Sunday, July 22, 2012

so you're going to visit anstruther

Today's soundtrack:
"Unicorn Loves Deer" by Alamo Race Track

I may have mentioned that we get a fair few guests here in the Ivory Tower.  At last count we've had 18 or 20 people visit in just over one year.  Some of those visits were short one- or two-nighters, while others felt too damned short at a mere 2 1/2 weeks (BFF!).  Most folks, when they come to stay with us, have plans to head for the highlands as soon as humanly possible.  And why not?  The highlands are beautiful, stunning, and everything you ever thought they were, but with way more sheep than you imagined.

But there's an undeniable charm to this little corner of Fife, a corner often passed through on the way to somewhere more interesting.  Well, if you're lucky and/or clever enough to spend more than just a few hours driving in and around Anstruther, your own transplanted Canadian has compiled a list of places you should visit.  NB: copious amounts of ale were consumed during the research of this blog.  All part of the superior service you've come to expect from the folks here at The Spaniard and the Edwardian.

1) The Anstruther Fish Bar.

Now, the Spaniard prefers The Wee Chippy, but in my opinion the best fish and chips to be had are at the Anstruther Fish Bar.  But be warned, when you order a fish supper, they give you the entire fish.  And a haddock is not a particularly tiny fish.  So, if you're anything like me, order the children's fish supper.  It's half a haddock and chips, which is still a lot, but leaves enough room for Brattesani Ice Cream (also served at the restaurant).  Priorities, people.

2) The Dreel Tavern.

In Anster Wester, this pub has some of the best atmosphere in town (a close runner-up being the Ship Tavern in Anster Easter) as well as the best ales.  There's a new addition out back, but the main part of the pub is still in the same 17th-century building its been in... well... since the 17th century.  Skip beer with dinner at the Anstruther Fish Bar.  Instead, pop over for a pint of the Flying Scotsman.  Or Ossian.  Or any real ale on tap.

3) The Isle of May.

Okay, it's not exactly in the East Neuk, but it's only accessible from here so it goes on the list.  The May Princess (if you're a student, show your ID and get the concession rate) runs a tour out to the Isle of May, which is a National Nature Reserve.  Just make sure to email a day or two in advance to reserve a spot on the boat.  While we tourists can only pop onto the island of a few hours at a time, the researchers that live there during the spring and summer keep a great blog full of all the comings and goings of the various flora and fauna.  Just keep an eye out for ornery terns.  And wear a hat.

4) The Coastal Path.

Also not exactly in Anstruther, but accessible from it.  In fact, the path runs right through the town.. and every other town on the East Neuk.  From Cellardyke, it's a lovely 3 mile walk to Crail, past pigs (and piglets!), sheep, goats, and a few rather crotchety cows.  Once in Crail, stop off at Maggies on High Street for some good, non-touristy fare.  A walk from Anster Wester leaves you in Pittenweem after about a mile, which is just long enough to justify stopping at the Cocoa Tree for a hot chocolate.  If it's your first time at the Cocoa Tree, try either the white chocolate hot chocolate or the caliente hot chocolate.  Remember, you just walked a mile, and it's a mile back to Anstruther, so you might as well have that slice of chocolate cake, too.

If you walk this with the Spaniard, be forewarned:  there are snails and Miguel waxes very nostalgic about his Tía Carmina's caracoles in spicy hot sauce.  He's even threatened to go out snail-hunting (is it really a hunt, though?  They don't move very fast and no weapons are needed.  More like snail-picking, really), but I've already told him there's no way I'm eating caracoles.  Never going to happen.

5) The Haven.

I cannot forget to mention the local.  Good food, good beer, and lovely people.  I cannot yet vouch for their chowder (a smoked haddock and leek concoction), which isn't a true cullen skink as I understand it, but everything else I've ever eaten there has been pretty tasty.

6) Cambo Gardens.

Something the Lady J would love.  There's a stunning walled garden with a little bit of everything and more varieties of roses than I ever thought possible.  There's even a lovely little stream (or a wee burn), a bridge, and a weeping willow.  Or birch.  See, I clearly needed Lady J to help me out.  Stop off in the little cafe for some decent soup and sandwiches.  True, it's a bit of a jaunt from Anstruther by bike, but it's easily accessible on the 95 bus.

7) Kingdom Route #2.

Yes, it's a dead sexy name for a 19 mile cycling route that travels inland from Anstruther, looping around the Secret Bunker, before returning back to Cellardyke and the coast.  Comprised almost completely of relatively empty country roads, the route takes you past highland cows, Kellie Castle, fields of canola, a sleeply little hamlet or two, the odd pheasant, and miles of gorse and broom (sorry Mom!).  While there's not a lot of traffic, the cars on the road do seem determined to break some sort of landspeed record, so use your better judgement.

8) Fence Collective.

While not usually publicized on their website, there's usually some sort of Fence thing happening in and around the East Neuk.  Keep an eye on the local bulletin board - a set of doors near the Anstruther Fish Bar, plastered with posters of events.  Last week, King Creosote played over at the Ship Tavern.  This week, there's another Fence-related gig over at the Anster Wester Hall.  On August 9th, it's the Anster Mustered right in the harbour (well, not in the harbour, as that would pose a serious electrical risk, but on the middle pier).  There's open-mic nights all over town, including at the Haven, and, if you time it right, you can sometimes hear some of the Collective practicing from their rehearsal flat/office on Dove Street in Cellardyke.

9) La Petite Epicerie.

It's easy to forget the longstanding links of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France.  After all, Mary Queen of Scots spent a fair bit of her life over there, and her mother - Marie de Guise - was French.  And there are more than a few French loanwords present in Scots (garde l'eau - the warning when something liquid is about to get flung out the window - became gardyloo)  And what better pretext do you need to stock up on cheeses, hams, pates, and quiches?  The shop is run by a kind and very patient couple who clearly have a real passion for good food.  If you ask them, they'll even help you do up a picnic basket.  Then simply jump on your bike, find a nice secluded bit of a farmland overlooking the sea and enjoy your bit of France in Scotland.  Watch out for greedy seagulls.  They have no shame.

There's a number of things not on this list simply because we've not done them yet.  Kellie Castle, the Scottish Fisheries Museum, St. Andrews Cheese Company, and high tea at the Bakehouse have all been highly recommended, but we've just not had the chance to visit yet.

If you have any suggestions as to what the Spaniard and I should visit here in the East Neuk, let us know!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

suspiciously quiet

Today's soundtrack:
Unicorn Loves Deer by Alamo Race Track
What I Learned From the Gaels by King Creosote
Kiss Each Other Clean by Iron & Wine

Even though the East Neuk is full of tourists, it's suspiciously quiet at this end of Cellardyke.  For the first time in about a month, the Spaniard and I are guestless.  Being not the most morning of people, I'm relishing the ability to sleep in a little later and to not have to share the pot of coffee, but I do miss having other people to talk to.  After all, talking to yourself gets boring after an hour or two and I think my neighbours could do without me singing along to Alamo Race Track's "Unicorn Loves Deer" ("Deer loves unicorn!").  So when I noticed that local-musician-that-you-should-have-heard-of-by-now King Creosote was due to play at the Ship Tavern on Friday night, I corralled Miguel, told him to find grab the other Canadian on the street (yes, we're taking over.  Slowly, and politely, but still) and I tracked down Ian-formerly-of-Crail-now-of-Cellardyke-once-again for a night out.

Three days earlier I'd been feeling a bit sorry for myself.  A little isolated and probably more than a little homesick for Canada.  Not that I wanted to be back in Canada, but to have that feeling of effortless belonging to a place.  No matter how much I love living in the East Neuk, as soon as I open my mouth I'm marked as from away.  Not that our neighbours aren't fantastic, because they are simply wonderful.  But they have their own lives, jobs, families and you can't just hijack that.  Must make your own way.  Add to that a near epic degree of social awkwardness and it becomes rather difficult to break into the community in any meaningful way. 

Or so I thought.

But Friday night at the Ship Tavern I ran into a few now familiar faces.  A few pints, one traditional (albeit vegetarian) pie for the new Canadian (beats getting screeched in), and a frankly amazing set later, all that self-pitying ridiculousness disappeared.  I didn't take any photos because I was a little bit too busy bopping about (there may have also been some drinking), but there were I don't know how many of us crammed into the back room of the Ship and King Creosote et al did not disappoint (also, Guido, great cover of "Running to Stand Still").  I am, at least temporarily, reconciled to being clearly from away.

Saturday morning was, predictably, suspiciously quiet again.  A greasy breakfast fry-up and a healthy dose of tea was not enough to stop the crabbit.  Thank the gods we're visitor-free this weekend.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

over the sea to skye

Today's soundtrack:
Queen of Denmark by John Grant

Last week, BFF Lindsay and I traveled up to the Isle of Skye.  While I'm keen to see anything and everything in Scotland, Skye was a particular interest for Lindsay because the wee peninsula of Sleat was home to her ancestors.  So we rented a car, booked a B&B, and drove west.  Mostly.  

Diversions were inevitable, if not predictable.  Being an avowed Monty Python fan, convincing her to take a detour down to Doune Castle didn't take too much work.  

Re-enactments were also inevitable.

Doune Castle, aside from having a lovely 14th-century courtyard,...

... gave us an excellent chance to measure the airspeed of an unladen swallow.  Not sure if it's African or not.

After Doune Castle, we looped around Loch Lomond.  Apparently, this is the part of Argyll that my grandmother's family originally hailed from... although I don't know how recently any of her MacArthurs' lived in and around these lochs.

Very similar to Vancouver Island, no?  Down to the rain even.  Talk about six of one, half dozen of the other.

After a quick stop on the appropriately misty Rannoch Moor (no sight of Castle MacDuck),...

... we arrived - exhausted - on Skye.  Still, we dragged ourselves down the road to the Red Skye Restaurant in Breakish where I tried cullen skink.

Let us pause for a moment on the miracle that is cullen skink.  It's a soup.  With smoked haddock.  And cream.  And potatoes.  And my gods, it was the greatest thing I'd ever eaten.  Words cannot express my love for this soup, or at least the way the Red Skye made it, but for some perspective - my cullen skink face now rivals Miguel's ham face.  I'd've taken a photo, but I'd've had to put my spoon down.  It was that good.

But no rest for the wicked as the next day we were up the east coast of Skye to hike up to the Old Man of Storr, which we hoped we could see through the ever-present mist and fog.  Or foggy mist.  There might be a Scottish classification that I'm not aware of.  Halfway through our hike and we couldn't see the destination for all the fog.

And then I spotted something above the ridge..

As the fog drifted off, I had a complete weak-in-the-knees-Duomo moment mixed with the world is just awesome gigglefest.  Could not believe what I was seeing, although I knew that this is what the Romantics referred to as sublime.

There was nothing else to do but scramble up the hill as fast as possible.  We wandered in and around the Old Man of Storr, watched the sheep, and soaked in as much as we possibly could.

The whole of Storr and the Trotternish range was created by a landslip, which makes this area far more jagged and ragged than the rounded Red Cuillins we'd been staying near in Breakish.

After a few hours wandering and stumbling about, we headed back down and into Portree, which is the largest settlement on Skye.  The harbour has a rather familiar feel about it.

No wonder so many Scots traveled over to Canada.

The next day it was down south to Sleat to the Clan Donald centre.  Sleat is much more cultivated than where we were in Trotternish the day before, and far less rugged.  There were some lovely gardens,

an abandoned castle,

and just the right amount of rain.

After the museum, we drove down the peninsula...

... and spotted Rumm off of the coast.  Or possibly Eigg.  Not to be confused with Uig.

We noticed that the fog/mist/misty fog/foggy mist had finally lifted enough to make the Cuillins visible.

With a few hours of daylight left, we drove out to Tallisker.  Although the distillery was closed, there was still a chance to take photos of this western part of Skye and (I think) the more jagged Black Cuillins. 

That night we decided to try somewhere different for dinner, having eaten at Red Skye the previous two nights.  Big mistake.  We headed to Claymore in Broadford for overcooked gnocchi, substandard sticky toffee pudding, and generic tourist fare.  We're still kicking ourselves that we didn't just go back to Red Skye for a third night.  But, I still have the wonderful memory of that cullen skink...

We discovered that two days is not near long enough to see all of Skye, but that's all the time we had.  So the next day we made our meandering way home, stopping off at Glen Affric...

... and Loch Ness...

... before getting caught in the rain in Glen Coe.

A few hours, one desperate search for a petrol station, and a confusing Perth roundabout (seriously Perth, what's up with the A9?), we arrived back home in Cellardyke.  After a few days on Skye, I can once again appreciate the difference between the highlands and lowlands.  History feels much more present on the highlands, and that's not only because of the Gaelic signage.  The Clearances, the Jacobite Risings, the croft houses... it's not such distant history.  Down here in Fife, I don't feel that same depth of history.  Perhaps depth isn't the right word.  Immediacy.  The Reformation and the effects on St. Andrews is distant history.  I've not heard any Gaelic spoken, although there's a fair bit of Scots.  Then again, maybe it's more of an apples-oranges comparison.  After all, British Columbia is fair different from Nova Scotia, and I'd imagine history has an immediacy for the Acadians.

Also, did I mention the cullen skink?


Right.  So there is a photo of cullen skink face thanks to BFF Lindsay.  

Cullen skink face looks remarkably like Deranged Chipmunk Face, which I somehow manage to pull in almost every photo I'm in.  Friends with the Spaniard on Facebook?  You've undoubtedly seen Deranged Chipmunk peering out from behind Miguel.  Yup, he's a lucky, lucky man.