Biking from Canterbury to Belfast
Bob Moen's Tour de U.K. 1998
Thursday, June 4th, 1998 - Dispatch #4
Greetings from Galway City, Ireland
Here, I thought I'd find an old man in a tweed jacking leading a donkey, against a backdrop of Bing Crosby crooning "Galway Bay", but instead I find a full blown college town with a whole lot of 20 year-olds and all their craziness. Every other person on the street is obviously a tourist. The girl who waited on my at the American style restaurant--finally I got a decent cup of coffee--was from Chicago. She clued me in on the area, including the fact that there are about 500 American students here. There goes the neighborhood.
I have the choice of two cyber cafes. These things are springing up everywhere. The world is getting pretty darned small, except when you are on a bicycle.
The differences between Britain and Ireland are fairly dramatic. Compared to Britain, Ireland is small and rugged, and so are its people. The landscape is not as lush, and there are many patches of ground where nothing grows because the soil is too thin, with too many rocks. So, instead of hedgerows, Ireland has stone fences.
"Galway grew from a fishing village to become an important walled town when the Anglo-Normans captured the territory from the local O'Flahertys in 1234. The Irish for outsider or foreigner is 'gal', which may be the origin of the city's name." according to the Lonely Planet's, excellent travel guide to Ireland.
"Galway City became something of an outpost in the wild west. In 1396 Richard II transferred power to 14 merchant families or 'tribes'. This led to the name 'City of the Tribes'. Clashes with the leading Irish families to the west were frequent, and at one time the city's gate bore the prayer and warning: 'From the fury of the O'Flahertys, good Lord deliver us.' to ensure the fury was kept at bay, the city fathers warned that no uninvited 'O' nor Mac' should show his face on Galway's fair streets."
"Galway's relative isolation encouraged a huge trade in wine, spices, fish and salt with Portugal and Spain. At one point, it rivaled Bristol and London in the volume of trade passing through its docks."
I just figured out who the "ugly American" is. It is I, or at least the guy next to me at dinner who acted a lot like me. He basically dominated the restaurant with his goofy, farm boy ways. Sometimes we Americans are just too darn friendly and too familiar with others. Can you imagine asking a waitress in Ireland where she is from? (She was from Italy. Score one for the farm boy). Then he was effusive about how good the food was. Plus, at over six feet tall he physically dominated the restaurant. Good thing he didn't start backslapping. The staff seemed relieved when he and his family left. Finally, they could get some peace and quiet. I'm sure they wished the American were more like the stiff-backed British guy in the corner, sitting there in his suit, saying nothing to anyone.
But forget Ireland for now, let's talk Wales. It was there that I got to celebrate the Queen's birthday with the Mayor of Cardiff. It was an intimate affair, with a handful of dignitaries standing in the rain, an army brass band and three cannons. Yes, I serendipitously stumbled into at Cardiff Castle's twenty-one gun birthday salute to the Queen, one only six locations in the UK where a ceremony is held. The coolest thing to me was that I had the best vatange-point for photographs. When I realized what was soon to unfold, I bided my time in Queen's Dragoon Guards' Museum. When it came time for the ceremony I stood in the museum's doorway, out of the rain, about twenty feet higher than the ceremony. I had the Castle's Keep (that's castle talk) with its moat in the background, while the other tourists were forced to stay behind a roped area at ground level.
As an added plus, while waiting in the museum I visited with the two guides, a couple of retired lifers who were full of stories and information of British military tradition. For instance, rather than "colors," which are saluted in other regiments, the Royal Artillery's cannons draw the salutes. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I only vaguely remember that the British fought the communists in Malaysia following WWII at a cost of 45,000 lives (compared to the US's loss of 55,000 in Vietnam). The British won their war, these guys were quick to point out.
I took a tour of the Cardiff Castle and was really wowed. In the nineteenth century, the "richest man in the world," the fellow who owned the local coal docks and mines, the Bill Gates of his day, bought the Castle and hired architect William Burges to decorate it.
"Over and over, throughout the castle, the 19th century interiors are decorated with such flamboyance and gaudy embellishment that the original features of the castle are greatly overshadowed, almost to the point of complete invisibility. Astrological symbols, nature's creatures, the pleasures of the seasons, biblical characters dressed in gilt robes, Moorish designs, and heraldic features are some of the themes that run rampant throughout the castle. Flowing fountains, rich greenery and incredible marble fireplaces accentuate the astounding effect of their creators' medievalist yearnings." Relates www.castlewales.com, an excellent Web site devoted to all of the many Wales' castles.
From Cardiff I traveled up a coal mining valley to the community of Merthyr Tydfil (I love saying that). The ironworks there made it one of the communities at the center of the industrial revolution. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was a village, but by 1850 it grew into the largest city in Wales with 50,000 residents. But soon thereafter, it fell into wreck and ruin, as it failed to keep up the technology of day, when Merthyl Tydfil's ironworks failed to adapt to adapt to steel production.
The region as a whole turned to coal mining and exporting. It prospered until the 1930s(?) when all of southern Wales fell into depression. Now, at least to me, it appears to have bounced back.
At the Cyfarthfa Castle Museum in Merthyl Tydfil I was treated to the warmth and friendliness, that I found typical of Wales. There, college-aged Allison spent fifteen minutes drawing a map for me, and the woman in the caf insisted that I not pay for her apple tart (pie) because I liked it so much.
From there I rode over the spectacular Brecon Beacon mountains to the small community of Brecon where I spent an enjoyable evening in a local pub, watching dart matches, eating my tuna/pasta bake and drinking bitter.
The following morning I had an enjoyable visit to a book/maps/prints shop in Brecon (Tel: 622714). The color prints that proprietor, Gwyn Evans, frames and sells really caught my eye. He finds engravings of Wales scenes in old London Illustrated, which he cleans of 150 years of mildew and accumulated grime and has a local artist hand-tint. At 15 each, I bought several. Gwyn shipped them back home for me, plus gave me the book he authored on local history (I'm kicking myself having that shipped too, I want to read it now!). A few weeks ago Gwyn briefly met Prince Charles and discussed British history. "Quite a nice fellow, the Prince of Wales," said Qwyn.
From Brecon I had a chilly, windy ride through a cloudbank back over the mountains to Swansea. In order to stay on my schedule, I took the train to Fishguard, where I caught the overnight ferry to Ireland. The ferries between the UK and Ireland are huge. They have seven or eight levels and carry about 60 truck trailers and 100 or so cars. The ferry I was on even had a movie theater. This morning, I took the train to Galway via Dublin.
I must say how really wonderful and pretty Wales was. One could easily spend a relaxed week seeing the sights in southern Wales. There must be over a hundred miles of railway tracks they've converted to bike paths. I found lodging at two exceptional places, each 20: The Manor in Newport, a small hotel in an 1857 mansion "built for the Baroness" and well decorated with antiques. And the Grange B&B in Brecon.
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