England, Scotland, Soul

victoria street edinburgh

Writing about my recent travels is a Sisyphean task. Every time I set words to paper, the rock comes tumbling back down and Zeus is off somewhere on Mt. Olympus having a right old chuckle on my misfortune. Traveling is so multifaceted that to tether it to a singular idea is counterproductive. But here I am, gearing up once again to roll the rock up the mountain concerning my recent exploits into the United Kingdom.

Quit laughing, Zeus.

I now have had more than a few days to marinate in the memories. Now, it feels like the right time to try and pick through this truly spellbinding experience. The difficult thing about a trip is trying to explain how much it has changed you. It’s as almost as if these changes only exist at the molecular level, and I am half tempted to stick a microscope in the hands of those I speak with and beg to be discovered. I don’t know how travel does it, but you aren’t the same person you were before. I suppose I will have to travel for the rest of my life to try and understand why. But maybe the reason never really needs to be known, and just felt in my soul.

I notoriously don’t like the word vacation.It conjures lying belly up on a beach with a comped sugary alcoholic concoction that will have you passed out before nightfall. That’s all fine to do on the occasion, especially under a burnout period, but it is one of my biggest fears when traveling. What is travel if not to explore, indulge, imbibe and learn while somewhere new? It is biggest injustice you can do when you embark on an adventure to not meet a land and its inhabitants as it comes to you. It is a castration of the soul. You traveled likely hundreds of miles and all to just… sleep? Travel is nourishment. Travel done right strangles your rough edges, and leaves your soul raw and exposed to the world.

While my plans to visit Scotland earlier this year were kiboshed by unexpected vet bills (kitty is okay!), I am glad it worked out in favor of the trip I took to both London and Edinburgh and some surrounding locations. It was kismet when Randa, one of my best friends, and I, were both unknowingly searching travel deals on Black Friday. A few days later, I was holed up in her room, our laptops sprawled out on the bed and our wallets opened. With a high five and many exalted squeals, we had booked our trip to London and Edinburgh with a travel group focused on young adults. Less than a month later, we were boarding a Delta plane at John F. Kennedy for our overnight flight to London. It was the day after Christmas and in the air hung that sweet cheerful holiday hangover. I barely slept on the flight as my mind ran amuk, brimming with excitement and filled with the prospective adventure with one of my oldest best friends. In some leftover Christmas miracle, I managed to arrive to Heathrow in good spirits.

After what seemed like forever waiting to go through the line at customs, we found our chauffeur and a few of other other group members on the tour. In the 15-20 minute ride to our hotel, located in the charming Chiswick, we easily bonded with these ladies. Our collective energy was hunger, the kind where even if you’re burned out you are kept alive and awake by the looming excitement of the future. Upon looking out the window of our ride I noted how the settled fog throughout the trees of some open land felt like I was back at my college in the Hudson Valley in New York. There would be a lot of little moments like this while I was in London.

The visions I had about London prior to arriving ended up incongruous with the London I stepped into. In my imagination, London was of fairytale proportions. It was a clash of Harry Potter whimsicality with Mary Poppins primness and gritty underground anti-Thatcher punk.

Sure, London was mapped out with order, and while there were smatterings of my fancied London, it wasn’t as if the whole city had been brushed with magic that I had spent years reading about, watching or consuming through the lens of social media. There was as much charm as I find in the squares and parks in New York. Little havens and enclaves that let you steal away from the bustling city centers. A good photograph will often incite the romanticized feeling the actual place falls short of.

All this talk may sound as if I have a negative view of London, but that is contrarian to how I feel. I wasn’t left with the Paris Syndrome, which happens to plaque a dozen or so Japanese tourists when they visit Paris and are shocked that it doesn’t meet their expectations. I rather enjoyed London because the sense of familiarity it provided. When not in our tour group, Randa took the reigns on navigating transportation when we had off time since she had been to London before and from watching her figure out our stops it was apparent the tube is simpler to traverse than our hometown subway system (when it feels like running).

We strolled into Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus after our welcome mixer at the Marquis Cornwallis on the first night. At the Cornwallis, we got to know our fellow tour mates and have some light bites and drinks. There is a resounding coziness you’ll find at good pub anywhere in the world and the Cornwallis that night certainly had it.

Piccadilly Circus
Piccadilly Circus – not an actual circus

Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus were a nice way to end the rather long night. A few of us got some hot chocolate and desserts and strolled along until just before midnight when the tube stops running. We didn’t feel like taking a bus. The lights from Christmas were still strewn across the streets and the locals seemed to be a bit groggy, as if the holiday still cast a haze of enchantment on their beings.

Royal Albert Monument
A little silliness never hurt at the Albert Memorial

The next day we were up bright and early for our morning tour around London. We had a really pleasant local guide who kept the jokes coming as well as the interesting information about the city. Our first stop was the Albert Memorial located in Kensington Gardens. In all the pictures I have seen of London, this was never included of them, so the imposing 176 feet tall statue came as a surprise. It’s located across the Royal Albert Hall, which our tour guide touted as one of the most beautiful theaters with some of the worst acoustics. Prince Albert died in 1861 of typhoid and Queen Victoria, for which the era is named, constructed the monument as a way to pay homage to her late husband. Interestingly, the monument contains several allegorical sculptures depicting Victorian arts and sciences as well as several regional groups that England had prominent or colonizing relations with.

st. paul's cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral

From there we drove on down to see more of London, passing by Trafalgar Square and some other spots. We got off the bus to walk around St. Paul’s Cathedral and then hit London Bridge before setting off for Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guards. One thing to be noted, which many people get wrong, is that London Bridge isn’t that large iconic stone one you see in all the photographs, that’s Tower Bridge. London Bridge is a fairly simple bridge but has some great views of Tower Bridge.

guard buckingham
Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace

Following the intriguing changing of the guards, our morning tour group disbanded and Randa and I were free for the rest of the day. We split from our group to enjoy Hyde Park and then ventured back to Trafalgar Square. The square is a nice area but Parliament ended up being not much to look at, especially with Big Ben completely under scaffolding. It will apparently be under heavy renovations for a few more years so even if I make a return trip I may get the same disgraceful view. I never realized that Big Ben, Parliament and Westminster Abbey were all in the same area so it made viewing these London icons fairly simple.

Randa and I crossed the Millennium Footbridge, or as Brits call it, the Wobbly one, to grab a traditional fish and chips with mushy peas lunch at the Anchor Pub. We also got up and close with the Globe Theatre which was a fantastically nerdy moment for me. After lunch, we walked through some winding London streets, perused the produce and various wares at Burroughs Market and hung around the Tower Bridge area before crossing it and heading back to Hyde Park.

As the sun set on our first day giving rise to the night, we found ourselves in a pedestrian cattle herd heading into Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland. A marvel of lights, food, rides and lots of drinking, the Wonderland was a dazzling way to end our first full day of the trip. After getting mulled wine on a spinning carousel bar and picking enjoying a high flying amusement park ride, we spent most of our time in the Bavarian Village area under a heated tent with hundreds of other drunk revelers. We called an Uber back to our hotel in Chiswick and as Randa happily dozed in the back, I watched London go by only illuminated by lights. We passed the Egyptian obelisk and the dragon statues that mark London old and new, and the information I learned earlier in the day about these monuments bounced off in my head.


The next day was our completely free day in London to do as we pleased. Instead, we opted with a few other of our tour mates to go to Stonehenge, about a two-hour ride from London located in Salisbury. Our bus driver claimed to not be a tour guide but regaled us with tales as we passed through London. He remained quiet for much of the trip and piped back up when we got closer to the ancient world wonder. Once we got there, we had two hours before our bus would depart back, so we made the most of our time and opted to do the 30-minute hike to the stones. Good thing I wore heeled boots, right? Actually, wasn’t too bad, I consider myself a trooper and fortunately the grass wasn’t soggy. What I loved about Stonehenge is that it is still so much of a mystery to us. There is a sereness surrounding the rocks, as if they are gently whispering to you to listen.

The Salisbury area itself is quite lovely with its majestic green fields. There were sheep grazing in a field right behind the stones and it kind of felt like we could have been standing at them 2,000 years ago and would have a similar view, except for the highway. Our time passed quickly at the rocks and we realized we needed to get back to not miss our bus departure. The shuttle line was too long and we didn’t want to risk it, so we hiked back and made it in the nick of time.

Randa and I had originally planned to do a proper English high tea at 4pm, but our reservations came and gone. Undeterred, we headed to the Covent Garden area and had dinner and tea at the Parisian place Laduree. They have locations all over, such as here in New York, but there is something quite special about having a cup of tea in England. I had a cheesy chicken dish and we split a dessert of macarons and cake and ordered our own teas. It was delightful, and a wonderful way to kick off our last evening in London.

witches cauldron london

We had more plans! We ventured uptown to the Cauldron Pub and were a bit early so we popped into a sort of popup barcade right around the corner. I enjoyed a local beer and we played BS with the cards that I had packed in my backpack to soak up the time. I had made a mistake and thought we were in the wrong location, but I had been looking at their older address. In order to calm my anxiety, we left the barcade and went to see if the Cauldron Pub was where it was supposed to be. Randa was right – we were in the right spot, but the bouncer couldn’t let us in early so instead we waited in the cold and struck up a conversation with the man. John ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. The man’s story was riveting, talking about living in Italy and Colombia, serving in the army, taking care of his mother and his plans to return to Italy and start a farm just for him and his friends and for people down on their luck. We weren’t sure if we would see him on our way out but we both gave him a big hug and thanked him for being so honest and real. He had a pure soul.

There’s also a location in New York, but we couldn’t miss the opportunity to do something truly magical in a place that is so synonymous with our shared love – Harry Potter. The Cauldron Pub, which is no way affiliated with JK Rowling’s magical empire, does let you conjure up your own cocktails with some magical (scientific) methods. The bar give you cloaks, wands and instructions and we proceeded to have a blast playing pretend and getting tipsy in the process. Randa and I both looked at each other with disbelief knowing it was one of those moments in our friendship that we couldn’t have chosen a better person to experience this with. Our magical server David, or Davros as we called him, was spot on and attentive and even took a shot with us at the end of the night. Cheers, London, you were a kind beast.

platform 9 2/3
Yup, it’s true, I’m actually a Slytherin

It was another bright and early morning for our departure from London to Edinburgh via King’s Cross on December 30th. Yes, the King’s Cross, a dream of a dream of a dream for me. Entering the station, with the light cascading in from its large factory-like windows, I felt for a moment that I wasn’t apart of this reality. For Harry Potter fans, King’s Cross represents the bridge between worlds of magic and non-magic, and it felt very much like I had crossed through the barrier.

Speaking of barriers, the King’s Cross Station features a Harry Potter photo opportunity for travelers seeking to recreate the crossing from the Muggle to magic sides of King’s Cross. While we had arrived at the station with seemingly ample time, we found that the photo opportunity didn’t open until 9 am, not 8 am as we assumed, and I was under instruction that we had to meet back up at 9:15 am to begin boarding our train up to Edinburgh. Showing my stubborn side, I remained on the line for the photo opportunity. With a little Felix Felicis, I grabbed a quick photo at exactly 9:15 am and then dashed off to meet with my group to board our train. I wasn’t able to purchase the picture in the shop, but I did ask a bystander to grab it on my phone.

A porter lead us to our track and the swooning familial score flushed my ears. It really felt like I was getting on the Hogwarts Express. Edinburgh, in a way, is the true home to the much beloved magical world, and over the next few days I would get to see these hallmarks firsthand. But first, the lovely four hour train ride through sweeping English countryside, with some glimpses to the dark North Sea before pulling in to Waverly Station.

While I described London’s personality of almost being devoid of too strongly, Edinburgh is a beautiful contrast of stark, almost gritty architecture supported by some of the friendliest and charming people you will ever meet. The city has a particular mood. There’s a coarseness to it, a broodiness that reverberates in every nook and cranny.

Upon leaving the train station and the quick trip to our hotel which was right around the corner from Tron Kirk (church), my eyes remained fixated on the buildings and streets. The city was busy, filled mostly with others in town for the Hogmanay celebrations. It was a flurry of frenetic palpitations.

After getting situated in the hotel and Marie, our director, giving us a rundown of the map, we hustled to find dinner as everything was so busy. We got some fish and chips (and I tried a deep fried Mars bar, a must!) and when our tour mates texted that the line to pick up Hogmanay tickets was nonexistent, we snatched those up before our vault and graveyard tour. We even managed to catch the kick off of the Torchlight Procession. The opening ceremony was beautiful, tying in mythology and tradition, I was quite moved by it and to see everyone illuminated by torchlight in these aged city streets was dreamlike.

The Auld Reekie Greyfriar’s Kirkyard and Vault tour was also something else. Our guide John first brought us to the Kirkyard, stopping at the infamous Greyfriar’s Bobby statue before taking us through the darkened cemetery to visit a few graves of importance. He also talked about the Flodden Wall and its bloody history. John was a man who dearly loves his city, as most natives I met seemed to be. They talked about their city with a certain sparkle in their eye. His sense of humor was also appreciated, especially before the vault part of the tour when conversation turned exceptionally dark. I’ll leave the remainder of that night to mystery, but what we learned in those vaults was profound, startling and yes, horrifying. When we came out of it, Marie treated the group to deep fried Mars bars and we all needed a bit of time to reflect and let the color return to our faces.

After, Randa and I joined our friends Ashley and Kelsey to bar hop and do a little dancing. We started at the Banshee Labyrinth- the most haunted bar in Edinburgh. After exploring there for a bit, we took in some live music at Club Voltage before getting our dance on at Sneaky Pete’s. All and all, a solid first day in Edinburgh.

It was another early morning for our walking tour of Edinburgh. We covered some of the spots that we hit during the graveyard tour but it was nice to revisit these spots during the daylight. And what a stunning daylight it was. The city felt most alive in the soft light, like the buildings were specifically crafted to enchant during this time. I think Alexander McCall Smith said it best with, “This is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.” Our local guide regaled us in stories of Deacon Brodie’s, Burke and Hare, and JK Rowling’s Hand Prints among some other fun spots.

We took in the charming and colorful Victoria Street as we made our way to Edinburgh Castle. Even with the bone chilling wind, the castle was a foreboding presence sitting high atop the extinct volcano. Our guide provided such a rich history of the structure, calling attention to how many gates blocked potential invaders from pulling off a successful siege. Fun fact: Edinburgh Castle was never captured by an enemy by charging the front gates. The only times the fortress was taken over were by legal documents, or, by a surprise siege by scaling the walls. It’s also home to the oldest building in Scotland, Queen Margaret’s Chapel, which has remained intact since its construction in 1130.

After our tour concluded, we were given free reign for the rest of the day until our New Year’s Eve group dinner at the Frankenstein & Bier Keller. Randa, Ashley and I checked out a few of the buildings at Edinburgh Castle (those crown jewels!) and I left our group to visit Victoria Street to scoop up a copy of the first Harry Potter book. Yes, I already own the book, a few copies, actually, but it’s one of my favorite souvenirs to pick up in a place that holds importance to me. When I was in Italy in 2014, I bought a copy of the first book in a tiny bookshop in the town my dad was born in.

With that book, I headed to The Elephant House and waited a half hour to be seated. I got to sit right by the windows that overlook Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. I ordered the Fleur’s Fantasy, a hot chocolate with Bailey’s essentially, and a purple yam cake. I dredged out my beautiful leather bound travel journal and got writing. The moment was a spiritual one for me and I felt very connected to JK Rowling, even if just for a few moments. Hygge appears to be most applicable here. I remembered to visit the  bathroom here and sign the wall, thanking JK for the magic, as always.

After the Elephant House, I stopped off at the hotel before joining Marie and a few of my tour mates for a hike up to Calton Hill, one of the places you can have incredible, sweeping views of the city. We watched our last sunset of 2018 up here and I couldn’t think of anything more perfect. On my way back to the hotel, I bought myself a super touristy kilt, and then freshened up for our New Year’s Eve dinner at the Frankenstein. After dinner, we all headed to the Hogmanay Street Party. We drank, we danced, we hugged, and at midnight, we were dazzled by a ten-minute fireworks display launched from Edinburgh Castle. To echo what I just said before, I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to close out one year and begin the new one.

We spent the rest of the night bar hopping until the wee hours of the morning, starting at the Banshee and ending up at a place called the Espionage. Despite getting just after 8 am, I still managed to make it for our Highlands day trip.

The Highlands excursion was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, putting a surreal and rightful linchpin on already one of the most amazing journeys of my life. We explored the grounds of Doune Castle, which has been popularized by being the filming location for the first episode of Winterfell in Game of Thrones, and in Outlander and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We fed some cuter than words coos in Callander, and hiked up Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park for our first, and truly unbelievable sunset of 2019. I’ll let the pictures pick up where my words give out here.

When we got back into Edinburgh, we reconvened with the entirety of our tour group for our farewell dinner at the Caley Room. We got Christmas crackers and wore the silly hats and we laughed and traded experiences while chowing down on haggis bon-bons, burgers and cake. We celebrated Ashley’s birthday and began to say our goodbyes to these new friends and to the marvelous couple of days we had together. Even now, I am getting tearful just thinking about the last hours there. Several of us stayed up quite late at the hotel’s bar talking about the future.

During these balmy and barely palpable hours, all I could think about was David Tennant’s Doctor during his regeneration… I don’t want to go.