On Tour in 2016
The germ of an idea lay in a casual comment in 2013: "Wouldn't it be fun to be in Dublin for the centenary of the Easter Rising?"
Desiree put it into words; it was shared with others at the Irish Society; it grew, and formed plans; it was discussed amongst enthusiuasts at planning meetings; it manifested itself in bank accounts & savings plans; it was the subject of travel booking inquiries; it was the cause of determined internet searching for intineraries; it took the form of payments; it grabbed the attention of many, but the commitment of a few.
And then the idea became reality: To be in Dublin at Easter, 2016; to join in the commemorations of those events of 100 years ago; to honour those whose commitment to a cause saw the birth of a Nation.
And that is how a group of 13 from the Hutt Valley Irish Society came to be in Dublin at the end of March, 2016. And Bryan & Desiree were part of that group.
The Duffys left Wellington on the previous Saturday; the Janes on Tuesday; the Mulligans, O'Tooles, Clarkes & Mike Sprejkrise flew out on Wednesday.
This last group of 7 went to Sydney to join an Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi. This 14-hour long-haul tried the patience and endurance, especially of Jeanette, who struggled throughout to calm her fear of flying (but she did it!).
Abu Dhabi was impressive on a number of levels. The local airport staff at passport control were casual, un-hurried, remote, and un-engaged - something they will need to work on if the plans are to make the place a tourist mecca & not merely a transit facility. However, once through the controls we then had to deal with a 14-hour layover. We had booked a room so we could have a shower, and stretch out for a nap. The others followed suit at a hotel at the airport.
But having put down our bags, and grabbed a bite to eat, we all set off to Ferrari World (for the 'boys') and the Yas Mall, for those not interested in 'the World's fastest Roller-Coaster'.
The Riders were most impressed, and clearly enjoyed themselves. The rest of us wandered the vast Mall, admiring the range of shops and brands, and getting lost in what felt like a giant maze.
We then re-grouped, and arranged a taxi back to the Hotel, where a rest beckoned before check-in at the airport and the inevitable waiting around for (delayed) boarding. The plane this time was smaller, but no less crowded; and the flight was a 'mere' 8 hours!
The Dublin arrival was a little after dawn, on a bright, sunny, cloudless day; the temperature, after the air-conditioned comfort of the aeroplane & terminal was 'bracing' and brisk.
We're booked into the O'Callaghan Mont Clare just off Merrion Square. A delightful location (just opposite the National Gallery, down the road from the Dail and the National Museum, and 10 minutes walk to Grafton Street.
We settled and set off as a group with John as our guide (he is, so he said, a 'local') to wander Grafton Street (several needed to by new SIM cards for our phones), then across the Liffey to O'Connell Street. This was blocked in part by preparations for Sunday's ceremonials. Back to Temple Bar by way of Ha'penny Bridge, just because we could, and from there back to Merrion Square.
We were all taken aback by 1) how busy the City is - people everywhere; the city is jammed! and 2) how many 'foreign' accents we overheard; seemingly fewer Irish than 'other' Europeans.
By the evening we had caught up with the Janes family and the Duffys. We had a light dinner at the Hotel and the 'travellers' had an early night.
Today is sightseeing day in Dublin. The group expanded by 2 as it was joined by the Mulligans' eldest daughter Sarah Rose & her partner Pip, over from London).
The group went in various directions with some heading to the Guinness Storehouse, or Trinity College to look at The Book of Kells, or St Stephens Green, while others set aside time to visit & spend time with family.
As with Friday, getting about the city was difficult with crews setting-up for Sundays ceremonials, and large numbers of visitors thronging the strets.
Most of the party meet up for dinner again in the evening.
The Day of Ceremonies. The Mulligans had been invited to attend the Official Ceremony at the GPO from 1100; the others were free to find a spot to observe the Parade and watch proceedings on any of the large screens set up around the City.
Most of the group set of for the area of St Stephens Green to find a spot to observe, while the Mulligans set off for O'Connell Street. They managed to work their way into temporary seating in one of the 'official' viewing stands directly alongside the GPO, and so had a first rate view of the official proceedings - the arrival of the dignitaries, the presentation of honours, the reading of the Proclamation, the Prayer for Peace, and the entire Parade march-past.
In all the Ceremony and Parade took approximately 2.5 hours, ending at about 1400. After which, the City was awash with spectators, many of whom headed for bars, but some of whom tried to get to other attractions. However, a number of bus services were cancelled (because of street closures & strike action), and taxis were inumdated with fares.
So that left the evening. The temporary members left to return to Dublin, the O'Tooles visited family, and the remainder repaired to The Blarney Inn on Nassau Street. The attraction was live music, a quiet drink and dinner. The Mulligans were also joined by another 2 visitors (their son-in-law's sister & husband), so the evening was one of chat, raucousness, and relaxation. (I'm sorry to have to report the music was far from fun!)
Today is the first day of the 'Tour' proper: meeting the bus and driver, and setting off for the trip around the Island. So, breakfast in the Hotel, pack & organise the bags, and then wait for The Mulligans, who decided to go for a walk.
The coach seats 19, and there are 13 in the group, so a program of musical chairs will occur over proceeding days. Our driver is a 'Dub', and immediately strikes up an affinity with John & David (2 fellow Dubs), and decides to use the Cavan folk as a mechanism to to help build group identification. In other words, make fun of the Cavan Mulligans, so everyone else can feel part of the 'us'. Oh well, such is the burden of heritage!
The first day travelling will take us from Dublin south and west to Blarney. Much of the trip is on modern motorways, but despite that, there are numerous occasions where the countryside reveals the depth of its history, with derelict castles, and views of narrow winding lanes, small fenced or walled fields, and villages with streets seemingly higgledy-piggledy and buildings right to the road edge.
The Rock of Cashel provides a welcome respite from the Coach, and a refreshing walk in (bracing) fresh air. It's interesting that the ruins were once the residence of the King of Munster, and so, therefore, the fictional 'home' of his sister, Fidelma. She in turn is the key character of a series of medieval 'detective' stories set during the mid-seventh century AD. Sister Fidelma is not simply a religieuse, she is also a qualified dalaigh, or advocate of the ancient law courts of Ireland. The Mulligans seem to be the only ones aware of this connection, but that doesn't stop everyone else enjoying the visit.
And lunch is refreshingly 'homely'.
The climax (if you will) of the day is a visit to Blarney Castle and kissing the Blarney Stone. We're staying in the Hotel right alongside the Castle, and the 'largest Irish store in the world'. The latter proves a magnet for some, but for others the attraction was the nearest bar - Christy's!
The Blarney Stone itself is surprisingly difficult to get at - a series of narrow winding stairs rising through various levels inside the Castle's Keep. At the top, pressure is applied to all & sundry to contort oneself into position to "kiss" the stone so the moment can be captured by a camera and the kissers sold a large photo of their moment just to prove they've done it.
There is something about the whole experience which summs up a lot of what will follow over the next few days: a carefully crafted and entirely fictitious 'old Irish tradition' to which everyone cleaves, and the construction of an entire edifice of commercial enterprise to surround the 'experience' and find ways of separating the visitor from his/her coin. I'm in awe of the ingenuity, the gall, and the fun of going along for the ride! It's brilliant, if an almost complete sham!
And that meant it was time for dinner, for which the bus-driver recommended The Thomond Pub in town - a Munster Rugby stronghold, with live music which impressed the young & young-at-heart!
So, we've done the Blarney Stone, and now we're off to Ballyroe Heights Hotel, Tralee. Albeit with a few 'diversions' en route.
The mid-morning break is in a 'mall' in Killarney which is depressingly half occupied, but has food, coffee, and (most importantly) toilets. These conveniences will form important focal points over the next days. There is a GAA store devoted entirely to Kerry gear (well, that's a surprise!), so a couple of us are tempted to ask them if they have gear for Dublin or Cavan. I'm pleased to be able to report that (on this occasion) we resisted temptation.
The rest of the day is devoted to touring The Ring of Kerry. This is a wild and rugged segment, around one of the peninsulas projecting out from the Island into the 'wild Atlantic'.
We have lunch in a surprisingly mild 'Waterville' and pause to say hello to Charlie Chaplin and local GAA Football hero Mick O'Dwyer.
And then, for something completely different, we pause to look at the Torc Waterfall. A brief stroll, persistant rainfall, pleasantly open beech forest, and a waterfall and river assisted by recent rain. We could have been anywhere in New Zealand. But of course we weren't; we're in County Kerry.
So that gets us to the Ballyroe Heights Hotel, Tralee. And that means some of us head into Tralee, for a meal and a drink, others meeting old friends, while some choose a swim, and others just head for an early night.
If you've seen one Peninsula, you've seen them all - right? Wrong! Something about Chalk & cheese comes to mind.
If the Ring of Kerry is wild and untamed, the Dingle Peninsula is 'tamed', civilised, farmed and visited. So it's a marked contrast with the previous day.
The weather helps, as today is sunny, clear, warm, and dry. At least, it is in the morning. Did I mention it was cold? No? Then: it was cold/bracing/brisk, for anyone coming from a late NZ summer, the weather is a jolt.
The Dingle Peninsula is a tourist delight: it is picturesque, civilised, and in good weather a delight to walk (as we briefly do).
We have lunch in the the Blasket Centre on the tip of the Dingle Peninsula overlooking Great Blasket Island. The Centre is a fascinating heritage centre/museum honouring the unique community who lived on the remote Blasket Islands until their evacuation at the insistence of the central Government in 1953.
Dingle itself is also delightful (is that adjective becoming over-worked? Sorry!). Small, spontaneous, irregular, touristy, it both welcomes tourists and carries on it's normal life as though nothing was amiss! A pleasingly odd sensation, best illustrated by the casual way we were welcomed into the South Pole Inn at Annascaul, a pub honouring Tom Crean, an Antarctic explorer and companion of both Scott and Shackleton. And was honoured for his exploits.
A touch of nostagia for Ray on this segment, as the bus-driver arranged for us to stop (briefly) in the grounds of the Garryowen RFC, where Ray had played rugby in his earlier years.
Then on to the Cliffs of Moher. Once you get past the shock of the huge tourist arrangements - big carparks (full), efficient visitor centre, shops, cafes - the next thing to hit you is the highly organised walkways. Paved, signed, fenced, these are broad and spacious, and home to the occasional busker as well!
The cliffs themselves are disturbingly high, but you can't get too close to the edge because of the walls (& signs!). The sea is a LONG way below, so the views are certainly impressive.
After looking over the Cliffs we move on to a Pub for lunch (there's a pattern developing here!), and then Lehinch for a stroll in the sunshine along a surf beach, where, despite the 9degrees air temperature the water is full of surfers!
We're staying at the Bunratty Castle Hotel, but dinner is in the Castle itself - a "medieval banquet". Actually, it's more like a musical cabaret show, with food along the way. Some lovely singing & music, along with very nice Mead, and lively banter. But it's crowded! Nevertheless the Castle is interesting, and this is an entertaining slant on a 'guided tour'.
We're headed for Galway City, but faced with a dilemma to begin the day. Seems the driver needs to help out a colleague who needs to return home, leaving a group of Japanese tourists stranded. There is grumbling from him, and occasional phone-calls, and a chance we'll face a major change in our plans. Desiree finally gives voice to the misgivings of most us, indicating her displeasure at an enforced late change to the contracted service we have paid for. At which point the driver suggests she (& we) consider the date. It's April 1st! Turns out Ray and he concocted the story & we all fell for it hook, line and souvenir tee-shirt!
First stop is at Galway Crystal, where we're provided with a demonstration of crystal-cutting by hand - impressively precise! A few make some purchases, while others consider options for commissioning a special piece for the Club. Decisions are deferred until we get home & have talked it over some more.
In Galway itself, we stop first at the Cathedral, a modern edifice which has all the feel of a much older building. Beautiful side-chapels, stained-glass windows, and ceilings. Well worth the time spent wandering.
Our Hotel (The Meyrick) is right in the centre of the city, so everyone sets off to walk places - some just wander the narrow shopping streets, others visit the museum & Spanish Arch, while others find a pub.
Dinner is in a Pub (An Pácún) just a stones throw from the Hotel.
Another day based in Galway. Today, however, we're heading out of town, north to Connemara, where our route winds through rugged countryside, with ample evidence of stone field walls, and turf-cutting. Several stops today will give Desiree a chance to re-visit places associsted with her family. We pause at Maam Cross, where the John Wayne film The Quiet Man was filmed, and then drive on to Maam Bridge for another photo opportunity. Leenane is next, which also affords a spectacular view out over Killary Harbour, Ireland's only Fjord!
After that we head to a Wow! moment, as we approach Kylemore Abbey. This is a picturesque complex with a chequered history. It began life as a family home for a nineteenth centure British industrialist, and then passed into the hands of Benedictine Nuns who were escaping the ravages of WW1, and who operated a school on the premises. While that has closed, the nuns continue to own & occupy it, but provide funding for it's upkeep by offering numerous tourist services - entry charges, a walled garden, visits to the Abbey itself, chapel, cafe &, of course, an extensive gift shop. It is truly a spectacular setting for an innovative enterprise.
Dinner, back in Galway City, is had by most at the King's Head pub, just off Shop Street, where we're served by a Kiwi lass from Golden Bay!
It's Farewell to Galway & The Meyrick, and off through Sligo to Mayo.
We note Tuam and the N17 en route, with a stirring sing-along as we cruise the Road given fame by the Saw Doctors.
Our first real stop is at the Ceide Fields Neolithic Site. This is a new one to the driver, so he's as interested as we are. It is a site at which a Neolithic settlement has been identified and is being progressively mapped and selectively excavated. The interesting Interpretaive Centre also provides lunch, so we don't rush the visit.
Then, by winding local roads, we head over to distant Downpatrick Head, which we had spied from the Ceide Fields. Again, a new site for the driver, so he's interested in our reactions.
Some stay in the bus; some go to view; some go to explore. The "Head" is a precipitous headland of exposed cliffs, crashing seas, and un-fenced edges. The latter provide contrasting responses: awe and adrenalin-fuelled excitement amongst the thrill-seekers; awe and adrenalin-fuelled fear amongst the less adventurous. But both offer a positive asessment of the site.
The Wild Atlantic Way has certainly lived up to its name!
The National Famine Memorial at the foot of Croagh Patrick is a striking structure in a picturesque setting beside Clew Bay. It consists of a dramatic sculpture in bronze by John Behan and depicts a "Coffin Ship" with skeleton bodies in the rigging.
We're over-nighting in Westport. And for us all that means a visit to Matt Molloys after dinner, to see an authentic 'session' in a traditional Pub. Just how 'authentic' the session is, is a matter of debate and conjecture, but the music is entrancing, and the setting genuine. So we stay a while and soak it up.
We're off to the north of the west - Donegal. This means a mid-morning stop in Sligo, where we mark the memory of an important figure. Firstly we manage to locate an impressive mural of Maud Gonne and a Yeats poem, and then an interesting statue of WB Yeats alongside a busy town street. We also chance upon the headquarters of The Yeats Society, where we're able to have morning tea.
We then pause at Drumcliff, where Yeats was (eventually) interred. A group photo is called for, in our 'touring' tee-shirts, and a Yeats poem recited by Bridget.
Which then meant we passed through the shadow of Benbullben, and on to Donegal Castle. This is, as the Irish are wont to say, "JAPS", or 'just another pile of stones'. But a Guide gives an interesting tale of the ruin, and the families who built it and lived in it, and the times through which it was in it's prime.
Then we visit Slieve League Cliffs, at which some of us begin to wonder if there is a subliminal message being sent about heights and cliffs and steepness and edges and ....?
Whatever unease anyone may have felt about the Cliffs is allayed by the sight of that night's Hotel: the Sandhouse Hotel at Rossnowlagh. It reminds some of us of North Island West Coast beaches - a long, wide, gentle strand of sand, with gentle waves and, during dinner, a lovely sunset. It is also delightfully ramshackle, but spacious, warm, and welcoming.
International Travel! Crossing into Northern Ireland today, where we will spend a couple of nights.
First we call into (London)Derry, for a toilet & currency stop, and the chance to stroll about the imposing City Wall, and to overlook the few remaining murals. It is impressively wide - if is wide enough to comfortably accommodate the bus, and probably to allow it to pass another vehicle as well!
We almost lose Molly, but Search & Rescue track her down & return her to her parents - crisis averted!
Then it's on to the Antrim Coast, specifically to The Giants' Causeway, which is a gentle walk down to the seaside shared with thousands of other tourists to look in wonder at geometriclly regular shapes of the columns of basalt that make up the formation of the Causeway. Fascinating, eminently 'climbable', and easily accessed. Tourist needs checklist ticked, once the cafe provides lunch and gift shop browsed!
Then a little further around the Coast is the Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge. Less 'touristy', and a little more 'wild' this is better suited to the trill-seekers amongst us, who all take to it with gay abandon.
Having conquered that, we head off into Belfast, where we will spend two nights at the Europa Hotel.
We wake to a grey, and damp, morning. But some amongst the party discover a new twist to a warming breakfast - whiskey available to pour on your porridge, along with honey, milk & sugar. As a result, one or two are tempted to linger a little over their start to the day.
But we have a bit to get through, so it's onto the bus and off, wending our way through the morning traffic.
In no time at all we're at the Port and the Titanic Centre. The Centre is a really striking structure, and a landmark that's hard to miss. Inside there is a wealth of information about the Harland & Wolff shipyards, the life and times of the workers, the city which watched in awe and excitement during the construction of the ship. There is even a 'ride' which takes you through simulations of some of the construction functions and to meet staff who worked in the yards. It finishes with information about modern underwater exploration of the wreck and the recovery of artefacts from it.
But nothing about icebergs - a puzzling omission, surely?
Then it's back on the bus for our own version of a 'black cab' tour. We travel, seemingly without purpose of real direction, through numerous Belfast districts. Noticeable are the advertising signs for up-coming elections, and for some it's brings a recognition that the name Sinn Fein, redolent of so much history, is now an accepted part of the political landscape in Ulster.
But even so, you can't escape the history as we pass murals of the late Bobby Sands, and a billboard commemorating "100 years of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant". The so-called "peace walls" (in what are euphemistically called 'interface areas'!) are a little confusing: their role of separating communities in conflict with each other is obvious and straight-forward; less clear is the motivation behind the encouragement of locals to add new graffiti over the top of existing graffiti. It makes for a jumbled and untidy mess in which the message is garbled at best.
But then for "something completely different" we visit Crumlin Road Gaol. The Gaol is a nineteenth century listed building, recently restored and to guided tours. The weather has decided to do it's part to make us feel at home in this bleak and imposing edifice, by dropping the temperatures, and later puring a heavy downpour onto us, calling short the visit to the burial area of those executed.
None are sad to get back on the bus, or to head back to the Europa so we can adjourn to one of the local pubs for a quiet drink and dinner. It was The Crown last night, so tonight it's Robinson's.
For those born in New Zealand, the breadth and depth of Irish history can be a little overwhelming. Today we will be immersed in it.
Having breakfasted (remember that porridge with whiskey?) and got ourselves sorted, Matt steers us South again. We play 'hide-and-seek' with the border crossing. The clearest indicators now are the change in language on roadsigns, and the lines marking the road edge! Gone are almost all traces of the armed police posts, barriers, and checkpoints.
First stop is in the Boyne Valley, at Brú na Bóinne (Palace of the Boyne), overlooking the Boyne River. There is a large and very modern Vistor Centre (and inevitable carpark, cafe, and shop) from which we go to a small shuttle bus for a brief trip to Knowth.
Knowth is a Neolithic passage grave and an ancient monument of Brú na Bóinne. It is the largest passage grave of the complex and consists of a large mound (known as Site 1) and 17 smaller satellite tombs. We're somewhat amused to find a staffer mowing the top of the largest mound with an electric mower, although he has the good grace to stop while we're listening to our very knowledgable Guide.
In addition to the talk by the Guide, we also have the opportunity to go inside the Tomb to one of the chambers, to look around the countryside from the top of the Mound, and to puzzle/muse over the megalithic art incised into the stones. Without having visited a single art gallery during the tour, we have nonetheless seen quite a variety of art, especially in the last few days - from the formal public art on traffic roundabouts, to the statuary and graffiti in Belfast, and now the stone carvings in Knowth!
Since it's available, we use the Cafe for lunch after the return in the shuttle bus.
Next we're off the Belvedere House, near Mullingar (incidentally, the bus is nearing 'home', being based in Mulligar) in Co Westmeath. The house dates from the mid-18th century, and while not especially unusual or striking, it does have an imposing 'folly', known as the Jealous Wall after the owner fell out with his brother who lived on a neigbouring estate. The most interesting element of the house, strangely enough is in the kitchen area, in which are numerous display panels which recount the often lurid tales of life both above and below stairs.
Then we're off to Trim Castle, in Trim, back in Co Meath. This is a Norman castle on the south bank of the River Boyne. It is the largest Norman castle in Ireland. It was built by Hugh de Lacy and his son Walter over a period of 30 years in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
The Castle was a centre of Norman administration for Meath, a new administrative area created by King Henry II of England. De Lacy took possession of it in 1172. He built a huge ringwork castle defended by a stout double palisade and external ditch on top of the hill. There may also have been further defences around the cliffs fringing the high ground. Indedd, from the upper reaches of the Castle one can see both a wide swathe of the surrounding countryside, as wall as the surviving wall and some of the associated buildings.
The day was clear and cold, by the time we finish our tour of the Castle, the day is ending, and it is lit with a sharp late-afternoon glow. Better will follow, as it is floodlit during the evening.
Dinner is in the Hotel, which is (coveniently) just across the road from the Castle. We're also joined later in the evening by Willie & Marie Cassidy & their daughter Tara. Reminiscing & catching up becomes the order of the (late) evening.
We had finished our Tour of Ireland.
We had started in Dublin, travelled south to Kerry, then up the west coast through Galway, Connemara, Mayo and into Donegal, before crossing by way of the Antrim Coast to the east coast and then south to finish at Trim, just a little north of Dublin.
So this morning, after breakfast, a number of the group get back on the bus, albeit with a different driver, to be delivered to Dublin Airport, and from there to go their various ways: the Janes to see family elsewhere in Ireland before they, too, visit the continent; the Clarkes & Mike Spekreijse will go to Newcastle, before Mike heads to Holland; the Duffys and the O'Tooles head back into Dublin to spend time with family before returning to New Zealand.
But we're off to wander Dublin for an hour or two before heading to Cavan, after which to London and then the Continent before returning to London for the return trip home.
At the airport, the car rental firm takes a little finding because it's in an out-of-the-way corner of the Terminal, but the staff are friendly and helpful (which always makes life easier). Equipped and paid for, we're on our way. Not having a competent and experienced local to navigate for us means we are very quickly challenged by the local directions and road signs.
But we manage it. We even find a covered carpark close to St Stephens Green shopping centre (more by good luck than good management!), which is convenient.
The Tour Group in their bus, clockwise from left front:
Jeanette & Dave Clarke
Bridget Janes (photo-bombing!)
Bryan Mulligan is behind the camera.
Because the plan is: wander through St Stephens Green then around the block which has government buildings before we have a bite to eat and head off to Cavan.
So that's what we do. The Green is lovely, even on a dreary and wet Dublin day. And we find the statue of Constance Markiwecz, amongst others. And as we walk along Kildare Street there are numerous buildings to admire. Desiree has decided she will visit the Museum of Natural History while I look at (& photograph) some of the lovely (Georgian-era?) buildings.
And they are gorgeous. But unfortunately the key building, The Dail, is not accessible. It is cordoned off and guarded by police, and casual visitors like me aren't allowed to enter the grounds, even to innocently take photos. Perhaps paying the price of Ireland's troubled history of mistrust and violence?
But visitors can get into at least 2 of them: The National Museum, which Desiree visits, and the National Library, into the foyer of which I wander. These look like a 'matching pair', on either side of the main entrance to The Dail. Beautiful classical exteriors, themed stained glass windows giving a beautiful glow to the interior light.
There's even a touch of whimsy, with an animal topiary display in front of one of the Museum buildings.
But hunger gets the better of us, so we return to the St Stephens Mall and it's foodcourt, there to have some lunch.
Once that is done, we get back in the car and face up to the daunting task of navigating our way out of Dublin, and onto the motorway north and west to Cavan. It's not easy but we manage it.
Cavan is not far from Dublin and it only takes a little over an hour. The weather is still wet and drear, so Cavan isn't presented in a good light, but the Hotel is modern, bright, and warm, with a nice bar. So we settle in.
The weather continues to be dreary - cold and grey, not welcoming or encouraging adventuring at all.
However we drive into Cavan Town (the Hotel is on the outskirts), find a carpark near a cluster of churches (difficult to avoid in Ireland) and wander into the shopping High Street. I'm not sure what I expected; it was un-mistakably Irish, but somewhat scruffy and ever so slightly unkempt looking. After visiting a number of towns which seemed 'spruced up' and attractive to tourists/visitors, Cavan Town seems bit of a let-down.
But we do manage to buy Gareth a woollen cap!
Next on the agenda is the County Museum at Ballyjamesduff. Getting there involves a pleasant drive through countryside typical of the county - undulating, and frequent glimpses of small bodies of water. It is said that Cavan has a 'lake' for every day of the year! And, to help matters, the weather appears on the improve!
The museum is in an impressive building - a former Convent of St Clare, and has very competently compiled and documented displays. It is not in the least amateurish - and this is a pattern common to all of the small regional museums we've seen. This one has a worthwhile display of WW1 material, including a re-creation of a Trench from the Western Front. It also has a display (not yet open) devoted to the Easter Rising. This is a mock-frontage of a key Dublin Rising site, at a smaller scale, behind which sit a couple of shipping containers, presumably holding the display itself. Again, it seems to be anything but slap-dash.
We find somewhere to have some lunch, which wasn't easy, and re-inforces the view that Cavan isn't one of the areas in Ireland which has a focus on tourism.
It's back to the Hotel - the afternoon is waning, and Desiree is feeling a little off-colour. And complaining about the cold! And then we're visited by a cousin - Alec, son of the 91-year-old George we had met in 1995, and father of Helen Milligan with whom I've been in email contact, and sister of Maevis who Helen had arranged for me to meet in Belfast earlier in the week. We arrange to visit him and his wife Joan for afternoon tea, after which Alec says he will take us to see Robert of prodigious memory.
So: a short rest, then back in the car and out to Regaskin. Following Alec's directions proves problematic, but we get there anyway. To find a lovely modern house directly over the road from the Old House, and beside the GEM Oils complex. We have a lovely afternoon tea laid on by Joan, and get to know both her & Alec a little.
Then we're driven to Lisnashanna to see Robert. He's an amazing character, with a truly remarkable memory, especially for family history, and the stories of assorted locals. He also remembers our visit in 1995, and so can place us precisely in the Mulligan family tree! He's also 88 years old, nearly crippled, blind from cataracts, but lives on his own! There's hope for me yet, I tell myself!
I manage to video some of our chat (only some, because the battery runs out!) and Desiree some of what I don't get. It'll take time to process and analyse, but: I've got the data!
And that makes for a VERY busy, productive and enjoyable day. A quiet night is the order of the day.
Time to explore where we came from, so it's off to Regaskin and Ballyhaise. The house is shut up and more stark than I remembered it from 1995. But it's still there, and with an impressive collection of out-buildings. And the complex occupied by the family business GEM Oils is quite extensive.
Ballyhaise, too, has changed in the 20 years since I last visited: it seems bigger, with housing seeming to reflect the Celtic Tiger boom years. Unfortunately, this visit, the Church is closed, but still it presents interesting photo-views, and there are more observable head-stones than in 1995. Including those of Humphrys, Humphreys, and Kennedys, which I note after Robert's mention of them yesterday.
But having got this far, we need to move on to Belturbet. We find the road signs confusing, and get properly lost in the maze of rural lanes. The reason for the convoluted route was to try to find an auction-house in a very small settlement run by a fellow by the name of Mee, who may (or may not) be a very distant relation. We couldn't.
Eventually, we settle for major roads, and get to Belturbet after more than hour of driving. It's a curious town, straddling the River Shannon, and having what in France is called a 'Port du Plaisir' for river craft.
It also has 2 impressive churches side-by-side: a Catholic and a Church of Ireland, seeming to be a nice encapsulation of the competing battle for the religious affiliation of the locals. Not unlike Armagh, with it's twin Cathedrals on twin hill-tops.
There is no evidence of Knoxes we can see (we don't look very hard), so we settle for some lunch in a small cafe.
We head back into Cavan Town, where I want to photograph a seemingly militant memorial to IRA Volunteers outside the Council offices. Not only is it a statue of an armed soldier, it has listed on it's plinth the names of volunteers who "gave their lives in defence of the Irish Republic". At its foot are wreaths and bouquets, in orange, white & green.
By mid-afternoon we're in need of a rest. But late afternoon we're joined by Helen Milligan and her partner Andrew, who have been driving a Morgan sport-car in England. We share a quiet drink at the hotel before they take us off into Cavan Town for a meal in a Chinese restaurant. It's a lovely, low-key, occasion, and we hope they will get it into their heads to visit us in New Zealand, sooner rather than later. We'll see!
It's also a fitting way to end our time in Ireland; enjoying the craic, in a family-friendly situation, with people who are welcoming and open, and with whom we have a lot in common.
Time to farewell Ireland. The drive from Cavan back into Dublin is uneventful; we successfully find our way to the airport, find a service station to fill the car's petrol tank, and return it safe and sound.
We don't have long to wait for the flight which is also uneventful and not very long. We're bound for Gatwick, from where we catch a train back into London, and then we have fairly precise instructions from Sarah Rose to help us cope with swapping trains and making our way out to Swiss Cottage. Sarah Rose has said she will meet us at at Victoria station off the Gatwick Express & then we'll go to the Victoria tube station to catch the Victoria line to Green Park, to change to the Jubilee line for the last leg out to Swiss Cottage. Simple!
And, true to her word, she is there, and gets us to destination without a hitch.
The hotel is just a stone's throw from the Station, and not much further from a pub, and only slightly further from Sarah Rose's current flat. Almost like it was planned that way!
So we get ourselves settled and rested, then meet up with Sarah Rose & Pip for a drink and a meal in the Pub.
And that was all we did, but we did it well!
One of the things we had not always been able to do while touring (in fact, hadn't done at all!) was to make a point of getting serious exercise. Today would be different!
So we set off, after a gentle start to the day, walking to Primrose Hill, for a view of London. We then wended our way down through the Park and then through streets broad and narrow to the Kilburn High Road, there in search of a shop at which we could buy SIM cards for our phones which would work in both the UK and on the continent.
That goal achieved, we refresh ourselves with coffee and a snack, before setting off again. Still on foot, this time we sort of retrace (some) of our steps. We end up in Abbey Road, looking for the famous Studios. We find them, behind a guard, but that's OK. And next door is a nice souvenir shop, so we have a prowl but resist the temptation to spend. We also watch the antics of other tourists disrupting traffic while performing & posing on the famous Crossing. I find their intrusive self-centredness really annoying. Needless to say we don't indulge in the same manner.
After more meandering, we end up on the Edgeware Road, where we climb aboard a bus and settle in to observe the cultural diversity that is modern London, as the bus crawls along the Edgeware Road through a heavily Muslim community into the central city.
Destination: The British Museum. We find it, and set about exploring some of its treasures.
Foremost, for Desiree, is to see the Elgin Marbles. Not to put too fine a point on it, they were stolen from Greece and should be returned, and the Museum's defence that because they are held in the Museum "generations of visitors have been able to see these sculptures at eye level rather than high up on the building" is sophistry of the highest order! You can only wonder at their gall!
Strangely enough, my sister Barbara is also in London, and we manage to make contact, and meet in the Museum for a bite of lunch. It seems strange to be half-way around the world chatting to my sister!
After that we have to brave the public transport back to Swiss Cottage. Success!
And then catch up with Sarah Rose & Pip, and adjourn to a little neighbourhood Italian restaurant they enjoy for a quiet dinner.
We will see them again when we return from the continent and help them move flats.
Staying in: Hôtel 34B - Astotel, 34 Rue Bergere, Paris
Moving day - that is, we're moving on, from London to Paris for a couple of days. So: breakfast, pack up, check out and off to the Tube to get to St Pancras Station where we'll catch the Eurostar to Paris. Pip has given us detailed instructions about how to navigate the Tube, and, as a result, the transfer from Swiss Cottage to the Eurosatar goes without a hitch.
Boarding and seat-finding, likewise is pain-free (or maybe confusion-free would be better). And then it's sit back and glide our way to Paris. The English countryside is inauspicious, and the Tunnel simply a dark blank. But the French countryside is delightful - large-scale fields (a marked contrast with Ireland!), with many of them in a crop with bright yellow flowers, possibly rape-seed for oil extraction and stock-feed.
The towns are also markedly different, although also often dominated by the spire of the Catholic Church.
The trip is brief - just over 2 hours - as the train speeds through the countryside, you're aware you're travelling fast, but not just how fast. And the ride is smooth.
So that gets us to Paris. We've checked Google Maps, and decided we can walk to our Hotel. Which takes us about 25-30 minutes, and involves a bit of direction changing as we get used to Google's view of directions. Desiree had booked the Hotel, so I was a little taken aback to find we are staying a block from the Folies Bergere, and overlooking the Rue du Monmartre - a brilliant location.
The Hotel, itself, could best be described as 'characterful'. It is nondescript from the outside, but inside a riot of oddities. The rooms are in corridors decorated with brightly striped wallpaper and carpet in red, white and blue - like something out of The Avengers or The Prisoner - and somewhat dis-orientating when you walk through them. The Lounge area is also idiosyncratic, but not outlandishly so.
While our room is small, the location and character of the hotel make it tolerable. We have dinner in a little 'American'-themed bar across the road.
We're off to The Louvre, if we can find it! We're using Google Maps to guide us, and there are times it seems more trouble than it's worth. It appears that one needs to be aware of one's surroundings, and not rely solely on what Dr Google tells you to do - a point which will be re-inforced a littler later in the trip.
We pass by the Paris Bourse, and then stumble into the area around the Palais Royale, with it's striking public art and open spaces. I have to say, I really do appreciate the commitment of the French to public open spaces - gardens, courtyards, fore-courts, squares, etc. It's one of the things I regret about Wellington City - there just isn't enough space to be able to leave so much open.
The Louvre: it's size, layout and diversity is baffling. We get lost, and confused about where we're going and what we're looking for. But Desiree is able to locate a number of the sculptures she wanted to see, but the gallery holding the Bosch paintings I was looking for was closed. But we do find ourselves in a lovely exhibition of Hubert Robert's works, in which we linger.
Despite the endless wandering, the changes in direction, and the confusion about directions (who cares about the maps, anyway?), it's well worth the effort.
Lunch is had high above the courtyard looking across at the other wing of the vast complex.
After that we wander out into the bustle of the (foot-)traffic and head, sort of, towards the Seine. Again, Paris imprints itself on our memories with its gilt and statues, it's bridges and the churches in it's skyline.
So, with nothing better to do, we decide it's beer o'clock, and sit outside a bar beside the Seine and watch the ceaseless traffic. I could think of worse places to do that!
We wander back the way we came, past the Palais Royale and the Bourse.
For something entirely different, we decide to have a drink in a an Irish bar. It's crowded and very noisy so we don't linger. But we still need dinner, and select a small 'hole-in-the-wall' Italian restaurant - good food, smooth service, but no space to spread out. We coped.
And it's just around the corner from the Hotel!
Galleries again today. First up, we're headed for Musee d'Orsay. The weather isn't all that wonderful, but we're saved from it by discovering an arcade (actually, a series of arcades) which run parallel to the Rue du Monmartre a shop-depth behind it - shelter from the wind AND interesting shops to look at!
Having found our way to The Louvre yesterday, today's expedition is straight-forward. The crowds don't appear to have diminished, and the traffic is as constant, but we get to the Musee d'Orsay in good time.
Again, it's busy, but not so manically as the Louvre.
I hadn't realised that the building was once a railway station, but once inside that is blindingly obvious - the wrought-iron structures, the enormous gilt-laden clock & the glass ceilings are something of a give-away. The 'main concourse' has been altered by the addition of steps and interior walls to create separate galleries - I'm not sure it was done sympathetically. The impression is of clutter & mess.
But the art compensates. A lovely range of modern art works, including a fascinating exhibition of works by Rousseau.
And elsewhere within the complex are rooms offering stunning views out over Paris, and sumptuously decorated with gilt and plaster carvings. All-in-all, a stunningly diverse place.
After a snack we wandered outside and made our way back across the river and along to the Orangerie, to see the Monet water-lily paintings. The gallery was nothing like I remembered it from 20 years earlier, but nonetheless it has a brilliant collection of Monet paintings, and still has those amazingly large water-lily paintings within which one can be 'immersed'. It took me a while, but I managed to get photos of them with no-one standing in front of them!
There was also an intriguing exhibition of/by/about Appollinaire.
We tried a different Irish bar on the way back to the Hotel, and because it was quieter, decided it would do for dinner as well.
Today we're heading south - to Carcassonne - by train. The famed TGV. Although we've always thought of it as a high-speed train, I guess that's relative, because it will take us something like 5 hours to get there.
We start by trundling ourselves and bags through the streets of Monmartre to get to a bus-stop so we can catch a bus to the Gare de Lyon to get our train.
Then it's settle in to comfortable seats, sit back and watch the countryside flash by.
Oddly, we actually sail straight through Carcassonne and on to Narbonne on the coast. There we leave the TGV and find a different, regional, train to take us back inland to Carcassonne. This one is less luxurious, and slower. But it does get us to our destination, which is a small, rather attractive railway station beside, it transpires, the Canal du Midi. So we look for coffee across the Canal while we think about what next; the fact we've just had a few hours to do that is neither here nor there.
We decide a taxi is the best option, because the hotel we're staying in is a couple of kilometres away. It transpires that our hotel is just a few metres down-slope from the outer walls of the Cité - another brilliant location!
The Cité itself is imposing: perched on a hill-top, with commanding views across the surrounding countryside, it has high stone walls and a moat, along with clear ground at the base of the walls.
Our room is again small (actually quite cramped) and the Hotel lacking in style (it's a little tacky), but the location couldn't get much better.
Bags desposited we wander off for a first look at the Cité inside the walls. These latter are admirably thick. Access is over a bridge (obviously; although the moat is now drained, it is still a physical barrier) and then along narrow, cobble-stone lanes. They in turn are lined with tourist-trap shops, including several playing heavily on the 'medieval' theme: Knights' and Ladies' clothing for kids, plastic & wooden swords, cross-bows, etc. Our kids (& their parents, truth be told!) would have loved it when young - fantasy games would have been the order of the day!
Close to the 'heart' of the Cité we find a small square with bars & restaurants, so we settle for dinner out of the cold and hope it isn't medieval in quality or selection.
The post-dinner walk back to the hotel is as the lights begin to take effect, and so we get a look at the flood-lit walls, which just serves to whet the appetite for the return visit on the morrow.
Breakfast in the Hotel; lunch in the Cité dinner in the Cité; no prizes for guessing where we spent most of the day!!
Once again we wander about looking at the shops - sweets, souvenirs, clothes, souvenirs, food, souvenirs - you get the picture!
But we want to see the 'real' structure, so we buy our tickets and start the surprisingly extensive walk around the outer wall and private apartments of the ruler's family. This will take us on a full circuit if the Cité and take well over an hour. It also encompassing a wide array of views - out over the surrounding area, into private backyards, into the private chapel, the ampitheatre, defensive positions, vegetable plots, and 'roadways' for the rapid circulation of troops.
It is also, in places, difficult to manouevre, up and down narrow, winding stairways, through towers, and along ramparts. All of which adds to the verisimilitude of the experience - brilliant!
We finish the 'official' tour by the Basilica, which, a sign informs us, is a "church always assigned to the Roman Catholic cult." Note: the Roman Catholic, as opposed to any other kind of Catholic, and the 'cult'. The only other place (than my own rantings) I have seen The Church referred to as a 'cult'! I feel right at home.
While attractive, especially on the outside, it is not a particularly fine example of church architecture; we will see more impressive in a few days.
We continue our perambulations, and then settle on a bar in which to have lunch - always an important consideration while on holiday. After lunch we continue to stroll, until we're in need of a rest, at which point we retire to the hotel to rest.
But, rested, we return to the Cité and search out a restaurant Desiree had spotted earlier serving a local speciality - Cassoulet, a stew of duck, pork sausage, and white beans. The restaurant was nice; the Cassoulet so-so. But at least we could tick that off our list!
We have what seems like a busy day ahead of us: back to the Railway Station to get a train to Narbonne, change to a different train to Barcelona, find our way to our hotel in the 'Gothic Quarter'.
So after breakfast we get organised, and order a cab which duly delivers us to the Railway Station. Unfortunately it doesn't offer a bag storage facility, so we go across the Canal to inquire at an Hotel; nor do they, but they do recommend one around the corner. Problem solved!
Now, we have a few hours to fill. Fortunately the weather is nice, so, bag-free, we wander into the middle of town, there to buy some food (& drink) for later in the day, and to find a cafe for coffee. We then watch a little slice of French provincial life carry on it's daily routines oblivious to our interest.
So that means we still have time to wander a few streets and into a few shops (where we each succumb to temptation) before ending up back beside the Canal. We've decided we'll take one of the short cruises on offer, which we, and a few others, do as a way of spending a pleasant and peaceful 1.5 hours. It also affords tantalising glimpses of the Cité in the distance.
And then it's time to wait for the train. A mad scramble, with bags, on board and to find seats and somewhere to put the bags. Followed by a relatively brief trip into Narbonne. Then it's another nervous scramble as we don't have much transit time before the departure of the train to Barcelona.
But we manage it, and find our seats, and stow our bags. And relax.
The trip, or at least the first part of it, is along the coast, which makes for an interesting contrast with the Eurostar and TGV trips.
And then we're in Barcelona, in a railway station that seems to have more in common with an airport than a railway station. But we find a taxi and tell him our hotel and the address.
He sets off without any indication of a problem, and there isn't, until we get caught in what seems like a minor traffic jam in a very narrow street. He tells us we might as well get out there, as we have to turn just 2 blocks away and he can't take his car down the street in which we'll find our Hotel. Hmmmm.
So we do, turn into the said street and sure enough, there is the Hotel! The fellow on Reception speaks very good English and clearly enjoys exercising his language skills. The room is OK - not flash, but serviceable.
We are in the 'gothic quarter' which means narrow streets with tall builings (5-6 stories) and no distinction between roadway and footpath. In the evening gloom the streets are somewhat intimidating to the inexeperienced, but we manage to find the restaurant recommended by our Receptionist, and subsequently enjoy the meal in what is a very busy/popular business. We finish our dinner & head back to the Hotel just about the time the locals begin their evenings, so the streets are now busier than before.
Our Hotel is in the narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter, so we're forced to walk. Exercise again, as in Paris! But it also makes navigating one's way about problematic, not least because we often loose contact with Google maps as we walk down narrow lanes. So getting to the Sagrada Familia Cathedral is a challenge. But we manage it, with a few diversions en route!
But thousands of others have had the same idea as us; the place is packed and heaving with tourists! We manage to book tickets to get inside, but they are are for entry between 4:00-4:15pm, and it is still late-morning.
So, we decide it's time to catch a hop-on / hop-off tour bus. These are double-deckers, so we scramble for upstairs seats. One of the first stops is for Guell Park, another Gaudi marvel. What wasn't clear to us is that it is quite some distance away up a hill! So we walk. Entrance is a charge, so we decline and satisfy ourselves with getting our breathe back and taking photos. And then head off back down hill. At the bottom I miscalculate, and turn in the wrong direction, as I thought there would be frequent stops we could signal the hop-on/hop-off bus. Not so. Which means we have a walk of a couple of kilometres to the next stop.
Angry, but not daunted, we re-join and enjoy the sights and sounds of Barcelona from the comfort of the Tour bus. For some reason we hadn't anticipated the coastal element to the city, which gives a pleasant contrast to the darkness of the Gothic Quarter where our day began.
And many of the buildings are beautiful - 5 or 6 stories high, built right to the road edge, most with small balconies for each apartment, and shutters over windows. Some have a banner flying, showing the face of young girl, with the question 'Why?' We never did find out.
Striking, during the tour, is how often the commentary mentions the name of the architect responsible for a building we pass - it seems that the Spanish appreciate architects in a manner or with a reverence we don't.
We use the bus to get back to the Sagrada Familia, where we find a cafe in which to have some food and a coffee. After which we line up for entry to the Cathedral. The crowds have not diminished, and we sure won't be alone inside! But inside we get.
Outside the Cathedral reminds me of something out of a Roald Dahl story or a Disney cartoon - unfair, but true. Inside, however, is entirely different. Breath-taking; jaw-dropping; eye-popping; it is truly majestic. Not only is the scale vast - it must be the highest ceiling we have ever seen, with columns seemingly stretching impossible distances - but the colour is a warm, golden glow, with brilliant shards of blues and reds and greens from the stained glass windows.
If the outside is grey concrete and stone, and covered in statuary and exhortory text, inside is a warm, enclosing wonderland of light and delicacy of touch and effect. It is also quite noisy, as a result of the large numbers of tourists, so it is impossible to imagine what it might be like when not swamped by camera-wielding gawkers like us.
Having drunk in the glory of the main floor, we decide we've not got the heads (or lungs!) for climbing into the upper reaches and settle instead for wandering downstairs. This is largely a 'project museum', with scale models, diagrams, explanatory text and timeline photos of the construction of the Cathedral. The impression one is left with is that Gaudi was a truly extraordinary fellow. Not only did he have a strikingly original vision, but also the innovative engineering and architectural expertise to deliver on his vision.
Somewhat chastened by the experience, we wend our tired way back to the Hotel by way the Hop-on/Hop-off bus - the long way around, but easier on the feet.
And being creatures of habit (& ease) we settle on the same restaurant for dinner.
What to do today? Walk, and when we've done that, we'll walk some more, and then for something different, we'll walk again.
Actually, the day won't be as random as that sounds; we're going to try to find the Museum, and intend to return to the Sagrada Familia in the afternoon so I can take (lots) of detail photos of the outside features.
So we set off, on foot, through the narrow streets, and this time with general directions under control, we end up near where we wanted to be. Near, but not at, note.
We come across the Barcelona Cathedral - the original, not the Gaudi version. This is much more traditional: gothic, lots of chapels and monuments to civic and personal wealth, gilt (& probably guilt), curious flagstones, smoke from candles, variable lighting, and a lovely luxuriant courtyard with geese wandering. A contrast with Sagrada Familia that is breathtaking in it's scale.
The Museum we're looking for is just around the corner, or the next corner, or the next. But here's a different Museum instead, so ever game, we decide to have a look. Not surprisingly, this one isn't pulling big crowds of tourists. It announces bravely it has a fascinating collection of religious iconography, which is sort of true, because it also has a large number of very old, and often somewhat primitive, altar-pieces. The Museum is the Museu Frederic Marès, who was, we're told, a sculptor.
But, that isn't the most notable thing about the museum: it houses the collections of an obssessive-compulsive collector; whole rooms of stamps, keys, hair-combs, chinaware, magazines, knitting needles, and on and on. Some three floors of it, all carefully displayed and arrayed, guarded, and beautifully lit. Extra-ordinary!
So that takes a while to get through, after which we're in need of a snack.
And then next door is the Barcelona Museum - our original and real goal for the morning!
The main floors of the Museum are actually under the floor. Stretching across many metres are the excavated remains of the early Roman presence in Barcelona.
Sympathetically lit, and protected by glass panels, with visitors restricted to raised metal walkways, there is a veritable maze of excavated dwellings, shops, roadways, public buildings, 'chapels', and even pits in which was made fish-sauce. And it's quiet! There are other visitors, but the atmosphere is quiet and studious.
From there we set off to make our way to the Picasso Museum. Still in the Gothic Quarter, we again wind down narrow streets so unlike anything we're used to at home. And find that even the Picasso Museum has an entry-queue. But we patiently join it, pay our money, and in due course get inside.
It is helpfully arranged chronologically, from his youth as an art student, learning his art. But I get confused by a 10-year gap in young-adult life, and am somewhat dis-orientated thereafter. Nonetheless, we are thrilled to be able to say we've seen so many Picasso originals close-up.
It now being mid-afternoon, we head off toward the Sagrada Familia, for a 'photo-shoot'. It takes about 25 minutes to get there, and Desiree is in need of rest, so I leave her in a Cafe, and head off to do a full circuit of the building, taking photos of every detail I can spot. It will result in more than 150 pictures, and takes about half an hour. It also leaves me feeling overwhelmed!
By now we're both flagging, but we need to get back to Hotel, so off we trudge. It is now after 5:00pm, and the city is surprisingly quiet. But Desiree had spotted a shoe-shop having a sale, and we manage (surprise! surprise!) to stumble across it on our way. And it's open. Even better: the sale is worthwhile, so she buys a pair of low boots, and I buy a pair of sneakers. Deal! Done!
Somehow the last kilometre or so back to the hotel seems so much easier after the late-afternoon success.
Dinner is our third visit to La Fonda Restaurant. And while we wait we think back over what was almost certainly the busiest day thus far: Barcelona Cathedral, the Museu Frederic Marès, The Barcelona Museum, the Picasso Museum, The Sagrada Familia, shoe-shopping.
Staying in: Fields of Gold, Rijselstraat 74, Ieper, 8980, Belgium
Barcelona is tearful at our leaving. Or, maybe, it's just a seasonal downpour! Either way, we have to trudge through the narrow streets to La Rambla with our bags to get a train (or a bus) out to the airport because we're heading north today.
We manage to make a complete mess of the directions, confusing buses and trains, going to the wrong platform, and looking complete novices. Which I guess, in Spain, we are!
Eventually, we end up on a train to the airport. And the station at the airport is quite a walk from the terminal we need.
The upshot of the confusion is that we're about 8 minutes late for our flight! It's closed and boarded, and we've missed it. Which means we have to re-book on another flight. This costs us more, is a couple of hours later, and will take us to a different airport in Paris! And we have a rental car waiting for us at the original destination! Bugger!
So while we ponder the complications over coffee and a snack I decide to try to change our car reservation. That involves going out through security (and therefore having to return through it) to the rental desk and trying to sort out the confusion. I spend 20 minutes on the phone to a call-centre who declined to alter the booking because it had been made through a discount site (Expedia, or some similar) and was therefore at a special rate. Exasperated I decide we'll just see what happens when we get there.
The flight is cheerless and uneventful, and Orly Airport unexceptional. On the other had, the staff at the car-rental desk are just lovely. Calm, understanding, and helpful! In no time at all, our booking is changed, and we have car keys in hand, contract signed, and the broadest of directions to get us out of the airport and on our way! Who would have thought? Helpful French staff? We're suitably relieved and grateful.
But then, within a short time, suitably nervous, confused and worried. We had requested a SatNav unit with the car because we're heading to Belgium. It has a facility to translate from French to English; we know that because we saw it once but cannot find it again! And so the directions are all but useless to us!
Never fear, Google is here! Desiree does a sterling job of coping with my nerves, her fear of me crashing the car, and finding our way on Google Maps. It seems interminable, and involves a couple of extensive tunnels (we checked: we weren't be followed by paparazzi!) to bypass congested areas, but eventually we find our way onto the Motorway we want to get to Belgium, and make up a little time.
Toll-gates can be a little confusing but somehow we muddle through. We really should plan ahead for things like this.
The motorway is really good: fast, straight, and traversing country just we saw through the windows of the Eurostar. But the day is drawing late, and we're getting hungry, so we take a brief stop at a service centre to get food.
But now we're faced with navigation challenges again. We need to leave the motorway system at Armentieres, and head across country out of France into Belgium because we're going to Ypres.
And that confuses Google Maps. Not because it can't cope with the language change, or the switch from one country to another, but because it insists we turn down a road that has concrete barriers across it! The solution? Ignore Google for a few minutes and drive in what we hope will be the right direction, but far enough from this 'dead-end' to allow Google to re-calibrate our directions. Even in the dark of the early evening it manages it! Until we hit exactly the same problem a second time in a completely different place!
Following our 'nose' for a bit proves the key, and allows Google to get us back on track as we scoot through the countryside, which, were it lighter, we would probably enjoy. As it is after 2030 hours, it's difficult to tell what our surroundings are like. Concerned that we're quite a bit later than anticipated, Desiree calls the place we're staying to let them know we're on the way, and, more or less, where we are. They seem unperturbed.
And then we drive through a narrow gate in a brick wall beside a river, and we're there!
Ypres! Even in the weak street-lighting, the buildings look attractive, and street we're in tidy, neat graffiti-free, and interesting!
The apartment in we're booked is on the 3rd floor of a narrow house. Ground floor has a health shop; accommodation is on the other floors, presumably including an aprtment used by the owners. It is all very new-agey, and so a little giggle-inducing, but the owner is well-meaning and keen to be the perfect host. We could do a LOT worse! And after the eventful day we've had, an oasis of calm and a deep soft bed soothes away the tensions!
World War 1 commemorations! There is a certain symmetry at play here: we started in Dublin with the ceremonials for the 1916 Rising; now, almost a month later, we're going to spend a couple of days immersed in memorials to WW1, and fallen family.
First up, explore a little of the town in which we're staying - Ypres. We walk down our street enjoying the narrow buildings, their tall frontages, with adornment at roof level, and the cobblestone roadway. At the end of the road is a town Square, across which is a large & impressive structure. It turns out that this is the Cloth Hall, and now houses the WW1 Museum. So naturally, that's where we head.
The interior belies the exterior. Inside is modern, slick, and shiny, while outside is brick, original, old, and distinctively local. But it turns out that the building is a re-creation. Which all makes sense, but is a little disconcerting. Ypres was the scene of 2 major battles during WW1 with huge quantities of high explosive devastating the entire area (not to mention large numbers of people!). Churchill, in the light of his outstanding success at Gallipoli, even proposed that the entire area by treated as 'hallowed ground' and left 'as it was'. The locals had other ideas, and just wanted to get their lives back together! And so they set about re-building, often using photographs as their guide to the building styles and characteristics. And the Cloth Hall is one such re-creation. It looks like it has been there several hundred years!
The Museum is superb. Modern, it uses new technologies and judiciously selected artefacts to tell the stories of the WW1 battles in the local area. It also has a number of displays of poems by such as Siegfried Sassoon, which help to personalise what can at times be an impersonal and distancing story telling.
It also has a temporary display devoted to the role of Canadian troops in the area. All-in-all, it is most impressive.
And it takes us a couple of hours to traverse, by which time lunch beckons.
After lunch we retrieve the car and head off to find the Tyne Cot Memorial Cemetery. It is only a few kilometres away, and well sign-posted. This is a common feature of the area. Unfortunately, a local farmer is spraying manure (or effluent) onto a field right beside the carpark, which serves to hurry us from the carpark into the cemetery.
And that is a sobering experience: headstones for graves of named and un-named ('Known unto God') individuals whose bodies were recovered, as well as 169 marble panels each holding several hundred names of those whose bodies were never identifiably retrieved. And there, on a panel numbered '4', is the name 'MEE, A'. This is Alec (Alexander) Mee, a distant cousin; the eldest son of Margaret Mulligan from Regaskin and Kuri Bush, Otago. I mentally kick myself for not having thought to bring a token to leave behind. I'll have to do with telling his tragic story online.
Just down the road is Mesen (Messines to us), where there is an 'experience' site, so we stop in there. Entrance is through a large wooden house, which appears to be playing host in a few days to a group of enthusiasts who have military equipment; they are probably 're-creators'. The tour is interesting, and has a large/extensive trench network, with lots of interersting details, such as the pre-fabricated inverted A-frames they used (invented by New Zealanders?), and a scary sculpture of dis-embodied hands called Falls The Shadow by New Zealander Helen Pollock.
We also stumble on 2 other 'national' memorials: the first is the New Zealand memorial at Messines. While not especially large or imposing, it has a quiet dignity, sign-boards telling the story of the New Zealanders in the Battle of Messines in June 1917, who, the memorial reminds us, came "From the uttermost ends of the earth". Perhaps underlying our hosts passing comment that he was always amazed that New Zealanders had come so far to help his country in their hour of need.
And while we drove more or less aimlessly near Messines, past Nieuw-Zeelanders Str. and Ruse Des Neo-Zelandais, we came across the "Island of Ireland Peace Park". It has a re-created Round Tower, and memorials to the many Irish who fell in the first World War. It was officially opened by Mary McAleese in November 1998, and in it's "Peace Pleadge" it says "As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness." It's starkness is striking; it's humility, refreshing; it's forward-looking encouraging.
But now for something completely different! On our way back to Ypres, we encounter a piece of 'public art' which is entirely at odds with the war memorials in which we've been immersed: In the centre of a traffic roundabout is a water-tap suspended in space, and gushing water. I nearly crash the car as I'm distracted by the delightful whimsy!
We re-enter Ypres as we had yesterday, but now in daylight so I can photograph the attractive approaches. We then leave the car outside the apartment, and walk into the centre of town in search of lovely buildings to photograph, and somewhere to eat and drink. Both are achieved with ease.
Staying in: ibis Arras Centre Les Places, Arras
Arras is in France, and we start the day in Belgium. Fortunately it isn't far away, and the countryside is easy to cross.
En route we drive through the small town of Messines (or Mesen) where we have to pause for a couple of statutes. One is of "The New Zealand Soldier" - a sergeant in uniform with his rifle at rest - and the other commemorates that odd event of a soccer game between teams from the two sides in the battle - the Germans and the English. Odd, and oddly touching.
Like Ypres, Arras has striking and distinctive architecture and is also arranged around a couple of squares. Unfortunately for us, we arrive on 'market day' which means the Square is blocked off and so finding our way to our Hotel takes a lot longer (& a fair bit of frustration, back-tracking & swearing) than it should have. But find it we do. Our room continues the tradition of large wardrobes converted to bedrooms, so we won't be spending much time there.
We have a wander around the market looking for somewhere for some lunch, only to discover the market is only a half-day, and as it's now early afternoon all of the stall-holders are packing up. But we find a cafe and refresh ourselves nonetheless.
Then it's time to retrieve the car and set off for Carriere Wellington - Wellington Quarry. This was an abandoned mine from which limestone had been quarried. New Zealand tunnelers were given the task of re-opening it and then extending it as a staging ground for troops prior to a major offensive against the Germans in the area in April 1917.
At capacity it hid from the german artillery approximately 24,000 soldiers, who, at the appointed hour were able to emerge from the rubble of carefully placed tunnel entrances blown apart for the purpose and continue the advance.
Seeing the Quarry involves joining a tour party and being escorted underground, there to follow a raised walkway which wends its way through some of the tunnels. There are frequent pauses to observe projected holographic images and listen to commentary about the tunnels, and the lives and expertise of the tunnelers. You also pass touchingly homely elements like distinctively Kiwi place names. All-in-all, it is well worth the wait and the visit.
So that's the attraction of Arras for us.
It's back to the hotel, rest, and then find a place to eat. Simple really.
It was time to move from the gloom of World War 1 memories to the celebration of the warming spring weather; to leave Arras and drive south to Giverny and enjoy the fruits (or rather blooms) of Monet's fascination with his garden. But first we take a last look at the buildings in the Place des Heros in Arras.
And our route includes a small diversion, to visit the cemetery at Metz-en-Couture, there to see the headstone of great-uncle John Robert Murrell - my grandfather's brother. The village is easy to find, the cemetery less so. It is actually outside the village and on a very rural road. It's also not very large, and we're almost past it before we realise what it is we're passing. There is a light rain falling, so I won't be lingering, but I have promised myself I will pay my respects. His headstone is easily located; pausing by it, I have nothing to offer as a token of remembrance except the plastic bracelet from the Museum in Ypres with it's Poppy. I carefully place that atop the headstone, let him know I was there, and how we're related. It makes no difference to him, but, curiously, I feel better for having made the effort.
We're fascinated to discover we're passing through the Somme Valley, now apparently a noted fishing area! In our minds it is first & formost a major WW1 battle-field.
Winding our way through the countryside, we come across the town of Peronne. We knew nothing about it, but I noticed a curious area that looked like a medieval wall and moat. So of course, we stopped and I went exploring with camera in hand. Visual curiosity satisfied we carry on, towards the motorways.
The French motorways make traversing the countryside an efficient experience, if somewhat distancing. They are so imposed upon the countryside that a traveller doesn't really feel as though they are travelling "through" it; rather one traverses, or crosses, it. But leave the motorways, as we did in due course, and one is immediately forced onto minor roads which wind and wend their way through towns, villages, and fields. And in contrast to New Zealand, one is left with an impression of a fully humanised, cultivated landscape. There seems to be little 'wilderness' or even areas of forest. Farms and fields everywhere.
We seemed to come upon Giverny rather abruptly - down a hill, around a corner, and there it was! To my surprise I turned into a narrow lane which was exactly as I remembered it from trawling through Google maps!
In what would turn out to be an inspired decision, we had changed our plan from visiting the Garden on Monday morning, before returning to Paris, to visiting it on Sunday afternoon - today! But first, find our "Hotel Restaurant La Musardiere". Turns out we had driven past it, thinking it was further out of the village than it actually is. It was probably a house, originally, but is now a serviceable, if somewhat down-at-heel, Hotel. Our room is tidy and spacious, although access is up a couple of flights of ramshackle stairs.
Bags deposited, it's off to the Garden. It's a short walk along Rue de Claude Monet (well, that's a surprise!). By the time we reach the ticket office, we know we don't have our actual pre-booked tickets, but we do have a confirmation number. We also know we want to persuade them to let us in today even though we'd booked for tomorrow. And in French!
However, obliging staff eventually found our booking, ignored our change of day, and waved us through. In English!
Down stairs, through the gift shop (we'll be back!) and out. Into an immediate riot of colour!
And so we spent over an hour wandering through the formal garden, then through a subway across to the water garden, and back again, then into and through the house. It occurred to us that we'd probably been too busy taking photos (!) to have actually looked carefully at what we were seeing. So we decided to do it all again. And were thoroughly entranced all over again.
By that time it was late afternoon - beer o'clock! So we wandered a few hundred metres along to Restaurant Baudy for a quiet drink or two, then back to our Hotel, for a rest before dinner and retiring. Mission accomplished!
Today we will bid 'au revoir' to France, but only after navigating our (seemingly tortuous) way through it's countryside before re-joining the Motorway system. And thanks to Google we see areas of France we hadn't intended to, probably had no real need to, and will almost certainly never see again! But we do manage to get to where we need to get, and join the rush to Paris.
However, once within the confines of Paris, the shortcomings of directions from Google Maps become apparent again: street names are hard to find let alone read, often you realise you have to turn as you pass the target street, and it can't possibly account for the behaviour (ie. speed) of other drivers!
But somehow we manage to find the rental car company depot, and to get the car handed back (& claim a refund on the satnav which we haven't used since we couldn't find the translation).
And then it's only a 100 metres or so to the Gare du Nord, where we will again board the Eurostar for a rapid trip back to London.
Judging by the crush that develops immediately behind us at the top of the escalators, there are more people arriving to board one of the trains than are being processed through whatever lies ahead of us. We just have to wait, happy that we had decided to visit the Monet garden yesterday, and so didn't have to make a time-constrained dash to the train this morning. It takes us something like half an hour to get through the 'border' control screening and ticket check and be admitted to the departure lounge, there to await the boarding call for the Eurostar.
But it does happen, and so we find our carriage, seats and a suitable place to stow our bags. Then we just settle back for the 2-hour sprint across France, under the Channel, across southern England, into St Pancras Station in London.
Again, we have very clear instructions about catching the Tube and meeting up with Sarah Rose. This time we're not staying in a Hotel, but rather their new flat into which they haven't yet moved. It transpires that there is a brief window during which they're paying rent on both their old and new flats, so we're going to use the new one and help them shift belongings. Fortunately it's only 10 minutes flat walk away and dragging suitcases of belongings is straight-forward.
But the prime order of business for the evening is a tour in search of Jack The Ripper. Sarah Rose has taken our visit as the excuse she needed to do the Tour through Whitechapel. It is cold, and rain threatens, but we're booked, so ....
It is an entertaining romp through the area in which the murders occurred, with an entertaining, if somewhat predictable showman for a guide. What I find most disappointing is the extent to which Whitechapel (& the surrounds) has been re-developed and so has lost almost all of its character from 150 years ago. I can't help but notice the contrast with many of the areas we have spent the last few weeks in. And Britain does it so well in some places.
But, for now, it's back to the Flat and sleep.
We don't have much on the schedule today, albeit it's important! Remotely, Desiree has managed to book a session with a hairdresser just a few minutes walk away from where we're staying, so that will dominate our day. We find the salon, and I find a McDonald's in which I can sit and use their free Wi-Fi (there's a silver lining in every Big Mac, it seems). I also manage to find a place we can buy a couple of things for the kids' flat, namely a heater. It's not that we were cold, you realise, it's just that, it will be needed!
So after the hairdressing, apparently with a very nice and interesting Polish fellow, we buy said heater, and make a couple of snacks purchases from a supermarket.
Dinner has been arranged for us, at a restaurant Sarah Rose & Pip enjoy. We will be joined by Pip's brother and by Barbara, who's back in town.
So that's how we spent one of our quietest days in the whole period we were away!
We're up and about, with a plan to meet Barbara at the flat she's staying in, then to go to the Tate Britain, have a bite to eat and then onto the Tate Modern. With a little sight-seeing mixed in along with it!
So we catch a Tube from Swiss Cottage and get off at the correct stop, to find Barbara is staying directly opposite the station in the very flash flat of a friend.
So we embark on what we're assured is a short bus ride through The City. Perched at the front of the top deck is certainly a prime spot to watch the bewildering array of buildings pass by, and to spot the landmarks which television has drilled into us as familiar.
And there's the Tate! So off we get, and pays our monies and gets our fill of some of the best art available to public viewing in London. The paintings are arranged in rooms by century, which gives us the opportunity to wander 'through time', as it were.
They have a glorious collection of Pre-Raphaelite works; if Desiree was entranced by the Classical works in the British Museum, I'm delighted to have seen close-up so many of the 'real' Pre-Raphaelite paintings, including my favourite - Millais' Mariana. Unfortunately, there is what seems to be an 'art appreciation' class in session, camped right in front of it. Disgruntled, I stalk around the remainder of the galleries with the intention of returning and getting decent photos without these people cluttering my view. And that's what I manage to achieve.
And, given where Sarah Rose & Pip are living, we stumble upon a painting of 'Belsize Park', from the period when it was a country estate. It has certainly changed.
Then it's 'back on the bus'. We're headed further through The City, roughly parallel to the Thames, and as we near St Paul's we alight, and decide it's time for some sustenance, which we get in a "Pret a Manger" branch - they're everywhere!
Then we walk over the Thames across the 'swaying bridge', although there is no sensation of danger.
The Tate Modern is a companion of the Tate Britain, but located in a former Power Station in Bankside, just a stone's throw from The Globe Theatre. As a former power station, there is an obvious brutalist and functional character to the galleries, but it does give a sense of space and allow for ample display areas. We just scratch the surface, and Barbara is beginning to suffer what soundings like it will become an annoying cold.
One of the features we note in the gallery we toured was the space given to non-British art-works - a display about Women in Protest movements, and South American left-wing art.
I also encounter a chilling work about a 'blanket' protester from the early 1980s by Richard Hamilton. We saw little evidence of the impact of such protesters while in Ireland; mind you, we also didn't visit art galleries while in Ireland.
As the day was waning it was out of the gallery and decided to use one of the ferries for a short trip along the Thames, at the end of which we leave Barbara who heads of home to a cold remedy, while we head off to get on a bus and crawl our way along The Embankment and to a point at which we can catch a tube back out to Swiss Cottage.
We'll have dinner with the kids and retire suitably early.
Our last full day in London, and the last sight-seeing opportunity of our Tour! Choices, choices!
We end up catching a Tube into The City, heading for Hyde Park Corner. I'm keen to see the New Zealand War Memorial in the Park, and we have decided we will visit the Imperial War Museum, and if there's time (& energy!) the Victoria & Albert Museum as well.
So we find the Imperial War Museum eventually. We focus our attention on it's WW1 display. We, of course, have a basis for comparisons (odious or not!), having visited similar exhibitions in Wellington and several in Belgium & France. And I have to say I was disappointed. The exhibition is comprehensive in it's telling of the narrative of events, but myopic in it's focus on the exploits of the British Army, especially the English units.
I found sections devoted to the role of the New Zealand and Australians, but looked in vain for detailed descriptions of the Indian or Pasifika troops, or the Chinese labourers the British brought to Europe.
For a Museum with an "Imperial" remit I find that a disturbing omission.
But, almost to compensate, we also walked through a very good WW 2 exhibition, which told the story of a single family during the period of The Blitz, and later, and traced what happened to them. It managed to be both comprehensive, and detailed at the same time, with a fascinating diversity of experiences to draw on from the one family.
After a bite to eat, we set off to find Hyde Park Corner. And there we found the New Zealand War Memorial. I was surprised at the way in which this corner of London is given over to War Memorials. In addition to the New Zealand one, there is the Australian - a long wall of water-dappled granite with Australian place-names inscribed on it.
Additionally, there are a couple of traditional statues, including one of the Duke of Wellington, and another of the British Machine-gun Corps.
The New Zealand Memorial bears close examination. From a distance it appears to be merely a cluster of steel girders stuck in the ground at odd angles. But they are adorned with significant icons of New Zealand: rugby, the Southern Cross, potted history of key events (refrigerated shipping). These only become evident close up.
Having successfully located this goal, we re-set our course to find the V&A Museum. We mis-judge the distance (a not unknown situation), but persist in walking to it. Which means we pass some notable landmarks.
The Museum itself, we find under-whelming, or, rather, un-engaging. We look for the Pacific gallery and find there is very little of substance to it. It may be 'museum fatigue', but we find it not worth the effort.
So we head off back the way we came, in search of a Tube Station. Enroute we stop for refreshment in a 'typical' or real English pub.
We meet up with Sarah Rose & Pip for dinner one last time (in London, at least!). Between us we have all but completed their move, and they will move into their new flat tomorrow evening after we have vacated it. But tonight we're going back to the lovely Italian restaurant around the corner from their (2) flat(s).
Time to go home. Time to stop living out of a suitcase (or back-pack, in my case).
But first we have to 'get' home. The first leg is to get to Heathrow, from where we fly to Abu Dhabi (again), and thence to Brisbane, and Wellington.
Once again Pip has provided remarkably precise and helpful instructions to navigate the switch of trains at Picadilly Circus, and we smoothly manage to leave one train and make our way to and get on the second. And it is still early in the morning!
We have done a lot of walking, one way and another, while on holiday, which has to have been good for our health. And it seems as though the English authorities are determined to 'help' us out again, because there is a reasonable haul from the train to the airline check-in.
But it goes smoothly, and we're in good time. Which just leaves the waiting, and getting enough food to keep us going.
To our surprise and delight the plane is barely one-third full. So we have a row of 3 seats to ourselves, which is comparative comfort!
Heathrow to Abu Dhabi is a mere 8 hours. I occupy myself with watching a whole season of Peaky Blinders, while Desiree watches films and dozes.
Our previous encounter with Abu Dhabi had involved going through security as a single plane-load - a delay, but not excessive, and not a lot of crowding. This occasion, it seems we've arrived at peak rush-hour, and there must have been upwards of half-a-dozen aircraft all disgorging their passengers within minutes of each other.
Consequently, there are enormous queues, and a bit of manouevring for position going on. In due course we get through, with no great stress or loss of dignity.
And then we have to wait in the departure lounge as we did previously. This time, however, we're diverted by the antics of a toddler who has a wonderful time teetering through the lounge, generally away from Mum, who is content to let him go so long as she can keep him in sight.
This flight is the 'killer' - 14 hours long! But again, the plane is nowhere near full. We are in a row of three seats, but this time we have a third person, beside me. I point out to him the space available, and that he could stretch out if he swapped seats. So once he's sure the doors are closed, he does just exactly that. Space again!
More Peaky Blinders, more films, meals, and dozing.
And then we're in Brisbane, and it's night-time. We have a little time to kill, so we buy some duty-free alcohol, and have a drink (at a bar) before boarding the 3-hour flight to Wellington.
Shock-horror! The plane is nearly full, and we're back to being cattle in cattle-class! At least it's only 3 hours, and at the end, we'll be in Wellington.
Just a short haul until we can stretch out in our own bed, and persuade the cats that we're actually home again.
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