Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Aloof, humorless Brits; dingy gray cities and streets choked with tourists – that’s what I expected to find in the UK. But by the time I had toured Edinburgh, Scotland and visited lovely Newcastle, England, it was obvious how ridiculous those stereotypes were; not only had I found warm, welcoming people, the cities were filled with handsome stone architecture and the countryside was exquisitely green.

As with my previous two destinations, I had chosen York, England in order to visit a friend. For more than two years I had corresponded with the legendary Mike Sowden, otherwise known as “the guy with the big-ass trowel,” a York-based travel writer who blogs at Fevered Mutterings. There was no way I could leave England without meeting Mike in the flesh, especially since I was less than two hours away by train. The morning after my arrival we rendezvoused at York Minster, a great cathedral in the center of the old city that houses the world’s largest single expanse of medieval stained glass. Big-hearted Mike brought along two other visitors from Australia and the three of us spent the entire day and part of the night following Mike around as he peeled away layers of history and exposed York as only a trained archaeologist can. Mike worked for a few seasons on various digs, got his undergraduate degree in archaeology at the University of York in 2004, and promptly left archaeology behind, but not before becoming somewhat of an expert on York.

Filigreed towers of York Minster

Filigreed towers of York Minster

The history of the city begins in 71 AD when Romans invaded and subdued what is today northern England. They built a fort between the rivers Ouse and Foss and within a few years ships were sailing up the Ouse with merchandise, attracting craftsmen and merchants who settled the town of Eboracum. By the 3rd century a protective stone wall had been built, wealthy people were constructing grand houses with mosaic floors, and public buildings such as a baths began to appear. One of these, a Romancaldarium (steam bath), was discovered during routine construction at the Roman Bath Pub in 1970. The resulting excavation uncovered a well-preserved semi-circular bath with steps at both ends and a nearby plunge pool. Actual footprints and an insignia of a Roman legion; believed to be that of the famous 9th legion that founded the town, are imprinted in the tiles surrounding the bath, which is preserved in a museum beneath the pub.

Ancient Roman baths were discovered in the cellar of the Roman Baths Pub

Ancient Roman baths were discovered in the cellar of the Roman Baths Pub

Roman civilization began to break down in the 4th century and York was all but abandoned. The town fell into ruins and was forgotten for more than three hundred years, until it was given a bishop who built a cathedral inside the old walls. It’s ideal location as a trading place attracted Saxons, who revived the town in the 8th century. By the mid-9th century the town, thought to be named Eofer’s wic (wic meant trading place), was once again flourishing.

The year 866 brought about another transition. Danish Vikings conquered northern England and made York the capital of their kingdom. The city (Jorvik to the Danes) grew rapidly and became a thriving industrial center for wool weaving, blacksmiths, potters, and the manufacture of items such as combs from bone and antler. By 1066 its population may have been as high as 10,000.

In 1068, two years after the Norman Conquest of England, the people of York rebelled. The revolt was put down by William the Conqueror, who immediately built two wooden fortresses on hillocks that are still visible on either side of the river Ouse. Present day Cliffords Tower was built in the mid-13th century to replace the keep of the main castle which burned in 1190. At the end of the day I gazed up at that stone monolith, outlined in sharp relief against the azure night sky by gleaming yellow spotlights, and wondered at the history encased within its ancient walls.

Spotlighted Clifford's Tower at night

Spotlighted Clifford’s Tower at night

As if we hadn’t abused him enough with our myriad questions, Mike invited the three of us to accompany him on a circumvention of the city’s medieval walls the following day. York has more miles of intact wall than any other city in England. Read More

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Newcastle, England
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No visit to England is complete without a stop in a traditional English pub and in Newcastle the most famous of them all is the Crown Posada. My friend Val, who has lived in Newcastle all her life, dragged me in the front door and introduced me as a travel writer to the bartender, who immediately began talking about the history of the pub. Fortunately, I had my video camera rolling and captured his comments, however I must admit I had to listen to it about two dozen times before I could understand his brogue and there’s still some words I’m not sure about.
 

 Can’t view the above YouTube video about the Crown Posada Pub in Newcastle, England? Click here.

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Newcastle, England
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I met Valerie Jamieson almost a year ago, during a visit to Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal. Serendipitously, we had booked weekend safaris at the same lodge and ended up on the same bus back to Pokhara, where she was volunteering at an orphanage and elementary school. We bonded immediately and started meeting every morning for breakfast, where we compared notes on Nepal, shared life stories, and commiserated about getting older and not being able to do all the things we could when we were young. Eventually, Val’s volunteer stint came to an end; she headed for a tour of Tibet prior to returning to her home town of Newcastle, England, with a promise that she’d email me when she got home.

Valerie Jamieson with a teacher and teacher assistant at Annapurna Primary School in Pokhara, Nepal

Valerie Jamieson with a teacher and teacher assistant at Annapurna Primary School in Pokhara, Nepal

Certain that we were the kind of friends that would last forever, I was surprised when that email never arrived. I thought about writing to her but didn’t want to push the issue if she had no interest in staying in touch. I just assumed she got busy with life or hadn’t really felt the same kind of kinship with me that I had with her. Then one day, months later, I received the following shocker of an email from Val:

“Remember me from Nepal? You might have wondered where I went when I promised to keep in touch by email or that I didn’t think we were friends after all. Well, neither is true! When I went home after Nepal I became more and more ill. You might remember that I had a problem with my eye. The investigations into that led to a CT scan and I was finally diagnosed with a benign brain tumour on 16th March this year. It was benign but very large and was pressing on my brain causing massive swelling and fluid on the brain. I had loads of symptoms (remember I had no sense of smell!) and in the weeks previous my balance went completely amongst a pile of other things but they were all disconnected and I never once thought of a brain tumour. By the time I was diagnosed it was an emergency and I was rushed into hospital that night and given massive doses of steroids etc. I had a full craniotomy on 25th March when the tumour was fully removed and I am home now recovering.”

I had one of those “life is short” moments that always accompanies that kind of news. My next thought was that I was scheduled to be in Edinburgh, Scotland soon, which is just over the border from Newcastle. I emailed Val back, offering to come if she felt well enough to have visitors. Not only did she feel well enough, she insisted I stay with her and even met me at the train station.

 

Can’t view the above YouTube video of Newcastle, England? Click here.

My goal in visiting Newcastle was to spend time with Val. I certainly didn’t expect her to be strong enough to show me her home town but not only did she look wonderful, she felt well enough to take me on a walking tour of the city center the following day. We listened to a musician play Irish Pipes in the Central Arcade, wandered through Black Gate and past Castle Keep, spent a couple of hours walking around Quayside on the Tyne River, and capped off the afternoon with a visit to the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, which occupies an old restored flour mill. Again I was surprised. As a child I had often heard my English grandmother remark that something was, “Like taking coals to Newcastle,” a reference to the extensive coal mining that had occurred in that part of England. Read More

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Scotland
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From the moment I arrived in Scotland I was fascinated by kilts. My assumption that they were an ethnic costume worn only for historic reenactments or cultural shows could not have been more wrong. Ordinary men walked about the streets of Edinburgh in full kilt regalia and members of the Scottish Guard wear kilts. At Edinburgh Castle, tourists queued for a chance to have their photos taken with the cute young guards outfitted in elaborate, medal-pinned uniforms. I stepped to the side and posed with a cute older guard, telling him I wanted my photo taken with someone who, like me, had a bit of gray in his hair. He grinned from ear-to-ear.

Posing with a member of the Scottish Guard in front of Edinburgh Castle

Posing with a member of the Scottish Guard in front of Edinburgh Castle

My Scottish friends, Dorothy and Ricky, had already treated me to tours around Edinburgh and the Scottish Midlands but promised the best was yet to come. They had been invited to a wedding that just happened to fall during my visit and had asked and obtained permission for me to attend. We drove through the luscious green countryside to the hamlet of Blair Atholl and pulled onto a long driveway, at the end of which loomed Blair Castle, an imposing white, turreted citadel.

Blair Castle is host to many Scottish weddings

Blair Castle is host to many Scottish weddings

Wedding reception at Blair Castle, in Blair Atholl, Scotland

Wedding reception at Blair Castle, in Blair Atholl, Scotland

We quickly joined the reception underway in the Great Hall, where antlers from generations of hunters were mounted up to the ceiling. Beneath watchful eyes on portraits of Blair ancestors that lined the rich, wood-paneled walls, Ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) dancing was soon underway. A Gaelic word for a casual party with music, dancing and entertainment, Ceilidh is the term Read More

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Scotland
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When my Scottish friends, Dorothy and Ricky, invited me to visit them in Edinburgh on my way back from Laos and Thailand, I jumped at the chance. I am, after all, part Scottish. My mother was a MacDonald, a lineage that harkens back to the days of the famed MacDonald-Campbell feud. The clash between these two ancient Celtic houses lasted for hundreds of years and still evokes strong sentiments in the Scottish Highlands. According to the website Heart ‘o Scotland:

“Clan Donald traces its roots to the great 12th century Gaelic-Norse warrior king, Somerled. His name meant “summer wanderer” and was the name given to the Vikings, who at that time controlled much of the western Isles.”

That explains a lot. It seems I owe my vagabond nature to old king Somrled. Praise be to my Celtic genes.

My whirlwind tour of Scotland began with tickets to the cultural extravaganza, “Taste of Scotland,” an evening of Scottish music, costume, bagpipes, fiddles, dance and food in the historic Prestonfield House. Earlier in the day Dorothy had perused the contents of my backpack and shook her head. My raggedy khakis simply would not do for the gala evening. She dragged me into her closet and dolled me up from head to toe, right down to purse and shoes.

Me in a skirt, posing next to a Scottish bagpiper at the entrance to "Taste of Scotland"

Me in a skirt, posing next to a Scottish bagpiper at the entrance to “Taste of Scotland”

For the next week I was treated to the sights of Scotland, beginning with Edinburgh. We walked the Royal Mile, visiting exquisite stone structures like St. Giles Church and Greyfriars. On a narrow side street Dorothy ran into Norrie Rowan, who graciously offered to give us a personal tour of The Caves, a bar carved from the rubble of underground caverns that once formed the sub-structure of the 18th Century South Bridge in Old Town Edinburgh. Lost for more than 100 years, the hidden vaults were rediscovered by Rowan and his son, who have been painstakingly restoring them. We groped our way through dark, narrow passageways with sloping stone floors, emerging into one cavern after another, each lit in dazzling jewel-tone neon lights. Every vault had a story to tell, from those that served as stables for the French Cavalry who were body guards to the Royal family to a recently discovered and as yet unrestored ancient well.

A restored cavern at The Caves, a bar carved out of the ancient vaults and passageways discovered beneath the Old City in Edinburgh, Scotland

A restored cavern at The Caves, a bar carved out of the ancient vaults and passageways discovered beneath the Old City in Edinburgh, Scotland

Back outside, the dull light of overcast skies seemed a more fitting complement to the monolithic stone architecture that dominates Old Town, not the least of which was Edinburgh Castle, a colossal stone fort that hulks above the city on a high bluff. As luck would have it, we arrived just in time to witness a special changing of the guard ceremony in honor of the 90th birthday of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth II. Read More

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“This is the only stoplight on the island,” announced Yodying, my guide for the day.

“Where?” I asked, not seeing the normal pole topped with red, yellow and green lights.

He pointed to a three-foot high metal tripod with a red light mounted on top, shoved under a tree between intersecting sand roads. “We use it once a year during the Songkran holiday,” he explained with a mischievous grin. That was the moment I knew I had discovered paradise.

The only streetlight on Koh Mak, used once a year during the Songkran holiday

The only streetlight on Koh Mak, used once a year during the Songkran holiday

This virtually unknown Eden where I unexpectedly found myself was Koh Mak, a small island on the far eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand. Of the few tourists who visit each year, most arrive on day trips from Koh Chang, its better-known and very touristy neighbor located a mere 12 miles to the north. Determined to change that, Yodying had invited me to be a guest of his Good Time Resort, located atop a high ridge of land overlooking exquisite white sand beaches on either side of the narrow isle.

A month earlier I had visited Bangkok for the first time in ten years and came away saddened by the changes I witnessed. The famous Thai smiles seemed to have been replaced by stressed-out shoppers and the crowds, though always immense in Bangkok, seemed more overwhelming than ever before. I wrote it off as another country rushing headlong toward Western ways and checked Thailand off my list of favorites. However, after touring the sights and several of the 20 resorts on Koh Mak, I was ready to recant.

Beautiful, uncrowded beaches of Koh Mak, Thailand

Beautiful, uncrowded beaches of Koh Mak, Thailand

There are no high rises here, no jet skis, no quads, no banana boats. And there never will be. Ninety-five percent of the 9.6 square mile island is still owned by a single extended family whose members are committed that it will never become another Pattaya, filled with beer bars, sex trade, nightclubs and souvenir shops. According to Yodying, their resolve withstood a test recently when a Frenchman began building on one of the few parcels owned by an outsider. Read More