Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Cork, Ireland

Cork, Ireland is on the Southern coast of Ireland, and the harbor of Cobh (pronounced Cove) is one of the deepest harbors in the world. For some years, this port was the "jumping off" port for ships bound for America, but now, with more advanced ships, most ships leave from Southampton or Dover. Cobh has the distinction of being the last port for the Titanic, and the place where the Lusitania was sunk by U-boats during World War II. The little port town of Cobh is beautiful, with its cathedral and its row of colored buildings (see photo).

Cork is the second largest city in Ireland, with a population of about 400,000 (of a total population in Ireland of about 4 million). The bus ride was through countryside so green that it is truly the emerald island. It was very beautiful -- as beautiful as photos show it. Cork is a busy town, with a very pretty downtown area of narrow shop-lined streets. The bus did not stop in the downtown area, but continued on to the Blarney Castle. (BlarneyCastle) Although the weather was rainy, and a rain shower fell, I stood in line to walk up the narrow circular stair to the top of Blarney Castle to kiss the Blarney Stone, where I was promised "eloquence", or "blarney" more accurately. It was cheesy but fun.

Later, I visited the souvenier shops of Blarney Woollen Mills, just outside the castle. Blarney Woollen Mills (BlarneyMills) has an interesting history. A man named Kelleher was very, very poor, and worked as a laborer. Later, he saved enough money to buy a taxi. Then he saved enough money to buy a small souvenier stand outside Blarney Castle. When the woollen mills went bankrupt and was put up for sale, he took out a life insurance policy on himself, his wife, and each of his seven children, and then borrowed all the money he could against those policies. He was able to buy a half interest in the mills. Later he was able to buy out his partner. He did not use the mills, but used the building to sell souveniers. He began to upgrade the souveniers that he sold to higher priced, higher profit items, and he began to make money. Later he also opened a hotel on the site. Now the shop sells very expensive goods along with some cheap souveniers. Blarney Woollen Mills is still owned and operated by the Kelleher family.

Back in the town of Cobh, I took a walk and then the ship sailed at 5:00 p.m., beginning the four-day crossing of the North Atlantic.

Le Havre (Paris)

What can I say about Paris? How can I describe a place I love? On this cruise, the ship docked for one day at Le Havre, and I wanted to spend the day in Paris. The ship had excursions to Normandy, and Mont St. Michel, and several other places, but I wanted to go to Paris. The ship arranged busses to take people to Paris, a three hour bus ride, and I took it. The drive was beautiful, passing beautiful farms along the way, with old farmhouses, all the same light brown color, the color of the stone in this area. Many of the oldest farmhouses still had thatched roofs. The fields were green and perfectly kept, very much like one picture postcard after another all along the way. Once we entered Paris, the trip was very quick to the Eiffel tower, the drop-off and pick-up point in Paris. The guide told everyone to return to the bus no later than 5:00 p.m. for the return trip to the ship, and we were off.

First stop was the public restrooms at the Eiffel tower. Americans are not accustomed to having to pay to enter public restrooms, but in Paris the charge is typically 40 cents. It was here that I got reacquainted with "ugly Americans" again. Even though we had been told that we must have Euros, some Americans on the ship had only American money, and they could not use it to enter the restrooms. Several Americans were irate and making a lot of noise. Would anyone from Europe have been able to use Euros in America? Of course not. I felt shame.

The day was beautiful and I wanted to spend my 5 hours walking. After spending a few moments at the Eiffel tower, just to enjoy the majesty of it, I set off toward Les Invalides and the tomb of Napoleon. Immediately, I was walking through neighborhoods so beautiful that I was really overwhelmed. Again, I was struck by the beauty of Paris, as I have been before. First, the streets are clean and neat and lined with huge shade trees, and behind the trees are buildings, all constructed with beautiful architecture (see photo), with shops on the street level, and apartments above. Immediately, Parisians were everywhere on the sidewalks -- school children dressed in their little smocks with white collars, people shopping, people on their way to or from work. Again I was struck by the overwhelming beauty of Paris, and reminded why I love the city so much.

Les Invalides, with its huge dome, was constructed in the 1600's by Louis IV, to house sick military men. Later, it became the site of Napoleon's tomb. I won't describe it in detail; there are much better, more detailed descriptions available on the Internet. It was nice to walk through the neighborhoods and again visit the gardens of Les Invalides, and peek in again at the tomb.

Then, I took a taxi to Ste. Chapelle, the beautiful 13th century church with walls of stained glass. It was wonderful again to sit inside in amazement as the sun streamed through the stained glass windows (see photo). What a wonderful, almost religious, experience to sit and admire the beauty.

After Ste. Chapelle, a quick walk to Notre Dame again, and then a rest to eat lunch at a beautiful sidewalk cafe. Paris has thousands of wonderful sidewalk cafes, and Parisians seem to fill them constantly, at all hours. All of the tables and chairs are pointed out toward the sidewalks, to watch passersby. I had a ham and cheese sandwich on a long roll of french bread, and then a scoop of ice cream with coffee. Sitting in the cafe and eating wonderful food was an incredible experience, as always.

Then a walk back toward the Eiffel tower, to return to the bus. First, a walk along the Seine (photo), and then through St. Germaine on the left bank, with all its narrow streets lined with shops, food markets, flower shops, and sidewalk cafes -- a feeling of truly being in Paris.

Back at the Eiffel tower, the bus trip back to the ship was a chance to take a quick nap, except that a couple was arguing and keeping the passengers from sleeping. What a shame to argue so loudly and so inconsiderately.

Paris reminds me again and again how deeply I care about beauty. Napoleon decided that Paris would be beautiful, and he made it that way. But he did so much more than that, he developed a culture of beauty in an entire nation, a culture that extends to every aspect of society, and lasts until this day. All countries could be beautiful if they wanted to be, but they don't, and to me, that is a shame.


On day three, the ship stopped in Zeebrugge, Belgium, the only port in Belgium (located on the North Sea). The ship docked at a pier in a remote industrial area, and the nearest town was Blankenberge, a seaside resort town of 17,000. The ship offered excursion tours to Brussels and Brugge, but I had already been to those places, and although I loved them -- especially Brugge -- I didn't really feel like going back at this time. In addition, I was still jetlagged, and the day was cloudy and threatening rain. So I chose to go into the little seaside town of Blankenberge, and that turned out to be an excellent choice. I spent four hours or so just wandering around, stopping to eat lunch at a wonderful little restaurant that had a covered area on the sidewalk. As I was eating lunch, suddenly there was a downpour. I stayed at the restaurant until the rain stopped, and then walked around a little more before returning to the ship. I am attaching the only photo I took of the little town (because of the rain), which was very charming. After Amsterdam, Blankenberge was a huge change. Everything was perfectly clean and neat, perfectly orderly. It was "picture perfect". As this is the only seaside access for the people in Belgium, high rise condominiums lined the coast for miles. I very much enjoyed my day in Blankenberge, and I was very happy that I decided to go there rather than make the two hour trip into Brussels, or go back to Brugge. However, I must tell you, Brugge is a FAR prettier and FAR more interesting place than Blankenberge. Brugge is WONDERFUL. The biggest event in Blankenberge each year is the annual International Sandsculpture Festival, at which huge sandcastles are built. Last year, 64 international sand sculptors participated in the festival; they carved 24,000 tons of sand in 3 weeks. The highest sculpture was 19.5 meters high and was the new European record for height. The Festival was open to the public July 11 to August 31, and last year over 320,000 visitors attended the festival.


With only a few hours in Amsterdam, I wanted to go for a walk in the city and then go for a canal ride. Then, if time permitted, go to the Rembrandt museum. As it turned out, I never got to the museum. I spent the day walking mostly, along with a very nice canal ride.

When I go to a city for the first time, I get a feeling for the place, an overall impression. Often my first impression is not entirely accurate, and changes over time. Still, I cannot help getting that first impression. My first impression of Amsterdam was one of canals, bicycles, and grunge. The buildings are dark. The water in the canals is dark. The clothes the people wear were dark. More than dark, however, I would describe their clothes as "deep grunge". In addition, there was trash all over the place, perhaps because the night before was Saturday night (we were there on Sunday). Small gangs of young men seemed to roam the streets, making noise, many of them drunk. So my overall impression of Amsterdam was not one of beauty, but of grunge. I was very surprised because I expected to see flowers everywhere, even in the Autumn. I saw only one flower seller all day. Amsterdam is night and day from Copenhagen or Paris, both cities of light and joy and beauty.

One cannot help but be overwhelmed by the bicycles. There are millions of them. Everywhere. It is amazing to see so many bicycles -- on the streets and parked. Most of them are old and beat up, and I was told that the new ones are stolen quickly, so most people want old ones that are not attractive to steal.

I also wandered into the famous red light district; I had not been there before, but I have read about it, of course. It was a Sunday, so not many ladies were on display, but some were there, in their windows, on display, inviting the passersby. It was interesting, but not enticing. The ladies who were on display were not attractive; perhaps the attractive ones had made enough money on Saturday night that they didn't need to be on display on Sunday afternoon. I was surprised that most of the women were Black and quite overweight. Still, it was interesting to see the women in their windows, dressed only in brief bras and panties, smiling, waving, inviting.

I am attaching several photos of Amsterdam. One of a walking, shopping street. As you know, most European cities seem to have these walking, shopping streets, and I enjoyed this one in Amsterdam. A second photo shows a bicycle parking "garage". People seemed to take ferries from other places and pick up their bicycles at this parking garage to pedal on to their offices. I noticed that few of the bicycles were locked; they were just leaned against something all over the city, waiting for their owners to return.

The Italian fashion company, Diesel, is known for provocative advertising, and is evidently very prosperous. For the canal tour, the sides of the boat were plastic, which had at one time been clear, so that the tourists could see out; however, the plastic was now foggy with age and weather. As the boat turned a corner, suddenly, I saw a large billboard on the side of a building advertising Diesel. I quickly took a photo of the billboard before the boat passed and turned another corner. Unfortunately, there was a pole interfering in the photo, but I could do nothing to take a different photo; I was stuck with the photo that presented itself, with a pole and with foggy plastic. I tried to clean up the fog from the plastic, but could not remove the pole. I am attaching the photo because the billboard was so wonderful. If I were a woman, I would definitely want a pair of those boots! And evidently, that is precisely the reaction that women have to this ad!

After returning to the ship, and just as the ship was about to leave the port, there was a knock at my cabin door. It was my missing luggage being delivered to me. It turned out that the concierge had been working continuously with Virgin Atlantic Airlines to get the luggage delivered to the Amsterdam airport and then to the ship. She was really wonderful and perfectly effective. I took her name and made sure to give her special compliments in my final cruise evaluation questionnaire.

Tomorrow, Belgium.

Dover, England

The flight on Virgin Atlantic Airlines was more than two hours late, leaving Dulles Airport near 9:30 p.m., rather than 7:00 as scheduled. The Virgin employees at the gate were very helpful, playing games, giving away prizes, keeping the passengers entertained. It was a pleasant wait. We arrived in Heathrow airport in London early on the morning of Saturday, September 10. Heathrow was mobbed -- at least in part with other passengers on my ship (Celebrity) and on another ship also leaving the same day (Princess). All of those cruise passengers were meeting at arranged places to take busses to their ships. It was a zoo getting luggage and going to the arranged places and waiting in throngs for the busses. Unfortunately, two of our four pieces of luggage were not there, so I had to go to Virgin Atlantic Airlines to report on the missing luggage. It is not good to start a 12 day cruise with half of your luggage missing; however, Virgin assured us that they would deliver the luggage to the ship, either before it sailed from Dover, or in Amsterdam. I was doubtful, but what could I do. Unfortunately, the busses to the ship were not well coordinated, and there was a two-hour wait in Heathrow before the three hour bus ride to the ship in Dover. However, once aboard the bus, it was naptime! We finally arrived at the ship near 4:00 p.m., and it sailed at 5:00. Just time for a couple of photos of the white cliffs of Dover before dinnertime. Also, we reported to the Concierge at the ship of the missing luggage, and the woman said she would contact Virgin to arrange delivery of the luggage. She was experienced and said that missing luggage is common. She knew who to contact at the airline.

The first night aboard ship is one of getting to know the ship a little and getting acquainted with dinner mates. We had requested a large table for dinner, hoping that we would find interesting tablemates. Instead, we were put at a table for six; however, we liked all of the people. One couple was Hans and Monica, from Luzerne, Switzerland, where he is a Swiss banker. They were very nice. Although they spoke English, they sometimes needed us to slow down a bit for them, and sometimes he needed to do some translating for her. Because of the language difficulty, she was pretty silent during the whole trip. The other couple was Jim and Gloria, from Atlanta, Georgia. They were retirees from Bell South, and also very nice. I could tell that at least the dinner partners would be okay on the cruise.

The first night's after-dinner entertainment was a variety song and dance production by a team of singers and dancers contracting with the ship. These productions for all ships are put together in the States (mostly Los Angeles), where the singers and dancers are hired (under contract) and rehearse until they are completely ready. Then they transfer to a ship for a specified period of time -- usually two months -- where they perform the shows that they have perfected during rehearsals in Los Angeles. During the first performance, I could tell immediately that Celebrity had not hired the most talented performers; neither the singers nor the dancers were particularly good. However, I'm sure Celebrity didn't want to pay too much to get better performers; and the better ones would not want to go to sea anyway. I must say, however, that the performers on the Princess Cruise I took in the Spring were much better. Still, there was one young woman who was VERY good. She had a wonderful voice and she really was a great singer. Her name was Dia, and I suspect that we will hear of her again in the future. After the performance, I had no trouble sleeping; I was totally wiped out.I am attaching a couple of photos of the white cliffs of Dover. It was a cloudy, rainy day, but they are still pretty, even in the haze.

Tomorrow, Amsterdam.

Celebrity Constellation, 2005

A repositioning cruise aboard the Celebrity Constellation, beginning in Dover, England, on September 10, and ending in the harbor of New York, on September 22. In separate posts, I will give my impressions of ports and the crossing of the North Atlantic.

Previous Travels

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The map is from Virtual Tourist showing the places I have visited. I will update the map as I continue to travel.