Monday, April 30, 2012

Edinburgh, Scotland

I had a feeling that I would like Edinburgh and it didn't disappoint.  Located in the south-east part of the country, Edinburgh is Scotland's capital and its second-largest city.  With over 495,000 people it is also the seventh largest city in the United Kingdom.  It's also a twin city of San Diego, California, so how can you go wrong with that?

Edinburgh was founded prior to the 7th century.  In 1995, the city's Old Town and New Town districts were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Royal Mile is a succession of streets that make up the main thoroughfare in the Old Town.  It runs all the way from Holyrood Palace up to the Edinburgh Castle.  The Royal Mile is actually more than one mile long.  Standard English measurements were not introduced in to Scotland until after 1701 so the Royal Mile is an old Scottish mile which is about 672 feet (205 meters) longer than an English mile.  Today it is a very busy tourist street with lots of stores, pubs, restaurants and hotels.

St. Giles' Cathedral dates back from the 14th century.  It is the Church of Scotland's principle place of worship in the city.  The crowned spire is very cool.

Edinburgh Castle sits above the city perched on top of Castle Rock.  There has been a castle here since the 12th century and it served as the royal residence until Scotland and England united in 1603.  By the 17th century the castle's main use was as a military base.

Within the castle grounds is the Scottish National War Memorial.  It commemorates Scottish soldiers, and those who served with Scottish regiments, who died in both world wars as well as in more recent conflicts.  Over 147,000 soldiers were killed in WWI and another 50,000 were killed in WWII.  No photography is allowed inside of the memorial but trust me it is quite beautiful.

Carlton Hill is just east of the New Town and has lots of stuff to see.  Also from the hill you have great views of the entire city.

The National Monument of Scotland is at the very top of the hill.  It serves as a memorial to the Scottish soldiers and sailors who died fighting in the Napoleonic Wars.  It is modeled after the Parthenon, in Athens, Greece.  Construction began in 1826 but it was left in its unfinished state in 1829 when the funding ran out.  I'm not sure why it still has never been completed.

The Nelson Monument honors Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson and his victory over the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  Admiral Nelson died during the battle.  The tower was built from 1807 to 1815 and is 32 meters (105 feet) high.

In 1831, the Dugald Steward monument was built.  Steward was a Scottish philosopher who taught at the University of Edinburgh.

Holyrood Palace is Queen Elizabeth II's official residence in Edinburgh.  Since the 15th century it has been the principal residence of the Kings and Queens of Scots.  Queen Elizabeth II stays here one week at the beginning of every summer.  The palace is open to the public except when members of the Royal Family are in residence.

The Scottish Parliament building is unique.  Construction began in 1999 and the formal opening was in 2004.  The building has been controversial.  Some people love it and others hate it.  Some didn't like that it is located so close to the royal palace.  Others criticized the choice of architect and the design.  Some didn't like that Chinese granite was used instead of Scottish granite.  Construction was completed more than three years behind schedule.  Initial estimates were that it would cost between £10 million and £40 million (~$15.6 - $62.5 million).  I'm sure that the biggest complaint about the building is that in the end it cost an estimated £414 million (~$648 million).

The Scottish National Gallery was opened to the public in 1859.

In the middle of the Princess Street Gardens is the Scott monument.  The Victorian Gothic memorial, in honor of Sir Walter Scott, was erected from 1840 - 1844.  It is quite ornate and is the world's largest monument that honors a writer.

Edinburgh has a charming urban legend about a Skye Terrier called Greyfriars Bobby.  It goes that upon the death of his owner, the dog spent the next 14 years guarding the grave until the dog died in 1872.  The following year a statue was erected to commemorate the dog.  It looks like the whole story was a publicity stunt by locals to drum up some tourist business.  Whether the story is true or not, probably not, it is a nice little story.

Here's a Rick Steves video I pulled from YouTube that gives more information about Edinburgh, including the castle, the war memorial and the new parliament building.

©Rick Steves

Sunday, April 22, 2012


At the end of the week I'm off to Scotland for three days.  I'm going to stay in Edinburgh which is the capital and the second-largest city.  I've got two all-day tours planned to see the Highlands, Loch Lomond, Loch Ness, some castles and a few other sites.

Scotland is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  The mainland takes up the northern third of Great Britain and shares a border with England.  Scottish territory also includes over 790 islands.  Scotland is about the same size as the Czech Republic; just a wee bit smaller than South Carolina.  Its population is +5.2 million people.  Roughly about the same as Atlanta

The flag was first raised in 1512 and is one of the oldest flags in the world that is still in use.  There has been a long history of fighting between Scotland and England.  Although not historically accurate...think of the movie Braveheart.  In 1707, Scotland became a part of the Kingdom of Great Britain when it entered in to a political union with England.

Scotland does have some autonomy.  Its legal and education systems are different from that of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  It has its own parliament and has some amount of control over income taxes.  Internationally, the UK prime minister is in charge but internally Scotland is led by the 1st minister.  Queen Elizabeth II, as the current UK monarch, is the head of state.

English and Scottish £5 notes
Scotland even has its own money.  Well, sort of.  Natalie lived in Edinburgh for five years and filled me in on this part.  The Bank of England is the UK's central bank and issues banknotes in pound (£) sterling.  However, three Scottish clearing banks issue their own banknotes.  The banknotes differ depending on which bank printed them.  Officially, the Scottish banknotes are valid currency but not legal tender.  They are valid everywhere in Scotland and are more or less accepted in other parts of the UK.  Banks and post offices will exchange Scottish pounds for British pounds.  The coins are the same throughout the United Kingdom.

There are three official languages in Scotland: English, Gaelic and Scots.  Scottish accents can be tough to understand.  I've been on many a conference call with colleagues from Scotland and it can be quite the challenge at times to figure out what is being said.

There is wide debate in Scotland right now about the possibility of declaring full independence.  The SNP (Scottish National Party) holds a majority of seats in parliament right now and plans to hold a referendum in 2014.  If Scotland does become an independent country then it will need to decide if it will join the EU.  But EU membership requires that all new nations must eventually adopt the Euro which is a touchy subject right now in most of Europe.  Here's a video I found on YouTube about the upcoming referendum.
©Russia Today

Saturday, April 21, 2012

IGA Bowling Night

I've been encouraging my various teams at work to come up with some creative team building events.  So far, it's worked pretty well.  So far the Nordics team came up with horseback riding and the Alps team came up with ping pong and badminton nights.  Not too shabby.  Both groups are pretty creative so I'm looking forward to see what they come up with next.

My IGA (IBM Global Account) team decided to go bowling.  Again.  Not that I'm against bowling but it just seems like a crutch.  If you can't think of something then just go bowling.

So last night we were back at the bowling alley.  And even though I wasn't thrilled with the idea it did turn out to be a lot of fun.  

We had over 20 people show up and with a mix of both new people and "old timers" it was a success.  Who knows?  Maybe this is just a bowling kind of team.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Český Krumlov is a small town in South Bohemia.  It was founded in the Middle Ages.  It's about 245 km (152 miles) from Brno.

Its old town is well-known for its architecture, much of which dates back to the 1800s.  During communism, the town fell in to disrepair but a lot of money has been spent on renovations since the Velvet Revolution.  In 1992, Český Krumlov was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After a Saturday morning brunch, Nat and I went with John and Katie to Český Krumlov.  Poor Nat...having to put up with three Americans.  Driving there took a bit longer than it should have because the GPS was telling us to take a highway in Bohemia that is still under construction.  But after a few detours John managed to get us there.

The Vltava River runs through the center of the town.  I'm told that a popular Summer activity is to take a canoe trip on the river from Prague all the way to Český Krumlov.

We went to the visitor's information center and booked a guided evening tour.  We noticed that there seemed to be a lot of Thai people in town.  It turned out that earlier in the day our guide gave a tour to the Thai princess.

Yesterday morning we took a tour of the castle which is the second largest in the country after the Prague castle.  The castle dates back to 1240.

Inside the castle is a Venetian ballroom.  Photography isn't allowed inside of the beautiful theater but I managed to sneak one.

Here's a Rick Steve's video I found on YouTube which shows more about the town and the castle.   

©Rick Steves

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Badminton Night

After the success of last month's ping pong outing, last night my Alps team had a badminton night.  In the USA, badminton is something that one normally does for a few weeks per year as part of a school P.E. (physical education) session.   

But here in Euroland it is a serious sport!  After all, it has been an Olympic event since 1992.  It's not uncommon to see people in the streets, headed to the gym, carrying their own racquets. 

We rented a sports hall at a local school for three hours after work.  There were three badminton courts at our disposal so we played singles and doubles.  One of the guys brought along his stereo so the entire time we played we were also jamming out to Latin and Brazilian music which made it even more fun as people (mostly me) danced around while smacking the birdie back and forth.  Good times! 

This was another successful team building event.  And it's nice to see some creative activities.  I wonder what this team will come up with for next month.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Alps Road Trip Summary

Our four-day road trip through the Alps came to an end.  Here's the recap of our little adventure. 

On Friday, at 11 AM, Nat and I caught a train from Brno to Vienna and then another train on to Graz, Austria.  After work Miran drove up from Slovenia, picked us up at the train station and drove on to Innsbruck, where we spent the night.

After a Saturday morning wander through Innsbruck it was on to Vaduz, Liechtenstein.  After a short side trip to Malbun it was then time to take on SwitzerlandSwitzerland was the 30th country I've visited since moving to Euroland in July 2009!  First a stop in Stein am Rhein followed by a visit to see the Rheinfalls.  We spent the night in Winterthur but it was dark once we got settled in, and since we left early Sunday morning for Bern, so we kind off missed out on seeing it.  Bern was really nice but I could have done without the freak snow storm we had on the way to Lucerne.

On (Easter) Monday morning we made our way to Zürich where we met up with a couple of Nat's friends from New Zealand.  Ray (she) and Kelly (he) both live in Zürich now and met us for coffee and a walk around the old town.  We had to leave at noon because everyone had to work bright and early on Tuesday morning so we headed made our way to Schaan and Balzers in Liechtenstein.  Then back to Innsbruck where we spent an hour in the mountains enjoying the view of the entire city.

Miran dropped Nat and I off at the train station in Salzburg.  I really need to go back to Salzburg because the only thing I got to see is glimpse of a castle from the main train platform.  Kind of a tease, right?  However, I've been told that I should not be allowed in Salzburg until I've actually watched The Sound of MusicI know, I know...but I just haven't ever had the time to see the movie but I promise I will soon.

From Salzburg we changed trains in Vienna and made it back to Brno at 1 AM.  Yes, it was a lot of traveling in a short period of time but it was a great way to see a heck of a lot.  There are over 1,300 photos out on Flickr now.  From Graz to Salzburg we drove 1,612 km (1,001 miles) in four days.

In the USA we equate driving to miles per gallon.  With the metric system, here gas efficiency is measured in the number of liters per 100 km.  I don't remember the exact amount but we ended up paying around €250 (~$300) for gasoline.

Zürich, Switzerland

Zürich is located, in the north central part of Switzerland, at the northwestern tip of Lake Zürich and 30 km (19 miles) north of the Alps.  With 390,000 people it is the country's largest city.  There are almost 2 million people in the metro area.

Lake Zürich
Originally it was called Turicum when it was founded by the Romans in 15 BC.  Today, it is one of the world's largest financial centers.  That may have something to do with the city always ranking so high on the list of the world's most expensive cities.

There are some nice buildings in the old town.  But the city is really known for its trio of interesting churches.

The Romanesque Großmünster church was first built around 820 AD.  According to legend it was originally commissioned by Charlemagne.  Construction on the present building began around ~1100 and it was inaugurated by ~1220.

The Fraumünster was founded in 853 AD.  The five stained glass windows in the abbey are by Marc Chagall and were installed in 1970.  Unfortunately, photography isn't allowed inside.  But take a look at the video below.

The current St. Peter's church was consecrated in 1706 as a Protestant church.  The clock face on the steeple has a diameter of 8.7 m (28.5 feet).  It's actually the largest church clock face in the world.

The Zürich Hauptbahnhof is the country's largest train station.

Since we were in Zürich on Easter Monday we got to experience Zwänzgerle.  It's a tradition where kids challenge adults to break their decorated Easter eggs with a 20-cent coin.  The kid holds out his or her egg and you try to break the egg by throwing your coin at it.  If the coin doesn't stick then the kid gets to keep your money.  If your coin gets stuck then you get to keep the egg and your money.  It's harder than it sounds but I only did it twice.  I did see one child loose his egg...he wasn't too happy about it either.

Here's a Rick Steves video from YouTube giving a bit more detail on Zürich.
©Rick Steves

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lucerne, Switzerland

Lucerne was founded in 750 AD and is located near the Alps in north central Switzerland.  With +76,000 people it is the 8th largest city in the country.

The Reuss River runs through the city and there are a number of bridges.

The most famous bridge is the Kappelbrücke (Chapel Bridge).  It is the oldest covered bridge in Europe.  The 204 m (669 ft) long wooden bridge was originally built in 1333.

Fire damaged in 1993

However, a big portion of it had to be replaced due to fire damage sustained by a discarded cigarette in 1993.

Inside the bridge are 17th century paintings.

Nearby the Kappelbrücke is the 13th century Water Tower.  It is over 34 m (~112 ft) high and was built ~1300.  Over the years it was also used as an archive, a treasury, a prison and a torture chamber.

The Baroque Jesuit Church was built in 1666.

The Hofkirche sits on the site that used to be the first monastery in Lucerne.

The old town is quite colorful with some very cool buildings.

The coolest thing about Lucerne was the Lion Monument.  It is just awesome!  Carved out of natural rock, it commemorates the hundreds of Swiss Guards who were killed during the French Revolution when a mob stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris back in 1792.  It was carved from 1820 to 1821 and it is massive.  It measures 6 meters high and is 10 meters long (~20 feet by 33 feet).

Apparently there is almost an exact copy of the lion at the Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta called the Lion of Atlanta which guards a field containing the remains of unknown Confederate and Union soldiers.  I'll have to try and visit it when I'm back home in September. 

And of course no visit to Switzerland would be complete without the mandatory fondue.  Good times!!

Here's a Rick Steves clip from YouTube to fill in any details I may have missed.

©Rick Steves