One of the aspects of studying abroad that is the most amazing to me is simply how much time is available to you. I have weekend after weekend to travel place after place, and I have had the opportunity to experience so much – and I’m not even finished yet! The only negative to these seemingly-endless opportunities (other than my rapidly depleting bank account) is that it becomes extremely difficult to pick a favorite place.
Since my last post I have kept busy. I returned to London for another weekend, spent a week in Paris and just got back from three days in Edinburgh.
Paris, the City of Lights, the ultimate cliché travel destination, was everything it should have been and much, much more. I saw the gargoyles of Notre Dame, toured the gardens of Versailles, took pictures from the top of the Eiffel Tower, fought my way through the crowds of the Louvre to glimpse the Mona Lisa and strolled the pathways of the Paris Catacombs, where the bones of six million Parisians are artfully displayed along the walls. I took a boat tour along the Seine and mastered the Paris Metro. I indulged in French wine, baguettes and crepes. I bonded with fellow world travelers while staying in a hostel and was ridiculed for my awful French every time I tried to order a croissant. In short, I did Paris as completely as it is possible to do Paris on a tight budget and in five days. I had an absolutely amazing time and would go back again in a second (preferably with a few thousand extra Euros in my pocket).
And yet, despite all the wonders of Paris, my attachment to the United Kingdom is now complete. When my plane finally touched down at Cardiff International Airport (after an 18-hour delay – Charles de Gaulle is now my least favorite airport in the world) I was once again surprised by the sense of relief and homecoming I felt.
I didn’t spend long in my new home, however – just six days later I was packing my much-used backpack for a three-day weekend in Edinburgh, Scotland. In retrospect, I should have packed several more pairs of socks and invested in a poncho – but more on that in a minute.
Immediately upon arrival in Edinburgh, my roommate and I set out for lunch at the Elephant Café, rather obviously named for the large number of elephant-themed decorations adorning its walls. However, the café’s true claim to fame is its status as “The Birthplace of Harry Potter,” or the café where J.K. Rowling wrote much of the early Harry Potter books. As a true Harry Potter geek, I was slightly overexcited by this fact, and my rather uninterested roommate was forced to take my picture while trying to avoid getting run over by oncoming traffic.
It was at this point that I made the greatest mistake of my entire time abroad. Never, and I repeat, NEVER say the words “It’s a nice day, why don’t we go for a hike?” if it is November and you are in Scotland. Not yet aware of the danger we were in for, we set off for Holyrood Park, a rather massive former volcano on the outskirts of the city. As we began to hike up the path, we began to notice the clouds. We continued, saying “It’s only a few clouds.” Then the raindrops began, but by this point, we were over halfway up to Arthur’s Seat, the highest point of the mountain, and we continued on. By the time we reached the summit we were caught in nothing short of a downpour, and had no choice but to hike our way back down amid mud, streaming water, rocks and a total lack of any discernible path. Let me just say, the combination of rain, near-freezing temperatures, a lack of umbrella, hat or gloves, and a slippery, muddy mountain does not add up to the best way to spend an afternoon. Nevertheless, I survived, the views were nothing short of epic and awe-inspiring, and the pictures I have of my rain-bedraggled self are now only a rather amusing reminder of one of my poorer life decisions.
By the next day, when I had regained sufficient feeling in my toes and my jeans had dried out, I was fully ready to experience all the wonders of Edinburgh. These included Edinburgh Castle, situated on a hill in the middle of the city, which exemplifies everything you think of when you think of medieval castles, and, equally incredible, the neighboring Holyrood Palace, the official residence of the Queen in Scotland and, for any historical buffs (myself included), the former home of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Edinburgh, however, has more than just castles and hills. It also has over 400 pubs, bars and nightclubs and has a reputation as one of the most haunted cities in Europe. Much to my disappointment, no ghosts or demons appeared to me in the graveyards or the tunnels under the city, but I did discover that not even perpetual rain can stop the nightlife of Edinburgh.
I finished out my tour of Edinburgh with a tour of the Scottish Parliament. Scotland, like Wales, gained devolution in the late 1990s, recreating a parliament that was dissolved in 1707. The brand-new parliament building cost over £400 million and even has ‘think pods’ for members of parliament to contemplate government. Also, it just so happened that all the public tours were full when my roommate and I went to book a tour before we left, so instead we got a private tour from a staff member who works for the same party we work for in Wales. Getting to take advantage of working in politics was pretty exciting in itself, but I also really enjoyed getting to see another part of the government of the United Kingdom. I even met a few fellow American interns, including someone who goes to Miami – it’s always nice to find people who know where Ohio is on the map.
As I toured Edinburgh, I couldn’t help but be reminded of its similarities to Wales. Though both countries have been a part of the United Kingdom for hundreds of years, each fiercely maintains its own culture and heritage – the Welsh and the Scottish are extraordinarily proud of being Welsh and Scottish. I find myself, as an American able to trace my ancestry to at least four different nationalities, reveling in the unity and pride brought by their long shared history. I count myself lucky to be able to experience these cultures, and I hope to continue to learn about the fascinating and wonderful people here in the United Kingdom.
So, after wonderful experiences to two amazing European cities, how is it even possible to pick a favorite destination? I’m not sure that it is, though for me, anywhere in the United Kingdom will always hold a special place in my heart – though perhaps it might be a good idea to save a return trip to Scotland for July.