Tuesday, October 4, 2022

More about the trip

As promised, I am going to share a little more about our recent trip to the U.K. and France. I don't delude myself into thinking you want a play-by-play, so feel free to skim or skip as you see fit. Pictures to come in the next post. 

Our first stop was St. Andrews in Scotland. Our friends W (Mr.) and C (Mrs.) had arrived the day before and got what would become our ill-fated rental car, which was a Ford pickup truck with a camper cover. It was a hideous copper color, and we'll get back to it later. W and C explained it was all the car rental company had to offer (which was pretty lame, since a six-passenger van had been confirmed). It was quite comfortable, however, and all of our bags fit in the back. 

Wife and I took a tram from the Edinburgh airport to downtown Edinburgh (catching a glimpse of Edinburgh Castle), where we caught a train to a small town near St. Andrews where W and C picked us up. We arrived at St. Andrews mid-afternoon and checked into our hotel. 

Wife and I got a quick bite to eat before re-joining W and C for a walk around the "Old Course" which was just steps away from our hotel. I'm not a golfer, but thoroughly enjoyed seeing this famous site. We visited a pro shop where we bought souvenirs for our golf-playing sons and son-in-law and enjoyed drinks in a clubhouse overlooking the course. After a lovely dinner at a restaurant W and P had picked, right on the water, Wife and I slept well as we shook off our jet lag. 

We loaded the truck early the next morning and set out for the town of Pilochry, where a version of the Highland Games was taking place. This is where we spent much of the afternoon, and this was the warmest we were the entire trip. The sun shone brightly and I'm guessing it was about 75 degrees. W and I stood in line for pints while Wife and C got sandwiches and chips (fries) for us from a vendor. All food and drink were from the Scottish equivalent of food trucks.  

The atmosphere was carnival-like as locals and visitors witnessed competitions of hammer throwing, tug-of-war, Scottish dancing, bagpipe playing and relay races, among other games. It was the perfect indoctrination to this wonderful country, and we found the locals warm and friendly, including our bed-and-breakfast innkeeper. 

After the games we visited a local distillery where we got our first taste of authentic Scotch. While my companions were not particularly impressed, I found it quite tasty. (When in Scotland, you know!)

Our destination the next day was the Isle of Skye, the largest island that is part of the "Inner Hebrides archipelago," where we would be for two nights. It is accessible by bridge, and we stayed in the charming seaside town of Portree. The water was only a few steps from the door of our hotel. 

We spent a day driving into the surrounding hills and mountains. The weather was gorgeous (as it was our entire trip) and we experienced only a few drops of rain at one of the higher altitudes. W did a great job driving as Wife helped him navigate the narrow roads. Sheep were in abundance (we were told there were more sheep than people in this area) and I asked W to stop numerous times so I could take pictures to send to the grands. We also saw the quite-interesting Highland cattle. 

Backing up a little, on our way to Skye, we made a stop at Glamis Castle, which was the family home of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and where Queen Elizabeth and her sister Princes Margaret spent much time during their childhood (and where Margaret was born). This was our first exposure to the high esteem in which the Scots held the Queen, and the extent of the grieving that was taking place there and throughout the U.K. following the Queen's death. 

From Skye it was on to the Isle of Mull, the second-largest island (after Skye) of the Inner Hebrides, accessible by ferry from the town of Oban. The copper-colored truck was driven by W right into the bowels of a massive boat. We left the car there and headed upstairs for the ride across. 

Prior to boarding, I had my best meal of the trip at a walk-up fresh seafood counter just steps away from the ferry port. I had fresh shrimp and a crab sandwich that were exquisite. (My second favorite had been at a hole-in-the wall seafood shed on Skye that a cousin of mine recommended, just up the hill from the Talisker Distillery. Fresh steamed scallops and lobster were prepared on site and consumed standing around barrels. This kind of thing speaks my language!)

We were on Mull two nights, and we stayed at a great hotel a few miles from the town of Tobermory where we had dinner in a delightful pub our first night. 

Our big day on Mull was spent taking another ferry that took us to Staffa, an uninhabited island about six miles out, and the Isle of Iona. On Staffa, we left the boat and walked onto the island, which a layperson like me would simply describe as "rock" but which consists largely of columnar basalt and from a distance looks like a cupcake! We walked along the edges, holding onto a guide rope, and it was spectacular. (I hardly do this justice. Look it up on Wikipedia if you would like more information.) 

From Stafford it was on to Iona, a tiny island accessible only by ferry, and inhabited by about 200 people. The main landmark on the island is a beautiful Abbey where we heard the story of the origins of Christianity in Scotland. It is now home of an ecumenical Christian community where pilgrims visit from the world over for periods of time to work and to serve. We had a tour guide who was fantastic and made it all come alive. 

(This all began to sound familiar to me and not long after arriving home, I found a blog post from blog friend Jeff -- Heading to Iona - From a Rocky Hillside -- who visited and served in this very place in 2017. It is now one of my goals to return to Iona and do the same.) 

Our time in Scotland coming to a close, we drove south, crossing the border into England, our destination being Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds. This was my second visit to this charmingly beautiful area of lush, green rolling hills, lovely streams and picturesque towns and villages. Here we met our friends R (Mr.) and P (Mrs.) who had been in London several days and shared with us their experiences seeing one of the processions when the Queen's body was being moved. 

It was the next day that we would have the problem with the car/truck. My plan that day was to hike a segment of the Cotswold Way, a 102-mile national trail that takes walkers through rolling hills and pastures and by centuries-old landmarks. I had mapped out an eight-mile course my friend R and I would do, and we would take a bus back to Stow. 

Wife and P (R's wife) would take us to the start of the hike in Winchcombe, about 20 miles from Stow. Wife was the driver for the day. C and W were hanging back and doing their own walking and sightseeing during the day. 

I won't go into all the details, but suffice it so say, after we stopped for gas, when Wife commenced to restart the vehicle, it was a no-go. Through consulting with a couple of locals, we learned an additive was required for this diesel-powered truck, a fact of which the folks at the rental company had failed to inform W and C when they first obtained it in Edinburgh. Once the additive was used up, a visit to a Ford dealership for a diagnostic and a reset would be required. We were not interested in doing that. 

So, rather than hiking the Cotswold Way, R and I (and our wives) spent the better part of the day dealing with this. We ended up abandoning the truck and getting another car in a nearby village. This one was procured from that company that says, "We'll pick you up," which they were glad to do, but it was near 5 p.m. before they could do so. R and I ended up hiking about a mile on the Cotswold Way (not what we had in mind!) back and forth into town twice (to join our wives, who had hitched a ride) for lunch, and back to meet the tow truck that would take the truck away. 

(We had been in touch with W and C, in whose name the car was rented, and they spoke with the rental company, telling them we were done. They reported it was not a pleasant exchange, with the company insinuating we should have known about the required additive. In our view, it was time to cut our losses.)

The silver lining of the day was Winchcombe being another charming Cotswold village. We found a great place for lunch and after our walk back to the car, then back into Winchcombe, R and I found a splendid pub where we sat with locals as well as other visitors to the area, enjoying traditional cold beer we Americans are accustomed to, as well as cask ale served at room temperature (an acquired taste, but made enjoyable by the atmosphere we were in). 

The next day was spent with a driver/tour guide who drove us around to various sites and towns. Wife and I had done this on our previous trip to this area and it's well worth the expenditure to be with someone who knows the area. 

The next morning, a Sunday, our friends W and C left us for their second leg of the trip to Ireland. R and I did a modified Cotswold Way hike that morning before the remaining four of us drove to London, with a drive-by in Oxford on the way. 

We turned in our car near Heathrow Airport and took an Uber to a London hotel near St. Pancras Station where the next morning we would take the Eurostar through the "chunnel," the underground train route across the English Channel that would take us to Paris. 

In Paris we picked up our next car, which was a manual transmission Peugeot SUV. Although I can drive a manual, I am not interested in driving in foreign countries. Neither Wife nor P had ever learned to drive a manual, so R was elected driver for the French portion of the trip. He was glad to do it and did a great job. 

We headed north to the beautiful harbor town of Honfleur where we spent the night in a hotel near the water. We had a wonderful dinner there and spent the next morning walking around the town. We left around noon for Bayeux, where we would see the incredible Bayeux Tapestry which chronicles the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. 

The next day was spent on a D-Day Tour of the Beaches of Normandy and surrounding areas. A French guide wife had met when she was there in 2016 drove the four of us on an all-day journey that ended with a visit to the American military cemetery where nearly 10,000 American soldiers are buried. 

Wife had sung the praises of the guide and this tour for nearly six years, and she said she always wanted to take me. All I can say is I am glad she persisted. It was an emotional experience, thinking of what happened there. 

From Bayeux it was on to Mont-Saint-Michel, a tidal island that is home to the Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey, the main attraction that sits atop the island. The visit here was the only time I felt crowded. The crowdedness is not hard to understand, however, as it is a remarkable site. 

We spent the night on the island and drove the next morning to Giverny, home of Claude Monet's home and gardens. This is another charming village, and the gardens are breathtaking. 

The next morning it was back to Paris and our flight home. 

I have given a very scant summary, leaving out detailed descriptions that would take too long. I covered the high points. Suffice it to say it was another great trip planned by Wife and I am grateful we can occasionally travel like this.  Overseas travel has its challenges and as I said in my previous post, you can count on changes of plans. But for me it is all well worth it. 

We enjoyed traveling with both couples. I've always said there are people you can be friends with and people you can travel with.  These friends are both and I would travel with them again. 


Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Stateside

Wife and I are back safely on this side of the pond after two weeks of traveling in the U.K. and France. We were with two different couples, but all six of us were together only three days in the Cotswolds of England. 

Every time I take a trip like this, I learn new things, or re-learn old things, for example: 

-- When one tries to cut corners to save money, one often gets what one pays for, which on this trip was demonstrated by a rental car abandoned roadside in the Cotswolds, rented from what one might describe as a fly-by-night operation. When I was supposed to be hiking the Cotswold Way, my travel companions and I were dealing with this. But lemonade (or ale, more accurately) was made from lemons as my buddy and I found a splendid little pub in the charming town of Winchcombe to wait things out. 

-- With international travel the way Wife and I do it, making our own way (or the way Wife has planned for us; I could never do it on my own), one must be flexible (see previous reference to abandoned rental car) and expect the unexpected. 100 percent of the time, plans will change. 

-- Wife is an outstanding travel planner. She can drive and navigate, and I am the grateful beneficiary of her skill. 

-- I find the majority of people to be kind and helpful, no matter where they live. That's encouraging. 

-- While Wife and a couple of my friends are capable of driving in a foreign country, including one where driving is done on the side of the road opposite as in the U.S., and roundabouts are the order of the day, I should always be a passenger. I have neither the skill nor the patience, and I am glad I know this about myself. 

-- The people in the U.K. loved their queen! I guess I knew this, but witnessing the outpouring of affection for her, especially in Scotland where she passed away less than 24 hours before we arrived there, was nothing less than awe-inspiring. 

There were more lessons, but these were the main ones that remain top of mind for me. I'll post more about the trip, along with some pictures, in the next few days. 





Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Travel

Wife and I will be taking a trip we have been planning for quite some time. 

I have longed to return to the Cotswolds, the region of beautiful rolling hills in central-southwest England, since visiting there with Wife and Daughter in 2013. I have also wanted to go to Scotland. 

Wife, since going to northern France in 2016, has wanted to take me there, especially to Normandy. 

We will board a plane with our ultimate destination being all of the above. 

We will fly into Edinburgh and get on a train bound for St. Andrews, where we'll join another couple from here who will be a day ahead of us. We'll be in Scotland for about six days before we take a short flight to Birmingham, where we'll rent a car and make the drive to Stow-on-the-Wold, which will be our home base the few days we are in the Cotswolds, with our time there ending with a day trip to Oxford. 

Another couple will join us in Stow and will stay with Wife and me the remainder of our trip. The first couple, the one we will join in St. Andrews, will part company with us after our last day in the Cotswolds, and go to Ireland. 

The remaining four of us will take the Eurostar across the England Channel to Paris and head north.  

As usual, Wife has planned this excursion. I, along with the ones joining us, will be the beneficiary of her organizational skills. 

I'll look forward to sharing some pictures at a later date. 

And in the next 30 days or so, I hope to be making an announcement about my future column writing and blog writing. The newspaper column is very likely coming to an end, but I hope to continue it in another format, possibly combining it with the content of this blog. Still looking into all of that.