Sailing: the fine art of getting wet and becoming ill while slowly going nowhere at great expense.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Vilnius, Lithuania

We left beautiful Riga and travelled across the rich agricultural plains of Latvia and Lithuania to Vilnius.  Vilnius, established in the 13th Century, is a pretty city sitting along the Vilnia River.

On our first day we decided to take the city tour bus to get an overview of the city.  There were plenty of beautiful old building and modern skyscrapers.  We chose a few ‘must see’ sights for the next day or two.  The Church of St Peter and St Paul was an example of total over the top Baroque architecture.  Built in the latter half of the 17th Century, the interior took 30 years to finish.  The Cathedral is another important church for Lithuanians.  This church was first built in the 14th Century and destroyed and rebuilt in each successive century.  The separate belfry was built in the 16th Century and offers great views of the old town.
Some of the ornate stucco work inside the Church of St Peter and St Paul
The ceiling painting and stucco work
The outside of Church of St Peter and St Paul
The dome
The Cathedral
The bell tower of the Cathedral

We walked up the hill to the 14th Century fortified tower built by the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Gediminas.  Inside the tower was an excellent exhibit of the Baltic Way.  In 1989 the people of the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia formed a human chain from Gediminas Tower in Vilnius through Riga, Latvia to Tallinn, Estonia in a peaceful demonstration of their independence from Russia.  Two million people joined hands in solidarity stretching 650 km.  It was a very moving exhibit.  There is a good YouTube video of the event here.
The Tower of Gediminas
The route of The Baltic Way

The next day we set out for the Museum of Genocide Victims; not a very pleasant topic but we wanted to find out more of the history of Lithuania.  Sadly the museum was closed.  On the fa├žade engraved in stones on the plinth were the names of the people murdered inside by the KGB at the end of WWII.
Names of dissidents killed - so many were so young
Plaque on the wall of the museum
 We moved on to the National Museum of Lithuania which was filled with interesting cultural artifacts and exhibits.
Traditional Lithuanian dress
Wooden and iron crosses which dot the countryside in Lithuania
Next went to the Palace of the Dukes.  The Palace of the Dukes had some excellent displays and gave a great overview of the history of Lithuania.  This Medieval history was quite different from Latvia.  Unlike Latvia which generally remained loose tribal groups practicing their traditional pagan religion until the 13th Century and then dominated by various powers (German, Swedish, Russian) until the early 20th Century, Lithuania was an organised Duchy starting in the 13th Century and then became part of dynastic union with the Kingdom of Poland.  By the 1400’s the Grand Duchy stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.  It’s knights were renown warriors, mainly defending their lands against the Teutonic Knights who were fighting the Northern Crusades, culminating in the great Lithuanian victory at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410.  This victory still seems a great source of national pride.
Suit of armour
Entrance to the Palace of the Grand Duchy
Within the museum was a virtual reality exhibit of the growth of Vilnius through the Middle Ages.  The virtual reality was fantastic - castles and towns shot up all around me while I floated in the middle.  I had to hold onto the monitor so I didn't get dizzy!
Founder of Vilnius - King Mindaugus
We also had time to sample some traditional Lithuanian delicacies such as the cold pink soup and potato and meat dumplings.
Cold Pink Soup served with a side of potatoes instead of bread
Potato and meat dumplings

It has been in fascinating learning about the history of this part of the world – from Medieval knights forcing Christianity onto the people to modern day repression and slaughter by the Nazis and Soviets all in their struggle for independent nationhood.


Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Riga: What a Gem!

I must admit when we were planning our BLIB (Balkans, London, Ireland, Baltic) tour we chose to go to the Baltic mainly because it was there and we hadn’t been.  But after 10 dreary, rainy days in Ireland I was longing for the sunny skies of Greece, despite the heat wave they are currently having.  But our flight was booked to Riga, Latvia so off we went and I am very glad we did.  What a little gem Riga is!

Riga is the capital of Latvia and the largest city in the Baltic states, yet at just over 600,000 people it is quite a manageable town.  It is known for its Art Nouveau architecture and one third of all buildings in the city are in this style.  Every building is a work of art and we gawked, oohed and aahed on every street corner, snapping photos and marveling at the intricate plaster work and sculptures.  It was a sheer delight to just walk around the city.
The French Embassy
Sculptures and intricate plaster work
We would have loved to stay in this hotel
So much detail
The House of Blackheads - a dermatologist's nightmare - no, originally a guild hall
Turrets and arched windows
We also loved the pure whimsy of some of the sculptures on the buildings and scattered around the city parks.
Arched cat on top of the Cat Building
Boy scratching his head while reading a book
A latch to keep a window shutter open
A huge statue of an ape spaceman
A famous graphic designer
In one of the squares a wedding party came and the bride and groom started dancing and the local tourist and onlookers spontaneously started to sing a Latvian song.
The bride and groom
We had a quick stroll through the markets near the train station – a real treat.
Smoked fish
We went to a few museums, the War Museum (so sad there seems to be a war museum in every city but never museums for diplomacy and peace) and the Museum of Occupation where we learned a great deal about the history of Latvia.  For most of its history, Latvians were ruled by foreign powers.  Latvians were tribal pagan groups until the 12th Century when German crusaders tried to convert them to Christianity.  Initially the Latvians were not eager to convert but a bit of force and bloodshed finally converted them.  Riga, being an ideal port, then became a member of the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds.  Then Latvians came under the successive rules of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Poland and Sweden until the early 19th Century. 

A nationalistic awakening occurred in the latter half of the 1800’s and it looked like Latvia might gain its sovereignty.  Then World War I devastated the country.  We never hear much in our history lessons about this Eastern front in WWI but it was quite brutal.  The population of Riga went from half a million in 1913 to about 150,000 people after the war.  Immediately after WWI, Latvia did declare its independence but it was short lived with the advent of WWII.  Latvia lost 200,000 people (about one-tenth of its population) during the war including 70,000 Jews murdered during the Nazi occupation.  The rise of Hitler and Russia’s territorial ambitions resulted in the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in the early days of the War.  This pact essentially sealed Latvia’s fate until 1991 when it gained freedom from Russia.  It is now a thriving country and a member of the EU.
The War Museum
An apt sentiment
I am looking forward to seeing more of this area.  The people are very friendly with a good sense of humour which belies the hardship of their recent history.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Ireland: Castles, Churches, Cliffs and Clouds

We left the sunny and hot Balkans for Ireland where it rained every day of our 7 day road trip through the southwest.  It didn’t rain continuously but there were showers every day, sometimes we saw glimpses of the sun for a few minutes but mainly it was gray, cloudy, cold and wet.  Still the beauty of Ireland managed to shine through the gray drizzle.  
The beautiful green fields of Ireland
Rivers and Churches
Map of our road trip
We picked up a car at Cook airport and set out on our road trip.  We had planned this trip only a few weeks ago and as it was peak season, affordable accommodation was not easy to find.  So our route in part was planned by where we could get accommodation – the down side to being spontaneous.  Our first stop for the night was Lismore, about 30km northeast of Cork.  The Mount Mellery Monastery was just around the corner from our B&B.  This was establish in 1838 by the Cistercian (Trappist) monks.  The complex was very pretty in a beautiful setting.
Mt Mellery Monastery
View from the Monastery
We went into town to the Lismore Castle built in 1185 by Prince John (of Robin Hood fame) and owned by the Earls of Desmond and later the Cavendish Family who still own it today.  The 12th Duke of Devonshire still today maintains an apartment in the castle, thus little of the castle building is open to the public.  The gardens are superb and one section of the castle has been made into an art exhibition space.  The exhibit was quite a modern interactive display which seemed quite out of sync with a 12th Century castle but the more we interacted the better we liked it.
Lismore Castle
The gardens
Some of the flowers in the garden
The interactive light exhibit
Cool water vapour trails
We continued northwest and found another castle to explore at Cahir.  This castle was built in the 1300’s by the O’Brien family and is one of the largest castles in Ireland.  It is very well preserved with one of the few still operational portcullis which has been used in films such as Game of Thrones and Braveheart.  The tour guide was excellent and hit just the right note for bringing the history alive.
The castle at Cahir
Gate at the castle
The portcullis
Our stop for the night was in Bunratty, just west of Limerick.  The next day we went north in search of the parochial house used for the very funny TV series, Father Ted.
Could that be Bishop Brennan's car?
We then drove north to Kinvarra, the home of the Galway Hookers.  The Pardey’s (sailing heroes for us) had made a video of the annual races of these magnificent boats and we have been intrigued ever since.  The races were to be in a few weeks and we didn’t see any boats in sail but we did see a few anchored in the harbour.
Galway Hookers with the long bowsprit
In full sail
Castle ruins like this are scattered everywhere
We continued along the coastal road drive of The Wild Atlantic Way through the Burren National Park – a beautiful and desolate place.
The barren Burren
Burren coastline
Rugged Atlantic coast
The next day we explored Limerick with more castles and churches.  First we went to King John’s Castle.  The displays in this 13th Century castle were very well done and we had great fun exploring.  Next to a fabulous 12th Century church, St Mary’s Cathedral.  This Anglican church is the oldest building in Limerick still in daily use and just oozes 900 years of history. 
King John's Castle
The re-enactors
St Mary's Cathedral
Cromwell's troops are said to have sharpened their swords on the pillars of the Western door
One of the highlights of the church are the beautifully carved Misericords (mercy seats).  These wooden structures had a folding seat which worshipers could lean against for support during long periods of standing.
The Misericords (mercy seats)
The wood carvings on the seats
The next day we headed south to Foynes.  This small industrial town was the centre of flying boat operations across the Atlantic in the 1930’s and 40’s.  There was quite a nice little museum there with well presented exhibits.
The flying boats compared to a 747
A full scale model we could walk through
The main street of Foynes
Our stop for the night was in a nice B&B just outside Tralee.  By this time we were in desperate need of some clean close and were shown to a launderette Tralee style – an outdoor kiosk in the middle of a car park by a petrol station.
Tralee outdoor laundrette
The next day in clean and fresh clothes we headed for Dingle Peninsula.  What an amazing place!  We went through Conor Pass with its amazing views despite the fog and drizzle, then to the quaint village of Dingle, filled with tourists.  After a nice lunch in one of the great pubs of the town and a short walk along the harbour, we headed to Dinquin, the site where Ryan’s Daughter was filmed.  
View from Conor Pass
The cairn providing some shelter from the wind
Dingle harbour
Ruin of the old schoolhouse from Ryan's Daughter
Cliff views
Finally we stopped at the ferry quay for the Blasket Islands – the most rugged port I have ever seen.
The ferry quay at Dinquin
Ferry mooring up and off loading passengers
Passengers alighting on the quay
On our way back to Tralee we passed through Annascaul, birthplace of the Antarctic expeditioner, Tom Crean.  We passed a pub called ‘The South Pole’ and thought it was a tourist gimmick.  As we were driving through I Googled Tom Crean and found out he was on three Antartic expeditions with Scott and Shackleton and part of the heroic survival trip to South Georgia following the loss of the Endurance stuck in pack ice.  Crean opened the pub, The South Pole Inn, when he returned to Annascaul, married and started a family.  Fellow Antarctic expeditioner Bob (Macquarie Island 1982, Casey Base 1986) couldn’t not stop to pay respects.  The pub was full of photos and memorabilia – a real treat.
Tom Crean's pub
Our final day on our road trip was spent in Killarney.  I wish we had planned to spend several days here as it is a stunning area.  We had a very nice tour of Muckross House and gardens on the edge of the Killarney National Park where Queen Victoria once stayed.  The whole area just begs for days of trekking and bike riding.

Muckross House
Nice front yard
The valleys of Kerry
Lady's View - a favourite with the Queen's ladies
We returned the car in Cork and took a train to Dublin for our last day in Ireland.  The sun finally came out and we walked the streets taking in the atmosphere.  Despite the foul weather, Ireland is a magical place.
One of the many impressive churches in Dublin
Potted petunias adorn buildings throughout Ireland
The touristy Temple Bar area
Statue of Molly Malone

Our hotel was just around the corner from the Guinness factory

Some of the wild flowers along the road side