Visions of Scotland 3 – Skye

Skye 1

Kyle’s main purpose is its link with the Isle of Skye. The mainland railhead here connected by ferry with the island. This was superseded by the creation of the Skye bridge, an impressive arch just north of the town. Early morning we’re across, ready to spend the day in exploration.

Skye 2

It’s a large island and we’ve picked the northern portion, including the main town of Portree. Crossing the bridge is itself akin to flying, but without the anticlimax of landing. In Skye the heart soars with each vista, heaven reflected in its lakes and mountains, God’s breath in its firmament. From Kyleakin on, the scenery never dips, each corner anticipated to trump what’s gone before.

Portree

Portree

Portree is pleasant to potter around. Coming in from the empty hinterland, there’s plenty of life and commerce. The high town has a square and a couple of lively streets. There is, inevitably, a Bank Street. Plenty of shops, too, and a few decent pubs. There’s a drop down to a colourful dockside. The town curves around the bay, the housing arrayed attractively in terraces above. I’d reckon this is a good haven for sketching, although we don’t have time to indulge.

It’s a sunny day and we stop for attempted refreshments in the square where a coffee shop, or so it says, has outside seating. Sadly, we must endure another bout of Scottish service. Try to place the order inside and are told we’ll be attended on. But as regards waiting, we’re the ones doing it. Repeat process and finally give up. What is that all about? I bring money which presumably pays the wages of employees. Yet too often in Scotland there’s little interest in this transaction. Shades of Yugoslavia. Though at least the Scots are pleasant.

Old Man of Storr

Old Man of Storr

We head up the coast to the Old Man of Storr. This is a startling formation, not unlike a raised and weathered Giant’s Causeway. The geological formation is similar, being made of basalt, resulting from the rapid cooling of ancient submarine lava. There’s a well worn path snaking upwards. The destination is a bit further than we’d bargained so thirty minutes in we get to a good vantage point about halfway up and enjoy the view. Much debate on the exact configuration of the Old Man himself, but while we differ on details, I figure it’s pretty convincing.

Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park

There was a time when Dinosaurs strode the land about here. Staffin is Scotland’s Jurassic park. The name is Viking for Land of the Pillars, as evident in the alternatively descriptive Kilt Cliff. Where Mealt waterfall plunges over nearby cliffs into the sea there’s a graphic giving more details concerning the terrible lizards. Talking to a fellow traveller, we’re directed to a crofter’s cottage which local scientist, Dughall Ros has turned into a museum. You can buy ancient artifacts, large and small here. Dughall was bitten by the dino bug when just a kid and devotes his career to mining the benefits of the area. Even more precious, he’s willing and able to pass on his knowledge to the interested traveller. Time well spent talking to him, purchasing some interesting goods while we’re at it.

Further on, there’s a slightly more successful coffee stop. Strangely though, the proprietor greets us with “we’re closing in half an hour.” It’s only three o’clock! Oh well, who wants to eat anyway? Perhaps the hitchers who depart hungry and perplexed. We do manage to wolf down a tasty slice of cake.

img_1247

We continue on through the majestic and desolate landscape of Quirang at the top of the island. Returning to the mainland we continue past Kyle to Plockton, which a fellow guest has recommended for its drinking and dining pleasures. This was more how I imagined Hamish MacBeth’s stomping ground. Picturesquely situated around a secluded, wooded loch there are a number of attractive eateries. Plockton Hotel has a cozy bar in deeply gleaming wood and brass. I have an excellent local brew which may be called Schiehallion – try saying that after a few! The restaurant’s popular and we find out why. Good food and friendly service. Worth waiting for. If I ever get back to these parts, and I hope to, I think I’ll stay here.

Plockton

Plockton

Visions of Scotland – 2

Fort William to Kyle of Localsh

 

Glen Nevis

Glen Nevis

Before leaving Fort William, we must first set foot on Ben Nevis, mightiest mountain in the Celtic Isles. The mountains are obscured by clouds, but that’s just Scotland’s version of the dance of seven veils; the veils being various forms of mist and rain and translucent light. Glen Nevis is only yards from the town, but plunges immediately into giddy wilderness. We could be singing ‘I saw the rain-dirty valley, you saw Brigadoon’, indeed we probably did.

Climbing Ben Nevis

Climbing Ben Nevis

We make an assault from base camp, knowing that we lack the time to summit. Estimates of four hours up and a little less down are probably a tad conservative. Our calculations put us half way there in ninety minutes, reaching two thousand feet where a wooden bridge spans spectacular falls. And we were dawdling. Another time we’ll make it to the top. It’s a pleasant, well worn path with plenty of friendly banter from fellow travellers. The zig-zag climb is moderate, the views, slowly revealed in the waxing day, uplifting, heartstopping.

Big Ben himself

Big Ben himself

At last we hit the road, travelling up the rift valley parallel to the Caledonian Canal. At Invergarry we turn into the Highlands proper. Habitation recedes into heathland and scattered forest. We find a roadhouse at Cluanie. As we pull in, a convoy of trucks passes us uphill, each bearing a windmill propellor. What an odd juxtaposition out here! The roadhouse is sufficient for coffee and chowder, the service sporadic and homely.

Eiiean Donan

Eilean Donan

Evening approaches as we descend Glen Shiel. The castle at Oilean Donan stands proud at a craggy confluence of lochs. It’s crowded but worth the visit. The castle is well preserved and fitted, still functioning as a residence. Displays include lifesize tableaus from history creating an illusion of all time seeping through these walls. Real life folk are dotted around too, willing to converse on all aspects of the castle’s past and present. A whiskey fragrant guide in full highland garb leans casually on a waxen laird as he imparts words of wisdom. Good luck to him, he’s jovial and true. Scotland’s history is beginning to seep into me too. Half familiar but in a way that’s more storied, and sung, than factually held. So close to us also, it’s surprising it’s not more familiar back home. Only a visit can put that right. Places themselves are the living book.

Nightlife in Kyle

Nightlife in Kyle

Our destination, Kyle of Lochalsh is a couple of miles further on. I’d picked it without reference to Google Earth. I’d remembered the series, Hamish MacBeth which I thought was set here. Memory deceives, I’m afraid. Kyle’s a bit of a dump, a main road bisecting a scattered settlement, a rail terminal and a functional dockside. The Main Street is mundane, dominated by two banks with our hotel the most pleasant point at its summit. Something of a stereotype to report that while Irish main streets are lined with pubs, Scottish main streets are lined with banks. Perhaps here, men are really born to pray and save.

Still, the hotel is fine and we wave a decent meal of fish and chips in the bar. Our room is cosy old style, with a view down Main Street to the water. Raindrops mottle the window pane as the streetlights come on. Tomorrow, it’s on to Skye which is visible just across the water. We will discover too that nearby Plockton was the village I had imagined, a picture book perfect collage of mountain, woodland and water with atmospheric eateries and hotels. Look forward to telling you more.

Plockton

Plockton

Visions of Scotland

img_1135

When we did manage to extricate ourselves from Glasgow, we were plunged immediately into the Scottish wilderness of mountains, lakeland and forest. Intermittent downpours mean the scenery is revealed in installments, all the more fascinating for it. These are the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond. All sorts of other music is implied. In and around the lake, mountains come out of the sky, and they stand there. Obscured by clouds springs to mind.

img_1139

At the head of the lake, we break into open heathland. Welcome to the highlands, the sign says, in Gaelic. It’s a rollercoaster ride into Glencoe through heaven’s own mountains. This is a land of death and everlasting life, starred setting for Scotland’s savage history. Perfection, obscured by clouds, enhanced by the occlusion.

img_1144

A sporty old couple in a convertible float amongst the vales and hills, their top rolled down oblivious to the rain showers. A bit of overtaking is called for as I briefly mimic the typical lunatic highland driver. They have roadsigns up here chastising you to get out of the way of speeding drivers. Despite the remoteness and the scenery, this is life in the fast lane. Downstream there’s is a roadside place where we stop for a wee haddock and chips. Our first taste of idiosyncratic Scottish service, but good food nevertheless.

img_1149

Finally to Fort William and the Clan McDuff Hotel. Our room is fitted with balcony to overlook the lake. Fort William is busy, the long pedestrianised Main Street well kitted with shops to cater for visitors. A good selection of drinking and dining options too, although we rely on the hotel which has a good restaurant with scenic view. A walk on the lakefront leaves us a bit isolated. Man, that road is hard to cross. We retrace our steps and head back to base camp for the evening. Ben Nevis is lurking up there in the clouds. It can wait till tomorrow.

img_1158

Glasgow

img_1088

Approaching Glasgow from the south, the green, rolling countryside does not imply the pending city, so much as its ancient name, the Green Valley. Only as we plummet into the Clyde valley itself does Glasgow spring from the ground. Great buildings and soaring spires are piled in close order on the hills to the north. It’s a big city, and the aggressive architecture of the industrial nineteenth century emphatically underlines this.

Access by car is easy enough. Once off the ring road, the streets are laid out in a grid. We zig zag our way to the hotel just off Sauchihall Street. The street makes for a good point of orientation. It cuts east west through the city for, well, forever. Chameleon-like, it adopts the hue of all that it passes through. Towards the city centre it’s pedestrianised, a bustling shopping precinct. It’s a bit seedier heading west, where we breakfast at Wetherspoon’s – Full Scottish with Haggis – and ponder the possibilities of a host of Curry Houses. Passing the ring road we’re in the more salubrious West End with grand terraces, parkland and mature trees.

Busy Buchanan Street

Busy Buchanan Street

Sauntering east down Sauchihall Street towards the city centre we join a growing river of humanity. At each intersection streets head uphill and down, distances dotted with landmark spires and turrets. It’s bright and brisk as evening approaches, but we find there’s not much doing here after dark. At Buchanan Street we take a right angle. Sloping down towards the Clyde, Buchanan Street is lined with imposing commercial palaces. Above the pediment, spires and statuary sharpen the skyline. Soft yellow sandstone builds strong, impressive facedes, blood red sandstone breeds angels from the architecture.

This town was built on muscle and blood. Tobacco, cotton and slavery saw its port prosper in the eighteenth century. It was a gateway to the new world, in both directions. The Scottish Enlightenment forged its own genius, taking the city to new heights. After the Industrial Revolution, Glasgow became a European leader in industry and engineering, particularly as a centre of shipbuilding. I hadn’t realised Glasgow would be so hilly. The grid system accentuates this effect. If not quite San Francisco, it was reminiscent of Seattle, all that commercial power beneath the pale, active northern sky. There’s more than a twist of the Gothic going on here. Superheroes would be right at home amongst its architecture, villains too. If picturesque Edinburgh harboured Superman, Glasgow would have The Batman.

The Kelvingrove

The Kelvingrove

At the salubrious end of Sauchihall Street, the Kelvingrove is situated in parkland around the Kelvin River. The river’s name was appropriated for Baron Kelvin, the famous Irish physicist William Thomson, who worked from the University of Glasgow overlooking the valley. Coming to Scotland, it’s faintly humourous that he figured how low temperatures can go. The Kelvingrove Museum was completed at the start of the twentieth century. It is an impressive, pink-hued Baroque temple, housing a fine collection of international and Scottish art. Orientation was initially difficult, the museum map is a mirror image of what it should be. But Glasgow’s a bit like that, I suppose.

Dali's Christ of St. John of the Cross

Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross

Salvador Dali’s most coherent masterpiece, Christ of Saint John of the Cross, is its outstanding work. Glasgow might seem a curious repository for such a determinedly Catholic work. Indeed, the painting has suffered the attentions of a slasher, his handywork a palimpsest beneath the restoration. Still, the painting exudes an awesome serenity. It is the epitome of suspension, combining crucifixion and resurrection, appropriately enough for this city. Nearby, another startling Catholic artwork illuminates the shadow. Harry Clark’s Coronation of the Blessed Virgin was commissioned for a nearby convent in 1923. It is a fine example of Clarke’s meticulous, flowing art. It makes a most appropriate companion-piece to the Dali.

The gallery also houses paintings by Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Renoir. The ground floor houses an eclectic and dynamic exhibition, including an Elephant and a Spitfire. A haloed Elvis points the way. The main concourse is dominated by the classical pipe organ, booming into life at lunchtime when there is a regular recital.

Elvis grove

Elvis grove

It’s a hot climb through lovely parkland to the University of Glasgow atop Gilmore Hill. Its majestic spire is an ever distant destination, dominating the city from it lofty eyrie. We ghost through the quads and cloisters, seek out the Hunterian Museum where the interior of the house of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868 – 1928) is recreated. It is held within the silo of the Library and Art Gallery complex across from the main building. There is something Tardis like in exploring the interior of a house that no longer exists. Mackintosh was neglected in his late career, and for a while since, but his reputation is now universally established.

Though I fancied a stroll to Byers Road for some drinking and dining pleasure, time was tight and we had to move on. We take a bus through the West End, which is pleasantly alive with drinking and dining possibilities. We can only window shop from the bus, we will return another time.

Our quest for all things Mackintosh leads us back to the city centre. Mackintosh’s design is a pervasive strand throughout Glasgow, though scarce enough unless you know where to look. His work was an influence on Klimt and others in European Art Nouveau. Time has to be made for tea and coffee too. Tea Rooms were an intrinsic part of Glasgow life in the late Victorian age. A surge in Temperance was a motivating factor. Miss Cranston was a key figure in the business and she commissioned Mackintosh to design her Willow Tearooms on Sauchihall Street and Buchanan Street. He imbued them with that typical Art Nouveau merger of modern glass and steel craft with the exotic aesthetic of the Orient. Such places, whilst bolstering clean living on the one hand, were meant to be seductive. Coffee remains a favourite tipple in Glasgow today, but amongst other things. There’s a good arthouse feel to many of the cafes. Mind you, Glasgow’s friendly reputation took a dent in one. As I lounged with a stray arm draped over a nearby chair, a customer whipped it from under me without a by-your-leave. Somewhat harshed me buzz, that.

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse, focus for all things Mack, stands sentinel on Mitchell Street. Its corner tower results in the nickname. At night, a faint light blinks from its upper storey, the beacon of a lighthouse that isn’t, aground in the metropolis. It was designed for the Herald newspaper, and was Mackintosh’s first public commission. It’s just off Buchanan Street, by way of narrow Mitchell Lane. The approach is suitably gothic. The Lighthouse gives a comprehensive view of his career. The interior of Mrs Cranston’s Tea Room is recreated. There are models and drawings of his architectural work, a sad timeline delineating his fading career.

Glasgow ArtschoolGlasgow School of Art, as it is and as it's meant to be

There is a graphic depiction of the School of Art, his most famous architectural work. The original stands on Renfrew Street, just about. Seriously damaged by fire in 2014, it is undergoing extensive reconstruction and is clad in scaffolding when we visit. I’m envious of this building, my own Art College days having been spent in a dilapidated annex of Leinster House, a disused warehouse and the early days of the refurbishment of Power’s Distillery, now a fine home for Ireland’s National College. I’m familiar with scaffolding and art college. Glasgow has had this purpose built masterpiece since 1909, it is a testament to the city, and its creator, Mackintosh.

img_1095

We finish by doing what one must in a Lighthouse. We climb the spiral staircase to the top, where there are magnificent views over Glasgow’s rooftops. Back to the more claustrophobic confines of Mitchell Lane. Good place for a pint, and there are good eateries nearby, for later. For now, time to absorb the September heat sitting half outdoors in the gleam and gloom of the atmospheric lane. The Lighthouse looms above. There’s a feeling here of being on a faultline between past and present, of inhabiting a graphic novel with grainy realism just a squint away. That’s draping the cloak of Glasgow around you. That’s being The Batman.

A pint in Mitchell Lane, at Bar Tabac

A pint in Mitchell Lane, at Bar Tabac

Early Modern Dublin

Stephens green

Dublin can be heaven

With coffee at eleven

And a stroll in Stephen’s Green

By the seventeenth century Dublin was spreading beyond its walls. The Liberties were established to the south and west. Settlements sprang up on the north bank of the Liffey. At the end of a tumultuous century, the Liffey was lined by redbrick gable-fronted houses and the quaysides had been constructed as thoroughfares. The trend was for enlargement to the east, which became the prosperous part of the city. Between the crumbling medieval Old Town and Georgian Dublin of the mid eighteenth century, the winding streets and lanes of today’s social and commercial heart developed.

Dame Street is one of the defining thoroughfares of the city, from City Hall to Trinity College and the old Parliament Buildings. Temple Bar lies to the north, to the south lies the shopping, strolling, cafe Capital centered on Grafton Street. Dame Street is the main street of banking and commerce, its palaces of commerce capturing the exuberance of the Belle Epoque, imposing facades topped with picturesque turrets. Recently, expanding city nightlife has colonised some of these premises for drinking and dining pleasure, old trades living on in such names as the Mercantile. Running parallel, Dame Lane stretches from the Castle’s Lower Yard, across South Great George’s Street, through Dame Court and past the Stag’s Head, eventually emerging into city traffic by Trinity Street.. If indeed you do pass the Stag’s Head, and you shouldn’t, it’s near enough the definitive old style Dublin pub.

Suffolk

St Andrew’s Church is Dublin’s tourist HQ and as good a reference point for the city centre as you’re likely to get. Setting up stall outside is a bronzed woman with fetching cleavage. The statue of Molly Malone by Jeanne Rynhart dates from Dublin’s millennium celebrations in 1988. In just a quarter of a century it has achieved iconic status. Molly steps from the air of a song to become flesh, or bronze at least.

Molly

In Dublin’s Fair City

Where the girls are so pretty

I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone.

As she wheeled her wheelbarrow

Through streets broad and narrow

Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-oh!

The song is of obscure provenance. First recorded as a music-hall ballad of the 1880s, attributed to Scottish songsmith, James Yorkston, though it may be derived from an older ballad. It has become the anthem for the capital city; the refrain Alive, alive oh! being suitably valedictory. However the song, as is the case with many an Irish song, finishes on a mournful note.

She died of a fever,

And no one could save her,

And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone.

Now her ghost wheels her barrow,

Through streets broad and narrow,

Crying: Cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!

In old Dublinese, fever and save her would rhyme. She can still wheel her wheelbarrow, all the same. Last time I saw it ‘twas at the bottom of Grafton Street, now it stands outside Saint Andrew’s Church. Mythology has accreted to the song. The story goes that Molly was a seventeenth century barrowgirl who earned a bit on the side plying the oldest profession. The song certainly alludes to sex. Cockles and mussels (or muscles) has salacious connotations. The refrain has a bawdy singalong quality. Young lovers and visitors to the Fair City have taken the photo opportunity the statue offers. It is traditional to grasp one or both of Molly’s breasts, giving them a sunburst emphasis, fulfilling the myth’s premise.

Top o' Grafton Street

Top o’ Grafton Street

A few yards further east, Grafton Street runs at a right angle to Suffolk Street. Now Dublin’s principal shopping street, a bustling pedestrianised way thronged with shoppers and tourists, lined with buskers and street theatre.

Grafton Street’s a wonderland, there’s magic in the air.

There’s diamonds in the lady’s eyes

And gold dust in her hair.

East of this line is where Enlightenment Dublin begins, with a rationalist street plan and regular, symmetrical facades. To the left you’ll notice the streets, still narrow, offer straight vistas. Anne Street towards St Ann’s Church, dating to 1707, is a fine example. To the right narrow alleys like Johnson’s Court tunnel back to the medieval. The Court provides a rear entrance to Clarendon Street Church, an oasis of spiritual calm.

At Bruxelles Pub near the top of Grafton Street, another lifesize statue vies with Molly for popularity. Phil Lynott was black and Irish as Guinness, leader of Thin Lizzy, kings of the Dublin Rock scene of the early seventies. Lynott took a rocked up version of Irish trad balled, Whiskey in the Jar to the British charts. The ballad records the misadventures of a seventeenth century highwayman. The protagonist’s lover, or whore, in Lynott’s version is called Molly, so no accident that they’re still close.

Lynott

But me I like sleeping

Especially in my Molly’s chamber

But here I am in prison

Here I am with a ball and chain.

Lynott died in 1985, aged just thirty six. The video for his song, Old Town, features him swanning about Grafton Street, a tradition he’d maintained since the late sixties. Captain America’s near the top of the street would have known him and holds some of his and other Rock memorabilia. Captain A’s featured artworks after Lichtenstein by Jim Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, famed for his depictions of Celtic myth and Che Guevara, recasts Captain America as a crusader against fascism. We came for their Mexican burgers and red wine. It was the hip hangout of the early seventies. Lizzy’s traveling coterie, Horslips, Mellow Candle and Chris De Burgh hung out here. De Burgh was resident singer, resplendent in star spangled suit. Probably helped to clear the joint.

Nearby, the Dandelion Market developed into Dublin’s hippy flea market. U2 cut their teeth here, before the whole thing was subsumed in the frothy Stephen’s Green Centre. At the top of Grafton Street, we emerge blinking into daylight dappled by trees. Saint Stephen’s Green in the seventeenth century was a commonage on the outskirts of the city. Those granted the title Freeman of the City, still maintain their right to graze their sheep on the Green. As Bono recently insisted.

IMG_0777

The Green was walled in 1664 with access restricted to owners of adjacent properties. The surrounding houses would have been gable fronted properties, known as Dutch Billys. This style gave way to Georgian by the middle of the eighteenth century. Vestiges of the earlier style can be discerned. Look above street level and you will see, here and there, an asymmetrical window layout on the upper storeys, indicating where a gable frontage once was. The Green was restricted to residents until 1877 when Sir A E Guinness, Lord Ardilaun, campaigned to put the park into public ownership. The park was newly laid out to the design of William Shephard, Lord Ardilaun contributing the extensive planting of exotic trees and shrubs.

Entering through Fusiliers’ Arch, pathways flow around the ornamental lake. Young Dubliners and visitors occupy the grass, taking time out from the commercial hustle of Grafton Street. If Dublin can be heaven, and this is heaven’s heath. Beyond the park’s southern extent, the centre city starts to ebb. The rational expanse of Georgian Dublin takes over with its wide regular streets. Find a quiet elevated spot past the kip of the serenes, by Moore’s statue of WB Yeats. It looks nothing like the man! Slip into a boulevardier dream, slide back into another time.

Toora loora loora laddy, toora loora lay,

I know the Dublin pavements will be boulders on my grave.

Green pond

Prague

Angels and art on Charles Bridge

Angels and art on Charles Bridge

Prague is more of a dream to me now. Charles Bridge partly wrapped in scaffolding, angels and demons in the architecture, the Vltava sweet and slow, a highway diverted through time. We stayed in Mala Strana, a hundred yards from the bridge. It’s an island in the stream, insulated from the sturm und drang of the city flowing all around.

The Old Town sucks in a constant pilgrimage crossing the bridge, serenaded by snappy jazz and classical combos, confused by the street theatre amongst the stone statues. There is no let up in the sinuous streets of the Old Town, opportuned at every step with offers of classical recitals, drinking and dining experiences, and the amiable chancers who will show you all those things that you can see. The streets flow sporadically into cobbled squares. The eye is drawn upward to ornate spires, a fold-out picture book of images culled from Bosch and Brueghel. Mobile drinking groups push by propelled by tough cyclists. The pavement restaurants are packed. Advice abounds; a tall black man dressed as a leprechaun sullenly advertises an Irish Bar. It’s hectic but fun.

Our Lady Before Tyn beyond the Old Town Square

Our Lady Before Tyn beyond the Old Town Square

This is the perfect city to explore on foot. If somewhat over-touristic in the Stare Mesto or Old Town, fact is we’re tourists too. We go with the flow. The Old Town Square features the Old Town Hall with its Astronomical clock. Towering to the east are the incredibly ornate spires of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn. Central Europe in the Middle Ages is tangibly real. Illuminated at night, the spires seem to float against the sky. The dream goes on while no-one sleeps.

In the Square there is a gallery housing exhibits of Mucha and Dali. Alfons Mucha is amongst my favourites. His sinuous Art Nouveau has adorned my walls on posters and mirrors. I imitated his statuesque women. Goddesses culled from myth or personifying the seasons, sophisticated smokers and drinkers, their extravagantly flowing hair, dubbed, a bit scornfully, as Mucha’s spaghetti. A local boy who made it big in Paris especially with his commercial work, I come across his artwork and influence throughout the city. His ornate interlaced lines recall Celtic art and have become emblematic of Art Nouveau and its zeitgeist.

Mucha's panel at St Vitus Cathedral

Mucha’s panel at St Vitus Cathedral

The Powder Gate is the eastern limit of the medieval city. Nearby, the Municipal House is an art nouveau complex featuring museums, galleries, restaurants and cafes. Beneath is the American bar. Descending to the cellar, the giddy feeling of being one of Escher’s elves. Mucha graphics peep from the stone. The American Bar glimmers beyond doors of chamfered glass. The tiled chequered floor gleams, lightbeams angle from arched windows at street level. All tables are empty. I am served by a liveried man. A tall local lager is a work of art. While there, a small group of tourists gather at the door, looking in and around and at me. They talk amongst themselves, give me one last envious look and depart. I think they’re Americans, but this is my bar.

Big Brother in Prague

Big Brother in Prague

South of the Old Town is the Nove Mesto, though it was laid out in the fourteenth century. The New Town Hall dates from this time. It faces out on a park frequented by vagrants. The view from the top windows was sometimes the last thing seen by those chosen by enraged citizens for defenestration, the medieval Czech’s extreme example of the Big Brother House. The real Big Brother held sway here for half the twentieth century. The main drag, Wenceslas Square, was the rallying point for opponents of the communist regime. They almost carried Dubcek in the Prague Spring, but the Soviets intervened. Vaclav Havel led the ultimate revolt as the Iron Curtain fell. It is not so much a square as a broad rising street. Above the commercial, and increasingly tatty, street facades, art nouveau architecture blossoms into the sky. The National Museum dominates the vista, though it is isolated beyond a broad, busy traffic thoroughfare.

In the sanctuary of the Clemintinum we step out of the throng. It is huge baroque complex including churches and the National Library. The Astronomical Tower is where Kepler and Tycho Brahe unravelled the secrets of the heavens. After Copernicus, more and more we came to realise we were not the centre of the universe. Silence gathers and we buy tickets for a classical recital off a Bohemian Girl. This returns us to the riverside and the Church of Saint Francis for teatime contemplation. That’s Baroque and Roll.

Infant of Prague

Infant of Prague

There are pilgrimages to be made. My childhood home always had as a centrepiece of the altar, the statue of the Infant of Prague. My mother venerated this miraculous icon. The original came from Spain in the sixteenth century as the Catholic Reformation took root under the Hapsburgs. It was donated to the Carmelites of the Church of Our Lady Victorious in 1628. The nuns change the vestments according to the liturgical calendar. When I call, the statue is clad in blue, which pleases me greatly.

The Castle floats above the city. We wind our way up from Mala Strana into the high area of Hradcany. To the Castle! Parkland and woods, market gardens and flowers, shield us from the city spread out below. The Castle complex is vast. At one end is a torture museum, at the other, St. Vitus Cathedral marks the high point of Prague’s skyline. From screaming to dreaming spires. The Cathedral has been a thousand years a-growing, but remains convincingly gothic. Inside, the stained glass gallery evokes Czech nationalism in the early twentieth century. Mucha’s stained glass depicts the legendary rise of the Slavic tribes.

Cruising on the Vltava

Cruising on the Vltava

An afternoon and evening is spent messing about on the river Vltava. We cruise beyond the city limits into an unexpectedly bucolic landscape. Returning after sunset, Prague’s fantastic spires and turrets are illuminated against the night. Good wine and company, the city seems remote. The black water stretches out of sight, in both directions. Our metaphor for life, and death.

In the spirit of existential angst, on the last day, it is time to pay homage to Franz Kafka. The Kafka Museum is only a short distance from our hotel. Inside Kafka’s head there is another route through Prague. Gothic, gloomy and fantastic, this is to explore the deeper psyche. Looking through a tinted window to the back of a display panel, the Vltava is black syrup beneath a burnishing sun. My eyes slip upward to the pewter sky until its blueness seeps through. Above Prague’s skyline, a white balloon takes its passengers ever upward towards heaven

.White balloon

Dublin’s Temple Bar

View from Liffey Street

View from Liffey Street

Temple Bar lies to the east of the medieval walled city of Dublin, bounded by the South Quays, Westmoreland Street and Dame Street to the south. Temple Bar itself is a short segment midway along the Fleet Street/Essex Street thoroughfare. The name may have originated in imitation of the area in London which similarly lies just outside the city gates. Or it may be named after William Temple, Provost of Trinity College in the early seventeenth century. Trinity had been established by Queen Elizabeth in 1592. Temple and his descendents had property here, so the name probably recognises both facts.

When I was young this was a dilapidated and largely deserted part of Dublin. A place of well worn cobblestones and crumbling warehouses, the odd quirky shop or hostelry looming out of the smog. You might be picking up a Dickensian atmosphere here, but I’m not that old. The city planners in the 1970s had earmarked Temple Bar for development as a major bus station. As it was, Fleet Street was then choked with busses bound for Crumlin, Walkinstown and beyond. This was where we’d gather to imbibe the petrol fumes mingling with the smell of fish and chips, rain falling, steam rising from damp coats.

Heading towards Merchant's Arch

Heading towards Merchant’s Arch

The alternative society was sussing it out in the seventies. The Granary at Essex Street was a wholefood shop, branching out into a cafe and meeting place. Next door, the Project Arts Centre moved here from King Street by Saint Stephen’s Green, bringing alternative theatre, modern art and underground music. The Alchemist’s Head, making Ireland safe for science fiction, was just across the road. My work in the P&T as then was, Eircom now, also brought me to Crown Alley, an attractive turn of the century redbrick on Fleet Street. A hub of the telephone network, the 1916 rebels had it earmarked for takeover but feared, wrongly, that the British army was in possession. Their failure here and at Dublin Castle were major opportunities missed.

The bus station never flew. The low rents prior to development attracted a creative and bohemian bunch. Representations were made to the powers that be. It was Charlie Haughey, cultured rogue that he was, who saw the light. Temple Bar properties was established to oversee development, the aim to create a cultural quarter for the capital. More famously, it has become a major social hotspot, transforming the narrow, once empty streets, into a day long conga line of partying visitors and locals.

Liquid gold in the Temple Bar pub

Liquid gold in the Temple Bar pub

Some of my old watering haunts remain. Whenever possible I return to The Palace Bar which proclaims its literary and journalistic connections at the eastern end of Fleet Street. Almost two hundred years old, it retains its original old style dark wood bar and furnishing style. High ceilinged with stained glass and a grand glass frontage, all the light pouring in is trapped in this veritable drinking palace. Such pubs are the salt of Dublin’s earthy drinks culture. Our old city haunt, The Crane at Crane Lane is gone. Here we could rub shoulders with Special Branch men from the Castle and seek out ladies from our own suburbs. It happened to be the nearest city pub to our bus terminus. There are many more additions than subtractions. No shortage of watering holes. Temple Bar may have been where the Danes dropped anchor in the ninth century, but you can still pay Copenhagen prices for your Carlsberg here. The Temple Bar pub charges near seven euro a pint, but still the place is hopping by midday. The market here is not price sensitive.

The Central Bank at Dame Street

The Central Bank at Dame Street

From nineteen seventy three, the Central Bank has towered over the area like a modern Bastille. Though I’m sure it’s much more pleasant to work there. Sam Stephenson’s monsterpiece was controversial in many ways. Built from the sky down, as it were, the completed floors hung by visible cables from central support towers. The method itself alluded to a certain exalted origin and function. Getting even bigger for its boots, it was alleged to be taller than Liberty Hall, Ireland’s awe inspiring seventeen story skyscraper of the sixties and trade union home. Labour’s Minister for Local Government, James Tully, stepped in and ordered the completed building to be taken down a peg. In truth, its height was in contravention of the planning permission. But that’s another storey.

Being a tall building, something which the Irish feel should be confined to round towers and spires, objectors considered it an affront, a Tower of Babel. Advocates insisted it would stand the test of time. I sneered then but I’d concede that it has lasted well, unlike Stephenson’s notorious Bunkers at the Dublin Corporation buildings by Christchurch. Passing beneath the Central Bank, it does seem to float in the air, and to form a fine gateway for entering Temple Bar.

Throngs of people now float on down from Dame Street towards Merchant’s Arch. This is the main north south axis of Temple Bar. A perpetual beat on the street has replaced the isolated clack of heels on deserted cobbles. Under Merchant’s Arch you emerge blinking into the common daytime whirr of traffic, the south quays taking westbound traffic, the north quays taking it east. The elegant Halfpenny Bridge arches over the Liffey. It takes its name from the toll charged at its inception two hundred years ago, compensation to the ferryman who previously carried people over. Yeats once championed a Municipal Art Gallery purpose built on a covered bridge here. But the iron structure survives, one of Dublin’s most iconic images.

The Liffey, looking east from Halfpenny Bridge

The Liffey, looking east from Halfpenny Bridge

The river bank in medieval days would have been close to Fleet Street. As the city spilled outside the walls, houses built along the shore faced away from the river. It was after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, that the Royalist Lord Deputy of Ireland, James Butler, the Earl of Ormond, decreed that buildings face the river, with a roadway to form the quayside. This innovation, which Ormonde had observed whilst in exile in Europe during the Cromwellian years, transformed the character of Dublin, establishing the river as the defining character in its layout and aesthetic. The Wide Streets Commission, almost a century later, further moulded the city along neo-classical lines. The extent of Temple Bar was defined by the new thoroughfares, Parliament Street and Westmoreland Street, the widened Dame Street and College Green.

Since the eighties, multitudes have come to this cramped box of little lanes, the discrete vestige of medeval Dublin without the walls. We come here to play, to plunge into the past, to live in the moment, maybe set the course of our future. But mainly to play. There is nothing ostensibly pretty about Temple Bar, it is defined more by function than finesse, a jumble of back street businesses, a mercantile slum. But cities and towns are as much about their people as their built fabric. There’s enough human life here to illuminate the city should the electricity ever be cut off. It shines, night and day.

Westmoreland Strret