About shane harrison

Short story writer, novelist, visual artist, journalist and librarian.

Berlin

Berlin Brandenburg gate copyEast is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet…

We flew in to Berlin on Easter Sunday and took the S-bahn from the airport to Savigny Place, off Kurfurstendam. Berlin itself has been reborn, once more, and though sundered for years still shows the yolk and white of one egg. Snaking east to west across the city the S-bahn gives a near aerial view and we float over allotments and markets, decay and development. Startling examples of the ancient stand beside the modern. There are rivers and canals and graffiti spreads sinuously all along the line. We alight near our hotel and the first restaurant we see is titled, appropriate to our magic carpet ride: Ali Baba’s.

  

Berlin is a very political city, you cannot travel through it without having your opinion jolted in some way. It’s in the scar tissue of the Wall, the sometimes subtle, sometimes brutal contrasts and often oddly similar manifestations of two radically opposed social systems. It is in the people and the things that they say, their determined and avid valediction of freedom. It is in the air. Our cartoon version of Germans addicted to the term ‘verboten’ is misplaced. The atmosphere is liberal and relaxed. In bars and restaurants people lounge, laughing and smoking. No one smites the air or mimics asphyxiation. Berliners are less given to panic and disapproval than us, and they’ve survived some serious history.

  

Again we are airborne in the television tower rising from the Mitte in the old east. It is a giant cocktail skewer, its silver fruit being the giant orb with revolving restaurant. Over beer and snacks, no dearer here in the stratosphere than down below, Berlin spins slowly beneath us. Another journey into the sky as evening fades sees us spiral up inside Sir Norman Foster’s glass dome at the Reichstag. We look down into the parliament chamber of modern Germany, giving us a giddy feeling of power to go with the vertigo.

  

Berlin Marian ShANE copy

Water is another medium of travel through the city. You can take cruises through its system of rivers and canals and past some of its most notable sights. We travelled from east to west beginning where a large 70’s pile, the communist People’s Palace, is scheduled for demolition. Nearby, the Berlin Dome, with its peculiar mix of classical and baroque, Protestantism with a Catholic flourish, is lovingly restored. We pass Museum Island where later we will visit the Pergamon with its reconstructed palaces from ancient Greece and Persia.

  

Oskar the guide gives a leisurely commentary. He lives with his dog Lucky whom he had rescued from the pound. Not originally from Berlin – he would never even visit West Berlin in the time of the Stasi – he worries about the erosion of human and canine freedom. A proposal to have all dogs on leads at all times would be the end. It’s gay government, he says, explaining that it conjures up a vision of people and poodles mincing along in the park. More of that, he says, and he’s off.  He shows us a picture of Lucky. We ask him to recommend a restaurant. Ali Baba’s, he says.

East Berliners voted with their feet, or tried to. Ultimately, in their Ladas and Trabants, they poured across the Hungarian border, an echo of their barbarian ancestors who had poured across the Rhine fifteen hundred years before. Again an empire fell and in popular symbolism it was the Wall tumbling down. You can buy crumbs in souvenir bags and bottles – the grey, blank east and the technicoloured graffitied West. Here and there some remnants remain.

Near Checkpoint Charlie a museum runs through several buildings and documents the escape routes taken over the years. A Trabant occupies the floor with a cutaway showing a manikin of one escapee. The Wall ran between families and lovers. One man, marooned in the west, married his lover’s doppelganger, took her east on a visit, left her there and absconded with his lover on his wife’s papers. Others just ran for it. Not everyone made it.

  

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There is never time for all the stories of Berlin, but they persist. At the Jewish Museum the story begins in the dark ages and gets darker still. Not many escaped the holocaust either. In Libeskind’s building there is a chasm-like concrete room, filled with distant noise and the rattle of metal skulls underfoot.

The scar tissue is healing but it won’t vanish. Why should it? It is the wrinkles and cuts of experience that give us meaning. On Kurfurstendamm the spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtniskirche raises a shattered finger of defiance. The church itself is now a modernist bowl of blue glass. We light a candle. Outside we eat kebabs by the fountains amongst Berliners, immigrants and tourists. I feel very much at the centre of Europe and with Europe at a crossroads.

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On the bus through the Tiergarten an old woman talks to me. She is wearing badges and bags from radical shops. She knows Synge and Shaw and says she feels that the tide is turning to the people and that an age of meaning is at hand. Perhaps she’s right, perhaps it is. 

This trip was taken ten years ago. The photographs were probably our last pre-digital. 

Bratislava

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Flying into Bratislava on Easter Tuesday, there was that first sparkling of Spring as I clambered aboard the Botel Dunajsky Pivovar. A fleeting caress, time enough for a glass of wine on my balcony a few feet above the surging Danube. Winter will return. It’s written on the wind.

Late afternoon I cross over to the city by way of the New Bridge. The pedestrian way is a concrete tube with a view downriver. The quietly impressive St. Martin’s Cathedral anchors the far bank. The old medieval city is piled on the rising hill beyond, the gleaming white Castle further off to the west. In between, where once the city walls stood, a motorway pushes its way over the bridge.

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Leaves are out along Hvievdoslavovo Namesti, speckling the elegant esplanade leading from the river to the National Theatre. At Bar 17, I enjoy the pleasure of sunlight glinting on my glass of Zlaty Bazant. At 1.90 a pop, all’s well in heaven. As dusk and clouds gather, a demonstration musters. There’s revolution in the air. Or perhaps rain. The first specks and umbrellas are unfurled. There’s something delirious about this, stepping into a Renoir painting, or perhaps a Russian novel. Who can tell?

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Brat demo 2The Danube is the defining river of Western civilisation. The border of empire, dividing Roman from Celt and Goth. Bulwark against the Barbarian, until they crossed in their tens of thousands and ushered in a new age. Highway of Central Europe, carrying art and armies, heroes and villains, east and west. Bratislava was once the focus of Empire, the capital of Hungary from 1536 to 1783. Otherwise, something of a provincial outpost, sandwiched between Budapest, mighty capital of the Magyars, and the Hapsburg megacity Vienna. With a population of half a million, it’s sizeable enough, flowering further in Summer with a tourist influx, the Old Town Square thronged with al fresco diners, or loungers by the fountain. But mid-April is unseasonably cold.

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Wednesday, and snow slants in from the west, river and atmosphere sweeping in unison through the city. I force myself along the windswept park, across the bridge and into the city. The old town is rendered picturesque. I could inscribe season’s greetings with my breath on the view of St. Martin’s as two mounted police exit the plaza into the maze of winding streets. Outdoor seating is being packed away for another time.

If I always make a resolution to avoid Irish Bars abroad, I inevitably break it. The Dubliner franchise is here and very good it is too. I watch the snow through mullioned windows. The interior is woody and warm, the fish and chips generous and genuine. Needs must, I become a regular. Excellent floor service, with a special mention for Matthew.

Brat DubFurther on, a Scottish Bar: The Loch Ness. A rather nebulous concept, I’d have thought. Service and style are more rudimentary, but it’s cosy and quiet. Mind you, the pint costs nearly three euro. Exactly three euro, since I didn’t receive my ten cent back. Half Scottish myself, I blend.

   IMG_2103Cold, clear weather on Thursday presents the opportunity to explore Bratislava Castle. High above the city, it dates to the eleventh century, becoming a baroque palace in the reign of Maria Theresa. Extensively renovated in the fifties. Impressive, stark and forbidding, it dares entry.  I wander through empty corridors and white stairs. Now I’m in an Escher graphic, climbing, descending, getting nowhere. There is an extensive though unremarkable art collection. The history is concise and well represented.

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The few visitors give an eerie verisimilitude to the experience. I dreamt I dwelt in Marble Halls, indeed. I climb to the restaurant upstairs. Curiously, they’ve stopped serving the advertised food. Lunchtime in a near empty castle, and no food in the restaurant.  Desiccated cake is offered and refused. I take my painkillers neat, with coffee.

Below the Castle, the old Jewish quarter lay just outside the city walls. The walls themselves are reached by a bridge over the motorway. An impressive section remains along the western edge, near St Martin’s. This part of town really is old and dilapidated, retaining that Gothic charm of desertion, a mottled mirror to forgotten pasts; medieval, early modern and recent. Being communist block until recently, there’s the sense of a hidden city, a reluctant budding only now preparing to display.

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Traversing the Old Town doesn’t take long. Venturska Michalska rises arrow-straight to St Michael’s Gate, dating to the fourteenth century. The baroque tower dominates the vista. Constructed in the eighteenth century and inscribed to Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Empress whose coronation as Queen of Hungary in 1741 was in St.Martin’s.

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Crossing the shade of the barbican, I enter the New Town within veils of rain and melancholia.  Apartment living, trams traversing, but less by way of welcome. Takes time to get to know such places. I circle about the Church of St. Elizabeth, dubbed the Blue Church. I love blue. This is practically a piece of Wedgewood in a quiet enclave. Nearby a park, a naked female statue glaring boldly across the deserted green.

At Berlinska I suffer the worst travesty of food so far. Pulled turkey in a bag with alleged Risotto – baby food mush in tepid milk, and raw cabbage claiming to be coleslaw. I eat the turkey if only that the empty bag may prove useful. Painkillers with coffee again.

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At the end of the day, I eat on the boat. Tasty though tiny. Man I’m going to eat when I get home. What with the painkillers and the drink, it seems a good idea to take my Patron Beer on deck and spark up a cheroot. A stiff icy wind whipping over the river only takes a minute to penetrate my buzz. By which stage I am engaged in lively conversation with Sam and Tomas. Sam, I think, has worked in London and speaks good English. Tomas is more effervescent, a charming rascal one would follow into revolution. Whatever I am speaking stems from me being wired to the moon. Inside, I struggle to escape their offers of shared food, which, I must say, looks exceptionally good and plentiful. I arise early tomorrow. The boat may be securely moored, but I sway like a sailor, sauntering back to my cabin.

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A fine coda to Bratislava is to sail up the Danube. I’m flying home from Vienna, so I’ve booked the LOD catamaran that takes a hundred minutes to reach the Austrian capital. What an impressive thoroughfare: commercial and pleasure vessels pulling along, our catamaran zigzagging through the traffic. We pass Devin Castle, guarding three frontiers where the Danube meets the Morava. All that remains is surreal melted stone ruin atop a hill, with a quaint village in its lea.

Devin Castle

We stop for ten minutes entering the locks outside Vienna. Finally we float into the city, its sense of size emphasised by my brief stay in Bratislava. I trek to the underground and take three stops to Stephansplatz. I’m happy of the help of Viennese as I grapple with the graphics of the underground map, panicking slightly. I walk to my rail connection by way of the Ringstrasse in the caress of the midday sun – Spring has sprung.

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On the Road – 2 – The M50

 

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The M50 near Sandyford (acrylic on canvas)

The M50 loops around Dublin city’s western perimeter. Technically, it starts at the River Liffey, heading north as the Port Tunnel before doubling back along the western arc near the Airport, crossing the Liffey at Chapelizod and finally merging with the southern bound N11 at the Dargle River, near Bray. This is EuroRoute 1, heading to Wexford and thence the Continent, bound for Gibraltar.

The construction of the motorway began thirty years ago. The first section, the Western Parkway joined Blanchardstown and Tallaght, crossing the Liffey at the West-Link bridge. The West-Link floats above the Strawberry Beds, a stretch of deep river valley between Chapelizod and Lucan. The area is famed in song and story.

Where the Strawberry Beds sweep down to the Liffey,

You’ll kiss away the worries from my brow.

This well known refrain is from the song The Ferryman, written by Pete St. John. It has been covered by the Dubliners and the Dublin City Ramblers. The Strawberry Beds itself sustains the folk and ballad tradition with pubs such as The Anglers’ Rest, The Wren’s Nest and Strawberry Hall.

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Angler’s Rest

The area was a popular spot for Dublin daytrippers and courting couples. A century or more ago it was sufficiently remote and romantic to be a popular honeymoon destination. James Joyce is associated with it, of course. From Chapppelizod he liked to contemplate the Liffey. Finnegans Wake focusses on the rivers gathering flow hereabouts, its principal characters living in the Mullingar House. Plain structure that it is, it has been a long-time sentinel above the river, founded as a coach house back in 1694.

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The Mullingar House

Sheridan Le Fanu lived here, merging the parkland and built environment with the gothic of his ghostly tails. The House by the Churchyard where he lived, his father was a vicar, still remains. It provides the title and central focus of one of his most celebrated novels. 

By the eighteenth century there were suggestions of suburbia here on the fringe of Dublin. Heading westward along the Liffey’s banks, they are still only suggestions.The area is a rare slice of unspoilt rural scenery close to Dublin. The Phoenix Park is to the North. Beyond the south bank the twentieth century suburban sprawl of Ballyfermot and Palmerstown is hidden in the folds and forests of topography.

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The West Link bridge

There are a number of boatclubs along the way, taking advantage of the ninterrupted stretch of river. The area is not much commercialised, emphasising the impression that time has passed it by. The contemporary world does provide an exclamation mark with the intrusion of the West-Link bridge. Soaring above the quiet valley, far enough above to be of little disturbance, no more than a distant aircraft. Originally a slim, single span on completion in 1990, such was the volume of traffic that a second span was added in 2003.

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The weir at Lucan

Beyond the bridge, the valley snakes towards Lucan. This far west, we’re nearly in Kildare. Though Lucan may be regarded as a Dublin suburb, it is sufficiently old and remote to be viewed as a town in its own right. Some old industrial sites emerge from the parkland before the river vista expands at the bridge. A huge weir provides the spectacle upriver, and there is a small park giving better access to the river. Much of the town’s structure dates to the early nineteenth century. It was once a spa town and despite the heavy human and vehicular traffic, the population is around thirty thousand, it retains a certain olde world charm replete with village green and thatched pub.

Looping back to the M50, the Dublin Mountains edge closer. The Red Cow junction was once called the Mad Cow such was the traffic chaos. Brian Boru, High King and attempted nemesis of the Danes parked nearby in his eleventh century campaigns agains Leinster and Dublin. The arc of the M50 still provides a notional border between the realms of Dublin and Ancient Hibernia. Of course, urban sprawl crosses the divide. Lucan, Clondalkin and Tallaght all lie to the west.

The Southern Cross section reached Dundrum in 2002, while the final South Eastern section linked up with Bray three years later. The whole shebang was upgraded to six lanes in 2010, as it was in danger of becoming a linear carpark. You’ll still encounter jams at morning and evening rush hour but for the most part journey times have been slashed and the route is visually attractive, especially towards the south.

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the M11 near Bray

Crossing the Dargle River it merges with the M11 and enters County Wicklow. The Dargle is referred to in another well-known balled, The Waxies‘ Dargle. This alludes to Bray’s position as a resort for the well-to-do in Victorian days. The railway from the 1850s provided access for the quality to Bray’s renowned sea and riverside amenities. Meanwhile, the Waxies‘ Dargle was the poorman’s equivalent. The waxies were cobblers, and these and other tradesmen could hardly aspire to such exotic locale as Bray. A jaunting car or charabanc to Irishtown, where a fairgreen faced the bay, was as much as they could hope for.

Says my aul wan to your aul wan,

will you come to the wakies dargle.

Says your aul wan to my aul wan,

sure I haven’t got a farthing.

These days, the M50 will take you around the western periphery by private car. You can trace the eastern edge of the city, along Dublin Bay by DART. You can stop for refreshments, for ceol and craic, wherever you desire.   

On the Road – The Curragh

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The N7 near Naas. Acrylic on canvas

The film Being There carried the tag line: Getting there is half the fun, being there is all of it. In terms of holiday travel, most would agree with that, up to a point. Being there is all of it, getting there is a drag. A friend of mine is loathe to prolong his holiday enjoyment beyond the wake up call on the last day. Like many, he would sooner beam to and from his holidays in the manner of Star Trek’s transporter. Beam me up, Scotty! It all depends on the nature of the holiday. I enjoy driving for leisure and many holidays I’ve taken, to America, Canada, Britain and Europe have been as much about the road as the destinations it connects. The road is constantly fascinating, forever changing, a thread connected to all destinations and to home. In a manner of speaking. Planes and boats and trains all have their own unique charm, each contributing to the adventure you started with the wake up call on day one.

The winter it has passed

and the summer’s come at last,

the small birds are singing in the trees.

I’ve been in travel limbo since mid Autumn but am currently making plans. In the meantime there are places to visit nearer home. Wicklow and Dublin offer delights of city, mountain and sea. I can step out the front door and put my foot on the road. A pen, a notebook and a camera are good companions. When I return I can write about it, paint it or picture it in the mind’s eye. Being home is part of it too.

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Leaving the Curragh Camp

Over the last few months, my most significant excursions have been to Kildare, by way of the M50 and the Naas Road. Kildare borders Dublin and Wicklow but resembles neither. Flat and landlocked, it is the marchland of the Pale. Most of our youthful motoring excursions passed along the Naas Road. This was Ireland’s first dual carriageway, the key connector between the Capital and Limerick, traversing the southern midlands. It originates at the junction of the Grand Canal and Tyrconnel Road in Inchicore, southwest Dublin. As the N7 it travels via Newlands Cross past the western border of Dublin to Naas in County Kildare. Although a dual carriageway since the sixties, and becoming a six-lane highway at the turn of the century, it only acquires motorway status passing Naas. The stretch of road to Newbridge was Irelands first motorway in the early eighties. It was around then that bypasses were built along the main national routes. Before that, motor travel was something of a chore, short bursts of highways alternating with long queues through middling Midland towns and villages. The development of motorways was mutually beneficial, most towns have blossomed in being taken off the main highway. Most towns now are twice the size they were thirty and more years ago.

And straight I will repair

to the curragh of Kildare,

for it’s there I’ll find tidings of my dear.

The Curragh, in the centre of Kildare, is a unique landscape. A huge expanse, five thousand acres, of common land. Unfenced, it harks back to an ancient uncultivated landscape. On the other hand, its herd of sheep keeps the grassland beautifully manicured. Kildare is thus known as the Short Grass County. The Curragh’s location just beyond the Pale made it an ideal point of muster for Gaelic chieftains in opposition to the invading Anglo-Normans. This was the fulchrum between the new world and the old. There remains the sensation of passing from the urbane world to a wilder, untamed one.

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Looking south over the Curragh

After 1798, when the United Irishmen’s Rebellion ran aground, the British began to use the Curragh as a fortification against further uprising. By 1880, the Curragh Camp was taking its permanent form. A collection of redbrick barracks buildings commanding the eastern portion of the Central Plain and the approaches to Dublin. Following the passing of the Home Rule Bill in 1914, the officer corps at the Curragh defied Parliament and refused to move against armed Unionist belligerents in Ulster. Although this contributed to British annexation of part of Ulster, Ireland strove for full independence. When Irish Independence was achieved in 1921, the Camp was taken over by the Irish army and became their principal training base.

A livery I’ll wear

and I’ll comb back my hair,

and in velvet so green i will appear.

The song, the Curragh of Kildare was popularised by the Johnstons and later Christy Moore. The original verse is attributed to Robbie Burns. Subsequent additions established the Curragh as its location. As a female voice it is said to concern a young woman searching for her lover who has enlisted in the Crown forces at the Curragh Camp. The male vocal would seem to imply a connection with the nearby racecourse, long the centre for the Irish racing Classics. Either way, it is a song of yearning for person and place. This evocative place can be experienced in passing or by walking its unfenced and undelineated expanse.

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The Curragh Camp. Acrylic on canvas.

Passing through the Camp recently, a flock of sheep crowded around a stand of pines. Looking slightly left, this bucolic tableau was replaced by the urban environment of the barracks buildings and squares. The giant fire station tower dominates the scattered buildings spread across woodland and heath. The area is prone to fog, adding another surreal layer, as veils conceal and reveal a shifting and often illogical landscape.

And straight I will repair

to the curragh of Kildare,

for it’s there I’ll find tidings of my dear

Visions of Scotland 5 – Stirling

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Looking north from the Castle battlements

Heading down south to Stirling, we fall slowly out of the Scottish Highlands. It’s a shift in time and space, in terms of both physical and spiritual reorientation. On each journey there is the first step of the journey home. This is it. Thus, we find the most appropriate point of departure at the portal offered by Cava Cairns. This Bronze Age burial complex is a few miles east of the city. Perched above the river Nairn, the site nestles in a homely pastoral landscape. Timeless, in its own sweet way, but hosting the weird construct of ancient days.

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The portal is here, somewhere.

It was here that Clare (Catriona Balfe) passed back in time from postwar Britain to revolutionary Jacobite Scotland in Diane Gabaldon’s Outlander. The stones will take you a lot further back than that. Four thousand years at least. It looks quite different from the telly, mind. Claire isn’t there in her nightdress, which is a pity, if not a surprise. The absence of any televisual drama is more than compensated by the presence of … What, I can’t be sure. But Presence it is. Stark, beautiful and quite moving.

  Nearby is the field of Culloden, where Stuart hopes were dashed in a final, fatal confrontation with the Hanoverians in 1746. At least, that’s how it stands in this universe.

   There are other worlds to inhabit. Ringed by mad mountains, stalked by sentient woodland, permeated by a migrating fog of fantastical beings. Southbound again, the road rises intermittently yet falls consistently towards the centre.

The Cairngorms dream under a blanket of clouds away to the east. The road snakes its way to Blair Atholl. The House of Bruar offers a break for coffee and shopping. Here we bag our proud deer trophy. Flatback wood if you must know, but handsome nonetheless. A short hike will take you to a renowned beauty spot of Blair Falls. Macbeth’s vision of doom, Birnam Wood is further on. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Nothing is ever quite what it seems, is it?

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Stirling from the schoolhouse window

Stirling straddles that notional focus of Highland and Lowland Scotland. Near the mouth of the River Forth, it enjoys a commanding location in matters of war and trade. The approaches are suitably epic. The William Wallace Monument is a gothic tower on a volcanic crag east of the town. It is located overlooking the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where Wallace helped kickstart the cause of Scottish nationalism. More breathtaking still, Stirling Castle crowns a granite crag rising precipitously from flat marshland. The city of Stirling, with a population of nearly fifty thousand, flows down from this spectacle.

The higher part of the town is medieval and known as, logically enough, the Top o’ the Town. Here the streets are cobbled, steep and sinuous, houses piled one on the other to the giddy environs of the Castle. We put into the Stirling Highland Hotel, a converted schoolhouse of the Victorian era. There’s an astronomical observatory on the roof, so there must have been something of a Hogwarts thing going on back in the day.

Drop down to the bustling town centre for refreshment before our assault on the Castle. We have Panini on the sidewalk near where yobos loudly play. The large shopping centre takes an unsympathetic lump out of town. Still, pleasant environs heading back up the hill with pink gable front houses in that atmospheric Scots Gothic style.

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Stirling Castle

Haul ourselves onward to the Castle. Just outside is the Church of the Holy Rude, site of Christenings and coronations. Founded in the twelfth century, the present structure dates from the fifteenth. Wander through the tombs and trees, floating through time and above vast panorama of central Scotland. Talking of ancient things, for the first time I find myself characterised as such. Over sixties get discount on entry here. Hey, I’ll do it! We take the guided tour which is a good way of putting structure on the castle complex, and to assimilate the wealth of history and personality encompassed there.

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Castle tour guide

The fortress dates back to the days of Alexander I, Scotland’s royal founder in the early twelfth century. Its oldest buildings date from the fourteenth century. It was destined to develop way beyond the parameters of the typical Norman fortress. James IV (1473 – 1513) determined to establish Scotland on a par with Europe’s leading kingdoms. Stirling Castle became the leading showhouse for the project. Influenced by German and French design, the castle was reimagined as a Renaissance palace. James enlisted artists and scientists for the prestige of his court. Alchemists toiled to unlock the secrets of the fifth element. The challenge of flight was addressed, unsuccessfully. An Italian alchemist, John Damian, threw himself from the ramparts, clad only in feathers and bare hubris. Plummeting, not unexpectedly, to the ground, his life, if not his blushes, was saved by a convenient copse of trees. Unabashed, he assured the king that failure was a result of using chicken feathers, not the best choice, being a flightless fowl. Quite.

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Mary Queen of Scots, herself.

In our wanderings we meet Mary Queen of Scots, who springs to life from a painted, stilted half-myth to something close to the spirited woman she was. We gaze at rich unicorn tapestries, mingle with kitchen waxworks, whisper assignations by the postern door.

Out on the battlements, alone in a turret, this is the eyrie of the world, atop its dizzy cliff, ringed by rank marshes, a further distant circle of blue peaks ringing the horizon. It’s the real gothic fantasy. You can stand sentinel on the parapet of Dredgemarsh, imagine all the Games of Thrones that haunt the stones here. It is the best castle ever.

img_1393Time to close our evening in more mundane pursuits. Stirling is lively at night, without much by way of airs and graces, but plenty of good places to eat and drink. All you can eat at Chung’s Chinese is enough by way of temptation – the one thing I can’t resist. Return to the Hotel for a quiet beer in the bar. High windows here as in room. Schoolhouse rules apply. The ambience is pleasant and in solitude we can savour all we’ve experienced on this Scottish tour. It seems like and age, and a wee spark of time. The last day dawns damp and grey. We finish as we started on our first in Glasgow, in Wetherspoons for the best Scottish breakfast in, well, in Scotland.

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Stirling Station

Vienna

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Stephens Dom

Vienna can seem like being lost in heaven. So much perfection, art and architecture at its most opulent and grand. There are times though, when you need an angel. I’m prone to cutting corners, just that bit off kilter. On such occasions the city orbits with bewildering intensity, an electron cloud of people, trams and buildings without horizon. I should have come for longer. I should have brought an angel.

I arrive in a heatwave in September. I am carrying Boris (my leather jacket) because my apartment is not secure and Boris holds my passport and camera, my pens and stuff. And besides, I’m weird like that. It insults cities such as Vienna to swan around in shorts and vests. Find a beach! One must look one’s best.

Vienna hugs a bend in the Danube river. The mighty Danube, famously un-blue, is generated by a leak from a faulty faucet in Bavaria, before meandering through mountains and past cartoon palaces to become the highway of central Europe. The river does not actually flow through the centre of the city. A slender offshoot, the Danube Canal, outlines the northern arc of the city centre. Historically, Europe’s super-highway, you can float downstream to Bratislava, Budapest and the ocean.

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The Opera House on the Ringstrasse

Vienna finds itself at the focus of Europe. Its old city walls converted into the Ringstrasse, a grandiose avenue that delineates the city centre south of the Danube Canal. Freud’s morning constitutional was taken along the throbbing thoroughfare. Grand public buildings and palatial houses line its extent. As the Main Street of empire the imperial buildings are emphasised , arrayed in formal parkland on the south-western radial.

Amongst the many jewels in this crown is the Kunsthistorische museum. The spectacular entrance staircase leads the eyes up to The Apotheosis of the Renaissance, a Belle Epoque imagining by Hungarian artist Munkacsy. The spheres of art history and the heavenly realm merge in a celestial depiction of the glories of the Renaissance. Gustav Klimt peeps mischievously out, supplying Egyptian and Greek goddesses for support.

   

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Breughel’s Hunters 

I cool my heels in front of Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow. We had a small copy of this painting in my childhood home. It is astonishing how an almost trivial ornament can evoke such a profound attachment with the real thing. Herself was overcome by Monet’s Impression Sunrise in the Thyssen Bornemisza (Madrid), as if the gallery knew she was coming and prepared a special gift. I knew Breughel’s masterpiece would be here, and more besides, but was not prepared for the shock of seeing it. I sat a long time before the real thing. I was in the landscape whereas, as a boy, I had only a postcard of it. The static, permanent power of the composition enthralls. It is a story of human endeavour and disappointment; keep on keeping on is its constant thread. With its bold line and vivid contrasts the painting looks modern. Perhaps timeless is the word.

There’s so much more. Vienna was the centre of Europe’s cultural web. Dutch masters with their fragile hues and robust folk, Italians with burning colour and burnished souls. Titian, Bellini, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Velazquez line the corridors and rooms, all hawking their wares for our attention. Such wonders under one roof. I could stay forever and feel as if I was never indoors.

Leaving the giddy globe for the pale imitation of life without, there are still more options to consider. The Museum Quarter is nearby, and all the pleasures it implies. Still, why wallow in excess? A feast is enough for know and I seek shelter from the heat in a sidewalk bar. I am sweating again. I occupy a high table and wrap myself slowly around a tall glass. Enough art for a day, I tell myself. I need to assimilate it all.

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Schmetterling Haus

Offbeat, and off kilter, I head back across the Ringstrasse. Passing through the Burggarten  I am taken by the elegance of the glasshouse and the words of a friend brush my cheek. Of all the must-dos of Vienna this was the most idiosyncratic. Visit the Schmetterling Haus, stand in the shimmering heat of a greenhouse and let giant insects land on you. It is weird that this oasis, out of the sun, is actually hotter. Yet, I had hardly taken two steps in than I was filled with elation. The glass confines form a bubble in infinity, illuminating one manifestation of flora and fauna at this intersection in space time. Butterflies in their team colours flutter unconcerned past us brief escapees from the physical dimension. Oh, if you want a touch of heaven, visit the butterfly house, angels supplied.    

From my base at the Kunsthaus, it’s a pleasant walk of urban variety by way of Unterviaductgasse, or Oberviaductgasse even, through my local square, Radetzkyplatz, and on to Wien Mitte, with its thronged shopping centre, its convenience bars and cafes, the tabac shop with its spectacularly rude service. Across the Wien River lies the actual city centre, the Inner Stadt, the old city within the Ringstrasse. This is the place for aimless meandering through medievel streets, being pleasantly lost in a strange place. The spire of Stephens Dom is at its centre. Exuberantly gothic, the church bears the marks of centuries of adjustment. Age radiates from it, modernity encroaches. There isn’t really a good point to sit and take it in. The square is cramped and crammed, the few outdoor bars crummy.  You can go up the spire to see all of Vienna, and maybe heaven too. I’m only going to see so much in three days on the ground.

  

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Stadpark, along the Wien River

Along the linear Stadtpark, I set out on a quiet morning all the way to the Belvedere. Clipped and coiffured gardens slope upwards in the shimmering heat, the Upper Belvedere a toy palace in the distance. The main attraction is Klimt’s golden girls, seductive capsules of beauty and love. The Kiss grows more iconic by the day. It is the canvas where we want to be, loving and loved, flushed in the afterglow of it all, naked and golden. In a way that is both sensible and comic, the museum, while prohibiting photographs, has provided a selfie station where tourists can immortalise themselves before a life-size print. Better, I think, to put yourself within the painting.

   

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Vienna from the Upper Belvedere

I am much taken too with David’s depiction of Bonaparte Crossing the Alps. A vivid flash of a personal force of history if ever there was. Less impressive is the baleful manifestation of the curse of the curator. If you must push inept contemporary work, best keep it amongst its own. The view from the chapel balcony at the end of my visit would have been better left unseen. This crucifixion is a dismal work. It compares unfavourably with Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove which exhalted the spirit. Whereas this does not.

  

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and now for a pint

Beyond the gardens, Vienna beckons, a burnished mirage of domes and spires. The journey downhill is less arduous, though shade still eludes me. The clipped flora is so weird I feel I have been spirited, Alice like, to some imaginary world. Perhaps I am hallucinating in the heat, the surplus of art in my blood. Trams pass on the street where afternoon shade begins to creep from the buildings. There is a gap I noticed earlier. Time for a welcome beer in a shaded courtyard. Dappled shadows dance beneath the trees, brown timbered seating awaits, metal fittings of the bar glow and beckon. A traditionally clad dame welcomes me. Blond and tanned, clad in green, she smiles and takes my order. The feeling of fantasy persists. But then, where else would you find an angel, but in heaven?

Visions of Scotland 4 – Inverness

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East out of Kyle we retrace the road to Invergarry where we pick up the rift valley route. As in Ireland, the east of the country is more gently scenic than the wild west. This is the Highlands still, though. Inverness, our destination, is the capital of the region.  Along the shores of Lough Ness, we are unmolested by the mythical beastie. In truth, there is no chance of dinosaurs surviving anywhere, let alone a busy narrow waterway. They were here once, as Dughal Ros told us yesterday, but only their fossils remain. Still, it’s good to have fantasy.

  Inverness has grown to city status with a population of fifty thousand. It’s centered on a low rise above the eastern bank of the Ness river where it flows into the Moray Firth, heading towards the North Sea. We stay at Carrig Eden on the western approach. The area is attractive, typically Caledonian in characteristic honey coloured stone with gable fronts. Our genial hosts, Caroline and Donald, have polished their home to a welcoming jewel. We are warned of two things. One, Daniel O’Donnell is playing that night in the Eden Court theatre nearby. Two, there is a bagpipes festival in town. Looks like it’s the bagpipes so.

img_1267   The Eden Court is a modern complex by the banks of the river. From the banks we catch our first glimpse of the city. Inverness Castle is the dominant feature. Built in red sandstone it tops a steep escarpment rising from the Ness. It is not, strictly speaking, a castle. The present structure dates from 1836. It  functions as a courthouse. The first castle to stand on the site was destroyed by Robert the Bruce in 1307. The next castle stood here until sacked by the Jacobites in the rebellion of 1746. A statue of Flora MacDonald stands at the entrance park, shielding her eyes to gaze meaningfully westward. Having aided the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and doing time for it, she headed out west herself, living in America before returning to die on the isle of Skye.

  Both sides of the river are pleasant. We pass the nineteenth century gothic Cathedral on the west bank before stopping for coffee in an Italian place with outdoor seating. We are entertained by a young woman making a major production number tying up her bike. Man, you must have to mind your bike real careful in these parts.

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The strains of the pipes beckon us east across the bridge. Before that, we take a look at the House of Fraser. I reckon I’ll need to kit up, the whole nine yards, on the off-chance of running into Claire from Outlander (as portrayed by Caitriona Balfe) somewhere about town. A convincing impersonation of Jamie is quickly conjured. You can go for a variety of rental of traditional outfits here. Full dress for that formal night, half-dress for the more casual, a dashing Jacobite attire for the full blooded Scot.

  High Street slopes uphill from the bridge. It’s busy and sporadically loud with the great yarp of the bagpipes. Something stirring about them, to be sure, if not quite the first music for the car stereo. Here, in this special place, I’d opt for the Waterboys. The attractive main street jolts to an unlovely close at the harshly modern Eastgate Centre. Still, probably better to have it in town rather than dragging people out to the periphery.

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After extensive shopping, time for a quick snack. Hoping to sidestep the inertia that can pass for service in the Highlands, we opt for McDonald’s – an ominously local name now that I think of it. Inverness McDonald’s is the worst McDonald’s ever. The till is abandoned just as we reach the head of the queue. After a couple of minutes we call the attendant from the next till. He says he’ll get the manager, who is standing conveniently nearby with other staff leaning on the furniture, chatting. She informs us, cheerfully enough, that the attendant will return soon, and rejoins her discussion group. A few more minutes and we give up.

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We attempt a trip down memory lane to find the lost hostel of our youth. Still lost to us, sadly. Having followed the signs through winding residential roads we eventually lose the trail. But it’s a pleasant walk in glorious sunshine. We’ve booked dinner at the Castle Inn and, hungry and thirsty, head for it early. Nicely situated, clinging to the cliff overlooking the river, the Castle visible to the north. Rustically traditional, the place is crammed, as any good place should be. We take our drinking and dining pleasures al fresco. Good food, service and company, perfectly passing the sunny afternoon into early evening.

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Afterwards, we potter around the Castle grounds. The place itself is not open to visitors but there are plans to remedy that. We follow Flora’s gaze up towards Loch Ness, back to the wild, wild west. We head down to the nearby bank as evening falls. This is a pedestrianised river walk leading to a footbridge that will take us back to Eden Court. There’s plenty of time to stop for drinks on the lawns of the Waterside Rest, busy now as the city nightlfe clicks into gear. The sky seeps slowly to velvet blue as the first stars peep out. A stillness settles in the air. We could sit here forever, relaxing by the riverside in the chill of the endless Highland evening.img_1307