Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Opera Tourism

When you go to campgrounds in the US, you will see some Winnebagos with maps of the United States on the side, with the states coloured in where they have stayed. These hardcore campers working their way across the lower 48 states have always impressed me, both by their dedication to the RV lifestyle, and for having such a developed, deliberate way to organise their travels. Likewise, some people have a particular type of souvenir that they collect; these collections are then a convenient way for them to look back on their travels.

I have never really had a goal or theme like that with which to organise my travels: I've always gone to the place that was the most interesting and most feasible at any given time, although I have tried to make small detours when possible to add more countries to the "count" of places I've been. Lately though, I came up with a travel theme which I found quite gripping in its own right, and which can also give me an orientation to travelling in general.

This new theme is to visit and attend a performance at the world's greatest opera houses. This is something I want to do anyway, simply as an opera fan. How can you be an opera buff and not dream of attending a performance at La Scala in Milan, or seeing the Ring cycle at the Bayreuth Festival? The world is replete with destination opera companies like the Met in New York, the Bastille in Paris, Covent Garden in London; as well as destination opera houses like the Garnier, Opéra-Comique, or Versailles in Paris, the Bolshoi in Moscow, and the iconic modern opera houses of Sydney and Copenhagen. Since London, Brussels, and Paris are all only about an hour away from Lille anyway, I can even make some progress on this without connecting it to a huge trip. While I don't know when I'll ever get to Australia, at least this is the kind of plan that I will be just as easy to pursue when I'm 60 years old as it is when I'm 30. Indeed, since a lot of these opera houses don't put on performances during the summer, many will probably be more feasible in retirement than during my working years. (Not to mention the great difficulty of even getting tickets for La Scala and Vienna, or the more than nine-year waiting list for Bayreuth!)

Don't get me wrong, this does not mean I am going to force every family vacation to fit into an opera pilgrimage. But it does give me a new orientation and motivation for my future travels, and since we went to the Kirov on our honeymoon (pictured at right), I can 'retcon' that trip into this new framework as well.

And, I think I'll enjoy doing this a lot more than I would enjoy checking off Delaware on my Winnebago :-)

Posted by jon at 7:54 PM in Travel 

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The British Isles, Day Eight: Falkirk and Bo'ness

This is an article in my ongoing series about our trip through the British Isles. Earlier articles include the Introduction,Stonehenge, Oxford, Driving to Wales, Anglesey, Crossing the Irish Sea, Dublin, Northern Ireland, and Ferry to Scotland.

As I mentioned at the end of the last article, our decision to stay in Falkirk for three nights was a practical one. Originally that was the amount of time to be dedicated to Edinburgh. It happened, though, that our schedule coincided with the Edinburgh Festival, which I wanted to keep my distance from. (I'll explain more about that when I get to writing about Edinburgh, but I should say right away that my fears turned out to be ill-founded, and even with a stroller the Edinburgh Festival is worth going to! But I didn't know that then.)

So why Falkirk? It has a number of nearby attractions in its own right, and is only about an hour from Edinburgh. So by staying there we could see a lesser-known area of Scotland, some interesting sights, and still be able to easily make our way to the Royal City. It turned out to have been a great idea.

Falkirk Wheel

So on Saturday we elected to start the day with a visit to the Falkirk wheel, which I cannot write enough about to do it proper justice. Basically it is a showcase of Scottish engineering, and serves to replace eleven old canal locks with what one could describe as a rotating elevator for boats. The pictures show this somewhat, but we ultimately decided to go ahead and buy tickets to go up and down the wheel in a boat, and I highly recommend doing this. While the wheel turns, a number of interesting points about its operation are explained, and this really does enhance one's appreciation of the wheel—that's why I could go on for pages about it if I let myself. Also, the boat captain was a very lively and interesting person to listen to, and hearing a Scotsman speak proudly about the wheel and the canal system in Scotland added a lot of local flavour to the stop as well.

One of the interesting points I will mention, though, because it ties into my own interests in Classical Antiquity. When in the eighteenth century British engineers dug a canal across the island of Great Britain, naturally to do this they chose the narrowest possible route, since digging a canal is a fantastically expensive undertaking. What I found fascinating is that the narrowest line across the island of Great Britain, from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, happened to already have been built upon—by the Roman Empire. The Antonine Wall, built in AD 142, runs more or less along the same route as the canals of central Scotland (forcing the canal routes to be dug alongside the wall, where remnants remain). That the Romans had such advanced surveying and engineering ability to be able to do this so perfectly, in AD 142, is pretty astounding. I'll be saying more about the marvels of Roman Engineering when we get to Hadrian's wall, too.

The boat ride took us up the wall and through a tunnel that goes under the Antonine Wall before taking us back down. All in all it was, while touristy, a very fun visit (and not too crowded) and everyone enjoyed it, so I recommend it. After the Wheel we found some lunch, and then headed out to Bo'ness for our afternoon activity, a ride on the Bo'ness railroad.

Bo'ness & Kinneil Railway

This was just amazing. If you have an appreciation of railroads, and what goes into running them—even the amount of effort that goes into getting a small N-scale layout model railroad up and running—then you will likely be flabbergasted by how much British railway enthusiasts have been able to do. And Bo'ness is not even the only example: in planning our trip there were multiple similar sites across Britain that we might have gone to, but this was the best fit for our itinerary, and looked like one of the better ones.

So what am I talking about? Rail fans have actually gotten together and actually restored and operate a historic steam railroad. The amount of work involved to do this is astounding: one usually hears about clubs getting together just to get a large model railroad layout, but here they have the whole thing: locomotives, cars, stations, track... it is amazing. Even more amazing is the fact that there are actually quite a few restored railways like this in Great Britain—although I have to believe that the Bo'ness must be one of the best.

So, we got to treat ourselves to a leisurely ride up the Firth of Forth in a steam-drawn vintage railcar. It was pretty cool (especially for a train lover like me), and it was great to see such an amazing amateur railroad—and so many families there, drawn by their children who were going nuts to see "Thomas the Tank Engine". (They actually do have Thomas-themed rides at certain points in the year; this wasn't one of those, but that didn't deter the children there from believing that our steam engine was actually Thomas.) It was a fun ride, and truly steam-powered (unlike some tourist railways who operate with a steam locomotive up front "for show" and a diesel hidden in the back "for go"). I thought it was a great experience, and it was historically enlightening to experience travel this way—certainly nothing like a TGV for speed, but in the context of the industrial revolution, the coming of the railroads had an even greater impact on the world. So the actual experience of riding a steam-powered train was an interesting thing to try.

Click here for more pictures (password required).

Posted by jon at 9:10 PM in Travel 

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The British Isles, Day Eleven: Driving to Cumbria

This is an article in my ongoing series about our trip through the British Isles. Earlier articles include the Introduction,Stonehenge, Oxford, Driving to Wales, Anglesey, Crossing the Irish Sea, Dublin, Northern Ireland, Ferry to Scotland, Falkirk & Bo'ness, Edinburgh, and Loch Ness.

On the eleventh day of our trip we awoke at the northernmost point of our whole voyage: for ten days we had been heading north from France (albeit by a very circuitous route, with detours through Wales and Ireland!). This day would mark the point at which we turned back, and began heading for home. Because we wanted to visit as much as possible on our way back, this meant that this day, in which we were retreading ground already covered, was about hurrying up and getting past all that to reach the new stuff. So, it was a big driving day. That was fine by me, as the highlands were a beautiful place to drive, and I was enjoying the local flavour of talk radio on BBC Scotland on the way.

I mentioned before that the highlands are a vast, empty land. This is why Inverness was such a choke point for tourists: there's nowhere else to go! It's also why we had to retread ground we'd already covered: there were no alternative routes back south to take.

None of this was on my mind much as I listened to talk radio on the highway though. On the traffic report, they did keep reporting on a major accident on the highway we were on, so I kept a lookout for the detour, but nothing more.

Well, eventually we ran into the accident, and traffic backed up. In fact, traffic stopped. In fact, traffic stayed stopped. For ten minutes. Then twenty minutes. "I can't believe this, I was keeping my eyes pealed for a detour and never saw one," I thought to myself. Eventually people started getting out of their cars. One older Scotsman, clearly a highlander, shook his head at the few who tried to turn around their cars and head back up the highway, going the wrong way (this was a mountain highway and the lanes for cars going the opposite direction were about 150 yards below us). "We checked the atlas and there are no other roads south," he told another driver. That's when it dawned on me why there was no detour: this was the only road south, period. So, there was nothing to do but wait for the accident to get cleared up.

All in all we were stopped for two hours, which put quite a damper on our time. Fortunately we had everything we needed to eat in the car and keep the baby happy, so we were better off than a lot of drivers. I joked to Emilie that something had to go wrong at some point, with such a complicated trip, so it was just as well to get our hiccup out of the way now. (I was too optimistic, however: the real low point of our trip comes later.)

Because we were travelling with a baby, though, I had planned huge margins into our itinerary, so we still rolled into Carlisle before it was too late. That was another interesting experience: the border between England and Scotland is empty. Compared to the dense population of the Lowlands, it seems odd to have such a wasteland dividing two countries that have been united for over 300 years—France and Germany have less desolate boarders, and they've been enemies since Roman times!

Anyway, had we not had our unscheduled delay we might have had time to visit Carlisle itself, but as it was we could only check into the hotel and then go out and scavange some Chinese food. Stay tuned for the next day, however, which was one of the best of the trip, beginning with an excursion into Northumbria to see Hadrian's wall!

Posted by jon at 12:05 AM in Travel 

Monday, 28 September 2009

The British Isles, Day Five: Dublin

This is an article in my ongoing series about our trip through the British Isles. Earlier articles include the Introduction,Stonehenge, Oxford, Driving to Wales, Anglesey, and Crossing the Irish Sea.

In planning our trip, probably the biggest unknown was how driving on the left would go. I was hopeful that I'd be able to adapt without too much trouble, but I didn't discount the possibility that it could be harrowing and stressful if I couldn't. Therefore, I thought it would be a good idea to schedule in a day of pampering with no driving at all; if things were going well it would be a pleasant change of pace, and if we were shell-shocked by countless brushes with death, it might give us a moment to recover and, in the worst of cases, draw up alternate plans mid-trip.

Well, obviously things were going fine so far, so none of my pessimistic plans were really necessary. However, it was still wonderful to have a break from motels and enjoy a five-star luxury hotel instead: the Radisson-St. Helen's, a gorgeous hotel built around an 18th-century noble estate, complete with country gardens. For whatever reason, Ireland doesn't seem to get a lot of visitors in August, so we were able to get an incredible deal on our rooms—barely more than some of the motels in Scotland! (Why Scotland is a travel hot spot in August but Ireland isn't is a mystery to me. The English must not like to change their money.) We had two nights there (a long stay by the standards of this trip!), and enjoyed the hotel, and room service, and just the general atmosphere of living in luxury. It was a lot of fun.

Of course, since we spent a lot of time enjoying the hotel and its gardens, we did not visit the rest of Dublin enough to do the city justice. But with only two days that wouldn't have been possible no matter how much we tried to pack in sightseeing. We did take a trip into the city centre in the afternoon—it's a straight bus shot from the hotel, so it wasn't difficult. We visited the Trinity College campus, continuing my tour of great universities, but we got there too late to see the Book of Kells. We also saw a bit of the surrounding downtown and stopped in another bookstore.

I also spent a lot of time watching TG4, the Irish-language TV station, and was happy to get to see the famous soap opera Ros na Rún. All in all though the situation of the Irish language in Ireland is pretty weak compared to Welsh in Wales, which is a shame—and ironic, in the context of Irish independence compared to Wales' long, close history with England. But I think it is fair to compare the situation of Irish to that of Native American tribal languages—they are proudly held onto and displayed publicly by their respective peoples as a cultural symbol, but not actually used as day-to-day languages except by a tiny minority. Whereas Welsh really is what ordinary people speak in Wales, at least in a large part of it. They speak English, too, but if you lived there and hung around much you'd probably feel awkward about all the people around you speaking a language you don't understand if you didn't try to learn Welsh. Of course, in Anglesey I was in a very heavily Welsh-speaking part of the country, while here I was in Ireland's largest city, so the comparison may seem unfair. Still, comparing the number of articles in the Welsh wikipedia to the Irish one gives a fairly objective picture of which language is more vibrantly alive.

Anyway, Dublin was a great city and one we owe a longer visit to sometime. Ryan Air not infrequently has direct flights to Lille for only a few euros, too, so I'm sure we will return there sometime just to visit Dublin for a long weekend. But in any event, our day at the Radisson-St. Helen's was a splendid change of pace on our trip, and highly appreciated by the whole family.

Posted by jon at 12:30 AM in Travel 

Friday, 18 September 2009

The British Isles, Day Four, Part I: Anglesey

This is an article in my ongoing series about our trip through the British Isles. Earlier articles include the Introduction,Stonehenge, Oxford, and Driving to Wales.

If on Day Three of our trip we had to cut a lot of planned stops due to unrealistic timing, Day Four was just the opposite. Our ferry would be taking us to Ireland at 2 p.m., but we managed to get a lot out of the morning and lunchtime to visit Wales, and ended up getting a bunch packed into that short time.

We left our hotel in Bangor bright and early and in no time were crossing over the Britannia bridge which connects the island of Great Britain to the isle of Anglesey (Ynys Môn). Our first stop was the town with the longest name in Britain, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, for some photos and to stop by the visitors' centre. I was a little worried that the town would be a disappointing, touristy stop (some of the guide books actually said as much), but I thought that the chance to get photos in front of the train station was too tempting to pass up. As it happened, I was very glad we did. Yes, the improbably long name was a 19th century attempt to get the town noticed by tourists, but actual name the locals do use, Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, is also pretty long and unpronounceable for English speakers. And while the visitors centre is obviously aimed at tourists (why wouldn't it be?), it was actually a large store that was also the locals' general store for buying all sorts of non-tourism related things. But their selection of Welsh souvenirs was great, and I thought it was a great place to stop—practical for tourists without seeming crassly 'touristy'.

Besides, how can you accuse it of seeming like a tourist trap when you see a notice like this taped on the door? 80% of the population in Anglesey speak Welsh, and the fact that a flyer is being posted in Welsh only means that (1) you're about as deep into authentic Wales as you can get without settling here, and (2), the store is visited by locals as much as it is by tourists, or else they wouldn't bother putting a Welsh flyer here.

The Isle of Anglesey is a great place to visit. Like the north coast of Wales we'd seen the day before, it is a gorgeous combination of sea, mountains, and a ridiculous number of castles. I snapped a photo of the tourist brochures in our hotel: six castles to visit in the area, with their brochures all in a row! The UK generally has a lot of castles, something I was fairly surprised by, because I don't see why the UK should be chock full of castles when in France there aren't nearly so many. It seems paradoxical (Britain being an island and all). In any event, we left Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch for Beaumarais castle, also on Anglesey. We would have liked to have seen the even more impressive Caernarfon Castle if we could have, but we didn't want to get too daring with our schedule as we did have a boat to catch. But already I was becoming convinced that we would take another vacation in Wales some day in the future, so impressed I was at how beautiful a place it is.

After Beaumarais, we began heading towards Holyhead (Caergybi), on the Irish sea (Môr Iwerddon), where our ferry would leave from. The drive around the rural roads of Anglesey was pretty unforgettable, and we saw literally thousands of sheep—but the roads were so hilly and winding that any time we'd see something we wanted a picture of, it would be gone before we could get the camera ready (and the roads were too narrow to dare stopping on). So although we got some of our most beautiful photos in Anglesey, they really don't do the place justice either.

At Holyhead we ate lunch in a bed & breakfast that was also a pub. This was very much a sailors' town, dotted with tattoo parlours and bars, but as our photo from the ship shows (above), it is also very beautiful. We got there plenty early since we didn't want to miss our ship, and so in wandering around we stopped in this old church, which was open to visitors. Even more memorable than the church, though, was the fact that two elderly parishioners were there as volunteers to welcome tourists like us, so they showed us around and chatted a bit.

A trip like ours has the advantage of fitting in an awful lot of sights into a short period of time, but one of the biggest downsides to it is that there is really never any time to talk with people: it's one town to the next, visit, go, visit, go. And we stayed in chain hotels rather than B&Bs because we needed things standardised, easy to reserve, and uniform in order to meet our demanding schedule. So actually getting the chance to talk with ordinary local people, as we did here in Holyhead, was a rare treat for us. Of course they were most delighted by James, but I'll always keenly remember how, in hearing all that we would be visiting on our trip, the old man exclaimed with his melodic Welsh accent, "oh my! You'll have to tell this little one that he'll have seen more of Britain and Ireland than I have!" So it was just by chance that we happened to come across this church on our walk and chat with these folks, but we were glad we did.

Posted by jon at 12:29 AM in Travel 

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The British Isles, Day Four, Part II: Crossing the Irish Sea

This is an article in my ongoing series about our trip through the British Isles. Earlier articles include the Introduction,Stonehenge, Oxford, Driving to Wales, and Anglesey.

So on the afternoon of the fourth day, we left the United Kingdom and set sail for Ireland. The Holyhead-Dublin route is the most direct route to Dublin from Great Britain, and as such it is one of the most heavily-traveled ferry routes in the world. As a result, the ship we sailed on was huge—in fact, the largest car ferry in the world by capacity: Irish Ferries' Ulysses. I was glad to be able to book this ship because travelling in this manner made what would otherwise just be a matter of getting from point A to point B into something of an event in itself. Our ship was massive, and included a movie theatre, shopping area, restaurants, casino, video arcade, and children's area.

If I thought it was exciting to board the Ulysses, though, that was nothing compared to the rest of the family! Emilie found us a lot of great Irish-themed souvenirs in the shops (including some Irish socks that James still smiles and points out to us every time we put them on him), but by far the biggest fan of the ship was our toddler. James loved this part of the trip—more than anything else we did and more than anything else we've ever done with him, really. The playground kept him occupied from the time we boarded until it was time to go—he even skipped his afternoon nap, to our slight chagrin. But we were happy to see him have such a good time.

For those without children, the movie theatre must be a great way to sail to Ireland. Having two hours of the voyage taken up while seeing a movie must make the trip fly by, but for parents with young children like us we were not able to partake of that particular luxury.

Welcome to Ireland, Have Euros Ready

The strangest thing upon arriving in Dublin was that immediately on exiting the port area we were confronted by a toll, which we had to pay in euro coins. We were lucky to have these on hand, but for a lot of people who probably get off the boat still only having British pounds sterling this could be quite a shocker. There is literally no time to stop or withdraw cash anywhere before you hit the toll. So, word to the wise: if you take this trip, be sure to have euro coins or get some money changed on the boat before you drive off!

From there we went to our hotel, but as will become apparent in the next article, that is something deserving of an article of its own. So for now I'll just say, "stay tuned" for Day Five: Dublin and the Radisson St. Helen's.

Posted by jon at 10:00 PM in Travel 

Monday, 25 January 2010

The British Isles, Day Nine: Edinburgh

This is an article in my ongoing series about our trip through the British Isles. Earlier articles include the Introduction,Stonehenge, Oxford, Driving to Wales, Anglesey, Crossing the Irish Sea, Dublin, Northern Ireland, Ferry to Scotland, and Falkirk & Bo'ness.

As I mentioned in the previous article, our decision to stay in Falkirk for three nights was a practical one. Originally that was the amount of time to be dedicated to Edinburgh. It happened, though, that our schedule coincided with the Edinburgh Festival, the absolute most exciting time of the year in what is considered one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe, when the city comes alive with street performers, acrobats, and numerous concerts and shows, all centered around the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

Paradoxically, this made me want to stay away from Edinburgh, so we went to Falkirk instead.

The issue was one of crowds and costs. For people getting around on a stroller, and people who (with a diaper-dirtying, bottle-demanding toddler in tow) aren't able to endure a day of long lines, the idea of facing massive crowds was not exciting: it meant that the visit would be much more unpleasant than if things were calmer. Worse yet, hotel prices skyrocket during the tattoo, with the cheapest motels costing triple their normal rates. Our three nights in Falkirk ended up costing what only one night in Edinburgh would have.

It turned out that staying in Falkirk was a great idea. Not only did we get to see the Falkirk wheel and the Bo'ness railroad, things we probably wouldn't have visited otherwise, but we did not miss out on Edinburgh either, and getting there by driving from Falkirk to the Park & Ride was totally practicable.

What we were wrong about, though, is being afraid to brave the Edinburgh Festival with a small child. It is actually a great time to visit the city, even with a baby. The crowd situation, which I had imagined being something like the Lille Braderie (which is a press of people no one should venture into with a small child), was nowhere near that bad. In fact we were able to get seating at restaurants and get tickets to visit the castle with no difficulty at all. And because of the festival, there were acrobats and magicians about, and kilt-wearing bagpipe players every hundred yards, so even walking from place to place was interesting. So it was great.

Edinburgh is considered by many to be the most beautiful city in all of Europe. So it probably did merit more than a day on our trip, but we still got to take in a lot and see that its reputation is well-deserved (I would qualify it only by saying "most beautiful large city", since otherwise the competition is pretty fierce). It is a very vertical city, dominated by an impressive castle and the seat of Arthur, with steep alleys cutting out from the Royal Mile. I think our pictures (password required) can do most of the talking, but it was certainly a good time. It would have been nice to stay longer, but we were eager to head north into the Highlands of Scotland the following day, so after our day in Edinburgh we continued on our way.

Posted by jon at 10:11 PM in Travel 

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The British Isles, Day Seven: Ferry to Scotland

This is an article in my ongoing series about our trip through the British Isles. Earlier articles include the Introduction,Stonehenge, Oxford, Driving to Wales, Anglesey, Crossing the Irish Sea, Dublin, and Northern Ireland.

The TV programs in Northern Ireland were all abuzz with the weekend's big event: the Tall Ships were coming to Belfast! This was a very big deal there as it was the first big international festival Belfast had been able to host in over forty years because of the Troubles, so a lot of political and economic hopes were being pinned on it being a success: it was seen as an important sign of Belfast returning to normalcy and prosperity. My concern, though, was that because people were coming in from all over to see the Tall Ships, roads around the harbour were closed off—and I was supposed to be getting on a ferry at noon!

These worries, and the fact that it was grey and rainy, made us decide not to take any risks trying to visit the Belfast port area (or the Tall Ships, which I have seen before, in Boston), and instead try to get straight to the ferry terminal. As it turned out, though, the Stena line terminal is well north of downtown Belfast, and since we were coming down from the north, we got straight in without running into any traffic whatsoever—and without really getting to form any idea of what Belfast looks like! So instead of missing our boat we were two hours early: as was nearly everyone else, since the same news reports about Belfast traffic being expected to be horrible with road closings everywhere had scared everyone into coming early!

Anyway, I was fine with being early but had held out some hope that we'd be able to see the Tall Ships from our own ship, but since we were in different areas that was impossible—and as the rain worsened, you couldn't see much of anything out the windows anyway. Our boat this time was not as large as the Ulysses (obviously), but was still enormous, with shops, casino, restaurants—and the all-important children's area. It was a high speed catamaran ferry, and it's a shorter distance from Belfast to Stanraer, so the whole crossing only took two hours. James, as usual on ferries, went nuts in the Curious George themed children's area (click here for pictures). All in all Stena Line had a great family service: for older kids there was a treasure hunt, and the play area was more elaborate than on our other ferry, and even got a visit from George himself. Still, James prefered the first ferry, I think. His preferences are hard to fathom at his age anyway, when he often prefers an empty plastic bottle to some 20€ toy, so I guess it's not all that surprising!

Two things struck me during the crossing. The first was reading the Belfast Telegraph newspaper for the day. While the Tall Ships and accompanying optimism were the main theme, page after page had small stories about this or that person being beaten to death by this or that group of Catholics or Protestants. In France any one of these murders would have been a major national news story (one was beaten to death by a spiked baseball bat!), and yet here all anyone talked about was how great it was that the Troubles were "over". (To be clear, this was not all stuff that had happened the day before, a lot of it was related to trials and media fallout of incidents that went back a ways.) Clearly though, the amount of tension that remains in Northern Ireland can be pretty shocking and scary to an outsider, even if for those there it seems like nothing in comparison to the past. We had a great time in Northern Ireland, and it is a beautiful place, but reading that paper made me feel a bit relieved to have that part of the trip behind us all the same.

The other thing that struck me happened ordering food at the buffet. I got a steak pie and Emilie had fish and chips. For whatever reason ordering that ordinary English food, the same thing I'd be able to get in the US or Canada, made it really hit me how amazing it was that English civilisation had spread from such a tiny country to take over whole continents (North America and Australia) and so many other parts of the world. England is so tiny and yet there are now over a billion English speakers, who for all their diversity still share so many profoundly English traits. Things like finding names like Bob or Mary normal-sounding, eating eggs for breakfast, or having grown up with nursery rhymes like "Ring around the Rosy" or "Pop goes the Weasel". That England, and English culture, should have spread so far and wide and not so many others—even other Western European ones—is pretty flabbergasting. I know it's not a very profound insight, but it really hit me for some reason on that ferry.

Anyway, by early afternoon we were driving off the boat and into Scotland. We weren't done traveling yet, though, as our beds awaited us in Falkirk, a couple hours east of Stanraer. By all accounts Edinburgh is the best place to visit in Scotland, but because of the Edinburgh festival hotel prices there were sky-high. So we were staying in Falkirk instead, which would place us in a good position to visit Edinburgh (only 50 minutes away) as well as some interesting sights in its own environs (more on that in the next article).

Here, as in Anglesey and Northern Ireland, I was treated to some gorgeous roads, twisting through sea and mountain and pasture with constant variety. Unlike Wales, though, here the highway itself was a small-two lane affair, not a four-lane divided highway (which can never have the same charm). And unlike Northern Ireland, because I always had the sea to my left and the hills to my right, I could see further ahead and never had to worry about sudden descents. So, I never had to drive slowly or feel hurried by impatient locals behind me. I could just zip along, stress-free, and enjoy the scenery. The rain had more or less stopped at this point, and it was a very fun drive.

Once we got inland we ran into some rush-hour traffic jams when passing through Glasgow, but eventually we made it to our hotel and rested up, preparing to visit some Scottish sites "for real" the next day.

Posted by jon at 12:28 AM in Travel 

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The British Isles, Day Six: Northern Ireland

This is an article in my ongoing series about our trip through the British Isles. Earlier articles include the Introduction,Stonehenge, Oxford, Driving to Wales, Anglesey, Crossing the Irish Sea, and Dublin.

Northern Ireland has been getting a lot of tourist advertising lately as the country recovers from the Troubles. "The Troubles are over, Belfast is now the hottest city in the UK," and so forth. So I was a bit dismayed, the night before we headed up there, to see an hour-long documentary on the Troubles on Irish television—it turns out that this was the 40th anniversary of the Battle of the Bogside, when the Troubles began in earnest. Not exactly the kind of thing I wanted on everybody's minds when I was about to take my entire family up there! Well, I was worrying too much as usual, and our time in Northern Ireland was a contender for the best of the entire trip—but I'll have more to say about the Troubles being "over" later on, in my next article. In any event, watching the documentary had me more well-informed on Ulster history before we headed up there.

So, we set out in the morning for the Giant's causeway, on the very northern edge of the island. The most curious part of the drive was that we didn't see any signs telling us we were leaving the Republic of Ireland and entering the UK—just one sign that said "Speed limits now marked in miles per hour" (Ireland uses kilometers). Perhaps some nationalists knocked the "Welcome to the UK" sign down—or were the authorities afraid to put one up? Anyway if they were afraid to show that they were in the UK, the residents clearly were not: every village we came to had Union Jacks and Ulster flags all over: every lampost, and in some neighbourhoods every single house was adorned with flags. It was impressive, and one street in particular that we went through I was very disappointed not to get a picture of. Our route took us through the staunchly unionist eastern part of the country, though—in the west by Londonderry there are apparently more nationalist neighbourhoods.

Anyway, our destination was what is described as the most impressive natural wonder in all of Ireland and probably the entire UK: the bizarre coastal rock formations called the Giant's Causeway. This was a beautiful area, and we were lucky to have beautiful weather as well—and the causeway itself was definitely worth the visit: Emilie raved that it was her favourite part of the whole trip. There are a number of interesting rock formations all in the same concentrated area, and all related in the local folklore to the legend of the giant Finn McCool, which was related to us by our guide as we took the bus down from the parking area to the rocks. More enthusiastic visitors can hike down, and all around the area to see even more than we did, but we were constrained both by time and by our toddler. Still, hearing about Finn McCool from an enthusiastic guide with a thick Irish brogue gave plenty of atmosphere to the visit, so ultimately I was glad we took the shuttle.

Basically, the causeway was just awesome, and I hope our photos explain that well enough, since I can't really find the words to.

After that we headed to the little coastal town of Carrickfergus, which would be a great place to spend the summer. (It reminded me of Cape Cod, or Clear Lake for my Iowan readers. Except that Carrickfergus' marina is dominated by a 12th century castle.) Our hotel was located right on the water across from the castle, and was beautiful. The drive there was beautiful too, with some lovely little roads winding through a mountainous terrain, but (as is often the case when driving on mountain roads), I couldn't really enjoy the drive because I always had a local on my back bumper—they can speed through these roads because they know what's around every corner, but I can hardly accelerate safely when I never know when a steep drop or sharp turn is just ahead!

Anyway, we stayed in Carrickfergus because the castle looked cooler than anything in Belfast, and it was only about 20-30 minutes away from Belfast anyway (where our ferry would be leaving the next day). I was glad we did it this way, because it was a very pleasant place to pass through, and it was easier to find restaurants and parking there than it would have been in a larger city. So I recommend it. As usual, though, we couldn't stay for long, as the next morning we were headed out of Northern Ireland, and on to Scotland!

Posted by jon at 1:54 PM in Travel 

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The British Isles, Day Ten: Loch Ness

This is an article in my ongoing series about our trip through the British Isles. Earlier articles include the Introduction,Stonehenge, Oxford, Driving to Wales, Anglesey, Crossing the Irish Sea, Dublin, Northern Ireland, Ferry to Scotland, Falkirk & Bo'ness, and Edinburgh.

Up to this point, we were having a fantastic trip. Everything we'd seen had been great, the driving on the left was going well, and despite having set up an extremely complex itinerary and travelling with a baby, things were going swimingly. Not only were the places we were visiting interesting, but nothing felt too 'touristy' (in the negative sense), considering.

I say all this, not because Loch Ness and Inverness were bad, but just to show that, in the context of following on so many highs, it was not as good a part of our trip as I had expected it to be.

I should point out right away though that the Highlands and the Loch itself did not disappoint. All Loch Ness really is, is a beautiful lake, but it is indeed very beautiful, especially on a nice day like the one we had. And the Highlands were a sight to see. I was explaining in the car to Emilie about how Scotland has the "Highlands" and "Lowlands"—pronouncing them slowly so she could hear the etymology—but my pedantic explanation was completely unnecessary, because the contrast between the two countrysides could not have been more obvious. When you reach the highlands, you know it: hill after steep hill covered with heather and thistle, too inhospitable to grow anything or even pasture animals, the highlands are a vast, empty land. (I'll have more to say on how empty in the next article.)

The downside was that the Loch Ness visitor centre was the first real "touristy" feeling place we had run into on our whole trip. Tons of buses with foreign visitors, and a cafeteria with sub-par food (made worse by the fact that the people in line didn't speak English and were making a mess of things trying to get their food), made this a place that we would have been better advised to skip. There are actually little restaurants in a nearby town that would've been much nicer to eat at, but we didn't know this at the time, as the large visitor centre is the first place you see. So better planning on our part would've helped. On the upside, though, it was fun to watch James charm a tour bus full of Korean schoolgirls :-)

Inverness, the capital of the highlands, is a small city of about 50,000, but managed to have the worst traffic we'd seen since Glasgow. This crowd, obviously mostly of tourists like us, also contributed to the touristy feel of the day that up until then we had managed to avoid. (Inverness has also been seeing a lot of population growth, so the city's infrastructure is already taxed even without the summer tourists.) I'm sure that with fewer tourists it must be a great place to visit, but as it is there are too many in August, which is the only month the weather gets warm enough for anyone to want to travel there, so that's a pretty theoretical concession.

Still, it would have been inconceivable to do a driving tour of Scotland and not venture into the Highlands or visit Loch Ness, so I am certainly glad we did it. The visit itself was fine, and only 'marred' by the fact that there were so many other people visiting too—if we had somehow visited Inverness first, I'm sure that my impressions would have been quite different. As it is though, we were being spoiled by our trip, which meant that things were going pretty well indeed.

Click here to see our pictures (password required).

Posted by jon at 11:52 PM in Travel 

Saturday, 12 September 2009

The British Isles, Day Three: Driving to Wales

This is an article in my ongoing series about our trip through the British Isles. Earlier articles include the Introduction, Stonehenge, and Oxford.

This was another travel day, which makes it a little less interesting to hear about, but I'm writing it up all the same, as it might be useful to anyone else planning a driving vacation in the same area.

The order of business for this day was to get our British rental car, head to Witney (a charming little town west of Oxford) with both cars, where we had arranged to park our French one, then head north in the rental car, reaching Bangor, Wales, by evening. Deepest thanks to the West Oxfordshire District Council for allowing us to park in their long-term parking lot at the centre of town for longer than is usually allowed!

In Britain, the town of Tunbridge Wells is traditionally considered the most typically picturesque southern English town, and although I haven't been there to compare it, I can't imagine it being a more lovely little town than Witney. (Tunbridge Wells is in Kent and therefore too close to France for us to include it on this trip, which is all about exploring deeper into the UK.) This photo of Witney isn't mine but it captures the general look of the place.

My original, and over-optimistic, plan, was to have the rental by nine, have the Renault parked by ten, and be in Wales before lunchtime. We'd be able to lunch and shop in the "book town" of Hay-on-Wye before heading north through the scenic roads of Snowdonia national park.

As it turned out, that plan was completely unrealistic.

For starters, a lot of people pick up and return their rental cars in the morning, and there is a fair amount of paperwork involved in the process (especially if you're taking the car to Ireland), so we spent over an hour at the rental place alone. (We got a 2007 Prius though, which was perfect, especially given how many miles we were going to put on it.) There's nothing unusual about that, but somehow I had failed to take it into account in my planning (probably because all my attention was focused on places to visit). Ultimately we only made it to Witney around noon, so going through Hay-on-Wye and Snowdonia we would never have made it to Bangor by James' bedtime.

(The 30-minute drive from Oxford to Witney was itself a major adventure for Emilie, as she had to drive the Renault while I led in the Prius, something she was very apprehensive about. But it all worked out fine, and once our car was stowed away she could relax again until the end of the trip!)

So, we instead opted for plan B, heading straight for Bangor by the shortest route, which unfortunately meant seeing a lot less of Wales than I wanted—the motorway runs up the western edge of England, so we drove alongside Wales on the English side of the border until we approached Manchester, and then turned west at a right angle into Wales. This route was almost twice as short as the originally planned one, but it also meant seeing a lot less of Wales (fortunately we'd have the next morning there too, though). Since Snowdonia would have been a beautiful region to drive through, and since the M6 was a pretty bland, uninteresting superhighway, this was a bit of a let-down. Not long after we crossed into Wales, though, we were rewarded with a spectacular coastal drive, with the sea on one side and beautiful green mountains on the other, and more castles than you would think possible. (We didn't get any photos since we were just driving by, but I'm including one borrowed from wikimedia to illustrate here.) Also there were a few tunnels, which first frightened, then fascinated James, and were probably the highlight of the day for him :-)

So basically it was a day taken up with practical matters and travel, but the last hour on the North Wales coast was so beautiful that it made up for a lot of the tedium, and we checked into the hotel in Bangor in high spirits. High spirits which were only brought higher when I logged onto the internet at the hotel that evening to the surprising good news that my cousin Jen had been discharged from the hospital!

Stay tuned for Day Four, when we would finally get to visit some of Wales more properly, and then take a ship to Ireland—which turned out to be James' favourite part of the whole trip!

Posted by jon at 12:04 AM in Travel 

Monday, 17 May 2010

The British Isles, Day Twelve, Part I: Hadrian's Wall

This is an article in my ongoing series about our trip through the British Isles. Earlier articles include the Introduction,Stonehenge, Oxford, Driving to Wales, Anglesey, Crossing the Irish Sea, Dublin, Northern Ireland, Ferry to Scotland, Falkirk & Bo'ness, Edinburgh, Loch Ness, and Driving to Cumbria.

Waking up in Carlisle heading south, we headed out to visit a site that naturally interests any English-speaking classicist: the ruins of Hadrian's wall. In fact, as a fan of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels, which feature a fantasy version of a similar wall, my romantic notions about this wall actually had a double origin. Our original intent was to simply stop off at Brampton, only 30 minutes out of our way, but ultimately the guidebooks I was looking at the night before convinced me to head a little further out to Housesteads, and skip the Lake District, instead. (Hadrian's wall can be visited in many places, as it ran from one end of Great Britain to the other. Many sections of the wall are no longer around, but there are still plenty of spots you can potentially go to visit it—and the most ambitious can walk the Hadrian's wall trail.) In any event I am glad we ventured out to Housesteads, as it is a prime contender for my favourite part of our entire trip.

I had not expected to do much more than see the wall, ponder it for a few moments, and take some pictures to get an occidental equivalent to my brother's recent photos at the Great Wall of China. The whole drive was made a bit more confusing because the countryside is actually criss-crossed with stone walls, which the shepherds of the region use to separate their plots of land. So the whole time we were driving by stone walls, wondering, "is that the wall we're driving out to see?" In fact, the reason that there are so many places where the wall is now gone is that local shepherds often looted it for stones to build their own walls.

It turned out that our looking at all these other walls before we got to Hadrian's went a long way towards helping us appreciate the Roman wall, because it looked totally different. It really is just a small ruin of what it was in Roman times, so some imagination and background reading are necessary to appreciate it, but anyone can see that it is no shepherd's wall. Shepherd's walls, like the stone walls we have in New England, are pretty much just stacks of rocks. The Roman one was a wall—every stone was cut square, and the thing was solidly built: you could put a battering ram on a semi truck and drive into it at full steam and it would hold. The Scottish barbarians, or even a mediæval army, would have been powerless in the face of Roman power. Especially when you picture it at full height, with wooden stockades, and armed fortresses positioned at every mile on the mile. It really brought home to me how the Romans were operating at a completely different level of civilisation to their surronding peoples. And that they were a nation of engineers.

Anyway, what made Housesteads, or Vercovicium as it was then known, such a popular spot on the wall to visit is that it is the best preserved of one of these mile fortresses, so although only the foundations remain, you can get a sense of how things were laid out and what it was like under Roman administration. What was most unexpected, though, is that it had perhaps the best gift shop (for us) at a tourist site I've ever seen.

This was because it had three great finds, in addition to the usual postcards and coffee table books. One was the book Roman Britain, by Guy de la Bedoyère. Naturally I was very interested in this topic, not least because we were approaching the land my ancestors hailed from (although in all probability some of my ancestors came with the Anglo-Saxons, there are most probably others who lived in Roman Britain too). Having a meaty, academic history of all aspects of Roman Britain was exactly the kind of book I desired, to learn more about the topic. I would not usually expect such an academic book to be sitting in a giftshop—but I was glad it was!

If that book was still somewhat understandable in that it also had pictures, and was in English, the next book I found was truly out of place—and even more wonderful. Archæologists at Vindolanda, another nearby site on the wall, were able to uncover actual postcards and letters written by Roman soldiers at the wall! They had been thrown out, possibly in the unburnt portion of a trashpile, which later sunk into the ground and through some miraculous chemical processes, these thin pieces of paper, thrown out nearly 2000 years ago in the wet, cold climate of England, were in some way petrified, and through modern scans, classicists have been able to recover some of the writing. Of particular interest to me (as a shorthand writer), is that with these tablets we at last have a surviving example of Roman shorthand.

The result is some fascinating Latin reading material. Unlike Cæsar or Cicero's famous literature, these are the letters of ordinary Roman soldiers writing to friends and family about ordinary things. The weather in England is terrible. Please send me some sweaters from Germany. You are invited to my birthday party. The Vindolanda tablets bring Roman Britain to life in a way that I can only describe as miraculous. And with such a range of information. On the one hand they tell us that the Romans wore underpants, and on the other, there are actually parts of the Æneid on some of the tablets! It is amazing. They were actually reading Virgil in military camps at the furthest-flung reaches of the Empire! So, what I was able to find at the bookstore was Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier, a scholarly exposition of these tablets, including the texts in the original Latin. I was so thrilled to find out that these tablets existed, and to get an authoritative book discussing them and providing the Latin transcription was incredible. It is such a scholarly book, clearly aimed at specialists and with no pictures (other than a handful of plates)—the mere fact that it had found its way into the gift shop was a second miracle.

The third treasure was for James. Throughout the trip, in bookstores Emilie had been looking for a good CD of English children's songs, but we hadn't found anything good yet. Well, here in the gift shop was a CD of children's songs put out by English Heritage, that was just perfect: almost all were songs I grew up with ("The wheels on the bus", "This old man", "London Bridge is falling down", "Old MacDonald had a Farm", "Old King Cole"). It was exactly what we wanted, and because it was published by English Heritage, the CD booklet had a write-up of the origins of all the songs, which was interesting to Emilie and me.

So that is the tale of how we discovered treasure in the ruins of the Roman Empire. Pictures at the wall are posted here (password required). We then set out for Yorkshire, to spend the afternoon in Craven, the land of my ancestors.

Posted by jon at 6:18 PM in Travel 

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The British Isles, Day Twelve, Part II: Craven

This is the final article in my running series about our trip through the British Isles. Earlier articles include the Introduction,Stonehenge, Oxford, Driving to Wales, Anglesey, Crossing the Irish Sea, Dublin, Northern Ireland, Ferry to Scotland, Falkirk & Bo'ness, Edinburgh, Loch Ness, Driving to Cumbria, and Hadrian's Wall.

I broke day twelve into two articles not only because I had a lot to say about both halves of the day, but because while the stop at Hadrian's Wall was probably for me personally the high point of the trip, the visit to Craven was unquestionably the most heartbreakingly disappointing. Not that it was in any way catastrophic, but it was simply a let-down instead of the triumphant grand finale I had planned for.

The whole purpose of this trip, for me, was to get better acquainted with the land of my English and Irish ancestors. True, I enlarged this basic theme into a comprehensive tour of the British Isles, but visiting Craven, the location where I know my direct paternal ancestors lived, probably for centuries, was always at the centre of my plans. And Craven is a beautiful place to visit: at the heart of the Yorkshire dales, our French guide book described it as le paradis vu par un Anglais: the English vision of heaven. I made plans to visit the county archives in Leeds and trace my family tree, but today was to be the big day in which we visited the Craven museum, which traced the history of the region.

Finding out about the local history of Craven was something I was very eager to do: in all likelihood my ancestors lived there for many centuries, so knowing the exact history of the region would help me to get a much better picture of who they were: Celtic Britons, Anglo-Saxons, Danes? The early archæological and ethnographic evidence around Skipton would probably provide important clues, but I had found nothing on the internet. (It is a pretty specific topic, after all.) But here was a museum dedicated to the local history of the area—exactly what I wanted to know about.

Well, long story short, we got to the Craven museum about two minutes after it closed. The attendant was actually still there, but despite my begging he wouldn't open it back up for us, saying that he had already turned on the alarm and everything. I was extremely disappointed; the worst of it was that we would have made it on time if we had not stopped to take so many pictures on the way, and mail our post cards, but neither we—nor, apparently the lady at the tourist information office—had any inkling that they closed so early.

Just so I can keep my bad news all in one article, I will say now that I missed my appointment at the archives in Leeds the next day, too. Our GPS system was no match for Leeds' incomprehensible roads, where being in the wrong lane at the wrong moment sends you right back out of downtown. We never found our hotel, and it took us three hours once we reached Leeds to eventually find a hotel with vacancy where we could stay. The lane directions change too fast for the GPS to keep up, and so although we were probably within 500 yards of our hotel multiple times in those three hours, we never found it. (Despite, in three hours, having tried endless permutations of "how about if when I get to this intersection I go in this lane", and asking for directions.) What I should have done is reserve a hotel outside the city as I had done elsewhere on the trip, but I had not expected that things could go so badly. Especially by this point in the trip when I was quite used to British driving, and had been through much larger cities including Dublin and Glasgow. But I just could not find my way in Leeds. I joked afterward that I understood why my great3-grandfather (who was born in Leeds) left to go to America—clearly this city has a curse on our family!

The bright side was that Skipton is certainly worth visiting again, so someday I will make it to the Craven museum. (And kill that attendant!) We did get a lot of good pictures (password required); practically everything has Craven in the name, which is a treat. Leeds on the other hand I will never try to visit in a car again—if I ever go there again it will be by rail!

So, that was the real low point of our trip, but except for not being able to find the hotel, it was more a problem of being disappointed than of anything bad actually happening to us. I missed the two things that had the most personal importance for me to visit on the trip, true, but I did get to see Craven, which for someone who grew up over 4,000 miles away, was still pretty special.

The disappointment also came from the fact that this was supposed to have been the grand finale of the trip, since from then the rest of our trip was just going to be heading back south in order to make it home on time. So we could not re-arrange our schedule: the car had to be returned the next day in Oxford, and we had a ticket to cross the chunnel at 4:00 pm. So there was no room to fit in a return to the Craven museum the next morning. For a trip where everything else went pretty much perfectly, it was a let-down to end on a less than perfect note. The 2007 Patriots know what I mean.

So ends my series of articles on our trip to the British Isles. I am as sorry that they couldn't end on a high note as I am that the actual trip didn't end that way. That doesn't change the fact that, overall, it was a hugely successful trip, and one of the best vacations of my life. This may not be my last article about our trip, however. At some point I think it will be useful to do one on how driving on the left worked out, and provide some other tips that may be of use to anyone else who plans a motoring vacation in Britain or Ireland. But I will close by saying that it was a wonderful trip, one that I thought was crazy to try to pull off—fitting so much into so short a time (five countries in two weeks), and driving on the left to boot. I'm proud of myself, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and I'm so glad we took the chance to do it before James got old enough to say "are we there yet?"

Posted by jon at 9:26 PM in Travel 

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

The British Isles, Day Two, Part I: Stonehenge

This is an article in my ongoing series about our trip through the British Isles. For the first article, click here.

Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell,
Where the banshees live (and they do live well).
Stonehenge! Where a man is a man
And the children dance to the pipes of Pan.

I had been playing Spinal Tap's famous rock anthem in the weeks leading up to the trip to get me in the mood for our trip, and it was to the ancient monument in Wiltshire that we set out first, an hour and a half's journey from our hotel (there are a lot of hotels nearer to Stonehenge, but I wanted to stay near Oxford, since we were visiting there too and would head north to Bangor next).

One of the most vivid moments of the whole trip for me was when the car went over one of England's many rolling green hills, and all of a sudden there it was—we could see the iconic stones and people milling around them off in one of the fields. Like seeing the Eiffel tower in person for the first time, there's something special about seeing it in the flesh, even though you already know what it's supposed to look like. For me, this was also the real moment of feeling like our vacation had started, since it was the first real site we visited.

I'll say more about Stonehenge in a moment, but first a few practical remarks on the visit itself. We had perfect weather, and that combined with it being a weekend in August might have meant massive crowds, but fortunately we were there in the morning, and there weren't many people there. When we left though (around noon), the crowds were starting to mass. So my travel tip is to arrive early if you are visiting in the peak tourist season. The admission price includes an audio guide too, so there's no reason not to pick one up. English Heritage themselves estimate a full visit will take an hour and a half, so there is no reason to plan more than a half day at Stonehenge, unless you plan to hike around and examine some of the surrounding barrows and henges—which I'm sure would be fascinating to do for someone who'd read up on prehistoric Britain beforehand (and so could visualise what was so interesting and significant about a few hillocks and holes in a pasture), but with a fifteen month-old there was no question of that for us, and for most visitors Stonehenge itself is surely sufficient.

We had two reasons for visiting Stonehenge. One is that it is the most iconic monument in England, aside from perhaps Big Ben, yet because it is out in a field in some fairly remote countryside, it isn't easy to work into most visits—no matter how world-famous and important the site may be, it can be hard to justify taking a detour of several hours in order to view what is ultimately a collection of old rocks in a field. Emilie and I had both been to England multiple times, but never been in a position to take the significant detour to Stonehenge on any of those trips. But now, on this driving vacation, we had the perfect occasion to finally take the time.

The second reason—why Stonehenge is so much more than a "collection of old rocks" to me—is harder to put into words. Obviously I have a particular passion for ancient civilisation, which is why Latin and Ancient Greek appear so frequently on this blog. Learning about history, where we come from, is a way of learning about who we are today. Stonehenge was begun circa 3000 BC. To anyone with a good sense of historical dates, that date (in Northern Europe, as opposed to Egypt or Mesopotamia!) should almost be shocking: It is so ancient that the Latin language didn't even exist yet—nor did Greek! It is as far before Socrates and Buddha's time as their time is removed from us. It is, simply put, older than history.

Which is what the word 'prehistoric' means, after all. Yet we usually assume that "before history" equals "before civilisation"—but with Stonehenge, every single detail we have about the monument gives testimony to a civilisation that had achieved all sorts of advancements and sophistication. That a 5000 year-old site survives in England at all is amazing in itself, but what it tells us is so tantalizing, that the very fact that it predates history is both fascinating and frustrating: The stones were transported there over great distances, so we know they had a developed economy, and trade routes. The stones align to astronomical events such as solstices and equinoxes, so we know they had a developed calendar and the sophistication to be able to pass on knowledge to an educated elite. Building the monument required knowledge of quarying, masonry, and engineering that with the limited technology they had on hand must have been quite ingenious. And yet we don't know who they were, or what language they spoke, or what happened to them. (Well, we know the Celts moved in at some point so it's probably safe to infer that they drove them out... whoever 'they' were.)

In brief, the tantalizing glimpse into prehistoric British civilisation—the very fact that there existed in prehistory cultures worthy of the name "civilisations", now lost—is what I find so fascinating about Stonehenge. We'll see later with regard to Hadrian's wall how different those ruins are. We have letters written by soldiers at the fort, talking about everything from the weather to the clothing they want sent from the continent—all sorts of minute, day-to-day details are known about the Romans in Britain that we can learn about and know, whereas with Stonehenge there are so many questions that will remain unanswered forever.

James, for his part, enjoyed Stonehenge as a big grassy field to run around in. Only once did he point at the stones and shout an amazed "aa!"—which turned out to be occasioned not by Stonehenge at all, but by the fact that a bird was walking about on top of it.

James is right, of course. The world is a marvelous place.

Click here (password required) to see the full gallery with all our photos from Stonehenge

Posted by jon at 12:02 AM in Travel 

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The British Isles: Introduction

Our vacation plans were thrown off this year since Emilie was declared unfit to fly this summer by her doctor, making a return to the States impossible. So in addition to the constraint of travelling with a baby (something we are still adapting to when it comes to vacation planning), we also had to worry about how to put together an interesting vacation when we couldn't fly anywhere.

So, in the absence of an airplane, I was naturally forced to opt for the next best alternative: two underwater trains, the world's largest ferry, two automobiles, a steam-powered locomotive, a canal boat, multiple double-decker buses, and a 20,000 tonne catamaran. Heh :-) All of this to spend two weeks driving around the British Isles, visiting all of the Home Nations, with stays in England, Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, seeing the sights and getting acquainted with the land of my ancestors. All while warming bottles and changing diapers in a car that drives on the left.

The trip was a great success, but we visited so many places in such a short period of time that we're still digesting it all. As a part of that process, I've created a new "Travel" category on the blog, and will put up articles on each individual part of our trip, and probably a few general travel tips that might be of interest to anyone considering a motoring vacation in the British Isles. Also, since it will surely take months for me to write up the whole trip, this is a way of extending the journey throughout the year, which will take some of the sting out of the return to work :-)

Day One: Departure

No need for a separate article for the first day, however, since it was a travel day. We took the Channel Tunnel, which is much faster than a ferry, and an interesting experience in itself: you drive your car right onto the train, and drive off 50 minutes later in England, with a helpful reminder to change your watches and drive on the left. It's amazing to think how close we are to England without usually realising it. Anyway, my original plan was to change to a rental car (which would drive better than our old Renault and have the wheel on the right side for driving in Britain), but the first thing we learned when making our plans was that in the UK, rental car offices are closed on weekends (technically, they are open until noon on Saturday, but we couldn't get there by then).

So instead of changing our car right away, we had to press on with our French car through Kent and all the way into Oxfordshire, stopping at Thame (where we had a good rate on the motel, £29 / night). I'll post a more detailed description of driving on the left some day, but most of the route this first day was on motorways (the UK equivalent of US interstates) and therefore not too difficult. Having to push up to Oxfordshire meant that we'd be leaving our French car there, though, so we had to loop back there at the end of the trip too, which meant missing out on Cambridge. I'll say more about why Oxford was chosen as the central hub point of our trip when I get to talking about that city. For now, suffice to say that the first day consisted primarily in getting us deep into England and finding our hotel, setting us up to begin Day Two with some earnest sightseeing: Stonehenge and Oxford University!

Posted by jon at 11:55 PM in Travel 
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