I recently travelled for the first time since Covid—a solo trip to Toronto to celebrate my first year of motherhood (in a pandemic no less). It’s been two of both now but Covid got in the way of going earlier.
As someone who attended university in Ottawa, I had been to Toronto a few times on weekend trips and it was fun but not particularly inspiring. The destination of this trip actually wasn’t that important to me. What was more important was having a much-needed getaway (I am inclined to urban spaces) and seeing and staying with an old friend I hadn’t seen in several years.
But the destination surprised me. It was so much older and beautiful than I remembered. I found myself enchanted with all the brick houses, taking picture after picture because they were all so beautiful and different and teeming with character. Coming from the West Coast where our building materials are wood and glass (Douglas Coupland nicknamed Vancouver the “City of Glass,” and it was only incorporated in 1886), there was something comforting about the solidity and permanency of brick. I wish I could call one of these houses mine.
Housing was on my mind as my husband and I had just learned that our landlord was about to sell the beloved house that we rent the top floor of in Vancouver. We’ve been there for three years and were hoping to have been there a lot more. Now we’ll have two months from date of sale to find a new home.
Looking back through my photos of the Art Gallery of Ontario, I noticed how many were paintings of houses and rooftops. Definitely a theme here.
These two women beside each other in the AGO also caught my eye: Saint Anne with the Christ Child (c.1645-1650) by Georges de la Tour on the left and Melancholy (c.1627) by Hendrick ter Brugghen on the right, which purportedly depicts Mary Magdalene. They look like they could have been painted by the same artist. The works share so many similarities: dramatic late-night scenes illuminated by a single candle, two women with downcast eyes thinking and feeling deeply. They face each other, as if they are made to converse about life and death. I wrote a poem about the two women the next day at First & Last Coffee. The weather was delightfully warm enough in early May that I could enjoy their wonderful patio space.
One of my hopes for the trip was to have some quiet time wandering, reflecting, and writing. I headed to Toronto’s Necropolis, because just like Vancouver’s cemetery has inspired many a poem, I thought this picturesque Toronto cemetery could too.
The Necropolis is one of the city’s oldest cemeteries, established in 1850. It sits to the west of the Don Valley Parkway, which is shown in this painting below by William Kurelek that my friend and I saw the day before at the AGO. We spent at least half an hour trying to find the hidden crucifix near the edge of the trees. We gave up and googled it instead.
I also took a pilgrimage to Knife Fork Book, a poetry dispensary located in Capital Espresso on Queen Street and picked up some reading material for later.
As someone drawn to architecture and its endless forms, I found Toronto inspiring after all.
When I posted some of my pictures on Facebook, a friend commented, “Who knew Toronto could be so beautiful?” Indeed, who knew?
And for those curious, I do have a poem in the works that combines my love of Victorian houses with my interest in cemeteries and my surprise appearance in Jack Layton’s Ottawa rental before he was Leader of the Opposition. Strange what memories and alignments a trip might spark and a poem might allow.
Like others earlier this year, my heart leapt about the news of swans and dolphins reclaiming the Venetian Lagoon due to the lack of human activity during Italy’s COVID-19 shutdown. Too good to be true? Yes, as The National Geographic pointed out. It was fake news. Nevertheless, the waters are a lot clearer than they used to be.
Here’s what they looked like three years ago when my husband and I visited. (Click on the National Geographic link above to see what they look like now).
I really wanted to love Venice, but I didn’t. Maybe it was the mist, or the predominant grey, or the fact that I was starting to feel homesick, or the lack of green spaces and the abundance of tourists (and yes, I was one of them), but all of this accumulated to a melancholy that clung to me like water on a dog.
To be fair, when the sun visited for a few minutes, I couldn’t believe how much the city transformed. What was dull and grey seemed to burst into colour and glisten.
Venice was very much alive with tourists, but dead of locals. As a stroller-pushing mother now, I can see why the city isn’t appealing to young families. I wouldn’t want to be running errands while manoeuvring a stroller across narrow cobblestone streets and up and over the many bridges, as beautiful as they are.
Everything costs more in this city of a hundred islands because all items have to be transported from the mainland. Apartments are small, expensive, up many stairs and/or prone to flooding. Maintenance costs alone must be astronomical, not to mention the bureaucratic red tape one needs to navigate to do any repairs while preserving the heritage of the buildings.
Since the city loses about 1000 residents a year, I wonder how long before Venice itself becomes a “fake city”; somewhere you travel to like a theme park, but not somewhere you live.
I hope this is never the case because it would be a loss if Venice was rid of local life (the garbage boats collecting people’s trash; the woman picking up after her dog who shat in a campo) and was flooded with even more striped-shirted gondoliers, brightly-vested tour guides holding up fluorescent flags, smartphone and selfie stick-yielding tourists posing and reposing again until the shot is Instagram perfect.
Intentionally getting lost is one way to avoid the crowds (and just a good idea in general if you’ve got time to spare in a place like this). My husband and I stumbled upon some quiet, empty scenes but they were such a contrast to the “alive” Venice that they felt more eerie than refreshing. It’s as if you have to choose between the carnival Venice of St. Mark’s Square or the ghostlike Venice of back alleys. Can I opt for neither?
My husband and I concluded our UK trip in London, which defied all expectation with sunshine for three days straight! Given this was the last leg of our trip, we lacked the energy to explore many interiors of buildings, but we were both okay with that (this was his first time and my second time in the city).
We stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast in the neighbourhood of Pimlico, just south of Westminster. It was a perfect spot to enjoy a walk along the River Thames towards the Houses of Parliament or catch the tube or bus to other parts of central London.
I like doing walking tours of a city. London is too big to cover in one tour, so we focused on one close to our neighbourhood—Old Westminster by Gaslight offered by London Walks. It was great!
I learned that the two bridges nearby are contrastingly painted green and red to mimic the colours of the two Houses of Parliament (Commons and Lords, respectively).
We walked down a picturesque street featured in the recent Mary Poppins Returns movie (with Emily Blunt) and stood near doors of political intrigue, hobnobbing, and alliances.
As befits its name, gaslight was a big theme of the tour. I forget how many gas lamps there are still in London but this neighbourhood around Parliament has a large concentration of them that are still manually lit.
Another neighbourhood we enjoyed walking around was Bloomsbury. After getting our feet wet in the overwhelmingly massive British Museum, my husband found a bookstore that occupied him for a couple hours and I found a rubber stamp store—Blade Rubber! Turns out they’re the only rubber stamp store in central London. I told the clerks these stores are going by the wayside in Vancouver too, so it was serendipitous to stumble upon one. I naturally bought some rubber stamps to take home for my card-making.
We enjoyed peering at treasures of the written word in The British Library—the first folio of Shakespeare (Henry VI), early editions of the Bible, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Brontë sisters’ tiny cursive to save paper and money, the Magna Carta, The Beatles’ lyrics scribbled on a napkin, and so much more. We were really hoping to catch the Lindisfarne Gospels after our visit to Durham Cathedral but unfortunately, they weren’t on display when we were there.
As art lovers, we did tour the National Gallery one morning and then enjoyed a free lunchtime concert (pianist and violinist) at the adjacent church St. Martin-in-the-Fields, well-known for helping homeless and vulnerable people. This Anglican Church serves a delicious and reasonably priced hot lunch in their crypt!
Moving from sacred to secular, my husband and I had watched Paddingtonbefore taking this trip and fell in love with this orphaned bear. So we made a pit stop to the tube station whom the bear is named after.
Other transit hubs with notable sculptures include King’s Cross Station where there’s always a line-up to don a scarf and pretend you are off to Hogwarts. We didn’t bother waiting in line although my photograph fools you into thinking you can just go right up to it. You can’t. And they take it away after hours.
Connected to King’s Cross Station is the striking St Pancras railway station with a hotel on one side, seen in the image below.
Here are two famous churches we saw from the outside. On our last night, we decided to keep it simple though and enjoyed a low-key picnic dinner in St James’s Park.
What better way to end our vacation? Green grass, blue skies, and a patch of our own to watch Londoners go by.
Thanks for following with me as I’ve toured you through our trip! If you’ve been to any of these places in England and Scotland, let me know what your impressions were and favourite things you did.
This post wraps up our time in Scotland before spending a few days in London where we caught our flight back to Vancouver.
I don’t have too much to say about Inverness. We spent two nights there as a way to break up the road trip from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh. I described it as a workaday city in my journal. Our highlight was browsing this charming used bookstore called Leakey’s that used to be a Gaelic church built in the 17th century.
We also enjoyed walking and crossing the picturesque River Ness on one of the many footbridges and counting all the cathedrals that line the river. The city’s biggest disappointment though is that the prettiest building (the castle at the top of the picture) is actually a courthouse and not worth a visit. But our main focus was driving to the outskirts of the city anyway to do a self-guided whiskey distillery tour (on my husband’s wish list) and to visit the famous Battle of Culloden. You already know what happened after the whiskey distillery tour from my previous post.
Culloden probably holds a lot more significance to Outlander fans as there was paraphernalia of all types in the museum’s gift shop. I’ve never read the books or watched the show, but I still valued learning about this Jacobite uprising in 1745 that resulted in the Highlanders losing a huge part of their population and culture under the English Government (Whigs).
The museum is very thorough, worthy of repeat visits. From a curatorial perspective, it was interesting how the layout of the space made you choose a side to follow from beginning to end—either the Jacobites or the Whigs. Naturally, most visitors chose the Jacobites. Is it because we were in Scotland? Or because it’s human nature to vote for the underdog and defy the Man? Who knows. You could easily go a second time and walk through the other person’s shoes, so to speak. It’s a lot to try and read both sides simultaneously. I credit the museum for including both perspectives and trying to be as unbiased as possible. They addressed the complicated nature of this battle and how, for whatever reasons, some Highlanders chose to fight on the Government side and some English fought with the Highlanders. It reminded me how each event in history is riddled with complications and untidy categories.
The battlefield outside the museum, however, is a little less subtle. This big gravestone shown above commemorates the Jacobites who died. The Government men get no such large memorial, just small stones set in the grass.
I had the good fortune of visiting Edinburgh ten years ago, and in much better weather than my husband and I had this time around. Edinburgh was one of the only places on our 3-week trip where it rained. Luckily we didn’t have a huge list of sights to see as the purpose of going there was to visit my brother and his family who moved there last year.
After a quick visit to the castle, my husband and I explored the Scottish National Gallery housed in a beautiful neoclassical building. We were impressed with the number of works by Scottish painters, many of whom we had never heard of before.
We wandered the winding city streets. I gravitated to photographing those with colour to liven up the grey day.
Since I missed this spot last time, we made sure to grab a bite to eat at the elephant house, where J.K. Rowling wrote the early Harry Potter novels while staring out a corner window towards Edinburgh Castle (thus inspiring the idea for Hogwarts).
The weather cleared up our final day there and so we took a moderately strenuous hike up Arthur’s Seat to enjoy the many views from this extinct volcano.
I also stopped by The Writers’ Museum (a favourite place from 10 years ago) and snapped pics of the evocative quotes etched into the pavement.
The Isle of Skye is a wonderful corner of the world. My husband and I stayed in an old stone farmhouse for 3 nights on the most scenic part of the island—the Trotternish Peninsula.
A car is a must on Skye. The island is a lot bigger than you may think and due to the abundance of single track roads, a car is a lot more manoeuvrable than a bus (my parents went to Skye several months after we did and unfortunately couldn’t see some places because there was no room to park, even though their bus was on the smaller side).
The Trotternish Peninsula is the northern part of the island and contains a bucket list of tourist sites: Kilt Rock, Lealt Gorge and Falls, the Quiraing mountain range including the distinguished rock formation The Old Man of Storr that we climbed to, along with everyone else. The Old Man of Storr was created from an ancient landslide. The word “Quiraing” is Old Norse for “round fold” and apparently was used to conceal cattle from Viking raiders.
It was quite the scramble to actually touch the base of this famous rock. One of us could do it; the other was pregnant and got halfway up before she realized her travel insurance probably wouldn’t cover “rock climbing” and so decided to play it safe and snap pictures instead.
The views along the way overlooking lochs and the islands of Rona and Raasay between Skye and the Highlands of mainland Scotland are stunning. Here’s one of our favourite pics of us with that incredible background.
Even though we didn’t hike the Quiraing, we got to enjoy it every morning and evening from our farmhouse in Flodigarry, the second oldest dwelling in this rural village. I woke up one morning with the sunrise and sat on a grassy nook near sheep and lambs, soaking up the quiet, remote beauty of this place.
The owner and host of our farmhouse was artist Morag Archer who showed us her mixed media collages inspired by this landscape as well as the landscape of memory. She shows her work at the Skyeworks gallery in the main town of Portree, but we bought a small painting off her directly and love looking at it every day from where it hangs in our kitchen.
She talked about how croft houses often appear in her work— those tiny white dwellings especially found in the Highlands. Crofts are units of land (usually about 12 acres) that people share for common grazing, and which were traditionally rented from a landlord. Multiple croft houses exist on this shared land, usually white with thatched roofs like you see in her artwork.
The great thing about staying at a local’s place is learning about hidden gems. Even though we did hit the main sites (see below), we also ventured to Loch Sheanta or “the enchanted loch” because of her. This lake was believed to have holy water that could cure any ill. It was a gentle 15 minute descent to this spot that we had all to ourselves. I’m not going to describe where it is so that it stays hidden and you have to ask a local yourself! (you can probably google search it if you’re really dying to know).
You may have heard about the fairies on Isle of Skye. There are two spots named after them (their role I’m not quite sure of, other than these are places of whimsy and mystery and are thus suited to legends about fairies). According to the Isle of Skye website:
Skye has a long history involving the Fairys, most of which is related to Dunvegan Castle and their ‘Fairy Flag’. The Fairy Glen (much like the Fairy Pools in Glenbrittle) has no real legends or stories involving fairys that can be traced. The simple fact that the location is unusual so it has been given the nickname Fairy Glen.
The Fairy Pools are like a musical crescendo of crystal clear blue pools along the River Brittle. You can cross them, swim in them (though they are extremely cold), walk alongside them, hang out by them. There are so many along the path it wasn’t hard to find a private one to enjoy.
We preferred the lush green, magical landscape of The Fairy Glen full of miniature hills, stone circles, and a rocky outcropping you can climb for a spectacular view. I love how it appeared out of nowhere too—very inconspicuous, hidden among farmland. The rings of stones you can see in the photo isn’t the work of fairies, unfortunately, but tourists who have moved the rocks into circles and have been encouraged by tour guides to leave a coin or token. Locals naturally prefer to keep the setting as is.
On that same Isle of Skye website, I learned more about the rock formation below concealing a cave that my husband and I squeezed through to stand at the top of like these people:
One of the hills still has its basalt topping intact which, from a distance, looks like a ruin and has been called (inexplicably) Castle Ewan. It is possible to climb to the top where there is not much room, but does have wonderful views. In the low cliff behind Castle Ewan there is a very small cave where it has been said pressing coins into cracks in the rock will bring Good Luck.
We arrived on Skye by ferry and left by bridge so we could stop off at what Rick Steves describes as the most photogenic castle—Eileen Donan.
We said goodbye to this enchanted landscape and hopped in our car to the more prosaic town of Inverness. I looked up the word “prosaic” to make sure I was using it right and the dictionary came up with “commonplace, unromantic.” I snicker as I recall car adventure #2 that happened there: our 2nd flat tire, on our actual anniversary, an hour away from Inverness next to nothing but a whiskey distillery that wasn’t open (much to my husband’s chagrin) and me going pee behind some trees off the highway every few minutes because my pregnant bladder required frequent emptying and for dinner, eating granola bars and crackers and whatever other snacks we had in the car while waiting three hours for a tow truck to rescue us. Maybe not commonplace, but yup, definitely unromantic. On the glass half full side, an unforgettable anniversary.
Just as England’s Lake District is full of lakes, so is Scotland. Driving north from Torpenhow to Oban, you pass plenty. After getting through the metropolis of Glasgow, the large Loch Lomond dominates. The cute village of Luss on the western shore makes a great lunch spot.
To our joy, the bluebells continued in Scotland. We pulled off somewhere (sorry, don’t remember the specifics!) to look at some more old stone circles and cairns and came across this delightful oasis.
Our destination was Oban, a small but bustling ferry and train town with a lovely seaside promenade. We used Oban as a launching point to do a day trip to the islands of Mull and Iona.
Below is one of my favourite pictures I took of our whole trip. I love the golden hour when the sun spotlights the earth before sinking into sleep.
Even in May, we learned that it’s important to reserve ferries ahead of time! I guess it must have been our lucky day because thankfully we reached Oban’s ferry terminal before it closed on the night we got in to see if we could book a trip to Mull and Iona the following day. There was one spot left on the ferry and it left at 7:30am. We’ll take it, we said!
And we’re so glad we did.
Mull is one of the Hebrides Islands and it was much bigger than we expected. We took our rental car across on the ferry so we could drive east to west at our own pace. Even though Mull is often overlooked as a “passing through” island on to the more well-known Iona, we could have stayed here for several days. It seemed like a beautiful and remote place to camp.
Mull boasts 480 km of coastline dotted with castles. It also has a whiskey distillery in the northern town of Tobermory—the largest settlement on the island with just over 1000 people. We didn’t make it that far north as we were headed west to catch the passenger ferry to Iona. Here are some examples of the rugged beauty we saw along the single-track road, which hugged the cliff a little too close to my liking at certain points.
On the far side of Mull is the small ferry town of Fionnphort that transports people to Iona, which you can see in the distance below. It’s only about a 10-minute ride and no cars allowed. Interestingly, we did see cars on Iona, so locals must be allowed to get on and off with cars but they thankfully don’t let tourists. It helps preserve the peacefulness of this otherworldly place. I couldn’t get over how vibrant the water looked with so many shades of blue.
The main attraction on Iona is the Abbey, which is still active today and a site for many Christian pilgrims. It’s not hard to see why people love travelling here (on the far right of the above pic).
Iona is famous as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. In 563, Columba came over from Ireland and established this monastery. He is said to have written on top of this mound that I took the above picture from. The Book of Kells (or Book of Columba, an extravagantly illuminated Gospel manuscript) is believed to have been written by monks on this island. The book is now housed in Ireland.
We had a few hours roaming this island on foot but could have used more! After visiting the Abbey and having a lovely lunch in a garden, we walked to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean. How could you not be intrigued with a name like that? It’s called that because the next westward stop is North America. Pretty cool.
Ah, the picture of peace and privacy. So thankful the stars aligned to make this day trip happen because as you can see, we couldn’t have picked a more beautiful day to do it!