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Oban: Day 3

I realized this afternoon that this is one of those vacations that where I’m so interested in experiencing the area I’m visiting and seeing the sights that I haven’t slept in once. I reminded myself today that I was in a land of mystery and faeries, a land I’ve dreamed of visiting since I was little, and that I should worry less about when the ferry would be leaving, and whether I would miss the next bus (or catch it in time and be sick during the long ride), etc., and try to relax and enjoy myself a little.

My first day here, I booked a day trip out through the Isle of Mull to Iona, where I tried in vain to find a place to stay the night. In the end it was better this way; all the moving around every other night to sleep in a different bed would hardly allow me to relax.

miles and miles of this stuff

I woke up early around 730, got dressed and sat down for breakfast by 8: bacon, mushrooms and a poached egg with tea.  I packed up everything I might need into my ugly green bag (umbrella, mittens, Kindle, purse, camera), and headed down the hill toward the dock, enjoying the view of the bay and the moss and flower covered stone walls on either side of the road.  This day trip really solidified how out of place I feel here. Everyone else on the ferry was at least twenty years my senior with the exception of one Asian tourist. How did all of the info I read about this fail to mention that I would be surrounded by a bunch of what my dad used to teasingly call “blue-hairs?”  It was a little depressing.  I felt like there was someplace else I should be, where all the other young people were spending their vacation.

The ferry to Mull looked like a small yacht on the outside, but had a modest interior with large windows for watching misty islands glide until we arrived at our bus on the Isle of Mull.  About 80 minutes of funny and informative bus driving later, we arrived at the port where we boarded a ferry to Iona.

The only stuff to see on this very small, but enchanted island was the ruins of the nunnery, which are beautifully kept in a state between overgrown and manicured.  It gave the sense of something abandoned but still loved, like parents while their kids are at college.

The monk’s abbey, while obviously very old, was decidedly not in ruins, and something to behold. You can feel its age as you enter the too-small front door into its dark grey interior. A few of the stones in the floor had crosses carved into them to mark where restorers had discovered the graves of previous monks. There’s a strange little face on an arch that appears to be howling in pain, which people call the face of punishment, or something like that, and is said to possibly a self-portrait of the architect.  There are some of the earliest depictions of Adam and Eve (both before and after their expulsion)  at the top of some pilasters.  Quite unexpectedly, there are also two sarcophagi covered with supine burial sculptures of the Duke and Duchess of Argyle, who did a great deal to help restore the church, and paid people in food to build walls along the only road in Iona to help keep people from starving to death during the potato blight of 1846-7.  For their generosity they are, to this day, very well-loved across the country.  I was shocked to find that their sculptures are carved out of Carrara marble, the most sought-after sculpture marble in the world, both ancient and present. Both sculptures are expertly carved, with fine detail on the clothing; the Duke’s collar is so thin that it’s translucent. The art historian in me was desperate to get a closer look, but keeping people out of arms reach had perfectly preserved them thus far; I had to be satisfied with their pristine condition, and hope to find a book on the sarcophagi with lots of pictures.

The adjoining courtyard had secured to its inner walls the tombstone coverings of various old “Mc” families, all decorated with a relief carving of an intricate pattern in the Gaelic style.  My favorite ones had swords.

fluffy, friendly, filthy

The gift shop held nothing of interest except a few books and post cards with local wildlife on them.  I’m pretty bummed I didn’t get to see an otter today, but we did get to see a white tipped (tailed?) eagle circling way above us, and a red deer stopped in a field not far away, listening for something in the opposite direction, expertly ignoring us.  On the way back to the ferry from Iona to Mull, I saw a woman talking to a sheep and petting it through a fence while her husband chuckled and her son looked mortified.  I said, “Making friends?”  She told me about her love for sheep, while her teenage son chimed in here and there: “Yeah, she’s got a thing for sheep.  It’s weird.”  I asked if she wanted a photo with one, since it was so friendly, and instead she got her son to take a photo of me with the sheep. Score!

he looked like a sleepy little fox

On the ferry back home, I intentionally sat next to a couple with a very cute dog with a fondness for potato chips, who played with me by pretending to attack my hand, then made a real effort of jumping up onto the seat next to me and promptly fell asleep.

Finally back home, I forced myself to walk past the fish and chip place that I’d eaten at both days before, and went to a neighboring pub for dinner instead.  I nearly choked on the steak pie, mashed potatoes and peas; they were so tasty and I was starved (I’d only nibbled on half a scone on Iona for fear it would come right back up on the bus).  I washed it all down with an unremarkable half-pint of the local amber, and started a leisurely walk around the bay and up the hill towards home.

my favorite one-pound coin, and my favorite French detective

And here I sit, exhausted and full of meat and potatoes with a half-eaten cheese scone and a pair of sadly unused mittens in my bag.  I’ve put in another DVD, this time it’s Hercule Poirot, a favorite of Boyfriend’s and mine, and something I used to watch with my mom all the time. I can’t wait to finish writing this and start watching, then go to sleep in my soft, warm bed.

I can already feel myself starting to pointlessly stress about tomorrow’s travel arrangements.  But I have my train ticket to Glasgow, and it doesn’t leave until 1215, which gives me plenty of time to grab some oysters at that little green shack, enjoy the view for the last time, and grab a good seat next to a window.  I can’t believe I’m going to see Scottish Friend tomorrow!  So exciting!  And then I’m back to Dublin for a day (maybe I’ll go visit that castle in Swords), sleep at the hotel near the airport, and then home.  I’m getting excited to go home, to see my roommates, to sleep in on the weekend, to stop worrying about how I’ll get from here to there.  Traveling is fun but mentally and physically exhausting.  And then grad school starts Monday!  Gah!

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Oban: Day 2

This morning I ordered way too much breakfast. The B&B where I was staying had a menu with lots of delicious sounding breakfast options: sausage, fried/poached egg, bacon, tomato, mushroom, porridge, toast, tea, cereal, etc. The rule of serving size in the US is thus: the nicer the establishment, the smaller the portion. Since the B&B was so nice, I figured I should just check the box next to just about everything to ensure that I got enough to eat. Not my best idea ever.

While I ate, I heard a loud “mow!” emanate from the kitchen, with a quick “How did you get in here?” in reply.  That conversation went back and forth as I smiled to myself, quietly enjoying the universal ridiculousness of cats, alone in the small dining room in the Highlands of Scotland.

the clouds fled

Back in my room, I grabbed my coat, purse, and camera, and started out down the hill toward the town.  The day was glorious.  No one could have asked for a more perfect balance of sunshine, offshore breeze and drifting, puffy clouds.  I passed an older man with a small dog, who said (with a fabulous accent), “Lovely mornin’ isn’t it?”  I agreed heartily, and he continued up the hill, singing softly to himself.

I walked to the dock, and wandered around until I got up the nerve to ask a local where I could find the ferry to Kerrera.  The man said, “That’s the one,” and pointed out a very small boat that was just pulling away.  I would have to wait another hour until the next one.  I meandered around town, did some window shopping for souvenirs for friends and family, bought a ticket for the Oban whiskey distillery tour, and sat in the sun until the 11am ferry arrived.

As we neared the island, the man sitting next to me on the boat pointed out a house with grass on the roof.  “Women’s work, ” he said.  His rather overweight friend looked down at him and said, “Such cheuvanism!”  The seated man joked, “The man trims the lawn, the woman trims the roof.”  I said, “That’s because the men are so fat, they’d break the roof.”  He indicated toward his friend as an example and laughed.  His largish friend gave his body a glance, and said with a straight face, “Specimen. Perfect specimen.”

next time i’ll have to walk to the castle

At Kerrera we were left to ourselves. I hiked for about an hour and a half, first to the monument (a small obelisk on a high spot on the northeastern end of the island), along a low cliff, down and then up a short steep rise to the top of the hill.  There I rested on the roof of a run down brick and mortar shack until I got my breath back, and cooled off a bit.  I couldn’t find where the seals are said to be, so I went down the other side of the hill, along a path peppered on both sides by little yellow wild flowers. I stepped off the path to step over a barbed wire fence to get back to the dock.  I waited about a half hour for the Nessie Hunter to arrive. There were only two of us on the ride back. I bet everyone else was hiking or at the cafe.

I arrived Back in town just in time to catch the beginning of a very small parade of bag pipers in traditional regalia playing the tune we all think of when we hear bag pipes in our heads. That was quite a treat.  Their outfits (costumes? uniforms?) included a kilt with a pin designating their clan, and a small knife tucked into their right socks.  My favorite member of the parade was a very old man, hunched over but still marching in time, and playing his pipes.

I went back to the seafood shack for more oysters (delicious), and a rather bland prawn sandwich.  I had spotted a striking tartan pin in the window of a jewelry shop, and headed back to see how much it was.  Blah, 88 Pounds!  I told the lady I’d have to think about it, and went to find some ice cream.  It was a beautiful summer day in Oban, and there was a little street fair of some kind at the round-about in front of the train station.  All the kids had painted faces and very tempting ice cream; I couldn’t resist.

Cappuccino gelato cooled me off some more (a boy with a Spiderman painted face stood behind me in line and was very proud when I complimented him), and I realized that a tartan pin was something I had been looking for the whole trip.  So I decided to get it (it’s the only souvenir I’ve bought for myself) and wear it on my coat when I got home.

The whiskey distillery had some of the best smelling hand soap I’ve ever used in a semi-public bathroom, but their whiskey tastes like rust and sand. And it’s pretty expensive, so I’ll just count myself lucky that I’ve dodged a costly indulgence. At least it came with a free glass, which I plan on giving to Scottish Friend when I visit her after I leave Oban.

whitefish bait is apparently small, and highly judgmental. it watched me.

Dinner was more fish and chips at the same place, seated indoors at the restaurant this time, then it was back home to relax for a couple of hours until around 830, at which point I forced myself to get my shoes and coat on, and head back out to a bar that hosts live traditional Scottish music and dancing for the whole group (I wasn’t in the mood to go out dancing without a partner, and I’m still missing Boyfriend a lot, but when am I going to be in Scotland again?). I got there a little before halfway through the show, and volunteered for the first group dance I heard mention of. It was fun; the women run around the line of men and vice versa, then the first couple facing each other joins hands and prances down the middle of the isle (picture a traditional Scottish version of Soul Train) to rest at the end, at which point the woman go running hand in hand round the men again and it all starts over with everyone clapping and smiling.  A good time to be had by all (except that I was the only American- everyone else was German or French, so I couldn’t follow conversations, it I felt surprisingly isolated in a room full of people).  I drank a Strongbow while the music and dancing continued, and immediately came to the conclusion that the Irish Uilleann pipes are better than bagpipes; sweeter to listen to, and not so ear piercingly loud.

I passed a bar on my way back home that was loud a packed, and seemingly the only place open past 10 in the whole town.  I was a little hungry (for food and human interaction), but walked by without going in (the ladies were very stylish, and I was in day-old clothes, jeans and sneakers), and headed up the road toward the B&B, admiring the first view I’ve had of he bay in the darkening twilight.

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Edinburgh to Oban

Full disclosure: Once Boyfriend left with his laptop, I didn’t have anything to upload my blog from every night, so I kept notes on what happened each day on my iPhone to ensure that my memory didn’t fail me or start making stuff up.  Thus, the following posts are written at the end of each day in Oban.  After that I stopped taking notes, and must pull from my still-fresh memories.

I woke up when Boyfriend did, a little earlier than my alarm for the bus so he could make it to the airport on time to head back home while I made my way west across the country to Oban on the opposite shore.  I didn’t cry when he left (I cried a little after), but we were sad to part.  I didn’t have an appetite for the croissants and honey we bought for breakfast.  The tea we had previously enjoyed so much tasted bland and dirty; I poured it out.  I brushed my teeth, dressed, packed up my things and left without a backwards glance.

The 29 bus took me to the city center, as usual, and I walked to the train Waverly station.  A very nice woman helped me buy a train ticket to Glasgow, and a return ticket from there to Oban.  the Dublin airport and Glasgow train station both have a little restaurant called The Upper Crust that features delicious sandwiches on baguettes.  I got one with bacon, spinach, cranberry and brie.  I wish we had these in the U.S.  I made plans to eat there when I flew out of Ireland at the end of my trip.

i want to go to there

On the train, I sat at a table with an older woman who read a newspaper with an enormous photo of a topless woman with startling nonchalance.  I was duly impressed.  The train to Glasgow was a quiet, steady, and quick.  I couldn’t believe how much countryside we passed on our way.  The woman at my table glanced up whenever I whipped out my phone to take a photo of yet another unremarkable field.

The trip to Oban was three hours plus, and full of beauty.  I was astonished at the greenery, the seemingly endless lakes with houses peppered around the shores (or not), the fly fisher, the two men on a row boat that I saw in both directions, the sheep (!), the eternal hills capped with mist and mystery.  This was my first taste of the Scottish highlands.

I arrived at the end of the line at a very small (and totally unmanned) train station in Oban, and was directed by a woman working her a newsstand in the station to the tourist office across the bay.  As I walked the gentle arc around the pebbled shore below, I couldn’t stop staring at the water, the islands off shore that looked so close I lifted my hand to gauge the distance, just in case I really could touch them.   Happy people, families and (mostly German with a few French) tourists, chatted as they passed; a few benches looking out toward the islands were quietly occupied by silent, gazing groups of two or three people.  I looked to my right, saw a blue and white sign for fish and chips, and made a note to settle into my bed and breakfast, then head straight back to town, get some fish, and find one of those lovely benches to stare into the distance, relax my bones, and taunt the seagulls with my catch.

The Tourist Information (TI) shop was surprisingly busy.  Apparently Oban is known by local tourists (that is, those visiting from Ireland or the UK) as a good vacation spot for the older generation.  Let me say that again: the older generation.  Everywhere I went, every tour I participated in, every shop I visited, I was the youngest person there by a couple of decades (at least, usually more).  This surprising age gap made me feel especially lonely and out of place, especially without Boyfriend.  Everything was so beautiful, I wanted so badly to share it with him.

bright, soft, and welcoming

A rather handsome boy at the TI (he couldn’t have been more than 18, I’m just terrible) said that he lived right in the neighborhood of my B&B, which shouldn’t have surprised me at all since the town is so small.  I took a cab for just a few pounds with captivating views of the bay to my right on the way up the hill, and was shown to my room by the mother of the woman with whom I had corresponded via email to book the room.  A large window on one wall let in plenty of light, and gave me a view of the backyard (clotheslines mostly).  There was a stack of mail-order DVDs on the sill, out of which I pulled an episode of Hercule Poirot (Four and Twenty Blackbirds), and the second half of the Pride & Prejudice with Colin Firth (the first half was nowhere to be found).  My evening entertainment was shaping right up.  The tea caddy had a set of real china: one cup, one pot, and a different little package of cookies each day.  I dumped my stuff unceremoniously on the bed, changed into the stylish and very comfortable blue sneakers I had bought just for the trip, and headed back to town via the one and only road down the hill (featuring more gorgeous views of the town on the water).

on my appropriately decorated iphone case

I got my fish and chips, and sat down next to a solitary woman on a bench facing the water, just like I’d planned, and fought to keep a particularly brave seagull away from my dinner.  I signed up for a ferry to the Isle of Mull, a bus ride across the island narrated in both directions by a very friendly and funny driver, ferry to Iona, self-guided tour of the ruined abbey and still-standing monastery on Iona, and then all in reverse.  I decided I should wear myself out after sitting all day, and had a long walk around town, exploring a couple of blocks inland from the water to find some cafes and churches (all closed), except for the church at the end of the bay, which was plain inside and out, and had a lesson for children going on when I stepped in.  I took a few steps down from the sidewalk onto the rocky shore for a short way, and picked up some shells (where did I put those?).

I walked back up the hill to the B&B around 8, took of my shoes, read my Kindle, showered, popped Pride & Prejudice into the DVD player and crawled into bed to relax and hate Mr. Wickam.  Boyfriend called via Skype about midway through; it was nice to see his face.

The bed was the softest, warmest I had slept in during the whole trip, and I slept soundly in the quiet B&B near the top of the hill overlooking the bay in Oban.

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