June 25, 2002
TravelBlog: Europe - part 5
This is the fifth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.
¡Hola from Barcelona!
It was only a few days ago that I last wrote to you from a smoky little net cafe in Carcassone, France. Now I write to you from a sleek easyInternet Cafe in Barcelona, just off the Las Ramblas avenue that runs through the old town of Barcelona, right down do the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
I arrived in Barcelona with no prior reservation at a hostel or hotel, armed only a place I was going to try for (a youth hostel near Las Ramblas). The trip itself was fairly uneventful. On the last train from the Spanish border to Barcelona itself, I met three other young Americans from Santa Cruz, CA. They told a horror story of taking an overnight train from Paris to Barcelona, and in the middle of the night, one half of the train cars separated and went off in a completely different direction (with them) from Spain. One girl's luggage happened to be in the cars going to Spain, and the detour they inadvertently took to somewhere in France made them miss their connecting flight home, I think. Scary stuff. It´s stories like that that makes me glad I packed so light, and read up on things like that before I left the States!
Since I arrived in Barcelona three days ahead of my schedule, I decided that I would try something new: I would visit a town that I hadn't planned to see, and thus don't have any information for (i.e. places to stay or things to see). I thought about seeing Nice in France, but eventually decided on Genoa in Italy, being very near the Cinque Terra, which was to be the next stop on my schedule. I'm looking forward to seeing if I can find a place to stay and things to see in Genoa - a little test of how much I've learned about traveling in Europe, if you will. After getting an overnight train ticket, navigating the Metro and wandering around Las Ramblas trying to find the hostel, I eventually arrived to find it full! Fortunately, the guy there referred me to another hostel around the corner that wasn't full. After settling in, I set out to see a few sights in the last bit of the day.
Las Ramblas avenue runs from the waterfront, west, uphill. Right where it meets the water is a column capped by a statue of Columbus. From there, I took the Metro over to the Barcelona area near the Olympic Villa that housed some 15,000 athletes and their support people for the 1992 Olympics, and also has Barcelona's beaches. Finally, I took a quick trip to see the Sagrada Familia at night. The SF was started over 100 years ago (in 1882 actually) and was designed by Antoni Gaudi. It's still only about 20% done, I think. The building itself is huge, and very very ornate, but not in either the gothic or classical sense. Gaudi's style is very organic, and very unique. The two (of four) facades that are finished are called the Nativity Facade (which took some 40 years to complete) and the Passion Facade. Only the Passion Facade was illuminated that night, but it was simply beautiful. The Facade itself, from a distance, looks a lot like a sand castle built by dribbling wet sand into spires. Up close, it's an incredibly detailed whirl of characters and organic shapes. Rising above the facade are four hollow towers that also have a kind of sandcastle appearance to them.
In my first full day in Barcelona, I stopped by the cathedral of Sta. Maria del Mar, which wasn't very impressive from the outside. My guidebook claimed it opened early, but all the doors were closed when I stopped by. Ah well. I hurried on to the Picasso Museum, which is supposedly one of the best in the world. I arrived only minutes after it'd opened, and was greeted by a line at the entrance and witnessed several tour groups enter too! Even as crowded as it was, it was very enjoyable. This museum had many paintings from Picasso's early period, academic works and the works where he had just started to experiment with novel techniques. There were also a good number of his later works. I was a bit disappointed by the commentary (although it was in English, which was nice) as it was mostly biographical. I was glad I'd seen the Picasso/Matisse exhibit in London, because it gave me a knowledgebase from which to view these Picasso paintings that I wouldn't have had otherwise. The last part of my day was spent wandering the Parc de la Ciutadella, near the Olympic Villa, and wandering through the Museu d'Árt Modern, which didn't have any well-known works in it, but had some stunning Art Neuveu and Art Deco (sp?) pieces. I really like hanging out in parks and watching people go by, as well :) My last stop was the Barcelona Arc de Triumph, which isn't nearly as big as the Parisian one, but this one is done in brick and is distinctly Spanish with is ornamentation, lack of distinctly classical elements (like a frieze sculpture or whatever). It was neat to see it, after having seen the one in Paris. The last part of my day was spent wandering the Las Ramblas avenue, which is littered with street performers (there were several of the 'human statues' around, even one made up like a devil (he'd painted his entire body red)), street artists and beggars, and the Port Vell area, which is a really commercial area build out over the water with shops, restaurants, an eight screen cineplex and an IMAX theatre. It turned out that the next day (Monday) was a national holiday in Spain, and from what I hear that night Spain managed to stay in the World Cup, so there was a lot of celebrating. The most audible way of doing this was by lighting these little exploding firecrackers everywhere. There probably wasn't a five-minute span that went by that entire night when I didn't hear one (or many) of these going off!
My second and last full day in Barcelona was devoted to Gaudi's various pieces. I started with the Sagrada Familia again, and was speechless afterward. I really like Gaudi's stuff, and being able to walk through the inside of the construction site, see plaster models of architectural pieces, take an elevator and stairs to the top of one of the towers over the Nativity Facade (90m up (300ft)) was just wonderful. Accordingly, I took lots of pictures. It's really hard to describe just how innovative Gaudi was, especially considering that he died in 1926 when he was about 70 years old. His designs still look novel, even today. My next stop was a building that I'd studied in my architecture class while at Haverford - La Paderra, which translates as 'The Stone Quarry.' The outside of the building looks like rock smoothed by water that was stretched and wrapped around the front of this corner building. Speckling it are huge, round, pock-mark-like craters where windows are. Many of the windows have balconies that are fenced in by wildly twisted and shaped metal. The overall effect is very impressive. Some people call La Paderra Gaudi's most refined work, and I think I'd agree, since it has the most coherent feeling of the overall design. The Sagrada Familia, in comparison, is a dazzling whirl of different styles, shapes, scales and structures. In the attic of the building, there was a multimedia museum about Gaudi's work, which was well worth the entry fee. My final stop for the day was the Park Guell, a public park designed completely by Gaudi. It has the famous mosaic-covered Salamandar, a few Gaudi-designed houses (more of the sand-castle look, crossed with a gingerbread with icing appearance) and some other stuff that's just hard to describe in words! It was Gaudi-overload that day, but I very much enjoyed it. Gaudi is, I think, my favorite architect.
During my stay, I met an Australian named Daniel that I spent a good bit of time chatting to in our room in the hostel. He'd been traveling around Spain for a couple of weeks, and previously had been in Peru for the wedding of a friend of his. All in all, he's been backpacking for about 5 months. He's studying to be a civil engineer too, so we had a good time talking about Gaudi, among other things.
The last time I was in Barcelona, was about 12 years ago, when they were still building things in preparation for hosting the 1992 Summer Olympics. I recall Barcelona as being a very brown place, but the Barcelona I´ve enjoyed so far has been very, very green, and very, very hot.
In my last day in Barcelona, my goals are to find a post office (still haven't seen one, even after walking all of this city), mail out the half dozen postcards I´ve acquired (I went a little crazy since there are so many neat things here), see the aquarium (the largest in Europe) and otherwise relax.
p.s. Thank you to everyone who wrote back after my last message :) You folks that I've still never heard from... please send me a 'hello' email!
p.p.s. Another thing I've realized is that I really will have to come back to Europe again... there's just so much to see here. One could spend years traveling continuously and still places yet to go and things yet to see.
June 21, 2002
TravelBlog: Europe - part 4
This is the fourth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.
This is my last day in France, and I'm a little sad to be leaving so soon. I'm just getting to the point with my rudimentary French to feel comfortable navigating around, just today I navigated a bookstore and the post office (La Poste), and I've really enjoyed my time here. Scotland and England were a fun start; but France is definitely a foreign country for me, with many, many new things to discover. I really like the French language too, and wish that I was better at it (a small part of me is plotting to take French language classes and to spend as many summers in Paris (or somewhere else in France) as I can).
When I last left you, it was the morning of my last day in Paris, and I was leaving early, having done everything I'd wanted to do... well, that last day I did very little. I hung out in the Place des Vosges, a little public square a few blocks from the busy Bastille Metro stop. I read some more in my book, watched the Parisians lounging, did postcards and generally just relaxed. Later, I had Berthillon's sorbet (which was very good) and a nutella creperé, and realized that I'd finally discovered the Paris that people fall in love with - it was only after I stopped bustling around trying to see the 'sights' that I discovered this Paris. So I made up my mind to try to come back soon :)
The next few stops were small French towns - Amboise, Sarlot and then Carcassone. Amboise is in the Loire Valley and at the heart of Chateau-country. I stayed at a hostel there, which turned out to by my first bad-hostel experience. I poked around Amboise the day I arrived, seeing the Chateau d'Amboise and the Clos Lucé. The chateau was beautiful, but small. Apparently, at some point in its long (1000-year) history, four-fifths of it were sold off as scrap stone in order to pay for the renovation of the remaining fifth. If I recall correctly, it's known as the royal chateau because it became the French royal residence (of Françios I) for a brief period of time as well. The Clos Lucé is where Leonardo da Vinci lived out his last three years. François I gave Leonardo the little chateau so that they would be able to chat on a regular basis - supposedly, there's even a secret passage that connects the two chateaus. The following day, I rose early and rented what might be the most uncomfortable bicycle I've ever ridden on! With it, I rode to the Chateau Chenonseau. This chateau spans the river on which it sits (you might have seen pictures of it... it could very easily have been the set for a fairy tale). Aside from being quite beautiful as well (it was designed by Catherine da Medici and Diane something-or-other), it also served as a key point in WWII because it spanned the river delimiting free- and occupied-France, so sneaky things like prisoner swaps supposedly took place here. Very cool. My second and last stop on my uncomfortable bike was the Chateau Chaumont, which sits high up on a hill overlooking (through a delicate screen of trees) the Loire River and is much more castle-like than Chenoneau. The views of the river from the chateau and the surrounding gardens were breath taking, and I used-up an appropriate amount of film. As I was traveling to Chaumont, I realized with some dismay that the chateau I'd really wanted to see, Chambord, was too far away to reach in the short amount of time I had left that day! Arg. Again, I'll just have to come back and make a special effort to see it.
Sarlat was my next stop and was certainly my most expensive experience yet. After the bad hostel experience in Amboise, I spent a little extra and stayed at a hotel that I hoped would not have a long-term power-outage during the night (that's what happened in Amboise). Sarlat is a medieval town that has grown up a bit. The centre ville (city center) is very well preserved from its medieval days - the streets are very narrow (about 10ft from wall to wall in many places), some of the buildings have stone-shingled roofs, there are bits of the town wall that still surround the centre ville, and the buildings in general look like they're straight out of the 16th or 17th century (from XVIth or XVIIth, as the French would write it). My first day there, I walked around the centre ville and soaked up the atmosphere. I also marveled that this little town is the world capital of foie gras (goose liver) that's supposed to be good, but I didn't end up trying any. I have, however, been enjoying French food, which is very good. I imagine I'm missing out on a lot seeing as I'm a vegetarian, but c'est la vie.
My second day in Sarlat, I rented (with only a little bit of trouble in both finding the place and in conveying all the appropriate information in broken French) a moped/scooter. This was my first time riding any kind of motor-powered bicycle, but after a slightly rocky first start, I was zipping along the French secondary roads. I very much enjoyed the whole experience, and even if I hadn't had other plans, I would have enjoyed spending the entire day just riding it :). My first stop was to see the cave paintings in the Dordogne area. I chose to see the Lasceaux caves, which are closed to the public. Fortunately, after a ten year project, France produced a near exact replica of the two main galleries of the caves that contains 90% of the paintings. It was a bit expensive to get the guided English tour, but the paintings were still very enjoyable, and quite impressive for being done in two- or three-color mineral paints under candlelight some 17,000 years ago. My next stop was te Dordogne river, via Gare d'Sarlat (Sarlat train station) where I bought my ticket to Carcassone with no English!). Back on the Dordogne River, I found a canoeing company, got myself a one-person kayak, stowed my bag inside at my feet and headed down the river. The visual panorama from the water was simply breathtaking - the unbroken lush green of the trees carpetted the hills that rolled gently back from the silky grey-green ribbon of water, the Dordogne, that stretched out from my feet. Capping the scene was a baby-blue sky speckled with fluffy white clouds that had only recently emerged from what had started as a miserably gloomy morning. I used an appropriate amount of film as trees, white-washed cliffs with the carpet of trees literally hanging off the top, the castles and the towns of the Dordogne River Valley gently passed by. Along the way, I met some interesting people including a pair of Brits (one Scottish and one Welsh, and their accents showed it) and a family of Americans who live in Buchurest(sp?), Romania. Although Sarlat was my most expensive experience, it's been one of my favorite so far as well.
The next day, I headed to Carcassone by train. Much to my consternation, when I'd finally figured out how to actually validate my train tickets, no one checked them on the whole five hour journey! Still, I have one more chance to do it correctly as tomorrow I leave for Barcelona. Carcassone used to be another tiny medieval town. It sits very near to the Spanish-French border, and you can tell by the heat. Modern Carcassone is two towns; La Cité is the old medieval town, while the new development (including a McDonalds... the first I've seen in over a week) is across the river from La Cité. My guidebook told me that there's lots of stuff 'nearby' to see, but it requires renting a car, and since I really have no desire to do so, I'm only staying the one day here before moving off to Barcelona. Never the less, Carcassone offers some fun things to see too. I'm back in a youth hostel (my wallet is still feeling hurt over spending so much for those two nights in Sarlat), which seems nice. The guide book also warned that Carcassone is big with the day-trippers, and as I arrived in La Cité around lunch-time, I got to experience the throngs of bussed-in tourists first-hand. By dinnertime, most had either retired to their busses (coaches) or moved to another locale, and the place assumed a somewhat less touristy feel. La Cité itself is similar to Sarlat in that it's a well-preserved medieval town, but the architecture and general feel were much different from Sarlat: the buildings have less of a gothic or renaissance design to them and looked more 'mediterranean', or at least designed more to bear the sweltering heat of the climate. The city walls also gave it a more rugged feel - the walls are about forty-feet high, and there are two sets of them, with the inner set starting between ten and fifty feet inward from the outer set. All in all, it gives the place a very, ah... defensible feeling. The area was at one time swept by crusades from the Roman church to exterminate a local sect (the Cathars) that the church deemed a threat. Anyway, I strolled the outside walls and marveled at them and the endless miles of vineyards that are tucked away behind La Cité.
Tomorrow, it's off to Barcelona!
Now reading: Fellowship of the Ring, book two. It's been really interesting to read FotR after seeing the movie version of it. I think about which of the numerous scenes made it into the movie, which things where changed, etc. and I really do think the movie is a good adaptation of the book, if a slightly overly dramatic one.
Au revior! Aaron
p.s. I haven't heard from a lot of you, and I'm curious to know how life is with you - so please write back! :)
June 16, 2002
TravelBlog: Europe - part 3
This is the third of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.
I'm currently in Paris, and have really enjoyed my first stop in France. The French keyboard layout has been a little bit of a challenge to adjust to (I can only imagine what the Greek and Turkish keyboards will be like), although the computer in this Internet Café is using the English version of Windows, which is at least something. :)
I pick up my story on my last night in London, where I was going to see "Up For Grabs" (starring Madonna). Technically speaking, the show was phenomenal. The set, lighting and sound were amazing and served well to facilitate the story of a struggling art dealer (Madonna) as the play follows her through the story of her first big sale, what she does for it, and how it effects both her life and the lives of her clients. The story had some interesting twists, and there were several bluntly explicit (in terms of the subject matter) scenes that involved racy sexual situations. I think I might have missed some of the deeper metaphorical symbolism, but then again, maybe there wasn't any :) Following the play, I hurried back to the hostel to sleep, as my Eurostar train (chunnel) departed at 7:25 the next morning. I arrived in Paris, changed monies to Euros, navigated my way to the hostel (an MIJE, which is an association of French hostels), dropped my bag off and struck out for a walking tour of the city.
I started at Notre Dame, marveled at the gothic architecture, studied the frontal facade, and strolled through the darkened interior through the throngs of tourists. My next stop was the Deportation Memorial, one to the 200,000 French that died in the Nazi deathcamps in WWII. I then strolled through the Latin Quarter (an area similar to Soho in London, or the Village in NYC), then over by Sainte Chapelle (a beautiful 13th century chapel with enormous stained-glass windows). I didn't go inside Ste. Chapelle, but continued on to the Samaritaine department store that has a fantastic rooftop view of the city. One interesting thing about both London and Paris (more-so about Paris) is that the buildings are much shorter than those in American cities - I think this is due to the European city's age. Anyway, I then snapped a picture of the west side of the Lourve and the Centre Pompidou, both of which I studied in an architecture class at Bryn Mawr. That night, I met and hung out with a guy named Tom who was passing through Paris. Turns out he was the main force behind an American band named Catch-22, and receives royalties for some of his work (he's since left the band) which he uses to fund trips to France. He's studying art in Georgia, and working as a graphic designer while he tries to spend time on his true passion: film.
My second day in Paris was even busier than my first. I wasn't able to get a 3-day museum pass like I'd wanted, so instead I got a 1-day pass and had a busy day. I started at the Lourve, seeing things like the Nike of Samothrace, Venus de Millo, Mona Lisa (which was still under whelming), the Coronation of Napoleon, etc. One very interesting thing about the Lourve, aside from it being the biggest and oldest museum in Europe, is that professional painters will set up their easels in the galleries and paint pieces/copies of the masterpieces. I found them to be just as interesting to watch as the artworks that surrounded them! I also went to the Musée d'Orsay (which I realized upon entering that I'd also been to before), the Rodin Museum which had the original Thinker sculptures as well as The Gates of Hell, The Kiss and The Secret. All very very cool - sculpture is one of my favorite types of art. Because the Musée Carte covered it, I also stopped by the Tomb of Napoleon, which was awe-inspiring; everything in it was huge. There in the center of a vaulting domed cathedral-like shrine was a stone coffin the size of a large SUV that houses his body. Even though I'm not enough of a history-buff to really get excited about it, I was still impressed. I dined at a café, and headed to the Centre Pompidou museum of modern art. Definitely some far-out stuff there. As I was walking through the museum, I did some serious thinking about the meaning of 'art', and what role some of the truly far-out stuff played in the on-going discussion (which is how one could imagine what art is) the art community has about art. For instance, is a urinal with some artist's name on it truly art, and thus worthy enough to be in a museum? (there was indeed such a piece there) I didn't used to think so, but now I think yes, because it forces the viewer to consider the very question an artist considers: what is art, and what does art mean to you? I didn't like that particular piece, but it did make me think.
My next day was somewhat less busy. I saw the Arc d'Triomphe, saw the view from the top, rode the Metro to the Arc de la Defense (another great example of monolithic modern architecture), then over to Sacre Coeur (where I was even heckled by some guy selling what looked to be strands of string), then to the Luxemburg Gardens, and for a stroll through the picturesque Marsias neighborhood. Exhausted from two days of heavy sightseeing, I went back to my hostel room and collapsed for a nap. Soon, I met my new roommate San, who is a visual art masters student at MIT. We went to a cafe where he had dinner and I had dessert, and we chatted away the evening and into the night in true Parisian style.
Having seen and done just about everything I'd wanted to in Paris, I leave for Amboise tomorrow, where I'll continue to struggle with my French phrasebook and see the famous French chateaus.
Now reading: The Fellowship of the Ring. I finished the fourth Harry Potter book last night - I very much enjoyed that series and am looking forward to either another book or another movie to come out soon.
Au revoir! Aaron
p.s. thank you to everyone who has emailed me!
June 12, 2002
TravelBlog: Europe - part 2
This is the second of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.
When you last left me, I was in Edinburgh. I've since moved on to London and stayed in two more hostels (both YHA run - for those of you that don't know, the Youth Hostel Association is an organization that runs a large number of hostels all over the world. What's special about them is that they all adhere to a certain 'standard' of facilities, and you can only stay there if you're a member of the YHA). London is definitely one of my favorite cities in the world, tied with Paris and NYC, I believe. The London public transportation system is far and away the best I've experienced too - even the busses are great!
My first day in London (a Saturday) began with a walking-tour of the downtown area near the Thames River. I managed to get to the Globe Theatre box office before it closed and purchased a £5 'yard' ticket (i.e. where the peasantry would stand for the show (yes, stand)) for Tuesday night's performance of Twelfth Night. I'd never seen or read that particular play, so I was very much looking forward to it. On my last trip through London (about 5 years ago), I saw a Midsummer's Night Dream there, and thoroughly enjoyed it. As I was strolling along the Queen's Walkway (the path that follows the south side of the Thames), I noted things like the London Eye (big ferris-wheel thing), St. Paul's, the Tate Modern Museum (which now inhabits a converted, former mid-20th century powerstation), the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, etc. Had a nice person take my photo with Big Ben in the background, and then walked up toward Trafalgar Square, Leciester (pronounced 'Lester') Square and finally Piccadilly Circus.
The next few days I spent lots of time in museums. I saw this fabulous exhibit in the Tate Modern on Picasso and Matisse. I had no idea that they had such an interesting relationship. The exhibit also presented their works both chronologically, and paired works that were related to each other in terms of style, meaning and how they were significant to each other (for instance, some of Picasso's paintings served to prompt Matisse to incorporate certain aspects of the Cubist style). Very interesting. The British Museum was an interesting place, as well. I saw the Rosetta Stone, the Sutton Hoo burial mound (which I realized I'd seen once before when my mother had taken me to the British Museum when I was very young - one of my distinct memories associated with the exhibit were these shooting pains in my (little) legs that were tired from walking slowly and methodically around a museum, rather than the running/playing they were used to!). The National Portrait Gallery had a special exhibit on Baroque artists that worked in Genoa, which was pretty good. I realized as I was walking about the Gallery that my endurance for museums was diminishing a little, after having spent the better part of three days on them. I persevered though :) One of the best thing about the National Gallery were the school groups - what seemed to be young people who worked for the Gallery sat with groups of elementary school kids discussing a particular painting. I was surprised at how interested most of the kids seemed in the paintings, and they saw an amazing amount in the paintings with only a little prompting from the guides.
One really can't spend any significant amount of time in London without going to the theatre, which I've done quite a bit. On Monday (and Wednesday), I unsuccessfully tried to get tickets to see Gwenyth Paltrow in "proof". But I did see the Vagina Monologues on Monday night, Twelfth Night at the Globe Theatre Tuesday night, and tonight (Wednesday), I'm going to see "Up For Grabs" with Madonna.
Now Reading: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (book 4). Very good books. I'm very much looking forward to the movie version of book 2 (The Chamber of Secrets) now.
Yesterday, I met an American from Texas named Brett, who was also staying at my hostel. He was in his 4th of five weeks traveling solo, and had left Great Britain for the end, and we had a great time chatting about both traveling and other things. This morning, he left for York, and we swapped emails and promised to keep in touch.
Tomorrow morning, it's off to Paris (7:23a.m. train!), for another long stay.
June 07, 2002
TravelBlog: Europe - part 1
This is the first of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.
The first thing I notice about this computer is that some of the important keys on the keyboard (like @) are misplaced from the American ones, and that I keep hitting characters I don't mean to! I can only imagine what it will be like in an Italian or Greek internet cafe.
My first few days on the trip, in New York City, were a great way to start out. I was able to make some mistakes, get into something of a routine, figure out that I'd packed my main backpack wrong, and in general get used to traveling. I also learned that snobby art galleries (like the Neue Gallery) are sometimes more expensive ($7) that monolithic collections like the Metropolitan Museum of Art ($5). After a few days of kicking around New York, I headed to JFK airport for the long journey through Frankfurt to Edinburgh.
I arrived in Edinburgh, passed uneventfully through customs and hopped a coach (bus) into the city centre. I checked-in at the High Street Hostel, which is packed full of young folk (mostly British). Hostels are interesting, and I look forward to seeing what others look like. The High Street Hostel is two floors of five rooms with six to ten beds each. Kitchen, showers and toilets, laundry, a lounge and a pool table. I think everyone else my age from the States also notices this when they first arrive, and I've even been told it before, but it still surprised me just how many people smoke here.
Lisa Graham (who was studying at U. Edinburgh this past semester) has let me check my email at the university library, which closes soon, so I'll try to summarize my most recent adventures quickly:
The National Galleries here in Edinburgh (all free this year) are great. The Portrait Gallery was the best, being housed in a fantastically interesting Victorian gothic building in the centre of the New Town (adjacent to the Old Town, even though both are older than the US, I believe). There's a small church called St. Giles that I visited yesterday morning. I was surprised that there were so many war memorials inside it (usually brass plaques on the walls). I also met the minister, who turned out to be an American and former Harvard professor. He'd even heard of Haverford. Small world :) Today, I saw the Edinburgh Castle, which sits on what's called Castle Rock. The Castle's had a rather tumultuous history, involving lots of sieges and has swapped hands between the Scottish and the English several times. Most notably, it was the birth place of King James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England), who united the two nations. This 'Castle Rock' thing that the castle sits on is the basalt base of a long dead volcano that was uncovered when, in the last ice age, glaciers carved the area. When the glaciers hit Castle Rock, they flowed around it like water going around a rock (only a lot slower), and also left a long 'tail' of softer volcanic rock behind it. It's on this tail-mound that the Old Town of Edinburgh is built. The Castle also has a dog cemetery in it that was used in the 1600s by the garrison's officers.
Other fun things: I hung out in an Irish pub (there are pubs everywhere in Edinburgh. Literally one on every corner), heard a band called The Roods, and had two free pints of Guinness beer (cold, not warm. phew) courtesy of the Guinness Girls who were luckily doing some sort of promotional thing, and thus giving out free beer. I ran into a friend Sarah Leer from Wake Forest, who I got to know while I was working on a play there last Fall; she was studying in Bristol this past semester and just happened to be traveling with her family and just happened to be at the Castle Edinburgh at 9:30am this morning when I was buying my entry ticket.
I was rained-on two days, and had two days of rainless cloudy days (which are apparently the indicator that spring/summer is around, rather than winter). I've seen a couple of the ultra-compact cars made by Mercedes, Daewoo and Toyota (of all companies) that are literally less than six-feet long. Almost all of the cars here are compact, and much smaller than the behemoths you see in the States. The Jeep Grand Cherokee (of which I've seen only one) looks gigantic next to the small European cars! And finally, I got to see my friends Lisa and Cat, which was a very nice way to start out my trip.
Tomorrow, I head to London and am looking forward to a new hostel, seeing some theatre (my friend Madeleine has recommended seeing the play 'The Distance from Here' (which stars a guy I met at a party she took me to last summer, Jason Ritter)), riding the Tube, and seeing some major British museums.
Cheers from Edinburgh!