Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gotland #2

Day 2 on the island began looking like it was going to be a total washout. It had rained all night and continued to do so during the morning. I decided to go sightseeing anyway – a wet tourist is better than no tourist. I'd read about a working Viking village/museum at Tofta, a few miles south of Visby so headed off to there. Closed. I caught a glimpse through the locked gate and that was it. By now I was feeling a bit despondent and there were a few tears of frustration when I got back to the car. More than anything, this crappy northern European weather is getting me down a bit. I don't mind that it's a bit on the cool side but the constant rain – in Liverpool, in Ireland and now in Sweden – is beginning to wear me down.
Rather than go back to the hotel and sulk I decided to head to Farosund, about 50kms north of Visby. In the back of my mind I had the idea of crossing over to Faro, a much smaller island separated from Gotland by just a few hundred metres. Driving in the rain and on the wrong side of the road isn't all that much fun and there wasn't a whole lot to look at along the way, except a few churches and the odd windmill here and there.
A couple of kilometres short of Farosund I saw another Viking village/museum. It was closed too. I'm not sure when anything's actually open on Gotland.
Anyway, as I was about to leave a lady came out through the gate and said that yes, they were closed but I was welcome to go in and have a look around anyway. I wouldn't be able to go inside any of the houses, etc but could still walk around the site. So in I went, suddenly feeling a lot more positive about the day.
The museum has a number of houses (some with thatched rooves, some with tiles), stable, sheep pen, windmill (post-Viking vintage), wind-saw, a couple of waterwheel mills, tools and other artefacts, etc. Plus some runestones. I think I smiled properly for the first time for the day when I saw them. They've probably been moved here from their original homes but they looked authentic. One runestone has runic writing while another has a complete pictorial history of whoever it's a memorial to.
Just to prove I was in the right place, the sun came out. Once again, all was right with the world.

Standing stone

After I'd had my fill of Vikings I headed into Farosund. Crossing to Faro is by ferry but it was over the other side when I got there. So I had a wander round. There's not a lot to see besides the little harbour. I went back into town – needed the supermarket and a toilet. While I was doing that the ferry came and went. Sigh. Nevermind, I decided to head to the west coast and make my way back to Visby as I hadn't given that a proper look.


It rained on and off all the way back. I stopped at a couple of places during rain breaks – Sjalso for instance; a tiny village with a small stone pier and a few fishing boats. Pretty though.
I headed into Visby from the north and had to enter via the northern gate – a proper medieval gateway in the old city walls. Impressive. I found somewhere to park and went exploring round the old cobbled streets. Fortunately the rain seemed to have ceased by this stage.
Apart from the city walls with their towers there are numerous ruins scattered about – churches mostly. The church of St Nicolaus, an old Dominican (Blackfriars) establishment, is quite big but is basically an empty shell. There was some sort of Renaissance banquet thing being prepared for. I didn't have a ticket so had to leave. The Cathedral of Santa Maria is impressive. It's fully intact and is a working church. It has three black spires which I found interesting. The parish churches scattered around the island are all very Romanesque in style. This had a much more Russian look to it. Or, perhaps, Russian churches have a Swedish look about them – given that the original 'Russians' were a Swedish Viking mob called the Rus. Pics of Visby will be up in a day or two.
Because the weather had cleared up, mysteriously, there was a decent sunset happening by the time I'd finished with the cathedral. I wandered down to the sea walls and took too many photos of the sunset, as usual. It was cold but enjoyable.

Visby sunset

Then dinner and back to the hotel. Another 5am start today to catch the ferry back to the mainland. I'm on the ferry as I type – the sea looks cold and mean out there. I'm glad to be on this huge ship and not in a Viking longboat, under sail and oar and open to the elements! Those guys were tough!

Back in Akersberga now. Out for dinner tonight then back on a plane tomorrow. Back to Liverpool for a bit.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Gotland is an island off Sweden's east coast, in the Baltic Sea. It has lots of historical goodies to investigate.
I managed to find my way from Akersberga, through Stockholm in morning peak hour, to Nynashamn - about 50kms south of Stockholm. From there I caught the ferry (officially the biggest ship I've ever been on) to Visby, the main town on Gotland. The ferry trip is about 150kms and takes about 3 and a half hours. The weather in Nynashamn was clear but deteriorated markedly as we got closer to the island. The Baltic Sea has quite large swells - you have to admire the seafarers of the past who conquered it with just a couple of sails and some oars.
My hotel is walking distance from the ferry terminal - I have a perfect view of it from my window :-/
I'm facing west so was hoping for a decent sunset. Ha. Blanket cloud and rain is all I got. I went for a wander around part of the old town here but gave up after half an hour or so. Found a place to eat and shelter from the rain instead. I can't remember the last time I was so cold. I took a few snaps with the baby camera but only a few are usable. The rest have big raindrop smudges across them :(

Cute street

Haha, I'm in Gotland, Sweden and ate at a place called O'Leary's which is run by a couple of Spanish guys and serves Mexican and American style food and Irish beer. Go figure.

I woke up to more rain but it seems to have stopped at the moment so I'm off to explore.

Monday, September 13, 2010


I spent yesterday in the Old Town area of Stockholm. My host, Liselotte, was going to a wedding so we caught the train into the city and then she went off to the wedding and I managed to negotiate the subway to Old Town.
It's quite confronting, at first, to be in a place where nothing is in English. Signs, names, directions, etc are all in Swedish. But most people speak English pretty well so one just has to ask.
Old Town dates back to the 1600s when Sweden was an important European power. The basis of that power was the sea - Stockholm has been called the Venice of the North because of the way it's built on 14 islands where the River Norrstrom meets Lake Malaren before the whole thing empties into the Baltic Sea. Right back to the days of the Vikings, Swedes have been excellent seafarers. There's, disappointingly, no evidence of the Vikings in Stockholm; you have to go to places like Birka and Gotland to see that heritage. There are plenty of ships and boats moored along the many waterfronts though - everything from giant passenger liners to small fishing boats.
The architecture of Old Town is interesting. The buildings are tall but quite narrow. The streets are narrow too, and cobbled. Cobblestones can be very hard on the feet after a while!

Old Town, Stockholm

The area is dominated by the Royal Palace, the official residence of the Swedish Royal Family. It's a huge baroque building and makes a good landmark for finding your way around. For 140 Kronor you can tour various parts of the palace but photography is not allowed. 100 Kronor equals about 15 Aussie dollars. Sweden is, on the whole, an expensive tourist destination.

The Royal Palace

From Old Town and the palace I crossed the river to the island of Skeppsholmen. This used to be Stockholm's naval base but is now a public area. The buildings have mostly been converted into hotels and restaurants. I had a glass of wine in a converted torpedo workshop! The ex-naval training ship, the af Chapman is now a youth hostel. Yesterday was an open day of some sort for the island so the ship was acting as a floating bar and cafe.

af Chapman

After wandering around the island I ended up back near the ship and thought it was time to start making my way back to Akersberga. Until I saw a sign....... the Chinese Terracotta Army. Woohoo!! I can't remember the cost but it was worth every penny.
There are tunnels under the island, storage, secret military places, etc., which have been converted into an exhibition space. This is where a selection of the Terracotta Army is on display. I wandered round twice taking photos - allowed as long as you don't use flash - then twice more just looking. There are only a handful of the 8000 or so warriors on display but that's plenty to get a good idea of what it's all about. There are also a selection of smaller figures - warriors and animals - from the later Han imperial tombs. The larger figures (they stand over 6 feet tall) are from the Qin emperor - the First Emperor. These are dated back to 210 BC. There are also examples of tomb architecture and other paraphenalia - jade figures, dragons, lucky discs, etc. Absolutely fascinating. A must-see if you're in the area.

Chinese Terracotta Army

From there I wandered back to Old Town where I ate an expensive plate of spaghetti and then made my way back to the subway. I managed to negotiate the subway, then the train to Akersberga, then the bus to the house without any dramas.
All in all, a rewarding day.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Next stop: Sweden

Up at 4am or thereabouts this morning. 7.30 flight required me to be at the airport by 5.30. Don't know why though as I had ages to sit around wishing I was still in bed. Uneventful flight to Heathrow where I had a 2 hour wait for the connecting flight to Stockholm. The huge distance between one terminal and another meant that I didn't have too much time to just sit around. two shuttle buses just to get from Terminal 1 to 5. Arrived at Arlanda airport, just outside Stockholm at about 3.30pm Swedish time - an hour ahead of the UK/Ireland. Another shuttle bus to the car hire centre. I've got a VW Golf to play with now. Manual, diesel and completely the wrong way round!
I got out of the airport at about 4.30 and headed off for Akersberga, about 40 minutes from Stockholm. Haha, took me two hours. Got lost three times. Plus it was peak hour and traffic was at a snail's pace for some of the journey. I discovered that the GPS doesn't work here - it's only programmed for the UK and Ireland. There is a map in the car though and the roads are well sign posted. I still managed to end up on the road to Oslo somehow. I didn't do too badly driving on the wrong side of the road. Only got beeped at once.
So the journey took about 14 hours all up. I'm a bit weary this evening!
100 Swedish Kronor equals just under AU$15. When I found that out I felt a bit better about the hideous price I paid for a bottle of water.
My first glimpse of Sweden from the plane showed huge expanses of very tall trees. Looking forward to getting out and about with the camera.


Thursday, September 9, 2010


The Republic thereof is, in a word, fascinating.
The last week, from Waterford to Wexford, to Wicklow to Dublin has been a wash out, literally, but the previous two and a bit weeks were well worth the effort.
The little Freddo Frog car has been given back to its keepers and I must say it served me well. Over 2,500 kilometres at a cost of not much more than 100 euros for petrol. Far and away the cheapest part of the trip! Prices in Ireland don't seem to be overly expensive.... until I do the calculations into Aussie dollars. It's been an expensive few weeks and later on I'll probably regret staying in hotels rather than B&Bs - the need for wifi I suppose.

I've seen a fair bit of the country I think, though no doubt I've missed lots too. I think I've seen enough to get a general feel for the country. The main feeling I've had is that sometimes it's just not in the real world. There is magic here. Most definitely. It's hard to explain but sometimes I could sense it - particularly in forest areas. Though maybe I'm just telling myself I could sense it. I prefer to believe in the magic.
The parts of Ireland that are in the real world are, however, in deep trouble. Listening to radio and TV news as I travel round, it's clear that the economy is floundering. The main issue at present is what to do with the collapse of the Anglo Irish Bank. Unemployment is high and about to get higher. It's interesting though, that a lot of the people, especially the women, who work in hospitality are from Eastern Europe - Polish and Czech mostly.

The Irish themselves are not really as the stereotype would lead you to expect. Most do not have red hair or green eyes and most eyes, whatever their colour, are not smiling. People are friendly enough when you speak to them but there's an underlying feeling that this is a country in severe trouble and that life is far from easy.
In many parts of the country, particularly rural areas, the people speak Gaelic. It's interesting to listen to - sounds almost Germanic at times but it's clearly not. Even those who speak English are barely intelligible. That lilting accent you hear on TV, the one so many people love, is very much the toned down, and very much slowed down, version and not the norm once you're out of the main cities. Challenging. However, I only have to say two words and they all know where I'm from. Everyone I've spoken to knows someone, in their family usually, who's moved to Australia. It seems that in past times the Irish would go to Boston, now they go to Sydney, Melbourne or Perth.

The country itself is beautiful. The west coast is much wilder and less populated than the east. There are many more trees in the south and east - out west there are rocks. I'm not at all surprised that everything is built from stone. There's plenty of it about.
I was surprised, pleasantly so, by how much history there is here, just lying about for all to see. Neolithic tombs, stone circles, standing stones, medieval castles and religious establishments - and not all are ruins by any means. The churches are particularly well preserved. But then this does seem to be a very religious country. Catholic of course. Several times I went into a church or cathedral with my camera and there'd be people (both genders, all ages) inside praying, lighting candles, etc. Every town and village has a church (or two, three or several), there's even one in the middle of the airport.
There are abandoned cottages everywhere. I read somewhere that the roofless ones are from the time of the Famine in the 1840s. Apparently, after the potato crop failed, destitute peasants were evicted and landlords burned the rooves to make sure they couldn't return. The Famine is not forgotten here. The abandoned cottages are still there and there are memorials in many areas - some in towns, some in the middle of nowhere.
What I haven't seen is wildlife. I did see a badger dead on the side of a road but, apart from that, I've only seen domestic animals: sheep (who own the roads as well as the fields in the west), cows, horses, donkeys, dogs (sheepdogs mostly) and feral cats (in more populated areas). As for birds - gulls and crows mostly. Crows are everywhere!

What are everywhere, of course, are tourists. I've come across other Aussies, lots of English and, by far the majority, Germans.
Irish roads can be a challenge - once you get off the main highways the roads become very narrow. Signs are to be taken with a grain of salt. Guidelines only. Although, I wish I'd taken a pic of one of the "Traffic Calming" signs. I saw them everywhere when there's a change in the speed limit coming up, usually when approaching a town or village. The best sign ever. :)

It's hard to decide what my favourites bits were: The Burren with its wealth of neolithic history, the Dingle Peninsula for its spectacular scenery and Fungie the dolphin, the village pubs with enough seats for maybe a dozen people, the greenness, Traffic Calming.
There's a lot to like :)

I need to pack up the suitcase, get some sleep and head off to Sweden in the morning.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Kinsale to Waterford

It was about 2 in the afternoon when I got out of the hotel. Watching the Saints beat Geelong was so sweet :)
I went up the hill, around the harbour to Charles Fort, a 17th century fort which overlooks Kinsale. The walls are intact - in fact, they're so thick I doubt anything could knock them down. The buildings inside are all gutted though as the place was burned out during the civil war in 1922. Great views of the bay and harbour. However, it was very hazy and grey so not so good for photography.
It was about 4 by the time I'd finished wandering around so I decided to take the highway towards Cork. The roads on this side of the country seem to be in much better condition. I guess it's the more populated side of the country, more traffic, etc. Anyway, 20 or 30 kilometres down the road and all of a sudden I'm in peak hour traffic. Ugh! I got stuck on the ring road and just followed the traffic round endless roundabouts. No idea where I was. Finally saw a sign to Waterford so I pushed my way into the left lane and off I went. Didn't see Cork at all. I'm sure I've missed some interesting stuff. Oh well.
The road to Waterford was busy but not excessively so. The main thing I noticed was the blanket of haze across everywhere - not sure what it was: smoke or smog maybe. Made everything a uniform grey and very hazy. Didn't bother stopping for scenery shots as a result.
Finally got to Waterford about 7.30/8pm. Stopped at the first hotel I came to - right on the river. There's plenty to look at in the town and surrounds. I want to chase up some of Waterford's Viking history if I can. Today though, I think I'll do the indoor thing - the crystal glass factory, churches, etc. Mainly because it's pouring with rain :( I hope it's not going to rain for all of my last week in Ireland. That would suck.

Driving in Ireland is an interesting experience. Once you're off the main roads it's better to trust your instincts than the road signs. So many times I've followed a sign to such-and-such, 2km.... then 2km down the road is an intersection or junction and no sign to tell you which way such-and-such is, or how far. Plus the roads get very narrow, VERY narrow. It's an adventure alright! :) Everything's fine until another vehicle appears, coming the other way. That can be interesting!
The most annoying thing is the number of Audi drivers rushing up behind, wanting to speed past. Pushy drivers in Ireland ALL drive Audis. If I see one coming I just find somewhere to pull over. I hate being tailgated.
I love the signs on main roads when you're approaching a town or village. Instead of saying "Traffic lights (or roundabout) ahead" they say "Traffic Calming". I just think that's gorgeous :) Traffic calming. Makes me smile every time I see such a sign.

Time to go explore Waterford.

Friday, September 3, 2010


The first thing to be said is that, after the wilds of Kerry, the countryside in Cork is quite ordinary. It seems to be a more populated county and most of the countryside, that I've seen, is farmland. The fields are green, of course, but the fencing is different to what I've seen elsewhere - more use of trees and wire rather than the stone walls I've become used to.
There's just as much history here though - stone circles in particular. There are apparently about a hundred of them in the Cork region but I've only seen a couple.

Dromberg Stone Circle

I'm currently in Kinsale on the south coast. Very pretty harbour town. The Spanish Armada was sent here in the late 1500s as part of the war between England and Spain. Ireland, being a Catholic country, was happy to support the Spanish. There's a small peninsula not far from here, called Old Head, which is where the Lusitania was sunk during WW1. There's a lighthouse down there too but you can only get close enough to view it if you're a member of the golf club. The whole Old Head area is now a private golf course so there's no access to the lighthouse and coast for plebs like me. The locals and, of course, tourists are very unhappy with this situation but the golf club doesn't care. Pfftt!!

Old Head

I'm currently sitting in the bar of the White Lady hotel in Kinsale. The football is on the TV. First game of the finals: Saints V Geelong. Replay of last year's Grand Final. Hoping for a different result this year!

GO SAINTS!!!!!!!!!