Monday, August 04, 2014

Fàilte gu Alba - the road to Drochaid a' Bhanna

Our drive from Edinburgh, in the Scottish Lowlands, to Bonar Bridge (Drochaid a' Bhanna in Scottish Gaelic), in the Scottish Highlands (A' Ghàidhealtachd), was one of the best drives we had.  Well, actually, I think the vast majority of our drives were stunning!  But this was our first one and our introduction to the gorgeous landscapes of the Highlands.  Mind you, it takes a while to realize you're entering such a fantastic territory - leaving Edinburgh behind enough takes a while, and during the initial part of the drive I feared that whole road was just going to be uninspiring highways and roundabouts.   Most fortunately, my fears proved dead wrong.

the east coast of Fife

First, we actually headed east, to an area called East Neuk, which simply means East Nook/Corner in Scots, in the coast of the county of Fife (Fìobha), to see some secluded and very picturesque fishing villages. They're pretty small, and we actually missed the one we were aiming at (St Monans) and ended up at at the following one (Pittwenweem) instead!  LOL  But it worked out just perfect.  We parked by a cliff overlooking the sea, walked a path towards the village, and simply wandered around the narrow and quiet streets.  That's what you call a charming, relaxing, cute pit stop. 

We then headed to see another one of these coastal villages, Anstruther (Ànstruthair), but Pittenweem had been a really pretty walk, we were itching to get to St Andrews (Cill Rìmhinn), and we were a bit worried about finishing the day's drive before nightfall, so we just had a very short walk and nary a pic worth sharing.  Ah, but our next coastal stop, St Andrews?  Wow.  Oh my, what a surprise!  We started by the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral.  We've all seen ruins aplenty, right?  But it's not often that you start mentally connecting the dots (or, in this case, the arches, the column bases...) and suddenly have the majesty and sheer size of a place dawn on you!  This was medieval Scotland's most important catholic centre.  This is basically the biggest church ever built in Scotland.  And ruined as it is, it really shows.     

The views from below were stunning.  And the views of the cathedral, the town and the sea from atop the Rules Tower were, unsurprisingly, equally inspiring (and a welcome rest from the tight climb up the tower!).

We kept walking around, awestruck.  We entered a museum where we were lucky to see a capital (the top part of a column) still showing its original colours - red, green, yellow... It's so hard to reimagine these buildings not as massive grey temples but as colourful ones, eh?

Anyhow.  St Andrews has not only its cathedral (but, if that were all it had, it would still be more than enough to warrant a visit) but, naturally (this being Scotland and all), a castle.  Like many medieval castle ruins, we enjoyed more looking at it from a distance or from specific angles than exploring it inside.   Like plenty of castles around, this one had snatched a location with a view, on a promontory with the town on one side and the North Sea on the other...   

Were that not enough (ha! as if!), we walked the town (and I so wish we had had more time! it looked gorgeous!) and came across Jannettas, apparently ultra famous for their ice cream (with the corresponding unbearably long line-up), but where I could have a solid, tasty vegan meal!   In an Italian gelateria in St Andrews of all places!

From St Andrews unto the Highlands it was, simply put, disbelief and bliss.

the lands of the Gaels

The Scottish Highlands (or lands of the Gaels, A' Ghàidhealtachd, in Scottish Gaelic) are, most probably, the best thing Scotland's got.  Well, in mu humble opinion, that is.  Besides Iceland (and sorry, but Iceland is always first in my heart), nowhere else have I enjoyed driving around so much!

I mean, how's this for an introductory ascent to the Highlands?  Granted, the perfect weather we enjoyed played a big part.  But still!  I swear, the water was that colour!  

And you know what makes driving in the Highlands (at least around the less travelled areas) so amazing? Single track roads!  I figure some may cringe at the idea of a single track road.  "But what about oncoming traffic??!!"  But think:  though the speed limit can reach 60mph, the small roads and curves pretty much keep you at 40mph or less, so you get to enjoy the views at a much more leisurely pace.   Additionally, there are countless "passing places".  Since the roads are really just wide enough for one car, they've extended the road at numerous points so you can pull to the side and let someone pass.  Obviously, that's what allows circulation.  But it also allows for... endless photo opportunities!  

That being said... I was so taken by the scenery, and so surprised by the roads we were taking (it really felt like we were driving to the end of the world at times) that on this one drive I didn't take advantage of the passing places as I should have.  Until we suddenly emerged unto this loch to cross a bridge, and I most definitely had to stop! It was, to me at least, a bit magical - the sunset light and the low height of the bridge made it look as if it were a simple line simply floating just over the water, a pass to a mysterious land beyond...

And then we started climbing again.  And descending again.  Narrow roads, green valleys, low clouds, sunset colours, silvery water... Too good.  Too abundant.  Too gorgeous.

Until we finally made it to Bonar Bridge (Drochaid a' Bhanna), a small, quaint town by an estuary, the Kyle of Sutherland (or An Caol Catach) which, by the way, marks the beginning of the county of Sutherland.

We checked in quickly at our Bed & Breakfast, Monach House, and darted off to the pub next door... we hadn't eaten since St Andrews!   Of course, pub fare on a Sunday night in a small Sutherland town was rather limited - a local dark brew, peanuts, and potato chips.   Well, much better than absolutely nothing, for sure!

That should've been the end of the day.  Except that, in exchange for that late arrival and chips and peanuts for dinner, we saw an amazing, amaaazing sunset.  And this was past 10pm, you know? I love northern sunsets!   The clouds were just right, the water reflected the light beautifully, the sun was setting at the perfect angle... My pics here reflect in the poorest of ways what a special sunset that was.

Now, that would've definitely been the end of this day's story.  Except that our hosts were absolutely adorable and had left us in our room two little bottles of wine and a greeting card congratulating us for our anniversary!   Wow. Now our day was perfect.  And this was just the beginning of our Highlands adventure!  And we had plenty of plans for the next day, the north looked so promising and exciting!

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