Category Archives: travel

Gorges du Verdon

Someone posted a link to my FaceBook newsfeed today of an Irish Times amateur travel writing competition. I didn’t read the instructions too carefully, but figured “I can do that”, and went off and wrote a six hundred word piece – this is not a lot of space by the way – about a trip which I felt was likely to be appropriate to enter, and then I read the conditions in more detail. There was a fairly significant rights grab and while I might consider it if I won, I felt it was unfair to take ownership of all entries, even those which the Irish Times might not see fit to publish. The only problem is I’d already written the piece and while I thought about entering it, you know for the power and the glory, there were some comments about any photographs submitted as well. This didn’t really make me very happy. I mean, technically speaking, the text around the rights meant that even if I didn’t win, I couldn’t actually publish the piece anywhere else myself.

So I decided not to enter, bearing in mind I have several blogs of which this handy one is not listed by Google, or wasn’t the last time I checked. Plus, I did actually have some photographs which I had scanned some years ago as they were shot on film. Here then is a 600 word piece about travelling in Provence, written for the Irish Times, but not submitted but since the 600 word limit no longer applies I’m also editing it a bit.

Driving the Gorges du Verdon in France

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Pont de l’Artuby

The girl at the car hire place at Nice Airport was a bit lost when I said I didn’t want the upgrade. She wasn’t used to this. Usually people were dying for the free upgrade, for the getting something for nothing lark. She categorically could not give me a small little Peugeot and now I found myself with an allegedly small Mercedes, on a hill, attempting hill start number four, because the wretched thing had cut out on me in a rather inopportune place. Several times.

The road ahead was at least a 45 degree angle and climbing, the road behind me disappeared downwards around a corner in a usefully invisible manner, and I, I now knew what a cold sweat really felt like. Behind me, only trees sloping a long way down. The car had already made several attempts to roll backwards in that direction too. I was a less than relaxed little camper. The hill start in my driving test was nothing like so stressful on a slip road outside Mallow. I had visions of winding up in the wreckage of a silver Mercedes A-Class tumbling down the side of a friendly Alp. As a way to go, it wasn’t what I would have wanted, per se.

Angles is a tiny village in the south of France. It very much is a handy place to base yourself if you want to visit the Gorges du Verdon, a site which is very often described as Europe’s Grand Canyon, somewhat unfairly I feel. They may both be fairly noticeable gashes in the rock we live on, but they are truly different from one another in terms of colour and feeling.

One of the things which has haunted me for years is the glittering turquoise water of the lakes in the region. I saw a picture once as a child and it took me fifteen years to find out that it was the Lac de Sainte Croix, easily accessible by car from Nice Airport.

For all that ease of accessibility, Angles, however, is truly isolated. I imagine it would be a hard place to live in the winter sometimes.

I am staying with very nice people who loan me a map and show me the small, narrow roads with the spectacular views to drive around the Gorges du Verdon. The small, narrow roads, incidentally, which are not on the map of the south of France which I may have bought in a leading Irish bookseller in the days before Google Maps and Garmins gave us directions.

The roads around the gorges themselves can be challenging and damaged but the department of Alpes de Haute Provence has provided viewing platforms all over the place. Stopping to look is never anything other than awe-inspiring, even if the roads to get to them can be a bit terror-inspiring.

On the day I drove them, some brave and foolhardy soul took a Ferrari up there. And people climb up the cliffs, casting occasional looks over their shoulders to the view. I would love to be the kind of person who could do it, but deep down, I know I might never have the nerve.

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The River Verdon is a long way down, a mere flicker of turquoise in the distance.

The high point – in more ways than one – of the trip is the Pointe Sublime, a stunning area where the cliffs on either side of the river seem to reach across and try to kiss. It is an extraordinary view, and the rocks are an unusual creamy colour for a tourist from Ireland where the mountains are generally grey, regardless of the rain or not.
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To come home I have to navigate the narrow road back in Angles. It never occurs to me that a car can cut out so often, especially when you absolutely, totally and utterly need it not to cut out but reader, I made it on attempt number 5.

Neolithic monuments in Ireland

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Newgrange is one of the highest profile historic sites which we have in the country and when most people talk about going to Newgrange, they mean they want to see this one.

When I go to Newgrange, I always go to Knowth as well. Yes, you can actually go into the passage in Newgrange, and yes, it’s extremely well done but it’s always very busy.

Knowth is generally much quieter and, on occasion, no matter how busy Newgrange might be, you might have the site at Knowth more or less to yourself. There’s a lot to be said for this.

Knowth is bigger than Newgrange, but it does not look anywhere near as perfect. It hasn’t been restored (or reconstructed) in the same way as Newgrange was, and some different decisions have been made about the site. A key one is the question of the quartz stone. At Newgrange, this was built up as a wall. At Knowth, the view was taken that it was probably a terrace around the entrances. I’ve mixed feelings. Certainly Newgrange looks more complete but….

That aside, the reason I would still favour Knowth over Newgrange is the art. Knowth has significantly more external art than Newgrange and it is stunning.

Yes, the entry stone for Newgrange is iconic:

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but then, there’s this:

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and this:

20150415_160718I find what’s around the base of Knowth simply to be on a scale which is borderline unimaginable at Newgrange.

I didn’t have time to go to Dowth yet and it’s not included amongst the options you can get to from Bru na Boinne. However, if you are interested in neolithic art in Ireland in that area, I would strongly recommend Knowth as a seriously underrated site. It is wonderful. You can actually look down the passageway although access down it is not permitted to the public and you can see some public access work done on the eastern end. You can also walk to the top of it and the view from it is quite impressive.

I find the whole idea of pre-history in Ireland fascinating. If you go to the National Museum on Kildare Street, you’ll find examples of 3 and 4 thousand year old jewellery which contains carvings not dissimilar to some of the carvings on these stones and it’s extraordinarily beautiful. I really do wonder about the societies that were able to access the gold, shape it, carve it. It seems to me those societies, however on a smaller scale than is currently on the case, must have been extremely sophisticated, particularly with respect to their ability to use tools to achieve tasks which would probably challenge us today.

 

 

 

Deutsches Museum

On an island in the middle of the River Isar in Munich is one of the greatest museums in the world. I can say that advisedly. The Deutsches Museum on Museum Island is overwhelming.

It is one of the earliest museums of science and technology in the world, and, I am told, if you were to walk every exhibit, you would walk more than 17km.

In truth, what happens is you walk into the first section, which is full of boats and model boats, you get knocked backwards, and never really recover. They have a terrific aviation section. They have an amazing aeronautical section. They have a mindblowing collection of clocks and weights and balances. They have every sort of textile weaving system. Every sort of printing press that you can imagine. Every sort of ceramic you can imagine. A terrific model railway. A terrific collection of keyboard instruments.

They have holograms.

Most importantly, they have 2 Enigma and one Lorenz cipher machine, plus a bunch of other cipher machines. And an IBM 360 with a punch card reader. Every sort of adding machine and calculus machine or analogue calculator that you can imagine.

The entry fee is eight euro fifty. It is worth every cent and you will come out a complete wreck having not seen everything.

Brittany, my Brittany

Last night, Nationwide from RTE had as its mandate to provide a look at Brittany and how it might appeal to Irish people. I was disappointed in the program for various reasons, but the primary one is that it didn’t reflect my Brittany, the one I lived in and visit regularly. If you do want to watch the piece, really, the most interesting clip is the submarine base in Lorient which I haven’t seen yet because when I lived there, it was still in the hands of the French Navy. It’s a good while ago.

Anyway, to get to Brittany, you can fly into Nantes year round and then, during the summer, there are occasionally flights to Rennes, Lorient and Brest. Ferry wise, your best option is a service into Roscoff; the one from Cork with Brittany is the shortest. I have been known to fly in to Paris, and get the train across to Vannes or Quimper. Usually I pick up a car and there are car hire places close to most major rail stations in France.

For me, one of the most beautiful places in the world is the Pointe du Raz, not far from Quimper. I’ve seen some beautiful sunsets there; it’s very peaceful, mostly, although during the summer can be very busy. Lots of gorgeous cliff walks.

The city of Quimper, twinned with Limerick is utterly beautiful and has a lovely cathedral and a rather nice central shopping area. The art museum is fantastic and occasionally features work by Irish artist Roderic O’Conor. Especially noteworthy are any exhibitions of Paul Gauguin who spent a lot of time just up the road in Pont-Aven. Outside Quimper are a couple of villages which are well worth seeing, namely Concarneau and Locronon. Concarneau is a walled city on the coast. Locronan is a stunning village which looks frozen in time, built mostly from stone.

The city of Vannes, historic capital of the department of the Morbihan is another gorgeous city, stuck in beautiful scenery. It’s also close to a lot of beautiful beaches, particularly on the Quiberon peninsula. This area also includes the prehistoric stone alignments in Carnac which you really should visit if you’re in the area. Also close by are a few passage graves not unlike Newgrange, and the one in Locmariaquer is fascinating both in terms of ease of access and the artwork on the inner walls.

Sports wise, sailing and biking are big in Brittany but it is also a very good place for other water sports like surfing, kitesurfing, windsurfing, sandsailing. Most beaches have a decent children’s play area.

Brittany is a gorgeous part of the world. I strongly recommend.

Museum of Musical Instruments

I lived in Brussels until 1999 and at the time that I left it, it suffered from quite a lot of dereliction. I was back there in Decemer 2012 and it was still, in many respects, quite grey. The fact that it was winter probably didn’t hugely help there though.

However, I was there last week and obviously, in summer, the sun was shining and it was a bright and dressed up city. Quite a lot of the dereliction has been cleaned up; they have retained a lot of the building frontage so that renovated buildings still retain what are often beautiful art deco exteriors. I’d forgotten some of the more beautiful parts of town as well.

One building which really is worth a trip – particularly if you are a musician – is the Museum of Musical Instruments. The collection has been building up over time; there is a very fine collection of traditional instruments from across the world, including sets of pipes which I did not know existed, for example. They have a phenomenal collection of European stringed instruments and every variety of a violin which you did not know existed. When I was there, they also had a significant exhibition of the instruments of Adolph Sax.

The building it is housed in was completely derelict when I left Brussels. It was built at the end of the 19th century for a chain of department stories called Old England. I’m not fully au fait with the commercial history of the company but the shop was long past to history by the time I arrived in Brussels more than 15 years ago. It was an iron built building.

The interior has a lot in common with multistory department stories of the time (the old Samaritaine building Paris was not dissimilar for example) and there is, in addition to the musical instrument collection a rather interesting exhibition on the subject of the building as well.

All in all, I really enjoyed the trip in there so am glad to have gone and I would recommend it pretty much to anyone in the vicinity.