You take the high road and I’ll take the low road….

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Scotland is a “Sunday drive” in all directions. This is one gorgeously green country filled with castles and lochs (we were told never to call these bodies of water, lakes….it would insult the Scottish).

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Yet another Castle

We drove out of Edinburgh last week and headed north to see a bit of the countryside. St Andrews was our first stop. This golf mecca and university town was bustling with holiday makers,  most with 5 irons flung over their shoulders but bathed in sunshine and with a crowded beach, this place was very picturesque.

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St Andrews

We based ourselves in Cove Bay, just south of Aberdeen, for two days, as we explored the northeast coast. We were lucky enough to attend the 122nd Dufftown Highland Games. The local park was teaming with competitors for the highland dancing, the shot put, tug of war, and the 12 pipe bands that played en mass into the field as the villages (and us) followed behind.

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Then we headed to Inverness, the most northly city in our entire holiday. After driving through the highlands behind Balmoral and through the Cairngorm Mountains, we needed a break from the car. Hiring bikes in Inverness, we spent half a day cycling beside the beginning of  Thomas Telfords wonderous Caledonian Canal. One of those engineering wonders of the world that make it possible to travel the 97km from Inverness in the northeast to Corpach in the southwest, through four Lochs and 29 locks. We also did the tourist thing and searched for Nessie on Lock Ness.

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Inverness

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Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle

Driving south, rimming the lochs and then Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles, our next point of call was Oban. We made a side trip to Glenfinnan with its magnificent and famous (a la Harry Potter) viaduct and the memorial that overlooks Loch Shiel.

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Another day out of the car was warranted when we caught the ferry over to Mull and a rather interesting bus trip to the ferry to Iona. Mull is the second largest of the inner Hebrides. It has mostly single laned roads making it a bit of a hairy ride when it is full of tourist buses. Iona is also famous for its burial ground of Scottish,  Norwegian and Irish kings but again, when the tourists leave, is a very tranquil and peaceful isle.

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On Iona looking towards Mull

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Oban

This leaves us with todays journey, past the mist covered Loch Lomand and the Trossachs National Park, to the town of Perth. We have been lucky with the weather but in the last few days, our umbrellas have been a necessary apparel.

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Tomorrow we return the car to Edinburgh and catch the train to Glasgow. So begins our trip to the Commonwealth Games as they end on Sunday night. Watch for us at the Athletics on Friday night and the Closing Ceremony on Sunday night. We’ll be the ones with the umbrellas!

Scotland the Brave…

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The lilt of the Scottish accent was a welcome relief to my ears that had only strained under the sound of European gobbledygook for the past two months. I was now in the land of understanding- well most of the time. We have been told that the Scottish language gets “thicker” the further north we travel.

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Found on the Parliment building wall.

For the past four days we have enjoyed the sights and sounds of Edinburgh, the grand capital of Scotland. The weather has been glorious with the fresh, cool and foggy mornings burning off into blue skies and sunshine by 11am. Probably cool for us but approaching heat wave conditions for the locals when the temperatures climb over 24 degrees.

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Arthur's seat.

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Cowgate

We are staying in a one bedroom flat at the bottom of the Royal Mile, across the road from The Palace of Holyrood,  the Queens official residence in Scotland,  and around the corner from the new Parliament building. Not bad neighbours especially as we had three days of around the clock police guards outside our window- not for us- for Prince Charles and Camilla who were staying at the Castle for a few days. Initially I was told that it was Prince Phillip but after touring the castle this morning,  I have been corrected.  The Castle by the way is full of thick, heavy tapestries and dark, elaborately decorative furnishings (unfortunately not allowed to take photos in the Castle). Behind the castle is the 12th century roofless abbey which was ethereal shroaded in morning fog.

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The Palace of Holyrood with our flat in the front.

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It has been a right royal tour for us as we have also visited the majestic Edinburgh Castle (we were captivated by the Stone of Destiny) and The Royal Yacht Britannia, which has been moored in Leith since being decommissioned in 1997. Britannia was particularly stunning and spectacular in its grandness. Billed as UK’s No.1 tourist attraction and steeped in history, she did not disappoint.

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Edinburgh Castle

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The New town taken from Edinburgh Castle

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There is even a Dog Cemetery at the Castle

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Tomorrow we leave the big city to travel north. The highlands and islands beckon. I only hope we will be able to understand the local bravehearts!

I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike…. (Queen)

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We completed our 323km ride from Belgium to the Netherlands on Friday with a hectic ride through Amsterdam. We had been happily cruising around along country bike ways for the past week with occasional small town stops for coffee and speculaas (dutch biscuits). Arriving in the  dutch capital, we had been warned to be assertive with our cycling and take extreme care with cars, trams and other cyclists. Unlike in the smaller towns where cars would stop for the fifteen of us to cross, this wasn’t going to happen here. This is a big city, clogged with tourists and canals.

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Our group

We cycled up to the top of the largest bike park I had ever seen. Apparently there are over 3000 bikes parked here near the train station and that is not including the bikes chained around this park.

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We departed the good ship, the Zwaan on Saturday and have spent the weekend living like locals in a forth story loft apartment. We have seen a few of the sights including the Van Gogh Museum; strolled through Vondelpark; taken a canal cruise; consumed a cocktail in The House of Bol; quick stepped through the Red Light District; enjoyed the flower market; admired the view from the Public Library; and wandered the canal-lined streets of this bustling city.

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More importantly,  we had seven glorious hours with Chloe. It was great seeing her again (mid-tour for her). The day was unseasonably hot at 34 degrees, so we stopped at plenty of places for refreshments- The House of Bols was a favorite. We also spent some time shopping for shoes as she had just broken her sandals on the way to meeting us- such a Chloe thing to do. We finished the day with a great dinner at the local restaurant across from our apartment. Crossing our fingers, we may have another chance of seeing her in Paris just before we fly home.

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So we leave mainland Europe tomorrow to cross the ditch to Scotland. From Euro to the Pound we continue our holiday…och aye!

Riding along on a push bike honey… (The Mixtures)

Time to check in again 🙂

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We are more than half way through our bike and barge holiday which started in Bruges on Saturday. My preparation of this Belgium town included watching the black comedy “In Bruges” on the plane into Brussels and the train into the town.  So I knew about the Belfrey tower and was on the lookout for Irish hitmen~ Shoot now, sightsee later! (You have to watch the movie). What we saw was a beautiful medieval town that was stunning at every corner. The weather was overcast and drizzling but that didn’t dampen the wow factor that makes this town so special. We took a horse and carriage ride which is both romantic and a fantastic way to see the sights as the horse clip cloped around on the cobblestone streets.

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The Belfrey in Bruges.

On Saturday we boarded the barge, the Zwaan, to begin our week long bike and barge tour. There are 14 of us on the tour – 5 Aussies, 2 Poms, 2 Scots, 2 Canadians and 3 French, ranging in ages from 10 to 70. The first afternoon we cycled 30km through the Belgium countryside at a manageable pace averaging 15-20km per hour and finding no weakest link – just happy to cruise rather than race along. The crew consists of a captain, chef, cycle guide and ” the do – everything-else ” girl- the hostess.

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We have cycled along canals; toured at the occasional castle; stopped traffic in bustling cities; all the while being educated on the history of the region by our over enthusiastic dutch cycle guide, Hugo. He is extremely passionate and animated in his discussions as he tries to explain everything in first English then French to us. Even though Belgium is rich in history it has only gained its independence in 1830! A new old country!

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Ghent.

The riding has been fantastically flat and mostly with the wind behind us, except for the second day when it didn’t just rain, it poured on us. Like drowned rats we were all grateful to see the barge and have a hot shower after our 50km day. One town local even came up to us and remarked how brave we were out riding in this weather – we thought brave may have been mis-translated into stupid!

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I really was surprised at how beautiful Antwerp was. Famous for its diamond trading quarter, it has a remarkable old town square and Cathedral.

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We cycled into The Netherlands yesterday as we continue to pass canals, farmlands, quaint villages and now windmills.There appears to be  many more locals on bikes here enjoying the summer sunshine as they cruise around the countryside.

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Only two days to go now and then we arrive in Amsterdam. Chloe will be on a tour here and has a four hour window to meet us- I can’t wait to see her again.

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At Antwerp.

Cool clear water…. (Joni Mitchell)

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The castle at Malcesine, Lake Garda.

Water has predominated our travel for the last 6 days. I shed a tear saying goodbye to everyone at our Tuscan Villa as Michael and I headed north bu still in Italy.
Verona was our first stop as we put on our posh clothes and went to the Opera at the magnificent Arena. This open air amphitheater, first built in 30 AD, has been staging the best of the italian Opera’s for the past 101 years and staying true to its unamplified form, was spectacular. We marvelled at Puccini’s Turandot as a cast of hundreds filled the stage.

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Juliette and her shiny right breast which is rubbed for luck in love!

The next day, still humming Nessun Dorma (no one sleeps!), we caught the train to the dramatic destination of Venice. This being our first visit, we followed our own walking tour (ah la Rick Steves “Three walks in Venice”) and got lost in the back streets of the canal city. At least we were away from the crowds. Alas with guide maps and an inate sense of direction, we found our way back to the Santa Lucia train station and back to our bed in Verona.

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A place to reflect.

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Venice traffic jam

On Monday we discovered the many charms ofLake Garda,  the largest of Italys lakes and a little less crowded than the others. Forget NZ’s Queenstown as an adventure capital as Lake Garda is loaded with so many sports to try. You can rock climb,  mountain bike, hike, go caving and ski and that is before all the water related activities that the lake provides. For the more sedately traveller, there are the ferries that meander up and down the lake to deliver you to quant little lake side villages where, if you are lucky, you can escape the tourist crowd and watch the world go by gazing out over the water. Our bed for two nights rested in the northern village of Riva del Garda beside the 13th century Torre Apponale, a medieval belfry which chimed every 15min outside our balcony room. I believe most of Germany were on holiday here (those who couldn’t afford to go to Brazil anyway) as the town erupted when they beat Brazil in the World Cup semifinals.

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Our Hotel Sole and the Torre Apponale.

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Approaching Limone.

Lastly we have spent the past two days in the town Como on the southern banks of Lake Como. No George Clooney I’m afraid but plenty of other attractions on our lake cruise up to Bellagio for the day.

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Como

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Back streets of Bellagio

So now it is arrividerci Italia as we travel west to Belgium tomorrow to begin our week long bike and barge tour. Lets face it~  I am the Ever Ready bunny!

Celebrate good times….(KC and the Sunshine Band)

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For the past week, I have been surrounded by family and friends in a Tuscan villa- life is so good! After a year and a half in the planning, 11 of us gathered in a 7 bedroom villa at Barbarino Val D’Elsa to celebrate my 50th birthday. Tania and Murray extended the joy by getting married here as well.

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Our welcome dinner.

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View from the villa

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View from the pool.

We have learnt about the Palio by going on a tour of the Caterpillar contrada in Siena conducted by the author Dario Costagno. Everyone was then well educated when we watched this horse race on Wednesday and cheered on the victorious Dragon contrada.

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The crowd at the horse allocation at the Palio.

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We had a day in Cinque Terre walking on the only path still open for tourists between Monterosso and Vernazza.  The other paths are still closed due to the landslides back in October 2011.

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Vernazza

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Corniglia

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Michael looking towards Monterosso Al Mare.

We took long drives to towns like Montepulciano,Volterre and San Gimigniagno that perch on hilltops surrounded by vineyards. All are wall-rimmed to defend themselves from the 21st century.

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Montepulciano

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San Gimigniagno

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Walking through Volterre

Thursday was Wedding Day as we drove to a small octagonal chapel in Semifonte with a radiant bride and a nervous groom. The Mayor of Barbarino Val D’Elsa conducted the ceremony whilst we all witnessed the joyous event before returning to the feast that awaited us at the Villa.

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The happy couple

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The rest of us!

And finally today I have had the best birthday celebration by having a Tuscan cooking class with all my family and friends. (Thank you to everyone who sent me birthday wishes). Maria, the villa owner, taught us girls how to make ravioli, tagliatelle and tiramisu. Deliziosso!

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Tomorrow we will travel on different journeys as we either continue on in Europe or return home but we will always remember our wonderful week here in Tuscany. Ciao!

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