Epic European Cycle

2015-06-29 : Castling and Perth with Dawn
Today was a "storming the castles" day. We didn't really storm, but we saw two great castles. First, we had to drive from Fort William to Doune, which was about 2.5 hours, and meant we didn't reach our first castle until close to lunch time.

Dawn had chosen Doune Castle as a "must see" because it is where Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed. Great choice, and great castle! It's one of the really old ones that I find so fascinating, and there was a LOT to see in the various rooms and chambers and such.

Next we were on to Lochleven Castle, which Dawn had chosen as a "must see" because it is a castle on an island, and is where Mary Queen of Scots was held prisoner for a year. The island is bigger now, but at the time, the loch pretty much came right up to the castle. This one was even older than Doune, and was less restored than Doune. It was amazing to explore and try to imagine what it had been like when it was in use. Another awesome choice!
From Brent: Doune Castle was pretty good too. When we got there I had a look from the outside and was ready to give it a miss. It doesn't look like that large or impressive a structure and it's partially ruined as well, but the admission price included an Audio-tour device and it turned out that there was really quite a lot to see once inside. The audio-tour really added to the experience. I would recommend this castle for a visit, and if you do visit be sure to go to the store-room in the gatehouse opposite the ticket office. Go all the way to the bottom and walk across the floor. It feels really weird. I was standing and rocking from foot to foot when some people came to the door and stared at me. I had to convince them to try it. Soon we had about 5 people standing in the room, rocking from foot to foot.

2015-06-30 : Sight-Seeing in Scotland with Dawn
I'm so angry right now. Second absolutely WRETCHED experience with AirBnB. I will never book through them again. We've got one remaining reservation through them, but after that. Never. Again.

The experience with Alencon was terrible. What happened this time was, I booked us in for three nights to stay at a place in Edinburgh, close to where Dawn is booked to stay.

On the 25th, I e-mailed the person and asked her what time we should plan to arrive. I received no response. So, this morning, before we left our place in Perth, I messaged her again asking what time to arrive. Then, we left and I didn't have WiFi all day. I got on e-mail at 4PM, well before what I would consider "losing your reservation/money" time. By that time, she had messaged me three times, and when she hadn't heard from me by 3PM, she left town, "assuming that I'd changed my mind".

I have now been billed for two of the three nights we were supposed to stay with this person, and we've been left with no place to stay. Well, ok, that's not exactly true. Dawn had booked herself a "room" at "Stay Central", just down the street. When she checked in, she discovered that her "room" was actually a mountain chalet-style "dorm" with bunkbeds - enough to sleep nine people (three lower bunks hold two people each, three upper bunks hold one each). So, we're "squatting" in Dawn's room. Thank goodness Dawn booked the mountain chalet-style "dorm"!!
Today was a very eventful sight-seeing day. We started off by driving to St. Andrew's. First, we saw St. Andrew's Castle, which had two things that I found absolutely fascinating:
- The mine and countermine of the Seige when the attackers tunnelled under the castle to try and blow it up, and the castle folk dug a countermine and intercepted them, just by listening for where they were digging. Amazing.
- The "bottle dungeon" where the lower class prisoners were kept... basically in a bottle-shaped hole in the ground with a hole and tunnel above it to get in and out.

Then, we moved on to St. Andrew's Cathedral. At the museum for the Cathedral, we turned in our tickies for some tokens to go up St. Rule's Tower, and went up the scary narrow 156 steps to the top of the 100 foot tower.

When we were done at St. Andrew's, we drove to Edinburgh. We decided to find Dawn's hotel first, and it was then that I discovered that I'd been royally screwed over by my Air BnB "host". But that's documented in a separate entry. Once I got over my heart attack with that and we had a backup plan in place, we quickly set out to the Royal Mile. We booked tickets for the 8:30PM tour of the Real Mary King's Close, and then hustled on over to Camera Obscura. We could have spent a whole lot more time playing in Camera Obscura, especially the mirror maze and the swirling hallway of vertigo (I can't remember the proper name for it). There was also a crazy "repeater" video camera that I couldn't get enough of. It would randomly video whatever was in front of it, then play back just a couple of seconds of it in a twitchy "Max Headroom" style GIF thing. Anyway, Camera Obscura closed at 7:00, so we hustled out for some dinner, and then over to the Real Mary King's Close.

I had gone to the Real Mary King's Close 7.5 years ago, the first time I came to Scotland, and I thought it was really cool then. It is even cooler now. They've learned a lot since then, updated their information and greatly improved the tour. What a fascinating place.
From Brent: St. Andrew's Castle was cool for a couple of reasons. The castle is in ruins but part that still remains is a "Bottle Dungeon." I'd never heard of such a thing but it's easy to see were it gets the name. It's shaped like a milk bottle, dug 23 feet down into the rock under the castle. The only entrance/exit is through the neck of the bottle and up through the mouth. That lands you in a small room from which you have to get through 2 doors and up 2 sets of narrow stairs to reach the inner courtyard of the castle. It's the definition of "No way out."

The other cool thing is the result of some siege engineering. When the castle was under siege the attackers decided to tunnel under the walls and set an explosive charge to blow them away. The defenders knew what was coming so dug a counter-mine to intercept the attacking tunnel. All they had was the ability to listen for mining sounds and their best guess. The defenders were successful, intercepted the attackers and battled them off underground. The tunnels are still there and I climbed down through them. Uber-cool.
From Brent: In Edinburgh we also had a few hassles, but nothing fatal.

Rhonda's friend, Dawn, had joined us for part of the trip and booked herself a room in a hostel. Rhonda had responded by booking us a place to stay nearby through Air B&B. When we got to Edinburgh, and Dawn was checking in to the hostel, Rhonda contacted the Air B&B host that we were to be staying with only to find that she had thought it too much trouble to wait past 3:00PM for her guests to show up. When Rhonda called her at 6:00PM she was in Glasgow, on the other side of the country. She offered to provide us with a phone number for a hostel. Rhonda had already paid Air B&B for 3 nights in advance and was some-pissed!

But things have a way of turning out (mostly). Dawn had booked a private room at a hostel that doesn't really have private rooms. Mistaking Pounds for Euros she had just paid the up-charge for all of the beds in a room so she wouldn't have to sleep with strangers. She came back to the office after seeing her room and was a bit confused. The room was huge. Two toilets, 2 showers, 3 sinks, a dart board, a ping-pong table, couches, tables and chairs, board games, 7 TV's, (That's no typo. Seven TV's) video game console, fridge full of booze and beds to sleep 9 people. She had the room booked for 2 nights so Rhonda and I stayed with her.

Also, after almost a week of wrangling, Rhonda got a refund - but no apology- from Air B&B. So things have a way of working out (mostly).

2015-07-01 : Edinburgh Castle with Dawn
After several days of running running running hither and thither, we took a more relaxed day today. We didn't set any alarms to get up, and then just devoted the day to exploring Edinburgh Castle. It is an active castle, with a couple of buildings still in use today, so very different from the ruins we've been visiting. And super busy. One thing that surprised us was that we weren't "allowed" to leave and then come back. We had gone in the morning and decided to leave for lunch and then return. I assumed that with our "Explorer Passes", in and out privileges were a given. Dawn stopped and asked on our way out anyway, and was told we were fine. When we got back to the queue after lunch, though, the young fella there informed us that we were NOT, in fact, supposed to go out and then back in on the same "Explorer Pass". It seems like one of the dumbest things I've ever heard of. Our best guess as to why it is, is to make sure that people don't "share" their "Explorer Passes". That made sense, but it would make more sense to stamp people's hands or something for re-entry.
From Brent: At Edinburgh Castle we learned a bit of history. After the death of Elisabith I, the last of the Tudors, there was a bit of a problem about who should be the new king. It turned out that James IV, King of Scotland, was the closest living relative (the great-grandson of Henry VIII's sister), so he was offered the crown and became James I of England. And that, I am told, is how the kingdoms became united and England became a part of Scotland.

2015-07-02 : Edinburgh - Planning/Rest Day
And just like that, it's over. We all got up before 5AM today to leave Dawn's hostel-mountain-chalet to make sure she gets to her 8:20AM flight. We walked down to the car park... annnnnnnnnd... it's locked up. Uh-oh. We hadn't planned on that. I waited by the car entry while Dawn and Brent explored in either direction for a way in. Dawn found a way in... but thennnnnnnnnn... no way to get the car exit door open. Finally she got that sorted as well and she was on her way. Good thing we'd built in lots of slack time.

Brent and I walked up the street to see about getting into our hostel to dump our luggage off, but it is also locked up. So, we walked down the street to where I had located a Laundromat. The Laundromat opens at 8AM, so we at some yogurts on the park bench, and now we're enjoying a coffee in Starbuck's until 8:00.

I set aside today for chores and planning, and so far, it is on track. Yay!
We finished our planning and chores early today, so we climbed the hill at Holyrood Park up to the Salisbury Crags for a great view of Edinburgh and Edinburgh Castle. Calton Hill is kind of a weird hodge podge of stuff to see from Holyrood Park. I said it looked like a "wonders of the world" mini golf park. Brent said, "it's Scotland. It could be a full-sized 'wonders of the world' golf course."
We had lunch at Pancho Villa's Authentic Mexican restaurant. I haven't been tracking meals and restaurants on this trip, because I haven't really been wow'ed by anything... until now. The food at Pancho Villa's is AMAZING! We highly recommend this restaurant. It's on the Royal Mile, closer to the Holyroodhouse Palace end than the Edinburgh Castle end.

2015-07-03 : York
Before we left Edinburgh today, we walked up Calton Hill to have a look at what was up there. It was interesting. It's like every time Edinburgh wants to build a memorial of some kind, they default to putting it on that hill.
Before we left Canada, I ordered us some Brit Rail passes. They cost a little over £200 for unlimited train travel for four days out of 30 (from the first date used). When Dawn decided to come in to meet us and rented a car, I thought that we might not get our money's worth out of the passes. The first time we used them was just to get from Glasgow to Stirling to meet up with her, and if we'd paid directly for those tickets, they would have cost us only £8/ea. Yikes! That's not a very good deal! But today I calculated it out, and we will get about £100 ($200) benefit from the passes. Our train from Edinburgh to York would have been about £85. York to Waterloo would have been about £140, and Southampton to Heathrow would have been about £65. We'll be getting about £300 worth of travel for our £200 passes, saving about $200/ea by the time we're done. Yay! We could have done better if we'd had more longer journeys (like the York to Waterloo one) than we actually have, but this is good enough.
It had been about two days since I lodged my complaint with AirBnB about Caroline, who bailed on us at the last minute even though I had paid to stay three nights with her in Edinburgh, so I e-mailed them to follow up and find out when I'd hear back from them. When I got onto WiFi this morning, I had a message from Neil, supportive, and requesting supporting documentation for his investigation. Our stupid phone doesn't collect text messages into conversations, nor can we take any kind of screen shots, or forward messages on, so I had to take photos of the text messages with my camera. I made a nice little package for Neil, including messages sent through AirBnB, messages sent through e-mail, and text messages chronicling the conversations (which promptly ended as soon as I started asking her for my money back... grrrr). I am looking forward to hearing back from Neil and learning his assessment of the situation. He probably won't tell me Caroline's side of the story, but I'll be dying to know if she either (1) defends her position, or (2) tries to concoct a different story about how things went down. Probably I'll never know. Sigh.
I absolutely could not survive train travel without my PStyle. I have found it invaluable for dealing with peeing outside and peeing in nasty public toilets, but I could make do with squatting and hovering in those situations, if necessary. But, on a moving train, hovering is absolutely not an option. Thanks to the PStyle I can successfully and cleanly pee, in a nasty public toilet, on a moving train. Seriously. Best. Gear. Ever.
For the first two nights of our AirBnB fiasco, we bunked in with Dawn in her hostel, but then she went home and we had one more night to stay in Edinburgh. I booked us into Brodie's hostel with nary a suspicion that it could possibly be even worse than Paddy's Palace in Killarney. Well, I was wrong. Brodie's has made being a bad hostel an art form. They're a fair size, but their kitchen accommodates only four around a small table. All the chairs are flimsy and breaking. One of the fridges is completely full (not sure they follow through on their threat to clean it out regularly) and the other one is completely full and stinks. None of the faucets in the men's washroom work. Three of four faucets in the ladies' work. Only one of the showers work. There are mice in the kitchen - I saw one, and there is plenty of evidence that they're aware of it but do nothing about it (the graffiti on their kitchen table is essentially a "doodle shrine" to the mouse). Thankfully the room and the bed weren't bad, but we couldn't wait to get out of there.
I have been lamenting something that happens with frequent travel... the first time you encounter something, it seems amazing and cool. The more you encounter the same thing, the less novel, and more mundane, it becomes. The first time I came to York, I was blown away by some of the narrow streets, and fascinated by the walled city. Now that I've seen lots and lots of narrow streets, that's no big whoop anymore, and now that I've seen Derry, the York wall seems less fascinating and impressive somehow. I've been following Beth's posts on Facebook. She's currently in London - we meet up tomorrow for our shared holiday. She's never been to the UK before and she's making all kinds of neat discoveries... things that I already know about. I'm envious of her reactions.
From Brent: Our third night in Edinburgh we left the Stay Central Hostel and said goodbye to Dawn as she headed back to Atlanta and we headed a couple of blocks down the road to Brodie's Hostel. At this point there was still no sign of Air B&B coming up with a refund and our accommodation budget for the night had already been spent on a room that we couldn't have so Brodie's was chosen because it was cheap. Oh, never choose a hostel as cheap as Brodie's! I had thought that Paddy's Palace in Killarney was run-down and scuzzy but Brodie's was 1 step lower, at least the kitchen at Paddy's wasn't filthy.

I won't trouble you with too many of the details here but the most horrifying and funny thing about the place was the kitchen table. It was covered with grafitti. Some of it quite artistically tasteful. Some were simple sentences stating that Brodie's was the worst hostel in Edinburgh (or the world, if you believe the guy who scratched out the word 'Edinburgh'). There was a picture of a tombstone, engraved with the name, "Brodie's Hygeine." Another spot a cartoon mouse sat on it's haunches saying, "Buy more cheese, please." Someone had started a list of broken or non-functioning things in the hostel and left space at the bottom for others to add to the list, several people had added items, and when we were there none of the items had been repaired. All this and more was written in Sharpie marker on the kitchen table and nobody had even bothered to try to clean it off. Rhonda saw a mouse in the kitchen, I didn't turn around in time. By the next day Rhonda and I calmed down a bit from our shock and laughed a bit at the gallows-humour of the place. Rhonda took some pictures of the table as reminders.

At least we didn't get bedbugs. Maybe the mice ate them.

2015-07-04 : York
I heard from AirBnB about the fiasco in Edinburgh. They're refunding my money, which is good, but they're saying that I share in the blame for the situation because our phone hasn't been working properly. Our host LEFT TOWN when she didn't hear from us by 3PM on CHECK-IN DAY for pete's sake! Since when is it anything like appropriate for accommodation to give up on your arrival when they haven't heard from you by 3PM!?

Even though I'm getting my money back, I'm not going to use AirBnB again. We've had five experiences with them, and one future one booked. Of the five so far, two of them have been absolutely horrible. That's a terrible track record. I'll be taking Linda's advice from now on and sticking with "regulated" services. Kind of a shame since I kind of prefer the cowboy way.
Today was "history day" in York for Brent and me. Brent wanted to go see the "Discover Richard III" and "Discover Henry VII" things. There were a few other things we thought we might go see as well. There was a package admission on those two things plus "Barley Hall", so we did those. It was neat to learn about Barley Hall, which had been originally built in about 1390, and was slated for demolition in the late 70s... until they discovered how old it was and decided to restore it instead. This afternoon, after we'd seen those three things, I started feeling crappy really quickly so we're back at the B&B resting. Boo.

2015-07-05 : Meet Beth in England
Beth brought her flute along, so this evening we did a "round robin" talent show, with Beth playing lovely tunes (mostly English folk tunes on her flute), Brent tooting out a few remembered songs on his recorder, and me filling in the blanks with some low-brow ukulele tunes. My favorite was when I played "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" and Beth played along! How fun!
Essential gear: Slips of paper and a pen. Every day, I get the details of any transportation, accommodation, or any other key information we need for the day (or the next couple of days) off the internet and write them onto a slip of paper. Sometimes I also take screen shots of the information, and screen shots of Google Maps, and store them on the hard drive. If we can't get onto internet (which is common), we have all the information we need.

2015-07-06 : Corfe Castle with Beth
Our B&B host, Peter, provided us with lots of great information, and lent us his highly-detailed map of the area for the day. We walked from Harman's Cross to Corfe Castle via Purbeck Way, explored Corfe Castle, had traditional "cream tea" (scone with clotted cream and jam, plus tea), then tried to walk to Worth Matravers via the Purbeck Way. We ended up going sort of the wrong way and went via Kingston (including a splash in the swamp and a tromp in the nettles for me, and a fall into the nettles for Beth). We had a beer in Kingston and then carried on to Worth Matravers where we saw an interesting Stonehenge-like wooden sculpture, and then had steak pasties and beer at the Square and Compass, which had been recommended to us by a couple of people. Beth played her flute at Corfe Castle and at the Kingston pub.
I was at Corfe Castle in the late 1990s and had it built up in my head to be an extremely cool and fascinating place. When Brent, Beth and I decided to go to England, I insisted that we go back there, and booked us into a nearby B&B for three nights. It was awesome to see it again today, and... YAY! It's just as cool as I remember! It would be the pits to drag my friends halfway around the world to see something that was just meh compared to my memory of it.
From Brent: Corfe Castle, in Dorset, is a pretty impressive ruin. The one thing that impressed me the most about it was that the main gate archway had pulled apart. The arch looked like it might fit back together if you could shift the gatehouses back to their original positions. The lefthand gatehouse and half of the arch had shifted foreward about 4 feet and down about 6 feet, sinkinging into the ground and sliding down-slope yet staying upright and mostly intact.

2015-07-07 : Walk to Studland with Beth

2015-07-08 : To Isle of Wight with Beth
Today was a travel day. We took the 44 from Harman's Cross to Swanage, then the 50 from Swanage to Bournemouth. We got rained on a little on the outside upper deck of the 50. Train to Southampton, and a detour into the bookstore where I picked up a couple of maps which I think will be really helpful for cycling the Isle of Wight. Then the Red Funnel ferry to the Isle of Wight where Lorraine and Pip were waiting to meet us! They piled us and our luggage into their van and drove us to our hotel to settle in, then came back to fetch us after an hour or so and fed us dinner and drinks. We had a wonderful visit, and Beth left early for her job interview (while on vacation... in ENGLAND).

Lorraine and Pip are letting us leave our stuff at their place while we're out cycle touring for four days. It feels very light-weight to be rid of our backpacks and have only what we absolutely need for four days in our day packs.
From Brent: If you wanted to do a speed trip of the IoW you could easily drive around it in a day with stops at a few points of interest but it is worth taking a little time and relaxing. There are lots of small things to check out along the way, small towns, small attractions, pretty view-points, beach walks. It is a place that encourages a slower pace. You could also spend a day at Osbourne House, Queen Victoria's and Prince Albert's private retreat. It's smallish and understated by European Palace standards, but makes a nice walking, picnic and historically informative day. It's good to see how the 'other half' chose to live.

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