Touring Scotland

August broiled us day by day in Barcelona. My birthday was approaching at the beginning of September, and Amber asked “Where would you like to go?”

The year prior we’d spent my birthday flying to San Fransisco to finish our paperwork for moving to Spain. Not exactly festive. This was a welcome opportunity to actually, you know, celebrate! And answering the question of where wasn’t hard either–Scotland. Amber and I had visited before and wanted to go back ever since. In recent years I’ve become a fan of single malt scotches, so a distillery tour seemed in order.

Good Crieff

But how do you balance visiting fine distilleries when you’re traveling with your kids? The first rule is “Everyone gets something.” Fortunately we knew just the thing. A few years back Amber and I went to Scottish Ruby at a Victorian spa called Crieff Hydro. This covered the kids perfectly, with swimming, archery, horseback riding, and other activities. Excitement ran high.

We flew into Glasgow. As we landed, it was overcast and raining. No bother, as Oregonians, we’re used to this sort of thing right? We gathered our bags and headed out the front door. The drizzle we’d observed turned into a hefty slap of cold rain like we hadn’t felt in months. Scuttling under the nearest shelter, we dug out the coats we’d packed, but not worn, in Barcelona and headed to pick up the rental car.

It became apparent after we got on the road that the kids would need food soon. There’s a certain tone to their voices that’s unmistakable. Amber had heard about a place called Nando’s, a South African chain known for its spicy peri-peri chicken. The first try and we were hooked; we’ve gone to Nando’s every time we’re in the UK since. (For those wondering, I prefer the moderate spice, while the rest of the family finds the mild quite enough thank you).

Holding up the Nando’s

With full bellies and less crankiness, we set off north. The first activity at Crieff we’d signed up for–air rifle shooting, which Asher was greatly anticipating–started at 4pm. Google Maps informed us that this was a stretch. We arrived fifteen minutes late to the resort, hoping to still salvage the situation, but matters got worse. As we talked to the front desk, we found that all the activities we’d reserved online weren’t showing up. (The room, thankfully, wasn’t impacted). We rescheduled archery for the next day, but sadly the air-rifles and horses didn’t happen. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Archery!!

Between pools, arrows, a family-friendly dance concert each night, and a massive chess set on the lawn, the family found Crieff perfect to kick the trip off.

Distilleries

Our plan involved driving from Crieff in the central Scottish Highlands, up north, then looping back south to catch our flight home in Manchester (cheap tickets yo).

Crossing the highlands

The country is littered with distilleries of all shapes and sizes. I did some research and built a jam-packed itinerary that was obviously impossible for our timeframe. That list served perfectly as a starting point, though.

The first stop was Edradour. We had visited years before, with the full tour and a wonderful tasting afterward. Edradour has a line of peaty scotches that they age in different wine barrels, everything from port to Bordeaux. Sipping the same liquor aged differently, side by side, taught me a ton about scotch. This time we enjoyed a nice selection in their tasting room. They make two main lines–classic Edradour, and their newer peaty Ballechin. We bought several bottles only available at the location (marked SFTC, “straight from the cask”).

The creek by Edradour

Cragganmore was the second distillery we reached. Part of a larger company, their sampling room had some rarer bottles from a variety of different lines. I came away with two very nice bottles of their flagship product–one a 15 year, and another a special 150th anniversary edition only available at the distillery. (You may be detecting a theme here…)

Entry to the Cragganmore Distillery

The final big whisky location was not a distillery, but a whisky shop called The Whisky Castle. The shop is tucked away in a tiny unassuming village called Tomintoul. This place is beautiful. The only time I’ve seen more whisky in one location is in the beloved Multnomah Whisky Library back in Portland. The Whiskey Castle runs a wonderful tasting, including local favorites and a willingness to indulge people’s curiosity.

The Whiskey Castle

We settled into a small hotel nearby attached to a pub with an outsized scotch collection. Amber and I had a lovely evening playing games, reading, and sipping the good stuff in comfortable chairs while our children slept in the room across the hall.

Tomintoul at sunset

Cairngorms National Park

Our drive took us through the central part of Scotland, which is largely occupied by Cairngorms National Park. There we got to introduce the kids to some of Scotland’s lovely scenery. Along one stretch we passed by massive fields of heather. Amber pulled the car over, and we all got out and flopped down on the springy plants.

Heather, so soft and springy

The kids and I trotted up a nearby hill. I was a little ways away when the kids started eagerly calling me over. In a gravely spot, huddled up against the blustery cool, was a toad.

TOAD

Scotland was a lovely break, and I brought home a wonderful collection of scotches to replace what I’d built up over years back in Portland. We loved Scotland, and I’m sure we’ll be back.

Yum

First Holidays Abroad: Three Kings

As mentioned previously, Three Kings Day (aka Dia de los Reyes) closes out the holiday season on January 6th. Traditionally it was more the center of gift-giving, though this year we did most of our gifts on Christmas.

The Cake

A common part of Three Kings Day is the king cake. This is a bready pastry, often halved and filled with cream. A little king figure is hidden within, and whoever finds it has to buy the cake next year. 2020 king cake’s on Cora y’all!

Tasty treats
Tasty treats
My ticket to not buying the cake next year!
My ticket to not buying the cake next year!

The Parade

In Barcelona January 5th is a major city celebration, with the Kings arriving in the harbor, then making their way through town to a parade in the evening. Overnight they then bring the presents to kids (except in our house, where Mom and Day buy the presents, and the kids know well and true who to thank!)

While we didn’t catch the Kings earlier in the day, we made it to the evening parade. We got there uncharacteristically early, and even so the kids had to wend their way through the crowd to perch at the front where they could actually see. I’m not sure that Amber got that good of a view, but fortunately the spectacle was large, loud, and often tall.

Creepy tall puppet-like characters? Check.
Check, check
Choreographed routines on many of the floats
One of the kings. I don't know which.
One of the kings. I don’t know which.

There was a ton of music and dancing as well. Quite the spectacle!

The parade apparently ended with huge amounts of candy being thrown from the final floats. I say apparently because we’d already slipped off a little before that when the kids declared they were done. The dense pack of people was a little much on their hungry tummies.

The Pho

In solid Clark fashion, we used the outing to try a restaurant we’d had an eye on–a Vietnamese place. We’d visited a few others in search of decent pho and fallen short. But at last Bun Bo Vietnam filled our bellies with the noodley goodness we craved.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thoroughly enjoying Spanish food, but pho ranks near the top for the kids. Often back in Portland the kids would ask to go out, and their top choices were either McDonalds (eek) or pho. So finding somewhere to replace that soup-shaped hole in our hearts was a critical moment.

Overall these first holidays in Spain were a success. We found ways to keep our most important traditions, while trying new things on for size. I’m looking forward to the even deeper chances this next year will bring!

First Holidays Abroad: Chrismas

Since we arrived fully in Barcelona at the start of October, we chose not to return to the United States for Christmas. It was a good choice for us, as nobody was near ready to travel again so sooner after our extended visa-cation.

November in Barcelona was rainy, but December dried up. It was about as cold as the winter has gotten–plenty of days down around 7C/45F, but with the sun out, still comfortable enough for wandering to parks and fighting with the children about wearing a jacket. The cooler weather also excused us to spend a lot of the holiday time finishing up the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (one of the best video games I’ve ever played) as a family (I drive, everyone else plays copilot, which is getting harder and harder as the kids get more able to play games themselves).

Traditions

Travel lets you see the world through a different lens. I find that holidays provide a particularly sharp opportunity to re-examine what’s “normal.”

In Spain a key difference around Christmas is that they have not one, but two gift giving days. In times past, Christmas was more likely to be a religious and family holiday, with gift giving centered instead around Three Kings Day, on January 6th (more on that in a later post!)

We debated heavily whether to open presents on Christmas or Three Kings. In the end, we went with Christmas simply to maximize the kids time-off from school that they could use their new things. (We kept a fairly strict one-thing-you-want, one-thing-you-need, one-thing-to-read policy given our small space… we only failed it on the reading material 😂) The idea of keeping Christmas more family focused, with another time to give presents, though, was intriguing.

We invited a family from the kids’ school over on the evening of Christmas Eve. Back in the States our friends Faith and Aaron throw a yearly Christmas Eve party that we try not to miss, and while this was far smaller in scale, we took inspiration from them in having the cured meats, good cheeses, and sot suppe (Norwegian Sweet Soup).

The Tree

As November wound down, we bought what I still consider the perfect Christmas tree:


We ended end up getting a more traditional artificial tree as well, but this more eloquently expresses my feelings about life in Barcelona.

Tió de Nadal

Catalonia is home to a truly unique Christmas tradition. I’d noticed on a work trip to Barcelona the year before that there were lots of little logs with smiley faces painted on them, especially in the Christmas markets. At the time I thought no more about it, not realizing the rich tradition of Tió de Nadal, aka Caga Tió.

Image result for caga tio image

If you have a moment, one of the clearest explanations of this for English speakers comes from Viggo Mortensen:

For those not inclined to video (or wikipedia) the short story is: families bring home these smiling logs, the kids feed them for the whole month–think a cross between an advent calendar and leaving cookies out for Santa–and then, after all this loving care…. they beat the log with a stick, singing a song that literally says, ahem, “poop log!” so it gives them presents. No kidding, at our Thanksgiving dinner we were discussing this tradition, and the entire table burst out with the song in unison.

Nothing says Christmas to me like a smiling log pooping presents!

First Holidays Abroad: Thanksgiving

As an American, the holiday season kicks off in the fourth week of November with Thanksgiving. This is not a holiday in Spain, but we bucked the trend and celebrated anyway. And what better way to enjoy the holiday than by introducing our traditions to coworkers!

The weeks before involved a lot of research into what was available in country, and what we’d have to improvise around. Turkey (pavo en español) was the biggest difficulty. It wasn’t hard to find parts–a leg here, a breast there–but the whole bird was almost unheard of. But a few days before Amber found a reasonable sized one at Boqueria Market.

Using that paella pan for it’s intended purpose 😅

Most everything else was available–vegetables, potatoes, breads. But what about the cranberry sauce?! Taste of America to the rescue! This specialty store is uniquely American. The scent of high-fructose corn sugar slaps you across the face on entering, as more than half the store is sugary cereals and candy. But they had the goods a week before the big day. I heard they ran out closer to the holiday 😰. This allowed Amber to introduce the wonders of American cranberry sauce to our friends amidst gales of laughter.

We invited the team I’ve been working with at New Relic BCN. Among those who made it were an American couple, an Irishman, and a ton of Spaniards. I was pleasantly surprised by everyone’s enthusiasm leading up to the event. It turns out, American Thanksgiving is commonly seen in movies and pop culture but faintly mysterious beyond that. What is this pumpkin pie? What does stuffing taste like, or is it called dressing? This proved an excellent chance to lift the veil on this American tradition.

Who doesn’t use their paella pan to roast pumpkins?

We also pushed the max capacity of our flat for a sit-down meal. There were about 16 people, every scrap of table space filled with boisterous conversation, good Spanish wine and charcuterie, galician treats, and American classics.

The holidays have definitely made us more acutely aware of the normal connections with family that we’re missing out on during this grand adventure. But in the end, sharing this tradition with our new friends was absolutely something to be thankful for.