La mia Grande Bellezza

My Grande Bellezza trip consisted of visiting 3 of Italy’s most beautiful cities: Rome, Florence and Venice. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before I did it and naturally, it needs to be documented.

Planning to do the trip in the heart of January meant the weather wouldn’t be the warmest but it would certainly be much warmer than we’re used to here in NYC. For a city trip this is perfectly okay, considering the temperatures would be in the high 40-s/50-s with the advantage of encountering less tourists. As it turned out, this was a perfectly great, a grande idea.

Roma
«Quando sono arrivato a Roma, a 26 anni, sono precipitato abbastanza presto, quasi senza rendermene conto, in quello che potrebbe essere definito “il vortice della mondanità”. Ma io non volevo essere semplicemente un mondano. Volevo diventare il re dei mondani. E ci sono riuscito. Io non volevo solo partecipare alle feste. Volevo avere il potere di farle fallire».
“When I came to Rome at the age of 26, I fell pretty swiftly into what might be defined as the whirl of the high life, but I didn’t just want to live the high life, i wanted to be the king of the high life. I didn’t just want to attend parties, i wanted the power to make them fail. “

That is a quote from La Grande Bellezza. I’ve always wanted to see Rome but even more so after watching La Grange Bellezza last year, a movie that in my opinion pays ode to Rome more than any other movie ever made even though Rome has turned the main character, Jep, into a cynic over the years.

I arrived in Rome in the afternoon and stepped out towards the Colosseum right after. I tried to sleep as much as I could on the plane so I would have enough energy to last a few hours until bed time wondering around the streets of Rome. I headed towards the Colosseum with my pre-paid tickets with me. I decided to have a coffee first in a cafe across the street from it (how surreal it seemed to be sitting across from the Colosseum enjoying a cappuccino!) thinking I had plenty of time left before closing visit time. Unfortunately, closing visiting time was a lot earlier than I thought so I missed it. This meant I would have to do both the Colosseum and the Foro Romano the next day after the Vatican (mamma mia, what a full second day that would make). So what I ended up doing on that first late afternoon/evening in Rome is walk around the Colosseum, Foro, and the streets and piazzas of Rome.

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I followed Via Del Corso to make various stops starting with Fontana di Trevi which unfortunately was under construction (BIG heartbreak 😦 ):IMG_7398

Piazza di Spagna (Spanish steps):
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Piazza di Popolo, where I had a glass of Chianti sitting outdoors:
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The beautiful Piazza di Navona:
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And finally, the Pantheon, right by the restaurant where I had reserved to have dinner.
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Dinner was served at Da Armando Al Pantheon. I followed my friends’ suggestion to not leave Rome without ordering bucatini all’amattricana and ordered precisely that and Tuscan wine.
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Day 2 in Rome started with a visit to the Vatican. First, the visit to the Musei Vaticani lasted about 2 hours. I had bought the tickets online so thankfully I did not have to wait in the long line.
This visit to the Musei is an overload with beauty of Raffaello’s and Michelangelo’s work. I feel like I took infinite pictures of the many beautiful ceilings. To think of the work that was put into them. Le stanze di Raffaello are full of frescos of vibrant colors painted on the walls and the ceilings by either him or his students.

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Ceiling after ceiling after ceiling. Amazing aren’t they? Walking through the Musei is like foreplay though for what you’re about to see on the last stop where the tour reaches its climax…the Sistine Chapel (perdonami Signore for the choice of words). Back in the day, the Pope appointed Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the chapel. Michelangelo, who was a sculptor at heart, had no choice but to accept and he did not do bad at all.  I was looking for pictures to upload but of course I have none since they don’t allow photographs to be taken inside the chapel. What I did instead of taking pictures is take a moment and sit in different locations of the chapel to absorb what I was in the presence of.

St. Peter’s basilica followed next. My first thought as I stepped foot in the church was: “holy shit!” (again, perdonami Signore). The mother of all cathedrals. The details of the work done is out of this world. The grandiosity of it makes you believe there is a God even if you had a moment of doubt at any time (guess that was the point of building these cathedrals and hiring the best artists to turn stone and marble into divine monuments of art):

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View of the St.Peter’s square from the line to enter the basilica (not as bad as it looks):
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After I was done with my Vatican visit, I had to rush to make it back to the Colosseum, Foro and Palatino. I did a quick walk to St. Angelo’s castle, walked across the Ponte St. Angelo bridge and took a moment to take a look at the Tevere river following in the footsteps of Jep Gambardella.

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Then, I proceeded to walk and have a coffee at Piazza Novana because I needed to see it in daylight:

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All this while checking out the beautiful narrow streets of Rome on the way:image

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Right after, I rushed to the Colosseum and Foro:IMG_7671

Notice the dramatic sky that early evening: 
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A last look at the Colosseum at night:
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Vecchia Romana is where dinner was served. A place suggested by a friend to dine with the locals.This is where the real Romans eat. Great experience. Pasta and wine of course.
Still unsure how I managed to do all of this in one day but I needed to see as much of Rome as I could. Rome was not built in one day and it can’t all be seen in one day but I did my best. As always, vacation after vacation would probably be needed. Laying at a beach for a week? Nah…that’s too easy.

Arrivederci Roma! A Firenze tomorrow!

Firenze
“andrei sul Ponte Vecchio
ma per buttarmi in Arno!”
“I would go to Ponte Vecchio
and throw myself in the Arno!”

These are lyrics from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, an aria called “O mio Babbino Caro”. I would change the lyrics a bit and say “andrei sul Ponte Vecchio, ma per non buttarmi in Arno” (“I would go to Ponte Vecchio, BUT not throw myself in the Arno”).

La mia bella Firenze. I have wanted to visit Firenze in the longest time. I knew deep in my heart I would fall in love with it and indeed I did as soon as I first laid eyes on it. Firenze is where they all lived and produced masterpieces: Michelangelo, Donatello, Raffaello, Da Vinci, etc etc. This is the cradle of Renaissance.

I arrived in Florence mid day, after taking a train from Rome. Upon arrival I met up with a friend of mine who was such a sweetheart and went above and beyond showing me around for hours. I got a good tour of the city in the late hours of the afternoon until the evening. Exactly what I wanted to do to get a feel for the city right away.

Firenze is so beautiful in rain. It awakens the poetic side of you and it makes you want to write poetry over a glass of Chianti Classico. A couple of pictures from our walks/drives:

The marvelous Duomo di Firenze in rain:
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On the Ponte Vecchio bridge. Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro started playing in my head:
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And then, the view of the Ponte Vecchio from a distance. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming:
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We also got up at the Piazzale Michelangelo to see the second copy of Davide and a view of Firenze at night:
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The next day was tour day. This was a full day tour of Florence including the Accademia and the Uffizi museums. The tour started with a view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo, which I was very excited to do during daytime. It was a rainy morning but lovely nonetheless not to mention it worked out for the best since I ended up capturing some great photos up there. The view was spectacular. Florence’s buildings are all a different shade of beige and dark yellow which suits the city so well. Far in the distance, you could see the beginning of the Tuscan region, with the yellow villas and cypress trees (ahhh Toscana…I shall see you in warmer weather, I promise).

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After the Piazzale we headed to the Duomo (Santa Maria Del Fiore) and the Accademia museum. This is where my friend Ema joined us. Poor Ema had lost a day in Florence due to a big time Alitalia fuckery (there is no better word to describe it) and had traveled early morning to make it to the tour.

Our tour guide gave us some history on the Medici (the most famous, rich and powerful family in Florence during the fifteenth century), the position of women in society during Renaissance, etc. The Duomo had carvings consisting of 7 symbols some of them illustrating the then belief that man was pure and woman impure. Hey, no surprise there. We are all aware of 2000 years of religious nonsense (#fuckery) about a woman’s place in society. The Duomo is a massive, gorgeous cathedral made up of white, green and pink marble.

The Accademia museum is where Michelangelo’s original Davide is. More than ready for the real deal. We checked out some other art pieces including several religious paintings as well as The Rape Of the Sabine Women prototype. The real sculpture is in the Piazza Della Signoria:

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Piazza della Signoria is so gorgeous. It’s filled with some of the most beautiful sculptures of Florence including Donatello’s Judith, Cellini’s Perseus with the head of Medusa, and of course the first copy of David:

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Back to the Accademia: the adjacent room had some unfinished sculptures of saints from Michelangelo and right there, facing us all, stood David. Nothing can prepare you for how marvelous Michelangelo’s David is. If that is not divinity I don’t know what is. Michelangelo’s masterpiece is a reflection of how well he knew human anatomy. You can see David’s veins and you envision blood running through them, his diaphragm and you envision it filling up with air. This was what Michelangelo was born to do.

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A selfie could not be helped. I was pretty sure this would become the most famous selfie of the trip and I wasn’t wrong 🙂 :

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And here is David captured from a different angle 🙂 :

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One funny fact I learned is that our dear Michelangelo probably did not wash himself throughout the 90 years that he lived. We couldn’t stop thinking about how much he must have stank (among other stinky people of course) and what this may have meant for his love life. Maybe he never had much of a sex life (sad) and just spent his life producing masterpieces?

Next stop was a drive to Fiesole, a small town overlooking Firenze. This is where you see the Tuscan landscape take shape. This is what I observed from Piazzale Michelangelo in the morning. I’m definitely stopping by here to hang out longer next time.

Uffizi is next. This is a painting gallery full of some of the most beautiful Renaissance paintings in the world. It is the biggest art gallery in Italy. Botticelli’s Primavera was my favorite piece. No one painted women as beautiful as Botticelli did. The elegance, exquisite delicacy, femininity and beauty with which the female figures of the Primavera were painted is breathtaking. The birth of Venus (also featured at the Uffizi) of course is his most famous piece, filled with symbolism depicting the female nude figure of goddess Venus.

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Filippo Lippi, who had been Botticelli’s master for some time, also painted women beautifully.  I think it was in the workshop of Lippi that Botticelli learned how to paint in such detail and delicacy and where he probably learned to paint women (Women weren’t exactly hanging out in these workshops back in the day. Botticelli had been specifically looking for a workshop where he could be more exposed to women).

This is Lippi’s Madonna with Child showing a graceful Madonna dressed in the Florentine style of the time:
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As I walked around the Uffizi, I pictured a Florence full of workshops, where all these artists learned how to paint and sculpt during the Golden Age. They couldn’t have known they were going to gift the world with some of the most beautiful art pieces that would be treasured for as long as humanity exists.

All this magnificent art can make one feel so insignificant.

Michelangelo’s only painting besides his frescos at the Sistine Chapel, was also here at the Uffizi. It’s called “The Holy Family” and he painted it to gift it for someone’s wedding. You can tell this is a Michelangelo painting. It is as if he has painted sculptures.

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On the way out of the Uffizi, we got to see a spectacular sunset behind the Ponte Vecchio:

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Our tour ended and it was time to fulfill the desire for some typical Florentine dinner. So well deserved. I had all the pasta and pizza I could in Rome. It was time for some beef and roasted potatoes. Chianti too of course. Dinner was served at a place called Trattoria Marione very close to the Duomo in one of the narrow streets.

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Next stop was to be Venezia. I left Firenze feeling sad but sure that I would be back.

Goodbye for now my fleur de lis.
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Venezia
“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” ― Truman Capote

Venice. At very first glance, it was just like I had imagined. We got a view of the Grand Canal as soon as we got out of the train station. We arrived at the hotel mid day and were ready to get out and walk around Venice right after. The room we ended up getting looked like something that belongs to a museum:

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Emily, who was a fellow traveler who had purchased a similar travel package I had, joined us that first day in Venice. She was a lot of fun to hang out with and brought in a very happy-go-lucky attitude into the mix. The three of us met up a few minutes after getting settled at the hotel and started walking towards St. Mark’s square. We were told it would be a 30 min walk and ended up feeling really good about walking it because we got to really feel Venice. Day 5 of non stop walking was a bit rough on my lower back but on the bright side of things, it’s the non-stop walking that saved me from coming back from Italy carrying at least a few extra pounds. There is no other explanation given that I had all the carbs and wine I could have. And this explains the slim people of France and Italy. As well as the wine, as I’d like to believe.

We walked the beautiful narrow cobblestone streets of Venice. We crossed over the canals from ponte to ponte and took plenty of pictures on the way.

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It was foggy and misty but we didn’t really realize how much mist had covered Venice that early evening until we reached St. Mark’s (or San Marco). Once we reached the square we were in awe. The basilica is the first thing we saw and it was absolutely beautiful. So different from the Duomo of Florence, this Basilica was darker looking and was not all marble. The details did not disappoint. The mist made the square look like something out of a fairy tale (as if walking by canals was not fairy tale-y enough). We could see partially covered by mist buildings in the distance…ghost buildings! Everything looked so surreal.
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The pink lanterns in the square added to the fairy tale effect. I loved the contrast they created against the grey. I took my favorite pictures of the trip that evening:

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Doesn’t the mist make everything look frozen in the moment?
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Once we were done taking in as much of this mystic beauty as we could and enduring as much of the damp cold as we could (the temperatures were not too low but the damp weather made it feel colder), we started heading back at the hotel with a stop for dinner on the way. Wine was served (for me anyway) of course.

During our walk after dinner, I took this great picture of a canal. Doesn’t it look haunted?
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The stars had come out by the time we reached our hotel and I spent some time just sitting outside looking at the Three Arches ponte, the canal, and the stars above. I mean, when would I get to see nights like these, stars in Venice again?

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The next morning was sunny and beautiful. The view from the hotel was so great (pinch me, am I still asleep and dreaming?).

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Off we went to get to St. Mark’s via a different route wanting to pass by the house of Casanova. We passed Grand Canal as we crossed over to Rialto. A spectacular view of the Canal from the ponte.

Santa Maria della Salute is the church with the round duomo. One of the “ghost” buildings from the previous night:
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Needless to say, several coffee and snack stops were taken along the way to not only feed the stomach with yummy stuff but to also give ourselves a break from all the walking. We never found Casanova’s house because everyone we asked had no idea about it. They all gave us this strange look as if the man never existed. Casanova, the one who seduced your great great great…great grandma, you know? Nope they did not know. Or so they claimed.

I was enjoying our experience in Venice. It was the most relaxing of the trip and certainly came in the right order. I wouldn’t have liked it as much had I visited the 3 cities in the reverse order especially since it was all to be done in 6 days.

The goal at St. Mark today was to go in the basilica and out in the second floor balcony to take a better look at the square and surrounding areas. It was a clear day so you could see a lot more. What a perfect weather combination we got! So lucky to have experienced Venice in mist (especially) and now in clear weather too.

A gondola ride happened first upon the arrival at the square though. Much needed since it was so relaxing after hours of walking. When you’re in Venice a gondola ride is a must.

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The inside of the Basilica was beautiful. A very different church from what I had seen so far indeed. This had its walls covered in mosaic work. Again, the details and the amount of work were amazing.

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View from the basilica’s balcony:
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The rest of the evening we walked some more and made wine and food stops. If I was to describe Venice in one word I would not choose the word romantic over mystic. Surreal and unique is already something I was aware it would be.

More star gazing before bed on that last night in Venice and in Italy.

The next morning we took another look at our gorgeous hotel view and headed towards the airport on a boat (YUP, on a boat) 🙂 :

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This was the Grande Bellezza trip and it lived up to all expectations. The Gods were very kind, collaborative and granted me comfortable weather to walk in, manageable crowds of tourists, a sunny Rome, a cozy rainy and sunny Florence, a hauntingly beautiful/foggy/misty and sunny Venice. The rest was up to me to do my best to take in as much of the beauty as I possibly could. I couldn’t have asked for more.

If you ask me which city was my favorite, and I absolutely had to answer, my answer would be Florence. There was something magical everywhere but the magic of Florence was my kind of magic.

This is how it always ends, with death. But first there was life. Hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah. It is all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise. Silence and sentiment. Emotion and Fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty.”

Salute!
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Puccinissimo/a

– an extreme fan of Giacomo Puccini, one of the greatest composers of Italian opera and of the realistic (verismo) genre. My favorite.

I am a Puccinissima (a word I just made up). Puccini’s music is immense beauty. My soul gets lost in it.

In honor of Maestro Puccini’s birthday, here is a full list of his operas:

In my heaven, if I could pick what it would be, Maria Callas would perform Puccini’s masterpieces in the background.

Un bel di vedremo – Madama Butterfly

The Old, the New and the Beautiful

The old: Bunkers. Buildings and structures left over from the communist regime. Old houses. Ruins. Men having coffee.

The new: Colorful and modern new buildings that almost never please the eye. Reconstructed cobblestone. Building after building after building.

The beautiful: Nature. Houses with vines. Sweet people of strong integrity. All of the above. The feelings of a complicated relationship with my original home. A Pope who picks a country to promote religious harmony.

It’s all here. Fractions and pieces from a different perspective. My eyes saw something different this time. Place your own captions: the old, the new, the beautiful.

Voskopoja

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Tirana

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Korca and on the way there

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Men. They have coffee.

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Cinema Paradiso and Ennio Morricone

Nostalgia: “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations”. At the root of nostalgia lies the longing for that part of us that is no longer.

I thought of Ennio Morricone today and Cinema Paradiso came to mind. I played his scores and the whole movie started replaying in my head resurfacing all kinds of feelings and emotions that it always does when I watch it. That is why I love Ennio…the music he makes for his movies is a big part of the story. The music can not live alone without the movie and vice versa, the movie can not stand alone without the music. One can not exist without the other. One completes the other. It’s a love story really. His music is true and loyal to that story and that story alone.

Nostalgia is the main theme in Cinema Paradiso. Nostalgia has never been depicted better on the big screen. The movie comes from the heart and touches all hearts. All hearts that have once felt, lived and loved. This is my other Grande Bellezza.

Final Scene – Ennio Morricone’s music

Scotland

On the way to Scotland

On a plane to Dublin where I’ll take my connecting flight to Edinburgh. I’m a bit scared…never did anything like this before. Of course that doesn’t make much sense since you would think someone like me who’s been on her own since she was 17 would have more balls. Well, it’s not about that. It all goes back to the current state of mind and the vulnerability that I feel at this time.

But, to not deviate from the trip..I plan to head to the Edinburgh castle first thing after I reach my hotel. I have purchased a ticket so I should be all good with the lines. Dinner shall be at The Witchery, which was highly recommended to me. Can not wait for both. Hope to catch some sleep on this flight so I have enough energy to do both and of course be back to rest for the night for the big highlands tour on Wednesday :).

This trip has been on my mind for a while. This trip was not designed to be this way but I hope that it’s pleasant nonetheless and soul filling. I have no doubt it will be. Just about everyone’s reaction when hearing about me visiting Scotland, has been: “Why Scotland?”. So far I’ve said: “Because it’s been on my mind for a while. Because it’s beautiful and interesting. Because of kilts.” Will see how the trip changes that answer :).

P.S. I’m fucking sore from working out like a damn maniac. I knew I would regret it once I spent a couple of hours sitting on a plane seat. Thank God for the leg room though. Pre-selected Exit seat baby!

Day 1

I arrived extremely tired. Wow, so tired..BUT, I had to quickly take a shower and run out because I only had a few hours left to visit the castle. After the first few blocks I walked from where I was staying I was in a gorgeous park overlooking the castle – Princes Street Park. Everything was freshly in bloom in the park (temperatures are lower here than in NYC). The contrast of the greenery and the blooming trees against the castle in the background looked out of this world. And the light…this light that I only seem to find in the same latitude in Europe (Paris, Milan…especially Paris). I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the glorious light and sky.Image

The castle was beautiful. You can’t help but feel like you’re thrown back in time hundreds of years ago and picture what it may have been like. Lots of little museums within the castle to visit, all available to see without any extra fee. My favorite was the one on the Scottish honours (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honours_of_Scotland).

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I started the castle tour around 3:30. It was very sunny (as the pictures show) for about 1hour and then it went all tropical on me :). Thunderstorms and everything pretty nearby where I was standing. The show had to go on though. I stopped by the castle shop to get an umbrella (tartan patterned of course) and a poncho. I also had to, “had to” (as the cashier very funnily imitated me) buy the Anderson clan booklets while I was there. Back in the castle streets with the poncho protecting me and my camera from the rain, I went on with the tour.

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Done with my visit around castle closing time, I was ready for my dinner at The Witchery, a highly recommended restaurant by a coworker who has been there a decade ago (which TripAdvisor still rated it 4 stars). Beautiful castle-like restaurant located right at the entrance of the Edinburgh castle. Very romantic atmosphere. Amazing food. I had just as good (maybe slightly better) and meaty oysters as the New Orleans ones and I had Haggis. To put it how the ladies sitting next to me did, “this food was gorgeous”. Here is a picture of the Haggis:

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The walk back to the hotel had a different feel after the rain. The rain really brought out the fresh smell of the trees and grass and all the buildings had a wet look that made the contrast between the sky, the greenery and the grey wet structures, more apparent.

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A dram of whiskey at a bar near the Guesthouse is needed to complete the night and to put me to sleep. My body is exhausted from lack of rest. This had to be done though…”I just had to” :).
Ah, the Scotts are all very nice. And their beards are cool in a non-BK way :).
Until the Highlands…

Day 2

I took a lot of notes today throughout the day so I wouldn’t forget anything.  The tour started at 8:30. Right away I knew I made the right choice to choose these guys. Rabbies tours, the pioneers of small group tours. They started off with one small van and became big from word of mouth but kept their tour groups small. Each van carries max 16 people. Our group is about 10, all very lovely friendly people, most from the US. Our tour guide Peter, is fantastic. Such a great, funny story teller. He said his friends call him “the hobbit of the highlands” (he makes fun of his height all the time, lol). He is accompanied by Al who is training to become a tour guide. Both of them wearing kilts. These Scottish people all have a warmth to them. You feel good being in their company.
Off we went to start our tour. Peter gave us a small tour of Edinburgh as we were driving out of the city. Edinburgh was once referred to as being “old smelly”. It was a very dirty town with filthy filthy people…haha just kidding about the second part :). At some point they fell in love with Athenian architecture so a lot of buildings have pillars. For this reason it was called “Athens of the north”.
We passed by the Walter Scott monument which I had seen the day before on my way to the castle. Walter Scott wrote the Waverly novels, which romanticized the Highlands. The monument is the biggest monument dedicated to a writer.

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Dune castle, built in the 1300-s, was our first castle stop. This is known as the ladies castle. It was built by the duke of Albany. It’s known as the ladies castle because this is where the ladies stayed when their men went to war. Because it didn’t serve a war purpose, it looks nothing like the Edinburgh castle and more like what you think a castle would look like. The pilot episode for Game of Thrones was filmed there (for all you Game of Thrones fans).

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Callander was next. A town made famous by Queen Victoria who came to Scotland for a holiday following her doctor’s orders to get fresh air and take long walks. She apparently loved it and became the first true “tourist” of Scotland. Got a great tasty scone here and did not stop my scone ritual on a daily basis until I left. They make them so good and they taste terrific with butter and jam.
We stopped by a lake next, our first loch (Oh yes, some words to know: loch is lake, glen is valley, dram is a shot of whiskey, wee is little…etc). Strathyre was next, the first town in the Highlands. A town of 200 people and 5 pubs. If you ask the locals why they need 5 pubs, they will tell you “we have tourists!”. :))

As we kept driving in the Highlands, the tour guides played us some appropriately chosen music to go with the landscape. It made the experience complete. We passed through Great Glen, which is an area where different parts of the earth came together and created rises and lows. The highest point is Ben Nevis, whose top we couldn’t see due to the clouds and the mist. The weather overall prior to arriving at the Great Glen had been sunny with some clouds, but mainly clear. We were very lucky to have such weather and great visibility for the majority of the day.

The castle of Eilean Donan is next. The most photographed castle in Scotland. Indeed, I recognized it as soon as I saw it. So very romantic looking covered in mist (there was mist everywhere by then). “Have you been kissed on the island of mist?” – Peter comments. No, but I want to…possibly by a castle – I’m thinking :).

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We then head to our destination, Isle of Skye. We cross the spectacular bridge, see the MacKinnon castle from a distance. Short after the bridge, the car breaks down. We were to wait for a different van to transfer to which was luckily very nearby. In the meantime, Al and Peter speak to us about the elections that are to happen on September 18. That day the Scots decide whether they want to be their own nation separate from the UK. Al says that he thinks right now 60-70% of the population is pro-independence although the polls have stated a 50/50 stand. Scotland is a big contributor to the UK economy. Their whiskey industry alone brings 4.5 billion dollars a year. And yet the taxes per person in Scotland are 100-200 pounds more than anywhere else in the UK.

Soon, our rescue van came. Our new kilted Scotsman driver was a character. He used to work for Rabbies but now works as a school bus driver nearby. They must have called him to ask for help and he must have changed to a kilt and came to the rescue. Peter and Al stayed behind in the broken van and managed to get it fixed since I saw them later in town. So the new driver whose name escapes me, tried to tell us stories about Skye even though he hadn’t been a tour guide for a while. He sang along to songs for us as well. His best story was his own life story about how he met his wife. He met his wife when he was giving tours in Edinburgh. He said he never believed in love at first sight but was dumbstruck the moment he saw her. He ended up going up to her and telling her how he felt because he found it impossible to continue to work (his face had turned all red, etc :)). He went up to her and told her: “Listen, mother nature is telling me to get on with my job but I can’t.. “. And here he is today, a happy man, driving children to school, living in this gorgeous part of Scotland with his darling wife, singing to us tourists as he drives us to Portree, Skye. He hasn’t done too bad for himself, has he?

He drops me off last at my Bed and Breakfast. When he found out I’m Albanian he told me an interesting fact about a clan that’s named “Alba” and about Albany and how he thinks that may have something to do with an Albanian settlement. I’ll have to look it up.
So in Portree I am, now arrived at my Bed and Breakfast. The owners of the BB are absolute sweethearts. Husband and wife, Margaret and Morder (ok, not sure how his name is spelled but that’s how it sounds). The room is lovely and comfortable. I get ready to take a walk in town, and take plenty of pictures. Portree looks lovely. It has a “mediterranean” part of it because the houses by the shore look sort of like Positano and the shape and look of the shore is very similar. I drank some whiskey at a bar too of course. We’re getting a tour of Skye tomorrow.

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Day 3

Today was an all day Isle of Skye tour. Peter gave us a quick introduction when we started driving away from Portree. Isle of Skye is about 50 mi across by road and about 25 if you walk it. Its major clans were the MacDonalds and the MacCleods. The land everywhere is covered by this brown looking type of plant and the soil itself is almost black looking.

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A very interesting fact was to find out that the soil is made up of these thick layers of peat. Peat was formed in the past thousands to five thousand years by dead plants. Each moor grows approximately one millimeter per year. If a moor is 3 meters thick, it is therefore about 3,000 years old. To this day people use peat for heating and cooking and to make whiskey. Here is a good picture of peat being dried up: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fa/Isle_of_Skye_-_Peat_Harvesting_(3721751896).jpg.

As we keep driving we see the mountain peaks being covered by clouds and mist. The Vikings, Peter says, called it the Cloud Island (reminds me of “have you been kissed in the island mist?”). The houses we see are almost all white. Peter explains that this has to do with some sort of religious significance (purity being part of it). Down at the shore of Portree however, there are plenty of colorful buildings. This is not because they don’t care about religion or because the fishermen need colors to distinguish one house from another when they’re drunk (as Peter jokes), but so they can be more visible down at the shore.

We stopped for pictures in plenty of locations throughout the day, especially during the first half of the day. First spectacular spot was the Kilt Rock stop. This rock takes its name from its shape, because it looks like it has plaids (as you can see in the picture below). There is a waterfall right next to the rock and the landscape is just spectacular. It was very misty and windy when we were there so the wind would generate this haunting sound as it blows against the cliffs. It made you think that fairies were surrounding the area.

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As we kept driving, Peter told us stories of the MacDonald and the MacCleod clans. A very funny one is that of Hugh MacDonald who wanted to murder Donald Gorm MacDonald.  Hugh planned to invite Donald Gorm for a feast and on that day he was going to execute the murder. He sent two letters out, one to his accomplice with the details of the plan and one to invite Donald Gorm for a lovely meal.  He made a huge mistake though. The letter that his accomplice was supposed to get was sent to Donald Gorm and the invitation was sent to his accomplice. Donald Gorm of course captured Hugh, imprisoned him and fed him salty food with no water until he died of dehydration. Gruesome huh?

We passed by Flora MacDonald’s grave. She was a strong lady who helped Prince Charles as a supporter during the Jacobite movement. This lady took a huge risk for the right cause and managed to later move to immigrate to America, come back to Scotland and create a family and live until she was 65 (which at the time was a pretty old age to die in).

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Isn’t that a beautiful engraving?

And now my favorite fairy story. This involves the MacCleod clan. There was one chiefman that ruled the clan once that was doing a bad job. He was barely available, never much involved in matters of the clan. He was doing such a bad job that they had to ask him what his issue was. The MacCleod chief explains that he had fallen in love and that it was complicated (hehe). He had fallen in love with a fairy. The clan members urged him to invite her over so they could meet her and they all loved her. They pushed him to marry her but the chiefman explained that her father would not allow her to marry a mortal. They asked the father again and he gave them a compromise (these fairies and their deals..gee): they were to marry for a year and a day and at the end of that time she was to return to her fairy world. They took the deal – it was better than nothing. During this time the fairy gives birth to a baby boy and only had a few months to spend with her husband and family. Heartbroken, after exactly a year and a day, she walks with them both to the bridge where both worlds meet and says her last goodbyes to her husband and her baby. She makes her husband promise that her baby boy was not to cry because if he ever did she would have to leave her fairy world to come to his assistance which would have major consequences for her. The chiefman had to promise. So the sad departure happens, the fairy was gone in a flash and the chiefman returns to his clan trying to go on with his life. He was depressed and sad for a very long time. Seeing that nothing was working, his clan decides to cheer him up by throwing a party. They were all to dance ceilidh and have a merry night. The chiefman agreed to it. The night of the party everyone was having a good time and the chiefman was spotted smiling and feeling more joyous than usual. Since everyone was in the party, they had left the baby boy sleeping and no one was around to guard him…hence, he starts crying. And guess who heard his cries? Deep in the fairy world, his mother heard his cries and in a flash, appeared in her baby’s room and comforted him. She wrapped him up with a blanket she made out of her outfit and whispered to him. The baby stopped crying and his mother went back. No one knows what happened to her and if she got punished for disobeying her father’s rules. The chiefman had a feeling that she had come by when he spotted that the baby was covered in a blanket. Years went by, the boy grew up and he was able to recall what his mother had whispered to him. She had told him to wave the blanket she gave him three times any time the clan was in trouble with the MacDonalds. The boy passed the message along and indeed, the MacCleods were thereon protected because they would always wave their “flag” and be able to win battles. It’s such a great story. It brought tears to my eyes. The love of a mother is endless.

We kept driving through the island listening to stories and music and observing the picturesque landscape. The next story is a favorite too. The story of Alistair MacCleod who used to be a counselor representing West Skye. Whenever he would go in the Lowlands meeting with other counselors, the Lowlanders would look down on him and make fun of him for his Highland, “non-sophisticated” ways. They would say things like: “Oh Alistair, tell us, do you have such beautiful high ceilings?  Have you ever seen a table as grand before? Etc..etc…”. Alistair had had it one day and he invites the lowlanders to his castle, the Donvegan castle in the Highlands. The lowlanders accept. They come to visit in their fancy outfits and shiny shoes anxious to see what Alistair was going to show them in this grand feast he had invited them in. And what does Alistair do?  He takes them to the MacCleod tables…which are natural “tables”, flat peaks that belonged to the MacCleods. There they were, these lowlanders in their shiny shoes, struggling to climb up this mountain following Alistair’s lead. Finally, when they arrived to the top, they asked where the tables were and Alistair says: “Gentlemen, sit. Have you seen grander tables than these? Look up, look at the sky. Look at the starts. Have you seen a more spectacular ceiling than this? Look at the lightning. Have you seen grander torches than those?”. Ahhh, this is why I love these highlanders. Truly humble, warm, generous, noble, great people. We went by the MacCleod tables and had lunch at a cafe called The MacCleod Tables Cafe.

The last stop before heading to Portree was the Neist Point lighthouse. Wow, what a spot. We had about 1 hour to make it to the lighthouse and back. If you climbed the highest peak here (just before you got to the lighthouse), you got a chance to get a 360 degree view of the whole isle. It was so beautiful. Cliffs, sea, lambs. I kept thinking how unreal this all felt as I was walking and climbing.

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Look what we saw on our drive back to Portree (Oh.My.God!!!):

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When we went back to Portree I made dinner reservations at Sea Breezes, this restaurant right by the water. The food was amazing. I had the best mussels I have ever had there. The view of course, spectacular. The day started off gloomy but it cleared out midday-early evening so I was able to see Portree on a clear night.

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Day 4

Third day of the tour. The day we head back. The plan is to visit the Eilean Donan castle, stop by Loch Ness, and make our way towards the Lowlands and Edinburgh.

Day starts off a bit gloomy and chilly. The first thing we see are the Black Cuillins, a wide range of mountains which get the dark color from basalt and gabbro. Right next to them are the Red Cuillins.

Our first fairy story of the day is that of Angus and Marguerite. Angus loved Marguerite, but Marguerite had ambitions and wanted to marry someone wealthy. She however had an accident and lost vision from one eye. She went to the bridge weeping for her misfortune. Bridges seem to be these mystical places where you would most probably run into a fairy. I guess this is because fairies would use bridges to leave one world (that of humans) and enter another (fairy land). Sure enough, a fairy appeared and asked Marguerite why she was crying. The fairy gives her a deal: the fairy will return Marguerite her beauty but if she doesn’t find a husband within the year she will have to marry the fairy. Things didn’t work out for Marguerite and she was not able to find a rich handsome husband and forgot all about the deal she had made with the fairy. The next time she went by the same bridge, the fairy washed away her beauty as punishment. They say the river still carries her beauty and you now see tourists stopping by and washing their faces there. And guess who Marguerite married? Angus of course. Here is a picture of the bridge where the fairy appeared to Marguerite:

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When we were near the bridge, I asked Pete and Al to take a picture with me. Next thing you know, everyone else on the tour wants their picture taken with the men in kilts (by the way, the wind had really picked up by then so Pete and Al were struggling not to pull a Marilyn Monroe on us):

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Eilean Donan castle visit is next! Oh it was so nice and different to see it on a beautiful clear day and I was very thankful that I got to see it both days…in the mist and under a clear sky.

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We were on our way to Loch Ness when we passed by the 5 sisters of Kintail. The story goes that once there were 7 sisters, daughters of the MacKenzie chiefman. The daughters were looking for 7 husbands. But what do you know, 7 irish brothers come by on a boat and the sisters decide to each get married to one of the brothers. 7 sisters for 7 brothers…perfect. They all were to have a separate wedding. After the first 2 weddings, the brothers hear word of their mother having fallen ill. They have to go back and take care of her. The 2 couples together with the remaining 5 brothers leave and the still single 5 brothers promise the 5 sisters they were leaving behind that they would be back for them. Except, they never came. Years passed by, the sisters grew old and they were still waiting. Finally, they decide to go see a sorcerer and ask her to make them immortal so they can continue waiting for the brothers. The sorcerer turns them into 5 peaks which still rise to this day waiting for their Irish lovers. Ladies couldn’t take a hint, could they? (#notthatintoyou :)).

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Loch Ness was beautiful. We got to see it in a crystal clear day which is very unusual and not your typical Loch Ness day. No monsters, just dark, calm waters, but that beast is in there somewhere.

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After lunch we were to head back south towards the Lowlands (sad). We passed by some hairy coos and I took some great pictures!!

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We had a quick coffee stop at a Whiskey shop where I was able to taste a couple of drams. Got a light buzz there from some delicious Whiskey :).

We arrived in Edinburgh a wee after 7:00 PM and Pete had by then given me some pretty good recommendations. I knew how I wanted to spend the rest of the night. I was going Ceilidh dancing at a place called Ghillie Dhu. I got there just on time, around 9:30 and had great fun (great fun…I started to say it like that now). The dancing took place on the second floor. The space looked like a ballroom, high ceilings, big chandeliers, stage for the musicians, long tables for the guests. The band would give you instructions right before they would play a song on what to do so you could learn the steps. I got up there 2 times. It’s so much fun to dance it…it’s all very joyous.

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I met a couple of very nice people all very friendly, upstairs and downstairs. There was a group of guys from Wales that were out having fun for a friend’s bachelor party, or a stag (stag: male deer) party like they call it. Yes, a very different idea from what your typical bachelor party would look like here in the states.

Day 5

Day started a bit rough with me nursing a bit of a hangover from last night. A wee too much wine last night :). Ate breakfast (porridge this time. Doreen, the Guesthouse owner agrees that that was the right choice especially if you have a hangover). Took the train to Falkirk right after and a cab from the station to Helix Park. Just on time for the tour and in awe at the first sight of the magical Kelpies. I’ve been waiting to see them for a month. Our tour guide began the tour by giving us the background of the mythical creatures, kelpies. I had already read up on them so I was familiar with it. Kelpies were horses that lived in the waters, lochs, and would lure people to ride them so they could ultimately swim with them in the water and eat them. Mean horses no? Mytholgy is an important part of Scottish culture. Fairies in the highlands and water creatures in the lowlands. Tales that were told to children were endless. Think about it…during long cold winters when there was no tv, what better way to spend the time then sit around and tell children these stories: “Children, don’t go out there, the Loch Ness monster will get you!”.

The tour continued with us getting closer to these magnificent statues. Oh how beautiful they look. Every millisecond is a picture moment. Andy Scott, the sculptor, did an amazing job. What a talent! The material used is stainless steel and altogether there are 464 pieces made, each a unique piece different from the other. He used real horses as his inspiration: Duke and Baron. The Helix park was picked for its wide spacious landscape. The two horses’ heads are visible from the highway and surprise all drivers that do not know to expect them to be there. Here is a picture the first time I laid eyes on them:

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Andy wanted to create something unique that hopefully would become a symbol of Scotland and I think he has achieved his goal already. And what a great tourist attraction this is for Falkirk!

I’ve been obsessed with these sculptures since when I first saw pictures of them. The fact that I love horses for their beauty, elegance, loyalty, has a lot to do with it. But mostly, I just think this is such a grand piece of art so beautifully engineered. I stuck around and took pictures for another hour or so and then I took the train back to Edinburgh.

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We went inside Duke’s head too:

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Now that I’ve gained your respect of Scottish engineering…check out this piece of work and think about all that is wrong with it :). These things are found in almost all bathrooms.

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A walk to Arthur’s seat is next. I walked all the way from my Guesthouse to the Royal mile and kept walking to the grand Holyrood park. I took some long path to make it on top of Arthur’s seat…boy, I was climbing forever. I had already climbed up and down one peak until I arrived at the beginning of the trail. The higher I got the windier it got. The wind did not help with my fear of heights. I kept thinking I was gonna fall off a cliff. Ok, those of you who are thinking “did not know you were such a p%$$sy!”, stop it! I’ll have you know that I have a serious fear of heights.

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Anyway, the views from up there were spectacular as expected. Walked back to the Royal mile to head to dinner at Angels and Bagpipes. Timing worked out perfectly. I had packed a dress and heels knowing this would be a fancy place and just wanting to feel dressed right. On my way there, I booked a ghost tour to do right after dinner since it was so conveniently located right in front of the restaurant right by St. Giles cathedral. Everything just fell in place so nicely. Right on time without rushing to do everything I had planned and more.  My dinner was the lamb. I had to have the lamb, I just had to. A glass of Rioja as recommended to go with it. Delicious, “gorgeous”.

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Check out this picture from the ghost tour…pretty appropriate 🙂

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A whiskey at the Whiski bar (both the ghost tour and the Whiski bar were recommended by Peter) to end the night. Enjoying a smoky whiskey as I write this. The bar tender asked how smoky I would want it, bad boy smoky? Guess what I said…;)

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Day 6

Day 6 was exhausting only because I woke up feeling pretty sleepy and run down. I have yet to go on a vacation where I sit on my ass by a beach drinking cocktails. Even though I haven’t been getting my 8 hour sleep since I arrived, the sun is up pretty early here so that sort of helps to get you going. Plus, who wants to sleep when you can enjoy Scotland.
Keywords for the day: Mary King’s Close tour, National Museum of Scotland, palace, souvenirs, literary pub tour, a lot of walking.

Mary Queen Close was the biggest close in Edinburgh. It was considered to be a privilege to live there and that was pretty amazing to believe. The poorest family lived in the lower floors, in a damp dark place. 12 people all in one room sharing a bucket as their toilet. It’s pretty insane how they lived.

The palace was closed because some sort of an official was visiting (how dare they). Managed to take some pictures from behind the gate and I started walking back to the museum. I liked the National Museum of Scotland. It was sort of the size of the Whitney or the Guggenheim museum. I checked out their Scottish gallery as well as the current Italian exhibition. They had a Da Vinci piece in there that is only the second original in the world.

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View from the museum cafe.  Oh Edinburgh, I will miss you 😦

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Early dinner was to be at the Albanach, this bar on Cockburn street (right, that street). I was looking to get a special dish I was told to try by Peter: cullen skink. It was a soup, with fish, potatoes and onion and this amazing white broth. Very tasty.

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I headed back to the Grassmarket, in front of the Beehive Inn where the Literary pub tour was to begin. I have to say, I have enjoyed taking these tours. They are a very fun way of learning about the history of the town. This particular tour tells you about Scotland’s writers from Robert Burns, Walter Scott to the renaissance writers and the more modern ones. Our tour guides or I should say, actors, took us to 4 pubs that the writers used to frequent and told us their stories in the form of a funny but factual pre-scripted “play”. A stop at each pub meant you could order a drink while you take a break. I of course had my Ardbeg dram. I have to find where I can get Ardbeg from in NYC now.

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Some pictures from my walk around town:

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Last words

I didn’t quite admit there on my first paragraph but I was pretty nervous the first day here. I was not sure I had done the right thing to visit alone, I didn’t know if I would enjoy it, I was scared I wouldn’t like the tour to the Highlands, etc. The trip turned out to surpass any expectations I had. As you can tell by now, I’m completely head over heals enamored with Scotland. I feel like a Highlander with a brave heart who had the courage to get on a plane, plan a trip and make the best of it. I did so much in a week..until my body gave up from exhaustion in the end :). I am definitely going back and perhaps this time really claiming a castle :).

I left a piece of my heart in those highlands.

So for those of you who asked: “Why Scotland?”…Scotland is a beautiful, mystic, romantic country with wonderful people. The question now is: when are you visiting?