Belgium – European Beer Culture Unfiltered #3

I think everyone has been in this situation: You’ve heard person after person and review after review give the same high praise to something (like when you’re about to see a movie or read a book or listen to an album).  Maybe it’s because I usually see new movies only when they make it to TV and discover new bands only after I hear friends talk about them for months, but it happens to me all the time.  So, I try to keep expectations low after hearing good reviews of something because going in with those unachievable high expectations always leads to letdown; even if it ends up being great, the real thing can never live up to the hype.

I went to Belgium knowing it’s one of the top locales in the world (some would argue it is #1) when it comes to abundance of great beer.  I knew the hype.  I’d heard it many times before arriving in, and countless times the previous three months while traveling through, Europe.  So, as is customary in this situation I went in with low expectations; not British Real Ale or Schlitz Ice low, but low nonetheless.

I must say: I was pleasantly surprised.  Astonished actually.  More on that later.

I’d actually started trying Belgian beers in The Netherlands while staying with my friends Hans and Drusella.  Everywhere we went I tried either a local Dutch beer or a different Belgian, which were on ever menu…and all good.  These beers were exactly what I’d expected and was accustomed to from trying imported Belgian beers like Duvel and Affligem in Kansas City.  As mentioned before, Belgium has (perhaps) the greatest concentration of good beer in the world.  It would be fun to taste as many as possible and write about my favorites.  Fun, and expensive, and something I’d be more willing to try as a 23-year-old.  Because of the scale of drinking that would entail, I took a slightly different approach to this edition of European Beer Culture UnfilteredI’d be spending 4 nights in Belgium, two each in Brussels and then Brugge, and had heard about one specific (and unique) brewery in each city.  In Brussels the Cantillon Brewery and in Brugge, De Halve Maan Brewery.  I decided to take each brewery tour, taste their respective offerings and report on those experiences.  So, here it is:

Cantillon Brewery in Brussels

Admittedly as I approached the Cantillon Brewery, in a sort of run down looking – off the tourist tract – Brussels neighborhood, I was skeptical.  Surely this ‘great’ brewery wasn’t in this neighborhood with trash on every sidewalk and abandoned buildings on every street corner. But if there is one thing you learn over and over as a traveler, it’s to not judge a book by its cover.  That applies with people as well as places, so walking into the brewery I was determined to find out for myself what Cantillon, and their beer, were all about.  I immediately had a smile slapped on my face that wouldn’t leave until well after I’d taken the subway back toward my hostel.  Upon entry you immediately see that this operation has been around for a while…its not just trying to look vintage, but actually old school.

Cantillon Brewery
Cantillon Brewery

Started in 1900 (and currently owned/operated by the 4th generation of the same family), Cantillon brews Lambic beer, a sour tasting beer that, due to the natural fermenting agents (bacteria and yeast) which are present in the ambient air of the wort cooling room, goes through spontaneous fermentation after being transferred to oak or chestnut barrels.  Historically all beers were produced this way but after 1860 when Louis Pasteur made some discoveries in the exciting world of yeasts (that eventually led to the processes of TOP fermentation and BOTTOM fermentation, both of which utilize the intentional introduction of specific yeasts) that changed.  Now only Lambic is still brewed using spontaneous fermentation.

Still with me?  That is the boring technical stuff about Cantillon Brewery.

Cantillon Brewery
Cantillon Brewery

The fun stuff was the tour and tasting.  I’ve only been on a few brewery tours but this was definitely the best!  I think that’s because Cantillon is a true old-timey, family run operation and it being a self-guided tour with a read along informational booklet provided.  I was able to go at my pace, take as many pictures as I wanted, and I had time to look at EVERYTHING.  At one point I sat down and read part of the booklet for ten minutes.  That would never happen in a larger brewery, guided tour environment.

After spending about an hour going through the facilities I made my way to the bar to get my, ‘included in the tour fee’, two sample beers!  First they gave me a tasting glass with Grand Cru Bruocsella, a three-year old Lambic that, since it doesn’t undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle and no extraneous CO2 is added, is a beer without foam.  Some call it the missing link between beer and wine.  It was very sour, slightly too sour for my taste but after learning about the process and the beer I definitely appreciated the craftmanship involved in brewing Lambic.  Getting to choose the second beer I would taste, I went for the one that

Grand Cru Bruocsella, Cantillon Brewery
Grand Cru Bruocsella, Cantillon Brewery

didn’t have any fruit added (many Lambic varieties have fruit soaked in the beer for many months to impart their flavors in the beer).  I chose Gueuze.   I know, funny name.  (side note: Since I visited Cantillon I’ve tried to use Gueuze while playing Words with Friends to no avail!)  Gueuze is a blend of one, two, and three-year old Lambics that DOES go through secondary fermentation in the bottle.  A good Gueuze in a good cellar can keep for more than 25 years!  This was also sour, but I thought smoother than the Grand Cru and since it was bottle conditioned had a head similar to what ‘modern’ beer would have.  Both beers had a nice golden color and the tasting room was full of other tour goers chatting in between ‘bitter beer face’ looks.  That made me laugh!

The whole experience, from walking in to taking the tour to tasting the finished products was great.  And since I’d recently been told, by two different people, I was wearing one of two or three shirts in all my pictures (because I’m only traveling with a few shirts!), I bought a new Cantillon Brewery t-shirt.  It was a great morning in Brussels!

Cantillon Brewery
Cantillon Brewery

De Halve Maan Brewery

De Halve Maan Brewery
De Halve Maan Brewery

Going back six generations the De Halve Maan Brewery in Brugge, formerly Henri Maes Brewery, has been operated by the same family.  After a few incarnations of the company over the last few decades, including a name change to De Halve Maan (The Half Moon), this is the last brewery of what once were hundreds within the Brugge city walls.  This, brewery which has been used for generations, is still being in production today and along with their other facility nearby but outside the city (there was no room for expansion) the beer they produce is, in my opinion, phenomenally good.

Located on a busy square in touristy Brugge it’s a much more commercial looking set up than the Cantillon Brewery.  It has to be more commercial to survive in this environment.  That said,

De Halve Maan Brewery
De Halve Maan Brewery

the price for a tour was inexpensive at 7 Euro (including the beer) and the guided tour, while fast paced and crowded, was interesting (I had a great tour guide) and informational.  And by placing myself at the end of the line most of the time, I was able to hang around in some areas to snap a few photos as if I were there alone.  Like I said, this brewery has been in operation for well over 100 years and while they’ve upgraded to more efficient, modern equipment in many areas of the operation, the ambiance of generations past remains.  More ‘modern’ styles of beer are brewed here, no Lambics, so there would be nothing sour about this day, not even the taste!  The complimentary beer received here is not a taster, rather a full pint of Brugse Zot in their signature glass (every beer has its own glass in Europe, and they are all shaped differently).  This goldenblond  beer is the brainchild of the sixth generation leader of this brewery and was introduced in 2005.  To me it was kind of a cross between really good craft brewed Pale Ale and Wheat beer in the States.  There was nothing overpowering about the taste or aroma and at the same time I could tell I was enjoying a something special.

Brugse Zot, De Halve Maan Brewery
Brugse Zot, De Halve Maan Brewery

Later I would find out people come from all over Europe, and the World, to drink this beer in the exact place I was sitting.  But why?  Being the only beer still produced in Brugge’s town center, it is said to have a different, better taste at the brewery.  Although I didn’t hear if there is any validity to this claim, I would guess it has something to do with the beer served here being at its best and not sent to a bottling facility outside the city.  Whether it’s local legend or actual fact, I felt truly lucky to enjoy a truly great beer in this place.

The next day, my last in Brugge, I was out getting a bite to eat and noticed the other style of beer produced by De Halve Maan, Straffe Hendrik (Strong Henry).  There are a couple different varieties:  Straffe Hendrik Tripel and Straffe Hendrik Quadruple.  Since I’ve tried a few in the past I went with the Tripel so I could compare it to others.  First off, it was better than other Tripels I’ve tried.  A smooth, hoppy taste with a complexity of flavor I’ve rarely encountered. And it was better than the Brugse Zot I tried at the brewery, I wasn’t expecting that.  In fact Straffe Hendrik Tripel is the best beer I’ve ever tasted.  Again…the  BEST BEER I’VE EVER HAD!  EVER!!  I really wasn’t expecting that!  The intense flavors somehow manage to not overpower each other and it’s drinkability remains even though it is a 9% beer.  Also, this beer has an awesome history I didn’t know until writing this article.  It was developed on demand of the local Mayor in 1981 to be served at the inauguration of the statue of Sint-Arnoldus, the saint of beer brewers.  How cool is that?

So knowing I wouldn’t be able to try all the great beers in Belgium I narrowed my scope and tried beers from two local brewers owned by two brewing families in two great cities.  The results were interesting, educational, and…well…tasty!  I couldn’t have been more pleased with both experiences: the traditional and historic sour taste at Cantillon Brewery (one of the last breweries still doing it the ‘old way’) and the indescribable perfection at De Halve Maan.

Straffe Hendrik Tripel, Brugse Zot, De Halve Maan Brewery
Straffe Hendrik Tripel, Brugse Zot, De Halve Maan Brewery

The Travelers Guidebook – My Best Travel Tips, Rules, Etiquette, and Common Sense For Life on the Road

Anyone who’s spent a good amount of time traveling will have their own list of ‘best practices’ while on the road.  If you’re in that category you may already do some things on this list but at the least it’ll be a good refresher for you.  And who knows, you may learn something new too. If you haven’t done much traveling, or much traveling in unfamiliar places, these recommendations could make your travels more enjoyable…not to mention less stressful!  Here’s a list of my Best Travel Tips, Rules, Etiquette, and Common Sense for Life on the Road.  Enjoy!  (note: I don’t cover tips for everything in this post, hotels are one example.  If I don’t use it regularly I don’t feel I should give advice so their not included.)

Hostels

  • Don’t make (too much) noise after 11:00/11:30 pm or before 8:00/8:30 am in a hostel dorm room.  It’s just a matter of respect for other travelers in the room.  On the flip side, if others in your room break the rule at 3:00 am, it’s perfectly acceptable to do the same to them at 7:00 am.  Turnabout is fair play!
  • Always wash, dry, and put away any communal dishes you use – This is not your mother’s house.
  • Before putting food in a communal kitchen look for the sign that states when they clean out the refrigerator.  You may need to put your name on your food to make sure it doesn’t get thrown away.  Unfortunately, I learned this one the hard way!
  • Don’t eat other people’s food – Again, not your mother’s house.
  • If you need to catch a bus early in the morning, pack the night before so you’ll make as little noise as possible at 5:00 am.

Train/Bus/Subway

  • On a train, if you’re sitting in a seat with a table, don’t put your bags on it.  People reserve those seats so they can work, not so you have a counter for your man purse.
  • On a bus/subway give your seat to the elderly woman standing nearby.  She is someone’s grandma! (This is a good rule of thumb anywhere there is an old lady and no empty seats)

Taxis

  • In over four months of traveling I’ve only used a taxi twice…because they’re normally more expensive than the bus or subway and much more expensive than walking!  That said, one thing to remember when hiring a taxi (especially in a place you are unfamiliar or where there is a language barrier) is to agree on a price to get to your location before getting in the taxi.  In some parts of the world taxi drivers are notorious for charging foreign travelers exorbitant amounts, in part because they can get away with it when they have an uninformed patron.  The person working the desk at your hotel/hostel should know a reasonable amount for a taxi to get you to your desired location.  If the driver won’t agree to the right price, walk away and try the next taxi.

Air Travel

  • Shop around!  There are so many online tools now that make it easy to find good value for your domestic and international flights.  Currently I use Matrix – ITA Software by Google and Skyscanner to begin all my flight searches.
  • Once you’ve narrowed down your flight options use Seat Guru to help pick the right seat for you.  It’s very easy to use.  Just put in the flight information and it will bring up a seating diagram with information showing amenities, exit row locations, ‘best’ seat choices, leg room, etc.

Safety

  • Listen to your sixth sense.  We’ve all been there…You feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and have a funny feeling when walking in a dark alley, or you can tell the people across the room are looking at you.  Don’t ignore this sixth sense of self preservation, embrace it.  If you feel uncomfortable in a situation…change the situation.  Leave the dark alley, duck into a well lit store to see if the people are following you.  Follow your instincts.
  • The best tip I can give is to travel with minimal valuables (jewelry, excess amounts of cash, expensive watches, etc.).  For what you do travel with, keep these two tips in mind: Don’t show off wealth and know where your valuables are. Keep them locked in the hotel room safe, or the hostel locker, or on your person in a secure money belt.  If you look like you’re rich, you’re more likely to be targeted by thieves and pickpockets.  If you don’t have anything on you while walking Las Ramblas in Barcelona or riding the metro in Paris (both notorious for pickpockets) you won’t lose anything.

Packing

  • It’s ‘Location, Location, Location’ in Real Estate but in terms of smart travel packing it should be ‘Light, Light, Light!!’  MORE stuff means MORE weight to lug around, MORE hassle, MORE time packing, unpacking, and repacking, MORE things to wash when you get home, MORE things to keep track of, MORE baggage fees, and MORE things to carry with you your whole trip!  I recently met a solo traveler, Jana, on her first backpacking adventure who initially packed seven pairs of shoes for an eight week trip!  Needless to say she regretted bringing that many and was down to 4 pair going into her eighth week (that’s still too many).  We agreed her packing style was completely opposite of mine.  Form vs. Function!
  • An old travelers saying: ‘take half as much stuff and twice as much money as you think you need’.  I agree with the first part.

General

  • Be nice!  Not all travelers are nice and is seems those are a generally jerks in day to day life are also jerks while traveling.  As a traveler you will run into issues and a large portion of the people you encounter work in the tourism economy.  They are used to dealing with issues.  If you’re nice they’ll most likely go out of their way to help you.

Irish Stout in Ireland! – European Beer Culture Unfiltered #2

Irish stout, or ‘leann dubh’ (black beer) in Irish, has a dark, rich color and when poured correctly, a nice thick creamy head.  The taste of coffee and/or roasted malt normally comes out when drinking an Irish stout and some people also get a hint of chocolate in a subtle sweet aftertaste.

Popular brands:

Freshly poured Murphy's Irish Stout
Freshly poured Murphy’s Irish Stout
  • Guinness – Everyone around the world knows Guinness.  Based in Dublin (since 1759) they’ve brewed beer since 1756 and after starting life making ale they changed to porter (stout).  At one time Guinness was the largest brewer of beer in the world and is still the largest brewer of stout.
  • Beamish – Brewing since 1792 and based in Cork, Beamish was the largest brewery in Ireland for about 30 years in the early 19th century.  Their flagship brew has always been Beamish Stout.  This brewery is now owned by Heineken.
  • Murphy’s – Established in 1856 and, like Beamish also based in Cork and currently owned by Heineken.  During the last two decades of the 20th century it was heavily marketed to international beer consumers but failed to make a heavy dent in Guinness’s mighty market share.

That’s a little background on the main players in the Irish Stout game. The only real question is about taste, and like anything else that’s subjective, it is a personal preference. A local Cork bartender told me Beamish has the strongest taste and Murphy’s is really close in taste to Guinness.  After tasting all three in a three night span, in the cities they are brewed, I’d agree with that.

Personally, I like Guinness (with Murphy’s a very close second) and like a lot of people, think Guinness in Ireland tastes better than Guinness somewhere else… but the Murphy’s I had in Cork also tasted better than Guinness I’ve had back home too.  I’ll have to try Murphy’s in the US to find out if it’s as good as the Murphy’s in Cork, but I doubt it.  Maybe the taste here is getting an Irish ambiance boost! And Beamish was a little too close to coffee for my tastes so it ran a distant third in the taste race.

In the past Irish Stout was the beer of choice for locals (Guinness in the north and Murphy’s in the south), but that’s been changing for a couple of decades.  Nowadays, lighter ales, lagers,and pilsners are more popular.  In fact, I saw more locals drinking Budweiser than any dark beer (as an American who likes beer with some taste, this was sad to see), but I guess foreign beer is exotic all around the world (Aussies don’t drink Foster’s but it’s popular in the UK).

Beamish and Murphy's on tap in Cork
Beamish and Murphy’s on tap in Cork

A Travelers Life…

Sorry… no interesting pictures, amusing stories, or fancy travel advice today.  This post is all about me!…kind of, it’s actually more about my life on the road.  Where I go, where I stay, how I get there, etc.

Earlier this week I hit the four-month mark on the road and started thinking about all the places I’d been.  That thought grew into a whole list of things, places, people, etc. and eventually into this post.  So as of Sunday August 4th I had traveled/done/seen/visited/met…you get the idea.

I’ve watched bull fights in Spain, major championship golf in Scotland, and live Fado in Portugal.

I’ve been to the top of Cathedral bell towers in three countries, the top of mountains in two countries, and the top of the 199 Steps in Whitby, England.

I’ve dipped my toes in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean and North Sea, swam in the Caribbean, and surfed in the North Atlantic.

I’ve drunk cheap and awesome local wine in Spain and France, four different brands of Irish stout in Ireland, whisky and whiskey in Scotland and Ireland, respectively, Real Ale in England, a Belfast Bomber in Belfast, and moonshine adega wine in a Portuguese Adega.

I’ve slept in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles…and buses.

I’ve learned to think in Celsius, Euro’s, British Pounds, kilometers, and the 24 hour clock.

I’ve randomly been in cities that had some of their biggest yearly festivals and events when I was there but also been to places that had absolutely nothing interesting going on.  Both situations have been great experiences.

I’ve been on walking tours, bus tours, museum tours, castle tours, and pub tours (pub crawls).

Travel by numbers:

Time Away

  • .345 Years
  • 18 Weeks
  • 126 Days

Places Visited

  • 8 Castles/Palaces
  • 10 Countries
  • 16 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
  • 47 Cities/Towns/Villages

Places Slept

  • 1 Cruise Ship
  • 1 Hotel
  • 1 Surflodge
  • 10 Houses
  • 24 Hostels
  • 37 Different Beds

Transport

  • 1 Cruise Ship
  • 1 Cable Car
  • 1 Gondola
  • 2 Taxis
  • 2 Funiculars
  • 3 Airplanes
  • 6 Subway Systems
  • 9 Cars
  • 14 Trains (plus a few I’ve forgotten about)
  • 22 Buses (plus several I’ve forgotten about)

Met and Talked With People From

  • 47 Countries

Events

  • 2 Sporting Events
  • 4 Concerts
  • 6 Festivals

…and this is just the stuff off the top of my head.  I’ve seen and done all of this in only four months….and I’m just getting started!

Scotland in Pictures!

Edinburgh Castle vs. Stirling Castle: Where Should You Spend Your Vacation Dollars?

As travelers we’re drawn to certain things; the vast, beautiful expanses of rugged mountain ranges, serene secluded beaches, the ruins left by ancient civilizations and the world-changing architecture in modern cities.

The list goes on and on and everyone’s list will be a little different.  I think, though, something on every travelers list of places to visit will be castles.  There is something inherently appealing about them.  Maybe it’s the fact that many are in idyllic settings; high on hilltops overlooking forests or river valleys.  It could be because there is so much history we can learn about the people who called these places home and the battles fought to protect their surrounding lands.  Whatever the reason, something steers a traveler’s compass towards castles.  But our fascination with them is where their similarities end.

Over three months I’ve visited many castles while traveling in Europe and one thing I’ve learned: all castles are not equal.  Some are dark, others very colorful.  Some near present day city centers, others much more secluded.  Some look the part of a picturesque Disney fairy tale castle, some aren’t so beautiful, and others, just plain ugly.  Some overlook small rural communities, other urban sprawls.  Many show the scars of countless battles, some never saw one.  And some, after centuries of life, lie in ruins, while others stay well-preserved.

On my way to Scotland, and with this castle dichotomy in mind, I faced a decision.  Edinburgh Castle or Stirling Castle?  They are the two most popular castle visits in Scotland and located near each other. Some say Edinburgh is best to visit, others Stirling.  Since I’d be staying in both cities I decided to compare the two myself and tell you all what I found, then, if you find yourself traveling in Scotland, you can decide for yourself where to spend your vacation dollars.

I visited Stirling first and from the cemetery that sits next to the castle there is a decent view of the hilltop it sits on.  From this vantage point there are two big buildings and part of a castle wall visible.  ‘That’s it?’, I thought.  There didn’t seem to be a lot going on, but when walking towards the entrance gate you’ll realize there are several buildings that make up this castle.  They range from small to very big and were built by many generations of royalty that ruled there.  I rented the audio guide while touring the castle grounds and went to every room in every building that was open.  After spending about 17 pounds for my day at the castle (about $25 USD) I wanted to get my monies worth!  Also, I wanted to have the full experience so I could compare Stirling to Edinburgh.  The audio guide was very informational and interesting.  It told the story of each building on the castle grounds, the people who built them, as well as a lot of Scottish history.

Like Stirling, Edinburgh Castle is not a typical Disney-esque looking castle with one enormous main building complete with towers and battlements that dominates a landscape and is surrounded by wall and moat.  It too has several buildings that were built over centuries.  Also like in Stirling, to get the full castle experience, I rented the audio guide and went into to every area that was open.  Again, the audio guide was filled with great historical information about the castle and interesting facts about the kings and queens who ruled there.

Below is my comparison of Stirling and Edinburgh Castles.

Tour

Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle
  • Stirling – It is interesting to walk through all the buildings including the Royal Palace (which recreates how it would have looked in the mid 16th century), the Great Hall that is the largest ever in Scotland, and the Chapel Royal (built-in 1594 for the baptism of James VI’s first son).  The complex also houses the Regimental Museum which tracks the history of the Argyll and Sutherlands British Army regiment, formed in 1881 and based at Stirling Castle, the Stirling Heads Gallery which showcases much of the carvings from around the castle complex, and the Castle Exhibition that shows a timeline and information of all monarchs that shaped the castle.  To me it felt more like a museum then an old castle.
  • Edinburgh – Like at Stirling, the Edinburgh Castle has Regimental Museums, a Great Hall, an old chapel, and a Royal Palace.  It also has some interesting extras like the Scottish Crown Jewels, the Scottish National War Memorial, and Prisons of War.  There is also the One O’clock Gun, which supposedly fires nearly every day at precisely 13:00 since its inception in 1861 as a time signal for ships in the Firth of Forth.  I say supposedly because of the 8 days I was in Edinburgh I did not hear the One O’clock Gun once.

Advantage, Edinburgh

Beauty

  • Stirling – There are many buildings in the complex all built at different time periods and in a mix of building styles.  The visual differences of the buildings make going through the castle ‘village’ an interesting and beautiful walk.  My favorites are the Great Hall, the Chapel Royal interior and the old gatehouse.
  • Edinburgh – Again, many buildings make up the castle grounds.  Unlike Stirling Castle, there’s not as great a visual contrast in building styles.  I’m sure someone more versed in architectural styles from these periods would see dozens of differences from building to building but to a layman they seem similar.  It is still a beautiful setting for sure; there just aren’t the striking variances you see at Stirling.

Advantage, Stirling

View

  • Stirling – The castle sits on a hill on the edge of Stirling.  There is a good view of the city and the River Forth.  Looking east you can see The National Wallace Monument and the Ochil Hills a few miles away.

    Edinburgh Castle View Towards the Firth of Forth
    Edinburgh Castle View Towards the Firth of Forth
  • Edinburgh – The castle sits on a high point in the center of Edinburgh, thus has a great view in all directions.  This includes a view of Arthur’s Seat to the east and the Firth of Forth to the north.

Advantage, Edinburgh

Price

  • Stirling – 14 pounds + 3 for the audio guide
  • Edinburgh – 16 + 3

Advantage, push (I think they’re both overpriced, just like seemingly everything in the UK)

So, two votes to one for Edinburgh Castle over Stirling Castle on my personal comparison.  Both were very interesting and there’s a lot of information to soak in.  History buffs would have a great day just reading information and listening to the audio guide at either site.  I think they are definitely worth visiting but if you’re in the area pick one.  Going to both is slightly redundant.

And there is one last reason I have Edinburgh Castle edging out Stirling Castle, and its something I haven’t seen in person.  It has nothing to do with a daily visit to the castle but is something I personally want to witness sometime.  It hosts the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo every August.  The tattoo is a series of performances that concludes after two weeks with the Lone Piper playing high atop the castle ramparts.  Unfortunately I can’t attend this year but some year I will be there!

Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

 

Luck of the….British!!

After 5 minutes in Stirling it was clear I’d come to the right place.

Needing somewhere to spend a few days between leaving Newcastle and when I was due to arrive in Edinburgh I chose to spend some time in Stirling, Scotland. At the time I knew little about this city in the northern part of the Scottish Lowlands, actually I only knew about the castle there and depending to who you ask; the Stirling Castle is as good a site to visit…or better…than the Edinburgh Castle. And since I’d been having good luck traveling places in the UK I knew next to nothing about (e.g. Norwich, Whitby) I used airbnb.com to rent an inexpensive room in a family’s house in a town called Tullibody (about 5 miles east of Stirling), bought a train ticket and set off.

Old Stirling Bridge
Old Stirling Bridge

Upon finally arriving at Stirling Station (I’ve had delays on nearly every train in the UK, including both on this trip) and getting picked up I knew my British luck had continued. I immediately saw two interesting things previously unknown to me that made me glad I came. One is a very old, and very cool, bridge crossing the River Forth that snakes its way through the northern part of the city. The second is the National William Wallace Monument that rests high atop the Abbey Craig. Standing guard over the river valley and tidal area west of the Firth of Forth this monument, in honor of the 13th century Wars of Scottish Independence hero Sir William Wallace, is 220 feet in height with 246 steps (I counted), mainly in a narrow spiral sandstone staircase, to the viewing gallery at the top. Luckily there are three interesting levels for pit-stops along the way.

The National Wallace Monument
The National Wallace Monument

The first level is ‘The Story of Wallace’, sort of life history of William Wallace complete with a talking Wallace figure/mannequin (it sounds cheesy but when you see how they pull

William Wallace's Sword
William Wallace’s Sword

it off it’s actually pretty cool, and at the right angle a little creepy!). There’s a lot of interesting information in this room and it displays William Wallace’s personal two-handed broadsword. Its massive at 5 ft. 6 in. in length and stands proudly in a glass case. Its said Wallace must have been a very strong man standing at least 6 ft. 6 in. to have used such a large sword. Move up to the second level and you’ll find the ‘Hall of Heroes’ which houses the busts of many famous Scotsmen from throughout history. And on the third level the controversial story of the monument itself gets told (like many public buildings that are now considered pieces of art themselves, when the Wallace Monument was being built, it was thought of as an ugly scar on the Lowlands landscape by some). Once adequately rested from the first 210 or so steps climb the few remaining and arrive on the viewing gallery where you have panoramic views for miles in every direction. In the photo below you can see Stirling Castle on a hill below the horizon and above the river bend.

View towards Stirling from National Wallace Monument
View towards Stirling from National Wallace Monument

The Wallace Monument, while not as heavily advertised as some attractions, to me is easily the best in the area. It is not too expensive, it is historical and informational, it will be your daily workout (you have to hike about 20 minutes to the top of the crag and then climb 246 steps to get the top), it is beautiful and offers by far the best vantage point in the area, and it is just plain cool! It’s the best monument I’ve visited in Europe.

I learned many interesting bits of history while visiting the Wallace Monument and I also learned that the portrayal of William Wallace in the movie Braveheart was fairly close to a historic representation. He was a patriot in every sense of the word and left a lasting legacy few can match. Think about this: the monument was built in 1869…564 years after Wallace’s death in 1305. Five Hundred Sixty Four Years!

Wallace Monument with Scottish Flag Flying at its Base
Wallace Monument with Scottish Flag Flying at its Base

Whitby, England – Much More Than a Day Trip

Like nearly half the places I travel to, I decided to go to Whitby, England after someone told me I should check it out.  Previously I hadn’t heard of Whitby and, other than the few facts I learned from these friends, I really didn’t know anything about the place.  But I was able to find a nice inexpensive place to stay in Whitby so while in York I went to the Tourist Information Center and bought a one way bus ticket.  It was July 4th and after a beautiful two hour upper deck coach ride through the North York Moors National Park I arrived.  Although there were no fireworks for me on this Independence Day (for some reason they don’t celebrate July 4th in England like we do in the States!), it was a sunny, beautiful day, and I was in a new place so I got to walk around and explore (one of my favorite things to do!).

After a visit to the Tourist Information Center to get a map, and a visit to the grocery store to get dinner, I walked to my hostel, my home for the next two nights.  I was a little early and couldn’t check in for an hour so while chatting with the other guests I picked their brain for things to do. And the area has a lot of things to do!  Here’s a small list:

Low Tide on the River Esk - Whitby
Low Tide on the River Esk – Whitby
  • Whitby Abbey
  • Church of Saint Mary
  • Whitby Museum
  • Whitby Beach
  • Many different lengths of hiking trails
  • Pitch and Putt Golf Course
  • Whitby Jet Shopping (local jewelry, check it out)
  • Fossil Hunting (including dinosaurs!)
  • Relax watching the tidal River Esk (which is what I did after dinner my first night)

After a relaxing first night in Whitby I went out in search of adventure on day two (actually, not true…I went to see some of the sites).  I started at the surprisingly awesome local museum (which has, among other things, many fossils, all found within 20 miles of Whitby over the last few centuries, and many pieces of art carved from Whitby Jet).  Then walking toward the beach I stopped after coming across a game of bowling.  Not ten pin bowling like we know in the US, but lawn bowling.  Its similar to bocce ball except played with slightly different balls on a large, square, almost golf green-esque, well…green.  Hoping they would ask me to join them, I sat and watched for about 15 minutes as two locals played at this local bowling club. I could tell they were playing a ‘real’ match, as part of a men’s league or something similar, and wasn’t surprised when the invitation didn’t come. Leaving slightly dejected but glad I got to see an unfamiliar game being played I wandered along towards the beach.

Iconic Beach Houses - Whitby
Iconic Beach Houses – Whitby

Whitby lies on the North Sea and for people coming from more tropical beaches that might seem a cold place to get a taste of salt water. Not true, at least on this hot summer day.  The beach sits under the natural cliffs above and to get down there are many switch back trails that all lead to the iconic Whitby beach houses. These changing rooms are for rent for the day or week by people visiting the area and give life to this beautiful coastline.

After people watching for a while and dipping my toes in the cool North Sea water I continued down the beach toward Whitby Pier and the mouth of the River Esk.  On the way, away from the beach goers, I found an interesting mix of sand and stone that’s only uncovered during low tide. This is where I started looking for Whitby Jet.  Whitby Jet is a soft stone formed over millions of years from decaying wood under extreme pressure and heat.  Apparently, although I can’t attest to it since my search came up empty, you can find freshly uncovered-by-the-tides pieces of jet lying on the beach.  It must be true as I wasn’t the only one searching in the area; hopefully others had better luck!

The other stones searched for in the area, and more interesting to me than jet, are fossils.    The fossils range from small sea creatures, to prehistoric ammonites and birds and plants, to crocodiles and dinosaurs.  Seeing them in the museum was nice but luckily, at my hostel previous guests have left a small collection of jet and fossils (ammonite and squid).  They look just like the raw jet and fossils in the museum but I got to touch them!  One interesting note about searching for jet is you will find three different stones that look and feel like jet (it’s very lightweight).  You will find just regular black stones, which is what I found.  You will find coal.  And you will find jet.  The easiest way to tell jet from coal is to mark on a piece of paper with it.  Coal will mark the paper black and jet will mark the paper brown.  The black stones I found don’t make the mark on paper.

By the end of my first full day in Whitby I didn’t want to leave so soon so I added another night to my stay at the hostel which allowed me to spend a whole day hiking around the area as well as visit the Abbey and the Church of Saint Mary.

Whitby Abbey Ruins - Whitby
Whitby Abbey Ruins – Whitby
Whitby Abbey Ruins - Whitby
Whitby Abbey Ruins – Whitby

Whitby Abbey has seen better days.  Initially a Benedictine Abbey it hasn’t really been used since the late 1530’s in the time of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of Monasteries.  From then up to and including WWII there were many events that caused parts of the structure collapse, but since being taken over, managed, and preserved by English Heritage it has become an interesting and, as you can see, beautiful site to visit.  Sitting atop the eastern cliff above the River Esk its seen from many areas of Whitby, including the patio of my hostel where I took the tidal picture above (look in the upper right corner).  Sitting near Whitby Abbey, now dangerously close to the cliff face, is the Church of Saint Mary.  It has been there, in various forms, for over 900 years and has the most unique church interior I’ve ever seen.  All the pews have chest level walls as well as doors and it’s been this way for nearly 250 years!  It all makes for an interior that feels very ‘busy’.

'For Strangers Only' Pews in Church of Saint Mary - Whitby
‘For Strangers Only’ Pews in Church of Saint Mary – Whitby

If I get the chance to return to Whitby I’ll go without hesitation.  The advice I got saying it was a beautiful place to visit was spot on.  There is so much to see and do in Whitby and being a smaller tourist destination, for me, allows Whitby to have a less touristy feel even with thousands of people there daily during peak season.

Cemetery Surrounding Church of Saint Mary - Whitby
Cemetery Surrounding Church of Saint Mary – Whitby

A couple of additional notes on Whitby.  For those Dracula fans out there: Whitby is where, while on holiday, Bram Stoker changed the name from Wampyr to Dracula after reading something in a book from the library and the Church of Saint Mary graveyard is a setting in the novel.  Equally interesting is that Whitby is where Captain Cook sailed from on his great voyages.

Lucky Ducks Watching the Sunset at the River Esk - Whitby
Lucky Ducks Watching the Sunset at the River Esk – Whitby

go where you want!