Thursday, April 22, 2010

Scotland: Battlefields and bottles of whisky

Stirling Bridge. (Stirling, Scotland).Image via Wikipedia
I've been to Ireland, but not to Scotland. Being in Europe, and being in the same location, these two  countries are almost the same - topographically: hills, mountain ranges, wide open plains and plantations - having sparse lands to accommodate such orchards, so long as they can till the soil and attend to the groves.

Well, this is about a vacation trip to that land. Well worth, if you are much into nature trip of the cold and wet weather type.

Here it is:

Battlefields and bottles of whisky
The Highlands of Scotland look serene, but flip back the history pages and there's plenty of drama

by Valery Garrett

THERE are few more peaceful places in the British Isles than the Highlands of Scotland, a real antidote to steamy Singapore. Misty mountains, glistening lochs and shadowy valleys; every vista a photographer's dream. But among this tranquility hides a history of battles lost and won dating back to the 13th century.

With genial guide Hugh at the wheel, the two-day, 650km coach trip from Edinburgh up to Inverness covered all the sights with none of the stress.

Neolithic burial chambers of Clava Cairns.
Day 1

Stirling Bridge: Mel shows his mettle

Grey mist set the scene as we approached our first battlefield. At Stirling, Braveheart territory, Hugh related the grim story of the First War of Scottish Independence.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge, shown in the movie starring Mel Gibson, took place in 1297 when Scottish forces inflicted a shattering defeat on the English.

The fog followed us over bleak and barren Rannoch Moor, the loneliest wilderness in Britain, and down to Glencoe, Scotland's most famous glen. We heard of more massacres, this time of the MacDonalds in 1692. Dozens from the clan were killed in a political move by soldiers who had billeted with them.

Fort Augustus: Monster mystery

Inverness and the River Ness.
We headed north along the Great Glen before stopping at the small village of Fort Augustus, which overlooks the southern end of famous Loch Ness. We sailed onto the lake, watching for the renowned monster. Ever since 1933, when a huge pre-historic dragon supposedly rose from the lake, Nessie has fascinated the world, yet numerous investigations and television documentaries have failed to solve the mystery.

Inverness: Haggis found ...

Inverness, capital of the Highlands, has many good restaurants, but we gave haggis, Scotland's best known delicacy made from sheep's innards, a miss and opted instead for scrumptious Scotch Pies (crusty pastries filled with minced mutton or beef), rich and tasty Aberdeen-Angus steaks and freshly caught salmon.

Day 2

Culloden: Hour of blood

Loch Killin close to the southern end of Loch Ness near Fort Augustus.
At Culloden battlefield, Hugh told us how in 1746 the last battle on British soil took under an hour to reach its bloody conclusion. Some 2,000 soldiers were either killed or wounded, with the Scottish army suffering the brunt of the casualties.

Close by, nestled in peaceful woods, is Clava Cairns, dating to around 2000BC. The three burial cairns, or chambers, are thought to be as old as Stonehenge.

Pitlochry: Water of life

We couldn't leave the Highlands without learning more about Scotland's most famous export, whisky. The last stop was just outside the town of Pitlochry at Edradour, the smallest distillery in Scotland.

Glencoe where the MacDonalds were massacred in 1692.
The single-malt whisky is still handmade as it was more than 150 years ago, and the machinery unchanged since the distillery opened. Just three men produce a mere 12 casks a week, making the malt greatly sought after.

Pure malt whisky or single-malt like those produced here are highly prized over blended malts, a mix of single-malt and grain whiskies from different distilleries.

We ended the trip by sampling a wee dram of the "Water of Life", golden, smooth and creamy. It made a fitting toast to a fine trip.


Stirling Bridge near where the famous battle took place in 1297.
  1. The above trip can be booked at Scotline Tours, which departs from Edinburgh. Itineraries cover many of the places visited above. Prices per person for a two-day tour to Inverness, Loch Ness and The Highlands start from £155 ($330).
  2. Scottish Tours has one-day trips that depart from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness starting from £20.
  3. Secret Scotland offers detailed self-drive itineraries and customised tours. Prices vary.

Taken from TODAY, Travel - Thursday, 15-April-2010
Source article is here: Battlefields and bottles of whisky

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Essouira, Morocco: Natural beauty

"Boho/barefoot chic": Essaouira, MoroccoImage via Wikipedia
Morocco is not a place that is often heard when travel destination or a vacation place is being discussed. perhaps, it is time for that to change.

Hopefully, this short article on Essouira, Morocco helps.

Read on...

Natural beauty
Rustic and whitewashed, Essaouira is a breath of fresh air from the resort towns of Morocco

by Carol Pucci

Essouira, Morocco - TODAY, Travel
Maybe it was the kebabs smoking on sidewalk grills, or the layer of fog that coloured the afternoon sky a pale gray, but when I walked through a stone archway into the walled city of Essaouira, being in Morocco began to feel as mysterious and unfamiliar as I had hoped.

It was a feeling that had eluded me in better known Marrakech, where boutiques and luxury guesthouses are transforming the ancient medina into a chic resort town popular with European tourists.

Rougher around the edges but more authentic is Essaouira, a weathered and windy port city on the Atlantic coast, three hours by bus through the desert from Marrakech.

With its whitewashed ramparts and buildings set off by blue doors and shutters, Essaouira could be a seaside town in Greece or Brittany. Brittany probably makes more sense since it was a French architect who was hired by the sultan to lay out the town's 18th-century medina.

Beaches and cheap hotels lured hippies travelling the North African bohemian trail in the '60s. Now, stalls stocked with leather bags and carpets open early for day-trippers arriving on the morning buses from Marrakech. The rewards come to those who linger. Check into a guesthouse and wander the streets in the late afternoon, and Essaouira begins to feel less like a shopping mall and more like the small-town fishing village it once was.

At Cafe de France on the Place Moulay Hassan, European expatriates in shorts and Muslim men wearing knitted skull caps share tables on the terrace and talk over glasses of mint tea. Women in flowing robes walk arm in arm. The air smells of sea salt, spices and grilled fish.

Nearly every guidebook recommends a meal at one of the outdoor seafood restaurants near the docks. Icy displays of fresh crabs, oysters and sardines were tempting, but prices seemed steep, and the sales pitches too hard-sell. We wandered instead to the "fish souk", the fresh fish market that takes place each day inside the medina. Sardines are the speciality, grilled on the spot and served with olives, bread and salad for about US$4 ($5.60).

Dinner was at a little white-tablecloth restaurant called La Decouverte, where we found couscous with camel on the menu and a lentil salad sprinkled with oil from the argan nut trees that thrive in this part of Morocco.

The restaurant's owners, Frederique Thevenet and Edouard Pottier, also run Ecotourisme et Randonnee, an ecotourism company that specialises in walking tours in the desert countryside.

Olive trees grow here, but it's the hearty and heat-resistant argan tree that's most treasured. Unique to south-western Morocco, the trees produce a hard wood, called ironwood, used for fuel. The leaves provide food for goats that climb into the spiny branches. But the argan tree is most valued for its nuts, the oil of which is extracted by hand by women working in cooperatives.

Our tour began at a country market where villagers arrived by donkey. A snack of tea and bread dipped in oil fortified us for several kilometres of walking along flat, desert donkey paths. Eventually, we reached the Marijana Cooperative. There, we talked with women working assembly-line style, cracking argan nuts between two stones, removing the seeds, roasting and grinding them into a paste which they then squeeze to extract the oil.

Marketing the oil as a healthy source of vitamins, and antioxidants has been an economic boost for desert dwellers like Fadna Bella and her family, who hosted our group for lunch in their house surrounded by argan groves.

Fadna met us in her courtyard, and led us into a windowless room decorated with pillows and carpets. We sat cross-legged on the floor, sharing a tomato salad, chunks of bread and her homemade tagine, a traditional Moroccan stew made with potatoes, carrots and lamb.

When we finished, she passed around a bowl of pomegranates and glasses of mint tea. She smiled. We smiled. Our appetites make up for our lack of Arabic words to express what a treat it had been to experience authentic Moroccan hospitality. She knew no English or French, but it mattered little. When we left, she blew us a kiss goodbye. MCT

Trip notes

Essaouira is 117km west of Marrakech on Morocco's Atlantic coast.

Getting there: Supratours ( runs comfortable, air-conditioned buses between Marrakech and Essaouira several times a day. The trip takes about three hours, including a stop for tea. Tickets are 65 dirham ($11). Buses leave from Supratours' offices near Marrakech's new train station.


Essaouira has many nice hotels and guesthouses in restored riads, traditional Moroccan homes built around an interior courtyard. Prices are less than in Marrakech and usually include breakfast. See for riads that rate highly with guests who have stayed there. Many riads are owned by French, Spanish or Italian expatriates.

Ecotourisme et Randonnee ( offers half- and full-day walks through the argan woods, nearby dunes and villages. Prices range from 200 to 400 dirham per person, including transport and a snack or lunch.

More information: visit

Taken from TODAY, Travel - Thursday, 15-April-2010;
Source article is here: TODAYonline | Travel | Natural beauty

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Book review: A delicious read

Here is a book review that tells both of the author's travel adventure in the Orient, and the food that he enjoyed, as he passed along the roads he traveled in that land of wonders.

Read on...

A delicious read
Title: Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey
(319 pages, BBC Books, London, c2009)
Author: Rick Stein

The traveller

Known to be one of Britain's most well-loved culinary celebrity, Rick Stein has won many awards for both his books and television programmes. As an accomplished food writer and TV host, Stein's search for the vast array of cuisines available around the world has allowed him to travel to exotic and rustic locales, as well as given him the opportunity to explore indigenous cultures and the social fabric of each of the destinations. He is also the owner of a famous seafood restaurant and cooking school, the former being the place thousands of seafood lovers flock to each year for delicious food.


Apart from the easy-going and humourous writing style of Stein, readers of this book can look forward to learning about the intricacies of Eastern cultures and the distinctive ways in which the signature local dishes are prepared, for instance, how some ingredients are the mainstays of certain countries or how they are used differently as compared to their other neighbours in the Far East cluster of nations.

On top of more than 150 recipes, one can look forward to remarkable tit-bits included at the beginning of each recipe. If, for example, you are curious to know the name of the oldest restaurant in one of the South-east Asian countries, or the history of a particular dish, or where Stein got the "secret recipe" from, as well as other fascinating, juicy morsels, look no further, for he peppers each of the 150-plus recipes with these interesting nuggets of information.

In short

Satisfy your cravings for culinary delights and travel-bug tendencies with this colourful and enlightening piece of work, which is part cookery book, part informal travel guide. It's no wonder Stein was accorded a national order of merit (Order of the British Empire) for his major contributions to Britain's tourism industry.

Did you know?

Hotpots are not just limited to Korean and Japanese cuisine. There is also the Vietnamese hotpot, known as "bon hung dam". Unlike their East Asian counterparts where much of the soup base consists of a kind of paste or sauce, a large part of the Vietnamese hotpot is flavoured by fresh herbs instead. Reviewed by Chan Wai Ling from the National Library Board

The book is available at NLB's public libraries. Call Number: English 641.5959 STE - [COO]

Taken from TODAY, Travel - Thursday, 15-April-2010

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