Thursday, January 31, 2013

Enjoying the snow

Since the Eastern half of Scotland (just on the other side of the mountains that border Loch Ness) had a few days of snow, I decided that it was time to go skiing and headed off to the Cairngorm Mountain ski facility. This wouldn't be a big deal except for the fact that I haven't been skiing in almost 20 years, if you don't count the ill fated trip to the Villa Olivia hill a couple of years back where I spent more time on my hiney than on my skis.

Since it had been so long, I wisely decided to invest in lessons. You see, skis are shaped differently now than they were back when I was half way decent at skiing. They are a lot shorter and curvier now and you balance on them differently to get them to go the way you want. And I am 20 years older, which puts a whole different spin on it as well
Davey was a great teacher. I won't lie, he scared the crap out of me when he took my poles away about five minutes into the lesson. Much to my amazement, I ski better without them! I fell a few times, two of which were pretty spectacular. The first I didn't turn in time and went up some big rocks and was grateful I'm flexible because what my legs did would have resulted in pulled muscles for most people. The second was when I got cut off by some guy and I went arse over teakettle multiple times and landed on my face. I heard my nose crunch and was terrified that I had broken it. Luckily I hadn't. It was bruised and swollen, but not to the point where you'd notice if you didn't know what it looked like normally, so I figure I got off pretty lightly. When the ski instructor looks worried, you figure it looked like a pretty bad fall. He told me to just sit down next time I can't stop.

One of the things he did was point out skiers with good and poor techniques. He said "See how the men have no form? They don't care what they look like or if they get hurt. The blokes just want to go as fast as possible and beat their mates to the bottom. Now women, about the age of 13/14 start to care about what they look like. So watch how the woman go slow, work on their technique and go for the safer routes. They want to look good and not get hurt. I want you to be in between those two styles." I thought these were some very shrewd observations of the genders which it also ended up applying to my second snow sport enjoyment, dog sled racing!

Last Saturday marked the 30th anniversary of the Aviemore Dog Sled Race. Aviemore is the town at the base of the Cairngorm mountain range. One of the race marshals told me that in thirty years they've only had snow around 4 times. They usually race on these chariot-esk wheely cart things, so people aren't as good on the sleds because they don't get to use them very often.

I didn't really miss my dogs until I saw the dog sled dogs. They were so freaking excited and happy!!! There was much wooing. howling and tail wagging. I teared up a bit once. Huskies are really friendly dogs so the owners let people come up and pet all the dogs. Only the Nordic breeds are allowed to race in the Aviemore Race, but a couple of teams brought their other dogs with that they have on the teams when not in the race. Once couple had two German Springer Spaniels. I commented that I had never seen a spaniel on a race team. The woman told me that one team has a Cocker Spaniel and then pointed to the end team and said they have a Bichon on their team!!! I thought it was just like Yukon Cornelius in Rudolf.

I was standing at a turn near the end of the race to take photos and thought it was really interesting how the men all went tearing around the curve, losing control and tilting onto one runner while every last woman racer took it at a nice, slower pace and had control the entire time.

The view from the top of the Cairngorm Mountain was truly spectacular, but I wisely chose to not bring my camera or phone with me on the slopes so most of my photos are of the dog sled race. My favorite was the guy in the goofy hat.
The first photo was a dog I seriously wanted to put in my pocket and take home. She was a miniture Husky, only about mid-calf high on me and the absolute sweetest thing ever!!! The moose next to her is a Malmute who acted just like Koda. He was hysterical. When I went on from petting him to the darling little one, he pawed at me and when that didn't work to get my attention, he threw himself on the ground and rolled over for a belly rub.

The third photo has a dog riding with the racer on the sled. The dog must have injured itself or was having a problem making it not able/safe to run. They call it 'bagging the dog'. The rest of the photos are of the race, Huskies/Malamutes and the Cairngorms across the loch.

My favorite is the series of 3 pictures w/a whole slew of huskies on their stakes willy nilly then when them all focused one direction. The final photo shows them staring in rapt attention at their owner, who I thought was either rather brave or totally stupid to say to them "What, you want my cookie? Yuuummmm cookie!" He must have been very confident that he had them well secured, because if nothing else, a Husky is extremely food oriented.
The last picture is of one of the wheely carts that they race in when there's no snow. That woman was so color coordinated that even her transportation crates in her truck were matching purple. She told me her husband had spray painted them to match for her. Because you know, it's better to look good....

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

It's about the journey...

I went to the Isle of Skye last Wednesday. It should have taken just under two hours from the Abbey, but it took me around four instead. The joy of traveling in the off season is that you have places, which are normally packed to the gills with tourists, entirely to yourself. The other is that the local people have more time chat and tell you about things that you shouldn't miss but the guide books don't tell you about. Every corner I rounded was breathtaking, and because there was no traffic, I was able to pull over at will. The workers in the stores all shared really interesting things with me as well.

I saw a deer by the side of the road, so I pulled over into one of the many parking/pull off points that they have throughout Scotland. I was so intent on the one deer, that I was startled to see one immediately on my right watching me photograph his friend! He just stood there and chewed on the grass from the side of the road.

Can anyone tell me why the deer in Scotland eat the grass, but the deer in Illinois only eat my roses and any other lovely flower I plant, yet leave the grass? I would love for them to eat the lawn, then I wouldn't have to spend hours going up and down the hill mowing it all summer long! Of course if I didn't scale the hill many times a day, then I wouldn't be able to scale the Scottish hills and dale with ease, so I guess it's all good.

As I neared Eilean Donan Castle, I came across a really beautiful cemetery with a ruined crofter's cottage in the middle of it. I've always liked the peacefulness and the ornateness of old cemeteries, so I stopped and explored it for a while. Plus, I watched Buffy, so I know what to do if there's any undead issues. It seemed that this cemetery was both old and new. It had really old stones that were falling over and the engraving worn off, but the majority of them were from the late 1800's to about 1985.
Two interesting things about this cemetery were the cracked stone slab that reminded me of Aslan's table from 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' and the McCrae World War I monument on top of the hill overlooking the cemetery. The memorial plate at Eilean Donan was also dedicated to the McCrae's lost at Flanders, so it would seem that the town around Eilean Donan must be the McCrae clan land.

Another bonus of Scotland in January was that I had Eilean Donan Castle to myself, which is not something that happens in the summer. Thanks to it's impressive structure and setting, as well as being featured in such movies as 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' and 'Highlander', it is a very, very popular tourist destination, which is why I've never gone to see it before now.

The inside exhibits were closed for refurbishment, but I've seen the inside of many castles and they are all pretty similar, so I didn't really feel I was missing much. As I turned to go back to the car, I heard a sound that took me by surprise, a really loud airplane. I turned and there was a fighter jet passing behind Eilean Donan! The juxtaposition of a modern fighter jet passing an ancient stronghold was really striking. I didn't get the camera out of my pocket fast enough to capture the jet and castle in the same photo, but I did get it over the loch.

Once I finally reached Skye, I stopped in a couple of shops and had lunch in a pub that was recommended by the girl in one of the shops. She and I were chatting and she mentioned that they do a lot of training for the military in the Highlands. She then told me that she met an elderly friend of her grandfather back in the 90's who he knew from his time in the armed forces, and it ends up that her grandfather's friend was actually the basis for James Bond!! He was a spy for England in his day, and he consulted with Ian Flemming on the original James Bond books!! How cool is that?
I drove around Skye until the sun started to fade, then started home. Again, I love the castles best when they are all lit up at night, so I stopped to take some more pics on the way home.
One of the things that's important to remember about travel is that you are there to experience things that are different from what you do daily. Don't be afraid to veer off of the path or your plan for the day, because that's when the most memorable things happen.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Castle Urquhart

Castle Urquhart is perched on the edge of Loch Ness and it's the ruins you see in all of the photos of Loch Ness. It enters the records around 580 A.D., so they think it's been around that long in one form or another. Being situated strategically on the loch, it's changed hands many times throughout history, both between the clans and the English. It seems that the clans Durward, Mac Donald and Grant have all been in charge of it throughout it's history. In 1692 the English soldiers blew it up as they left it for the last time.
I think it's especially compelling at night, so that would be the photos I have of it!


On Tuesday I had planned to head out to Skye, but I got up too late for the 2 hour journey each way, so I decided to head up towards the town of Loch Ness and then onto Inverness. One of the things I wanted to accomplish in Loch Ness was to find a local Burns Night dinner, which is a celebration of the Scottish National Poet, Robert Burns.
The information center wasn't open yet, so I headed up the hill to the new Loch Ness Exploration Center and did the tour there. It was a tour with different rooms built to be like rock and had videos in each room talking of the search for the Loch Ness monster. I have to say that being the only person in the place was a tad bit spooky, in a Scooby Doo sort of way. I kept my back to the wall in each of the rooms, just in case the Loch Ness monster snuck up on me and I had to exclaim "Jinkies!" and run away.
Once through the exhibition I went into the gift shop adjacent to it and had a nice chat with the local ladies who worked there. What nice ladies!!! They recommended some other things to see while in the area.
At the information office the woman told me to check at the post office for a Burns Night dinner, because she thought that was who had mentioned it to her. So I went to the post office, where they said "Burns Night dinner? No, I haven't heard anything, check down at the information desk." I explained that they were the ones who sent me to the post office and a nice gentleman who was mailing a package said "I'm on my way to the library, why don't you walk with me there and ask the librarian, she should know of something."
So across Loch Ness to the library we went. The librarian did indeed know of something, and drew me a map to get to Balnain to check their community board. Phillip, the man who walked me to the library, told me that if I was headed to Balnain, I should really try to get out to Plodda Fall because they were really spectacular, so I did. It was funny that 3/4 of the people I met in Loch Ness were actually from England, not Scotland. Phillip must have been from the Liverpool area because he totally sounded like John Lennon.
I found the Balnain message board, wrote down the dinner info then headed on to Plodda Falls. I thought I missed a turn at one point and asked a man who was walking his daughter home from school for directions. He redirected me and said "Be careful on the road there, it's got big potholes, very (prounounced 'verra') treacherous that is, that." I thanked him and went on my way.
The thing I love about the highlands is that you'll be driving along, round a bend and have your breath taken away by a totally stunning vista. The thing that's annoying is that photos just do not do the vista justice at all. The drive to Plodda was simply amazing. There is a little bitty town you go through that's labeled as a 'conservation village', which I take to mean that the houses are old because there was no description of what a conservation village is. The village was totally adorable, with ancient stone houses that had gingerbread trim. The walk to and from the falls was beautiful and serene. I only came across one other woman. There is a platform that sticks out over the falls so that you look straight down over them. It's relatively terrifying to be hanging out over the water and rocks like that, I have to say.
I stopped in the conservation village to take photos on the way back as it was getting dark. I pulled into a car park and stood outside the car clicking away. When I turned around I found that all of the sheep in the field were standing there chewing grass and watching me.
So now for the photos: