Jersey

We flew from Newcastle to Jersey on Flybe. I had been very nervous about the weight restrictions – because of my Qantas Club membership, I had come to the UK with 30 kgs of checked baggage, but Flybe only allows 20kgs, and charges a lot for excess baggage. Before I made the booking, I had been advised by email that I would be allowed to register my fencing bag as “special sporting equipment”, which would make it exempt from the weight restrictions, but when I attempted to do so, I was told that the person who had first emailed me had made a mistake. They refused to change their position on this, so after much to-ing and fro-ing I just registered a second bag, and hoped for the best. But when we checked in, she didn’t even blink at the weight (although Michael was told that his cabin bag was too large, and would have to be checked). So all that stress for nothing!

We had decided not to stay at the “official” hotel for the Veteran Fencing Championships, as it seemed rather expensive, especially for staying more than the 3 days of the event. But Jenny had found a place in the village of Gorey – the Maison Gorey – where a few of us from the Australian team decided to stay. It was outside the main town of St Helier, but in terms of getting in for the competition it was only about a 15 minute drive.

And the accommodation came with free car hire – the car was a Ford Ka, so we weren’t entirely sure we would be able to fit everything in it (fencing bag, suitcase, large backpack, and two wheelie cabin bags) but amazingly, when we put the back seat down, it all went in. (See photo – and note the colour of the car. It doesn’t show all that clearly, but it was a pinkish burgandy shade, described as “blush”.)

After we had taken our bags up to our room, we walked down to Gorey Harbour. The tide was out, and I was amazed at just how FAR out it was. This was to strike me time and again during our time on Jersey – someone told me that Jersey has the second lowest tides of anywhere in the world, and I can well believe it. The below photos show Gorey Harbour (with Orgueil Castle in the background) first with the tide out and then with the tide in. And the tide-out photo doesn’t really give a good impression of just how far out it went.

We had some drama in the hotel room that night. Jenny had arrived a few hours after us, and we had agreed to watch Torchwood together in our room. Just before she got there, the shower suddenly started to leak water. A bit later, it did it again, and on closer inspection we realised that it wasn’t the shower but the bathroom ceiling that was leaking! And we then found that there were no staff in the hotel! (It was a small, family run concern, with not that many staff – though it did prove to be quite unusual for there to be nobody there at all.) After looking everywhere – and even phoning – without success, Jenny had the bright idea of going to the house next door and asking if they had a contact number for the people … which, fortunately, they did. The owner turned up in about 10 minutes, and we were moved into another room. It appeared that there had been a burst pipe. (Sadly, shuffling bags around meant that we missed the start of Torchwood.)

There was further excitement the next morning, when, just as I was about to step out of the shower, the light fitting came crashing to the floor, right where I would have been standing a few seconds later. Fortunately nothing else went wrong for the remainder of our stay. And it actually was a very nice place to stay – the people were lovely, and it had much more character than a big hotel.

The plan was to spend the day seeing the two main castle – Elizabeth (on a tidal island off St Helier) and Orgueil (in Gorey). We went to Elizabeth Castle first, which can be accessed by ferry, or, when the tide is out, by foot. However, we were told that because it was rough and windy the ferry wouldn’t be going until 11:00 (the tide would be out enough by 11:30 or so). So we grabbed something to eat and dropped in at the nearby Radisson, to leave a message for Meredith, another Australian fencer, who was staying there. But when we got back, the 11:00 ferry was already fully booked, and it would be half an hour for the next one. So we decided to change things around and see Orgueil Castle first.

Orgueil was a medieval castle, with additions and expansions up to the 17th Century. There were so many rooms and passages that I’m not sure we actually saw everything, but we had a great time exploring it. It was relatively busy, but (with a bit of patience) we were still able to get photos without other people in them.

We then went back to Elizabeth Castle … only to be told that the ongoing wind meant that they were closing up early.

As an alternative, we went to La Hougue Bie, a 12th Century chapel, built on top of a Neolithic mound, which was itself built over a dolmen. Unlike Maes Howe in Orkney (and Newgrange in Ireland) we didn’t have to go in as a group with a guide – we could just explore on our own. The layout was not actually dissimilar to Maes Howe – a long, low entrance opening out into a chamber with three chambers off it. Though this was smaller and distinctly more damp. The entrance seemed lower and longer than Maes Howe, though this could partly be because we didn’t have someone to tell us when we could stand up, so not only did I have to shuffle through hunched over, but I also had to run my hand along the (damp) ceiling to see when it would be possible to stand up. Much more exciting! Particularly for Jenny, who thought she had reached the end of the passage, stood up, and then found (the hard way) that there was one more bit of ceiling jutting down.

The building on the top of the mound was actually two separate chapels – one built in the 12th Century (Chapel of Notre Dame de la Clarte) and then an oratory (Jerusalem Chapel) added to the existing chapel in about 1520. Both chapels were fairly plain whitewashed rooms: the Notre Dame had a simple piscina (the ancient altar stone had been removed in 1931 when the chapel was rededicated), and the (unfurnished) Jerusalem still had the very faint remains of the early 16th Century wall paintings.

We noticed on the map that we would be passing close by another dolmen, La Pouquelaye de Faldouet, on the way back to the hotel, so we diverted to have a look at it. Unfortunately, it was clearly on the map for hikers and cyclists, as there was no parking, and the road was far too narrow to stop. But we drove down a bit further, to an intersection, and then Michael stayed with the car, while Jenny and I ran back to have a look. It was a passage grave, with a double chamber (apparently quite unusual).

The next morning we met up with Meredith, again planning to go to Elizabeth Castle … and again being told it was opening late becasue of the winds. So Meredith, Michael and I went to the Jersey War Tunnels, while Jenny went into town. The War Tunnels are a museum about the German occupation of Jersey during World War II, set up in an underground German Military Hospital. The museum took us through the start of the war (matching world events with events on Jersey) through the optional evacuation, the occupation and then the emancipation. It was a very well put together museum, with a well planned mix of artefacts, archival video and sound effects, and more recent video interviews with people who lived through it. The focus was mainly on day-to-day life, and it was absolutely fascinating.

We then met up again, and this time actually made it to the Castle! We decided to walk along the causeway, which was fully exposed by the tide. I had forgotten my camera and had to run back for it – while the others were waiting for me, they met up with Jane, another member of the Australian team. So we all went around the castle together. This was a much later castle than Orguiel, but the really interesting thing about it was that the Germans had used it as part of their defence network during the occupation, so we kept coming across German bunkers and fortifications surrounded by 17th century stonework. Extending out beyond the castle was another causeway, so flat and wide we thought it had been put in by the Germans, but it turned out to be Victorian. This let to a small hermitage, which I think pre-dated the castle (there was also German blockhouse). The photos below show the tidal causeway to the castle (tide way out), the castle itself and the hermitage and blockhouse.

We finished the day by driving back to the hotel along the coastal road. This was our last full day of sightseeing, as the next day marked the start of the Commonwealth Veteran Fencing Championships (the actual reason we were on Jersey). However, we did manage to get in to the Jersey Museum the next morning, before weapons check.

I won’t go into details about the Championships, except to say that with 105 competitors it was the largest Veteran Championships since the event began in the 1990s, and it was very well run and enjoyable. The Australian team consisted of 6 women and 3 men. I fenced in the individual and team foil (12th in individual and the team got silver), the “B” epee team (we had fun, while the “A” team was winning gold) and the individual and team sabre. I placed 5th in the individual (would probably have made the top 4 if the Championships had been a week earlier, as the winner only turned 40 a few days before the event), and we got the bronze medal in the teams. A good time was had by all!

Hadrian’s Wall and Durham

I’m now more than a week behind in writing up our holiday. However …

Given that we only had a day at Hadrian’s Wall, we couldn’t see everything we wanted, so we concentrated on just a few things. We started with the Procolitia Fort and Temple of Mithras. The Fort is a bit hard to work out, as it hasn’t been excavated, so it is basically just ridges in a field (with lots of sheep and cattle), and because it is private property there’s not a lot of signage. Fortunately the owner happened to walk past while we were there (collecting molehills, which apparently make good topsoil) and she showed us the rough layout. The Temple of Mithras was in the next field over, and was a bit more obvious as it has been excavated and partially restored.

We then went to the Steel Rigg carpark, which is a starting point for some good stretches of Wall. We went for a bit of a walk, but didn’t really have time to make it extensive. The Wall was impressive, and the views were spectacular.

Next stop was Vindolanda, a Roman auxiliary fort that was originally set up before Hadrian’s Wall was built, and so is located a little south of the Wall. Excavations of the area are ongoing: as well as the archaeologists, they have volunteer workers every year, a number of whom we saw digging and dragging wheelbarrows around. There’s not much in the way of high walls, but there is a growing picture of the layout of the township.

There was also a rather good museum, with interesting pieces, and a video about the Vindolanda tablets – wooden tablets with ink writing containing all sorts of lists and messages (including one to the fort commander’s wife, from another, nearby, fort commander’s wife, inviting her to a birthday party).

After Vindolanda, we went to the Roman Army Museum (discount ticket if bought at the same time as a Vindolanda ticket) which proved to be a bit disappointing.

Our final stop was Housesteads (Vercovicium), a fort actually on Hadrian’s Wall. Like Vindolanda, there are no full walls or anything, but it has been more extensively excavated. We were lucky enough to arrive just as a guided walk was starting, so we went on that, and learned a fair bit more than we would have got just from the signs. As well as the fort itself, the views over the landscape (and of some intact/restored sections of Wall) were spectacular.

After that, we drove down to Durham, where Anelie and Neil had very kindly offered us a room for the night. It was great to catch up with them again.

After we’d gone out for dinner, we all went for a walk along the riverbank, and Anelie and Neil showed us a lovely view of the Cathedral.

The next day, we went to see the Castle and the Cathedral. They are opposite each other, with the green in between them. However, because the graduations had just finished, the green had been completely covered by an enormous great marquee. By the time we got there, workmen had started disassembling it, but it was still half up, and they appeared to be on a break of indeterminate length. So we weren’t able to get any nice photos of the area.

It turned out that Castle tours didn’t start until the afternoon, and there were services in the Cathedral all morning. However, we were still able to see some sections of the cathedral, and the cloister. And it was lovely to be in the Cathedral while the choir was singing.

We went briefly into the Museum before meeting Anelie and Neil for lunch, and then after lunch went back and saw the rest of the Cathedral. It really is vast, and must have been incredibly impressive when it was all painted inside (it was pretty impressive just with bare stone!)

The first Castle tour was at 2:00, so we walked over about 5 minutes before, only to have the people in front of me by the last two tickets. So we booked for the 2:30 instead, which was probably better since the 2:00 had 41 people on it, and ours was much smaller than that. We got a history of the Castle, and saw a number of rooms, the Great Hall, the two Chapels and the kitchen. Because the Castle is now student accommodation, the kitchens are still in use – in fact, they are the oldest continually-in-use kitchens in Britain. There were also two original kitchen tables, taken out of use in the 1970s as they were deemed unhygenic, which were kept in other areas. (The bigger one was in a large room upstairs – apparently the rugby team of the day had carried it up!)

We then went back to Anelie and Neil’s, said our goodbyes and headed to the B&B near Newcastle airport that we had booked, ready for the flight to Jersey the next day. They had advertised as having no aircraft noise – which did prove to be true – but neglected to mention that they were right next to a busy roundabout. Fortunately the traffic did ease off later in the evening, but it definitely at the lower end of the B&Bs we had stayed in. On the other hand, the pub dinner we had was very good.

Edinburgh and the Border Abbeys

Because we had left things to the last minute in deciding whether to go to Edinburgh or Glasgow, we didn’t have any accommodation organised in advance. After spending an evening of running various web searches, I ended up just booking into the same place I stayed when I was in Edinburgh in 2006. Though it now has the bonus of free wifi.

Because it is very conveniently located for Holyrood Palace, that was the first place we set off for (Michael had never seen it, and when I went some of the rooms were closed). However, we had failed to make the connection that because the Queen had been visiting Culloden, she was obviously in the North, and would therefore be in residence. As it turned out, she had left the Palace that morning, but it was still closed to visitors for a couple of days. So we went to Holyrood Park instead. In the end, we didn’t go all the way up Arthur’s Seat, but we still got some great views of the park, Holyrood Palace and the city.

We then walked up the Royal Mile and spent an enjoyable few hours in the Castle. There were still quite a few hours of daylight remaining as we left, but at that point the mild headache I’d had all day turned into a migraine, and I didn’t really feel up to hiking around the city any longer, particularly since it was actually quite hot. So we called it a day.

The next day, the weather actually turned Scottish – or at least, more so than we had experienced thus far: it drizzled on and off for much of the day. However, it didn’t stop us from seeing three of the Border Abbeys included in our Historic Scotland passes: Melrose, Dryburgh and Jedburgh.

It wasn’t actually raining when we were at Melrose Abbey (founded in 1136 by Cistercian monks) so we spent quite a while wandering around, climbing the tower, and listening to the free audio commentary.

When we got to Dryburgh Abbey (1150, Premonstratensian canons) the drizzle had definitely set in, so we didn’t spend as much time there as we might have. (Also, they didn’t have a free audio guide.) Sir Walter Scott and Field Marshal Haig are both buried here – Scott has the more impressive memorial, although there were a lot of regimental wreaths at Haig’s grave – I believe there had been some sort of Services Day, or something, recently.

Finally, we went to Jedburgh Abbey (1138, Augustinians). Situated high on a hill, it was perhaps the most impressive of the three, although since the Nave was undergoing conservation work, there was a certain amount of unsightly scaffolding (and some points in the audio tour where we couldn’t quite follow the instructions on where to walk).

After Jedburgh, we crossed the border into England, and went to the farm B&B near Hadrian’s Wall that we had booked into. In our time in Scotland we had only had one brief glimpse of a Highland cow – so of course, now that we were in England, the farm had two of them in the field we could see from our window. They also had a very friendly cat.

Travelling south

From Inverness, we meandered south to Edinburgh, stopping overnight in Ballachulish (near Glen Coe).

This time, we drove down the east side of Loch Ness, along the more picturesque, less populated B862. Again, because it was early in the morning it was very quiet and the Loch looked lovely and misty.

We stopped at Foyles and did two short walks – one to the Falls of Foyles (which weren’t quite as Robert Burns described them) and the Red Squirrel Walk (didn’t see any red squirrels). But the walks were pleasant, nevertheless.

After this, we continued past the interestingly-named Loch Lochy, and then stopped to look at the Commando Memorial (“in memory of the Commandos who died in the Second World War”) and enjoy our first view of Ben Nevis.

We then detoured slightly west, to go to the village of Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel, where (historically) in 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard to signal the start of the Jacobite uprising; and also where the (fictional) Connor Macleod was born in 1518. There is a column by the edge of the Loch, commemorating the Jacobites, but it looked like you had to pay a an entrance fee to get to it, and we figured that the National Trust of Scotland had had enough of our money the day before at Culloden, and the Glenfinnan Visitor Centre would be covering the same set of events as the Culloden one, so we decided to give it a miss.

Instead, we continued on into Glenfinnan, and had lunch at the Glenfinnan Station Museum, in a converted railway carriage (originally a Dining Car). They very helpfully gave us a map of walks in the area, so we did the first part of the Viaduct Viewpoint path, which ran all the way from Glenfinnan to the 21 arch viaduct crossed by the West Highland Railway (as seen in the Harry Potter films). We only went as far as the viewpoint, where we got a magnificent view of the Loch in one direction, and an in-the-distance view of the viaduct in the other.

On leaving Glenfinnan, we retraced our route back towards Ben Nevis, and into the start of Glen Nevis. We parked in the “Braveheart” carpark and did a short and not very interesting walk. We would probably have done better to drive further into the glen, but time was getting on and we wanted to get to the B&B we had booked in Ballachulish.

After checking in to the B&B, and offloading our luggage, we drove on into Glen Coe and did a couple of walks – one from the Visitor Centre, and then another (better) one to Signal Rock. According to the information board, tradition has it that Signal Rock was the gathering point for the MacDonalds of Glencoe at times of emergency, and some people believe that a fire was lit here to signal the start of the Massacre on 13 February (though there is no evidence to support this). Regardless of whether this is true or not, there was a wonderful view from the top of the rock.

The next morning, we drove on through Glen Coe and Rannoch Moor, stopping (frequently) to enjoy the views.

We then drove through part of the Trossachs National Park, which was quite pretty, but not a patch on what we had seen earlier in the day. We stopped at Balquhidder to see Rob Roy’s grave, and at 13th century Inchmahome Priory, which is on an island in the Lake of Menteith (the only lake – as opposed to loch – in Scotland). A little 12 person boat regularly ferries people across the lake to the island.

Our final stop for the day was Stirling Castle. We got there at about 3:00, and as we arrived it started to rain lightly. The air smelled as if an enormous great thunderstorm was brewing, but fortunately this failed to eventuate. However, it was still sprinkling when we went into the castle and joined one of the free guided tours. The tour guide was amusing and informative, and we really enjoyed it. We went through the Great Hall and the Chapel (where the infant James VI was baptised), but the Palace was closed as it was still being restored.

Part of the restoration work includes the weaving of new tapestries for the Palace walls: they are basing them on a six-tapestry series of a unicorn hunt (allegory for the Crucifixion and Resurrection) and the four completed tapestries were hanging inside the Chapel. We went down to the Tapestry Room, where you could actually see the weavers working on the new tapestries, and read some information about them: the kind of research that had been done, the changes that had been made, etc. One nice feature is that they aren’t attempting to age them at all: when the Palace is reopened, the tapestries on the walls will be as rich and vibrant as they would have been when the Palace was actually in use.

Stirling Castle was the first place we had been to that showed signs of really heavy tourist activity happening. However, because we had arrived later in the day, the numbers were thinning while we were there, and while it didn’t end up deserted, it certainly wasn’t crowded. Even better, by the time we were leaving, the rain had cleared up completely, so we were able to get photos of the views, and of the Wallace Monument in the distance.

We were spending the night in Edinburgh, but we had been warned that it would be best to arrive after 6:30, to avoid traffic congestion, so we grabbed a quick meal in Stirling (confirming that British Chinese Restaurants are still underwhelming) before heading to Edinburgh.

Inverness

There were a few things we wanted to see around Inverness, so we set off bright and early in the morning.

Our first destination was Urquhart Castle, on the west bank of Loch Ness. The road down had lots of stopping places to view the Loch, which looked lovely in the early morning mists. It was sufficiently early in the morning, that it was very quiet (there was one tour bus, but we had walked down a little path to the edge of the loch, and for some reason they all stayed in the parking area to take their photos).

We drove through the village of Drumnadrochit, declining to stop at any of the monster exhibitions, and got to the castle 20 minutes before opening times. There were a few people hanging around the carpark, but we decided to backtrack slightly and go to Divach Falls. They turned out to be not the most exciting waterfall in the world, but it was a lovely walk to get there and much better than sitting in the carpark.

When we got back to the castle, it was open but still fairly quiet. Before going to the castle, you watch a short film on its history (repeatedly sacked, damaged and rebuilt over the centuries, and finally blown up in 1692 to prevent Jacobites using it), and when the film finishes, the curtains open and there are the castle ruins before you. Quite effective. The ruins were nice to wander around, and the views of the Loch were spectacular.

We planned to go to Culloden Battlefield next, so we drove back up the Loch (the roads were more crowded by this time) but we arrived to find a police car at the entrance, and we were told the Battlefield was closed until 2:30. No explanation as to why. We speculated that there might have been some kind of incident, but it did seem rather unlikely that the police would know in advance exactly when they would be finishing up. Later, we learned that the Queen was visiting (though apparently she didn’t go onto the battlefield at all – just stayed in the new Visitor Centre and had lunch).

We therefore went off to nearby Clava Cairns – Bronze Age burial chambers. There were two ring cairns and two passage graves, which made an interesting contrast to (Neolithic) Maes Howe in Orkney. The passage graves were open rather than fully enclosed, so not grassed over, and there was a single passage into the middle, which was aligned with the setting sun. Each one was within a ring of standing stones.

We then had to decide between seeing Cawdor Castle and Fort George. In the end, we picked Fort George – we decided it would be a bit different (we will be seeing quite a few castles) and also it was included in our Historic Scotland ticket, whereas Cawdor Castle wasn’t. And Cawdor Castle doesn’t really have a Macbeth connection, as it only dates back to the 14th Century.

Fort George was built after the Battle of Culloden, as a base for George II’s army to quell any future Jacobite uprisings. This ultimately proved unnecessary, but it has been used every since as a military barracks (and still is today). Because it is still in use, some bits were off-limits, but much of it was open, with several rooms set up to show how they would have looked historically. The audio commentary (free) was very informative, and it was particularly interesting to walk around the walls and see how the changing nature of warfare had led to the Fort being built with ravelins (big ditches and earthworks to absorb the impact of cannon fire), rather than high fortress walls which could be shattered by a cannon ball

The weather had been a bit cloudier than the last couple of days, and at about 3:30 we noticed that it was starting to look like rain. So we thought it would be a good idea to go to Culloden before it hit. (As it turned out, although it sprinkled a bit, if there was full-on rain it went somewhere other than Culloden.)

The big fancy Visitor Centre (only finished in 2008) was quite informative about the events leading up to the battle, but to be honest I thought quite a lot of the presentation was basically fluff. They could have shown everything very nearly as effectively – and a heck of a lot less expensively – by just having information boards and diagrams, without the need for sound effects, computer screens, etc. And the money saved could have been spent on restoring the area to how it would have been for the battle (which they are also trying to do). We went on a short guided walk of the field, which was quite good, but annoyingly the GPS-driven audio guides weren’t available. For some reason, I found it all a bit less evocative that when we went to Bosworth Field (though admittedly that was over 10 years ago, so I could be mis-remembering). However, seeing the clan graves was quite moving.

Orkney

The conference finished at lunchtime on Thursday. We had picked up our hire car that morning, so we were able to set off as soon as we had finished lunch. We drove as far as Inverness, stopping on the way at Kildrummy and Glenbuchet castles. We had wonderful sunny weather, and our visit to Kildrummy was enlivened by the sound of lawnmowers and whipper-snippers, and the smell of fresh-cut grass. Glenbuchet turned out to be in the middle of a sheep paddock – someting I hadn’t factored in when I decided not to change out of my conference-going clothes. However, I managed to avoid stepping in anything nasty. Both were enjoyable – Kildrummy (13th century) was larger and grander, but considerably more ruined than Glenbuchet (1590), which had most of its walls still intact.

The next day, which was bright and sunny, we drove up to Scrabster, where we were booked on the ferry to Orkney. It was an extremely large car-ferry, with restaurant, bar, etc. More importantly, it was the scenic ferry route, going around Hoy (we got a good view of the Old Man of Hoy) and into picturesque Stromness. Getting off the ferry, we went straight to our B&B, “Ashleigh”. It wasn’t an old building, but it was central to all the things we wanted to see, it had a view over the Loch of Harray, and the room was huge and well appointed. The owner, Audrey Poke, was very nice and helpful, and, as we discovered the next morning, provided a wonderful breakfast. Definitely a high rating on the B&B scale.

After offloading all our bags, we went to see the nearby Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar. Both were originally stone circles in henges – Stenness had much larger stones, but only a few were left standing, whereas you could still tell that Brodger was a ring (see photo). They both clearly had the ditch (feature of a henge) and causeway still visible. Stenness is the oldest henge in the UK, and Brodger may well be the third oldest – they are both older than Stonehenge.

We had seen that there was a “Taste of Orkney” céilidh happening nearby, so we went along. It wasn’t a tourist thing – more like a local community concert. So some performances were not exactly traditional (e.g. ballet students dancing to an Abba song) but there was a fantastic pair of drummers, a flute/guitar pair (playing Shetland rather than Orkney tunes!) and a brilliant folk singer. He sang a song that I think was called “Proud women rule us with their tears”, inspired by Flora Macdonald, that was beautiful. There was a supper (local Orkney produce) and then a dance, that we didn’t stay for. It was 11pm by the time we got back to the B&B – and still light.

The next day, which was again bright and sunny (we had fantastic luck with the weather!) we started off with a trip to Kirkwall, to do some shopping and to see St Magnus Cathedral, the Earl’s Palace and the Bishop’s Palace. The last two were ruins – but all three were, by a considerable margin, the most recent things we were to visit that day. At midday we went back to the Ring of Brodger for a (free) guided walk, which covered not only the history but also the local flora and fauna. The guide (Elaine) told us that Brodger, Stenness, Skara Brae and Maes Howe had together been designated a World Heritage Site – the “heart of Neolithic Orkney”. As well as these four sites, the area has a number of other standing stones, and is just littered with artefacts. However, because of this, they are not allowed to dig more than two inches into the ground without permission, and they have to have an archaeologist present when they do so. This means that just putting up a signpost can be a lengthy process!

From here, we went to the next component of Neolithic Orkney – Skara Brae. This is a Neolithic village which has been amazingly well preserved. Basically, it was completely buried in sand, and then revealed as the result of a big storm in the 19th century. It was certainly interesting, and amazingly well preserved, but it didn’t feel “special” in the same way that Brogder and Stenness did.

The last item in the quartet is Maes Howe, a burial chamber. We had booked to do a “twilight” tour at 8pm (not that this was really twilight!) which meant that we had time to go to the Brough of Birsay first. This is an island that you can walk to during low tide (which happened to be in the evening) and which has the remains of a Viking settlement. We then walked to the top of the hill, which had a lighthouse, and views of the cliffs. It also had a number of bird watchers.

After the slight disappointment of Skara Brae, visiting Maes Howe was more like the other places – it really felt special. It is a covered burial chamber – again, far older than Stonehenge, probably about the same age as Newgrange in Ireland, though not as big. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t look like anything much from the outside (see photo) but the inside was amazing. We had to stoop down and shuffle through the entrance passage (whereas in Newgrange, we could stand upright but it was so narrow we had to go in sideways.) The inner chamber had three areas for placement of bones, although any bones that may have been there were lost when it was excavated in the 19th century. Like Newgrange it is precisely aligned so that during the winter solstice the sun’s rays shine directly into the central chamber (though in this case it is the rising sun where as Newgrange is the setting sun – or maybe it is the other way around …). The other fascinating thing about it is that, millennia after it had been abandoned, the Vikings found it. It is possible that they may have used it to store treasure, but it is certain that a number took shelter during a fierce winter storm. The chamber is full of Viking graffiti.

We were only booked to stay two nights on Orkney, so reluctantly we had to leave on Sunday morning. We were booked on the shorter, cheaper, less-scenic ferry from St Margaret’s Hope. On the drive over, we stopped to look at the Italian Chapel – built by Italian prisoners-of-war out of two Nissen huts. An amazing piece of work – the inside is painted to look like the stonework of a cathedral.

The ferry went from St Margaret’s Hope to Gills Bay, which is between Dunnet Head (Britain’s most northerly point) and John O’Groats. So we went to see both. With its lighthouse and sea and view of Hoy on the horizen. Dunnet Head felt splendidly remote (see photo). John O’Groats … didn’t.

On the subject of remoteness, one thing that struck me on Orkney was that we managed to fluke visiting places at a time when most other people weren’t there. In fact, except for Skara Brae it was remarkably quiet, and easy to get photos without lots of people in them – and even Skara Brae wasn’t overly crowded. Apparently Saturday is often a quiet day (people coming for a week are leaving/arriving), but even so we were very lucky in that regard.

Aberdeen

I’m resurrecting my blog to cover our four week holiday in the UK, which incorporates a conference, a fencing competition and some driving around the Scottish Highlands.

The flight over was not quite as horrible as usual. We managed to get upgraded to Premium Economy, which meant much wider seats, with much more legroom and more of a recline. It was also a set of two rather than three, so I wasn’t stuck between Michael and a stranger. As a result, I actually manged to get a couple of hours sleep. I also watched a few TV episodes of programs I had already seen, and five movies:

They were all quite watchable, though I can’t say I regret missing any of them at the cinema. I probably enjoyed Michael Clayton and Inkheart the most.

We arrived in Aberdeen at about midday, only to learn that my fencing bag was still at Heathrow. However, they promised that it would be on the next flight up, and I wasn’t too fussed since the fencing competition isn’t until the other end of the holiday.

On the taxi ride in from the airport, we quickly learned why it is called the Granite City – even the suburban houses were made of granite rather than brick, and looked really nice in the sun. (Though I have since discovered that this is not the case in all suburbs, it was certainly a lovely introduction to the city.)

After we had checked into the hotel, showered and changed, we went out to wander around for a bit. The sun had gone in, and it was starting to look a bit overcast, and it was at this point that I remembered I had packed my raincoat into my fencing bag. Not the best move.

But it wasn’t actually raining, so we went out anyway. We walked down the main street, went to the Maritime Museum and were then wandering back to the hotel when the heavens opened and we had to take shelter in the doorway of a restaurant. Fortunately it only lasted for about ten minutes (and we weren’t the only people taking shelter in that doorway!)

On Saturday, we went to Provost Skene’s House, a 17th century house that is almost entirely surrouned by tall buildings (and the signs pointing towards it weren’t as helpful as they might have been). It had a fairly amazing painted gallery, dating back to 1622 and restored as best they could (i.e. one or two places are completely blank, and the diagram just labels them as “scenes from the life of Jesus). As a complete contrast, the other memorable feature of the house was the enormous rocking horse in the nursery.

We then went to the bay area: we walked down the Esplanade and into a suburb called Footdee, which apparently used to be a fishing village. The little houses were very charming and completely non-touristy: it was just somewhere people were living. Though this did mean that our assumption there would be shops and somewhere we could by fish and chips were mistaken.

Finally , we went to the Art Gallery. It had quite a nice collection of 19th century painting, but I thought the most striking piece we saw was a sculpture on the ground floor. It was called Feedback Loop 2003, by Kenny Hunter: I have linked to an online photo of it, although this doesn’t really do it justice. Michael described it as Manga meets Chairman Mao, and this is pretty much what the notes in the gallery said. I can’t really say why I liked it (except that the online photo doesn’t really capture the power of it).

On Sunday we did a walking tour of Old Aberdeen, which included Kings College Chapel, the university’s Botanical Gardens, St Machar’s Cathedral (a fortified cathedral!), Seton Park and Aberdeen’s oldest bridge. A lovely area, and the guided tour was reasonably informative.

The conference started today, but I will hold off on blogging it until the end.

Rome Again

Our last two days were back in Rome, and we stayed at Eva’s Rooms again – a different room this time, on the third floor, rather smaller and somewhat cheaper.

After getting the train back from Florence, and checking back into the hotel, we went to the Via Appia. We got off the bus at about the 6th mile and walked all the way back to the start. We really enjoyed it. On the way, we stopped at the Catacombs of San Callisto. This was actually a bit disappointing. The catacombs themselves were fantastic, but the tour through them was very short, and we were rushed past a series of rooms with frescoes in them.

On Monday we went to the Vatican Museums. We mostly looked at the Roman collection, plus going through the Room of Maps, the Library, and, of course, the Sistine Chapel. The Chapel itself was horribly crowded, which is understandable I guess given the quality, and fame, of the art. By contrast, the Roman collection was much easier to move around (lack of tour groups, for one thing) and was an interesting mix of gods and mythic heroes with real people. I particularly liked a bust of Hadrian.

The rest of Monday was spent doing various errands. We went to Statzione Termine, to find out about shuttle bus services to Ciampino Airport (for Michael, who is flying RyanAir to the UK) and the train to Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) Airport for me (flying Cathay Pacific/Qantas back to Australia). We also posted some books back to Australia, did a bit of shopping, and then spent the evening packing.

Maranello

The official website for Galleria Ferrari was notably lacking in information on how to get there by public transport. We eventually worked it out by means of other people’s blogs, plus some minimal (though better than nothing!) instructions from the Florence tourist office. So, since other people’s blogs helped us, I thought I’d add to the internet-based information.

Step one was to get from Florence to Modena – fortunately we got a direct train, rather than having to change.

From the Modena train station we got a Number 7 bus to the main bus station. Actually it would only have been a 10 minute walk, but since we didn’t have a map (there was no tourist information at the train station – or, indeed, at the bus station) we thought the bus would be safer.

Finding a bus to Maranello was quite easy, as the bus station had a central ticket office, numbered bays and an indicator board, though it was about 40 minutes before the next bus was due. On the (very good!) advice of the ticket seller, we bought four tickets – two to get us out there, and two to get us back. What we didn’t think to do was ask if there was a timetable so we would know when the busses back were.

The bus trip took about 30 minutes, and the bus driver shouted out “Ferrari” at the appropriate stop. The stop was outside a Ferrari shop, and after that was the restaurant Enzo used to eat at, and then another shop (this was the actual, official one). The factory was across the road, but factory tours are only available to owners. To get to the Gallery we walked down the road between the restauarant and the official shop, around to the left, and then around to the right.

The actual gallery was a bit smaller than we had expected, but there was a good collection of F1 cars (there were important early ones, plus a range of relatively recent ones – three of Schumacher’s, plus one of Prost’s, one of Mansell’s and one of Berger’s), as well as road cars (I particularly liked the new 599 in a stunning shade of metallic red, slightly deeper than the traditional Ferrari colour) and an exhibition of sports prototypes. In total, Michael took 350 photographs at the gallery, and of cars in the carpark.

We had hoped to have lunch in the restaurant across the road from the factory, but it was full (something we should have anticipated), and this was the point at which we realised our error in not asking about bus times, as the bus stop didn’t have any timetable on it at all. But by an incredible piece of good luck, while we were standing there debating whether it would be better to walk into the centre of Maranello or just wait for a bus, one arrived!

We had considered seeing a bit of Modena, but in the end we just got the train back to Florence. Rather than wandering around looking for somewhere to have dinner, when we got back to the hotel we asked them to recommend a nice restaurant. The place we went – Giovanni’s – was expensive, but far and away the best food we had eaten. Michael had the suckling pig, which he said was the best he had ever had, and I had the tuna, which was also cooked superbly.

Siena

Once we had actually found the bus station in Florence (after walking right past the entrance at least three times), getting the bus to Siena was quite problem free. It seemed that almost everyone on the bus was a tourist rather than a local!

Siena itself was just beautiful. I loved the gold colour of the buildings. We spent the morning walking around, had lunch on Piazza del Campo (where the horse race is run) and then went into the Museo Civico in the Palazzo Communale. There was an amazing range of decoration within the rooms, and the view from the top floor (even though we didn’t actually go up the bell tower) was wonderful.

In the afternoon we did a walking tour, with a really good tour guide who not only told us about historic Siena, but also about the more modern aspects – especially the full details of how the horse race is organised: it is entirely a competition between the districts of the city, once the horses for the race have been selected they are actually assigned to the districts by lot, but each district organises its own jockey. I said I didn’t see how people standing in the middle of the piazza would be able to see the race at all, and she made us all laugh when she replied “If you are Sienese, you feel it.”

When the tour was finished, we went into the Duomo – which has the most amazing floors – and then up into the Museo Dell’Opera museum, which is in what would have been the nave of the never-finished extension to the Duomo. From the top, we got another magnificent view of Siena.

Getting a bus back to Florence was slightly less straightforward than the morning, but only because the bus was delayed, and there were no indicator boards or anything to tell us.

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