Category Archives: Culture

Observations: Two Weeks in Italy!

Every town in Europe seems to have a historic district, and while they are all, in a way, similar, many are also unique.  One unique example is the historic old town in Genoa, Italy.  Being quite hilly and stuck between the mountains and the sea are two things making the old town unique.  Also, it is massive and easily the largest old town district I’ve visited in Europe.

Modena, Italy…The City of Engines?  It has less than 200,000 people, but the area around Modena boasts a lineage of sports/super car manufacturers unrivaled anywhere in the world. Historically elite manufacturers Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini, along with relative newcomer Pagani each have headquarters, factories, and/or test tracks within earshot of Modena, literally.  One morning while relaxing in Modena’s Giovanni Amendola Park I could hear the fine tuned engines working on the test track a few kilometers away.  The City of Engines?  yes!

Milan, among other cool things, is the home of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper.  Who knew?  Not me….until the day before arriving in Italy’s second largest city.  Painted in the 1490’s in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie and commissioned by Leonardo’s patron Ludovico Sforza (the Duke of Milan).  Fun fact #1 I didn’t know until visiting the painting: It is massive, about 15 feet high and 29 feet wide.  Fun fact #2: It is on a wall, and previously above the door to the kitchen.  While enlarging the doorway in the 1650’s Jesus’ feet had to go.  Long ago bricked up, the strange irregular shaped doorway arch is still part of the painting today.

Bologna, Italy is home to the oldest university in the world, famous for its towers, the home of Ducati motorcycles, and miles upon miles of awesome porticoes (covered walkways and building entrances).  The longest portico is two miles!

I’m no scientist….but Venice is sinking.  Or maybe sea levels are rising.  Either way there is some flooding going on in the City of Canals/City of Bridges/City of Water/City of Masks/The Floating (Sinking) City.  That said, it’s still pretty damn cool to walk around this city and if the flooding is only prevalent during  certain times of year (though each year it is getting a little more frequent and deeper!).  No worries though, bring some galoshes with you on your visit and you’ll have no problems!

Shame And A Nail

It’s interesting how ones perspective changes.

At the time I wasn’t all that interested in the war.  I remember hearing about it on the nightly news and wondering what reason there could be for it.  I remember casually glancing at headlines as I worked my way to the sports page in the Kansas City Star each morning.  But being a Midwestern boy in my mid teens, I generally concentrated more on sports than on the issues affecting people half way around the world.  People I would never meet.

But now I’m here, in the Balkans, meeting some of those people (the ones that survived) I readily forgot about as a teen.  If you haven’t guessed I’m in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where any direction I gaze, there are the ruins of war.  Still.  Shells of houses and office buildings, large and small, still left standing as a of cruel reminder of a war that ended almost 18 years ago.  Both Sarajevo and Mostar (the two cities in which I’ve stayed while in country) have more than their share of these abandoned, empty monuments to an ugly, not so distant past. Like leaning stacks of Jenga blocks it’s almost incomprehensible how some still stand all these years later.

For me now, about 20 years on, the fleeting teenage curiosity which was easily dismissed in favor of MLB box scores has returned.  So I’m here, learning the chronology of events which occurred while I was memorizing Green Day song lyrics…all but oblivious to the world’s ‘big picture’.

Since this happened in the 90’s it’s well documented with thousands of photos and hours of video.  Not the grainy, reel to reel type video you may think of from the Vietnam War but decent quality late 20th Century cable news type video.  The images displayed in the Bosnian Historical Museum and Siege Exhibition (both in Sarajevo) will not soon leave my mind and they make it easy to feel emotional pain and sadness about events that took place here only a generation ago.

But an even stronger emotion I’ve had the last few days is one of shame.  Shame it took me two decades to learn about things I’m old enough to remember.  And shame such events took place in my lifetime (and still are in other parts of the world).

Perhaps I feel more connected to this because my brother was here, off the coast in the Adriatic, while in the Navy.  Perhaps because boys just a few years older than me, living within the Siege of Sarajevo, would be initiated into the Bosnian Army in 1992 and their Serbian counterparts could have been responsible for civilian deaths, murders really, in ‘Sniper Alley’, the road that connects industrial Sarajevo to its cultural and historic Old Town.

As someone traveling long-term, I take photos of many things (that’s what we do) but for some reason I haven’t taken too many while in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Below is one of the few.  It’s a picture of a nail and some paint.  The most important nail in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The nail and red paint was the marker used, on the out-of-town side of the Tunnel of Hope, to help guide the builders of the tunnel.  I don’t know the logistics, but suffice it to say that looking from one side to the other, almost 1000 meters, through binoculars and seeing this nail somehow gave the engineers enough directional information so the two sides met in the middle, five meters under the airport runway.

Tunnel of Hope Nail
Tunnel of Hope Nail

The one question I asked my Tunnel Tour guide was, ‘What would have happened without the tunnel?’  The look on his face was at the same time stoic and frightened, thankful and worried. And it spoke volumes.  Without the tunnel the hopes of people within the city would surely have declined.  And a weakened resolve could have been enough to….well, I don’t want to think about it.

To me the nail symbolizes the cold, steely resolve of these people and both contributed to their survival.

Who knew a nail could mean so much?

 

Road Tripping in Turkey!

Goreme Sunset -  From Sunset Hill

Goreme Sunset – From Sunset Hill

Being in Istanbul first gave me the chance to start my Turkish experience like every other country over the last six months: solo.  It allowed me to visit some must-see sites in and around Sultanahmet, Istanbul at my pace…on my schedule.  Just the way I like it.  That said, I was really looking forward to the upcoming adventure.  I welcomed the change of pace.

Together, with my friend Alex, who I’d met in Warsaw less than a month earlier, we’d formed the beginnings of a master plan for our road trip around Turkey.  There were a few places that were a must-see on the list of destinations: Cappadocia, Pamukkale, the coast.  Other than that, we had no idea what would happen, where we’d go on our road trip or how long we’d stay there…like I said, the beginnings of a plan.  In other words we’d be going on some ‘Unmapped Travels’, and figuring it out along the way.

For me, it was an epic journey.  Not only for the experiences we had, the people met along the way (local and traveler alike), and things we were able to see but also for the friendship that can only grow out of a 10 day road trip in a small hatchback.  Ten days I will not soon forget.

Here’s a little breakdown of my Turkish road trip:

September 9th

  • Picked up rental car
  • After crossing the Sea of Marmara via ferry, we drove to Selcuk, Turkey (on the west coast)
  • Went straight to the beach and swam in the Aegean Sea (the clearest water I had ever been in)

September 10th

Ephesus Library From Below
Ephesus Library From Below
  • Visited Ephesus (ancient Greek and Roman ruins) and the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World)
  • Went for a quick dip in the Aegean Sea
  • Drove to Pamukkale, Turkey
  • Visited the hot springs and travertine pools
  • Visited Hieropolis (ancient Greco-Roman and Byzantine ruins)

    Hot Springs and Travertine Pools of Pamukkale
    Hot Springs and Travertine Pools of Pamukkale

September 11th

  • Drove to Fethiye, Turkey (on the west coast)
  • Went to a secluded beach, twice

September 12th

  • Drove to Oludeniz (a small town next to Fethiye) to take a boat tour of the bay (including Butterfly Valley Beach, a few islands full of  ancient ruins, and a natural cold spring pool that leaks into the cove)
  • Drove to Kas, Turkey (on the south coast)

September 13th

  • Went to the Kas’ weekly bazaar (much more interesting than the seemingly made-for-tourists Grand Bazaar or Spice Market in Istanbul)
  • Went to Kaputas Beach (the new clearest water I’ve ever been in)
  • Drove to Olympos, Turkey (on the south coast)

    Kaputas Beach
    Kaputas Beach

September 14th

  • Drove to Antalya, Turkey (on the south coast) to pick up another traveler, Kristen, who would join us for the rest of the road trip
  • Drove to Goreme, Turkey (Cappadocia region, central Turkey)

September 15th

Kristen Exploring the Church at Selime
Kristen Exploring the Church at Selime
  • Took bus tour of southern and western Cappadocia region (including Derinkuyu Underground City, Ilhara Valley, and Selime)

September 16th

  • Hiked through Red and Rose Valleys and explored some fairy chimneys along the way
  • Watched sunset over Cappadocia from Sunset Hill

    Alex Exploring in Red Valley
    Alex Exploring in Red Valley

September 17th

  • Took sunrise hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia region
  • Drove to Safranbolu, Turkey
  • Walked around the Old City (UNESCO City)

    Sunrise Over Cappadocia
    Sunrise Over Cappadocia

September 18th

  • Again, walked around UNESCO City
  • Drove to Istanbul, Turkey
  • Dropped off rental car

Other than that, there are a few funny stories and interesting experiences (both on the road trip and in Istanbul) that are worth noting:

  • After over five months on the road (and drinking tap water every day) I finally drank some ‘bad’ water.  It came from one of the (supposedly) safe underground springs in the mountains between Pamukkale and Fethiye.  Luckily the giardia, or whatever bug I got, wasn’t too bad and only lasted about two days.
  • While leaving Goreme for our several hour drive to Safranbolu our GPS directed me to turn into several fields, and finally after ‘recalculating’ took us on a trip over several miles of gravel and dirt roads before landing us back on a highway.  Along the way we nearly got attacked by a sheep dog, chickens, and a flock of geese, and drove through a herd of cattle.  Also, we learned that there ARE turkeys in Turkey.  Who knew?
  • All told we drove just over 2900 kilometers (1800 miles) while spending about $300 USD on diesel for the Lancia Ypsilon rental car.  Luckily we averaged well over 45 miles per gallon for the trip because Turkey, as we found out a couple of days before picking up the car, is the highest priced country in the world for fuel.
  • Without a doubt the best experience I had while in Istanbul was going to a hammam (Turkish bath).  We got a tip from a couple of Belgians about a hammam a little out-of-the-way in a completely ‘locals only’ neighborhood.  It was an authentic hammam experience, just what we wanted.   The men working spoke zero English but intrepid travelers wandering in is nothing new to them.  Alex and I both ordered the full service hammam which includes a long steam in the ancient marble saunas followed by a harsh scrubbing with a kind of loofah, taking away layers and layers of dead skin.  Following that is a wash down with soapy water and a very rough massage, all by some old Turkish men (women for the female customers).  After all that we sat back in the sauna for more sweating.  Then, to cool down, they wrapped us in several dry towels and gave us the local specialty, apple tea.  It’s an amazing cultural experience and as a bonus, I felt completely relaxed and rejuvenated when it was all done.  The best 90 minutes of my time in Istanbul!
Cool Down at the Hamam
Cool Down at the Hammam
  • I thought the Turkish food was excellent everywhere.  The Meat House, just two minutes walk from the park in between the Blue Mosque and Ayasofya Mosque, was easily the best place I ate while in Turkey.  Recommended by a friend of mine, we ate there the night Alex arrived in Istanbul and again before we left for our road trip.  Most places have pretty reasonable prices for a meal in this area, and The Meat House was even lower.  Also it had great Turkish cuisine and a large selection of it.  But perhaps the best thing about this typical Turkish restaurant is the way the staff treats its customers.  Most (and when I say most, I mean 99% of all businesses, not just restaurants, in Sultanahmet) restaurants are very aggressive in trying to get potential customers to come to spend money.  They sometimes start talking to you from down the street as you approach and don’t easily take no for an answer.  It’s just the opposite here and the reason we kept coming back after the road trip.

That’s it.  An amazing experience from start to finish.  Eighteen days of food and culture. Natural and man-made sites that are among the most interesting I’ve visited in Europe.

Thank you Turkey, I will be back!

 

Scotch Whisky

Before arriving in Scotland I’d heard of something called the Scotch Whisky Experience (SWE).  Other than reading it was worth visiting, and its near the Edinburgh Castle, I knew nothing about what it actually was other than it having something to do with scotch.  Also, I knew it would make all my scotch loving friends massively jealous and that was enough to make up my mind…I was going!  These types of tours are typically not as much fun solo, luckily I had met two friends (Andrea and Tim) in my hostel that also wanted to go.

Since we three were all traveling long-term, on a budget (Andrea, about 7 months and Tim, over 2 years!, and me, somewhere between), we chose to take the least expensive tour available.  While some tours included dinner and some other extras, ours was more basic…but still fantastic!  The tour guide placed us in a roller-coaster-like whisky barrel seat and we went on a 10 minute ride that explained the entire process of making Scotch.  Starting with ingredients, then going through the different methods used to create malt, on to aging, bottling, etc.  I knew most of the process already but they present the information in an interesting way and I think it would be easy for someone with no previous knowledge to follow along.  After the informational ride our guide took us into a room with about 25 tasting glasses set up, unfortunately only one was for me.  She explained the four main distilling regions for single malts in Scotland and the characteristics of each.  They include:

  • Islay – Has distinct smoky flavors that come from peat.
  • Speyside – Where most Scotch distilleries are located and the two best-selling single malts in the world, The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, are distilled here.  Speyside Scotch tastes either grassy and light or sweet and rich.
  • Highland – Has a wide range of flavors due to its large geographical size.  Tastes range from dry to sweet with a touch of smoke/peat.
  • Lowland – Light bodied with subtle malt and grassy aromas.

Along with the 4 main single malt regions there are also blended scotch whisky distillers (Johnny Walker being the world’s best selling) where they will mix several different single malts to create a unique blend.

After giving us the 411 on the single malt regions we practiced picking out the different aromas using a scratch and sniff card.  No joke.  After only a few minutes with the card, along with some tips/hints from our guide, we were (nearly) able detect fruity notes in Speyside Whiskies and the stronger smoky peat flavors from Islay.  We then got to choose a single malt from one region, or a blend to taste.  Since the night before I had indulged in a small, airplane sized bottle of 18-year-old Bowmore (an Islay scotch), I chose to try Speyside.  Tim picked Islay and Andrea went with the Highland region.  Out guide poured each of our drinks and led us to another room, the tasting room.  While she was unlocking the door I realized this was the only locked room on the tour, and for good reason as it houses the world’s largest collection of unopened single malt scotch.  Over 3400 unique bottles, no duplicates.  That’s three thousand four hundred bottles of single malt scotch, unique and unopened!  Owned by the parent company of Johnny Walker, and on loan to the SWE for 10 years, it’s the perfect place to taste scotch and end the tour.  Since Andrea, Tim, and I each chose a different scotch to taste we decided to taste each others also.  And with our new knowledge of the subtle flavors and aromas unique to each region it was quite easy to pick out the differences in the three, and I suspect if we were able to try whisky from the Lowlands on this day we could have picked out its characteristics as well.

Below is a video of the tasting room (apologies for the amateur-ish-ness, my cameraman doesn’t exist so I shot this with my iPhone).

You do not need to be a scotch connoisseur to enjoy this experience.  The historical and cultural information learned from the SWE stand alone as reason enough to visit, and the whisky barrel ride, while sort of kitschy, is entertaining.  The tasting at the end, in that tasting room, is just icing on the cake.  I think almost anyone, apart from someone who is against drinking alcohol altogether, would have a good time at the SWE.

This was a really enjoyable morning for all three of us (that’s right, we were doing this at 10 am!) and something I wish I could have shared with my brother and our scotch loving friends, but was glad to share it with two other solo travelers nonetheless.  It’s something I would recommend to anyone traveling to Edinburgh, and when I go back to Scotland I may do it again, just to see that collection!

Belgium – European Beer Culture Unfiltered #3

I think everyone has been in this situation: You’ve heard person after person and review after review give the same high praise to something (like when you’re about to see a movie or read a book or listen to an album).  Maybe it’s because I usually see new movies only when they make it to TV and discover new bands only after I hear friends talk about them for months, but it happens to me all the time.  So, I try to keep expectations low after hearing good reviews of something because going in with those unachievable high expectations always leads to letdown; even if it ends up being great, the real thing can never live up to the hype.

I went to Belgium knowing it’s one of the top locales in the world (some would argue it is #1) when it comes to abundance of great beer.  I knew the hype.  I’d heard it many times before arriving in, and countless times the previous three months while traveling through, Europe.  So, as is customary in this situation I went in with low expectations; not British Real Ale or Schlitz Ice low, but low nonetheless.

I must say: I was pleasantly surprised.  Astonished actually.  More on that later.

I’d actually started trying Belgian beers in The Netherlands while staying with my friends Hans and Drusella.  Everywhere we went I tried either a local Dutch beer or a different Belgian, which were on ever menu…and all good.  These beers were exactly what I’d expected and was accustomed to from trying imported Belgian beers like Duvel and Affligem in Kansas City.  As mentioned before, Belgium has (perhaps) the greatest concentration of good beer in the world.  It would be fun to taste as many as possible and write about my favorites.  Fun, and expensive, and something I’d be more willing to try as a 23-year-old.  Because of the scale of drinking that would entail, I took a slightly different approach to this edition of European Beer Culture UnfilteredI’d be spending 4 nights in Belgium, two each in Brussels and then Brugge, and had heard about one specific (and unique) brewery in each city.  In Brussels the Cantillon Brewery and in Brugge, De Halve Maan Brewery.  I decided to take each brewery tour, taste their respective offerings and report on those experiences.  So, here it is:

Cantillon Brewery in Brussels

Admittedly as I approached the Cantillon Brewery, in a sort of run down looking – off the tourist tract – Brussels neighborhood, I was skeptical.  Surely this ‘great’ brewery wasn’t in this neighborhood with trash on every sidewalk and abandoned buildings on every street corner. But if there is one thing you learn over and over as a traveler, it’s to not judge a book by its cover.  That applies with people as well as places, so walking into the brewery I was determined to find out for myself what Cantillon, and their beer, were all about.  I immediately had a smile slapped on my face that wouldn’t leave until well after I’d taken the subway back toward my hostel.  Upon entry you immediately see that this operation has been around for a while…its not just trying to look vintage, but actually old school.

Cantillon Brewery
Cantillon Brewery

Started in 1900 (and currently owned/operated by the 4th generation of the same family), Cantillon brews Lambic beer, a sour tasting beer that, due to the natural fermenting agents (bacteria and yeast) which are present in the ambient air of the wort cooling room, goes through spontaneous fermentation after being transferred to oak or chestnut barrels.  Historically all beers were produced this way but after 1860 when Louis Pasteur made some discoveries in the exciting world of yeasts (that eventually led to the processes of TOP fermentation and BOTTOM fermentation, both of which utilize the intentional introduction of specific yeasts) that changed.  Now only Lambic is still brewed using spontaneous fermentation.

Still with me?  That is the boring technical stuff about Cantillon Brewery.

Cantillon Brewery
Cantillon Brewery

The fun stuff was the tour and tasting.  I’ve only been on a few brewery tours but this was definitely the best!  I think that’s because Cantillon is a true old-timey, family run operation and it being a self-guided tour with a read along informational booklet provided.  I was able to go at my pace, take as many pictures as I wanted, and I had time to look at EVERYTHING.  At one point I sat down and read part of the booklet for ten minutes.  That would never happen in a larger brewery, guided tour environment.

After spending about an hour going through the facilities I made my way to the bar to get my, ‘included in the tour fee’, two sample beers!  First they gave me a tasting glass with Grand Cru Bruocsella, a three-year old Lambic that, since it doesn’t undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle and no extraneous CO2 is added, is a beer without foam.  Some call it the missing link between beer and wine.  It was very sour, slightly too sour for my taste but after learning about the process and the beer I definitely appreciated the craftmanship involved in brewing Lambic.  Getting to choose the second beer I would taste, I went for the one that

Grand Cru Bruocsella, Cantillon Brewery
Grand Cru Bruocsella, Cantillon Brewery

didn’t have any fruit added (many Lambic varieties have fruit soaked in the beer for many months to impart their flavors in the beer).  I chose Gueuze.   I know, funny name.  (side note: Since I visited Cantillon I’ve tried to use Gueuze while playing Words with Friends to no avail!)  Gueuze is a blend of one, two, and three-year old Lambics that DOES go through secondary fermentation in the bottle.  A good Gueuze in a good cellar can keep for more than 25 years!  This was also sour, but I thought smoother than the Grand Cru and since it was bottle conditioned had a head similar to what ‘modern’ beer would have.  Both beers had a nice golden color and the tasting room was full of other tour goers chatting in between ‘bitter beer face’ looks.  That made me laugh!

The whole experience, from walking in to taking the tour to tasting the finished products was great.  And since I’d recently been told, by two different people, I was wearing one of two or three shirts in all my pictures (because I’m only traveling with a few shirts!), I bought a new Cantillon Brewery t-shirt.  It was a great morning in Brussels!

Cantillon Brewery
Cantillon Brewery

De Halve Maan Brewery

De Halve Maan Brewery
De Halve Maan Brewery

Going back six generations the De Halve Maan Brewery in Brugge, formerly Henri Maes Brewery, has been operated by the same family.  After a few incarnations of the company over the last few decades, including a name change to De Halve Maan (The Half Moon), this is the last brewery of what once were hundreds within the Brugge city walls.  This, brewery which has been used for generations, is still being in production today and along with their other facility nearby but outside the city (there was no room for expansion) the beer they produce is, in my opinion, phenomenally good.

Located on a busy square in touristy Brugge it’s a much more commercial looking set up than the Cantillon Brewery.  It has to be more commercial to survive in this environment.  That said,

De Halve Maan Brewery
De Halve Maan Brewery

the price for a tour was inexpensive at 7 Euro (including the beer) and the guided tour, while fast paced and crowded, was interesting (I had a great tour guide) and informational.  And by placing myself at the end of the line most of the time, I was able to hang around in some areas to snap a few photos as if I were there alone.  Like I said, this brewery has been in operation for well over 100 years and while they’ve upgraded to more efficient, modern equipment in many areas of the operation, the ambiance of generations past remains.  More ‘modern’ styles of beer are brewed here, no Lambics, so there would be nothing sour about this day, not even the taste!  The complimentary beer received here is not a taster, rather a full pint of Brugse Zot in their signature glass (every beer has its own glass in Europe, and they are all shaped differently).  This goldenblond  beer is the brainchild of the sixth generation leader of this brewery and was introduced in 2005.  To me it was kind of a cross between really good craft brewed Pale Ale and Wheat beer in the States.  There was nothing overpowering about the taste or aroma and at the same time I could tell I was enjoying a something special.

Brugse Zot, De Halve Maan Brewery
Brugse Zot, De Halve Maan Brewery

Later I would find out people come from all over Europe, and the World, to drink this beer in the exact place I was sitting.  But why?  Being the only beer still produced in Brugge’s town center, it is said to have a different, better taste at the brewery.  Although I didn’t hear if there is any validity to this claim, I would guess it has something to do with the beer served here being at its best and not sent to a bottling facility outside the city.  Whether it’s local legend or actual fact, I felt truly lucky to enjoy a truly great beer in this place.

The next day, my last in Brugge, I was out getting a bite to eat and noticed the other style of beer produced by De Halve Maan, Straffe Hendrik (Strong Henry).  There are a couple different varieties:  Straffe Hendrik Tripel and Straffe Hendrik Quadruple.  Since I’ve tried a few in the past I went with the Tripel so I could compare it to others.  First off, it was better than other Tripels I’ve tried.  A smooth, hoppy taste with a complexity of flavor I’ve rarely encountered. And it was better than the Brugse Zot I tried at the brewery, I wasn’t expecting that.  In fact Straffe Hendrik Tripel is the best beer I’ve ever tasted.  Again…the  BEST BEER I’VE EVER HAD!  EVER!!  I really wasn’t expecting that!  The intense flavors somehow manage to not overpower each other and it’s drinkability remains even though it is a 9% beer.  Also, this beer has an awesome history I didn’t know until writing this article.  It was developed on demand of the local Mayor in 1981 to be served at the inauguration of the statue of Sint-Arnoldus, the saint of beer brewers.  How cool is that?

So knowing I wouldn’t be able to try all the great beers in Belgium I narrowed my scope and tried beers from two local brewers owned by two brewing families in two great cities.  The results were interesting, educational, and…well…tasty!  I couldn’t have been more pleased with both experiences: the traditional and historic sour taste at Cantillon Brewery (one of the last breweries still doing it the ‘old way’) and the indescribable perfection at De Halve Maan.

Straffe Hendrik Tripel, Brugse Zot, De Halve Maan Brewery
Straffe Hendrik Tripel, Brugse Zot, De Halve Maan Brewery

Irish Stout in Ireland! – European Beer Culture Unfiltered #2

Irish stout, or ‘leann dubh’ (black beer) in Irish, has a dark, rich color and when poured correctly, a nice thick creamy head.  The taste of coffee and/or roasted malt normally comes out when drinking an Irish stout and some people also get a hint of chocolate in a subtle sweet aftertaste.

Popular brands:

Freshly poured Murphy's Irish Stout
Freshly poured Murphy’s Irish Stout
  • Guinness – Everyone around the world knows Guinness.  Based in Dublin (since 1759) they’ve brewed beer since 1756 and after starting life making ale they changed to porter (stout).  At one time Guinness was the largest brewer of beer in the world and is still the largest brewer of stout.
  • Beamish – Brewing since 1792 and based in Cork, Beamish was the largest brewery in Ireland for about 30 years in the early 19th century.  Their flagship brew has always been Beamish Stout.  This brewery is now owned by Heineken.
  • Murphy’s – Established in 1856 and, like Beamish also based in Cork and currently owned by Heineken.  During the last two decades of the 20th century it was heavily marketed to international beer consumers but failed to make a heavy dent in Guinness’s mighty market share.

That’s a little background on the main players in the Irish Stout game. The only real question is about taste, and like anything else that’s subjective, it is a personal preference. A local Cork bartender told me Beamish has the strongest taste and Murphy’s is really close in taste to Guinness.  After tasting all three in a three night span, in the cities they are brewed, I’d agree with that.

Personally, I like Guinness (with Murphy’s a very close second) and like a lot of people, think Guinness in Ireland tastes better than Guinness somewhere else… but the Murphy’s I had in Cork also tasted better than Guinness I’ve had back home too.  I’ll have to try Murphy’s in the US to find out if it’s as good as the Murphy’s in Cork, but I doubt it.  Maybe the taste here is getting an Irish ambiance boost! And Beamish was a little too close to coffee for my tastes so it ran a distant third in the taste race.

In the past Irish Stout was the beer of choice for locals (Guinness in the north and Murphy’s in the south), but that’s been changing for a couple of decades.  Nowadays, lighter ales, lagers,and pilsners are more popular.  In fact, I saw more locals drinking Budweiser than any dark beer (as an American who likes beer with some taste, this was sad to see), but I guess foreign beer is exotic all around the world (Aussies don’t drink Foster’s but it’s popular in the UK).

Beamish and Murphy's on tap in Cork
Beamish and Murphy’s on tap in Cork

A Travelers Life…

Sorry… no interesting pictures, amusing stories, or fancy travel advice today.  This post is all about me!…kind of, it’s actually more about my life on the road.  Where I go, where I stay, how I get there, etc.

Earlier this week I hit the four-month mark on the road and started thinking about all the places I’d been.  That thought grew into a whole list of things, places, people, etc. and eventually into this post.  So as of Sunday August 4th I had traveled/done/seen/visited/met…you get the idea.

I’ve watched bull fights in Spain, major championship golf in Scotland, and live Fado in Portugal.

I’ve been to the top of Cathedral bell towers in three countries, the top of mountains in two countries, and the top of the 199 Steps in Whitby, England.

I’ve dipped my toes in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean and North Sea, swam in the Caribbean, and surfed in the North Atlantic.

I’ve drunk cheap and awesome local wine in Spain and France, four different brands of Irish stout in Ireland, whisky and whiskey in Scotland and Ireland, respectively, Real Ale in England, a Belfast Bomber in Belfast, and moonshine adega wine in a Portuguese Adega.

I’ve slept in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles…and buses.

I’ve learned to think in Celsius, Euro’s, British Pounds, kilometers, and the 24 hour clock.

I’ve randomly been in cities that had some of their biggest yearly festivals and events when I was there but also been to places that had absolutely nothing interesting going on.  Both situations have been great experiences.

I’ve been on walking tours, bus tours, museum tours, castle tours, and pub tours (pub crawls).

Travel by numbers:

Time Away

  • .345 Years
  • 18 Weeks
  • 126 Days

Places Visited

  • 8 Castles/Palaces
  • 10 Countries
  • 16 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
  • 47 Cities/Towns/Villages

Places Slept

  • 1 Cruise Ship
  • 1 Hotel
  • 1 Surflodge
  • 10 Houses
  • 24 Hostels
  • 37 Different Beds

Transport

  • 1 Cruise Ship
  • 1 Cable Car
  • 1 Gondola
  • 2 Taxis
  • 2 Funiculars
  • 3 Airplanes
  • 6 Subway Systems
  • 9 Cars
  • 14 Trains (plus a few I’ve forgotten about)
  • 22 Buses (plus several I’ve forgotten about)

Met and Talked With People From

  • 47 Countries

Events

  • 2 Sporting Events
  • 4 Concerts
  • 6 Festivals

…and this is just the stuff off the top of my head.  I’ve seen and done all of this in only four months….and I’m just getting started!

Edinburgh Castle vs. Stirling Castle: Where Should You Spend Your Vacation Dollars?

As travelers we’re drawn to certain things; the vast, beautiful expanses of rugged mountain ranges, serene secluded beaches, the ruins left by ancient civilizations and the world-changing architecture in modern cities.

The list goes on and on and everyone’s list will be a little different.  I think, though, something on every travelers list of places to visit will be castles.  There is something inherently appealing about them.  Maybe it’s the fact that many are in idyllic settings; high on hilltops overlooking forests or river valleys.  It could be because there is so much history we can learn about the people who called these places home and the battles fought to protect their surrounding lands.  Whatever the reason, something steers a traveler’s compass towards castles.  But our fascination with them is where their similarities end.

Over three months I’ve visited many castles while traveling in Europe and one thing I’ve learned: all castles are not equal.  Some are dark, others very colorful.  Some near present day city centers, others much more secluded.  Some look the part of a picturesque Disney fairy tale castle, some aren’t so beautiful, and others, just plain ugly.  Some overlook small rural communities, other urban sprawls.  Many show the scars of countless battles, some never saw one.  And some, after centuries of life, lie in ruins, while others stay well-preserved.

On my way to Scotland, and with this castle dichotomy in mind, I faced a decision.  Edinburgh Castle or Stirling Castle?  They are the two most popular castle visits in Scotland and located near each other. Some say Edinburgh is best to visit, others Stirling.  Since I’d be staying in both cities I decided to compare the two myself and tell you all what I found, then, if you find yourself traveling in Scotland, you can decide for yourself where to spend your vacation dollars.

I visited Stirling first and from the cemetery that sits next to the castle there is a decent view of the hilltop it sits on.  From this vantage point there are two big buildings and part of a castle wall visible.  ‘That’s it?’, I thought.  There didn’t seem to be a lot going on, but when walking towards the entrance gate you’ll realize there are several buildings that make up this castle.  They range from small to very big and were built by many generations of royalty that ruled there.  I rented the audio guide while touring the castle grounds and went to every room in every building that was open.  After spending about 17 pounds for my day at the castle (about $25 USD) I wanted to get my monies worth!  Also, I wanted to have the full experience so I could compare Stirling to Edinburgh.  The audio guide was very informational and interesting.  It told the story of each building on the castle grounds, the people who built them, as well as a lot of Scottish history.

Like Stirling, Edinburgh Castle is not a typical Disney-esque looking castle with one enormous main building complete with towers and battlements that dominates a landscape and is surrounded by wall and moat.  It too has several buildings that were built over centuries.  Also like in Stirling, to get the full castle experience, I rented the audio guide and went into to every area that was open.  Again, the audio guide was filled with great historical information about the castle and interesting facts about the kings and queens who ruled there.

Below is my comparison of Stirling and Edinburgh Castles.

Tour

Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle
  • Stirling – It is interesting to walk through all the buildings including the Royal Palace (which recreates how it would have looked in the mid 16th century), the Great Hall that is the largest ever in Scotland, and the Chapel Royal (built-in 1594 for the baptism of James VI’s first son).  The complex also houses the Regimental Museum which tracks the history of the Argyll and Sutherlands British Army regiment, formed in 1881 and based at Stirling Castle, the Stirling Heads Gallery which showcases much of the carvings from around the castle complex, and the Castle Exhibition that shows a timeline and information of all monarchs that shaped the castle.  To me it felt more like a museum then an old castle.
  • Edinburgh – Like at Stirling, the Edinburgh Castle has Regimental Museums, a Great Hall, an old chapel, and a Royal Palace.  It also has some interesting extras like the Scottish Crown Jewels, the Scottish National War Memorial, and Prisons of War.  There is also the One O’clock Gun, which supposedly fires nearly every day at precisely 13:00 since its inception in 1861 as a time signal for ships in the Firth of Forth.  I say supposedly because of the 8 days I was in Edinburgh I did not hear the One O’clock Gun once.

Advantage, Edinburgh

Beauty

  • Stirling – There are many buildings in the complex all built at different time periods and in a mix of building styles.  The visual differences of the buildings make going through the castle ‘village’ an interesting and beautiful walk.  My favorites are the Great Hall, the Chapel Royal interior and the old gatehouse.
  • Edinburgh – Again, many buildings make up the castle grounds.  Unlike Stirling Castle, there’s not as great a visual contrast in building styles.  I’m sure someone more versed in architectural styles from these periods would see dozens of differences from building to building but to a layman they seem similar.  It is still a beautiful setting for sure; there just aren’t the striking variances you see at Stirling.

Advantage, Stirling

View

  • Stirling – The castle sits on a hill on the edge of Stirling.  There is a good view of the city and the River Forth.  Looking east you can see The National Wallace Monument and the Ochil Hills a few miles away.

    Edinburgh Castle View Towards the Firth of Forth
    Edinburgh Castle View Towards the Firth of Forth
  • Edinburgh – The castle sits on a high point in the center of Edinburgh, thus has a great view in all directions.  This includes a view of Arthur’s Seat to the east and the Firth of Forth to the north.

Advantage, Edinburgh

Price

  • Stirling – 14 pounds + 3 for the audio guide
  • Edinburgh – 16 + 3

Advantage, push (I think they’re both overpriced, just like seemingly everything in the UK)

So, two votes to one for Edinburgh Castle over Stirling Castle on my personal comparison.  Both were very interesting and there’s a lot of information to soak in.  History buffs would have a great day just reading information and listening to the audio guide at either site.  I think they are definitely worth visiting but if you’re in the area pick one.  Going to both is slightly redundant.

And there is one last reason I have Edinburgh Castle edging out Stirling Castle, and its something I haven’t seen in person.  It has nothing to do with a daily visit to the castle but is something I personally want to witness sometime.  It hosts the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo every August.  The tattoo is a series of performances that concludes after two weeks with the Lone Piper playing high atop the castle ramparts.  Unfortunately I can’t attend this year but some year I will be there!

Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

 

Luck of the….British!!

After 5 minutes in Stirling it was clear I’d come to the right place.

Needing somewhere to spend a few days between leaving Newcastle and when I was due to arrive in Edinburgh I chose to spend some time in Stirling, Scotland. At the time I knew little about this city in the northern part of the Scottish Lowlands, actually I only knew about the castle there and depending to who you ask; the Stirling Castle is as good a site to visit…or better…than the Edinburgh Castle. And since I’d been having good luck traveling places in the UK I knew next to nothing about (e.g. Norwich, Whitby) I used airbnb.com to rent an inexpensive room in a family’s house in a town called Tullibody (about 5 miles east of Stirling), bought a train ticket and set off.

Old Stirling Bridge
Old Stirling Bridge

Upon finally arriving at Stirling Station (I’ve had delays on nearly every train in the UK, including both on this trip) and getting picked up I knew my British luck had continued. I immediately saw two interesting things previously unknown to me that made me glad I came. One is a very old, and very cool, bridge crossing the River Forth that snakes its way through the northern part of the city. The second is the National William Wallace Monument that rests high atop the Abbey Craig. Standing guard over the river valley and tidal area west of the Firth of Forth this monument, in honor of the 13th century Wars of Scottish Independence hero Sir William Wallace, is 220 feet in height with 246 steps (I counted), mainly in a narrow spiral sandstone staircase, to the viewing gallery at the top. Luckily there are three interesting levels for pit-stops along the way.

The National Wallace Monument
The National Wallace Monument

The first level is ‘The Story of Wallace’, sort of life history of William Wallace complete with a talking Wallace figure/mannequin (it sounds cheesy but when you see how they pull

William Wallace's Sword
William Wallace’s Sword

it off it’s actually pretty cool, and at the right angle a little creepy!). There’s a lot of interesting information in this room and it displays William Wallace’s personal two-handed broadsword. Its massive at 5 ft. 6 in. in length and stands proudly in a glass case. Its said Wallace must have been a very strong man standing at least 6 ft. 6 in. to have used such a large sword. Move up to the second level and you’ll find the ‘Hall of Heroes’ which houses the busts of many famous Scotsmen from throughout history. And on the third level the controversial story of the monument itself gets told (like many public buildings that are now considered pieces of art themselves, when the Wallace Monument was being built, it was thought of as an ugly scar on the Lowlands landscape by some). Once adequately rested from the first 210 or so steps climb the few remaining and arrive on the viewing gallery where you have panoramic views for miles in every direction. In the photo below you can see Stirling Castle on a hill below the horizon and above the river bend.

View towards Stirling from National Wallace Monument
View towards Stirling from National Wallace Monument

The Wallace Monument, while not as heavily advertised as some attractions, to me is easily the best in the area. It is not too expensive, it is historical and informational, it will be your daily workout (you have to hike about 20 minutes to the top of the crag and then climb 246 steps to get the top), it is beautiful and offers by far the best vantage point in the area, and it is just plain cool! It’s the best monument I’ve visited in Europe.

I learned many interesting bits of history while visiting the Wallace Monument and I also learned that the portrayal of William Wallace in the movie Braveheart was fairly close to a historic representation. He was a patriot in every sense of the word and left a lasting legacy few can match. Think about this: the monument was built in 1869…564 years after Wallace’s death in 1305. Five Hundred Sixty Four Years!

Wallace Monument with Scottish Flag Flying at its Base
Wallace Monument with Scottish Flag Flying at its Base