Via de la Plata Camino – Day 18 (Mérida to Ourense). Sunday 8 April 2018. 18 kms.
I have lost all my notes for this week and there are a lot of photos for 8th April so there are few words.
The sun rose on my right. It lit up the lush fields on my left as if it was a different time of day there.
Calendula (marigolds) and roses in full flower in San Marcial. Red and white cycle path signs reminiscent of the Grande Randonnee in France.
Coming into the city of Zamora (‘The pearl of the 12th century’) along the River Duero, close to the border with Portugal in north-west Spain.
Later there was a queue of us waiting at the allotted time and, unexpectedly, it hailed hard. There was only a tiny ledge for everyone to huddle under and not enough space for the luggage, so in 5 minutes the rucksacks, boots, everything was soaked.
The hospitalera was most hospitable (sorry!). She was a fountain of knowledge having worked there for a long time and she was clearly in her dream job – loving chatting and finding out where we were all from. She had great English and knew what we needed. There is a fantastic kitchen and Marie Noelle had been before us, messaging me to say that she had cooked meals for the Seuil men – one vegan for E and the other with meat for the growing lad. I was very lucky that they shared it with me – a veritable feast.
Baltasar Lobo (artist 1910-1993 buried in the Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris, France)
His work is in a dedicated gallery (free entry) beside the Castle and also scattered around the grounds nearby.
I highly recommend Zamora as a tourist destination.
Via de la Plata Camino – Day 17 (Mérida to Ourense). Saturday 7 April 2018. 13 kms.
The 7th April was a day of varied landscapes – some of the previous day’s wide open fields but also smaller agricultural plots, some houses, the ‘iron road’ etc. I was going at a faster pace, partly because it was cold but also as I knew it was a much shorter day. Going to Zamora in one leg was too long, so I was dividing it into two.
After last night’s heavy rain, it was dull but, hooray, dry! I passed out of the village, took a left over the bridge and straight into the country with no road – another big plus. Cocks were crowing and I spotted them at the front door.
Weirdly there was a digital town clock striking 9am, just as loud as normal bells but with an electronic tone, reminding me of the early days of mobile phones when TV programmes made jokes about huge handsets with ringtones sounding out across the country.
It was right at the fork despite no yellow arrow and I was walking by the railway. The next right was signed. I wondered, why one and not the other?
I reflected on last night’s round-the-table conversations: how some people do the whole camino all at one go, others walk one weekend at a time; some start here, some there; and I have been meeting so many folk with injuries.
Plant of the day: once again I do not know the name. It has round burgundy / black pods or fruits that I have not seen before. They were hanging on dead trees and when I trod on one which had fallen on the path, it was full of diarrhoea-coloured mush which looked like wet plaster board.
Who would have thought Spain could be quite so cloyingly muddy with wet sand! There was that cuckoo again – Marie Noelle used to tell me it means she will be rich.
My nose runs and pilgrims behind me sneeze. I notice that cows do stand very, very still sometimes!
I muse: people I know walked here yesterday; or the day before; even 3 years ago. I can follow in their footsteps until it rains, wiping out all trace.
The yellow arrows used by the Friends of the Camino to show us the way are not really the best colour given that there are a surprisingly large number of the same hue: yellow lichen beside the arrows on the gate posts, yellow triangles on pylons, and motorway relfectors found at ground level at the edges of the roads where we have to walk. They are all found in the very places we look for the indicators.
There is a great racket and then I see a flock of sheep being let out of the pen beside a farm, trotting into the field in single file with their new earrings, complaining bitterly.
Looking up I see it is going to become hilly again. The rabbits are too quick for my camera and there are definitely more flowers now, thank goodness. Beautiful purple / pink rocks are embedded in the white / yellow path amongst all the other colours of the irregularly shaped stones.
I arrived at 11.45am and was second into the hostel. I stopped at the bar for the key and had a quick coffee (every now and then I enjoy a tiny decaff with sugar – something I never have at home).
There are a number of albergues in Villanueva de Campéan, all apparently as low grade as the others, private ones costing the same as the municipal where I slept. I entered the sleeping area through the kitchen which had a microwave but no fridge and was dirty. Not only does the outside door open directly onto the kitchen, but there is a great gap above the wall between that and the dormitory so the cold and noise travels easily between the two and the street, as does the cigarette smoke. Luckily there were loads of us so we were cosy.
One by one we all settled in the bar for the rest of the day, and what a great band of cosmopolitan trekkers we were. I managed to write three blogs, trying to catch up, and then decided to continue when I got home. It was simply too loud and hilarious (the locals were playing cards and everyone was watching the football). Lots of red wine and menu del dia‘s were consumed and the atmosphere was most convivial.
In The Pilgrimage to Santiago, Edwin Mullins writes about the history of sending ‘sinners’ on the camino as far back as the 13th century: ‘…there is the case of the parish priest near Chichester [England] who would regularly fornicate, repent, then fornicate again, until in 1283 the Archbishop of Canterbury felt obliged to send him to Santiago as a penitent the first year, to Rome the second and to Cologne the third. What is not on record is whether the cure was successful or whether he thereafter weighted his repentance with the names of three foreign cities in which he had also fornicated.’
Via de la Plata Camino – Day 16 (Mérida to Ourense). Friday 6 April 2018. 20 kms.
I am walking in Castilla y Léon and this part is very flat with a deal of road. The albergue in Calzada de Valdunciel is on the opposite side of the town, making it very simple and quick to find the way out in the dark.
‘Lodging facilities were generally provided outside the city walls to enable travellers to come and go after the gates of the town were shut at night’. The Pilgrimage to Santiago, Edwin Mullins.
The long straight path was not overly attractive but as the sun rose, everything changed colour, even the barbed wire fence took on a precious shine.
I came across a small forest of teasal, all turned towards the sun. They stood tall and prickly in the light, old and brown but glowing at the same time. I have never seen so many of them at once. Perhaps because I knew I would be walking past a prison later in the day, they reminded me of inmates pressed against the boundary fence (there was not enough light to take a photo).
Opposite the sun, in the same cobalt sky, was less than half a lint moon, a wafer-thin gauze of a slither. Where the warmth had not reached it, the grass was still stiff with the haw frost.
I followed the footprints of the people who had gone before me until a significant detour due to flooding. I was under a motorway bridge and the warning signs were easy to see except they were back-to-front, so first I took the left fork, met with the un-passable path and retraced my steps. Then it was not easy- arrows everywhere – and it was counter-intuitive winding back and over where I had already been. It seems that this diversion has been there a long time.
Soon it was lovely and warm. Straight, straight on, cars rushing past and I somehow missed Huelmos, the only pueblo between setting off and my destination. Shame about the sore feet. This type of stage often seems much further than it actually is, but I revelled in the wild flowers: the same selection from last week. I had hardly seen any since then and I wondered if the wheat spraying was responsible for the lack of them.
This time the accomodation, a private hostel, was just off the first road I came to on entering El Cubo, sort of round the back and next to what looked like a derelict area. It had a spacious garden surrounding it and those strips of plastic hanging in front of the front door.
As there was no answer I phoned and the owner appeared very quickly, offering me a welcome beer. The books say people are welcome to pop in for a drink and a seat – a nice idea that I had not come across before. As I sun-bathed, I remembered that I had forgotten to leave a donation at the Salamanca donativo hostel and resolved to ‘pass it forward’, as the cyclist from Malta who came briefly by for a coke and to fix his bike, suggested.
Later I went into the village to buy my tea and next day’s breakfast. Two women sitting on a bench outside their house pointed me in the right direction. I am now familiar with shops which are in apparently residential dwellings. In Edinburgh it is the opposite – many of the old shops have been made into homes. White doves flew up from the church.
Being private, there was no pilgrim’s kitchen but the retired owners allowed us to sit at the table alongside the others who were eating the supper provided. There were six of us including a young couple who are walking the camino, weekend by weekend, travelling by car from home on Friday nights, to the start of each stage, walking for two days, and then returning to their vehicle on the Sunday night for work the next day. It was a really enjoyable meal and the wine flowed freely – a delicious local white for the starter, red for the main – which I was (happily) encouraged to sample.
I was still meeting up with the duo from Seuil regularly. They always cater for themselves, being on a strict (almost impossible) budget, and the youngest is an avid footballer (he played for Rennes when he was younger) so despite walking every day, he goes out for football practice every evening – E, his ‘accompanying adult’, is consequently improving his moves!
They also washed our clothes for two euros, and there was plenty of hanging space in the garden. Unfortunately, having bought almost all of my stuff in before the storm except my double-layer socks which dry very slowly, I left them out all night. I padded out in bare feet through the puddles in the early hours when I remembered, but it was too late for them to dry for wearing that day.
I had a rather luxurious night: although I was in a shared room and had arrived first, picking the less expensive bunk, the whole establishment was full by 8pm and I was moved to a double bed – presumably because I was the matriach!!
The final day of my pilgrimage to Mariazell along the Via Sacra, Austria. Day 9, 13th October 2017.
A pilgrimage is traditionally called a “Wallfahrt” in Austria. I left Mitterbach in an angry mood as a result of something I had witnessed and I had never been so clear that walking allows for time to understand and then let that feeling go.
Watching the way things really are, and learning from that, is advice I often hear in my profession. It is hard! I have been trying while I trek, to notice what is actually happening in the world and not what I think in advance or want it to be. What I want is to be happy and good, but if I am not, then I try to be clear about that, to see things honestly.
I observed someone teaching and realised that my belief is that you do not teach by telling, much less by telling off or ordering, but by example. Making statements about the way you want things to be is not only didactic but useless, unless you just want to control and are prepared to force it. No-one learns like that.
It was a short walk that day, just two hours and 80 metres of climbing. Thus, it allowed me to stop and see ‘the rosary wayside shrines’ (as the leaflet called them) with their mini flower gardens – the rather ugly Stations of the Cross. There were also pine forests and piles of logs, the cutting of which had made some sky space for the light to reach the saplings.
Something about hearing a man speak in that way to a woman he is close to sparked off a very strong reaction in me. It was very unpleasant to witness such treatment, and hard to find the balance between speaking out and respecting the fact that I was a guest and completely outside the relationship. Of course, reflecting on the undertone of their exchanges and my reaction to it, helped me understand more about myself and why I find it so hard to keep quiet. Would that we could all have a voice to speak out against such lack of respect without fear of retribution.
For the first time I came across other hikers on the trail coming in the opposite direction – two unfriendly young women, one jolly red-faced, and panting with her rucksack. Then numerous dog walkers, such that I had to make way for people coming up towards me. It was also loud with the sounds of planes and vehicles from the valley in the distance – quite a contrast to the surrounding peace and the serenity which had once more settled in my mind.
I had one moment of practical difficulty when faced with an electric fence and I flattened myself on the ground to slide underneath. Apparently the threat of electrocution was preferable to going back down the hill to see if I had mistaken my way, only to discover I had been in fact been right and must come back up again!
All roads lead to Mariazell – at least there is a path from all Austrian provinces that leads to the famous pilgrimage site of Mariazell in Styria – in the same way there are caminos all over Spain which lead to Santiago de Compostella. Indeed, it has been described as ‘the quintessential Habsburg place of pilgrimage’ (from this website).
Mariazell was first mentioned in 1266, and in 1907 its church was elevated to a “basilica minor” by Pope Pius X.
Here is the fairy tale cathedral at Mariazell, dedicated to the ‘Magna Mater Austriae’ (the Virgin Mary, ‘kind mother’ and patron saint of Austria).
My pilgrimage ended, I had arrived in the sunshine. It was so busy with tourists, school groups and coach loads shopping at the stalls around the entrance to the cathedral.
When I found the tourist information I was most impressed by the helpful woman there – what a difference from the one in Vienna who had never even heard of the Via Sacra! She made good suggestions, apologised for her colleague, booked me a hostel and printed out bus times. What a star.
I only stayed 2 hours, stocking up on supplies and walking around the back streets to the bus station, chatting with other passengers who were waiting in the hot weather. I would have liked to go on Die Himmelstreppe railway from Mariazell to St Polton (www.mariazellerbahn.at) but it would have been back the way I had come and I wanted to go forwards.
So, I took the bus towards Graz, which went up higher, I guessed, than I had walked. The slopes were all rocky and it got discernibly colder. In fact, yes, these were proper serious mountains: a half bowl of them like a massive satellite dish tilted towards us that may have been the Hochschwab (we stopped at Seewiesen).
I lounged – how relaxing it is to decide where to go, buy a ticket and then be driven!
There were spectacular waterfalls, lakes of dark turquoise, alps with snowy peaks, and more pine forests than you can shake a baton at. We drove past wooden dwellings, livestock on fertile slopes, and logs of course, by the pile – all set against an azure sky.
A tortoiseshell cat sat in the middle of the grass. The bus buzzed each time it prepared to stop. I relished my mini bottle of prosecco as we roller-coasted through the countryside. A tree seemed to be sinking under its apple-weight; there were lots of day-walkers and people with poles.
We passed through Aflenz Kurort, a very attractive place with a book shop, and then I changed buses at Bruck an der Mur. I could have got a train to Graz from Kapfenberg (which is big enough to have a casino, get a tattoo or buy a new car, and where you can also visit a London pub with a red phone box outside!) but it was further to walk from bus to train station the kind lady told me, and I demurred.
Downhill we trundled, into the shade, and past disused, dusty buildings much like the relics of the textile industry near Hebden Bridge in west Yorkshire. A woman got on, smelling very strongly of perfume and flopped into her chair panting from the effort of making it. She picked her nose, wiped the sweat off her lower lip then checked her phone which had a screen saver of her handsome boy.
The bus picked up speed after its sedate earlier pace. Past a field of upstanding maize we went, and then another half cut, where the chickens were pecking away at the stubble. An outdoor croquet game was well attended. Tractors left wakes of sombre grass and there were the same posters for the various political candidates which I now knew by heart. I really did not like the threatening tone: it’s now or never – jetzt oder nie, nor the anti-Muslim ones.
The nice lady whose head was covered in a black and white scarf, part of her traditional costume, told me the names of the places we stopped at so I could follow on the map, and then said goodbye with a smile. I wondered if my leg joints would support me when I stood up after 1.5 hours!
There was a joking man who said I was from the dram country (In Scotland we talk about having a wee dram, a small measure, of whiskey) and, you only make small dogs! I am always impressed when folk can jest in a foreign language.
Bruck had a big station full of backpackers, but I did not get off.
Finally I boarded a hi-tec train with lots of youths on it, and announcements in English as well as German. It was heading to Leibnitz after Graz, and thence to Ljubljana in Slovenia, 190 kms further on. I fancy going there…
Day 8, 12th October 2017. A detour: Der Hubertussee – wohlfuhl wege (feel-good ways or paths).
Yesterday I walked from Lower Austria into Styria and I was all prepared to carry on to Mariazell, the final leg of the Via Sacra pilgrimage, but my kind hosts persuaded me to stay longer. Thus, close as I was, I took a walk around the luminous Lake Hubertussee, along the river Walster and many of its arterial tributaries, through the surrounding forests and back to Mitterbach.
I had woken at 6.30am and done some writing before fresh-air T’ai chi in their garden by the River Erlauf.
Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still
Chinese proverb thanks rob_shiatsu.
When we were all ready, I was driven to Lake Hubertussee where two partook of a sugary breakfast, and Gudrun and I shared cheese and red pepper on rye bread. Amor, the toddler, played while we sat in the sun.
I walked away from the ‘family’ group around 11am, past the statue of the Imperial Kaiser Franz Joseph hunting. He was Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary (amongst other titles). I guess he must have come here for sport, but it is such a special place it is hard for me to imagine that.
There was the moon again, in the day sky, like one of those off-white, grapefruit jellies.
I spotted the Hubertskapelle (chapel), every sight more magnificent than the last. I thought it had a golden window but it was the gilded autumn leaves in the sun through the gap. Weed and sky-white cloud hung under the surface of the lake; gentle air caressed my arms.
Walking gives me the time to question things and here it was the ethics I have been raised with in the light of the unorthodox relationships I had encountered during my travels. Being an outsider and therefore able to witness the repercussions of them, I needed time to muse on the difference between opening to what might be possible thereby bringing new experiences, a way of challenging the norm; and at the same time asking myself whether it is possible to avoid being taken advantage of. I thought about ‘truth’, when or where it is important to tell it; if it is always necessary to do so; and if yes, to whom?
Then I became aware of the geese honking, taking my attention away from my thoughts and back into my surroundings. I continued, mindfully.
At the top, of course, I took the path down again, alongside the river which was diverted through attractive grey stone walls, channelling the water where man wanted it to go, and into yet another wonderful lake downstream.
There were brown-planked houses with simple pointed roofs which matched the pines, poised for take-off on the mountainsides opposite; virgin-white water cascaded between mossy cushions and knobbles of silver escarpment; sparkling orange, autumn foliage illuminated it all – it mesmerised me.
Once away from the lake one can walk and walk this trail and not see a soul, and it is to be relished.
There are lots of signs at some junctions (the red and white signs with numbers indicated the cycle routes), but then again there are places soon afterwards with none. Which way should I turn? My phone (Google) maps were OK, but in the middle of the countryside there is rarely coverage. I discovered that the best way to know when there was a signal was to leave my data and sound on. That way when I happened to walk into a zone, some message pinged in which alerted me to check the location. Otherwise, it did not drain my allowance or disturb my peace because it was so very rare.
Occasionally, unexpectedly, a village, no, not really that big, a collection of houses, appeared out of nowhere and helped me find myself on my GPS.
It was a mighty, majestic landscape of grey crags, dark brooding firs, and flaming beech atop: stimulating sights. I went slowly, I sat and watched the grasshoppers, stretching out this gorgeousness because I did not want it to end. The sun connected the sky and the earth, and created pin-prick stars for a moment on the water, and then they were gone as I rounded the corner into the shade. It was all so sensual and I felt alive to every sound, smell and feeling.
I get filled up with space when I come here.
Karine POLWART from ‘Wind’.
I went up and over and round a small mountain and had a bit of an epiphany at the summit. It was that sort of a day. It seemed to be the summation of this Via Sacra pilgrimage. I had very clearly set out my aim in advance: to help others while I travel, and I realised that I must then trust that all the encounters I have are beneficial to those I meet as well as to me, even if I do not understand how or why; that the time we spend together is enough for them and me.
I wrote down what I could use on a leaflet to give out as I make pilgrimages: ‘I am an experienced bodyworker. I am walking from place to place offering a moment of touch. You do not take your clothes off to receive and we do not need to be in private. If you are tired or in pain, sit down and I will give you some support. There is no fee or charge. I can be what your energy needs to know itself better. For the time we are together.’
And I reflected that to do this I have to arrive in a calm state – I have to have some energy left after the walk, which is another reason why I must pace myself. It is important that I treat myself like that, that I experience the joy of the ‘camino’, take time and rest in nature, so that people can tell I am trustworthy (in therapy speke, I am being congruent) and believe that I can help them. And that is it. It was all clear, there, in that magical place.
I gave some Shiatsu, of course, while I was staying in Mitterbach, by way of exchange for my bed and board. I also joined in Spanish and creative dance classes, and I shared some baby Shiatsu with two of Paula’s clients while she sat in and watched.
‘If you take seven steps to help one patient, it is the same as circumambulating all the Buddhas. If you give medicine one time to one patient, it is the same as having made charity to all sentient beings. When you fulfill the wishes of one patient, it is equal to having made offerings to all the worthwhile objects.’ Thanks to Max P.
Via de la Plata Camino, day 15 from Salamanca to Calzada de Valdunciel (on the Mérida to Ourense section). Thursday 5 April 2018. 15 kms?
I woke really early and crept out of the female dorm where I slept with 2 others. I had been warned that walking out of Salamanca would be frustrating, and it was. The start was straightforward: to Plaza Major, then onwards, the roads getting wider and more industrial as I went. But then there is a left; straight on at a supermarket (Carrefour); a hotel which would not let me use their toilets; a stadium which I crouched behind as a result; and motorway roundabouts. No paths nor pavements: terrible. I even saw a man spitting which although it is very common in Britain, I had never seen before here in Spain.
However, I could not help but be elated with the lovely buildings and the sunlight, even if it was mixed with frustration at getting the rucksack comfy, trudging along thinking about past relationships and sorting things out in my mind.
Finally there was a clay camino by the motorway and despite the ice on the ground it was starting to warm up.
I was getting a very different feeling from people in this part of the country: in the bars they were polite but gave us half a glass compared to the Spanish, and charged more; on the street, on the other hand, people were kindness itself, helping with directions despite my beginners Spanish.
For a while I walked amidst the green and earth – the plough had created gracious curves around the hills. Then more by road – I thought, ‘You must be joking’, but the challenge was to stay quiet inside and enjoy what was there. It worked! Very soon I was back off-road, and from then on it was a smooth, flat and ochre-coloured path.
Yesterday I walked in one long stretch of countryside with nothing to break it up, offering a chance to do a walking meditation. Today it was warmer and there were little hops from village to village and there was the spire of a church ahead in Aldeaseca de la Almuña. It was a square bell tower with a shallow triangular roof and a little blob of stork on its nest on top.
I passed one of the women I had seen the previous night. She was sitting outside a village supermarket having a quiet smoke. I chose a lovely wee shop round the corner, full of delights such as an unexpectedly wide range of perfume as well as the sweet things I was ready for even though only it was only 11am.
There was a tiny arrow between the church and the medical centre but I only saw it when I went back in and the shop-keeper pointed it out. There was a sign that the library bus visits on Mondays. I exited past the sunshine yellow play-park.
I admitted to myself (after my experience near Lake Tajo) that I am somewhat nervous of meeting single men on the outskirts of towns, and at the next village sure enough there was a car which went slowly. He hooted and later approached me, but it was fine – I walked on, did not look at or answer him, and he got the message.
There were new tulips out, a hoopoe saying bou bou bou, and wood pigeons coo cooing. Luckily my book said to walk on the right side of the road, and there was a path between the trees although I did not see the arrows. Later I discovered that others had continued along the road, and I was happy that for once I had found the gentler way.
Although in this flat land there are not a lot of places to snuck down for a pee!
Oh the sweet peeping of the small brown bird with a white belly! I had never seen the vino tinto-coloured catkins before: they were all over the ground.
Then, another first, I had to take my boots off and wade through the water which was blocking the way.
I crossed the very busy main road once more, using the motorists’ signs to help me: there are far fewer arrows in this region, though there are the more modern Castilla y León pillars encompassing a variety of directions. Here there were the same miniscule scarlet succulents growing in the gravel which were all over Extremadura. I was walking beside what you might call a posh housing estate, along a smaller road parallel to the A-one, into Castellanos de Villiquera. (The Valencia one I went to has security guards on call 24 hrs a day)
There were glimpses of turquoise swimming pools through hedges and I wondered for the 100th time, why I walk. We have forgotten the way people used to walk from town to village if they did not have a horse/cart. My favourite parts of the film Captain Corelli’s Mondolin are when the people wend their way out of the village down that zig-zag road, taking their time and following tradition. Now I hear that in America you are advised not to go on foot at all in some cities. I am fascinated by the quietness of this mode of transport, not for the sake of a romantic revisiting of a lost era but because it feels better. I see and hear more. If I am not in a hurry (as I was for the first 50 years of my life it seemed), then there is somehow more time for my soul to catch up with my body.
A woman beats a mat outside her house; in contrast the small tweety birds flutter their wings like hovver flies. A racing 3-year-old spaniel, wet from leaping through young wheat, and her owner (approximately 80 years old) stop to say, aren’t you cold? I said no, not after 15 kms, and we had a nice chat. He wished me a Buen Camino when we parted ways. It seems to be a very popular pastime for the retired, walking on the outskirts.
No-one overtook me today. I suspect the two men who left earlier are going for 30 kms or so. Planning each day involves looking at the distance between hostels and taking any main towns into account. It is certainly tempting to go further, and this is a topic of very regular debate both in my head and with others, but today’s tricky 60 kms to Zamora can be comfortably divided into 16, 23 and 21 which is much more relaxed.
I traipse through Calzada de Valdunciel, right to the other side, past a wall where there is an oficina virtual de turismo ie, not real people, but a digital tourist information. And arrive at a 12-bed, cute little albergue which shares a wall with a noisy metal-cutting factory (blessedly, they take a long lunch break!).
I am there first and although deserted, the door is open. One-by-one the others arrive: the 2 men from Seuil who I have been getting to know for a few days, came first, followed by others who looked and decided to move on, and, finally, the woman I saw that morning and she had to be turned away because by then we were full. There is a little kitchen with a stove and a string of (what turns out to be plastic) garlic. And a little bedside table.
Later I took a turn around the streets and met the same woman for the fourth time. I discovered that she was waiting for an ambulance outside that supermarket because she had come over all giddy. I had noticed her having coca cola and coffee for breakfast in Salamanca before her cigarette, so when she said she did not know why she had felt so ill we had a chat about it. Much later I got to know her well and heard her story. There is always a story.
Perched high up on an ex-volcano (here’s hoping!) is Edinburgh’s second prime tourist attraction. With wonderful views over the city and the surrounding countryside as far as the Pentland Hills in the south and the Lomond Hills in the north, it is rather windy. Step inside to visit sparkling jewels and powerful weapons. Make sure you are nowhere near at 1pm unless you have your earplugs in – that is when they fire the enormous canon. Tip: book online to get a small reduction.
Set amongst spectacular grounds and with a peaceful Japanese Zen Garden, Lauriston Castle is on the banks of the Firth of Forth. There are daily tours to show off the sumptuous Edwardian interiors, and special events at Easter and Christmas. With free entry to the grounds, and castle admission being relatively cheap compared to Edinburgh Castle (adult £8, concession £6 (under 5 free)), it is worth taking the bus there and enjoying this elegant landmark. Tip: it is occasionally closed for functions so check before you travel.
This ruined castle was once a place where Mary Queen of Scots was sequestered for her own safety. Set a little way outside the city centre, you will need to take a bus (number 49 from the Bridges or Leith Walk, with a 13 minute walk at the other end). There are events in the grounds such as Medieval archery between July and September. Free to Historic Scotland members and children under 5; otherwise £3.60 (5-15 years) / £6 (adults). Tip: there is nothing much else in the area, so take your own sandwiches.
Tantallon is a semi-ruined, 14th century fortress in a spectacular setting featured in the film ‘Under the Skin’ with Scarlett Johansson. Walk the battlements and admire the Bass Rock, an island nearby which is a haven for seabirds, including puffins (you can take a boat trip there from the Sea Bird Centre in North Berwick). The quickest way is to take the train from Waverley Station to North Berwick and then get the 120 bus (from Dunbar to Edinburgh) with a 4 minute walk when you get off. Otherwise, this castle is best visited if you have the use of a car (it is an easy hour’s drive eastwards -very close to the A198 main road). Tip: make it a day out and visit North Berwick for fish and chips in the fresh sea air.
The hall-house part of Aberdour Castle was built in stone in the 1100’s, and you will discover it alongside later architectural additions (including a gorgeously painted wooden-beamed ceiling), a walled garden, and gay terraces. Located in Easter Aberdour, a pretty village in the Kingdom of Fife, this is a half day-trip from Edinburgh taking 30 minutes by train from Waverley Station, costing approximately £6 (Scotrail) and crossing the Forth with a fine sight of the new road bridge.
Or if you fancy a smart seafood lunch in the Room with a View restaurant followed by a walk along Aberdour beach for your digestion, you can make a whole day of it. Tip: St Fillan’s Norman church is close by and also worth a visit.
Wondering what the best Scottish visitor attraction is? Apparently it is the Royal Yacht Britannia at Ocean terminal in Leith, Edinburgh.
Craigmillar Castle is at Craigmillar Castle Road, Edinburgh, EH16 4SY. 0131 661 4445.
Tantallon Castle Opening times 1 Apr to 30 Sept: Daily, 9.30am to 5.30pm. Last entry 5pm.
1 Oct to 31 Mar: Daily, 10am to 4pm Last entry 3.30pm
Scotland has a bit of reputation when it comes to the weather! If you live here, you know that there can be gloriously sunny, crisp days when it is a pleasure to be alive. However, it does rain sometimes, even in the summer, so here are some of my favourite places to go on those wet days!
This magnificent building is on Chambers Street, just 15 minutes walk from Princes Street in the city centre. Free entry.
There are interactive things for kids (and big kids!) including machines and massive stuffed animals; fascinating Scottish historical artefacts displayed in creative ways; original temporary exhibitions; plus it is warm; there is a decent cafe; free wifi ….
…. jewellry, spacecraft, dinosaurs, Buddhas, death masks and the bizarre and wonderful Millennium Clock made by Tim Stead and others, which clatters and whirrs every hour, plays Bach and is just a must-see.
Whilst being equally grand and beautiful, in contrast the inside of this building is made of darker wood with a silent sweep of staircase. Look up in awe at the iconic painted panels of Scottish queens and kings all around its walls.
Do not miss the shrunken heads in the bijou library; the originally flavoured scones in the cafe; or the modern portraits such as the brooding Naomi Mitchison (novelist), sexy Michael Clark (dancer) and David Mach’s collage of Gavin Hastings (Rugby player). Free entry.
Home of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, you can view the best of independent cinema here on Lothian Road. With 3 screens showing work from around the world, and a lively cafe where there is often a very interesting art exhibition, you can also browse and buy from the idiosyncratic film shelves, and the tickets are affordable,
In the old Infirmary Street swimming baths, in the same building as a small gift shop with original ware and the amazing viewing gallery where you can watch the Master Weavers at work, this cafe serves delicious cakes, yummy savouries and good coffee.
These restored Victorian baths have a modern sauna and gym with Pilates and yoga classes. Located in the crook of the Water of Leith, among the attractive colonies housing area which is very near the trendy Stockbridge part of Edinburgh, you can exercise and relax, with or without children, calming your nervous system as you float, and emerging clean and sparkling afterwards.
Sadly Edinburgh does not have one of those original bookshops like Paris (Shakespeare and Company), Alnwick (Barter Books), or Dumfries (the dog-friendly Kings Coffee and Books). But this shop, part of a chain, is quite grand in its own way, the initial flight of stairs splitting to take you right and left to the different departments and the mezzanine floor to the cafe which has a great view of Edinburgh Castle. You can cosy down in a warm carpeted corner and transport yourself into the world of Trainspotting (Irvine Walsh’s gritty novel set in Edinburgh’s Leith) or Hogwarts of course (Harry Potter’s story, written in part at the Elephant House cafe by J.K. Rowling).
Get away from the noise and crowds for some quiet contemplation in St Mary’s Episcopalian Cathedral. See the sweet stained glass – especially the Paolozzi window, and the painting – ‘The Presence’ by the Edinburgh artist A.E. Borthwick from 1910.
7. Central Library
Funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, look out for the stunning ceiling of the George Washington Browne room, the hidden Fine Art library (wooden tables and chairs as you would imagine from your childhood), and a substantial local history / Scottish section. Downside: the toilets are in the basement, but, upside, you get to see some lesser known art as you wind your way there.
And, finally, I know when I am travelling I need to keep in contact with friends and family and if I am having trouble with my phone I need wifi: Try the Fruitmarket Gallery cafe where you can also see contemporary art exhibitions of the highest calibre.
The National Museum of Scotland is at Chambers Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1JF. Tel: 0300 123 6789. Link above.
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery: Open daily, 10am-5pm. Free admission (Charge for some exhibition). 1 Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1JD email@example.com
Filmhouse. 88 Lothian Road, Edinburgh EH3 9BZ. Box Office: 0131 228 2688. Open from 10am – 9pm daily.