Friday, March 31, 2006


Everyone seems so happy here. But they also seem to have great difficulty finding their way. And, god forbid you get caught in a group of people. Seems like no one person can make a decision in the group - kind of like getting caught up in a jellyfish that is kind of meandering the streets.

And in one section of town the dance clubs are numerous, but very, very small - each one that's open seems to have only one girl dancing inside trying to invite someone to join her. They're all very scantily dressed I might add.

It was funny to see a cannabis "starter kit" for sale at the flower markets for 6 euro. The seller was even providing additional tips for the care and feeding of these plants (seemed to boil down to add water and provide plenty of light, even if artificial).

Today was museum day with visits to Rijksmuseum (focus on Rembrandt), Van Gogh museum (focus on Van Gogh), Heineken experience (yes, another brewery tour) and the Anne Frank house. With a bit of surprise, I feel I can recommend all of them (details will follow). The Anne Frank house was particularly moving and something that will stay with me forever - not so much for what it contained, but more for the story that was told - using mostly excerpts from the diary itself (which was on display) and a final video interview with her father that was able to survive. Very tragic and touching as was one of the quotes that made you contemplate all the other "Anne Frank's" whose story would never be told.

Spent the last hour or so at a bar in one of the alley ways. Was quite pleasant as I was the only patron for a while and got to chat with the bartender and a few of the locals that came in during that time. One of them was the owner of the beer store across the street (he was having a drink while minding the store (as was the bartender) - gotta love Amsterdam). It turns out he had Westvleteren in stock - a beer that is supposed to be the best in the world but is near impossible to get as you can only buy direct from the monks and everyone is limited to 2 cases per visit. Hopefully, the beer itself will live up to the high expectations.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Amsterdam Arrival

I made it to Amsterdam with no problems (and have Internet in the room for the remainder of the trip). The walk from the train station to the hotel was a bit more than I expected - they do have trams, but I wanted to walk to get oriented with the city on the way. It took about 45 minutes to get to the hotel (the backpack was getting quite heavy towards the end). The hotel is near the museums and the park.

Initial (second) impressions of Amsterdam is that it seems to be a mix of intimacy of Dublin with the edge of London. Its definitely a modern city (buildings and architecture). I didn't come across a Starbucks on the walk to the hotel (never did find one in Brussels or Bruges), but did walk by what looked to be a museum on the history of coffee and passed several shops advertising espresso and cappuccino. The place in Brussels that I found on the corner of the Markt wasn't open at about 9am this morning when I went out searching for coffee. I get the sense the Brussels is a late rising city.

The hotel is nice and the reception was very pleasant. The room may be the smallest that I've ever stayed in. It's roughly the same size as the bathroom was at Le Meridien. Its just good to put the bags down and take a breather before heading out for a bite and exploration of the city. Having the park nearby will certainly entice me to jog again.

Brussels & Bruges

Its the last night in Brussels. The illuminated Hotel de Ville is a nice sight from the hotel window. The streets and bars are a bit more active tonight. Let's get caught up on the last two days.

I finally found a decent coffee place that made real cappuccino - and it was in the corner of the Grand Markt with outside seating as well. A pleasant break. Next, time for a Belgian waffle. There are a number of places to choose from - I picked one that seemed to be attracting the local students earlier in the day figuring they had probably tried them all. All kinds of toppings to choose from - most involving a generous portion of chocolate sauce. I went for plain, heated of course. Wonderful aroma and carmelization. A nice treat. And, I found myself seated next to the begging dog I talked about earlier. I tried to strike up a conversation but his woof's were in French and he didn't understand my English woofs.

As the trip is nearing its end, I'm starting to collect things to bring home. In Brussels that means chocolate and biscuits. The orange/chocolate cookies I had from one of the recommended stores (Dandoy) were terrific. I went to a local supermarket to get some Jules Destrooper cookies. I had brought some of these home from Spain and they were quite good. I love wandering the aisles of the local markets - almost all markets in Europe seem superior to those in the US. There seems to be more fresh foods to choose from and a wider variety of products to choose from. In the beer aisle, I find beers that cost up to $10/bottle at home for less than $1.50. I feel obliged to pick up a few for later in the night.

Speaking of beer, I was thinking more about the bar I stopped in with over 2000 beers available. If you were to drink 20 beers each week (a little more than 3 each night), it would take 2 years to sample them all. That's mind boggling. I should also mention that each beer is served in its own style of glass, complete with the beers brand stamped on it. The brewers design the glasses to enhance the drinking experience with the different shapes allowing the beer to breath or enhance the aroma or accentuate the color and head on the beer.

Dinner was at Aux Armes de Bruxelles. I had eaten here once before with Sean and some others. Although in the heart of the tourist area, its generally well regarded. I had the Moules et Frites (mussels and fries) which is a traditional Belgian dish. It was extremely good - the mussels are served in a variety of different sauces, so once you take the mussels from the shell, its a bit like a soup or stew. And the fries remain superior to any in the US. Not sure why the cooking technique used here has not caught on in the states. The service is also quite impressive. Its a large restuarant, but its divided into multiple rooms - each with a central service area and about 5 or 6 waitstaff in full white jacket. It reminds me of the service on a cruise ship. I finish dinner with an Irish coffee - something that I don't think I ever had before Dublin, but quite enjoyed. Tonights was possibly the best yet.

Off to Bruges in the morning. This starts with a bit of a puzzle - how to get a ticket and get on the right train to end up in the correct city. Getting the ticket was easy. I step to the ticket window, say "Bruges" and am handed a ticket. Now, for the train. I finally decipher the departure board (it's actually quite easy once you know what the numbers mean) and find the train and track. Trains are literly leaving every minute on the 10 or so different tracks - its quite a busy station. The train arrives exactly on schedule and heads north to Ghent and then Bruges. Lots of announcements during the journey that I don't understand, so I hope they aren't important. No one looks concerned so I assume they are talking about next stops and such.

Arrive in Bruges with cloudy weather and the threat of thunderstorms. But - I have my umbrella this time. It's about a 10 minute walk from the station to the center of the city with the shops and cafes. Its a wonderful city to walk around - you are always catching a glimpse of one of the many church spires or the Belfort in the Markt. I finally get my bearings and end up at the Belfort. I paid 5 euro and climbed to the top (366 stairs). I was admiring the view when the bells starting ringing. I just about jumped out of the tower! It was actually kind of interesting how the bells work - the clappers all have wires that lead down to the level below where there is essentially a giant player piano mechanism. Each bump on the drum corresponds to the ringing of a different bell (or silence).

As a reward for the climb, frites. There are two identical stands on either side of the Belfort. The memory of the fries from this stand had a lot to do with my desire to return to Bruges for the day. Funny how strong cravings can be even after 4+ years. I had them with a pepper sauce and they lived up to the expectations. On Wednesday, there is a huge market in the center of the Markt with all kinds of fruit, vegatable, meat, cheese and pastry stands with amazing prices. I got 5 fairly large maccaroons for 1.60 euro. I wanted to have one of everything. As I wandered through the streets, I stopped in one of the many, many (many) chocolate shops. The one I entered claimed it was the only one in Bruges with hand made truffles. I wanted to get 2 or 3 for eating as I stroll, so I got the "small box". Seems like she put 10 or 15 in it and then wrapped it up quite nice. So nice that I decided to keep it as a gift and find another store for truffles later in the day.

The canals are quite nice and I took one of the canal rides that motors you through the central canals and gives you a bit of history of the buildings and bridges you see on the way. The captain of the boat looked exactly like one of those wooden statues that you find in all the New England souvenir shops. Definitely should have worn another layer as it was chilly for parts of the ride.

After the cruise, time for the brewery tour. Quite a crowd had gathered as they only do the tour twice a day in the off season. I had hoped that the large crowd meant the tour would be well worth it. It wasn't. Pretty much the same as any other brewery tour - though there were some interesting old artifacts from the earlier days. As unremarkable as it was, it was much, much better than the so called "beer museum" in the Grand Markt in Brussels. Here, you see enter one room with some shiny silver beermaking equipment and watch a video. Both included a beer at the end - possibly to make you forget how much you paid to gain entry.

A bit more wandering after the tour, including picking up a few truffles to have along the way. I made it back on the train without any trouble (well, the first train didn't arrive, but there was one every half hour so it wasn't a big problem). And, feeling terrible about all the food I've been eating and beer I've been drinking in the last few days, I strapped on the running shoes and went for a run in Parc du Bruxelles. Swedish TV was here as well getting more "man on the street" opinion. The Swedes must live vicariously through other people.

Running along one side of the park are a number of embassies, including the American embassy. Its a bit sad to see that only the American embassy is highly fortified - it has bars on all the lower windows, jersey barriers that actually cut off the sidewalk forcing you to walk in the street, additional anti-ram barriers outside the jersey barriers, serveillance cameras and armed guards.

Another oddity is what is done to the trees. Throughout the countryside, the upper branches of the tree are removed leaving what looks like a fist at the top of trunk that's about 8-10 feet high. It's clear this has been going on for years as some of the trees have large branches growing out of the fist while others are newly cut. Other prunings leave the tree with a trunk and several main branches that are then pruned a bit further down leaving many fists and no branches for foliage. A very odd sight. Still other pruning removes all but 3 or 4 branches for either side of the trunk that are trained to grow parallel to the ground and join up with the next tree that is pruned in identical fashion. This creates a kind of fence about 10 feet above the ground. As there are branches, I expect that the foliage fills in during the summer months.
Dinner tonight was a "menu" (fixed price for a selection of appetizer, entree and desert) at Le Grand Cafe on a corner across from the Bourse. Good food at a good price - 18 euro for the menu.

Off to Amsterdam tomorrow. I think 3 days was a good amount for Brussels - with more time, there are some additional things outside the city center that I would have visited (mini Europe and Atomium), but I probably would have gained about 5 pounds each day I stayed here.
It seems like the flight from Boston was many months ago. Even so, its hard to believe there are only a few days left.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Next Update on Thursday

Will likely be without Internet until Thursday - I've been unable to find a wired coffee shop and 25 euro per day at the hotel is just a bit too much!  Plans for remainder of today are more of the same - wander, shop and eat.  After London, I don't have a lot of desire left to explore the local museums.  Tomorrow I will likely head to Bruges for the day.


Brussels seems to focus on food, beer and shopping. No big chain stores here - only a handful of local or European chains. All the rest are boutique with amazing window displays. Kind of like walking into a museum where everything is for sale. Throughout the Grand Market area (where the hotel is located) are small streets and alleys that are lined with restaurants and sidewalk seating. Some of the smaller alleys are filled with the most restaurants and each alley tends to stick to a theme (traditional Belgian, Greek, Italian).

Last night was spent wandering through the alleys sampling some of the local beers at some of the local bars (luckily, there were no more thunderstorms or showers). Dinner was waterzooi, a Belgian stew with chicken in a cream sauce - a hearty meal, but not very flavorful. It was interesting to stop at an Irish bar and find that the Chimay Bleu was only 3.50 but a Guinness was 4.90 euro. The streets and bars were not that crowded - not sure if Monday is generally a night to stay in (many places are closed on Monday as well) or whether the tourists have yet to arrive.

Slept in a bit this morning (the beers have 7-9% alcohol!) and then headed to the Grand Sablon for breakfast at Le Pain. Not surprising given the name, the focus here is on the breads. You sit at a large shared table (think picnic table) with a bunch of jars containing various spreads - milk chocolate, white chocolate, peanut butter?, blueberry, apricot and honey. You select the breads you want and they arrive in a basket along with a small marble slab and knife. Spoon out the different spreads you wish to try and then spread or dip your bread in them and enjoy. They were all quite good, but the blueberry and peanut butter were the best - but I'm not really sure if it was peanut butter or not (couldn't read the label) - it might have been another chocolate variety. The combination I ordered also came with a soft boiled egg. I don't think I've ever had a soft boiled egg before so figuring out how to eat it was a bit of a puzzle. I'm sure I provided a bit of entertainment for others at the table with my trials.

After breakfast I was wandering again, hoping to end up at a place for frites (french fries) that was highly recommended (Mick Jagger had their fries). After getting a bit lost navigating around some massive construction projects (the city seems to be undergoing some huge building projects), I turned a corner and was exactly where I wanted to be. They offer about 30 different toppings for the frites, but mayonnaise is the local favorite so that's what I ordered. The frites are served in a paper cone with a huge dollop of whatever topping you chose - and I mean huge dollop. They were quite good. From what I understand, they are cooked multiple times at two different temperatures - one time is to cook the potato, the other time is to crisp the outside.

I wish I spoke a bit more French. I'm definitely able to get by with English, but would be more comfortable if I could speak natively. When I arrived at the train station, I knew that I needed to take the metro to get to the hotel. I walked up to the ticket counter said "Gare Central" which is where I wanted to go. The response was quite lengthy of which I understood nothing. I asked if he spoke English, he said a little and then repeated the same answer in French, this time a bit more slowly. I got my ticket and hoped for the best. Actually turned out to be relatively easy - there are only two lines (though one line has two branches) and the stations are clearly marked. So, I was able to get on the right train, make the right connection and reach the hotel without trouble. Its interesting that the subway is more or less on the honor system - there are machines to stamp your ticket, but no gates to pass through that require a ticket to gain entry.

Saw an interesting site while walking through the shopping area. As you'd expect in any city, there are beggars every so often. Though, most beggars here are women of what appears to be middle eastern descent, often with children, that neal with their head bowed and hands in prayer. But that's not what was interesting. A dog passed by that was wearing a hat and sunglasses. The dog was also carrying a cup and note in its mouth begging for money (or perhaps a dog treat). I assume he had an owner nearby, but perhaps the dogs here have evolved quite a bit more than in the states.

Coffee here is definitely not a priority. There are few places that focus only on coffee and there appear to be no coffee chains (there is a McDonalds and Pizza Hut). At the places where I have ordered a capacinno (including the hotel bar), the serving size has been small and the quality generally very poor. I guess I'll have to wait until Amsterdam as I hear they have lots of coffee houses. Though I'm not sure they actually sell coffee at the coffee houses I've heard about.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Brussels - first impressions

Or, should I say second impressions since I've been here before.
- the sweet smell of waffles on the streets
- the smell of boxwoods (?) in the parks
- the symmetry of the buildings and the parks
- the wonderful architecture (camera has been clicking today)
- English is definitely a foreign language (more later)
- staying at Le Meridien - will easily be the best room I've had on the trip (ever?)
- drinking a beer in a bar that literally holds the Guinness record for most beers available (2,004)
- buying a beer in a discount market for 2.50 euro (about $3) that costs close to $10 at home
- inability to find a Starbucks - may have to cheat and check online to see if one exists
- people on the streets appear happy - or maybe its contrast and people in London appear uptight
- best weather yet - though there have been thunderstorms with hail that have made for some mad dashes
- daylight until well after 8pm
- being able to get a decent dinner and a drink for under 20 euro vs. over 20 pounds (about $20 vs. $40)

I remember enjoying the city when I was here last which has only been reinforced by the initial impressions. Tomorrow I hope to revisit this wonderful breakfast place Sean took me to when I was last here. They give you a basket of breads and a bunch of chocolate spreads to smother them with. I checked that the place still exists and its just a short walk from the hotel. The hotel is actually close to just about everything.

Final Remarks on London

The weather has warmed a bit - still need a jacket for travelling about, but its no longer really cold. The last 2 or 3 days have started with sun, but clouded by afternoon with off and on showers for the remainder of the day. The rain is hard enough that you'd use an umbrella, but not so hard that you get soaked if you walk without one which I was doing. I did bring an umbrella on the trip, but for whatever reason, I keep forgetting to put it in my day bag.

The walk through Chelsea was nice - the book did a good job of pointing out interesting locations and giving some history and context to what you are seeing or who the individual was that lived there. Over the course of a mile or so, I passed by places where Mark Twain, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, AA Milne, James Bond (yes, I know he's not real), Oscar Wilde, Mick Jagger and a whole host of others lived. What was remarkable is that all the houses were so unremarkable. Most were similar to town houses from Boston's Back Bay. The walk finished on Kings Rd which is a lot like Newbury St in Boston. On this shopping road, there were very few chain stores and a lot more boutiques giving the street a very nice feel. There were also ample coffee shops and cafes to stop in at many with tables on the wide sidewalks to watch the abundant foot traffic go by. Even though I didn't do any shopping, I much preferred this area to the Bond St/Regent St/Oxford St shopping areas.

A block or so from Kings Rd is the Victoria & Albert Museum (which is next door to the natural history and science museums). The V&A is the "thing" museum - rather than paintings, its collections are mostly objects. This museum is enourmous - it would take many days to fully appreciate all that it holds. The cards for each of the objects is packed with information in relatively small print. This makes it difficult to "browse" the collection as you truly need to stop and get close to even see what an object is. I enjoyed the samurai swords (probably because of some of the movies I've seen that make such a big deal out of them), the plaster casts of ancient structures (because of their grand scale) and the Raphael cartoons and the room in which their displayed is quite impressive. The lobby and entrance way was also quite grand.

As the line for the Natural History museum was quite long (this was the first day I encountered any crowds so I would recommend visiting on a weekday if possible), I headed off to the British Museum to catch the guided tour. The British Museum is something like 20 acres, so it too is quite an impressive (intimidating?) collection. The tour was nice as it cut to the chase - taking you to the rosetta stone, some of the ancient murals, the sculptures from the Parthenon, Ramses II, up to the mummies, the Portland vase and the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Of course, by this time I've been on so many walks and have seen so many objects that retention rate is a bit of a problem.

After the museum I wander through Covent Garden (which is very crowded today) and down the strand a bit, stopping in at a coffee house. I was joined by a mother and daughter that live in the city and was sharing the details of my journey. They couldn't believe that I had taken a tour that included Windsor, Stonehenge and Bath all in one day - apparently, this is quite a feat as their is quite a bit of distance between them all. I simply flipped through a brochure picking the tour that included the places I wanted to see. They also asked if I was nervous travelling because of the bombing (a gentleman on one of the walking tours asked the same thing). Apparently this is still front of mind here (though I'm not sure why as it seems bombings have been a part of London for a while with the IRA being the problem in the past). I told them I hadn't even considered it (I was keeping an eye on the bird flu before leaving) though the gentleman commented that the number of American tourists seemed to be very low recently (more likely cause of this is that its very expensive because of the soft dollar policies).

The evening involved a book guided pub tour through the west end in and around Covent Garden. Though not as densely packed with pubs as Ireland, its possible to visit many different pubs with extremely different atmospheres without walking too far. There were also some interesting old streets and alleyways to explore. The wandering took me to Chinatown where picking a restaurant is not easy. All have the menu on display, but looking at a menu in Chinatown is of little use other than to find out the price of the entrees as every menu has the usual selection of Chinese meals. I ultimately chose New World which was mentioned in two of the books I was carrying. The meal was decent (crispy shredded beef) though I probably should have ordered something with a bit more meat or vegatables to get a better sense on how good a restaurant it is.

I walked back to the hotel, stopping at a few more pubs along the way. In general, the locals and other tourists were friendly but were engaged in their own coversations so not a lot of interesting exchanges through the night.

I skipped breakfast Sunday (wanted a bit more sleep and we lost an hour to daylight savings) and then headed out to join the tour to Greenwich. I saw a group of people gathered outside the tube station, so I assumed this must be the group and attempted to pay my fare. The gentleman indicated this wasn't London Walks but a free Jewish history walk that was much better than London Walks which he claimed didn't show up. This certainly had me puzzled and a bit confused. I stood with this group for a bit, but kept edging to the back of the circle and finally spotted another group beginning to assemble. This group was for the London Walks trip to Greenwich so I quickly switched groups.

The gentleman, Richard, leading this tour was one of the best so far. His accent was wonderful, told great stories with a good mix of humor (often role-playing during the story) and his voice was loud enough to hear very easily even with a relatively large group. The boat to Greenwich was a bit late, but it did arrive and we made our way down the Thames to Greenwich. Unfortunately, there was no narration during the boat journey and our guide wasn't allowed to provide one. An interesting bt of history of Greenwich is that it was originally the site of a palace but the rebuilding of a bigger palace was abandoned after the plague and fire, with the buildings ultimately being handed over to the Navy. The tour covered a good deal of ground and he was able to have us all assembled in view of the rising and dropping of the ball on top of the observatory at precisely 1pm. The town itself is relatively small, with a few nice shops and restaurants and a few different market areas (flea and antique). I had cod & chips for lunch. After reading the book "Cod" which talked about how the British much preferred cod as the type of fish in their fish & chips, I wanted to make sure I had the "authentic" version. I also had a chocolate flapjack from the market. I have no idea what this was - it was brownie sized and looked like it was made from oats - but it was delicious. It was all I could do to keep from going back and having several more.

The maratime museum was a bit disappointing (very much geared towards kids), but as with most in London, it was free (though they do make you get a ticket for some odd reason). A short hike up the hill brings you to the observatory and the prime meridian. Entry here is again free (though ticket required) and the museum and exhibits much more interesting. The focus is on navigation and time keeping and the relation between the two.

Calculation of latatitude had been understood for a while by measuring the noontime suns elevation over the horizon. But longitudinal navigation was not perfected until the 18th and 19th centuries. Prior to this, ships would sail north or south along their own coast until they reached the latitude they wished to cross at and then sailed directly east or west sticking to that latitude for the entire journey. Longitudinal navigation required accurate timekeeping which was problematic on boats for a number of reasons (portability, the rocking of the boat interfering with the swinging of a pendulum).

I of course stood with one food in the eastern and western hemispheres, as were many many other people.

The journey home was by rail through the dockyards which was an interesting area. Lots of converted warehouses surrounding old docks and waterways. I walked through the downtown area which was truly desterted on the weekend with just about all the stores closed as well. The walk took me past Somerset house but the major exhibit was closed. I continued to meander on the way back to the hotel, which brought me to St James Park in front of Buckingham palace. The flowers were just coming into bloom and all the ducks and other waterfowl were out making this an extremely enjoyable walk.

Around the corner from the hotel was a self-service launderette that I noticed when I arrived. I stopped in to check prices and was amazed that doing a load of laundry would cost over 5 pounds (about $10!). Well, I needed to do some laundry so I continued on to the hotel to gather up my things. When I returned only about 15 minutes later, they were closed. Would have thought the attendent would have mentioned that when giving me the prices. No problem I thought - I'll just go get some soap and launder in the hotel. Turns out this was easier said than done. After returning to the hotel to drop my clothes off I headed out for the soap. Well, being a Sunday, everything was closed. I ventured to Victoria station thinking there had to be something in that area that would be open and ultimately found an open store - but was forced to buy enough soap to do about 20 washes. The next thing I learned (though when I started the wash, I suspected this would be the case), is that it takes more than one night for clothes to hang dry when they aren't in the sun. So, this morning, I packed a lot of damp clothing which I'm sure added another 5-10 pounds to my backpack. And, I couldn't fit the box of soap so I was forced to leave it behind.

I stopped at a Thai place that was recommended and near the hotel for dinner. It was quite good - probably the best meal I've had on the journey thus far. The only thing I didn't like was the Australian accent of the waitstaff. It was rather harsh and definitely not as melodious as the British or Irish accents.

Some parting thoughts on London. It is extremely large. There are many different neighborhoods and they do truly have their own character. There is no shortage of places, parks, museums, plays, restaurants or pubs to keep one busy for a very long time. I was able to do much that I had hoped, but there were I few things I had wanted to do but didn't get a chance (going to the zoo, Kensington Palace & gardens, going by 221b Baker St, going back to the science museum, visiting the Tate Britain, exploring more of Soho). The hotel location turned out to be very convinient. There was a large market and a number of restuarants very close by. And Victoria station was only a 10 minute walk. The price was also reasonable as far as London goes - 70 pounds / night (~$120) which included breakfast.

Off to the train station this morning to catch the Eurostar through the Chunnel to Brussels. This is my second passage (last time took it to Paris) and once again paid the extra for first class ($150 one way). The service and food have been wonderful and the seats are roomy and extremely comfortable. Definitely the most enjoyable ride so far. Even better was that when we went into the tunnel it was overcast with showers and when we emerged about 20 minutes later, it was bright and sunny (though it has become overcast again).

Enduring image (seen from the train ride today as well as several times earlier in the trip) - a person walking through the countryside with a long jacket flowing in the wind, a walking stick and a dog at their side or playfully running ahead. It definitely is a tranquil sight.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Brief Update

A quick update before I forget what I did, details will follow. I started the day with a book guided walk through Chelsea on Saturday morning including a walk through the shopping are on Kings Rd, followed by a visit to the Victoria & Albert museum. I was going to go back to the natural history museum to see a few things I missed, but there was a long line. On to the British Museum for a guided tour (another from London Walks). After some coffee, a book guided pub crawl through the west end (including stops at Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe and dinner in China town).

Daylight savings was last night (a week earlier here than the US) so I got a bit of a late start today (its also Mothers Day here today). Joined another tour from London Walks (I may singlehandedly be keeping both them and several coffee places in business). This was a tour of Greenwich which included a boat ride down the Thames to get there. I was able to set my watch with a high degree of accuracy (though it was no longer GMT as daylight savings just started). And, of course I walked from the eastern to western hemisphere several times.

A few odd things seen along the way:

- a blind man at the museum

- a Vietnamese restaurant called "Phat Phuc"

Saturday, March 25, 2006


Originally uploaded by pdbreen.

Outside of London

I forgot to mention that I was interviewed last night for Swedish TV. They were collecting "man in the street" reaction to the Labour party funding scandal. I told them that we have become used to such things in America.

I took a day trip to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath which we visited in that order. So, I shall recap each in that same order. After some confusion in the bus station with lots of tours leaving at the same time and lots of people trying to make sure they end up on the right tour and a group on our tour that was missed by the hotel pickups and had to taxi in, we are on our way with a group of 50 or so (only a few empty seats on the bus). Windsor Castle was about 90 minutes from the city. Don't recall many highlights on the journey other than passing the Fuller Brewery (one of London's most famous and well respected). During the trip, the guide struggles to bring some life into the group with a good deal of humor laced through his stories - he's actually quite good, its the group that seems to be lacking.

After a bit of a trek from the coach to the castle grounds (definitely seperated the strong from the weak within the group). Only a few other groups are present, so we get tickets and gain entrance to the grounds rather easily. After one or two brief lectures, we are let loose through the state apartments, starting with a walk around Queen Mary's doll house. The doll house was interesting, but the state apartments were another thing altogether. I have never seen anything quite like it. Probably the closest things I can think of for comparison are Napoleon's apartments in the Louvre or the Breakers in Newport (but its been a long, long time since I last visited the mansions in Newport so my memory may have inflated how grand they were). Versaille isn't even close to comparing to what you encounter as you walk through these rooms. The walk takes you through bedrooms, sitting rooms, dining rooms, entry halls, salons - quite a wide array of rooms in all various shapes and sizes. Each is fully decked out with furnishings, paintings, and all kinds of other amazing decorations, carpeting and the like. As an example, in one of the smaller rooms, there was something like $600mil worth of paintings on the walls. The proportions of the rooms are also quite immense in every dimension. I heard that we were one of the last groups to get the extended tour of the apartments as they shorten the tour when the number of tourists starts picking up in the coming weeks. This included walking through the part of the castle where the fire started but has now been rebuilt and restored. Unfortunately, pictures inside the castle were not allowed. They would have been amazing.

And, I'm happy to report there was a Starbucks just outside the castle walls.

Back on the coach for another hour or so and we arrive at Stonehenge. First reaction is that it's a lot smaller than I imagined. A lot, lot smaller. I think the legend and mystery of Stonehenge has become so great that its hard for the actual visit to live up to those expectations. I'm not sure exactly what I had expected, but I guess I kind of expected to take a look and say "wow" or be awe inspired in some way. I'm glad it was included on the trip (and did take a few of the exact same pictures that millions of people have taken before me), but if you're visiting and pressed for time, I wouldn't consider this a must see. They are building a new visitor center which may help with the overall experience - the visitor center at Newgrange definitely helped give some perspective and context prior to actually visiting the passage tomb itself.

Another hour or so and we enter the Bath area. Bath is in a river valley and there are some wonderful views down into the valley as we make our entry. For some reason, I expected the baths to be in a fairly remote area. But, they were located right next to the river in the center of the city of Bath. The tour of the baths was interesting, but you weren't allowed to touch the water. You could buy some water to drink at the end of the tour, but the guide suggested getting one glass and 50 straws as the taste was not good. The most interesting part of the stop in Bath was wandering the city after the tour. I had about an hour to explore the streets and alleyways. Its an extremely picturesque city with an abundance of coffee shops (including a Starbucks) and boutiques lining the streets. A number of chain stores have moved in taking away some of the charm, but there is enough frontage and still enough of a mix that you don't feel like you're walking down Main St in Anytown, USA. The English Ballet was also in town for a performance so it appears to have a healthy arts community. I would definitely recommend a visit to Bath - it also looks like a wonderful spot to spend a few days.

Not much on the journey back other than being able to view Bristol off in the distance as we crest one of the hills. Back in the station at about 8pm followed by an average dinner at a rib place recommended on a local food review site. The tour cost 60 pounds (~$110) of which about 25 pounds went to admission fees for the 3 sites. I'd say it was good value for the money and that the Evan Evans group did a very good job - from the cleanliness of the coach, the knowledge and personality of the guide and to faciliting a large group through a busy day with relative ease. So, picking the first tour offered at the information desk proved to be a good choice.

When I returned, I checked train tickets for Edinburgh (as it now appears the weather may be decent on Sunday), but the discount fares are no longer available so it looks like I won't make it to Scotland on this trip.

Miscellaneous learnings:
Cheerio - comes from "Chair, ho!", which was used to get chair service from the house
posh - comes from "port out, starbord home" which is how the elite travelled to avoid the hot sun on the ships

Cliffs of Moher

Cliffs of Moher
Originally uploaded by pdbreen.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Recent Happenings

I was able to make it to the Natural History Museum yesterday afternoon. I arrived about 2 hours before close, thinking that would be plenty of time. I was wrong. I was only through a few exhibits before the closing announcements came on and I started rushing. There's still more to see, so I'll likely head back to that area and also re-visit the science museum and Victoria & Albert museum next door.

What a difference a building can make. Some of the exhibits were similar to those in the Natural History museum in Ireland (both contain lots of skeletons and stuffed animals), but the building in London is phenomenal - you walk through a grand entry into an enormous foyer, large enough to dwarf the dinosaur skeleton that's on display. From there, you venture into the wings with each hall dedicated to its own topic. One of the first is the dinosaur exhibit that houses a mechanical T-Rex. As I walked past, I swear that it's eyes, head and growl were following my every move - when I stopped, it stopped, when I started again, it followed. Quite eerie (I later learned this was true - that it senses where the people are and follows them). The blue whale and gem stone exhibits were also quite impressive. Unfortunately, the last part of my tour took me through an exhibit on man's destruction of the planet, general wastefulness of resources and the imbalance between the developed nations and the impoverished. It was a bit depressing, but awareness means there is hope.

A quick stop at the hotel and then off to the theater to see Billy Elliot. When I was here last, this was the show that everyone was talking about, so I booked a ticket before I left. Once again, I was high up in the rafters - 2nd from last row (don't think I've been closer than 3rd from last in any of the shows I've been to). But, the sightlines were decent. Had a bit of trouble with the dialog as it was in a rich Irish/English accent and used quite a bit of slang. But, got understood enough to get most of the jokes and enjoy the show (about a son of a coal miner that wants to grow up pursue the arts and be a dancer). The audience on this night seemed packed with teenage girls that seemed quite impressed with the lead dancer (cheering loudly after each number and standing ovation at the end). Not sure if its like this every night or if there was an organized outing. I thought the show was good - but was not one of the most impressive I've seen in terms of the dance or the music (which was by Elton John).

I started the day with the normal routine - breakfast at the hotel followed by a cappuccino at one of several nearby cafe's. I then joined a walking tour of the old city of London ( As the guide went around and asked people where they were from, a very large number were from nearby or the city itself. I was chatting with one fellow from Wimbledon and he had been on a few others and gave high praise. The guide took us to a number of spots and told stories of the area, the events and the people that shaped the city. I plan on joining another tonight and one or two more on the weekend, weather permitting.

The tour ended at St Pauls which I wanted to visit, but at 9 pounds (about $17), I figured I had seen enough churches that I didn't need to see another (besides, the admission area was inside the church, so I did get to see a bit of the interior without the fee). Instead, I headed to the Museum of London which was recommended by the gentleman from Wimbledon. This is a chronological history focused on London from the earliest of times to the late 1800's. An interesting collection, but I fear I may be starting to get a bit weary of museums as I occasionally find myself standing in front of a display, but not truly looking at its contents or reading the history. Its as if some kind of genetic programming kicks in - walk to display case, turn to face contents, pause and look at contents with contemplative expression, repeat.

I typed the above from a coffee house after leaving the museum, but the battery died before I could send. The following takes place later in the evening. And I should say, that the day is probably the best so far. Still mostly sunny well into the afternoon, and when standing in the sun and sheltered from the wind, its not so cold!

The afternoon takes me across London Bridge to south of the Thames. I head west and follow the streets and walkways by the river until I arrive at the Tate Modern (yes, another museum). This one I can handle. As its modern art, each peice often has an extremely large presentation meaning there isn't all that much to look at. The first exhibit is an enourmous "wind tunnel" (or turbine chamber or something like that). Its an open space that's 5+ stories high and probably 2 or 3 hundred feet wide - basically, a huge open space where I'm guessing they used to test jet engines. The installation in this space was a bunch of randomly (or, maybe not so randomly) stacked white plastic boxes. I don't think I'll every understand or appreciate modern art.

The permanent collection was not as "out there" as the Guggenhiem in NYC - it contained a few from Picasso, Dali, Pollack among others. But there were a few of those large canvases with one or two colors or a few lines or some other rather simple application of paint that is deemed to be art by someone other than me.

Dinner was at an upscale chain that I had passed many times called Pizza Express. Either I was extremely hungry or the food was quite good (most likely a combination of both). Service was extremely good and the setting was very nice - a window seat on the second floor overlooking the Thames River looking back towards London.

After dinner it was time for another walk from the same company as this morning, starting from the same subway stop at the tower monument. This time, a "Hidden Pubs" walk. It was somewhat interesting in that the two stories I heard about the cause of great fire on the two tours was significantly different. I'm sure time will further dilute the accuracy of history and the proliferation of multiple written accounts will only add to the confusion rather than help clarify. Once primary sources are lost to time, history will start to erode and change and the stories told generations from now will no doubt be different than the ones that are told today.

Back to the tour. Turns out that "hidden pub" means travelling south of the city, so after rushing back north across the river after dinner to join the tour, we pretty much retrace the steps to where I was eating. But the narration was worth it. We stopped at 2 pubs during the tour (and the tour ended in front of a third). The first was rather crowded and smoked filled, but at the second I got to talking with a father / daughter travelling from Seattle. They had just arrived today so I'm not quite sure how they were able to keep their wits (even with a nap), but they shared some interesting stories about RV travels through Alaska. Overall, another enjoyable tour. I plan on taking one or two more on either Saturday or Sunday - including one that takes a boat down to Greenwhich where I can straddle the prime meridian.

I realize I haven't posted pictures in a while. I have taken a few, but much fewer than the last trip. The low number is a combination of the dreary weather, photos not being allowed in some of the museums, and the inability to determine which museum exhibits might be interesting to others (no doubt caused by visiting too many museums in so short a time).

Tomorrow I take a daytrip to Stonehenge, Windsor and Bath. The number of companies offering this exact trip is rather high. How does one choose? I have no clue so I chose the first that was suggested at the information center.

Todays observations:
There are a lot (truly a lot) of Starbucks here. And, they are all crowded. Though not as crowded as the (only?) Dublin Starbucks that I finally found and entered. The line there must have been 20 or 30 people - forget about finding a seat.

Lugging tour books for 4 different cities makes for heavy baggage.

I could have further lightened the luggage by packing a bit less of everything. The ability to convert my suitcase into a backpack has definitely proved useful and reasonably comfortable. But the fully packed bag is quite heavy. I have yet to use the running shoes that I packed. I'm sure I'll pay for this in the first few workouts when I return.

Having walked through exhibits of "here's how people lived in the 17th and 18th century" in both Ireland and London, the differences are immense. One was clearly built for function, the other clearly for comfort or to communicate status.

Its interesting how the relationship between the UK and Ireland is portrayed (or omitted) in the exhibits or narrations in the museums in each country.

I should have brought my MFA member card and researched what exhibitions it could be used for. While there's certainly no shortage to see in the permanent collections, it would be nice to have the option to visit the special exhibits with fee.

I think I can finally tell the coins apart on sight. The rules go something like this. Thick is better than thin (1 and 2 pound coins are thickest). Hexagonal is better than round (except thick round coins are better than thin hexagonal). Silver is better than bronze. Large diameter is better than small. In addition to coins for 1 and 2 pounds, there are coins for 50p, 20p, 10p, 5p, 2p, 1p - a total of 8 vs. only 4 in the US.

I've become addicted to the digestive biscuits.

Each coffee chain (Costa (sp?), Nero, Starbucks, Pret A Manger) uses a distinctly shaped cup to serve their cappuccino.

Don't plan your days based on the forecast - seems that weather prediction is still a guessing game here and the forecast tonight is entirely different than last night.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


It seems the women in London and Dublin where much more makeup than in the states - many appear to be capable of keeping a small cosmetic manufacturer in business single handedly.

With all the money spent on cosmetics, I'm guessing there is little left over for clothing as the tops the teenagers are wearing appear to be several sizes too small. Forget the bird flu, I'm surprised there's not a chest cold epidemic going through London.

Does anyone work in this town? I now sit in a train / tube station at 9am in the morning and it appears filled with commuters hurriedly on their way to work. But, when I was walking down Oxford St yesterday, the sidewalks were absolutely filled to capacity - and it was a cold afternoon.

Hyde Park is big. But, mostly empty. At least the section I walked through. I'm sure on a summer day it would be filled with people, but not yesterday.

I visited 4 museums yesterday, but don't think I've even started to make a dent in visiting all the museums that are available - the majority having free admission. In this regard, I've seen no city that can match what London has to offer.

It's cold.

The difference between Dublin and London are very pronounced - from the architecture, the size of the streets, the type of stores that line them and the people. London is like a bank - proper, somewhat uptight, structured. Dublin is like flea market - the city evolved to become what it is, a bit random in what you'll find, the people are more weathered and social interaction is a bigger part of life. The London population is much more diverse with a large Indian and Asian component. Even with a very large student population (including adults in Dublin to learn English), Dublin remains primarily an Irish community. There are some Asians, some Polish, but the black population is quite small and some of the local comments indicate some prejudice - or perhaps lack of familiarity - exists. While walking through the Dublin streets, I saw the faces of many childhood friends in the faces of the people I passed. I often wanted to stop people and ask if they are related to so-and-so. It was so prevalent that it was scary.

It's cold.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Well, the sun gave up and its mostly cloudy now - still better than being pelted by sleet, though it remains cold. Have walked through a good deal of the shopping areas of London today (Oxford, Piccadilly, Bond St, Regent St. The prices are extraordinary - I couldn't imagine living here. Definite signs of an upper-class society throughout town as well - parks under lock & key, people that make no effort to yield while walking on the sidewalks, lack of eye contact when passing and of course the type of stores and the prices. I'm beginning to think the day of the strong ruling class and peasant class remains fully intact with King Blair and King Bush sitting on the thrones. The difference is that the power (and the funding) comes from the head of corporations rather than land barons and the battle is not over land, the global economy. I digress...

Visited the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery (right next door) and the Royal Academy today (all free). The first two were quite impressive. Both the collection and the building housing the national gallery was quite a site. The portrait gallery took you through the history of England in chronological order with a good narration about what was happening as the years unfolded and how the crown bounced around between blood lines and how the religious division between Protestant and Catholic within the same family played a significant role in how things unfolded. It also seems that death in battle or by execution was often how things ended for many of the kings or their wives. Guess its only good to be the king so long as you have full support of the people and others in your family. I'm still not sure I've got all the history clear in my head - I think I need some kind of cheat sheet that shows who is from what family, how long they were in power and what happened during their reign.

The book I'm now reading, Cod, is more than you ever wanted to know about the fish. What's interesting is that much of the power of the 17th and 18th century came from the trade with America and the Indies of which the codfish played an important role. Its an odd bit of context, but interesting that a fish could play such an important role in history (though I'm sure the book may be amplifying the role somewhat).

Must be on my way, I'm out of Cappuccino...

London Arrival

This time, the train from Holyhead (where the ferry arrives in Wales) to London was uneventful (aside from a yogurt container getting punctured in my backpack resulting in a bit of a mess).  It was interesting to see the landscape change as the journey progressed - from the sea, by snowcapped mountains, through the fields and then into London.  Staying at the Luna and Simone B&B that was one of the cheapest locations I could find that was highly rated on Tripadvisor.  The room is only a tad bigger than the room at the Comfort Inn and it is en-suite.  Like the Comfort Inn, getting into the bathroom and closing the door is a bit of a puzzle - you need to go in and stand aside so the door can swing past, and only then can you access the sink and the shower.  Definitely trying to get as much into as small as space as possible. 


Breakfast remains traditional - bacon (which is more like our ham than our bacon), fried egg, baked beans, toast and coffee. 


And, believe it or not, the sun is out this morning - I believe this is the first truly sunny day since the trip began! 

Ireland (cont)

When we last left our adventurers, they had retired after an evening of St Patricks day festivities.  Saturday is a day to explore outside the city.  The prior day we made reservations in the Dublin tourism office (very friendly place, centrally located downtown) for a day trip to Newgrange.  After breakfast in the hotel (buffet remains the same each day - scone, soda bread, toast or croissants, cereals, fruit and yogurt and a selection of Irish bacon, sausage, blood pudding, baked tomato, mushrooms, beans and either fried or scrambled eggs), we made our way to the shuttle bus - both of us a bit tired from the late night prior. 

Nothing much to note on the drive itself - we quickly left the city and the suburbs and entered the countryside.  As we approached the Newgrange visitor center in the Boyne valley (about an hour north of Dublin), the sun started to peak through the clouds - the first real sunshine of the trip - though the wind was still extremely brisk.  The valley itself was quite nice - incredibly green with fields boxed in by hedges, trees or stone walls.  As we were in a valley, the fields rose on the hillsides around us and the sun truly made the view grand.

Newgrange itself is an ancient passage tomb that dates from 5000 years ago - older than the pyramids and I believe the oldest manmade structure known on the planet.  Circular in shape, it has the diameter of about a football field and is probably about 40 or 50 feet high.  The base is large stone, with smaller rock decoratively building up the walls (though the walls in view are a recreation using the original stone as the original walls fell at some time back).  The passage within the tomb remains exactly as built - its been watertight since its construction and the size of the rock used for the passage is such that it has passed the test of time.  The tour included entry through the passage into the central chamber.  The passage was built such that on the winter solstice (+/- a few days on either side), the sun would shine directly down the passage and into the central chamber, illuminating it for about 15 minutes during the sunrise.  It was all quite amazing when you think of the magnitude of the structure, the fact that the stones were brought in from several different locations around Ireland, that it took the commitment of 2-3 generations to complete, and the understanding of nature required to get the alignment (both vertical and horizontal) correct for the illumination on the winter solstice.  It was also quite amazing that of the graffiti that was etched into the inner stones (prior to becoming a protected site), the first that we saw was "P McDonough" suggesting the McDonough boys have a long history of trouble-making.

After a quick stop at the hotel, we were out at the pub next door to watch the Irelend v England rugby match.  The bar was packed with a decidedly pro-Irish group (though there were a few English rooters among the group).  The game itself was quite good - it took me a bit to understand some of the basic rules having never played or watched a Rugby match in the past - but the crowd reactions quickly taught me good plays and bad plays.  Ireland made a number of mistakes that allowed England to take a late lead, but were able to recapture the lead in the final minutes on a play that required video review to determine if the try was successful.  It was and a huge cheer erupted through the bar!  Ireland was able to hang on as time ran out and another huge cheer went up.

On to Temple Bar for dinner.  We try a place with a "modern Irish menu".  As we arrived before 8, it was easy to get a table.  Both our meals were below average, but it was nice to have a casual dinner.  Off to a small Italian restuarant for Irish coffee and desert.  Followed, of course, by a pub crawl back to the hotel - though this one not as intense as the prior night as we stopped at only a few bars and had only a few pints on the journey home.  Bars generally remained crowded, though there were a few that were quite empty.  Very odd that bars only a few yards from each other can have such a different personality inside.

After breakfast on Sunday morning, we headed out to see Trinity College and the book of Kells.  We got an early start with the hope of visiting a museum as well before Sean departs.  After a stroll through St Stephens Green to Trinity, we arrive to find the first tour starts at 11:40 and the book of Kells doesn't open until noon on Sundays.  So, off we go for coffee, returning in time for the tour.  It was interesting to hear a bit of the history and to see the likely residence of my great grandparents.  By the time the tour finished, quite a line had formed for entry to the book of Kells.  As Sean needed to get back to the airport, our hearts sank as it looked like we wouldn't be able to view.  However, luck was with us this morning, just as we were about to depart, all those on the walking tour were allowed immediate entry.  There was a very good exhibition on the history of the book, followed by a viewing of two of the books and then the long hall (which itself was quite amazing).

After Sean's departure it was back out through St Stephens Green and on to Merrion Sq and the museums.  On the way I stumbled across a street fesitval that was part of the ongoing St Patricks Day festival.  This was geared towards the younger crowd with street performers, rides and activities to keep the kids entertained.  The Natural History museum (free) is filled with many, many (many) stuffed animals - 4 floors of stuffed birds, fishes and just about every other animal you can think of.  They also had collections of shells, though they were not as brilliant as those Mathilde has assembled.

I stopped at the National Gallery next (also free), though didn't find much that was awe inspiring in either the building, its presentation or its collection - though you can't beat the price!  Dinner was at a Thai restaurant were the coconut encrusted sea bass was nicely prepared.  An early evening in as I need to rise early to catch a train to Limerick.

Leave the hotel at about 6am for the half hour walk to the train station - not a lot of people out at this hour, but the daily perishable deliverables were well underway at the stores and restaurants.  The train gets underway promptly at 7am on the way to Limerick.  Although heading west this time, the journey is similar to the ride to Newgrange - we quickly leave the city, then the suburbs and are accompanied by fields and the occasional village for the remainder of the journey.  We arrive in Limerick a little after 9am and board a coach.  We start with a very brief drive through Limerick with an even briefer narration on its history.  We soon arrive at Bunratty castle (dating from the 1500's) were we're given a tour of the castle and allowed to explore the folk village (think "Sturbridge Village", but without the character players).  The houses in the village were interesting - very functional in layout and the smell of the burning peat was enjoyable, though it did make some of the houses a bit smokey.  And, the fires didn't seem to be providing all that much heat (on yet another cold day).

After Bunratty we stopped at a pub in Doolin for lunch.  Being on the tour route has trained the staff well as they were able to get us all served and on our way very quickly while truly retaining an ordinary pub feel (ie, it was not a manufactured experience).  From Doolin, it was a short drive to the Cliffs of Moher.  As the wind has been blowing from the east, the seas on the west coast were rather calm making the cliffs seem at peace with the ocean.  From the viewing location atop the cliffs looking out to others, its tough to get a true sense of the magnitude and abrubtness with which the earth meets the sea.  I'm certain it will be even harder to get this sense from the photos.

We continue north, and enter the Burren where we get a chance to venture out onto the rocks.  Its not until we continue on our way to Galway that the vastness of the Burren is truly appreciated.  Acres of land with extremely little in the way of vegetation - somewhat similar to being above the treeline in the mountains but surrounded by gently sloping hills instead of steep rises and falls.  The tour finishes in Glasgow where we catch a late train back to Dublin.  Not much to see on the way as darkness quickly falls after the train departs.  It was definitely a worthwhile experience to see the "best of the west" as the tour states.  But, there are still plenty of locations around Ireland left to visit on future trips.

The final morning in Dublin starts with breakfast followed by a final walk through Grafton St (through hopefully what will be the last hailstorm I encounter) on to the DART station to catch the train to Dun Laoghaire.  As the train rolled past Dublin Bay, I'm pleased that I'm giving the ferry / train one more chance as the views across the bay are pleasing.  As the ferry departs, I'm treated to some magnificent views of the hills and mountains of the Irish coastline rising above the sea. 

Goodbye Ireland!  I'm sure I'll be visiting again in the future.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Where were we?

As I sip from my last pint of Guinness while in Ireland, let me try to catch up on the happenings of the last few days.  Events resume with Sean's arrival on Thursday afternoon.  I guess I should also mention that I had my first pint of Guinness while waiting for him at the hotel.  He dropped off his bags and we headed straight-away to the Guinness factory tour - a pilgrimage of sorts.  We actually had a bit of luck as we weren't watching the clock and they let the last folks in at 5pm.  We got there just before 5 and were just about the last group they allowed.  Given the time, we headed straight for the "free" (admission is 14 euro) pint at the top of building.  The view was grand - the bar was like one of those circular revolving restaurants (except it wasn't revolving) with windows and views of the city from all directions and the first glimpse of the countryside since I arrived.  After the pint, we took the tour (it was self guided) from the top down.  Not the best tour in the world, but there were a few interesting things - lots of history on the advertising, including a copy of the first ad which was a testimonial for all the health benefits that Guinness provides (such as builds muscles and cures insomnia).  They also allowed tasting of the malt that they use.  Other than that, the tour left Sean wondering why we paid so much for just one pint.  As one on a pilgrimage, I didn't understand what he meant - I viewed it as more of a donation to the beer gods.


After the tour, we walked to the Temple Bar area of town where we were scheduled to join a "Musical Pub Crawl", starting at Oliver St John Gogarty's.  We arrived early enough to have dinner - the burger in pepper sauce I had was quite tasty (the burger being more of a giant meatball with no bun).  The tour itself was quite entertaining.  The traveling from bar to bar wasn't really necessary as we had private rooms in the next two bars, but it was helpful to see a bit more of the Temple Bar area and get further oriented.  The guides of the tour were also the musicians and taught a bit of the history of the music and instruments and played a number of traditional songs (not the drinking songs often played in American bars).


After the tour, we continued crawling on our own, first taking in a coffee and then going to a few more bars that evening, starting with, appropriately enough "The Temple Bar".  It was only Thursday, but the bars were quite packed - very difficult to find a place to stand without the constant passing of people on either side of you.  In general, it was a youngish crowd and people were generally friendly - but the noise made conversation difficult.  We did get a tip that Ireland was playing England in the Six-Nations rugby tournament on Saturday and that we should definitely find a pub to watch.  We finished the night with an unnecessary stop at a place called Zaytoons that had wonderful kabobs and lamb doner.


St Patrick’s Day begins with the hotel breakfast.  Definitely a bit busier than the day before!  We hoped to catch one of the attractions before the parade, but much in the city was closed or had delayed openings due to the holiday.  So, we stop at a coffee shop on the parade route for a coffee and to keep warm until the parade time draws near.  We line up for the parade a bit before noon.  It takes about an hour and half for the parade to arrive at our location.  By this time, the crowd had grown to about 5 or more deep the entire length of the parade route.  The crowd had also grown extremely cold - the low temperatures were accompanied by a brisk wind and rain, sleet and snow.  It was said the crowd last year was twice the size - if not larger.  The parade itself was - well - interesting.  There was a lot of creativity and aside from the marching bands, you truly didn't know what to expect.  Still not sure I understand the themes or imagery in all that I saw.  The states were well represented with a number of marching bands - including one from Texas that clearly didn't have appropriate uniforms for the weather (however, the carnival dancers on the Brazilian float were clearly the most underdressed wearing only bikinis).


After the parade, we took in a tour of Dublin Castle which was quite enjoyable.  After a quick stop at the hotel, we began another crawl from the hotel on to Temple Bar.  Unlike Belgium were you often sample many beers from one bar, here you sample the same beer from many bars.  With only a few exceptions, we had a pint in each location and moved on to the next.  Each bar definitely had its own feel - though a common theme was that most were very crowded.  I'm guessing we stopped at 4 or 5 before trying to find a good spot for dinner, but not wanting to break the crawl.  So, we got a tip on a nearby bar that had a carvery offering ham, turkey and a number of other options.  Although the bar was packed which made finding a place to eat difficult (impossible?), the portions were generous and the food was very good.  From there, back to the crawl - visiting a number of additional bars that evening and collecting stories that won't be written down.  Another stop at Zaytoons before retiring for the evening at about 2 or 3am.  Looking out the hotel window at this time was somewhat comical - the street had a constant stream of "lost souls" all trying to find their way home.  It looked a bit like a scene from one of the zombie movies - they were all heading the same direction, all had a bit of a stagger in their walk, many were moaning or making other unintelligible sounds and many were flailing there arms in a desperate effort to hail a taxi.


That's all for now - I'll fill in details on visits to Newgrange, Trinity College, the museums and a day trip to western Ireland on the journey to London tomorrow (I've decided to give the ferry / train one more try as I would like to see both Ireland and Britain from the sea).

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Happy St Patricks Day!

Happy St Patricks Day!
Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
A quick and belated St Patricks day greeting from Dublin! The photo is from the start of the parade. More details on the parade and the events of the last few days to follow. Weather has remained cold with the parade itself being particularly cold, windy with rain, sleet and snow mixed in. This made for faces on some of those marching that were priceless - some of sheer misery, many of determination to finish in spite of the cold and still many others that were enjoying the march and the spectacle of it all.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


It's really cold outside!  Have been with the snow on and off all morning along with a cold, biting wind.  The snowflakes are like those styrofoam beads you find in beanbag chairs - guess they are more of a snowbead.  Wandered through Temple Bar and some of the shopping areas on both sides of the river.  Its refreshing to not see any of the major chains - almost all the stores are individual shops with the occasional local chain store.  There are a few McDonalds, but I haven't crossed paths with a Starbucks yet. 


Only tourist stop so far has been Christchurch Cathedral.  One of the interesting things about Ireland is that even though the history goes back thousands of years, much of the political and religious landscape has remained in flux through the 20th century - history is still being unfolded and stories being created for the generations that follow.  I've been reading the book "Ireland" by Frank Delaney which is a fictional tale that weaves in a lot of traditional Irish folklore and stories.  Its added some nice background and context to the city and country.

Snow this morning

We have the snow this morning (that's how its said here).  It's very light and nothing accumulating, though.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge
Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Taken from the Queen's walk.

And, a bit later still..

The hotel at last!  Finally dropping the bags off at a little after 10pm after a cold walk from the DART (train) station.  The boat ride itself was - well, dark.  Not much to see and the ride was uneventful.  Got detained for a bit at immigration, but everything checked out.  Heading out to have my first Guiness.  Hopefully the pubs stay open past 11.


This hotel is definitely a step up from the last - and its definitely walking distance to the town as I walked down past Trinity College, down Grafton St and past St Stephens Green to get here.  Looking forward to an enjoyable stay.


Should have some pictures uploaded tomorrow.

Later in the day..

After leaving Crewes and sitting idle on the track for close to an hour, they finally figured out that we the flooded tracks that had already halted the traffic ahead of us also meant that we couldn't pass either.  So, back to Crewes and start train hopping to finish the trip to Holyhead.  This meant changing trains about 3 times only to end up on a train that originated in Crews - go figure.  Finally get to Holyhead at about 3:30, but the 1:45 boat had long gone (as well as a few others).  Next boat was at 6:30.  There are a lot of unhappy people using some very colorful language.  But the accents are quaint. 


Wandered out to the town and stopped at the first pub and was welcomed by a group of townsfolk that were already there passing the time.  Conversation was lively, with good humor and it was actually quite enjoyable.


Finally on the boat now - and its actually quite a boat.  Stores, lounges, slot machines, a few different food choices.  Its quite comfortable (though we're not yet at sea).  Trip is a little under 2 hours so it will be 10 or 11 beore I make it from Don Loire to Dublin, find the hotel and settle in.  Guess there won't be much in the way of exploring today.  Sean arrives in the afternoon tomorrow - hopefully his journey is less eventful.

Train is delayed

Train is running about 35 minutes late.  When on schedule, there were only about 40 minutes between the arrival at Holyhead and the ferry departure.  Numbers aren't looking good.  Perhaps they'll hold the ferry.  If not, hopefully there's another boat later in the day.

Dublin Bound

The Hotel last night was about what you'd expect for a cheap stay at a Comfort Inn.  Went briefly to Harrod's last night - the store is a maze.  Once you're in it's easy to get lost (trapped?) inside and wander about.  Was going to try to get to Hamley's as well, but didn't make it.  Instead, got a ticket for "A Man For All Seasons" and had a quick dinner at an Irish pub - O'Niell's.  As for the show, the theater was nice and the seat decent, but its a good thing I saw the movie as I could not stay awake during the show - I left at intermission so I wouldn't bother anyone with my head nods or snoring.  Trying to sit still in a warm theater after only a nap on the flight over really puts one out.  I wandered about a bit after, but not much going on in the areas I was in (near Kings Cross).  In bed at 11pm and I believe I'm properly time adjusted now.


I'm now zooming across the English countryside on the way to Holyhead to catch the ferry to Don LaoireSkys are clear for the moment, but the weather this morning said it might snow.  Countryside views are typical - horses, cows, sheep - lots of open space.  One interesting bit are the canals that run through the area with canal boats/barges on them.  Look to be the equivalent of our motor homes - even with the occasional "campground" where many gather.  Seems like it would be a relaxing way to travel.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

London Arrival

Interesting first day.  I thought I was supposed to be flying "World Traveller Plus" on British Airways.  But when I got to the airport, they said I was in business class, checked me in and then sent me to the club room for dinner (it was "sleeper service" - so no full dinner on the plane itself, though they did serve a good sandwich and salad).  This was doubly good as I got to the airport about 3 hours early and the plane left about an hour late - so lots of time to enjoy the dinner and amenities.  I'm just hopeful that I didn't pay for this upgrade as I did go on the website and check what an upgrade would cost - but never confirmed the transaction (I hope!)


The seat was one of those new cubby-hole style where half the seats face backwards and all fold flat to make for a "real" bed (which I have been wanting to try).  Very spacious and very private - and at less than $400 for the round-trip, truly a bargain regardless of whether I get the same treatment coming back.  Sleeping was possible - but the 2 double-espresso's I had in the lounge made it more of a challenge than it should have been.  And - while better than trying to sleep in a seat, I still woke up sore.


No trouble on arrival into London.  Being a bit late wasn't an issue because I figured I wouldn't be able to check in right away anyway (which proved correct).  So, I found Euston train station and got my ticket to Dublin for tomorrow and then headed out to London Tower and Tower Bridge - two of the things that I wanted to do last visit but ran out of time.  The crown jewels were a bit of a letdown - they put you on a conveyor to ensure that you keep moving (but no crowds, so this wasn't really an issue).  From the tower area, I climbed to the top of the monument and then ventured to Starbucks where I type this.


Weather is cloudy with a slight drizzle.  Also quite cool - and since my jacket is in my bag which I left at the hotel, walking has been at a brisk pace!

Monday, March 13, 2006

Only a few more hours..

Only a few hours away from the flight to London.  I checked the weather last night and it looks like its going to be a bit chilly pretty much everywhere I go - highs are only in the low 40's.  Good news is that the bag I got (recommended from seems pretty good.  It doesn't have wheels, but its definitely lighter and I think the backpack straps will actually work / be comfortable, unlike the last bag I tried.  It also seems a bit roomier.


Pictures and comments as the journey unfolds..

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The transition begins...

It's now the 3rd day "post-ChoiceStream".  Relaxation is just beginning to settle in as I slowly catch up on a number of things around the house.  Cleaning is at the top of the list - I'm doing a little bit each day and making good progress.  I've also made one of additional bedrooms more "livable" by hanging some pictures, re-arranging some furniture - including a desk (I no longer have to work in the basement with w/o windows).  Only mistake was the IKEA office chair - will likely need to replace it as its really not that comfortable.  But, the IKEA experience is compelling and I'm sure I will return for shelving and other goodies. 
Just starting a book called "Ireland" - being able to sit and read will definitely test how relaxed I truly am.  Only other item pressing for this week is to do a little more pre-trip research and pin down the itinerary a bit more.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Italy Bicycle Tours - The Tuscan Coast

Upcoming bike trip to Italy. First time to Italy and first time on a biking trip - hopefully both will be enjoyable!

Italy Bicycle Tours - The Tuscan Coast

Sunset over Africa

Sunset over Africa
Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Watching the sun set from southern Spain while looking across to Africa.

Quite a site!