Sunday, 20 November 2016

In which we make our way to the Orkney Islands

Taking the bus to Inverness is faster than the train

When planning the trip, I was puzzled that it would take seven hours to get from Fort William to Inverness by train. But, as a glance at the map made clear, we would be going back south to Glasgow only to come back up north: but this time on the west side of Scotland, not the east side. Taking the local bus would take only a couple of hours, so I arranged for that.  

Leaving Fort William on  the bus 

In the early morning at the bus station in Fort William, which was really just a series of bus stops with benches, we were all alone except for two other travellers. One was a man on whose hat were the words Prince Edward Island. Turned out he and his wife were United Church ministers, who had been living  in Vernon River but were living now near Ottawa.  

Except for the scary narrow road, whizzing traffic, and  daredevil  touring bicyclists, it was a pleasant journey. Prettier actually than the much vaunted trip to Fort William, but admittedly,  the day was clearer. The sheep looked like rice kernels thrown on the hillsides. Middle-school children rode the bus to their school.

At some point in the morning, we ate our breakfast sandwiches packed by the proprietor of the Bed and Breakfast back in Fort William. We had to leave before breakfast, so she made us a nice little packet of comestibles instead.

We wait for the train in Inverness

The train station at Inverness was a five-minute walk from the bus depot through a parking lot and past  a lot of chain link fencing . We followed the people ahead of us who assured us this was the way.   Once we got to the station, I was put off by the fact it cost 20 pence to use the washroom: or as I cleverly noted,  20 P to pee.   But it seemed , as I observed people’s comings and goings, you could  activate the turn stile without actually paying. That seemed to me far more reasonable.  

While we waited the 90 minutes for the train to Thurso, we took turns going outdoors to glimpse downtown Inverness: many stone buildings, very ornate hotel next door with a wrought iron staircase, as I recall.
Helpful cab driver makes a lot of sense

Once on board the train, we shared our table with our new-found friends from Canada . They were heading further into Caithness than we were, so we bade them good-bye at Thurso and alighted onto the platform into a downpour of rain.

I had arranged, in a series  of emails with a local cab company, to have a taxi waiting for us for the short trip to the ferry terminal at Scrabster.  Richard of Ormlie Taxis had also advised us that a cab ride to Castle Mey could be rather expensive. That helped with our travel plans. He also warned us of an impending rail strike but said not to worry, as there would be alternate transportation, and his driver would find us at the station.

And indeed he did, looking rather wet and a bit anxious, as we were last passengers off the train. He spoke strongly against going directly to Scrabster, as the ferry terminal there was not yet open, and we would be sitting for several hours, with only an overhang for protection, in the pouring rain.

Instead, he recommended visiting the local museum “where there is a café.” He would return at 5:30 pm to pick us up.  This seemed a bit daring, but we said yes. The museum was excellent, and we absorbed a lot of local history and listened to stories recorded from elderly members of the community in a local dialect almost unintelligible to us (something about a desperate couple eloping).

Then we had a tasty snack and tea in the café. I had a rather odd chicken curry, as it turned out to be a chunky chicken sandwich flavoured with curry, not curry on rice as I was expecting. We also enjoyed a carrot parsnip soup, which, like the goulash soup Greg had had in Glasgow, could have used more seasoning. Nevertheless … comfort food for a wet afternoon, friendly staff, and a cheery space.

We were early leaving the museum, but it had stopped raining, so we found a bench outdoors and  sat with our luggage, wondering if we had made a big mistake in thinking the taxi would return. I did a bit of window shopping. A pedestrian mall had been constructed in the environs of the museum, so we didn’t have to look out for darting cars. 

Just as we were becoming a bit antsy, lo and behold, the little cab returned, scooped us up, and took us to Scrabster just as planned. I highly recommend  Ormlie Taxis.

Arriving at the Orkneys

Excellent crossing I remember very little about. It was dark when we arrived at Stromness, one of the two towns on the Mainland, the largest of the 70 Orkney Islands, hence the rather misleading name (for an island).

The woman at the ferry counter called us a cab . A man from the local tourist bureau on his way “back to Scotland” recommended our choice of a Bed and Breakfast and said to say hello from him to Joy, the proprietress. 

My journal notes:
We have a nice room with our own bathroom next door off the hall. We watched A Midsomer Murders repeat … to bed at 11:30… awake at 4:00 am (grrr). Read an architecture magazine for a while; back to sleep about 6:00; alarm [placed in the  in the armoire this time] went off at 7:15. 

Friday, 4 November 2016

Day 3: In which I channel Eeyore

Spent most of the day on the train through Highlands to Fort William

I had read a newspaper article extolling the wonderful scenery on this train route, the West Highland Line, running from Glasgow to Mallaig and over the bridge made famous in the Harry Potter movies. It was somewhat foggy, so the views were a bit less than we had hoped for, and we foolishly got off the train before the famed bridge. My travel journal summed it up:  

Bare hills, waterfalls, sheep, moor, cute train stations

This is one of the train stations in Glasgow, shot from inside our car.

Greg always sees the advantage of a nap (this one was through the suburbs of Glasgow).

The weather closed in along the way north.

I am sure there are sheep on this picture; I just can't see them.

Every now and then, there was a house.

Rather forbidding land

More moor-like terrain reminded me of Wuthering Heights..

Hikers walk along a path through the moor.

The train stations are so handy and they have cafes or bars.

I must escape from my Eeyore complex for a moment to say I really enjoyed the ScotRail trains. They were clean, the staff helpful, the snacks tasty ("but get your sandwich now as I may not have any when I come back"), and I loved the table between the seats.

Fort William?  We should have continued to Mallaig.

There was not much for the jet-lagged to do in downtown Fort William. Only after the worst lunch we had all trip (some sort of barley soup and something called tongs, which turned out to be large tasteless white-bread buns), did we found the tunnel under the railway tracks to the main part of town, where there were better restaurants.

We sat on a park bench, and hoped it wouldn’t rain. It didn’t. Took turns visiting two churches bordering the green (the bench-sitter guarded the luggage, which we were too tired to haul around). We window shopped: so many thrift stores for so many charities.

Our meandering got us to the other end of the pedestrian promenade where a sign said "taxi stand." We waited patiently, but alas no taxi came.  Finally, we retraced our steps and bought some stuff at a Tesco store to eat at our bed and breakfast, which was too far out of town to walk to. All along the way, we passed places I could have chosen to stay at.

Got one of the last cabs running that day, apparently. They seem to quit about 5:00. The driver of the first one we hailed had just gone off-duty.

Interesting conversation about whiskey with the cab driver who was still available and who opined that Famous Grouse, a whiskey Greg likes, was only one step above rot gut. That cheered Greg enormously.

Plunked ourselves in our very tiny, very green room.  The bathroom was across the hall on the other side of the stair well with another in what was to be a long series of perplexing faucet arrangements.

One never knew  what temperature the water would be: frigid or scalding.

Notice the electric wiring running into the water heating compartment. Yes, I pushed that red button and turned it on. At least if I were electrocuted, I would never have to eat another tong.  

We went out for a walk in a undecided drizzle and discovered a restaurant just down from the B and B. We were not that hungry. On top of that, my intestinal complaint began to make itself known again. Very bad cramps: so back we went to our little lime hidey-hole and the comfort of modern conveniences.  

I had a shower to save time in the morning, and we watched a Father Brown re-run on one of the tiniest TVs I have ever seen.

However, one of the remarkable things about this B and B was my finding a recent  murder mystery by Canadian Louise Penney, The Long Way Home. Rather well-named considering the circumstances...  it was sandwiched between a few Nora Roberts and a John Grisham or two in a book shelf in the hall outside the bathroom. I enjoyed a couple of chapters before bed at 9:30.  I had to put the alarm clock in the closet so the ticking wouldn’t keep us awake. However, I was awake  at 4:00 and up at 6:00.

Which just goes to show that not every day can be full of fun and adventure. Some days you are just thankful you made it to the washroom in time.  (Thank you, Eeyore)

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Day 2 wraps up with painting by Dali and restaurant dallying

Orange juice at Kelvingrove coffee shop… then museum tour…amazing building… just missed the organ concert …

We ended our day in Glasgow by going to the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, an edifice in the Spanish baroque style completed in 1901. 

Here is Greg photobombing the museum.

A small museum visitor crawls up the entrance steps.

This is the spectacular entrance hall. Notice the organ pipes at the centre of the shot.

Greg dozed off while I explored.

Stained glass installation by Harry Clarke depicts the coronation of the Blessed Virgin, 

I was especially interested in going to the museum because it houses Salvador Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross, subject of a talk I gave for a course I took last winter at Huron University College.

An early photo of the painting

I was very eager to see what it was like in “real life.” 

Dali’s painting … very moving… a bit faded…
Apparently Dali used thin canvas and thin (if that is the right word) paint, so the colours have not stayed bright, but it was still a remarkable work of art:

noticed details … shadows on right hand like a nail…
overwhelming sadness…drooped head… yet amazing rejuvenation, strength in shoulder and arms.
Originally had more light around the edges of the shoulders.
Quite a number of people clustered around the painting while we were there. It still has power to draw viewers into its story.

Looking carefully, you could see the restoration after its vandalism.
In 1961, a visitor who thought the painting was sacrilegious, attacked it with a stone and tore the canvas with his hands. However, after a months-long restoration process, it was returned to public display:


We walked the three blocks back to the Argyll Guest House and later had a delicious meal at the Butchershop Bar and Grill, apparently the best steak house in Glasgow. Lucky us. We blundered in there because we liked the decor, and we simply couldn't walk any further. We didn't have a reservation, but we were early and agreed that we could easily finish our meal before 7:30, when our table was reserved for another party. 

The steak was succulent beyond belief, although the goulash soup and the salad dressing were a bit bland (as was a lot of Scottish food no matter where we ate). Just needed a wee squeeze of lemon or more garlic ... Nevertheless, it was a grand meal to celebrate our successful navigation of Glasgow.

We discovered an odd idiosyncrasy of Scottish restaurant service, which repeated itself over and over until we finally clued in.  When the waitress asked us if we would like anything more, Greg said, "No, that's fine, thank you.' We expected the bill. That 's what usually happens here in Canada.  But no bill arrived. We waited ... and waited ... trying to get the attention of our server. Finally  in some distress, she  came over at 7:15, reminding us tactfully that we had agreed we could be away from the table by 7:30. "Yes, please bring us the bill."  So she did. 

We eventually got into the habit of saying "no more thanks please bring us the bill" all in one breath or we might still be in a pub in Scotland waiting, with cobwebs around our ankles.

Back to hotel ... walked... two blocks ...Crashed!! took Ibuprofen for aches... Slept well 9:30 to 5:30 (set alarm too early!)