Despite staying in Belfast we spent our first day touring the Antrim coast and Giants Causeway. Our first stop of the morning was Dunluce Castle, built in the 13th century and slowly losing bits and pieces as the basalt cliff beneath it erodes. One of the most interesting things about the castle is its cannons which are from a Spanish galleon wrecked there during the defeat of the Armada in 1588.
The next destination was Giants Causeway, the main attraction and possessing two origin stories.
The first and most likely (obviously) is that the Giant Finn MacCool was challenged to a fight by the much larger Scottish giant Benandonner. Finn built the causeway to facilitate the fight. Finn’s wife disguised him as a baby and when Benandonner saw him he assumed Finn himself must be gigantic and ran in terror, destroying the causeway behind him to prevent pursuit.
The far less likely origin is that some 50 million years ago high amounts of volcanic activity created the roughly 40,000 basalt pillars we see today. The best way I’ve heard it described is that the cracks between pillars formed similar to how mud cracks when it dries. Either way it makes for an incredible morning of rock hopping and tide pool exploring.
We needed to be rejuvenated at this point so it was off to the Bushmills Distillery (Ireland’s oldest since 1608) for a flight of some of their finest offerings.
The next stop was Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge which spans a chasm of over 75 feet to take you out to the island of Carrickarede or island of casting. Our tour guide explained this was because fisherman had worked from the island for hundreds of years. Just before we visited it was closed due to vandalism but luckily repairs were quick. The views were incredible, but the overwhelming smell of bird crap was ever-present. What many don’t know is that as you cross the bridge you are also crossing the mouth of an ancient volcano that last erupted 60 million years ago.
At this point it was time to head back through the village of Carnlough which for Game of Thrones fans is where Melisandre has her demon appear and where Arya comes out of the water after her fight with the waif.
On the way back into Belfast we made one last stop at Carrickfergus castle, built in 1177 and seeing action right up to World War 2.
The tour was with https://irishtourtickets.com who I would highly recommend!
If you’re looking for a great weekend trip look no further then Dublin. Lots of tourist stops surrounded by wonderful pubs and really friendly people.
The day started with a visit to Trinity Library and a viewing of the book of Kells. The book is a collection of the 4 gospels, beautifully coloured and illustrated. It dates to about 800 A.D and is the centrepiece of the library with only 2/4 books on display at a time. That said the library has several other exceptional books in the collection and while we were there had all their signed letters and books from Jonathan Swift on display.
Architecturally the inside of the library is beautiful and traces its lineage to 1592. The old library or “Long Room” is home to the oldest works and dates to the early 1700’s. For all the star wars nerds out there, rumour has it the long room inspired the Jedi archives.
Next stop was St.Audoens Church, the only surviving medieval parish church in Dublin. It is dated to somewhere around 1181 and is still an active church to this day.
There was a quick stop for a motivational guinness at the Brazen Head, Irelands oldest pub established in 1198. Then it was off to St. James Gate for a tour of the Guinness brewery itself. The brewery opened in 1759 when Arthur Guinness signed a 9000 year lease for the site which is now in a glass case in the floor.
A thorough run down of how the beer is made comes complete with the opportunity to get certified to pour Guinness (which we took full advantage off). After figuring out the surprisingly confusing elevator system is was up to the sky pub for a view of Dublin. I’m gonna be honest here and say the view was slightly underwhelming but still enjoyable.
This kicked off a typical Dublin pub crawl starting at Temple Bar which was nice but very touristy. Other stops included the Stags Head (said to have been a favourite of James Joyce) and Mary’s which is set up like a hardware store and features a 50’s style burger joint in the basement.
The following day began with a quick detour past the house of Oscar Wilde before heading to Dublin Castle-the source of the city’s name. It comes from the Gaelic “dubh linn” or “black pool” which described the part of the river the castle was built along. Dublin was founded in the 9th century by Vikings and later taken by Normans when they invaded in 1169. The castle was begun in 1204 under the orders of King John and continued to be a seat of English power till 1922 when the Irish free state was created.
Many don’t see the site as a castle since the original defences are now only seen as part of an archeological dig- the part above ground looks more like a fancy government building (which it is). Cool side story- Bram Stoker worked here as a clerk while writing Dracula and this was roughly the view from his window.
The combination of history, art and architecture makes the castle a great stop for visitors and for understanding Dublin’s often troubled past.
If you’re going to scale a volcano- make sure its active. I’ve covered Pompeii and its unfortunate end in a previous post https://thedreameroftheday.com/2016/08/09/pompeii/ but the focus was on the city more then the volcano that destroyed it. This time I was playing tour guide to my parents and we decided to get to the top.
A few sharp switchbacks in the van culminate in a stop well short of the rim. The journey up provides incredible views so bring a camera. Once you reach the rim you can hike most of the way around.
One of the most amazing things is the signs of activity- sulphuric smells and visible streams of steam and gas. In some places you could even feel the heat coming off the rock. Be sure to wear proper shoes for a hike, the rock at the top is uneven and in some cases really jagged. When teaching geography we of course spend a lot of time looking at volcano’s because they are awesome (and its required). I question why anyone would want to live next to this particular volcano, considered one of the most dangerous in the world because of the type of violent eruption it unleashes. Many people think its extinct but its actually the only volcano in Europe to fully erupt in the last century. Its a matter of time before history repeats itself in Pompeii.
The trip down was a bit quicker and we still had some time for a tour of Pompeii itself.
During our time in Rome we also had time for the Baths of Caracalla (named for the Emperor who had them built) which I’d never been to before. Amazingly they were only the second biggest bath complex in Rome and after being constructed in the early 3rd century stayed active till the 6th. It took 9000 men 5 years to build and continued with additions for years after that. Invading Ostrogoths put an end to it when they cut the water supply to Rome and the Catholic Church then stripped the rest of much of its marble, statues and incredible works of art.
Just walking through makes you appreciate how advanced the Romans were and a bit angry that you can’t see it in its former glory.
The good news is the Baths are only a short walk from the Coliseum and the Palatine/Capitaline hills.
We did visit the Coliseum (of course) and this time I knew to book the tour for special access. This takes you to the upper level of the coliseum and under the arena floor, areas you can see, but not visit on the normal tour. When it comes to history Roman never disappoints.
It has been 100 years (almost to the day when we visited) since the four Canadian divisions stormed and took Vimy Ridge. Many point to this as a key moment of nation building in Canada’s young history. Canada holds an exceptional war record and gained a reputation for accomplishing victory in unlikely situations like Ypres which led to the attack at Vimy.
The second battle of Ypres resulted in the first use of chlorine gas and the entire allied line (4 km long) broke and ran except the Canadians who single handedly held it overnight. Given my nationality there’s some bias here- so take it from the British prime minister Lloyd George after the Somme, “The Canadians played a part of such distinction that thenceforward they were marked out as shock troops; for the remainder of the war they were brought along to head the assault in one great battle after another. Whenever the Germans found the Canadian corps coming into line they prepared for the worst.”
So in the early hours of April 9th 1917, after 3 years of allied attempts to take Vimy and almost 200,000 casualties- the Canadians were given a shot. They took 3 days to do what the rest of the army had attempted for 3 years using a combination of new training techniques and a progressive artillery bombardment called a creeping barrage. The artillery fired just in front of advancing troops and tunnels were used to get as close as possible.
The tunnels are incredibly deep and if you visit the new centre- built for the centennial, you can descend into them, coming up in the front line trench’s. They are still being excavated and discovered and require the presence of military experts to disable explosive traps which were set 100 years ago.
Movies give the impression that no mans land (the space between the two sides) was large but actually you could toss a rock into the other trench at several points. There are craters everywhere, some from extended shelling and even larger ones from tunnel mines being detonated underground. It speaks to the hell both sides must have endured throughout the battle. Almost 4000 Canadians lost their lives on the ridge while another 7000 were injured.
The whole area is well kept and patrolled by flocks of sheep who “cut the grass” just in case any unexploded ordinance is waiting beneath the surface. I highly recommend the lamp chops.
The memorial statues and the cemeteries are immaculate and are maintained in many cases by the French as a thank you for those who died away from home. They have done an excellent job honouring those men and preserving their memory. In addition to that, the local people in Arras were very friendly and if you have the chance, stay there during your visit. I would suggest the Trois Luppars for a hotel and for transportation take a taxi- not a tour bus (cheaper and faster).
Juno Beach is a slightly more recent but still important moment in Canadian history. One of five beach’s taken in the invasion of Normandy during the D-Day offensive on June 6th 1944 and it resulted in heavy casualties. At day’s end the Canadians were halted because they were too far in front of the rest of the army. The beach itself has one well preserved bunker system and a nice new visitor centre which does an excellent job showing the lead up to the landing. The beach itself shows no memory of the attack, children play on it and people windsurf where landing craft once rolled in.
This section of the beach was known as Nan and Mike sectors respectively. Below is a map of where the defences were. The dunes in the photo above were removed by French labourers for clearer sight lines and concrete emplacements 3 metres thick were every 500 metres with overlapping fields of fire. Tidal areas were covered with traps and barriers like those seen below. They were designed to destroy landing craft and slow approach routes. The whole system was referred to as the Atlantic Wall and was built from 1942-44 stretching over 2500km.
The building of the wall was originally up to the individual commanders, meaning there was no uniform plan for how bunkers and defences should be built. Hitlers top general, Erwin Rommel took over and that all changed. We got to go into two bunkers, the first pre-Rommel with an obvious flaw in the design. See below- flamethrowers or grenades could be tossed through the ventilation shafts.
Rommel was smart- and some say a good man. He attempted to assassinate Hitler and got caught but this was publicly embarrassing for the 3rd Reich so he agreed to commit suicide via cyanide in return for his actions being kept secret and his families protection. This led to a lack of leadership on D-Day and may have ensured Allied victory. One of his innovations was the new bunker below with a fake ventilation shaft- throw a grenade in and it came right back out at the persons feet.
Take the time to grab a taxi out of town to the Canadian cemetery which once again is so impressively maintained by the French government. Its an emotional experience looking at not only the number of head stones but the age of the young men who didn’t make it home.
There is a local bus that will take you from Caen straight to the Juno Beach centre and takes about 45 minutes. Take the time to explore both sites if you are in the area, its well worth it and especially for Canadians its nice to visualize something we learn so much about in school. More importantly its good to remember, lest we forget.
Known for extravagant opulence in the extreme, Versailles started as a royal hunting lodge in 1623 before being developed into the jewel of Europe’s palaces. It served as a seat of Kings from 1682-1789 when royal power dissolved during the French Revolution. Just as famous as the Palace is its builder, Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King. His rule of almost 73 years is a record for a European royal and his expenditures for Versailles are estimated at over 2 billion dollars.
The grounds at Versailles are massive and contain dozens of fountains and a private lake. For those wondering about the title- a family known as the Gobelins were the owners of a tapestry company which Louis nationalized. He also made them partly responsible for ensuring the decoration of Versailles was done entirely through French artisans and using French materials. One letter away from those Goblin decorators we all want working on our dream homes! As for the assassins, the most famous room in the Palace is the Hall of Mirrors. People underestimate the power this room conveyed to visitors at the time as mirrors were not only incredibly expensive but also a coveted secret of the Venetian government. Louis insistence that everything be made in France led to the French luring Venetian artisans to their court. Shortly after they made Louis his mirrors assassins sent by the Venetians eliminated the glass craftsmen to keep the secret of its manufacture safe.
The Hall of Mirrors also served as the site where Britain recognized the independence of America in 1783, the site where the German empire was founded in 1871 after the French fell to the Prussians and in 1919 became home to the Treaty of Versailles which started Europe down the road to world war two.
Other famous rooms include the Kings chambers, and the Royal Chapel. At the very back of the property Marie Antoinette had her very own mini palace and garden. She is most famous for supposedly saying “let them eat cake” although there is little evidence she ever said this. Sadly we didn’t have time to see this part of the grounds- something for next time!
Amsterdam isn’t known for its royal palaces but it is home to one of three official residences for the Dutch royal family. Originally built as a city hall in 1655, Koninklijk Palace came into its current appearance under King Louis Napoleon when his famous brother declared him Monarch in the early 1800’s.
It holds a central position in the city, dominating Dam square. Outwardly Louis’ biggest addition was the central balcony, and similar to that of Buckingham Palace it is a place where royals will put in an appearance. It was on the inside however that Louis influence can still be felt as he made every effort to create the most opulent residence possible.
The Grand Hall features a massive statue of Atlas holding a globe above a mantle and below the floor is covered in massive maps dating to a period when new lands were still being discovered. The palace is architecturally modelled after Roman work and the maps may be a throwback to certain Roman buildings that had the empire etched on their floors.
The rest of the palace has a large focus artistically on trade and naval power as that is what transformed Amsterdam into a world power in its golden age. The Netherlands began to take shape in the modern form after William of Orange took back the country in a rebellion against Spain (which cost him his life). The house of Orange ruled from the palace for centuries before being ousted by a brief rebellion and then Louis. It took many years but eventually the house of Orange returned to the throne by defeating the French in 1813 and continue to rule to this day. At this point the palace is used infrequently as a residence unless it’s for a visiting head of state. Its primary purpose is holding large government functions and receptions.
By far the most interesting room in the palace is the old court room used exclusively for trials where a guilty verdict would bring about an execution. The room features a carving of King Solomon making a judgement to remind judges of the power they wielded. On the bright side the end came quickly as you were hung from the window just upstairs if the trial didn’t go your way.
If you find yourself with some time to spare in Amsterdam this is one stop that’s well worth the trip. After that it was time for the tulip market- make sure you don’t buy them if they aren’t certified for your home country. When you’re done take the five minute detour to check out Rembrandt’s house- it was taken from him when he went bankrupt.
No matter what you’re looking for, rest assured Amsterdam has it!
Amsterdam is one of those “must see” locations on almost everyone’s list. A unique blend of history and liberality with an anything goes attitude. I’ve found that you get a feel for cities, a vibe if you will, and for a city with a party rep Amsterdam never failed to feel like an incredibly safe, multi-faceted city. Amsterdam gets it name from the nearby Amstel river (also a name for one of their beers) and the dam on that river. It started out as a small village before experiencing its golden age in the 17th Century and producing artists like Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Currently it is the capital of the Netherlands.
I intended to start things off at the Anne Frank house but they don’t sell tickets at the door till after 3 so I switched things up and headed to the Van Gogh Museum. I’m not usually a big art person but in this case I knew I needed to check it out and I’m glad I did. In addition to seeing some very famous paintings the set up of the museum is fascinating. Floor one is his early work and self portraits while the second floor focuses on his work post-apprenticeship. You can see his work getting better and when you arrive on the third floor he has reached the whole insane, ear cutting stage of his career and it shows. Towards the end, he was churning out paintings at the insane rate of one per day but ultimately took his own life at only 37.
Things became a bit brighter after that as I made the all important pilgrimage to the Amsterdam sign followed by a full tour of the original Heineken brewery. It was capable of bottling about 800 bottles a day while the modern breweries kick out 800,000 an hour. Founded in 1867 the building maintains much of its original equipment for show including hand bottlers, brewing tanks and wooden paddles for checking on the fermentation process. They even have a ride that simulates what it’s like to travel through the machines from a beer bottles perspective lol. Finishing the tour you go up to a roof top patio bar for a pint over looking the canals.
After that I hopped on one of the many boats for a cruise along the canals. I can’t recommend this enough- you have to see the city from the water while you’re there. Amsterdam is well known for its narrow houses- made in that style both because space was at a premium and because residents were taxed based on the width of their stairwells. As a result, people now struggle to move in using stairs so each home has a beam at the top to raise items in through the windows.
After that it was time for a visit to the Anne Frank house. I knew ahead of time that after the war her father had decided it should be emptied to allow people to experience the situation more powerfully. I wasn’t sure how this would work but it was a profound walk through what ended up being a much larger property then I imagined. There isn’t any talking or photography and all that remains are marks on the wall showing Anne and her sister’s height over time and the pictures she stuck on her bedroom wall. You may have to wait for a long time- but don’t pass up the unique, powerful, opportunity.
No matter where you are in Amsterdam you will experience a very walkable city that due to its canals is always providing you with something to look at and explore.
Day two in Lisbon involved taking a tuk tuk ride through the winding streets to the highest point in the city. My destination was Sao Jorge Castle, originally a Moorish castle. The hill site was first fortified in 48 B.C by the Roman Empire before passing to Moorish control in the 10th century. As mentioned in the previous post Alfonso Henriques is responsible for liberating the city in 1147 and within 100 years a palace was installed in the castle.
Over the years the castle was developed further until it reached its present form. It has a very high outer wall with a second inner one. This then has a third smaller wall blocking the only entrance into the actual castle, which itself has 3 walls, a moat and multiple large towers.
The royal residence was not inside the castle but was in the grounds within the first two outer walls. It was enhanced significantly in the 15th century and became much more luxurious. In the 17th century earthquakes and decay took their toll and the once grand castle began to lose its importance.
It wasn’t until 1947 that the castle was finally recognized for its historic significance and both excavated and repaired. Currently it is now protected as a cultural heritage site. You can see ongoing excavations on the grounds of the old palace, now mostly destroyed by earthquakes. You can see the museums in old storehouses and barracks which paint a picture of life at the castle and display finds from digs on the site. You gain an incredible panoramic view over the city and River Tagus and have the opportunity to traverse the many walls, towers and fortifications that are still holding strong. If that’s not reason enough the army of peacocks on patrol provide additional entertainment.
Before the Christmas break I was fortunate to sneak away for a quick weekend trip to Portugal (specifically Lisbon). Lisbon (or Lisboa) traces its roots back to Roman rule under Julius Caesar who had it raised to the status of Municipium. After a few hundred years of rule under the Moors it was re-taken in 1147 by Alfonso Henriques who is honoured on several monuments around the city.
My first stop in the city was Jeronimos Monastery, begun in 1501 and finished exactly 100 years later. One of the world’s most famous explorers, Vasco de Gama, is buried here. The original monastery was on the site of the current one and de Gama spent the night there before departing on his journey in 1497 which was the first to link Europe and Asia by sea.
The main reason to see the Monastery is the incredible architecture. The building owes its intricacies to King Manuel who charged the monks with praying for his soul in return for a large portion of African trade taxes. This amount worked out to well over 100 pounds of pure gold every year so no expense was spared.
I also visited the naval museum as well as the royal collection of barges used for river cruising- many are several hundred years old. I wasn’t expecting a room of barges to be a highlight but it was actually really interesting. They also randomly have some antique fire engines in the corner.
After that it was time to walk along the Tagus to the iconic Tower of Belem. Built in 1515, the tower is unique for not being on shore but out in the tidal river, connected by a bridge.
The original river defences were old and outdated so a new defence was needed. A fort already existed on the far side but due to the range on canons of the day ships sailing down the exact middle of the channel would be untouchable. To negate this Belem was built offshore so as to reach ships further out. Despite all the planning it only had one minor engagement which was over quickly. At times the tower also served as a prison and a customs house.
While in Portugal I knew I needed to try some port and opportunity presented itself in the form of a creative food cart called “Wine With a View”. Worth a visit if you find yourself in the area.
The final stop for the day was the Christmas markets which don’t compare well to most other European cities but are enjoyable nonetheless. They serve these awesome cherry port shots in little cups made of chocolate (Ginjas D Obidos). Pasteis de nata are also a must try- custard tarts which are loved by locals and tourists alike. The weirdest shop was a lit up circus display lined up out the door selling sardine cans with birth dates on them- still no idea what that was about!
There is more to do in Cappadocia then just ballooning and the horseback tours are one of the activities you need to take advantage of. I ended up with a 2 hour one on one tour through the surrounding area for 40 euros. The views are spectacular, even if your horse keeps leaving the path to hunt down tasty snacks.
We stopped off in one of the smaller villages in the area, built into one of the ancient cave cities. These cities were actually inhabited until the 1960’s when the government started forcing people out. These days people are moving back in quietly and living/working here. Staying in a cave hotel is a great experience, apparently my room was likely used as storage for potatoes or apples. The King of Malaysia previously stayed at the same cave hotel.
I also had the privilege of attending a “Sema” or whirling dervish ceremony. This is a deeply religious ceremony done in stages which represent the journey to find truth and perfection. Upon finishing the ceremony the dervish is supposed to be prepared to serve creation without discrimination in relation to beliefs, class or ethnic background.
The ceremony is held in a Caravanserai built in 1249 by the Sultans order. These buildings went along the length of the Silk Road in Turkey and offered protection for merchants. Any merchant could claim 3 nights of free room and board for himself and his camels/horses while being safe from robbers. To further encourage trade the Sultans would reimburse any merchant who was robbed while travelling their roads. There were even programs to hand out new shoes to the merchants as needed. As a result trade grew greatly in the region bringing in new resources and of course, money.
Another highlight of the town I was in (Goreme) is the Goreme open air museum. This incredible monument to human ingenuity showcases over a dozen rock carved church’s ranging in age from the 10th-13th century. Each church differs in design, motif and decoration in relation to the time period in which it was created. The dry and dark conditions in the caves have perfectly preserved the artwork and the living quarters are as high as 7 or 8 stories in some cases.
Unlike many of the cities in the area this one is above ground. The nunnery is a 7 story dwelling containing living quarters, a church and kitchens. It also features special mill doors which can close off tunnels in times of danger.
One of the most interesting things I learned on the trips relates to St.George, the patron saint of England. When my family visited last year it became a bit of a running joke that no matter where you were in England you could find an image of good old George killing a dragon. You can imagine how surprised I was to see George doing his thing on the wall of an 11th century church in Turkey. According to history George was a roman soldier born in Cappadocia, so it turns out he was right where he belongs.
When you arrive at “The Dark Church” don’t hesitate to pay the extra 8 lira to get in. It is the most well preserved of the church’s in terms of paintings and looks like it was completed only a few years ago.
There are strict rules regarding where you can and can’t take photos so if you feel like some freestyle exploring check out basically any rock formation in the surrounding area and climb around it to access all sorts of hidden cave rooms- just watch out for the wild dogs!
Cap off your day with a traditional pottery kabob for dinner. This dish is prepared in sealed pottery for over four hours before you knock the top of the jar and dig in. The area is well known for its pottery and several places in the area offer lessons.
If you have the chance, get up early and climb to the top of one of the many lookouts in the area. The balloons are worth seeing from the ground.