Cruising the blue seas of Turkey, gulet style

There are a number of benefits to being a solo traveller.  It can be easier to meet new people.  You don’t have to consult with anyone before making last minute changes to your travel plans.  In fact, you don’t even have to have plans – and when you’re travelling solo without plans, there’s no negotiating with anyone to figure out where to next:  you just pick a bus and get on it.  All of these combined to give me probably my most enjoyable experience in Turkey…

Having completed my hot air ballooning mission in Cappadocia, I asked around for suggestions on where I should go next.  The hostel owner seemed pretty emphatic in his opinion, so in not too long I found myself on an overnight bus to Olympos.  Three days there on the beach and exploring the old city ruins were days well spent:  Olympos is a great backpackers’ spot to relax and do bugger all.  It’s a tourist-only little village of tree house-style accommodation (permanent buildings are verboten, apparently), but tourist-only isn’t always bad.  It’s a fun and easy place, and if that isn’t high-brow enough for your travel tastes, well, go read somebody else’s blog.

A picturesque walk to the beach at Olympos

But as enjoyable as Olympos was, the first thing I did there was the best:  I walked next door from my hostel (Bayrams) to V-Go cruises, and booked myself on a four day (three night) gulet cruise from Olympos to Fethiye – again, on the recommendation of people I’d run into earlier on in Turkey.

I don’t know what I enjoyed most about the four days on the boat.  Maybe it was just being reminded how much I love the water.  Maybe it was having a little longer than a typical hostel stay to get to know a new bunch of great people.  Maybe jumping in for a swim every time the boat so much as paused.  (Even there I’m not sure whether I enjoyed that more for the sake of swimming, or just as an excuse not to shower for four days.)  Or maybe the beautiful scenery, or not being responsible for my own travel decisions (the flip side of solo travel!).  Maybe sleeping out on deck under the stars.

It was all good.  From the romantic midnight swim in a bioluminescent pirate cave to the minor swell a couple of mornings later which had others feeling seasick but me bouncing around on the bowsprit like a twelve year old with a sugar high.  The company really made the trip, but with no offence intended to anyone on our particular cruise, I suspect it’s the sort of trip which would make most people pretty good company.

Oh, and the sunrises and sunsets were pretty good, too.  Not that anyone but me saw the sunrises.  (The girls wanted to see them, or so they claimed, so I woke them up for one or two.  But for my own safety I wasn’t going to insist once the realities of the time of morning changed their minds.  So I showed them some nice photos in the relative comfort of midday had set in.)

Sunrise on the water while everyone else sleeps.

Pretty colours as the sun begins to set

An extended description of the cruise would make a great thing sound boring and ordinary, so I’ll just say that each of our four days basically involved excellent food prepared by our captain and his helper (breakfast, lunch and dinner, all included), a couple of sessions of a few hours of motoring from one bay or anchorage to another as we all whiled away the time lying in the sun or (on the last day) dancing the Macarena on the foredeck, plenty of swimming, and a comfortable evening of a few quiet beers on deck.

Actually, the evenings were a little more varied than the above implies.  The first night we spent at a bar only accessible from the water, mingling with the inhabitants of another cruise just like ours, discovering along with them the prodigious and hitherto unforeshadowed talents of one of our party on the dance floor (no, it was most certainly not me!).  The second we were presented with the highly entertaining spectacle of watching and hearing the Spaniard on our cruise listen with almost religious fervour to her iPhone stream (Spanish) commentary of the Spain v Portugal Euro 2012 semi-final (especially as it dragged through a goalless extra time to be decided on penalty shootouts);  listening with an intensity and excitability matched only by the ferocity of her insistence that actually she wasn’t really that involved, and she wouldn’t be that upset if they lost.  The third night was again in a bay with a bar (albeit a much quieter one, minus dance floor), and this one came with TV reception, so we could actually watch the second semi-final, rather than interpreting the match mainly via the alternating ecstasy and pain of our friend’s facial expressions.  (Well, we could watch it so long as the bar owner kept most of the lights off, so that the generator had enough grunt left to power the TV.)

And in fairness the days were plenty varied, too.  (Except for the snorkelling.  There’s only so much excitement you can muster when the best outcome of any of our many snorkelling expeditions was the one swim where we managed to find not one but two sea slugs.  Two!)  They became especially varied towards the end, when our swims started to turn into giant maritime dodgeball competitions with constantly changing rules, as we pelted around a small inflatable ball that one enterprising passenger had managed to acquire.

As I’m sure you can gather, the whole experience was a ton of fun (and, in case you’re in the area, everyone else I’ve spoken to who’s done the same cruise at other times had the same to report).  But all good things blah blah blah.  When it did come to an end, it was so very tempting to see if it wasn’t possible to jump on tomorrow’s cruise going back the other way.  But better to move on, I suppose, and see what else Turkey had to offer…

Butterfly valley

Just looking at this picture makes me want to go for a swim.

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Cappadocia: early morning gingerbread scenery from 700m

Cappadocia is a small town in the middle of a volcanic area roughly in the middle of Turkey.  The ground is packed ash and pumice, pretty much.  Apparently it’s technically called ‘tuff’.  Apparently someone’s decided recently that it’s OK for technical words to sound like ‘tuff’ these days.  The state of the world these days…  (That’s OK, I’ve just discovered I get to use the world ‘troglodyte’ correctly in this post – and not just to refer to my friends.  So I’m happy.)

So anyway, it doesn’t rain much in Cappadocia, but when it does, it rains hard.  This combination – ‘tuff’ and occasional erosion-friendly torrential rain – results in vaguely conical stalagmite-like protuberances projecting weirdly out of the ground, looking for all the world like they’re made out of gingerbread.

Gingerbread-y, no? Looking out over Göreme.

There are a couple of valleys in the area, and in the cliffs of these, and in the stalagmite things, people have carved out caves.  They started doing this a very, very long time ago, and it seems to have been a popular past-time in particular for early troglodyte Christians, who built cave monasteries and cave chapels and whole cave settlements there.  (Hooray, ‘troglodyte’!)  So lots of the caves are decorated with old friezes, etc.  Some of those are viewable from the other side of ropes in the Göreme Open Air Museum.  Others you can go climb through if you find them yourself when hiking through the valleys.

So I spent about five or six hours one afternoon hiking and climbing through the valleys.  There’s something very rewarding about discovering and exploring these little bits of history yourself.  And some of the cave decorations are surprisingly well preserved.

A remarkably well-preserved chapel decoration in a cave I clambered through while hiking around Cappadocia.

A part of one of the larger cave chapels I came across.

So I recommend the hiking – though ideally with a better map than my crappy tourist thing:  the trails are reasonably well marked, but finding where they start and figuring out how they diverge can take a bit of work, especially when your crappy tourist map has them starting off roads which turn out not to exist.

But the hiking isn’t why people go to Cappadocia – in fact, most people don’t bother with it (their loss, the fat, lazy bastards!).  People go for the hot air ballooning over the valleys and stalagmite things.  (They’re called ‘fairy chimneys’ apparently.  Personally I’ve decided that’s a silly name, so I’m sticking with ‘stalagmite things’.)

Early morning gingerbread scenery from a hot air balloon over Cappadocia.

I’ve never been in a hot air balloon before, so I can’t compare it to ballooning elsewhere.  I can, however, compare it to not going hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, and compared to that, it’s fantastic.  Of course, to get the best display over the valleys and stalagmite fairy things, you and 139 other balloons all go up at sunrise.  And of course, clever bastard that I am, I did mine the day after the summer solstice, making it a somewhat early morning, with a hostel pickup at 4.50am.  But the whole experience was spectacular, even if it was finished off with a less-than-quality and somewhat cheesy glass of crappy ‘champagne’.

The colours of the sunrise over the valleys, the stalagmite fairy things, the caves, and the other balloons – yeah, not too bad.  Worth checking out if you have the chance.

Hehe, ‘troglodyte’.

Istanbul travel tips

Some random travel tips if you’re heading to Istanbul for the first time.

  • The metro and tram systems are really easy.  The bus is not quite so simple, since you have to buy tickets in advance from a shop.  For the former, at each metro or tram station, you just buy a token for 2TL.  You then take your token and put it in the turnstile, and walk through.  Done.  No proof of purchase required, etc.  Take the metro/tram to wherever you want.  (Although if changing from metro to tram, there’ll be another turnstile, so you’ll need a spare token.  This will be important when landing at Atatürk airport – buy yourself two tokens so that when you change from the metro at Zeytinburnu, you’ll have a token to get you onto the tram towards the interesting parts of the city.)  For the bus, you can’t buy tickets at the stops or on the bus – you need to have bought your tickets in advance from a convenience store or similar.  Or, like we did, you can get on the bus, try to buy tickets, be waved to a seat, and then be gestured towards a convenience store near a later stop while the bus driver holds the bus so you can buy tickets and get back on.  This move may or may not be easier if one of your travelling party is an attractive blonde girl in a short dress.
  • Pretty much first thing when you get to Istanbul, take a Bosphorus cruise.  It’ll show you the interesting bits of the city from the water, and give you an idea of what you’re going to see from there on in.  You can take a short one (maybe an hour) or long one (all the way up to the Black Sea and back, if you want), and you can take them from Eminönü or Kabataş.  You can probably get your hotel or hostel reception to help you pick one, or you can just head down to the water and pick one of the many many guys yelling out “Bosphorus, Bosphorus”.  Regardless, get on the damn boat and sit there for a bit, taking in the view.
  • In Sultanahmet, you have the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque), the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern (which lots of people skip – don’t, it’s cool, and gives you a great opportunity to play with the various dials on your camera, if you’ve got a good one) and Topkapı Palace.  Go early to avoid the lines, and if you’re dedicated, you can do all of them in one day, even if you’re being thorough.
  • If you want to get out to the Rumeli Fortress (and you should – it’s really quite cool climbing around over its walls looking out over the Bosphorus), you’ll want to know that you can’t get there by tram.  Take a tram to Kabataş, and get a taxi from there (it’ll probably cost you about 15TL each way).  Be aware that taxi drivers won’t understand “Rumeli Fortress”.  It turns out that “Rumeli” just refers to the Roman (European) side of the Bosphorus, and so given they won’t know the English word “fortress”, you’re really not giving them a lot of information on your intended destination.  Which partially explains the bewildered and confused look on the face of the taxi driver that a friend and I encountered on the first day I spent in Istanbul.  (The remainder of the explanation was that the guy was a complete nutter who felt perfectly at home gesticulating his disbelief at the evident stupidity of the person going the right way down a one-way entrance to the motorway as he – the taxi driver – sat blocking the road facing in obviously the wrong direction having just completed an illegal U-turn off the motorway to get there.  But it’s OK, because the previous stretch of one-way road was navigated facing in the right direction, even if it was in reverse.)  Anyway, the magic word is “Rumelihisarı”.
  • If you want to see Dolmabahçe Palace, go early.  The line gets long, and it moves very, very slowly.  It’s a nice place to visit, but its guided tours only through the two buildings (the palace and the harem), and no photos inside, so if you were planning on spending a while capturing happy snaps of the beautiful parquet floor and chandeliers, well, bad luck.
  • If you’re looking for a hostel, I can recommend Agora Guest House (in Sultanahmet, which is the tourist area, and with a fantastic rooftop terrace with views over the water) and Chambers of the Boheme (in Taksim, which is the nightlife area).  I’m sure there are other great ones around too, but those are the two I stayed at, and I was comfortable and happy at both.
  • When usıng a Turkısh computer at your hotel or hostel, try to remember that the Turkısh alphabet (and therefore keyboard) has letters that the Englısh one doesn’t.  Including an ‘i’ wıthout a dot over ıt.  Thıs wıll bıte you ın the arse when usıng the ınternet, because you’ll probably pıck the wrong ‘i’ all the tıme, whıch wıll make loggıng ınto gmaıl.com a lıttle tricky for you, sınce you’ll be at the wrong sıte.  İt wıll also make all your Facebook posts look kında weırd.
  • Roadside kebab vendors turn up late at night with carts and meat on a stick (see previous post).  Oh God yes, eat your heart out.  If they ask if you want spicy sauce, the correct answer is “yes”.
  • You’ll obviously want to spend most of your time walking around singing “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” to yourself.  So, to save you some time and consternation, you can find the lyrics here:  http://www.lyricsdepot.com/they-might-be-giants/istanbul-not-constantinople.html.  You’re welcome.

Rumelihisarı (the Rumeli fortress), viewed from the water on a Bosphorus Cruise.

Turkish tea, ayran, kebabs and baklava

In the UK and Australia, a kebab is normally like that girl you’d rather forget:  a drunken mistake that you picked up at the end of the night because, well, let’s be honest, who knows what you were thinking.  Come morning, you’d really rather you’d kept your lips away.  There are exceptions, of course – sometimes you’re not even drunk yet, but you just feel like something cheap and easy (I’m talking about the kebabs, people!).  And sometimes it’s not so much regret as just an ignorable feeling in the back of your mind that probably you could have chosen more wisely.

In Turkey, the kebab can serve that purpose too, but with the added bonus of substantial competition between about three million kebaberies in close proximity, so your late-night inebriated self has quite the array of rotating meat products on display to drool over while waiting for its fix.  (No, kebaberies is not a real word, but it totally should be, so I’m using it anyway.)  But in Turkey, the kebab can also function as a perfectly respectable meal.  Score one for the Turks.

In fact, score two for Turkey for the fact that not only can you purchase said kebabs from a variety of perfectly respectable restaurants, or from a veritable treasure trove of dodgy-looking meat merchants in the bar areas.  You can also, if you keep your eyes peeled, find a third category of vendor:  the man with the kebab cart.  This champion will set up shop in the evenings down a little side street somewhere by wheeling his cart into place and lighting the charcoal in its little barbeque.  Like most restaurants, he will be serving şiş kebabs (the meat is cooked on a skewer before being gift wrapped in bread along with the other presents:  lettuce, tomato, onion, spicy sauce, etc.) rather than doner kebabs (where the meat is cooked as it slowly rotates on a glorious vertical rotisserie).  Unlike restaurants, you will be able to wander along on the side of the road, spot our lonely hero going about his delicate work, politely request your serving(s) of delicious delicious meat products, and be on your way, reward in hand, in about ten minutes.  And they’re the tastiest kebabs I’ve ever had, even despite the fact that I was stone cold sober.  (Well, at least one of the times.)

A street vendor makes me a delicious delicious şiş kebab in Sultanahmet. Make sure to ask for the spicy sauce.

I don’t know whether there are any nutritional bodies which issue guidelines specifying a recommended daily intake of kebab, but as you might guess from the preceding paragraphs, I’m pretty sure I consumed more than whatever that hypothetical limit might be.  Fairly regularly.  In fact, I’m pretty sure there was one twenty-four hour period which involved about five or six kebabs, and pretty much no other sustenance.  At that point, I decided that it was probably time for some variety.  And thus for the next twenty-four hours, I consumed pretty much nothing but baklava.  Three cheers for a balanced diet!

You will find a variety of different types of baklava in Istanbul.  I highly recommend the place on this corner near Gulhane.  I can’t for the life of me remember what it’s called, but it’s on the south side of the road on the corner where the tram turns right to head towards the water, and it’s a bakery / sweet shop on the bottom floor and café on the first floor.  Head up to the first floor, peruse their ridiculously large catalogue of baklava and assorted other sweets (it’s too big and has too many pictures to be denigrated a ‘menu’, so I’m going with ‘catalogue’).  And order lots of them.  Get a seat next to the (open) windows, so you can look out at the traffic chaos as you reflect on the sugary goodness you’re about to stuff in your face.  Good times.

While enjoying your baklava, you will most likely also want a Turkish tea (çay).  In fact, while doing pretty much anything in Turkey you will most likely also want a Turkish tea.  Or possibly a Turkish coffee – although, to be honest, while I love them, I didn’t see many other people partaking.  Tea, on the other hand, you will see literally everywhere.  In fact, from all the visual evidence available to me, I’m fairly confident in claiming that tea is all that’s required to sustain an elderly Turkish gentlemen into his dotage.  That and a game of dominoes.  Or chequers.  Or just a newspaper.  In dire circumstances, just the tea by itself may suffice, as long as its consumed in a park somewhere.  Or, if the gentlemen operates a store in the Grand Bazaar, then there.  In which case it will have been delivered on a silver tray by a delivery boy whose sole occupation is to run around the bazaar delivering tea to said gentlemen.

Tea delivery in the Eminönü Spice Bazaar.

Between sips of your Turkish tea, you may wish to try another local beverage:  ayran.  It’s a slightly strange drink, with the appearance and texture of milk, but the taste of greek yoghurt.  Actually really quite good.

There are other Turkish delicacies that you should try too, if you get the chance.  Pide (Turkish pizza), for example.  Fish sandwiches from the market at Eminönü.  Köfte (meatballs).  Çop şiş (lamb on a skewer), especially if you’re in Selçuk.  But my final real main recommendation, if you get out of Istanbul to anywhere in the south and/or west of Turkey, is to make sure you get some gözleme into you.  It’s basically like a crepe, normally made with minced meat filling, or spinach, or cheese, or some combination.

The process of making gözleme appears to go like this:

  1. seat an old woman with some dough and a rolling pin in front of a small round table about thirty centimetres high, and give her the filling and access to a round dome-shaped grilling plate on which to cook the gözleme (it’s cooked with the filling already spread out on the dough and with the dough folded over)
  2. ???
  3. profit (although not much, since it’s typically going to set you back around five to ten Turkish lira)

Someone told me that the best gözleme to be had is up in the little mountain village of Şirince – and certainly the cheese and spinach one I had there was fantastic.  But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the best one I had in Turkey was on the boat cruise I took from Olympos to Fethiye, on the afternoon of the second day.  We pulled into a reasonably popular but remote bay, only for our boat to be immediately assailed by a variety of ice cream sellers, jet ski owners offering rides for a specially discounted fee which they were offering just for us this one time only, etc.  And by a rowboat equipped with an old woman, a small round table about thirty centimetres high, some dough, a rolling pin, and a round dome-shaped grilling plate.  A little old lady made me gözleme on a boat that her son rowed up to the side of ours.  Seriously.  It made my day.  (And it was already a pretty damn good day by that point.)  How could I not have two?  And, although it may not be traditional Turkish fare as scientifically defined by alimentary archeologists, the nutella and banana gözleme was definitely a winner.  Authenticity be damned.

They rowed out to our boat and made me gözleme! Could Turkish food get any more awesome?

Istanbul on foot

I came to Istanbul with no idea what I would find, but if I was worried about culture shock, that fear was quickly dispelled as soon as I dropped off my bags and headed out for dinner in Sultanahmet (the Old City) with a some new friends:  halfway through our first beer, the bar across the road (Cheers) started pumping out The Nosebleed Section by The Hilltop Hoods.  So here I was in Turkey boasting about an Adelaide band to a Melbournian living in Istanbul and two Americans travelling through.

(Side note:  for once, Wikipedia fails to have a ‘demonym’ heading in the sidebar on its page for Melbourne.  I’m going with Melbournian over Melbournite.  Other suggestions include ‘twat’ – thanks, Chris! – and ‘person who supports the wrong football team’.  You’d think I’d know, having been born in the damn city.  But apparently I wasn’t paying much attention to terminology at the time.)

So if not culture shock, what was there?  Well, there was a lot of walking.  It’s stupid to write something like “Istanbul is a very walkable city”, because Istanbul is enormous, and there’s no way even a dedicated pedestrian like me can get around it all on foot.  But then, I’m not here to see every inch of every street in this city of over 13 million people.  And the bits I am here to see are for the most part thoughtfully lined up along the tram line (which you can easily follow alongside on foot), and especially collected around Sultanahmet.

Plenty of Istanbul to walk around.

So speaking as a tourist and not a local, I’ll stick with my assessment that Istanbul is a city to be experienced on foot.  Not just because it’s convenient (the trams are convenient too, with their token system where you just put your two Turkish lira into the machines just outside each station and then immediately use the bright orange token they reward you with to get in at the turnstile), nor just because Istanbul’s fantastic weather means you’re spending some lovely time outside in the brilliant sun, nor just because part of the experience of being in Istanbul is being in the middle of its vaguely crowded open spaces.  But also because that way, you don’t feel quite so bad about the unfeasibly large quantities of baklava and kebab you ingested the previous day.

In actual fact, the first full day of Istanbul I experienced was nowhere near Sultanahmet nor the tram line.  But it was still on foot – about six or seven hours of ‘on foot’, in fact.  The lovely American girl in the bunk bed below me had a vague plan to visit the Asian side of Istanbul for the day, and the invitation to join her sounded like a fun excursion.  So we ferried across from Eminönü to Üsküdar and walked up the eastern side of the Bosphorus for about four hours right up to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge.  We would have walked back across the bridge to the continent with our hostel on it, but the nice police man with the machine gun politely indicated that that wasn’t going to happen, thanks very much.  (No pedestrians on the bridge.  I heard later what I guessed at the time – that this is to prevent the suicides from it which were apparently once prevalent.)  So we backtracked about twenty metres and found a taxi driver who would take us across the bridge and then around in a few purposeful but destination-less experiments in something-like-navigation (many of them purposefully up the wrong way of a few destination-free one way roads) on the other side.  (I should note that the driving around almost in circles was not because he was trying to rip us off – it was because we were trying to get to the Rumeli fortress, and he didn’t know what a ‘fortress’ was;  as I figured out many weeks later, that means all he knew was that the two blond foreigners were asking for something on the Roman side of the bridge and not being very helpful about specifics.)

In all honesty, there’s not much to write about our adventure into Asia.  It was a fun day, and definitely worthwhile:  we walked through some interesting areas, and it’s good to see how people live in a city, rather than just what other tourists do in it.  The palaces on the Asian side weren’t worth the trip (since they happened to be closed that day), but the yoghurt that my companion’s guidebook recommended in the cute little waterside suburb of Kanlıca was – a particular highlight of the day.  Never had yoghurt covered in icing sugar before.  Full of win, and washed down with a tasty Turkish tea.

My other days on foot in Istanbul were mostly extended strolls around the big tourist attractions.  But when you’re done wandering around the tourist attractions, pick a random pretty side street and walk down it.  Enjoy the feeling of being in a city with a different culture.  Pick another random pretty side street.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  This is how I wandered down from the ruins of the old Roman aqueduct to the water and discovered a series of lovely parks full of locals, including many fishermen – and, uncultured heathen that I am, it was interesting to see elderly women in niqabs laying out rugs in the park and praying as their grandchildren fished and played.

It’s also how I discovered the Gulhane Park next to Topkapı Palace, which is a great place to sit and read a book after a hard day’s walking.  And of course the bazaars – the Grand Bazaar and Eminönü Spice Bazaar – are both walking experiences where the whole point is to roam around and get lost.  The Grand Bazaar is especially good for this:  we ended up with a hugely entertaining half hour or so of us almost stalking the guys running deliveries of Turkish tea and doner kebabs around to all the other stall owners in the bazaar.  And then further entertainment ambling through the Spice Bazaar being hawked various concoctions marketed as Turkish Viagra (“no sleep!”) or some other aphrodisiac or variation thereof (including the bottle with the truly bizarre and more-than-slightly disturbing logo of the silhouetted baby with a huge erection).  I seemed to be a particular target for the hawkers, as a foreigner who happened that day to be walking around with two pretty foreign girls.  Highly amusing – apparently for the locals as well as for us.

Kebab delivery, coming through!

Yes, the logo on the lid is indeed a silhouette of a baby with a massive erection. No, I don’t understand either.

The unplanned wandering approach also works in the evenings, we discovered:  a couple of us spent a great night wandering around the Taksim area, discovering a couple of the locals’ favourite bars.  The first bar was a hilarious experience of trying to hold conversation over incredibly loud live music as the only other five patrons (all male and slightly older) hit the dance floor for some typically Turkish dancing.  The second – Beer House – was a cool little bar entirely open to the street on one side, with a slightly younger crowd;  I’m sure we were the only foreigners there, observing everyone enjoy the karaoke-with-a-live-band.

Even if walking is not always your thing, perhaps water is.  In that case, Istanbul has you covered as well, with plenty of the blue stuff all around the city.  Having been cooped up in London for much of the last three years, I think I’d sometimes forget quite how much I enjoy the water.  As it happens, I didn’t end up jumping in it at any point in Istanbul (that would come aplenty later on in my journey around Turkey), but just having it around was satisfying.  Especially looking out across the Bosphorus while enjoying a nice rooftop beer up on the terrace on the top floor of my hostel.  What does that have to do with walking around Istanbul?  A fantastic way to rest the feet and end the day, that’s what.  Surrounded by blue seas, and inspired to walk it all again tomorrow.

Sunset over the water to inspire the next day’s wanderings.

Consuming Scotland’s finest

Don’t let my previous post fool you into thinking that the Highlands are all about quiet meditation and communing with nature.  No no, they’re also all about drinking Scotch and stuffing your face with a variety of fried animal products.

Naturally our evenings were surrendered to the obligation to experience the country’s eponymous liquors.  Some new discoveries – Highland Park, Tomatin and Tobermorey – were definitely appreciated.  But none surpassed the old favourites:  Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Caol Ila and Laphroaig.

Aside from our enjoyment of the particular libations we sampled, though, there are two things about Scotch in Scotland that impressed me.  First, the average bar has more Scotches behind it than most restaurants in the rest of the world have wines in the cellar – and your chances are pretty good that the bartender can wax lyrical about the majority of them.  Second, when after a long afternoon walk we wandered to a corner store / newsagents to grab a nice refreshing beer to enjoy on the nearest patch of green grass out in the sunshine, we were confronted with a range of Scotches that any of the three of us would have been proud to host in our home collections (both for size and selection).

Between our evening adventures in whatever hotel we happened to be staying in, and a couple of distillery visits (to Dalwhinnie and Blair Athol – both fairly uneventful, and we should have gone for Glenfiddich and Aberlour instead, in hindsight), I’m comfortably proud of our efforts in the Scotch-sampling department.

And our efforts on the food front were equally exemplary, especially for breakfast.  The Scottish breakfast is fantastic:  every bit of the animal they didn’t serve for dinner last night, fried, plus an egg.

I will admit to an embarrassing secret:  despite multiple opportunities, not once did I order the kippers to break my fast.  That said, the plate of various offals (plus the egg, of course) never got old over the six breakfasts I enjoyed, so my lack of adventurous spirit wasn’t the end of the world.  And it’s not like there’s not variety built right into the Scottish breakfast itself.  Between the bacon (pig), egg (chicken), sausage (pig again), haggis (sheep), and black pudding (completing the porcine trifecta), there’s a fair few meals’ worth of vegetarian-unfriendly stuff shoved into that one plateful.  If only they could figure out a way to get some lamb and beef in there, they could collect the whole set.  Perhaps some sort of fried variation on a kebab-like effort is required.

Of course, with breakfasts like that, one hardly needs lunch.  But driving (or in my case, sitting in the passenger seat occasionally fiddling with dials) is hungry work, and the Isle of Skye provided us an excellent bakery in a tiny little town we passed through (before quickly unpassing through to come back and investigate in more detail).  Coffee, a toasted sandwich, and some incredibly dense chocolatey cake-like muffin things ensued.  And a follow-up hot chocolate for good measure.  Can’t do these things by halves.  If I remember rightly, it was called Jan’s Bakery, and it might possibly have been in Dunvegan.  Or it might possibly not.  Wherever it is, I heartily recommend it!

All up, I’m ready to declare our culinary adventures in Scotland a success.  (I haven’t even mentioned the dinners we gorged on and the wines we plonked our way through, all of which were fantastic, albeit not necessarily especially Scottish.)

So at the end of all that, after our bike riding on our last morning in Boat of Garten, we stopped in a likely-looking Aviemore establishment to celebrate our good work and say goodbye the best way we knew:  with frankly alarming quantities of fish and chips, and half a fried pizza.  Delicious.

Exploring Scotland

Around the middle of May, the craptitude that was London’s weather broke, and we had two weeks of glorious sunshine.  Thank God.  I know the rest of London agreed with my assessment of the situation, because the rest of London was all in Hyde Park enjoying the sun at the same time as I was, so I could ask them.

But it didn’t last.  The Queen’s Jubilee arrived, and it poured.

So, how is this relevant to Scotland?  By the time the Jubilee rolled around, I was in Scotland with Keith (a long-time friend of mine over from Australia) – and perhaps in a pique of independence-mindedness, Scotland had apparently decided to break with the Queen’s weather and continue the glorious blue skies.

We spent nearly a week wandering this way and that over the Highlands:  Keith driving, me in the passenger seat for literally one thousand miles;  me in the dual roles of sound system DJ and official tinkerer with the navigation system.

(The nice lady in the navigation system – you could tell she was nice from the fact she said ‘please’ before every instruction, and from her particularly un-Scottish lack of cursing before the instructions that started “recalculating route:  at the earliest opportunity, make a U-turn” – did us well, it has to be said.  Although someone needs to get her up to speed on recent developments in the apparently fast-paced and cut-throat world of the Inverness petrol station trade.)

Even after those thousand miles, as an Australian, I find it hard to pigeonhole Scotland.  All at once it’s small – the drive from Inverness to Edinburgh and back took less than a day – and vast – with basically endless scenery, all of it brilliant green, and full of bodies of water any of which most South Australian farmers would kill for.

For the most part, we split our time between Inverness (nice enough), the Isle of Skye (spectacular), and Cairngorms National Park (a beautiful spot to get out of the car and onto a hiking trail or a bike seat – and how could you pass up staying in a town named ‘Boat of Garten’?).  Something about all those locations just exudes a pleasant sense of natural remoteness.  (Perhaps it’s the fact that they’re natural and remote.  Just guessing.)

Mountain climbing through the Cairngorms was especially get-in-touch-with-nature – and given that the purpose of the trip, for Keith at least, was to get a well-deserved break from work, the combination of that and being pretty much antipodal to his place of employment made for a rousing success.  The purpose of the trip for me was pretty much just to ease my way into homelessness (having just moved out of the flat in London, in preparation for my upcoming year or so of travelling), so I guess I could have done that anywhere, but hey, on the top of a mountain worked for me too.

And it wasn’t just us enjoying all that Scotland’s wilderness had to offer.  It was quiet and isolated up there, but there were a few other occasional passers-by enjoying the views and the exercise.  Full credit goes to the mountain bikers we encountered right at the top of one of the hills, coming the other way after we’d just proudly conquered a fairly stony ascent.  Their determined charge down the not-entirely-typical-bike-path-material path we’d just climbed displayed substantially greater testicular fortitude than I can claim to possess – in a literal this-saddle-needs-more-suspension-please sense as well as the more usual metaphorical one.

To be honest, most of the driving – around Loch Ness (very pretty), down to Fort William (bit of a hole, really, and quickly left behind), all over the Isle of Skye (stunning views from every angle), down to Falkirk to see the Falkirk Wheel (an interesting diversion to see one of the more entertaining mechanisms of getting boats from height A to height B), up to Elgin (purely to drive through the slightly disappointing home town of the man with the marbles) and Keith (if it’s named after the driver of the car you’re in, it’s gotta be good, right?) – was about appreciating the views and seeing things that aren’t really going to come across quite the same in print.  Not with my writing, anyway.  So you’ll just have to accept that we had a good, relaxing week, and go read the next post about the food and drink.