Monday, December 24, 2012

And now for something completely different...

OK, the title of this post is totally misleading, because I am going to share with you another fantastic Scottish castle, which isn't very different at all from my regular programming... but there is something unique about this particular castle

I mentioned in a previous post that on our weekend out of Edinburgh we visited a castle named Doune. Back in 1975, Doune was a film location for a certain funny little movie. One that I am sure many of you have seen...

but maybe you'd recognize it better if we approached from the side...

just like the noble knights of the round table.

Or, maybe best if we "run away!"

Need another hint? Here, watch this: my directorial skills are nearly as good as Matt's delivery-

What...? You didn't get it from that reenactment?? Fine... here's the real deal-

Surely you know what movie it is by now! Unfortunately for us, that exact wall was the only part of the castle that was closed to visitors (they are taking away concrete bits so that water can escape the stone instead of causing the wall to crumble from the inside out, so I guess that's more important than us climbing on top and yelling poorly memorized taunts at one another in horrible french accents). We did get this wee view from an upstairs window!

Good thing there were other parts of the castle used in the film where we could play about! Like this stone staircase leading from the courtyard into the kitchen tower...

the same one stormed by brave Sir Lancelot as he massacres a wedding party rescues a captured bride-to-be...

Which has been fabulously recreated with Legos!
lego source
But if you insist, have a watch of the real scene (but don't blame me if it takes you 15 minutes to read this blog post!)

I took a photo of this view...

...out of this window.

We played about the great hall (one of the best preserved in Scotland for its age) but it looked different without myriad dancing knights,

And the kitchen, while amazing, was sadly (for Matt) temptress-free!

And according to the very funny and informative audio tour (narrated by Terry Jones) the huge stone oven, large enough to roast an ox on a spit,

was where the ladies made a bed for young Sir Galahad.

But just like there are lots of great scenes from the movie that are not filmed at Doune (like when King Arthur fights the Black Knight!), there are tons of interesting historical bits to the castle that have nothing to do with Monty Python.

\This stone, part of the frame to the huge window in the kitchen, shows the marks of where the cooks sharpened their knives nearly 800 years ago.

And the chamber where we found this fireplace was used to entertain and house the fanciest of guests (I wish the fire had been going that day, as it was a bit drafty in the castle. And sitting on stone, fireplae or not, is a quick way to get even colder!)

We broke a few rules, but only a tiny bit... cheeky naughty tourists! 

We checked out the loo- a most comfotable room, really. It had a window for ventillation and a vent to allow in heat from the adjacent room. It even had a little nook in the wall that would have had strips of linen or bits of moss to use to ... you know. 

And from the loo, you have this view- That is the river Teith, and one local said that when soldiers were called to protect the region, they were to come 'armed to the Teith'.

Of course we climbed stairs. Lots and lots of circular stone stairs! If I had a shilling for every old stair I've climbed in the last few months I'd have... well, nothing really, since nobody uses shillings anymore. But you get what I mean. Exploring historic sites = stairs!

So there you have it. Doune Castle... really quite magical.

After our visit, we rode off into the sunset,

and had ourselves a pint!

And just in case it's not utterly clear, the movie filmed at Doune Castle was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Go rent it, you know you want to see it again!

Fair thee well... and Happy Christmas Eve!!!!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Most Amazing Quilt

Matthew got a lot of Hanukkah presents this year-- one or two for each night--but I'll admit that not all of them were winners (On the first night, I got him an alarm clock to put on my side of the bed, and told him the gift was that he would no longer have to turn off his alarm for me! Clever wifey, indeed!)  But one gift has been a long time in the making and was the star of the festivities.

And every star needs a dramatic unveiling. We invited a couple of wonderful friends over for latkes with all the fixin's (I had to make the applesauce, as it is not a commercial product here dispite the fact that lots of apples are grown in the UK... what's up with that? But I digress). Anyway, we drank bubbly, lit the candles, gorged ourselves on all things oily and sweet (the hallmarks of Hanukkah) and then Matthew got his prize...

...the most amazing quilt!

Over the summer, when we were going through all of our worldly possessions and deciding what to bring across the pond, we came across a lot of stuff that we couldn't bear to part with, but didn't really want to store in a box for years... Matt had a collection of tee shirts that dated all the way back to his high school days. Momentos of concerts, sports, travel and school. Shirts he either couldn't or wouldn't wear ever again but that still meant something to him.

I asked him if he'd like a quilt made of these special shirts and he was all about it. I looked online and found a few sites that made some cheesy looking t-shirt quilts. Ones without any real quilting or fabric borders (basically just the shirts sewn together- not quite what I had in mind). But on Etsy I found exactly what I was looking for... Jane Haworth from Happy Quilt Designs. Her quilts seemed so well crafted. I messaged her with a ton of questions and she was really great answering them all (i.e.- could you ship the finished quilt to Scotland?) So, I took the scissors to the shirts Matt had chosen... Cutting out the best bits,

because they were not all usable!

I mailed off all the bits to Jane (in California) and told her only two things- the first was that I really liked the look of patchwork quilts, where nothing really lines up perfectly and it looks like a big cozy hodgepodge. The second was that I thought Matt would prefer more traditional-looking prints when it came to the border fabric. She took these two points to heart and then added lots of her own creative vision. Before stitching it all together though, she sent me a photo with it all laid out. I loved it! 

Soon after, I got another email from Jane telling me that the quilt was finished! She was placing a patch on the back and I could include a message if I'd like. This was the hardest part for me. A message?! I took days (maybe even weeks?) trying to come up with something that would live eternally on this wonderful quilt. A little love note? A lyric from one of Matt's favorite songs? A quote? Just... For Matthew? Oh man. I totally over thought about it. Until I picked something silly and cute and emailed it off to Jane before I could change my mind again. With the "message" complete, she could send us the quilt.

I took a peak as soon as it arrived, it was so soft and pretty! I wanted to put it on the couch right away (you can always use another blanket in Scotland!) but I saved giving it to Matt until the Hanukkah party. He loved it-- seeing some of his favorite memories all stitched together! And he took a long while looking closely at all the detailed quilting. Because Jane didn't just sew the shirts together with extra fabric, she quilted around each shirt's design.

And the message I chose? I went for a little tidbit from Shel Silverstein... 

So Happy Hanukkah my dear! May you be cozy and warm in your shirt quilt for many Hanukkahs to come!

(our famous Nessie the Loch Ness Monster menorah)
And Thank you Jane Haworth! You made a beautiful quilt that we will get lots of use from. It is so much nicer than just stashing away a box of shirts that we'll never see again. Thanks for emailing me along the way, being patient when I take forever to get back to you, and for sending it to us overseas! It is already a household favorite, as you can see--

And just so you know, this is not a sponsored post or anything. I just really love the quilt Jane made for us and if it sounds like I am trying to tell you that they make the best gifts and that you all should order one... then you're right. Because they do, and you should. You'll love it. I promise!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

6 Castles and a Palace

Matthew and I dashed off for a weekend, and in the span of 3 days, we managed to stumble across six castles and a Palace. A couple of these places were so fantastic, that they warrant their own post... so, if I can find the time, I'll share them over the next few days (with more photos than you'd ever care to see). But for now, here's the mini rundown:

Blackness Castle
This was the first castle we came upon and is just outside of Edinburgh. It is right on the firth and within clear view of the Firth Rail Bridge.  If I remember correctly Blackness Castle was in use up until the 1920s. (but I could be getting facts confused through this entire post, so don't quote me on anything). We had a great time roaming about the grounds and through the towers. We saw the prisons- the nice one with the window and fireplace for fancy prisoners, and the pit, a windowless hole that was so far below that the freezing sea water would come in and out with the tides. When we arrived at Blackness,it was literally at the end of a rainbow... Ah, Scotland. You do rainbows like no other place I've been!

Linlithgow Palace
There has been a royal structure on this site since the eleven hundreds... but this particular building was built a few hundred years later. James V and Mary Queen of Scots were both born in Linlithgow Palace, and spent time in this palace during their reigns. It is thought to be haunted by Mary of Guise (mother of Mary Queen of Scots.. lots of Marys... got to keep them all straight). Now, it is partially destroyed, without a roof in several parts, but still very impressive. Walking through the halls and chambers, it is easy to imagine it in its former glory.

Airth Castle
 This place is now a spa and hotel. Matt and I stopped because it was right on our way to where we were staying for the night and we though we would grab a bite in the restaurant. But, we ended up stumbling into someone's wedding preparations. The place was crazy with flustered women, and I think I spotted the mother of the bride-to-be hurrying about holding and armful of gowns. We got out of there pretty quickly. Maybe we'll try Airth again another time (especially since there is a spa! Castle + Spa = Happy Place)

Broomhall Castle
This is our castle... in the sense that this is where we spent two nights. It is outside of Stirling, surrounded by beautiful countryside and huge craggy mountains.  Our room had a super deep claw foot bathtub and a ginormous bed (well, I think it was a king, but after sharing a double bed for the last few months, it felt ginormous to us!). The place was not very busy, but well staffed, so it kind of felt like we were royalty!

Doune Castle
This was my favorite stop, and it will definitely get its own post.  But for now, I'll say that Doune Castle, right on the River Teith, has its own kind of magic. It has history, of course, that matches many of the other castles we visited... but it has something more. A little bit of movie magic happened here nearly 40 years ago and still draws the goofiest of fans to the site. What movie, you ask? I'll tell you later, I promise.

Menstrie Castle
Since we had a rental car, we decided to follow a few road signs that lead us here, to Menstrie Castle. Built in 1560, it is now 4 residential flats, and one was becoming occupied as we walked about. Kind of funny to be snapping photos as the moving guys unloaded the truck. I got the feeling that it was no big deal to live in or around this place... it was just part of a suburban neighborhood. It's as if this country is overrun with castles!

Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle is said by many to be the best castle Scotland, and it lives up to this reputation. We spent a few hours there and didn't see it all. Luckily for us, it is only a short train ride away from Edinburgh and as members of Historic Scotland, we can return for free any time! The day we visited was misty and cold, and that just added to the atmosphere. This place has all the castle-y highlights...moats, iron portcullis, gardens, walls, kitchens, great halls, and a beautifully refurbished Palace (that of James V and Mary of Guise, parents to a little lady known as Mary Queen of Scots- in fact the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots occurred here on December 14th 1542 when she was just 6 days old).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Experiencing Scotch Whisky

Being married means doing things the other person wants to do from time to time. Last week, Matt escorted me to a Harry Potter-themed Ball. I'm pretty sure it wasn't on the top of his list of things he really wanted to do, but he went and he had a good time. And because of that, I had a blast.

So, in the interest of fairness and loving-wifely-duty. I took Matt here:

The Scotch Whisky Experience is really close to Edinburgh Castle, and it is geared quite a bit to tourists. In honor of St. Andrew's day, though, they allowed "locals" to take their Silver Tour for free (so long as they pre-booked a space in advance). I got an email saying as much and thought it would be a nice treat for Matthew, especially during his final week of this first semester. I thought I might as well check it out too, seeing that it was free and all. Also, since we live in Scotland and since I generally like boozey things, I figure I ought to know how the national drink is made.

Little did I know, that you get to go on a ride! Seriously! The tour begins with a ride through the whisky making process, starting with rain and ending with the stuff in the glass. We took it all in aboard large whisky barrels on a moving belt (think Haunted mansion in Disneyland)

And funny enough, our ride ended up with us in the tasting room... where we were schooled (quite literally, there was a presentation with slides and everything) on the distinct Scotch-making regions of Scotland and their main characteristics. The Lowlands, with their mildest flavors and hints of citrus; the Highlands with tones of heather and vanilla; Speyside, the fruitiest of them all; and Islay (pronounced eye-luh) with the manliest flavors of smoke and peat.  (While I can appreciate the blazingly obvious differences between some of them, for the most part, they all just taste like incredibly strong alcohol to me...)

I went for a taste of the Speyside pour. Matt braved the Islay...

We took our drams into a meandering room, where each wall, from floor to ceiling housed the world's largest whisky collection. It is permanently on loan to the Scotch Whisky Experience from it's owner. I forget just how many individual bottles there are, but it is a ridiculous amount. There are no repeats. None of them have ever been opened. And there are loads.

That's right, loads!

And some of them are quite old. The oldest dating back to 1897.

The place must be interested in superlatives, because it also has the world's largest bottle of single malt Scotch whisky in the world.

And the tour dutifully ends at the whisky bar, instead of in a gift shop (although they have one of those too). Matt had another dram (well, two, if you count the one I tried to drink). The staff is very knowledgable and talked him through their vast selection. I find that just about everyone in Scotland is willing to talk at least a little about Scotch!

But don't say cheers as you raise your dram, say Slainte Mhath... which isn't pronounced at all like it looks. It comes out sounding a lot more like slan-ja-va.

PS- As soon as we were done with our tour and extra credit drinking, I forced Matt to the restaurant in the basement. It actually has lovely arched windows and overlooks the hill above the Grassmarket. My delicious cup of lentil and carrot soup and sandwich were especially appreciated, since we skipped both breakfast and lunch before hitting the whisky. Perhaps, that's the real Scotch Whisky Experience!)