Sights in Europe

This rambling聽features a bunch of ‘favorite’ European sights聽that is entirely based on today’s mood (and then basically pulling a name out of a hat if we couldn’t decide) and our current state of melting in ~85+ degree heat and 90% humidity. Anything that reminds us of a cold day probably got moved up subconsciously. And of course, our experiences were colored because some places were under renovation while others were too crowded to make our experience feel worth the admission cost.

Best Art Museum:聽National Art Museum of Catalunya (MNAC) in Barcelona. This was the only museum we visited multiple times because Saturday afternoons are free. 馃檪 The palatial building聽has art-filled wings and frescoed domes. It dominates a hillside above Venetian-styled towers, waterfalls and fountains. MNAC’s collection is incredible – 13th century altarpieces (with聽mayhem-causing demons or saints boiling away in pots), Art Deco stained glass and advertising posters, sketches of the Spanish Civil War’s destruction, works by El Greco, Rubens, Goya…

Favorite Mode of Transit: Seaplane from Split to Dubrovnik. Head to Split’s picturesque harbor, sip on drinks聽waterside, board聽to find there are only 3 passengers, enjoy gorgeous mountain and island views all the way down the coast. A 45-minute jaunt and the chance the shoreline slip by is much preferable to a 4+ hour bus ride featuring two bonus border crossings.

wp-1476590475003.jpg
MNAC, Croatian peninsula, view from Dubrovnik’s walls.

Best City for Drinking Outside: Budapest. This city takes summer drinking to a new level. Mix聽cheap beer, lots of public space, great transit and voila! Some parks have stands selling alcohol, but it is more common to bring your own. Time of day doesn’t particularly matter, though nights are better, especially聽if you come across聽live music or a soccer match screening. Fisherman’s Bastion and the pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge provide some great views and enough drinking space for everyone.

Most Impressive City Walls: Dubrovnik. Game of Thrones is filmed there for a reason. Several cities we visited had walls in the past, but Dubrovnik’s are complete and you can walk all the way around them, exploring towers and the intimidating Lovrijeniac Fortress across a small bay. The blue Adriatic and the tightly packed Old Town fill the views.

Happiest Palace: Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal. Move over, Neuschwanstein. Not only is the Pena Palace more brightly colored, it was actually lived in. The interior聽is just as cheerful as the outside with fountains and tiles. The grounds are pretty as well, with rambling trails, live black swans, and carefully planned views.

Favorite Old Town: Tallinn. Small, surrounded by towers, full of church spires, pastel colored buildings, and a pretty hill to climb. Yes, restaurants and souvenir poods dominate. We ignored those and focused on the cuteness, small parks, and quieter streets. Note: we avoided the high season, weekends, and cruise tour groups.

wp-1476590414951.jpg
Pena Palace, library at Mafra, Trinity College Library.

Library Nearest My Vision of Heaven: Trinity College Library, Dublin. One of about three places that looked like their Instagram images, no photoshopping required. Thousands of books, richly colored wood, gorgeous bindings. Large crowds detracted a bit. It isn’t a very wide room since the sides are cordoned off, but at least we could stay as long as we wanted to try to soak it in.聽The library at Portugal’s Palace of Mafra gets an honorable mention because it is equally beautiful, with far fewer visitors. The downside there is not being able to walk as far into it to get a sense of the scale. But the huge cross-shaped hall is gorgeous marblework聽worthy of a such an impressive royal residence.

Most Interesting Non-Art Museum: Village Museum, Bucharest. Outside in a city park, the Village Museum let us tour the Romanian countryside without leaving Bucharest. Dozens of old buildings – homes, churches, barns, windmills have been preserved, and turned into a living history museum. Lots of love has gone into furnishing the homes and keeping the carved gates and painted details. It was fun even in a storm (we sheltered in a wine press). The wide variety of structures showcased the different traditional styles from around Romania.

Sports Team with the Most Rabid Fans: Hadjuk Soccer Club from Split. Our hosts warned us that if we were ever harassed in a bar or on the street to just say “Volimo Hajduk” (“We love Hajduk!” – we never had to, everyone was really kind). Graffiti with the name Hajduk and their red-and-white checker colors was EVERYWHERE – sidewalks, buses, underpasses, huge murals on buildings. They have their own branded chocolate, liquor, snacks. Every kid must own at least one jersey. Even in Dubrovnik, Hajduk reigned.

Coincidental Event We Didn’t Plan to See But Enjoyed the Most: Red Bull Air Race, Budapest. Ok, so the weather was terrible, practices were cancelled, events cut short, and we didn’t get to see them fly under the bridge (a thing they convince the planes to do!). And it was still an incredible display of reflexes and flying planes stupidly close to water and between buildings in the center of a city with thousands of people cheering on either side of the river.

wp-1476590281244.jpg
Village Museum, Red Bull Air Race, tombs at Cemiterio dos Prazeres, La Sagrada Familia.

Creepiest Cemetery: Cemiterio dos Prazeres, Lisbon.聽Ghosts clearly come out at night. Above ground tomb, with doors of broken glass, let the lace curtains covering the coffins flutter in the wind. Few people, but cats in surprising places watching you.

Church Putting All Others to Shame: La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona.聽La Sagrada Familia is otherwordly. It stands alone, strikingly different from any other church we saw. 聽Inside, the white stone canvas swirls with rainbows of colored light streaming through the stained glass. Statuary covers the exterior, the side portraying the Crucifixion is in violent relief, the opposite showing Creation is decadent with natural scenery. It is expensive, the priciest building we entered, but worth it – even with the thousand other people. While waiting to enter you can even watch the ongoing construction, and dream about what it will look like when finished.

Favorite Museum Artwork: Discovering the Body聽of King Louis II by Bertalan Szekely.聽It’s a weird choice, but in person it is impressive and some parts are so realistic that it took me a while to convince myself the canvas was flat.

Most Heartwrenching聽Memorial: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The preserved concentration, forced labor, and death camp complex is a sobering memorial to human suffering and powerful warning about the evils humans will commit. Crowds detract a bit initially, but聽it was easy to begin to ignore them and turn inward to try to understand the horrors that happened there. Auschwitz I was on a too-human scale, its brick buildings reminded me of college dorms. But of course, inside are the exhibits of human hair, items confiscated from the victims. It’s awful. My stomach churned for hours remembering that people tortured, murdered, starved so many. Auschwitz-Birkenau’s vastness magnifies the horrors of Auschwitz I. Everyone should visit to confront the world’s failure to stop the Holocaust and the ongoing need to keep it from recurring.

Historical Artifact We Should Have Learned about In School but Didn’t: Romania’s Steel Crown.聽King Carol I asked for a crown of steel made from cannons captured by soldiers fighting for Romania’s independence. He wanted to remember their sacrifice.

wp-1476590101338.jpg
Fortress at Omis, Romania’s royal crown, book fountain, gas canisters at Auschwitz.

Cheapest Deal: Castles during Croatia’s off season.聽 They often charge at least a small admission fee. But in April, some days no one will be at the ticket booth and the castles will still be open (can’t blame them for wanting to hike up if no tourists seem to be in town). 馃檪 Happened at Omis and on Hvar.

Cutest Public Artwork: Book Fountain in Budapest.聽Water makes it look like the book’s pages are turning. It’s cute. The end.

Prettiest Hiking: Plitvice Lakes, Croatia.聽We visited during the off-season and avoided the worst crowds, and it was peaceful and pretty. Boardwalks weave around the waterfalls and under the trees; it’s a perfect way to spend at least an afternoon.

Where to See Books & Manuscripts Up Close: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.聽The large libraries are beautiful in their own right, but only display a handful of books – they are all still on shelves. This museum focuses on individual books and has hundreds on display, all the way back to papyrus from ancient Egypt and fragments from the earliest copies of several books of the Bible.

wp-1476588274724.jpg
Plitvice Lakes, Chester Beatty Library, Suomenlinna Island.

Favorite Fortress for Exploring: Suomenlinna, Helsinki.聽A small series of islands in the Gulf of Finland have the preserved remains of a massive fort that guarded Helsinki’s harbor. The tunnels running through many ramparts and rocky waterfronts are open for exploring.

Stress-inducing Thing that was Fun Afterward: Driving in Romania.聽Driving laws in Romania appear to be suggestions. Roads are shared with speeding semis, horse-drawn carts, bicycles, cars pulling over for no reason. Everyone honks for everything. But the countryside is pretty, especially in the Transylvanian mountains.

City Walking that Doesn’t Suck: Barcelona’s Wide Boulevards.聽Outside the Gothic Quarter’s 聽tangled mess, sidewalks are huge, open, flat. The city is easy to navigate because just about every street is at a right angle.

Here are some other things grouped by city that I didn’t want to come up with individual paragraphs for:

Lisbon has a castle downtown! The ruined聽Carmo Monastery! The less ruined Jeronimos Monastery. Next door to the Pena Palace is the clamberable ruins of the聽Moorish Castle.

wp-1476588219118.jpg
Carving at Jeronimos Monastery, Carmo Monastery, Solin’s ruined amphitheater.

Barcelona’sMontjuic Castle聽has dark and checkered history, but beautiful views. Nearby, the聽Olympic Grounds聽are a great picnic/frisbee spot.

The damp of Diocletian’s palace basement聽in Split聽still shows how good Romans were at construction. Ruins at Solin聽add to that argument.聽Klis Fortress is also pretty but they clearly know people are coming due to GoT filming – the price keeps going up.

The shore path on the Babin Kuk side of Dubrovnik聽was more relaxing than ones nearer the Old Town. Ferrying聽out to聽Lokrum Island聽also avoided about 95% of the crowd and was a nice place聽to spend an afternoon being stalked by peacocks.

wp-1476588167331.jpg
Lokrum Island, Palace of the Parliament, Peles Castle.

Bucharest聽has a beautiful Orthodox church every few blocks. Towering over everything, the Palace of the Parliament is a primer in government waste. Two hours away in the mountains, Peles Castle proves that a country doesn’t have to have a royal family for very long before all the trappings show up.

In Dublin, the National Archaeology Museum聽and St. Patrick’s Cathedral聽聽were my other favorites. And the whole city recalls lots of great literature 馃檪 . Across the country, really just a few hours drive, are the Cliffs of Moher.聽Brave the wind and don’t get too close to the edge.

wp-1476588116683.jpg
Cliffs of Moher, inside St. Patrick’s, Dohany Street Synagogue.

Budapest is impressive all around. The quirky Pinball Museum聽is great for 5 hours until your wrists give out but the massive Szechenyi Thermal Baths聽can relieve all those arm cramps. A more sombre visit, the聽Dohany Street Synagogue聽is a reminder of how the Holocaust changed Hungary.

In addition to the Uprising Museum, the entire city of聽Warsaw聽is a WWII memorial. Walking聽anywhere you come upon plaques and statues commemorating events or people, letting you map out the destruction in your own neighborhood. In聽the suburbs, the Wilanow Palace serves as a reminder of the pre-WWII era.

Krakow聽crams a lot into a small space, which explains why it’s packed with tourists. The Franciscan Basilica聽is incredible. The park encircling the Old Town, the riverfront walk, or Kazimierz (the traditionally Jewish area) gets away from some聽of the horde. Further out, the now-parklike Plaszow Concentration Camp is Auschwitz’s lesser-known cousin that makes a thoughtful accompaniment to Oskar Schindler’s Factory.

wp-1476588065972.jpg
Wilanow, Krakow’s Franciscan Church, Lennusadam, Kadriorg Palace.

Tallinn’s聽St. Olaf church tower is a great way to view the Old Town and reveal a fear of heights. Tucked away in Kadriorg park is the impressive KUMU National Art Museum and the cute聽Kadriorg Palace (also housing art). The Lennusadam Seaplane Harbor has full sized boats and a submarine to explore

Again, these are the places that stuck out the most. Just about everything we saw was worth our time in some way or another. For every place we saw, there are more we heard about but didn’t get to. I suppose yet another reason to head back at some future point….

Advertisements

Dublin, Part 2

Before I start writing聽about Hungary, where we moved about a week ago, I wanted to get one more Dublin post in.聽Even with Kevin’s cold and daily rain, we spent every day out. In between the Cliffs of Moher and libraries full of illuminated manuscripts (<3 the Chester Beatty Library), we saw much of the city center and ate a lot of tasty聽fish聽and Asian food. Chowders and Thai food were lacking a bit in Bucharest and we worked hard to catch up.

Right in the center of downtown is Dublin Castle. Most of the castle is long gone, lost to fire and controlled demolition to halt that fire from reaching powder stores. In its place 聽Georgian-style administration buildings and聽state apartments for the Lord Lieutenant were built – everything needed for England to rule Ireland in style. Today, however, the Irish government uses the rooms for state dinners, swearing in their own President, and office space.

20160708_110820.jpg
Medieval tower foundations, and views inside the chapel.

Dublin Castle’s聽chapel, which looks like stone but is actually made mostly of wood, is ringed with the crests of each British Lord Lieutenant. They ran out of space for the crests; luckily that occurred right as Ireland gained its freedom.

The State Apartments are comfy by any standard, and apparently no one complained too much at the destruction of the stone-walled castle because the replacement was just so much nicer. Lots of large windows and fireplaces, and plenty of room for banqueting.

20160708_111214.jpg
Dining room and drawing room at Dublin Castle, Oscar Wilde relaxing in Merrion Square.

Slightly further out from the center is聽Glasnevin Cemetery. Tens of thousands of tombstones range from austere black marble to ornate Celtic crosses. Many older ones are worn to semi-unreadability and are leaning over. My favorites had petitions for visitors to pray for the deceased, making me wonder why they felt they need the extra help. It felt like it might be haunted at night but I didn’t feel compelled to check too thoroughly.

Nearby is Broom Bridge, where Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton had a stroke of brilliance and discovered the formula for聽quaternions.聽Kevin can explain it and uses it in programming, but that sort of math is generally outside of my grasp. It was a small geek moment on our part.

20160708_111344.jpg
Lots of gray: Broom Bridge of mathematical note, and Glasnevin Cemetery

Dublin’s Natural History Museum聽is quite possibly the world’s most quintessential 19th century museum. There wasn’t an effort to be modern (though they are planning a new structure next to the existing museum with expanded聽facilities). Most displays are mammals, birds, and fish聽native to Ireland (downstairs) and from the rest of the world (upstairs). The floors are wood worn to a patina. Most specimens are inside wood-framed glass museum cases that are probably original.

20160708_111811.jpg
National Natural History Museum

As you enter the main doors, the first animals are the most striking. Skeletons of extinct Irish elk tower over you, very much like something from north of the Wall in Game of Thrones. Compared to current deer, these are giants. Not really something I’d want to meet while hiking…

20160626_162715.jpg
Extinct Irish elk.

And now on to Budapest! I unfortunately inherited Kevin’s cold, but it shouldn’t slow us down too much…

Cliffs of Moher

We set aside a day to see one of Ireland’s natural wonders: the Cliffs of Moher. Despite it being clear across the country, driving there only takes about 3聽hours. We were glad to be able to relax on a bus, especially since our driver had an amazing taste in music and because it seemed silly to pick up left-sided driving for that short of an adventure.

Ireland’s landscape changed gradually as we went west. Larger fields blended into working peat bogs. In some areas, heating with peat is still common, and each family owns or has access to a small field. Bricks of peat are聽cut out and stacked into pyramids to dry before being stored for winter.

wp-1467287229401.jpg
Stone towers and walls, and first glimpses of the Atlantic.

Further on, grazing takes over. Cattle, sheep, and goats are moved from one rock-walled field聽to another. And there are lots of rock walled fields. And rock houses. And rock towers. Many聽are centuries old, and some walls have stood for at least聽a thousand years. Partial ruins are basically everywhere, sometimes just a single three or four story wall in the middle of a meadow.

Finally the Atlantic Ocean came into view, and our rather large bus made聽its way up rather narrow and rather windy roads (our driver listening to appropriate songs like Danger Zone and Under Pressure). Shorter 100 foot cliffs came first, followed soon by聽more elevation gain, and a parking lot just a short walk from cliffs dropping 700 feet into the ocean.

wp-1467287241256.jpg
Visitor’s center, a little pond high above the ocean.

The cliffs are spectacular – twice as tall as the White Cliffs of Dover and running for five miles above crashing waves. I wasn’t willing聽to go right to the edge; the wind was spontaneously gusty and seemed to come from every direction. But even a bit聽back from the ledge, the views were incredible. We could see miles down the shore, across to the Aran Islands, and to the other side of the peninsula by Liscannor and a large bay. We were apparently very lucky – the previous day it was so foggy even seeing your feet was a challenge.

20160627_140622.jpg
It’s hard to grasp the scale, even in person.

Seabirds were hovering hundreds of feet below us, and I might have spotted a puffin (!?) among all the gulls and guillemots. A few tour boats looked very unsteady on the waves, and I was glad we had views from dry land instead. Parts of Harry Potter and, more importantly, The Princess Bride were filmed here, so it turns out the Cliffs of Insanity are quite real. After about ninety minutes of wind-buffeting, we climbed back on board the bus.

20160627_151956.jpg
A small section to the north.

The drive back seemed to go much quicker than the trip out. We stopped at Bunratty Castle, though didn’t have time to tour it. Instead, we had a pint and oysters next door at Durty Nelly’s. The bar clearly caters to tourists as well as聽locals, and part of their claim to fame is police patches people bring聽in from all around the world… including my small hometown in Illinois. It is the second time in less than a week we’ve had it come up – we met a couple in a bar who knew it because of “that cow thing.”

wp-1467287267247.jpg
Bunratty Castle, a cute river, Braveheart filming site.

From the looks of the smaller roads we passed by, and the rolling hills that cover much of the land we saw, I think I’d like to come back someday and bike or boat around Ireland. We’ve heard that small vessels can sail the entire length of the River Shannon and that it is one of the more relaxing ways to see the country. Add that one to the future travel goals list…

 

 

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聽to be able to have small conversations at聽stores聽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.

wp-1467104876396.jpg
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聽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聽(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.

wp-1467104861716.jpg
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.

wp-1467104915132.jpg
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聽as a way to remember soldiers聽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.

wp-1467104894028.jpg
Bright colors and regimental flags.

We’ve made sure to try聽Irish聽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聽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.

wp-1467104941477.jpg
Christ Church Cathedral, Teeling Whiskey, Dublin Castle

I was sure to make the pilgrimage to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells聽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.聽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.

wp-1467104971217.jpg
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聽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.

wp-1467104987829.jpg
Just more library photos.