2023 – Tour of Loch Ness, Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

We made Inverness, known as the “capital of the Highlands,” our hub for exploring Loch Ness, Eilean Donan Castle, and the Isle of Skye. This region is known for its breathtaking scenery with majestic mountains encircling the deep lakes. Loch Ness, a remarkably deep lake, has a dark blue hue and boasts the largest reserve of freshwater in the entire UK. The highway winds its way along the lake and one stunning view after another comes into sight. Sorry to say, the elusive Nessie, the legendary monster, was nowhere to be found, yet the amazing landscapes compensated for its absence.

Continuing westward from Loch Ness, we ascended through a mountain pass, pausing frequently to capture photos and take in the magnificent panoramas. Eilean Donan Castle, originally erected in the 1200s, served as a formidable defense against Viking invasions and later became a stronghold for the Mackenzie clan. Although the fortress was destroyed in the 1700s, it was painstakingly reconstructed after nearly two centuries, eventually becoming a national trust property. We toured the castle, getting a firsthand view of what life there would have been like.

Our tour continued to the Isle of Skye and I’ll write about it in my next post.

2023 – Blackford, Scotland Highland Games

During the summer, different towns in Scotland host Highland Games, resembling county fairs with a wonderful Scottish flavor. We visited the Highland Games in Blackford, a small village, where we enjoyed bagpipe contests, Scottish dances, and athletic events like caber tossing. Several competitions were for younger participants, including foot races and track and field events. There were several bicycle races. Jackie explored the various crafts stalls. Naturally, kilts and bagpipes were abundant, adding to the festive atmosphere. We thoroughly enjoyed our Highland Games adventure.

2023 – A day in the Peak District of the UK

From certain places around Manchester you can look to the southeast and see big hills off in the distance. Our day in the Peak District took us out into that area, known as the Peak District – home to deep valleys, flowing streams, steep green hills, and pretty towns and villages. We used Rabbie’s Tours for this trip and we do recommend them.

The drive out of Manchester into the heart of this beautiful area is just over an hour but the change from big city to rural beauty is dramatic. We stopped in two towns where we had plenty of time to look around.

The first was Castleton. The ruins of a medieval fortress, Pervil Castle, overlooks the village. Some climb up the hill to enjoy the panoramic views. We opted to wander around town and take photos.

We went to the town of Bakewell for a longer break where we had a nice lunch. The River Wye flows through the village (interestingly, “Wye” means “River” so it is actually “River-River”). The railings of one footbridge is jam packed with “love locks.” Couples get padlocks and put their names on them. They attach them to the bridge rail and then toss the keys away. Bakewell is also known for a particular jam and almond pudding called, appropriately enough, “Bakewell Pudding.” There is a sort of copyright on it, and only in this village can it be called “Bakewell Pudding.” Of course, we had to try some with our lunch and it was quite good!

The scenery was wonderful. One interesting stop was the overlook above the Monsal Head Viaduct. This was built as a railroad bridge but when the rail line was taken out of service the line was turned into a hiking trail that is very popular. Our stop there was just for photos so we didn’t get to walk any of the trail, but we did enjoy seeing the viaduct far below.

Our other major attraction of the day was Poole Cavern. We’ve been in bigger caves but this one has a lot to offer. Our cave tour guide was knowledgeable and interesting and we learned about the caverns and the infamous Mr. Poole who used the cave as a hideout in the 15th century.

We’re glad we took this tour as it gave us an opportunity to see an area near Manchester that we haven’t had opportunity to explore.

2023 – Amsterdam, Netherlands

The primary purpose of our visit to Amsterdam, Netherlands was to see Keukenhof gardens, but, of course, we wanted to see a bit of the city too. We took the train into the city center where we hopped onto one of the many canal cruises that are available. It was a good choice for us as we got to see many of the historic sights of the city while riding on a canal, something Amsterdam is famous for. It was a relaxing trip and we recommend it. Afterwards, we just looked around – visiting the “flower market” where all kinds of touristy things are sold. Jackie did a bit of shopping. Afterward, we headed for the Palace and Dam Square. This huge town square was full of people. It is surrounded by government buildings and shops. For lunch we boarded a tram and worked our way to the Foodhallen – a unique food court in a big mall. We wandered the city, enjoying the sights.

Obviously, our short trip didn’t give us time to visit some of the famous museums. We opted for getting a general overview instead.

A few observations. We felt that public transportation, which was quite good, was rather expensive there. It may be that we’ve just been spoiled by the prices in Manchester which are less than half what they are in Amsterdam. Our hotel, the Airport Intercity Hotel, was very nice. We especially appreciated the full, complimentary breakfast that came with our senior adult rates. I will mention that the 10 minute walk from the bus/train station was complicated by several steps up and over a dike – something we weren’t prepared for.

It was, all things considered, a fun, but short, get-away. We’re constantly amazed at how close things are in this part of the world. Our flight from Manchester to Amsterdam was just over one hour. The negative was that we were supposed to arrive at the airport around two hours early. It seems strange to sit in the airport for twice as long as we sat on the plane!

2023 – Keukenhof, Netherlands

The primary purpose of our trip to Amsterdam was to visit the world-famous Keukenhof Gardens. This destination boasts 79 acres of floral beauty – over 7 million tulips (I confess that I didn’t count them!) plus many other beautiful plants. Keukenhof is only open to the public about 50 days each Spring when the Tulips are in bloom. We stayed in a hotel near the airport to take advantage of the express bus that is available from there. Honestly, the “airport” pickup point is a bit of a hike from all the other bus/train/air hubs. Starting the day off with a hike isn’t the best approach when you are going to stroll the wonderful garden paths for a few hours! We took multiple breaks, including having lunch at one of the cafes. The Gardens were very crowded, but we still found spots where we could stop and enjoy the amazing beauty. There are wonderful fields of tulips all around the Gardens with ample overlooks for great photos. We very much enjoyed our “tiptoe through the tulips” at Keukenhof and highly recommend it to you.

2023 – The East Lancashire Railway and Bury Transport Museum

There are several vintage steam railways around the UK. One not too far from us is the East Lancashire Railway, Bury – just north of Manchester. In fact, Bury is at the northern end of the Manchester tram line. We rode the tram about an hour and a half up to Bury to ride behind the Lady of Legend coal-fired steam locomotive. The line runs along the River Irwell about 8 miles to the town of Rawtenstall. The weather started off cool, but nice. As we rode the train it began to rain followed by small hail! The weather didn’t delay our trip any, but it did dampen our desire to do much exploring! We opted for a coffee shop break followed by a return ride on a vintage diesel train, with a break for lunch and then another ride behind the steam locomotive.

The other half of our adventure was a visit to the Bury Transport Museum. It was fun checking out a wide variety of antique vehicles there – ranging from an old tractor to double decker busses to another beautiful steam locomotive.

It was a nice day trip for us, and we recommend it to anyone who likes the old trains.

2023 – Galway and the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland

Part two of our quick trip to Ireland began with a Sunday afternoon high speed train trip from Dublin to Galway.  We really enjoy train travel (evidenced by our big train trip to Italy and the Swiss Alps).  The trains are fast and reasonably quiet.  They are also reasonably priced.  We enjoyed the two-hour trip across the country as the train reached speeds of up to 100 mph at times.

I picked our hotel in Galway specifically because of it being practically next door to the train/bus station and being only a five-minute walk to the Spanish Quarter, a lively area featuring many shops and restaurants.  Our hotel was actually part of the 13 on the Green Pub.  As it turned out, our small, but serviceable, room was directly above the pub!  As far as I could tell, we never heard anything from down below.  However, out our window we looked down on the pedestrian crossing of a narrow city street.  Every time the crossing went to green we heard the “beep, beep, beep” pedestrian signal.  After 11:00 or so at night traffic calmed down and people stopped pushing the “wait to cross” button.  Still, it was a rather noisy place to stay and we didn’t sleep well either night that we were there.

After arriving in Galway we headed across Eyre Square and into the Latin Quarter.  We window shopped and people watched, stretching our legs after the train ride.  There were buskers playing and singing to the crowds.  Nearby we found the Spanish Arch and Wall, which are hundreds of years old.  Later on we went into a shopping mall and saw that part of that wall has been preserved inside the mall!

The next morning we walked just a few minutes to the pickup point for our bus tour.  This is an all day tour that features the Cliffs of Moher and other destinations to the south of Galway along the coast.  There are other tours and I wish we had had the time to take them, but I think this one is considered the major one and I’m glad we took it.  Highlights included a look at Dunguarie Castle, Aillwee Cave (with a nice underground waterfall), a rocky area called the Burren, and the Cliffs of Moher.  The route follows part of the Wild Atlantic Way – a scenic drive along the ocean.  This area is very popular with both locals and tourists.  Many festivals take place in the small towns along the way and during the summer the area is packed with visitors.

The main draw for us was the Cliffs of Moher.  There are wide, paved trails up onto the cliffs.  However, you can also ask for a lift on a golf cart (called the “Lifts of Moher”).  We opted for that and a driver cheerfully took us up to two different overlooks.  I have to say that we stayed a shorter time than we would have liked because of the cold, strong wind!  As I understand it, it is quite common so if you make the trip, check the weather conditions on the Cliffs.

We hopped a national bus the next morning for a two hour trip to Shannon Airport.  That airport was the exact opposite of Manchester Airport.  Shannon was quiet and laid back.  Our trip through security was just a formality and our plane left pretty much on time.

I’d say our visit to Ireland give us just a taste of the island.  It is interesting to consider that if we were coming to Ireland from the states the airfare would be hundreds of dollars more than what we spent for the short hop across the Irish Sea.  When you spend more you want to stay long enough to feel you have received value for the cost.  In our case, we just did a long weekend.  We saw less, but then again we spent considerably less.  I guess everything in life has its tradeoffs.  Long stay or short, we do recommend Ireland as an interesting and beautiful destination.

2023 – Dublin, Ireland

It’s only 165 miles from Manchester to Dublin, but most of that distance is over the Irish Sea so the only two ways to get there are by air or by ferry. Air travel is less expensive and should be much faster. Any way you do it from Manchester is much less expensive than flying from the States.

You will note that I said air travel should be “much faster.” In our case, the trip took longer than it should have. Our original flight was canceled due to technical difficulties. No complaint about that; I have no interest in flying in a plane that is in questionable condition! However, our Ryanair flight kept being delayed as we were bumped from one plane to another as they searched for a spare aircraft for the short hop. When all was said and done we arrived in Dublin in a plane full of drunks (you can guess how they passed their time during the delay). All’s well that ends well, and we arrived in Dublin without further issue.

We were booked into the Metro Airport Hotel and appreciated their free airport shuttle. Upon checking in they told us we were being upgraded to a suite! It was as nice a hotel accommodation as we’ve ever had – a three room unit! One wall of the bedroom was filled with windows. Our only complaint was that just below us was a major highway intersection. I think we managed to arrive on an especially busy night as we heard sirens off and on throughout the night. Since the intersection is a major one the emergency vehicles turn their sirens on as they approach the intersection and then turn them off once they are through. Happily, things were much calmer the second night.

The city bus passes right through that intersection, making it easy to hop a bus and ride directly to the heart of Dublin. You might want to know that Dublin buses don’t accept credit cards. Upon arrival at the airport I stopped off and bought a one day “Leap” transport ticket, so we just held it against the card reader as we got on the bus and on other trips that day.

One thing we wanted to see was Dublin Castle. It was different than we expected, more of a palace than castle. There’s lots of artwork by famous artists plus rooms of fancy furniture and such.

From there we walked along the River Liffey where we happened on a college rowing event. It is amazing how fast the teams can get their boats going! We walked on the famous Ha-penny Bridge and then checked out O’Connell Street in the heart of the city.

From there we hopped a bus for a short ride to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells. This is a surviving copy of the Gospels dating from the 800s – a beautifully handwritten and illustrated portion of the Bible. It was impressive to see it, but unfortunately for us, no photography is allowed. However, the Book of Kells is adjacent to the “Old Library” which dates back to the 18th Century. We took lots of photos there. There is a harp on display there that is several hundred years older than the Library itself. It is called the “Brian Boru’s harp.” Since the harp is considered to be a symbol of Ireland, seeing this ancient one there in Dublin is pretty cool.

A bus ride back out to the hotel with a stop for fish and chips finished our day in Dublin.

2023 – Italy-Switzerland wrapup

2023 – Zermatt, Switzerland – the Matterhorn – Scott and Jackie

We arrived back “home” in Manchester a bit weary but more than satisfied with our trip to Italy and Switzerland.  Here are some random thoughts as we wrap up our trip.

It was an all-public transportation trip.  Over the last 10 days we traveled by bus, plane, subway, trolley, boat, Uber, and, of course, train.  It is quite an experience for Americans who are fully immersed in the car culture to travel totally as passengers on public transport.  It certainly is nice to look out the window or read a book while someone else handles the trip!

This journey was, of course, all about the trains.  Jackie and I enjoyed the Italian high-speed trains.  They are big and roomy; smooth and quiet.  Our Swiss trains, of course were all about the view.

The trains we traveled on in Switzerland were all narrow gauge.  That means the tracks and, therefore, the cars are narrower.   Most of the time it didn’t make much difference but, on the Bernina Express it did.  We were in second class where the seats face one another in groups of four.  Jackie and I decided it would be better to spend the four-hour trip looking at one another (and with both of us having window seats).  That meant two other passengers on the full train sat beside of us.  They were nice people, but they didn’t speak much English, so we spent those hours listening to them speaking French to one another and to several other family members on the other side of the train car.  While traveling in second class worked great on all the other journeys we took, I think we’d opt spend the extra money and go for first class if we were ever to take that excursion again.  The first-class cars have two seats on one side and one seat on the other.  Much more room.

I confess that photography on the train was a challenge.  The train keeps moving and there are reflections in the windows.  I just took lots of photos and then deleted most of them, leaving only the ones I thought looked best.

If you ever plan on traveling by train in Europe, check out this web site – I got tons of great information there: https://www.seat61.com/ is a great resource.

Jackie and I were really blessed with the weather.  Not only was it unseasonably warm, but it also didn’t rain or snow on us the entire trip.  We couldn’t have ordered better weather for a January in the Alps!

My biggest budget miss was the cost of food.  Switzerland, in particular, was very expensive.  Just a hamburger and fries were over $20 a person.  When traveling, we generally try to eat one nicer meal each day, and then, in the evening, eat a sandwich, etc.   Even that approach was a challenge.  We often went to a grocery store and bought ready-made sandwiches with chips to take back to the hotel for supper.  Those sandwiches usually ran $7-8 each.  Two of the “best” deals were German Doner Kebab restaurants (lots of meat!) and many pizzerias.  I do like pizza, but not as a daily staple!

I researched hotels on Google, trying to find highly rated ones, for reasonable prices, that were close to train stations.  We were satisfied with all of them.  All but one offered breakfast with the stay.  The breakfasts were pretty good.

I’ll close out my writing with this.  Thanks to all who have read along.  Comments are always welcome and encourage me to keep writing.  All of the posts in this series can be easily found in our travel blog: http://localhost/pastorscott/travel/tag/italy-switzerland/

2023 – On the Bernina Express, Switzerland to Colico, Italy

Our ride on the Bernina Express took us high up into the Swiss Alps and then down to Torino, Italy.  The views from the train are exceptional and the route includes features like the 213 feet high Landwasser Viaduct and the Brusio spiral viaduct.  Gaining and losing as much altitude as the train does means there are lots of switchbacks, loops, and tunnels.  I took many photos and then, once the trip was over, I tried to pick only the best to save.  Admittedly, it was a challenge.

The ticketing situation for both Bernina and Glacier Express is a bit confusing.  There are two separate transactions.  First, you need to reserve a seat on the train.  The price for that is about $20.  You can reserve fairly early and you really need to because the train sells out well in advance.  Then, when you get closer to your reserved time, you have to buy the actual train ticket.  You can get a point to point ticket, a “super saver” if you book early, or a Saver Day pass which is good anywhere in Switzerland on trains and buses.  There are a limited number of these, so, again, committing early saves money.

I used the Trainline app for most of my train tickets.  It works in most of Europe, including the UK.  However, I used the Swiss rail app, SSB to get my Saver Day passes – that is the only place to get them.  I like using the apps because they let me work in English and not have to guess the meaning of German, Italian, etc. phrases.  Also, Trainline lets you pick your currency.  By picking US dollars I have a better idea of what, exactly, I am spending.  Having said all that, let me add that train travel on this trip has been among the least of our expenditures.  I’ve been constantly surprised at how low train prices are across Europe.

The train crosses into Italy at Torino.  We switched to an Italian train to take us to a beautiful lakeside town, Colico.  The town is on the shore of Lake Como, a 40 mile long, very deep glacial lake which is surrounded by snowcapped mountains.  This has been a popular vacation destination for hundreds of years.  Right now, of course, is off season but there was still a lot of activity in the town.

Tomorrow, we will continue our train journey along the shore of Lake Como back to Milan and to the airport for our flight back to Manchester.