Category Archives: Other cultures

Touring Tórshavn

September 5, 2017:

After a fairly rough day at sea yesterday, we have landed in the Faroe Islands. Upon our departure from Iceland, we again crossed the Arctic Circle after we left Akureyri (for which we have received duly signed certificates), and sailed further eastward. Jim and I tried again to see the Northern Lights, but bad weather again prevented us. Current Score: Lights-2; Jim and Stacy-0.

This morning we have docked in glorious sunshine, albeit with a wind blowing about 35 knots.



Fort and lighthouse erected to protect shipping fleet

I have managed to come down with a cold, so I missed this morning’s sightseeing tour. Therefore, most of these pictures are Jim’s. He took a scenic drive which gave him some amazing panoramic views of the harbor, and countryside of Tórshavn.




Jim came back for lunch aboard, and then we took the shuttle into town to walk around.  From everything we can see, this is an incredibly prosperous island, one of 14 islands in the Faroe archipelago, which are a dependency of Denmark.  The main industry here is said to be fishing, but the town looks too rich for that.



The early history of the Faroe Islands is somewhat unclear. According to Wikipedia, “It is possible that Brendan, an Irish monk, sailed past the islands during his North Atlantic voyage in the 6th century. He saw an ‘Island of Sheep’ and a ‘Paradise of Birds,’ which some say could be the Faroes with its dense bird population and sheep. This does suggest however that other sailors had got there before him, to bring the sheep. Norsemen settled the Faroe Islands in the 9th century or 10th century. The islands were officially converted to Christianity around the year 1000, and became a part of the Kingdom of Norway in 1035. Norwegian rule on the islands continued until 1380, when the islands became part of the dual Denmark–Norway kingdom, under king Olaf II of Denmark.”

Following the 1814 Treaty of Kiel that ended the dual Denmark–Norway kingdom, the Faroe Islands remained under the administration of Denmark as a county. During World War II, after Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany, the British invaded and occupied the Faroe Islands until shortly after the end of the war. Following an independence referendum in 1946 (which was unrecognized by Denmark), the Faroe Islands were given extended self-governance with the Danish Realm in 1948 with the signing of the Home Rule Act of the Faroe Islands.” Today, they seem to function as a Danish depency with some limited self governance. Speaking of that, this is another place which developed early traditions of democratic governance.

Like Iceland, The Faroe Islands established a parliament called the Tinganes in Tórshavn between 800-900 AD, and like the Althing in Iceland, was open to all men and was a place where laws were made and disputes settled. Although it was disbanded during norse and Danish rule, the important representative Faroese ministers still work in the Tiganes buildings dating back to at least the 1600s.

The Tinganes buildings


Backside of the Tinganes


Once of the most charming features of Iceland is the use of sod-covered homes. Instead of mowing the roof, if the grass gets too long, every once and a while, the Faroese just put a goat on the roof. Jim and I wandered around the harbor and into the old town area for a bit, but then returned to the ship. Regrettably, as this is still a country which hunts whales, and mindful of my friend, Chris’, admonitions; I wasn’t inclined to support the local economy by shopping.

Sod-roofed home



Traditional Faroese Dress


Raving About Reykjavik!

Sept. 1, 2017:

This morning marks the official end of the first part of our cruise. So many of our cruise mates are leaving the ship, and new passengers are coming aboard. It also means we have to change cabins, albeit just to a cabin next door. Suffice it to say it was because we failed to book the second leg of this journey at the same time we booked the first. Enough said.

OK, Peeps! Hold on to your hats because Our Lady of the Aggressive Schedule has hijacked the itinerary again today!  We left the ship as soon as we docked and made for the Europe Car rental kiosk conveniently located right on the cruise quay. Car keys in hand, we made for the central city, which is walkable from the ship (probably about a mile), but we are on a short schedule today (largely due to Our Lady of the Aggressive Schedule setting our itinerary). First stop: old town Reykjavik. We had about an hour and a half in the old town before we had to hit the road for the Blue Lagoon; our prime objective for the day.

But first, a small sampling of Icelandic history and culture!

Iceland was first inhabited  by Ingólfar Arneson in 847 AD. Written history generally agrees that the area was first settled by Viking explorers and their slaves in the late 9th century (about 874), although there is archeological evidence that Gaelic monks settled the area at some time earlier in the 9th century. The seaside edges of the country were rapidly developed, mainly by Norwegians, after that.

Interestingly, Iceland was one of the very first countries to establish a representational form of government, known as Icelandic Commonwealth (or Old Commonwealth), and it held its first parliament (called the Althing) in 930. The Althing met annually until about 1262 at Lögberg, which is the site of the Althing in Thingvellir National Park. Today, the Althingi is the seat of Icelandic Parliament in Reyjkavik.

The history of Iceland is well known today because it was one of the first countries to record its country’s history in written books known as the Icelandic Sagas.

In 1262, following a period of internal strife known as the “Age of the Sturlungs”, which weakened Iceland, it became subjugated to Norway. In that year, it was brought under Norwegian Crown, under the “Old Covenant”. In 1319, Norway and Sweden United, and then in Denmark subjugated both in 1376. IN 1397, the Kalmar Union was formed under the leadership of Queen Margret of Denmark, and all four countries were united until 1523. Following that, Iceland fell under Danish rule, which remained the case for several centuries.

During this time, Iceland suffered as one of poorest countries in Europe, and frequent pandemics killed off large percentages of its population. Perhaps the worst natural calamity occurred in 1783, when the Lakagígar volcano erupted, which thoroughly disrupted life in Iceland and killed off virtually all agriculture. One in three Icelanders died as a result of this eruption and the poisonous air afterwards. The volcano is also credited with completely disrupting natural weather cycles and causing a cold period, further limiting crop production for several years. In the 19th century, 20% of the population emigrates to Canada to escape the cold which caused devastating crop losses.

Finally, in 1918, Iceland entered into a 25 year agreement with Denmark which recognizes Iceland as a sovereign state in personal union with Denmark, but it was disrupted by the outbreak of WWII.

In WWII, Iceland assumed control over its foreign affairs, and was “neutral” after Nazis invaded Denmark. In 1940, was occupied by British troops; after 1941, occupied by U.S. troops. In 1943 when the Danish Icelandic Union Agreement expired, there was a vote on future relations with Denmark, and the people voted to become an independent nation, which happened in 1944.

In 1994, Iceland joined the European Economic Area, but maintains its own currency; the Icelandic Kronúr. In 2001, the banks of Iceland were deregulated, and Iceland became (temporarily) one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Iceland moved towards an economy based on investment banking and financial services. However, the economic crash of 2008 caused the failure of all three major Icelandic banks, and economic depression and political unrest followed. Today, the economy is stabilizing and growing, although there was another temporary setback when the prime minister was forced to resign following the disclosure of his and his family’s offshore economic holdings following the publication of the “Panama Papers” a couple of years ago. Today, Iceland appears to be a very prosperous country once again, and construction cranes dot the skyline.

We drove into old town Reykjavik along the lovely seaside promenade, and past several interesting buildings and sculptures, and parked our car near the Settlers museum, in the beautiful embassy area. Jim and I wandered around in this area for about an hour and a half. I would have really liked to have had time to tour the settlement museum, but it was not open before we had to hit the road to drive to the Blue Lagoon, which is about 35 km from Reykjavik.

Harpa, the Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Center built in glass hexagonal to resemble the basalt stones at Kirkjubaejarklaustur
Dómkirkjan, Lutheran Cathedral
Tungatan, “embassy row”


Icelandic grocery store; trolls welcome
old city center
Tjörnen park area


The Blue Lagoon has become such a popular destination that you must go online first to order your tickets which assures you a set entry time. To give you an idea how hard it is to get the tickets, I ordered ours online about six weeks before we would be arriving here, and the only options for entry times were at 8 a.m. or 12 p.m. Since the ship was not scheduled to land in Reykjavik until 8, we had to settle for the 12:00 tickets, which totally messed up our day from a logistical standpoint. However, it was still a great day.

The drive to the area where the Blue Lagoon is located is takes you through some amazing topography which looks like it is a recently exploded volcanic eruption. In this area of Iceland, you do not see the remaining icecaps, but today, there is a cold wind blowing across this bleak terrain. The Blue Lagoon is south and west of Reykjavik, and is very near the international airport. Actually, if you had a car and about two hours before you had to be at the airport, you could do this site as a detour on your way to your flight or immediately after you landed, assuming you had the forethought to order your tickets enough in advance.

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Upon arrival, you are given a locker bracelet, which also operates as your charging device while in the baths. There is an extra charge for towels, robes and any other services. In short, this has got to be the best tourist trap in existence, since you are totally at the mercy of the site operator.   Jim and I quickly changed and made our way out to the lagoon. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, except to say that we really appreciated the 90 degree waters after crossing the very cold deck from the changing rooms.

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While you can spend all day at the Lagoon, and there are rooms for massages and facials, a couple of steam rooms, a restaurant and the like, Our Lady was a demanding mistress today, so we set off in the complete opposite direction up to the northeast of Reykjavik. Our ultimate destination was Thingvellir National Park, which offers two important features in addition to being just a lovely park for hiking and camping.


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We were pleased to see the topography changed gradually to a more grassy and agricultural landscape, dotted with sheep and the famous Icelandic horses as we drove to the north. One thing Jim and I decided today is that we are only seeing a fraction of the beauty Iceland has to offer with our three planned stops here, and we will have to return in the near future to explore more thoroughly!



The first thing which drew us to Thingvellir park is that this is one of the few places on earth where you can actually see tectonic plates grinding together. In this case, it is a rift valley where the plates are ripping apart, actually pushing western Iceland towards Greenland at a rate of a few centimeters a year. As you arrive in the park, you walk down a crazy stone path that literally dives between these plates, and the park service obviously has some challenges just keeping a working pathway with all the geologic activity!






The other cool thing is that this is the site of where all 36 of the island’s Viking chieftains held their first Althing (general Assembly) in 930 AD. This annual parliament was held here for centuries, and attended by all of the 60,000 citizens of Iceland to declare laws and settle disputes. In the year 1,000, it was the place where Iceland decided to eschew pagan beliefs and adopt Christianity (albeit under threat of invasion from Norway).  There is still a Lutheran church onsite with a pulpit which dates back to 1683.


Thingvallavatn, the largest inland lake in Iceland

Sadly, that was all we had time to explore, and so we made a mad dash back to Reykjavik to begin part 2 of the cruise. We’re looking forward to meeting some new shipmates, but we are left with a huge list of things to explore just in the Reykjavik area alone: The “golden circle” drive to Gullfoss waterfall and Geyser national park, Sellfoss waterfall, glacier tracking, the Inside the Volcano tour, a drive to Kirkjubaejarklaustur to see the basaltic columns, a sail down to Jökulsárlón lagoon where the icebergs rest, and Látrabjarg bird cliffs! Whew! Maybe we’d better make it two weeks!

Qaqortoq. Yes, It’s a Place.

August 29, 2017:

Although still chilly this morning, it is not the bone-chilling cold of yesterday as we pull into the harbor of Qaqortoq, on the southwestern coast of Greenland. This town is very small, but not as small as Paamiut. Fortunately, the sun is shining, as we have a hike planned along a lake, which lies just outside of town. The walk through town is charming and everyone seems to have flung open their doors to greet us (or maybe just the sunshine). We expected another cold day today, but we were shedding layers before we even started our walk/hike.



We’re pretty much at the far southwestern tip of Greenland, which was originally populated by the Saqqaq people about 4300 years ago. There are some records of habitation dating from the Dorset peoples of NE Canada about 2300 years ago. However, recorded history dates back to the first Norse settlements established in the late 10th Century A.D., especially around the Hvalsey settlement, which is about 19 kilometers (12 miles) to the NE of Qaqortoq. However, for whatever reasons, those settlements died out in the 15th Century, and the current habitation dates only to 1774, when a Danish-Norwegian trader named Anders Olsen established a trading post here, originally called Julianehåb (Juliane’s Hope) after the Danish queen. Fast forward to the present day when we find Greenland a semi-autonomous state, still largely dependent on Denmark for trading and funding. The main industries are fishing and seal-hunting, and Denmark purchases about 60% of the economic output of this isolated town of just of over 3,000 people. Sadly, like in Paamiut, it appears most of the tourist souvenirs appear to be sealskin products. Sad!





With that, we were happy to proceed to our walk in the outskirts of town! The hills ringing the town appear to be a combination of granitic and basaltic stones, on which lichens and mosses appear to be struggling to survive. There are no trees here, but, upon closer inspection, you notice a whole alpine-like ecosystem covering the hills. There are tiny streams everywhere, and furzes and heathers cover the rocky ground, punctuated by tiny wildflowers and wild berries including Icelandic blueberries and cow berries. The hills are open to anyone who desires to gather them and they are all ripening now. Because the day is so still and calm, the lake surface is like a mirror, which makes for some great photography! Jim and I walked about six miles in total along the rocky lakeside path, winding up back in town. We sampled one local beer at the local tavern, and then headed back for the ship.


Arctic vegetation



Gathering Arctic Blueberries


Qaqortoq-73Qaqortoq-80Once again, we are blessed with a beautiful sail away. It’s even warm enough that Jim strips down a shorts and flip flops, even though we can see little icebergs bobbing in the bay.



But, first, a lovely parting gift from Qaqortoq … as Jim and I were having a cocktail standing at the balcony of our cabin, a juvenile humpback whale surfaced right below us, and spouted off. What a fun send off!Qaqortoq-86

Juvenile Humpback surfacing right under our balcony


Bye bye, icebergs!

Tomorrow, we are looking forward to a day-long transit of Prinz Kristian Sound; a deep fjord system that bisects the lower tip of Greenland from its southernmost Cape Farewell archipelago.

“Madam: There’s an Iceberg in My Sea”

August 28, 2017:


Yes, that’s the view that greeted us when we threw open the shades this morning as we sailed into the glacial bay in which the harbor of Paamiut is located. We appear to have lost our sunshine in Nuuk, and it’s a foggy, overcast morning here in Paamiut. Whereas Nuuk is the major city in Greenland, Paamiut is tiny; consisting of only about 1,500 inhabitants. In fact, there are only about 50 vehicles here!



We bundled up well, because it’s only 38 degrees outside, and there’s a light wind blowing, which intensifies the cold. Then we took the tender into the town for a short walking tour to get to know Paamiut. This tiny town was established in 1742, as a trading post by a Danish trader named Jacob Severin. The town was originally named Frederikshåb (Frederick’s Hope) after Crown Prince Frederick (later King Frederick V) of Norway. The town prospered mostly on fur and whale products. In the 1950s, it boomed following the cod fishing boom, and in the 1960s, the town was consolidated and a number of larger apartment blocks were built to lure people living around the town to come into the center to help in the cod fishing industry. However, when the cod fishery almost died out in the early 1990s, so did the town.



Regional Administrative Office
Nursery School
Main Street, Paamiut

We were met at the docks by a local guide. She walked us around, and proudly pointed out all the buildings of importance in the town. One thing you notice right away is how many schools and activity centers there are for the youth. Our assumption is that they must be pretty heavily subsidized by the Danish government because there just isn’t that much industry of any kind here, and tourism is merely an afterthought. However, like in Nuut, all the buildings are painted bright cheery colors.



Fredenskirche with its memorial graveyard



There is one building, in particular, of which the villagers are really proud. It is the local church, Fredenskirche, built in 1909 in the Norwegian Hansel and Gretel style. Looking at it, you could see where model for gingerbread houses comes from! The graveyard in the churchyard and a monument across the street memorialize fishermen lost at sea. There is also a replica of a traditional Greenlandic sod house. Also, exactly one supermarket, one grocery store, a café, one gift shop, and a couple of bars. Residents all seem to carry cell phones, but the ship has had no Internet since yesterday (sporadically), and there is nowhere in town to get WiFi. Having concluded our tour, we were happy to head back to the ship and thaw. Hopefully, there will be more warmth and sun tomorrow as we head south about 150 miles to Qaqortoq.

Replica traditional Greenlandic sod house


Tiny interior of same

Power Puffin Watchers!

August 24, 2017:

Jim and I awoke this morning to glorious sunshine, which was quite the relief after a dreary day yesterday. It was all the more surprising when you consider that St. John’s, Newfoundland, has well over 100 days of fog every year, making it the most foggy place on Earth. Many of the businesses in town incorporate “fog” into their names; my favorite was a coffee shop called “Fog Off”.

St. John’s Visitors’ Bureau had certainly rolled out the red carpet for us, up to and including a beautiful Newfoundland dog. Jim and I wandered about the town and saw some of the key sights, including the town hall, the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Cathedral, and the Supreme Court of the Province of Labrador and Newfoundland. However, my favorite was all the brightly painted row houses that dot the hillside of this neat and friendly town.

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Signal Hill on the entrance to St. Johns’ Harbor
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Newfoundland Dog Greeter

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As bright and sunny as it is today, it is not terribly difficult to imagine the town cloaked in snow; there are as many taverns and restaurants as there are churches, and many of the stores in town exist in indoor malls like you find in Toronto and Minneapolis. Jay Menzel: this poutine shop is for you! Once again, though, my primary mission this morning was to find a powerful Internet connection so I could upload the last two days blog posts.

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Anglican Church


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Typical street scene in St. John’s
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St. John’s Harbor
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Jay: This shop is for you!

Mission accomplished; Jim and I were ready for our excursion today: a whale and puffin watching boat trip into the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve! The Ecological Reserve is about a half hour to the southeast from St. John’s accessed from the harbor town of Bay Bulls. I’m so excited I can barely wait to get on the boat. We’ve never seen puffins in the wild, and the Witless Bay sanctuary is the largest nesting ground of the Atlantic Puffins in the world. About 260,000 nesting pairs of puffins return to the Reserve each year between late spring and summer. The islands are also home to huge colonies of Common Murres (called Guillemots in Europe), Leach’s Storm Petrel, and Black-legged Kittiwakes. There are four islands in the Reserve: Gull, Green, Great and Pee Pee islands.

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Today, we will visit Gull Island and go by Green island on our return. As you might imagine, with a name like Gull Island, this nesting ground is also home to thousands of different gulls, which, sadly, feed on baby puffins. Our tour operator for the cruise is O’Briens’ Whale and Puffin Watching Tour; run by the descendants one of the numerous Irish families in this area. Our tour guide, Con O’Brien, is also a very well-known local and national singing star. On the very rough trip over to Gull Island, Con serenaded us with an Irish ballad, and the boat’s sound system played several numbers by his group, the Irish Descendants.

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One of the O’Brien Whale & Puffin Watching Boats in Bay Bulls

As we approached Gull Island, you first saw puffins in the water, and then in huge swarms flying overhead. As we pulled in closer to the island, you could see them and their hundreds of burrows stretching up the slopes of the island. In many spots, hungry gulls would perch on the slopes near those burrows, just looking for a chance to pick off an unwary puffin. Although I know these are a ton of photos, please appreciate that I took over a 1,000 photos today!


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Herring Gulls
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Herring Gull hunting young puffins

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As we piloted around the island, and the topography changed, so did the kind of nesting birds we saw. While the puffins nest in burrows they dig into the grassy banks of the islands, murres lay their eggs right on naked rock ledges. We didn’t see any storm petrels of great auks, but we did see some kittiwakes, which also nest in the rock crevasses, but actually build grassy nests to shelter their eggs.

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Common Murres

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Black-legged Kittiwake

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Then it was time to return to port, and the serious hunt for whales began. Jim took the opportunity to try a local specialty beer called “Iceberg Beer” which aptly describes its water source. In the spring and early summer each year, Arctic icebergs wash down along the east coast of Newfoundland, and the icebergs are harvested to provide the water for the beer. 20,000 years pure, as the Newfoundlanders like to say!

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However, it wasn’t until we got back into Bay Bulls that we saw our first (and only) whale. This was a humpback grazing in the harbor, and it accommodatingly surfaced several times so we could record its passing.

On the way back to town, we stopped briefly for a photo opp in the scenic little town of Petty Harbor. Had we gone a couple more miles to the east, we would have seen the lighthouse at Cape Spear, which is the eastern-most point in North America. But, no worries! We will sail out within view of it tonight.

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Once we got back to the ship, Jim and I headed up to the top deck to snap some final pictures of the terraced skyline of St. John’s. Jim and I enjoyed the sail away from the beauty of our balcony deck. We are pretty darn sure that as we enter the Labrador Current tonight enroute to Greenland, that this is the last night we will be able to enjoy the balcony in a long while! See you in a couple of days when we pull into port in Nuuk, Greenland!

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St. John’s Lighthouse
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Cape Spear Lighthouse
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Walking in the Giants’ Steps

June 7, 2017:

Another big day in our itinerary is finally here: we are bound for the Giant’s Causeway to see this incredible geological formation that left giant hexagonal basalt columns sticking up like broken teeth or stepping stones on the edge of the ocean! It’s also time for us to get our geek on; specifically, geeking out about Game of Thrones. All along our drive today, we’ll be seeing several of the sites featured in the series, which Jim and I really enjoy. It turns out Steve is a big fan, too.

We drove out of Belfast this morning to the east to drive along the coast, for another very picturesque drive called the Nine Glens of Antrim drive.  We will spend the whole day in County Antrim, but you are very clearly still in Northern Ireland, as it seems that each successive town takes turns proclaiming their allegiance to either the Republican or Loyalist forces. You can easily tell this by the prominent use of either Irish national flags or the British tricolor. So much for getting out of the corrosive partisan atmosphere of Belfast!

Nonetheless, the drive was as lovely as advertised! Our first stop was in the town of Carrickfergus, with a fort dedicated to the English invasion of William III of Orange. Plainly, this is a Loyalist town, complete with a mock redcoat statue on the ramparts of the fort.

Carrickfergus Harbour
The fort
Statue of William III


The Redcoat on the Ramparts
Hi, Lauretta!
Clearly, a Loyalist town

Next, we stopped in the quaint seaside town of Glencloy, which has been used to film scenes in Game of Thrones, both as the seaside port in Braavos where Arya Stark goes to learn from the Faceless Man, and the cliffside behind the town, which was featured when the Whitewalkers attack the Wilding encampment, a  If all of that means nothing to you, just know that Glencloy is the prototypical Irish seaside town and enjoy it for that!

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Coming in to Glencloy; the wall the Whitewalkers overran above the Wildings village
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Entrance to Glencloy Harbour

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Where Arya comes ashore

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Beyond that, we drove through village after quaint village, with sheep and lambs grazing happily in the fields. One town in particular, Ballycastle, looked like it might be a pleasant place to stay at the seashore, but we would probably pick the westside of the Irish Republic before we would come back here.

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Shortly thereafter, we pulled into a carpark on the coast on the cliffs high above the sea. From here, you can see the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which connects the mainland to a tiny island that lies just feet off the coast. From here, you can also see the much larger Raflin island, and just 11 miles away, the outline of the coast of Scotland.  While I would have liked to climb across the bridge, several in our group don’t deal well with heights, and we still needed to get to the Giant’s Causeway.


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The only house served by the rope bridge?

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The island of Raflin and the coast of Scotland behind it

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Finally, we came into the town nearest the Causeway and had lunch at a very cozy pub, called, appropriately, The Nook.  Somewhat uncharacteristically for Northern Ireland, all of the young women working in the pub were very friendly.

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Following lunch, we hopped on the shuttle bus which takes you into the Giant’s Causeway area, and at last, we were free to explore!  First I hiked out along the seashore just past the main tourist part of the sight, which was TEEMING with visitors.  Then I walked up the trail behind the site to see the organ pipe-shaped rock formations, and then up to the top of the cliffs overlooking the site so I could get some perspective shots. Finally, I scampered down to the main site to see all I could before we left.  Sadly, I felt like I did not get nearly enough time here, and I would like to return someday, perhaps when there are fewer tourists.

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Then it was back in the bus to continue our tour of Game of Thrones sites.  As we drove south from the north coast of Northern Ireland, we headed for the location of the  “Dark Hedges”; more properly known as Kingsroad in the series. This location is a country road lined with twisted, gnarly beech trees, and was used a few times, including in the scene where Arya Stark dresses up like a boy to escape from King’s Landing, but is captured instead, and dragged off to the Brothers without Banners hideout (which was filmed in another part of Northern Ireland — Pollnagollum Cave, in County Fermanagh).  The actual road is Bregagh Road, outside of Stranocum, in the Ballymoney district in County Antrim.  Obviously, this is not a well-kept secret, as tour busses jockeyed for position, and it was a challenge to get a photo without other tourists in it. Some people went to elaborate lengths to strike poses from the GOT scenes.

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Finally, it was back to Belfast.  We enjoyed a super good meal at the restaurant James  Street South. Tomorrow dawns with the last day of our tour, so we all hurried back to pack and go to bed.



Buzzing Up to Belfast

June 6, 2017:

Wow! Today was a really action-packed day!  We left Lough Eske  (in County Donegal) early this morning so we could get Paula and Steve to Derry, where they were set to met with the parents of friends back in Virginia. In doing so, we left the Republic of Ireland and entered Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

Dermott drove us expeditiously to Derry, also known as Londonderry (but never by anyone from the Irish Republic). It lies on the seaside, where the River Foyle opens to the north onto the ocean.  There has been a town here since 546 when St. Columba founded a monastery here. Derry is a completely walled city, which became one of the first “Plantations” after the British took power back following the Nine Years War.


The “Peace Bridge” by Calatrava


Looking across the River Foyle

Derry was the center of several violent incidents during the “Troubles” which resulted in armed clashes between Republican and Loyalist forces in Ireland from the late 1960s until The Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed in 1998.  The Troubles arose out of a civil rights movement by the republican (largely Catholic) residents of Northern Ireland against discrimination in jobs, housing and suspensions of civil liberties against Catholics by the unionist, (largely Protestant) local councils and police forces. The city of Derry was the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre when British soldiers shot 13 unarmed demonstrators dead, and the Northern Irish Parliament was suspended, and direct rule from London was imposed.

Dermott dropped us off at the Guildhall Building, which is situated right on Lough Foyle. The building itself is lovely, Neo-Gothic in style (it was built in 1890), with stained glass windows telling tales of Ireland’s history. Additionally, there is a really good comprehensive museum archive, which documents the British Plantation system, as practiced in Ireland, and the seeds of Irish discontent which led to the Troubles, and ultimately, to limited Home Rule for Northern Ireland.

View of the Guildhall from the Peace Bridge


Stained glass windows in the Guildhall


The Guildhall is located right on Lough Foyle, and right across from it is a Calatrava-designed bridge called the Peace Bridge.  We all hopped down from the bus and started to walk across the bridge, but the wind was blowing so hard (and cold), that we decided to get a latte instead.  After visiting the Guildhall, and learning more about the Plantation system (so we could get a better idea of the factors leading to the strongly opposing political views in Northern Ireland), we collected Paula and Steve, and moved on to see more of Derry.

Then we drove around to see more of the  city.  You immediately sense the turbulent emotions underlying the divergent political positions as you drive through the streets of Derry, which are divided into strictly Republican/Nationalist and Unionist/Loyalist neighborhoods. First stop, the Bogside neighborhood, which is staunchly Republican, and in the late 1960s, barricaded its streets from outsiders, creating an area known as “Free Derry”. There are extensive murals on the walls of some of the homes depicting political themes, mostly in favor of greater civil rights, and commemorating the struggles of Irish nationalists during the Troubles.


Memorial to those killed while protesting during the Bloody Sunday Massacre


From Bogside, we drove up to a point where we could access the walls of the city, and see the city from the walkways there. There are still cannons remaining on the ramparts, ostensibly placed to protect British forces of yesteryear from attacks by the sea. However, as I look at them, it’s easy to see that they are also pointed at the largely Republican neighborhoods in the city, and the feel is vaguely menacing instead of merely historical.

Entrance to the barracks atop the walled city
Cannons pointing at Bogside


Then we all piled back in the bus to drive on to Belfast. First stop: the Titanic Museum! The Museum is located right in the docklands area of Belfast, and the building housing it looks like it has a giant ship’s bow on all four sides.



We all had signed up for this very interactive tour, and enjoyed learning more about Belfast at the turn of the 20th century, when it was the second richest city in Europe.  In addition to all the exhibits which detailed the building of the the Titanic, and its final fateful trip, there was a reproduction gantry which reached up about 4 stories, just like the two which had been built about 100 yards from the museum to build the Titanic.  You could take a motorized ride through sections of the reproduction ship, and really get a sense of what a massive undertaking it was.  There were also re-enacted rooms which gave you a very good idea of what the traveling conditions were from the those of the first class passengers all the way down to the steerage passengers.  There was also a very cool overlay on the window looking over the former shipyard which gave you an idea of the scope of the ship as it was being constructed. Finally, there was a great exhibit detailing the discovery and documentation of the Titanic wreck, with some great footage from the submersible ROV which recorded the conditions of the wreck as it lay on the ocean floor.

We then picked up a local guide, Bibi, who would be our leader to some of the more recent historical spots in modern Belfast.  We went first to the Northern Irish House of Parliament (Stormont). It was built between 1928 and 1932 as a result of the Treaty between the Irish and the English which settled the Irish War of Independence, and resulted in the partition of Ireland into the Irish Free State and the British-controlled Northern Ireland. As noted above, this Parliament was suspended after the Bloody Sunday Massacre in 1972, and the Northern Ireland Assembly not re-established until Good Friday Peace Treaty of 1998.  A huge purpose of that peace treaty was to restore limited self-rule to Northern Ireland.

Stormont sits in a very pretty parkway way off in the eastern part of Belfast. There is also a prominent statue of Edward Cason, a Dublin barrister, who was the leader of the Northern Ireland campaign against Home Rule under the banner of the Unionist Party. He is largely credited with being the force behind the partition of Ireland in the Irish-Anglo Peace Treaty of 1921.

Stormont grounds
Statue of Edward Carson

Our next stop was at the Queen’s College of Belfast. Candidly, in comparison to Trinity College, this seemed to lack a little, with the exception of  the fact that after negotiating the Good Friday Peace Treaty, Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was appointed Chancellor of Queen’s College of Belfast; a post which he held from 1999 until 2009. How cool!

Queen’s College Belfast


Symbol of the City of Belfast

We then drove to western Belfast, which was the epicenter of The Troubles. Many civil rights marches occurred here, among other areas in Northern Ireland, and it became a flashpoint for violence during the Troubles. In response to rising violence from both sides, the British Army erected huge walls between neighborhoods (some as tall as 25 feet high) which effectively partitioned western Belfast into Unionist and Republican enclaves, called “Peace Walls” or Peace Lines. Not only were (and are) the walls physically imposing, but the British erected armed checkpoints at the major intersections, and prohibited vehicular access (and some pedestrians) after dark every day.  Ironically, there are more peace walls today than there were before the 1998 peace treaty, but a sad fact is that a majority of the Belfast residents still think these walls are necessary for protection.


Candidly, you could write a doctoral thesis (and many have) on the topic of The Troubles.  However, because I will undoubtedly blow the nuances about this issue, you can read more about it in the very good article in Wikipedia here:

We made three major stops in western Belfast: We stopped in the Republican Falls Road area of West Belfast, and drove through the nearby Unionist neighborhood of Shankill Road, and made stops to look at the murals on the peace walls in several neighborhoods, as well as the infamous heavily fortified checkpoint station known as “Checkpoint Charlie”. On one of the main peace walls, tourists are actually encouraged to write graffiti messages of peace, and many famous people have done so, from President Bill Clinton to the Dalai Lama.

Posters in a Loyalist Neighborhood



Republican Murals in Falls Road


One of the gates between neighborhoods closed each weekend night


The Peace Walls where messages of peace are left


Bill Clinton’s Message


“Checkpoint Charlie”

After this mentally grueling afternoon, we made our way to the Europa Hotel in central Belfast right next to the Opera House, and then made our way to dinner at a nearby restaurant, Ginger Bistro (recommended by Dermott), we had an excellent meal and went to bed.