Lukewarm in Iceland

People rave about how wonderful Iceland is, so when the opportunity came for me to join my friend Cathy there for a few days, I jumped at it, looking forward to icy vistas, the Northern Lights, monstrous geysers, volcanic craters and the hot springs.

We started with a bus tour of the Golden Circle, the traditional loop south of Reykjavík. Our first stop was Pingvellir National Park, where our bus driver/guide let us out, told us to walk down the hill and meet him at the bottom in an hour. The views were beautiful, the temperature a tolerable 2 degrees Celsius, but the clouds and fog obscured the sky.

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Pingvellir National Park

Stop #2 was in the Efstidalur valley, at The Ice Cream Farm famous for its ice cream. Inside the restaurant which sold the ice cream were windows into the barn where stood, get this, some cows. And as far as I could tell, not particularly special cows. Two scoops of ice cream cost $20, so I passed.

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Cows through the window

Stop #3 were the lava fields at Blaskogabyggo, where boiling water bubbled in little pools and the Strokkur geyser blew every few minutes, tossing a stream of water high into the air before quickly retreating and regenerating for the next show. Pretty, yes, but having enjoyed the much longer and higher display of Old Faithful at Yellowstone Park just a few months before, this was underwhelming. A pattern was starting to emerge…..

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The geyser

Stop #4 was the Gullfoss Waterfall, the largest in Europe. The half frozen water cascaded over the rocks below, snaking its way across the river. Pretty, yes, but I had seen larger ones at Iguacu and Victoria, and Niagara Falls in the winter. Gulfoss didn’t compare.

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Gullfoss Waterdall

Stop #5 was the dormant volcano Kerio and its crater, which in summer fills with turquoise blue water. It was December, the crater was an empty hollow filled with dirt and not overly impressive. Vesuvius in Italy and every volcano in Costa Rico and Nicaragua are more spectacular.

The tour was turning into a bit of a dud. The driver/ tour guide didn’t seem to like to talk, with the exception of religion, as he became quite animated when discussing the funds provided to the Islamic community in Iceland by Saudi Arabia (he said $500 million) to erect a mosque, but infighting between the sects meant they couldn’t agree on basic construction issues. It was a strange conversation point.

The saving grace, and highlight, was a trip to the Blue Lagoon, a giant hot spring about 45 minutes out of Reykjavík. For only $100, we were provided with a towel, locker, free drink and a silica mask. It was dark by the time we reached it and a light snowfall sprinkled the ground. We changed into our bathing suits, ran the 20 feet to the lagoon and waded into the hot water, luxuriating in the thermal pool, relaxing and sipping a glass of wine as  snowflakes floated onto our faces and our bodies shriveled  into prunes.

Back at the hotel, we learned that the Northern Lights tour had been cancelled for the evening; it was too cloudy.

On Wednesday, we waited until the 11:00AM sunrise before walking to the center of Reykjavík to join a free walking tour of the city – at the end of the tour you pay what you think it was worth. Our guide’s Icelandic name was unpronounceable by all in the group so he asked us to call him Eric. For the next 3 hours, we followed him around the city, listening as he told us about Iceland’s history, culture and other tidbits. In a nutshell, the memorable points were:

  • Iceland was first settled by Vikings in 874;
  • The Landnamabok is a book which lists all 720,000 persons born in Iceland since 874. Most Icelanders today can trace their roots back to 874 (including our guide Eric) and nearly every one is related to everyone else to some degree. The book is now on-line and there is a special app to ensure no one accidentally dates someone too closely related;
  • The Vikings spoke a form of old Norse, or old Norwegian, which is today’s Icelandic;
  • The island was Catholic until 1550, when the last Catholic bishop was hanged. Iceland has been Lutheran ever since.
  • Governed by Denmark/Norway since 1262, Iceland took advantage of the Nazi occupation of Denmark and declared independence in 1942 and has remained a sovereign nation.
  • A unique Xmas story concerns the Yule Cat; tradition says it eats children who haven’t produced enough wool and rewards those who have with new clothes at Christmas. A mean looking cat was lit up in in the main square:

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Fortunately. Eric was a more enthusiastic and informative guide than the one from the previous day. We paid him $20 each and returned to the hotel to learn our Northern Lights tour had again been cancelled due to the cloud cover. Doubly disappointing for Cathy was her glacier hike/ice cave spelunking tour the next day was also cancelled. The warm weather meant it was too dangerous to go out onto the ice. Even her attempt to substitute it with a tour of the south was thwarted; the warm weather and possibility of freezing rain caused widespread cancellations of most activities.

The one tour that was proceeding was the foodie tour, led by Thor, an English major and another Icelander who could also trace his roots back to 874. Our group of 13 was treated to the best of Iceland cuisine and it was all good. We started with a hearty lamb stew, followed by a cheese and smoked meat tasting. Horse meat was offered and I gave it a try. It tasted sort of, but not quite, like beef. It is widely eaten in Iceland since horses are one of the few animals that can live in the harsh climate and nothing edible is wasted in this harsh environment. Rye bread ice cream followed, which was sweet, delicious and tasted nothing like rye bread. The star of the meal were two fish plates, grilled Arctic Char and a white fish stew served with rich rye bread. We were all stuffed,  but 2 more stops remained. At a hotdog stand, we partook of the island’s famed hot dogs – 70% lamb and 30% unknown. Finally, we dug into a tangy lemon mousse covered in meringue with frozen yogurt.

One final attraction beckoned – the Phallic Museum, devoted to all things phallic and probably the only one of its kind. On display were all manners of phalli, including the largest from the sperm whale and various human donations.

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Sperm Whale phallic, nearly 5 feet tall

Not surprisingly given the cloud cover, the Northern Lights tours were all cancelled Thursday evening. We would leave Iceland without seeing them.

What we did leave behind was a hell of a lot of money. Our Golden Circle tour cost $200 per person, glasses of wine were $20 each, the breakfast buffet $30, and a decent meal for 2 without alcohol was at least $100. A souvenir sweater was $400 (we passed) and a snicker chocolate bar was $4 (I bought 2).

The real kicker was our cab ride to the airport early Friday morning. Communal bus rides were available for $60, but they involved being outside at 4:15 AM and transferring between buses. The 45 minute taxi ride’s flat rate was a whopping $170. Call me a cynic, but even a decent wage for 2 hours and Iceland’s high priced gasoline didn’t justify that. The only rationale I could figure out was gouging tourists, something Iceland seems good at. The $100 entrance fee to the Blue Lagoon, the high priced bus tour with a mediocre guide, even the ridiculous baggage fees on IcelandAir ($78 for the first checked bag) along with the $18 charge for a glass of wine on board, made me feel like Icelanders view tourists as cash cows, milked for all they are worth, then put on a plane to be replaced by more money toting suckers.

Maybe Iceland would be considered a worthwhile destination if I hadn’t seen Niagara Falls or Yellowstone Park or Mount Vesuvius or the prairies on a cold, January night, but I had and Iceland didn’t compare favourably to any of them. Add the obscene prices into the equation, the overcast weather and consequential cancellations and I was disappointed. Granted, I enjoyed the walking and foodie tours, but I was eager to get back to Paris, where meals, attractions, hotels and transit prices were all met with my newfound favourite refrain “at least it’s cheaper than Iceland.”

 

 

 

The Shooting in Strasbourg

Strasbourg is renowned for its X-Mas market, often trumpeted as the best in the world and our primary reason for visiting. We (my friend Cathy has joined me) arrived on Sunday, checking into our Airbnb apartment located in Petite France, just 100 meters from Pont St. Thomas, one of the many bridges that crosses the Canal de la Marne au Rhin. The canal encircles and separates the Grande Ile, the medieval old city, from the rest of Strasbourg. Our apartment was housed in a 17th century building, atop a theater and restaurant; a traditional medieval house with dark timber frames supporting the structure and enough quirkiness to satisfy any odd taste.

We crossed the bridge to the Grande Ile, to be stopped by two security officers wearing bright yellow jackets. They checked inside our bags and waved us in. The old city was decked out in its holiday attire, living up to its nickname of the Christmas Capital of Europe. All over were over-the-top X-Mas decorations: teddy bears hanging from windows, gingerbread men strung across the street, giant X-Mas trees, reindeer pulling Santa Claus, everything except a nativity scene (there was one in the Cathedral). It was bright and joyous, a visual treat.

The highlight of the Strasbourg X-Mas market are the 300 or so wooden stalls that are clustered in the streets, at the main Kleber Square, beside the majestic Strasbourg Cathedral, occupying every vacant spot. Gingerbread cookies and cakes, Alsatian sausages, chocolate creations, mulled wine, dough men and crepes dominated the food stalls; snow globes, handcrafted jewelry, clothes, jostled to be bought by the thousands of people milling about.

I purchased a glass of the hot, cinnamon flavoured mulled wine and walked about, loving the colourful decorations and the wonderful architecture of Strasbourg, rooted so clearly from medieval times.

We returned again on Monday, enjoying the market in daylight. On Tuesday, we took the train to Colmar, an even better preserved medieval town, to enjoy its X-Mas market. Much smaller than Strasbourg, the buildings and their X-Mas dressings were even more magical than Strasbourg.

Upon returning, we decided against going back into the old city for dinner and instead chose to eat at a restaurant right down the street, immediately across the bridge from Grande Ile. Midway through the meal we started to hear sirens, not just a few, but dozens and dozens. We looked out to see ambulances and police cars racing both ways down the road outside. As the sirens continued, we surfed the internet to see if something was happening. There, we first learned of the shooting in the Place Kleber.

Just then, a couple in their 60’s came in and sat down. The lady asked if we spoke English. When we replied affirmatively, she  yes explained that they had both just come from the old town, where they had seen a man on the ground, bleeding profusely, with his wife screaming for someone to help him. The couple had been quickly ushered away from the area by the police, and once they crossed the bridge from the old town, the now much larger security presence would not allow them to re-enter so they came to the restaurant for dinner and a carafe of wine.

Next to us sat a local Strasbourg gentleman, Philippe, his daughter and a friend and her daughter. He too started talking to us in English, confirming that his twitter account indicated there had been a shooting in the X-Mas market and at least 2 people were dead. The Grande Ile was on lock-down, he advised, with no one being allowed in or out. Restaurants had pulled down their shutters and locked their doors. Hotels were shut tight, stores dark. People were lying flat on the floors, waiting for instructions. The manhunt for the shooter was underway.

We talked with the couple, Paul and Carolyn from Victoria – we had introduced ourselves by now – and they were understandably rattled. The security wall that now surrounded  the old town meant they couldn’t return to the old city, or their hotel, so they told us they planned to make their way to the train station and wait out the night there. Cathy and I invited them to spend the night at our place which the maitre d’ and Philippe had indicated was safe to walk toward. Phillippe’s information now advised that the shooter had left the old city, was injured and was holed up in an apartment on the south side of the city, but he warned this was just the latest rumour and might not be accurate. We decided to take our chances. As we left the restaurant, a heavily armed soldier stood outside – he had not been there earlier. The 4 of us walked quickly and safely to our apartment.

We spent the next few hours glued to the French 24 Live news station, watching the  broadcast live from Strasbourg. The news reported that the death toll had reached 3, then 4, then back to 3; that the shooter was surrounded, that he had escaped, that he was known to police as a 29 year old Strasbourg native, but never his name. The lock-down continued and police urged people to stay inside and open their houses to people displaced by the lock-down. By midnight, we were mentally exhausted and fell to sleep.

Carolyn and Paul struggled to get any sleep. Their kids back home were anxious to talk to them and the sight of the bleeding victim weighed heavily. Sunrise came at 8:15. The news said the lock-down was over, even though the killer had not been caught. Their hotel had reopened and they were free to return.

Later that day, Cathy and I returned to the X-Mas market area. Security was noticeably higher. No longer was each bridge guarded only by civil security officers checking bags. Now two police officers, each toting automatic rifles, patrolled behind the security officers on each bridge. Half a dozen Gendarme vehicles lined the walkway to the museum and soldiers, in full camouflage uniforms and more automatic rifles, walked the streets in groups of 4 or 6.

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The streets were nearly deserted. We knew from the news the X-mas market was not re-opening on the Wednesday, but the museums were also closed and at least half the shops and restaurants remained shut. Only the Cathedral was open, with an additional security officer, but unlike the previous days, there was no line up.

A few locals were around, some tourists, but mostly security personnel and journalists, filming their broadcasts. We walked to Place Kleber, which had just re-opened after the investigation had concluded, to see the start of two makeshift memorials, with the phrase, loosely translated, “We stand united against the terrorists” hand written on pieces of cardboard. Two other memorials, lined with candles, marked spots where people had been wounded. People just stood there staring at the candles, shaking their heads.

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There was nothing to say, nothing to do, just look with a heavy heart at the candles and leave, saddened that such a horrible tragedy marred this wonderful city.

 

WWI Battlefields: Flanders in France and Belgium

My son joined me for a short visit in France. I had asked him to choose an area of France he would like to see and he picked WWI battlefield sites. Thus, we arrived in Arras one cloudy afternoon, picked up our rental car, programmed Google Maps and set off for our first destination, Vimy Ridge.

Vimy Ridge 

After a short 15 minute drive, we started seeing signposts with Canadian flags directing us to the Visitor Center. The land at Vimy Ridge, where both the memorial and the Center are located, was gifted to the Canadian government by the French shortly after WWI. Today, Veteran Affairs Canada employs bilingual Canadian students on 4 month stints to act as greeters and guides at the site. 

Vimy Ridge holds a special place in the heart of Canadians. Between April 9 and 12, 1917, 4 divisions of the Canadian Corps of the first army battled the German army in an effort to capture the high ground of Vimy Ridge. They succeeded, despite the loss of over 10,000 men. Vimy Ridge remains a symbol of sacrifice and heroism, but also one of national pride. It was the first time the Canadian regiments had fought as a separate unit and their strategy, tactics and perseverance were widely regarded as being instrumental in their victory.

Trevor, a recent graduate from the University of Ottawa and heading to Immigration Canada, gave us a private tour of the tunnels. I had seen photos and reenactments of the trench warfare – most recently via Mathew’s WWI travails on Downton Abbey – but nothing prepared me for the real thing. Despite the day being overcast and wet, the trenches (most of which are re-creations) were dry and protected from the wind. But it was easy to imagine the horrors – trying to race across the muddy ground with heavy packs, barbed wire everywhere and German soldiers firing at anything that moved. Even staying in the trenches would be awful; they easily flooded in the rain, bringing dampness and the rats. The tunnels were a relief- warmer, dry and dimly lit.

Trevor described the 3 lines: the front line was nearest to the Germans and no man’s land (sometimes only 100 meters apart), then there was the support or observation trench and finally, the reserve trench, containing reserve soldiers if those on the front line faltered. Linking the trenches were the tunnels, providing storage and communication between the trenches. Sometimes, tunnels were cut under the German lines and explosives detonated, resulting in the giant craters which still exist today. But most of the pocks in the landscape are the result of grenade attacks.

After the tunnel tour, we went to the Visitor Center. It provides excellent commentary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the combatants, its outcome and its importance, along with shelter from the elements, clean toilets and good wifi, with commentary from polite, enthusiastic Canadian students. We ended the day with a trip to the memorial:

 

The Somme: Beuamont-Hamel and the Somme Museum:

Our second day in Arras began with a quick trip the center of Arras and its advertised “baroque style central square” with market. It was definitely Baroque style, but completely reconstructed due to its total destruction in WW1 Sadly, the vista was lost on us as most of the square was taken up with a combination X-Mas and weekly market. Ferris wheels and giant slides do not evoke Baroque architecture, nor do the clever cheese trucks and other market mainstays.

Our objective today was the Museum of the Somme in Albert, but as we were driving toward it, we saw more maple leafs and signs pointing us to Beaumont-Hamel, a battlefield made famous by the Newfoundland regiment. As Newfoundland was an independent dominion until joining Canada in 1949, it provided its own soldiers and fought under its own flag as a battalion of the British Expeditionary Forces.

As we learned on our tour of the grounds, on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Newfoundland battalion pressed forward into no-man’s land, but the more experienced German infantry had advance warning of the attack thanks to a mine detonation and the Allies’ flares signalling the start of the assault being confused by the combatants. In less than 30 minutes, 670 of the 780 Newfoundlanders were dead, injured or missing.

 

We were again guided through the site and the battle by another Canadian student. She provided excellent commentary about the build-up to the battle, the strategy, the shortcomings of the Allies’ attack and their ultimate defeat on July 1, 1916, as well as leading us around the site – through the trenches, the cemeteries and the memorial. We finished at the Visitor Center, where more information about the battle and its impact on Newfoundland was provided. Sadly, the battle effectively wiped out a generation of Newfoundlanders, leaving the Dominion economically strapped and dependent on Britain.

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Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel

We drove to the town of Albert where the Somme Museum is located in a 13th century tunnel. Dioramas portray aspects of life in the trenches, for soldiers, communications, medics; a video highlighted many of the memorials, and plaques explained the Somme battles in a broader context. Very simply, the Germans were seeking to arrive at the Atlantic on the Western Front, a 700 kilometer stretch of land from Belgium south through France, and the Allies were trying to push them back. On July 1, 1916 the Allies began an offensive against the Germans lasting 114 days. The Battle of the Somme was largely inconclusive in terms of victory or defeat, but both sides suffered heavy casualties. Estimates range as high as 1 million dead or wounded on both sides.

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The Tunnel at the Somme Museum

Ypres

The following day, we went to Ypres in Belgium, another significant battlefield along the Western Front. The nearby area resonates with Canadians for 2 main reasons: Flanders Field and Passchendale. In Flanders Field is the poem written by Canadian physician John McCrae, who was inspired to write it during a funeral for a friend when he noticed how quickly the poppies grew around the graves of those who had died near Ypres. A memorial to McCrae stands at the well preserved Advanced Dressing Station, a medical triage center, where McCrae served as a medic:

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Memorial to McCrae. The poem is on the right.

A few miles away is the town of Passchendale, near a ridge overlooking the entire area. Its strategic location high above the land made it desirable by both sides. The Germans had dug in there with deep, well defended trenches. British forces had unsuccessfully tried to retake the ridge. In July, 1917, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force ordered the Canadian corps, a formation over 100,000 strong, to capture the ridge. While the Canadian commander objected owing to his concern for the potential loss of lives, his protests went unheralded. In mid-October, the Canadians began their onslaught on the ridge. By October 26th, they had captured the ridge, earning a reputation for bravery under horrendous conditions, but at a cost of 15,654 dead. A Canada Gate honours their achievements and those who were injured or died in the battle.

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Concluding Thoughts:

Touring the battlefields and nearby towns strikes home the awful reality of WWI – the trenches, the devastated towns, the gigantic cemeteries – and the memorials ensure that the lives lost will not be forgotten. I have two lingering memories. As we were driving through the fields toward Passchendale, our guide stopped at the side of the road to point out a shell recently uncovered as a farmer tilled his soil. “This” he said, “was a weekly occurrence. There is still a bomb disposal unit which comes around once a month to pick up all the shells. Most are duds, but two years ago, a live one exploded.”

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Rusted shell in the field

I also thought the memorials and Visitor Centers do Canada proud. The sculptures are moving, thoughtful commemorations, the Visitor Centers informative and the guides, all bright-eyed, polite, bilingual Canadian students, are great ambassadors for the country.

 

Beyond the Troubles: Belfast

As a teenager in the 1970’s, my knowledge of Belfast was of terrorist bombings, violence largely between Protestants and Catholics and the hunger strike and eventual death of Bobby Sands in Her Majesty’s Prison Maze. Northern Ireland was the economic basket case of Europe; no one wanted to invest there, it wasn’t on any tourist’s agenda, industries and services were hampered by its violent reputation. Saved only by influxes of funds and soldiers (some would argue this was the problem) from the motherland, aka, Great Britain, she limped along until all sides, tired of 30 years of mayhem, signed the Good Friday peace treaty in 1998.

Northern Ireland has blossomed in the 20 years since, becoming a major drawing card for tourists, the service industry and cinematographers. More movies are shot in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe, including Braveheart (set in Scotland), Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and Star Wars (a few of them) along with the Netflix favourite Game of Thrones. The timeless topography (i.e. no overhead wires, fences or street signs) lends itself to period shoots and the tax breaks provided are enticing. Game of Thrones tours to its famous filming sites abound, but as I have never seen a single episode of the show, it would be lost on me. Other advertised sights were of far more interest.

The Giant’s Causeway: 

I took a bus tour to the most visited and only Unesco heritage sight in Northern Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway. Just 12 miles from Scotland, its name derives from the tale of an Irish giant, Finn McCool, who built a roadway to Scotland across the Irish Sea. The Scottish giant, Benandonner, walked across intending to battle McCool. Hoping to avoid the conflict, McCool’s wife disguised McCool in baby clothing When Benandonner saw the size of the “baby”, he became so fearful of the size of its father that he raced back to Scotland, destroying the path as he fled. What is left, either by the giant or the more scientific version, is the Giant’s Causeway, a shoreline furnished with giant lava boulders and 40,000 columns along the Atrim coastline.

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Since it was November and overcast, the site was comparatively deserted of the 1.2 million visitors who make it Northern Ireland’s most popular attraction. I passed through the Visitor Center, grabbed the audio guide available in 6 languages including English and walked down the path to the causeway (there is a shuttle bus as well) to gaze at the strange rock formations. The more foolhardy jumped across the rocks to the sea, but it was rainy, the rocks slippery and I was satisfied by merely looking, listening to the audio as it described different formations and recited the legends associated with each.

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The Columns

The Titanic Museum: 

Back in Belfast, the newest and most significant museum to have opened in decades is the Titanic Museum, dedicated to all things Titanic. Embracing the current trend of single subject, highly interactive, grandiose museums, the Titanic Museum is housed in a sail shaped edifice next to the dry dock where it was built, with floor to ceiling windows providing views of the dock. The museum begins by showing Belfast at the turn of the 20th century, then focuses on its importance as a shipyard. It discusses the builders, Harland and Wolff,  and the decision by the White Star Line to commission the Titanic. Blueprints and building techniques are on display, followed by the challenges of kitting the Titanic out including reproductions of 1st, 2nd and 3rd class bedrooms. Memorabilia similar to those on the ship – dishes, the chandelier, instruments, a shuffleboard game – transport you back to experience what life would have been like on board.

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The Titanic Museum

Exhibits follow the timeline of the tragedy. The iceberg hit, memorialized at the museum by panicked transcripts from its telegraph operators, the arrival of the ship Carpathia  two hours after the ship sank rescuing those in the lifeboats,  next tributes to those who lost their lives.  A video documents some of the attempts to locate the sunken ship, culminating in its eventual discovery in 1985.  A film shot by a robotic submersible shows what the Titanic looks like in its water grave. The final exhibit displays how the Titanic has been portrayed in popular culture and especially the movies.

The entire museum is well done, but I was less than overwhelmed. Perhaps it was because I had seen the equally informative, but more intimate Cobh Heritage Museum just a few days before which told the same story (except for the discovery in 1985), but I felt that the Belfast Museum was “a made for the tourist” monument rather than a museum which explored, examined or challenged me any meaningful way.

The Black Taxi Cab Tour, Part I:

For that, I embarked on the best way to see and learn about Belfast, with a Black Taxi Tour. All over Ireland, I had been impressed with the knowledge, recommendations and willingness to talk about the city or country of every single taxi driver I encountered. Apparently I was not alone in this respect. A number of cabdrivers in Belfast started offering tours of the city, getting paid for their commentary on the history of the Troubles, the politics and the current environment, all for the price of an hour and a half cab ride.

Historical Context:

A brief history lesson, much of it from David, my cab driver/tour guide in Belfast. Back in the 16th century, King Henry VIII split from the Roman Catholic Church. He, and later his daughter Queen Elizabeth, were not thrilled to have a Roman Catholic stronghold on England’s back doorstep, so they moved a lot of Protestants, mostly Scottish, to Ireland, settling them in the north. They also enacted discriminatory laws against the Catholics, not allowing them to own land, to have equal representation, to access government jobs etc. This situation prevailed until the 20th century where, after a bloody civil war in 1920-1924, most of the south voted for independence. Six counties voted to stay in the United Kingdom, including most of Ulster which encompasses Belfast. These 6 counties   became Northern Ireland and were governed from London.

The Troubles, as it is generally referred to, began in 1968 when predominantly Catholic Nationalists (Nationalists wanting to reunite with the nation of Ireland to the south) began demonstrating against the discriminatory policies against them. Protest marches turned violent, riots grew increasingly militaristic. No single event can be said to have sparked the Troubles, but generally the burning of the Catholic houses on Bombay Street in 1969 is regarded as one of the trigger points. Violence between Nationalists and largely Protestant Unionists (wanting to remain in the United Kingdom union) escalated. Politicians with their own agendas were eager to stoke the fires on both sides and adopted policies of promoting hatred and differences rather than reconciliation.

The UK reacted by sending in troops to calm the situation in August, 1969. Initially, they were regarded as peacekeepers, but their presence soon evolved to that of oppressors. Small, paramilitary organizations from both the Nationalist and Unionist camps orchestrated terror attacks on soldiers and citizens alike. Flag flying and painting the curbs in your colours (red, white and blue for Unionists, green and orange for Nationalists) marked the territories. Walls totaling 57 miles were constructed across Belfast to segregate the warring sides. They still stand today.

Bobby Sands was a Unionist, jailed in 1977 for his participation in bombing a furniture factory. Britain had recently eliminated the category of political prisoners, meaning all prisoners were treated like criminals and forced to work daily in the jails. Sands and his fellow Unionist prisoners rejected the moniker “criminal” and went on hunger strikes to protest in 1981. 66 days later he died; the others soon followed, all becoming martyrs to their cause. While in jail and on hunger strike, Bobby Sands was elected to the House of Commons, prompting Britain to pass a law prohibiting anyone who was serving a jail sentence of more than one year from standing for election.

For 30 years, Belfast endured the Troubles. The walls prevented some violence, but not all. Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by an IRA planted bomb on his boat. Bloody Sunday, where British soldiers shot at unarmed, peaceful protesters, killing 14, shocked the world. People lived in fear of terrorist attacks. Tourists did not visit. Check stops – official or not- were an everyday fact of life.

Then it changed. There had been numerous peace initiatives; none had succeeded. But in 1998, it was as if everyone finally grew tired of the war. The IRA agreed to put down their weapons. The British withdrew their army. Local government, with guarantees of representation of both Unionist and Nationalist forces, was implemented. The Good Friday Agreement ended the Troubles and brought peace and stability to Northern Ireland.

Black TaxiCab Tour Part 2: 

David is a full time cabdriver in Belfast who provided much of the narrative above. He likes to give the tours once per day; when he does so he can finish work by 5. It was obvious he enjoyed talking about the history of the Troubles and adding his views. He didn’t dislike the British, but he loathed both Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May for how they conducted negotiations with the Irish. He echoed what many cab drivers in Ireland had said “the politicians are all idiots.” He denied that the Troubles were religiously motivated or based and tried hard to point out Catholic Unionists or Protestants killed by the Unionists. He was also fearful of Brexit – as was every Irish person I spoke to – they do not want a return to a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. When I took the train from Dublin to Belfast, and vice versa on the bus, not once was I asked for my passport. A hard border would change all that.

Our tour’s first stop was in the Catholic area and Shankill street. The Troubles, for both sides, is best illustrated by the murals that decorate the sides of houses and the walls and the different memorial sites, In Shankill, a mural of a quilt pays homage to the many contributions made by women to the peace process.

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On Bombay Street is a memorial to the burning of that street in April, 1969 and other victims of the violence.

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We drove along the walls, looking at the art that disguises its ugliness. Famous people have put wishes of peace on the wall, including Bill Clinton and the Dahli Llama.

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From there, we drove through one of the many gates along the walls, -they are open and unmanned- during the day but still close late each night – to one of the Protestant areas and to the mural honouring Bobby Sands

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We ended our tour at a section of the wall known as the Peace Wall, where murals proposing peace at different war torn areas around the world are added as events unfold:

End Thoughts:

Belfast was a likeable city. Easy to get around, safe, vibrant. I stayed near the main university of Queen’s, bustling with students preparing for exams. The X-Mas market had just opened at the City Hall, lined with wooden shacks showcasing foods from different countries (Mexico, Finland, Greece, but nothing from Canada or the USA). Neon signs flashed advertisements for the Titanic Museum and storefronts hawked day bus tours to nearby attractions. It seems like the Troubles are a thing of the past, remembered only in the murals, the memorials, by the taxi cab drivers on their tours. But I could not gauge whether this appearance of peace and co-operation between the Unionists and the Nationalists is genuine or not. Clearly, nobody wanted a return to the Troubles, but equally obvious was that the underlying problems that gave rise to the Troubles in the first place still simmer just beneath the surface. Everyone in Northern Ireland is hoping fervently that the Brexit mess will not cause those differences to rise to the top again and boil over.

Clockwise around Ireland

Following another day in Dublin, I embarked on a clockwise tour around Ireland, stopping in Waterford, Cork and Cobh and Galway.

Dublin:

Having completed my Dublin To Do list in a single day, I had a full day to explore the less touristy sights. A plethora of museums awaited – The Emigration Museum, The Writer’s Museum, An Art Museum which had the added benefit of being free, and the tantalizing Leprechaun Museum, focusing on Irish folklore and storytelling. I am sure they would all be worth a visit, but I wanted to do something local and there is nothing more local in Dublin than pubs. A pub crawl it would be.

With a choice of 751 pubs currently operating in Dublin,  I needed a plan of attack. Lists abound of the best, oldest, most authentic ambience, greatest music pubs etc. I picked a list highlighting iconic Irish pubs and headed out, into the rain and wind, towards O’Neills, established in 1713. Crossing the Liffey river, I spied the O’Neills pub. I entered, anxiously anticipating a full Irish breakfast. It was not to be – there are two O’Neill pubs in Dublin and Google maps had taken me to the one which did not serve breakfast. The bartender must have been used to this as he gave me walking directions to the proper one, an 8 minute walk away.

But on the way, I spotted another pub on the list, O’Donoghues, and ducked in there for breakfast. The full Irish breakfast is huge: sausage, bacon, eggs, black pudding, hash browns, tomatoes, beans and toast. I ordered it, ate about half and left a large amount to waste.

The other O’Neill pub was across the road so I dashed across, ordered a glass of wine, sipped it slowly and left. The pub was fairly empty, just a few students from the nearby Trinity College enjoying an after lunch pint.

A quick 5 minute walk brought me to the Long Hall, opening originally in 1860. Another glass of wine, but this one wasn’t going down too well. I still had 3 more pubs on my list, but the giant breakfast was weighing heavily, the wind was now officially gale force according to the weather alerts and the rain coming down hard. I abandoned both my glass of wine and my pub quest and retreated to my hotel.

I snuggled under the covers of my warm, dry bed and partook in my guilty Irish pleasure – binge watching The Great British Bake Off (as it is called here) on Netflix. One of my weirder delights in Europe is checking out the  different offerings in each country on Netflix. Great Irish Castles is available in France, but not Ireland. Jeopardy (from 1984) is available in Ireland, but not France. Welcome to Sweden is available in Sweden, but nowhere else. I have become a recent convert to The Great British Baking Show, but only the last 2 seasons are available in the USA on Netflix and PBS and none in Canada. To say I was thrilled to find that Ireland had the first 7 series on Netflix is an understatement. I was in Bake Off heaven.

Waterford:

Most people enjoy Ireland by hiring a car and driving, taking in the rugged countryside and quaint towns. This wasn’t an option for me since, when my wallet was stolen in Riga, my driver’s license was also taken. I had applied for a replacement on-line with Service Ontario, but between its idiotic web service which requires both an on-line application and the mailing of a credit card authorization and its total bureaucratic incompetence, 6 weeks after completing the application, I still had no proof I could drive. Thus I was limited to travelling around by train and bus. It turned out to be a relaxing and inexpensive way to travel in Ireland.

A pleasant 2 hour train ride took me south from Dublin to the city of Waterford. Built on the banks of the Suir River, its harbour was a popular refuge for Vikings who established the first city in Ireland in 914 AD. The city celebrates its long history with The Viking’s Triangle, an area with 3 museums. Reginald’s Tower is the only Viking monument dedicated to a person (King Reginald) and houses the Viking museum. The Medieval Museum covers the city’s history during the medieval period from the 11th century to the 18th, and the Bishop’s Palace (the former Bishop’s residence), includes a time line of events in the 20th and 21st century Ireland and Waterford. Each is well presented and informative, despite the lack of imagination in names.

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Reginald’s Tower in the middle of Waterford

Waterford is most famous for its finely cut crystal originally made in the, not surprisingly named, Waterford Factory. Hour long tours through the factory are offered. Being mesmerized by glassblowing, I could not resist the opportunity to watch a display. The tour did not disappoint, beginning with a short video about the crystal, then proceeding directly to the factory floor where craftsmen demonstrated each stage of the process, from heating and blowing, to polishing, quality control and cutting. The workers were quite happy to chat with the tourists – indeed, while the factory does make about 70,000 pieces a year, its bread and butter are the tours. Shifts are scheduled according to the tour schedules; when there are no tours, no work is scheduled.

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Glassblowing

Although originally begun by an Irishman, the Waterford factory has endured various owners over the centuries. In the mid-20th century, Czechs took over and employed mostly Central European craftsmen. More recently, it was bought by the Finnish Fiskars corporation, a company with which I am familiar as it also makes scrapbooking supplies-scissors and cutters. Small world.

In addition to walking us through the factory, examples of specially commissioned works are on exhibit:

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Telephone and Piano in crystal

Cork:

A 2 hour bus ride to Cork followed, with views of the rolling Irish countryside lined by stone fences enclosing grazing sheep, through tiny villages where the shops edged the roadways, pubs proudly displayed their original dates and the streets only wide enough for a single vehicle. It was the Ireland of my imagination.

Cork is Ireland’s second largest city, but at only 125,000 people, it is relatively small. Built on the river Lee, it is the nearest major center to the Ring of Kerry. How the Ring of Kerry got its name is unknown, but it is a 180 square kilometer area on the southwestern coast with striking Atlantic seascapes, beaches, lots of pastureland, Ireland’s only fjords and pretty towns like Killarney, marked by limestone churches and cobblestone streets lined with pubs, wool stores selling Aran sweaters and all manner of candies. Doughnuts, spelled donuts here, seemed to be the vice of choice, stuffed and topped with all manner of goodies.

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Donut Shop Window

What became a common theme, but one that came with ample warning, was the intemperate weather. Ireland in November is rarely pleasant – cold, windy and rainy- and this November was no exception. The crowning glory of the Ring of Kerry is the Dingle Peninsula, 1 of 3 peninsulas that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean and, on a clear day, offers a spectacular sight of blue skies, sheer faced-cliffs dropping into deep blue waters topped with white frothy caps. I got hazy skies, rain and hurricane like winds.

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Fortunately, there were enough abandoned houses, remains of pagan rock circles, former friaries, stately castles and a statue of Charlie Chaplin (who summered at Waterville for many years) to keep me entertained:

 

 

Cobh:

Twenty minutes by train from Cork lies Cobh (originally Queenstown), a former powerhouse port which boasts a long maritime history. The Cobh Heritage Museum focuses on the town’s maritime past. The Irish have been leaving Ireland from Cobh since the 17th century, first as indentured servants to the New World, then as convicts transported to Australia a century later. They emigrated in droves (nearly 2 million) during the Irish potato famine between 1845 and 1849. Most originally went to Canada as the passage cost only 50 shillings as opposed to 70 shillings to the USA. But once they realized they had exchanged one group of British oppressors in Ireland for another group in Canada, they headed to the USA, particularly Boston. A young Irish emigrant, Annie Moore, is honoured by a statue as the first person processed at Ellis Island. For persons wishing to learn about their Irish ancestors, a genealogy service is conveniently located in the museum.

But it is the ships that docked at Cobh to which it owes its fame. The first steam powered ocean going ship, the Sirius, set off from Cobh in 1838 and arrived in New York 16 days latter, drastically cutting the transit time from the previous 6 to 8 weeks. It was to Cobh that the survivors of the Lusitania in May, 1915 were brought. A German U-boat had torpedoed the passenger ship 11 miles off the coast, killing 1198 innocent passengers and crew and prompting the USA to enter WW1.

Cobh was the Titanic’s last port of call before it hit the infamous iceberg. Francis Browne, who had sailed aboard it from Southampton before disembarking at Cobh, took hundreds of photographs of the boat, the crew and the passengers, including the last known one of the ship. His photos are showcased, alongside Titanic memorabilia and tributes to some of its victims. A walking tour of the Titanic trail is on offer each day, but I was too late for it.

Ironically for a town with such a long and glorious history of ships departing for far off lands, its main source of revenue today is from hosting cruise ships, nearly 100 each year.

Galway

Midway up the wild Atlantic coast is the city of Galway. Like the other places I had visited in Ireland, it is a pretty town straddling a river. Century old pubs, limestone churches, and arches dating back to the Spanish Armada’s visit in the 16th century decorate the city, but the surrounding countryside – including the Connemara district – and the seascape are the main attractions. The Cliffs of Moher are 74 kilometers away. As one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ireland, upward of 120 buses will be in the cliff’s parking lot in the summer; but on a rainy, cloudy day in November, only 10 busloads of tourists braved the elements.

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Photo of a photo of the Cliffs on a nice day (Visitor’s Center)

Despite the cliffs having a straight drop of 700 feet, a stone fence lines only 1/2 a kilometer of the 14 kilometers.. The asphalt path goes much further than the fence, leaving extensive areas of the path completely exposed to the drop. Each year, people die getting too close to the edge – last year 8 people went over. Some are base jumpers or parachutists, others are suicides and still others are posing for photos. It has the dubious honour of being #7 on the list of the most deadly tourist spots (Mont Blanc on the French/ Italy border is #1). Giving my fear of heights and dying and the strong outward wind, I limited my walks to the fenced area.

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Next stop: Northern Ireland.

“Doing” Dublin

I’ve no Irish blood in me, cannot dance a jig and have never been crazy about St. Patrick’s day celebrations, so what am I doing in Ireland? Mostly because of the 51 countries in Europe, I have visited 24 to date and have 27 to go, including Ireland, so I gave into the temptation to cross another country off the list and flew into Dublin. There was more, of course, like its history, its spectacular Western seacoast and the opportunity to hang upside down and plant my lips on a stone upon which millions had smooched before. Deciding against kissing the Blarney Stone, I arrived in Dublin one rainy afternoon to enjoy its other delights.

It began as soon as I settled into the taxi from the airport to the hotel. The driver, upon learning it was my first time in Ireland, launched into a trove of useful information about the city. “Go see The Book of Kells, the library at Trinity College and the Guinness factory,” he advised “and you must eat Irish stew and the seafood.” He had a few other gems, including “all Irish politicians are idiots.” The free guided tour was, I would discover, standard on every taxi ride I took. As soon as my decidedly non-Irish accent was heard, every taxi driver pointed out things I should do, provided commentary on current Irish issues and mentioned their sons, daughters or other relatives who now lived in Canada.

So, too, on the Hop on/ Hop off bus tour I took my first day. Instead of the standard recording in half a dozen languages, 2 of my buses had live and lively commentary from the drivers. One driver, after noting that Alexander Guinness (of the Guinness beer fame) had 21 children, said he only had 5, since the Irish had finally managed to unshackle the chains of the Roman Catholic Church. He then broke into a song variously referring to brothels, prostitutes and a bastard. Not quite X-rated but not the usual Hop On/Hop Off fare. Another common theme of every tour bus driver was a lack of enthusiasm for Donald Trump. One bragged that Ireland was a true democracy since its president had received the majority of votes, something Trump could not claim (Hilary won the popular vote by more than 3 million votes).

Following the taxi driver’s recommendation, I created a To Do list for Dublin with the aid of a Hop On/Hop Off bus (18 Euros). First stop, Trinity College. After paying the 14 Euros entrance fee, I entered the library where the Book of Kells rests. The Book is a 9th century, ornately decorated, manuscript containing the first 4 gospel books. The museum housing the Book is underwhelming. Giant cut-outs of various pages introduce the book, outline theories about when it was written, where, by whom, its subsequent history and its physical properties- how vellum is made, where the different colour dyes used in the illustrations were acquired, etc.

The actual Book is under glass in a darkened room, with no photos allowed. Two different pages are on display-they change the pages every week- along with two other similar books. I patiently stood in line waiting my turn to glance at the books, walked around the cabinet where it and the others were open, admired the decorations and moved towards the library. One To Do off my list, 5 more to go.

The Library at Trinity College deservedly makes all the Most Beautiful Libraries in the world lists. The Long Room was constructed in the 18th century and, since 1801, was given the right to acquire a free copy of every book published in England and Ireland. Needless to say, it has a lot of old books in it. Visitors are limited to walking down the center aisle, which I did, and good photos are difficult due to the large number of visitors. I snapped a few not so good ones anyway and after 10 minutes left and struck To Do #2 off my list.

# 3 was Dublinia (11 Euros) , a museum located in the 12th century St. Michael’s Church, focusing on Viking and medieval Dublin. Here’s the abbreviated version of Irish history. Dublin had been founded by the Vikings in the 8th century who called it Dubh Linn (Black Pool) to which Dublin owes its name. The Vikings and the local Celtic tribes variously fought each other and intermarried until the Anglo-Normans invaded in 1171 and established themselves for the next 700 years. It was incorporated into England in the 14th century. Henry VIII began a series of plantations, confiscating land held by Celts or Normans and settling them instead with British Protestants. His daughter, Queen Elizabeth, continued the plantations and worried about having a Catholic island on England’s doorstep. She enacted the penal laws, forcibly requiring Roman Catholics to convert to Anglicanism and severely limiting the rights of Irish Catholics. For the next 300 years, Irish history was dominated by uprisings by Catholics/Irish against the British and the British’s ruthless oppression to tame the rebellious spirits. Ultimately, these failed. In 1916, demands for independence culminated in the Easter rising. The execution of its 14 leaders by the British only heightened the cries for independence and led to a bloody civil war. In 1921, a Treaty ended the war and the Irish Free State was established. In 1949, Ireland declared itself a republic but 6 counties in Northern Ireland opted for Home Rule, remaining part of the United Kingdom.

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#4 was St. Patrick’s Cathedral, just a few blocks away. After paying the 7 Euro restoration fee, I entered the largest and highest Cathedral in Ireland. The first church was constructed in 1192, but it has been through so many renovations and reincarnations that no one is sure when each section was constructed and how much is original. Today, its official title is the national cathedral of the Church of Ireland, having been at various times Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Huguenot and, during Oliver Cromwell’s foray into Ireland, a stable for horses.

Jonathon Swift, of Gulliver’s Travels fame, was given a place of prominence in the Cathedral. In addition to being an author, he was the dean or overseer of the cathedral between 1713 and 1745 and his grave is there. The Cathedral boasts fine stain glass windows, two alleged statues of St. Patrick (the Cathedral says they were sculpted centuries after his death so their accuracy is in doubt), Celtic Crosses said to mark the well were St. Patrick was baptized and, this being Ireland, a statue of Benjamin Guinness (of the beer fame, see below), who provided generously for a major reconstruction in the 19th century. It can therefore lay claim to being the Church that was built by beer.

#5 was the Guinness factory. I limit my beer consumption to a glass a century and figured this was as good a place as any to have my 21st century stein. After paying the 24 euro entrance fee, which included a pint of beer, I embarked on the self guided tour.

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Frankly, I found it underwhelming. I walked through a giant display about the ingredients in beer, then another large display showing the brewing process with special emphasis on the temperature for roasting barley (exactly 232 degrees celcius). A room full of barrels explains the cooper process; another giant hall talks about the transportation of the barrels all over the world. Then the fun starts, in one of two tasting rooms. A group of 25 of us were shown the proper technique for tasting beer (let it sit on the tongue for a few seconds and inhale it) before being allowed to gulp down a shooter size sample. Next was a display showing different advertising campaigns used by Guinness over the years, including the iconic Fish riding a Bicycle (A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle) but I still have no idea what it has to do with beer.

On the 7th floor is a bar with floor to ceiling windows providing 360 degree views of Dublin. I ordered my pint and slowly drank it. I found it quite flavourful, with the roasted barley invoking both coffee and chocolate. However, I still don’t like beer, not even Guinness, and can now safely refuse another one until the next century.

#6 on the To Do list was to go to an Irish song and dance show. I attended the touristy, but enthusiastic show at the Arlington  (34 Euros before liquor) where not only did I strike # 6 off my list, but I had the Irish stew. Okay, but needs more seasoning for my taste.

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Feeling quite content with having completed my To Do list in a single day,  but quite a bit poorer, I returned to my hotel wondering what to do for my remaining days in Dublin. Stay tuned for the next post.

Captivating Kiev: The Ukraine

I am not a fan of tourists who race into a country, see the particular sight that attracted them, leave and proclaim they have “done” the country. Yet I was in danger of doing just that to the Ukraine. I knew very little about the country, except it is renowned for beautifully decorated Easter eggs, was known as the breadbasket of Europe and former Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, spent her youth in Kiev. The Ukraine’s sole appeal for me rested in the abandoned nuclear wasteland near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (see previous post), but I decided I would stay a week in the capital city, Kiev, and see what it had to offer.

It turns out, quite a lot. Being a history buff, I watched YouTube videos about the history of the Ukraine and scoured the internet for the top things to do in Kiev. The list was long and included churches, monuments, museums and a few quirky suggestions. What I discovered was a city steeped in history, architecturally fascinating and prices that provided a welcome relief to those in Paris.

I like to look at a country through its historical context. Others prefer to see it through its art, its literature or its food. If you are any of the latter, please just skip the history section, which I learned through a combination of YouTube videos, Wikipedia and a private English tour at the excellent Ukrainian Museum of History. For only $12, my English speaking guide took me on exhaustive walk through the region’s history. It goes like this:

History:

The Ukraine has been settled for over 10,000 years. Its early civilizations traded with the Greeks and Romans. Fast forward to 600 AD and Slavic tribes became the predominant inhabitants, with small princedoms the norm. The city of Kiev was established on the banks of the Dneiper River and quickly became an important trading post marking the midway point between the Vikings in the West and Byzantium in the East. In 988, King Volodymyr united many of the tribes and Christianized the area which was then known as Rus. His descendants ruled the area for the next 200 years and, in a moment which in retrospect, was deeply regretted, founded a small trading town in the north in 1147 called Moscow.

Enter the Mongols, or the Golden Horde, under the leadership of Ghengis Khan’s grandson in 1240. They sacked Kiev, killed, exiled or enslaved most of its 50,000 inhabitants and stuck around for 150 years. In turn, the Mongols were ousted by the Polish/Lithuanian Commonwealth who tried to foist Catholicism on the largely orthodox population. Predictably, this was not welcome, particularly by newly emerging tribes called Cossacks. Always pictured with a gun over their shoulders, militaristic and with a democratically elected leader (the hetman), they viewed themselves as the protectors of orthodoxy. Fiercely independent, the Cossacks established their own states in Eastern Ukraine and, after repelling the Commonwealth from their lands and battling the Tartars (a Turk language Muslim group in the Crimea), joined whichever army struck their fancy at any given time.

By the mid-18th century, Moscow had become a regional power, with ambitions to become the third global empire (after Rome and Byzantium), so it invaded, captured and annexed all of the Ukraine, including the former Commonwealth territories, the Hetmanates of the Cossacks and the Crimea. Russia stayed until 1917.

In 1917, Ukraine took advantage of the chaos in Russia and declared independence. Russia was having none of it and invaded yet again. A bloody 4 year war ensued, with Russia emerging victorious. It kept Ukraine firmly in its grips, including the Stalin engineered famine that starved an estimated 5 million people. But in 1991, it allowed the Ukraine to again declare independence, saddling it with Chernobyl, the nuclear disaster power plant that rendered a fair portion of the Ukraine uninhabitable and with gigantic pension obligations to the millions of Ukrainians suffering from the ill effects of radiation poisoning. Happy Independence!

In 2013, the Ukraine was set to enter into a pro-European Union agreement when its pro-Russian president had a change of heart and decided not to sign. Rebellion reigned, the main square in Kiev was occupied by “militants” and the army was sent in, killing more than 100 protesters. In February, 2014, the Ukrainian president fled to Russia and the Sochi Olympics went off with a beaming Vladimir Putin ogling prepubescent Russian figure skaters. Three weeks later, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimea, ignoring global condemnation. Ostensibly, Russia claimed the need to protect the Russian speaking minority there; the more likely reason was Russia’s desire to maintain access to its only year round port. It occupies the Crimea today still.

Seeing the Sights:

Kiev would be the perfect walking city but for two problems. First, where street signs exist, they tend to be in Ukrainian which uses the Cyrillic alphabet, with no Latin translation. Second, the city was built so a castle could take advantage of the high, expansive hill overlooking the river, which means a lot of steep climbs to see the major sights. Fortunately, the second problem basically takes care of the first since whenever I got lost and couldn’t figure out what street I was on, if I went either up or down, I would eventually get to my destination.

When I didn’t feel like walking up the hills, I had two options, a funicular or the metro. I was partial to the easy-to-use metro, with signs and announcements in both Ukrainian and English, and live people selling tickets rather than computers with touch screens. It cost a mere 80 cents a ride. Most importantly, like many Soviet metros, its stations tended toward the artistic or unique; each station was a visual feast or an architectural delight. Arsenalna holds the record for the deepest station in the world at over 100 meters. Its two escalators take a combined 5 minutes to go up or down and lay claim to being the longest escalator in the world, although in 2007 I traveled on one in an art gallery in Tokyo which made a similar boast.

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Riding the escalator at Arsenalna

As Kiev is over 1000 years old, it is not surprising that its buildings run the full gamut of architectural styles. The iconic St. Sofia, is modeled after its namesake in Istanbul, and is built in the same Byzantium form.

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St. Sofia and Bell Tower\

St. Michael’s and the Cathedral at Pechersk Larva sport equally bulbous domes.

 

Naturally, Soviet realism style dominated in the city squares and the blocks of buildings on the outskirts, but in the center of the city, especially the Podil region where I stayed, were examples of roccoco, art nouveau and the common brick ribbon, all ornately decorated and painted in a kaleidoscope of pastel colours. On one walk, I challenged myself to find building in 10 different colours. It took less than 5 minutes:

 

Monuments abound, but none from the communist era as they were all pulled down or toppled in the protests of 2013/2014. The motherland statute, larger than Christ the Redeemer in Rio or the Statue of Liberty, stands over the city:

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Other monuments commemorate the Humidor (famine) victims, soldiers from the world wars and the war of independence. Prince Volodymor has his statue, as do the Founders of the city.

Museums are equally plentiful: History, Art, Natural History, Chernobyl Disaster Museum, Miniatures (think cameos sculpted on a pear seed) , Folkart, etc. Given these choices, I opted for the History of Toilets Museum, devoted to all things toilets. In addition to a Guinness World Record certified largest collection of ceramic toilets, it provided a history of toilets. Some interesting facts learned there include:

  • the oldest toilet uncovered is in Scotland;
  • The Chinese invented the urinal
  • Leonardo Da Vinci designed the world’s first mechanical toilet

 

The Culture

Ukrainian food is typical northern European- Dumplings (Varenykya), potato pancakes, borscht- and, of course, Chicken Kiev. Turkish food – spicy kebabs and tasty hummus- from the Tartars is available but sadly, one of my favourites, steak tartare, has no relationship to the Tartars despite the same names. Vegetarians would be hard pressed to find many choices, except at the main indoor market, Bessarabka, where, for some unfathomable reason, 2 of the 3 restaurants were vegetarian and the other Chinese. Sparkling wine is grown in the Crimea, but much too sweet for my liking,

Best of all, prices were cheap. A glass of wine could be had for under $3, beer for less than $1. Restaurant meals rarely cost more than $10. Uber rides to the center, taking about 20 minutes, cost $3 and the 40 minute ride to the airport was less than $20. Admission to most museums was under $3.

A lively hip scene in Kiev, with clubs, fashion houses, music concerts etc. all promote the new Ukraine, but those do not tend to interest me so I didn’t go to any of them. I doubt my foray to United Colors of Benetton (for t-shirts) or the craft store in search of DMC embroidery thread count but I do note that the embroidery thread was 1/3 the price of the same item in Paris, even though it is made in France.

Closing Thoughts

It was not all good. The population is uniformly white, with the occasional, fairly light Muslim from the Crimea. My tour guide at the History Museum reluctantly conceded the Muslim Tartars from Crimea who moved to Kiev after the 2014 Russian invasion are having a difficult time. In the ramen noodle restaurant I frequented, I never saw a non-white person, not even the staff. In terms of dealing with its responsibility for its decimation of the 3 million strong Jewish population, the History Museum attributes it completely to the Nazis, conveniently omitting the pogroms of the 1800’s which saw a million Jews either slaughtered or expelled.

Despite these failings, Kiev has a lot going for it. It’s a young nation but one with a long and glorious past which is reflected in its music, art and architecture. It is slowly struggling to find itself and its voice on the international stage, but this task is made difficult by its omnipresent neighbour, whose long shadow threatens every time the voice gets too loud. The only regret I have about the week I spent in Kiev is that I did not stay longer and visit other parts of the country.