Dublin, Ireland

We’ve been in Dublin 6 days and it is in contention for our favorite place so far. It reminds us a lot of Seattle – especially the Belltown and Fremont neighborhoods. There are tons of Asian restaurants and Polish groceries, it has been cool and rainy, and we can walk almost everywhere. After 6 months in countries where English is not an official language, it is nice to be able to have small conversations at stores without worrying about mispronunciations or fumbling through transactions. Sadly, it’s more expensive than other places we’ve been, so our short stay represents more of a holiday than a residence.

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Outside arts.

Since our stay is short(er), we’ve been trying to cram as much into a week as we normally see in four. The National Gallery of Art had a (non-photographable) exhibit of da Vinci drawings. He really was interested in everything: making sketches of cats, studying river eddies and human bodies, and finding time to try his hand at poetry in between.

The National Archaeology Museum (photographable) had butter, clothes, and bodies preserved in the peat bogs, lots of weaponry, church artifacts, and even Egyptian mummies. One small pile of coins were actually tokens handed out by taverns as change and only usable at the same pub – maybe one of the earliest customer loyalty programs.

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Really old butter found in a bog, Egyptian mummy, Irish bracelets.

Just west of the tourist center are St. Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals. Kevin toured Christ Church and I went through St. Patrick’s. Both are made of gray stone and look similar from the outside. The exteriors are relatively plain, no soaring buttresses or gargoyles, just a few towers and arched windows. Inside, however, they are full of art. Brightly tiled floors and stained glass break up the dull stone. Statues, paintings and flags do the rest. Writer Jonathan Swift was Dean at St. Pat’s in the mid-1700s and is buried under a corner of the tile floor.

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St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the grave of Johnathan Swift, and statues and stained glass on the inside.

St. Patrick’s also has a tradition of receiving regimental banners as a way to remember soldiers killed in battle. Once the flags are hung, they are left to dissipate over time. The newest flags are still brilliantly colored and slowly darken over time before becoming mere tatters.

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Bright colors and regimental flags.

We’ve made sure to try Irish beer and whiskey. Guinness really is better here, as are local craft brews like McGargles. And they really must be better, because even I don’t mind drinking the beer.

Despite its reputation for whiskey, there is only one active distillery in Dublin, and it only opened only a year ago. Teeling Whiskey is very proud of the fact that they are the first new distillery to open in the city in more than 100 years. Though it takes more than three years to make a proper Irish whiskey, the Teelings inherited their father’s share from a distillery elsewhere and can sell it under their name. It apparently helps to have a starter stock when opening a distillery.

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Christ Church Cathedral, Teeling Whiskey, Dublin Castle

I was sure to make the pilgrimage to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells and the library’s Long Room. Thankfully timed tickets we bought online allowed us to skip the line once we saw it stretched all the way around the courtyard. The Kells exhibit was a great reminder of the skills of illustrators and calligraphers and the intense work that would have gone into each page. Only two sets of pages are displayed at any time, so the actual book itself is a bit underwhelming, not to mention that it is quite crowded.

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Long Room at the Trinity College Library. :):)

Upstairs is the main attraction, the Long Room. It’s one of the few tourist spots where photographs online and on postcards look just like the real-life version. It was absolutely as pretty as I’d hoped. It even smelled like a proper library. The sheer number of books on the shelves is mind-numbing. I’d happily move in tomorrow.

On display among a few showcased books is a 1916 Proclamation issued by the leaders of the Easter Rising. In another case is a 14th century Celtic harp that, according to legend, belonged to Brian Boru. This harp is literally the symbol of Ireland – it appears on Guinness beer and on government seals and the Irish euro coins. In any other place the harp probably would have been the centerpiece of its own museum, here it is overshadowed by the library’s towering shelves.

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Just more library photos.

Peleș and Bran

We took a few days last week to escape Bucharest and drive to the countryside. Our goal was a cabin just outside of Bran (of Transylvania/Dracula tourist fame). The cabin was a peaceful experience – we overlooked a small hayfield and mountains were in the distance – but getting there was not. Kevin always draws the short straw when it comes to rental car driving and I attempt navigation. I knew where we were going, though trying to determine how to get through some of Bucharest’s intersections defies all logical road rules. Sometimes turning left on green requires first going into the right lane and waiting for a second light to change. Drivers here also tend to stop by the side of the road with no warning and for any reason. It’s all very unpredictable.

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Local wildlife, old fashioned haystacks, our cabin once the grass was mowed.

On the highway to Bran we stopped for a few hours to tour Peleș Castle, the summer residence of the royal family from the late 1800s. King Carol I made a brilliant choice. Peleș is in the mountains where summer is cooler and hiking and hunting were abundant. The castle feels very Bavarian (Carol I was actually German), and looks like a cabin on steroids.

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Peles Castle on the walk up and the castle courtyard.

The palace interior is anything but cabiny – Venetian glass, marble, carved walnut, all the amenities the turn of the century could provide. I think it is the first castle we’ve been where electricity and telegraph lines were installed as it was built. And when an interior courtyard was covered over to make a grand staircase and reception hall, the King and Queen had the foresight to put on a retractable roof. Clearly, someone in the family was loaded.

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The castle’s weapons collection, stained glass on the retractable roof, and oversized doors.

The tour at Peles lasted about 45 minutes, and then we were back on our way. We arrived at our cabin mid-afternoon, just as a thunderstorm was rolling over the top of the mountains behind us. Thinking Bran Castle would be at its eeriest with rain and lighting as a backdrop, we found an umbrella and walked into town. Contrary to what many photos had us believe, Bran Castle isn’t situated alone in the mountains – there is a small town at its base that serves tourists and is full of souvenir shops and restaurants. Despite this, the castle sits separated in a park of its own and manages to look at least a little ominous.

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Not-so-frightening castle door, tower!, and the secret staircase (because all quasi-haunted buildings need one).

Of course, it used to be homier than it is now (the interiors currently are almost completely white and very stark). Queen Marie used this castle as her own summer retreat and a few swatches show it would have been painted with floral motifs and been much cozier.

Two rooms were dedicated to the Dracula legend and all the movies that have come out of the Bram Stoker’s book. Bran Castle does seem to be an inspiration for the story, but Vlad didn’t live there. It just conveniently looked like the castle described in the book and was suitably close to Bucharest.

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Castle Bran’s courtyard, looking toward surrounding valleys from a hike above Bran.

Castles aside, the Romanian countryside is gorgeous. The plains felt Midwestern. Corn and wheat were growing in abundance. We passed shepherds with small flocks of sheep and cattle every few miles. Horse drawn carts were still in use in the smaller towns. Up in the mountains, many roadside stands were offering berries, and livestock grazed next to the road, watched by their handlers. Traditional hay meadows, still scythed by hand, dot the tops of smaller mountains. Haystacks are also made by hand and are scattered throughout the small fields. Our neighbors were making one the morning we left – a tall pole through the middle and a tripod of legs make the base for the stack.

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Horse & cart patiently waiting for their owner, hay drying on the lower barn roof, an Orthodox church.

Driving back into Bucharest was less stressful than getting out of the city. We returned on a Friday, and there was a steady stream of nice cars going the opposite way. Something to do with a holiday weekend and the 90+ degree temperatures we returned to. In any case, we were happy we had the chance to escape mid-week and I’d definitely love to return to the Carpathian Mountains in autumn.

Palace of the Parliament

We first spotted Romania’s Palace of the Parliament as we walked along the Dâmbovița River. The building is ridiculously massive. It makes everything around it look toylike.  We absolutely wanted to visit while we were in Bucharest.

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Even though this is the narrow side, it took a panorama pic to get it all in (hence the fish-eye look).

We bought our tickets in one of the basement levels. Right away it was evident maintenance must be a big problem. Other visitors were pointed out water damage and ceiling cracks. I suppose a Palace of this size would have all the issues of a large office building, stadium, and convention center smushed together.

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The main theatre illuminated by a 5-ton(!) chandelier.

There is so much room that quite a bit of it is vacant much of the time. Both houses of Parliament meet in the building, and it also houses three museums, theatre spaces, offices (not in giant rooms, apparently, but still with lots of marble and wood trim), a conference center, and giant halls to rent if you have some extra money. Despite all these uses, it’s still not full…

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Rentable ballrooms!

We walked up hundreds of stairs and a couple of kilometers, but still only managed to see about 5% of the Palace. It is also supposed to be the heaviest structure in the world; given all the marble and concrete, I can readily believe it.

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Just one of many slinky-worthy staircases and the view from a lower balcony.

Our guide noted that basically all the materials making up the building are Romanian. The different color marbles were mined in the nearby Carpathian mountains and the wood is from local forests. This fact was almost as impressive as the structure itself. Entire industries must have given over huge portions of their production to finish it. Carpets were even made on site, in several pieces, and were sewn together inside because they were too large to move otherwise.

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Another outside view and so many chandeliers!

I did end up finding the Palace to be garish, even though many interior rooms are beautifully decorated. It would be a great place to host a party, but it is a also a reminder of how Ceaușescu’s regime misspent money and destroyed a neighborhood in order to built a monument to itself.

Village Museum

Bucharest’s Village Museum is perhaps the most entertaining museum in the city. Dozens of cottages, farmsteads, and churches have been moved from the Romanian countryside to a park in Bucharest and reassembled. It’s a lot like Old World Wisconsin minus the cultivated fields.

The structures are arranged to give the feel of walking through an old town. Each home has a yard, now full of blooming spring flowers, and some are connected with uneven stone paths.

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Adorably painted cabin and one built partially underground.

Shortly after we arrived, the day clouded over and it started to storm. While the heaviest rain was falling, we hid out under the roof of a wine press (wine sadly not included) with a group of German tourists. Due to our bad timing, some of the buildings were closed. However, the open cottages were displaying the typical vestiges of everyday life – looms, wood-burning stoves, textiles, and handmade furniture. The fabrics were richly patterned and were used as clothing as well as decor.

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Grindstone and press, farmhouse, and barns.

Many of the farmyards were enclosed by fences or even walls. Some looked like small fortified towns – high wooden walls sheltered a house and collection of outbuildings meant for animals, firewood, and wagons.

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Timiseni Church, a braided fence, and a carved entryway.

Bucharest has also fed several of my other nerdy hobbies this week. We arrived in time for Bookfest, the largest book-related event in Romania. Naturally, most of the focus is on Romanian-language book and authors; at least one new book was being launched every hour. Fortunately there was enough English-language literature that I was able to find a few things to read this month.

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Bucharest’s Bookfest and Museum of Old Maps and Books.

Among its grandly-buildinged national museums, Bucharest also hides a National Museum of Old Maps and Books. Located in a mansion on a residential street, it has three floors of maps showing the changing borders of Romania and Europe and how world exploration advanced. It was interesting to see the borders of Romania shift through the centuries (at one point the positions of Bulgaria and Romania basically reversed). A different map purporting to show the United States post-Louisiana Purchase had an overenthusiastic cartographer who gave the U.S. not only the area of the Purchase, but much of the West Coast and a large piece of Canada as well.

Bucharest

A couple of shorts flights moved us from Dubrovnik to Bucharest, Romania. We arrived at night but easily found our new apartment. We’ve spent the last couple of months in suburbs, but here we are right in the city center and close to all sorts of landmarks.

Bucharest is a stark contrast to Split and Dubrovnik. The city is much newer – the Old Town is mostly from the 1800s rather than the 1300s. The buildings are on a much grander scale, both because it is a city of two million and partly because it was rebuilt to be a royal capital modeled after Paris and then a capital to showcase Communist power.

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Palace of the Parliament and the Cercul Militar National.

Bucharest is more spread out, but without many hills, so it is easier to spend hours walking, our preferred way of exploring new places. Croatia was still experiencing the middle of spring, but here we’ve fast-forwarded to summer. We gained ten degrees and lots of leafy trees.

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Memorial of Rebirth, CEC bank building, boulevard to the Parliament.

The National History Museum seemed like the best place to start since we don’t know as much as we’d like about Romania’s past. Unfortunately it is undergoing (apparently indefinite) remodeling. Only a few rooms were open, but there were some pretty impressive things on display.

A life-sized replica of Trajan’s Column took up a main gallery. Its panels show the conquering of the Dacians, who lived in the region 2000 years ago. Since the column is in sections at eye-level, we could see the carved details. It was interesting to me that many scenes focus on building bridges and forts and meeting emissaries rather than on fighting (though there is plenty of that as well). Trajan clearly wanted Romans to think he was capable in all situations.

Royal jewels were also on display. The King’s crown was my favorite piece; it’s made of steel rather than precious metal. Forged from a cannon captured by Romanian troops fighting the Ottomans for independence, the King wanted it to be a reminder of the soldiers’ bravery and the price of creating a sovereign nation.

Roman funerary tablets and inscriptions and miscellaneous jewelry from the last 2000 years rounded out the collection.

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The Steel Crown, literal gold leaf, an ornate coffin.

Romanian Orthodox Churches seem to be on almost every block in the city center, sometimes quietly sandwiched between massive apartment blocks. They remind me of churches we saw in the Catalunyan Art Museum in Barcelona. The interiors are dim, but covered in paintings and murals. No space is left plain, and it would be easy to spend hours studying the scenes in each church.

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Romanian Orthodox Church and dome, some glitzier royal jewels with the more typical precious stones.

Finally, an item that caught my eye at the History Museum was a photograph of the street outside our apartment building. Since the December 1989 Revolution, the trees have grown and blocked the view and the tanks have gone. It really drove home how recently the repressive regime was thrown off.

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Our street less than 30 years ago during the Revolution.