Last week, we were sitting in our favorite bar in Soho with our friends Jimmy and Kara. They had just returned from a two week tour of Scotland, and were raving about it. Since Jimmy is French and Kara an American, we felt guilty to admit that us two Londoners had never made the 400 mile trip to Scotland in the 2 1/2 years we have been living in the U.K.
Three days later, Freddie had found us a great weekend getaway package with flights and hotels and we were off to the northernmost part of the globe either one of us has ever visited. Although Scotland is part of the United Kingdom (along with England, Wales and Northern Ireland) it feels like another country. And it kind-of is. In 1997 the Scots voted in favor of forming their own parliament and becoming more separate from England. They have their own money (with the same value as the British Pound) and their own flag (a white diagonal cross on a blue background) and you see the odd spray-painted declaration of 'Scotland not England' from time to time. The ancient Scottish language has pretty much died out, but it is still very difficult to understand what the locals are saying. They still use some of the old words like 'Aye' for yes and 'Bairn' for baby. And to our surprise and delight, the men still wear kilts! We arrived in Glasgow the weekend the Scottish football team was playing Lithuania. Half the men in town were wearing football jerseys and kilts. It's amazing how masculine Scottish men are when they are standing before you in a plaid dress and a little leather evening bag (called a sporran).
On the one hour flight to Glasgow, the very Scottish flight attendants managed to serve a salmon dinner and toss out as many drinks as they could. Freddie asked for a glass of wine, and our jolly Scotswoman gave us four bottles. When we landed, the captain welcomed us to Glasgow and said he 'hoped to see us all out on the town later'. We were getting the feeling this was a drinking town.
Glasgow is a former industrial city that has undergone a major transformation into a vibrant modern metropolis. With its tall turn-of-the-century buildings and its wide streets it reminded me of some parts of New York City. Also because it is famous for its shopping and nightlife. We dabbled in the latter sampling the scotch at a few local night spots. One called The Polo Lounge (oddly enough) had a sprawling complex of bars, lounges and dance floors. Glaswegians are not the most glamorous bunch. The girls are short and fat and the guys have scars and bad teeth, but without a doubt, everyone we spoke to was friendly and welcoming. It was a pleasant surprise for both of us how we were met with such warm good cheer everywhere we went. It might have had something to do with the fact that everyone is drunk all the time. Boozing in Scotland is an age old institution every bit as durable as Stonehenge. This is the birthplace of whiskey, after all. Unfortunately, it is also the birthplace of the bagpipes. The melancholy cacophony of squeaks and squishes can be heard all over town. Glasgow is also famous for the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his gorgeous contributions to the Art Nouveau movement. We set out to find a few of his public buildings and paid a visit to his museum.
On Saturday afternoon, we boarded the east bound train to Edinbrgh. The two cities are on the same latitude, and only 50 minutes from each other, but they are utterly different. Edinburgh is as gorgeous as any of it's famous European counterparts. Its part Prague, part Granada with
a splash of Paris. It sits between a wide blue estuary called Firth Forth and the green rocky remains of long extinct volcanoes. The ancient Edinburgh Castle (really a fortress) dominates the highest of the rocky ridges keeping watch over the town. From there, the Royal Mile runs down hill past the magnificent St. Giles Cathedral, past many
stone buildings with long and terrible histories and ends at the Palace of Holyrood House.
This is still a Royal Residence, with HRH Queen Elizabeth II dropping in from time to time. The word 'Holyrood' comes from the 11th century abbey on the site that used to house a piece of the cross that Christ was crucified on. Rood is the old Celtic word for wood. Holyrood was the royal residence of Mary Queen of Scots. She was Queen of Scotland while her cousin,
Queen Elizabeth I ruled England. The rival queens went to war, and Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned in The Tower of London for 17 years before she reluctantly signed her death warrant. As we all know, there can only be one Queen! Holyrood is a much more peaceful place than it was those 450 years ago. The grand old residence is set among tranquil gardens at the foot of an ancient volcano. The kilt-clad Highland Guards have only to keep the tourists in line.
The best way to explore Edinburgh is on foot, and we made our way up hill and down dale taking in her many exhilarating views. The summer in Scotland can last up to several days, and as luck would have it, the skies were blue and the sun was strong enough to put a little pink in my cheeks (or was that the whiskey?). The locals were out celebrating the fleeting good weather, and we joined them. Again, we were surprised at the genuine happy welcome we received from everyone we met. Edinburgh's nightlife is relaxed and good natured and the locals are more sophisticated than their Glaswegian neighbors.
On Sunday we treated ourselves to decadent steak & lobster lunch at Edinburgh's most famous eatery. The Witchery is a glorious dining room built on the site where witches were once burned at the stake. Our steak was not burned, but a perfect medium rare.
If you are in London and have a few extra days to spare, make the short, cheap flight to Scotland and for a totally different experience. That way you can tell your friends you spent the weekend in another country.
Nicholas Baker began writing travel diaries when he and his husband sold their home in Los Angeles and left the U.S. after Bush was re-elected in 2005. Nick and Freddie met and fell in love in 2002 in Paris where Freddie was living at the time. Since the U.S. Government did not recognize their relationship, and Freddie was unable to secure a U.S. visa, they left for friendlier shores and started a new life in London. As Nick was born in England, he qualified for duel citizenship, and Freddie was already a member of the European Union holding both French and Belgian passports.
Nick started writing as a way to keep in touch with friends and family back in California, but when he heard the staggering statistic that only one in five Americans holds a passport, his writing took on a more inspirational tone. He felt it was his duty to lift the veil of American propaganda and inspire people to get out and see more of the world.
Nick has realized that travel is the dream of many, but the priviledge of few. He writes on a very personal level sharing his thoughts and insights of the many places he has visited with his readers. He researches the history of his destinations first, so he has perspective of the place before he arrives. He describes the sights, the smells, the food and the people as if you were walking hand in hand beside him.