According to travelersdigest.com, the “southern tip of England to the northern end of Scotland would stretch from Los Angeles to the Oregon border”. I was born in central California and have family throughout the southern half of the state, but rarely visit there from my home in the northern half. It’s funny, because during the course of my year abroad I didn’t hesitate to travel that distance just to take in a show in London or eat in a pub once patronized by an infamous author. If there is one thing about the United Kingdom that gives it the edge as a destination (or platform for taking over the world, as it happens) it’s that it’s a central launching pad to the whole of greater Europe. In the same amount of time it would take an American to travel from one state to the next, you can be in another country, immersed in a different culture entirely. From Edinburgh airport it’s a ~1 hour flight to Ireland or Norway, around two hours to Paris or Munich, and around three to parts of Italy and Spain. And the rise of budget airlines mean you can book such a flight for a couple hundred, on average, and find deals for significantly less. If your dates are flexible, it’s not unheard of to find flights under $50 (you’ll pay a premium for extra luggage, but at least you’re not going far). And there’s always international rail if you prefer leg room.
My mother was able to visit me when I did a semester in London back in 2009, but this time my brother and dad managed to join the party as well. It was the first time we were able to converge on British soil, and I was more than a little eager to show them everything I loved about my second home. We started the tour in London, where I finally got to introduce my brother to his first double-decker bus and drag the whole family on a stroll through St. James’ Park, Westminster, Leadenhall Market, St Paul’s Cathedral, and the haunting Tower of London. And of course we spent Christmas Eve in a church – the church pub on Muswell Hill, specifically.
Perhaps in penance for our impropriety, we had take-out for Christmas dinner. It turns out the whole of London comes to a grinding halt for Christmas and Boxing Day, which is basically Christmas Part II. As the Underground agent explained it to us clueless Americans at the deserted tube station: “Even the devil needs a holiday.” After Christmas we caught a short flight up to Edinburgh where we toured the castle and St. Giles Cathedral, sampled Scottish whiskey on the Royal Mile, browsed the still active Christmas market, hiked up Arthur’s seat, and dined in the beautiful port of Leith. Finally we departed for my hometown of St. Andrews, making a pit-stop in Dunfermline (as charming as it unpronounceable) to see the Red Hot Chilli Pipers in concert. After a brief respite, we rented a car in Dundee and traveled up through the Scottish Highlands, all the way to Inverness in the northern tip, before returning to St Andrews via Fort William to see the actual Loch Ness, and Urquhart Castle.
My brother stuck around for a bit after our parents had to depart, so we escorted them to Edinburgh and saw them off at Waverly station. To cheer ourselves up, we climbed the 288 steps to the top of the Walter Scott monument, one of the central icons of Edinburgh, and took in a 360 panorama view of the city. We were so delighted with this success, we returned to London to take on the 528 steps of St Paul, before continuing west. London is just an hour and a half east of Salisbury by rail, which is the site of the Salisbury cathedral and cloisters; a structure only spared during the war because the magnitude of its 404 foot spire became a reference point for German bombers. The 700+ year old site is also where one of the original copies of the Magna Carta resides, and just a short bus ride from the mysterious standing stones of Stone Henge. It is always a strange experience to look upon something you have seen countless times through a screen and know it for the first time with your own eyes. A place, just like a person, can take on an aura of celebrity and fill one with wonder at having brought themselves to intersect with that miniscule set of coordinates on the planet where it truly and three-dimensionally exists. Such are the thoughts I, at least, experienced at the site of it. That and, “Great Scot, this flindrikin snell is pure baltic!” (It’s cold.)
In fact, we were so chilled to the core that we decided to make the next stop on our map a little closer to the equator, and headed for Spain. We landed in Barcelona where I got robbed straight off the bus (traveler’s tip: no one is surprised when you get robbed in Barcelona) and spent a full day bouncing between the Spanish police and the US consulate. This misfortune rather blinded me to Barcelona’s better attributes, but a luxurious stint on the Spanish rail soon found me drowning my sorrows in chocolate-dipped churros, traipsing through the fortress of Gibralfaro and snapping photos in the stunning cathedral of Malaga. We also glutted ourselves on Moroccan cuisine in addition to Spanish tapas, as Morocco is just across the Gibraltar strait from southern Spain!
After my brother left, things got back to normal for a little while in sleepy St. Andrews, but my friend Michelle showed up soon enough to sort that right out. It being her first foray into the United Kingdom, as well, we made the rounds of Edinburgh and London, revisiting past delights and discovering new ones. We traveled to Birmingham to see one of my favorite productions of London’s West End (England’s Broadway), had lunch in Leadenhall, sampled the hot cider at Borough Market, shopped in the bohemian paradise of Camden, and took the Harry Potter studio tour; a sort of Hogwart’s museum where all the original sets and props are interred.
During our visit to London there was a terrorist attack at Westminster, which we were fortunate to have narrowly avoided due to a last minute itinerary change. Regrettably it meant that Westminster was shut down during most of our stay, but it reopened just before her departure. I had tickets to the symphony at Central Hall in Westminster that night which I was determined to attend, having been infected with London’s characteristic defiance in the face of adversity. After the performance, I took the opportunity to visit the site of recent tragedy and multitudinous joys. The Westminster Clock Tower (or “Big Ben” as it’s colloquially called after the giant bell at its center) may be my favorite world icon. My soul has always warmed at the site of its glowing golden edifice and rich, melodic tone, and it is always difficult for me to tear myself away, never knowing when I may see it again. There is an old photograph of my mother standing on the bridge, the rail connecting her to the imposing clock behind watching over the scene like a dignified grandparent. It made the clock a character in my narrative long before I knew it in person. I walked here often during my semester in London, and traversed the spot with my entire family over the holiday not three months prior. It was important for me to return to the site to pay my respects and put aside the specter of the tragedy before saying goodbye.
Mike arrived the following month. Like my brother, this was Mike’s first excursion into foreign lands, so he wanted to cover as much ground as possible. After making the standard rounds, we reasoned we could squeeze in at least one other country, and he craved an experience even more undecipherable than the Scots. We compared our bucket-lists and opted for a place neither one of us had been, and were soon departing Edinburgh airport for Venice. A child of the forest, I never thought I could like anyplace as ungreen as Italy’s Venician pearl, but it was a number of days before I stumbled into a greenspace and realized it had been lacking. Venice’s sprawling island of stone is so intricately and artistically designed that I forgot that I was surrounded by a man-made civilization. We happily lost ourselves in the labyrinth of alleyways for hours to a soundtrack of carillon and accordion, navigating a stream of footbridges across a network of canals and stumbling, unsuspecting, into sprawling plazas with sky-scraping belltowers. Included among the latter was the illustrious Campanile di San Marco after which my own campus’ iconic clock tower was patterned. Berkeley’s Campanile will always be my favorite feature of the campus, but seeing the Campanile of San Marco leaves little mystery as to its influential impact. Even the splendor of the St Mark’s Basilica at its feet could not diminish it. The otherworldly singularity of this Italian world made me feel like I’d slipped through a rabbit hole into some kind of wonderland, and all for less than the cost of a road-trip between SF and LA.
With so much traveling under my belt, I was tempted to cocoon myself in my cottage and hibernate for the remainder of my stay, but I knew that I would regret it when I was looking back at my lost opportunities from across the Atlantic. So I charted a plan for my last hurrahs. It took me Canyoning in the exquisite Scottish wilderness of Perthshire, to seeing Daniel Radcliffe perform live on a London stage, to walking across the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol (and getting walloped by a heat wave – thank goodness for universal healthcare). I went fossil-hunting on the “Jurassic Coast” of Charmouth, and slept in a former monastery called Monkton Wyld. I wandered down meandering walking paths in the historic river town of Durham, and woke up to a sheep herder herding sheep across the evergreen hills in a remote region of the Lake District – the getting to of which was a blog in itself! I booked a trip across the Glenfinnian viaduct on the Jacobite; one of the last running steam trains in Scotland (and inspiration for the Hogwarts Express), and along the way explored the Scottish cities of Stirling and Glasgow. I found my way to the top of Stirling Old Town, along the scenic Back Walk, and across the River Forth to the Wallace monument. I fell in love with Glasgow when I was greeted by the Scottish band, Clanadonia, and laid eyes on the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. I toured the 95 year old tall ship, the Glenlee, strolled through Kelvingrove park, and made a special visit to the hairy cows of Pollok Park, in honor of Hamish who I met on the brief excursion in 2009 that first inspired me to come back to Scotland.
Thank you, Hamish. It’s been an adventure of global proportions.