A North Sea Spring

Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Travel Writer

Deep in Scotland’s wild and craggy north, Aberdeen is a springtime destination that’s evergreen.

This is a region that is timeless in its wide verdant expanses, its year-round drizzly chill, the awesome history in its forbidding stone castles and their awesome history, and its cheery corner pubs.

It’s a corner of Europe — literally — that manages to be both stoic and warmly welcoming. Even in a place where the all-time record high temperature is 85 degrees Fahrenheit, there’s plenty of fun to be had amid the misty Scottish gloom.

Consider Aberdeen as an offbeat side trip from London, or even Edinburgh. The British discount airline Easyjet, along with British Airways and KLM, flies into Aberdeen. The city is also just a 3 ½-hour train ride from the Scottish capital. Once there, convenient buses connect the airport, the city center, and an array of nearby castles.

Aberdeen’s distinctive granite buildings suggest a stolid uprightness that plays off the city’s artsy, college-town vibe. The University of Aberdeen, one of Europe’s oldest, is the dominant institution here; each year, groups of young Spaniards flock here to perfect their English and join an international student crowd whose presence, in downtown pubs and cafés, lends a modern vibrancy to this ancient city.

A stroll through the university’s Gothic-arched campus is rewarding for its hushed medieval chapels, the peaceful gardens that wind along a placid river, and the free Marischal Museum — worth a peek for its spotlight on Scottish and university history.

Jews have been a steady if tiny part of that history for more than 300 years; though few modern-day Aberdonians are Jewish, a spirit of multicultural tolerance prevails. Any visiting Jews are heartily welcome to help achieve a minyan at the Aberdeen Hebrew Congregation. Small in number but proud and active, the congregation has a synagogue just off the main thoroughfare of Union Street, in the heart of old Aberdeen.

Along the breezy cobblestone boulevards of the old town, the pace is relaxed, the pedestrian scene lively and the shopping a mix of high-street British chains and antique oddities. Even in July, it’s easier to buy a woolen kilt or a hand-knit cabled sweater than a swimsuit or flip-flops in the charmingly musty shops along Chapel or George streets.

You’ll need that sweater down at Aberdeen’s waterfront, where neat rows of 16th-century houses mark one of the most venerable ports on the chilly North Sea. If you’re lucky, a rare glint of sunshine might penetrate the leaden gray sky, whose moody tones of mauve and silver can be extraordinarily picturesque.

The Aberdeen Maritime Museum is situated right on the historic ship row. Where great sailing vessels once set forth, today the oil and gas industry thrives. The Maritime Museum, part of the Aberdeen Art Gallery complex, offers a complex and fascinating look at the city’s long shipbuilding tradition, the evolution of its port, and the various industries that have plied local waters.

The main Aberdeen Art Gallery is worth a trip from anywhere in the UK, at least for connoisseurs of first-rate art. British and European paintings from the 18th through 20th centuries CAP? form the core of a collection begun nearly 400 years ago, and enriched by the generosity of passionate Aberdonian art lovers. A spacious addition to the Victorian-era building displays cutting-edge contemporary art, and the exhibitions frequently showcase Scottish talent.

Through mid-April, the Gallery is hosting “Diane Arbus – Artist Rooms,” a survey of the New York photographer’s legacy. On the lighter side this spring is “Aberdeen’s Designer Wardrobe,” an exhibition of couture frocks culled from the closets of Aberdeen’s most fashionable denizens (through May 7). The best day to visit the Gallery is Thursday when the museum hosts a free “lunch break” concert series in Cowdray Hall.

In fact, music is everywhere in Aberdeen, from the corner pubs to the elegant theaters, which host an impressive lineup for the city’s diminutive size.

Perhaps the most atmospheric of these is the Music Hall, a lavish Victorian-era theater near the Hebrew Congregation. Spring highlights there a program of music by French composers, including Ravel and Debussy, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and cellist Lynn Harrell; the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in a program of Ravel and Spanish composer De Falla, conducted by rising star Stéphane Denevè; and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra performing Italian-themed music by Brahms, Haydn and Mendelssohn.

It’s not all long-hair, either: Aberdeen gets its share of pop stars, folk and the eclectic fare you’d expect from a university town. How about the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain? Fans of the 1960s can catch a leg of this scrappy ensemble’s world tour here on April 30.

As much as there is to do right in Aberdeen, at some point every visitor takes a ride out of town to gander at one of the region’s many castles, which dot the sodden green countryside like so many daisies. There are many to choose from, but 13th-century Dunbottar is my choice — both for the majesty of its moldering medieval tower, and for its dramatic setting, perched atop a rocky cliff above the roiling dark sea, where puffins alight and a few lone gulls keep vigil.

Equally beguiling is the approach to Dunbottar, which is located on the sea cliffs just outside of Stonehaven (an easy bus ride from Aberdeen). Tranquil and unassuming, Stonehaven is a pleasant, picturesque village of artists, professors and fishermen. All of them are helpful in pointing travelers toward the path to Dunbottar, which rambles across mossy green fields and alongside the cliffs until the castle comes into view.

Misty and mysterious, it’s a part of the world that history has long passed by — but one that this visitor won’t soon forget.

An aerial view of Aberdeen and the North Sea, top. Above, a downtown street in the “Granite City.”

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