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.