Archive for the ‘Places’ Category

carcassonne

carcassonne

Romantic castles perched on jagged hills and walled medieval cities and villages that look like a fairytale; it’s all still magic to those of us who grew up in the New World. The juxtaposition of history and modernity has been muted after living in Scotland for seven years, a mile away from a 13th century castle, but this holiday in Carcassonne brought it into focus again. Carcassonne and the nearby Cathar villages and castles are pure fairy tale – appearing unchanged and unmodernised (although often heavily restored). It was a world apart from both Canada and North-East Scotland and it made a bit of history – the cathar crusades – feel real.

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spelunkers

castles

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This was our second year of holidaying in France with my parents and unlike the Loire valley, which was still relatively crowded in April, we were fortunate enough to miss the tourist season this time and had most of the attractions to ourselves – far more atmospheric than standing in lines or snaking uphill in a long crowd. We also had some insider advice from Bex, a friend of one of my best friends, who lives in nearby in Beziers and has two kids of her own and so is aware of what a child-friendly day out actually means (Ice cream, non-fussy restaurants, places to run around and make noise, things to climb, and not too long in the car), and who recommended Minerve and Peyriac de Mer. And we avoided the heat too – the lizards running over the cream coloured stone walls reminded us how far south we actually were. As none of us belong in a hot place, the 15 degree weather with a few rainy moments worked in our favour.

My favourite outing was the visit to the Abbaye de St-Hilaire, south of Carcassonne near Limoux. I think I was alone in this though, with everyone else prefering some of the more breathtaking options of our week. But the peace of the abbey, and the fact that it wasn’t a grand installation of luxury and political power, made the faith that had sustained it feel much closer. I can’t often feel God in soaring cathedrals or monastical palaces – but in small places like this abbey the peace and spirit seem real.

The medieval village of Minerve was the most breathtaking for the adults, perched at the edge of a gorge and bathed in sunshine. At the foot of the town, the caves caught the boys attention and they only returned back to the light grudgingly, bribed by the prospect of food and the prospect of a steep climb uphill back to the village. Steep climbs that deter middle aged adults thrill five year old boys – as do cliff edges, long drops, and windy spots. Which is why the should-be-breathtaking Châteaux de Lastours actually had me using my breath for a repetitive round of instructions and nagging reminders while trying to keep hold of my oldest son. He came away wondering why I was in such a grumpy mood, convinced he was just like a mountain goat. We’ve climbed a few small mountains here in Scotland, climbs that go much higher, much steeper, and are much harder physically, but crucially – have less cliff edges.  I have let him scamper up Bennachie and Clachnaben without any restrictions but a fall there would likely mean a broken leg at worst.  Lastours, with actual drops to rocks below, was amazing but stressful from a parental point of view.

The medieval town of Lagrasse was lovely, although  only a limited bit of the abbey; is open to the public.   The medieval streets are narrow and charming and in the summer season when shops are open, and if not too many people were there, I can imagine spending a happy day soaking in the atmosphere.  The covered medieval market shown in the photo of the boys was gorgeous.  But with two small boys in tow – who are beginning to realise that their friends are on holiday at beach resorts or at Disneyland Paris rather than touring historical sites – we needed a couple of outings just for them. Peyriac de Mer was perfect for them – they played spies as they ran around the boardwalks (and faced with nothing worse than a few feet of water, I was thrilled to let them run) and we had lunch in a lovely square – my mother’s favourite day.

And other favourite days? Cory votes for our night out without the boys – a 3km walk along the canal into the village of Trebes, a drink by the boats, dinner, and then the 3km walk back. The boys unanimously vote for playing with the other kids from the gite next to ours. And my father, as usual, just enjoyed it all quietly (fortunately speaking a bit more french than last year as he’s far better at it than the rest of us).

Captions (top to bottom)
1) In the centre of the medieval city, with the castle walls behind the boys

2) St. Hilaire Abbey, near Limoux

3) exploring caves at the foot of Minerve

4) the castles of Lastours

5) the medieval covered marked in the centre of Lagrasse

6) best of friends in Carcassonne

7) and the best downtime ever, cuddles and chuckles while watching Wallace and Gromit.  My parents hadn’t seen it before, but then my mother didn’t know what a Death Star was either. It’s amazing I turned out as normal as I did, growing up insulated from pop culture.


Galloway: a different kind of romance

boattrip

What could be more romantic than a ferry trip to a ruined castle, moody skies, and wooden swords? Not romantic in that sense – it was our anniversary this week but there were four of us on holiday. Think castles, imaginary dragons, wood stoves, nice wine and pub lunches.
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karting

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We’ve just had probably our best family vacation yet, with decent weather and a lovely cottage one mile from Wigtown, Scotland’s book town. Pre-kids I’d have illustrated this post with artistic photos of the used books we brought home with us. Wigtown does live up to its reputation and had a lovely selection of bookstores full of lovely old books that I wanted aesthetically. Even with a £5 limit for each book I still managed some Roald Dahl for Duncan, and Angela Thirkell, Elizabeth Taylor, Roberston Davies, Sir Walter Scott (mainly for the gorgeousness of the book), and Winifred Holtby for me.

But even though I did come home with a lovely haul of books, the photos show some of the other highlights of the trip, like the two visits we made to the Cream O’ Galloway ice cream visitor centre (yes, it was that good that we went twice) and post-bath in front of the wood fire. It was a lovely slow week, with lots of time for playing board games in the cottage or riding bikes in the woods, and I feel like we caught up on some much needed family time without a list of things to do hanging over our heads.

In many ways this was the traditional ideal vacation and that’s where the romance of it comes from. Everything we did seemed to turn out lovely and we avoided lines, congestion, grumpy people, and rainy weather as if by magic. We spent time on the beach (in our winter jackets) visiting St. Ninian’s cave and stacking rocks in bright sunshine and visited the Whithorn trust where Christianity first came to Scotland. The mountain bike centre at Kirroughtree is on our list for a future vacation once the boys are big enough to bike with us (instead of us running behind), and a coffee while the kids played in the play park was brilliant. The whole area is suited for families, with kids catered for especially at the Cocoa Bean Company where the boys donned hats and aprons and became chocolatiers for the afternoon. This feels like bad copy from a tourist brochure, but really, it was lovely and exceeded all our expectations.


Revisiting Skye, toddlers in tow

treasure hunts

We spent our honeymoon in Scotland, a once in a lifetime experience that through the twists of fate has turned into home and allows us to revisit places we thought we’d not return to again. After seven years (coincidentally on our wedding anniversary) we went back to Skye with the boys last week, a celebratory surgery-over trip that in part compensated for the cancelled trip to Canada.

Seven years ago we spent evenings snugged in the pub in magical out of the way places+. This time we’d been lent a romantic cottage by a friend and spent our evenings drinking wine by the fire and crossing our fingers the boys would stay asleep. Equally lovely, and honestly the days were better. Who wouldn’t want to go on adventure treasure hunts (photo: Duncan and I deciphering one of Daddy’s clues) that led us to play in the muddy tidal flats or tramp through the countryside? And the sheer joy that Duncan brings to all these adventures is exhilarating.

Of course it was the west coast, and rained everyday for most of the day. Duncan wasn’t impressed by how wet he and I got on our hike and Cory found that he does really need wellies like the rest of us. But a break, just us, was exactly what we needed and everyone agrees that treasure is always worth seeking out.

+if you follow the link we write about meeting Neal the vet seven years ago. He told us to send him a postcard with just his name, occupation, and the island and promised it would find him. We did send him a Christmas card the next year and got a reply. It was very tempting to try to look him up again…


German Holiday

I want to have the time to write a long update about our trip to Germany – about how we were there over St. Nicholas Day and Duncan found his shoes filled with candy in the morning and then got a second lot of loot at Freya and Otto’s grandparents house where St. Nicholas had made another stop for them. I should write about the carollers that came by that evening, singing for more candy too, as Duncan was absolutely fascinated.

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St. Nicholas Day Carollers

Or I could write about Duncan and Freya’s reunion. After six months it was as if no time had past – except that the kids are now talking and had long involved conversations – each in their own language. They even had a date, unfortunately chaperoned.

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Duncan taking Freya out for a drink.

And of course we were there for Otto’s baptism, which was very special. He saved us all from getting too emotional though by filling his nappy approximately three minutes before he was christened with a very liquidy mix. First time in my life I’ve had poo leaking into my hands that I wasn’t genetically related to! I also managed to let Otto splash in the baptismal font, getting enough water on himself that in the pictures you might be able to believe that the big wet mark on his leg is just holy water. Poo notwithstanding, it was a very special thing to be there with him for his baptism and we know have a good story for his wedding (“remember the first time you stood up at the altar?”).

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My Godson Otto!

But really this brief text will have to do because we’re moving in 6 days (eek!) and haven’t started packing yet. We got home from Germany Monday and Cory went offshore Tuesday at 5:45am. He’s back now and we’ve got six days to pack the house, organize the move (movers are booked fortunately), and somehow manage to not have a complete panic attack.

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“No pictures! I’ll hold the camera for you…”


norway (bergen) 2007

We finally made it to the continent as a family – after two and a half years of living just next door. The fact that it was a business trip to Norway was kicker – I had to go and it was somewhere that we’d both always wanted to visit. And wow – with perfect weather and Duncan still strollerable – how could we not?

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Bergen is an amazing city, nestled in between mountains with tiny streets full of slanting wooden houses. We found a great coffee shop on this street and Cory visited it daily in search of energy (this week was also a great role reversal as it’s the first time Cory’s been on sole parenting duty for multiple days).

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I love this fountain – it’s the perfect little boy look of horror!

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And just across from it, the view over the lake and up the hillside.

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As gorgeous and atmospheric as the city is, the heart is the old waterfront, Bryggen where the wooden warehouses dating back to the Hanseatic League form a warren of wood. They burned down in 1702 but were rebuilt on the same foundations in the same form. Every postcard has the same picture of the front of the buildings (see the link), but I prefer the view from inside, where they show far more character and originality.

There’s a cute gallery here too selling decently affordable art (prints) of distinctly local scenes. We decided to follow Don and Pat’s example (they’ve bought art showing a local landscape from every city they’ve visited – and that’s not a small set) and picked up a lovely print in bold blues. Whether it’ll adorn Duncan’s room or the hall is up for discussion…

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One of my colleagues got more excited by some (perhaps more authentic?) other art, found on a building near the fast ferry terminal.

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And finally me, excited to bits on Friday that I’d actually have a whole day in Bergen on Saturday with my family. Cory and Duncan did a ton of exploring while I was working and some mornings I was very jealous…
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A week in the Lakes

The old adage about travelling, bring half the clothes and twice the money, doesn’t hold true with a baby. Bring as many baby clothes as you can stuff in the bag! Because they’ll use them all.

We started the trip at 6am, leaving Aberdeen with a sleepy but fed baby. He slept all the way past Glasgow, which was good as we hadn’t realized that nothing would be open for such a long part of our trip. After our last driving vacation, we were worried about travelling too far in the car, but things went very smoothly and we actually had to kill time before arriving at the apartment just after lunch. Seeing my parents again after three months was a huge treat, and watching Duncan take to them was fantastic.

The week was mostly spent just sucking up the atmosphere and unwinding, with our big touristy activity being a visit to Blackwell House, which was stunning. Taking turns to tour the house (because touring anything with a wriggling worm in your arms is less than ideal) meant we could all take the time to let the house soak in.

I still have a hard time with the concept of class. It seems unreal that some people could have enough money to build homes like Blackwell. I ‘get’ how different salaries lead to different buying power, but I just can’t fathom the upper end of the scale, where inherited money (or huge city bonuses in the financial sector) propel some into lifestyles that seem like fantasy. Most of the castles and mansions you see support my confusion. The scales and styles are so unreal that it’s impossible to imagine yourself living there. But this house (which as my mother said “was a house she’d love to visit”, as she, like me, could never fathom being wealthy enough to own it) seemed very livable. And many of the gorgeous features, especially the tiled fireplaces, were so perfect that they would be scale-downable. Papa’s planning to redo the fireplace in my parent’s living room and I know he took some careful mental notes.

Other holiday highlights included walking, eating well deserved pub lunches, and having lazy mornings (that still started at 5:30 am – Duncan’s internal clock is cruel sometimes). Saying too much about the walking seems superfluous after the pictures – we realize we were extremely lucky with the weather. Cory did catch a strange flu bug while we were away, so our plans to leave Duncan with Nana and Papa for a day to do a real hike never materialized, but even our little walks were inspiring.

My only disappointment with the Lakes, which is really just a quibble, was the shopping. Endless outdoor equipment stores are fine, if a tad boring and repetitive, but it was the lack of shops selling original things, whether pottery, art, crafts, or just random oddities that disappointed. Surely there’s got to be a market there for more than Peter Rabbit tourist tat and fleece jumpers? Cory and I had a lovely ‘date’ exploring Grasmere by ourselves without me buying more than a couple of books, which was not my plan. (As we were eating lunch, I realized I felt like we were incognito – no one in the restaurant knew that I was Duncan’s mother. So much of my off-work identity is tied up in motherhood that to be without D felt almost sneaky.)

Our last day of the trip was in Carlisle, where I (once again, Cory rolls his eyes whenever this happens) fell in love with the medieval city centre. The guildhouse museum and cathedral are enhanting places and the pedestrian areas were completely charming. I’m very bad at falling in love with wherever I am at the moment and wanting to move there – and since we’d low expectations of Carlisle, it hit me hard. It was Nana’s 49th birthday, or something like that, so we celebrated with a pizza lunch and then spent the rest of the time trying not to be sad – the only bad part of the whole trip was saying goodbye at the end.

(photos: Buttermere Lake & packing for the trip).
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Glen Esk and Loch Lee

The rain this morning is pooling on my patio, huge heavy drops, and is probably leaking into the eaves upstairs but yesterday was glorious, with deep blue skies and crisp fall air. We spend the afternoon exploring Glen Esk, just west off the road joining Fettercairn and Edzell.

Duncan found himself buckled in again into his stroller (now extra cosy with his fleecy sleeping bag) and we walked a few kilometers up the glen past Invermark Castle, which was built around 1526, and now sits as a ruined tower house. It’s impressively tall for its girth, and with no windows would have been quite dark inside. The doorway is up on the first floor (the second floor in Canadian convention), so there’s no entrance from ground level. Everytime I see these tower houses, which are dotted everywhere in the local landscape, I’m amazed at how unsettled life must have been to require people to live in such inhospitable dwellings.

There’s a ruined church at Loch Lee dating back to 1645, a long narrow building surrounded by old graves and walled off from the loch itself. I’ve never seen a more beautiful setting, with the glen narrowing into steep hills right at this point. We walked a bit further along the loch and the second picture gives a good idea of the setting.

Of course as much as every cloud has a silver lining, every sunny day has it’s trials, and for Duncan it was just too bright. On the walk in we had to hide him from the sun with a muslin square for a sunshade, but at least he could take in the view on the way back. This kid is going to be so spoiled by beautiful scenery that it’ll take a lot to impress him as an adult…
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Duncan’s 1st holiday -Yorkshire 2006

Way back pre-Duncan Elspeth and Tim invited us down to Yorkshire for a weekend vacation this month. They’d come up to visit us back when I was making funny shadows back in April/May and we knew that they’d be understanding people to share the stress of travelling with our boy for the first time.

Sure enough, driving from Aberdeen to south of Newcastle turned out to be a long, loud trip. The deafening rain gave Duncan quite a scare, so between the rain, Duncan screaming, and Cory and I madly singing “the ants go marching two by two…” it wasn’t exactly a peaceful drive. But as soon as we crossed into Yorkshire, the rain that had been our constant companion all day started letting up and when we pulled into the village with Elspeth’s parents live, the sun was shining and it felt like we’d entered into heaven. Or maybe that was the glass of wine waiting for me when we arrived… I’m not totally sure.

The next morning was equally bright and we started our day by hiking in Aysgarth Falls, thoughtfully researched by Elspeth and Tim as a buggy-friendly hike. Duncan loves his buggy, we all love being outside, and blue skies make everything seem wonderful so it was an amazing start to the day, and a huge contrast to the day before.

No trip to Wensleydale, where we were staying, would be complete without visiting the Wensleydale Creamery, best known for being Wallace’s (of Wallace and Gromit fame) favourite cheese. For a breast-feeding mum, this is far better than a distillery, as I ate about a pound of cheese in the tasting room and then more at the cafe for lunch. Surpisingly, I didn’t gain any weight on this vacation. While Duncan wasn’t too interested in the factory, we enjoyed it, especially the lovely cheese-oriented lunch.

(Talking to my parents afterwards, I’ve found out that my Gram loved Wensleydale cheese and would go to great lengths to obtain some when she lived on the shore of Lake Huron in Ontario, so maybe my enjoyment is genetically programmed… )

While the fact that England doesn’t yet have a smoking ban sucks (we hit rock bottom on the way down when we considered stopping the car and taking a break with our screaming baby and we realized that pubs are still smoky and therefore not baby-friendly places (and it was after 5pm so nothing else was open)), we still found plenty to do in Yorkshire, visiting a rope-making factory and shopping in Hawes.

But no one can really visit the dales without checking out a pub, so we spent a happy hour on the patio of one in Reeth, enjoying a half pint while Duncan had his dinner. Happy baby, happy parents, perfect day! Elspeth and Tim really showed us an amazing glimpse of England, a much prettier, enjoyable glimpse than my business trips had so far provided.

It’s hard to top a perfect day, but exploring a ruined abbey in an atmospheric mist comes pretty close, especially when followed by crumpets with chutney and wensleydale cheese. (Thanks to Tim, we now know what crumpets actually are, and we picked some up at the grocery store to have at home.) I like a region where there’s tea shops and pubs on every village corner. Of course, part of the reason there’s pubs on every corner is the fabulous local real ales. We stopped at the Black Sheep Brewery in Masham for lunch before having to head off for the the long drive home.

On the way back from Yorkshire we stopped for a couple nights in the Borders, thereby making the return trip quite a bit more relaxed that the way down, visiting favourite places from our vacation last year. Duncan’s fine for two, 2-hour sessions in the car, but any more than that is asking for trouble. We’d wanted to stop off at Hadrian’s Wall, but by the time we got there it was already 4pm and Duncan was feisty, so after a quick glimpse of the wall from the side of the road, we headed up to our B&B for the night, just outside of Jedburgh. Normally we stay in 3 star places, but due to a Vintage Car Rally that weekend, all the budget B&Bs were booked up. So, lucky us got to splurge and enjoy ourselves at the Palace Country House B&B. I’ve posted a picture of the room because it was that impressive!

On our last day of vacation we explored Smailholm tower and took in the views from the top.This is Sir Walter Scott country, and they don’t let you forget it! To complete our literary day, we stopped off at Traquair House, now known for it’s brewery as well as it’s role in Scott’s novel Waverley. After a quiet night in Lilliesleaf, including a trip to the local pub, we headed back for home, utterly exhausted.
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border abbeys

This weekend was our first official Scottish vacation, we’d four days off work (thanks to an Aberdeen public holiday). So, ready to explore, we drove down to the borders for a camping vacation. Camping is different in Britain than in Canada (but I knew that from before, camping with Elspeth, Chris and Sian), it’s less of a destination, and more of a cheap way of travelling. We spent three nights in fields listening to cattle and sheep – but it was three very affordable nights away from home in fabulous places!

The first two pictures are the ruins of Jedburgh Abbey, one of the ruins we visited with our Historic Scotland Borders Pass. Walking through the arches in the early morning, before any other tourists had arrived, was pretty much magic.

Of course the leaderfoot bridge is pretty cool too, and looks as good in real life as in the tourist brochure.

No trip to the Borders would be complete without some sort of Sir Walter Scott reference – so we opted for a trip to “Scott’s view”. The story goes that he loved this spot so much that his horse stopped here out of habit when pulling Scott’s casket to his grave in Dryburgh Abbey.

I’d say the best tourist attraction is probably Melrose Abbey though. It’s fabulous audio tour really gave us an insight into what all these ruined buildings actually were used for. From a construction point of view, we really enjoyed the display on masonry (not the organization but the skill) at Jedburgh & would recommend it as well.

But we didn’t just take in architecture, it’s just the subject of most of our pictures. We spent time eating in lovely restaurants, drinking in cosy pubs, buying wool sweaters (and dreaming about being able to afford their cashmere versions [1 & 2]), and reading trashy magazines. Vacation doesn’t happen often enough…
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fiddichside inn

The Fiddichside Inn has been run by Dorothy and Joe, and before that by Dorothy’s mother, for over 70 years. The total size of the bar is what you see here, when there are 6 customers the place is full.

There’s always a warm fire (in December at least) that Dorothy keeps going with buckets of coal. Oscar and Brian (see below) drop by with their dogs each evening and chat.

We visited there on our honeymoon and then went back last month. It was wonderful to see that things were still exactly the same. Dorothy chatted with Cory about her time overseas in WWII, Joe had a secret stash of treats for the dogs, and beer was bought in rounds, a community as well as a pub.

Dorothy and Joe live in the Inn, and if you’re the first to arrive each evening, they’ll hear you come in and leave their living room adjoining the bar and come to serve you. The TV is on in the next room, often Joe’s football, and it can feel rather awkward to drag them out to stand on their feet to help us, since they’re over 80 and should be entitled to evenings off. But you get the feeling that they do love this place & the people that live there. They travelled around the world during the war, but came home to a place that’s easy to fall in love with.

In our two nights in Craigellachie on this past trip, we were struggling with our decision to move to Aberdeen or to stay in Canada. We’d just found out that I’d been offered the job, and were so overwhelmed that deciding if we wanted it seemed impossible. In a pub like this, everyone weighed in with opinions. One opinion was that if we weren’t 100% sure, we’d end up staying in Canada, and that evening, tired and confused, we tended to believe it. However, it turned out Joe was right, he simply stated “you’ll be back”, and we’re looking forward to being there this year.

It will be lovely this spring to sit down by the River Fiddich on the patio and enjoy the quiet views. We’re looking forward to telling Joe that he was right, and we did opt for adventure. In such a timeless place it seems like nothing will ever change, but of course it does. I’m just hoping that Fiddichside wont change too much.

(Congrats to Cory’s cousin & her husband on the arrival of their beautiful baby boy on the 7th. We’re thrilled and looking forward to meeting the newest member of Cory’s extended family, especially since his parents, Lindsay and Michael, are two of our favourite people.)
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