Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Long Way Home (Chapter 1)

Hello again... so we have left Edinburgh and started our latest big adventure! Here is what we've been up to:
The Travellers!

Helen and I wrapped up our time in Edinburgh working our last days on Friday the 7th of November and spent the weekend trying to fit everything we had into our two bags and backpacks - it turns out we had collected a fair amount of stuff in the year we were in Edinburgh. We each had great goodbye dinners at work (mine more focused on beer than food) and handed over the keys to the flat. 

Monday morning the 10th of November Helen and I woke up early, made sure we hadn't forgotten anything in the flat and headed for Waverly Train Station, stopping at Leo's to grab one last awesome coffee and to say a final farewell. From Edinburgh we travelled by train to Newcastle to catch an overnight ferry to Ijmuiden in Holland. Helen had the foresight to buy Lonely Planet guides to Norway, Iceland and Ireland - and it was time to put all our research to work.

The Budget Traveller is easily identified by its sparse habitat, typically located on the lower decks of a ship (never above deck three) and within the interior of the hull carefully constructed without windows in order to minimise attacks by the Ticket Price. The Budget Travellers' cabin makes efficient use of space with two sets of bunk beds opposite each other with the top bunk able to fold away to give the female more space while the bunk above the male remains lowered to provide a shelf on which to place the bags. This top bunk also provides amusement for the female when the male's head repeatedly encounters the top bunk in the confined space. The Budget Travellers' ablution facilities are equally efficient with the toilet located within the shower. Should the need ever arise, the Budget Traveller may use the basin and toilet simultaneously by sitting on the toilet and simply leaning forward, and even shower at the same time. The life of the Budget Traveller aboard a ferry is uneventful during most of the voyage however the morning is a festive time as the Budget Traveller is able to gorge on the buffet breakfast. The Budget Traveller has been know to frequently acquire 'souvenirs' of this feast (pastries and pre-packaged butter, jams and honey) for consumption later thus saving a few euros.
Our ferry cabin
After arriving in Ijmuiden Helen and I were transferred to the coach for the 45min trip to Amsterdam. We arrived at the Central Station in Amsterdam and while looking for the bus ticket office we heard a very South Africa 'no ways' and spotted an ex-colleague of mine from Cape Town who had emigrated to the U.K. and was in Amsterdam for the weekend - small world! After a catch up Helen and I made our way to our hotel, dumped our stuff and bought tickets for the Hop-on Hop-off bus. It was strange driving around Amsterdam since, because Amsterdam is so flat, we could never get a view of more than 10m unless it was along the street or across a canal. After living in Cape Town, the rest of South Africa and Edinburgh we had become so used to expansive views and hills that driving around flat Amsterdam felt strange. We also immediately noticed all the hundreds of bicycles... we had heard about the bikes in Amsterdam but we didn't come close to imagining the numbers!
Amsterdam bikes
We only had the one day in Amsterdam so sight-seeing was limited. We did a loop of the city on the bus to get our bearings and check out the main sights. We enjoyed a tour of the Gassan diamond jewellers which was interesting (and no, I did NOT spend any money there!) and walked through the Rijskmuseum's grand entrance to the museum square and famous "I Amsterdam" sign. The canals running throughout the city are beautiful and such an iconic European experience for us Africans.

Spot the tourists!
Amsterdam canals
After the bus tour we took a walk along one of the canals to the Dam square with the Royal Palace and then back to the station via the Oude Kerk - look it up on a map, there were some VERY interesting sights and colourful red lights along the way...

The next morning Helen and I went to a fantastic little street market where we got lunch for our train trip to Copenhagen in Denmark, passing our first Dutch windmill, excitement!
De Gooyer Windmill
 We then arrived at the train station eager for a scenic trip through The Netherlands, Germany and finally Copenhagen. Can you sense the impending failure yet? Well, it turns out that just because there was one transfer indicated when you booked online and even though this was corroborated by a ticket for each leg of the journey, the ONLY time printed on the first ticket is in fact the time of an unmentioned change over in Hamburg which was meant to be 2 hours after we were supposed to leave Amsterdam. There was a train about to leave the station which was headed for Germany so we jumped aboard without any real idea of where we were headed! Suddenly we'd gone from being 1.5 hours early to 2 hours late. Luckily there was a 15 minute window just inside Germany while train engines and crew were changed where I was able to plead my case to a German ticket seller who validated our tickets for the new trains we had to catch thereby saving us 160 euro.

That evening we had the very surreal experience of remaining on the train as it was loaded onto a ferry in the pitch black for the trip to Sjaelland, the island Copenhagen is on. We had to leave the train for the actual crossing so we stepped from a train platform, onto a train, onto the same ferry as the train and then the reverse again to a new train station in a different country. Very weird!

So, hello Denmark! It was late, dark, cold and we were exhausted after a rather stressful day but we made it... and without any tears...

Seeing as it is the land of fairy-tales and princesses, I though I would take over from Tim, so hello! After a bit of a sleep-in to recover from the previous day and night, we headed out to explore Copenhagen. We made our way across to Nyhavn, a beautiful, old part of the city which used to be a busy commercial port. It is also where Hans Christian Andersen spent most of his life and wrote many of his stories. We found a little canal-side cafe with outside tables and blankets and had a light lunch and amazing Gluwein to keep us warm!
Happily exploring
Beautiful Nyhavn
We spent the rest of the day exploring the festive streets of Copenhagen and enjoying the atmosphere of the pedestrian-only 'stroget' streets.

The next morning we caught the bus to the other side of town and walked along the promenade to find the famous 'Little Mermaid' statue in Copenhagen harbour. She is a lovely little bronze sculpture sitting on a rock in the water, waiting for her Prince. She was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's original story and Copenhagen ballet in 1909. The poor stature has been vandalized a number of times, had her head sawn off and paint thrown on her, but she has been restored each time and turned 100 years old last year. :)
The Little Mermaid
We continued along the promenade and found the Gefion Fountain, the largest monument in Copenhagen. It is rather spectacular and shows the legendary goddess Gefion driving four huge oxen. According to the legend, the Swedish King Gylfe offered the goddess as much land as she could plough in one day and one night. She transformed her four sons into very powerful oxen and they ploughed so deeply that they raised the land and pulled it into the sea, thereby forming the island of Zealand on which Copenhagen is found. If you look at a map, the island is roughly the same shape as Lake Vannern in Sweden so perhaps the story is true?
Gefion Fountain
A beautiful old Anglican church is found next to the fountain and the old Kastellet star-shaped fortress is just behind it, surrounded by a green park and interesting sculptures. All-in-all a very, very pretty side of town!
The Church
Carrying on through town, you get to the Amalienborg Palace, home of the Danish Royal Family. The Palace actually consists of four identical buildings all facing in on each other around an octagonal courtyard. In line with the Palace is the spectacular Frederiks church, or Marble Church. It is the largest dome in Scandinavia, probably inspired by St. Peter's Basilica in Rome (woohoo - been there!). We arrived at the palace in time to watch the changing of the guard, quite a relaxed affair since none of the royals were home!
The Marble Church
We then walked back to the 'stroget' streets and explored some of the roads we had missed the previous day. We found an awesomely festive little Christmas market made up of little wooden stalls selling all sorts of things. We found a typically Scandinavian lunch of a massive hot dog (not to be confused with dodgy South African viennas) followed by chocolate covered bananas and strawberries on a stick! Yum!

And with a bump our last morning in Copenhagen hit us! We packed up, which we were getting rather good at, and made our way to the ferry terminal with a detour through the Kings gardens and past the fairytale Rosenborg Castle. You can really picture a prince and princess enjoying their fabulous dance and living happily ever after in that castle!

The Rosenborg Castle
Walking through the Kings Gardens
And with that we found our ferry and little cabin, dodged some very, very drunk Norwegians and goodbye Denmark! Onwards to another country, another city...

More news soon! Miss you all and think about everyone constantly.
xxx H

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Island Life

Hello again!

So Italy was a good weekend and seeing a bit of the heart of the British Empire has been fun but in May Helen and I booked our first real holiday/tour/visit to Croatia. And then we forgot about it. And then we remembered. And then we got really excited, went to Croatia and had a great time before returning to our little flat in Edinburgh. And somewhere between Croatia and Scotland we lost the Sun.

Being budget travellers we sniffed out a fair deal on Groupon for an 8 day/7 night island hopping, self-guided stay on the Elafiti Islands within sight of Dubrovnik which you may recognise as Kings Landing from "Game on Thrones". The deal was one night in Old Town, Dubrovnik and 6 nights on one of three nearby islands with all equipment (bikes, kayaks and - most importantly - snorkelling equipment) provided. This was through a company called Huck Finn. Naturally Helen and I placed the emphasis on island hopping; the 'tour' operator placed the emphasis on self-guided.

It was an early start on Sunday morning (the 28th of Sept), leaving from Edinburgh airport. Coming in to land at Dubrovnik the first impression from the air is that the sea is made from clear blue glass. An unreasonably long bus ride from the door of the plane to the customs entrance 200m away, a very quick but firm STAMP at the passport desk and we were officially in Croatia; +1 charm to Helen's bracelet.
Magnificent Dubrovnik
The shuttle bus driver dropped us at the Pile Gate which is the entrance to the Old Town, complete with draw bridge - how cool is that! We were given a map to find the souvenir shop in Old Town wherein a lady would give us a key to the building we were staying in. In the building would be an envelope with further instructions about the keys for our room and how to get to the ferry to the island the next day. The stunning medieval architecture and incredible (although somewhat touristy) atmosphere made 'treasure hunt' not just an idea but a reality. The beautiful white walls of the buildings, the huge  fortifications and the abundance of stray cats distracted my navigator and we found ourselves lost in Dubrovnik.
Old Town walls
Luckily Old Town is only about 600m across at its widest point so found our way to the souvenir shop and retrieved the key to the apartment where we promptly discovered the previous occupant had left their bag while they killed time else where before they left and hadn't left us the key to get in. The poor souvenir shop lady quickly went from 'Keeper of the Key - Ad-hoc' to 'Customer Broker and Liason Officer' who spoke something to someone somewhere by phone and then suggested we leave our bags in the hall and come back at around 16:00. It would have been mildly inconvenient if we weren't in Old Town and didn't have an entire medieval city to explore, lunch to consume and cats to play with (Croatian stray cats appear to be more communal pets rather than skulking, sly wraiths of matted fur). So off we set for some lunch followed by exploration.
A side street up to our Dubrovnik room
There's no too much more to say about Sunday. We ate lunch, explored, had drinks at a bar on the cliffs just outside the wall, and explored some more. Tourists and associated money-making opportunities aside, Old Town is an incredibly amazing city that is as old as any of the castles we've seen in the UK but it's still a functioning city the same as it has ever been although it's economics are a little different. The whole time Helen and I were there we kept having to remind ourselves that although everything felt fake and kitch and as though it was a movie set, it was all real and genuine. The makers of the most popular fantasy knights-and-dragons big budget TV series (ever?) didn't arbitrarily choose Dubrovnik and make it an impressive set, it was already that magnificent display you see on TV and that is why it was chosen.
Being tourists!
The next day we headed to the ferry. And we even found the ferry. AND we found it before it left! We're actually quite good at this navigation thing... Our ferry looks fairly impressive as it storms through the water because the captain doesn't really waste time with the view. However, our little WWII veteran vessel did seem a little less impressive next to the bloody great big cruise liners docked in the harbour. ~20 stories of seasick adults crammed in with bratty kids struck with severe cases of cabin fever stuck nose to tail with another floating sardine can; somehow it didn't seem all that much better than our wee little ferry headed out to the Adriatic in search of islands, beaches and ruins from the age of pirates, knights and dragons.
Dubrovnik harbour!!!
The Elafiti islands are a series of islands just off Dubrovnik and I'm sure a geologist could tell you how they were formed if you were interested. But for those of us with other interests we can cope with a bit less information. The three main islands are Kolocep (closest to Dubrovnik), Lopud (the next closest and most populous island) and Sipan (the largest island and the only one with cars) - Helen and I had booked into Lopud. All the way along the water was crystal clear, even in the harbours. Clearer even than Madagascar (for those of you who have been there) - without any significant current in the Adriatic there's hardly any silt or sand washed around.

We were met by our Huck Finn representative who told us a bit about the island which wasn't very much simply because Lopud isn't very big. It's in the shape of a capital (although slightly lopsided) H with the town in one bay and the main road (all 1km of it) from one side of the bay to the other. The main road starts with a quaint little monastery with matching fort just outside the harbour and along the way you will pass THE post office, THE mini market, about 5 souvenir shops, 15 restaurants/bars, THE (fantastic) bakery which also had amazing ice cream and lastly, right at the very end, a gaudy looking hotel which looked like the arse-end of two of the cruise liners we saw in Dubrovnik sticking out of the hill side.
Lopud Island
The are no cars on the island and the main form of motorised vehicle looks like a longer than average but thin tricycle with a 2-stroke lawnmower's engine strapped to the front and a large crate on the back or a golf cart. Vehicles are only allowed in the town 4 times a day to carry freight and bags when the ferry arrives.

With Helen and I were four elderly women from Brighton who had also signed up for the self-guided tour and clearly somewhere along the way the right hand of Huck Finn in its office in Zagreb at the other end of Croatia hadn't told the left hand of Huck Finn on Lopud what the exact accommodation arrangements were to be. Once the dust had settled The Old Ducks ended up in a 3 storey house by themselves with the outside kitchen Helen and I were supposed to have, and Helen and I ended up in a room in the house of Antonov Radic who turned out to be a rather accomplished painter and maker of a liquor which was rather potent! Well, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Old Ducks had the better deal but the joke was on them; the view from our room was fantastic - looking down over the bay and out to sea where we could see the next run of islands stretching up the Dalmatian coast.
The view from our room
After dropping our bags Helen and I went for a walk around some of the town and then went across to Sunj which is the most popular beach on the three Elafiti islands. We had lunch at one of the two restaurants at Sunj both of which have been distilled from pretentious tourist traps full of inflated prices and deflated meals to little more than reedy thatched roofs, good food and the biggest 0.5l of beer I've ever been served.  The seafood in Croatia was refreshingly simple and tasty - it's always best when it was pulled from the sea that morning. But, the highlight of Croatian cuisine (and by extension one of my top 5 moments of the trip) was bruazza which is a traditional tomato-broth based seafood dish. Fortunately for our budget, we only discovered bruazza on our last night!

Back to our trip. After lunch Helen and I spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach and took our first swim in the northern hemisphere! Just thinking back to our trip and I'm starting to sink into such a state of relaxation it's becoming difficult to keep writing about it. The day we arrived on Lopud was still hot and humid and while it is a stunning region, the word 'excitement' might be rather a strong word to describe much of what happens there. We did try to go snorkelling but apparently a team building group had taken all of the snorkelling gear. We eventually made our way back to town, had supper and did some more serious relaxing. Until in the middle of the night we were woken by the most incredible storm and hurricane winds blowing the island away as the humidity which had been building up suddenly broke and thunderous storm threatened to wash away the entire island!
The next morning, after recovering my board shorts and boxers from Antonov's garden, Helen and I had breakfast at the house of our Huck Finn representative along with all the other travellers including The Old Ducks, The Walking Group and The Kayaking Group. There was however a conspicuous absence of The Team Building Group but apparently they still had the snorkelling gear. It was still too windy from the storm the previous night to go kayaking. After breakfast Helen and I made our way up to the old fort which sits on the koppie above the town and has views of the town and around the island to rival those from our flat. And kudos to The Old Ducks, as Helen and I were making our way down the hill there they were on their way up. I think Helen and I spent the rest of the day around the town but it was so relaxing I'm having trouble remembering what happened. I think there must have been something in the water (or the beer)!
Beautiful Croatia, view from the Fort
On top of Lopud
The next day at breakfast, with The Team Building Group still absent, Helen and I (and The Old Ducks) arranged to go across to Kolocep which is the smaller island with fewer people (but an extra village) between Lopud and Dubrovnik. It's small enough to paddle around in a day (6 mile trip) and there's a secret cave located along its cliffs that you can swim into. So, with the Huck Finn representative on Kolocep forewarned that the snorkelling equipment had better bloody be there or else..., we caught the ferry over to Kolocep and headed off paddling. The Old Ducks took the clockwise shorter half-route straight to a restaurant at the other village, while Helen and I went anti-clockwise in search of the mystical Blue Cave. We were lucky and found the well-hidden cave by simply aiming for the flattest bit of rock to leave the kayak on. Ariel Helen perched herself on a sunny bit of rock while I grabbed the snorkelling gear and finally got to go snorkelling.
Kayaking pit-stop
While the water is crystal clear and the fish have distinctive markings it is immediately obvious how lucky we are at home to still have the abundance of sea life that we do. It wasn't boring to snorkel against the cliffs of an island in the Adriatic but compared to even the comparatively busy waters around Cape Town the sea around the island was just about barren. The Blue Cave however was very interesting with a very small opening just above the water less than a foot high which then opens up to a cavern about the size of a small room. Looking into the cave is very dark but if you look back out the cave from the inside you can see the sun shining through the clear blue waters and how the cave gets its name.

After the swim, Helen and I climbed back aboard the kayaks and continued our paddle around to the restaurant. By the time we arrived The Old Ducks were already tucking into their lunch and Helen and I sat down to enjoy ours. Helen's fish and my squids were cooked on a braai next to our table and the chef had a novel way of getting it going again when an order came in: a hand hair drier. I can't imagine anyone taking you seriously rocking up at the next braai with your chop, your wors and your Clicks hair drier but it worked really well and I'm not going to argue with anyone who cooks lunch that well. After lunch Helen and I paddled around back to the main town and then hung around at the only restaurant having drinks and listening to the other two tables of South Africans(!!!) while we waited for the ferry back.
Kolocep Island lunch spot
The next day we headed of to Sipan, the largest of the islands. Its the only island with roads and cars and we took the bikes we were provided and cycled across to the far side of the island. We got just out of the town when I got a puncture. Luckily the Huck Finn representative was leaving just behind us and he swapped out the tubes and we were on our way. It was only around 6km across but cycling through the valley down the middle was the first time it felt like we were inland and out of sight of the sea.
There was a vineyard or two and even livestock for the first time with little shrines to different saints the size of a large grandfather clock along the route. Again, the bay on the far side was very picturesque and we had a picnic for lunch at the mouth of the bay. We even found a friend in the form of a little sole while swimming; he was so friendly he even followed us as we shuffled our feet in the sand dredging up little mites and creatures for him to eat.
Lunch-time swim
Our little friend!
After lunch it was supposed to be a quick cycle back across to catch the ferry. Luckily we left early because Helen got a puncture on the way back so one of us pushed her bike while the other cycled ahead.

Sipan Harbour
The next day we decided to dive below the monastery next to the harbour which turned out to be a hidden gem on the island. Even though we were right next to the harbour, we were just outside and at the base of the breakwater which meant it was facing the open sea but sheltered. This in turn meant that there was much more interesting sea life and more fish to see than around Kolocep. Even Helen decided she could take a break from working on her tan to have a look and it was surreal to be snorkelling in crystal clear water below a medieval monastery on an island in the Adriatic sea!
Under the sea!
Tough life
Happiness :)
Helen then decided she needed to get back to tanning so I kept snorkelling alone. After a few minutes the ferry arrived, docking along the breakwater with its stern towards where we were. I'm not sure why but the ferry captain always left his engine engaged instead of letting it idle which created a backwash along the stretch under the monastery. I was happy to hold onto a rock but unfortunately a lady further along swam out of reach of the rocks and got swept out towards Sipan. Her friends on the shore pointed out the she was being swept away so myself and two other guys headed out after her since she hadn't drifted too far yet. Once we got to her though it became clear that she was okay and in no danger of drowning with the bouncy aids she had escaping from her costume - she just wasn't strong enough against the backwash from the ferry. We got back easily enough and it was smiles and photos all around. I felt I deserved the man beer that evening!

Our final day and we were back in the kayaks and it was off to Sunj beach again - the long way around. And true to form, The Old Ducks decided anything we could do, they could do better so off we set, although with the powerhouse in the back of our kayak we didn't pretend to wait. Along the way we found another cave (although this one was much larger than the Blue Cave) with a handy rock shelf for us to park off on. Helen was back on her rock and I was back in the water when The Old Ducks passed us like the proverbial Tortoise passing the Hare although it definitely wasn't a race at all and we were having fun anyway.
The cave
Sea kayaking!
Another rock, another pit-stop!
After our break we headed off again and carried on to Sunj with informative commentary from the front regarding the faults, limestone and other gneiss rocks. At Sunj, after lunch, Helen put some more serious work into her tan while I went in search of more caves along the cliffs - finding two more before heading back. Then, after a bit of diplomacy, I convinced Helen to paddle back around to the harbour with me and having beaten our time from that morning we treated ourselves to ice cream from the bakery.

And suddenly we were packing our bags and getting ready to head back to Edinburgh. It was incredibly easy to get used to the calm and laid back lifestyle, to learn to appreciate just how fortunate we were to be able to sit along the seafront at the end of a day of adventuring with a (very large) cold beer with supper enjoying the sunset.

Looking out from Lopud
The whole region thrives on tourism and, like home, it's geared towards tourists and there are countless opportunities to sap the money from their wallets in the easiest most hassle-free manner the resorts can achieve. But if you can just sit back and take in the view then you could definitely find yourself in worse places to paddle, snorkel, cycle, walk and explore.

Speaking of worse places to paddle and snorkel stay tuned for our next adventure in a place just as suited as Croatia for walking, cycling and exploring but better suited than Croatia for things like dog sledding, investigating magma chambers and seeing the northern lights... :)

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Scottish Adventuring

Hello everyone :)

The last few weeks have been filled with some hard work and hard exploring. Edinburgh was packed full and buzzing during the festival and the coffee shop was nice and busy. We managed to explore the fringe festival a little bit and saw two fun little comedy shows. The highlight of the Festival was of  course the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo!!!! We had a wonderful time enjoying the different styles of music and dance from groups including the Massed Pipes and Drums (of course!), The Shetland Fiddlers, Highland Dancers, Singapore Drill Team, New Zealand Haka Group, Trinidad Defence Forces Steel Band and.... all the way from home, a Zulu Dance Group!
The Massed Military Bands and Massed Pipes and Drums
Singapore Armed Forces
iNgobamakhosi Zulu Dance Troupe
The Massed Pipes and Drums
We took a day trip to explore the Firth of Forth right here in Edinburgh by taking a boat trip to the Inchcolm Island in the middle of the Firth. It is a beautiful ride out to the island, passing under the magnificent Forth bridges. The island is known for the beautiful Abbey, made up of the best preserved group of monastic buildings in Scotland. Augustinian canons settled on the Abbey in the 12th century where their daily schedule comprised of praying, devotion, writing up some documents and more praying! Unfortunately the peacefulness of the island was interrupted by English raids from the 14th to mid-16th century.
Inchcolm Abbey
Climbing the Abbey tower
The Forth Bridges
The Edinburgh Festival came to a spectacular end with the Fireworks Concert made up of 4 tonnes (yes, TONNES!) of fireworks synchronised with live music from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Tim and I climbed to the top of Calton Hill in the middle of Edinburgh which provides amazing views of the whole city and of course was a perfect view for the fireworks while listening to the music on the radio.

We have managed to take 2 weekends away to see some of the highlands and Scottish Islands. For our first weekend away we drove across to Oban. On Saturday we woke up early and headed for our "3 Isles Tour". We caught the ferry from Oban to Craignure on the Isle of Mull. We then caught a bus across Mull to Fionnphort where a boat took us to Staffa and Iona.

Staffa was amazing, it is an Island made up of columnar basalt, similar to the Giants Causeway in Ireland. The sea had eroded away some of the columns and made Fingal's Cave, a cave named after a Gaelic legend who has Fionn or Finn building a causeway between Ireland and Scotland. The whole Island is absolutely spectacular and we had a wonderful time exploring it! Happy happy geologist!
Fingal's Cave
Basalt on Staffa
Fingal's Cave
Staffa Island

After Staffa, we were taken to the Isle of Iona where we had a chance to see the Iona Abbey, one of the most important centres for the spread of Christianity among the Picts and Scots, dated to the year 563 when St Columba came across from Ireland. It really is beautiful and picturesque, especially when approaching it from the sea!
Iona Abbey
The Abbey
Isle of Iona
 On Sunday we had a slower morning, with a full Scottish breakfast, followed by a beautiful wee walk through the forest before enjoying a leisurely drive back to Edinburgh.
A fairy home!
Forest colours
Last weekend we headed North into the Highlands, looking for a certain well-known monster... After a few wrong turns and a couple of extra loops around Perth, we arrived in Fort Augustus a bit later than expected on Friday night! The Northern Lights were on shown in parts of Scotland, so we (i.e. Tim) stayed up with hopes of spotting then, but unfortunately it was just too cloudy :( we will just have to wait for Iceland I guess! On Saturday we went on a lovely 3 hour walk through the forest and along the River Oich before heading off to explore the Urquhart Castle overlooking the mighty Loch Ness!
Mushrooms everywhere!
River Oich
Beautiful walk
The beautiful Castle was built in 1230, but a Pictish fort probably stood there before the castle was built. The castle was captured and stormed numerous times until 1692 when the government troops blew up the gatehouse and left in a huff after the Jacobite Uprising.
Urquhart Castle
Views over Loch Ness
The castle ruins are a favourite spot for people looking for the Loch Ness Monster! The sighting of the mythical monster was first recorded around 700 AD in the biography of Columba. According to the story St Columba had to cross the River Ness when he saw some locals burying a man who had been mauled by a beast as he was swimming. Columba shocked everyone by sending one of his companions to swim across the river to fetch the boat. As the poor man was swimming across, the beast swam back up from the river bed, mouth open and roaring towards the man. St Columba raised his holy hand and invoking the name of God he commanded the beast to "Go no further, do not touch the man." At the sound of the Saint's voice the beast fled in terror and they were able to cross the river... :)
I found Nessie!
On Sunday we slowly drove back to Edinburgh, stopping at a few scenic places along the road. We went for a lovely walk and red squirrel hunt at Foyers, through some impressive Scots Pine forests and waterfalls. My weekend was made when I spotted one of my beloved red squirrels scurrying through the tops of the pines! :)

So all-in-all we've had a wonderful, rather busy past few weeks! Loads of love to everyone, miss you and thinking of you all!
Next stop... CROATIA!!!
xxxH :)