Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Death by Baguette

Originally uploaded by simpsonatti
Baguettes, baguettes, baguettes. They come to me in my dreams, stalking me along the Paris streets under the arm of every French man, woman and child. The cliché is true, and inescapable. Everywhere I look I see the baguette in innumerable forms: baguette sandwiches; baguette with sausage; baguette with nutella. I fear death by baguette.

Disappointingly, the baguette carriers did not wear berets. And I had no-one spit on my shoe. In fact, I found the French generally friendly, welcoming, and very willing to put up with my complete lack of French.

I started in Paris, arriving on the Eurostar train from London in under 2 ½ hours. Despite a rather bad bout of food poisoning, after a long sleep and some food I was ready to explore the city.

Paris is a perfect city to get lost in. I avoided paying the hefty entrance fees to the main tourist sites (Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Arc de Triumph, the Champ Elysees), although I did see them from a distance, and instead wandered the streets aimlessly. Montmartre was a definite favourite, with its mixture of cobbled leafy streets, shamelessly seedy strip (site of the Moulin Rouge and an long, long, long row of sex shops) and site of some of the best views of Paris. After a compulsory taste of escargots (snails), I grabbed a few cans of beer and dragged a friend to the top of the steps of the Sacre Coeur basilica, which overlooks the whole city and we happily enjoyed the drizzly sundown after a long day of walking.

I went through the well stocked but easy to get lost in Picasso museum and the quite disappointing Jewish museum with a few cafe stops in between.

I left the hectic and rainy streets of Paris for La Rochelle, on France's Atlantic coast. It's a pretty, well- monied but quaint yachting city, with a beautiful old city wall and tower facing the coast.

Fouras was the next stop. A smaller coastal town with a charming village centre, it boasts an impressive seafood market, packed with fish, crabs, lobsters, sea snails and the region's famous oysters, all gleaming fresh.

I seem to be making a habit of visiting famous liquor towns, so this time I visited Cognac, home of the world famous luxury tipple. Like tequila or champagne, cognac can only be called cognac if it is from a select few provinces in France and according to a very strict distilling process. Made from a combination of grapes from certain French regions, it is then blended and double distilled before undergoing an aging process to produce the final product. The town of Cognac is in itself a very pretty, with many of the buildings dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries.

From Fouras I was incredibly lucky to have the chance to stay in a medieval chateau, set amidst the wheat fields and woodlands of Sansac, Western France. Complete with winding staircases, banquet rooms once used by knights, turrets, secret passages and books dating back centuries, much of the time it was difficult to believe I was actually there. Largely uninhabited, the chateau produces delicious handmade goat's cheese from the cellar factory.

It would take too much time to describe all the quaint villages I passed through and stopped in- all very old and beautiful, but the enduring images I will have of France are vast barley and wheat fields; spectacular, almost surreal castles set dramatically on hills surrounded by emerald woodlands; countless medieval villages with rambling gardens; and amazing cheese.... even the local Spar (a European convenience chain store) had its own, extensive delicatessen!

Many thanks to Gerhardt & Annie, who housed, drove and fed me very well!

Friday, May 15, 2009


Despite living just two hours from Northern Ireland's main city, Belfast, it was only my second time there after 1 year in Dublin.

The overriding question of the visit, asked of me by at least a dozen locals was 'Why would you come to Belfast?' They seemed genuinely perplexed as to why anyone would chose Belfast as a tourist destination.

I was there for the politics.

The Northern Ireland conflict has always fascinated me, especially because it's so recent and perhaps will never really be over. Its historical roots go back to the 1600's but became especially relevant following the civil rights movement in the USA in the 1960's and led to renewed conflict over various injustices such as gerrymandering, as well as over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

When peaceful protests by Catholics and some Protestants in the 1960's were met with violent force, the conflict turned increasingly violent and parts of Northern Ireland became virtual war zones with places like The Falls Road, in a staunchly republican area of the city, morphing into a tense and bloody front line of The Troubles.

With both sides denouncing the media as propaganda machines, the people of Belfast and (London)Derry turned to painting the walls of the streets with large murals to say what they wanted to say, much like today's blogs have responded to mass media. These murals remain in the more partisan areas of the cities, and while many still relate directly to the conflict, present day issues such as the Israeli-Palestine conflict and that same gnawing obsession with Che Guevara are also represented.

I was always a bit confused about the terms 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' in relation to the conflict. It took me awhile to realise that they are related more closely to heritage than religion. In many ways it's all about your surname. As a Simpson, descended from Scottish heritage, I would be a protestant, even though I am agnostic.

Even now, when you apply for a job in Northern Ireland, you have to fill out a form declaring if you are a) Catholic; b) Protestant; c) Neither
But, according to a friend who lived in Belfast, even if you pick neither, depending on your surname or what school you went to, you could still be classed as one or the other.

Both West and East Belfast are dominated by rather grim looking housing estates, militant murals and men stalking around with shaved heads and tracksuits. Both are a little scary to walk around, and I was questioned on one occasion as to what I was doing there.
I decided to chance it and walk into the local bar on the Falls Road. For a moment it was like a scene out of a western movie, where all the men (only men) stopped drinking mid pint and I could almost hear the imaginary wooden doors swinging behind me. I left quickly.
Stormont- Northern Ireland's parliament. Despite Northern Ireland's small population, its parliament seats 108 members. It's worth visiting just for its beautiful location, surrounded by acres of parkland. It's much harder to see anything inside the parliament, and I was refused access to the most interesting looking area after being told it was ''top secret''.
Crumlin Road Prison- completed in 1845 the Prison closed in 1996 and is now open to the public for tours. Although a hoard of pigeons has now replaced prisoners, the prison is an interesting architectural specimen and housed many of the most infamous political prisoners such as Gerry Adams and the Rev. Ian Paisley. It's an eerie place.

The Troubles officially ended in 1998 following the Good Friday Agreement. Controversially, all paramilitary prisoners were released, including notorious mass murderers such as the Shankhill Butchers, who indiscriminately murdered around 30 people, many on a random basis.

Many former IRA and UVF members now have large stakes in the State, including Martin McGuiness, former IRA commander, who holds the post of Deputy First Minister and the current Lord Mayor, Tom Hartley, who was incarcerated at Crumlin Road Prison.

I was lucky enough to get a ticket to a The Chronicles of Long Kesh, a play which looks at what happened at the former Long Kesh/Maze Prison, where most political prisoners were held during The Troubles. It was also where the 1981 Hunger Strike happened, during which 10 men died. The acting was brilliant and it's a novel way to learn about the history.

Aside from all the politics, there are a few other sites worth seeing in and around the city.

Belfast Castle, situated high on a hill overlooking the city, is beautiful, as is much of the surrounding area. I'm not usually a fan of tours, but Paddywagon Tours does it well- very well informed, local guides, comfortable buses and very reasonably priced. I took the Belfast–Giants Causeway-Derry day tour, which gave me the opportunity to see some amazing natural sites around Northern Ireland. Dramatic cliffs, rolling green fields, ancient castles and bizarre rock formations can be visited within an hour of the city.

Derry (or Londonderry, depending on your political persuasion) is a pretty little city on the North coast. It's Europe's last walled city, and remains very militant.

It's also worth following your stomach around Belfast's old Georgian food market, held on Fridays and Saturdays, near the main train station. It's packed full of stalls selling a wide ranging and delicious range of foods, with scores of free samples. I had a delicious Lebanese wrap with falafel and chili sauce. Sadly, no hot dogs in sight.

If you are looking for an exciting night out in Belfast it's a little harder to find. Even on weekends, most of the bars seemed to shut at 12pm, leaving you with little else than terribly bad nightclubs with 18 year olds dancing to Beyonce, or pretentious suit wearers swirling house chardonnay under fake chandeliers. As with most Irish bars, the best time to go is late afternoon, when you still have a seat and conversations are audible.

I left the city on a Saturday afternoon on the last flight to London. On the short flight over I was trying to sum up what I thought of the city. In the short time I was there I had developed a kind of love-hate relationship. If imagined or not, it felt tense and restless, as if something could snap at any moment. In many ways it was boring. Walking around the city at 8pm on a Friday night, even convenience stores were closed and the streets oddly empty. But I admired it as a reluctant hero or survivor, a rough and tough but straight-to-the-point type; the kind who would save your life but tell you to get lost for wasting their time.