Northern Ireland: Coast Road

FROM Torr Head, on the coast of Northern Ireland, I can see the lighthouse on Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre, only 17km away. The North Atlantic and Irish Sea meet here, surging around Rathlin Island to create a maelstrom of tides and rough seas that has left a legacy of wrecks. Ancient stories tell of a fleet of 50 currachs, the hide-covered canoes still used in Galway, being swallowed up by a whirlpool while trading across the channel. Continue reading “Northern Ireland: Coast Road”

Rome: Hidden History

“ROME IS like Kuwait,” says archaeologist Marco Mancini. “In Kuwait, no matter where you dig, you hit oil. In Rome, you hit historical treasure. It is not a city – it is a museum.” We are at the famous Trevi Fountain, although there are none of the crowds you usually associate with this most famous of Rome’s landmarks. Continue reading “Rome: Hidden History”

Netherlands: Dutch Masters

AS THE efficient NS Dutch train system carries me effortlessly across the country, I look out to the distant horizon. The flat landscape makes the blue sky seem even higher, causing my thoughts to soar, while the many waterways reflect and soften the light. This is the light that has inspired so many Dutch painters and I am on a journey to visit the homes of some of the most famous. Continue reading “Netherlands: Dutch Masters”

Lapland: Sámi Ways

“LET’S JOKE! You can joke your friends, joke a beautiful mountain or just joke being sad or happy.” Anna-Reetta Niemelä, a teacher of Sámi language and culture in the village of Karesuvanto, high in northern Lapland, has me baffled for a moment. Clad in her bright red and blue “gákti” tunic, her thick accent – different from the usual Finnish one – takes me some time to tune in to. Continue reading “Lapland: Sámi Ways”

Malta: Knights’ Treasure

FROM my restaurant terrace, I can look out over Grand Harbour towards the fortifications of Valletta. Intimidating even now, in the age of aerial assault and cruise missiles, the massive walls must have seemed impregnable when they were first built. Made of the same honeyed sandstone as the island of Malta itself, they grow organically out of the rock. It is hard to believe they are the work of mere men and best not to think of the suffering endured by the slaves who built them here under the searing Mediterranean sun. Continue reading “Malta: Knights’ Treasure”

Dublin: Irish Pubs

“WHEN you have everything, what do you want? What else will make you happy?” I’m in the Palace Bar in Dublin’s Fleet Street discussing the meaning of life, via football and young Russian oligarchs with enough money to buy English football teams. My philosophical companion, supping a lunchtime pint of Carling lager, possibly not his first nor even his third of the day, is a complete stranger and his thick Dublin accent means I understand only every other word. The Palace is a long, narrow but high-ceilinged room that opens into a larger, bright, glass-roofed space, filled with regulars who all give me a glance as I step in before going back to their pints. The only noise is a quiet hum of conversation and the clink of glasses. Continue reading “Dublin: Irish Pubs”

Istanbul: Turkish Delight

FOR A visitor, it can seem you have to leave Istanbul to see it. Looking back across the Galata Bridge at sunset, the city’s most glorious sights are laid out before me: the floodlit minarets of the mosque of Suleymaniye the Magnificent; the Topkapi Palace dominating Seraglio Point; the soaring domes of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Continue reading “Istanbul: Turkish Delight”

Bruges: Tourism Central

“EVEN IF you came here with no intention at all to buy chocolate, it would beat you into submission,” says an Englishwoman sitting near me at breakfast. I am not sure if that is a complaint or a justification for succumbing to the temptation of a near-endless array of chocolate shops. But welcome to Bruges, where tourists are spoilt for choice on every corner.

Continue reading “Bruges: Tourism Central”

Amsterdam: Canal Ring

“WE HAVE a saying in Dutch: ‘In de aap gelogeerd’ or ‘You slept in the monkey house’ – which means you’re in trouble, having a bit of bad luck. That comes from here.”
I’m in the In’t Aepjen (In the Monkey) pub, one of the oldest buildings in Amsterdam and one of only two still with a wooden façade. Inside, there is barely room for an ancient oak staircase and a tiny bar backed by shelves full of Dutch gin, glasses and curios that heavily feature monkeys in recognition of the pub’s name.

“A lot of seamen would drink here always,” says Frits, the only barman as well as the owner’s son. “It was also a hostel. When they couldn’t pay cash, they would pay with monkeys. Real monkeys. There were always monkeys on the ships as rich people wanted them for their homes. So the hostel became full of monkeys in cages and when the seamen came back on their ships, they were scratching themselves from the fleas.” Continue reading “Amsterdam: Canal Ring”

London: World Centre

The official center of London is at Trafalgar Square, marked by a small brass plaque in the pavement beneath a statue of Charles I on horseback. “Stand here and you will eventually see everyone you know in the world,” they say. And it’s true I once bumped into someone I worked with a decade before in Africa.

The square is dominated by the Greco-Roman columns of the National Gallery and the tall Nelson’s Column with four massive lions at its base. Despite the warning notices, children and those who should know better clamber over the bronze lions, polishing them ever further. Proud parents and giggling friends photograph the fun. Camera phones, GoPros on sticks and every possible size and brand of camera are in constant action. But most people are just sitting or strolling, taking in the view and the people around them. Continue reading “London: World Centre”