On Edinburgh

Although Edinburgh’s human roots date back to 8000 BC, the city along the Firth of Forth became chartered in 1125. Today, it is Scotland’s political, cultural, and commercial hub. We journeyed into Edinburgh twice – first on a bus trip from Greenock (on the west coast) for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (previous post) – then several days later after our ship set anchor in nearby South Queensferry for encountering more of this Scottish jewel.

To me, Edinburgh was the most captivating of the cities we visited on this trip. The grand old stone buildings, the charm of Old Town, the Georgian and Victorian architecture of New Town, and being a city bustling with activity; – let alone the highly visible Edinburgh Castle sitting high on a hill above it all.

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With 5 major festivals in progress during August, the streets were not quiet – plus two cruise ships in town. I wonder how many of the people we saw were Edinburghers? But cheers to the many street performers!

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The Royal Mile (High Street) is Old Town’s main street. It’s loaded not only physical charm, it’s a vibrant area filled with shops, eateries, and establishments featuring adult beverages. Taking the long walk up the hill from our bus to the castle was a great introduction into Edinburgh. The feast continues by wondering nearby streets.

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As usual, our fee touched Edinburgh’s pavement many times on this day. This city is a visual feast – let alone filled with history. Greyfriars Bobby is an interesting story – a dog who faithfully stayed at his master’s grave for 14 years. Various people took care of Bobby during this time, and yes – he is buried a short distance from his master.

We loved Edinburgh and would like to return during a less-crazy time. We missed going into Edinburgh Castle because we chose to forego the long lines. Atop Calton Hill provides outstanding 360-views of the city, but I’ve shown enough pictures in this post. Besides the video shows it. Enjoy this 2-minute drone video tour giving you a taste of this fabulous city.

For those wanting to see more of Edinburgh, click here for a longer tour.

Next stop: Normandy France

For other posts about our time in the British Isles, click here.

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On a Tattoo

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No – This post is not about body art.

No – This post is not about Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize) proclaiming “De plane! De plane!” from the Fantasy Island tower.

Yes – This post is about an evening signal calling soldiers to their quarters.

Yes – This post is about an extravaganza of music, marching, and performance by military bands from across the globe as England, Scotland, France, India, and Japan providing precision and power.

Yes – A night including 11 pipes and drum bands from Scotland (5), Australia (3). Germany, Malta, and one composed of 45 players invited from at least Argentina, Chile, Mexico, USA, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia; all combining together (at least 300) to bring a layer of complexity through a national tradition.

Yes – A night when about 50 fiddlers from the Shetland Islands, a local children’s choir of at least 30, an international dance company, and The Queen’s Colour Squadron supplied elegance and poise to the instrumentation.

Yes – For us, a night of spectacle, exhilaration, and awe. Welcome to the 2017 Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo – the 68th edition of a 3-week celebration of music, culture, and tradition.

The castle quietly waits …

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The call is made.

They emerge from Edinburgh Castle.

They keep coming onto the Castle Esplanade …

… to entertain with music and theatrics

… with music and dance

… with music and fire

… with grace and majestic grandness

All in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle that also served as a beautiful backdrop

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Attending this event wasn’t on our radar, but for other cruisers this is the reason this took this itinerary. Two days before the event, we noticed tickets remained through a ship excursion, so we decided pay the price and go. Maybe because of my music and band experience, hte finale with over 600 musicians and others was so moving with moments of chills running through my spine. The video below is a high-quality edited version (2+ minutes). The full 5+minute fixed-camera version is linked below the video.

Full version link of the final dress rehearsal (5+ minutes)

Next stop: Edinburgh by day

On the Scottish Highlands

Beautiful mountains, valleys, and rolling hills of the Scottish Highlands sets the stage for this post. After a day in Greenock, Scotland (on the west coast), we had a cruise day – and oh what beauty Scotland provided as we cruised.

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The following day we docked in Invergordon. Months before going we discovered that Invergordon itself doesn’t provide much, so we booked a tour with Gavin at Invergordon Tours –  and he provided a wonderful day that included quite a variety. He’s also quite the personality – and a very tall bald guy wearing a kilt.

Millionaire’s View provided our first scenic view of the area.

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The Falls of Shin was a scenic stop, but we didn’t see any Atlantic Salmon leaking the falls on their spawning journey. The water does drop again below where we took this picture.

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Dunrobin Castle is a 189-room castle overlooking Dornoch Firth with beautiful gardens below the castle on the way to the water.

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The castle tour was OK, but we loved the falconry demonstration.

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We spent lunch time in Dornoch, a quaint town. Dornoch Cathedral (Church of Scotland but originally Roman Catholic) is part of the town square.

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Scots are serious about their whiskey – so the tour included a stop at Glenmorangie distillery – famous for their single-malt whiskey, which stays barreled for 10 years. They also produce long-aged whiskies, plus other varieties that included 2 years in a different type of barrel – such as sherry, port, and sauterne. Good stuff!

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A video of images from the land to the strains of Scotland the Brave done by pipes and drums is a fitting way to end this post.

We recommend Invergordon Tours – so a shout-out to Gavin for a wonderful day.

Next Stop: An evening in Edinburgh

For other posts about our time in the British Isles, click here.

On Belfast

I describe Belfast, Northern Ireland as beautiful, interesting, and gut-wrenching – and we were only there for a part of one day. On one end is the natural beauty, architecture, vibrancy, and history – and the other end The Troubles – the Northern Ireland Conflict (1968-1998).

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Belfast’s history is long and complicated. With its Bronze Age beginnings on the hills above, Belfast formed as a small settlement along the River Farset near where the river joins the River Lagan very close to its mouth at the Irish Sea.

A castle stood along the river during the Middle Ages. After a fire (1708), the owners rebuilt on a slope above the city where it still stands today.

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Today, Castle Street serves as a reminder of the original while the River Farset is enclosed below High Street.

Belfast’s population boomed during the mid-to-late 1800s as industry flourished: leading the way were processing tobacco from the New World, shipbuilding, rope making, and producing linen. Those industries are gone today, but toasts of its past remain – including the Titanic Museum located on the shipyard that built the Titanic.

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We took the Belfast Free Walking Tour – a 3-hour walk with a guide who encourage at the end. (We’ve done these in a few other European cities). Our guide was a local, and old enough to know The Troubles. He holds hope in today’s young generation because they are the first generation in 150 years that have not been involved in conflict.

Issues around The Troubles still simmer.  Physical scars still exist. Over 90% of children still attend segregated schools. Inhabitants are still divided by physical walls. The Peace Wall- which is anything but peaceful looking – still has gates that open and close daily. Politically-motivated murals decorate the wall. Memorials dot the neighborhood serving as a constant reminder of the past and the divisions.

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Since the Good Friday Agreement (1998), Belfast has undergone a social, economic, and cultural transformation.

Belfast is known for its many murals that tell its story – many (possibly most) are politically based. For mural enthusiasts, Belfast is a wonderland.

The Cathedral Quarter contains a courtyard (Commercial Court) that is a wall-to-wall-to-wall collage of images. Simply awesome! Although I hope to feature this area in its own post, here’s an interactive video allowing viewers to click-and-drag the image for a 360 degree view. The beginning includes some instructions, but not how to rotate the image.

FYI: Games of Thrones fans know Belfast as an important location for the show .. and yes, special tours exist.

Thanks to the Free Walking Tour and one of the hop-on hop-off bus lines, we saw and learned a lot in our short time in Belfast – a fascinating but gut-wrenching place. From the range of emotions of Titanic and The Troubles to the pride of its own as flutist James Galway, philosopher/author CS Lewis, and musician Van Morrison.

Here’s a promo video from one of the tour lines that will take you throughout the city.

I end with this song and video by Simple Minds (from Scotland) – Belfast Child – as it haunts me in a way Belfast did.

Next stop: The Scottish Highlands

For other posts about our time in the British Isles, click here.

On a Box Now Checked

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Some people call it a bucket list – others prefer to say wish list, dream destination, or whatever. On 23 August 2015 I posted about a place that was on both mine and my wife’s list. After monitoring the website at various points before our journey, on Wednesday, the 9th of August 2017, we checked the box.

About a month earlier at the golf club where I work, I met an English couple who were new members. I told him about our upcoming trip, including our plans for this location – to which he replied, Why? Once I mentioned the reason, his inquisitive frowning face changed to a smile.

We planned the day in advance. We knew when the ship docked in Liverpool, the location and distance to the train station, the train schedule, return times, and the essential information about our destination. We were on a mission for our time of dancing on one of the most famous ballroom floors in the world – the Blackpool Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, England.

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Blackpool is on England’s west coast, about a 90-minute train ride to the north from Liverpool. It’s a seaside resort that is very popular with commoners. Madame Tussauds, water parks, a carnival atmosphere, and more aren’t on my favorite things list, but the famed ballroom was our attraction.

Given the floor, the historic significance, and the ornate surrounding – absolutely Bucket List for us. Our ticket included a 90-minute tea with sandwiches, fruit, and tarts.

Image from Blackpool Tower website

Architectural elegance and charm from a time that has past define the Tower Ballroom (which dates back to 1894).

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Surrounding the large floor were the organists on a stage at one end; tables to sit at the opposite end; and settings for tea along one side.

Dancing to an organist (instead of recorded music) was a new experience. Two organists shared the duties, so music was continuous. One organ, the mighty Wurlitzer, makes a grand entrance being lifted to the stage from below … then lowers out of sight when the player’s shift concludes.

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We already knew to expect a different style of ballroom dance at Blackpool (American vs. International). Amazingly, for at least the first three dances we simply sat at our table thinking, We can’t do that! We never get a chance to dance because everyone on the floor is doing the same thing … the same steps/pattern.

I approached a couple near our table about what we were observing. They explained that the English and many Europeans dance sequences, which are set patterns that every does. The clue would be to listen to the organist because he would announce the name of the sequence and dance, so we should listen for the terms traditional or ballroom that will signal an non-sequence dance.

Sequences are fun to watch, but not if you are there to dance and you don’t know the sequence! We were surprised by the number of sequences … and dancers sat down if they didn’t know the sequence.

This is the Engagement Waltz.

We finally made it on the floor … and the first thing that we noticed was the amount spring in the floor – especially in the center. Our tea-table was almost in the center, and the movement made photography difficult – and of course I started wondering about potential motion sickness. Yes – the movement was that noticeable!

We stayed for almost 4 hours, and we were glad to check the box on our Bucket List. With the ship departing at 8 pm, we were fortunate to have a few hours in Liverpool (the previous post).

Here’s a short (90-second) promotional video showing the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. Enjoy … and you notice sequence dancing.

Next stop: Belfast, Northern Ireland

For other posts about our time in the British Isles, click here.

My past post about Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom

On London

We started our vacation with 4 days on our own in London, England. Because of its activity, offerings, and place in history, I previously described London as “the most grand” of the cities on our trip. This post features some random thoughts about this wonderful city with images that may or may not go along with the statement. Enjoy!

London is a blend of many cultures – especially white, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Black. Although I’m sure issues and bias exist, successful integration is obvious. The thought of over 300 different languages being spoken by its inhabitants is mind boggling.

London Bridge and Tower Bridge are not the same. Since 1209, 3 different London Bridges have existed – but none of them had towers. (In this image, London Bridge is behind Tower Bridge)

The River Thames has always played an important role in London’s economy and history. Once lined with warehouses, today many of the warehouses have turned into luxury condominiums and apartments or have been destroyed and replaced by upscale buildings for residents. I never realized that “wharf” as an acronym – warehouse at riverfront.

Big Ben is the bell – not the tower – not the clock – not the building. For the record, it sounds in the key of E.

Although Westminster is home to many buildings we associate with London, today they are separate burroughs – and the occupant of the throne (who resides in Westminster) must ask London’s Lord Mayor for permission to enter London.

London was the first city in the world to reach a population of 1 million – today’s population is approaching 9 million.

 

When visiting Buckingham Palace, look for the flag being flown to know whether or not the Queen/King is present. With the Union Jack flying above, we knew Queen Elizabeth was not in the palace as we watched the changing of the guard.

London offers much to see, but many come at a cost $20-25 per person (so married couples thing times two).

London is home to 13 professional football teams: of which 5 are in the Premier League.

Greenwich is a London borough a pleasant ferry ride down the River Thames. The Royal Observatory provides a wonderful view of the Maritime Museum and the Old Royal Naval College below with the city looming in the background.

A toast to London till we meet again.

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On a Vacation Primer

For those wanting some background music for the post, here’s some music from the land.

On to the post.

The image shows are 12-days of cruising. Keep in mind that we had 4 days in London before cruising, plus 3 days in Reykjavik, Iceland after the cruise. Both of these stops were independent of the cruise and done on our own.

I was struck by the fact that each of the major cities in the British Isles were quite different from one another.

  • The most grand: London, England
  • The most captivating: Edinburgh, Scotland
  • The most walkable: Dublin, Ireland
  • The most unexpectedly different: Liverpool, England
  • The most gut wrenching: Belfast, Northern Ireland

… and we didn’t just visit cities on the trip:

  • The most scenic countryside: Northern Scotland
  • The most solemn: American military cemetery at Normandy (Omaha Beach)
  • The most quaint: St. Peter Port, Guernsey
  • The most geologic diverse: Iceland

We walked a lot – averaging about 13,500 steps per day with over 25,000 being the most. When walking, my eyes are busy. For those who remember, when in Florence, Italy – I say “Look up!” Whether walking or passing by in a touring bus, these business signs on the trip caught my eye. Other than the obvious, any thoughts on what they sell?