We departed Glasgow on a 5 hour train ride north into the West Scottish Highlands and Fort William. The scenery changed quickly from urban to a starkly beautiful landscape of bogs, rock, and rolling hills. The weather became a constant fog and cold mist.

The combination of the changed weather and rugged scenery looked right out of Harry Potter and well it should since we were on the very train line that has been featured on every one of those movies. With a bit of planning and a lot more fare money we could be on the Jacobite Train, the steam train Harry rode to Hogwarts every year! It’s a real train that travels between Fort William to Mallaig. It is incredibly popular and considered one of the greatest train journeys in the world. Tickets must be purchased weeks and sometimes months in advance. Fortunately, the “ordinary” train plies the same route and while popular, does not require such planning or capital. In the next 3 days we may day-trip to Mallaig, but for now we are happily in Fort William on the shores of Loch Linnhe.

This is a thriving community of 10,500 and a draw for tourists eager to hike the Highlands and perhaps climb Ben Nevis, at 4,411 feet the highest mountain in the entire United Kingdom. Depending on the weather I may give the climb a go of it.

Our train ride was quite crowded and in mid-journey it divided. 4 coaches split off for Oban and our train consisting of the two remaining cars then continuing on to Fort William.

I love new foods. I have rarely found a cuisine I disliked, and as I sit here I can’t think of a single one! I figure if an entire people like a dish then there is a reason. This is one of the very few things upon which Christine and I are not in agreement. In Scotland I have found (to Christine’s wonder) two new favorites in Haggis and Black pudding. They are simply the best! However, description of their ingredients could give one pause.

Haggis is a combination of a sheep’s offal mixed with oats and spices, sewn into the sheeps stomach and boiled. Cut open the stomach and dig in… Wonderful! Black Pudding is not a pudding as we know it in North America, but rather it is a traditional blood sausage made from blood (of course!) grain, spices, and meat. It is a breakfast staple in the UK. I seek it out any chance I get.

Fort William is crowded, perhaps for an antique car rally, in addition to the usual crowd of Highland tourists. I could not find an available accommodation until I lucked upon an AirBnB and it’s wonderful owner, Shana. She picked us up at the train station and has even done our laundry! We will enjoy Fort William and her hospitality for the next 4 nights, the longest we have been in one place since this journey began.

Peace Everyone. Pete

Remember the last time you were sitting at a bar in the States and before you had finished your first drink one of the patrons came up to you, introduced himself, bought you and your wife a round, and then hauled the two of you over to a table full of his friends and family, making you the honored guests of the evening?… Yeah, me neither.

Of course, this is Scotland and not the States. Meet Garry Clifford, his oldest son, Sean, and their good friend John Curran. That is precisely what the three of them did. In less than 10 minutes they had Christine and me at their table and we became family. Garry’s wife Kathleen, Sean’s wife Julie, and John’s wife Carol were every bit as warm and friendly. We didn’t have the chance to buy our own drinks, let alone a round the rest of the night.

Garry and Kathleen have been in love with each other since they were 13. They have been blessed with 29 years of marriage, 5 sons, and a 2 year old granddaughter. Their sons are the best of friends with each other which Garry describes as the proudest gift that life has given him. He and Sean, who is his oldest son, are civil engineers and Harley Davidson enthusiasts. They share a dream of one day riding motorcycles together across the United States. Everyone at table loves the United States, frequently breaking into a chant of USA, USA, USA…

That is not to say that they aren’t saddened and bemused by the state of affairs in our country. Sean reflected that it is incredibly sad that this year it is more dangerous to be a high school student in America than in her military’s service.

Before we left on this journey I often remarked that I would consider these travels a success if just once we were approached overseas as strangers and made a part of someone’s universe of friends. My wish has been granted… in Scotland and with these very good people.

Peace Everyone. Pete

PS. We took a “hop on – hop off” bus tour of Glasgow. Many of the following images are from that tour through this remarkably beautiful city. We are now off for the Highlands!

After a 6 hour journey from Belfast by bus, ferry, and back on bus, we have arrived in Scotland. We will be in Glasgow for two nights and then proceed by train north into the West Highlands where we will spend at least 4 nights in Fort William. We have already been told that the great weather that is predicted for the next week is an anomaly. Seems we are taking sunshine with us wherever we go.

This has been a rare day where we have turned on the news. Another school shooting in the States. It is eye opening to watch the Europe news and commentary. The word “again” was repeated throughout the presentation, highlighting the disfunction of a system that is frozen to inaction by money and the power of the NRA lobby. It is not hyperbole to say that the United States is seen as a morally broken nation. “Click”, news turned off, but not the reality it reports on this side of the ocean.

Tonight is the 56th night that we have been away from home… we are entering week 9 of this journey. It would be disingenuous of me to solicit sympathy for the small fissures of homesickness that we have begun to experience. We continue to enjoy each day, but there are moments that cause us pause.

Each day brings questions about the quality of tonight’s mattress, shower, and room. When will the next laundry opportunity occur? Will our clothing make it through the next 34 days without falling apart? We have eaten restaurant food for 8 solid weeks. What will be our first home cooked meal? Most of all, we miss family. Our smart phones and tablets can ring up our children with no more difficulty than a local call within the States. However no matter how “smart” the device, it can’t bridge the temporal reality of a 6 or 7 hour time difference. I’m really not complaining, just presenting another side of this experience.

Peace Everyone. Pete

We arrived in Belfast Wednesday afternoon the 16th and after settling in did a bit of walking which took us to the Crown Bar, the oldest pub in NI, and across the campus of Queen’s University to the stunning Botanic Gardens Park.

We then made arrangements for a “Black Cab” tour of Belfast for Thursday morning, and an afternoon tour of the former shipyards site of H&W where the Titanic and her sister ships were constructed.

Belfast has been a city torn by conflict since 1968. On the surface the division is Catholic vs Protestant, Loyalist vs Nationalist, but in reality it is much more complicated than that with roots that go deep into history. The Battle of the Boyne which was fought over 400 years ago, remains a current event. In 1968 ethno-nationalist riots broke out that were quelled by British troops and the erection of 40 foot high walls to separate the factions. Paramilitary organizations on both sides then prosecuted a 30 year long guerrilla war that resolved in a cease fire in 1998. The 30 years of the active conflict saw over 3,500 killed and nearly 50,000 injured. The troops are gone, but the wall remains operational. A “battle” of competing murals and annual bonfires lit on the 11th of July are a more benign continuation of the tensions that are known throughout Ireland as “The Troubles”.

The depth and complexity of the conflict and aftermath invite further examination. I have included links to three articles that may give additional insight..

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Troubles

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murals_in_Northern_Ireland

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleventh_Night

Our “Black Cab” tour driver gave an excellent and balanced narrative, stopping at important locations and murals. This tour was the highlight of our stay in Belfast.

The Titanic Museum tour is at the site of the construction and launch of the vessel in 1911. Included was a tour of the “Nomadic”, one of the Titanic’s passenger tender vessels and the last remaining White Star Line ship. The Nomadic has been painstakingly restored, and even has its original 19th Century “Crapper” toilets.

The Museum was “touristy” but worth the visit. I will just leave it at that.

We leave in a few hours for the ferry to Scotland.

Peace Everyone. Pete

The story goes that many years ago Johnny Cash was in a plane flying over Ireland. Gazing down he exclaimed, “There must be forty shades of green down there!” From those words he penned the following lyrics:

“I close my eyes and picture the emerald of the sea.

From the fishing boats at Dingle to the shores of Dunardee

I miss the river Shannon and the folks at Skibbereen

The moorlands and the midlands with their forty shades of green.”

Ireland is green because it rains here, a lot. If there were once forests they are mostly gone. In their place are endless seas of grass, broken only by ancient stone walls erected by the long dead but not forgotten. Grass in forty shades of green.

It stays green for but a season and then bends to its permanent sleep upon the fields, hillsides, and valleys of this enchanted land. Generations of verdant blades climb one upon the other, blackening in the acidified and oxygen deprived bogs. Carbon is captured, compressed, and becomes the precursor of bituminous coal at the rate of one millimeter each year, one inch every quarter century, a yard in a millennium.

Four thousand years ago the Hibernians learned of necessity that the common turf upon which they tread and under which they buried their dead could be dried to burn and warm hearth and home. They knew the pleasant glow, the spicey fragrance, and the cinder free and nearly ashless firebox of the morning. The “wizards” of a distant future would render the poetry of this warming stuff into cold calculations:

• It covers nearly 2% of Earth’s land.

• It has twice the energy potential of unseasoned firewood.

• It has captured and holds over 500 billion tons of greenhouse carbon from the atmosphere… an unimaginable mass of over 4 trillion cubic meters of the dark stuff.

This is peat. It has preserved the victims of ritual sacrifice, until their discovery and “resurrection” allowed these mute dead to speak their story in the language of archeologists, pathologists, and geneticists.

This is peat. It’s vapors roast malts that color and flavor select whiskeys of Ireland and the whisky of Islay Scotland.

This is the dark brown peat that was once forty shades of green.

Peace Everyone. “Peat”

We leave the Republic of Ireland tomorrow and head into Belfast, Northern Ireland. Some images from today follow.

Today we bussed to a starting point for a 10 mile hike along the Cliffs of Moher. Our hike descended to sea level and rose along the Atlantic shoreline to an elevation of over 600 feet above the crashing waves below. The trail winds along a cliff face, at times a few feet from the sheer vertical drop.

I will include more pictures at the end of this post. First of all I want to take the opportunity to give insight into the lodgings that we tend to select.

In the days of Frommer’s iconic travel bible, “Europe on $5 a Day”, hostels were key to budget travel overseas. They were called “youth hostels” because it was presumed that only young people would frequent them. Many imposed an upper age limit, often age 27, on guests. Fast forward to the present and many aging “baby boomers” still favor this simple type of accommodation. Christine and I count ourselves among that number.

When traveling abroad we shun such nameplates as Sheraton, Hilton, and even Holiday Inn. We favor the modest one star hotels, casa rurals, and hostels that seem to be frequented by the more adventurous and frugal travelers. Folks seem to be more outgoing and easier to connect with in these establishments.

Typically, these lodgings are centrally located, clean, but austere. No phone, no TV in the room, no chocolates on the pillow, no room service… What they are long on is a friendly staff and a sense of community. Hostel residents often cook their own meals, are expected to do their own dishes, share common rooms, and sometimes common bathrooms. The age range of residents varies widely, from late teens to seniors, as in citizens like us.

Our lodgings in Spain, Portugal, and these last two nights in Ennis Ireland have been hostels. The Rowan Tree Hostel here in Ennis presents an excellent example of our experience with these budget accommodations. The furnishings and decor are a bit dated and worn. Reception is at the heart of the facility.

There is a common dining room,

kitchen,

laundry,

and our “private” ensuite double can be quickly converted into a dorm during the high season. Our room has 5 beds, but we are the rooms only occupants.

The cost of our room is 64 euros a night, which includes breakfast. Rates for more traditional lodgings in this popular venue are more than double this rate, not including breakfast.

Our style of travel is not for everyone, but we enjoy the bit of adventure that the variability inserts into our experience.

Peace Everyone. Pete

Pictures of the Cliffs of Moher follow:

We bid farewell to Huw and Nina this morning. A lingering emptiness hovered over the rest of the day, tempered by the prospect of rejoining them for a November visit in Kansas City. Our friendship grew from their chance meeting with our youngest daughter 18 years ago in France. We were then “pen pals” for 5 year before meeting in person. We shared the excitement of London’s selection to host the 2012 Olympics and the following day we shared the horrors of being in the epicenter of 52 deaths at the hands of terrorists in London. They were present in Kansas City for the marriage of our son, Peter, and the college graduation of our daughter, Alexis. They have become an important part of the story of our family. Until we meet again…

It is Mother’s Day in the United States. Europe honors their Mothers at a different time of the year. I owe the gift of a happy childhood to 2 women, my mother and her mother. The 450 miles that separated my home from grandmother’s home in pre-interstate America meant that I only saw her once or twice a year. However, the quality of her presence was more important than the quantity of our time together. Her eyes and her smile radiated boundless love and pride in me. She died nearly 40 years ago but has been with me every day of my life.

My mother was the architect of my childhood. She held my hand in the best of times and she held me in the painful ones. She taught me how to grow into adulthood yet not outgrow childlike wonder that sparks the imagination and gives appreciation for the little things of life. Wishing her a happy day once each year seems so inadequate compared to the gift that she is to me every day of the year.

Christine has always been the star parent within our home. She raised our children to be the good parents that they are, and in the process taught me to be a better parent than I would otherwise have been. She continues as a source of great joy in the lives of our grandchildren.

Not all of us have had happy childhoods. Not all of us had good parents. Life is a lottery. Some of us pulled winning numbers and some of us did not. For the unlucky among us I hope that Mother’s Day can be a time to accept that there are things that can not be changed. That it is a day to find the courage to change the kind of person/parent that you are, and a day to find the wisdom to know the difference.

Peace Everyone. Pete

March 3rd seems a lifetime ago. Within my “Thoughts” you will find it is the day I wondered if our undertaking was a trip, a vacation, a journey or a pilgrimage. I offered the following thoughts at that time:

• A Trip is any travel that takes one from point “A” to point “B” without regard to distance or purpose. It is the barest transport of a body from here to there. Purpose is irrelevant as is the quality of the experience.

• A Vacation is a departure from the routine of one’s life. It may or may not involve travel, such as a “staycation”. It evinces an intention to temporarily detour from one’s duties without shirking one’s responsibilities.

• A Journey conjures up the image of travel that is of an extended duration. “Journey” has the character of uniqueness relative to one’s prior experiences. It is self-directed, assumed as a personal responsibility, and not left into the hands of another. “Journey” can result in a redirection of one’s life and perhaps the lives of others.

Our travels these last 7 weeks certainly have qualified as a journey. We have over 5 weeks left before we again step foot in our own home. This has been a remarkable, but at times wearing experience. We correctly rejected the notion of these travels being a vacation as they have become our reality. However, for the last 4 days we have found the course of each day to be more in the hands of our Welsh friends, Huw and Nina Thomas. They have given us a brief and most welcome “departure from the routine of (our) life.” Good fortune has followed the four of us on this vacation within a journey.

Heavy rains were predicted for the entire day. However the overnight showers gave way to sunshine and pleasant temperatures as we toured Muckross House, Abbey, and the Dingle Peninsula.

There were brief showers, but they were a gift in their own right as emerald green fields were gilded before our eyes with the spectrum hues of a rainbow sky.

Vacations end and today is our last full day with our friends. In keeping with my “mantra” of always having a “next thing”, the four of us have begun to formulate a plan for their visit to us in the States. But first about the day…

Muckross House and Abbey are situated within Ireland’s first and oldest National Park. The House is a 65 room mansion that was built in 1843. In the 1860’s the family undertook a 6 year long project to prepare for a 2 day visit by Queen Victoria. The family had hopes of being conferred a title by the Queen, which unfortunately for them did not occur. The extensive decorating and furnishings that they purchased for the visit ended up bankrupting the family. The House and its 11,000 acres had to be sold to resolve the debts. Subsequent owners gifted Muckross to the Republic of Ireland which made it into its first National Park. Unfortunately, pictures within the home were not allowed. 70% of the furnishings are original to the House, including paintings, hunting trophies, and furniture. The owners beds and the bed in which the Queen slept for 2 nights are only 6 feet long. Aristocrats of the time preferred to sleep sitting up in the belief that it was healthier for them.

Within the extensive grounds of Muckross are the ruins of a Franciscan Abbey that dates to the 1440’s. It was built upon older, perhaps ancient structures, and is reputed to be the burial grounds for several chieftains of those earlier times. The Abbey was the victim in the 1500’s of Henry the VIII and his separation from the Catholic Church.

Our drive to Dingle and on the Dingle Peninsula was a feast for the eyes.

We spent the night near Tralee and will be proceeding on our last full day with Huw and Nina to Limerick.

Peace Everyone. Pete

PS. Christine, who “never” eats seafood, ate a HUGE plate of fish and chips!!

The weather today was nothing short of spectacular! It was a perfect day to enjoy a banquet of vistas… served from atop Blarney Castle, the verdant gardens surrounding it, and the byways of County Cork and Country Kerry.

Briefly, the current Blarney Castle dates to the early 1400’s, but stands atop older fortifications that date back to at least the 1200’s. It is the home of the renowned “Blarney Stone”. The Stone is believed to confirm upon those who kiss it the gift of an eloquent tongue or gilded flattery. Blarney is the expression of the “varnished truth”, whereas baloney is merely speaking an “unvarnished lie”.

As we approached the castle a piper played along the path. Christine struck up a conversation with him and at her request he played, as if for her ears only, Amazing Grace. I know that Christine savored each note in tribute to her family members who have passed, and those who struggle.

In times past kissing the stone involved considerable risk. The stone is at the base of a parapet nearly 90 feet above ground. One had to dangle upside down, held by ones feet, to reach the stone. In more recent times bars have been installed to prevent a headlong plunge to one’s death. However kissing the stone still requires an iron will and contortionist’s back. It also requires an accent of over 150 uneven steps through narrow serpentine passages.

In spite of her dislike of heights and closed spaces, Christine proved herself to be of stout resolve and equal to the task.

With Blarney Castle behind us we toured the countryside enroute to the town of Killarney. Since words will not do the day justice I will rely upon my camera to convey a sense of our experiences.

The day ended two floors below our room in Murphy’s Pub. The band played traditional Irish classics. Huw was really in his element as he sang right along at our table, knowing each line and verse by heart.

Sadly, it looks like Ireland is returning to its usual weather tomorrow. As one gentleman told us, “The difference between winter and summer here in Ireland is that the rain is warmer in the summer.”

Peace Everyone. Pete

Today opens with a couple of luxuries that are new to us on this Journey. We will be traveling for the next 5 days by car, and all of the planning has been done by our Welch friends Huw and Nina. I don’t realize how there is a certain stress that becomes accepted as a part of each day until it is not there. Responsibility for the day-to-day has not been a big thing, but it is a cumulative thing. It is wonderful to have that off of my shoulders for a few days.

That having been said, we dodged a travel “bullet” yesterday. The portion of our trip from Amsterdam to Oslo was largely without details. We had narrowed it to 17 days and we knew that it would include visits to Amsterdam, Brussels, Slovakia, Berlin, and Oslo. However, no travel details or arrangements had been made. I figured that it was about time since we had made the flight arrangements from Edinburgh to Amsterdam a few days earlier. Our plan has always been to utilize trains and night sleeper cars as much as possible. My initial check 2 days ago indicated that the sleeper cars were all taken. Our Dutch friend, Jacobien, forwarded me a link to the office of Netherlands Rail. A 30 minute telephone call with an extraordinarily helpful representative resulted in confirmed train and sleeper car reservations from Brussels Belgium to Bratislava Slovakia and then later overnight travel from Bratislava to Berlin. The beauty of these arrangements is that we can spend the day in one location, board the train that evening and then “magically awake” at the new destination. It is a wonderful way to travel that I fear is dying out. Airports and air travel are expedient but dehumanizing.

Our friendship with Huw and Nina dates to the year 2000, but we did not actually meet them in person until 5 years later. How our friendship began and the saga of our time with them in 2005 is quite remarkable, but I will reserve it for another day.

Our “touristing” began today with a visit to the Viking artifacts held in the 11th Century Waterford stronghold known as Reginald’s Tower. This 54 foot high stone keep was once a key part of Waterford’s defensive perimeter. It and small portions of the city wall are all that remain of the structure initially created by the Vikings. Excavations have unearthed relics dating back a thousand years, including a remarkably intricate gold and silver broach.

Next we visited the production facilities of the Waterford Crystal Company. If it had not been for the interest of my three companions I would have skipped this tour… and it would have been my loss. The tour was spectacular and informative.

Waterford’s roots began here in in 1783. The company closed in 1851, and then reopened in 1947. It continues today with its custom and clear crystal production in the heart of the city it was named after. Waterford creates over 750 tons of crystal pieces annually. It employs artisans who endure apprenticeships of 5 years in one of four skills: Mould making, Glass blowing, sketching, and engraving. More years are required to achieve the status of a Master. In the company’s history only one person achieved that status in all four disciplines. These craftspeople typically remain with the company for well over 30 years.

We witnessed all the stages of the creation of these amazing pieces except for the final step where the pieces undergo acid washing.

Waterford Crystal custom pieces are blown into hand carved wood molds that have a maximum of 6 uses. Standard pieces are blown into cast iron molds that can be used over 60 years.

We watched as the engravers patiently and painstakingly worked the pieces. In the process I developed a real appreciation for the effort and skill required to make Waterford Crystal.

We next visited Cobh Ireland, the final port of call for the RMS Titanic before it proceeded across the Atlantic only to strike an iceberg and sink on April 15, 1912. 123 passengers boarded the Titanic here. The “bones” of the original tender dock remain as a haunting reminder of the fate that awaited those souls. Our visit included accurate recreations of 1st and 3rd class staterooms. Our tickets included the assignment of a passenger identity. Of the four of us, all were “rescued” except Huw. My identity was that of John Kennedy, no relationship to the US President of that name.

The evening concluded at a truly exceptional pub. I don’t think I will tire of the pairing of Guinness and good Irish pub food.

We continue to find the good folks of Ireland to be among the friendliest that we have ever encountered in our travels. Tomorrow we proceed to Blarney Castle, home of the Blarney Stone.

Peace Everyone. Pete