Thursday, June 4, 2015

Glasgow and the Highlands

We've had a lovely first week in Europe. We flew from Toronto to Glasgow. During our four-hour layover in Reykjavik, I pondered the best way to spend the $10 in krónur left over from our trip to Iceland two years ago; with the exorbitant airport prices, I was able to get a Coke, a small juice bottle, and a chocolate bar.

I tried sleeping pills for the first time, before we took off from Toronto, but they had no effect, and I was awake for 31 hours. That first night in Glasgow I slept 12 hours, then 10 hours the following couple of nights. We were surprised that neither of us had jet lag, maybe because it was only a 5-hour difference this time, instead of 8 or 9.

Although we had all the details of our trip planned until that point, we had decided to retain flexibility in Europe, so for our entire long stay in Scotland, we had only signed up for the Esperanto meeting in the middle, and reserved a room for the first night in Glasgow. That turned out to be a problem, because there was a big football match going on (the Scottish Cup), and most places were booked solid for the following nights. But we lucked out and snagged a place at a lovely guesthouse for three more nights. We discovered later that their breakfast choices were typical, though more extensive: fresh fruit salad, baked beans, scrambled eggs, sauteed tomatoes and mushrooms, tasty porridge with nuts and seeds and dried fruits, toast with Nutella, pastries, orange juice, and tea. When we finally got hungry again hours later, we got to enjoy the many vegan pubs—we tried three different ones, and liked them all. The pubs allow children and (sometimes) dogs, so they have quite a different atmosphere from Seattle pubs. Les adapted well to the local customs: every day for six sequential days he had a pint (different brand each time) at a pub!

We loved Glasgow's vegan pubs
Our transportation in Glasgow
We spent two solid days riding around on a "hop-on-hop-off" tourist bus. We saw several nice museums, of which Les' favorite was the Riverside Transport Museum, better than any we've seen in the States. The Kelvingrove Art Museum had a feature I've never seen in the U.S. (although I'm sure it exists): a room devoted to art appreciation; it was geared to teenagers, probably, but we found quite interesting the analysis and commentary on 25 or so paintings and other objects.

Everything we'd heard beforehand led us to expect little of Glasgow—that it's an industrial, sooty city, only good for shopping, not anywhere as beautiful as Edinburgh, etc. But it turned out that we both fell in love with Glasgow. The vibrant feeling downtown, the festive atmosphere in the huge pedestrian mall, with lots of buskers, the architecture, the university, the diverse museums (all free!), the friendliness all around, it just won our hearts. Our bus entering downtown one day had to stop for five minutes to let a marching band go by; I asked the guide whether it was some sort of holiday, and he answered, "No, they just like to amuse themselves." I like a city that doesn't take itself too seriously. :-)

Les admired the organ at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
The only problem was that we felt we were in a foreign country whose language was only slightly familiar. Often we couldn't understand a word of what was said to us, so thick is the Glaswegian accent. For instance, Sauchiehall Street is pronounced "Sohkeehoh". But we got somewhat used to it, and we did learn that we had to introduce ourselves as "Care", not "Cur"; the people here obviously are the experts on a good Scottish name.

The very first item of business in Glasgow was to get a SIM card for our cellphone. Now we have a UK phone number that we can give to our Esperanto hosts over the next few months, in case they need to reach us. When Les filled in the account information, one of the options for title was "Lord", so he chose that rather than "Mr."

When Les first tried to re-charge our laptop, he got a scare: the adapter that he'd bought at Rick Steves for use in the UK doesn't accept a grounded US plug. But fortunately he was able to plug his continental Europe adapter into the UK adapter, and it was slim enough for the grounding pin to float in mid-air.

My granddaughter is a big fan of Doctor Who, so I recognized this as a TARDIS
I want to put in a plug for a free app called CityMaps2Go. A friend clued us in to it a few weeks ago, and it's been really helpful. You pre-load your mobile device (a Nexus mini-tablet, in our case) with a map of a city; then when you're in that city, you can easily zoom to where you want, ask where a landmark or restaurant is, find the distance from your current location, etc. The best part is that once you've loaded the map, you don't need a network connection to use it.

A few things surprised us. Often electrical wall outlets have their own switch right on the outlet itself. Food in cafes and sandwich shops have one price if you "eat in", and a cheaper price for "take away". That makes a lot of sense to me, and I've sometimes been surprised in the U.S. to see the opposite, where there's an extra charge for take-away, despite it being cheaper for the shop. People in Glasgow cross on red pedestrian lights all over the place, and many times we saw vehicles swerve at the last minute to avoid hitting pedestrians. Also, cars park in random directions along the curb. It's very hard to know the street names; if they're there at all, you find them high up on the side of a corner building.

Sometimes things (such as having to pay 50 cents for the train station bathroom) remind me of my first trip to Europe exactly 50 years ago, when I did ten weeks of hitchhiking and staying in hostels. (I didn't return to Europe until two and half years ago.)

The most disruptive surprise came when we tried to book a train back from Mallaig. The ticket clerk informed us that a rail strike was scheduled for that day, and we would be better off returning by three buses instead of the one train. Later the strike was called off, but we had already bought the bus tickets. Apparently these kinds of short strikes are quite common in Europe, so we'd better get used to it.

After four nights in Glasgow, we went west to the sea. We took the 5½ hour train to Mallaig, and Les—a big rail buff who's done lots of wonderful train rides—says it was the most scenic he's ever done. This is the scenery shown when Harry Potter takes the train to Hogwarts. The vistas in the Highlands were constantly changing. We saw sheep everywhere, small wild deep-pink rhodies, and Scotch Broom; I'm sure that many people in Seattle, allergic to this plant, would say they should have kept it in Scotland.

We were seated next to a retired couple from Sydney, Australia, on their way to doing their second walking tour in the Highlands. I had heard about these walking trips, where an outfitter will set you up with lodging every night, and take your packs to your next destination each day, while you walk 10 or 12 miles. Maybe on another trip ...

The view from our hotel room in Mallaig
We arrived in Mallaig in a driving rain, but we weren't surprised. The prognosis had been for gale warnings, gusts up to 70 miles per hour. (Yes, even with the metric system, in the UK they still measure distances in miles and speeds in mph. However, the clearance at a bridge might be given in meters, so you have to expect both systems.) Actually, we love the weather reports, because they are so poetic, with phrases like "a dull wet morning with some heavy spells of rain", "blustery showers", "extremely unsettled", "becoming rather chilly in sheltered glens", or "a freshening southeasterly wind developing". Anyway, the rain made it all the more satisfying when—after a five-minute walk—we reached our quaint hotel, complete with a real crackling fire in the fireplace of the main hall. By complete coincidence it was our 48th anniversary, and we felt lucky to have had such a wonderful day for it.

The "Harry Potter" steam train pulls into Mallaig
We spent two nights in Mallaig, then took a bus to Arisaig, another coastal town. The bus went on back roads next to the sea, and the day was clear for a change, so it was a most pleasant ride. A friendly Scotsman next to us explained how senior residents of Scotland can ride buses (and some ferries) for free throughout the country—wow, what a deal! We had thought of kayaking in the bay of Arisaig, but it was too windy; it seems like everywhere we've been since leaving Seattle, the wind has followed us. I've worn my long underwear and overpants for the past few days.

Arisaig harbor
In these small towns, the cafes seem expensive and the menus not very enticing, so we've lived for several days on grocery-store fare: bread, hummus, mini Bonbel cheeses, packages of raw vegetables (typically a combination of broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots), room-temperature cans of baked beans, and instant oatmeal packets (every lodging provides an electric teapot). I long for the wonderful tofu I found in Glasgow grocery stores, smoked and studded with almonds and sesame seeds.

Today we took the bus to Fort William. Our big quest here was to wash our clothes, the first time in Europe. Turned out we had to take a bus to a "launderette" at a small shopping center miles out of town. Whereas in Seattle a wash and dry costs under $5, this load—including the bus fares—came to $18!

Here and in Arisaig, we discovered the way to get lodging on short notice. Even if all the reasonable places online show no vacancy, call one up, and they always know a place nearby that you can phone. These small places have no Internet presence at all, so I assume they get all their customers by referral. It does confirm that it was a good idea to get the SIM card right away. These small places don't ask for credit card information (actually they take only cash); they just trust that you will turn up if you say you'll be coming.

Usually we chuckle at the unusual words on signs, but this time it was the sketch!
Tomorrow we're off to Helensburgh for our second Esperanto gathering. Meantime, at the 4-week mark (out of 19) Les, as usual, claims "This is the best vacation ever!"