Monday, January 01, 2007

England and Ireland

The following is a summary of a 7-day trip that I took with my Mom and sister to England and Ireland. During the trip, we were in 6 different countries and drove 1200 miles.

At Windsor Castle

Day 1, Friday, June 9, 2000 – We left the house at 6:46. Our plan was to drive to Calais, France, and take the Chunnel (channel tunnel) and then continue to London. We drove through southern Holland and then Belgium first. The last time I passed through Antwerp, Belgium the traffic was terrible, but this time it was a breeze. We actually arrived in Calais at 10:45. I had tickets for the crossing at 12:21, but they let us go ahead and cross. We drove onto a train, and it carried us through the tunnel. There was absolutely nothing to see on the journey across. It was totally dark outside the train, and a little claustrophobic. The crossing took about 30 minutes.

During the crossing, we made a change of plans. We were going to drive straight into London, but since we were able to cross early we decided to go to visit Canterbury on the way. We unloaded from the train, and I began to drive on the left side of the road for the first time. This was completely unnerving. I had the tendency to move over into the right lane at every turn and roundabout. I was so afraid I was going to have a wreck. There were roundabouts everywhere. I have never seen so many anywhere else. Many of them would come up with no warning, and I would sometimes be halfway through one before I realized it was there. I thought they were very dangerous. At the very first one we encountered in Dover, I instinctively moved over into the right lane when we came out of it. My sister yelled immediately and I got back in the left lane, but the entire drive was stressful.

We drove through rolling, green hills for about 30 minutes before arriving in Canterbury. We parked, withdrew some cash from an ATM, and got something to eat. I had fish and chips, but the fish was really flavorless. After eating, we walked all over Canterbury. We saw a lot of references to the Canterbury Tales. We walked all over the city – along cobbled streets, around the city walls, and around the famous Canterbury Cathedral. Outside the cathedral, there were vendors selling all kinds of things, and a young Japanese guy singing old American songs for money. We killed a couple of hours there before heading on to London.

Me in Canterbury

The traffic going into London was very heavy. The fast lane on the highway was the right lane, which is the opposite of on the Autobahn and the interstates in the U.S. On the other side of the highway, we once saw where a guy had lost his camper he had been towing. It was spread across several lanes, and he had traffic backed up for about 5 miles. Speaking of miles, all of the highway signs were in miles instead of kilometers. This is the only European country that I had ever seen use miles. On the way, we saw Leeds Castle off in the distance, but we didn’t stop and visit it.

A couple of hours after leaving Canterbury, we arrived at our hotel. We had a little trouble finding it, and more stress driving. It was really tough searching for the hotel while trying to make sure I stayed in the left lane at all times. Our hotel was The Thames Lodge in Staines. Staines is a suburb on the outskirts of London. Our hotel was directly on the Thames River, which runs through central London. We unloaded and walked to a KFC to eat because there didn’t appear to be a better option around (besides the fact that I love KFC).

After eating, we went back to the hotel, and I called my wife to tell her we that arrived O.K. This had been my son’s last day of (German) kindergarten, and she said some of his teacher’s really got choked up. All of the kids made him a drawing and they were put into a scrapbook. His teachers tried to talk my wife into leaving him in school. They said he was doing really well, but he balks at going every single day. So, we finally decided just to pull him out.

Day 2, Saturday, June 10, 2000 – Today, we were planning to go into London and take a bus tour of the city. When my sister was getting ready, she plugged her curling iron into the socket. After a while, I smelled something burning and saw that her curling iron was melting. The voltage was 220, and the curling iron was for 110. She had an adapter so the plug would fit, but the voltage was too high for the curling iron. It just completely melted and was smoking. I had to set it outside the window to avoid setting off the smoke alarm.

While waiting, I read a newspaper editorial. The editorial was about the new movie, “The Patriot”, and it was very critical of Americans. The guy seemed to be trying to say that the British actually won The Revolutionary War. That was quite a revelation to me. That is one thing I have noticed since living in Europe. Out of all Europeans, it seems to me that the British are the most critical of Americans. In the newspaper and on TV, they always have something negative to say about America. One night, while watching TV, I heard a movie critic sarcastically say “If you want to see a movie about how the Americans single handedly defeated the Germans without any help from anyone else, then watch Saving Private Ryan.” This same critic was on TV during the Oscar ceremonies, and he kept telling viewers that the American viewers were surely jealous that a British director had won for “American Beauty” and Michael Caine had won for best actor. The truth is that most Americans couldn’t have cared less.

We skipped breakfast and caught a train into central London. We ate a bite in the train station, and then caught another train over to “The Big Bus” offices. I had booked us on a city tour with “The Big Bus” company. The tour was a hop on, hop off tour that covered the entire city. There were also optional walking tours and a boat tour up the Thames River.

We got on the bus, and went on the first part of the tour. We went by Margaret Thatcher’s house, and through the really rich part of London. When we got to Trafalgar Square, we got off the bus to go on a “Royal London” walking tour. We had some time to kill, so we explored the square. Trafalgar Square was originally built to reflect the grandeur of the British Empire. In the square, there are 4 huge bronze lions, a fountain, and Nelson’s Column, which is a 185-foot tall granite column commemorating the death of Lord Nelson. There were pigeons all over the place. There were also homeless people sleeping on every bench. Mom and my sister had a lot of fun feeding the pigeons. I took a picture of Mom with pigeons perched all over her.

We killed time around the square until it was time to go on the walking tour. The tour was advertised as a walking tour of the royal palaces, including the changing of the guard ceremony. However, we were told that there would be no changing of the guard on that particular Saturday. All of the guards were rehearsing for the queen’s birthday ceremony, which was to be held the following Saturday. So, we got to watch the practice ceremony, which was called “The Trouping of the Colors”. We saw the mounted cavalry and the royal guards – the guys with the big bear skin hats. Overall, it was a very impressive show, like a parade, and our guide said it was much better than the changing of the guard.

In London with Big Ben Behind Me

We continued on the tour, and saw James Palace and then Buckingham Palace. James Palace is where the changing of the guard normally takes place, and Buckingham Palace is the Queen’s London residence. We then got back on the bus, and continued our tour past all of the major sights. We drove past the Parliament Building, Big Ben, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Piccadilly Circus, the Tower of London, London Bridge, and Westminster Abbey. We saw the London Eye, which is the new Ferris wheel that they installed for the millennium. It is enormous, but it goes around very slowly. They actually load and unload it while it is moving.

We rode the bus to the point where the Thames River cruise departed. We got off, and walked down to the pier. There were several boats there, and I wasn’t sure where we were supposed to go. I asked a man, “Big Bus?” “No sir”, he said, “This is a boat. But we take Big Bus tickets.” Then he laughed and winked at me. While waiting to board the boat, canons were being fired directly behind us. There was some sort of ceremony going on, and the canons fired every 15 seconds or so for about 15 minutes. The noise was deafening, and gave me a serious headache.

We got on the boat and had a leisurely cruise up the river, taking in all of the major sights from the water. The guy conducting the tour was cracking jokes all the way up the river. Then, he asked us all for a tip and passed his hat around. We rode down to the London Eye, where we got off the boat. The pier around the London Eye looked like a carnival. There were people selling all kinds of things along the waterfront.

We made our way through the circus, and got back on the bus. The buses were really packed, and there were huge crowds of people everywhere. We first rode back to Stop #1 on the tour, where the Big Bus Company had a souvenir shop. I bought a beer stein, and Mom and my sister picked up a few things. Then we rode over to The Hard Rock Cafe, where we bought T-shirts. We actually had to stand in line for 15 minutes just to buy shirts. The girl who sold me my shirt was from Australia, and we talked about living in Europe. She told me that she didn’t find the British to be very friendly, and asked how it was with the Germans. I told her it was the same, but that in America people were very friendly. She told me that people were friendlier in Australia, too.

In Trafalgar Square

We hopped back on the bus and finished out the tour by seeing Kensington Palace (where Princess Diana lived) Notting Hill, and Harrod’s, the most famous department store in the world. We got off the bus at Notting Hill, and walked through Kensington Gardens. We saw the place where the people placed all of the flowers at the gate after Princess Diana was killed. The area reminded me of Central Park in New York. There was a lot of greenery, and people everywhere. My sister said she was surprised at all of the nationalities. London is a very diverse city, with lots of people from India, Africa, Arab countries, and Asian countries. Many of these people had emigrated from countries that were former British colonies.

By this time, it was getting late. So, we tried to find a subway station. We walked forever before we finally found one. We were going to try and make it to Kew Gardens, because Mom wanted to see a major botanical garden. But my guide book said that it was about to close. So, we rode the subway, passing by Wimbledon on the way, and changed trains to ride back to our hotel. When we changed trains, we missed the departing train by less than 30 seconds, and had to wait 20 minutes for the next one. Anyway, we finally made it back, went out and had some pizza, and walked around by the river for a while before getting some rest. My sister and Mom walked along the river until pretty late, but I went to bed early.

Day 3, Sunday, June 11, 2000 – Our plan for the day was to leave London and drive to the West Coast in order to board a ferry the next day to Ireland. On the way, I planned a stop at Avebury, which a prehistoric sight similar to Stonehenge. We got up and left London before 9:00. We had some difficulty finding our way back to the highway, but we eventually made it. On the way, we passed the exit to Windsor Castle, which is the normal residence of the queen. I passed on the chance to see the castle, but I regretted it a little.

About an hour into our trip, I thought about my passport for some reason. In a flash, I realized that I had left it at the hotel. It was in my shirt pocket hanging on the back of the door in the bathroom. I had decided on a different shirt that morning, and forgot to put my passport away. I called the hotel on my cell phone and told them what happened. I was furious with myself. I hate to backtrack, but we had no choice. So, we turned around. I drove very fast (over 100 mph) getting back to the hotel. I will probably get a few speeding tickets in the mail. Once again, we had to go through the process of finding the hotel. We found it, picked up the passport, and once again left. But, I always try to make the best of any situation. Since I had regretted not going to Windsor Castle, I decided that we should stop there on the way out. It was a good thing we did.

Windsor Castle was incredible. It was the biggest castle I had ever seen, and very beautiful. Outside of the castle, there was an outdoor church service going on. It was a 2,000-year celebration of Christianity. There was a boy’s choir, and a band playing. The Thames runs right by the castle, and there were dozens of swans in the water. At the front of the castle, there was a very long, straight driveway. Green fields and trees were on either side of the driveway. I recognized it immediately. I had seen this on TV lots of times. Mom commented that the castle was the highlight of her trip up to this point. She said I had taken a bad situation, forgetting my passport, and turned it into a positive situation. I told her that I always try to turn negatives into positives. I always try to find something positive in a bad situation.

We left Windsor and continued toward the coast. Twice I got into the right lane coming out of a roundabout. I was very paranoid that I was going to have a wreck. Driving on the highway was not a huge problem, but driving through towns required a lot of concentration. One thing that kept unnerving me was that the fast and slow lanes are reversed. In Germany, it is illegal to pass on the right. But, in England, the fast lane is the right lane. So, I had to get accustomed to that. Another thing was that all of the signs were in miles, instead of kilometers. So, when I saw a speed limit sign, I had to continuously convert to kilometers, because our speedometer reads kilometers per hour. I also found out that gas is even more expensive in England than in Germany. I filled up the minivan, and it took almost $80. Gas was almost $5 a gallon!

We stopped along the highway to eat at a rest area. There were a few shops there, a hotel, and several restaurants. I had KFC for the 2nd time in three days. That is one fast food chain that I have never seen in Germany, and I really like chicken. The food court was upstairs, and I had to take the escalator down when we finished eating. There was a group of teenagers near the escalator, and one of them tried to go down the wrong way. He didn’t get very far before he fell down. He turned to his friends, and I heard him say, in a heavy British accent, “I narly broke me lag” (Translation: I nearly broke my leg).

After eating, we continued toward the coast. We stopped off at Avebury, in central England and not far from Stonehenge. Avebury contains a lot of prehistoric stone circles similar to Stonehenge. However, unlike Stonehenge, in Avebury you can get out and walk among the stones. The Avebury stone circles are also much bigger than at Stonehenge. As we were coming into Avebury, we saw some signs indicating that there were some additional historical sights to be seen. So, we stopped, parked the van, and climbed up to the top of a long hill. The surrounding countryside was hilly and very beautiful. There were a lot of wheat fields, and the wind made the wheat look like waves in the ocean. Up near the top of the hill, there were 2 huge crop circles. Avebury and Stonehenge both attract a lot of new age, spiritual types, and someone like that probably created the crop circles.

At the top of the hill, there was an ancient burial chamber. The chamber was thought to be over 3,000 years old, and I went inside and explored a little. The inside was just like a long cave. I came out, and read a little bit more about the sight. A little over a mile away, there was a huge, green hill. My guidebook said that it was the largest manmade prehistoric mound in Europe. It was hard to believe that it was manmade because it was so huge. The book said that the top of the hill used to be a sight for trading among prehistoric people.

We walked back to the van, and drove on into Avebury. We parked and walked down to the stone circles. The reason for the circles is still somewhat mysterious, but they are believed to have religious significance. We walked among them, snapping pictures and taking video. I thought there were a lot of strange people hanging around, but they probably looked at us and thought the same thing.

We finished looking around, and then continued our drive. Pulling out of the parking lot, I got in the wrong lane. A man was pulling into the parking lot, and just stopped in the road while I got out of the way. My sister and I talked a little about some of the European customs that she thought were strange. For example, you never receive ice in your drinks here, they drink carbonated water, and they normally call the restroom, “the toilet”. There were a lot of things that unnerved me when I first came over here, but now I am used to them. Europeans think that we are strange for referring to the toilet in a restaurant or gas station as “the bathroom”. There is no bath in there. So, it goes both ways. There are things that we take for granted that they think are really strange.

We drove across the remainder of England, and then crossed a large toll bridge into Wales. The bridge looked like the Golden Gate Bridge. The scenery began to change immediately. The hills were very rocky and rugged. There were sheep grazing everywhere. The fences were all of hedge. Some of the drive reminded me a little of Spain. It surely didn’t look like the rest of England. All of the signs were printed in both English and Gaelic, which was completely undecipherable to me.

We eventually made our way to our Bed and Breakfast in Fishguard. It was called the Stanley House, and the rooms were really nice. It overlooked the ferry terminal. Mom and my sister had a view out onto the bay. I went into my room and caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror. It had been really burned by the sun and wind. Mom and my sister wanted to go out and get something to eat, but I was really exhausted and not at all hungry. I had driven a long distance during the day, and they had both slept some. The woman at the B&B told them that there was a restaurant just a couple of blocks away, so they went to try it out while I relaxed and got ready for bed. It was only about 8:00, but I was beat. I read an article from a newspaper I had picked up in London about Craig Venter, CEO of Celera. It said that his company has almost decoded the human genome, and an announcement would be made soon. I thought for a while about the implications of this, and they are really hard to grasp. We are about to switch from the information age to the biotechnology age. I kind of wish I had become a genetic engineer, but I am getting off the subject.

Mom and my sister came back and said they found the restaurant, but they were completely ignored when they sat down to eat. So, they sat there for a few minutes, and then came back to the hotel. They snacked a little and we all got some rest.

Day 4, Monday, June 12, 2000 – We had originally planned to take a 6 a.m. ferry across to Ireland, but the ferry crossing had been canceled because the boat needed a new motor. So, they rebooked us on a late afternoon ferry. We now had most of the day to kill, but fortunately we were adjacent to the coast and Pembrokeshire National Park. We talked to our hosts about what they would recommend to see in half a day, and they told us to drive down the coast to a little town called St. Davids. They said the drive down the coast was lovely and there were some ancient ruins at St. Davids.

So, we ate a fantastic English breakfast – eggs, ham, sausage, toast, orange juice, and we checked out of the B&B. The man at the B&B told me the price for the rooms, but I thought that was higher than the price I had been previously quoted by his wife. I had her quote in writing, and later checked and found out that he had overcharged me. I don’t think he did it on purpose, and it was only about $10. I didn’t figure it out until we were in the van, so I decided to let it go.

We started driving down the coast toward St. Davids. The road was a very narrow country road that was almost completely deserted. There were long stretches of road that were only one lane, with high embankments on either side. If we had come upon any traffic, it would have been impossible to pass. Once, we came over a hill and there was a tractor in the road. We almost hit it. After a while, we pulled over at a very rugged section of coastline. It looked a lot like the Oregon coast, and it was really spectacular. Where we pulled over, the waves were splashing over the rocks. There were a lot of huge rocks sticking up out of the water. The beach was also rocky, with a large hill behind it. I noticed a cave going back into the hill, which I presumed had been cut out by the tides. I walked about 50 feet into the cave. The floor of the cave consisted of small rocks, and water was dripping down from the top. When I got far enough that I didn’t have much light, I turned around and came back out.

We continued down the coast. Along the road, we saw purple foxgloves growing wild everywhere. We pulled off again at a tiny town, Porthgain, and again got out and explored. There was an old abandoned mining operation that looked somewhat like old Roman ruins. I climbed up a very tall hill overlooking the town, and had a great view up and down the coast and out into the ocean.

We left Porthgain, and drove into St. Davids. Our guidebook said that St. Davids is the smallest city in Wales. The city is 1500 years old, and was visited by William the Conqueror after he conquered England. St. Davids has a magnificent, purple-stoned cathedral and the ruins of an ancient bishop’s palace. We walked around the ruins, and went in and toured the cathedral. I checked the visitors log and saw that only a few visitors from the U.S. had signed the book. When we were in the cathedral, my sister realized that she still had the room key to our Bed and Breakfast. Oops, so did I. We would have to drop back by and turn them in. We left the cathedral and went to the downtown area. Mom and my sister mailed some postcards, and then we all had an ice cream. When we left the town, we drove down to the beach. There was a fee to park, and since we were very short on time we just turned around and came back out. When I turned around, I went back to the right side of the road, and met a car immediately. The man just stopped in the road, and was smiling at me as I moved back to the left.

We drove back to the B&B to turn the keys in. Since I would have to see the owners again, I decided to ask them about overcharging me for the rooms. But, they weren’t home, so I left a note and stuck in through a slot in the door, along with the keys. We stopped at a gas station and bought snacks, and then boarded the ferry to Ireland. After being on the ferry for a while, an announcement was made that the ferry would be leaving one hour later than normal. I was not happy about this. We were already delayed from the morning ferry, and now this. The captain said that he knew people had been told that we were leaving on time, but the later departure had been scheduled for a couple of weeks. He blamed the mistake on a new employee that he said had just started work that very day. I knew this was complete bull, because they had told me one week prior to this that the ferry would depart on time.

Anyway, we finally left Wales. We had been upgraded to the Captain’s Club since we had been bumped from the 6 a.m. ferry, so we got to relax in a pretty nice lounge. There were complimentary champagnes, and I drank mine, Mom’s, and my sister’s. The boat was rocking a little, and my sister started getting sick. I went outside on the upper deck with her, and she started feeling better. I was freezing, though, and didn’t stay out there for long.

An announcement was made that movies were about to start playing in the cinema. They were playing Toy Story 2 and Erin Brockovich. I thought about seeing a movie, but I decided to go back to the lounge and rest. I read through some British newspapers for a while and we snacked on cookies that had been set out. Since we were not going to arrive in Ireland until almost 7, we decided to eat on the boat. We had some really fantastic food in the lounge. I had some really tasty tiger shrimp.

When we finally arrived in Ireland, I called the hotel on my cell phone and told them we would be getting there a little late. They said no problem, and told me it would take about 2 hours to get there from where we were. So, we started on our way. Ireland, true to all the pictures I had seen, was really green. When we first started driving, it was a little bit foggy. I noticed that Ireland tended to mix up their English and metric units on the roads. For example, I saw a sign that said “30 MPH Next 2 KM”. Not long after we were on the road, we got behind a very long line of cars driving about 30 MPH. The line was too long to pass, and the lead car would never speed up, even when the speed limit was 60 MPH. This went on for about 25 minutes, and I was getting very frustrated. When we finally came to a long stretch of road with no cars coming, the truck in front of me pulled out to pass, and I followed. We worked our way past the lead car, and I was just getting ready to glare at the driver for driving so slow when I saw that it was a hearse. We had been driving behind a funeral procession for 25 minutes.

We stopped in a little town and Mom and my sister withdrew some Irish money. We continued toward our hotel. The roads were very narrow and winding. Ireland seemed to be a very poor country, much like Portugal. Once, we drove past a highway sign that said “No Animal Incineration Here.” The sign was at the side of the highway, just like a speed limit sign. A few minutes later, there was another sign that said “No Animal Burning Here.” I started to feel like we were in Haiti, or some place where animal sacrifice and voodoo are rampant. All together, we probably drove past at least 10 of these signs. Some were official highway signs and some were handmade. We never did find out what they meant.

We had been driving more or less parallel to the coast. Eventually, we turned inland toward the Wicklow Mountains. We had to drive for over half an hour down some very tiny, winding mountain roads. There was almost no other traffic. The mountains were very similar to the Kiamichi Mountains in Oklahoma. They were not towering, they were more like very big hills. Some of them had been cleared and were covered with green grass and sheep. We eventually found our hotel, The Derrybawn Mountain Lodge. It was nice, and in a very scenic location. The only bad part is that I got a smoker’s room, and it stunk. I opened the windows and let it air out for a while. It was about 9 p.m. when we arrived, and I was really tired. After unloading the van, I watched a program on TV about the brain, and then fell asleep.

Day 5, Tuesday, June 13, 2000 – The night before, Mom and my sister had talked to a man in the hotel about what he recommended for the morning. He said that if we had a little more time, he would recommend hiking in the mountains. Since we only had the morning to spare, he recommended Glendalough (pronounced Glen-da-lock), which was very near our hotel. This was the site of some very ancient ruins. In the 6th century, a monastery had been built there. For almost a thousand years, student from all over Europe had traveled there to study. The Vikings put an end to that in the 15th century, though, when they looted and plundered the area.

So, we had a good breakfast, and then went outside and took some pictures and video. The view from the hotel was really great. There were green, rolling hills all around. Most of the hills had sheep grazing on them. I put my luggage in the van, and decided to listen to the radio while I waited on Mom and my sister. There was a talk show on the radio, and they were discussing Kosovo refugees. Apparently, 350 refugees had been placed in Ireland, and another 400 were on the way. Most of the callers were saying that 350 were O.K., but they didn’t want any more. They complained that these people were consuming their tax dollars and taking away jobs.

When Mom and my sister got to the van, we left the hotel. I instinctively pulled into the right lane, but my sister noticed immediately and said something to me. We drove a couple of miles to Glendalough. We got out and walked among the ruins. We saw the ruins of a church which hadn’t been used since the 1200’s. There was also a lake there, and the scene was really beautiful. When we were walking down the trail toward the lake, we stopped and read a sign that told us more about the ruins. A man was reading it, and he looked at me and said, “This sign should be on the other side of the trail.” I looked at him and nodded, but I guess he didn’t think I understood because he asked, “Do you understand English?” I smiled and said, “Yes, a little. American English.” He started laughing and said that he was Australian. An older couple was standing behind us and had heard our conversation. The man was tired of walking, but the woman asked him to walk down to the lake. The man said, “No, I am staying right here. Do you understand English?” We all laughed.

Parallel to the trail was a mountain. I estimated it to be 600-800 feet high. According to our map, the elevation was about 2,000 feet, but we were already well above sea level. I told Mom and my sister that I wanted to climb it. They thought I was crazy, but I told them that I thought I could climb it in 10 minutes. I don’t think they believed I could do it, but they told me to go ahead. So, I started up. The climb up was very steep, but fortunately there were plenty of trees to help pull myself up. I got halfway up, and my lungs were really burning. I stopped to catch my breath, and saw a deer less than 20 feet away. I got out my video camera and started recording it. I also took some pictures of it. It was bigger than a white-tail, and darker brown. It also had dingy white or yellow spots on it, and it was black around the hindquarters. I started to walk closer to it, and it started stomping it’s foot at me. I watched it for a few minutes, until I had caught my breath, and then continued toward the top. There were a couple of stretches that gave me problems because they were so steep. I passed several natural springs bubbling out of the ground. The water running down the mountain made the ground very muddy in some areas. I finally got to the top. I startled another deer that had probably been sleeping. I checked my watch: 13 minutes, but I was exhausted. I felt like I had just run 5 miles. I considered the possibility that I could have a heart attack up there.

The view from the top was really nice. I could look down on the lake, and I had a very good overview of the ruins. I could also see the surrounding mountain range very well. I shot several minutes of video, and then started down the mountain. I had not been able to climb straight up the mountain, so I was not sure where I was going to end up when I climbed down. The climb down was much harder than the climb up. The slope was very slippery due to the mud, and a couple of times I had to grab trees because I was sliding down the mountain. When I got to the bottom, I was really muddy. I came out onto the trail pretty far from where I started. I didn’t see Mom and my sister right away, but I walked down the trail and found them.

We left Glendalough and drove on to Dublin. We were to spend the rest of the afternoon in Dublin, and then catch an overnight ferry back to Liverpool, England. The drive from the mountains to Dublin looked a lot like West Texas. I have seen many areas in Europe that look like this. My sister commented on this, too. When we were coming into Dublin, we passed a shopping mall. We wanted to get some souvenirs, so we stopped and went inside. We didn’t find a lot in there, but I did spend some time watching people. There were redheads everywhere I looked. I noticed that the Irish seemed to be much friendlier than the English. I think they are much fonder of Americans than the English are, and they don’t have the attitude that they should rule the world.

We bought a few things, and then left the mall. We were going to try and find the Dublin Botanical Gardens and spend the afternoon there. We drove right through the downtown Dublin. There were people all over the place. I again saw many, many redheads. Traffic was very heavy in the downtown area. Dublin itself was not much to look at. It did not compare to many of the other European capitals I had seen. It certainly didn’t rank in the first tier of London, Paris, or Rome, and I don’t even think it belonged in the second tier of Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Oslo, and Madrid. We drove down to the port area so we would know exactly where to catch our ferry later on. There are two ports in Dublin, and we wanted to be sure that we didn’t arrive at the wrong one shortly before our ship sailed. The area around the port was very seedy. There were people living in campers near the dock. These people were living in extreme poverty. It didn’t look like the safest neighborhood in the world, so we left and continued to search for the botanical garden.

I could see on the map just about where the garden should be, but we couldn’t find any signs directing us to it. We would occasionally find a road sign, but then the road would split and we wouldn’t know which direction to go. We drove around and around, until finally I spotted something that looked like a greenhouse in the distance. We drove over to it, and there was the garden.

There was no place to park, but there was a restaurant next door. Since we had not had lunch, we parked there and went in and ate. It was a family style restaurant, and it was full of locals. There were a lot of older women sitting around in there drinking tea and chatting. I had a chicken quarter, and of course everything came with potatoes. Since we were in Dublin, home of world-famous Guinness beer, I decided to try one. It was very dark, and a little bitter. Overall, the meal was good but not fantastic. My sister commented that she thought that the potatoes would have been a little better, since they are Ireland’s specialty. I had to agree. I had two different kinds of potatoes on my plate, and they were nothing special.

We left and went into the botanical garden. I don’t guess I had ever been in a botanical garden before. There were of course flowers everywhere. There were a number of greenhouses that held plants from different areas of the world, including South Africa, Sierra Leone, South America and Australia. One of the greenhouses held the largest lily pad I have ever seen. It must have been over 3 feet in diameter. Another held tropical plants, and it was very hot and stuffy in there. It might have been O.K. on a cold day, but it was sunny and warm while we were in Dublin.

We left the botanical garden to explore Dublin a little bit more. We parked at a tiny shopping center on the outskirts of Dublin. Mom and my sister shopped for postcards and souvenirs at the shopping center while I wrote in my journal. When they were finished shopping, they filled out their postcards and we walked off in search of the post office.

After mailing the cards, we walked around in search of souvenirs. We eventually walked all the way to central Dublin, which was over a mile from the van. Mom didn’t think the area we were walking through looked very safe. Outside one apartment, I saw a woman sitting with her daughter. I was almost certain that they were some of the Kosovo refugees that had been talked about on the radio. I thought of how interesting it would be to talk to her for a while. She would probably have some incredible stories to tell.

We walked around the downtown area for a while, and finally found a place that specialized in Irish souvenirs. Mom and my sister loaded up, but I didn’t buy anything. We backtracked to the van, and we were really tired. I was about to drop. I had walked a lot of miles and climbed a mountain that day. We got back to the van, and had a couple of hours to kill before we had to be on the ferry. There was a McDonald’s across from the shopping center, so we decided to eat there. We tallied up our Irish money, and all we had left was $7 worth of Irish money. We didn’t think we could get much food for that, but we figured out that we could buy 3 Happy Meals. So, we sat down and each had a Happy Meal.

We left the parking lot and drove down to the pier. We boarded the boat around 8:30, and left Ireland about 9:30. The cabins were really comfortable, but the bathrooms were really small. I took a shower in mine, and it didn’t drain very fast. I ended up with water all over the bathroom floor. I had forgotten to bring up anything to read from the van, so I played cards with Mom and my sister for a while in their cabin. We were supposed to land in Liverpool at 6:15, so at about 11 I went back to my cabin and went to bed. Tomorrow we had to drive all the way back across England.

Day 6, Wednesday, June 14, 2000 – I woke up in the morning, and the boat was not moving. I looked up at the clock that I had brought with me, and it read 6:00. They were supposed to wake us up at 5:30 so we would be ready to unload when the ship stopped. By my clock, we would be unloading in 15 minutes, so I jumped up and got dressed. My sister and Mom had given me their key the night before so I could go in and wake them up. I startled Mom when I went into their room, but she got up and started getting dressed. I walked around on our floor, but it was completely deserted. I went down to the information area, and nobody was there. I couldn’t imagine that someone hadn’t noticed the time and had forgotten to wake us up. I looked outside, and I could see that we were stopped. We didn’t appear to be at a pier, though. Then, I looked up at a wall clock, and it said 5:20. What was going on?

Then, a few minutes later the announcement came that it was 5:30 and we would be getting off the boat in 45 minutes. I went back and told Mom that I must have set my clock wrong the night before. However, I found out later what actually happened. I had brought the clock from Germany. The voltage was correct, at 220. But, the frequency was different. Either my clock was designed for 50, and the boat was operating at 60, or vice-versa. The net effect, which I would see again on our next overnight ferry, was that my clock ran about 20% too fast. A minute was 50 seconds. Just another lesson on living in Europe. There are many different standards in all the various countries. I looked out the window again, and saw that the reason the boat was not moving is that we were passing through a series of locks. We would pull into one, and then it would be filled with water and we would float to a higher elevation before the lock was reopened.

We unloaded at Liverpool. It was drizzling rain. When we left the dock, I was very surprised to see that they did not check our passports. When we pulled out of the dock area, I was looking the wrong direction at the traffic and nearly got hit by a semi. Fortunately, this was the last day I would have to drive on the left side of the road.

The plan for the day was to drive across England to the East Coast, spend the day in York, and then catch an overnight ferry back to Rotterdam, Holland. York is an old Viking town. It was founded during Roman times, and later became the capital for the Vikings. It is also home to York Minster, the largest Gothic church in England, and whose origins date back over a thousand years.

We first drove through downtown Liverpool. Liverpool wasn’t much to look at, but Mom took a picture of a Liverpool street sign since that is where The Beatles had come from. We drove through the industrial heartland of England. Traffic was extremely heavy when we drove through Manchester. After passing Manchester, the landscape became very hilly. The hills were green, and there were lots of sheep and cattle grazing. We passed through another large city, Leeds, before turning north toward York. Outside York we stopped at a Burger King to eat a little breakfast. But, they were closed, so we walked next door to a gas station and we all had ice cream for breakfast.

I had read that driving in York was really difficult, because a lot of the streets were ancient and very narrow. The layout of the city is also confusing. So, we parked at the edge of the city and took a bus into town. I told the bus driver that we wanted to go to the York Viking Center. He stopped at a bus stop and pointed us in that direction.

It was drizzling rain. There was no line at the Viking Center. I had read that most of the time in the summer the line is over an hour long to enter. The first thing we did was ride the “time train”. We sat backwards on a train that traveled backwards. Scenes from England’s past flashed in front of us. We passed WWII, WWI, the 1800’s, and the 1600’s, etc. until we finally reached the Viking era. Then, the train car turned around and took us through a typical street from Viking times. This was the exact location where they had excavated Viking ruins, and everything displayed was authentic, even the smells. And the stench was really unbearable. Sanitation was not very good then, and they went to great lengths to recreate the smells – even the latrine. They had life-sized, realistic models of Vikings young and old. All of the models were recreated from skeletons found in the area, and are believed to look like the people actually looked. My impression was that they were not a very attractive race. Some of them looked like they almost weren’t human. Their teeth were terrible, their foreheads were sloping, and their hair was very stringy and unkempt.

At the end of the train tour was a Viking Museum. It contained a huge number of the actual artifacts that were found in the area. These included weapons, clothing, preserved insects, and even a sample of real Viking manure. They also had several skeletons on display. Many of these had been killed in battle, and their wounds were really severe. Several had indentations in their bones from swords, and a couple had their skulls cracked open. It must have been really tough to be a Viking.

We left there, and walked around downtown York. It was a really neat city. One area, The Shambles, is a perfectly preserved medieval street. There was an outdoor market near there, and we shopped a little. Then, we made our way through the town to see the cathedral. It was a monster. It was not as tall as the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, but it was probably larger overall. It contained the most impressive stained glass windows that I have ever seen. The designs were very intricate, and there were so many. My guidebook said that this cathedral alone contained half of the medieval stained glass in all of England.

When we left the cathedral, we shopped a little and just wandered around. Mom and my sister stopped in every other shop to look around. We went into one shop that advertised that they could look up and print out your family crest. I looked up “Shirley”, and found it, and my sister found “McCarter”. The shop was full of medieval weapons for purchase, and even had an old coat of armor for sale – for $4,000. My sister bought a set of bagpipes for Jeff there, and had them shipped back to the U.S.

By this time, it was getting close to lunchtime. We had seen a Pizza Hut earlier, and we decided to go back there to eat. We went in and ordered the buffet, and I saw some pretty strange pizzas. Most of the meat pizzas had corn on them. I tried one, and it was O.K., but I had never seen corn on pizza before. They were also very big on the pineapple pizzas. Mom ate those up, but I wouldn’t even try it out.

After lunch, we still had a couple of hours to kill. I had read a lot about The Castle Museum, which came highly recommended. We decided to try it out. I am glad that we did. It was better than The Viking Center. An English doctor in the early 1900’s had started putting together a collection of artifacts from different time periods – mostly from the 1800’s and 1900’s. The museum bought out his collection and added to it. Part of the museum was actually in a castle, but it was huge. They had actually recreated streets from the 1800’s. You could walk into a post office or candy store that was set in the 1800’s. In the candy store, they actually sold candy that was popular 200 years ago. I bought some for the kids. I really enjoyed this museum. It reminded me a lot of the American History Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington. But, it was so big that we eventually started to run short on time, so we rushed through the last third of the museum.

One thing I noticed in the last part was that they had lots of displays on the great wars in British history. They stretched back all the way to the 1500’s, and were in chronological order. I was interested to see how they treated The Revolutionary War. When I got to this point in history, they had just completely skipped it. Hum, they must have forgotten about that one. Well, The Patriot opens there soon so that should jog their memory.

We left The Castle Museum, and went back to our bus stop. One of the buses came by, but didn’t stop. After a little while, another came by. We tried to flag it down, but it didn’t stop. We finally decided that the driver in the morning had let us off at a city bus stop, but that was not his normal stop. We didn’t know where the stop was, though. So, we started following the buses to try to find the correct bus stop. We walked a long way, away from the direction of The Castle Museum. Finally, I caught a driver at a stoplight and asked him where the bus stop was. It was right outside the museum, a couple hundred yards from the first stop we had waited at. We had walked a half-mile trying to find the stop, and it had been right outside the museum.

We left York and drove to Hull. Hull was a pretty big city, and we had to drive all the way through before we got to the dock. We didn’t have enough English money left to buy much dinner, so we snacked. I had chocolate for supper. We departed at 6:30 p.m., and would arrive in Rotterdam, Holland in the morning. I thought I had gotten us separate cabins for this trip, but apparently I screwed up. We had to share a cabin for this trip.

Day 7, Thursday, June 15, 2000 – About 5:00, the rocking of the boat woke me up. It was really churning my stomach, and my sister was getting sick. I got up and went outside. We were still out on the open ocean. Eventually, the coast of Holland came into view and within an hour or so we pulled into the port. It felt so good to drive on the right side of the road again. It would take us about 2 hours to get back to Düsseldorf, but we were first going to stop off in Kinderdijk, Holland. There is a huge concentration of windmills there.

We passed a lot of industry, especially chemical, on the way. After half an hour or so, we turned off the highway and followed the signs through several small, Dutch towns. We found a parking area close to the windmills. There was also a souvenir shop there. They didn’t accept credit cards, which was unusual, but fortunately I had some Dutch money. My sister bought some neat wooden shoes, and I think Mom bought a T-shirt and a couple of other things. I talked to the man working there for a little bit about the windmills, and asked him what he recommended. He said to walk down among the windmills, and stop and tour one of them.

The purpose of the windmills is to keep the land from flooding. Besides the windmills, and the canals that crisscrossed the land, the landscape looked like normal farmland. We walked down a paved path between the canals until we came to a windmill that was open for tours. The man taking the money for the tour was actually wearing very muddy wooden shoes. We went inside and looked around. There were several different levels, with steep steps leading up to the next level. People actually lived inside these windmills, and they were large enough inside to house a large family. At the top, we saw where the top of the windmill could be rotated to face the wind as it changed directions.

We finished up our tour, and walked back out. There were a lot of bicycle riders on the paved path, and there were ducks in the canal and walking along the path. We made our way leisurely back to the van, and then headed home to Germany. We had survived the trip without having a wreck in England or Ireland, which I considered to be a minor miracle. We would have about a day and a half to rest before leaving for the southern part of our European tour.

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Blogger mercurythread said...

Cheers for the info. This is one of the best, most informative and longest posts I've seen for a while but its been great reading it.

2:53 AM  

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