06 August, 2015

Heat Wave in Abu Dhabi...

For this trip to Europe, our airline was Etihad whose HQ and global hub is Abu Dhabi (pop. 2.5M), a constitutional monarchy and capital of the United Arab Emirates (pop. 4.1M), and so, on the way home and not having been there before, we decided to extend our transit stop there to 4 days. The UAE are on the southern coast of the Arabian Gulf (the Iranians call it the Persian Gulf) with borders to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Abu Dhabi city itself is on an island.
Respectful portraits of Abu Dhabi rulers appear on the walls of all public buildings and offices.

We knew it would be hot, but we were pretty unprepared for 47C during the day dropping only to a minimum of 33C or so at night. This is really a hot place! Someone said to us that the temperatures don't vary much from day to day in summer, but the humidity does. We noticed that - the heat becomes really insufferable when the humidity goes up, and our camera fogged up so much we couldn't use it for an hour or more! The skies are blue, but a dust haze is palpable, although it seems to vary through the day. We know it's dust - everything which isn't dusted is covered in a reddish dust. According to statistics, August is the hottest month (lucky us!) and it rains 10 days a year, a total of 50mm. Only once in 10 years does it rain in August.

Our Hilton hotel on the Corniche, which runs about 6km along the Arabian Gulf, was delightfully air-conditioned, thank goodness. Some things we wanted to see are only a kilometer away, but we found it necessary to catch a taxi for even that meagre distance. Fabulous footpaths, but very few pedestrians at this time of year! Clare joked that even the short walk to the pool is almost unbearable. The mohitos she had at the pool bar would have made it worthwhile, though.
Escaping the heat at the pool bar, medication by mohito.
Our transport in Abu Dhabi. Not the Lamborghini, the taxi behind it! Our driver Mohamed is at the door.

The Hilton is one of Abu Dhabi's oldest which means it commands an excellent location on the beach, but it is now dwarfed by much newer glass and steel skyscrapers on either side, the St. Regis hotel to the left and all 84 stories of the ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company) tower on the right. But we were very comfortable here, the interior is fully modern, and the service we received was exceptionally good.
Our 10 storey Hilton Hotel is rendered insignificant by the skyscrapers around it.
St. Regis hotel after sunset, from the Hilton pool.

Ancient civilisations lived on the present territory of Abu Dhabi, but until the discovery of oil (1930's) and its first successful exploitation (1960's) Abu Dhabi was a village of fishermen, including for pearls. Thanks to oil, Abu Dhabi's per capita GDP is the highest in the world, and the people now catching fish here are Bangladeshi expats. Expats comprise three quarters of the population, only one quarter are UAE citizens.

We were in Dubai some 8 years ago for a 4 day stop over, so it is irresistable to make comparisons. Dubai is a bigger city, but has little oil - their wealth is from trade and tourism. Abu Dhabi knows all about tourism though - its very establishment of Etihad as a global airline using here is a hub is a brilliant way of encouraging visitors to stay, as we did. Dubai was in winter, so it was much more pleasant getting around than it is here now. This is definitely the off-season for tourism.

Nevertheless, it's apparent that the Arabic culture is much the same as in Dubai, as an outsider would expect. We remain impressed by the stunning traditional pure white robes worn by the Arabic men, and the often beaded black chador and/or hijab of the women. It's amazing how elegant both genders can look in these getups. We almost never have seen Arab men and women together, not even in shopping malls, and they tend to sit in different parts of restaurants and cafes. That said, in Abu Dhabi, the citizens seem to be totally comfortable and tolerant of the rather different cultural norms and hence behaviour of visitors such as ourselves.
The new Presidential Palace.

Mike would take his morning walk as soon as it was daylight, in the vain hope of escaping the heat. Walking is interesting, with the Marina Mall nearby and the Corniche running past the hotel. The only people out and about that early are construction workers, gardeners, cleaners, garbage men and the omnipresent security guards. Along the Corniche, there is a 1km stretch of public beach. The beach is free to use, although some parts (for 'Families" and 'Singles') cost AED10 (about $3) and have limited access and better security. At 7am, the lifeguards are on duty, spaced about 150m apart and copious security staff (we suspect employed by Serco) patrol on foot and by bike. These officials outnumbered beachgoers about 10:1.
A lonely lifesaver on duty at 7am with the Abu Dhabi Theatre in the background.

Swimming in the Gulf waters is, we suspect, a winter activity. It's just too hot to be on the beach here in summer, and the water itself is so warm that it is not at all refreshing. Our hotel has a private beach somewhat west of the public beach. Signs warn of jellyfish but the lifeguard told us not to worry. The patrolled area is marked by floats and ropes. You would be foolish to swim outside that area - the jet skis would be much more dangerous than the stingers!

But we preferred the hotel pool anyway. It is refrigerated to a bearable temperature, which explains why it is pretty full of overheated guests and 'Health Club Members' seeking relief from the stupifying heat. The pool bar was a very comfortable place to hang out. Not everyone thinks it's too hot. In the hottest part of the day, our hotel pool is well populated with Europeans catching every sun's ray they can.

The only place we set out to visit in Abu Dhabi was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the 4th largest in Islam after Mecca, Medina and Rabat (Morocco). This magnificent building is not far from the airport, and is very visitor friendly. On non-holy days and outside prayer times, it hosts hundreds of visitors and welcomes photographs. Security is very strict, if a little chaotic. Clothing police are everwhere to ensure that everyone is suitably dressed, mainly modest clothing, no shoes and women must have their heads fully covered.
Domes and spires of the Grand Mosque.
The Grand Mosque from its frighteningly white front courtyard.
Exquisite decoration including gold plated motifs in the 3 sided colonnade of the Grand Mosque.

The building itself is magnificent. In the courtyards and external areas, the white marble (from Italy, we are told) is so bright as to inspire headaches. The interior is awe-inspiring, from the engraved walls with 100 names of Allah, through the 'largest carpet in the world' to the fantastic Swarovski crystal chandeliers. No amount of superlatives can adequately describe this interior!
100 names of Allah, and one of the Swarkovski crystal chandliers.
Floral decorations enhance this wall inside the Grand Mosque.
Passageway from the main hall of the Grand Mosque to the courtyard.

The approach to visiting the Mosque by Asian tour groups was amazing. The females were fully covered in identical chadors, the men in white robes. These 'uniforms' were no doubt part of their tour package, and the tourists delighted in their selfies taken in this holy place.
Tourists and selfies at the main entrance to the Grand Mosque.
Mosaic in subway between our hotel and its Beach Club

One hot and dusty highlight of Abu Dhabi is the Heritage Village, effectively a museum dedicated to the times before oil! This place reminded us of the also excellent Dubai museum. We think the Heritage Village is probably under-funded - it's in a fabulous spot but needs to be greatly enhanced. Tremendously interesting photos of Abu Dhabi before 1950 need much better lighting and labelling. Part of the Village is a re-creation of a desert environment complete with dwellings - boy, was it hot on the sand and in these primitive houses!
Re-created desert dwelling at the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village. Hot and sandy!
Part of a water hauling rig, operated by a bullock, evidence of 3000BC civilisation in Abu Dhabi.

Visible from our hotel window is the Emirates Palace, reputedly the most expensive hotel in the world, and certainly very grand. We could see that it, too, has its own private beach with no-one on it.
The Emirates Palace Hotel from the front.
Musician in the lobby of the Emirates Palace hotel.
The private beach of the Emirates Palace Hotel.

By our observation, Abu Dhabi is undergoing a construction boom. Its wealth is derived from oil, but it is visibly preparing itself for a world less reliant on oil. We suspect it is taking a lead from Dubai next door and transforming itself into a banking and trade centre and a theme park for tourists. Despite the prospect of the world's fastest roller-coaster we were not tempted, in this weather, to go camel riding, sand dune driving or visit Ferrari World on Yas Island. Waterworld may have been more appealing, but we still did not go there.
Cluster of skyscrapers including the Etihad Towers at the western end of the Corniche.

Abu Dhabi is a great place. It is clean (but dusty), everything seems to run in an orderly fashion, traffic is heavy but disiplined, it seems to be safe in the streets, and most people we bump into are polite and seem to be friendly. Great shopping, a pleasant seaside and fabulous fun-park attractions make it a good destination for a holiday, but not, we submit, in summer.

04 August, 2015

All of Ireland in Bunratty Castle...

Towards the end of our Ireland odyssey, we went to Bunratty Castle. It's only a short drive from Ennis, still in County Clare. The castle and its surrounds is a metaphor for all of Ireland - it's a real educational theme park exhibiting samples of all aspects of Irish culture, life and history. All that is missing from Bunratty is the scenery!

The castle is hemmed in by a pub, shops, roads and a freeway, but out the back (actually, at the castle front) there is a large estate dedicated to the theme park. It was easy to spend a day here.
World famous Bunratty Castle is now hemmed in by pubs, shops, roads and a freeway.

The history of the castle site is edifying, and is detailed in an excellent exhibition in the basement. The current castle is the 4th on the site, the first being made of wood. The second was of brick and was constructed by Thomas de Clare, a decendent of the Norman known as Strongbow, in ~1270AD. We assume the county is named after de Clare. He was killed by the local clan O'Brien, and the castle destroyed. A third castle was built by the English but fell quickly into O'Brien hands around 1350AD. Somehow, it was destroyed again, because Castle #4 was built by the MacNamara's in 1450 and by 1500 the O'Briens (by now, Earls of Thomond) had it again. The history gets murky, but it appears that the O'Briens moved elsewhere and leased the castle to others (Stoddarts), but around 1800 they the tenants had built a more modern house nearby (Bunratty House) and the castle was abandoned and fell into disrepair. By 1900, the roof had collapsed.
The soldiers' mess hall, below the Great Hall, now used for banquets.
The Great Hall of Bunratty Castle.
The Earl's Pantry allowed him to store overnight snacks.
Lead light window in Bunratty Castle.

The dilapidated Bunratty Council was bought and restored by Standish Vereker (Viscount Gort) around 1950, who furnished it in period style (and so makes it a stunning visit), and it has not looked back since. It is now a a major tourist attraction, and the grounds, which encompass Bunratty House, have been developed to become Bunratty Folk Park.
Part of the guests' apartments in the South Solar of Bunratty Castle.
The Earl's bedroom in one of the castle towers.
One of numerous chandeliers featuring deers antlers and flamboyant German "leuchterweibchen".

The Folk Park consists of a village of 19th Century buildings some relocated, some recreated, some restored in place, including a variety of farmers' houses, a fisherman's cottage, a school, well-to-do houses and workshops. The buildings have been refurnished to their former use, and some still operate to that use. Hazelbrook House was built by an ice-cream magnate, so you can guess what is sold there now! Fenced paddocks house farm animals, and some wild ones too. Collectively, it is mighty impressive. As one wag put it, all that is missing is the stench! In truth, the main street is too clean and too wide as well.
Recreated kitchen produces delicious apple pies for the Tea Shop.
Peat fires burn safely and slowly, and with a delightful smell.
Village building being thatched. They probably didn't use aluminium ladders in old times.
Many animals are on show in the Bunratty Castle village recreation.

Many of the village buildings have sweet smelling peat fires burning, lending a fabulous ambience to the entire area, and radiating a welcome warmth on this chilly and wet Irish summer's day! In one farmhouse kitchen, a cook in period costume was actually preparing the apple tarts that we happily consumed in the next door Tea Room.
Precursor to the iPod in Hazelbrook House.
The room layouts in Hazelbrook House is totally evocative of our Surry Hills terrace!
Overlooking the neighbours. View of Hazelbrook House from Bunratty House.
It may be low tide, but the river by the castle doesn't seem to be as substantial as it appears in engravings.

Overall, our Ireland experience was a very happy one, and we found Bunratty Castle summed it up pretty well. The weather was quite poor, cold and wet - we can't believe this is summer! But even the most miserable days had bright spells, and we noted that the locals were always grimly determined to go about their business often dressed as if it ws warm and sunny. Bike riders ploughed on through rain squalls, and trekkers seemed to be undeterred.

Ireland is a country of green farms, rolling hills and stunning coastlines. Farms so right to the sea. There seems to be little what we would call "bush" here - we saw Killarney National Park and the map shows us others in extreme corners of the country, but it's mostly farmland. Large and modern houses dot every country road, there are quiet roads but few lonely roads. The proportion of the population outside urban areas must be quite high. Towns may be large or small, but they are universally pretty, especially now with summer flowers in bloom. The rivers we saw are often serious affairs with robust flows. Every town has at least a creek and a very old stone arch bridge crossing it.

The people are universally friendly and more than willing to chat about where we came from, and about themselves. This was genuine good cheer, certainly not your plastic "have a nice day" stuff. They would happily help us with the correct pronunciation of Irish words, although they weren't very successful.

The official language of Ireland is Irish. Apparently all official documents are in that language, and all signs are bilingual, but it is English that is almost universally spoken. Only very rarely did we hear a local speaking other than English. Irish is taught in the schools, and several times a day on English language radio stations we heard a statement in Irish. We haven't a clue what was being said. Our favourite station quickly became Newstalk, and we were very impressed with the interest and diversity of the topics covered. George Moncrieff was fantastic on weekday afternoons!

As we've said before, there was no trouble getting a decent meal anywhere we were. The pubs specialise in Traditional Irish which is always hearty and tasty. Good pubs appealing to tourists are inevitably crowded. Every second or third day we felt like going upmarket and a little hunting about generally produced the goods. In our last stop, Ennis, the Town Hall restaurant provided a splendid meal. The pubs generally are a treat, being loaded with character and often with really interesting old photographs of the local area. We inevitably had an afternoon libation in some nearby pub - they can be obscure but are easy to findy by the smokers hanging around outside.

The most amazing thing about Ireland to us Aussies is the sheer weight of history here. The towns we visited often had buildings up to a thousand years old or even more, many still in use. The country is strewn with unheralded ruins - just drive down any road and you will come across one. Australian aborigines have been around for even longer of course, but apart from rock art, they haven't left as much for posterity as even prehistoric man here has.

On our last full day in Ireland, we scooted our Volvo across the country on the 'fastest route' from Ennis to Dublin. We stopped in Athlone, and had coffee at a little cafe which had views across the Shannon River.

On our last full day in Ireland, we scooted our Volvo across the country on the 'fastest route' from Ennis to Dublin. We stopped in Athlone, and had coffee at a little cafe which had views across the Shannon River.
Shannon River weir and locks at Athelone.

02 August, 2015

In County Clare...

The drive from Killarney to Ennis in County Clare was pleasant. For one thing, the rain stopped as we crossed the County line leading us to joke that it only rains in County Kerry! We went through some nice towns. Adare is mentioned as the prettiest in Ireland, but we believe there is a lot of competition for that honour. In Newcastle West, we looked for a coffee shop but couldn't find one. Instead, in Limerick we got a good brew at the Cafe Noir situated in a slightly grungy area just off this big town's downtown.

From there, the drive to Ennis, our base for 4 days in County Kerry, was on the M18 Freeway. Ireland has a population of 6-7 million, reasonably dense on such a small island, and so has an excellent system of freeways and roads. The motorways, some of which are tolled, are superb 4+ lane divided roads with a limit of 120km/hr. You can really get around the country quickly on these mothers. Then there are N, R & L road classifications. We read these as National, Regional and Local.

Some really minor roads are unclassified and are only known by their names. When your sat-nav puts you onto one of these, you know you're in for a treat, and you just pray you don't meet anyone coming the other way! We did about 80km on roads such as these getting to and from Killaloe. There seems to be no direct route west from here, so we travelled wheel tracked roads (still sealed though) over beautiful hilly countryside.
Narrow roads and fabulous views on the direct road from Killaloe to Ennis via Kilbane.
You have to pull over when a wide load approaches even on a two lane road.

We went to Killaloe to see the River Shannon, Ireland's largest, and its one lane bridge across to Ballina in County Tipperary. This crossing is the first south of huge Lough Derg, shown on our map as "Ireland's Pleasure Lake". It was bucketing rain when we were there, so not much pleasure was being had, but we did see lots of moored yachts.
One lane bridge crosses the River Shannon between Killaloe and Ballina.

Interestingly, the second biggest river in terms of flow is the Corrib (but it's only 6km long!) which drains Lough Corrib into Galway Bay. This river is reasonably narrow and so its manifest flow is popular with kayakers and white water rafters. We didn't see any of those, but the flow through this town (just over the border from Clare) is very impressive.

What wasn't so impressive in Galway was the huge crowds of boisterous, well dressed but drunken youngsters in Quay Street after a day at the Galway Races. We were there at about 9pm - it would get ugly later. We noticed a strong Garda presence, and pedestrian areas were enforcing glass prohibitions.
The Spanish Arch is a residue of Galway's city wall. Here are crowds from Ladies' Day at the Galway Races.

Popular eating holes in Galway were packed with race-goers, but we were lucky to find a charming creperie called Java's in a back street which was crowded with sober patrons, maybe trying to escape the rabble elsewhere. Most waitresses here seemed more French than Irish, and the place is so cute (and the crepes so delicious) that we'd recommend it for the Lonely Planet!

We went to Killrush, a town where Clare's forebears come from (after all, this is County Clare). This is a pretty market and seaside town in the bay at the end of the River Shannon. We found a good cuppa here and also plenty of businesses with names reminiscent of Clare's family. The market was sheltering bravely from the brief heavy rain squalls. The main street down to the harbour was incredibly wide - we haven't seen anything like it elsewhere. Now, it carries 2 lanes of traffic and 4 lanes of structured parking.
The Lonely Planet led us to this cafe in Killrush.
Like all Irish towns in summer, Killrush is resplendent with colour.

Following the Wild Atlantic Way, we tried to get to Loop Head and its lighthouse at the very tip of Clare's peninsula. The map suggested clear roads, but we got lost in a miasma of unsignposted trails, and our Garmin was no help. We never made it there, but from Kilkee, it appeared there was a more significant road, but by then we had passed the head.

The Atlantic coast of Clare has many picturesque seaside towns like Kilkee, Doonbeg, Lahinch, all of which we stopped at for a look. These are pretty places, replete with locals trying hard to make the best of pretty miserable weather.
A few hard souls were enjoying Kilkee's beach, but a sudden squall soon cleared it.
We've found fond references to France all over Ireland, this one in the Strand Hotel in Kilkee where we had lunch.
People determined to enjoy the Irish summer even though it is 15C and drizzle.
The Trump International Gold Resort at Doonbeg looks very comfortable.
Windy and rainy, but Lahinch Beach was quite popular.
Irish fields cannot have any rocks left, so intensively are they used in construction.
Liscannor slate rock is uniquely suited to roofing on stone structure.

The highlight on this coast are the famous shale and sandstone Cliffs of Moher. Together with literally hundreds of others, we spent a lot of time here - they are dramatic and beautiful. The seas were not too rough on our visit, and it's possible to boat around to the cliffs from Doolin. We regret not allowing enough time for this, but we didn't know about it. There is a magnificant visitors' centre at the cliffs, dug into the rolling hills to reduce its impact, and for drive-ins you pay to enter. People who walk in on the coastal paths get in for nothing. Effectively, the charge is for parking.
The Cliffs of Moher are on of Ireland's best and most popular tourist attractions.
What would be washed up on this rocky beach underneath the cliffs?

The historic looking O'Brien's Tower on the cliffs was built for tourists in 1835, not by the Noramns and not for fortification. Now, there is about a kilometer of excellent paths for them to tramp along the edge. The impressive safety fences are made from local Liscannor stone.
Looking towards O'Brien's tourist tower from the coast walk south of the Cliffs of Moher.

A lot of birds make their home at the Cliffs of Moher, but all we saw were swarms of swooping gulls!
The cliff walk between Doolin and Liscannor is 20km long for those who do it all.
Ennis Cathedral in rare bright sunshine!
The Burren is a region of barren limestone in the north of County Clare.

Ennis was the base for all this touring of Clare (including Bunratty Castle, see next blog post), it's pretty well in the centre of the county. Ennis CBD is a chaotic medieval web of narrow streets, alleys and pedestrian lanes, difficult to drive through, but lots of fun to walk around. Going south, the main through street is Abbey Street past the tall O'Connell Monument into O'Connell Street. This entire route is single lane one way. Going north, well, if driving, it's best to go around town! Pedestrians wander fairly aimlessly, and drivers just avoid them. Ennis gained approval to hold markets in 1610, and they still operate today around the Market Square.
Harmony Row bridge over Ennis' River Fergus.
High Street Ennis is a pedestrian mall, but that doesn't keep all vehicles out.

The town's favourite son may be Daniel O'Connell. His huge memorial marks the city centre. He is credited with forcing the English parliament to accept Roman Catholic members in around 1830. He was an avid campaigner for Ireland's independence, and de Balzac once famously said that he and Napoleon were the only two great men of the 19th Century.
O'Connell St, maybe Ennis' main CBD thoroughfare, one lane, one way.
German tourists on a walk through one of Ennis' cobbled lanes.

For this trip, we always booked hotels right in the centre of town, but for some reason a wheel fell off this strategy, and we were surprised to find that our chosen digs were 2.5km north of the CBD. We had no cause for concern though - it was an easy drive in (raining too much to contemplate walking) and a Pay and Display parking system is cheap and works well. Ennis's compact CBD has enough fringe carparks to meet the demand.
Statue of Daniel O'Connell overlooks the main thorougfare of Ennis named after him, one lane, one way.
Ennis, a town of narrow pedestrian cut-throughs.
Window reflection opposite the Cinema in Ennis.
Colorful flowers like these petunias enliven Ennis town streets.

Eating was good in Ennis. Pub grub was OK, and for finer dining, we found that the Town Hall in the Old Ground Hotel was superb. This grand restaurant has huge windows and a wonderful porch facing O'Connell Street.
We got the premier parking position in front of one of Ennis' top restaurants.
Protestors unhappy about the treatment of dogs in pounds.
We wanted to see 8000years of Irish history at the Clare Museum but it was closed for the Bank Holiday Weekend (with apologies).
Pub in Abbey Street Ennis.
Steet art near Ennis' Market Square.