Monday, December 15, 2014

Irish Springs (Come From Irish Rain)

Ireland! It's a quarter of my heritage and half of Mary's, but we've made it almost two years in without a visit. The time had come to change that.

Considering that it was Ireland in November, we had pretty decent weather. Mornings were consistently rainy, but the evenings cleared up and even brought some sunshine.

Since we had geared for it, the rain wasn't much of a challenge and we still had a fun and full journey. It did impact picture quality a bit, as grey-sky shots tend to come off a bit dour. It allowed me to get all artsy-fartsy with things reflected in puddles though, so at least we have that.

While we were based in Dublin, we spent most of our time elsewhere. The first day was all about Kilkenny.

Kilkenny is known for their castle and their beer brewery, both of which we visited.

As with most castles, theirs started small several hundreds of years ago and then grew and changed over time. Some rooms were done up with replicas of Victorian furnishings, which was roughly the last time it was occupied. Unlike many castles, this one is owned by the town thanks to the former owners recognizing that they could not afford to restore it and selling it for fifty pounds.

In the castle we got to see the second-longest room in Ireland, which was fun for us since we love qualified extremes.

The brewery tour ended up being a bit cheesy and touristy, with Disney-style animatronics and videos. We had hoped this would be a bit more process-focused like the scotch tour we did in Scotland, but twas not to be. If you ignored the cheesey bits there was some neat history though, so we did manage to have a good time. Good beer, too.

Our second day was spent in Howth. This is a small town on a peninsula sticking into the Irish Sea North of Dublin. And when I say small, I mean it had roughly two streets, stretched along the coast by the busy harbor.

For tourists there are two sites: The rocky coastal hiking path and the radio museum.

The museum was supposed to be closed due to it being off-season, so we headed for the trail. The coast here is very rocky and blustery, and it was amazingly beautiful. Probably a quarter of the photos we took were from the few hours we were on this walk, because it was just so striking. The rocky coasts, views back of the tiny town, and crashing surf on rocks really spoke to us.

Back in town, we made a glorious discovery. It was Science Week in Ireland! This meant that not only was the Radio Museum open, but the admission charge was waived. This is the kind of tiny, hyper-focused museum that Mary and I love (see also: Pencil Museum, Canal Museum, the Postcard Museum Betrayal.)

The museum is located in an old tower on a cliff above the town, which was built to fend off a Napoleanic invasion that never came. It consists of two rooms stacked floor to ceiling with radios of every shape and form. We saw some built into small picture frames to hide from occupying armies, elaborate fancy ones, and plain-old work-a-day models from basically the entire history of the device.

It was exactly what we wanted from this kind of museum, and we were so very lucky to have had it open.

On the final day, we spent some time in Dublin proper. We visited the museum of archeology, the highlight of which was of course the bog mummies. We've both heard of and been fascinated by these, so to see them in person (they had four on display) was pretty amazing. What gets preserved (hair, leather) is astounding. Very neat.

The other main site we visited in Dublin was Trinity College. Shown here is The Long Room, which is the first-longest room in Ireland. It's the library, but the real highlight was the display on The Book of Kells.

The Book of Kells is an illustrated manuscript from around 800 AD. That's a long time ago. The book is at the end of a very well laid-out exhibit, which really goes into detail on how the book was made as well as the significance of its iconography. It was a fantastic visit, and I strongly urge anyone in town to check it out. Sadly, no photos are allowed.
Overall, we had a great time on the trip. The sites were cool, the scenery amazing, and the food well above what we expected. Toss on those wellies and mackintosh, bust our your brolly, and head to Ireland!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Czeching Into the Xander Zone

After many travels around Europe, we finally pulled the trigger on Prague. We've been wanting to visit this historic city, as everyone we know who has been there has loved it. Turns out we love it too. We even ended up with mostly great weather, despite traveling a bit past the shoulder season.

Prague is the rare city in Europe that was not heavily damaged during World War II. Because all of its industry was well outside of town, very little bombing happened near the city center.

Even the Jewish quarter with its ancient cemetery remained, though for a chilling reason -- Hitler planned to use them for his Museum to the Extinct Jewish People. Because of this, he kept not only the structures intact but also the the artifacts within them.

The cemetery is a maze of tumbledown headstones packed in tighter than seems possible. It's quite the sight to see, though the flood of tourists can lesson the impact a bit (says a tourist.)

We toured a few memorial sites in the Jewish distrct, as well as this building near the cemetery which documents Jewish burial rites.

It was informative to see a Jewish Quarter so intact, even if the history of why it's that way is dark.

Turning to brighter things, this is the astronomical clock on the old town hall. After reading the instructions in our guidebook on how to read it, I can honestly say I still have no idea what it says. There are dials for date and season, for the sunrise and set, for the time in multiple formats, and even to tell you who the saint of the day is. Convenient! Now if only I could read it.

Every hour, the bells chime and a series of apostles parades by two open windows.

And here they are! We toured the city hall and climbed the tower, so we actually got the see the hour chime from inside. Mary was dismayed to discover that the apostles had no legs (only the torsos are visible to the viewers below) but I found it rather delightful.

From the tower you could really get a sense of how attractive the old city is. The buildings are a mix of gothic, baroque, and art neuveau.

It's quite a pleasure to just walk the streets, since you are almost guaranteed to come across elaborately decorated facades, often in bright contrasting colors.

Meanwhile, beneath the city...old Roman roads! In ancient times, the city was prone to frequent flooding from the river that runs through it. To solve this, they raised the entire town, burying the much older Roman city below thirty feet of earth.

Many of the buildings in the oldest part of town were built atop the old ones and still use the old houses as cellars. In some cases even sections of the old Roman road were covered and kept as well. Neat!

Another major site in town is the Charles Bridge. This (now) pedestrian crossing serves as one of the busiest public squares in town, with tourists and craftspeople selling their wares jammed together.

The bridge connects the town with the castle, and serves as a lovely vantage point at all hours of the day.

It also served as the setting for the finale of the landmark of cinema Triple X, which I noticed without prompting from any guidebooks. I resisted the urge to photoshop in a solar-powered submarine, though we did have to watch it when we got home. Brilliant as always.

Rather than being one building, the castle is actually a complex of them perched on a hill across the river from town. This includes government buildings in old palaces, several beautiful churches, and striking views of the old town.

It's a bit of a hike up to it, but well worth it.

While much of the joy of Prague is from simply wandering its streets, we did see some sites as well. One interesting one was the Museum of Communism.

Here they tracked the rise of communism, daily life during it's reign, and it's eventual fall. The Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) was under communist rule from the end of World War II until the late 80s and from the interesting and well laid out displays, it didn't seem like much fun.

Visiting the museum made me realize how little I really know about the history of communism and socialism in Europe.

Another site was the Mucha Museum, and this window in the main cathedral by Mucha. He was a Bohemian-born artist who championed the Art Neuveau movement and mostly worked on large posters.

We recognized his posters from various other places, but seeing his work presented and interpreted in the museum was very cool. It was also awesome to see many of his stylistic touches (spirals, framing of figures, striking color and line work) on display in the stained glass format.

Overall Prague was a great city, and a great trip.

It was such a joy to walk and wander, and the city felt vibrant and alive, even late at nights after dinner. It may have taken us a while to get there, but it won't take as long to get back for another visit.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hunting the Duck Ness Monster

Though Mary and I visited Scotland last year with my parents, we spent that entire visit in Edinborough. When my brother and his wife suggested a driving trip that took us through some more outlying and rural areas, we were in.

The agenda was aggressive, the car was manual, and the devolution vote was on our last day there; what could go wrong? It turns out, very little would.

We took the train up to Edinburgh late in the afternoon and spent the night there. The first stop the following day was Stirling to see their castle.

The castle was interesting, with sections built over different times having very different feelings, though much of what we saw were reproductions.

One thing that we saw the originals of was a series of bass relief carvings that were used to line the ceiling of the palace. They are now on display in a gallery, with replicas like these up on on the ceiling. These heads had been carved in the 16th century, and it's uncommon for us to see wooden relics from so long ago in such good shape.

After Stirling we continued on North and West, pushing into an area of rather great natural beauty. This picture is of Loch Lomand, one of a chain of lakes stretching across the country. This area reminded us quite a bit of our trip to the Lake District, though it was even less developed.

Mary and I were not aware of it, but apparently the "You take the high road, I'll take the low road" song is about (and named after) Loch Lomond. It seems that everyone but us knew this, which caused "You know, like in the song" to become a running joke between us.

Sprinkled throughout the mid- and high-lands are a large number and variety of castles, both ruined and intact. For some reason, it was the ruined ones that really captivated us.

This one was barely signed, and only reachable by a half-mile hiking track. Sometimes, the loch (which surrounds the small peninsula it's on) floods the area, and this path becomes a causeway through it.

The castle itself was mostly done-in by time, though a rather significant lightning storm was blamed as the final straw in its decline. You can't see them in this photo, but there was a flock of sheep grazing in the grass by the castle, which just lent it an amazingly gothic and romantic feeling.

After spending the night at an inn close to not much, we pressed on into Oban. This is a coastal town with a rare in-town scotch distillery. Mary and I were keen to go on a distillery tour while on the trip, and this was our chance.

The tour was fun and informative, and involve several quite tasty samples. Also tasty were the seafood lunches we ate on this pier, procured from a stand that gets its fish fresh from the boats that dock there. Scotland has a lot of seafood thanks to its position in the North Sea and it did not disappoint.

From Oban, we drove North to the highlands through Glencoe pass. This is a stretch of road through a quite breathtaking section of the highlands, surrounded by craggy hills and almost entirely devoid of trees. Here and there streams cut through the rocky ground, and many trails tempted us to go off on an adventure. Sadly, we didn't have enough time to get too far off the main road here, but I could definitely imagine spending a few days just hiking around this area, discovering it's desolate beauty.

We spent that night in the small town of Fort Agustus, which is located where the canal linking two lochs lets out through a series of locks. Loch locks.

What are you seeing here is almost the entirety of the town, but I was quite taken with it. We visited the small canal museum, and in the morning went for a walk in the mist to watch them open the locks for the various boats passing through.

Perhaps the highlight for Mary was that the loch Fort Agustus is on is....

...Loch Ness. Most of this day ended up being spent along the shores of this very long lake, which stayed covered in mist until well after midday.

We had no Nessy sightings, so I had to come up with an artist's rendition using a picture of a duck that we took later in the day.

Further up the coast of Loch Ness lay Urquhart Castle. This was another ruin, though a much more popular one (with a visitor's center!) It covered a rather large plot of land and had very good signage explaining its history and how it grew and changed over time.

Though the picture here is quite dour, the weather improved greatly while we were visiting and we ended up with full sun. With the fog burned off you could appreciate the stunning (and strategic) setting on Loch Ness.

The final city of the visit was Inverness. Inverness is more of a working city and transportation hub than a cultural city, but it does have a fantastic if small pre-historic site: Clava Cairns. This is a small set of 4000 year old stone circles which were used in burial rituals.

Unlike other stone circles we have been to, these ones are actually built-up stone donuts with narrow passageways leading to the center of them.

They were also not swarmed with tourists like some circles (I'm looking at you, Stonehenge) so it was a lot easier to imagine the spiritual draw the sites must have had on the people who used them.

So what about that Devolution vote? All through the trip, we saw the marketing materials for both sides of the argument, often on the same sign posts.

If you were to cast the vote by the number of each side's signs we saw, then it looked like splitting off was in the lead, though in the end the 'no's took it.

Interestingly, beyond the signage and one instance of someone cycling through Inverness shouting "Vote Yes!" we did not see or hear anyone openly discussing the vote. Maybe they didn't want to scare off the tourists.

Ultimately, it was a good trip with no drama.

My brother did a great job with the wrong-side driving, and we were able to apply the hard lessons learned on our driving trip in Italy to help making escaping the larger towns less stressful.

The countryside was lovely, and we saw many great things while still leaving with the desire to return. Really, what else can you ask from a trip?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Salzburg: Title Redacted At Request of Spouse

We are just about to head out on our next trip, which means it's do-or-die time to write up the last one! Said last trip was to Salzburg, and it was a few weeks ago in late August.

To get there we flew into Munich then took a train over the Austrian border to Salzburg. On the Sunday we were there we then did a day trip to The Eagles Nest, which meant taking a bus back over the border (this time the Southern one) into Germany. The Eurozone meant that we didn't get any extra passport stamps out of it though. Stupid Euro.

Salzburg is located quite near the alps, and is nestled in between a river and a cliff. This gave it a highly defensible position during times that was needed, but also restricted its growth quite noticably. The scenic old center of town is quite compact, and the fortress built on the cliff above looms over it all.

Mozart was born here and, as we found in Vienna, they are much more cultured than I am. While we were there they were showing free operas projected on a large screen in one of the squares and every seat was taken.

The town center itself is very Italianate due to the egos of the rulers. They were important, and wanted to look the part. They brought in craftsmen from Italy to design and build many of the squares and fountains, and it definitely has that feel.

The main center is a series of connected squares with small roads running off higgely piggely. This view is actually of the largest square looking into a second one (the two buildings in the background are pinching the intersection between them.)

When you live next to a giant cliff, sometimes you need to get creative. The stone of the cliff was quarried and used for building materials, but they also would build some things right into it. This is a very old portion of a church (labeled catacombs, but I believe more like a monastic home) which was carved into the face.

In general we have found our trips in Austria to be a bit less church-filled than some of our others in Europe, but we did quite like this one. Graves in the cemetery (see the cluster of markers in the bottom left corner) were all very well kept and elaborately planted with vibrant flowers. The church also has a bakery that's been around for hundreds of years, so how could we not love it?

As per usual when in Europe and near a tall thing, we were compelled to climb it. In this case though, it was the cliff rather than a church tower. The top of the cliff is covered almost entirely by a series of interconnected parks, with some museums and restaurants punctuating them. We had coffee at a very fancy place one afternoon to enjoy the view, then had dinner another night at a much more casual joint where we sat at cliff-side picnic tables and ate weird bread dumplings with delicious meat stews.

The views over the city from up here are just amazing, and I could not get enough of them. I literally took hundreds of photos, most of which I am sparing you.

Back on the ground, we took a strange statue tour of the city.

These two are no doubt from an opera (most of the statues in town seem to be,) but because of the staining from the trees behind they are super creepy. There was a whole series of these statues, and they were amazing in their un-intended spookiness.

Next up for odd statues was the "dwarf garden" at the palace. You might naively think that this would be a garden with smaller varieties of plants on display, but no. This was a garden with life-sized statues of the dozen or so dwarfs that served in the court of the Prince Archbishop.

They are apparently significant because their clothing is known to be incredibly accurate to the period where they were sculpted, but it's a bit hard to get past the grotesquerie of it. This guy had a goiter and is shown throttling a bird of some form, and almost every statue was carved disfigured in some way.

As I mentioned above, Sunday was given over almost entirely to a trip to the Eagles Nest. This is a tea house that one of Hitler's advisors built for him, high above his house in Bavaria.

The trip started with visiting some of the bunkers that the Nazi's used, which were a series of caverns and tunnels spiderwebbed under the entire area. It was interesting to see the scale of them, and to also compare them to the Churchill War Rooms in London. Whereas the ones in London had been preserved with the original furnishings, these had been stripped bare after the war.

Getting from the bunkers to the nest involved a bus ride up a winding, one-lane road that clung to the side of the mountain. I have learned, as husbands must do if they wish to survive, that poking my wife and saying "Wow, look at that drop off!" is not a good thing to do. I found it exhilarating and stunning, but was smart enough to keep that to myself on the drive.

At the peak, you are faced with stunning views of the Alps and some of the towns in the valley floor below them. We had some clouds, but they came and went and really only served to add to the majesty of the place. Despite its dark history, it really is amazingly stunning.

It was also here that I discovered the three things that my wife has in common with Hitler: She is mildly afraid of heights; she is mildly claustrophobic; and she has walked the halls of The Eagles Nest. She is also unwilling to have a blog post titled "Three Things My Wife Has In Common With Hitler", though I'm not sure where Adolf would have fallen on that one.

Back in Sazlburg, we spent some quality time back up on the cliff and in the fotress. It was strategically placed to be very well protected, and is immensely imposing. It also means it can require a lot of cardio to get there.

The museums there were only ok, but the setting and the views were spectacular enough that it could not have mattered less.

Overall it was a great visit to a fairy tale setting with wonderful food, and we loved it.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Dextrous Dexter's Lake District Adventure

After a bit of a lull in travel thanks to The Incident, we are back in the saddle. We've done one or two country walks outside of London. While they were lovely they didn't quite manage to get a post, but they did inspire a trip to the Lake District in northern England.

For a change, this post has almost no buildings in it and also features pictures of humans. Weird!

This picture pretty much sums up the Lake District, minus the lakes (and sheep.) Large open hilltops with woods at the base, small one-street towns, and green grassy grazing lands. And stone walls.

This particular town is Grassmere, which is known for it's unique style of gingerbread which you can only get there. It is possible that we took the bus an extra thirty minutes just to try it. Worth it.

Hikes in England are not like hikes in America. Almost all of them lead through private farm lands on permissive paths. Usually, these need to cross the boundaries between fields, which means getting through (or more often over) fences. It's common on most of our walks to see stiles, which are a kind of half-ladder, half-stairs contraption.

With so many stone walls I was curious to see how they managed this here. Wall stiles! Notice the sign asking you to keep near the wall: these guys aren't cemented together, so they need all the help physics can give them.

This is pretty much just a stone wall glamour shot for my mother-in-law. Hi Pat! Click on the picture for a larger view!

These walls went pretty much everywhere in the area. No matter how far up a hill or into what felt like unpopulated land you got, you could rely on there being a stone wall to reference. It was both scenic and quite useful.

As expected, the area had a lot of outdoorsy tourists. Unexpectedly, it also had an amazing number of visiting dogs. This one is Dexter, who was very excited to climb the Cat Bells but not as excited to get on the boat that took us there. He ended up getting carried onto (and off) the boat, but had no problems with the rocky scrambles up the hill. He made better time than us.

Here's Mary part-way up the Cat Bells. Just to the right of her head is the low peak, which was our terminus. Behind that is a higher peak, which we'd like to do on a return trip when we actually plan for a nine-mile walk (the low peak is a three-mile one.) This hike had some noticably steep bits where we had to scramble over rocks to get up, but the views were great.

And here's that view. I have been playing around with the panorama feature on my phone in hopes that it would better capture the sweeping majesty, though somtimes it's just really good at capturing odd visual effects (the distortion on the woman up the path, the orange smear that was her son) and Mary trying to duck to not get captured. Still, it manages to show the beauty of the lake (Derwent Water) on the left and the farm valley on the right.

On the same day as the Cat Bells we also hiked up Walla Crag. This was a less popular, but no less stunning climb. Once we got up into the hills a bit, it was easy to feel a million miles from everywhere.

From the peak we had a nice view down over the same lake as above, this time from the other side.

Here is that view without a doofus in the way. In the top right corner you can just make out the small buildings of Keswick where we stayed.

We will know that we are done with England when we stop being amused by sheep. Sheep are all over here (well, not in London) and we see them on almost every country walk we do.

The Lake District took this to an extreme, and we even saw them in the towns grazing in church yards. The English folks I know feel that sheep are pretty pedestrian and boring, but for us they are still adorable and new.

On our final full day there, we did a six-mile walk which turned out to be a ten-mile hike. Oops! This walk took us almost the entire length of Ullswater (seen here in distort-o-rific panorama,) which is further South in the region.

While I loved the cliff-side setting with sharp drop-offs beside us (Amazing views! It feels like you are walking on nothing!) Mary found it a bit more harrowing. Between the drop offs and unexpected length it was a little stressful, but it did end up being gorgeous.

At the end of the Ullswater walk, we walked a little on a very well-paved path to see the Aira Force waterfall.

After the unexpectedly long first hike, we were pleased to have one that was a bit more level and even. The falls were beautiful, as were the bridges and rapids around them.

Overall we had a fantastic trip, and would highly recommend the area to anyone looking for a nice get away in England. We had worried a bit about our ability to get around just by bus, but in the end it was a non-issue. We're hopeful that we can sneak in a trip back before we return to America, but time will tell. There are still so many places to go!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Duck Fight!

While I haven't posted about them yet, we've actually been taking some long walks in the outlying areas of London this summer. This Saturday we had great weather, so we headed to Oxford to do a walk along several of the canals and to check out the colleges.

The canal walk was lovely, if a bit muddy. We saw canals, pastures, really narrow houseboats, ducks fighting, and an abandoned nunnery (alternative suggested title for the post: Get Your Nun On! Get Your Nun On!)

This walk wasn't as scenic as our last which was through a river valley, but it was level and we had great weather so I am not complaining too much.

We had lunch at a pub in Wolvercote, where we also spied this awesome thatched roof cottage. Thatch holds a kind-of mythical quality of English-ness for those of us from America, though we almost never see it.

Back in town we visited a few museums. The first was this one, which seems perfectly normal from the outside, but opens up into glass-ceilinged splendor once you enter.

The collection was a hodge-podge of fossils, stuffed animals (including a dodo!), and other samples. It was a very classical idea of what a musuem should be.

Further back, one reaches the ethnographic collection which I can only describe as straight out of Indiana Jones. It's a jumble of glass-fronted cabinets in one huge, dimly lit hall, with tiny passages winding between them. The cabinets have loose themes (models of housing, animal representations) and are jam packed with samples from many different regions. It's an amazing thing to see, though sadly none of my photos came out due to the light.

The colleges themselves were also nice. I am still trying to get my head around how education works in this country, and having been to both Cambridge and Oxford now hasn't really straightened that out at all for me. Still, nice buildings.

We were there a touch too late to tour any of the interiors of the colleges or the main church, so we ended up grabbing tea and heading out. All in all, a lovely day trip.

Update: Mary pointed out that I neglected to record our adventure coming home. We got to the Oxford station just in time to catch one back to London, and then had it stop repeatedly due to a door sensor. We went one stop and then the conductor made a hard to hear announcement that caused everyone to exit the train. This was a rare case where following the herd was a good idea, as we ended up on a faster (and actually running) train home. Also, we got to have this conversation over text (we were seated separately after the train swap):

Bill: There is a woman on this train with a guitar painted on her face that totally looks like a cartoon penis.
Mary: Next to you?
Bill: On your 11:00
Mary: Ha ha
Mary: Oh yes I see it
Bill: Boy is she going to feel silly when she looks in the mirror.
Mary: The guy looks like he has one too.
Bill: He's blocked by the seat.
Mary: Or a bandage
Mary: Over his eye
Mary: I am trying not to stare
Bill: Hers is a painting, his is a penis face tattoo
Mary: Nope it's painted.
Bill: Why would he paint a bandage on?