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Most tourists flock to County Clare for one of three reasons– the Burren, the cliffs, or to hear traditional Celtic music in the world-famous Doolin or one of the other villages. We had time for only one attraction, and if I hadn’t booked us into a fancy hotel in Clare for the weekend, I would have bailed and stayed in Connemara. A steep cancellation penalty dissuaded me from doing so.

Gregan’s Castle Hotel is featured in the Lonely Planet guidebook in glowing terms. It offers seriously chic cuisine, the kind that has to be described in long paragraphs so you can appreciate exactly what it is you are placing into your mouth. Each plate seems to have been designed by a culinary artist as interested in the overall visual effect as in the actual taste. This is not comfort food. It is like being offered a ride in a Lamborghini when you just want to go for a spin. That said, the hotel is elegant and lovely, looking out over the strangely mesmerizing Burren landscape, a geological bare plate.


How do you describe the Burren? It is a bizarre, rock-strewn, limestone landscape, scraped bare by glaciers, yet criss-crossed with cracks known as “grykes.” The region supports arctic, Mediterranean and alpine plants side-by-side, due to the unusual environment. The limestones formed as sediments in a tropical sea approximately 350 million years ago. The strata contain fossil corals, crinoids, sea urchins and ammonites.

The Burren is rich with historical and archaeological sites. There are more than 90 megalithic tombs in the area, including portal dolmens as well as a number of ring forts. The grykes (crevices) provide moist shelter, supporting a wide range of plants including dwarf shrubs. Where the surface of the pavement is shattered into gravel, many of the hardier Arctic or Alpine plants can be found. Where the limestone pavement is covered by a thin layer of soil, patches of grass are seen, interspersed with plants like the gentian and orchids.


Edmund Ludlow, a commander of British forces in Ireland in the 1650’s had this to say about the region: “(Burren) is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him…… and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.


While my wife devoted her morning to polishing a paper for a conference in London, I signed up for a boat ride below the magnificent Cliffs of Moher. The cliffs are Ireland’s number one tourist attaction; they receive more than a million tourists a year. They rise 120 metres (390 ft) above the Atlantic Ocean at Hag’s Head, and reach their maximum height of 214 metres (702 ft) just north of O’Brien’s Tower, eight kilometres (five miles) to the north. The cliffs consist mainly of beds of shale and sandstone; the oldest rocks are at the bottom of the cliffs.


The government saw fit to invest 32 million pounds (nearly fifty million dollars) in a visitors’ centre which purports to explain the “experience,” but for my money, the boat trip below the towering cliffs is far more impressive. Just like our dinner in the bar on the Sunday after all the people who mattered had left Gregans’ Castle. The food was simple, delicious, and needed no explanation at all.

The best things never do.


“Suddenly a terrifying noise broke the silence; the right-hand engine sounded like a machine gun blazing. The two men were scared stiff. The exhaust pipe of the cylinder facing inwards had split, and the engine was shooting naked flames into the slip-stream. Alcock and Brown remained helpless as the metal turned red hot, melted away and finally started striking the controls in white-hot globules.”


“As far as Brown was concerned, the only possible way of avoiding a crash was to make a trip out onto the wings. He grabbed a knife and swung his legs out onto the nose. Seeing what he had in mind, Alcock stood up from his seat and tried to hold his companion back. Brown jerked himself free, and, in the blinding snow, he wriggled forward from strut to strut and from cable to cable, holding on with one hand. His left leg caused him difficulty, because it was still stiff from wounds he had received in the war.”


“The plane plummeted from 4,000 ft. to 1000 ft. and, just above the surface of the water, Alcock gained control of the Vimy. For a fraction of a second he could not believe his eyes–he saw the sea lying vertically, and then with a quick automatic reflex action he straightened out the Vimy and opened the throttles to the full.”

Three brief, terrifying moments in the saga of the very first transatlantic flight from North America to Ireland in less than 72 hours. John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown, a pair of intrepid British airmen, made the crossing on June 14, 1919.


Following a frighteningly close call with the edge of a forest on takeoff, they flew through hours of dense fog and snow and sleet, encountering engine trouble, radio failure, frozen elevator flaps and other difficulties that were close to catastrophic. When they finally reached the west coast of Ireland, they were so exhausted all they wanted to do was land. Thinking the locals in a radio tower were waving a welcome when they were, in fact, attempting to warn them away from the nearest green patch, the two airmen brought the large, modified Vickers bomber down in a bog.

The men who had watched the Vimy land rushed toward the plane, jumping from one grass tuft to another through the swamp. A man by the name of Taylor was the first to reach the fliers and he asked breathlessly:

“Anybody hurt?”


“Where are you from?”



The news of the adventure spread like wildfire, and there followed for Captain Alcock and Lieutenant Whitten-Brown a hectic round of greetings, receptions, speeches, galas, and banquets. Alcock carried a small linen bag with a bundle of 197 letters. These were rushed to the nearest post office, where they were franked and forwarded (airmail stamps not yet having been invented). The letters had made the long journey from Lester’s Field near St. John’s, Newfoundland, to London in record time.

Only six months later, twenty-seven year old Captain Alcock would crash-land once more in bad weather, this time on the way to an air show in Paris in a new Vickers plane. He would not survive. His days of glory would be far too brief. When Lindbergh made his historic flight eight years later, he gave Alcock and Brown credit “for showing the way.”


Nearly a century later, our journey from Melbourne, Australia to Clifden, Ireland (a journey of some 11,000 miles) was dead easy by comparison. On the giant planes taking us from Australia to England, with a quick hop to Dublin, our only quibble was with the quality of the cuisine and the comfort of the seats.

Our road trip obstacles were frustrating but minor– the tricky roundabouts getting through the city of Galway. Innumerable road repairs on the windy road from Galway to the coast. I agreed to rent a GPS unit, knowing full well that its suggestions might be way off, but at least it would know where we were. Brown couldn’t even see the stars during their incredibly long night.

The M4 and M6 motorways are a dream, soaking up the kilometers, lulling you into thinking that getting around Ireland will be easy and quick. Once you leave the motorways behind, you get a sense of the real, rural Ireland. The roads are narrow, often lined with hedges which make it difficult to see what is coming around the next curve.


The Connemara countryside is stark and beautiful, and any serious attempt to keep to a timetable will be an exercise in frustration. This is Ireland, after all. There must be time for talk and time for Guinness and time for music. Faul House in Clifden is a wonderfully hospitable B&B and most of Kathleen’s guests soon become regulars.

The weather we encountered was spectacular sunshine, an anomaly in Ireland any time of year. I had attempted to pack in too much sightseeing for the short stay we had in Ireland, so we drove the beautiful Sky road instead of cycling or walking; we had an abbreviated visit to Kylemore Abbey, and didn’t even get to the fishing village of Roundstone. There are many reasons to return. Connemara deserves at least a month, not a pair of days. Everything in Ireland should be approached slowly, with care and appreciation, like a good whiskey.


If you have to crash a bomber into a bog, you could do a lot worse than Clifden. Stay tuned, We’re off to County Clare.

It seemed like only yesterday I swore that there was no way I would board another long flight before the annual migration to Nova Scotia at the end of May. Yet, here I am, recuperating from the effects of another long-distance journey back to Europe. This time, it was Dublin and London calling, with a loud whisper from Hong Kong, a visit with a son I hadn’t seen in ages and the chance to meet his wife and the new baby.

I will not admit how long it has been since my last trip to Ireland. Suffice it to say that the country was even poorer then than it is now. There were no flash cars careening around the countryside. The nearest anyone could get to a BMW was Germany. I was hitch hiking around the island, which seemed to be something of a novelty at the time.


I had a cute French girlfriend, and even with my scruffy appearance, it was dead easy getting a ride. Going anywhere was another matter altogether. I remember one tractor driver in particular. “I’ll be going as far as the next village. It’s only a mile, mind you, but you’re welcome to a ride on the wagon. Don’t mind the smell. You won’t notice it after awhile.”


During the long, dark nights we spent in London last year, we watched some excellent BBC documentaries on a very small, but sharp television set. One that impressed me with its research and visuals was about bronze-age Britain. Some of the finest artifacts came from Ireland, thanks to that wonderfully effective preservative– the bog. Guinness is only a runner up, preserving many Irish livers but little else. Many of the early celtic artifacts are held at the National Museum of Ireland’s history and archeology building on Kildare Street.


Then there is the Book of Kells, a major attraction in the wonderful Long Room at Trinity College. And the astonishing collection of Chester Beatty, a mining engineer from New York who did very well for himself, turning a collection of snuff bottles into a priceless collection of ancient manuscripts from all the most important world religions.


We were staying at O’Callaghan’s, a lovely old hotel that used to be a bank. Not a block away was Merrion Square, where Oscar Wilde sprawls on a rock with unseemly ease, starring at the bottom of Lord Douglas while his pregnant wife, Constance glares at him reproachfully over her shoulder. A short walk away is St. Stephen’s Green, the wonderful bust of James Joyce, a statue of W.B Yeats, among many other artworks.


While my spouse attended to her business in Dublin, I carried on the duties of a museum-loving tourist, hitting the National Gallery of Art, a photographic archive, as well as a Trinity College, a few bridges across the Liffey, and, of course, several restaurants and pubs.


It is hard to tread the streets of Dublin without seeing it through the rich filter of literature. Trinity College conjured up my early days in Paris, when I stumbled across a copy of “The Ginger Man” at Shakespeare and Company. J.P. Donleavy’s antic tale of Sebastian Dangerfield’s messy married life and endless battles with his creditors still holds up.

“You hear them downstairs when Marion’s out to shop, knocking hard on the door. And it can’t stand it. And they never stop the damn knocking and some try to push it in. O the fear of them coming up and me naked, my dignity wilts and it’s a poor enough weapon defending debts…. Marion not standing up to it very well….Mousy blonde hair, hanging over her head like sauerkraut. Silence got her. If she breaks a blood vessel, the doctors and expense will be something terrible.”


A bonus for me was the chance to catch up with an old friend from L.A., his mom and aunt, for drinks and dinner, as well as an invite from a former colleague of my wife, now Governor of the Bank of Ireland. Needless to say, he has a rather nice office. Fortunately, I had my cameras along.

Stay tuned, We’re off to Connamara.

If you really took the time to read it properly, it might take three days just to digest the new Lonely Planet guidebook to Germany’s capital city. We had given ourselves that amount of time to see the place, and it simply wasn’t enough. So. we now have one monumental reason to return as well as 174 unseen museums and any number of other attractions. I had planned to see the Reichstag, but sometimes our best-laid plans need to take a back seat to simple exhaustion.


Berlin is a place that has resonance for many of us, having been a dramatic backdrop to the rise and fall of the Third Reich, followed by its pivotal role as a pawn and flashpoint in the Cold War.  On the evening of October 2, 1961, ten American and the same number of Russian tanks went face-to-face, literally a stone’s throw from one another, revved-up and loaded, their crews awaiting orders from their commanding officers, who were in voice contact with Kennedy and Krushchev. Some five hundred bystanders and news men waited in the rain, hoping someone would blink. 

That night we may have come closer to nuclear war than we did a year later during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The building of the wall, the airlift, the shootings of escapees and the dismantling of the wall in 1989– all images from Berlin that kept us glued to our TV sets.


If you are a member of my generation, you see Berlin in black and white, thanks to the early days of television. For three short few months following my birth, there was only one Germany– the Third Reich under Hitler. This was followed by the end of the European war and the seismic split into East and West Germany. The separation seemed to grow in size and strength for nearly forty years until the wall became more than a barrier, it became a symbolic representation of two distinct forces– capitalism versus communism. A battle of powerful ideologies.


Then, in one miraculous year, 1989, the two halves joined again. Bonn took a back seat to the vibrant new center– Berlin. It is astonishing that the current leader of Germany is a female chemist who was born in Hamburg, the daughter of a pastor who took a post in what became East Germany. Angela Merkel has been thrust into the limelight by recent events; she seems to be the most forceful politician in Europe today.

We began with museums, of course, since I’m a museum junkie. The Neus Museum on Museum Island has had a makeover by a British architect named David Chipperfield. It is home to a collection of Egyptian artifacts, including a stunning bust of Nerfertiti that the museum authorities prefer not to have photographed. In the presence of such ancient celebrities, you feel less a papparazo and more like the photographer.


To really see Schloss Charlottenburg, a baroque castle that was the creation and the summer residence of Electress Sophie Charlotte, takes a good half day, and should not be rushed. It is Berlin’s version of Versailles, and is all the more astonishing since much of it has been rebuilt from rubble to its former palatial splendor.


Sophie had a colorful history for a lady who died at the age of thirty-six. She studied under Leibniz, spoke German, Italian, English and French, and lived an entirely independent life from her husband, Frederich I. He was so enchanted with Sophie that he never took advantage of the services of his mistress (who seemed to have been engaged because French kings maintained mistresses). Frederick was only allowed to visit Schloss Charlottenburg at Sophie’s invitation.


We arrived at the tail end of the Berlin Film Festival, so we could have seen Angelina Jolie if we had been staying at the right hotel or been invited to the right party, but I was quite happy keeping company with such glamorous creatures as Sophie Charlotte, Duchess Luise (who lived for at time at Schloss Charlottenburg and really was a beauty), and my wife, who puts up admirably well with my inveterate museum going and picture taking.


We did manage to visit the Pergamon, yet another museum of antiquities, as well as the Brandenburg Gate, the Hakeseche Hofe and the Holocaust Memorial. This is a deceptively simple square of some 2700 large, stylized concrete plinths of different heights, criss-crossed by thirteen undulating pathways, enabling visitors to traverse and recross the giant grid. It is an odd, haunting installation.


We may not have done the city justice, but we have made her acquaintance and paid our respects. There is plenty left to see and do on a return journey.


My role as “Tour Dad” could have been tattooed on my forehead and no one would have blinked. We were in Trafalgar Square, swimming through a tidal wave of young people on their way to somewhere special for a spot of culture, a drink or a bite to eat. Nothing deters tourists to London these days, not the price of the pound nor the dismal weather.  School holidays seem to kick in at the same time, and it doesn’t take much to lure teens and twenties onto busses, trains or planes for a trip to the UK. Our daughter had a school break and she had come from Halifax, Nova Scotia on her first trip to Europe.

She hadn’t done due diligence on the tourist front, of course. Homework is homework and she gets enough of that in school. So I picked out a few of the sights I thought she should see– Buckingham Palace, the houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, the National Gallery, and Kensington Palace, since we live so close. We had booked tickets to “Blue Dragon,” a new Robert Lepage production at the Barbican, but she asked about “The Lion King.” Unfortunately, the 2000 seat theatre was sold out. A few tickets were being shilled at twice the face value, but I couldn’t bring myself to make some tout rich.


In Trafalgar Square, I told my daughter about my one claim to photographic fame.  I went to a demonstration against the Vietnam War when things were heating up for Laos and Cambodia. Clad in a dark blue cape with a red lining that I had picked up in a flea market, I posed near the fountain with my hippie length hair and a North Vietnamese flag in the lapel. It was enough to catch a French photojournalist’s eye.

A week after the demonstration I got a letter from a friend in Paris with a full-page photo that had been in Paris Match magazine. The fountain framed in the background had been tainted with red dye and it looked like blood. I was cannon fodder at the time and I was drafted before I left London, but that is another story.

LondonprotestpicScan 121003 0001

The Tower of London was a zoo, of course. We arrived early enough to see the Crown Jewels without a long line-up. The historical tour with a female, Scottish Yeoman Warder was both entertaining and gruesome. The Tower complex dates back 1078, when William the Conqueror had a small, timber castle constructed on a sacred pagan site.


The numerous buildings on the site have seen service as a palace, a prison, a mint, an armoury, an observatory and a menagerie, not to mention a place of some awful executions. Most of those occurred at nearby Tower Hill. I will spare you the grisly details. Suffice it to say, that the Tower entered the vernacular as a place of dread. In “My Fair Lady,” Eliza is warned: If the Kind finds out that you are not a lady, the police will take you to the Tower of London, where your head will be cut off as a warning to other presumptuous flower girls.


After about eleven in the morning, all the tourist destinations in London seem to turn into mob scenes. Westminster Abbey was overrun despite the fact that they charge admission. Fortunately, “The King’s Speech” allowed us so see what a visit could have been like if we had simply been born into the Royal Family and had the place to ourselves.

I loved the bit when Logue settles himself on the throne. It is under restoration at the moment, so if you are thinking about having a coronation, I’m afraid it will have to wait.  I am not alone in thinking that Timothy Spall was terribly miscast as Churchill, and the early political leanings of both Churchill and the Royals with regard to Germany were glossed over to the point of misleading moviegoers.  But in Hollywood, all’s well that ends in an Oscar.

My daughter took in the Science Museum and the nightlife of Covent Garden all by herself. We did a lot of walking, talking, tube travel and eating, leaving plenty for another visit.  Dr. Johnson said, “If you are tired of London, you are tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford.” Disraeli said: “London is a roost for every bird.” Jane Austen disagreed: “Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be.”


The city of Johnson, Keats and Churchill is just fine for me despite the fact that we haven’t been invited to the wedding.  The sun is coming up earlier and staying around longer in the evening, even offering occasional flashes of brilliant sunshine.  Doing tourist duty in London is not exactly a hardship despite the crowds and cost.  Without visits from friends and family, I would spend too much of the day huddled over the laptop.

And even old curmudgeons can learn a thing or two from an immersion in British history.  The trick is to keep your head.

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