Monday, July 27, 2009

Every 3 Hours, My Hangover is Dublin

As Doug successfully guessed, we went to Dublin (but we flew Ryanair. £6 airfares are hard to pass up). It was just for a couple of days with my kiwi flatmates.

Like a Shot from 'the Commitments', eh?

If you've always wanted to visit Dublin but are afraid that you don't know enough about the potato famine or the 1916 uprising, relax. You'll be an expert pretty quickly. They get mentioned during the guided tours every couple of sentences. And not just in the general tour of Dublin. For instance, you might not think that Kilmainham Gaol has much to do with the potato famine. You'd be wrong.

This is mostly going to be photos, because I really can't remember quite a bit of what we did. I know we arrived late on Monday morning and had our first drink before lunch. After that it gets a little hazy.

We zigzagged down the main street (O'Connell St). This is the Dublin Spire. The locals call it "the pole in the hole", "the stilletto in the ghetto", or "rod up to God".

This is the statue of Daniel O'Connell. Notice the 1916 uprising bullet hole right through of passing through her... Let's face it: This statue is busted.

We crossed the Liffey to Trinity College, as I wanted to see the Book of Kells.

Trinity College Bell Tower

TC was greatly affected by the potato famine and the 1916 uprising. Probably.

It's a bit of a mish-mash of architectural styles.

George Salmon was the college provost from 1888. He announced that women would be allowed to enter the college "...over my dead body". Apparently, this fired up the Irish women and they were admitted 3 weeks later. Salmon fought back by passing the rule that women were not allowed to enter by the main gate, and must enter through the back gate. True to his word, he then dropped dead. Some comedian buried him out the back so the women did indeed enter over...

The Book of Kells is 4 illuminated Bibles that date back roughly 1200 years. It was interesting, but the room was absolutely packed with disinterested Spanish teenagers. God I wish European schools would stop taking their gormless students on tour when I'm on holiday. When I was at school, we went camping at Pudding Hill, and we were grateful for it.

My flatmates had a room to themselves, but I slept in a packed dorm room. Never again. It turns out I'm too old for that crap. How oblivious do you have to be to come back to a packed bunkroom at 2am, and turn on the lights?

On Day 2, we did one of those get-on-get-off bus tours. The weather was bad throughout the trip, but it was really foul that day. My umbrella was destroyed by the wind and rain within seconds.

We went to Dublinia, which is a museum of the Viking history of Dublin. Interesting.

View from the Dublinia Walkway

Then we went to Dublin Castle. Another good tour.

Dublin Castle

The Good Friday Agreement Table

This is the Church of St Augustine and St John the Baptist.

The figures at the top were carved by James Pearse, whose sons were executed as leaders of the uprising, which segues us to the tour at Kilmainham Gaol (1796). It is where the leaders of the 1916 uprising were imprisioned and executed. It's been in a number of movies.

The principle behind the prison was one of separating the prisoners, and making them feel that they were being permanently watched. The peepholes in the doors were shaped to look like an eye.

This is the courtyard where the uprising leaders were shot. Sombre.

My flatmates did the Guinness factory tour, but I draw the line at paying 15 Euros for a glass of beer I don't like, so I did the tour of Christ Church Cathedral.

In the 1800s, a cat chased a rat into one of the organ pipes, and they were mummified there. Apparently, they're mentioned in James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake". Unfortunately, I've sworn never to read another Joyce novel as long as I live.

The tomb of Stonebow.

An arch at the Anglican church.

The best part of the bus tour was when the driver was relating some fairly average anecdote about Jonathan Swift when a car cut across in front of him and he shouted "Focker!" into the microphone. "Aw, Jaysus, I'm sorry about that ladies and gentlemen". That was pretty entertaining, and authentically Irish.

There was a spare bed in my flatmates' room, and they kindly let me sleep there on the second night. It probably saved a bloodbath.

On the third day, we did the tour at the Jameson whiskey distillery. Mostly, it was a chance to pay 13 Euros to watch advertisements for Jameson whiskey, and to hear about how much better it is than other brands of whiskey.

So that's about it for Dublin. A good little break. We had a ripper of a Thai meal, and got in some good drinking. We lasted at one pub until all the Irish had left, which feels like an achievement. Although they may've left because we were obnoxious. Did you know that at 6pm, the TV plays church bells for a minute, and that you're supposed to shut up? We do now.

This is the statue of Molly Malone. I think she sold shellfish by day, and was a hooker at night. The locals call it, "the dish with the fish", "the tart with the cart", and "the dolly with the trolley". I propose "the slut with the halibut" or "eels on wheels".

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

End Cycle

So that was about it for the cycle tour. The final morning in Ypres I got up early, packed up, and biked like a madman south to Lille. As soon as I crossed the border into France, people began cheerfully calling out "Bonjour!" to me as I cycled past. A very different attitude to the Dutch/Flemish.

I made it to Lille with time to spare, but the idiot woman at the ticket office wouldn't let me book in my bike, as their website specifies. She tried to make me buy a new ticket for a different train - she clearly didn't know their own rules. I did my best to argue with her in French, but my high school French teachers never taught me how to say "you bloody drongo", so my response was restricted. I went and complained to the manager and he agreed with me on everything, but in the meantime I missed my train. I was a little frantic about that, but they just bundled me onto the next train - and into the first class section. I had clean clothes to change into, but I was so harried by waiting in various queues, that I was still in my cycle gear that was on its 4th or 5th day without a wash. The couple next to me were having a very posh conversation ("Oh yes, I'd forgotten that Gordon is cooking for Claridges now"), while I was sitting there, reeking to the point where I offended even myself. The food isn't bad in first class on the Eurostar.

Anyway, the Eurostar carried me back to London, where I caught another train to Cambridge. I did 471km in the week, the bike held together with no problems, and it was just generally brilliant. I'll be cycle touring again at some point.

Anyway, I'm just back from the next trip. This one was 3 days away with the flatmates. Answers on the back of a postcard:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Weep for Ypres

The next morning I went the museum, which is well done. It was overrun with vast hordes of badly-behaved English school children, which saddened me.

In the afternoon, the sky blackened over and it begain to rain quite hard. But I was determined to see Passchendaele, so I biked the 15km to Tyne Cot, which is the big cemetery.

Looking Back Towards Ypres from the Scottish Memorial

I guess summer is the wrong time to visit, to get a full appreciation of the cold and the boggyness. It all seems quite dry and lush in June. The local farmers still dig tons of munitions out of these fields each year. One farm in Messine has an unexploded mine under their barn that weighs 22 tons and there's a poison gas stockpile that no-one knows how to deal with.

This is a recently discovered German outpost. One of the other buildings is currently used as a cow shed.

This is a section of the railway line that was also recently uncovered. They found the body of a Welsh soldier with a Bible over his face here.

Graves at Tyne Cot Cemetery

There are various differences in the graves. Some are marked by name, while other are for unknown people. Nearly all have crosses, except a few small cases where the family requested that an atheist not have one. There are 6 Jewish graves, which have a Star of David. There are 4 German soldiers. Australian families could request that a quotation be added, but New Zealanders could not.

The lack of a name means this soldier was never fully identified.

One of the Jewish Graves

I tried to find the grave of the former All Black captain who was killed in the battle: Dave Gallagher. I asked some Kiwis at the NZ memorial, and they turned out to be his family, looking for the same thing. Small world.

There are so many sad aspects of Ypres.

The priest in Dikkebus, Achiel Van Wallegham kept a diary through the War. He eventually moved away when he realised he didn't have any parrishioners left.

Perhaps the thing that resonates most strongly with me is that the English soldiers mispronounced Ypres as Wiper, so they named their newspaper the Wiper's Times. I'm assuming that was intended as a joke. That humanises it a bit for me. Each of those half million men had their own personality and sense of humour. The ages on the gravestones are so very young.

The Belgians were recently building a new road in the area, and they dug up several bodies. They considered moving the road out of respect, but didn't because there's nowhere they can dig in the area without uncovering bodies.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

"I adore war"

"I adore war. It is like a big picnic but without the objectivelessness of a picnic."
-Julian Grenfell (1914)

He and his brother were both killed in 1915.

From Ghent I cut back to the south-west. It made my route a bit of a mess, but I was determined to visit Ypres (now called Ieper). It was a long ride, and when I saw a thermometer in the afternoon, it was at 29C. I got more lost than usual on this one, but made it there in the end.

As a town, Ypres's actually rather modern and bland. But perhaps that juxtaposition adds to the impact. It is the history of the town that is mindboggling.

A Fairly Standard Town

Some salient facts about the

Firstly, I didn't know what a salient was, so I'll just explain. It's an area in a warzone frontline that sticks out into enemy territory so the enemy can fire across it from 3 sides. Militarily, it's not a great position to be in. Ypres is also slightly lower than the surrounding land, giving the attacker the high ground. It was one of the most heavily fought over areas on the Western Front. There were 3 major battles here, and Ypres kind-of serves as an illustration of the development of warfare during the first world war. The town itself was wiped off the map.

At the start of the war, outnumbered Belgian soldiers with dog carts and wearing top hats tried to hold back the Germans. In the early days, the townfolk would stand on the village walls to watch the fighting.

Ypres Town Walls

The Belgians were replaced by English and French soldiers. At this stage there was still horse cavalry, no-one had a metal helmet, and some of the French wore metal breastplates and had bayonets dating from the 1789 revolution. By the end of the War, there were poison gas attacks, tanks, and soldiers were running at concrete bunkers defended with barbed wire and machine guns.

It's basically the ultimate example of the futility of war. About half a million men died in that small area. One aerial photo showing an area of a square mile shows 1 million shell holes.

By 1917, the British forces were becoming depleted, so New Zealand troops were involved in the third Battle (Passchendaele); the largest. By this time, the whole area was just a mess of mud and barbed wire. One New Zealand and 4 Australian divisions attacked the Passchendaele ridge.

This is a picture from a Canadian website showing the terrain:
Ypres (Not Contemporary)

One private wrote:
"There was not a sign of life of any sort. Not a tree, save for a few dead stumps which looked strange in the moonlight. Not a bird, not even a rat or a blade of grass... The earth had been churned and re-churned. It was simply a soft, sloppy mess into which you sank up to the neck if you slipped from the duck board tracks - and the enemy had the range of those slippery ways...It is not possible to set down the things that could be written of the Salient. They would haunt your dreams."

As a country, we see Gallipoli as our formative conflict, but we lost far more men here than at Gallipoli. At Ypres, nearly 2 percent of New Zealand's entire population were casualties, and half of our fatalities were in one 4 hour period. Quotes from soldiers say that the mud quagmire was more likely to kill them than the enemy. The Australians took a serious beating too, and the 2 groups were eventually replaced by Canadian soldiers, who took 75% casualties before finally taking the town of Passchendaele after 100 days. Then General Haig decided he didn't want it and pulled them back.

Here's an aerial shot of Passchendaele from an Australian website showing the before and after:
Passchendaele (Before and After)

When I arrived in town, it was 7:45, and I rode around trying to get my bearings before stumbling on the Menin Gate. The Last Post is played every evening at 8pm at the Gate, so I stayed to watch that. It was moving, but the crowd was so big it was impossible to see anything. Lonely Planet says the locals still pay respect, but the night I was there the locals drove past with their car windows down playing techno music loudly.

Most of the soldiers who fought walked through the Gate to get to battle, so it stands as a memorial to those who were lost and never recovered. Up those stairs are galleries holding more names. They added 54,000 names before running out of space. The next 35,000 English names are at Tyne Cot cemetery, and so are all the New Zealanders. And remember, that's not the dead. That's just those of the dead whose bodies were never even found.

View of Ypres from Near the Camp Ground


After exploring Middelburg for a few hours, I hit the road again and headed south. Middelburg is on the lowest of the islands, but to get back to the mainland you don't cross a delta dam - you take quite a long ferry ride.

I stopped in a village along the way for lunch, and imbued with an over-inflated sense of touristic enthusiasm, I ordered an item at random from the menu: Uitsmijter. It turned out to be bread with ham and cheese buried under 2 fried eggs. I HATE eggs. And the drink that I got was a brand called "Sisi". (Possible slogan - "Sisi: the drink for wimps".) Not my greatest lunch ever.

At some point I crossed the border into Belgium. This point, actually. Not a lot of fanfare really.

I spoke to a guy in a camp ground who travels between Belgium and the Netherlands for work. I asked him if there is a noticable difference between the Dutch and the Flemish Belgians. He said the Belgians are more polite. In his work, the Dutch will quickly let him know if they disagree with what he's saying, while the Belgians keep quiet.

I had been wondering if I would be able to tell the difference, and it was immediately obvious when I was in Belgium. Suddenly, the bike paths were shared with vehicles and the drivers were giving no respect to the cyclist. I saw so much stupid driving on blind corners that I felt I could be back in NZ.

I arrived at the camp ground quite late, and had a meal from the camp ground's frite hut: A bag of frites with mayonaise and some lumpia. I had been told that I had to try the Indonesian lumpia, so was a little disappointed to find it was just spring rolls. By the way:
I know, chips with mayonaise, but these Low Country people know what they're doing. That's a good feed.

If the day riding down the Delta Works was the best day of the trip, then Ghent was certainly the surprise of the trip. It was amazing. The centre city is just crazily full of old buildings. I think it has more of interest than Brugge. Every time you pass an old bohemouth of a building, another looms out from behind it.

How many old buildings are there? Well, they lost the Mason's Guild Hall. When they were flashing the town up for the 1913 World's Fair, they couldn't find the Mason's Guild so they rebuilt it among the other guild halls. Some time later, they knocked down a wall a short distance away and found that the original building was still there after all.

Original Mason's Guild Hall

New Mason's Guild Hall

Chief among the sights to see in Ghent is the Castle of the Counts. When I was planning my trip, I couldn't find many good castles in Benelux to visit. But this one was impressive, and housed a nausiatingly informative museum of torture. It even covered the 21st century method of making people sit in small boxes and write documentation.

The Castle of the Counts

St Nicholas Church

The Belfry

It was tradition for town towers to have a rooster on top, but in Ghent they opted for a dragon instead. Perhaps they misinterpreted the architect when he announced that he wanted to stick a large metal cock on top of their tower. Anyway, the dragon was built so that it could belch flames and smoke on special occasions (although in this photo the effects were created by a plane).

The Dragon at the Top

The actual symbol of the town of Ghent is a noose, stemming from an incident when the town's prominent people were made to parade through the town wearing nooses and beg Charles V for forgiveness. When I'm king, we'll do something similar with Auckland.

I made it around most of the sights in the city in a day. My guidebook said that visitors should check out the main street in the red-light district because it's a World Heritage Site, so I slogged out there. It's called Glazen Straat (Glass Street), because of the glass-fronted booths where the prostitutes sit. It didn't seem very special to me, but it's hard to judge these things when your eyes are fixed firmly on your sneakers. Maybe one of the UNESCO guys had to declare it a heritage site to justify his dodgy expense claims?

To the east of the city is the prominent graveyard Campo Santo, on Belgium's tallest mountain (elevation: 3 feet). It has a long list of celebrities buried there, none of whom I'd heard of.

The photo is a poor illustration, but a lot of the tombs are really impressive.

I had been eating cheaply all trip, but that evening I decided to have a decent meal. I went to the restaurant district (Patershol) and had an Indian curry. I was conspicuously the only customer. It was bloody awful, and only after eating it did I remember that I had written down the speciality meal to have in Ghent - Gentse Waterzooi - a stew made of vegetables combined with chicken or fish. Damnit. "Waterzooi" is old Dutch for "watery mess", by the way.

Anyway, if you're looking for a place in Belgium to visit, go to Ghent. That was a great surprise, and I love finding places that are a little off the radar.