Saturday, October 11, 2014

Belfast: The Titanic and the Troubles

Raising a pint at "The Morning Star" pub
in Belfast, Ireland
We had visited the Republic of Ireland (about 18 years ago) and always wanted to visit Northern Ireland to better understand the differences. Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain, the currency is the pound, and the local Protestants (known as Royalists) would be deeply offended if you called them “Irish.” We did not experience the extreme warmth and friendliness we remember from our time in the Republic, but given the history of violence here, we suppose that is understandable. People were reserved initially, altho most were very helpful, and some would even talk your ear off once you got them started.

Regal British-style architecture
We found the Irish brogue here very difficult to understand.  It was embarrassing because obviously, we are all English-speakers, but sometimes, we couldn't understand a word they were saying.  Honestly, we could understand the Germans with their broken English much better than the folks in Northern Ireland!

The Albert Clock in the center of Belfast
We stayed right in the city center surrounded by very British-looking architecture including the Albert Clock that looks like a mini “Big Ben.”  Belfast is very compact and walkable, so we did a lot of long walks and sometimes just wandering. Our hotel was located in the Cathedral Quarter of the city, the hip part with lots of interesting restaurants in hidden nooks and alleyways. The eating schedule here was a bit hard to get used to. Pubs only serve food until about 5:00 p.m. or so, and on a Sunday, eating places don’t open until 1:00 p.m. (if at all).  Most businesses had iron bars on the windows & doors, or metal doors on a track that were locked tight when the city slept.

Distinctive yellow Harland & Wolff  crane

The Titanic

One of our main goals was to explore the many sites related to “The Titanic,” which was built and sea-tested here in Belfast, circa 1909-1912, along with her sister ships – Olympic, Britannic, and a tender called Nomadic. The area surrounding the museum is very unexciting, capturing that cold shipyard environment, with the powerful upside down “U-shaped” Harland and Wolff Cranes still looming overhead, colored in bright yellow and bearing those infamous initials of H & W that can be seen from some distance away.  The H & W Company designed and outfitted the Titanic for the White Star Line back in the early 1900’s. These two monstrous cranes, named “Samson and Goliath,” still lower heavy parts and cargo onto the decks of ships.

The very impressive "Titanic Belfast" museum
We started our Titanic exploration at the recently completed “Titanic Belfast” museum, located on the other side of the Lagan River.  What a fabulous museum – Frank thinks it is the best one he’s ever seen (and you know we have visited many world-class museums all over the planet).  The museum was very well-organized with gaggles of information well-presented using a variety of audio-visual methods.

Rare, original photo of the building of The Titanic
The first gallery did an excellent job of explaining why Belfast was the logical choice to build the largest ships in the world at that time.  Belfast had lots of waterways and access to deep water, and was the world’s largest shipyard at the time; it was maybe more importantly a manufacturing hub employing a vast labor force, with all the support industries that shipbuilding requires.  Some of these were: ironworks, air and ventilation works, rope-making, textile manufacturing, and even whiskey, soft drinks, tea, and cigar making. 
Inside the museum, we took a cleverly designed amusement-type ride that whisked us up and down the sides of an abbreviated mock-up version of the Titanic, explaining how the Titanic was built, how the materials were used to shape the structure, and in particular, how hand-placed and machine-installed rivets were fastened by the builders and the rivet teams.

Reconstructed 1st class stateroom
Finally, we saw reconstructed staterooms, and took a marvelous virtual “tour” of the Titanic – a 360-degree surround view (visual & sound effects) that made us feel as if we were actually inside, similar to being a passenger aboard the Titanic.  Like an elevator, it lifted us slowly up a vertical slice of the Titanic, starting from the bilge, up thru the engine room and all the lower decks, upward thru some of the staterooms, past Titanic’s famous clock and wooden stairway, and up to the bridge where Captain Smith spent the last moments of his life.  

The "virtual tour" made us feel as if we were seeing
 the actual Titanic staircase

We spent four hours in this museum, and could have stayed even longer (or come back another day).  Unfortunately, our limited time in Belfast prevented another go at this museum.

The Thompson Graving Dock (pump house on left)

We did return to the Titanic Quarter another day to see two other Titanic sites.  One of them was the “Thompson Graving Dock,” which is the actual pit where the Titanic rested as it was fitted out. A Graving Dock is a giant lock where ships go in and out when service is required.  The process is pretty simple: by opening special gates to the river, the dock would be flooded with water; as the ship floated in, the ship’s keel would be guided into position on top of keel blocks that lined the very center bottom of the graving dock. Then pumps from the powerful Pump House removed the millions of liters of water (in about 1-1/2 hours!), leaving the ship exposed in a dry pit and accessible for all the remaining work. Ships used these graving docks for maintenance, scraping barnacles off the hull, refitting, and, in the case of the Titanic, building and outfitting.  The Thompson Graving Dock was the largest graving dock in the world at the time, built especially for the 900-foot long Titanic.

Anne looks like a peanut inside the immense
Thompson Graving Dock.  Note keel blocks down center.
The way the Titanic building process worked was that the keel, sides, and some of the infrastructure of the Titanic was assembled on dry land at a different close-by location down river (we visited this spot too).  Then, the Titanic was launched and towed to the Thompson Graving Dock for the final touches and all the interior details. The partially built ship was floated into the graving pit by dropping a watertight gate to the Lagan River, and then, the ship was floated into the 40-foot deep dock.  Once the ship’s keel was lined-up and resting firmly on a series of keel supports, all of the water was pumped out of the pit, leaving the dry docked ship to rest about 5 feet above the bottom of the pit, perfectly accessible for the building process.  Workers could now scurry all about in the pit, and on scaffolding to attend to the fitting details of the ship. All of this effort, 10 months’ worth, took place in this graving dock. 

SS Nomadic, "a mini-Titanic"
Our final Titanic stop was the SS Nomadic, a tender ship used to carry passengers out to ocean liners when a harbor was too shallow for the big ships to come in and dock.  At first, the SS Nomadic looked fairly unimpressive, but this little ship has quite a story to tell.  The SS Nomadic is the only White Star Line ship still in existence.  It was built at the same time as the Titanic, with the same methods, and even by the same workmen as the Titanic.  In many ways, it has similar features of a mini-Titanic, even a promenade deck and wooden staircase that mimics that which was aboard the Titanic.

Frank takes the helm of the SS Nomadic
(Titanic Belfast Museum is in the background)
Before setting out across the Atlantic Ocean, the Titanic picked up 100 some passengers at the French port of Cherbourg.  Cherbourg had a shallow harbor, so the SS Nomadic carried passengers like “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” out to the Titanic. The ride only took about 45 minutes, but the White Star Line was intent on impressing passengers from the moment they set foot on that tender. In fact, the SS Nomadic has three gangways: totally separate entrances for first class, second class, and steerage passengers.  Even on this simple tender boat, the classes were meticulously separated, and the level of decoration and standard of service in each class varied considerably.  For instance, we got to see the original first class bar where the likes of Mr. Astor and Mr. Guggenheim would have ordered their free drinks.  Steerage passengers had to make do with a water fountain!

Anne follows in the footsteps of  Titanic passengers

The SS Nomadic had quite a history after her service to the Titanic as well – she was a troop ship in WWI, a minesweeper in WWII, and she was only saved from the scrap heap by a French entrepreneur who turned her into a floating restaurant on the Seine near the Eiffel Tower in Paris.  Eighteen months ago, the SS Nomadic was once again ready to be scrapped when a Belfast non-profit organization with funds from the European Union bought and refurbished her.

What impressed us most about the SS Nomadic was that walking her decks was as close as we can ever come to boarding the actual Titanic.  It gave Anne goose bumps to walk up the elegant wooden staircase, the very one that Titanic passengers used when they left the SS Nomadic for their rendezvous with fate on The Titanic.

Jennifer, whose great-grandfather worked as a riveter
on The Titanic
One last point regarding the Titanic.  The building of the Titanic was such a massive undertaking, that most of Belfast was somehow involved. One day, we wandered into an old-fashioned candy shop, and after some small talk, the woman behind the counter (Jennifer) told us that her great-grandfather was a riveter for the Titanic.  One night at a restaurant, we got to talking with the couple at the table next to us, and his great-grandfather had worked as a carpenter on the ship, and her great-grandfather was a riveter.  We found it absolutely amazing that so many current Belfastians had kin involved with the making of this historic vessel. But after some thought, we figured we’d just touched on the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended) on that topic!

At one time, all the pubs in Belfast had cages like this
at their entrances to discourage bombings
The Troubles

“The Troubles” refers to the 30 some years of civil unrest and violence between Catholics and Protestants.  A peace accord was finally reached in 1998 after 3500 people were killed and thousands wounded in bloody street battles, bombings, and other violence around the country.  We wanted to learn more, so we took a “Troubles Tour”’ with one of the many cab drivers who offer this type of excursion. 

Examples of Catholict roadside murals
Our driver, Ken, took us to the worst hit area where Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods still stand side-by-side.  What shocked us the most was that a metal fence runs between the two neighborhoods, and it is locked every night – even now.  The people are not locked in, they can travel north and south, but they can’t easily enter the opposing neighborhood.  We also saw homes with metal fencing like a giant batting cage protecting their backyards from flying objects coming over the wall.

The Margaret Thatcher "Wanted Poster"
Ken showed us numerous roadside murals, both Protestant and Catholic, which promote their causes or commemorate their battles.  One Catholic mural was a wanted poster with a picture of Margaret Thatcher and the words “wanted for murder and torture of Irish prisoners.”  We also saw many signs declaring “We support Gaza.”  Ken explained that the local extremists now extend their support to other “freedom fighters” around the world including groups like the Basques in Spain and the Palestinians.

A Protestant mural
Anne had read that Northern Ireland would inevitably become part of the Republic because the Catholic population is growing faster than the Protestant.  But like all things in Northern Ireland, nothing is quite as it seems.  Ken told us that a recent survey indicated that 75% of Catholics want to remain a part of Great Britain, mainly because of the much better social services, free medical care, etc.

Mural showing support for Gaza
The extreme violence that occurred here is unfathomable, and our guide Ken, along with other Irish people we met, are the first to tell you that they can’t make sense of it themselves.  Our 63-year old cabbie Ken told us that as a young boy, he heard gun shots, and when he went outside, he watched two 14-year-olds die in front of his eyes.  Another taxi cab driver told us that his boyhood home was equipped with bulletproof windows, a closed circuit television to see who was coming up the walkway, and a front door that opened out (instead of in) to make it more difficult to break the door down by kicking it in. You have to wonder how the “children of the Troubles” are dealing with all the things they witnessed growing up.

Victorian-style Crumlin Road Gaol
We also visited the Crumlin Road Gaol (jail), originally designed in the 1800’s to hold 500 prisoners, but packed with over 1400 during The Troubles.  Even in jail, the Catholics and Protestants had to be kept apart, and violence often broke out in common areas like a tunnel that lead to the courthouse. 

Execution room at Crumlin Road Gaol
The most shocking cell was the one reserved for prisoners scheduled to be executed. The jail guard, who had bonded with the condemned man over a period of days, would usually comfort the prisoner by talking about personal issues and even offering him some booze to relax him.  When execution time arrived, the condemned man assumed he would be led from his cell out into the prison corridor to face his fate; however, when he made a last trip to his bathroom, the guard slid a large shelf unit aside, exposing a secret door leading right into the execution room with the executioner & the noose ready and waiting!  They thought this was a more merciful scenario, since the stark shock to the condemned man was so shattering, he hardly had time to ponder what lay ahead.   

The executioner was paid 20 pounds per head.  One interesting note: after the executioner did his deed, he was taken to court before a judge where he was fined a “small amount” for taking a man’s life.  This was just a formality and a way for the Crown to get some tax money from the hangman!

Scenic street lined with pubs in Belfast
Other Belfast Sights

On a lighter note, we saw the musical, “Oliver” performed at the Grand Opera House in Belfast. Wonderful music with an energetic cast.  The kids were incredible, but the guy who played Fagan stole the show.  A terrific fun night out.  Of course, we also checked out some pubs in Belfast.  Frank loved Guinness on tap, but discovered a new favorite Irish beer: Bass Ale on tap.  Anne used to be a lager girl preferring the lighter flavor of Harp, but after sampling the beers of Belfast, even she took a liking to the darker, heavier flavor of Bass Ale.

The Giant's Causeway on the Antrim Coast
We did a day trip along the scenic coastal road tracking the Irish Sea (and then the northern Atlantic Ocean) to the Giant’s Causeway, a strange geological site with 40,000 interlocking basalt columns (6-sided like beehive honeycombs), about 1-foot in diameter and varying in length) that were heaved up to the surface during volcanic activity about 60 million years ago.  

Our Irish double rainbow at the Giant's Causeway
We were fortunate to visit on a sunny day, although we did get drenched by a sudden cloudburst.  We didn’t really mind because we got a double rainbow!

Although we are glad to have experienced it, we would probably not return to Northern Ireland. For a future trip, we would choose the Republic instead.  However, lots of cruise ships stop here in Belfast, and we wouldn’t mind coming ashore for a day to see more of the city.

More pics of Belfast:

At the "Titanic Belfast Museum"

Mural of Bobby Sands, who died during a prison
hunger strike, on the IRA headquarters building

At least the people of Belfast haven't lost
their sense of humor

"Poundland" -- the equivalent of our dollar store

The gorgeous Antrim coast

Basalt columns at the Giant's Causeway

The Giant's Causeway

The Giant's Causeway

That brings us to the end of this trip. As always, thanks for traveling with us! Here's an Irish toast before we go: "May the roof above us never fall down and we friends below never fall out." Slainte! (Gaelic for cheers)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Oktoberfest at Last!

Oktoberfest 2014 in Munich, Germany!
Where do we begin?  Oktoberfest exceeded all of our expectations.  It truly is the greatest and one of the biggest parties in the world.  Disney World may claim to be the happiest place on earth, but we have NEVER seen so many happy people in one place as we witnessed during Oktoberfest.  And the beer is, well, “Der Gemutlichkeit”!

Young girls head for the beer tents in their dirndl outfits
We bought a special Bavarian Ticket for traveling on the trains from Augsburg to Munich, a great deal giving us unlimited train and subway access for the whole day. The train from Augsburg to Munich took just 35 minutes, and the festive atmosphere was apparent from the moment we boarded the train.  Most of the travelers were already decked out in the traditional accouterments of the occasion.   People love to dress up for Oktoberfest!  We rode with young girls and older women wearing their “”dirndls”: low-cut dresses with white puffy sleeves, a colorful vest, and a full skirt topped with an apron; also, lots of the guys wore authentic-looking decorative leather lederhosen (short, soft leather pants with suspenders).  Not the kind of get-up most men would be caught dead wearing back in Pennsylvania, but even the “cool guys” are into their traditional heritage here.

Proudly wearing our Oktoberfest garb
Frank had been skeptical (to say the least) when Anne suggested buying some special clothes to wear to Oktoberfest.  She had read that dressing up was all part of the fun, kind of like a big Halloween Party back home (without the masks).  Frank had to admit it really did make the fest even more enjoyable; you are accepted more, and blend in better with the revelers. We did not go for the full dirndl/lederhosen look, but Anne found a Bavarian style blouse for herself and got Frank a blue and white checked shirt.  Checks are big at Oktoberfest and blau und weiss (blue and white), the colors of Bavaria, are a favorite combo.  Red checks are big too.

German youths strut their lederhosen stuff
Our friends on the train wasted no time getting into the festival spirit as they popped open a bottle of champagne and passed out bottles of beer even before the train left the Augsburg station! Seems that anything goes during Oktoberfest, and this crew was getting themselves primed for the main events in Munich.  We could hear cheers and singing from many of the adjacent train cars as we zipped along and got ever closer to our destination.

Frank gets the rhythm of Oktoberfest!
When we arrived at the Munich Hauptbahnhof (main train station), it was a total zoo.  We have never seen this train station this crowded.  But we found our way out to the street, and hiked the short distance to the fairgrounds.  We had originally planned to come to the fest on a quieter Monday, but couldn't wait, so here we were joining the frenzied Sunday crowd.  Actually, once we got into the rhythm of the festival, we became less and less distracted by the masses of partygoers.

The 100 acres of Oktoberfest include beer tents and
Anne had mapped out the 15-minute walk down to the festival, but all we had to do was follow the dirndl/lederhosen crowd. It is remarkable that the fairgrounds are right in the center of Munich.  We heard the fest before we could see it, and just like that we passed through the gates into over 100 acres of family merriment.

BTW, entrance into Oktoberfest is totally free. All you have to pay for are your food, drink, and any amusements. Speaking of amusements, Oktoberfest is not just about beer – the grounds contain a gigantic amusement park with all kinds of entertainments, especially daredevil thrill rides and rides for the young.  The fest provides for the most amazing people watching.  We loved stepping off to the side and just watching the crowds trundle-on by.

Whole families dress up to enjoy
Oktoberfest together
Oktoberfest is very much a family affair with whole families dressed in traditional clothing taking in the sights and sounds of this fun fair.  In spite of all the drinking, Oktoberfest has a very wholesome feel to it. It’s not at all seedy – nothing like Mardi Gras for instance.  Everyone just seems happy to be here.  It is not about getting skunk-drunk and then puking all night long; in fact, in our whole 2 days here, we only ever saw one person who showed signs of drinking too much.  But even he was not a problem.

"The Wild Pisser" sprays passersby
One of the funniest “amusements” was something called (what we think translates to) “The Wild Pisser.”  We were walking along when we noticed the crowd avoiding what looked like an old wooden outhouse; everyone seemed to be veering away.  Curious, we waited to see what would happen next. Every two minutes, the outhouse door opened up, and, with hand on his pecker, a skeleton swung his “pisser” side-to-side, spraying the crowd with water (we hope!).  We cracked up, and when we got into a good position to take photos, the “bony” bastard squirted us good!  You’d never see this kind of entertainment in America!

Inside the colorful Pschorr beer tent
(Note the band on the raised platform)
The beer drinking takes places inside tents run by all the major brewers of Munich such as Augustiner, Paulaner, Lowenbrau,  and of course, the Hofbrauhaus.  Each tent has a different d├ęcor and a distinct atmosphere – some clearly geared to certain age groups.  We had a marvelous time “tent-hopping”, and trying out the different types of beer and food.

Anne gets down with the beer and the "bretzel"
One thing about drinking at Oktoberfest – you have no choice of beer or beer size. You just order ein mass, and, for 10 euros, you get a stein of special Oktoberfest brew.  Sometimes when we first arrived, the waitresses would just plunk down 2 steins without us even having to ask.  Each tent offers its own Oktoberfest beer concoction, but our palates weren't sophisticated enough to tell the difference – it was all good, cold, and refreshing!

Enjoying the ambiance of Oktoberfest
Many of the tables inside the tents are reserved a year ahead of time, and prior to going, we were worried about finding a place to sit (you can only order beer if you are seated).  But luckily many of the reservations were for later in the day, and the staff of waiters was more than happy to guide us to available spots.  These serving folks are the hardest working at the fair – hauling heavy steins and heaving huge trays laden with food all day (and night). And yet they were always pleasant and more than patient with some of the “feeling-no-pain” visitors.  Of course, we only visited during the day; no telling what went on into the wee hours!

Frank and new friend Gunther whooping it up at Oktoberfest
One of our favorite tent was Pschorr-Braurosl, warmly decorated in bright yellow with an outstanding oom pah pah band. These tents are so big – bigger than the largest ballroom we have ever been in – with row after row of 6-person tables (covered with steins!), two balconies, and a raised platform, usually centrally located, housed the band. We ended up at a great 1st table with a German family: Gunther & Martine with son Stefanos and his girlfriend Christine.  A lively crew who all spoke broken English, while we tried to use our best bad German.

Anne doing her Prost thing with the Barcelonans
The band played German drinking songs almost constantly and every 10 minutes or so, they launched into the familiar “Ein Prosit” refrain that always ends in a toast with every person surrounding you. You clink glasses, say “Prost!” and take a swig.  We wondered if any steins ever get smashed in pieces with all the glass clinking at toast time?

Frank really hit it off with the boys from Venice
We knew we would need some food to handle all this constant toasting, so we started off with one of the giant soft pretzels called “Brezel.” Yummy – crispy outside and so soft & doughy inside.  Gunther also persuaded us to try the roast chicken, a Pschorr tent specialty. Excellent moist, tender whole chicken was what we got for 10 euros.  Later, as we strolled around the tent, we saw the giant roaster spit cooking up 50 chickens or more at a time.  What an experience in logistics to feed this hungry crowd!

Anne feels the music and enjoys the beer
Another highlight of the Pschorr-Braurosl tent was the outstanding music.  This band was phenomenal!  At one point, trumpet players performed from the balconies filling the tent with a haunting melody that made you think of goat herders and snow-covered Alps. Later, guys with whips stood on tables (right in the middle of the partygoers) and snapped their whips in time with the music.  An interesting performance, but we were glad none of “the snappers” stood near us, or on our table!

Although each tent was laid out similarly, the color schemes and decorations (and the crowd) were different. The Augustiner tent was steeped in tradition, decorated in deep green and filled with an older crowd.  The Hacker-Pschorr tent (so many of these brewers are related to each other) had clouds painted all over the ceiling, side walls with painted buildings to look like a turn-of-the century German street, and a banner proclaiming “Hacker-Pschorr, Himmel der Bayern” (meaning Hacker Pschorr, heaven in Bavaria).  Really lovely!

"Der Gemutlichkeit"
Our second day was much like the first except that the crowds were MUCH smaller.  We were really glad that we got to experience both the weekend madness and the calmer weekday face of the fest.  This crowd also seemed to be more international.  We had a blast hanging out at the Lowenbrau tent with a rowdy group of guys from Venezia (Venice) and two couples from Barcelona.  The Italians were really pumped for partying!

Craziness in the Shottenhamel Festhalle
The craziest tent was the Shottenhamel Festhalle which definitely catered to a younger crowd.  You could feel the abundance of testosterone in that tent just looming in the cool September air.  Lots of shouting and standing on tables, while the band played a more contemporary selection of music than the traditional stuff; the young crowd sang along in loud voice, and did some frequent energetic toasts.  So, there’s something for everyone here at Oktoberfest.  Wild, but still all in good fun.

We can’t recommend Oktoberfest enough.  This is truly a “must do” on everyone’s bucket list before you die – especially if you like good beer and a fun party!

More Pics of Oktoberfest:

Stein-covered tables are everywhere
Hardworking servers bring on the food

Heavy loads require a woman's touch

Beautiful exterior of the Hacker tent

"Himmel im Bayern" (heaven in Bavaria!)

We think there's some truth to this!

Oktoberfest madness!