Archive for September 2008

York

September 30, 2008

To start, York was much smaller than I’d expected. Perhaps it was the fame of the name York, Yorkie, Yorkshire, Yorkminster and New York just to name a few examples, but somehow I expected something far more grand and huge from the city. I was impressed, certainly, Yorkminster was easily the biggest cathedral I’d seen up to that point and even now stands as one of the largest and most impressive in the world, but other than that the emphasis of York seemed more on small and quaint than anything. York is fairly spread out with a very focused inner core leading into a massive suburban small-town style sprawl, and that inner core rather than being the business laden skyscraper-center you’d generally expect from a big-name cities core, was actually itself a little slice of well preserved history still snugly wrapped in ye olden walls and with twisting leaning streets abound.

And that’s the most interesting aspect of York, the historic core. Walking down a small-town style street you’re faced with the ancient gates of the old wall when approaching the core, the walking path even heading through the old foot gate at the side while the street runs through the gatehouse proper. Inside you’re walking on the uneven cobbles of the past and buildings from an age long gone, or at least buildings made to look like they’re from such an era. Other than a few larger streets for vehicles the vast majority of the traffic is pedestrian through tight, twisty streets with old wooden buildings looming overhead towards each side. Most prominent and easy to find landmark is without a doubt the massive Yorkminster Cathedral, easily one of the most large and magnificent cathedrals you’ll ever see.

Yorkminster. Damn impressive. A huge cathedral of gothic design, looming over the nearby houses and business with a sort of majestic might. Carving adorn every square inch of the building it seems, with gargoyles sitting on ledges and statues of kings and queens lost passed seemingly everywhere. The stained glass windows are absolutely massive, almost beyond compare, and the central tower is hollow allowing people on the ground level to stare up and up and truly understand the sheer scale of it all. Choirs sing regularly there to help set the mood and occasionally the organ with blast its rich deep tones into the silence. That said being such a big name comes with a price, both literally and not. Tourists bustling here and there kinda ruin the mood (I was one, so I shouldn’t complain, but still!) and the usual quiet murmur of the church is replaced with babbling sightseers and annoying children. As for literal price, this is the ONLY cathedral during all my travels where you had to pay for entrance, a fact that still stings now. Oh sure, it’s impressive, and other cathedral and church usually charge for seeing the crypts and relics, but Yorkminster was the only which charged simply for entering the place. Not cool. Despite my complaints if you’ve got the money its certainly worth it if you’re into those kinda buildings like I am. Still…. charging to enter a church? Ouch.

For other sights York Castle was a bit disappointing, essentially just the empty shell of the keep remains sitting upon a small hill, scenic to be sure and neat enough, except that they charge you to enter it despite being essentially a ruin with a few standing walls. Cardiff Castle is the same, the Norman keep that is, except that’s counted as part of a fee for entry that also includes a plethora of other things. Ah Well! To make up for it I rather enjoyed the cheesy Jorvik-Viking-Center they have, which to say the least was not at all what you’d expect from a historical museum and exhibit. I refuse to give it away since I was so pleasantly surprised myself, but lets just say rides were involved. Weeeeeeee!

Nah, the main sight in York is the city center itself, its classical buildings and narrow streets, the massive cathedrals and ancient walls and ruins. The entire thing melds together to form a sort of York experience that’s not unlike stepping into the past… a past where peasants walk by listening to Ipods and there are cars on the streets and computers for sale in the windows, but still, the past! I enjoyed York a fair bit to be sure and would have to suggest it to anyone who’s touring the UK like I was. It’s not the biggest or most gaudy city, but its got a certain charm and a nice vibe to it that most others only dream of achieving.

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Extremely meandering post that eventually leads to Pompeii.

September 29, 2008

I’ve been trying to type things out in order from when I visited em but you know what? That’s boring! It’s late right now and I feel like typing, just not about the next place I’d visited after Birmingham. (Hint: York) Not that I wont write on York later. Nice place really, I’m just not in a Yorkie mood… speaking of which damn those are good chocolate bars, Yorkie bars. Luckily I’ve found a couple places in Calgary that sell em and I stock up when I can. Just plain chocolate, nothing fancy, and that’s what is so damn brilliant about em! One thing I’ve wondered however is why they advertise Yorkies as ‘no girls allowed?’ I gave one to my younger sister not too long ago and she failed to violently explode or grow a mustache, so why no girls?… I’ve gotten sidetracked haven’t I? That’s the problem with writing late at night, or morning really if I want to be technical about it, my mind wanders. Unfortunately that’s also when I feel the most creative and up to typing. Most of what I’ve typed has been written sometime between midnight and 6:00 AM, it’s my creative time, damned if I know why. Logically on those occasions when my sleeping habits are somewhat normal my ‘creative’ time oughta be at a different more respectable hour, but it just doesn’t seem to work that way. Ah well!

So, what was this all about? Oh yeah, Pompeii, or Pompei as the modern town there is now called in what I presume is a clever ploy to trick Mt. Vesuvius into not erupting again out of confusion whether it’s already destroyed this town or not. Let us talk about that, shall we?

To get there you can simply take the train as there’s a stop named Pompei which I’d thought was more for tourism than anything. I was wrong. You see, there’s a modern town situated there now, something which I honestly never knew but really should have guessed now that I think about it. Quaint little town truth be told, little being the key word as it’s literally little more than a collection of Hotels and restaurants circling a central square park and surprisingly nice cathedral/city hall/quite beautiful building which even now, looking online, I can’t find out what exactly it was. I presume church because of the big cross and angels blowing trumpets but you can never really be sure, although through the magic of the Internet I can link to a picture I took of it that turned out extremely well if I do say so myself. Behold! Nice eh? There is more to the town than that, but it’s quite spread out and for the most part that’s what you’ll see of it.

Upon arriving there I admit I was confused, I mean… this is Pompei right? Where were the ruins and why is this small town here? No help was forthcoming as the train terminal was a sparse as they come, so in a daring maneuver I call ‘asking for help’ I walked to the nearest Hotel and asked the person where exactly the ruins are and whether they had any rooms available. Unfortunately no rooms were forthcoming, luckily she spoke a smattering of English and was able to give me an idea which direction to head in, the town of Pompeii actually being part of the town of Pompei, go figure. My companion and I wandered for a bit with a vague idea of where everything was and eventually found a decent little hotel to spend the night in then using what I’ve come to think of as the universal language of babbling, pointing, waving my arms and smiling politely when they say something I can’t understand while nodding managed to rent the room from the kindly old lady who spoke neither English nor french for the night before wandering out in the general direction of where the ruins were supposed to be.

Ah, the ruins. For the price of 10euros to the extremely sour woman behind the counter (Whether she is or isn’t there may vary, that she was extremely rude and grumpy will not!) you are given access to an amazing vast slice of the past. Worth any frustration I’d had finding the place and certainly worth the entrance price. I’d go so far as to say anyone with even a remote vague interest in the past should visit this place right now. Go on, get going. I’ll wait till you get back. Back now? Excellent, so you’ll know what I’m writing about when I say wasn’t that damn incredible? The way once you’re past the gates you’re given free reign of what amount to a small ancient town almost completely open to exploration and wandering, so big that this ancient town actually has street signs and directions to help people not get lost, wasn’t that amazing?

Walking along the uneven smooth stone pathway with the cart wheel grooves worn into it from hundreds of years of horse-drawn carts being navigated down these narrow streets. The distinct red-brick roman buildings that vary from simply rubble to almost completely intact, often even still boasting the original floor tiles and wall murals from almost 2000 years ago. The fact you’re often simply allowed to walk around these places without guide, taking your time and looking over the individual details of a wall painting that predates almost everything you’ve ever known if you want, or simply skip to other places like the amphitheater or teatro, or if you’re the more gruesome type, the casts of the people who died in this place so very long ago. Yes, there are quite a few of those on display, some covered by glass cases still resting where they died so long ago but most having been moved to various places throughout the town and either put out as a grim display of the towns history or stored away in dark corners you can kinda see when peering inside the various storage buildings which also contain ancient vase, murals and statue and lots and lots of red roof tiles. Personally I have to admit the sight of those body cast made me queasy and I never really sought them out after the first few, the amount of detail on some and the positions they’re often in speak volumes of the misery of those last few livings moments, almost voyeuristic. Casts of dogs were also available, contorted into unnatural shapes from those last moments of agony I presume. Gruesome. Enough detail for you? Good. Moving onto other sights of Pompeii now that the mandatory mention of the inhabitants is aside.

As I mentioned above the quality and condition of the buildings tended to vary between complete ruin and amazingly intact, some even boasting complete roof and decorations. The experience of walking down these streets with Roman ruins to either side, the stark outline of Mt. Vesuvius in the distance and the bright sun overhead, birds singing in the distance accompanied by the occasional dogs bark and the murmur of other tourist groups passing by, it’s all very surreal. Other tourists weren’t actually all that common in my experience, perhaps simply the sheer size of the attraction spreads them out to such a degree that I felt isolated. You’d think Pompeii would be a massive tourist destination but it never felt that way. Hell, like I said you’re pretty much given the freedom to wander as you like, but you will also often stumble across parts closed to the public; scaffolds set up and various archaeologists tools sitting about, perhaps even one of the elusive archaeologist breed actually kneeling nearby hard at work. It all lends a certain informal feel to the place as though rather than a tourist you’re a guest being allowed to enter if you promise nicely not to touch anything. I feel I should add here that while I was there construction was in the works on a new more fancy modern tourists center as opposed to the simple booths I encountered, so who knows what Pompeii will be like a couple years down the line. For now however, it’s a surprisingly relaxed experience.

Pompeii was incredible, I’ll say that again and again and probably years from now will still be using those words to describe visiting there, Pompeii was incredible. Nighttime came and we were shooed out of the ruins by bored guards that were doing a search pattern along the streets to make sure not to miss any wandering sightseers, after that nothing eventful and the next day was back onto the train to another town. But damn, Pompeii was incredible (Warned you I’d say it over and over again!) and it was easily one of the most interesting places I’ve ever seen. So. Damn. Incredible.

Industrial age duel

September 23, 2008

After Wales it was Manchester, which bluntly put failed to impress. Manchester has this ‘dirty, mean, rude, industrial age sports hooligans city’ theme going there. Unfortunately I’m not much a fan of that vibe, so simply put I ditched the place and went to Birmingham instead.

Birmingham, when you read its history, oughta be alot like Manchester as they’re both industrial cities, both big, both in the same rough area. So why can I safely say that I enjoyed Birmingham a fair bit while I loathe Manchester? Well, going from looks alone and my limited impressions gleaned from walking throughout the cities, Birmingham has developed into a fresh modern commercial city while Manchester seems a bit stuck in the industrial age. Yes yes, I know I’m undoubtedly wrong and people could give all sorts of reasons Manchester is a vibrant community of loving cute kitten equivalents, but I’ll be blunt here: On average during my trip a place has one day to impress me, after that I’d be off to another location. Manchester failed to do anything but make me dislike the city. Birmingham on the other hand I left with very positive impressions.

Birmingham was a nice, modern style city that if anything reminded me of Calgary. What I did find odd though was the local cathedral, which was a fairly new church really with some nice stained glass windows but otherwise unremarkable. No, it wasn’t the cathedral itself so much as the extremely casual atmosphere of the people as during work lunch break all the business men and women sat and relaxed in the church yard, some leaning back casually against old tombstones as they talked with friends and ate their lunch. During my travels I found that for the most part the churches tended to be either ultra touristy or quiet, conservative places. Graveyards dedicated to the occasional sightseers and tourists as well as the down-on-their-luck type looking for a quiet place to relax and sleep as well as wandering herds of goth kids. Other than that deserted. Not so with Birmingham where, in the economic areas anyway, they were treated with a sort of park atmosphere.

Again, first impressions are everything, and it that respect Birmingham was one of the best. The main train station opens up into the central part of town, very clean place and well maintained, right next to the major shopping area and within easy walking of the museum and other cultural landmarks. Very nice museum too I might add.

What else can I say? Manchester, bleh, Birmingham, yay! On to the next location..

Of Wales general, Romans and Castles.

September 16, 2008

Next destination was Sawnsea, smallish coastal town told to have some extremely beautiful view which I unfortunately I never got a chance to see. Cloudy, rainy, generally English weather put a halt to any plans of coastal exploration. Fortunately the Bed & Breakfast which I stayed at was, quite literally, right across from the beach and a beautiful view all its own so at the very least I can say I got a taste of that stunning view. Town itself was a bit of a surly place, although to be fair that may have just been the weather, and without that much worth seeing. They have a castle there, as just about any town in Wales does, but it’s little more than large ruins at this point. Strangely beautiful sight in itself really, to someone who’s not used to having ruins just sitting around in parks, but not worth going out of your way to see. Other than that… not much.

Swansea was more of a base than anything however, and it was from Swansea that bus were taken to some smaller towns which weren’t reachable via walking or train. First destination was a small town by the name of Caerleon, home to the remains of some remarkably intact roman ruins which is what my friend and I went there to see. What we got was much, much more. You see, we were lucky enough to have arrived just when the local ‘military extravaganza’ or something of the like was happening. It was great! Small local festival where, sitting on the remains of an ancient roman amphitheater I got to watch enthusiastic people reenact gladiator combat in full armour.

Picture if you will sitting on a small circular ridge, grassy hills where the seats of this ancient amphitheater once was. There are booths and tents set up along to one side and an old wall on the other, covered in moss and vines. People are milling around, smiling, laughing, some simply there for the sights and sounds and others dressed in roman era costumes, acting the part. In one tent a man dressed as an archer explains the various uses for different arrow head types, in another a man and his wife work together to put together some period foods. And it wasn`t simply the people who were part of the fair in costume either, here and there a man or woman bring their own costumes, children run around waving wooden swords in kilts and furs. It was all very ambient. And the feature of the event was the gladiator show, where very enthusiastic if not professional actors beat the hell outta each other for the crowds amusement with roman style weapons and dress. Naturally no one was really hurt aside from the occasional bruise and cut, it was choreographed and improved fighting with fake blood and many `sword under the armpit`last gasps. But who cares when it was so much fun to watch and enjoy.

Eventually all good things must come to an end and I left Caerleon extremely happy. Next target: Caerphilly. Home to one of the largest castles in UK. The town itself was pleasant, larger than Caerleon and very quaint, but let us be honest, I was there for the castle and what a castle it is. I’m going to do the ‘picture this’ scenario again, so bear with me.

You walk down a narrow street, the street heading downward on a bit of a slope. Near the end, it curves suddenly and as you follow the road. To your left there is a gap in the buildings and a small stone wall along the walkway, and there you see it, a small field and park, a pond, and the castle itself, a massive stone structure covered by vines and streaks of wear and tear grudge. The water is blue, the grass green, and the castle walls a dark grey. Soon you realize that pond is actually the massive castles moat, ducks swimming idly along atop the water and the occasional fisherman sitting on the shoreline. And the walls… the walls are massive. It’s all extremely scenic.

There are multiple walls circling the main inner courtyard, huge towers to either side of you as you walk across the drawbridge and through the gateway (After a small fee at the ticket office naturally, but it wasn’t very much at all and without a doubt worth it if you’re like me and dig this stuff.). It is, all in all, a very impressive experience. My understanding is that there were few, if any, real battles over the castle really for the simple reason that no one wanted to try and take it by force, but there are still some signs of conflict. One of the inner towers is jagged and torn, leaning precariously to the side and a giant rip down its side leaving its insides exposed. Nevertheless, real conflict aside, it’s extremely easy to picture armies fighting along the walls, massive siege engines at work and childish war fantasies aplenty. Luckily, I’m not the only one who felt this way obviously as there are a series of medieval siege weapons set up just inside the main wall for awesome reasons. Trebuchets, catapults and ballista, oh my! there’s isn’t really anything ‘in’ the castle to see as there’s no real central keep (No need, the original castle designers thought. No one will get this far. They were right!) and so you’re essentially wandering the deserted ruins which does feature the occasional sign and exhibit, but for the most part is empty, which just makes it all the more a haunting historical experience.

I very much enjoyed my time in Wales, after Caerphilly castle I would return to Swansea for another nights rest and be off northward the next morning, but I Wales is certainly a very pleasant experience which even after the other places I would see on this trip I still look on very fondly. Someday I’ve no doubt I’ll travel there again to explore more thoroughly than simply the south-eastern corner.

Simply Cardiff.

September 11, 2008

Cardiff is an interesting beast. On one hand there’s Cardiff castle and the various parks with all sorts of historic stuff just laying around, on the other hand Cardiff is undeniably a modern city which, like Bristol before it, has a distinct commercial and industrial feel to it. Various shopping arcades dot the center of town while smaller cafes and restaurants line the waterside area, warehouses stretching languidly across town and numerous buildings under construction add that industrial feel. It’s actually quite nice, I especially enjoyed the waterside breeze and nice cool weather while I was there, not being much of a fan of blistering heat the overcast windy day was absolutely heavenly.

As for the Cardiff ‘Castle’, it’s more two separate castles really, one more or less an elaborate palace and the other the old ruins of a much more ancient Norman keep sitting off to the side surrounded by a moat and built on a hill as was their style. Surrounding all this are the remains of Roman walls no less from an old Roman fort which was on that spot, needless to say there’s alot of history in that one little chunk of land. Right next to the castle is also a quite nice park with an interesting wall adorned with various animal statues (Never did figure out what one of those things was, looked like a mutilated dog of some sort!) with, among other oddities, the ruins of an old church… or was it a friary? On the grounds. To add to it all there are also the remains of other various ancient structures within the city as well as yet another castle, which unfortunately I did not get to see.

The palace is a rather fanciful building with all sorts of strange oddities and fantastical designs that make it seem like some sort of fairytale castle from the interior. No pictures allowed (Not that that stops some people!) and visit with a guide only. Indeed while I was there security had to be called because a man had left the room with the guide in it for a bit of privacy while talking on his phone, in the middle of the tour no less, and the guide with a sort of frenzied fanaticism called into her walkie-talkie military style that there was a bogey on the loose and to take him out asap… alright, not quite those words, but the ‘feel’ was there. This guide would have been right at home calling down artillery strikes in war zones and coordinating tactical espionage missions, I have to feel her talents were somewhat wasted guiding unruly tourists through a fantastical palace. Anyway, building? Pretty interesting, very colourful. My first introduction to William Burges too, eccentric architect extraordinary who’s work I’d end up encountering a few times.

All these neat little historic oddities have been carefully set aside and preserved while the city itself grew up around them. It’s a rather strange experience to walk down the steps from just having been looking through what remains of an old Norman keep, through the grassy field with a palace to one side and reconstructed Roman fortifications on the other, through the massive medieval styled gateway… and into the bustle of a living, breathing big city. Cars zooming by, businessmen talking on cellphones, shops and stores, Starbucks. You almost have to do a double-take to make sure you didn’t just step through a portal at some point or through some dimensional loophole. Very disorienting, but entertaining and convenient.

I enjoyed Cardiff. Not really my favourite of cities but it had a good ‘feel’ to it, cheesy way to put it I know but valid nontheless. Excellent hostel there too which I stayed at, easily better than many of the hotels I’ve been to. Now that’s quality. A quick google search reveals it was The Riverhouse Backpackers. Great location, extremely friendly staff, clean rooms, the works.

Churches, Cathedrals, and neat Indiana Jones style tombs.

September 9, 2008

Why, I’m talking about Bristol of course! Oh, that’s not what the city is famous for? My mistake. I will say however that when visiting Bristol there were two places that really interested me, the large Bristol Cathedral and a smaller church not far from the train station who’s name was St Mary Redcliffe. You see, the city of Bristol is largely a newish industrial/commercial city, once renown for its port, and I can get industrial/commercial at home. No, what truly interests me and what I inevitably end up searching out are things new or unique, historic perhaps seeing as Canada, and Calgary especially, hasn’t a tenth the background or history of almost anywhere in the UK. So it’s understandable that for my day spent wandering Bristol, much if not the majority of that time was spent wandering these two buildings.

St Mary Redcliffe (I hope I spelled that right!) is a decent sized church that like I said earlier is fairly near the train station. What’s remarkable about the building isn’t really its size or majesty, although it has both, so much as the sheer amount of ‘neat’ things all crammed together in there. When entering the church I was lucky enough to be assaulted by a guide, the type that sit around all day and generally hand out pamphlets to tourists like myself, except that either it was a verrrryyyy slow day or the guide was simply extremely enthusiastic. Kindly older man, thinning hair, thick glasses perched on his nose, brown woolen vest if my memory serves me right. Exactly what you’d expect really, amazingly so. He was more than happy to tell the stories of this church as we walked along the pews, pointing out the tombs of ancient knights and naval commanders. During this another man was sitting at the Organ practicing so I got to listen the deep dramatic tones of this impressive musical machine (Which the guide happily pointed out was also fairly famous itself!) even as we sauntered along, walls decorated with various memorials and the floor covered and ancient tombs. The music adding that extra bit of ambiance which along with the eager guide and abundance of corners crammed full of interesting tidbits made for an extremely memorable experience.

I’m not a religious person, in truth I generally consider myself an Agnostic sorta guy. I’ll worry about religion when I’m dead, presuming the Atheists ain’t right and I’m lucky enough I get a chance to worry about religion. But what I CAN truly appreciate is the effort and work, the majestic glory of the things some people have done in the name of their faith, and in this case I really enjoyed and was impressed by the general ambiance and mood set by this church. I’d later go on to see what are considered some of the grandest church and cathedrals in the world, and yet the experience in this one place is still one of my favourites.

In Bristol I’d eventually head out and see the Cathedral, which was undoubtedly bigger and grander than the church if not quite as memorable an experience seeing as it’s much more busy and as such much more… well, organized than the other place I visited. Lacking that abundance of historical, if small, notes of interest! Still quite interesting though, don’t get me wrong. Then later I’d walk the city streets of Bristol (One thing that amazed me was a case where a once private family grave had been set aside for use as a park after a good chunk of it had been paved over for a new road. The tombstones were all stored in a small gated-off cave on the borders of this park and forgotten. Yay progress, right?) and along its famous port. All in all it was a nice place, not the most impressive or the most beautiful, but certainly a good experience.

But as implied by the title, it’s the Church and Cathedral most stand out. Seeing the tombs of men who’d died in times ancient, carved with images of knights and chivalry, and having that eager guide explaining the importance of this tomb and that memorial all while the organ played in the background and the rain pounded on the windows outside… It’s the memory which most stands out from my visit to that city and which I write about now.  It’s experience like that which renew my wonder in the past and my love of adventure, and I can only hope someday you too will experience something similar.

Wait, Bath is the name of the city?

September 9, 2008

How to describe Bath? Hm.. Bath is a preening beauty; She stares into the mirror, smiling at herself triumphantly while completely assured in her own glory. She’s beautiful, stunning even, but let us be honest here, she’s also a bit of a bitch, not to mention high cost.

Now I don’t want to sound like I’m stomping down on Bath. Bath is a beautiful city, extremely beautiful. Indeed, even putting the famous Roman Baths aside, which is where I presume the town got its name from, it’s a gorgeous historic town with some extremely nice streets and avenues as well as nice parks and architecture. Indeed, the entire city is considered a World Heritage Site. It’s just, once you’ve wandered the city for a bit, seen the famous Roman Baths with its particularly disturbing green coloured water, and the houses with their Victorian style elegance, there ain’t much to do other than nearly get mugged by the locals in what you’d consider one of the more nerve-wracking experiences on your trip. Not that I’d hold that against this beautiful city, oh no, coulda happened anywhere. Only it didn’t, it only happened there, in Bath, where a buncha thugs scared the hell outta little ol’ me.

And lets be honest here, Bath is barely a city, it’s more of a town really. Oh, I know, it was ‘granted’ city status for some reason or another that’s probably very impressive. But honestly, it ain’t that big a place. Hell, I walked most of it in one day. The entire ‘city’ is like one big tourist trap… I’m getting mean arn’t I? I’ll stop.

To be completely fair, Bath is definitely worth visiting. The city really is gorgeous and full of history. The Roman Baths are well maintained and interesting and, other than the bustle of fellow tourists, feel like stepping into the past. Walking up the hillside, dotted on the sides by nice looking houses, you can enter a vast field from which a stunningly beautiful panoramic view of the city is opened up to you. Small bridges span the elaborate canal system which allows boats through the city drifting pleasantly. Street performers played in the streets, people laughing and enjoying themselves, it really is a beautiful place.