Wednesday, April 27, 2011

VoM2: Farewell To Ireland

As I pack up to leave Ireland in the morning — and begin my 10-day transit to the Faroe Islands! — I thought I’d share this photo from a lovely walk I had in the woods yesterday. Enjoy, and stay tuned!

Monday, April 25, 2011

VoM2: Belfast, Northern Ireland

I readily admit to knowing practically nothing about Belfast before I came here. I’ve now crammed three different tours of the city into my day — and learned a ton! — but somehow feel like I know less than I did before. I can’t remember the last time I was so fascinated by a city. I hardly know what to write about it.

Once one of the wealthiest and most prominent places in the world, Belfast has suffered through decades — centuries, even — from just about every kind of difficulty there can be, both external and internal.

The downtown core is very lively and architecturally striking, surrounded on one side by a run-down industrial zone that is showing some signs of rejuvenation, and on the other by devastated neighborhoods — many still divided by immensely high walls — that are showing signs of tense yet hopeful coexistence.

Belfast is famous for its murals — large paintings on all different kinds of buildings — largely of a political nature. Many have been painted over with more “neutral” historical or artistic themes, but enough polarized murals remain to remind one that the conflict is not far under the surface.

I hope the peace process continues, and that I will be able to return soon to explore much more of this astonishing city. Meanwhile, I will take a train back to Dublin tomorrow and be in position for the ferry that will be the first leg of my crazy transit to the Faroe Islands. Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

VoM2: Northern Ireland

I wrapped up my tour of Ireland’s west coast by catching the last train back to Dublin on Friday night. After a very short night in town, I caught the earliest train north to Belfast, Northern Ireland — back in the UK! — yesterday morning, then immediately got on a bus going further north along the Antrim Coast. It was a pretty fast-paced, rigorous haul, but I’m really glad I did it.

The drive up through “The Glens” was simply stunning, one of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever seen. It is at least on par with the the coasts of Cornwall and Wales that I’ve recently visited, and even rivals my beloved Scotland! It is also an area that has immediately shot to the top of my “gotta come back here and spend some quality time” list.

Two highlights of the day were an astonishing geologic formation on the north coast called “The Giant’s Causeway” and an area famous for its salmon fishing and limestone quarry called “Carrick-A-Rede.” I could have sat on the bluffs all day, just looking out at the North Atlantic and watching the waves crash on the rugged shores. A coastal walk would be fantastic!

Considering how beautiful Northern Ireland is, I’m a bit surprised that it isn’t as heavily developed for tourism as it could be. My guess is that its history of conflict has hindered both its development and its reputation in the tourism industry. The recent peace process seems to be working and the general sense I get is that “things are continuing to get better.” I certainly hope so for the sake of the people here, but I also hope it doesn’t get too touristy before I come back!

Friday, April 22, 2011

VoM2: Aran Islands

I continued my current theme of north Atlantic islands with a day-trip to Inis Mor, the largest of the three Aran Islands just off Galway on Ireland’s west coast. A visit there has long been on my list, and though I’m not sure what I might have expected, it took me by complete surprise.

The Aran Islands are essentially big slabs of rock, scraped clear by the last ice age some 10,000 or so years ago. About 1500 years ago, the Vikings landed there and decided to set up shop. I can’t imagine what they might have been thinking, because the place had to be completely inhospitable with no arable land. In fact, I learned that virtually every usable plot on the island has been man-made by dragging sand and seaweed up from the beaches over the course of centuries. There is no shortage of rocks, however, and these have been used in abundance to create a ubiquitous network of irregularly shaped, mostly tiny plots. Almost all the walls are dry-stacked, many quite solid but as many more with gaps, allegedly to allow the wind to blow through them so they aren’t knocked down.

One of the island’s main features is the fortress of Dun Aonghusa, an immense circular stone structure perched on the edge of some very high, very sheer cliffs. It’s obviously impregnable, should any other crazy folks of old have thought about inhabiting the island. It is also one of the oldest, best preserved ancient forts in the world.

Tourism is the main — almost only — industry in the Aran Islands, and the locals assured me the place is crazy nuts during the high season. I don’t know that I can see much value in spending a lot of time there — a long day felt like enough — but I’m very glad I was finally able to visit and see yet another example of how people have adapted to high-latitude coastal life.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

VoM2: Cliffs of Moher

Further up the coast, we stopped at the Cliffs of Moher, claimed to be the highest sea cliffs in Western Europe. The weather wasn’t perfect, but still good enough to appreciate some fantastic geology!

VoM2: Irish Wolf Hound

On our way north along the west coast yesterday, we stopped at Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. The castle didn’t do much for me — perhaps when you’ve seen a hundred castles you’ve seen them all? — but I did get to meet a proper Irish Wolf Hound. Yes, indeed, they are very tall and quite large overall. I can’t say he was particularly outgoing, but what can you ask of a dog who has to put up with tourists all day?

On a separate note, the woman on the right — dressed in “traditional” garb — was our guide in the castle. Her name is Anya, and she is from… Germany! This offers an example of something I’ve noticed here in Ireland: The majority of working people I’ve met — including those in what you might expect to be “Irish” jobs (like being a guide at a historical/cultural center!) — are actually not Irish. My unscientific tally tracks them as being mainly from the Baltics and the Balkans, with a few western Europeans mixed in. I’m still not at all clear about what’s going on with the economy here, but if the mixed-nationalities of the workers I’ve met — plus the astonishing array of languages I’ve heard on the street — are any indication, Ireland is in the middle of a robust cultural homogenization. If I come up with any hypotheses I’ll let you know… Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

VoM2: Ireland Tour South And West

So far, my tour is going pretty well. It’s actually kind of fun to have somebody else handle all the logistics for a few days. I’m especially enjoying the fact that there are no plans in the evenings, so I can easily have my alone time.

We left Dublin yesterday on a 7am train (Ugh!) and pulled into Cork before 10am. We transferred to a bus which took us on a quick tour of the city (nothing great) then to the castle at Blarney (famous, yes, but also nothing great). From there we went to Cobh for a very interesting visit in the heritage center’s exhibits about the famine and emigration (both really, really big deals!) and the Titanic (which made it’s last stop there). Two more little trains got us to Killarney, a nice town to spend a nice evening.

This morning, we loaded onto a bus at the reasonable hour of 10am and drove around the “Ring of Kerry.” The driver was very informative, and didn’t try to be “funny” (if you know what I mean), so the day was nice. I can’t say I was particularly struck by the scenery, but that may be from the combination of the less-than-perfect haziness and the fact that I’ve so recently had such stunning views in Wales and Cornwall.

Nevertheless, what little I’ve experienced of non-Dublin Ireland so far is quite pleasant. The tour continues tomorrow… Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

VoM2: Temple Bar, Dublin

I continued my theme of “Dublin tourist” yesterday with a thorough walk around much of the city that’s not covered in the guided tours. You get out of “the zone” pretty quickly and into areas that seem to be mostly residential and small offices. One building looks pretty much like the rest, as do the many, many pubs that are ubiquitous. Dublin is a compact city and very walkable, with some nice parks and green spaces spread about. If you stick to “the zone”, though, you’ll pretty much see what you want to.

I finished up the evening by spending some time in “Temple Bar” which, despite the implication of its name, is an area of the city and not just a bar. It’s the nightlife focus of Dublin, densely packed with restaurants, clubs, theaters and, of course, bars. Although there were a few old-folks like me scattered about, the clientele was mostly young people of many nationalities, parading around for each other as they are generally wont to do. There’s music everywhere, some of it good.

Overall, I like Dublin. I give it strong marks for its history, broad international flavor, compactness and ease of getting around, plus, of course, “saints” Guinness and Jameson. Take off a few points for general drabness of architecture, food, etc. and there you have it. It’s an easy and rewarding place to visit, especially if you’ve not been spoiled by many of the world’s truly great cities.

Think I’m done being a “tourist”?… Just wait, there’s more! Early in the morning I’m headed to the train station to join a week-long tour of the west and a bit of Northern Ireland. While I’m in the mode, I decided to continue letting somebody else handle all the logistics for a change. It ought to be an interesting experience for me, eh? Check the map and stay tuned!

Friday, April 15, 2011

VoM2: Dublin, Ireland

I think it’s fair to say that I’m normally in “traveler” mode: I go where I go, see what I see, work things out on my own and fend for myself. Since my time in Ireland is short, I’ve decided to give being a “tourist” a try.

For each the past three days in Dublin, I’ve taken a “guided walking tour” around the city: a “historical” walk that was excellent and gave me my first good sense of the history of both this city in particular and the country in general; a “city highlights” walk that was superficial but okay; and a “literary walk” that would almost certainly have been more interesting if I had a clue about any of the famous writers who lived here!

I’ve also spent two days on the “hop-on/hop-off” tourist bus, seeing the sights and at least briefly checking out museums, cathedrals, parks, historical monuments, the Guinness brewery and the jail. Dublin is a very interesting city and I’ve enjoyed my time here so far. I can’t say I’ve found great food yet, but there’s plenty of good alcohol readily available.

I haven’t taken many photos, mostly because Dublin doesn’t strike me as very photogenic. It’s pretty compact, so it’s hard to get good perspective on buildings that are right in front of you. It’s also not very colorful, so there haven’t been many sweeping vistas or city panoramas that have caught my eye. Also, I have to admit, there’s only so far I’m willing to go as far as looking like a tourist!

I’ll keep my eye out for better pictures to share with you. I’ll also try to synthesize some observations that are rattling around unformed in my brain. Stay tuned!

Monday, April 11, 2011

VoM2: Northwest Wales

Over the last few days I’ve worked my way north through Wales, first across lush rolling farmland, then through austere mountain woodlands. This is an insanely beautiful country and I’m very glad I’ve finally spent some time here. I’m sure I’ll be back!

Mixed in with the landscape photos are two highlights: a closed road sign that sprang up out of nowhere and required a lengthy detour that was so gorgeous I was delighted to take it; and, the steam train I rode to near the top of Snowden which I then walked down. A very different view of a complex landscape!

I’ve had extremely good luck with the weather and hope it holds for my ferry to Ireland in the morning… Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

VoM2: On The Beach

A couple of friends having a grand time on the beach… It was hard to tell which of them was having more fun!

VoM2: Marloes, Wales

“Ardderchog!”* … The southwest coast of Wales near Marloes!

(*Welsh for “Amazing!” or “Delightful!” or something like that… So I’ve been told!)

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

VoM2: St. Davids, Wales

I drove west from Groes-Faen on Monday, mostly through fog and light rain, out to a tiny city on the southwest peninsula of Wales called St. Davids. Yesterday’s weather was a nasty combination of cold, wind and rain, so I spent the day inside doing chores and catching up with myself.

The sun returned this morning, so I hit the Pembrokeshire Coast Path for a nice long walk. The terrain around here is just the kind of rugged coast that I like so much and never seem to get enough of.

As usual, I enjoyed making a few friends along the way; mostly horses and dogs with the occasional human thrown in for good form.

In St. Davids itself, I took a quick stroll around the cathedral and the ruins of the bishop’s palace, yet another fantastic example of how much power and wealth the church once had. I’m going to stay in the area for another day tomorrow before heading north on Friday. Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 03, 2011

VoM2: Up A Hill, Down A Mountain

There’s a movie called “The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain” and the story behind it is that an English cartographer told the residents of a Welsh village their local “mountain” was only a “hill” because it was a few feet short of the required height. The offended community changed that by adding an earthen “bump” on its top to make the necessary elevation.

It’s a lovely little mountain and “The Welsh” and I enjoyed a nice walk up to the windy top!