Did I say the Orkney weather forecast was for fine weather – wrong! For our two days stay it was windy with rain squalls and cold (although there was brilliant sunshine the morning we flew back to Edinburgh). Having said that this did not deter us from having an enjoyable stay.
Let me start from a roads engineering perspective. The roads on Orkney were overall the best we’ve experienced so far anywhere on our trip. This is probably because of the smooth driving surface and also for not being subjected to heavy traffic volumes. It certainly made for pleasant driving on almost deserted roads which we did from one end of the mainland to the other. We also liked the stone pavements in the centres of the towns of Kirkwall and Stromness. These were narrow single lane thoroughfares used as much by pedestrians as vehicles. Our little hired Ford Focus was a pleasure to drive (a smooth manual gearbox) through the completely treeless countryside where there is water everywhere, either lochs, the coasts of the North Sea and the North Atlantic, or the vast maritime sanctuary of Scarpa Flow. To the south, a number of causeways link the Mainland with smaller islands and eventually South Ronaldsay. Some of these causeways are known as Churchill barriers intended to prevent the entry of German shipping, particularly U-boats, into Scarpa Flow. Nearby is the Italian Chapel, constructed by prisoners of war and another reminder, together with the remains of numerous ship wrecks, of other aspects of that period of Orkney history.
But what else did we experience in Orkney? The two basic aims were to see some of the world’s most ancient historic sites and, on Jenny’s bucket list, to see some puffins. We succeeded nicely in the first but failed to catch a glimpse of those cute little birds. It was probably a little early in the season.
On Orkney some wonderful history has been revealed not only in standing stones and circles but also at the village of Skara Brae and at Maeshowe where neolithic civilisations left their marks from some 5000 years ago. The chambered cairn at Maeshowe under its large earth mound was particularly impressive. This site like many others across the Orkneys also have Norse (Viking) connections. At this site there was Viking runic “graffiti”. The tidal island of the Brough of Birsay has Pictish as well as Viking ruins, but unfortunately we missed another major site at the Broch of Gurness because of the bad weather.
More recent history is on display in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall – it is only 850 years old. This is a church on a grand scale which was quite surprising in this remote part of the world. Nearby are the ruins of the Earl’s and Bishop’s Palaces.
The weather was not our friend during our stay and “forced” us the take refuge for a couple of delightful and refreshing interludes at lunchtimes with delicious bowls of soup. Firstly, at the Brough of Birsay and then a most memorable break at the southern end of South Ronaldsay where we were able to look across the water to John O’Groats on the Scottish mainland.
Next it is back to the Scottish mainland and then south.
Things have been going quite smoothly on the tour to date but yesterday was a reality check. Hit by the curse of travellers – we missed our flight (to the Orkneys). It was my own fault for misreading the eTicket and it seemed we were in a real jam. I currently have a Lee Child on my kindle and I could have had a Jack Reacher moment taking out frustration on something or someone. Perhaps I should read better literature instead of action fiction that doesn’t lead to fast and even skim reading.
However, luck was on our side and we managed to get a later flight. It seems air traffic to Kirkwall is not heavy at this time of year or maybe it was because of the bank (ie public) holiday Monday for May Day. Anyway there was plenty of space for us on the 34 seater Saab 340B and it was a smooth and relaxed flight even for those who aren’t fans of smaller planes.
The overall result was the loss of about 4 hours but we all agreed that with 2 full days here we will still have enough time for a leisurely tour of the Orkneys. The dent to my pride as an organised traveller will eventually rebound and I will regain my sense of humour after this somewhat depressing episode.
As I mull over these thoughts, in a better humour, with the light from the early-rising sun trying to squeeze through the curtains I realise that I haven’t introduced our travelling band. Most readers will realise that we are Jenny, Arthur, Margaret and Rowan. Accordingly, I am calling this the Jammer Tour (JAMR) which in a couple of weeks will split up into two as we go separate ways and I will then only write about the Junior Tour (JR).
The sun rises early in Kirkwall because we are 59o North of the equator and in spring with up to 15 hours of sunlight in May. You can compare this latitude to Queenstown, Tassie at 42o South or Queenstown, NZ at 45o South to get a sense of the relative climatic conditions. Even though the weather comes straight off the North Atlantic Ocean, the forecast for the next couple of days is fine with temperatures up to 12oC. So it augers well for touring around the “Mainland” of the Orkneys.
The Bruce girls have arrived in their traditional homeland and all is well with the world.
With only two nights here this time around (we will be back soon) it was decided to hit the priority sites of the Royal Mile, Mary King’s Close and the National Museum plus the essential hop on-hop off city tour bus. We had all visited the castle before and couldn’t really fit a proper revisit in, in the short time available.
Did I write earlier that our history lessons had finished? Silly me, it is just different history. We learned about the Old Town that consisted only of residences (and I use this term loosely) and shops either side of the Royal Mile spine from where the 16th century Palace of Holyroodhouse stands, up the steep hill to the castle. Aspects of the history of the Old Town were theatrically illustrated/performed by our tour guide at Mary King’s Close as being about survival often through poverty, unhygienic surroundings and plague.
The new town was a planned layout and mainly Georgian in character. The bus took us through the city centre so that we could admire its architecture.
Our accommodation is a little way out of the city, although walkable if not raining, at Kildonan Lodge Hotel in Craigmillar Park. This house is an example of the more elegant stone houses that abound in this part of Edinburgh.
Pub meals were enjoyed at Blackfriars Bobby near the Royal Mile and the Old Bell, our local near the hotel, with delicious soups and my particular favourite, steak and ale pie with mash (and Guinness).
A couple of days in Dublin was a welcome respite after our cruise with its excursions in every port.
This month is important in Dublin as it marks the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising and it is commemorated everywhere. This Rebellion was, of course, a major step on the path to Irish independence and the eventual formation of the Republic of Ireland in 1948.
The centre of Dublin today appears as a young vibrant bustling City. It is busy but relaxed, easy to walk around, although the footpaths are narrow, and there are plenty of places to eat and drink. To get our bearings, and to rest weary legs, we used the hop on – hop off bus to reacquaint and reorient ourselves as well as at least glimpsing the major points of interest. Sightseeing proper was kept to a minimum but included the National Museum with its bog bodies, Christ Church Cathedral and Dublin Castle. We didn’t catch up with Molly Malone…
Not being able to control myself, I slipped away to spend a few hours at the National Archives of Ireland looking for details of my Irish Briscoe ancestors, and with a little success. I could easily spend a week or two doing detailed research at these Archives, the National Library and the Registry of Deeds to fill in gaps in my knowledge of this most interesting branch of my family. Maybe one day.
The Brooks Hotel in Drury Street looked after us well and we dined there as well the Hairy Lemon pub and the Porto House tapis bar. Peter’s Pub was also a pleasant spot for happy hour and I variously enjoyed a Guinness of two, or a Kilkenny beer while others preferred the Irish whisky.
The weather in Dublin was not kind to us, and even the Irish were complaining about the cold. It is with some concern therefore that we head further north to Scotland and the Orkneys.
I have visited Greece and a number of its islands several times across the years and it is quite nostalgic to be back again and look back…
The first two visits in 1975 were part of a sort of gap year between study and settling down to work proper. After a month of travelling on a Eurorail pass my friends and I, acting on a recommendation, decided to rest and hide from the world on the south coast of Crete in the village of Matala. This winter hibernation was accomplished generally in a haze of retsina, beer and the dreaded ouzo and having survived we were ready for more travels.
Returning that summer, I again caught the ferry from Brindisi in Italy, but this time landing me on Corfu. The grey of winter had been replaced by brilliant sunshine and clear blue waters of the Ionian Sea providing wonderful scenery and great swimming. One of my clearest memories of Corfu was my introduction to Greek salads with delicious olives, fetta and the sweetest cucumber that I had tasted.
Next was some island hopping on local ferries with dear friends Ron and Meg visiting Crete, Ios and the spectacular Thira, or Santorini. Nowadays we often fondly recall dining and drinking under sun umbrellas in tavernas on the seafront at the small town of Sitia, on Crete, watching fishermen at their boats in the bay.
Thirty years later I returned to Greece with Jenny on our Cosmos Grand European tour. All we had was a one day’s ferry excursion that took us to the close-in islands of Poros and Aegina. We were able to share some pleasant hours walking the narrow cobblestone streets and alleys and relaxing along the waterfront.
This latest time, from our cruise ship we joined shore excursions to Rhodes and Crete. At the excavations of the ruins of Knossos on Crete we completed our historic tours and education. However, we agreed that our highlight was Rhodes with its ancient archaeological site at Lindos and the medieval world heritage Rhodes Town.
A noticeable difference, across the years, has been the advent of five-star resorts as tourism has increased. Holidays are probably more comfortable these days but I certainly hope that the old traditional Greece does not disappear. Limited time on this latest trip did not allow us to sample the more relaxed simple holiday but one day we may be able to return to enjoy again one of my favourite parts of the world.