Renewing Our Vows in Scotland – Part 3: Edinburg

After our deeply moving ceremony in the Ring of Brodgar, I expected that we would have a long trip back to Edinburgh, play tourist for a little, and leave. Instead we had the most spectacular time in Edinburgh, a gem of a city.

The morning we left the Orkneys we got up at 5 to drive our car to town and take a ferry to the mainland. Then we took a cab to the train station and headed off on the train for our 7 hour ride to Edinburgh. Three trains later and a few hours early due to a happy connection we emerged.

Deb had booked us a room at 94DR, a truly wonderful B&B run by Paul and John. The inimitable Paul and John were just one of many great discoveries we made in this beautiful city.

Introduction to Edinburgh

We got in about 7pm and so had time to have a real dinner. Paul worked some magic – something which he seems to have no end of – and got us a table at the Outsider. Now generally the food in the Highlands and Orkneys was fine, but with the exception of Kylesku, it wasn’t anything noteworthy. And we had prepared ourselves for that. This first night in Edinburgh, though, we had a sumptuous dinner of lamb, steak and venison. And yet, it was not even the best dinner we had there.

The next morning we got up and went to breakfast. Paul and John told us that they expected that we had had enough of the “traditional Scottish breakfast” – eggs, bacon, Lorne sausage, black pudding, grilled tomato, and mushrooms (and sometimes haggis). Indeed, we pretty much had that in every place we stayed.

Instead, they made us the most amazing shakshuka, a Middle Eastern dish with eggs, tomatoes, peppers and onions. After that, we went on a 7 hour hike around the city and surrounding hills. It was a mix of urban, historic, and even rugged, hilly terrain.

Hiking the Hills

Edinburgh had a history of volcanic and glacier activity in the distant past and you could see in the surrounding “hills” which were part of the city.


The Cliffs Above Edinburgh

We headed out first on a long hike up a few thousand feet to Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park. From there, we had a 360 degree view of the city and its surrounds. We could see the Edinburgh castle, Scott Memorial, Firth of Forth (a “bay”), the “old town”, the “new town”, the downtown and everything else.


The “Road” to Arthur’s Seat


A Partial Panorama of Edinburgh

We hiked among the cliffs and hills for a few hours. It was an amazing opportunity to capture photos and we occasionally spotted a bit of ancient history among these hills.

Edinburgh - Holyrood Park

A Hiking Friend

Edinburgh - Holyrood Park

Tower Ruin

The Old and the Older Still

We came down from the hills to one of the more diverse cities we’ve experienced. It’s actually a second Scottish UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are several different centuries of buildings and the Scots take as incredible care of them as they do their history. We haven’t seen a city that is as good at blending the past with the modern. And it seems that there is an old castle, manor house or church on every street.


Ancient and Modern


One of Many Incredible Churches

As we literally circumnavigated the city, we also found ourselves circumnavigating the impressive Edinburgh Castle, sometimes closely and sometimes far away. It is built on a cliff and is impregnable from at least two-thirds of its circumference.

Edinburgh Castle

The Imposing Edinburgh Castle

Along the way, we found many nuggets, like the Hanging Bat, a brew pub that makes (and imports) some of the best brews we’ve had, and that’s saying a lot for us Pacific Northwesterners.

Another favorite was Princess Street Gardens. It was fun watching kids come out after school in their uniforms, playing in the grass. Of course, there were statues everywhere.

horse pigeon statue - Edinburgh

Statue and Friend

We rounded the castle and came to a must-see attraction: the Scott Monument – a memorial to the legendary Sir Walter Scott. It’s a most amazing piece of Gothic architecture, though as Deb says, “It needs a bath!”

Scott Monument

The Scott Monument

We climbed 371 steps to the top, up spiral stairs that got narrower and smaller. It is not for the claustrophobic. By the time we got to the top, it was more like a tight cave passage. There was no room to pass and the doorway at the top was narrower than my shoulders (and I’m only 5’7”).

It was adorned with a large number of “gargoyle-like” ornaments both inside and around the outside. Many of these were of dogs and Deb found a greyhound friend among them.


Deb and Friend

For the end of our hike we headed to Calton Hill. We saw his rather eclectic assortment of structures when we first arrived in Edinburgh and wanted to check it out more closely. It has an Egyptian Obelisk, a Parthenon-style structure, an Observatory, and a Tower among its many features.


Calton Hill from the Train Station

Interestingly, John (of 94DR) told us that Calton Hill is viewed as #Edinburgh’sDisgrace since they evidently had much grander plans for the site but ran out of money. While some of the buildings were fascinating, it was rather an amalgam of incongruous things.

Finally we headed off to a real treat for dinner – the Gardener’s Cottage. Once again, Paul had worked his magic and was able to get a seating at this incredible restaurant experience. Gardener’s Cottage serves 7 course meal of amazing dishes, each created with locally grown or farmed ingredients. Among the tasty dishes we had tempura scallops, hedgehog mushrooms and creamed corn with sourdough bread, razor clams (or “spoots”) with fresh greens and the most amazing apple sorbet.

Gardener's Cottage Partridge

Partridge at the Gardener’s Cottage

Dinner was a truly wonderful cap to our Edinburgh experience. We didn’t really expect much from Edinburgh beyond it being a large city. That’s generally been our experience in other large, commercial, metropolitan cities. And indeed there was a long street with the typical high-end shopping. But there was so much more to Edinburgh as we learned. Had we known, we would have stayed longer. You can bet we will next time! A big thank to our “hosts” – Paul and John. Thank you for pointing us to some memorable experiences. Pura Vida.

More Photos


A Man “Out Standing” in his Field (sorry – I had to do that!)


Having Fun

debbie beauty panorama

A Surreal Panorama


Pollock Hall


Old Buildings


A Unicorn at the Queen’s Palace (in Scotland)


A Imposing Silhouette of Edinburgh Castle

gargoyle - Scott Monument

A Gargoyle on the Scott Memorial

Calton Hill

The Observatory Cottage at Calton Hill


Deb Against a Painted Backdrop (not really 🙂 )


After our harrowing evening in Genoa, we made our way safely to Rome on our new adventure, looking forward to the historical treasures we’d find there.

We ended up getting to Rome only about 12 hours after we were originally scheduled to on the overnight train. It’s a good thing we got out of Genoa quickly. The flooding continued and even derailed a train.

By the way, many trains have graffiti, but it is really creative and artistic. It seems to get better the closer you get to Firenze. It was nice taking a moment to appreciate that without the accompanying torrential rain!

Italian Train Graffiti

Italian Train Graffiti

The Trains and Graffiti

Our first evening in Rome was full of laundry, resting and recuperating. I washed my cashmere sweater by hand 7 times and was still finding sand in it. My cashmere jacket was thoroughly soaked and it took 3 days to dry. Deb did some magic on the white clothes we had, all of which had turned muddy and dingy. Otherwise, we were pretty lucky once again on the clothes front.

The next morning we all started our day with something that would become a staple for us in Italy: cappuccino!




Our first day in Rome we took our only tour so far. We visited the catacombs outside Rome, the Basilica of Saint Clement, and the Cappuccini Crypts. We figured the mix of ancient history, religion, caves and dead bodies might get Aidan and Nev geared up for some “live” unschooling. It did work to a point even though none of us are fans of tours or tourists (some of whom were assaulting Deb’s sense of smell). Sadly, we couldn’t take pictures in most places – except our starting point: Piazza Barberini and a gorgeous Bernini sculpture.

Piazza Barberini

Piazza Barberini

Piazza Barberini

The catacombs themselves are an incredibly old set of tombs where Christians buried their dead in the early days of Christianity. They had cleared the catacombs of remains (helped along through the ages by grave robbers, the church, and several other groups). The tour in the dark (and nicely cool) passages was interesting enough, but it was the conversations we had with Aidan and Nev that were the highlight for Deb and me.

Deb and I learned some new insights on the transition between paganism and Christianity. I hadn’t realized that the concept of Elysium as a form of afterlife in early paganism was reserved for heroes, emperors, and the rich. The draw of Christianity was that heaven was accessible to anyone regardless of station. That was the intense draw for many, particularly women. It explains the early makeup of Christians.

The tour guide did a good job of introducing topics like this and then we would all talk on the bus or later about things like the way a conquering religion adopts the traditions of a previous religion in order to ease the people into the new one. Traces of this are physically evident throughout Rome.

As with any historical review, there is always bias. We saw it in subtle ways and overt ways. For example, all pagan religions throughout time were lumped together and represented a “primitive” time before Christianity. We had a great conversation about other civilizations that predated Christianity and Rome that had incredible science. There are three civilizations, for example, that discovered the concept of “0” which is necessary for higher mathematics. This included the Mayans. Rome and Europe were not among those more primitive civilizations thanks very much. J

Next stop was the Basilica of Saint Clement. It is an incredibly ornate church, and like so many others, very beautiful. It’s easy to admire the art and workmanship of Catholic churches.

We went to this church because it is the only publically accessible place in Rome where you can see four different centuries of history up close in the layering of the building. I wasn’t expecting, though, that the history discussion would continue here.

The mosaics in the basilica show various early Christian martyrs, including San Lorenzo. We learned that early Christians were hunted and had to meet in pagan temples. If caught, they were usually put to death. San Lorenzo was a brave soul who stood up to the Romans and was evidently fried on a grill (grid iron) and in the mosaic, he was depicted with his saint halo sitting on a grill. This caught Aidan’s attention in particular. While it was truly odd seeing essentially a barbecue in the ornate mosaics inside a church, it underscored the violence that is perpetrated in the name of religion. According to legend, he said during his “grilling” that he was done on this side and they should turn him over. This led to him being the patron saint of comedians/comedy.

As we descended in the church, we saw that the church, like most of all Rome, was built on the foundation of something else, and then something else before that. In this case, the basilica was built on a pagan temple, which was built on a market and then that upon an apartment building. All of this spanned four centuries, not including the basilica on top built in 1200. The 60 meter descent exposed more years of history than our entire country. This is one of the key reasons we came to Europe. It’s hard to get this incredible sense of history from a book or pictures. This theme continued throughout Rome and the rest of our trip.

Our final stop was the Cappuccini Crypts. The Cappuccino were a branch of the Franciscan order of monks. They believe that upon death, the body is just a vessel. They have decorated their monastery with the bones of their deceased brothers. I had seen it on a previous trip but the others had not. Words cannot describe either the beauty or the macabre nature of the decorations. There are many images on the web to see for yourself. Of course, Nev and Aidan thought it was cool. It was a nice end to the tour.

We found a great Italian restaurant that evening, Leone D’Oro, and had some amazing pasta. Gelato followed of course, as it must, every day, in Italy, the land of gelato!

The next day was Gladiator School. I had been looking forward to this more than anyone, I think, and it did not disappoint. The School is run by about 140 living history enthusiasts – similar to the folks who reenact the Civil War. The place is small but every person there is warm and excited to tell you all about gladiators!

Sadly, Deb had a crushing migraine the night before and didn’t feel up to going and Nev wasn’t interested, so they stayed home.

I expected fun. I hadn’t expected one of the best history lecture I had had in a while. Aidan actually agreed. It wasn’t just about gladiators. It was about Rome, their main focus on living history.

Our guide started with a map of Rome at its height. It covered about the same area as the United States. It also included all territory surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, so interestingly, they didn’t need a navy because there was no one to fight on the water.

We learned about all of the incredible civil inventions of the Romans (including their aqueduct system) and then we turned to military history. I had no idea how inventive the Romans truly when it came to war. Of course I knew the history, but the details were things that really brought home why they were so dominating. The inventions included big things like the Roman catapults that employed twisted rope and could fling projectiles 600 yards – 400 more than typical catapults. There were also very subtle things like heir spears, which they threw when the enemy was about 20 yards away. They invented a clever way to have a destructive, yet disposable, tip that after first use, no one could throw the spear back at them.

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator School – the History Museum

Detail brings history alive. More so when you get to touch and feel it. Aidan and I had the best 60 minute history lesson on Rome and gladiators I could imagine. And then, we got to practice.

We got to wear and wield some of the equipment the different types of gladiators used. The heavily armored ones used really heavy equipment – about 40 pounds. And by the way, those gladiator helmets, which I always thought were way too cumbersome, were designed to make it hard to see and move in. That explains a lot.

We then went out into a sand arena and did some gladiator warm-ups, including running, push-ups, and moving through swinging bags of stones without getting hit!

We learned the five basic attacks with a gladius (sword) and the five basic defenses. Like most martial arts (including kickboxing, which Deb and I used to do), the basic moves were pretty simple but you combine them all in many different ways. After individual practice, Aidan and I got to “fight” each other in a ring after that using padded swords. It was an unseasonably 90 degrees Fahrenheit and by the end, we were pretty tired when we headed back.

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator School – Getting Real

After a good meal (but not as good as the previous night), and gelato once again, we headed “home” and chatted about the next day, modeled after Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.

I mentioned previously that we had tried an experiment to get the young adults a little more tuned up and interested in Rome. We had them watch the movie version of Angels and Demons. The story takes place in Rome and involves a secret society “Illuminati” ostensibly murdering priests on different “altars of science” hidden in plain sight across Rome, because of some bad things the church did to scientists several hundred years ago.

We were interested in using this as a tool because while the story was fiction of course, the locations were all real and of deep historical and artistic importance. There was a path to follow based on the story and that’s what we had planned to do.

Each location was highlighted by an Egyptian obelisk and had some Bernini sculpture involving angels and one of the four ancient elements of science: earth, air, fire, and water.

We didn’t end up following the exact order of the story as we travelled through the city, but it didn’t matter; Nev and Aidan remembered everything. We walked from our apartment through the grounds of the Villa Borghese to the Piazza del Popolo.

Villa Borghese, Rome

Villa Borghese, Rome

Villa Borghese

At Piazza del Popolo the weather was partly sunny and I managed to get a pretty eerie photograph of the obelisk against an interesting, perhaps diabolical, cloud shape. It was a good start to our little recreation of the story.

Piazza del Popolo, Rome

Piazza del Popolo, Rome

Piazza del Popolo, Rome

Piazza del Popolo, Rome

Piazza del Popolo

At Piazza del Popolo, we found the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. This was the “earth” alter and we had hoped to see the Chigi Chapel where Raphael is buried along with a statue of an angel, Bernini’s Habakkuk and the Angel, pointing the way to the next “altar.”

Nev and Aidan had to find all the plot ingredients in the church. Sadly, they were restoring the Chigi Chapel and so we couldn’t see the “demon hole” or the Egyptian pyramid above Raphael’s tomb. We did get to see the sculpture from afar and indeed, it was pointing (although slightly off).

It was incredibly interesting though to watch the restoration painters restoring the artwork in the chapel. Nev even asked how you get to be someone who does that.

Santa Maria del Popolo Church, Rome

Santa Maria del Popolo Church, Rome

Santa Maria del Popolo Church, Rome

Santa Maria del Popolo Church, Rome

Santa Maria del Popolo

Our next stop should have been Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican, but we were near there last night and Deb was still a little tired so we skipped it. The third stop was the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.

I really wanted to see Santa Maria della Vittoria because it contains the Bernini sculpture The Ecstasy of Santa Teresa. Not only is it an incredible piece of work and it is the angel statue in the storyline painting the way to the next “altar” (fire), but it would have also made a connection to earlier in our trip. Santa Teresa is the same Santa Teresa that grew up in Avila and was its “patron” saint, and Avila, the walled city in Spain, was one of our previous destinations. Unfortunately, the church was closed.

We regrouped and had a snack and then proceeded on to the final “alter” (water) at Piazza Navona.

Piazza Navona is home to three incredible fountain by Bernini, including very large one with an obelisk extending from it. The piazza is huge but has no cars and few streets connecting to it. We wandered around appreciating the sculpture for a bit and then had gelato. This was the last of the “altars” and the end of the storyline path. However, nearby, there was a building that was a false start in the storyline and something we very much wanted to see.

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona

The Pantheon was a 10 minute walk through narrow streets filled with carabinieri for some reason. The millennia old building stands distinctly in a piazza filled with more modern (read only a few to several hundred years old) buildings.

It was both marvel to see in person for all of us as well as an instigator for more discussions around history and religion. The Pantheon was a Roman temple dedicated to all gods and religions (pan-theis). It was turned into a Catholic church around 600AD. Inside, while you can see the altar of the “new” church, you can easily see that it was repurposed. It was yet another good example of structures evolving over time as different civilizations and religions come to prominence.

Pantheon, Rome

Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon

After the Pantheon, and the requisite gelato, we hopped in a cab and went back to the apartment. We got the young adults some nice arancini for dinner and Deb and I went out for date night.

We started by shopping for a little bit. It had been more than a year since we really bought clothes! I got to model a number of pairs of pants, several of which Deb, in cahoots with the young woman helping us, convinced me to get. Italian clothes fit me a lot better. At least, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

We talked about trying a new restaurant, but in the end went back to the wonderful small place (Leone D’Oro) we had found the other night and had another great meal.

The next day, we said goodbye to Rome. There were so many things we didn’t see, but Nev and Aidan said they enjoyed it and Aidan said he was sad to leave. We accomplished much of what we wanted to do in unschooling and so we felt the timing was perfect. As they say in theater (and good business presentations), “Always leave them wanting more.”

Writing this now and rereading some of the other posts, I am quite happy that Nev and Aidan do seem to be getting a sense of history and religion. Even with what we have seen so far, I don’t think they will think about places like Rome the same way they might have just reading about it.

History has a different feel when you can see it directly and touch it. When you add to that things like having to have archeologists present when you build a new subway station (as they do in Rome) and how everything stops when something new is found – which is often – you feel that history is something to be cherished. Perhaps, it may help us remember it better and not repeat mistakes of the past, but that still remains just a hope.

We didn’t give Aidan and Nev a ton of information to read and study – or simply pretend to read and study – as they might get in school. They learned a few important things and a number of smaller, scattered details. Our hope is that in a few years, they might retain those memories and perhaps even ignite some new interests. Maybe we will too. Deb and I are already talking about doing a volunteer internship on an archeological dig somewhere in the world at some point later. It’s never too late for adventure. Pura vida.

PS: Once again, more photos.

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator Camp

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Pantheon, Rome

Pantheon, Rome

Raphael's Tomb, Pantheon, Rome

Raphael’s Tomb, Pantheon, Rome