Monday, May 23, 2011

Trip to Poland

I've recently returned to Northern Ireland from a wonderful trip to Krakow, Poland.  My friend Ben and I accompanied Ewa, a fellow study-abroad student who was returning to Poland for the summer.  Thanks to Ewa we were able to appreciate the history and culture surrounding us, as well as simply getting along much more smoothly.  Krakow is a beautiful city, a vibrant and well-preseved place that has been a center of Polish culture for a thousand years.  For several centuries it was the capital city of the Kingdom of Poland. 

We packed a lot of sight-seeing into our brief time: we toured several large churches and cathedrals, including the Basilica of Sts. Stanislaus and Wenceslaus, which has a crypt containing the tombs of many Polish kings and notable citizens.  The Basilica is atop the Wawel, a hill that overlooks central Krakow and is the site of the Royal Castle.  We took an extensive tour of the castle and viewed the wealth of royal art and artifacts, from tapestries to cannons. 

At the foot of the Wawel Hill is a statue of Smok, the mythical dragon whose cave can still be explored.  The story goes like this: In ancient times, a dragon lived in a cave at the foot of Wawel, by the River Vistula.  He would only stop pillaging and destroying the surrounding towns if the people would appease him with a young maiden once a year.  King Krak of Poland sent his best knights to slay the dragon, who would light them on fire with ease.  Krak offered his daughter Wanda's hand in marriage to anyone who could kill the dragon.  Though every knight who attempted this was killed, a poor peasant named Skuba volunteered.  Skuba filled a sheep's stomach with sulfur and set the bait outside smocza jama (the dragon's den).  The dragon took the bait, but after eating it was gripped with a terrible thirst.  He drank and drank from the Vistula, but his thirst could not be quenched.  Finally he exploded!  Thus, Skuba was married to Princess Wanda, and they lived happily ever after.

We also toured Krakow's large market square, saw a duel between men clad in medieval armor, ate pierogi and visited Oskar Schindler's factory.  Our most striking experience occurred when we took a day trip from Krakow to Auschwitz (Oswiecim in Polish).  It is a visit that was hard to understand at the time, and I'm still processing what I saw.  We took tours of both the original Auschwitz death camp and the nearby Birkenau camp.  I learned a lot more about the cost of the WWII on the Polish people - 3 million of the Jews murdered were from Poland, and the original purpose of Auschwitz was to house Polish resistors to Nazi rule - 6 million Polish civilians died in the war.  Our tours were sobering showers of facts - the harsh realities of camp life, the numbers of the dead - but it was difficult (for me, at least) to comprehend that the place was one where so much horror had occurred.  It is hard to feel the fear of the imprisoned when you walk under sunny skies around a place that, apart from the large number of visitors, is relatively peaceful.

My trip to Poland was a lot of fun.  I learned so much about a culture of which I had known very little, and even learned a few key Polish words - Nie rezumiem po polsku ("I don't speak Polish") came in handy when I had to let anyone know that I couldn't understand them! 

I'm off.  Good bye for now - Do widzenia! 

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Spring Break "Eurotrip"

Now that I'm rested up, I thought I'd post an update on my last two weeks.  I took a trip around Europe during Easter Break.  Ben, Quinn and I left on April 15 for Dublin.  We took the train, and got into the city within 2 hours.  Dublin is a fantastic city - an expensive one, but a fantastic one!  Among the places we visited are St. Stephen's Green, the National Museum, the James Joyce Centre, Trinity College, Temple Bar, Dublin Castle and the Guinness Storehouse.  The Georgian architecture of the city is charming, recalling the time when Dublin used to be the "second city" of the British Empire.

Now, this is where the trip gets interesting.  On the evening of the 18th we took a cheap Ryanair flight from Dublin to Frankfurt-Hahn airport, near Frankfurt, Germany.  Or at least, what we thought was Frankfurt.  It turns out that one of the ways Ryanair is able to keep its flights so inexpensive is that they often fly to out-of-the-way airports, one of them being Frankfurt-Hahn.  It was more than an hour away from Frankfurt.  So we had to take a bus at 11:30 pm to the city of Mainz, the nearest large town.  After spending a night at the train station, and having an encounter with a Turkish kebab stand worker named Mr. Habiby, we took the earliest train to Munich.  After a few setbacks, such as getting lost for two hours on our way to the hostel, and after a nice long nap, we were able to start exploring.

Munich is quite a beautiful city, one rich in history and culture.  It has many huge and ornamented churches, such as the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), and "Alter Peter" (Old St. Peter's Church).  Another wonderful landmark is the Neo-Gothic Rathaus (Town Hall).  Of course, some of the best tourist attractions in Munich are the various, world-famous beer gardens that dot the city, such as the Augustiner Keller, the Paulaner Brauhaus, and of course the Hofbrauhaus. 

After spending some warm, sunny days in Munich, we were ready to move on.  I split up with Quinn and Ben, and took the train from Munich to Salzburg, where I visited my friend Megan, who's been studying there since the fall.  Though I had less time to spend than in Dublin and Munich, I had a great time exploring Salzburg.  It's a very picturesque city, situated in the middle of the Alps.  Megan gave me a walking tour around Salzburg, seeing the various churches and historical buildings (Salzburg has the oldest restaurant in the world, founded in the 9th century!) - even some of the filming locations for The Sound of Music. 

After two days in Salzburg, I departed on the last leg of my journey - Florence, Italy.  I'd been there before with my parents, but only for one day, so I was glad to make another visit.  But first I had to take an 8 hour train ride through the Alps, which was incredibly beautiful!  When I got to Florence I met back up with Bena nd Quinn, as well as my friend Leah, who is studying in Florence this semester.  Florence is a city with a lot of character.  Its role in the Renaissance is very well preserved.  We walked all over the city, visiting the Piazza del Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, the Piazza della Replublica, the Ponte Vecchio, and the Piazza della Signoria (the one with the "fake David").  Needless to say, we had to sample the pasta and gelato, which did not disappoint.
Of course, every great holiday has to come to an end.  After two weeks of travel, I left Italy from the Pisa airport and flew back to the U.K.  Though I had a fantastic time, it is good to be back to Northern Ireland.  Now it's time to rest up and start work on my finals. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dublin and London

I've put off writing an entry about my St. Patrick's Day in Dublin and the subsequent weekend excursion to London because on the return journey from that trip, I misplaced my digital camera somewhere between Belfast and Coleraine - needless to say, I'm pretty annoyed at losing my pictures!  I've been unable to locate the camera so far, so I'm just going to give a brief summary of events; if the camera turns up, I will post another blog post with some photos.

Early in the morning of the 17th, I joined dozens of other international students here at the Uni. of Ulster on two charter buses headed for Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland.  It was a blur of a day!  St. Patrick's Day in Dublin is definitely an international event - there were accents from all parts of the world.  The parade was fun and featured colorful, imaginative floats and costumes worn by marchers from many different counties of Ireland.  After the parade, some of us grabbed lunch in the excessively crowded Westmoreland Street, and took a sort of walking pub tour.  By 1 AM, most of us were ready to take a rest on the bus ride back to Coleraine!

The next day, my fellow travelers and I woke up and packed for a three day jaunt to London.  Like our flight to Edinburgh, it was a short and comfortable flight - this contrasted with the rigmarole of the rest of the journey, which required 2 buses, 3 trains and one ride on the Underground to get to (and from) our hostel.  We had been forewarned by nearly everyone who found out we were going to London about the high cost of touring the city.  However, we found that a free walking tour around Westminster and another night-time tour of the East End were great, affordable ways of introducing ourselves to the insurmountable city. 

I'm still trying to remember everything we saw; it includes the Globe Theater, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Admiralty Arch, Hyde Park, the Tower of London (from the outside), Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern Art Museum, the Camden Town markets, Buckingham Palace and Soho.  Obviously, it was all incredible; I was sorry to leave, but there will be so much more to explore when (?!) I go back! 

That's all for now.  I still hope to recover my camera so I can share some of my photos.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


I am recently back from a weekend in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Long story short: we had a great time!

There is quite a bit to tell, and we experienced so many new things.  First, I'd like to say how Edinburgh is beautiful and charming.  The impression I got was of a city that is very much in touch with its history and culture, especially relating to its artistic and literary past.  Though it is the capital city of Scotland and the second-largest, it is very easy to travel around; for a city its size, it is very pedestrian-friendly.  Everywhere we went, we walked.  This included the great free walking tour we took the first full day we were there, and that evening's ghost tour.  We visited interesting spots such as St. Giles' Cathedral (interestingly it isn't a cathedral because that name implies the presence of a bishop, which is absent in this Presbyterian place of worship), the Writer's Museum (which houses artifacts from three of the city's, and Scotland's, most beloved inhabitants: Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns), Arthur's Seat (the peak of a mountain overlooking Edinburgh and its environs) and even a kirkyard or two where we were told ghost stories stemming from the city's sometimes violent past. 

Of course, a trip to a new city would not be completely satisfying if we didn't sample the local culinary customs.  Of course there was a pub crawl, a strange local soft-drink known as Irn Bru (which notably outsells both Pepsi and Coke in Scotland) and an eye-opening experience with a battered, deep-fried Mars Bar (fried food is apparently an obsession), but the best part was the haggis.  I don't want to go into the details of what haggis is made of (for good reason), but whatever its reputation is abroad, I can vouch for how delicious it is, especially served with its traditional accompaniments "neeps and tatties" (Scots for shredded turnips and mashed potatoes).  Small wonder Robert Burns wrote an ode to it.

I loved my experience in Edinburgh, and I highly recommend at least a weekend visit to the city!

That's it for now, but in a week or two expect another entry from me, as I will be visiting Dublin for St. Patrick's Day on Thursday and London for the three days following.

Monday, March 7, 2011

In The Interim

Okay, so I haven't been the most faithful blogger.  In fact, I'm posting this blog entry mostly out of shame for leaving the thing alone for so long.  There haven't been a ton of exciting developments since my last post, since classes have been more demanding lately.  But since things are only going to get busier from here on, I figure I'd better write a bit about the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge visit we had a couple of weekends ago.

A forty minute bus ride from Coleraine is the tiny town of Ballintoy, Co. Antrim.  Just down the road is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Northern Ireland: The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.  Each year, thousands of people come just to cross a rickety, waving, shaking catwalk which will take you to Carrick-a-Rede Island, essentially a very large rock that has been used for centuries by enterprising fishermen.  It was thrilling, though something to stay away from if you have a fear of heights.

The whole surrounding area has plenty of natural beauty, which we were able to explore as the remote village was only serviced by two buses the entire day.  After having a lunch of pan-fried mackerel, chips and a pint, we hiked about and appreciated what has so far been the most rustic Irish locale we've visited.  A road past an old Anglican church and graveyard takes you to the harbor.  When the late-February winds blow green sea across ragged black rocks, and when you literally see a rain storm leave Scotland and head directly for you, it tugs you from the year 2011 and drops you in some kind of Wordsworth poem.

That's it for now.  This coming weekend contains a trip to Edinburgh.  During the following week, on St. Patrick's Day, is a bus trip to Dublin.  A day after that, a weekend in London.  Whoa.  Better rest up.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Belfast Mini-Trip

After a few weeks, we all felt that we needed to explore a wee bit further afield.  We reserved some beds in a hostel and dropped ourselves off of a train in Belfast in the afternoon, with no particular plan of action.  Our hostel, the Global Village, was a charming and slightly bohemian Victorian row house that had been refurbished; it was a great introduction to hostel living!  We were located in the middle of the Queen's Quarter, a lively neighborhood centered around Queen's University.  To orient ourselves and to find restaurants and pubs we walked the "golden mile," a vibrant section of various streets from the University to Belfast City Hall.  We also browsed through the free Ulster Museum of history and art and strolled through the lovely Botanic Gardens.

After dragging ourselves out of our beds the next morning, we ordered what we thought was a black cab tour of the city.  We had no idea that our tour would be exclusively a survey of "the Troubles" in Belfast!  What we saw on our tour was a poignant glimpse into a community still reeling from wounds of religious and ethnic conflict; a history of violence and segregation of which we, especially we young Americans, had no notion, nor vocabulary to express.  There's no way to sum up what we learned; I'm still turning it over and over in my mind - the dividing "peace walls," the cages perennially set onto the backs of houses to keep out nail bombs and molotov cocktails, our tour guides' (one Protestant, one Catholic) ambivalence toward the tributes given to militant sectarians.

To lighten up our trip, we spent some time shopping in the large, open-air Victoria Square plaza.  After grabbing a few souvenirs, we trekked to the train station and rode, nodding off, back to Coleraine and the university. 

It was just an introduction to Belfast, and I want to do it justice and revisit the city again, really spend time learning the history and culture of the town through a more traditional tour.  But in any case, our trip was an eye-opening, fun experience.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Giant's Causeway

Any trip to Northern Ireland would not be complete without a stop at the Giant's Causeway.  This attraction, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is just a wee drive north of the town of Bushmills.  (More on that famous distillery later!)  Our visit this past Saturday was nothing short of extraordinary.

You can study the site before your visit, but nothing can compare to a stroll along the cliff sides above the "Causeway Coast."  But instead of describing the sheer beauty of this ancient seaside volcanic formation (or the actual geological process by which this wonder was formed), I'll relate my favorite version of the local legend:

According to Irish folklore, the giant Finn McCool had a rivalry with his Scottish counterpart, the giant Benandonner.  Finn was renowned throughout Ireland for his feats of of strength, and he wished to cement his reputation by fighting Benandonner.  Finn built a causeway of stone from Ireland to Scotland so he could meet Benandonner in battle. 

However, he soon heard that Benandonner was indeed much larger and stronger.  Finn knew he could not win in a battle of strength, so he and his wife Una concocted the perfect plan.  They invited Benandonner to come and fight Finn in Ireland.  But before the Scottish giant arrived, Una dressed Finn in the clothes of a baby and placed him in a giant cradle.  When Benandonner arrived in Ireland, he found Una tending to an enormous child.  Benandonner assumed the child to be Finn's son.  He was afraid because, after all, if the baby was as big as a giant, how large must the father be? 

Benandonner, fearing a sound defeat from a supposedly enormous Irish giant, fled back to Scotland across the causeway; in his hasty retreat, the giant broke up the bridge, and all that remained can be seen today: two uneven remnants made of hexagonal basalt columns, stretching out into the sea, rising and sinking with the tide.

Even the most doubtful among us couldn't help but feel a bit of the magic as we climbed into Finn McCool's "wishing chair" (a man-sized seat that appears carved into the columns of the lesser branch of the causeway).  After all it's clear: Ireland is no place for the skeptic or the cynic.