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Tuesday, 2 December 2014

School 'Meet My PenPal' Trip to Epernay, France.

Apologies for the 'blogging absence' over the last six weeks. I've been having a pretty quiet time and pulling my hair out being stuck on day work and school runs, so I'm glad to be getting back out there!

Day 1

I was up early this morning, 4:30am and I have a long day ahead of me, which is going to finish tight on my hours. I arrived at the yard and packed my coach before going to get a coffee in the drivers room. My, very sleepy, boss was on duty this morning. He bought me a coffee and said I was his best [and only] female tour driver and if I were ever to leave, he wanted to clone me first! I think he's after a Christmas present!! So after coffee, I left the yard for the one hour drive to my pick up at the school.

I was in position before any of the group arrived so there was time for 20 minutes shut eye. Three of the teachers arrived first, then all the kids, then the group organiser! The kids are 14/15 years old and they seem to be a really nice group. The teachers seem pretty laid back but the organiser seems a little twitchy! I don't understand why she would be too worried about the trip because she ran the exact same trip 2 years ago, only with half as many students. Nevertheless, I am starting out with a good feeling about the whole thing.

We left the school pretty much on time and pressed on for our channel crossing on the eurotunnel. We managed to get a train 2 hours earlier than we were booked on and didn't have to waste time at the terminal building. For most of the group, it was their first time on the eurotunnel. I had been winding them up, telling them to look out for the fish! As always, the teachers were impressed at how a coach has to manoeuvre to get into that narrow little carriage! About 15 minutes of the train journey was wasted looking for fish before they realised there are no fish!

This evenings meal is being provided at the school by the penpals. According to the itinerary, we are to travel straight to the school in Epernay, to arrive at 19:30, to meet their penpals and eat before going to their hotel and checking in. I am booked into a hotel on the opposite side of town to the group and I need to be off the road by 21:30. I had suggested to the organiser that we press on to enable them to check in at the hotel before going to the school, which she agreed to, so that's what we did. I was starting to feel tired so I appreciated an hours peace while they checked in. 

We left the hotel 10 minutes late to go to the school. We had left everywhere late all day today. Only by a few minutes, but tonight a few minutes will be the difference between me staying legal or not. So I had to lay the law down. All the teachers were aware of my driving hours but they still looked horrified when I said if they were late, I wouldn't be waiting! It's never a good thing to have to do on the first day of a tour! So ten minutes before I was due to take them back to the hotel, I went into the school and gave them their '10 minute warning'! The kids seemed to be having a great time and were really enjoying their evening and I felt awful to be the one breaking up the party. I went back to the coach. After a few minutes, the organiser came out and said they weren't ready to leave and that they would walk back. And that is why I wanted to get them into their hotel first! So I said goodnight and went to find my hotel, feeling like a zombie!

Day 2

The alarm went off this morning and I felt like I still needed another 3 hours sleep. It was going to be another long day, but hopefully a more enjoyable one! 

I joined the group at their hotel for breakfast before leaving 10 minutes late for today's excursion to Paris. 

Last year, I was in Paris at least once a month. This year, this is my first visit there and the year is nearly done! 

We had an easy journey into the city centre and I gave them a little bit of a tour around on the way through to the Eiffel Tower. There is quite a lot to see just from the river banks. One of the teachers on board is French, so I asked her to come on the microphone to point things out to the students. Even if I do say so myself, between us we did a pretty good job! 

We drove in past Notre Dame where we mentioned Quasimodo and the bells! The Montparnasse Tower, one of the tallest buildings in Paris, could be seen when looking down the side streets. The impressive Hotel de Ville could be seen on the opposite bank of the river. We drove past the Musee D'Orsay, famous for housing the worlds largest collection of  impressionist and post-impressionist art, including pieces by Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. On the opposite side of the river, the Musee de Louvre with its most iconic piece being Leonardo da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa'. The Louvre is the worlds most visited museum, receiving more than 9.7 million visitors in 2012.

The obelisk at the centre of Place de la Concorde was pointed out and the National Assembly before having a lovely view down the Esplanade to Hotel des Invalides. 

We came around the bend and were at the base of the Eiffel Tower where I was going to park and the group were going to the top.

Unfortunately, one of our girls was pick pocketed and had her phone stolen just before the group returned to the coach. Obviously this had to be reported and so we were delayed. While we were waiting, I took the rest of the group to Trocadero for a photo opportunity. From here there is the best view of the Eiffel tour and the Champ de Mars.

We collected the teacher and student after them reporting the phone stolen and headed up to the Sacre Coeur via the Arc de Triomphe where I had to drive twice round in order to point out the line of landmarks.

The Grand Arch at Le Defense, the Arc de Triompe, the obelisk at Place de la Concorde and the Pyriamids at the Louvre, which all line up with each other. Driving around the Arc de Triomphe is quite an experience and is always a relief to get off without a damaged vehicle! This is one of the few places where you are not insured to drive because you are so likely to have an accident! Follow the link to see a video taken from YouTube of 'Crazy Paris Traffic' at the Arc de Triomphe.

We drove past the infamous Moulin Rouge where every surrounding shop is a sex shop. The reaction from the students was quite funny as we were sat at the traffic lights next to a shop window full of toys, costumes and accessories!

We arrived at the drop off point where the group then had to walk to the Sacre Coeur for an hour free time while I had to go and find somewhere to park up. I ended up next to where the homeless have made camp under a railway bridge by the Gare du Nord. The whole area is dirty and smelly (not surprising with the amount of people who just wee in the street, and that's not just the homeless) and undesirable. I didn't leave my coach and I was happy to only be there for less than an hour.

I picked up the group and we made our way out of Paris and back to Epernay where we were booked in at a restaurant, Le Sardaigne, for our evening meal. The food was delicious and very reasonably priced and the service was outstanding. I really enjoyed my meal. More so because I hadn't had a proper meal yesterday. It was very well received.

I returned the group to their hotel and was told that I wasn't required tomorrow and that I could have a lie in in the morning. That would be lovely, thank you very much!

Day 3

After a long lie in and a leisurely breakfast I spent a couple of hours on the coach, cleaning and pottering, before walking into the town centre. I have visited Mercier Champagne House on the outskirts several times but never made it into the town centre. I was very pleasantly surprised at what I found.

In the central and oldest quarter of the town, the streets are narrow and irregular; the surrounding suburbs, however, are modern and more spacious, with La Folie to the East, for example, containing many villas belonging to rich wine merchants. The town has also spread to the right bank of the Marne.

One of its churches retains a portal and stained-glass windows from the sixteenth century, but the other public buildings are of modern construction. The most famous street in Épernay is the Avenue de Champagne which features the leading Champagne manufacturers.

After a few cheeky champagne tastings I headed back to my hotel for an afternoon nap before having a takeaway pizza for dinner in my room while watching Netflix! I'd had a nice lazy day!

Day 4

 It was back to work again today. Our first visit was to the Fossier biscuit factory in Reims.

Biscuits Fossier is a Reims based manufacturer of biscuits, gingerbread, sweets and marzipan-based confectionery.

Originating in Reims, Biscuit rose de Reims is a product of the Biscuits Fossier company. It is customary to dip the biscuit in champagne or red wine. The biscuit was created around 1690 in Reims. A baker wanted to make the most of the heat in the bread oven between the two batches, so he had the idea of creating a special dough; cooking it twice, which is where the name "biscuit" or "bis-cuit" meaning "cooked twice" in French. The biscuit initially was white. In order to add flavor to it, a pod of vanilla was introduced into the recipe. This vanilla left brown traces on the biscuit. In order to hide them, the baker decided to add a natural colour based on cochineal, a scarlet dye, to disguise his mistake. From this sequence of events, the Biscuit Rose de Reims was born. The biscuit is oblong in shape, and is lightly sprinkled with caster sugar. Enthusiasts for the biscuit included King Charles X, Leopold II of Belgium, the Russian tzar and the Marquise de Polignac. It is commonly dipped in champagne.
It quickly became a great success in terms of confectionery throughout France. The original recipe of the famous "Biscuit Rose" is still kept a secret by Fossier's confectioners. Despite the basic ingredients that include eggs, sugar, flour, and vanilla, the traditional French recipe demands special mastery and daintiness. The production of the biscuits is largely done by hand and therefore is described as 'artisanal'.

After spending an hour here, we'd had a tour of the factory and time for tasting and shopping. We then made our way into Reims centre.

Reims played a prominent ceremonial role in French monarchical history as the traditional site of the crowning of the kings of France. The Cathedral of Reims (damaged by the Germans during the First World War but restored since) played the same role in France as Westminster Abbey has in the United Kingdom. It housed the Holy Ampulla (Sainte Ampoule) containing the Saint Chrême (chrism), allegedly brought by a white dove (the Holy Spirit) at the baptism of Clovis in 496. It was used for the anointing, the most important part of the coronation of French kings. The cathedral became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1991.

After a brief visit to the cathedral, we had free time for shopping or to look around the Christmas market. 

The Christmas Village at the Place d'Erion is made up of 125 chalets offering beautiful seasonal gifts, decorations and festive delicacies. There is much street entertainment including carol singers, jazz bands and magicians. In his special chalet, Father Christmas is also on hand each day to delight the children. Reims is where the first French Christmas celebration was reportedly held; in 496 three thousand warriors were baptised on Christmas day. The city is rich in noble heritage.

We left Reims and headed back to Epernay, arriving back at the hotel at about 5pm. My days work was done but the students still had plenty to do to keep them out of mischief! They had 1 hour to start their packing and tidy their rooms for room inspections! Then they had to walk to school for their dinner at 7pm before going to the cinema at 8:30.

I went back to my hotel and parked up for the night, had a shower and decided to walk into town to the Restaurant we had eaten in on Sunday. I had just got seated and ordered a large glass of wine when my group came in. I went to join them. It turned out that there was enough money left in their kitty to eat out again tonight, so they were all happy. I was also happy to have some company.

After dinner, I went for an early night while the group walked to the cinema.

Day 5

Today was going to be a boring day. The day travelling home is always the worst day of a tour for me, I just can't wait to get it done!

The group surprised me this morning, for the first time all tour they were on time! We left the hotel and paid a quick visit back at the school to say goodbye to the penpals. Then we were on the road for Calais. The group wanted to visit a supermarket so in order to have the time to do it, we didn't have a comfort break and went 'express' from Epernay to Cite Europe. I've not stopped anywhere near Calais since the immigrant camps were cleared out so I was a little apprehensive of stopping there. I had heard on the grapevine that they now have security at the coach park because they were losing so much business with coaches staying away. Nevertheless, I stood on guard by my coach, broom in hand, making sure I had no stowaways!

Again, we left on time, with no dramas, to check in at the eurotunnel. I was offered a train 30 mins early, so we cleared customs and passport control and went straight round to board the train. We arrived back at the school one hour early. The kids had been messy all week and their time keeping was lowsy, but they are such a nice group of people and I took pleasure in telling them so and thanking them for including me in everything. I hope I have the pleasure of taking this school again. I left the school and headed for home. I knew I had been pushing my luck and only 12 miles from home, I ran out of hours and had to pull over for a 45 minute break. So frustrating! However, we were all home safe and sound at the end of another successful tour.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Romantic Rhine and Black Forest

Well I'm quite excited to be doing another tour to an area I've never been to before and my first proper long haul tour for quite some time. A tour to the Rhine and the Black Forest in Germany. 

Day 1

This morning is the only real downside I can see of this tour and that is the ridiculously early start! I arrived at work at 4am to prepare to leave at 5am. Everything went according to plan. We collected all our passengers without a hitch and had an easy journey to Dover where I was hoping to catch an early ferry. I wasn't that lucky but we sailed out of Dover on time on our booked ferry where I had finished breakfast before we had left port and I spent the rest of the time asleep on the table!

We arrived in Calais and started the long drive to our first hotel in Germany, another 5 hours driving away. For the next 4 nights we will be staying at the Maritim Hotel, Konigswinter, on the bank of the river Rhine. We arrived shortly after 7pm (6pm UK time), unloaded luggage, parked the coach, dumped my stuff in my room and went straight to dinner, now feeling like a zombie! I don't remember what I had for dinner or whether I enjoyed it and I am now going for a well deserved sleep! Goodnight!

Day 2

I almost feel human again! I had a nice big breakfast with lots of strong coffee and know I'm ready to entertain the troops again.

This morning the group are booked on the Drachenfels Bahn which is just a short walk from our hotel and this afternoon is free. So I have a day off from driving.

We took the ride on Germany's oldest rack railway to the legendary Drachenfels, taking in the breathtaking views of 'the romantic Rhine valley'. Visibility wasn't at its best this morning with lots of low lying mist but the view was still beautiful.

Since it's completion in 1883 - at the time still operating with a steam locomotive - the Drachenfels Railway has been taking tourists to the top of the 321m high mountain. Drachenfels soon became one of the most popular attractions. In 2005 the old valley station was turned into a tourist station and the mid-station was modernised following extensive restoration of Schloss Drachenburg in 2011 to offer the opportunity of a stop over visit to the castle.

Schloss Drachenberg is an unusual edifice, built between 1882-84 for Stephen von Sarter, the son of a Bonn Innkeeper and is one of the most important castles erected in Germany towards the end of the 19th century. Stephen von Sarter, who commissioned the castle, attained wealth and honours as a stock market analyst. After being made a baron in 1881 he laid the foundation stone for his dream castle, which was completed, amazingly, in less than 3 years.

I really liked this castle. I can see myself living there! It wasn't overly big and the rooms inside were warm and homely, unlike so many of the castles I've seen. Plus, I would look good living here!

After a coffee we went back down to the town and had a little look around the shops on the Main Street before settling outside a riverside cafe where I enjoyed a couple of hours sitting in the sun, sipping Prosecco, watching the world go by.

Day 3

This morning we are going for a scenic drive along the banks of the Rhine and the Mosel to the pretty little town of Cochem with its fairytale castle on the hill.

Few towns in Germany can match the charm of Cochem. Its picturesque beauty, makes it a favourite place for visitors. Legend, folklore and a rich web of history is woven into every street. Situated in an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Mosel river valley, between the Eifel and Hundsrück. It is surrounded by high elevations, steep vineyards and typical wine villages, offering tastings, festivals and genuine hospitality.

Cochem, itself, is a showpiece gem and rated as one of the prettiest villages along the Mosel. Little seems to have changed for centuries. The town has many fine buildings, quaint cottages, black & tan guild houses and winding streets. The town square, lined with its half-timbered houses, is particularly fine and Cochem Castle, (Schloss Reichsburg) dramatically rises above the town. Cochem is the center of the Mosel wine trade. Fondly known for it's regional wines due to the presence of the many vineyards and small family run wineries in the nearby towns along the river.

Early in the 19th century the first real tourists came to Cochem. Mostly English artists, they recorded the romance and beauty of the Mosel Valley, in their drawings and paintings. The development of Cochem into the first real tourist center on the Moselle came in the 1930s.

After spending long enough here to get some lunch we travelled the short journey alongside the river to the little town of Alken where we were booked in for a wine tasting at Anton Hammes Wine Estate. 

The wine cellars of the Anton Hammes wine estate have been owned by the family for more than 150 years, and are more than 300 years old in total. They were part of the Wiltburg castle complex, owned by the former free lords of Wiltberg. Wine is matured in the traditional style in old oak barrels, in the 300-year-old vaulted cellar. Here the grapes are processed after picking, the wine is given time to rest in the old oak barrels, time to develop its incomparable bouquet, and to mature. Obviously I couldn't indulge in the tasting being 'DES' (designated driver!) but I was given a couple of bottles to take home. Personally, I am yet to come across a German wine that I enjoy.

Day 4

We were in Bonn for the day today. When we arrived, we picked up our guide, Fiona, who took us on a tour of the city on the board the coach. She was very knowledgable about the city and knew her history but I don't think she had done much guiding on coaches. For one thing, she had 'mic fright'! She didn't seem at all comfortable with using the microphone and held it in the most peculiar way, mostly in her lap! Lucky my mic is sensitive enough to pick up her voice! Secondly, she was a useless navigator! Leaving it far to late to tell me to turn and she got me into a couple of really sticky situations in places that I'm not even sure we should have been! Nevertheless, the passengers enjoyed it and it all worked out well in the end. After the tour, we had the rest of he day free in the city to get some lunch and explore further.

Bonn's beginning dates between 13 - 9 BC when Romans began building roads, bridges, and fortresses at a location known as "Bonna." One well-documented event was the maryrdom of two Thebaean legionaries. The Thebaean Legion was an all Christian legion, which refused to worship the emperor as a god. As punishment, the Thebaean Legion's commander, Mauritius was executed in St. Moritz as were many other Thebaean legionaries including Cassius and Florentius, Bonn's patron saints, who were martyred at the location of the present-day Münster basilica (above).

After the Romans left, the town had a very tumultuous history. Bonn has been destroyed and pummeled on so many occasions that it nearly became a pastime. Norman invaders were the first to burn the town to the ground in 881 and again in 892. In 1198, King Philip of Swabia and Duke Heinrich von Brabant layed siege to Bonn. In 1244 Konrad von Hochstaden, archbishop of Cologne ordered Bonn to be fortified. The reasons for fortification may have been for the Archbishop's protection as he had apparently begun fighting with Cologne's leaders and often resided in Bonn after the dispute. In 1288 under Sigfried II von Westerburg the archbishopric was transferred from Cologne to Bonn, which has since been transferred back to Cologne.

In 1582 Archbishop Gebhard Truchsess von Waldburg converted to Calvinism and refused to give up his position as elector. In February of 1583 Waldburg married and was in April of the same year excommunicated by Pope Gregory XIII. After the Truschessian War Gebhard fled to Strasbourg, but not before Bonn felt the rapture of Bavarian troops, who blew up the Godesberg (the archbishop's residence) with 1,500 pounds of gun powder. While the town survived the Thirty Years war Bonn was completely destroyed in 1689 as a result of the War of the Grand Alliance.

In December 1770 Bonn's most famous son, Ludwig van Beethoven, was born on Bonngasse. Bonn is probably best known as Beethoven's birth place and this fact is well advertised by the city despite Beethoven's vehement disgust towards his hometown. Beethoven spent some time in Vienna hoping to study with Mozart, but after his mother's death he was forced to return to Bonn for five years to raise his two younger brothers since his alcoholic father was unable to. In 1792 Beethoven returned to Vienna and never came back to Bonn.

This evening, at dinner, we watched the most beautiful sunset over the Rhine, before having to pack our cases ready for the second stage of our holiday.

Day 5

This morning we are leaving Konigswinter after a very pleasant stay at the Hotel Maritim. We had good food, good service and nice rooms. I hope we are as fortunate with our next hotel. 

We had a lot of miles to cover today before reaching our second hotel, after having a very pleasant lunch stop in the town of Heidelberg.

It is no secret that Heidelberg is a jewel among German travel destinations. Heidelberg is in the Neckar river valley right where the legend-rich Odenwald (Forest of Odes or Odin) opens up towards the plains of the Rhine Valley. Heidelberg is home to the oldest university in Germany (est. 1386). With 28,000 students, the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität (or Ruperto Carola, the Latin equivalent of its name) is one of Germany's larger academic institutions and boasts the full spectrum of an ancient academy, from Egyptian Studies to Computer Linguistics. The faculties for Medicine, Law and Natural Sciences are considered to be among the best in Germany. The university fostered the establishment of several other world class research institutions such as the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ), the European Molecular Biological Laboratory (EMBL), Centre for Molecular Biology (ZMBH), Max Planck Institutes for Medicine, Astronomy, Nuclear Physics, among others. Generally speaking, Heidelberg is an academic city with a long and rich history and is similar in many ways to cities such as Cambridge or Oxford (Heidelberg and Cambridge, England are twinned).

During WWII, the city was almost completely spared allied bombings which destroyed many of Germany's larger inner cities. As a result, Heidelberg has retained its baroque charm of narrow streets, picturesque houses and of course the world-famous Schloss (castle ruins). After World War II, the US Army built large barracks at the southern end of the city. Heidelberg's 147,000 inhabitants thus include not only 28,000 students at the university but also nearly 30,000 US citizens, almost all of them soldiers and their families. With hundreds of thousands of tourists flocking to the city annually, Heidelberg is truly a culturally diverse and international destination, despite its small size.

Over the years, Heidelberg has attracted numerous artists, intellectuals and academics from all over Europe and has sometimes been referred to as Germany's unofficial intellectual capital. People who have lived and worked in the city include the poets Joseph von Eichendorff, Jean Paul, Goethe and Iqbal, scientists such as Bunsen and Kirchhoff, philosophers such as the founder of the "Illuminati" order von-Knigge, atheist Ludwig Feuerbach, existentialist Karl Jaspers, political theorist Hannah Arendt, architect Albert Speer, and many more. Mark Twain wrote in 'A Tramp Abroad':

..."Out of a billowy upheaval of vivid green foliage ...rises the huge ruin of Heidelberg Castle, with empty window arches, ivy-mailed battlements, moldering towers—the Lear of inanimate nature—deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful."

We were here for a couple of hours before having to move on to our hotel for the next 3 nights, Hotel Maritim Titisee in the Black Forest.

Day 6

Today I had another day off and I was looking forward to it! I had champagne for breakfast whilst  admiring the beautiful view over lake Titisee from the restaurant of our hotel. 

Titisee is a relatively new town having been developed after the late 1800's following the introduction of the railways, bringing tourists to the area. 

This morning we were all booked on a boat trip around the lake which was a nice relaxing way to start the day. There was a very brief commentary on board the boat but in all honesty, there is very little to talk about, just the outstanding scenery to admire.

After a cup of coffee with some of the passengers in a lake side cafe, we were all booked on the little town land train. This wasn't something I was particular excited about and I wasn't going to bother going but I am so glad I did.

Our driver was Willie. He was a continental coach driver for 25 years before starting his business with his little land train. I asked if I could drive and he was very keen for me to sit up front. Little did I know his English wasn't very good and he quite promptly handed me the microphone for me to do the commentary! It was hard work trying to understand what he was trying to tell me but I think I got the general gist of what he was saying! Even if I wasn't quite accurate, it was better than no commentary at all.

He took us out of the town and up into the hills of the Black Forest where we could see the Black Forest highest mountain, Feldburg, the Austrian Alps and the Swiss Alps. He explained how the Black Forest is maintained at 70% with 25% farmlands and just 5% of the area being towns. It was a lovely scenic hour long ride and not at all what anyone expected.

I spent some time cleaning and pottering around on the coach before having a really lazy afternoon, sitting on the lakeside terrace in the sun with a couple of glasses of Prosecco!

Day 7

Today is the day I had been looking forward to most of all. A very scenic day of driving around the Black Forest with a few nice stops and we had lovely weather which was the icing on the cake.

This ancient mountain range is famous for its legends and the black fir trees that cover the landscape. While not particularly high, the mountains offer a wonderful place to go hiking or mountain biking. There are a few skiing resorts as well offering average but crowded conditions. Better to head south to the Alps if you are a serious skier or boarder. The Black Forest is a mountainous terrain at about 200 - 1,500 meters above sea level, the highest point being the Feldberg (the field mountain) at 1,493 m.

The region is famous for its cuckoo clocks, watchmaking, skiing and tourism. There is a large high-tech light engineering industry in the region stemming from the gold-mining and watchmaking days.

Our hotel had arranged for us to stop at an old mill for coffee and cake, Hexonlochmuhle. It was a lovely drive to get to it and well off the beaten track. At one point I was wandering where we were being sent, but it was a lovely stop.

We were served up with the most enormous pieces of Black Forest Gateaux which was absolutely delicious. From here we headed for Triberg after a couple of stops for photo opportunities. The first was just in a layby on the side of the road at the top off a hill, looking down the valley.

Our second photo stop was at the Cuckoo Clock which is in the Guinness book of records for being the worlds largest. We arrived just in time to see it strike 1 o'clock when there was a very un impressive, solitary, 'cuckoo'!

Then we moved on to Triberg, where we spent a couple of hours. This little city is famous for its waterfall and cuckoo clocks and relies completely on tourism. It is a very pretty place built on a steep hill but a few hours is a long enough time to spend here.

We left here and headed directly back to our hotel for a couple of hours rest before getting back on the coach and going out for our traditional German meal with folk entertainment.

We were all given silly hats to wear and there were a lot of procussion instruments handed around for us to join in with the traditional music and singing. We had a 5 course meal served which was lovely, although, apart from more Black Forest gateaux, I couldn't tell you what we ate! It was an evening of great fun which everyone got involved in and enjoyed. We got back to the hotel at about half past 10 where I sat in the bar and enjoyed a glass of beer before bed.

Day 8

Well this morning we checked out of our hotel and started our long journey back to the UK, but not before visiting Freiburg and staying for some lunch. 

Lying in a secluded wine-rich corner of the German state of Baden-Württemberg, Freiburg is a laid-back, beautiful university city. Known throughout Germany for Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg, good weather, and vineyards, Freiburg is considered by Germans to be a desirable place to live.

Due to its secluded location at the border triangle of Germany, France, and Switzerland, and being fairly removed from any other larger German cities, locals will frequently go shopping in France and Switzerland for their respective native products and go to museums and theaters in Basel or Zürich. You can find a strong local patriotism, which shows itself in the anthem of Baden (a former independent state), which can be heard more often than the national anthem.

After staying long enough for some lunch, we hit the road to Metz for our overnight stay. Tomorrow we will be racing for our ferry and arriving home at about 9pm. A day purely of travelling.

In my opinion, this tour has been a great success. We have had a great group of passengers who have all got along, joined in and looked out for each other. Our hotels have been good and we've been well fed. To top it off, we've had great weather from start to finish. Another good job done!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Irish Melody

I have just returned from my new favourite part of Ireland, County Mayo, Galway and the Connemara National Park.

Day 1

The feeder vehicles brought my passengers in ready to leave for 7am. It was nice to see so many familiar faces. We had a very straight forward day today as far as I was concerned. I had been given more than enough time to make a comfortable journey to Holyhead where we were booked on the 1350 hrs sailing of Irish Ferries,Ulysses. We were loaded on to the ship early and I had finished my lunch before we had sailed out of Port. I spent the rest of the crossing enjoying the peace and comfort of a cabin. And yes, it would have been rude to not make use of the bunk and have a little snooze!

We arrived in the port of Dublin at 1730 hrs and travelled the short journey to our overnight stay, the Johnstown House Hotel, Enfield, County Meath. Well! What a hotel! I do not have one bad thing to say about any aspect of our stay in this hotel.

The rooms were large, bright and airy with large bathrooms and they are all the same so there is no chance of getting a bad room. Our evening meal was scrumptuous. We had 6 choices of each course, every dish that was served was obviously someone taking pride in their work. All the staff were extremely helpful, professional and efficient. There was not one thing that we had to chase up. It was an absolute pleasure to stay at this hotel and the bar has been raised for our hotel for the main stay of our tour! 

Day 2

We had a nice leisurely start this morning after a lovely breakfast and it was going to be another easy day for me. We were heading to Strokestown Park, House and Garden, and Famine Museum, County Roscommon, which was only an hour and a half journey. 

When we arrived, we were met by our guide, James, who gave a quick welcome to the park and gave us time for a quick comfort break before our introductory guided tour of the Famine Museum. And it WAS only an introduction. A very brief summary as we walked through each room. There was an awful lot of reading material throughout the museum that we weren't given time to look at. We were being rushed through and I soon realised why.

There were a lot of coach groups visiting here this morning and the house is quite small. Each group had a time slot for their guide around the house which was why we were rushed through the museum, to make the house at our allocated time.

The Great Irish famine of the 1840′s is now regarded as the single greatest social disaster of 19th century Europe. Between 1845 and 1850, when blight devastated the potato crop, in excess of two million people – almost one-quarter of the entire population – either died or emigrated.

The Famine Museum is located in the original Stable Yards of Strokestown Park House. It was designed to commemorate the history of the famine of Ireland and in some way to balance the history of the 'Big House'.

Whereas the landlord class had the resources to leave an indelible mark on the landscape, the Irish tenants lived in poverty and nothing of a physical nature has survived to commemorate their lives. The Famine Museum uses the unique documents that were discovered in the estate office, dealing with the administration of the estate during the tenure of the Mahon family. This collection includes many haunting pleas from starving tenants on the estate and the response they received.

The Museum also has a strong educational focus and seeks to create a greater awareness of the horrors of contemporary famine by demonstrating the link between the causes of the Great Irish Famine of the 1840′s and the ongoing spectacle of famine in the developing world today. The Famine Museum was opened in 1994 by the then President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and she said 'More than anything else, this Famine Museum shows us that history is not about power or triumph nearly so often as it is about suffering and vulnerability'.

Strokestown Park was built by Thomas Mahon MP (1701-1782) on lands which had been granted to his grandfather, Nicholas, in the latter half of the 17th century for his support in the British colonial campaign. It was the family home of the Mahon family until 1979 when the house, in an advanced state of disrepair, along with what remained of the estate, was purchased by a local company, Westward Garage, who needed some extra land to expand their business.

Their initial intention was to keep the few acres they needed to expand their business and to sell on the remainder of the estate to recoup their finances. At that stage Westward was a young emerging company, with limited cash resources.

However, when they spent some time in the house and saw what was there, they decided that Strokestown Park was far too important from a heritage point of view to risk losing it. They negotiated a deal with the Mahon family to ensure that virtually all of the original furnishings would remain at Strokestown Park. They also pleaded with the family to leave behind the documents that remained in the estate office. By doing so they had ensured the salvation of a huge part of the heritage of County Roscommon, particularly relating to the great famine of Ireland.

The first public role for the house was when it was used for the making of the film 'Anne Devlin', based on the 1798 Rising, in 1984. What then followed was a "restoration project of such enthusiasm and energy that it was to be acknowledged as the single best private restoration in the history of the state".

The house was opened to the public in 1987 and is unique in that it affords visitors the opportunity to browse through the public rooms on professionally guided tours, surrounded by the original furnishings of the house. The House is unchanged from the time when the Mahons lived there, as evidenced by photographs which can be seen in the house.

Personally, I thought the inside of the house was an absolute disgrace. There were holes in the furniture where the mice had got to it. The carpets were all thread bare from having so many people walking over them and the excuse for leaving them was that they were original. The same with the curtains. Every time we were taken into a room I was asked to close the door behind us and in one room, the door knob fell off in my hand! The photographer who did the promo shots on the inside of this house was very good because the place is nothing like the advertisements suggest. The whole house was dirty and smelly and an accident waiting to happen! 

The famine museum is well worth a visit but do it self guided so you can take as much time as you need. I don't recommend visiting the house, nor the garden, unless you like looking at weeds! It seems to me that the owners have no interest or enthusiasm to restore the property to what it was and that so long as it funds itself, that is good enough. Quite disappointing. The cafe however, was very good!

We stayed long enough for lunch and to revisit the museum before we were back on the coach and making our way to Westport and the Castle Court Hotel, which would be our base for the next 4 nights.

I had been warned about the access and parking for the coach at this hotel but I wasn't expecting it to be quite so ridiculous! I can see it will be fun and games every day trying to get in and parked. 

I had a nice room in this hotel and the food was good but it is no comparison to our hotel last night! Everyone settled in quickly and enjoyed dinner before most of our group moved to the bar for the live music. Unfortunately it wasn't traditional Irish, it was American folk, but it still created a good atmosphere.

Day 3

Today is the day I have been looking forward to. We have a day of scenic driving around Connemara and Joyce Country with a visit to Kylemore Abbey and a short time in Cong. We had a lot to fit in today but we had the weather on our side, not a cloud in the sky. The views today should be outstanding.

We left the hotel and straight away headed for the Connemara National Park and drove the Connemara Loop, County Galway, which is part of the Wild Atlantic Way.

"Follow the Loop and be taken on a journey through an ever changing landscape of majestic mountains, spectacular beaches, the wild Atlantic, mist covered lakes, pre-historic bogs and shady glens. A landscape peppered with quaint but lively villages where all the convenience of the modern day is available alongside an opportunity to step back in time to a more relaxed and friendly era."

We drove around the loop in a clockwise direction in order to arrive at Kylemore Abbey at an appropriate time to also have lunch.

Kylemore Abbey is a Benedictine monastery founded in 1920 on the grounds of Kylemore Castle. The abbey was founded for Benedictine Nuns who fled Belgium in World War I.

Kylemore Castle was built as a private home for the family of Mitchell Henry, a wealthy doctor from London whose family was involved in textile manufacturing in Manchester, England. He moved to Ireland when he and his wife Margaret purchased the land around the Abbey. He became a politician, becoming an MP for County Galway from 1871 to 1885. Construction first began in 1867, and took one hundred men four years to complete. There were 33 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, 4 sitting rooms, a ballroom, billiard room, library, study, school room, smoking room, gun room and various offices and domestic staff residences for the butler, cook, housekeeper and other servants. Other buildings include a Gothic cathedral and family mausoleum containing the bodies of Margaret Henry, Mitchell Henry and a great grand-nephew.

The Abbey remained in Henry's estate after he returned to England. The castle was sold to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester in 1909, who resided there for several years before being forced to sell the house and grounds because of gambling debts. In 1920 the Irish Benedictine Nuns purchased the Abbey castle and lands after they were forced to flee Ypres, Belgium during World War I. The nuns, who had been based in Ypres for several hundred years, had been bombed out of their Abbey during World War I. The nuns continued to offer education to Catholic girls, opening an international boarding school and establishing a day school for local girls. They were forced to close the school in June 2010.

The Estate includes large walled Victorian Gardens. Since the 1970s these have been open for public tours and 'nature' walks. The Benedictine community has restored the Abbey's gardens and Cathedral with donations and local artisans in order to be a self-sustaining estate. Unfortunately, I ran out of time before seeing everything, still so much more to see today!

We had stayed here for 2 1/2hrs before more scenic driving this afternoon through Joyce Country. Joyce Country lies west of the Lough Mask area, beyond the isthmus; a hilly region in the north of County Galway, extending into the southern part of County Mayo, traversed by green valleys and lonely roads which takes its name from a Welsh family who settled here in the 13th century during the reign of Edward I. Many people with the name Joyce still live there. The writer James Joyce carries the family name although he was born in Dublin in 1882.

There exists a Joyce Country Mountain and Lake District which covers the area south of Lough Mask, including the communities from Clonbur to Maam, Cloghbrack and Finney. Some sources include the balance of the isthmus, extending the region to Cong, Cross and The Neale.

We stopped in the little town of Cong, famous for the film 'The Quiet Man'. 
Cong is situated on an island formed by a number of streams that surround it on all sides. Cong is located on the isthmus connecting Loughs Corrib and Mask, near the towns of Headford and Ballinrobe and the villages of Neale and Cross.

Cong is known for its underground streams that connect Lough Corrib with Lough Mask to the north. It was also the home of Sir William Wilde, historian and father to prominent playwright, novelist, poet, and short story writer Oscar Wilde.

Cong is the home of Ashford Castle, one of Ireland's finest hotels, converted from a Victorian faux lakeside castle, built by the Guinness family and is a tourist attraction in its own right. Cong also has a fine example of a ruined medieval abbey, Cong Abbey, where Rory O'Connor, the last High King of Ireland, is buried. It also is the origin of Celtic art in the form of a metal cross shrine called the Cross of Cong. The 'Cross of Cong' is now held in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. There is a High Cross in the village.

Cong was the filming location for John Ford's 1952 Oscar-winning film, The Quiet Manfeaturing John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara and Barry Fitzgerald. Much of the movie was filmed on the grounds of Ashford Castle. The town and castle area remain little changed since 1952, and Cong's connection with the movie make it a tourist attraction. (The movie is still celebrated by the local "Quiet Man Fan Club").

From Cong we travelled directly back to our hotel after a long but thoroughly enjoyable, outstandingly beautiful day.

Day 4

Today is a day off for me and a free day in Westport. I was hoping to get on a boat trip today but the tides are wrong and there is nothing going until much later in the day which I'm a little disappointed about missing. I still went for a walk down to Westport Quay, following the Greenway to get there, before walking back through Westport town. It made my legs ache!

The earliest settled habitation of the Westport area was approximately 5000years ago which is reflected in the many megalithic monuments found on the Clew Bay Archeological Trail.  In the 16th Century Westport or Cathair na Mart as it is known in the Irish language was an important stronghold for the O Malley Clan. An infamous Pirate Queen called Grace O Malley held control of the fortress in Westport as well as many other sites along the shores of Clew Bay.


In the 17th century the Browne Family moved to Westport and built a home on the site of the O Malley Fortress. In 1730 they employed a famous German architect called Mr. Richard Cassels to design the magnificent building of Westport House and interestingly the dungeons of the old O Malley fortress can still be seen on a visit to Westport House.


The village of Westport originally consisted of thatched cabins and was situated on the front lawn of Westport House with a high street and little alleys leading down to the Carrowbeg River. In the mid 18th century Sir John Browne decided to relocate the village 1500m inland to its current position and contracted the architect William Leeson to plan the town. A proposal announcing the new town of Westport appeared in the Dublin Journal, March 1767.


In 1800 Sir John Denis Browne, Lord Sligo embarked on the ambitious plans of developing the Mall on both sides of the Carrowbeg River. It consists of 400m of tree lined boulevards, with two cascades and had three crossings of stone arched bridges. The buildings on both sides of the Mall were built in wonderful Georgian character and many remain intact to this day.

Westport is the third largest town in Mayo with an urban population of 5,000. It hosts a remarkable natural and built environment combined with a vibrant, friendly resident population which enables the delivery of quality tourism products. The site of the town offers visitors an opportunity to experience a well maintained urban setting on the banks of the beautiful Carrabawn River in addition to a bustling Quay area on the shores of Clew Bay. The topography and biodiversity of the Westport’s environs provides for spectacular scenery which enables visitors to the area to capture a real sense of the heritage and landscape. The town has won numerous awards which justly reflect the efforts of local community groups.

At lunch time I indulged myself with a glass of the black stuff! In the afternoon I took advantage of the Spa and Leisure facilities at the hotel and lounged in the jacuzzi for a while!

Day 5

Today we have a local guide joining us on board the coach to take us around Achill Island. We had another day of beautiful weather and breathtaking scenery.

Achill has a long history of human settlement and there is evidence that Achill was inhabited as many as 5,000 years ago. Megalithic tombs testifying to this can be seen at Slievemore and there is a signposted walk to one of these tombs nearby McDowell's Hotel. The remains of promontory forts from the Iron Age have been found along the Atlantic Drive and on Achill Beg Island.

We spent the morning on the Atlantic Drive, also part of the Wild Atlantic Way. I just can't put into words how amazingly stunning the scenery was.

Our guide had booked us into a pub for lunch where we were all very well fed before spending the afternoon driving out to Keem Beach where we literally came to the end of the road.

After leaving the beach, one of our passengers requested that we visit the deserted village. Close by Dugort, at the base of Slievemore mountain lies the Deserted Village. The village is divided into three areas called Tuar, Tuar Riabach and Faiche, and there are approximately 80 houses in the village.

The atmosphere of the Deserted Village is unique; it's remoteness; a feeling of almost intruding on those who lived there; a sense of the frugality of life in such a place and time and the overall air of mystery; who were they, why did they settle here, how did they survive and why did they leave?

The houses were built of unmortared stone, which means that no cement or mortar was used to hold the stones together. Each house consisted of just one room and this room was used as kitchen, living room, bedroom and even stable. While one or two houses may have had a small stable built on to the end of the house, most families had to share their house with the cows and other livestock, who would be brought into the house at night and tied at one end. Inside the house, a shallow channel or drain in the floor would lead in to a manure pit outside the house.

It had been another fantastic day today. We weren't restricted by timings anywhere and just spent as much or as little time that we wanted. County Mayo and Connemara are my new favourite areas of Ireland. 

Day 6

This morning we are leaving Westport. We stopped for a coffee in the town of Longford before today's visit at Belvedere House.

Belvedere estate today is a very important example of cultural built heritage that has been transformed into a tourism asset of national importance for the region. Currently attracting over 160'000 visitors a year the estate is a multi faceted tourism/leisure site with a diverse range of uses throughout the year.

A day visitor to Belvedere gets to explore the restored Belvedere House, Victorian Walled Garden and rolling parkland with it's numerous follies. Belvedere can be a place of quiet contemplation and also a bustling, vibrant, colourful place with the many events held here, it is a place resonant of the past but relevant to the future.

The historic role of the Big House in Ireland was one of dominance and exclusion. The Houses were hidden away behind high walls designed to keep people out and were surrounded by idyllic landscaped grounds for the enjoyment of the few. Now days a big house such as Belvedere (stature not size) in public ownership the aim is for inclusion not exclusion. As well as normal tourism business Belvedere works closely with providing access to large numbers of community based projects, sports clubs, art groups and local initiatives.

The house was initially built by Robert Rochfort as a retreat, having incarcerated his wife in their previous home at Gaulstown, for an alleged affair with his brother Arthur. Arthur was later put on trial and fined £20,000 which he could not pay. Arthur spent 18 years in debtors' prison in Dublin but was released upon Robert's death. Robert built the Jealous Wall after falling out with his brother George, who lived on the adjacent estate at Tudenham. His wife was only released on his death in 1774, after 31 years of being locked away.

The estate passed to his son George Augustus Rochfort, the 2nd Earl. He was MP for Westmeath from 1761 to 1776 and High Sheriff of Westmeath for 1762. He left for England in 1798 and died in 1814. When his widow died in 1828, Belvedere passed to her grandson Brinsley Butler, 4th Earl of Lanesborough. He rarely visited Belvedere and it was subsequently inherited on his death by his cousin Charles Brinsley Marlay in 1847.

Charles moved into the house and during his time there was responsible for the alteration of the Diocletian windows on the upper façade and for the addition of the terracing. He commissioned Ninian Niven, curator of the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, to draw up plans for the Victorian walled garden.

In the period following the second world war Charles Howard-Bury, a soldier and mountaineer, restored the house and gardens. He never married and on his death in 1963 the estate was inherited by Rex Beaumont. Rex had been Howard-Bury's friend and companion for 30 years and sold the estate to Westmeath County Council in 1982. Following a multi-million pound restoration the house and gardens have been opened to visitors.

We left here, heading for our overnight hotel, The Stillorgan Park Hotel. Another very nice, comfortable hotel which serves very good food. One thing with coming to Ireland is that you will never go hungry. There is always plenty of food!

Day 7

An early start this morning for our early morning sailing from Dublin to Holyhead. We left the hotel at 0630 and pointed out a few of the sights as we drove across the centre of the city to the port. It was another beautiful morning and it looked like we'd be having a smooth crossing.

We had breakfast booked for the whole group on the ferry. Once again I had finished eating before we left port and I went straight back to bed! After a couple of hours sleep and a shower we were back in Holyhead and heading for home.

I have really enjoyed this week and would love to return to the west of Ireland. Another successful tour delivered!