Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Emerald Isle - Dublin Edition

Kilmainham Gaol

Guinness Storehouse

Dublin Castle

St. Stephen Shopping Center

St. Patrick's Cathedral

The Famous Temple Bar

The old Jameson Distillery

I just returned from a two-day jaunt to Dublin, Ireland. Another very cool city on the list of, hopefully many, that I will visit while I'm on this side of the Atlantic. I had to book it out of class on Thursday to make my train in order to get to the airport somewhere close to on time. Even though I should have had plenty of time, the line at security really held me up. I have never been held out in a line like that for security. I'm used to queues in passport control/customs but not in security. I finally made it through though and made my boarding call with about 2 minutes to spare.

Once I was in Ireland everything was pretty standard for international travel; few lines, extra questions for not being an EU citizen, tracking down a cash point, and finding public transport tickets. The one thing I forgot is that it's dark by 8pm in October. So riding on a bus and looking for street signs was harder than I had anticipated. Luckily there was a group of ten students from James Madison University on the same bus I was and going to the same hostel I was going to also. They had directions from a local and I had a map. Map plus directions equals instant friendship. The eleven of us checked into the hostel and took off to find someplace that was still serving dinner at 9:30pm which is actually harder than it sounds. We ended up at Murray's Bar which had a interesting decorating scheme of old housework items and a fish tank over the bar. I ordered Irish stew, mash, and brown bread. I was so hungry and chilled from traveling and looking for a restaurant that it was exactly what I needed. The stew had meat, vegetables, and potatoes in it and then had a big scoop of mash on top of that. It was almost too many potatoes even for me. I think the brown bread was really good too. After dinner we went to a couple if Irish pubs which happened to be still be in the tourist district so drink cost us an arm and a leg, but it was still a really good time. One of the places we went was a micro-brewery so we got to sample some of their specialty creation-which we all did because the house-brew was the cheapest pint on the list. The JMU kids were leaving the next morning to start a Bus Tour of the northern half of the island including some of Northern Ireland so we couldn't stay out very late.

The next day I went off on a full day of site-seeing in Dublin. I started off at the Kilmainham Gaol, a prison that was used during the 18th century Irish rebellions against Great Britain. It was big and stone and freezing! It was definitely cooler inside the building than it was ouside. So happy I wasn't a prisoner there, just being in that kind of cold would been awful enough without the other crummy things that go with being in jail. From the gaol I went to the Guinness Storehouse. It was easy to find since as soon as you got within about 10 blocks of the brewery you could smell the malted barley. The Storehouse used to part of the Brewery but was converted to a visitor's center after most of the brewing process was automated. The building was redone so the core is now a giant pint glass that could hold the 14.3 million pints of Guinness that are consumed everyday. On the ascending floors around the center are exhibits that feature the brewing process, past advertising campaigns, and how Guinness is transported around the world. They also had us a do a quality control tasting and, at the end, staff members showed us how to pour the perfect pint of Guinness and then let us do it ourselves so we ended up with a complimentary pint and a certificate. Happy to have graduated from the Guinness school of pint-pouring, I wandered through the city looking at old buildings along the way like St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin Castle, few more churches, and then St. Stephen's Green and Stephen's Green Shopping Center. Dublin is really easy to walk around and all the sites that I waned to see were spread out enough that I didn't have problems with crowds of tourists. That night a bunch of the girls from the hostel I was in and I went to the Temple Bar which is actually an area full of pubs including THE Temple Bar, and Oliver St. John Gogarty where we heard so traditional Irish music. Drinks were extremely expensive at both places but that's what you get for venturing into the heart of tourist-land.

Saturday I got up early but didn't leave until almost an hour after I originally planned to. The first thing I did was go to the Old Jameson Distillery which had a similar tour to that of the Guiness storehouse except it covered the distillation of whiskey instead of stout. I was surprised to learn that they still used wooden casks in the distillery and they only get casks from certain regions. After the tours we had a whiskey tasting tutorial on the the differences between Jamesson, Johnny Walker Black (scotch), and Jack Daniels (American corn whiskey). It was pretty cool to learn about all the differences between the three. After the tasting they gave us a free glass of whiskey. Having a glass of whiskey at 11am made me feel a little like a lush but I was in Ireland so I guess that makes it okay. After the distillery I wanted to see the crypts of St. Michen Church which inspired the story of Dracula but as fortune would have it the church was closed for the two days and only the two days I was in Dublin. I wasn't going to let that spoil my day though. Instead I went to a house that Oscar Wilde lived in and a park that had this awesome statue of the man himself. I also went to Trinity college and saw the Book of Kells exhibit in the library. I guess the Book of Kells is actually several books or maybe a regional name for the gospels because there were at least three books labelled as the Book of Kells in the display cases. In any case they all dated back to about the 8th century AD. The illustrations were so elaborate. It was hard to imagine someone drawing them with a feather quill and a pot of ink. By the time I finished with that it was just about time for me to go to the airport so I started walking back towards the bus stop with a scenic detour to a couple other historic spots along the way. Dublin was definitely an awesome city to visit. I found most people to be friendly and polite, and it wasn't completely overrun with tourists. I'd like to come back in the spring and see the infamous countryside and maybe go down to Cork and see the Blarney Stone.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Pictures from my travels

Palacio Real

Living art

Plaza Mayor

La Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas

Poster for the bullfight

Church of Our Lady of Tyn

Astronomical Clock

The classic Prague Skyline

On the Streets of Prague

St. Vistro Cathedral

Liverpool Cathedral

Strawberry Fields

John Lennon's childhood home

Beatles Fan Museum



Saint Paul's Cathedral

The Globe Theater in London

These are just a few of the thousand-some-odd pictures of taken. A more complete collection will be available when I get back to the States.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Madrid, Espana (Oct. 1-4)

My adventure is Madrid actually started with me seeking refuge in an airport coffee shop arm chair for a couple hours sleep because I didn't have enough time to go back to campus in between flights. I was actually really surprised how many people were spending the night in the airport. There was a lot of competition for comfortable places to sleep. It turned out to be okay that I stayed in the airport because the next morning was absolutely miserable and rain, and I'm not sure I would have gotten out of bed to go to the airport. Of course, that all changed as soon as we reached Spain and the weather was sunny and in the upper 60s.

We reached the hostel pretty easily and headed off into town to explore. Madrid is a big city with a few million people but it's still really easy to walk to most places and if you don't feel like walking the metro will take you anywhere. We managed to cover most of the plazas we wanted to see in the first afternoon. We also wandered over the Palacio Real and its gardens without realizing it. That night we went to a restaurant at 9:00pm and were the first ones there for dinner. We ordered Menus del Dia where you get 2 courses, bread, dessert, and a drink. Problem: didn't understand the finer points of spanish food vocab so it ended being more random selections than legitimate choices. I ended up with this really good vegetable stew with an egg, and somesort of fish that was covered with breading and sauce so it didn't actually taste like fish. That was the only reason I was able to finish it. Dessert was strwberry mousse or whatever that in in Spanish. The good news is that that meal was the only one were I had an ordering mishap and had great food for the rest of the trip. That night we met up with a friend of the guy I was traveling with and got Chocolate con churros. Fried dough with a coffee cup of melted chocolate-absolutely delicious. Tradition says you're supposed to eat all the chocolate before leaving but Justin doesn't like chocolate so Melanie and I felt a little bad eating it in front of him. After that we went to these two Irish pubs that were actually playing the first round of the MLB playoffs so I saw the Phillies game. At the first pub we went to their were four guys that play baseball at Kalamzoo College, all of half an hour from my parents' house. I really think there were more Americans in the first pub than Spaniards. We went back to the hostel at 1.30am and while the locals were just warming up for the night, we were the lasts ones back to our room.

The second day we started off at the Prado taking in art from at least 200 years ago like Goya and Valazquez and El Greco. The museum took most of the morning to work through. By the time we left there was no way I could look at another painting and have any kind of appreciation for it. We grabbed lunch in a Plaza in the beautiful Spanish sunshine and then headed off to La Corrida at the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas. I was a little anxious about going to the bullfight because I've heard they can be a little gory. We ended up sitting behind a couple from Chicago who grew up in Madrid. It was nice because they had kids our age and were able to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of bullfights. In the end we saw 6 bullfights, and one particularly mean bull get pardoned. When the one bull was pardoned, they sent in this herd of cows with big bells around their necks to escort the bull out of the ring. The bullfight we went to was a Novillada so the matadors were all 19 or 20 years old going up against 3 year old bulls. The bulls may have been young but they were still over 1000lbs each. The last bull was a nasty one and actually tossed its 19-year-old matador up in the air twice. The entire experience was mind-blowing and a complete culture shock. We left completely blown away, especially after watching a kid younger than us get tossed like a ragdoll. They face their own mortality everytime they go to work and I'm worried about classes transferring. That night we ended up eating Italian and turing in early.

Friday, we went to the Reina Sofia which as more modern art like Picasso and some Dali. As we went through the museum the "art" got progessively weirder. Pretty much everything after Picasso's Guernica was a little too bizarre for my taste. That collection also took the majority of the morning and pushed my appreciation for art to the limit. In the afternoon we toured the Palacio Real which was the official resisdence of the King of Spain even though he doesn't live there. The amoury had at least 30 suits of armour from Medieval Spain. The Place was elaborately decorated and every room with different other than the reoccuring theme of gold and crystal chandelliers. The pharmacy was also impressive with its scores and scores of ceramic jars labelled with some substances that probably helped and some that definitely didn't help anything. We stopped by the Plaza de Oriente on our way back to the hostel to look at the statues that were supposed to decorate the roof of the Palacio but were placed in the plaza because the Queen was worried the roof would collapse. We decided to stop for a drink at one of the cafes with not very good luck. I had a Baileys and instant coffee which was gross and Justin had a coke-colored rum. I almost got a hot chocolate. I think that would have been a much better tasting choice. I miss normal brewed coffee so much its ridiculous. For dinner we went to this awesome mexican restuarant called La panza es primero. I got chicken enchiladas with mole. They were served with assorted salsas of varying strength from nothing to moderately hot. I was so excited to be eating something I recognized and tasted like I thought it would. I also had a margarita with a salt and chili pepper ring. After that dinner the idea of bland English food was slightly depressing. After dinner we wandered around the area because we were in a hotspot for nightlife. The streets were full of people who at midnight were barely starting their night out. When we went back to the hostel the street below us was still crawling with people and we could hear them outside the window until well after 3am. Even with all the partying the streets were spotless in the morning. The street cleaning crews started at about 5am worked for several hours before we emerged after breakfast.

Our last day in Madrid we spent mostly people watching in and around the Plaza Mayor. I did go to the Catedral de San Isidro. It was the most beautiful church I've been in since i arrived in Europe. It was an elaborate church but it wasn't overbearing like some of the churches I've been in. There was a Mass going on so I couldn't take any pictures and felt a little awkward walking past the back few rows of pews. Inside the Plaza Mayor living art is very popular and we were lucky enough to watch some of the acts from arrival to breakdown. There were also street performers. By the end of the fourth day I could understand most of the scripts. Unfortunately ever time someone asked me a question I would stumble and answer in mangled spanglish to the point that by the time we actually left I was speaking English about as poorly as I was speaking Spanish.

Traveling back to the UK was a big reality check. Our plane was almost an hour late leaving Madrid and we arrived at a very cold and rainy London. The plane had to park out on the runway so we had to go through the rain to the bus to take it to customs. But the fun didn't stop there. There was work being done on the tracks we were supposed to take so we had to take a rail replacement bus to Brighton and then catch a night bus in the rain. I was so ready to go back to sunny Spain after 2 hours of English rain. I'm already looking forward to going back to Spain, hopefully to Barcelona next time.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Praha, Czech Republic (Sept 27-30)

Just in case anyone thought I was going to take it easy while I was in Europe, I took this week to prove that that isn't the case. September class ended on Thursday so I decided to take some time and not leave on my next adventure for a day or so. I flew out to Prague in the Czech Republic in the early afternoon on Saturday. I got through passport control pretty easily and then was it full on by the language barrier. Most important signs were still printed in English as well as Czech but the bus schedule definitely wasn't. Luckily Prague is used to dumb English-speaking tourists and the lady at the ticket window spoke enough English to tell me where I need to go. My hostel was right outside the main tourist area so getting lost wasn't an issue as long as we didn't get too adventurous. I checked in with no problems and then went into the Old Town Square to try to find the other kids from my program that has left a few days before me. Within the two blocks I had to walk to the square I decided that Prague is absolutely beautiful. Everywhere we went was full of baroque-style architecture, cobblestone streets, and tiled sidewalks. The first night I was there we wandered around the city and went to the Charles Bridge. The Charles Bridge is one of the high profile sites in the city and dates from before the 14th century and is lined with religious-themed statues. The bridge is also a vendor hotspot where they sell prints, jewelry, characitures, and local musicians play and try to sell CDs. That night we ended up eating Thai food of all things, but it was cheap and I got a lot of food so it was all good. After dinner we went up to the hostel bar and met a couple of Australians. My group and the Australians went over to the Techno/Hipster club, Roxy, next door to the hostel for a while. The dance was kind of like walking into a cloud of smoke and no one was really dancing so much as just bouncing around. I had fun at the club but was also exhausted from travelling most of the day so I was happy when people decided to call it a night.

The second day I was there we went to the Old Jewish Quarter and did a tour that included several synagogues and the cemetery where some thousands of tombstones are crammed together because that small area was the only place that the Jews of Prague were allowed to bury their dead. The inside walls of one of the synagogues was covered with the names of those killed in The Holocaust. I think the tour said there were 80,000 names or there about. Even when you see the physical representation of a number that large it's hard to wrap your mind around it. We also saw the Spanish Synagogue, which probably the most elaborate place of worship we visited. Which is saying a lot considering all the baroque cathedrals we were in. After lunch at on of the infamous sausage stands of Wenceslas Square, we went to the Museum of Communism. They had a few nice displays of propaganda, especially anti-American, and some cool video footage from the Velvet Revolution. This was also served with a healthy dose of satire for the Western tourists including postcards reading "You couldn't always get laundry detergent but you could get brainwashed." That night we went to a Jazz club that was having a Jam Night and listened to some Chicago Jazz performed by Czech musicians before they started bringing up people from the audience. Two of the guys from the audience that performed sat across the table from us. Turns out that they're from the Midwest, go to NYU, and are studying in Prague for the semester. The best part was that they really knew how to jam and got everyone who was playing with them into it. It was a very fun night.

The last two days I was there were devoted to castles and churches. The first castle I went to has a really cool name in Czech but I don't have the keys to type it and was older than the second one and it took us a little while to realize that we were in the castle and not a walled park. It was very pretty even if it was missing some stereotypical "castle" features. From the retaining wall you had a beautiful view of the Vltava River and Prague Castle. The leaves were just starting to change which made it even more beautiful. We saw the castle cathedral which was huge baroque and ornate. Baroque cathedrals are probably the element I like the least of the movement. There's just soo much gold flake and multiple elaborate alters. I'm guessing some of the alters were dedicated to saints but if they didn't have relics visible it was hard to tell.

My last day in Prague I went to Prague Castle. It's up on a hill over-looking the old part of the city. In fact, the characteristic skyline of Prague is the looking up at the Castle across Charles Bridge. It's definitely a pretty picture. The Castle was occupied until much later than the one we saw the day before so it had more buildings and a more cramped complex feeling to it. More "castle-esque" if you will. My favorite part was the old royal place which reminded me of the great hall of Winchester Castle in England. It used plain stone work and large windows which gave it a very medieval feel. The was also St. George's Basillica in the complex. St. George is the patron saint of Britian so I was surprised to see him in a place of honor in the Czech Republic. Within the Castle complex they also had a national art gallery, dungeon, and a market corridor. The focal of the point of the complex was this MASSIVE gothic cathedral. The stain glass windows were huge and everyone had a different color scheme. While this cathedral was also crowded with assorted alters and statues, its size made it less overwhelming.

Czech food was an interesting experience and also surprisingly difficult to find. There were scores of Italy restaurants and a good handful of Czech palces we found required reservations. We finally were seated at a small cafe where the staff kind of spoke English. The main dish of the night was potato dumplings and like a beef stew-essectially beef mediallions in lots and lots of gravy. It was really good. The dumplings looked a little sketchy at first but they were really good with the gravy. The other popular Czech dish that I really enjoyed was the fried cheese. It looked like a big mozzarella stick but you could choose all sorts of different creamy cheeses. It's going to be very hard to go back to plain ol' moz sticks after that. I tried a couple different types of Czech beer, since they do consume the most beer per capita in the world, and found it to be more bitter than the stuff I've tried in England. It wasn't especially heavy but dark beers seem to be prefered over light ones. I also got to try a couple pastries. One was like a vanilla-flavored breadstick that was cooked around a stick so it made a circle. They took it off the spit and rolled it in almods and sugar. Delicious. The second pastry I tried was a regular pastry topped with different preserves and thick frosting stars. Also very yummy.

I had a lot of fun in this 1000+ year old city. It was absolutely beautiful and full of history. The langauge barrier was a little challenging sometimes but I would still go back (possibly with a Czech phrase book).