Thursday, May 23, 2019

Edinburgh - "Hop On/Hop Off" (Day 1)...

The first thing on our agenda was breakfast. We found our way down to the hotel restaurant and found before us a glorious "Scottish breakfast", which included baked beans, black pudding and stewed tomatoes. Thankfully, they also had regular "we gotta' feed the tourists" items like fried eggs, sausage and hash browns.

Well, it IS the most important meal of the day...

What they also had on the buffet line was something I'd sworn for years I would never try. It's that dish you've never actually seen, let alone tasted, and if you're anything like me you've successfully navigated your way through every renaissance festival you've ever been to without being accosted by it. But there it was.

Haggis.

It's not as bad as you think...

There's not a single thing in the Wikipedia description of haggis which makes it sound the least bit appetizing:


"Haggis is a savoury pudding containing sheep's pluck (heart, liver, and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and cooked while traditionally encased in the animal's stomach though now often in an artificial casing instead."


Aw, yeah, serve it up! 

In all honesty, though, it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd been led to believe. You'll never find it on a buffet line in the States but, if you find it one a buffet line in Scotland, give it a shot. It's not going to kill you, and you might find that you actually like it.


Following breakfast, we grabbed an Uber down to Waverley Bridge, where we would buy our "hop on/hop off" bus ticket. As I've said countless times in the past, this is seriously the best way to get around a city. If nothing else it'll save you a mountain of money over taking taxis all day long.

On our way over to the bus stop, we walked down into Waverley Station, the main rail station serving Edinburgh. A continuing renovation has made the station a lot more passenger friendly, serving millions of travelers every year.

Waverley Station in Edinburgh...

Jess and I weren't getting on a train, though. Our primary reason to stop here was to see the Booking Hall. It's definitely an impressive sight.

The Booking Hall. Photos don't don't do it justice...
Once on the bus, we decided to do one full tour without disembarking. This would let us see what was out there and give us an idea of where we'd want to check out a bit more in depth. The entire circuit around the city takes about 75 minutes.

Our first stop was at the Grassmarket. Once upon a time this area was a main market in town. The area now is populated with shops, restaurants and pubs. We decided to stop at "The Last Drop" for lunch. The pub's name doesn't come from anything having to do with how much ale is left in your mug, but rather the fact that, starting in 1660, the Grassmarket was also the sight for public executions in Edinburgh. "The last drop" could certainly have also been  reference to the fall through the gallows for the condemned.  It, like so many other pubs and restaurants, are believed to be haunted. The Last Drop is believed haunted by a young medieval girl, although there's no information about her beyond that.


This explains it all...
 
Inside The Last Drop. And, yes, people really do wear kilts here...

Scotland, and certainly Edinburgh, have some excellent local beers...

After lunch we walked back out into the Grassmarket, which is cordoned off to traffic and is open to pedestrians only. It was bright and sunny teeming with people, as you would expect on such a gorgeous sunny day (which can be rare in Scotland). As we strolled along, we came upon the spot where the gallows stood, and which gave the period between 1661 and 1668 the name "the killing years" as, along with the daily executions, over 100 Covenanters (member of the Scottish Presbyterian movement) were executed.

This small monument, about ten feet in diameter, is believed to be where the hangman's gallows once stood...

From thew Grassmarket we continued on and made a left onto Victoria Street, which was built between1829 and 1834. As you come around the corner, the first thing you notice is "the nose". It's difficult to miss a pair of giant "Groucho Marx" glasses hanging above the street, and that's exactly how the proprietor of the Ahahaha Joke & Novelty Shop wants it.

Not everyone appreciates "the nose"...
In 1996, however, the idea was initially rejected by Edinburgh Council for being too big, and detracting from the atmosphere of the area which, admittedly, is quite different than a giant nose and glasses hanging above the door of a store. Nonetheless, the Council relented, the proprietor prevailed, and now the nose is proudly displayed above the door of the shop.

As you walk up the street from Ahahah, it's impossible to miss the multi-colored storefronts on your left. These have resulted in Victoria Street being one of the most photographed areas in all of Edinburgh.

Victoria Street...

We decided to walk back down to the Grassmarket to pick up our bus. Our next destination would be Castle Hill. Castle Hill is where you disembark to visit the mammoth Edinburgh Castle. As it was already going for 4:30pm, we decided to wait to visit the castle until later in our trip, but that didn't stop us from venturing up and having a look. The castle is large enough to be seen from just about everywhere in the city.

The entrance to Edinburgh Castle...

Not wanting to ruin the visit we would make in the ensuing days, we instead turned down the Royal Mile, a major shopping and dining district, and find our way down to St. Giles Cathedral, which has served as one of Edinburgh's religious focal points for over 900 years, and the current structure dates from the 14th century.

While it was certainly nice enough on the inside, I thought it was odd that I had to purchase a "photo permit" , for £2, to take pictures. I've photographed countless houses of worship over the years, and this was a first. If you do this, though, beware: The staff does absolutely nothing to ensure that you're actually able to take photos, to wit: Some blockhead stood in the very center of the church, taking panoramic photos of the entire church, for almost 20 minutes. My view is that the staff should've been proactive in minimizing that.



St. Gile's Cathedral...

Looking towards the entrance of St. Giles...

We worked our way back into the newer section of the city (known as "New Town") and decided it might be time to make our way back to our hotel. While walking down Prices Street (one of the main drags in Edinburgh), we walked past one of the most visible monuments in all of Edinburgh: The monument to Sir Walter Scott.




The monument to Sir Walter Scott...

At 200 feet six inches, the tour bus guides will tell you that it's the largest monument in the world dedicated to a writer. Well, it's not. Don't get me wrong, it's large, but it's not the largest. The largest is in Havana, Cuba honoring Jose Marti.

An Uber ride got us back to our hotel, and it wasn't long before we called it a night. Day two on the "hop on/hop off bus" would come early...

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Welcome To Edinburgh...

We flew from Jacksonville, Florida to Chicago, Illinois where we would have a four hour layover. Hey, that's not an uncommon thing with international travel, but it can be a hassle sometimes. We grabbed some lunch and watch the world walk by, on its way to its connecting gate.

Chicago O'Hare International Airport, Terminal C...
Our first two full days in Edinburgh were spent in and around the city, on the "hop on/hop off" bus that I've become such a fan of. I did this in Dublin last year and in Rome last year and, I gotta' tell ya', if nothing else it beats the Hell out of paying for taxis. But it also takes you to some of the more popular sites, too, so it's definitely worth it. We opted for the two day ticket, which would allow us to take three different tour routes, for £24 per person.

The day we arrived, though, we took the bus into downtown after getting settled into our hotel rooms and resting from the trip. It cost a whopping £3.40  piece round trip. Neither Jessy or I slept very well on the flight from Chicago, so it was a most welcome nap. 

We may have gotten off the bus a bit too early, but it gave us the chance to walk around the area a bit. We soon found ourselves near St. Cuthbert's Church, with its ancient graveyard (or "kirkyard" in Scotland) overlooked by the looming Edinburgh Castle. Our visit on this first half day would be restricted to outside, as the opening hours for St. Cuthbert's, and the adjacent St. John's Episcopal Church, had long since ended.

One of the hundreds of massive tombstones in the graveyard of St. Cuthbert's...

Edinburgh Castle affords a 360° view of Edinburgh...

Jessy looking all fancy after our graveyard visit...
 
St. Cuthbert's, with Edinburgh Castle lit, high above, in the background...

After a while, we decided to go find a pub to grab a beer and maybe a bite to eat. Our search, primarily due to Jessy's due diligence, found us at Captain's Bar. 

Captain's Bar on South College Street in Edinburgh...
 
A small neighborhood bar in the college district, there was an obvious absence of Scottish millennials and no shortage of older Scots who were there enjoying the "one singer, one song" open mic kinda' thing they had going on. It was a lot of fun and, if you've not sat and listened to traditional Scottish or Irish music with a pint in your hand, brother, you haven't lived. It's an absolute blast and this night would prove to be no different. Captain's Bar had no food, but there was plenty of tasty, local brew to choose from.

Yours truly enjoying a  locally brewed Captain's Ale (Photo by Jessy Parr)...

As the pub didn't have food, we found a late-night shawarma stand that was serving up some amazing food, and very inexpensive...

Tasty schwaramas for a late night dinner...

As it was too late to get the bus back to the hotel, we opted for an Uber which, thankfully, are ridiculously plentiful in Edinburgh. The next two days would be spent in full "tourist mode" and we'd need to be well rested...







Monday, May 13, 2019

The Next Big Thing...

In 24 hours, I'm going to be halfway across the Atlantic, on my way to Edinburg, Scotland. This will be my last international travel for a while.

Why am I going? Well, first, why not? Second, it's a target rich environment for a photographer. And, last (but certainly not least), I'll be traveling with my daughter. Her birthday is at the end of this month, so I told her we'd take a trip together.

She wanted Scotland.

What I'm most looking forward to is the fact that she and I are, to no small degree, of the same mindset. Like me, she's a photographer. She's also a vlogger who has over 23,000 followers on Instagram. We're going to travel well together.

I'm most looking forward to our visit to Rosslyn Chapel a week from today, but I'm also looking forward to finding those quirky little out of the way places which tourists tend to miss. I think Jessy will dig that, too. She's kind of a quirky chick.

So here we go! Eight days in Scotland should be a blast!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Italy - Epilogue...

Traveling to Italy by myself was, most certainly, an adventure.

Would I do it again? Probably, yeah. While there were certainly times when I wish I'd had a traveling companion, I really enjoyed not having to worry about what itinerary items someone might or might not want to have on their agenda. Sure, that may be selfish, but it served its purpose for this trip.

Italy's not unlike the United States. You have your large metropolitan areas like Florence and Rome, but you also have your small, off-the-beaten-path towns like Anguillar Sabazia and Pescara. Both cities and towns provided a wealth of photo opportunities on this trip. But there's plenty to keep in mind when you're traveling in Italy.


Some undeniable truths about Italy:
  • Unless you go to India, Italy is the most densely crowded place you will probably ever visit. Between the almost four million people who live in and around Rome and the millions of tourists who visit every year, well, you see the issue. Give yourself time and don't rush. Italy has been there for thousands of years; it's not going anywhere.
  • You shouldn't drive if you don't have to. Driving in Italy, and especially in places like Rome or the road to Amalfi, is pro-level stuff. The mass transit systems in the cities are excellent, and you can get anywhere else you want to go by a very well developed rail system. 
  • It's entirely possible to go through an entire day in Italy and not find anyone who's able to converse with you in English. Be ready for that. Be prepared to order off the menu and not be 100% sure what you'll be having for lunch. For me, though, that's part of the fun of a trip like this.
  • You'll want a good pair of shoes. Italy, and Rome especially, entails a great of walking, and much of it will be on roads that are cobblestone, dirt, rock; anything but pavement. A pair of shoes with a nice, stiff sole are preferable to shoes which are overly-cushioned.
  • You need to be ready, willing and able to deviate from your itinerary. I had my entire trip laid out, and then the weather decided to upset the entire plan. Not only was I changing what I was doing from one day to the next, but I was even changing what I would do from one hour to the next. I never expected to end up on the roof of the Altare della Patria, yet, there I was. Like ordering mystery food off the menu, this is something which I think also adds to the enjoyment of a trip.
  • Italians are friendly. I didn't run into a single person in Italy who was rude or had that "I can't be bothered" attitude. I found Italians to be helpful to a fault and, if they couldn't be, say, due to a language issue, it was pretty clear they wanted to be. They're as excited that you're there as you are to be there.
  • You need to take a cab at least once. The cabbies I had (I took a cab twice) were funny, gregarious, and made sure I enjoyed an "E-ticket ride" through the heart of Rome. When you're riding in a cab, you pretty much get all of the excitement of driving in Rome without any of the insurance concerns.
  • You will take a bath if you exchange your currency in Italy. Actually, this is true for just about anywhere. Online currency converters give you a general idea of what the exchange rate is, but that's not what you'll get. Generally speaking, you'll get anywhere between 5-15% less than you expect when you exchange oversea, depending on where you do it. And, when you want to convert your currency from US dollars to Euros, you absolute need to have your passport with you. This is non-negotiable. I found this out the hard way.

I'm sure if I sat here and ruminated a bit longer I could come up with more. But these are the things which are at the forefront of my mind at the moment, so I wanted to mention them. Italy is a great place, with great things to do, great places to go, great things to see and great food to eat.

Enjoy all of it because, well, why not?

Italy - The Final Day (Day 8): Rome...

I remember smacking the snooze button on the alarm clock, and also hitting the snooze button on my phone's alarm, too. I didn't really want to wake up as early as I did (I don't think I ever do), but this was to be my final day in Italy and I didn't want to waste it.

Over the course of the previous week, I'd taken over 3,500 photographs and, to be honest, I was pretty sure I was over it. I just didn't feel like shooting anything this last day and, instead, opted to use it as a day to head into Rome and buy a few souvenirs. Beside, if anything did pop up that I needed to shoot, the camera on the iPhone Xr is pretty formidable.

After a shower and some breakfast I walked over to the train station, which would carry me to the underground station which would get me to the Colosseum. From there I could go anywhere.

I decided I would walk and, man, did I walk; a total of 5.2 miles for the day. 

Of course, everyone's been asking me about the food. Without question, it's some of the best food I've ever had. Everything is ridiculously fresh, and I don't know that they ever use frozen anything. But, as good as the food can be, it can be not so good, too. I don't know about you, but I don't know that I'd be willing to take a chance on a vending machine salmon sandwich in a subway station:


That's some good eatin' right there, ya' think?

But that doesn't mean that there isn't good food to be found in the subway. Fresh sandwiches and paninis are readily available and, like just about everything else you're going to eat in Italy, they're all very fresh.

Depending on the day, they will empty those trays six to ten times a day...

I got to know this platform quite well...


This is pretty much the first thing you see when you leave the underground station...

My first stop was the Altare della Patria, which is the monument to Victor Emmanuel II. I'd visited here before, but didn't venture inside. Before doing so, I stopped to photograph the Tomb of the Unknown. Like the American tomb at Arlington, it's guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

The Tomb of the Unknown...


I have to be honest, I wasn't completely blown away by the inside. Don't get me wrong; it was an amazing piece of architecture and it houses an amazing collection of artifacts. Unfortunately, though, I simply couldn't put anything into context. Everything was written in Italian and, while there some wonderful displays, I had no way of really knowing what they were displays of.
 




If you want, for €10 you can take an elevator to the roof of the Altare della Patria to get some really nice panoramic views of the city. The line can get a little bit long, and they only take six people at a time, but the vistas are pretty amazing.


Three dominant domes in Rome. The one in the center, by far the largest, is St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican...



Some views from atop the Altare della Patria...

I don't know what the Hell any of this means, but it got me to the top...


This guy was waiting to get on the elevator. Italian popped collars; a national tragedy...

From the Altare della Patria, I decided to make my way over to the ruins of the Forum. The Forum was once the center of Roman life. Some of the structures here date back to 700 BC, although most are much later in origin. It has served as a venue for processions and elections, criminal trials and public speeches. It's been called the most celebrated meeting place in the world, in all of recorded history.

Pretty heady stuff.



Some of the ruins at the Forum

As I walked along, through the Forum and elsewhere, I found myself marveling at the utterly stunning amount of history there is to be found here. In St. Augustine, we boast about being the oldest city in the United States, and I suppose that's appropriate. But this... man, this is just next level stuff. I mean, come on. They've got a stature of Julius Freakin' Caesar:

Julius Caesar: Dictator Perpetuo (Dictator in Perpetuity)...

I tried to keep in mind that the main purpose of my trip into downtown Rome was to pick up some souvenirs and get a nice dinner, but that plan was repeatedly foiled. As I attempted to make good on my plan, I was again derailed, this time by the Musei Capitolini or, at least, by the Piazza del Campidoglio, which is the plaza atop Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill - English).

The centerpiece of the piazza is a looming statue of none other than Marcus Aurelius, perhaps best known as the compassionate Emperor of Rome in the movie "Gladiator". The statue in the piazza is actually a replica of the original which is housed inside the museum.

Marcus Aurelius...


The Palazzo dei Conservatori, one of the three buildings of the museum...

Looking up at the Palazzo Senatorio in the piazza...

Like so many other things found in Rome, Piazza del Campidoglio was designed by none other than Michaelangelo. The original plans date from 1536, but it wasn't completed until the 17th century, long after Michaelangelo's death.

From there it was down the steps and into the heart of Rome.

Rome is, by a pretty wide margin, one of the the most crowded places I've ever been. Not only is it a city with a population of over 2,500,000, but when you add the ridiculous number of tourists it can get pretty ridiculous. While walking is, for me, the best way to traverse through the city (did I tell you about my Merrell's?), you have to be careful. One of the by-products of so many people is that traffic is just nuts, and many drive as though your ass has a point value. Just watch where you're going and you'll be fine.

All over Rome there are churches. Some, like St. Peter's Basilica, is grand on a scale unknown anywhere else in the world. But all of them, with no exception that I could find, is not ridiculously ornate. There's a lot of variation in the exteriors, but the grandeur of the insides is always impressive.


The facade of the Chiesa di San Marcello al Corso...

The interior of the Chiesa di San Marcello al Corso...

Even though they can appear quite small on the outside, Rome's churches and basilicas are all expansive and profoundly ornate. As a photographer who loves photographing churches, Rome is the most target-rich environment I've ever seen.


The Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva...


Inside the Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva...


All of the walking I did certainly came at a price, and it dawned on me that it had been some time since I'd had anything to eat or drink. I decided to address the "drink" part first. I happened upon the Trinity College Bar; an Irish bar smack in the middle of the Italian capital:

Trinity College Pub...


I stepped inside, sat at the bar and was quickly greeted by the bartender. When I mentioned that I wanted something "local", he recommended, and subsequently poured, a pint of Angelo Poretti Lager, which was very good.

A cold, frosty adult beverage...

While sitting there, I struck up a conversation with a young lady named Rosa. 

Meet Rosa...

When I commented that her English was damn-near perfect for an Italian, she replied that she wasn't Italian, but Iranian, but she had come to Italy for her education. We talked as she worked, and the conversation only added to the comfortable environs I found myself in.


After treating myself to two pints (okay, okay... three pints; don't judge) the clock on the wall reminding me I hadn't eaten in some time. It was getting a bit late in the day, so I started to think about dinner. I bid farewell to Rosa and stepped back out into the waning sunlight. I wasn't sure where I would have dinner, but I surmised that, with absolutely zero experience dining in Italy, one place would be as good as the next.
 

But as soon as I stepped into the Taverna del Seminaro, I knew I had freakin' nailed it.




The Taverna del Seminario...
I was greeted by the hostess as soon as I walked through the door. I took a seat at a table near the back and perused the menu. Unknowingly, I settled on what would be the best meal I had during my entire trip: Ricotta and spinach ravioli in a sage butter sauce. 

Oh.

My.

God.

It was sublime. I paired it with a nice glass of some robust red wine and settled into my own little Italian culinary Nirvana. In all honesty, it was so good I almost ordered a second plate. But the thing about the food here is that, though portions are very small by an American's standards, they're quite filling. Never once did I step away from a meal with an unsatiated appetite. 

And I've probably mentioned a time or two how fresh the food is. Taverna del Seminario makes their pasta from scratch, every single day. Oh, and the bread? Yeah, it was freshly baked, too, and some of the best I've ever had.



Ricotta and spinach ravioli, with wine and freshly baked bread. As good as it gets...

I had some rather fine food during my stay, but this was a high point. I just sat there, trying to imagine what it would be like to be able to eat like this every day. In that regard, Italians are pretty damn fortunate.


But, as I finished my glass of wine, and as much as I hated to do it, I had to accept that this adventure-filled vacation was coming to an end. I paid my bill (which was less than €25) and walked out into the waning Italian daylight, back to the Colosseum and, ultimately, back to my hotel...


Despite traveling with thousands of dollars worth of professional photographic equipment, all photographs in this entry were taken with the Apple iPhone Xr...


The Big Apple - The Final Day...

The one thing I wanted to do in New York City was visit B&H Photo on 9th Avenue. They've gotten more than just a little bit of my ...