I’m not sure if irony is the right label for it, but it’s amusing that during the school year, even when football is in full swing, I update much more readily. It is when I’ve been blessed with free time that this here site grinds to a halt.
We made a brief stop over in Paris, for about a day and a half. Nothing against Paris or France but we had already made other plans with Germany; namely, to take a train to Munich. We bummed about Munich for about five days enjoying the sights, culinary offerings, and of course, their national beverages.
One of the things we gave the highest priority was visiting the former concentration of Dachau. While there was always a feeling of reverence and of being on hallowed ground, the overall thing that I took away from the exhibit was that it was cleansed. Not necessarily done intentionally but I think that that suffering of humans and the ultimate cruelty of other humans was slightly filled in. Buildings had been destroyed, a few rebuilt to show “what it had been like” which didn’t sit well with me. If we are meant to never forget, things like this should be brutally honest, as ugly as it was.
But all things in Germany weren’t bent on the sad parts of history. One of the best days, at least in my opinion, was when we hiked into a monastery outside of Munich. While we were initially expecting a hike of three kilometers it turned out being three miles. Not that the distance was a crucial component but it actually worked up our appetites for the beer garden that awaited us atop the hill. Although we feasted on various pork products and quaffed our pilsners… we were left monk-less. Apparently, the cloister doesn’t mix in with the locals nor the visiting American vagabonds. The hike was amazingly beautiful and the view from the monastery was spectacular which paid us in full for our hike and refueled us for our trek back to the train down the hill, through the forest and back through the brick-laden village.
From Munich, a second train took us onto Prague, Czech Republic. Prague was going to be my wildcard of the trip. This was a country I had never been to and a language I couldn’t make heads or tails of except to say “please”. But please doesn’t help you find a bathroom or consulate. I was equally prepared to be out of my element or be completely awestruck with the country. Thankfully, the second was true. Prague was a snapshot in time, nearly every building was at least represented as it would have in another era.
For us, Prague wasn’t necessarily about seeing certain things or doing certain activities beyond walking about the city. Prague is meant to be traversed one step at a time. Over the hand placed two inch sidewalk stones and across the bridges. There were many times we would just walk in a direction and see where it took us and try to find our way back. As long as we were able to find the river, we could find home.
We left Prague for a stay in London that was counted in hours rather than days. I briefly broke off from my travel companions to meet up with my friend from college, Monica. We met up and made good use of a pub which was fashioned out of an old firehouse. Many hours later, I wandered back amongst all of the major stopping points of London: Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, etc. Don’t be wrong, but London was not my place. The people were amazingly nice but I think I’m starting to approach the end of my stays in cosmopolitan areas. Maybe it goes back to the summers in Newfoundland but there is a lot to be said for experiencing a country without seeing other people. I’ll confess, I’m more awestruck my natural wonders than those that are man-made. That aside, the next morning we made it to King’s Cross station and onto our train to Edinburgh, Scotland.
At this point, may I diverge for a second and speak to the wonders of European train travel. It’s timely, it’s efficent, it’s fast, it’s comfortable and once in a while, it has internet. To sum it up: me like.
Scotland was a good change of pace. The first two days we spent hanging about Edinburgh proper. We took in the castle, walked past the palace down the Royal Mile. My favorite thing in Edinburgh wasn’t one of those, it was a big hill that loomed over the city. King Arthur’s Seat was a quick hike to the base of the hill and then a steep climb to the top over the stone steps. Once at the top, if you’d positioned yourself against the wind, you’d have an unbelievable chance to witness the city and its run toward the English Channel from above. Jess and I sat on the hillside for nearly an hour enjoying the warmth of the sun and view below.
Scotland only got better once we got a car. We became more mobile and the things we saw rewarded us. I’ll admit it for her; Jess is a castleophile. She loves castles and any chance that we were near one we would take it, which was more than ok by me. Luckily, our GPS was stocked full of fancy-named castles galore.
Hands down, everyone found the best castle to be Tantallon Castle. This massive structure stood at least five stories (figuring the time it was made, it’s a comparative skyscraper) with major portions still intact. You would hope that castles would be cavernous sending you up one stairwell out a new door into an unknown room with the occasional dungeon; Tantallon didn’t disappoint, especially when you consider that it leaned gracefully toward the ocean waves below it.
As all vacations should have, we intermingled some beach time into the agenda as well. We parked our car on a little lane just before it became an even littler dirt road and hiked down two miles to Yellow Craig Beach. Just to verify, the ocean water in Scotland is cold too.
In search of more castles, we came upon St. Andrews. Even though that town’s name is synonymous with golf, I didn’t golf, see a golf course nor ever a golf ball. We did, however, happen upon the ruins of a cathedral that stood near the cliff’s edge. Among the bases of where pillars formerly rose up and the walls that somehow still stand, were the countless grave markers and headstones for many people who had been thrown from the mortal coil. There is a magnetism that exists for me and the ruins of buildings, especially ones that were the keystone of community, but that comes into further play in another paragraph.
The highlight of our trip could have easily been our day trip across Scotland onto a ferry and onto the Isle of Bute. On this little island was a forgotten church that was nameless with its roof long collapsed inside of its walls. We would have nearly passed the grounds had I not seen out of the corner of my eye the blue sky where the roof should have been. We loitered inside the church (which probably wasn’t something we were supposed to do) for a long time. Looking at the little details that made up this church, which now laid in a heap where the pews once were or scattered outside of its walls. We were able to wander up the stairs, still intact, and look up into the rotting wooden floor boards that housed a church bell at one time. The door lock mechanism was tossed in the pile of wood and glass just beyond the entrance of the church. The church had long been forgotten or abandoned but that only made it more beautiful, more memorable. It had all the reverence and pious beauty of its kind but laid about haphazardly into the jagged piles.
To cap off our adventure in Scotland and on the Isle of Bute, we finally came across one of those stereotypical Scottish scenes. Highland cattle in a field. As expected as it is supposed to be, I still think that they are extremely interesting looking and was excited when I finally got to snap off some pictures.
From Scotland, another quick plan ride took us into Northern Ireland. The consistent question I get from people is about the driving. What everyone already knows is that it is on the opposite of the road from our American roads. However, what isn’t widely known is that the roads are wide as ours and without a shoulder. You would have about five feet in your lane, and err in depth perception would have you running your rental car along a rock wall. Err to the other side, at best toy’ll lose your mirror. Now imagine this with people parking where ever their Irish hearts please. Now, you have to deal with multiple cars taking up at least your miniscule lane with traffic coming toward you… and it’s a giant truck, or give it the cute British name, a “lorry”. I didn’t care if it has a cute name, it still out weighted me by multiple tons and it was bearing down as I dodge three parked cars in my lane. That aside…
Northern Ireland was beautiful. Jess and I made good use of our rental car there, despite said road conditions. We stayed on the Antrim Coast, in the north. Our first stop was Dunluce Castle, yet another castle that was perched precariously above a churning ocean. Even though I really like seeing the castle, I snapped my favorite picture there of a sparrow, as you can see:
We also rambled about at the Carrick-a-Rede Bridge and the Giant’s Causeway. The Carrick-a-Rede Bridge is an old rope bridge that spans over the water to a little island where fishermen would throw out nets to make their livings. The Giant’s Causeway is a natural formation of rocks that are all shaped as pentagons that rise up at varying heights. As someone else once coined, it looks as if someone is offering god thousands of cigarettes.
One day, we drove out to a little coastal community that wasn’t much more than a couple of blocks wide. We then hopped onto a ferry to Rathlin Island which is only a minute piece of land. Once our boat docked, people walked off and went to the left… with that in mind, Jess and I started hiking to the right, down to the southern tip of the island. As we approached the south lighthouse both Jess and I heard a strange sound. As we crept closer to the water, the noise became louder. Jess then asked if I saw the seals. I said that I didn’t, but what she was pointing was a log. Lo and behold, that log was a seal, as well as were the fourteen other seals around it. We must have sat there for near two hours just taking in our solitude with the seals. It was quite a remarkable moment to be there when we could have easily walked on by never noticing the fifteen slumbering bodies on tossed about on the rocks.
After our time on the north coast, Jess and I drove back to Belfast and used that day as a great opportunity to rest up. We hung about the downtown of the city and then spent a handful of hours in the pub below our hotel, both of which were called Benedict’s. We sat there, sipping our pints, listening to an Irish rock band and before we knew it it was approaching time for dinner. I had a classic Irish Sunday roast dinner and then we headed back to the room because in the morning we hopped yet another flight but this time back to Amsterdam.
I had never been in Amsterdam before, save for its airport but the city quickly became one of my favorites in all of I’ve been to. I would classify it as a city as beautiful as Paris, yet without the rigid attention to fashion or social rules. To hedge off any questions: Yes, we did go to the Red Light District but it wasn’t like I had imagined it. Of course, there was the ‘industry’ present but it is only a small portion of the district. Truthfully, some of the best restaurants and shopswere tucked into the streets.
An obligatory stop was, of course, the Anne Frank House. It was a very sober exhibit. I thought it was done well, fairly minimal with a lot of information. I twas strange being able to touch the bookcase that hid the family’s refuge. To stand in the room of Anne Frank and see the pictures of stars and the future queen of England on her walls. With all of the windows darkened out, I could easily place myself in what her thoughts could have been.
We were lucky to get a chance to also go up the tallest point in Amsterdam, the Westkirk, which was a church just steps from Anne Frank’s house. From the tower we had a picturesque view of the city. Through the journey to the top on almost vertical steps, we could see the old wooden structure that was just behind the stone, as well as bells that boomed from behind the church facade.
Sadly, this was our last stop on our trip. From Amsterdam, we caught our direct flight back to Portland. Both Jess and I were sad to come to the end of the trip. We had spent so many months in waiting for its arrival and yet when we were in the midst of it, it was but a flash. We only scratched the surfaces of the places we saw. Even after four flights and the train treks, we have both agreed that there is much of Scotland and Ireland we would like to come back to, but that’s another post all together.