Our Italian Holiday – Getting to Florence

We had a very nice time in Venice in spite of the short stay there.  It was now time to set out on the next leg of our Italian vacation. We were heading to Florence (Firenze).

It was early in the morning when we started our walk towards the location where our bus was waiting for us.  We got our last sight of the Grand Canal partially lit up by the morning sun as we crossed over a bridge on our way on foot.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe passed the bus stand for commuter buses from the mainland.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe caught the Venice People Mover train from a building close to the bus stand for a short ride to the  Tronchetto parking lot where our bus was waiting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoon we were headed off the island over the bridge paralleling the bridge for the railway line. The Ponte della Libertà (or Bridge of Liberty) was built by Mussolini in the 1930s.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA On the mainland we followed the railway tracks for a short while.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We passed a stationary Frecciargento high-speed train. This one can get you from Venice to Roma in less than four hours. (BTW, there are faster train lines in Italy!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen we were in the countryside and on the highway passing Padua and Bologna.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a few hours, including a couple of “il bagno” stops along the way,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwe entered a stretch of highway cutting through the Apennine mountain range, crossing from the eastern side of Italy to the western side.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were several impressive tunnels that the highway went through while crossing this range.  This highway is also a part of the European Union highway system with a European highway designation E35.  We saw European Union license plates on trucks from different parts of the continent.

We reached our destination for the afternoon, the province of Lucca in the Tuscany region soon after.  We stopped at the Fattoria Il Pogio vineyard just outside of the town of Lucca for lunch.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We had lunch at the restaurant after an tour of the farm led by a rather enthusiastic lady. The last picture in this set is of an olive tree.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were other tour groups at lunch, which was accompanied by a few different bottles of wine produced at the estate.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were offered a formal meal, something typical of many of the dinners we had in Italy.  We ate and drank heartily, and people were in a great mood after all was said and done.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe rain had started to come down heavily by the time we reached Pisa for our next stop.  At the bus  stop in Pisa, we were surrounded by a number of people of African descent selling small items, including cheap umbrellas.  We bought one. It had a minor design issue but proved to be adequate for the task. There was also a minor emergency when getting people off the bus because many of them had make use of “el bagno” in a hurry, no doubt an aftereffect of the merrymaking that had accompanied lunch.  There was also the thought that crossed the mind that the impact of the leaning tower of Pisa would be enhanced by the state of mind that people were in.

The leaning tower, called the Torre de Pisa in Italian, is the bell tower for  a cathedral called the Duomo di Pisa. There is also a baptistry next to the church. The place itself is called the Piazza dei Miracoli (which translates to Square of Miracles) or the Piazza del Duomo. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was obvious from initial observations that the tower was really leaning (apparently about 4° at this time),OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbut I got to thinking that, without a context, one could even make an upright tower look like it was leaning, depending on how one took a picture of the structure, or one could even take the picture of a leaning tower from a direction from which it might look upright.  Here it is being pushed upright with some effort.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also spent some time in the cathedral.PB094050.jpgThe area at the entrance to the piazza was  filled with little shops selling knick-knacks and food and drink.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe visited some of the stores and had drinks to warm us up before heading back to the  trolley that was to take us to the bus that was waiting at the bus stand.

The drive from Pisa to Florence was relatively short.  We got to our hotel with sufficient time left for us to go out to get some dinner.  We found a nice place within walking distance.  The menu at the restaurant showed that one could order three courses for dinner, but they did not object to each of us buying only a single item on the menu from any of the course selections.  We could see that the meals were being freshly cooked in the the kitchen that we had passed to get to our seating towards the back of the restaurant. We retired back to the hotel after some good food and wine.

It had been a relatively long and wet day and we were tired.  It was time to crash out.

Read the next entry in this series of blogs on our trip to Italy here.

Our Italian Holiday – Our day In and Around Venice

Our first morning in Venice involved a little bit of adjustment due to jet lag.  The disruption in our schedule the previous day was also going to make this our first chance to really see the city.  The tour group got us started with a good breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant.  There were no real surprises with the food except for the coffee machines.  They were capable of producing coffee in a bewildering number of ways except for the one way that we were familiar with. We had to figure out how to use the machines. We had to use some ingenuity to manage the machine to get the consistency of what is called cafe americano.  Europeans drink a much stronger coffee than is common in the USA.

I had a few minutes to go to the back of our hotel (along the Grand Canal) before we started our morning visit to the island of Murano to get my first glimpses of Venice in the daytime.  The sun had not yet risen completely.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had to walk to an area beyond the railway station to catch our boat to Murano.  This was what it looked like in front of the station.  Venice is still a bustling city in spite of the fact that the population is decreasing and the city is sinking.  Tourism keeps it going. It was a busy commuter day, with the water buses plying their business getting people to different work destinations in town.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur boat to Murano entered the open waters beyond the island after passing the dock for the cruise ships that visit.  We could see the shoreline of Venice as we entered the waters beyond the island.  You can see bridges at the entrances to canals, and water buses operating along the shores.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe picture  below, taken from the waterway, is of the Doge’s Palace, and the tower at Piazza San Marco. We were scheduled to stop there on our way back from Murano.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can see that the waterways are the lifeline of the city.  Here is a ferry.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe police get around in boats.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMurano itself is well known for its glass works.  After our arrival at the dockPB083507.jpgwe visited a place where glassware is made.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe got a demonstration. The gentleman in the pictures below made two items for us.  The first one one was formed by a process that involved shaping the glass while it was being rotated at the end of a long rod.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe second item, which used colored glass, required other more intricate techniques to stretch and shape it.  He started this work with a round piece of glass and finished with this exquisite shape in less than ten minutes.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the visit to the factory, we returned to Venice OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand disembarked within walking distance of the Piazza San Marco and the Doge’s Palace.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the way to the Doge’s palace, we passed by the Bridge of Sighs, the bridge that offered convicts their last view of Venice before imprisonment in the building next to the palace.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe took a tour of the Doge’s palace, with its massive ornate rooms with artwork and decorations everywhere. Our tour guide described the history, architecture and art of the place.  We also visited the prison across the Bridge of Sighs in the later part of the tour.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Chamber of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace shown below is reputed to be one of the largest halls in Europe.  It is hard to imagine that large structures like these built on a foundation of wooden pilings driven into the ground below the sea still survive.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the tour we took a break to have lunch and relax in the piazza. Here are a few pictures from the piazza. The first one is of St. Marks Basilica.  We did go inside the church earlier as a part of our tour.  The interesting thing is that while it is still in use, it is unstable, with the floors all warped, and with water entering the church from below the floor when the waters in the city are high.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is our group from Gaithersburg.  The picture was taken by Alessandro.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a view of the piazza.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen it was time for our gondola ride. After riding initially through some of the narrower canals,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwe entered the Grand Canal in the area of the Rialto Bridge.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPB083685.jpgOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe grand canal was busy and we passed many water buses.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were entertained by a singer and an accordion player who were on one of the boats in our group.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen it was back into the narrow canals to get back to where we had begun the ride.  I took note of the effect of the rising waters on some of the buildings.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe saw maneuvers like this a few times during the ride.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the ride we hung out near the Piazza San Marco for some more time. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe started our way back to the hotel on foot as the sun began to set.  The picture below is the view we got of the Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe restaurant along the canal in the picture below appeared to be open for business.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe buses were still plying the grand canal.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were a lot of people around, walking past the brightly lit shops on the Rialto bridge.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked through a few other shopping areas.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We had to figure out dinner plans after we got back to the hotel. This was one of the few nights we were being left to our own devices without something being scheduled as a part of the tour. Some of us were still suffering the effects of jet lag and chose to stay behind in the hotel while the rest of us went out to look for a place to eat.  Our selection for a restaurant that night turned out to be the only really bad choice we made with regards to food and drink during the trip. But that was OK. We were too tired and quite happy to get some sustenance before we headed back to the hotel to get some shuteye. We had an early departure to Florence scheduled for the next day.

Read the next entry in this series of blogs on our trip to Italy here.

Our Italian Holiday – Arrival in Venice

We returned from our wonderful Italian holiday almost two weeks ago.  I have been unable to spend time writing about it until now because of preoccupation with other things.  There was the catching up to do after the long time being away, and also the preparations needed for Thanksgiving. I also decided to post pictures of the trip to my other website first, and that is still an ongoing process.  But I think I now have some time to try to catch up on my blogs.

First of all, I would be remiss if I did not note that one of the primary reasons we enjoyed the trip immensely was because of the organization that went behind the arrangements for the trip.  This time we booked a prepackaged tour with a tour company. The tour was extremely well thought out, with good attention to so many fine details, that in the end we came away with an extraordinary experience. Overall, the tour included a large number of tourists (a busload if you will) with people from many different parts of the US, and also including a couple from Australia.  We had folks in all age groups, including many young people from the New York to Washington DC region, some older folks from the south,  and also a couple who might have been in their seventies (who seemed to be involved in some sort of late life romance (purely my guess!)).  We ourselves were three couples from the Gaithersburg area, friends from church.

In addition to providing us with an unforgettable experience, the organizers of the tour took care of all our needs, and there was really not a single thing that we needed to worry about.  Everything went smoothly. The bus rides were comfortable. The hotels were great.  The daily breakfasts were excellent.  Additionally, they provided us with a few food experiences that were unforgettable (including musical entertainment and as much wine to drink as one desired).  Their tour guides in the different cities were very knowledgeable and experienced, and excellent in their interactions with the group.  Last, but not the least, we had an outstanding tour manager, Alessandro Ricciardi, who made everything fun while throwing in a few extras to make our experience even more unforgettable.  He was the consummate professional, doing everything to make us happy, doing a lot of unseen work in the background, while making all of his efforts look so effortless.  He was extremely knowledgeable about matters related to his country, and was happy to talk about his own life experiences in this context.  Great guy!

Our trip stared at Dulles airport with red-eye flight to Munich in Germany.  We were going to take a local flight from there to Venice (Venezia) the next morning. The group was excited about the upcoming trip.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was the aircraft that took us to Munich.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt Munich we got some bad news that our onward flight to Venice had been cancelled.  We got ourselves booked on an alternate flight later in the day.  This meant that we were going to lose some of the time that we had wanted to spend on our own in Venice.  But there was nothing to be done about this.  Folks caught up on their loss of sleep from the previous flight while waiting for the connecting flight in the airport lounge in Munich.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy the time we got on our way to Venice the sun was beginning to set.
We got some good views of the city while coming in to land, and it was getting dark by the time we got on the ground.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATaking the boat from the Venice Marco Polo airport (which is on the mainland) to the island of Venice was a unique experience.  The small boat moved with great speed following a pathway (highway!) for boats that was marked by pillars sunk into the floor of the sea on either side of it.  Any time we passed another boat going in the opposite direction our boat would get caught in its wake and bounce around somewhat violently.  All this was happening in the dark!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had rooms in an old hotel along the Grand Canal.  (I realized later that almost all the buildings in Venice are old!)  The street below our window seemed to be somewhat busy that time in the evening.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFortunately we had reached the hotel just in time for the introductory dinner. We met Alessandro and the rest of the folks who were going to be on our tour. We were also provided with additional information for the tour.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABecause of jet lag due to the time difference between the US and Italy (nighttime in Italy is still evening time in Gaithersburg), it was not too late for us to take a walk after dinner.  We wanted to get a flavor of the city before the activities of the next day.

The unique thing about Venice is that because it is crisscrossed by canals, and because all automobile traffic stops close to the place where the bridge from the mainland reaches the city, there is no motorized traffic to be be encountered in the city.  You can walk freely on the streets.

We walked past small storefronts like this one for a little pastry shop.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe passed many shops set up in little shacks in the middle of the street that were selling small items for tourists.  Most of the shop owners seemed to be immigrants from different parts of the world.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe crossed over a few canals,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand passed by a few eateries that were open late.  Pizza and panini seemed to be the most common items to be found for a quick bite.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen it was time to head off to bed and get ready for the adventures of the next day.

Read the next entry in this series of blogs on our trip to Italy here.


A Different Look at Edinburgh

I have decided to present a few pictures of Edinburgh that do not include the standard tourist spots that may be more easily recognizable.  Perhaps there are others that have visited the city who have seen these sights.  I feel that experiences such as these are an essential part of enjoying the best of what the city has to offer.

I saw a “Close” for the first time in Edinburgh.  Basically these are alleyways between buildings that can lead to other places, or streets that are closed at the end. The Royal mile is full of closes, many of which take you down steps between buildings to a location on a street below it.

Edinburgh has many gardens, including some private ones that you need a key to enter. We were able to to visit the Queen Street private garden shown below.  The second picture is from the botanical gardens.

The history of the city and its overall architecture gives it a unique charm. The first picture is a view on Cockburn Street leading up to the Royal Mile.  The second one is taken in Greyfriars Kirkyard (Greyfriars graveyard).


Here is a picture of the ruins of St. Anthony’s chapel in Holyrood Park.

Here is a scene on the Water of Leith, the river that flows through Edinburgh.

Finally, this is a picture of the tower of the Balmoral Hotel at sunset.

I wonder if these pictures are enough to get someone to feel that Edinburgh is a place worth visiting.  If not, a collection of pictures of the more mainstream tourist destinations may be warranted!

Hushinish, Scotland

Hushinish, a little village on the Isle of Harris, was one of our destinations during the trip to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland.  We had started the morning with a big breakfast at the Garybuie B&B on the Isle of Skye and driven quickly to Uig to catch a ferry to the village of Tarbert in Harris.  Unfortunately the day had started with bad weather, and it looked like this was going to continue at our destination and through the day.  This was what it looked like at Tarbert just as we were docking.

We were determined to continue with our adventures come what may.  We started out driving to the southern tip of Harris.    It was clear that driving through the rains would be made more of an adventure than usual because the narrow and winding roads through the stark rocky landscape were for the most part one-way affairs.  There was no place for cars to pass each other other than at the occasional passing lanes.  When two cars approached each other, the first one that got to the the passing lane waited for the other one to to get to it and pass it before proceeding.  It was a process that took some getting used to, and was easier said than done.  There were places where I had to back up, and doing that in a car with a manual gear shift that I had not used for many years made it more interesting.  If you steered incorrectly your wheels could go off the road, and in the worst case you could hit something and/or fall off the side of a hill!

We got to our destination of Rodel at the tip of Harris and visited St. Clements Church.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter quickly taking in the view beyond the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides (in the rain), we drove back to Tarbert using a smaller country road.  This drive was even more awesome and thrilling, with the narrow path winding between rocky outcrops and little lochs,  and through little villages by the coast.

After getting back to Tarbert, we continued on to our next stop.  In addition to the destination of the village of Hushinish at the western end of a country road going across the island, we had read that we could also visit the remains of a whaling station at Bun Abhainn Eadarra, and perhaps see some white tailed sea eagles at the North Harris Eagle Observatory.  Unfortunately none of the secondary objectives were met due to the time factor and due to the weather.

Shortly out of Tarbert we had to turn off the main road between Tarbert and Stornoway (A859) to get on to the one-lane country road  (B887) to take us to Hushinish.  This was even more of an adventure than what we had experienced before.  It took a long while to negotiate the 13 mile stretch of roadway to its terminus. The road wound its way through the rocky landscape with plenty of twists and turns and switchbacks. And it continued to rain.  There was enough tension in the passenger seat beside the driver during the ride that we had to switch riders, but I was enjoying myself!

We passed a tennis court in the middle of nowhere during the early part of the ride.  Since Andy Murray is from Scotland, we were wondering if he had anything to do with it.  Apparently not.  We  encountered cows that refused to move from the road.  The side of the car might have actually touched a big one with a nose-ring when I attempted to get past. The cows kept going about their business. These guys seems to think that they owned the road.  Perhaps they do.  Fortunately, they are most docile.  We saw Highland cows (also called Hairy Coos by the Scots) at some point.   This was a moment of much celebration in the car since we had been on the lookout for these unique animals ever since the beginning of the ride!

We saw people getting ready for a walk at a place that appeared to be the start of the trail to the eagle observatory. It seems that they were well prepared for the rain and were determined to get to their destination in spite of the weather. They were not to be deterred by it. (We actually saw walkers in many areas, including a couple in Hushinish itself, who had the same attitude when it came to walking.)  We passed the Amhuinnsuidhe Castle.  And then the road got worse for the last few miles.

When we arrived at Hushinish it was pouring.  I could see the beach and about three or four houses on the other side of the beach.   There was a small parking area and one other vehicle.   We made sure we had our raincoats all zippered up before we opened the car doors.  I put a plastic bag over my camera when I stepped out.  The wind was howling.  The adults walked just a little bit, bracing themselves against the gusts of wind, while the young ones climbed  the cliff to get a view of the ocean in the distance.  (You can barely make the kids out in the top left corner of the second picture.)

We waited beside a rock for the kids to come back.  You could see the island of Scarp in the distance.  The island was last permanently inhabited in 1971, and you can barely see the remains of the settlement in the picture below.

The sheep watched us with amusement undeterred by the weather.

The clothes on our lower extremities were completely wet by the time we got back to the car.  It was time to move on.

As we drove away I stopped to take this picture of the beach.  You can see the few houses that remain.

We drove back to the main road to Stornoway and proceeded north.  Before we got to Stornoway, we stopped to see the Callanish Stones and the Dun Carloway broch.  The stones are from the neolithic age, while the broch is most likely from the first century AD.  There is indeed a lot of old history on the islands.

The rain was beginning subside by the time we got to Stornoway.  After checking into our room we found our way to a table at the pub to conclude the evening with some fine food and drink.  We raised a toast to the end of yet another memorable day of our vacation in Scotland.

Ullapool, Scotland

I am not sure if there is anything really special about Ullapool up in the highlands of mainland Scotland, on its western coast, that that makes it more notable than other towns in the highlands.  In a sense, all of these towns and villages are notable just because of where they happen to be, and what you can do in these places.  But we did happen to spend an evening in Ullapool and came to appreciate it a little more than some of the other places that we simply drove through.

Ullapool lies at the end of the approximately two and a half hour ferry ride from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides.  Since we were getting there on the ferry in the evening, we decided to spend the night in town before proceeding further north towards Durness.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGetting there was an experience in itself. The ferry boat was huge and carrying a nearly full complement of vehicles and passengers, to the extent that our car was carried on an elevated floor/deck in the ship that was suspended from a roof, a floor/deck that could be retracted when not in use.  This was above the level that vehicles traveled on when the ship was not that full.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUllapool gave the impression of being a typical village by the waters, with Lock Broom  facing it, its harbor with the fishing boats, and the waterside main street.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince we had enough time before sunset, we decided to find a hiking trail to tackle that evening.  The trail that was selected started behind our hotel and the steep climb started almost immediately.  It was unexpected!  Soon we were on a hillside covered with gorse, with a view into Loch Broom and the little town of Ullapool below us.  Our ferry boat was heading back out of Loch Broom to the Sea of Hebrides and on to Stornoway with the sun beginning its descent in the clouds behind the mountains.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe climb continued and did not let up.  We went beyond the initial destination of a bench that we had seen on the mountain from the bottom of the hill.  In the distance we sighted another challenge, the rocky top of Meall Mor.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome of us could not resist the challenge.  We made it to the top of that hill.  Loch Achall came into view on the other side of the hill, and towards the north stretched a rocky plateau.  One could imagine the Cape Wrath Trail running through this  challenging terrain all the way up to Durness.  Something to consider for another day, perhaps another life.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the other direction lay the end of Loch Broom.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stopped for a minute to enjoy the view and add another rock to the cairn at the top.  We then turned to head back to town.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sun was low in the sky when we got back and we set out to find a place to eat.  The pubs were busy but we did find a place to set our butts down and get a dram of the local nectar, a pint of beer, and some pub food.  After that we walked through town looking for the grocery store that we had seen on the map.  We then headed back to the hotel, enjoying the cool evening and the ice-cream bars that had just been purchased.  Folks settled down for the night to watch a horrendous movie called Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.  Some of us rushed out of the room during the movie and ran through town trying to find a good place to experience the colorful sunset that I had gotten a hint of through the hotel window.  We were not very successful.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next morning we went down to the hotel’s restaurant for another filling Scottish breakfast (which can include haggis, black pudding, sausage, bacon, eggs and beans). We then packed our bags and headed out.  The only other stop in town before we set ourselves on the road to Durness and our next round of adventure was at the petrol bunk.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Spare

My response follows Krista’s interpretation in her blog presenting the challenge.

The following pictures are from our recent trip to Scotland.  I thought the sparse landscape was “elegantly simple”.  You have to immerse yourself in what you are seeing to get an appreciation of the grandness of the somewhat stark landscape.  If you click through these pictures and view them on a screen with sufficient resolution, you might get a better sense of what we felt.

The first picture is of the landscape along the shores of the mainland as we sailed into Ullapool on the mainland from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next picture is of the landscape and the road taken during our trip to Hushinish in a remote corner of the Isle of Harris in the Outer Herbrides.  The drive on a single lane road under adverse weather conditions was quite challenging and thrilling.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis last picture was taken when passing through the Cairngorm mountains of the Cairngorms National Park.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI hope one gets a better sense of the rugged beauty of the country of Scotland.

The Sun Rises Early in Scotland These Days

We just returned from a long vacation in Scotland. There were too many highlights for me to try to cover in a single posting.  It all started with our experiences in the vibrant city of Edinburgh.  This was followed by our travels around the country, including the Highlands, the Isle of Skye, and the Outer Hebrides.

Scotland is a beautiful land with a unique landscape including:
Rugged coastlines – with their massive weather-worn cliffs and their lonely lighthouses; beaches of white sand and clear blue waters; and meadows of soft wet grass above the cliffs that your feet sink into, with streams of water running through the meadows, with content sheep, and sometimes cows,  grazing in them;
Impressive rock-faced mountains towering over the landscape, sometimes with their tops in the cloud, their lower levels littered with  patches of yellow gorse at this time of year, and including trails that would  challenge the fittest person;
The numerous streams and rivers flowing through the valleys amidst the hills and mountains;

The landscape inter-spaced with its many lochs and firths lending a unique charm;
The numerous castles and ruins that surprise you at many a turn in the roadway;
and so on and so forth….

I should not leave out:
Walks and challenging hikes taken in our beautiful surroundings;
The thrill of the challenging drives through the narrow winding roads of the highlands, with single lane roads, timing yourself to pass cars going the other way in the occasional passing areas;

The experience of being at the Gordon Castle Highland Games.

Perhaps I should also not fail to mention:
The welcoming and easygoing people that populate this unique country;
Evenings at Bed and Breakfast establishments with their gracious hosts;
The family dinners at the pubs after long tiring days, accompanied by a pint of beer and/or a dram or two of scotch whisky;
Falling into a state of deep slumber at night that nobody could disturb, knowing that there was more to be experienced the next day;

Waking up early in the morning to start your explorations once again, only because the sun rises early in Scotland these days.

It all comes back to me in an jumbled and perhaps incoherent flow of thought.  Words will fail in any attempt to present a more organized picture of what we experienced unless I take a long time going about it.  So, for now, I will just show a sample of some of my pictures, with the hope that I will continue to feel the glow of the experience and am able to talk more about Scotland in future blogs.  Life will now return back to its regular pace, but the memories will not go away.

This picture of Edinburgh Castle taken from Holyrood Park. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
This picture was taken near Glencoe in the highlands.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The following are from Cairngorms National Park.
This is the Eilean Donan, reputed to be the castle most photographed. The weather did not cooperate for the picture.
This one is from our walk at the Butt of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.
This is from Hushinish in the Other Hebrides.

We climbed Meall Mor outside Ullapool.

Early morning in Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. (I awoke at 4am that morning because I could not sleep!)
People awaiting the sunset on Calton hill in Edinburgh.
From the Gordon Castle Highland Games.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

These are a small sample of pictures taken.  I hope to share more of them in future blogs.

Unexpected Pleasures (Sept 10th, 2014)

One of the conversations I had with a high-school classmate during a reunion trip to New Mexico was regarding how much more accessible the outdoors have become here in the US since the days of our your youth when we came over from India.  It seems like there are many more parks and many more marked trails everywhere, created by all kinds of government and private entities, exposing us to more of the wonders of nature in the country.  It is a great thing!

But sometimes it is the unexpected that thrills the senses.  I was on my way to Cloudcroft, out of Alamagordo, driving up into the mountains on Route 82 from the high plains, when I came to a lookout point just before a tunnel.  This was a few miles away from Cloudcroft.  I could see White Sands behind me.

The parking lot was empty except for this older couple who had come to the location on a motorbike.  The couple looked like a rough sort, and my first thought was caution.  (I was guilty of stereotyping!) But the woman was friendly.  She wished me hello and asked me if I had been on the trail.  I said I was not aware of the existence of a trail at this spot.  The gentleman then came up and told me about a trail that led from the lookout point down into the gorge between the hills where there was a stream flowing.  He said there were waterfalls.  He said that most people did not know about the trail, which was the best thing about this spot, and that he brought his grandchildren to the stream regularly.  Since I was being flexible in my schedule I decided that I would try the trail.  The gentleman told me that it started just beyond the lookout point, nearer to the tunnel, at a place where a black water pipe ran beside the road.  He then offered to walk up with me to show me the exact spot.  I grabbed my camera bag and followed.  When we arrived at the location of the pipe all I could see was a steep slope going down from the location of the pipe. I told myself that I was not going to give that slope a try today.  The gentleman laughed, saying that he would not attempt something like that at his age himself,  and then showed me a somewhat hidden trail leading off to the right, beside the road, on the other side of the guide rail.  He pointed to a cliff in the distance that the trail would pass and told me that there was a cave-like structure over there.  The cliff looked steep.  I was not convinced that would be passable but I was going to give it a shot.  I climbed over the guide rail and followed the unmarked trail.  Pretty soon I arrived at the cliff.  Indeed there was passable trail.

Pretty soon I had descended the cliff and this is what I could see behind me.

The parking lot seemed quite far away at the top of the cliffs, but in fact it had not taken me too long to get to this point.  Immediately in front of me was an opening into a shady wooded area.

And there was indeed a stream flowing in the wooded area between the hills.

I followed the stream to a series of very small waterfalls at the end of the trail.  I thought it was quite pretty.

On the way back I took this picture.   It looked quite peaceful.

During the walk back I also took my time to look at the flowers along the trail. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This was just the beginning of a wonderful (though tiring) day.

And here is another picture of White Sands, a place I was was going to visit later that day.

Here is another blog I wrote during the trip to New Mexico.

A Vacation in Florida

Soft jazz in a quiet corner, a good book to delight,
Bursts of activity in the home occasionally interrupting the quiet,
Screams of happy kids in the pool, the fun continues late into the night.

Older, more “mature”, young adults creating their own space,
Adults catching up, walks around the neighborhood, it is no race,
The mingling of the generations, the constant laughter we all embrace.

Food and conversation, the sound of the washing machine occasionally interrupting the chatter,
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner being prepared, with gatherings around the kitchen table that matter.

A late night at the amusement park, kids still excited, still on their own two feet, the parents still stable,
Warm and humid days, a languorous mood, catching a movie, food and drink around a restaurant table,
A vacation in Florida with siblings and families if you are able.