Category Archives: Politics

Getting to Know Nuremberg

December 4, 2017:

 

So, dear Readers, yesterday was a travel day for us so not much to report, except that we finally had our first day of snow all day. Yippee! Jim figured out how we could take the high-speed train from Cologne, where our last tour ended, to Nuremberg, where our new tour is starting today. It really was super easy, with a couple of caveats … 1. There are two train stations in Cologne, one of which is the super nice terminal which is think is for short hops intercity, and then ours, which was the Deutz station. The bummer about that is that there is virtually no seating in the terminal, and limited retail opportunities (read: 1 option for coffee, and it was bad). 2. Even with “first class” tickets, there is no place to store larger bags so it is some what of a logistical challenge to get all your stuff on the train and stored somewhere in the train in the few minutes the train is in the station. Even so, we had comfortable seats and good WiFi on the train, so our 3 hour trip to Nuremberg was pretty easy. Here’s some pictures of the countryside as we bombed along at 120 miles per hour.Train Ride to Nuremberg-4Train Ride to Nuremberg-5

This morning, we had several options for our sightseeing explorations. Jim and I opted for the WWII tour.   It snowed all night, so that presented us with a lovely change of pace.

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There are many reasons why Nuremberg is a good place to learn about the Nazi history of the War, but first let me give you a little history of the area. I don’t know about you, but I still have painful memories of learning about the Holy Roman Empire, and then I promptly forgot it all. Let me try to dumb it down a little for you. In general terms, Charlemagne was responsible for forming the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800 AD under a grant of divine power from Pope Leo III, which purported to reach back to the Roman Empire. The Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist over 300 years before.

Nuremberg itself was established 950 AD, and gained in importance when it became a Free Imperial City of the HRE. The city was the home of Emperor Charles IV, author of the Golden Bull, which established the Imperial Diet (parliament) of the HRE. Charles IV is buried in Nuremberg Cathedral. Geographically, Nuremberg is located in Germany’s largest state of Bavaria. The area surrounding Nuremberg had become an industrial power in the years leading up to WWI. However, with the loss of that war, and the imposition of heavy war reparations against Germany, many Germans were angry and under some severe economic stress caused by both rampant inflation and the Great Depression.

Enter Adolph Hitler, who was born in Austria to a family of modest means. He dropped out of school at age 16, and for a while, lived in a workhouse for the poor. Hitler immigrated to Germany, and by 1925, had already led the failed “Beer Hall Putsch” in which he tried to take over control of the government. Instead of being sentenced to death for treason, a tribunal of conservative judges, who supported the aims of his party, merely sentenced him to a few years in jail. That sentence was ultimately commuted, and he served only a few years of his sentence. By 1933, Hitler was a German citizen. In that same year, the German President, Hindenberg, named him as Chancellor of Germany, and he was already in charge of the Workers Party, which became the Nazi Party. In short order, Hitler made his own laws, started by getting rid of all other parties; Germany became a police state with no freedom of press or speech, and lots of spying. 1st concentration camp was opened in Nuremberg. Jewish businesses boycotted, trade unions banned and books banned shortly thereafter. Also, physically and mentally handicapped adults and children sterilized. By 1934, Hitler had assumed all state powers.

In part for its historical significance as the former seat of the Imperial Diet, and in large part because of its deep support for the Nazi Party, Hitler chose Nuremberg as the site of the annual Nazi Party rallies which drew hundreds of thousands of people to the city. In furtherance of this, Hitler based a huge Zeppelin field in the center of town, surrounded by stadium seating and viewing boxes for Nazi officials. We visited the Zeppelin field as our first stop. Somehow, the snow covering it all really added to the feeling of alieness of it all. Hitler also built a huge parade grounds for showcasing Nazi troops on parade and youth Hitler squads performing nearby.

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The viewing stands
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Panorama of the whole Zeppelin area
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Area from which Hitler viewed the troops and addressed the crowd
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Photos of what it looked like then

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Another reason Hitler chose to focus the Nazi Party here was he had a close friendship with the local police chief, Julius Streicher, who was extremely anti Semitic. Streicher also founded a newspaper, Der Sturmer, full of lies about Jews, and was very responsible for many of the war crimes carried out against local Jews. He was convicted of war crimes in the Nuremberg Trials and sentenced to die.

Our next stop was at the Documentation Hall. The building was constructed by Hitler as a huge Nazi Party Congress Hall based on the design of the Coliseum in Rome. It was never finished, and the building has now become the site of a comprehensive museum exploring the causes and phenomenon of the rise of the Nazi Party, with a whole exhibit dedicated to artifacts from the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.

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The front of the Congress Hall with the Documentation Center added to the front
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Photo showing what the Congress Hall was supposed to look like finished

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Panorama of partially finished Congress Hall-rear of buildings
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I thought the train tracks were particularly ominous

Finally, our tour of WWII history ended with a visit to the courthouse where the Nuremberg Trials were held. In addition to being able to see a film of the actual trial, it was cool to be able to see the courthouse. From the exterior, we could see the windows of Room 600 where the trials were conducted.

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The front of the court buildings where the Nuremberg Trials were held

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The building in which the trials were held;

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the courtroom (Room 600) is in the center on the top (the four windows together)
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Photo taken during the trials

Finally, it was off to the old town. The entire old town area was a walled city, and unlike a lot of European towns, many sections of the old wall are still standing.

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Section of the original city wall

We also could see the Imperial Palace, but we did not get close enough to take any photos. However, we were bound for the center of the old town Nuremberg Cathedral is located and the Christmas market spreads out in the square in front of the church.

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Imperial Palace
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Old city architecture

The old town was really charming with all the snow all over the Christmas decorations and the Cathedral. The Cathedral houses the grave of Charles IV, so it remained a fairly important pilgrimage site all through the Middle Ages.

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Christmas pyramid on the fountain in the center of the old town
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Looking up towards the Cathedral
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The Cathedral

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Now that we’re in Germany, we’re interested in seeing how the Christmas markets differ here in Bavaria. One thing we learn right away is that this part of Germany is really big on gingerbread, which is known as lebkuchen. There are all sorts of different types, and one of the vendors let us sample his traditional style lebkuchen. Another thing that is very popular here are little thin grilled sausages, which are served three in a bun with mustard. You know we had to try those! We didn’t notice too much different in terms of the types of handicrafts sold in the market here with one main exception; the famous Nürnberg prune people!  These little dolls are made of prunes and other dried fruits with a walnut for a head, and are decorated as all different types of townspeople.  Cute but kind of creepy!Nuremberg-91

I did buy the obligatory Christmas ornament. Then it was time to return to the bus, because we have an early departure this afternoon.

We are travelling on a tributary canal called the Mainz-Donau (Danube) Canal which ultimately will connect us to the Danube. Because this canal actually crosses the continental divide in Europe, it has to first go up and then come down which requires a crazy number of locks to accommodate the elevation differentials. Jim and spent the afternoon in the observation lounge in the front of the ship so we could watch our navigation. One of the most interesting aspects of this is that the canal actually crosses over a couple of highways, so a bunch of us raced upstairs to be able to snap pictures as we sailed over the road. Tomorrow we will dock in the university town of Regensberg, and we look forward to learning more about it.

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Happy to Be In Heidelberg

November 30, 2017:

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This morning we docked in Speyer, Germany, and then made a shorter drive to the university town of Heidelberg. We’re still in the southwestern part of Germany, in the state of Baden Württemberg. The town is located on the River Neckar, with a population of about 150,000 people; about a quarter of who are students.

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Heidelberg is also home to a giant ruined castle that is just charming. We parked right by the river and then walked uphill through the crooked medieval streets to a funicular, which would take us up to the Castle. From where we’re parked, you can see across the river to a beautiful twisting path that goes up into the tree-studded hills called the Philosophers’ Path. However, since it’s still raining, there was little chance we were going to go exploring over there.

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The Philosophers’ Path

Our local guide was an expat American (married to a German man), who first took us up the funicular (about a 90 second ride), and then walked us around the Castle grounds. Our first stop was in front of a 19th Century former mansion, which has become a fraternity house for one of the Heidelberg fraternities. Those fraternities are somewhat controversial because they were originally only open to students from wealthy/noble families, and there was also a tradition of those students engaging in duels with rapiers. Even today, about 6 of those fraternities remain on campus, and it is still considered a badge of honor to have your cheek sliced open by your dueling partner. Notwithstanding this barbaric tradition, the Heidelberg University is one of the oldest (established in 1386) and most respected universities in Europe. Today, it is world-renowned for several research facilities, including four of the Max Planck Institutes. The operetta The Student Prince is set in Heidelberg. The university is also a birthplace of the German Romanticism movement, which grew out of the ideals of the French Revolution.Heidelberg-32

Heidelberg was also a favorite place to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), located as it is on a powerful river like the Mississippi. Mark Twain liked it so much that he and his wife and their kids lived in the town for quite some time, and he was able to overcome his writer’s block by talking to the university students. He was even allowed to join one of the fraternities. There are several notable quotes attributed to Twain from this time. Two of my favorites are: when asked about how difficult it is to learn German, Twain said, “ It takes 30 hours to learn English, 30 days to learn French, and 30 years to learn German.”; and “Some German words are so long they have a perspective.” While he was here, he wrote his book “A Tramp Abroad”.

The ruined Heidelberg Castle is a major draw for many. It sits atop a hill overlooking the town, and has been built and destroyed almost more times than you can count.

 

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The Korn Maiden

 

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Ruins 0f the Heideplberg Castle

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Our guide shared with us quite a bit of the history of the Castle, including its various periods of construction and destruction. The Castle was built on the remains of a monastery starting in the 1200s. One part of that history involves the period in the early 1600s when the Castle was owned by Prince Elector Frederick V of the Palatinate, who married Princess Elizabeth Stuart of England and Scotland (daughter of King James I, and VI, respectively). Both were teenagers when married, and apparently, it was quite the love match. He even constructed a gate within the Castle grounds for her to see on her daily walks engraved with all sorts of fantastical birds and animals. He died tragically in war just a few years after they were married, but he still managed to father a bunch of kids before he lost his life.

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Elizabeth’s Gate

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There was also a portion of the Castle constructed by another Prince Elector known as Ottheinrich, who was one of the most-beloved of the Electors because he was very progressive and open-minded. I particularly enjoyed walking around the grounds to be able to photograph them with the small dusting of snow that fell last night. Finally, we also saw the largest wooden wine cask in world which is inside the Castle. It holds 58,000 gallons, and took 15 years to build. From the area where the wine cask is stored, you can wander out on the Castle ramparts for some really awesome views of the town below.

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Heidelberg-85We then had a brief introduction tour of the main town, which includes one of the longest shopping streets in Europe. Scattered along that street, we see some small brass plaques set in the cobblestones outside some of the homes and businesses. Our guide explained to us that they were Stolpestein (stomping stones) engraved with the names and date of birth of the person who lived or worked at that place, along was the dates they were captured and executed by the Nazis.

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Stolpestein

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Out tour over, we met for lunch at a brewery called Vetter, and had a traditional German lunch, including soft pretzels, pork specialties and spaetzle mixed with Gruyere cheese.

Then it’s off to shop at the 7 (count them) Christmas markets in Heidelberg.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Tinganes buildings

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Backside of the Tinganes

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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.

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Sod-roofed home

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Traditional Faroese Dress

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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.

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

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

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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!

Mooning Over Montreal

August 17-18, 2017:

I LOVE Montreal! It has all of the charm of Paris (and the excellent restaurants), with none of the attitude.

 

Jim and I arrived yesterday afternoon, and as soon as we dropped off our stuff at our hotel (and I changed into my Trump apology T-shirt), we set off to explore. We are staying at the Marriott Springfield Suites in the old quarter, right off one of the main streets, Rue Saint-Paul.

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We headed down to the waterfront (to the area called the quays—Pronounced “keys”) to see if we could find out where the cruise ship terminal is located. Mission accomplished, we gazed across the harbor at the site of an early futuristic public housing project, which is still very architecturally striking decades later.

As we walk along the waterfront, I am reminded what a livable city this is (at least in the summer). There is a public bike rental program, and there were numerous cyclists along with the walkers. We also walked over to locate the site of our restaurant for tonight.

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Walk along the waterfront
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View from the harbour

Chores accomplished, we headed back up into the heart of the old quarter to one of our favorite streets here; Rue Jacques Cartier. This is a wide pedestrian street/plaza lined with open air cafes and street vendors, which runs from the stately Court of Appeal all the way down to the harbor.

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Streetscene
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Rue St. Paul
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Rue Jacques Cartier

We were fortunate to stumble into a great rooftop bar called la Perché (accessed off an alley behind the restaurant Maggie Oakes). The views were fabulous, and the breeze was heavenly!

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After our aperitif, we headed back to the hotel to change for dinner. Our reservations this evening are at Gibby’s, a local white-tablecloth gem of a place specializing in steak and fresh seafood. When Jim and I were here before, we celebrated my birthday with Beautiful Nova Scotia lobsters, and we were eager to repeat the experience. Our memories did not disappoint, and the ambience of this place is really great since it is located in an ancient stone building, which was originally part of the harbor fortifications.

Replete and happy, we headed back to the room. Along the way we stumbled on a huge public light and music show down by the harbor and we detoured to see it. Wow!

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This morning, we awoke to rainy skies, about 6 hours ahead of time. No matter, we waterproofed ourselves and headed out. Even though our hotel includes breakfast, I was craving a decent latte, and we found another great restaurant called Great Eggspectations. We also walked about some more and detoured by the Place de Arms to look on the stately Notre Dame Cathedral.

Then it was time to head to the ship, the Regent Navigator. As I write this, I am sitting here with a glass of champange looking city-ward from the ship. Sail with us as the Gringos make port tomorrow in old Quebec!

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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.

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Carrickfergus Harbour
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The fort
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Statue of William III

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The Redcoat on the Ramparts
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Hi, Lauretta!
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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.

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The “Peace Bridge” by Calatrava

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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.

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View of the Guildhall from the Peace Bridge

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Stained glass windows in the Guildhall

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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.

 

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Memorial to those killed while protesting during the Bloody Sunday Massacre

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Stormont
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Stormont grounds
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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!

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Queen’s College Belfast

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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.

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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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Troubles.

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.

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Posters in a Loyalist Neighborhood

 

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Republican Murals in Falls Road

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One of the gates between neighborhoods closed each weekend night

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The Peace Walls where messages of peace are left

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Bill Clinton’s Message

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“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.

 

 

 

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