A First Try at Seeing The Emerald Isle

Visiting Ireland On a Rainy Spring Trip

Our first visit to Ireland was this past spring. Most people rave about this lush, green island and we now understand why. I’m not sure if it’s the sense of place, the history or the Irish people but we will surely be back again. This trip we spent eight days traveling around Ireland with an agenda that included Cobh, Waterford, East Dunmore, Cork (including Blarney), Dublin and Belfast.

The Emerald Isle is divided into two parts; the Republic of Ireland in the south (actually about eighty percent of the island) with Northern Ireland in the northeast, which is a part of the United Kingdom. The Republic of Ireland is an independent nation and a member of the EU and uses the Euro. Northern Ireland because of Brexit uses the English Pound. It seems that Brexit created a new riff between the two Irelands and could create new tension going forward. Most of the towns and cities are located along the east coast with high cliffs facing out into the Atlantic on the west coast.

Cobh, The Seaport of Cork

 

Before visiting Cobh we inquired about the weather. The response was “it’s a beautiful day here with just a light rain and a high of 46°”. Welcome to the Emerald Isle.

Because of the rainy weather we spent the first day in Cobh, which is the seaport that serves Cork. It’s a picturesque town with many streets that seem to be running up hills at about forty-five degrees. The principle business seems to be celebrating the fact that the Titanic made its last port of call here. There’s the Titanic Pub, the Titanic Museum and gift shop and memorials to many of the one hundred and thirty passengers that boarded the Titanic here just before it steamed into the Atlantic and history. One pub claimed that several Titanic passengers had their last pint ashore in their pub before sailing (that would be one hundred six years ago) and who can refute that?

 

A monument to a local celebrity is on the pier in front of the visitors center. It is of Annie Moore who is confirmed as the first Irish immigrant to the United States that arrived at Ellis Island. The statue shows her and two younger brothers on the pier as if they are ready to set off on their new life in America.

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The city also has the gorgeous St. Colman’s Cathedral which was started in 1867 but not finished for almost fifty years. The cathedral tower contains the largest carillon in Europe with forty-nine bells. The bells strike on the hour and at fifteen minute intervals and plays a longer program for Sunday Mass and on special events.

Cobh is the end of a train line with easy access to Cork for only a couple of Euros with trains leaving about every twenty minutes. The trip takes less than a half hour with continuing service on to Blarney just a few minutes farther away.

All in all it was a great first Irish day and I realized that to make English a really beautiful language it needs to be spoken with an Irish accent.

East Dunmore, A Seaside Village

This Irish fishing village isn’t far from Waterford and is a quant seaside resort town with a number of bed and breakfasts and upscale hotels. We visited on a Saturday and there seemed to be a surprising number of people in town and at the beach considering there was still a chill in the air. We spent the day walking the coastal trail and visiting the galleries and craft shops.

A Day Trip Out of Belfast

The Giants Causeway

Up on the North coast of Northern Ireland is a geological World Heritage Site named The Giants Causeway. It was created when volcanic magma cooled on the surface millions of years ago and looks much like someone constructed it. It is composed of thousands of basalt hexagonal columns standing in clusters at various heights along the edge of the sea.

When we got to the site the weather was a balmy 42° and clouds were gathering quickly. From the visitors center down to the shore is a good steep walk and while there is a shuttle bus, on a busy day the wait in line for the ride is probably longer than the walk – so off we hiked. Once we got to the bottom it started a light rain with wind blowing at 40 or 50 mph. The temperature also seemed to plummet and when climbing back up I swear there was sleet stinging my face. At one point the wind got inside my hood and it seemed it lifted me off my feet.

 

Once we reached the top we sought refuge in the bar of the Causeway Inn. It was a cozy place and much less congested than the other options. We all had coffee and scones and spent a long time thawing out. Sitting next to us was an Irish family and we got to talking. Asking if they had hiked down yet they replied “No, we live here. We’re staying here keeping cozy while our guests freeze their noses off.” I couldn’t agree more. While it is an amazing place and we would recommend a visit, if we had the option of waiting for a warm and sunny day?!

One of the biggest issues to a planned itinerary with a limited amount of time is you don’t get to change much and you are stuck with the weather that fate deals you. 

DSCN4986Ruins of Dunluce Castle near The Giants Causeway

It would also seem that this area is also used in a number of Game of Thrones episodes. We are beginning to think that we are either just lucky to keep running into GOT sights or perhaps they film just about everywhere?

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A Few Days In Florence

Above: Ponte Vecchio Bridge

If you are visiting Italy you should not pass up a visit to Florence, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region. From many Italian cities, including Rome, it is easy to reach Florence by express train for an extra night or two stay.

 

Michelangelo’s David

The city is the birthplace of the Renaissance where Michelangelo carved many of his masterpieces and where Dante Alighieri lived and the Medici family ruled. Galileo lived in Florence most of his life while Donatello, Giovanni Boccaccio and Leonardo da Vinci are also on the list of notable residents. It is difficult to stroll the narrow streets and cross the many piazzas without feeling that you are walking through history. Add that to the museums, art galleries, shops, cafes and great restaurants and it is impossible not to fall in love with Florence.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore

Last year we caught a train up from Rome and walked the few blocks from the Santa Maria Novella train station to our hotel, the Hotel Mia Cara. We enjoyed our stay at the  Mia Cara and it was right on the edge of the historic center of Florence making it convenient to walk to many nearby points of interest. The famous Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore), Ponte Vecchio bridge, Uffizzi Gallery, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens are only short strolls away. If you are an art lover and are interested in history, this is the perfect Italian destination because there is so much to see and it is mostly located in a concentrated area.

Piazza della Repubblica

Ten recommended destinations:

  1. Gates of Paradise, Lorenzo Ghiberti (1425 – 1452) at the Museo del Opera del Duomo (originally the doors of the baptistery)
  2. Madonna della Seggiola, Raphael (1513 – 1514) at the Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery
  3. The Medici Palace, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1445 – 1460) near the Church of San Lorenzo
  4. The David, Michelangelo (1501 – 1504) at the Accademia (a copy is also in the Piazza Signoria)
  5. Primavera, Sandro Botticelli (1482) at the Uffizi Galleries
  6. The Perseus, Benvenuto Cellini (1545 – 1554) Piazza Signoria
  7. The Florentine Pieta, Michelangelo (1547 – 1553) at the Museo del Opera del Duomo
  8. The Slaves, Michelangelo (1525 – 1530) the Accademia

    Dante Alighieri
  9. The Mosaics in the Baptistery, (1240 – 1300) Baptistery in Piazza Duomo
  10. Madonna della Seggiola, Raphael (1513 – 1514) – in the Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery

There are a series of three walking tours detailed at the web site visitflorence.com. Walking directions are provided along with background information on the art and sites along the way and even suggestions for good places to enjoy coffee and gelato as you stroll.

Mercato di San Lorenzo

Shopping opportunities are everywhere in Florence from street markets to exclusive shops. The city is famous for its’ leather as well as jewelry and embroidery. Check out bargains at the Mercato Nuovo, a leather and souvenir street market as well as Mercato di San Lorenzo for food specialties. Not to be missed is shopping on the Ponte Vecchio bridge and the small shops near the west side of the bridge.

Street vendors

Stretching between Piazza Duomo and Piazza Repubblica is Via Roma featuring Florence’s main department store, Rinascente along with Gucci, Cartier, Hugo Boss and many more premium shops. The home of Florence’s up scale designers is Via Tornabuoni. This street spotlights many of the famous fashion houses, as well as historic churches and plazas. Near Via Tornabouni, are Via Porta Rossa and Via della Vigna Nuova, offering more upscale fashion shopping.

While in Florence take time to sample la dolce vita (the good life) with frequent stops at sidewalk cafes for cappuccinos, gelato and wine. One of Italians favorite pastimes is sitting at cafes and watching the world go by.

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Perseus

From Florence you can take a quick side trip to Pisa. It is only a short train ride away with trains leaving about every half hour or so from Santa Maria Novella train station. The Regionale Veloce trains are the ones making this trip, which takes about an hour each way with ticket prices about $10. From the station in Pisa the cathedral and the leaning tower are only a moderate hike away. There are also numerous organized day tours outside the city at reasonable rates that include a day trip by train to Cinque Terre, a beautiful seaside town south of Genoa along with bus tours into the Tuscan countryside.

The Port of Palma de Mallorca

Mallorca is the largest of Spains Balearic Islands and a major vacation destination for many western and northern Europeans attracted to its beautiful beaches.

Cathedral of St. Mary

Palma is an ancient port with architecture showing the influence of Christians and Moors in its castles, fortifications, cathedrals and in the winding streets of the old town. If you like to walk this is a great place to spend time exploring. The city is also famous for its many excellent tapas bars and restaurants.

Where You Will Dock – Palma de Mallorca has two areas where cruise ships dock. Most cruise ships will dock at Estacio Maritime which has a modern terminal and is about four miles from the old historic district. If that port is full your ship will dock in the industrial area at Porto Pi which is six miles from the old city. While the Porto pi facility doesn’t have the modern terminal it does have a major shopping mall just a short walk outside the port entrance. Both ports will allow passengers to walk out but in either case it is a good hike into town.

Palma Marina and waterfront

Transportation – Most ships provide shuttle service into the town center for about $15 round trip.

Public transportation is provided by a number of private bus lines that cover the island. Information about schedules and routes can be found at the TIB website . One popular destination is the beach resort area of Palmanova with regular bus service provided from the port areas on bus numbers 105 and 106 for around three Euros each way.

Taxis – In the city and around the port taxis are readily available. A taxi to Palmanova or the airport would cost about twenty five Euros.

Castell de Bellver

Money – The Euro is the local currency and credit cards are generally accepted.

Attractions

Castell de Bellver is a fourteenth century circular castle set on a wooded hilltop overlooking Palma, home to the city’s history museum.

Cathedral of St. Mary of Palma is a Gothic cathedral overlooking the sea, with a vast rose window & wrought-iron canopy by Gaudí. It was built on the site of a Moorish Mosque and was begun by King James I of Aragon in 1229 and is one of the tallest cathedrals in Europe.

Miro Museum and Workshops where Miro painted and sculpted from the 1950s to the 1980s and houses a number of permanent and visiting exhibits.

Beach Resorts. Six to eight miles down the coast from the port are the beach resorts of Palmanova. The resorts are located around three beautiful bays, Playa Son Matias, Playa de Palmanova and Playa Es Carregador.

 

 

A Wet Day In Blarney

Blarney Castle

When you have a limited number of days to visit a country you just keep going, even when the weather turns foul. Such was the case when we traveled to Blarney Castle. Not so much cold but a persistent on and off drizzle. I’m still not sure what brought us to pick Blarney over a dozen other famous Irish castles but I think it was the name recognition more than anything. The bonus in picking Blarney was also going to kiss the Blarney Stone but I was told that the last thing I needed was to increase my “gift of gab”.

Kissing the stone

Blarney Castle is a medieval stronghold in the town of Blarney, near Cork, Ireland. The keep was built by the MacCarthy of Muskerry dynasty in 1446. The castle is now a partial ruin with some accessible rooms and battlements. At the top of the castle lies the Stone of Eloquence, better known as the Blarney Stone.

The entrance to the property is well laid out and there is a nice stream flowing through the estate. The gardens surrounding the property are worth a visit provided the weather is accommodating and there are also a number of out buildings and exhibits.

The grand hall

The castle itself stands about ninety feet tall with the interior mostly gutted. Upon entering the castle you find yourself standing in the cellar and looking up through the grand hall with its floor completely missing. You can see the stone supports that used to hold the floor just below the halls fireplace with remains of the two story vaulted ceiling above that

Getting to the top of the castle where the Stone of Eloquence is located is a climb up a narrow stone spiral staircase with only enough room for one person at a time to ascend. Before you start your climb they stress that it is a one-way climb (descent is by another narrow staircase) and once you start you cannot back down, so make sure you are up to the climb.

 

 

The castle top

As we ascended there were a number of small chambers off the stairs as well as defensive slits for fighting off attackers. Once we reached the top there was a pretty steady rain falling but people were still laying on their backs to stick their faces out to kiss the stone. By that time I wasn’t keen on going through with kissing the stone and had concerns that I didn’t have enough sanitizer with me considering the number of people that preceded us.

Once back down and wet we headed off to find a pub and an Irish Coffee. In the center of the town we found the Muskerry Arms – cozy, friendly and makers of great Irish Coffees.

Besides the castle the village of Blarney was home to the Blarney Woollen Mills built in 1823. In its day it was known for spinning and weaving wool. The mill closed in 1973 after which it was re-opened as an Irish heritage shop.

 

 

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The Acropolis in Athens

Rising up out of the center of Athens, Greece is the Acropolis. It is located on a rock formation that rises 490 ft above the sea . The semi-flat surface covers an area of about 7.4 acres which makes it a pretty small place to be recognized as the birthplace of Western civilization.

It is one of a number of places around the world that I have tried to visit in the past and have been frustated for a number of reasons. I’ve been to Athens a couple of times and had not made it up to the Acropolis. Just recently I broke this particular string of bad luck when my wife and I made up onto the Acropolis.

The word acropolis is from the Greek words meaning the highest point and city. The term acropolis doesn’t refer to a single place and there are many other acropoleis in Greece, but the Acropolis of Athens is so significant that it is commonly known as just “The Acropolis”.

While the earliest artifacts relating to this site date to the Middle Neolithic era, there have been documented habitation as far back as the 6th millennium BC. It has been established that a Mycenaean megaron palace (the megaron was the great hall in ancient Greek palace complexes) stood upon this hill during the late Bronze Age. Nothing of this megaron survives except, probably, a single limestone column-base and pieces of several sandstone steps. The Acropolis of Athens is an ancient citadel that contains the remains of several ancient buildings of great architectural and historic importance, the most significant being the Parthenon.

It was Pericles (c. 495 – 429 BC) in the fifth century BC who managed the construction of the most important structures including the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena Nike.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon is a former temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, whom the people of Athens considered their patron. Construction began in 447 BC during the golden age of the Athenian Empire. It is the most important surviving building of Classical Greece, generally considered the zenith of the Doric style. The Parthenon is the most enduring symbol of Ancient Greece, Athenian democracy and Western civilization and one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. To the Athenians the temple was a symbol of victory over the Persian invaders and a tribute to the gods .

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The Porch of the Maidens

The Erechtheion is an ancient Greek temple on the north side which was dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon. One of its more noteworthy features is on the south side, the famous “Porch of the Maidens”, with six draped female figures (caryatids) as supporting columns. The porch was built to conceal a giant beam needed to support the southwest corner of the building.

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The Temple of Athena Nike

The Temple of Athena Nike is a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena Nike. Built around 420 BC, the temple is the earliest fully Ionic temple on the Acropolis. It has a prominent position on a steep bastion at the south west corner of the Acropolis to the right of the entrance (the Propylaea). In contrast to the Acropolis proper, a walled sanctuary entered through the Propylaea, the Victory Sanctuary was open, entered from the Propylaea’s southwest wing and from a narrow stair on the north. The sheer walls of its bastion were protected on the north, west, and south by the Nike Parapet, named for its frieze of Nikai celebrating victory and sacrifices to their patron goddess, Athena Nike.

Temple of Hephaestus

In addition to the Acropolis ancient Athens left behind a number of other significant archeological sites like the Temple of Zeus’ ruins and the Temple of Hephaestus that deserve a visit.

Heat getting to you? Be sure and visit the Acropolis Museum (€5), it has good air conditioning and excellent exhibits. It features glass floors that show off the ruins of homes excavated during the construction the museum and displays that let you get up close to details up on the Acropolis.

It is highly recommended that during peak season you arrive early to avoid the ticket lines and crowds. If you are visiting be sure to wear good walking shoes as there is a nice up-hill walk and uneven ground at the top. Disabled access at the Acropolis is provided by a wheelchair stair climber lift and an elevator.

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The Port of Barcelona

Barcelona is one of the two largest cruise ports in the Mediterranean and is used as an embarkation port as well as a popular port of call. The city is a modern and historic place with a number of iconic neighborhoods and attractions. If you are cruising out of Barcelona do not miss the opportunity to spend a couple of extra days visiting this vibrant city.

 

The Port of Barcelona

Where You Will Dock – The entrance to the Barcelona ports is at the foot of La Rambla, which runs through the city centre. Generally there are three major port areas. Most cruise ships are docked at Adossat Quay Terminal which is the farthest out and is serviced by a shuttle to the La Rambla area. This includes terminals A, B, C and D.

 

 

Barcelona Harbor

There are also 3 terminals at the World Trade Centre pier called North, South and East terminals and are much closer to the Columbus Monument on the waterfront at La Rambla.

The third terminal is Sant Bertrand, and it to is near the World Trade Center (refer to our cruise terminal map). Sant Bertrand is usually used for ferries to the Balearic Islands.

Transportation – The T3 PORTBUS (the “Blue Bus”) runs a circuit from all cruise port terminals to the monument of Christopher Columbus. The tickets for the T3 need to be purchased with cash on the bus itself.

At this writing the tickets cost:

Single ticket: €3.00

With Return ticket: €4.00

Many of the cruise ships also provide a shuttle bus to their passengers for free or a small charge (usually about $5 to $8).

Walking – The nearest cruise terminal to La Rambla is about a 15 minute walk away. However the major cruise terminals, which are furthest from La Rambla are about a mile and a quarter (2 Km) from the Columbus Monument. From Christopher Columbus monument to La Rambla is about a 1 minute walk, and the nearest Metro is Drassanes (Green Line, L3), which is another 5 minutes walk.

Barcelona Metro – Barcelona has a good transit system that is excellent for getting around the city. The Barcelona Tourist Travel Pass (also known as the HolaBCN card) is a transport pass specifically designed for tourists. Once purchased it enables you to have unlimited journeys on the Barcelona public transport system which includes the TMB buses from Barcelona Airport to the city centre, the Airport metro from both T1 and T2, the Airport train to the city centre, the entire metro underground system in the whole of the city, the TMB buses that run in the city centre and the suburban tram system. Barcelona Card gives you unlimited transport on the Barcelona transport system (metro, bus, tram). It can be purchased in advance of your trip. The Transport Card can be purchased for 2 to 5 days. ()

The Gothic Quarter

Taxi – A taxi from the port to the city centre is normally less than 10 minutes with a fare of about €20.00. A Taxi to Barcelona airport from the cruise port should take about 25 minutes with a fare: of €30.00 – €35.00.

What To See – Barcelona is a city steeped in culture and history and many think it is the city itself that is the main attraction. From great food to an exciting night life, from the old Gothic quarter to the modern shopping districts this is truly a remarkable city.

The Sagrada Familia

Barcelona is famous for the fantastic architecture of Antonio Gaudí, whose buildings can be found scattered around the city. The most famous can be found along Passeig de Gràcia where you will find La Pedrera and Casa Batlló. There is also the Parc Güell which is a incredible park designed by the Gaudí himself. The most notable of Gaudí’s works is the Sagrada Familia, the huge, still unfinished Basilica.

The Gothic Cathedral in the heart of the Gothic quarter is a must-see as is a walk up Las Ramblas. Make sure to save time to explore the winding side streets with their shops and restaurants.

There are also a number of great museums in the city. The MACBA (museum of modern art) and the CCCB next door are worth an hour or two. The Picasso and the permanent Dalí exhibition in the Gothic Quarter are always worth a visit. The Caixa Forum is a museum which has different art exhibitions every month. It is just off Plaça Espanya, on Avenida Marques.

Dublin Gardens in the Spring

For several days this May we visited a number of gardens while in Dublin, Ireland. The weather was mostly good with one morning of rain when we headed out for the National Botanic Gardens. By the time we reached the gardens the rain had lifted.

The National Botanic Gardens – This is a really beautiful garden with a number of greenhouses matching several environments. There were greenhouses dedicated to orchids, another to tropical plants and another to desert flora. The outside gardens cover a number of acres and feature several different styles. Admission is free, there is a restaurant and gift shop as well as a number of special programs including lectures and concerts. If you have time while in Dublin do yourself a favor and go see this garden.

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National Botanic Gardens
Glasnevin Cemetery

Backed up to the Botanic Gardens is Glasnevin Cemetery and Glasnevin Cemetery Museum. The museum’s web site describes it as “the guardian and storyteller for over 1.5 million people. From the ordinary to the truly extraordinary, these people helped shape the Ireland of today. We want to share their stories and times with you through tours of the cemetery, a visit to the museum or through a genealogy search for your family history”. While in the neighborhood stop in at the well known Gravediggers Pub for a pint.

St. Stephen’s Green
St. Stephen’s Green
St. Stephen’s Green

St. Stephen’s Green is located in the heart of Dublin and is a focus in the area, and provides an oasis of green in the middle of this busy city. The Dublin Public Works web site describes this garden as “four centuries of history that are eventful and complex, involving such important figures as Arthur Guinness, 1st Baron Ardilaun, and Countess Constance Markievicz. The park itself hosts a large number of important sculptural monuments to Irish history. Many species of birds and plants also call the park their home. Public facilities at St Stephen’s Green Park include a playground and a garden for the visually impaired”.

Blessington Street Park
Blessington Street Park

Half way from the River Liffey to the National Botanic Gardens we stopped at the Blessington Street Park or “The Basin” and what a find. Located near the intersection of Royal Canal Bank and Primrose Avenue this is a beautiful and well kept pocket park surrounding a lake. After walking thru this park we thought how lucky the neighbors are to live next to this gem.

Blessington Street Park