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Portugal – Escape to the Atlantic Coast

March 21, 2018 3 comments

Belem Tower, perhaps the best known sight in Lisbon, if not all of Portugal.

Dublin around the time of the Ides of March is a perilous place to be, packed with tourists and locals eager for an excuse to party and imbibe a beer or two. Getting from one end of O’Connell St to the other can take up most of St. Patrick’s Day if you’re unwary. Most years, I stay at home while the parade’s on or make the most of the long weekend in quieter gatherings with friends. This time I took myself out of the country entirely and spent five days in Portugal instead.


This isn’t a thorough description of what I did on that trip. If you want that, you can check it out here: Portugal 2018 What it is is a brief run through the best parts of the trip, which took in two cities, lots of walking, and nearly as much in the way of custard tarts. I’m not sure how well the latter two balanced out in the end, but I hadn’t put on any weight by the time I came back.

First up on the trip was Lisbon. Largely flattened in the terrible earthquake of 1755 and rebuilt to the design of the Marques de Pombal, it’s an exercise in contrasts. The broad estuary of the Tagus river almost makes it a seaside city, but Lisbon itself has been built across seven hills, notably steeper than the more famous seven hills of Rome, and the rebuilt zones of broad avenues laid out in grid patterns lie cheek by jowl with streets that twist to follow the hillside curves and older parts of the city that survived the quake and still have their narrow alleys and narrower houses. There’s a lot to see here, but Lisbon sprawls widely across the north bank of the Tagus, and it’s far from ideal for walking – not that I didn’t give it my best shot. Luckily, the metro, buses, and trams combine to make getting around a stressless experience, and with outlying areas like Belem having some of the best sights and the hilltop Parque Florestal de Monsanto having some of the best walking routes, you’ll want to make the effort.

Porto was my other city stop. Towards the north of Portugal, it straddles the narrower and lazier Douro river, but its’ western edges touch on the wild Atlantic Ocean, and the squalls of wind and rain keep the weather uncertain. Smaller and more intimate than Lisbon, it’s more fun to explore and more plausible for a walker capable of handling the hills that rise on either side of the river. Porto of course is also the home of port wine, made from grapes grown upriver in the Douro valley, and the southern riverbank is dotted with wineries who’ll be all too happy to show you around and let you sample their offerings once you pay the tour fee. If Porto has a favourite architecture, it’s the baroque, with its gilding and decoration dotting every corner, whether it be in churches or in the Livraria Lello bookshop, with its swooping staircase. There’s also the option to take a tour upriver, and while I didn’t get the chance to do that this time, I’d be interested in taking the option next time I’m in the city.

Two cities and no chance to see the countryside between them, other than through the windows of a high-speed train or from high above in the airplane home. I managed to walk and run a lot of both of them though, and to recompense me for my effort, both cities had good food and drink to offer. The prize on this front had to go to Portugal’s famous pasteis de nata, custard tarts with scorched toppings, of which I had well north of a dozen in the five days I was in the country. I would have had more too, but I was trying to control myself. Which, now that I think about it, was not necessarily the best approach to taking a holiday. Ah well, all the more reason to return one day.

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Fuerteventura: New Year in the Sun

January 14, 2018 Leave a comment

El Moro Beach - Surfers Included

The progress of my Christmas and New Year celebrations has remained much the same ever since I moved down to Dublin. Spend Christmas itself with family, then return to Dublin to see in the New Year with friends. Depending on who’s available, this can either be a party or quiet drinks in someone’s house, or braving the madness of the city on New Year’s Eve. This year though, I did something a bit different.

One of my friends has, for the last few years, spent the holiday period away from the grey dampness of Ireland, instead seeking out the sun of the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa but legally part of Spain. At her suggestion, I decided to join her this time out, booking an eight-day trip to the island of Fuerteventura, not only to enjoy the sun and the unseasonable warmth but to enroll in a surfing school for six of those days. Now, while I run a fair amount and can swim if push comes to shove, my sense of balance could be generously described as non-existent, and the chance of me making a decent showing of surfing seemed very unlikely. Still, I’ve been making an effort to try new things for the last few years, and this was as much of a stretch as I’d pushed myself to, so it seemed very appealing.

Anyway, this is not going to be a day-by-day report on the whole experience. Given that the days were relatively samey, involving surfing in the morning or afternoon and drinks and dinner in the evening, such a report wouldn’t be the most entertaining. Instead, a few snapshots on what the whole experience was like.

Weather

Out on the Sand Dunes

A word on the weather first. At around the time that Ireland was bouncing along a few degrees above freezing, Fuerteventura enjoyed more or less consistent temperatures of around 20ªC. Add to that the lack of humidity and habitual blue skies and it felt a lot warmer. Not so warm as to be uncomfortable, but whenever I ventured to put on a pair of shorts I never felt out of place. The sea was pretty warm too, on the occasions that I ventured into it. Which is to say that despite the fact that it was the Atlantic Ocean I was swimming in, it was pretty easy to get used to the chill. When surfing, this was made even easier by wearing a wetsuit. Which brings me to the next section.

Surfing

I’d booked six days of surfing lessons – no one planned on doing anything, let alone surfing, on New Year’s Day (more on that below) – and I made it to five of them. One morning surfing lesson was missed due to an overly late night the evening before. At the start of the week, I was struggling to stay on the board even when laying flat on it (and giving my neglected core muscles an unwelcome workout). By the end of the week, I could catch waves more often than not and raise myself up to one knee, though I never did manage to stand up, which had been my goal before the week began. A minor disappointment, but not a complaint. The teachers of the Quiksilver/Sunwave Surf School did their best with me, and they and the other students were a lot of fun to hang out with. No one was too serious or competitive about it, and even at their most crowded, the beaches were a good place to surf until your arms and lungs couldn’t take any more. Whether I’ll ever try it again I have no idea, but I enjoyed the attempt.

The Island

Fuerteventura is a long, mostly flat island that’s essentially one long scrap of volcanic rock running north-south not too far west of the African coast. It’s one of the oldest islands in the Canary archipelago, formed (like the Hawaiian Islands) by a hot spot deep within the earth’s mantle that still keeps the more westerly and younger islands actively volcanic. Fuerteventura though is long extinct and eroded, its calderas now manageable peaks and its beaches shallow sweeps along the coast. It’s popularity as a tourist destination is obvious, though it’s overshadowed somewhat by the neighbouring islands, such as Lanzarote and Gran Canaria. A lot of the landscape is a barren moonscape of volcanic rock, where goats and chipmunks can get along quite well but more picky creatures like humans have to work at it. There’s a bit of variation here and there, such as the dunes of the northeast and far south and the rocky hills of the Midwest, but as a whole the scenery doesn’t vary a lot.

Things to Do

I was staying in Corralejo, a surfer resort at the northern tip of the island, close to some of the better beaches. When not surfing, this was the main place to stroll and hang out, and there were good and cheap places to eat and drink. Having a friend who knew the area well was a major advantage on this side, as there were also plenty of tourist traps to fall into. We both managed to discover a new bar on the last evening though – the hard-to-find but very fun Babel, with all sorts of literary and occult paraphernalia lining the bars and walls. As for other activities, a highlight of the trip was a catamaran cruise that took us out to a small island just off the north coast and offered snorkelling, kayaking, and as many drinks as you wanted from the onboard fridge. Not that I didn’t try to be at least a little healthy. I went for a few morning runs whenever my surf-battered body felt up to it, including a somewhat questionable New Year’s Day morning run that took me up and over a few of those calderas, then back to Corralejo via an under-construction road. It probably did me good in the long run, but I’m not sure that doing it in the first place was wise.

Exploring

Beyond surfing and enjoying the pleasures of Corralejo, I did try to get out and see the rest of the island at least once. Sadly my friend wasn’t up to joining me on this part of the trip, but there was enough to experience to suggest that initial perceptions of Fuerteventura as being monotonous were perhaps a little unfair. El Cotillo on the west coast offered up rawer Atlantic conditions and some historic forts, while near the town of Betancuria I found a hilltop villa-cum-museum that offered amazing views while delving into the natural and geological history of the islands themselves. There were slight problems in getting up to the museum, which involved large tourist coaches and twisting, single-lane roads with large drops on one side, but I’m still here, so that all worked out well enough. I even ventured down to Morro Jable on the southern tip of the island, where Jandia Beach is surrounded by wetland inhabited mostly by chipmunks and offers the sight of a massive lighthouse and a sailing ship packed with revellers tacking very close to the coast indeed.

Getting There and Getting Around

On my way back from Morro Jable, I approached the island’s airport from the south and enjoyed an impressive view straight down both runways, watching flights coming and going. Flying from Dublin to Fuerteventura isn’t a major problem. Ryanair and Aer Lingus both offer flights, though not every day of the week. The airport itself is neither the best nor the worst I’ve experienced, being a cavernous modern space that has enough food and shops to keep you occupied until your flight is boarding. Getting through security may be much less fun if you’re unlucky, but I got away with it for the most part. As for getting around the island, I didn’t move around much, though the island’s bus service is cheap and regular, and the main roads are good enough for a decent driver to negotiate with ease.

On the whole, it was a nice end to one year and beginning to another, though activity holidays do have the disadvantage of tiring one out rather than enabling rest and relaxation. I may not surf the New Year in again (though I wouldn’t rule it out), but I’d encourage anyone else to at least consider it.

Belgium, Not Brussels

December 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Yeah, it’s just a bit picturesque.

Okay, so that’s a little bit of a lie. There is some Brussels in this post. Just not a lot. As the one bit of Belgium that I’m familiar with (apart from a very brief foray to the North Sea at Knokke), I think I’ve written enough about it. This is going to be a post about exploring some of the more distant corners of Belgium instead.

It’s been an odd year for holidays, 2017. Very much in opposition to my usual habit, all my trips so far have been in company and to places that I’ve already visited. Hence, I haven’t really written them up, seeing as I already said most of what I wanted to say the first time around. This trip was also in company, in this case of a Brussels-based friend of mine, but it did take me to new vistas, hence it’s worthy of a post.

Let’s skip quickly over the Thursday flight from Dublin to Brussels, courtesy of a scarily punctual Aer Lingus, and the somewhat underwhelming burger that tided me over until my friend escaped work. Likewise we can skip most of the Friday, except to say that driving a hire car through the centre of Brussels when you’ve fallen out of the habit of driving manual-shift vehicles and don’t have a fully functional GPS system is just a little bit scary. Certainly for me and probably also for those trying to interpret my struggles to decide which way I needed to turn at any given moment.

A nice car, covered in snow.

The car safely parked (courtesy of Brussels’ convenient city-centre parking system, which saw me return to it every two hours to adjust the parking ticket), I just had to wait for my friend to escape from work. Once he managed this, we were on our way, and having a navigator in tow, together with Belgium’s excellent highway system, made for a much smoother experience once we escaped Brussels itself.

Our initial goal was Bastogne, heart of the action during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. The siege of the small town was celebrated during an episode of HBO’s Band of Brothers, and my friend being something of a military history nut, this was a place he’d been wanting to visit for years. Given that it’s also at a higher elevation than Brussels and that we were visiting at the start of December, we shouldn’t have been surprised to find one particular adornment to the town when we arrived in the darkness: snow. In MacAuliffe Square in the heart of Bastogne, a bust of the eponymous general and a Sherman tank (with a couple of nasty holes in it) were liberally covered in the stuff. Bastogne on a December Friday night was a tough place to get a drink though, so after a nice steak dinner in Hotel Leo, we retired to our lodgings above a filling station and awaited the next day’s explorations.

The famous Christmas Tree Rainbow of Bastogne.

Saturday dawned clear but with plenty of snow still covering the ground. Breakfast was accompanied by plans, most of which had long since been made by my travelling companion. Despite the snow, the roads were well cleared, so we headed for Bastogne’s War Museum. There, the story of the Battle of the Bulge – how it came to happen and what it was – is told from the viewpoint of four civilian and military participants, who you only learn at the end were actual people caught up in the battle. It’s an impressively comprehensive tale, well told, with plenty of relics from the battle, up to and including yet more tanks. Outside, in the snow, we had a chance to look around the Mardasson Memorial, where the U.S. Army units involved in the battle are impressively commemorated on a memorial that also lists all of the U.S. states, plus Hawaii and Alaska, which weren’t states at the time.

A short drive afterwards brought us to the nearby Bois Jacques (Jack Woods), where yet more tramping through the snow eventually saw us locate the foxholes of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne, still visible where they were dug more than seventy years earlier, overlooking the village of Foy. With the sun shining through the trees all around, it wasn’t hard to imagine how the experience of being there in the midst of battle might have been. Though to be fair, our winter weather was relatively mild, and we didn’t have German infantry and panzers bearing down on us either.

Imagine having to live in this for several weeks.

A short walk away, albeit one that involved some backtracking when our path turned out to be too waterlogged, lay the Bois de la Paix (Peace Woods). Here in 1994, veterans of the Battle of the Bulge gathered to dedicate a memorial in the form of a forest. Each of the veterans has a tree dedicated to them, and we were more or less alone in the pristine snow as we took the whole thing in. Some sizeable tracks progressing erratically around the area suggested we’d just missed a particularly enthusiastic dog enjoying an outing in the snow, but there was no sign either of that or of the overly prepared German tourists we’d spotted in the parking lot.

A return to Bastogne brought us to the Bastogne Barracks museum, where we were hoping to enjoy a tour, but as it turned out we were late – the museum is still a manned barracks and one can’t just wander about. So instead, we hopped in the car and headed across to Houffalize, a town caught in the coils of a twisting river and its steep-sided valley walls. Here there had been some fierce fighting during the Battle of the Bulge, and here was a particular prize for my friend: a German Panther tank. Or at least it should have been there. Instead, after some confused wandering, we found the place where it was supposed to be, only to find that it had been taken away for repair some months before – to the very place we’d just left, the Barracks Museum.

A distinct lack of tank.

So instead, we found a nearby pub, the oH Rock, where we had a quick drink (water for me) and crisps and were curtly told that the snow and chill wind didn’t amount to actual cold weather. Be that as it may, the drive home saw us faced with a freezing fog that reduced visibility to as little as ten metres at times. Again, Belgium’s good quality roads eased my driver’s worries, but I was still happy to take my time on the way back to Bastogne.

Back in town, we had time to wander around and have some heavy burger-based sustenance to make up for the cold weather, and to enjoy the Christmas lights, which put Dublin’s to shame in terms of their extravagance. Beyond that though, there wasn’t much left to do in the day. We had a couple of beers in the Nuts! cafe – the oddly-glassed La Corne du Bois des Pendus for preference – and then retired in preparation for the next day’s exploring.

Exactly as awkward to drink as you might imagine.

The night added a further dusting of snow to the already solid covering, but it was only a light dusting. Having marked 2pm as the time to return to the Barracks museum for the tour, we headed out to explore, first to Manhay, where my friend found something to make up for the previous day’s disappointment: another Panther tank, this one sitting beside a roundabout and covered in a healthy coat of snow. Some impressive photo opportunities later, we retired to the car to warm up again and drop into a nearby Spar for snacks.

We had time for another visit, so we headed further afield to La Gleize for an even rarer prize. Not a Panther, but a massive Tiger II tank, or King Tiger depending on which name you prefer. Back in World War II it was a terrifying sight. Now covered in snow and perched on a hillside in a tiny town, it’s a little incongruous, but its sheer size and the sight of the dents left by the ineffectual attempts of other tanks to pierce its hide make it worth seeking out.

Bigger than it needed to be.

Back to Bastogne then and the Barracks museum. We arrived dead on time and settled into a small group of American, Dutch, and Irish (us) tourists for the tour. Our guide was a Belgian veteran soldier who was all to keen to call “bullshit” on myths about veterans and war but proved to be an enthusiastic and engaged guide to the Battle of the Bulge and the barracks themselves, where the 101st Airborne were headquartered at the time. The first part of the tour, after an introductory overview of the battle, took place in the barracks themselves, where dioramas show off how the soldiers lived at the time. The second part, for my friend, was the greater prize. The museum is now also a centre for the repair and maintenance of World War II vehicles (the reason the previous day’s Panther had been taken there), and while our Sunday visit meant that we couldn’t view the repairs in progress, we did get into the massive warehouse where dozens of tanks and other military vehicles are stored. These range from the huge Soviet IS-3 to the tiny Hetzer and a two-man Renault tank with no armament at all.

Once my friend had been persuaded to leave this treasury, we had a long drive ahead of us. The sun was already going down, and by the time we’d gone too far it was dark, but as we descended out of Bastogne we left the snow behind and hit the broad, smooth tracks of Belgium’s motorway system. Three hours on this took us from east to west, from the border of Luxembourg to the fringes of the North Sea. The land became flat and featureless, but with Google’s help we found our way to a small town called Poperinge. Here we had some fast-food burgers in Frituur du Tram and a quick drink in Oude Vlaenderen, but there wasn’t much in the way of atmosphere, and when we went in search of more, we found that the town on a winter Sunday night was as close to dead as a town can get. In the town square, there was one pub with some superannuated customers and another occupied with policemen belting out such hits as “YMCA” loud enough to be heard several streets away, but given a choice between that and dead, it seemed like a good idea to head back to our lodgings.

All the tanks, and other stuff too.

Waking in the Palace Hotel, we had enough time to enjoy a pleasant breakfast and seek out some nearby pastries to sustain us further before driving off. If Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge were something that my friend had been wanting to experience for years, being in Poperinge was something that I hadn’t wanted to miss. Why? Well, it’s just down the road from a place called the Saint Sixtus Abbey. This abbey, isolated among the flat fields of Flanders, makes beer. Not much of it per year, compared to Belgium’s other Trappist abbeys, but what it does make is acclaimed. Its Westvleteren 12 brew has been called the world’s best, and its Westvleteren 8 and Blond are not to be sneezed at.

Why come to the abbey to get the beer? Because there’s no other legitimate way to do it. Apart from a few years ago, when the abbey sold some beer on the general market to finance some necessary repairs, they only make enough to fund their continued existence. The way to get it is to phone them up (on a line that’s almost always jammed) six weeks in advance and show up on the day to collect a maximum of two crates each. There is an alternative – the In de Vrede cafe across the road sells beer over the counter and its shop sometimes carries boxes of beer for those who turn up on spec. Having utterly failed to secure beer on the phone, showing up early on a Monday morning seemed the best chance we had.

Worth waiting for.

Long story short, it worked. We bought as much of the 12 and 8 as we could (the Blond wasn’t available that day) and loaded it into the car, then sat back to enjoy a few glasses in the cafe. Well, my friend enjoyed most of the three glasses that we bought (one of each kind) – given that I was driving, I contented myself with a few sips of each one, enough to reassure myself that our long journey had been worthwhile. Moral of the Story: put the effort in and you’ll get what you want, but it helps to get up early in the morning and hope for the best too.

The last leg of our journey took us back from the abbey to Brussels, dealing with some of the worst excesses of Belgium’s love of motorways. Convenient they may be, but if you aren’t exactly sure of where you need to go and when you need to switch lanes, it’s all too easy to find yourself backtracking to return to where you’d intended to be in the first place. Eventually though, we arrived back at my friend’s place, unloaded our booty, and then dropped the car back to Brussels Midi with not a scratch on it – always a worry until it’s sorted.

The rest of the day was spent in rest and preparation for the week to come. I had dinner and a drink with another friend, but while a few days in the fresh air and a lot of walking may refresh the soul, it tends to drain the body a bit, and I was glad enough to get back to my friend’s place to rest for the night.

More fairground rides should attempt to scare children away.

One day remained, and I wasn’t inclined to stay in bed for too long. Some exploration and attempted shopping on behalf of others preceded a belated breakfast in the Jat cafe, where my friend joined me on a break from his work. When we parted, I had one last fun exploration to enjoy: a tour of Brussels’ Christmas market, which extends from the Bourse de Bruxelles to Place Saint-Catherine. It’s a fine market, with an abundance of stalls and an impressive Ferris Wheel at the far end of Sainte Catherine, but the real stars of the show were two of the wildest carousels I’ve ever seen. Instead of gaudily painted horses, these featured instead dinosaurs, pterodactyls, rockets, hot air balloons, and an oversized mechanical beetle. While I didn’t go for a spin myself, I found myself wishing that some of my nieces and nephews were around so that they could have a spin in my place.

That last bit discovery was the end of it though. I dropped by the Brew Dog cafe beside the Central Station for a drink, then hopped on a train right to the airport. Even with the doubled-up security at Zaventem, I was there in plenty of time, as is traditional for me, and got to rest up before boarding. Of the flight, there’s not much interesting to say, so let’s call a halt to this here. It was a great extended weekend in Belgium, seeing parts of the country that I hadn’t encountered before, and between the snow of Bastogne and the deep ditches and flat lands of Poperinge, there was plenty of variety to enjoy. Add to that a store of fine beer that I’ll get to enjoy just as soon as I arrange to have it transported to Dublin and it’s a trip that’ll keep me happy for a long time to come. Not a bad result at all.

Luxembourg and Brussels – Familiar Places

December 22, 2016 Leave a comment
Down there somewhere is where I had my birthday dinner.

The view of the river that surrounds Luxembourg from the old fortress of the Bock.

(Yes, this travel diary is exceptionally out of date at this stage. Such are the perils of following a procrastinating writer.)

I’ve only been to one of these places before, so I’ll focus on the other one. There’ll be a bit about Belgium at the end, but mostly this is about Luxembourg. A word of warning though: I’m writing this under the influence of a day of travel compounded by a 90 minute delay for a Ryanair flight. So take every other word with a grain of salt.

Luxembourg was the third micro-nation I hit on this trip, but it’s on the edge of deserving this status. It’s bigger than most of the European micro-nations put together, and where San Marino and Liechtenstein were small enough that you could see from one side to the other on a clear-ish day, Luxembourg is big enough for its corners to be just as scruffy as those of larger nations.

...that came when I walked down three sets of stairs to a dead end.

A spooky grating under the mountain. At this stage I wasn’t worried about getting out…

What Luxembourg does have in common with its smaller brethren is that it’s rich. Having sat at the heart of European affairs since the days of the European Coal and Steel Community, the old city is a commendably neat and tidy revamp of a former walled citadel now turned fortress of finance. There are some very expensive, very shiny cars driving around the place, is what I’m trying to say.

Not that you’d recognise the place as a former fortress if you approached it from the west side. Where massive bastions once stood are now broad avenues and neatly tended gardens. It’s only on the eastern side of the city, where the last remnants of the original Bock fortress stand, that you can get an idea of how valuable this place used to be. Founded in the tenth century (there’s a whole legend involving a river mermaid), the Bock commanded a view over the river below, and over the centuries tunnels and storerooms were carved out of the rock below,

You can still wander those passages, and I did so on the first night I arrived. The last tour group was leaving as I arrived, so I had the place more or less to myself for the next hour and half—there are arrows placed in the ground pointing to the exit, but there’s no set path through the narrow passages and the caverns that open out onto views on the valley below. It was only when I became worried they’d close the place with me in it that I started to pay attention to the arrows and found my way out.

Heights don't bother me much. Drops do.

These photos never show the scale of the drop as much as they should.

Luxembourg in the day is a much neater and more understandable prospect. The national museum covers the thousand-year story of the nation over several floors, the lowest of which are carved into the rock below the city, with massive models demonstrating how Luxembourg was shaped over the centuries. Once, when the House of Luxembourg were kings of the Holy Roman Empire, the fate of nations was decided here. Now the decisions made in council chambers are more abstract but no less weighty.

In the end, Luxembourg felt a little neat and sanitised. Like San Marino, everything has been cleaned and polished, and you have to dive down into the valley to get a better sense of the place. A special mention ought to go to the viewing platform north of the Bock, where you can stand on a glass floor and contemplate the multi-storey drop below.

As good a way as any to end the holiday: Endless ribs.

Ribs and beer in Brussels on the last night of the holiday.

So then, on to Brussels and the end of the trip. I’ve been here multiple times and like both the people and the place. So apart from an evening of a little food and a little drink, I wanted to see if I could look at something further afield. The options were the battlefield at Waterloo (to annoy someone who’ll never read this) or the beach at Knokke, to complete my journey from the Mediterranean to the north sea. Of course, the beach won.

Not that I had much time to spend there. Courtesy of Belgium’s leisurely trains and the extremely long avenue leading from the train terminus to the beach, I had no more time at the water’s edge than it took to take a couple of photos and wet my feet. (In point of fact, I’d misread the timetable and had around half an hour more than I thought, but a few minutes was all I got.)

A fine place to end one's journeys.

The lone and level sands stretch far away…

Which brought the whole journey to an end. What had started in the parched streets of Palermo on the island of Sicily, had taken me north through Italy, across the Alps to Switzerland, on to the familiar city of Brussels, hitting three small nations along the way, came to a close on the sands of the North Sea, caught between tourism and a massive seaport on the horizon. Yes, there would be a journey back to Brussels and on to the airport and from thence to Dublin, but that was it. Another journey ended.

I’ll get around to absorbing it and adding any extra thoughts in a while. For now, thanks for reading and I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts. More detailed descriptions of what I got up to will appear in the Travels section above soon.

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Liechtenstein and Zurich – The Alpine Experience

November 6, 2016 2 comments
And every steeple that I could climb, I did.

A panorama of Zurich – the Zurichsee is on the left, the Uetliberg on the horizon.

There’s going to be a lot packed into this one, so pay attention. As soon as you leave Milan, headed for Tirano, you’re in the Alps, racing along the shores of Lake Como towards the mountains. To an extent, this doesn’t even feel like Italy anymore, or at least not the Italy I started in, back in Palermo. This is Alpine territory, of high, green meadows and bells ringing in valleys overlooked by mountains that rear up, shouldering their rocky peaks above a mantle of forest.

If you like trains at all, I’d recommend the Bernina Express as the way to see the Alps. From comfortable seats before panoramic windows, you’ll have a view of clear mountain streams, those green valleys, viaducts, mountains, glaciers, high lakes, and everything else that the Swiss have spent centuries learning how to build on or through. I saw it in the late summer, when green was the predominant colour, but in the winter it all turns to white and the experience is said to be every bit as impressive.

The Swiss and tunnels: an impressive combination.

One of the viaducts on the Bernina express, emerging from the mountain.

As for what was waiting on the other side, Liechtenstein is an odd little country, with an emphasis on the little. I’d been planning on staying two days, but two things cut that short: First, I saw most of Vaduz in the process of one morning stroll (to give you an idea of scale, the map of the city includes house numbers), and second, it’s stupidly expensive. Which makes sense given that it’s a tax haven of sorts, and it did give me a bit of warning with regard to what Zurich was going to be like, but it was still a shock.

So I spent one night and a few hours there instead, enjoying the clear mountain air and the views, which were only a little spoiled by clouds that cut off the tops of the mountains. Liechtenstein’s tiny territory is bordered by the Rhine and the mountains, and it takes little more than half an hour to cross from one to the other. Perhaps the most fun thing to visit was the football stadium—they’re very proud of the national team here, for all that they’re the ultimate in European minnows. Or at least they were until Gibraltar somehow got a team of their own.

The kind of bridge billy goats might trip-trap across.

An old-school bridge separating Liechtenstein and Switzerland.

Stroll over the bridge across the Rhine and you’re in Switzerland. You don’t even have to do that much if you’re a mobile phone—mine kept swapping between Swiss and Liechtenstein carriers every time I approached the river. When I eventually took the bus out of town, in search of the Sargans Bahnhof where’d I’d get the train to Zurich, this was one reminder of my travelling ways I was glad to leave behind.

In truth, there’s not much culturally to separate the two nations. Maybe the Swiss are a little more uptight, at least on first encountering them. Unlike most places I’ve been, where they’ll switch to English as soon as they figure out where you’re from, the Swiss will assume that you know what you’re doing if you try to speak a language not your own. So be wary if you want to try out your foreign tongues here.

I'd be annoyed too if someone had planted me where dogs could piss on me.

A friendly (?) face encountered on my way up the Uetliberg.

As mentioned, Zurich is expensive. Evidence of this can be seen in the houses that line the waterfront of the Zurichsee and the slopes to the east, and proof can be found every time that feel like going for a drink or eating out. Try to keep that to a minimum if you want your funds to survive a few days here. I’m generally not too proscriptive when it comes to spending money on holidays, but even so I couldn’t justify visiting a restaurant with €40 main courses.

Saving money is possible though: there are 24-hour and 72-hour travel passes, which will speed your way on the many public transport options and a lot of museums. Mine took me on a round trip of the northern half of the Zurichsee, down from the heights of the Uetliberg mountain to the west of the city (some might say it would have been more sensible to take the tram up, then walk down, instead of the other way around), through the excellent Landesmuseum and its exhibits, and then up the eastern slopes of the city too, to where the city zoo sits right next door to the FIFA world headquarters.

(There’s a joke to be made here about amoral creatures with insatiable appetites, trapped in a structure that should never have been built, but I’m sure someone else can construct it better than I could.)

Actually linesmen in training, though that's no less a weird sight.

FIFA officials doing their bribery-denial drills.

In short, if you make a bit of an effort, you can enjoy Zurich on something resembling a sensible budget. If you make the most of the Co-Op supermarkets that are everywhere, you’ll probably even manage much better than I did. It’s worth the effort too. While I loved Liechtenstein for its quiet isolation, I enjoyed Zurich for its reserved honesty. There’s plenty to do and see, and lots of narrow alleys, steep streets, hidden parks and other places to discover. The Landesmuseum exhibit on Swiss history is open, if regretfully so, about how Switzerland’s history of democracy, neutrality and isolationism has had its downsides. If we could be so honest about ourselves in Ireland, it would be a big step forward.

Milan – Cisalpine Gaul or Northern Italy?

November 1, 2016 Leave a comment
Taking the concept of double-height ceilings to ridiculous extremes.

The cavernous interior of Milan Centrale.

Milan is rich, Milan is big, and Milan wants you to know all about it. The gradual change in Italy that I’d noticed on my northward trek from Palermo to Naples to Rimini came to its natural conclusion in the shadow of the Alps. Milan feels so different to the rest of Italy that I’d encountered that it’s a different brand of Italian entirely: chic, wealthy and engaged with the rest of Europe. The Romans called this area Cisalpine Gaul, connecting it more to France (Transalpine Gaul) than to Italia. That reasoning could still stand.

The unification of Italy under Vittorio Emanuele was an union of states that hadn’t been unified since the time of the Romans. Sicily and Naples were Mediterranean-facing and had been dealing with foreign rulers for centuries. Rome was the Papacy’s domain, and the surrounding Papal States marked a border between north and south. As for the city states of Northern Italy—Genoa, Venice, Florence, Milan, etc.—they managed to maintain on-off independence even as they served as a battleground in the intrigues between France and the Holy Roman Empire.

Northern Italian civic pride played a large part in the Renaissance, after all.

Looking like the world’s most expensive wedding cake.

There’s something of this mingling still at work in Milan. A mix of Italian and Northern influences—a pride in being Milanese and an openness to the outside on terms strictly set out by Milan itself. The famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele I is the prime example of this: an ultra-chic shopping arcade, dominated by high-fashion outlets, almost all of them Italian. Stand in the middle and you can see the Piazza del Duomo at one end, a statue of Leonardo Da Vinci at another, and a McDonalds’ (exiled to a street across the road) at a third.

Milan just feels different. At least in the parts of it I walked through, there’s none of the narrow alleys and abandoned or crumbling buildings that I saw further south. Milan is just as old as those cities—the layout of the city still follows the ancient walls, and the city itself is dominated by the Duomo and the gigantic Castel Sforza—but it wears that age more lightly. There’s more modern sheen than there is ancient dust.

At least it was sunny, right?

The main tower of Castle Sforza. Sadly – yes – closed on the day.

Usually, such a polishing of history makes me less sympathetic to a city, but I really liked Milan. There’s something very open and everyday about its blend of Mediterranean sunshine and Northern European business. Unfortunately for me, I’d arrived in Milan on Sunday evening and was spending all of Monday exploring. Which is my one piece of advice for this city: if you have to spend one day here, don’t make it a Monday. Everything is closed.

Well, not quite everything. I enjoyed spending time in and around the massive and ornate Duomo, enjoying the pillared interior, which I’m sure was an inspiration for the Great Hall of Moria in the Lord of the Rings movies, and the roof terrace, which I reached after a long walk up some very narrow stairs. From the roof, you could see the Alps clearly in the distance, and it was nice to get a glimpse of the place I’d be heading next.

The climb is worth it. The lift might be, if you don't fancy the climb.

Off in the distance, the Alps await.

Still, there were things that I’d really wanted to see in Milan, and most of those were closed. The archaeological museum and the church and monastery it was sited beside? Closed. The refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which held Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper? Closed. The museums of Castel Sforza? Closed. The Planetarium and Natural History museum in the Giardina Publicca Indro Montanelli? Closed. Alright, so those last two were targets of opportunity as I was enjoying a stroll through the gardens, but you get the point.

Still, even if all you’re getting to do in Milan is to stroll around the city, it’s well worth the visit. Though you should also bear in mind that a lot of the trattorias close between 3pm and 7pm. (Seriously, this was a weird day of missing out on things.) Milan is its own place, and by a distance the least touristy of the cities that I’ve been to on this trip. Come along and spend your money, it says, but if it’s touristy stuff you’re looking for, you’re going to have to search for it. That kind of thing doesn’t really mesh with our self-image.

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Rimini and San Marino—Sand and Stone

October 8, 2016 Leave a comment
From any side, conquering San Marino would have been a pain.

A commanding view of the Italian countryside from the towers of San Marino.

Let’s start with San Marino, as it was the reason that I was in Rimini in the first place, rather than being a bonus added on to a stay in Italy’s Adriatic beach resort. Founded in 301AD, if you believe the local legends, San Marino rests on and around Monte Titano and likes to refer to itself as the “Titanic Republic”. Which probably counts as overcompensating, given that it’s the third smallest nation in Europe (only Vatican City and Monaco are smaller, and those two are essentially just cities).

It’s not like it really needs to compensate for anything, as San Marino offers plenty to stun visitors. Perched on its mountain peak, it commands views across a good chunk of northeastern Italy. Rimini and the Adriatic are easily visible on a clear day, and the valleys of Italy’s more mountainous interior are just as open to viewers from on high. Maintaining your independence across the centuries was undoubtedly made much easier due to being able to see pretty much any threat long before it became a problem.

This actually isn't in the citadel proper, which starts at the First Tower.

The climb to the First Tower of San Marino.

The first impression of San Marino, just off the tour bus from Rimini, might be a little underwhelming though. This isn’t a picturesque ruin: it’s a working, living city (albeit one heavily weighted towards tourism). The stonework is neatly chiselled and well maintained, and the streets are spotlessly clean. It can all seem a bit quaint and even kitschy. The overabundance of tourist-trap shops doesn’t help, even when half of them also seem to be selling guns.

Step away from the well-groomed northern part of the mountain though and you’ll find more interesting sights. Clean and cobbled streets give way to (well-tended) mountain paths that lead up to and between the three towers that protected San Marino in days gone by. Each of them are well preserved, but their sites and prospects are still breathtaking, especially that of the lonely third tower, a single edifice that rises up on the edge of a cliff, commanding views to the east, south and west.

Old-school Ferrari is hard to beat.

An auto-rally in Rimini at night gave a chance to glimpse some gorgeous Italian motors.

As a tick on the list of nations to visit goes, San Marino didn’t disappoint. I just wished that I could have learned more about it. As mentioned, tourism seems to trump all, and the State Museum is a little light on the actual history of San Marino, preferring to load up on local artefacts and fill in the gaps with strange items from foreign lands donated by local grandees. It’s all a little lightweight, and given that the other museums nearby include a Museum of Torture and a Museum of Vampires, detailed history proves thin on the ground.

Oddly, Rimini fares better on that front. I say oddly, because my first experience of Rimini was of a battlefield of a beach, occupied by an army of deckchairs. This place is resort central, and any Italian charm is flattened under the need to welcome and feed as many guests as possible, divest them of their money, and shuffle in the next crowd. Not to my taste (though I did enjoy the chance for an early morning dip in the Adriatic).

Two thousand years old and still carrying traffic.

He may have been a grumpy sod, but Tiberius built solid bridges.

Venture onto the other side of the (railroad) tracks though, and something different emerges. Rimini was once Ariminum, a coastal town formerly inhabited by the Etruscans and others. Plenty of Roman relics remain, not least in the layout of the compact city centre. It’s not a large place by any means and is likely dwarfed by the beach resort that shares its name, but it’s worth strolling through. For one thing, it has lots of charm in its own right, and for another that stroll might just take you across a 1,995-year-old bridge built by the Emperor Tiberius, which still serves as a (single lane) crossing for cars. How many times in your life are you going to get to walk across something like that?

In short, San Marino is definitely the big draw here and deservedly so. Its mountaintop vistas and winding streets are worth spending a good chunk of a day exploring, though you’re likely to tire of it long before it tires of trying to sell you stuff. Rimini, on the other hand, is worth persevering with: beneath, or rather behind, the trappings of a modern day beach resort is a charming little town with plenty of its own history and culture to root around in. I’m glad I had the chance to do so, and it made me happier about deciding to stay there in the first place.

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