Friday, September 25, 2015

Northern Ireland and the Giants Causeway

Besides its fascinating history and abundant natural beauty, one of the nice things about Ireland is that they use the Euro - which was nearly at parity with the dollar while I was there. This is opposed to the UK, where the conversion rate hovered at a painful $1.50 to £1.

A not-so-nice thing: Having to choose where to go on a tour. The company I went with - Irish Day Tours - offered several excellent (and affordable) options. How do you choose among such places as the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, the gorgeous looking Connemara, and the Giants Causeway? In the end, I had to go with the most famous site - mainly because it also took me to another part of the UK (Northern Ireland.)

This time the bus was full sized, and nearly full - which was an unfortunate change from the more intimate van of my Scotland tour. The bus driver was also slightly less exuberant - but that was probably inevitable considering he was dealing with about 60 people who spoke ten different languages, rather than the six or seven Americans who comprised the entirety of my tour through the Highlands.
As we drove north out of the city, we soon entered the verdant (but slightly gloomy, due to morning fog) countryside of Ireland. We rode for a good long while before making a rest stop in a gray little fishing village in Northern Ireland, whose name I don't even know.

Then we came to our first real destination: The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

To get to the bridge, you walk along rugged coastal cliffs for a while:

...and then you come to this:

As its name suggests, it's a rope bridge that leads to this tiny but scenic island. The original incarnation of the bridge was built several hundred years ago by fishermen who used the island as a launching spot for fishing vessels. Because nothing says "great place to launch a boat" like a tiny little island with precarious dropoffs that's only accessible by a rickety rope bridge. Yeah.

Birds nesting among the rocks of the island

Then it's on to the main attraction: The Giants Causeway.

The bizarrely symmetrical and smooth basalt columns of the Causeway are the result of an volcanic explosion tens of millions of years ago. It's not the only place in the world with these kind of structures - Fingal's Cave is located 80ish miles north in Scotland. But it's probably the most accessible.

Pictures don't really do it justice - it's not until you've wandered around the site for a while and run your hands along the rocks that you really realize how utterly strange (and amazing) it is. It's a surreal landscape, one that kind of forces you to sit down and contemplate it for a while - after you've spent some time playing and scrambling over the rocks.

Ok, so I took a few selfies. I was by myself.

We had a few hours to play and meditate, then it was back on up to the bus.

I liked this guy's sweater: "Never Underestimate the Power of a Lithuanian." It's good advice.

Because cows.
Now back on the road, we headed to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland.

Along the way, we passed this picturesque ruined castle:

Unfortunately, by the time we reached Belfast it was getting dark, so we only had about an hour before we had to head back to Dublin. Afraid of getting lost and missing my ride, I chose to stay within the vicinity of the bus, and ended up walking around the grounds of the City Hall.

I wandered through the Titanic Memorial Garden (the ship was built in Belfast's shipyards) and was moved by the memorial to the victims.

Then the hour was up, and I had to beat it back to the bus - right as it began to pour.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Dublin (or: "Ha! I Beat You to Ireland")

Another reason I want to move to Europe: Flights within the continent tend to be very, very cheap.

For instance: My round-trip tickets from Birmingham, UK to Dublin, Ireland cost me a whopping grand total of $33.01. Of course, those two places are quite close to each other, geographically speaking - but you can get similarly cheap rates flying between just about any two major European cities. (At the time of this writing, I could fly round-trip between London and Warsaw, Poland for $58. Or between Berlin and Madrid for $81. And so on.)

Just think of the amazing weekend trips you could take... (As you leave your office in Munich on Friday: "Hey, I'm just going to be flying out to Istanbul for the weekend. See you on Monday.")

For instance: Three days in Ireland.

I started out in Dublin. One of the things that fascinates me about Europe is how all the cities have such a long history behind them - and how they've all been home to more famous people than you can count. Places where, even though you've never been there, many of the street names and buildings and rivers and parks seem familiar because they've become a part of our cultural consciousness - and because they've appeared in so many novels and films and history books. (One of the very few places in America that compares is NYC - and, of course, Salt Lake City.)

So I walked down the streets that James Joyce and Jonathan Swift and Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde once trod.

I wandered away from my hostel, across the River Liffey, and ended up in the lovely St. George's Square.

Then, on a whim, I decided to visit the Little Museum of Dublin, which turned out to be one of my favorite experiences of the trip.

The Museum, which is located in an old Georgian house, is chockfull of stuff - from fine antiques to ephemera and bric-a-brac - all of it donated by native Dubliners.

You get everything from a poster for a 1980s U2 concert to a political banner from the 1910s calling for Irish independence to a 1st edition of Joyce's (occasionally banned) Ulysses. Though the objects are interesting enough in their own right, the tour is absolutely essential. The tour guide could only talk about a tiny portion of the hundreds of objects on display, his enthusiastic narration helped give the objects context - and poignancy. From the tragic to the funny, these are bits and pieces from people's lives over the last century, and he helped explain why they mattered.


On my second day in the city, I took one of those ubiquitous double decker tour buses that seem to exist in every major city around the world. During the full circuit, I was able to get a better overview of the layout of the city. I also quickly learned that live narrators are much, much, MUCH better than the lifeless pre-recorded narrators that they have on the multi-lingual buses.

Also: I was amused by how the bus went from being half full to completely empty (except for me) as soon as we got to the Guinness Storehouse (where they apparently have a great tour and let you sample some fresh beer.)

I rode on to the Kilmainham Gaol, where I learned about a rather sad slice of Dublin's history.

Though it held a lot of prisoners over its 100+ years of history, Kilmainham is most famous for being the holding place for important Irish revolutionaries leading up to Ireland's independence in 1922.

If you want to be really depressed, read the life story of Joseph Plunkett, a revolutionary who was allowed to marry his wife in the prison chapel - just seven hours before being executed.

In spite of its tragic history, the prison is actually quite architecturally impressive - though unfortunately the most aesthetically distinctive part of the prison was being renovated, so we weren't able to visit it.

I was eventually released from prison and went on to visit the Chester Beatty Library.

Chester Beatty was a wealthy mining millionaire who collected antiques from around the world - then bequeathed that collection to his beloved Dublin upon his death. Beatty had a particular interest in Middle and Far Eastern Art, and over his lifetime he amassed an enormous amount of stuff (which he then spent enormous amounts of effort evaluating and cataloging.)

Anyways, his passion is our gain, because the museum has a ton of beautiful and rare objects spanning the millennia. You've got some of the earliest known fragments of the gospels that would later be compiled into the New Testament (I particularly remember a tiny little sliver of a fragment from a 3rd century copy of the Gospel of Luke.) You also have beautifully decorated Korans (dating all the way back to the 8th century) and lovely Japanese screens and illuminated medieval manuscripts and so on and so forth.

In other words: It's definitely worth a visit.

There were a lot of other places I wanted to visit during my time in Dublin: Trinity University (where the Book of Kells is kept), Dublin Castle, the National Museum, etc. etc. Alas, it was growing dark and I had to catch an early morning flight.

The 400 foot "Spire of Dublin" - also known as... Well, let's just say that Dubliners have given this giant metal phall... I mean pole some crude nicknames. 
However: On my way to the bus stop that morning, I happened to notice a theater just around the corner from my hostel - and they were putting on a show I had read just a few months earlier. So, to finish off my time in Dublin, I caught Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler at the Abbey Theatre, one of Ireland's "national theaters." The (almost front row) ticket was cheap, and, well, I just couldn't resist. (I was sort of having theater withdrawals.)

As the lights dimmed, they gave their pre-show announcement in Gaelic - and I briefly worried that I was about to watch a 3-hour show in another language (Gaelic is, after all, the official language of Ireland.) Fortunately, the actors came out speaking English, and I was able to enjoy a wonderful production of a deeply depressing show.

In spite of the tragic and distressing nature of the show, it was quite refreshing to be sitting in a theater - in Dublin, Ireland - and watching one of the classics of the stage. To be honest, it made me feel quite cosmopolitan and sophisticated. And when I get a chance, I'm going to go back to Dublin and see another show. Maybe The Lion King. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Highlands

Gray-old Glasgow got me feeling a bit down, so I took the first opportunity to get out into the country.

My original plan was to visit - where else? - Loch Ness. But I was apparently the only person who booked that tour, so the people at Discover Scotland switched me over to the "Oban, Western Highlands, Lochs, Castles & Glencoe" tour.

Our tour guide (whose name I unfortunately did not write down) was fantastic - energetic, knowledgeable, and with a slightly sardonic sense of humor. And red-headed.

We took off early in the morning and left the grime of Glasgow behind us. Soon we were in some lovely, greenish countryside - and gaining altitude. We passed the famed Loch Lomond - which is the subject of a popular folk song (which our tour guide played for us.) Then we passed Loch Long - which is, apparently, where the UK government keeps its nuclear submarines (?)

Along our way up, we made a brief stop at the delightfully named "Rest and Be Thankful" point, located high up in a pass.

Our first real stop was Inveraray Castle, the long-time (and current) home of the Duke of Argyll, who is by all accounts xxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxx and an xxx. [Content censored by the British Board of Blog Classification (BBBC) - for "insulting the dignity of our most noble nobility"]

We were allowed to tour the lowest level of the castle, and a little bit of the second level (but anything beyond that was streng verboten, since the Duke still lives there with his family when he's not xxx xxxxx xx xxxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxxx..) The "castle" was built in the 18th century - and it's interesting (to me at least) to think of a place that's been considered home to 13+ generations of a family. It must be nice (but also kind of imposing) to have that sense of rootedness and tradition. 

The guy has a thing for rifles, apparently. And sabers and pikes various other instruments of destruction.
On a side note: For some reason, while I was walking around the gilded mansion, I kept thinking of a song from a recent musical:

Anyways, I got my fill of sampling how the other half lives, so I went outside and walked around the gardens for a while until it was time to go.

Next up was St. Conan's Kirk, a 20th century church built (intentionally) to make it look and feel much older. The church is a real mishmash of architectural styles, but quite beautiful in its own right - and in a beautiful location perched above a loch.

This tomb allegedly holds a fragment of a bone of Robert the Bruce.

We lunched in the port city of Oban. A charming old town that feels old, in the best possible way. 

I walked around, then, still smarting at having missed the real thing in Rome, I hiked up to the fake Colosseum located on a bluff above the town. 

McKaig's Tower was built by a slightly eccentric rich man - though unfinished (he died, and apparently no one cared enough to complete it), it has a charm of its own. And it provides some spectacular viewpoints of the town and some of the islands in the bay.

I walked along the waterfront, enjoyed looking in at all the quaint shops, bought some wonderful ice cream, and ate a mediocre baguette at a pseudo-French bakery. Yum.

(Speaking of food, did I mention that they have haggis flavored potato chips in Scotland? No? Ok, well, they have haggis flavored potato chips in Scotland. And I tried them.) 

Then it was back up into the Highlands. We passed through the haunting landscape of Glencoe, the site of a horrific massacre by British troops. The story is awful, and you shouldn't read about it if you want to retain any faith in human nature.

(*cough* Sorry, I got a bit serious there for a minute.) 

The Highlands themselves are really beautiful, and somewhat mysterious.

Eventually we passed into a cool boggy wasteland, which is apparently impossible to build on and impossible to walk across (because you'll sink into the bog, even where the ground looks solid.) 

We passed a lot of lochs and a lot of castles along the way - some of the latter, like this one (the unfortunately named Castle Stalker), had fallen into a rather beautiful state of decay:

Castle Stalker, incidentally, was also a filming location for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (The more you know...)

We finished off the day at the Drovers Inn (established 1705.) While others sampled the beer, I tried the beloved Scottish soft drink Irn-Bru (that's pronounced Iron Brew.) The drink is apparently even more popular than Coca-Cola in Scotland. It was incredibly sugary, and I could feel the enamel of my teeth dissolving as I drank it. But it wasn't bad. 

At the end of the day, I enjoyed the tour a great deal - which is saying a lot, since I tend to hate most tours. Beautiful scenery, fascinating history, a cool tour guide, and (this is very important) not too many people.

It also left me with a far more favorable impression of Scotland than I would have had if I had just stayed in Glasgow.

(That last sentence was awkward. Sorry about that.)