Archive for November 2019

Czech Republic: Prague, Volary and Trebon: 8th-12th July 2019   Leave a comment

Following our attendance at René and Dani’s wedding (see previous post) we left north-east Austria on the morning of the 8th and drove the short distance to the Czech border.

We had planned to visit the town of Brno but on consideration we decided that our time would be better spent getting to Prague so we could get some sightseeing in that day. We arrived in the early afternoon, found a pleasant hotel with ease and went for a short walk to explore the neighbourhood.

Our first stop was at this impressive church near to our accommodation.

 

We then strolled down to the Vltava river passing many of the bridges that cross it.

 

The houses along the river have beautiful frontages.

 

Later we walked past Wenceslas Square (named after the ‘good king’). Unfortunately it was rather crowded and there was building works going on. In the distance up the boulevard is the National Museum.

 

Although famed for its 14th century architecture Prague has a number of modern malls and modern sculptures including this ‘rotating head’ Horizontal ‘slices’ turn independently, only producing the image of an complete head briefly every five minutes or so.

 

The following morning we joined a guided tour around the old city and met people from all over the world from Canada to New Caledonia (the New Caledonian girls were amazed I knew where Noumea was let alone the fact that I’d been there twice).

 

Our tour took us through many alleyways and backstreets …

 

… passing beautifully decorated buildings.

 

The streets were crowded with tourists as Prague is one of the most visited capitals in Europe. In the background is the medieval shot tower.

 

Eventually we reached the Old Town Square …

 

… full of magnificent buildings and statues.

 

Nearby is the famous Astronomical Clock or Prague Orloj. From Wikipedia: The Orloj is mounted on the southern wall of Old Town Hall in the Old Town Square. The clock mechanism has three main components — the astronomical dial, representing the position of the Sun and Moon in the sky and displaying various astronomical details; statues of various Catholic saints stand on either side of the clock; “The Walk of the Apostles”, a clockwork hourly show of figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures, notably a figure of a skeleton, representing Death, striking the time; and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months. 

 

The figures (these depicting two of the seven deadly sins) are enclosed by netting to prevent damage from pigeons.

 

From Wikipedia: In August 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the liberalising reforms of Alexander Dubček’s government during what was known as the Prague Spring. Prague-born Palach decided to sacrifice himself in protest of the invasion and set himself on fire, in Wenceslas Square, on 16 January 1969. According to a letter he sent to several public figures, an entire clandestine resistance organisation had been established with the purpose of practising self-immolation until their demands were met; however, it seems that such a group never existed. The demands declared in the letter were the abolition of censorship and a halt to the distribution of Zprávy, the official newspaper of the Soviet occupying forces. In addition, the letter called for the Czech and the Slovak peoples to go on a general strike in support of these demands. An earlier draft of the letter that Palach wrote also called for the resignation of a number of pro-Soviet politicians, but that demand did not make it into the final version, which included the remark that “our demands are not extreme, on the contrary”. Palach died from his burns several days after his act, at the hospital. On his deathbed, he was visited by a female acquaintance from his college and by a student leader, to whom he had addressed one of the copies of his letter. It was reported that he had pleaded for others not to do what he had done but instead to continue the struggle by other means, although it has been doubted whether he really said that. According to Jaroslava Moserová, a burns specialist who was the first to provide care to Palach ‘It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralisation which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralisation. I think the people in the street, the multitude of people in the street, silent, with sad eyes, serious faces, which when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, that all the decent people were on the verge of making compromises’.

 

According to our guide Michael, Jan Palach was a colleague of his father who was also planning to burn himself to death in protest. However, he was persuaded that it would be better if he continued to fight communism from within. He became a party member and eventually was posted abroad and was able to smuggle much information and materials out of and back into Czechoslovakia. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989 he became a member of Václav Havel’s government.

 

This stirring tale ended our morning’s tour. We had enjoyed so much that we booked another for the afternoon, over the river to Prague’s castle and cathedral (seen on the left of this photo).

 

Prague castle dates from the 8th century but has been modified considerably over time (it was destroyed by fire in the 16th century) and now bears little resemblance to a traditional medieval castle. This apparently largely down to the efforts of that Hapsburg diva, Maria Theresa in the latter part of the 18th century.

 

We entered the castle through the gates. Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world, occupying an area of almost 70,000 square metres. The castle is among the most visited tourist attractions in Prague attracting over 1.8 million visitors annually. The castle was a seat of power for kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman emperors, and presidents of Czechoslovakia and now serves as official office of the president of the Czech Republic. The Bohemian Crown Jewels are kept within a hidden room inside it.

 

The complex also contains St Vitus Cathedral …

 

… with its ornate facade …

 

… and spectacular Gothic interior …

 

… including many fine stain glass windows.

 

We were present for the changing of the guards at the gate.

 

Many of the narrow streets inside the complex host cute little shops.

 

Eventually we left the castle and walked down to the Charles Bridge, one of Prague’s most famous landmarks and named after Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. He gained more through diplomacy than others did by war, and through purchases, marriages, and inheritance he enlarged his dynastic power. Under Charles’s rule Prague became the political, economic, and cultural centre and eventually the capital of the Holy Roman Empire

 

From Wikipedia: Charles Bridge is a historic bridge that crosses the Vltava river in Prague, Czech Republic. Its construction started in 1357 under the auspices of King Charles IV, and finished in the beginning of the 15th century. The bridge replaced the old Judith Bridge built 1158–1172 that had been badly damaged by a flood in 1342. This new bridge was originally called Stone Bridge (Kamenný most) or Prague Bridge (Pražský most) but has been “Charles Bridge” since 1870.[2] As the only means of crossing the river Vltava (Moldau) until 1841, Charles Bridge was the most important connection between Prague Castle and the city’s Old Town and adjacent areas. This “solid-land” connection made Prague important as a trade route between Eastern and Western Europe. The bridge is 516 metres long and nearly 10 metres wide, following the example of the Stone Bridge in Regensburg, it was built as a bow bridge with 16 arches shielded by ice guards. The bridge is decorated by a continuous alley of 30 statues, most of them baroque-style, originally erected around 1700 but now all replaced by replicas.

 

After a full day and a half of sightseeing we decided to move south and headed for the little town of Volary. We found a pleasant hotel with this interesting fountain on the plaza.

 

Volary is surrounded by pretty little ‘alpine’ villages …

 

… the area is comprised of man-made meadows and forests. A wide range of central European bird,s including some much sought after owls and woodpeckers, but I hadn’t really planned for this part of the trip intending that we would head south only when Margaret had spent as much time as she wanted with family in Austria and sightseeing in Prague. As a result we didn’t see any species that can’t be easily seen in the UK (except perhaps Serin) although some like Fieldfare we don’t see in the breeding season but only as a winter visitor.

 

Slightly further to the east we visited Trebon, another pleasant town that is situated next to a series of natural lakes and fish ponds.

 

It took a while to find our hotel because the sat nav directed you to the far end of a pedestrian only square. Eventually we found you had to make a big detour and arrive from the other direction through this narrow arch …

 

… then there was the hotel straight in front of you …

 

… with the picturesque square just beyond.

 

We had one afternoon and much of the next day around the lakes. They clearly were a great place for birds but mid-July is not the optimum time, few birds are singing and many are in moult and keeping a low profile.

 

Lakes around Trebon gave us views of Collared Flycatcher, Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Night Heron and Golden Oriole …

 

… whilst this tree lined avenue further west …

 

… passed a lake full of genuinely wild Greylag Geese (unlike to feral ones we get at home) and many ducks including a rare Feruginous Duck and we also saw several White-tailed Eagles. In view of the huge backlog of photos I had yet to edit from earlier trips, I deliberately didn’t aim to take many shots of birds on this trip.

 

We returned to Austria that evening and found a hotel on booking.com that was just 6km from the airport. Or so we thought. We mentioned this the next morning at breakfast only to be told that its 6km as the crow flies but a 30km drive up river before you get to a bridge that crosses the Danube and another 30 km back to the airport. Good job we had allowed plenty of time, guess we should have checked on the map but when its advertised as 6km away you sort of believe them. Here is the view of flat agricultural eastern Austria just after take off.

 

I’ll conclude my account of our week in Austria and the Czech Republic with another photo of Charles Bridge in Prague complete with a steel band and tourists.

 

Austria: 5th – 8th July 2019.   Leave a comment

In early July 2019 Margaret and I spent a week in Austria and the Czech Republic. The purpose of the visit was to attend the wedding of her nephew René to his finance Dani at Ulrichskirten, just north of Vienna but we decided to make a week of it and visit Prague and do some birding the the Czech Republic.

 

 

We arrived in Vienna in the afternoon of Friday 5th July and after negotiating rush hour traffic made our way to Unterolberndorf …

 

… where we checked into the hotel …

 

… that Margaret’s sister Cathy had booked for us.

 

When I had free time between attending the wedding and being with family I took a number of walks into the surrounding countryside where I found a number of interesting birds like Marsh Warbler, Bee-eater …

 

… and quite a few Serins.

 

For much of the weekend there was a musical festival in aid of the local firefighters right next to the hotel.

 

Central Europe had been extremely hot in early July with temperatures close to 40c. Fortunately it wasn’t quite so bad on the day of the wedding but it was still reached something like 35c. Wearing a suit and tie under those conditions was a bit of an ordeal.

 

Here’s the groom (on the left) with his finance’s brother-in-law and best man Martin.

 

The ceremony was outside which was very nice if you could get a seat in the shade. René and Dani signing the register.

 

Best man Martin, René, Dani and her twin sister Jenny.

 

Of course there were other members of the family present including René’s older brother Mark, his wife Elizabeth and their daughters Maria (left) and Aurelia (right).

 

The last time I visited Austria (Margaret has been since to spend time with her sister) was in 2015 for Mark and Elizabeth’s wedding so this was the first time I had met ten month old Maria and three year old Aurelia. Photos of Mark and Elizabeth’s wedding can be found under the heading of ‘Alps Trip part 7’ at https://gryllosblog.com/2015/06/

 

Mark is certainly enjoying the role of father.

 

Cathy’s husband Wolfgang arrived that morning from their home in south-east Austria, Maria seems pleased to see her granddad.

 

Cathy and her granddaughter Aurelia.

 

Also attending her cousin’s wedding were Margaret’s daughter Anita and her husband John

 

Margaret trying to keep cool.

 

René and Dani weren’t leaving on their honeymoon for a few days but of course we left them to their own devices the following morning. The rest of the family (except Wolfgang who had to return south) drove to the town of Klosterneuberg on the banks of the Danube.

 

We had an enjoyable time walking around this ancient town.

 

Anita and John had been visiting his extended family in South Africa and on arriving in London on the day of the wedding had to immediately board another flight to Vienna. They just made the wedding with minutes to spare.

 

Aurelia was full of beans that day …

 

… but grandma got her under control.

 

We visited the catherdral …

 

… but we were unable to walk around its interior, this photo was taken through a iron gate at the entrance.

 

We walked around the town centre looking for somewhere that was open for lunch and came across this sign for a pet grooming service!

 

That evening we all met up with René and Dani at a nearby restaurant.

 

Margaret kept Aurelia busy in the sand pit.

 

I suppose for me the most memorable part of the weekend was meeting Margaret’s grandnieces Aurelia …

 

… and Maria.

 

Here we all are for a group photo before we all go our separate ways. L-R me, Anita, John (kneeling) René, Dani, Cathy, Margaret, Elizabeth and Aurelia, Mark and Maria.

 

 

On the Monday after the wedding we left after breakfast for five days in the Czech Republic. That will be the subject of the next post.

Posted November 10, 2019 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

Ireland part 3 – Co Sligo, Co Mayo, Co Galway and the Isle of Man: 8th-14th June 2019   Leave a comment

After our time in Donegal we drove south to Sligo where we spent the night and then continued on along the coasts of Co Sligo, Co Mayo and Co Galway. After returning to Dublin we took the ferry to the Isle of Man where we stayed overnight before returning to Dorset.

The hotel by the river in Sligo.

 

We had a walk around the town that evening and the following morning.

 

We drove along the north coast of Co Sligo, passing a number of old forts. The scenery was interesting but not stunning …

 

… but further along in Co Mayo we saw dramatic cliffs …

 

… beautiful coves …

 

… and dramatic loughs and distant mountains.

 

We stayed the night in Belmullet and spent the evening exploring the beautiful Belmullet peninsula.

 

Next day we drove to Achill Island and headed for the westernmost point.

 

On route I noticed a number of swans on a roadside lough, one didn’t look quite right so I stopped and my suspicions were confirmed. It was indeed a Whooper Swan. This winter visitor from Iceland is quite common in Ireland in winter but it is very rare in summer. Possibly this is an injured bird that was unable to migrate, although I checked the lough again as we left and it wasn’t there, so presumably it was capable of flying.

 

The road didn’t go all the way to the western tip and it was too far to walk within the time we had available. However the views from the cove at the end of the road …

 

… looking southwestwards towards Toremore Island and the Galway coast beyond were outstanding.

 

The wonderful scenery continued as we returned eastwards.

 

Between Newport and Westport the main roads runs north – south. Offshore are a multiplicity of islands but getting to see them is very difficult. On our visit in 1991 we stayed at a B&B nearby and we were given directions to a great viewpoint. However as hard as we tried we were unable to repeat this experience, we drove down many narrow roads to farms but all ended up as private dead ends.

 

We stayed overnight at Murrisk and were able to get another perspective on the islands from the south …

 

… whilst behind the village was this bare-flanked mountain.

 

We headed west to Louisburgh and then south towards Killary Fjord, Ireland’s only true sea fjord …

 

We didn’t have time for boat trips on the the fjord (actually this is a fishing boat, a tourist vessel is shown a couple of photos further on)  …

 

… however we did stop at the lovely Aasleagh Falls …

 

… before heading up the south side of the fjord.

 

On route we stopped to photograph the lovely Kylemore Abbey.

 

South of Killary Fjord the trip took on a different dimension. Once past the Giant’s Causeway and the Dark Arches we had seen virtually no tourists and the roads only held local traffic. Now there were tourist busses and kiosks selling leprechauns and other souvenir trinkets. Heading south past Connemara NP we took a side road to the coast to get away from mass tourism and encountered some wonderful beaches …

 

… this one with a marked route that allows you to cross to a nearby island at low tide.

 

Moving on again, now to the west, we passed the the mountain range known as the Twelve Pins.

 

Finally we ended up well to the south at Rossaveal, the start point of our ferry to the Aran Island. We found a B&B without too much difficulty but finding a restaurant took much longer. We also followed a series of causeways which took us to five low-lying islands (see above) over the course of a thirty-minute drive.

 

I had wanted to visit the island of Inisbofin (mainly I think because it has hosted a few rare birds, not that any would be there in June) but Margaret wanted to go to the Aran Islands. These comprise of three islands, Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer and we chose to visit the largest island, Inishmore.

 

There is quite a lot of ‘traditional’ transport on the island.

 

From Inishmore we had great views across the sea to the Twelve Pins mountain range.

 

The Aran Islands are politically part of Co Galway but geologically are part of Co Claire. The landscape is more typical of the limestone pavements of the Burren than the largely granitic Co Galway.

 

We were heading for the ancient fort of Dún Aonghasa, situated on a cliff 100m above the sea on the south side of the island.

 

From Wkipedia: It is not known exactly when Dún Aonghasa was built, though it is now thought that most of the structures date from the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Excavations at the site indicate that the first construction goes back to 1100 BC, when the first enclosure was erected by piling rubble against large upright stones. Around 500 BC, the triple wall defences were probably built along the western side of the fort. The 19th-century artist George Petrie called Dún Aonghasa “the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe”. Its name, meaning “Fort of Aonghas”, may refer to the pre-Christian god of the same name described in Irish mythology, or the mythical king, Aonghus mac Úmhór. The fort consists of a series of four concentric walls of dry stone construction, built on a high cliff some one hundred metres above the sea. At the time of its construction sea levels were considerably lower and a recent documentary estimates that originally it was 1000 metres from the sea. Surviving stonework is four metres wide at some points. The original shape was presumably oval or D-shaped but parts of the cliff and fort have since collapsed into the sea. Outside the third ring of walls lies a defensive system of stone slabs, known as a cheval de frise, planted in an upright position in the ground and still largely well-preserved. These ruins also feature a huge rectangular stone slab, the function of which is unknown. Impressively large among prehistoric ruins, the outermost wall of Dún Aonghasa encloses an area of approximately 6 hectares. Photo from visitgalway.ie

 

I crept on my belly to the edge of the cliff and had dizzying views down to the sea far below.

 

The wall forms the perimeter of the fort but the steep cliffs continue on as far as the eye can see.

 

We also visited a group of seven ancient (7th or 8th  century) churches, each dedicated to a different saint.

 

Margaret at one of the churches.

 

We aimed to finish our tour around the coast at the City of Galway because from here it is a fairly short drive on the motorway back to Dublin. It was raining that morning and we decided not to bother with a visit to the city but press on eastwards. We stopped for a break at Shannonbridge which, hardly surprisingly, ‘does just what it says on the tin’. After some difficulty with the road system in Dublin we found a hostel near to the docks which was OK but was probably the least salubrious of all the places we stayed in Ireland. The following morning we caught the ferry to Douglas in the Isle of Man.

 

DSCN4101 Douglas from the ferry

On my trip to Mongolia in 2017 I met this nice couple from the Isle of Man. I contacted them prior to the trip and asked if they would like to meet up for a drink. To our delight they offered to put us up and show us around. This is the view from Douglas as we approached on the ferry.

 

DSCN4141 Margaret, Liz, Tim at Snaefell

Here’s Margaret with Liz and Tim on Snaefell, the highest and windiest point of the island.

 

Near their house was this public (ie private) school looking like something out of Hogworts.

 

Tim and Liz took us to the southernmost tip of the island which overlooks the the offshore island known as the Calf of Man. This is a site of a Bird Observatory and is known for attracting a good number of rarities as well as having a lot of breeding seabirds.

 

Whilst Liz had other things to attend to Tim, Margaret and I caught the steam train back to Castletown where my car was parked.

 

The train was suitably old-fashioned affair where the ticket collector goes from compartment to compartment before the train departs.

 

Tim insisted that you can’t ride the steam train without a stop in the Railway Siding pub at the other end. Who were we to disagree?

 

Here is the Castle Rushen in Castletown.

 

The Isle of Man is a sel- governing British dependency. It is claimed that the Manx government, known as the Tynwald has been in continuous existence since 979. (The Tynwald is of course situated in Douglas not Castletown).

 

Castletown has a pretty little harbour.

 

In the evening we went for a walk to Dreswick Point. Although it was still early June there was evidence of the first returning waders with both Curlew and Whimbrel seen. Most appropriately we saw a single Manx Shearwater (although first described from the Calf of Man the species is now a rare there although increasing after a de-ratting program).

 

The scenery was quite dramatic with views southwards towards Anglesey in north Wales.

 

An offshore rock is known locally as the ‘Drinking Dragon’.

 

The following morning Tim and Liz took us to Laxey where we caught the tram to the highest point of the island, Snaefel at an altitude of 621m.

 

The Laxey Wheel (also known as Lady Isabella) is the largest working waterwheel in the world and was built in 1854 to pump water from nearby mines. The wheel is 22m in diameter.

 

The tram slowly climbs the mountain passing and crossing sections of the famous TT circuit.

 

The view from the (very windy) top was great but it was rather misty. On a clear day you can see from the Mull of Galloway in Scotland right all the way round the Solway Firth, the Lake District, the Lancastrian coat, north Wales and Anglesey and to the west, from the Wicklow mountains of Eire to the hills of Antrim. In spite of the haze you could still see Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland through the binoculars.

 

There was some delay in returning as there was a cruise liner in Douglas harbour and the cruise passengers were given priority in boarding the trams, so after a rather chilly wait at the top we descended and lunch in a pretty beach shack near Douglas …

 

… before visiting Marine Drive just south of the capital. A landslide has closed one end of this scenic route so now it gets far less traffic and a family of Peregrine Falcons has taken to sitting on the road. We had great views of the two adults and three juveniles (as seen above) before it was time to say our goodbyes to Tim and Liz and head for the 3pm ferry to Liverpool.

 

At the ferry we had a shock, even though we had used identical details in booking the Douglas -Liverpool ferry as we had (with the same company) to book the Dublin – Douglas one, we were only booked on as foot passengers. Fortunately there was space for our car although the additional cost was eyewateringly high. We arrived at the Liver Building at Liverpool in the rush hour and got stuck in some dreadful traffic jams getting out of the city. We arrived home in Dorset before midnight.

 

It had been a great trip with fascinating history, good birds and wonderful scenery – all relatively close to home. I’ll conclude with this stunning view of the sunset at Derbyhaven harbour taken from Tim and Liz’s apartment.

 

We would like to return to Ireland in the not too distant future. Perhaps we will take the ferry to Dublin from Anglesea, drive to Galway and then head south to the cliffs of Moher, the Burren in Co Clare before heading to the Kilarney area before heading to Rosslare via Cork and Waterford. Time will tell if we ever get round to it.