Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Scotland: Into The Maelstrom

OK, for those of you planning a European trip in the next year or two, I have an exercise. Make a list of the places you want to visit. Then at the very top, write "Edinburgh". Warning: in the next paragraph I wax lyrical.

Before I came to Scotland I did my typical pre-travel reading - browsing the guidebooks and reading a novel or two set in Scotland. A couple of times I read the claim that Edinburgh is "Northern Europe's most beautiful city" or "one of Europe's most beautiful cities". Well, you can read that about almost any city, so I was a bit doubtful. However it is entirely true. Land that was once volcanic has produced a series of rocky scarps and outcrops, now built over with Renaissance and Victorian buildings. In the very centre is Edinburgh castle, standing on a bluff with only one way up, a street called The Royal Mile. It seems that everywhere you look, every street you pass, there are still more beautiful buildings that combine in a consistent way. From the high points you can see the sun shine over Leith, the Edinburgh port town a few miles away.

When I travel I sometimes arrive in a city which instantly makes me think "This is a place I could live". For example, Budapest with its cafes and thermal baths, or Berlin with its cosmopolitan atmosphere. Edinburgh has been added to that list. On the negative side:
   a) because all the buildings are made out of a dark grey stone I imagine it could be a very grim place to spend the Scottish winter.
   b) many Scottish people have an accent "so thick you could carve it". I often have conversations with shopkeepers, etc, where I could be talking to a Mongolian for all I know. That is, a kilt-wearing Mongolian with pasty white skin who while riding horseback took a wrong turn in outer Siberia and found himself in Edinburgh, and decided to stay despite haggis and other appalling examples of the local cuisine. The shopkeeper sounds vaguely English, so I just nod agreeably, hoping that it is appropriate, and I haven't agreed to allow my intestines to be used for the next batch of haggis.

Yesterday I made a visit to the world's third largest naturally formed whirlpool, or maelstrom. Due to a combination of geographic and tidal features that I won't bother describing, the ocean waters of the west coast of Scotland produce in the gulf of Corryvreckan a constant bubbling, boiling, tempestous area with standing waves and a maelstrom. We travelled there in a rigid inflatable boat with 10 other brave hearts to see seals, exotic sea life (they work in exotic dance clubs at night), wild deer, abandoned island houses, and finally the maelstrom. Unfortunately there was a strong swell, which (a) made it difficult for my breakfast to stay in my stomach and (b) made the whirlpool not so visibly potent.

Today I am in Fort William in the Highlands of Scotland. Last night was extremely cold, so I wasn't too surprised to look out the window during breakfast to find the first snowfalls of the season have covered some nearby hills.

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