We left London after a whirlwind of a trip and boarded a train for Glasgow, Scotland. We have Eurail passes, but we’re still required to make seat reservations for the trains we choose to take. We tried to make them in person at the ticket desk but were told it was too late, but no worries, we could board on a non-reserved carriage.
“Car G. All non-reserved, 90 seats, you’ll be fine.”
“Ok, great. Car G?”
“Yes, Car G.”
“Ok, got it, thank you. Car G.”
“Yup, Car G, you’ll be fine.”
Waiting for the train is just like waiting for the LIRR (Long Island Railroad) at Penn Station. Everyone crowds around one large sign, waiting for their train to arrive and for the platform number to be displayed. Once it is, it’s a mad rush down to the train platform. Boarding time is limited so you really can’t drag your feet. By the time we get past the tickets checkers, we are both speed-walking so as not to miss the train. Car E … Car F … Car H … Car I – wait, what?
Car H … Car F … Where’s G? Mark managed to flag down an employee and when we asked where car G was, he shook his head and chuckled. Yes, chuckled, and told us to board on any first-class car. Memo to the man who thought it was funny to tell us the wrong car (or was unfortunately misinformed) – we still made it to Glasgow, so joke’s on you sir!
When Mark bought our Eurail passes, he scored a deal that got us first class tickets at second class prices (#dealsdealsdeals). “First class” on our first train was a nice enough private carriage with tables and chairs, our second train was a gross sleeper car with dusty old cushions … so what would our UK train be like?
Comfortable seats and a whole lotta food! Every half hour or so, someone would come by offering a goody of some kind. Coffee or tea, anyone? Sandwich? Cake? Quiche? Crisps? Coffee or tea? It was magical and we ate like it was our last meal (well, Mark did, anyway … and maybe we stuffed a couple of cakes in our backpack for good measure). In between bites, Mark explained again that we would be meeting and staying with his friend Gary Woodcock. Mark met Gary at Camp Monroe and Gary now lives and works in Glasgow with his wonderful girlfriend. A New Yorker living and working in Glasgow? How cool!
Upon arrival into Glasgow Central Station, Gary met us with open arms and a Scottish accent. What!? Gary is Scottish! After dropping off our stuff at the apartment and meeting the Queen of the house, their cat Cleo, we set off to eat some Indian food. Ranjit’s Kitchen is a family-run restaurant specializing in traditional Panjabi food and boy was it delicious! Everything is made daily and once it’s gone, it’s gone. One of my favorite experiences from our trip around the world has been getting out of my comfort zone and trying new things. I rarely eat Northern Indian food, let alone vegetarian Indian food, and it was great! To combat some of the spices from dinner, we headed down the street to Gary’s local pub, The Allison Arms. We all ordered a glass of Scotch whisky (Highland Park) and a half pint of beer, a typical order in a Scottish pub. I managed to understand Gary just fine whenever he conversed with us, but as soon as he started in with the bartender, it was like listening to a completely different language!
[Mark’s note] I don’t feel I ever said anything that would lead someone to believe that Gary wasn’t himself Scottish. Isabel took a leap of her own here. I’ve mentioned multiple times that Camp Monroe had a ton of international staff, most of which came from the UK. It wasn’t until the end of that first day when we were about to go to bed that she turned to me and said, “Gary’s Scottish?!” To which I scrunched up my face and slowly replied, “yeah…” “I thought he was from America, and just living and working in Scotland, that’s what you made it seem like!” Also sidenote, Gary’s keychain lanyard is from Camp Monroe, the one they hand out during staff orientation, though entirely faded at this point some 11 years on. #OnlyAt
The next morning we headed to downtown Glasgow to catch a train to Edinburgh. But first, a short tour of Glasgow. Fun fact of the day: inhabitants of Glasgow are known as “Glaswegians”! Our first stop is at the monument of the Duke of Wellington, the unofficial mascot of Glasgow. For years, citizens of Glasgow have climbed the statue to put a traffic cone on the Duke’s head, to show their love for him. Despite the police department’s best efforts to remove the cones, everyday they kept reappearing. So after a while, the cops shifted gears and instead started to help people by holding their ladders while they climbed, so they wouldn’t injure themselves while putting the cone on his head.
We saw the main square, a high-end shopping district, and a university. After our short tour of Glasgow, we headed on our train east to Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. Gary was nice enough to spend his whole day with us, showing us around. Have no fear, Edinburgh’s Old Town and New Town together combine to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
We walked up a wide shopping avenue toward Edinburgh Castle, listening to buskers play the bagpipes while wearing kilts. The castle is one of the most popular tourist sites in all of Scotland and is a major symbol of Scotland. It has a lot of history, which you can read about here, but the coolest thing I saw was the entrance. Two statues stand guard outside and both are super famous Scots – William Wallace and Robert the Bruce!
Sir William Wallace, most famously portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart, was among the first Scottish leaders to revolt against King Edward I of England. Robert the Bruce, portrayed by Chris Pine in The Outlaw King, declared himself King of Scots in 1306. While we didn’t explore inside the castle, the complex did provide a beautiful view over the city. Edinburgh is located on the Firth of Forth (imagine hearing that in a Scottish accent), southern shore.
We roamed around the streets of Edinburgh’s Grassmarket District on the hunt for some lunch. Along the way we passed The Last Drop Tavern, situated at the same location as the main gallows from the 18th century, where crowds would pack Grassmarket Square to see public executions (The Last Drop, get it?). Eventually we found a reasonably-priced pub and chowed down on some authentic Scottish food. While I ate bangers and mash, Mark ordered a dish called stovies. Stovies is a dish that varies with each recipe but his had potatoes, onions, vegetables and meat. It was very good, quite hearty, and paired perfectly with a cold beer. Gary had a vegetarian version of haggis. If you don’t know what haggis is, well, you can find out here. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
We continued on our tour by venturing up to Calton Hill for some more panoramic views and monuments. The National Monument of Scotland is their national memorial to the Scottish soldiers and sailors who died fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. Construction started in 1826 but due to the lack of funds, was left unfinished in 1829 and has remained so ever since. There are more military monuments at the top of the hill, as well as an observatory and a canon.
We walked through Princes Street Gardens which surrounds Edinburgh Castle. This was formerly a river which acted as a sort of moat surrounding the castle. This certainly explains the lush greenery found today. A quick walk nearby is the adorable and highly photogenic little nook of a town known as Dean Village. For having spent such little time in Scotland, we were wowed by its beauty. Having done no research coming into our stay, I felt foolish once I realized the massive difference between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Our last evening in Scotland was spent with new friends. We went with Gary to a local pub to meet some old uni friends of his and we quickly settled into some beers, whiskys and games. Pop Up Pirate was in use (they were blown away that we’d never heard of it, apparently it’s a widely popular kids game on this side of the pond”), so we opted to play Pointless, which turns out to be a fantastic game! In a nutshell, a question is asked and players must give the most “pointless” answer. A correct answer of course, but the most obscure correct answer. The more pointless the answer (least common), the lower your score, and just like in golf, the fewest points wins!
Gary and Julie were excellent hosts and we were happy to spend our short time in Scotland with two people who love Scotland. We definitely want to come back to camp, hike, and explore more of this beautiful country. I also want to see a Highland cow in person, they are supposed to be really nice!
Needless to say, I was a wee bit hungover from the impromptu game night, but nothing that a little Irn-Bru won’t solve (pronounced Iron Brew). It is the number one selling soft drink in Scotland, beating out Coca-Cola! A little bit of orange magic and we headed off to the airport to fly to our next destination: Dublin!
I’ve heard a lot about Dublin from family and friends so I was quite excited to go. There was an express bus from the airport to our hotel so we started off on a good foot. Our hotel was centrally located on the Northside of the River Liffey, near the Stiffy by the Liffey (more on that later).
We started our exploration by walking along the River Liffey to the Southside to see some sites. There are many bridges that allow people to pass over the River, but the most famous is also the oldest – the Ha’penny Bridge. Built in 1816, it was the only bridge at that time, and originally required citizens to pay one halfpenny to cross, hence the name. The Liffey dissects the city in two; the Northside is traditionally known for being blue collar, and the Southside home to the more wealthy Dubliners.
After crossing the bridge, we continued into Southside territory, directly to the famous Trinity College Dublin. Founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I to prevent the Irish from being “infected with Popery” (instead promoting Protestantism) it was home to a number of famous students like Bram Stoker, Samuel Beckett, Jonathan Swift, and many other physicists, writers, politicians, philosophers … the list goes on. But, these are all men! Yes, up until the early 20th Century this was a male-only university.
Under pressure from the students, faculty and community at large to open its doors to women, the Provost at the time declared that women would be allowed admittance to Trinity only “over [his] dead body.” After begrudgingly signing the order that made the university coed, he declared “I sign this with my hand, but not with my heart.” He died in 1904, the same year that the first female students studied at Trinity. Legend has it that his body is buried under the main entrance, so that all female students must walk “over his dead body” on their way to class each day. Graduating female students today traditionally take photos in cap and gown posing with that Provost’s statue in the main square.
One tradition that still lives on today is the Foundation Scholarship examinations, which is open to all enrolled students. These exams are optional and notoriously difficult, typically less than 1% of students pass the exams. So what’s the point then? Well, any student that passes these exams becomes a scholar, or “schol,” and is awarded free tuition, free housing, free meals, and other perks that the public is not aware of. Jack Gleeson, the actor who portrayed King Joffrey on GoT, is a Trinity Scholar!
Another fun fact: it is rumored that Oscar Wilde is the only person ever to score a 100% on these exams. It is also rumored that upon entry into the United States via customs, he declared, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”
We signed up for a tour by an active student and it was very well done. The buildings all over campus are different (and some are quite ugly) because the college had a history of hiring architects and then not paying them for their work (kind of like our President, ba-dum-ching!). Everything was built by different people at different times so it’s a jumble of styles and colors. But the highlight of the campus isn’t the ugly buildings, the highlight is an illuminated manuscript from around 800 AD.
The Book of Kells contains writings and illustrations describing the four gospels of the New Testament and was created by monks at various monasteries throughout Ireland, England and Scotland. The illustrations, details, and celtic alphabet are absolutely stunning, and the curation of the exhibit is very well done. The actual book is open, encased in glass, displaying two pages to the public. The pages of the book are turned every night, so new visitors each day see something different from the day before. It takes almost a full year to get through the whole book!
After the Book of Kells are two more famous items (albeit, slightly less so). The Long Room aka The Library of Trinity College Dublin is actually not the Hogwarts’ Library (that would be Oxford University’s library), though it is a “copyright” library. Publishers in Ireland must deposit a copy of all their publications there, free of charge. That’s a lot of books! They require off-premises warehouses to store all of these new books each year. Also in the library is the Brian Boru Harp. A harp is the symbol of Ireland and this particular harp was supposedly owned by Brian Boru, High King of Ireland. Blah blah blah, history, architecture, blah…okay, okay…the harp is also the Guinness logo. Fun fact #3 of this post: Guinness copyrighted the harp in 1862 as its logo. So when Ireland came to use it later on, they had to flip it around so as not to breach copyright law!
Just down the way from Trinity College is the National Museum of Ireland (Archeology) and it’s FREE! So of course we went, but not because it was free, but because Isabel really, really, really wanted to see the bog men!
The who? The bog men! They are human cadavers that have been naturally mummified in a peat bog. Please keep reading, I promise you this is fascinating! Bog bodies often retain their skin and internal organs due to the unusual conditions of the surrounding area, specifically: highly acidic water, low temperature, and a lack of oxygen. The combination of these factors preserves the bodies, though severely tans their skin and what’s left is a perfectly preserved human body! Some of these bodies were sacrifices, while others were brutally murdered.
Around the corner from the Museum is the statue of Molly Malone. I felt like the name should have sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I was relieved to discover why this was: Molly Malone wasn’t a real person. Lyrics from an 18th century song tell the tale of Molly Malone who worked two jobs; fish monger by day, prostitute by night. She remains a folk hero to this day, representing the Irish working class. The statue was erected over 30 years ago. It’s not uncommon for famous statues to be rubbed for good luck, however overzealous tourists and locals have become a bit handsy with Molly and have worn off some of the bronze hue, as seen below.
For many tourists, Dublin and drinking in pubs go together like peanut butter and jelly. So if you have either been to or heard anything about Dublin, there’s a good chance you know the name Temple Bar. Temple Bar is both a pub as well as an area (of pubs). Truth be told, the pub itself has zero historical significance. The name comes from a Sir William Temple who bought up all the land surrounding his home just South of the Liffey. The flow of the river deposited sediment in this one area creating a bar. Hence the name, Temple Bar. One crafty pub owner decided to name his establishment The Temple Bar, and thus millions of tourists and euros have poured in ever since. So while it is packed mainly with tourists, it’s also full of good vibes, happy people and wonderful live music. [h/t to our walking tour guide Conor, for debunking the myth of Temple Bar.]
Speaking of drinking in pubs, we found ourselves in two cozy locals that we absolutely loved. After getting out of Avengers: Endgame (no spoilers here, don’t worry Dad), we needed to collect our thoughts and dissect everything. We found ourselves in Mulligan’s for a pint, just South of the River, a “no-nonsense 18th-century pub with a cast of regulars and lack of modern pomposity” as it proudly boasts. Small wooden stools and roundtables provided the perfect setting to break down the culmination of 20+ films. Another night on our way to dinner it was Kehoe’s Pub, which came highly recommended. Rather than wait in line at the main bar once we stepped inside, we followed the signs upstairs to the lounge area. A quieter bar upstairs with stools lining the walls, separated by mahogany partitions, surrounded by rooms with lived-in sofas and a comfortable vibe.
In addition to enjoying a few pints of Guinness in old pubs, we also toured the wonderful, magical Jameson Distillery! While I love many whiskeys, Jameson is one of my favorites, especially amongst Irish whiskeys. If you adamantly disagree with this opinion, please, mail me some whiskeys to try and maybe I’ll change my mind.
The Jameson Distillery on Bow Street is famous because it is where the original distillery used to be, and it’s over 200 years old! A small portion of the current building is original, while the rest is more new. Jameson is actually distilled in Cork, but the Bow Street location is still worth a visit because the tour is impeccably done. Through the use of storytelling, compelling video animations, interactive displays, and a taste test, we left the tour having a more mature appreciation for the company and the whiskey. I could talk for hours about this topic, so to save you from boredom (and you must be finishing up reading in the bathroom), here are some highlights:
- The Jameson family crest derives from their time as pirate hunters. It features a ship and the motto “sine metu,” latin for “without fear.”
- Around Jameson bottles you’ll find “barrelmen,” which represent all of the workers that had a hand in making the whiskey. John Jameson always believed that his success and the success of the company was by no means his alone, and that the hard working employees should be recognized.
- While Bow St. was still active, every part of the distilling and manufacturing was done in-house, so hundreds of Dubliners were employed at the facility. If you had a job at Jameson, you had a job for life.
- It wasn’t until 1968 that Jameson whiskey was bottled in-house. Originally, the spirit was sold by the barrel to spirit bonders and publicans, who added their own branding in addition to the Jameson signature on their labels.
- Although a bit spicy upon the first sip, Jameson is actually quite smooth as it goes down. This is because the whisky is triple-distilled, a trademark of the Jameson brand.
The Jameson Distillery is a great case study in design. How do you attract visitors to a location that is historically significant but doesn’t actually do any of the distilling? You create an award-winning tour, of course! The whole establishment is designed well and cohesively. The beautiful Jameson green is found throughout, the bar itself is modern and clean, and little motifs are pulled from the brand and enlarged on the wall as part of the decoration. Big shoutout to the design team behind the branding and marketing of this distillery – really well done.
Our hotel on the Northside was right off O’Connell Street, around the corner from the Spire. The main street is named after Daniel O’Connell, who against all odds (he was Catholic during a time of oppression) rose to become a member of Parliament as well as the Lord Mayor of Dublin. Often referred to as The Liberator or The Emancipator, he brought forth the emancipation of Ireland’s massive Catholic population following a long period of Protestant oppression (Daniel O’Connell = Abraham Lincoln … or if you’ve been following along diligently = Croatia’s Ban Jelačić). The likes of Ghandi and Martin Luther King have cited O’Connell as an inspiration.
In the center of O’Connell Street is an absolutely massive structure, a gigantic 120-meter tall pole. There was no information plaque to explain what this was. We later learned that the Spire, as it’s called, was a €4 million project built by the City Council to represent … nothing. Intended to be completed prior to the new Millennium, its installation was characteristically late, not completed until 2003. As this was once the site of a less-than-desirable area, it’s garnered some nicknames such as “The Stiffy by the Liffey,” “The Stiletto in the Ghetto” and “The Erection at the Intersection.”
O’Connell Street extends across the Liffey by way of O’Connell Bridge. Fun fact #4 (now you’re just getting spoiled), the O’Connell Bridge is the only bridge in Europe that is wider than it is long (by five meters). So there’s that. We learned from Conor the tour guide of an ill-advised attempt by the Dublin City Council to celebrate Y2K with an underwater clock that would have been visible just over the edge of the bridge, were it not for the minor detail of the Liffey’s water being thoroughly murky. In an attempt to save face, the clock was removed under cover of the night as was its control panel implanted in the bridge’s guardrail. A short while later a new plaque mysteriously appeared in the latter’s place, honoring the life and tragic death of a Father Pat Noise. Over the years, Dubliners have let flowers, candles, and other types of memorials at this plaque. Upon quick investigation however one will discover that Father Noise never existed, it was a hoax. Yet when the City Council moved to remove the plaque, they were met by such an outcry from the public, that it was left alone. Said the Irish victors, “Father Noise may not have been real, but he’s still ours.”
Our second to last stop on our fantastic walking tour was at Dublin Castle. Irish history, especially surrounding independence, is complex and a long story, but our guide Conor did an excellent job summing it all up. On January 16, 1922, the new Irish Free State Government was to be formally handed over at Dublin Castle to Michael Collins, an Irish leader. Known for his guerrilla warfare against the British, I highly recommend reading about Collins in your precious free time. Conor, a fantastic story teller, is eagerly telling us how the Lord Lieutenant is pacing in front of the castle, waiting for the arrival of Mr. Collins.
Conor: He’s pacing and pacing, looking at his watch, waiting. And in typical Irish fashion, Collins shows up…
Needless to say, Conor did not like my answer very much. He was a good sport about it, but he definitely called me out. Luckily, Mark answered almost simultaneously with the correct answer of “late.” The Lord Lieutenant was reported to have said, “You are seven minutes late, Mr. Collins.” To which Collins replied, “We’ve been waiting over 700 years, you can have your seven minutes!”
Finally, our tour ended just around the corner from the castle, outside The Chester Beatty Library. This spot, seen in the photo above, is where Dublin was founded. A long, long time ago, Vikings raided Ireland. They looted the place, sailed home, came back, looted some more, sailed home, and on it goes. Well, after a while, a smart Viking asked, why go home? The weather is nicer here anyway, we should stay! The Vikings sailed up the River Liffey in search of a proper place to plant their flag. They followed it up and up until the tide started to change and they ended up in an area where the water turned black due to river sediment. This was to be home, and they named their new home “dubh linn” or “black pool,” hence the name Dublin!
Back in San Francisco when we were still in our dreamy planning stage, we asked Mick – the friendly owner of Arsenal pub Maggie McGarry’s and a native of Ireland – where he recommends we visit. His answer? “Ireland.” Huh? We pressed on, asking where, specifically. He clarified: “Definitely the South. The East coast and the West … You’ll want to go up North, everything in between really,” he said with a straight face. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to trek outside of the capital. Our time in Dublin was amazing. The weather was cool and always threatened to rain, though hardly ever more than a drizzle … we got the authentic experience. We definitely want to come back some day and explore more of the countryside, Cork and Limerick, Galway and the Cliffs of Moher. Coupled with our short glimpse of Scotland and window views on our trip up from London, we realized we could spend a lot of time in Ireland and the UK. Our list of future trip ideas continues to grow.