Day 13 – Blarney Castle and Dublin

We are off to Dublin, although there a few stop overs to make before we get there. Blarney Castle is first and I’m eager to kiss the Blarney Stone and finally get the ‘gift of the gab!’ The castle itself is perched on a rock, overlooking perfectly manicured lawns and ancient trees. There is a bubbling little stream and a quaint little bridge, and the stream sparkles in the sun from the hundreds of pennies that line its base.

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Although I am scared of heights, I shakily ascend the narrow stone stairs inside. On top, there is a magnificent view of the surrounding area and a small line for the actual kissing. It’s a bit of a shock to see the actual process of lowering, as the stone is a lot further down than I had imagined. Although it looks terrifying, I steel myself as I have already climbed up those stairs and made the effort to follow through. It really is gross though, as there is probably a lot of saliva left over. It’s also uncomfortable, as some old Irish guy is clawing at your sides as he lowers you down. 

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The castle itself is very interesting as it is remarkably well intact for how old it is. It dates back to the 12th century AD and has been progressively improved and built upon over the centuries. It played a part in the Irish Confederant Wars of the 16th century and in that time was besieged. A nice remnant of that time is the aptly named ‘murder room,’ which lies over the entrance gate, as soldiers would pour boiling liquids and shoot arrows down a small gap at invading troops. The stone itself is rather mythical, as a simple kiss is meant to grant the powers of eloquence on a person. Many speculate that the stone is the famed Lia Fáil, which was the old coronation stone of Scotland. But really, there is no way of knowing if there is truth to this. 

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Afterwards, I check out the Poison Garden, which is filled to the brim with deadly plants. Below the castle is a Badger Cave so a few of us climb inside and walk around its slushy depths. Leading out from it is a beautiful river walk and while the others go and get food, I head off into the forest. As it is my first time seeing Irish countryside, I am spellbound by the magical clearing I walk into. The sound of the birds and bubbling stream relaxes me instantly, although I only have time for a ten minute walk.

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We soon have to leave as we are needing to arrive at Dublin.

The hotel that we are staying at is fine but everyone in our tour gets lost, as it is divided into two wings with not very helpful signage. We bump into another one of the tour guys, who is completely lost and huffing and puffing up a stairwell. After some not very helpful suggestions, we go on our way and hope that he isn’t found starved and dead a few weeks later in that very spot.

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That night, we have a Celtic night to look forward to. It starts off pretty boring, especially as the acoustics are all wrong with one of the band members. Soon enough though, as the cider, wine and ale start to flow, we get a bit more rowdy and the energy levels lift. With perfect timing, Irish dancers head onto the stage, led by a fabulously handsome man with rolled up sleeves. One of the tour boys gets pulled onto the stage and starts a dance-off with Mark, who has had a little bit too much to drink. Poor Mark ends up being destroyed by the other dancer but he has a good laugh at himself and the fun.

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We head out the door and onwards to the pub scene. There is a chain pub called the Temple Bar that we head into and it’s hot and uncomfortable inside. It’s not really my scene, especially as I am still trying to avoid Rick, who is still being annoying. I think Sophie wants to get away from the group because the men are watching us like hawks and well, we want to have a bit of fun. Unfortunately, she rolls her ankle while dancing and really injures it. She’s too drunk to care but I’m only a bit tipsy so I am worried about the long term effects of the pain. I lend her my shoulder and lead her through the rowdy streets and back in the direction of the hotel. At this point, all of the other tour people have gone back but being a good wing-woman, I’ve stuck it out with Sophie and Alex.

On the way home, we swing by Supermac’s and get some cheesy fries. Some Welsh man tries to convince Sophie to ‘keep her eyes’ and she solemnly vows to do so. It is an odd end to the night…

Day 12 – The Cliffs of Moher and Killarney

Do you remember that scene? You know, the one from Princess Bride? Well, it’s not one of those movies that you’ll ever forget (whether that’s good or bad) so if you’ve seen it, you’ll remember it. It’s that moment when they scale those dreadful Cliffs of Insanity. I bet none of you actually thought those cliffs were real, after all, they were so impossibly high! But that’s where you’re wrong, because those are the beautiful and majestic Cliffs of Moher.

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We drop in on them before heading to Killarney. The day is gloomy, overcast but utterly beautiful. It’s the kind of day that lends the imagination towards rolling fog across the green pastures of a distant farm. And the cliffs really do deliver with that feeling, as there are ravens all over the edge and a distant ruin up a hill. It’s all very dramatic and while the stop over is pretty quick, it’s fun to walk along.

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The far off ruins are actually quite accessible and are those of the Moher fort, sitting on top of the hilariously named Hag’s Head. There seems to be very little information on the fort, other than it being an outpost for stranded sailors or shipwrecked merchants. More notable about the cliffs are the sheer amount of people who have fallen to their deaths, mostly with the clear intention of doing so. All of its history, of shipwrecks and victims, makes it a solemn place.

Onto the bus again and it’s now onto Killarney, which is a beautiful town lined with forests and groves. It’s a relatively popular town, due to the smash hit christmas carol of, “Christmas in Killarney.” Having grown up on Dean Martin and Bing Crosby at every Christmas dinner, it’s lyrics chime in my head pleasantly as we drive in.

The holly green, the ivy green
The prettiest picture you’ve ever seen
Is Christmas in Killarney
With all of the folks at home

I have the choice to do a horse and carriage ride but since I’m a bit concerned about my finances, I decide to skip it and just walk around the town. I have a nice time exploring the area and heading out to the national parks nearby.

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As I head back, I bump into the gang and we decide to head into the town for a bit. We head along a main road and stop off for a delicious dinner at a pretty alleyside restaurant. It’s so relaxing to be with everyone and enjoying a glass (or a pint) of cider. We are sitting outside and surrounded by flowers, so it’s a lovely sight. After some ice cream, we head back to the bus as our accommodation is out of the town.

While we wait for the rooms to be readied, I stop off at the hotel bar and relax with the guys. I down a few more ciders and just listen to the blokes talk without adding too much of interest.

When I head back to the room at midnight, I am horrified to discover that there is a massive spiders nest in our window alcove. I freak out until Alex fetches Mark to spray them. I literally bow at his feet for actually doing that for me, as I was nearly in hysterics. Spiders are my greatest fear.

They may be dead but I’m still a bit anxious and I sleep poorly that night.

Day 11 – The Aran Islands (Inishmore)

Today, I will be heading onto the water and over to the Aran Islands, although we will only be landing on Inishmore. I am buzzing at the thought of those boats and getting my sea legs back. Not to mention getting onto that island and experiencing a truly Irish experience.

There is, as foretold, gossip from last night. Both Sophie and another girl ending up slapping two of the local boys, as they became rather forward as the night progressed and wouldn’t take no as an answer. As both are beautiful but strong women, they were not going to be intimidated into a bad decision and bit back with force. I say good on them!

The ferry over is lovely… for myself. I love the bobbing of the boat and the smell of the built up salt on the windows. But the rest of the tour is struggling, especially as a result of last nights drinking. When we get there, everyone practically sprints off the boat. The harbour is small but has all that a small settlement would need. There are some B&B’s, a few bike rental shops and some grocery stores. And I can hardly forget about the pubs. There are always a couple of pubs around in Ireland!

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Although I refer to the island as a singular site, it is actually a series of three separate islands. I was lucky enough to visit Inishmore, which is the biggest of the islands and it also contains the oldest ruins and castles. Beyond the ruins and its natural beauty, the Aran Islands are also quite famous for their wool, or more specifically, the patterns that are woven with that wool. Below is a pretty good example of what I mean, and I’m sure you’ll recognise its pattern straight away (also, I like that the model is a red-head, as it makes the whole picture look extremely Irish):

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Probably the most famous part of Inishmore is Dún Aonghasa, which lies at the furthest end of the island from the harbour.  Seated on top of a 100m high cliff, the ruins are possibly the remnants of a druid settlement, or an outpost for trade and products coming across the sea. Regardless, the ancient outcrop offers a wide view of the ocean and stands imposingly over the island. To reach Dún Aonghasa, one has to pass through a number of scenic towns, where old stone borders separate the livestock from the road, as they probably have for centuries.

After making a point of buying a silly hat, despite the fact that I’ll never wear it in my weather back home (much too mild), we head straight to the bikes and rent some out. Beckie and Scott attempt to get a tandem bike but crash it almost immediately. After some laughing on our behalf and some angry glares from them, they settle for a bike each.

Me, Beckie, Kevin, Rick and Helen set out along the coast, stopping occasionally to take pictures or enjoy the scenery. Rick is fucking annoying, as usual, but it’s a testament to how beautiful the location is that he doesn’t ruin it. We head up to Seal Cove and while we don’t see many seals, we see some beautiful livestock and horses.

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My favourite had a moustache and was a pleasant old fellow who loved to nibble on the grass I fed him. I was a tad wary about extending my hand to many of the horses, as they are large beasts and not all of them are kindly. Down a steep hill we cycle and back into town, thoroughly satisfied and exhausted by the journey we had been on. I am filled to the brim with adrenaline and energy and I feel like a cat that has just been given catnip. Despite Rick being an asshole, and my flu and the exhaustion, I am simply brimming with life and enthusiasm.

Back at the harbour, we have lunch at a local pub and I get the most perfect Caesar Salad and Mocha. The day just can’t get any better.

The ride back to town in fine, although the waves seem higher than before and the other’s really struggle to hold onto our late lunch. It’s a super long day so we don’t go out for dinner. Us girls arrange for us to all meet at my room so that we can have room service and watch a movie (The Wedding Singer). It’s so very girly and I feel completely at peace, as I eat my delicious ice-cream and watch a funny movie with the girls.

At the time, I wondered how anything could beat such an utterly perfect day.

Day 10 – The Giant’s Causeway , Derry/Londonderry and Galway

Today, we are heading to the Giant’s Causeway or Clochán na bhFomhórach, as it is spoken in Irish. Honestly, I don’t know a great amount of information on it, so I’m eager to arrive and find out for myself. When we arrive, I’m excited by the prospect of it being entirely about nature, as very little of my trip so far has been outside of cities. The walk down to the Causeway is lovely, as the fresh sea air is refreshing and crisp.

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The rock formations are interesting and we spend an hour climbing over them and taking pictures. They are slippery, so I am at a bit of a disadvantage by having thongs on. Despite them only being rock formations, I do really enjoy the opportunity to be out in the fresh air and I love the silly back story behind how they were mythically created.

So the story is a bit convoluted and strange, which means that I am not going to be paraphrasing what I heard that day. I’ll instead quote you to the description of it from its wikipedia page, as it is really is an odd myth.

“The story goes that the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Fionn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet. In one version of the story, Fionn defeats Benandonner. In another, Fionn hides from Benandonner when he realises that his foe is much bigger than him. Fionn’s wife, Oonagh, disguises Fionn as a baby and tucks him in a cradle. When Benandonner sees the size of the ‘baby’, he reckons that its father, Fionn, must be a giant among giants. He flees back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him so that Fionn could not follow.”

So yep, that’s the story behind it. Kind of odd, yes? Well, I guess there are plenty of odd myths in my own life, from Santa Clause to the Easter Bunny, so I can’t really judge. And if I was a peasant, living back in those times, perhaps I would listen to that story and believe it. All I know is that the people who created it must have been drinking some potent mead that night…

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We head up eventually and into the gift shop. Rick is milling around so I make a detour into the bathroom, so that I can walk to the bus alone. I’m still pissed about the night before and I really don’t care enough about his apology to make up and be friends. Lo and behold, he is there when I get out and I am forced to walk with him back. I try not to hiss at him, especially when he asks if we are still ‘pals.’ I choke out a lie, one that not even he seems too convinced on. I don’t really care though, I’d be happy to never see him again at that point. It’s strange, I’ve never hated anyone in my life but he really brought something out that I’d never known about myself. He’s racist, misogynistic, bogan and emotionally volatile and all of that in one package just makes me super uncomfortable.

But onto nicer things…

Our next stop is at a town called Derry, Londonderry for lunch. It’s really odd but the town has two names and to some locals, both names should be said after each other. From what I gather, it is another remnant of ‘the troubles,’ as stating a particular name would align you with a certain political side. So by saying, “Derry, Londonderry,” you are removing yourself from categorisation.

It’s lunch time so after having a look at the towns fortification walls, we find a nice cafe and order some food. We are delighted to find a huge selection of Gluten Free foods, which is great for Sophie who is intolerant to both Gluten and Lactose. It is one of the first meals she has had where she hasn’t had to pick around something.

Galway is our next destination but as our hotel is slightly outside of the town centre, we are driven through the hotspots first. I’m sharing with Alex again and since our room isn’t cleaned yet, we are upgraded to an enormous three-bedroom room. We have really hit the jackpot with the hotel and I am rather proud of myself for complaining over the state of the other room. There is no time to admire the room, though, as we have to get the bus back into town for dinner.

The town is really buzzing and we are told that Galway is a major partying town for the local rural communities. We can see why, as every second place seems to be a pub or a bar. We try a few spots but eventually settle into a nice pub, although the waitress has a very rude attitude and blatantly lies to Sophie about there being cream in her dish. As it is simply swimming in dairy, I swap with her, which is fine as her food is delicious. Alex has a tub of muscles that we are all extremely jealous of.

We head back to a local bar called Fibber’s McGee, where our entire tour packs in for drinks. Rick awkwardly shadows Sophie. to the point of her asking for me to save her. It’s difficult to do so but Sophie puts on a good show by flirting with the local boys.

I’m so tired and dreadfully sick so I head off, while Alex and Sophie stay. I’ve had an awful cough and flu since a few days into the tour, possibly a result of all the drinking and terrible eating I’ve been doing. Beyond the lack of vitamins, I’ve also not had a chance to exercise and have instead been pushing myself to see every sight that I can, which is exhausting day after day.

Day 9 – Ireland and Belfast

I’m excited to catch the ferry and thrilled that it will take three hours to get across. I’m one of those weird people that loves both the journey and the destination. Besides, we don’t have Ferries like these in Australia and I want to see what facilities they have on board. As I’ve grown up around the ocean all of my life, I am itching to see the water once more.

On board, I am delighted to find a gaming room and I spend a good hour playing various arcade machines. I end up wasting a good fifteen pounds but it is well worth it. Besides, I am wanting some space from the group as Sophie is now having her conversation with Rick and I don’t want to float around them while they try to find a moment to talk. When I return, she is looking bright eyed and bushy tailed, so obviously the issues are all resolved.

After docking, it’s a bit of a drive to Belfast so we all just try to relax before arriving. Rick starts to piss me off, by standing in the bus aisle next to me as if to make conversation. I’m completely over him and talking at that point so I start to get anxious and stressed, as I just want some time to chill out and enjoy the scenery. He also often doesn’t talk, just stands there awkwardly, waiting for me to do something.

But soon enough, we arrive in Belfast and unlike Edinburg, which had a beautiful bleakness to it, Belfast is just gloomy looking. It’s interesting, though, and not entirely devoid of attractive areas, not to mention that it houses the Titanic museum. On the way in, Andy makes a point of reminding us to not mention religion while we are there. We’ll be taught about it, of course, and guided through the current conflicts in the city, but we aren’t to argue or start a debate about it. Our tour pamphlets have bolded letters telling us to never mention religion, and the repetition of this warning emphasises how contentious an issue it must be.

Sophie isn’t feeling great, so while the rest of the group goes off to do a museum tour, I decide to hang around the hotel and then check out the city a bit. It is very rough looking, with many signs of economic recession everywhere. There are boarded up shops all down the main strip and a plethora of ‘for sale’ signs around every corner.

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I return to the hotel so that I can catch the Black Cab Tour through the city. Our guides are locals, with mullets, piercings and tattoo’s. However, they are entertaining and knowledgeable on the city and it’s history, even to the point of contributing to the various murals that line the main street.

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For those that don’t know, Belfast is the home of ‘the troubles,’ which at its base and simple form is an ongoing struggle between the catholics and the protestants. Of course, there is so much more to this issue, from land division, politics, murders, riots and massacres. As a result of these struggles, the city is split into two areas for each religion, with Falls Road being the dividing line between these communities. Some of the inhabitants disregard these issues but many don’t, and it isn’t uncommon for people to actively engage in disturbing the peace. It isn’t going to blow over easily, especially as approximately three and a half THOUSAND people have died as a result of the troubles.

It’s one of those conflicts that a lot of people, including myself, will try to simplify. But there isn’t anything simple about it. It has to do with poverty, with recessions, with terrorism, with the army and with the country as a whole. But the people of Belfast have a choice of whether they can participate in the troubles. Right or wrong, unjust or just, everyone who is in a riot or struggle has the choice to be there.

Molotov Cocktail burn from a few months ago

Molotov Cocktail burn from a few months ago

One very famous landmark of the city is the Peace Line, which is a large 25 foot wall that separates the protestants from the catholics. It’s a rather odd landmark, as I disagree for what it stands for. It seems to represent, to myself at least, the brutality and animalistic nature of humanity. But it is also a rather beautiful thing, as it has transcended this lower meaning and become a symbol of hope and a declaration of future peace. The picture below is possibly the most profound photo I took my whole trip. Everything about it captivated me at the time and completely erased any doubts I had about the humanity of the citizens.

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A section of the wall

After the tour, we head back for dinner, which Sophie joins us for.

I have something quite normal for dinner, but Rick makes a joke that is extremely harsh about my eating habits. Having lost a lot of weight over the course of the years but I am still a bit touchy about people observing me eat. So it rubs me the wrong way when he says I ‘eat like an animal,’ even though at that point, I was only eating two meals a day.

I get really angry at him, mainly because his jokes have been way too close to the line for the whole trip. Also because I had only had a tomato soup that day, which is hardly overeating. He is obviously the kind of guy that hasn’t been around girls much because he seems to not realise that we function, biologically, very similar to how men do. Because, you know, we occasionally EAT. I blow up at him, which I feel satisfied and happy to finally do, and then leave to go back to my room for the night.  I wish I could say that the day ended on a happy note, but it didn’t.

Day 8 – Glasgow, The Necropolis and Live Comedy

I’m sad to be leaving Edinburgh as I have simply fallen in love with the city.

My head hurts, my stomach is rolling but I can’t deny that I’ve had a marvellous time. My only regret is that I was unable to see the Military Tattoo in the castle. Unfortunately, I didn’t leave enough time for booking it, but it doesn’t pain me too much as it is a nice excuse to return.

Today, we are off to Glasgow. Unlike the previous drives, it is short journey and we arrive quickly. The bus drops us in the centre of the city, but it’s pretty rough looking and not many of us are excited to be there. Half of the group will be going to a rum tour, but I need to stagger my money so I opt out of it and I decide to just look around for the afternoon. Besides, with the amount I drank last night, I wasn’t going to be able to handle any more alcohol.

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After checking out an atrocious modern art gallery (I hate MA so I’m particularly biased to it being super sucky), we all head to lunch at an amazing restaurant. Most people get the pizza’s, which are absolutely huge and delicious looking and some form of delightful desert.

Soon, we all break off and go our separate ways, which is something I’m happy for. As a rather introverted person, I’ve struggled with the constant group situations and people to interact with. My first stop is the town Cathedral, which looks eerie due to its stained copper roof and the large graveyard that rising with the hill behind it. Inside, there is a bible open at the alter to an ominous passage and the whole atmosphere of the interior gives me the chills. The feeling reminds me of my trip through Italy, where every cathedral had a different feel. I love knowing that a place has history, especially when it screams of tragedy.

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Underneath the cathedral is the tomb of a saint and behind the building is a huge mausoleum/necropolis.  It is interesting to find out that the sturdy and relatively modern looking structure of the cathedral dates back to 1197. The stained glass windows are certainly the highlight, as they are quite colourful and their close range allows them to be observed in minute detail. Due to their craftsman-ship, I start to doubt whether they are as old as the rest of the structure and this I later find out to a correct inclination, as they are post-war constructed.

Some more information I found out post-visit, is that the Saint entombed below is that of Saint Mungo, who was notable for four of his miracles that he performed in Glasgow. There is even a little verse that is often recited for him, which speaks of each miracle that he performed:

Here is the bird that never flew

Here is the tree that never grew

Here is the bell that never rang

Here is the fish that never swam”

To explain the miracles, the bird verse refers to a robin that was restored after it was killed, the tree refers to a restarted fire he accidentally extinguished when overseeing a monastery, the bell talks of (funnily enough) a bell brought back from Rome to Glasgow and the fish refers to the discovery of a fish with a ring inside of it, which ended up solving a political conspiracy of the time. On a side note, St Mungo is also the name of the hospital in Harry Potter, although I’m not sure why anyone would need to know that little piece of information (sue me for lovin’ HP amiright).

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Outside, I walk around the Necropolis for a while, entranced by the statues of angels and the sheer vastness of the dead under my feet. It’s odd but I keep on assuming that I’ll spot a famous name, so I peer at the largest tombs and gravestones in wonder. There are plenty of incredible opportunities for photos and while I am not overall captivated by the city of Glasgow, I am able to see a morbid beauty to the place.

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After, I head back to the Hotel and I start to feel a bit nervous at how rough the neighbourhood is. As I’m a bit early and Andy (our tour guide) is still at the rum tour, I head to a nearby café and enjoy a real coffee and some chips. They have an ‘exotic’ section which features Bundaberg products, and I find myself laughing at the thought of it being unique. It is peaceful though, to write in my journal, sip on a real coffee and be alone.

Soon enough, I’ve located the hotel and met up with the other tour member. We all head through a dodgy park to a nearby pub, where I indulge in a delicious cider and some fish and chips. There is a complimentary local comedy show nearby so a few of us risk the cringes and head down. The first act is brutal and the comedian hardly even takes a breath of air for talking so fast. The second is a girl, who uses deadpan humor and timing to be hilarious. The third is one of the loudest men I’ve ever heard and kind of funny, but the real comedian is the last act. With his orange hair and typical Irish humor, he’s a perfect preparation for Ireland and really funny.

Our walk back through the park is a tad scary but we make it out alive. We end up hopping a few fences, but no ones dies.

When relaxing in our room (I’m sharing with Alex), Sophie makes an appearance. Just as I had guessed, her and Rick had made out the other the night and now she freaking out about the ramifications. It makes my stomach turn to imagine dating him but I make sure to not be judgemental as she unloads. He has asked to ‘chat’ to her about it on the ferry tomorrow to Ireland, so she is nearly pulling her hair out because of the drama. Sometimes I get this feeling that, due to his emotional nature, he can turn from obsessively sad to ridiculously angry within a moment. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea of such a stressful conversation happening when they’re alone, but I know she’s a smart girl and that she’s thought this through.

Tomorrow will be eventful, at least.

Day 7 – Loch Ness, The Scottish Highlands and… missing people

Today is the day that I’ve been most looking forward to! Finally, after years of dreaming and imaginings, I will be able to see the magnificence of the Scottish Highlands!

To get out there, I am going to have to join a bus load of other tourists so finding a good seat is crucial. My plan to be first in line doesn’t end up making a difference as there is little order to the way we pile onto the bus. The reality of how long we will be sitting and driving starts to sink in when the tour guide discusses the day’s plans. I am thankful that I brought my music and that a few of people I know have also decided to come. It helps that our guide is extremely knowledgable and narrates each area that we pass. He is new to the job but has an exceptional level of knowledge and quite a soothing voice.

Alex (a girl from my tour) starts to get motion sick, so we move up to the front of the bus. We do this after a break and when the previous seat holders get on, they start to swear at us in Spanish. We try to explain the issue with nausea but they don’t seem to care, not realising that one of our friends speaks Spanish and is feeding us translations as they blabber on. As the seats aren’t pre-booked or marked, I have no issue at all with taking their spots due to sickness. Seniority only means so much when vomit is involved. I hate those people. Urgh, I feel really pissed off even writing this.

LOOK… IT’S NOOOTTHINNG.

We arrive in Loch Ness and have some lunch, which is the usual fare of soup and white bread. Soon enough, we are on the river and once the reality of not seeing Nessy sets in, it’s a little bit disappointing to realize that it is simply a lake. It is an odd revelation to have, and quite a late time to have it, but it strikes me as I am sitting on the boat and waiting for a lizard-shaped head to appear.

When we arrive back to shore and get on the bus, we notice that two people are missing, which we mention to our guide. Oddly enough, he doesn’t seem to think we are serious and laughs it off, so we drop the issue under the assumption that he has more experience with this than we do.

After Loch Ness, we see a few more Loch’s along the way, before heading for the Highlands. As we head more and more north, the vegetation starts to thin and the terrain becomes more barren and rolling. My bus window reveals a beautiful vista of purple and dark green vegetation and with my music blaring, the drive is very serene.

About halfway there, our guide finally clues onto the fact that two people are missing and comes to grill us on the details. He appears to have a mini freak out and I really do feel sorry for the guy and the ramifications of leaving them behind. A Chinese/Australian guy on the bus starts to rip into him, but after chatting to him for a while I realize that it is just his sense of humour and that there is no malice behind it. As he is from Sydney, he has an inherit sense of sarcasm that every word is laced in.

After visiting many of the ancestral places of the families, all as beautiful as each other, we start to head back to Edinburgh. At about 6, we pull up on the Royal Mile and we are all glad to stretch our legs and to get away from that awful Spanish couple and the hyperventilating tour guide (the missing people have not been found).

But I have a pub-crawl to join, so I can’t stand around commiserating with him, when it really isn’t my beef. After a quick change, we catch up with the crawl and start to party. I meet a cute boy called Gin (American/Japanese) and another guy, but I can’t remember his name. Rick seems to be shadowing Sophie and standing much too close to her for comfort. My spidey senses are starting to tingle…

So to introduce this other girl… she’s loud, quite large, dresses very provocatively and talks all day long about the wonders of yaoi and fanfiction. She is fine, I guess, but she has absolutely no social filter so it’s a bit like watching a train-crash in progress. She also has MANY Harry Potter tattoos, and so she gains  the nickname of Hogwarts. Well, what with all the alcohol and cross dressing around (we’ve ended up in some strange part of this city) she starts to get a bit weird and lo and behold, ends up taking off her shirt. Which, considering that she is drenched in sweat and morbidly obese, isn’t the nicest image to have. In all honesty, I can’t be bothered dealing with drama, so I leave her to her night of drinking and head on by myself. In retrospect, I was very lost, very drunk and an easy target, but I had fun asking locals where to go and talking to them as I stumbled back to the mile by myself.

On the way home, I stop to get a slice of Pizza and sit next to some local boys. Soon enough I am accosted by a random drunk stranger (who is wearing a hard hat for some reason) who wants to go home with me, so I start to bond with the group of guys as a defence mechanism. The chav in the hard hat eventually leaves, after I call him a cunt, and I spend about an hour chatting to the boys before heading on my way.

When I get back to the Hotel, Alex and Mark are in the lobby and they both pounce on me. Apparently they had freaked out when I went off alone (after having witness Hogwarts stripping) and Alex started to frantically search for me.

I remind her that I’m not 18 and that I’m a big girl, trying not to be condescending. As the night draws to a close, Mark and Alex seem to be growing closer and Sophie and Rick are not to be found.

Day 6 – Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Palace

It’s the first day of Edinburgh and I am planning a million and one things to see by sunset.

But first things first, my belly is roaring for food and there is no way that I’m going to miss out on the hotel’s complimentary spread. Sophie, Rick, Scott and Beckie are already digging in so once we’re all in the same area, we make plans to spend the day together. Already, groups are starting to form which is both a bad and good thing.

We head to Mary’s Close first, which is one of the cities preserved medieval streets that is under the Royal Mile. It’s very interesting and makes me feel glad for the long and wide roads of Australia, and especially how clean our streets are in comparison. It is also nice to reflect that I haven’t yet died of the plague, which is pretty lucky by medieval standards.

We leave the close and head towards the cathedral, which is incredibly beautiful and very gothic looking. Inside, there is a small chapel and a grand alter. While we are looking around, I notice that Rick seems incapable of leaving Sophie alone. She looks visibly uncomfortable with the shadowing he is doing, so I step in and try to distract him for a while. I sense some future problems with this boy, as he seems very emotional and sometimes his jokes step too close to the line.

Afterwards, we head up to the castle but are stopped along the way by plenty of street performers and interesting locals. Ironically, a man who is dressed like a wind swept business man talks as if he’s trying to blow wind into sails.

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He just wouldn’t shut the hell up.

The line to the castle is long but we make it through in good time. I suspect that Scott and Beckie are wanting some time alone as a couple so I break away with Sophie and Rick, grabbing some audio guides along the way. As we walk around the castle, I am surprised by how less imposing it is inside. The castle is truly old and as a result, many of the rooms are small and squat, although they would have been majestic looking before modern times. I enjoy the story of the crown jewels though, and their miraculous recovery. Particularly poignant was the quote by James Grant, “The joy was therefore extreme when, the ponderous lid having been forced open … the regalia were discovered lying at the bottom covered with linen cloths, exactly as they had been left in 1707.’

It takes very little time to go through the various rooms though, and with the push of the crowd, we are glad to finally emerge into daylight.

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All the while, my eyes keep on wandering to the far point of Arthur’s Seat.

Sophie and Rick make it quite clear that they find no enjoyment from climbing mountains, so I set off alone down the Royal Mile. In the crisp air of the city, the hill seemed magnified and closer. Only as I am walking towards it, do I realise how far and how tall the summit is. Still, I’m not one to give up on a challenge.

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I’m lucky enough to have a cute boy walking in front of my on the way up, which helps with staying on the route and continuing. The effort is worth it, despite the steep and almost vertical stairs that keep on appearing. Once at the top, there is a scraggly mound of rocks that I climb up on all fours, before standing on top of the hill to stare at the incredible vista of the city. There are a few ravens at the top, making the scene seem eerie, which is further amplified by the howling wind and overcast skies.

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The wind is biting and there is a wet tinge to the air, which speaks of incoming rain. With a resigned sigh, I head down the slope and make my way back to civilisation. My legs ache but I feel refreshed and buzzing with a renewed sense of energy.

On the way back, I pass by the Holyrood Palace, which is the queen’s residence when she visits. Despite my aching legs, I can’t help but dart in to catch a few hours of sight-seeing before it closes. I just miss an exhibit of Leonardo Da Vinci, as I arrived so late in the day, but I buy a book on his art anyways to cart home.

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The Palace is an odd building, as it has a contrasting mix of beautiful decorations and completely unliveable rooms. Despite the opulence of the building, I would much prefer to stay in my own accommodation (despite the bathroom) as I find the wooden floors and spacious rooms to be cold and uninviting. My interest is peaked though, by the history of Queen Mary of the Scots, especially of her lover who was murdered in one of the rooms. So typical of Edinburgh in that there is death and murder on every street corner or in every room. The gothic, dark and eerie atmosphere of the city has really captured my imagination.

I have no time for dawdling though, as I am needing to get ready for the ‘Scottish Night’ that my tour has prepared. As a group, we head across the bridge and into a hotel, where we promptly drown ourselves in cider and wine. The dancing is wonderful and the host is very charming. Sophie is in love with the whole performance and I can see that she is getting very excited for Ireland.

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Haggis done like Shepard’s Pie. So delicious!

Afterwards, we head off to George St, which according to Andy is the street for bars and pubs. The entire street is closed down and filled with temporary beer gardens, each one promoting comedic acts in the adjacent buildings.

When we go up to get a drink, a drunken Englishman starts hitting on Sophie and I, before turning to Rick and ripping into him. Rick has started to irritate me, with his rude and inappropriate jokes and his bogan behaviour, so I am mildly amused by the whole scene. After insulting a Scottish woman who looks ready to skin him alive, the Englishman leaves the scene and we all settle in for some fun.

At a spur of the moment decision, we decide to see an American comedian called Michael Che. Sophie steals his prompt page when it finishes. His prompts list as, “Cunt… Fucking old ladies… Sex… Murder.” It was a good show.

As we are walking back, some nice Spanish ladies ask us for directions. Feeling overly confident in my drunkard state, I feel certain that I know exactly where their hostel is, and I lead them back to the Royal Mile and, surprisingly, to the exact place they where looking for. How I managed that, I’m not really sure, and I could clearly see that the women had given up hope of ever finding their accommodation. Being able to deliver them into the arms of a nice, warm bed is a very satisfying reward!

Day 5 – Hadrian’s Wall, Scottish Border and Edinburgh

Since it’s a long drive to Edinburgh, we head out of York early. We are all eager to mingle though, so the drive is at least entertaining. I can’t shake the feeling of disappointment though, to have missed out on so much in England. I was eager to see Manchester, Leeds and some of the Lake District, and yet we have swept through it all in a day.

I meet a nice girl called Alex, who is from just outside my own city. She’s a recent high school graduate who is going to live overseas for a few years and work. I also get to know our Team Leader, Andy, a bit more and I find out that he is a paramedic. He shares with us stories of his last tour, who were an awful group and I can see that he is anxious to have a bit more fun with us. We all seem to silently accept the challenge and I can already feel my liver complain about it.

Mark comes up to talk to me and very quickly I can sense something between him and Alex. I’m not sure that she is too thrilled at the attention but he already seems to have eyes only for her. They are pretty much the same age and both quite good looking, so it would be a cute couple.

We head over the border to Scotland and have a group photo in front of the border crossing sign. As we do so, a fabulous man in a tartan kilt arrives and starts to play the bag pipes. It’s so typically Scottish, with the cold wind blowing in our faces and the vibrantly green grass contrasting with the grey sky. The musician enjoys our attention, but seems to particularly notice Alex, as she has a pale complexion and ginger hair. I predict that she will be quite popular in Scotland and Ireland.

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After heading over the border, we stop in at a small town for lunch. It is overlooked by an imposing fortress and cathedral that looms above its tiny shops and cobblestone streets. The locals watch us curiously as we flock into their cafes and while they are kind, I have my first introduction to how mediocre Scottish food is. There is more white bread, processed meats and sweets than I have ever seen. And it starts to annoy me that I’m paying for a standard coffee and yet getting machine made concoctions. But I can’t fault the hospitality, as everyone is kind and welcoming. Sophie and Johanna, who are both Celiac, are visibly struggling with the gluten-free choices. It becomes clear that we can’t necessarily trust the good word of our hosts as to what has gluten and what does not.

Hadrian’s wall is the next sight and I am eager to jump out of the bus and do some walking. All day I have watched the beautiful countryside pass by and I have itched to feel the breeze on my face and to walk through the fields. The wall is an ancient Roman ruin and the furthest outpost of the Roman Army. The hill to walk up to it is fine, by my standards, but a lot of the others struggle to make it even half-way. It is only a short stop, as our final destination for the day calls us.

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Edinburgh looms in front of us and we all gasp in awe at the sight. Arthur’s Seat stands solitary and tall beside the castle, joined only occasionally by a cathedral spire. The swirling dark clouds and the gothic architecture of the city creates a profound effect on our group. We all stare in wonder at the small streets, the bleak building facades and the strong faces of the city. Instantly, we have collectively fallen in love with the city. Without having heard any of its history, I can feel that events have happened here and that its history is as gloriously bloody as it is long.

Our hotel, aptly named ‘The Central Hotel,’ is just off the Royal Mile and access to it can only be achieved through a beer garden. I feel like a fly that has just been caught in a web and we all have a strange look in our eyes at the thought of the nights to still come. Our hotel is surrounded by hostels, so we are sure that the area is a partying eden.

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I’m sharing a room with Alex, which is fine as she is a bubbly and fun girl. The only problem is the architecture of the room, as the bathroom is completely exposed and therefore offers no privacy. The glass door doesn’t click shut and there is a large gap between it and the door frame. And of course, this gap shows anyone who is sitting on the toilet or in the shower. The intention is obviously to be ‘hip’ and modern, but I find it so unacceptable that I complain to front desk. The attendants seem a bit shocked that anyone would even care, but I made sure to explain the reason why I do.

There’s no time to dwell on my anger though, as it is straight onto the walking tour. It’s more extensive than the others and it leads us up the Royal Mile, which is filled with various pamphlet holders and buskers. Unbeknown to myself, we have arrived at an exceptional time for the city as both the Military Tattoo and the Fringe Festival is on.

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Our tour finishes at a local pub, where we are given a traditional Scottish dinner. I actually really enjoy my Haggis, as it is really just a bunch of meat, but not everyone is game to try it. As we have to pay up front, I speed to the ATM, only to realise that I have forgotten my pin and can’t withdraw anything. I end up walking all the way back to the hotel to change it, then back to the ATM to withdraw the money and then finally to the pub to hand the money over. Most have finished their mains at this point so I wolf down my food in record time to catch up.

Everyone goes their separate ways, mostly to check out the Fringe Festival shows, so Beckie, Scott, Andy, Rick, Sophie, Alex and I all head to another pub for drinks. Sophie and Alex really want to party, so they smash back the tequila shots, end up dancing on the tables and stealing the lead singers microphone from the live band.

After stumbling back home, we fall into bed and into an alcohol induced coma. Tomorrow morning is not going to be fun.

Day 4 – Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon, and York

I should be nervous or anxious, but my hatred for mornings overcomes all other emotions.

Today is the first day of my tour, and I set off for the meeting point with a sense of calmness. My walk to the Umi Hotel is pleasant, although I am amused by the sight of a girl dragging a broken suitcase along the streets. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that she’s a tourist and probably heading to the same tour. My investigation skills are surely developing, an obvious by-product from being in such close proximity to Baker Street.

I find our that her name is Kylie, and that she is a nurse from Sydney. She seems like a bit of a partying-type so I’m not surprised to learn that she has just got back from a Contiki Tour. My immediate impression of the tour is that there are a lot of woman. But I start to mingle and make friends with a guy named Mark, who is from Perth. There is another Aussie called Rick, who seems very ‘blokey.’

Introductions are short, though, as we are straight to Oxford. Our team leader, Andy, gives us a very short walking tour and points out the main sights. The old part of the town is smaller than I imagined but it has all the beautiful architecture that I had expected. I am thrilled to be in such an incredible place and positively bouncing from my enthusiasm. As the walking tour has ended, no one seems to be making a big move to see sights so I take the lead and head off to the first areas.

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My fascination with the town has mostly come from my love of Tolkien, who was a professor at Oxford for many years. There are so many buildings that have inspired his works, not to mention the works of J.K. Rowling, where so many Hogwarts scenes were set for the movie. It is surreal that there are actually students studying on such a beautiful campus.

After experiencing the city, we head back to the bus. So far the pace is relentless so I am starting to get a bit worried that I will not enjoy the tour.

As we are walking along the main road, an unprovoked and raving woman pushes one of our girls into the wall and screams, “Scum! Get out of my country!” For those of us who witnessed the assault, it makes us feel a bit uneasy and the girl seems rather shaken up (with good reason).

But there is no time to dwell on it as we are back onto the road to Stratford-Upon-Avon. “Upon” is just another way to explain that the city of Stratford is cut through by the river of Avon. It’s a cute tourist town that looks beautiful in the noon-day sun and is filled with luscious green grass and old trees. We are only allocated an hour in the town, though, which is hardly enough time to see the city centre, let alone Shakespeare’s birth house. To even enter his home, you have to pass through a museum, which will take way too long. In the end, I sacrifice that sight to eat lunch and do a quick wander around the boutique shops.

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While we are grabbing food a bee stings Mark on the lip. He handles the pain like a man but he dabs the sore spot with some ice-cream for a while. I feel bad for him, as first impressions are so important.

As I head back to the bus, there is a bit of a commotion. Lawrence, one of the New Zealand boys, has vomited at the side of the road. We think it’s the convenience store sandwich that he ate earlier in Oxford, but we all just feel sorry for him, especially because of the drive that is still to come. He is obviously not hungover, just ill.

Our first night is in York and I am sharing a room with Sophie, who works as a HR Assistant. Our room is at the top of the hotel and although it’s a two person room, it has four beds in it (a bed each for our bags, I guess!). We chat quite a bit and forge a pretty quick bond.

After a quick change of clothes, we rush down into town but we are still disappointingly late. The main cathedral is closed. If I was less morally inclined, I could have snuck in by pretending to be catholic. But I’m not, so Helen and I can only dream of what we missed inside.

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After our short walk with Andy, we are sent our separate ways. I yet again amass a following and I soon meet a nice couple from Canada, called Scott and Beckie. We all check out the shambles road and are sent on a wild goose chase to find the smallest street in the world (not worth the exploration, that’s for sure!). We also stumble on a ruined cathedral in a lovely park and snap some pictures before the sun sets. Johanna, a lovely girl who also works in recruitment starts to have a hay fever attack in the park so we head to dinner early. She copes with the pain like a champ but I can see that her eyes are inflamed and red.

Our dinner is a typical Sunday roast dinner, however, I’m seated in front of two Australian girls who make me want to douse myself in acid. Their inability to hold a conversation makes me wonder whether they are mentally impaired. I try everything to get conversation flowing but I soon just give up. I mean, what’s the point? My god, they were so boring that they actually caused me to question the meaning of life.

After a few pints of cider, it’s onto our haunted tour through the city centre. It’s an odd event and the tour guide seems strangely fascinated by me in particular. He keeps on making me his assistant, or directing odd and sexually themed jokes at me. By the end of the event, I have a lovely token of his affection, which is a bloodied handkerchief.

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After such a long day and such a weird tour, we are ready to head back to the hotel and get some sleep.