This year, our plan was to have a longer than usual trip to Scotland and other parts of Europe, and to take our New Zealand grandsons (aged 12 and 14) with us for the first three weeks, leaving New Zealand at the end of March. Unfortunately, as you may know, I had to leave earlier than expected because my sister Fiona was very ill in Scotland; I was able to spend some precious time with her before she died. This was a sad start to our visit. However, Kerr then arrived as planned with the boys, and we had an exciting, and exhausting time, staying with our daughter, Eileen, in London, and seeing all the sights. We walked miles, steeped ourselves in history, and were amazed at how quickly the boys learned to use the Tube network. The boys also had a quick trip to their ‘roots’ in Scotland and crossed by Eurostar to Paris, before we sent them home. An unexpected highlight for me was our visit to Harry Potter world, a vast film set full of amazing artefacts, fascinating to fans, and interesting even if you had only read the first book or seen the first film.
Kerr and I then toured London at a more sedate pace before going to Findochty, a little one-time fishing village in the North East of Scotland, where we house-sat for several months. The house was on the shores of the Moray Firth, and we enjoyed watching the changing movements of the water, and the many boats – and dolphins – going past. It was also a great base for exploring parts of Scotland we didn’t know so well, and for visiting friends and relations both North and South. Highlights included visiting a number of Scottish islands: Orkney with its amazing Neolithic village at Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar standing stones, the Italian Chapel painted by prisoners of war and the 12th century cathedral of Saint Magnus; the Isle of Skye, moodily beautiful, where a friend showed us some of the island’s ‘secret places’; Mull, and a marvellous bus driver who regaled us with tales of history, geography, geology and biology as we crossed the island, and who sang ‘Child in a Manger’ as we went past Bunessan and the memorial to Mary Macdonald there; Staffa, with its dramatic basalt columns and Fingal’s Cave, and the wonderfully fearless puffins waiting at the top of a steep slope; and beautiful Iona, known as ‘the cradle of Christianity’, with its wealth of Celtic spiritual history and its current ecumenical community.
Other memorable places included Berlin, an exciting modern city, and with all its 20th century history, stories of the Berlin wall, escape attempts at Checkpoint Charlie, an underground bunker from the time of the Cold war, and the Jewish Museum, the most powerfully moving museum we have seen. The walled city of Chester showed us English history from Roman times; there are ancient shopping streets, and a magnificent cathedral, and of course we visited Chester Zoo (possibly even better than Auckland Zoo). From Chester we also made day trips to Liverpool and Manchester. We were briefly in Edinburgh during the Festival so we experienced the excitement of street performers showing their singing, dancing, drumming and other talents, and we managed to fit in a number of excellent Fringe shows, as well as seeing old friends. Prague was magnificent, with its castle, Charles Bridge, Wenceslas square, the astronomical clock and many mediaeval streets and buildings. In Prague we also enjoyed a splendid concert of Mozart’s music in the Mirrored Chapel. Prague was the starting point for our boat trip on the Danube – a wonderful experience, in spite of low water levels that made river cruising difficult at times. We went from Nuremberg to Vienna, and were thoroughly spoiled with excellent food, great scenery, beautiful old villages, towns and cities and very good company.
We feel very privileged to have been able to spend such a long time away from New Zealand, and to be able to catch up with friends and relations, re-visit places we enjoy and see so many great places new to us.