England and Scotland have a complicated relationship (duhh).

Leaving aside the long, violent struggle between the English and the Scots (have you seen Braveheart?) to focus on the present, big things are brewing up in Edinburgh that might mean the end of the "United" Kingdom.

In the briefest summary possible: The Acts of Union in 1707 joined the two kingdoms, forming "Great Britain." All decisions concerning Scotland were henceforth decided by the Parliament of Great Britain in Westminster, London. The Scotland Act of 1998 established a separate, devolved Scottish Parliament based in Edinburgh. In May of this year the Scottish National Party won a majority in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP is a center-left political party whose main platform is Scottish independence. They released plans for a referendum to become independent from the United Kingdom tentatively scheduled for 2015. I'm no expert, and can't definitively say whether this referendum will happen or not, in 2015 or in the future, but it seems very possible that within my lifetime, Scotland will secede from the United Kingdom. Just something to think about.

Anyhow, I decided to visit England's northern neighbor, land of haggis and bagpipes, of clans and heather and highlands, for a weekend jaunt with my roommate Jill. To be honest, it was an impulse decision. Jill had planned her solo trip weeks in advance, but easily convinced me to tag along at the last minute - I bought a ticket on the overnight bus two hours before it was scheduled to depart from London Victoria coach station, haphazardly threw some jeans and sweaters in a backpack, and hustled out the front door behind her. It didn't take much, all she had to do was mention the depressingly low number of days we had left in London and I was getting out my credit card. What can I say? I'm easily persuaded when it comes to travel. 

We took a National Express bus overnight (£45 round trip booked in advance, £60 for me) that arrived in Edinburgh at 7:45am. Jill had made a reservation at the Blue Rainbow Aparthotel, which was located less than 500 feet from the Bus Station, I kid you not - so convenient for ditching our bags before walking into town. Ordinarily, I would have read the "Scotland" section of my Rick Steves guidebook ten times before coming, but this time I obviously hadn't and had no idea what to expect. The solution to my dilemma: a free (college kids <3 free) walking tour at 11am. To kill time, we spent several hours finding breakfast and shopping around the Royal Mile in the Old Town. Our big spend was several lambswool scarves by Johnston's from the Highlands Store. 

The Scott Monument, dedicated to Sir Walter Scott. The ferris wheel is part of the Winter Wonderland Christmas set-up. 

Our walking tour was excellent. The company is called New Europe, and they do free 3-hour walking tours in cities across Europe. The tours are generally lead by students, who may be natives or not. If you enjoy the tour, you tip your guide what you believe is appropriate at the end. I had taken one of their tours in Amsterdam and been very impressed. Our guide this time was English, and although he spoke at a speed that any non-native English speaker would have struggled with, I had no difficulty and laughed a lot on the tour. What I like about the New Europe tours is their personality - the guides are knowledgeable and present all of the correct historical information during the tour, but their personality comes through easily as well. The dirty jokes and anecdotes that pepper their commentary makes history stick in a way it otherwise would not. I always leave with plenty of funny "did you knows?" and historical tidbits that could only ever be useful for Quiz Night at the pub or in a heated game of Trivial Pursuit. If you and I ever find ourselves in Edinburgh, you're in for a good time. I'll show you how to spit on the stone heart where the door of the tax office used to be, make you cringe as I explain the cruel humiliation criminals and thiefs were forced to endure as punishment, and entertain you with stories of graveyard ghosts.

We walked past all the major sights in the Old Town - St. Giles' Cathedral, Greyfriars Kirkyard, and Edinburgh Castle to name a few - ending in the West Princes Street Gardens. Both Jill and I wanted to backtrack to the Elephant House for a late lunch, famous as the cafe where J. K. Rowling wrote the first two Harry Potter books. It was doubly exciting for me because elephants are my favorite animals. 

We debated an afternoon activity in the cafe over pizza. The choice between the newly renovated National Museum of Scotland and Edinburgh Castle was difficult, but both closed at 5pm and we had to choose. The Museum of Scotland won because: a) free entry and b) Dolly the cloned sheep. 

By five o'clock, the sky was pitch black - darkness falls so early these days! We walked up the Royal Mile to the Castle but couldn't see much. Rather than doing a pub crawl that night, we decided to relax at our hotel, in relative luxury with a TV that works and dining room table. One stop at Jenners of Edinburgh for souvenirs and one at Sainsburys for food on the way, and we were all set for a perfect girls night. It was sublime to relax with tortellini, ice cream, Glamour magazine, and Bad Teacher. I'm not ashamed to admit that we were both asleep by midnight because we slept so poorly on the bus and because our highlands tour left at 7:45am the following day. I needed a full night of sleep to overcome the lurgy that had been plaguing me all week, but which I had ignored when buying my ticket to Scotland. Judging by my boss' use of the term, I think "lurgy" describes something between a head cold and the flu, but I've heard that it also means cooties. 

The next day was entirely devoted to a full day tour - Monsters, Mountains, and Massacres: Loch Ness, Glen Coe, and the Highlands by the Highland Experience. It was a great value at only £36. Our tour guide was named Kenny, and Kenny liked to play Scottish music and stories on tape in between his narration. Those bits were a nice touch, especially since a good portion of the 12 hour tour was spent in the bus. The first stop in Kilmahog was strictly for coffee and toilets. But we did meet someone very special there - meet Hamish, the Highland Cow (pronounced: Heilan' coo). 

My friend Hamish

We reboarded the bus with some fresh scones and jam (no coffee, for once). The view from our mini-coach on one of the few highways through the mountains, what Kenny referred to as the higgledy piggledy road, was magnificent - moody, saturated with deep blues and greens, with thin silver streams winding down the sides of each mountain. Those prone to motion sickness would have really suffered on this ride - the bus jumped up and down over bumps and rocked side to side through the nonstop turns. Eventually we reached Glen Coe. Glen Coe, the "weeping glen," was the site of the 1692 massacre, which was a horrific abuse of the Scottish tradition of hospitality. If you want the story, you'll have to look it up for yourself!
 The Highlands

 Glen Coe

Between Glen Coe and the next big tourist draw (Loch Ness), Kenny pulled over to show us the ruins of Inverlochy Castle - not the luxury hotel in Fort William of the same name, but the historic Old Inverlochy Castle, a fortress built in the 13th century and abandoned in the mid-17th century.  We climbed around the towers like we were in a playground, peeking through thin windows to see Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK. 

Inside one of the towers
On the way to Fort Augustus and Loch Ness, Kenny tried to convince us all that the Loch Ness Monster was not only real, but was in fact a clever female prehistoric aquatic dinosaur named Nessie. He was devastated when he realized that the majority of the group were non-believers,  even threatening to toss a few people off the bus. Jill believed, however, and was determined to find the "puppy" hiding in the long, deep lake. 


The sun faded early again, leaving us in darkness by late afternoon. Kenny made another unexpected stop in the forest alongside the highway, allowing us to stretch our legs on a hike up to a loud river crashing down the side of the hills. And he surprised us once more with a stop by Loch Oich to see the haunted Well of the Seven Heads. He really was a great tour guide, engaging, experienced, and intent on us getting the best experience time and daylight allowed.  

Loch Oich - I love the mossy wooden piers being swallowed by the lake.

There is only one thing I would have changed on the tour, and Jill would agree with me on this - I would have enjoyed an earlier stop in Pitlochry. The tour stopped there for coffee and restrooms before the the last stretch of road back to Edinburgh. The shops looked really adorable and unique, and from the prices in the window displays seemed affordable, but by the time we arrived (around 6pm on a Saturday) they had all closed. 

For dinner in Edinburgh, we chose a comfortable pub in Hunter Square called the Advocate: salmon and red pepper skewers with rose wine for me, pie and Staropramen for Jill. The ride on the overnight bus back to London was not without problems - for instance, we woke up freezing when the heat broke down around two in the morning, forcing us to huddle inside a rest stop for close to an hour while the mechanic tinkered with it. Thankfully, I slept through the remainder of the journey and woke up back in my beloved London, and all was well again. 
Monday was a special day for two reasons: chicken parmesan and chocolate chip cookies. Just kidding, we'll count the food as one reason and I'll admit that the other was the chef - a young man in our program named Kevin. Some of the students on this program live a bit further out, all the way in zone 3 (gasp!). Yesterday was the first time I made the journey out, away from the familiarity of the inner zones 1 and 2, and the reason was that Kevin had offered to cook for my roommates and I. 

Now, I have not been so unlucky in life as to have never been cooked for - I won't forget the hand made ravioli and summer salad my close friend prepared last August, and I'll be appreciative for even a sandwich or a bowl of ice cream if you make it especially for me - but this was special because I was able to relax on the sofa with music, a glass of wine, and my girl friends while this handsome young man cooked us comfort food. The bar has been raised. If you were planning on becoming my friend, I just hope you have a solid Italian meal in your repertoire (and at least one dessert). 

And speaking of dessert, we were all surprised when another handsome young man living on the floor below popped in with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies!! One day you can't convince a guy to share his french fries and the next you can't even finish all the delicious food being laid out in front of you. I hope it never ends... because let's be honest - there's something sexy about a man who can cook a meal with no supervision. 

Sadly, I have no evidence like photographs to prove that this really happened. However I did get the chocolate chip cookie recipe to share with you, though sharing is the last thing you'll want to do after tasting one...


2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup (two sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 2/3 cups (16 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt, and baking powder together. Set aside. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugars together with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Add eggs one at a time, beating until incorporated, then beat in vanilla. 
Add half the flour mix and mix for 15 seconds, then add the rest of it and beat until incorporated. Using a spatula or wooden spoon, fold in the chocolate chips. Cover bowl and refrigerate for 6 hours (or, if you're impatient, you can skip this part without ruining the cookies). Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Bake for 12 to 14 minutes. 


My mom lived in Vienna during her junior year of college, and I've wanted to go since I found out. I love studying abroad (obviously), and I liked the idea of sharing that with her. I guess I wanted to feel connected in that way, retracing my mother's footsteps in a foreign city.

Everything that I knew about Vienna before going I had learned in school - Vienna as the seat of the Hapsburg dynasty and the capital of the Holy Roman Empire... Vienna as the home of Sigmund Freud... Vienna as the cultural, economic, and political center of Austria. I knew that Vienna was on the Danube river, and that many great classical musicians have lived and worked there. 

I booked my trip with Amy H., roommate extraordinaire, and I couldn't have chosen a more suitable travel buddy to explore Vienna with. Amy appreciates classical music and modern art, and Vienna is the place to discover these things. I fell in love with both. 

Amy used her Hostelling International membership to find the Jugendherbergen Wien on Myrthengasse, affordable at €36 for two nights and only a ten minute walk from the Museums Quartier. We stayed in a clean four-person female dorm with a shower, and breakfast was included. 

After checking in on Saturday afternoon we walked towards center city, between the identical off-white museum buildings at Maria-Theresien-Platz to Heldenplatz where we stumbled into some sort of military festival. It was an unexpected but lucky discovery. Amy tried a Wiener Schnitzel (sausage), and we both sampled generous cups of glühwein (warm red wine spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla). The glühwein was fantastic - like alcoholic apple cider - it warmed and revitalized us in more ways than one! 

 Festival at Heldenplatz; statue of Archduke Charles of Austria; Rathaus in the background


From Heldenplatz, we continued down Kohlmarket past the posh shops selling artisan chocolate, fine jewelry, and traditional clothing like dirndls and lederhosen. Turning right at Graben we were stunned at the sight of the buildings. Over the weekend, I really came to appreciate the spectacular architecture and urban planning of Vienna. At the end of the wide pedestrian boulevard was St. Stephen's Cathedral. The roof tiling was an attractive aspect of the church, and I was immediately struck by the similarities with the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The inside was beautiful, but more importantly warm! We only stayed for a few minutes because a mass was about to begin. 

Walking down the Graben boulevard

Amy with Stephensdom

Dinner that night was gulaschsuppe, a thick salty beef and vegetable soup served with a large roll. [Vienna is an expensive city, and Amy and I quickly learned that soup is usually one of the cheapest things on the menu and very filling, especially when served with bread.] The restaurant was L. Heiner on upscale Karntnerstrasse. 

We wound our way home through the Old Town. Although the shops were closed for the night, you could still look into them and see shopkeepers bent over books, possibly recording their sales for the day. There was something romantic about the warmth of the light inside and the old-fashioned technique of accounts kept by hand. We decided to explore the city at night, but first we stopped at Cafe Raimund for hot drinks. In other circumstances, I might have found the ridiculously large chandeliers, the lace curtains, and the red cushioned chairs with a leather bank and velvet back to be gaudy. In Vienna, it seemed appropriate and even atmospheric. A ten minute walk lead us towards government buildings such as the classical-style Parliament and the gothic-style city hall, or Rathaus. Both were illuminated, and seeing those majestic buildings deserted at night only added to the illusion of being in a city from another time.

Sunday was all about music and art, and plenty of it! First on our agenda was a Catholic mass at the Hofburgkapelle, where the Vienna Boys Choir would be performing. In fact, the choir has been performing at the Hofburgkapelle, the Chapel of the Imperial Palace, since 1498. The concert is free to attend if you didn't mind standing at the back of the small chapel. The choir was situated on a balcony above the standing room, and the effect of being able to hear but not see the voices of so many talented 10- to 14-year-olds echoing through the chapel was ethereal. 

Souvenir shopping

Our next destination was a must-see for Amy, and though I was indifferent about going, I did find the Mozarthaus interesting. From the museum, located behind St. Stephen's Cathedral, we hurried to the famous Ankeruhr clock in Hoher Markt, the oldest square in Vienna. Every day at noon twelve figures parade across the face of the clock accompanied by music. I was not prepared for the length of the event - I was expecting a quick three-minute song, but it dragged on much longer than that. We left once we had seen each of the figures, not wanting to wait for the end.  

See how slow it moves?

Sunday afternoon was rainy, but we didn't mind - we were headed indoors to the Leopold Museum. The cafe in the museum complex was lively and inviting, and we settled in for pumpkin soup with organic wholemeal bread. Again, the cheapest thing on the menu and very filling. It was also a lovely autumn meal. I haven't found pumpkin pie or pumpkin muffins or pumpkin spice lattes yet over here, it was late October, and I was craving something pumpkin! The Leopold Museum is definitely one of my top 3 favorite museums. I have to quote the museum website, because their focus description includes all of the artists that I was so immediately and emotionally taken with:

"In no other museum in Vienna one can get so close to the fabled “Fin de siècle Vienna” and witness the birth of Modernity. The collection shows how the art of the Habsburg Empire changed from strict Historicism and lovely Mood Impressionism within a few years to the worldwide unique “Wiener Moderne” which encompasses Klimt and Schiele as well as Oskar Kokoschka, Richard Gerstl, Koloman Moser and many other artists who are all well represented with major works at the Leopold Museum.
A further focus of the museum is on the Austrian interwar period, which brought out many important artists like Albin Egger-Lienz, Anton Kolig and Herbert Boeckl and partly points already in the direction of the second half of the twentieth century. This is why Austrian artists of the post war generation or exceptional works of the nineteenth century by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Friedrich Gauermann, August von Pettenkofen, Anton Romako, Emil Jakob Schindler, Carl Schuch and others are repeatedly presented."
Death and Life by Gustav Klimt was an instant favorite, as well as the entire Secession movement, and I won't forget the impact of Egon Schiele's art on me. Amy and I spent hours and hours at the Leopold, so long in fact that at one point we had to break for hot drinks and cakes at the cafe. I greedily devoured my apfelstrudel, and was only persuasive enough to get one bite of Amy's Sachertorte (dry chocolate cake with apricot jam created by the Sacher Hotel in Vienna). My cafe latte was so rich it tasted like a milkshake. 

Sachertorte and apfelstrudel

It was still raining when the Museum closed and we were forced to leave. We still had one more thing planned for that evening: a concert at Musikverein. According to the unwieldy, outdated guide book that Amy carted with us all over Vienna, the Golden Hall in Musikverein is one of the four acoustically best concert halls in the world. The Concentus Musicus Wien was performing Haydn directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The CMW specializes in historical performances on authentic period instruments. We bought last minute seats on stage for €21. 

Poor quality photo, but at least you can see our perspective from the stage

The symphony orchestra played four movements from different symphonies. The acoustics on stage were sensational. I could feel the steady pulse of the percussion instruments reverberating through the floor and hear the delicate harmony of the violins echoed by the far wall. In the third movement, the flute melody played in my right ear like a suggestion; the french horns bellowed in front of me like a confrontation. Sensational. Another great ending to a fabulous trip!