Thursday, 20 September 2012

A Pure Taste Of Ireland: Dublin

Just a short flight away from the UK, what better way to get a flavour of Ireland than from its most populous city, and capital. 

Stemming from a small Viking settlement, 'Black Pool' has evolved, often turbulantly, into the vibrant and cosmopolitan city it is today. With refreshingly little idea of what to expect, I spend a few days finding out what Dublin has to offer.

Promptly arriving by bus in O'Connell Street, I am a little surprised at the scale and grandeur of the buildings; the street is wide and flourishing with activity - very much a central hub. I pass the well cared-for Parnell monument on the way to my hotel, imposingly positioned facing the length of the street, asserting a proud gaze over Dublin. It's clear already that politics are close to Dublin's heart.

It is in fact just off Parnell Square where my hotel is situated. The Maldron Hotel I conclude, was a good choice - very well appointed, and ideally situated. After passing some typically Irish red-brick and brown Georgian buldings, this 'Irish' palette of colour is reflected in the decor of the room.

I hop on a bus departing from O'Connell street, which promises informative commentary and a 'hop on hop off' tour of the city. The most omnipresent sight as the bus travels towards the General Post Office is the Spire of Dublin, launching into the sky seemingly for miles. A modern day obelisk constructed of steel, the spire simply works, quite unexpectedly, as a beacon for prosperity and freedom reaching towards the clouds.

The spire complements the grand Georgian General Post Office building well. The GPO has served as much more than a post office in Dublin's past, incuding the headquarters for the leaders of the brutal Easter Uprising in 1916.

At the other end of the street, the O'Connell monument stands proud as if serving to protect, as well as displaying the ubiquitous harp of Ireland as seen on the Parnell monument, adding to an overall sense of a 'grand plan', or uniformity for O'Connell Street.

Many more characteristically tall red-brick houses are to be seen; they are rapidly becoming a defining feature of Irish architecture as the bus continues on. One of them is covered in a dressing of bright green and red ivy; quite surreal.

A curious, rather pleasant yeasty smell announces that the bus is nearing the Guinness Storehouse, further confirmed by the very loud bus tour commentary. As the bus turns and begins to navigate through the factory grounds, past the enormous brick and industrial buildings, I ponder the Irish influences on American architecture - perhaps Boston or New York spring to mind. 

Inisde, the beautiful old qualities of the interior have been preserved and fused with modern attributes. Old iron beams and brick walls give way to the worlds largest 'pint glass', consisting of a glass tower centre, surrounded by various levels - each telling the story of Guinness, its history and heritage.

Learning about every ingredient and every process that goes into Guinness is thirsty work - it's time to have a hand in pouring my own pint. In a very informative session, I join other tourists in being trained how to pour the perfect pint of Guinness; I am even given a certificate to prove it. Of course I am also allowed to 'sample' my perfect pint afterwards...

Well and truely a converted Guinness drinker, I leave to board the bus again. My next stop will be Kilmainham Gaol: a long decommissioned prison built in the 18th century.

A sense of grim forboding is evoked as soon as I set foot outside its grey, cold walls. A serpent-esque motif above the main entrance marks the gateway to a once hellish place of incarceration. 

Damp, chilling and musty air surrounds me as I am led around with a group, by a very enthusiastic tour guide. The squalid spaces feel alive again as I am told of how hundreds of men, women and children would have been crammed inside. Furthermore, the guide states that the conditions inside the prison around the 1850s were more more favourable than those outside; crimes would be committed intentionally in order to be locked-up here.

Peering into the cells, only a small amount of light is visible from tiny windows, high above the confined, maddening rooms. I am told stories in relation to particular cells as I move through - mostly of unfortunate political prisoners and other more romanticised tales. 

The Parnell name crops up again as the group moves into his old cell; the difference is astonishing, with a fireplace, windows and relative luxury of a separate living room and sleeping area. The story goes that Parnell, being a political prisoner in times where he had immense Irish support, was treated royally so as not to cause unrest outside the prison walls. Luxury meals, spacious private quarters and guards catering for his every whim - a very strange predicament indeed.

Stepping into the 'new' Victorian wing feels like a refreshing breakthrough, at least in comparison to the squalid concrete cells I had first seen. The prison opens up into a multi-story atrium with natural light from high above. Wrought iron staircases wind up to the various levels. Inside the cells, a marked improvement awaits with substantial windows, and cleaner, brighter rooms. This area followed the Victorian trend, or rather realisation that prisoners benefited, in terms of psychological behaviour, from exposure to daylight. Still a morbid, claustrophobic place, but a huge step up from the earlier wings.

The tour concludes with the outside area, most notably the courtyard where the executions took place. I stare up at the high stone walls, and wonder if they had any glimmer of hope for a chance of escape. Poignant crosses mark the spots of the actual killings; very stirring indeed.

I breathe a sign of relief as I am 'released' from Kilmainham through the heavy iron doors.

The next morning I head to a much cheerier place: Dublin Zoo. On route, the bus passes through Pheonix Park, which, as I am informed by the commentary, is many times bigger than New York's Central Park. With endless forest and hills in the background, it really is a tranquil haven. The Wellington Monument towers high above the trees - the second largest obelisk in the world, after Washington's.

Continuing the 'American' reminiscence, I see the white gates to the US Embassy, sporting the USA flag, and opposite, the gated entrance to the President's home. An obscure opportune glance through the trees reveals something very similar to the White House.

Dublin Zoo has a reputation as one of Europe's finest, and it doesn't disappoint. The habitats are fantastically spacious, yet afford up-close views of each animal without fail as if they knew I was coming. I also seem to stumble upon each enclosure at feeding time; the elephants, chimpanzees and sea lions show off their manners at dinner time. A baby tapir and even a baby giraffe are highlights.

I finish the evening with a hearty Irish meal in a typical Irish pub, where a feeling of warmness and Irish good will is extended. 

Even at 4am, the taxi driver taking me to the airport the following morning is almost unnaturally talkative and friendly - it seems to be customary for the Irish to treat even strangers as though they are familiar friends. I notice the many independent shops, bars and restaurants flourishing in Dublin; quite a contrast to much of the UK, where national and global companies are quickly becoming a majority. Possibly the openness and hospitality of the Irish is a reason for these shops survival - not to mention the overcoming prosperity of the Irish themselves.

I leave Dublin with a good taste in my mouth - not just from the Guinness, but a warming and unique taste from a very liberal and sociable city.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Oslo: Defying the EU

We usually tend to conjure up images of moral dissolution and economic misfortune, when imagining European life outside the EU; weak currency, battered roads, fragile infrastructure, political unease and social disruption, perhaps.

Norway, however, is living proof that life outside the EU isn't all that bad. Quite the opposite in fact. Opinion polls show a surprisingly huge increase in a resounding 'No' against the EU since debates began, and the majority of Norwegian political parties park themselves well outside the EU fence.

I experience a pricey summer trip to the super-inflated capital, and try to understand exactly why Norway is so comfortable in its economic position.

A more common image associated with Norway, rather than its economy, is cold. This association is melted away as I step on the baked tarmac of Oslo Rygge Airport, although it certainly is windy.

I am quickly advised that the quickest and easiest way to get to Oslo city centre is via the Rygge-ekspressen airport bus, and hop on board for the one hour journey. The road darts in and out of immensely long tunnels; one of which I'm convinced is never actually going to end. Some of the road signage is notably similar to back in the UK, with the plethora of deep rock-boring tunnels and abundance of open forest serving as hints of my location.

Arriving in Oslo city centre, it rapidly becomes obvious that Oslo city centre is compact, and thus I expect, easily navigable. I see a characteristic sprinkling of buildings and structures recognisable from prior reading. Using the iconic 1950's Oslo Town Hall as a homing beacon, I head in that general direction from the train station towards my hotel, just off Karl Johan's Gate: Oslo's hub.

Having heard stories of outrageously priced food in Oslo, I am not surprised to see dozens of people sitting in the afternoon sun on the grass, eating melon slices and hot dogs. I guess this is a not too unpleasant alternative to paying inflated restaurant prices.

Now rather late, I make the decision to grab a burger from a well known fast food establishment, and devour my first piece of evidence of Oslo's high food prices. What would have cost about £10 at home, sets me back the equivalent of about £22.

The Doubletree by Hilton is an extremely convenient choice, virtually a few footsteps away from many significant places of interest. It also doubles as the historic Christiania Theatre dating from 1836, giving it a distinctly suave, boutique feel.

Through the ceiling window, it's curiously light; perhaps the equivalent of summer dusk in the UK. Southern Norway doesn’t experience the midnight summer sun as in the North, but still enjoys much lighter evenings. Despite the light I convince myself it's time to crash.

Like shifting economies, various national collective art can differ in insightful, and potentially culturally mood-driven ways. It can sum up a national identity without words or reality. My first visit this morning is the National Gallery of Norway. The building itself is industrial and imposing in appearance. I get a an eclectic sense of identity through depictions of vikings, fishing, snowy scenes, rolling hills and grass covered buildings, with the highlight being Munch's 'The Scream' - certainly a real scream to see it up close.

The art communicates a solid, timeless foundation for Norway - perhaps the routes of its deviation from the EU. I head out of the beautiful brickwork building to discover more clues.

From one red-brick building to another, this time I wander towards the Rådhus: Oslo's City Hall, completed in 1950. Host to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, this is definitely a ‘love or hate’ building. From a distance, its boxy structure may disappoint, but up close each wall, corner and crevice tells an interesting story of Norwegian prowess. I love it.

As heavy rain pours, just in front of the City Hall is the waterfront. Dotted with statues, the large expanse is full of life. I check the ferry times, and head up the adjacent hillside towards Akershus Castle, increasingly impressed with the close proximity of everything.

Dating back to 1290, the castle has a rich history of Swedish battles, German occupation during World War II, and even use as a prison.

The trustworthy nature of Norwegians means that all manner of items are on display in the opulent interior, including priceless silverware. I step through each room, from the dark dungeon, to the awe of the huge dining room, and formal rooms upstairs, with equally awe-inspiring views of Oslo. One room features a light display emanating from inside wicker ball, projecting light around a grand hall, reminiscent of something from a Harry Potter movie set.

Soaked already, I decide to head back down to the waterfront and board the ferry to Bygdøy, where I expect to see several maritime themed museums. Although limited by the rain, the boat affords some spectacular views across Oslofjorden.

The wet walk to the Viking Ship Museum is a little longer than anticipated, though made interesting by the plethora of gigantic and grand Norwegian homes in this residential area. Almost bizarrely, every home seems to have the 'Securitas' logo displayed outside - business must be good for them in Norway.

The humble exterior of the museum doesn't quite do justice for what is inside. The viking ships seem strikingly 'alien'; they are seemingly just about ready to break from their supporting beams and sail out of the beautifully curvy interior of the building. Designed in the 1920s, the building was certainly dreamed up with the ancient viking boats in mind, perfectly complementing each other.

The boats and other artifacts stir the imagination, and beg the contradiction: if the vikings were such an aggressive, raging people, how could they have crafted such beautiful objects.

Another very wet trek, and I arrive at the unmistakable triangular peak of the Fram Museum building. Inside, I am confronted with the mammoth 1891 Fram vessel. I brave its extremely claustrophobic and crowded musty interior to get a sense of what it must have been like to take to explore the Arctic seas, in times of the relatively unknown. A bizarre exhibition, involving a moving floor, ice walls, and ice mummies adds to my experience.

The Kon Tiki museum opposite showcases the raft of the same name. Constructed in 1947, the balsa wood raft's purpose was purely an attempt to demonstrate the theory that it would have been possible for ancient civilisations to sail from South America to the Polynesian islands, using early tools.

Having endured soaking wet socks and an irresponsible choice of non-waterproof shoes, I hop back on the boat to the waterfront, and enter a Norwegian shopping mall in a mission to find some new shoes. I pick a pair that will do the trick, and emerge recovering from the shock of the price tag.

Perhaps a downside to living in such a strong economy is that locals, particularly Norway's youth, seemingly don't have the 'luxury' of super-cheap shopping bargains. However, salaries here seem to be in support of fueling the extravagant prices.

Although not unique to Oslo, the Icebar is an interesting feat. I head towards it, sporting my new, and most importantly dry shoes. With a current theme of the 'Nautilus', the bar is temperature controlled to keep everything intact. I am given a coat and gloves to wear before going inside the icy room - with the added benefit of a cocktail of course.

Giant squid, octopus and sea creatures are skillfully sculpted into the ice and walls. While at first 45 minutes I am given seems stingy, I leave the freezing room feeling somewhat relieved to be warm again.

I finish up my day with a walk around the eerily trusting grounds of the Royal Palace; I get the sense that one could happily walk right up the front door - perhaps even cheekily ask for a peep inside.

Unheard of, and unlike the stone-cold, humanless stare of the guards at Buckingham Palace, I am given a welcoming smile by a guard as I walk on through the Norwegian Palace gates into the gardens. It seems this national sense of financial confidence also extends to a warming feeling of security and trust. Financial insecurity and safety insecurities seem to be directly linked in other less prosperous countries.

Transport in Norway, as I become increasingly aware of the following morning, is also something that Oslo can boast about. Trams, busses, metro, trains and ferries seem so frequent and reliable, the need for a car is negligible. The feeling of trust is further extended here, as I am never asked to present my ticket.

I board the metro in the city centre - tall buildings give way to houses, then to lakes and forest within minutes. The metro is transformed into a slaloming train, curving its way up the side of a huge hill. Views begin to open up spectacularly to vistas of the Oslo fjords, valleys and lakes.

Not much later, I arrive at Holmenkollen: home of the ski jump. The first glimpse of the dramatically rising ski tower is earned with a steep hike further up the hill. It's very difficult not to be wowed by the scale of it. Inactive during the summer, it still speaks of the spectacle of winter sports. Inside, the ski museum educates me about the evolution of the ski jump over time. I'm disappointed to discover the lift to the top is closed today, and promise myself I will return during a winter to see it in full action.

The very un-urban metro, or 'T-bane', takes me to the last stop on the line: Frognerseteren - where I have no idea what I will find. A brief walk along a trail from the station leads me to stumble upon Frognerseteren restaurant. Constructed in 1891, the wooden, slightly oriental style building is something special, situated high above Oslo. I take my time eating a much needed cake, and sip an equally needed coffee while taking in the views, and unique atmosphere of the building.

Returning to Oslo city centre in the brilliant sunshine, I witness hundreds of people descending on to Karl Johan's Gate to soak up the rays, and the ambience of the many bars and cafes now spilling out into the street.

I secure a good people watching spot before dinner, and observe the wealth, the prosperity and the confidence of Norway walk by.

The train journey back to the airport also laughs in the face of the railway infrastructure I am accustomed to, with reliability, comfort and panache far exceeding anything that UK trains have ever offered.

Oslo has given me a glimpse of a nation that preserves its national identity as well as its own financial interests in perfect unison. Norway has positioned itself ideally in its economic position, boosted by its geographic location, where it can comfortably sit within discerning arms reach of the EU. Such a position affords beneficial EEA trading that doesn't allow the EU to smother and envelope its financial integrity, or begin to chip at its global identity.