Monday, July 30, 2012

Foodie Bucket List: Try Some Haggis in Scotland

I promised everyone in this blog on the day that I left for Scotland that I would eat some haggis.  True to my word, I did.  During our castle tour day, we stopped at a pub in North Berwick and I saw haggis on the menu.  I was feeling adventurous, and so I ordered a plate for Joey and I to split. (That way, if I didn’t like it, I could make him eat it.)  Luckily, or maybe unluckily, I didn't have to push the plate his way: we both devoured it like vultures on a dying man in a desert. 

For those of you who don’t know why tasting the traditional Scottish meal "haggis"was a big deal, here is a recipe for your reading enjoyment:

Ingredient Numero Uno: A set of sheep's heart, lungs and liver (cleaned by a butcher)
One beef bung (What is that exactly?  I do not know the answer and I don’t know if I want to know.)
3 cups finely chopped suet (Not really sure what that is either.)
One cup medium ground oatmeal
Two medium onions, finely chopped
One cup beef stock
One teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
One teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon mace

You can find the instructions at, which is where I took the recipe from.  I am sure it is made differently at every restaurant and household in Scotland, but these directions came out on top in the search engine, so the recipe must be popular.

 A more traditional looking haggis meal - not so appetizing! (

The haggis was surprisingly good, for a meal made of sheep innards and onion (I hate onions with a passion).  Our meal consisted of haggis and mashed potatoes piled into a tower with peppered gravy flowing over it like a volcano.  I really enjoyed it, except when I accidentally bit into a whole peppercorn a time or two. 

Our haggis tower with the peppered gravy - yum!

According to the advice of local Scotsmen, “Just don’t think about what you’re eating, and simply enjoy the taste.”  That was what I did, and it turns out I like haggis!  Not that I would eat it everyday, let’s not get carried away... but I tried it, and liked it.  Ah, the spirit of travel!

Our haggis meal, half devoured!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Historical Inaccuracies in Braveheart (The Sad Scottish Truth)

This post is somewhat of an aside, deviating from my regular format of diary-like entries about my travels.  This post is a bit of a rant, a rant about Hollywood and its penchant for historically inaccurate films.  This post is about the time my visit to Scotland opened my eyes to the mirage that is "Braveheart".

 One of my all-time favorite movies... fictionalized.

In preparation for our trip to Scotland, my husband and I watched the classic and exciting film “Braveheart”, about the Scottish hero William Wallace (see my last post about the Wallace Monument).  I love that movie, especially the line, “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”  I love Mel Gibson’s portrayal, I love the blue face paint, I love the romance between Wallace and the French princess Isabella, and I really love when that one guy gets an arrow in the butt cheek because he mooned the English for too long.  

Gotta love the face-paint.

But then I read up on Wallace, both online and at the National Wallace Monument, and became very upset.  According to Wikipedia and a few other movie review sites, the film was nearly all fictionalized, rife with historical inaccuracies! Here is a list of just some of the major errors:

Historical Inaccuracy #1
First and foremost, Wallace was never nicknamed “the brave heart”.  That title was reserved for his peer, Robert the Bruce, whom Wallace is credited with influencing.  So, technically, the movie title infers that it is really all about Robert the Bruce, not Wallace.  Frustrating.

Robert the Bruce - the real "brave heart"?

Historical Inaccuracy #2
The romance aspect of the movie is totally shot.  Wallace, in the film, has an affair with Isabella of France, who is married to Edward the Longshanks’ son, Edward II.  I thought the romance was poignant and just a little steamy.  In reality, if it had actually happened, it would have been totally sick, because Isabella was only 2 at the time of Wallace’s rebellion.  Yuck.  And if she'd really had Wallace's child, as is hinted at in the film, she would win the world record for longest gestation followed by live birth, as her son was born 7 years after Wallace was tortured and killed.

No such love story ever existed.

Historical Inaccuracy #3
When Robert the Bruce heartbreakingly betrays Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk, I thought to myself, “How dare you, Robert the Bruce!  How dare you?”  And then it took me a very long time to like him again in the movie.  In fact, I don’t think I ever truly forgave fictional Robert the Bruce.  However, in not-Mel Gibson’s-world, Robert the Bruce wasn’t even present at Falkirk, and never directly betrayed Wallace, although he was very sneaky at playing the political field and working both sides.

Angus Macfayden as Robert the Bruce

Historical Inaccuracy #4
The costumes weren’t even right, for goodness sake!  The Scottish warriors in the movie wore kilts with chunky belts and sashes - a design not introduced to the Scottish highlands until the 16th century.  

Great costumes, just a little before their time.

I love this quote from Wikipedia.  Sharon Krossa, a historian specializing in Scottish heritage, claims that “The events aren't accurate, the dates aren't accurate, the characters aren't accurate, the names aren't accurate, the clothes aren't accurate—in short, just about nothing is accurate.” (Wikipedia,  Oh, Mel Gibson, how you fooled us all! 

However, the movie is still really great, and it is inspirational and fun.  It did bolster Scottish nationalism, and got me pumped up about my trip.  I still love it, and nothing beats an arrow to the butt cheek. Too bad hardly any of it was right!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

City I Love Contest Entry - "Finding Florence"

I am not a leading expert on metropolitan lifestyle. I haven’t been to some of the most major cities in the world, cities like Tokyo, Los Angeles, or Munich, and can’t tell others definitively that “this” is the “best” city in the world. I am just a humble teacher and travel blogger, trying to experience life to the fullest.

But Florence is the best city in the world.

“Why is that?” you might be asking. “Florence? It isn’t even that big - not compared to New York or Paris! How can Florence be the best city?”

Oh, let me tell you.(And I have to tell you in THREE points, in keeping with the “City I Love” blog contest.)

1.The History
Florence is a city immersed in the history of its country. The Italian Renaissance began here; the Medici family rose to power and literally invented banking here; Savonarolla the monk was burned in public for accusing the pope of corruption here; Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” here; Botticelli painted “The Birth of Venus” here... ah, such history!

Statue in the Loggia dell Signoria plaza

Statues of these famous individuals can be found strewn about the city: along the pier to Ponte Vecchio, along the walls of the Uffizi Museum (where “The Birth of Venus” is hung), in the Loggia della Signoria, and in basically every square in town. The Palazzo Vecchio was the political seat for the Medici family for hundreds of years. However, if I had to choose ONE thing that should be labelled a “must-see” in regards to the history of Florence, I would choose the Galleria dell’Academia, simply for the fact that within its walls stands Michelangelo’s statue of David, probably the most famous sculpture the world.Take a picture with him - but one that you can still show your grandma when you get home.

The statue of David in Galleria dell'Academia

2. The Colors
Not only is Florence a historical city, it is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever laid eyes on, especially from above. From below, the streets are all cobblestoned, the buildings made of brick and stone with complimentary colors of yellow or white plaster, and art and sculptures adorn each doorway, corner, and roof. But from above, it is a whole new world. The red terracotta, mixed with the yellow and white plaster, make the city look clean, colorful, and fresh.Everything is uniform and brilliant.

Ponte Vecchio at night - so lovely.

But the ancient world still peeks through. The majestic Duomo and Campanile (Bell Tower) hover above the city like a beacon, and remind everyone of how and why Florence became such a powerful and long-lasting settlement. My second “must-see” is to recommend you climb the 463 steps up to the top of the Duomo, after exploring inside first, of course. Perched on top, you can see for yourself just how spectacular the city view is, and get your daily exercise!

The view from atop the Duomo

3.The Shopping
Now, I am aware shopping when you visit a city is a very touristy thing to do. But I’m not talking about popping from store to store to find brand-name labels with bargain prices, or collecting as many Italian shoes as you can (that, my friends, should be reserved for shopping in Rome.) I am talking about the little stores with hand-crafted wares, and artisans who are willing to show off their crafts to you. I am also talking slightly about going shopping for gelato - one of the most popular things to buy in Florence!

Florentine gelato - yum!

My favorite shop in Florence is, hands-down, “Leonardo’s Leather Works” on Borgo del Greci.  This is my third “must-see” when you visit Florence. The store smells amazing, and they don’t just invite you in to sell you a purse or two. At Leonardo’s, I was ushered into the back of the store, shown some history about leather tanning, allowed to use some of the presses to indent a piece of leather on my own, and taught about some key styles of leather-working that are done only in Florence. It was like going to a museum rather than a store! I did buy a gorgeous purse, but that is because, yes, I am a tourist at heart.

Learning about leather at Leonardo's Leather Works

So that is why Florence is the best city in the world. It is hard to pin it down to just three “must-see” attractions, but on the same note, I could write lists and lists about this city and still not capture the twinkle of the Italian sun glinting off the rippling River Arno, the sound of the accordion player in Piazza Santa Croce floating on the breeze, or the feel of the uneven cobblestones under your feet as you wander the narrow and peaceful streets.

Some partially completed street art in Florence, Italy.

I think you just have to take my word for it, and go.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Top 5 Things to See & Do in Stirling, Scotland

Stirling was an unscheduled stop in our Scotland trip. We were planning on driving through it on the way home from Loch Ness, but ended up staying overnight and most of the day in Stirling while driving to Loch Ness. No matter the agenda, we were glad we made some time for this historical and beautiful town. It is literally dripping with Scottish heritage, so much that you really could spend a few days there rather than just a morning. We packed in as much as possible before having to drive through Caingorn National Park up to our BandB in Loch Ness. Here are some of our Stirling highlights!

Sitting on the royal throne - where I always knew I belonged!

1. Stirling Castle

This is one of the few castles in Scotland that is not falling into disrepair, and is a major tourist attraction. It isn’t cheap to visit, with a cost of £13.00, but once again (and I cannot stress how great this thing was) we had our Explorer Pass and so got to waltz right in. Stirling Castle is huge, and contains replica rooms of the royal lodgings, the Great Hall, and the chapel.

Entering Stirling Castle's grounds

The impressive and large chapel (not the same one where Mary was baptized)

There is also a military museum that, until a few years ago, was still used by the military as offices and such. Stirling Castle is also the site where Mary, Queen of Scots was given her baptism (although the actual chapel where that occurred no longer stands), and where she and many other royals attended school in their early years.

The royal lodgings with the royal school house located in the tower

A ceiling detail from one of the royal bedrooms

The castle survived, in most part, Cromwell’s heavy siege in the mid-1600s, losing two of its four front towers and sustaining some damage to the outer facade and gargoyles.  The remaining towers were blasted down considerably, and although they are still standing, they are much shorter than they used to be.  Good job, Cromwell, wrecking all of Scotland's nice castles! Boo to you!

Two much-shorter towers where once four large towers stood, pre-Cromwell.

The Great Hall stands out, with its golden plaster color, but we were informed the entire Stirling Castle complex was at one time slathered with the golden hue. I preferred the grey stone look myself; something about the gold facade just looks too 'fake'.

The Great Hall with its golden facade

2. The King’s Knot

These maze-like gardens were constructed specially in the year 1630 for a royal visit. (When my family visits, I just dust and vacuum...) The Knot is clearly visible from the balcony called the Ladies’ Lookout, which provides an awesome view of everything, not just the Knot.

The view from the Ladies' Lookout at Stirling Castle

Some people have noted that the inner section of the King’s Knot looks like a Round Table, giving rise to legends that King Arthur may have resided around Stirling.

The King's Knot garden to the left, with the "Round Table" in the furthest left garden

3. Church of Holy Rood and Old Town Cemetery

Part of our package with the Explorer Pass to Stirling Castle was a free tour around Argyll’s Lodgings (usually about £2.00 for adults, but you have to also buy a ticket for Stirling Castle). On the way down to see Argyll’s Lodgings, our tour guide took us past the Church of Holy Rood, which was surrounded by the peaceful Old Town Cemetery.

Peaceful and beautiful Old Town Cemetery

Apparently, this cemetery was a favorite of William Wordsworth, who noted it was the most peaceful graveyard he’d ever seen (although, to be fair, Wordsworth could find something fluffy to say about anything...) There were some interesting monuments in the cemetery, like the tomb for the drowned virgins, which looked like a mini-Roman temple. We did not have the chance to go inside the Church of Holy Rood, unfortunately.

4. Argyll’s Lodgings

The lodgings are a detailed and accurate reconstruction of what a home may have looked like during the time when Stirling Castle was occupied. The closer a house was to the castle, the more favor the owner had with the King. This house is THE closest, so that tells you how powerful and influential the Argyll family was.

Heading into Argyll's Lodging, built with French and Italian influences

We learned so much history during the tour, I can’t even begin to tell it all to you here, and I doubt you want to read an essay on the Duke of Argyll. Just take my word that the house was very interesting, and that if you find yourself in Stirling, pay the measly £2.00 and go! You can’t go on your own, however - guided tours only.

One of the dining / party rooms in Argyll's Lodging, Stirling, Scotland

5. The Wallace Monument

By this time in the day, Joey and I were getting tired and hungry. We had to get some gas for our journey up to Loch Ness, and so we grabbed some snacky items at the gas station to take to the Wallace Monument with us. We’d been warned that it was quite a hike just to get up to the monument, which is situated on top of a big hill called Abbey Craig, so we thought we’d picnic once we hit the top.

The impressive Wallace Monument tower in Stirling

After a bit of a climb, we made it to the monument. The wind was whipping, and a storm was a-brewin’, so we quickly ate our food before it got wet with rain. Happily, we wandered around the base of the monument, and checked out the gift shop inside. After a brief debate about the admission price and intimidating amount of stairs, we opted not to hike to the top, to save time, money, and energy. It was only after, when I learned that Wallace’s actual sword is encased atop the monument, did I regret not going up. At the time, my legs and wallet thanked me.

With all of this, Joey and I only skimmed the surface of what Stirling has to offer. More things to see and do in Stirling include the Bannockburn Heritage Center, the Old Stirling Bridge, and Cambuskenneth Abbey, just to name a few.  If you have had the pleasure of seeing any of these places, share your experience in the comments section - we'd love to hear about it!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Castle Touring the Lothians Outside Edinburgh, Scotland

One thing Scotland is renowned for is its castles. Ruins upon ruins of once grand structures dot the countryside, and every now and then you'll be lucky to see a castle that has remained mostly intact due to the Historic Scotland Society. You don't have to drive far to stumble upon a castle in Scotland's green hills and valleys.

On my 'to-do' list for our visit to Scotland, I had mapped out a route through the Lothians, pin-pointing various ruins that I wanted to see. We began with Edinburgh Castle on Day 2, since we were in Edinburgh already. The next morning we explored Rosslyn Chapel, and then entered "Crichton Castle" into our invaluable TomTom GPS system, and we were off - castle #1 of what was to prove to be a very busy day.

Excited for our day of castle touring in Scotland's Lothian region

From Rosslyn to Crichton, it was approximately a 30-minute drive. On GoogleMaps, we were informed that Crichton was just off the highway... don't believe that for a second! The road to Crichton Castle takes you through a few small villages, down some country roads, through what appeared to be a trail made for cows and carriages, and through a sunlit forest. Hardly 'just' off the highway! However, it was a lovely drive, considering we never doubted our trusty TomTom (okay, we doubted her for a few seconds during our trip down the cow trail), and the journey gave us several wonderful photography opportunities. We passed by fields of sheep grazing, vibrant green hills and glens, and quaint stone cottages.

Crichton Castle, as seen from the road - our first glimpse of it!

Our first sighting of Crichton Castle was extremely exciting: the structure was crumbling and missing several walls and its entire roof. Yet it was still majestic, and whoever was in charge of the grounds was doing a fabulous job of keeping the site well-maintained and tidy.

Walking up the road towards Crichton Castle

We parked outside a churchyard in a graveled parking lot, and locked our rental car. We didn't feel any trepidation about leaving our car there - it was extremely peaceful, and not busy in the least. A muddy dirt-road led to the castle itself, and we meandered up towards our destination. The cost to get into the castle to explore it freely was £4.00 per person, and this is where Joey and I discovered the Explorer Pass (read about it in the Edinburgh Castle post). We purchased it right away, knowing it would make our castle tour much more affordable. The castle was also open only until 5:30 p.m., as most castles are in the Lothians, so we knew we'd need to time out our visit accordingly.

The inner courtyard of Crichton Castle in the Lothians

The castle was built in the late 14th century by a family with the name of, you guessed it, Crichton. They built the original structure, at least, which was the main tower house. Over the years, the castle moved from their hands to the ownership of other families, and at one point, to John Stewart, Lord Darnley, whose half-sister was Mary, Queen of Scots - she stayed for a few days in Crichton Castle when John got married there! Crichton had a ton of interesting information and history attached to it - it was a shame, really, that it was lying in ruins. But it was still beautiful!

An ancient hallway in Crichton Castle

Next up and entered into the TomTom: Dirleton Castle. This is the castle where our friends Jason and Emily got married, the wedding for which we actually came to Scotland for. I missed the wedding, but I was determined not to miss the castle! Dirleton Castle is located by North Berwick, and was about a 40-minute drive from Crichton Castle.

Dirleton Castle in the Lothians - an impressive structure to this day

Dirleton Castle is slightly different from Crichton Castle in that it is in the middle of Dirleton town, is a lot more private due to the grounds walls still being intact, and is a much more maintained area. Crichton is wild and remote, in the middle of a sea of green fields, while Dirleton is a relic embedded among the modern.

On the drawbridge of Dirleton Castle

We ate at the Castle Inn right across the street from Dirleton Castle (they had really yummy chips!) and then headed inside Dirleton. The cost to explore this castle was £5.50 per person, but since we had the Explorer Pass we were fast-tracked right in and didn't have to pay. Inside, we saw some of the most vibrant and colorful gardens I have ever seen. It would have been paradise for my gardener mother. In fact, Dirleton is actually world-famous for its well-kept and diverse gardens.

The 'Alice in Wonderland' type gardens of Dirleton Castle

Touring the gardens of Dirleton Castle

Past the gardens we came upon the castle itself. It is also in the same state of disrepair as Crichton Castle, which is not to say that Historic Scotland isn't taking good care of it. Dirleton Castle is slightly older than Crichton, being built in the 1300s. It was home to at least three noble families: the de Vauxes, the Haliburtons, and the Ruthvens. It was annihilated during Cromwell's attack in the 1600s (1650 according to the castle's website), but was preserved when it was purchased by the Nisbet family in the 1660s. I'm glad they did, because it is a beautiful ruin!

What remains of the Great Hall in Dirleton Castle

The dovecot at Dirleton Castle

One of my favorite facts about Dirleton Castle was the murder hole, located right above the main gate entrance, where defenders of the castle would dump hot oil and giant stones upon the heads of attackers entering through the gate. I might have to install one above my front door - not sure who I'd use it on, but it would be nice to have the option!

The afternoon was beginning was fade, and I still had Tantallon, Blackness, and Linlithgow Castles on my list to visit. Joey and I made an executive decision to finish the eastern part around Berwick and see Tantallon Castle, and then drive to Stirling to stay the night, seeing where we stood regarding the other castles in the morning. It was the best choice we made, considering I personally found Tantallon Castle to be one of the most magnificent ruins in all of Scotland (and yes, I know I haven't seen them all, but Tantallon was freaking GORGEOUS!)

Approaching Tantallon Castle from the parking lot - the outer wall is surely impressive!

Tantallon Castle stands on the edge of the North Sea, on top of a cliff, overlooking the crisp, blue water and a huge island made of stone called Bass Rock. It is also in ruins, but is massive, with its entire front wall dominating the landscape as you approach it. You can feel yourself shrinking as you pass through the crumbling gatehouse and into the shadow of Tantallon.

Bass Rock, as seen from the ruins of Tantallon Castle

A shot of the North Sea and Bass Rock, just off the coast of Tantallon Castle

It costs £5.00 to enter Tantallon's grounds (except with the Pass, but of course), and in my opinion they could charge twice that, although I'm glad they don't. The views are amazing, the ruin is amazing, the ocean breeze is amazing - I think the point I want to make is that Tantallon is amazing. You should go, because it is amazing. Enough said.

Tantallon's Great Hall and kitchen buildings - or what is left of them...
Looking through a window in Tantallon Castle out at the North Sea

On a fun note, Tantallon Castle is the only castle that day that we visited that supposedly has a ghost. This phantom, according to legend, resembles a nobleman dressed with a ruff about his neck, and sometimes shows up in pictures popping through wall openings. Not one of my photos captured him though! Oh well.

Next up in the blog: the city of Stirling, with Stirling Castle and Argyll's Lodgings!