Big City Tales

Behold the Best of the British Isles

March 27, 2018
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Anyone who has studied European history knows that the countries that occupy the territory known as the British Isles have not always been on friendly terms. Scotland invaded Ireland in 1315; bad blood spewed between England, Scotland and Ireland during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the 1600s; and Northern Ireland waged guerrilla warfare with British security forces from the 1960s to the 1990s. Despite past conflicts, however, the countries and their respective major municipalities have managed to maintain an aura of neighbourly civility and hold fast to their distinctive identities. In this blog, the best of the British Isles explores the cities of Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh and Glasgow that are sometimes over-shadowed by jolly ol’ Londontown but are equally deserving of being in the spotlight.

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Belfast

As the capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast has had its fair share of economic and political ups and downs.

In the 19th century, the city was at the centre of the Industrial Revolution owing to its linen, tobacco, rope-making and shipbuilding production efforts. Belfast’s economy continued to grow into the early 20th century and the city gained renown as the location where the RMS Titanic was built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the world’s largest and most productive of its kind.

Following World War II, industrial activity waned for many decades and in the late 1960s the city descended into a prolonged period of political strife known as The Troubles, or Northern Ireland Conflict.

The Troubles pitted Irish nationalists desiring an independent Northern Ireland against Union loyalists who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom in a sometimes violent battle over the country’s constitutional status. Riots and bombings made for a state of general unrest and the city suffered the consequences, especially in the 1970s and 1980s when Belfast was deemed to be one of the world’s most violent cities. In the 1990s, hostilities subsided and, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the city has since enjoyed a peaceful rebirth.

Today, Belfast is booming again and terrorism has made way for tourism. Popular attractions such as the Titanic Belfast, St. George’s Market, Botanic Gardens and Cave Hill Country Park show off the city’s finest aspects and are doing a good job drawing people in. So good, in fact, that in 2016 the Titanic Belfast earned the coveted distinction of World’s Leading Tourist Attraction according to the World Travel Awards. Here’s hoping that Belfast’s “heart will go on and on” for centuries to come.

Dublin

Fans of the rock band U2 will certainly know that beloved lead singer, Bono, hails from Dublin, Ireland, as does drummer,  Larry Mullen Jr. These good ol’ Dubliner boys definitely helped to put the city on the map in recent history but, long before they took the music world by storm, Dublin rocked out on its own in other significant ways.

The Norman Invasion and Dublin Castle

While the Norman Invasions marked the beginning of a very long period of English/British presence in Ireland, one of the positive outcomes was the creation of Dublin Castle. Initially a defensive fortress with tall, thick walls and surrounding deep ditches, the castle was also eventually used as a residence for the Lord of Ireland assigned by the English monarchy, as well as a meeting place for parliament and the courts. It even served for a time as a military post. Following the end of the Irish War of Independence and subsequent creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the castle was handed over to Michael Collins, the famed revolutionary who was head of the new provisional government. Going forward, the castle would no longer be used as a seat for the English; rather it became the site for presidential inaugurations and other official state ceremonies. More recently, the castle has been renovated to serve as a conference centre and host of an annual Irish music festival.

The River Liffey and Ha’Penny Bridge

Flowing through the centre of Dublin, the River Liffey divides the city along north-south lines and, in addition to being a major water source, also provides a venue for numerous recreational opportunities. Along with an annual canoeing and swimming event, the river is used by rowing clubs and for fishing and rafting purposes. Waterfront activities include admiring the many bridges that span the River Liffey (over 20 within the Greater Dublin Area alone). One of the most unique is the Liffey Bridge, commonly referred to as the Ha’Penny Bridge, which is a cast iron, arch pedestrian bridge. The name Ha’Penny refers to the toll that was initially charged to bridge users and remained in place up until 1919.  The Ha’Penny is a city icon and is one of the most photographed landmarks in Dublin.

The Temple Bar Pub Scene and Guinness Beer

Known as Dublin’s cultural centre, the Temple Bar area is located on the south side of the River Liffey.  In addition to a lively pub scene, the region includes institutions such as the Irish Photography Centre, the Irish Film Institute and the Irish Stock Exchange that are frequented during the day. Once nighttime falls and work is done for the day, it goes without saying that the pubs fill up, beer starts flowing and Guinness is most assuredly on tap. The much consumed and much loved Irish dry stout has been wetting the lips of Dubliners since 1759 when it was first made at St. James’ Gate Brewery. The Guinness Storehouse located at the historic site of the brewery is a must-see spot for all ale aficionados. A self-guided tour is offered that includes an overview of ingredients and brewing techniques, and sampling a pint in the traditional tall Guinness glass complete with sinking bubbles when the spout is poured. Cheers to you, Dublin!

Edinburgh

Whether you’re a high brow or low brow enthusiast, Edinburgh is sure to provide opportunities to challenge your intellect and delight your senses in equal measure.

An ‘Enlightened’ City

The capital city of Scotland earned one of its nicknames, ‘Athens of the North’ during the 18th century when great Scottish thinkers such as Robert Burns, David Hume, Adam Smith, James Hutton and Joseph Black became well known for their contributions to the Scottish Enlightenment period. Art, literature, philosophy and the sciences were at the forefront of intellectual pursuits and the myriad accomplishments of Edinburgh residents at this time resulted in the city being held in high esteem. The tradition of high brow culture continues to this day with some of the world’s best festivals held annually in Edinburgh to celebrate theatre, music and literature. Among the most popular are the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

An ‘Unrefined’ City

Along with being an impressive think-tank, Edinburgh also has a reputation for some of its citizens cutting lose and enjoying the less-than-lofty pursuits of an all-night pub crawl or dancing by bonfires in the street in homage to ancient pagan rituals. This seedier side of Edinburgh is known as Auld Reekie, a basic, down-to-earth, unpretentious approach to life that favours good beer over good books, and offers up plenty of uncensored fun.

A ‘Beautiful’ City 

Edinburgh’s city centre is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site for good reason. Be it the medieval spires of St. Giles’ Cathedral and the steep, narrow streets of the “Royal Mile” in Old Town; or the neo-Classical and Georgian inspired architecture along Princes Street in New Town, the city’s core is a bevy of beautiful buildings and picturesque parks such as Princes Street Gardens. Head to the top of Calton Hill for an incredible view of both Old Town and New Town, and take time to admire the many memorials located there such as the National Monument, the Nelson Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument, and the Robert Burns Monument. Also, don’t miss a visit to Edinburgh Castle that sits high on Castle Rock and is considered to be one of the city’s most important historical structures.

Glasgow

Aye, ’tis true, lads and lassies, Glasgow is touted as the “world’s friendliest city” and it’s not just the local Glaswegians (or Weegies) who sing its praises. From the New York  Times to Conde Naste Traveller’s guides, the city is landing on “must-see” and top cuisine lists owing to the wide range of world-class attractions and gastronomical options it offers. The city has also been lauded for its diverse architectural styles ranging from Neo-Gothic to Victorian to Art Nouveau buildings that are best viewed on a leisurely walk.  For those taking a tour, be forewarned that the local dialect known as Glasgow patter and its euphemisms may be difficult to understand but, rest assured, the guide is sure to be warm, welcoming and full of a wealth of information.

“Must See” Sights

City Centre Mural Trail – Quirky street art is all the rage in Glasgow’s City Centre region and it’s not hard to spot the huge and colorful works of art that comprise the City Centre Mural Trail. From the famous floating taxi and Spaceman to Glasgow’s Panda and Hip Hop Marionettes, the murals cover an array of subject matter and are a true showcase of local artistic talent.

Clyde Arc – Also known as Squinty Bridge, the Clyde Arc spans the River Clyde and is famous for its curved design and how it crosses the river on an angle. The bridge provides direct access to the Pacific Quay district and various waterfront amenities such as the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, Glasgow Science Centre and Clyde Auditorium (known as the SEC Armadillo).

George Square – Located in the city centre, George Square is named after King George III and was first laid out by city planners in 1781. The square is the home of Glasgow City Chambers and contains a number of historical monuments honouring famous Scots such as Robert Burns, James Watt, Sir Robert Peel and Sir Walter Scott.

Glasgow Cathedral – Considered to be one of the finest examples of Scottish Gothic architecture, the Glasgow Cathedral was built in the 12th century and is purported to be situated on the site where the patron saint of Glasgow, Saint Mungo, built his church. The cathedral was also the first location of classes offered by the University of Glasgow.

Glasgow Science Centre – Consisting of three buildings (Science Mall, Glasgow Tower and IMAX Cinema), the Glasgow Science Centre is a top-rated visitor attraction. The centre was built as part of the Clyde Waterfront Regeneration urban renewal project and is located on the south side of the River Clyde.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum – With its state-of-the-art galleries and 8,000 artifacts, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is one of Glasgow’s most popular attractions. Bonus: Admission is free! Offering a mix of civic art, animal displays and Ancient Egyptian exhibits, there is also a special area dedicated to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Mackintosh was a local architect and designer known for being a founder of the Glasgow School movement that fused elements of Celtic Revival, Arts and Craft Movement and Japonisme that came to be associated with the definition of the emerging Art Nouveau style.

SEC Armadillo – Originally named the Clyde Auditorium, the SEC Armadillo owes its nickname to the armour-like shell appearance of its exterior. The complex is part of the Scottish Event Campus (SEC), which also includes the SEC Centre and SSE Hydro indoor arena. The SEC Armadillo is notable for being the location where singer Susan Boyle was discovered during auditions for Britain’s Got Talent.

 

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Prague – The Beauty of Bohemia

December 21, 2017
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Prior to travelling to Prague in the fall of 2014, I had seen plenty of pictures and read many reviews about the city’s growing reputation as a must-see destination of choice over other European gems such as London, Paris and Rome. Having visited the ‘Big 3’ on my first trip across the pond, I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical that Prague could somehow surpass them in esteem, especially Paris, the glorious City of Light, but my opinion changed. In no time at all, I was succumed by the Beauty of Bohemia!

Municipal House

I found it very fitting that Municipal House is located in Namesti Republiky (Republic Square) in the center of Prague. Not only was it once used as the primary residence of the King of Bohemia in the 14th and 15th centuries; its main balcony was where Czechoslovakia declared its independence as a country in 1918. In addition to its status as the city’s historical heart and one of its most architecturally stunning Art Nouveau structures, the building has evolved into a cultural landmark. The elaborately decorated Smetana Hall is the largest area inside of Municipal House and is used for concerts, festivals and ballroom galas. By day or by night, this Prague gem captured my attention, earned my admiration and drew me back more than once.

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Powder Tower

Located next to Municipal House is Powder Tower (also known as Powder Gate), one of the city’s original gateways that was constructed in the late 1400s. The Gothic-style tower is the dividing point between the Old Town and New Town districts. Originally called New Tower, the name was changed in the 17th century when the tower was used to store gunpowder. The tower has also been used over the centuries as a marker to measure the height of flood waters. Similar to many of Prague’s historic structures, it struck me that the tower is equally impressive at any hour of the day and there are many interesting angles to observe it from.

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Old Town

While Municipal House was where the modern country of Czechoslovkia was born, its medieval roots are found in the Old Town district. Old Town Square is a UNESCO World Heritage site and features a number of historical buildings and monuments, as well as a large open space for food vendors, entertainers, and craftspeople to utilize. As I happily discovered, it is the ideal place to sample traditional Czech dishes such as palicinky (pancakes), trdelnik (rolled dough), gulas (meat goulash), or knedliky (dumplings) and then enjoy your beverage of choice at an outdoor cafe with an amazing backdrop of Renaissance and Baroque building facades to ooh and ahh over. Along with satisfying my sweet and savory cravings, Old Town Square served up other visual delights to feast my eyes on:

  • Astronomical Clock – As the third oldest of its kind in the world, the clock draws throngs of tourists to the southern wall of the Old Town Hall building where they eagerly await the top of the hour to strike and watch the figures come to life. I particularly enjoyed the “Walk of the Apostles” and other moving sculptures. According to legend, if the clock were ever to stop or come to disrepair, the city of Prague would suffer dire consequences so there is a concerted effort to keep it fully operational for citizens and visitors to forever enjoy.
  • Jan Hus Monument – Located in the middle of Old Town Square, the Jan Hus monument honours the religious reformer who, long before Martin Luther penned his 95 Theses, was speaking out against egregious church practices. Even after being ex-communicated by the Pope, Hus continued sharing his message and amassed a loyal following which the Catholic establishment frowned upon. When Hus refused to renounce his beliefs, he was branded as a heretic and subsequently burned at the stake.
  • Kinsky Palace – Once the residence of the Kinsky royal family, the Rococo-style palace is now an art museum and showcases some of the country’s finest landscape paintings dating back to the 17th century. The building’s exterior is a work of art in and of itself with its distinctive stucco finish and highly eye-catching pink and white colour. Before it was converted into a museum, the palace was used as a German grammar school and counts Franz Kafka as one of its famous students. Sadly, the palace was also the site where Communist leader Klement Gottwald announced his party’s takeover of government in 1948.
  • Church of Our Lady before Tyn – Looking very much like a castle straight out of a fairy tale, the church’s two Gothic-designed towers stand 80 metres tall and are each topped with four spires. The church is also home to Prague’s oldest pipe organ.

Wenceslas Square

Located in Prague’s New Town district, Wenceslas Square is primarily a hub for commercial and cultural activities. The long boulevard that extends from the National Museum to the border between New Town and Old Town reminded me of the Champs Elysees in Paris with shops, cafes and throngs of tourists intermingling with the city’s business crowd. One of the major landmarks is the Wenceslas Monument that stands in front of the National Museum and includes a statue of Saint Wenceslas (patron saint of Bohemia), as well as four other Czech saints. The area is also a frequent gathering place for social demonstrations and civic celebrations.

While I was familiar with the classic Christmas carol called “Good King Wenceslas,” I did not realize that during his lifetime, Wenceslas only held the rank of duke. It wasn’t until after his brutal death at the hands of his jealous brother that he was posthumously granted the title of king and recognized for his pious nature and good deeds.

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National Museum

The main building of the National Museum was unfortunately closed to the public due to a major reconstruction project that was underway when I was there in 2014, but the grounds were open to walk around. At the base of the stairs leading up to the museum’s entrance I came across the Jan Palach Memorial. Palach was one of two university students who self-immolated in a suicide pact to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to quash liberal reforms being proposed at the time by Alexander Dubcek, leader of the Prague Spring movement. The bronze cross marks the spot where Palach and his friend, Jan Zajic, chose to commit their radical acts. To this day, people come to the site and lay flowers in a sign of remembrance and respect for the ultimate sacrifice made by Palach, Zajic and others who desired political freedom.

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Prague Castle 

Situated in Hradcany (Castle District), the Prague Castle overlooks the Vltava River and also holds the distinction of being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the largest ‘coherent castle complex’ with a total land area sprawling over 70,000 square metres. As I was forewarned, appropriate footwear is a must and ample time is required to wander around this massive wonder.

The Gothic-designed St. Vitus Cathedral, home of the Archbishop of Prague, is one of the most identifiable landmarks within the castle complex and is easy to spot from a distance with its nearly 100 metre high main tower dominating the skyline. The church is the largest and oldest in the Czech Republic and is the final resting place for many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors.

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In addition to St. Vitus Cathedral and other churches, the castle complex is also a myriad wonder of palaces, grand halls, towers, sculptures, gardens and museums. The President of the Czech Republic lives in the complex and presides over the country’s affairs. The Prague Castle Guard protect the main entry way of the courtyard leading into the Matthias Gate that was erected by its namesake, Matthias, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1614. Similar to other major European castles, tourists are treated to frequent changing of the guards ceremonies.

One of my favourite parts of the Prague Castle day tour I took was walking through the St. Wenceslas Vineyard that cascades down the hill towards the Vltava River.  The cobblestone pathway was littered with freshly fallen leaves just starting to change colour with the advent of fall’s crisp, cool air.

I also took a ‘Prague By Night’ tour that included a stop at Prague Castle where the St. Vitus Cathedral glowed in tones of rich gold and spotlights cast spectacular shadows of presidential monuments. The view of the castle complex from afar was also awe-inspiring with light reflecting off of the river water below.

Charles Bridge

Up until 1841, the only way to cross the Vltava River from Old Town to Prague Castle was via Karluv Most, the Charles Bridge, named after King Charles IV. The bridge is constructed of stone and is over 600 metres in length. Its many features include three guard towers, 16 arches and 30 statues. Whether I was experiencing the market-like bustle of the bridge as a pedestrian or admiring its architectural style from a riverboat (along with a bevy of swans), I could not deny the utter charm and timeless appeal of this historic bridge.

Vltava River

Commonly referred to as the “Czech national river,” the Vltava is 430 kilometres in length and flows through the center of Prague. There are a total of 18 bridge crossings within Prague, the aforementioned Charles Bridge being the most famous, and there are numerous boat tour operators offering morning, afternoon and evening launches. I chose to enjoy an afternoon tea and dessert tour and it hit the spot!

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One of the highlights of the river cruise I took was viewing the Metronome (high on the hill in Letna Park) and the Svatopluk Čech bridge with its gorgeous Art Nouveau styled arches and soaring column-topped angels.

Angels in the sky

The Beauty of Bohemia

After a week touring around the heart of Bohemia, I went from skeptic to firm believer that Prague is the new Paris! It’s just as pretty; it’s just as bright; it’s lights will take away your breath at night. Yes, the Beauty of Bohemia is quite a sight and the locals sure know how to show it off all right!