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The Castle Is Just Up The Street

19 Dec

Day 16

We were up before it was light to get on the road to Shannon. Mary was as good as her word and there were fruit and drinks in the refrigerator in a sack with our names on it. We were definitely going to miss Friar’s Glenn.

It was about a 2 ½ hour drive from Killarney Town to the Shannon airport. We had the road largely to ourselves at that hour. The N21 was mostly a two lane road through endless green pastures with the occasional village and roundabout as we sped on toward the airport. We had a tense moment or two looking for an open gasoline station before 7AM on a Sunday in Ireland but did finally make it to the one closest the airport that was likely only open for the rental car refueling trade. Because I always leave a hefty buffer in the schedule in case something goes wrong we were at the airport well ahead of the counter staff. I managed an a la carte breakfast with the very last of our Euros and ate at one of the tables on the upper level of the terminal decorated with the works of Irish poets. We checked our bags once the ticketing counter opened and, dodging fuel trucks and baggage carts, made our way out onto the tarmac to board a little turbo-prop commuter for Scotland.

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You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.

With apologies to Louis C. K., these are not our favorite planes. They are bumpy, slow, and incredibly loud. Add in the duty-free pitch and it’s very much like riding a city bus with someone trying to sell you perfume and whiskey the whole time.

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We overflew several peat-cutting operations. I cannot remember where I read the phrase but it has been lodged in my brain for years that “The children of Ireland burn her very body to survive.” Unfortunately my pictures of them were a wee blurry with engine vibration.

We landed at the Edinburgh Airport and walked the 27 miles from baggage claim to the taxi stand. We took what I will always consider a “London” taxi to our bed & breakfast, the Hanover House in Windsor Street. Our innkeeper was Jasmin. She was incredibly sweet but always seemed just a little overwhelmed. Due to a booking snafu we ended up in a triple room that was absolutely freezing. Jasmin provided a space heater to get the chill off and after dumping our bags we set out.

Memory is a funny thing. I’d spent several days in Edinburgh in the late 80’s and I talked the city up to Julia for years. One of the things I mentioned most often was the city’s compactness. I described to her a city center that is really just two streets wide (Queen Street and Princes Street, which I’d always confused with High Street and the Royal Mile) where everyplace is just a 5-minute walk from everyplace else. A European city one can navigate like a village. At least that’s how it lived in my mind in the little box labeled “Weekend in Edinburgh, April 1989.”

Not so much.

I’m not positive just what happened to my memories of Edinburgh, but near as I can tell, in order to clear up space in my head I long ago jettisoned all those memories having to do with walking anywhere. In my mind’s eye I stood on Calton Hill and but a step or two took me to the Scott Monument. I turned left and in a few paces stood on the Royal Mile, where the Camera Obscura sat next door to Edinburgh Castle. In my head I somehow managed to traverse the city in much the same way that we today navigate Google Maps on Streetview.

All of this was wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.

It was about 15 minutes from our hotel to the Princes Street shops above the train station. This is where Julia had a full-blown meltdown. If you don’t know my wife, that’s a shame because you would immediately understand how incredibly rare it is that something like that happens. She’d had the snacks Mary provided hours before, whereas I’d eaten a full Irish at the airport. We were now on completely different meal schedules and I was blithely charging ahead with seeing the sights of the city, assuring her that everything I’d talked about for years was just around the block. When it continued to not be just around the block she eventually lost her temper. She said she needed a bite and asked that we stop for something to eat. I said sure and then insisted we push on to a “Local” place.

We had some ugly words on a sidewalk outside the train station, and then we landed up in the food court having a croissant and a bottle of soda.

Pro Tip: The second polite request from your wife is actually an order. Heed it.

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Fleshmarket Close

After a small snack to stave off impending doom we left the station via Market Street. From there we made our way up the Fleshmarket Close to the Halfway House for an actual lunch.

A Close is an alleyway between blocks of flats along the Royal Mile. They carry various names:

Cooper’s Close

Bakehouse Close

Paisley Close (More about this in my next post)

World’s End Close

Advocate’s Close

Wikipedia lists more than 80 named Closes, Courts, and Wynds along the Royal Mile.

The Half Way House at 24 Fleshmarket Close was cozy and toasty and we had fish & chips and soup and cider and were much the better for it. It’s billed as “Edinburgh’s Smallest and Friendliest Pub” and takes its name from its position half way up the Close. There’s been a pub on the site for centuries, at least since the Close was the location of Edinburgh’s slaughterhouses (Hence “Fleshmarket” Close) in the 1700’s. Halfway House was previously Bennet’s and then the Suburban Bar. It was named pub of the year in 2009. After sustenance more substantial than station food court fare we stepped back out into the Close.

As a woman at the bar had put it moments earlier, it had “Gone cold.” We’d left the sun and clear skies of Kerry behind and it had been cloudy and cool since we’d landed in Scotland, While we were inside the Half Way House the temperature had plummeted and it was now a good bit below 32 F. I’d expected a rainy day, not a freezing one, and so had zipped the liner out of my raincoat. Normally in my role as an “Over-prepared American” I’d have put the liner in the bottom of my bag but for some reason I neglected to do so. I didn’t even have my gloves.

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Edinburgh Castle

We walked up Cockburn to the High Street, stopping in shops along the way more for warmth than a desire for souvenirs. As we approached the castle we took a turning down Upper Bow Street. At least, we think so. We found ourselves eventually on a lane with a view of Edinburgh Castle that I’ve not been able to duplicate. We worked our way through shops that looked interesting (Or heated) and eventually found ourselves at the gates of Greyfriars.

Most people think of Greyfriars as a cemetery. The Greyfriars Kirkyard surrounds the Greyfriars Kirk and the main entrance is off Candlemakers Row at the south end of the George IV Bridge. The site was originally a Fransican friary and was named for the “Grey Friars.” The friary was dissolved in 1559 and the church founded in 1561. The church and kirkyard figure in the history of the Covenanters, with the National Covenant being signed on the site in 1638. After the defeat of the Covenanters in 1679 more than a thousand of them were imprisoned in a yard just to the south that was incorporated into the kirkyard in the 18th century. Greyfriars Kirk is still an active church.

We love visiting cemeteries. Greyfriars is amazing. A number of famous figures are buried within the yard. Many of the monuments feature incredible relief sculptures and several are set into the back walls of the surrounding buildings. There are also 2 surviving mortsafes.E (6) A mortsafe was a steel cage set low to the ground to discourage grave robbing for dissection in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Families could lease the safes until the bodies of their loved ones had decomposed sufficiently to be of no interest to a “Ressurectionist” (A for-profit body snatcher who supplied corpses to the medical college). E (7)We wandered through the yard and marveled at the massive monuments and the few obvious mass-produced pieces that served as examples of what was popular in the world of grave goods two hundred years ago. Then we stopped to pay our respects to Greyfriars’ most widely famous internee. People who don’t know Greyfriars’ history, or even where it is, do know one of the very best of man’s best friends, Greyfriars Bobby.

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The monument to Greyfriars Bobby

The most popular version of the story runs thus….. one John Gray of Edinburgh died and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. His dog, a Skye Terrier named Bobby stood watch at his grave for the next fourteen years. He eventually died and was buried next to his master.

At least some of this is true. There were 2 John Grays, one a farmer and another a night watchman. The consensus is that Bobby was owned by John Gray the night watchmen even though the closest thing to a contemporary journalistically rigorous account says Bobby’s master was John Gray the farmer. Bobby lived an awful long time, leading some to posit that there were 2 Bobbies (He became a tourist attraction within his lifetime, so is it too much of a stretch to believe local business owners might not have supplied a younger Bobby to meet visitors’ expectations?). Some even question Bobby’s loyalty, pointing out that dogs in graveyards were common in the 19th century, and that they remained not to be near their dead masters but because they were fed by mourners. There are dozens of documented stories very similar to Bobby’s all across Europe. Who knows? It’s a nice story that reinforces what we choose to feel about dogs.

E (5)Upon his death in 1872 Bobby was buried just inside the south gate. A local baroness commissioned a monument to Bobby with a sculpture by William Brodie. The monument was unveiled the year following Bobby’s death. After falling into disrepair (And being hit by a car in 1984), the monument was restored in 1985 and still stands just outside the gate. A red granite headstone was erected on Bobby’s grave in 1981 by The Dog Aid Society of Scotland. Many visitors leave dog toys and sticks.

After leaving the kirkyard we wandered slowly back toward our bed & breakfast. We warmed up for a bit and then had dinner at the Theatre Royal bar. The inside of the bar is stunning, and I would show you pictures if I had any. Alas, it was dark and I was blurry. Well, the pictures are blurry anyway. You can see photos and check out the menu at their website.

Next up, the Queen of England’s summer digs, the Royal Mile, and Edinburgh Castle!

Take good care.

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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Another Day, Another Peninsula

17 May

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Friar's Glen

Friar’s Glen

We started our last full day in Ireland by backtracking. After another amazing breakfast at Friars Glen we set off back down the Ring of Kerry in the clockwise direction toward Kenmare. Within about fifteen minutes we reached Ladies’ View. Ladies’ View is pretty much what it says on the tin, a scenic view. There’s a car park, a cafe and a gift shop, and a spot where you can look north across the Killarney National Park. The panorama takes in Black Valley, the Upper and Middle Lakes, McGillycuddy Reeks and the Gap of Dunloe. The location is named for Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting, who are said to have exclaimed and made much of the view when the Queen visited Ireland in 1861. After a brief stop we headed back toward Killarney Town.

We pulled over on the south side of the Upper Lake and walked a short distance through the scrub to the shore. The Upper Lake is one of the three in the park, the others being Lough Leane and Muckross Lake. We stopped just south of a short tunnel carved out of the side of the mountain that appeared to be nearly a feature of the landscape it looked so old. Indeed, I found an illustration of the same tunnel in The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland, by J. Stirling Coyne and N.P. Willis, published in 1841.

The Upper Lake

The Upper Lake

We admired the view across the lake and I put a hand in the water (I have to touch everything), then we hopped back into the Suzuki Swift and scooted up to Killarney Town. We needed Irish stamps for a few postcards, and of course who can resist the “Everything’s €2” store? It was midday before we were on our way to the Dingle Peninsula.

The Beach at Inch

The Beach at Inch

Our first stop was the beach at Inch. It is nearly a mirror image of the beach at Rossbeigh on the Kerry Peninsula across the water to the south, a spot we had visited the day before, though the beach at Inch is sandy where Rossbeigh is rocky. We followed Bridget’s directions and after visiting the beach stopped about a mile outside of town to look back and take in the view. We drove west through the countryside, stopping occasionally to simply get out and stand and stare at the endless green patchwork of fields. After rain in London, rain in Paris, rain in Normandy, and rain in Amsterdam, we had a spot of good luck in Ireland. The weather was clear and stunning for the two full days that we were exploring the Kerry and Dingle peninsulas.

Strand Street facing the harbor in Dingle

Strand Street facing the harbor in Dingle

We stopped at Dingle Town in the early afternoon and did a little shopping. The shops and homes are painted lovely bright colors. From the look of it, Dingle is still very much a fishing town and is the largest settlement on the peninsula. Rather than stopping for lunch we simply snacked our way down the road. We purchased a few things for family and friends and then set out for the first real planned destination of the day.

I actually had a fair amount of trouble finding the Gallarus Oratory and it wasn’t the first destination in the area I chose. I wanted to see an ogham stone. I very badly wanted to see an ogham stone. There are a few websites dedicated to their locations and translations, and I had located one at the far west end of the peninsula. That the Gallarus Oratory was only a few miles away was an added bonus.

The often repeated story of the structure’s purpose is that it was a church for pilgrims. Séipéilín Ghallarais in Irish translates to “House of the foreigners” or “Shelter of the foreigners.” Like the stone forts we visited in Kerry, the oratory is difficult to date with certainty. The generally accepted time frame places its construction anywhere from 1,500 to 1,200 years ago, although according to at least one historian it could have been constructed a mere 900 years ago. I recall my humanities teacher touching briefly on the oratory’s construction in high school and I remember thinking it was a fascinating building.

Like everyplace else in Ireland the best I could manage as far as directions was a latitude and longitude obtained online (52°10’17.2″N 10°21’02.4″W, or 52.171440, -10.350660). This translated to a slightly less accurate location once it went into the GPS. This got us to a pull-off on the side of an unnamed road. I pulled over, looked left and right and directly ahead and saw hedges, fields and low stone walls. I knew I had to be in the right area but saw nothing to indicate where the oratory might be. I decided that this was a good spot to get the picture of the two of us in our tiny little rental car that I’d been wanting to take. I got out, put the camera on a handy stone wall, set the timer and then got back in the car. Smile! I noted that the car was all in frame and that we were both looking at the camera, and rolled on down the road. A short distance away I found the entrance to the Gallarus Oratory Visitor’s Center. What I did not notice until more than a year later when looking at the car selfie, was the little brown sign at the far end of the pull-off that pointed the way to the footpath that lead directly to the oratory.

So to be clear… you can park your vehicle on the side of the road and walk to the oratory any time, night or day, free of charge.

Or…

You can go to the visitor’s center and pay €6 per person. That may sound like a bum deal, and if you’ve studied and just want to have a look at the building I encourage you to park at the pull-off (It’s actually a shorter walk), but you do get something for your €6. There is a small gift shop, a cafe (Not open when we visited), a parking lot, a short film on Irish archeology, and toilets. We also got to meet Katy the Kitty, who was very sweet. As I understand it, the visitor’s center is a private venture put together by the fellow who owns the property adjacent to the oratory. Good for him I guess.

The Gallarus Oratory

The Gallarus Oratory

The Gallarus Oratory is of cut stone assembled into a single long corbel vault. Howard Goldbaum points out on his really really awesome website Voices from the Dawn, that this method of construction continued in Ireland with only minor alterations for thousands of years. At a glance it looks to have been put together with no mortar, although apparently a thin layer of lime was used internally to hold the stones in place. There is a single entrance just over 5′ tall and a narrow window set into the east wall. The roof has a just visible sag in the middle. I remember that in my humanities class it was introduced as an example of an “Upturned boat” building.

Katy Kitty

Katy Kitty

While it is traditionally said to be an early Christian church, the name suggests it may have been quite literally a shelter. A place for people from outside of Dingle to spend the night while in the area. The building bears no markings and practically nothing has been recovered from the sections taken in the area. It’s true use may remain a mystery.

After watching the film, seeing the oratory, using the toilets and giving Katy Kitty a scritch behind the ears we headed on to the Church at Kilmalkedar, about 4 km away in a loop around R559 through Murreagh.

The Church at Kilmalkedar

The Church at Kilmalkedar

I first learned about the church solely as the site of an ogham stone. The church itself is fascinating. The current structure is a ruined church from around the 12th Century with some Romanesque features. While the area is associated with Saint Brendan, it is thought to have originally been a monastery founded by the local Saint Maolcethair. There are finials atop the three gables (The roof of the church is gone), incredibly beautiful arches throughout, and a columned gallery.

Day15 Ireland (59)

The Latin

The Latin “Alphabet Stone”

Inside the church is also an alphabet stone dating perhaps from the 500’s covered in Latin with an inscribed cross. One local legend has it that the church was built in a single night by the faeries. The church is surrounded by graves from various periods, and a modern cemetery that appears to still be in use sits adjacent.

Sun dial

Sun dial

In front of the church there is a huge rectangle stone cross of unknown age and a sun dial. The dial has beautiful carving on both sides and the dial face is divided into four sections, likely for the five canonical hours that made up the divisions of the monastic day.

And then there was the ogham stone. This was essentially the reason for our visit to the area. Well, what brought us to this particular part of Dingle at any rate. Ogham is the written expression of Primitive and Old Irish. The earliest inscriptions date from the 300’s, although the belief is that the form originated sometime in the 1st Century BC. It is composed of a series of slash marks along a vertical or horizontal line.

The ogham stone at Kilmalkedar

The ogham stone at Kilmalkedar

The vast majority of surviving inscriptions are proper names, and are believed to be funerary in nature. The ogham stone outside the Day15 Ireland (64)Church at Kilmalkedar bears a partial inscription on one face, and “ANM MAILE-INBIR MACI BROCANN” on another. This translates to “the name Mael Inbir, son of Brocan.” It is likely that this was a local religious leader of some import and there is the possibility that the inscription was made on an existing Standing Stone. The stone also appears to rest in it’s original position, something of a rarity.

You can download fabulous 3D PDF renderings of the ogham stone, the alphabet stone, and the sun dial at the Ogham In 3D project website, here.

We continued to the end of the peninsula on R559 and around Slea Head. We pulled over to admire the view of the Atlantic and the Blasket Islands from the cliffside.

The whole country s like this exercise caution.

The whole country is like this, exercise caution.

Further along are the Dunbeg Promontory Fort and several bee hive stone huts. I’d have loved to have visited them as well, but there are only so many hours in a day, even on the ould sod. There are as many as 30,000 ancient stone sites in Ireland. Not enough time indeed.

Slea Head

Slea Head (You can see Valencia Island and the Fogher Cliffs across the water to the right of the headland)

As you make your way along the southern coast of the peninsula you’ll also be treated to an up close view of a lovely stream that comes rushing down the hillside and crosses the road before continuing on to the sea. I’ve checked, this is a permanent feature. As if the narrow road loaded with tourists in rental cars (Like myself) wasn’t enough, you now have to contend with running water over a hairpin turn on a cliffside road. We learned pretty fast that in general you had nothing to fear if the folks behind the wheel were a little severe-looking and wearing a hat. They were locals. Four girls in a Kia looking EVERYWHERE but directly ahead? Tourists. Watch your butt.

It's not bug, but a feature.

It’s not a bug, but a feature.

We made our way back to Killarney Town, parked near the town center, and wandered about on foot until we found a likely looking pub. We had a nice dinner, throughout which we kept hearing shouts from the back corner of the pub. Bachelor party apparently, and the lads were having a grand old time. At one point I got up to use the gents and rounded the corner headed toward the gathering. There were two of them. I smiled and nodded and got the standard Irish greeting “Y’ aright?” (Gotta love a people who don’t say “Hello” or “Good evening” but ask “Are you ok?”)

I replied “Yeah. You?”

“Yeah.”

One of the things I find wildly entertaining about Ireland and the UK is their approach to bachelor and bachelorette parties. They are very, very, very easy to identify, and we encountered them everywhere. They wear shirts. We encountered far more “Hen Nights” than “Stag Do’s” while on our trip, but these guys were wearing the uniform. White t-shirts with photograph on the front and the groom-to-be’s name across the back with the date. But the guy on the front didn’t look like either of the gentlemen before me. I asked which one of them was getting married. Neither, as it turned out. The groom was stuck somewhere hours away yet and they had no idea if anyone else from the do was going to make it. They’d started without them. Congratulations, offers for me to join them, and fist bumps all around, and I went back to join Julia.

We finished our dinner and returned to Friar’s Glen. Mary was fantastic as always. We settled up our bill and she made sure there was a lunch packed for us in the mud room refrigerator, since we’d be up and out at fist light to make the drive to the Shannon Airport. We were heading into the last week of our trip, and the downhill run would begin… in Scotland!

Take good care

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

Back To Death Valley

8 May

(My previous trip to Death Valley and Racetrack Playa is detailed here)

So I went back to Death Valley at the end of February. I had some friends who had expressed an interest in seeing Racetrack Playa, and I wanted to take another (Better informed) swing at astronomy photography. Between us we came up with several destinations for a longer trip than just the out-and-back one-nighter that Michael and I had gone on in 2013. I also arranged ahead of time to rent a Jeep. The 27-mile drive from Ubehebe Crater to Racetrack Playa had taken 3 hours on the previous trip and I was determined that it would be faster and more comfortable this go ’round.

We started early on a Friday morning. I began rounding up the guys at about 5:30 AM. We shoved all our various camping gear in the the back of my minivan and made for the grocery. We purchased nearly every type of pork product available along with booze, peanut butter, some smoked gouda and a nice Stilton, then we were offskie.

First stop…. Sonic in Pahrump, because none of us had eaten breakfast.

Second stop… Dante’s View! One of our number (Tim) had pointed out that several Second Unit scenes for the original Star Wars were shot in Death Valley. I’d looked online and found a few helpful sites but most were pretty light on coordinates. Tim came equipped with a folder full of printouts with screen captures and directions, mostly culled from Star Wars in Death Valley.

Dante’s view isn’t hard to find. From California Highway 190 turn south onto Furnace Creek Road. In about 7 ½ miles this road turns into Dante’s View Road and Furnace Creek Wash Road splits off to the left. Continue ahead on Dante’s View Road. Just under another 6 miles and you’ll reach the viewing area. It’s all paved and you can reach it in a street vehicle.

Looking north along Death Valley from Dante's View

Looking north along Death Valley from Dante’s View

In the original Star Wars Luke decides to travel to Alderaan with Obi Wan Kenobi after his family is murdered by Stormtroopers trying to recover R2-D2 and C-3PO. They make the trip overland to Mos Eisley by speeder. The first we see of the infamous spaceport is from a peak high above.

Side by side comparison of Mos Eisley with Death Valley

Side by side comparison of Mos Eisley with Death Valley

While Sir Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill were standing on a ridge in Tunisia, their view of Mos Eisley was filmed from Dante’s View looking north along Death Valley.

As Tim explains:

(I’m pretty tickled with how well these little video snippets turned out. Go into the YouTube settings and watch them in HD. Not great works of cinema mind you, but they look a lot better than I expected)

I find it fascinating that in the film shot they left the road in the picture.

From Dante’s View we traveled down to Badwater, the lowest point in North America. From the parking area at the side of the road you only need walk to the bottom of the stairs to see a small pool of spring water. The water is so salty as to be undrinkable, hence the area’s name. If you look around and up the cliff on the opposite side of the road you can see the “Sea Level” sign some 280 feet up the rock face. From the parking area you can set out across the salt flats. They are packed flat in a line approximately 50 feet wide that runs almost due west from the road for about half a mile, compacted by the feet of thousands of tourists. I picked up a pinch of salt from the virgin crystals just beyond the the worn path and tasted it. It was much warmer down here on the valley floor than it had been at the peak, and after trying the salt I drank down about ¼ of the water in my CamelBak.

While we’re on the subject of water allow me to remind you that the name of the place is Death Valley. The entire area is pretty wildly inhospitable to all but the most specially adapted life (The Badwater Snail, for example… that lives in Badwater Spring). TAKE PLENTY OF WATER WITH YOU. No matter when you travel to Death Valley it is dry. Temperatures were mild during our visit, and we still went through approximately 2 gallons of water a day between the four of us. Just because it isn’t hot, that doesn’t mean you can’t get dangerously dehydrated. I will post here the handy-dandy urine color hydration gauge we found in the bathroom at Scotty’s Castle.

Pay close attention

Pay close attention

You’ll find water fountains at ranger stations and, to my surprise, several of the camp sites (But not all). I advise bringing your own in abundance. We discovered that water cost more per gallon than gasoline at Stovepipe Wells, and gas in Death Valley ain’t cheap.

We left Badwater and rolled back north to Artist’s Palette. The area is so named for the many different colors found in the area due to various minerals in the rocks. The area is quite lovely. There is not only an incredible variety of colors to be found, but the different shades change subtly at various distances.

But that’s not why we came….

We stopped at Artist’s Palette because another 2nd Unit scene for Star Wars was shot at this location. Just before R2-D2 is captured by the Jawas we see a shot of him rolling up out of an arroyo. We hoped to find the exact location from which this segment was shot. We parked in the dirt lot and made our way up the arroyo, Tim with his printouts in hand. Gerry and Mike hiked further up toward the hills while Tim and I scrambled up and down the ridges dividing the narrow channels that come together just at the parking area. We were trying to line up the view with the screen shot just… so.

Obviously, I don't own this picture

Obviously, I don’t own this picture

We felt we got as close as we could. Our theory was that the camera had been set up on a scaffold on a ridge east of the parking lot, since we couldn’t make the angle just right. We found Mike and Gerry again and talked about what might make the green patina in the rocks that wasn’t copper. We took a last look as we got back to the van… and found the spot where the shot had to have been taken. It was at the edge of the parking lot.

Cameras are heavy, why carry them any farther than you have to?

Cameras are heavy, why carry them any farther than you have to?

Allowing for erosion in the nearly 40 years since, a spot just a foot or two out into the air over the edge of the arroyo directly in front of where we’d parked lined up perfectly. Of course it did. How far would a camera crew want to schlepp all that equipment? As far as they had to and not one step more. Mildly chagrined, but more proud of ourselves and Tim’s printouts than anything else, we got back in the van and made for the next shooting location.

Just up the road is Golden Canyon. The parking lot was full to overflowing. We started in and found the location we were looking for within minutes. There’s a point of view shot of a Jawa watching R2-D2 roll by from the cover of a crevasse. The spot is to the left as you’re walking into the canyon about 600′ from the parking lot. (Coordinates 36°25’19.4″N 116°50’43.2″W, or 36.422050, -116.845333)

More pictures that belong to Lucasfilm and not me.

More pictures that belong to Lucasfilm and not me.

The spot as it appears today

The spot as it appears today

If you step inside the opening, climb about 6′ and then turn around it is immediately clear that this is the spot. If you like, you can continue up the steep path through a series of slot canyons quite some way up the side of the mountain. The walls to either side are sharpish and the rocks loose under foot, so please be careful. Two of our group kept on to the top. I did not, because I am old, lazy, and more than a little out of shape. I went back down and continued the walk up Golden Canyon. The canyon is full of locations from the “Jawa Canyon.” In full daylight with the sun shining down from directly overhead I found it difficult to find several of these spots, but they are well documented on the Star Wars in Death Valley website.

On the way out we encountered a crew shooting an independent Star Wars film.

We continued north up the valley to Furnace Creek and stopped at the general store to have look around and use the restroom. I picked up some postcards to send my wife and my mom before we motored on to the Mesquite Flat Dunes.

The dunes are just off of Highway 190 at the north end of the valley, with a parking area about 2 miles east of Stovepipe Wells. While not the largest dunes in the area, they are the most easily accessible, making them a popular tourist and filming destination (The dunes are the site of another 2nd Unit shot from Star Wars).

Looking north toward the

Looking north toward the “Star Dune”

We got out and walked a few hundred yards in. The dunes are formed by sand blowing down from the mountains and collecting in the bowl of the valley when it comes up against an obstacle acting as a windbreak (In this instance, Tucki Mountain at the north end of the Panamint Range). In the silence of the late afternoon we could hear the sand blowing over the dunes when we stood still. The sand is incredibly fine and I took my shoes off for the walk back to the van.

We figured out that we had just under two hours of daylight left so we decided to move on to our campground. I was looking for someplace that allowed wood fires and that ideally wouldn’t require a fee. The Wildrose campsite is pretty remote but still accessible with a regular street vehicle. It’s located below Wildrose Peak on the west side of the mountain (36° 15′ 57.7404” N117° 11′ 19.3704” W or 36.266039, -117.188714). You take Highway 190 west through Stovepipe Wells to the Emigrant Campground. Turn left onto Emigrant Canyon Road until it ends and Wildrose is on the left.

Night One Camp

Night One Camp

We reached the camp much more quickly than I anticipated. Wildrose is a pretty large site that can accommodate campers (Up to a certain size) and has a separate tent-only area at the far end. It has water, picnic tables, and fire pits. There is a non-flush toilet at one end of the site. There is no fee to use the site and spaces are first-come first-serve. We found the site empty of all but a single camper. Wildrose is surrounded by hills but was still a little windy and as expected the temperature plummeted when the sun went down.

We got the tents up and our fire going. Pipes were filled, cigars lit, and we each pulled out a bottle of whatever suited our particular taste. Dinner was bratwurst (Regular as well as a spicy variety) supplemented with gouda and stilton on cracked pepper crackers and sardines in a mustard sauce. We sat and talked.

Orion

Orion

I wandered away from the fire to take a few preliminary test shots in anticipation of doing some astronomy photography the next night on Racetrack Playa. The evening wore on. The stars turned in an arc over our heads. The guys with kids were laughing over the Girl’s Night With Children their wives were having at Gerry’s house, and wondering if the kids were still up at this late hour as we made ready to pack it in. Somebody asked what time it was. 9:15. We were beginning to doze in our camp chairs…. at 9:15.

The last fading light in the west

The last fading light in the west

A short time earlier Michael had mentioned an idea he’d had from a friend for keeping warm overnight. You take a stone and place it near the fire. When you turn in for the night, you wrap the stone in a towel and place it inside your sleeping bag. It slowly sheds the heat it has absorbed over the next few hours. Several stones placed inside the tent would serve to heat the enclosed space. The friend he’d had this from was known to us all as a certified mountain-man-type-guy and it sounded like a fine idea. Michael himself spent several years on a fire crew fighting blazes all over the state and camping rough, so we tended to defer to his judgment in most instances while out camping. While we were eating dinner Michael was debating which rock to use and where to place it. I noted that there was already a nice medium-sized rock IN the fire and why didn’t he just use that one? Agreed.

We’d stowed our food and booze (Not wanting a repeat of the Kit Fox Incident outlined in my account of my previous Death Valley trip) and I was walking toward our tent when I caught a whiff of acrid smoke. Years ago I was in a highrise fire. Once you’ve been in a building fire you become a walking smoke detector, and the smoke I smelled wasn’t the gentle woodsmoke of our campfire but the burning plastic smell of something artificial burning. I reached the tent I was sharing with Michael and made to climb inside. A wall of choking smoke stopped me in my tracks. Michael tried to pick up the rock. It was far too hot for his purposes and had set the towel on fire. In fact the rock cracked from the heat when he put it outside the tent. We had to put the hot rock test off for another night.

The next morning we were all up before sunrise. I finally discovered something all of us had forgotten to bring…. coffee. Okay, Michael brought a couple of packets of instant coffee but that hardly counts. I’d remembered tea, so I indulged in some Irish Breakfast with Tim (Our designated “Person, English:1”). I’d passed a comfortable night on the REI self-inflating sleeping pad Gerry had let me borrow. I highly recommend it. Tim volunteered to cook and we had lovely sausages, black pudding, and baked beans for breakfast. We packed up our gear, did our idiot check and made sure the fire was drowned and then set off for Stovepipe Wells.

Stovepipe Wells is a wide spot in the road with a general store, a gasoline station, an airstrip and several cottages and RV’s just west of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. As a practical matter of interest, gasoline was cheaper in Stovepipe Wells than in Furnace Creek. We secured an absurdly over-priced can of coffee and topped off the van for the eventual trip home and then continued toward Farabee’s.

I found Farabee’s Jeep Rental online. Before my first trip out to Racetrack Playa I’d looked into it and discovered that most regular car rental places don’t carry off-road vehicles, and the ones that do specifically tell you not to take them off road. So…. you can rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle that gets bad gas mileage, just don’t use it for its intended purpose or anything. Michael and I eventually made the first trip to the Playa in a pickup truck borrowed from my supervisor, but this time we were going to go with the right tool for the job.

You can book a Jeep from Farabee’s online through their website (Here) or give them a call. There are Farabee’s locations in Utah and Colorado, so be sure you’re booking for Death Valley. They also do guided tours. A glitch in their software kept me from making the online booking so I called and made our reservation over the phone a couple of weeks out. We needed a 4-door since there were 4 of us plus our gear. Rentals from Farabee’s are for a calendar day and a 4-door is $235 a day. We opted for the tire and glass coverage at $25 a day, so with taxes and other fees it came to $618 for 2 days.

It’s worth it.

Farabee’s is located on Highway 190 where it meets Badwater Road right across from the Furnace Creek Inn. When we went to pick up the Jeep Victoria took care of us. While the guys loaded our gear out of the van and into the Jeep she explained the controls and features of the Jeep. I had originally intended to get a 2-door and stow gear on top but their vehicles are not equipped with racks, and the back seat in a 2-door Jeep isn’t fit for a full-grown adult. 2 tents, firewood, cooking gear, 4 sleeping bags, a giant cooler… we were packed into the 4-door pretty tight.

Old Reliable.... Farabee's Jeep Number 30

Old Reliable…. Farabee’s Jeep Number 30

The rental came with water and an emergency GPS transmitter. Victoria explained the operation of the GPS and went over a map with us. We’d originally intended to drive directly to the Playa, but after seeing the map and looking over the parts of the valley that were now open to us in a 4×4 we added a few destinations to the itinerary. One place I did want to go was stricken from the list, however, when she let me know that taking one of their Jeeps down Lippincott Road was forbidden. She described the road as “Too Jeep-ey” and explained that going that way after we’d been warned off would void all of our insurance protections. This was unfortunate, as that was the first thing we had planned for Sunday morning.
Victoria gamely posed for some pictures with us and we took off. We made our way north again and passed out of the valley via Hell’s Gate, rolling back into Nevada and continuing along 374 to Rhyolite.

Rhyolite is one of Nevada’s countless ghost towns. Its position just off a highway and the fact that many of its ruins are made of stone make it one of the more visited abandoned settlements in the state.

The ghost town of Rhyolite

The ghost town of Rhyolite

It sprang into existence after gold was discovered in 1904 and within a year the town had a population of about 2,500. The boom town boasted a stock exchange, an opera house, electric lights and over 50 saloons. By 1907 the population had reached 5,000 and the town went bust by 1910. By 1920 the town was abandoned.

With the tourism boom in Death Valley in the 1920’s and 1930’s Rhyolite saw the return of a few visitors. A gasoline station operated out of an old caboose (That is still there) and a casino and restaurant took over the old Las Vegas and Tonopah railway station, which still stands largely intact today.

We reached Rhyolite just before noon as the weather turned rainy. A paved road leads through the center of town past the Bottle House and the bank and ends at the railway station. There are toilets near the railway station and you can make a circuit of the town on foot or in a vehicle. If you’ve ever been to Radiator Springs and waited in line for the Racers at Disney’s California Adventure park, you’ve seen a close approximation of the Bottle House. The house was built using approximately 30,000 bottles in 1905 by a man named Tom Kelley. Most of the bottles are Adolphus Busch beer bottles (Budweiser to you and me). Kelley never lived in the house, but raffled it off. There used to be a lot of that sort of thing out west when land was plentiful and cheap. I know a couple who used to live in a cottage outside LA on land that was given to customers who purchased a full set of encyclopedias in the mid 1930’s. The raffle was won by a family named Bennett, and they lived in the home until 1914.

After having a close look at the remaining structures we stopped at the Goldwell Open Air Museum on our way back to the highway. In the 1980’s Belgian artist Albert Szukalski created a series of sculptures in and around Rhyolie by draping plaster soaked sheets over models, the largest being The Last Supper. The Goldwell Museum was organized in 2000 after Szukalski’s death. There are a number of installations ranging from the size of a sofa to the massive Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada.

After leaving Rhyolite we struck out for the Red Pass and Titus Canyon on Leadfield Road. Thanks to having a 4×4 equipped with the proper tires we zipped along at a speed that I found frankly astonishing as the sun came back out. After a long level stretch across the valley floor we began the climb up into the hills. Looking down over the drop as we negotiated the switchbacks was entertaining and we stopped periodically to enjoy the view.

This is one you should switch to HD

We picked up the pace as we descended the other side of the pass because one of our party did the math and sorted out that we’d have to push it to make Racetrack Playa before the sun went down. We paused only a moment in the ghost town of Leadfield for a pit stop and went haring through Titus Canyon faster than was probably prudent.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. High winds were kicking up as we exited Titus Canyon.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes from about 14 miles away. High winds were kicking up as we exited Titus Canyon.

We reached Ubehebe Crater at 3:30 and set off down the notoriously bad Racetrack Playa Road. The ride was unbelievably smooth in the Jeep. We made the trip to the Playa in 1/3 the time it took us previously. Having the right piece of equipment makes all the difference.

No seriously, if you don’t own one… rent a Jeep.

We also learned that the road had been graded just the week before and was in much better condition than during our previous trip. Don’t tell the folks from Farabee’s, but I got the Jeep up to about 60 on one straightaway.

Wouldn't be a trip to Racetrack Playa without stopping at Tea Kettle Junction

Wouldn’t be a trip to Racetrack Playa without stopping at Teakettle Junction

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Upon reaching the Playa I made a tactical error. The weather report for the day called for rain and snow at midday. We’d seen rain and snow in Nevada at around noon and I (Mistakenly) believed that was the end of it. It was getting on toward dark so we continued to the Homestake camp site and started setting up our tents. We had about 40 minutes of daylight once the tents were up and in hindsight this would have been a great time to take Gerry and Tim down to the Playa to locate a few of the stones. Instead we got out our bottles and got the fire going. I remembered Victoria’s instructions and got out the GPS unit and sent the “We’re Alive And Have Stopped For The Night, Thanks” signal and lit a cigar.

Just after dark it started to rain. It didn’t stop. Tim soldiered on with skillet and camp burner crouched under the tailgate of Farabee’s Jeep Number 30 and we sat around the fire in a pretty steady downpour eating some truly amazing bacon-wrapped pork chops. I tried the hot stone trick. It was actually quite nice for a good while. It radiated heat inside my sleeping bag as I drifted off. I will consider bringing several towels on my next outing and placing a few stones around the corners of the tent to further test this method’s efficacy.

The cloud cover and rain (That eventually became snow) continued all through the night, which meant no astronomy photography….

… and no walking the Playa the next morning.

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We awoke before dawn to snow-covered mountains and a water-covered Playa. The three or four inches of perfectly still water made a several square mile mirror. While this was lovely to look at, walking on Racetrack Playa when it is wet is forbidden since footprints in the wet mud can stay for years.

I drove down to the Playa with two of the guys anyway and we made our way along the south shore to the formation where the racing stones are born (Calved? Fall down the hillside to the racing surface…). We saw several racing stones that had moved recently near shore. We met a photographer who was hiking out. He’d spent the night in his car. That didn’t sound like any fun.

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A more detailed explanation of the mechanism by which the stones move can be found here.

We went back to camp and Tim put on his cook’s hat and we dusted off the rest of our supplies. More black pudding to supplement Spam sandwiches with spicy bratwurst and gouda on hot dog buns. Mmmmm mmm. Coffee and a little whiskey for the chill and we were ready to face the day.

Once we were packed up we set off for the Lost Burro Mine. We headed back down to Teakettle Junction and took the Hunter Mountain Road over to Hidden Valley. Water covered the track in several places and this is where we discovered that one of the rubber stoppers in the floor of the Jeep was missing. I put us through a puddle a foot or two deep at 40+ mph and a two-inch thick jet of water shot straight up between Tim’s legs. About half a mile after the turn off to the mine the road got “Jeep-ey” and Gerry got out to make sure I didn’t put a tire wrong and tumble us down the side of a hill.

Shortly after that the track disappeared altogether in the snow. We made it the rest of the way to the mine by presuming that the bit in front of us without plants or rocks sticking up was the road.

Miner's cabin at Lost Burro

Miner’s cabin at Lost Burro

Lost Burro was a gold mine that operated off and on from 1907 into the 1970’s and was one of the most prosperous mines in the area. A good history of the mine can be found at the Death Valley Jim website. There is an intact miner’s cabin, a storage shed, the framework for the mill/cable car system, outhouse, and the mine entrance. The cabin is still furnished with a few basics (A chair, a table, bed frame and springs) and most flat surfaces are covered with artifacts that visitors have picked up and carried inside. All in all it looks like an excellent place to pick up the Hantavirus. A note from the BLM next to a sign-in book inside a plastic bag explains that the cabin has been treated, not that it occurred to ANY of us NOT to go inside beforehand.

Exact change please

Exact change please

Death Valley (20)     Death Valley (19)

Death Valley (21)Michael and I checked out the cabin and shed while Tim and Gerry made their way to the top of the mill remains to suss out its function.

Entrance to the Lost Burro Gold Mine

Entrance to the Lost Burro Gold Mine

After having a look around we followed and stuck our heads inside the mine entrance. I went in just as far as the light reached from the entrance. YOU SHOULD NEVER GO INSIDE AN ABANDONED MINE. This is a really good way to get dead with as little effort as possible.

Michael and I started to climb the hill toward the top of the mill and Gerry & Tim made truly pathetic efforts at hitting us with snowballs. Once we reached the top we were treated to what must be a spectacular view of the valley when the hills aren’t socked in with snow and fog. The entire structure has recently been stabilized with cables so watch your step.

The view from the top of the mill.

Ubehebe Crater

Ubehebe Crater

From there it was an almost entirely downhill run back to Ubehebe Crater. We stopped and got out and made our way down. As I am old and fat and out of shape I stopped about midway down the 700 foot deep crater. Michael ran all the way down to the bottom, “Flailing around like Grover” according to Gerry. Watching him below I had a bad moment where I thought he was going to take all his clothes off for some reason that wasn’t immediately evident. He stripped off his jacket, then lay down on the crater floor. When he came back up he said it was blazing hot at the bottom. I suppose the crater is deep enough that there would be a difference in barometric pressure and there is of course no breeze. Climbing back out took a good bit longer than sliding in. The sides of the crater are composed of loose black gravel. The ground shifts constantly under your feet, carrying you swiftly downward as you cover three times more distance than you would normally with each stride. Going back up…. you are quite literally carried backward one step for every two you take. By the time I reached the lip of the crater I was exhausted, and may have said a few dirty words to Gerry for pointing out that I had stopped to rest a mere ten feet from the top.

I sat on the bumper of good old Farabee’s Jeep Number 30 and tried to catch my breath. It had been a good trip, and I was exhausted. A trio of Chinese tourists passed by and smiled. One of the girls pointed to my ball cap and said “Dragon,” which cleared things up a great deal. My wife had purchased the hat for me in Hong Kong. I thought it said “Hong Kong.” She had, in fact, purchased it in Hong Kong during the Year of the Dragon. I told the girl I was just happy it didn’t say “Tourist,” got a blank look for a reply, and they went on their way. You learn something new every day if you aren’t careful.

We returned to Furnace Creek and loaded the gear back into my van, returned the Jeep, and drove home. We spent the next week stopping by each others’ homes and places of work returning bits of gear that had ended up in each others’ things. We laughed about the rain and the cold and the cuts on our hands from scrambling over the rocks and sorted out who owed who how much for the Jeep and food.

Can’t wait to do it again!
Take good care.

My LuminAID in action

My LuminAID in action

P.S. I meant to mention this earlier… I took my LuminAID solar light on this trip and it did yeoman’s service in the rain. The light is a brilliant invention, the work of two graduate students after the earthquake in Haiti. You can purchase the original LuminAID or the new camping version from LuminAID.com. Do consider the option of buying a light and having another

donated for disaster relief.

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

There’s Ancient, and then there’s ANCIENT

7 Feb

The sun came up on Day 14 of our trip. On the advice of our innkeeper, Mary, we slept in. She suggested we let the big tour coaches get a head start on the Ring of Kerry so we’d not be stuck with them on the roads or stopping at attractions swamped with tourists. We went down for breakfast a little after 9AM.

Breakfast at Friar’s Glen is a work of art. Traditional Irish breakfast as well as fruit, muffins, scones, butter, cream, oooooooooh just plate upon plate of fabulous food! This was the absolute best breakfast I’ve had anywhere in England, Ireland, or Scotland. Seriously. According to our waitress everything we ate for breakfast was made by Mary’s own hand. Her name was Bridget, and she was incredibly friendly. Bridget, like Mary, was full of helpful hints about the Ring of Kerry, excitedly giving us exact directions to specific locations and suggesting things to see and do that weren’t on the map.

As for Friar’s Glen… our room had what I consider a standard hotel room layout and was spacious and well-suited to our needs. You can control the radiator in your room but be advised that as with other places we stayed in Europe, the heat will shut off overnight during the hours that you are (Presumably) asleep. There was a refrigerator just down the hall in the mud room for guest use. I believe I mentioned in the previous post the common room that had a lovely peat fire burning when we arrived. The room is stocked with books and games and is quite cozy. Friar’s Glen does have WiFi, but I had trouble picking it up on my device.

I highly recommend Friar’s Glen for a number of reasons. It’s out away from Killarney Town and so very quiet and secluded. It is within the Killarney National Park, with a number of pleasant trails just across the road. The price was reasonable for what you get and Mary offered a cash discount. It is a great base of operations for both the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula. Visit their website for information and reservations. 

Armed with Mary and Bridget’s recommendations and fortified by the amazing breakfast we marched out to the car and fired up the GPS. Since you can’t just tell the GPS “Follow the Ring of Kerry” we programmed Killorglin as our destination. This would start us on the Ring in the “Anti-clockwise” direction as per Mary’s recommendation. The tour coaches also travel anti-clockwise. This means that you are unlikely to encounter one coming at you on the very narrow cliff-side roads, and if you do… you’ll not be on the side of the road with the several-hundred-foot drop to the sea. (Having taken Mary’s advice about the late start as well, we hoped not to encounter them at all).

We made our way north through the countryside. It really is unbelievably beautiful. Much of the land is divided into countless stone-walled fields. Each field is often a fractionally different shade of green from its neighbor, making the whole of the landscape seem like a never-ending emerald quilt dotted with cotton-white sheep and golden flowers.

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Dingle Peninsula from the beach at Rossbeigh (You can always click on any picture to open a larger image in another window)

We made it to Killorglin without incident but even with the GPS we got briefly off the track, found our way back on, and proceeded to our next marker, Glenbeigh. Here we left the Ring and followed directions from Bridget to the beach at Rossbeigh. The entire time we were in the southwest of Ireland we were constantly amazed at the deep blue of the water. I’m not sure what I expected… green perhaps? Or maybe the gray of the Irish Sea I remembered from a very rough crossing 20 years before? Dunno. I just wasn’t prepared for the startling sapphire blue of the waters around the Kerry peninsula. It was windy and cold. There were a few whitewashed cottages nearby, and the ubiquitous sheep were scattered about on the far side of some sports fields near the rocky beach.

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It’s hard to capture an incline in a photograph when you’re sitting on top of it. Trust me… very steep, narrow road.

Rather than backtrack, we continued along R564 (A one-lane road over the mountain above the inlet) through the countryside. We hooked up with the N70 (The Ring of Kerry) near a place called Drom and continued on toward Cahersiveen. Once we reached the town we turned north on Bridge Street/Castlequin. There are signs for “Stone Forts” and in a few minutes we’d reached a wide spot in the road, the parking area for Leacanabuile (10º 15′ 43” W, 51º 57′ 30” N, if you took my suggestion and you are using a GPS).

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The interior of Leacanabuile

We’d found the location of the fort by searching Google for ancient sites along the route of the Ring of Kerry. As well as can be determined by the archeological research carried out thus far the small hill fort dates from the 9th or 10th Century. Habitation could stretch back as far as the 500’s, but there’s just no way to be certain. Inside are the low remains of several stone buildings. Day 14 (42)Within the circular structure built against the western side of the enclosure is an entrance to a narrow subterranean passageway that leads to a small chamber built into the outer wall, at least according to the information placard posted near the fort entrance. Day 14 (46)We had to take their word for it, because try as I might, I was unable to get more than my head and the top of my shoulders into the tiny opening. According to the really fantastic website Voices from the Dawn put together by Howard Goldbaum of the University of Nevada, an excavation of the site conducted over 1939-1940 records the passage as being one meter tall.*

Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t dream of sticking my head (Or any other part of me) in a hole in the ground. Ah… but this is Ireland! No snakes! Unlike where I grew up, you may tramp through field and over rocky dale, even reach into dark crevasses, without the slightest fear of meeting a Copperhead, or a Water Moccasin, or a Timber Rattler. Nope. Not so much as a garter snake in the grass of the Emerald Isle, and it is a glorious thing! In fact, at breakfast that very morning two women seated next to us remarked upon the great number and diversity of songbirds they’d encountered on a hike through the Killarney National Park. I suggested that this may be in part because there were no snakes. One of the women said “Oh! No we didn’t see any. I didn’t think of that at all, we should have been more careful.” I explained that she’d mistaken my meaning, and that there are no snakes to be found. She had no idea. Neither of them had. I was frankly amazed. How does one grow to adulthood, make the conscious decision to travel to Erin, make arrangements and then actually board a conveyance and make their way to Ireland and not know this single, simple fact? I’m afraid I sat there staring at her with my mouth open for longer than is polite in anybody’s book.

I digress…

As much as I would have liked to make the trek to the wall’s interior it was not physically possible. Even Julia (Who is less than half my size) could not wriggle inside. I’ve learned now (Doing more detailed research almost 3 years after the fact) that had I exited the fort and walked down to the bottom of the western wall, I’d have found the other end of the passage covered by a (Most likely unlocked) gate.

While I was unable to make good a full impression of Darby O’Gill, we enjoyed looking about the interior of the fort, and looking off to the east we saw another. We descended the hill and walked a few hundred yards to Cahergall.

Cahergall

Cahergall

 

Cahergall stone fort is very similar in appearance to the Staigue stone fort on the opposite side of the Ring of Kerry near Sneem. Like Leacanabuile, this type of fortification is difficult to date with precision, one reason being that the naturally defensible sites were built upon again and again over hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.

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According to a placard at the site the upper portions of the outer walls have been restored.

Again I refer you to Voices from the Dawn for a high resolution photograph of the site as it appeared in the late 1970’s for comparison. While we stood atop the fort we looked to the south and saw…

A castle….

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… as it turns out….

… another McCarthy castle!Day 14 (77)

Ballycarbery Castle sits on a grassy hill on the north shore of the Ferthy River estuary that feeds into Valencia Harbor. There is a gravel parking area just at the bottom of the slope. The lot is at the end of an unnamed road that runs southwest from Castlequin about 100 yards east of Cahergall. There’s a brown sign on the south side of the road.

(n.b. While there are signs leading you to the castle, and a sign at the site giving some of its history, it is also surrounded by a barbed wire fence which you will have to climb over/shimmy under to access the site. Sooooooo, strictly speaking you’re probably not supposed to be in there. Explore at your own risk.)

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Looking out from the ground floor

Ballycarbery Castle was built in the 16th Century and is associated with the powerful Mac Cárthaigh dynasty (My wife’s ancestors), however habitation on the site goes back perhaps as far as the late 12th Century and Tagdh Mac Cárthaigh is recorded as having died in a residence on this site in 1398. Tradition says that the current ruin was constructed by Carbery O’Shea “Using the blood of bullocks to cement the stones.” However, the region was controlled by McCarthy Mor and a constable clan chief from the Clan O’Connell was installed in the castle.Day 14 (88)

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Arrow slit in the curtain wall

The castle was surrounded by a curtain wall but only a fraction of it remains. Even though half of the castle is missing, blown up by Oliver Cromwell’s forces (Curse his name forever) in 1652 during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms , it is an easy climb to the intact sections of the upper floors, and part of a stairway is still passable within the western wall. The weather was gorgeous and it would have been a lovely spot for a picnic had we thought to bring one. We pushed on, hoping to make a creamery and a candle maker on Valencia Island that Bridget had recommended.

We arrived at Portmagee and made a quick stop at the Village Public Facility (Runner Up for Ireland’s Top Toilet Award, 2002 according to the sign) and then crossed the bridge to Valencia Island.

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Keeping watch in Knight’s Town

Valencia is about 6 miles by 2. The modern spelling appears most places as “Valentia” while it is “Valencia” on tombstones on the island. I’m not sure exactly when the spelling changed. We drove to Knight’s Town and had lunch and a pint at The Royal Pier Bar then got back in the car and immediately got lost looking for the Fogher Cliffs. We found a ruined church and parish cemetery on the north side of the island before we found the road leading up to the cliffs.

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Looking north from the churchyard

 

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Many of the stones in the churchyard had a nautical theme

 

 

 

Geokaun Mountain is the highest point on the island. There’s a self-serve parking area where you feed €5 into a machine for a ticket to put on the dash. A short walk leads you to an overlook where you can view the cliffs. The Skellig Islands are visible in the distance, as well as the Dingle Peninsula, the Atlantic, and all of Valencia Island. There was a roaring wind coming off the water as we stood above the 600′ cliffs. Day 14 (115)We weren’t able to stay put for very long, and even taking a photograph was difficult as I could barely hold the camera still. Placards along the path relate the history of the area, along with tales of the Fianna and Fionn Mac Cumhail.

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The Skellig Islands from the path overlooking the Fogher Cliffs

 

We beat a hasty retreat to the warmth of our little rental car and drove back down the mountain. Next up on our list of things to see was a very ancient site… the Tetrapod Trackway.

After seeing it on the local tourist map of Valencia Island I recalled having watched a brief blurb about Ireland’s Tetrapod Trackway on PBS or some similar network not long after the prints were discovered in the 1990’s. It wasn’t something we’d set out to see, but we were in the area and I certainly didn’t want to pass it up.

The Irish just aren’t that interested in naming roads, so you’ll need to rely on your GPS again to get you into the vicinity of 10° 20′ 38″ W, 51° 55′ 51″ N, or ask someone local for directions. As you approach the radio station at the northernmost bit of the island there’s a car park on your right. From there you proceed on foot along a path right down to the shore.

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The Tetrapod Trackway

Back in the Devonian Period the land that would one day become Erin was situated down near the Equator. One day about 385 million years ago one of the earliest creatures to make their way out of the sea and up onto dry land was wandering about the tidal shallows. It was about a meter long, about a third of that length being its tail, and it had four legs lately evolved from fins. As it walked along, or perhaps pushed itself along the bottom in the shallow water just off shore, it left footprints in the soft mud. It’s belly dragged the surface and here and there it’s tail cut an S pattern as it trailed along behind. After these few minutes of activity our Tetrapod friend (Or friends) passed again out of our knowledge to whatever end, leaving behind only those few impressions in the mud. The impressions were filled in with silt and over the eons hardened into rock as the plates of the Earth shifted and Ireland wandered north. Eventually the stone with the prints was again exposed and a geology student discovered them in 1993. They are the oldest known in-situ tracks made by a living thing on earth.

It was getting on in the day and the sun was sliding down toward the sea. We made a circuit of the island looking for the candle maker and the creamery recommended by Bridget but neither were open, either due to the lateness of the hour or the earliness of the month (We were still a few weeks from the start of the high season). We did find a heard of deer and ever more stunning views of the Atlantic and the islands to the west. Day 14 (129)In season you can take a boat from the visitor’s center just by the bridge from Portmagee out to Skellig Michael, the site of an ancient monastery from roughly the 6th to 13th Centuries. Fun fact: Skellig Michael was used as a location for the filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens during the summer of 2014.

Day 14 (135)

Valencia Island. The white line center-left is the bridge from Portmagee.

 

We crossed the bridge, took a wrong turning, and ended up on the Skellig Ring track over the mountain to the south toward Ballinskelligs, which Bridget was horrified to learn of later and declared us to be “Very brave” for going that way. We survived the trip to the southern part of the peninsula and once we found our way back to the N70 we stopped in Kenmare for supper.

We had dinner at The Wander Inn, where the food and drink was very good. There was live music in the form of two young men playing original contemporary compositions on a guitar and accordion that I didn’t really much care for. We listened to a set and then decided to get on. Julia was disappointed for me that it wasn’t Irish music. Well, it WAS Irish music. They were Irish musicians. We were in Ireland… but her point was taken. Traditional Irish music had been the hope. The food was still good.

We had the last 20 miles to go back to Friar’s Glen. We’d saved the most twisting and mountainous leg to do in the dark. I’d built up a fair bit of confidence over the course of the two days I’d spent driving in Kerry and was feeling pretty good about it as we made our way.. SHEEP!!! All day they’d been fluffy white accents to the landscape but now that it was pitch black the sheep were no longer in the pens but out IN the bloody road! I had this picture in my head of them all looking around at each other once the sun went down and saying, “Farmer O’Connell is down the pub boys, over the wall!” then lacing their front hooves to boost each other over. They were around every 3rd or 4th bend in the road. It was nerve wracking.

We made it back all of a piece. We’d passed a spot with the intriguing name “Ladies View” just a few miles out of Killarney and decided we’d head back in the morning.

We’d spent the day driving back in time. From medieval Ballycarbery Castle and the more ancient Leacanabuile, to just about the deepest pre-history imaginable and the Tetrapod Trackway. For tomorrow there was the Dingle Peninsula, but before that another amazing breakfast!

 

 

*Much of the information for this post I obtained long after the fact. Several of the places we visited on this particular day became destinations only the night before and only the information printed on placards posted at the sites was available to us. We had a great time anyway, but maybe a third of the information in this post I discovered only recently. For ancient sites in Ireland I refer you again to the excellent site Voices from the Dawn. Loads of additional information on Ballycarbery Castle can be found there, as well as on the North American McCarthy Clan website.

 

Take good care.

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

Is There a Dutch Word for “Blarney?”

27 Jan

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Day 13 was another “Up And Out Early” day. We had a flight from Schiphol Airport and had to be there at 7:30. Karel gave us the lowdown on the bus. The N97 and the 197 run every 15 minutes 24 hours a day and stop two blocks from The Collector. The bus was GPS equipped and a screen at the front gave us the current location and a running ETA to the next stop as well as to the end of the line (The airport).

The system seemed to move us along efficiently on what I judged to be a medium-traffic morning at the airport.

The system seemed to move us along efficiently on what I judged to be a medium-traffic morning at the airport.

We made it to the airport in plenty of time. We checked in for our flight and used the very Star Trek-looking luggage self check. You scan in your ticket and passport and a cage opens on a long metal cylinder about 4 feet high. You place the bag inside and the cage rolls down into place. Provided that you don’t have to pay an overweight fee, away goes your bag. From there you proceed to departures. At the time of our trip Schiphol did not have centralized departure security (I read on one or two sites that this may be changing), but security checks at the departure gates. I sailed through for once and looked back to see that Julia had been stopped and her bag was being searched. Apparently the square block of clotted cream fudge she’d purchased in Canterbury looked like something else on x-ray. The guard who searched her bag pulled the fudge from beneath a number of other items packed very tightly and neatly and carried it over to the x-ray operator. He angrily showed the fudge to the operator and hissed “It’s CANDY,” before returning it to Julia with an apology.

We flew Aer Lingus to Cork. Aer Lingus is the national carrier for the Republic of Ireland and (At least at present) the second largest airline in the country. While neither of us care for the constant sales pitch on the plane for duty-free, it was the quickest and most economical way to get from Amsterdam to Cork, costing $210 for the both of us at the time. Some months after our trip I began getting special offer emails from Aer Lingus. I presume the fact that our flight originated in Amsterdam is the reason they were all in Dutch.

We landed in Cork and zipped through passport control with about three words from the Customs officers, all of whom liked our luggage. At the Hertz counter the clerk looked me up and down and said “Erm… d’ya want a bigger car?”

“No, I’m sure the one we’ve booked is fine.”

He looked dubious to say the least. I’m 6’2” and north of 250.

“You go and have a look at it, then if you want a bigger car you come back.”

I agreed that I would. Turns out that we had a Suzuki Swift hatchback. The hatch covered a space that just barely fit our shoulder bags. Backpacks and suitcases went into the back seat and were stacked high enough to block the rear view mirror. Let me reiterate here that we each had one rolling case, one shoulder bag, and one backpack (Official carry-on size). It was a VERY tiny car, but suited our needs with nothing really extraneous so we stuck with it.

I’d read a number of negative things about renting cars in Ireland. I had the impression from a couple of forums that I was in for a tremendous hassle. We had no problem at all. I did a search on Expedia, booked the car at a decent rate, then entered the confirmation number at Autoslash. If you’ve never used Autoslash I STRONGLY recommend you start. It’s a simple (And free!) service that has saved me as much as 41% on car rentals in the past. You go to the site, enter your rental confirmation number (Or search for a rental through the site), then provide your email address. From that point until you rent the car the site searches for discounts on your rental. You’ll be alerted via email when a lower rate becomes available and you can rebook and cancel your original reservation. Check out their website next time you rent a car, autoslash.com.

It had been over 20 years since I’d driven a car in Europe. The Swift was a stick. The physical act of operating a right-side drive isn’t so bad. Shifting with your left hand is a little weird but the pedals are in the same order. It’s the whole “Left Side of the Road” thing that messes with you. It throws off your spacial orientation and makes it hard to judge distances. Of course, all the street signs looking different doesn’t help either. Our system works like this: I concentrate on driving the car… staying on the correct side of the road, obeying the speed limit, trying to obey the traffic laws and not hitting anything. Julia’s job is to navigate and point out things like traffic signals… and pedestrians… and to shout “On the LEFT! Drive on the LEFT!” when we make turns. It works pretty well. I’ve driven all over southwest Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland without major incident. So far.

Day 13. (6)

That’s a bottle of vinegar, not water (Perish the thought!)

We made our way from the Cork Airport to Blarney Village in about 20 minutes. We parked on the Square and went looking for some lunch. Picture the very essence of a small village green bordered by a low stone wall and lined with shops and a pub next to an ancient estate. Don’t worry about it being too stereotypical or twee. Got it? You’ve successfully pictured the Square in Blarney. Look closer and it’s a completely modern tourist area that also functions just fine as a commerce center for the locals. Pub? Check. Woolen mill on the River Martin? Check. Souvenir shops? Check. But you’ll also note the grocery, bank, and takeaway shops, even a Chinese place, and they all blend in very well. We were to learn that a lot of Ireland looks very much they way it has for the last two hundred years or so. Yes, there are modern city centers and subdivisions, but drive just a few minutes in pretty much any direction and there are places where time seems to have stopped altogether. By no means have they sacrificed function for the tourist’s notion of what Ireland should be, rather they seem to have incorporated the notion of being a tourist destination into the fabric of Ireland right next to the tech industries and traditional farms and gone about their business. Additionally, everyone we met in our time in Ireland was very genuine. It’s not an act. If it is… it’s an exceptional one. I live in a tourist/service industry city so I should know.

We found a place to park on the Square and went inside the Muskerry Arms for lunch. We ate in the pub and I had the fried plate. I love love love love love Irish food. Black pudding, white pudding, chicken strips, venison sausages, chips, and shrimp wrapped in noodles…. and then fried. A pint of Bulmer’s Irish cider to wash it down and I really couldn’t be happier! In addition to the pub & restaurant the Muskerry Arms is also a well-rated guest house. Information here.

We returned to the Square and walked across the green to the castle grounds entrance. A bell had been tolling constantly for several minutes. It wasn’t midday, or the bottom of the hour, or even a quarter-hour. I couldn’t think why that bell kept going. Then we noticed a hearse parked on the west side of the green. Maybe twenty mourners stood in a group behind. The hearse slowly rolled out of the village and the mourners walked behind. My family’s rural roots are only a single generation in the past. I’ve seen funeral processions 70 cars long in places where drivers not only pull over but stand outside their cars as the motorcade passes, but I’d never in my life seen mourners make the journey to the cemetery on foot. The compactness of village life I suppose.

Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle

I’ll confess that my planning for our trip to Blarney Castle extended only so far as learning where it was and their opening hours. So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that Blarney castle was built in 1446 by Cormac the Strong, Lord of Muskerry and… Chieftain of the Clan McCarthy! McCarthy is Julia’s family name and she was thrilled to learn that Blarney Castle is her (And I’m quoting here) “Ancestral hizzle.” It’s an imposing fortress built atop a rock surrounded by really very beautiful grounds. The site is bordered on the north by the River Martin (Or Blarney River, depending on whose map you read). Both Blarney Castle and Blarney House are open to the public. As of this writing entry is €13.00 for adults (€12.50 if you book online) and €5.00 for kids (No online discount). There is a family ticket for €32.00 that includes entry for 2 adults and 2 children. Ticket and other information can be found on their website, blarneycastle.ie.

 We began our ascent through the castle. The winding stone stairs are narrow and certainly not for the claustrophobic. A number of doorways inside the castle were a challenge for a guy my height. And width. The wooden floors and ceilings of the great central rooms have long since fallen away. You can see the supports running around the outer walls that would have held the joists in place. In one place there is even a small remnant of a plaster relief decoration.

The McCarthys were known as outstanding hosts. By all accounts their parties were off the chain, in some cases making it necessary for guests to “Write poems in apology for their behaviour” according to a plaque in the banqueting hall. I’ve partied with my wife’s family. Not much has changed. In 1696 the bard Donal na Tuile wrote of the chieftains in the region:

“They were a people accustomed to bestow wines, and tender beef and holiday dresses! They were graceful and beneficent; their strongholds were filled with beautiful women, and quick-slaying cavalry viewing them; mirth, laying on harps, poems and songs were at their feasts… Loud sounded the song of the bards.”

Of course, one goes to Blarney Castle with a single goal in mind… to kiss the Blarney Stone. There are any number of legends surrounding the stone as to its origin, how it came to be placed in the battlements of Blarney Castle, and how its powers were discovered, you can take your pick. However, as to the gift that kissing the stone confers… on this agreement is universal. Kissing the Blarney Stone bestows upon one the Gift of the Gab. Eloquence with a capital E. Or, if you will… Blarney. From the moment you kiss the stone you will never be at a loss for words. Julia is of the opinion I had no need to kiss the stone as I was full of it already and she now regrets ever letting me near the place.

The castle interior from the ramparts.

The castle interior from the ramparts.

Making your way up and kissing the stone isn’t easy, even today. There’s those narrow stone spiral stairs I mentioned, more than 100 of them. You’re essentially schlepping to the top of a 7 story building via the stairs and going in tight circles while you do it. Once you reach the top you’re on a narrow rampart looking down into the interior of the castle on one side and a very impressive view of the countryside on the other. There were two young women just ahead of us and this is the part where one of them freaked out. Apparently this is not at all uncommon. She decided she wasn’t going to kiss the stone and she wanted down as soon as possible. Her friend was visibly annoyed.

“Really? Seriously? You went skydiving and you’re not gonna do this? We’re gonna leave here and you’re gonna be mad you didn’t do it and I don’t want to hear a WORD about it. Seriously?”

Once upon a time kissing the Blarney stone was quite a feat, and actually dangerous. According to the July 25th, 1932 issue of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle one James Burke age 19, of Charleville in the Irish Free State “… insisted he could kiss the Blarney Stone without anyone holding his legs as he hung downward over the parapet, as so many pilgrims have done. He tried it, slipped, and fell 100 feet to his death at the foot of the ancient castle.” The following year a judge in Cork ruled that “Tourists or anyone else for that matter must kiss the Blarney Stone at their own risk.” Mr. Burke’s family had filed a suit against Sir George Colthurst, owner of Blarney Castle (It is still owned by the Colthursts). An article printed in April of 1933 in the San Bernadino County Sun mentions that “… several others have fallen to their deaths while trying to kiss the Blarney Stone,” but I can find no precise references other than this single account. The story of the ruling was picked up by papers around the world.

We reached the stone and had our go. It’s a roughly triangular piece of limestone set into the bottom of the battlements a few feet out from the ramparts. The opening was originally designed for dropping heavy items through in the hope of killing attackers below. I’m not sure why it’s necessary to kiss the stone upside down, but that’s the way it’s done. You lay down on the rampart with your upper body over the opening. There are two assistants, one to hold on to you and one to snap a picture. Even though there are now steel bars in place to keep you from plummeting to the ground below, it’s considered good form to tip the guy holding you. So… you’re on your back over the opening with your head tilted back as far as it will go and you’re still a foot or two short of the goal. You reach up and grab the two railings on either side of the stone and pull yourself forward while the gentleman holding you supports your back. I’ve mentioned I’m 6’2”. My hips slid off the rampart and over the empty space before I was able to smooch the stone. I can only imagine what it would be like for someone shorter. It WAS a little terrifying since I wasn’t actually aware of the safety bars until after I’d kissed the stone and stood up to watch Julia.

I was back up in a moment. I got a picture of Julia kissing the stone and we stood on the ramparts taking in the view as it started to rain on us (Again). There was no sign of the girl and her acrophobic skydiving friend. We looked at the rest of the castle interior and then went for a walk in the Poison Garden.

I have no idea why Blarney Castle has a poison garden, but I found it immensely entertaining and informative (That’s how I recognized Digitalis in the landscaping at Disneyland in the line for the Matterhorn). I presume it’s there simply because it’s interesting and provides a further draw for tourism. The notion of a poison garden certainly has a very Roadside Attraction feel to it.

 We made our way through looking at the Mandrake and Deadly Nightshade and Box Hedge. The entire area was marked off by signs reading “Do Not Touch, Smell, Or Eat Any Plant! Children Must Be Accompanied At All Times.” While a number of the plants were out in the open, a few were enclosed in iron cages. One large cage caught my eye, as it contained bare dirt. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be the cage that was meant to house cannabis sativa. The attendant sign with skull and crossbones lets the visitor know that there is some controversy as to whether Mary Jane deserves a reputation as being harmful. It tells the reader that marijuana is one of the more complex plants in nature and goes on to list several other riveting facts, but my attention was fixed on the laminated white paper notice tacked on underneath that read:

  “We apologise for the absence of the plants in this cage. They have been seized by the Garda.”

It goes on to say that they hope to plant replacements once the “Licensing issue has been resolved.”

The little movie in my head of the Garda coming to seize Blarney Castle’s pot is hilarious. I wish I could share it with you. Moving on…

The Witch Stone, with offerings of coins in her mouth and eyes

The Witch Stone, with offerings of coins in her mouth and eyes

We walked along the river to the Rock Close, which is home to beautiful trees and flowers, as well as fanciful rock formations and structures that may or may not be ancient. According to the Blarney Castle website the Rock Close was landscaped in the 18th Century. There are the “Wishing Steps” that lead from an overlook down to the river, and the Witch’s Kitchen, which is a partially subterranean stone enclosure with a hearth at one end. There is also the Witch Stone. The Blarney Witch is said to have inhabited the region since the beginning of time. She is imprisoned in the stone during daylight but escapes at night.

   We followed a path beyond the close which made a loop around the east side of the estate.

The "Dungeons" carved into the rock beneath the castle.

The “Dungeons” carved into the rock beneath the castle.

The castle once sat within a much larger walled enclosure with watch towers. We passed the Sentry Post, a stone hearth which may or may not be from an earlier period when men were stationed out away from the castle. The sun came out as we made our way back through the Fairy Glade to have a look at the Dungeons and Caves beneath the castle before we set off again…

… in search of Mountain Dew, and this time… we found it! We stopped in at the supermarket next to the Muskerry Arms for road snacks and sodas and found the neon yellow caffeine delivery system so adored by my beautiful young bride. Some fruit, some Hob Nobs, a Cadbury Dairy Milk Bar, and the aforementioned Mountain Dew and we were offskie!

We were booked at the Friar’s Glen Country House outside of Killarney Town near the shores of Lough Leane and Muckross Lake just inside the Killarney National Park. It was about an hour and a half driving through more rain. We’d accepted the extra cost for a GPS system from Hertz. We chose the English-accented voice because it’s name was Tim. I’m probably going to repeat myself in the next post or two, but I want to make something perfectly clear… you will get lost in Ireland. The difference between “Lost,” and “Hopelessly lost,” is a GPS. Out away from the larger towns the Irish take what I will with some charity call a “Minimalist” view of signage, and in general you can see only as far as the next hedge, which in many instances is mere feet away. Unless you are behind a lorry. Then you can see the lorry and nothing else. Get the GPS. TRUST me on this one.

We made Friar’s Glen in late afternoon and met the innkeeper, Mary. Mary was a delight. We dumped our bags in our room, which of all the places we stayed in Europe looked most like what I would consider a traditional “American” style hotel room. I later learned that Friar’s Glen was purpose-built as a Bed and Breakfast in the late 1990’s, not converted from a residence or some other much older structure. We went to the sitting room where there was a peat fire going and a group of travelers playing a board game. Mary brought me a cup of tea and sat and talked with us about our travels and our plans while we were staying at the Glen. She was quick with very good advice about touring the Ring of Kerry and other attractions in the area we might be interested in. I’ll have more to say about Friar’s Glen later, but if you just can’t wait, there website is here, friarsglen.ie.

On Mary’s recommendation we walked to Molly Darcy’s pub & restaurant for dinner about a half mile up Mangerton Road. The building appeared to be new and vast for a pub. I had an excellent lamb stew and a pint and enjoyed every second of it. I see that it’s now under different management and called the Jarvey’s Rest (A “Jarvey” is the driver of a jaunting carriage. You still see them on the roads around Killarney Town, particularly in the National Park). I can’t personally speak to the food or service at the new place, but they seem to be well-reviewed on Tripadvisor.

We walked back at dusk and just as we approached the house saw a great shaggy red buck in a field just off the drive. We stopped to admire him for a few moments before we went inside. We’d started the day in Amsterdam and ended it up walking down a wooded lane in Killarney and kissed the Blarney Stone along the way. Not too shabby.

Tomorrow, the Ring of Kerry!

Take good care.

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

Van Gogh, and the search for Mountain Dew

19 Jan

(I was looking through our notes recently preparing another post. At this point we’re 12 days into our trip. At the end of each day we’d usually sit down and look through the day’s pictures together. Between our 2 phones and the 35mm digital SLR we’d taken 1,980 photographs by the end of the day described in this post!)

I got to try out the kitchen in The Collector the morning of our second day in Amsterdam after a brilliant night’s sleep. Well, ok… I tried out the kitchen after walking a mile or so in ever-widening circles trying to find a grocery to see if I could buy Julia a bottle of Mountain Dew. I found a bakery or two, but I kid you not gentle reader… aerospace companies were thicker on the ground than grocery stores in the area immediately around The Collector. I went back sans Mountain Dew and made omelets in the kitchen. We gathered ourselves and headed out to the Van Gogh museum.

A word on the photos on this blog. As a rule I try to make sure that I personally generate everything that appears in these (figurative) pages. I’m going to stretch that just a bit for this entry. There is no photography allowed inside the Van Gogh museum. Soooo… I took photographs of poscards we purchased of paintings we found interesting.

Our innkeeper Karel booked our entry to the museum online the previous day. The entry price for the museum is currently €15 for adults, with kids under 18 admitted free. On April 1, 2015 it will go up to €17. Check out the museum website here. There isn’t an online discount but you can select an entry time and walk past the queue. We left The Collector and made it to the museum in about 10 minutes on foot, during which time it started to rain, and walked directly inside without pause.

The museum in Amsterdam houses the largest collection of Van Gogh’s work in the world. At the time of our visit the pieces were arranged in roughly chronological order against neutral wall colors. The museum has recently undergone a 7 month renovation and much of the collection has been re-arranged. Additionally, several works are now displayed against backdrops of vivid colors, or even enlarged images of the paintings themselves.

SkullOfASkeletonWithBurningCigarette

Obviously I don’t hold the copyright on this one

Julia found a new favorite Van Gogh during our trip. Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette was likely painted sometime in 1886 while Van Gogh was studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. He was bored with the classes and would later claim that he learned nothing. Julia finds this painting hilarious.

The image produced in a painting is really only half the story. Seeing a Van Gogh (Or most any painting really) in a book is like listening to music with only one headphone and the bass turned off. In person you can see the size of the piece, which may carry with it a message about the artist’s intention or circumstances. The Mona Lisa, for example, is tiny and by way of contrast is displayed opposite The Wedding at Cana, which is the size of a house. When you’re standing inches from the painting you can see the medium, observe the artist’s attack in the brush strokes (“Attack” is a particularly apropos term with Van Gogh’s work). At the d’Orsay in Paris and at the Van Gogh museum I learned that you don’t really look at a Van Gogh so much as experience it. This entire trip was chock full of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. I find I appreciate them much more now and I am very glad that Julia insisted we make the trip to Amsterdam.

We left the museum and began to simply wander. It was still raining off and on and I was still looking for Mountain Dew for Julia. We’d visited the two major attractions we’d come to see and so decided to simply soak up a little of the atmosphere. It was at this point that Julia decided she could speak Dutch.

Here’s the thing. It entered Julia’s head that if she simply put “-en” on the end of any random English word it became the equivalent word in Dutch. Problem is, it kind of worked. “En” is a plural form in Dutch and there ARE a number of words that are much the same, so everywhere we looked she was being proved right. She found this all manner of amusing.

Rivieren= rivers

Prinsen= princes

Armen= arms

Doctoren= doctors

Handen= hands

Amerikanen= Americans

See what I’m up against here?

We walked north and east, meandering along the canals and peeking into shops here and there. Amsterdam was founded in about 1250 around the dam that gave the town its name. “Aeme Stelle Redamme” translates from old Dutch to “Dam in a watery area.” Successive moats dug for protection wound up inside the city as it grew and were re-purposed for local transportation. Canal-building began in earnest in the 1600’s and swept in a great arc from west to east. When I asked Karel about the cleanliness of the water he informed me that it was his understanding that the water authority opened gates that allowed fresh water in from the IJ and Amstel rivers at night.  Before you get any bright ideas you should be aware that swimming in the canals is prohibited except for during two annual charity events. We saw purpose-built tourist boats on the canals making incredible precision turns in spaces I didn’t think possible and squeezing through channels and under bridges only inches wider or taller than their hulls.Day.12 (13)

Also, for what many in America would consider a European “Nanny” state, I noticed a marked lack of railings around the canals.

Parallel parking with CONSEQUENCES

Parallel parking with CONSEQUENCES

A number of people asked if we hit the Red Light district or one of the drug bars. Neither of these held any appeal for us really. Alcohol is our drug of choice and a pint of cider or a glass of wine or whiskey is quite enough. Our student tryouts for the varsity binge-drinking team are many many years in our past. Although we did find a shop that sold the most intriguing vases…

The National Monument

The National Monument

After ducking into the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch (Average food. I had a burger and Julia had chicken. We ended up there because it began to pour as we were passing, and a friend of mine collects the pins) we eventually found ourselves in Dam Square, where there was a carnival going on, complete with “Spuk House.” Yes, that means haunted house. The dam for which the city is named was built on this site in the 1200’s. As the dam was expanded over the years it grew large enough for a market square. It was for a long time the center of commerce and eventually government. The Netherlands National Monument also sits in the square.

We made our way back toward our B&B walking along the Rokin looking at the buildings and stopping in at P.G.C. Hajenius for a gift for a friend. The clerk offered to let me sample a few of their cigars in their smoking lounge, but I was still recovering from a near-miss with bronchitis and so declined (Although back in the states our friend Drew graciously let me have one of the cut tobacco cigars we’d given him for his birthday and it was quite good).

Oh yes, I nearly forgot…. the bicycles. The Dutch, at least the sampling of the population I was able to observe in Amsterdam, make great use of the bicycle for everyday transportation. Bikes are everywhere in their hundreds and thousands. In England I worried that I would step off a curb and get hit by a car after looking the wrong way before crossing. In Amsterdam I worried that I’d be hit by a bicycle. Anywhere. No matter which way I looked.

    We saw every manner of bike employed for every purpose imaginable. My particular favorites were the multi-passenger child transport models. Imagine a standard bicycle frame with a front fork that extended down and then out in front several feet with a wooden barrow equipped with rows of bench seats with straight backs and ending with the front wheel at its tip. They came in sizes from single, to three-seaters arranged bobsled style, and (Parked outside a kindergarten) a couple that could seat perhaps as many as five children.

I saw these last examples while out searching for Julia’s morning Mountain Dew. Sadly I did not think to take a picture and while I saw several others in use it is not advisable in any culture to photograph a stranger’s children without obtaining their permission ahead of time. Do an image search for bakfiets (“Tricycle” in Dutch) and you will see several examples of both the two-wheel and three-wheel varieties. You can also check out Work Cycles

Any activity you’ve ever witnessed a driver engaged in while behind the wheel of an automobile in America we observed a cyclist doing the same on the streets and sidewalks of Amsterdam. We saw men and women peddling along at speed while eating, smoking, talking on the phone, texting and yes, even putting on makeup. Bikes make up such a large proportion of the traffic on the city streets that they have not only their own lanes but their own traffic signals, which all the riders I happened to see ignored vigorously.

This is not grape Fanta. Ooooooh no... this is redcurrant Fanta.

This is not grape Fanta. Ooooooh no… this is redcurrant Fanta.

We walked across the Museumplein and stopped in at the grocery located under the southwest end of the park (Says “Supermarket” in huge blue letters above the door. Not sure how I missed it.). We picked up some fruit and meat for supper and some ice cream bars and went back to the Collector to write postcards and get ready to fly out the next morning. We’d intended to each have one of the ice cream bars after supper and leave the rest in the freezer for other guests. Turns out the refrigerator at The Collector doesn’t HAVE a freezer. That a full-size fridge wouldn’t have a freezer didn’t even cross my mind. I posted the cards from a silent square a block or so away. 

    

I never did find any Mountain Dew. 

Take good care.

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

Bayeux → Paris → Amsterdam

13 Jan

Up again early. Really early. “Taxi’s coming at 5:30” early. We got our crap together and into our cases and schlepped down to the parking lot to wait for the taxi we’d arranged the previous day in the bitter cold. He turned up on time and whisked us back to the train station in Bayeux.

The station was just a smidge past too warm and only thinly populated at quarter to six. It was also very very brightly lit and mostly institutional green & white. The population consisted mostly of long-distance commuters and us. There was a young woman mopping the floor. It was a wide mop and the mop head attached to the handle via a wide flat piece of plastic that hinged in the center. I’m confident it was meant to interact with the rolling bucket in some fascinatingly efficient manner. I watched transfixed as she swept the mop from side to side across the floor, lifted it, wrung it with her bare hands into the bucket, and then dipped the mop in the black water she’d just squeezed into the bucket. She continued in this way from one side of the waiting room to the other.

The train arrived and we shuffled out to the platform. We had assigned seats for the morning train back to Paris but couldn’t find them. We changed cars twice before settling into a pair of empty seats (That were still not correct) figuring we’d move if someone turned up to claim them. No one ever did.

We arrived at Saint Lazare station in Paris at 9:00 AM and began our trek across to Gare du Nord. As I’ve mentioned in these pages before I’m bit of a paranoid traveler. I’ve tried to cultivate a more Zen attitude over the years with varying degrees of success. We had just over an hour to make the connection for our train to Amsterdam. No realizing how close the stations really were from this side of the Atlantic I sorted a public transit route that utilized the Paris RER (Réseau Express Régional) so as to avoid weekday morning traffic on the surface. A taxi would likely have gotten us to the station in about 12 minutes. As it was we rode the practically empty express train to the station in about 30 minutes. That includes the time it took us to take the escalators down to a level so far below the city I fully expected to see Le Fantôme paddling by. This was another jaunt where I greatly appreciated both the construction of our medium spinner rolling cases and the uncharacteristic wisdom I displayed in choosing them. We encountered a young woman pulling a traditional two-wheeled case equal to herself in height, carrying a full duffel, and wearing a backpack. She looked very put out.

We arrived at Gare du Nord with about 30 minutes to spare and boarded the train. Early in the planning stages of our trip I had determined that we would take at least one First-Class train trip. The Paris-Amsterdam leg offered us the opportunity to sample this mode of transport over a long ride.

You must travel by First Class train at some point. Really. Do it.

We were traveling on Thalys, a Belgian-owned line. Thalys was one of the few lines that would allow me to purchase tickets online from outside the country and board with only a printout (A couple of years later I booked an overnight on the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Dundee. I had to have physical tickets mailed to my home in the United States. It seems you’re able to print your own pass for international train travel but not domestic, at least in the UK. I have no idea why boarding with a confirmation number isn’t more common). Ticket information here.

A porter helped us stow our cases at one end of the car and we found our seats. On the recommendation of The Man in Seat 61 I booked Club Duo seats (Individual seats facing each other over a small table as opposed to two seats among a grouping of four). They were large and comfortable and finished in a soft maroon velvet, as was much of the interior. There was a small lamp on the table near the window and an outlet under each seat.

One of the attendants approached and addressed me in English (Again, everyone in Europe can peg me as an American on sight);

“Do you need a taxi sir?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Do you need a taxi?”

“I just got on the train.”

“In Amsterdam, sir. Do you need a taxi from the station?” It is a testament to the level of her professionalism that I could not hear a trace of “… idiot.” in her tone even though she MUST have been thinking it.

“No, thank you.”

“Very well sir. Someone will be along with refreshments shortly.”

And so began the non-stop food fest that was our train trip from Paris to Amsterdam. Within moments another attendant appeared and asked if I would like coffee or something else to drink. After tea appeared I was offered pastry. About every half an hour someone turned up to offer me something to eat. I was always addressed in English without anyone having to ask. More than the plush seats… First-Class is never having to ask for food & drink.

We rolled out of the station on time to the second and were soon cruising along at a top speed of 300 kph (About 186 mph). The train ran incredibly smoothly, occasionally slowly banking to one side or the other through long gentle curves. A lunch menu turned up. I ordered cold roast duck with carrots and potatoes. It arrived accompanied by a very sweet salad, warm bread, an organic red wine and a chocolate tart with raspberry glaze. Would sir care for more tea? A croissant? Yes sir would.

We slowed for track work near the Belgian border. This put the train just over half an hour behind schedule. An announcement in French, then English, then Dutch informed us that because of the length of the delay passengers would be entitled to a partial refund of their ticket price to take the form of a credit to their Thalys account. Please look online for further details (You could do this on the moment in fact. Free WiFi on board). Try asking United for a refund of one thin dime next time you land a couple of hours late in Houston.

Day 11 (8)

Fast moving tulips

We got back up to speed for the rest of our journey. As we neared Amsterdam we began to see bars of vivid color in various hues extending from near the tracks off into the distance in the grey fields through which we passed. They were neon-bright and gone in a flash. It took me several moments to realize that these were fields of tulips. Like most things European I had a very outdated notion of what a tulip field would look like. They appeared to be arranged like any other factory-style farm and they came in more colors than I thought possible. After a few fields zipped by (186 mph, remember?) we reached the greenhouses. Thousands upon thousands of greenhouses that extended off to the horizon. I’ve since learned that The Netherlands produces about three million tulip bulbs a year. I can believe it.Day 11 (7)

 

We arrived shortly before 2:00 PM at Amsterdam Centraal. We walked the length of the station and boarded a tram (Still € Euros, no need to stop for currency) to De Lairessestraat and our bed and breakfast, The Collector.

The Collector is just two blocks down from the Museumplein. De Lairessestraat is a main thoroughfare with bus and tram lines. I’d been emailing back and forth with the owner, Karel. We had a couple of hilarious moments when Karel answered the door. Apparently my misapprehension was one Karel runs into with Americans a lot, who invariably translate the name as “Carol.” Karel is a man. He said I should think of it as “Carl.”

Karel was very laid back and personable, and answered every idiot tourist question I asked about the canals. He offered (And I accepted his offer) to book attractions for us online. We’d already done so with the Anne Frank House and Karel sorted our tickets to the Van Gogh museum.

We stayed in the “Clock Room” on the 1st floor (2nd floor if you’re an American) facing the street. It was absolutely gorgeous. It was a large en-suite room with a very comfortable bed. Double french doors lead out onto a narrow balcony.

Instead of a dining room there was a dine-in kitchen next to the Clock Room. The arrangement at The Collector is that the kitchen is stocked with staple items and you make use of them in your own time. We found cheese, salami, fruit, eggs, milk, juice, etc. There was also a little space in the fridge for items you might purchase (I had no end of trouble finding a supermarket. Finally learned there was an Albert Heijn at 33 Van Baerlestraat about two blocks away. Helpful hint… it’s UNDER the Museumplein). On the plus side, it gives one more of a home away from home feeling and you needn’t worry about missing breakfast if you sleep in. Of course, it’s also nice to have someone else do the cooking and washing up so you can get out the door to see the sights. It made for an interesting change in our routine. The Collector’s website is here.

The Collector is so named for the various collections of every kind everywhere you look. Plates, matchbooks, figurines, etc. The Clock Room was filled with… clocks. All the clocks were set to 4:20.

We got ourselves sorted as quickly as we could and asked Karel the best way to the Anne Frank House. We had an appointment for entry a little before 4:30PM. Karel pointed out a pleasant route on a map he lent us and assured us that we could reach Prinsengracht in 15 minutes. We shortly learned a valuable lesson about Karel’s directions. No matter where you are headed in Amsterdam, Karel is under the (Often wildly mistaken) impression that you can reach your destination on foot in 15 minutes. I never actually saw Karel walk anywhere, so maybe he’s telling the truth from his own personal experience. He seemed like a pretty laid-back kind of guy, but it is possible he turns into an Olympic power-walker the moment he hits the straat, I couldn’t say.

Leliegracht just north of the Anne Frank House.

Leliegracht just north of the Anne Frank House.

It did not take us 15 minutes to reach the Anne Frank House, more like 25, but we still arrived in plenty of time for our appointment after a lovely walk through the Vondelpark and along the canals. You really must book an entry time online if you want to avoid standing in a very long queue. When we approached the house there was a line going around the block. The Anne Frank House is open 9:00AM until 9:00PM from April 1 through October 31, and 9:00AM until 7:00PM through the winter. Admission for adults is €9, €4.50 for children 10-17, and children 9 and under are free. There were long stretches of entry times already blocked out when I made our reservation weeks in advance, so I advise seeing to it as far ahead of time as you can. There is an online booking fee of €.50 per ticket. You can find all of the details and book a time at www.annefrank.org.

A few thousand years ago I was a professional actor. My wife and I worked on a national tour of Anne Frank in the 90’s. I played Victor Kugler (Anne gave fictional names to her companions and protectors. In her diary and in the stage play he is Mr. Kraler), one of the Annex protectors. We spent nine months inhabiting the play. Seeing the real Annex blew us away.

The facade of Gies & Co., behind which sat the Annex where the Franks went into hiding.

The facade of Gies & Co., behind which sat the Annex where the Franks went into hiding.

The building is empty of furniture as per Otto Frank’s wishes and no photography is permitted inside. You ascend cramped, narrow stairs through the building until you reach the entrance to the Annex. In a front room is a model of the hiding place as it would have appeared during the time it was used to hide the Franks. You proceed down a hallway and up into the Annex via the opening behind a moveable bookcase. The first thing that I noticed was that despite the individual spaces being very small, overall it was bigger than I had imagined, but certainly not where I’d choose to spend several years.

On the first level of the hiding place you pass the Franks’ room and then Anne’s. She shared the 16’x7′ room with Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist from Germany who went into hiding with the Fanks and the Van Pels. Looking at the walls in Anne’s room was really unbelievable. In the years she spent in hiding Anne pasted pictures from magazines on the walls of her room. They’re still there. I stood for a long time struck by the notion that these were items that passed through her hands. More than anything else I saw or read this detail served to humanize Anne. I had trouble concentrating on anything else. She’s a figure wholly owned by history now, but she was also the teenage girl who pasted movie star pictures on her wall.

We made our way through the floors of the Annex and learned the ultimate fate of the Franks, their friends, and their protectors. We knew, of course, having done the play for months, but first person accounts filled in a number of details. Somewhat incongruously I found myself thinking of Whoopi Goldberg. In her one-woman show she relates her visit to the Anne Frank house, and seems incredulous at Anne’s ability to forgive. She says of Anne’s famous quote “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart;”

“And she didn’t even make it.”

The house is one of the places where I feel like its history is tangibly close by, like at Gettysburg or the Tower of London. It may be that we knew most of Anne’s story so well. We wandered out of the building into a bright and sunny afternoon a little shell-shocked. The Normandy American Cemetery, Omaha Beach, and the Anne Frank House in the space of about 24 hours. It had been a heavy couple of days.

We walked aimlessly along the canals. Amsterdam is a beautiful city, but I honestly recall very little of what we saw for the remainder of the afternoon. At some point we decided we wanted supper. We passed an Italian place but figured we should take a swing at Dutch food. We wandered about some more, unable to find anyplace to eat at all.

The Irish are everywhere.

The Irish are everywhere.

We found ourselves in the Leidseplein, a tourist square south of Prinsengracht. Everything in the area seemed to be food from other countries… pizza, burgers, Argentinian steakhouses and places that offered barbeque ribs and fries (Always together, not sure what that was about). I found an automat, about which I became VERY excited, but that didn’t really scream “Dinner in Amsterdam” to me so we kept looking. On a few side streets we found places that served “Traditional Dutch” food. It appeared to consist largely of pickled fish mashed in with other things and that’s where our usual spirit of adventure fled.

Eventually we found De Veir Pilaren (The Four Pillars), a pop-up restaurant in the Leidsebosje. Dutch pancakes as big as your torso, the ultimate comfort food. Huzzah! De Veir Pilaren was, according to the cook, originally an eatery that traveled with a carnival. Brightly painted and decorated with carousel accents, it can be disassembled, loaded on a truck, and moved elsewhere in a couple of days. As far as I can tell it now stays in the park several months out of the year. If you find yourself in Amsterdam I highly recommend it. I consumed a massive pancake topped with bacon and cheese while Julia had one covered in strawberries, whipped cream, and powdered sugar. It helped take a little of the edge off.

Der Veir Pilaren

Der Veir Pilaren

 We spent another hour or so simply wandering about. We made our way back to The Collector once it was dark and the streets grew very, very quiet. The vast majority of people in the city center ride bikes or take public transit. We saw a number of automobiles parked along the canals but less than handful in operation. Apart from the occasional rumble of a tram it was another quiet night.

After a couple of days of looking for the uplifting and noble amid some of the greatest horrors of the last century we were looking forward to the balm of reckless beauty from the century before. Tomorrow, Van Gogh.

Take good care.

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator