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Azure sky of the perfect summer

An Irish Summer

005 008 009 013 031 083I must apologise for not posting any photos these past few weeks.  It is just that with such good weather I did not wish to give those abroad an unduly positive impression of what Irish summers are usually like.  I would hate to disappoint visitors who might come expecting glorious sunny days and then arrive to rainy skies and gales.  However, now that we have daily rain, flooding and tornado warnings, I can relax.  Now I can quite comfortably complain about the amazing things I would like to do; hiking in the mountains, visiting beaches, etc, but can’t because of the miserable Irish summers.

I generally tend to believe that Irish weather is only really good when students are writing exams or have just gone back to school or university.  That means that the last two weeks in May and September are generally glorious, and the weather remains mercurial for the entire “summer.”  Not that I have any right to complain, when we had the two weeks of sun I kept predicting rain.  Now that my garden is well watered I am hoping for a reappearance of the sun.  My Irish begrudgery is nothing if not well watered.  That is the end of my rant, I hope you enjoy the photos.

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The Emerald Isle in a golden glow

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This is how we feel when we see the sun

This is how we feel when we see the sun

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My experience of England was thoroughly pleasant, and I was lucky enough to stay with a friend who lives in Surbiton.  I spent much of Saturday walking along the Thames and admiring the boats cruising up and down the river.  Tom also took me to see the grounds of Hampton Palace, where Henry VIII lived.  The weather was absolutely gorgeous, which made the experience all the more enjoyable.  However it made the journey to Victoria Coach station with all my luggage rather difficult.  I informed a woman on the Tube that the sun seemed to have made an appearance specially for this occasion.  She then asked me if I could stay till October.

I made it back to Dublin at 0630 on Monday morning, and the weather was due to stay all week.  Ireland is so unused to such good weather that the Met Office issued a heat warning, and so many people suffered from sunburn that a Twitter user posted “I see red people.”  I felt obliged to take a trip out to Killiney to enjoy the view and a swim in the sea.  The water was bracing to say the least, but one cannot waste such a heaven sent opportunnity.

There surely is no lovelier country in Ireland when the weather is good, and surely no more admirable people than the Irish for staying at work when the weather is good.  Good weather is so rare that they would be forgiven for downing tools and heading off to enjoy the sun.  During a chat to a woman in a supermarket, I was informed that her shift had been extended by a couple of hours into a lovely summers evening.  Her disappointment was aggravated by the fact that she was working all weekend.  Her resulting bad mood was rather restrained in the circumstances, and must have required a will of iron to stay.

It is really wonderful to be back in Ireland, despite all our economic woes and politcal shenanigans.  I have really missed the gregarious outgoing nature of Irish people, which seemed all the more in evidence with the appearance of the sun.  I think it sums up the Catholic/Protestant divide in Europe, where Catholic countries are more relaxed, easygoing and fun loving than sober, dour Protestant countries.  I noticed this difference between the Netherlands and Belgium, and it is the same with Ireland and Scotland.

However far I travel, Ireland always seems to draw me back somehow.  I have many good friends here, Irish as well as more recent arrivals.  Dublin has the luxury of being small enough to be friendly, and big enough to be interesting.  I felt absolutely overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of London, but Dublin has a sedate and laid back atmosphere that I cannot but enjoy   The Irish Independent predicts another week of glorious weather, so what are you waiting for?  Come on over.

http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/sun-has-got-his-hat-on-heatwave-to-continue-29418322.html

Riding the rails

003 015 017 020 051 033 103 092 129My departure from Amsterdam was an interesting one, with a pizza evening with friends on my last night being thoroughly enjoyed by all.  My early morning departure was more stressful though.  I dropped my keys in the box, but had left some bags inside, along with my tickets.  Frantically pressing the intercom, and praying at the same time, I was deeply stressed out.  Thankfully my prayers were answered, and someone came down and let me in.  I made my train after huffing and puffing my way to Amsterdam Central.

I changed in Brussels, and was soon on the Eurostar as it chugged through France and under the English Channel.  I checked into my hostel and was thoroughly amazed how busy London is.  After a night in London, I met an old friend at Waterloo and travelled with him to Surbiton for a few days.  It is a lovely part of the world, and the weather is lovely.  We went out for a lovely pub dinner and some great English ale.  I really could get used to this place.  I am now busy enjoyed the green and pleasant land and will keep posting as my journey progresses.

Returning to Ireland

017 121 026 065 056008 188I don’t know where the time has gone this last year, and cannot believe that I am now due to leave Amsterdam.  Residents at our dorm are packing up and heading home to Spain, America, Germany and elsewhere.  With a little luck, and Facebook, we will all maintain our friendships in the years to come.  One of our last, and most memorable, group activities was a canal boat tour for the students residents on Saturday.

We were all a little worried about the weather, since heavy rain fell the night before.  However we were lucky to have good weather, and we sat in the boat enjoying a few beers as we chugged around the canals.  It was an interesting experience to see the city from the level of the canals for a change.  We went down Prinsengracht and onto the Ij river, before turning into one of the canals in the red light district and continuing through the city.

Passing through the canals of the Grachtengordel, we admired the glorious architecture of Amsterdam’s golden age.  The city often feels like an open air museum, with a touch of surrealism which makes it feel unlike any other city I have known.  The Netherlands has an abundance of water, and it should come as no surprise that the Dutch made such good mariners.  We forget that for millennia before air and motorized transport, water was the medium which provided the means of travel.

One of my reasons for deciding to study in Amsterdam is that Dutch colonial and maritime power underpins so many of my life experiences.  I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa which, like New York, was once a Dutch colony before being taken over by the British.  While the United States did have three presidents of Dutch descent, it did not have the same political problems which grew out of two distint groups of colonists fighting for political power in one country.

One of our provinces in South Africa was called the Orange Free State, after the Dutch Royal Family, and this was changed after the 1994 elections to the “Free State.”  The Orange Free State had, of course,been one of the two Boer Republics which went to war with Britain at the turn of the twentieth century.  These Boers were the descendants of Dutch settlers, and named themselves after the Dutch word for farmer.  Their ties to the land seem rather incongruous with the Dutch maritime power which circled the globe.

The Dutch were also the first Europeans to discover New Zealand, and are widely credited with being the frist Europeans to discover Australia.  The latter is in some doubt, due to rival claims by Portuguese explorers.  The west coast of Australia was the scene of a grisly shipwreck which resulted in a number of Dutch people being cast away on islands in the Houtmans Abrolhos.  While the commander of the vessel sailed away to Jakarta, Indonesia for assistance, the remaining survivors were subject to an ordeal which is absolutely horrifying.

This ordeal is described in detail in Mike Dash’s book Batavia’s Graveyard, which is a riveting read.  While in  Fremantle, Western Australia I visited the Shipwreck Galleries museum, which contains relics from this and other wrecks.  A part of the actual Batavia has been found and restored, and can be seen in a special temperature controlled room.  Much of the silver she was carrying was also found, some encrusted in coral which grew over it in the centuries since the shipwreck.

It was on my return to Ireland that I stopped off in Melaka, Malaysia, which was another Dutch colony later to be taken over by the British.  The importance of this site was that it controlled the straits of Malacca, linking west and east Asia.  The Dutch certainly had the knack for finding a good trading post, and the British proved rather adept at taking such colonies from them.  Many relics from the Dutch colonial period survived, including a bakery, administrative buildings and an old fort.  In an interesting twist of fate, the wife of Cape Town’s first governor, Jan van Reibeeck, was buried at Melaka.  Her body was later exhumed and reinterred in South Africa, at the request of the nationalist government which was in power during the 1950’s.

The Dutch certainly got around, certainly more so than I have.  In fact, they got there first and even founded the city where I grew up.  For those of you who live in New York, place names such as Haarlem and Brooklyn show the city’s Dutch origins.  Wall Street is said to take its name from the Wallen, an area of Amsterdam which is now home to the red light district.  The exploration of the world by the citizens of such a small country is amazing, and often forgotten.  When I return to Ireland in July I will be returning in time to see the Orange parades on the “glorious twelfth”, which celebrated the victory of William of Orange over James II.  It seems I’m never far from the Netherlands.

A walk in the park

035 096 039 052 110 050 092114Finding myself with some spare time in Amsterdam yesterday, I went down to Het Amsterdamse Bos to enjoy being in nature.  The only thing was that it is underneath the flight path for incoming flights to Schipol, so I heard the screaming of jet engines as they headed in to land.  It was an interesting afternoon nonetheless, as I watched the clouds drift overhead on a pleasant afternoonImageImage

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Saturday Sunset 1.1

Saturday Sunset 1.1

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Saturday Sunset 1.0

Saturday Sunset 1.0

Utrecht

279 238 332 433 458 425429 450I had neglected numerous opportunnities to see more of the Netherlands in the time I have spent here, and had resolved to do something to change this situation.  It was with this in mind that I accepted an offer to travel to travel to Utrecht with a friend the day after my birthday.  Despite my knowledge of the (tiny) size of the Netherlands, I was surprised to reach Utrecht  half an hour after leaving Amsterdam.  This suprise was compounded by the fact that I had been once before, albeit more than a decade ago.  I had been visiting another friend on that ocassion, and was looking forward to exploring the city again.

I did remember an exhausting climb up the tall church tower on my last visit, and seen the skylines of both Amsterdam and Rotterdam from the very top.  However the mist and rain which accompanied my second visit made this seem an event unlikely to occur on this occasion.  We ambled into a cafe and got chatting the very friendly proprietor, whose cat had featured in a book on city cats.  He went on to tell us that all his vets bills for the cat were listed as business expenses, as it was environmentally friendly pest control.  That philosophy struck me as typically Dutch, even if rats and mice might not think it was all that friendly.  Depends on your point of view I suppose.

The proprietor did suggest a place to eat, called Kafe Belgie, on Oude Gracht, which we promised to have a look at later that evening.  The rain had let up a bit, and we wandered around the historic centre.  The canals are at a much lower level beneath street level, or at least the main one in the city centre is.  There are some nice terraces which you can sit at, should you wish to descend and sit next to the canal itself.  This enables you to enjoy the canal scene without cars and bicycles constantly rushing by.

Many of these restaurants and bars on the canal terraces are converted basements, nonetheless, one can sit here and imagine how people must have lived centuries ago.  Such an experience is always enjoyable in historic European cities.  The relaxed pace of this city was a pleasure after visiting Amsterdam and Bruges, which feel so inundated with tourists they seem like theme parks.  Cities such as Delft, Utrecht, Antwerp and Mechelen somehow preserve the old alongside the modern, and with a bit of imagination you can really let yourself enjoy the moment

The city itself is very picturesque, not to mention quieter than Amsterdam.  We stopped for some local ale in a pub called De Drie Dorstige Heren , which has a lovely quiet atmosphere.  The barkeeper was originally from Amsterdam, but has since moved to Utrecht.  After a year in Amsterdam surrounded by the bustle of thousands of tourists, we could not help but admire the wisdom of such a choice.  Amsterdam can feel somewhat surreal at times, and it is nice to take an excursion once in a while.

We did stop in at Kafe Belgie, and had a Belgian beer this time, at the barmans recommendation, to go with our chicken.  The meal was absolutely lovely, and I am grateful to the propreitor at our first stop.  Kafe Belgie obviously has a good and longstanding reputation, due to the large crowds it can attract on a rainy Thursday evening.  It’s scenic views of the Oude Gracht only add to its excellent food and selection of beers.

What surprised me most about Utrecht, on both occasions, was the presence of an Aboriginal art museum.  It is full of the most exquisite Australian Aboriginal art, but how it ended up in Utrecht is a complete mystery to me.  It doesn’t feature in my Rough Guide, but if you have an interest in Aboriginal Art it is definitely worth a look.

Most of our time here was spent enjoying the long summer twilight out of doors, watching the evening glow over the old buildings as the weather cleared up a bit.  At about 9 we decided to head back to Amsterdam, and I am certainly resolved to make another trip to Utrecht someday.  It is a relatively undiscovered gem only half an hour from Amsterdam.

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