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The Travel Map - March 2007


March 28th 2007 12:41
In the wake of the historic power sharing deal struck between Northern Ireland’s Protestant and Catholic parties, the lessons of the past troubles live on in Belfast’s street murals.

“It ain’t pretty but it’s our most popular tour by far. So I guess that’s what people want to see.”
These are the parting words of our former taxi driver guide who has just taken us on a tour of Belfast’s street murals in the Protestant Shankill Road and Catholic Falls Road districts, in the city’s inner west. Like any good cabbie, he is passionate about his city but it is hard to see how any of his other tours – to the steely shipyards that spawned the Titanic or the much-bombed city centre itself – could really be termed pretty. It just isn’t that sort of place.

Like the rest of Ireland, Belfast is riding high on the back of the country’s purring ‘Celtic tiger’ economy. It is undergoing a massive makeover but still retains its historic grit and the scars of more than 30 years in the frontline of Ireland’s sectarian troubles.
With an historic power sharing deal now in place, the residue of the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland appears to be fading, so much so that the history and lessons to be learnt from ‘the troubles’ are now playing a part in modern day Irish tourism.
Troubles tourism may sound crass but it isn’t. Thirty years ago, the streets of west Belfast were among the bloodiest in the world. Now former taxi drivers who once wouldn’t dare take fares through this part of town make a living ferrying tourist around to see the street murals depicting the passions, prejudices and pride of the Protestants and Catholics communities that have long waged war and are now learning to live side by side in the ‘new’ Northern Ireland.

There has been a truce on hostilities since the Good Friday Agreement of 1999 but old scars take time to fade and Shankill Road and Falls Road still proudly display their tribal colours through their spirited street murals.
These are now peaceful communities. Even the high brick walls that have long segregated the neighbourhoods are now called ‘peace lines’. Tourists are no more at risk here than on the outskirts of any other major city in the world and the murals can be taken in on foot as the majority are found within a relatively small area. But who could possibly make a better tour guide than an Irish taxi driver? A number of former drivers are now more than willing to steer you around these battle-scarred streets, with an abundance of insight, explanations and, of course, humour at the ready.
These personalised tours are highly emotive and thought provoking, which is more than can be said for many tourism ventures around the world. They in no way glorify the past troubles that plagued Northern Ireland for three decades and killed thousands. In fact, the drivers openly extol the virtues of the peace in which they now rejoice. They have seen too much bloodshed and now they have a taste of peace, they never want to lose it again.
The street murals themselves are powerful works of art that capture the eye, strain the mind and jolt the heart. They are also remarkably well maintained by their communal owners. Some are aggressive and intimidating, although our driver informs us that cash incentives have been introduced for the removal of weapons from the scenes, and others are more reflective in honour of those lost. All serve as reminders of the suffering and hatred that has long been the hallmark of this city and highlight the importance of not taking peace for granted.
The troubles dominate the artworks but the long centrepiece of work on Falls Road branches out into a variety of themes, including racism and the current troubles of our time – Iraq.
As a traveler from a country with little or no experience of war on our streets, it is no wonder we are drawn to the foreign opportunity to tour the streets of a former urban battlefield. It ain’t pretty but I guess that’s what we want to see. As long as we learn some lessons along the way, as these neighbours now have.


‘Papa’ in da House

March 21st 2007 10:35
Here’s one for all the hip young kids out there.
Forget San Fermin in Pamplona, Oktoberfest in Munich, the Love Parade in Berlin or Glastonbury in England. The real action on Europe’s greatest hits tour is at the headquarters of that that most cutting-edge of social and cultural institutions – the Roman Catholic Church.
That’s right boys and girls. The Basilica di San Pietro (St Peter’s Basilica) in Rome is where it’s at.
The sheer size and lavish luxury of the world’s largest and most expensive church is impressive at any time. But the real fun starts when the big fella, P-Daddy, Papa, the artist formerly known as Josef Ratzinger, the one and only Pope is in da house.
Pope Benedict XVI may not have the same instant charisma of his rock-star-meeting, sunglass-wearing predecessor, but he can still pull a crowd and knows how to work the adoring masses into a frenzy.
While I am now embarrassed to admit it, I hadn’t originally planned my latest trip to Rome around seeing the Pope. Never again!
I had taken in the modesty of St Peter’s before and, second time around with my wife in tow, was planning a similar, leisurely stroll through the hugely impressively basilica and equally impressive Piazza San Pietro – just us, and a few hundred of our newest, closest friends.
The crowds get pretty thick here at any time of year, but as we walked up the long straight approach of via della Conciliazione the hive of human activity in the piazza was absolutely humming.
“It’s just a busy day,” I said, trying to sound like an expert on all things St Peter’s and also trying to drain the memory bank from my visit eight years earlier. I remembered it was busy, but not quite like this.
When we got to the piazza, it was completely full of rows of seats, which in turn were completely full of rows of people, and then some. In short, it was packed. The whole piazza was also fenced off and patrolled by polizia and/or carabinieri (I never know the difference, although they both look intimidating and not to be messed with)
The next penny to drop for us was that everyone getting past the uniforms patrolling the entrance had hot little tickets in their hands, which we did not.
So our dilemma was thus: wait outside and watch a huge group of people waiting for something to happen, even though we had no idea what that something was?; or go inside and join the huge group of people waiting for something to happen, even though we still had no idea what that something was?
In the end, the decision went along the lines of: “Why not, we’re here. Let’s give it a go”. We may have indeed been here, but we didn’t have tickets, a matter I decided to approach delicately when we reached the uniform on the gate. “Do you need tickets to get in here?” I said, mustering the bravado that seems to magical fill one’s normally meek home-bound persona when overseas. The reply was a clichéd Italian shrug of the shoulders, which said nothing but was a green light in anyone else’s language.
After the security pat down and baggage scanners, we were in and loving it. Except for the small detail that we still had absolutely no idea what was going on.

The crowd was a religious one, smattered with the robes and habits of priests, nuns and the like and also the colour and excitement of more fervent followers – modern-day pilgrims from all corners of the globe enthusiastically waving their national flags and religious messages of choice.
The buzz and anticipation started to rise and soon it became clear the masses were waiting for someone to arrive. Surely not the Pope? We couldn’t have stumbled into a papal audience? It must be some important cardinal or visitor.
Then right on queue, the sea of people awash in the piazza began to part as a car made its way through the crowds. Not just any car, this was the Pope-mobile and we were going to see the Pope.

It was at this exact point, that my wife and I both felt a simultaneous feeling of utter excitement and embarrassment. Excited that we were about to see the Pope, and embarrassed that we were excited that we were about to see the Pope.
I have since tried to justify that feeling of completely unexpected excitement by acknowledging that the Pope is one of the most famous persons on the entire planet. His face is on TV, newspapers, and computer screens everyday throughout the world and we were about to see him in the flesh. It’s that simple. He is famous, very famous and people get excited about seeing famous people.
The people packed into Piazza San Pietro got very excited indeed that day. People young and old ran and jostled their way to the best vantage points to see the Pope, the Italians amoung the crowd adoringly proclaiming their ‘Papa’.
After working the crowd from his open-top chariot, the Pope was duly deposited right at the make-shift altar by his wheels (no walking up steps for famous people, especially 78-year old famous people).
Supported by his posse of cardinals, the Pope then addressed the faithful in a variety of languages, blessing them and their families. The groups of pilgrims that had travelled from far and wide were then acknowledged individually, which bought much cheering and flag waving from those mentioned.
It was not a stretch to imagine a spontaneous chant of ‘USA, USA, USA’, although the groupies from the Pope’s homeland of Germany were not to be outdone in the nationalistic fervour stakes.
The cheering, flag waving and all round excitement went on and on. This was worship, but not as I know it. ‘Papa’ was in da house and St Peter’s was party central for his devoted followers.

An audience with Pope is held in Piazza San Pietro on Wednesdays at 11am (when he is in town). You are meant to book tickets through the Prefettura della Casa Pontifica. Tel: 06 698 84 631. The office can be accessed under the colonnade to the right of Basilica di San Pietro on entry. It is recommended to book at least the day before, that morning at a pinch, or not at all.


March 17th 2007 10:29
That most famous of days for the Irish today – St Patrick’s Day.

So to celebrate, here’s a few Irish-isms I have picked up from my travels.

And no, I have never once heard an Irish person say ‘top o’ the morning to ya’ or ‘potatoes, potatoes’!

Grand – great

No bother – no worries

Howaya – hi

You right there? – you Ok?

Jesus, Mary and Joseph – anything

Your man – anyone

Fair play to you – well done

Yoke - thing

‘tis – it is

Em - um

Lads – any group of two of more men

Feck - Fuck

Eejit - Idiot

Fierce – adjective, very

Desperate – adjective, bad

Gasp – expression to exemplify/highlight

Softness - rain

Would love to hear any others


Top o’ the mountain to ya

March 14th 2007 11:33
I had a bit of an Irish theme going last week but it is actually Saint Patrick’s Day this Saturday March 17, so what better time to look at St Pat’s own mountain in Ireland and the trek to the top – a challenging day’s walk and a great way to work off the daily intake of Guinness and hearty breakfasts
Ireland’s holy mountain boasts a dominating presence befitting its religious significance. Its pyramid-like shape dramatically rises over the peaceful coastal setting of Westport and the endless islands dotted in Clew Bay in County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast.
The 765metre mountain provides walkers with the challenge of following in the footsteps of St Patrick himself, who climbed to the summit in 441, fasted for 40 days and nights, and banished snakes from the country forever

[ Click here to read more ]

Spare no expense – visit Oslo

March 10th 2007 08:11
I am usually pretty sceptical of surveys, particularly travel ones like: Who would you most like to sit next to on a plane? Well, no-one actually.
What thing do you leave behind the most when traveling? Um, my home?
They are pretty stupid

[ Click here to read more ]

Getting Small Towns on the Map

March 8th 2007 07:09
Small towns are great (to paraphrase John Cougar Mellencamp).
OK, maybe not to live, breathe, work and die in the same small town but definitely to visit. I was born and bred in a city and now live on the beach in a ‘smallish’ place. It is small enough to get around easily and big enough to have everything I want. You also get to know a few people.
Big is not always better, especially when you are travelling. The big cities have the big attractions but you are just another tourist among the hordes. In the small towns you can really sink your teeth into another culture. You can interact with the locals and see how they go about their daily lives. Often, they don’t get up to much at all - which is pretty much what people in small towns do all over the world. And that’s the appeal for the traveller because you get to watch them doing not much at all, while you do the same, and in the process you probably learn more about another country and its people than you could from any museum

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Irish Put Craic in Our Rock

March 6th 2007 06:16
Australia is full of Irish pubs, so why not an Australian pub in Ireland?
A bit like selling ice to Eskimos, but it is Ireland after all. Too many pubs is never enough when they are used for drinking, eating, meeting, chatting, singing, playing and warmth at all times of the day.
To be honest, it’s a wonder no one hasn’t thought of it before given the strong historical and social links between the two countries

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Travel’s Fringe Benefits

March 2nd 2007 07:52
Extended periods of travel bring with it the vexed questions of: to cut, or not to cut.
Hair, that is. Sure, long, unruly hair usually goes with the territory of wandering the world but even the most carefree nomad will reach a point where the main question will be what to do with the mane? Do it yourself, get a friend to do it, shave it all off? For us blokes anyway this path more often that not leads to the experience that is the foreign barber shop.
Some of life’s most mundane activities can magically transform into exciting experiences when overseas, such as catching a bus, buying food, getting medical attention and even finding a toilet (these last two are often linked). Getting a haircut, for me, fits squarely in this category

[ Click here to read more ]

Seven blunders of the world

March 1st 2007 07:41
The New 7 Wonders campaign is undertaking one of the largest global polls ever to come up with a new, updated list of the world’s seven wonders.
The Swiss-based campaign is hoping to receive more than 100 million votes from around the world before revealing its list on July 7.
This attempt to update ancient history by ranking the new seven wonders of the world aims to modernise the original seven wonders list made by the Greeks more than 2,000 years ago

[ Click here to read more ]

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