We spent a couple of days chasing down the Olympic torch in the south of England, barely missing it once in the port city of Weymouth and again in the itty-bitty hamlet of Puddletown. Our Spaceship finally caught up with the torch on Dorchester’s High Street, where we withstood the midsummer’s bitter rain alongside a hoard of jolly Brits who were only too glad to get we if it meant catching a glimpse of Olympic glory. The spot we’d chosen to hunker down at was within a few serendipitous yards of the actual torch hand-off.
We lit out of Edinburgh airport as fast as we could. We had been tracking the weather closely during our layover in London and I was starting to get a little déjà vu a la Cancun. There were tales of flooding and traffic chaos. Our car rental reservations had been locked in weeks ago, so we couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous. We touched down uneventfully, and under gray but relatively calm skies we high-tailed it to higher ground. Highland ground, to be exact.
Our first stop was the village of Kingussie in the shadow of Cairngorms, a distinctive mountain range in the eastern highlands. We stayed in a large but largely empty house converted into a hotel with an American flag hanging above the entrance. This was not, as I initially thought, in honor of the US Independence Day (it was 4th of July, after all), but rather it seemed that the absentee owner was an American himself. I still felt a tiny swell of homesickness as the FM radio request lines were dominated by appeals for Freedom Rock phoned in by Scottish stewards of backyard BBQs. It was an interesting mirror to my own experiences with Cinco de Mayo or St. Patrick’s Day. There’s nothing wrong with a little vicarious patriotism, nationalistic cuisines, and imported beer.
The next day we drove up to Cairn Gorm, the big bully mountain after which the locale was named. At four thousand feet, it was a mere hill compared to the Andes or Himalayas we’d previously encountered, but context is everything and it was a dominating presence in this rugged landscape. We rode up the funicular (at this point my official favorite mode of transportation) and puttered around the summertime ski lodge. I was a bit miffed to discover that the nearby summit was off limits without a guide, but we got a nice gander at the surrounding countryside and quickly descended to our rental car for a one-day whirlwind Speyside tour.
Tiny villages, winding roads, and dramatic vistas punctuated our spontaneous route. A token visit to the Glen Livet distillery did not include the full tour, but we happily drank in the rough and tumble bootlegger history as well as the complimentary sip of your standard 12 year old single malt. They imply that George Smith, legendary founder of the Glen Livet, invented single malt whiskey. I figured it was the Caledonian barbarians. I’m probably right.
We made our way north to the North Sea, to an arbitrarily chosen town with the charming name of Lossiemouth. Brief panic ensued when, after a snack and a stretch, we returned to the car and found that the engine would not turn over. After digging out the emergency cell phone and swallowing my pride, I called the rental emergency line only to discover that the steering wheel lock was somehow engaged. I was instructed to wiggle it. Two minutes later, we’re on the road to Inverness for a triumphant dinner in a classy slow food joint. We returned to Kingussie exhausted.
The following day we crossed the highlands, east to west. I was surprised to discover you could do that in a single afternoon, though I would have happily driven around in circles for weeks. This is exactly the kind of severe, craggy terrain that puts a spell on me, and I was pleased to discover that I was still enchanted despite having recently visited various other places billed as “just like the Scottish highlands”. Parque Nacional Cajas in Ecuador and the Tongaririo Crossing in New Zealand both come to mind, but I would never tell a Scotsman, “You know, this really reminds me of the Andes.”
Most striking was the last ten miles along a narrow and torturous road which lead to the western seaside village of Applecross. This single-lane, two-way ribbon of pavement wended its way across a Dali inspired landscape, parts of which reminded me of the severe alpine Asgard Pass in the Washington Cascade range. To those who know about Asgard Pass, that brutal ascent into the Enchantment Lakes, just imagine driving up it. The road terminated in a peaceful and sunny one-horse town, and we dined on the local delicacy of squat lobster in garlic butter. The waitress explained to us that there wasn’t much of a market for those locally caught crustaceans, so the good folk of Applecross are obliged to eat them all.
Later in the afternoon we visited the iconic Eilean Donan Castle. I first remember seeing this castle in the movie Highlander, which I love as much today as I did back in 1986. Whenever I draw a sword, I still declare that There Can Be Only One. The castle interior was actually quite livable, thanks to a thorough restoration which took place between 1911 and 1932. This really made me want my own tartan.
The following day we woke up in Fort William, with an afternoon deadline to return the rental car. We did manage to squeeze in a visit to the Oban distillery, a pilgrimage to the cradle of my favorite scotch whisky of all time. We got to see the “spirit safe” and the funnel through which every drop of every bottle of Oban passes through. I won’t tell you how much I spent on an exclusive distiller’s edition bottle, but there were less than 300 left in the world and it’s now mine-all-mine.
Remarkably, the weather was great for the duration of our road trip. We were hawkishly attentive to weather news and it sounded like England and southern Scotland was still receiving a beating, with more flooding and midsummer misery. Our only direct encounter with the traffic carnage was at the rental car return, where a colossal puddle had formed in a key roundabout, causing the police to literally wade in to redirect vehicles. After the car was safely dropped off at the airport, we caught a bus out to Edinburgh for our last two nights of Scotland.
Edinburgh is one of the more striking cities we visited, somehow this UNESCO heritage city managed to stand out from the other UNESCO heritage cities we’d visited. There is a gray gothic gravity about the architecture of the old town, and we spent hours tramping around the narrow streets and alleys. We met up with our Australian friend Amy, whom we met on the Stray bus in Laos and miraculously bumped into again in India. Third time’s a charm, and once again Amy was in the same far flung corner of the world as we were. We caught up over a pint at an Irish pub under the glow of televised Wimbledon. It’s a small world.
It turns out that you can still make a career as a gladiator. Roman reenactment is an industry in its own right, and the Germans seem to have a sizable market share with traveling troupes criss-crossing the former Empire. Whether the amphitheater is in Croatia or Germany, you can count on seeing some barbarians toss nets at each other.
Just a short walk from Halle Gate is ‘Art en Marge’, a marvelous little museum dedicated to my favorite kind of artists. “Outsider” is perhaps the most slippery and contentious label you can throw at an artist, but there is a meaningful use of the term and this museum does a wonderful job of doing it justice. Upstairs was a little room brimming with homespun carnival rides, and I played with them all.
The historical center of Brussels is always teeming with odd and cheeky street performances, but something strikes me as especially Belgian about this guy. It’s not just the fact that he’s dressed as Magritte. There’s something else to it, a je ne sais quoi that I lack the Flemish words to express. Like a spirit animal or something. He just seems at home here with Tintin, Mannequin Pis, and beer.
Our unscheduled stop in the Istrian city of Pula rewarded us with unexpected Roman goodness on a grand scale. The whole town was abuzz with an Imperial reenactment fair, and the streets teemed with ancient foods, ethereal choirs, and marching Legionaries in full regalia. This public square was occupied by a group of gladiators, preparing for bloodsport in the amphitheater later that evening.
After half a year of “unbelievable” natural beauty, we found ourselves lost among the surreal and seemingly endless cascades of the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. We walked non-stop all day, and with the aid of a well designed network of trolleys and ferries, we managed to take in virtually every lake in the park. This excursion was certainly worth the extra hassle of discount bus travel (we did hop off a bus in the middle of the woods, after all). Our only regret is that we didn’t allow more time.