Royal Mile

Last week-ish — I don’t remember the exact day (sue me, I’m retired) — Carol and I went out for an afternoon and evening on the Royal Mile. That’s the street that runs from Holyrood Palace, one of the Monarchy’s royal residences, up a long steep hill to Edinburgh Castle. It was typical Scotland “good times” weather, which is to say damp, chilly, and overcast. (At this point I’m sufficiently dialed into the local Weltanschauung that I welcome such weather as a good excuse for investigating pubs.)

We started out with a self-guided tour of Holyrood. I’d like to be able to show you what it looked like inside, but unfortunately the palace is one of those historical sites where you’re not allowed to take pictures. Carol and I speculated it’s probably for security purposes, since the Queen lives there for a short time each year. One doesn’t want terrorists to get ahold of some tourist photos and triangulate the mortar coordinates of Prince Philip’s place setting in the formal dining room. Which could absolutely happen.

So in lieu of visual aids, I’ll describe the palace for you.

I want you to imagine a lofty, square room, with a tall window set in a deep stone embrasure. The interior walls are covered in dark wood paneling, rather resembling Littlefinger’s brothel in Game of Thrones. Throw in a couple very large, faded tapestries; some paintings of people with trowel-shaped faces in Renaissance Fair costumes; and a massive square bed decorated so as to ensure vivid nightmares.

Right. Now read that paragraph over, ten or a dozen times. There you are, you’ve just toured Holyrood Palace.

Yes, yes, I’m joking of course. There was also a dining room.

Every great house needs a murder story, and Holyrood is no exception. In 1566, David Rizzio, faithful private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, was stabbed to death in her presence by henchmen of her husband, Lord Darnley, who was also on hand. Presumably this made dinner conversation awkward between them for some time thereafter. Signage in the palace is unclear as to the motive for the secretary’s murder, though at the time rumors swirled that his typing was execrable and his shorthand even worse. His body was dragged away to Mary’s Outer Chamber, where the blood stains are still visible on the floor, owing to the sixteenth century’s lamentable dearth of effective liquid floor cleaners.

For me, the highlight of my Holyrood visit was seeing the Queen’s Gallery. What I expected to find was a dolorous lineup of portraits of the usual royal suspects; but instead, the gallery was given over entirely to artifacts brought back by Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII), from an expedition to the Indian subcontinent. The precious items were gifts from local potentates. There was no prohibition to photographing them, so see if you can spot them in our extensive and growing Edinburgh Gallery. Hint: they’re nearly all sharp. It is said that you can tell a great deal about someone by the sorts of gifts they give; but in this case it may say more about the recipient and his forbears, that the crown prince came away with enough knives, daggers, and pikes to take on an entire army of private secretaries.

After exhausting all the possibilities of Holyrood, Carol and I ascended the Royal Mile to find a place for dinner and suitable liquid refreshment. And this being Scotland, by “suitable” I obviously mean “whiskey”. I’m not a professional drinker, but a draught of excellent single-malt scotch from the land named after it is something to warm the haggis of any reasonable person, especially on a raw Edinburgh evening.

And since it was to be my birthday present from Carol, we felt we had license to look out a nice place, even if the price was a little beyond our usual guidelines. Despite the chill, there were plenty of people on the streets, window shopping and enjoying the old town vibe. We stopped at several pubs, previewing menus and scouting ambience, before settling on The Whiski Rooms, a cosy place on the Mound. (Crossing the Mile a few blocks down from Edinburgh Castle, the Mound runs down steeply on either side toward the parallel streets below.)

We both opted for a safe food choice with fish and chips, and saved our adventuring for the drinks menu — though the fish turned out to be a bit unusual in its preparation, and quite tasty. With some trepidation for what I was getting into, I ordered a flight of four whiskies. I needn’t have worried: the pours were quite modest and I was able to walk unaided by the time we were ready to settle up. All of the four scotches were excellent, but the Glenfarclas 15 and the Glendronach 18 were the stars.

We left the Whiski Rooms with a lovely feeling of well-being, and strolled the rest of the Mile up to the castle. Looking out from high parking lot over the brightly-lit city below, I felt a real affection for Edinburgh, and a sense of growing familiarity. We have spent time here off and on since last August with our wonderful host Sue, and it has come to feel like a second home.

Turning our faces back down the Mile, we directed our steps through the colorfully-lit streets and into the night.



Flashback: The Charms of Czechia

Taking an astrophysics conference in Prague as our excuse, Carol (the astrophysicist) and I (the average dude) spent several weeks of June and July, 2017, in Czechia.

Based on the experience of a week there, I’d have to declare Prague near the top of my favorite cities list. For one thing, it’s drop-dead gorgeous. If you love Art Deco — and I do — you’ll find a veritable feast for the eyes in many precincts of the city, including the majestic esplanade of Václavské Náměstí. If pastel-hued 18th and 19th century monumental architecture is more your taste, or splendid churches and synogogues, or jaw-dropping squares full of enticing outdoor cafes, Prague will punch your ticket.

Want to talk about food? The city is chock-a-block with reasonably priced restaurants covering cuisines from around the world. Every kind of libation you require is available in plenty, with top-end absinth being a particular strong suit. And if you’re a beer lover, you’ll find the best pilseners in the world on tap for less than a can of soda.


Culturally, Prague is one of the greatest destinations in Europe, and English is widely spoken. Performing arts in the city are world class. History is compellingly on display, in everything from the splendor of the Lobkowicz Palace and St. Vitus Cathedral to the somber eloquence of the Jewish Quarter and cemetery. Museums run the gamut from the encyclopedic (National Museum) to the just plain weird (Torture Museum, Museum of Sex Machines, and Museum of Historical Chamber Pots and Toilets).

Get the full immersion with a stroll through our Czechia gallery »

After Carol’s astro conference was over, we headed out to spend the next two weeks in the Czech hinterland. Czechia made this year’s Conde Nast Traveler list of the world’s ten safest travel destinations; and as you might expect from such a designation, the nation feels everywhere quite welcoming and warm. While the countryside is not spectacular — mostly a landscape of gently rolling hills, forested flats, and quiet rivers — there are towns in each region that are beautiful and historic. One of the most famous of these is Český Krumlov, a stunning little city in South Bohemia with roots going back to the 13th century. A UNESCO World Heritage site flanking the Vltava River, the old city center is adorned with Renaissance and Baroque buildings, all sheltered beneath the diligent overwatch of its medieval castle (visible in the photo at the top of this article).

Another historic town, Kroměříž, was our base while we explored the Moravian (eastern) region of Czechia. The heart of Kroměříž is a lovely, broad square ringed by cafes, restaurants, and boutiques. The old town also hosts high-towered Baroque churches and the Bishop’s Palace with its magnificent gardens. The palace was the location for scenes from both Amadeus and Immortal Beloved.

If, like us, you have a thin tolerance for cold weather, you might want to forego a visit to Czechia in the brutish winter. But if you think your next summer vacation should feature a beautiful, sophisticated, and safe capital city, or historic towns with friendly people and a laid-back vibe — all without breaking the bank — you might want to start booking your accommodations now.

Flashback: The Crags of the Cathars

One of the chief sightseeing delights of southern France is visting the Cathar castles.

The Cathars, also called Albigensians, were a renegade branch of the Christian church in Europe early in the second millenium CE. Though at one time they could be found in many places, including Italy and eastern Europe, the fullest flowering of Cathar religious and architectural expression came in the 13th century in the mountain fastnesses of what is now the French region of Occitanie.

Visiting a Cathar castle always makes for a good cardio workout. Because their faith was more or less constantly under siege from the mainstream church, wealthy Cathar lords built their strongholds high atop the most unapproachable crags they could command. It’s a testament to human will and ingenuity that these fortifications could be built at all. Whether you’re a medieval soldier in chainmail or a tourist lugging a backpack and camera, you’re wheezing by the time you make the outer gates.

During our months living in Reynes, Carol and I explored three extensive castle ruins associated with the Cathars — Queribus, Peyrepertuse, and Montsegur.

Famous among the Cathar castles, Montsegur, seat of the Albigensian faith, is most remembered for the manner of its downfall. After a nine month seige beginning in the spring of 1243, the garrison surrendered to Catholic crusaders dispatched by French religious and civil authorities to crush the heretical movement. Roughly 500 Cathar knights, dependents, servants, and other believers were caught in the crusaders’ net. More than 200 of them refused to renounce their faith and were burned to death in a field at the foot of the mountain, beneath the walls of their erstwhile stronghold.

In the aftermath of the seige, the Cathar fortress was pulled down and few traces of it remain. Later medieval fortifications were built on the site, and it is those ruins that you see when you climb the hill of Montsegur. They are impressive in their own right; but it is also still possible to see foundations and other traces of Cathar dwellings that clustered on the slopes skirting the original castle.

Wander the ruins of Montsegur with Carol and Pip »

When Montsegur fell, many of the survivors fled to the castle of Queribus. Originally constructed in the 10th or 11th century as a Spanish possession, by 1244 it was held by a knight with Cathar sympathies. Ultimately, Queribus in turn fell 11 years later when the residents abandoned it ahead of an attack by the crusaders. It is regarded as the last bastion of the Cathars in France.

Queribus is the smallest of the three castles we visited, and my favorite. Its white bones bleaching atop a lonely eminence, the ruin provides glimpses of a citadel that must have been lovely in its heyday. Because of the confined space on the hilltop, the castle is piled up vertically upon itself; after climbing from the parking lot to the front gate, you continue to ascend the various levels of the site until you reach the top of the keep, earning a spectacular view far down to the valley floor.

Our friend Sherry joins us for an assault on Queribus »

Just visible from Queribus on a clear day, the castle of Peyrepertuse is the most extensive of the Cathar fortresses we explored. It was built in the 11th century by the kings of Aragon, and was never attacked by the crusaders. Instead, it was surrendered voluntarily multiple times between French and Albigensian forces as local allegiences shifted.

Tapering to a point on its narrow ridge, the castle’s curtain wall looks for all the world like a tall ship, cresting the heights like a prow carving the ocean swell. Perhaps because it was spared the deadly strife that afflicted other Cathar strongholds, there is a spirit of peace that infuses Peyrepertuse. You feel it in the warm hue of the stone, the wide-open space of the yard, and the contemplative quiet within the chapel walls.

Tamsyn helps us investigate Peyrepertuse »

Remarkably, the afternoon we visited Peyrepertuse, we ran into our friends Mari and Greg and their son Ayden, who had hosted us months earlier in Toulouse. (In fact, in one of the last pictures in the photo gallery, you can see Greg [light green jacket] and Ayden in the background, seconds before Carol and Tamsyn recognized them.) Together, they numbered about half the people we knew in France at the time.

France. It’s a small place, really.


This past Sunday, Carol and I went to Heidelberg for the day. Straddling the placid Neckar River in Baden-Württemberg, the city hosts one of the most impressive castle ruins in Europe. It has also been a college town since the 14th century, when the excellent Heidelberg University was founded in 1386.  We found the city to be beautiful and bustling, and even—despite the legions of visitors on a sunny weekend—quite gracious.

Have a look at our photos from the trip »

It was also my first real immersion in the German Autobahn experience, which was terrifying  sphincter-twisting  nerve-searing interesting.

The Autobahn comes in two flavors: the kind with speed limits (about half the total Autobahn mileage in Deutschland) and the kind without. Traveling on the latter, which I was for maybe half the trip, I posted a personal record by getting our trusty Skoda Yeti up to about 145. That’s kilometers per hour, mind you, but it was still pretty thrilling for me. Of course, at that speed, I had an unending parade of German and Italian performance cars passing me as if I had brought a golf cart to Daytona. But that’s exactly what those cars are made for. It’s actually kind of fun watching a Lamborghini Gallardo drop you like a bad habit on the Autobahn.

Know what else the Autobahn is good for? Bathrooms.

I’ll probably be talking a lot about bathrooms in this blog, because … well, never you mind why. Let’s just say I’m a 58 year old guy, and keep the HIPAA police happy. If you’re coming from a place like the US, where there’s a free public toilet about every half block, you may find Europe a little … cavalier. But on the Autobahn, blessedly, you’ll get treated to a rest stop about every 10 or 15 miles, just like back home.

Anyway, more on that important subject as time goes by.