Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Hull to Rotterdam Ferry

We took the train from York to Hull.  When we told people in the UK that Hull was one of our destinations, we met with looks of stunned incredulity.  But two ferries to the continent leave from there, one going to Zeebrugge, Belgium, and the other to Rotterdam, Netherlands.

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the difficulties we had in getting confirmation of the reservation that we had made on line.  Penny called the customer service number for P&O Lines and got an agent in Luxembourg.  When our taxi from Hull Station arrived at the ferry terminal, we checked in without any problem.  So that worked out.

The MV Pride of Hull is quite large, and handles both cars and long haul trucks.  We had a private cabin with twin bunks.  We had earlier decided against a less expensive option of booking two bunks in a four-bunk cabin and hoping that the company didn't need to sell the remaining two bunks that particular night.  There is a dinner and breakfast buffet option which we had booked in advance.  The food was edible, but very British.  Nothing to write home about.

The ship arrived at the Europoort terminal at the mouth of the Rhine.  We had booked the transfer to Rotterdam Centraal Station that P&O offered, and that was a good decision.  The terminal is a huge facility, and arriving passengers will need some way to get out of there and to some other place.  Rotterdam is about 45 minutes away.

The terminal has a passport control station to be used by immigration police and customs, but this was left unstaffed.  So we have no passport stamp noting our arrival on the continent.  The Schengen Treaty allows for free movement for citizens of all signatories to all other signatory countries.  Those who are not signatory citizens need long-stay visas to stay within the Schengen area for more than 90 out of the preceding 180 days.  So that is a rolling window.  Ireland and the UK are NOT signatories, and neither is any non-European country.

We are rather surprised that we were able to enter the Schengen area without any passport check.  We have gone before from the UK.  The French Police Nationale are at St. Pancras Station in London, and they do the passport check right there.

 We booked the trains to Maastricht and to Paris right there at Rotterdam.  We got quite a surprise because of the high prices for travel that is close the purchase date.  Book your tickets on-line and early whenever you can.

York, England

Just a little more of that left-hand driving!  We left Scotland and headed south into England.  We went first to Newcastle.

One of the fun things about traveling is the people that you meet.  Well, most of them, anyway.  Les and Pat Wilde were staying at Les Volets Bleus, a b&b in Sallèles-d'Aude in southern France.  Delightful people, who live in Gateshead which is just by Newcastle.   It was nice to see them again and to spend a very rainy day with them.  Undaunted by rain, we all went off to Durham where we went through the famous cathedral and walked around a bit of the picturesque university town before the rain got even more serious.

The next day, we headed to York, which was our final stop in England before heading to the continent.  When we first met back in 1976, Penny had recently traveled to England with her Uncle Charles and Aunt Jackie.  York had been one of their destinations, and one that Penny has been talking about ever since.  It is easy to see why.  It is a phenomenal place.  Not too big, but there is plenty for the history-inclined to see.  York Minster, cathedral seat of the Church of England's Archbishop of York, is a huge, Gothic church and the fourth church on the site.  I find those squared towers to be a bit clunky.  Especially the one at the crux.  So from an aesthetic viewpoint, I prefer Notre Dame, Chartres, and San Francisco's Grace Cathedral to buildings such as York Minster.  Don't get me wrong, it is still an awesome structure with lots of history in it. York had been a Roman garrison town, protecting the northern boundary against Scottish incursions.  The whole city could be one big archaeological dig.
Penny remembered this one as soon as she saw it.  The constable of this keep had been selling the stones one at a time long ago, and it had been quite gutted before he was finally called to account.

Large parts of the town walls are preserved and are walking paths.

We also visited Britain's National Railway Museum, which claims to be the largest one in the world.  They have a great collection of locomotives and some rolling stock.  It is well worth a visit.  Now as a Sacramento kid, I can't miss the opportunity to plug the California State Railroad Museum.  The collection is not as large as York's, but I think the displays are better overall in Sacramento.

Jorvik was the Scandinavian name for York.  The city was a Norse one for several centuries, and this is commemorated in the Jorvik Viking Centre.  Photography was not permitted, and so all I can offer is this link:

We turned in the car without incident to the Avis center in York.  They were very cooperative.  I was not sorry to see the car go.  I have had quite enough of driving on the left.

We stayed at Ascot House in York, a very nice hotel-style b&b.  As with all our lodgings on this walkabout, Penny found it on, a site which has been very reliable indeed.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Driving on the Left Can Cause Dyslexia

We have arrived in York and tomorrow we turn in the rental car.  This marks the end of driving on the left for two months.  It has worked out fine, but I won't miss it at all.

If you have seen some of the pictures on this blog for the past two months in Ireland and Scotland, then you will appreciate the need for the smallest feasible car.  Country roads can be narrow!  The smallest available rental cars in Europe generally have manual transmissions.  Shifting gears with the left hand requires some attention.  It worked okay.  Only once did I open the driver's side door when trying to shift gears!

It is also counterintuitive to glance to the left to check the rear view mirror.  The pedals and the dashboard controls are the same.

Driving in heavy traffic is easier, because you can always follow the car just ahead of you, and look at where cars are entering from and exiting toward.

Turning is the tricky part, especially if there are no other vehicles around.  You probably won't hit anything, but it does become easier to end up on the right side of the road for a while.  One rental car had a little sign saying KEEP LEFT that reflected from the dashboard up onto the windshield.

Most roundabouts had large white arrows on blue backgrounds that pointed the correct direction to go when entering.

But I still think of turns across oncoming traffic as being left turns, although they are to the right in Ireland and Britain.  When we get to Holland on Tuesday, I can start undoing the dyslexia...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Edinburgh, June 17-23, 2011

We arrived safely through the rain at Number 27 Morningside, Ron and Julie Uttridge's very comfortable bed and breakfast.  We had a bit of luck and found a parking space very quickly.  These small joys in life are quite important, are they not?  There the car stayed until we left for England.  Edinburgh has a very good public transit system and so we had no need to drive.

It rained almost the whole time we were in Edinburgh.  Nevertheless, we were able to enjoy a good bit of this very handsome city.  It is quite different from Glasgow.  Edinburgh is a government center and university town.  And there is the famous castle which towers over the city and provides phenomenal panoramas.  The castle is a huge complex on a high, rocky hill, and the photo above shows one small part of it.

Views of Edinburgh Castle and the city.

Edinburgh street scene.  The city has many nice stone buildings.

Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations, is commemorated here.

Scenes of St. Giles Cathedral.  It belongs to the presbyterian Church of Scotland, so there is no cathedra at all.  Wthout bishops, there is no need for one.  Also note the simplicity of the altar.

The above building houses the Writers Museum.  The principal figures are Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott.  One of the docents belonged to a RLS club and had made a sort of pilgrimage to Monterey.  She said they had a wonderful time in California.

Despite the bad weather that we have had for most of our three weeks in Scotland, we have enjoyed our stay.  I do admit that between the weather in Ireland and here, I am looking forward to getting to that beastly summer heat in Paris.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Past the Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond to the Scottish Highlands. June 3 to June 17, 2011

For as long as I can remember, my father has had a strong affinity for things Scottish.  We had Scottish terriers as pets.   My brothers and I marched to bed each night to “Band and Drums!”  The music was provided by a 33 rpm LP vinyl record of the Scots Guards combined pipe and brass bands.  In the late sixties, we often went to the annual highland games in Santa Rosa.  There, people wore kilts, tossed cawbers, made bagpipe music, and walked their Scottie and Westie dogs.  I never noticed any of the concession stands selling haggis, but you get the idea.  When it was over, of course, everyone returned to their California lifestyle.   And in all of our travels, Penny and I had never come to Scotland.  She had been to Edinburgh before I met her.

Leaving Glasgow in the car, we first passed Loch Lomond.  We stopped for pictures, as one might expect of those who sang “Loch Lomond” as children.  That was one of the standards  in the song book used for music class at Tachikawa Dependent School in the early sixties.  Half a century later (!!), here we are on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond.

Loch Lomond is just 25 miles outside of Glasgow, and so it is no more in the Scottish Highlands than Folsom Lake is in the Sierra Nevada.  You must go farther, and farther we went.  The roads get narrower and the towns get smaller.  Roadside services are fewer and farther between.  More and more sheep wander along the road “shoulder.”  Passing through Fort William and heading toward Inverness, we came to Loch Ness.  Along the banks of this famous loch, one comes to the town of Drumnadrochit.  Yes, that is a real place.  There, we turned off the road to Inverness and drove fifteen more miles into the glens and the village of Tomich.  Tomich Holidays is a working farm with a number of self-catering chalets and smaller accommodations. 

It is a lovely place to spend a couple of weeks relaxing.  It has rained a great deal, and the temperature has been quite cool.  We are looking forward to Paris’s beastly summer heat after Ireland and now this.  The games room has a rather slow wi-fi connection which does not reach the chalets at all.  The Kindle 3G connection is sporadic and only at one bar’s strength, and that is when it comes in at all.  There is a SPAR Market five miles away in Cannich.  That is a convenience store much like Seven Eleven.  So the best bet is to go twenty miles to Inverness and stock up at the Tesco market.

Cawdor Castle lies to the east of Inverness.  If the name rings a bell, that is probably because you read Shakespeare’s MacBeth, or “The Scottish Play.”  The Thanes of Cawdor (now also Earls) still have the estate, but the castle was built after the Bard’s time.  The self-guided tour was very interesting.  The current earl’s stepmother lives there seven months of the year and clears out for the summer tourist season.  So there are tapestries (this is a castle, after all), eighteenth century oil portraits, antlers on the walls, and photographs of present-day persons to be seen throughout.  The kitchen is modern, but the dungeon is intact from centuries gone by.  Wikipedia alludes to significant legal issues between the Dowager Countess and the present Earl Cawdor, but none of that laundry was aired in the tour literature.   Many of the explanation sheets in the various rooms show a droll sense of humor and were written by the late earl before he passed away in the early nineties.  A google search yields news stories of the imbroglios between the current lord and his stepmother.  Hilarious reading!

The park service has established several nice walking trails in Glen Affric.  We took the five-mile one through Dog Falls.

The highlands also lend themselves to nice drives in the countryside.  We took one even father north than Loch Ness.  We went northeast to Invergordon and Tain, and then turned inland along the A836 and then the A837.  We stopped for lunch at a remote place, Altnacealgach, and please don’t ask me to pronounce that.  At 58 degrees north latitude, this was as far north as we got.  Penny had the cock-a-leekie soup, which was chicken, leek, onions, and rice in a broth.  It was windy, cool, and rainy, and it tasted very good.  Four other Americans came into the pub.  Go figure!  They were golfers whose game had been rained out that day.  We continued on to the Atlantic coast and returned to Glen Affric via Ullapool and the A835.
The Highlands can be remote!

Sometimes we have to share the road.

Approaching Ullapool from the north.

We took a long day's drive out to the Isle of Skye.  It was warm.  That was especially nice, since it was the first warm day we have had since leaving Montevideo two months ago.
 It was a sunny day on the Isle of Skye.
These old telephone booths are along the roads as they pass through small settlements.

Portree is a bit larger than most small villages.  This is one of its "suburbs."

After school in the public square of Portree. Those sticks you see are for the game shinty, somewhat like Irish hurling.  We saw some kids practicing, though, and it seems they don't ever pick up the ball.  So this might more resemble field hockey.

You may remember Chuck Stuart from some of the history books?  Or should I say, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie?  We drove east past Inverness toward Moray and stopped at Culloden.  On this battlefield, the Jacobites got smacked hard.  Jacobites favored restoring the Stuarts to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland in place of the Hanovers (Georges) that came on in 1714.  The biggest and last Jacobite rising was in 1745.  Culloden was the end for them.  Bonnie Prince Charlie went back to the continent and sulked for the rest of his days.  That guy was an even bigger twit than his distant cousin George III.

The Jacobite highlanders were tired, but the Prince ordered a charge anyway.  They came up a slight slope and made their trademark highland charge, taking off their underpants and attacking frontally (no pun intended) with broadswords and firearms.  This "shock and awe" had worked every time before, but this time the government troops were ready and drawn up in battle formation.  Many had fixed bayonets.  The highlanders were cut to pieces.

We left Culloden and enjoyed a leisurely drive on a rainy day through eastern Scotland.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Penny Starts a Row: Glasgow, 31 May to 3 June 2010

We had breakfast at the hotel in Belfast and took a cab to the ferry terminal.  As has been usual in Ireland, the driver was a friendly, talkative fellow.  There were no problems boarding the ferry, but if you have purchased your tickets on line, you will need first to exchange your print-out for the actual tickets in a separate line before passing through security and boarding the ship.  They check bags like at the airport, but unlike the airport, there are no claim checks or anything like that.   Because we had tickets for the rail connection to Glasgow, we received yellow adhesive labels to put on each bag that we checked.  We had no problem with lost luggage at the other end.

The ferry was quite comfortable.  About 100 middle-school aged kids were in the lounge.  They were quite well-behaved, and had a good time—which is to say that they talked a great deal!  The crossing was as smooth as glass.  The only topside place for taking pictures was a small enclosure at the stern, so I didn’t get much. 

After reclaiming our bags, we got on the two-coach train at Stranraer Station for the trip to Glasgow Central.  Counting backpacks and Penny’s purse, we had eleven items, and were able to get them stowed safely on board.  The problem came at Ayr, where we had to change trains.  The track normally used for the second train was out of service, and so we had to cross to a different track by a footbridge.  There wasn’t much time.  Fortunately for us, two young American men kindly helped us with the luggage.  We are traveling pretty light for long stays, but quick train changes will be a problem.   We will have to be careful with this on the trains from Rotterdam to Maastricht and from there to Paris in a couple of weeks.  After we leave Paris, we would like to leave some things there with Penny’s cousin while we head to Central and Eastern Europe and then get them back when we return to Paris to fly back to the US. 

Glasgow Central Station is a very Victorian era-looking place.  In fact, Glasgow is a very Victorian-period city throughout,  Like every airport terminal, inter-city bus station, or train station, this one teemed with people bustling here and there, each one with a story that we can only imagine.  We took a black cab to the Manor Park Hotel, a B&B in Balshagray Drive in western Glasgow.

Angus and Cathy MacDonald are the friendly proprietors and they run a great place.  The full Scottish breakfast looked very much like the full Irish and full English breakfasts that we have seen elsewhere, except that potato scones replaced baked beans in thin tomato sauce.  Potato scones remind one of pita breads in shape and consistency.  The breakfasts were quite nice!  Angus sent us up the road to a pub named The Three Caws for dinner.  One of these days, I may figure out how restaurants in Ireland and Britain ever manage to compete with pubs.  For now, that remains a mystery.

Kelvingrove Museum is the number one attraction in Scotland, attracting even more visitors than does Edinburgh Castle.  There is a wide range of educational exhibits, including one about Glasgow, its history, and its current problems.  We were surprised to learn that Glasgow has long had a large Irish population, and that there is a problem with sectarian strife.   Just like in Belfast, the Hibernian order and the Orange Order men have been at loggerheads, and the rivalry even extends to the city’s soccer teams.  Irish Catholics tend to follow the Celtics, and the Orangemen prefer a team called the Rangers.

 One exhibit highlighted abuse and mistreatment of women, and the scold’s branks (above) are simply horrifying.  Not to mention the twentieth century cartoons that imply they ought to be used again to silence women who challenged their forced subordination in society.

There are two hop-on, hop-off bus tours from which to choose.  The tickets cost about the same.   The blue bus ticket is valid for four days, and the red bus company’s ticket is for two days.  The red bus has multi-lingual commentary, and the busses look exactly like the red busses that we have seen in many other cities.  The routes and stops are almost identical.  We chose the blue bus. 

Glasgow has a small police museum, and also a museum of the city’s social history.  We planned to visit those on one of our days in the city.  We went to the police museum first.  It is a small place, run by a retired police inspector.  He was a very friendly and talkative fellow.  If you know Penny, then you can imagine what followed.  She is also a talkative extrovert, and as a San Diego deputy city attorney, she had a great deal of interaction with the officers of the San Diego Police Department.  We spent several enjoyable hours in a three-room museum!  The curator/inspector has been collecting police uniform items for almost forty years.  His collection of items is the basis of the whole museum!  He even had a North Korean policeman’s peaked cap!  Canadian Mounties’ red serge dress uniform, Colombian dress uniform, Chilean Carabinero blouse and cap, Hong Kong, etc. 

We went to the People’s Palace on the following day.  It is located in Glasgow Green, and has a greenhouse arboretum attached to it.  The displays were fascinating commentaries on the difficulties of life in an industrial city.  The strength of the labor movement through the years was evident throughout the museum, as were the cramped living conditions of the city.  Running water and electricity were often lacking well into the 1960s, and that reminded us of our visit to Irkutsk almost three years ago.  Many shipyard worker families lived in room-and-kitchen apartments.  These single rooms contained a small kitchen on one wall, one bed on another one, and everyone else went on the floor.  A “Steamie,” or common laundry facility, was reconstructed in another exhibit.   No wonder that Glasgow is a union town!

The Doulton Fountain in Glasgow Green contrasts sharply with the social-democratic themes of the Peoples’ Palace.  This statue celebrates British imperialism with stark, unmistakable symbolism.  At the top is Queen Victoria.  In the middle are three British Army soldiers and one Royal Navy sailor.  At the base of the fountain statue are statues of the colonized peoples of India, Australia, South Africa, and Canada.

We often had the same guide on the blue bus.  This gent comes from the Highlands, is a veteran of the British Army in Afghanistan, and we learned that he is also a Strathclyde Police special constable.  In U.S. terms, that would be a police reservist.  As we were using the blue bus for transportation around town, we chatted with him quite a bit.  While were waiting at the initial stop to go the People’s Palace,  Penny asked him about the Scottish independence issue.  He became quite animated in his criticism of the idea and of its proponents.   The bus driver and another guide were of a different mind, and a sharp exchange followed.  Now, I had tried to stop her from bringing this point up at all, figuring that their politics were their politics, but to no avail.  The driver showed us the pro-independence motto tattooed onto his arm.  Fortunately for all, the bus had a schedule to keep and so no brawl ensued!

Penny had posed the same question to the police inspector and another retired policeman who was working that day, telling them about our experience with the soccer fans on the train to Belfast.  They opined that separation would be impractical, and one said that sports fans are probably too stupid to consider such complicated things as that. 

It turns out that the strong reactions stem in some way from the currency of the issue.  The Scottish National Party last month won a majority of the seats in the Scottish Parliament, and the possibility of a referendum on independence in the near future is quite a real one.  Those whose lives are intertwined with British institutions seem quite threatened by the whole idea.  It will be interesting to watch the news on this issue over the next months.  And it was especially interesting to see how different persons derive their own senses of identity.   Those connected with Government, the British armed forces, or the Queen seem to feel particularly threatened.

Our enjoyable days in Glasgow went by very quickly, and we went to the Avis car rental to pick up the car which we will use during the rest of this month before we head to the European continent.  There were no surprises such as a big deposit like we had in Ireland. 

Penny navigated us out of Glasgow, past Loch Lomond to Fort William, by Loch Ness, and to Tomich in the highlands.   

Friday, June 3, 2011

Dublin and Belfast: Car Rental Problem Resolution, and We Meet Scottish Nationalists

The drive back to Dublin from Kinsale was easy.  No problems at all with driving on the left.  We arrived in the Glasnevin section of Dublin and even found a parking spot right in front of the Botanic View B&B on Iona Road.  Penny found this on, which is our source for almost every accommodation that we have booked.  Bernie and PJ are great hosts, which is doubtless why they are so highly ranked on tripadvisor.  PJ is a sports fan, although he thinks that soccer players are a bunch of showboats.  He prefers rugby and hurling.  Two of their grandchildren, Aaron and Luke, were visiting, and the picture above is of PJ coaching them in hurling.  I even took a turn at it.  I did manage to hit the ball more often than not.

Michael Collins is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Above is the interior of Kavanagh's pub, which has been in the same family since the 1830s.  It is adjacent to Glasnevin cemetery and so has the nickname "Gravediggers."  You can see the FC  Barcelona jersey displayed behind the bar, celebrating Barca's UEFA Champions Cup victory over Manchester United.  I was happy to see that, but I watched it at the Botanic, shown below, which is around the corner from the B&B.  I had a great time there.  Unfortunately, one of the Irish Barcelona fans was rather rude to a ManU fan, but the latter fellow had more sense than to respond to the Guiness blathering from the Barcelona fan's mouth.

Bernie was extraordinarily kind, and drove us to Dublin Connolly Station, below.

We took a train from Dublin to Belfast, which took a couple of hours.  On board were a large number of Scotsmen who had come to Ireland to watch the Scotland national soccer team play the Ireland team for a championship.  Ireland won!  The Scots were still decked out in kilts and soccer jerseys.  We had a great time talking with them.  Most surprising was their unanimous, outspoken support for Scottish secession from the United Kingdom.

We arrived at Belfast Central station and walked to the Premier Inn, just a few blocks away.  This is a cookie-cutter chain hotel, but for one night it was perfect.  Clean, a comfortable bed, and a reasonably priced dinner and breakfast combination.  Our only reason for being in Belfast was to take the ferry to Scotland the next day, and so the Premier Inn filled the bill nicely.  

As we had arrived in the United Kingdom, we needed to get pounds sterling from an ATM.  We were surprised to receive Bank of Ulster notes.  I remember from living in London five years ago that Bank of Scotland notes were sometimes frowned upon in England, and so we wondered about these Irish notes.  

The Car Rental Problem:  we rented the car from Budget at the Dublin airport, with the rate being guaranteed and the reservation made through USAA.  The rate was quite good, but then there was the matter of insurance.  Twenty euros a day for their insurance.  We declined it, being covered by USAA, which is itself an insurance company.  Ours, in point of fact.  When this has come up in the past, we have signed a credit card guarantee of a few thousand dollars which was kept as a pending charge.  Budget went ahead and posted it immediately to our credit card bill.  Because we were keeping the car beyond the next billing period closing date, we had to pay the guarantee!  When we turned in the car at Dublin airport, we then went inside to the Budget office to get an offsetting credit.  This was immediately done, except several days passed before the credit showed up on our account ledger.  Annoying, but all's well that ends well.  But if you are renting a car, do watch out for this.