We wait expectantly, Karen and I. My toe taps, not from impatience, but in rhythm to the tune of “Galway Shawl” as it floats through my mind. I smile at the lady sitting next to us in the platform’s glass overhang as we await the arrival of the train. The woman smiles back, her wire-rimmed glasses refract the ever-present sun. She comments on the lovely weather. Who would have thought. Blazing sun. A cloud-free sky. In Scotland. I never knew such a thing was possible. But we seem to have brought the sun with us across the Atlantic because we’ve been blessed/plagued with it for nearly 3 weeks. The train arrives. We board, amble down the row, and drop into our seats. The train grinds forward. In only three more stops we’ll be in Inverness.
|A wee piper
Inverness is abuzz. A clear summer’s day, the locals are luxuriating in its warmth and the ability to do their grocery shopping in sandals and short sleeves. The tourists are thrilled with the ability to walk down the street without the threat of umbrella spokes spearing them in the eye. I sigh, hoping for at least a little cloud cover, pining to see the gray Highland sky with low-hanging clouds that I love so much. (Yes, I love gray. I love rain. I love drear. And, no, there’s nothing wrong with me.) We pass a wee lad of no more than age 9 or 10 playing the bagpipes. We pause a moment to watch his earnest performance, I drop a Pound coin in his box, and we walk to Marks and Spencer for lunch.
A few clouds have made their shady appearance. I grin at Karen who grins back at me. A breeze breathes against my neck. I can smell the river. We stroll through the cobbled pedestrian street, peering in windows and browsing through shops until our stomachs growl again. We step from the Ortak Jewelry store.
“Leakey’s?” I ask.
Karen nods. I have to ask directions only once before we walk beneath the Leakey’s sign, step into the stone entryway, and open the door to paradise.
|That's me, in the white cardigan, chatting with the ladies at the desk. Paradise, yes? Thanks, Karen, for this picture!
This is indeed my paradise. Floor to ceiling books with a wood-burning stove nested in the middle of the room, surrounded by heaps of firewood. Karen and I stand still, breathe in the scent of paper, leather spines, firewood, and, in the distance, a hint of coffee. I walk straight to the poetry section in search of Seamus Heaney (whom I hadn’t been able to find in Ireland, ironically). Amongst these shelves and shelves of books I would willingly lose myself for days. I am surrounded by the names and words of Tennyson, Burns, Yeats, Sassoon, Browning, Keats, Brooke, de la Mare, Chaucer, Kipling. I touch their pages, read a few verses, return them to their shelves, wishing I could carry them all home with me. I painfully purchase only two (wondering how I’ll manage even their small weight in my luggage), then climb the spiral staircase to meet Karen in the café for a cup of tea. This is indeed my paradise.
We meander through a graveyard before crossing the river. We pause on the bridge over the River Ness, listen to the water, watch its pleasant flow, feel the bounce of the bridge beneath the heavy feet of those walking here. The sun is hidden behind thick, white, clumpy clouds. The breeze is even cooler now, though the pieces of sky that are able to peek through the clouds are still assuredly blue. I relish the unhurriedness of the day. No pestering questions. No deadlines. No boxes to check nor lists to make. We walk leisurely and listen to the conversation between the city and the river.
The restaurant is humming. Set next to the river by the Ness Bridge, Rocpool is the place to come for fine eating. (If you don’t believe me, ask Gordon Ramsay how he enjoyed the times he has visited.) Yet, as I peruse the menu, I’m quickly overwhelmed. So many things to try. Everything sounds, well, perfect. Steven—owner, chef, and suave host of Rocpool*—stops at our table for a wee chat.
“Steven, I can’t decide,” I say, and Karen echoes the same. “Can you choose something for us?”
“Right, Pet,” he nods. “Anything you don’t like?”
“Liver,” we both chime. “And eggplant,” Karen adds.
Steven smiles. And what he brings us sets us soaring. The food is just as Steven described: local produce prepared with a Mediterranean twist. I’ll leave the pictures to do the talking because I’m going to sit here a moment and relive the culinary ecstasy.
|Scallops, Angus beef, venison, & creme brulee. Be still my heart.
As is evident by now, Inverness is one of my favorite, favorite, favorite cities in the world. (And I’ve sampled many a city.) Incidentally, I am not the only one to feel this way. Lorna Martin, in her article in the UK magazine NewStatesman asserts, “Inverness, the unofficial capital of the Highlands, is now the fastest-growing city in western Europe. Scotland's new Shangri-La is expanding at a dizzying pace.”**
So, I guess the rest of the world is finally realizing what I already knew. And if you ever make it to this captivating unofficial capital of the Highlands, have a cup of tea at Leakey’s (give a wave to their volumes of poetry), and visit Steven at Rocpool. Tell him I said hello, and prepare yourself for a warm smile and an unforgettable experience.
*Steven (and Rocpool) is on Twitter and occasionally he'll tweet photos of some of his creations. Follow him. Twitter just got a whole lot more delicious.
|Steven hard at work.
**Martin’s article is an interesting read that offers an interesting perspective on the culture within Inverness—is it a perfect city? No. But a city I love nonetheless.