Days 20-22: Ireland

Tuesday, June 27

Today was a travel day, which was fortunately uneventful and unexciting. We flew back with the other 11 passengers on the afternoon flight from Islay to Glasgow before boarding a slightly larger flight to Dublin. A long travel day with lots of waiting in lines for two very short flights. After checking into our hotel in Dublin that evening, we walked around the corner to a restaurant where Fjord had some traditional Irish stew for dinner while I had mushroom soup and goat cheese salad. Both goat cheese and mushrooms are apparently very popular in Ireland, and they also happen to be two of my favorite foods. Lucky me! Then it was off to bed to get ready for our early morning…

Wednesday, June 28

Today was also a long travel day, but much more fun than yesterday. We woke up very early to catch our 6:45 train headed toward Cork, though we got off at the city of Limerick. We were traveling with Railtours Ireland on a group tour to the West Coast and back in a day. We boarded a bus in Limerick and after a quick driving tour through the city, we were off through the countryside to our first destination: Bunratty Castle. This castle was built during the Middle Ages and passed from clan to clan as they feuded over the ownership for the first few hundred years of its existence, being rebuilt multiple times after it was damaged in each battle. After a tour of the castle, which didn’t take long because medieval castles are quite small, we explored the surrounding village, which has been maintained to look as it did in the 1800s. We shared a pot of tea and a freshly made scone with jam and cream in the bakery before heading back to the bus.

Bunratty Castle
Grand Hall in Bunratty Castle, where court was held to settle disputes among the villagers
15th century bedroom in the castle
View from the top!
From there we drove to Doolin where we had lunch at a traditional Irish pub. They make one vegetarian option each day, and today’s was a veggie-filled egg bake with french fries. Fjord had fish and chips, a classic dish since we were right on the coast. 

After that it was a short drive over to the Cliffs of Moher, the main destination. Here we had an hour and a half to hike up along the cliffs and explore the visitor’s center. We lucked out with sunny weather and had a fairly warm hike up the steps and along the edge. It was a bit scary watching how close people got to these very sharp cliffs, and we were careful to stay on the path and just enjoy the views from there. The visitor’s center had a good explanation of plate tectonics and how the motion led to mountains that formed the British Isles, and then how erosion has shaped them since then. Interesting stuff!

Our next drive took us through The Burren, an Irish National Park. It is a beautiful rocky landscape – Burren comes from the Gaelic word for rocky – that has flat vistas for miles, or kilometers, I suppose. The flat rocks break off from erosion by wind and water along the coast exposing fields full of the perfect stones for skipping rocks on a river. These are a bit larger than normal skipping stones though, and despite their weathered look they aren’t very brittle.

The Burren, Irish National Park

After an hour of driving through this beautiful landscape between the hills and the coast, we descended into the city of Galway. We had an hour and a half before our train ride back to Dublin, so we wandered around the streets. We were more or less downtown, but there didn’t appear to be any obvious shops or tourist attractions we could find, so we headed into a small pub around the corner from the train station. They served beer and liquor, but no cocktails. I asked if the bartender if he could do a gin and tonic, and most of the bars in Ireland seemed to keep little bottles of tonic water on hand. He said sure and presented me with a giant wine glass filled with local Irish Gunpowder gin, tonic water, and fresh fruit – blueberries, strawberries, and a slice of grapefruit! It now beats Beefeater for the best gin and tonic I’ve had! (Is it fair to rank them if I’ve only had two?) I know we usually put lime in them at home, but I think I’m going to try to spread this berry/fruit cocktail around the US!

Next we grabbed sandwiches from the deli in the grocery store next door – the lady making them was VERY confused by my vegetariansim – and hopped on the train for our ~3 hour ride back to Dublin. It was a very pretty ride back across the country, and it was neat that it was still light for almost all of the journey! We got back around 10:30pm and enjoyed a nice walk back along the river with the green Irish lights illuminating each bridge.

Thursday, June 29

We slept in after our long day yesterday, but eventually we awoke for the last full day in this awesome journey. We grabbed our raincoats and walked across the street to a nice breakfast restaurant where I could get one more scone with jam, cream, and a pot of tea. From there we walked back down the river to the Guinness Brewery. It is an enormous complex and we started seeing their signs and slogans a couple blocks away.

The brewery has to be around here somewhere, right?! Turns out it’s a whole complex!

When we finally made our way to the entrance, we stepped into the bottom of the largest pint glass in the world! This round, clear building is 7 stories high. The tour starts on the ground floor where we walked through the giftshop on the way to the museum entrance. The first floor of the museum goes over the four ingredients in Guinness: barley, water, hops, and yeast. It is a neat, interactive exhibit. A ramp took us up, under a waterfall, to the second story in this giant glass building where learned how casks were made by hand. Did you know the barrel is just a particular size of a cask? There are many other sizes as well, but barrel is the most common so most people just call casks barrels now. We also learned about the fermentation process, how the beer is aged, and how it is carbonated with combination of CO2 and nitrogen to produce extra small, soft bubbles.

Ready for our Guinness tasting!

The third floor was a tasting academy where we learned to identify and detect each of the four flavors in a healthy gulp of Guinness (it’s not meant to be sipped, apparently). The academy starts with walking into an all white room to stimulate your non-visual senses. There are four basins each with a different element providing the scent of one of the four flavors, the two most distinct being the bitter hops and the rich, dark chocolate. Each basic flavor had some sort of fog machine or dried ice system to waft the scent up to you. The instructor stood in front of a bar at the far side and asked us about the true color of Guinness – ruby red, when held up to the light! From there she ushered us into a dark, theater-styled room with curtains and mini-pedestals where we could rest our tasting glasses and she walked us through how to properly drink (gulp, not sip!) the beer and wash it through your palate to get all four flavors. This was definitely the most complicated tasting I’ve been to! I can’t say that it made me like beer any better, but I did get a better appreciation for the subtleties in the drink.

The fourth floor was dedicated to Guinness’ long history of elaborate advertisements. There were life-sized figurines of some of their classic poster and commercial characters, as well as shelves of some of the props and other trinkets they’ve used over the years to see their beer. Slogans were plastered on the walls, and the apparently famous whistling oyster from the World Fair was on display. They had photo booths where you could paste your face onto one of their classic adds, and the room ended with a theater-style display showing their most famous commercials, including the surfing one that won an award.

The fifth floor brought us to the pouring workshop, where we would learn to pour the perfect pint of Guinness. After waiting in a short line, we were ushered in a group of 12 to one of the taps in the center of the room. Our instructor guided us in how to use the tap, inspect the glass, angle it for the right amount of foam, and top it off for the full pint. Fjord nudged me forward when she was done talking, and I led the group in trying it for ourselves! I pulled down on the tap and allowed the glass to fill up to the harp on the side, holding it at an angle. Then I set my pint on the counter to settle, giving others the chance to pour. Once everyone had a settling pint – it really is beautiful to watch the nitrogen bubbles sink down the sides – I held my glass upright under the tap again and pushed back on it (lower pressure than pulling) to top it off. The others followed suit and we were sent away with our perfect pints and a certificate of completion for our lesson in pint pouring.

Learning to pour the perfect pint!
He’s a natural.
I still don’t like beer, but isn’t it pretty?

This lesson concluded our experience with the museum, and we carefully took our drinks upstairs to the bar at the top of this giant pint glass. As you would imagine, it is a large, round room made entirely of glass walls, perfect for viewing Dublin! As we walked around the room we could see famous landmarks all over the city, described in white lettering right on the windows that faced them. It was neat to see the sights but a bit crowded, so after a quick walk around we headed back down to floor six where we got some lunch at the cafe to munch on as we sipped – sorry, gulped – our pints. Despite the fascinating experience, beer is still not my favorite. I think Guinness somehow knew I didn’t finish my pint, because as we were exiting I set off the alarm! They still let me leave though, and we headed back to the hotel to pack and rest up before our last night in Europe.

Walking home in the rain, by the Ha’penny Bridge, which separated the poor folks on one side of the river from the ones who could pay a half penny to cross on the other. Now it’s free.

When we were all packed we headed out for an evening on the rainy streets of Dublin. We found a vegetarian restaurant and got a good meal before walking to Temple Bar, the nightlife district to find a pub. We stepped off the street into a large pub, following the sounds of live music. As we sipped our gin and tonics (sadly, only lime in this one) we were treated to the traditional sounds of a duo playing guitar and the Uilleann, the traditional Irish bagpipes that you pump with your arm instead of blowing into for air. Halfway through the set he put down the bagpipes and switched to a tin whistle, which he played like no flute I’ve seen before! They did a mixture of Irish folks songs, which were quite fun – everyone in the bar was singing along! – and more modern classics like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and U2. It was the perfect way to end our time in Ireland.

Live music at an Irish pub on our last night

The next day we hopped on a small plane from Dublin to Amsterdam before a much larger plane (787) took us back to San Francisco. It was a really incredible journey that Fjord and I will never forget. We feel so blessed to have been able to take a trip like this at this point in our lives. All of the planning and excitement over the last year has paid off. But all that said, we are now very grateful to be home with our kitty!


Days 17-18: Water to Whisky

Sunday, June 25

We woke up early for our delicious 8:30 breakfast, prepared and served by our wonderful hosts, Ron and Emma. After eating we got to relax in our room for a bit, since our tour didn’t start until noon. Perhaps my favorite feature of this lovely B&B is the enormous bathtub that comes with the Laphroaig room. It is a full, round, stand-alone tub complete with locally made soaps and bubble bath, which all together made for a very relaxing experience. Ahhh.

Bathtub in the Laphroaig Room at the Old Excise House B&B, Islay

By 11:30 we were headed down the path to Laphroaig for their Water to Whisky tour. Laphroaig is Fjord’s favorite, so we decided to go all out with their longest, most detailed tour. When we arrived we checked in with James, who would be our host for the next 5 hours. He asked which of us was the driver and was thrilled to hear we had walked! He then gave us each a souvenir whisky tasting glass complete with a strap to wear it around our necks. He warned us that we would have lots of opportunities to sample throughout the day… starting now, and sent us off with our first dram (Laphroaig Select) to wait for the rest of the group.

Ready to tour with our tasting-glass necklaces!

When the other 4 members had checked in, the 7 of us set off to tour the distillery. Since everyone had been on distillery tours before (thank you, Ardbeg, for the background!) James skipped over the details and focused instead on how Laphroaig is different than the other distilleries on the island. He took us to the malting room where the barley is spread on the floor to germinate over several days. Laphroaig is apparently one of the few distilleries to malt and roast some of their own barley! Unfortunately they still can’t do enough to keep up with demand, so they buy about 80% from Port Ellen. But their extra smokey flavor comes from the 20% they roast themselves with peat they hand cut from their fields on Islay. It was between roasts so we also got to go into the roasting room (giant oven) and take in the smell of charred peat. Below we saw where the peat is stored and the peat fires maintained. They burn it slightly wet since they really want to expose the barley to the smoke more than the heat.

The malting floor at Laphroaig
Malted barley, you can see it starting to sprout (malt)
The peat fire below the giant oven
Fjord, with a fresh lump of peat!

From there we returned to the little museum off the visitor’s center to collect a pair of boots and use the bathroom before heading off into the field. Here we also had a chance to print Fjord’s Friends of Laphroaig certificate showing the location of his plot of land. I joined the Friends of Laphroaig here as well, so I now have a plot of land, too! The plots are on the land that the Laphroaig water source runs through, helping to protect this important ingredient for sustained use in the future.

With boots in hand we grabbed the lunch boxes they had prepared for us and loaded into the Laphroaig van. James drove us past the Old Excise House up a road that divides sheep and cattle pastures. From the road we hiked about 15 minutes through the tall grass over the hilly landscape. We arrived at a small river with a small dam, which James told us is one of the two Laphroaig water sources on the island. It rains frequently, so fresh water supply isn’t an issue except when there have been disputes over land ownership. There was a big one in the past that resulted in Laphroaig being without water for 4 years in the early 1900s, but those are long since settled.

The Laphroaig water source

Beside the river was a picnic table where we sat to enjoy lunch. They had prepared a special vegetarian lunch for me: tomato soup, wraps of Laphroaig cheddar and carmelized onions with pea shoots, cheese and crackers, chocolate whisky cake, shortbread, and a bottle of water. Of course we were offered two more drams from different Laphroaig bottling during and after the meal. Fortunately they have the option to pass – if you’re driving (or just a lightweight like me) you can refuse the samples and they will give you a little sample to take home instead, so you still get to try it later when it’s safe. The legal blood alcohol level for driving in the UK is 0.05, so they take drinking and driving very seriously and want to make sure everyone is safe and having a good time.

Hiking to our lunch spot

As the group was finishing their second dram it started to sprinkle, so we headed back to the van. By the time we had driven partway around the island (about 20 minutes) to the peat fields the rain had stopped. We walked across the fields comparing the machine cut (not Laphroaig) peat to the peat cut by hand. Apparently Laphroaig is also big into conservation, and hand cutting the peat is better for the environment since they return the top layer of the soil (O horizon, as my AP students would tell you) and allow the peat to replenish. We learned that peat developes on Islay at a rate of 1 mm per year, so it takes 1000 years to replace a meter’s depth of harvest peat. The peat goes deeper than that, but Laphroaig has plenty and wants to keep their harvesting as sustainable as possible, so they only remove the first meter. James told us that at that rate they still have about 4000 years worth of peat on their land, even if none of it replenished. Good news for smoky whisky fans.

Having a dram out on Laphroaig’s peat fields

Another reason sustainability is important is that HRH Prince Charles has chosen Laphroaig as the royal whisky. Certain products can be selected as royal items throughout the UK, and those brands get to put the royal seal on their products, which is why you will see it on every bottle of Laphroaig. The criteria for being selected are very difficult, including sustainability requirements, and so it is quite an honor. It also helps with marketing, so Laphroaig is doing all they can to ensure they remain the favorite of the royal family.

After a brief explanation from our guide, we had a chance to cut the peat ourselves, using the special squared shovel with a horn handle. It was really neat to be wandering around the island participating in the steps people go through to make whisky. Such a unique way to see Islay! When everyone had cut their peat, we headed back to Laphroaig to see the warehouse.

Cutting peat

The warehouse was a neat experience. From all of the aging casks of whisky, the tour guides had tasted and selected three for our tasting. This tasting is not open to regular tours, and these casks will never be bottled, so it really is a unique experience. The other young lady in our group (yes, there were only two of us) suggested we do a blind tasting, and James thought it sounded fun! From what we had learned throughout the day, we had to identify the different flavors in each dram and guess at how old it was and what else might make it unique. It was quite fun! I again opted for the take-home samples, but James still gave me a little taste so I could play the guessing game. (So local friends, if you want to taste some rare whisky, let us know! I’ve still got those samples.)

After the tasting we were allowed to choose our favorite to bottle and take home. We used a device that was basically a giant straw – hold you finger over the top to trap the whisky then release to pour it into a glass or bottle – to fill a small (250 ml) bottle with our preferred sample. Fjord and I chose different ones, so we now have two rare whiskies in our collection. His is from 2006, and mine is from 2003. The older ones are generally mellower and smoother. The younger ones usually have a stronger peat flavor with more spice. After labeling our bottles and registering them in the Laphroaig cask book we concluded our tour in the giftshop. I decided to purchase some of that delicious Laphroaig cheese, and I look forward to sharing it with friends!

After the tour we crossed the street to find our plots of land! Using the GPS on Fjord’s phone, we navigated the tall grasses to the precise location of each of our square feet of Laphroaig land. They provide a variety of flags from different nationalities, so we were able to stick a little American flag in each of our plots. Kind of fun to see all of the little flags scattered through the grass!

We walked back along the path to our B&B quite happy, reviewing all that we had learned about Islay and whisky making. It was a very special tour experience. After a short rest we headed into Port Ellen for some dinner. After eating we walked along the beach and ended up at the Port Ellen Malt Buildings, where all of the barley (except that which the distilleries prepare themselves) is malted and roasted. It was fun walking on an abandoned beach, and we even saw some deer along the road. Other than whisky there really isn’t much on Islay, and since the distilleries own the land to protect their fields and water sources, it really isn’t developed. It was so nice to spend some time away from the crowds of the large European cities we visited at the beginning of this trip.

The beach at Port Ellen, with the Port Ellen Malt on the right

Monday, June 26

After a restful night in our cozy B&B room we woke for another of Emma’s delicious breakfasts. She makes bread, scones, and jam herself, and has even won awards for her whisky and fruit jam! I believe the Lagavulin apricot is her top award winner, but she also shared with us a very peaty Ardbeg-and-orange marmalade. Her husband, Ron, works at Ardbeg giving tours as his second job. His first love is golf though, and his other job is teaching golf lessons on the island. He will give private lessons on the practice green, or if you’re good enough he’ll take you out on the course and guide you as you play! Over breakfast we had fun chatting with the other B&B guests (there are only 2 rooms, so max 4 people at a time) and Emma about life in England vs. Scotland, what brought Emma’s family to Islay from England, and the cost and challenges of buying houses everywhere around the world! The other couple, an older couple from England, were at the Old Excise House for the second time having loved it so much when they came last year. The husband collects whisky (not to drink, just to admire) and they had toured every (all 8) distillery on the island and were headed to Jura, the neighboring island next. I’m glad Fjord was happy with just 3 distillery visits. 🙂

Our third and final distillery visit on Islay

After breakfast we drove to the other side of the island, right along the Atlantic Ocean, to the Bruichladdich distillery. We pulled up to the blue and white sign, each letter written across a wine barrel painted in Bruichladdich’s sea blue color. The factory was undergoing a deep clean and so there were no tours that day. I was confused since I had called and made a reservation a couple days before. When we entered the gift shop we learned that the our reservation wasn’t for a tour, but that we would instead be having a unique tasting in the warehouse! They handed us mini wine glasses etched with their logo and sent us off with two other couples and a guide.

Amongst the floor to ceiling stacks of casks they had set some chairs and tables with water pitchers. Similar to Laphroaig, the distillery staff had selected three casks for us to taste. The first one was an old cask they had rediscovered when reestablishing the distillery after it had been shut down in. It was from 1989! They had opened it a few years ago and found it to be less than delicious, so they poured it back in a new barrel and let it age a few more years. Now, at a ripe 28 years old, it is delicious! Definitely the oldest whisky Fjord and I have ever had. Probably my oldest drink ever. Who knew it’d be safe to drink something made the year Jen was born!

The oldest whisky we’ve ever had!

The other two casks, from 2004 & 2005 were also tasty, but by cask three the very large drams were beginning to hit me and Fjord had to finish my drink. The folks on Islay are quite generous with their samples! While we enjoyed the whisky we had a chance to chat with our guide about the history of Bruichladdich and life on Islay. She had grown up on the island and in the whisky business, with her grandfather distilling since before she was born. She said she could remember the first time he offered her a taste of whisky: like most kids, she thought it was awful! But over time the taste grew on her. Now she’s probably about Katherine’s age, maybe younger, and looking forward to a career in the whisky business. She’s hoping to become a brand ambassador so she can travel the world and share her appreciation for the fine spirit with others from all over. Quite the dream, having lived her whole life on an island less than half the size of Kauai. She was very kind and knowledgeable though, so I’m sure she’ll be successful.

After the tasting we needed some time to digest, so we walked down the road to the small gas station diner and got some toasties – Scottish grilled cheeses with veggies or meat in them – and relaxed with some coffee. Afterwards we walked along the beach on the other side of the road. We had the whole place to ourselves, at least in terms of humans. The sheep from the fields on the other side of the road had decided to wander over for a beach day too! I think they would agree that it was quite relaxing.

On our drive back to town we decided to take a short detour into the middle of the island to find the Islay Wool Mill. I thought we would just see a small shop, but as soon as we walked in the owner led us through to the back and told us all about his weaving room and the fabrics and clothing he’s designed for years, including for several movies like Braveheart! Apparently he is well known among the Scottish traditional textile community. It was neat to watch the giant looms at work and see some of his elegant products.

Next we headed to the town of Bowmore, the capital of Islay. The town was tiny, but still larger than Port Ellen with it’s three streets. There was a shop with some nice Scottish pottery. It reminded me of Louisville Stoneware, but with Scottish symbols like a thistle or some poetry by Robert Burns. There was also a soap shop with a variety of whisky scented options. At the top of the Main Street was the tiny Kilarrow Parish Church (Church of Scotland/Presbyterian), famous for being round, so there are no corners for the devil to hide in. It had a few rows of pews and a small electric organ. There was no one in it, but the door was open and the man at the bus stop next door said we were free to go in. Such a friendly little town!

Worn out from our morning adventures, we decided to grab some takeout and head back to the B&B for an early night. Since we still had hours of light left, we took a nice long walk on the path after dinner. We made it all the way to Lagavulin, which of course was closed, but we were able to walk along the path to a nice little gazebo on the property right on the water. As we were admiring the mama swan and her ducklings in the placid water, a man approached us from the distillery. We figured he was coming to tell us they were closed and we needed to get off the property, but in another showing of Scottish kindness he ran up and said, “There’s a seal in the water! I wanted to make sure you saw it!” He appeared to be the night shift still master, but I guess he had gotten bored watching the stills and wanted to come share in the wildlife with us! He let us walk around the property to take a picture with the sign, and advised us to walk out on their little pier, too! The better to see the seals with. We couldn’t believe our luck! It was like having a private tour of the grounds. We walked back to our place happy and relaxed after a wonderful three days on this unique island.

Swans an the pier at Lagavulin
Evening explorations at Lagavulin
The view from the walking path

Days 15-16: From the mountains to an island

Friday, June 23
Today we woke up to another beautiful, overcast day in Fort William. We had another delicious B&B breakfast – full Scottish breakfast for Fjord (including haggis) and French toast with fresh fruit for me.

Traditional Scottish breakfast at the Ashburn House B&B in Fort William

After breakfast we set off on our ~3 hour drive south to Glasgow, first stopping at the local Ben Nevis distillery. This was our first whisky distillery tour, and it was neat to learn about the process: malt the barley (let it germinate), roast and dry the barley (if you use peat as fuel, this is when the whisky gets its peaty flavor), soak the barley, add yeast and let it ferment, distill the remaining liquid, and age it in oak barrels previously used for other spirits – usually bourbon, but the barrels could also come from sherry, wine, or anything else with a strong flavor. Then bottle and enjoy! We were surprised to learn how much of the process is similar to the beer brewing Fjord and his friends do at home. The liquid you get after fermentation is basically strong beer. It’s the distillation and aging process that makes it whisky.

Fjord at Ben Nevis Distillery

After our tour we went to the gift shop for our tastings. I’m still not a whisky fan, and since I would be doing the long drive today Fjord was happy to finish mine. 🙂 Unfortunately he did not like the standard Ben Nevis as much as the MacDonald, and the shop had just sold their last bottle yesterday! Disappointed, Fjord looked around the shop trying to decide if there were any other whisky souvenirs he might want. Unable to find one, we were about to purchase a minutare bottle of the MacDonald – when the delivery truck showed up full of full-sized bottles! We left with the first of our whisky souvenirs and one very happy Fjord.

The drive to Glasgow was absolutely beautiful. Scary driving aside, I enjoyed it as much as possible. We drove across wide open meadows, around steep peaks, by large waterfalls, and through swampy bogs. The main road goes right through the other of Scotland’s National Parks, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. (We already drove through the other park, Cairngorms on the way up to Inverness.) We stopped at one of the cafes in the park for a quick lunch on Loch Lomond before continuing on our way. This loch is at the base of Ben Lomond, which I assume is the namesake for the area in the Santa Cruz Mountains at home. For those brushing up on your Scottish at home, Ben = mountain, Loch = lake. I believe those words are from Gaelic, however there are signs all of the place with Gaelic translations that are slightly different, so perhaps they’re the modernized versions or English pronunciations.

Rainy Loch Lomond

We arrived at our Glasgow airport hotel in the early evening. While it would have been nice to explore Glasgow, we were pretty tired from all the travel and opted for a early night at the hotel restaurant and relaxing before the next leg of our journey. In the morning… off to Islay! Fun fact, the hotel and airport are actually in the town of Paisley, which made Fjord quite happy. 🙂

Saturday, June 24

We woke up quite early for our 8:30am flight to Islay. Turns out the Glasgow airport is very small and you don’t actually need to arrive too early, at least if you’re flying FlyBe, the only airline that does the twice-daily 25-minute flight to and from Islay. In fact, to manage crowds the airport won’t let you check in more than 2 hours before your flight (including checking your luggage), and they only post gate info 30 minutes before flying. This strategy keeps all of the travelers in their duty free mall and food court, since you have no idea which direction your gate will be. Very clever.

Such a little plane!

After a little while we boarded our tiny flight (35 seats!) to Islay. It was a very quick flight through the clouds before we landed on the wide, grassy peat plains of the island. We walked down the stairs from the plane door and into the single door of the airport terminal where our luggage popped out on a conveyor belt right next to us. Five minutes at the car hire counter and we had a little red VW 2-door mini hatchback to take us around the island. Google maps was a little iffy on directions, but the map/GPS function worked well so we were able to make our way to Ardbeg by 10am.

Our tour wasn’t until 11, so we got a pot of green tea and looked around the shop. There were some interesting history of whisky books. An hour later we met up with our enthusiastic young tour guide. She was probably about my age but clearly had much more experience with whisky! She took us out to the water’s edge where you get a great view of the Ardbeg sign. The tour around the distillery wasn’t too unlike Ben Nevis, but we definitely got a stronger sense of history and culture. Like seemingly all distilleries on the island, Ardbeg officially started distilling in 1815 when an act of parliament allowed legal whisky sales through a permitting process, even though they had been distilling whisky for years before that. We saw and tasted the dried, malted barley that they buy from the giant malting plant in Port Ellen, just down the road. We learned about the different levels of peaty-ness, measured in PPM. (Parts per million of what? Smoke?) We saw the fermentation tanks, proudly made of wood unlike most distilleries that now use stainless steel. We saw the large stills for distillation, which are the same general style but have a slightly different shape at each distillery. Ardbeg’s were shaped like the neck of their bottles. Our guide also let us taste the fermented liquid before it was sent off to the distillery. It was like a sweet, flat, warm, bitter beer. Pretty gross.

Exploring the grounds before our tour
Sampling the pre-whisky, after fermentation and before distillation (~8% alcohol)
Checking out the stills

After the tour we went to a tasting room where we had a choice to sample from three different bottles. I asked the guide what would be a good whisky to start with if you’ve never had it before, and she pulled a 4th bottle off the shelf behind her: Dark Cove. She said it was mellower and sweeter with less peat – a good starter whisky, or the “lady whisky” as some call it. My feminist self was not thrilled with this title, but she was right about it being much mellower and sweeter than any of the stuff Fjord has convinced me to taste at home! It was still very strong, but I ended up liking it ok and finishing the sample. It turns out that 1) if you are not normally a big drinker, and 2) if you haven’t eaten anything since that latte you had for breakfast 4 hours ago: one sample of whisky is enough to make you quite tipsy! I was getting into it now though (and we were sitting down, so I couldn’t really tell), and I enjoyed tasting two other samples as we chatted about different whiskies Ardbeg has produced. Around 12:30 we stood up to go back to the cafe for lunch, and that was when I learned exactly how strong whisky is! Fjord was a helpful crutch though, and we made it the 20 feet or so to the cafe. Woo!

Sampling the Ardbeg: Dark Cove (Sarah), Corryvreckan (Fjord), Supernova 2015 (S&F), Kelpie (S&F)

We had a delicious lunch – steak pie and tatties for Fjord, wild mushroom risotto with pea shoots for me. In the cafe you are allowed to ask for a free dram to try with your meal. Fjord got to enjoy both while I worked on sobering up. Eventually our exciting morning wore off and I was able to drive us 5 minutes down the road to our lovely little B&B. This time it was my turn to take care of Fjord! We arrived at the Old Excise House on Laphroaig property and settled into our lovely room. This was definitely our favorite home away from home on our trip. Emma and Ron were fantastic hosts, the room was great, we had a nice large bathroom with a luxurious bathtub, breakfasts were delicious, and the house was in the perfect location for us – right next to a beautiful walking path between the bluffs and the sea. Fjord didn’t mind that the walking path happens to pass by Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. Personally I preferred the sheep and cattle to our left and the seals and swans to our right.

The view from our bedroom window at the Old Excise House B&B on Islay

After resting a bit we headed into town for a quiet dinner at the Sea Salt Cafe, one of the two restaurants in Port Ellen. Islay is a beautiful island and I would definitely go back, but food choices are quite limited! They are still learning about vegetarians over there, unfortunately, but I managed to find enough to eat. Emma and Ron made sure I had big, healthy breakfasts!

Days 13-14: Fort William

I’m writing this post from the small, cozy conservatory in our B&B in Fort William, Scotland. Out the window I see steep, green cliffs rising up above Loch Eil. We’re spending two days in this mountain town in the Highlands. It appears to be a popular ski resort in the winter, but in the foggy, cool, rainy summer it is a nice place for a cup of tea.

Wednesday, June 21

Before I share our tales of Fort William, I need to start with how we got here. Yesterday we left our B&B in Inverness after another great homemade breakfast – this one omlettes with fried tomatoes and toast. We drove about 15 minutes east to the site of Culloden, the decisive battle of the Jacobite uprising of 1745. (The Outlander fan in me was super excited!) We spent a while wandering through the museum which nicely balances the history from the perspective of the government vs. the perspective of the Jacobite rebels. After the museum we walked around the battlefield with a tour guide explaining more details of the fighting. It’s hard to believe the entire battle was over in an hour, and the first 30 minutes were just cannon fire. About 50 government soldiers died, while 1500 Jacobites perished. The government was instructed to leave no survivors, so they blocked the entrances and exits to the battlefield, preventing any injured from receiving medical care, which is part of what lead to such a high death toll on the Jacobite side. It’s hard to imagine such an immense tragedy taking place right where we were standing. Over a century later local clans set up stones for those that died on the battlefield, but no one knows exactly who is in which of the mass graves, so they are really more memorials than specific tomb stones.

Culloden battlefield with clan markers on the mass graves

It was also interesting that the war was not Scots vs. English, as it is often portrayed. It was a civil war with English and Scottish soldiers on both sides – sometimes even from the same families. People were fighting for who they believed should be the king, with strong religious undertones since the kings were believed to have been appointed by God. It was really a civil war, with people choosing sides for many reasons. Some saw it as Catholic vs. Protestant, others as allegiance to the “true king” (on both sides), and still others over ties to clan identity and cultural beliefs. After the war, which essentially ended with Culloden, the clans were stripped of their culture to prevent further uprisings – they could no longer wear kilts or carry weapons, and other Gaelic customs were outlawed. We were told this law really brought an end to the Highland culture that had previously been building for centuries. Of course those practices have now been reinstated and we did see people wearing kilts as we’ve been traveling around, but the way of life is still very different now. I wonder if the battle had gone differently, would Scotland be a very different place? Or were the cultural changes coming one way or another?

Another interesting note about the war: it is often portrayed as England vs. Scotland, and that is not the case. While it is easy to empathize with the rebels from the Highlands who lost to the larger, stronger, better reinforced English army, it is important to note that there were plenty of clans fighting on the Government (English) side, including my ancestors: Clan Mackay! There were also English soldiers fighting on the rebel side.

After Culloden we drove down the fault line that cuts through the Highlands. We stopped at the Loch Ness museum where we learned about the geologic and scientific history of the lake and it’s explorers, including all of the various sightings of the Loch Ness Monster. Nessie has never been confirmed and they offer many scientific explanations for the various “sightings” that have occurred, but they still leave you wondering if something could be out there…

Loch Ness

We drove by Loch Ness and a few other Lochs on our way to Fort William, at the southwestern end of the fault. It was the scariest day of driving with our SUV on the tiny roads along the lakes – no shoulder and only a thin dotted line between us and oncoming traffic. Fortunately Fjord got us there safely and without a scratch on the car! We checked into our next B&B and walked into town for a delicious Indian dinner. We walked back in a light drizzle, admiring the beautiful mountains jutting right up from the lake. It reminded me a lot of our honeymoon in Alaska, where the mountain’s edge comes right up to the water. Just beautiful!

Thursday, June 22

Today was a fun, rainy day in a little mountain town. We had a delicious Scottish breakfast in our B&B – Fjord even had haggis and black pudding! He said it was the best haggis he’s tasted so far! The owner told us that they buy it from a local butcher, and that makes all the difference. It was a nice clear morning, so we decided to try and get a little hike in before the rain started. Apparently Fort William is the rainiest place in Scotland! We had heard that the weather can change quite quickly, and with my cough still bad from the cold, we didn’t want to push too hard. We drove to the foot of Ben Nevis, the largest mountain in the British Isles, and decided to start up the trail, giving ourselves the option to turn around at any point. We made it about a quarter of the way up the mountain, with beautiful views all around. From walking past sheep at the bottom, to winding through the flowering ferns along the path, to stepping on stones across little creeks from the small waterfalls running down the side of the mountain – it was a beautiful hike! Fortunately we made it back to the car just as the rain started.

After the hike we opted for some quiet time back at the B&B, which had a little conservatory for us sit in. I worked on this blog post while Fjord read as we enjoyed some afternoon tea and homemade shortbread. The shortbread was so good – light and buttery with the perfect melt-in-your-mouth crumble. The owner of our B&B was happy to share her recipe with me. I can’t wait to try it at home! It was a great way to spend a rainy afternoon.

When it cleared up some we decided to explore the town a bit more. We walked around the one main street of the tiny mountain town. It’s a ski resort in the winter, and it felt exactly like Tahoe or Colorado with the adorable ice cream shops, scented soap stores, and outdoor gear suppliers. They have a small history museum so we stopped in there to learn a bit more about life in the mountains. They had a nice display of Jacobite artifacts, including pieces that were claimed to be tartans worn at Culloden or the bagpipes played on the field! All of the items had been donated by local families, and unfortunately many of them were not dated to be old enough to have been at The ’45, despite the lore passed on by the donors. They were still very old and interesting, though.

Finally we headed to the Grog & Gruel pub for some dinner. I was thrilled to try their vegetarian haggis! I thought it was delicious. Fjord said that it was very different than the real thing, but that he could see the resemblance. He also tried a dram of the local Ben Nevis distiller’s whisky. The bar didn’t have their standard one, so instead they gave him the MacDonald. He was surprised to discover that he loved it! He said it would rank in his top 5 whiskies, which is really something considering it’s not from Islay! That prompted us to get to bed early so we’d have time to check out the distillery on our way out of town tomorrow.

Vegetarian haggis!

Days 11-12: History and Heritage

Monday, June 19

After a chance to do some laundry at the apartment last night, we packed up our clean clothes and checked out, headed for the Hertz office. We had requested a small car since it is just the two of us, but Hertz decided to give us a free “upgrade” to an SUV. We tried to turn it down, but they had no small cars available that day. Our nerves about driving on the left side of the road grew when we saw the gigantic vehicle we would have to squeeze through the tiny streets of Scotland. The rental car guy helpfully pointed out that the side mirrors collapse in with the simple press of a button. He said we’d need that driving around Scotland. Very reassuring. Fjord bravely took the wheel while I provided detailed nagivation with lane guidance from the passenger seat on the left side of the car, and we were off to the Highlands!

We took our time heading North, carefully gauging the width of the lanes and how to handle left and right turns. Fjord did beautifully. I am very grateful to have him as my travel buddy! On the way we stopped for lunch at a diner along the border between the Highlands and the Lowlands of Scotland. My cold had been getting worse so I opted for some soup and a scone with cream and jam. Delicious!

About an hour outside of Inverness we made a stop at the Highland Folk Museum. With only about an hour till closing we didn’t get to see a ton, but we did get to walk through the forest and see a couple of the small buildings they have recreated to take visitors back in time. The oldest ones make up a peasant village from the 1700s. The tennants of these mud and grass huts would have rented the land from the chief of their clan. There would have been no money exchanged, instead everyone would work to provide what they needed and exchange goods as necessary. Rent would be paid in food, wool, peat, or other hand-made goods. Only the chief and wealthier clan members would deal in coins.

Eighteenth century Highlands peasant house

At this village the Outlander series filmed a couple of scenes, particularly from the first book when Jamie and Claire are riding around with Dougal collecting rent and raising funds for the Jacobite army. The scene where Claire is learning about dying wool was filmed right among these houses. It’s interesting to put myself back there in time. Fjord was a good sport too, and even let me try folding a plaid onto him!

Fjord was such a good sport and let me attempt to put a plaid on him! This setting was before kilts (1700s).
Finally we arrived in Inverness in the evening and checked into our lovely B&B. We had a nice big room with a desk and a couch! After settling in we went and found some Italian food in town. Unfortunately I was feeling pretty sick at this point and had started a pretty bad cough, so we didn’t get to explore the town much before going to bed.

Tuesday, June 20 – Our anniversary!

Our first B&B breakfast was delicious! Our awesome host, Roz, made us eggs and fried tomatoes, with sausage and bacon for Fjord and baked beans and mushrooms for me! We also had toast, orange juice, and tea. It was a very filling and very Scottish breakfast. Next we headed out to explore the town. Inverness is built on the River Ness and there is a beautiful river walk along it, complete with a great pedestrian bridge. Since we were in the Highlands, it was time to finally do some research into the history of the Macway clan. I had researched some online before we arrived, and from the best I could tell we are descended from the Mackay (pronounced M’Kai, around here). Both Mackay and Macway translate to MacAoidh in Gaelic. We went to the surname history center and had this conclusion confirmed by the man working there, who then tried to sell us very expensive pieces of paper with our names and shields on them. We didn’t bite, but he was very friendly and also looked up Hawthorne while we were there. From him we learned that the motto for Clan Mackay (Scottish) is manu forti which means “with a strong hand”. The motto for the Hawthorne (English) family is stabo meaning “I shall stand.”
The gift shops in Inverness cater to people looking for family history, and we found a nice small book on Clan Mackay. If any of my family members reading this want to borrow it let me know! Fjord also bought a tie in the Mackay clan’s blue and green plaid. I’m still looking for the right scarf. It’s been neat to read about what my clansmen were doing back hundreds of years!

Macway clan heritage!

Today we also visited the Scottish Kiltmaker Visitor Centre, which is above the main kilt shop in town, Fraser’s. The museum had a hilarious short video featuring ads with both funny and proud clips of people wearing kilts, a jingle, and detailed instructions on how kilts are made. Who knew the process was so complicated! In addition to the displays we would see the workshop, where a man was at work making a kilt in the sewing room. We saw kilts of different styles from different ages, including the military uniforms, and we were able to try some of their kilts on at the end. They are much fancier and more heavy-duty than the tiny thing I wore as a high school uniform. Of course, they are also meant for men, though smaller women’s kilts are now sold. (I get the sense the only people who buy them are tourists, though.)

Finally we ended our day with a fancy dinner out at a nice restaurant that Roz recommended. Fjord got a very elegant rib-eye steak topped with bacon and with fried truffle polenta sticks on the side. I had an incredibly pillowy pumpkin gnocchi with pesto, ricotta, and pine nuts. We both really enjoyed our meals. Happy 2 years of marriage to us!

Inverness River Walk, along the River Ness, at dusk
Anniversary date night!
Our delicious anniversary dinner at Rocpool in Inverness

Days 9-10: Edinburgh

To Scotland we go!

Saturday, June 17

We caught at early train this morning for the ~5 hour ride from London to Edinburgh. The time passed quickly as we gazed out at the English countryside. There was a small cafe car on the train where we got some oatmeal and tea for breakfast. I also enjoyed the humor in the train’s bathroom. When you lock the door it starts talking to you! It tells you the same thing that is posted on the toilet…

The mirror is also very uplifting!

Upon arriving in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, we made our way to our apartment near the University, a 10-minute walk from the Old Town. After settling in, we walked down the street to find some dinner: this is haggis country! We found a diner that served a variety of food. Fjord was thrilled to have his first real Scottish meal: haggis, neeps, and tatties. Burns Supper participants will recognize the combination of lamb-based sausage (haggis), mashed turnips (neeps), and mashed potatoes (tatties). I had penne pasta with marinara sauce. There really isn’t a lot of traditional Scottish food that’s vegetarian.

Fjord tasting his first real haggis, neeps, and tatties
As we approach the solstice (and the North Pole) the light hours are getting longer and longer. With hours still until sundown, we decided to explore the town and started with an 80-minute haunted house tour through the Dungeons of Edinburgh. The interactive tour took our group through 12 dark and fully decorated rooms with costumed actors, special effects, audience participation, and theme park rides to teach us about the darker side of history in Scotland. I would have preferred more history and fewer scare tactics myself, but Fjord had a ball. He was chosen as the prisoner on whom they demonstrated mideval torture techniques. Some of the devices they used back then were pretty grotesque. We learned about witch trials, cannibals, ghosts, and autopsies. At the end we were strapped into a ride and hung from the gallows (drop ride)! Fjord loved it, and even I can admit that the camera caught a pretty hilarious face on me as we dropped.

That evening we walked by the Sir Walter Scott Monument and up and down the Royal Mile, the main street in Old Town Edinburgh. One of my favorite views was looking down the tiny curved street that was supposedly the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. Apparently JK Rowling did some of the writing while she was living with her sister in Edinburgh.

The street in Edinburgh that inspired JK Rowling’s Diagon Alley

Sunday June 18

This morning we went to worship at St. Giles Cathedral, which is where John Knox served as pastor! There aren’t very many Presbyterian cathedrals in the world, so it was really neat to see the splendor of tall stone ceilings with intricate carvings and detailed stone glass in the Presbyterian world! It’s also pretty neat that the Presbyterian Church is the Church of Scotland – I’m home! (In more ways than one, but we’ll get to that later.) While the Church of Scotland is not affiliated with the PCUSA, they are certainly connected in history. The service was very familiar with hymns, scripture readings, a choir, a sermon, and communion. Fjord was happy to enjoy an extra long postlude on the nice organ. All in all a very nice Sunday morning.

We weren’t allowed to take photos inside during worship, so here I am outside St. Giles the night before.

It was unusually warm and sunny for Scotland, so after lunch we headed out for a hike up Arthur’s Seat, which we could walk to from our apartment. There isn’t any signage so we ended up on a couple of different trails – all with great views – before we actually found ourselves on the steep climb up to Arthur’s Seat. From the peak we had beautiful 360-degree views of the city and the sea. It’s neat to see how many steepled churches there are from up so high! We are now in the warm and rainy season for Scotland, so there were many wildflowers in bloom along the trail. It was a beautiful hike.
At the top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh

We ended our day with dinner at the Elephant Cafe, where JK Rowling wrote much of the first Harry Potter book! It was neat to be in that place, but we didn’t actually find the food or ambiance all that great. I had a baked potato with baked beans and cheese. Baked potatoes seem to be a popular and traditional vegetarian option throughout Scotland. Which works for me, since I could eat baked potatoes for every meal! Unfortunately though I am spoiled by the way Mom taught me to prepare them, and these just weren’t up to par. Still, we were excited Harry Potter fans for the evening.

Days 7-8: Henry VIII and Shakespeare

Thursday, 6/15

Thursday was a really fun day! We started out catching a couple of trains and a bus for the hour long ride outside the city to Hampton Court Palace, the palace of a number of English royals, the most famous of which was Henry VIII and his 6 wives and 3 heirs. The bus we were on let off on the side of the grounds, so we got to walk through the gardens up to the castle the back way. We ran into the maze and had fun getting lost for a little while. It felt something like the Triwizard Tournament from Harry Potter, but with fewer hazards and enchanted chalices. Fjord managed to find our way to the middle and back out though, so all in all a success!

We found the center of the maze!

At the palace we caught a traveling play set during the time of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. In the story we see the conflict between Henry and the Pope, eventually leading to his excommunication because of his desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. We hear conversations between King Henry and Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister, about the difficult decision to break with the Catholic church that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. In another room we hear the conversations between Anne Boleyn and her lady’s maid about concern over her pregnancy and the king’s affairs. We are also introduced to a young Jane Seymour who was just brought to the palace by her brother Edward to serve the new queen and create a position and title for herself.

King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn arguing in the courtyard.

The actors were fanstatic and performed live music and dancing in exquisite and accurate costumes while we marched around the palace for each of the different scenes. The play ended with the birth of Henry and Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth. Henry, of course, is devastated that it is not the male heir he hoped for. During the story we also followed along with two commoners of the time, a man and a woman, wondering how they will make a life for themselves and their children in 1500s England. The stories intertwine in a way that shows that the royalty and the commoners were not that different in dealing with happiness and tragedy, as well as religious and political strife. It was an excellent production and I highly recommend it for anyone who has the chance to go to Hampton Court Palace!

All of the characters singing and dancing together in the Great Hall at the end of the show.

After the play we found some pre-Renaissance food in the Henry’s kitchens’ cafe. I had a baked potato with cheese and baked beans. Fjord had a steak and ale pie, and we shared some delicious British cider. Afterwards we continued our audio guide tour through the kitchen, interacting with the costumed characters in the different rooms. It was so fun to feel like we were back in time!

We learned how they would roast meat back in the 1500s (for several hundred people, a multi-day process) in their giant stone ovens. After explaining, the docent let us try it for ourselves!

Thursday afternoon we made our way back to London via train. We found a sushi boat restaurant in the giant mall/food court that is the Victoria train station, then we were off to the theater district to watch Wicked! We both enjoyed the musical a lot, and Fjord had fun connecting with his Wizard of Oz Kansas roots.

Friday, 6/16

Friday morning began with a 40 minute ride on the top of a bright red double-decker bus to the Beefeater Gin Distillery. The London passes we purchased for entrance to all of these attractions included a distillery tour, so we figured, “Why not?!” Learning about the history of gin distilling in their little museum was interesting, especially in the ways it tied to both prohibition in the US and the spice trade with Asia. After touring the room where all Beefeater gin is made we were treated to gin and tonics. The bartender/tour guide put a slice of lemon and orange in each to bring out the flavor, and I have to say it was the best gin and tonic I’ve ever had! It’s also the only one, because I usually don’t like the bitter taste of the tonic. But the fruit fixed that!

Sipping on some gin at the Beefeater distillery

Next we were off to the Globe Theater for a play! We had tickets for seats in the top of the risers to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The production was outstanding! It was set in a modern world with costumes of today’s fashion, and it was amazing to see how the writing and themes of Shakespeare fit just as well in today’s world as in his 500 years ago! There was a band and several musical numbers and dances that brought out the humor and character development of the play quite well. Despite the English and Scottish accents of the actors, I think I understood the storyline better than any Shakespeare play I’ve read or seen performed. The actors also interacted with the standing audience at the base of the theater in fun ways, completely within the characters and plot of the play. Fjord said he feels like he got a deeper understanding of both Shakespeare’s “theater for everyone” and how theater was meant to be experienced in Elizabethan England. It was great! If you ever have a chance to see a play at the Globe, take it!

The Globe
The view from our seats at the Globe – we had a really nice view!

We walked back across the Thames to St. Paul’s Cathedral and then up through the city to meet with my friend from college, Alice. She took us to a vegan restaurant for dinner, then we met up with her boyfriend, Sam, for drinks. After deciding we were too old for the loud bar on the corner, Sam found us one of the Gin Palaces we had heard about on our Beefeater tour, and it was great! It reminded us of Singlebarrel in San Jose. We walked down some dark stairs to a quieter bar in the basement of a building. They had an extensive list of dozens of gins from around the world and an experimental cocktail menu that was more like a novel. I asked the bartender for a recommendation and he picked for me a sweet, spicy, floral cocktail made with gin from Islay, where we will be going in about a week! Fjord had a couple of great drinks, his favorite of which was a classic martini with a very fancy gin. It was so nice to see Alice again and catch up on her life in London. Hard to believe she’s been living there two years! I can say first hand that she has a very nice office and she and Sam seem to be doing great.

Drinks with friends on our last night in London

Days 4-6: Adieu Paris, Hello London!

Monday, 6/12

We spent our last morning in Paris exploring the extensive art collection at the Louvre Museum. While seeing the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo was definitely neat, I think I was most impressed by the architecture. The Louvre was previously the palace to several successful monarchs, each adding on wings and new structures to create a large royal complex right in the middle of the city. Perhaps the most famous monarch to rule this palace was Napoleon I (Napoleon Bonaparte). The museum has maintained his apartments as a sort of art exhibit of their own, and we had fun imagining the wealthy guests and elaborate dinner parties he must have hosted under his shimmering chandeliers.

Scouting out locations for the next Burns Supper

After exploring the art for about 5 hours we grabbed a quick lunch of sandwiches in the park in front of the museum before heading over to Champs Élysées for a stroll towards the Arc de Triomphe. The area is known for exquisite shopping, but I guess we’re spoiled because it didn’t feel any different than Santana Row in San Jose. The arc was pretty neat though! We followed that up with a quick visit to Sainte Chapelle to see the exquisite stained glass windows in this chapel built to house relics, including the crown of thorns! Unfortunately the crown is no longer on display there.

Stained glass in Sainte Chapelle

After all of the walking we were ready to relax and grabbed a burger dinner. The veggie burger was just a stack of sautéed veggies smothered in mozzarella. No complaints here! Overall Paris was a great city to explore. We very much enjoyed the friendly people, gothic cathedrals, art history, and delicious food and wine. We even found a cheese co-op where we bought a couple of pieces of cheese and a bottle of wine for tomorrow’s train ride to London!


Tuesday, 6/13

Tuesday we got up and headed straight to the train station. It’s a good thing we got there very early because apartently for international trains you go through immigration and customs before you board the train, rather than when you arrive at your destination like at the airport. Fortunately it didn’t take too long, and I even had time to grab one last chocolate croissant for the ride. The Chunnel (high speed train straight from the heart of Paris to the heart of London) was a smooth and very efficient ride. It’s crazy to know you can go between cities in just about 2.5 hours.

We arrived at Kings Cross Station feeling just like Harry Potter and walked the short 10 minutes to our London apartment. After settling in we walked down the block to one of London’s many small parks and met up with my parents! They had been in the UK for Dad’s work and were off to mainland Europe in the morning for more work and then a vacation. It was so nice we got to overlap for one night! We walked around downtown some and ended up at their favorite vegetarian restaurant in London, Mildred’s. I had a delicious mushroom pie and salad, and Fjord enjoyed a veggie stir fried rice. We split a scrumptious slice of rhubarb cheesecake for dessert.

After dinner Mom and Dad gave us a quick walking tour of the sites including Number 10 Downing Street (the prime minister’s residence), Big Ben, the Parliament Buildings, Westminster Abbey, and Buckingham Palace. London is very walkable, and it seems like there is a beautiful ancient building or rose-filled park around every street corner.

Big Ben with the parents!

Wednesday, 6/15

Wednesday morning I got up and went for a run then did some laundry. It was nice to have a normal-feeling morning after all of the traveling and running around. We found breakfast at a lovely cafe just down the street from our apartment. We were surprised to realize that London really didn’t feel that different from San Francisco, the main difference being that my cup of tea came with sugar and milk on the side. I had a sandwich on the cafe’s freshly made seed and grain bread with smashed avocado, asparagus, arugula, and hollendaise sauce. Fjord’s sandwich had salmon and eggs on it. Even though it didn’t taste that different than at home, having English Breakfast Tea for breakfast in England was pretty special.

Delicious London breakfast
After breakfast we were off to explore the British Museum. We spent quite a while walking back in time through history – from Assyrian statues, to Egyptian mummies, to pieces of Greece’s Parthenon. It was really neat to see so many ancient artifacts from all over the world. Fjord even managed to find some pot fragments that were from 7500 BC! While there is definitely debate over whether England should keep all of these amazing works from the cultures they invaded, it is neat that all of it is available for the public to see for free.

Standing next to one of the Easter Island head sculptures
Next we were off to Westerminster Abbey. After a quick lunch in the cafe at the back of the abbey courtyard we entered the church itself. The free audio guide took us by the graves of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin as well as some of the abbey’s organists! We also got to explore the main body of the church where coronations have taken place for hundreds of years, including Queen Elizabeth II’s. It really didn’t look all that different from how it was set in The Crown! We also saw the tombs of many famous monarchs, including Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I, as well as her rival, Mary Queen of Scotts (who Elizabeth had beheaded). There are also memorials to many famous authors and musicians including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Burns, and Handel, holding a page from his Messiah.

Westminster Abbey
When the abbey closed at 3:30 we weren’t done church-ing, so we headed to St. Paul’s for their Evensong service. We enjoyed the choral music and worship leadership for the 45 minute service under the ornate and enormous dome. It’s crazy to think how much detail, time, and money went into these religious buildings throughout their history.

Finally we wrapped up our day with dinner at a pub down the street from our apartment. Fjord had fish and chips while I enjoyed nachos and a salad. My favorite discovery of the night was the British cocktail, Pimms! It is a fruity, bubbly cocktail perfect for a summer garden party.

Pub dinner

Day 3: A Sunday in Paris

The day Fjord has been waiting for has finally come. We began our day around 8:30 with a quiet walk down the street to Notre Dame. Apparently Paris sleeps in on the weekends, and I enjoyed a lovely break from the crowds as we ate our croissants and quiche at a nearly-abandoned street cafe. I sipped my coffee as we walked across the Seine, the shadow of Notre Dame looming over us in the calm morning light.

Crossing the Seine

We arrived in time for the 9:30 Laudes, the equivalent of a half hour hymn sing before the 10am service. The musical pieces were varied – a hymn, some chanting, and some choral response. There was more Latin than French, and I enjoyed understanding what I was singing, especially since many of the lyrics were familiar from past choir anthems or concerts. We stayed for the worship service where we got to recite a Gloria and sing an Agnus Dei, Kyrie, and Gloria. It was pretty special to get to attend a Latin Mass in Notre Dame, and it’s crazy to think this is just a regular Sunday for some people!

At Notre Dame before worship Sunday morning

After worship we rushed over to Saint Sulpice where we caught the end of their Mass, which was followed by another audition d’orgue where we got to hear Daniel Roth play an extended postlude of several pieces on the grand organ. Fjord’s favorite of the concert was Bach’s Prelude and “St Anne” fugue in E-flat major, BWV 552.

Fjord at Saint Sulpice on Sunday morning

At the recommendation of a student who’s lived in Paris (thank you, Eleonore!) we found the Mariages Frères tea salon, where we enjoyed a very fancy Sunday brunch with delicious darjeeling tea. Scrambled eggs and salad for me, Fjord had the same with salmon and shrimp. We also had fresh toast with butter and jam – apparently the French have figured out how to make bread both fresh and soft while simultaneously toasted and crisp – we need to get on that! We followed this feast with fancy desserts. Mine was a lychee cream tart with raspberries and flakes of silver on top. Fjord’s was a strawberry green tea mousse cake with toasted whipped cream and gold flakes. Definitely our fanciest meal in Paris!


Tea and brunch at Mariage Fréres


After a short nap at the tiny apartment we were headed back to Saint Sulpice for a chance to go up into the organ loft during their evening service. We found a chocolaterie on the way and I got some delicious dark chocolate mousse! Fjord had a very strong and bitter espresso. Back at the church we walked around some, anxiously waiting until our 6:15pm appointment with Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin, the Titulaire Adjointe of the grand organ at Saint Sulpice. As 6:15 approached, we saw another man and a couple of students headed toward the organ door. Fortunately the man spoke English and informed us that Sophie was not playing that evening, but that he was instead. He introduced himself as Bruno Morin and said that we were still welcome to join him in the organ loft, so up we went!

Mmmm… chocolate mousse!


Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures, but we still very much enjoyed watching Bruno play for the service. The organ loft is so high and far away from the parishioners that he and the organ students who were able to discuss registrations for the next piece and get set up without disrupting the service below. This opportunity to communicate is necessary since it takes 3 people to fully play this organ – an organist playing in the center with an assistant on either side to pull stops, use the expression levers, and turn pages.

During one break in the music, Bruno even took some time to explain all of the parts of the console to us! We also got to sit in the organ room in the back, where there are portraits and dates of all of the Organist Titulares of Saint Sulpice. Widor and Dupré of course were among them, with a bust of Widor right at eye level, staring you down as you enter the room. I didn’t realize it was a lifetime post – Widor served there for 64 years! Looking down on all of the organists from above was a bust of Bach, high on the wall.

Fjord’s favorite pieces that Bruno played during the service were Gigout’s Scherzo in E major and Vierne’s Toccata in B-flat minor (from Op. 53). They both did a great job of showing off the tonal versatility and power of this amazing Cavaillé-Coll organ. Especially impressive was Bruno’s ability to create such smooth, soaring lines in the Scherzo on an instrument that’s fairly difficult to play – it takes quite a bit of force to press down the keys because they’re physically connected to a lever system in the organ rather than using electric signaling like many organs built more recently.

After the postlude we gathered our things and were getting ready to head out when we got a surprise: Daniel Roth came up to the organ loft! He’s the current Organist Titular (the same position Widor held) and world-famous performer and composer. Bruno introduced us as friends of Sophie’s (thank you, Angela, for the connection!) and Roth said he was pleased to meet us and asked if we played. Fjord said he did and that he appreciated what a beautiful instrument this was. Roth’s response? “Yes, well of course!”

We headed out the door with our mouths hanging open as he went in to make a recording. As my sisters would say, “Super famous moment!”

Since we couldn’t take pictures in the organ loft, here’s a video of Daniel Roth playing to show you what it was like.

Days 1 & 2: Eiffel Tower, Giverny, and Pipe Organs

It really is the tinyest hotel in the world, but it’s meeting our needs. After getting off the plane yesterday we made our way on the train to Saint-Michel-Notre-Dame metro station and walked through the streets to our Airbnb apartment. The two of us squeezed into the tiny European elevator with all of our luggage and rose to floor 4 (5 stories up, because the entry is floor 0) where we are staying in a large closet that has been converted to a studio.

Blogging on the bed in our Airbnb in Paris, France

In one end is our bed, wall to wall with a couple of built in shelves where the headboard would be. The other side of the room contains the shower/toilet room and the kitchen sink. It’s very crowded, but it’s all that we need for the next 5 days in the perfect location for us – walking distance to Fjord’s two favorite pipe organs in this city: Notre Dame and Saint Sulpice. Plus it has really good wifi!


Determined to get on this time zone, 9 hours ahead of California, we got our sleepy selves over to the Eiffel Tower right away. I had pre-reserved tickets, so we skipped the long line and waited just a few minutes to go through security. Once inside the complex, we had fun walking under the giant structure trying to find food. We ended up with our first French sandwiches, for me a delicious fresh baguette stuffed with swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and mayo. Fjord had the classic ham and cheese. We rode the elevator to the second floor, which is much higher than one would think, for some excellent views. The viewing platform was extensive, complete with bathrooms, a cafe, gift shops, and a zipline all the way back down. Fjord was disappointed to learn that was something you had to reserve ahead of time. I was not. The line to the very top was way too long, so instead we took the elevator back down to the first floor and explored the history and art exhibits there. There was also a clear glass bottom from which to gaze upon all of the tiny people walking below. Fun and more than a little scary! I hope we get to go back and have a picnic on the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower, watching people zipline far above us.

Scenes from our visit to the Eiffel Tower 

We walked back along the Seine, people watching and enjoying the river. We found ourselves a little cafe for dinner, where Fjord says he had some of the best chicken he’s had in a long time, and I had a very veggie-filled lasagna.


After a much-needed night’s sleep we were off to the train station in the morning for our first full day in France! We got a bit lost and ended up missing the train, but the people at the station (when we finally found it) were very nice and exchanged our tickets for just a small fee, rather than making us buy new ones. With an hour till the next train to Vernon, we snacked on some chocolate croissants and espresso. Matthew was right (he’ll love hearing me say that!): the croissants everywhere – even in the train station – are amazing! The train took us on a short 40 minute trip outside of Paris to the town of Vernon, which was quite quaint. I loved seeing a little bit of the countryside. Across the street from the train station we found a cafe that rented bikes and were off towards Giverny, the site of Monet’s home and garden. The “downtown” area was full of cobblestone streets and buildings that could have been made in the Middle Ages. The bike path took us by some lovely country cottages with large gardens.


Fjord on his bike in Vernon, France
Biking through the countryside on the way to Giverny, France

Three and a half miles later we found ourselves among endless multicolored flowers and water lilies. It was beautiful! We took our time strolling around the gardens, pond, and house.

At the lily pad pond in Monet’s Garden

Just down the road from Monet’s Garden we found a nice cafe selling whole bottles of wine for lunch! We decided to pass given that we had to bike back, but I did have one of the best quiches ever. It was trois fromages – three cheese. My taste buds tell me they were swiss, goat, and blue. So tasty! We also shared a coffee eclair before our ride back to town.

Three cheese quiche and coffee eclair in Giverny, France


We caught the train for Paris and were back just in time for our first pipe organ concerts! At 5pm we watched an audition d’orgue (small organ concert) at the Basilique Sainte Clotilde where we heard Coralie Amedjkane play Chorales I, II, and III by César Franck, which is pretty amazing since Franck was the first organist at Ste. Clotilde, and the 3-manual Cavaillé-Coll organ was built for him in 1858. It’s amazing to think that’s where he composed some of his most iconic pieces.

Organ concert at Sainte Clotilde


After the concert we walked along the Seine until we reached Cathédrale Notre-Dame. We happened to walk through a street performance, and the mime somehow decided I would be the perfect target. He pulled his hair into a ponytail and tried to match my stride in an over-exagerated way. With very limited French, I couldn’t say nor do a thing, so I just walked alongside him until we reached the river. Apparently some stereotypes of France are true!

We found a tasty dinner at a cafe near Notre Dame. Brie and veggies in a baguette for me, traditional croque-monsieur for Fjord acommpanied by some delicious French wine. We followed up our meal with an organ concert at the cathedral where Colin Andrews (from Indiana) played Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 by Bach and three movements from Olivier Messiaen’s Livre du Saint-Sacrement: Prière avant la communion, Les deux murailles d’eau, and Offrande et Alléluia final. I have decided that Messiaen is not my favorite composer. His music is just a little too frantic for me. It was still pretty neat to hear a concert at Notre Dame, though!

Banana-Nutella crepe at a street cafe


On our way back to our little apartment we stopped at Cafe Dante for an apéritif (after dinner drink) and dessert – a banana and nutella crepe! It’s hard to believe how much we got in to our first 24+ hours in Paris. Now time to crash before exploring some more pipe organs in the morning!