Posted tagged ‘travels’

The city of the future: Tokyo

July 18, 2009

(I’ve never done this before, never had the chance, but I’m writting this during my latest trip from my hotel room. Normally my rule is to try and cut myself off from technology for a bit while I wander, makes things more interesting both while I’m gone and when I get back. Iuse internet cafe and the like to stay in touch with family and friends. But in this case I had the opportunity to rent a laptop for the evening from my hotel along with internet access, so I’m taking the opportunity to bend my rule some and get some typing done while things are fresh in my mind. I doubt I’ll be getting another similar chance for awhile, so regular updates are still a ways off for when I’m home and unhurried, but this is a chance I’d be a fool to pass up and considering I’m *at* the place I’m writing about this time, I’d say my memories are fresh. All that said, here it is, a writeup on Tokyo, Japan.)

This is the future. This city, right here, is the future of the world if things continue the way they are going and populations world wide continue to rise at such an increased rate. Tokyo. A city of over 35 millionpeople producing a GPD of over a trillion dollars. To sum that all up nicely, this relatively little city (Size wise Tokyo isn’t terribly big, go figure!)not only has more people living in it than all of Canada, a country… let’s do some quick guess math here; You could fit roughly 16078 (holy shit) cities of Tokyo into. Not only that, but probably makes more money too! It’s insane!

So with that said you’ll be unsurprised to hear Tokyo is a very crowded city. Everywhere you go there are crowds, people, noise and disturbances. This city is alive in a way no other city I’ve ever been to is, the city *thrives*, hums, and moves in such a way that after having spent a fair while here, I begin to suspect the city itself is alive. Some giant, massive beast beneath the earth slowly awakening and bursting to life. I’ve gotten this impression before: London reminded me of some grand slumbering beast. But unlike London, Tokyo is awake! There’s no other way to describe it. To see these giant throngs of people moving to and fro beneath the glare of mammoth neon lights and to hear that constant thrum of life; it’s the blood-flow, the eyes and deep, earth-shaking breaths of the beast. Tokyo is alive and awake!

It is also very, very confusing. Not the subway mind you, although the Tokyo metro is indeed one of the more troublesome I’ve met. No, it’s just the way a city presents itself to you is usually very clear. A specific vibe that this particular city likes to show off and be remembered by. Tokyo however has no single ‘vibe’, it’s instead a mishmash of various styles and times, places and beliefs that defies any simple description. There are two reasons for this really, one and most simple is just because Tokyo is so damned big. Another reason, the second, is because Tokyo has been destroyed and rebuilt twice in relatively recent times, once by a massive earthquake, and the other time by the bombs of World War 2. This has resulted in not much of the history and past of Tokyo to have remained over time and for the city and its inhabitants to have had to re-imagine and rebuild time after time. Add to that the influx of foreign influences and you’ve got a city with an identity crisis.

The result is a city where at one train station you’ll find yourself emerging into the glare of titan TV screens and huge crowds flowing between these glass towers, the noise deafening and the pace frantic. And yet at another train stop not even too far away you’ll find yourself emerging into the simple sunlit daylight, a few passerby walking along the sidewalk and a pleasant breeze in the air causing a rustling among the trees of a nearby garden. While this can be disorienting, it can also make for an extremely memorable and fun experience. No matter what you’re looking for, what kind of city or what kind of experience, there’s likely somewhere in Tokyo where your wishes will be fulfilled.

Me, I like the quieter districts. Or if not quiet, the more traditional. While I have plenty of interest in electronics, I didn’t come here to go shopping, and I’ve no interest really in ‘anime’, or Japanese cartoons, comics and the like. All of which are extremely popular here as well in other parts of the world I’m assured, although it’s not to my particular tastes. No, I came to Japan because I wanted to visit a culture different from my own, alien, and to explore their history and traditions. To immerse myself in something different than the European cultures I’m so familiar with. For example I’ve seen many of the most grand cathedral and church in the world, more Notre Dame than I can count, and yet till just recently I’d never before explored a shrine or temple.

But now I have, in Tokyo is where you’ll find among other more modest holy buildings, the Senso-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple in the heart of Tokyo which unlike the cathedral and church mentioned above, is in truth a series of buildings and shrines built and designed as one grand whole to appeal to every facet and personal belief of this religion. Or so it seems to me, an admitted outsider. The original buildings, as with most things in Tokyo, were destroyed a fair time ago but the recreation remains true to the original and it’s the people and their beliefs and traditions which matter here, and those remain untouched with the passing of time, war and cataclysm which has destroyed so much before. Which is not to say those buildings are unimpressive, they are anything but. Massive painted gateway holding up high these carefully crafted and intricately carves roof. The massive pagoda, a strange inconceivable tower reaching upwards into the sky, painted brightly and shimmering with golden trim and hand-painted patterns.  And amidst these huge, towering structures a range of smaller, equally skillfully crafted shrines and gardens each representing some other facet of the faith. All this to the smells of sweet incense that blows through the air and the sights and sounds of hundreds of followers of this belief following their rituals, bowing and praying… it can be overwhelming. Completely different, and yet in certain ways so alike, the giant stone Cathedrals of the western world!

Senso-ji however represents only one of many temples within this city and far from all the various faiths you’ll find here, Shinto for example is another great belief you’ll find common. But I write this not to debate faiths or compare religions, as fun as that is, but to describe the great city of Tokyo. Religion is only one of the many facets of the traditional ways within this city. Exploring some of the more historic districts would prove another. Near the Nippori train station remain a collection of buildings which have survived the passage of time, and to walk amidst them, to hear the locals chatter and to wander the nearby market streets and taste the foods being sold there is a joy unto itself and another experience unique to this part of the world. Small, tight streets crowded with the sights and smells of vendors selling their wares, people and bicycles crowding together to walk between the stalls. I’m not one to enjoy crowds, but things like that… it’s enjoyable to be a part of something even if I am painfully obviously just a passing traveller.

Tokyo is not unkind to travellers however. I’ve been to places that hated visitors and Tokyo is not among them thankfully. The people are people, and no matter where you go on this great globe of ours you’ll find the same types of people. But for the most part Tokyo citizens are a friendly lot, much moreso than you’d expect perhaps for a city this size. It’s surprising in a nice way to be approached by a man and asked if you have any questions, clearly he’s not a guide, but you ask your questions and that leads to idle chatter and you soon discover he simply wished to practice his english and you’d looked like you could use a few helpful words. Something I had happen to me twice. No, Tokyo’s greatest bane towards travellers is not the locals but the city itself and among other things weather. The city I say because exploring a city of this size is always a task not taken lightly, and the weather I mention because as a Canadian I find it ridiculously hot and muggy at times. Not too bad mind you, not like some places, and in Tokyo at least a drink is never far away in the form of the legion of vending machine that dot every street and corner of the city. Well maintained and stocked machines dispensing cool relief to sweaty tourists like myself and local alike. The things are incredible, one of my two favorite things about Tokyo. The other?

The gardens. The Japanese have a love of gardens and gardening in a sort of way you’ll not encounter anywhere else in the world, and Tokyo boasts a couple spectacular gardens and parks you’ll never forget. Crammed among the skyscrapers and condo you’ll find these gardens, usually walled and *always* with a history behind them. The Imperial Palace (Guests only allowed in twice a year and I’ve no intention of waiting around long enough to be in Tokyo during one of em!) is surrounded by gardens as well as any other royal structure, some open to the public others not. Many temples and shrines will have a small garden to walk around in. And then there are the few others which stand alone. My favorite of which is the amazing Korakuen Garden, located in the middle of a busy city with a theme park and coliseum nearby, you’d never guess that it would be such a calming and beautiful place to walk, so much so the honking of horns and screams of people riding the nearby roller coaster are simply forgotten. This particular park I enjoy because not only does it have a history (Signs marked ‘the __ shogun enjoyed sitting on this rock’ or ‘this monument was dedicated to __ shogun’s favorite eagle’ among others.) but the part itself is designed as a landscape in miniature, every crevice and stream representing part of a greater whole, and it all forms together into this spectacularly calming experience where one step is crossing miles and every tree a forest. A much needed oasis of tranquility and relaxation in Tokyo.

And now, once again, I find myself wondering what to type about next. The city is just so big, so vast and diverse that to focus on any one facet is to ignore a million others. I spend a paragraph talking about gardens and in so doing ignore the cities monuments to the future. The skyscrapers, built like giant glass cathedral which ascend toward the sky and leave your mind in wonder. The exhibition halls, the huge glass domes and the wonderful electronics you’ll find everywhere. And having typed that, I am once again reminded that Tokyo is a city of the future. I enjoy the remnants of the past, but it is the future the city sets its eyes upon. Not only does Tokyo seem to embrace other cultures and ideas, it takes those ideas and engulfs them, making them a part of itself and then setting itself to surpass the source from which those ideas came from. Paris has a giant tower? So does Tokyo, and it’s actually bigger in size… but here is also where I, personally, find flaw in Tokyo’s thinking as a city and I’ll use this tower as an example. The Eiffel tower is not simply a big metal radio tower, but it in many ways it is a symbol. It wasn’t just built to be the tallest, but it was designed to be a metallic work of art, you see this when you look closely at how it was built. The tower is a sort of french ideal, a wonder, that’s why not even in World War 2 could the axis bring themselves to destroy it. Building a bigger tower is impressive, yes, but it hasn’t the same effect nor the impact. Tokyo does it bigger, does it better likely, and yet somehow it’s still just not right. It’s the same with much of the ‘new’ Tokyo, and you’ll forgive me I hope if this seems harsh, but it’s shallow. That’s why I so enjoy delving into Tokyo’s past rather than face the future, glorious although it may be.

But that’s simply me, my personal opinion on the city and its peoples and ideals. As mentioned many a time, Tokyo is too big to really classify. Impossible to give a proper title to. And at the rate the world is advancing it’s only a matter of time till we find that Tokyo is the trendsetter and we, these other cities, copying it and creating our own little shallow copies of its glories. Whether or not this is a good or a bad thing I cannot say, but it is the future and not as far away as some might think. Tokyo is like a murky mirror into what every city could be given the time and people, a glimpse into the future. It is an Alpha-world-city, one of few in the world.

It is a city of the future.

(I’ll add links to pictures like I normally do when I’m home again, which could be awhile but who knows? Not me!)

The Castles of old and Newcastle.

October 6, 2008

After York I went to Newcastle, which honestly wasn’t all that impressive of a place really. Nothing particularly wrong with it there, I just found the overall experience to be fairly dull and muted. Boring. Fortunately Newcastle does have a neat castle, go figure, which I got to explore at budget prices and where most of my day in Newcastle was spent.

There’s just something extremely fascinating about castles, these massive stone juggernauts that even today stand as the pinnacle of medieval might and power. When you think of kings, of emperors, queens and lords, that all ties in with the image of the Castle, a majestic stone structure that’s built to weather the toughest of blows whether it be nature or our fellow man dealing them. It’s easy when you stand at the base of these structures to picture the sheer power these would have bestowed to the lords over the people, its size and construction is built for intimidation and military prowess. Dramatics aside, there’s also the sense of age and time that accompanies the castles of old. You see, Canada was established well past the castle era, and although Quebec sports an impressive set of early defenses, for the most part our bastions of might in the past were wooden fortress and the earth itself, torn up to form walls of mud and wood to hold back the cannons of the enemy. None of those forts really exist anymore and time has washed clear the bloodstains of the colonial era, other than the occasional monument or a cheesy recreation, there’s nothing left.

Not so with Europe. Those massive stone castles stand as a sort of testament to mans violent past. Built solely for defence, lacking almost any sense of comfort or style, such as the one in Newcastle which was designed in the Norman style. Tight corridors and narrow flights of spinal stairs, large bare stone rooms, minimal windows to keep the defence of the structure rigid. These buildings were built to withstand it all, and many have, even the test of time.

In Newcastle I believe the price was 50p to wander the bare building, large and empty. It was a rainy day at the time, and to enter onto the premise I walked under the old Black Gates, the remains of the original outer castle walls that would have once surrounded the area, now only the massive stone gatehouse long ago stained black from wear remains. Drawbridge down and wooden planks dark and damp from the water, this long structure stands out amidst the modern industrial surroundings and the heightened train tracks next to it, an ancient monolith of the past. You pass through the old gates and follow the path under the train tacks and towards the castle proper which lies just on the opposite side, another strange monolith from the past as the huge stone structure sits by itself in a parking lot, train tracks on one side, city buildings on another, and on another the last remains of the walls remain, now having been converted to a small park that leads towards the river and into more industrial land.

Up the flight of stone stairs and into the structure you’re faced with the small novelty gift shop and a small wooden booth where a bored but kindly older man sells you a ticket. In one direction lay a bare stone room where a series of pictures have been set up to list some of the castles history as well as another smaller display listing the various ghostly happening that have occurred there and a few notable people and encounters there because of those encounters, doorways lead into the castle proper. The building is built like a box, with a large central room in the middle surrounded by staircase in the corners and various smaller hallways and rooms, one unfortunate stone stairway leading up into a flat stone wall for whatever reason, the original castle builders having left it unfinished for unclear reasons. Up leads to the main hall, often used as an exhibit for various local functions, and further up to the roof where you’re allowed to wander at will. By this time the rain had begun to clear luckily and while the sky was still appropriately darkened for proper medieval ambiance lighting (Thank you Newcastle) I was able to get a stunning view. Heading deeper into the castle towards its base you’re faced with inter-connected large stone rooms, one a small chapel and another gated off to prevent people from falling down the large pit it seems to lead into. A prison I presume. What’s especially noticable here is the way the stonework is built from various different types and eras, pieces having been reused, moved, rebuilt and switched around over the years. So you’ll see an appropriately worm smooth stone from who knows when sitting atop a seemingly freshly carved stone from only a few hundred years ago. Another reminder of those castles long past.

Other than the occasional plaque with a few words of history written on them or stone monuments propped up against the walls, the place is barren and empty. No fancy showmanship for touristy delight, it hasn’t been prettied up or decorated for the most part, although a few rooms do contain some threadbare displays. And for me that’s what made Newcastle a unique and entertaining experience. The place was all but empty when I was there so no large crowds or the yelling of bored tourists, it wasn’t decorated with silly out of place childrens displays. Just the castle, here and now. See it, enjoy it, soak up the ambiance and enjoy. Very cool.

Newcastle was not my favourite city by any means, the fact that all I’ve spoken about this entire entry are castles, largely in general terms, speaks a lot of how barren I found the rest of the city, but there was nothing wrong with it either. Unlike Manchester there was no sense of disliking the place… I just couldn’t find much entertainment. There’s probably plenty to see if you knew where to look and all, but as a one-day traveller there’s only so much information open to you and so many places you can get to with limited means, aka walking. Still, nice experience and an impressive castle which gave me an excuse to rant about how damn cool the things are.

After this was Edinburgh, and another excuse to rant about medieval worksmanship, but that’s for the next entry.

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.

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.

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.