setting off to enjoy the two mile long (round-trip) walk along the line of cairns that spread along the valley. But then the heavens opened (again), and even though it was sunny again before I left the cafe, I decided against a long walk that might leave me stranded in another downpour.

And yes, of course I touched one of the standing stones, and no, I didn't get transported back 200 years into a romantic historical fiction. Ah well, probably for the best.

I'll enjoy another seafood dinner tonight (Oban being the 'seafood capital of Britain', or so says the banner across the main street), and then head down to Glasgow tomorrow morning (around 2.5 hours).

Scotland Day 7 - Skye

As with most days outside of Edinburgh, the day started wet, but generally eased through the day, although there were often intermittent showers.

On the other hand, the rain did make for excellent waterfalls, but somewhat obscured mountain tops (and middles), and pretty bays.

I had a pleasant half hour or so wandering around the Skye Museum of Island Life, a collection of thatched cottages, each showing a different part of crofting life (weaving, fishing, milking/cheese making, etc)

I had booked my accommodation for this evening in Oban (oh-bin), but discovered after confirmation that they required I check-in by 6:30pm. A little after one, at the far end of the Trotternish peninsula, I checked my map and realised I was more than 4.5 hours from where I needed to be in little more than five hours time.

It was a very tedious drive, and meant that I drove past a couple of places that I regret not pulling over to take a photo. I did stop briefly at Eilean Donan castle, but didn't go in.

Scotland Day 6 - Strathpeffer to Kyle of Lochalsh (scenic route)

This was a fairly long day's drive, along single lane roads in the painfully scenic southern edge of the Northern Highlands, around 4hrs + stops, or 190km.

This post will be mostly pics, including a map, hairy horned highland cows, steep hillsides covered in soft purple heather, and some smoked sea trout (I bought some hot smoked, but the proprietress gave me a taste of the cold-smoked sea trout from her own fridge - it was jaw-droppingly good).

Again, due to the bank holiday (long) weekend, practically all accommodation on Skye was booked, certainly in my price range, so I had picked a place just this side of the bridge that now joins the island to the mainland. I had a light supper in the pub (same menu as the restaurant, but 20% cheaper; but soccer-blaring telly was the price). Another perfectly reasonable night's accommodation: single bed, far-too-warm duvet, but window that opens, and a kettle and ensuite.

Scotland Day 5 - Culloden and Fort George

The previous few days of lots of walking (to which my legs were unaccustomed), followed by lots of driving (in a car with an awkwardly small accelerator pedal and no cruise control), had left me a bit achy. I had booked a massage to iron out some of the kinks, so had a few hours to kill between checking out of the hotel and my appointment at noon.

I explored one of the Poundland shops (there are two, one at either end of the mall), and bought a BLT sandwich, a brolly, a doohickey to mount my phone in the car (for use as GPS), and some bandaids (blister on my heel from my sandals yesterday), (each £1) and a plastic bag (5p) for separating the laundry in my bag. I had a hangover-soothing chocolate milkshake (actually a Starbucks mocha frappucino, a tolerable substitute), and a bit of wander.

After my massage, I collected my car from the hotel, and headed north of Inverness, to Culloden Moor. I'll fill in more of the details later, but I have a requisite photo of the Fraser memorial stone, and a sense of the why the battle was so utterly doomed.

[pics to come of Culloden moor]

I then went across to Fort George, built shortly after Culloden, to guard the heads of the Moray Firth, and therefore sea access to Inverness. As it was built after last stand of the Jacobite rebellion, and has been occupied continuously since then as a garrison, it is in outstanding condition. It also offers glorious views across the Firth.

[pics to come of Fort George, including stained-glass bagpipe-playing angel]

As this is the Saturday of a bank weekend, accommodation was rare and expensive. I'd found a somewhat cheaper place 30 minutes out of town (or 50 mins from Fort George).

Strathpeffer was once a massively popular spa town during Victorian times, and it has a good half dozen substantial hotels "dripping with faded grandeur" (per Lonely Planet), including mine, the Highland Hotel. With accommodation over four floors, and a commanding view over the valley (strath = valley) for those willing to pay for a premium room. My small single room did not have such views, but it did have a bath, and I enjoyed an extended soak after dinner.

Dinner was served in the massive dining room, which occupies the ground floor of one of the wings. I was originally only going to have the two courses, but was still a tad peckish, so chose to also have a third course. Those on FB have already seen the, ahh, unusual cheese selection offered as one of the third course options. I have not ever had a processed cheese (mini Babybel) included as one of the 'selection', nor been warned off the "green cheese" by my waiter ("very bad"). (It was actually a perfectly reasonable Stilton, or similar, but he would not be persuaded.) The other two cheeses were a small serve of an unnamed cheddar, and a reasonable sized wedge of an immature brie. Plus a Jatz cracker, a Sao cracker, a digestive biscuit, something that might have been an oat biscuit, and a little bit of 'celery'.

Scotland Day 4 - Loch Ness (with some pics)

I woke this morning at 6:30am, a significant improvement on previous days. After the requisite pissfarting about, shower, chat w JD and the boys, I headed to Beauly (corruption of 'beau lieu') for breakfast.
Stornoway Black Pudding (between the egg and the toast); good, but I prefer haggis.
I then had a brief wander about Beauly Priory (or what remains of it)

I drove down the south side of Loch Ness to Urquhart ('URK-it) Castle, found a rarer-than-hen's-teeth carpark, and emerged from the visitor centre/entry pavilion to a good drenching of rain. You never know whether these 'showers' will last ten minutes or two hours, so I set off into the rain towards the ruins. (Yes, it did abate ten minutes later.)

As with many strongholds, it has been variously occupied by English and Scottish forces, who often looted or destroyed the buildings when they left. As with many others, it has been rebuilt several times, and materials from earlier iterations can be found throughout the region, the site having been used as a quarry/Home Depot/Bunnings for centuries.

But it is a glorious location, on the banks of Loch Ness, its waters stained dark with peat.

This tower was built by John Grant of Freuchie, as part of his obligations for receiving the land from King James IV in 1509.
I headed further south to Fort Augustus, at the bottom of Loch Ness. It has two waterways connecting it to Loch Lochy - one a natural waterway, the other a series of locks, allowing ships to manage the 12m difference between the two lochs.

Construction of the locks began during the Napoleonic War, to allow ships to take a shortcut along the series of lochs that diagonally score the country (extend a line between Inverness and Fort William, and you can see what I mean). Of course, between the start and finish of construction (1822), the Napoleonic War was over (see also: Battle of Waterloo, 1815), and the railway had come to Scotland. Even before it was finished, it was a massive white elephant (in the words of one of the 'Scottish Canals' chaps I spoke to).

[I hope to update with pictures of the locks in action in due course. I began writing this on the day, but fell into conversation with a couple of charter pilots, and we ended up eating together at the tapas place up the road, until they kicked us out, and then back at the Beaufort Hotel for another round, until they too declared it closing time. It was a somewhat slower start the next morning...

Friday, 25 August 2017

Scotland Day 3.1 - Scone Palace, Queens View (w pics)

My jet lag is catching up with me. I'm doing all the right things, getting plenty of sunshine, going to bed at a reasonable (but not too early) hour. But I'm still waking by 5:30am, and even with a bit of pissfarting about, shower, breakfast, chat with JD, I'm still on the road by 8:30am. I had two powernaps on the side of the road on my way to Inverness today - a function of lack of sleep, long boring highways, warm sunny days, and patchy radio.

My three quid English breakfast (yes, that's haggis at 7pm, and it was delicious!)

My first stop after leaving Dundee was Scone Palace (pronounced 'skooon'), just outside of Perth. For a fairly steep fee, you can walk through a number of rooms and 'admire' the furnishings and objets d'art (no photographs allowed), and then about the astonishingly extensive grounds. The current palace was completely rebuilt 1803 to 1809 (or thereabouts), and is owned by the Earls of Mansfield. 

For me, it was an off-putting display of centuries of wealth and privilege. It may have been where several kings, including Robert the Bruce and Macbeth, but any traces of the medieval abbey were destroyed during the Reformation.
Chapel on Moot Hill, with wicker sculptures of deer in foreground.
I then continued towards Inverness, turning off the road at Killiecrankie, to visit Queen's View. Made famous by Queen Victoria's visit (railways had recently opened up these previously inaccessible areas), but it was probably named after Queen Isabella, wife of Robert the Bruce. There is a magnificent view over Loch Tummel (made larger by the hydroelectric dam, built at its outlet ca. 1950). It really is very pretty countryside, with big trees, and purple heather.

Here are two photos of the loch looking west, in steady drizzle, and an hour later (after lunch) in spotted sunshine.

Lunch was a v yummy toasted sanga, sorry croque monsieur, with mushroom and red onion, plus a broccoli and Stilton soup. An excellent way to wait out the rain.
After my underwhelming response to Scone Palace, I decided to skip Blair Castle, at Blair Atholl, and instead went on to Inverness, and my accommodation for the next two nights.

This hotel (Beaufort) was randomly picked from on the basis of availability, cost (still more than £100 a night), and not being a shared bunkroom. I will, however, be skipping the breakfast as £13.95 (or AU$25.50) is rather steep. I'll find something in town.

On the other hand, they have a bar (with at least a grigio by the glass in the absence of a sparkling), with bar food, and tolerable wifi, so I shall update some of my earlier posts with photos and more detail.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Scotland Day 2.2 - Cheese, Crail and St Andrews (w pics)

As I was driving towards Crail, I passed a sign to a cheese shop and factory. I threw a u-ey (or rather a carefully negotiated three-point turn on the narrow, stonefenced road, and returned to said establishment.

I got to talk to the cheesemaker, who told me more about their cheeses. They make a Cheshire-style cow's milk cheese (dry, crumbly), and two flavoured versions - a smoked one, and one with garlic, sage, and annatto, as well as a Cheddar style. The Cheddar style one was glorious. A full flavoured cheese, with far far more personality that a mass-manufactured vintage cheddar. For a tasting plate (3 serves, total ~150g, plus accoutrements), I had the difficult problem of choosing two other cheeses from their marvellous selection. Naturally, I preferenced Scottish cheeses, and with the assistance of the cheesemaker herself, narrowed it down to a Roquefort-style, sheep's milk blue (St Duthuc), and a hard goat's milk cheese from Ayrshire, called Bonnet. Of the three, the Bonnet seemed the weakest (but as I nibbled the rinds at the end, I think it simply needed to warm to room temperature).

I was very glad I hadn't had lunch, as I was well and truly stonkered after all that deliciousness (which included a glorious relish, red grapes, apple, oatcake, and other stuff (I was told, but I was distracted by the cheeses).

After that, I went on to Crail, a very pretty seaside port, with a very pretty stone harbour.

I sat on the harbour wall and watched the incoming tide crash (whooomph) against the seawall, with the sun on my back and a delighted grin on my face. Note that the sea was incredibly calm - various birds were bobbing on the gentle waves. It would be incredible to experience in heavier weather!

On to St Andrews, where I had a very brief wander through the ruins of the once-great cathedral. (When consecrated, in 1318, it was the largest building in the country.)

The romanesque arches of the east wall (where the altar etc stood), viewed through the gothic processional entry in the west wall. The west wall was rebuilt three times, having succumbed to storms (~1272) and fire (~1378)

There was no explanation provided, but they clearly changed from a Romanesque (round) arch (left) to the Gothic (pointed) arch (right) at some point, perhaps reflecting a change in fashion by the time of the post-fire reconstruction.
I managed to cajole the staff member to give me a token to access the St Rule tower, even though they had closed. I then climbed the (?)336 steps to the top to look over the town of St Andrews. The tower is pretty much all that remains of St Rule's Church, which preceded the cathedral but the church was later used as a quarry for the rest of the town.
Of course, I managed to hit the video button, so all my intended photos from the top were short videos.

We were firmly encouraged to leave the grounds by 5:30pm (even though the sun was high in the sky, and the grounds were full of people).

Onto Dundee, crossing the very long bridge over the river Tay. I have almost passable internet in my room (definitely an improvement on yesterday), but I haven't got the patience at the moment to go through the tedious process of uploading the photos from my phone, then transcribing the code to add them here. This post was updated in Inverness.

I found a pub for a drink, (or three) but was a little late to order dinner (kitchen closed at 8:30pm), so got some chips from the F&C place next door on my way home. It's daylight savings, and a fair bit north, so even in late August, it's still quite light at 9pm.

Scotland Day 3.1 Culross, Dumferline and Aberdour

I again made excellent use of my Historic Scotland Explorer Pass (7 days in 14), visiting three sites: Dumferline, Aberdour, and St Andrews Cathedral.

I took full advantage of the breakfast component of the B&B, meaning I could (potentially) skip lunch, and find an early dinner when I got to Dundee. Instead, it meant I could skip lunch, and feast on yummy Scottish cheeses mid-afternoon. But more on that later.

First stop was Culross, which doubled for Cranesmuir in Outlander. I also wandered futher up, and found (yet another) ruined abbey (pics to come).

Next was Dumferline, one of the most important abbeys in the area, the resting place of several Scottish monarchs.

I stopped also at Aberdour (Dour being the name of the burn (stream) that runs along the foot of the property). More impressive ruins, and a delightful dovecote (doocot) - pigeons provided an excellent source of both meat and fertiliser. And a cuppa tea.

Pictures of pretty medieval Scottish ruins, with a bit of history, to come (eventually)

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Scotland Day 2.2 - Doune Castle (w pics)

From courtyard, to kitchen block
So what do Monty Python, Outlander, and Game of Thrones have in common? They've all used Doune Castle (pronounced 'doon')for one or more of their sets.

Exterior, 22 August 2018

Outlander S01E02, Castle Leoch
Monty Python and the Holy Grail

View from the bridge over the River Teith, which helps explain why the Duke of Albany chose this location for his castle.

I then returned to Stirling, got some wifi to update my maps, and then cross country to the guest house I randomly picked from the internet. It is in the middle of nowhere, but had a vacancy and was less than a hundred quid (AUD160) for a night's accommodation. The claim of wifi is strictly accurate, but perhaps a tad overstated. On the other hand, there is a kettle in my room, so many things can be forgiven.

I'll head out shortly for some dinner, and will likely collapse in a heap when I return.

Scotland Day 2.1 - Stirling Castle

I'm still waking obscenely early (not helped by the astonishingly powerful resonance chamber that is the courtyard of the hostel, and the snorer on the other side of the paper thin wall). I showered, packed, and went for a cuppa (Starbux) and a pain au chocolat and yoghurt from Sainsbury's next door. I then walked to the car hire place, and collected my wee, three door, Fiat 500. Most impressively, if you have the car in neutral and the clutch unpressed, it turns off the engine, the engine automatically restarts if you depress the clutch. (I had seen requests/reminders to turn off your engine when waiting at traffic lights, to reduce pollution - this makes that a practical request.) Also, if you forget to change into neutral before stopping (which in a normal car would then stall), it will automatically restart when you depress the clutch from neutral. Quite ingenious.

Australians don't really have any cities with the kind of road issues that these much older cities have. Major roads that have parking on both sides, leaving two narrow lanes between them. Down these you have double decker buses coming up against large lorries carrying rebar, which can't actually really fit side by side.

Anyway, I eventually made it out of Edinburgh (45mins) and then another 45mins up a freeway and a few turns got me to Stirling Castle. It took almost as long to get up the hill to the parking area as it did to get out of Edinburgh (okay, not quite, but it would have been easily 15-20 mins, with no possibility of doing anything but staying in the queue. The reason became apparent at the top as each car had to stop at the parking booth, get out of the car, pay the parking fee, get back in the car, and then find a car spot. I can think of several different ways that could be done more efficiently. However, it is a very effective (if not very environmentally friendly) way of throttling the flow of patrons.

Stirling Castle, like Edinburgh Castle, is situated on a rocky outcrop, overlooking a strategic position. In this case, it is Stirling Bridge. For quite some time, it was thought that Scotland was divided by an inland sea, and that the Highlands were physically separated from the Lowlands by the Forth River. Stirling Bridge was one of the very few ways of crossing the river, and the two-horse-wide timber bridge was a key factor in William Wallace's defeat of a much larger English army in (year to be checked).

Rather than getting an audio guide, I instead chose to join one of the free guided tours - definitely a good decision. Joe was a born-and-bred Stirling local, with a booming voice, lovely accent, and a solid grasp of the history and the buildings. Rather than take photos while on the tour, I went around after and grabbed a few.

The pock marks of cannon balls on the entry turrets, thanks to Oliver's Army (cue Elvis Costello earworm); the recreation of the royal kitchens; the detailed explanations of the process by which the Unicorn tapestries were recreated (no photos of those, but there will be photos of the replicas; the originals are housed in the Cloisters gallery in New York (?link to my own post about visiting the Cloisters).

By 2pm I was knackered and peckish, so ended up having a large bowl of (rather salty) cockaleekie soup (chicken, leek, diced potato in a broth), and sought directions to Doune.

Scotland Day 1.3 - National Museums Scotland

Again, a place holder until I have internet worthy of the name.

I spent the afternoon in the National Museum, an absolutely massive pair of buildings. One, fashioned after the Crystal Palace has a series of themed exhibitions, stacked vertically, around a spacious light-filled atrium.

I passed a very pleasant hour or more in the Fashion and Style (part of the Design themed section), and after a cuppa tea, went across to the other building, and wandered about the Kingdom of the Scots (I'll need to check that - my phone is upstairs charging, and I tossed all the brochures figuring I could retrieve the info online when the time came).

This exhibit covers ca. 900 to 1600 (or so), from Robert the Bruce through to James VI, including the Covenanteers.

I very briefly wandered through the sub-ground level, covering the geological and first peoples, but was too weary to give it much time or energy.

Instead, I caught a bus back to my accommodation, stopping for a drink on the way home. Realising that they had better internet than my apartment, I then went back, grabbed my laptop, and wrote the two posts (day 0 & 1.1) while drinking and dining at The Black Fox.

Scotland Day 1.2 - Edinburgh Castle

The internet where I'm staying tonight is slower than anything I've seen in a very very very long time, so I'm only going to jot down a few points, and I'll flesh it out and add photos later (hopefully).

Edinburgh's raison d'ĂȘtre is the rocky outcrop, accessible from only one direction. From the earliest days, it has been occupied as a fort of some sort or another.

Fortunately, given how many squillions of people visit it, it is also big enough to cope with the hordes (although the main reason to turn up early is that they run out of audio guides by mid-morning).

It was a spectacular day, so many photos out over Edinburgh, as well as of buildings that have been modified over the centuries, particularly by the military who had a bad habit of occupying and modifying these buildings with no regard to their history or significance.

I'll also fill in some historical detail gleaned from guide books and so on.

Left the castle grounds, went for a bit of a wander, then down to Grassmarkets for some lunch (roast pork roll, with haggis and chilli mayo - very good)

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Scotland Day 1.1 - The Royal Mile

I woke at stupid-o'clock, and despite moving slowly, was out and about by 7am. Disappointingly, the only cafe open within cooee appeared to be the Starbucks, but at least they do tea. Two cuppas, and a ham and cheese toasted sanga (sorry, toastie), and I headed off towards the bus stop to take me to Old Town. Except there was no bus so I walked to the next stop, and the one after that, and I soon found myself at Holyroodhouse Palace. Of course, it was way too early to be admitted, but I peered through the gates, as one does.

This wee building, named "Queen Mary's Bath House" probably never housed a bath, but may have had some kind of other function. You can see the footings of the boundary wall that connected it to other buildings, and which once enclosed a private garden.

Across the way from Holyroodhouse is the Scottish Parliament, a frankly rather unattractive building complex. Apparently, there's all sorts of symbolism built into it, and trying to replicate an earlier style wouldn't have worked either, but, well, it wasn't all that photo-worthy.

The lower stretches of the Royal Mile are a major thoroughfare, with trucks, buses, taxis and cars jostling. I wandered into various closes (courtyards of varying sizes, accessible by a narrow lane (horse carriage width, not car), and then into the churchyard of Canongate.

Amongst other luminaries buried in the surrounding graveyard is Adam Smith ("Wealth of Nations"), whose final resting spot was found by a Russian economist I encountered there.

In Melbourne, the impressive sandstone buildings are few and lauded. Here, they're cheek-by-jowl, reflecting the time when Old Town, was one of the most densely populated cities in the world. One which had/has a propensity for turrets.

Do you think "Fleshmarket Close" is akin to "Gropecunt Lane"?

(Disappointingly, it seems to refer to the actual, not metaphorical, meat market that used to operate here.)

Further up the Royal Mile, I encountered St Giles Cathedral (strictly it is the High Kirk of Edinburgh, as it is not a bishop's seat), where John Knox ministered (he was the a leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland).

St Giles, to the right; bulbous Fringe Festival advertising bollard in front.
At that time of the morning, it was more likely that the organist was there to practice than perform, but it was still beautiful to hear.

By 9:20, I had reached the top of the Royal Mile, and encountered a crowd of people. I guessed they were queuing to get tickets to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, but no, this was the pre-pre-queue for Edinburgh Castle. Just as I arrived, this queue was released to progress to the actual pre-queue for entry to the Castle. Fortunately, I had acquired (bought and printed) an Explorer Pass, and so could join the "Fast Track" pre-queue for entry.

Despite the rather extraordinary queues, it moved fairly quickly, and the site is large enough to cope with hundreds (possibly thousands) of people on site at any given time. (I've never 'done' Europe at peak times, so these crowds were a new experience for me.)

I'll upload some pics of Edinburgh Castle in the next post; however, uploading is a tedious process, so I may not be so generous with pics as I go forward.

Shout out to The Black Fox for keeping me plied with drinks, food, and wifi while I prepared this and the previous post. But my arse is getting sore, and I need to elevate my aching calves, so I'll settle my tab, and see if the hostel wifi will allow me to upload a second post about today.

Scotland Day 0 - Edinburgh New Town

Australia really is the arse-end of the world, sorry, arts end. I mean, it's a bloody fantastic place to live, and I wouldn't trade my citizenship for anything (but, I'd supplement it with an EU one - I have no intention of being a federal politician), but damn it's a long way from Europe. Fifteen hours from Melbourne to Doha, Qatar, and a further seven and a half to Edinburgh, and that makes it a bloody long time without a proper night's kip.

The plane landed in Edinburgh around half-twelve, on schedule, and we progressed through immigration, baggage collection and customs, in a large uninsulated, unair-conditioned hangar. No wonder they don't cope with heatwaves of 30+! I then took the tram into town, and walked the kilometre or so to my accommodation, arriving around 2:30pm. As my room wasn't ready, I left my luggage and wandered back to a bar I'd passed, called the White Black Fox, and had a restorative glass of bubbles (it might be mid-afternoon local time, but it was after midnight by my body clock).

I fell into conversation with two lovely women, nurses who had trained together in Glasgow, and made a point of catching up once a year when they were in the same country. Amongst other things, I learnt that the weather on the west coast is quite different to that of the east coast, and that some of the beaches could be in the Caribbean, with golden sand and clear water, except that it's just a tad cooler.

My room was ready when I returned to my room, and as expected was compact student accommodation. Except that there are no tea-making facilities, it is perfectly adequate for my needs. Each room has an ensuite (shower, toilet, basin, plus a motion sensitive light which plunges the room into darkness if your shower is more than three minutes), a bed (something halfway between a single and a double), a tiny desk, a heater, and a window that can open a little way from the top, or a little way from the side, but neither way enough to allow for proper air movement.
(I have no doubt that Emma, travel agent extraordinaire, would have found more central accommodation at a similar price had I not jumped the gun, but I'm only a £1.60 bus fare from the middle of Old (or New) Town, and I have a friendly bar, staffed by Strines, with cheap bubbles, just around the corner.)

Having showered (aaaahhhh!) and checked email/skype/facebook, I then walked back to (New) Town. I meandered about, considered buying a half-price ticket to a random Fringe Festival event, and eventually found a pop-up bar that served bubbles. The first two I went to didn't extend to my preferred tipple, so I had to go for the more upmarket/table service only option. I suspect (from the charge name on the credit card) that all the pop-up bars in that area were operated by the same mob, Malones. This one was called Fizz and Pearl, serving Moet and Oysters, but also Bombay Sapphire gin, and a range of other Scottish seafood (they were out of the trout, so I went with the salmon). It was rather delightful to sit in the sunshine and people watch for a while.

After a bit more wandering, I felt I needed just a tad more to eat. Turns out KFC chips in Scotland (at least) are largely indistinguishable from Macca's ones - ie shoestring rather than fatter fries, doused in chicken salt. Chalk it up to a learning experience.

I returned to my apartment, and ended up flaking out. I'd walked plenty, hadn't slept in two days, and had got some sunshine, so I didn't feel too guilty. I woke at 11pm or so, but was able to get back to sleep soon after, and slept through till about 5am.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Adventures in bureaucracy

It used to be (ie until a few months ago), Australian citizens could apply for their long-stay student exchange visa by mail. Simply gather all the required documentation, whack it in an envelope and send it off. Easy peasy. Now, we need to present ourselves for an appointment in Sydney (so they can do fingerprint scans, and take your photo). On the one hand, I get it. You don't want to be the shmuck who lets in the next person to blow the place up, but on the other, I would have thought we're still a pretty low-risk category. But, as Justin pointed out, there's a reason "bureaucracy" is a French word.

So here is my step-by-step guide to applying for a Long-Stay Student Exchange visa.

Step 1: locate the relevant checklist of documents on the French Embassy website. You may need to visit it multiple times on multiple days, as often it won't load properly. If you do manage to get the form you're after to display, download that sucker. You may not be able to access it again for weeks. (I'd link the form, but it's currently failing to load.)

Step 2: repeat above for other documents that also need to obtained from the website. Note that the only way to access the other forms you need is via the checklist, which may or may not load (even if it worked a minute ago). Download those suckers too.

Step 3: closer to the date of your appointment, repeat steps 1 and 2, as the forms may have changed. Note that the version number might be identical, but the form is different. Yes, really.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Random things to take to/acquire in Europe

I will be taking stowed luggage this time, so I have the luxury of taking more than the bare minimum. (I'll need stowed luggage because I'll need to take textbooks and a full-size laptop, and so on.)

I'll also be staying in the halls of residence, which come with a single bed, a desk, a chair, a wardrobe, and a (VERY compact) ensuite. For €25, you can get a starter kit of bedlinens (two sheets, pillowcase, pillow, duvet), but nothing else is provided. So there are a bunch of things I'll need, and I need to decide what I'll take with me, and what I'll source locally (given I'm doing this on the cheap).

So this is intended to be a list of things as I think of them, and whether I'll buy in France, or bring from Oz, and why. (Much of my information is from a fellow UNE student Sue, who spent the first five months of 2016 at Angers.)

If you can think of anything else I should add to one or other of these lists, would you please let me know?


  • A towel - and not just because the Hitchhiker's Guide says so. Also because the hostel I'm staying at in Edinburgh doesn't supply towels, and I'll need one in Angers too. A travel towel just isn't the same thing.  EDITED TO ADD: I just found out about Turkish towels: same size as a regular bath towel (1m x 1.8m), but super light weight (<300g), fast-drying, and can double as a scarf/shawl/blanket (eg like a pashmina, but light cotton not wool).
  • A decent laptop computer, and possibly a full-size wireless keyboard - the French keyboard layout is different to what I learned to touch-type on, and that's not a pain worth going through.
  • A small alarm clock - the Ikea Klokis or equivalent will probably do fine.
  • My good gamer headset (SteelSeries Siberia), plus adaptor, so they'll work via a single jack
  • Aus power board and adaptor(s) - I picked up a really good one from Aldi a few years ago, it includes four USB charger points too.
  • Textbooks - I'll have half a semester plus exams for my UNE course while I'm away
  • Stationery? - apparently it's nigh on impossible to get regular 7mm feint lined exercise books etc. All their notebooks are in this weird grid format.
  • Laundry bag - lightweight, not always easy to find
  • If I have the capacity (weight, volume), I'm hoping to take the quilt I made for Malachi with me. It will be a comfort if I'm feeling cold or homesick.
  • Mouthguard - I don't expect to be doing any contact sports, but it's custom-made, small and light, and the kind of thing that would be hard to borrow/get locally.
  • Night guard - I grind my teeth in my sleep, and this makes a huge difference. Can't sleep without it.
  • Champagne stopper - always a travel essential!
  • Travel clothesline - excellent thought from Sue!


  • Kettle - bulky. Will need to order online, as the French (like Americans) don't seem to do electric kettles. 
  • Coathangers - yes there's a wardrobe, but no hangers
  • Second towel, bathmat, handtowel - because none of those are supplied either.
  • Two sets of cutlery/bowls/plates/mugs etc - I'm sure there'll be a kitchen starter kit type thing at the equivalent of Kmart
  • Rudimentary cooking equipment - frying pan, saucepan, knife, chopping board, wooden spoon, egg slice, ?rice cooker (also works well for pasta, risotto, etc, and hot plates are a rare commodity)
  • Other stationery items - stapler, hole punch, ring binder?
  • External DVD player? - Sue ended up watching a lot of DVDs. If I can get tolerable internet, I might go for Netflix or similar.
  • Hot water bottle (if needed)
  • Waiter's friend/corkscrew - I generally drink sparkling not still wine, so this may be less critical.
  • Suction-cup soap dish - I use solid shampoo, conditioner, and cleanser, so a simple wire soap dish is essential.
  • A good French monolingual dictionary (?and thesaurus), for study purposes.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Next adventure: 10 days in Scotland (and then a semester in Angers, France)

Ok, so I'm now starting to waste time, um, I mean, research what I might do with the ten days I'll have in Scotland starting 20 August. I need to be in Angers, France by the morning of 1 September 2017, as my semester at the University of Angers will begin very soon afterwards.

So, ten days in Scotland in late August, starting and ending in Edinburgh, and I need to work out what I'm going to do. I will be hiring a car (and need to get my fantastic travel agent Emma onto that as soon as she returns from her own holidays in Canada).

Things to note:

The Edinburgh International Festival (and Fringe Festival) will be on, which might make it a little trickier to find accommodation (but I really hope not!). I'm not really a theatre-goer, but I should try to get to at least one show!

I will need to go via Oban, as my something-great grandfather was the postmaster in Oban when the postage stamp was launched. (My paternal line descends from the McGregor clan, whose patronym became Whyte during proscription.)

I loved the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, so I will need to go to Inverness at a minimum, and possibly Craigh na Dun (which doesn't exist). However, Clava Cairns may well be worth visiting.

I prefer grand architecture over grand landscapes, but trust that I will see plenty of the latter while travelling between examples of the former.

But what else should I make sure I include?? Give me your suggestions, please!

Buenos Aires

For various reasons (mainly ease of publishing photographs taken on my phone), I recorded my experiences in Argentina on Facebook. You can easily find them by searching "AB in BA" or navigate directly there at

At some point, I may transfer them here, but it won't be this week :)

You can also check out my other blog called The Ivory Bower, where I play around with words and their histories. (That's why I'll be posting as "Ivy" from here on.)