AROUND THE WORLD – 2007 Week 4

Tuesday 11th September Day 23
Belfast is a beautiful modern city with large industrial and maritime areas adjoining. The City Hall, built in 1906, is the next most beautiful of City Halls we have seen after San Francisco and the park to the front is packed with people having lunch and relaxing.

Belfast promotes itself as the second safest city in world tourism after Tokyo.

Famous points of interest include the Lagan River, the leaning city clock tower, Samson and Goliath, the two huge ship building cranes (Titanic was built here), the stunning Parliament House in its expansive parklands and George Best Airport, more famous for George Best than for being an airport. And yes. there is a Thai restaurant here called The Thai-Tanic

When George Best was a teenager, he was told by one of the Irish Football Clubs he wasn’t good enough and Manchester United signed him up. Such is life in Ireland.

The mood of Belfast is very positive with people optimistic that the “troubles” as they call them are over. They also believe it would only take a few ‘idiots’ to set things back again. Many of the problems in Belfast seemed to originate from a couple of suburbs and some claim that at the time of the troubles, there were probably only 10 to 15 Irish mafia hoods in the housing estates who were generating most of the problems while much of Northern Ireland simply got on with life. A tour of these suburbs reveals many murals ‘celebrating’ the troubled history.
Wednesday 12th September Day 24
The Stena Line ferry from Belfast to Stranraer is a massive 126m catamaran and as for our crossing five days ago, the sea is flat. Two of the four engines are 747 engines.
The drive up the west coast of Scotland is easy and we stop at Kilmarnock where Denise’s great great grandparents were married in 1824. Kilmarnock has the typical mix of very old and very new and appears to be a busy little town.
On arrival in Edinburgh at 7.30pm we are advised by the hotel that they have let our room go! It appears there is a glitch in the booking system procedures. About seven or eight phone calls later we find a place but as the proprietor is out, we can’t check in until 10.30pm. We keep ourselves amused at a local pub which is playing country and western music. One of the regulars, a loner at the corner of the bar, knows all the words.
Thursday 13th September Day 25
Morning reveals a flat, calm, Firth of Forth from our attic room window. The owner of the B&B came to Scotland 32 years ago from Kurdistan where he grew up speaking the local language but as he was forced at school to write in Arabic, he can’t write in his own language.
One of the guests at breakfast is a young doctor from Catalan. During Franco’s reign, the Catalan language was not allowed. He is spending a few weeks in Edinburgh where he is studying English.
I didn’t bring up the language difficulties we have back at home with our kids speaking American.
Edinburgh Castle absolutely dominates the city skyline. The city itself features stone buildings turned grey with time, grey bitumen and grey skies yet is remarkable beautiful. Green park areas provide relief and the central area is alive with people. We are told that a few weeks ago during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it was impossible to move.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s old house is behind the Red Door of a long row of units and it is said that the Treasure Island idea grew from the small pond and island in the park across the street.
The new Parliament House has won architectural awards but didn’t turn my head.
The Castle is not so much a castle as a small village which we explore in a couple of hours. It should take more than that. The 1pm gun firing keeps the ear specialists in business and the wedding which takes place would have been booked more than a year in advance.
During the afternoon we meet Stephen and Rikka by the Andy Warhol exhibition, signified by the columns of the gallery being wrapped in Campbell’s soup cans. Dinner is up in the “Old Town” at an Indian Restaurant. Stephen and Rikka are enjoying Edinburgh (especially the recent Fringe Festival) along with the attendant problems of finding work and adapting to the new life-style. I am sure it is a great place for young people.
Friday 14th September Day 26
Today is pretty much a travel day. Up at 3.30am for a 7am flight via Frankfurt to Rome. Lufthansa has a better class of rubber bun than previous airlines and the view from the aircraft window across Germany, Switzerland (snow on one of the peaks) and Italy is stunning.
The other trip of the day is through the Frankfurt terminal from our arrival gate to change planes to Gate A36 in outer Bavaria.
Our shuttle bus arrangements to the Piccadilly Hotel in Rome have fallen over and the taxi trip is €60, however the trip is a revealing introduction to the vagaries of Rome traffic and to a non-English speaking country.
Saturday 15th September Day 27
It’s a long time since Rome was a paddock, 1700 years in fact. The city is spattered with ruins in varying states of decay and stunning ornate marble cathedrals, basilicas, civic buildings and monuments pop up on every second block.
The tour of the Vatican, including the Sistine Chapel, involves queuing for over two hours with an Italian (but English speaking) tour guide. You would imagine that people queuing for this length of time would be frustrated and angry, but the tour guide keeps our crowd of about twenty enthralled through the headphone system with stories of the history of this part of Rome. We will be nominating him for The Nobel Prize for Crowd Calming.
This is followed by Vatican Coffee and then follows a staggering array of paintings, statues, sculptures, tapestries and rooms with walls and ceilings completely covered in works by the masters.
The Sistine Chapel is the highlight of these and forgetting the artistic beauty for the moment, one can only wonder what Michelangelo went through physically to complete the work. The 30 minutes we spend in here shoulder to shoulder with the crowd is a memorable experience.
St Peter’s Basilica and St Peter’s Square are similarly overpowering. I suspect modern town planning has lost the ability or the will to create grand open spaces.
In my list of heroes, I think Michelangelo has just slipped ahead of Laurie Daley.
My propelling pencil has collapsed. After finally finding a pencil shop I choose a new one. Italian is probably a very good language, but after some confusion “Dué?” asks the assistant. I nod in Italian, signifying my agreement that dué Euros is an acceptable price. He hands me the packet. I hand him the money. “No. Cinque Euros.” he replies. I hand over the money rather than add to the confusion and leave with the packet. In the packet I find dué pencils, not uno! When you’re on holidays making a goose of yourself is the finest form of humour.
It’s Saturday afternoon and the modern is meeting the old with an MTV rock concert being set up next door to the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano close to our hotel. It could be a loud night.
Inevitably, on the way back to the hotel, I find myself browsing Italian sneakers, made of course from the finest hand-crafted Italian canvas.
Still nothing tempting.
Sunday 16th September Day 28
Sunday is a day of rest. Any touring can wait until Monday when the queues are shorter. Besides we have run out of cash and can’t get the ATMs to accept our card so will have to wait until the Banks open tomorrow.
We have now been on the road for 28 days and travel can apparently wear you down. The enthusiasm which abounded in LA and San Francisco has abated a little and, strange as it seems, we need to give ourselves a rev-up to properly appreciate Rome.
The day is spent walking in the nearby parks and along the ruins of the old wall around the old city. “Some rest” says Denise! They have flies by the way, which we discover when we sit in the park to write and ponder.
The Piazza Tuscola on Via Magna Grecia, has become our favourite place for coffee, wine and happy hour and the waiters teach us how to say Vini Bianca and Vini Rosa. Rome has a series of six or seven way intersections usually called Piazzas. Amazingly, it is relaxing to sit at the wine bar and watch the traffic weave and unweave its way magically through the maze.
We eat at our favourite restaurant, the only one that opens at 6.30, and acquaint ourselves with the local Rosés. Denise has managed to fall pathetically in love with a series of several swarthy waiters.
The fashions, both in the shops and on the footpaths, generally seem to be more, well, ‘fashionable’ than back home and as for me, a bloke can only take so much. I am all cleavaged out!
Monday 17th September Day 29
The Colosseum is a stunning structure built in eight years between 72AD and 80AD by 40,000 Jewish slaves and about two-thirds of the structure remains today.
Elliptical in shape and 187 metres in length, much of it is built of marble while some consists of very thin ‘bricks’ where the mortar is almost as thick as the bricks.
Much of the marble has been pilfered over the centuries for other construction projects but thankfully the remains are now protected.
The elliptical shape makes me wonder about the surveying set out involved in that era. An ellipse can be drawn on a piece of cardboard by putting a pin at each of the two focal points on the major axis, tying the ends of a loose piece of string to each pin and then, keeping the string taut with the pencil, trace out the curve.
My minds eye sees a massive piece of rope tied to two huge stakes and being moved around the curve by thousands of slaves.
However, they probably calculated the set-out using the formula x2/a2 + y2/b2 = 1. Not half as exciting. The ellipse was first studied by Menaichmos in 350BC.
The Colosseum specialized in a form of entertainment where people and animals ripped each other apart before a screaming crowd of 80,000 people. Early in the 5th century a monk named Telemarchus martyred himself in the arena as a protest against the violence and this set in train the demise of this wholesome entertainment. There’s always one party pooper.
Rome’s traffic rules, as alluded to earlier, seem to be suggestions rather than rules. Cars seem to make up their own lanes as they go and park where they like, frequently on pedestrian crossings and also around the kerbs at intersections. The parking is frequently nose to tail with only about a foot between vehicles so how they get unparked is a mystery. Frequently there will be one of the new “Smart Cars” parked reverse in. A great idea. Double-parking is common.
The bus tour we take in the afternoon is “The Christian Tour” which features only religious sites. That’s not the tour we intended, but we get on before realizing. However it is still interesting.
One of the interesting buildings is Palazzo Di Giustizia (The Palace of Justice) which hits me as totally overdone, featuring too many columns, too many steps, too many sculptures, too many plinths and too many everythings.
Tuesday 18th September The long trip home.
It’s a sad and happy day to be leaving. We haven’t seen as much of Rome as we had hoped but it will be good to get home where I understand it is still tomorrow.
Singapore Airlines is five star, with meals you would happily line up for and hostesses who Denise describes aptly as china dolls, and beautifully attired in traditional dress. There is however the usual knee room problem and the bloke in front of me has dropped his back rest into my forehead.
Heading for Singapore, we pass north of Athens, south of the Black Sea, across spectacular mountains and fields, the bottom third of the Caspian Sea, north of Nagpur, across the Straits of Malacca and over Kuala Lumpur, aided in parts by a 200 kph tailwind.
At Singapore Airport we meet up with a couple of blokes from the Canberra Pipe Band who are just finishing a two week trip to Moscow where they were blown away by playing in Red Square. They hope to go again next year.
Somewhere on this trip it will become or has already become 19 September and I haven’t bothered to work out when.
The trip to Sydney across Derby and the Alice provides more wriggling and squirming and after changing planes in Sydney for the trip to Canberra we finally walk through our front door at 11.00pm.
This has been a holiday of cities and I have no idea which one I liked the most. Los Angeles with it’s cultural contrasts between the north and south, San Francisco with it’s architecture and the Bay, London with it’s history and crowds, Carlow (hardly a city) with its family connections, Dublin which we only passed through, Belfast with its troubled past and new positive attitude, Edinburgh with it’s grey beauty and Rome with its long history and ancient architecture.
This has been a holiday on the move, where we have seen the cities but haven’t got to know the people. If time and money were infinite, we would certainly go back to any one of these cities and spend time there. We estimate that to see the world properly would take about 400 years and we’re planning that one next.
Thursday 20th September. At home.
The house feels strangely alien after being away for 30 days but feels a little better after we collect the cat. She seems to be walking in circles just like us.
Wednesday 10th October
It is three weeks since we arrived home. The sleepless nights with 2am cups of tea lasted three to four nights, the house again felt like home after a week or two and the cat agrees. Going to work is just feeling normal again.
I still can’t hide my disappointment however that the retail capitals of the world haven’t been able to come up with a single pair of sneakers to my liking.
Next time I’m going to Paris.