Category Archives: Scotland

Do you like old people, open water and rolling green hills? Go to Loch Lomand!(?)

Before we jaunted to Glasgow to eat well, generally feel puffy yet attractive and look at some amazing art we took a wee (HAR HAR) trip to Balloch from Edinburgh. The hour train ride flew by and in no time we made it to Balloch where we’d set out to explore Loch Lomand.

ahh the scottish countryside

ahh the scottish countryside

Here’s where we were grizzled travelers who were a bit over it. And were actually appropriately researched. We know Balloch was a tiny town, but the internets did not prepare us for how REALLY TINY a town it was. We had scheduled to have 20 hours in Balloch and for ONCE, the bed wasn’t too small, or too big, it was JUST RIGHT.

Though it was big enough for a confluence of many of my favorite types of humans

Though it was big enough for a confluence of many of my favorite types of humans

Our B&B was billed as being across the street from the train station, but for some reason it was still a bit of a SHOCK that it was in fact, through a small chain link fence and across a narrow road from the train station. It was a VERY small B&B — three rooms in a kindly couple’s house who I think were in their 50’s? The room was immaculate and Ikea chic, but like Hemnes chic, not Malm chic for all my budget-minded Ikea catalogers. The price was right at 30 pounds a person which included a really terrific breakfast but sadly for DK, no haggis.

We dropped our bags and immediately set out to find the local tourist office. It was precisely two blocks away.

The gateway to the loch

The gateway to the loch

We saw “the main drag” which extended exactly one block each way from the tourist office. We walked along and waved the locals, most of which were just killing time in their wheelchairs waiting for the blue light specials for dinner at the seven restaurants (which were all in the aforementioned two block strip).

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The thing to do in Balloch is take a Loch Lomand (as it was pointed out to us, it’s Lah-MOND, not LOW-mond) boat cruise. We sprung for the two hour version (considering we had nothing else to do and we had already SEEN WHAT THERE WAS TO SEE in the previous 13 minutes).

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It was cloudy, cold and drizzly (British weather for sure) but it was stunningly beautiful. I bet the guidebooks will hype this place more as time goes by — it’s really an afterthought of a tourist attraction.

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After our river cruise we walked precisely 6 minutes to the “docks” and then walked back to the 2 block main street and gave up and had a beer.

"the docks"

“the docks”

blustery

blustery

 

windswept

windswept

Doing that Kate Winslet thing

Doing that Kate Winslet thing

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Then we ate an early and sensible dinner (minus the sticky toffee pudding dessert) and spent the rest of the evening with headphones on watching separate netflix features because oddly, for a tiny town the internet was whip-fast and the ikea bed felt oddly like our ikea bedroom and we were just so tired from a few days of hustle and bustle. Maybe the folks in the wheelchairs knew what was up? I feel like Loch Lomand is where you go when you are taking your granny out for some fresh air before you take her to tea. Anyway, the effect was soothing. The lady of the house reminded me of a Scottish version of my tough but very elegant great Aunt and it immediately put me at ease. And we snoozed. Our. Faces. Off.

The next morning we ate our breakfast expertly cooked by the wife of the husband and wife duo and left our bags to go walk around the old Loch Lomand Castle.

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Unfortunately, they were spraying the surrounding grounds with some pesticide? but you could still walk around the park. We waved at lots of dog walkers and remarked to ourselves how weird it was to be the only tourists around. Edinburgh was teaming with them — here we felt like we were the only ones passing through.  We had the park largely to ourselves which was picturesque.

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I felt like every Jane Austen heroine tromping through the moor, taking the air, or whatever one in a petticoat who felt so many FEELINGS (including so much vexation and being cross!) was supposed to do. Dave enjoyed the walk but was ready to go and after looking at my Mr. Darcy(stein? berg?) it was a “RIGHT- let us to Glasgow” where we were in for a few days of scotch tasting, accent deciphering, and general readiness to trade up from British weather in hopes of some Moroccan sunshine.

 

Glasgow: The Baltimore of Scotland

You might read the title of this post and think that I am using the phrase “The Baltimore of Scotland” in a pejorative way. Rest assured that I most certainly am not. I went to college in Baltimore and I love that city. That grimy, gritty, blue-collar, drug-infested, relatively dangerous city. I really do. Because with all that comes character and an indomitable spirit. A sense of pride and heart that screams out “We don’t give a fuck if you don’t like us.” And for the brave who are willing to call it home and really mean it, the city will love you back in its way. Glasgow is much the same. I quickly fell in love with this city of obesity, rotted teeth and unintelligible accents.

Guerrilla street art in one of Glasgow's dirty streets. To me, quite successful as I don't understand it at all but it still MAKES ME FEEL ALL THE FEELINGS

Guerrilla street art in one of Glasgow’s dirty streets. To me, quite successful, as I don’t understand it at all but it still MAKES ME FEEL ALL THE FEELINGS

Glasgow and Edinburgh are only about an hour apart on the relatively inexpensive train (TAKE NOTE, ENGLAND. TRAINS DON’T HAVE TO COST ELEVENTY BILLION DOLLARS) but there are worlds of difference. The Edinburgh accent is that classic delightful Scottish brogue that we’re so familiar with. The Glaswegian accent sounds like a foreign language. I’d find myself working on a tape delay in conversations with people as I’d have to replay what they said in my brain and untwist the vowels to translate it to standard English. Whereas Edinburgh is quite a touristy city filled with parks and, of course, the stunning Hogwarts-esque castle on the rock that towers over the city, Glasgow has relatively few tourists and exists for its own pleasure.

An example of typical Glaswegian character. Back in the 80's someone put a traffic cone on this statue's head as a prank. It has stayed there for THIRTY YEARS just because people thought it was funny. The statue sits outside the city's main art museum.

An example of typical Glaswegian character. Back in the 80’s someone put a traffic cone on this statue’s head as a prank. It has stayed there for THIRTY YEARS just because people thought it was funny. The statue sits outside the city’s main art museum.

Something else that I loved about Glasgow that came as a total surprise to me is that the city has a subway! Not just any subway; the third oldest subway in the world behind London and Budapest, having opened in 1896. It’s one line that goes in a circle. It’s orange, so sometimes known as the Clockwork Orange (though I think that’s stupid). It’s a right of passage for the city’s university students to complete a “Sub-Crawl,” meaning in one straight session to get out at each of the system’s 15 stations and have a pint at the nearest pub.

Art in the Glasgow subway system. I like the message.

Art in the Glasgow subway system. I like the message.

One thing about the subway being so old is that the cars are really small (you basically are bumping knees with the people across from you) and HOLY JEBUS IT IS LOUD. I couldn’t quite figure out who uses it and for what. Some times we’d be on it and it’d be totally empty, other times professional folks and other times girls going to a hen-do. Always, though, insane people looking as if they’re clutching a knife inside their coat.

Mrs. Banh Mi loved that the system mascot is a penguin.

Mrs. Banh Mi loved that the system mascot is a penguin.

 

A typical glasgow subway station. Pretty oldey-timey, right?

A typical glasgow subway station. Pretty oldey-timey, right?

Alright, I’m sure that not everyone is a transit geek like me, so enough about the subway. Glasgow is home to a large student population and has some really hip places to go and, surprisingly, has some pretty stellar food. We ate very well in all of the UK, once again proving those old American stereotypes of Europe are worn, outdated and obnoxious. (Spoiler alert: French people are actually pretty nice and they don’t smell.) Of course, some stereotypes are born of truth: English teeth are pretty abysmal. We found a well-reviewed Indian restaurant in Glasgow and decided to give it a go as we hadn’t had proper Indian since Malaysia. We’d had a “curry” in London, but that’s practically more English than it is Indian. Kat freaked out because she found Paper Masala Dosa on the menu, which we hadn’t been able to have have since we were in Kuala Lumpur.

Little known Katherine Sprissler-Klein factoid: Her favorite dinner is some form of starch with an assortment of dips. This fits the bill perfectly.

Little known Katherine Sprissler-Klein factoid: Her favorite dinner is some form of starch with an assortment of dips. This fits the bill perfectly. This is not a visual trick, btw. The dosa really is THAT big. Like three feet long. We also ordered mango lassis, which were a Bali and Malaysia staple we’d been craving.

I guess this is not a commonly ordered dish. After the meal the waiter came to our table and asked if we’d ever had paper dosa before and asked why we’d ordered it. We told him we had it many times in Malaysia and loved it. He said that he’d lived in Malaysia for many years and how he was so happy his restaurant could prepare it for us. Scots and Malays are basically the kindest people ever.

There are also some really cool pubs. We went to once place nearby the University that was in an old bank. It was really nice to be somewhere that felt out of the backpacker cheapskate scene and into a cool, underground urban vibe.

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While in Glasgow we went to two Scotch distilleries: Auchentoshan, which you’ve already read about and the Glengoyne distillery. I won’t bother writing much about Glengoyne as I found the tour sub-par and the whisky was unimpressive. One sort of neat thing about Glengoyne though is that the road that it is one (which our bus took to get there) is the dividing line between the lowlands and the highlands. The whisky is actually distilled in the highlands but the warehouse where it ages is in the lowlands.

Here's the road. The white building on the left is the actual distillery. The building in the middle across the road is the warehouse.

Here’s the road. The white building on the left is the actual distillery. The building in the middle across the road is the warehouse.

Getting to and from the distillery was a typical example of what makes Scotland so awesome and quaint. We got on the bus, really had no idea where we were going or what we were doing. We just told the driver “Uh…we’re going to Glengoyne.” He was all chipper and happy! “Oh! Grrrrrrreat!” We paid our fare and sat on the bus as it left the city and drove into the countryside past farms and sheep (LOTS of sheep) and through small towns. I was a bit nervous about where to get off, but I needn’t have been. The driver stopped right in front of the distillery (no stop was there or anything, he just stopped) and said “Ok! Here you go!” To get home, we just waited outside the distillery and when we saw the bus, we just flagged it down.

I really, really loved Glasgow. I much preferred it to Edinburgh, which to me was beautiful but way to touristy. Edinburgh felt too cutesy for its own good and too much like it existed just for Americans and Asians to come there and go “OH MY GOD IT’S JUST LIKE HARRY POTTER!” Glasgow doesn’t care about you. Glasgow doesn’t care what you want it to be. Glasgow’s doin’ Glasgow and I LOVE that about this city.

Dram! I wish I was your lover!

When Kat and I decided we’d head up to Scotland, I knew immediately that we’d be drinking a lot of scotch whisky. I love scotch. Visiting some of my favorite distilleries  has been a dream of mine for many years.

I love scotch as much as this guy. No joke.

I love scotch as much as Ron Burgundy. 

We were researching how to spend our time in Scotland and out of the blue Kat says to me “Hey, we can go to this distillery! It’s only an hour away from Glasgow and we can get there on the train. It’s….ow..che…owken….tosh…” At this point I blurted in a girlish scream “YOU MEAN AUCHENTOSHAN?!” She looks up, startled by my reaction. “Uh yeah, I guess. Is that a good one?” Kat didn’t know it but she had just named one of my absolute favorite scotches. I was so excited I couldn’t stand it.

So, here’s the thing. Whisky distilleries require a lot of space to operate. You’ve gotta store all your grains and yeasts, you’ve gotta have space for the actual stills and the wash tubs and the mash tubs and everything. Then once the scotch is ready, you can’t just sell it. For a spirit to legally be called “Scotch whisky” (FYI — it’s just called “whisky” in scotland) it has to age at least 3 years and 1 day. Obviously, more premium scotches age for many more years. So you’ve gotta have warehouses to store all these barrels as well. The whole point of me telling you this is that there is no such thing as an urban distillery. They tend to be way out there in the middle of nowhere. You’re expected to drive to them. That we could take the train from Glasgow to get to Auchentoshan was a real boon for us.

But here’s the thing — you CAN take the train (or the bus) but they don’t make it easy. I don’t want to get into it, but getting to the distillery was a bit nerve wracking. We got off the train and kinda sorta knew which way to go….but not really.

"Dave, are you lost? Do you know where you're going?" "Uh, I think...the map says....just...hold on."

“Dave, are you lost? Do you know where you’re going?”
“Uh, I think…the map says….just…hold on.”

"DAVE. THIS IS THE ON-RAMP TO A HIGHWAY. I AM NOT WALKING ON THIS!" "THIS IS WHAT THE MAP SAYS TO DO. THIS IS HOW WE'RE GOING. DEAL WITH IT."

“DAVE. THIS IS THE ON-RAMP TO A HIGHWAY. I AM NOT WALKING ON THIS!”
“THIS IS WHAT THE MAP SAYS TO DO. THIS IS HOW WE’RE GOING. DEAL WITH IT.”

So WHAT if we had to walk on the side of a six-lane highway for a half mile or so. So WHAT if we had to scamper across that six-lane highway to get to the other side. We MADE it, right? Jeez, Kat. Stop being such baby.

After escaping death, we finally made it. My Shangri-la:

It's...the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

It’s…the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

Double-pointing. THAT'S HOW EXCITED I AM TO BE HERE.

Double-pointing. THAT’S HOW EXCITED I AM TO BE HERE.

We paid our 7 quid each for the tour and so it began. Our tour was small — just us and four other Scottish people who are independent whisky bottlers who were sorta there to network. Our tour leader, Flora, was super awesome. We chatted with her for a bit — she had studied in South Korea and it BLEW HER MIND that we had been there. She was about our age and we had a great time with her — it didn’t hurt that she hooked us up with some free drams at the end.

So, I could talk about whisky distilling process for hours and, honestly, I know that would probably bore a lot of you, so I’ll try to keep this part brief.

This is the mash tun. This is where it all starts -- every single bottle. The malted barley is dumped in here and mixed with hot water to break down the sugars.

This is the mash tun. This is where it all starts — every single bottle. The malted barley is dumped in here and mixed with hot water to break down the sugars.

Smells a bit like malty oatmeal?

Smells a bit like malty oatmeal?

The goop from the mash tun is then put into the washbacks where yeast is added and it’s allowed to ferment. This baaaasically, more or less, turns it into a 7-8% alcohol beer. Did you know that whisky is basically just distilled beer? MIND. BLOWN. Basic how alcohol is made lesson: The yeast eats the sugars from the malted barley, the by-product of this is CO2 and alcohol. When the yeast is full, it goes to sleep and turns into nasty goop.

Washbacks. Fermentin' like a BAWS.

Washbacks. Fermentin’ like a BAWS.

The “beer” inside the washback looks pretty gnarly, nasty yeast floating on the top and burping and bubble occasionally as CO2 is explled — but it IS drinkable.

Technically potable...

Technically potable…

So, when our tour leader sarcastically asked if any of us wanted to taste it, of COURSE I said “Yeah! Really?!” She looked at me like I had 3 heads but said, “Uh, ok…” and she got a big ladle and scooped me out a bit.

It tasted like....warm gross  flat beer. Not my favorite.

It tasted like….warm gross flat beer. Not my favorite.

Alright, so now the beer is ready to be turned into whisky. And THIS is where the magic happens:

Every single drop of Auchentoshan sold goes through these three stills.

Every single drop of Auchentoshan sold goes through these three stills. Hard to get scale here, but they’re, like, 25 feet tall.

I’m not gonna get into everything that goes on in this part of the process. If you’re interested read more here: http://www.auchentoshan.com/triple-distillation-(our-way)/triple-distillation.aspx Basically, alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. The washback is heated, the alcohol vapors rise and then are condensed back into a liquid. That’s the super abbreviated version. Auchentoshan distills their whisky three times — no other distillery distills their whisky more than twice. So Auchentoshan heavily markets their “triple distilled” whisky. (Something else you learn is just how much of the scotch whisky industry is about marketing, a lot of which is sort of bullshit. Does the extra distillation make a difference? I mean, PROBABLY but does it make it better? Who can know?) What comes out of this process is, at the very beginning, some really nasty poisonous stuff (called “foreshot”) that’s siphoned off and, eventually, an 81% alcohol clear spirit. They had a bottle of this to taste as well. It tasted exactly as you’d expect — super strong, super burn going down, I did not want more after my tiny sip. It’s watered down to 63.5% abv before it’s put in the barrels for aging.

This is the spirit safe. This is what the master distiller uses to sample and control the distillation process to make sure that everything's going just as it should.

This is the spirit safe. This is what the master distiller uses to sample and control the distillation process to make sure that everything’s going just as it should.

Like I said, for whisky to be called “scotch” it legally must age for at least 3 years and 1 day. Auchentoshan uses several different types of barrels to age its whisky: used American bourbon barrels and two different types of Spanish sherry barrels. These barrels are remarkably expensive (a few hundred dollars each and they can only be used 3 times) so this is another reason for scotch’s relatively high price.

On a side note, a major trick of the whole scotch industry is the idea that older=better. But, really, are you gonna be able to taste a difference between a 10 year and a 9 year? No, it’s sort of stupid. In fact, Macallan, one of the most popular scotches in America, has transitioned from traditional age labels and into “color” based labels. Really, the reason that older whisky is more expensive, other than marketers use age to justify higher prices, is that the longer the whisky sits in the barrel, the more of it that evaporates, so there’s literally just LESS of it the older it gets.

We were allowed to walk through the warehouse where the barrels are stored but, unfortunately, no photos were permitted in there — allegedly because flashes could cause a spark and given the high amount of alcohol vapors in the air, that could lead to a huge explosion. Seemed suspect to me, but them’s the rules.

So after it ages in certain barrels for a certain amount of time, what comes out the other end is this:

Hello, lovers...

Hello, lovers…And you can sort of see tour leader Flora behind the bottles

The tour ended and we were brought to the tasting room where we were given a complimentary dram of the 12 year. I also sampled the three wood and the 18 year. Flora suggested that the 21 year wasn’t really worth it — expensive and not that good she said. Again — older doesn’t mean better. The clear winner for me and Kat was the three wood, meaning it was aged in all three types of barrels that Auchentoshan uses. One review says of the three wood: After three distillations and three barrel maturations the scotch is soft, incredibly mellow, sweet with berry and dried fruits, oozing with caramel and brown sugar and vanilla, creamy butterscotch, and a light whiff of toasted hazelnuts, finishing with distinct toffee flavors.

Final step of the process: savor and enjoy.

Final step of the process: savor and enjoy.

I didn’t even touch the differences between all the different regions of Scotland (Auchentoshan is a lowland scotch, one of the very few single malts of the lowlands) and the difference between single-malts and blends. Seriously people, I could talk about this ALL DAY.

After we’d finished our whisky it was time to head back to the train station. Fortunately, we asked around and found a safer way to get back (through an unmarked path that FOR REASONS UNKNOWN AUCHENTOSHAN DOES NOT ADVERTISE ON THEIR WEBSITE). As we were waiting for our train, a gentle rain began to fall, but that did not deter the old ladies next to us who were engaging in a heated lawn bowling match

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I love Scotland.

Apologies to Sophie B. Hawkins for the title of this post.

Edinburgh: so beautiful I could just zzzzzzzzzzzz……

I hugged Danielle goodbye at 8am before she stuffed herself into a cab to embark on a week-long business trip. I hugged her boyfriend goodbye two hours later as we were off to take the train to Edinburgh.

The train was completely uneventful which to me now seems a bit boring. You mean everyone was behaved on the train? No one had their foot on my back the entire ride? People quietly murmured about the Bruce Springsteen concert? Pppfffft.

Four hours later we emerged from the train station and then quickly settled into our very cute bed and breakfast. We walked around just to get our bearings and then oh look — we had walked by everything there was to walk by in the city. From then on we didn’t quite need a map which was a nice break from being lost for 6 months.

We took our time, mostly strolling in the drizzle and swearing under our breath about it being June and why am I in a fleece AND a rain jacket. We had passed a milestone: having spent long enough in the UK to see a fleeting moment of glorious weather and then spend the rest of the time annoyed it was cold and drizzly.

we took lots of moody pictures

we took lots of moody pictures

We did a good bit of touristing in Edinburgh, in addition to ambling around looking at REALLY OLD THINGS.

main shopping drag in Edinburgh

main shopping drag in Edinburgh

And passing by places where REALLY OLD PEOPLE WERE BORN.

ring ring

ring ring

We visited the castle (of course) where in line, a Spanish woman interrupted my conversation with Dave (in English) to ask me if I was Spanish (in Spanish). I said no. I am wondering if Dave sewed Spanish flags on the backs of all my shirts because this was the most aggressive “BUT SURELY YOU MUST BE SPANISH” in the face of “BUT CLEARLY I AM TOTALLY NOT” which amuses me the further we are from these incidents. At home no one thinks I am Spanish.  This gives me a sad. Here  I am just another girl with a nasal mid-Atlantic accent who wears brightly colored trousers. ENNUI, it runs deep.

The castle looked just like Hogwarts

hogwarts or edinburgh castle?

hogwarts or edinburgh castle?

which thrilled me until I saw signs all around Edinburgh where a few hip-looking establishments had “JK Rowling not welcome” signs out front where then I decided Hogwarts was stupid and WHATEVER, JK ROWLING.

Dave wanted to put a sign up that said "stop making me take dumb pictures"

Dave wanted to put a sign up that said “stop making me take dumb pictures”

boom

boom

Dave is used to taking direction

Dave is used to taking direction

We of course engaged in the BanhMi&You tradition of walking around and finding a bar and drinking a new beer for Dave to check into on Untapp’d on my ancient iphone 3Gs as his even more ancient iphone 3G would not support the app. A friend of a friend directed us to a bar connected to a church where the bartenders wore shirts of the app and I had to drag DaveKlein out of there to go get some food.

beer nerds, unite!

beer nerds, unite!

We ate well in Edinburgh but not as well as we did in Glasgow. More on that soon.

gorgeous!

gorgeous!

Edinburgh was stunning. Beautiful. Also, a bit of a snoozefest.

one of two moments of sun in edinburgh

one of two moments of sun in edinburgh

It’s just so touristy and everything revolves around tourism that there wasn’t much real life to come up on. No, I am not buying a kilt. No, I am not taking a picture with a dude with bagpipes. No, I am not going to eat haggis out when our bed and breakfast serves it up.

flag

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Though I will say the accents of Edinburgh are amazingly beautiful. It was a stark contrast when we got to Glasgow and would look at each other wide-eyed when someone spoke to us and we had to consider pretending to be Spanish it sounded so foreign.

We were in Edinburgh for three nights and then visited the countryside and Glasgow and then came back for one night as we were flying to Marrakech from Edinburgh for our final two weeks of the trip.

This is where we stayed in the shittiest place on the trip. The Edinburgh Film Festival was going on so there was literally NO WHERE to stay and since we would be in town for all of like, 15 hours we went with the cheapest option: a crappy hostel.

Only when we showed up we realized that our hostel room was part of the University of Edinburgh dorms. So we stayed in a “private double” that was essentially good enough for one student. We almost slept head to toe on our tiny twin+ bed. The staff were all Americans studying at the university and when I decided to puff out my American chest and be like WTF about the tiny bed they tried to play some “well have you thought about cultural differences about what a double bed might be” and that’s when no one might consider I was Spanish because I gave them some good old, American attitude.

Which of course got me nowhere but deep down inside, it felt a little awesome to be a pushy American just brushing up on the line of being a jerk to someone who would understand my restraint in not being full out jerk.

USA! USA! USA!

the second moment of sun in edinburgh

the second moment of sun in edinburgh