Thursday, June 30, 2016

Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye is one of those places that you see in pictures on Pinterest on in travel magazines and wonder how much of it is photoshopped. It's just too beautiful to be true. It's an island on the western coast of Scotland and part of what the call the Hebrides, which is a series of islands on the coast.

Skye is known for its breathtaking landscapes, and that's exactly why I wanted to see it. That, and the half marathon, of course!

From Glasgow, I took a 7-hour bus ride to Portree, the capital of Skye, where the half marathon was taking place, and also where I would be staying. I had decided to do something a bit different than my recent trips and go camping! The Torvaig campground was only 1 mile from the town centre and was only £7 a night!

I'm glad I did. The campground was well-mantained, with hot showers, wifi, laundry, a friendly staff and the most amazing view of the Black Cuillin mountains. It was far enough from town that you felt deep in the woods while being conveniently close!

If you're on foot like I was, there's a network of busses designed for school children and adapted for the rest of the citizens so you don't need a car to make your way around the island. The busses will bring you to every tourist spot and reaches almost every town and village!

My first day there I spent getting oriented and went hiking around the harbour. Everything was so beautiful and green! I also did a boat tour to go see some of the wildlife around the island and got to see a sea eagle, some seals and lots of little sea creatures. I wasn't lucky enough to see dolphins though... Next time!

One of my most memorable days on the island was spent on a day tour of the island with the Skye Scenic Tours company (if you ever go, definitely go with them, they're great!). We visited all the sights to see and with our local tour guide, we got all the history and stories that came with each place. 
On that tour, I got to see some amazing places on the island; the Old Man of Storr, the Kilt Rock, the Quiraing, the Fairy Glens and Neist Point with its famous lighthouse, though none of pictures do them justice.
Old Man of Storr

Kilt Rock


Fairy Glens

Neist Point

One of my favourite stories is of the Dunvegan Castle: for a long time  in Scotland there was a clan system that basically governed all of Scotland. Each clan had its own tartan and land rights. On Skye, the clan MacLeod owned most of the lands. The Chiefs have been living at Dunvegan for over 800 years and in the early 2000s, the 29th chief was getting worried about his castle: the roof was leaking badly, and it was starting to fall apart. After all, it was an old castle. He brought it experts to survey and see what needed to be repaired and renovated. After a week, the surveyors gave him a long list of things and at the end, an estimated cost of 19 million pounds. The chief obviously didn't have that kind of money, so he decided to sell part of his land. The famous Black Cuillin mountains were on MacLeod lands, so he said they belonged to him and could do with them what he pleaded. So he went to Edinburgh and set up an ad: 10 million pounds for the Black Cuillin mountains on Skye. People weren't very pleased and eventually the government made a deal to help finance the repairs if part of the castle became a museum during the summer and the mountains stayed open for the public.
Only in Scotland, am I right?!

I also went for a wee dip in the Fairy Pools, and though the water was freezing, I was pretty proud of myself! This crazy Canadian went swimming in her underwear in freezing water at the foot of a mountain range. Doesn't get much better than that!

My last day on Slye was short: I rushed first thing in the morning to pack up my wet tent (it rained every day) and went to visit the Castle before I had to head back to Portree to catch my bus back to Glasgow. 

What's amazing about this island is that there's only about 10,000 people living there all year, but it doubles during the summer season with the tourists. It's also totally normal to go a couple of days without any electricity as there's only one power station for the island and the closest hospital with emergency care is in Inverness, a 2-hour drive away. 

It's such a wonderful place, and a perfect city-break. I fell completely in love and I can't wait to be back on the Isle of Skye. 

To finish off, here's a bit of a conversation I had with a local about the weather on Skye:

"How much rainfall do you get?"
"Lots. We don't use numbers... We just say lots."
"How much sunshine do you get?"
"Depends on the rain."
"What about the average temperature?"
"Anything above 22 degrees is a heat wave and if it lasts longer than 3 days it's a drought."

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Isle of Skye Half Marathon

When I visited Scotland 6 months ago, there was one area that I really wanted to see but just didn't have enough time (or budget): the Hebrides. This is a series of Islands in the west of the Highlands and are known to be unbelievably gorgeous. Somehow, as I day dreamed of eventually going back and visiting the Isle of Skye, I stumbled upon a half marathon that was taking place on the island!
Of course, I had to register! Fate was calling!

After taking a month off from running due to some minor injuries, I was back on my feet and ready to run this hilly, beautiful scenic race. 

And hilly it was. My god. As a prairie girl, I was most definitely not ready for it.

The runners gathered at the Portree High School, where the local pipe band lead us to the start line. It's the smallest race I've ever done, with only 800 runners, though for them, it was a new record for registrations! Finally we were off and the first 2 miles were uphill.

I saw the climb and thought to myself "I'm not gonna make it" but I did. I ran the first two gruelling miles and found my pace with a small downhill segment. I ran the first couple of miles next to a guy wearing a kilt! With the bagpipes, endless moors and kilts, I was constantly reminded I was in Scotland, which made my heart sing. 

By mile 6 or 7, I was getting tired. I hadn't trained in a month, mind you, so I was a little off my game. That's also when the hills started again. For a solid 3-4 miles, it was a slow uphill course and we shared the road with cars, some of which did not seem to notice us and sped by.

What I found amazing was all the people who drove to different points of the race which were a little more isolated and blasted music from their cars and clapped as we ran by. Others had sprinklers going. Such friendly people who spent their Saturday morning encouraging us instead of relaxing at home. Thank you to all of you!

Anyway, I walked most of that uphill climb and then the last 3 miles were downhill, so I ran part of that before reaching the town, where I slowed down again. I was so hungry I thought I would faint if I ran any faster! Which ended up working out perfectly as the guy in the kilt caught up with me at mile halfway past mile 12 and I greeted him with a big "there you are!!" And he told me my bright yellow compression socks had kept him going the entire race. we crossed the finish line together and got our medals and our free little breakfast before watching the award ceremony. 

We made a time of 2:33:48, which I was very proud of considering how tough of a race it was. I was glad to simply have finished it!

The record for this race is 1:11, and the record-holder ran it in 1:12 this year. Normally, a half marathon winner will run it in about 58-59 minutes, so this goes to show the toughness of it. But the locals are a tough bunch and ran it with seemingly no difficulty. 

It was such a beautiful race, and even in the grey, humid weather conditions, it was still stunning landscape, the race was well organized and the people as lovely as can be. If I'm still in Europe next year, you can be sure I'll be back!

And of course, can't forget the victory pizza! I got myself a Scottish pizza: haggis, black pudding, spicy Scottish beef and Lorne sausage and cheese. It was amazing! All handmade in a stone oven. Perfect way to celebrate a great race!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Zoologischer Garten

The Berlin Zoo is definitely one of my favourite places in Berlin. It was the first zoo in Germany, opening in 1844. With over 1,500 species and over 20,500 animals, it's one of the largest zoos in the world. It also includes a pretty big aquarium with all sorts of creatures! The zoo was almost completely destroyed during the second world war, but was entirely rebuilt to its former reputation and has remained one of the most reputable zoos in the world. Right outside the zoo is also the very famous destroyed Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which is another important sight to see in Berlin; another reminder of WWII.

I've been there twice and both times spent well over 5 hours in there, and both times, I managed to miss quite a few animals. I mean, the zoo extends over 85 acres, so be ready to walk. A lot. Of course, I love the zoo because of their elephants. There are a bunch of elephants, 6 or 7 females and 2 males, I believe. I spent a solid half hour watching them in total awe even though they were just standing around, barely moving.

I also happened to be around during the Orangutan feeding time and that was a blast! These creatures are so amazingly smart, it's surreal. They climbed on the fence the second they saw the zoo keeper and reached their arms out the fence to get some apples and carrots, picking them out themselves, then later on, they each got jugs of fruit iced tea. When they were done, they simply handed it back like small children do.

You have to get to the zoo right at opening if you don't want to wait hours in line (and also have time to see everything). By the time I left the zoo, it was around 3pm and there was a lineup to buy tickets that was at least an hour long.

Here are a few more pictures of the zoo!

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